Posts Tagged ‘ideas’

The killer app for iPhone 3GS

by Hang

You heard it here first folks, the killer app for the iPhone 3GS will be augmented reality. Two features in the new release makes the iPhone 3GS the perfect augmented reality platform. First, the inclusion of an onboard compass and second, the opening up of the API to full camera controls.

Almost everyone except developers were unaware of this but the iPhone 3G SDK painfully crippled the camera by forcing you to use the provided Apple API to take pictures (this meant no real time computer vision could run on it except when Apple conveniently didn’t notice you bypassing their allowed APIs). Now that the APIs are open, expect to see a bunch of innovative computer vision apps (face detection, object detection, tracking).

But the second breakthrough is that the compass finally provides a braindead 6 Degree of Freedom (DOF) estimation. Any rigid object in space can be defined by 6 parameters. 3 spatial ones and 3 rotational ones. The iPhone 3G could estimate 5 of those 6 parameters acceptable well with GPS providing rough spatial data, the acceleromter providing fine spatial data as well as the direction of gravity. The compass provides the final, missing degree of freedom that allows for complete pose estimation.

Augmented Reality needs to know two things: Where is the sensor and where is everything else. Once you know that, you can do all sorts of really cool shit. I have no idea what will eventually come out, that’s one of the exciting things about bringing this technology to a mainstream audience, but I can point to some interesting research directions that seem plausible:

  • Instant 3D modelling of everything: Wave your iPhone around an object and it’ll figure out how to create a crude 3D model of it in memory.
  • Interactive furniture arranging: Go to the store, scan a bunch of furniture you want to buy, go home, drag and drop virtual pieces of furniture in your living room to figure out which piece should go where.
  • Interactive tour guide: You’re walking through New York, you see a cool building, take a photo of it and all of a sudden you know it’s the flatiron building and you’re reading a wikipedia article about it.
  • Photosynth the entire damn world: nuff said.
  • AR Quake: nuff said.
  • History view: Point to a space and if there’s a security camera pointed at it, be able to review what happened at that spot at any point in time.
  • Invisible Ink: Leave messages on walls which only your friends can see. Send them on an easter egg hunt.
  • Virtual Ping Pong on the phone: Use the phone screen to see a virtual ping pong table and then swing the phone to make a hit
  • Physical, virtual avatar conferencing: Replicate the real world cocktail party acoustics in a virtual physical space. Cocktail parties are great because they allow the spontaneous formation of ad-hoc small conversation clusters within a larger conversation. Online tools do a poor job of replicating that dynamic but if we could bring physicality back into it, we might be able to bring some of this dynamism back into online conversation.
  • A million goddamn screens: This was a project I personally worked on that unfortunately, never got to far but has a dear place in my heart. Conventional computing is predicated on screens being expensive but if you stick a tracking marker onto a piece of paper, you can turn it into a screen. What would computing be like if you could produce screens out of some cardboard and a laser printer that could be any form factor and would cost 10 cents a pop? How would this help with information overload? Imagine you have a screen in the corner that represents the pile of unread emails. If you want to read an email, drag it onto a new screen. Important emails that you need to reply to each get their own seperate screen which you keep neat and tidy by arranging them in a pile. If you want to send a file to your coworker sitting next to you, you can drag it onto a screen and then physically hand him the screen. You can have a screen for each individual participant in an IM/voice/video conferencing and pulling the screen closer means you want to be alerted but pushing it away means you want to ignore them. What could you do if you had access to a million goddamn screens over the course of your lifetime?

Are some of these examples wildly unrealistic and totally unable to work in real life? Of course, they come from research inspirations. But they demonstrate the enormous power of augmented reality which is about to be unlocked within these next few years as developers grapple with just what’s possible with Augemented Reality.

March 15 2009

Man with a hammer syndrome

by Hang

What gummed up Skinner’s reputation is that he developed a case of what I always call man-with-a-hammer syndrome: to the man with a hammer, every problem tends to look pretty much like a nail.

The Psychology of Human Misjudgment is an absolutely brilliant talk given by Charlie Munger (#2 at Berkshire Hathaway) that I still return to and read every year to gain a fresh perspective. There’s a lot of wisdom to be distilled from that piece but the one thing I want to talk about today is the man-with-a-hammer syndrome.

Man-with-a-hammer syndrome is pretty simple: you think of an idea and then, pretty soon, it becomes THE idea. You start seeing how THE idea can apply to anything and everything, it’s the universal explanation for how the universe works. Suddenly, everything you’ve ever thought of before must be reinterpreted through the lens of THE idea and you’re on an intellectual high. Utilitarianism is a good example of this. Once you independently discover Utilitarianism you start to believe that an entire moral framework can be constructed around a system of pleasures and pains and, what’s more, that this moral system is both objective and platonic. Suddenly, everything from the war in the middle east to taking your mid-morning dump at work because you need that 15 minutes of reflective time alone with yourself before you can face the onslaught of meaningless drivel that is part of corporate America but feeling guilty about it because you were raised to be a good Randian and you are not providing value from your employers so you’re committing and act of theft can be fit under the Utilitarian framework. And then, hopefully, a few days later, you’re over it and Utilitarianism is just another interesting concept and you’re slightly embarrassed about your behavior a few days prior. Unfortunately, some people never get over it and they become those annoying people write long screeds on the internet about THE idea.

The most important thing to realize about man-with-a-hammer syndrome is that there’s absolutely no possible way to avoid having it happen to you. You can be a well seasoned rationalist who’s well aware of how man-with-a-hammer syndrome works and what the various symptoms are but it’s still going to hit you fresh with each new idea. The best you can do is mitigate the fallout that occurs.

Once you recognize that you’ve been struck with man-with-a-hammer syndrome, there’s a number of sensible precautions you can take. The first is to have a good venting spot, being able to let your thoughts out of your head for some air lets you put them slightly in perspective. Personally, I have a few trusted friends to which I expose man-with-a-hammer ideas with all the appropriate disclaimers to basically ignore the bullshit that is coming out of my mouth. One thing I’m experimenting with is a less public portion of my blog to put that kind of stuff on (which will be made much clearer after the sorely needed redesign).

The second important thing to do is to hold back from telling anyone else about the idea. Making an idea public means that you’re, to a degree, committed to it and this is not what you want. The best way to prolong man-with-a-hammer syndrome is to have other people believing that you believe something.

Unfortunately, the only other thing to do is simply wait. There’s been nothing I’ve discovered that can hasten the recovery from man-with-a-hammer syndrome beyond some minimum time threshold. If you’ve done everything else right, the only thing left to do is to simply out wait it. No amount of clever mental gymnastics will help you get rid of the syndrome any faster and that’s the most frustrating part. You can be perfectly aware that you have it, know that everything you’re thinking now, you won’t believe in a weeks time and yet you still can’t stop yourself from believing in it now.

Man-with-a-hammer syndrome can destroy your life if you’re not careful but, if handled appropriately, is ultimately nothing more than an annoying and tedious cost of coming up with interesting ideas. What’s most interesting about it to me is that even with full awareness of it’s existence, it’s completely impossible to avoid. While you have man-with-a-hammer syndrome, you end up living in a curious world in which you are unable to disbelieve in something you know to be not true and this is a deeply weird state I’ve not seen “rationalists” fully come to terms with.

March 13 2009

The rate limiter on innovation

by Hang

I’m a huge tetris geek and so when I discovered Torus, my first reaction was “That’s so obvious, why the hell didn’t I think of that?” which lead me to thinking about how almost every person has their own personal theory about how they think innovation happens and yet they are so rarely inclined to put that theory under empirical scrutiny.

Some people believe that innovation is technology limited and that as soon as a new product becomes practical, someone will build it. Often, the critical technological factor might not be the most obvious one. Looking at torus, their reaction would be that sure, it would have been technically feasible 20 years ago but such a variant never would have spread without the viral power of the internet. Because there’s so many entrepreneurs working on so many different approaches to the problem, one of them is bound to hit on a good idea eventually.

Other people believe that innovation is a matter of luck, talent and persistance. MP3 players as good as the iPod and search engines as good as Google were perfectly possible well before they came out but it took the genius of the designers at Apple/Google to finally show people what an MP3 player/search engine could be.

There are still others who believe innovation is a social process driven by fads and fashions. People innovated in social networking because social networking was what’s hot. Now, they’re innovating in iPhone apps. Driving innovation is largely a matter of pushing trends.

In truth, all of these explainations are more or less valid in different areas and every sophisticated person holds a complex mix of all these views but I think it’s interesting and useful to articulate your own view so that you can determine whether it’s correct or not.

March 13 2009

Skills you didn’t know were rare

by Hang

Finally figuring out that you’re abnormal is akin to coming home from work and realizing that your shirt was on backwards the entire day, you wonder how many other people noticed it and didn’t say anything. I get that same feeling when I figure out that something I thought was totally normal and that everyone did was actually something that only a very few people possessed.

When I was small, I always imagined there was another me, floating roughly 3 feet behind me and above my head, looking down on me. This wasn’t an imaginary friend or an out of body experience or anything like that, it was just the part of me that lived outside of my body and could observe the world from a different perspective. The inside me would be worried about how I was feeling and my own emotional reactions but the outside me was completely indifferent to my well being and was the hyper-logical, hyper-rational being who would crunch the numbers and present the truth in an impersonal manner. Inside me and outside me would argue a lot and outside me would never win but I would at least respect his opinions. It took me until I was maybe 17 or 18 before I realized that the reason why my appeals to the outside them was not working for most people was because their outside them didn’t exist and they were unable to consider an argument from anything but a personal perspective. Because I had an outside me, I thought everyone else must have an outside them as well.

One recent skill I finally figured out not many people had is the ability to learn about a subject without subscribing to the orthodox view and it took me the recent financial crisis to hammer that home to me. When I first learned economics, I came into it enthusiastic but well aware of it’s limitations and simplifications. Surely, if I could see how economics was limiting from a high school class, these professionals with their fancy educations must be very well versed in just what the flaws and deficiencies in their subject was. It wasn’t until this crisis hit that it finally hit home to me the level of intellectual shallowness and mindlessness most economic professionals were operating under. Sure, they knew the theory and how to apply it but they also believed that, because they knew it, it was true.

Knowing that you have a skill is useful but finding out that other people don’t have that skill is infinitely more powerful because it makes you unique. However, finding such things out generally requires a jolt out of your normal circumstances. I’m really curious to see if any other people have stories about discovering unusual abilities?

March 3 2009

The wisdom:bullshit ratio

by Hang

I’m reading a book right now which I’ll name in a later post which contains, roughly according to my estimate, about 80% wisdom to 20% bullshit and it strikes me that this is the absolutely worst ratio possible. In fact, making a mental list of wisdom:bullshit ratios made me think how highly non-linear my personal scale is. So here it is from best to worst:

  • 90:10 – These are the books I most enjoy reading as the amount of bullshit is just enough for you to calibrate your filter and be able to extract out the deep wisdom hidden within. I would say Freakanomics would fit squarely into this category.
  • 100:0 – Although, intuitively, you would think a book with no bullshit is better than a book with some bullshit, it’s actually not because you now no longer have a scale of comparison. Did you not detect bullshit because it wasn’t there or because it was too advanced for you to understand? I don’t think I’ve read any books that fall squarely in this category, at least not for a long time.
  • 0:100 – Simple, skim a couple of pages and throw it away, your life remains unaffected. The Secret would be a good book of this category.
  • 50:50 – These books are challenging and require you to have your bullshit filter on full force. You’re forced to comb through every sentence and carefully consider each statement. Such books can often cause you to radically shift your thinking or at least inject doubt into your process. The 48 laws of power was a book like that for me.
  • 30:70 / 40:60 / 60:40 /70:30 – For the most part, this will be largely everything you read. Most mass media falls into this comfortable middle range and, although it’s challenging to parse properly, you become so used to doing it that it’s routine.
  • 10:90 / 20:80 – These books are frustrating because there’s a hidden core of wisdom surrounded by so much utter crap that they’re emotionally draining to read and yet the small insights urge you to keep going. Atlas Shrugged was definitely in that category for me. I hated it so much, I inexplicably read it again a few years later, gritting my way through the entire book.
  • 80:20 – The 80:20 book is the book that derails people’s lives. Mixed in among all that wisdom is just a few key mistakes that can lead you far, far astray. This is how cults recruit their members and smart financial wizards managed to argue their way into this financial crisis. The wisdom is compelling enough that you let down your guard and don’t realize how much bullshit you let in until it’s too late. I’ll be providing a review of the current book I’m reading in a few days with the case of why I believe it to be an 80:20 book.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear your examples of books you think fit into any of the above categories…

