Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Game Maven: Learn to code by writing games

I just launched Game Maven from Crunchzilla. It’s a new interactive tutorial -- part of the series that includes Code Monster and Code Maven -- that is a step-by-step walkthrough of writing the code for three casual video games.

The games themselves are really fun. One is a simple vaguely Asteroids-like base defense game. The second is a sort of Angry Birds-like cannon game complete with physics and particle system effects. The third is a platformer in the spirit of Mario Bros with auto-generated infinite levels.

Game Maven is an interactive tutorial using live code. Players learn step-by-step how to build each game, getting a chance to customize and play with the games as they build them. Game Maven is an immersive educational experience with a focus on action over explanation. Players build right away with code, learning about coding by coding. Be brave, make mistakes, try things, and see what happens.

Game Maven assumes some programming experience and an interest in writing games. It’s for adults and older teens (age 16+). It’s designed for a variety of motivation levels, from those that just click through the lessons and skip most of the work, to those that do every lesson, understand every line of code, and spend hours customizing the games, everyone learns from the experience.

If you have a teenager interested in coding and writing games, please let them know about Game Maven. Please tell your friends with teenagers about Game Maven. If you want to play with writing games yourself, go give it a try. And please let me know what you think!

Friday, November 01, 2013

Quick links

What caught my attention lately:
  • Jeff Bezos on what innovators need: "A willingness to fail. A willingness to be misunderstood. And maintaining a childlike wonder in the world." ([1])

  • "Agreement feels good -- hey, we get along great! -- but it's not the best for innovation. Why? Because if everybody has the same idea, then you only have one idea." ([1])

  • "It's amazing the amount of difference a cultural intolerance to bullshit can make" ([1])

  • "Two engineers with close ties to Google exploded in profanity when they saw the drawing" ([1] [2])

  • "Amazon has boundless ambition. It wants to eat global retail ... the largest retailer in the history of the world ... [It is] a secret in plain sight." ([1])

  • I love Duolingo and Duolingo's business model: "students receive high-quality, completely free language education, and organizations get translation services powered by the students ... two major publishers are financing our operation by [our students] translating their content." ([1] [2])

  • "Pinterest now valued at $3.8 billion, on a constant valuation ratio of infinity times revenues" ([1])

  • "Microsoft is continuing to fire on all cylinders with its enterprise products and services and has a ways to go on the consumer side" ([1])

  • The "screamingly obvious ... solution ... Offer regular Windows on regular computers, offer TileWorld on tablets" ([1] [2])

  • "Apple is trying to maintain premium pricing in a market in which competitors are increasingly selling high-quality iPad alternatives for significantly lower prices." ([1])

  • Patents should only be used "to promote the progress of science and useful arts" ([1] [2] [3])

  • "The most popular films are not even available through preferred legal channels" ([1] [2] [3])

  • I do not think it means what you think it means: "No banner ads on the Google homepage or Web search results pages… ever." ([1] [2] [3])

  • Gesture recognition (like the Kinect, but just using a laptop or tablet's existing webcam) is going to become more common? ([1])

  • Instead of trying to recycle plastic, turn it into oil: "Each barrel of oil costs about $10 to produce" ([1] [2])

  • Very clever idea for moving small robots: "No external moving parts. Nonetheless, they’re able to climb over and around one another, leap through the air, roll across the ground ... [a] flywheel is braked, it imparts its angular momentum to the cube" ([1])

  • Frightening that you can see results this large with electrical stimulation of the brain on an area known to be important for compliance with social norms ([1])

  • Four-legged, all terrain drones coming to a war near you ([1] [2])

  • Curious claim about US education: "When controlling for demographic factors, public schools are doing a better job academically than private schools" ([1])

  • Strange, I don't remember this, back in 2001, Jeff Bezos did a weird Taco Bell ad. ([1])

  • A dark but hilarious Halloween comic from SMBC: "I'm expectation of death" ([1])

  • The Onion: "CEO worked his way up from son of CEO" ([1] [2])

Saturday, October 12, 2013

I was wrong on Netflix

I was wrong on Netflix. A few years ago, I saw their pricing changes (which overpriced DVD rentals) and streaming catalog changes (switching to only buying whatever they could get cheap, very few hit movies in there, and then making a little of their own content) and thought this new strategy of becoming HBO-lite was headed for disaster.

But Netflix has done well. People add them on as an addition to cable and DVDs, not as a replacement, essentially as an HBO-lite. Competitors -- like Amazon, Hulu, and YouTube -- aren't acting as a replacement to Netflix, but, at best, an addition. Redbox is eating away at Netflix's neglected but profitable DVD business, but that hasn't hurt Netflix as much as I thought it would. And no one -- not even Apple, Amazon, Sony, Hulu, Walmart/Vudu, or Google/YouTube -- has been able to offer a full cable TV replacement, a streaming service with a massive, nearly exhaustive catalog of high quality content.

I was wrong about Netflix's new strategy. They've done pretty well with their HBO-lite strategy of being one of several (and the most popular) streaming service for TV-like entertainment. There is still the question of what happens when someone launches something with a much better UX and catalog than Netflix, but that may never happen.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Quick links

What I found interesting lately:
  • Xkcd on the halting problem: "Big picture .... all things must someday die" ([1])

  • "Your fingerprint isn't a secret; you leave it everywhere you touch" ([1])

  • Someone printed circuits (for rapid prototyping of hardware) with silver ink and a normal inkjet printer ([1] [2])

  • Sending sounds to just one person with a touch ([1] [2])

  • It is important not just "for the algorithm to work, but for it to be obvious why it works" ([1] [2])

  • How UPS optimizes route planning for its truck drivers. Not really a travelling salesman problem, it requires a lot of understanding of those humans you're trying to guide around. ([1])

  • Even in emerging markets, people are using tablets as an additional device, not a replacement for smartphone or PC ([1] [2])

  • A promising new competitor to the Xbox, that was caused by the disaster that is Windows 8, that may also force improvements in graphics and sound card support for Linux PCs ([1] [2] [3])

  • Someone spent $4M manipulating prediction markets during the 2012 election ([1] [2])

  • Undersea drones and autonomous fighter jets coming soon to a war near you ([1] [2])

  • Startups are having to seek protection from patent trolls by paying off other patent trolls: "the only way out is to shack up with the strangest of bedfellows" ([1])

  • "An algorithm for generating random numbers, which was adopted in 2006 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), contains a backdoor for the NSA" ([1] [2])

  • "Intelligence officials said today that no one at the NSA fully understood how its own surveillance system worked" ([1])

  • "The NSA scandal is ... a severe case of auto-immune disease: our defense system is attacking other critical systems of our body." ([1] [2])

  • "The patient had an infection with Saccharomyces cerevisiae .... So when he ate or drank a bunch of starch — a bagel, pasta or even a soda — the yeast fermented the sugars into ethanol, and he would get drunk" ([1])

  • "When it heated a small pinch of dirt scooped up from the ground, the most abundant vapour detected was H2O ... Mars' dusty red covering holds about 2% by weight of water." ([1])

  • Dilbert: "Watch me buy that same item with my phone while you stand there being obsolete" ([1])

  • A cute comparison of San Francisco and Seattle ([1])

  • A beautiful and brilliant SMBC comic on teaching children ([1])

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

More quick links

More of what I found interesting lately:
  • The apparent philosophy of the design of biological processes: "Never refactor if you can incrementally add another mechanism, no matter how complicated." ([1] [2])

  • "Given the incredible technological leaps that have changed so many aspects of our lives in the last hundred years, it's surprising that our approach to education today is much the same as it was a century ago" ([1])

  • Brilliant and beautiful comic inspired by Calvin and Hobbes on what is important in life ([1])

  • Fascinating and frightening xkcd showing "questions found in Google Autocomplete" ([1])

  • Dilbert on the NSA and tech companies cooperation with the NSA ([1] [2])

  • Dilbert: "You lost our data center?" ([1])

  • Dilbert: "Booted off the management fast track ... failed the sociopath module." ([1])

  • NASDAQ went down because they "haven't had the incentive to focus on back-up systems." So many things wrong with that.([1])

  • "Rational self-interest isn't always the best strategy. In conditions of harsh competition, Homo economicus might not prevail" ([1])

  • "We need to relearn how to accept risk, and even embrace it, as essential to human progress and our free society" ([1])

  • "Generous individuals are sometimes punished for their behavior" because they are viewed as violating social norms and making others look bad ([1])

  • "Free-to-play" games use deception to coerce people into paying, says Bruce Schneier. "Tricks include misdirection, sunk costs, withholding information, cognitive dissonance, and prospect theory." ([1] [2])

  • New York is the only place making progress toward being another Silicon Valley in the US ([1])

  • Paul Graham says, "The most important reason investors like you more when you've started to raise money is that they're bad at judging startups" ([1])

  • Paul Graham adds, "Most investors decide in the first few minutes whether you seem like a winner or a loser ... [Winners] seem formidable ... [Only] a handful of people ... are really good at seeming formidable -- some because they actually are very formidable and just let it show, and others because they are more or less con artists." ([1])

  • And some humor on what pitching to VCs is like ([1])

  • Key quote from a paper on trying to build a company of all above average people: "Strong dependence on the initial conditions; in economic terms, this means the first few hires of your start-up can have a tremendous effect!" ([1] [2])

  • Musical Turk, done by a teenager and a winning entry in Udacity's Computer Graphics class, is both very fun and very impressive ([1] [2])

  • Very nicely done geometry puzzle game, definitely worth checking out if you have kids ([1] [2])

  • Amazing TED talk, best I've seen in a while, well worth watching: "The astounding athletic power of quadcopters" ([1])

  • Unusually good mainstream press coverage of AI in this short clip from PBS titled "The Rise of Artificial Intelligence", ideal for sending to kids and family to show them what AI is ([1])

  • Autonomous fighter jets coming to a war near you ([1])

  • Jeff Bezos says he is a "genetic optimist" and that problems that appear unsolvable often just need "a lot of time, patience and experimentation" ([1])

  • Not able to compete: Target says "digital sales represented an immaterial amount of total sales" ([1])

  • Among other things, Google is very interested in conversational search (aka search-as-a-dialogue) ([1] [2])

  • On a related topic, when someone refines a search, but some of the search results would still be the same as what they just saw, should you show those? ([1] [2])

  • Another clever and unexpected use of Google Street Map data, using it to understand perceptions of urban blight ([1])

  • "Ballmer ... failed to be a great manager, or even a tolerable one" ([1] [2])

  • Old, but worth repeating: "Fewer than one in five big international mergers and takeovers add value to the combined company and more than half actually destroyed value ... The remaining 30% produced no discernible difference" ([1])

  • "Nearly everyone in the world who can afford an expensive smartphone has one already ... 'already saturated at the high end' ... 'may be becoming more like the PC industry'" ([1])

  • Jeff Bezos spent most of this summer at his hardware design group Lab126, and Sergey Brin spends most of his time at Google X ([1] [2])

  • "The device can generate a signal of its own — a signal that can be picked up by other local devices — without its own source of power, simply by reflecting [ambient] TV signals in a clever way." ([1] [2])

  • Netflix says, "Ratings aren't actually super-useful, while what you're actually playing is." ([1])

  • "Amazon's first-ever Emmy Award. A longtime pioneer in personalized recommendations technology, Amazon Instant Video is receiving the award for its development of tools and algorithms that enable customers to easily find and discover videos that cater to their tastes and preferences." ([1])

  • "Math and science majors are popular until students realize ... they're hard" ([1])

Monday, June 24, 2013

Quick links

What has caught my attention lately:
  • Lots of frequently updated, high resolution satellite images + automated object detection at massive scale = crazy cool and scary results ([1] [2] [3])

  • "Large datasets and computational challenges are cropping up in more and more domains. For example, the current modest–sized stream of genetic data is going to turn into an incredible flood because the costs of DNA sequencing are dropping exponentially. Computer systems and algorithms that can find interesting correlations in such data are going to really make important scientific discoveries." ([1] [2])

  • Combining mobile, big data, and lots of computation in the cloud to yield highly personalized experiences ([1] [2] [3] [4])

  • "The average age of a Facebook user [is] 41. The average age of a Facebook employee is 31." ([1])

  • The cheapest, happiest company in the world ([1])

  • "The traditional exit interview represents a lost opportunity" ([1] [2])

  • "Open-plan offices make employees less productive, less happy, and more likely to get sick" ([1] [2])

  • "Publishers should insist on a substantial premium for annoying advertisements" ([1] [2])

  • Mary Jo Foley: "I can't but help wonder why Microsoft -- with all its telemetry information, customer satisfaction data, and beta-testing input -- still went ahead with what its Windows execs must have known full well would be a confusing and less-than-optimal experience for many Windows users." ([1] [2] [3])

  • I was surprised by this success rate, 90% of passwords cracked using some clever heuristics and a commodity PC, including some very long and seemingly hard-to-crack ones ([1])

  • "The 'fear preacher' wins, regardless of the outcome" ([1])

  • Amazing what the new Kinect can do, worth watching this video. I thought we were a lot further away with this kind of face, expression, and gesture recognition. ([1])

  • Kinect-like gesture recognition using just the subtle changes to WiFi signals from your motion ([1])

  • Bing found that every 100ms faster they deliver search result pages yields 0.6% more in revenue ([1] [2])

  • Cute idea from Microsoft Research, an app for work that reminds you of people's names, roles, and interests when in meetings and even runs a little trivia game to help you remember some of the details ([1])

  • Recent study shows Roman concrete is superior in several ways to modern concrete, primarily because of the additional aluminum in the volcanic ash the Romans used ([1])

  • Idea in successful early trials for ending malaria by infecting mosquitoes with a mostly beneficial bacteria that most other insects already have ([1] [2])

  • Clever idea: "Many tumors only survive because they evolve the ability to tone down an immune response ... a tumor and the cells around it should be susceptible to infection by a weakened bacterial strain that the body usually clears with ease. The problem is that the bacteria were so weak, they didn't actually kill the tumor cells. To solve this, the authors just loaded the bacteria up with a radioactive isotope. That did the trick. When the bacteria invaded the tumor, they brought a radioactive payload with them, one that killed off the tumor cells." ([1] [2])

  • Brilliant, a headlight that detects rain drops and then avoids illuminating them, so it lets you see through the rain like it isn't even there ([1])

  • Redesigning a car for electric yields big usability improvements ([1] [2])

  • Surprisingly fun game and a clever use of street view data ([1])

  • Dilbert: "Leadership is the product of sociopathic tendencies plus luck" ([1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6])

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Blogging is dead, but have we fixed anything?

Google Reader is shutting down, but most people moved on long ago.

Blogging is dead. To the extent that it lives, it is dominated by professional journalists, writers backed by major organizations, or has transformed into microblogging. The original objective of an amateur form of journalism -- long articles written and published without an organization or editor -- has become archaic.

I have been writing on this blog since 2004. At its peak, this blog had about 10k regular readers. Over a decade, I have watched blogging rise and fall.

Nowadays, my posts here on this blog often get less attention that my tweets on Twitter. 140 characters that take two minutes to spew out sometimes get more attention than an article that takes four hours of thoughtful analysis, careful reading, and tight writing.

There is nothing wrong with people moving on. Professional journalists now use blogs to air early research or analysis that will later make it into a full print article. Companies use blogs to announce changes or new features. Many use microblogging as a useful means of quick communication. That is good.

But there was something charming about so many people trying to be amateur journalists. Journalistic writing is a skill; it emphasizes clear, tight, concise writing. That so many were attempting it and practicing it had a lot of value, both in the the skills bloggers gained and sometimes candid and insightful articles produced.

I find my blogging here to be too useful to me to stop doing it. I have also embraced microblogging in its many forms. Yet I am left wondering if there is something we are all missing, something shorter than blogging and longer than tweets and different than both, that would encourage thoughtful, useful, relevant mass communication.

We are still far from ideal. A few years ago, it used to be that millions of blog and press articles flew past, some of which might pile up in an RSS reader, a few of which might get read. Now, millions of tweets, thousands of Facebook posts, and millions of articles fly past, some of which might be seen in an app, a few of which might get read. Attention is random; being seen is luck of the draw. We are far from ideal.

