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.

My first personal encounter with John was part of a big story of my life, the banning of rec.humor.funny. In a short summary of what’s told there, RHF had been banned at Waterloo and later, due to a comedy of errors got banned at Stanford. Shortly after the ban John called me up and said he wanted to be a champion against the ban. He had been worried for some time about the growing tide of speech codes at supposed bastions of academic freedom, and the idea of banning publications on the internet was a new level. John used his sway to get some press, organize a protest march and have the matter fixed by the academic senate. Strangely, just a few days ago I was at a dinner for a group called FIRE which fights against crazy academic bans, and I was recounting the story of what John did at Stanford for the first time in many years.

Later, I moved to silicon valley and got to know John in person a bit more. He was an incredible force of character long after the age where most have shrunk away. If the AIs of the future are able to resurrect the figures of the past, you know he’ll be one of the first in line for them.

RIP John. And Dennis (who I praised over on Google+). And Steve Jobs. Let’s really limit it to three for a while.

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.

Youtube disaster?

While there has been some remarkable footage, some of it in HD, I was surprised at how underdocumented things were, considering Japan’s reputation as the most camera-carrying nation of the world — and the place where all the best cameras come from. I had expected this would be the “Youtube disaster” where sites like YouTube would fill with direct observer HD videos from every town, but the most of what was uploaded there in the first few days was stuff copied from the TV (in fact, due to DRM, often camcorders pointed at TVs.) Of course, the TV networks were getting videos from private individuals, but we saw the same dramatic videos over and over again, particularly the one from destroyed village of Miyako where the water swept boats and cars over the seawall and under a bridge.

Yes, there was a lot of individual reporting, but I expected a ton, an unprecedented amount, and I expected to see it online first, not on the news first.

Cell phone shutdown

Japan is also one of the world’s most connected countries, with phones for all. Not a lot has emerged about the lost of cell phone service. Some reports suggest some areas of the network were switched into texting-only mode for civilians to leave capacity for emergency workers. Other reports say that landlines were often up when cell lines were down. The world still awaits Klein Gilhousen’s plan to allow cell phones to text peer to peer which I reported on in 2005.

Nuclear plant worst case

The public is now fully aware of many of the issues with nuclear reactors which require active stabilization using external electricity. A lot had to happen to get to the pump shutdown:

  • The reactors themselves were auto-shutdown after the earthquake. Wise, though in theory the subsequent problems would not have happened if one reactor had remained up and powering the plant.
  • The quake or tsunami shut off the external power. A week later it’s still not up. It seems that restoring it should have been a top priority for TEPCO. Was the line so destroyed or did they not prioritize this?
  • The backup generators were damanged by the tsunami, all 19 of them. I have to admit, most people would think having 19 backup generators is a very nice amount of backup. But this teaches that if you have lots of backups, you have to think about what might affect all of them. 1 backup generator or 100, they all would have failed if unable to withstand the wave
  • The batteries supposedly lasted for 8 hours. This does not seem unreasonable. But they either did not realize that they had to get something else going in the 8 hours, or expected other power. Their procedure manuals should have had a “what to do if you have only 8 hours of battery left” contingency, but I can believe they didn’t because it seemed so unlikely.
  • That said, I believe the best backup plan has a fallback that involves emergency-level external resources. In particular, I have heard of no talk of sending a ship with a few hundred meters of cable to the docks there, one of which appears to be under 100m from reactor #1 and presumably the internal power grid. Many ships have big generators onboard or can deliver them.
  • Failing that, a plan for helicopter delivery of a generator and fuel in case all other channels are out.
  • Apparently they did bring in a backup generator by truck, but it was incompatible, and they are still without power.
  • It’s a hard question to consider whether they should have restarted a reactor while on batteries. There would not be enough time for a full post-quake, post-tsunami inspection of the reactor. On the other hand, they clearly didn’t realize just how bad it was to lose all power, and/or probably presumed they would get power before too long.
  • Everybody has now figured out the problem with spent fuel storage without containment in a zone where the chamber might crack and drain. Had nobody worried about that before? Most reactors don’t store all their spent fuel this way, but some do, and I have to presume work is underway to address this.

Robots

Japanese skill in robotics is world-leading. I’ve seen examples of some of that going on, but I’m surprised that they haven’t moved just about every type of robot that might be useful in the nuclear situation to near the nuclear plant. If they should ever have a situation where they must evacuate the plant again, as they did on Wednesday, it could be useful to have robots there, even if only to act as remote cameras to see what is happening in the reactors or control rooms.

