Archive for April, 2008

Google maps miles off on Barcelona hotel

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

hotel sofiaI’m a big fan of Google maps.

But sometimes they get things very very wrong. In January I posted this example of them getting the location of the San Francisco international airport way wrong.

The screenshot linked above is supposed to show the location of the hotel Princesa Sofia in Barcelona. They have the address right, the zip code looks about right, but the location is about 30 miles off.

Caveat turista.

Digital camera found in Barcelona. Do you know these girls?

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

tounges smallWe found a digital camera down in Barceloneta this afternoon. Here are a couple of the images on it.

Do you know these girls?

The menu on the camera is in German.

You can see why I’m desperate to get them their camera back.

three girls small

Paper on the global spread of influenza published in Science

Friday, April 18th, 2008

flu spreadI spent Sept. 2004 to Sept. 2007 as a postdoc in the Zoology Department at the University of Cambridge. We did research into influenza virus using a technique we called Antigenic Cartography.

I don’t want to go into details now or here, but I do want to say that we yesterday published a paper in Science. The paper’s title is The Global Circulation of Seasonal Influenza A (H3N2) Viruses. It digs into how flu viruses circulate around the world and what happens to them in the off season (summer) in temperate zones. This paper was years in the making. And if you consider the data collected by the worldwide influenza surveillance network, it has been decades in the making. As a result the paper has 28 authors, many of whom work at the international flu collaborating centers.

Here’s the official paper in Science. There’s a ton of other coverage, including stories in Science Daily, New Scientist, the LA Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Times Online, Reuters, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, and Scientific American. There are plenty more links (currently) available at Google News if you search for influenza.

I’m listed as the #2 author, but it’s really my close friends the first and last authors, Colin Russell and Derek Smith, who did the heavy lifting on making this paper a reality. It’s so nice to see the thing finally published and getting such wide attention.

Could someone please give Natalie Jeremijenko a MacArthur grant?

Monday, April 14th, 2008


Could someone please give Natalie Jeremijenko a MacArthur “genius” Grant?

Thank you.

I’m not in charge of these things, obviously. If I were though, I’d be hoping to see Natalie nominated so I could give her a grant. She’s a poster child for a genius grant (as is my good friend Derek Smith; but that’s another story). I just spent 2 hours chatting with Natalie in her NYU office.

Here’s a long article about her in Salon.

The MacArthur Foundation moves in mysterious ways. And so does the blogosphere. So I send out this tiny tug on the invisible strings to my invisible readers, asking them to tug in turn. Like many of Natalie’s many projects, a little collective tugging might do wonders.

The trouble with bitter

Monday, April 14th, 2008

When I heard that Obama had described people in small US towns as being bitter I immediately thought it was an unfortunate word choice and that it was probably something that wouldn’t have happened if he’d been speaking in Spanish.

The problem with bitter is that it’s an adjective that has a sense of permanence about it. It’s like calling people stupid. Other adjectives, like angry or upset, don’t have that sense at all. They’re temporary states.

In Spanish there are two forms of the verb to be (sometimes called the copula), ser and estar. Estar derives from the Vulgar Latin estare, to stand, and is usually used for temporary states. So you might say están enfadados (they are angry), and it’s clear from the verb form that you don’t mean that as a permanent characteristic. You can use ser and estar with the same adjective (e.g., feliz) to give a different sense of temporary / permanent.

You can’t do that in English, though. So we rely on the adjective to carry the sense of permanance. If you say someone is happy, a native speaker will know you mean happy right now, for the time being. If you say someone is friendly, you know it is a permanent characteristic.

Bitter is one of those adjectives that clearly falls on the permanent side of the divide. That’s the real problem with Obama choosing that word. He continues to make the same point (which I’m sure is valid) and continues saying bitter too. I think it would be much wiser if he hammered the point but switched to adjectives with a temporary flavor: angry, upset, pissed off, fed up, etc.

It’s funny how so much can hang on one word. I wonder if someone gave Obama bitter to use or if it just came out as he spoke. I imagine the former. If so, the person who suggested it should be given something else to do in the campaign. The stakes are too high to miss things like this.

