Playing With Wire » analysis The Internet Startup Blog Wed, 20 Jul 2011 18:45:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 BBC Held Back by Poor Verbal Skills Sat, 16 Dec 2006 14:19:00 +0000 In a recent writeup, BBC News covers a study by Lancaster University’s Professor Tony McEnery. It was also covered by Ars Technica, who put some attention grabbing spin on it by titling their article “Are iPods shrinking the British vocabulary?”

What the quoted study claims is that an excessive focus on technology is turning teenagers into passive listeners without ability to express themselves in spoken language.

Playing With Wire are today publishing an even more shocking study: both BBC News and Ars Technica are going down the same path as these teenagers. A word analysis of the BBC News article cited above reveals that a full 16% of the words in the article are common words such as ‘of’ and ‘in’.

A pie chart showing 16% of the BBC News article as being 'the, of, and, to or in'.
Break-down of the words used in the BBC article. The most common words are used 68 times in an article of only 419 words.

The Ars Technica article also fails to impress in the vocabulary department. 54 of the 301 words in the article are extremely common and simple words. Just like in the BBC News article, the word ‘of’ is used to express a large part of the content.

A pie chart showing 18% of the Ars Technica article as being 'the, of, and, to, a or is'.
Break-down of the words used in the Ars Technica article. Very common words are used 54 times in this short 301 word article.

Our analysis here at Playing With Wire indicates that since both the Ars Technica and the BBC News articles are published online, there is an excessive reliance on technology. An almost machine like approach to creating articles results in this bleak lack of imaginative word usage.

We absolutely do not think unification of the English language occurs online to reach the widest possible audience. In fact this ubiquitous unsophisticated locution employment has us flabbergasted. It’s stupefying.

]]> 0
Who’s The Biggest Parasite of the Internet? Thu, 30 Nov 2006 15:14:00 +0000 There are many obstacles when you start up a business. When you start up an online-business your domain name is crucial. Imagine starting a store in some distant industrial area far away from downtown. Sure, you will probably get a couple of customers, but you’ll have to work hard on promoting yourself. You cannot really expect people to just walk into you store because they see you from the sidewalk.

The same thing goes with a domain name. If you have a really long and hard-to-spell domain name, you cannot expect people to just stumble into your website. Sure, some people might know about it through advertisement, and bookmark it, but your customers will be quite limited. In addition to this, it is not very likely that people will remember you address, and promote it by word of mouth.

So what is the catch? Why is it so hard for an Internet-startup to just get a really short and catchy domain name like, or Is it really that hard to come up with a catchy name like that?

The answer is no. Coming up with a name is the easy part. A half year ago when Alex and I were starting to make plans for starting up a company we started to brainstorm for a cool and catchy name. This was when we discovered the real catch – finding an available domain name.

I don’t know how many hours we spent on instantdomainsearch to find a both available and catchy domain name. This is when we realized something: the biggest parasites on the Internet are the domain-traders. Sure, you can probably find an available .org, .us or something like that, but if you’re a company you want both the .com and .net.

Why? It’s simple. What these companies do for a living is just to buy up random domain names that someone or some company will be desperate enough to buy for the insane price they are asking for. Sure, this doesn’t sound like a big problem, but I can assure you that it is. Just go to instantdomainsearch and try to type in any letter combination of less than 5 characters, it doesn’t even need to be a word. Is it taken? Sure. Just try to come up with some catchy name of less than 10 characters, and I can almost guarantee you that it is taken.

Well, you might think, maybe it is just some company that bought this domain, because the were about to launch a product by that name. Not very likely. If you look at most of the results you are likely to find either an empty page, a page full with banners or a redirection to a domain-trader.

This is the reason why I argue the domain-traders as the biggest parasites on the Internet. I would not say that they’re worse than pedophiles and that kind of parasites, but from a business point of view, these are the worst. Imagine how more useful these domains could be used if it wasn’t for the domain-traders. Personally I think that the domain-registration should be more conservative.

I know until a few years ago, you needed to have a company or product connected to the domain you applied for in order to get a .se-domain. I still don’t know why they took this limitation away. I think .com should have been restricted for companies, and nothing else. However, that’s a bit too late to change now.

