Thursday, April 30, 2009

should be easy to write a rap song about Safeway

randell: there are names for three of the safeways in san francisco
randell: the one in marina is dateway
randell: the one on castro is gayway
niniane: oh that's good
randell: the one in the mission is stayaway
niniane: the safeway in hollywood can be waifway
niniane: in quake, it'd be strafeway

Monday, April 27, 2009

amusing exchanges from this weekend

On my laptop in Susan's living room, on Saturday night.

Susan: [emerging from the bathroom with wet hair] "Hey, get ready. We're going out at 7:30."

Me: "I don't know how you're planning to achieve that. It's 7:32 right now."

Susan: [cutely] <litany of curse words>

Over instant messenger.

percyvale: [status message is lookatthisfuckinghipster]
niniane: I looked at that web site and it's kind of funny.
niniane: But not as good as hotchickswithdouchebags
percyvale: douche bags don't care they like the attention
percyvale: but hipsters
percyvale: it takes work to get into those skinny jeans and growing odd moustaches
percyvale: so they deserve their own category of site
niniane: are you a hipster? :)
percyvale: do i look like a hipster :P
percyvale: if i do don't answer

[I got distracted for several minutes. When I look back...]

Message sent at 7:06 PM.
percyvale: the polite thing would have been to answer

Picking up my brother last night with my car:

Me: "Sorry I'm late! I was playing Starcraft with a few entrepeneurs."

Tom: "Did you win?"

Me: "No, I lost. When it was down to three people, the other two allied against me."

Tom: "Did you have fun?"

Me: "It was so fun! I was rusty though. I was like, 'What is this Queen's Nest? I think it's good...'"

Tom: "The fact that you even got to a Queen's Nest before the game ended means you're all a bunch of noobs."

Friday, April 24, 2009

Related content as you type

Over the years, one idea that recurs is to intelligently show the user information related to what he's typing. The thinking goes like this: "Since related-links on web pages work well, and related-videos on YouTube are awesome, it will be great to target information on what the user is typing! Especially since the user is indicating proactive interest rather than passively web-surfing!"

I've experimented several times with this, and most results were actually NOT great. I've given some thought to this, and would be interested to hear other people's insights.

The components I perceive are:

  1. Deciding what counts as the user's "current context". If they're typing a long email or document, do you use the last sentence? The last paragraph? Or time-based (the last 20 seconds of typing)?

  2. Extracting the most interesting parts of the user context.

  3. Matching information to the extracted parts of user context. If I'm writing to Neha about hiking in SF, the matched information might be links (top google result is the useful, my own documents (previous communications with Neha about hiking), products (hiking shoes), or ads (such as Gmail Ads which I worked on).

  4. Ranking the information results, based on their quality and correlation to the extracted user context.

  5. Deciding when the user is in the right mindset to be presented with information. If they are focused on finishing their writing, they may want to minimize interruptions. My instinct is to use typing speed (faster typing = less interest in interruptions).

  6. Displaying the information in a non-obtrusive way. If the information changes every 30 seconds with the user's typing, it can get annoying to have an area of the screen updating so frequently.

#3 (matching) and #4 (ranking) are very similar to web search, so the existing solutions are mature. #1 (determining user context) can be reached with some tweaking. The parts I found most challenging were #2 (extracting the key parts of the context) and #5 (determining when to show results).

I think #6 (displaying) depends on #5 (user mindset). Solving #5 would make #6 tractable.

I did an experiment a couple years ago to automatically match images as users typed in an IM conversation. I wanted to see if IM conversations could be summarized via images. Then if you had a lobby of real-time group chats, you could look at the image streams to decide which of the chats was most interesting to you.

I preprocessed a few million online images to match each one with semantic word-clusters. During an IM conversation, I took lines of typing and converted them to the same clusters, and then correlated that with my image corpus.

The results were mixed. Sometimes the image matching worked serendipitously well. Once I was writing about my experiment, and the algorithm posted one of the standard image-processing photos (I think it was the babboon). The issue was the amount of noise, caused by images being related to a tangential part of the conversation rather than the main gist (the extraction problem discussed in point 2).

I've also done this experiment using emails instead of IM, and another time even hooking into the user's keyboard strokes so that I captured whatever they were typing at the moment. Increasing the amount of input context didn't actually help too much. At any moment, the user is still only interested in a small amount of information that he's typing. It is hard to capture the gist from that short piece of text.

The academic papers in this area (at least the ones I read a few years ago) didn't seem to have good solutions to this problem.

I think this is an interesting area. Seeing advancements in this space would be pretty cool.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

tweet tweet


If you can't get enough of my writings, you can follow me on twitter!

You're welcome.

(The over-the-top tone is a joke. If you didn't get that, please don't follow me since you won't enjoy it anyway.)

Monday, April 20, 2009

ack ack uwink

From: Niniane Wang
To: Dan E.
Subject: ack ack uwink

Mountain View uWink is closing!!!!! Ack ack

But the bet is that ALL uWinks have to close. This was very specific!!

From: Dan E.
To: Niniane Wang


From: Dan E.
To: Niniane Wang

[link to article]

(The article describes how uWink is trying to de-list its stock and then license its technology.)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

why is coolness proportional to number of participants

Have you noticed that American society can be very critical about people spending time alone? Let's consider Friday night activities. The societal "coolness" factor of pursuits is directly proportional to the number of people involved:

1. coding at home alone
2. watching a movie at home with a friend
3. going out to the movies with 5 friends
4. going out to a house party with 50 attendees
5. going to a nightclub packed with 400 people dancing

Many people would rank these as ascending in coolness, i.e. descending in lameness.

I imagine that evolution rewarded sociable people who worked with others to build grass huts and hunt buffalo together, and that turned into a societal bias toward social interaction. But you'd think the sweet spot would be interactions of small groups, rather than enormous gatherings that are inefficient.

This rule can be broken with the inclusion of romantic partners. Watching a movie with a date is considered more cool than going to a house party with 50 attendees. This is presumably because evolution also rewards procreation, thus any overtures in that direction are also blessed.

UPDATE: Another aspect of this contemplation is over why society expects people to be social on particular times of week, e.g. Friday and Saturday nights. It's fine to read the newspaper alone on Saturday morning, but much less acceptable to do that on Saturday night.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

american song titles can join candor club

Loli: "I'm beginning to listen to more chinese songs, because the lyrics are better."

Me: "Yeah. Chinese songs have titles like '月亮代表我的心' (The Moon Represents My Heart), '发如雪' (Hair like the Snow), '追风的少年' (Youth Chasing the Wind)."

Loli: [nodding]

Me: "American songs have titles like 'My Life Would Suck Without You'."

Monday, April 13, 2009

You're such a nice friend -- the best! Wait, that means i have to give the prize back to you...

Last week, my friend "Don" and I were discussing a web contest held by an ex-Googler startup. The top prizes are Kindles.

Me: "I'm going to lose. The contest page actually features my profile, but I'll lose."

Don: [visiting the page] "What's the judging criteria? Number of reviews written? Seems that would encourage spamming."

Me: "Yeah. I actually spent time writing witty content, but I was quickly overtaken by people who wrote over a thousand one-sentence reviews."

Don: "It's okay. I'll buy you a Kindle."

Me: "No."

Don: "The Kindle will be for winning my contest."

Me: "What's your contest?"

Don: "Most Awesome Friend in the World."

Me: "Oh. [momentarily happy] But... due to extrinsic motivation, that'll make me want to be your friend less."

Saturday, April 11, 2009


One of my friends was having a bout of perfectionism lately. It reminded me of the best advice I ever heard on this topic.

Six or seven years ago, I was chatting with a friend from SIGGRAPH.

Me: [obsessively nitpicking over whatever I was working on]

Mark: "Why are you being so perfectionist?"

Me: "I want to make this perfect!"

Mark: "Michael Jackson wants to be perfect too, and look at him!"

Friday, April 10, 2009

meow meow vroom

An email exchange:

From: Niniane Wang
To: Om K

Check out this story from fmylife:

"Today, I ran over a squirrel. I saw it twitching so I backed over it to end its suffering. It wasn't a squirrel it was a kitten. The children it belonged to watched as I ran over their kitten. TWICE. FML"

From: Om K

niniane i have a cat!!!

but this is still funny

From: Niniane Wang

Are you sure you still have the cat? When was the last time you saw it?

From: Om K

now now now now 1 second ago now now

From: Niniane Wang


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

web contests: could be harmful if mis-designed

Web sites often hold contests as a marketing tool. I myself have thought about doing this for various projects (past and present), but today I started wondering if it actually saps the long-term desire to use the site.

There is a known psychological effect where giving people a reward for doing an activity makes them do it much less once the reward is gone, compared to if they never got the reward at all. See the wikipedia writeup about extrinsic motivation:

Extrinsic incentives sometimes can weaken the motivation as well. In one classic study done by green & lepper, children who were lavishly rewarded for drawing with felt-tip pens later showed little interest in playing with the pens again.

Perhaps the contest holders are willing to accept this negative hit of user retention in exchange for getting their name out, as people tell their friends about the contest. In that case, it's important to design your competition for maximal reach. Make sure the goal aligns with spreading the word about your site, and not about encouraging heavier activity amongst your existing users.

You could take this to its natural extreme and just have a contest of who can refer the most number of users to your site.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

amusing dialogue from a long time ago

I came across this draft from many months ago. It made me laugh, so I am posting it.

Me: "I can't find my How of Happiness book. The last time I saw it, you carried it in your bag along with your own book."

