The right tool for research

Sometimes you are looking for something on the internet that is too specific for generic tools like "Google" and "Bing" to actually solve. I was given one of those the other day: "List all US astronauts not born in Ohio". There are four options for tacking questions like this:

  1. You keep trying multiple "general" searches trying to find a page that contains your answer by looking for specific words that might be on the list. Things like "Ohio astronaut Akers Altman" and find Wikipedia's list of astronauts by state. Going directly to Wikipedia might also have worked, once you know what to look for.
  2. Go and search for specialized sources, like "astronaut history" which might take you to Nasa's Astronaut Bios, where you can download a factsheet for all astronauts and build your list.
  3. Know your sources and look for specialized structured search sites, like FreeBase (a Google property now). And then build your search... Profession name is Astronaut AND Place of birth is contained by name is not Ohio AND Place of birth is contained by name is United State of America. Voila!
  4. Give up

The question on #3 is how precise is the answer. I'll say that it's ok... There are some US astronauts that don't appear when you search for "Place of birth is contained by name is USA". And the list of astronauts does contain some people that actually never made it to space, but it's the closest "precise" source that I have found. Wolfram Alpha doesn't have this information, nor does Factual or TrueKnowledge (which is overrun by ads right now - very sad).

The other question on #3 is how easy it was to build the query. Because I had played (and contributed) with FreeBase before, it wasn't too hard. The "Place of birth is contained by" part was the hardest, but there weren't too many other options. It was also a little slow, which made it a little frustrating. So thinking about people without a lot of background on data modeling and structured search, I don't think they would be able to use it. So it's not really there yet.

But it was fun!

2011 Gadgets - the year of Apple...

After Apple's ridiculous quarter earnings, it should come to no surprise the summary provided by gdgt on the most used gadgets of 2011:

gdgt Zeitgeist 2011

Where Apple shows impressive numbers everywhere:

  • 5/10 top gadgets launched in 2011 were Apple's
  • 5/10 top gadgets in 2011 (launched not necessarily in 2011) were Apple's
  • 2 of the top 3 mobile and desktop platforms are Apple's
  • 6/10 top Christmas gadgets
  • Finally, 8/10 trashed gadgets

Yes, gdgt's numbers are biased towards more tech-inclined higher-earning people, so they will be more Apple-biased than the average population, but it's still quite impressive. Let's see how long they will be able to continue on this roll.

Privacy-supported music?

I was reading this article today about a new record label, DigSin, that will be offering their music for free on their website.

Why Record Label DigSin is Giving Away its Music - from TheNextWeb

How are they paying for their music? By getting more information about who is listening to it! It's interesting how quite quickly people are realizing the cost of privacy, and the economic benefit that you can get if you are able to break that privacy barrier.

Today, as far as I know, Spotify and iTunes provide analytics to the record label about how many people purchased/listened to their music, and from where (I think that Spotify also provides time information). But owning your own analytics is always better if your business is around user analytics (analytics for this blog is great to have, but as I don't get any money from it, whatever the platform, Squarespace, provides is better than what I would have time and knowledge to generate myself). Also, they will probably request email addresses for those users, which is much more powerful than anything that larger services can provide.

Where is this trend taking us? A lot of more people knowing things about us. Is this a good thing? For people that believe that relevant ads are good for you, yes! For me: it depends on how and when it's used. If I can then go to their website and say: "Hey, I'm looking for something to do next month. What is something I'd be interested in?" and they would be able to provide me with artists that will be having concerts around here that I'll like based on my past downloads, I'll gladly provide them with my information (assuming that they have their security in place and I won't start getting spam in a few months because somebody accessed their database).

Anyway, I could go a long time writing about this topic. I've had the opportunity in my past to work on a few "personalization" projects and had to think about my "limits" of what I think is good for people and when we cross that line. Privacy is good. But recommendations (algorithm or human-based) are what allow us to choose in this world full of choices.

Windows Phone 7 Voice and Siri

I watched this very short interview with Craig Mundie for Forbes:

Been There, Done That

And it cracked me up! The second part of the interview he says that everybody is overhyping Apple's Siri, because Microsoft (and, if one should follow his line of thought, Google) has had voice commands on the phone for over a year now. The part that he doesn't understand is that there is a fundamental difference between what Windows Phone Voice does and what Siri does:

Windows Phone provides you with voice shortcuts to doing things. You can say "Call ..." and it will make a call. "Search ..." and it will use Bing to search. So, if you know the right phrases, you will get exactly what you ask for.

Siri, on the other hand, tries to take this voice recognition to a "conversation" level. Yes, you can do things like "Call 425-555-1000" and it will also call that number. However, it can do things like "Call my wife" and the first time you do that it will ask you to tell the name of your wife. After that it will know and will call that number all the time.

Does that sound the same? Well, now for a different example: I can ask Siri: "Will it rain today?" and it will reply with things like: "There is no rain on today's forecast" and show me the forecast. Again, why does Microsoft think that they have a similar product already? It's amazing and very sad how blind some companies can be from time to time.

RSS Feeds still alive?

Tonight I was in a conversation with a set of not-so-techie friends and suddenly one of those friends proclaimed her admiration for RSS feeds! That was quite shocking to me, as multiple people out there have been proclaiming RSS as a "dead medium" for some time now (e.g. [1], [2]), and saying that something more like Twitter, Facebook and Google+ are better ways of navigating and sharing articles.

There are multiple things against RSS:

1) It's focused on recency and not on relevance. That makes it very hard to use for things that generate too many articles or many updates to articles, such as some news agencies.

2) It keeps people away from ads, which is what allows thos companies to post the articles to begin with. So, in order for them to make you go to their website, they end up posting only a small part of the article and hope you will click through and see the full article and the full set of ads. Some sites do it almost right, such as Engadget. But some are just unusable, such as Estadao.

3) You lose all formatting and "metadata" that enriches your experience trying to read articles. For example, if you go to the NY Times website and read an article there, you will see that at the end of the article it will provide you with recommendations of related articles. Also you don't see comments and you can't easily enrich the article with discussions.

4) It's actually not very easy to use. Some websites have multiple RSS feeds to choose from and many RSS readers are very clunky to add new feeds.

So seeing that there are people out there that are not deeply into tech and use RSS religiously and happily is quite strange. Even Google that has one of the most popular Web-based RSS readers (Google Reader) is giving hints to be moving away from it, and focusing more on Google+ that gives you the possibility of commenting, aggregating to the top the most "interesting" articles (as defined by your circles) and in the end just forwards you to the content provider's website where you can see all the ads and features that they provide with the article.

What about me? Well, I still use Google Reader. From time to time I do go for a week or two without opening it, but it's not that I find a different source for my news - it's just that I don't have time to read anything. I did try to use Twitter for it, but I just don't follow enough people, and don't spend enough time tracking links (the problem with Twitter is the firehose effect - you either keep constantly up-to-date with what is going on, or you miss a lot of interesting things).

Facebook never really worked for me. Yes, I do have quite a few good friends there that share interesting articles, but most of the time all I see is my other friends talking about their lives. It's interesting, but doesn't really give me enough news coverage. And Google+? Well, I just haven't invested any time there at all. I still have way too few friends there, and even fewer that post anything.

So, do I think RSS is going to die? Yes! I just don't yet know what is going to replace it.

Printable memory - more than a million entries?

I was looking through my past emails today and I came across a new product sold by Inventables:

Printed Rewritable Memory Development Kit

I first thought the focus was going to be on the "printed" part, but actually it's just around being a flexible memory storage component. So I was looking a little further to know how much it can store and I read:

Each Thinfilm Memory™ sticker costs about 5-cents apiece in volume and each sticker contains 20 bits of data, corresponding to a lookup table that can store more than a million entries.

So it's a 20-bit memory. That by itself sounds very small (you can't even store 3 ASCII characters). So they call the brilliant marketing people and come up with something that might make it sound usable. Actually what they really are trying to remind people is that:

220=1,048,576

That's big, right? I guess it all depends on what you are going to use it for. If it's just to store some sort of multiple-choice configuration (should the toy say "hi" or "oi" when connected to the base?), then it's probably good enough. However, if you want to store things like a serial number so that you can track something, then you might end up hitting the limit at some point.

In any way, it's still an interesting technology. It requires contact to a reader, so that limits its usability somehow, but I can see it being usable for things like toys and art pieces (think of something you can control the color or frequency by switching physical objects on well-defined connectors - the memory is used to identify the object that has been connected).

New stuff

So here I am again to talk about a lot of random topics that I've completely kept to myself for the last couple of months. Busy months, but not in the same way that most of the rest of my year was busy. Yes, I have still been working more than the average person in the US, but it hasn't been nearly as crazy. Work changed to being much more focused on designing the "next thing" than actually getting something out of the door (the Kindle Touch). But I won't talk too much more about it, just that I didn't really have anything to do with the "famous" Kindle Fire, even though I did buy one and have one at work for development. I'll talk about it later.

More things that happened: my first niece, Sophia, was born and I went to Sydney, Australia to visit her (and my sister and brother-in-law, just because I might as well say hello to them if I'm there). It's strange to hear my parents calling themselves grandfather and grandmother, but besides that it was great. Australia is a country worth visiting! After spending a week in Sydney, we went to Tasmania for 3 days and then Melbourne for another 3 days. All amazing places! I'll post links to the pictures when I finally finish selecting a reasonable number of them.

After I came back, weather started turning colder and leaves started making a mess on the ground everywhere. But that didn't really make me stay home more often, as we are starting to plan home remodel phase II, and there are always many things to do during the weekend, just really prepare to do it through buying more toys:

iPad - Well, technically I bought this just before our trip to Australia so that I would be able to travel without taking my laptop and it worked alright. It's just that some hotel WiFi authentication systems don't work very well with the iPad (or iPhone). Nothing really interesting to mention here. It's an iPad and it's a very solid piece of technology. There are lots of applications for it, even if it's less than for the iPhone (and it's very annoying to use iPhone-built software on the iPad)

iPhone 4S - I really considered jumping ship to Android when I was switching my phone, but I wasn't very happy with any of the Android phones out there. Too many mixed reviews with people complaining about battery life, lack of stability, weird update behavior, etc. And I'm so used to all the applications that I had on my iPhone 3GS that I decided to be "safe" and continue on the platform at least for another 2-year cycle. Anyway, it's not a huge change from my 3GS. Siri is pretty good, which makes me use it quite often, but I'm not as bullish about it as many tech analysts out there, but I can see how it is the closest that I've seen to a real usable speech-based UI so far. It's certainly not something added to the phone just to catch up with Android (which has voice input, but not really a system that can answer natural language voice questions, like "is it going to snow today?"). It's always great to see technology moving forward!

Skyrim - Probably the most expected game of the year, for friends around me. Yes, there were tons of sequels this year, like Portal 2, Uncharted 3 and Gears of War 3, but out of those sequels that I've played, Skyrim is hands-down the best of them. Just like any Elder Scrolls game, it's not a very quick game (I know people that have already clocked something like 80 hours on it, considering that I has only been out for 9 days now), but it has the level of depth, intrigue and oddness that just makes you excited about most of the time that you are playing the game (not the time that you are lost in the dark trying to find your way to your next destination on the other side of the map).

Kindle Fire - as I've mentioned, I did buy one. At $200 it was difficult not to allow my curiosity about owning an Android device to win (even if it's nothing like your typical Android device). What are my impressions, you might ask... Well, it's not a bad device. There are quite a few things that work well, like the cloud player integration, the Kindle books, and the Amazon Appstore. However, it's also a little finicky at times. Some applications crash from time to time (although I heard things like that from any Android device), and only having soft buttons (including volume control) is a little weird in some applications. All in all, it's certainly a good buy, but I'll be more excited after a couple of updates (and I'm not talking about new functionality that I may or may not know that is coming in future updates, more about bug fixes and clean up of some weird UI oddities).

And that's it. As you can see, I can keep myself busy for a long time! And this doesn't even talk about pre-existing projects.

Angry at Flash updates

It's easy to be annoyed with the amount of updates we receive on software lately. Especially when you have many of them, like on my iPhone (and it's not that I have that many things on my iPhone, but I always seem to have at least 5 updates a week for my programs). Or when it's a Windows update and Microsoft decides that you should take it and they should restart your computer without asking (making me lose work that was running on the computer overnight).

Today, however, I want to complain about Adobe Flash updates. And I'll focus on two specific points on them: the amount and the information on the updates.

Amount: they seem to happen all the time! And, for some reason, my windows machine at work has both Flash 9 and Flash 10 installed, so I get two updates at a time!

Information: if you are asking me to update something, please tell me what I'm updating. I think that the windows update provides some information, but the Mac one says:

But then when you try to "See details..." you get to a page that contains the release notes to all versions, and not just what I'm trying to update. Thanks, Adobe!

Spotify and Classical Music

There are lots of discussions going on for some time about whether a streaming music service like Spotify, MOG, Rhapsody, Grooveshark, etc. The discussions go around whether it's possible to support the music industry paying fees like $0.30 per track listened, or even much less (source).

Things become a little bit more complicated when you get to classical music. On popular music, tracks are much more comparable: an album with 12 tracks usually takes 12 times more work to produce than a single with one track. So paying by the track is not too bad. However, when you get to classical music, it's hard to compare the cost to produce a single track for something like Morton Feldman's Piano and String Quartet that has one single "movement" that is 65-77 minutes long (depending on the rendition). On the other hand, you get things like operas that have tracks that are just a 30-second recitative between movements, or, if you want to go to the extreme, I have to mention John Cage's 4'33" (and yes, there are recordings of it).

So maybe you can claim that on average is good, but is average enough? Will this just create incentives for music to all be based on many short tracks and it will become less than it is today? Will we have similar quality reduction than the one generated by the famous "loudness war" that happened with CDs? Spotify doesn't think so, according to their blog post:

Why Classical Music Needs Spotify

But I guess it's their job to believe that music streaming services are here to actually save the music industry from the doom that digital music is causing it.

My opinion is actually that music cannot be ever treated as a "one solution fits all" for how you consume it, how you interact with it, and how you pay for it. The more the simplifying effect of mass marketing of technologies reaches all our experiences, the less quality we will end up getting from our diverse experience.

Whatever happens, no artistic expression will ever disappear. And I believe in technology. I think that we will probably go through a period that there will be a drop of quality to what we get exposed to, but I think that's just necessary to get the technology to stabilize and people to understand the actual economy of it. Then there should be another expansion, which will bring back quality and diversity with the right price.

It's just like when music recording started. You first had just live performance. And the sound quality was great! Then came the first recordings and everything was convenient, but terrible sound quality. Slowly then sound quality was improved with new technologies to a point, at the peak of vinyl, for you to get amazing depth of sound if you wanted to pay for the equipment.

Then we started a new wave of quality reduction in the name of convenience. We'll have to ride this wave, and on the other side of it I believe we will find a world where we can enjoy more of the things we like.

Mobile phone differences

I always find it fascinating when people analyze the numbers about how the mobile phone market it. Especially at a time when change is so fast and numbers are so easy to get (as now people surf the web with their phones, so it's easier to track who is doing what). The latest study that I found is provided by mobile ad company Jumptap, and quoted on TechCrunch:

Do You Live in An Android State or an iPhone State

There are many interesting things about the study, one of the least of them being the per-state information (as just showing colors doesn't really show the actual share in each state):

  • CTR on ads is still much greater on iPhone than anybody else. They claim it's because it's a more "premium" phone, so people click more on ads. I always thought that ads are not really income-correlated.
  • It's also interesting to see the reasonably big difference between the CTR on each brand of Android phone...

Anyway, data is always good.

I'm sheep

Apparently I just can't control myself and I keep just buying whatever people put in front of me. This time it was the Mac OSX 10.7 Lion (I think my first purchase on Apple's App Store for Mac).

So what are my impressions? Meh... It's not terrible, but it's not great either. Here are some points:

  1. Scrolling: I guess all reviews about Lion need to start with scrolling. They even have a little tutorial about scrolling when you open Lion the first time. So I knew that scrolling was going to be inverted when you swipe, and that didn't take that much time to get used to. What is weird still is that scrolling using the mouse wheel (yes, I still have one of those "non-multi-touch-mice" connected to my Mac), is also inverted. That is confusing.
  2. Full screen mode: Not that many programs that I use support multi-screen mode right now on my mac. There is Mail and iTunes. And I can say it's not very helpful on any of the two.
  3. Mission control: This is the way to actually quickly view and switch between apps, both in full screen and in desktop mode. There is only one thing that I think it's missing: allowing you two reorder the position of each of your "desktops" (especially because you can also switch from one to the other using a three-finger gesture)
  4. Power saving mode: actually what I want to mention doesn't really have to do with the power saving mode itself, it's just that I didn't have a better name for it. Anyway, one of the most annoying thing about Lion is that now when my computer goes into power saving mode, it doesn't wake up anymore if I move the mouse! I have to press a button on the keyboard for it to wake up. My theory is that this was done this way because of probably a future version in which it might capture mouse gestures more easily (like all the other multi-touch patents that Apple has filed) could be creating too much noise and would cause problems with power consumption... Only time will tell.

All in all... It's okay. Nothing that I've seen so far has made me glad I've upgraded. Most of the negatives are just really annoyances that don't really detract from my experience too much.

The only thing that right now I'm not sure where the problem is is that I can't read Google Reader on Safari. Apparently all the AJAX calls seem to be failing for some reason. As I haven't seen anybody else complaining about it, I'm assuming it's something on my side that is misconfigured, so it didn't make it to the list above. Will update if I figure out what is going on.

UPDATE: I found out what the problem with Safari and Google Reader was. Some time ago I installed a plugin for Safari to make Google Reader better to use, called "Better Google Reader"... Well, apparently with the latest Safari, it's not making it much better anymore. I uninstalled the plugin and everything is now working as well as it used to.

Lame-ish comparison between Mac and PC owners

I came across another one of those analysis between Mac and PC owners:

Hunch Blog: Mac vs. PC: A Hunch Rematch

It's not really that enlightening by itself, but I guess what surprised me is that the list of characteristics of Mac users almost 100% matched with my preferences (based on the options provided there). There are some exceptions: I watch Syfy Channel; I don't really strive to be different, even thought I don't like to be the same; and I dress more casual.

Well, I just thought I had to share!

Sometimes having a community is good

I was briefly looking at the teaser for EA's Battlefield 3 (don't really ask me why, as I'm not a big Battlefied fan - maybe just warming up to getting back to work) and the most interesting thing was a comment posted on the video:

WOW Nice :D but at 00:22 HOTEL = فندق not ق د ن ف

The amazing thing is that this appears for a second on the screen. I didn't even realize there was a hotel there, even less something written in Arabic (or somebody trying to write Arabic). The power of the community!

Openness, accessibility and potential

Time for another link to an article with a little discussion:

Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality by Sir Tim Berners-Lee published by Scientific American

The whole idea of the article is a call-to-arms to remind people that openness is what gave the web the power that it has today. Having things cross-referenced and accessible to anybody allowed a democratization of information that is unforeseen in human evolution. He then claims that the current trend of social networks that center the experience around you and builds a walled garden for you to live in is running against that powerful trend.

This is certainly an interesting thing to think about. But I think the point that he doesn't really talk about is why this is happening. I think it's a natural result of two major deficiencies of the web: security/privacy and discoverability.

The internet is scary! I know because I have friends and even family that keeps getting viruses after viruses because how impossible it is to validate anything on the web. Things are so open that anybody can post anything and give you a link to it. Then you click on this link to see what it is and now the only way you can see if it's safe or not is to actually read it. But when you read it, it's already too late. Creating walled gardens where everybody that can post things are authenticated and you can monitor all outgoing and incoming links allows you to quickly react to problems and handle them. Yes, there have been a lot of cases of malicious links being sent on Twitter and Facebook due to bugs on their code, but they were able to fix them. How long have been people trying to "fix" email spam? Or spam on article comments?

Another part of the scary internet is that you never know who is reading what you are writing. By having a blog I'm very aware of it, which sometimes forces me to not be able to fully express everything I want to talk about. What if person X reads it and misinterprets what I have to say? In a walled garden I have the ability to ensure that person X will never see it. Yes, there are concerns that some things that you write on those systems will eventually leak out, but again, this is a bug that can be fixed, and not something that works like this by design. I can delete anything I post, but I can never be sure that somebody will not be able to get it back from Google caches or the the Wayback Machine, or many other systems that are spidering the web storing data forever.

The internet is a mess! That's another very interesting issue: if you can post anything to anywhere, how can you find anything you are looking for? Well, there are search engines out there, but no search engine can ever be built to actually solve whatever I'm looking for. In this case, walled gardens don't necessarily solve your problem, but they limit it to something that can be more manageable. Yes, you lose many orders of magnitude in quantity of data, and quite a few in quality also, but what is the use of having high-quality material out there if nobody can find it?

I think the solution to organizing the web is still far away. We used to live in a world where all the information that we received was through a very well-kept social network: your friends, neighbors, teachers, the newspapers that you read, books that you read. The world worked, but was hugely biased and elitist. You were who you knew and what you had money to buy. If you lived in the middle of nowhere, you would always be a person that lived in the middle of nowhere.

Then came the web and everything fell apart. We suddenly had one big source of data that contained everything. Information was democratized. You could live in a deserted island and if you had access to the internet you could know about things as well as somebody that was living in Manhattan. And I will claim that that didn't work at all. You had access to all this raw data, but you still had no idea what was real, biased, fabricated. You could spend days just to verify one single piece of information. Amazing sources of information were created, like Wikipedia, but still people weren't comfortable using it.

Then came the social networks. What social networks give us is a way to get back to that old world, but that is not limited to whoever you can see in a day, or which books you have time to read. You can still live in a deserted island, but still have a curated view of the world similar to who was living in Manhattan. But there was a cost: now you are seeing the world through the eyes of these curators. You world became small and lost robustness. What happens if the person that is kept up-to-date with local politics goes on vacation? More than that: what happens if Facebook or Twitter are down? Can you still find your way to doing what you have to do?

I think what we have to keep an eye on, and Sir Berners-Lee is very good at doing that, is to ensure that this is just a fad, and not really a trend. We need to take what people that use Facebook and Twitter are telling us about the deficiencies of the web and handle that. On the article he refers to some open solutions to social networks and messaging systems that anybody can run on their servers and relate to other people's networks. That's all great, but they are still quite far away from the simplicity, robustness and usability mark that commercial systems can provide. I think the solution we should be aiming for is not to try to play catch-up with those commercial systems, but to understand what they are lacking and build on that. Build the safety net to catch the fallout from the social net. What does that mean? Well, I have a few ideas, but I'll leave that to some future post as this one is already quite long.

Social networks in Brazil

I read this shallow but interesting article on Estadão today about social networks in Brazil:

Orkut ainda é rei absoluto, mas já dá sinais de cansaço (from Portuguese: Orkut is still king, but shows signs of weakening) - I wanted to point to the original source of the research by IBOPE, but I was unable to quickly find it on their website

What was interesting about this article is that 91% of the people that use social networks use Orkut in Brazil. Out of the people in Brazil that use social networks, only 14% use Facebook and 13% use Twitter. Unfortunately they don't show how many use both. My guess is that a good part of those people are "social network junkies" that will use all the ones they can, and generally they end up finding different uses for each of them. Another interesting number is that the average number of "friends" that people have in Brazil in social networks is 273.

I wished I had access to the raw data here to get more numbers, but I guess I don't really want to pay them to get this data. Oh, well...

Google Instant, Wave and gmail... Time to move on... But where?

Google has been getting on my nerves lately. Maybe I'm just too busy and small things can cause me to overreact, but here is the rundown:

1) Google Instant: interesting idea, but I don't generally find it very useful. The main problem that I have with it is that it only returns 10 results and then you have to page through 10 results at a time! Very inefficient! So I decided to turn it off and get back to my normal use. This worked fine in the computer at home, but at work Google refuses to disable Instant! I can turn off with the selection on the right of the search bar, or on my preferences and it refreshes the page and Instant is still on.

2) Google Wave: yes, I don't think it was all that useful, but I was using it. Now they are shutting it down perhaps by the end of the year. So all this time spent setting up a Wave and getting used to it might have gone nowhere. Yes, I was an early adopter and early adopters need to deal with things not working out, but coming from Google it sounds silly. They have a lot of products out there that don't work, nobody uses it, but it's still up and running.

3) Gmail: my annoyance with gmail is the same as I've had in the past: it is too aggressive on trying to remove spam from my inbox, and classifies random emails as Spam from time to time. I have to keep adding people to list of "known contacts" so that they don't get sent to spam, but I can't keep doing that all the time. And the most annoying thing is that you can't know why something ended up there. Sometimes it's obvious, but most of the time I can't seem to find anything on the email to suggest that it should be classified as spam.

The challenge now is what to do about this. I've tried at work to switch to Bing, but there are a few things about using Bing for general search that doesn't work so well. The way results are grouped is a little less useful, based on how I've been trained so far. For example, let's say that I want to search for "wicket nullpointerexception dropdown":

On Google, as of today (because those things change quite rapidly), you can see a clear pattern: there are multiple websites with some results and some with repeated results, because they are showing the same thing: the archive of the mailing list. On the first page of results you can see nabble, mail-archive, osdir, archiveorange, and mail-archives.apache.org all showing the same fundamental results from their users mailing list. The "great" thing about the Google results is that I can easily spot it, look at the quality of the results and decide whether my question might be on those mailing lists or not. If they are, I can choose one of them and select "see more results from ...". If not, I can just ignore them.

On Bing things are quite different. All results are mixed in and you can't easily spot when it's a mailing list and when it's the Wicket wiki page, or their old sourceforge page. The relevance itself is about the same (an actually pretty bad, as most of those types of queries), so not being able to effectively filter and dig deeper into the results is a pretty bid disadvantage.

So what is the conclusion? Well, I can't do Google with only 10 results per page, and I suffer through Bing, so maybe I should try my hand again on giving up on general search and just keep links to "specialized" pages, like searching mailing lists directly, or doing code search on koders.com, or something else that I don't know of yet. I tried to do that before, but it never worked for very long. Maybe I just didn't have enough motivation then.

Now onto the next topic: Google Wave. This one is trickier, because I haven't really tried anything else yet. So I'll leave this topic for future analysis.

gmail... Being a front-end for one of the oldest technologies around the web, there must be equivalent offerings out there, right? Well, unfortunately no. People have found that email doesn't really make money, so nobody has really invested in it. There are only two "better" options that I can think of:

 

  1. Giving up online access and believe in ubiquity of mobile devices and make my iPhone my email client of choice. I can still write longer emails on "crappy" web email clients, but leave the iPhone to do all the display. The problem with this solution is that the iPhone mail client is still quite crappy. The inability to batch select items and mark them as read is very annoying when you subscribe to mailing lists that have some discussions I don't really care to read at all. So not optimal, but maybe do-able, considering that I don't really receive that many emails on my inbox (I have a lot of emails that are auto-archived to mailing lists - those I'll handle next)
  2. Give up on email. Yes, I know I can't really give up on email, the same reason why I can't give up on snail-mail. But I can greatly reduce its usage. For mailing lists I can use the multiple online interfaces (some of them I mentioned above on the search result) and stop subscribing to them directly. For alerts that I receive from some companies, I can just visit their websites. For talking with friends, I could use other means, like twitter, Facebook (ugh), text messages or many other messaging solutions.

 

So, as you can't see, they aren't much better, but they provide a little bit of a solution.

What is next? Well, I'll start implementing some of those things. I'll get back to my plan of not using web search, I'll start reducing the email that I receive and see if I can at least get it to only receiving personal email on gmail (yes, I can't see myself going the Facebook direction). Let's see how it goes.

Another Google property that I use more than I actually enjoy is Google Reader. But I didn't want to go that way yet. I've been playing with Digg, but it hasn't worked quite as well. Maybe I just don't have enough friends there.

So little time and dealing with Gmail going crazy

I've been having very little time lately to sit down and think, which has reflected on my lack of posts on my blog. This month is going to be like this, considering that after that I'll be on vacation in Spain for 2 1/2 weeks. 

And in the middle of all this, Gmail decides to get back to the 1-false-positive-spam-a-day mode, which forces me to read all my junk mail and identify what Gmail has classified as spam and it shouldn't have. And it has been almost 1 a day, or maybe about 5 a week, which is quite terrible. I've done an analysis before and Gmail used to have about 6 false-positives a month. Well, it's been about 20 this month, so there is something wrong about it. I even know people that have decided to completely disable the spam detection on Gmail (which is not something easy to do), because it had so many false positives. And what to do about it? Whine on your blog!

Customer tracking is good, but should you act on it?

The other day I followed a link on one email I received that took me to a set of products by a company (to remain unnamed here, because I prefer philosophical discussions and not trashing specific companies). I was just curious of what they had, read their offerings and closed the browser window. Nothing really surprising here.

What surprised me was that in the next day I receive an email from somebody at this company saying that they know that I've accessed their website looking at product X and if I had any question, I could contact this person.

I am very well aware that it's easy to track specific customers to know where they went on your site. It's even easier if you send them an email and they click a link on the email to go to the site. It's also very helpful to do that, so that I know how well your campaigns are working and how "real" each customer is. But using this information to personally contact the customer saying "I know what you did yesterday!" is probably going too far.

On one side, it shows you are interested. It tries to put that human touch you'd receive in a store: when you are walking around a set of products, it's common for a sales person to come around and ask if you have any questions on those products. That's the connection they are probably trying to accomplish with that email.

However, connections on the internet are psychologically very different from those in a physical store. It requires less commitment to visit a website than to enter a store, so it's more common for people to be just browsing on a website than on a store. And it's very annoying to get a sales person come to you asking if you need help when you are just browsing.

So my suggestion is: yes, use the great ability that the internet provides you to track your clients so that you can better understand how you can make their lives easier (for example, if they all go through 5 clicks to know your shipping policy, then make it easier for them to find it; if every time they look for product X they end up clicking around to get to product Y, provide them with a direct link).

However, if you want to make a personal connection with the customers, understand the context of the customer first. Remember that you can't see his face, you don't know if he is trying to make eye contact, or trying to avoid eye contact. Be aware of that, and you will keep them coming back. Be unaware of it, and they will stop clicking on your links (like me).

Puzzled by Windows 7

I think I'm becoming an annoying user... Last weekend I spent some time looking into slideshow software (for obvious reasons). I installed a couple of sample programs on my Mac and on Windows and today I decided to clean some of them up. I'm not going to talk about the fact that the Mac doesn't really have an "uninstall" feature, only going to the programs and throwing them in the trash (that removes the application, but could leave some configurations behind). I'm going to talk about uninstalling a program from the "great" Windows 7.

I went through my normal procedure of going through the Control Panel and looking for something like "Add or Remove Programs" that is now called "Programs and Features". From the program panel I see the list of programs that exist to uninstall and read the following message:

Wait a minute... If I want to uninstall a program, why do I want to click on "Change" or "Repair"? This sounds very confusing... But the more confusing thing is that I can click on a program and sometimes I only get "Uninstall" and "Repair" options and the instructions said that I could "Change" too! Couldn't they at least have "Change" there but grayed out?

Finally, why is "Uninstall" something that appears by "Organize" (that is always there)? Why is this supposed to be a natural place to find this option?

Anyway, maybe I'm just becoming a grumpy old man.