Monthly Archives: September 2006

I Went To Hack Day and It Was Pretty Good

I just got back from “Yahoo! Hack Day”, an ultra-nerdy convention of sorts put on at Yahoo! in Sunnyvale. It was sort of reminiscent of the now-defunct MacHack conventions I went to in the early naughties (2000 and 2001 I think) except it was free, more conveniently located here in Silicon Valley instead of Detroit (?!?!? I know there is a perfectly logical story behind why MacHack was in Detroit that I would knowingly nod my head at while I was hearing, but I repeat: ?!?!?), and more focused on web technologies (Yahoo! APIs, specifically).

I went there right after work on Friday, checked in, and put my name on the “looking for teammates” whiteboard. There was free pizza, and then a concert outside by Beck. The concert was fine — there were a lot of hangers-on (hanger-ons?), folks who were there just for the concert — but I was distracted by brainstorming about what I would do for the veritable hack contest that was about to start. By the way, Beck seems to really be into marionettes. I do love a good puppet show.

I met up with a clever young whippersnapper by the name of Sandro who was also interested in using the web development tools that I have been using lately (“Django” — see and we went through some ideas and finally settled on what he cleverly called Flick Rel8. It’s sort a license-platey name. It’s a game: we download pointers to a bunch of Flickr images that are labeled with popular tags. Then we show three images with tag A is a row, followed by a stack of four images with tags A, B, C, D in some random order. The user has to guess which of the four images has the same tag as the first three.

The tag is not displayed (although it is available as a hint). So you have to look at the images and figure out what they have in common… and then find a fourth image that has the same thing. It’s like the SAT, Flickr-style.

We spent a lot of time developing and not a lot trying it, so I still don’t know if it ends up being fun. I don’t think it was that fun with the data set we had, but I think you could make it fun, especially if you limited the tag list to a certain class of tags — maybe concrete nouns and adjectives. For example, “2006” is a pretty lame tag for this purpose.

The conference staff showed us clips from that indicated that every local news channel had a story about the conference.. Yahoo! must have some killer publicists. One dorky reporter disclosed the difference between “hackers” who are talented computer folk who mean no harm and “crackers” who try to break into computers. The irony was that he was the biggest cracker of them all.

Then at 3 PM, our hours of manic work came to an end. The 55-some odd teams took turns displaying their hacks. We were number 32. I started off with a joke that I knew would work with that audience, and indeed, it got a big laugh. It’s interested being able to not appear nervous in front of a crowd and to be able to be confident about getting a laugh.

All the stories had this spin that seemed to try to make the conference seem elite, or cool, or possibly even hip. I think Beck being there added to that sheen. I dunno, I think nerds are by definition not very cool. See Paul Graham’s essay on this. But so what? Why can’t things just be what they are?

All in all, a good time. I am exhausted, and I did not even stay up all night, as some people did (many camped out on the lawn). I met some good people. And I got to hack on computers, a thing I’ve been enjoying a lot more of lately.

MySpace Dot Count

Being a computer hacker and software guy, I pay attention. As you may know, I think as far as software goes, MySpace is the web equivalent of Microsoft Windows: ugly, cluttered with awkward functionality, bug-ridden, but everyone uses it because everyone else does. Well, except I don’t use Microsoft Windows. If only Friendster were compatible with MySpace.

An example of the just plain stupidity of MySpace struck me today as I looked at my comments list. At the top of the list was the notation

“Display 37 of 36 Comments”

I didn’t bother to count if I had 36 or 37 comments (or who knows, maybe some other number), but how do you manage to get the “page count” of comments larger than the “total number” of comments? That’s a special kind of carelessness.

Backpedalling to Philadelphia

The other night I noticed that my TiVo had recorded another couple of episodes of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” (as recommended here last week), so I sat down with warm anticipation and watched them.

Wouldn’t you know, these episodes were much more difficult to watch and much more unpleasant and difficult to recommend. I think if I had seen them first, I would not have recommended the show.

Having seen four episodes now, I have noticed a common thread. Each episode has a plot based around a taboo subject. The first episode dealt with welfare, unemployment insurance, and crack use. The second dealt with intergenerational sex as revenge (sleeping with an adversary’s parent). I found both amusing. Then I saw two the other night. One was about coaching children to use dirty tricks to win at basketball, including being violent. The second was about boxing and street fighting, and also including a lot of very unpleasant violence.

Maybe it’s me — I prefer sex, drugs and laziness to violence. But what do you expect — I am a liberal.

I’ll keep watching.

Salty Dog

I work on the top floor in a glorious building on an immaculate campus in the middle of nowhere, although technically in Redwood City. We have spectacular views of various cities on the so-called peninsula, but most notably, views of several shallow rectangular holding ponds that for months have been filled with the strangest reddish water I’d seen for some time.(A satellite view courtesy of Google is here. Our building is in the zoo of buildings just above the weird pink ponds, the second from the left.)

These ponds are owned by Cargill Salt. I guess they fill them with water from the bay, then let them dry. All summer long, I’d been staring at the ponds as they turned redder and redder and seemed to get shallower and shallower. The other day, I noticed some small white mounds sticking out of the ponds. I assumed they were salt but did not think much of it. I did notice the colour of the ponds changing dramatically that day at work, but thought it was just a trick of the light as the sun was reflecting off it directly.

After the long Labour Day weekend, I drove to work and was started to see the pond all white. I was in Utah last summer, and drove through the Great Salt Flats, and this was pretty much exactly the same. In the matter of just a few hours, the last of the water dried up, leaving behind pure salt flats. It looked like it had snowed in September.

It made me want to get out my ice skates and give it a go.

It’s Often Sunny in California Too

I was talking to someone recently about one of my favourite shows “The Office” suggesting that it’s the best show on TV, and this person countered with “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”. I had not seen this show. I had seen the ads on MySpace, and since to me MySpace seems to generally hawk brain-dead, IQ-lowering pablum, I assume that the show would not be for me. However, after this respectful suggestion, I thought I would give it a chance.So I set up Mr. TiVo to record every episode (the so-called “Season’s Pass”) and came back to it (“him”?) later and found two episodes. I watched one last night which I found interesting (the brother and sister character get addicted to crack in a silly, but surprisingly credible way). I watched the other today, which I found most compelling.

I’m happy to report that I found the shows to be original, clever, interesting and, indeed, funny. I’m still new to the show so I have trouble telling the male characters apart because they all look so generically similar, but I’m sure this problem will work itself out. And I will tune in again.

I was also surprised to hear the “s” word, unedited, several times in each episode. On commercial TV. Sure, it’s cable (which is the only reason it’s legal), but there is advertising. There are advertisers willing to buy ads in a show with swearing! The future is great.

In summary: watch a couple episodes and see what you think. If you’ve seen it, please comment with your assessment.

I was on TV and it was OK

One recent Thursday afternoon, I was working in a cafe on my work at “home” day. This place has free wireless, so there were quite a few folks with computers scattered about with both Macs and PCs. (I use a Mac.)

Then this guy came in to say that they were filming a story for channel 2 news about the Apple battery recall. He went around to each person individually and explained that they were going to take some background shots for the story and asked if it would be okay to be included. I was fine with it. For the next hour, the cameraman did as he explained. I also saw the reporter talking with someone, presumably about the story.

The next day at work, a coworker came up to me and said that he saw me on the TV news the previous night. It was just for a few seconds, but he says he pointed at the screen and said “I know that guy!” (I didn’t have the heart to mention that I was there during office hours.)

This is the second time I’ve been on TV news this year. In May, a coworker told me that she saw me on TV waiting at the starting line in the Bay to Breakers. So far, I’m handling the paparazzi with cool indifference.

The purpose of this entry really is twofold. The first is to brag about how I’ve been on TV. The second is to wonder out loud why people brag about being on TV even in such incidental instances such as this. It was really just a matter of being in the right place at the right time; I didn’t really “deserve” it.

Okay, sure I wasn’t home, which increases my broadcast odds (not a lot of filming goes on inside my apartment) — and I guess both times I was at a place or event which the media considers a place “to see and be seen” (a concept I find abhorrent). But the pride one feels and the recognition one gets seems all out of proportion to the actual significance. It’s as though fame (lame as it is in this circumstance) is an intrinsic currency to humanity that is universally understood and ingrained over years of social evolution. That is, people have evolved to value fame even if it’s just for fame’s sake.

The relatively recent invention of television (relative to how long people have been around) increases this fame exposure by an order of magnitude. I’m not sure social evolution has been able to catch up. People exaggerate the significance of being on television. Except since everyone does it, it’s not really an exaggeration. C’mon, when I say “Hey I was on TV”, don’t you just for a moment sit up and think, “Oh wow, pretty cool.”

Please everyone, welcome me to world of attention whore-dom.