There are also remote manipulator robots, and I am surprised no media organization has managed to get some sort of camera robot in the plant to report. Of course, keeping the robot powered is an issue. Few robots are actually able to hook themselves up to power easily, but a number of the telepresence robots can do that.

Many of the “work in danger zone” robots have been built for military applications, and the Japanese don’t have that military need so perhaps they are not so common in Japan. But they do have stair climbers, telepresence and basic manipulators. Even if the robots can do very little it would make the public feel better to know that something is there.

The Chernobyl cleanup was in part done by remote control bulldozers that the Russians made.

Future of Nuclear Power

The reactor failure is causing much public examination of nuclear power. This disaster does show just how bad the older designs are, but makes us question why companies were running them when it’s been known for decades that those designs were a poor idea. Obviously investors will not be keen on saying, “Oh, we made mistakes back then, let’s write off the billions.”

There is also an argument that a technology can’t develop without going through a phase where it is less well understood and designs are not as safe as can be. Would we have developed newer, safer designs if nobody had been able to build the older ones?

I have been seeing tons of ads on CNN by the coal, gas and oil industries about how wonderful their technology is. In spite of the fact that there have been quite a large number of deaths from these technologies, and tons of pollution, and now the fear of greenhouse gases.

According to one agency in Europe, I found a quote that the world’s nuclear plants had generated 64.6 trillion kwh in the period up to 2009, or 6.4 x 10^16 watt-hours. A watt-hour of coal produces about a gram of CO2. A watt-hour from the coal and gas plants at the US average is less than that, let’s call it 0.7 grams/watt-hour more than nuclear (there is some CO2 output from the full lifecycle nuclear industry.) Correcting from original where I had used euro-billion = 10^12 which can’t be right.

That’s about 4 * 10^16 grams of CO2 not put into the air by the nuclear industry. I’m looking for figures to see what that means, but one that I found says that the whole atmosphere of the planet has 2.7 x 10^18 grams of CO2 in it.

The number I would like to see is what difference those 10^16 grams of CO2 have made to the total PPM of CO2 in the atmosphere, which is to say, how much did those nuclear plants retard global warming according to accepted climate models. Anybody have info?

To solve the world’s energy needs, while we eventually would like to develop economical solar plants, biofuels that don’t use cropland, geothermal, fusion and other sources, right now it seems that there is no choice but to build lots more nuclear if we want to stop burning so much coal. Other choices are coming but are not assured yet. If this disaster scares the public away from newer reactor designs which go to a safe state without active support or human intervention, I think that would be a mistake.

I hope that Japan is able to recover as quickly as possible, and that more of the missing are found alive. Someday something like this is going to happen here in the Bay Area — though probably not a 9.0, but possibly an 8 — and it won’t be pretty.

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.  read more »

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:

  1. You push as hard as you can. The athlete who does the best — goes higher, stronger, faster — wins. The 100 metres is a perfect example.
  2. You push hard, but you must make judgments as you compete, such as how hard to push, when to pass etc. If you judge incorrectly, it lowers your final performance, but only modestly.
  3. You must judge your abilities and the condition of the course and your equipment, and choose what is difficult enough to score well, but which you can be confident you will execute. To win, you must skate (literally or figuratively) close to the edge of what you can do. If you misjudge, or have bad luck, you are penalized significantly, and will move from 1st place to the rear of the pack.

My main concern is with sports in the third group, like figure skating, half-pipe and many others, including most of the judged sports with degrees of difficulty. The concern is that sudden shift from leader to loser because you did what you are supposed to do — go close to the edge. Medals come from either being greatly superior, knowing your edge very well, which is the intention, or from being lucky that particular day — which I think is not the intention.

Many sports seek to get around this. In high jump and pole vault, you just keep raising the bar until you can’t get over it, and somebody gets over the highest bar. This is a good system, but difficult when a sport takes a long time or is draining to do even once. You could do a figure skating contest where they all keep trying more and more difficult moves until they all fail but one, but it would take a long time, be draining, and cause injuries as there is no foam pit like in high jump.

Other sports try to solve this by letting you do 2 or more runs, and taking the best run. This is good, but we also have an instinct that the person who can do it twice is better than the one who did it once and fell down the other time. Sports that sum up several times demand consistent performance, which is good, but in essence they also put a major punishment on a single failure, perhaps an even greater one. This approach requires you be a touch conservative, just under your edge, so you know you will deliver several very good runs, and beat somebody who dares beyond their ability, but falls in one or more runs. At least it reduces the luck.

The particular problem is this. “Big failure” sports will actually often give awards either to a top athlete who got a good run, or to the athlete who was more conservative in choosing what to do, and thus had a very high probability of a clean run. Fortunately this will not happen too often, as one of the top tier who went-for-broke will have that clean run and get 1st place. But the person who does that may not be the one who is overall most capable.

