Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hoping for better weather in 2007...

Been fairly preoccupied the last couple weeks, for a number of reasons. Among them, the simple fact that when your neighborhood looks like a tornado came through it, blogging tends to get bumped down a notch or two on the priority list.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I posted about the record rainfall and a real snow storm here in Seattle, after which people told me that "the weather isn't usually this bad". Nevertheless, since then, we've had:
I think that counts as enough for one year. Can winter be over now?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Google Holiday Party

Friday's Google Kirkland Holiday Party featured what one might expect at a Google company party - great food, classic video games, casino tables, and the Google logo as an ice sculpture.

I spent a fair amount of time at the blackjack tables. I like blackjack because it is a game that, if played carefully, can result in a player advantage over the house. Typically, in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, the house holds a 0.35% edge (with a 4 deck shoe) over the player, assuming the player plays the optimal blackjack strategy effectively. This edge can be erased and turned into a player advantage if the player keeps a hi/lo count, i.e. whether the chance of a ten being dealt is likely or not. However, doing so requires a lot of concentration, and playing even a few hands incorrectly can be very damaging. Recalling recent experiences in both AC and Vegas, it is extremely hard to keep the necessary concentration with all the flashing lights, buzzers, and general "this is real money we're playing with here" pressure.

So, Google's casino was a nice chance to play for fun in a low pressure enviroment. I got an initial stake of $30K (play money), and playing the basic strategy, built that into $100K in a relatively short time. The house rules here weren't posted, but I quickly found that they were VERY favorable to the player, including support for 5 card charlies, 2-1 payout on blackjacks, and something I hadn't seen before, pushes count as a win for the player.

Looking at the odds, support for 5 card charlies is a net gainer of 1.46%, and 2-1 on blackjacks is worth an extra 2.27%. Taking into account just those two rule changes, I was looking at a 3.38% advantage, and assuming about a 6% value for payout on pushes, the net player advantage was probably about 10%. With a number like that, you expect to double your money about every 7-8 hands, and I was able to do that several times over the evening.

When the dealer informed us that the casino part was about to shut down, I had chips totaling about $1M. There were prizes for the top 3 winners, and looking around, I saw at least two people who had what appeared to be bigger piles. Not wanting to lose out on account of being too careful with play money, I went all in on the last hand...

The dealer had a blackjack. Ouch.

If you find blackjack strategy or odds interesting, there is a lot to read at The Wizard of Odds.

Update: I found out from this site that about 9% of blackjack hands result in a push. So the player edge was actually over 12%. Will have to keep in mind for next time...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

IM Client Detection from the Web

Many of today's IM clients add things during installation so that they can be detected by web pages. Most of them use a fairly standard technique to do so; they install an ActiveX object, which can be detected by IE, and register a MIME type than can be detected by Firefox/Mozilla. I took a few minutes and put together a page that checks for all of these various object and types, and it's able to detect most of today's major IM clients fairly reliably. (Google Talk's detection mechanism doesn't allow detection from arbitrary web pages, and I couldn't find any info on ICQ). The result is displayed in a table like the one above (just an image, not live detection).

Try it out on your system, and please leave a comment if it didn't work or returned incorrect results for you (there are some known issues in Firefox). If you're curious about how it does its thing, please check out the source for the page - it's really quite simple once you know the CLSIDs and MIME types to look for.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Yes, it snows in Seattle.

When I was planning our move to Seattle, I did some research on the actual amount of rainfall in Seattle. According to the historical data, Seattle averages 36 inches of rainfall per year, less than Washington DC (39 inches) and New York (40 inches). So, I was perplexed: where did this reputation for "Rain City" come from? Well, it didn't take long to find out: this November has brought rain just about every day, resulting in over 15 inches of rain in this month alone.

It all gets more interesting when a really cold front moves in; that rain quickly becomes snow. Which, in a city that is somewhat hilly and not used to snow, does seem like it could create some serious complications.

Nevertheless, as I prepared to drive my brother to the airport last night, I thought: how bad could it be? The temperature was barely below freezing, and I figured the road crews had had all day to salt and sand the interstates. So we left from Kirkland just after 7:30, which seemed like plenty of time to make a 10:30 PM flight.

As we moved quickly down 405 South past Factoria, it looked like we would be way early. It was only 8:00 and we had just a dozen miles to go. Sure, traffic on 405 North was heavy - but we had been hearing on the radio that locations north of the city were very icy, so this was unsurprising. We passed Exit 9 for Newcastle - and everything stopped.

Not to worry, I thought - there must be a lane closed up ahead, and once we get past the bottleneck, it'll be smooth sailing. After all, we had plenty of time.

But 9:00 came around, and we had barely moved 3 miles. My brother called the airport and found out the flight had been delayed until 11:00 PM. Get there before 10:00, they said, and you'll be fine. But as the snow fell harder and started to accumulate, I began to feel not so fine. Where was the salt and the sand? We started to see cars abandoned on the side of the road.

It was just before 10:00 when we came to a small incline on 405 South between exits 4 and 2. Cars were scattered all over the roadway, pointing in all directions, flashers on, not moving. Curiously, nobody seemed to be doing anything about it. Traffic split into 3 streams, as it was possible for a car to get by on the left shoulder, the right shoulder, or through the center of the stuck vehicles. I chose the left shoulder. Bad choice! The shoulder was completely ice, and as we tried to squeeze by a stuck SUV, the lateral grade of the road sent us sliding toward it. After stopping just inches from the SUV, we were too close to attempt any further forward maneuvers. It was now 10:10 and we were still at least 5 miles from the airport; things were looking quite grim. I threw it in reverse and created some space. A kind person then let us into the center stream of traffic, and we threaded between the SUV and another car oriented in an odd direction.

That mess allowed just a few cars to eke their way through every minute, so the road ahead was mostly empty. Snow was still falling and there was a fair amount of built-up ice on the road, but it was possible to stay in the tracks of the car we were following and maintain a reasonable speed (20 mph). Another call to the airport revealed that we had been given another 10 minutes, with the flight now leaving at 11:10. There was still hope...

We pressed on and exited toward the airport just after 10:30. The road here was less clear, with the pavement visible in only one lane. We slowed slightly as we followed the sign for Departures.

At last, we arrived at the Delta terminal at 10:38. I dropped my brother at the checkin desk and headed for the parking garage in case our efforts had been in vain. I climbed the stairs to the top of the garage to take a look at the roads back home (picture above). Unfortunately, there were brake lights as far as I could see - and hundreds of people waiting for taxis at the empty taxi stand. I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be sleeping at the airport.

Fortunately, my brother made his flight (barely). And I learned a valuable tip - if you need to sleep at Sea-Tac, head for the children's play area, located near the security checkpoint for B/C gates. There are soft, detachable mats around the playset that double nicely as a mattress, along with electrical outlets to charge your phone/computer. The nearby walls also protect you from chilly drafts from the outside (still, you'll want to wear a coat and hat). Far better than trying to get comfortable in one of those airport chairs...

Monday, November 27, 2006

Tour of Google's Kirkland office

Robert Scoble (professional blogger, formerly at Microsoft) stopped by the Google office here in Kirkland, and we were nice enough to show him around. Watch the video at ScobleShow.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Interesting statistic...

I took my Jetta in to the dealer the other day for a warranty issue, and while I was waiting in the showroom I noticed one of the Jettas on the floor was covered with various stickers. The stickers were all of the form "VW owners are XX% more/less likely to ___________", with the "more likely"s being generally positive things (e.g. work out, read a book) and the "less likely"s being negative things. Apparently VW surveyed its owners and created a marketing campaign around the results.

One particular sticker (above) grabbed my attention. Some other related "more likely"s:
"72% more likely to chat online" and "102% more likely to have watched video online".

Of course, this is a marketing campaign, so who knows how carefully the survey was conducted. Nevertheless, if you find factoids about VW users interesting, there is a version of the survey on the Web at

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Google Maps adds "Click-to-call"

Now, when you do a search for a business (in the US), the search results display a call link next to the phone number of the business. Clicking this link brings up a field where you can enter in your own phone number. When you click the "Connect for free" button, Google will ring your phone at the number you supplied, and your (free) call will be connected. No microphone, no software needed - it uses your existing phone. Your phone number will also be saved so that you won't need to enter it again the next time.

Here's a search for pizza restaurants in Kirkland... click, click, and order!

For more info, see the announcement on the official Google blog.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

orkut + talk

Google's orkut social networking site is now integrated with Google Talk. When you log into orkut, you'll see presence information for each of your orkut friends, and can launch an IM window by clicking on them. You'll also receive notifications when people leave scraps (comments) on your orkut page. And if you choose the "Automatically include all orkut friends" option (the default), your Google Talk friends will be kept in sync with your orkut friends.

Here's my (admittedly boring) orkut page.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Offline messages in Google Talk

Yesterday, the Google Talk team turned on offline messages on the Talk service. It works pretty much how you would expect - if you send a message to someone who is marked as Offline in your Friends list, they will receive that message the next time they log in to Google Talk, or in their Gmail inbox. There is one restriction - in order to receive offline messages, the recipient must have chat history archiving enabled, and not be off-the-record. If this is not the case, you will get the typical error " is offline and can't receive messages right now" when trying to send the message.

For XMPP clients using the Google Talk network, this feature is implemented in accordance with XEP-0160 (Best Practices for Handling Offline Messages).

You can read more about using the offline messaging feature at this help page.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Google in Kirkland

Most people are surprised when I tell them that I'm working out of Google's Kirkland, WA office. Many have no idea that Google has a presence outside of California - even including many residents of Kirkland - and the rest wonder how much interesting stuff is allowed to happen away from Google HQ.

In short, there's a lot happening in the Kirkland office. With 200+ employees, the office is big enough that it's not just a satellite to Mountain View. Here are just some of the projects that are being worked on in Kirkland:
Kirkland's got a number of other things going for it as well. Recently the Chicagoist website did an interview with some engineers from Google's Chicago office (yes, there is an office there too), asking them why they chose to remain in Chicago instead of moving to California. Since I had had a similar dilemma in choosing between Kirkland and Mountain View, I read this with great interest. The responses were classic:
"It's much more livable [in Chicago]... I could sell my home right now and buy a shed in Silicon Valley. A small shed."
"I would gladly sit through six or seven months of Chicago winter to experience fall."
"I have a kid and I'd much rather raise him in Chicago. San Francisco has more pets than kids."
Substitute "Kirkland" for "Chicago", and you've captured what I was thinking at the time.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

White & Nerdy

While Weird Al Yankovic' "White & Nerdy" resonated with a number of us here at Google, many lamented that it excludes a good part of Google's diverse workforce. When asked whether Weird Al might consider a more inclusive version of the song, his agent was unenthusiastic:
"While Weird Al is willing to poke fun at all races equally, his profession is an artform. We trust that our non-white audience can simply enjoy identification with being 'Nerdy'."

Monday, October 23, 2006

President Bush loves "the Google"

CNBC recently did a interview with President Bush, where he was asked if he ever used Google. From his response, he seems to be a fan:

HOST: I’m curious, have you ever googled anybody? Do you use Google?

BUSH: Occasionally. One of the things I’ve used on the Google is to pull up maps. It’s very interesting to see — I’ve forgot the name of the program — but you get the satellite, and you can — like, I kinda like to look at the ranch. It remind me of where I wanna be sometimes.

You can watch the video over at ThinkProgress.

Also, you can find the president's Crawford, TX ranch on this Google Maps search.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Customer satisfaction of the major IM networks...

