The no-corn-syrup diet

If you’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma or anything else by Michael Pollen, then you are aware of just how ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is. Every can of Coke, dollop of Heinz Ketchup and Fig Newton is full of the stuff. It’s hard to avoid, but it’s also pretty easy to identify on a long list of ingredients. It’s usually towards the beginning.

Pollen’s piece “Unhappy Meals” in the New York Times Magazine identifies how very different America is for eating processed foods, and how it is affecting our health. In this essay refers to “food” as anything that is whole and unprocessed and claims that we should “eat food, not too much, and mostly vegetables.” I think this statement can be easily visualized in the following Venn diagram:

Venn Diagram
Edible products

So all of you detox, Atkins and South Beach dieters, I have a new one for you: the No-Corn-Syrup Dietâ„¢. It’s extremely simple and will have a dramatic impact on your ability to consume things that are processed and bad for you. Here’s how it works:

  1. Read the ingredients of everything you plan to eat. If it contains high-fructose corn syrup, don’t eat it

If these things don’t have a list of ingredients, then you’re either eating “food” or you’re in a foreign country. In either case, you’re probably ok. If you’re unsure about whether the restaurant you’re eating at uses HFCS, ask. Tell them you have an allergy and you’ll either need to find a new restaurant or be pleasantly surprised that some places still cook with “food.”

And the best part about this diet? I won’t charge you a cent for it. It’s yours absolutely free. You can take the money you would have spent on a diet book and invest it into the “food” you’re going to eat, because unfortunately it’s going to cost you more than the processed stuff. But you’ll be happier, and healthier. Sometimes it’s good to invest in your body.

Today I cancelled my MySpace account

I’m not one for being rash and I am not particularly worried about privacy online. I used Friendster frequently for a couple of years and I remember when people’s accounts started mentioning “moving to MySpace because it’s better,” and frankly I can not remember for the life of me what the argument was. Nonetheless, I eventually created an account for myself and all of my musical identities, and I befriended some 50 or so people which were at least 50% musical entities.

I never really “got” MySpace. Not many of my friends use it regularly, except those who enjoy dating and of course those with bands. I’ve always been a bit embarrassed by the site design and the resulting profile pages that people create there. I still use it to promote my music and I see the value as a publishing tool and media hosting service. However, for the last year I have not logged in to MySpace under my own identity once, and I receive at least 10 spam friend invitations per month.

So today I cancelled my MySpace account.

Unlike so many web brands that I identify with (Flickr, Upcoming, del.icio.us, and Facebook, to name a few), I see no long term value for remaining a MySpace member. Here’s my reasoning:

  • It’s not easy to do anything
  • There aren’t any services provided that aren’t available elsewhere
  • I don’t need to be a member to take advantage of their media
  • There aren’t any members with whom I could not communicate otherwise
  • I’m not looking to find people to date

Which leaves me with zero reasons to remain a member. So long MySpace, and thanks for all the free webcam girls.

iPhone activation: It’s all in the UI

iPhoneYou waited in line, possibly overnight. You spent over $500 (not including accessories). You canceled all of your Friday night social obligations and went directly home to play with your new (and possibly only) friend, the iPhone. You plug it in and wait for the magic to happen, and for any number of reasons, your phone is not activated after 20 minutes, and you’re in AT&T limbo. You spend all weekend pulling your hair out and calling every AT&T number you can find.

This was the experience of thousands of new iPhone users this past weekend, and it has resulted in a similar number of complaints, legal threats, and overall user disappointment in both AT&T and Apple. How could this snafu arise? How could AT&T not have dealt with it? After being one of these estranged users myself, I believe the entire debacle could have been avoided by changing two user interfaces in the iTunes activation process. If you had a problem activating, you’re in one of two camps:

  • Ported number: You’re on a different carrier but you have long since ported your phone number. You get any number of messages about your number being “ineligible.” In order to port your number to AT&T, you’ll need to pretend you still live in the same zip code that you first registered your phone in.
  • Old AT&T customer: Even though you’re a current AT&T customer, you’ve recently been using an old AT&T SIM card (blue, pre-Cingular), and your account must be updated before the activation can take place. In other words, even though you think you’re a current AT&T subscriber, you’re not.