Imagine if high jump were done with each competitor choosing what height they wanted the bar to be at in advance, and getting one try at it, and getting a medal if it’s the highest, but nothing if they miss.

The sports like short-track speed skating, which are highly entertaining, have this problem in spades, for athletes who wipe out can also impede other athletes. While the rules try to make it up to the athlete who was knocked out, they have a hard time doing this perfectly. For example in the semi-finals of short-track, if you get knocked out while you were in 3rd, you are not assured to get a consolation qualification even if you were just about to try for 2nd with the strength you were saving.

In some cases the chaos is not going away because they know audiences like it. Time trials are the purest and fairest competition in most cases but are dead-boring to watch.

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.)  read more »

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.

I believe that instead of giving people what they want, you should give them what you want to give them. This is not simply a desire to make gift giving more selfish, to making giving be in the interests of the giver. It is a statement that a proper gift should be an expression of yourself. It should be something you enjoy giving, and not just because you want to bring a smile to your recipient (though you should also want that.)

Christmas shoppers often overspend to buy fancy and overadvertised gifts which seem nice but which are never really used by the recipient. This is actually a major inefficiency in the economy, in that products are produced to little productive end other than to say, “see, I spent some serious money on you.” We’ll never stop that but we might redirect it.

Rule One: No money between adults

Adults should never give money. That’s not an expression of yourself, unless the expression is “I’m really rich.” The one exception is that parents can give life-changing amounts of money to children. A large sum can be an expression of your instinctive desire to make your kids’ lives better. Likewise employers can give cash bonuses. But those are not really gifts.

Rule One-A: Absolutely no gift cards.

Gift cards are like giving money, except they’re stupid money that can only be spent at one store. Stores love them because people leave $5 billion undredeemed on gift cards every year — down from $10 billion back when they were allowed to let gift cards expire. Many people think a gift card is better than money because it says, “OK, at least I know enough about you to get you a gift card at a store I know you like to shop at.” But that’s hardly saying much.

Gift cards from generic stores that sell something for everyone are right out. That’s just the gift of cash with a restriction. Gift cards might be more tolerable from extreme specialty stores, so that your picking of the store constitutes an expression of yourself and your relationship with the recipient.

Gift cards for services are a bit more tolerable. After all, it’s hard to give services otherwise.

Gift cards would make more sense if they were offered at a discount, so you could buy a $50 card usable after seasons for $40. They almost never do this though. But it still isn’t much of an expression of you.

Exception: If you truly need a gift that requires no expression of yourself, these might work. For example, gifts for people you don’t know well, gifts for a large group of co-workers etc. But what you’re saying here is, “listen, I wanted to give you a small gift but let’s face it, you weren’t high enough up on the list to merit a lot of time.” Sometimes that’s a perfectly OK thing to say, if it’s a gift for your postal worker or the office.

In addition to services (which can’t be physically given) we’re seeing a lot more in online or virtual goods, such as downloadable games, e-books, apps, music and the like. Sometimes you can buy a code you can email, or if you know somebody’s account, you can add such items to it. This creates a conundrum. I would much rather somebody gave me an e-book over a paper book these days — I don’t have shelf space. Do you give these “items” because the only way to give them is virtually? Or is this a sign that these items are now removed from the set of things that should be given? It may be best to consider a middle ground which discourages virtual gifts if you can think of something else, but tolerates them if they really are the best thing.

It’s more acceptable if you can give a very specific item, like a song, book or game you picked. No iTunes gift cards, but instead codes for a specific item. One for which the choosing of the item said something about you.

Imagine a world of plenty

One way to think about this is to imagine a world where everybody you knew was a billionaire, with no want for money. What would you give then? You can see immediately how giving cash or a gift card would make little sense in that world. Truth be told, for most gifts, the cost of the gift is a blip in our net worths, so the real world is not too different from this one, unless you’ve giving a gift that’s so extravagant that it would be noticed in the annual budget, like a car.

Limit your manufactured items

The adage that the best gifts are ones you make yourself has much truth. And where you can afford the time for that, or have the skills for it, this is indeed the right way to go. But I don’t expect you to stop giving manufactured items entirely.

When you give a manufactured item, one that you can just point-click-and-ship, the gift is not the item, but what went into selecting it. The choice must depend not on your impressions of what they want, but rather ways in which you can be better (by some standards) at picking what they want than they are. You must find something that you knew was good but they didn’t.

So if you really know cameras, you probably know better how to shop for certain items. Buy something that you know more about than the recipient. Do you have good taste in clothing, or know where the best shops are? That’s where to buy your items. Not in a big box store or at the mall — anybody can go there.

Do you own and love a hot gadget that is not that popular yet? Get it, even though they might not love it as much. What you are sharing is your knowledge and love for the item, to let them see and experience a part of your life.

Books and other media

One particular type of manufactured item deserves special attention, namely books and media. Don’t give books of the type they like to read. Give the books and authors that you have read and love. Again, you might give them a book they would not love as much as the new hardcover from their favourite author. But the book, and the love for it, is an expression of you. If you know them intimately enough to know of books by their favourite writers which they themselves might not know about, that’s also OK.

It’s also OK if you are a better researcher to use that skill to surprise them. Perhaps you know more about how to look things up online, or read the right blogs where good people will recommend things. You can buy those things as long as your knowledge was special, and not generic.

Time rather than money

No gift expresses yourself more than time. A gift which is hard to choose and takes time says more than a gift which cost a lot. Most personalization requires time. Photography can be a great source for this — do you have a series of photos of the person, or places they love, that you could make into a slideshow or poster?

In addition, we all have too much stuff already, so don’t just give more “stuff” that they have to bring out when you visit. Unless they have a weight problem or a drinking problem, unusual foods and drinks that you enjoy can be a good expression of yourself. Of course, stuff you made yourself is even better.

Sometimes ya gotta break the rules

This is not the only way to give gifts. And nobody will figure the perfect gift for every person every time, not even close. This is just a direction to go, in opposition to what is most marketed — “impress them with how much money you were willing to spend on them.” And while your gift should be an expression of your personality, it would be wrong to think this means that gift giving is all about you, the giver. Rather the message is that it’s about both people.

In addition, many of these rules don’t apply to gifts to young children. First of all young children may not yet be able to understand an adult’s expression. And unlike adults they don’t have all that they want. They are easy to impress and very grateful.

Still, with children, look to gifts that you particularly enjoyed as a child, or in particular gifts which changed your life in a positive way. Did a football turn you into an athlete? Did a microscope make you a scientist? Pass it on.

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.  read more »

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.  read more »

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.

The nasty truth is there may already be enough good TV and movies made to satisfy a lot of the public’s TV watching needs, and it’s all on DVD, and will all be online. Not that the industry can’t produce good new shows that are worth watching — but how much do we truly need new shows? We seem to have a preference for novelty, it’s true. And tastes change, making older shows less palatable. And much older shows have poorer production values. (Though in fact, many older shows were shot on film, and thus can now be delivered in HDTV to provide a superior experience to when they were aired.)

But our taste for novelty is just a taste. We can be quite happy for the duration of a writers’ strike satisfying ourselves from the very media they are not being paid enough for. In a better quality format, commercial-free.

This strike grid from the LA Times shows that a lot of shows have plenty of scripts in the can as well. Outside of shows like The Daily Show and Tonight Show, the public isn’t even going to notice many shows leaving the air for some time to come. The writers are hoping they can threaten the “pilot” season and thus scare the networks into worrying they will not have new shows for a Fall season. (This need of course is related to the public’s demand for novelty.)

Networks can’t easily go and put a series from the 80s or 90s on the air as replacement, however. The taste for novelty is quite strong, and too many people will have seen it. This is what DVD/online does better than broadcast. While the odds that you would like to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer or any other specific but have not seen it (in original airing or syndication) are not that good, given the wide selection of DVD out there, the odds that there is something to meet your needs during the strike are high. This is particularly true for the various pay channel series for those who don’t get those channels.

And, especially if you use Netflix or buying and selling used, at a very attractive price.

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:

  • The national average commission is 5%, though agents always ask for 6%. Do you want to do worse than average?
  • Of course, home prices have soared far beyond inflation, but the realtor cut remains the same. This is the power of the realtor monopoly, which many have tried to break. Someday somebody will. I think Google could do it.
  • A good realtor will usually get you 6% more than you will get on your own, which is how they justify their price. But that doesn’t mean a realtor couldn’t get you that same bump for far less if the market were more competitive.
  • Except in hot seller’s markets, open houses are not to sell your house. They are so the agent (or one of their associates) can meet new buyers, and try to sell them any house, not just yours. In hot markets, houses really do sell via the open house. (Also see below.)
  • A great story. A broker calls his agents in for a meeting. He asks them, “You’re listing a house and you’ve gotten one of the buyers you represent interested in it. Who are you working for?”

    One agent says, “The seller is the one you have a contract with, work for him.

    Another agent says, “The buyer is the one who decides to make the offer. Work for her.”

    A third agent says, “Actually, the law in this state requires that you try as hard as you can to represent the interests of both.

    The broker listens and then growls at them, “You’re all wrong! You’re working for me!”

  • In other words, the agent is working at making a sale happen. I’ve never met a seller’s agent who would not quickly betray their seller to make a sale happen. By “betray their seller” I mean tell the prospective buyer information the seller would normally never reveal, such that they will take less. Some would argue (validly) in some cases that this is in the seller’s interest too.
  • More often than you think, houses end up selling to friends and neighbours. A friend just listed a house and ended up with competing bids from the neighbour 2 doors down and another a few more doors down. People often love the chance to get a bigger house in the same location — no need to reclocate kids, learn new area etc. You need a neighbourhood that people love of course.
  • Because of that, consider doing one week of basic “for sale by owner” marketing to let neighbours and friends know you are selling. You will get swarmed by realtors wanting your listing, which is OK if you want them to compete over you. Otherwise tell them you’ve already picked the broker you will list with if the FSBO doesn’t work
  • You may still want an agent to handle your FSBO. There are agencies that do all the non-marketing part of real estate transactions for much lower fees, or you can talk a traditional agent into do it for far less as well.
  • As an alternate, ask for a clause in your contract that says if the house sells to a neighbour or to somebody in your circle of friends, the commission is much less. In general the commission should be much less if your agent also represents the buyer, which would typically be the case here. Threaten to do FSBO (and give the agent nothing) if they won’t accept this clause.
  • Zillow is really cool and useful.

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. 3D worlds have done well in games, including Mmorpgs and recently Second Life has attracted a lot of attention, first for its interesting world and its even more interesting economy, but lately for some of the ways it has not succeeded, such as a site for corporate sponsored stores.

Let me present one take on why 3D is not all it’s cracked up to be. Our real world is 3D of course, but we don’t view it that way. We take it in via our 2D eyes, and our 1.5D ears and then build a model of its 3D elements good enough to work in it. In a way I will call this 2.5D because it’s more than 2D but less than 3. But because we start in two dimensions, and use 2D screens, 3D interfaces on a flat screen are actually worse than ones designed for 2D. Anybody who tired the original VRML experiments that attempted to build site navigation in 3D, where you had to turn around your virtual body in order to use one thing or another, realized that.

Now it turns out the fact that 3D is harder is a good thing when it comes to games. Games are supposed to be a challenge. It’s good that you can’t see everything and can get confused. It’s good that you can sneak up behind your enemy, unseen, and shoot him. Because it makes the game harder to win, 3D works in games.

But for non-games, including second life, 3D can just plain make it harder. We have a much easier time with interfaces that are logical, not physical, and present all the information we need to use the system in one screen we can always see. The idea that important things can be “behind us” makes little sense in a computer environment. And that’s true for social settings. When you sit in a room of people and talk, it’s a bug that some people are behind you and some are in front of you. You want to see everybody, and have everybody see your face, the way the speaker on a podium would. The real 3D world can’t do that for a group of people, but virtual worlds can.

I am not saying 3D can’t have its place. You want and need it for modeling things form the real world, as in CAD/CAM. 3D can be a place to show off certain things, and of course a place to play games.

In making second life, a better choice might have been a 2D interface that has portals to occasional 3D environments for when those environments make sense. That would let those who want to build 3D objects in the environment get the ability to do so. But this would not have been nearly as sexy or as Snow-Crashy, so they didn’t do it. Indeed, it would look too much like an incremental improvement over the web, and that might not have gotten the same excitement, even if it’s the right thing to do. The web is also 2.5D, a series of 2D web pages with an arbitrary network of connections between them that exists in slightly more than 2 dimensions. And it has its 3D enclaves, though they are rare and mostly hard to use.

Another idea for a VR world might be a 3D world with 360 degree vision. You could walk around it but you could always see everything, laid out as a panorama. You would not have to turn, just point where you wish to go. It might be confusing at first but I think that could be worth experimenting with.

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.

A big reason for that was the group’s star attraction, a middle aged man with a great deep speaking voice and a talent for writing and explaining computers to newcomers. That man was Jim Butterfield. His talks at meetings were the highlight for many members, and he did both beginner’s talks and fairly high level ones. Jim had been working on reverse engineering the OS (really BIOS) of the PET, and one of my early cute hacks was a very simple loop that copied the computer’s “zero page” onto the screen at every vertical refresh (ie. 60 times/second.) The PET had characters for all 256 bytes, so this was like a live window into the computer’s guts, even beyond das blinkenlights found on mainframes. You could play with the computer and actually watch everything change before you. For his reverse engineering goals, Jim loved the little program and promoted it and we became friends.