J.D. Power, long known for its customer satisfaction surveys, has done a satisfaction survey of the major IM networks. The results are somewhat surprising (at least to me). Rankings on a 1000 point scale:

791 - Yahoo! Messenger
782 - MSN Messenger (includes WLM)
766 - Windows Messenger (preinstalled with XP)
762 - Instant Messaging Average
746 - Google Talk
744 - Trillian
743 - AIM/AOL Instant Messenger
Seeing Yahoo! in the top position was unexpected (I would have thought MSN), but it is also interesting how tightly grouped the rankings are. With a standard deviation of only 20 points, I wonder what the margin of error for the survey is. Also note the absence of ICQ and Skype.

Nevertheless, as we move toward a world with IM interoperability, customer satisfaction becomes much more important, since users will be able to choose the IM network they want to use. The eventual winners will be the networks that focus on the end-users, rather than short-term monetization.

The survey also reported these interesting factoids:
  • The percentage of Internet users who use IM on a daily basis, 36%, was essentially unchanged from 2005, while text messaging usage continued to grow.
  • IM replaced the use of traditional phones, to some degree, for almost 70% of IM users.
You can read more details on the survey at BigBlueBall.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

So where exactly is Kirkland?

I'm working out of Google's Kirkland office, and when I tell people that, the next question usually is "Kirkland... where is that?" (or less polite versions)

Well, Kirkland is a suburb of Seattle, just across Lake Washington (map). It's right on the lake, and with its downtown area, public waterfront, and numerous parks (including two with free wireless), there's a lot of stuff to do. It's also only about a 15-20 minute drive from Google's office in downtown Kirkland to downtown Seattle, making it (IMO) a good balance between city and suburban living. Naturally, people have their own preferences - an unscientific poll of Kirkland Googlers reveals that people without kids tend to live in Seattle, whereas those with families live in Kirkland or elsewhere on the Eastside.

I've been living in Kirkland for a few weeks, and so far, it's been really nice, although I hear the rainy season is about to start. Here are some Kirkland resources that I like to check out:
Kirkland Weblog
Kirkland Photo Pool

Along with some official sites:
Kirkland Tourism Official Site
Official Kirkland City Website
Kirkland Photo Tour

Friday, October 13, 2006

Spending VC money wisely

Stopped by meebo's new (and still under construction) offices in Mountain View yesterday for a non-work-related visit. Like Google, meebo is all about products that focus on a great user experience - and it's enabled them to carve out a decent niche in a space with nontrivial barriers to adoption.

It doesn't seem to have gone to their heads though:
meebo registered users: 500,000+
meebo office signage cost: $.05 (possibly less)

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Just want to say thanks to everyone who wrote in to wish me well on my transition to Google. Between leaving my old job, selling our house, moving across the country, finding a new place, and starting a new job, it's been a hectic 3 weeks.

Amazingly, news of my move was even picked up by some websites/blogs, each with their own spin on things:
Digg (WebProNews)
WebProNews (another article)

I also learned of some great Google Talk-related sites that linked to this blog:
Customize Talk (Wow... very comprehensive resource for Talk hacks)
Google Habla (in Spanish, naturally)

Thanks again, everyone!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

First Impressions at Google

I am now a Googler. It's been almost 10 years since I last started a new job, and it feels a little weird.

During orientation, we were asked what terms we would use to describe Google. My choice: "colorful". More than just the choice of palette, everything (and everyone) at Google seems to have a bit of a whimsical bent. As a former co-worker once put it: "When you use a Google product, you feel like it's giving you a little hug."

I now understand that this "colorful" attitude has a practical benefit as well: it helps take my mind off the fact that I need to understand and master countless new tools and systems essential to my job, preferably by the end of the week... Posted by Picasa

Sunday, October 08, 2006

First post

A warm welcome to readers of my previous blog, "Tales of a Running Man", about life at AOL and the AOL Instant Messenger system.

Now that I will be working for Google, I intend this new blog to be a similar look at life inside Google and the various projects I work on. Not sure exactly what I'll be allowed to post, but I should find out in employee orientation tomorrow...