25th anniversary of Windows 95

Anil Dash reminds us how momentous the launch of Windows 95 was. In 1995, I was working for a company in western New Jersey that developed machine (human language) translation software. Katie and I had a Macintosh SE that we had bought in 1987 or 1988. Not too long after the Windows 95 launch, we went to CompUSA (or a similar store, can’t remember) and bought a new PC with a Pentium chip, and Windows for Workgroups 3.11–which had the TCP/IP stack. We got Internet access via Compuserve at our home in rural New Jersey, and I spent hours every evening the for the next few years exploring the web and teaching myself web-related technologies.

God, I’m old.

Usability improvement!

A number of years ago, configurable light-up signs were installed along major highways in Texas, such as I-35 here in Austin. Among other uses, they would display real-time information about traffic, in this format:

[ Name of up coming intersection ]
[ X Minutes ]

for instance:

FM 734

I noted at the time that the usability of this information was terrible. If I’m not a local, there’s a very good chance that I have no idea how far away the upcoming intersection is, and even if I am familiar with it, I have to estimate how far away that is and then do the math myself about how bad traffic is (A separate usability issue is that the signs use numerical designations for roadways, not necessarily the commonly used names. In the example above, FM 734 in Austin is also called Parmer Lane, and I doubt very many people know its numerical designation).

I was pleased to see that in the last year or so, the signs were changed to read:

[ Name of up coming intersection ]
[ Y Miles ]
[ X Minutes ]

for instance:

FM 734

So, now a driver doesn’t need to know anything about the upcoming intersection; the miles and minutes are sufficient to understand the traffic flow. Somebody at the authority that manages these signs got the message and managed to make a change for the better. I guess they could have done the math for the drivers and added the average MPH, but this change is sufficient, I think.

Now if someone would only make it clearer at the upper/lower-deck split of I-35 in downtown Austin that both options will get you through Austin, my life would be complete. As it is, every day there are many drivers switching lanes at the very last second, presumably because it’s not clear to people driving through Austin that both options merge back up in a few miles.

Turing test

I find this interesting and depressing at the same time: developing robots to mimic handwritten letters in order to dupe people into open marketing mail that they would otherwise just toss, including varying pressure of the writing instrument, creating margins that mimic human writing, and of course, developing fonts that write the same letters in various ways.

Technical issues aside, here’s the heart of the matter:

Half the time, I’m cynical/alarmed/wearied that so many people are working so hard to make machines fool humans.

But the other half the time I’m kind of cracked up by the fact that the most avid prosecutors of Alan Turing’s sly and audacious 1950 thought-experiment have been not philosophers or computer scientists or advanced A.I. labs but … marketers. The former folks have foundered for years on the difficulties of understanding the fractal contours of human consciousness. The latter just want you to open up their damn mail. Comprehending the mysteries of human thought and behavior is hard. Emulating it? Not so much! It’s partly why Turing’s test is so unsettling: Man, are we really that easy to copy?

Mind you, this particular Blade Runner dimension of modern life could quickly diminish in relevance, because frankly, postal mail is itself declining rapidly. The amount of upright, breathing humans who regularly write letters by hand has been shrinking steadily for years. So maybe it’s not long before handwriting flips its its existential polarity. A handwritten envelope will become not a litmus test of humanity but sure-fire proof that we were sent a form letter by an impersonal database. We’ll sort through our paper mail with the inverse logic of today, tossing aside immediately all the letters addressed with pen-script (robot, robot, god, another one sent by a robot) but then pausing at the sudden, startling appearance of an envelope addressed by a dot-matrix printer.

Hmmm, we’ll say to ourselves: Now this might be real.

On the death of RSS

I’ve been an avid user of Google Reader for several years, and I am bummed about Google’s decision to shutter it. To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about the life of the underlying technology: RSS. In this blog post, Ryan Holiday offers his opinion on why RSS, along with Google alerts and Delicious, is dying:

Think about it: in an ad impression-and pageview-driven business, a service [such as an RSS reader] that allows users to opt out of the noise and get content delivered directly to them is dangerous. When the common practice for bloggers is to publish first, verify second, the paper trail of Google Reader can be an embarrassment. And when sites do everything they can to hook you and increase the critical “time on site” metric or hit you with retargeting cookies, off-site RSS Readers once again stand in the way.

In other words, RSS is impervious to blogging’s worst, but most profitable, traits.

Depressing but probably accurate.


Get Rich Slowly!

Marco ArmentMarco Arment‘s new project, which he’s calling The Pinboard Investment Co-Prosperity Cloud, is brilliant. As a counter to the typical get-your-investors-rich-quickly model of venture capital investment in startups, Marco believes that ” social capital [not money] has become the bottleneck to success.” Therefore, Marco is backing innovative projects with his own social capital: his ability to get “world to go look at what you made.”

Having worked in numerous startups (including one that refused venture capital), I’ve long been critical of the VC model of investment. My primary criticism is that it reinforces short-term, get-rich-quick thinking, not a view for the long term viability of the product or services. Marco holds similar beliefs and furthermore, he has the ability to help give a leg up to innovators who aren’t interested in, or aren’t appealing to, the venture capital model.



Spam wars

My friend Susan and I maintain the Religious Resources directory. Users can submit sites for inclusion in our directory, but Susan and I personally review all submitted sites before they appear in the directory.
Years ago, we started getting bots that would fill out and submit the site submission form, so I implemented a captcha system. A while back, the spammers figured out how to defeat the captcha, so the bogus submissions started flowing again. The other day, I changed the verification mechanism for the site submission form, so I’m one step ahead of the spam bots again. I’ve foiled the bots for the time being.
After changing the verification, I saw a few bogus submissions still coming through. I noticed that the information was appropriate for the submissions: the ‘site name’ field contained a site name, the ‘URL’ field contained a URL, and, most tellingly, the submitter had selected an appropriate category for the site.
The spam bots tend to enter data in fields pretty randomly, so this consistency struck me. I emailed Susan and told her that some of these bogus submissions must be hand-entered. However, I was doubtful about that, since this seems like such a time-consuming activity, but I really couldn’t think of any other plausible explanation.
Yesterday, I checked the recently submitted sites and found this one (that’s a screen capture from our admin page; click on it for a larger version):
Theory confirmed. However, I don’t know how to defeat cheap labor.

Language filter fail

Apparently, Internet dating site eHarmony monitors the text that its users input and filters out terms such as “get[ting] laid”. Unfortunately, for this user, the filter wasn’t smart enough to understand his answer to the prompt “What are you thankful for?” His answer, “Having a job, given the way I watch a friend get laid off nearly every week lately,” earned him a terms of service violation notice.
(via Consumerist)