Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Language and the Global Internet

One of my favorite topics. An article in the NYT by Daniel Sorid, Writing the Web’s Future in Numerous Languages (note the URL, that's amusing), begins,

The next chapter of the World Wide Web will not be written in English alone. Asia already has twice as many Internet users as North America, and by 2012 it will have three times as many. Already, more than half of the search queries on Google come from outside the United States.

Ouch! Conflating language and geography! A lot of people outside of North America or the US use English. The UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa. The article then discusses an Indian software entrepreneur.
Mr. Ram Prakash said Western technology companies have misunderstood the linguistic landscape of India, where English is spoken proficiently by only about a tenth of the population and even many college-educated Indians prefer the contours of their native tongues for everyday speech.

That 1/10th was probably a good initial target market. The Internet is not always about everyday speech. For forms like instant message, blog postings, and social sites, yes, but not most news or business sites. The article mostly dances around the problems with India having 22 languages (22 according the the article).
Even among the largely English-speaking base of around 50 million Web users in India today, nearly three-quarters prefer to read in a local language, according to a survey by JuxtConsult, an Indian market research company. Many cannot find the content they are seeking. “There is a huge shortage of local language content,” said Sanjay Tiwari, the chief executive of JuxtConsult.

50 million seems like a good base from which you can build out. If content is king, then the users are the king-makers. It's very easy to be in the business world and to forget that most of the content out there is actually created by users. Back in the pre-dot-com days and the days of BBSes, almost all content was user-generated. The point is that the web is an excellent platform for people to create content, especially in local languages. Create! Why aren't they, then?

The article continually glosses over the differences between geography and language. India is discussed as one market, but if we are to look at markets defined by language, then "India" is useless as a category. 22 languages, and (according to the article) 420 million Hindi speakers, there simply is no "Indian language".

If there are 50 million web users in India, and for simplicity let's say 25 languages, then on average that will be 2 million per language. But, AFAIK, Hindi is the main language in terms of numbers of speakers, so, taking the average is a useless approach. Wikipedia does have a page about the (official) languages in India and numbers of speakers. There is another Wikipedia page about languages in India, which says there are 29 languages with more than 1 million speakers and 122 with more than 10,000 speakers. The Internet may be cool for a variety of reasons, but it is not the end-all, be-all. Food, housing, jobs, and health care are a bit more important. Communication can help with these, but the Internet is not the only way to communicate, although it makes it easier.

And the article seemed so promising.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Xmas Cards!

Although I sadly do not send out cards (I always want to though, and every year I say "next year!" but am always too busy), this year I thought I'd comment that I got three cards that were Snapfish designs and one that was "Made on a Mac" (probably in iPhoto). Nice! (I also got one that was a real, actual photo pasted to a card - also nice!)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Disruptive Technology and Global Networks

Connect three parts of a NYTimes article Arab women as flight attendants (Some Arab Women Find Freedom in the Skies).

Most coveted are long-haul routes to places like Toronto and Sydney, Australia...

They watch bootlegged DVDs — “Desperate Housewives,” “Sex and the City” — bought on layovers in Bangladesh and Indonesia.

As the networks of Arab expatriates in the gulf countries become stronger and as cellphones and expanding Internet access make overseas communication more affordable...

Classic globalization technologies: global physical connectivity (long-haul routes), global cultural connectivity (the bootleg DVD network), and global communication connectivity (the Internet and cheaper cell phones). By allowing new social roles, they are disrupting old ones.
Flight attendants have become the public face of the new mobility for some young Arab women...

This disrupts older, traditional family patterns.
For many families, allowing a daughter to work, much less to travel overseas unaccompanied, may call her virtue into question and threaten her marriage prospects.

These technologies will be seen as a threat by those who strongly value traditional norms. I feel compelled to add how women in Saudi Arabia aren't even allowed to drive, which is horribly repressive (and takes away half of the market for auto sales), but it doesn't follow from the technology aspects here. It does fully relate, however, to women's allowed roles in the Middle East. Do recall that there are dozens of different cultural traditions there (cultural, religious, historical, geographical...), don't think of it as one cultural hegemonic bloc.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Three Interface Notes

Those of you familiar with the NYC subway (the MTA) will recall the hideous, screeching beep that sounds when a train is approaching. This awful sound is not down on the platform, where one can see the train approach, but is up in the turnstile area. It's quite loud, so you can usually hear it as you are coming down the initial set of stairs to enter the station. However, the MTA is quite adamant about you not running. Don't run! There are posted placards to this effect. Of course if they don't want us to run, why do they have a sound that tells us, you'd better start running if you want to catch the next train? You can hear the sound right at the point where you need to run to catch the train. Amazing.

My TW cable box and remote have a bit of an issue. Ok ok, I have the issue. Let us say you want to change the channel, and you want the number to increase, or go up as it were. You push the + button, which is part of the +/- button, and the + is on the top half of the +/- button (so, on the upper part of it). You then go "up" in terms of channel. However (you saw this coming), if you are in the guide, up is not up anymore. Up is suddenly down. The problem is that in the guide the higher-numbered channels are listed below the lower-numbered channels. So, you don't click the up arrow button to increase the channel numbers in the guide (you don't use the +/- button here), you click the down arrow button to increase the channel numbers. Sometimes up is increase channel number, other times it is decrease channel number. Granted + is not totally equivalent to up in mathematical terms, but using a cable remote is not math, it is usability. +, up, and increase are all functionally equivalent and they should act similarly. They don't need to be exactly the same, but here they are complete opposites.

And lastly, online shopping. The GUI worked pretty well with the desktop paradigm (files, folders, trash). But the web doesn't have a paradigm like that, even though it is visual. For online shopping, why don't they have us drag the image of what we want to the shopping cart? Seems obvious. Maybe someone has done it already, or maybe it's patented by a patent troll. I don't know if that would make online shopping easier, but it seems more natural.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

NYU ITP Winter Show

If you are in Manhattan today, go check out NYU's ITP winter show. I was prepared for something a little more techie, in part since I was a Media Lab wannabe in 1995, but, consider ITP to be where art meets computer tech. Lots of visual and geo-based apps, some fun basic ideas and some cool programming.

My favorite was powerAware, an ambient device that monitors your power consumption and you can even view a graph of your power consumption over time. One that creeped me out was Heartbeats Left, and now I know I only have 1.4 billion heartbeats left (according to averages, which say I won't make 80, I disagree). One that amused the most children and made them dance was Puzzle Groove. Something that amuses children and causes them to dance is all good in my book.

The two I used the most were Cosmic Hand Dance Actualization Machine (which does not actually win for longest craziest name as you will see) and Dra”Wii”ng Jackson Pollock, which uses a Wiimote so who can say no to that? And the Best OG Award goes to Studies in the Transverse Articulations of the Lumbo-Pelvic-Hip Complex (or, the Super Pelvotron 5000). Ms. Pac-Man FTW.