Trenton: [goes in closet very briefly, then emerges]

Me: "Was it there?"

Trenton: "No."

Me: "That wasn't very long. It seems as though you just walked in, paused for a few seconds, and then walked out."

Trenton: "Oh, I didn't pause long enough! Oops!"

Me: "Ha ha."

Trenton: "Did you own this book?"

Me: "Yes, before it was lost by you."

Trenton: "That's why I used the past tense."

Monday, April 06, 2009

brief browser compatibility happiness

A couple weeks ago, I was hanging out with a friend, and trying to get wireless to work on both our laptops. This friend is not in a tech-related field, and doesn't spend much time in front of the computer.

Me: "Can you try to access the internet?"

Him: [opens a browser at his laptop]

Me: "You use firefox?" [overjoyed]

Him: "Yeah... why?"

Me: "That's great! So do I! I'm so excited!"

Him: "I don't understand."

Me: "It's, um, it's like if we both really liked the same movie."

Him: "Oh... [deep look of understanding] Well, I just like firefox much better than safari."

Me: "Oh right, this is a Mac. Firefox is the only reasonable choice." [greatly disappointed]

Sunday, April 05, 2009

my favorite video game of all time

Today my brother and I talked about the excellent video game Rock Band. This got me thinking about video games in general.

It saddens me that as the industry matured, production costs rose, and risk-taking became more expensive and hence more rare.

It's nice to see breakthrough games like The Sims, DDR, Guitar Hero. I wish there were more games in that vein, and not just reiterations of formulas that worked before. I like seeing a true innovation, and not just an improved graphical effect like hyper-realistic blood splatter pattern on the wall, or having the blood stay around forever even after the avatar leaves the room.

For a time, it seemed as though storylines within games were becoming more advanced. I was very excited about this. There were ARGs with interesting plots, and in-game cut scenes were getting longer with witty dialogue. Alas, that trend never really came to be.

My favorite video game of all time embodes a great story: Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within.

It's a beautiful game with full-motion video. You solve puzzles to help Gabriel Knight hunt down a werewolf. Halfway through, he gets bitten, so you race against the clock to find a cure.

Gabriel has a lady friend. As he weakens from his condition, she takes over portions of the game. There's romantic tension, but they stay platonic friends. It's so nice to see a video game where the male lead and female lead do not hook up!

Along the way, you learn interesting facts about the history of werewolves. The acting is pretty good too.

The way I encountered this game was by accident. During my senior year of college, I was fortunate enough to have a job offer from Blizzard. As enticement, Blizzard gave me a few T-shirts, and a Starcraft beta pre-release CD. "This will make you the most popular person at your school," they said.

How indisputable. People borrowed my Starcraft CD day in and day out. My friend Victor took it for an entire week. After much nagging from me, he finally presented me with a nice gift-wrapped box.

"You wrapped my Starcraft CD?" I said, amused.

I opened it and was puzzled to find a box for The Beast Within. "Ah, he must have recycled an old software box," I said to myself, "For easier gift-wrapping."

Then I reached in the box and pulled out the Gabriel Knight CD. It dawned on me that Victor did this to stall for time.

So I played the game, and it turned out to be wonderful! I was completely hooked. I let Victor keep the Starcraft beta for another week without any further complaint. Instead, I was full of praise for his kindness in giving me the Gabriel Knight game.

I think he was pretty shocked. He later told me that he felt guilty for my grateful reaction to his gag gift. But the game was so good!

Will the world ever have a full-motion video game again with great acting and a compelling story?

I miss you, Gabriel Knight 2.

Friday, April 03, 2009

pulse of mass opinion

I like the Facebook redesign. In particular, I like that my feed now consists of two-way conversations between friends, rather than mostly one-way sharing of photos and profile changes. I used to get my conversation fix from FriendFeed, but early on in the site's evolution, friend-of-friend strangers got added to my feed and the signal to noise ratio became too low for me.

I've been seeing around the blogosphere reports of haters for the new Facebook UI. Much like every other redesign, there is an anti-redesign Facebook group with a million people, etc. I want to know the actual pulse of the people, and whether the dissenters are a vocal minority vs. widespread! I want to go to a site and see a clear percentage breakdown of who likes it vs. hates it.

In general, for any controversial issue that I'm curious about (abortion, gay rights, No Name Cafe food quality), I want to go to a site and see the pulse of public opinion about it.

I hope one of these prediction market sites will take over and become used by everyone, to satisfy this purpose. I've seen them used within private contexts, and they were very effective in showing what the crowd thinks.

funny fmylife entry

I am really amused by this user story:

Today, I woke up a little after seven. I felt sick to my stomach because last night was my bachelor party and I drank more than I ever have before. I checked my phone, and I had received 42 missed calls. It was seven o'clock pm. Today was my wedding day. FML