]]> 0
Save $1,285 per Computer and Still Remain Business-ready Wed, 08 Nov 2006 14:35:00 +0000 (In the scope of this article, I assume a typical office-environment that include standard PCs running Microsoft Windows with Microsoft Office.)

Everyone knows that buying software can be really expensive, and I can see why both private users and businesses sometimes use illegal copies of software. However, I can also see why software is expensive. Software companies put plenty of money both into R&D and into marketing. Both sides have good arguments: users of pirated software claim that they would buy the software if it wasn’t that expensive, and the producers claim that if it wasn’t for piracy, they could lower their prices.

Anyhow, I’m not gonna tell you who’s right and who’s wrong, I’m simply going to give you another option. Here’s a little question for you: Do you have to use the same software as ‘everybody else’, or are you brave enough to think outside of the box?

If you’re one of the people who would consider themselves ‘brave enough’, I have a little surprise for you; you can save between $1,264.97 to $1,284.97 per computer in lowered licensing costs, and you don’t even have to switch away from Windows (if you don’t want to).

So what is the secret? Nothing new really, but surprisingly few companies realize this. By using alternative softwares, these large savings can be achieved without really losing anything.

  • Open Office – The alternative Office-suite.
    • You don’t need to pay for Microsoft’s over-priced Office software. Open Office offers you the about the same possibilities as Microsoft Office, but for the great price of $0. Sure, I admit it, there are some few functionalities in Microsoft Office that Open Office lacks, but they are really not that many. I’ve personally used Open Office for the past 5 years or so, both professionally and in school, and still have not found any reason to switch back.
    • Features: Open Office offers you the same features as Microsoft Office. That means: a Word-processor, a Spreadsheet application, Presentation software, and a database application.
    • Drawbacks: As far as I see it, none really. Open Office can import and export files to Microsoft Office, and the person on the other side won’t even know the difference. The only drawback that I can possibly think of would be if you are a high-end power user of Microsoft Office and use tons of macros and similar features. In that unusual case there might be some problems. However, if you’re just an average Office-user, there’s really no problem to switch. Chances are that you can barely tell the difference.
    • Price you save: $419.99 for Microsoft Office 2003 Small Business to $439.99 for Micrsoft Office 2003 Professional
  • Thunderbird – The alternative e-mail client.
    • The price you save by using Thunderbird will be related to two things. First, you don’t need Microsoft Outlook (which comes with Microsoft Office). Second, you don’t need to worry that much about viruses. Surprisingly few people out in the business world realize that the main reason why viruses are such a big threat to them is because of two things; they use Microsoft Office (and Outlook), and they use Microsoft Windows. The fact that you need Windows might be something you cannot do much about due to special applications etc. But you can change your e-mail client and Office suite. The reason why the combination of Microsoft Office (with Outlook) and Windows is such a dangerous combination is that it is heaven for a virus- or spyware-creator. Both Microsoft Office and Windows are filled with bugs that make it very easy for malicious softwares to flourish.
    • Drawbacks: Thunderbird is not a calendar application. This is simply a e-mail software, not a complete solution for both contacts, calendar and e-mail.
    • Price you save: $0, but expect far fewer headaches and reduced amount of viruses, so you do save something.
  • Firefox – The alternative Web-browser.
    • The reason again for switching over from Microsoft Internet Explorer is primarily security. More and more users switch to avoid all pop-up windows and spyware that usually goes hand-in-hand with using Internet Explorer. I’ve had plenty of first-hand experience of this. A couple of weekends a go I had to go through 20-some PCs to clean them from spyware. They all were running Internet Explorer, and the users complained about decreased performance. After removing all the spyware, installing Firefox (and removing all icons to Internet Explorer), I haven’t had a single complaint.
    • Drawbacks: The only drawback would be that some certain web-pages won’t display properly in Firefox. However, that’s because of the fact that the web-designer didn’t follow the standards that are defined by the W3C for proper HTML (see our article Why Your Site Should be Multi-platform for more details about this issue).
    • Price you save: $0, but you will be able to surf the web with less worries and more efficiently. And you do save money in reduced maintenance costs.
  • The Gimp – The alternative graphics software.
    • The Gimp is a great tool for image manipulation. Some people even argue that it’s more powerful than Adobe’s Photoshop. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that it is certainly good enough for any average graphic designer who only does simple web-graphics or similar jobs. I use The Gimp for all my graphic needs, which include web-design, image optimization etc.
    • Features: Pretty much all you would require from this kind of software. You can import and export files to work with Photoshop without any problem if you need to do so.
    • Drawbacks: Honestly, it’s not as powerful as Photoshop and it doesn’t have all the features of Photoshop.
    • Price you save: $599 for a copy of Adobe Photoshop CS 2.0
  • ClamAV – The alternative Anti-virus software.
    • They say the only certain things in life are death and taxes. Well, the only certain thing in Windows is viruses. You will, sooner or later, be confronted with viruses (whether you know it or not). A anti-virus software is really something you need.
    • Features: Search and remove viruses. Simple as that. Not as fancy as many of the other anti-virus applications, but it does get the job done.
    • Drawbacks: Just like I said above, it’s not as fancy as the other ones, so if you’re looking for eye-candy, this is probably not what you’re looking for. The software doesn’t come with features like anti-phishing and anti-spyware, but since we’re running Firefox instead now, that threat-level is significantly reduced. Since Firefox both comes with built in anti-phishing and spyware-protection, we can still sleep well at night.
    • Price you save: $244.99 for a copy of Norton Internet Security.

