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Observations

A John McCarthy story

They say that famous deaths come in threes. That's no doubt just an artifact of our strange sense of coincidence, but after Jobs and Ritchie, tonight we learn of the death of John McCarthy, AI pioneer and creator of LISP.

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Japan, and nuclear disasters

The images from Japan are shocking and depressing, and what seemed at first an example of the difference between a 1st and 3rd world earthquake has produced a 5 figure death toll. But the nerd and engineer in me has to wonder about some of the things I've seen.

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Haplogroups, Haplotypes and genealogy, oh my

I received some criticism the other day over my own criticism of the use of haplogroups in genealogy -- the finding and tracing of relatives. My language was imprecise so I want to make a correction and explore the issue in a bit more detail.

One of the most basic facts of inheritance is that while most of your DNA is a mishmash of your parents (and all their ancestors before them) two pieces of DNA are passed down almost unchanged. One is the mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from the mother to all her children. The other is the Y chromosome, which is passed down directly from father to son. Girls don't get one. Most of the mother's X chromosome is passed down unchanged to her sons (but not her daughters) but of course they can't pass it unchanged to anybody.

This allow us to track the ancestry of two lines. The maternal line tracks your mother, her mother, her mother, her mother and so on. The paternal line tracks your father, his father and so on. The paternal line should, in theory, match the surname, but for various reasons it sometimes doesn't. Females don't have a Y, but they can often find out what Y their father had if they can sequence a sample from him, his sons, his brothers and other male relatives who share his surname.

The ability to do this got people very excited. DNA that can be tracked back arbitrarily far in time has become very useful for the study of human migrations and population genetics. The DNA is normally passed down completely but every so often there is a mutation. These mutations, if they don't kill you, are passed down. The various collections of mutations are formed into a tree, and the branches of the tree are known as haplogroups. For both kinds of DNA, there are around a couple of hundred haplogroups commonly identified. Many DNA testing companies will look at your DNA and tell you your MTDNA haplogroup, and if male, your Y haplogroup.

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Olympic sports and failure

I wanted to post some follow-up to my prior post about sports where the contestants go to the edge and fall down. As I see it, the sports fall into the following rough classes:

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Making volunteer grunt-work and unconferences sustainable

This weekend I spoke at BIL, a conference that was created to play off of the famous and expensive TED conference. BIL began as an un-conference, which is to say an ad-hoc conference created on short notice where the attendees are the speakers. Such conferences tend to be free or near-free. The movement begain with Tim O'Reilly's FOO Camp. FOO camp is for Tim's friends, and he has far more friend that can come. One year, he was explaining how he rotated among people and so some of those who were not invited that particular year (including myself) had a "BAR" camp which was a tremendous success, and created a trend.

The first two BILs were a lot of fun and worked pretty well. They had a variety of sub-par speakers, as these "anybody who wants to can talk" conferences often have, but there was always tons of hall conversation or sessions in other rooms to make up for that. And a modest number of TED speakers came over and gave their TED talks for free at BIL, and various regular TED attendees came as well.

This year's BIL did not live up to the earlier standard, and the hard-working and generous organizers are fully aware of that, so this is not an attempt to criticise them, but rather to look at the problem. Many things went wrong, including a last minute need to move the conference from a Saturday and Sunday(with only Saturday morning overlap with TED) to Friday and Saturday morning, which had total overlap with TED and minimal weekend time. This change was forced because no venue could be found (cheaply enough, at least) which would offer Saturday afternoon and Sunday. However, it was a ruinous change -- attendance on the workday Friday was way down, and even lower on Saturday, and no TED speakers came though a few attendees showed up, mostly near the end in the 2 hours after TED that BIL went on. The "outdoor" post-sessions were of limited success as a conference, but OK socially (I did not attend the planned Sunday events.)

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Gift Guide: Being better to give than to receive

Who writes a gift guide in January?

This one is not about specific gifts but rather a philosophy of gift giving. Every year at Seasons I run into the problem that decently well off adults have with gift giving. They will often ask for a list of possible gifts, not knowing what to get. And it can be hard to come up with the list because, frankly in these days of online ordering, if there's something you really want that is not that expensive an item, you would have bought it already.

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Unconference notes

Just returned from BIL, an unconference which has, for the last two years, taken place opposite TED, the very expensive, very exclusive conference that you probably read a lot about this week. BIL, like many unconferences is free, and self-organized. Speakers volunteer, often proposing talks right at the conference. Everybody is expected to pitch in.

I've been very excited with this movement since I attended the first open unconference, known as barCamp. The first barcamp in Palo Alto was a reaction to an invite-only free unconference known as FooCamp, which I had also attended but was not attending that year. That first camp was a great success, with a fun conference coming together in days, with sponsors buying food and offering space. The second barcamp, in DC, was a complete failure, but the movement caught on and it seems there is a barcamp somewhere in the world every week.

This year BIL was bigger, and tried some new approaches. In particular, a social networking site was used to sign up, where people could propose talks and then vote for the ones they liked. While it is not as ad-hoc as the originals, with the board created at the start of the conference, I like this method a lot. The array of sessions at a completely ad-hoc conference can be very uneven in quality, and assignment to rooms is up to a chaotic procedure that may put an unpopular talk in a big room while a small room is packed to the gills. (This even happens at fully curated conferences.)

Pre-voting allowed better allocation of rooms, and in theory better scheduling to avoid conflicts (ie. noting that people want to go to two talks and not setting them against one another.) BIL also had some spare slots for people who just showed up with a talk, to keep that original flavour.

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Twitter didn't cause the SXSW audience revolt

While it's stupid that the biggest story to come out of South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive was the gossip over the interview of Mark Zuckerberg by Sarah Lacy, the one "hook" that has kept the story going is the suggestion that it was the use of twitter, in particular snide comments on twitter, which turned the audience against Lacy, the interviewer from Business Week.

There have even been comments (from those who weren't even there) suggesting witch hunts and misogyny. Other bloggers used hyperbolic terms like "train-wreck" and "career-ending" which are serious exaggerations.

Short summary. In a "keynote" interview, Lacy, who has just finished a book about Facebook, was on stage to interview Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg was, as usual, a difficult interview subject, but for a variety of reasons the character of the interview changed as the audience turned against Lacy, cheering criticism of her. Most agreed they had not seen somebody lose an audience like this in some time.

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Irony in the TV writers' strike

I have sympathy for the TV writers, because I believe the 3 most important elements of a good TV show are story, story and story. You need more than that, but without them you are toast.

But my reaction is not likely to help them. One of the things they are striking for is to make more money off DVD sales and online delivery of their video. But with The Daily Show off the air, we found ourselves reaching for... other old shows on DVD.

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Real Estate thoughts

A friend asked for advice on selling real estate. I'm no expert, but I thought I would write up some of my thoughts in a blog post for everybody:

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We don't live in a 3D world

Ever since the first science fiction about cyberspace (First seen in Clarke's 1956 "The City and the Stars" and more fully in 1976's "Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin") people have wanted to build online 3-D virtual worlds. Snow Crash gelled it even further for people.

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RIP Jim Butterfield

In 1978, after finally saving up enough money, I got myself a Commodore PET computer. I became immersed in it, and soon was programming all sorts of things, and learning assembler to make things go really fast. I soon discovered the Toronto Pet User's Group, which grew over time to be perhaps the most prominent Commodore group in the world.

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How well do university reunions work?

I've just returned from the 25th reunion of my graduating class in Mathematics at the University of Waterloo. I had always imagined that a 25th reunion would be the "big one" so I went. In addition, while I found myself to have little in common with my high school classmates, even having spent 13 years growing up with many of them, like many techie people I found my true community at university, so I wanted to see them again. To top it off, it was the 40th anniversary of the faculty and the 50th anniversary of the university itself.

But what if they had a reunion and nobody came? Or rather, out of a class of several hundred, under 20 came, many of whom I only barely remembered and none of whom I was close to?

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Rebate experiences

I wrote earlier about the controversial topic of discriminatory pricing, where vendors try to charge different customers different prices, usually based on what they can afford or will tolerate. One particularly vexing type of such pricing is the mail-in rebate. Mail in rebates do two things. In their pure form, they give a lower price to people willing to spend some time on the bureaucracy. As such, they would work at charging richer customers more because richer customers tend to value time more than money compared to poorer customers.

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The strange story of eBay Playstation 3 auctions

I'm not a gamer. I wrote video games 25 years ago but stopped when game creation became more about sizzle (graphics) than steak (strategy.) But the story of the release of the Playstation 3 is a fascinating one. Sony couldn't make enough, so to get them, people camped out in front of stores, or in some cases camped out just to get a certificate saying they could buy one when they arrived. But word got out that people would pay a lot for them on eBay.

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Brad's principle of customer service

When I'm having a problem with a company, I try sometimes to remind them of a principle of customer service I worked out when I was running ClariNet. Namely that when a company screws up, it should more than fix the problem, even to the point of losing money (for a while) on that customer. The reason, in brief, is that this does more than make the customer happy with the transaction. It signals in the strongest possible way that the screw-up is a rare event, which makes the customer come back for more.

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1999 2.0

So over the last 2 weeks I attended 4 nicely catered parties, starting with a dinner for O'Reilly's Web 2.0 conference and ending with one for the SuperNova conference.

By the last party I made up a badge that said "1999 2.0" -- that was after the shrimp came out. Though to be fair, it was still cash bar, so we aren't quite there yet. Though they also gave everybody a $50 gift card at an online content store (where I couldn't find anything I wanted to spend the $50 on...)

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Amazing new economics of the search bar

There's lots of buzz now about IE7 and the "search box" at the top of the window. Microsoft says if you download IE7 that box will use the search engine you used in IE6, which is normally MSN search. For anti-trust reasons they are not rushing to just force it to be MSN or live from the start.

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New BCEC convention center, yet unwired

Attending a convention in the new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) I found one thing very surprising. The show organizer had to install wireless APs all around the building on poles, with long wires leading to power and ethernet. How can a new convention center not already be set up for wireless?

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How about a Hugo Award for Science Fiction?

As some will know, I got heavily into the Hugo awards 13 years ago during my efforts at becoming an eBook publisher in the SF field. The Hugo award is voted on by the fans who attend the annual World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, a moderately small voting pool (under 1000 of the typical 4000 to 7000 attendees will vote.)

The most important award and 2nd most voted on is the one for best Novel. The least important, but most voted on award is the one for best movie.

But still, for a long time, though both SF and Fantasy qualified for the award, the best Novel went exclusively to Science Fiction (with one dab into alternate history by Phillip K. Dick) and usually to hard, ideas-based SF. This went on until 2000 when the superb hard-SF novel "A Deepness in the Sky" won. The drama award was also heavily into SF, though it had some deviations, such as the coverage of Apollo XI and a few films in the 80s.

But in 2001, for the first time, a Fantasy novel won the best novel Hugo. Not just any fantasy novel, but a children's novel, Harry Potter 4. Of course, the Harry Potter series is the most remarkable success not just in fantasy, but in publishing, so this is not too shocking. What's surprising is that in 2002, 2004 and 2005 a fantasy novel would win best novel. At the same time, fantasies won all the best movie awards and all of the new best TV episode award until 2005. (Read on...)

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