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Newsfeeds from around the industry
Geeking with Greg


  • 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.

  • More quick links
    More of what caught my attention lately:
    • The overwhelming majority of smartphone users set up their phone once, then barely ever download a new app again ([1] [2])

    • Cool and successful use of speculative execution in cloud computing for games, trading off extra CPU and bandwidth for the ability to hide network latency ([1])

    • Infrared vision on your phone ([1] [2])

    • How easy is it to get people to memorize hard-to-crack random 56-bit passwords, equivalent to about 12 random letters or 6 words? ([1] [2])

    • Desalination needs warm water, data centers need to be cooled, why not put them together? Clever idea. ([1])

    • It's easy to overhype this, but it's still pretty cool, transmitting data (0 and 1 bits) directly brain-to-brain without implants (using magnetic stimulation of the brain and EEG reading of the brain, both from the surface of the scalp) with relatively low error rates (5-15%). Data rates are extremely low at 2-3 bits/minute, but it's still interesting that it's possible at all. ([1])

    • Xiaomi's remarkable iPhone clone ([1])

    • Has Amazon sold less than 35k Fire phones? ([1] [2])

    • Facebook publishes a paper which details how its ad targeting works and suggests they will be doing more personalization in the future ([1] [2])

    • "Having a multiyear project with no checks along the way and the promise of one big outcome is not a highly successful approach, in or outside government" ([1] [2])

    • More evidence patent trolls cause real harm. Trolled firms "dramatically reduce R&D spending". ([1])

    • "Using nothing more than a laptop ... [they could] alter the normal timing pattern of the [traffic] lights, turning all the lights along a given route green, for instance, or freezing an intersection with all reds" ([1])

    • Interesting data visualization showing how CD took over in music sales, then got replaced by downloads, all over the last two decades or so ([1])

    • Neat charts on how the strike zone expands on 3 ball counts and contracts on 2 strike counts ([1])

    • Cute SMBC comic on "What is the fastest animal?" ([1])

    • Great SMBC comic on job interviews ([1])


  • Quick links
    What caught my attention lately:
    • Great idea for walking directions: "At times, we do not [want] the fastest route ... When walking, we generally prefer tiny streets with trees over large avenues with cars ... [We] suggest routes that are not only short but also emotionally pleasant." ([1] [2] [3])

    • Cool idea for a drone that autonomously flies a small distance above and behind you while filming in HD ([1] [2])

    • "OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Neither does any other website. It’s not like people have been building these things for very long, or you can go look up a blueprint or something. Most ideas are bad. Even good ideas could be better. Experiments are how you sort all this out." ([1] [2])

    • "Amazon’s cloud revenue now runs almost on par with VMware (VMW), which posted revenue of $5.2 billion last year" ([1])

    • Walmart is getting more aggressive about competing with Amazon on personalization and recommendations ([1])

    • It's important to realize that Amazon could have been a small bookstore on the Web ([1])

    • A lot of us thought the Amazon logo was phallic when it was introduced (worse, it was animated and actually grew from left-to-right). Remarkably, it's lived on for 14 years now. ([1])

    • A big problem with layoffs is not only do you lose some of the people you intended to layoff, but also some of your best employees will pick that time to leave. People with good options won't wait around to experience the chaos and fear; they'll just leave. ([1])

    • "A brand-name USB stick [claims to be] a computer keyboard [device] ... [and then] opens a command window on an attached computer and enters commands that cause it to download and install malicious software." ([1])

    • Financial services and poor computer security: "Our assumption was that, generally speaking, the financial sector had its act together much more" ([1] [2])

    • "NSA employees [were] passing around nude photos that were intercepted in the course of their daily work" ([1] [2])

    • Google Cloud googler says, "It should always be cheaper to run in the cloud no matter what your workload" but that the pricing isn't there yet ([1])

    • Details on Google's remarkably large and fast data warehouse ([1] [2])

    • Cool augmented reality game intended to be played as a passenger in a moving car that creates the terrain and enemies you see in the game based on the stores and buildings around you in the real world ([1])

    • "Astronomers of the 2020s will be swimming in petabytes of data streaming from space and the ground ... [such as] a 3,200-megapixel camera, which will produce an image of the entire sky every few days and over 10 years will produce a movie of the universe, swamping astronomers with data that will enable them to spot everything that moves or blinks in the heavens, including asteroids and supernova explosions." ([1])

    • Data are or data is: "'datum' isn't a word we ever use. So it makes no sense to use the plural when the singular doesn't exist." ([1])

    • The "If Google was a guy" series from CollegeHumor is hilarious (but probably NSFW) ([1] [2] [3])

    • Funny Dilbert comics on a Turing test for management ([1] [2])

    • Cathartic Xkcd comic on defending your thesis ([1])


  • More quick links
    More of what caught my attention lately:
    • Crazy cool and the first time I've seen ultrasound used for device-to-device communication outside of research: "Chromecast will be able to pair without Wi-Fi, or even Bluetooth, via an unusual method: ultrasonic tones." ([1])

    • A 3D printer that can print in "any weldable material" including titanium, aluminum, and stainless steel ([1])

    • "You teach Baxter [an inexpensive industrial robot] how to do something by grabbing an arm and showing it what you want, sort of like how you would teach a child to paint" ([1])

    • When trying to use the wisdom of the crowds, you're better off using only the best part of the crowd. ([1])

    • "Americans now appear to trust internet news about as much as newspapers and television news ... not because confidence in internet news is rising, but because confidence in TV news and newspapers has plummeted over the years." ([1])

    • "Microsoft is basically 'done' with Windows 8.x. Regardless of how usable or functional it is or isn't, it has become Microsoft's Vista 2.0 -- something from which Microsoft needs to distance itself." ([1])

    • Google Flights now lets you see everywhere you can fly out of a city (including limiting to non-stops only) and how much it would cost ([1] [2] [3] [4])

    • "Entering the fulfillment center in Phoenix feels like venturing into a realm where the machines, not the humans, are in charge ... The place radiates a non-human intelligence, an overarching brain dictating the most minute movements of everyone within its reach." ([1])

    • Google's location history feature is both fascinating and frightening. If you own an Android device, go to location history, set it to 30 days, and see the detail on where you have been. While it's true that many have this kind of data, it may surprise you to see it all at once.

    • "Vodafone, one of the world's largest mobile phone groups, has revealed the existence of secret wires that allow government agencies to listen to all conversations on its networks, saying they are widely used in some of the 29 countries in which it operates in Europe and beyond." ([1])

    • Many "users actually do not attach any significant economic value to the security of their systems" ([1] [2])

    • "Ensuring that our patent system 'promotes the progress of science,' rather than impedes it, consistent with the constitutional mandate underlying our intellectual property system" ([1])

    • Smartphones may have hit the limit on how much improvements to screen resolution matter, meaning they will have to compete on other features (like sensors or voice recognition) ([1])

    • "Project Tango can see the world around it in 3D. This would allow developers to make augmented-reality apps that line up perfectly with the real world or make an app that can 3D scan an object or environment." ([1])

    • The selling point of smartwatches is paying $200 to not have to pull your phone out of your pocket, and that might be a tough sell. ([1])

    • "As programmers will tell you, the building part is often not the hardest part: It's figuring out what to build. 'Unless you can think about the ways computers can solve problems, you can't even know how to ask the questions that need to be answered'" ([1])

    • "[No] lectures, discussion sections, midterms ... a pre-test for each subject area ... given a mentor with a graduate degree in the field ... [and] textbooks, tutorials, and other resources. Eventually, they're assessed on how well they understand the concepts." ([1])

    • "A naked mole rat has never once been observed to develop cancer" ([1])

    • Hilarious Colbert Report on the Hachette mess, particularly loved the bit on "Customers who enjoyed this also bought this" at 3:00 in the video ([1])

    • Humor from The Onion: "We want $100 from you, so we’re just going to take it. As a cable subscriber, you really have no other option here" ([1])

    • Humor from the Borowitz Report: "It never would have occurred to me that an enormous corporation with the ability to track over half a billion customers would ever exploit that advantage in any way." ([1])


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