May 30, 2003

Puzzling interview questions

A nice list of technical interview questions, although unfortunately it doesn't have an RSS feed :-)

(via Critical Section)

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Only give up as much privacy as is necessary

Jon Udell posts some interesting information about data privacy in his article on translucent databases. The idea is that the database even hides data from itself, so, for example, As a thought experiment, he's investigating to what degree an e-commerce system like Amazon could work translucently. Some aspects of this are seemingly straightforward. By keying your purchase history to the hash of your name and a password known only to you, for example, Amazon could in theory deliver all the personalization you expect, and do all the aggregate analysis it needs to do, without tying your name to purchase records. Why do we personalize data more than is necessary?

Still, Amazon obviously has to store your name somewhere, plus your credit card number and street address, in order to do the e-commerce dance, right? Well, actually, no, it does not need to store those data, it needs your permission to use them -- and a means to access them.

And following some of the links on that page, I found this quote about "minimal disclosure certificates" - A woman who wanted to gain access to a web site for a cancer survivors group might use minimal disclosure certificates to prove to the web site that she was a woman over 21 who had breast cancer without revealing her name or address. Minimal disclosure certificates were invented by the mathematician Stefan Brands and exclusively licensed in February 2000 to the Canadian corporation Zero Knowledge Systems.

Nice ideas.

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May 28, 2003

The future of mobile text entry? today had an article about tx4u - which is being touted as the next generation of predictive text by its creators AirTx. It predicts words, rather than just characters, and allegedly learns your vocabulary and common word patterns.

Sounds cool if it works, it's fairly obvious (I think) that predictive text would be improved if it took some of the surrounding context into account when choosing the most likely word, and if this goes a step further than that, then all the better.

Unfortunately, the demo available on the AirTx website doesn't really convince me, as it doesn't show the learning process and asks me to just assume that it can guess exactly what it says I want to type... at which point it works perfectly! I guess they're marketing it at device manufacturers rather than consumers, but it's a shame there isn't a version I can download onto my 7650 or somesuch.

Update: Okay, just noticed there are advanced demos that make it all a bit more believable, but I'd still like to play with it myself (or is it that I'd like to have it to use :-)

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May 27, 2003

Social structure of groups

Interesting article from Clay Shirky on Social Structure In Social Software which gives some background research into how groups function (or don't function). It also mentions Robert's Rules Of Order, which seem to be a set of rules for conducting meetings (very familiar to anyone who's been to any commitee meeting I think) according to this introduction.

(via d2r)

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May 26, 2003

Who's reading who?

Tim Bray wonders about ways of Counting Subscribers to RSS feeds. He's speculating about a more formal method than I've been looking at (seeing as, presently, my interest is purely curiousity).

In theory, IPv6 would solve some of the problems, as your IP address wouldn't need to be NATed, and would move around with you, but that'd still make me look like two different people when I used my home computer and the one at work. The main problem I have with his suggestion of a hash of the readers email address is in explaining all that to non-techie users, as otherwise, particularly with all the spam we get these days, people will be reluctant to type their email address into something for fear of it being harvested for spam. But maybe we could use something else, like the persons name, as that'd be unique enough...

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May 24, 2003

Cognitive devices

The Feature this week has an article about Cognitve Radio, by which it means wireless devices that can intelligently make decisions based on their context.

Why is it that when people talk about personalised devices in the future, they always decide that they'll be like pets, or that they'll have personalities? That implies that you'll have to be careful when you first buy the device, to make sure you get one with a personality you like... I think the devices will just be highly personalised, but you will be able to change the ways in which they're personalised whenever you like, and the device will suggest changing its settings to better suit you, but that's just good user-interface - no-one claims that Windows XP has a personality, but it offers similar (if much more basic) suggestions like "you haven't used these desktop icons ever, do you want me to get rid of them".

And isn't it about time America got RDS? I'm afraid that to us Europeans (Brits at least), being able to listen to a CD and then get interrupted by traffic reports in our car just isn't a big deal!