Everything you think you know is wrong

Friday, April 11th, 2008

wrongI’m often surprised at how confident people are about their knowledge of the world. Looking at the history of thought and of science, you quickly see that it’s strewn with discredited and totally incorrect theories about almost everything. So I don’t understand why it’s not more commonplace to look at history and to arrive immediately at the most likely conclusion: that we too have almost everything wrong.

I don’t mean that literally everything we think is completely wrong. Some things are certainly partly right, or even mainly or fully right. But to have a high degree of confidence, or to assume we’re right just because we know so much more about the world than our ancestors did, or simply because we think we’re right, is just inviting ridicule. Considering our record, and our continual attendant misguided arrogance and confidence along the way, you’d be nuts to think that we know much today or that our confidence adds any weight at all. Many thousands of years of history argue strongly against that conclusion.

Thinking that almost everything is probably wrong in some important fundamental way is a useful default. That attitude stands you in good stead for digging into things, for reconsidering them, for asking questions at a low level. In mathematics when you know for sure that something is wrong (or right) it helps enormously in proving it. It’s a psychological thing. In my dissertation I proved a statistical result that I knew must be true from running simulations. It took me a week or two to nail the proof, and I would never have gotten there if I hadn’t known in advance that the equality I was trying to prove analytically was certainly true (pp 201-207 here in case you’re interested).

As an example of something that I think will be overturned, I think we’ll come to regard our decades of designing computational systems according to the Von Neumann Architecture as extremely primitive. Maybe that will involve some form of analog or quantum computation. I think we’ll take more and more from nature, for instance in solving optimization problems.

On a less grandiose note but still important, I think we’ll look back on our current information architecture and also see it as being extremely primitive. Or, as I’ve said before, we’re living in the shadow of information architecture decisions that were made decades ago. I think that’s all hopelessly wrong. In the real world, information processing simply doesn’t look much like a hierarchical file system.

Hence Fluidinfo.

And so ends another semi-cryptic and ultimately unsatisfying post. I do, as always, plan to eventually say more. And I will.

Individuality, transparency, and the cult of impersonality

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

entrepreneursI’ve been talking to people about raising money for Fluidinfo over the last 5 months. Along the way I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the process. I have a series of blog posts saved up. They’re mainly about oddities and discrepancies between appearance and reality. I plan to write them up gradually. Here’s one I wrote earlier this year but which I never finished. It’s still unpolished – but what the hell. This is a blog, after all.

In September 2007, Fred Wilson posted asking whether VCs should blog. The first thing I thought about when I read his title was transparency.

Increased transparency is a side-effect of easier communication between people. There are many relatively opaque human institutions and professions that have persisted for decades or centuries, relying on the fact that their subjects or customers were unable to communicate easily, to self-organize, to be widely heard, etc. Exclusionary access to knowledge is the foundation of power. As barriers to communication begin to fall, openness and transparency increase. Cracks appear in the walls. At that point anything can happen. The typical response is a heavy-handed crackdown to maintain or regain control. Examples are so numerous and widespread that any small sample would be woefully inadequate. This never-ending dynamic is just a part of the human condition and the nature of power.

But in some arenas, especially when there’s a market or in repeated games (a rich area of game theory), there may be a competitive advantage to (usually) smaller players who act disruptively to deliberately increase transparency. Those players differentiate themselves by (often informally) defecting from the (often tacit) group of gatekeepers. Advantages may include potential clients tending to trust you more, wide attention, and better opportunities. If increased transparency gets a foothold, there can then follow a kind of race to the bottom as players reveal increasingly more formerly-inside knowledge. This is also a drama that has been played out many times, and it’s fascinating and educational to watch.

We’re now seeing the cracks open wide in the VC world. The rise of the VC blogger has provided us with hundreds of eye-holes through which we can get some view of the works. The VC bloggers are implicitly calling out their less open colleagues, challenging them to open up. An extreme example is Venture Hacks, written by VC industry insiders, whose aim is to “open source” VC strategy in order to aid entrepreneurs. Then there’s The Funded, which shook the VC world as formerly isolated entrepreneurs got together (and in relative privacy, no less!) to exchange opinions and experiences. While The Funded is unquestionably biased, and based on small sample sizes, part of the fuss was unquestionably about control.

I awoke yesterday with another thought about transparency, why VCs should blog, and the curious dynamics of the VC/entrepreneur dance.

VCs should also blog because it allows entrepreneurs to see who they are as people. That may sound trite, but I think it’s quite interesting.

I’ve attended probably 50 events where one or more VCs takes the stage and gives some kind of a presentation. The presentations are very often excruciatingly dull. That’s because they’re filled to bursting with VC clichés. Even when VCs make an effort to differentiate themselves they tend to use clichés! They’re active investors, they have deep experience, broad contacts, want to help management, etc. I sat in the audience at Le Web a couple of weeks ago while several investors were on stage doing their thing. I wound up laughing with the guy who sat next to me, who I’d never met before. We rolled eyes at each other, passed notes, and ended up whispering nasty and disrespectful comments during the presentation. We were obviously there because we were interested to learn more, but we were served up standard VC fare. Steak and eggs.

The interesting thing is that entrepreneurs are a wildly idiosyncratic bunch. One would therefore expect that they’d tend to highly appreciate signs of character and individuality in VCs. Meanwhile VCs tend to keep things buttoned down and insist on making dreary presentations.

If nothing else, the existing dynamics are amusing. Wild-eyed, power-hungry, idiosyncratic, unconventional, and often deeply weird entrepreneurs are trying to act straight, to project an image of reliability, stability, balance, good sense, etc., in order to get funded. Simultaneously, the VC companies the entrepreneurs are evaluating, and who partly rely on being attractive to entrepreneurs, go to lengths to homogenize themselves – in the process washing out the very thing that an entrepreneur might find most reassuring.

There’s opportunity in this discrepancy. VCs who blog about themselves, in addition to talking about their industry and flogging their portfolio companies, may have tapped into this. Allowing entrepreneurs to see what you’re like as a person is a differentiator.

A curiously empty space in the heart of Manhattan

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

empty cup roomI was taken to lunch at the New York Yacht Club today by Ted Carroll of Noson Lawen Partners. By some miracle I happened to be dressed well enough to just scrape in – sans jacket and tie. It’s not the sort of place too many casual NY visitors get to see. Suffice to say, they’re a little on the exclusive side.

After lunch, Ted took me up to the cup room. Or the room that used to be the cup room. You see, there’s a slight problem. No cup. The room was specially built to hold the America’s Cup. It’s perfect, and even has a little viewing platform like the prow of a boat. It’s a beautiful space. And it’s totally empty.

I’m not much of one for nationalistic pride. But I couldn’t resist a little twinge of pleasure recalling that fateful day the Australian boat won the cup after the US had held it for 132 years. Bob Hawke, the Australian Prime Minister, appeared on TV in a bright Green and Gold kangaroo-covered jacket to declare that “any boss who fires a worker for not turning up today is a bum”. It was quite a scene. Good for yachting, I should think, just like when the England cricket team finally beat the Australians a few years ago.

Standing there in the exact spot that the America’s Cup had so immovably and confidently occupied for 132 years was really something. You could almost feel the sense of confusion and cognitive dissonance emanating from that empty space and flowing out to unbalance the entire club building. Ted took photos with his iPhone while I thought of Ozymandias, joked with the staff, and tried to sound like I was from somewhere else.

model roomThen it was upstairs to the banquet hall and model room. There are many hundreds of model yachts on the walls and in glass cases. There are perfect models of every boat to win the America’s Cup, and yes I checked out Ben Lexcen‘s famous winged keel. The accompanying plaque was careful to point out that the boat’s measurements were allowed by the rules. Unwritten: the spirit of yachting itself was shamelessly violated by the genius upstart designer from down under, but, strictly speaking, the boat was legal.

It’s quite a sight.