Monday, April 30, 2007

The Algorithm is Being Ignored

I went to an open house event at the main Google campus in Mountain View, CA, last week. It was hosted by the Partner Solutions Organization division. A friend who works at Google suggested I go, even though he has no idea what the PSO group does. Neither did I, so I figured I’d take the free meal and the free information.

I’ve already been to the Google campus several times by now (invited by actual employees, of course). It was somewhat amusing to read the email instructions that said, “Event will take place at the Tunis auditorium in Building 43” and actually have a rough idea of where that actually was. Google has surprisingly lax security by the way – if you’re in Mountain View looking for a good meal, don’t know anyone at Google, and are short on cash, dress like an engineer and try to mingle your way into their cafeterias. You’ve probably got a 50-50 chance of getting in.

When I arrived, there was already a crowd. I did a quick count of chairs, and estimated that they were expecting maybe 200 people. Mind you, this was just one open house event for the PSO group out of several that they’ve been doing for the last couple weeks, all over the world. From what I understand, the PSO group isn’t even that big compared to the rest of Google, so basically there are hundreds of people applying for possibly a handful of positions. Google really is growing by insane amounts, and it does seem like everyone wants to work there too. As someone put it to me, “Google is the black hole of silicon valley”.

The place filled up in no time. They gave some presentations, all moderately informative, and then had a Q&A session, where they actually were throwing free T-Shirts to people asking questions. I felt like I was at some surreal convention event. People asked some fairly serious questions too. Well, except that one guy that was trying to be funny and ask about the quality of the free food. Cherish that free shirt, buddy. No, it was not me.

I noticed an odd air of arrogance in the tone of some of the Google speakers. I don’t think it was on purpose though, it was just a by-product of their crazy amounts of success, so in many ways, it’s perfectly deserved. I visited Microsoft more than 10 years ago on an interview tour, and I have to sadly confess, the feeling I came away with was that Google is at the moment very similar to a young, energetic, still-viable Microsoft. They’re rolling in success, and feel pretty invincible. Places like AskJeeves should really just throw in the towel now and save themselves the trouble.

I thought about this more while I was filling out the online Google employment application form the next day. They ask you for your SAT score, by the way.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Aliens vs Predator Was Not a Good Movie

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s take a look at just what made it so poor (note that there are some spoilers in the following text, so anyone still planning on seeing this film unspoiled should stop reading now).

Number one, the plot. It’s contrived, poorly paced, and really just serves to get the audience from one action or effects scene to another. Both of the original Alien and Predator film series were known for building tension at key moments. AvP doesn’t do this, even when the opportunity is given. For example: At the very beginning of the movie, a bunch of people head directly for Antarctica to investigate some strange satellite readings. When they get there, they find a huge hole drilled deep into the ice that leads to some ancient buried temple. There's no build-up here -- it's not like some naval crew is lost at sea and uncovers some weird ancient temple after days of exploring some strange sightings. Nope, they find a convenient hole, and go straight to the main event. If memory serves, one character even says something like, “This hole could not have possibly been dug by any man-made tools” (The Predators dug it with a giant laser, apparently), the characters all nod and look at each other for about 12 microseconds, and immediately proceed down the hole. I could practically hear the director shouting: “Hurry up, get to the temple, the action sequence starts in 20 seconds!”

Number two, the characters. Granted, the plot gives no real opportunity for character development, but even the base material is flawed. None of the human characters, save the single “tough female” Ripley rip-off, lasts much past the first 30 minutes of the film. During that 30 minutes, you are introduced to some extremely two-dimensional, forgettable characters: Some French scientist guy, the pretty blond woman, Lance Henriksen, some gun-carrying military toughs, and so on. The non-humans aren’t much better. It’s easy to forget that there are actually three Predators in the movie, probably because they look and act similar, don’t actually speak, and two of them are also killed off rather quickly.

Number three, the “fan service”. I’m not really sure what to call it. The movie felt like some 15-year-old boy had just watched all the films in the Alien and Predator series while drinking a gallon of Mountain Dew, and decided to write a scrap-book script that contained only the “really cool” parts of all the movies. Face huggers leaping across a room in slow-motion? Check. A giant queen Alien, angry and unstoppable? Check. Shoulder-mounted Predator Plasma Caster? Yep. Interesting well-developed plot and characters? Well, no.

Let us not forget the incredibly awkward and disturbing sequence near the end where the surviving Predator and surviving human female, standing comfortably in near-freezing temperatures, are staring into each other eyes and seem on the verge of sharing a cross-species intimate moment. I kid you not. I retract my statement – it is better to forget.

When I actually saw this movie some three or so years ago, I honestly wasn’t expecting much. I liked (most of) the predecessor Alien and Predator movies. I figured I could waste a couple bucks on a matinee. The one thing I figured would be worth seeing was the key “reveal” of the movie, which I assumed would be the explanation for how Aliens and Predators finally made it to Earth. Imagine my disappointment when it’s revealed, very early in the movie, that these two species have just been hanging out on Earth for thousands of years. Exsqueeze me? Baking powder?

While trying to wrap my mind around this, I heard a baby crying somewhere in the theater. Some parent had brought their young impressionable infant to this awful film. Perhaps they thought the PG-13 rating was the sign that these sorts of films were becoming more family-friendly. Perhaps they were insane. Regardless, as the poor emotionally scarred child continued crying, I realized that I myself was on the verge of tears, for different reasons.

Yes, I paid money to see this movie when it came out in the theaters. Yes, I’m still recovering from it. Yes, people are actually working on a sequel to this movie as I write this. May God have mercy on my soul.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Pwned Alone

If there are any new parents reading this, please promise me that you’ll resist the temptation, if given the opportunity, to turn your child into a star. Examples of why this generally results in sadness are many, but today I’ll point you towards Macaulay Culkin as exhibit A.

I’m not going to talk about all the problems with his parents and his fortune that he had to endure, or the whole Michael Jackson thing, or even how he’s basically forever frozen in time as a 10-year-old kid in many peoples’ minds. Rather, I’m going to talk about a fine day some 15 years ago when Macaulay got pwned.

On that particular day, a friend of mine (who will remain nameless in case Macaulay is still seeking revenge) saw him walk into an arcade in Chicago, probably with a smile on his face. Little did poor Macaulay know that my friend, along with other fellow regulars at this arcade, had honed his skills for weeks on that arcade’s popular multi-player game: Battletech.

For those not familiar with the genre, the world of Battletech revolves around “mechs” – giant robotic suits bristling with weaponry. In this particularly fancy arcade rendition, you were locked into a fairly complex cockpit with a large array of controls at your disposal. You would then create your mech, setting up the weapons as desired, and walk around in a virtual battlefield blasting the crap out of up to 7 other players.

Through experimentation earned about 5 bucks at a time, my friend learned that you could customize your craft such that 9 laser weapons were set to a single trigger. This not only gave you an unfairly powerful weapon, but also caused enough damage that any enemy hit by your laser bouquet would be spun 90 degrees, left staring into empty space wondering what the heck just happened. By the time your foe figured out he had been spun, he’d find himself the recipient of another 9-laser victory salute.

The day Macaulay entered that particular arcade he was probably looking forward to a little bit of old-fashioned arcade fun. Instead, everyone else in the arcade, without any sort of pre-agreed upon plan, carefully set up a 9-laser mech, and proceeded to play “spin the Culkin”. It was brutal. I’m not sure how long Macaulay had to endure this virtual beating, but by the end, he was, quite literally, crying.

To quote my friend: “If it was some random person, we probably would’ve left him alone and focused on shooting each other. But since it was someone famous, we just had to go after him.”

And really, couldn’t we all say the same thing? If you saw Dakota Fanning, looking smug, walk by a bunch of people playing chess, and say, “Well, this looks fun,” wouldn’t you want to respond, “This table’s open. Feel free to pull up a chair, Miss Fanning. I’ll even let you go first”?

Perhaps I digressed a bit there. Anyway.

Sure, Macaulay is trying to make a comeback in the acting world, and has millions of dollars, and is dating that girl from the That 70’s Show. But would you really want to walk through life carrying memories of the uber-pwnage that he suffered 15 years ago?

So, again, new parents, please, let this be a lesson to you: don’t let your child be another victim of child-star pwnage. It’s not pretty, and the scars never heal.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Schrödinger's Sparc

What really happened to Sun Microsystems? Once the company of choice for professional workstation and server needs, the place where Java was born, it is now a mere shadow of itself. Scott McNealy, founder and CEO, probably now stalks the hallways, keeping the ship together through sheer will power alone.

I did a lot of work using Sun machines back in college, so they have a certain nostalgic value to me. So much so, that when a company I worked at was disposing of old Sun workstations, I rescued a couple of them from the garbage: A SparcStation 10, and a SparcStation IPX.

I got rid of the SS 10 a while ago, taking it to a computer-recycling center (reuse and recycle those old computers!). When I brought it in, a number of hard-core Sun nerds shuffled out of the dark corners of the warehouse-like building and stood around it, staring at it as though I had bagged a rare wild animal. “Does it still work?” one guy asked me. “Probably, " I responded. "I think the hard-drive is dead, but it still powers up.” He nodded sagely, and disappeared back into the shadows.

I kept the IPX, however, because it made the perfect CRT monitor stand for my desk. You can see it in the picture to the left. However, as I’ve upgraded to a LCD monitor with an adjustable height stand, I realized, it was finally time to let the poor fellow go.

The IPX has a small, squat form-factor, unlike the SS 10, which is much wider, but much shorter. We used to compare them to donut boxes and pizza boxes respectively, in college, but I later learned via hardware manuals that the official names are “lunch box” and “dinner box” formats. What’s much more interesting is that inside the IPX, on the circuit board, is an etching of a cat:

I stumbled upon this when I first opened the IPX years ago and was greatly surprised. What was the significance of the cat? Was there some sort of Sun Microsystems lore behind this? Did any “lunch box” model besides the IPX (e.g. IPC, Classic) have the cat? The answer to the last question, by the way, is “no”.

Naturally, today there's plenty of information on the web about this mystery feline (as a starter, try this), so my curiousity and questions can finally be put to rest. Sort of.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Candy Bar Reloaded

Like many Silicon Valley companies, the company I work at stocks various snacks in the coffee rooms. Honestly, most of us nerds have it pretty good. My parents were lucky if they got drinkable coffee.

Lately, they've been stocking various candy bars, usually of the "mini" variety. I was never really a big consumer of candy bars in my youth, but nowadays, the lure of the "Milky Way Midnight Mini" is sometimes too hard to resist.

While chewing on my Milky Way at my desk, I started thinking about the vast variety of candy bars available today, and how they tend to stick to a standard set of "components", like caramel, nougat, and peanuts. Hershey’s recently introduced the "Take 5" bar which claims to have 5 components packed inside a protective chocolate coating, but 3 of those ingredients are in fact, caramel, peanut butter and chocolate. Clearly, I needed to create a matrix of candy bars and their core components, and see if there were any obvious holes in the matrix for me to capitalize on (there's already a patent for a candy bar that uses tortilla chips, so that's already a missed opportunity).

After consulting my favorite resource, Wikipedia, I realized that a comprehensive matrix would be nearly impossible, or at least a massive waste of my time, so I decided to just concentrate on the most common candy bars made by the big three: Mars, Hershey and Nestle (my apologies to Cadbury, Necco, and the rest). I decided to only use candy bars available in the USA, thus omitting bars like Nestle’s Coffee Crisp (available in Canada), and discontinued bars (like the USA version of the Mars Bar, now replaced by “Snickers Almond”). And, because I needed to keep this under 20 pages, I decided to skip bars that are basically just chocolate, and omit “variations”, so “Key Lime Almond Joy" is not included, among a million other varietals. In short, this matrix is largely useless. But you’ve read this far, so what’s one more giant table?

ChocolateCaramelNougatNuts (inc.
(inc. wafers, pretzels)
Crispy RiceCoconutMintToffeeTaffyFruit (inc.
3 Musketeersx

5th Avenuex


Grand Bar
























Milky Wayxxx








Butter Cups



















What can we take away from this matrix, besides the fact that I am an expert on wasting my own time?

  • The Hershey S’mores Bar should be discontinued because it messes up my matrix
  • There really is no obvious difference between a Skor bar and a Heath bar, even though they are manufactured by the same company.
  • Bars that are not covered in chocolate are in the minority, probably for good reason.
  • I should probably remove Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Rolo, and the York Peppermint because they are in fact, not “bars”.

After a short perusal of the matrix, I came up with the following three bars, which I will patent tomorrow:

Sugar Death: Chocolate, Caramel and Toffee
Chomp: Chocolate, Peanuts and Crispy Rice
Messy: Nougat covered in Caramel (no chocolate coating!)