Anyway, some good ideas for ways that my personal devices should work, but I'm not convinced we have to wait 10-15 years and for speech recognition before we can start implementing some of them.

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May 22, 2003

Not just dancing, but singing!!!

My worst fears are realised... Carl has posted another of his expertly edited videos to his blog, and this time it's the footage from his and Jo's party. So cue shots of me dancing, administering Sambuca, and singing... Actually, it's not as bad as it could've been, and in typical Carl fashion, it's accompanied by a cool soundtrack. Whether or not the world is ready to see my dancing accompanied by a seductive Barry White score remains to be seen :-)

Updated: Fixed link to the video now that Carl's permalinks are working.

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May 21, 2003

Missing: A couple of hours of my life

Last seen on Saturday 17th May 2003 at a house in Cambridge, these hours fled the scene, leaving one young man unconscious and many others dazed and incoherent.

A spokesman for Cambridgeshire police said "these hours have shown that they are not afraid to harm innocent members of the public, and if found, should be approached with caution." Luckily, a number of photographs of the crime were taken by some of the witnesses, and these are being released to the public in the hope that more information will come to light.

If you can remember anything that may help in tracking down these hours, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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Come in No.542....

Well, just got my rider number throught the post, so I guess it's all official. I will be doing the London to Cambridge charity bike ride on the 27th July. Hey, it's only 50 miles... but it is for charadee mate, so sponsors are most welcome.

Guess I get some longer bike rides in before then.

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May 20, 2003

What value FOAF networks?

Just wondering how useful it is to invest in setting up my FOAF info. The problem is that my personal networks (friends, colleagues, etc.) aren't static, so what benefit is there in my keeping it up to date, and when do I decide to change it?

Jo, who started me off on this voyage of discovery in the first place, is a good example. Her goal is to map how everyone links to Malcolm, which is quite an interesting exercise, but is essentially a historical endeavour - I've probably communicated (IMed, emailed, spoken, met, whatever) with her as much as I have with Malcolm recently, so I think she should be directly linked from my FOAF info, but in her map of the world, she'd have to be linked through Malcolm.

So whilst it's interesting to map a snapshot of a social network, I don't see any real value in it. Maybe I should work out what uses I'd have for a FOAF network map.

  • Contacting people I've met, but who's contact details I don't have. It would've saved a few extra emails recently when sending out invites to my party, as I wouldn't have had to bother my friends to invite their friends for me, or guessed email addresses from mass mailing from our mutual friends. But it's not exactly a major hassle, and I think I'd rather be "hassled" if I were the mutual friend, as then I'd get the satisfaction of finding out my friends had gotten on so well
  • Explaining how I knew people. It would've saved effort the day after the party, when I was concentrating on being hungover, and there was discussion about who'd been at the party, and how I knew them all. I could've just point everyone at my FOAF network and gone back to bed ;-) Although that would've only worked if my FOAF network was either the historical, initial connections version like Jo's, or if it included that information in the current version
  • As a fancier contacts database? I guess I could just keep it for personal use as a contacts database, with extra info about my links to people. Actually, thinking about this, it might be one of the few really useful uses for it. If, instead of a normal contacts database, everyone has their contact info in a "well known place", then my contacts database will just be a list of bookmarks to the individuals' contact details, then they don't have to tell me their new email address, I'll just automagically get the new one when they update their info.

It would appear that I'm unconvinced about them so far :-)

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More Karasses, less granfalloons

There's been a lot of talk recently (at least on the blogs I consume) about social software. Emerging Technology: Who Loves Ya, Baby? describes some software that extracts the sort of information that the FOAF networks contain, but automatically, from your email repository.

It also gives some background info about how, "In his classic novel Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut explains how the world is divided into two types of social organizations: the karass and the granfalloon. A karass is a spontaneously forming group, joined by unpredictable links, that actually gets stuff doneó as Vonnegut describes it, "a team that do[es] God's Will without ever discovering what they are doing." A granfalloon, on the other hand, is a "false karass," a bureaucratic structure that looks like a team but is "meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done."

