How to (not) make money with hotels

July 18th, 2009

A two week travel in California, and staying at more hotels than I care to enumerate, I remained impressed with the innovative methods through which the hotels choose not to make money.

The phone

In all its antiquated, yellowed glory, with the label that calls are charged at the AT&T operator assisted rates + 50%. Operator assisted rates: I did not know that this still existed in 2009. I wonder how much revenue all these phones deployed in hotels across US are bringing in to AT&T and the hotels  (let’s say: maybe they catch an innocent person once a while, but only once in a lifetime).

And the hotels benefit by providing the perception that they are voracious profiteers going after the gullible.

The minibar

Filled in with all those goodies, in ridiculously small packages which have to be done on special order. Some of them even have their own branded peanuts, for $6 a pack. Everything about 10 times retail prices. I wonder how much revenue all these minibars deployed in hotels across US are bringing to the hotels (let’s say: maybe they catch an innocent person once a while, but only once in a lifetime).

And the hotels benefit by providing the perception that they are voracious profiteers going after the gullible.


There was one hotel where the wireless internet was charged at $15 / day with no possibility of longer term subscription. This is a lot more expensive than the one charged for in-flight WiFi. For a family with one child, that would have been $45 / day for our respective laptops. $540 for a 12 day vacation. For internet. How many people take this? Ok, some desperate people, very occasionally. I wonder how much profit… you know the rest.

And the hotels benefit by providing the perception … you know the rest.

Ok, here is a counter-example. We have been at a hotel in Lisbon, Portugal (As Janelas Verdes). Four stars, I think, relatively expensive for Lisbon standards. But then we asked for some milk, and they brought us a full one quart pitcher, and they charged 2 euro. Which is kinda the price they paid in the store for it.

Now: they could have brought us a minibar size 1/2 cup can, and charged 8 euro. Which wouldn’t have added to their revenue at all, as we would have not taken it.

But maybe some hotels operators think that they owe it to themselves to push these high margin services, which don’t bring money.

User modeling (was: stupid word processors)

March 23rd, 2009

Was editing an exam in OpenOffice, and I had to make a table with headings showing resources: r1, r2, r3… As I was typing them in, OpenOffice writer was happily capitalizing them behind me: R1,R2, R3… As this was incorrect, I had to go back and change it back to r1, r2, r3… And OO was capitalizing them again: R1, R2, R3… I had to go through some significant acrobatics to let it leave where as it was (exiting the cell downwards, rather than leftwards, and weird stuff like that).

Now, two issues:

  • Apparently the OpenOffice background processor can not figure out that a word like r1 is probably not a regular lexical word subject to capitalization. ‘Cause English words do come with numbers in them. But this is the least problem.
  • It seems that the OpenOffice system does not have a minimal model of the user. It only knows about the document (BTW, Microsoft Word is just like that). Well, if you are automatically doing things to the documents, like these programs do, then you probably see document editing, where you are trying to help the user achieve what it wants. If that is what you really want, then probably the first rule is: “If you have done a change, and the user had gone back and reverted that change right away, then probably the user wants it like that, so do not change it back again“. What this means, though,  is that you need a user model as well as a document model, and in this case, the document model is overridden by the user model. Now, by the way, implementing this particular thing would be an afternoon’s work, if somebody wants to do it right – eg. after I have fixed the first R1 –> r1, the system might guess that I don’t want it to mess with r2 in the next cell.

Now, I know that the OpenOffice guys have limited resources, but Microsoft???

Pinocchio and Thomas Acquinas

March 18th, 2009

It came to pass that in 1270 the students of the University of Paris were gathering to hear a lecture on Aristotle by the famous Doctor Angelicus. How surprised were they, when they were told that they will be presented a virtual lecture: the lecturer will be represented by an avatar (a wood doll with a long nose), and the text delivered by a ventriloquist.

When asked in an exit survey whether they thought that the delivery mode improved on the instruction (yes / somewhat / limited) and whether they could understand the ventriloquist (yes / somewhat / limited), many of them sneaked out through alternative exits.

The ones who showed up for the next lecture had a real interest in puppetry. The ones interested in Aristotle went somewhere else.

Consciousness, qualia, and a creature with an exploding brain

August 14th, 2008

I don’t understand all this mystery talk surrounding consciousness and qualia (which appears to go on forever in certain artificial intelligence circles). I think that there are very satisfactory technical definitions for both of them.

Consciousness: the instantaneous state of the mind, including qualia (internal and external perceptions), and reflections. We assume that these are encoded in neural firing patterns, but we shouldn’t forget about the nerve input from various body parts and sensors, as well as the brain configuration and neurotransmitter levels which make a certain firing pattern possible.

Qualia: the part of the conscious state dealing with an external perception. I assume that qualia has fuzzy borders, and the remainder of the conscious state can be, to some level part of it.

Reflections: any part of the consciousness which does not deal with direct perception. It can deal with: past qualia, past reflections, future plans, it can try to envision qualia or perceptions which it had not encountered yet etc.

Why does qualia appear mysterious: because we are not able to reproduce it completely. A reflection about a past qualia can not bring the complete qualia in mind (for obvious reasons). Examples of obvious reasons: we would need to reproduce the external sensory inputs, the neurotransmitter levels, etc.

Why does consciousness appear mysterious: because we are not able to reproduce it completely.

Another issue her is that when we say that we want to “understand” qualia / consciousness, we do not really mean that we want to reproduce a past qualia / conscious state. In fact, reproduction, with some level of approximation, is possible. Eg. I can experience the qualia of eating an apple when hungry. It is harder to reproduce the experience of seeing the Grand Canyon might be difficult to reproduce the second time, as the reflections about past visits will be part of the conscious state.

So the statement that qualia and consciousness are mysterious are simply the (correct) fact that reflections about a qualia are not the brain state as the original qualia. There is the practical obstacle of the fixed wiring of the human brain: for instance, neural patterns in the first level of sensory data processing levels (eg primary visual cortex) are part of the visual qualia, and probably cannot be “borrowed” for a reflection.

I think that the only kind of being who can successfully reflect on its own consciousness is one which (a) has a dynamically reconfigurable brain and (b) has an exponentially expanding brain which at any given moment of time contains its complete previous conscious state as a reflection in the new conscious state.

Now, we can try to visualize for ourselves this creature with the exploding brain, and decide whether we want to be like him/her.

What is it like to be a bat (or Britney Spears, or me, yesterday)?

August 10th, 2008

I was re-reading the classic Thomas Nagel paper “What is it like to be a bat?”. First, of course, one need to accept the premise that there is something like “subjective consciousness”. But, let us take this premise and run with it.

What Nagel is arguing is that there is no way for me, a human, to know what is it like to be a bat, because we cannot recreate the experiences of a bat. We have a different brain and body structure, we do not have a wing, we do not have a sonar, and so on.

I think that he is right, but he is missing the real gap.

What about trying to understand what is it like to be Britney Spears? I don’t have her gender, age, experiences. One might claim that structurally I am closer to Britney than to a bat, so maybe my understanding of how it is to be her might be “closer” (provided I can create a distance measure on such a thing).

But now an easy one (for me). What was it like to be me, this morning? The facts are there: the sun was shining, and I was having a headache. My perceptions of the external world and the internal world created something which Nagel would call “experience”. Right now, the headache is gone and it is nighttime. I can describe my feelings this morning, verbally, but I can not trick my mind to feel a headache or my eyes to see sunlight.

I do not know how it was to be me this morning. The gap between the actual moment of experience, and the attempt to reproduce it later is much larger, than the gap between my experiences, Britney’s experiences, or the bat’s.

PS: Of course, I know what it is for me to finish writing this blog entry. But wait… it is gone.

Recognizing creativity

January 18th, 2008

I went to the AI Forum meeting today, here at EECS/UCF. The topic is about creativity on computers. As the computers are not really perceived as creative, such discussions always end up steering towards creativity in art, advertising and propping the door open (*).

But, then, surprise, surprise: a much more technical definition arises from Ken Stanley : creative is what impresses me. That is, a solution is creative if it makes me say: “Gee, that would have never occurred to me”.

This sounds relativistic and philosophical, but in fact it is easy to formalize. Let us assume that we have a search problem and a search algorithm H after time deltaT did not find a solution. Then, the algorithm is presented with a solution c, which we assume that the algorithms can verify.

Questio: how can the algorithm establish whether it would have ever found that solution of if it would have taken a very long time? I have a feeling that in the extreme this problem might prove to be just as complex as the search itself. But one can imagine some simple approximation algorithms: a solution is creative if it can not be reached with the existing operators, if it is found on paths which run against the heuristics, if it has steps which are very far from gradient descent, and so on. This way, you might even determine which steps in the solution are creative and so on.

So there are no creative solutions in abstract. The creativity is always relative to a particular heuristic. There are no creative solutions, only bad heuristics. In the land of supermen, Bicycle Repairman is the creative one.

(*) At UCF, propping the door open is almost exclusively done with the garbage can; not much creativity there.

Walk score

November 24th, 2007

Well, one of the interesting uses of Google Maps is the Walk Score website – from a typed in address it infers how walking friendly the neighborhood is. It seems that it looks up the closest restaurant, grocery store, bookstore and so on, and calculates the score based on whether I can walk there or not.

Without further ado: the score for our Orlando house is 12: which means: Driving Only: Virtually no neighborhood destinations within walking range. You can walk from your house to your car!

I would add to this that the score is somewhat optimistic, as it does not take into consideration whether the closest destination is acceptable – in my case, the closest “general purpose” bookstore is 3 miles away, well, good luck with that.

The new wave of software?

December 5th, 2006

I was looking for an easy way to create blogs for a while, and I stumbled upon TiddlyWiki I think it is safe to say that there is a completely new set of applications hanging around which are breaking new ground compared to the classical way of working with C/C++/Java whatever. TiddlyWiki is a single HTML (!) file, and it is programmed in Html, CSS and Javascript. A similar revelation was Scrapbook, which is a little Firefox extension which allows you to capture the webpages you are visiting, and potentially edit and comment them. (Here editing mostly refers to cleanup – in sense of removing all the adds, links and other @#$% which infects todays pages – it is providing a little tool called the DOM Eraser for this). I was looking of the source for a while – and then I realized that the whole thing is implemented in JavaScript – and it was a 65KB (!) download. And inevitably, one needs to think about all the AJAX (supposedly, asynchronous javascript and xml) type of interfaces which are popping up everywhere. The most obvious ones being the Google mail and mapping applications – but of course there are many others – including most of the new online mailers from Microsoft and Yahoo. I am ambivalent about all this furry of new applications:

  • they put back the fun in hacking – they allow very small applications to be useful – this was not true for a long time.
    • BUT: they are annoyingly hackish and spend a lot of effort to do things for which clean implementations exist. Designing active user interfaces in HTML is an unqualified nightmare (and that includes tag libraries, server faces etc). And that when user interface libraries are the poster child of clean object oriented design! Seems like a step back to me.
  • the apps are undoubtedly cool and useful. I use them all the time.
    • BUT: they won’t scale. I am not talking of GMail AJAX – obviously what you see in a single page can be handled, and everything else goes on the server side, whatever that be. But unfortunately TiddlyWiki and Scrapbook can not become the big generalized knowledge repositories we are all dreaming of – their architecture simply does not permit this.

Tabbed console in Windows XP

July 6th, 2006

Guess what, I can finally do the same thing in Windows XP what I could do in KDE for about five years: namely have a tabbed command line. Which means that I can log in to multiple remote hosts and I don’t need to clutter my desktop with 100 open CMD terminals, which by the way, have the wonderful property that they show up exactly identical on the task list. And they also change their order in the Ctrl-Tab list, such that you can never remember which is which. Ok, so the miracle software is Console, it was written by a fellow called Marko Bozikovic. Thanks Marko!
Ok, so this is not the whole thing, of course, because then you need a command line ssh client. The whole thing was that I kept waiting for putty to become multitab, no? So there is a command line interface to putty, called plink. I have thrown both of them in a directory in the path, and then I can type plink in the Console. Rather cool.

Future University of Hakodate

May 22nd, 2006

I have just came back from Japan, where the agent conference was organized at the location of the Future University of Hakodate (FUN), a recently established engineering school which had built a “futuristic” building, which is housing the _entire_ university (although their current degree offerings are basically what our SEECS is, with some industrial engineering thrown in the mix). Their building concept was based on the idea of openness: basically all the walls are glass, the graduate student offices are in the “open air”, meeting rooms are just demarcated areas in a wide open area, etc. I thought I will share with you some of the pictures I had taken. I am not hundred percent sure I like the idea, but it is intriguing.