A dialog of thoughts and ideas about software, usability, and products, with random science and wacky ideas thrown in for good measure.

Data Point 1: Since its inception, Groupon has quickly shot up in valuation. They even passed on at least one offer for a buy-out from Google. Groupon inspired a whole genre of similar services, including specialized daily coupon services aimed towards specific geographic and demographic sets (e.g., Bostonians, mothers), and big players like Google and Facebook are launching (or have launched) rival services. Seems like an indefatigable genre, until people started realizing that despite getting fantastic offers through Groupon, customers exhibited little loyalty to the places at which they got those great deals. (A good article at HBR that discusses some business model angles that I won't touch on in this post: The Problem with Groupon's Business Model)

Data Point 2: An analysis company, Localytics, has found that 26% of downloaded apps are used only once. According to their data collected in 2010, this number has grown over time (source). Another firm, Pinch Media, in 2009 found that, when obtaining a free app from the App Store, only 20% of users used the app the next day; the number was slightly higher for paid apps (30%). Pinch also found that 1% of people become long-term users of the apps they downloaded (source).

Data Point 3: As of writing this post, I follow 776 people on Twitter (source). Over time, I have selectively and purposefully followed these 776 people or organizations, and their posts provide a rich stream of information that keeps me abreast of technology, data, and even humor (I'm becoming a fan of some of those Twitter comics). But if Twitter went away and I had to rediscover these accounts, I'd probably recall fewer than 10% of the people or organizations I'm following.

Discussion: A common thread runs through these three data points: For better or worse, there is a lack of loyalty with respect to our use of modern media. Somehow, this goes against people's expectations: when the valuation of Groupon started to drop, it was undoubtedly a surprise to many. Analytic companies are surprising us by revealing that people don't frequently revisit apps they downloaded a few days ago. It's as if users of modern media are always looking for the next shiny thing. They spend a little time with their new toys, then they move on.

In the wake of this movement, there must be archived cruft - do people actually remove the apps they don't use anymore, or do they hang around? Am I still following Twitter users from two years ago who haven't said anything interesting (or at all) lately? I'm even guilty of this movement when I download music from Amazon or games from Steam - when was the last time I listened to those albums or played those games I downloaded a year ago?

While this is definitely not a new problem (source: personal experience!), it seems to be magnified by modern media. Is this just human nature? Is this an effect of massively available media? It is certainly an interesting study within behavioral economics. I'm sure Groupon would love to know how to reel people back to regain some of its steam.

In my continuing research of how creative people find inspiration in existing works, I've been exploring the inspiration behind John William's music. I started down this path when I happened to be listening to Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and I thought it sounded an awful lot like "Anakin's Theme"; within a week, I noticed the similarity between Holst's "Mars, Bringer of War" and the opening theme from Revenge of the Sith.

In the course of my exploration, I discovered a fascinating use of a musical motif that I had to share. You are likely familiar with the "Emperor's Throne Room" theme from Return of the Jedi. This is one of my favorite pieces of dark theme music. The theme includes the following motif:

Perhaps fewer of you will recall, or will want to recall, the celebratory music at the end of The Phantom Menace. This theme, called "Augie's Great Municipal Band," has a chorus of children singing the following motif:

Now here's the cool part: These are the same motif! They are played at very different tempos and with much different instrumentation, but the underlying structure the same. Perhaps this is reminding us that Chancellor Palpatine was the true victor (and perhaps the title character) of The Phantom Menace.

Here is the "Augie's Great Municipal Band" motif slowed down and re-picthed - notice it is now a little closer to the "Emperor's Throne Room" theme:

Pretty cool!

("Steal My Idea" shamelessly stolen from Jeff Chausse)

I use the Catch the Bus app to figure out when I can expect to be on a warm ride before my 20-minute wintery walk around the pond to work. We've had so much snow lately that some roads are reduced to single lanes, and high piles of snow make turning corners very difficult and risky. Traffic has been really slow! This wreaks havoc on apps like Catch the Bus, which must use the GPS location of buses combined with the approximate speed limit of a street to tell you when the bus is coming.

I could see the next bus a half mile down the road, and it was quite clear that the slow traffic would delay this bus by another 3 minutes, despite Catch the Bus telling me I had < 1 minute to wait.

Here's the idea that I want somebody to steal: with the GPS coordinates, you know where the buses are, and given two GPS coordinates and time, you know how slow the traffic is moving. Remember how slow the traffic is moving for segments of roads, and use that value to determine approximately when the next bus is coming.

That's it. Use real-time speed data to predict the arrival time for a bus, instead of relying on a static value for road speed.

When weather events come close to surpassing a previous record, part of me hopes the record is indeed topped, because that would at least make the trouble feel worth something. In Boston, we've had around 70-77 inches of snow so far - still shy of the 1995/1996 record of 107 inches, but winter's not over yet.

How will we better cope with snowfall 20, 50, or 100 years from now? Here are some ideas.

1. Sidewalks that are white in the summer, black in the winter. The darker surface would absorb more of the sun's energy and help melt the snow and ice, while the white summer color would keep the sidewalk cool.

2. Robots that clear the snow. Can we please call them "snowbots"? And unlike iRobot's Roomba or Robomow's mowers, I really want these snowbots to be anthropomorphic. After all, we'd have to buy snow shovels for these guys, right? They'll have to be aware enough to make sure the sidewalks aren't slippery for the kids walking to school, prioritizing that over brushing off the car. And they have to want a nice hot chocolate when they're done.

3. This business of mining salt from a salt mine so we can distribute it over snowy streets all over the country seems to have a limited life. No matter how huge the salt mines are, they'll run out (kind of like the phosphorus mines, and that's really scary). And then what? It seems we need some 21st Century sewer technology that can reclaim minerals (and, more widely, pollutants) for recycling. 

4. Black snow. This would definitely make better science fiction (the black snow nanodust escapes the lab and threatens to inhabits all life!) than science fact, but my idea is that black snow would melt more quickly than white snow because it will absorb more solar energy.

5. And, of course, flamethrowers.

I've been solving puzzles in the MIT Mystery Hunt with Codex since 2003. We've always done pretty well, coming in the top three or so teams, and victory always felt a few puzzles away. Well, this past weekend, we won the MIT Mystery Hunt!

Our team was even mentioned in a Boston Globe article about this year's hunt.

We did it! Our reward? We get to plan next year's hunt, carrying on a 30-year-old tradition that has inspired similar puzzle hunts around the world.

If you're interested in the types of puzzles one finds at the MIT Mystery Hunt, here are a few that have been made publicly available (all of the puzzles probably will be available soon). Pointillisme taught me something I never knew before; I'm now a bit more worldly. (I've shamelessly borrowed this list from the Boston Globe article)