Interesting concepts, and quite true I think. However, whilst I can see that big corporations might want, or need, to find out where the karasses are, I don't think it's a big problem in a smaller company. I suppose the challenge there is in managing the granfalloons so that the karasses can get results without undue interference :-)

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May 16, 2003

The animals are revolting!

Cows With Guns

(via Burnt Toast)

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Maybe it's a singer thing...

Katie seems to have the same problem as me when it comes to singing in front of lots of people. Maybe it's because we aren't show-offs, we just like singing? Admittedly, she's a lot further down the singing route than I am, given that she's actually in a band, as opposed to just-someone-who's-done-karaoke-a-couple-of-times.

I wonder if it's to do with the common perception that you can either sing or you can't, rather than it being something that requires practise, and so is viewed differently from instruments. Or maybe it's that it's easier to assess how good you are when you're playing an instrument, but not when you're singing ('cos you don't really listen to yourself when you sing). Or maybe it's all a confidence thing.

I don't know, it's just bloody annoying when you're afflicted :-) Answers on a stuck-down email please...

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May 13, 2003

Dead? Happy? Annoyed?

Yes. Yes. And Yes.

Just spent the last ~24m trying to set a new personal best for 6k, so am feeling a bit knackered. But another 6k means that I've finished my 300km challenge!!!. I've rowed 300km this year, which brings my grand total up to half a million metres (500km), and I managed it with two days to go before my target end date (my birthday)! Which is handy, as I'll be playing football tomorrow and Thursday so fitting in any more rowing would've meant missing some other exercise. Annoyed, though, because the battery in the rowing machine failed with 500m to go :-( So I haven't got an official time, which was on target to be a new PB, and I probably rowed further than I had to to ensure I rowed far enough.

So, my rowing season is now officially over for the summer, although I'll probably get the odd row in here and there.

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Ideas are cheap

Idly reading some more info about LinkedIn whilst waiting for a build to finish, I found mention of the FOAF (Friend Of A Friend) file format. A quick google brings me to FOAF: the 'friend of a friend' project.

So there we are, pretty much what I'd started to speculate that Jo should implement for her "MITCOTU network" (Malcolm Is The Centre Of The Universe... maybe Malcolm Is The Central Human [MITCH] would be better...)

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Just what I need... more things to play with

Seeing as I wasn't sure how Ben Hammersley created his Technorati widgets, I was chuffed to find Adam Kalsey's Technorati plugin.

When I get some free time I'll get some nice Technorati info on the main page... or maybe just hard-code "0 blogs have linked to this site" ;-)

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May 12, 2003


Not to be confused with bogroll, although I'm sure it could be argued that it's about as useful...

I finally accepted that (1) my blogroll isn't going to change very often, and (2) I'm never going to get round to producing some amazing bit of code that automagically updates the blogroll section on my blog with the config from my nntp//rss install. So I've manually added the list of blogs I regularly read (how quaint and old school...)

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Well, with the looming party, and my having talked lots about getting some karaoke stuff for it, it's about time I put my money where my mouth is. The Karaoke Klub lists the CD+Gs that should be available from the place I hired decks for previous parties, so now I just need to choose a couple of CDs to get.

I think it'll be a few from this list, but comments on others welcome :-)

CK007 - Good 50s rock selection, with "Roll over Beethoven" and a couple of Elvis tracks
CK012 - Slightly cheesy, including "Girls just wanna have fun", "Angels" by Robbie Williams, and "Relight my fire"
CK014 - Very 80s, "You can't hurry love", "Material girl", "Pretty woman", "Happy Hour"...
CK017 - Lots of the classic karaoke tunes... "I will survive", "Angels", "Daydream believer", "Summer nights"
CK028 - Some Frank, "Bohemian Rhapsody", "Hey Jude", "Let me entertain you"

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May 10, 2003

Talking of pubs...

Ben Hammersley posted a link to the UpMyStreet Pub Crawl on his blog yesterday.

