29 January 2008

Finding a mate: the algorithmic approach

This is one of the more visible applications of artificial intelligence.

New York Times, "Hitting It Off, Thanks to Algorithms of Love":

eHarmony [...] pioneered the don’t-try-this-yourself approach eight years ago by refusing to let its online customers browse for their own dates. It requires them to answer a 258-question personality test and then picks potential partners. The company estimates, based on a national Harris survey it commissioned, that its matchmaking was responsible for about 2 percent of the marriages in America last year, nearly 120 weddings a day.

[Academics] are skeptical, because the algorithms and the results have not been published for peer review. But they also realize that these online companies give scientists a remarkable opportunity to gather enormous amounts of data and test their theories in the field. EHarmony says more than 19 million people have filled out its questionnaire.

... [One] thing is already clear. People aren’t so good at picking their own mates online. Researchers who studied online dating found that the customers typically ended up going out with fewer than 1 percent of the people whose profiles they studied, and that those dates often ended up being huge letdowns.

The last bit is unsurprising. How much information could you get about a person from a blurb, and how much of that is likely to be be useful information?

27 January 2008

Phillips Exeter endowment tops $1 billion

Exeter devotes an average of $63,500 annually to house and educate each of its 1,000 students. That is [...] well above even the $36,500 in tuition, room and board Exeter charges those paying full price.

Last year — fueled by gifts from wealthy alumni and its own successful investments — it crossed the $1 billion mark, up from just over $500 million in 2002.

New York Times: At Elite Prep Schools, College-Size Endowments

26 January 2008

A milestone for synthetic biology

Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland announced that they have synthesized the genome of a bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium.

This is a symbolic milestone for DNA synthesis techniques because Mycoplasma genitalium is one of the simplest known living organisms (a little over 500,000 base pairs). The synthesized DNA is not capable of reproducing until scientists can synthesize a cell in which the DNA is viable.

Read the Wired News article or the National Geographic article.

It's believed that the techniques that the researchers used are already nearing their limits. E. coli bacteria were used to synthesize the DNA, but the bacteria could not produce DNA segments of more than a quarter of the length of what was needed. So yeast were used to stitch the pieces together to create the final result. Wired calls it "the end of the beginning for biological engineering": the first point where scalable and automatic DNA synthesis is becoming necessary. In electrical engineering terms, we need to move on from circuits wired by hand before we can make a PC.

Last week, I attended a talk in which Tom Knight described the next steps for synthetic organisms. Researchers are working on "refactoring" the code of simple organisms so that the functions of genes can be better understood. No computer scientist will be surprised that billions of years of evolution (with no code reviews, a huge space premium, and tight ship deadlines) has led to a bunch of ugly hacks.

22 January 2008

SmartWater: uniquely identifiable indelible fluids

SmartWater is a fluid you can apply to valuables such as jewelry, electronics, and vehicles. Although invisible to the naked eye, it fluoresces under UV light, and its manufacturers claim that it is nearly impossible to completely remove. Each batch contains a unique signature of "micro-dots" which can be used to trace stolen property back to its owners.

Even though I had never heard of this, apparently it has enough of a reputation among thieves that displaying signs saying goods are tagged with SmartWater was a better theft deterrent than CCTV, burglar alarms, and security guards.

Amusingly, there is also a version of SmartWater intended to be thrown on bank robbers and other criminals to link them to a crime scene.

(via Bruce Schneier, SmartWater Works)

Dealing with political trolls

Forums on some political sites employ some creative methods to foil trolls (Wall Street Journal, A Web Troll's Toll on the Clinton Campaign):

Campaign trolls popped up en masse in 2004 on Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean's Web site. Dean supporters batted them back with a "troll goal," donating money to the campaign's coffers each time they spotted an offending post. The supporters crowed about each sighting, eliminating the trolls' incentive to disrupt. [...]

Daily Kos has another tactic: the recipe. When a troll attempts to start a conversation at that site, loyalists post recipes instead of engaging them. With so many trolls, the recipes have proliferated -- enough so that Daily Kos compiled a 144-page "Trollhouse Cookbook," including crab bisque inspired by President Bush's second inauguration and "Liberal Elite Cranberry Glazed Brie."

However, in some cases I believe the cure to this problem has the potential to be worse than the disease. Purging posts that aren't libelous, etc. is a disservice to political debate.

"If you're on a site and you're just agreeing with each other all day, where's the argument?"

20 January 2008

When compatibility is keeping you afloat

Interesting article by an engineer who worked on dBASE, drawing parallels between that product and Windows Vista:

There were some brilliant people at Ashton-Tate, and I was fortunate to know many of them. When talking about dBASE, they were proud of their product, and it was the size of the customer base that was the de facto definition of why dBASE was a good product. This is part of the pattern. We are number one! Our product clearly must be the reason.

As I got to know people during that project, eventually there was more trust. Engineers at Ashton-Tate knew something was wrong. There was almost a sadness in discussions about how to fix it, as if they knew it was unfixable.

By 1989, dBASE's market share dropped to 43%. That's a 20% drop in just one year. When Microsoft Access came out in 1992, dBASE was dead. Crashed to the ground in no more than 4 years.

Compatibility. That's what killed them.

dBASE had to be upward compatible at any cost, even if it meant creating extremely bloated and arcane features to support such compatibility. Why? Because of the market. The market was all Ashton-Tate had.

[...] The flawed belief that compatibility will assure market share has been disproven time and time again.

What happened to dBASE was a lot more dramatic than what will happen to Windows (at least anytime soon), but Microsoft certainly realizes that it does have to change the way it develops Windows.

17 January 2008

Everyone's first vi session

Everyone's first vi session:


My favorite Reddit comment:

vi has two modes, "beep repeatedly" and "break everything."

That is pretty much my experience, but I only ever use vi long enough to configure my network so I can install Emacs.

I'm kidding, of course— I use nano for that.

06 January 2008

The danger of wishful thinking

Steve McConnell, Classic Mistakes [in software development] enumerated:

#13: Wishful thinking. I am amazed at how many problems in software development boil down to wishful thinking. How many times have you heard statements like these:

"None of the team members really believed that they could complete the project according to the schedule they were given, but they thought that maybe if everyone worked hard, and nothing went wrong, and they got a few lucky breaks, they just might be able to pull it off."

"Our team hasn't done very much work to coordinate the interfaces among the different parts of the product, but we've all been in good communication about other things, and the interfaces are relatively simple, so it'll probably take only a day or two to shake out the bugs."

Hearing things like that is very frightening.

05 January 2008

New technologies to augment the human senses

Wired, Mixed Feelings:

On a clear day, visual cues let the pilot's brain correct for errors. But in the dark, a pilot who misreads the plane's instruments can end up in a death spiral. Between 1990 and 2004, 11 percent of US Air Force crashes — and almost a quarter of crashes at night — resulted from spatial disorientation. ...

Tom Schnell [Director of the Operator Performance Lab at the University of Iowa] showed me the the next-generation garment, the Spatial Orientation Enhancement System ... a mesh of hard-shell plastic, elastic, and Velcro that fit over my arms and torso, strung with vibrating elements called tactile stimulators, or tactors.

Flight became intuitive. When the plane tilted to the right, my right wrist started to vibrate — then the elbow, and then the shoulder as the bank sharpened. It was like my arm was getting deeper and deeper into something. To level off, I just moved the joystick until the buzzing stopped. I closed my eyes so I could ignore the screen.

02 January 2008

DNA as seen by computer programmers

DNA seen through the eyes of a coder, by Bert Hubert:

DNA is not like C source but more like byte-compiled code for a virtual machine called 'the nucleus'. It is very doubtful that there is a source to this byte compilation - what you see is all you get.

[The first C compiler was not written in C, obviously] but in a language that was available already: B. ... The same holds for the genome. To create a new 'binary' of a specimen, a living copy is required. The genome needs an elaborate toolchain in order to deliver a living thing. The code itself is impotent. This toolchain is commonly called 'your parents'.

You can see where some of his analogies are straining, but the article as a whole is still very enlightening.

Like the author, I'd also like to heartily recommend Matt Ridley's Genome and Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene.