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July 25 2013

Science Podcast - human mosaics, incepting false memories, and Turkish science (26 July 2013)

James Lupski talks about human mosaics;Susumu Tonegawa describes incepting memories into mice; John Bohannon reports on science and politics in Turkey.

April 26 2013

Glowing Plants

I just invested in BioCurious’ Glowing Plants project on Kickstarter. I don’t watch Kickstarter closely, but this is about as fast as I’ve ever seen a project get funded. It went live on Wednesday; in the afternoon, I was backer #170 (more or less), but could see the number of backers ticking upwards constantly as I watched. It was fully funded for $65,000 Thursday; and now sits at 1340 backers (more by the time you read this), with about $84,000 in funding. And there’s a new “stretch” goal: if they make $400,000, they will work on bigger plants, and attempt to create a glowing rose.

Glowing plants are a curiosity; I don’t take seriously the idea that trees will be an alternative to streetlights any time in the near future. But that’s not the point. What’s exciting is that an important and serious biology project can take place in a biohacking lab, rather than in a university or an industrial facility. It’s exciting that this project could potentially become a business; I’m sure there’s a boutique market for glowing roses and living nightlights, if not for biological street lighting. And it’s exciting that we can make new things out of biological parts.

In a conversation last year, Drew Endy said that he wanted synthetic biology to “stay weird,” and that if in ten years, all we had accomplished was create bacteria that made oil from cellulose, we will have failed. Glowing plants are weird. And beautiful. Take a look at their project, fund it, and be the first on your block to have a self-illuminating garden.

March 28 2013

How crowdfunding and the JOBS Act will shape open source companies

Currently, anyone can crowdfund products, projectscauses, and sometimes debt. Current U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations make crowdfunding companies (i.e. selling stocks rather than products on crowdfund platforms) illegal. The only way to sell stocks to the public at large under the current law is through the heavily regulated Initial Public Offering (IPO) process.

The JOBS Act will soon change these rules. This will mean that platforms like Kickstarter will be able to sell shares in companies, assuming those companies follow certain strict rules. This change in finance law will enable open source companies to access capital and dominate the technology industry. This is the dawn of crowdfunded finance, and with it comes the dawn of open source technology everywhere.

The JOBS Act is already law, and it required the SEC to create specific rules by specific deadlines. The SEC is working on the rulemaking, but it has made it clear that given the complexity of this new finance structure, meeting the deadlines is not achievable. No one is happy with the delay but the rules should be done in late 2013 or early 2014.

When those rules are addressed, thousands of open source companies will use this financial instrument to create new types of enterprise open source software, hardware, and bioware. These companies will be comfortably funded by their open source communities. Unlike traditional venture-capital-backed companies, these new companies will narrowly focus on getting the technology right and putting their communities first. Eventually, I think these companies will make most proprietary software companies obsolete.

How are companies like Oracle, Apple, Microsoft, SAS and Cisco able to make so much money in markets that have capable commercial open source competitors? In a word: capital. These companies have access to guaranteed cash flows from locked-in users of their products.

Therefore, venture capital investors are willing to provide startup capital to new business only when they demonstrate the capacity for new lock-in. Investors that start technology companies avoid investments that do not trap their user bases. That means entrenched proprietary players frequently face no serious threats from open source alternatives. The result? Lots of lock-in and lots of customers trapped in long-term relationships with proprietary companies that have little motivation to treat them fairly.

The only real argument against business models that respect software freedom have always been about access to capital. Startups are afraid to release using a FOSS license because that decision limits their access to investment. Early-stage investors love to hear the words “proprietary,” “patent-pending” and “trade secret,” which they mentally translate into “exit strategy.” For these investors, trapping users is a hedge against their inability to evaluate early-stage technology startups. (I am sympathetic; predicting the future is hard.) As a result, most successfully funded technology startups are either proprietary, patented platforms or software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms.

This is all going to change.

Crowdfunded finance is going to shift the funding of software forever, and it is going to create a new class of tech organization: freedom-first technology companies.

Now, open source projects will be able to seek and find crowds of investors from within their own communities. These companies will have both the traditional advantages of proprietary companies (well-capitalized companies recruit armies of competent programmers and sales forces that can survive long sales cycles) and the advantages of the open source development model (open code review and the ability to integrate the insights of outsiders).

Yesterday, it was a big deal if you could get Intel to invest in your company. Tomorrow, you will seek funding from 500 Intel employees, who are all better qualified to vet your technology startup than 90% of the people in Intel’s investment arm. These crowdfunders are also willing to make a decision to invest in six hours rather than six months.

For this reason, I believe there will be a treasure trove of companies that will soon be born out of open source/libre software/hardware/bioware projects by asking their communities to crowdfund their initial rounds of financing. Large community projects will give birth to one or several different companies that are designed from the ground up to support those projects. GitHub and Thingiverse will become the new hubs for investors. Developers who have demonstrated competence in projects will be rewarded with access to financing that is both cheaper and faster than seed or angel funding.

With this fundamental change in incentive structures, open source projects will have the capital they need to try truly radical approaches to the design of their projects. Currently, open source projects have to choose between begging for capital or living without that capital. Many open source projects choose slow and gradual development not because they prefer it, but because this is what the developers involved can afford to do in their spare time. The Debian and Ubuntu projects are illustrative of the differences in style and result when the same community is “shoestringing it” versus having access to capital. The people running many open source projects know that no angel investor would touch them, so they make slow and steady progress to “good” software releases rather than rapid progress to “amazing” software releases.

These new freedom-first companies will be able to prioritize what is best for their projects and their communities without bearing the wrath of their investors. That’s because their communities are their investors.

This is not going to merely create a class of software that can rival current proprietary software vendors. In a sense, current commercial open source companies are already doing a fine job of that. But those open source companies typically have investors who are similarly desperate for hockey-stick returns. Even they must choose software development strategies that will pay off for investors. This new class of company will prefer technical strategies that will pay off for end users.

That might seem like a small distinction, but this incentive tweak will change everything about how software is made.

The new companies that leverage this funding option will look a lot like Canonical. Canonical is the kind of company you get when the geeks are fully in charge, and you have investors who are very tolerant of long-term risk because they grok the underlying technical problems that sometimes take decades to entirely resolve. Also, the investors probably know what the word “grok” means. But, unfortunately, there are only so many Mark Shuttleworth-types around (one as far as I know, but a guy who can get himself into space can probably be first in line for human cloning, too).

Shuttleworth is famous for reading printouts of the Debian mailing list on vacation as he figured out which Debian developers to hire for Canonical, the new Linux startup he was funding. That kind of behavior is not what most financial analysts do before making an investment, but this, and other similar efforts, allowed Shuttleworth to predict and control the future of a very technical financial opportunity. It is this kind of focus that allowed Shuttleworth to make one great investment and know that it would work, rather than making hundreds of investments hoping that one of them would work. Using the JOBS Act, community members that already sustain that level of research about an open source project can make the same kinds of bets, but with much less money. (It is ironic that so many of the critics of the JOBS Act presume that the crowd is ignorant rather than recognizing the potential for hyper-informed investor communities.)

In addition, companies like Canonical, Rackspace, Google, Amazon, and Red Hat might acquire these new companies. All of these established organizations can afford billion-dollar acquisitions, and they are either entirely open source or they are very open-source friendly. This kind of acquisition potential will ensure that once open source technology companies prove themselves, they will have access to series A and B financing. I also expect there will be several new open source mega-companies that emerge that are even more devoted to community and end-user experience than these current open source leaders.

This new class of company will have lots and lots of hockey sticks and plenty of billion-dollar exits. Companies will achieve these exits precisely because they do not focus on them (it’s very Zen). They will choose and execute visionary technical strategies that no outside investor could understand. These strategies will seem obvious to their communities of users/investors. These companies will be able to move into capitalization as soon as their communities are convinced the technical strategies and execution capabilities are sound. All of this will lead to better, faster, bigger open source stuff.


If you’d like to talk with other people who are interested in getting and giving funding for open source companies, I set up a related mailing list and Twitter account (@WeInvestInUs).

Related:

February 05 2013

Crowdfunding science

In our first science-as-a-service post, I highlighted some of the participants in the ecosystem. In this one, I want to share the changing face of funding.

Throughout the 20th century, most scientific research funding has come from one of two sources: government grants or private corporations. Government funding is often a function of the political and economic climate, so researchers who rely on it risk having to deal with funding cuts and delays. Those who are studying something truly innovative or risky often find it difficult to get funded at all. Corporate research is most often undertaken with an eye toward profit, so projects that are unlikely to produce a return on investment are often ignored or discarded.

If one looks to history, however, scientific research was originally funded by individual inventors and wealthy patrons. These patrons were frequently rewarded with effusive acknowledgements of their contributions; Galileo, for example, named the moons of Jupiter after the Medicis (though the names he chose ultimately did not stick).

There has been a resurgence of that model — though perhaps more democratic — in the modern concept of crowdfunding. Kickstarter, the most well-known of the crowdfunding startups, enables inventors, artists, and makers to source the funds they need for their projects by connecting to patrons on the platform. Contributors donate money to a project and are kept updated on its progress. Eventually, they may receive some sort of reward — a sticker acknowledging their participation or an example of the completed work. Scientists have begun to use the site, in many cases, to supplement their funding. Anyone can be a micro-patron!

Petridish.org screenshot - funded scientific projectPetridish.org screenshot - funded scientific project

Deceiving the Superorganism: Ant-Exploiting Beetles” met its goal through Petridish, a funding site.

Science-specific platforms have also appeared on the scene. Petridish is currently showcasing projects looking for funding to study everything from rare butterflies to mass-fatality events. On Microryza, you can fund investigations into cannibalism in T-Rex or viral causes of lung cancer. RocketHub also has a science-specific project roster and recently had a researcher raise funds to study the psycopharmacology of amphetamines. Widely covered as “Help scientist build a meth lab,” the researcher’s write-up of his proposal, including his reasons for crowdfunding it, is excellent and worth a read. And newcomer Iamscientist is combining fundraising help with a community, KnowledgeXchange, which helps researchers to recruit team members and find mentors. While these sites show great promise, several similar platforms founded a few years ago have failed. The extent to which this new crop is popularly adopted remains to be seen, though the excitement around crowdfunding may indicate the time is now right.

While anyone can submit a project to the sites above, there are also hybrid models that enable individuals to “top up” more traditionally funded research. In the UK, MyProjects enables individuals to fund research targeting specific types of cancer; the underlying projects have already been pre-approved and funded by Cancer Research UK. The process is more specific than traditional charitable giving, so contributors feel that they’re making a difference in a specific area that matters to them. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has begun to teach its members about crowdfunding.

For more expensive research, of course, micro-patronage falls short. Breakout Labs, run by the Thiel Foundation, has begun awarding grants of up to $350,000 to “to fill the funding gap that exists for innovative research outside the confines of an academic institution, large corporation, or government.” In exchange, the company retains the rights to its IP, and Breakout Labs is given a percentage of future revenue and an option to invest in an equity round.

Under the traditional grant model, the average researcher spends up to 40% of his or her time chasing funding, and 80% of grant applications are rejected. In addition, the necessity of ties to an academic or industrial organization means that researchers don’t retain control of their IP. The new models of funding can speed up the process, while enabling scientists to keep 100% of their research and results. They also enable citizen scientists to publicize their projects and built communities of involvement.

If you’ve participated in funding scientific research via one of these platforms, or are a scientist who has run a campaign on a crowdfunding site, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the experience in the comments below.

Related:

October 11 2012

Culture transmission is bi-directional

I read this piece in the New York Times the other day and have read it two or three more times since then. It dives into the controversy around DARPA’s involvement in hacker space funding. But frankly, every time I come across this controversy, I’m baffled.

I usually associate this sort of government distrust with Tea Party-led Republicans. The left, and even many of us in the middle, generally have more faith in government institutions. We’re more likely to view government as a tool to implement the collective will of the people. Lots of us figure that government is necessary, or at least useful, to accomplish things that are too big or hairy for any other group of citizens to achieve (in fact, a careful reading of Hayek will show even he thought so – commence comment flame war in 3 ..2 ..1 …).

So, to summarize, the right dislikes big government and typically the left embraces it. At least, right up until the moment the military is involved. Then the right worships big government (largely at the temple of the History Channel) and the left despises it.

Of course, I don’t know anything about the politics of the people criticizing this DARPA funding, just that they are worried that defense money will be a corrupting influence on the maker movement. Which would imply that they think Defense Department values are corrupting. And they might be right to have some concerns. While the U.S. military services are probably the single most competent piece of our entire government, the defense industrial complex that equips them is pretty damned awful. It’s inefficient, spends more time on political than actual engineering, and is where most of the world’s bad suits go to get rumpled. And there is no doubt that money is a vector along which culture and values will readily travel, so I suppose it’s reasonable to fear that the maker movement could be changed by it.

But what everyone seems to be missing is that this isn’t a one-way process and the military, via DARPA, is essentially saying “we want to absorb not just your technology but the culture of openness by which you create it.” That’s an amazing opportunity and shouldn’t be ignored. The money is one vector, but the interactions, magical projects, and collaboration are another, perhaps more powerful vector, along which the values of the maker movement can be swabbed directly into one of the most influential elements of our society. This is opportunity!

