building howbigismypotato

The story of a page and a kitchen tool:

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Famous Potato

Google are trying to sell me AdWords. They sent me an email today offering $100 of free credit. It was enough to make me go and check the analytics page for the site.
40,665 visits came from 160 countries/territories
Wow. This is the total count for the 3 years the site has been live, so it's not a large amount of traffic, but it's more that I would expect for a static page with no promotion or advertising at all. The reason for the high hit rate is search rankings. What on earth are people searching for to find Turns out they're looking for images of a potato, and Google images has indexed the picture I took of my potato in my London flat as one of the top examples of a potato image. What a beautiful sight:
Famous Potato
The rankings change over time, and I can see that reflected in the varying traffic volumes hitting the site. It also seems that each country-specific instance of Google has its own rankings. Of course most of the hits come from Google in English speaking countries; who is going to ask for a picture of a "potato" if you don't use that word? I happened to notice that in recent months Indonesia is the 3rd most popular country as a traffic source (behind the US and the UK), while early on there was hardly any traffic coming from there. What has changed in Indonesia?

Open question: is there a relationship between a region's potato production or consumption and visits to the site? I'm glad to say that's something I don't have time to investigate.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


The original inspiration for this project was an incident at home. My flat-mate Dave wanted to microwave a potato. How long would it take? Handily the mirowave had a baked potato button, but it needed him to type in a mass. With no scales available, he asked for my help and I devised a see-saw like device involving a wooden spoon, a spatula and a block a cheese. We were able to get the potato to balance against the block of cheese and we could measure the distances to the pivot with a tape measure. The final step was to divide a couple of numbers to find the mass we wanted. I turned to my laptop and used its calculator. 346g - success! Ironically the microwave only wanted a measurement to the nearest 100g, so we probably could have just guessed.

This incident was silly in a number of ways, but the thing I found most ironic was that the final step in our low-tech process invloved an expensive computer - not low-tech at all. How many people, I speculated, lacked scales in their kitchen but did have a computer close to hand.

A week later I was showing off to my girlfriend, telling her about my potato weighing skills over a romantic dinner. In the chat that followed, was born. It was going to be fun, very silly, and surprisingly hard work.

Warning! Damage!

Here's a bit of a problem that somebody pointed out to me. Computer screens aren't actually designed to have things held up to them, so there's a possibility that things might go wrong while trying to measure a potato. Just in case, I've decided to put in these warnings. I've also included them in a disclaimer just in case something really bad happens.
I think there are two main things to be wary of:
  1. Scratching or denting the screen. Be careful with the edge of your credit card, and your finger nails when holding it. Only measure relatively clean potatoes; big chunks of earth could be quite abrasive. If necessary, it would be possible to measure a potato wrapped in a clear plastic bag which would be less abrasive.
  2. Damaging other computer components. Laptops are really common these days. Laptop keyboards are notorious for allowing bad stuff to enter between the keys and cause serious damage below (usually the processor is directly underneath the keyboard). While measuring a potato does not involve the worst laptop poison (hot sugary coffee) it's conceivable that earth or even water could find its way between the keys during the process.
So, you've been warned. Please be careful and enjoy a safe measuring experience.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


This is a disclaimer for visitors to ("the site").
The site has been created by Alistair Jones ("the author").

The site is offered for use with absolutely no guarantee of fitness for any purpose. The author makes no assertion of the accuracy, or accepts responsibility for the inaccuracy, of the information the site displays.
The author accepts no responsibility for damage to computer equipment that occurs in relation to the site. The author explicitly warns that damage to computer equipment is possible as a result of using this site. Types of damage include, but are not limited to:
  1. Scratching or indentation of monitor screens due to contact with abrasive particles on the surface of a potato.
  2. Damage to internal components of laptop computers after materials enter via the keyboard.
The author advises that holding any object up to a computer screen is potentially dangerous and should only be undertaken with a full understanding of the associated risks. Please consult your computer manufacturer for further advice.

If you are concerned about possible damage or any other aspect of this disclaimer you should not use the site.



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Sunday, September 24, 2006

The internet is a small place

After an embarrassingly long gap of inactivity, I'm making some progress again. There's a shortish list of things to fix before I'll feel happy promoting the site. Top of the list was appearance; the markup and CSS is respectably structured, but it still doesn't look great. I did a little googling for inspiration. Cameron Moll's impressive portfolio caught my eye. I especially liked the look of what he did for Joyent. So who are these Joyent people? Turns out it's part of the same outfit as TextDrive, a hosting company. The second thing on my to-do list? Hosting. And I'd heard good things about TextDrive via the Ruby on Rails crowd. In fact I'd already started checking out their prices. And there was the freaky moment, the same page open in two Firefox tabs via completely different navigation. It was a sign; I bought a server from TextDrive straight away.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

No more sliding, just dragging

The sliders have gone. Now both calibration and measurement use the diagonal "drag me" icon. The hardest part of this exercise was learning the required javascript to intercept mouse events properly. In fact it was so hard that it isn't finished yet: it works fine in Firefox but it's utterly broken in IE. That's a problem for another day, probably a day that I have a PC available so I can actually run IE rather than guessing how it behaves.

There is some subtlety to the behaviour: on the calibration page the credit card outline maintains its aspect ratio, while the measurement potato outline can be stretched to any shape. This distinction probably won't be noticed by a user.

I had to think about the maths for a while. Confusingly I am now measuring two dimensions of a three-dimensional object. I toyed with inferring that the shortest measured dimension was probably closest to the unmeasured dimension, in which case I would square the short dimension and multiple by the long one to get the volume of the containing cuboid. However, I decided it was simpler to just raise both dimensions to the power of 1.5 and be done with it. I struggle to find a physical analogy for a length to the power of 1.5, but the maths seem to work.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

One point calibration

Due to tiredness, and the prospect of yet another 11 hour day in the office tomorrow, I was only able to measure one potato. Despite this rather pathetic attempt at calibration, it's a heck of a lot better than it used to be. It felt really good to hold the potato up to the screen and read the right answer back.

Potato being measured

First calibration weighings

After much time away from the project, I return armed with some brand new kitchen scales. They will be used to calibrate the system, so in effect these will be the scales that lucky people out there will use to weigh their potatoes.
Potato on Scales

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Cosmetic Surgery

Iteration 3 is complete. This time there was no new functionality, but cosmetic surgery to make the page more presentable - still very valuable progress.
iteration 3

CSS is hard

CSS is cool. It's easy to get the basics to work well. However when I try to do something a bit more complicated, I don't find it very intuitive. I'm still near the other end of the scale from a CSS power-user. After most of a train journey back from Poole spent laying out just two boxes, I gave up and used a table. Yuk, but it works. Maybe with an internet connection and a bit more time I'll be able to fix it sometime.