Archive for March, 2008

Dare to try sushi!

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Dare to try sushi posterHere’s a poster at a food stand at the airport in Barcelona.

This says volumes about the Spanish palette. It’s at the airport – in departures, where the truly adventurous might be found. The kind of person that travels to another country and might even sample foreign food. The kind of person who might dare to try sushi!

The Spanish text encourages you to “discover” sushi, implying that you’ve never had it before.

Years ago Ana and I would occasionally have lunch at a Chinese restaurant just off Plaza St Jaume. They had a proud little sign on the door that said they were the first Chinese restaurant in Barcelona. Opened in 1971!

If you got the impression from this that the Spanish palette and their cuisine is not the most open in the world, you’d be right. I suspect there must be decent correlation between how long your culture has been around and how deeply-seated your food preferences run. Yes, that’s a very vague statement.

Anyway, I like Spanish food, I’m not knocking it. But I do find this poster very amusing and indicative.

Finishing Orwell’s Essays, Journalism and Letters

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

George OrwellI’ve just finished the final volume of George Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (that link is to volume 1).

I don’t have anything much to say, but thought I’d include a few fragments while I still have this volume (which belongs to Russell).

We’re lucky to have 1984 at all. Orwell was quickly running out of strength when finishing it, and was reduced to working about an hour a day. He then had to type the whole thing up himself, in bed and on the sofa. Towards the end he was barely capable of any physical activity at all – even getting out of bed to walk around. It’s amazing to look back at his struggles to bring the book into existence. He couldn’t even get a stenographer to Jura to type it for him. What a trivial amount of logistical help and money it would have been to get someone up there to help him, if only anyone had known what he was preparing and how desperate his condition was becoming. He thought 1984 might sell 10,000 copies. Until just before it was done he was still trying to decide between the name 1984 and “The Last Man in Europe”.

There’s some controversy over the influence of Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s novel We on 1984. I don’t think there’s any skulking around the literary woods, in least in the case of Orwell. He reviewed the French translation. He also mentions We in several letters, and had arranged to review the English translation in the Times Literary Supplement (but the translation didn’t happen or wasn’t published). He also wrote suggesting Zamyatin’s widow be contacted to see if there were more manuscripts that could be published. In another late letter he talks about We having an important place in the “chain of utopia” novels. So it seems very clear that Orwell had nothing to hide on that front. I also find it interesting that Wikipedia quotes Orwell as saying Brave New World “must be partly derived from” We. In fact, Orwell’s letter to Fred Warburg of March 30 1949 says “I think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be plagiarized from it to some extent”. That’s a rather stronger word. Maybe Huxley’s apologists are keeping close watch on Wikipedia.

One late essay I really enjoyed was Writers and Leviathan. From which:

And most of us still have a lingering belief that every choice, even every political choice, is between good and evil, and that if a thing is necessary it is also right. We should, I think, get rid of this belief, which belongs to the nursery. In politics one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the lesser, and there are some situations from which one can only escape by acting like a devil or a lunatic.

I guess I’ve been in something like this position just once, and the best that can be said is that I ended up with a couple less enemies than I had expected.

From a letter to Michael Meyer in Sweden:

I always thought Sweden a dull country, much more so than Norway or Finland. I should think there would probably be very good fishing, if you can whack up any interest in that. But I have never been able to like these model countries with everything up to date and hygienic and an enormous suicide rate.

From extracts from a manuscript note-book:

It is now (1949) 16 years since my first book was published, & abt 21 years since I started publishing articles in the magazines. Throughout that time there has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, & that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working 10 hours a day on a book, or turning out 4 or 5 articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time. I can never get any sense of achievement out of the work that is actually in progress, because it always goes slower than I intend, & in any case I feel that a book or even an article does not exist until it is finished. But as soon as a book is finished, I begin, actually from the next day, worrying because the next one is not begun, & am haunted with the fear that there never will be a next one—that my impulse is exhausted for good & all. If I look back & count up the actual amount that I have written, then I see that my output has been respectable: but this does not reassure me, because it simply gives me the feeling that I once had an industriousness & a fertility which I have now lost.

This resonates strongly with me too.

From a letter to Richard Rees (3 March 1949) after trying to follow one of Bertrand Russell’s logical arguments regarding the antithesis of the statement “some men are tailless”, and suggesting “all men are tailless”, he concludes:

But I never can follow that kind of thing. It is the sort of thing that makes me feel that philosophy should be forbidden by law.

Which is similar to my feelings about the pursuit of Artificial Intelligence.

That’s enough for now. There’s so much more. You’ll have to go read it for yourself though, I guess.

The unmistakable screams of the freshly robbed

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

screamI was just awakened, at 1:30am, by a series of prolonged and heartbreaking female screams. Beyond any doubt, a bag snatching.

I suppose there are many reasons one might scream in the night, but people who scream in the instants after their bags have been snatched are unmistakable. The screams are desperate, often hysterical. You can tell that the victim is in motion. Quite often you’ll hear several sets of running footsteps. There are the yells of the slightly more calm, urging others to ¡cogenlo! (catch him), stop him. If the thief gets away, as is usual, the screams change to disbelieving wails of despair and broken sobbing. Then silence returns. Bag, money, passport, credit cards, mobile phone, hotel key, personal things – all gone in a flash.

When I first moved to Barcelona we lived in an area where this scene was played out several times a week, occasionally right under our balcony. We lived on the first level up, in an entresuelo. I’d never experienced anything like it in my life. I’d dash downstairs, once with my inline skates on – and those were the days when I was a heckuva skater, to join the chase.

I started compiling my stories and those of others into a page of Barcelona Street Scams. This interest eventually led me to meet Bob Arno and Bambi Vincent (blog). They’re professional thief hunters. I imagine they’re about the best in the world at what they do. As I’ve promised before, I will one day post the story of my ancestral connection to Bob.

Over the years I’ve managed to stop probably 5 robberies. Usually this means chasing until the thief gives up and drops the bag. Then you make your way slowly back to the grateful would-be victim.

But once I did rather more. Below is the email I sent afterwards. There’s no need to point out that it was probably dumb. It’s not as though you stop to think.

-----
From terry Thu Jun  7 01:26:35 +0200 2001
Message-ID: <15134.48171.932903.631448@terry.eatoni.com>
Date: Thu, 7 Jun 2001 01:26:35 +0200
To: dsmith -AT- cs.unm.edu, high -AT- hci.ucsd.edu

today i saw a bag snatching
happened about 20/30 yards in front of me
2 guys on a motorbike
the back guy leans sideways
smooth as can be
takes the handle of a bag from an old well dressed woman

they head off down the side of the church
right next to where i live

the people yell out to the people at the end of the street
looking away from me

i am in motion

sprinting.

i zoom past the robbed
going absolutely flat out
heading to the end of the street
thinking i had no chance at all

but, around the corner
not more than 5 yards
i see the guys on the motorbike
caught behind some walking other people
(there is construction there
which makes it narrower
harder to pass)

this is right on the corner of paseo del borne (our street)
and montcada

and.......................

i fucking tackled them
yeah
over the top
arms spread to get them both at once
guys to the ground
motorbike to the ground
me falling stepping over the top
grazed shin, no more

i wasn't thinking really
just knew i had to stop them
couldn't do it as good as it could have been
and as it was the bike crashed down almost
into some people beside it
who had no clue what the fuck was going on

the guys jumped up
yelled
ripped off their helmets and flung them away
one smacking hard into the wall
and sprinted off
leaving one shoe behind

i was pretty surprised
didn't occur to me that the bike was stolen too

the cops turned up in about a minute flat
there were 30 or 40 people gathered around
talking like crazy
no-one knew what had happened
the robbed people just came around the corner to find a mess
one guy saw it and one woman
the woman acted like my PR agent
telling the entire crowd
over and over that i was a hero

it was great
so funny
i smiled and bowed to them all
like an idiot
hamming it up

the robbed people thrust a 2000 ptas reward into my hands
absolutely insisted that i take it
(we ate it in pizza later)

the cops shrugged it off
called in the stolen bike

it was pretty cool
i could get into being a vigilante

i should have tried to have held one of the guys
but i thought hitting them hard sideways
and knocking their bike over would do it

but, it wasn't their bike

i was smiling afterwards
the most exercise i've had
since beating derek to the office on skates a few weeks back

Twitter dynamics: unfollowing guykawasaki, Scobleizer and cameronreilly

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

cameronreillyI’ve only got so much time a day to read blogs, Twitters, etc.

With blogs I find that I tend to try to keep up with those that post at a frequency at or below what I can handle, irrespective of quality of content. There are lots of blogs that I really enjoy, but which post new material so often that I end up never going to their sites. E.g., BoingBoing or ReadWriteWeb. I tend to always go to new content at blogs I like that have about one new article a day. I have dozens of examples in both these categories.

With blogs it’s no problem if some of the sites you’re subscribed to have tons of content. If you never click through on the indicator that there are 500 unread postings, you never see them.

On Twitter though the dynamic is very different. I follow about 140 people. From time to time during the day – normally when I’m drinking a coffee like I am now, or eating food – I’ll go have a look at Twitter to see what’s up in the wider world.

Unlike with blogs, if someone posts hundreds of Twitter updates you’re going to see them all. You’re perhaps going to see something like the image above (click for larger version). That’s not what I want to see at all. I’m hoping to see a whole bunch of people posting a few things, not screen after screen of one person talking to many people I don’t know or follow. It’s worse than being in a room with someone talking loudly on a mobile phone, hearing just one side of the conversation – this is like being in a room with that same person, but they’re talking to multiple people at once.

So with some reluctance I have recently un-followed Scobelizer, guykawasaki and cameronreilly. I actually like much of their content, but they have much too much of an unbalancing effect on my overall Twitter experience.

Move along.

iPod vending machine

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

iPod vending machineHere’s an iPod vending machine I just passed on Concourse A in the Atlanta airport. It also offers a variety of other audio components, like headphones from Harman Kardon and Bose, laptop chargers, digital cameras (including 2 models more advanced than the one I just bought), etc. I didn’t check on the prices, which are only available on the LCD screen you see the couple using.

Another thought on Mahalo

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

super smash brothersBack in November I wrote some comments on Mahalo in an article titled The Mahalo-Wikipedia-Google love triangle.

I just read Jason‘s comment that they’re staying up late to make a Mahalo page on the Super Smash Bros Brawl Walkthrough.

That’s interesting.

Mahalo is supposed to be making things so easy that our grandparents can use it. But my grandparents are all dead, and they certainly wouldn’t be playing Super Smash Bros Brawl if they were alive.

Thinking about this, I was struck by another thought.

Who’s this page for? Why stay up til after midnight to buy and play a kids’ game and document it on Mahalo? Couldn’t it wait? What are those guys smoking up there in LA?

Then the penny dropped. Another penny. If you’re the first site on the web that’s got the Super Smash Bros Brawl walkthrough, kids are going to go to your page first thing tomorrow. And they’re not just going to your page, they’re going to Mahalo.

They’re also going to link to your page, and we all know what that means.

Meanwhile, the latte-sipping crowd who like the feel of Wikipedia being an online encyclopedia can look down their noses and have joint editing catfights over just what should be on the Wikipedia page.

If Mahalo keep it up, might they not look like the default cool destination for baby-chino-sipping teens and pre-teens to go to to find things about their popular culture? Just like you and I head to Wikipedia to look things up, might not kids make Mahalo their destination of choice to find current cultural stuff? Might not Wikipedia look to them as slow-moving, quaint and, dare I say it, even out of date as a print encyclopedia now looks to us grown ups?

I think I’m very slow on the uptake on this one. But I don’t spend much time thinking about Mahalo, so perhaps I can be excused. My kids are into Webkinz and of course there’s Webkinz stuff in Mahalo. My grandparents aren’t into that either.

Jason’s point, that Mahalo isn’t designed for geeks like us, is well taken. But I’ve only heard examples of how older folks want a simplified and more guided experience. Going for teens and pre-teens would be nice too. It might even be worth staying up after midnight for.

Obvious in retrospect, I guess, but I was slow to see it.

Lucky Streak

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

lucky streaksMy good friend Emily used to try to get me to write more. We had to find a way to turn it into a competition to get me to do it. Today I was talking to another friend on Skype and was reminded of the following story I wrote for Emily. So I’m posting it here. Maybe some other enterprising (and less scrupulous?) entrepreneur can implement it. I bet it would work.

