Google Reader “Next” Bookmarklet Fail

One of my peeves about using various Google products is that sometimes bugs can sit around unfixed for ages. Like this one: Google Reader provides a bookmarklet that allows you to easily skip directly to the URL of the next unread item in your reading list, bypassing the Reader interface completely. It is nice if you like to read blog entries and stories with full formatting, rather than just the feed content. It is also nice when you subscribe to feeds that only post a summary, and require click-through to get the full content of an article.

However, when using it, sometimes you get this:

Google Next Bookmarklet 403 Error

Sometimes using Google Reader's "Next" Bookmarklet Causes a "Forbidden" error.

This problem has been reported in Reader-related forums for months. It has something to do with viewing other people’s shared items, and you can work around it by going into Reader and reading the next item there. Still it’s very annoying.

Now, I develop software too, and I recognize that every team has a long backlog of work, and some things fall to the bottom, but it seems like a long-standing, customer- user-facing bug like this would eventually offend some developer enough that he or she would just go and fix it out of pride.

Cool Seattle Thing No. 3429: Dev Workshop for Transit Data

Too bad I found out about this after the fact…  Apparently King County Metro recently hosted a Developer Workshop for transit data.  Apparently they’re looking for more people to write innovative transit-related applications like the super cool One Bus Away, which I use every morning and evening on my Android phone.

Having spent years riding Port Authority buses and light rail in Pittsburgh, I still find it astonishing that an event like this can happen at all.  I mean, transit authority officials (including the KC Metro general manager!) hosting a workshop where they encourage third parties to take their data and play with it?

O brave new world that has such county officials in it!

Does Pittsburgh have a Spin-Off Culture?

There’s always a lot of talk in Pittsburgh blogosphere (and elsewhere) about the need to develop a Burgh start-up culture, with ample capital and a high tolerance for risk, as the way to economic revitalization. While I agree with the need for start-ups, I’ve always felt that the discussion seems to emphasize too heavily the need for small startups, while ignoring the role of large, not-necessarily-homegrown corporations in seeding the talent for the start-ups in the first place. So I was intrigued by today’s New York Times article: Seattle Taps Its Inner Silicon Valley, about the rise of a start-up culture, or rather, a spin-off culture, in Seattle. In addition to the usual notions about developing a mobile work culture where failure is seen as “a badge of honor, not shame,” the article contains these interesting quotes:

Microsoft offshoots, sometimes called Baby Bills, after Bill Gates of Microsoft, are being joined by Amazon progeny called Baby Jeffs, for Amazon’s Jeffrey P. Bezos. Baby Sergeys — those formed by veterans of Google, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., and was co-founded by Sergey Brin — are opening here, too, ….

“Now tons of companies are spinning off people,” said Ed Lazowska, a computer scientist who holds the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair at the University of Washington. Veterans from Amazon, Microsoft, RealNetworks and other established companies are leaving to form start-ups and venture funds, he said. “We’re finally at the stage of becoming a perpetual-motion machine.”

People often ask why Pittsburgh, with it’s great universities, isn’t seeding more startups. Maybe it’s because an essential missing component is a large pool of large tech companies to employ university engineers and scientists after graduation, until the stars align properly for them to start their own ventures.

Big, well established companies play a big role in seeding the talent need to create startups. Before it was called Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay area was already home to big defense contractors who employed lots of engineers. Boston has for 300 years been a center of not just intellectual activity, but also commerce. Austin, in addition to Dell and National Instruments, has such non-local tech players as IBM, Intel, Freescale, Sun, Apple, Samsung, and many others.

In addition to providing jobs to local tech grads, these companies also recruit (inter-)nationally drawing to their cities engineers and scientists from around the country and world. Such recruiting counters the natural forces that cause a large fraction of local grads from any university to take employment in some other city.

Recently Mike Madison at Pittsblog asked who are the up-and-coming startups in Pittsburgh, and got some answers. I have a different question: What established technology companies are here that can attract and retain the pool of talent needed to seed a spin-off culture?

Update:  Several companies have been suggested in the comments.  I’ve collected them into a list in a separate post, along with my thoughts about the qualities an established company should have to fit into a spin-off culture.

How to recycle everything

A cool Discover article on thermal depolymerization, a process that can break down any kind of organic waste, from human and animal waste to vinyl siding, into oil, natural gas, minerals and water. Philadelphia is starting to test it on municipal waste, and a turkey plant in Missouri is about to bring online a plant to process 200 tons of turkey offal per day. They claim to be able to produce oil at $15/barrel, and expect the price to go down as the process improves.

It sounds so amazing, I don’t want to get my hopes up. Not only would this reduce or eliminate our dependence on foreign oil, but it could eventually end global warming by returning us to a closed carbon cycle: carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from burning this oil was taken from the atmosphere by plants (recently not 30 million years ago), that eventually became organic waste. The ultimate recycling.

Brain Prosthesis

Slashdot and others have covered this story an artificial hippocampus chip. The hippocampus is an area of the brain that’s necessary for the formation of new memories. People with memory disorders like the guy in the movie Memento have damage to their hippocampus. It is also known to be crucial for navigation. Rats have “place cells” in their hippocampus that only fire when they’re in specific places in a maze.

While the idea of brain prostheses is interesting, this has the markings of a lot of hype, so far. Especially since they they’re just beginning to test the chip on “tissue from rat’s brains”. In other words, they’re not even close to actually testing it in a brain, despite their 6-month prediction. The thing that makes me the most dubious, however, is this quote: “No one understands how the hippocampus encodes information. So the team simply copied its behavior. Slices of rat hippocampus were stimulated with electrical signals, millions of times over, until they could be sure which electrical input produces a corresponding output. Putting the information from various slices together gave the team a mathematical model of the entire hippocampus.” This is clearly a journalistic oversimplification, but the chip designers’ paper [1] seems to describe the process in more detail, and they’re definitely using a learning technique to learn the I/O mapping of the hippocampus, but since the hippocampus learns, i.e. changes it’s I/O behavior in response to input, I don’t know how they can learn a model of it this way.

[1] Tsai RH, Sheu BJ, Berger TW. A VLSI neural network processor based on a model of the hippocampus. Analog Integrated Circuits and Signal Processing 15 (1998).

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