Later, Jim would be hired to write the manuals for some of my software projects, including my set of programming tools known as POWER. I’m sure his name on the manual helped sell the product as much as mine did. He was the Commodore world’s rockstar and father figure at the same time. We were only in occasional touch after I left Toronto and then Canada, but the incredible longevity of Pet and C64 hacking has kept his name in people’s minds. He had a sense of humour, charm and love that is rarely found in a technical guru.

Cancer finally got him on June 29th. There’s a bit more at the TPUG page.

You can see this rather embarrassing advertisement that was published to sell software written by myself, Jim and fellow Mississauga software author Steve Punter with a picture of the 3 of us dressed as football players.

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?  read more »

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.

However, they are rarely that simple. Some products offer ridiculously low rebates it’s not worth anybody’s time to process — they are not much better than a trick. With higher rebates, often the full price is inflated to make the discount appear larger than it is. This can also be a trick. A person who has decided she will not do rebates should normally never buy such a product, however, in many cases people do buy them, and never get around to processing the rebate.

While the vendors never release figures, clearly many people never get their rebate. Companies that manage rebates can in fact make fairly realiable promises about how many of the rebates will actually be redeemed. While I suspect the largest reason for non-redemption is “not getting around to it,” in many cases rebate programs work to make it hard to redeem. They will make the redemption process as complex as possible, and not redeem on any little error. Some companies have even been found to have fraudulently failed to redeem correctly prepared rebate forms, waiting for customers to complain and paying only if they do. Of course, few customers complain, as it’s even more work, and of those who do, few retain the documentation necessary for a complaint. In many cases, customers do not even keep note of what rebate requests they sent out. Rebate companies tend to deliberately take as long as possible — usually several months — to process rebates. This is partly to keep the float on the money, but also I suspect to make people forget about what they are waiting for.

As such, I avoid most rebates, but I do do some of them. In particular, if I can do rebates in bulk, it can be worthwhile. In this case (usually around the holidays) I will gather together many rebates and fill them out all at once. I took a sheet of laser printer address labels and printed out stickers with all the common items desired on rebate forms, including name/address stickers which I already have, and stickers with a special E-mail address and free voicemail only phone number (ipkall.com) to speed up the process.

This year, several rebates now “offered” online processing. This turns out to save time for the company, not for you. You fill in the information (saving them data entry work) and it prints out your rebate form, which you must still mail in along with the original UPC and some form of original receipt. (Fry’s has automated their end of the rebate process, printing rebate receipts and rebate forms on thermal printers at the cash register.)

One of the companies, onrebate.com seemed like an even nastier trick. On my first visit the site was incredibly slow, taking 30 seconds per page in a multi-step process. However, a later visit was OK. However, they of course do nothing to make things easier, like re-use of data on a second rebate (including some of the famous “double rebate” products.) One thing they offer which is very positive is payment of your rebate via paypal, which has two giant benefits — no need for a trip to the bank, and easy tracking of when you are repaid. In addition, it eliminates the common trick of printing rebate cheques with “not valid after…” legends set for the very near future, another way they block redemption.

Onrebate also offers quick payment, if you let them keep about 10% of your rebate. Of course this is a bad deal to just get money 2 months sooner, but we know people fall for it. As an experiment, I filed two rebates with them, one with the instant payment and one without. I got the notice of processing on the instant payment one first, saying I would be paid within a couple of weeks. On the other hand I got the money on the other one first! E-mail notification is positive for tracking, of course. Some companies go the other way. I received a $10 rebate check recently with no indication, other than the name of the general rebate processing company, of what it was for. This helps confuse people about what rebates they have received and not received.

Even with the streamlined bulk process, however, it took too much time this year. One needs to check that one has followed all the rules, which often vary. Some demand signatures, some demand emails, some demand phone numbers. Some demand copies of receipts, some demand originals. Some demand web processing. Almost all demand original UPCs which can be hard work to cut out of products. Some demand copies. A quick and easy idea for “copies” is to use a digital camera to take pictures of the various items. This also is a quick record you can go back and check should you have the inclination. It doesn’t say the copies have to be very good. Most households don’t have photocopiers any more, but almost all have digital cameras and printers, which is even easier than a scanner.

(I also have a small sheetfed scanner I use for my paperless home efforts, but it has problems with thermal paper receipts.)

We’ll never see this become easy because of course the rebate management companies want the redemption rate to stay low. I presume some of them even market to the vendors the low rates, otherwise we would not see the “free after rebate” concept that has become more common.

