Best Tennis Ever

Are we witnessing the best of men’s tennis today? After Djokovic’s victory at the 2012 Australian Open, Jason Gay thinks so (and it’s hard to disagree):

Conventional superlatives fail. Once-a-lifetime? Symphony of brilliance? Wicked good? It all sounds cheesy, inadequate. But what’s happening in the men’s game is as close as sports gets to unadulterated joy, the kind of outrageous viewer experience that leaves the audience gasping, as if anaerobic, as it did Sunday morning, in the men’s final of the Australian Open.

To be clear, when I say men’s tennis, I am really talking about the interactions of three players. Maybe four, if we want to be generous and include Andy Murray, who has yet to win a Grand Slam, and keeps grabbing for that glory, only to pull the doorknob off in his hand. The unquestioned top three are world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Between them, they have won 31 Slams, and Djokovic is still shopping in aisle one. They are as formidable and as entangled a trio as tennis has ever witnessed—as silly as it is to get into generational comparisons, it’s fair to say that the great three of Borg, McEnroe and Connors (26 combined Slams) are on the run, in their flowing hair and short-shorts.

These days are like those good old days. This past week there were early mornings, depending on where you lived, and your ability to have woken up in darkness to watch the spectacle. Reasonable people reasonably used a DVR, but Sunday’s 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5 epic, won by Djokovic over Nadal, wasn’t designed to be breezed over via remote control. This was a match that accelerated and de-accelerated and accelerated again; that both men locked up and let escape; that left a pair of champions droop-shouldered and wobbly. It lasted a boiled egg under six hours, beating the second-longest Grand Slam final by 59 minutes. It was briefly delayed by rain. It ended with Djokovic yanking at his collar, stripping off his shirt, and unleashing a primal yell—Fred Stolle meets Freddie Mercury.

I am starting to get more into tennis as a fan. Perhaps 2012 will be the year I see a professional match live (for the first time ever). The U.S. Open in the fall sounds pretty good right about now.

Visualizing 2011

One of my favorite websites I discovered in the year 2011 was visualizing.org, a compendium of visually stunning infographics and videos in which creative people make sense of complex issues through data and design.

Below are a few of my favorite visualizations:

1) Notabilia, a beautiful visualization of the 100 Longest Articles for Deletion (AfD) on Wikipedia:

Like a garden, an online encyclopedia needs constant weeding. Unlike a garden, an online encyclopedia has thousands of potential gardeners. Over years Wikipedia has developed guidelines and policies to help editors collectively decide whether topics are suitable for inclusion or not. All articles, especially new ones, are reviewed by the community to determine if they meet Wikipedia’s notability guidelines. Any editor can nominate an article for deletion and, if this nomination is legitimate, a community discussion takes place where any fellow gardeners editors have the opportunity to make their voices heard. The usual process is to have a week-long discussion during which community members can discuss in favor or against keeping the article. At the end of this period an administrator reviews the discussion and speaks the final verdict.

We analyzed and visualized Article for Deletion (AfD) discussions in the English Wikipedia. The visualization above represents the 100 longest discussions that resulted in the deletion of the respective article. AfD discussions are represented by a thread starting at the bottom center. Each time a user joins an AfD discussion and recommends to keep, merge, or redirect the article a green segment leaning towards the left is added. Each time a user recommends to delete the article a red segment leaning towards the right is added. As the discussion progresses, the length of the segments as well as the angle slowly decay.

What decides whether consensus is reached is the administrator closing the AfD discussion, not a headcount. As a result, the proportion of Keeps and Deletes may be at odds with the final decision, as illustrated by the above visualization. AfD discussions also take a variety of shapes depending on how they evolve over time.

2) 7 Days of Earthquakes in Japan – a visualization of the quakes associated with the Tohuku 2011 earthquake off the coast of Japan.

3) Breaking bin Laden – how a single tweet about bin Laden’s death spread virally on Twitter.

Visualizing’s 2011 in review is well worth seeing.

What Software is Used at Facebook?

Andrei Alexandrescu, a self-professed hacker and current employee at Facebook, is interviewed by Server Side Magazine and answers what software/tools they use at Facebook. It’s a Linux world, with a lot of tools developed in-house:

Each Facebook engineer gets a choice of MacBook or Windows laptop, plus the invariable 30′ monitor (yum). But development is not really happening on the laptop itself; to get any work done, engineers connect to a remote Linux machine (each engineer has one assigned) using a variety of protocols over ssh (plain terminal, nx, vnc, and probably more).

There’s freedom in choosing editors, so the usual suspects – emacs and vim – are quite popular, with some Eclipse and others here and there. I personally prefer emacs via nx, the combo works quite swimmingly even over a slow connection.

We also have a lot of cool organizational tools, many developed in house. That sounds a bit NIHish, but the history behind it is that we tried hard to make off-the-shelf tools work at the scale and quality we need them to, failed, and had to write our own.

The tools use our own technologies (talk about dog food) so they work, look, and integrate beautifully. Best part, if someone doesn’t like something, well, they can just fix it. (To wit, our email and calendar software is off-the-shelf and is the most unpleasant tool to deal with. Get this – we have a few people “specialized” in sending large meeting invites out, because there are bugs that require peculiar expertise to work around. Not to mention that such invites come with “Do not accept from an iPhone lest you corrupt the invite for everyone!”)

Anyway, back to our tool chain. Once an engineer makes a code change that passes unit tests and lint, they submit for review a so-called “diff” via our Phabricator system, which we open sourced.

The reviewers are selected partly manually, partly automatically; virtually not one line of code is committed without having been inspected by at least one (other) engineer. Phabricator is great at this flow, making diff analysis, comment exchange, and revision updates very handy. I’d recommend it.

Once the diff has been approved, the author uploads it to our central git repository. We love git; when I joined two years ago, we were just starting to migrate from svn to git, and today we virtually all use git. Some of us (including myself) wrote a few popular git scripts that integrate with our workflow.

To build C++ code we have our own build system driving a build farm. I don’t do front-end work, so I don’t know many details in that area; in broad strokes, we use the recently-released HipHop Virtual Machine (HHVM) for development, and the static HipHop compiler for the production site.

We have quite a few more browser-based tools for improving workflow, such as task management, discussions, wiki, peer review, recruiting and interviewing, analytics, systems management, and many many more. Really for pretty much any typical need “there’s an app for that”. And if there isn’t, there’s a vast infrastructure allowing you to build one quickly.

Read the full interview to find out about the D programming language…

The World’s Longest Running Lab Experiment

The longest running lab experiment in the world is over three quarters of a century long…and is still going. From Popular Science:

The pitch-drop experiment-really more of a demonstration-began in 1927 when Thomas Parnell, a physics professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, set out to show his students that tar pitch, a derivative of coal so brittle that it can be smashed to pieces with a hammer, is in fact a highly viscous fluid. It flows at room temperature, albeit extremely slowly. Parnell melted the pitch, poured it into a glass funnel, let it cool (for three years), hung the funnel over a beaker, and waited.

Eight years later, a dollop of the pitch fell from the funnel’s stem. Nine years after that, another long black glob broke into the beaker. Parnell recorded the second drop but did not live to see the third, in 1954. By then, his experiment had been squirreled away in a dusty corner of the physics department.

The pitch-drop experiment might have fallen into obscurity (or a wastebasket) had it not been for John Mainstone, who joined the physics department at UQ in 1961. One day a colleague said, “I’ve got something weird in this cupboard here” and presented Mainstone with the funnel, beaker and pitch, all housed under a bell jar. Mainstone asked the department head to display it for the school’s science and engineering students, but he was told that nobody wanted to see it. Finally, around 1975, Mainstone persuaded the department to take the bell jar out for the world to see.

To this day, no one person has actually witnessed the moment a drop of pitch has detached and fallen. But that may change. Why? The experiment is now broadcast on a live webcam. John Mainstone is betting that the next drop will happen in 2013. Just don’t hold your breath.

Blue Marble: The Most Amazing High Definition Image of Earth

The most amazing high definition image of Earth.

Earlier this week, NASA unveiled an image titled “Blue Marble” and dubbed it the most amazing high definition image of Earth. The image was captured with the Visible/Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument aboard NASA’s most recently launched Earth-observing satellite, Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth’s surface taken on January 4, 2012.

The full resolution image is a stunning 8,000×8,000 pixels! I have taken NASA’s image and made some minor edits: a global curves adjustment, a saturation boost, and sharpened the image. Click on the image above to download the full resolution image. Makes for a great wallpaper!

The Other Vitruvian Man

The Vitruvian Man is a world-famous drawing that depicts a male figure in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart and simultaneously inscribed in a circle and a square. The drawing is attributed as a creation of Leonardo da Vinci. However, a researcher named Claudio Sgarbi, has found some evidence to debate the drawing’s origin. Sgarbi checked out Ten Books on Architecture, and found a figure that’s remarkably similar to da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man. In a volume of academic papers to be published this winter by the Italian publisher Marsilio, he proposes that the author of the drawing was a young architect named Giacomo Andrea da Ferrara:

What little is known about Giacomo Andrea derives primarily from a remark made in On Divine Proportion (1498), by Luca Pacioli, who described him as both a dear friend of Leonardo’s and an expert on Vitruvius. Leonardo himself records in his notes having had dinner with Giacomo Andrea in 1490, the year Leonardo is thought to have drawn Vitruvian Man. And elsewhere Leonardo mentions “Giacomo Andrea’s Vitruvius”—a direct reference, Sgarbi believes, to the Ferrara manuscript.

Sgarbi’s hunch is that Leonardo and Giacomo Andrea collaborated on their drawings, but few traces of Giacomo Andrea survive, and unearthing more, enough to make Sgarbi’s case definitively, may take years. Still, scholars already find it intriguing. The French historian Pierre Gros, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Vitruvius, says he considers the idea “seductive and convincing.”

One of the few other known references to Giacomo Andrea concerns his death. In 1499 the French occupied Milan, where he and Leonardo had lived since the 1480s. Already admired internationally, Leonardo established cordial relations with the French and safely fled the city. But Giacomo Andrea wasn’t so lucky. He apparently stayed on as a kind of resistance fighter, and the French captured, hanged and quartered him the following year. “Because of his loyalty to the Duke of Milan,” Sgarbi says, “Giacomo Andrea was erased from history”—as was his Vitruvian Man.

Read more in Toby Lester’s piece “The Other Vitruvian Man” in Smithsonian Magazine.

Unethical Amazon Reviews

Imagine you bought an item from Amazon.com and upon opening the item, you found a note that said:  “We take pride in our products, and encourage you to write a review on Amazon.com. In return for writing the review, we will refund your order so you will have received the product for free.”

This is exactly what a lot of customers did who purchase a Kindle cover from a merchant called VIP Deals, according to The New York Times.

As someone who spends thousands of dollars on Amazon.com annually, this is unnerving news. I read product reviews carefully before buying a product, but how can I be certain that what I am reading are genuine reviews? As the Times article notes, this is a major issue for Amazon, and there are researchers out there who are trying to devise mathematical models to systematically unmask the bogus endorsements.

So what’s worked for me? I don’t just look at the average reviews for a product, but choose to filter the reviews by star rating. In particular, reading the 3-star and 1-star reviews is often a better indicator for me to NOT buy a product, even if the average review is 4-stars or more. In fact, I’d be wary of purchasing a product if you only see 4 or 5 star reviews (my theory is that by law of large numbers, you’d expect to see at least a small percentage of 1 or 2 star reviews). And you’d be surprised how many compelling and well-reasoned 1-star reviews exist.