Attention should flow to relevant and useful writing. I should see writings that are personally relevant and useful to me. When a friend does something I want to know about, when a colleague reads an article I should read too, when a company announces a useful change to a product I use, when a well-written article important for my work is published from a reputable source, when a major event occurs in the world, those should be brought to my attention.

Blogging wasn't that, but neither is microblogging. We need to build something that focuses our attention, improves our communication, and finally solves the problems blogging and microblogging failed to solve.

Monday, April 29, 2013

More quick links

Again, it has been too long, but here you go, what has caught my attention lately:
  • "Employees who ate at cafeteria tables designed for 12 were more productive than those at tables for four, thanks to more chance conversations and larger social networks. That, along with things like companywide lunch hours and the cafes Google is so fond of, can boost individual productivity by as much as 25 percent." ([1])

  • "Managers avoid dealing with low performers (because they believe the conversation will be difficult), and instead assign work to the employees they enjoy — i.e. high performers ... They end up 'burning out' those same high performers." ([1])

  • "Is it really true that using someone else's invention is the actually the same thing as stealing their sheep? If I steal your sheep, you don't have them any more. If I use your idea, you still have the idea, but are less able to profit from using it. The two concepts may be cousins, but they not identical." ([1])

  • Clever and simple idea: Attach a little flash memory and a small battery to memory chips ([1] [2])

  • Another clever and simple idea: On touchscreens (like your phone), make a knuckle or nail tap like a right mouse click so it does something different ([1] [2] [3])

  • Most data visualizations would be more clear done as a simple bar chart ([1])

  • When someone comes back to a search result page after hitting the back button, you should add more search results to the bottom of the page ([1])

  • For the first time, more smartphone ship than dumbphones, which has big implications, especially for the developing world ([1] [2])

  • You can identify people based on just four locations sampled from a mobility trace (cell towers and Wifi nearby) from their cell phone ([1])

  • "The problem is that Apple has not been able to sustain its high margin levels" ([1] [2])

  • Humor (from The Onion): Weeping Tim Cook spotted screaming for help at Steve Jobs' tombstone ([1])

  • Amazingly arrogant executive hired from Apple didn't understand customer base or think he had to, destroyed a major retailer ([1] [2])

  • Amazon moves against Google ([1] [2]) and Google moves against Amazon ([1] [2] [3] [4])

  • Very soon, only big players -- like Amazon, Facebook, and Google -- will be able to do personalized advertising. A change to third-party cookies will kill off all startups working on personalized advertising, but major websites get an exemption. ([1] [2])

  • A new compression library from Google designed for web content, can be decompressed by existing software so no changes required on the client side to use it, just need to recompress the static content on the server to save about 5% in bandwidth ([1])

  • eBay successfully moves away from auctions. "Auctions ... are less than 10% of what we do." ([1])

  • "At this point, unfortunately, it seems clear that the Windows 8 launch not only failed to provide a positive boost to the PC market, but appears to have slowed the market ... Radical changes to elements like the user interface and higher costs had made PCs less attractive compared with tablets and other devices." ([1] [2])

  • A MacBook Pro runs Windows faster than any PC laptop (but only because PCs have so much crapware installed) ([1] [2])

  • "Aereo's founders realized that [a court] ruling offered a blueprint for building [an IPTV] service that wouldn't require the permission of broadcasters. In Aereo's server rooms are row after row of tiny antennas mounted on circuit boards. When a user wants to view or record a television program, Aereo assigns him an antenna exclusively for his own use." ([1])

  • The vast majority of people have simple taxes, so simple that the IRS could just mail you a tax return, you'd look it over to make sure everything is correct and sign it, and you'd be done. Why don't we have that? Apparently, "it's been opposed for years by the company behind the most popular consumer tax software—Intuit, maker of TurboTax." ([1])

  • Why Redfin has been unable to undermine the absurdly high 6% commission when you sell your home ([1] [2])

  • "Personal finance courses ... have no effect on financial outcomes ... [but] additional training in mathematics [does]" ([1])

  • "Graduate school in the humanities: Just don't go" ([1] [2])

