Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Excel Geeks everywhere...

I've got something for you...
Watch this video, then bookmark this site, I am sure you will be back

It is called Magic/Replace, and it is basically a smart spreadsheet program that knows what you want to do with your spreadsheet.  You just have to watch the video.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Track where the flu is, by tracking google search terms

How might you know whether there is a flu outbreak coming to your state?  If you only knew how many people are getting flu medication... But, a reasonable proxy is tracking how many people use the Google for flu remedies.  I think this is a great use of google data, and not at all an invasion of privacy.  Sometime the urge is to protect all of your data, and search terms as your own private information (that's right, most people don't want anyone knowing that they googled "Sarah Palin bikini pictures").  But giving that information in aggregate, with no identifying information, other than state and zip code, can be really valuable, for tracking diseases. 

Here is the link, check back to see when the flu is coming ot your state...

Does it work?  Here is a retrospective analysis, using CDC figures of the past, compared to google search terms.  Nice.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Why Obama will win

I have to share a few interesting links, and how Barack Obama has already won.

First, from a focus group done by a republican consultant in an Upper Midwestern state, described in Ben Smith's blog:
54 year-old white male, voted Kerry '04, Bush '00, Dole '96, hunter, NASCAR fan...hard for Obama said: "I'm gonna hate him the minute I vote for him. He's gonna be a bad president. But I won't ever vote for another god-damn Republican. I want the government to take over all of Wall Street and bankers and the car companies and Wal-Mart run this county like we used to when Reagan was President."

The next was a woman, late 50s, Democrat but strongly pro-life. Loved B. and H. Clinton, loved Bush in 2000. "Well, I don't know much about this terrorist group Barack used to be in with that Weather guy but I'm sick of paying for health insurance at work and that's why I'm supporting Barack."

This is how badly the Republican brand is damaged by Bush.  Obama is starting to get some votes from racists (link to story of a 95-year old grandfather who urged his grandson to "Make sure you vote for that colored boy"), from people who think he is Muslim, and from people who think he is going to be a bad president.  That's how low the bar has been set. 

So, this is already looking really, really bad for McCain.

Now, the next thing, what most distinguishes the Obama campaign is not the speeches (although they are great) or his own remarkable story, or even the disgust that people feel toward Bush, is the community organizing that he has done.  A New Yorker writer (I forget who) described seeing Obama speak and feeling inspired and uplifted, but coming out and not really having a great idea of why, or what Obaam said to make him feel that way.  What the Obama campaign has done is channel that inspiration into a coherent and sophisticated political machine.  What that means is that not only are there record number of donors, but also that there are record number of volunteers, and that the time of these volunteers is used efficiently and effectively.

What does this mean?  When someone volunteers to canvass a neighborhood or make phone calls, they could be total strangers to the callers on the other end, but the Obama campaign matches demographics and other variables to try to get a best match between the volunteer and the people they are talking to. The voter registration effort is run like a swiss watch.

All this occurs under the radar, because it has a relatively minimal effect on national tracking polls.  And of course the story may become that people were so nervous about the economy that they overwhelmingly chose their pocketbooks over their misgivings about Obama.  But I think the real story is that Obama actually backs up his words with deeds.  And so far, those deeds have been how he organizes his campaign.  And it is done with  very careful attention to the bottom-up effects of voter registration, voter turnout and neighbor to neighbor interactions.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Using Amazon's mechanical turk for social science research

Have you all heard of amazon's Mechanical Turk?  Basically it is a place where you can post a task to be done over the web, and how much you want to pay for it, and then people can sign up and do the task.  Basically it is for tasks which a large group of people are better than computers.  So one task might be, classify these images as either people, places, or animals, and for each 10 images you classify, I will pay 1 cent.  I have heard of people using it as a transcription service, but splitting up their audio file into hundreds of little bits, paying a cent or so for each, and then sending it on.  From my recollection, this resulted in someone paying 10 or 15 bucks for a transcript of an hour-long interview.  Nice.
So, now, people are starting to realize that this might be a good use for social science research.  Look at this guy's blog post on how he used it for some basic moral psychology research:
In all that I have read, it seems like the data you get is actually pretty good, and amazingly cheap and fast (You can get thousands of responses within a few hours).  I am trying to think of some good applications of this, but probably not in perception.  Any thoughts out there on this?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Future of Comunication

The head of IT at Amherst College compiled the technology use habits of his incoming freshmen (class of 2012).  Here it is.
Some tidbits:
There are 438 people
99% have facebook accounts
1% have landlines

The personal landline is a technology that will be obsolete relatively soon.  Why have that, when you have caller id, and even web based filtering systems like Google's Grand Central?

  1. Year that an incoming Amherst College class first created a
    Facebook group so that they could socialize and otherwise get to know
    each other prior to arriving on campus: 2006.
  2. By the end of August 2008 the total number of members and posts at the Amherst College Class of 2012 Facebook group: 432 members and 3,225 posts.
By the end of August! (that is, before school starts).  I remember having the awkward roommate conversation with my soon-to-be-roommates, but this is incredible.  The level of social knowledge and connection that they enter with just amazes me.  This is probably not true everywhere, but it is still an incredible difference with how college students interact.  It is also amazing how facebook has become the dominant social network.   I am sure MySpace still has plenty of subscribers, but facebook will win in a few years.  I am already bugging all of my non-facebook real life friends to join.  Ultimately, the strength is that it does facilitate face to face communication.  The next time I see one of the friends that I occasionally facebook, it will be a much richer and more intimate social interaction.  This is what I imagine happens at Amherst.  By the time you arrive on campus, you already know who is from your hometown, which classes are the hard ones for freshmen, which dorm is freezing in winter, etc.

Another one:
Of the 438, only 14 brought desktops.

The desktop computer is now a corporate, business machine.  I think this is probably true in a lot of places, laptops are how students (and 18 year olds) deal with computers.  What comes with this is an expectation that any bit of information is readily available at any time.  I've had students whip out theirs in the middle of class to answer a question raised (although in some cases, their answer is actually not really on the mark). 

Anyways, the future is an interesting place.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sarah Palin's email address hacked

So, you may have heard (by reading the NY Times article this past Sunday) about some of Sarah Palin's secretive practices as mayor of Wasila and governor of Alaska.  One of the interesting tidbits was that she used a private email address to conduct official government business (as some in the current Bush administration have also done, especially in the Monica Goodling fiasco).  Here is one quote from the article:
Interviews show that Ms. Palin runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy. The governor and her top officials sometimes use personal e-mail accounts for state business; dozens of e-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that her staff members studied whether that could allow them to circumvent subpoenas seeking public records.

and another choice section:

While Ms. Palin took office promising a more open government, her administration has battled to keep information secret. Her inner circle discussed the benefit of using private e-mail addresses. An assistant told her it appeared that such e-mail messages sent to a private address on a “personal device” like a BlackBerry “would be confidential and not subject to subpoena.”

Ms. Palin and aides use their private e-mail addresses for state business. A campaign spokesman said the governor copied e-mail messages to her state account “when there was significant state business.”

On Feb. 7, Frank Bailey, a high-level aide, wrote to Ms. Palin’s state e-mail address to discuss appointments. Another aide fired back: “Frank, this is not the governor’s personal account.”

But here is the big news, that personal email account has been hacked, and the password was released to a hacker forum, which you may recognize from another piece in the New York Times Magazine on the hacker (or troll) culture (here is the link to that).  Here is the extensive summary of events as to how this happened.  But if you want a very brief summary from me:

1) Account was hacked (actually two :gov.sarah@yahoo, and gov.palin@yahoo), password was released to hacker forum, screenshots were taken of the inbox and some emails within.  (It was confirmed as her actual email address)
2) Some of the screenshots reference people in Alaska government, including the Lt. Gov. Parnell
Some of the screenshots are of family photos
3) A good samaritan took the password, changed it, and announced his intention to turn it back to Gov. Palin on the forum, by copying his message to one of her contacts.  (but he didn't black out the new password, doh!)
4) Everyone tries to go on and change the password at the same time, causing Yahoo to lock the account.

5) Gov Palin is notified of this security breach, and immediately deletes both accounts.  This could be viewed as destruction of evidence, since those emails are possibly involved in several current legal battles.

6) There is currently an internal battle on the hacker forum, as the members post and re-post compilations of the screenshots, and moderators take them down. 

There is also a summary on digg.

I guess John McCain should teach her how to use email...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Comparing the Obama and McCain tax plans

From chartjunk (a blog dedicated to eradicating bad charts, named after a term Edward Tufte coined): They have redone the Washington Post's chart which compares the Obama and McCain tax plans. Rightly pointing out that the top two brackets represent only 1%, but yet get around 20% of the physical chart. Their chart is more honestly to scale (or at least tries to be). It is on top, and the WaPo is below

Check out the whole original post, if you want more details.

Use this to complement your use of http://www.Obamataxcut.com
At least one of these pictures belongs in an ad somewhere (or am I just a huge nerd for wanting a bar chart in a political ad?)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hilarious translation of freestyle rap battle

Ok, a break from the political rage, for a little fun, courtesy of Waxy Links, my favorite one stop for everything cool but not yet popular on the web:
Check this out from CollegeHumor:
Translation of a freestyle rap battle

It is not really necessary to watch the original, but you can if you want:

Also, a list of songs related to the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider: here.
And just in case you were wondering if the LHC has destroyed the earth yet, you can check this handy website:

Also, fun with names:
NameVoyager shows the popularity of your first name over time and World Names Profiler shows where your last name is popular.
Apparently Riener is big in Austria and Hungary.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How much is an Obama Presidency worth to you?

For those of you (I think maybe 3 or 4 of my friends read this) who do any sort of political action or Obama-related advocacy, I think this is a useful tool.
You could also, put in your own yearly income, family's filing status, etc, and check out what an Obama presidency would be worth to you... and then donate it to Obama, I would suggest.
Not that he is in dire straits, for those of you who have been fretting because of the polls, please check out more detailed and sophisticated analysis from some people who know their numbers and how to read a poll:
Summary here of a lot of findings (I know it is on super lefty Daily Kos, but their approach to polling often  tends to be reasonable and measured)
Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com, talks about why, after the conventions, more Republicans might pick up the phone, whereas before they were embarrassed.  But this fact can bias the polls.

Also, consider this basic fact, there are far more registered democrats than republicans now (this has not always been the case).  This is something that is more certain than the polls (this is not people on the phone, but actual voter records). 

Anyways, I am still going to go out on a limb and predict Obama to get more than 300 electoral votes.  You heard it here first (ok not first, but still early). 

and you know how he is going to do it?  By being a community organizer.  And people will look back and consider the irony, that he was insulted with that at the Republican convention, and yet his attitude towards the ground game, and the get-out-the-vote machine he has built (starting with the primaries, remember he won the Texas caucuses?) will eventually win him the election.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Palin's handwriting on an earmark

I just can't resist posting this one, there is a document obtained by the Washington Independent (I know, I've never heard of them either) that has Palin's handwriting announcing an earmark with pride. You can read about this theme in her past at the ultra-liberal, angry left bazaar that is the Daily Kos, they often overreact from my point of view, but this one diary is a good one. And that image is just great.

Friday, August 29, 2008

McCain doesn't really want to keep running

My theory: McCain is sick of running for President, dealing with the Rovians, dealing with an increasingly less enamored press corps, and running against Barack Obama. You may have heard about his recent interview with Time magazine, which you can read (McCain's prickly TIME interview) but listening to it is also available (the MP3)
I think his nomination of Sarah Palin for VP is also illustrative of his disillusionment with running as a Republican this year and having to deal with all the other VP candidates. My prediction: He is going to lose as big as is possible, in almost all of the swing states.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Great quotes from the convention

Here are some great quotes from the convention, in case you were busy preparing for classes and missed all the speeches. Just a few of my favorites:
"People who live in seven houses shouldn't throw stones" - Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota)
"You know, it was once said of the first George Bush that he was born on
third base and thought he'd hit a triple. Well, with the 22 million new
jobs and the budget surplus Bill Clinton left behind, George W. Bush
came into office on third base -- and then he stole second. And John
McCain cheered him every step of the way." - Gov. Ted Strickland (Ohio)

The future of the browser

I've seen some of the videos on concepts that Mozilla has done on the future of the browser, and I haven't been all that impressed. You can see for yourself if you are interested: It is called Aurora
But this new thing is definitely much more in line with what I think could be the future, and I am going to use it right now. It is called Ubiquity, and it is trying to integrate the many ways we interact with the web.
They give the example of how we might plan a trip, email a friend our itinerary, add the event to our calendar, search through maps, etc. Take a look at the tutorial, I think we will be hearing a lot more about this very soon.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Does the Pope sh*t in the woods?

Ok, this is pretty cool. The USGS (US Geological Survey) has set up video cameras in remote areas in Glacier National Park. The cameras go on with a motion detector, and transmit via the internet.
Here is the whole article about it
And here is a video with three bears interacting with a wolf.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Hamlet (as if written only in Facebook new feed updates)

From McSweeney's internet tendency (those who brought you the hilarious lists), comes...
Hamlet (Facebook News Feed Edition)

A favorite excerpt...

The queen is worried about Ophelia.

Ophelia loves flowers. Flowers flowers flowers flowers flowers. Oh, look, a river.

Ophelia joined the group Maidens Who Don't Float.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Samantha Power in the NY Review of Books

Samantha Power reviews a few books in the NY Review this month. It was a good review of the abuses of the Bush administration (and how they are not an exception, but the culmination of conservative foreign policy), but also notable for a few great quotes that I hadn't read elsewhere:
Here is the full article
The quotes:

"Based on my experience in talking to al-Qaeda members," John Cloonan, an FBI counterterrorism specialist testified to Congress recently,

I am persuaded that revenge, in the form of a catastrophic attack on the homeland, is coming, that a new generation of jihadist martyrs, motivated in part by the images from Abu Ghraib, is, as we speak, planning to kill Americans and that nothing gleaned from the use of coercive interrogation techniques will be of any significant use in forestalling this calamitous eventuality.[4]

and this from everyone's favorite worthless neocon, Douglass Feith

In 2003, for instance, when the reporter Jeffrey Goldberg told Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense, that US troops in Iraq had not been greeted with flowers, Feith said that the Iraqis had been too spooked by the presence of Saddam supporters to show their true emotions. "But," he said, "they had flowers in their minds."

There you have it. It is the liberals who are wishy washy, but "flowers in their minds" from one of the architects of the Iraq War. That quote should have had more legs, because to me it just epitomizes the refusal of any of the civilian officials in the Pentagon to take in anything from the outside world to inform their beliefs and policies.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Onion predicts the future...

From January 17th, 2001, the Onion headline:
Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over'

Sadly pretty accurate. One could look today and think "You couldn't even make this stuff up." But then... someone did, just for the sake of comedy.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How Walkable is San Francisco?

What I have always wanted when we go into San Francisco, is an easily readable topographical map. This is a reasonably good start... except note that basically, most of the city is barely walkable. This is from some guy named Lee Byron... mashing up some different maps.
Here is his site, and the large version of the map:
Mapping Walkability in San Francisco
Of course, the best would be if Google maps had a whole set of options built right in, so that you could click to view "walkability", or "playgrounds with mulch or rubber, but not sand or dirt", or something like that. That would be awesome.

Friday, July 11, 2008

"Make a n**%a wanna invest in PBS"

Nas' new video about Fox News (Sly Fox). I don't think I would have ever heard the above line, but it is there, and other good ones too.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Ira Glass on practice, failure and storytelling

I think this is a great little piece on storytelling, the value of failure, and how to get good at something. I am going to find some excuse to make my students watch it.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Interesting takes on Bill Gates, on the occasion of his retirement

Anil Dash says that by combining Microsoft with the gates Foundation, what he has essentially done is impose a 100 dollar per white collar worker "cure AIDS tax" or "stop malaria tax" on every corporation in the developed world.  Interesting reading...

And I enjoyed reading a rant of an email that Bill himself sent on one frustrating episode he had with a Windows product.
You can read his whole 4 page email here: