Aug 09

Don’t Always Do Your Best

I remember how my great-uncle Jerry
would sit on the porch and whittle
all day long.  Once he whittled me
a toy boat out of a larger toy boat
I had.  It was almost as good as the
first one, except now it had bumpy
whittle marks all over it. And no paint,
because he had whittled off the paint.
-Jack Handey

This idea–hilarious though it may be–is not such a terrible one.  Intel for example manufactured their Core 2 Solo processors by starting with a Core 2 Duo and disabling one of the 2 cores. Intentionally creating an inferior product to be sold at a lower price despite the fact that it cost them the same amount–more even if we consider the cost of disabling a core. However this seemingly paradoxical move actually makes perfect sense. By mutilating their product Intel gains something to sell to the segment for whom the Duo is too pricey. And it’s actually the best way to do it. The variable cost of the manufacturing process itself is negligible compared to the fixed cost of designing the chip before hand. Designing a new chip from the ground up to be a single core version of the Duo would double that design cost.  So with this simple little hack, they get to take full advantage of their prior research.

What’s so intriguing about this is that Intel could provide their Solo customers with the better product at the same cost. Which isolated seems like a no-brainer, you should do your best for your customers right? But to do so would undermine the sales of their pricier version, clearly not an option. So they swallowed their pride and did less than their best allowing them to cash in on a market they would otherwise have skipped over.

Aug 09

The Netflix Zen Master

I’ve always been a huge admirer of screamingly efficient systems. Participating in such system is more pleasurable still. This is part of why I enjoy my Netflix service so much: I get to feel like I’m part of the team. I don’t keep DVDs for weeks at a time without watching them or hold on to them after I’m done so that someone else can see them; because then the system grinds to a halt. And we can’t have that. That would be letting the team down. I prided myself on this, even kidded myself that perhaps workers at my shipping center talked about me in the lounge. All this was before I met The Netflix Zen Master, and learned what efficiency really was.

I was awoken by the sound of a man tearing down a hallway in thong slippers that slapped against the soles of his feet. From a brief shout to his wife I discerned the cause of the commotion: the mail had arrived. I barely rolled off the couch in time to see him race back down the hallway with 4 Netflix cover slips flapping in his wake. I followed him to a room where he already had each disc whirring away in  separate computers. When the rips finished he quickly collected the disks and loaded them side by side into a scanner, capturing the cover-art in one fell swoop. Then without a word he was gone. At the risk of destroying the beautiful dance, I followed him. He’d run out to the garage and already had the car running, a solemn nod indicated that I could come.

We sped down the road until our target became apparent: the mail truck. We quickly overtook it along the straightaway and pulled in a few houses ahead of it to drop the packages in a neighbor’s mailbox. We had done the impossible: gotten his DVDs and sent them back on the very same truck that had brought them in. That night I admired the product of his labor: 5 large binders filled with what he claimed to be 10,000 different titles all with beautiful cover-art. “10,000 films and nothing to watch” he said. Talking with him it became clear that he hardly liked movies at all.

In the interest of making this post about Internet business, I’d like to suggest that Netflix actually implement this competition as part of its service. Keeping a running scoreboard of the most efficient users, this would add an entirely new dimension to the service and would yield a great deal of publicity along the way. Now this really wouldn’t be too hard, in fact it already exists here and I can’t imagine it would be too pricey of an acquisition. You can be darn sure that if they offered me an “I’m the nth most efficient Netflix user” widget, then that would be going on my front page, and I would let it link to whatever they wanted it to. Free advertisement compliments of my competitive nature.

Aug 09

Is Google Voice Sweet?

I was lucky enough to get in to the Google Voice beta a few weeks ago and have been playing around with it on an Android powered phone since then. I thought I’d share my initial thoughts on the service.

The Backend:

Everything certainly works, however there’s noticeable unreliability. Calls for example have a bad habit of inexplicably failing to connect. For the first week this unreliability, coupled with the fact that switching whether or not outbound calls were placed through Google Voice was hidden beneath 3 layers of menus, meant that I just didn’t place any calls using the service. At this point that UI problem has been fixed but outbound calling still falls flat quite frequently. The SMS functionality has thus far proven more reliable having only faltered once (that I’ve noticed) when it delivered a text (inbound) around 20 minutes late.

