22 August 2007

Freebase: open alpha begins

Just a note that Freebase is now open for reads - you can view the site, and use the API, without an account.

Here are a few links to topics in Freebase to get you started:

Yo La Tengo (band)

Jack Black (actor)

You still need an invite to edit, so send me a note or post a comment if you're interested.

19 August 2007

Terry Gilliam's Storytime (1968)

Terry Gilliam, the Monty Python animator, and later the director of Brazil, Time Bandits, and Baron Munchausen, got his start with animated shorts like Storytime (1968).

13 August 2007

FOCAS: Lynda Resnick, Pom, and the end of ad agencies

Nancy E King, also blogging from FOCAS on See Change Happen, has a great writeup on Lynda Resnick's push to make Pom successful. It's worth reading to understand how to successfully promote a product in a world that is increasingly indifferent to traditional advertising. From nothing to a hit premium product, with a total ad budget over four years of only $14M. Coke and Pepsi wish they could introduce a new product so cheaply.

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr on media and Iraq

At FOCAS, Arthur Suzberger, Jr. (Chairan, New York Times) presented some interesting back of the envelope estimates he did with Dean Singleton (CEO, Medianews Group):

- number of non-Iraqi journalists in Iraq covering the fall of Saddam - 1000
- number today - 50

And the New York Times and AP account for half of those 50.

Arianna Huffington - why we blog

Arianna Huffinton said something interesting at FOCAS today about why we blog. The Huffington Post's model is that they pay their editors, but not their contributors. So why do the bloggers do it? Arianna said that people don't write New York Times Op Eds for the $150 - they do it for other reasons. The same is true for bloggers. Huffington Post bloggers get exposure, often resulting in commissioned work from news outlets, book deals, etc. The site is their platform, and it serves their needs better than traditional media (and, unlike regular news outlets, the contributors get to keep their copyright!).

FOCAS - Michael Eisner vs the web

In a panel discussion with Arianna Huffington, Michael Eisner painted the internet ("Web 2.0, Web 5.0, whatever") as a form of anarchy that not only challenges existing media, but also lowers the quality of content by undercutting existing high-production sources. Choice quote - American media is challenged by "a society of envy and jealousy."

Liveblogging from FOCAS

I'm at FOCAS this week and will be covering the event. The conference is being streamed live at aspeninstitutetv.com.

Jeffrey Cole is the first speaker. He's presenting the results of a large-scale survey of teenagers and how they use the internet. Teenagers (12-24):

- will never read a newspaper (but they are very interested in news - they just get it on line)
- or own a landline
- don't care about the source of info (NY Times, WSJ), use aggregators like Google News
- trust unknown peers (just like me) more than experts
- use IM - email is for their parents. Though this changes with age.

The future of media:

- film, music, and print will be smaller
- but tv will remain popular
- on the web news and mags become more like TV (faster, more timely) and compete with it like never before.
- TV does not continue as a smaller medium, but grows just like mp3s - it will become more ubiquitous. Just like we listen to music everywhere now, we'll do the same with (downloaded / streaming) TV shows

08 August 2007

SciFoo things to read

I just got back from SciFoo. Thanks to Tim O'Reilly, Nature, and Google for putting together the conference, and also to Timo Hannay of Nature for inviting me.

I'm still sorting through everything I learned - SciFoo is a lot like the Hackers conference in that the idea is to put a lot of interesting people from all over who are actually doing things, and let them decide what the conference is about. It's spontaneous and exhausting, and also a lot of fun.

I kept track of the books, papers, and websites people mentioned as interesting and important, and I thought I'd share this list:

  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Robert Heinlein. Mentioned by Charles Simonyi, who carried it to the ISS and read it in space. (Amazon)
  • Quantifying global exergy resources. W. Hermann. Mentioned by Saul Griffith and Joost Bonsen of Howtoons. (pdf)
  • Cartesian Meditations. Husserl. Mentioned by Neal Stephenson.(Amazon)
  • The End of Time. Julian Barbour. Mentioned by Neal Stephenson. (Amazon)
  • The Road to Reality. Roger Penrose. Mentioned by Jaron Lanier. (Amazon)
  • "Reprocessing the Universe." John Wheeler. Mentioned by Lee Smolin.
  • The Mathematical Universe. Max Tegmark. Mentioned by Neal Stephenson. (arXiv)
  • The Theory of abstract objects. Edward N Zalta. Mentioned by Neal Stephenson. (website)
  • The usefulness of useless knowledge. Abraham Flexner. Mentioned by George Dyson. (excerpts at IAS)
  • How many humans can the earth support. Joel E. Cohen. Mentioned by Kim Stanley Robinson. (Amazon)
  • The world, the flesh, and the devil: an enquiry into the future of the three enemies of the rational soul (1929). John Desmond Bernal. Mentioned by Greg Bear. (copy)
  • The myths of innovation. Scott Berkun. Distributed at SciFoo. (Amazon)
  • 23andme.com - Genomics. Mentioned by Anne Wojcicki (co-founder) and Esther Dyson (board member). (website)
  • Freebase - Open source data. Mentioned by Danny Hillis (co-founder) and me (founding team). (website)
  • JoVE (Journal of Visualized Experiments). Mentioned by Moshe
    Pritsker (website)
  • Bioscreencast.com - screencast sharing for life scientists. Mentioned by Deepak Singh. (website)
  • Eigenfactor.org - ranking and mapping scientific knowledge. Mentioned by
    Carl Bergstrom (website)

I'm sure I missed some, and there were other sessions that I didn't attend, so I welcome suggestions for additions to this list from other conference attendees. Either email me (ptufts AT gmail DOT com) or post in the comments section.

Updated 9 Aug @ 3am

06 August 2007

Sci Foo: Unconference schedule

Scifoo: Unconference schedule
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
SciFoo is an unconference. It works like this - invite several hundred hackers and scientists, put up an empty schedule, and let people fill in what they want to talk about.

Two days, up to ~14 parallel sessions, and somehow, it works. Talks are much less formal (and also less tedious) than a typical conference, and people in the audience tend to be interested enough to speak up. Many of the spontaneous sessions had around 20 people in the audience, but some (James Randi's talk) had many more.

Hackers, another conference I go to, does a hybrid approach with 3 parallel talks and a lot of spontaneous BoFs (birds of a feather sessions).

One of the key ingredients to an unconference - a sufficient number of small rooms so that you can have lots of 20-30 person talks, combined with good open space for people to hang out and meet. Large convention centers often lack the latter - San Francisco's Moscone Center's meeting halls are too large, and the food areas (where people congregate) are too impersonal and open.

Small hotels, or large company spaces on weekends (thanks, Google) seem to have the right mix of spaces.

Where the energy comes from, and where it goes

This was the single most illuminating, fascinating slide from SciFoo. It's of a single diagram showing where all the energy on the earth comes from, where it gets stored, and where it goes.

The Nature of Time and Mathematics

The Nature of Time and Mathematics
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
SciFoo: an unconference where you can attend a talk titled "The Nature of Time and Mathematics", by Neal Stephenson, Jaron Lanier, and Lee Smolin, and see Martha Stewart in the front row and engaged in the group conversation.

SciFoo 07 memories

Freeman Dyson
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
I went to George Dyson's talk in the history of computing. After the talk, George's father Freeman reminisced about the early days - it's always good to have a primary source in the audience.

In this photo, Martin Rees (left) looks on as Freeman talks about working with Kurt Godel.

04 August 2007

Charles Simonyi, Space Tourist #5

Charles Simonyi, Space Tourist #5
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
Charles Simonyi spoke at the first night of SciFoo at Google about being a space tourist. It was fascinating to hear first hand what it was like, and also good to hear an engineer's frank take on the space program.

Will he go in space again? Well, Russia's offering a 6 day $100M round-the-moon Soyuz trip. Not as comfortable as the relatively roomy ISS, but what an opportunity to see the moon close up.

Martha Stewart talks about astronaut food

At SciFoo, Charles Simonyi talked about being a space tourist (number five), and Martha Stewart talked about preparing meals for astronauts.

There are limits on what you can send into space not just weight limits, but food limits too. You don't want to send something that's difficult to eat in zero gravity. No fish allowed on the ISS. And you have to make something the astronauts can prepare and eat.

25 July 2007

Tim O'Reilly's OSCON keynote

Tim O'Reilly gave the opening talk at OSCON this morning on the state of open source, including a lot of Web 2.0 companies that encourage community participation - from Wikipedia to Freebase.

23 July 2007

OSCON and Freebase

I just arrived in Portland and am here for OSCON, representing Metaweb. I'm hoping to meet developers who are interested in Freebase, and have a few invites to hand out for people who would like to try our alpha release.

On the developer front, I hope to meet people who are interested in MJT, our open-source Javascript template library (takes JSON, returns nicely-formatted results), as well as anyone who would like to build Perl, PHP, or Ruby libraries on top of our API.

And of course, we're hiring.

Feel free to come up and say hi. I'll be at the Django Master Class monday afternoon.

28 June 2007

Powerset and Powerlabs, roundup

In previous posts, I liveblogged about Powerset's presentation this evening of Powerlabs to a select group of journalists, technologists, and bloggers. The big idea is that Powerlabs (launching in September, ahead of Powerset's search engine) will be a Digg-like site where community members can suggest and vote on Powerset features. Powerset aims to be incredibly open - as Steve Newcomb joked, the only thing stealth about them is that they're in stealth mode.

What Powerset is shooting for is ambitious, and has the potential to greatly improve how we find information on-line. Google has a lot of talent and smarts, but all the major players are doing variants of the same thing - statistical analysis on top of keyword search, an idea that goes back decades to Salton's work on document indexing. Powerset's approach has its roots too - decades of linguistic research and development at Xerox PARC - but turning even the best research platform into an internet search engine requires a lot of work. One example - the core engine they licensed originally took over a minute per sentence to index Wikipedia entries - now, with optimizations, it's down to a second or less. Still pretty CPU intensive, but as Steve Newcomb pointed out, indexing costs are small compared to the normal runtime costs of a popular search engine. At Google scale, Powerset would be profitable even with the increased compute needs.

Steve also made a point of saying that Powerset has never called themselves a Google killer. Still, they're trying to do something that's very cool. If they can do what they demod tonight on a grand scale, I'll switch.

The Powerlabs Crew

The Powerlabs Crew
Originally uploaded by John Griffiths.
Developers from Powerset at the Powerlabs event tonight.

Scott Waterman and Ethan Stock at the Powerset demo

Sticker swap
Originally uploaded by onohoku.
Scott Waterman (Powerset) and Ethan Scott (zvents) at the Powerset dem. the Zvents office

Powerset demo

Part two of my liveblogging from Powerset. They're talking about how they differ with respect to indexing. This helps them with both matching documents and ranking them.

In indexing, they parse each sentence on the page. For example:
'Sir Edward Heath died of pneumonia.'

Here's how they index this sentence.

- extract entities and semantic relationships.
- - expand to find similar entities and abstractions

-In this phase, they understand that:
1. Sir Edward was a UK prime minister - a politician
2. pneumonia is a disease
3. if you died from something, you were killed by it

This is a big change from the search we know (Google). It lets the user phrase their query in a lot of different ways. For instance, Powerset can answer the following:

- 'what killed edward heath'
- 'which prime minister died of pneumonia'
- 'what was sir edward heath killed by'
- 'what politician died from pneumonia'
- 'politician died from disease'

Powerset has so far indexed NY Times corpus, Wikipedia, and is working with Freebase.

Liveblogging from Powerset's Powerlabs demo

Powerset is giving a demo for about 35 partners, journalists, and bloggers right now in San Francisco. I'll be liveblogging this event.

The core team members are introducing themselves now. John Lowe from AskJeeves, Tim Converse from Yahoo, Kevin Clark who's their lead Ruby developer, along with a lot of other Powerset linguists and developers in the room.

Steve Newcomb is about to go into the demo. More in a bit.

14 June 2007

Powerset's tantalizing Powerlabs annoucement

Powerlabs Screenshot
Originally uploaded by official_powerset.
Powerset is about to make an announcement of their Powerlabs project. It's going to be a site where they solicit feedback from users in different search domains (travel, entertainment, even porn) about how they use the internet and how they'd like to see search work.

There's talk that they'll also provide access to Powerset search for the lucky users who get to be part of this test.

Keep an eye on Powerset founder Steve Newcomb's blog later today for the official announcement.

Update: the announcement just came out: Powerlabs: the first screenshot.

12 June 2007

One week with the OQO 02

Last week, I posted my first impressions of the OQO 02, and I promised to follow up on my initial review. This is my take after one week. I'm happy with the OQO 02 - it lives up to its promise of being a great mobile Vista machine. But with such mobility come a few tradeoffs which I'll get into further into this review.

First, the specs for my machine - it's the "best / vista ultimate / verizon" model. That means it has a 1.5 GHz Via C7-M processor, 1GB of RAM, a 60GB HD, and Verizon wireless (in addition to WiFi and Bluetooth that come standard with all OQO 02s).

The Via processor is a real breakthrough. It's remarkably low-power, comparable to an Intel Pentium-M in power dissipation. This makes it possible for the OQO to get decent performance and 2hrs of battery life (with wireless on) out of a 1lb device.

The Via is no speed demon - qualitatively, it feels like a Pentium-M underclocked to 6oo-800 MHz, but it has one other benefit over Pentiums - a very small die size. This allows OQO to fit more gear within the OQO's case (namely, WiFi, Bluetooth, and WWAN).

Running Vista on an OQO:

Yes, it really works, and it feels pretty snappy too. The very first boot following unboxing took around 3 minutes as Vista got its bearings, but subsequent boot times were just over a minute, with resume from suspend taking 5-10 seconds. I find that it comes up fast enough that I use the OQO whenever I want.

While the OQO 02 is Vista-capable, it doesn't support the advanced eye candy of Vista Aero. I didn't find this a disappointment, as I was coming from an XP Pro platform. What did impress me was that the OQO felt responsive - I had expected Vista to run somewhat sluggishly on the OQO. When the OQO is on its default settings, everything is reasonably responsive. On the most aggressive power saving settings, though, there is some lag between clicking on a menu item and getting a response.

The keyboard:

I've heard that keyboard design is a pet obsession at OQO, and it shows. The OQO has an excellent thumb keyboard. All the weird characters that you'll use heavily on-line - the at-sign, period, colon, and forward slash - are all reasonably placed. Key feel is great for a device this small, and the sticky keys - Fn, Shift, Ctrl, and Alt - are well done with discreet visual cues to indicate their state. The keyboard backlighting is excellent, and turns off automatically in bright ambient light.

Now, no thumb keyboard will ever feel as good or fast as a decent full-size keyboard, or even a 90%-size subnotebook keyboard. In a week's use I still feel mildly frustrated when I try to write entire paragraphs. And trying to use long passwords with punctuation on the OQO is a recipe for insanity. But the thumb keyboard wins in convenience and great design - in its class, the OQO's keyboard is outstanding, putting to shame offerings from much larger companies.

Battery life:

With WiFi or WWAN on, expect two hours of use from a fully charged standard battery. This is a little tight - as soon as I get into work (following 1.5 hrs of OQO use in the morning) I plug it in. This limits the portability of the OQO, as I can't carry it around the office after I arrive. To remedy this, I'm considering ordering the double-capacity battery, which should give me a solid 3 hrs with wireless on.

Carrying options:

Aside from the OQO with XP Tablet Edition, none of the OQOs ship with a case. You will want to get one with yours because, unlike a regular laptop, the OQO's screen is exposed. Readers on the OQO Forum have suggested some third-party solutions (a CaseLogic CD drive case being popular), but OQO also offers three cases of its own: 1) Executive, 2) Belt-clip (standard with the Tablet XP OQO, slide rule not included) and 3) StrongHold. The executive case only fits OQOs with a standard battery, the belt-clip case works with both standard and extended batteries, while the StrongHold comes in separate standard and double-capacity models. The executive case is most corporate of the three, while the StrongHold is my favorite because it's the most durable and has a nice metal finish.

Cases for handhelds often come down to personal preference, but there's an added challenge when buying a case for the OQO 02 - what battery you are using. The only case that lets you use either a standard or extended battery is the belt-clip case. For those of you who, like me, prefer the StrongHold case, my suggestion is to get the StrongHold double-capacity case and find some material to use as a spacer for when you want to use the standard battery.

Wireless networking

The OQO comes with built-in Atheros WiFi (AR5006X chipset) and, on WWAN models either Verizon or Sprint broadband. WWAN models have a retractable external antenna.

WWAN sensitivity is good. Any place my old Verizon wireless card worked, the OQO could lock on.

WiFi sensitivity is adequate - I found that the OQO had some trouble connecting in places where my Fujutsu P7010D subnotebook (which has great WiFi sensitivity) could get a strong signal.

Conclusion after one week of use:

The OQO is a great portable Vista-capable computer. The battery life is a bit short, but the convenience of this small device outweighs the limitations. If you've got the budget, upgrade to the double-capacity battery and the OQO 02 becomes a seriously useful always-connected PC.

Coming up:

In subsequent reviews, I'll review my favorite OQO add-on applications, talk about gaming, and detail my experiences running Linux.

[Correction: a reader pointed out that the belt clip case works with both batteries. I've updated the article to reflect this.]

04 June 2007

High-speed SF chase

At work around noon we heard many sirens and then saw twelve police cars tearing past CNET heading towards 2nd and Market. It looked like the chase scene from The Blues Brothers (vid).SFGate had nothing, but Latchkey on Flickr already had a photo of the police arresting the driver they were chasing. Update: Latchkey's photo is of a different arrest (also a silver car) several blocks away.

CBS5 says the driver is accused of shooting a pedestrian in SOMA. Update: more from KCBS and SFgate.

Original photo here from Flickr user Latchkey

26 May 2007

OQO 02 - first impressions

I ordered an OQO 02 (world's smallest Vista computer) in March after trying a preproduction model at OQO's headquarters in San Francisco (thanks to JH for setting that up). Yesterday, the much in demand handheld, a "Best / Vista Ultimate / Verizon" arrived straight from the factory in Singapore.

Day one impressions

The design of the OQO, from the box it comes in, to the device itself, is cool, modern, and black. I could see Darth Vader putting one on his belt clip.

The OS is straight Microsoft (Vista, with XP also an option), but with small yet significant OQO touches. For one, the computer comes with Firefox. Very nice choice. The OQO helper apps - for screen brightness, wireless, CPU/fan performance, are also well done - both stylish and functional. The latter app is a particular good example. Fan speed vs CPU speed is always a tough tradeoff - the faster the CPU runs, the snappier the performance. But this means the fan has to work harder (and louder) to keep the machine cool. The OQO's app features a slider with two extremes, cooler and quieter. With these two words, both ends of the spectrum sound good - this is a small a bit of design I really appreciate.

Another example of a careful design is the keyboard. On most ultra-portable computers, companies either skip the keyboard (most UMPC have none), or they put on a keyboard that feels like as much of an afterthought as rear seats on a Porsche.

The OQO has a thumb keyboard, and it may be the best of its kind I've ever used. It feels as good as a Blackberry; each key provides tactile feedback and has just enough of separation from its neighbors, that I typed this entire post on it without cramping up or getting frustrated. What's more, the OQO's ambient light sensor turns on the keyboard's bright backlight when you're clicking away in the dark, making it easy to type in situations which would otherwise be challenging (non-backlit thumb keyboards - why does any company think these are good ideas?).

Day one with the OQO 02? A definite success. More on this tiny computer at the one week mark.

21 May 2007

An autofocus webcam for PCs

When Apple introduced the iSight, I was impressed by its nice design, but moreso by its ability to autofocus. PC webcams of the era were still primitive manual-focus numbers that had not evolved far beyond the first black and white eyeball shaped Quickcams.

I figured some Taiwanese company would make a PC clone of the iSight and I'd finally have a modern webcam.

Well, years went by, and while PC webcams added some pretty silly features (like the ability to put fake sunglasses on your face), none of them did autofocus.

Until recently. In April, 2007, Creative introduced the LiveCam Optia AF. Here's the Creative LiveCam Optia AF product page and also an article on the Optia AF at i4u. It's a $130 (list) two megapixel (2MP) camera with 1600x1200 resolution. And it does autofocus.

EverythingUSB adds that the camera has a 63-degree field of view (due to USB 2.0 limits) can only send uncompressed video at 960x720 at 24fps.

I haven't tried it yet. If you have one, please let me know whether it lives up to the hype.

08 May 2007

CPR: Everything we know is wrong?

Newsweek: Docs Change the Way They Think About Death

The best treatment for a heart attack might be to slowly reintroduce oxygen, as the heart cells remain alive for an hour after being cut off from oxygen, but immediately die when oxygen is reintroduced suddenly. One study showed an 80% survival rate with the gradual reintroduction of oxygen, compared to only 17% under normal procedures (jolt the heart with paddles and get it beating fast).


Because once the cells have been without oxygen for more than five minutes, they die when their oxygen supply is resumed. It was that "astounding" discovery, Becker says, that led him to his post as the director of Penn's Center for Resuscitation Science, a newly created research institute operating on one of medicine's newest frontiers: treating the dead.

* * *

"It looks to us," says Becker, "as if the cellular surveillance mechanism cannot tell the difference between a cancer cell and a cell being reperfused with oxygen. Something throws the switch that makes the cell die."

19 April 2007

Dan Le Sac vs Scoobius Pip: Thou shalt

My favorite video of the week: Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip 'Thou Shalt Always Kill'

13 April 2007

Most Frustrating. Super Mario level. Ever.

This is a video of a particularly evil fan-created level for Super Mario.

Just watching is painful - I can't believe the player didn't throw their controller through the wall.

(via quixoticals)

10 April 2007

OQO 02 delays for models with Verizon EVDO

Word is that while OQO is shipping some OQO 02 models now, direct-ordered top of the line models with Verizon EVDO have been delayed an extra two one to two weeks over Sprint EVDO models, and that the expected ship date for pre-orders of Verizon OQO 02s is now early May (up from an earlier announced date of mid-March to mid-April).

04 April 2007

OQO 02 Unboxed

If you're looking forward to the OQO 02, and don't have one in hand yet, Boy Genius's photos of the unboxing of an OQO 02 might tide you over for a few days.


(via Boy Genius Report)

28 March 2007

Do bloggers really wear red capes and goggles?

- Do bloggers really wear red capes and goggles and blog from high-altitude balloons?
- No! Well, Cory Doctorow does.

Here's the XKCD strip that inspired this:

16th Annual EFF Pioneer Awards (photos)

I went to the 16th Annual EFF Pioneer Awards tonight. The opening entertainment was a debate between Fred von Lohmann and Mark Cuban over the merits of Youtube and the DMCA. It was a high spirited and good natured fight over the companies "cowering behind the DMCA" (Cuban) versus the convenience to copyright holders of being able to take down offending content without court action (von Lohmann).

Afterwards, the EFF presented awards to Bruce Schneier, Yochai Benkler, and Cory Doctorow. Yochai Benkler was unable to attend, but sent a prerecorded acceptance speech. Bruce Schneier was "introduced" via the presentation of some Bruce Schneier facts before coming on stage. Cory Doctorow was presented with goggles and a red cape (thanks to this comic) before giving a particularly moving acceptance speech (and an engagement announcement, too!)

Cory Doctorow with EFF Pioneer Award

(full photoset here)

27 March 2007

OQO 02 now shipping

OQO announced today that the OQO 02 is now shipping. I had a chance to try one of the pre-production machines at their office in San Francisco, and I was impressed by the design.

26 March 2007

Robert Cook Freebasing at Etech

Robert Cook
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
Today, Robert Cook gave a presentation and demo of Metaweb's Freebase at ETech. This was the first public presentation of Freebase. Robert talked about the many facets of Arnold Schwartzenegger (bodybuilder, actor, and politician) to illustrate how we reconcile topics in Freebase whenever possible. This is one of the things that makes us different from other on-line data stores.

Robert used our alpha server for the demo and showed a few examples of autocomplete and bidirectional linking. Esther and Tim then had questions about our philosophy of user-created data and the directions we might take as our community grows.

Bunnie and Tim

Bunnie and Tim
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
I'm at ETech this week, and this morning blogging from the Executive Briefing. Bunnie Huang talked about the design of the Chumby, and how working with Chinese manufacturers has made rapid design turnaround and low cost possible. It's transform the hardware industry, and Chumby and OLPC are two of the high profile projects that got this new model early on and are benefiting from it.

22 March 2007

The women of the in-flight safety cards

(see also safety.mania.ru)

InfoWorld | Freebase, the Semantic Web, and the Metaweb Query API | By Martin Heller

Martin Heller has written a thoughtful technical review of Freebase and the Metaweb Query API in an article titled Freebase, the Semantic Web, and the Metaweb Query API on the Strategic Developer weblog at Infoworld. I recommend that any developer interested in the Metaweb read his review. And if you're really interested, I have three invitations to give away for our alpha test.

At Metaweb, we're making our API as open as possible - here's the documentation. The API allows programmers and web developers to query Freebase via MQL (mickle) the Metaweb Query Language. MQL is not your standard SQL "select user_name from users where ..." syntax because our database allows for a great deal of expressiveness and connections between objects with varying schemas.

If you want to ask questions and learn more, our dev team posts on the Freebase Dev Blog. For executive-level discussions about Freebase and the philosophy behind it, see Robert Cook's blog, Freebasics.

In addition to the API and MQL, we've also open-sourced (BSD dual-clause license) a web toolkit called MJT (midget). MJT is influenced by Kid and Genshi, and allows developers to query and display information with the rendering done in-browser. It's a nice way to create data-driven applications without a separate app server. Javascript has come a long way.

Here's a MJT documentation excerpt.

* * *

MJT Templates

Mjt is an HTML templating engine that runs entirely in a web browser. It was built for the Freebase service, but it can be used for many other web services. It is distributed as open source.

Mjt makes it very simple to take data from a web service and format it in a browser, with no server support. The templates are hosted and delivered as static HTML, and they are compiled and applied entirely in Javascript.

Mjt is particularly useful with services that return JSON values and accept a callback= parameter, such as the Freebase service and the Yahoo JSON API. With these services you can use mjt to build "mash-ups" that incorporate data from services on multiple hosts.For a step-by-step introduction to the mjt template language as well as an example of mjt in action, see the intro tour.

20 March 2007

Justice is served: 3000 pages of emails scanned and on-line

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee is in the process of putting 3000 pages of scanned emails on-line. These are emails the US Department of Justice handed over in relation to the firing of eight Attorneys General. The documents are linked to from the front page, in the "What's New" section.

Here are direct links to what's on-line at the moment. The printed emails are still being scanned, so check the Justice Department page for more. And remember, if you find something interesting, you'll be doing everyone a favor by posting it.

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 1-1

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 1-2

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 1-3

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 1-4

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 1-5

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 1-6

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 1-7

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 1-8

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 1-9

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 1-10

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 1-11

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 2-1

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 2-2

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 2-3

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 2-4

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 2-5

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 2-6

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 2-7

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 2-8

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 2-9

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 3-1

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 3-2

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 3-3

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 3-4

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 3-5

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 3-6

3-19-2007 DOJ-Released Documents 3-7

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19 March 2007

Freebase invitations

There's one week left to snag an invitation to Metaweb's Freebase alpha test. I've got three invitations to give away. So if you're interested, post a comment here.

(full disclosure: I work for Metaweb)

Vicious Cycles

Kids, before there was digital, there was frame-by-frame stop motion animation.

15 March 2007

Freebase and Creative Commons

I just got back from SXSW, and there was a really positive response to Freebase from the people I met.

I think that our decision to make Freebase data available via the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-by) license is a big part of the positive reaction -- people are willing to share when they know that the sharing goes both ways.

Freebase invite contest

Now I'm looking for people who have data to share and would like to try out Freebase. So I'm holding a contest - if you want to use Freebase, post a comment and tell me why you are interested. The three best submissions between now and Friday, March 23 will get invites to our alpha test.

Whether you're a regular user, a programmer who wants to use an API, or have an interesting data set that you'd like to share with the world, you've got a chance.

10 March 2007

Tantek @ SXSW

Tantek @ SXSW
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
Tantek Celik talked about Microformats at the SXSW Rawks! panel, and also shared some tips for keeping track of all the events at the show. I'm a big fan of microformats, and I want to see more information become both human and machine readable.

Snakes on a Plane at SXSW

James Home at SXSW
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
There was a session at South by Southwest devoted to the internet fan-driven phenomenon known as Snakes on a Plane. James Home of Metaweb talked about his experience putting together a fan-organized premiere of the film in San Francisco.

Snakes on a Plane did something that few other films have achieved. It gave the fans not so much an enduring piece of cinema, so much as a reason to have a big one night party. Some on the panel felt that had Snakes on a Plane stuck to a tight budget - $3M instead of $30M - it could have spawned a niche of such films - financially successful one-night parties.

Maybe the studios will learn from this, and see Snakes on a Plane as a successful experiement working with internet fans - supporting them and learning from them too.

SXSW Rawks!

SXSW Rawks!
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
Min Jung Kim and Glenda Bautista rock on at the SXSW Rawks panel on Friday.

09 March 2007

Happy Birthday Freebase.com

Happy Birthday, Freebase.com
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
John Markoff just wrote an article for the New York Times about my company, Metaweb, and our Freebase project: "Startup aims for web database to automate searching", and Tim O'Reilly talks about what it all means on O'Reilly Radar (with the bonus of a few screenshots of the site).

Jon Phillips of Creative Commons has good things to say about our use of the CC Attribution license for the shared data - this is a database we want people to use.

I'm at SXSW Interactive Mar 9 - 14 looking for people who would like to work for us in San Francisco (we're hiring) or develop their own applications that use Freebase. I'm also looking for communities and people with data to share - if you have a catalog of data in any domain and want to share it with the world, let me know.

27 February 2007

Perl programmer vs MS Vista Speech Recognition

A programmer with far too much time on his hands tries to program in Perl using Microsoft Vista's speech recognition system.

Warning, Youtube video with some salty cursing.

14 February 2007

Irrefutable proof that Wikipedia is better than Encyclopædia Britannica

The award for most authoritative and encyclopedic Wikipedia article you'll never see in Encyclopædia Britannica goes to: Heavy metal umlaut. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

The first gratuitous use [of the umlaut] appears to have been either by Blue Öyster Cult or by Black Sabbath, both in 1970. Blue Öyster Cult's website states it was added by guitarist and keyboardist Allen Lanier,[3] but rock critic Richard Meltzer claims to have suggested it to their producer and manager Sandy Pearlman just after Pearlman came up with the name: "I said, 'How about an umlaut over the O?' Metal had a Wagnerian aspect anyway."[4] Conversely, Black Sabbath, on a rare 7" single version of Paranoid (with the b-side Rat Salad), for no forthcoming reason, renamed the single "Paranoïd" with a diaeresis above the "i".[5] (In French, the words paranoïa, paranoïaque, paranoïde properly have the trema.)

On their second album In Search of Space (1971), Hawkwind wrote on the backside of the cover: "TECHNICIÄNS ÖF SPÅCE SHIP EÅRTH THIS IS YÖÜR CÄPTÅIN SPEÄKING YÖÜR ØÅPTÅIN IS DEA˝D". To add to the variation, Danish and Norwegian letters Ø and Å are added. While the Å being a separate letter sounding like the word "Oh", the Danish Ø is actually pronounced exactly like the German and Turkish Ö. And also the diacritical mark on the last " A˝ " is the "Hungarian umlaut" or double acute accent ( ˝ )—two short lines slanting up and to the right rather like a right double-quote mark—instead of dots (Hungarian uses neither the ( ˝ ) nor the traditional German umlaut ("Ä") over the letter "A", though, and ( ˝ ) is used only on the letters "Ő" and "Ű"). This was before Lemmy, later of Motörhead, had become a member of the group.

13 February 2007

Sony Mylo review

I've been thinking about getting a truly portable WiFi device. I want something that lets me check email, make VOIP or Skype phone calls, and has great battery life. Chat would be nice too.

When looking for a portable wireless device, I know I'm not going to find everything I want in a single device, because the size and power constraints require a balance of tradeoffs, so the most interesting research is not in the initial checklist of "what can it do," but in the subsequent analysis of how the tradeoffs and features are balanced, and how well the device functions as a tool (reliable, well-suited to the task at hand).

After doing a lot of on-line research, I narrowed my list of candidate devices down to the Nokia N800, Sony Mylo, Sony UX-380N, and OQO 02. I work near the Sony store in the Metreon in San Francisco, so I've been able to spend a lot of time testing the Sony Mylo in a reasonable environment.

I like the physical design of this device. It is fun to hold and opening the device to reveal the keyboard has a good feel. I'm a bit concerned that the display isn't recessed, so is likely to get scratched if I just toss the Mylo in pocket in my courier bag.

The keyboard is not good - the keys are not raised enough and there's very little tactile feedback. So I don't think I'd ever be able to get decent muscle memory for typing - I don't expect to be able to touch type, but my fingers should have at least some idea of where the keys are. The keyboard just doesn't deliver. And since I have to look at the keys, it surprises me that there is no backlight. This makes the device particularly difficult to use in dim or dark rooms.

I really like the Mylo's graphical user interface. I like the elements for displaying menus and the navigation between the elements. I've read that Sony is using Trolltech's Qtopia on the device and I have to say that it feels designed for a small screen. I didn't feel like I had to make unnecessary actions to open Skype or Google Talk, for instance.

I also like Google Talk's user interface. It's clean and makes excellent use of the screen real estate. Similarly, Skype seems to fit well.

However, when things go wrong in an application, the Mylo fails to break gracefully. And a tool should always be reliable, and when failing, be quick and clear in doing so. Here are two different areas where the Mylo fails poorly:

- in Skype, when I entered my login information, the login did not appear to complete. Instead, the application appeared to hang. There was no notification of how the login was progressing, nor was there any indication of an error, even after 6 seconds had passed. This is not good - the user should never be in the dark, especially if the application is not designed to gracefully deal with errors.

- in Google Talk, I had no problems. But when I selected "Google Mail" from within Google Talk, I got a blank white screen (presumably the browser, before it had loaded a page) and nothing else. I even waited for 30 seconds.

The above happened on three different occasions, on three different Mylos, at two different locations, on two different wireless networks, I could never get to Google Mail from within Google Talk.

Now, when it comes to tradeoffs in a handheld, it's the integration between the applications and the OS that is crucial. When done poorly, it results in a device that has the features - on paper - but is frustrating and unusable in practice.

In my experience with the Mylo, it does not find a successful balance between tradeoffs.

Because the Mylo is a closed platform, it seems unlikely that third parties will be able to address these issues. And because the device is $350, $150 more than the current price for the (very well designed and similarly powerful) Sony PSP, I have to wonder whether Sony really thought the Mylo through.

If it had seamless integration, and if I could improve it by installing third party applications, I would strongly consider buying one. But it doesn't, and its other shortcomings outweigh the benefits of what seems to be a decent Google Talk and Skype client.

Summary: Excellent hardware, OS, and GUI marred by very poor application integration, a closed platform, and a high price. 1 star out of 5.

06 February 2007

Obfuscated Perl

The Davinci Codebase: Perl code
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
I don't care what anyone says, Perl is a remarkably easy to understand programming language.

(code from Damian Conway's tongue-in-cheek "The Davinci Codebase" presentation at OSCON 2006.)

30 January 2007

And now, dogs and lasers

Music video for Vitalic's "Poney Part I"

26 January 2007

Just a few qualifying questions

As he's about to enter heaven, a Christian is asked whether he has lived in accordance with the Bible. (jpeg)

One of the verses the cartoon refers to is Mark 5:13:

(King James Version)

And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea ... and were choked in the sea.

Lawsuit in UCLA taser case

LAist reports that the UCLA student tasered by police for being in a library without student ID has filed a suit naming UCLA, the UCLA police department, and the individual officers involved as using excessive force, illegal use of a Taser, and violating the students rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

After seeing the video a student made of the incident, I think the school and the police are going to have a very difficult time coming out on top here. I certainly hope they change their policy of allowing use of Tasers as a cattle prods - a policy that is at odds with those of every other UC school, where Tasers are only allowed in situations of self-defense and real imminent harm, rather than possible non-compliance with an order.

In another interesting angle, Jessamyn on Librarian.net asks why we haven't heard from UCLA's librarians about what they think (possibly because the school is still investigating the incident). However, the American Librarian's Association did write a letter condeming the way the UCLA police acted.

More coverage here:

FOX News - Iranian-American Student Zapped by Taser in Campus Library Files Suit
LA Times - UCLA Student files suit in Taser incident

Star Wars Death Star dogfight

An incredible performance of the final dog fight over the Death Star, done with hands.

Leave your tinfoil hat at home

Spray-on Defense from WiFi and Cellphones

via Treehugger

22 January 2007

Get paid by Microsoft to contribute to Wikipedia - O'Reilly XML Blog

File under: "this won't be received well."

An interesting offer: get paid to contribute to Wikipedia - O'Reilly XML Blog: "I was a little surprised to receive email a couple of days ago from Microsoft saying they wanted to contract someone independent but friendly (me) for a couple of days to provide more balance on Wikipedia concerning ODF/OOXML."

via Slashdot

20 January 2007

Spam Musubi

Spam Musubi
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
This is the apex of Japanese-Hawaiian cuisine.

If McDonalds had started in Edo around 1000AD, all sushi would look like this.

19 January 2007

Classic Silent Star Wars

I know, you found yourself wondering, "what if Star Wars had been made during the silent film era?"

Now you know.

French ad for March of the Penguins

The French title for the movie was "March of the Emperor".

17 January 2007

Diamond Age to be made into mini-series

Scifi.com reports that SCI FI Channel is working on making Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age into a six-hour miniseries, with George Clooney as one of the executive producers.

16 January 2007

HP investigator pleads guilty - Financial Times - MSNBC.com

The Financial Times reported on Jan 15 that the US government has its first conviction in the HP pretexting case.


Bryan Wagner, 29, who was charged with two federal felony counts on Wednesday, admitted that he illegally obtained the social security numbers and private telephone records of two journalists and two former HP board members and their family members as part of a plea deal. He faces up to five years in prison on the identity theft charge.

12 January 2007

Harrison Ford: Wife Force One

Filed with love under "way to much time on their hands," Youtube user RoninGraffiti has created the ultimate Harrison Ford movie, "Wife Force One."

09 January 2007

Planetocopia: Alternate worlds

Chris Wayan has a mission - to create alternate, realistic worlds and then describe them in amazing detail. Some of the worlds start with Earth, and then change one element like the tilt of the Earth's axis.

Others are possible futures for Venus, Earth, and Mars.

And then there's Lyr, a thought experiment in designing a world very much unlike Earth and yet capable of sustaining life.



Lyr's a world-model challenging exobiologists like Peter Ward Douglas ("Rare Earth"), who say complex life will only evolve on worlds almost exactly like Earth. Lyr is emphatically not Earth! Seven times as massive, in an eccentric orbit too far out from its dim little sun, with the wrong density, wrong tilt, wrong satellites, wrong geology, wrong water content... can you get wronger? Douglas says big wet worlds like Lyr will be (at best) world-seas, poor in minerals, with sparse unicellular life at most, and if it's multicellular than not intelligent, and if intelligent than not technological.

Tell that to the Lyrans.


Our solar system's mass-gap between gasbags and rocks has given us an imagination-gap. Even science fiction, usually quick to explore possibilities, has very few middleweight worlds: Silverberg's "Majipoor" series plus short stories like Tiptree's "With Delicate Mad Hands" or pulp tales like "We Guard the Black Planet" or "Heavy Planet". Scientifically, they range from sloppy and unconvincing to downright silly. Only Poul Anderson's "The Man Who Counts" (discussed in Lyr's Evolution) details a fairly plausible middleweight world--and even it has problems.

In short: such worlds are a blind spot in the human imagination--ignored as potential biospheres. So... let's put this common planetary type center stage.