Archive for May, 2007

Here’s a follow up to my last post about Alexa


Notice that Alexa toolbar users are much more interested in Wikia than the general internet audience. I’ll watch this trend in the coming months to see whether the early adopters have chosen wisely.

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Last week, Fred Wilson wrote, in Whats wrong with Alexa that he isn’t sure Alexa can be trusted with anything.

I agree that there are some large inconsistencies with Alexa, but you can still get some useful information by cross-checking Alexa with Quantcast (or comScore if you can afford it). For instance, here’s a correlation of the two sites Fred talked about, digg and;


Table 1

Assume that quantcast is more accurate than alexa (I think there are good reasons). From Table 1, you can see that alexa overstates the importance of and mildly overstates digg.

Now lets look at some other sites:


Table 2

Based on Table 2, I would throw away the alexa results for mapquest,, and nationalgeographic but keep information from the others.

Based on these comparisons I think I can also infer something about the demographics of Alexa toolbar users: they are classic “early adopters”. It would be very interesting to make correlation of alexa to comScore or quantcast and then calculate whether alexa toolbar users are good predictors for success of a new web trend or property.

Conversely, you might use this effect to predict failure as well. Take a look at mapquest vs (this is really scary). A Yahoo press release quotes comScore Media Metrix saying that, as of April 07, mapquest traffic increased by 3% while google maps traffic increased by 49%. But look at the alexa chart for mapquest:


During that time mapquest suffered a 50% drop in alexa toolbar users. Unfortunately alexa doesn’t report on subdomains, so I can’t get data on, but if I could, I suspect I’d find a large jump in usage of google maps by alexa toobar users.

So this data tells me that the early adopters that used to be mapquest users are leaving in droves while at the same time mapquest is adding new users who aren’t early adopters. This isn’t a good trend for any web property. On the other hand, there is a huge difference between the quantcast ranking (174 vs 13) and mapquest numbers, so perhaps alexa toolbar users never liked mapquest and it is no big deal if a half of them leave in one year. Or maybe something else is going on?

I’m an early adopter (I started using google maps in Feb 2005 when someone had to tell you about it) and I’m sorry to say that I don’t use mapquest very much any more.

(Thanks to Matt Owens for helping me with the data)

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I’m amazed at the different ways in which the internet and Moores Law continually enhance and disrupt our society in new and interesting ways. Lately I’ve joined in the debate over cyber charter schools in my home state of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania currently leads the US with our innovative cyber charter schools, but there is a movement afoot to cripple or dismantle them in favor of the status quo public schools; PA House Bill 446.

I think people just don’t “get it” yet. And that is completely normal! I was part of the original team that created, an innovation that came from Lancaster, PANOT Silicon Valley. We created mapquest in 1995/96, long before high speed internet, Google and YouTube (as of May 07, mapquest is still ahead of YouTube). At that time, we had many detractors who could not understand why anyone would want to use a slow modem and clunky personal computer to get driving directions or find nearby businesses, but we proved the doubters wrong. Like mapquest, many people cannot see how cyber charter schools will work in our future but it is a future worth working for.

There has been a lot of posturing and polemics from both sides, including an absurd opinion piece in the Philadelphia Enquirer.  The closest thing that I’ve found to a netutral treatment of the subject is in the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal.

I believe the real issue is that traditional public schools suffer from a very high fixed overhead and cannot respond to the rapid fluctuations in student populations inflicted on them by cyber charter schools. Conversely, the cyber charter schools, with their low overhead and technology focus, can quite easily ramp up and down in response to demand and thus are more free to take risks on innovative programs. Traditional schools are like General Motors and cyber schools are like Silicon Valley. Just as with GM, public schools struggle to deal with the pace of our times, while cyber charter schools, like the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, are naturally responsive. Just as in the business world, our public policy should support BOTH institutions and acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of each!

So how do we do that? One way to deal with high fixed overhead is to amortize costs over time. Why not provide relief to to public schools by spreading the cost of change over three years instead of one year? The mechanisms are already in place, since the current costs are calculated by averaging the number of students over the past year. This would let districts make and keep long term commitments while still allowing cyber charter schools to continue to serve in their own niche. This type of program would provide stability for our present while still encouraging innovation for our future.

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When I was a mechanical engineering student, I joined a five state regional A.S.M.E. design contest. The challenge was to make a coffee-can-shaped cylinder roll, under its own power, down a 15 foot track, climb a steep little ramp, pass a finish line, then roll back, all under its own power. The fastest vehicle to complete the course would be proclaimed the winner.