I filed claims for $290 in rebates this December. So far one $60 (paypal) and one $10 have come in, and the expedited paypal rebates have not. I don’t expect to see much before late February, however.

Outside of bulk processing or very good rebate deals, the non-redemption rate seems to make it better to always check if there is a non-rebated product at a good price. Figure out your own “discount rate” for how often you personally complete rebates and how often you actually receive money. I doubt many get 100%. Then factor in a value on your time — what do you get paid per hour, figuring 2000 to 2500 hours for salaried people? Expect to spend 10 to 30 minutes on a rebate form, including post office trips, bank trips etc. (This is much lower if you regularly go to these places, or have at-home mail pickup as I do.)

Of course, you may not even agree with the company’s original goal — to find a way to charge more to people who value time over money, and thus less to those who value money over time. It is interesting, however, to speculate on what other systems might be devised to reach this goal that are not so random and bureaucratic as the rebate system. For example, use of the web only became practical once you could presume the “money > time” crowd had web access — a system that allows discounts only for the rich is not going to be very effective. I am interested in alternative ideas.

One might be to offer the rebates to those who agree to take a web journey that exposes them to advertising. This both assures they value money over time but actually sells that attention. A web process, upon which you are paid by paypal at the end, could be highly reliable without the “lottery” factor. Vendors could even start including tokens in products with one-time-use numbers on them which people could type in rather than having to mail physical UPC codes. (However, the mailing of the UPC code, aside from adding work and cost to the process also is important for disallowing returns of products after rebates are filed. Stores would need to check that the token number was present, and not used, before doing a return.) Stores could also print a similar magic number on sales receipts.

The work associated in the logistics of rebates can’t be eliminated by the web, though. The goal, after all, is to make the process time consuming, so you can only shift work from one place to another. But it can be made less random, which would actually encourage more people to buy rebated products if they truly believe they will offer up their time and attention.

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. The units cost about $600, depending on what model you got, but people were bidding thousands of dollars even in advance, for those who had received certificates from stores.

It was amusing to read the coverage of the launch at Sony’s own Sonystyle store in San Francisco. There the press got bored as they asked people in line why they were lining up to get a PS3. The answer most commonly seemed to be not a love of gaming, but to flip the box for a profit.

And flip they did. There were several tens of thousands of eBay auctions for PS3s, and prices were astounding. About 20,000 auctions closed. Another 25,000 are still running at this time. Some auctions concluded for ridiculous numbers like $110,000 for 4 of them, or a more “reasonable” $20,000 for 5. Single auctions reached as high as $25,000, though in many of these cases, it’s bad news for the seller because the high bidders are people with zero eBay reputation who obviously won’t complete the transaction. In other cases serious sellers will try to claim their bid was a typo. There are some auctions with serious multiple bidders that got to 3 and 4 thousand dollars, but by mid-day today they were all running about $2,000, and they started dropping very quickly. As I watched in a few minutes they fell from $1,500 to going below a thousand. Still plenty of profit for those willing to brave the lines.

It’s interesting to consider what the best strategy for a seller is. It’s hard to predict what form a frenzy like this will take, and when the best price will come. The problem is eBay has a minimum 1 day for the auction, so you must guess the peak 1 day in advance. Since many buyers were keen to see the auction listing showing that the person had the unit in hand, ready to ship, the possible strategy of listing the item before going to get it bore some risks. Some showed scans of their pre-purchase.

The most successful sellers were probably those who picked a clever “buy it now” price which was taken during the early frenzy by people who did not realize how much the price would drop. All the highest auctions (including those with fake buyers) were buy-it-now results. Of course, it’s mostly luck in guessing what the right price was. I presume the buy-it-now/best-offer feature (new on eBay) might have done well for some sellers.

However, those who got a bogus buyer are punished heavily. They can re-list, but must wait a day to sell by auction, and will have lost a bunch of money in that day. If they can find the buyer they might be able to sue. If they are smart, they would re-list with a near-market buy-it-now to catch the market while it’s hot.

Real losers are those who placed a reserve on their auctions, or a high starting bid price. In many cases their auctions will close with no succesful bidder, and they’ll sell for less later. Using a reserve or high starting bid makes no sense when you have such a high-demand item. Those paranoid about losing money should have at most started bidding at their purchase price. I can’t think of any reason for a reserve price auction in this case — or in most other cases, for that matter. Other than with experimental rare products, they are just annoying.

Particularly sad was one auction where the seller claimed to be a struggling single mom who had kids that lucked out and got spots in line, along with pictures of the kids holding the boxes. She set a too-high starting price, and will have to re-list.

Another bad strategy was to do a long multi-day listing.

It’s possible the rarity of these items will grow, as people discover they just can’t get one for their kids for Christmas, but I doubt it.

The other big question this raises is this: Could Sony have released the machine differently? Sony obviously left millions on the table here, about 30 to 40 million I would guess. That’s tolerable for Sony, and they might have decided to give it up for the publicity that surrounds a buying craze. But I have to wonder, would they not have been better served to conduct their own auctions, perhaps a giant dutch auction, for the units, with some allocated at list price by lottery or for those willing to wait in line so that it doesn’t seem so elitist. (As if any poor person is going to buy a PS3 and keep it if they can make a fast thousand in any event.)

Some retailers took advantage of demand by requiring customers to buy several games with the box, presumably Sony approved that. With no control from Sony all the retailers would be trying to capture all this money themselves, which they could easily have done — selling on eBay directly if need be.

I predict in the future we will see a hot Christmas item sold through something like a dutch auction, since being the first to do that would generate a lot of publicity. Dutch auctions are otherwise not nearly so exciting. When Google went public through one, the enemies of dutch auctions worked to make sure people thought it was boring, causing Google to leave quite a bit of money on the table, but far less than they would have left had they used traditional underwriters.

On a side note — if you shop on eBay, I recommend the mozilla/firefox/iceweasel plugin “Shortship” which fixes one of eBay’s most annoying bugs. It lets you see the total of price plus shipping, and sort by it, at least within one ebay display page.

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.

I have outlined it in this page on Brad’s principle of customer service.

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…)

VC funding of speculative deals is certainly up, though of course the IPO market has yet to repeat the boom. People are watching Vonage, which spammed me with E-mail, a paper letter and a voice mail to tell me I could participate in their stock offering (except the fine print says I can’t as I am not a U.S. citizen.)

Web 2.0 certainly seems replete with companies getting funding with little sign of how to build a sustainable business.

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.

Recent comments to me have made me think about just how valuable that box is, and whether in fact it’s as valuable as all of Windows Vista Home, for example. Rumours have circulated that Mozilla foundation got something close to 70 million dollars by making Google the default search in the Firefox search box. For about a 10% share of the browser market.

Microsoft may have views on what default to set, but the real parties that will set the default for a lot of users are the OEMs (like Dell and HP) that ship with Windows Vista, and the big ISPs (Cable, DSL) who love to push a customized browser on their users. Both these groups have done basic customizations like setting the home page and throwing in some bookmarks. But nothing has every been so valuable as the search box.

It was suggested to me that the OEMs might open the default on the search box to bidding. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and the rest would bid on who could offer the vendor a better deal — either as a percentage of revenues or a flat fee. Indeed, the type of customer (rich, poor, corporate, personal) might dictate the deal.

At some point, if it hasn’t already happened, the value of the search box could exceed the OEM’s cost for Windows Vista Home (street buzz suggests this is around $40 for high volume OEMs.) In other words, at some point, Microsoft would be effectively offering Windows Vista Home to the OEM for free, or even paying the OEM to take Windows if Microsoft search is the default search box. (Or even locked in. While MS dare not lock it in for anti-trust reasons, an OEM could do this.)

All of this depends on the dynamic of the negotiation between Microsoft and the PC vendors. Since I doubt MS wants to be in the position of paying vendors to take Windows — effectively putting them in the search business where they are #3 instead of the OS business — they will use whatever tools they have to fight this.

It doesn’t matter a lot that many users would switch from the default, or download a new browser (even IE7 directly from MS) if they don’t like the choice. The value of the default is powerful enough, unless it truly sucks.

This line of thinking goes further. Our PCs are becoming a conduit for much of our commercial activity. Google makes about $2B/quarter from ads, without forcing much on you at all, which has been part of their genius. In the past, people like NetZero failed to even pay for dial-up ISP service from ads. But there’s still much more to exploit. As Moore’s law drives down the price of the computer, and the effectiveness of Google and other companies at monetizing the web experience moves up, at some point the lines cross and it becomes worthwhile to subsidize, and then give away the entire PC, at least to certan prospects. Decent Linux PCs with no monitor are $160 at Fry’s. Are we that far away from this happening?

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? I will admit, in some ways it is correct to anticipate that the radios that would do the work will be quickly obsolete, and thus should not be so permanently installed, but it seems crazy to me that a new CC would not have been built with spaces in the ceilings or upper walls ready for some sort of wireless network.

The meeting room halls also don’t have tons of power jacks in the floors. Today, at modern conventions, everybody brings laptops and they want to plug them in. Better conventions in older halls run extension cords and power strips, and there are a few of those here, but why should a new convention center not be ready to go?

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…)  read more »

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