Inbound calls show up in caller ID with the true phone number, and use the phone service, not the data service. Texts on the other hand are forwarded to the phone as messages from random numbers in Montana (406), with the contact’s name appended to the front. These random numbers can be responded to directly. These numbers also appear to be persistent, that is people always have the same Montana number when they text me. Finally if someone else using Google Voice texts you the text will come from their Google Voice number. Texts are also delivered via data plan and pop up in the app’s inbox which is pretty nice because it means redundancy.

The Frontend:

There are really two frontends the online interface and the Android app. The online interface is really just GMail, which is to say it’s very polished and usable. It’s clearly only a matter of time until GMail’s “conversation” is extended to include phone calls and texts as well as emails and chats. The Android app is another story all together. As mentioned before, in the beginning the process of toggling whether or not calls where placed through Google Voice was needlessly painful, this has since been fixed with a little hack that prompts you before each call (you can also still set a default) which really makes the service a lot more usable. In the future hopefully it’ll be smart enough to just use whichever one works. Other than that the interface gets the job done but is by no means polished. The messaging interface is right now strictly inferior to the native Messaging app, which leaves me a bit torn about which one to use each time I want to send a text. The Google Voice is inferior but is also free. It feels like I’m splurging when I use the nice interface.


One thing I’d really like them to fix is the darned Montana numbers and I don’t think it’d be too hard to do it either. Right now threads in the native Messaging app just pull the number the texts are from, look through my contacts for a match and if they find one, that name appears instead of the number. Of course the Montana numbers aren’t my contacts actual numbers so I don’t have them. However since my phone’s contacts are synced with my Google contacts, and the number’s are persistant, why don’t they just add that number into the contact information for me. It’s not sexy, and wouldn’t extend to Blackberries or iPhones, but can’t imagine it would take that long to implement either.

Final Thoughts:

Considering the service is still in beta it’s really quite solid. However they really need to have an absolutely screaming backend for the service to work. Telephony and SMS are what I’ve come to think of as the instantanous forms of communication and I seriously doubt people are going to be willing to adopt the service if it means even the slightest slowdown. By and large the app problems are fairly minor and will probably start dissappearing rapidly. Finally, Google recently offered users free business cards (25 of ‘em) from iPrint to show off their shiny new Google Voice phone numbers, a charmingly classy advertisement.

Jul 09

How Physicists Build a Bridge

Imagine the following, you have a room, twenty stories high and 50 feet across. You want to hang a Foucault Pendulum in this room. Here’s the catch: the ceiling is made of glass and can’t support the pendulum. The only way to hang it is with a cable that traverses the gap between the walls. Now we do have a little something to work with, on the other side of the walls are banks of offices from floors 1 to 20. Furthermore these offices have windows opening on to the room.

This is the situation physicists at Fermilab found themselves in when they wanted to hang a pendulum in Wilson Hall [ picture ]. Now they could call in a construction crew, build scaffolding up twenty stories and just connect the cable like that. Not pretty but it would get the job done. However they wanted something pretty. Firstly, things are a little easier. We don’t actually need to get the heavy duty cable across to begin with, we can start with a lightweight string, and use that to pull across increasingly heavy cables. The Niagara Falls Bridge for example started when a young boy flew a kite across the falls.

Unfortunately  kites don’t work inside. Well maybe we could have someone throw a baseball across the gap with the string pinned to it. Maybe but the physicists were more inspired by the 0 brawn approach: two people go up to 20th story offices, each with a ball of string. They drop the balls (holding on to an end) all the way down to the ground 20 stories below.  A third guy ties the ends together. Wind the string up. voila, we have our bridge.

Jul 09

What You Learned About How Asparagus Works Was Probably Wrong

It’s a small quirk of human metabolism that Asparagus makes our urine smell. Due to some research in the 80s we’re now pretty darn sure that the smell is caused by a triage of sulfur containing alkyl compounds citation. But a few decades before scientists pulled out the big guns and nailed down exactly what was causing this phenomenon, they looked at the much simpler question: “Who makes smelly urine?” Observations of the day held that many people met tales of Asparagus Urine with vacant stares, and a few studies revealed that the percentage of people making smelly urine was in the low 40s citation . (This study was done in The UK and would probably yield very different results in other countries.)

So the scientists concluded, this is a polymorphism, different phenotypes existing in the same population. Some people’s digestive tracks produce the malodorous compounds, and some don’t. Simple enough right? I’ve been told they even managed to find the corresponding genotypes, and the correlation they had was great. I heard it got as far as children’s textbooks, before someone pointed out a tiny flaw in the experiment.

The experimenters had been a bit shy in their work. They’d fed people asparagus and asked: “Now does your pee smell?” when they should have asked the more risque: “Does his pee smell?” Had they asked the latter they would have found that ≈40% of people said yes all the time, and  ≈60% said no all the time. Because it turns out that everyone digests asparagus the same way and outputs the same urine, it’s just that not everyone can smell it.

…transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume -Marcel Proust

This post was inspired by an old Daniel Miessler post which surfaced yesterday on Hacker News entitled “ Why Planes Fly: What They Taught You In School Was Wrong .”

Jul 09

The Salesman Edward J. Smith

I ran into a representative of The New York Times the other day at lunch. “Holy guacamole.” he said to me from the next table. As he did he put down an archaic looking cellphone signaling to the rest of the cafe that it was okay to start talking again. He immediately began explaining to me that he was in town on business, “We’re seeing if we can’t move papers here (Hyde Park, Chicago). Try to get a few professors to use them in their classes. Have you ever read The Times?”

“Of course, but online.” I said. “I understand that you guys are in trouble these days.”

“Right now our readership is actually going up” he responded “As the smaller papers go out of business their readers become ours. We’re picking up 120,000 subscriptions at a time. But yeah we’re in trouble, this must have been how Edward J. Smith felt.” (I had to look it up too, he was the captain of the Titanic.) “I don’t understand why we’re in trouble, people like to read, you like to read, can you honestly say you do all your reading online?”

Yes I can say that (and I did) . Amongst our generation there’s no question of competition between print and screen. I do everything on my computer and the ease of opening a new tab is something that print will never match. But a sheaf of print was never The Times real product–print simply used to be the cheapest medium for delivering content. These days The Internet is that medium and I think The Times has embraced this (although apparently our guy hasn’t). In fact, their site is a savvy piece of work. But I felt the need to press him further: “What do you guys think about reddit?”

He’d never heard of reddit, and I was appalled, it was like a Coca-Cola employee not having heard of Pepsi. I obligingly explained, trying to conceal my pride at my generations elegant solution. The Time’s content could never beat reddit’s, because reddit’s content included The Time’s, it was a simple subset argument. Finally we got to the question: “So what’s reddit got that we don’t?” Aha, I knew this one cold, reddit’s got its community, its chaotic masses that somehow always float the most interesting bits of The Internet to the top of the home page and have collectively consumed every scrap of sci fi in existence. The New York Times might create brilliant content, but reddit facilitates its consumption and the former, by itself isn’t a business model anymore. Not on the scale The Times needs it to be. This is reddit’s edge.

But it isn’t. The New York Times is pulling in 15 million unique visitors a month (according to compete.com) and reddit’s community won’t beat The Time’s. Anyone who’s anyone reads it. Winston Churchill read it. Try to imagine what his karma would have looked like. The problem is, right now they’re doing nothing to leverage this community, and this is the final nail for print. They don’t need to convince us to read their paper’s or use it in our classes, we already do that, they need to convince us to pay for it. The Times is planning to finally cut off free access and try to sell subscriptions to its online content. If this happens it will be the end of my readership. But if they offer me the option of interacting with their other readers (their staff would be cool as well), who share my interests and have worthwhile opinions, then I’m in. I’m in for double what they’re thinking about asking right now.