It's cool. You put in the postcode you want to start at, the number of pubs to visit, and the maximum distance between pubs, then it generates a pub crawl for you. Now it just needs to be able to download the route to your mobile, so it can keep you on track as you get further into the crawl ;-) Or, how about it tacks on a kebab/pizza/burger/chips shop/van at the end...

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Scalable Vector Graphics

Thinking about how Jo could implement her "Malcolm is the centre of the universe" system (luckily Malcolm wasn't around to hear my poor "ah, Malcolm in the middle" joke...), led me to look into Scalable Vector Graphics. It's a nice way to draw diagrams by the looks of it, although it hasn't made it into browsers by default yet.

There an FAQ here, and Adobe has a viewer available as a free download, and a pretty good tutorial which introduces the basics.

Plus, whilst getting the link for the Green Dragon for the last post, I found that the Cambridge Pub Guide has an SVG version of their pub tube map.

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Fame at last

At Malcolm's party last night, I found out that there is now video footage of me out there on the web! Last Saturday, when I went to the Green Dragon with Jo and Carl, Carl had his new digi camera with him, and took some video footage of Jo explaining to me how Malcolm is the centre of the universe, and posted it to his blog. (<rant strength=mild>Of course, if Carl had an RSS feed on his blog then I'd have seen it when he posted it... ;-)<rant>

At least the footage of me at Jo and Carl's party has enjoyed limited distribution (so far... :-s)

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May 08, 2003

Worthwhile expense?

The CHASE newsletter that's just arrived contains details on CEC Summer School, which is a week long entrepreneurial course. Costs £600, and would take up a big chunk of my holiday entitlement... is it worth doing, or is it just more "playing at being a businessman" - i.e. would I be better taking a week off and spending it coding (and having another week or two after this contract [similar cost] to code too)?

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May 07, 2003

The slide begins...

My slide down the rankings for 6k has already begun. I'm now 3rd of 3. Despite putting in a surprisingly superb row - I changed the resistance from 4 to 5 during the row and was just expecting it to be an acclimatisation row until realising with about 1.5k to go that it could be a new PB. Final time was 23:56.5!!! So my 500m split time was faster than my current PB for 5k, and less than 2 minutes per 500m!

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May 06, 2003

Differences between the wired and the wireless Internets

Whilst Timo Hotti's Solving the 3G Data Management Problem article for (subscription required) is primarily about the complexities of managing the software installed on devices, the different customizations on devices, etc. when the devices number in the millions, he makes some interesting observations about the differences between the "wired Internet" and the "wireless Internet".*

"[On] the wireless Internet personalization of the services offered is key to usability." Where the personalization "...may include location, time of day and role (such as at work, leisure, at home, with family, or traveling). "

I like these ideas, one of the key improvements to usability on small devices is to reduce the amount of interaction (key presses, pages to click through, etc.) to achieve a task, so if the service can take advantage of knowledge about who I am, or where I am, etc. without me having to type that information in (which is the important bit :-) then that's smart.

We just need to work out how to make it easy for services to obtain and use such information.

Added: I guess there's no reason why these things shouldn't be done on the traditional Internet too, as it will improve usability there too, but the gains won't be as great purely because the cost of additional interaction with the user isn't as high (more information can be displayed, and inputting data isn't as painful).

*(Aside: It's interesting to note that the "wired Internet" is becoming more and more wireless, but not in the way that "wireless Internet" is used as a term (in this article at least) - maybe it should be the "Phone Internet", as the other option "Mobile Internet" could still be people with WiFi and a laptop)

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May 03, 2003

Fopp is evil! :-)

Be warned, there is a new music shop on the block (well, new to me at least) and it should be considered extremely dangerous!

If you spot one on your high street, try to pretend you haven't seen it! Avoid entering AT ALL COSTS. If you must go in, and you should really try not to, then find the CD you want, avoid looking at anything else, pay for it and leave.

There. Don't say I didn't warn you. Fopp (for that is the name of this demon) is particularly deadly when combined with an online MP3 swapping service. You find more music that you like, and then Fopp provides legitimate copies of it all at bargain prices.

