StackOverflow: the fatal flaw in its strategy

June 5th, 2016

StackOverflow, the granddaddy of programming Q&A sites, has begun a long, inexorable decline into irrelevance.

I won’t talk here about how “StackOverflow sucks”; you can google that. Most of those people are complaining about how unfriendly SO is to newcomers. I don’t care about that. I actually think it should be more unfriendly to newcomers, who pollute and dilute the site’s content. I want to talk about the fundamental dysfunction on the site, the poor experience for the experienced users who should matter, and the failure in both developing and implementing the strategy, which over time is slowly and surely going to ensure its demise.

StackOverflow’s major business is selling eyeballs of people who come to it via Google. It cannot be a good sign for this would-be Unicorn, then, that all traffic metrics are flat to declining. Part of the problem is that virtually all programmers in the world already now come to SO to find answers to their questions. Even to continue at current levels assumes that Google will continue to drive traffic to the site. Indeed, at present for many programming questions, a Google query brings up half a dozen answers from Stack Overflow on the first page. This is both a blessing (now) and a curse (in the future); as Google’s algorithms evolve, it could easily start bringing up fewer SO results, and this is especially likely to happen as overall answer/question quality declines, as discussed later.

So the only remaining growth potential is more programmers, new domains, more questions (meaning more views per person), new content models, or new forms of monetization.

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How to piss away $8M in venture funding

May 3rd, 2016

Following Tolstoy, “All successful startups are alike; each failed startup fails in its own way.” Some startups fail because of flawed product execution. Some fail because of poor marketing. Some fail because they can’t get the right people. Some fail because they run out of money. Some fail because they did not understand the marketplace and the competition.

This story is about an anonymous company that failed for a relatively unique reason: a yawning gap between vision and product concept.

You might think that vision already implies a product concept. Yet actually the same vision can be realized via many product concepts. This particular company’s vision was to automate enterprise knowledge management and distribution. A wonderful vision, but one which could take the form of many different product concepts. For instance, one concept would be to build a monolithic, closed, smart knowledge management system. A very different concept would be to build smart knowledge management widgets that fit into and complement existing knowledge/content management approaches.

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AlphaGo: Implications for Machine Translation

April 7th, 2016

In this March 15, 2016 photo, South Korean professional Go player Lee Sedol reviews the match after finishing the final match of the Google DeepMind Challenge Match against Google's artificial intelligence program, AlphaGo, in Seoul, South Korea. Google's Go-playing computer program again defeated its human opponent in a final match on Tuesday that sealed its 4:1 victory. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)

Machine defeats man at the game of Go.

The entire world was stunned at the 4–1 win by Google’s Deep Mind over Lee Se-Dol, one of the world’s best Go players. Some say that Deep Mind is a highly specialized intelligence that only knows how to play Go. But the principles, techniques, and algorithms underlying Deep Mind do in fact have wider application to so-called AI-complete problems. What do they mean for Machine Translation (MT)?

The development of go programs and machine translation programs have followed a parallel path.

The initial generation of solutions to both problems were based on “classical” AI techniques of encoding human knowledge. The go programs used rules of “good shape”, and human-style “reading”. The MT programs used grammars and rulesets built by human linguists. The results, in the case of go, were programs which played at the amateur sub-dan level (meaning the top 10% of all players). The results, in the case of MT, were programs which could at best produce vaguely understandable translations.

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Mobile Phone Localization in India

March 20th, 2016

languagepanelThe Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is proposing, as part of the government’s Digital India push, to make regional language interface capability mandatory on feature phones. These standards are expected to go into effect in six months.

One of the world’s leading localization companies, Moravia, has weighed in with a blog post entitled “India Gets Serious about Mobile Phone Localization“. Unfortunately, this post reveals a fundamental confusion about almost every aspect of this situation: the difference between feature phones vs. smart phones, between language support on phones themselves vs. applications, and between localization of interface vs. content. The post says that India is:

already one of the fastest-growing smartphone markets in the world, and the second largest overall. India’s vast hinterland is smartphone-equipped and hungry for local language content. The communities are cash-rich, and India’s e-commerce companies will have to reach out to them in earnest if they want to stay in the game.

this single paragraph neatly encapsulating all the confusion.

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The Elusive Uberization of Translation

January 1st, 2016

The title of this post is borrowed shamelessly from the excellent article by Florian Faes found here.

Over the last decade, I’ve lost track of the number of times that the translation industry was gonig to be “reinvented” by this that or the other new model, usually one based on some sort of new technology. And each “reinvention” is accompanied by breathless hype and wonder in more blogs and posts by industry “experts” than you can count, many of whom should know better. Each “reinvention” is based on some plausible-sounding theory about the nature of the translation market that turns out to be just wrong.

These false theories and assumptions have no end. There would be an infinite demand for translation if only it were cheaper. There would be an infinite supply of translators if only we could tap the millions of bilingual people our there. Or no, the real problem is the efficiency of translation tools. Machine translation (MT) will eventually take over the lion’s share of translation work. Or it won’t. What we really need is to make it easier to order translation; where is my one-click translation button?

Problem is, none of these assumptions have proven to be true. The largest translation companies in the world continue to derive most of their revenue from large contracts with enterprises that have ongoing needs for translated documentation and software, carried out via well-defined processes and requiring well-defined quality levels. Startups based on the latest idea for a shiny new translation gadget flounder, ending up doing down-rounds to keep the lights on. Mid-tier translation companies continue to dominate the business in revenue terms, most doing semi-specialized medium-sized projects for medium-sized clients.

So how do we uberize this? The fundamental problem is to what extent translation is a commodity. Ride-hailing is the ultimate commodity: a car comes and takes you from point A to point B. There may be different sizes of cars, or special services like handicapped accessibility, but these amount to nothing more than different grades of coal. Ride-hailing is commoditizable because it is a commodity. We can aggregate demand, aggregate supply, and then tweak the economics of the business to death. To speak of uberizing translation implies that translation is a commodity.

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Beliefs about belief

December 13th, 2015

Last night I went to a dinner party. One guest was talking about how different people believe different things and that’s just how it is and that’s fine. According to her, it’s all about diversity, and tolerance, and acceptance, and realizing that different people have every right to form their own opinions. 

That sounds unassailably correct until you think harder about it and realize that it’s not. I pointed to a tree outside the window and asked her if she thought it was OK for a person to believe that the tree was not actually there. Somewhat trapped, she asserted that yes, it would indeed be OK. After all, it could be me that was hallucinating the existence of the tree. Perhaps the person is living in a parallel universe where the tree does not in fact exist. Perhaps the tree is a hologram.

The problem with this line of thought is that beliefs have consequences. If I go out and pick an apple from the “non-existent” tree and bring it into the house and ask the person to take a bite, they will be hard-pressed to deny that they are biting into a real apple. If the “non-existent” tree is blown over by strong winds and crashes into the roof of the house, the damage will be very real no matter what the person believed about the existence of the tree. Or if I am standing on the roof of a building and believe that I can fly and decide to therefore jump off, I will die. If I believe that global warming is not caused by humans, and thus choose to take no action, the Marshall Islands will eventually disappear into the ocean.

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The Meaning of Meaning (3)

February 1st, 2014

Of course, Zen therapy does not pinpoint only existential angst by mitigating cravings for universal meaning. It also influences the pattern-making and pattern-matching we use day-to-day. Now, our pattern machinery basically works quite well, look how far it’s gotten us. But at the same time there are many ways in which it’s broken, or should I say problems in how we use it. The main issue is how we try to apply patterns when they don’t really fit, how we apply them with no flexibility, how we fail to tweak the patterns as we are applying them. Of course there has to be an essence of the pattern, which is the point of its existence, but at the same time we have to keep evolving the patterns, choose the right patterns to apply, adapt and refine them. Our built-in reward system for finding and matching patterns can lead us to use patterns which aren’t really relevant, or to try to stuff a pattern down some situation’s throat.

Dogen’s Zen therapy not only relieves our cravings for patterns, and leaves us comfortable even in pattern-less situations, but also acts as a kind of lubricant for our patterning systems. It gradually rewires our brains so we more easily find new patterns, modify existing patterns, and choose the right pattern.

But let’s go back and parse a bit more of what Dogen was saying. He refers to “enlightened ones”. This, obviously, in terms of the patterns we know and love about sainthood and rarified states of being, must mean someone who is at a completely different level in terms of grasping deep, intricate patterns about existence, right? No, it just means a person who through intensive therapy has ceased addictively looking for non-existent patterns. He refers to “ultimate awareness”. This, obviously, must mean some exalted state of being achievable only by some sainted person in an altogether different league from ourselves, right? No, it just means someone who has stopped spending his energy seeking unseekable patterns and who therefore is able to focus on the reality in front of him.

Deciding to Start Zen

January 29th, 2013

The decision to start Zen could be treated more like a decision to start taking a painting class at the local adult education center. You could go to one class and not go back, or go for one quarter, or keep going for ten years, or keep going until you die. I guess I also disagree with the people who say this is a really big deal and is going to be real hard work and you have to really make a commitment or else the whole thing is a complete waste of time. Wrong! The thing about Zen is that, and this fits in with my theory that’s basically about rewiring your neurons, or neuroplasticity if you prefer fancy words, you do a little bit of it and experience a little effect or do more of it and experience more or do a whole lot and become an enlightened Zen master. It’s linearly scalable, in other words. If you started off by going to a dojo once a week and sitting with them, and maybe meditating 30 minutes per day, then after a month or two no, you would not have some kind of life-changing realization, but you would notice changes in the way you look at things which would be refreshing and helpful. A little bit of rewiring.

There is another thing about Zen which is sort of like the way that when you work out at the gym, your body changes in a way which helps you be more fit and healthy even when you don’t work out, you consume calories more efficiently, etc. As you keep doing Zen, by which I mean meditation, not reading books or listening to talks, you develop the ability over time to use every moment to enhance the way you view the world, not just when you’re meditating. Or to put it another way, you sort of learn to meditate as you’re going about your daily life, or conversely, you begin to see that your daily life is a kind of meditation, or perhaps that meditation is nothing more than a sort of concentrated form of daily life. As you get there, you might find yourself wanting to meditate more, and kick it up to two 30-minute sessions per day, as opposed to a thought process that says hey, I’m supposed to be doing this Zen thing, gotta work harder at it, I told myself I was really going to get into this, so I gotta buckle down.

The Meaning of Meaning (2)

January 28th, 2013

It would be one thing if our unmet need for existential closure meant only that we had occasional unsettling attacks of meaninglessness, or a vague cloud of doubt hanging over our heads as we went about our daily lives. But unfortunately this nagging psychic unease also interferes with us just getting done our day-to-day business as normal human beings, as if we were lugging around a 20-pound sack of potatoes everywhere we went. For all the design flaws in the whole homo sapiens mind-body system that the messy evolutionary process has bequeathed to us, we basically work remarkably well. We’re endowed with well-functioning instincts and behaviors. We’re lithe. But the bag of potatoes bogs us down, gets in our way, disrupts our rhythm, saps our mojo, puts us off our game.

Then there’s a second order effect which is that our inability to find the big pattern we crave saps our confidence. We can’t find it–so maybe there’s something wrong with us! Maybe there’s other patterns we’re missing! Maybe other people have found the pattern and we’re inferior to them! This fear, this complex is yet more sand in the gears. If the basic existential pain is not sufficient motivation for us to try to do something about the problem, this negative effect on our basic functioning certainly is.

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The Meaning of Meaning (1)

January 26th, 2013

Here is the theory I have arrived at. Humans are successful animals because we have developed large brains with the capability of identifying and matching patterns of many varieties. These patterns could be called concepts, or theories, or hypotheses, or just rules of thumb. The patterns can range from the highly concrete (“a chair”) to the social (“a family”) to the philosophical (“happiness”).

Evolution equipped us not only with the ability to handle patterns but also a reward mechanism for exercising it, which like other reward systems takes neurochemical form. You will know this as the “Eureka” moment when something suddenly “makes sense” (meaning you found a new pattern it fits into, or an old one, or a modification to an old one), or, less dramatically, the little satisfying mental click when something falls together.

Although it is not directly related to my overall topic here, the human inclination, or one might say compulsion, to believe in God can be tied to this neurotheoretical notion of pattern-finding and pattern-matching (and thus the somewhat unfortunate term “neurotheology”), in the sense that a belief in God again activates our reward systems for finding patterns, in this case a “pattern” or framework that ties together disparate and otherwise unexplainable things. Of course, this fundamental biological motivation that results in a notion of the supernatural is then embroidered and modulated by any number of social and political factors, and people have written entire books on the subject, but underlying it all is the human thirst to understand (in other words, find patterns), which, again, has a neurobiological basis.

Thirst in the very real sense, because reward is the flip side of desire, be it for water or anything else, and desire merely one stage on the path to addiction. Those neurochemicals sloshing around in our brains making us feel great when we have sex are also capable, by their absence, of making us sad, horny, jittery, or desperate. It is when this deprivation becomes so serious that we seek to satisfy it, even at great cost to ourselves, that we call it addiction.

Evolution made a wise enough choice in developing these mechanisms; they mostly serve us well when it comes to nourishment, or reproduction, or social relationships, or even intellectual pursuits, such as in the urge Einstein felt to discover the pattern which resulted in the theory of relativity. But what purpose is served by the deep emotional unease, pain, or even agony, that we feel when we are unable to satisfy our cravings for finding patterns, especially big patterns, or the biggest pattern of all, which is how all these other patterns fit together–the “meaning of life” (yes, patterns are essentially identical to what we call “meaning”)–even in the case where there is no pattern to be found? (The millions of people who are desperately seeking the big pattern by pursuing whatever form of religion or practice or devotion or philosophy are, at one level, hardly different from the crack addict furiously looking for his next fix. Of course, just as not everyone develops an addition to drugs, not everyone develops an addiction to finding patterns. In both cases, I suppose it is, like most other things, a matter of so-called epigenetics.