Sunday, November 30, 2008

Magic/Replace - an interesting 'show by example' way to clean up data

Magic/Replace looks pretty good – going by their screencast demo (2 mins). It allows you to simply and intuitively clean up spreadsheet data.

Once you've pasted (or uploaded) your data into their webform, you can make changes to a cell, and the system will intelligently apply the same kind of change to all the other cells in the same column.

For example, if you changed a cell containing the phone number 0987123532 by putting in some spaces so it became 0987 123 532, the system will put the same spaces into all of the other phone numbers.

It can handle quite complicated changes, like combining three separate fields ‘firstname’, ‘middlename’, ‘surname’ into a single name field with the format ‘surname, firstname middle-initial’. See the screencast for some other examples.

It looks like the system is available to use for free - you can try it out now. I haven't played with it much, so I don't know how well it works in general, but I think that at the very least they’re onto something with the way the system works – the principle behind it.

It’s great that the user doesn’t have to explicitly describe the changes they want to make – like by writing some sort of code. They can just do it; and the system can work out the analogous changes for the other instances of that field. I say ‘analogous changes’ because the other instances of the field will contain different data, so the system has to look deeper than just the superficial details of the changes the user made.

(Douglas Hofstadter argues that the ability to make analogies is a central aspect of intelligence. He’s got a book on this Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies. I haven’t read it, but the idea that ability to analogise is important sounds sensible to me).


Discussion of the tool on Hacker News here.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

'Chemicals' per se, are entirely natural

In marketing and advertising, 'chemicals' equate to 'harmful' and 'dangerous'. Companies like to parade the lack of 'chemicals' in their products. Can things be 100% chemical free? The public seems to think so.

But the Royal Society of Chemistry is offering a £1 million prize to the first member of the public who can provide a sample of any material whatsoever that is 100% chemical free.

The truth, as any right-minded person will say, is that everything we eat, drink, drive, play with and live in is made of chemicals - both natural and synthetic chemicals are essential for life as we know it.
"Should anyone [be able to claim the prize], we will see thousands of years' worth of knowledge evaporate before our eyes. We would have to tear up the textbooks, burn the degree certificates and retrain the teachers."
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently defended an advert which perpetuated the myth that natural compounds are free of chemicals. [...] The manufacturers of a popular "organic" fertiliser recently [claimed] in promotional materials the product contained no chemicals whatsoever.

Of course there are harmful chemicals, but the reason they're harmful isn't because they're chemicals. When most people use the term 'chemicals' they're really referring to something else - but what exactly that category is isn't something I'll try to get into here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Google Maps Street View as a historical record

I heard today that the street view in Google Maps has been upgraded (the improvements are pretty good too).

I was checking it out and looking at a place that I know is going to be demolished (not the place that link is to), and it made me think that the street view data could, in the future, be used as a (pretty comprehensive) historical record of what a place looked like at a particular point in time.

A lot of the places I've lived in have changed quite a lot over the years, and I always think it's a shame that there's probably no comprehensive record of what they used to look like (even though there's probably scattered coverage from people's private photo collections).

It's a shame from the standpoint that your memories are linked to what the place was like then, and once the place has changed, part of your past is gone. A visual record can help you connect back to it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How to save SMSs from a Sony-Ericsson w7000i phone to your computer

Just as you might want to save letters or emails you send and receive, I like to save my SMSs to my computer.

But that didn't seem possible with my Sony-Ericsson w7000i phone. You can't with the software the comes with it, and I seem to remember talking to a phone guy a few years ago who said you couldn't do it.

But I discovered today that you can use the My Phone Explorer software (Softpedia, Wikipedia). Works great. It's freely downloadable.

(found via this page, via this forum discussion page, via this google search).

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Using Wikipedia as a source of canonical tagnames

Say you want to tag a blogpost as being about ten pin bowling. What name do you give the tag? Here's some possibilities:


As a convention, you could try to find a Wikipedia article for that subject, and use the name used in the article's URL.

In this case it's

so you'd use the tagname


a potential bonus is that you could have it create an automatic link to the Wikipedia article.

The idea of this Wikipedia tagname convention is to have a canonical source for tagnames. (and I suppose it would also help make the Wikipedia article the canonical source of basic information about a topic).

Having fewer different names for referring to the same thing ought to be useful, and make it easier to find all the different bits of information talking about the same thing.

By the way, you could also have tools that automatically suggest these tagnames. E.g. you could select the text in your blogpost that mentions ten pin bowling, and the tool could automatically search wikipedia, get the URLs of the articles matching, and present you with a list of potential tagnames.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Alien-looking ants nest - filled with concrete then excavated (video)

Want to see what an ants nest looks like? First, fill it with concrete, then excavate.

Unfortunately the video only shows what it looked like when they were part of the way through the excavation, and doesn't give a really good sense of its overall shape.


'Technique' by Amon Tobin

Since June, Amon Tobin has been releasing a new track on his website at the start of each month (for a US $1.99 download). I think the latest one 'Technique' is pretty awesome.

You can hear a sample of it here. Under the picture it says '$1.99', and just below that there's an arrow pointing at a short green line - click that arrow.

(My next favourite one -- which took a while to grow on me -- is 'Shut Down').

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Images from Burning Man

Funtasticus has a bunch of images from Burning Man. These are my favourites:

Thursday, November 06, 2008

US election result videos, etc

Obama's acceptance speech is pretty impressive. McCain's concession speech is quite good too. I've embedded youtube versions of them below.

Another thing about today’s historic events is that from now on, little boys and girls all over the world will know that being a ‘white man’ is not an absolute necessity for attaining even the most powerful position in the world. It makes me wonder what greatness that knowledge will help unlock.

Obama's acceptance speech

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

McCain's concession speech

I am quite curious to know the opinions of people around the world on these election results, especially people in places like the Middle East. Surely this must change the "person in the street"'s opion of America? But how much and in what ways?

I don't know. I thought it might be interesting to have a look at how some international news sources were reporting it, but it seems too hard (unless perhaps you had a lot of time to spare) to really get much of a sense.

I also found it interesting to see how much those sites (or at least the English versions of them...) used the Reuters or AP stories about the electon rather than ones of their own. (and I should say that I have no idea how representative any of these papers are of the media in their respective countries).

If you're curious, here are some of the sites I looked at: Al Jazeera, The Star (Malaysia), Times of India, Xinhua (China).