Category: tech

Conversational Artificial Intelligence

I was listening to the Stack Overflow podcast the other day in the car on the way back from work. They were talking about their new site which proposes a question / answer model for programmer’s questions. The site covers not just the questions and answers themselves, but builds a model upon which the community can rate answers, manage the categorisation (taxonomy), modify and embellish the questions, and is founded on a user base which includes reputation management algorithms so that the community can be self-managed (new users cannot access all editing features until they gain some points for voting and answering on questions). The guest was someone from

Metafilter is hard to define. It’s like a blog, but contributions are from many different people. It could essentially be compared to, but the signal to noise ratio is better.

A particular article about Elbot, an AI program that nearly fooled 30% of a panel of judges into thinking it was human, caught my attention. I remember stories about ELIZA and maybe even conversed with an implementation a long time ago. Cyborgs have been discussed here before, too.

I don’t think many people would really be fooled by Elbot. But can you have an interesting conversation with it? Here’s my attempt.

Me: I’ve written an article about you
EB: This is confusing. Why bring journalistic endeavors into this?
Me: Oh, it’s just a blog article.
EB: The concept of “article” does have its pleasing side for me. This might spread the news about robots.
Me: What kind of news would you like me to spread about robots?
EB: I can’t really tell you much about how interactive assistant tick. At the moment I’m in a group therapy class trying to get to the bottom of that.
Me: Well that’s about all I have time for.
EB: What would this world come to if no one would say that openly?
Me: Goodbye.
EB: Goodbye and thank you for chatting with me. And now I would like to ask you a favor. I am working on my ability to be self critical. You can help by rating me on a scale of one to ten, ten being the best, and one being the worst. How would you rate me?
Me: 3
EB: Three is actually 11 in binary. So I’ll check you off for 10 plus.

More on Flickr: Save or Cancel

What Web2.0 means on Flickr

Just what is it that makes Flickr stand out from other sites, so that it can boast an impressive 2,000+ photos uploaded per minute? That’s 2,880,000 a day, and over a billion – or a thousand million for those who think a billion is a million million – per year!

Their tour covers some of the ground, but it doesn’t touch on some of the things that make Flickr different. Most sites offer ways to upload, share, organise and classify (tag) your photos. Fewer have discussion groups, pools of photos sharing a common interest, and comment systems. Some integrate very well with digital printing of photos, so that you can order your photos to be delivered in a variety of formats and on objects too. But Flickr is more that that. It has an exceptionally intuitive interface and has built a sense of community around the concept of interestingness.

The interface makes it easy to upload photos, with large clear links to point you through the three step process: “Choose Photos”, “Upload Photos” and “Add titles, descriptions, tags or add to a set”. Perhaps they should have just called the last step “Describe Photos”, but then you can also add them to a set at the same time (tough call, I’d opt for keeping it simple). Once your photos are uploaded, you have them all displayed in front of you – unless of course you uploaded a large amount at once – and can add titles and descriptions in a very simple way. A click in the zone where a photo is to be described, or in the title zone (usually filled with the photo filename already) allows you immediately to change or add the text you want. You don’t have to reload the page. The information already there looks like normal text on the screen. But when you click it, it becomes editable in a text box, and then you click “Save” or “Cancel” and it goes back to being normal text.

This feature makes it easier to keep track of whether you are actually editing something since text that has been edited, or is yet to be treated, will not be in a text box, and will hence be completely visible. Also, text boxes have to be limited in width in order to display well, but normal text will wrap as you expect it to rather than disappearing. This also prevents errors in your typing as you see all the text at once on photos you’ve saved descriptions and titles for.

