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3 of 83 minutes were good

I netflixed the intensely bad movie "The Protector" for the sole purpose of seeing Lateef Crowder do some pretty awesome Capoeira for 3 minutes. Lateef is an ex-student of Capoeira of San Jose, which is the school I've been training at for a few months.

And now thanks to YouTube you can see some good Capoeira without being a dumbass and suffering through the rest of the movie like I did:

(Filthy Google Reader users, you will need to click through to see this embedded you-tube video.)

Note: we don't typically play Capoeira half naked in standing water with fires blazing all around, but now that I've seen this movie I think I'm going to suggest that we do our classes like that from now on.

$1.65 billion well spent

I was having dinner with some friends last night, and the conversation eventually led to someone saying this:

"Go to youtube and type PLASMA GRAPE."

Where else are you going to be able to find a video of someone microwaving grapes into toxic flaming sludge? You just can't buy this kind of value. Oh wait, yes you can, for 1.65 billion dollars.

People are stupid: a case study

I hate my new phone. Or rather, it has lots of little problems that I can ignore, and one that I can't: there is a half-second delay before the phone responds to any button press. Every task I perform with the phone is a reminder of how much faster the UI was on the phone that I owned 6 years ago. Gak.

But this post isn't about the phone. It's about reviews and reviewers:

I often whine about how this "Wisdom of Crowds" trend is getting out of hand. I personally believe that the information you get by averaging the opinions of a bunch of unaccredited strangers on a restaurant, movie, or product is of such a low quality that it's rarely even worth looking at. There is such a thing as expertise, you know, regardless of how vehemently our Commander in Chief insists otherwise.

To prove my point, I actually bothered to read through all 29 user reviews of my phone on CNet, and unsurprisingly not a single reviewer made any mention of how brutally sluggish the interface is. My smug-ometer is pinned at "righteous".

But then I read the CNet "expert" review, written by an actual paid staffer, and it also makes no mention of the eye-gougingly slow user interface. So I guess I must amend my opinion to "all reviews are useless." Or put more succinctly, "all people are stupid." (And now I have no idea how I will shop for a replacement phone--- if I can't trust the reviews, then I may as well just try them at random, and lean heavily on Cingular's return policy.)

(For the record, I think you can distill value out of The Mob if you include consideration for the credibility of each Mobster. Or better yet, the degree to which each Mobster is likely to think the same things that you think. Amazon has that, and it's why they seem to have spies in your house going through your CD collection at night. Yelp doesn't have that, and it's why Yelp seems like a howling vortex of pointless feces-slinging.)


As a footnote, let us* apologize briefly for posts (both past and still to come) that are about nothing but our house and its contents, sprinkled with the occasional poorly researched screed about software design. We know it's not particularly entertaining, but we're having a little Crazy Time right now and until our house seems like a house again, we're having trouble focusing.

The posts containing sarcastic vitriol about life in the bay area will return in due course, please bear with us.

-- The Management

* - We've decided to start using the royal plural. We hope this is not of concern to anyone.

I'm a believer

So I'm slowly piecing my living room back together, and today's installment was a TV and speakers. I got this lame second-hand 52" LCD projection TV off of ebay, and it turns out that it's not really so lame. 720p hi def really is hugely better than NTSC--- I'm sorry I ever doubted (although that could just be the Stockholm Syndrome talking.)

The speakers also mean that, in addition to being able to watch movies without a laptop, I can now also hear movies without headphones. Baby steps. Once I have more of the house put together you'll be invited over to sample its treasures.

(Those of you intimately familiar with my house's gadget inventory might point out that I don't own a device that can output 720p. And those of you would have been right up until 8:58pm tonight, at which time I made an extremely naughty purchase at Best Buy right before they closed. This purchase is likely to be the subject of several future posts.

Close scrutiny of the above screenshot and the correct identification of the video game there pictured, entitled "Prey", will reveal the exact nature of my indescretions.)

Project Bathroom: Complete

I finally got my act together and finished the damned master bath, which has been sitting torn up and unusable for two years. A reminder of the before:

And now the after. Admittedly the brown and red color scheme is a little bit... bold... but I'm sick of painting and remodelling and projects and Home Depot, so I'm just going to live with it for a while:

No more Home Improvement, please.

It's the Fast
There's an aspect of usability that I think is drastically overlooked by most software companies, and that is the performance of the interface. Thinking as a software builder, getting my product to be snappy comes at the cost of spending lots of time optimizing, and that's time I could spend adding features instead. At all of the previous jobs I've had, performance was something that needed to be "good enough", and then we could get back to work adding the real value, the features.

But don't be fooled

Working at Google has made me realize that scraping by with "acceptable" performance so that you can focus on features is (ironically) a false optimization. Google understands this, and I've finally gotten it through my thick head, now, too. A simple example: just think about some webmail system you've used, and compare that experience to how it feels to use GMail--- it's the speed, more than the features, that makes it so much more valuable.

An example

Let's say we have a web site that offers a catalog of music for sale. Users come to the site, look for music, and then maybe buy some. When the user finds an album, on the side of the page we show other, similar albums that they might also like. And of course we have a zillion other features that we want to build around a rating system, comments, reviews, album artwork display, listening to samples, etc etc.

Let's say we currently render the album detail page in 4-6 seconds (this is comparable to Amazon's actual performance.) When the user sees our list of 5 "recommended albums", they quickly (er, slowly) learn that finding out about each of those items is going to cost them about 5 seconds of their lives per click, plus 3-5 seconds to get back to where they were to see the next recommended album. If none of the recommendations are compelling, then the user might spend an average of only 5 seconds looking at each recommendation--- so we're telling our user that 60% of their experience with our product will consist of staring at a white screen, waiting. If the user is willing to spend 10 minutes browsing for music before they finally feel guilty enough to get back to work, then they're going to have time to browse maybe 6 separate albums and their recommendations (36 offerings total).

But what if it were faster?

Imagine if instead of spending our engineering time on adding a user review system, we were to optimize the product (okay, and buy more hardware) to get our end-to-end page render time down to just 1 second. Now users can browse 13 albums (totalling 78 offerings) in the same amount of time--- arguably doubling our chances of selling them something. Do we think the user review feature has the potential to double our sales? Probably not.

But even more compelling, think about what the faster system would feel like: If the user could see recommended albums almost without delay, they're much more likely to explore our recommendations in the first place. Let's be honest, 60% waiting time is brutal--- so the mediocre performance of the current system discourages exploration, which actually cancels out a lot of the value of the recommendation feature in the first place. If the system were fast I bet we would unlock the potential of that feature, and get users exploring not just twice as many albums, but maybe 10x or more, just because it's so fast and easy, the user learns to think "Hey, why not click on that?"

So the faster system effectively has better features, and users will use it in a different way that gives them much more value. So it isn't just a faster system, it's a completely different product. (Conversely, slow performance doesn't just erode the value of features, it can render them almost totally valueless for many kinds of users.)

So think carefully about the Fast

Obviously I'm making a lot of assumptions in this argument, so your mileage will of course vary for your product. But my point is that it's dangerous to just assume that once your system is returning pages in 5 seconds that it is "fast enough"--- even 2 second response times have not necessarily gotten to the sweet spot in the curve of diminishing returns. Yes getting excellent performance is hard, but it's worth remembering that it can be much more than just a minor differentiator--- it can completely transform what your product means to your users.

I found this interesting photo site, 500px.com. Absolutely no idea what it's about, since the text is all completely in Russian. Proceeds may go to repress Asian minorities, I have no idea. But the pix are neat!

This is sort of a bad example from the site, most of the pictures are more arty and not funny like this. But if you're interested, there's an RSS feed of photography from 500px that you can subscribe to; I've been enjoying it the last couple of days:

 500px Interesting and Random Photo Feed

The bounce flash saves Christmas

All through my visit to my Mom's house for Christmas I was mocked for having my big ugly camera with my dorky flash attachment. But when it comes time to swap photos after the holidays, guess whose will be tolerable, and guess whose won't?

Here's a simple example. The following picture was taken with an expensive digital camera using its built-in flash:

While THIS picture was taken with my (cheaper) camera using an external flash aimed at the ceiling, so that the light bounces indirectly onto the subject matter. This was in the same room, at the same people, at the same time:

See how you can tell what color things are supposed to be? See how the people look like they're living their lives, instead of being charged with felonies at the local police station?

Bounce flash, people. Believe.

Happy New Year
Why you should chat me up drunk at your peril... who knows what I'll get out of you. (The text of this chat has been slightly amended to protect the very, very drunk. All spelling and grammar are [sic.]):

[21:10] R: hey you still up?
[21:10] Me: are you still drunk? :)
[21:10] R: ive had about ..
[21:10] R: 10 oz of tiquilea
[21:10] R: or however
[21:12] R: for some reason, im drunker now than i was at newyears
[21:12] R: btu i can srtill type
[21:13] R: im awsome
[21:13] Me: sweet
[21:16] R: this is as druk as ive been in a long time
[21:16] R: really
[21:16] R: i cant type steight even
[21:17] R: _I_ wouldent even drive right now
[21:17] Me: WOW
[21:17] Me: your judgement is so impaired that you DON'T think it's a good idea to drink and drive... now THAT is drunk
[21:17] Me: lol
[21:17] R: i can bairly read what your typing
[21:17] R: let alone satya up righg t in this chair
[21:18] R: it spins
[21:18] R: its pro ving to be difficulet
[21:19] Me: nice
[21:19] Me: okay
[21:19] Me: since you're drunk
[21:19] Me: i need to get something out of this...
[21:19] Me: let's see....
[21:19] R: thats alot of dots
[21:19] Me: tell me some dark secret
[21:19] R: like qwaht
[21:19] Me: whatever.
[21:19] R: you meanlike *** Juicy confession omitted ***
[21:21] Me: nice!
[21:24] R: i cant feel my faxcee
[21:25] Me: well this has been fun, gnight!
The views expressed on this site are mine personally, and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.