  • At least so far, MOOCs (like Coursera and Udacity) seem to only work for people who are already highly motivated, which isn't the group in the most need ([1])

  • Seems to be increasing evidence that some autoimmune diseases (including allergies) are rooted in a bored immune system incorrectly prioritizing threats. Almost a parallel with anxiety disorders, your immune system is seeing threats where none exist, incorrectly prioritizing dangers. ([1] [2])

  • "Deep waters have absorbed a surprising amount of heat -- and they are doing so at an increasing rate over the last decade" ([1])

  • "Resilience -- building systems able to survive unexpected and devastating attacks -- is the best answer we have right now." ([1])

  • The web-based version of blackmailing people who have done something embarrassing ([1])

  • Little known fact, the second most used web server is something called Allegro RomPager ([1] [2])

  • For most people in the US, the vast majority of entertainment time is still spent watching normal, live TV ([1])

  • Odd similarities between distributed denial of service attacks and pollution. As Ed Felten writes, misconfigured DNS servers allow massive DDoS attacks, but it's hard to get people to fix it, because "the resulting harm falls mostly on people outside the organization." ([1] [2])

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Quick links

It's been a while since I did a Quick Links post, so there's a lot to cover. Here's the latest of what has caught my attention:
  • First Netflix wanted to be Blockbuster (DVDs), then a replacement for cable (streaming video), now they want to be HBO (making content). ([1] [2] [3])

  • "For raw bandwidth, the internet will probably never beat SneakerNet" ([1])

  • Data caps are "a strategy for ISPs to increase their revenue per user ... The trend is driven in large part by a woefully uncompetitive market that allows the nation's largest providers to generate enormous profits" ([1])

  • "Maybe it will eventually dawn on [ISPs] that the only way to fight the scourge of cheap, fast broadband is to provide it themselves" ([1] [2])

  • "Too many companies think of their call centers as a cost to minimize ... it's a huge untapped opportunity ... [for] word-of-mouth marketing ... [and] to increase the lifetime value of the customer" ([1])

  • Mary Jo Foley says, "I keep scratching my head over who Microsoft expects to buy the Surface Pro" ([1])

  • "Taking the bitter pill would mean backing off the Surface idea while smoothing over the worst parts of Windows 8. Admit that being different just for the sake of being different is a losing strategy. Go back to software engineering 101. But I don't see Ballmer making that tough decision. It's just not how he rolls. Then it'll be up to the board of directors to hold him responsible when this dogmatic strategy fails." ([1])

  • "Dell outsourced the management of its supply chain, and then the design of its computers themselves. Dell essentially outsourced everything inside its personal-computer business—everything except its brand— to Asus ... Then, in 2005, Asus announced the creation of its own brand of computers. In this Greek-tragedy tale, Asus had taken everything it had learned from Dell and applied it for itself." ([1])

  • "The Dreamliner was supposed to become famous for its revolutionary design. Instead, it’s become an object lesson in how not to build an airplane" ([1] [2])

  • A deal protects Apple, Google, and a few others from being sued by Kodak's patents, but no one else. "Kodak patents may well be popping up in future patent troll suits in the future." ([1])

  • Mark Cuban says, "Dumbass patents are crushing small businesses" ([1])

  • Detailed technical discussion of the Superbowl power outage and what could have been done to prevent it ([1])

  • The book "Thinking Fast and Slow" and implications for artificial intelligence ([1])

  • "We understand the meaning of an object in terms of the meanings of other objects – other chunks of reality to which our brains have assigned certain characteristics. In the brain’s taxonomy, there are no discrete entries or 'files' – just associations that are more strongly or more weakly correlated with other associations ... Might 'meaning' itself simply be another word for 'association?'" ([1])

  • On global warming: "There is only one thing we can do: develop renewable technologies that are substantially cheaper than coal, and give these technologies to the developing countries." ([1])

  • Good summary of a Davos panel on education ([1] [2])

  • Funding at Garfield High School in Seattle is just $5,600/year/student ([1] [2])

  • Fascinating example of novel work in a field (in this case, literature) by blending it with computer science. ([1] [2] [3])

  • Companies should stop talking about "mobile", start splitting out tablets and smartphones separately. ([1])

  • People talk about tablets killing the PC, should be talking about tablets killing the e-reader ([1])

  • Clever optimization idea from Google: "sending a hedging request after a 10ms delay reduces the 99.9th-percentile latency for retrieving all 1,000 values from 1,800ms to 74ms while sending just 2% more requests." ([1] [2])

  • "Any time you access Google, you probably are in a dozen or more experiments" ([1])

  • What could we do in a distributed database if we could rely on all servers having exactly the right time? ([1] [2])

  • Spotify rediscovers what others found a decade ago, social recommendations don't work, that "no matter who you are, someone you don't know has found the coolest stuff." ([1] [2] [3])

  • "Amazon sells things to people at prices that seem impossible because it actually is impossible to make money that way .... Competition is always scary, but competition against a juggernaut that seems to have permission from its shareholders to not turn any profits is really frightening." ([1])

  • Amazon goes after personalized ads: "This platform lets the company retarget its users across the Web based on their browsing and purchase habits on Amazon’s owned-and-operated properties. That could be a game changer ... given Amazon's recommendation engine" ([1])

  • "Consumers want more targeted and humorous ads ... 67 percent of respondents would be willing to be answer a question to make their ads more personalized and enjoyable ... Consumers understand the exchange of free content for advertising, but they want to make sure their time tradeoff of watching ads also benefits them. They found coupons, contests and links as the most positive forms of engagement." ([1])

  • "Advertisements are 182 times as likely to deliver malicious content than pornography" ([1])

  • Dilbert on effective mobile advertising ([1])

  • The future of maps on smartphones: "It'll be like you're a local everywhere you go. You'll know your way through the back alleys and hutongs of Beijing, you'll know your way all around Paris even if you've never been before. Signs will seem to translate themselves for you. This kind of extra-smartness is coming to people." ([1])

  • Shocking to see Acer bragging about Google Chromebook sales while lambasting slow Windows 8 sales ([1])

  • Chromebook is the #1 selling laptop on right now, not Apple, not Microsoft's Windows 8. ([1])

  • Marissa Mayer says, "In the future, you'll be the query" ([1] [2] [3])

  • Recommendation algorithms work by finding things other people loved that you haven't found yet and bringing them to your attention. It's computers helping humans help humans. ([1])

  • A good UX can make people very forgiving of high error rates ([1] [2])

  • Stephen Wolfram says, "If heuristics are done well, with serious computation and knowledge behind them, they actually do work, and people like them very much ... So long as everything 'just works', people never think about the heuristics, never try to deconstruct them, and never notice or get confused by the lack of ultimate consistency." ([1])

  • Google discovered the optimal length of an interview loop is 4 interviews. Any more hits diminishing returns. [1])

  • "Granting mothers five months of leave doesn't cost Google any more money." ([1])

  • "Software development at Google is big and fast. The code base receives 20+ code changes per minute and 50% of the files change every month" ([1])

  • Worth knowing and understanding: Android has 42% market share of computing devices, but only generates 5% of Wikipedia's traffic ([1])

  • "Why the Google+ long game is brilliant" ([1])

  • Snarky: "The real sign of Google Apps making a big dent in the business world will be when its own hiring managers are able to stop treating Microsoft Office as the de facto standard." ([1])

  • "When everything is in flux, predicting what will be hot a year from now -- 'skating to where the puck is going to be,' to quote Steve Jobs quoting Wayne Gretzky -- becomes all but impossible. Samsung's strategy is to put a man at every spot on the ice. Be in enough places and you're bound to catch something no one was predicting -- like, for instance, the world’s bizarre love affair with phablets." ([1])

  • Much lower power consumption on GPS trails on smartphones by offloading processing to the cloud ([1])

  • Clever combination of GPS trails and a game: "The idea of cyclists recording ride data is nothing new ... What Strava did was turn ... [that] into a rigorously measured, database-matched, global community with the sudden ability to turn the most banal ride into a race ... Get that satisfaction without turning up at the starting line, in the rain, on a Saturday morning at 6 a.m." ([1])

  • Interesting theory: "I had a small epiphany. The cyclists were hated because they are [viewed as] cheats. They are getting away with something that car drivers cannot." ([1])