February 27 2009

The natural unit of innovation

by Hang

**WARNING: INCOMPLETE FOR NOW, feedback still welcome*

This fascinating visualization of the writing process was at the top of Hacker News and unfortunately, it’s easier for you to view it than for me to try and describe it for you. But looking at in made me consider how long it took for that idea to fully develop. Stripping out the whole online component of it, when could you have realistically developed something like that? 1960? 1970? There was a good 40 years between when it became technically feasible and when even 0.1% of the computing population had even been made aware of it.

One thing I started noticing quite a while back was this consistent pattern of a brief period of innovation when a new technology hits followed by a stultifying grind in which ideas barely change. And I think the reason for this is not because all the good ideas were already developed, I was seeing absolutely brilliant ideas coming out of academia every year that were markedly superior to what we had before. I think the right explaination is that the natural unit of innovation is the idea and the natural unit of competition is the product and so when those two get too far out of sync, innovation grinds to a halt.

I can guarantee you the guys at etherpad were not the first to have this idea. At a conservative estimate, I would say that that particular demo had been tried by maybe a thousand people in the past, everyone from grad students to bored hackers to geeky artists. But consider the process from the genesis of an idea to it being a feature that people could use. If you were in the 90’s, everyone would have been writing in Microsoft Word. In order to convince anyone to try out your feature, you essentially had to build something better than Microsoft Word just in order to test this new feature. This is, to say the least, mildly impossible.

The difference between the effort required to create a feature and get it into use was so impossibly large that such an obvious feature languished for 40 years for lack of an opportunity in the market. I think the ratio of effort required for a feature:effort required for a product is an extremely important metric to optimize because even small reductions can have highly non-linear and cumulative effects. In this case, as a rough cut, I’m defining effort required for a product as the amount of work it would take to have your software be installed and used by 1,000,000 people or 10% of the market, whichever is smaller. That includes the coding, marketing, sales etc.

So what are some ways of drastically cutting down on the feature:product ratio?

  • Hiring innovative people: The easiest way to get a feature deployed is to work for the company building the product. Hiring the right people and getting out of their way can push the feature:product ratio essentially down to 1 for that group of people.
  • Open sourcing:
  • Plugin architectures: Plugins allow you to leverage off all the other features that aren’t the feature you want to implement. If you want to prototype a cool comment system, you don’t have build an entire blog, you just download wordpress and start hacking away at a plugin.
  • Good API Design:
  • Great documentation: Sadly, something ignored by most open source projects
  • Scripting languages: Building your product out of a dynamic scripting language allows others to easily dive into the guts of what you’re doing.
  • Orthogonal design: A good plugin architecture is useless if you can’t actually add useful features because everything is so interdependant on everything else.
  • Automated Deployment: Remember, the feature:product ratio doesn’t just involve coding, all the other activities that go around getting an app installed matter too. Huge complicated deployment strategies might make sense for a product but can become disproportionate for a feature. This means you need to provide one click installs, auto updates, an in-product plugin store and a vibrant viral community to help with the marketing.
  • Lots of eyeballs: The larger and more active your community is, the more ideas bubble and ferment to the top and result in concrete results.

