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Geeking with Greg

  • Quick links
    Some of the tech news I found interesting lately, and you might too. Heavy on the comics this time to lighten the mood:
    • Jeff Bezos: "Good leaders ... seek to disconfirm their most profoundly-held convictions, which is very unnatural for humans ... Anybody who doesn’t change their mind a lot is dramatically underestimating the complexity of the world we live in." ([1])

    • Amazon is hiring 120k employees just for the holidays. I can't believe how our baby is all grown up. ([1])

    • On building products: "Keep it extremely simple, or two thirds of the population can’t use your design" ([1] [2])

    • "The problem isn't the users: it's that we've designed our computer systems' security so badly that we demand the user do all of these counterintuitive things." ([1])

    • Fun AI experiments from Google. Don't miss "Quick, Draw!" ([1])

    • Interesting new phone design, screen taking up the entire front: "Hands down, the best looking smartphone ever" ([1])

    • Great article on Netflix recommendations, tidbits on the importance of reacting immediately to new data, using immediate intent, freshness (esp. new releases), and perceived quality (difference between online evaluation and offline). ([1])

    • Opinionated summary of RecSys 2016, and also somewhat of a summary of recommendations and personalization research as of 2016 ([1] [2])

    • Xavier Amatriain on lessons learned from building recommender systems ([1])

    • YouTube is now using deep learning for recommendations, more than just embeddings, includes a ranker with heavily engineered features ([1])

    • Ex-Facebook employee: "News Feed optimizes for engagement. As we've learned in this election, bullshit is highly engaging." ([1])

    • Pfeffer: "You need to be careful with what you measure, because you are going to get it, and often you don’t really want it." ([1] [2])

    • Obama: "Traditionally, when we think about security and protecting ourselves, we think in terms of armor or walls. Increasingly, I find myself looking to medicine and thinking about viruses, antibodies." ([1])

    • Surprising, just set up a hotspot, and the interference from people's fingers moving in the WiFi signal is enough to catch most of the passwords anyone enters while connected ([1] [2])

    • "An entire company’s product line has just been turned into a botnet that is now attacking the United States" ([1] [2])

    • short URLs hid malicious content that was then used to get at Colin Powell's e-mail ([1])

    • Carefully picked textures on eyeglass frames to fool face recognition, pictures in the paper are amusing ([1] [2])

    • AI guru Andrew Ng: "We're lucky the AI community is very open, and top researchers freely share many ideas and even code. This helps the whole field progress. Hope we can keep it that way." ([1] [2])

    • Love this: "Being able to go from idea to result with the least possible delay is key to doing good research" ([1])

    • Two new massive labeled open data sets from Google, one for images, one for videos ([1] [2])

    • "Translations that are vastly improved compared to the previous phrase-based production system. GNMT reduces translation errors by more than 55%-85% on several major language pairs" ([1])

    • Google CEO Sundar Pichai: "Our goal is build a personal Google for each and every user." ([1])

    • I got a mention in The Guardian for some of my past work: "Greg Linden may not be a household name..." ([1])

    • Data on what Amazon Echo is actually used for. Mostly playing a song, it appears. ([1])

    • Like at the last dot-com boom, there are a bunch of delivery services cropping up with models that don't seem like they're likely to be profitable. Uber, which was in a better position than most to do this profitably, just shut their food delivery service down, which doesn't bode well for the others. ([1])

    • Current state of virtual reality: "None of these uses are particularly compelling right now, especially given the cost of buying a VR headset. This may change in the future." ([1])

    • "Giving employees hours, days or even months in which to work without close scrutiny has enhanced productivity instead of harming it" ([1])

    • T-mobile's CEO on leadership: "Listen to your employees, listen to your customers, shut the f*** up, and do what they tell you" ([1])

    • SMBC comic on survivorship bias ([1])

    • SMBC comic on work, dark but funny: "The important thing is to find the low low bar that works for YOU." ([1])

    • SMBC comic on eliminating security risks ([1])

    • SMBC comic being a scientist. Don't miss the mouseover: "Hopefully your kids don't drink as much as research scientists" ([1])

    • Love the mouseover text on this SMBC comic: "Studying social science has completely obliterated my ability to enjoy pleasant human behaviors" ([1])

    • SMBC comic on political economy. Don't miss the mouseover text on humans: "In economics, they're robots. In political economy, they're all jerks. In sociology, they're all misunderstood." ([1])

    • Brilliant comic by Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal) on happiness and meaning ([1])

    • Xkcd on a CS degree: "That just means I understand how everything went so wrong" ([1])

  • 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])

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