What working at Google is like

Posted in Technology trends at 10:16 pm by ducky

Steve Yegge has a long blog post that is very funny and probably helpful; in the middle of it, he talks about what it’s like to code at Google.  It is absolutely dead-bang consistent with what I saw.

It’s been a little frustrating to me to try to express just what it is about working at Google that is so cool.  It’s easiest to talk about the food, the perks, as that’s the most obvious, smack-you-in-the-face-can’t-miss-it.  I tried telling people about how the whole culture is focused on making life easy for developers.  Somehow, it didn’t seem to really capture it in its fullest.

I would make only a few additions and qualifications.

We did have schedules and target dates, they were just (for the most part) very casual.  If we made them, fine.  If we slipped, darn, let’s move on and get it out next week.  There were, however, exceptions.  There were a whole boatload of things that were announced at the Google Geo Developer Day a week after I started.  While I wasn’t really involved, I believe that there was a lot of scurrying around to pull that off.

In general, things happen incrementally when they are ready.  I don’t remember there being a hard drop-dead date for the continuous zoom, for example.

There are three reasons that Google can be more casual about schedules.

First, and IMHO most importantly, It’s all Web-based, so they are not a slave to big monumental releases.  It’s not a shrink-wrapped product where you get one shot to get your feature in, and it better be what the customer wanted, and it better work flawlessly.  If Google puts a feature in, and it breaks stuff or people hate it, they can pull it out quickly.  (This summer there was at least one feature that got pulled because end users and/or external API users didn’t like it.)

Second, they have a whole pile of money.  You can be more casual when you aren’t worrying about your company folding if something doesn’t ship on time.

Third, they work very very hard at not hiring the wrong people.  They have a stated policy that they would rather not hire someone good than hire someone bad.  I fully agree with and endorse that policy, even though I might have been adversely affected by the policy.  (They recently declined to offer me a full-time job.)


Six-word story

Posted in Art, Married life at 10:02 pm by ducky

Six-word stories? Here is mine:

I met Lennart’s loser friend. Wow!

(It is a highly personal story.)


mini-review: The Perfect Search Engine Is Not Enough

Posted in Email, Mini-reviews at 3:31 pm by ducky

This is a mini-review of The Perfect Search Engine Is Not Enough: A Study of Orienteering Behavior in Directed Search (2004).

The authors looked at how users looked for information in electronic documents (Web pages, email messages, or files in a file system) and found that people didn’t always use search (what they called “teleporting”), but frequently took a sequence of smaller steps to get to their goal. For example, a user went first to a math department’s home page, then clicked a few links to get to a specific faculty member’s home page.

They concluded that there are advantages to orienteering:

  • keyword searches often fail
  • orientation has a lower cognitive load (i.e. you don’t have to figure out what a good search query would be)
  • orienteering allows people to use meta-information that keyword search does not (e.g. who a message is from)
  • orienteering gave people more context (e.g. they knew they wanted the oldest file in a directory, but didn’t remember the name of the doc)
  • orienteering helped people maintain a sense of location during the search (e.g. they could edit a URL directly to get to a slightly different Web page)

They suggest that search tools allow people to search on meta-data, learn which sites a particular user trusts, and steer search results to those pages, clustering information, and/or suggesting refinements.

I found the title slightly disingenuous: their users didn’t have the a perfect search engine, and it isn’t fair to extrapolate that the users would still orienteer if they had the perfect search engine.

An observation that I didn’t see them make explicitly is that orienteering can reduce the search space and thus increase precision. I do this frequently; for example, when searching for a file in the file system, I go a directory that I’m pretty sure is above the file I am looking for, then do a find:

find . -name emailCartoons

Instead of navigating to some subdirectory, I could do the find from / or from my home directory, but that would give me way more information than I need.

The authors also don’t say what operating system their test subjects used, nor which email client they used. Different email clients have radically different search capabilities! In particular, I remember that when I was researching my book, people told me that the Outlook search was so slow that it was too painful to use. Gmail, on the other hand, has search so fast that I almost never orienteer to find a message. While I have never tried it, I hear that Google Desktop is a whiz at teleporting.

I also have to think that better training on search engines would help people teleport more.  For example, instead of typing the URL for the University of East-Central Illinois at Hoople’s math  department, then clicking around to the faculty page to get to Sabrina Aguilar’s home page, someone could instead search Google for

aguilar site:math.ueci-h.edu

but a lot of people don’t know about the site: feature.

The Google Guide by my friend Nancy Blachman has good information on how to search better, including this advanced operators cheat sheet.


