Interview with Craig “cass-hacks”

Posted on 28 August 2007 at 17:57 UTC, filed under People, disclaimer

Hi Craig, welcome to my blog :-) ! Craig is, for those that haven’t noticed, an alien from some solar system far away. At least that’s the conclusion I came to after reading his introduction, the overview page on his site and his “my first computer” posts. I’m pretty sure that he’s either alien or very, very creative (as in creative writing), I mean seriously, “I built my own computer when I was 12.“?! Craig has been a frequent contributor in the Google Groups, bringing in a lot of background knowledge, helping with stylesheets, javascript and all sorts of other issues that arrive on a regular schedule.

I know that wasn’t a question but I would like to comment anyway. Although you are not the first to suggest I am not of this world, serious or not, I feel it is not so much a question of identifying the “where”, but identifying the “when”.

I think had I lived 150 to 200 years ago, I wouldn’t seem as much an alien as I do to so many people. More often than not, people who I communicate with over a period of time before ever meeting in person say something similar, I seem odd to them because they try to identify me with a place and fail but after meeting me in person, understand it is not a matter of identifying a place, but a place in time.

Many people are still put off after realizing that but a few people are able to take it in stride. You can tell a lot about a person by how they react to extreme situations and I guess I can be a bit extreme at times. :-)

Someone once called me an “anachronistic anomaly”. That seems to describe me as well as any other description I have heard, at least descriptions appropriate for mixed company. ;-)

So Craig, with a brain the size of a planet, I’m sure you have some really smart and cool things to do. What drives you to spend so much time in the Google webmaster help groups?

Good question, as in the best question have no real answers. ;-) The closest I think I can come to a real answer though is that I enjoy observing how things work. One of my first memories is of my parents taking me and my two sisters to a zoo where there was a carousel. While my sisters were busy watching the pretty horses, which were just carved and painted wood, I was watching the gears and shafts and cams and wheels looking to see how it all worked.

Later, much later, when I was working with particle accelerators, some the size of 5 story buildings, there would be some sort of problem but one had to have a pretty good idea of what it was because as often seemed the case and as Murphy’s Law would have it, problems usually occurred in the least accessible spot and it could take up to a couple of days just to get to where the problem might be.

If the problem wasn’t there, all that time was wasted. But, it also wasn’t good enough just to know where the problem was, one also had to have an idea of how to fix it and maybe more importantly, how to keep it from happening again and again. All of what went into getting proficient at that was observing what one could of available data from what one could see and then coming up with a reasonable scenario as to what the cause might be where one couldn’t see and then testing that scenario as much as possible before putting any plan into action.

In Google’s Webmaster Tools Help Group, I am able to observe a lot of different situations and the more I see of a given situation, the more I have to go on to try to come up with possible scenarios to understand what may be happening. So I guess what drives me is what has always driven me, a desire to observe and understand.

How did you find the Google Webmaster Help groups in the first place? Looking at your first posts it doesn’t look like you had any particular problem that needed to be solved.

I found the group through the Google Webmaster Tools which I found through the “Add URL” page. I had just launched my first publicly accessible web site and had heard of submitting URLs to the various search engines so I asked “Professor Google” how to do it for the search engines I knew about the most and found what I was looking for. From there, I played with the Webmaster Tools for a very short time which was primarily due to there being no real data to look at when a site is first indexed and then started digging into the help files and was directed to the Groups forum. It was not so much that I was having any particular problem at the time, or since, but more so, someone felt it worthwhile to publish all that information for some reason, not reading it would seem to be a serious waste of both their time and mine.

You are right though, I didn’t have any particular problem nor do I think I would have asked had I one. I have been around long enough on various technical forums and the like to know that there is rarely a question that hasn’t been answered or doesn’t have an answer somewhere although very possibly being “hidden” and in need of being dug for.

On the other hand, I also know that for some questions, there are no answers or at least no answers likely to be forthcoming so before asking too much, I’d want to know what questions are even likely to receive an answer of any use.

But, search engines at that time I had very little experience with, other than as a search user and having already dealt with large amounts of data, it intrigued me as to how one might deal with essentially archiving the entire Internet and more importantly, making that archive available in an intelligent and useful manner. Large amounts of data don’t impress me as I’ve dealt with huge databases of tera and peta-record size but the easy, intelligent and fast access to the contained data is the real challenge.

What was it that grabbed your attention about the web? Why did you decide to put together your own website?

I wouldn’t say I was particularly “grabbed” by the web. It just seemed like a much easier platform to develop applications for. I’ve written in almost every language from machine code to C++ and at one time burning EEPROMs just to be able to test a section of code out. With PHP, Javascript and MySQL, I can whip up an application in a matter of hours. It may and very likely will look like hell but the basic functionality is there, sort of a proof of concept if you will.

As for cass-hacks specifically though, I’d built a lot of toys of various levels of usefulness over a period of time and although any one specific toy may not be all that useful, the processes that go into making them work is always useful because a given toy’s functionality is limited to what it was designed to do as well as a little bit being extensible for other purposes if designed well but the processes that go into making any toy work can be used over and over again to build whatever one can imagine. Also, every language has a lot of very simple syntax that is pretty boring to look at but can become interesting to the point of being exciting when combined in ways one might not originally have thought of.

Although straying a bit from the mark, I think the most interesting project I have documented on my site so far is one that gets the least amount of traffic. That project is a user notification system that is actually “agent” based, i.e. artificial life or as is commonly referred to as artificial intelligence, AI. Many people think that “AI” is some complex rule processor that attempts to simulate intelligent thought but that is only science fiction and pretty much had been given up on many years ago. Most of the work done in this area over the past couple of decades has been “Agent based”, creating simple little entities programmed to do very simple tasks and then releasing them to do what they were programmed to do. Where this ties in with what I have been talking about though is that once I came up with the method of implementing the functionality I wanted to support, it took me all of about 20 minutes to do it using DOM, CSS and Javascript whereas trying to do the same thing in just about any other programming environment would have taken days.

Once you have worked with different technologies, you usually get a grasp for the general problems that could come up when implementing them. What unexpected difficulties did you run into while working on your first site(s)?

This is going to be a boring answer. :-() None.

I guess from my past experience, I do things a little different than many people. I start out with a list of requirements for a given task and then look into the various methods of satisfying the requirements, with all their possible positives and minuses and then choose the available “tools” that allow me to do the most with the least. By the time I actually get to building something, it is sort of boring because then it is most often just a matter of “plugging and chugging”, a phrase I got from a Calculus professor in the past which basically means, set up the equations, plug in the variable data and then chug through the calculations. Once you got to the “Plug and Chug” stage, it was all pretty much done.

If you came to a situation where you absolutely had to get a website to rank high for competitive terms, which methods would you apply first?

Probably the first thing I would do is go out and hire an SEO. :-) Sorry, boring answer. OK, first, I’d have some limitations on whether or not I even attempted it in the first place. I’d have to be interested in and/or have some experience in the subject matter because getting different sites to rank well is not the same for all sites. Second, I’d take a look at what the past experience of the site has been and how it is doing currently and then I’d look at what are the short term and long term goals. I guess what all that means is that getting a website to rank high for competitive terms only, is a waste of time, energy and money.

But, if I didn’t care about all that and had someone else’s money to waste, I’d first make sure the site/page was even capable of ranking for the terms in the first place by making sure the terms even existed on any of the pages. Then I’d make sure there was as much information from as many different directions as possible on the subject of the target terms and then I’d work to get enough links to the site as necessary so as to make sure the page(s) was(were) even available for searches in the first place.

What I can’t do though is make people search for the targeted terms. So many people talk about wanting to rank well for this that and the other thing but so often is the case, no one is really searching for what is being targeted. I know some people use keyword generators to find out what people are searching for but I also feel that people who then decide what content to put on their site based solely on what will gain the most traffic are doing a disservice to both themselves as well as their potential visitors.

You seem to have seen a lot of corporate environments and worked in a lot of groups, is there anything about Google that was completely unexpected to you?

I feel another boring answer coming on. No, not really. Google, like all companies, is made up of people. Companies may have their policies but it is people that put them into action. A company could have the most negative policies in the world but due to the people in its employ, the company is seen in a much more positive light than a company that may have the most altruistic policies in the world with assholes implementing them.

Google seems to be the best of both worlds though, company policies seeming to tend toward ensuring equality for all involved with people implementing them that also seem genuinely concerned about the people they actually serve, the users of their various products and services. Were it not the case, I wouldn’t be sticking around because it wouldn’t make sense supporting someone else in being an asshole when I can enjoy being a much bigger one all by myself, why share? On the other hand, when I see a situation, much like with Google, where many people feel the need to view Google as evil or have ulterior motives where having any would be counterproductive, if I can in any way help someone to possibly see the other side of things, I feel I have done some good.

Were it not the case of Google being a basically positive company with obviously positive people working for it, there wouldn’t be so many of them out there putting themselves in the public eye and speaking as much for themselves as they do in efforts to try to explain as much as they can about the company they work for and with.

Turning the tables on Google, assume you had full access to everything and all the help that you needed, what would you change?

It wouldn’t really be a matter of “turning the tables” and although I definitely feel another boring answer coming on, I don’t know enough about what goes on internally to want to change anything. How could I know that what I wanted to change wouldn’t actually make things worse unless I knew why what I wanted to change was the way it was in the first place?

On the other hand, were I to have the opportunity, I would like to improve on some things, mainly things that I have been exposed to. I’d love to revamp the Webmaster tools and make them more timely and informative to the extent possible. Getting rid of tools that are of little use while expanding on others that may seem of little use but could be much more valuable if the data they offered was expanded and made more accessible to searching through. Also, I’d love to rewrite the Google Groups application as it seems to have the worst of all possible worlds.

Its use of Javascript, has to be about the most counterproductive as I have ever seen. There are also a number of things that could be done using Javascript, but aren’t currently, that could make the Groups much easier to use. About the only thing the Groups application has gotten right, in my opinion, is making it so that the functions of the Groups application work with Javascript enabled or disabled, which is actually a big accomplishment considering so many of the Javascript applications similar to it don’t work at all without Javascript.

Also, and I don’t know how much can be done in this area as I don’t know how it is currently implemented but one thing I would like to tackle would be improving the reliability of the various functions of the Groups application as it gets downright discouraging to use more often than I would like any application I was responsible for to be.

Is there anything more you’d like to add at the moment?

Other than thanking you for what has been my first interview in a LOOOOONNNNNGGGG time, I can’t think of anything I’d like to add.

Thanks for your time, Craig!

Although I’ve had a feeling this interview was coming, and dreading it, it wasn’t as painful as I thought so I thank you for making the process not too terribly intolerable! :-)

There are 3 comments to this post.
  1. Craig – Great interview – totally interesting.

    I’d be really interested to know how you moved from working with nuclear technology to inventory management and IT?

    Also, as a nuclear technologist, have you seen this ‘Google Tech Talk’ on fusion reactors? Do you have any opinions about it?

    video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1996321846673788606

    Cheers,

    M

  2. Very interesting interview. Yet I still feel Craig remains an enigma :)
    Alien? Hmmm…. yes, it might fit.

    Hints of your achievements which almost seem to span several lifetimes …

    I feel we’d need to peel a few more layers off Craig to see what makes him tick.
    Might there be another installment?

  3. Matt – I segued from nuclear engineering to IT mainly by getting involved more and more in the control system side of things. Initially I was working on the hardware that interfaced control systems to the vacuum pumps, high voltage power supplies and various other electromechanical controllers. Little by little I started working more on the user interface aspect of the control systems to the point of rewriting systems provided by primary vendors to make them more user friendly and less clunky.

    From there, I changed companies and went to work with a group developing authorization verification technology, contrasted with user authentication. What that basically means is that it doesn’t matter who you are, only whether or not you can prove you are authorized. I got into that group mainly to do coding but soon segued into applying the technology to controlling access to audio files, initially using Real Networks client server architecture and from there segued to working on the MPEG standards for DRM.

    From there, I went the consulting route and do pretty much anything that comes along, one of the things that came along being building a huge database.

    I guess you could say that I’m a lot like you in many regards, a “Jack of all trades”.

    Cristina – One could say I’ve moved around a lot and done many different things while never going anywhere and doing always the same thing.

    One way or another I always find myself in the role of a “firefighter” of sorts. Wherever there is a problem or something in need of doing that no one else has a clue as to what or how to do it, I seem to end up the “lucky” one who gets tasked with whatever needs doing.

    Case in point, I’ve lately been working with databases but later this month will be off to Geneva to present for standardization a communication architecture I developed a number of years ago. The database work and the architecture work are totally unrelated except, they needed doing and I was the stupid one who said I could do it.

    Another way to describe my past, in a previous company I worked for, Fuji Xerox, my official title, as found on my business cards was, “Corporate Samuarai”. My job description, “remove obstacles”. ;-)

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