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Archive for the ‘Ramble’ Category

The Future of VR

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

I’ve been pretty excited about the future of VR for the past few months (I’ve been gathering notes here). I was an original DK1 Kickstarter backer and have been following Oculus’ growth and development pretty closely lately. While an eventual acquisition was always a possibility (after a $90M B round at the end of last year), today’s announcement of a $2B Facebook acquisition came as a bit of a surprise, if only for the timing.

You can read Palmer Luckey’s announcement on the Oculus sub-Reddit, which doesn’t inspire much confidence, or Palmer’s comment responses, which are is a little more interesting. cliffyb and tycho have written interesting counterpoints/rebuttals to some of the knee-jerk responses.

Notch (Minecraft) has written a pretty insightful commentary, as has Max Temkin (Cards Against Humanity), which do a good job of summing up some of the unease/issues, particularly among enthusiasts and developers, are experiencing. cliffyb wrote an interesting counterpoint/rebuttal.

Rather than write something cogent and expressive, I’ll just collect some thoughts:

  • From Facebook’s perspective, buying Oculus right now for $2B is a steal. As Chris Dixon tweeted, it’s the equivalent of Google’s investment in Android. It’s quite clear that VR is likely the next big computing platform. Honestly, it’s about time Facebook got some ambition about the future. (Google’s been making everyone besides Musk look pretty shortsighted) What’s unclear right now is what Oculus has to gain, especially when there are reports of not just other bidders (which probably would have been much worse for Oculus) but also that investors had offered Oculus more funding. It’s unclear whether “more” in this context means more than the FB sale, but assuming the same $2B valuation, Oculus should have been able to pick up at least another $200M. Beyond the exit price (which goes to investors and the team), the question is, what did FB offer Oculus in terms additional resources to make this worthwhile – $1B? $2B? The Oculus team certainly left money on the table, so the question really revolves around FB’s value add beyond the costs that all acquisitions entail. Hints are being dropped, but we’ll have to see what pans out.
  • Part of the cringing I have reading Palmer’s announcement, of course is how familiar it is. Heck, I remember writing one very much like it about 10 years ago. I don’t doubt its authenticity/everyone’s best intentions, but having seen the cycle play out many times, I do think that the Oculus team may underestimate what the loss of independence means. Obviously enthusiasts will find it hard to root for Facebook, and developers should be justly worried (terrified, really) about Facebook’s developer/platform track record and manifold conflicts of interest, but beyond that, even though Oculus has assembled a fantastic team (the best team of creative technologists in field, and possibly across all of tech), what is the appeal for the best and brightest to work at Facebook? (That being said, I’m sure there are many bright people working at Facebook that would be excited to work on the Rift) While autonomy has been promised, maintaining focus as a subdivision of a large, publicly traded tech company has its own pressures/constraints and maintaining focus and drive requires a huge and different type of commitment over the long term.
  • That all being said, people canceling their DK2 orders are being irrational. The current hardware is locked in. It’s awesome. There will be drivers available, and almost assuredly open alternatives will emerge if the worst happens. There are cross-platform APIs available, and while there’s a concerns with patents (if Facebook is serious about creating a new VR market, a commitment to FRAND licensing, open standards, and open source would do much to settle everyone’s nerves). As of right now, all the components for compelling VR are known/available. Future developments like virtual retinal displays, foveated rendering, inside-out tracking are open to whomever has the resources, vision, and willingness to invest.
  • There’s no question that Facebook, Google, et al will want in on the Metaverse. Owning Oculus will give FB a big advantage and all but guarantees a seat at the table (make no mistake, this is the endgame), but I think everyone’s smart enough to realize that a walled garden will end up leading to AOL, not the Internet. No one wants the former (sorry, Shingy ;) and there’s a lot more money to be made with the latter if there’s enough patience/vision.

Having slept on it, I think a lot of the knee-jerk reaction has merely been about the perceived “cash out”, but also that it feels a bit like giving up before actually taking a shot. While Palmer mentions partnership multiple times, at the end of the day, it’s an acquisition, which carries a lot of existential and practical baggage (and pitfalls) related to autonomy/agency/execution. Here’s hoping there’s enough momentum to carry things through.

Some links:

2013 Review in Tech

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

I’ve been a bit under the weather the past couple days (the dangers of hanging out near other peoples’ little germ factories (aka kids)), but I wanted to post some of my thoughts about the year in tech. The last time I did that was probably a few years ago (related).

Over the weekend a friend was going on about how this year was a crappy one for “tech” (echoing the sentiments of those crappy articles floating around, but more along the lines of lack of ambition/innovation) which I strongly disagreed with. I think the kernel of truth there is that the SF/SV tech scene is definitely caught up in a weird spiral of chasing/making less and less interesting mobile/social apps, so of course from that vantage point, it’s going to seem terrible, but from the outside, things are… pretty interesting.

  • NSA Leaks – In some articles, this was cited as some negative development, but Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed (and continues to reveal) how much the world has been changed by technology and hints at some of the implications that both as technologists and end-users, we’ve been oblivious to. It’s certainly the biggest tech story of the year, and has profound/deeply unsettling implications. It’s also kicked off a number of new projects, and made a lot of techies think harder about the things they’re working on. I think that in coming years, the world and the tech industry in particular will be better for it.
  • Bitcoin – Bitcoins, alt-coins, cryptocurrency. While it’s been building up steam, this is the year that it boiled over and it’s another development that’s more than a little world-changing. I mentioned it briefly in a rebuttal comment I made on Charlie Stross’s blog post Why I want Bitcoin to die in a fire (I don’t know about his conclusions, but on just about every point of fact supporting his reasoning, he cited inaccurate/just plain wrong sources), but regardless of what the eventual value of BTC ends up as (which this year was driven mostly by the Chinese, not media hype), whether it’s $10K/BTC or $0/BTC, Bitcoin has not only served as a solid proof of existence for the viability of truly P2P digital currency, but has also laid down a protocol/framework that makes it trivial to create your own. The classes of problems that can be solved by a distributed public ledger are numerous… There’s some more thinking I need to put on that.
  • Tesla – Finally, something out of the Valley. Between Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity, this was a huge year for Elon Musk, and they seem to all be converging into some techno-utopian vision that’s quite honestly, a rather refreshing respite from the totalitarian surveillance state, increasing economic disparity and general grim meathookiness going on elsewhere. If you aren’t excited about what Tesla has been up to this year, maybe you just aren’t that into tech.
  • Robots – Google’s buying spree was pretty well reported, but less well covered was Schaft’s (one of the Google acquisitions) performance at the DARPA Challenge. It scored 27 out of a possible 32 points on the challenges. That’s 84%. This year has shown some tremendous accomplishments in robotics on just about every level, most interestingly/disturbingly in drone-tech. If you haven’t read this recent brief, but intense editorial in the Guardian this past week, btw, please do: I worked on the US drone program. The public should know what really goes on
  • Kickstarter – I’ve been active (maybe a bit too active, seeing as I started getting KS spam this year) on Kickstarter this year. It’s not new, but it’s certainly gained even more steam in 2013, and I don’t see it decelerating. Kickstarter seems to be increasingly, one of the more important tools helping the Maker/DIY movement grow.
  • 3D Printing – speaking of which, another not quite new, but thought I’d mention it, we finally got our Replicator 2 in the office this year, and it’s been incredibly useful. It’s also very close to being consumer friendly/ready. Like, say if the platform would self calibrate and if the prints were a little easier to peel off… But still, getting a 3D printer is now cheaper than an office laser printer was a decade ago.
  • Quantified Self – In some ways, still nascent, but I got my Basis Watch, and I’ve been trying more than a few autologgers/aggregators released this year (Saga, Memoir, Heyday among others), but I think we’re seeing some really interesting first steps into pulling together both the data exhaust we’re already generating and combining that usefully with other things we’d like to track (beyond fitness trackers, things like the Automatic car tracker). One thing’s for sure though, things are just getting started
  • VR – I admit, my Oculus Rift Devkit sat unloved and completely unopened for months. It’s been a hectic year. I did finally get around to break it out and try out about a dozen demos, and it was great, and also left me motion sick the rest of the night (I’ve played FPS/TPS’s for decades w/o problems). Carmack’s full time commitment and the news coming out of the community has me hopeful that they’ll have that problem licked, but it’s been pretty exciting following along. For those interested in what’s going on, I recommend Road To VR
  • Open Hardware – this is an ongoing thing that isn’t new in 2013, and has also been greatly helped by Kickstarter, but there’s just a ton of interesting stuff happening in the cheap microcontroller world akin to the early web days. I’ve been poking around with a lot of this stuff, but this year, got pretty serious about it, doing a fair amount of soldering, exploring/evaluating pretty much every single ARM dev board around, and getting my first PCBs printed. Again, we’re going to see a continued proliferation of interesting hacks/automation/sensors as it gets increasingly cheaper and easier to program the world

I think most of these things point to how wrongheaded talking about these things in context of a year are though – tech is incremental, and it’s hard work. You can bet anything that’s being announced, let alone making a big splash probably took quite a bit longer than a year to get there.

I’ll also link to Some Notes on Labor, Technology and Economics that I wrote about earlier this year. 2013 started out on sour note and what’s been going on in the world this year has definitely given me some pause.

We’re none of us getting any younger, and the pace of innovation continues to increase though, so here’s to the next year. Let’s hope we can make it a better world.

ADDENDUM: Putting this here since it’s related. Not really an innovation per se, but a tech problem that may be reaching a breaking point – we continued to see bigger and bigger data breaches (Adobe, Target, SnapChat) by cyber-criminals. Will 2FA finally replace Passwords? Is there a different security model that can more effectively handle APTs/inevitably compromised networks? Is there a way to expire/invalidate leaked data or will fraud models improve enough that it’s OK that black-hats and script kiddies around the world trade your personal info? In traditional security, the deck is always stacked against the defense, but it makes me wonder if there’s not a way of changing that – after all, the physics of software (if not software engineering) are malleable…

2013 Geek Reading:

Fixed the Glitch

Friday, August 9th, 2013

I think this Hacker News back and forth (in response to new that the NSA will be cutting sysadmin staff by 90% to limit data access) cuts right to the heart of the matter.

zaroth:
But who will manage the systems that are managing the systems? I’m sure this will work out brilliantly for them when systems crash, or hackers start exfiltrating their data, and there’s no one left to analyze the logs and discover and fix the holes.
The problem at the NSA isn’t that there are too many sysadmins, although apparently that plays well with tech illiterate politicians. The problem is too many morally unconscionable programs which lead to a growing revulsion in the ranks.

