June 2006

Mistaken for a eunuch at an orgy

I’ve heard before about conventional media (or indeed, any commercial enterprise) trying to co-opt bloggers into creating buzz for whatever they’re selling. At one point, I was offered a pass to a movie, and it was made clear that it was because I am a blogger, and no doubt a Highly Influential Opinion Leader. I wound up not picking up the pass or seeing the movie, but it’s the thought that counts.

I have just received an unsolicited and unexpected UPS delivery of a new book. Interestingly, this was sent to the address I had for only about half a year, but someone at UPS apparently knew I had moved and redirected it to the right place. I’m not quite sure how they got my old address (and since it seems likely that whoever was behind sending me the book in the first place is monitoring this blog, please do chime in in the comments).

Rather than reviewing the book—because that would be playing right into their hands—I will review the mailing instead.

The packaging is stiff manila cardstock, and the book arrived in good shape with a press packet tucked inside. The press packet is six letter-sized sheets of glossy paper printed monochrome, double-sided. The cover letter addresses me as “Dear Producer/Editor.” They say you should always open with a joke, so this is off to a good start. I am advised that the book I am about to enjoy was reviewed as being a “winning comedy…with cracking prose and sharp observations that consistently entertain and surprise.” According to the publicist, Kristan, it is “spellbinding and wickedly funny.” I also learned the book has been optioned for a movie (seriously, has any book not been optioned? I’m pretty sure even the phonebook has been). The author managed to squeeze a colon and parentheses into the title of his previous book, and that punctuation note alone should tell you this guy is trying way too hard. The book in my hand has only a colon, which suggests either that he’s getting a grip or that he’s just given up.

The packet includes a schedule of the author’s appearances, including one in (surprise) Austin in late July. So they’re giving me a month and some change to read the book and blog about it so that my rapt audience of discerning readers will be primed to go to the book signing. Kristan, I’m not a very quick reader, I admit, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t take me six weeks to plow through this book, should I choose to read it—I’m not really inclined to, but I’ve read my toothpaste tube twice already, so who knows.

Next we turn to a brief author’s bio, somewhat longer than the typical inside-back-cover bio (which is coyly brief in the book itself). It is entirely precious, telling us the author’s astrological sign in a tongue-in-cheek way, recounting the series of awful jobs the author has had, his sad litany of rejections from “every established press in North America,” his shameful descent into self-publishing and then redemption at the hands of a major publisher. And, saving the worst for last, it appears this poor schmuck has a blog.

For dessert, an interview with the author running three and a half pages. I won’t bore you with it because I didn’t bore myself with it, except for the penultimate question and answer, which did catch my eye:

What’s the one thing you’d like readers to know about you that they may not already know?

I want my readers to know how grateful I am that they have given me 5 to 8 hours of their busy lives to read my books.

Now, this may be sincere, but it comes across as an incredibly calculated “oh gosh, thank you for reviewing my book,” showing up in this review-copy press packet as it does.

On the whole, I’d say this press packet does a good job of making me not want to be a book reviewer.

renovation post-mortem: kitchen

Kitchen Main View-1

Now that we’ve had some time to live with the decisions we made in our renovation, I’m going to occasionally look at how different aspects of it turned out.

The kitchen is typically the most functional room in the house, and receives the biggest investments in appliances and built-in furniture. So let’s start there.

On the whole, our kitchen turned out really well. But there are a few areas where we could have done better.

Robotic folksonomy

I recently bought a new digicam, and I’ve been working on a translation job that relates to signal processing. These two facts, shaken together with some loose synapses in my brain, got me thinking along the following lines.

Digital cameras these days, in addition to taking better pictures, have better processors, and some have interesting ancillary functions. Kodak, for instance, used a general-purpose operating system in some of its cameras that can run user-supplied software. Inevitably, someone adapted this to play video games on the camera’s screen, but this was used in other clever ways (to take a picture every five minutes and upload to a connected computer, say).

We’re also starting to see digicams with wifi connections—in theory, if you’re near a hotspot, you could put your pictures online as quickly as you shoot them. We may also see cameras with Bluetooth that could get online via a cellphone connection.

But what a mess that would be to manage, a constant stream of unnamed, untagged photos. Since I started using Flickr, I’ve found that tags are often more useful than titles for photos. But who wants to try to apply tags via your camera’s interface? What a pain. That got me thinking about robotagging.

Imagine you have a digicam of the not-too-distant future that can talk to Flickr (which I’ll use as an example because I know and like it, but feel free to substitute the name of any other tag-based photo-hosting service with a public API), uploading images to it directly and getting information back. You want your photos tagged, but you don’t want to interrupt your shooting and you definitely don’t want to try to enter text using the camera’s inputs. How might this work?

Any image can be analyzed algorithmically by a number of different features. Color histograms, edge detection, OCR, and so on. It’s an area I admittedly don’t know a lot about. Flickr already has a huge corpus of tagged photos. The feature values for these could be extracted and saved as meta-data somewhere in the system.

When a new untagged photo gets uploaded, Flickr could extract its feature values and find other photos with near matches for those feature values. It would extract the most popular tags from those photos and send them back to your camera as a list. You’d select the ones that you wanted to use.

This user-selection process in itself would be an important part of the robotagging process, as it would help Flickr’s bot determine which feature values were relevant, or which were relevant to a specific tag. For example, it’s a good bet that a picture with the tag “yellow” is tagged that way based on a certain histogram, but that histogram would be less relevant to the fact that the same photo is tagged “flower.” Edge-detection would tell you nothing about color-name tags, but might be more strongly relevant to the “flower” tag. By training the system, the users would help the tagging bot make better choices in the future. This would have results similar to the ESP game.

Once their images were robotagged on the fly, users would probably still want to go back and add more personally meaningful tags, but as a first pass at tagging, something like this could work.

Update Looks like Riya is already doing this.

We know you’re going to love this

Problem: The U.S. government is running rapidly increasing deficits.

Problem: The FBI/CIA/NSA are collecting enormous amounts of information about U.S. citizens (and non-citizens) that they make relatively little use of.

Problem: In an increasingly diverse media market, advertisers face growing difficulty effectively targeting and reaching their audiences.

Solution: Government spook databases will be licensed to marketing firms for the purpose of developing better advertising approaches. The Department of Homeland Security will be renamed the Department of Homeland Security & Marketing Opportunities. In the course of developing their own demographic models, marketers will discover new patterns and connections, which they will share with DHS&MO (as required under a licensing agreement), resulting both in better spying and better advertising. Database access fees will help reduce the deficit and fund more effective data-collection techniques at the DHS&MO.

Other benefits: Citizens considered to be potential security threats will be enrolled in special marketing programs that will allow them to spend their way into good standing. Conversely, citizens who do not consume enough will receive special government scrutiny to determine whether they may be security threats.