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Geeking with Greg

  • More quick links
    A tightly curated list of what has caught my attention lately:
    • New Yorker on AI: "A lot of what people are calling 'artificial intelligence' is really data analytics -- in other words, business as usual. If the hype leaves you asking 'What is A.I., really?,' don’t worry, you're not alone .... Intelligent software helps us interact and deal with the ... [information] onslaught ... winnowing an increasing number of inputs and options in a way that humans can’t manage without a helping hand .... A set of technologies that try to imitate or augment human intelligence .... [But] we are a long way from creating virtual human beings ... In the meantime, we're going to have to deal with the hyperbole surrounding A.I." ([1])

    • Tim O'Reilly: "Humans are increasingly going to be interacting with devices that are able to listen to us and talk back .... [Alexa] demonstrates that conversational interfaces can work, if they are designed right .... Smaller domains where you can deliver satisfying results, and within those domains, spend a lot of time thinking through the 'fit and finish' so that interfaces are intuitive, interactions are complete, and that what most people try to do 'just works'." ([1])

    • Netflix: "We think the combined effect of personalization and recommendations save us more than $1B per year" ([1] [2] [3])

    • "The main reasons cited for using ad blockers include avoiding disruptive ads (69%), ads that slow down their browsing experience (58%) and security / malware risks (56%). Privacy wasn’t the top answer. So Facebook thinks if its can make its ads non-interruptive, fast, [useful,] and secure, people won’t mind." ([1] [2])

    • According to the NYT, Uber lost $1.2B on $2.1B in revenue in H1 2016 ([1] [2])

    • "Amazon reaches new high of 268,900 employees — skyrocketing 47% in just one year" ([1])

    • Amazon's going hard for Netflix on their key vulnerability, strength of the catalog ([1])

    • Great example of how Bezos sees failure as just a step toward success, following up on their $170M loss from an expensive Amazon Fire Phone with another (and I think very promising) attempt using existing cheap phones ([1] [2])

    • Talks from ScaledML 2016, including Jeff Dean, Qi Lu, Ilya Sutskever, and more ([1] [2])

    • Great paper on the data pipelines at Facebook and some of their design tradeoffs ([1])

    • Good article on Facebook's approach to research, not separate from engineering, not part of engineering, but just open ([1] [2])

    • Great article in ACM Queue on Amazon's microservices, which allows for "permissionless innovation" and has many benefits for testing, deployment, debugging, and reliability ([1] [2])

    • Nice example of fine-grained control of data center power and cooling using machine learning to save electricity ([1])

    • Precision agriculture using GPS, self-driving tractors, and crop and nutrient sensors ([1])

    • Pew Internet study of Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), lots of remarkable details, including that most workers are making less than $5/hour, almost all less than $8/hour ([1])

    • "The line between outright deception and poor user design is often hard to distinguish" ([1])

    • "[The] many confusing design decisions made us wonder if projects were assembled entirely from poor stackoverflow posts" ([1] [2])

    • Amusing story of what happens when a geolocation is missing ([1])

    • On education: "A feeling of hopefulness actually leads us to try harder and persist longer -- but only if it is paired with practical plans for achieving our goals, and specific, concrete actions we’ll take when and if (usually when) our original plans don’t work out as expected." ([1])

    • On management: "We have to give them the space to fail in the short term so they can succeed and grow in the long term ... There is that magical moment when we delegate and allow an emerging leader to grow into their new responsibilities, and they end up being way better at it than we ever were. That’s real management success." ([1] [2])

    • On teams: "The best teams respect one another’s emotions and are mindful that all members should contribute to the conversation equally ... A shared belief that it is safe to take risks and share a range of ideas without the fear of being humiliated." ([1] [2])

    • Comic on being data-driven and how it sometimes feels ([1])

    • Xkcd on self-driving cars: "This car has 240% of a horse's decision-making ability" ([1])

    • Xkcd: "Is this a normal bug?" ([1])

    • Xkcd on code quality ([1])

    • SMBC comic on statisticians ([1])

    • SMBC comic on economists and the golden goose, don't miss the mouseover text: "A physicist would figure out how the Goose was transmuting elements without getting to a high temperature, then use the trillions of dollars to build a really sweet fleet of quadcopters" ([1])

    • SMBC comic that perfectly captures why I love talking with geeks, it's the infectious enthusiasm ([1])

  • Quick links
    A tightly curated list of what I enjoyed in the news recently:
    • Bezos: "Every single important thing we’ve done has taken a lot of risk, risk-taking, perseverance, guts, and some have worked out. Most of them have not." ([1])

    • Bezos: "You need to select people who tend to be dissatisfied ... As they go about their daily experiences, they notice that little things are broken in the world and they want to fix them. Inventors have a divine discontent." ([1])

    • Page: "Is it going to affect everyone in the world? Very few ... think this way." ([1])

    • "More than anything else, the rise of the bots signals the death of the mobile app ... The whole app thing didn't really work out." ([1] [2])

    • "As it turns out, the mundanity of our regular lives is the most captivating thing we could share with one another" ([1])

    • "This is the most demonically clever computer security attack I've seen in years ... insert a nearly undetectable backdoor into the chips themselves" ([1])

    • "Most Android vulnerabilities don't get patched. It's not Google's fault. It releases the patches, but the phone carriers don't push them down to their smartphone users ... This is a long-existing market failure." ([1])

    • "It’s not like iPhones have somehow gotten worse. Other phones, though? They’ve gotten a whole lot better. And they’re cheap." ([1])

    • "Google, with its tech chops and its control over digital ad delivery, is positioned to do what individual publishers and their associations can’t do on their own, though, by requiring that ads are not obtrusive or annoying — a main reason people choose to block ads." ([1])

    • "How quickly cars can learn to do the really hard parts of driving ... navigate congested cities in the pouring rain where humans, pets and rodents run into the road" ([1] [2] [3])

    • "With so many advances in machine learning recently, it’s not unreasonable to ask: why aren’t my recommendations perfect by now?" ([1])

    • "Developers’ speed mattered ... only to the extent that we made effective product design choices ... It didn’t matter how fast they were moving if they were moving in the wrong direction." ([1])

    • "Building and growing startups may appear glamorous from the outside ... It is anything but that from the inside." ([1])

    • "% of pitches for bots and/or AI companies approaching 100%" ([1])

    • "Tech firms are plundering departments of robotics and machine learning ... for the highest-flying faculty and students, luring them with big salaries ... The field was largely ignored and underfunded during the 'AI winter' of the 1980s and 1990s, when fashionable approaches to AI failed to match their early promise." ([1])

    • The FizzBuzz Tensorflow interview "will probably only make sense to people who have gone through really terrible CS interview processes" ([1] [2])

    • Remarkable, deep networks trained on artistic style, then used to apply those styles to video ([1])

    • A good summary of the state-of-the-art in deep learning ([1])

    • "There are limits to the predictive abilities of even tremendously superior intelligence (due to partial observability, chaotic behavior, or sheer randomness)" ([1] [2])

    • SMBC comic: "Once you realize there is no hope, you can relax and just enjoy the progress in machine learning." ([1])

    • My favorite old T-shirt from, Earth's Biggest Bookstore ([1])

  • 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

  • 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 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.

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