Apologies no photos, but you can trawl their website for some. And there is coverage on Gizmodo.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Interfaces, User Testing, and Blackberries

So, when I heard about the not so new anymore Blackberry touch (the Storm), I figured it would be a great thing even if they like everyone else were jumping on the iPhone bandwagon. The scroll-wheel Blackberry was good, the one with the little ball instead of the scroll-wheel was good... but no, bad assumption on my part. How could they have gotten it wrong, though, after two good products? Both Stephen Fry and David Pogue denigrate the thing into the ground.

Did they not user test?

Relatedly, it is rather sad to see Clay Shirkey's post over at boingboing about his delight at user testing and immediate improvements by Meetup. It's sad because this kind of thing should be common. It's not a new idea, and it is easy to implement these days and has been for a while. File under, could have told you that.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

It's All About The Narrative

I typically describe class (the teaching kind) as a narrative, across the macro level (the term, the major) and the micro level (each day). Games, I have also pointed out, need narrative (well, most do).

Nice to see Slate's N'Gai Croal of The Gaming Club make that assertion while discussing GoW2:

Was Epic's handling of Maria's fate a failure of craft or art? I say it's worth thinking hard about, especially when writing for a mainstream audience like yours in the Times and mine at Newsweek. Because when we avoid such questions, we're gulling our readers into believing that story and gameplay are mutually exclusive—or that games are just like other media.

Narrative! (A.k.a., story). Important to gameplay. Yup.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Welcome to the 21st Century, a place where two million people will watch a guy jam on a ukulele. Seriously. I know, I know, I sound ridiculous, but withhold your judgement until you've watched the clip. Watch the whole thing. If you do not think that is pretty amazing or moreso, then I never want to see your IP address in the server logs again. Oh, go, embed tag! (And, you should notice how cool the word "withhold" is, as it probably started as "with hold", slowly changed to "with-hold", and may one day be "withold" with one 'h' except for automatic spellcheckers may never change (meaning the dictionaries may be fairly fixed)).

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

iPhone App - Remote

It's new, it's free, it's simple, it has the functionality you want. Did I mention it was free? And that the interface is intuitive? And that... oh I did mention all that. But, it's true, it's Remote, from Apple. Turns your iPhone (and your wifi-enabled iPod) into a remote control for your iTunes. This is awesome. I can stream my iTunes to my stereo in the front with Airport Express, and then control the music from the front room also! (Since my computer is in the back.)

Two years ago I insisted that the Zune had no place in the information future. I still say it doesn't. The iPhone and the iPod are still better, and more elegant. I am not the only one who thinks this.

Ok I am wrong, it is not new, it is new to me, which is very different from new. How did I miss it? However, I didn't need it (need?) until I got my Airport Express.

Color and Emotional Resonance

Although the NYT has a piece on the importance and power of touch, I want instead to direct you to this UM personal website, a collection of beautiful photos of Michigan and a ton of other places (like Ann Arbor!). The photographer points out how cameras don't really capture exactly what we see with the human eye, so indeed you do want to review and modify your digital photos but should not consider it modifying the record of reality since that isn't what you captured anyway.

The point being, besides I hope you have a good color monitor, that color is an immensely powerful factor for the human visual system.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Gizmodo Objects Gallery Opening

Currently at Reed Space there is an exhibit of very cool tech objects, courtesy of Gizmodo. Well worth a look if you are in NYC, even though it is a bit out of the way when it comes to the subway.

(Gizmodo event wrap-up.)

Oldest first. Portable typewriter, although based on its looks it could be a modern steampunk interpretation.

A very cool old AT&T protoype videophone. I have a copy of an advertisement with this in it, a man is using it to sell hats, and he's wearing a Mickey Mouse hat, so it looks like he is adjusting antennae on his head.

Apple prototypes -- similar style to the Apple IIc.

Homebrew portable Atari 2600!

TAM! I had never actually seen one before (just pictures), they are fairly rare.

Chumby! My iPhone does most of the same things, though, but I like the idea.

Laser etching! That little light in the photo? Laser! Awesome.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Why Skype on the iPhone

I do not recall if I have explained this adequately, but, even if I have, I will do it again. Why Apple and AT&T should allow a Skype app on the iPhone.

I do not use AT&T to call internationally on my iPhone. I never will. The cost is horrific. AT&T could change that, but they don't. Thus, I will never, ever, call internationally on my iPhone. Except for when ICA was in Montreal, but, I didn't when I was in France. And I don't call Israel or the UK on it, I use Skype. So, offering international calling on the iPhone via AT&T is a waste of time and probably does not generate much revenue. Sure, some people call internationally, but, iPhone users are connected and have better ways to do this.

Allowing a Skype app would thus not decrease revenues much. However, such an app would be an amazing value-add, and would probably boost sales and thus boost overall use, which would increase revenue.

Imagine if you could offer a cell phone with free international calls, and, in fact, free calls period. Would it sell? Yes, it would. Granted, free only if the recipient of your call has Skype. Not too hard to do (although the Skype interface on Windows is horribly busy and even I had a hard time parsing all the visual cruft it throws at you).

The iPhone is a flat-rate, I pay whether I use it or not. AT&T and Apple get paid, and I get the ability to call internationally (since I don't do that with it now). Win-win.

Right now, with no Skype, and with Skype phones and Android out there in the wild? Lose-lose for Apple and AT&T. And me too.

When New Was Old (ARGs and CCC)

ARGs, Alternate Reality Games, and CCC, Community Created Content. We sit down this week with long-time computer enthusiast and writer (from laser printers, to Word, to flight sims), and bigtime PC fanboy (i.e., not a Mac fan, oh, the horror!) turned TV reviewer (not the shows, the TVs), Alfred Poor (a.k.a., Uncle Alfred).

Well ok no we don't do that. This recounts two conversations I've had with him recently, one on a 34' boat, and one just two days ago on Thanksgiving. But you can imagine it was one thematic sit-down.

CCC: I was explaining Spore to Uncle Alfred, and he then told me part of the story of one of the early flight sims, Flight Simulator, which would later be bought by Microsoft. But even before the Microsoft purchase, there was a community of flight sim users who would create and share content: airplanes and airports. So, years before it became a big thing, CCC had already been out there, been tested, and succeeded.

ARGs: Somehow this holiday, The Beatles came up. Alfred recounted the whole "Paul is dead!" thing, and how he followed it. Lyrics that had been placed in reverse on a track (so, spin the vinyl backwards to hear the actual words). Various other lyrics that indicated that Paul was dead and had been replaced by someone named Billy Shears. Barefoot on the Abbey Road cover. A phone number in reverse in some album art, which he called and was told "Mr. Shears is not available."