If you were in either of these two situations, you probably ended up seeing this screen during your activation:


Michael Sharon's final activation

Which of course did not result in an email for at least 24 hours. Also in both cases, simply changing the activation dialog could have avoided all of these problems. Here’s how a majority of these cases could have been alleviated:

  1. For people porting their numbers, a warning dialog could have alerted them to use the zip code where their phone was originally registered. The same dialog should appear on the billing information page.
  2. On the initial plan selection page, a warning dialog could have alerted old AT&T users (blue accounts) that they need to call customer support before activating their iPhone

I’m sure these two bugs were exacerbated by the utter secrecy of the project, but some simple QA or contingency planning could have averted thousands of people’s frustration. In any event, if you have either of these problems, rest assured, the actual registration process works very smoothly if you correct these UI flaws. Something tells me from this interface that Apple was not responsible for designing the activation process:

This person record requires harvesting
“This person record requires harvesting”

But that doesn’t mean their QA teams couldn’t have made it Apple friendly. And please, do that today so future users don’t have to suffer the same problems we did. Take that from someone who activated their phone 3 times and 48 hours later before finally second-guessing the interface correctly.

Update: As Anil aptly points out, “person records” are a common dialog element in the iPod installation process.

Planning a trip to Europe

Going to Europe in the summer is about as much as you can ask for out of travel. Most people will tell you to stay away during the tourist season, but if you want to be there when the weather is great, you’ll have to put up with some other Americans making you want to wear a Canadian flag pin.

Planning diary

Before we get started you should get setup with Yahoo! Trip Planner. While I am openly a Yahoo! employee and sometimes an evangelist, I can say that there is nothing on the market that compares to Yahoo! Trip Planner for scheduling a trip. Now that their maps support European addresses, it’s the easiest way to keep track of all the information you’ll be accumulating. Even if you don’t use any of the journal features (blog, Flickr integration, etc.), this is the best way to create an itinerary.

You can see my working trip here: Sonar 2007: techno, tapas and tanning.

Finding the best flight

The most important piece of your planning is finding a flight to your destination. Unless you’re extremely rich or lucky, you’re unlikely to find a flight to your destination. Stop with the long face! Getting there is still well within reason using a few tricks.

Finding a good flight to Europe is ALL about the discount airlines. First you fly cheaply to any major hub, then you hop to your destination on El Cheapo Air. Here are the steps in more detail:

  1. Skipping point
    Find a cheap flight to a city you want to visit; this is your skipping point. Any city will do, just make sure you feel good about staying a night or two in this other location and that the price is nice. Use the major booking tools to find a good deal:

    You can verify that you’re getting a good deal by looking at the average prices on one of a few travel indexes:

    In my case I found a flight to Dublin for around $500, which is well within the range specified by Hotwire. I love Dublin. This is a perfect skipping point.

  2. Destination
    Find a flight from the skipping point to your destination. There are many, many discount airlines in Europe, and all of them have completely crazy destinations. You’re going to spend 45 minutes just finding the airlines that have routes from the skipping point to your destination. There’s no centralized search engine, so you’ll have to work through each airline’s website.

    Start with the list of discount European airlines provided by Wikitravel. If your skipping point is a low-cost hub, start with the airlines stationed there.

    Adjust your travel days on either end to find the best price. Typically you’ll end up staying 1-2 days in your skipping point, which is just enough time to explore the city and check it off your list. It’s possible that you could take a train from your skipping point to your destination, but I’d bet against it. These airlines are so cheap that Eurorail typically runs 2-3 times the price. Expect to pay €40-100 each way.

Once you find a suitable flight scenario, book it. The rest will follow, and the discount airlines change their prices almost daily. In my case, I secured a roundtrip on Clickair for €120. The total for my flight is less than $700, which is almost half the price of any flight I found through standard travel search tools.

Finding the best room

This is where strategy is important. There is a lot of money is hotel booking, so just about everyone will be trying to make money by arbitraging you. Be careful where you book and which tools you use.

  1. Hotels and B&Bs
    First, don’t type “destination B&B” into your favorite search engine as it’s not going to do any good. You’ll be barraged with search results that provide almost no information.

