Category Archives: Technology

Is Craigslist a mess?

There’s a recent piece in Wired entitled, “Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess”. The answer according to the article is that Craig Newmark is a pretty weird dude. But while it’s an interesting profile, the real question about Craigslist isn’t “why is it such a mess” but “why, given that it’s a mess, is it so widely used?” And as the article mentions, people use it because (a) it’s free, and (b) everyone else is using it, so it’s the best place to find what you’re looking for. But “Craigslist is widely used because it’s widely used” isn’t terribly satisfying as an answer.
What I really want to know is: how do people find anything at all on Craigslist? Because I just can’t do it, but it certainly wouldn’t be popular if everyone else was in the same position. And indeed, the comments on the Wired article are overwhelmingly people objecting to the title alone, protesting that Craigslist isn’t a mess. So lots of people find it a useful tool.
Nevertheless, every time I’ve tried to use it (and I’ve looked at it at various times for apartments, job hunting, and dating) I’ve given up after encountering a spectacularly low signal-to-noise ratio. Because there’s no cost to posting, and it lacks sophisticated filters, I end up with a huge and unmanageable stream of nearly-undifferentiated posts. And while there’s something to be said for its free-form character, this seems to lead to listings that are either unhelpfully vague or hyper-specific.
So I feel like I’m doing it wrong. There must be some techniques out there to using Craigslist successfully (hopefully some Craigslist power users in the readership can tell me what they are). I have some guesses as to what might work:

  1. Liberal use of the search box. I always feel like my search terms narrow the field either too little or too much. But maybe a clever selection of search terms, applied in lots of variations, would improve things.

  2. Less reading, more skimming. Just because it doesn’t filter for me doesn’t mean I have to read every post. If I learn to recognize useless items and move on quickly, I could move much more quickly through the stream.
  3. Persistence. I know that some people read Craigslist painstakingly every day, looking for the perfect bargain. (From the Wired article, this seems well suited to Craig Newmark’s style.) I don’t have the patience for it, though, and I generally don’t believe the perfect bargain exists. (Or rather, when they do appear they get snapped up immediately.)

Any other advice? Anyone else find Craigslist unusable?

Interest: kindled.

I’ve been debating whether to buy a Kindle, and so the famous Nicholson Baker review in The New Yorker was of interest as one of the more high-profile negative reviews of the device. Although I don’t really believe him when he says that funny passages get less funny when read on a Kindle, he mentions some other downsides like the (so far) limited library and the DRM concerns. These seemed like good points.
To address his aesthetic objections to the device, he goes on to suggest downloading the Kindle app for the iPhone instead. I ignored this advice at first, but some time later my curiosity got the better of me and I got the app. It’s free, after all, and would be a good way to try the format. And I was pleased to see that there are a few books available for free. Mostly the initial volumes of various long-running series, under the favorite business model of drug dealers everywhere. (I went for His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novick; a better choice from the free selection is Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, but I’d already read it.) So I was able to follow Baker’s suggestion at no cost. Still, I thought, it seemed crazy. I’d much rather read on the book-sized Kindle. Who wants to read an entire novel on the tiny iPhone screen, flipping pages every paragraph?
The answer, apparently, is me. The Kindle app is completely awesome, and I feel like it’s doubled the utility of my iPhone. It has one gigantic advantage over the actual Kindle that Baker doesn’t even mention: if I owned a Kindle, I would probably take it with me on vacation, or on long train rides, but I wouldn’t carry it around with me all the time, since it’s not small enough to fit in a pocket. But the iPhone I already carry with me everywhere. Which means that now, I always have a book to read. If I find myself waiting in line, or on the subway, or at the doctor’s office, I can just start reading. I even catch myself looking forward to waiting for something so I can read a few more pages. Sure, before the Kindle I could surf the net or play games on the iPhone, but for waits of longer than a few minutes, being able to dive into a book is much better.
So, I’m a convert. I finished His Majesty’s Dragon tonight, and I’m shopping right now for my next book. There is one problem, though. Sometimes I’ve been reading, say on the subway, and I get to my stop in the middle of a chapter. I walk home from the station, and when I get home I naturally want to continue reading. But who wants to read on the tiny iPhone screen? If only I had some kind of book-sized device that would automatically sync with the page I’m on…
And that, of course, is why Amazon gives away the iPhone app for free.

Rise (and kneeling) of the machines

Via Tyler Cowen, this looks like a good way to scam people who subscribe to a very odd theology:

Information Age Prayer is a site that charges you a monthly fee to say prayers for you. A typical charge is $4.95 per month to say three prayers specified by you each day.
“We use state of the art text to speech synthesizers to voice each prayer at a volume and speed equivalent to typical person praying,” the company states. “Each prayer is voiced individually, with the name of the subscriber displayed on screen.”
Prices, however, are dictated by the length of the prayer. As noted in the Information Age Prayer FAQ, “A discounted prayer will cost less than other prayers of similar length.”

The scam is not that they don’t provide any value: presumably they supply some kind of peace of mind to the sort of person who goes for this, although I’m not sure it’s $4.95/mo worth of peace of mind. The actual potential for scamming here is there’s no way of verifying that they’ve performed the promised service at all, short of visiting their physical location (if it even exists). Then again, verifiability is unlikely to be a dealbreaker for someone credulous enough to find this idea attractive. It seems to hinge on some unusual assumptions about prayer, specifically that it’s a kind of magic spell that needs to be vocalized, but having a machine vocalize it is a valid alternative to doing it yourself. (On the other hand, to hear Fred Clark tell it, the notion of prayer-as-magic-spell is a prevalent feature in the bestselling Left Behind series, so maybe this isn’t such an unusual assumption after all.)
Entertainingly, the Yahoo News article goes from reporting on this service to cataloging occurrences of praying robots in science fiction, naturally including the Cylon religion in the recent Battlestar Galactica. However, Information Age Prayer seems to be less akin to the frakkin’ toasters than it is to, well, ordinary toasters.

Editor wars thread

I don’t actually expect it to lead to a flamewar here, but I am nevertheless invoking one of the longstanding Internet disputes with this announcement: I have recently switched from emacs to vi1.
For the uninitiated: emacs and vi are the two most common text editors in Unix environments. They’re meant for editing unformatted text such as computer programs. I’m doing a lot of Unix programming these days (in Perl and C++) so a good text editor is essential. The two have fairly different philosophies: emacs does more or less what you would expect, in that you can type words and they appear on the screen, but it also has a ton of extra functions (such as programming with butterflies). Unfortunately even simple ones like, say, “save” have to be accessed by typing a sequence of obscure key commands, usually while holding down the control key.
On the other hand, if you open up a file with vi and start typing, words will not appear on the screen. If you’re lucky it’ll just beep at you repeatedly; it might also start deleting portions of your file apparently at random. Fortunately you’ll never figure out the command to save, so your original file will be unharmed; unfortunately you’ll never figure out how to quit either, and be stuck there forever (or until you open up Google and look it up).
At least, that was my first experience with vi, and having concluded that it was designed by alien intelligences I quickly became a convert to emacs. However, I recently began to question that decision, for a number of reasons:

  • Peer pressure. Almost everyone in my department uses vi. In fact, when I was assigned to a newly assembled Unix box and complained to the sysadmin that emacs wouldn’t run there, his response was “Well, most people use vim.” (He did set up emacs for me despite his disdain for it.)

  • It reminds me of playing nethack. At some point in the past I had to learn to play nethack on a laptop keyboard (i.e. without the number pad), and only later found out that I had thus inadvertently learned how to move the cursor in vi3. This was actually the biggest part of the learning curve. There are other similarities to nethack, such as the primitive-looking interface, the obscure extended commands, and the fact that a typo at the wrong time can kill you.
  • I got tired of holding down Control every time I wanted to do anything. (But hitting escape to get out of insert mode is almost as bad. Maybe I should remap it to some other key.)

Anyway, I went home one night and went through the vim tutorial, and discovered that it’s not as hard as I thought, and ended up switching entirely.
Rather than actually make this an editor wars thread, consider this a place to suggest your favorite Unix programs for software development (or whatever else).
1 Actually, vim2.
2 Well, technically gvim.
3 Except that the diagonal movement keys do other, more drastic things in vi, which can cause trouble when I forget I’m not playing nethack.

C++ Bleg

I learned C back in high school but never got around to C++, since it was never something I needed for my physics studies. However, many of the jobs I’ve been applying for list C++ proficiency as strongly preferred (if not required), so now seems like a good time to learn something about it. Can anyone recommend a book on the subject? Or is reading a book the wrong way to approach the problem? I should note that as an undergrad I was familiar with C and had done a bit of object-oriented programming in Java, but I haven’t used either very much since.

Mac vs. PC Flamewar Thread

Friday night my laptop abruptly died. (“I don’t remember turning it off… uh oh.”) Luckily the hard drive is undamaged so I was able to recover the data (and I had a sorta-recent backup). Thus, it’s not a disaster, but I do want to replace it. I’m finding myself very indecisive at the moment, so any advice is welcome.
In descending order of priority, the new computer will primarily be used for:

  1. Thesis writing: text processing in LaTeX and vector graphics manipulation for figures.

  2. Data processing, likely in Mathematica.
  3. Photo editing
  4. Blogging

(That’s for the next six months, after that it may or may not get pressed into a whole new set of tasks depending on what sort of job I end up taking.)
The old computer was a Dell Latitude D600.
Here are some options (mainly driven by what I can get at a discount through UCB):
Apple Macbook Pro
Pro: Visually appealing, OS X seems nifty (but I haven’t used it enough to know for sure), Apple still the lesser evil as far as business practices.
Con: Expensive, all my current software is for Windows.
Dell Latitude
Pro: Familiar, customizable.
Con: My previous Latitude had three motherboard failures, for a lifetime of about 15 months, which does not give me confidence in their reliability. (The extended warranty was terrific, but I wish I didn’t have to use it so much.)
Dell Inspiron
Pro: Inexpensive, can get Ubuntu preinstalled (but will probably want a Windows partition as well).
Con: Reliability concerns as with the Latitude.
Lenovo Thinkpad
Pro: Good reputation.
Con: Visually unappealing.
I’m leaning towards the Macbook Pro, but since I can’t get one instantly (they’re backordered). I have a few days to think about it. What other factors should I be considering? What other options have I overlooked?

“There is the group that goes to the pub…”

Last week Lawyers, Guns, and Money linked to an article about simulations of crowd behavior:

McKenzie has devised Crowd Federate, a model that will add a crowd component to a variety of defense simulations. “The intent is to provide a real-time, realistic, psychologically based crowd model to provide interactions with control forces.”
Based on extensive psychological research, Crowd Federate works at several levels. At the smallest, the model tracks individual people, although only for navigation within the city at this point. The psychological aspects kick in at the group level, with groups typically composed of 10 people.
“There are different types of groups,” McKenzie said. “There is the protester group which protests for a cause. They’re the ones holding the banners. The agitator group is there to cause trouble. The bystanders are just there and don’t want to get involved. Then there is the curious group that will move toward anything interesting and stick their noses in. If something violent should erupt, they will probably run away.”

This has obvious applications for both police and military. So why is it that my very first thought was: This would be perfect for modeling a zombie outbreak!
I bet it’s much more sophisticated than this one.


I have been in Baltimore for a couple of days now; I would have posted earlier but my computer has chosen an inopportune time to refuse to turn on. This was distressing not just because I had several items to post to the blog, but also because I planned to use my computer for my talk this afternoon.
Fortunately my roommate had experienced a similar problem with his desktop, and had a trick for getting it started: hold down the power button while plugging it into the wall. This sounded crazy, but when I tried this (inserting the battery instead of plugging in the power cord) it booted right up.
So I should be in good shape as long as I don’t shut it down again… Meanwhile, I am still under extended warranty and Dell is sending a technician to my hotel to fix the problem this week.