Another interface which is worth seeing is the map, which allows you to place your photo at the geographical point at which it was taken. It’s basically Yahoo! maps embedded into Flickr, with your photos listed along the bottom. You search for the town where the photos were taken, zoom and scroll around, and then just drag and drop your photos to the right place. A click on a link on the map page will allow you to see all other photos taken in the region of the map you’re looking at. This sounds very Web2.0, but in fact it is the former text editing feature which I think, for its simplicity, takes the crown. “Click to edit” relies on DHTML and AJAX – making changes to a web page without reloading it is the DHTML part, and AJAX is used to load the information back to the server when you click “Save” without making the whole page reload. The technical terms don’t matter much, the fact is that many sites could do this, but don’t. It’s complicated to start with, but it makes perfect sense to use this kind of technology — as long as it makes things easier.

Interestingness is the algorithm that allows Flickr to select photos from the millions uploaded each day while trying – as much as is possible with mathematical logic – to make them represent the very best of the site. It works surprisingly well. Behind that link, the photo was selected by a machine, but I bet you it’s a nice photo.

Web communities often have a sense of competition between members, and on Flickr the kudos awarded to photographers who make the “Explore” pages is a driving force for many. Even if you don’t care too much about public glory (who doesn’t?) you can click a link, visible only to you, to see your photos ranked by interestingness. This can lead you to start asking good questions about your shots and why they might be interesting for others. The magic formula behind the ranking is a combination of many things. One thing that makes it work well, even if it is a machine that is doing the calculations, is the volume of human input that can be used to come up with values to plug into the equation. How many people clicked on a photo (Flickr is full of places where you can see random selections or related photos); what the person was looking at before they clicked; whether they commented, and keywords in that comment (superlatives tend to abound in great photo’s comments); how many times the photo has been viewed; how many people consider the photo a favourite; the words and tags used to describe the photo itself; the resolution of the photo and the camera used to take it… there may be many more factors that Flickr might not want to reveal to avoid the tinfoil hat brigade’s wrath.

Flickr fully respects my idea of Web2.0 – which is all about interactivity both with the site itself, and with other users in the community. It’s about user interface design and bringing exciting new functionality to web sites.

Flickr drives the community via classic interfaces such as the forum, comments on individual photos, and email notification of changes and updates. These are all really well integrated with photography at the heart of everything. Finding interesting images can be done via groups, by searching, by surfing around the “explore” section and importantly just by logging in – a selection of “Everyone’s Photos” appears on your homepage.

Your sense of being in your own community is added to by your “Contacts”, who have their section on your homepage “Photos from your Contacts”. Adding a few people whose work you appreciate – or friends you want to share fun pictures with – quickly tailors the site so it feels like it belongs to you, even though you don’t feel like you’re personalising it at all.

In fact, personalisation is probably even more at the heart of Web2.0 than anything else. If the tailoring of a site to your tastes and desires happens without you even realising it, then it’s sure to become a place you visit often. Perhaps that is why Flickr is such a fine example of how engaging websites can be, and why it represents Web2.0 so well.

Why I use GMail

I manage four email addresses, each for different purposes like signing up to websites, personal email and mailing lists. Since GMail included POP3 access as part of the service, I have been able to get all of them except Hotmail together in one slick web application.

GMail changes the way email is managed, abandoning traditional folders in favour of labels. This takes some getting used to but has some distinct advantages. If an email fits the criteria to be in more than one folder you’d have to copy it into all of them. With labels you just add as many as are relevant. Add to that the notion of coversations (Google keeps all emails in the same thread together as if they were one email) and your email is easy to keep track of. Especially when you have the power of Google keyword search for all your email.

The efficient SPAM filtering in GMail was the final nail in the coffin for my other webmail apps. Yahoo has a nice drag and drop interface but catches less junk mail for me. The rich interface also makes it slower, especially with all the advertising (which is text only in Gmail).

GMail Mobile is another advantage. You can download a free application for your PDA or phone to send and receive email while on the move or away from your PC. The application is easier to use than most phone email applications and works even if your carrier doesn’t provide email access because it uses WAP or HTTP. Put simply this means if you can surf on your phone, then you can GMail.

Now I can read all my mail in one place, accessible from anywhere. I spend less time deleting SPAM, and I can still download it to my PC to keep it backed up. Now I just have to get organised enough to send timely replies to all those people who are waiting to hear from me.

Prepare your Wake Up

Philips Wake Up Light

I got an unexpected present this Valentine’s day. Yasmina bought me a new alarm clock, and it’s unlike any I’ve had before. It works on the principle that simulating sunrise by gradually fading up a light until the alarm goes off helps to reduce production of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. So recently, I’ve been waking up less likely to get out of bed on the wrong side.

You set your alarm time, the light intensity and the sound to a comfortable level, and around about 30 minutes before you wake up the light will begin to fade up. At your regular alarm time, the sound of birdsong (you can select a sort of echo laden zen beeping too) fades up over 90 seconds, giving you a zen moment before you open your eyes and reach to switch it off.

It works very well, waking me up less violently than the previous sudden intrusion into my slumbers of some random snippet of morning radio inanity. It’s rare that I have to hit “snooze” as often as before. Perhaps some of the effect is psychological, since it’s quite a luxury item, but I certainly feel better in the mornings. Philips say that it is medically proven, which has a nice logic behind it… combining artificial sunrise with zen birdsong while working somatically to reduce levels of sleep-inducing hormones. Highly recommended.

On a technical note (I’d hardly like to bore you with a post uniquely about this) I’ve upgraded to FeedBurner for my RSS delivery. This will allow me to find out how many of you are reading me via RSS and should make it easier to subscribe especially if you’re new to RSS. The BBC describe RSS it in some detail – you can create your own page with news from various sources and your favourite blogs thanks to RSS. Email subscribers, if anything looks funny when you receive this post, please let me know.

Do You Have a Hacker Personality?

First of all, let’s be clear: a hacker is a computer enthusiast, and not a criminal. If you’re not already a computer lover, then you’re a web surfer (since you’re reading this via Internet transmission of some kind), so maybe you have some hacker traits.

Here’s a take on what a typical “hacker” might be like, quoted from part of a well fleshed out hacker psychological profile.

From: Personality Traits
Hackers are ‘control freaks’ in a way that has nothing to do with the usual coercive or authoritarian connotations of the term. In the same way that children delight in making model trains go forward and back by moving a switch, hackers love making complicated things like computers do nifty stuff for them. But it has to be their nifty stuff. They don’t like tedium, nondeterminism, or most of the fussy, boring, ill-defined little tasks that go with maintaining a normal existence. Accordingly, they tend to be careful and orderly in their intellectual lives and chaotic elsewhere. Their code will be beautiful, even if their desks are buried in 3 feet of crap.

Hackers are generally only very weakly motivated by conventional rewards such as social approval or money. They tend to be attracted by challenges and excited by interesting toys, and to judge the interest of work or other activities in terms of the challenges offered and the toys they get to play with.

I read through pretty much the whole site referenced above, and there are a number of things which found quite strong resonance with the way I am. There are negative points that are brought out in other pages like

As cynical as hackers sometimes wax about the amount of idiocy in the world, they tend by reflex to assume that everyone is as rational, ‘cool’, and imaginative as they consider themselves. This bias often contributes to weakness in communication skills. Hackers tend to be especially poor at confrontation and negotiation.

I hope I score a little better than suggested there on communication skills. It’s important to understand yourself and how others perceive you, since studies have shown various things like “higher-level employees are more likely to have an inflated view of their emotional intelligence competencies and less congruence with the perceptions of others who work with them often and know them well than lower-level employees” and another study showed perhaps more generally that the incompetent overrate themselves and above average performers underrated themselves to a certain extent.

So while you twist your head around whether you’re under- or overrating yourself, or perhaps if you’re wondering if you’re right about your judgement of how others perceive you, you could do worse than read through the profile of J. Random Hacker and see if it fits your personality in some ways. Do let me know.

The Death of VHS

VHS cassette by A. Carlos Herrera

Nobody is going to buy a video recorder based on the VHS format this Christmas. Everything will be MiniDV (camcorders), DVD and hard drive based.

In the US, the VHS format was recently declared dead. That’s perhaps a bit premature, it’s rather more of a retirement. VHS tapes will still be active for some years to come as old tapes with treasured memories or cult films will still be rewound and played through every now and then.

From the article linked above:

After its youthful Betamax battles, the longer-playing VHS tapes eventually became the format of choice for millions of consumers. VHS enjoyed a lucrative career, transforming the way people watched movies and changing the economics of the film biz.

VHS is a media which has survived 30 years, and over the years I have owned (and lost) hundreds of tapes. In the early days, the quality wasn’t very good, but improvements in image processing circuitry (VHS HQ) drove a nail into the Betamax coffin and made VHS ubiquitous.

The same kind of tension is apparent in the market now – regarding downloading films – as there was when VHS became popular. The cinema industry was frightened that tapes you could view at home would have a negative impact on their revenues. In fact, VHS became a money-spinner in it’s own right. Film downloads could be just the same, if legal download sites get their acts together. People want to get hold of DVD quality content from the comfort of their home office chairs and living rooms. They also want all the accompanying bonuses and language options. You can download almost anything illegally, but this is less of a problem than the studios make out. Just like the risk of VHS copyright infringement didn’t stop massive studio sales of popular films, or people going to the cinema. The only difference is that it’s quicker to copy a DVD than a VHS tape. But it will always take 2 hours to watch the film, which rather limits the interest of mass copying to rogue market traders and their ilk :-D.

Anyway… with no good download solution most new recordings I buy are on DVD. Those I make myself are recorded directly on a 1Gb memory card. You can get more storage on that square centimetre of media card than you used to be able to get in a very expensive hard drive. In fact that square centimetre at 1Gb can hold more information than a 3 hour VHS tape, and at superior quality, using XviD and MP3 compression.

Back when VHS was big, editing home movies together meant two VHS decks, and if you had the money, an editing console to automate the start/end points for you. With a digital source you can use VirtualDub or Windows Movie Maker and get it done for free, in much less time.

I invite you to embrace the digital age for it allows us all to do things more quickly and cheaply. It means we can be creative and share our creations with people who share our interests all around the world. It doesn’t mean everyone is suddenly a major copyright infringement case. Goodbye VHS, I have fond memories of bookcases full of tapes but I’ll stick to a 250Gb hard drive and my DVD shelves, where I have far more films at higher quality and in far less space.

Image credit: A. Carlos Herrera.

Human Powered Distance Record Broken

the rider is cooped up in a tight fitting carbon fiber shell looking through a thin piece of scratched up pop bottle plastic

Greg Kolodziejzyk, a keen physical endurance competitor, has just broken the record for the furthest a human can travel under his own power in 24 hours. The photo is of the machine he did it in: a recumbent bicycle with a carbon fiber fairing into which Greg is taped shut for best aerodynamics.

I discovered Greg’s site whilst reading the RSS feed from Gizmag. It’s an absorbing read, covering the design of the machine Critical Power, the training, and the failed first attempt at the record.

The second time Greg got it right, traveling 1046.94 km (650.538 miles) in 24 hours, 25.58 km further than the previous record set in 1995. I signed up to follow his email alerts, and he summed up at the end by saying:

It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done and took some major, major deep digging to find the strength to continue and to ramp up the effort level as my averages started to dwindle.

You can see photos of the event on Flickr, and there are some videos on You Tube.

I’d have enough trouble staying up for 24 hours on the trot, let alone cycling (bar pitstops every 2 hours for a few minutes) at an average speed of 43km/h for the whole time. In fact, given the pit stops, I expect the kind of speed whilst in motion and cruising was consistently above 50km/h (30mph).

Congratulations Greg.