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Newsfeeds from around the industry
Geeking with Greg


  • Quick links
    What has caught my attention recently:
    • Netflix says the value of its recommendations algorithms is $500M/year ([1])

    • Details on the internals of LinkedIn's recommender system ([1])

    • Fantastic list of some hard and interesting big data problems at Facebook ([1] [2])

    • Google Glass may target "'superhero vision', like seeing in the dark, or magnifying subtle motion or changes" ([1] [2])

    • A claim that Amazon's cloud revenue is $4.7B this year, supposedly x30 bigger than Microsoft ($156M) and x70 Google's ($66M) ([1])

    • "We have a 10 petabyte data warehouse on S3" ([1])

    • Google's Eric Schmidt says, "Our biggest search competitor is Amazon" ([1])

    • Apple was and still is almost entirely an iPhone company ([1])

    • Tablet sales are projected to be flat now, and the growth boom for tablets appears to be done ([1])

    • But, it's interesting that specialized, expensive, and often poorly done custom hardware is getting replaced with a cheap touchscreen tablet ([1])

    • So far, it doesn't look like Windows 10 is going to fix what was wrong with Windows 8 ([1])

    • What? "Microsoft loves Linux" ([1] [2])

    • Delivery startups are back: "Silicon Valley wants to save you from ever having to leave your couch. Will it work this time around?" ([1])

    • Despite the difficulty older adults have with tiny mobile keyboards, older adults and seniors don't use voice search much ([1])

    • Speculation that hardware to enable gesture control on mobile phones will be widespread on new phones next year ([1])

    • A claim that "solar will soon reach price parity with conventional electricity in well over half the nation: 36 states" ([1])

    • "HP’s Multi Jet Fusion printer can crank out objects 10 times faster than any machine that’s on the market today ... 3D print heads that can operate 10,000 nozzles at once, while tracking designs to a five-micron precision." ([1] [2])

    • Is biology about to be transformed by the use of many drones to gather lots of data? ([1] [2])

    • More evidence that some of the best innovations come from combining ideas from two very separate fields ([1])

    • "Every success in AI redefines it. But we haven't just been redefining what we mean by AI-we've been redefining what it means to be human [and intelligent]." ([1])

    • "China is merely regaining a title that it has held for much of recorded history" ([1])

    • Funny Dilbert comic on multitasking and checking e-mail too often ([1])

    • The Onion: "This already vanishing glimmer of pleasure is exactly what we've come to expect from Apple" ([1])

    • Great SMBC comic: "The humans aren't doing what the math says. The humans must be broken." ([1])


  • At what point is an over-the-air TV antenna too long to be legal?
    You can get over-the-air HDTV signals using an antenna. This antenna gets a better, stronger signal with less interference if it is direct line-of-sight and as near as possible to the broadcast towers. So, you might want an antenna that is up high or even some distance away to get the best signal.

    But if you try to do this, you immediately run into a question: At what point does that antenna become too long to be legal or the signal from the antenna is transmitted in a way where it is no longer legal?

    Let's say I put an antenna behind my TV hooked up with a wire. That's obviously legal and what many people currently do.

    Let's say I put an antenna outside on top of a tree or my garage and run a wire inside. Still seems obviously legal.

    Let's say I put an antenna on top of my roof. Still clearly fine.

    Let's say I put it on my neighbor's roof and run a wire to my TV. Still ok?

    Let's say I put the antenna on my neighbor's roof, but have the antenna connect to my WiFi network and transmit the signal using my local area network instead of using a direct wired cable connection. Still ok?

    Let's say I put the antenna on my neighbor's roof, but have the antenna connect to my neighbor's WiFi network and transmit the signal over their WiFi, over the internet, then to my WiFi, instead of using a direct wired cable connection. Still ok?

    Let's say I put my antenna on my neighbor's roof, but my neighbor won't do this for free. I have to pay a small amount of rent to my neighbor for the space on his roof used by my antenna. I also have the antenna connect to my neighbor's WiFi network and transmit its signal over their WiFi, over the internet, then to my WiFi, instead of using a direct wired cable connection. Still ok?

    Let's say, like before, I put my antenna on my neighbor's roof, pay the neighbor rent for the space on his roof, use the internet to transmit the antenna's signal. But, this time, I buy the antenna from my neighbor at the beginning (and, like before, I own it now). Is that okay?

    Let's say I put my antenna on my neighbor's roof, pay the neighbor rent for the space on his roof, use the internet to transmit the antenna's signal, but now I rent or lease the antenna from my neighbor. Still ok? If this is not ok, which part is not ok? Is it suddenly ok if I replace the internet connection with a direct microwave relay or hardwired connection?

    Let's say I do all of the last one, but use a neighbor's roof three houses away. Still ok?

    Let's say I do all of the last one, but use a roof on a building five blocks away. Still ok?

    Let's say I rent an antenna on top of a skyscraper in downtown Seattle and have the signal sent to me over the internet. Not ok?

    The Supreme Court recently ruled Aereo is illegal. Aereo put small antennas in a building and rented them to people. The only thing they did beyond the last thing above is time-shifting, so they would not necessary send the signal from the antenna immediately, but instead store it, and only transmit it when demanded.

    You might think it's the time shifting that's the problem, but that didn't seem to be what the Supreme Court said. Rather, they said the intent of the 1976 amendments to US copyright law prohibit community antennas (which is one antenna that sends its signal to multiple homes), labelling those a "public performance". They said Aereo's system was similar in function to a community antenna, despite actually having multiple antennas, and violated the intent of the 1976 law.

    So, the question is, where is the line? Where does my antenna become too distant, transmit using the wrong methods, or involve too many payments to third parties in the operation of the antenna that it becomes illegal? Can it not be longer than X meters? Not transmit its signal in particular ways? Not require rent for the equipment or space on which the antenna sits? Not store the signal at the antenna and transmit it only on demand? What is the line?

    I think this question is interesting for two reasons. First, as an individual, I would love to have a personal-use over-the-air HDTV antenna that gets a much better reception than the obstructed and inefficient placement behind my TV, but I don't know at what point it becomes illegal for me to place an antenna far away from the TV. Second, I suspect many others would like a better signal from their HDTV antenna too, and I'd love to see a startup (or any group) that helped people set up these antennas, but it is very unclear what it might be legal for a startup to do.

    Thoughts?

  • Why can't I buy a solar panel somewhere else in the US and get a credit for the electricity from it?
    Seattle City Light has a clever project where, instead of installing solar panels on your house where they might be obscured by trees or buildings, you can buy into a solar panel installation on top of a building in a more efficient location and get a credit for the electricity generated on your electric bill.

    Why stop there? Why can't I buy a solar panel in a very different location and get the electricity from it?

    Phoenix, Arizona has about twice the solar energy efficiency of Seattle. Why can't I buy a solar panel and enjoy the electricity credit from that solar panel when it is installed in a nice sunny spot in the Southwest?

    This doesn't require shipping the actual electricity to your home. Instead, you fund an installation of solar panels on top of a building in an area of the US with high solar energy efficiency, then get a credit for that electricity on your monthly electricity bill.

    I suppose, at some boring financing level, this starts to resemble a corporate bond, with an initial payment yielding a stream of payments over time, but people wouldn't see it that way. The attraction would be installing solar panels and getting a credit on your energy bill without installing solar panels on your own home. Perhaps the firm arranging the installations and working out the deals with local utilities could be treating the entire thing as the equivalent of marketing bonds to people who like solar energy, but the attraction to people is that visceral appeal of a near $0 electricity bill they see every month from the solar panels they feel like they own and installed.

    Even with the overhead pulled out by the company selling this and arranging deals with local utilities so this all appears on your local electricity bill, the credit on your electricity bill still should be much higher than you could possibly get installing panels on your own home with all its obstructions and cloudy weather. Solar generation in an ideal location in the US easily can generate twice as much power as what is available locally, on your rooftop.

    So, why hasn't someone done this? Why can't I buy solar panels and have them installed not on my own home, but in some much better spot?

  • Quick links
    What caught my attention lately:
    • 12% of Harvard is enrolled in CS 50: "In pretty much every area of study, computational methods and computational thinking are going to be important to the future" ([1])

    • Excellent "What If?" nicely shows the value of back-of-the-envelope calculations and re-thinking what exactly it is you want to do ([1])

    • The US has almost no competition, only local monopolies, for high speed internet ([1] [2])

    • You can't take two large, dysfunctional, underperforming organizations, mash them together, and somehow make diamonds. When you take two big messes and put them together, you just get a bigger mess. ([1])

    • "Yahoo was started nearly 20 years ago as a directory of websites ... At the end of 2014, we will retire the Yahoo Directory." ([1] [2])

    • Investors think that Yahoo is essentially worthless ([1])

    • "At a moment when excitement about the future of robotics seems to have reached an all-time high (just ask Google and Amazon), Microsoft has given up on robots" ([1])

    • "Firing a bunch of tremendously smart and creative people seems misguided. But hey—at least they own Minecraft!" ([1])

    • "Macs still work basically the same way they did a decade ago, but iPhones and iPads have an interface that's specifically designed for multi-touch screens" ([1] [2])

    • On the difficulty of doing startups ([1] [2])

    • "Be glad some other sucker is fueling the venture capital fire" ([1])

    • "Just how antiquated the U.S. payments system has become" ([1])

    • Is everyone grabbing money from online donations to charities? Visa's charge fee on charities is only 1.35%, but the lowest online payment system for charities charges 2.2% and most charge much more than that. ([1])

    • "For most people, the risk of data loss is greater than the risk of data theft" ([1])

    • Password recovery "security questions should go away altogether. They're so dangerous that many security experts recommend filling in random gibberish instead of real answers" ([1])

    • Brilliantly done, free, open source, web-based puzzle game with wonderfully dark humor about ubiquitous surveillance ([1])

    • How Udacity does those cool transparent hands in its videos ([1])

    • There's just a bit of interference when you move your hand above the phone, just enough interference to detect gestures without using any additional power or sensors ([1] [2])

    • Small, low power wireless devices powered by very small fluctuations in temperature ([1] [2])

    • Cute intuitive interface for transferring data between PC and mobile ([1] [2])

    • "Federal funding for biomedical research [down 20%] ... forcing some people out of science altogether" ([1])

    • Another fun example of virtual tourism ([1])

    • Ig Nobel Prizes: "Dogs prefer to align themselves to the Earth's north-south magnetic field while urinating and defecating" ([1])

    • Xkcd: "In CS, it can be hard to explain the difference between the easy and the virtually impossible" ([1] [2])

    • Dilbert: "That process sounds like a steaming pile of stupidity that will beat itself to death in a few years" ([1])

    • Dilbert on one way to do job interviews ([1])

    • The Onion: "Startup Very Casual About Dress Code, Benefits" ([1])

    • Hilarious South Park episode, "Go Fund Yourself", makes fun of startups ([1])


  • The problem with personalized education
    Personalized education has had some spectacular failures lately, in large part due to how tone-deaf the backers have been to the needs of teachers, parents, and students.

    The right way to do personalization is to prove you're useful first. Personalization is just a tool. If a new tool doesn't work better than the old tool, it's useless. There's no reason to use personalized education unless it works better than unpersonalized education. A tool needs to be useful.

    Teachers are already overworked and, after having been burned too many times on supposedly exciting new technologies that fail to help, correctly are cynical about tech startups coming in and demanding something of them. If some tech startup isn't helping a teacher get something done they need to get done, it's a bad tool and it's useless.

    Parents are leery of companies who say they only want to help and what corporations are doing with the data they have on their children, correctly so given all the marketing abuses that have happened in the past.

    Kids don't want more boring busywork to do -- they get enough of that already -- and don't see why anything this company is talking about helps them or is useful to them.

    If a company wants to succeed in personalized education, it should:
    1. Be useful, noticeably raise test scores
    2. Not require additional busy work
    3. Be optional
    4. Have no marketing whatsoever, only use data to help
    I think there are plenty of examples of how this might work. I would like to see a company offer a free Duolingo-like pre-algebra and algebra app that jumps students ahead rapidly as they answer questions correctly and spends more time on similar problems after a question is wrong. The app would be completely optional for students to use, but, when students use it, their test scores increase.

    I would like to see a company use the existing standardized tests required by several states, analyze the incorrect answers to identify concepts a student is not understanding, and then print short worksheets targeting only those missed concepts for teachers to hand out to each student. The worksheets would be free and arrive in teachers' mailboxes. If the teacher doesn't want to hand them out, that's not a problem, but test scores go up for the classrooms where the teachers do hand them out. So, even if most teachers don't hand them out at first and most students throw them away at first, over time, more and more teachers will start handing them out and more and more students will do them, as only helps those who do.

    In both of these examples, a startup could set up from the beginning to run large scale experiments, showing different problems to different students, and learning what raises test scores, what designs and lesson lengths cause students to stop, what concepts are important and which matter less, what can be taught easily through this and what cannot, what people enjoy, and what works.

    When a company comes in and says, "Give us your data, teachers, parents, and kids, and do all this work. Maybe we'll boost your test scores for you later," they're being arrogant and tone-deaf. Everyone responds, "I don't believe you. How about you prove you're useful first? I'm busy. Do something for me or go away." And they're right to do so.

    There likely is a way to do personalized education that everyone would embrace. But that way probably requires proving you're useful first. After all, personalization is just a tool.

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