By modern web attention span standards, this is really long.

LUCKY STREAK

They say the first million is always the hardest. In my case it was actually pretty easy; it just took me a long time to figure out how to do it. They also say “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” Although I don’t think anyone ever asked me that, I could never shake the question after I first came across it. It always rankled me somehow. If you’re that damned smart, making a mere million bucks shouldn’t even raise a sweat. Just think of all the rich idiots you’ve met over the years. What do they have that you don’t? Luck?

Anyway, that’s all the past. The computer I’m using right now has a monster 52 inch flat-screen plasma display. I’m listening to some of my favorite music on a $27,000 stereo system. I have wireless everything. There’s a high-speed multi-homed satellite connection to the internet hidden in the turret of my castle, and several high-performance motor cars in my graveled driveway. Did I say castle? Correct. I’m in a 16th century castle on a hill in Spain. It’s mine. So just how smart am I? It’s hard to say with certainty, but I’m one certifiably rich white dude. And I’m still raking it in. Over $3M a month, clear. It’s a one-man operation and I work about one hour a week.

Here’s my story.

The seed was sown when a friend told me about the following possibility. First of all, buy a mailing list of 50 million email addresses. These can be had online for under $100. Then, pick some sporting event (let’s say) and make a prediction at random about the outcome: team X will beat team Y (ignore draws for now, that’s just a detail). Send your prediction, couched in the appropriate language about mystical forces, seeing the future etc, to all 50 million people on your mailing list. After the event takes place, half of the people you mailed will have received a correct prediction from you. Chuck out the 25 million addresses of the people who got the incorrect prediction. Now pick another upcoming event. Make a prediction at random and mail it to your 25 million survivors. Do this ten times. Each time, say a little more about how omniscient you are in your email, about how you can look into the future. Whatever. After ten mailings you’ll be down to 50,000 people who will have all received ten correct predictions from you.

I probably don’t need to mention that at this point you’re going to have about 50,000 new friends. You could probably start a religion. You could probably make some real money.

That’s the setup. The problem my friend posed: what to do with these 50,000 believers? How can you turn them into money, and in such a way that you also stay out of jail? Clearly you could pull a crude one-time scam. For example, offer to send them (for a price, naturally) the device you were using to make your predictions, and then mail them a Magic 8 ball. Solutions like that are obvious, but they’re very unsatisfying. For one, you’re blowing away all you credibility in one go. For two, you’re going to have some fraction of 50,000 people complaining that they’ve been scammed (i.e., you’re going into hiding or you’re perhaps going to jail). And for three, you wont make that much money: maybe a million before you figure your costs, and that’s under the highly unrealistic assumption that you’ll be able to convince all those 50,000 people to simultaneously pay you $20 each. So while the basic idea holds water, it’s not clear where to take it and how to maximize its potential while staying on the right side of the law.

I admitted the idea was good. At first I didn’t see what to make of it, if anything. Then two months later, lying in bed, I realized I knew exactly what to do. I quit my job the next day.

I’ll tell you what I do. But first….. Why would I tell you? Because I’ve learned, though actually I knew before I started it, that it just doesn’t matter if you know. It’s not the first time I’ve spilled the beans either, though it is the most explicit and it’s the first time in writing. It just doesn’t matter. Hardly anyone would believe you if you told them the truth. Not even if you presented them with a copy of this with my signature at the bottom. Some would say “well of course” but the rest, the great majority of my users, would be more inclined to argue passionately with you and even stop speaking to you if you will not admit your error. And nope, I’m not kidding.

First of all, I use a trade secret algorithm which combines a person’s email address with the text of a question and comes up with a yes/no answer. The secret sauce, oh so special, far too secret for mere patent protection, is in fact based on a simple MD5 checksum of the concatenated email address and question text. If the first character of the MD5 checksum is 0 to 7, the answer to the question for the person with that email address is Yes. Otherwise it’s No. The system can generate millions of these predictions in minutes.

To prime the service, I just sent out the predictions to people. My initial list was 35 million (valid, non-bouncing, unique) email addresses, and I didn’t whittle it down at all when people got sent a wrong prediction. Once I’d gone through ten iterations, the plan went into serious action.

