The alpha and the loyal sidekick

Paul Allen's autobiography is about to hit, and so it's omnipresent on the web. A juicy excerpt appears in Vanity Fair. As with Keith Richards slagging Mick Jagger in his entertaining autobiography, Allen doesn't hold back about his relationship with Gates, both positive and negative.



Bill craved closure, and he would hammer away until he got there; on principle, I refused to yield if I didn’t agree. And so we’d go at it for hours at a stretch, until I became nearly as loud and wound up as Bill. I hated that feeling. While I wouldn’t give in unless convinced on the merits, I sometimes had to stop from sheer fatigue. I remember one heated debate that lasted forever, until I said, “Bill, this isn’t going anywhere. I’m going home.

Supercharging your memory

Joshua Foer's account of becoming a world-class memory athlete in the NYTimes seems like the perfect fodder for a short and focused documentary, like Spellbound or Word Wars. It's not surprising that Foer received a huge advance to turn this into a book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.


Two ideas about memory really struck me. One is that memorizing is an act of creation (emphasis below is mine).



What distinguishes a great mnemonist, I learned, is the ability to create lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any other it cannot be forgotten. And to do it quickly. Many competitive mnemonists argue that their skills are less a feat of memory than of creativity. For example, one of the most popular techniques used to memorize playing The point of memory techniques to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t that good at holding onto and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for. cards involves associating every card with an image of a celebrity performing some sort of a ludicrous — and therefore memorable — action on a mundane object. When it comes time to remember the order of a series of cards, those memorized images are shuffled and recombined to form new and unforgettable scenes in the mind’s eye. Using this technique, Ed Cooke showed me how an entire deck can be quickly transformed into a comically surreal, and unforgettable, memory palace.



The second is the idea of memory as not just an act of creation but as one of creating a physical space, like being an architect.



Memory palaces don’t have to be palatial — or even actual buildings. They can be routes through a town or signs of the zodiac or even mythical creatures. They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imaginary, so long as they are intimately familiar. The four-time U.S. memory champion Scott Hagwood uses luxury homes featured in Architectural Digest to store his memories. Dr. Yip Swee Chooi, the effervescent Malaysian memory champ, used his own body parts to help him memorize the entire 57,000-word Oxford English-Chinese dictionary. In the 15th century, an Italian jurist named Peter of Ravenna is said to have used thousands of memory palaces to store quotations on every important subject, classified alphabetically. When he wished to expound on a given topic, he simply reached into the relevant chamber and pulled out the source.



One concept which you has applications beyond just training your memory is the idea of O.K. plateaus.



Psychologists used to think that O.K. plateaus marked the upper bounds of innate ability. In his 1869 book “Hereditary Genius,

Kasparov on Watson

[sorry for these untimely posts...I'm trying to clear out a few half-completed drafts]


The Atlantic pinged Garry Kasparov for his thoughts on IBM's Watson's victory on Jeopardy.



A convincing victory under strict parameters, and if we stay within those limits Watson can be seen as an incremental advance in how well machines understand human language. But if you put the questions from the show into Google, you also get good answers, even better ones if you simplify the questions. To me, this means Watson is doing good job of breaking language down into points of data it can mine very quickly, and that it does it slightly better than Google does against the entire Internet.



The analogy to a human using Google is a useful one. If you had infinite lifelines on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and could call a friend who could Google for answers for you, would you always win a million dollars? Maybe not always, but fairly close. So the challenge for IBM was to figure out how to parse the Jeopardy clues into the right parameters to generate the proper query. Then Watson, like Google, had to use some algorithms for ranking the relevancy of various results.



My concern about its utility, and I read they would like it to answer medical questions, is that Watson's performance reminded me of chess computers. They play fantastically well in maybe 90% of positions, but there is a selection of positions they do not understand at all. Worse, by definition they do not understand what they do not understand and so cannot avoid them. A strong human Jeopardy! player, or a human doctor, may get the answer wrong, but he is unlikely to make a huge blunder or category error—at least not without being aware of his own doubts. We are also good at judging our own level of certainty. A computer can simulate this by an artificial confidence measurement, but I would not like to be the patient who discovers the medical equivalent of answering "Toronto" in the "US Cities" category, as Watson did.



Kasparov gives humans credit for knowing what they don't know, but in plenty of cases people are just as overconfident and blinded in their opinions. In fact, Watson had low confidence in its answer of Toronto in the US Cities category on Final Jeopardy, so it did have an "awareness" of its own uncertainty. I'm almost certain that the programmers ensured that Watson would make a guess in Final Jeopardy regardless of its confidence since there's nothing to lose at that point. In Single or Double Jeopardy, though, Watson wouldn't buzz in unless its confidence in an answer exceeded a threshold.


Humorous aside on Watson: how the computers could have beaten Watson on Jeopardy.


Beijing

China is well known for its blatant knockoffs, and Baidu's online maps are a dead ringer for Google Maps.


But Baidu did manage to put a personal touch on its equivalent of "street view" for Beijing...


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Since it's pixel art, you can zoom in really far.


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All that's missing from Google street view is some random pixel people caught in action.


It's like Street View deconstructed by China using one of their unique assets, namely a ton of excess labor.

Miscellany

Yeah, um, this is why I don't drive a Ferrari.


***


Garry Kasparov is known mostly for being a great chess player, but I'm impressed with his writing ability. I don't know enough about chess to characterize his playing style, but there is a precise and clinical objectivity to his writing that feels like it might arise from a mind optimized to the playing of a game with the nature of chess.


This review of the Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness in The New York Review of Books is a case in point.



In his play, Fischer was amazingly objective, long before computers stripped away so many of the dogmas and assumptions humans have used to navigate the game for centuries. Positions that had been long considered inferior were revitalized by Fischer’s ability to look at everything afresh. His concrete methods challenged basic precepts, such as the one that the stronger side should keep attacking the forces on the board. Fischer showed that simplification—the reduction of forces through exchanges—was often the strongest path as long as activity was maintained. The great Cuban José Capablanca had played this way half a century earlier, but Fischer’s modern interpretation of “victory through clarity

Anti-social software

When Should I Visit Tate Modern takes Foursquare check-in data and shows what days of the week are less crowded at various museums, galleries, and theatres in London.


Also trying to leverage Foursquare checkin data for end user utility, but at the opposite end of the spectrum from the aforementioned website: Where the Ladies At, an iPhone app that tracks high concentrations of the fairer sex in San Francisco.


I'm glad some companies are trying to extract some consumer utility from all that checkin data, because I get very little personal value from Foursquare, Gowalla, Yelp, and other checkin services.


Man vs. Machine

IBM's Jeopardy playing computer Watson will challenge the game show's grand masters Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter one game apiece.


I don't use any IBM products; the only one I still see in my day-to-day life is the Thinkpad which is popular among Windows users at the office. But the strongest cultural resonance of their brand is in the software they build to challenge humans at various games. For Watson to be able to mount a challenge to top Jeopardy players so quickly (development only began a few years ago) is really impressive.



Over the next four years, Mr. Ferrucci set about creating a world in which people and their machines often appeared to switch roles. He didn't know, he later said, whether humans would ever be able to "create a sentient being." But when he looked at fellow humans through the eyes of a computer scientist, he saw patterns of behaviors that often appeared to be pre-programmed: the zombie-like commutes, the near-identical routines, from tooth-brushing to feeding the animals, the retreat to the same chair, the hand reaching for the TV remote. "It's more interesting," he said, "when humans delve inside themselves and say, 'Why am I doing this? And why is it relevant and important to be human?' "



The Jeopardy games will air Feb 14-16.


Everything HDR

A natural consequence of the convergence of video and still photography is that everything is going HDR (high dynamic range). Examples:



HDR was possible before video/still photography converged, but it was a hassle. You had to fix your camera in position, usually on a tripod, for multiple shots, and that alone is too much work for the vast majority of photographers.


But many still cameras can now shoot video at the same resolution as stills, and many digital video cameras have sensors that shoot each frame at resolutions previously reserved for still cameras, and following both those trends to the horizon point leads to the same HDR method: shoot two or more frames in rapid succession at different exposures, then blend them to produce a single HDR still. If the frame rate is high enough and the camera decently stable, you no longer need to lock the camera down. With convenience comes more use.


The Red HDRx mode takes that principle one step further and extends it to shooting video. Of course, with motion, consecutive frames of video won't match exactly, and so a new requirement is a software algorithm to blend the two frames. An unexpected benefit of this frame blending, according to early testers, is that motion in digital video now looks more film-like. If that's the case, and the HDR can extend the dynamic range of digital video 1 or more stops, that's a significant breakthrough.


The increased flexibility is great, it allows usable photographs in situations that were formerly kryptonite for digital cameras. I traded in my Nikon D3 body for a D3s for its increased light sensitivity. At my sister's wedding recently I put the D3s through its paces. It doesn't have an HDR mode, but it has am improved sensor that can see into the dark without introducing eye-bleeding digital noise. Though my sister held her wedding in a dark vintage furniture store with lots of hard lighting, I never used my flash once, and the results were astonishing.


Of course, as with most tools, higher dynamic range is just a tool, and not a universal positive. I ended up going into Lightroom for most of the photos and taking all that the camera saw in the shadows and removing a lot of it, crushing the blacks and reintroducing the high contrast that a higher dynamic range photo lacks. The irony is that just because you can see everything doesn't mean you should. High contrast often heightens emotional response to a photo, and that, more than resolution or dynamic range or any number of other factors, is what matters.




Nikon 85mm AF-S f1.4

Ryan Brenizer reviews the new AF-S Nikon 85mm F/1.4G, which replaces the legendary 85mm f/1.4 AF-D, which is maybe my favorite Nikon lens ever. With the latter, I just open it up wide, walk around, and I always seem to find an interesting photo in the viewfinder. The 85mm length just feels like my preferred focal length for so many situations.


The new lens looks like a more than worthy replacement, though at $1,699, I can't justify it now. If I had some more free time for travel and photography, it would be at the top of my list.


This new 85mm lens, along with the recently released AF-S 24mm f/1.4G, AF-S 50mm f/1.4G, and the newly announced AF-S 35mm f1.4G, Nikon finally has a modern, updated, world-class lineup of primes at all the focal ranges I use the most.


Real photographers shoot prime.


Nikon glass was what first swayed me to Nikon over Canon, but for a couple years I was not an exception among Nikon people for wondering why the lens lineup wasn't being updated more quickly. Thankfully those days are past, and the only area where I have some Canon envy is on digital video, though in that space I'd just rather shoot with a dedicated video camera.


Settlers of Catan

Wired profiles the history of the board game Settlers of Catan. I played it soon after its release as some early awards lent immediate cachet with friends who were board game fanatics. And then for a few years as I moved around, it lay in the back of my closets, untouched.


But recently it has seemed to surge in popularity in the U.S. People I would have never expected to play the game are suddenly proposing it during dinner parties. It may be time to pull my copy of the game out of the back of the closet and dust it off. I'm still curious how it suddenly broke through to the mainstream after feeling like a board game aficionado product for so many years. Or had it crossed the tipping point long before and I just hadn't noticed it?


Pros versus Joes

[One month since my last post. That may be a record, but it's a sincere measure of the dearth of my free time.]


Apple announced a refresh of its Mac Pros recently, and the response from the professional community was, for the most part, one of weary disappointment. Brook Willard's post titled "The State of Apple's Professional Line" became the unofficial lament around which the pro community rallied.


My old G5 desktop, nearly a decade old, happens to be on its deathbed, and so I happen to be in the market for a desktop. I was waiting for the Mac Pro refresh announcement with some excitement, and it was somewhat of a letdown that so many anticipated upgrades failed to come to pass (more PCI slots was the one I really wanted). I'm a prosumer more than a pro, but my video editing needs are pro-level, as are those of my production team.


When fans lament that a band has sold out, it's often seems like some selfish reflex on the part of fans who'd prefer to feel that their tastes are distinguished by being in the minority. That seems illogical and spiteful if the band hasn't evolved its sound to be more mainstream in nature.


In this case, though, I have empathy for the pro community because their beloved enthusiast brand has shifted its attention to the mainstream. Shareholders won't mind, it's the logical financial moves in this case to address the broadest market possible, especially when even the mainstream products command such healthy margins (often the margin/sales volume disparity between the pro and consumer markets are sharper, but Apple's hardware/software design edge has allowed it to keep high margins on its hardware across the board). I'd love to see continued focus on taking products like Final Cut Pro to the next level, but I'm not hopeful.


Can a company of that size be the brand of choice for both the pro and consumer market? Will there be impacts down the road if there isn't a pro line from which technology can trickle down to more mainstream models?


The fact that Macs could be found in the offices of professionals in the video business always added a certain mystique to the brand, serving as aspirational brand markers the same way runway show outfits that never hit the actual market serve as prestige signals in the fashion world. Will that change?


Swype

All the press mentions of Swype have me intrigued. Is this method of data entry on touch screen mobile phones, in which you drag your finger around a QWERTY keyboard from letter to letter, really the fastest way to type on a mobile phone?









Swype isn't available for the iPhone, but a similar alternative called Shapewriter was in the iPhone App Store, at least until recently when they were purchased by Nuance Communications. I haven't tried any of these options, and it looks like I'll have to wait a while longer.


Learnings from Dropbox

I really enjoyed this presentation from Drew Houston, CEO of Dropbox, an online storage service I've been using for many months now. It covers what they learned on their rapid ascent to success. Among them is the fact that most of their customers have been acquired via referral. Example in point: my endorsement here.


I liked this quote:



SEM is a way to harvest demand, not create it.



That's something that may be evident to those who've purchased AdWords on Google before, but it may not be to the newcomer to SEM. If a user is doing a directed search on Google, it will take a hell of a lot more than a short headline and two line text ad to pry them away from their mission. If your result matches what they're searching for, great, but you can't generate much emotional appeal in two lines of text.


When Apple debuts it's iAd product on the next iPhone OS, you can be sure they'll have worked with some advertisers to debut some eye-popping, emotional, beautifully designed ads. A quick look back at Apple's ad campaigns, from 1984 to Think Different to "I'm a Mac" to its iPod silhouettes, is ample evidence that Apple knows emotional advertising. In their rivalry with Google, it makes sense that Apple would attack Google's core revenue product by differentiating its product on the dimension of design and emotion.


Can your product, in two lines of text in a Google ad, be exactly what a user is searching for? Or does it require sight, sound, and motion to explain what your product is and what it does? Or is your product good enough to mobilize an army of evangelists? It helps to answer that before you choose where and how to advertise.



Computer game theory models

This article is months old, but I haven't had a NYTimes subscription in over a year now, so I miss out on some articles some Sundays. I mentioned Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's models recently when 538.com used an online version of his model to predict the outcome of the HCR battle, but this article goes into more depth about its origins and why it is effective.



That’s where Bueno de Mesquita began programming his computer model. It is based loosely on Black’s voter theory, and it works like this: To predict how leaders will behave in a conflict, Bueno de Mesquita starts with a specific prediction he wants to make, then interviews four or five experts who know the situation well. He identifies the stakeholders who will exert pressure on the outcome (typically 20 or 30 players) and gets the experts to assign values to the stakeholders in four categories: What outcome do the players want? How hard will they work to get it? How much clout can they exert on others? How firm is their resolve? Each value is expressed as a number on its own arbitrary scale, like 0 to 200. (Sometimes Bueno de Mesquita skips the experts, simply reads newspaper and journal articles and generates his own list of players and numbers.) For example, in the case of Iran’s bomb, Bueno de Mesquita set Ahmadinejad’s preferred outcome at 180 and, on a scale of 0 to 100, his desire to get it at 90, his power at 5 and his resolve at 90.


Then the math begins, some of which is surprisingly simple. If you merely sort the players according to how badly they want a bomb and how much support they have among others, you will end up with a reasonably good prediction. But the other variables enable the computer model to perform much more complicated assessments. In essence, it looks for possible groupings of players who would be willing to shift their positions toward one another if they thought that doing so would be to their advantage. The model begins by working out the average position of all the players — the “middle ground

Fun with Chat Roulette

Suggestions on how to improve Chat Roulette.


On the other hand, in its current incarnation, it's a great party drinking game. Open two laptops, set two people against each other with Chat Roulette open. The first person who ends up seeing another guy, uh, doing what I believe the French refer to as a "menage a un" has to down a beer.


Or how about Chat Roulette Roulette? Matt Haughey explains:



ChatRouletteRoulette: Four people in a room with laptops, everyone connects to ChatRoulette, first one to see a cock is out!




Go forth and create

Another older post I've just left hanging out there forever...


The joy of having your first novel reviewed by the New York Times Book Review quickly turns to horror when it turns out to be a succinct dismissal. Ronlyn Domingue writes about what that feels like.



Although the advice to have a thick skin was well-meant, it is emotionally dishonest. Sharing one’s writing is a naked act not intended for the meek. Harsh words can—and sometimes do—undermine the most confident, successful writers. It’s human. It’s okay. It will pass. Now, my guidance to myself, and others, is to have a permeable skin, one that doesn’t resist or trap the good or the bad. Reviews, critiques, comments come in, then move on. Then there’s space, inside and out, for something new.



Every artist experiences the little deaths that come with work in a creative field. In fiction writing seminars in college, every story you wrote would be read out loud, and then the others in the class would take turns offering their critiques. In film school, the same was done for our scripts, rough cuts, fine edits, final works.


Professors always counsel everyone to be civil with their criticism, to keep it about the work and not the person, but I suspect it's impossible to ever accept even the most even-tempered of criticism of one's work without suffering the smallest of deaths (the French use la petite mort in another sense, of course, but it's always felt more accurate here).


But even if your classmates and peers are respectful and professional, and for the most part I'd say my creative writing and film school peers were very much so, at some point if you're to succeed in your field you'll have to put your work out there for an audience that isn't in the same room with you, that isn't operating under the potential collateral damage of your potential subsequent feedback on their work. Then the gloves come off.


The internet has only accelerated that. It's given everyone a megaphone, and even if they're shouting into the wind (2 followers, one his mother, the other is Candy327, 5 tweets), Google or Twitter is saving their shouts for you to summon with a few mouse clicks. Before the internet came along, the cliche that "everybody's a critic" may have been true, but for the first time we can hear them all at once, all the time, one massive and stern Greek chorus of disapproval.


But whereas the chorus in a Greek tragedy at least spoke in meter, with a certain poetic eloquence, the anonymity of the web has reduced us to our most savage and bitter. We are all cavemen, all id. Civil debate and discourse isn't the norm in any large and open community online. 4Chan bullies prowl the hallways of the web like the high school thugs every awkward teenager dreads running into.


As a creator, you have to balance receptivity to criticism with the conviction of your creative choices. It's not easy withstanding the constant, withering glare of a million critics, but just in taking those steps to cross over from the darkness of the peanut gallery to the bright lights of center stage you've set yourself apart.


As for the millions of judges out there, I urge you, the next time you go to murder someone's book with your poison pen, try to write a book yourself. The next time you leave a movie theater ready to dismiss what you watched for two hours, try to direct your own short movie. What the world needs is not more judges. As the old saying goes, everbody's a critic.