  • I love this idea of a bicycle frame completely covered in reflective paint ([1])

  • Out of control: "The American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI seeking details of its surveillance policy -- who it spies upon, and how, and under what circumstances. The FBI sent back two 50+ page memos in reply, each of them totally blacked out except for some information on the title page" ([1] [2])

  • On hedge funds: "The S&P 500 has now outperformed its hedge-fund rival for ten straight years, with the exception of 2008 when both fell sharply. A simple-minded investment portfolio—60% of it in shares and the rest in sovereign bonds—has delivered returns of more than 90% over the past decade, compared with a meagre 17% after fees for hedge funds (see chart). As a group, the supposed sorcerers of the financial world have returned less than inflation. Gallingly, the profits passed on to their investors are almost certainly lower than the fees creamed off by the managers themselves." [1])

  • Appears both Vikings and Polynesians reached the Americas around 1000, well before Christopher Columbus ([1] [2])

  • The weight of glaciers during ice ages might cause an increase in volcanic eruptions ([1])

  • Moderate amounts of play of first person shooters (and similar action games) improve vision, attention, and spatial skills ([1])

  • Randall Munroe (author of xkcd): "I've never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive." ([1])

  • An art project with a visible pile of pennies and a crank, that "allows anyone to work for minimum wage for as long as they like." Absolutely brilliant. ([1])

Monday, January 07, 2013

Kids, programming, and doing more

I built Code Monster and Code Maven to get more kids interested in programming. Why is programming important?

Computers are a powerful tool. They let you do things that would be hard or impossible without them.

Trying to find a name that might be misspelled in a million names would take weeks to do by hand, but takes mere moments with a computer program. Computers can run calculations and transformations of data in seconds that would be impossible to do yourself in any amount of time. People can only keep about seven things in their mind at once; computers excel at looking at millions of pieces of data and discovering correlations in them.

Being able to fully use a computer requires programming. If you can program, you can do things others can't. You can do things faster, you can do things that otherwise would be impossible. You are more powerful.

Looking two decades out, when my kids are grown and well into their careers, I expect people who can fully use computers will have a major force multiplier. A blend of computer science and another field -- medicine, microbiology, genetics, economics, astronomy, journalism, business, almost anything -- will enable you to do things others in that field can't.

Already you can see this. Breakthroughs in genetics came from a collaboration between computer science and geneticists working to create new algorithms for massive scale approximate string matching. During the 2012 elections, Nate Silver redefined what it meant to be a journalist (and attracted huge amounts of traffic) by combining computing and large amounts of polling data in a new way. Astronomy is becoming a field of big data, computers analyzing huge amounts of data from a worldwide network of telescopes, pulling out promising patterns, then having humans look over the candidates to find new discoveries. Robotic probes and the massive data streams they produce are not only taking over space exploration, but also making inroads on sea exploration, marine biology, and climatology as well. Already, if you can program, you can do things others cannot, find things others cannot.

Over the coming years, the collaboration between computers and machine is only going to grow. Computers will do what they are good at, large scale data processing, computation, and analysis. Humans will do what they are good at, finding patterns, intuiting promising paths forward despite noise and missing data, and collaborative problem solving. Those who can fully use computers, and especially those who can program computers, will be more productive. Computers are a powerful tool for those who can wield it.

Sadly, many kids today think of programming as hard. As not fun. As not for them. The problem is particularly acute for girls, leading to the awful fact that only 14% of the computer science degrees in the US are awarded to women. So many kids not getting a chance to get excited about programming is not just unfortunate, it's deeply harmful, for their future and for ours.

Code Monster and Code Maven from Crunchzilla are designed to make programming easy. Make it fun. Make programming for everyone. In the couple months since launch, they have been used in schools and been getting rave reviews from both girls and boys. One girl "got totally into it" and "when she came up for air", she asked her parents, "Are there jobs you can get working with computers?" And a teacher who used this in a school told me, "A couple 6th grade girls who were not interested in programmers tore through Code Monster then started on Code Academy. It was unexpected and cool!"

If you get a chance to try your children on Code Monster or Code Maven, or you use either in a school, please let me know what you think.