Archive for the 'Technology' Category

A poor and wretched boy

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

The other day one of my favorite songs came up on shuffle and I could only remember about half the lyrics. It was “The Chimbley Sweep” by The Decemberists, a fun Dickensian ditty about an orphaned chimney sweep who gets propositioned by a widow. The worst part is I’m not even sure I ever knew all the lyrics.

As I get older I’m starting to notice limits to what I can remember. It’s not that there is a limit to space in my mind (I’m convinced that the brain is malleable enough to store vast amounts of knowledge when needed), but that I’m exposing myself to so much incoming data that I’m letting too much get forgotten. And with music there’s a particular impasse: do I hold onto my cherished favorite tunes or do I relentlessly search for new ones?

Many people give up by my age. They hold onto the songs of their teenage or college years and barely notice anything new except to deride the sorry state of music (the kids keep putting out shittier music, apparently). I know a few who even fill their iPods with music no older than Haddaway’s “What is Love.”

This is somewhat understandable. Music is an emotional medium. We attach memories and feelings to songs regardless of whether the actual song is happy or not.* For me, my comfort music is early-90s pop and alternative (even Haddaway). I also have deep attachment to mid-60s pop because it was my obsession during my teenage years thanks to stumbling onto The Beatles just as I began listening to what I was hearing. When I retreat to heal mental wounds, these are what I retreat to for soothing.

At the same time I fall into the other camp, the new music obsessives. The ones who are always searching for a new experience. There’s a moment with some songs, just after hearing it once or twice, before you have every part memorized,  and you play the song again and there’s this feeling of bliss (or melancholia, sometimes the feeling of sadness or nostalgia is just as strong). And then you play the song to death; but like a hard drug its effect diminishes over time, encouraging continuous pursuit of music that makes you high. There’s even scientific proof that I’m not the only one who feels euphoria with music.

This second group is where music lovers start but eventually age and memory slow down the rate of absorption…sometimes. It used to be there rate of new music being produced was low enough that one could go an entire life in pursuit of new music. Diehard fans like John Peel could pull this off when the barrier to releasing music was still high.

Nowadays it’s almost like there’s more musicians than listeners and more genres than words in a dictionary. And the technology that makes it easier to find music…makes it easier to find music and it’s a whole new form of information overload. My Amazon wishlist – one that consists of only music, has 372 items of albums and tracks, and even if I bought them all I doubt I’d listen to every minute of every recording.

So there’s the songs I already know and enjoy, songs I love but haven’t heard enough (like “Chimbley Sweep”) and songs I haven’t heard but may like just as much. And the latter group can be split into songs that have already been released and I may know about, and songs just being released but I just don’t have the time to process yet. Sometimes this means months or even years go by before I get to great songs that everyone else has played to death.

As a result I have an grotesquely complex system for managing my music:

  1. My iTunes library, which has 21,160 tracks, 1,220 of which have a play count of 0.
    1. Playlists of newly downloaded tracks for absorption sorted by year and month,
    2. A favorite songs playlist,
    3. And about 19,000 songs I haven’t heard in over a year.
  2. Channels for finding new music:
    1. Satellite radio
    2. Friend recommendations
    3. Music posted to Tumblr
    4. Bookmarks of music videos on YouTube
  3. Rdio for listening to whole albums or tracks again to make sure they are good, with several dozen albums and tracks queued up
  4. Three Amazon wishlists for music (regular music, showtunes, and comedy albums)

Last.fm used to be in that mix, both for finding new music and for rediscovering tracks I’ve already heard. But I got rid of that for different reasons.**

In case you haven’t noticed, this is an absurd situation. And probably very familiar.

As part of a larger effort to curb my time wasted on sorting the information that comes my way every day, I’ve instituted a few changes:

  • Canceling my Rdio subscription (this was partly a “why the hell am I paying for this?” decision). It was nice to have the opportunity to listen to whole tracks before purchase but it required yet more time to listen to new music. I may go back later after I’ve reacquainted with my existing library.
  • When I had Rdio I would listen to music there and then mark music I really liked as “High Priority” on my Amazon wishlist. So now I removed all but those high priority tracks. And from no on only music that I respond strongly to gets added.
  • In addition to my favorite songs playlist, I also have a “Songs to Sing” list for songs I want to memorize. I also have a heavy rotation list where I dump music I listen to regularly, and a smart playlist that pulls up highly-rated tracks that haven’t been listened to in over a year.
  • More confidence that I’ll still hear great new music through merely paying attention and the acceptance that I won’t get to hear everything and that’s okay.
  • I deleted half of my iTunes library.

Okay that last one isn’t true. The cost of storing the music is far lower than the convenience of having all that music to listen whenever I want.

No matter what happens, music will always play a major role in my life. Most of my waking life will be filled with its sweet sounds, and my job is to be open to new experiences and cherish my favorites – without going insane.


* For many years I thought Blind Melon’s “No Rain” was a happy song, and it made me happy, until I heard the lyrics. And Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” has such an uppity beat it still puts me in a good mood despite being about a new marriage already falling apart.
** As much as I loved going through statistics of my listening habits, Last.fm only offered cursory opportunities for me to find new music. It might just be how my brain works, but I only occasionally found new music because of the site’s ability to match my listening habits with my friends (Andy McKee’s Art of Motion and Ratatat comes to mind). But that wasn’t why I stopped using the site. It was taxing my attention – I was worrying about things like what music was showing up for my friends to see and what that might say about me to others. I tried to just not care but I couldn’t help massaging the data to improve my image, never mind the likelihood that no one cared anyway. So I deleted all my data and stopped tracking my listening. While I occasionally wish I could go through that data, the freedom to not care is more beneficial.

Roommate hunting, online relationships, and information asymmetry

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

A little over a month ago I needed a roommate.

I live in a three-bedroom apartment and I signed a lease with a second roommate stating that we would split the full rent between us, so there was a strong incentive to find someone to live in the third bedroom.

And, just like most every other important decision, I (we) procrastinated.

Two weeks before the new lease was to go into effect I took some pictures of the place and wrote up a nice post for Craigslist. I talked about the roomy kitchen and the dishwasher, and casually not mentioning the downsides (like the lack of a washer and dryer). At the end I deliberately tacked on a very short description of us:

We’re a man and a woman who are both fairly quiet, laid back, and keep to ourselves. Occasionally we’ll have friends over but usually only for dinner or movie watching. We’re looking for someone who’s the same.

We didn’t want someone who expected to become BFFs with us – even though we were totally okay if they turned out to be friendly.

Of the responses, about one in ten responded back to my initial contact. And even fewer of those actually showed up. The first one who came to see the place was a lovely French-Canadian architect we both loved but several days later decided against it because of the lack of the washer/dryer situation. Thus began a series of rejections by nice people of the place for little things: they found a place closer to their work, decided to move in with their girlfriend after all, and so on.

One early response intrigued me. It was from a college student who was moving to Boston from Nebraska. He wouldn’t be able to see the place but it seemed good enough for him and he assumed we weren’t too concerned with meeting him. Now, despite being vague in the posting we definitely wanted to meet the roommate in person so we could size up their potential to be crazy. So I searched for him online, found his Twitter and Facebook pages, discovered his Tumblr sites, and figured he was a good enough guy but it was early in the search so I told him that if he’d wait until we’d get a decision from the other good prospects who actually visited, he’d have the room. I then proceeded to fill in more information about ourselves and asked him to do the same.

No answer.

I found that interesting. He really just wanted a place to crash, even if it seemed like he’d still be home for homework and maybe a party or two. Or did the description of the two of us scare him off? Did I give off the vibe that we were looking for a BFF? Probably.

That was what made me realize that as efficient as internet tools can be to find people for nearly any kind of transaction or relationship, there was still a lot of information that depended on interpretation. The ambiguities, I realized, were inherent in the writing. It’s when two people meet in person that they can better size the other up in both conscious and unconscious ways. When writing an email or a text or even a video chat, there are limitations to what can be presented and opportunities to mask flaws. I didn’t want to say yes to this guy because I still wasn’t totally sure if he was going to be a good fit for me and the other roommate – and he may have perceived my response as different that what he’d expect from someone who merely wanted someone to pay the rent (which, despite the hesitation, was us…but with reservations).

To give this a name, I call it information asymmetry.

Information asymmetry actually can be beneficial. A company can use the limited knowledge of their customers to charge different people different prices; a trader can gain an advantage by knowing more about the product they are receiving than the other person has of theirs and thus make a profit; a politician can count on everyone else not reading all of a law and then tack on a piece that only benefits their constituents or who bribed them the most.

But in most human interactions, it’s better to give as much information as possible – except when one party is trying to deceive the other. And honestly, everyone deceives others even if just a little to give a positive presentation. Finding a roommate, however, needs both honesty and a little deception. If we are going to agree to give someone equal access to the same place we sleep, eat, and store our stuff, we want to know they aren’t insane or won’t cook awful smelling food or allow dangerous people into the apartment. And yet we want to make the place as attractive as possible to get the kind of person we’d get along with on a daily basis, so we have to be coy about a few details in the hope that the person, upon meeting us, is okay with the downsides.

This dance continued for the next week. Good people eventually passed, others turned out to be a mess in person. There were occasionally long exchanges of emails as we traded bits of ourselves to determine if the things we didn’t know where acceptable. One response said that he had just graduated from Catholic seminary. So I responded by asking if he was okay with having a gay roommate. He then emailed me with a long explanation of his stance: he was okay with having a gay roommate, but he still considered homosexuality a sin and immoral (but, he said it was immoral objectively and not subjectively, whatever that means). I decided he thought of being gay as a sin, but there are lots of sins, and we all sin. A cogent Catholic response. But I wasn’t too certain so I never emailed him back.

Eventually (as in two days before the start of the new lease) we found someone. He was coy about his work situation in email but was completely upfront upon meeting us. Plus he seemed like a good guy and was willing to meet all of our and our landlord’s terms. So we went with him. A month later I can say we chose the right guy. Our third roommate is wonderful and turns out to be very friendly too. It all worked out.

For a large segment of the population of the developed world (and a big share of the developing world too) we depend on the internet to handle our personal affairs (like banking, finding a roommate, etc.), to keep in touch with old and existing friends, and make new ones. Often these new friends come by accident, other times we find them through dating websites or simply actively looking for like-minded people to find. I have personal experience that the social tools available right now make it easy to find great people who match your interests, disposition, even sense of humor in ways not bound by geography and distance.

But that pesky information asymmetry pops up again and again. Misunderstandings, arguments, even feuds develop because of the murkiness of expressing ourselves through text, imagery, and videos. You might think if only we all were honest and clear in our intentions and the things we do, but not even the most upstanding can do that all the time. Like a blindspot, little discrepancies develop between a person’s online persona and who they really are. This is done both consciously and because online communication cannot match, say, spending the day with someone in person. You can say more in an hour than a year of texts. And because we may only have access to online content, we can only assemble an incomplete picture of someone.

I was involved in an online friendship that I’m pretty sure disintegrated because of information asymmetry (being an optimist I hope it really isn’t over). Both of us had incomplete information about the other and were unwilling or too coy to fill in the blanks. One dumb comment, two dumb comments, a couple of bad choices, and suddenly one isn’t talking to the other. Or are they? It’s hard to tell with most online communication: are they deliberately ignoring messages or are they desperately trying to come up with an honest response and failing and thus not saying anything at all? Maybe out of some sort of cowardice they are hoping the problem will just go away. There are no checks and balances of a physically close relationship – no third parties to stop on the street to get some answers, no chance of getting the truth on the more public forums without making it obvious to everyone else that something is going on. Whereas a meeting at a coffeehouse, for example, while public, is masked by distinctly separate conversations. Posting in the same forum as they and lots of mutual contacts, has the same weight as saying what’s on your mind to every person in the coffeehouse.

It’s situations like this that make it clear that online relationships still require traditional connections. When all you can do to talk to someone is to write a letter and wait days or weeks for a response, the physical distance is obvious and tactile; when you can text someone anywhere in the world and get an immediate response, the mind is tricked into assuming a close proximity. People still need to meet in person – in fact, often when I meet someone in person after knowing them online for a time, the relationship becomes more real, even if we only met for a few hours and never again. But to really feel close there needs more contact and continuous conscious acknowledgement that the person you are communicating with is still far away.

We keep making more powerful tools, but we’re still social animals who have spent most of our time evolving on the African savannah.

Try the patented Ideamizer (not really patented)

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

This is part of a series on ideas for today. There’s already an introduction, an article on artistic movements, another on market efficiency, and one about filling your life with well-designed objects.

No idea comes out of an invisible ether. Whatever thought you may have about something new, it came from your experiences, articles you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, jokes you’ve heard. People say this all the time but it bears repeating:

No idea is new.*

That’s not a disappointing realization. Rather, knowing how your thoughts come about can be a powerful tool to harness.

You should build and nurture a library of ideas.

Why? You need a cultivated collection of information to help you connect disparate pieces of data and come up with new ideas: new stories, new business opportunities, new ways to live your life.

Books used to be dynamic objects. Readers not only collected them but they wrote all over the margins and on blank pages (alright, we still do). They also collected favorite passages and pasted them into a scrapbook for inspiration. Somewhere over the years scrapbooks morphed into artistic expressions and collections of life memories.

Sometime after the proliferation of the copy machine, the filing cabinet became the store of collected ideas. Usually poorly organized if organized at all, they became a stereotype for the absentminded professor.

Fortunately those of us currently living have access to cheap storage mediums, powerful computers, and the internet. Scanners too. We can suck up as many thoughts as we have time and energy to procure.

There’s a lot of different ways to build your library on your computer:

  • Save web pages, PDFs, scanned documents, etc. into folders on your computer and search them with Spotlight. If you take advantage of the file folder system this can be just as powerful as a managed database.
  • Use a document management application like Evernote, Yojimbo, or my personal favorite…
  • DEVONthink. DEVONthink’s strength is that it can find semantic relationships between documents, meaning it will find documents with similar collections of words (not necessarily similar sentences or phrases), and the more information in the database, the better the connections.

Use whatever feels comfortable, as not every option is ideal. I still don’t have my library organized to my satisfaction, but because it exists I can at least use it.

What should go into your library? Whatever interests you, inspires you, makes you contemplate, makes you want to learn more, makes you agitated. Most certainly the library needs articles and ideas from your areas of interest and work (e.g. a gardener have tips on growing, stories about other gardeners, etc.). But to really be useful it needs seemingly unconnected articles, information from areas that don’t normally interest you. For example: Wikipedia historical pages, biographies of athletes, mathematical mysteries, Mongolian wrestling, you get the idea.

Also consider content you think might be useful later, for when you are in a different place in life. You probably already have big enough hard drive that you can be reckless in your saving. You don’t need everything, in fact you shouldn’t have everything, but you should at least devote 15% of the library to subjects which you wouldn’t usually have an interest. For serendipity. That’s the whole point of a library.

The screenshot above was taken from my own library. There are very few things in this world that don’t interest me, so my library is pretty far-reaching. I try to organize whatever I’ve collected into folders based on subjects I use to mentally organize. I started out grouping by general topics, but I realized that there are certain subjects that I separate from others. For example, I could have one folder for business and economics, but I think about those subjects along different lines: the technology industry is one solid subject, with enough to say and dwell upon Apple Inc. for it to have several of its own folders, some business ideas I group with economics concepts while others group into an entire industry, and still others into individual companies (you can see IKEA has its own folder). It gets even more complicated for cultural ideas.

But if I want to write an essay on city culture, all of the articles related to urban life are grouped together, and can be used to quickly move to related topics (city economies, neighborhood dynamics, the culture of specific cities like Los Angeles) if needed.

My library, combined with good old-fashioned thinking and conversation with people smarter than me, gives me fertile land for a crop of new ideas. And it couldn’t hurt to start your own.


* Wrap your mind around how to make new ideas when nothing is new.

Throw away all your poorly-designed tools. Seriously, throw them all out.

Monday, June 14th, 2010

This is part of a series on ideas for today. There’s already an introduction, an article on artistic movements, and another on market efficiency.

Can you point out all the hand tools, power tools, light fixtures, remotes, software applications, and furniture in your life that you’ve learned to live around the quirky and inefficient design choices that on a good day give you good joke fodder but on a bad day make you curse the children of whoever made that deathtrap?

Yeah, you should seriously consider throwing all of that junk out.

Realizing how much time and energy you are wasting on inefficient design is so hard most people only notice poor design for a few moments before moving on with their day. But if you were obsessed enough with the problem to time your tasks you’d see the glaring problem, especially when compounded over the course of your life.

It’s more than wasted time. Think of the mistakes made, both minor and major, that are made because of poor design. Have you turned on the wrong burner on a stove top? Was a recipe in a cookbook too ambiguous or missing ingredients so you had to rely on guesswork to finish the dish? And they can even be deadly – think of dull knives and hard-to-understand food processors.

How’s that chair you’re sitting on while reading this? Comfortable? Will you be sore later? Is your footrest high enough? How about that desk height – is it better for writing by hand or for typing on a keyboard? You may not even realize how uncomfortable some of your furniture really is if you’ve used it long enough to adapt to the pressure points and discomforts.

All of this adds up to a giant drag on the happiness in your life. Material possessions aren’t everything but the objects that populate your world contribute to your well-being. Being mindful of the tools you use and the dwelling you assemble for yourself only helps you to concentrate on the more important things in life.

I’m not saying to throw everything out now. That’s likely too cost prohibitive. Here’s a few suggestions to follow:

  • Replace anything inefficient or uncomfortable in the order of what you use the most. Start with your bed (that’s six to eight hours of use every day!), if you work from home consider your desk and chair, then work on your kitchen supplies, and so on.
  • Spend the money and get a Mac or any other Apple device. Computers play too big a role in our daily lives now for you to be using a machine that doesn’t respect the user. This rule applies until another company starts selling a computer with a similar caliber of design.
  • The best advice I’ve received on furniture and home decoration is to not buy everything at once. Fill your home piece by piece over years. The hardest thing avoid is decorate a room in one sweep. By staggering your purchases you can give your home a more organic look. But most importantly, get rid of those poorly-designed tools.
  • Buying things that are aesthetically pleasing to you should be a given. You could find the most comfortable chair in the world but if it looks like a claw and gives you nightmares, keep looking.

One big positive externality for replacing your poorly-designed tools is you are helping to encourage manufacturers to produce better designed products.

Fake distortion, real humanity

Friday, April 23rd, 2010


Photo by bananacasts

My first thought was, oh come on. Over the last month my internet friends – and it feels like most everyone else with an iPhone – have become big fans of Hipstamatic, an app that adds a bunch of effects to make an iPhone image look like it was taken by a poorly-built camera. You know, hip.

About as hip as an advertisement from the Nineties.


Photo by lindstifa

The colors are washed out. Cute little over-exposed areas are added to an otherwise all-digital image. Each picture is lovingly framed with negative-film border, tape marks, or stylish matting.

At some point I even made a quip on Twitter that after Hipstamatic, the next trendy camera app will take pictures that look a crappy camera phone. This gratuitous degradation of image for a stylish and trendy effect comes in the age of affordable digital cameras that can often beat the detail of a traditional negative film camera; the age of relatively easy to use software (and powerful enough computers) to aid in processing images so they look as natural as reality.


Photo by sniffyjenkins*

Reality. For the people who can afford smartphones, powerful computers, and high-powered cameras, reality often consists of the real world sandwiched between time on the computer, looking at text or photos of things that exist in the real world. Photos are so abundant, easily accessible, and ubiquitous that for many people photos are preferable to the real thing. Not that this is a new phenomenon. A photo can be cropped and modified so that the subject has a greater impact on the viewer than when physically viewing the subject. It’s the high-speed internet, fast computers, and vast storage that magnifies this to a degree that someone with a subscription to Life magazine in the 1960s could never comprehend. I can go through thousands of pictures of Monument Valley, so many in fact that I’ll tire of the place without ever having visited.

With all of this power, this abundance, this opportunity for exactness – why take pictures of your kids with an program that distorts a perfectly fine image into something you might find in between the seats of a ’74 Lincoln Continental?


Photo by sniffyjenkins

The Hipstamatic app was inspired by a namesake physical camera made by two brothers in the 1980s. The pictures are similar style to ‘Lomography‘ – a well-marketed trend from the 1990s (remember my comment about ads from that decade) where the photographer would take near random images of objects and revel in their ‘found photo’ style. Nowadays ‘lomographic’ pictures are taken on powerful digital cameras, with distortions added in Photoshop. Hipstamatic takes advantage of the iPhone’s processing power and makes the effect instantaneous – and only reinforces the lomographic style, as evidenced by most pictures found online.

It takes a few pictures of families and friends taken with the Hipstamatic to see any motivation beyond the retro faddishness.


Photo by monkeyfrog**

The pictures…well, they look real. They look like memories; a little washed out, a little dramatic, and all heart. The brain is powerful enough to make up for the loss of clarity, and in so doing the image has an inescapable honesty. All because of errors and destructions added by a computer capable of fixing them. The messiness of a Hipstamatic photo mirrors the messiness of life, and by adding it the truth in the image comes out.

I’m not saying that clear images are bad. The best photojournalism combines the the sharpest possible copy of a sight that’s anything but sharp. A burning child running from her burning Vietnamese village, several Marines hoisting the American flag on a tiny speck of an island in the Pacific – these pictures are messy in different ways than one of your kids eating ice cream at their favorite restaurant or your teenage daughter trying mightily to distinguish her individuality at Disney World.


Photo by monkeyfrog

What’s happening is we’re reaching for inauthentic tools to make something authentic again. We distort the pictures of our lives to reclaim them from an inhuman sterility of the perfect picture.


Photo by bananacasts


Thanks to bananacasts, lindstifa, sniffyjenkins, and monkeyfrog for letting me use their images.

* sniffyjenkins’ first novel, Advice for Strays, has just been published in the UK. I’ve read it and it’s wonderful.

** monkeyfrog provides excellent health advice on both her personal site and on EmpoweHER.

The fetishism of books

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

We’re entering a period of information upheaval. The methods of storing, retrieving, and managing information are finally catching up to the available technology. With our collective knowledge and literature available to anyone with an internet connection, there is bound to be a flowering of scientific and artistic thought.

But we’re collectively stumbling with transitioning the technology and user interface of books.

This is important because books have grown up with our civilization to become the foundation of our complex society and advanced technology. We are all trained from an early age to harness the power of the knowledge locked up in those bundles of paper. Books define the concept of information management to such an extant that it’s unconsciously shaped the semiotics of our modern web-based system of knowledge storage.

We’ve been able to ignore the outdated book-based management system until very recently. The Amazon Kindle became the first ebook reader that married the long-form book format to the advantages of the internet and cheap storage. Now you can download a book directly to your Kindle, and store a full library in about the same space as a typical topical nonfiction.

The adoption of ebook readers has been slowed by people who feel they prefer old fashioned books to their new digital brethren. Despite the arguments, I don’t think this has anything to do with the comparative advantages of a dead tree book (no need to recharge, self-referential interface, leafability) – rather it has to do with our primal urge to hoard and the symbol of the book for knowledge. We feel safer with a physical representation of the printed word than one which disappears when the electricity stops.

This fetishism may be a good thing.

The length of the content inside books is determined by the technology itself. Authors are driven to flesh out a work to fit a standard size rather than match the minimal length that the subject matter really requires. The best example of this are business and self-help books: most of these could be cut down to have or even a quarter of the length and still get the message across – but the economics of publishing encourages writers of these works to expand their writing to book length, thus diluting the knowledge. This is why websites covering the same topics are so popular: they aren’t restricted to expanding the verbiage for reasons not related to the content.

By delaying the movement to a stable economic model for publishing knowledge online because some people still prefer paper books, we could hasten a change to short-form knowledge that better suits the technology with the added incentive of being easier to understand. A stable economic model is important because content creators need an incentive other than personal fulfillment. Right now most content online is supported by ads, while paid content is shunned. Until we come up with a method to financially support content, the evolution of information technology will stall. To see how hard of a problem this is, check out the Xanadu project*.

The process of evolving fiction to a non-book format is harder because fiction elicits a deeper emotional feeling in the reader.  The novel, for example, developed because it was the perfect fit for the age of the printing press: works were book-length, and authors were keen to make their stories longer, deeper, and richer. Currently the interfaces for reading anything longer than, say, 12,000 words induce eye-strain or lead the reader to distraction. We still need the book metaphor for an enjoyable experience. Short stories are different because of their length.

Right now we’re collectively working out how to order our written knowledge to take advantage of the new forms of transmission and storage. The web and ebooks may not be the future; however the system of web metaphors has been successfully used and improved upon for the last 20 years, so this may be it. The great thing about this process is that it’s done unconsciously by readers and writers, in the same way that language evolves and works itself out (which is changing because of the new information technology too).

What I’m getting at is that how we store and retrieve our collective knowledge is changing, and the outcome depends on the technology, how we structure the information, and how we incentivize its creation and distribution. To put this in perspective of the last revolution in information technology: Gutenberg hasn’t invented the printing press yet**.

*The most fascinating part of the Xanadu story is that it partly inspired Tim Berners-Lee in creating the World Wide Web, but he wanted information to be free…and was pragmatic enough to create a technology that’s ‘good enough’ to use within months.

**Eurocentric, I know, but Western Civilization was better at harnessing the power of the printing press than the Chinese.

Projectrd

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

I made a little site to make it easy to find side projects of those in the so-called Favrd Crowd. Things like podcasts, web applications, real applications, themed blogs, etc.

I call it Projectrd. It’s nothing more than a single html page that lists every side project of all the Favrd and Tumblr users I could find in about an hour.

If you want to add your project to the site, send an email to projectrd@budaeli.com with the name, a link to the site, and the Twitter or Tumblr accounts of the people involved and I’ll update the page. Use the same email if you want your project removed.

Projectrd is only a proof of concept. I’m probably not going to maintain it for very long. If you want to make a directory of your own let me know and I’ll link to it on the site. Hell, use the same name if you want (there’s a sleazy website using that domain though).

Also, I’m aware of the awfulness of the name. It’s worse if you pronounce ‘projectrd’ like Merlin Mann pronounces ‘Favrd.’

(reposted from…somewhere else)

Update: Projectrd has closed. All the links have been changed to an archive of the site and projectrd@budaeli.com no longer works.

Attack of the self-thinking computer

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

On Monday, United Airlines’ stock plummeted from around $12 to $3. At first glance it was perplexing because it just dropped and United’s holding company, UAL hadn’t announced anything big enough to cause a 75% drop in price. Well…they announced something that would have, in 2002.

Silicon Valley Insider has a great analysis of exactly what happened, so go read that and come back here.

Something about this story feels like a piece of luddite science fiction. Just because the Chicago Tribune didn’t put a dateline on a story in 2002 that a corporation with enough problems of its own gets its stock hammered because some software was doing exactly what it was designed: dishing up popular stories to people who want to read such things. Suddenly United’s stock is very cheap for no logical reason. So much for rational investing, no? Actually, it shows that markets move according to the best possible information. But when that information is dished out by inflexible software programs, how efficient is it really?

There is so much information available to any one person, and so much potentially useful information, that we need tools to help us sort through that information. We can no longer rely on individuals at newspapers to decide what’s newsworthy, because even they can’t sort through all the information. Instead, we must use tools that can remove the signal from the noise. To give us the information that we need, that’s important, that we need to know.

But every website, every company, every entity online has their own systems for managing this information. And even in a single organization there can be several to hundreds of different ways of sorting information: by topic, popularity, etc. These tools don’t exist in a vacuum – the internet has no dark matter. So when Google crawls a website at an ungodly hour when all two visitors happen to be reading the same old story, the page gets cached and changes Google’s search results. Later in the morning, when a reporter at Bloomberg sees the page pop up on their Google Alerts, the wrong story goes out on the wire all because of the randomness of human action interfered with logical code.

This kind of thing is an informational flaw, a data mutation. Kinda like a biological mutation. Only cooler, because it’s easier for us to toy with information than with living organisms. This could cause all kinds of mutations, from viral videos to bands becoming suddenly popular to a spontaneous political movement to leaps in technological advancement. All because of the interaction of automated systems.

A review of Twitter (and Daring Fireball, by accident)

Monday, September 1st, 2008

The impetus for me to use Twitter in earnest was the Twitterrific app for the iPhone. By making it easy to update my status and to check on others, regular posts just started coming out. I twittered about the olympics, Obama’s speech at the DNC, and other random bits. I watched as others responded to various events; for example, today there are lots of snarky comments about Sarah Palin’s daughter and what it means to McCain’s chances of winning the presidency.

Yet despite my active participation, I don’t see the point of Twitter. Is it deliberatly-short posts of a blog combined with a newsreader for other user’s blog? Is it a status program, to keep others updated on what you’re doing? Because Twitter is both, it is nothing more than a collective mental wank. Let me explain.

Twitter as a microblogging platform.

This makes slightly more sense to me than a status feed. But why would anyone want have a blog severe restrictions on post length? Because not every thought wanting to be written down and shared needs to be meaty and loaded like what’s being attempted here at Budaeli.

And while anyone can set something like this up on any sort of blogging platform, the secret sauce is combining it with a newsreader so that your comments mingle with everyone else’s that you’re following.

If we look at two examples from the blogger John Gruber, his Twitter feed and his link feed from his great website, Daring Fireball, you can see the difference in how the content is presented. I’ve seen twitter posts coincide with link posts in the same vein, and he reveals more of how he’s really thinking through twitter, especially when readers can respond immediately. In fact, his posts about Sarah Palin’s daughter where full of personality, while his one post to his linked list showed only a direct response with only the slightest hint of what he really thinks about the situation. And yet they go hand-in-hand.

Does Gruber need both? Well, that’s the interesting part: Gruber is one of the few professional bloggers. He has carefully crafted a brand around his Daring Fireball that I think includes his Twitter feed. There are regularly-sized posts, short links with concise opinion and description, and a feed where he reels off whatever is on his mind with less of a filter than the other two. Taken together and combined with his valuable insights, you have a great resource for analysis of technology (specifically Apple- and web-related), with a few prescient coverage of other topics.

Twitter as a status feed.

There is absolutely no reason for anyone to actively update the a feed telling others what they’re doing. It’s nothing more than how people nowadays will be at a party, but calling their friends to see if there are any better, while degrading the quality of the party that’s already happening around them. Only now you can spray your whereabouts to everyone, including strangers and people who have no right/don’t care what you’re doing.

This doesn’t just go for twitter, but every other service that has the same functionality. How hard is it to just exist in the place we are, without having to suck everyone else in? Even the case for automated status updates is silly, because it’s just that much more information to lose any justification. It’s OK to keep track of news from specific areas, but to keep tabs on the exact goings-on of all your acquaintances is bordering on absurd. This is partly why I have so far succeeded in joining the major social sites, the major exception being Last.fm. If any of my friends, family, coworkers, or anyone else wants to check up on what I’m doing, they can easily call me, email me, semaphore me, leave a comment on Budaeli, whatever. There is lack of a good argument to make it so easy for others to know what you’re doing, and to get regular updates. It’s more complex than that, and I can see the benefits of having a page for people to catch up with you while being 1,000 miles away, but in general it’s a wee bit silly. I mean, whatever happened to the American dream of disappearing from others for awhile?

Will Twitter succeed? Will it ever get past the early-adopter phase?

I don’t know. With any of these micro-blogging systems, a lot depends on reaching a critical mass of users, much like instant messaging platforms. Twitter has a head start at the moment, but they’ve had enough technical issues to allow space for other systems, like Pownce. Also, slightly different systems like Tumblr also exist that provide a slightly different experience and potential for content.

For now, I’ll remain perplexed as to the real power of Twitter. Until I figure it out you can check out my own twitter feed.

The software makes the phone

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

In between resetting my iPhone (see below for more), I’ve been loving all the new apps available. Even before the 2.0 software release in early July, having a near-perfect mobile web browser came in quite handy and even allowed me to travel without any additional computer (like my now-neglected Eee PC). Despite the tiny screen, I could keep tabs on my feeds with Google’s wonderful mobile Reader, and had enough horsepower to manage my Netflix queue (341 and counting!).

That was before the Apple added the ability to install software on the iPhone. Once that happened, my 9-month-old phone felt like a brand new…computer. The third-party software meant that I could make my phone do exactly what I wanted. If I wanted a dedicated twitter client, a beefy weather app*, a Yelp interface, and a program to control iTunes and AppleTV, well dammit I can do that.

The iPhone’s apps are its new killer feature, and the millions who have bought the 3G model can attest to that. I almost bought the new model, but decided to wait until I played with the new software. After realizing that I had a new phone, for free, I couldn’t justify paying $200 for occasionally faster network speeds and GPS when I got the best feature as a free update.

Unfortunately, Apple took on more than it could handle at a single time for the launch. The new OS was rushed and buggy. Remember that resetting I started talking about? I’ve had to reset my phone three times in the last week after the phone did a forced-reboot but wouldn’t finish, thus bricking my phone. It happened today, and I was without a phone until I could get home. All that for a friggin’ Wikipedia app!

A lot of people blame apple for being greedy, but this was a tactical mistake in a well-constructed strategy. If done right, having a new phone, new software, and a new sync software all on the same day would be mind-blowing for those of us who are as fully digital as current technology allows.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. MobileMe tanked and barely worked for two weeks. My own exposure was minimal: most of the problems were with email, and I’ve migrated well away from my .mac address, while everything else was syncing fine and I could access iDisk fine. Apple, for their part, gave everyone up to 3 months free, and accepted the blame. There was even a MobileMe blog for a short while which began, “Steve wanted me to create this blog…” as if the big man himself was using his legendary temper to get the troops to fix the problems.

Then the iPhone platform started to develop problems weeks after everything launched. Users are currently trying to figure out who’s the blame for the mediocre 3G reception. And applications are crashing the phones, and crashing them hard.

Apple most likely knew how important having third-party software on the iPhone was going to be. All those fakes of promoting web apps and denying third-party software were just to buy them time to get things ready, and the applications had to be ready to install by the one-year anniversary or the wind would leave the sails. And now that they’ve accomplished two herculean feats: launching the original iPhone and the pushing out the updated version, it’s crunch time to keep the new platform from collapsing and for people to lose faith in the company.

And you know what? Apple will pull through and everything will be fine. This is still new territory, and the important part is that the iPhone actually shipped. The only difference between what’s happening now and earlier rough patches (releasing the original Macintosh, OS X) is that a lot more people are using Apple products. And that’s because they’re the only ones making computers and gadgets that are useful and feel futuristic at the same time.


*The combination of being an information junkie and growing up in Tornado Alley has given me an appreciation for knowing the weather forecast and keeping a radar map handy.