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I dream of Alpha

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

This museum’s rooms are empty, waiting to be filled with answers to visitors’ questions.


In my search for nutrition, have I overlooked some fruit that I might find convenient and delicious? I start by trying to find out what’s popular throughout the world.

What fruits are liked by the most people? Human thoughts are not my forte.

What fruits are eaten the most? I get an answer, but not in the chart form I expected.

A row of fruit appears on the floor. The larger ones are shown both whole and sliced. Does the five-second rule apply to food that suddenly appeared on the floor, or only to food that has been dropped? Am I looking at holograms?

A bigger problem is that the list is dominated by small fruits like berries. I don’t like berries.

What fruits are eaten the most, by weight? Insufficient data.

I probe, using simpler questions, to figure out what it knows. What’s the weight of an apple? 180 grams. What’s the total weight of apples eaten in a year? Insufficient data.

I guess I have to be explicit if I want it to combine its weight and consumption data.

For each fruit for which you have sufficient data, chart the number eaten in a year, the average weight, and the product of the two.

I don’t get an answer right away. Is it just taking a while? Did I mangle the question, causing it to make a chart that is invisible because it has no entries? Did I confuse it with the phrase “the product of the two”?


Two women are debating the merits of bananas. In this place, they aren’t limited to speculation. Can you chart fruit by potassium per Calorie? Vitamin B6 per dollar? It helpfully highlights the “banana” row in each chart.

They explore the supply side as well. Show me maps of where bananas are grown. Can you add a yearly animation with harvests shown as glowing dots? Draw a chart with axes for temperature and latitude, colored to show how well bananas grow in each condition.

I start thinking of my own questions, but I don’t expect it to be able to answer them. How do most people open bananas? How many bananas are used in recipes rather than eaten directly?

How many bananas are used as sex toys? Oops, did I ask that out loud?

It doesn’t even acknowledge my question, but one of the women retorts with a question of her own.

What percent of the time are men thinking about sex? Human thoughts are not my forte.


When I wake up, it’s still dark outside.

Today, the closest thing to the museum of my dream is a web site called Wolfram Alpha. It can chart many things. But it requires us to phrase questions carefully, and sometimes it simply misinterprets queries.

As for fruit? Wolfram Alpha has consumption data for some fruit. But some fruit is missing, and some fruit confuses it.

I start writing this post while eating the last two apples from my fridge.

I go back to bed, hoping for additional pleasant dreams.

Bastardized Windows logo

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

The WebKit Nightly Builds page uses the Boot Camp logo to represent Windows. Looks like John Gruber was right about the purpose of the Boot Camp logo.


Friday, April 20th, 2007

I came up with several new "matching questions" for OkCupid with some help from Val, but OkCupid decided not to use them.

Which is most important in a desk chair?

  1. Rolls easily.
  2. Spins fast enough to make you dizzy.
  3. Makes you look important.
  4. Ergonomic for oral sex.

Which score on the Slut Test is a "failing" score?

  1. 10% Slut.
  2. 90% Slut.
  3. Both.
  4. Neither.

What does lol *really* mean?

  1. Chuckling quietly to myself.
  2. Everyone within earshot wonders what's so funny.
  3. End of sentence, like a period.
  4. I have thrown up my hands in surrender.

Ice cream

Friday, April 20th, 2007

For years, I have lived in fear of putting ice cream "back" into the fridge instead of the freezer. Guess what I did just two days after moving back to Mountain View?

To my surprise, it did not melt completely. It became soft, and a lot of the water went to the bottom of the container, but it was still passable as ice cream after I returned it to its proper home.

Happy New Year

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2007

My resolution: to stop writing 2006 on my checks.

Bears, you’re on notice.

Friday, October 20th, 2006

You're on notice: forest fire prevention, hairy gay men, winnie the pooh, cyclical depressions, chicago quarterbacks, the california flag, "bear with me", and ursa major.

I made this using the On Notice Board Generator.

Sprint Ambassador program

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

Back in February, Sprint invited me to become a Sprint Ambassador: they gave me a SPH-A920 phone and six months of free service, hoping that I'd give them useful feedback and/or blog about it. Here's some of the feedback I sent to Sprint:

The good

I loved being able to give my laptop access the Internet anywhere I had phone service. For example, the day after my son was born, I was able to research potential middle names while we were still at the hospital. I also used this feature to get some work done during boring parts of a family vacation. (This feature was free for me because I was part of the Ambassador program; I don't think it's free for other Sprint customers.)

Having an extra phone was surprisingly useful. I was able to lend my old phone to my girlfriend and talk with her for more than two minutes a day without worrying about her running out of minutes. I later found out that I could have added her to my family's plan for $10/month, but I wouldn't have thought of doing that otherwise.

The phone was better in many ways than my old phone, and it was certainly better than the phone for 4-year-olds Sprint sent to Joel Spolsky. But I still found a lot to be frustrated about with both the phone and the service.

The bad

There were some small problems with the "connect your laptop to the Internet" feature. The Windows software is hard to set up; my dad gave up on trying to get it work with his laptop. The fact that the feature works at all with Mac laptops kept secret from users. The phone gives up on the connection too easily when reception is poor, forcing me to click on "Connect" every few minutes. Once this feature works better, I hope Sprint promotes it heavily and stops trying to charge extra for it.

The "VoiceSMS" feature of the SPH-A920 phone works exactly as voicemail should: the messages are stored on my handset so I can listen to them even where reception is poor, I can see a list of messages without listening to a voice menu, I can rewind or fast-forward by 5 seconds by pressing arrow keys, and I can forward a message to my email address. But when someone tries to call me and leave a message, it doesn't become a VoiceSMS. Instead, it goes into the old-school voicemail system that everyone hates because it uses voice menus and makes you memorize shortcuts and surreptitiously deletes your messages after three weeks.

I'd like it if I could keep my phone on when I sleep, so I could respond to family emergencies. But I don't want every illegal telemarketing call, "wrong number" call, or poorly timed "how are you doing" call to wake me up. I want to be able to specify who is allowed to wake me up, and I want them to be greeted with "Jesse is asleep. Press 1 to leave a message or press 2 to wake him up." when they call.

When reception is poor on either end of a conversation, half of the conversation ends up being "I only heard every other word in that sentence" or "Are you still there?", and it takes forever to actually communicate something. This could be made much better by waiting until the entire sentence gets to my phone -- I'd gladly take some lag if it allowed me to actually hear the other person's sentences. I imagine the tricky parts would be figuring out where the breaks are if the other person is in a noisy area, and informing the other person about the lag so they don't confuse my slow responses for conversation pauses that need to be filled. Take some inspiration from the magic of TCP over IP and you could make using phones a lot less aggravating.

I couldn't figure out how to back up my contact list onto my computer. I get the feeling you're intentionally making this difficult in order to prevent customers from switching to other phone service providers. Don't make us sick the FCC on you again; you don't even have the "but that would be hard!" excuse you had with number portability.

The phone takes as long to start up as my computer. Palm handhelds start up quickly; why can't my phone?

Charging extra for each feature (e.g. automated 411, maps and directions, Web access using a browser in the phone, Internet using a nearby laptop, text messaging) is lame. The only charge should be for data transfer, which should be treated in the same way as "minutes". Customers who feel like they can't live without your phone are loyal customers; customers who feel that you tried to rip them off at every turn and barely used the phone's features are not. And I'd think loyal customers who stick with the service and tell their friends about it are worth much more than the revenue from infrequent use of the features.

I don't understand why the SPH-A920 is promoted as a "music phone". I can't plug my ordinary comfy headphones into it, because cell phones use a different type of headphone jack than laptops. I don't want to purchase music a second time through a menu on my phone; I want to sync with my computer and listen to music I own.