Friday, February 29, 2008

making coffee

I don't really have any idea how to properly make coffee. All I know is that when I asked the hipster-looking guy at ritual how long beans stay good after you grind them, he sort of sneered and said "about 10 minutes."

So, tada, that picture up there is my brand new grinder! As mentioned before I bought a little french press which I was quite excited to use, but the words of ritual coffee man stuck with me and I decided I needed a grinder as well. Of course, I'm cheap, and lazy, so I wandered into Crate and Barrel (about 3 blocks away, did I mention the kind of area I live in?) and bought a coffee grinder. Despite all the instructions telling me to buy a burr grinder, this one has blades. I figure I'll start small.

I also got beans from Starbucks (did you know they give you a free drink if you do this?), sugar, and half and half. I'm ready to go! Then I went online and found these awesome instructions (with pictures!) and I went about making my first cup of coffee. Above you see the probably not uniform-enough grind, and below is my first ever french press cup of coffee!

Yeah. I don't think it looks right either.

And here you see it with the coffee in the cup. It actually turned out this cup was awful (too watery) so I threw it out and made a much stronger cup. I still haven't gotten it to taste as good as Starbucks from the store :(. But there's something very nice about the ritual of waking up each morning, grinding beans, and pressing down the little plunger to make my coffee.
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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

for those of you with iphones

what (preferably concerning networking) about your iphone frustrates you the most? besides the fact that it's slow. For instance:

  • would you like to be able to take pictures and have them automatically sync with a folder on your computer?
  • cache certain information locally without expressing it explicitly?
  • do you notice your battery draining when you do certain wireless-intensive or GPRS-intensive tasks?

Actually, come to think of it, anyone who uses their phone for more than talking might have ideas. Please let me know! Thanks!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

one laptop per child

A very nice charity related offer went around my company a while back -- as part of the "give one, get one" program (offered by the olpc folks) you had the opportunity to buy one of the olpc laptops, and you would get a second one for free sent to a deserving child in the developing world. My company matched this, so you'd be responsible for 4 laptops. People I never really thought of as particularly charitable went out and bought a laptop, which I thought was quite amazing. I didn't. For some reason i could never really put my finger on, the whole olpc concept made me slightly uncomfortable. I didn't understand why the answer to poverty in Africa was a laptop when getting clean drinking water is such a problem. I understand that this laptop was designed very well, but that design is based on a lot of specifications that i'm not sure make sense. I guess what I'm saying is, why a laptop?

This article sums up my concerns nicely. So often people try to help but end up mis-targeting culturally or not defining the objectives correctly. Is a laptop that's readable in the sun really what's going to help people get out of poverty? Is that what's necessary? Or is it a cool design challenge?

I have this innate sense that what will work in Africa will be deceptively simple. It will be removing cotton subsidies in the US, or a robust, cheap device that filters water for drinking and increases the average lifespan, thereby making people *want* to be successful and entrepreneurial because they will be around to enjoy it. Or maybe it will just be getting the governments stable and honest. Or a successful African entrepreneur who builds a business on the mobile networks (why is this a laptop and not a phone?). It won't be a fancily designed laptop that is the western world's idea of what an african child wants to use.

The charitable world doesn't have a market allowing successful ideas to rise and unsuccessful ones to fail, so how do we evaluate the effectiveness of an effort, when a charity has an incentive to pretend that what it's doing is great, even if it isn't?

This is clearly a very cool laptop, with awesome design principles and creative ideas. Apparently the give one, get one program sold 162,000 laptops. But I think the cool things they did with this laptop are perhaps more targeted towards kids in developed countries, and as such these principles and cool ideas should live and die on the market like any others.

From the article:

Q: We understand that Bill Gates and some others in this business have criticized this initiative as untenable. What is your response to this?

A: I don't respond to such criticism. Because criticizing this project is like criticizing the Church, or the Red Cross.

-Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the $100 laptop movement, as quoted by
The Daily Vanguard, Nigeria

Monday, February 18, 2008

fancy schmancy coffee

This weekend I'm in SF (sunlight! my apartment! omar! good food!) and I have been drinking all the ritual double lattes I can get my grubby little hands on. Saturday we were at the City Beer Store, and ended up wandering over to the new Blue Bottle cafe at Mint Plaza to gawk at their fancy coffee machine.

For those of you who don't know, SF is turning into pretentious coffee central. and this is with just coffee, not espresso. Blue Bottle was well known for having great coffee, but they only had a dinky little kiosk in Hayes Valley, so Ritual generally won out in the cafe wars. Blue Bottle just opened their new place in Mint Plaza, and they have a 20K Siphon Bar Coffee machine. Just in case that wasn't clear, I mean 20K as in 20 Gs. $20,000. This site has some excellent pictures and videos of a 20K pot of coffee: laughing squid.