Mr. Alexander defends his agency’s conduct and claims the press is distorting the facts. “No one has willfully or knowingly disobeyed the law or tried to invade your civil liberties or privacies,” he said. “There were no mistakes like that at all.” Except we know that even FISA says that’s not true, in a report so damning apparently even elected members of congress can’t read it.

I have news for you Keith, blanket collection of the “meta-data” of every call on Verizon’s network is ex vi termini, invasion of privacy and civil liberty. DEA’s SOD (Special Operations Division) handing off your clandestine intercepts to civilian law enforcement is just the latest, but not the last, sickening revelation. The leaks won’t stop until you stop, and I hope your hubris continues to blind you to how close the political tides are to turning against you. It seems to me that your ‘ends justify the means’ mentality conflicts with your sworn oath to uphold the Constitution, and I can only hope history will look back on this whole endeavor as a dark stain in American history, and view you like a McCarthy of our time. Machiavelli would be proud of you, sir.

rhizome:

The problem is too many morally unconscionable programs which lead to a growing revulsion in the ranks.

Au contraire, it’s extremely morally conscionable to people who see law enforcement as a noble profession empowered to rid the nation (and beyond) of people they see as the scum of the earth. These programs are run by people who, I can guarantee you, do not wake up in the morning wondering what morals and ethics they can ignore that day.
However.

“No one has willfully or knowingly disobeyed the law or tried to invade your civil liberties or privacies,” he said.

And he’s right. And that’s the problem: these things are likely not against the law. The law has both been perverted inch by inch and the agencies have been allowed to operate under looser legal interpretations than you and I receive for parking tickets. This means that to the degree that laws exist that permit their behavior (PATRIOT Act, FISAA), those who would constrain them to even the loose boundaries do not (and by all accounts refuse to) do so. This goes for the FISC as much as Dianne Feinstein and Eric Holder. This means they can say it’s legal for them to do pretty much whatever they want. So now what?

I wish I could agree with the zaroth and the optimists – the romantic view that as they squeeze tighter, as they transgress, actors of conscience will react or that as Assange posits, that authoritarian organizations will become less effective as the secrecy cost increases (PDF link to Assange’s 2006 essay State and Terrorist Conspiracies), however sadly I feel that this reduction in numbers will have quite the opposite effect.

While it’s easy (and satisfying) to decry the opposition as evil from my experience, the idea that no one (well most) people are not the villains of their own story seems to reflect reality much better (see also guardian organizations in particular are predisposed feel paternalistic. This is only magnified by a culture of hidden, hoarded knowledge, secrecy and elitism (“if you only knew what I knew”). Depending on your location on the libertarian/authoritarian political compass, your skin may be crawling a bit reading this description, but certainly those involved in this total surveillance view themselves as professional and honorable – their duty is to serve and protect those that (by design) don’t know any better.

However, there of course must be those within the organization that will have qualms and doubts. After all, history has shown again and again the inevitable progression of unchecked state power against its citizenry, especially when an organization can act in secrecy and with impunity. And of course there are those that, having been brought up with the belief in liberal democracy (you know, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers) would have a very hard time indeed justifying secrecy and actions that would fall under what many would consider the very definition of tyranny. And of course, some of those individuals must also be concerned about what it means to society to have total surveillance, archived forever, and searchable instantly. This combination of the panopticon and the memex has never existed before and its existence (and now the public knowledge that it is controlled by a state actor w/ no meaningful oversight) and I suspect its impact and consequences has yet to be fully digested by society at large…

All this is a long way to say that there surely are those working at the NSA that have doubts – but as this continues to polarize, the ranks will only further close. Those that have the strongest doubts will leave or be forced out, but the Death Star is already fully operational, and there will be more than enough authoritarians, opportunistic, power-hungry, and just plain sociopathic boots to fill the ranks. And as those that would resist the trends towards aggregating more power and authority leave, so will the last remaining internal checks and balances (the external ones having disappeared long ago), leaving the organization more focused, in fact accelerating the slide towards… well, something that will no longer be much of a democratic republic in function, if not form.

Without drastic changes (full transparency, full oversight), this logic feels inescapable, inevitable. The truism about power and corruption seems apropos here.

That’s not to say that the issues of digital privacy and surveillance wouldn’t otherwise be a problem, that cat’s certainly out of the bag, but there’s a clear difference between the commerce vs the state (that centers on the monopoly on violence).

It’s also not to say that the society automatically becomes some sort of Grim Meathook (well, unless you’re poor in which case it already is, or if you decide to stand in the way of the Harkonnen fist). After all, in this new society, you capacity for autonomy will depend primarily on how innocuous/complicit you are within the system (also, being rich never hurts) – this, perhaps alarmingly, is not so different from how it’s always been.

OK, this is much longer than I was planning on, and has turned out to be a bit of a ramble that certainly lays out a lot of rope at least as far as my thoughts on political theory goes. I wish, that after quite a lot of thinking and processing, that I had some better conclusions, but … I don’t. Oh, here’s a catchy one:

Welcome to the future. Enjoy your stay.

Catching Up, Braindump

Monday, July 8th, 2013

I’ve been working on a few longish posts, but after taking a week or so off in Costa Rica, I’m now back at work with new deadlines looming and realizing that I won’t be getting around to finishing them anytime soon. Some of them really deserve some more thought anyway, but I did want to at the very least want to do a bit of a braindump.

Anyone following my Twitter feed knows that the NSA surveillance news has had much of my attention since it broke. A month later, I still haven’t quite figured out the proper response, except that in my mind, the leak, our response, and its implications (especially if allowed to continued) is one of the more significant turning points for our society. At least its forced me to consider technological progress through a very different lens. In the meantime, I’ve been keeping what I’m calling a “worry wall” tracking news and developments on the topic. It’s a Hackpad wiki, and I’d welcome contributions: stopspying.hackpad.com

It’s quite possible that there’s no sensible course of action, but it deserves some thinking.

I’ve been somewhat keeping up w/ developments in Turkey and Egypt. This video of a 12yo in Egypt that’s been making its way around is worth a watch:

Doug Englebart died last week. A few years ago, I had the privilege to attend one of his lectures, and while my writeup of the event focused on a critique, it was framed within the large shadow that Engelbart’s seminal works cast. While I did not know him personally, it’d be fair to say that Engelbart’s work and thinking might have been the most influential/impactful not just of my field of computing (the part involving people communicating and thinking together), but also on my own work and thinking, both directly and indirectly.

It’s not every day that one of your intellectual heroes/forebearers passes, and I wish I had something better/more to write about it, but the words escape me.

Like in the Snowden case before it, I saw the AAR 214 crash news break on Twitter. A couple comments related to that caught my eye. On the actual accident itself, The Verge has done a surprisingly good job summarizing.

And that’s it for now… I’ll be headed to YxYY this weekend and while I’m not looking forward to the 100+ degree heat, will be looking forward to catching up with some old friends.

MasterCard SecureCode and securesuite.net

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Today was my first time encountering MasterCard®SecureCode™ when making an online order. I honestly thought I was being phished. Here’s where I got redirected to.

Going to https://www.securesuite.net/ gives you a nice blank page. And here’s the whois information:

Registrant:
      cyota
      yaron shohat
      174 Middlesex Turnpike
      Bedford, MA 01730
      US
      Phone: +1.8665606153
      Email: 

   Registrar Name....: Register.com
   Registrar Whois...: whois.register.com
   Registrar Homepage: www.register.com

   Domain Name: securesuite.net
      Created on..............: 2002-08-23
      Expires on..............: 2012-08-23

   Administrative Contact:
      RSA
      Network Operations
      174 Middlesex Turnpike
      Bedford, MA 01730
      US
      Phone: +1.8665606153
      Email: 

   Technical  Contact:
      RSA
      Network Operations
      174 Middlesex Turnpike
      Bedford, MA 01730
      US
      Phone: +1.8665606153
      Email: 

   DNS Servers:
      pdns3.ultradns.org
      pdns4.ultradns.org
      pdns2.ultradns.net
      pdns1.ultradns.net
      pdns5.ultradns.info
      pdns6.ultradns.co.uk

Who’s cyota? Who’s yaron shohat? And what fucking moron at RSA thought this was a good idea? Here’s the Google results for securesuite.net phishing. Doing a search for Securesuite.net does not return Visa or Mastercard’s official sites…

Well, it turns out securesuite.net isn’t a phishing scam, after doing some Internet searching, digging up direct links from Mastercard.com, and calling MasterCard directly to get verbal confirmation and to give them a piece of my mind. It’s not a scam, it’s just moronic and a phishing scam waiting to happen.

SXSW 2011 Post-Mortem

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

(This is gonna be a long one, so if you’re sticking around, enjoy some tracks from some acts I caught; the Civil War/Revival Folk was big this year)

I was meaning to post something up sooner, but alas, crazy work deadlines and SxSARS have conspired against me this week. Miraculously, I managed to stave off sickness for all 10 days in Austin, but I ended up picking something up (I think) on my plane flight home (I’m looking at you coughy mccougherson in the next seat over). In any case, some less than organized thoughts while they’re somewhat fresh.

First, on SXSWi (Interactive), I think Gruber nailed it pretty spot on:

Used to be that SXSW[i] was an interesting conference and a great weekend experience. Now it’s a terrible conference and a good-but-crowded weekend experience.

As someone that actually lays down my own cash for SXSW, I was pretty offended by how horrible the conference setup was this year. I think Matt might have had more success with my Lanyrd than I did. This was by far my worst panel year ever (this was SXSWi #12 for me, and the past few years were fine, thank you very much), not because of the panel quality, which has continued to improve, but because the logistics have gotten precipitously worse. The panel/room scheduling was a mess (with some of the most popular sessions in the smallest rooms), and the half-assed shuttles (unmarked, not on any schedule, never there before or after sessions, taking you on a loop around town; some unlucky people apparently got shaken down by similar unmarked pay shuttles) and across-town campuses was an unmitigated disaster (the word clusterfuck is the term that comes to mind). I met some friends who had much better experiences – they did the sensible thing and just didn’t bother attending anything not in ACC/Hilton. Lesson learned.

Anyway, if I went to SXSW for the panels still, I’d be kicking and screaming for a refund. I’ll let others argue about the ethics of taking money from attendees that the conference clearly doesn’t have the capacity to support. My simple suggestions for fixing things (as there were sessions I would have love to have caught):

  • If you’re going to be selling Interactive Badges, where people are paying for panels, they need to be within the ACC block. Move Film panels if you need to, find some creative locations nearby (lots of boarded up stuff), or (god forbid) stop fucking selling badges if you’re over capacity, but having to choose between a 1hr roundtrip or a $12 cab ride to see a panel at the Hyatt is pretty much the definition of bullshit. (even worse were those that made a hike to find the panel they were going to was full or canceled)
  • Millions of dollars in badge receipts and you’re telling me you can’t UStream all the sessions and make them available in simulcast and archive form for attendees? This seems like a completely reasonable and rather simple solution. If a speaker doesn’t agree, fine, mark it on the schedule (or tell them tough noogies), but this seems like a no-brainer for most of these.
  • Stop being fucking babies and open up your schedule API to Lanyrd, SCHED, etc. These tools are way better than anything your team has done, and if there was less time wasted writing their own scrapers to your (not well formed) data, they would be more accurate and could coordinate better – especially for tracking attendance, demand, etc. This year, SCHED provided Foursquare with its SXSW event data. Why? Because there was an API and they had their shit together.
  • In an interesting regression, conference staff seems less willing to swap rooms, even when there’s an obvious mismatch (and an obvious swap candidate right next door) a half hour before the session…

OK, that’s all the indignation I can really muster up. Etsy threw a better conf down the block. That’s pretty sad yo.

Anyway, I’ve never been a fan of the “SXSW is too big” meme… but, I found that this year, much more than the past couple years even, that I had some issues for the first couple days getting into the SXSWi groove. Primarily, SXSWi is a time for me to meet up with “200 of my closest friends” – the people of my tribe that I might only see once every year or two. In the past, it was much easier to depend on serendipity (and over the past couple years, some dependable end-of-night hangouts), but I found this to be a bit harder this year. Part of it I think had to do with the aforementioned shitshow with panels – I didn’t realize how much of my dinner plans depended on the group of 5 people that I’d run into after the last panel session (of course, this was also my first year over a decade without a Break Bread w/for Brad to kick things off…).

All that being said, I ended up having a pretty good time, especially once I realized I’d have to work a bit harder at social planning, and rallied.

  • The Old Timers Ball was a great idea. During SXSWi, I have two rules of thumb that have served me well: 1) no waiting in line and 2) I don’t mind paying for my own drinks. (Especially during Interactive, many people seem to break #1 for #2).
  • I don’t believe I had a sit-down meal until my 3rd day in Austin. I did however have the pleasure of sharing and introducing fried oreos to more than a few friends. The East Side Drive-In was one of the best surprises this year. If you didn’t make it out there, you have something for your TODO list now.
  • Speaking of pleasant surprises, two words: CNN Grill. So good that I’m not even going to make the obvious snarky observations in relation to the quality of their reporting.
  • The following hashtags (on 4SQ! barely used Twitter @ SXSW) were useful: #noshitshow, #noline, #oldtimers
  • I mentioned this in a tweet, but despite the hype (and my own personal expectations) that GroupMe or Beluga would be useful, it turned out that 4SQ was much more useful for coordination. I ended up in 5 SXSW GroupMe groups, but it turns out that while GroupMe might be well-suited for small groups of strong-ties, it’s absolutely useless as a serendipity enabler. 4SQ wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good (more in-depth thoughts below).
  • Cell networks stood up much better this time around, both during Interactive and Music it seemed like. I was using Sprint, which dropped down to 1x much too often, but also had 3-4Mbps 4G available (at the cost of destroying battery life).
  • Interestingly, because of the huge new venues that had opened up (the Power Plant, the new ACL, the Pepsi Max Warehouse), I ended up swinging into some mega-parties during interactive that were relatively uncrowded. The night we agglomerated a gaggle of Brits into a big nerd pack, we rolled into the RedLaser Chromeo sans-line (there were maybe 500 people at a probably 2000 capacity venue?). Rolling in at the end of the 4SQ Big Boi concert, and into the Microsoft Yeasayer party were similarly pleasant experiences. Maybe all those hundreds-thousands of people standing in line at Mohawks and Stubbs is a good thing? It seems like there was definitely a big gap in terms of good real-time crowd reporting…

Which is as good a segue as any to talk about 4SQ. First of all: holy crap are these guys hitting it out of the park. Between the great 3.0 features and the crazy biz dev (AMEX, etc), it’s just great seeing 4SQ really starting to fulfill some of that LBS potential. (it’s only been a decade or so in the making, right?) Comments in particular, super useful this year. It’s with that in mind (and the fact that I actually lived up to my Super User status this year) that some constructive criticism is offered:

  • Two 4SQ apps, 4squareand7yearsago and flicksquare were especially nice, especially since then former had an “early adopter” edition during SXSWi that sent you a history of your checkins from 2 years ago. A nice reminder of how your checkins could be personally valuable
  • While I had mentioned that 4SQ was more useful than the group chats for coordination, it was still not ideal. A few thoughts in that regard:
    • While the checkin is useful, two verbs that I was most missing were “heading to” and “leaving.” Being able to signal intent would be killer, especially if you were trying to catch up with someone or vice versa. This could be a picoformat in shouts (like “>” or “/l” with @names), but would be nice if it were parsed in the system
    • Along those lines, it seems like something like Ditto where you could propose a meetup/location would be super useful as a 4SQ feature rather than a separate app, especially if it integrated with some realtime status
    • I didn’t end up rolling this out due to some complications, but one of the things that I worked on for the SCHED map was a way of reporting realtime status (lines, crowds, lateness) to a venue. There’s no reason this couldn’t be implemented in 4SQ
    • The map view was pretty useless with a lot of friends checked in. More interesting views would be heatmaps that showed say a time+density based visualization (venue trends) as well as say, relative crowdedness to people you knew. The ideal venue at SXSW is actually the least crowded venue with the highest percentage of people you know checked in!
  • That being said, while 4SQ was OK during Interactive, for whatever reason, it worked way better during Music. Ended up catching a bunch of bands and having a bunch people roll in to meet up based on checkins/shouts. Also super great way to ask friends what the line/crowd/lateness status was.
  • A heavy concentration of 4SQ users meant that you rarely had to search to find your checkin location. Which is good, because SRPs continued to be astoundingly bad. Searching for the Hilton or ACC or Convention Center would rarely turn it up in the first several screens (which would seem impossible if even the most basic popularity/activity ranking was being used). Also, this may be Android specific, or maybe based on service timeouts, but my Favorites rarely showed up at the top. Lastly, as a SU I saw things that I constantly would want to merge, but just couldn’t (unless I’m missing something in the Mobile UI)
  • Related to “riding” on checkins, I hope (but doubt) that 4SQ are tracking this? I (and I suspect most people) tend to pick friends checked in when hopping on their checkin locations – there’s some crazy future data-mining+awesomeness generation potential there (even beyond the current co-presence data being used).
  • There’s no way to unsubscribe or block a user from the app! Or the mobile site?! Or, watching kathrynyu unsuccessfully try, even via iPad. WTF?! That’s bad!
  • Sadly, iOS Notifications has actually caused a big regression with 4SQ this – while I didn’t notice it on my Android phone because notifications queue into the notification bar, using my iPad even for a few minutes made me realize how it sucked big time for iOS users. Basically, like the bad old days w/ Dodgeball SMS’s (the social app that punished you as your friends used it more as I liked to put it), except iOS Notifications are even worse, popping up in a constant stream in the middle of your screen. The only solution I can think of really of (besides waiting for iOS 5?) is for there to be an easier way to turn Pings Off for users or to institute internal digesting/summarizing/rate limiting against iOS notifications.
  • Annoying niggle only notice through mega-usage: when you successfully checkin on Android, it doesn’t update your location in your listing. This is especially annoying when you’re on a slow network since it has to poll to update. In general, having a “last updated” status would be useful. Overall 4SQ still has a ways to go to be more useful when you’re offline, even updating the time rendering at least would be a good first step.

SXSW has been “on notice” for me for the past few years (I had originally decided that 10 years running was really longer than I needed to do anything, but it’s just been too fun to stop), but this year, at the end of SXSWi, when I realized I still had 5 more days, I was pretty sure it’d be time to take a break (surely I have better things to do with $4K and 10 days). However, Music was actually a total 180: completely re-energizing in all the ways that Interactive was enervating. I had a great time.

Instead of taking video, I ended up using a combination of 4SQ and a new app called Whoa to track the bands I caught (66 rated, yeah!). This year, SCHED tracked just under 7300 events (almost 50% of the parties and music events were unofficial), with over 4500 users (tracking on average over 60 events each)… As I side-note, while I know SXSW has a sometimes rocky relationship with “unofficial” events, and heck, even with SCHED, but, it’s a big part of the reason they’ll be getting my Platinum badge money if I’m back next year, not to mention why its worthwhile for most of the bands that come. It’s the fact that bands will play multiple shows (building buzz and letting fans catch them in an otherwise impossibly packed schedule) that really distinguishes SXSW from everything else.

Interactive peeps, if I catch you in Austin next year, sadly, it’ll probably be in-spite of SXSW rather than because of it.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Charlie Stross posted an interesting essay today, Reasons To Be Cheerful recapping some of the great things that have happened in the world over the past decade, primarily in the developing world. A great read, and honestly inspiring/heartwarming for the disheartened humanists. It’s easy to get overly cynical about it all. This is a good antidote.

That being said, I don’t think Charlie goes quite far enough. The essay starts framed by the thesis that in the world, things haven’t much improved, and the besides a few specific counterpoints about disease and the general march of technology, it feels like he gives up on really repudiating that thesis… for the developed world. And it’s easy to see why. In terms of general socio-economic trends, it’s hard to be all that positive. Things are downright unsettling heading towards dystopian. However, there’s at least one aspect, the very medium where we are commenting on that is worth, uh, commenting on.

Yes, the interwebbytubes, as Stross puts it, is quite a different place than it was at the beginning of the millennium. We are looking at a 2X adoption growth in developed nations (from plurality to supermajority, if not ubiquity). Worldwide, 2 billion people are now online. Beyond the quantitative changes, the qualitative changes are even more intriguing. In 2000 there was no Web 2.0. Blogging was in its infancy. Most of the things we take for granted online today were not invented yet. Among them: Wikipedia (2001), Facebook (2004), Google Maps (2005), Twitter (2006). I list these in particular because I don’t think there’s a day that goes by where I don’t use these particular services, but I’m sure that others have their own lists. Lest you think that this was a singular period of growth, I’ll throw in that the iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010) have kicked us into another era of hyper-growth that will be just as (if not more) life-changing.

We’re just starting to see what happens when the Internet starts engaging with us in a location/context aware fashion. We’re also starting to see what happens when Internet-style/scale dynamics are applied outside traditional consumer Internet contexts (e.g. Obama Campaign, 2008). In a historical scale, we’re still at the very beginning stages of figuring out what it means to live in a digital, massively inter-networked world, and similarly just starting to get a handle how that will change society (attention, communications and collaboration in particular).

All that’s a really long way of saying… well, there’s a pretty dang bright spot in the developed world too. One that has the potential of being turned into the shovel we need to dig ourselves out. So, here’s looking to the future. Happy New Year.

Late Night Update

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

This past year hasn’t been quite the return to form I’d hoped to have for my blogging. Still, there’s nothing like a near-data loss experience (well, I had good backups, but a drive on my server had gotten royally screwed – I have some Evernote scratchings, but I’ll spare people the details of fighting apt-get/dpkg when your libc6 version breaks perl and then eventually, your entire system) to get one a bit nostalgic, and kicking the tires again. Being laid up in bed with a nasty cold all weekend and staring at a mile-long TODO list probably doesn’t hurt either.

In any case, after I get some stuff done before Christmas, I’ll probably be spending some of the last days of the decade thinking doing some reflection (also, while I first started migrating .plan updates to the web in ’97, and the direct predecessor to my current blog in ’99, my 10-year blogging on rf.net is actually coming up in a few months

(Amazingly, it wasn’t until earlier this year when my old USC links (and email account!) finally got broken. 10 years ain’t a bad run.)

Lessons from Android: Unintended Consequences (or How to Kneecap Your Developer Community)

Friday, September 25th, 2009

An interesting clusterfuck has been brewing within part of the Android Dev Community – how serious of a long-term effect and what ultimate spillover it will have remains to be seen, but I thought it’d be worth gathering some notes about this as it develops. It started yesterday as something, that on the surface, only effected an important, but miniscule percentage of Android users, but that over the course of a day, has blown up into something may actually have potentially long-term consequences on the Android platform as the open mobile platform of choice.

Yesterday, Cyanogen, an Android community developer who maintains the most popular (and arguably best) alternate Android firmware, CyanogenMod, mentioned receiving a cease and desist from Google Legal.
Alternate firmwares (or custom ROMs) are along the lines of the custom WinMo firmwares that enthusiasts have been putting together for years (and in fact, there is at least some community crossover, including some shared forums). I only recently discovered CyanogenMod after complaining to the one Android superfan I know about how slow the Android phone I had was, and it was to me a night and day improvement over the stock firmware – performance went from unusably laggy to downright zippy.

Now, while Google is obviously within their legal rights (the C&D was specifically about redistribution of their closed source components), honestly, I’m rather baffled by this. It just doesn’t make any sense from a practical perspective – these apps are distributed with all the phones that the Cyanogen firmwares can be installed on, and are mostly used by a small set of the platform’s most dedicated enthusiasts (low tens of thousands at most, less than 1% of the Android userbase) – and of course, by a select few hobbyist developers putting in an inordinate amount of time in maintaining the firmwares and supporting those users. Not only is there no upside in attacking this community, but I can’t picture any scenario where there would be a net-positive outcome for Google.

As you can imagine, once word spread about the C&D, a community reaction was inevitable. A petition app was quickly put on the Marketplace (not the worst idea, honestly), and there were a few mentions in the more general tech news, although I haven’t noticed a big splash (say on Techmeme)… yet. That may change soon, I believe, as the fallout is now much bigger than inconveniencing a few “modders.”

Earlier today, Dan Morrill posted an official position statement on the issue. His statement about redistribution of closed source components seemed straightforward enough, but the implications are still unfolding. It turns out that by explicitly outlining the legal boundaries for closed-source components, we learned that not only core parts of the Android experience (like the Google Mobile services and Marketplace app), but also parts of the SDK and other base components are also protected. This news doesn’t just kill custom ROMs, but potentially makes Android as an open source project not viable at all. From Cyanogen’s Twitter stream:

@crazywizdom it’s pretty much like a bare bones linux install without the google bits. no contact sync or anything like that. #

From what they explained to me, you are not even allowed to copy the proprietary applications from your device. #

@gacktoh but you can’t distribute the market app. And it relies on the Google Mobile services anyway. #

I’m trying to get clarification now on what can actually be included. There are things in the SDK that aren’t in AOSP. Very confusing. #

Oh yeah, one last tweet before I violate the don’t-tweet-while-drunk rule. Nandroid is probably illegal. Awesome huh. #

All this woe (that’s counterproductive towards Google’s interest even if weren’t a PR, and now full on developer community nightmare – the custom firmware releases brought steady streams of improvements to tide over the true believers to what has been thus far, a somewhat lacking software product), probably set in motion because some PM got wind of the v1.6 Marketplace app being on the phone and got in a snit, setting the legal wheels in motion. And poof, over the course of a day, a cascade of events leading… who knows where.

Which is not to say that this can’t be fixed. The Google folks (even the legal teams) are smarter and more agile than most – if this is a priority, there are many ways to patch things up, from offering some sort of non-commercial redistribution terms, or having the Android team announce that they’re working with the community to make sure that they’re making it a priority to make sure that custom firmwares can be installed w/o touching the proprietary APKs, or that the AOSP is useful as an end-user installation (both of which jbqueru at least appears to already be moving on).

As it is though, it appears that Google has just shat on it’s biggest enthusiasts, and has given a good cause for those who are supporting Android as an “open” alternative to actively consider how far that openness extends (and realize how ostensibly “open source” Android really is). And of course, it’s a shame that there won’t be any more CyanogenMod builds. Still, this has been pretty fascinating to watch unfold, and should be of interest to anyone managing developer communities or trying to create an “open” platform…

(If you’re interested in following the conversations moving forward directly, the Twitter streams of cyanogen and Android developer jbqueru seem worth following.)

UPDATE: To some degree, this will probably blow over, since over the weekend Cyanogen announced he will continue w/ his work (after developing a new backup procedure to allow backup and re-installation of Google apps and with the inclusion of an alternate marketplace). Still, these are the types of incidents that chip away at social capital and reputation (until suddenly one day, the public no longer gives you the benefit of the doubt and any action taken gets looked upon in the worst possible light) – not to mention the amount of ultimately, pointless (or at least, repeated) man-hours that will be spent engineering a technical workaround to a policy problem.

Random Thoughts on Twitter

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

With the Oprah thing and the rather bizarre Maureen Dowd interview (ripe for parody), I thought I might as well throw my two cents in.

Actually, this article was actually the one that actually convinced me to write something, specifically this quote:

I used to think Twitter would never catch on in the mainstream because it’s somewhat stupid. Now I realize I was exactly wrong. Twitter will catch on in the mainstream because it’s somewhat stupid. It’s blogging dumbed down for the masses, and if there’s one surefire way to build something popular, it’s to take something else that is already popular and simplify.

To clarify, I think this is fundamentally wrong and completely misses the point. (As an aside, similar things were said about blogging when it started taking off. These comments were also fundamentally wrong in the same way.)

Now, for some context, even though I was a relatively early adopter (my first tweet – I believe it was still called twttr then with a snot-themed logo and a focus on SMS), that’s not to say my own understanding and thinking hasn’t evolved along with the service (and its audience)…

The first time Twitter really picked up on my radar was while I was in London, as it had gotten a fair amount of traction as a cheaper way to text. Along those lines, it took off, again as a “group chat” style tool the next year at SXSW as a way for friends to coordinate in a lighter-weight and less annoying way than Dodgeball. At this time, it was still focused around SMS delivery, although there were some interesting clients starting to pop up. Also around this time (post-SXSW) that my (and others’) focus turned upon looking at Twitter through the lens of ambient awareness (Clive Thomspon did a great writeup writeup last year) and what we began to refer to in conversation as “statuscasting” (a term, which I might have made up, but I assume must have been on the tip of everyone’s tongue). Then there was a big explosion in clients, mashups, and the use of Twitter as a “command line” interface. And, of course, through all of this, Twitter continued to build up steam in the way that social tools do, as waves of adopters and their networks jumped on board. While there has always been the dialectic between semi-private conversation and broadcast/publishing that continues to make Twitter really interesting, the trend arguably has been toward the latter (especially with the “collection” of followers).

Now with some context that hopefully hints at some level of complexity to the Twitter phenomena, here’s where I return to directly smacking down that original quote and offering an alternative interpretation…

Twitter isn’t “retarded blogging” anymore than blogging was “retarded long-form writing.” What blogging uncovered was a “web-native” sort of communication – one focused on links-both hyperlinks and permalinks, temporality (dated posts, reverse chronological order) and decentralized conversation – at first manually since people simply read each other’s blogs (when I started, it all fit on a single list), then later with comments and formalized through trackbacks, pingbacks, and dedicated aggregation tools. It took a while, but I believe that Twitter has revealed a communication style that is native to the “web” today. What is this web? It’s one filled with activity streams – the “social web” and the “continuous partial web,” and one that exists beyond the browser and beyond the desktop – the mobile web and the “widget web.” The ingestion characteristics of these media are focused around intermittent (but constant) bursts of attention and the ability to scan both gestalt and to track details, and the output is about the “in-between times” of other activities. You don’t sit around for an hour writing a tweet. In fact, most people start with time that otherwise would have been spent idling (hence the large proportion of airport complaint messages).

That, I suppose is one aspect of the quote that is right – Twitter is does have more mass appeal because it can take root by fill a vacuum rather than being an activity that requires active displacement (at least to begin with!). The point is that it’s high immediate reward with low incremental commitment. And of course, the innocuousness of that small text box is part of Twitter’s genius…

Now, if there is a better (or different) model, my suspicion is that it’s in finer scoping. Sure geeks like to talk about interop and decentralization (and while that may come as it did for email, it may not (like for IM)), but I think it’s ultimately less interesting than figuring out how Twitter (or a similar type of service/activity) ends up bifurcating or integrating the aforementioned pull between public and private (groups? targeted/typed messages? ).

I think that’s where already see some interesting things like how location services have splintered off, and I think that’s what Facebook is attacking – in the same way that it created a semi-private place for photo and online-discussion activity, it’s trying to do so for tweets as well.

For those that recall, this harks back to discussions on semipermiability (ironically semipermanant, here’s the archive of Joyce’s paper on that), which never really took off (again, a niche that Facebook expanded into, I think).

Well, there’s not much of a conclusion here. This is entitled random thoughts after all. Maybe two last things while I’m here for those who remember the milieu and impetus of blogging… Firstly, my friendfeed, which is currently aggregating my activity streams across over a dozen services, and second, a graph of my blog output over the past few years:

See also: