Model rocket launch this past weekend

We launched a model rocket this weekend:

I was into model rockets when I was in grade school through high school so I guess this is nostalgia. Need to get one of those video camera payload rockets next and capture a video of the flight up and back down. This particular Estes rocket got lost — it went up perfectly, the parachute deployed perfectly and then in the middle of chasing after it, it disappeared. I think it landed on top of a building. Anyways, we’ve already got another one built and ready to launch… maybe this long weekend.

Need to find a bigger field here in Houston — we launched this one at Rice’s intramural fields. Suggestions?

Nice summary of “New Business Models for News” event

I wish I had attended this event, but having missed it Chris O’Brien’s summary of the event is a good one. An excerpt (boldfacing added by me):

My main takeaways from the day were far different what I would have expected going in. I’ve been in search of new ways to generate revenue to maintain the newsrooms we have (or some version of them). But the big lesson of the day was to focus on the other side of things: Cost. There was widespread agreement across the day that cost structures of newsrooms need to be dramatically lower. But before you think I’ve become a cheerleader for the rampant corporate cost cutting plaguing us, hear me out.

Update: Jeff Jarvis, one of the organizers for the “New Business Models for News” event at CUNY, just posted his summary of the event.

Getting Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to work

 I’ve been using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for some data collection and verification recently and it’s a really amazing service. I can get simple rote tasks performed on datasets pretty quickly. So I thought I’d share some of the minor hurdles I had to overcome to get the import of my “input” data to work correctly for me. I started out with an Excel worksheet and I exported from Excel to CSV. Upon trying to upload my first set of data (after I created my MT “human interface task” template), the first error message I encountered was this one:

Header columns should not be blank. 

 This one is pretty simple — I had a column in my worksheet that looked empty but had some spaces in it. So when Excel was creating the CSV, it was creating an empty “column” and AMT was barfing on this. Fixing this was easy — I just deleted the offending column in Excel and re-saved it as a CSV. The other error message I encountered was this one:

Could not create batch. Invalid input data on line 320. Click here to learn more about acceptable file formats. 

 So what’s happening here? Basically, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk barfs on special characters… perhaps, only if they aren’t properly encoded? I’m not sure if there’s another solution to this, but what I did was do a search and replace in my trusty text editor (UltraEdit FTW!) and kept re-uploading until I had replaced all the offending characters. My list of offending characters that I had to search and replace: 

’ (replace with ‘)
ñ (replace with n)
“ (replace with “)
” (replace with “)
— (replace with -)

Gmail tip: searching by the first post in a conversation

For those of you who are Gmail (or Google Apps Mail) power users, here’s a little hack that I figured out.

I use the “to:” and “from:” Gmail search parameters all the time to pinpoint an e-mail that I’m looking for.  But have you ever wanted to find an e-mail that you know was the *start* of an e-mail thread (thread = what’s referred to in the official Gmail lingo as a conversation)?  Well, even though Google Mail hides ’em from you in conversation view, all reply subject lines still contain the standard “Re:” string and all forwarded e-mail subject lines contain the standard “Fwd:”.So all you have to do is take the search you’re doing and have it exclude any subject line that contains Re: or Fwd:! 

For example, if I’m looking for every e-mail from my friend Shashi that he originated (vs. an e-mail that he might have been received and subsequently replied to), I’d do a search like this:

 from:shashi -subject:Re: -subject:Fwd:   

From slashdot: CS enrollment is way down

I first heard about this a few months ago when I ran into Devika (one of my Rice CS profs) at the grocery store:

CS Degrees Low in 2007 But Bouncing Back

An anonymous reader writes “The number of undergraduate computer science degrees awarded last year hit a new low with the Class of 2007. The degrees awarded, 8,000, as tracked by the Computing Research Association, is only half of what it was five years ago. In 2003-04 — the high point of this decade — 14,185 students were awarded bachelors degrees in computer science from the 170 PhD granting universities tracked by the CRA. That said, after a decade of severe declines, the number of students at top universities declaring themselves as computer science majors is finally seeing an increase. Though it’s only a small increase, it’s an increase nonetheless. Experts attribute the shift to changes in job market, and also to changes in curriculum and the marketing of comp sci programs.”


The second best thing in online shopping: Google Checkout

Amazon Prime is the best thing in online shopping, in my opinion. I use it to buy stuff all the time and have for many years — free two-day shipping on Amazon-stocked items (which covers a lot of stuff), Amazon’s reviews, and an inventory of almost everything makes Amazon Prime work really well.

But in the past couple of months, maybe because I’m cheap, I think I’ve discovered the second best thing for online shopping (and it’s not Amazon): Google Checkout. When I want to price shop something, I use Google’s shopping search engine (formerly known as Froogle, now listed in their menu bar under the header of “Shopping”), I filter the results to only show me merchants that support Google Checkout and I pretty quickly have not only the best deal on whatever I’m trying to buy, but 1) I trust that my money and credit card is safe and 2) checkout is really fast. In fact, Google’s checkout process is faster and more user friendly than Amazon’s. For example, if I change my credit card (which I often do depending on whether I’m buying something for the office or whether I’m buying something for home), I don’t separately have to change my billing address, as I do on And many times, on Amazon, when I change the credit card and billing address, it makes me enter my shipping address from scratch — I suspect Amazon does this when it encounters a combination of credit card, billing address, and shipping address that it hasn’t seen before.

What I want to see next? A touchscreen kiosk interface for my house that I can use to easily buy household supplies like lightbulbs, cleaning agents, shampoo, and other sundries. Who wants to go to the store to buy that stuff? And the only reason I ever end up going to the store to buy sundries is because at the moment that I realized that I needed to replenish something (which is normally at least once before I actually run out), there wasn’t a way for me to quickly satisfy that impulse.

I think there’s a big future in products that satisfy people’s impulses.

Enchanted Toys: wonderful toy store in NYC

My elder sister is one of the most resourceful people I know so it was no surprise that when I was in New York City with her a couple of weeks ago and we were out shopping, she took us to all kinds of random and interesting NYC shopping spots (and she lives in Northern Louisiana).

One store she took us to that I loved was Enchanted Toys (at 1179 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10028, Google Maps). It’s a store with nothing but handmade toys in it — mostly hand-carved and hand-painted toys made of wood. From their website:

“What you won’t find: a single plastic action figure or action figure.”

My sister bought this toy for my 3 yr old daughter that she hasn’t stopped playing with (I’ll upload a photo of it tonight — it’s hard to describe). I highly recommend this place for anyone looking for creative and engaging toys for children.

Update: Here’s one of the toys that we bought at Enchanted Toys — you put a marble in the top bucket and its weight tips the bucket the marble falls into the bucket below it and so on and so forth.

Enchanted Toys marble toy