Archive for the 'default' Category

Bitcoin: Just as Broken as Cash

Posted in default on February 27th, 2014 at 08:44:45

According to a Business insider article, Senator Joe Manchin III is suggesting that lawmakers pursue a ban on Bitcoin. He wrote a very cogent letter on the topic, included in the linked article. In the spirit of his letter, I would like to share my own letter on a related, but slightly different topic.

Dear Senator Manchin,

I write today to express my concerns about the US Dollar. This currency has allowed users to participate in illicit activity, while also being highly unstable and disruptive to the world economy. For the reasons outlined below, I urge regulators to take appropriate action to limit the abilities of this highly unstable currency.

By way of background, the US Dollar is a currency that has gained notoriety due to its varying exchange value and relation to illegal transactions. Each US Dollar is backed by the US Government, thus the US Dollar is not only a token of value but also a method for transferring that value. It also means that this currency allows for anonymous and irreversible transactions.

The very features that make the US Dollar attractive to some also attract criminals who are able to disguise their actions from law enforcement. Due to cash’s anonymity, the market has been extremely susceptible to hackers and scam artists stealing millions from US Dollar users. Anonymity combined with cash’s ability to finalize transactions quickly, makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse fraudulent transactions.

Cash has also become a haven for individuals to buy black market items. Individuals are able to anonymously purchase items such as drugs and weapons illegally.

That is why more than a handful of countries, and their banking systems, have cautioned against the use of the US Dollar. Indeed, there have been moves to ban the US Dollar in several different countries— most recently Russia, where lawmakers are predicting a complete collapse of the currency by 2017. Several other countries, including many in Africa, have issued legal threats over the use of the US Dollar. While it is disappointing that the world leader and epicenter of the banking industry will only follow suit instead of making policy, it is high time that the United States heed our allies’ warnings. I am most concerned that as the US Dollar is inevitably banned in other countries, Americans will be left holding the bag on a valueless currency.

Our foreign counterparts have already understood the wide range of problems even with the US Dollar’s legitimate uses - from its significant price fluctuations to its inflationary nature. Just two years ago, the US Dollar’s prices plunged after the currency’s major holders in the form of banks, experienced major financial issues. This was not a unique event; news of plummeting or skyrocketing US Dollar prices is almost an annual occurrence. In addition, its inflationary trends ensure that only speculators, will benefit most from possessing the currency. There is no doubt average American consumers stand to lose by transacting in US Dollars.

The clear ends of US Dollars for either transacting in illegal goods and services or speculative gambling make me weary of its use. Before the U.S. gets too far behind the curve on this important topic, I urge the regulators to work together, act quickly, and prohibit this dangerous currency from harming hard-working Americans.

Sincerely,

Christopher Schmidt
United States Citizen

Watching someone grow up on TV

Posted in default on November 26th, 2013 at 07:33:07

I watch reality TV.

One of the shows I watch is Gold Rush; I’ve talked about it before.

On Gold Rush one of the people is Parker Schnabel. Parker’s been on the show in part since Season 1; he’s an enthusiastic kid who started out helping his grandfather mine (and taught the rookie Hoffman crew a thing or two in the first season), and has since taken over his grandfather’s mine, and then moved onto the Yukon to mine his own gold claim.

I love watching Parker — not for the usual reason, which is that I enjoy feeling superior (yes, I will admit that watching people be idiots on TV gives me a small sense of superiority, even if I know most of it is scripted drama that isn’t real) — but because I’ve been able to watch him grow up in a lot of ways.

Parker has basically lived his life around the TV show for the past 3 years, and in that time, he’s gone from being a helper to running a mine under his grandfather to running his own — and he’s grown up. He’s grown from being a bit of an overeager snot — to actually being someone who is taking on responsibility and able to be the boss. He’s grown from someone who is putting all of his responsibility on others, to someone who feels very clearly the responsibility is on him, and wants to make it work.

Maybe I see some of myself in Parker; he’s the kid who moves 3 times faster and works 5 times harder than those around him, and still feels like he’s only breaking even; he is smart, cocky, and doesn’t tolerate fools well. He’s all in on a risky venture without proof that it will work, and without any idea what he’s getting into most of the time.

And when shit goes to pot, or he needs help, he’s still got parents who care about him and help him out; even if his dad is strict, he’s still got Parker’s best interests at heart, and they clearly want the best for him.

In the end, I guess I like watching Parker is a little bit like how I think of myself. Even if it’s stupid, mostly scripted, overdramatized reality TV, I like Parker, and I like to watch him, because he’s how I think of myself.

Coursera: Discovering I’m Still Bad at School

Posted in default on November 23rd, 2013 at 21:40:32

I’ve taken a handful of Coursera courses.

Or really, I should say, I’ve tried to take a handful of Coursera courses.

As with all other formal (or in this case, semi-formal) educational opportunities, I always start off super-committed. “I will do the homework early. I will watch all the lectures. I will take the quizzes without reskimming the lectures and use my copious notes.”

As always, it fails. I fall behind; I miss a week; I don’t start my homework until two hours before it’s due.

In a recent course, I was supposed to write a 2000 word data analysis paper. I pulled it up about two hours before the due date — without having watched most of the videos, or done anything else for that week.

After about 1.5 hours of work, I ran `wc` on my analysis … and discovered that I had what I thought were 2700 words, despite feeling like I was way under my limit. I spent the next 20 minutes trimming things out, and getting it down to just 2000 words… and then pasted into the online text editor, which reported that I had actually written 300 words. I looked back at my `wc` output and found that I had actually been looking at the number of *characters* — so I had written a 2000 *letter* report instead of a 2000 word report.

In the last 9 minutes before the deadline, I drastically tried to bring back some of the text I just deleted, and add some more things I had been meaning to add. In the end, I think I did very poorly on the assignment, but I have no one to blame but myself.

It’s the same as it was in college and high school; I’m actually semi-decent at some of the tasks, but sitting down, getting organized, and actually *doing the work* is always the problem.

Ah well. At least I’m learning some new things.

Joel Test for my current project

Posted in default on November 20th, 2013 at 07:50:14
  • Do you use source control? - yes
  • Can you make a build in one step? - yes
  • Do you make daily builds? - yes
  • Do you have a bug database? - yes
  • Do you fix bugs before writing new code? - yes
  • Do you have an up-to-date schedule? - no
  • Do you have a spec? - no
  • Do programmers have quiet working conditions? - no
  • Do you use the best tools money can buy? - yes-ish
  • Do you have testers? - Not convinced ‘tester’ applies in the sense that is meant by the Joel Test, but we have a QA team; most test code is written by programmers though.
  • Do new candidates write code during their interview? - yes
  • Do you do hallway usability testing? - no, but we don’t create a UI.

Going over this, I do have a feeling that the Joel test is directed primarily at things that users see and touch; with that not being the case, the projects I work on lack some of what is deemed as important, specifically because “hallway usability testing” doesn’t seem to apply the same way and ‘testers’ can’t really help as much as I think might otherwise apply.

Improving the World

Posted in default on November 17th, 2013 at 22:14:19

I like to improve the world.

If I described my day job to most people, they would probably say I’m not improving the world very much. I work on improving the local search product of a commercial entity; the work I do doesn’t directly contribute to solving hunger, or saving lives, or what have you. I still feel like I am improving the world though, even if it’s in a smaller way.

Nokia phones are used by millions of people around the world every day. We get millions of users using our local search product every day. I can use the numbers we have to put a percentage on how many search queries are successful every day, and track that over the past couple years since our team started working on the problem.

What is a successful search query worth? Well, on a mobile phone, a bit more than you might think. In rapid-fire testing — attempting to run search queries as quickly as possible, with good knowledge of what I’m looking for and a solid understanding of the search experience — a single search query might take as little as 20 seconds. Reviewing some logs in the past and looking at typeahead, we have seen that for users on some devices, simply typing a query may take some users upwards of a minute.

If I can make search .1% better, with 1 million daily users, I’ve just saved 1000 users 30 seconds or so — or about 8 hours of productivity has been created that might not otherwise exist, assuming that the amount of productivity lost is equal only to the time to do a new search.

In the search team at Nokia in the past year, we have made much more significant gains than this; in fact, given our usage and our improvements in the past two years, the amount of productivity we save each day via improved search alone is more than 3 times the total working hours per day *of our entire team*. That’s right, with the improvements we have made in search, all the time we have spent getting to this point will be paid off in increased productivity in the world in 1/3rd the time we have invested into it; and we continue to make improvements at an approximately linear rate (without, so far, drastically growing the size of our team at a supra-linear rate).

While increased productivity isn’t the same as solving world hunger, or even more mundane acts of saving the world, it is a little bit nice to work on a product where the work we do is a net positive on human productivity. It’s certainly not going to save in the world, but it does help improve it.

Gold Rush: A metaphor for programming

Posted in default on October 28th, 2013 at 06:28:00

For the past several years, I have been a semi-religious watcher of Gold Rush (originally Gold Rush: Alaska).

Gold Rush started in 2009, during some of the worst part of the economic downturn. A bunch of down-on-their-luck guys from Oregon decide to lease a gold mine in Alaska, because they can’t afford to make their house payments, pay bills, etc. and figure that a get rich quick scheme is the best way to fix it is to do something entirely new that they’ve got absolutely no experience with, because they hear that’s the way to make good money.

Getting together 6 guys who work in various roles at home — from Real Estate agent to sheet metal fabricator — they head north in a convoy, bringing their entire families with them. They plan it perfectly, so that if everything goes right, they’ll have a whole hour to spare to get all the equipment they need to bring north onto the barge that heads to Alaska (otherwise, they’ll need to wait another week). Plenty of time! Until something goes wrong. Like the trailer with your bulldozer on it popping a tire.

This bunch of guys get to Alaska, and for the first time, they put together their gold-catching plant. Or try. One guy decides he’s going to go off and build a house for himself. One guy is too busy digging random holes all over the property. One guy has so little experience with power tools that he cuts right through the power cable to the tool he’s currently using. And they’re all living surrounded by, amazingly enough, bears.

Once their morphine-using mechanic finally gets their machine put together, it’s not catching any gold. They decide that the right solution to that is to put more dirt in. (Ignoring the fact that in order to obtain gold, you need *dirt with gold*.)

Of course, you’ve got other experienced miners around, who are very clear: The thing you do to make money is drill, find where there is gold, dig there, and so on. But these guys? They believe that so long as you work hard enough, you’ll get rich. All you have to do is *really care*, and the money will fall into your hands.

Over the last 3 seasons, the team has grown — they’ve actually become somewhat competent as a team, and in their latest season were pretty successful. But the first season (and to some extent the second season) were so much a monumental example of the pitfalls of daily life working with some programming teams that it’s impossible to ignore the likeness. Some team deciding that they’re going to do the thing that will work quickly. Ignoring past experience and advice, and believing passion will fill in the gaps. Failing at execution again, and again, and again.

I’m happy to work with a team that is good at avoiding these traps. A team that knows that you don’t start big — you start small, whenever you can. You start with proven technology, not whatever’s the new shiny thing (the $250k ’super trommel’ in Season 3 is a brilliant example of the latter); you start by consulting with experts, not pulling them in when your project has already failed; but most importantly, you start by thinking about the problem, and trying to predict what will go wrong, and doing your best to prevent it. These are important things for any team anywhere to recognize, and I think is a key aspect of the difference between success and failure for many teams.

Stay close to what you know. Feel free to take risks, but do them knowing they are risks, and don’t treat them as a sure thing. And above all else: Think.

User research talk at BarCampBoston

Posted in default on October 26th, 2013 at 13:50:14

Notes from user research talk at BarCampBoston.

4 types of testing
 - (Cheapest one first)
   Card sorting
   How do users like to categorize? Which terms do users understand, not
   understand, which terms they relate to other terms?

   simplecardsort.com -- 

 - Questionaires

 - Focus Groups
   - Good for finding out what people like
   - Bad at what people don't like
   - nobody wants to be the bad guy
   - You need bad news! They weon't tell you that in a group setting
     because it's 'rude'
   - One or two dominant speakers who talk over everyone else, everyone
     else is marginalized, narrow spectrum, wasting a lot of people's
     time.

 - one-on-one interviews
   - what does the person know
   - what does the person do
     - narrow
     - get them to estimate how much of what they do takes what amount of
       time -- daily, weekly, monthly
     - Figure out the things people are spending the most time on, and
       concentrate on *that*, not on the things that they spend less time
       on.
   - what is the user's feedback
     - What do you like?
     - What do you *not* like?
     - General feedback
     - People

LinkedIn Recruiters

Posted in default on October 26th, 2013 at 07:23:30

I just did my bi-monthly (as in once every two months, not twice a month; stupid English) cleanout of LinkedIn spam. I am surprised to learn that many recruiters no longer send InMails; instead, they just give you their pitch in a “Connect” request. Is InMail too expensive now? Or are they just trying to scam me?

meetings of the day

Posted in default on September 26th, 2013 at 06:23:22

Every morning, I check my meeting schedule. As a member of an R&D team with staff in a big company, I have many (too many) meetings. (In an average week, I spend about 30% of my time in meetings — some weeks, as high as 50%.)

Today, my thoughts are:

  • Ugh. an All Hands call. Wait. Is it really “All” hands when it only affects your team, which composes less than 1% of the organization?
  • Meeting Location: “A door-less, broken room in Berlin” — yeah, that sounds about right.

Things I might do if I did fun things

Posted in default on August 4th, 2013 at 22:10:36

Make a map of my trip to North Carolina, including route information and foursquare checkins; using the trip log I recorded, make a graph of average speed over various spans. Highlight all the points along the trip where something went terribly wrong.

Create a game out of taking photos of POIs — sort of like foursquare, but for photos. Come up with an algorithm to suggest what places should get photos based on number of times they show up in things like search results, or are clicked, and which ones don’t have photos. (I think this is probably what that Google thing is, but I don’t really know.)

Try to build a tool which can decide what place a particular photo is attached to via text recognition or by associated metadata on a photo sharing site like flickr. Start with geocoded photos; see if it’s possible to extend somehow to non-geocoded photos (though I can’t think of anything obvious).

Build a dotmap-style map of every point address that NAVTEQ has in its database, possibly adding in POIs or something. Also, see if it’s possible to rewrite the dot map as something that looks as good, but can be dynamically generated for lower zoom levels.

Using the streetview-style imagery that Nokia has, build a tool which would let users pick a ‘good’ view for POI, using a suggestion starting from a geocoded coordinate. This would probably involve building a slippymap based viewer for Nokia’s streetview imagery, because as far as I know, there’s no dynamic scriptable viewer for that data.

These are just a few of the things that I’ve thought of over the past month or so, but the motivation to do any of them is always pretty low. Maybe I should get a new hobby. Or weed the garden instead.