    • TripAdvisor: Good coverage of B&Bs and hotels, along with some useful user reviews
    • Venere: European search engine, good coverage of hotels and B&Bs
    • Orbitz: Major hotels
    • Expedia: Major hotels, only partial overlap with Orbitz.
  2. Apartments
    Your best deals are going to be apartments in the city you’re staying in. Some of these may be listed in TripAdvisor, but it’s unlikely unless the owner owns quite a few. Local vacation rental owners will typically market to a local audience only, so if you know someone who speaks the language, use one of the local tools owned by European Craigslist competitor, Kijiji:

    Craigslist will also work if there are expats renting to Americans (I find it uncommon, but it does happen). Using Loquo, I found an apartment in Barceloneta for €100/night for two people, which is expensive because it’s Sonar weekend. Any other part of the summer I could find something in the range of €40-€60/night, about half of the closest hotel.

Finding things to eat

Ok, you’ve got your flight and you’ve got your lodging. Now the fun part! Time to find some places that will make other travelers jealous. There’s no better way to do this than with Chowhound. If you’re not familiar with it, Chowhound is a community of food lovers that generates the best restaurant recommendations on the web.

Find the local board for your destination and start searching. Typically the recommendations will come from expats who have spent some considerable time in a city, so don’t expect to see people with the same edition of Lonely Planet sitting next to you. Most of these will not be in Trip Planner, so you’ll have to add them yourself, but it’s worth the effort for an amazing meal, right?

If you use Chowhound, give back. When you return, make sure to give a short review of your thoughts on the restaurants you chose.

Finding things to do

This part is actually surprisingly easy.

  • Upcoming: this collaborative events site actually has quite a few European events, but the quality of the content will vary greatly from city to city.
  • Wikitravel: using hte same software as Wikipedia, this collaboratively edited travel guide contains pretty good overviews of most cities and lists of suggested sites.
  • Yahoo! Travel: this offering from Yahoo! actually has pretty good coverage for tourist attractions and outings, plus it offers one-click adding to Trip Planner.

After this point, you’re pretty much done. Print out your itinerary from Trip Planner and execute as planned. Go! Experience! And when you’re done, write up some of your thoughts to make the process easier for future travelers.

Most hated things on the web

There are a lot of angry people in the world. These people typically have a number of gripes, and sometimes one of them stands above everything else. Those who have web savvy might even take it to the rest of the world through a passionate blog or unifying community website. I was interested in what Google thought the most hated things were, and this is the list:

  1. Cilantro
  2. Brooklyn
  3. Starbucks
  4. Divorce
  5. Emo kids
  6. Clowns
  7. Cubicles
  8. SBC Yahoo
  9. Haggling
  10. Macs

From this logic, I present a highly unsuccessful personals ad:

Part-time clown seeks cilantro-loving emo kid. My house in Brooklyn , my cubicle in Manhattan (selling SBC Yahoo), but my heart is with Austen (die hagglers!). Let’s grab a Starbucks or just chat on our powerbooks!

Surprisingly, I find myself being quite a big fan of most of them. Maybe people just hate the things I like, but probably these things get more attention because they are highly divided topics.

Curating RSS feeds with NetVibes and Pageflakes

There are a number of personalized portals out there that help aggregate your personal world in one place: My Yahoo!, Windows Live, Google Ig, Netvibes, Pageflakes, and others. I use none of them; instead I prefer the venerable about:blank. But lots and lots of people do, and if not for the first generation of personalized portals, I might not have a job.

I have played around with Netvibes and Pageflakes thanks to the amazing amount of coverage they have both been getting across the internets. Both applications support the quick and dirty construction of personal pages from content components. They feature nice WYSIWYG editors for laying out these pages and finding different content providers. For the person with time and energy, you can construct a highly personalized start page in a matter of minutes. The only problem is that people don’t take the time to customize their applications1.

However, this doesn’t prohibit other people from customizing things for you. This is the case with these new start page startups: both have recently created functionality for users to share their customized pages. I think this is very powerful, and I think an example will communicate this best. Suppose you have an idea for a portal; something that doesn’t exist. You have domain knowledge that means you know the best blogs, news sources, and delicious tags that define this space. Instead of going through the work to make an entire portal and/or create a blog around the topic, you can simply curate the same experience using Netvibes.

For instance, I want to create a page based on the idea of social weather. I collect the RSS feeds of all of the different social zeitgeists from across the web, and put them on one page. I use Netvibes to lay this content out in a meaningful way, and shizam, I have a social weather station. By clicking the following image, you can add my social weather page to your Netvibes:

Social Weather page

Taking this a step further, imagine that you could brand these pages and that you can embed them anywhere on the web. The local IT guy for any small company could create an intranet portal for employees; a neighborhood organization could create their own view of the world; moderators of groups can make customized pages for their members; in short, anyone who takes the time can create a portal that other people can use.

Right now these pages are trapped within their respective sites, but I would guess they will break out sometime soon. Only then will you see how big my social weather station really is! No seriously, it’s going to be huge.

1.   It’s rare to never that I agree with Jakob Nielsen, so rare, in fact, that it deserves a footnote. In this single, isolated point, I think he’s right. People don’t take the time to customize web sites, on average.

Syndromic surveillance

some crowd in danger of diarrheaAfter 9/11/01, the CDC Division of Public Health Surveillance with help from Homeland Security implemented a new program for tracking possible bioterrorist threats, known as syndromic surveillance. Instead of relying on medical diagnosis of individual doctors, the system looks for statistical anomalies across the symptoms reported in recent emergency room visits and notifies epidemiologists when attention is needed. Doctors tend to use the Occam’s Razor approach to diagnosis, assuming that common illnesses are the cause for most medical visits; without any awareness of hospital- or city-wide statistics, a bioterrorist assault could go undetected for weeks until initial cases had progressed into more severe symptoms.

This approach to surveillance strikes me as ultra-futuristic, allowing machine intelligence to process large amounts of data that no individual doctor could take into perspective. While the system is developed (and funded) for the purpose of thwarting bioterrorist attacks, it’s easy to imagine a number of other uses for syndromic surveillance: seasonal viruses, STDs, macroparasites, and so on. Given an appropriate sensitivity, it could even be used to replace Erin Brockovich, finding carcinogenic sites based on a few reported cases and an abnormality in symptoms. Of course there will be a number of unexpected uses as well.

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OpenSource Science vs. The Journals

Ever since George Soros announced that he would be donating $3 million to the Budapest Open Access Initiative, debate over the e-journal versus traditional journals has been heating up. An article today from the BBC points out some a few critics attacking the net journal initiative.

In many ways, these criticisms are the same ones being made in the debate surrounding peer-to-peer journalism versus Journalism-with-a-capital-J, arguments that probably shouldn’t be made so hastily because the two media aren’t necessarily competing. As the Physical Review Letters has proven, online journals can provide an entirely different type of information (namely late breaking results) that augments, rather than undermines traditional journals.

Tiny mechanisms, big ideas

One of the great parts about having friends in town is the excuse it gives you to drag them to all sorts of places you always want to go, but never have the time. At the top of my list was the MIT Museum, which is just down the street, and offers free admission, but somehow kept slipping through the cracks in my schedule.

The space is equally divided into five areas: robots, Arthur Ganson, Harold Edgerton, holography, and MIT history/culture. Every exhibit is fascinating, and could easily be in a gallery or larger museum, but without a doubt, Ganson takes the show. Some of the highlights:

  • Cory’s yellow chair: A simple yellow chair becomes a statement of coordinated disarray as it is ripped apart and spun in six different directions. The pieces mesmerize as they spin endlessly in symmetry, before being slammed back together for an instant, making a satisfying “click,” and then being torn apart again to start the process over (real video).
  • Wishbone: One of Ganson’s best techniques comes from his masterful knowledge of mechanical illusion, giving a complicated device a simple, implausible explanation. The wishbone in question appears to be the horse to a giant cart, slowly but surely pulling like a World’s Strongman Competition. Of course the reality is the opposite, a giant machine pushes the delicate wishbone forward, one bone at a time (real video).
  • Machine with Concrete: How slow can you go? After 12 1/50th gear reductions, the answer is, pretty darn slow. A motor drives this system of gears initially at 212 rpm, by the third gear, motion is imperceptible, and the other end a bit is driven into a block of concrete at a rate of one rotation every 2.191 trillion years (real video).

If you’re ever in the Boston area, this exhibit is well worth checking out. Many of his gadgets are so surreal (Inchworms, Machine with 23 Scraps of Paper) are truly indescribable, and need to be seen in person. At $5 (or free if you’re with an MIT student), it’s money well spent.

Distributed picture-taking

An experiment in distributed storytelling: while attending South by Southwest, every time I went to take a picture, I was preempted by another, more photo savvy individual. So where’s my photo album? Take a tour with some of my friends: