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