I figured this simple little task was perfect for me, being a creative, clever fellow, with good grades. I knew that, if you are smart and creative and approach a design problem with an open mind, you will eventually find the best answer. I was confident my design would be superior to all others. In fact, the simple little task was perfect for me, but not in the way I had envisioned – it taught me a lesson that has shaped my behavior ever since.

turbine.jpgMy friend Mike and I teamed up to work on the project. We decided early on in the design process to forsake the conventional wisdom of using an electric motor, feeling that we could transcend the pack mentality and come up with something truly revolutionary. Our idea involved planting a ridiculously overpowering gasoline model airplane turbine inside the can. A complex series of baffles and levers would manage steering and reversing. The scheme might even have worked if we could have figured out how to prevent the propeller from sucking the whole contraption toward one wall and subsequently choking itself of air.

buggy.jpgOur friend Andre’ approached the problem more pragmatically. He knew the real problem was to maximize the power to weight ratio, so he focused on reducing weight rather than increasing power. He was very good at model building and constructed a beautiful, meticulously crafted wooden device that was light and fast. As the six or eight weeks of design and development drew to a close, I began to see that his conventional, but well executed cylinder was much more effective than our flying can. I wasn’t completely deflated, though, because the flying can was still pretty radical and it did some things very well. Besides, if we couldn’t win, then Andre’ would!

When the great day arrived, many students piled into a few cars and drove to the neighboring evil-rival university to witness the combined industrial might of the next great generation of engineers. There were 10 or 15 schools represented, each with a broad range of designs.


Someone even had the nerve to come up with the turbine idea – baffles and all! His version didn’t work either. Before the competition, all of the devices were laid out in a display area like so many monster trucks awaiting the axle swapping, gear grinding action action action of a tractor pull! The event, however, more closely resembled a demolition derby because only five of the 20 or so entrants even completed the simple little task.

The combined efforts of all of the entrants represented hundreds of hours of devoted labor, yet only five of us even arrived at a workable solution. Andre’s design was one of the five, but he didn’t win. In the display area, nestled among the microprocessors, gas engines, aerospace aluminum, delicate wood and high strength steel was a completely homely, unpretentious cardboard oatmeal container which contained a cheap little radio shack electric motor taped to a pencil and a spool of thread. It couldn’t compare in looks to some of the more elaborately constructed entries and it certainly wasn’t high-tech. But when its owner placed that oatmeal can on the track and let it go, we all knew that we had been out-classed. That can practically flew down the track, stopped on a dime and flew back to its master. The performance wasn’t just a little bit better than the competition – it was almost 10 times faster than the nearest rival was.

Afterward, we listened with awe and respect as the winner demonstrated his device. The beauty and elegance of his design was obvious once he described it to us, but we hadn’t thought of it ourselves. Hundreds of students in five states had been given the same set of design requirements. Among all of these participants, he alone had come up with a design that was overpoweringly superior to anything else: much simpler to build, 10 times faster, and much more reliable.

Here’s a diagram of the device.


The entire parts list is: cardboard oatmeal box, pencil, pin, two spools, thread, cheap radio shack motor, two AA batteries, wire, scotch tape. Wow.

I didn’t despair of ever achieving such greatness and virtue, rather I had something to shoot for. I was forced to concede, however, that I wasn’t going to get the right solution every time. Since that competition, I have worked in many fields and on many different projects. When I finish something, I look upon it with a critical eye, enjoying what I have accomplished but not assuming that I got it right just because it works. I have had a few successes and a few failures, but through it all, I have been guided and directed by that oatmeal box.

I’ll present a statistical analysis of the competition in a later entry.

Engineering Goodness, part 2

Engineering Goodness, part 3

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Here’s a great example of editorial differences of opinion about history within the wikipedia community, this one relating to the US / Britain War of 1812 as it relates to the Napoleonic Wars

  • Revision 1

Smaller scale conflict occurred in North America with the USA attempting to take advantage of Britain’s pre-occupation with Napoleon and invade Canada, all attempts, however, were defeated.

  • Revision 2

Smaller scale conflict occurred in North America with the USA finally reacting to years of British assaults on US shipping, but the conflict ended inconclusively.

So who is right? I guess it depends on who you are…

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About Frank San Miguel – I am a software geek, boat builder, musician and a veteran of a number of internet startups. During the time of the first web browsers, I wouldn’t shut up about this new thing called the web. They finally let me build a prototype and so was born project webmapper which became project mapquest, and eventually Here’s an essay about the early days of mapquest, why a good idea isn’t good enough.

I have also helped to build letter sorters, robotic work cells, the recipe database for Bon Appetit and Gourmet, large scale insurance sites, and remote equipment monitoring systems.

If you want to know what that picture is on the upper right of the page, read this.

Here’s my Boat Page.

You can send me mail at fsm (at) tech4d (dot) com.

View Frank San Miguel's profile on LinkedIn


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