It seems impossible to tell if it was intentional, or if the band realized fans were taking interpretation way too far and decided to run with it, but it all seems very ARG-like.

Monday, November 24, 2008

iWish iWere iPhone

There is a billboard for some Sprint offering, I believe it is the Touch or the Diamond Touch, that I see from the Manhattan bridge. It always makes me think of the iPhone, since it is a copy. Alas it appears to use Windows Mobile or something. But now the new Blackberry is a touch device, and Google's Android.... Not like Apple came up with the idea, but, Apple did it right again (no I did not say they always do it right, just, they do it exceedingly right and have done so on more than.... GUI/mouse, networking, hardware, portables, floppy, no floppy, USB... many, on many occasions. No I'm not saying they invented the GUI, we all know they didn't, but they did it right, and they shipped it, and it was good. And, they were the first to do so (they were also one of the first to do so badly with the Lisa -- if you are afraid to make mistakes, you will never succeed (witness the US auto industry), although with mistakes you might go out of business).

Ah, saw this ad this morning, it was the Samsung Instinct. So many touch phones these days... There is apparently also the Krave, but that has a viral marketer (or a trolling feaux viral marketer) so I don't need to say much about it.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

(After wrestling with images and the layout, I am deleting all the images, blogger is not handling them well at all.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Voting Interfaces

Here in my precinct we used the massive, ancient lever machines yet again (the main lever, which is pretty hefty, makes a very satisfying sound), but across the US we have all sorts of different ways to vote (or, mis-vote). 

Minnesota Public Radio has put online some photos of some disputed ballots in their current recount. You'd think filling out an oval would be easy, but, no.

Online Presence

Although I have drifted away from Slashdot due to the insane commenters and towards boingboing instead, it is never a bad thing to have a friend positively mentioned there. John Underkoffler, of MIT Media Lab fame, his company Oblong and his interface work which you might have seen in Minority Report get some Slashdot coverage.

And, my piece on copyright in academic journals hit the interwebs via the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication. It's Open Access, so you can read it if you are into that kind of thing. If only I needed tenure...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

NXE Immediate Experience

Like many, I was given.... or forced to take... the New Xbox Experience (NXE) a bit early. There are at least two massive problems. One is that it forces you to have an avatar. I do not want an avatar. Or, a Mii, since that's what it looks exactly like, a Nintendo Mii. I absolutely despise the fact that some idiots at Microsoft think I have to have a Mii to use my Xbox, because it serves no functional purpose (and besides the selections of clothes are ridiculously limited, as are hair styles and colors).

But you can mostly ignore your Mii once you make it. Far more problematic is the interface. You really have to wonder how they achieve such heights of incompetence. Although the previous interface was dismal due to the lack of any sense as to where things were, this one suffers some obvious problems. One is that it wastes a lot of space. Yes, white space (unused space) is useful in some situations (such as buffer areas between different fields), but you don't need a ton of it. The other problem I have noticed so far is with the design of the interface in terms of the gestalt. There is a text list on the left hand side, each of which is a category of something or other. Each category then opens up a series of visual panes across the middle of the interface. You can scroll up and down through the list, and left and right across the panes. But why do they mix the text and visual gestalts? The big problem here, though, is that the panes cover up the list below the current selection. So, if you want to find something in the text list, you can read the list above where you are (although the text gets smaller and harder to read), but if what you are looking for is below your current selection in the list, you can't see it. (The list does wrap, though.) Unbelievable.

So far the look and feel is more like Windows. I wish they would put more effort into getting the hardware working, although my 4th Xbox is doing alright to date. If the hardware doesn't work, it doesn't matter how cool the OS is, I will never see it because my Xbox will be back at the repair center. (Yes, of course I mean Xbox 360. Whatever. I wonder what they will name the 3rd gen. Xbox Sphere?)

Update: I am not the only one who hates NXE (although I generally like NME), so does Gabe at PA: "Gabriel hates the New Xbox Experience". Oh and look a RRoD that isn't mine. Amazing.

A Series of Tubes

I have found the Internet! (A.k.a., "teh internets" but I hope you are all in on the in-group nomenclature by now.) It is, you recall, a series of tubes, another bit of insider lingo brought to us by convicted felon and former Senator Ted Stevens.

And yes I actually took that photo, it is not from teh googles.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Two nice charts over at the NYTimes about the current state of supercomputers. Going from 1 teraflop in about 1996 to just over 1,000 teraflops twelve years later is indeed pretty cool. I hope you all notice that the current title-holder, by IBM and named Roadrunner, runs Linux

The charts could be a little better. For the graph, a log scale is really the only way to go, but it visually reduces advances made by the Japanese in recent years. The bubble chart, though, has at least two problems (someone forgot to read their Edward Tufte). Color is used for global region (almost continents), but the circles are already grouped by region and there are text labels indicating nation (which, if you know geography, indicates region). Color could have been used for something else, perhaps price or age of installation (newer might be faster). Also,within-nation relative position of the circles does not seem to have any significance at all. RPI (34) is in the upper right, and Rensselaer (in upstate NY) is indeed in the "upper right" of the US (the northeast). However, bordering the RPI circle in the upper right is USC (61), and since USC is the University of Southern California, obviously if there are an X and a Y axis, they are not geographical. Perhaps there is no X-Y, but there should be some logic to the national-level organization. However, overall the national clusters are indeed organized geographically, which would lead one to assume the same for the within-nation clusters. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

LOLbama - Yes We Can

Copyrights and Copyleftalones

A good article I think you should read over at TidBITS about Google Book Search and the legal dealings there. Discusses copyright, orphaned works, fair use, and a lot of things everyone should know about. If you're a human being, you need to know these things! Or if you're an Internet user. I bet you are.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What Spore Got Wrong

And What LittleBigPlanet Got Right

Spore is not a good game. It is actually a terrible game, despite all the awards it won before it was released, because it is not really a game at all. The designers thought they were making a game, but it appears they became too wrapped up in making an amazing feat of programming that allows dozens of different parts to be connected, resized, and painted by the users but yet have these parts work as a whole. It is also visually beautiful. But the designers forgot the importance of narrative structure in a game (this is why Second Life is not a game, it has no narrative structure).

I have Spore. I have played it. I wanted to like it, but there is little to like, and it is difficult to choose a starting point since there are so many which are equally damning. Spore has nothing to do with evolution. The cell phase has nothing to do with cells. The tribal phase feels like a bad hack added at the end to try to justify the evolution angle (and it completely lacks design of any kind). The space phase holds the most promise and the most annoyance. There are no empire management tools whatsoever (you have to rescue planets from ecological disaster, which means killing 5 infected wild animals, since apparently the people on the planet cannot do it themselves).

Most immediately annoying is that almost all design choices you make have little or absolutely no consequences. I can design a house for a city, add lots of parts, resize them in multiple dimensions, and give it a custom paint job. You can take an unpainted sphere and proclaim it a house. No door. The two houses will function absolutely the same, since most things in Spore don't function much at all, they just act as placeholders. All houses are merely a house. All city halls act the same. All spaceship designs act exactly the same. You might expand your spaceship with additions that, one would think, might necessitate a larger spaceship, but no, you keep the exact same one. In the creature phase, and the cell phase, the body parts do make a difference -- faster, better at charming or attacking other species, and so on -- but these differences are thin. Give a creature one set of long legs, and another the same set of legs but shrink them, and there is no difference, because feet determine speed. But resizing the feet doesn't make a difference. Maybe it shouldn't, but this issue permeates Spore throughout.

It's not a game since there is no narrative to speak of. "Find the Grox" is the end game, but I haven't found that quest satisfying at all, and it is the only one. The Grox, a nod to Star Trek's borg, are one of several sci-fi borrowings in Spore, along with monoliths from 2001 and spice from Dune. Nice touches, but a game needs more than that.

Consider a game like the theater. There is a stage, there are the sets, props, actors, and the script (I'll ignore the audience for now). Spore gives people a stage and a lot of control over set making. You make creatures, buildings, ships, and can terraform and sculpt planets -- these are the sets and the props. But none of that has any effect on the script, which is too minimal to support a game. That is where Spore fails. Having content from EA, the company which made Spore, and content from other Spore users added to your game doesn't add anything either, except for more diverse visuals. (World of Warcraft, the MMO, fits very well into this "game as theater" framework, and this also explains why I don't like Starcraft and the original Warcraft -- there is no narrative except "build a huge force to crush the opponent" and the occasional "we need to mix things up so here is a maze level" in the single player).

Another game, a real game this time, which uses community created content like Spore, but allows the users to not just make props and settings but also narrative, is LittleBigPlanet. LittleBigPlanet is a PS3 exclusive, and I don't have a PS3, but I have seen a demo (at PAX), read about it, and watched the G4 people play with it with the developers. That's all I need to know they did it right. As far as I can tell, LittleBigPlanet is essentially a puzzle game, where you and maybe your friends solve levels. The LBP community of users makes levels, so, just like Spore, the community created content is essential. But with LBP this content is in a completely different area: it's the script. Each level is its own script, driven by the design of the level. If you don't understand the draw of puzzle games, think about the popularity of tetris, or sudoku, or Portal (which is essentially a puzzle game and was totally awesome).

So, LBP has the really amazingly designed and programmed design capability for the users like Spore has, but here design matters: it is feature rich, not meaninglessly superficial. More than that, though, the designing is for the narrative of the game, which is just as important as mechanics. We've seen that visuals aren't everything, gameplay mechanics are behind the success of the Wii, which was written off as graphically underpowered by people who don't understand games. Amazing graphics, like Spore, are only part of the story. Mechanics, which I have not discussed here, are vital, but so is the narrative structure that carries people through the game. In my opinion, games like Gears of War, Half Life 2, Oblivion, and the Halo series have all of these elements. I also like the Katamari series for the same reasons. I wanted to like Okami, which was visually striking and with a well-constructed narrative, yet on the PS2 the cut scenes couldn't be skipped, and this killed it for me (the cut scenes are long) since the mechanics were off. Narrative can be too heavy-handed, such as in games where there is only one path to success like in Condemned, but narrative is a vital component of game success.

This is why Spore made a big splash until just after it came out and people started playing it. LittleBigPlanet, on the other hand, continues to generate buzz.

Update: EA seems to have noticed this problem, and is coming out with an expansion to allow users to create missions. Sadly, I don't see how the game mechanics are going to allow anything interesting. Here's an accurate comment from a gaming site that sums it up, with a spot-on reply.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Computer Systems

The XBox came back today! That's only 11 days. We'll see if it works later. Also, been having trouble getting my G4 Powerbook onto the net wirelessly with WPA and there is conflicting info online about whether it will work or not (Apple says it can, but is vague about it), and I tried to get Galactic Civilizations II running under Parallels but there is conflicting information about that as well (and it isn't working). Everything is uncertain!

Update: They sent me a different XBox (new? refurb?). Seems to work so far, although there is a loose part inside. Think they would have noticed that. I have it hooked up to my Apple Airport Express, which is rather amusing, although it means I don't have to adjust any wireless settings on the XBox (since it's all done to the AAE on my iMac, much better interface). 

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Returning The XBox, Again

It is true, I have just returned my third XBox 360 to the mothership via UPS in the nice white box. (This is the one that RRoD'ed on me immediately when I got it back last time. Well done, Microsoft.) You'd think they could make better technology. Oh wait, how foolish of me, these are the people that make Windows and the Zune, what am I thinking? Off to Mesquite, TX, with it.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

DRM - Dummies Rule Media

DRM is a horrible, horrible thing, and even though it's been pointed out again and again, companies still use it (are the DRM peddlers FUDsters?).

Penny Arcade has a nice three-parter on DRM, although part three is best (part one, part two). Of course there are the accompanying comics (one, two, three). 

You should of course read Cory Doctorow's Microsoft talk about DRM (or maybe watch the video).

The Machinist at Salon has a nice write-up of the dust-up over the Spore DRM. Omg it installed SecuROM on my Mac?!?! Not acceptable! Well I guess I have to find out how to remove it now...

Don't forget the Sony rootkit fiasco either. Wikipedia's external links for the article may be better, there is one for BoingBoing and one for Groklaw.

Oh and, a late add, XKCD's recent take on it. Pretty accurate and concise.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Copynot: IP Industries Sans Robust IP Law

So, after reading Suzanne Vega's article about remixes of her Tom's Diner song, I was discussing IP law with JK and for some reason the fashion industry and its complete lack of IP protection (as a norm, they could use it) came up, and we further discussed magicians and chefs as two other IP industries that do not use IP law to protect their intellectual assets. I don't believe comedians do either.

So, no, intellectual "property" industries don't need robust legal protection for their assets.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Microsoft Advertisements

This post is not about those completely nonsensical Seinfeld and Gates ads. And no, talking about the ads in this case really isn't a good thing, since we question the sanity of Microsoft's decisions.

This post is about the more recent "I'm a PC" advertisements from Microsoft. These ads remind viewers of the Apple ads. We think about Apple the entire time. We think how seriously Microsoft must take these Apple ads and the products behind them. Microsoft wants us to take Microsoft seriously, so, we in turn have to take seriously the things Microsoft takes seriously, and that's Apple. 

Great when your competitors are paying for ads that make consumers think about you as something to be reckoned with.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pigs are Flying

Just moments ago, I was watching the intolerably advertisement-filled NFL halftime show to see how the Pats are being demolished, so far, by Miami, and what snippet of a song does the NFL use for an NFL ad? Yes. You guessed it. Everyday Is Like Sunday. Ok they used some cover version probably made just for the ad, and they only used that one line, but, I'm speechless (besides this paragraph, which means I'm not speechless at all). 

Saturday, September 20, 2008

R.E.M. & N.M., "Photograph"

...television's just a dream...

I have always loved that song, and that's the best line.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE)

Ok, let's be honest, until it has shipping products merely talking about it is advertising vaporeware, but, let's talk about it, or, more accurately, let's steal from the NYT and discuss that.

"...deliver a product to the consumer that's better than free," said Mitch Singer, chief technology officer at Sony Pictures and the lead architect of DECE.
What a horribly marketing thing to say. Better than free? Sure, catchy slogans can be helpful, but a working product is better. Better than free should make you all react with not possible.

There are "several precedent-setting principles" that DECE would bring about. "Participating devices and services will be interoperable regardless of differing brands or corporate provenance" is one. I really thought I could play any CD on my Apple computer, my Sony car walkman (16 years old), my Sony PS2, my Microsoft Xbox 360, or in my car, regardless of publisher. And I'm pretty sure I can play MP3s in a lot of places. DVDs and region codes, well, that was an industry idea wasn't it? 

"DECE would allow an unlimited number of copies of a video to be created or burned onto a disc." CDs aside, that would be very different from DVDs. I have read industry hacks lamenting the CD and praising the DRM on DVDs, but I knew (and so did you) that we don't listen to such people. Of course they don't mention how much it would cost, but it's better than free, so, well, I don't know what that means. They pay us to copy it, perhaps. That's certainly less than free, but is it better? 

This one is rather incredible:
The consumer would even have the option of not storing the copy at all, but rather streaming it from a server-based "rights locker" that can be tapped from any location.
Recall how the RIAA sent their lawyers after to stop something similar in 2000.

So, don't believe it until you see it, and even then be doubtful. Economists have shown how lowering costs reduces piracy (I have an article on it somewhere), but most of the industry seems to stick to their old ways. Apple gets it ($0.99 songs with weak DRM to keep consumers and the industry happy). We will see what happens.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I am going to a wedding in.... somewhere. Somewhere I have never heard of, PA. But the geography is rather striking in the current Google maps satellite view, with NE/SW ridges running to the south and bumpy hills to the north. Ha! It's my old friends,  the Appalachians!

Science! CERN!

Awesome. The Large Hadron Collider! Between this graphic at the NYT and a five-part series of PhD Comics, we've got it covered.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Peeve: Web Fail

So the Web is supposed to be all about making information available (no, really, I'm not kidding). I was trying to collect some data for a project (journal citations, no not ISI) and, using Safari, got a page that said this:

You have attempted to log on using the Mac Safari browser. Unfortunately, Safari's logon support is limited and does not work with [institution]. Try any other browser (e.g., Netscape, IE, Firefox, Opera, etc.) to log on correctly.
Ok. This from an institution that has as its banner "Continuous online service and innovation since 1986". Idiots. Real innovative there. So, yes, I went and got Firefox (I know, you are appalled I was not using it already). By the way Safari's logon support is not limited. I tried again. Here is what I got:
Since you are not a member of [institution] and your institution does not contribute support for [institution] through the institutional affiliates program, you are not authorized to obtain files from this server.
Nice. Thanks. Good thing you didn't tell me that initially, that would have been too innovative to think of. Imbeciles.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Peeve: Web Texts

And PDFs, since this post is motivated by the last straw of a PDF. Black text on a white background is based on black ink (the standard) on white paper (the current standard). There is absolutely no reason to do this with your web pages. Honestly I find the contrast way too high and it hurts my eyes most if the time. Netscape, or more accurately Netscape Navigator, used to default pages to black text on a light grey background, which I think is a much better contrast ratio. Yes, you are probably thinking I could adjust my monitor, but no, the brightness is down all the way (I admit on my last computer I would have it up all the way, so I am aware of the issues). 

Yes, we do base new technologies on old ones. Horses seem to benefit... suffer... in this nomenclature. The iron horse was the locomotive (crazy motion?), and the horseless carriage was the automobile (self moving). The telephone was based on and considered an extension of the telegraph. Radio was at first called wireless telegraphy and was indeed used in that way.

But, after a while, we move beyond the considerations of the old technology and realize new potential with the new one. I feel we've done that with the Internet, but not in this one key area. Interface experts abound (well, maybe not at certain companies). 

This is why I use the blogger template that I do. I hate the brightness of the intentionally paper-white backgrounds. This isn't paper. It's much, much more.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Favorite PAX Photo

This is easily my favorite shot from the ones I took at PAX. A guy cosplaying the medic from TF2, looking oh-so-longingly at an ambulance that has stopped (which he did for quite some time). Too bad the minivan is in the way, but that's how it goes. PAX 2008 sign in the upper-left is pretty good though. Something about the guy's posture is just so.... medically precise...

Home Again

I will miss having my posts have a correct timestamp. PAX was awesome. I tend to write short posts, Kotaku has a bunch of long posts. Hmm didn't see Crecente, but there was a lot to see (I could have walked right past him). Aha! He filmed this about five feet to my left (I got out of there, since I was holding my Fallout 3 poster with one hand, so only had my right hand to grab flying boxed figures and fend off accidental elbows). If he had only swept the camera to the right a little more! Now I have to go and clean up all my mobile posts (add tags and expand them and links and such).

Did I do what I set out to? Pretty much. Here was my list:
  • Wil Wheaton: Awesome panel! 
  • Spore: Yes, it is cool.
  • The Keynote: Eh.
  • Jonathan Coulton: Too late, given time zones.
3/4 is good. And I have like 60 Rockstar stickers, so I am happy about that. I saw more Halo 3 than I ever imagined, especially Griffball at the Rooster Teeth booth. The Fallout 3 marketing is awesome. 

Saturday, August 30, 2008

PAX Overload

Lines! People! Halo 3! MMO's! "No filming"! Structures in which to hide games! (Like a castle for Dragon Age.) Thousands of people. Did I mention the lines?

Buzz, Identity

People are wearing their badges at 8:30am on the street. Lots of them. The show does not open until 10am. Other releases getting buzz, none of which are a surprise, include Fallout 3, Gears of War 2, Starcraft 2... hmm all sequels.

5 Senses

The Internet, and games, don't do smell. Smell is an amazingly powerful sense for humans in terms of visceral response. The market (Pike Place) smells really good, too (besides the colors).

PAX Classic Gaming

Vectrex from 1982. Also, Atari 2600, N64, Dreamcast, a Jaguar (amazing), others. It's not the graphics, it's the gameplay.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Know Your Audience

Yes, gamers will sit to listen to real human beings talk.

Huge Lines!

Wil Wheaton. The man. Huge line. Also, lines and crowds for LittleBIGPlanet, all the band games (several music stages), and several others.

Gaming Rigs

The PC gaming room. There were many cool case mods and a few cool production machines throughout the show. Who knew HP made cool machines?

PAX 10

Ten cool small studio or independent games. Good for the industry, good for gamers. Encourages diversity across several measures.

I could plunder, steal, copy and paste and re-type the list and the links, but why don't I just point you to some people who have already written about them?

Battle in Seattle?

At least someone cares about the 1st Amendment.

Subaltern Discourse

If you overhear five young guys discussing "Amazon triple shots", are
they talking about last night at the bar or the game Diablo? (Depends
who they are - true story.)

Yes They Do

Like chocolate and peanut butter almost. Seattle. Coffee. Go figure.

The Gamecube Lives!

You already knew about the PS2...

AM Gamers

Who says gamers sleep until noon? There is at least one conversation
by people who do not understand the market for the Wii. (It is 7:56am


Cheese. Almost.


Some of the signs around town were really funny in-jokes. "There are doors to the convention hall in front of you." Followed by: "> enter doors"

At the Sheraton

Yes it is. One of those Microsoft Table things. Unfortunately it is more like a lame version of a giant iPhone. The interface is gimmicky, less functional: sometimes it zooms and pivots when I am only moving it, not zooming or pivoting it. They didn't get it right. And sadly these ones aren't Internet capable. Really it's just a big, poorly done iPhone. Don't need it. If they did it right, and made them affordable, then maybe we could all have cricks in our necks from looking at the floor - oh bad ergonomics. But the interface really isn't new, although many features are not widely available they've been around in academic labs for quite some time.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

$4 Snapple

Kennedy airport is indeed terrible. Too small, too crowded, too ugly. The board at the gate had contradictory information. Conflicting PA systems. We stood for ten minutes, not moving, in the jetway, a small space that gets warm when full of people. No explanation. And $4 Snapple. Bad design! I hate bad design. Fix it.

The Seattle airport is clean, functional, and not crowded. It is great.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


It's official. I'm headed out to cover (as a freelancer) and enjoy PAX. Liveblogging from the iPhone will be positively normal. And, I've never been to Seattle. I'll be waking up around 5am local time, so maybe I can catch the fish market (humor of "catch" fully intended -- on TV they always throw giant salmon there). Items I hope to catch from the schedule:

  • Wil Wheaton
  • Spore
  • The Keynote
  • Jonathan Coulton
Of course the one thing I didn't do was pre-register so I will have to hang out in line to get in. And, given that I am on East Coast time, I don't know if I'll make it until 3am (aka 6am) for the late-night. (I'm kidding, I will not be bringing you coverage of that, I will be sleeping.)

How Professors Spend Their Time: It Is True

Monday, August 25, 2008

"To The Day"

Some cutting edge blogging out there (brought to my attention c/o the NYT). Sure you've heard of sites dedicated to those who have passed away, but here are two blogs published day to day, decades after they were first written. George Orwell, currently in 1938, and WWI soldier Henry Lamin, currently in 1918. 

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Language and Identity

Nice article about the interplay between language and identity in South Ossetia. Of course, the land has been called several different things over the course of history. (Hmm, maybe I need a linguistics tag...)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Ghost Ships of Staten Island

So, I was dragging around Google maps to observe the entire outline of Staten Island, looking for a sister ship to the Nobska, the New Bedford, which was "was moved to a Staten Island junkyard in 1968, where her remains continue to rust away today."

If you are familiar with Staten Island or the waterway between it and New Jersey, this may not surprise you, but there are several possible contenders for where the New Bedford might be.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Because It's A Mac!

So, as you can see, here is my vintage 2002 G4 Powerbook, connected to a Microsoft mouse, a Dell monitor, and the Internets at work. What you didn't see, and what I didn't either, was the Mac complaining, or telling me it had detected new hardware, or asking for drivers, or asking about anything. It just works. The mouse is fully functional, the resolution on the Dell is optimal (and windows resize when I drag them to the smaller screen on the Powerbook), and it just does its Internet thing (no need to worry about the servers and such). Reminds me of almost every cableco phone tech person when your cable modem isn't working: they tell you to reboot your Mac. If I call tech support, I've already done that. I tell them no, I don't have to. They insist (so it can pick up a new IP number, which you don't need to do on Macs, they just do it). The last guy (Comcast, this is you) wanted me to leave my Mac off for a while. I told him he was wrong and I wasn't doing it. He hung up on me. I rebooted the cable modem (for the third time) and not the Mac, and the problem went away. Annoying when you know more than tech support people when your monthly goes to their salary... But, the Mac, it just does it.

And yes, for the purists, it's a G4 PowerBook, but I like Powerbook better. (And yes, that's a companion cube, like a NeXT cube really. Oh, now I miss my NeXT cube, but it is in a good home.)

Monday, August 4, 2008

Cory Doctorow on the Information Economy

A great introduction to those who don't deal with the Internet in the way we analyst/academic/activists do, or just a good reminder of what's what. Cory covers many topics, but keeps them all related because they are. I would describe them, or give an overview, but you should watch it instead. 

Cory Doctorow speaking at the inaugural Cambridge Business Lecture on July 22nd, c/o BB:

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The iPhone Has Arrived

Yes indeed, I am talking the app store and the applications. I have expressed excitement about this previously, and now it is time to back that up. Now that the apps have been out for a while, I have finally hung out with some of my iPhone relatives (MRP, RDP) who use their iPhones more than I use mine, and they put me on the road to some apps. All of these ones are free, too.

  • Facebook - now it's like Twittering.
  • Jott - voice records a memo, sends it off, and it comes back as text.
  • myLite - admit it, you've used your cell as a flashlight.
  • Shazaam - wow. More below.
  • Sudoku - I hope you know what sudoku is! (Several versions are available.)
Shazaam bears some explanation, because at first it sounds unlikely. We tested it, it works. It is amazing at first. It may not actually be useful, but it is awesome. 

It recognizes music.

We tested it at home with decent fidelity and low interference. We tested it in the wild, where it worked in a shake shack in Hell's Kitchen but not at a coffeeshop with too much noise and poor fidelity. The iPhone will listen to the music that is playing somewhere, and it does a Fourier transform of it (I understand that part, but I am not entirely clear on the sampling time frame -- Wikipedia will not help you). Basically it does a frequency analysis. It sends the (small) analysis off, the central Shazaam servers analyze it and compare it to the all-important database, and replies with the answer. It also links to the iTunes store where you can buy the song and YouTube where you can watch the video.

It got Underground, Buena Vista Social Club, and Tricky. We were impressed! It failed at U2 but that was due to too much noise, where the voices and the music were all overlapping in terms of frequency. I tried it with the Portal song but apparently that is not in the database. But try it, it really shows the awesome capability of the iPhone when linked with a much larger database and more processing power (notice this is similar to Jott, in terms of offloading the heavy work). Mixed mobile cloud computing? Powerful, when combined with a relatively open platform so lots of people can code for it. Let a million flowers bloom.

The Anglosphere

The Anglosphere is the term I have been wanting for quite some time now. It is an amazing term that perfectly summarizes an important Internet issue. Apparently it was coined by Neal Stephenson in 1995, so I admit I am late to pick up on it. (Notice the laptop in the picture is a... it's a Mac, of course!) But that is an issue I have been poking at academically for a while now.

Google language tools have vastly improved and expanded, both in terms of languages and functionality. You can search in one language (probably your own), have GLT translate it into another language, and then search on the translated words. Awesome. Versatile! But wait, there's more. It two-columns the results, the left column is the results translated into your language, and the right is in the results in the other language. It also does mouse-overs with the original when you mouse over a translation.

Some friends were in Japan (since they are from Japan), and brought me back some CDs. So nice! One came with a DVD, so, after ripping the CD into iTunes with no problem of course, I stick the DVD in to check out the content, just like with the CDs. (You know where this is going, don't you? I was too wrapped up in the benefits of globalization to see it until it happened.) But no. The anti-global, anti-free market, illegal and horrible DVD Region Code issue rose up and stopped me from viewing content that I have every right to view. Every rightOne drawback of the new Intel Macs is that I have yet to find a piece of software that lets me control my machine -- let me stress that, allows me to control my machine -- so that I can view legally obtained content. (This means I can't find software to control the region switching on the DVD player, or to work around it in some manner.) I am under the impression VLC won't work, although it did on my G4. This is unacceptable. My machine. My legal content. Flawed by design. It's not a Mac problem, of course, it's the DVD cartel, forcing DVD player manufacturers to abide by their contract. In Europe they laugh at this. In Asia they laugh at this. Maybe I'll go to Chinatown and get a cheap region-free player, which is not illegal for me to do. One thing to note about the DVD regions is that they cut up the Anglosphere.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Randy Pausch, RIP

Although I did not like being a professor (the grading, the repetitiveness, the isolation stemming from the hours), this is why we teach. I think teaching, and teaching well, is very important, and this is why we do it. The Last Lecture.

Prof. Randy Pausch, Oct. 23, 1960 - July 25, 2008, NYT story. One hour sixteen minutes and twenty-seven seconds that you won't regret. Currently viewed over four million times.

See also the NYT page of web coverage of all sorts, massive and widespread.

Friday, July 25, 2008

DFW and Grammar

I have, for years, been haunted by the dreaded "Victorian grammar rules", introduced to me as rules without reasons in school (one merely accepted, one did not even have the capacity to question back then, sadly), but eventually, as I began to realize the coolness of language and linguistics and all things such, they became things that made no sense

One day, whilst (hey gettin' crazy) assisting on the Microsoft Press version of Word 6.0 for the Mac (terrible program, the Windows version of the book is to be found on Amazon but not the Mac version), author M. David Stone mentioned "Victorian grammar rules", how they were absurd, based on Latin even though English is not a Romance language (it's Germanic), and how he hated them. He may have been excoriating a poor junior editor who had taken the very first sentence of a chapter and, sin of sins, made the verb passive (I am not very good at keeping track of that, sometimes I want to use a passive verb, English allows me to).

I see I haven't actually mentioned them. The two I am aware of are do not split an infinitive (since in Latin, verbs are one word, in English, the infinitive form is two words - split away by all means, to boldly go, etc.) and do not end sentences with prepositions. Now, if there is one thing most men can't stand being on the receiving end of, it's rules that say don't do this. We will do whatever it is, immediately if possible. (Reverse psychology does not always work on my nephew though, do not eat broccoli has yet to succeed.)

But, David Foster Wallace has a lengthy piece where, thank his socks, he mentions the evil Victorian grammar-meister: "The avoid-terminal-prepositions rule is the invention of one Fr. R. Lowth, an eighteenth-century British preacher and indurate pedant..." It is a good piece, but I didn't get into it until about a third of the way through where he talks about pants. That's when he really hits his stride (sorry, the pun, it was just there).

I Knew That (Open Systems)

From yesterday's NYT Bits blog:

But I think we have seen the power of open and flexible computing environments over closed and specialized systems.
Really? Oh wait, that's what I wrote in my dissertation. Back in 2003 - 2004. (Note, I fully expect that dissertation link to not work, because it is Google HTML'ing a PDF that is no longer on the web, even though it works currently - clearly a cached version, and actually just the front matter - sorry I don't currently have my own URL.) And honestly a lot of people point this out. But, glad to see the meme has hit up the NYT! Spread, meme, spread...

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bento! C/o Mimi Ito

I may have been introduced to bento back in high school (aka, "the eighties"), but I know we used to eat it when I was at Ziff-Davis out in the Bay area in 1992 (with font-man and Colin). Mimi Ito apparently makes a lot of bento -- every day for her kids! And she's posted a lot of beautiful bento photos at flickr. There's a large set of images and a smaller tagged group, they may overlap, not sure. 

Monday, July 14, 2008

Unusual Games

Via Kotaku, I discovered these.... things.... games... well they're unusual, somewhat grim, with no super clear win conditions. 2D, very short. But try them. They're different (oh they're like the Mac, that's why I like them, think different). They are all by designer Jason Rohrer, go check out his sourceforge page. Some of the ones I have seen are under Video Games, others under Game Design Sketchbook -- these ones are all at the Escapist, where you should, if you are interested in electronic games and don't mind possibly offensive things mixed with humor and usually negative game reviews, watch all episodes of Zero Punctuation, especially the Orange Box review since he actually likes, nay loves, Portal.

Wow, Rohrer's blog site got me on to Fez. That video is amazing (ok the music is also amazing). What a neat idea. Watch it, it will be good for you.

Somewhat related (topic), go check out Indie Games.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

American Artisans

Run by some friends of mine, they have an awesome website! They do beautiful designs. They do "cabinetry, architectural design, furniture and custom millwork." Really, I've seen their stuff.

I think it is desirable that the artist and what is technically called the designer should practically be one...A designer ought to be able to weave himself. (William Morris, 1882)
I don't even have a tag for this kind of post. Now what, my taxonomy is shot! Oh, interfaces! Design is an interface between ourselves and the object.

Grand Army Farmers' Market

Hit up the farmer's market this morning. The smell of fresh produce is awesome! Hits the right spot in the brain (yes, evolution!).


More flowers:









Airport! Danger!

For the last three summers, IIRC, this sign has been up at ACK, the Nantucket airport. Maybe it is not up in the off-season. ACK is a very small airport, in the middle of nowhere on the island, and, if you didn't notice, it's on a small island. Let me be clear: small. Not a lot of people. Yes it gets relatively busy, I am aware of that: relatively. There are really never many people there compared to large regional airports that do not serve seasonal destinations. In other words, it is not a sensible terrorist target (the it's on an island part helps, but don't cite the Bali bombings because I've been to Bali and it is much larger, and very different in several other relevant ways).

High risk? Really? No. And what is "red", is that "we know one is about to happen"? (Let us change the posted placards first!)
Ok, DHS says it is "orange or high" for all airports. (Well which is it, orange or high? Please choose one.) Elevated, High, Severe. This sound like the US Postal Service's naming for mail, "Priority" and "First Class". Honestly if you're going to use a labeling scheme, use labels that are easily differentiated from one another.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Obligatory Summer Nobska Post

Old school, when it was the Nantucket (the current Nantucket seems to have undergone some weird renovations but I couldn't Google-find notice of them).

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The 4th Amendment is Dead

Long live the 4th Amendment.

Sometimes I do not cover things because those stories are covered at great length in many other spots, several of which are linked to from here. However, sometimes things are too important to not mention. Today, the US Senate, mainly republicans (who were in charge when 9/11 happened, thank you), voted to gut the US Constitution. As others have pointed out, Bush said Bin Laden (still out there) hated our freedoms (even though that's not what Bin Laden talks about), so Bush is taking away our freedoms in order to make use safer (nice plan!).

The 4th Amendment is the latest victim, along with all of us.

Pre-Internet Trolls

Given that technology changes but people don't, and given that we have Internet trolls, we probably had trolls before the Internets. We did. Tom Standage observes this in his A History of the World in Six Glasses, and this section will remind you of his The Victorian Internet.

News traveled fast across this coffee-powered network; according to one account published in the Spectator in 1712: "There was a fellow in town some years ago, who used to divert himself by telling a lye at Charing Cross in the morning at eight of the clock, and then following it through all parts of town until eight at night; at which time he came to a club of his friends, and diverted them with an account [of] what censure it had drawn at Will's in Covent Garden, how dangerous it was believed [to be?] at Child's and what inference they drew from it with relation to stocks at Jonathan's." (p. 154)
Awesome, except for the "they are trolls" part.

Monday, July 7, 2008

History and Wianno Seniors

I don't always know how I come across these things, I'm just watching Anthony Bourdain (he blogs on occasion), who is awesome. Was surfing the Internets. Found a page which lists every Wianno Senior (that's a boat, local to the Cape and Islands) ever made. Some are still around. Some were broken up. Some are... missing? Since 1996? How can a boat go missing in 1995 or 1996? Weird. But a lot had burned in 2003. What had happened? The Internets told me! There is a bit more about it, such as this page which mentions a lot of other Wianno Senior material (such as our good people the Kennedys).

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Subway Story, Illustrated

Nice little illustrated subway story, by an artist about his kids and the NYC subway, over at his NYTimes blogspace. Again I insist the blogs are the best thing there (not denigrating the rest of it, note).

Code Optimizing (in SPSS)

(And optimizing, well, making workable, code in blogger!)

So, I am co-authoring a paper with some colleagues (aka friends) and I am the stats lead for it. We're using the World Values Survey, which I recently noticed received a lot of housecleaning (the website is better, the dataset has a 1-4 file available instead of just 1-3, the dataset is much cleaner except for a bunch of Americans who have "11" on the 1-10 income scale... Yes yes, this one goes to 11, but it's not supposed to).

I don't know SPSS syntax that well, but I was a computer science minor in college so coding is a great thing. You can easily get the syntax (CLI) for most commands from the dialog boxes (GUI), which is nice, then you have a record of what you did and can redo it in case you make a huge error. Syntax files are great. 

When I cobble them together from best-guesses derived from the help documentation (pretty decent) and bits and pieces from the dialog box-based syntax, it works. My computer is fast enough (3.06GHz) to run SPSS on our dataset (not huge) even in Parallels under XP fast enough so that I don't notice it. 

But I was finally looking at some of the code, instead of just looking at it from the point of view of wondering if I actually changed all of the variable values for the IF loops, and I realized it was not at all optimized: There were three IF statements, when really there only needed to be one with another nested for the second conditional variable (if nation/wave=x, then if income=y). With the copying and pasting it worked fine and fast, but was like this:

IF (nation/wave = x & income = y) DO lots of stuff.
IF (nation/wave = x & income > y) DO other stuff.
IF (nation/wave = x & income < y) DO other stuff.

So basically for every case, it was checking one or two conditions (assuming it pops out of an IF if the first condition fails) but it was doing this three times. So I recoded, and it worked fine but not noticeably faster. Note that each case (a person) is part of a nation, was sampled in a particular wave of a sample, and has a reported income (well income is not always there). 

IF (nation/wave = x) DO
   IF (income = y) DO lots of stuff.
   ELSE IF (income > y) DO other stuff.
   ELSE IF (income < y) DO other stuff.
   END IF.

The point is if you check for nation/wave first you will eliminate a lot of cases that you aren't recoding at that point in time, so you go on to the next case instead of checking all the other stuff. Then I realized that it was still inefficient, since with the IF loops you can code it to reduce the number of checks it has to do -- in this case, with (A > Y) and (A = Y) you don't need to check to see if everything else is (A < Y) since it has to be, unless there are messy cases with missing values, which there alway are. Tight code is good, but so is error checking.

IF (nation/wave = x) DO
   IF (income < y) DO stuff.
   ELSE IF (income > y) DO other stuff.
   ELSE DO lots of stuff.
   END IF.

And that was really optimized code. The majority of cases are income <, and = varied by nation/wave. I am really tempted to run the unoptimized and optimized versions on the larger dataset (which has all of the nations in it, not just the ones we are using, so has thousands more cases). Agh, blogger doesn't like the less than and greater than signs, it keeps hashing up the post -- it is interpreting them as HTML. Time for HTML coding...

Ok, the times for the two versions of the code were the same on the big file (267,870 cases -- ok not that big really), which, given the weird "execute" syntax, makes me think that SPSS is compiling the syntax file to some extent and optimizing what it is doing. Nice if it is.