My good friend AJ and his buddy Bill have finally announced Sudoku Slam, their ridiculously full-featured Sudoku web application. It takes a lot of the tedium out of solving sudoku puzzles and features a great hint system that will help you to become a better sudoku player as it explains the reasoning behind the hints it provides.
Very slick, a ton of work went into this.
With more and more websites providing access to data via public APIs, mash-ups have become quite popular. The canonical mash-up takes data from one or more sources and plots it on a Google Map; three of our four summer project demos included a map component. MIT Simile’s Timeline provides a similarly draggable interface for time-based data. In most cases, a mash-up usually involves creating a new page or set of pages for displaying data.
Lately at work we’ve been tossing around the idea of a mash-in. Rather than creating a new page for displaying data, a mash-in supplements an existing page with additional data. For example, our summer demo involved supplementing corporate directory profiles with bookmarks from an intranet social bookmarking system and a map showing a business address. Profiles normally display several tabs containing various categories of information, and without access to the corporate directory webserver we added additional tabs containing our information. This is one way to add new functionality without forcing the user to adapt to a new interface.
Scraping the page for an email address is quite primitive; we envision that one day pages will be written in RDFa, which allows the embedding of RDF triples in XHTML. Rather than matching something that looks like an email address, we can run an RDFa parser to find RDF triples, then get the object of a triple with predicate “hasEmailAddress” or something to that effect. Instead of just getting a single value, it would also be easy to check to see if the page contains RDF describing an event, an address, a book, or something else. We could choose widgets to display based on the content of the page.
It gets even more interesting when you throw Queso into the mix as a backend storage system. Queso can store any sort of structure you’d like (without you having to pre-define the structure beforehand). This makes it easy to store user-specific information. In our demo we used Queso to store employee home addresses (for calculating map directions) and del.icio.us usernames (for fetching non-intranet bookmarks). These were two simple, but illustrative, examples.
It’s difficult to go beyond simple mash-ups and mash-ins without a flexible storage system because either you have to set up your own database to store a particular data structure (like storing gas prices and locations in gasbuddy) or work with siloed data with no simple means of bringing it together (for example, if you wanted to compare a particular user’s usage of tags in both flickr and del.icio.us — never mind that they’re both owned by Yahoo). In both cases you’d be able to get something working, but you’d probably end up doing it with your own database with custom database tables and code. Using Queso, you could store the data that you wanted without having to do this (of course, you would have to become familiar with RDF, RDFa, and SPARQL).
We are continuing work on mash-ins. Although they require more trust from the user (proxy / Greasemonkey / FF extension), we believe that this is offset by adding value to existing applications already familiar to users. And as RDFa becomes more pervasive, we’ll be able to add even more interesting functionality after analyzing the contents of a page.
Today at lunch I went to see Robert Buderi and Gregory T. Huang speak about their book, Guanxi (The Art of Relationships): Microsoft, China, and Bill Gates’s Plan to Win the Road Ahead. The talk was about the way Microsoft recognized the importance of getting into China, forged relationships, and established a research lab, sending the now (in)famous Kai-Fu Lee over to get the lab started. Bill Gates seems to be doing a fine job nurturing his Chinese relationships, as he’s visited a dozen or so times, and he was President Hu’s first stop earlier this year. The lab has been a great success, and recently Lee has been heading up the effort to set up a Google research lab in Beijing. With Yahoo looking to start up a lab there as well, things in Beijing could get very interesting on the search front.
Sounds like it’s worth a read.
Kent, our favorite ambassador of Japanese, Mormon, and Alaskan culture, has been extolling the virtues of the electric massage, a practice common among young Japanese boys. The person performing the massage grabs the ankles of the recipient and rubs his (or her) foot rigorously in the recipient’s crotch. I’ve seen Kent demonstrate this twice: once on a willing volunteer (who later felt nostalgic) and once on a not-so-willing volunteer (sorry to bring back bad memories, Jimming).
In any case, we’ve always been a little skeptical of this practice. But it’s hard to deny it’s existence when it shows up in a place like this. Click to see where this little sketch is being displayed.
This brilliant image comes by way of Joy, who saw it here.
Two of my favorite home cooks recently recommended that I start watching the Cooks Illustrated TV show, America’s Test Kitchen. I watched two episodes last weekend (one on sole & scallops, one on fettuccine alfredo & beef) and was instantly hooked. Besides the great cooking techniques, I love it when the host (and founder), Chris Kimball, visits the tasting lab because he always has something pretty harsh to say.
In any case, I’d like to make all four of the recipes some time. That’s a pretty good hit rate for a cooking show. Jess invited us over for a potluck Friday night, so Lee & I decided to give the Beef Braised in Barolo a try (Can’t access the recipe online right now, maybe I’ll post it later). It turned out great and looked and smelled incredible along every step of the way. We used turkey bacon instead of Pancetta, which is clearly a travesty, but one I’m willing to commit in order to appease my Jewish friends. In the end, the beef was extremely tender and flavorful (after 3 hours of cooking in an entire bottle of wine). The sauce was a nice consistency. The recipe says to discard the vegetables, but I refused to do so after tasting a stewed carrot. We served the vegetables on the side. Click the beef for a few more pictures.
We also made a sour cream cake for dessert.
Up until the past few weeks, I had only purchased items on eBay – mostly in college when I was going through my Jet Li phase (my sister and I watched Fist of Legend four times in a row during one of her east coast trips). Back in those days I had to deal with sending money orders or checks in the mail, and I imagine the sellers were making trips to the post office to send me my kung fu VCDs.
In any case, Jen and I recently shuffled things around in our study. I re-discovered a lot of my old video games and decided to finally sell some of them (since I’m sort of saving up for a new camera). It turns out that one of the old PS1 games (Lunar 2, a gift from Phil), was worth $100-150 (I ended up selling it for $100, after getting inquiries about it from Belgium, Brazil, and Finland). I was surprised to see a few of my old Dreamcast games go for $25-30. eBay’s streamlined the entire process – just punch in the bar code number of a game, and it inserts a well-written description and box art for you. Once the auction is done, accept a payment through Paypal, print a mailing label (my small scale came in handy), and drop it off in the mail. Sure, they skim a few percent off here and there, but it saves me from multiple trips to the bank and post office, so it’s well worth it.
I’ve got a few more things that I will probably sell in the next few weeks. Not because they are worth anything (they aren’t) but because I figure that some gamer out there will get a bargain, and a game that has been collecting dust in our basement for years will get a new home.
His name is Peter Diamandis and he is passionate about civilian space travel. He founded the X Prize competition, which culminated in last October’s well-publicized SpaceShipOne flight. Tonight he spoke at the MIT 100K Competition kickoff, and I tagged along with Jen.
The X Prize featured a $10 million purse. It was modeled after the prize that Charles Lindbergh won when he flew across the Atlantic. Turns out that this type of incentive, paired with ambitious but reachable goals, is a great way to move innovation along in certain areas. It also breaks psychological barriers for people; the hope is that space travel will take off (har) as aviation did after the first trans-atlantic flight.
Peter is leading several incredibly interesting projects now – X Prizes in other areas of science, zero-gravity flight, and the Rocket Racing League. His passion is so strong and genuine, and it is a pleasure to hear him speak. His guiding principles: If something can go wrong, fix it; if someone offers you two choices, take both; don’t take no for an answer. To illustrate his persistence: his plans for zero-gravity flight are over a decade old because it took 11 1/2 years of on-and-off discussions with FAA lawyers to agree that this was a safe thing to do. Once they were approved, they found out that they couldn’t purchase commercial aircraft, so they ended up converting weeknight-flight 727 cargo planes to weekend and daytime zero-gravity chambers.
Also, be sure to check out the Rocket Racing League. The standard rockets burn a combination of liquid oxygen and kerosene, producing a beautiful flame. Each racer has enough fuel for about 4 minutes of 1500-lb thrust, and it’s up to them to decide when to use it in racing around a virtual aerial track. The grand scheme is to have video game players at home racing alongside real racers (since they are all equipped with GPS sensors), and the best virtual player will get to compete alongside racing league finalists in a virtual cockpit. The videos look incredibly cool.
I find it so inspiring is that this guy set out to change space travel and actually did it. And I look forward to future space travel developments that result from his vision.
At lunch today I went to see the CEO of Cecropia, Omar Khudari, speak to the MIT Game Tycoons Club. Cecropia is working on a game called The Act, an beautifully-drawn interactive animated movie where the user controls the action via a rotating knob. In the first interactive scene (of eight), the protagonist (the handsome character to the left) tries to flirt with his love interest – turn the knob too far to one side and he grabs her and tries to give her a big kiss, turn the knob less and he casually glances her way. There is no speech; all of the emotion is delivered by the music and the incredible animation – the first few scenes had the entire room laughing. The initial plan is to distribute the game as an arcade machine, to attract people who wouldn’t otherwise play video games. Be on the lookout for it in local bars and arcades.
- Finished Beyond Good and Evil. An excellent play. Kind of similar in gameplay to Zelda, with well-designed dungeons. Beautiful graphics, immersive sound. The storyline is great, complete with aliens and conspiracies and talking animals. And the in-game camera is perfect for taking pictures of all of the above. Despite being well-reviewed, this game tanked; it’s a shame that it failed to sell while unoriginal sequels flourish.
- Started Metroid Prime, one of the big holes in my gaming resume. It’s been awesome so far even though I’m not a huge FPS fan. Auto-targeting helps a lot.
- About halfway through Daxter, a cute, polished platformer. So far my favorite part has been the playful music.
- Recently received Starfox Command from Phil. Haven’t really played it all that much yet.
- Looking forward to some Nintendo news tomorrow. Japanese press conference starts at 1am EST, US press conference at 9am EST. They’re almost certainly going to announce the date and price. Ideally it would be a release next week for $150 (being produced and packaged), it’ll probably end up being early November for $200-250.
A note on my current gaming habits – I tend to play an hour or two here and there, so it can take me months to finish a game. I’ve pretty much given up on traditional RPGs because they take a long time and the gameplay is pretty standard. I also have trouble staying interested in platformers (like Daxter) and 2D exploration games (I may pass on the latest Castlevania game). It’s a bit easier with portables since I can chip away at them while waiting to pick up Jen or getting ready for bed. The things that really catch my attention these days: outstanding gameplay, great stories, multiplayer excellence, and creativity. I’ve been very happy with my DS and am looking forward to the Wii. Hopefully tomorrow will bring some good news!
For the past month or so, I’ve been going to the Union Square Farmer’s Market every Saturday morning. As far as farmer’s markets go, it’s not very big, but the produce is colorful and fresh. There’s even a Chinese family that sells peapod stems, Chinese broccoli, napa cabbage, bok choy, and more. Other purchases include peaches (sweet & succulent), apples (crisp & flavorful), corn (sweet & juicy), fingerling potatoes, and tomatoes.
Walking there and back to buy locally grown produce feels like a healthy, eco-friendly thing to do. I don’t mind paying the extra 25% or so for great food; we’ve been purchasing nearly all of our fruits and vegetables at the market. I will be quite sad when the market shuts down for the winter.
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