Archive for March, 2009

Solution to the gambling game

A few people answered correctly to my little challenge, but not everyone.

At first sight, the rules look pretty favorable to the player: half of the time, I lose my money, but the other half, I get back at least as much as I bet.

Or do I?

Well, no. If you look at the rules carefully, you realize that what you are getting back if the roll is over 50 is not as obvious as it looks. Take the 66-75 range: you get 1.5 times your money, but you need to remember that part of this is the original bet. So if you bet $1, rolling between 66 and 75 will only make you richer by $0.5 and not $1.5. And the same applies to the other rolls.

Your gain expectation therefore is:

-1*0.50 + 0.5*0.10 + 1*0.24 + 2*0.01 = -0.19

For every dollar you bet, you will lose 19 cents.

Here is a simulation in Ruby:

fortune = 0
max = 1000000
for i in 1..max do
n = (rand * 100).round
if (n < 50) then fortune = fortune - 1
elsif (n >= 50 && n <= 64) then fortune = fortune + 0
elsif (n >= 65 && n <= 75) then fortune = fortune + 0.5
elsif (n >= 76 && n <= 99) then fortune = fortune + 1
elsif (n == 100) then fortune = fortune + 2
else puts "#{i}: n:#{n}"
puts fortune

and the output:

$ ruby ~/t/game.rb

The mistake that a few commenters made (and which I made as well initially) was to have a few extra "ones" in their gain calculation.

Do you want to play a game?

You put down some money and you roll a die between 1 and 100. Depending on your roll:

  • 1-50: I keep your money.
  • 51-65: You get your money back.
  • 66-75: You get 1.5 times your money (if you bet $1, you get $1.50)
  • 76-99: You get 2 times your money
  • 100: You get 3 times your money

Do you want to play?

Update: here is the solution

Of Kindle and web usability

Jakob Nielsen wrote a good review of the Kindle usability. All his comments match my experience.

I haven’t been bothered too much by the shortcomings that Jakob found on the Kindle, probably because my expectations are low in the area of non-linear navigation and I’m fully aware of the current limitations of electrophoretic displays. Still, Amazon should take note of these comments and try to improve the overall UI experience for the next version.

Having said that, I still find Jakob Nielsen’s web site pretty ugly. Functional, yes, pleasant to read, no. Which is paradoxical for someone who takes web usability so seriously. The most offending aspect of his articles are the frequent bold face uses.

Here is an excerpt of Nielsen’s article:

To me, these highlighted words are like high-pitch screams in the middle of a soft-spoken speech. They make me feel like I’m opening a brand new book and finding random words highlighted in yellow marker. It’s not just distracting, it actually goes against my reading because my eyes can’t help being attracted toward the emphasized words despite all my efforts to force them to follow the natural flow of the text.

If you want to communicate some kind of synthesis of your articles to your readers, take the time to write a real conclusion (or introduction) instead of resorting to this lazy word highlighting.

Overall, Nielsen’s Kindle article is still reasonably readable compared to some of the other web defiling atrocities that he usually commits on his web site (take a look at the landing page to see a good example of a web page that is functional but ugly).

Another major web offender is, of course, Paul Graham, who persists writing his columns with a hard formatting at 70 columns. Check it out, he actually inserts <br> tags manually. It’s quite comical.

The problem with this is not just that it shows utter disrespect to your readers (try resizing your window horizontally or reading his articles on your iPhone) but that it shows that Graham just doesn’t understand the underpinnings of the presentation layer of the web. On the web, you are supposed to write the content, provide a default presentation (ideally specified in CSS) and then let the consumer of your text ultimately decide what it will look like.

That consumer can be a human on a big, medium or small screen. It can be an RSS feed or a phone with a twenty column display . You just can’t know ahead of time, which is why you should perform as little formatting (especially line formatting) in your text as possible. Paragraph breaks should be your only formatting instructions, and then you leave it up to your readers to interpret what these breaks mean and how they want them formatted.

The same remark applies to emails, by the way: you should not use the return key to end your lines. Just type your text continously and when you are done with your paragraph, type return twice. If you insist on providing your own formatting, people who read your email on, say, a phone, will see it completely mangled.

Can the Kindle save the newspaper industry?

“It’s not for me!”

I started using my Kindle 2 more regularly over the past week and the device piqued the curiosity of quite a few people who saw me use it. It’s been a great opportunity to start conversations on the topic of reading and e-reading, and pretty much every person I have talked to has one big problem with the Kindle: they don’t think it is for them because they like holding, feeling and even smelling of books.

I have been there. As I described in my previous post, it takes a mental paradigm change to realize that this urge is not as strong as it initially seems. I know I got over it pretty quickly, especially when I realized that about 90% of the books I read are easily forgettable and that I thought I could use the bookshelves space for books or items that I feel more strongly about. Please read the linked article for a more in-depth analysis of why letting go of physical books turns out to be much easier than it looks.

Nobody likes holding newspapers

While the attachment to the feel of physical books cannot be denied, I have yet to hear anyone say that they really enjoy holding a newspaper. Pick your favorite gripe:

  • The ink stains on your fingers.
  • The unwieldy gigantic size (have you ever tried to read a newspaper in an airplane?).
  • The paper that blows away at the slightest trace of wind.
  • The awkward folding.
  • The labyrinthic navigation (“Continued on page C-24”).
  • etc…

The bottom line is that I have never looked forward to picking up a newspaper. Reading it, yes. Holding it, no.

Which is why I was very curious to see how the Kindle would treat newspapers, and I have to say I’m pretty impressed so far. The Kindle is actually close to being a perfect medium for newspapers, and the user interface designed by Amazon is very effective.

Learning to enjoy newspapers again

Some of the available US newspapers Section list Article

The sections are easily accessible from the front page and you can quickly navigate from one article to the next by pressing the joystick to the left or to the right. Of course, Next/Previous Page lets you page through the article and will seamlessly move to the next article once you reach the end of the one you are currently reading. All the usual functionalities are available, including Search, which applies to the entire issue of the newspaper.

You can either subscribe monthly or just buy individual issues. I am currently using the free two week trial so I can’t comment on either yet, but the issues seem to be discounted on the Kindle (e.g. 75c instead of $1 for the New York Times – of course, this discount can vary depending on the newspaper). If you choose to subscribe, the issue gets automatically uploaded to your Kindle and the previous issue is moved to a section called “Back issues”. Downloading a single issue is extremely fast, and being able to just download an issue while inside your car on a long road trip or on a rainy morning when you don’t feel like making the trip to your nearby coffee shop turns out to be extremely convenient.

A boon for publishers too

I’m not a newspaper expert, but it’s hard for me to imagine what’s not to like from the publisher’s perspective. Not only do the publishers keep absolute control over the pricing (excluding Amazon’s cut), but the overhead of converting their content over to Kindle’s format is probably very low. Also, I’m not sure if the Kindle “phones home” (uploads data about the user back to Amazon’s servers), but if it does, the publisher can get a very detailed insight about the popularity of certain topics or how well their journalists are performing (you might be tempted to pay someone whose articles are read 90% of the time more than someone who floats about 10%).

Amazon’s main challenge

Having said all these positive things, the newspaper experience on the Kindle is facing a pretty dire catch-22 problem.

While the Kindle has been selling pretty well and is overall liked by all its users, its current audience is still a group of early adopters. These early adopters are tech savvy and they have the money to afford the steep $360 price. However, because they are tech savvy, these adopters are also most likely getting their daily news from all sorts of sources, from traditional Internet portals to news web sites to more cutting edge locations such as blogs or Twitter streams. Because of this, they are probably not hardcore newspaper readers.

I belong to that category. I certainly enjoy reading newspaper articles and I appreciate the professionalism and the research work that goes into each of them, but I still feel very little incentive to pay $1 to buy a newspaper when the news that it reports will be available on my screen as soon as I open my laptop or when I get back home.

This, by the way, is the reason why forward micro-payments for news articles are a fundamentally flawed idea. I might be convinced to buy an entire issue of a newspaper because even if I don’t learn much from the articles I read, the feeling of serendipity and broad coverage will leave me with the impression that overall, my money was well spent. You can’t transpose this idea to single articles.

Back to the Kindle and its newspaper dilemma. How can you convince the crowd of people who get their news every day from their newspaper and who are probably not tech savvy to spend $360 for a device that is at the bleeding edge of the electronic reading industry? It’s a tough sell, especially when you consider that no matter how “state of the electrophoretic art” the Kindle is, it still looks very bland and crude. In ten years, we’ll probably look back on it and we will laugh at how primitive things were back then.

The next step for Amazon

Lowering the price of the Kindle is probably the very first measure that Amazon should take. Amazon doesn’t sell razors, they sell razor blades, and the fact that they released a free Kindle reader for the iPhone clearly shows that they know where their profit source lies. At the end of the day, Amazon needs to sell books, so taking a loss on each Kindle sale sounds like a reasonable idea that might even attract the unlikely audience made of avid newspaper reader.

As for myself, I’m still busy finishing up a couple of paper books, so I haven’t started reading books on the Kindle in earnest, but I’m certainly looking forward to it, and my next installment will probably cover reading PDF, Word and other formats on the Kindle.