Friday, July 24, 2009

Google's Recursive Practical Joke...

What got the nerd world talking yesterday was a practical joke setup by Google. A few employees like @MattCutts (whose was the first that I personally encountered) spread a message around on Twitter that stated, "A Google easter egg for people who know what recursion is".

The punchline was that the included link sent you to this page. Apparently, whenever somebody googled the term, "recursion", they were then provided with another link asking, "Did you mean 'recursion'?". Upon clicking on it, you were sent back to the same page again.

Hahaha. Get it?

I'm guessing probably not. You see, recursion is a programming technique used to reference a function within itself. Wikipedia gives its formal definition as "a method of defining functions in which the function being defined is applied within its own definition".

Still with me? Again, probably not. Well, think of it like this... it's like that piece of art where a painter is looking in the mirror and painting himself looking in a mirror and painting himself. Or, for another example, it's like holding up two mirrors parallel to each other, and the nested images keep showing themselves until infinity.

Hence, the practical joke. Googling "recursion" will point you to the same term again! And, of course, that's what recursion is all about. Twitter user @vicchi explains the method behind Google's madness, "In order to define recursion, we must first define recursion".

Is your head spinning yet? Are you rolling your eyes at all geek humor?

This caught on like wildfire yesterday. It received almost 2300 Diggs, and a thread discussing it on Reddit, for example, had over 400 comments, one of which wryly remarks, "My future overlords kinda tickle me". Here's a sampling...

msaleh: WOW! Those Google engineers always have a sense of humor!

jleard: Since they have (seemingly) neglected the base case I wonder if they've thought to redirect to Stack Overflow after someone has clicked the "did you mean recursion" link oh... six or seven hundred times in a row.

iamnoah: Only if you click the link at the top. If you click the one at the bottom, it's tail recursion and can be optimized into iteration.

steveklabnik: Actually, all recursive algorithms can be implemented as iterative ones, and vice versa. What you're thinking of is Tail Call Optimization, where you can recur ad infinitum in constant space.

mcanon: And sometimes recursion can be expressed as a memoizing fixed point combinator. Check it out - very cool stuff.

steveklabnik: That's pretty awesome. Thanks for the link.

orrd: This is the lamest pun thread ever. I don't get any of them!

Oh, those crazy jokesters! Someone kill me, please, for understanding all of this.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Urgent Need to Foster Mobile Competition...

The fastest growing segment of telecommunications these days is the mobile internet. How people access the Web using their cell phones, PDAs and other mobile devices is increasingly an important issue, and the companies who control such access have tremendous power with far-reaching consequences.

As the New York Times wrote yesterday, the FCC is now turning its attention to ensuring that there is adequate market competition in the mobile telecom space. This development is sorely needed and long-overdue.

The central issue is exclusivity contracts. Basically, exclusivity means that, unless you are willing to be a hacker, you can use the iPhone only on AT&T’s network, the BlackBerry Storm on Verizon’s and the Palm Pre on Sprint’s. It also allows the cell phone companies to lock us in to new multi-year service contracts every time we need to buy a new phone.

This stinks, and we all know it. What's even worse is that in many areas of the country, the Big Four - AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile (who collectively hold a virtual monopoly with 90% market share) - aren't even interested in providing any service at all. As a result, people in these areas have only one wireless provider, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has already found numerous cases of "scant competition, high prices and onerous contracts".

As wireless providers increasingly earn their revenues from data plans (a.k.a. - internet access), the goal of fostering competition warrants a new sense of urgency. If only one company can control internet access for entire regions of people, and can implement their own private rules for what people can and can't do on the Web, then the potential for abuse of power is frightening.

For example, consider how some web applications (that are perfectly legal) have already been banned on these companies networks, such as the decision to block the Skype application on the iPhone from working on AT&T’s 3G network. If this is a precedent, then it's only a matter of time before these companies start banning access to and censoring whichever websites they choose. This is clearly not the internet experience most of us want, however, without strong competition, we may ultimately be stuck with it.

The Times is absolutely right in praising the FCC for turning its attention to the wireless telecom market. As these telecoms become the future gatekeepers of the mobile internet, we all share an interest in making sure that we, as consumers, have choices.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Crowdsourcing Government Earmarks...

"Earmarks" are something that you'll hear about in the news every presidential election year. They are also known as "pork barrel spending", referring to wasted money that members of Congress dish out to special interests and projects in their home districts, and often have very little to do with the general welfare of the nation.