If your product can provide all of these things, they can pull a long way ahead of the competition. Look at the example of firefox vs IE, firefox has steadily gained market share because, among other things, you can install an ad blocker. Nobody on the firefox team ever built an ad blocker and it would probably have been deemed low priority if it were ever proposed to them. The sole reason an ad blocker exists today is because the person who thought about writing an ad blocker didn’t also have to contemplate writing a HTML parsing engine.

February 24 2009

Incentives as surrogate values

by Hang

I was reading Paul Graham’s Startups in 13 sentences and came along this interesting piece of advice:

7. You make what you measure.

I learned this one from Joe Kraus. [3] Merely measuring something has an uncanny tendency to improve it. If you want to make your user numbers go up, put a big piece of paper on your wall and every day plot the number of users. You’ll be delighted when it goes up and disappointed when it goes down. Pretty soon you’ll start noticing what makes the number go up, and you’ll start to do more of that. Corollary: be careful what you measure.

It had been meshing with my thinking a lot about visualising valued work and community building. I think the same thing applies in both contexts, if you display each user’s post count under their username, then people are going to start posting a lot. If you implement a karma score, then people will try and do things that maximize karma. Not only exposing information about valued work important, not exposing information can also be an important design strategy. Unfortunately, for most online community organisers, there’s little thought about the effects of a feature, features are often turned on just because they’re there.

But chewing over this a little bit before going to sleep last night, I realised that inventives can be thought of as a context free instantiation of values. To have values means that you believe that certain actions are either right or wrong stemming from some base moral reasoning. What incentives do is it replaced that base moral reasoning with a much simpler system of rewards. In other words, you switch from doing something because it’s right to doing it because it’s good for you.

Because incentives are context free, they’re much easier to scale, both up and out. Every person you meet has their own rich tapestry of past experiences and beliefs which influence their value system but every person is going to get exactly +1 to their post count when they make a post.

However, the downside of an incentive system is that they never incentivize precisely what you want to reward and, whenever you get humans into the mix, you’re going to get gaming of the system. Incentives are also inflexible in the face of novelty compared to values because values stem from the motivation rather than the result of reasoning.

Values are more effective but harder to implement, incentives are easier but less subtle. One of the unique advantages that startups have is that they’re still small enough that they can make the effort to instill a strong value system and this is one of their unique competitive advantages. Some companies nowadays are starting to get the picture and have come out full force in the expression of their values but too many still try and ape large companies and hide behind a bland moral ambiguity. More startups need to realise their true values are a massive asset, not a liability and that they won’t have the luxury of having them for much longer.

February 13 2009

Evolution is not compatible with God

by Hang

To a lot of liberal Christians, evolution has become, dare I say, almost a point of identity. Even the Catholic Church has reaffirmed it’s view that evolution is totally compatible with faith and that Intelligent Design is a cruel sham of a belief. A lot of Atheists are keen to encourage this because anything that gets liberal Christians on our side and away from the Fundamentalists is a good thing. Unfortunately, I’m about to take a massive piss into this font of goodwill by stating that I think the belief that evolution is compatible with faith is based on a misunderstanding of evolution that is so prevalent even Atheists are guilty of perpetuating it.

The easy part of evolution to understand is the mechanistic aspect, the “how” of evolution. Mutation happens and features get evolved and some things become more popular because they lead to increased survival and this is how we have the natural world we see around us. Based on an understanding of this how, it’s perfectly plausible to then believe the why comes from God. God works through evolution and gives it a nudge once in a while at the right points. Evolution is just a cog in God’s plan. Of course, this is an unfalsifiable assertion so it falls outside of the domain of science. The scientists are happy, the liberal Christians are happy, why make so much fuss?

But to understand why evolution had the profoundly explosive effect it did on the scientific world and why Darwin was named the most influential scientist of the past millennium by Scientific American, one must move past the mechanistic understanding of evolution and understand the teleological aspect of evolution: the why of evolution.

Imagine for a second that you rolled a pair of dice a million times and noticed that they added up to 7 roughly 1/6th of the time. Why did the dice land the way it did? Why 1/6th and not some other number like 1/3rd or 1/12th? If you were wholly ignorant about probability, then you could believe that God decreed that all dice rolls should fall to his accord and the reason for 1/6th was because it was pleasing to his eye. But what probability does is it not only explains how it is 1/6th, but also to boil the why down to *shrug*, that’s just the way it is. Fundamentally, the why of it is that there is no why, not only is the why not God, it’s not anything. What probability does is explain away the why.

The real impact of evolution was not that it explained the natural world, it was that it provided science with a path to explain it away. Why do birds fly and beasts walk? Why are we the most intelligent of all the animals? Why do we love and war and yearn for the stars? *shrug*, that’s just how the world is. Evolution showed how complex forms and intelligent beings could have arisen following the same natural laws that govern how dice roll and planets move and by doing so, it not only removed the need for an intelligent creator, it removed the need for anything. Even 200 years after Darwin this is the basic point of evolution that is still misunderstood and this is why evolution is far more of a dilemma to faith than most people will admit.

It’s important to note though that this process is far from complete. Darwin only put humanity on the first step towards this understanding and in the last 200 years, scientists have been steadily working away towards this goal. Our understanding of how is still gradually improving every year but none of this could have happened unless Darwin had the stroke of insight that there could be no why.

Is it possible to believe in evolution and still in God? Sure, but It would be akin to showing how you could bend a spoon via sleight of hand and still believing that Uri Geller is bending them with his mind. If that’s the way it’s done, then he’s doing it the hard way.

February 11 2009

Wildly unrealistic projects of mine

by Hang

Here is a short list of projects I’ve always wanted to do were I to have the sufficient time and means but I secretly know I’ll never get a chance to do them. If anyone else wants to take them on, be my guest:

  • An investigation of what determines success by interviewing a large group of potentially successful people before they become successful. What things genuinely determine success? What things are just post hoc explainations which get engrained as superstition?
  • A “Museum from the future”, with exhibits of contemporary late 20th century life from the perspective of 500 years. What will they pick to be important? What will they misunderstand? How will their differing moral and intellectual standards impose a narrative on our lives?
  • A universal screen scraper framework for games education. This piece of software would be comprised of 3 components: A base layer which provides basic functionality for screen scraping games, a library of game specific adapters which turn what you see on the screen into a set of API calls that would allow you to control that game and then a user generated “AI” that could attempt to play those games. I think this would be an enormous boon for teaching kids how to program and fall in love with programming as it allows them to immediately tackle real world tasks with immediate feedback. For example, a rudimentary blackjack betting program would take all of 5 minutes and a few lines of code to code up but imagine progressing from that to building a Worms player and having it battle online with other Worms AIs.
January 22 2009

Big Science and little science

by Hang

This is an idea I’ve been chewing on for a while on how there seems to be two different modes of science which have a very hard time talking to each other because of their radically different approaches to problems. I’m going to call these two approaches big science and little science.

Big science is about wading into the thick of a big problem and working from a state of utter incomprehension, being satisifed with chewing off whatever nugget of comprehension they can take a hold of. They take hold of questions like “what is love” and grapple with it in it’s full complexity. Big science is like parachuting into the middle of the jungle, setting up base camp and gradually establishing contact with all the other little camps around you.

Little science is all about carving off a well definied, definite area of study and solving it. It asks questions like “How does Paxil bind with the serotonin receptors in the brain”. Little science is all about building the foundation, a solid ground of work on which other work can be based. The little science approach to colonisation is to bring in the bulldozers and clear and settle all the land directly adjacent to the settled land.

Big science and little science represent two fundamentally different ways of trying to understand the world and the approach of one can look bafflingly unscientific to the other. I can feel that frustration when I talk about my work to someone who does little science. My research thesis basically boils down to “How does design influence group behaviour in social software” but everything I talk about comes with the implicit caveat that it’s messy and there’s a lot more things going on than what I’m modelling. I’m not seeking to completely understand human behaviour, even if my work increased predictive power by 1%, I would view that as a major triumph.

Our tools and understanding about social psychology and design are primitive. That’s no excuse for not trying though.

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