But that's not all! Oh no, not content with providing you with what you know you want, they then go and scatter the shop with all sorts of other tempting, interesting and curious things too. Most of the back catalogue stuff I've been getting recently has only been £5/CD, which is cool, and they're realised that £3/CD is an even better pricepoint for all sorts of other stuff - I mean £3 for an album! That's just crazy - I only have to find one track I like and then I can reason "hey, only £3, you could pay that for a CD single, and you'd only get one track, and the rest of the album might be good too". It's impossible to go in there without coming out with something you didn't go in for!

It happened again today. I left the shop £40 poorer, but I was clutching a bag containing two books, a DVD (Taxi 2), three single albums, and three double albums. It's all Jo's fault, if she hadn't suggested we go to Fat Poppadaddies at the Po Na Na on Thursday, then I wouldn't have gone in looking for some more funk for my CD collection...

At least I've got a heap of new stuff to listen to whilst I'm working over the weekend:
Various Artists - Blax Is Back. 2 CDs of 70s funky stuff for £5
Various Artists - DJ Pogo presents The Breaks. The original stuff loads of hip hop (and everything else since) has sampled, so now I have a legit copy of the Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache", and James Brown's "The Funky Drummer"
Come On Feel The Lemonheads. Doesn't have "It's a shame about Ray", or "I lied about being the outdoor type" on it (which may prompt further Lemonheads purchases in future) but does have most of the other stuff I've liked that I'd downloaded. Most expensive purchase of the day at £10 though.
Various Artists - White Teeth the Soundtrack. Couldn't get anywhere with the book, so didn't watch the TV series, but it has a use because the soundtrack was only £3, and has "The tunnel of love" by the Fun Boy Three amongst other stuff and that's been a popular MP3 of late. Result.
And then two wildcard entries, mainly 'cause they were only £3 each, and both double albums - The Best of the Fania All Stars adds some salsa to my collection (so I can practice getting the dancesteps wrong at home), and MuchoMamboMongo just has my favourite album name ever, and I'm looking forward to hearing the mambo versions of Day Tripper and Smooth Operator!

Fopp - naughty but nice.

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Milla is legal again

Further to yesterday's post, I got the tyres fitted to Milla this morning.

National Tyres wouldn't fit any tyres that they hadn't supplied, and the guy at Abbey Tyres just didn't seem to want my business (blathered on about possibly having to wrap the alloys in paper or something, and quoted £11/tyre "at least", and then could only do them on Tuesday...) but the guys at Kingsway Tyres on St. Andrews Road, Cambridge (01223 352002 - they don't have a website, I hope I'm remembering my phone URLs correctly...) were cool.

They were busy when I first called, but said to give them 3/4hr or so, then fitted them while I waited, only charged £15 for the two tyres, and had a good chat about drag racing - Milla's still got her race number in the back window, and one of the fitters used to work for a drag bike team.

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I think I've peaked for the year

Set a new personal best for 6k last night - 24:11.7. Adding this to the online world ranking on the Concept2 website, and I'm currently ranked NUMBER 2!!! However, before we all get too excited, I'll point out that I'm also last, as in, there are only two entries at the minute - the new rowing season started on 1st May. So I can confidently predict that the only way from here is down.

Only 30k to go...

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May 02, 2003

Ways to settle into a new office...

Keep two new Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres next to your desk. This will cause all manner of people to comment on them, discuss the groovy tread pattern, speculate on whether the tread pattern actually works or is just a fashion thing to make them more likely to sell, wonder whether they'll fit their car, look for your car in the car park (only to find that you're on your bike that day :-), discuss recreating 8-bit platform games in real life by rolling the tyres at your co-workers, and all sorts of other things.

And you get strange looks when you roll them down the office after they've been delivered.

Plus you can get them delivered to your (office) door at bargain rates from

Assuming Milla's battery has charged when I nip home at lunchtime, they'll be gone from next to my desk this afternoon. Then I'll have to find something else to puzzle passers-by ;-)

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