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September 29 2013

Four short links: 1 October 2013

  1. Farmbot Wikiopen-source, scalable, automated precision farming machines.
  2. Amazon’s Chaotic Storage — photos from inside an Amazon warehouse. At the heart of the operation is a sophisticated database that tracks and monitors every single product that enters/leaves the warehouse and keeps a tally on every single shelf space and whether it’s empty or contains a product. Software-optimised spaces, for habitation by augmented humans.
  3. Public Safety Codes of the World — Kickstarter project to fund the release of public safety codes.
  4. #xoxo Thoreau Talk (Maciej Ceglowski) — exquisitely good talk by the Pinboard creator, on success, simplicity, and focus.

July 11 2013

Ich will alle deine Daten! Crowdfunding für Online-Spiel zum Datenschutz

Vor zwei Jahren haben sich in Wien ein paar Programmierer, Webdesigner und Aktivisten zusammengefunden, um ein Online-Spiel zu entwickeln, dass nicht nur Spaß macht, sondern auch die Themen Privatheit im Netz und Datenschutz aufgreift. Herausgekommen ist: Data Dealer. Die Finanzierung des Spiels steht nun kurz vor dem Abschluss. Heute bis 22 Uhr müssen nun nur noch ein paar tausend Euro via Kickstarter eingesammelt werden, dann hätte sich die ganze Mühe des Teams gelohnt.

Bei Kickstarter müssen 50.000 Dollar zusammenkommen, heute um 7.30 Uhr sind davon bereits 44.758 Dollar zusammengekommen, bis 22 Uhr ist das Fenster noch offen. Sollte das Ziel erreicht werden, dürfte einiges an Jubel und Erleichterung aus Wien zu hören sein. Verdient wäre das, denn das Online-Spiel dreht die üblichen Warnungen vor Datenmissbrauch und Hinweise zu “Meine Daten gehören mir” spielerisch um. Im Spiel geht es laut Pressemitteilung von Data Dealer um folgendes Szenario:

Die Spieler schlüpfen in die Rolle von skrupellosen Daten-Händlern und betreiben Gewinnspiele, Partnerbörsen oder Online-Plattformen wie “Tracebook” oder “Smoogle” und verkaufen die gesammelten Daten an Versicherungen, Personalabteilungen oder staatliche Behörden – frei nach dem Motto: „Persönliche Daten sammeln und wieder verkaufen – und das möglichst hemmungslos und in ganz großem Stil“.

Das Motto ‘Je besser ich die Datensammler verstehe, desto besser kann ich auf meine Daten achten’ kennt man aus fast jedem Polizei-Krimi. Die Profiler versuchen den Mörder, seine Lebensrealität und die Motive der Handlung zu verstehen, versuchen den Mord durchzuspielen und jedes scheinbar nur beiläufig relevante Detail zu berücksichtigen. Der Mörder wird meistens gefasst. Es ist zwar vorerst nicht zu vermuten, dass die professionellen Datensammler ihre Praxis schnell ändern, die Awareness steigt aber wenn ich mit ihren Augen handele.

Das hier sind übrigens die sympathischen Macher von Data Dealer:
datadealer-team

Hier nochmal ein Interview des Journalisten Richard Gutjahr mit einem der Macher:

Auch international schlägt die Idee Wellen. Es berichten nicht nur weltweit Online-Portale und Nachrichtenangebote wie hier in einem Interview in der FAZ oder hier in der New York Times, sondern Data Dealer hat im vergangenen Monat auch den renommierten G4C-Award (Games for Change – Award) in den USA gewonnen. Viel Lob und Interesse. Es wäre nun schön zu sehen, wie die weitere Entwicklung aussieht. Deswegen hier nun nochmal der Link zur Kickstarter-Kampagne.

Einen Eindruck vom Spiel gewinnt man in der spielbaren Demoversion (Englisch). Und hier direkt der Video-Trailer:

Und zum Schluss: Das gesamte Online-Spiel wird zudem unter einer nutzerfreundlichen Creative-Commons-Lizenz stehen.

May 29 2013

Four short links: 29 May 2013

  1. Quick Reads of Notable New Zealanders — notable for two reasons: (a) CC-NC-BY licensed, and (b) gorgeous gorgeous web design. Not what one normally associates with Government web sites!
  2. svg.js — Javascript library for making and munging SVG images. (via Nelson Minar)
  3. Linkbot: Create with Robots (Kickstarter) — accessible and expandable modular robot. Loaded w/ absolute encoding, accelerometer, rechargeable lithium ion battery and ZigBee. (via IEEE Spectrum)
  4. The Promise and Peril of Real-Time Corrections to Political Misperceptions (PDF) — paper presenting results of an experiment comparing the effects of real-time corrections to corrections that are presented after a short distractor task. Although real-time corrections are modestly more effective than delayed corrections overall, closer inspection reveals that this is only true among individuals predisposed to reject the false claim. In contrast, individuals whose attitudes are supported by the inaccurate information distrust the source more when corrections are presented in real time, yielding beliefs comparable to those never exposed to a correction. We find no evidence of realtime corrections encouraging counterargument. Strategies for reducing these biases are discussed. So much for the Google Glass bullshit detector transforming politics. (via Vaughan Bell)

May 09 2013

Four short links: 9 May 2013

  1. On Google’s Ingress Game (ReadWrite Web) — By rolling out Ingress to developers at I/O, Google hopes to show how mobile, location, multi-player and augmented reality functions can be integrated into developer application offerings. In that way, Ingress becomes a kind of “how-to” template to developers looking to create vibrant new offerings for Android games and apps. (via Mike Loukides)
  2. Nanoscribe Micro-3D Printerin contrast to stereolithography (SLA), the resolution is between 1 and 2 orders of magnitude higher: Feature sizes in the order of 1 µm and less are standard. (via BoingBoing)
  3. ThingpunkThe problem of the persistence of these traditional values is that they prevent us from addressing the most pressing design questions of the digital era: How can we create these forms of beauty and fulfill this promise of authenticity within the large and growing portions of our lives that are lived digitally? Or, conversely, can we learn to move past these older ideas of value, to embrace the transience and changeability offered by the digital as virtues in themselves? Thus far, instead of approaching these (extremely difficult) questions directly, traditional design thinking has lead us to avoid them by trying to make our digital things more like physical things (building in artificial scarcity, designing them skeumorphically, etc.) and by treating the digital as a supplemental add-on to primarily physical devices and experiences (the Internet of Things, digital fabrication).
  4. Kickstarter and NPRThe internet turns everything into public radio. There’s a truth here about audience-supported media and the kinds of money-extraction systems necessary to beat freeloading in a medium that makes money-collection hard and freeloading easy.

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.

February 21 2013

3D printing from your fingertips

The 3Doodler is a 3D printer, but it’s a pen. This takes 3D printing and turns it on its head …

In fact the 3Doodler rejects quite a lot of what most people would consider necessary for it to be called a 3D printer. There is no three-axis control. There is no software. You can’t download a design and print an object. It strips 3D printing back to basics.

What there is, what it allows you to do, is make things. This is the history of printing going in reverse. It’s as if Gutenberg’s press was invented first, and then somebody came along afterwards and invented the fountain pen.

While the 3Doodler looks simple, the creators have obviously overcome some serious technological difficulties to get it working. One of the things that’s hard to do on 3D printers, at least hard to do well, is unsupported structures.

As anyone that owns a 3D printer will tell you, the cooling time for the plastic as it leaves the print head is crucial to allow you to print unsupported structures. Too hot and it doesn’t work, the structure sags and runs. Too cold and it just plain doesn’t work at all. From their videos, the 3Doodler inventors seem to have cracked the problem. Building a free-standing structure appears to be easy and well within the capabilities of the pen.

It also takes 3mm ABS and PLA as its “ink,” the same stuff used by most hobbyist 3D printers. I’ve got spools of this stuff hanging around my house, which I use in my own printer. But unlike my printer, which cost just under a thousand dollars, the 3Doodler costs just $75.

It doesn’t have the same capabilities, but that’s the difference between a printing press and a pen. It has different capabilities, ones a “normal” 3D printer doesn’t have. It’s not a cheap alternative, it’s a different thing entirely.

I’m currently watching the 3Doodler climb past its first million dollars on Kickstarter. When I say its “first” million I mean that. The project has more than 30 days left on its campaign and already it’s gone viral. This is the next Pebble. The next Kickstarter success story.

The creators have tapped into a previously untappable market: People who wanted a 3D printer but couldn’t afford one, and people who see the obvious potential of a fountain pen over a printing press, for both art and engineering.

The guys behind the 3Doodler made $60,000 dollars while I wrote this post. My hat is off to them. It’s not often someone comes up with an idea this good.

I’m going to be writing a series of posts on hardware startups over the course of the next few months, and rest assured I’ll come back to the 3Doodler. But not until they can type faster than they can make money.

September 17 2012

Four short links: 17 September 2012

  1. Aaron Swartz Defense Fund — American computer systems are under attack every day of the week from foreign governments, and the idiot prosecutor is wasting resources doubling down on this vindictive nonsense.
  2. Baghdad Community Hackerspace Workshops (Kickstarter) — Makerspace in Baghdad, built by people who know how to do this stuff in that country. (via BoingBoing)
  3. Teaching Web Development in AfricaI used the resources that Pamela Fox helpfully compiled at teaching-materials.org to mentor twelve students who all built their own websites, such as websites for their karate club, fashion club, and traditional dance troupe. One student made a website to teach others about the hardware components of computers, and another website discussing the merits of a common currency in the East African Community. The two most advanced students began programming their own computer game to help others practice touch typing, and it allows players to compete across the network with WebSockets.
  4. Transient Faces (Jeff Howard) — only displaying the unchanging parts of a scene, effectively removing people using computer vision. Disconcerting and elegant. (via Greg Borenstein)

August 13 2012

Smart notebooks for linking virtual teams across the net

Who has the gumption to jump into the crowded market for collaboration tools and call for a comprehensive open source implementation? Perhaps just Miles Fidelman, a networking expert whose experience spans time with Bolt, Beranek and Newman, work on military command and control systems, a community networking non-profit called the Center for Civic Networking, and building a small hosting company.

Miles, whom I’ve known for years and consider a mentor in the field of networking, recently started a Kickstarter project called Smart Notebooks. Besides promising a free software implementation based on popular standards, he believes his vision for a collaboration environment will work the way people naturally work together — not how some vendor thinks they should work, as so many tools have done.

Screenshot from Smart Notebooks project
A screenshot from the Smart Notebooks project


Miles’ concept of Smart Notebooks is shared documents that stay synchronized across the net. Each person has his or her own copy of a document, but they “talk to each other” using a peer-to-peer protocol. Edit your copy, and everyone else sees the change on their copy. Unlike email attachments, there’s no need to search for the most recent copy of document. Unlike a Google Doc, everyone has their own copy, allowing for private notes and working offline. All of this will be done using standard web browsers, email, and RSS: no new software to install, no walled-garden services, and no accounts to configure on services running in the cloud.

The motivation for the system comes from observations Miles has made in venues as small as a church board of directors and as large as an Air Force operations center. When people come together, they bring copies of documents — agendas, minutes, presentation slides — and receive more documents. They exchange information, discuss issues, and make decisions, recording them as scribbles on their copies of the documents they carry away with them. Smart Notebooks will mimic this process across the Internet (and avoid a lot of manual copying in the process).

Miles draws models from several sources, including one of his favorite tools that died out: Hypercard (he sometimes refers to Smart Notebooks as “HyperCard, for groups, running in a browser”). He also looks to TiddlyWiki (a personal wiki implemented as a single local file, opened and edited in a browser) as a model for smart notebooks, coupled with a peer-to-peer, replicated messaging model inspired by USENET News’ NNTP protocol. The latest HTML5 standards and the new generation of web browsers make the project possible.

Miles’ goal is a system that can let people collaborate in peer-to-peer fashion with minimal reliance on a central system hosted by a company. Users will simply create a document in their browser (like editing a wiki page), then send copies via email. Everyone stores their own copy locally (as a file or in their browser’s HTML5 Web Storage). Changes will be pushed across the net, while notifications will show up as an RSS feed. Opening one’s local copy will automatically pull in changes.

For more details, and to support the project, take a look at the project’s Kickstarter page.

Miles is particularly looking for a couple of larger sponsors — folks organizing an event, a conference, a crowdsourcing project, an issue campaign, a flash mob — who are looking for a better coordination tool and can serve as test cases.

Related:

With new maps and apps, the case for open transit gets stronger

OpenTripPlanner logoEarlier this year, the news broke that Apple would be dropping default support for transit in iOS 6. For people (like me) who use the iPhone to check transit routes and times when they travel, that would mean losing a key feature. It also has the potential to decrease the demand for open transit data from cities, which has open government advocates like Clay Johnson concerned about public transportation and iOS 6.

This summer, New York City-based non-profit Open Plans launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new iPhone transit app to fill in the gap.

“From the public perspective, this campaign is about putting an important feature back on the iPhone,” wrote Kevin Webb, a principal at Open Plans, via email. “But for those of us in the open government community, this is about demonstrating why open data matters. There’s no reason why important civic infrastructure should get bound up in a fight between Apple and Google. And in communities with public GTFS, it won’t.”

Open Plans already had a head start in creating a patch for the problem: they’ve been working with transit agencies over the past few years to build OpenTripPlanner, an open source application that uses open transit data to help citizens make transit decisions.

“We were already working on the back-end to support this application but decided to pursue the app development when we heard about Apple’s plans with iOS,” explained Webb. “We were surprised by the public response around this issue (the tens of thousands who joined Walkscore’s petition and wanted to offer a constructive response).”

Crowdfunding digital city infrastructure?

That’s where Kickstarter and crowdfunding come into the picture. The Kickstarter campaign would help Open Plans make OpenTripPlanner a native iPhone app, followed by Android and HTML5 apps down the road. Open Plans’ developers have decided that given mobile browser limitations in iOS, particularly the speed of JavaScript apps, an HTML5 app isn’t a replacement for a native app.

Kickstarter has emerged as a platform for more than backing ideas for cool iPod watches or services. Increasingly, it’s looking like Kickstarter could be a new way for communities to collectively fund the creation of civic apps or services for their towns that government isn’t agile enough to deliver for them. While that’s sure to make some people in traditional positions of power uneasy, it also might be a way to do an end-around traditional procurement processes — contingent upon cities acting as platforms for civic startups to build upon.

“We get foundation and agency-based contract support for our work already,” wrote Webb. “However, we’ve discovered that foundations aren’t interested in these kinds of rider-facing tools, and most agencies don’t have the discretion or the budget to support the development of something universal. As a result, these kinds of projects require speculative investment. One of the awesome things about open data is that it lets folks respond directly and constructively by building something to solve a need, rather than waiting on others to fix it for them.

“Given our experience with transit and open data, we knew that this was a solvable problem; it just required someone to step up to the challenge. We were well positioned to take on that role. However, as a non-profit, we don’t have unlimited resources, so we’d ask for help. Kickstarter seems like the right fit, given the widespread public interest in the problem, and an interesting way to get the message out about our perspective. Not only do we get to raise a little money, but we’re also sharing the story about why open data and open source matter for public infrastructure with a new audience.”

Civic code in active re-use

Webb, who has previously staked out a position that iOS 6 will promote innovation in public transit, says that OpenTripPlanner is already a thriving open source project, with a recent open transit launch in New Orleans, a refresh in Portland and other betas soon to come.

In a welcome development for DC cyclists (including this writer), a version of OpenTripPlanner went live recently at BikePlanner.org. The web app, which notably uses OpenStreetMap as a base layer, lets users either plot a course for their own bike or tap into the Capital Bikeshare network in DC. BikePlanner is a responsive HTML5 app, which means that it looks good and works well on a laptop, iPad, iPhone or Android device.

Focusing on just open transit apps, however, would be to miss the larger picture of new opportunities to build improvements to digital city infrastructure.

There’s a lot more at stake than just rider-facing tools, in Webb’s view — from urban accessibility to extending the GTFS data ecosystem.

“There’s a real need to build a national (and eventually international) transit data infrastructure,” said Webb. “Right now, the USDOT has completely fallen down on the job. The GTFS support we see today is entirely organic, and there’s no clear guidance anywhere about making data public or even creating GTFS in the first place. That means building universal apps takes a lot of effort just wrangling data.”

August 02 2012

On co-creation, contests and crowdsourcing

I had decided to update the branding at one of my companies, and that meant re-thinking my logo.

Here’s the old logo:

Original Middleband Group logo

The creative exercise started with a logo design contest posting at 99designs, an online marketplace for crowdsourced graphic design.

When it was all done, I had been enveloped by an epic wave of 200 designs from 38 different designers.

It was a flash mob, a virtual meetup constructed for the express purpose of creating a new logo. The system itself was relatively lean, providing just enough “framing” to facilitate rapid iteration, where lots of derivative ideas could be presented, shaped and then re-shaped again.

The bottom line is that based on the primary goal of designing a new logo, I can say without hesitation that the model works.

Not only did the end product manifest as I hoped it would (see below), but the goodness of real-time engagement was intensely stimulating and richly illuminating. At one point, I was maintaining 10 separate conversations with designers spread across the Americas, Asia and Europe. Talk about parallelizing the creative process.

In the end, the project yielded eight worthy logo designs and not one but two contest winners! It was the creative equivalent of a Chakra experience: cathartic, artistic and outcome-driven at the same time.

Co-creation, crowdsourcing and the Maker movement

Part of my draw to try out this crowdsourced model is that I consider myself a Maker and am a serious devotee of co-creation types of projects, where the line between creator, consumer, customer and service provider is inherently gray.

Why do I like this model? Because it facilitates a rich exchange of ideas and skill sets, and is highly collaborative. It’s part of the larger trend of melding of online, offline, events and exchanges into new types of value chains.

It’s a bucket that includes Kickstarter (funding platform for creative projects), Foo Camp (the wiki of conferences), Maker Faire (festival and celebration of the Maker movement) and X PRIZE (radical breakthroughs through contests), to name a few.

Plus, there’s an authenticity to that which is grass roots — that which opens a new economic domain for direct-to-consumer connections, a new modality for handcrafted, and customized offerings, even more so in a world that is tuned for mass-production.

One only has to scan the project listings at Kickstarter or the exhibitor lists at Maker Faire to see the catalytic role this wave is playing for robot makers, artisan bakers, knitted goods purveyors, sculptors, app makers, device builders and do-it-yourself kit creators. In times of stagnant economic growth, it is heartening to see how much leverage there is when you can integrate discovery, engagement, personalization and monetization, as this model does.

It’s the yin to the yang of homogenization, and as such, has promise to ignite real, durable growth across many different market segments in the years ahead.

The good, bad and ugly of crowdsourced design

With crowdsourced design, I experienced two primary pitfalls and one indirect one.

The two primary ones were:

  1. You run the risk that a designer is modifying someone else’s design. In fact, one of the designers of the 38 who submitted designs got kicked out of the competition for just that reason (i.e., non-original work).
  2. Since it’s an all-or-nothing outcome for the participants, some of the designers will diss each other, which led one designer to pull a design that I actually liked.

The indirect pitfall was the cost dynamic. Namely, given the low cost, a lot of the designers are outside the U.S., which means you could be losing out on senior, higher-dollar U.S. designers, unless you materially up the award that you want to commit to (99designs gives you tools so you can guarantee winners, increase award levels, etc.).

That stated, it’s the 80/20 rule in action: 80% of the designs that captivated me the most came from 20% of the designers. Because of the competitive nature of the format, the back-and-forth process was highly iterative.

Choosing a logo (or two …)

Meanwhile, as we got to the last hours of my logo design project, I faced a dilemma.

When I got down to the final 4-5 candidates, there were two designs that really got under my skin, each from a different designer.

Plus, as Middleband is my “umbrella” company through which a bunch of my different ventures get seeded (before being spun off as separate entities), I could see a scenario where having a second logo path in hand would be a great option to have.

Now, the cool thing about a model like 99designs is that I could affordably acquire two designs (the cost was an incremental $245 to award a second contest winner), and it was push-button easy for all parties.

So that’s what I did. Here are the two winners:

Middleband Group winning logos

Related:

June 27 2012

Four short links: 27 June 2012

  1. Turing Centenary Speech (Bruce Sterling) -- so many thoughtbombs, this repays rereading. We’re okay with certain people who “think different” to the extent of buying Apple iPads. We’re rather hostile toward people who “think so very differently” that their work will make no sense for thirty years — if ever. We’ll test them, and see if we can find some way to get them to generate wealth for us, but we’re not considerate of them as unusual, troubled entities wandering sideways through a world they never made. ... Cognition exists, and computation exists, but they’re not the same phenomenon with two different masks on. ... Explain to me, as an engineer, why it’s so important to aspire to build systems with “Artificial Intelligence,” and yet you’d scorn to build “Artificial Femininity.” What is that about? ... Every day I face all these unstable heaps of creative machinery. How do we judge art created with, by, and or through these devices? What is our proper role with them? [...] How do we judge what we’re doing? How do we distribute praise and blame, rewards and demerits, how do to guide it, how do we attribute meaning to it? ... oh just read the whole damn piece, it's the best thing you'll read this month.
  2. Handsontable -- Excel-like grid editing plugin for jQuery (MIT-licensed).
  3. Lumoback (Kickstarter) -- smart posture sensor which provides a gentle vibration when you slouch to remind you to sit or stand straight. It is worn on your lower back and designed to be slim, sleek and so comfortable that you barely feel it when you have it on. (via Tim O'Reilly)
  4. Robot Hand Beats You At Rock-Paper-Scissors (IEEE) -- tl;dr: computer vision and fast robotics means it chooses after you reveal, but it happens so quickly that you don't realize it's cheating. (via Hacker News)

June 22 2012

Four short links: 22 June 2012

  1. Reality Bytes -- We make things because that’s how we understand. We make things because that’s how we pass them on, and because everything we have was passed on to us as a made object. We make things in digital humanities because that’s how we interpret and conserve our inheritance. Because that’s how we can make it all anew. Librarians, preservation, digital humanities, and the relationship between digital and physical. Existential threats don’t scare us. We’re librarians.
  2. Kickstarter Stats -- as Andy Baio said, it's the one Kickstarter feature that competitors won't be rushing to emulate. Clever way to emphasize their early lead.
  3. ICANN is Wrong (Dave Winer) -- Dave is right to ask why nobody's questioning the lack of public registration in the new domains. You can understand why, say, the Australia-New Zealand bank wouldn't let Joe Random register in .anz, but Amazon are proposing to keep domains like .shop, .music, .app for their own products. See all the bidders for the new gTLDs on the ICANN web site.
  4. The Art of GPS (Daily Mail) -- beautiful visualizations of uncommon things, such as the flights that dead bodies make when they're being repatriated to their home states. Personally, I think they tend too much to the "pretty" and insufficient to the "informative" or "revealing", but then I'm notorious for being too revealing and insufficiently informative.

May 24 2012

Four short links: 24 May 2012

  1. Last Saturday My Son Found His People at the Maker Faire -- aww to the power of INFINITY.
  2. Dictionaries Linking Words to Concepts (Google Research) -- Wikipedia entries for concepts, text strings from searches and the oppressed workers down the Text Mines, and a count indicating how often the two were related.
  3. Magic Wand (Kickstarter) -- I don't want the game, I want a Bluetooth magic wand. I don't want to click the OK button, I want to wave a wand and make it so! (via Pete Warden)
  4. E-Commerce Performance (Luke Wroblewski) -- If a page load takes more than two seconds, 40% are likely to abandon that site. This is why you should follow Steve Souders like a hawk: if your site is slower than it could be, you're leaving money on the table.

April 16 2012

Four short links: 16 April 2012

  1. Peter Thiel's Class 4 Notes -- in perfect competition, marginal revenues equal marginal costs. So high margins for big companies suggest that two or more businesses might be combined: a core monopoly business (search, for Google), and then a bunch of other various efforts (robotic cars, TV, etc.). Cash builds up because it turns out that it doesn’t cost all that much to run the monopoly piece, and it doesn’t make sense to pump it into all the side projects. In a competitive world, you would have to be funding a lot more side projects to stay even. In a monopoly world, you should pour less into side projects, unless politics demand that the cash be spread around. Amazon currently needs to reinvest just 3% of its profits. It has to keep running to stay ahead, but it’s more easy jog than intense sprint. I liked the whole lecture, but this bit really stood out for me.
  2. Kickstarter Disrupting Consumer Electronics (Amanda Peyton) -- good point that most people wouldn't have thought that consumer electronics would lend itself to the same funding system as CDs of a one-act play about artisanal beadwork comic characters. Consumer electronics as a market has been ripe for disruption all along. That said, it’s ridiculously not obvious that disruption would come from the same place that allows an artist with a sharpie, a hotel room and a webcam a way to make the art she wants.
  3. OmniOS -- OmniTI's JEOS. Their team are engineers par excellence, so this promises to be good.
  4. Understanding Amazon's Ebook Strategy (Charlie Stross) -- By foolishly insisting on DRM, and then selling to Amazon on a wholesale basis, the publishers handed Amazon a monopoly on their customers—and thereby empowered a predatory monopsony. So very accurate.

March 30 2012

Four short links: 30 March 2012

  1. TypeConnection -- a game that teaches you how to match fonts and why successful matches work. (via Sacha Judd)
  2. Lessons Learned Building Open Source Software (Mitchel Hashimoto) -- the creator of Vagrant talks about the lesson he's learned building a great open source project.
  3. Kickstarter Post-Mortem (Ze Frank) -- excellent dig into the details of his campaign, what worked, what didn't, and how he structured it.
  4. In Lulz We Trust (Gabriella Coleman) -- her excellent Webstock talk about Anonymous.

March 16 2012

Top Stories: March 12-16, 2012

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

Understanding place and space in a digital Babel
Computational linguist Robert Munro says the subtleties of spatial distinctions are growing in importance as more of the world's digital information takes the form of non-English, unstructured text.

When game development met Kickstarter
Several game developers have decided that game funding and Kickstarter are two great tastes that taste great together.

The state of ebook pricing
Joe Wikert looks at the agency model, efficiencies, fixed pricing and other major trends that will drive ebook pricing in the months ahead.

Foxconn and Ford, Emerson and Jobs
Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay on "Compensation" was a source of inspiration for Henry Ford. It also affirms some of the cosmic truths Steve Jobs held dear.

Three of our best data interviews from Strata CA 12
Featuring: Hadoop creator Doug Cutting on the similarities between Linux and the big data world, Max Gadney from After the Flood explains the benefits of video data graphics, and Kaggle's Jeremy Howard looks at the difference between big data and analytics.


Where Conference 2012 is where the people working on and using location technologies explore emerging trends in software development, tools, business strategies and marketing. Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20.

March 15 2012

Developer Week in Review: When game development met Kickstarter

Happy day after Pi Day, everyone (except all you Tau fanatics ...). If you happen to live in Louisville, drop by the FedEx facility there and say "hi" to my new iPad. It's been sitting there since last Friday, waiting for the magic hour to take the final leg of its voyage so all of them arrive on the same day (unless you happen to live in Vietnam, evidently ...). My upgraded Apple TV unit is allegedly arriving today, a day early. That's me, single-handedly helping to drive Apple's stock price over $700.

Disintermediation, thy name is Kickstarter

Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter campaign

Kickstarter has gained a reputation for letting small ventures crowdsource their funding, providing an alternative to venture and bank investments for new products and projects. But with a few notable exceptions, it's been fairly small-scale stuff, typically between $10,000 and $100,000 of total funding.

Meanwhile, independent game designers have been hampered by the large costs associated with creating products that can compete with the big players such as EA. With costs for even a relatively simple game running into the millions, there was no practical way to fund great ideas without giving up artistic control to the megacorps.

Now, several game developers have decided that game funding and Kickstarter are two great tastes that taste great together. Crowdfunding for small software projects is old hat for Kickstarter, but the scale that it is now being taken to is rather breathtaking.

It started with the folks over at "Double Fine Adventure" (which includes the talent behind the well-known "Monkey Island" series of games), who set up a Kickstarter project with a $400,000 goal. That money was intended to fund development of a new point-and-click adventure game. To say that it was successful is truly an understatement: The project ended up with $3.3 million dollars in funding.

Brian Fargo, who was executive producer for the hit games "Wasteland" and "Fallout," evidently liked what he saw. He's following the same model for "Wasteland 2." It's already blown past the stated goal of $900,000 (it was just over a million dollars pledged when I wrote this). With 32 days to go in the pledge period, it's almost certain that they will even exceed the $1.5-million-dollar level that will let them create both a Windows and OS X version.

This disintermediated payment model is very exciting, both for software developers who might have a big idea that needs big funds, and potentially for many other areas of creative endeavor. Your favorite show just got canceled? Fund it yourselves! In the mean time, hopefully we'll see more exciting independent games find the budgets they need to become reality.

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And speaking of crowdsourcing

This week marks the end of an era, as Encyclopedia Britannica announced that they will no longer issue a print version of their product (digital products will continue). For people of my age, Britannica was the go-to source when grinding out those high school term papers (along with another dinosaur, the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature).

What did in the EB was, of course, Wikipedia. For all its warts, there was just no way that a massive tome (both physically and financially) was going to survive in the long term, when a much more up-to-date and comprehensive source was available for free. The Britannica's 120,000 articles just couldn't compete with Wikipedia's nearly three million, especially when the cutting-edge articles in the 2010 EB edition covered such breaking news as the Human Genome Project (completed in, wait for it, 2003).

Purists will bemoan the death of an authoritative, expert-edited research source, but the reality is that expert-curated sources (such as journals) are proving to be as subject to bias and error as crowdsourced ones. I hear horror stories from my wife about how hard it is to get a journal article accepted if it goes against the conventional wisdom, especially since the people reviewing the articles are usually the ones who have the most to lose if it turns out they were wrong. Crowdsourced reference material can suffer from the opposite problem, letting fringe theories creep in around the edges, of course.

In the end, what won the war for Wikipedia (apart from price and convenience) is the sheer volume of information available. Sure, a complete list of the characters appearing in "Firefly" may not end up being crucial to your kid's next senior essay, but life is more than just papers. Wikipedia rules because it has the meaty articles, but also the ones you need on a day-to-day basis.

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March 07 2012

Four short links: 7 March 2012

  1. Government Agencies and Colleges Demand Applicants' Facebook Passwords (MSN) -- "Schools are in the business of educating, not spying," he added. "We don't hire private investigators to follow students wherever they go. If students say stupid things online, they should educate them ... not engage in prior restraint." Hear, hear. Reminded me of danah boyd on teen password sharing.
  2. Changing Teaching Techniques (Alison Campbell) -- higher ed is a classic failure of gamification. The degree is an extrinsic reward, so students are disengaged and treat classes like gold farming in an MMORPG: the dull slog you have to get through so you can do something fun later. Alison, by showing them a "why" that isn't "6 credits towards a degree", is helping students identify intrinsic rewards. Genius!
  3. GlueJar -- interesting pre-launch startup, basically Kickstarter to buy out authors and publishers and make books "free". We in the software world know "free" is both loaded and imprecise. Are we talking CC-BY-NC-ND, which is largely useless because any sustainable distribution will generally be a commercial activity? I look forward to watching how this develops.
  4. There Is No Simple Solution for Local Storage (Mozilla) -- excellent dissection of localStorage's inadequacies.

January 17 2012

Four short links: 17 January 2012

  1. 5 Is The New 10 -- I have limited sympathy for the "app developers can't predict their fortunes" complaint: creative arts have always been long tail hit-based businesses, possibly because hits have a large random component.
  2. Lessons for Kickstarter Creators (Mat Howie) -- great case study of a disastrous KS project. Preparation, research, and comms are what let this one down. (via Mat Howie
  3. CSV Kit -- commandline tools for working with CSV files. (via Hadley Wickham)
  4. Science of Magic -- magic tricks which help you teach students how to apply the scientific method. Magic and science both built off flaws in human perception and intuition: science tries to avoid them, magic to exploit them. (via Maria Popova)

December 08 2011

What publishers can learn from Netflix's problems

In a wide-ranging interview, Tim Carmody (@tcarmody), a writer for Wired.com, Snarkmarket, The Idler, et al., looked at the lessons publishers and others can take from Netflix' recent troubles, and he examined the ways in which technology shapes the reading experience. (Carmody will be a keynote speaker at TOC 2012.)

Specific highlights from the interview (below) include:

  • Inevitability isn't inevitable, just ask Netflix — For a while Netflix's continued ascendance appeared "inevitable." That's a fantasy, said Carmody, and the best lesson publishers can take is that "anything that looks inevitable now might not look so inevitable in six months." Carmody said it's important to disrupt your business — something Netflix has done well — but you must tread lightly because consumers are fickle. [Discussed at the 3:50 mark.]
  • Reading experiences are not confined to a specific form — If you spend your days crunching numbers on a screen, you're likely "primed" to make a database of friends on Facebook. Play Angry Birds on your iPad? Carmody said you might gravitate toward game-like publications. Publishers need to understand that the context of all content influences what we read and how we read it. "We're always making generalizations based on the broadest set of technologies that we're reading," Carmody said. "It's never just within the medium or within the format. It's everything. The way we look at street signs changes the way we read books, the way we read the newspaper changes the way we read magazines. All of these things are always operative." [Discussed at 1:22.]
  • Kickstarter's tier model can work for publishing — Bundling content and offering levels or tiers of content (if you buy tier three, you also get tiers one and two) is a powerful retail model that could work well in book publishing. [Discussed at 6:22.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

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Related:


  • Ebooks and the threat from "internal constituencies"
  • The problem with Amazon's Kindle Owners' Lending Library

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