Helium collaborative writing

Twice a year, I help run a MATLAB programming contest in which contestants try to write the fastest code to solve a math puzzle, using a resource any work done by previously submitted entries. In other words, you’re welcome to steal from those who came before you. It’s a free intellectual property open source barbecue. It works surprisingly well and results in seriously optimized code. So the first question I get when I explain it to people is this: can’t we apply this technique to some useful real world problem? But here’s the thing: the programming contest has a great advantage in its unambiguous figure of merit. If you can make the code run faster, that’s all I need to know, and I only need a clock to figure that out.

Suppose you wanted to make a similar contest to write a great poem. You’re immediately faced with a big problem: There’s no automatic poem analyzer. Who gets to judge whether or not your poem is better than the current leader’s? The Wikipedia approach comes close to programming contest idea here, in that lots of people are busy making improvements (or changes at any rate) to the same “code” or Wikipedia entry. But you can’t make a running report of the “goodness” of the article over time. It may get longer, but is it getting better? That’s a matter of opinion.

Into this space comes an interesting startup called Helium. They solve the problem of quantitative evaluation by letting members vote. So the same topic (say “How to find the best mortgage rate”) may have multiple articles, but only one of them will be voted number one. The lowest rated article for the mortgage question was this: “go to http://www.google.com and write down How can I get the best rate on a mortgage? you will get the best rate.” Good advice, but wouldn’t it be cool if the top rated result was this very page?

I think there’s still an optimal mix of Wikipedia and Helium that doesn’t exist yet, but we’re getting closer. (Helium spotted on Techcrunch)

Chess PHP pictures

My friend Steve is not only an image processing wizard with a book title under his belt, he’s also a chess player. He is modest about his mad chess skillz, but he has done something unquestionably useful for the chess community in creating a nifty chess diagram widget. Written in PHP, it lets you use a standard chess notation to draw images of games easily. For instance, if you write


you get a picture like this:

Venturing farther afield, Steve’s little chess board also lets you indulge in fanciful tactical positions. For instance, can Black be expected to win this game?

Or how about this one: a cautious Black has just castled on his king side, and White has retorted with some ugly, aggressive posturing of his pawns. Now, Black to mate in 4. Do you see it?

Believe it or not, this example is from a real match, the famous Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld vs. Kerry match (2004). Also known as the Guantanamo opening (or, less frequently, the “Hanging Chad”), Black narrowly escapes disaster by buying assorted hardware from the Supreme Court. The debt thereby incurred was simply levied on the audience. Brilliant!

Finally, if you are a fan of M.C. Escher, you’ll enjoy reading about Steve’s chess problem epiphany:
Unexpected chess problem at my office.

Don’t forget to vote!

The word “virtual” is meaningless

When I was at Foo Camp last summer, I heard Philip Rosedale, the founder of the 3-D virtual world Second Life, describe how this community has not only virtual newspapers to serve its citizens, but paper versions too. They were handing out free copies copies. I picked up a tabloid that advertised stores and tourist traps that existed only in the electronic ether.

Moving in the other direction, which is to say a real reporter in a virtual world, Reuters recently announced that it will be assigning a regular correspondent to a Second Life beat.

“As strange as it might seem, it’s not that different from being a reporter in the real world,” Adam Pasick, the Reuters correspondent who will serve as the virtual bureau’s first chief, said in a Reuters report. “Once you get used to it, it becomes very much like the job I have been doing for years.”

So my question is: is it silly to put real person on a virtual newsbeat?

This leads to the question: what does the word virtual mean, anyway? And the answer is: nothing. Wherever you see the word “virtual,” strike it out and you’ll have a more compact phrase that means the same thing. Virtual newspapers are newspapers. Virtual neighborhoods are neighborhoods. Virtual economies are economies. A lot of money changes hands in Second Life, and the taxing authorities are starting to notice.

It’s always been troublesome to define a word like “virtual” because it describes something that both is and isn’t real. But increasingly it simply means “what you said, only on a computer.” I was curious to see what dictionaries are saying about the word these days. Sure enough, the answers.com dictionary entry has a long digression on this very topic.

Here’s my interpretation of the word virtual. It means “I’ve just removed from X something formerly considered an irreducible quality of X, and yet its X-ness is intact.” It is a linguistic onion peeler. You thought it was necessary to print a newspaper on paper, so you called my paperless newspaper “virtual”. But somehow its paperness remains intact. That which remains is nessful. That which was virtualized away is nessless.

Comment spam sucks

I’m being hammered by a new round of comment spam, and this one is really baffling. It’s well coordinated, coming in tightly packed bursts from all points of the compass. No IP blocking can stop it, and the strange thing is, there’s no text to it. Just a few random letters in each comment along with a plausible sounding name. What are they selling? What is their motivation? Each new invasion of spam has puzzled me at a different level. Just when I became hardened to the fact that of course unscrupulous advertisers could never be stopped, I get bowled over by a new phenomenon: absolutely pointless site-clogging random spam. It’s as if someone is practicing for a denial-of-service attack. At some point, I will need to use those funny picture queries to stop the noise. Sigh.