Martian headsets, and why standards are hard

Joel Spolsky writes about the real-world difficulty of standards in "Martian Headsets". The article was spurred by Joel's observations on the Microsoft IE8 team's rock-and-a-hard-place predicament. The article uses a clever example of Martian MP3 players and headphones to show why standards start out easy to implement but end up nearly impossible despite everyone's well-meaning efforts.

Joel also tosses in an interesting anecdote about the Bible as a "standard":

If you've ever visited the ultra-orthodox Jewish communities of Jerusalem, all of whom agree in complete and utter adherence to every iota of Jewish law, you will discover that despite general agreement on what constitutes kosher food, that you will not find a rabbi from one ultra-orthodox community who is willing to eat at the home of a rabbi from a different ultra-orthodox community. And the web designers are discovering what the Jews of Mea Shearim have known for decades: just because you all agree to follow one book [of standards] doesn't ensure compatibility, because the laws are so complex and complicated and convoluted that it's almost impossible to understand them all well enough to avoid traps and landmines.

Standards are a great goal, of course, but before you become a standards fanatic you have to understand that due to the failings of human beings, standards are sometimes misinterpreted, sometimes confusing and even ambiguous.

After reading the article, I feel sorry for the IE8 team. And it's just a matter of time before Firefox, Opera, and all the other browsers feel the pain, too…

[via "The Flamewar of the Century" at john-ahrens.com]

50+ Tricks to Get to a Real Person

To get a live person when calling a support number, I use tricks like pressing zero even if it's not given as a choice, or doing nothing to make the system think that I don't have touch tone phone.

50+ Hacks and Tips to Get to a Real Person at Any Corporation in 10 Seconds or Less has some clever ones I've never thought of before, like:

  • Choose the Spanish option, which often has a shorter wait time, and you'll probably be connected with a bilingual person.
  • Press everything. By pressing multiple numbers, you can trick systems into thinking you're on a rotary phone or that you're crazy. Either way, you're in.

The article also has links to some good resources, like 800-numbers.net and Gethuman.com.

Using anonymous cellular data to indentify traffic

In-car GPS vendors are starting to integrate real-time traffic data into their route finding/planning — rather than taking the shortest route, the GSP tries to take traffic into account.  In the US, many cities, counties, & states now collect traffic data, and display this data on their own websites.  But for GPS companies, hooking into all these various sources is initally expensive, and then continues to be expensive to maintain.  And where the city/state/county does not collect this data, there is simply no source of traffic information.

TomTom is trying out an interesting new source of traffic data — partner with a cell phone company (Vodaphone) to get anonymous phone usage statistics.  If the phone company sees an unusually large number of cell phones near freeways, that's a good indicator of unusually bad traffic.  By partnering with Vodaphone, TomTom can get these anonymous stats from Vodaphone to make better route suggestions.  TomTom is calling this service "High Definition Traffic (HD Traffic)".

This is intially a trial in the Netherlands only.  If it works well, they will try more Eurpoean countries, and then try to partner with US cell phone companies.  If this works, it gives TomTom fewer different sources to integrate with — only once per cell phone company, rather than once per city/county/state.  It will also work in areas where the city/county/state does not collect real-time traffic data, or else does not make that data available.

TomTom & TeleAtlas "get it" for community-provided map information

Web-sites like Amazon and Wikipedia have been leveraging the value of community-provide content for years. With all the GPS devices on the road, it seems like map data providers could find a way to collect community-provided map updates from these users.

It looks like TomTom & TeleAtlas "get it" around community-provided map data. TomTom's recently announced "Map Share" system and their proposed acquisition of TeleAtlas will be a powerful combination.

Read More …

Comcast internet support: know the lingo

Below is an excerpt from a Slashdot comment on a July 18 thread about Comcast:

The key to working with Comcast is to have some basic technical knowledge of cable internet. Once you show you know the lingo and you know the basic technical aspects, you'll either get the support person to "talk up" to your level immediately or switch you to someone that knows. Most support people have at least heard some of the terminology, usually enough to know if they're in over their head and need to route you to someone else.

For example, if you buy your own modem, NEVER say "I need my new modem INSTALLED." Say "I need my new modem PROVISIONED". 95% of the support people will know right away what you need and won't bother asking you about Windows and you'll be online 15 minutes later.

[…]

Using an image database to add realism to edited photos

(from ACM TechNews, July 11 2007)

Carnegie Mellon University computer graphics researchers have developed systems for editing and altering photographs that automatically find images that fit with the original photo. The systems create well-blended images with minimal user skills, unlike traditional photo editing that can require a significant amount of skill. "We are able to leverage the huge amounts of visual information available on the Internet to find images that make the best fit," says assistant professor of computer science and robotics Alexei A. Efros. "It's not applicable for all photo editing, such as when an image of a specific object or person is added to a photo. But it's good enough in many cases." One system, called Photo Clip Art, uses images from the Web site LabelMe, which has thousands of labeled images, to add images to photos. For example, a picture of an empty street may be filled with images of people, vehicles, and even parking meters. To make the resulting picture as realistic as possible, the image analyzes the original photo to determine camera angle and lighting conditions. Then the system looks in the clip art library for appropriate images that fit the dimensions. The other system, called Scene Completion, uses millions of photos from the Web site Flickr to fill in holes in photos. Frequently, photo editors try to fill in the hole with a section from the same picture, but Efros says a better match can be found in a different photo. Efros and his colleagues will present papers on the two systems at the ACM SIGGRAPH annual conference, Aug. 5-9 in San Diego.

MapJack and EarthMine

MapJack.com is a street-level image viewer mashed-up with Google Maps.  The image quality is much better than Google's Streetview, but the 3D feel is not quite as immersive.  Personally, I'll trade better image quality for 3D immersiveness.  Try "driving" down the famous Lombard Street in San Francisco using MapJack — this is the crookedest street in the US.  Currently MapJack only offers views in the heart of San Francisco.

Earthmine also plans to offer high-resolution images at a street-view, but their focus seems to be more on selling this data to companies, governments, etc.  They may put a web front-end on the data, but that does not seem to be their focus.

Google Map's "Street View" seems to have unleashed a flood of similar offerings.  To be fair, I'm sure that they've all been under development for a while, it's just that the buzz around Google Street View has made them more visible.