The shady business of earmarking is usually conducted behind the scenes in smoke-filled backrooms, but the House and Senate recently required their membership to reveal all earmark requests. This was a great first step in bringing transparency to the process, however problems remain. Earmark information is spread out across Congressional websites, and it exists in many different, often incompatible, formats. Even when the amount of money becomes public, it's usually unclear who had requested it, or why. There is also still no central clearinghouse for Congressional earmark activity.

So, in an effort to shed light on all the secrecy in government spending, Jim Harper from the Cato Institute has turned to crowdsourcing as a solution. As Ars Technica reports, Harper has added a new earmarks feature to his existing Washington Watch website. The idea behind crowdsourcing the project is that ordinary people will voluntarily enter any earmark requests that they have somehow been made aware of into this database, thereby allowing the "crowd" to create a central place for earmark information and, hopefully, keeping members of Congress honest in the process.

The website already displays a map locating all earmark requests that people have entered, and provides additional details about each request such as a brief summary of the project, the exact dollar amount involved, and which Representative is to be held accountable. There's also a cute little feature that lets people vote up or down whether they approve of each particular earmark request, essentially letting the public vote if they think it's wasteful or not.

This is reminiscent of a previous effort by the Treasury Department that displayed a map tracking the spending of all TARP money.

The internet's promise of improved democratization is alive and well. Not only do projects like these rely on greater public participation and call for a more involved citizenry, but it also allows "the crowd" to act as a more effective check on the power of our elected officials. After all, in politics, sunlight is still the greatest disinfectant.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

15-Year-Old Writes a Breakthrough Technology Paper...

Last week, Matthew Robson, a 15-year-old intern at Morgan Stanley, was given the task of writing a report on his teenage friends' likes and dislikes when it came to technology. Then a funny thing happened... he told it like it is, and the world immediately paid attention.

Robson's report titled "How Teenagers Consume Media" is quickly becoming an internet classic. Morgan Stanley execs perceived the report as "one of the clearest and most thought-provoking insights we have seen – so we published it", said Edward Hill-Wood, executive director of Morgan Stanley's European media team. "We've had dozens and dozens of fund managers, and several CEOs, e-mailing and calling all day."

Read the brief four-page report for yourself. To my eyes, this is one of those cases where what seems like obvious common sense to most of us suddenly gets expressed... and we feel like it's about time.

Among the highlights:

  • On Radio: "Most teenagers nowadays are not regular listeners to radio. They may occasionally tune in, but they do not try to listen to a program specifically. The main reason teenagers listen to the radio is for music, but now with online sites streaming music for free they do not bother, as services such as do this advert free, and users can choose the songs they want instead of listening to what the radio presenter/DJ chooses."

  • On Newspapers: "No teenager that I know of regularly reads a newspaper, as most do not have the time and cannot be bothered to read pages and pages of text while they could watch the news summarised on the internet or on TV."

  • On Twitter: "Teenagers do not use twitter. Most have signed up to the service, but then just leave it as they realise that they are not going to update it... In addition, they realise that no one is viewing their profile, so their 'tweets' are pointless."

  • On Online Advertising: "Most teenagers enjoy and support viral marketing, as often it creates humorous and interesting content. Teenagers see adverts on websites (pop ups, banner ads) as extremely annoying and pointless, as they have never paid any attention to them and they are portrayed in such a negative light that no one follows them."

  • On Music: Teenagers "are very reluctant to pay for it (most never having bought a CD) and a large majority (8/10) downloading it illegally from file sharing sites... A number of people use the music service iTunes (usually in conjunction with iPods) to acquire their music (legally) but again this is unpopular with many teenagers because of the 'high price' (79p per song)."

Don't these observations mesh with your sense of reality? It's refreshing to hear it told like it is, without marketing ideologues informing us that their overly wishful ideas are what's actually happening.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Child Porn Comes to the iPhone (and the App Store Review Process Comes Under Fire)...

What can Apple do about the new tidal wave of objectionable material that is becoming available on the iPhone?

Last week, an iPhone application called "BeautyMeter" (similar to the popular website "") displayed a nude photo of a 15-year-old girl, and Apple quickly removed the BeautyMeter application from the App Store.

This might seem sensible except for the fact that BeautyMeter is a user-generated content site - meaning that, like MySpace or Facebook, it simply allows people to submit photos on their own. By removing the entire application based solely on one individual posting one picture is, in this Web 2.0 Age, a gross overreaction. If that's going to be their policy, they might as well take down Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, and the majority of apps right now. As these websites have learned over the past few years, and as U.S. law has recognized, you remove specific objectionable content and ban the user who submitted it; you do not shut down the entire site or, in this case, the entire app.

The problem lies with the App Store Review Process. Any developer who writes a program for the iPhone has to submit it for review before it is actually made available on the App Store. That too seems sensible on the surface. However, what has become increasingly frustrating for these developers is that Apple does not tell developers or the public exactly how the decision process works. One imagines groups of summer interns sitting around a table deciding the fates of apps that were developed after many months and many thousands of dollars were invested in them.

The Review Process has already led to some very questionable decisions (some of which were later reversed) such as removing a Twitter app called "Tweetie" because by linking to the Twitter website it could possibly give access to "offensive words". The Review Process also recently removed a Nine Inch Nails application for streaming a song with offensive lyrics - even though the same song was already available on iTunes, garnering severe criticism from the band. But perhaps the most clear example of the Review Process' inconsistencies was how the novelty fart app "Pull My Finger" was initially rejected from the App Store, while the game "Baby Shaker", which involved shaking a baby to death, was initially approved before it was pulled down amid parental outrage.

Apple is now rightfully coming under heavy fire for using, as CNN described it, "nebulous policies" about which apps get the company's stamp of approval.

There are over 50,000 apps available on the App Store, and the vast majority, as well as the most popular, of these apps are based on user-generated content. Preventing any objectionable material from becoming even temporarily available is an impossible task. The solution is rather clear: require developers to let their users flag objectionable content, and require those developers to implement their own processes for removing such material in a timely manner. Only if they fail to do so and act responsibly should Apple remove the entire app.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Fail Whale Enters Pop Culture...

In case you hadn't noticed, the Twitter Fail Whale has officially crossed over into pop culture.

It started about a year ago when Yiying Lu designed the Fail Whale image to appear whenever the Twitter website crashed (which was pretty often). But a funny thing happened... as this Mashable article describes, the image was quoted, linked to, used and reused everywhere imaginable.

The Fail Whale now reaches far beyond simply referring to Twitter's occasional instability; it's become the icon used to highlight ANY perceived failure. References abound over the past few months to examples such as #GoogleFail, #VistaFail, #ObamaFail, #StimulusFail, and the plain-and-simple generic #Fail hashtag (which is used for basically anything, often in pretty entertaining ways). Seriously, check out these Twitter search results and see what I mean.

For instance, one person writes: "I think I've just seen two old people driving naked: #fail for society and the human race."

Just like its brethren before it, the Fail Whale is now identifiable not only by its iconic image, but also in our day-to-day language. Think of the moment when "to Google" or "to IM" or "to text" suddenly crossed over to have meaning in pop culture. That's where the Fail Whale is today.

Is this not ever fascinating?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Online Radio Battle: Pandora vs.

Don't look now, but the world of online music has been transformed before our very eyes.

Not too long ago, the recording industry was stomping their feet insisting that it was illegal to play or download ANY music online. This now seems absurd and archaic, but people forget that that was the RIAA's official position during the 1990s and into the first few years of this decade. iTunes then changed their assumption that all digital downloads were bad. But what about the idea of online radio and streaming audio files from which there's no direct revenue? Well, that assumption has finally been thrown out the window too.

For almost three years now, I've been an avid listener of Pandora, a website that lets users create their own online radio station. You rate which songs you like and dislike, and Pandora adjusts which songs it plays for you accordingly, learning as it goes. Eventually, you build yourself a station that not only plays the music you enjoy, but also turns you on to new artists as well.

What makes Pandora great is that you can customize your own station and listen to streaming music anyplace that has an internet connection. The downside is that it's not easy to share your station with the rest of the world (selected friends you invite have to confirm by email), and also that no matter how well you train Pandora to know your tastes, the song selection is still ultimately random.

Thus, a few nights ago, due to a short bout with insomnia, I spent hours checking out another online radio website called Blip is a wonderful alternative to Pandora because it's not just a clone, but is fundamentally different. Blip lets users build their own radio station by choosing exactly which songs to play. In other words, whereas Pandora suggests songs that you vote up or down, has a search field where you type in the exact name of the song you want to play. It's truly streaming music on-demand. also takes advantage of the Social Web, making it easy to share your station with the entire internet - no special invites needed. You can "favorite" the DJs who you like best, build your own following, and, through a voting-style system of exchanging "props" with other listeners, you can measure which DJs are the most popular. Essentially, all of these features allow you to build a social-network of like-minded music enthusiasts.

Give a listen to my new station at I'll add new songs everyday to keep it fresh. If you like it, give me some "props" and "favorite" me too!

The recording industry still isn't thrilled with these types of online radio stations, but they're slowly coming around. As sites like Pandora and gain viability, it's quite amazing to step back once in a while and see just how far the music landscape has fundamentally shifted in only a few years.