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Geeking with Greg


  • Code Monster from Crunchzilla is now open source
    Code Monster from Crunchzilla is now open source, free to use and modify.

    Code Monster is a tutorial that has been used by hundreds of thousands of children around the world to learn a little about programming. It's a series of short lessons where each lesson involves reading and modifying a small amount of code. Changes to the code show up instantly, students learning by example and by doing.

    The lessons content for Code Monster from Crunchzilla is in a JSON file that can be modified fairly easily to create your own content. By open sourcing Code Monster from Crunchzilla, I hope three things might happen:
    1. Translations. Taking the current content and translating into languages other than English for use in more classrooms around the world.

    2. New lessons and new content. By adding new messages and example code to the JSON lessons file, new tutorials could be created for teaching programming games, working through puzzles or math problems, or perhaps a more traditional computer science curriculum aligned with a particular lesson plan.

    3. Entirely new tutorials. Some ideas and techniques used by Code Monster, such as how Code Monster provides informative error messages, how it does live code, or how it avoids infinite loops in students' code, might be useful for others creating web-based coding environments.
    Code Monster from Crunchzilla has been used in computer labs and classrooms around the world. One of the most common requests is translations into languages other than English. Now that the code is open source, I hope that makes it easier for translated and modified versions to get in front of even more children.

    If you use the code for anything that helps children learn computer programming, I'd love to hear about it (please post a comment here or e-mail me at greg@crunchzilla.com).

  • Quick links
    What has caught my attention lately:
    • "We simply don't know how to securely engineer anything but the simplest of systems" ([1])

    • Impressive at their scale: "Facebook ... releases software ... three times a day" and makes configuration changes "thousands of times a day... every single engineer can make live configuration changes." ([1]) 

    • Pew Research report on global internet and smartphone usage ([1])

    • Cute idea for telepresence: "We propose projecting [2D] virtual copies of people directly onto (potentially irregular) surfaces in the physical environment" ([1])

    • For those of us tracking virtual reality, a detailed review of the Oculus Rift ([1]), a review of Hololens ([2]), and a fun TED talk motivating augmented and virtual reality ([3])

    • For disk to be the new tape "custom disk designs uniquely targeting cold storage" are required that are "much larger, slower, more power efficient and less expensive." ([1]) Related, Google seeks new disk designs ([2])

    • Lessons from building AWS, including automate everything and favor primitives over frameworks ([1])

    • In the AWS service terms: "However, this restriction will not apply ... [when] human corpses to reanimate and seek to consume living human flesh, blood, brain or nerve tissue." ([1])

    • Google says, "With multi-homing ... failover, recovery, and dealing with inconsistency ... are solved by the infrastructure, so the application developer gets high availability and consistency for free and can focus instead on building their application" ([1] [2])

    • Remarkably successful contest: "The winning team exceeded the power density goal for the competition by a factor of 3 ... Some of us at Google didn’t think such audacious goals could be achieved." ([1])

    • "Welcome to the Internet of Things... and its tradeoffs" ([1] [2] [3])

    • Netflix's catalog has dropped to 5,532 titles from 8,103 titles in about two years ([1] [2])

    • "The James Webb Space Telescope will be a major advance ... primary mirror will be 50 times [larger] ... eight times the resolution" ([1])

    • "The price of planetary insurance, it turns out, isn’t all that high." ([1] [2])

    • Teaching math: "In most people’s everyday lives ... what [people] do need is to be comfortable reading graphs and charts and adept at calculating simple figures in their heads ... Decimals and ratios are now as crucial as nouns and verbs." ([1])

    • He's the "‘seagull of science.’ He used to fly in, squawk, crap over everything, and fly away." ([1])

    • Good answer to the question, "What are the most important things for building an effective engineering team?" ([1]) Related, similar advice from Amit Singh ([2] [3])

    • An old Amazon.com office map from early 1997 (back when Amazon only sold books, "Earth's Biggest Bookstore"). My "office" was a card table in a kitchen. ([1])

    • What If comic: What would happen if you tried to squeeze all the water going over Niagara Falls into a straw? It's worse than you'd think. ([1])

    • Xkcd comic on bots: ""Python flag: Enable three laws" ([1])

    • Good Xkcd comic on Celsius or Fahrenheit ([1])

    • SMBC comic: "Philosophy tip: Make any sentence profound by adding 'true' to it" ([1])

    • Dilbert comic: "No need for conversation. I know everything about you." ([1])

    • Comic with a Calvin and Hobbes crossover into Bloom County, brings back memories ([1])


  • Virtual reality hitting the mainstream: The next $100 bet
    Virtual reality is hot again, with dedicated hardware headsets launching from multiple manufacturers intended for general use.

    The world is substantially different than the last time this happened. In particular, there's more computing power available in our smartphones than the most powerful graphics workstations had back in the 1990s. Google Cardboard and others take advantage of that, using a smartphone and little else for a quick-and-dirty virtual reality experience.

    But, for a product to appeal to a broad market -- to get beyond early adopters with disposable income seeking to show something cool to friends a couple times -- it needs to survive the harsh judgement of busy people. It isn't enough for virtual reality on expensive dedicated hardware to mostly work. The experience will have to wow repeatedly at a price people like.

    So, Daniel and I have another bet: "Virtual reality hardware (not counting cardboard) will not sell more than 10M units/year worldwide before March 2019." I'm saying it won't. Daniel says it will. Loser donates $100 to the winner's choice of charity.

    Daniel already posted his side of the bet. In brief, he thinks three years will be enough time for someone to get it right.

    I think that mainstream adoption of dedicated hardware for virtual reality requires breakthroughs in usability and price that are too difficult to achieve in the three year time frame. The experience just isn't good enough yet for it to be anything other than a toy for early adopters. Current virtual reality hardware is bulky, expensive, not fully immersive, and not addictive or compelling beyond the initial wow. I expect even the next generation will just be a niche market (low million units per year) until we see major developments on price, form factor, and quality of the experience.

    There are several wild cards here. For example, it is possible that much cheaper units can be made to work. It's possible that someone discovers very carefully chosen environments and software tricks fool the brain into fully accepting the virtual reality, especially for gaming, increasing the appeal and making it a must-have experience for a lot of people. As unsavory as it is, pornography is often a wild card with new technology, potentially driving adoption in ways that can determine winners and losers. A breakthrough in display (such as retinal displays) might allow virtual reality hardware that is much cheaper and lighter. Business use is another unknown where virtual reality could provide a large cost savings over physical presence. I do think there are many ways in which I could lose this bet.

    Like Daniel, I'll add some constraints to make my side of the bet even harder. I'd be surprised if dedicated virtual reality hardware sells more than 10M total over all three years. I'd also be surprised if virtual reality using smartphones (like Google Cardboard) goes beyond a toy, so, is used regularly by tens of millions for gaming, education, or virtual tourism.

    And, like Daniel, I expect virtual reality to be big eventually, am frustrated by our current computing limitations, and think we should work to have much better from our computing devices today.

  • Tablets replacing PCs: Resolving the $100 bet
    In 2012, Professor Daniel Lemire and I bet $100 over the question of whether tablets would replace PCs.

    Specifically, the bet was, "In some quarter of 2015, the unit sales of tablets will be at least twice the unit sales of traditional PCs, in the USA." Loser donates $100 USD to the charity of the winner's choice.

    It's 2016, and tablet sales went far higher than I ever expected, approaching PC sales, roughly 60M/year units for both tablets and PCs in the US. But tablet sales seem to have peaked, with Q4 2015 unit sales worldwide actually 14% lower than the previous year, which is worse than the 8% decline in PC sales.

    There are other surprises. One of my concerns was that a very cheap tablet would dominate the market, and Amazon did come out with a $50 tablet that got relatively good reviews and nearly tripled Amazon's market share on tablets. There hasn't been enough time yet to see what happens with very cheap tablets, but tablets this cheap are a different category than the tablets that were around in 2012.

    Another concern at the time was hybrid tablets, so tablets with detachable keyboards that function a lot like laptops, and whether they'd blur the line between PC and tablet. Hybrid tablets have done very well -- a major category in tablets -- and look likely to continue to grow over time.

    The last concern at the time was whether tablets could thrive despite the pressure from increasingly larger and more powerful mobile phones. That seems to have been the biggest issue. Phablets are getting as large as early tablets, and tablets that try to be much bigger than a smartphone proved too unwieldy and sold poorly. After all, who needs a tablet when you've got a mobile that's almost as large?

    The broader question in the bet was whether people would stop using PCs. PC sales have been in decline, though the pace of that decline has slowed recently. What seems to be happening is that people are continuing to use multiple devices, which was a visible trend back in 2012.

    A phone is great when you want to do something quickly on the run. A bigger screen is good when you need to do a lot of reading. A keyboard, mouse, and large screen become useful when you're producing instead of consuming. If you need to do all of these, there's no reason to only have a phone, only a tablet, or only a PC. Instead, people often have all three and more.

    Even though I technically won this bet, I want to congratulate Daniel Lemire on this getting much closer than I ever expected. I also admire the bravery he had to take the bet, especially with such favorable terms, and appreciate what I learned from this. The terms were that the loser donate $100 to the charity of the winner's choice, and I'd like to match the donation. Daniel and I will both be donating $100 to the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia.

    Update: Daniel's post is up: "Lost my bet: the PC isn't dead... yet".

  • Quick links
    What caught my attention recently:
    • "Big ideas emerge from spills, crashes, failed experiments and blind stabs .... As people dredge the unknown, they are engaging in a highly creative act .... the habits that transform a mistake into a breakthrough" ([1])

    • Lots of details on recommendations, personalization, and experimentation at Netflix in a new ACM paper ([1])

    • Fun and interesting Slate article on how Facebook selects posts for the news feed ([1])

    • New paper claims the filter bubble for news is much stronger in what people self-select and on social media than in search and recommendations ([1])

    • "Bayesian program learning (BPL) framework, capable of learning a large class of visual concepts from just a single example and generalizing in ways that are mostly indistinguishable from people" ([1] [2] [3])

    • NIPS 2015 paper on problems that accumulate in machine learning systems, such as dependencies between features, dependencies between models that build off each other, and complicated and fragile data preprocessing ([1])

    • "Should they teach [self-driving] cars how to commit infractions from time to time to stay out of trouble?" ([1])

    • Wal-mart is doing poorly against Amazon, which is surprising, I think ([1])

    • Good article on product management. I particularly like the points that most products fail (so you should expect to experiment, adapt, and iterate) and that a good product is about experiences not features ([1])

    • "People keep mentioning how different things are to the period just before the AI winter" ([1])

    • "Smartwatches still have a long way to go in terms of proving their usefulness, necessity, and style" ([1])

    • "CYA security: given the choice between overreacting to a threat and wasting everyone's time, and underreacting and potentially losing your job, it's easy to overreact." ([1])

    • A new $7M XPrize for autonomous undersea drones ([1] [2])

    • Simulating the World in Emoji is a very fun educational simulation, similar to the Artificial Life work a while back, great for kids ([1])

    • From the Exploratorium Museum, a demo of how wave motion arises from swirling smaller movements in water ([1])

    • Dilbert comic on tech jargon ([1])

    • Pearls Before Swine comic on clickthrough agreements ([1])

    • SMBC comic: "Update 9.1.2.001.241 has been a test of your loyalty." ([1])


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