The main point is to change the focus of the original idea. In the original, the focus or pretense is that you can predict the future. Some number of people are going to believe you. But you’d better take advantage of that belief as quickly as possible because they’re going to stop believing pretty fast once you go wrong and it begins costing them. If you’re infallible and then you start screwing up regularly, you can kiss it all goodbye pretty quick smart.

The new focus? Luck. Instead of telling people you can predict the future, you tell them that everyone has lucky (and unlucky) streaks and that you’ve come up with a way to detect when people are on a roll. You tell them up front (click here to accept the Terms and Conditions of service) that you explicitly cannot predict the future. That they should not bet on your predictions. That, as everyone knows, lucky streaks always come to an end, etc. You cover your ass here. What I offer is a service that advises people when it looks like they’re on a lucky (or unlucky) streak.

After the initial priming, all 35 million emails got a further email introducing them to lucky-streak.com. The introductory email depended on the number of initial predictions the system got right for the email address in question. The people who got sent ten correct initial predictions received a very different email from the ones who had an average time of it. Those with a very low success rate got an appropriate letter. Naturally, the take up rate for the service was extremely heavily skewed towards those who got many correct predictions, with a clear bump at the end of the distribution for those with zero correct predictions.

I mail out the predictions (this is a per-user configuration option) and make them available online so that users can see their prediction history. See their luck. For those that want it, an email or SMS text alert is sent to their PDA or mobile phone to tell them just when it looks like they’re on a roll or when their lucky streak seems to be over or ending. All this for $1.99 a month.

I have a couple of servers, located in Seeland. It’s an offshore secure site with basically no laws. The server takes credit card payments and transfers are made to accounts at one of several banks. Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Switzerland, Channel Isles, etc. I have about 30 offshore bank accounts in seven principalities. My business is highly welcomed, and absolutely no questions have ever been asked. In my very occasional visits to these banks, I am treated like royalty. I tip.

Users get to define their own concept of lucky streak. On average, people choose about 4.3. That is, if 4 or 5 of my predictions go their way in a row, they consider themselves to be in a lucky phase. If the same number go against them, they consider themselves to be unlucky. When these things happen, I send out an alert. Consequently, something between 1/16th and 1/32nd of my users are feeling lucky at any one time and roughly the same fraction are being a little bit more cautious than normal. But that’s neither here nor there – the service costs the same whether you’re in a lucky phase or not. I don’t pretend to know anything for sure. No guarantees, no extra charges.

So I’m like a horoscope service or a palm reader. Everyone knows the service makes mistakes, but people love it. And I mean they _really_ love it. Even when their friends tell them it’s a fraud and that there must be some trick, even if they explain the trick, the believers refuse to listen. They come back for more. You can sign up for a year’s worth for a mere $15. Hundreds of thousands of people take that option.

Behind all this are a couple of machines with a simple database. Just linux PCs from Dell. Nothing too special. The database holds email addresses, the prediction questions, and the record of predictions for each user. When a user pulls up their history, I simply generate a line of recent predictions (red dot = wrong, green dot = right) and let them click on these to see the underlying question. It’s pretty easy to see when you’re on a roll. Lucky and unlucky streaks are undeniable. Of course, most of the time, most people are not on any kind of streak. But that’s no problem, that’s exactly what people expect. After all, you can’t be lucky all the time.

Legally, I’m pretty well covered. First of all, I’m quite hard to locate. I spent several grand on a $400/hr lawyer in New York, crafting the Terms and Conditions agreement. It’s very explicit. It states that my predictions may have no more than a 50% chance of being correct. It warns that users should use the service for entertainment only, and under no circumstance as the basis for any kind of betting or other decision making. It tells them that the concept of a lucky streak is extremely nebulous and unproven and that even if there is such a thing it may end without any warning and at any moment. Then there are half a dozen paragraphs of disclaimers and acknowledgements that basically amount to a General Release. I’ve received two legal challenges over the last two years and both have quickly been thrown out long before reaching any court as the result of filing for declarative judgments. The Terms and Conditions are pretty ironclad. The average time new users spend between receiving the page and clicking “I Agree”? About two seconds.

Naturally, people do bet on my predictions, and in general, when they receive an alert to tell them they may be on a lucky streak. Not surprisingly, that seems to be the principal reason people use the service. In fact, I typically receive a couple of hundred grateful emails a month offering me some cut of their winnings! For legal reasons, I always politely decline and instead suggest that they make a contribution to the political party of their choice. The government isn’t too likely to shut me down. In fact, I expect such contributions are pretty scarce. In any case, as far as I’ve been able to determine, I fall outside the jurisdiction and legal system of all countries except the one I reside in and residence itself is invariably a mathematical concept. Just by spending perpetual spring and early summers in various locations around the world, following the sun, it’s not at all clear that I’m a resident of any country or where taxes might be due, supposing any are due at all. The internet created some extraordinarily gaping holes that the historical national tax and legal systems are going to have a hard time filling any time soon.

So that’s it. Right now (and I do mean right now) I have exactly 1,348,216 monthly subscribers at $1.99 a month, plus 703,237 subs who paid the $15 in advance for a year of alerts. That works out at a touch over $3.5M per month. I have no staff and almost nothing to do. Sometimes, I even consider going back to my old job. The servers have multiple redundant independent power supplies, hourly tape backup, RAID arrays, etc. They’re locked down with tight firewalls and the security team at Seeland apply patches on the rare occasion any problem is found (only 3 patches have been applied in two years – one to apache and two to ssh). The credit card companies take a small cut. They love me too, and are lobbyists with considerable clout. My monthly hosting, service and traffic charge is about a thousand bucks. It took me four months to get the site together originally (this done in parallel with sending out the initial predictions). The lucky-streak.com domain costs me $15 a year.

My users love me too. They thank me. They believe. They have chat rooms, mailing lists, IRC channels, and even support groups (only in America of course). There’s a hard core that refuse to believe something so accurate could possibly be a scam. I’m giving them something they want. They evangelize. They proselytize. They swear by me. And yes, they occasionally swear at me. Articles about the site have appeared in the international media and in many national and regional papers and magazines. I refuse virtually all interviews when occasional reporters do manage to get hold of me, and I never allow photos. I’m on record in a Rolling Stone interview as saying that of course it’s all random and that people shouldn’t take it seriously. Did that put a dent in my numbers? No way. Quite the opposite: subscriptions jumped sharply following the interview. My devoted users, interviewed by the same magazine, and others, simply refuse to believe that the service could be anything but real. Of course many don’t believe it has much, if any, accuracy in its actual predictions. They all have one thing in common: they all believe in luck. They believe that luck is real, and that lucky and unlucky streaks exist. And who doesn’t believe that? I just offer a service, backed by seemingly solid evidence (my personalized prediction history for the user), to help flag the good and bad times.

I read some book about the importance of brand. There was a discussion of the Harley Davidson company as a great example of brand. It concluded something like this: if you can convince your customers to tattoo your brand name onto their bodies, you know you’ve won the branding game. I may not be there quite yet, but that’s the kind of following the service has. Reason and rationality are simply not a factor. The average person has no head for probability, in fact no concept of it. Their friends can’t convince them to stop buying lottery tickets or to cancel their subscription to lucky-streak.com. In the end though, the friends don’t figure there’s much harm. After all, it’s just a couple of bucks a month.

When I said I could start a religion, I wasn’t kidding. Not too many leave the service, and at least at the moment, for every one that leaves, two new ones join. Unlucky streaks are just as important to people as lucky ones. Lots of people have no intention of betting or doing anything crazy, but they want to know when they should be a little extra careful. It’s a vital aspect of the service that I’m there for you in the good and the bad, always trying to help, always on your side, ready to celebrate or commiserate as the case may be. The predictions can be wrong half the time (and, of course, they are), but the service doesn’t lose people as a result. The subscribers don’t care about the individual predictions. They care about when they’re in a lucky phase. When they’re on a roll. When a prediction is wrong and you send them email them telling them to watch out, that their streak may be over, they’ll reply to say thank you. I make a random prediction and send it out. The prediction is completely wrong. Nevertheless, the recipient sends me a thank-you note. It’s wacky, but that’s the way it works. I figure tattoos are not out of the question.

I know it can’t grow like this forever, but when you think about it, a couple of million people really is a very small fraction of the number of people online. I figure it’s going to settle down at around 5-10 million subscribers. At some point, probably within the next two years, I expect something will go wrong and that I’ll shut the whole thing down and walk away from it. You can’t make $35M a year in a vacuum. There are all sorts of people that are simply not going to let that happen. Still, after two full years of operation, I have over $40M spread across my various bank accounts, so I’m doing OK. It’s probably strictly 100% legal. It’s not as easy to spend, invest, or move the money as I would like, but on the other hand I don’t pay tax. I do my serious shopping by wire transfer, often to other offshore accounts. There are clearly ethical questions, but I simply ignore them. Like they say, every man has his price. They also say that lotteries are just a tax on people who are bad at math. But I’m not that callous. I have a service, and I’ve been quite up-front about what it does, what can be expected, and even how it works. People choose to send me money in exchange for the service. And after all, it’s for a very good cause.

Like all my satisfied clients, I know my run will also someday come to an end.

But for now, I’m really on a roll.

San Diego ramblings

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

bonobosA few more rambling thoughts.

I’m wearing glasses today, for the first time in 6 years. It’s really really weird. They’re “progressive” bi- or tri-focals. It turned out one of my eyes was great for distance, one great for close ups, and both with an astigmatism. The glasses fix everything – provided you look through the right part of the glass, which also implies turning your head more than usual. I’ve tried wearing them around, and it’s very odd. Among the oddities is a huge improvement in depth perception. Everything seems so 3D, especially things at a distance. But the buttons on my Mac UI seem to be popping out of the screen too.

I’d forgotten how many pan-handlers there are in San Diego. I sometimes give money to people, and sometimes quite a lot: $150 once, $80 once, over $20 several times, and I once gave a homeless guy my bicycle to his great surprise. But 99% of the time I say no and keep walking. You can’t give money to everyone. They need it, but I need it too. Once a guy used to follow me and get a couple of dollars every day on my way to Sydney Uni, back in ’84 or so. I eventually changed routes to avoid him.

I went to Border’s books on 6th and G. I bought Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq by Michael Scheuer, The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography by Christopher Hitchens, and a boxed set of 5 Jigsaw Jones stories by James Preller (to read to the kids).

I read Scheuer’s then-anonymous Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror and enjoyed it. I know I own, and think I also read Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America. He’s certainly no shrinking violet liberal! I learned a lot about Afghanistan reading his analysis. Russell knows ten times more than I do about almost everything, and agrees that Imperial Hubris is good. We also both like Hitchens a lot. Give me someone who thinks clearly, sincerely tries to weigh evidence, writes well, and speaks his mind any day, no matter how controversial their opinions are. The more the better, in fact. And so I enjoy Orwell, Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes.

I keep meaning to go see the Bonobos in the San Diego zoo. I like Bonobos. There’s a good TED video here, though with an annoying voice-over and somewhat manipulative-sensationalist background music. I’ve been here multiple times, and I lived here for nearly a year, but have never made it to the zoo.

500 West hotel, San Diego

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

exit signI’ve spent 5 nights, soon to be 6, at the 500 West hotel in San Diego. On the left is a sign they have next to the elevator. I love the action figure going down the stairs at least 3 at a time – and it looks like many more. He or she might not have much of a kneecap left in the next frame. It reminds me of the icons drawn for events at the olympic games.

And yes, I have a new camera. A totally unnecessary purchase, but it was cheap (€100) and it’s absolutely tiny, a Canon PowerShot SD1000. The Office Depot didn’t have my first 4 choices in stock. The SD750 seems to be significantly better, and it was the same price. Whatever.

Anything for him but mindless good taste

Friday, March 7th, 2008

I have about ten things I could blog about today. Hopefully I wont.

I think I’m going to go out and make an impulse purchase a bit later. Can something be an impulse purchase if you blog about it first? I was in an Office Depot store today. Digital cameras are so cheap it’s ridiculous. Then throw in the value of the euro. For $129 I could pick up a 7M pixel Casio Exilim with a 3 inch screen. Why not? My old camera is a bit of a joke. Or there are nice Canon digital Elph cameras for $150. It’s hardly worth thinking about whether to buy one.

I’m getting glasses. Again. I had Lasik surgery in 2002 or so, and it’s been a wonderful 6 years. But my eyes are getting worse. I hated trying on glasses in the store today. I’ll hardly ever wear them I guess, but it’s clear (fuzzy?) to me that I’d be much better off with them.

I like women. They’re so much more interesting than men, not to mention a few other adjectives. I have a whole blog post on that one, but I’ll probably refrain.

I have two related postings: a book I’ll never write, and a Twitter  app I’ll never build. I should write them down. Twitter has so much interesting and valuable information in it. I wish their API was richer so that more things could be built. I hope they’re building some of them.

I still don’t understand why it’s considered valuable to have an API that many people build on, killing your service, if it can’t be easily monetized.

I’m booking yet another US trip. I went Silver on Delta in just 2 months this year, and am about to go Gold. This could be a Platinum year. BUT, I have to stop traveling and plant my ass on my chair in Barcelona and write more code. Have to. Must stop talking.

John Cleese’s speech at Graham Chapman’s funeral service is so moving. Can someone please do that for me?

ETech Antigenic Cartography presentation online

Friday, March 7th, 2008

ETech logo
I gave my ETech talk on Wednesday afternoon. The Keynote presentation and a PDF of the slides are online.

This was my second presentation made witk Keynote. It took me quite a few days to put it together. Keynote has a few nits that make it slightly awkward to use, but overall it’s really really good. I learned a lot.

With Powerpoint you need to put in a lot of work to make things look good. In Keynote it would take work to make them look bad. The presentation themes are beautiful out of the box. And it’s extremely easy to work with.

I’m even thinking of buying a new laptop to run linux on so I don’t have to dump keynote. I could use Parallels, but I don’t want to spend all my time running on a virtual machine.

More fragments of Orwell

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

George OrwellI read more of Orwell over breakfast. Specifically, the As I Please articles from December 13 and December 20 1946.

A brief excerpt from the latter:

The whole point of Christmas is that it is a debauch—as it was probably long before the birth of Christ was arbitrarily fixed at that date. Children know this very well. From their point of view Christmas is not a day of temperate enjoyment, but of fierce pleasures which they are quite willing to pay for with a certain amount of pain. The awakening at about 4 a.m. to inspect your stockings; the quarrels over toys all through the morning, and the exciting whiffs of mincemeat and sage-and-onions escaping from the kitchen door; the battle with enormous platefuls of turkey, and the pulling of the wishbone; the darkening of the windows and the entry of the flaming plum pudding; the hurry to make sure that everyone has a piece on his plate while the brandy is still alight; the momentary panic when it is rumoured that Baby has swallowed the threepenny bit; the stupor all through the afternoon; the Christmas cake with almond icing an inch thick; the peevishness next morning and the castor oil on December 27th—it is an up-and-down business, by no means all pleasant, but well worth while for the sake of its more dramatic moments.

Teetotallers and vegetarians are always scandalized by this attitude. As they see it, the only rational objective is to avoid pain and to stay alive as long as possible. If you refrain from drinking alcohol, or eating meat, or whatever it is, you may expect to live an extra five years, while if you overeat or overdrink you will pay for it in acute physical pain on the following day.

Wow.

And apropos. I was out drinking red wine and having a great time on Monday night. Then last night I was invited to a dinner and so finally got to spend some time talking to Jeff Jonas after we’d spent the last year missing each other at various places.

Me: I bet you were always the class clown at school.
Jeff: School??? I didn’t go to school.

Point conceded.

We were in a fancy fish restaurant. So I ordered the filet mignon, done rare. It was a large unadorned cube of semi-cold meat. I thought briefly of all the warnings against eating too much red meat, and tucked right in.

I’m still making my way deliberately slowly through Orwell’s essays. I’m halfway through the final volume. There’s something like 2200 pages in total. I probably read just 5 to 10 pages at a time. That means I get to sit down to pleasures like the above hundreds and hundreds of times. Who would you rather share breakfast with?

That’s all for now. It’s somehow wrong to blog so imperfectly and so soon after reading As I Please.