So what is the conclusion to draw from this article? My purpose for this article wasn’t to make you implement all the changes that I suggested in the article (but if you’re considering doing so, that’s great). My reason was simply to open your eyes. Just because ‘everybody else’ uses some software doesn’t mean that it’s the best possible software on the market. Sure, people might look at you funny when you suggest to switch away from the industry-standard, but that doesn’t mean that you’re wrong. A couple of hundred years ago the smartest people on earth thought that the Earth was flat, and everybody who argued the opposite was accused of being crazy. Sometimes being different is not all that bad. Personally I’d rather spend the money I saved on licensing costs on a new server or something that will actually make a difference.

If you have any comments or feedback, don’t hesitate to make your voice heard. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

]]> 0
Top 5 Reasons Why Universities Fail Tue, 07 Nov 2006 12:52:00 +0000 The other day I wrote about how much trouble highly educated programmers had solving a simple problem. I have long harbored a suspicion that part of the problem is the way universities work. Universities almost invariably produce inflexible text book memorizing victims rather than people prepared for real life work. This is exactly the people I don’t want to hire. Here’s where the universities go wrong:

  1. Universities encourage detail memorization. Anyone who has been to a university remembers the strain of memorizing arcane mathematical formulas or scientific tidbits. In most problem solving fields (e.g. any field unless your career plan is Jeopardy), this is a horrible mistake. Anything you memorize today is liable to be old news and wrong within a couple of years. And even if you could memorize timeless data, a university is likely to promote memorization of details rather than concepts. At the end of the day, details are easy: you can look them up. Concepts are not. They involve understanding.
  2. Universities are out of touch with reality. Rarely do universities start with real life problems and show you the way to a real life applicable solution. Rather they begin with an academic description of a solution, and once in a while – if they feel adventurous – they might actually present a problem that can be solved with the given solution. You get problem solving tools but no use for them – no wonder your brain feels inclined to get rid of them as soon as possible! It’s like a tailor buying expensive power tools for woodworking. Might be cool to have but damn they take a lot of space without doing much good.
  3. Universities make easy things seem hard. This relates to the previous point. Solutions without problems are inherently hard to understand. Every kid learns to walk by understanding the desired outcome, studying peers and parents and concurrently by experimentation. A typical ‘academic’ study of the same subject would perhaps be titled A method for locomotion by lower limb movement. This is not at all useful by comparison. Not even if the method is described with beautiful mathematical proofs. A person who was taught to walk at a university would be naturally inclined to think it very complicated, while in reality it’s easy. It is worthwhile to note that from the university’s point of view, making things seem harder than they are is a good thing. That justifies the existence of the university.
  4. Universities encourage intra group competition. Even to this day, many American universities do not have clearly defined grading standards and rather rely on arbitrary tests like bell curves. This forces the students in every class to battle it out with each other to get that elusive A they unfortunately need for future success. But in real life, fighting with your group members is the worst thing you can do.
  5. And finally, perhaps the greatest reason. Universities do not respect their customers. Most state funded universities do not usually consider themselves service providers in a free market. For a university, the paying customer is not a customer: the customer is a ‘student’. Rather than adapting to the demands of the customer, universities frequently require their customers to adapt to the universities instead. Once again, almost anyone who has been to a university has taken a class where the teacher is an affront to humanity rather than a shining example in his or her field. Alas, the students’ opinions about the teacher do not count because it is not very easy for the student to vote with their wallet.

A real life example of these shortcomings would be the programmers who came to me and couldn’t solve a simple task. Most people don’t know this, but programming turns out to be really easy. Universities are a part of the problem and every year they hinder another generation of young computer scientists from becoming the effective programmers we need for our computer based future.

Update 1: Just to clarify, this article is mostly about the field of computer science in non private schools. For private schools its more of a buyer’s market.

]]> 4
Why Can’t Experienced Programmers Solve an Easy Problem? Wed, 01 Nov 2006 21:44:00 +0000 I have recently had the peculiar experience of trying to hire software developers. I have read resumes, posted on different job boards, talked to people live and by phone.

The funny thing is that I have had to reject almost every single applicant.

You might say that perhaps I was too demanding. That’s certainly possible, but I don’t think that’s the case. The only thing I was looking for was the ability to independently solve simple programming problems. If I had lowered my requirements any further I don’t know what I’d be hiring but certainly it wouldn’t be software developers.

After having read dozens of resumes I felt confident in the abilities of a few candidates. They all had the right keywords in their resumes. They all had valuable real life experience. They all had been able to keep a job for more than a year. They had good educations.

So I administered my little litmus test. The test was to write a routine that finds the largest possible product of two numbers in an array of positive integers. I like this test because it’s just a couple of lines of code, so it shouldn’t take too long for the candidate – I don’t want to waste their time unnecessarily. At the same time there are many ways to solve the problem – some better than others.

I gave each candidate unlimited time to solve the problem. Since there weren’t any time constraints I didn’t think anyone would fail, and I expected to see excellent solutions.

What I saw was… strange. I gave the test to the people I thought were the top ten people from a set of 40-50 candidates from Silicon Valley.

Only two candidates came up with a working solution.

Even people who submitted their answers via email submitted non working solutions!

It’s not a large sample. Maybe I failed to find the top candidates out of all the applicants. But as anecdotal as it might be I am still shocked. How can highly educated software developers with many years of experience fail to write software to find the two largest numbers in a list?

What do you think? Is the educational system so horrible? Is software development fundamentally hard? Are resumes misleading? Did I just run across a bad batch?

Update 1: The cuzimatter links were updated on February 28th, 2007.

]]> 0
Commercial support is for old people (we use forums) Sun, 22 Oct 2006 13:00:00 +0000 Ok, maybe that’s not really true. But at least I caught your attention, didn’t I?

Honestly, it’s not really that far from the truth though. Today forums have become a big part of my everyday life. As you have seen previously on Playing With Wire, we love Open Source-software. In the Open Source-world, forums are equivalent to what phone-support is in the commercial-software world.

When you work as a system administrator, it frequently happens that you run into problems. The software doesn’t start after an update, you receive an error that you cannot really interpret in an error-log, or any other problem that you cannot solve. The thing that comes to your rescue is the forums.

My favorite Linux-distribution is Gentoo Linux, and one of the many reasons why I love it is because of their support forum. This forum has an impressive quick reply-time. Some of my posts got replied to within minutes, and this all for the total expense of $0.

So why am I writing this post? How does this relate to a startup? Well, it’s quite simple – we like forums. Web-based forums can help several users with the same problem. Rather than having to answer every question multiple times, one thread can give the answer to tons of users. In addition this, users can also contribute by helping other users. Somehow it’s the human nature to help other people because of the simple reason that we feel good about it (this is not a political statement in any way, trust me).

I must however acknowledge that forums will never completely replace phone or e-mail support, since in some certain situations, it’s simply more efficient/convenient to use phones or e-mail. My point is that if your company provides a forum where they deal with support issues, you can save costs as well as help your customers both save money and time (who hasn’t spent hours on hold to get through to a support line?).

Below I’ve listed 4 important things to keep in mind before you add a forum to your site:

  1. Select the right software. They say the best things in life are free, so why pay for something you can get for free? The most widespread forum-softwares out there are Open Source. Look at SourceForge or Freshmeat before you start spending money for software. However, keep in mind that there’re tons of people working on their spare time to bring you that software, so if you’re using their software in your business, please consider donating some money back to their project.
  2. Select a good design. Selecting a good design doesn’t simply mean that it should look good. Of course, this is essential, but it doesn’t matter if it looks good, if it looks completely different than the rest of your site.
  3. Integrate. Over and over again I see companies that have their forums on some external site where you can barely tell if it’s the official forum, or some unofficial forum. Make sure you integrate your forum into your site, make it look like it belongs there, both with graphics and layout.
  4. Answer the questions. This should go without saying. There’s nothing more annoying and frustrating than to visit a forum with little or no activity. A forum with many unanswered questions is worse than no forum at all. If you’re thinking about implementing a forum, make sure you devote the necessary time it takes to run the forum as well.

Since we’re talking about forums in today’s post, today’s link is to (as far as I know), the most well-known forum software out there phpBB. There’s also tons of other good forum-softwares out there, that come embedded in various CMSes, but phpBB is probably the most famous stand-alone forum-software.

]]> 1
The True Purpose of Google’s Secret Search Engine Thu, 19 Oct 2006 21:52:00 +0000 SearchMash is an interesting new search engine. It turns out that it’s actually just a shell on top of Google’s search engine. It’s a pretty cool shell though. One thing you can do is to hit space repeatedly to see more and more results, without reloading. Ajax goodness. Another thing you get is image search results alongside with your normal results.

This article is about one of the least conspicuous features, which none the less might be the most important one.

You can rearrange results.

Doesn’t sound like much but lets think about it. What might rearranging the results be good for? Right now the features list says the rearranging is just for fun. This is coupled with a hint that there are ‘plans’ for the future.

Here’s the future.

Rearrangement is an intuitive way for search users to ‘fix’ their search results. For example, say that Jane searches for ‘Google’ but the top hit is ‘Microsoft.’ Microsoft has a big marketing department. Marketing or not, ‘Microsoft’ is not the result Jane was looking for. She scans down and finds ‘Google’ in the second result. Traditionally, this would be the end of the story. But with this technology, what Jane would do is to simply drag ‘Google’ to the top. She does this not because of some spiritual search for perfection. She does it because the next time she performs the same search, she wants the most relevant result on top. The search engine memorizes her rearrangement action and the next time Jane searches for Google, she gets the result she wants on top.

That’s nice and all but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

If a large number of users rearrange their search results in the same manner, the search engine can take note. If a lot of people are placing ‘Google’ on top of ‘Microsoft’ when searching for Google, the search engine might eventually say, “Hey, that’s kind of funny. Maybe Google is actually the most relevant entry. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and make Google the top entry for everyone.”

There it is. The spam result just got downgraded, the search engine’s index became better, and every person searching with the engine in the future thinks the search engine is just terrific, not realizing the betterment was caused by humans rather than technology.

There is in fact nothing surprising about this development. Sites like digg have been touting swarm functionality as their thing for a long time. The philosophy is that when many users get together and do a small bit of work each, a lot of work gets done. Ultimately even huge tasks can be undertaken in this way.

The only thing that is surprising about user sorting, and Google’s secret testing of it with Searchmash, is that it took so long. To sort the whole internet by search terms is the quintessential swarm task. It can be massively parallelized – lots of people can sort their own little bit of the internet. Each step of sorting isn’t a lot of work. In this case the sorting is even rewarding for the user – they get personalized search results with their own sort order in the future. They don’t need to be altruistic. They just have to do their own little thing and in the end everyone benefits.

Swarm ranking is the next step up from Google’s page rank. The first internet search engine to feature page rank and swarm rank simultaneously will win this round by a significant margin.

If only our startup had a couple of million dollars.

]]> 4