Wednesday, April 14, 2010

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The right people with the wrong idea

A couple of months ago I was hanging around the Y Combinator offices scouting start-ups when Paul Graham introduced me to a guy called Paul Biggar. Paul had this crazy idea about offering a better commenting system for news web sites. A sort of Disqus just for newspapers. I didn't think it was a very good idea, but I offered to help anyway because Paul seemed like the right person with the wrong idea.

I've spent my entire career in technology start-ups (and, briefly, in venture capital) and if there's one thing that's invariant it's that it's better to find the right people with the wrong idea than the wrong people with the right idea. The right people will be able to change their idea to fit the market, the wrong people will rarely capitalize on the right idea.

So it was no surprise to me that Paul came back with a new idea: a news web site built around journalist brands with revenue sharing between the journalist and the web site. Now that seemed like an interesting idea. It's a sort of anti-Economist where the name of the journalist matters more than the brand of the overall site. I said I'd help and emailed journalist and writer friends to get them to look into it. I also sat down over the Easter weekend and wrote three articles for the future web site.

Yesterday, the resulting web site called NewsTilt went live. My three stories are:

Ode to the Number 11 bus.

If you're visiting London, stop before you spend £50 ($76) on a sightseeing tour and consider taking a bus used by Londoners to get to work. It might not sound like the best idea for an out of town visitor, but at £1.20 ($1.80) per person a trip along the 7 miles of the number 11 bus route will let you see the sights in true London double-decker bus style.


Long haul heaven

For many people the thought of a long haul flight is enough to fill them with dread and loathing. They loathe the indignities of airport security, the stale food and staler air, the cramped seats and cramped conversation. But I love a good long haul from London to San Francisco, or Miama to Buenos Aires. I love it because when I step onto a 747, an L-1011 or an A340, I'm entering my mile-high monastery.


The missing element in travel: science

Many people wouldn't consider wrapping their head around some science to be an ideal way to spend a holiday. But science and enjoyment aren't incompatible. Here are seven ideas to get you out and about, and make you think.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Witch doctors should be available on the NHS

One of my relations wrote to his MP opposing the MP's position on funding homeopathy through the NHS. Here's the interesting bit of the MP's reply:

Thanks for your e-mail. There are many people who consider that homeopathy is beneficial to them, and would thus disagree with both the Committee's conclusions and the view you express. In the grand scheme of the billions spent by the NHS, the cost of homeopathy is small - and if people sense that homeopathy is helping them get better, then that is sufficient reason why I think the present arrangements should continue.

It's instructive to reread this email with homeopathy replaced by witch doctors.

Thanks for your e-mail. There are many people who consider that witch doctors are beneficial to them, and would thus disagree with both the Committee's conclusions and the view you express. In the grand scheme of the billions spent by the NHS, the cost of witch doctors is small - and if people sense that witch doctors are helping them get better, then that is sufficient reason why I think the present arrangements should continue.

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

It's the thought that counts

After I finally replaced the old HP Procurve 420 Access Point at the office with an Airport Extreme, HP came up with a solution to my problem. They decided to send me, free of charge, a brand new access point (since the 420 had been end-of-lifed).

This was very kind of them and now, sitting on my desk, I have a brand new HP Procurve MSM310 Access Point. It came with all the trimmings: two antennae, a power adapter and a serious steel wall mounting bracket. Compared to the Apple device it looks seriously industrial.

Weirdly, all four parts, the access point, the power adapter, the antennae and the wall bracket, came in four separate packages. The funniest of which was the one that just contained the two small antennae. Good business for DHL I suppose.


Now, I don't know if this device actually fixes the original Bonjour problem I was having, and I'm unlikely to find out. Despite the London address, HP sent a power adapter with a US plug.

Ah well, it's the thought that counts.

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Monday, April 05, 2010

The Offal Tower

OK, that's not the headline that The Guardian chose, but here's me writing in The Guardian's Comment is Free section:

At the unveiling of Anish Kapoor's design for the Orbit tower it was compared to the Colossus of Rhodes and the Tower of Babel. But the history of those follies isn't auspicious. The Colossus of Rhodes was destroyed by an earthquake after standing for only a few decades, and the Tower of Babel was, the book of Genesis tells us, constructed to glorify those that constructed it.

I can't help wondering to what extent the ArcelorMittal Orbit is being built for the glory of Boris Johnson, Kapoor and Lakshmi Mittal. And as details emerge of its Olympic corporate entertainment role, it looks less and less like a work of art. But setting the motivation of the creators aside, the worst comparison of all is with the Eiffel Tower.

The rest is here

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Squaring two digit numbers in your head

All my life I've done mental arithmetic the 'wrong way': I've calculated from left-to-right, instead of right-to-left. So when I do something like 24 + 35 I'll see the 50 first and then the 9. This even applies when there's a carry and I'll do something like 36 + 56 as 80 + 12. I do the same thing for multiplication as well.

Turns out I'm not so weird after all (well, apart from the finding doing mental arithmetic fun bit). I've been reading Secrets of Mental Math: The Mathemagician's Guide to Lightning Calculation and Amazing Mental Math Tricks and the author, Michael Shermer, is just like me: he works from left-to-right.

He, like me, has found this to be a good system because it lets you discard digits early and not hold some enormous calculation in your head. For example, in the calculation 124 + 353 you can immediately say "four hundred" before doing the rest of the sum. This seems to free up headspace (at least for me) and let's me do the rest of the calculation. I'd do it like this: 124 + 353 = 400 + 24 + 53 = 400 + 70 + 4 + 3 = 477.

The books is filled with tricks for doing all sorts of mental calculations, including a nice section about estimation (I've always been an estimator) and working out things like tips and sales taxes. But the most fun part to me was a trick to let you do two-digit squares in your head really, really fast.

Quick, what's 272. Of course, the brute force way to do that is to calculate 27 x 27 which is a bit of a pain because it involves doing something like 27 x 20 + 27 x 7 = 540 + 189 = 729. But there's a much faster way.

Observe that 272 = 30 x 24 + 32. Since you probably know that 32 = 9 this means you have to calculate 30 x 24 + 9 which is relatively easy because the multiplication involves a multiple of ten which means it's really 3 x 24 and then add a zero.

So the rule is that if you want to square number X you first round it to the nearest multiple of 10, called that X + r, and then calculate X - r (i.e. round the same amount in the opposite direction). You calculate (X + r) x (X - r) and add back the square of the amount you rounded by, r2, which will be 1, 4, 9, 16 or 25.

This works because ( X + r ) x ( X - r ) + r2 = X2 - rX + rX - r2 + r2 = X2.

Example: 672 is 70 x 64 + 32 which is fairly easy to do in your head. And naturally the same trick works no matter how many digits you have, it's just that the multiplication gets harder.

The trick is especially impressive/easy with numbers near 100 because the multiplication becomes dead easy. For example, 962 is 100 x 92 + 42 which you (or at least I) can almost instantly see is 9216.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Goodbye HP Procurve Access Point 420

Over a year ago I discovered a bug in an HP ProCurve Wireless Access Point 420 that we were using in our office. After being treated badly by HP I finally got support from them by blogging my frustration and ending up on the front page of Google search results for procurve support.

Eventually, weeks later, HP acknowledged the problem with the device. But this story doesn't have a happy ending.

In November 2009 HP informed me that the product was being end of lifed.

Out of curiosity I called HP Procurve Support and asked them about the status of my case and they couldn't even look up my case number. Searching around with my name they did manage to find me and my case was active and open. The latest update was on March 19, 2010 and the case had been escalated to Level 3 Support.

My previous experience with HP support wasn't good, but this time Derek was great. He tracked down the ancient case, updated me with information, updated contact information for me. An excellent experience. Unfortunately, waiting over a year for this to be fixed had become intolerable. (If anyone from HP is reading this, email me and I'll tell you Derek's email address since he deserves a special mention).

I replaced it today with an Airport Extreme. Configuration was a breeze with Apple's Airport Utility. And, here's a little known fact, the Airport Extreme can act as a level 2 bridge which means it can successfully extend our existing network without doing NAT and messing up our Bonjour packets (which were the source of the original HP bug).

And, joy of joys, it can perform WPA2 Enterprise authentication against our RADIUS server.

It's nice that HP is working to track down this bug, but 13 months is a little too long to wait for a fix. Sorry.

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