O’Reilly is participating in the DARPA MENTOR program and Dale has already discussed our involvement at length. So I need to disclose it, but this post isn’t about that. This post is about the idea that the military has been a change agent in our society many times before. This is an opportunity to do it again and for makers to influence how it happens.

For quite a few years, I worked in the defense space and, frankly, took a lot of crap for it from my friends on the left coast. But I always felt that the military was an important part of American society regardless of whether you agreed with its purpose or actual use, and that the best way to counter its less desirable tendencies was to engage with it. So while I worked my day job I also spent those years aggressively advocating open source software, emergent and incremental software processes, and “permissionless programming” web platforms for the DoD. I thought that the military could benefit from all of these things, but I also explicitly felt that they were a vector along which the cultural attributes of openness, transparency, and experimentation would readily travel. Those open and emergent ideas were a culture virus and I intended to shed them everywhere I could.

If you’re a technologist, you know that the military has always pushed the envelope. Silicon Valley itself began with Stanford’s government partnership during the Second World War. The world’s first interactive computer was Whirlwind, a component piece of the massive air defense program SAGE. So, if your vision is to unleash a democratized third industrial revolution based on the maker model, this is your opportunity. If you can insert open culture and values into the defense establishment at the same time, even better.

June 08 2012

Publishing News: Wattpad raises $17.3 million in series B funding

Here are a few stories that caught my eye this week in the publishing space.

Wattpad raises $17.3 for its storytelling community

Wattpad LogoBookExpo America (BEA) took place this week in New York City. One of the big announcements made at the show was Wattpad's newly raised $17.3 million in financing in a series B funding round led by Khosla Ventures. Wattpad is a social ereading and storytelling platform that connects writers with readers, and according to a story at GigaOm, the company vision is to establish the platform as the YouTube of writing. Andrew Chung, a partner at Khosla Ventures and a new board member at Wattpad, told GigaOm in an interview:

"You're able to upload a story chapter by chapter, folks are able to comment on that chapter, and they can provide encouragement to the writer and actually signal where they'd like the story to go, which creates a type of engagement that's impossible in an offline context. There’s a very strong parallel to the way that YouTube was able to do that for amateur or user-generated video content."

Liz Gannes at All Things Digital took a look at Wattpad's explosive growth, reporting that the platform now hosts five million stories and has about 500,000 added each month. Gannes also highlights the popularity of the site with readers, noting that "a book by teen author Jordan Lynde (a.k.a. XxSkater2Girl16xX on Wattpad) about a relationship between a teacher and a student, has been read nearly 20 million times."

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Stay up to date with Tools of Change for Publishing events, publications, research and resources. Visit us at oreilly.com/toc.


Publishers are reducing themselves to book packagers

The BEA show this week also inspired insight. Brett Sandusky took a look at the notions swirling about digital publishing. He argues that publishers have been fooling themselves with the idea that "digital is free and easy," that you can take your existing content, simply change the format and rake in the money. He writes:

"While our processes have arguably improved and modernized, the fact remains: viable digital business models require more than afterthought. Simply converting content and making it available for sale is a recipe for disaster. This prevailing free and easy digital model is actually harmful to our businesses."

Sandusky says the real money in digital is in distribution. He called for a curated distribution experience and emphasized the importance of owning the customer experience:

"Right now, we take so much time to polish our content and our products, and then we just throw them away. All this content curation we're doing (or at the very least talking about) makes no sense at all if we simply hand over the UX ownership to retailers and their locked devices. In fact, not owning the whole customer experience with regards to digital has basically reduced us to little more than book packagers for our retail partners. And, we're not even getting paid for it."

The real take-away from BEA, he says, is that it's time to start focusing on the customer, to "[pay] attention to every touch point, every interaction, every experience and make sure we own it." His post is a must-read this week.

A look at the state we are in

Jeremy Greenfield over at the Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch put together a sort of State of the Publishing Industry post this week, looking at how ebooks are effecting change. He offers a nice roundup of the DOJ lawsuit, the B&N venture with Microsoft, trends in venture capital and important startup entrants to the publishing space, and a look at how children are responding to ebooks (PDF). Greenfield also talks about Pottermore and how J.K. Rowling's moves to set up her own store and sell the Harry Potter ebooks directly to consumers — without DRM — is affecting the industry. He highlights two important points:

  1. "In the first month, she sold $5 million worth of e-books through her own store, Pottermore. ... Pottermore's success has renewed speculation that it's possible for publishers to develop direct-sales channels."
  2. "When Pottermore opened, it sold its e-books without digital rights management (DRM) software that is meant to prevent piracy. This move ran counter to what most book publishers currently do. ... When Pottermore launched, piracy initially spiked, said [Pottermore Chief Executive Charlie Redmayne]. But a backlash from anti-DRM advocates as well as appreciative fans resulted in an overall 25% drop in piracy of Harry Potter e-books."

You can read Greenfield's entire roundup here.

Related:


May 17 2012

Strata Week: Google unveils its Knowledge Graph

Here's what caught my attention in the data space this week.

Google's Knowledge Graph

Google Knowledge Graph"Google does the semantic Web," says O'Reilly's Edd Dumbill, "except they call it the Knowledge Graph." That Knowledge Graph is part of an update to search that Google unveiled this week.

"We've always believed that the perfect search engine should understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want," writes Amit Singhal, Senior VP of Engineering, in the company's official blog post.

That post makes no mention of the semantic web, although as ReadWriteWeb's Jon Mitchell notes, the Knowledge Graph certainly relies on it, following on and developing from Google's acquisition of the semantic database Freebase in 2010.

Mitchell describes the enhanced search features:

"Most of Google users' queries are ambiguous. In the old Google, when you searched for "kings," Google didn't know whether you meant actual monarchs, the hockey team, the basketball team or the TV series, so it did its best to show you web results for all of them.

"In the new Google, with the Knowledge Graph online, a new box will come up. You'll still get the Google results you're used to, including the box scores for the team Google thinks you're looking for, but on the right side, a box called "See results about" will show brief descriptions for the Los Angeles Kings, the Sacramento Kings, and the TV series, Kings. If you need to clarify, click the one you're looking for, and Google will refine your search query for you."

Yahoo's fumbles

The news from Yahoo hasn't been good for a long time now, with the most recent troubles involving the departure of newly appointed CEO Scott Thompson over the weekend and a scathing blog post this week by Gizmodo's Mathew Honan titled "How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet." Ouch.

Over on GigaOm, Derrick Harris wonders if Yahoo "sowed the seeds of its own demise with Hadoop." While Hadoop has long been pointed to as a shining innovation from Yahoo, Harris argues that:

"The big problem for Yahoo is that, increasingly, users and advertisers want to be everywhere on the web but at Yahoo. Maybe that's because everyone else that's benefiting from Hadoop, either directly or indirectly, is able to provide a better experience for consumers and advertisers alike."

De-funding data gathering

The appropriations bill that recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives axes funding for the Economic Census and the American Community Survey. The former gathers data about 25 million businesses and 1,100 industries in the U.S., while the latter collects data from three million American households every year.

Census Bureau director Robert Groves writes that the bill "devastates the nation's statistical information about the status of the economy and the larger society." BusinessWeek chimes in that the end to these surveys "blinds business," noting that businesses rely "heavily on it to do such things as decide where to build new stores, hire new employees, and get valuable insights on consumer spending habits."

Got data news to share?

Feel free to email me.

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November 10 2011

Strata Week: The social graph that isn't

Here are a few of the data stories that caught my attention this week:

Not social. Not a graph.

Graph Paper by Calsidyrose, on FlickrIt's hardly surprising that the founder of a "bookmarking site for introverts" would have something to say about the "social graph." But what Pinboard's Maciej Ceglowski has penned in a blog post titled "The Social Graph Is Neither" is arguably the must-read article of the week.

The social graph is neither a graph, nor is it social, Ceglowski posits. He argues that today's social networks have failed to capture the complexities and intricacies of our social relationships (there's no graph) and have become something that's at best contrived and at worst icky (actually, that's not the "worst," but it's the adjective Ceglowski uses).

From his post:

Imagine the U.S. Census as conducted by direct marketers — that's the social graph. Social networks exist to sell you crap. The icky feeling you get when your friend starts to talk to you about Amway or when you spot someone passing out business cards at a birthday party, is the entire driving force behind a site like Facebook. Because their collection methods are kind of primitive, these sites have to coax you into doing as much of your social interaction as possible while logged in, so they can see it.

But if today's social networks are troublesome, they're also doomed, Ceglowski contends, much as the CompuServes and the Prodigys of an earlier era were undone. It's not so much a question of their being out-innovated, but rather they were out-democratized. As the global network spread, the mass marketing has given way to grassroots efforts.

"My hope," Ceglowski writes, "is that whatever replaces Facebook and Google+ will look equally inevitable and that our kids will think we were complete rubes for ever having thrown a sheep or clicked a +1 button. It's just a matter of waiting things out and leaving ourselves enough freedom to find some interesting, organic, and human ways to bring our social lives online."

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

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Cloudera raises $40 million

ClouderaThe Hadoop-based startup Cloudera announced this week that it has raised another $40 million in funding, led by Ignition Partners, Greylock, Accel, Meritech Capital Partners, and In-Q-Tel. This brings the total investment in the company to some $76 million, a solid endorsement of not just Cloudera but of the Hadoop big data solution.

Hadoop is a trend that we've covered almost weekly here as part of the Strata Week news roundup. And GigaOm's Derrick Harris has run some estimates on the numbers of the Hadoop ecosystem at large, finding that: "Hadoop-based startups have raised $104.5 million since May. The same set of companies has raised $159.7 million since 2009 when Cloudera closed its first round."

While it's easy to label Hadoop as one of the buzzwords of 2011, the amount of investor interest, as well as the amount of adoption, is an indication that many people see this as a cornerstone of a big data strategy as well as a good source of revenue for the coming years.

Kaggle raises $11 million to crowdsource big data

KaggleIt's a much smaller round of investment than Cloudera's, to be sure, but Kaggle's $11 million Series A round announced this week is still noteworthy. Kaggle provides a platform for running big data competitions. "We're making data science a sport," so its tagline reads.

But it's more than that. There remains a gulf between data scientists and those who have data problems to solve. Kaggle helps bridge this gap by letting companies outsource their big data problems to third-party data scientists and software developers, with prizes going to the best solutions. Kaggle claims it has a community of more than 17,000 PhD-level data scientists, ready to take on and resolve companies' data problems.

Kaggle has thus far enabled several important breakthroughs, including a competition that helped identify new ways to map dark matter in the universe. That's a project that had been worked on for several decades by traditional methods, but those in the Kaggle community tackled it in a couple of weeks.

The Supreme Court looks at GPS data tracking

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in United States v. Jones, a case that could have major implications on mobile data, GPS and privacy. At issue is whether police need a warrant in order to attach a tracking device to a car to monitor a suspect's movements.

Surveillance via technology is clearly much easier and more efficient than traditional surveillance methods. Why follow a suspect around all day, for example, when you can attach a device to his or her car and just watch the data transmission? But it's clear that the data you get from a GPS device is much more enhanced than human surveillance, so it raises all sorts of questions about what constitutes a reasonable search. And while you needn't get a warrant to shadow someone's car, attaching that GPS tracking device might just violate the Fourth Amendment and the protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

But what's at stake is much larger than just sticking a tracking device to the underbelly of a criminal suspect's vehicle. After all, every cell phone owner gives off an incredible amount of mobile location data, something that the government could conceivably tap into and monitor.

During oral arguments, Supreme Court justices seemed skeptical about the government's power to use technology in this way.

Got data news?

Feel free to email me.

Photo: Graph Paper by Calsidyrose, on Flickr

Related:

September 21 2011

02mydafsoup-01
[...]

Die Erwartung von privaten Stiftungen oder öffentlichen Förderprogrammen ist meist, dass nach einer Anfangsfinanzierung – typischerweise für fünf Jahre – der Professur durch die Stiftung oder das Förderprogramm die Hochschule aus eigenen Mitteln die Professur dauerhaft unterhält. Da aber die Hochschule – in Deutschland und Europa – finanziell nicht selbständig sind, sondern von lang- und kurzfristigen Entscheidungen der Regierungen abhängig sind, können sie kaum planen. Anfangsfinanzierungen führen folglich zu hochschulinternen Mittelumschichtungen, die nicht unbedingt sinnvoll sind. So derzeit an einigen Hochschulen, die von Exzellenzinitiative beglückt worden sind.

[...]
Gefahren fremdfinanzierter Professuren | erlebt 2011-09-21

June 02 2011

Open Question: Would you fund your favorite author?

questionmarkPublishers can start preparing for some new competition — from readers. A new crowdfunded service called Unbound launched at this year's Hay Festival. The platform, which sounds similar to Kickstarter, allows readers to fund the books they want to read. A post at the Guardian describes how it works:

The Unbound.co.uk publishing platform ... allows writers to pitch ideas online directly to readers who, if they are interested, pledge financial support. Once enough money has been raised, the author will write the book, with supporters receiving anything from an ebook to a limited first edition and lunch with the author, depending on their level of investment.

And Unbound didn't launch with unknown self-publishing authors — Terry Jones is on board, as are Tibor Fischer and Gavin Pretor-Pinney.

This raises the question: Would you fund your favorite author?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup — Pete Meyers looks at the growing number of digital book tools: what's best, what's easiest to use, and what's worth putting in your book-building toolkit.

Join us on Thursday, June 30, 2011, at 10 am PT
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May 06 2011

Improving the landscape for organic startups

Next Tuesday, May 10, entrepreneur Sherwood Neiss will be testifying before U.S. Congressman Darrell Issa and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to advocate a regulatory change that I have been working to support: a small offering exemption, aka "crowdfunding exemption." It's a simple change that the SEC has the authority to make, and which I believe would spur grassroots innovation and empowerment the way the NSF's revision of the internet backbone's Acceptable Use Policy did back in the early 1990s. (Remember that one?)

The background (which I didn't know until fairly recently), is that any investment where the return does not depend on the investor's active, day-to-day involvement is considered a security. And securities, no matter how small, are either regulated by the SEC or state securities departments. There are no de minimis exceptions; shares in a lemonade stand would require registration, which I'm told costs $50,000-$100,000 or more (federal) or $20,000-$50,000 (state), mostly legal fees. For VC-free startups based on people doing things that they care about, these costs are prohibitive.

There are exemptions from registration, but never for investments that are described on the open web, like the donation pitches that have made sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo such fonts of creativity — this is prohibited as "general solicitation." Investments offered privately to friends and family can be exempt, but with strict limits on the numbers of "unaccredited" investors (non-millionaires) allowed in, like a maximum of 35.

These laws were enacted to protect unsophisticated investors from fraud, but they also prevent people from investing in small businesses in their own neighborhoods, or garage ventures launched out of communities of interest that they belong to — despite the likelihood that their personal ties to such investments gives them a better basis for evaluating risk (and contributing to success) than some mass of SEC filings cooked up in an office somewhere. And so, in the name of investor protection, the investments industry currently has a monopoly on all the invested assets of the non-millionaire public. People can't invest in the people they know from their own communities; they can only entrust their money to the choices contained in a managed menu of exclusively non-local, large-scale investment products.

As an alternative, the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) in Oakland (for whom I volunteer) petitioned the SEC last year for a new exemption to cover investment offerings where individual investments are capped at $100 and the total amount is less than $100,000. The SEC posted it to their website last July 1 as File No. 4-605 (PDF). Check it out! It's a great document, written to be understandable by laypeople, and I think everyone involved is proud of how it turned out. The funding for the legal work behind the petition was itself raised through crowdfunding.

As hoped, the proposal has been bouncing around and gaining support from Republicans and Democrats alike. The SEC's comments page for the petition (which you can add to by emailing rule-comments@sec.gov and putting "4-605" in the Subject line) contains more comments than any other petition listed, all of them positive (as of this writing). Last November, when I and some other supporters of the petition attended the SEC's Small Business Forum to promote the idea, the SEC seemed interested.

Since then, Rep. Darrell Issa wrote a letter to SEC chair Mary Schapiro asking about easing regulations for crowdfunded investments, and Schapiro wrote back (PDF) to say they were evaluating the issue, citing 4-605 and our visit (see footnotes 77 and 78 in the document). Meanwhile, Florida entrepreneur Sherwood Neiss also met with the SEC to promote the idea, and published a less restrictive proposal for a small offering exemption (which also cites 4-605) at his website StartupExemption.

Neiss has also done a wonderful job of spearheading and publicizing this issue. Understanding the power of celebrity, he encouraged Whoopi Goldberg to tweet her support for his exemption proposal. The Wall Street Journal blog covered Goldberg's tweet on March 23. This reified the issue among financial journalists, who have since reported on it in Bloomberg, The Fiscal Times, The Washington Times, and POLITICO Pro. (Before Goldberg's endorsement, only the Boise Weekly had covered the idea.)

Now Neiss is scheduled to testify before Issa's committee next Tuesday, May 10th, and everyone I've been working with on this who knows is thrilled. I've read an early draft of his planned testimony, and it's terrific — a great argument with great supporting facts for a revolutionary new idea. I was excited just reading it, and in an idle moment afterwards I caught myself humming "Marching to Pretoria."

This past Monday, I called C-SPAN's main number (202-737-3220) to suggest that they cover Issa's hearing and Neiss' testimony. The receptionist told me to call back on Monday, May 9th because they don't decide what to cover until the day before. When I asked her if there was any other way to suggest coverage, she asked me what hearing I was interested in, and told me that she would pass my suggestion on to the editors. Fingers crossed!



Related:


January 21 2011

Publishing News: Week in Review

Here's what caught my attention in this week's publishing news. (Note: These stories were published here on Radar throughout the week.)

Stripping DRM 101

Last week, Brian O'Leary, founder of Magellan Media, pointed out that: "Any good pirate can strip DRM in a matter of seconds to minutes." Now, Wired magazine proves it with a brief how-to on stripping DRM from Kindle books, borrowed from Apprentice Alf.

Calibre screenshot
A screenshot of the Calibre ebook management system. Plug-ins can be added to the system to remove various forms of DRM.

Remember DVD Jon? He set the DVD free and created Double Twist to strip DRM from music with a single click. He's still around, and his company does much more today. And that's just one organization championing the open source format. My mom still won't be stripping DRM from her ebooks, but it certainly looks like easy-to-use tools are on the horizon.

TOC: 2011, being held Feb. 14-16, 2011 in New York City, will explore "publishing without boundaries" through a variety of workshops, keynotes and panel sessions.

Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD

VCs funding entertainment, cloud technology, and social media

Startups dreams can come true. Ben Huh and his team at Cheezburger Network have raised $30 million in venture capital. The money reportedly will be used to hire people — perhaps including a sales person, as they (impressively) don't have one.

And no, a business doesn't have to involve cats to secure venture capital. Sonian, a company that archives cloud-based data, secured an additional $9 million when corporate giant Amazon jumped onboard, bringing their venture capital total to about $15 million. Social publishing site Scribd and Perfect Market, a company that helps Web publishers monetize content, also have landed solid capital investments of $13 million and $9 million, respectively.

Huh will talk more about his company's success — and its venture into book publishing — in a keynote address at TOC. As a teaser, Huh discusses the limitations of blog-to-book publishing in the following short interview:


The Book Industry Study Group began the process to establish an ebook ISBN ISO

ISBN.jpgThe ISBN — originally based on nine digits, then 10, and now 13 — might be getting shiny, new ISO standards. The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) is looking into the issue and has reviewed an ebook ISBN study conducted by Michael Cairns (@Personanondata) of Information Media Partners.

One of the larger problems highlighted in the study seemed to be a lack of acceptance for a "standard," with participants calling the ISBN policies "recommendations" or "best practices." And looking forward to the future of digital publishing and the possibilities of aggregating custom content by consumers has made some publishers wonder if the ISBN will even be needed. And if the ISBN does still have a place, how will it work in this new environment? Lots of work needs to be done before an ISO can be established and ratified, but this study looks like a step in the right direction.

From the report's executive summary:

Achieving [an ISBN ebook standard] will require closer and more active communication among all concerned parties and potential changes in ISBN policies and procedures. Enforcement of any eventual agreed policy will require commitment from all parties; otherwise, no solution will be effective and, to that end, it would be practical to gain this commitment in advance of defining solutions.

The full ebook ISBN report will be released by BISG in a few weeks.



Got news?


Suggestions are always welcome, so feel free to send along your news scoops and ideas.


Keep up with Radar's latest publishing news and interviews with our publishing RSS feed.


January 19 2011

Venture capitalists embrace humor, technology and social media

twittercropStartups dreams can come true. Ben Huh and his team at Cheezburger Network have raised $30 million in venture capital. The money reportedly will be used to hire people — perhaps including a sales person, as they (impressively) don't have one.

And no, a business doesn't have to involve cats to secure venture capital. Sonian, a company that archives cloud-based data, secured an additional $9 million when corporate giant Amazon jumped onboard, bringing their venture capital total to about $15 million. Social publishing site Scribd and Perfect Market, a company that helps Web publishers monetize content, also have landed solid capital investments of $13 million and $9 million, respectively.

Huh will talk more about his company's success — and its venture into book publishing — in a keynote address at TOC. As a teaser, Huh discusses the limitations of blog-to-book publishing in the following short interview:



TOC: 2011, being held Feb. 14-16, 2011 in New York City, will explore "publishing without boundaries" through a variety of workshops, keynotes and panel sessions.

Save 15% off registration with the code TOC11RAD


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