Update on Globe and Mail Green College article

Posted in Canadian life, University life at 9:27 am by ducky

Update: As I mentioned in my response to the Globe and Mail article about Green College, it reported that the Principal, Keith Benson, said that there was lots of drinking and partying. I’ve asked around, and my sources report that there was a problem with one pair of roommates in the spring of 2005 (the semester before I got here), and that some people moved out because of it. It was not a generalized problem.

Meanwhile, the Equity office says that for confidentiality reasons, they can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any complaints.


Success at an insignificant (but difficult) thing

Posted in Art at 10:01 pm by ducky

I am working on the “beta” version of a glyph-covered jacket (The tshirt I did this summer was a side effect; both the shirt and the jacket are lineal descendants of the glyph shirt that I made for my husband a few years ago.)

I’ve been nervous about the Mayan glyph. On both the tshirt and an earlier painting I did, I used the Mayan glyph for fire, which is handsome enough, but I was kind of bored with it. Also, it didn’t really feel representative of Mayan glyphs.

Unfortunately, the glyphs that looked representative also looked hard. Mayan glyphs are very intricate, with lots of relatively thin lines. They are more like drawings than most writing systems.

I had visions of all kinds of ways that I could screw up. I print the design on paper, then use carbon paper to transfer it to the jacket; if there are lumps (i.e. seams) then it gets hard to transfer the design cleanly, so I can’t always see where the lines are. If I don’t have good light and/or my eyes are tired, I can’t always see the lines well even when they are clean. If the paint is too thin, it is hard to keep it between the lines. If the paint is too thick, it spreads unevenly. If I don’t pay close attention, I lose track of what side of the line I’m supposed to paint on. If I’m tired or distracted, I am prone to wavering and/or dropping my paintbrush (aauuugh!). If I am concentrating too hard on glyph A, I sometimes put my fingers in the wet paint of glyph B. If people walk past heavily, or if I get startled, then all bets are off.

Despite being excited about getting the Mayan glyph down (because it does look cool), it was with trepidation that I took my paints down to the Green College common kitchen, where I paint.

And it worked! I did it! It came out beautifully!

(The black smudges are from the carbon paper; it will wash out.)

Now, I know that in the grand scheme of things, this is NOT a big deal. It isn’t going to save any starving children. But it was important to me precisely because it was scary, because I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. It’s like if you do well on an exam or manage to jump from a great height — it might not matter to the rest of the world that you got through it, but it might matter a lot to you. That’s how I feel right now, and boy am I chuffed!

NB: I don’t actually know what the glyph represents.  It was in a font made by Klaus Johansen.

Long slow farewell to Eudora

Posted in Technology trends at 12:15 am by ducky

Yesterday, Qualcomm announced that they were going to cease selling Eudora. I have really mixed feelings.

On the one hand, it’s great that Thunderbird is going to get the Eudora team’s help to add features and overhaul stuff. I really like Eudora, so it will be nice to see some of Eudora’s features coming Thunderbird’s way.

On the other hand, I am very sad to see the passing of yet another email client. There were precious few consumer-grade email clients as it was — Outlook, Lotus, GMail, Yahoo Mail, Eudora, Apple Mail, and Thunderbird* — and now there is one fewer. I think that the existing email user interfaces have a lot of room for improvement, and worry that the field will lose some vitality with the loss of Eudora.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope the movement of Eudora users to Thunderbird will help drive Thunderbird to even wider acceptance.

*I have heard people raving about The Bat, but I’m not a Windows user, so don’t have an opinion on it. Mulberry had good intentions, but I think it fell short in some significant ways. (Other people did as well — its parent company went bankrupt and Mulberry’s future is somewhat sketchy.) OSAF might someday release Chandler and it might someday be cool, but it’s still not ready.


Green College press coverage

Posted in Canadian life, University life at 7:50 pm by ducky

Today, an article ran in the Globe and Mail about various woes at Green College. Much of it is about a harassment lawsuit that I don’t know anything about, but then part was about the recent contract issues and the tensions between the Principal, Keith Benson, and the residents.

According to the article, Prof. Benson “paints a picture of drinking and partying so wild that it forced two serious scholars to leave the college last year because they couldn’t work.”

My immediate reaction was, “Where were these parties and why wasn’t I invited?!?” 😉

In all seriousness, however, Prof. Benson’s perception of reality is very, very different from mine. I’ll put things that the reporter said he said (which are direct quotes from the article, but frequently paraphrases (not direct quotes) from Prof. Benson) in bold, and my model of the universe in italics.

  • Prof. Benson attributes the conflicts to a few residents” – 59 of the roughly 100 residents attached a statement to their contract stating that the didn’t like it. Out of about 100 residents, about 75 cast ballots to form a Green College Resident Association, 70 voted for, 4 abstained, and 1 voted against. This is more than fits comfortably into my definition of “few”.
  • whom he describes as disrespectful and so abusive to college staff that equity complaints have been made against them.” – That’s the first I’ve heard of complaints from the staff, and I am surprised. In the contract dispute, I thought that the residents behaved with admirable composure given the sudden threat to their housing.
  • [Benson] also describes the residents as very young” – That’s the nicest thing anybody has said to me all day! I’m 43, my husband is 44, and we are not the oldest residents at the college. I haven’t really investigated this year, but last year there were (at least) two people who were in their 50s, us in our early 40s, and then about three people (out of 100) who were in their late thirties. After that, it got harder for me to tell age, but many of the residents are older. I’d guess that the average age is probably around 27, and that doesn’t fit with my mental model of “very young”.
  • Benson “paints a picture of drinking and partying so wild that it forced two serious scholars to leave the college last year because they couldn’t work” – This was the first I’d heard of any issue. I can think of two in-room parties (not counting the time when we had about ten guests sitting in our room drinking approximately one glass of wine with no music and minimal noise) in the two years I’ve been here, and both were on non-school nights. There have been a few Green College parties run by the Social Committee, but the official parties and both in-room parties were on non-school nights.
  • it forced two serious scholars” – implies that not all the scholars are serious. I’ve thought hard about the people I’ve known here, and I can only think of one — a postdoc — who perhaps was not very serious about his scholarship. (He might have been, but his research didn’t come up in conversation much.)
  • ‘They don’t understand academic civility,’ Prof. Benson said, calling their behaviour inappropriate. ‘For example, at a welcoming dinner [for residents and alumni], they did the wave. And an emcee made jokes about [the housing contract] in front of the dean.'”While I can’t swear that the dean also did the wave, she was at one of the tables that did do the wave. All the tables except for Dr. Benson’s did the wave. My table was almost completely alumni, and they expressed disappointment that Prof. Benson’s table did not do the wave. And my mental model of emcees is that they are supposed to make jokes.

Now, I understand that journalists are not able to provide absolutely all context for absolutely all quotes, so perhaps he didn’t really mean what the article indicated. I hope so.

Finally, according to the article, “Ann Rose, acting dean of graduate studies, said she is solving problems as they arise.” I have no disagreement here. I been impressed at how helpful Dean Rose has been.


physical fitness

Posted in Married life at 7:43 pm by ducky

Hmmm, I never remembered to post this. Pretend that it was dated in March of this year.

Given that my beloved husband’s favorite father died of a heart attach at 58, I would feel more comfortable if he lost a bit of weight. Thus when we were deciding where to live at UBC, I lobbied for a dorm near the nude beach. I thought that nublie naked beauties luring him up and down the 367 stairs three times per day might improve his longevity and hence my chances for companionship into a ripe old age.

Unfortunately, the prospect of nublie naked beauties didn’t appeal enough to him to influence his decision, so we went to the farther dorm. While I like the dorm we chose, I was a bit disappointed that he wouldn’t be going up and down 367 steps three times per day.

Well, my husband did take up jogging. He runs about three times a week, frequently with a subset of the 25 year-old women at our dorm.

Earlier this week, when it was a bit below freezing, nobody else showed up at 7:30 to run with him, so he decided to take a slightly different run.

When he returned, he announced that a morning at 7:30 AM, in March, when the temperature was below freezing, was not actually the best time to go up and down the 367 steps in order to catch a glimpse of beautiful naked college students.



wireless woes

Posted in Random thoughts at 12:31 pm by ducky

I have been spent hours lately fighting with wireless on my IBM Thinkpad T42 on Ubuntu.

Most of the web sites out there that talk about how to deal with wireless issues focus on how to get the right driver for your card. Well, my card works just fine, thank you very much. It works great at home. I just couldn’t get it to work either at my office or at Mom’s.

I was turning all the knobs on the Ubuntu Network Settings wizard, but there turn out to be knobs and dials that the wizard doesn’t set.

When /etc/network/interfaces looked like this:

iface eth1 inet dhcp
wireless-essid momsplace
wireless-channel 6
wireless-key s:password

it didn’t work. However, when I set it to this:

iface eth1 inet dhcp
wireless-essid momsplace
wireless-channel 6
wireless-key s:password  [1] restricted 

then it did work. Apparently telling it [1] (i.e. to use key number one), and restricted (i.e. to always use encryption) were also necessary. I am mystified as to why those would be required.