So I went, and we ordered something Columbian. It was gorgeous. The presentation was lovely, and the server brought it with some caramel candy he thought would "pair well" with the coffee (seriously?). Despite my misgivings of paying $13 for a small pot of coffee (people are starving in africa!) it was fantastic. so good. I went to Ritual the next day to try their Clover machine (much less visually impressive, but only 3K 11K) and was not as impressed.

On another coffee note, I bought one of those little french press things for $2 at a garage sale, but I have no idea how to obtain, grind, or properly store beans. Take that coffee industry!

Monday, February 4, 2008

just go vote tomorrow. unless you're stupid.

If Mrs. Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, there is some chance — nobody knows how big — that we’ll get universal health care in the next administration. If Mr. Obama gets the nomination, it just won’t happen.

-- Paul Krugman, NYT

Sunday, February 3, 2008

kinetic machines

I went to this event at the MIT Museum on Thursday, and I saw these amazing kinetic machines. The exhibit is called Gestural Engineering: The Sculpture of Arthur Ganson. My favorite was the 11 scraps of paper:

Kind of reminiscent of the paper bag in American Beauty, no?

This was also cute:

All videos taken with my cellphone, sorry about the low resolution.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

on systems research

ok, bear with me, because i really don't feel like spending a ton of time reading what other people have had to say on this subject and digging up references. i hope this post is not something that deeply embarrasses me in the future. if it is, oh well! that's what blogs are for!

so when i initially applied to grad school, i thought i was going to do theory. after all, i was already at a company building stuff, what was the point of leaving, getting paid a lot less, and building stuff with fewer tools and fewer machines? people in industry i talked to seemed to concur. then i actually applied, and during the process realized that a candidate who hasn't done any real math in 4 years perhaps wasn't all that appealing as a theory student. but that's ok, cause i met the theory students, and though they're very nice and smart i'm pretty sure that's not who i am.

so anyway i'm here, and i'm trying to understand what it means to do research in systems. it's this weird combination of showing some novel properties, building a big system, making something run on it, and measuring the crap out of it. i don't think it makes any sense whatsoever from an industry perspective, because you have to do something new in systems and prove it (not just make code work) and it doesn't make sense from a mathy perspective because even if you came up with and proved some amazingly cool networking algorithm you actually have to build it and slap a measurement on it or no one will believe you.

i've been doing a lot of background reading on platforms lately. The paper I linked to before references Marc Andreessen's blog post on platforms, which is quite interesting. I think it's fairly clear that things are moving in the direction of what he deems the "level 3 platforms", or these big containers where developers can upload code, pay per cpu cycle/gb of storage/mbps of bandwidth and not have to worry about administering their own servers. i think it's very cool and democratic and will bring about lots of neat things on the internet.

of course, what becomes very tricky here is trust. first of all, who in their right mind would run one of these containers running all this crazy uploaded code? the code writers could wreak havoc, so first off you want controls in place to protect the container from them, but these controls probably limit what the code writers can actually do (and might make them code to weird made up standards). second, you need to have some sort of isolation between the programs running around in there so that they don't completely annihilate each other, but this is hard too and might require a lot of overhead.

one thing people don't think about enough (i think) is, well, when there are orders of magnitude more applications out there (which there will be, because it's easier to write one now), how do users discern between them? how do they know which ones they can trust? which ones are going to steal their cookie, or monitor their web usage, or spam all their friends? and given that all these apps are going to be running in one big container, they could presumably share stuff more easily (this can happen even with level 1 platforms, with level 3 you can do even more) so how do you control what gets shared and what doesn't? like on facebook, maybe i'm ok letting an app see where i live or where all my friends live and mapping that on my profile, but i don't want it to send out invites to all my friends. right now there's no way to even set that! so i only install certain apps that i think are ok, but sometimes i might get burned and end up emailing half my address book telling everyone they've been turned into a vampire.

anyway, i think this is interesting, and i think it's worth working on. but i don't know if it's useful to work on it in a research environment, because i feel like we might get stuck having to be too secure, and whatever we build isn't going to be anywhere close to what eventually gets done. i guess if we're lucky, the ideas from it will trickle into industry and some company will build something resembling it. then sometimes i think this has to be done in a research environment (or at least open source) cause this needs to span companies. either way, it's interesting, i like thinking about it, and i'm happy i have something to work on in my first week :)

unfortunately there's a massive amount of work to do and my new roommates also have a tivo, so i have to try very hard to keep from falling back into my tv addicted ways.