August 20, 2006

My excuse for not blogging during SIGIR; or, How I Spent My Summer Half-Vacation

Posted in Conferences, Food, Life at 9:23 pm by mj

Well, I am back in my cozy (read: messy) home, and I am pooped. My plan to blog SIGIR during SIGIR just sort of evaporated. They kept us much busier than I expected. I had to sneak away from a couple of lunches and one dinner just to catch up on email from work and try to read some of the papers prior to their presentation.

Instead, I will, over the coming week, write up some of the highs and lows of the conference through my eyes. I don’t really believe in the blogging-as-stream-of-consciousness paradigm of conference blogging, anyhow. I do have quite a few notes (both hand-written and typed), and there were some interesting papers presented.

Post-conference, we spent a week exploring Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and Oregon, from the shores to Crater Lake, and visited a number of smaller towns along the way. The locals were, without exception, friendly, helpful, upbeat, and environmentally-friendly. The vacationers from Portland, on the other hand, … well, I digress.

It’s all about the meals
Boeing, Google, and Microsoft sponsored buffet-style dinners on three consecutive nights at SIGIR. And, interestingly, they all offered salmon as the entree. I like salmon (as you’ll see, sometimes I can’t resist ordering a salmon entree, perhaps subconsciosly to test how the chef treats it as an indication of how he/she treats the rest of the menu), but none of these meals were all that great. The best SIGIR-sponsored meal was probably the last lunch, which offered self-serve fajitas.

During our vacation, we’d ask the locals what restaurants they recommend. (Yes, I should have checked Chowhound first.) This turns out (not surprisingly) to be a great strategy.


  • Lunch at the 42nd Street Cafe in Long Beach, our favorite meal, and a surprise recommendation from the lady at the Chamber of Commerce. Better–and cheaper–than any other meal, including those more than twice as expensive. I had a salmon (hmm) with some kind of walnut-based sauce (and I don’t like walnuts!), while Yinghua had a bowl of clams seasoned with (I think) some kind of pesto base.
  • Dinner at The Drift Inn in Yachats. From the outside, it looks like a typical local bar/hangout with typical food. On the inside, it’s a great atmosphere with awesome food. I had another salmon (wth?) with blackberry sauce (delicious–and I don’t like blackberry seeds!), and she had a bowl of seafood chowder, half of which I ate. The live music (the night we were there, it was Richard Sharpless) adds to the atmosphere, and somehow put us in a better mood leaving than when we went in.
  • Lunch at The 3 Crabs in Dungeness, Washington. The building itself looks like a typical fast food joint, but the seafood is fresh and the wait staff (including the owner?) is friendly and fast. Of course we had a fresh crab and a bowl of mixed seafood. There’s not much room for chef-ly artistry here: it all comes down to freshness and not drowing the flavor in butter/herbs/salt the way many American restaurants do.
  • Dinner at Crater Lake Lodge. Once again, I ordered Salmon the first night (Yinghua ordered it the second night). Their Chef’s magic didn’t happen with the flavoring, but by subtly undercooking the center (and serving a huge fish). Unfortunately, their other meals–including the duck and halibut–weren’t nearly as well prepared. The other downside was the garlic butter-based sauce served with the Salmon. Trust me: just move that to the side. I’m glad I didn’t think to smother my meal with it til I was at the last third, because it just gets in the way of the juiciest salmon I had the whole time. (The butter was good, it just gets in the way of the fish.)

The biggest disappoinment to me was our dinner at Sky City in Seattle’s Space Needle. Perversely expensive and touristy, none of the food was outstanding in any way. The wait staff was friendly, the atmosphere was great, the view was good. The food just wasn’t worth it.

With that, I must prepare for my first full on-site week in a month. Between the family emergency, SIGIR, and my real vacation, I’m actually starting to miss the urine smell in downtown San Francisco. I think tomorrow I shall open my window and breathe in huge wiffs of the stuff.

August 6, 2006

SIGIR ’06 – Day 0: Welcoming Reception

Posted in Conferences, sigir2006 at 11:47 pm by mj

After a fourteen hour drive shared with my wife, I arrived in time to check into my hotel, check in to the conference, and attend the welcoming reception. I’m sure I looked like a walking zombie.

First, let me say that I am a bit out of my league here. I did not go down the mathematical/theoretical route with my career, and I have, thus far, not been able to take Webshots’ search where I believe it should go. So I am a bit embarrassed introducing myself to the people here, since most of them are either researching in an academic environment or applying theory on a large-ish scale.

The first thing that has struck me is how heavily dominated by the GYM team this conference is. While it’s the largest SIGIR to date, my guess is most of that’s due to the GYM recruiting competition: by my count, 135 of the 653 official attendees are from Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft (that’s 20%!!!). The largest contingent, of course, being from Microsoft (maybe 70?). Every one of the grad students in attendence can look forward to a lucrative career. 🙂

Unfortunately, I forgot my camera at the hotel, and my Webshots account is having trouble accepting mobile uploads from my phone. (See? Even Webshots engineers sometimes have problems. And yes, I did track down the issue. And no, I can not magically push the fix through in the middle of the night. What I can do is call customer support in the morning…) I have some grainy photos of the Microsoft and Google booths sitting side-by-side: a match made in, um, Seattle.

The welcoming reception was all right. I expected a half hour of socializing followed by two hours of (essentially boring) speeches, announcements, introductions, instructions, etc. Instead, we had a relaxing 30-minute bus ride to Boeing’s Future of Flight Museum, several hours of socialing/networking/recruiting in a party-like atmosphere, pretty good food, and five minutes of “screw it. we’re not going to bore you. welcome to sigir. now get back to socializing.”

But, as I said, I was a walking zombie and talked to only a few people. My natural shyness didn’t help, of course.

Tomorrow, the real interesting stuff begins. But for now, I need some rest in a real bed.

August 5, 2006

Lost in the Forest of Pronouns

Posted in Programming Languages, Software at 9:38 pm by mj

As I hit the road for SIGIR in Seattle, I leave you with Steve Yegge’s anti-OO rant, which I just happened across when I was supposed to be napping this afternoon (I never did sleep today). He makes good points in a humorous way. Even if you’re not a programmer, you will be able to read this and understand his main point.

I am fascinated by programming languages and the evolution of language features. I am even more fascinated by language zealotry.

It’s certainly true that Java programmers tend to either discount or even not acknowledge alternative viewpoints. Then again, the first third of Programming Python is 95.263% advocacy rather than substance. I just chalk it up to culture.

And so, the sun is set, my car is packed, I am wired, and the roads are becoming empty… now’s just the right time to be leaving. I will blog more from the conference….

(I owe several people e-mails. I will tend to those during the week.)

Shel Israel interviews Martin Green on Communities

Posted in Community, Web2.0 at 12:20 am by mj

Shel Israel recently interviewed CNET’s Martin Green. (Disclaimer: Martin is my boss three-levels removed.)

Some of what he says about Webshots is tipping his hand at the Webshots redesign, currently in beta, and all of it is stuff he’s been saying internally for a long time.

From the interview:

People in a community are there to share. Blog services don’t provide an audience – the blogger does. If I post on my blog about a restaurant I went to, you, my friend Mike, my wife and a few other people will read it – that’s it.
Communities provide a stage and audience as well as the production equipment. Most blog tools only provide the equipment. And a community gives you the ability to be an performer or be part of the audience at different times within a social framework that has some familiarity from day to day.

Martin is a smart, charismatic guy whose acquisition strategy seems to be to find small (employee-wise) companies that he’s passionate about, make the founders wealthy, and scale them up to size at their own natural pace. He’s part of the reason I still work for Webshots–he Gets It(sm), maybe more than I do, and certainly for a lot longer.

I’ve seen a number of his internal presentations and had some good conversations with him, so I was happy when he started blogging. I hope he’ll start sharing some of his cute metaphors and spiffy illustrations.

On the subject of communities, it will be interesting to see how Microformats and cross-site identity bridgers like PeopleAggregator mix this up in the coming years. These and other innovations will essentially provide the same set of services of a good community site–even walled gardens will find them essential for, if nothing else, search engine referrals–but will be more prone to errors and spam, and the information accessible via APIs will likely be broad, but shallow.

Why is that important? Because basic social networking features are becoming a commodity. A 14 year-old high school freshman can, with the aid of his dad’s credit card, create a core “Web 2.0” site, complete with rich profiles, tagging, comments, APIs, and Flash (or AJAX–your choice). The real meat is in the scale–dealing with the publishing and conversing and browsing histories of tens or, soon, hundreds of millions of users. What’s even better: analysing all of that information to provide a personalized, relevant experience for every one of your members, and requiring as little work as possible from them. To do that, you need to plow the depths of those histories, and not just skim the surface looking for stale, decaying remains.

All the major players–and CNET is no different, if a bit smaller and less ambitious–are aggregating these smaller, specific, authentic communities via acquisition. Can community-like aggregators and vertical search engines based around microformats compete with those incentives? If there’s enough money in it, maybe.