The promise of Big Data has been courting many a CIO for years now, the allure being that all the data they have on everything can be fed into some giant engine that will then spit out insights for them. However like all things the promise and the reality are vastly different beasts and whilst there are examples of Big Data providing never before seen insights it hasn’t really revolutionized industries in the way other technologies have. A big part of that is that Big Data tools aren’t push button solutions, requiring a deep understanding of data science in order to garner the insights you seek. IBM’s Watson however is a much more general purpose engine, one that I believe could potentially deliver on the promises that its other Big Data compatriots have made.
The problem I see with most Big Data solutions is that they’re not generalizable, I.E. a solution that’s developed for a specific data set (say a logistics company wanting to know how long it takes a package to get from one place to another) will likely not be applicable anywhere else. This means whilst you have the infrastructure and capability to generate insights the investment required to attain them needs to be reapplied every time you want to look at the data in a different way or if you have other data that requires similar insights to be derived from it. Watson on the other hand falls more into the category of a general purpose data engine that can ingest all sorts of data and provide meaningful insights, even to things you wouldn’t expect like helping to author a cookbook.
The story behind how that came about is particularly interesting as it showed what I feel is the power of Big Data without the required need to have a data science degree to exploit it. Essentially Watson was fed with over 9000 (ha!) recipes from Bon Appétit‘s database which was then supplemented with the knowledge it has around flavour profiles. It then used all this information to derive new combinations that you wouldn’t typically think of and then provided them back to the chefs to prepare. Compared to traditional recipes the ingredient lists that Watson provided were much longer and involved however the results (which should be mostly attributed to the chefs preparing them) were well received showing that Watson did provide insight that would otherwise have been missed.
That’d just be an impressive demonstration of data science if it wasn’t for the fact that Watson is now being used to provide similar levels of insight across a vast number of industries from medical to online shopping to even matching remote workers with employers seeking their skills. Whilst it’s far short of what most people would class as a general AI (it’s more akin to a highly flexible expert system on the data it’s provided) Watson has shown that it can be fed a wide variety of data sets and can then be queried in a relatively straightforward way. It’s that last part that I believe is the secret sauce to making Big Data usable and it could be the next big thing for IBM.
Whether or not they can capitalize on that though is what will determine if Watson becomes the one Big Data platform to rule them all or simply an interesting footnote in the history of expert systems. Watson has already proven its capabilities numerous times over so fundamentally it’s ready to go and the responsibility now resides with IBM to make sure it gets in the right hands to further develop it. Watson’s presence is growing slowly but I’m sure a killer app isn’t too far off for it.
I’m absolutely terrible at cooking. It’s not that I can’t follow a recipe or anything like that, more it’s to do with the fact that I don’t particularly enjoy the cooking process all that much, seeing it as more of a necessity rather than something that can be enjoyed for its own right. There’s a few reasons for this, mostly being that I’ve got many other things I’d rather be doing, but I’ve also got something of a weird attitude to food that I can trace back to my childhood. Essentially it’s something of a disinterest in eating, something which I’ve struggled with as I’ve transformed myself from a 185CM 65kg person into the 90KG man beast I am today, So you can then imagine when I saw Soylent I instantly drew parallels to my own life and I was drawn in by the promise of convenience and optimal nutrition.
Soylent, for those who are unaware, is a food replacement product that’s the brainchild of Rob Rhineheart, a Y-Combinator alum who’s background is in electrical engineering, computer science and the Silicon Valley scene. It’s goal is to be a nutritionally complete food replacement that contains all the necessary things to keep your body going, and nothing that it doesn’t. Rhineheart has been working on this formula for quite some time, documenting his escapades on his personal blog, and has been fine tuning it based on how his body has been reacting to his use of it. Since he’s still alive and doesn’t appear to be suffering any ill effects there appears to be some credence to his claims although, as always, this is the Internet so it’s not surprising that a healthy dose of skepticism has been thrown his way.
As someone who already consumes quite a bit of liquid calories the appeal of Soylent to me was the fact that I could have it as an on-demand meal replacement that wasn’t stupendously expensive. You see whilst I work out a lot more than your average person the kind of gains I see are quite limited and that’s entirely due to the fact that I struggle to get enough calories in me to support said gains. Soylent then could prove to be the kicker to get me over my current gain hump as well as being that convenient meal replacement that I could go to when I just couldn’t be bothered going down to the shops to pick something up. Of course I had to start doing some digging to find out if Soylent could really do all the things it said it could do and this is where things started to unravel a bit.
The idea of a nutritionally complete meal replacement isn’t new with the most prevalent product being Ensure Complete. These products are pretty expensive by comparison however with a typical daily intake being almost an order of magnitude more expensive than Soylent claims it will be. However these other products were developed by people who are in the business of doing this and whilst I’d love to believe that Rhineheart managed to cram decades worth of biology and nutrition information into Soylent you can’t really be confident in his expertise in this area. He does say he’s been consulting with experts and that all his ingredients are FDA approved however that doesn’t mean the end product is safe, especially if it’s going to people’s sole source of nutrition.
Indeed whilst many of the short term experiments appear to have positive outlooks I can’t help but feel that Soylent may be overreaching with some its claims. This is somewhat par for the course in Silicon Valley as in order to attract attention over there you have to be “disrupting” or “reinventing” something in order to get noticed but this isn’t a photo sharing app, it’s a product that’s being marketed as being the last source of food you’ll ever need. In that regard I feel they need to temper people’s expectations as it’s entirely possible that Soylent works brilliantly for the precious few who’ve tried it (read: relatively slim IT folks, most of whom already have a healthy lifestyle) and could be an absolute train wreck for others. This is true of all nutrition and I don’t see why the current mono-formula of Soylent would be any different.
In all honesty I really want something like this to be real, safe and successful as I know it’s a product that I would end up using. However at the same time I want it to be based on solid science with the appropriate trials and review mechanisms done in order to ensure its safety. This is the same amount of scrutiny I’ve applied to all the other supplements and powders I’ve ingested over the years and I’m not about to break my rule just because it’s coming from Silicon Valley. I’m hopeful that the Soylent crew will eventually get to that point but for now I’m going to plant myself firmly on the fence.
Just a quick post to send out seasons greetings to everyone who I won’t be able to see in person today. I trust you’re having a brilliant time wherever you are, enjoying the company of loved ones and indulging yourselves in the usual festive feasts. I know I’ll probably set for the next few days after 2 hearty family meals, I should probably skip breakfast just to make room.
So enjoy yourselves, take care and I’ll see you back here when I’ve recovered 😉
Even though I’ve only been in this hotel for the past 2 nights it was already beginning to feel so normal to wake up here that it just felt like any other weekend when I opened the curtains. The bright light flooded the room revealing a bright and sunny day with the overcast clouds of the past couple days banished to the far reaches of the horizon. Still Canada’s fast approaching winter made sure that any heat gained from the sun was quickly swept away by a crisp westerly wind leaving us just a little warmer than the day before. It wouldn’t matter too much today though since we were going to downtown Montreal to do some shopping and to soak in a bit of the local culture.
After driving around looking for parking we finally found a place that wasn’t too far from Laura’s old university. She regaled us with stories of the different places and how they’d changed over the years. One of the buildings we went by was newly built by her old university for the engineering department. Seeing it made my heart soar as it reminded me of how the University of Canberra shut down its engineering department due to lack of interest. If such a magnificent building was only just erected it meant that the engineering profession was alive and well here, and had the funding to go along with it.
As usual our late rise from slumber put our first meal of the day firmly in the lunch category and since we were near Laura’s old haunts we eventually settled on a crepe house that also did all day breakfasts. The food was cheap but surprisingly filling leaving all of us pawing at the remains whilst we finished off our coffee. I have still yet to find a place that does anything resembling the coffee I’m used to (and was spoiled with on my last trip to Melbourne) so downing the rest of the brown liquid was more for the caffeine than anything else. We started to head down towards the main shopping drag which contains Montreal’s Underground City, a large shopping complex with multiple subterranean levels.
We wandered around the place for hours checking out all the local and chain shops that made up this giant underground maze. It had 4 different areas that all had their own distinct architectural style to them, ranging from giant multi-floor underground atriums to densely packed strips of shops where no space had been wasted. The christmas flair had already been brought out as well with ornaments dotting most of the shops and a giant tree in the middle of one of the large atriums festooned with all sorts of mechatronics that puts anything I’ve seen in Australia to shame. After trying to find a few items and failing we decided we should begin making our way to our dinner spot since it was booked for a rather early 6:00pm.
We arrived there with about an hour and a half to spare so we hit up one of the local cafes to burn a bit of that time. Their coffee was the closest thing I’ve had to what I’d call proper coffee since I left Australia over two weeks ago so it was refreshing to say the least. After stealing their wifi for an hour we ducked out to grab a couple bottles of wine before going to grab our seats. Interestingly enough the wine here is extremely cheap with most bottles going for under $20. Couple that with the fact that it’s considered unusual to charge corkage and the number of bottles that adorned our table was close to one per person, a queue for what the rest of the night would entail.
Laura’s friend from work had arranged this dinner for us and she had also brought her husband and another couple along for the night. Usually my innate shyness would take over here and I’d sit quietly at the end of the table, enjoying the food and being happy with just listening. However since we’re strangers in a foreign land the conversation flowed with topics of comparisons between Canada and Australia, with subjects from the trivial to the enthralling. Even though I didn’t have a terrible amount in common with these guys I still felt like we hit it off well, especially considering we kicked on at a local irish pub. There I was introduced to 2 new drinks: the black velvet and the irish car bomb.
The Black Velvet is half a pint of Guinness on top of half a pint of cider. It’s an interesting mix with the smoothness of the Guinness first hitting you with a clean cider aftertaste. The Irish Car Bomb is half a pint of Guinness with a shot of Hennessy and Baileys on the side, drunk in Jaeger Bomb fashion. I’m a bit of a gun when it comes to drinking these sorts of drinks and promptly beat everyone to the bottom. There were a few misfires and with this particular drink there’s really no second chances since the Baileys will curdle very quickly on contact with the Guinness.
It was around midnight when we retired back to our hotel after saying goodbye to our newfound friends. We did make a quick stop at the local McDonalds to get some poutine before heading home, revelling in the novelty of ordering this localised fast food. It had been an exhausting day and we all collapsed on the main bed, dozing off to one of the movies I had brought along with me. Our plans for tomorrow to visit the cultural heart of Montreal, Old Montreal, were far from our minds as we lay down to rest, our bodies thankful for the peace after our day of shenanigans.
4. That’s the number of times I hit the snooze button this morning. The bed in the hotel was so beautifully comfortable that the prospect of leaving it was more than I was willing to bear. Still I had set the alarm for a reason: I had an important task to accomplish today and it had a start time, 10:00am. The alarm dutifully went off at 9am but was slammed into silence multiple times so that I could enjoy just a few more sweet moments sprawled out under the covers. The enormity of the task I had set myself soon began to weigh on me however and I pulled myself out of bed to get ready for this monumental task.
I was going to pick up my first American rental car.
Usually this wouldn’t be much of a big deal but since I’d never driven a car in a country that drives on the wrong side of the road (even though the majority of the world does so) I was on tenterhooks as to how I would cope with it. I tried to soothe myself with some facts like the one that many countries have completely switched from one side to the other with no ill effects, even on the day of the switch. Still those first few moments when I sat in my shiny red Toyota Yaris had me scrambling to figure out which way was up, with blinkers and window wipers going crazy as I tried to gain control over my 68hp beast.
The following couple hours of driving were strikingly uneventful as I drove towards my chosen destination the Florida mall. This was due, in whole, to the fact that I got completely and hopelessly lost for those two hours. It wasn’t for the fact I didn’t know where I was going, I had looked it up before I went. No it was more due to the fact that I had no idea how to interpret 90% of the road signs and missing the other 10%. Thanks to the plentiful McDonalds restaurants that spotted the highway I was able to purloin free wifi Internet to help guide me on my way to the Florida Mall. I arrived there around lunch time and set about hunting down the places I could do the following things:
The first task was relatively easy, despite my tendency to be completely disinterested in most fast food. I eventually found a place that had a decent chicken salad and a juice bar that served up a mean fruit cocktail. Once I was flush with energy from consuming all that I went onto a shoe store called Sketches which I had seen multiple times before in other places. I managed to find two pairs of shoes that I thought were pretty decent and they had a sale going on so I grabbed both of them:
Getting my online self mobile proved to be a little more difficult however. After searching most of the store I couldn’t find anyone that sold AT&T, the only cell provider I knew would support my iPhone with 3G. As it turns out Radioshack stocks them so I hunted down one of their resellers. I had done some research prior to leaving that said all I needed to do was to buy the cheapest handset I could find and then rip the sim out of it and stick it in my phone. It made sense to this former phone salesman so I scored myself a brand new Samsung A107 for a cool $20 (including $15 credit), plus another $15 for credit (required for activation, apparently). After spending 10 minutes with the salesman getting it activated I headed off for the trip back home. On the way I, of course, got myself lost and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to switch out the sim and get the maps working.
As it turns out not only are the phones locked to the AT&T network they also lock the sim to the phone itself. After wrangling with my iPhone to get the new sim in it greeted me with a No Service error and refused to work. That, my friends, was $40 down the toilet and a couple quick Google searches confirmed that AT&T had been doing this for about a year. So much for that plan then. I’m not sure if I’ll bother trying to get an American sim now, it might just be worth grabbing a cheap-o GPS unit like my friend Nick did on his jaunt over a couple months back. That’s basically all I’d need it for anyway (and my next car apparently comes with one for free).
After dealing with my fail I managed to get myself back to the hotel and worked off the aggression with a good workout. I then had dinner at one of the local restaurants where the food was palatable, but nothing to write home about. I took this opportunity to sample one of the local beers, this one being a Sam Adams Octoberfest:
It was a decent brew, easily comparable to some of the more premium Australian lagers. I’ve become more of an Ale man over the past couple years of refining my beer palate so there wasn’t much to write home about this one but it was a decent accompaniment to my meal of skewered beef and roasted vegetables. Hopefully I’ll be able to indulge my inner beer fanatic a bit more when I’m down in Miami as I’ve read that there are some very good restaurants down there.
Casting off the exhaustion of yesterday was a good feeling and whilst my day was filled with fail it still felt good to get out and about around Florida. Tomorrow the real fun begins as I say goodbye to my plucky Yaris and trade up for a more manly set of wheels: a Z06 Corvette. I’ll also be upgrading my hotel from the Hyatt Regency to the Viceroy in Miami and by all accounts it looks to be one heck of a step up. I’m looking forward to living a little bit of the highlife down there as my suit has been aching to get out of the cramped confines of my suitcase. The heat here however has been quite intense so it will probably be a night only affair. Still with the reputation Miami’s night life has I don’t think I’ll be out of place late a night, seeking a classy encounter 🙂