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February 13 2012

Four short links: 13 February 2012

  1. Rise of the Independents (Bryce Roberts) -- companies that don't take VC money and instead choose to grow organically: indies. +1 for having a word for this.
  2. The Performance Golden Rule (Steve Souders) -- 80-90% of the end-user response time is spent on the frontend. Check out his graphs showing where load times come from for various popular sites. The backend responds quickly, but loading all the Javascript and images and CSS and embedded autoplaying videos and all that kerfuffle takes much much longer.
  3. Starry Night Comes to Life -- wow, beautiful, must-see.
  4. MapReduce Patterns, Algorithms, and Use Cases -- In this article I digest a number of MapReduce patterns and algorithms to give a systematic view of the different techniques that can be found in the web or scientific articles. Several practical case studies are also provided. All descriptions and code snippets use the standard Hadoop’s MapReduce model with Mappers, Reduces, Combiners, Partitioners, and sorting.

February 09 2012

Four short links: 9 February 2012

  1. Weave -- web-based visualization platform designed to enable visualization of any available data by anyone for any purpose. GPL and MPL-licensed. (via Flowing Data)
  2. Flotr2 -- MIT-licensed Javascript library for drawing HTML5 charts and graphs. It is a branch of flotr which removes the Prototype dependency and includes many improvements. (via Javascript Weekly)
  3. What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About Math Education Again And Again (Dan Meyer) -- nicely said: it's hard to test true understanding, easy to automate only part of the testing and assessment support for learners.
  4. mitmproxy -- GPLv3-licensed SSL-aware HTTP proxy which lets you snoop on the traffic being sent back to the mothership from apps.

January 10 2012

Three reasons why we're in a golden age of publishing entrepreneurship

We are entering a golden age for entrepreneurship in the publishing industry. The Books in Browsers conference last October and the London-based Futurebook conference in December showed a rich array of startups from all around the world. Profile Books' Michael Bhaskar has compiled a list of publishing-related startups that he intends to add to as it grows.

There are three reasons why this growth is happening.

Books are digital

Or, I should say, books can be digitally managed. Standards such as EPUB or ONIX enable both the content and the metadata of the books to be digitally available. And this means that new capabilities and services can be built around the content. You can think of e-bookstores, of course, but startups try to look beyond the obvious: What about recommendations based on the book's DNA á la Pandora, like BookLamp? Or relating places, songs, or others books, as does SmallDemons? And what about some remixing, like BookRiff?

Processes are digital

Internet technologies have simplified some of publishing's processes. For a few years now, digital publishers and self-publishing platforms have experimented with new ways of approaching the market, the authors, and, most importantly, the readers. Self-publishing initiatives like Smashwords or Lulu are pretty well known, but new ventures are also popping up, like the commoditization of EPUB processing proposed by Pressbooks or BiblioCrunch. Startups that focus on offering new back-end tools and services to boost efficiency in the publishing lifecycle will be, as Don Linn hailed them, 'heroes, even if largely unrecognized, this year."

Readers are digital

Most importantly, readers are becoming more digital. I have been reading almost exclusively in digital format for more than a year. When, a week ago, I started "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" in print format, I fully understood how significant the digital leap is. I found myself thinking: "I don't understand this word — where is the dictionary?" "I loved this passage, how do I share it?" I truly felt that I was going backwards. And this is where all the startups focused on social reading like GoodReads, Anobii, or Flatleaf will be competing.

Entrepreneurs from the IT and publishing industries will find many opportunities now. And they must, because startups play at least one critical role in any industry: they challenge assumptions. One of the innovation myths is that people like change, but that's not really true. So, when an industry reaches some type of stability, and when competition starts to look like an oligopoly, then someone else needs to think differently. And startups typically do a great job there. Many of them will be wrong or will execute poorly, of course, but even if they fail, these challenges will be good for the industry. As Steve Blank states, a startup is an organization where the main goal is to find a repeatable and scalable business model. And if a specific startup is unable to achieve it, others should try.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012, in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012


January 02 2012

Four short links: 2 January 2012

  1. What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success (The Atlantic) -- Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted. This is a magnificent article, you should read it. (via Juha Saarinen)
  2. impress.js (github) -- MIT-licensed Prezi-like presentation tool, built using CSS3 3d transforms. I've never been happy with the Prezi because I fear data lock-in. This might be a way forward. (via Hacker News)
  3. Facebook Offers Debit Cards to White Hat Hackers (CNet) -- paying vulnerability bounties without handing out cash. I figure it's the start of a loyalty program. Will Facebook learn what the hackers spent the money on? Interesting possibilities opened up here.
  4. Green Goose -- interesting startup selling consumer sensor hardware. My intuition is that we're platforming too soon: that we need a few individual great applications of the sensors to take off, then we can worry about rationalising hardware in our house. The biggest problem seems to me that we're talking about "sticking sensors on milk cartons" rather than solving an actual problem someone has. ("There are no sensors on my milk cartons" is not an oft-heard lament)

November 10 2011

Four short links: 10 November 2011

  1. Steve Case and His Companies (The Atlantic) -- Maybe you see three random ideas. Case and his team saw three bets that paid off thanks to a new Web economy that promotes power in numbers and access over ownership. "Access over ownership" is a phrase that resonated. (via Walt Mossberg)
  2. Back to the Future -- teaching kids to program by giving them microcomputers from the 80s. I sat my kids down with a C64 emulator and an Usborne book to work through some BASIC examples. It's not a panacea, but it solves a lot of bootstrapping problems with teaching kids to program.
  3. Replaying Writing an Essay -- Paul Graham wrote an essay using one of his funded startups, Stypi, and then had them hack it so you could replay the development with the feature that everything that was later deleted is highlighted yellow as it's written. The result is fascinating to watch. I would like my text editor to show me what I need to delete ;)
  4. Jawbone Live Up -- wristband that sync with iPhone. Interesting wearable product, tied into ability to gather data on ourselves. The product looks physically nice, but the quantified self user experience needs the same experience and smoothness. Intrusive ("and now I'm quantifying myself!") limits the audience to nerds or the VERY motivated.

November 01 2011

Four short links: 1 November 2011

  1. Things Turbo Pascal is Smaller Than -- next time you're bragging about your efficient code, spare a thought for the Pascal IDE and compiler that lived in 39,731 bytes. This list of more bloated things is hilarious.
  2. The China Startup Report (Slideshare) -- interesting to see the low salary comes with expectation of bonuses but little interest in equity (as there are few exits other than IPO, for reasons the presentation goes into).
  3. Shape Method -- fun HTML5 challenge that will also expand your appreciation of fonts.
  4. Open Source All The Things! -- SparkFun looking aggressively for things to "open source" from their business. I have a lot of time for companies that contribute to the commons above and beyond their legally-mandated minimum, particularly those who aren't just dumping their unwanted junk there. Google does this well, Facebook is learning. Good on ya, SparkFun.

October 10 2011

October 04 2011

Four short links: 4 October 2011

  1. -- Singaporean version of TechStars, with 100-day program ("the bootcamp") Jan-Apr 2012. Startups from anywhere in the world can apply, and will want to because Singapore is the gateway to Asia. They'll also have mentors from around the world.
  2. Oracle NoSQLdb -- Oracle want to sell you a distributed key-value store. It's called "Oracle NoSQL" (as opposed to PostgreSQL, which is SQL No-Oracle). (via Edd Dumbill)
  3. Facebook Browser -- interesting thoughts about why the browser might be a good play for Facebook. I'm not so sure: browsers don't lend themselves to small teams, and search advertising doesn't feel like a good fit with Facebook's existing work. Still, making me grumpy again to see browsers become weapons again.
  4. Bitbucket -- a competitor to Github, from the folks behind the widely-respected Jira and Confluence tools. I'm a little puzzled, to be honest: Github doesn't seem to have weak spots (the way, for example, that Sourceforge did).

August 26 2011

Publishing News: Publishing startups bet on curation and apps

Here's what caught my eye this week in publishing news. (Note: Some of these stories were previously published on Radar.)

A look at three publishing startups: BookRiff, MagAppZine, and LiquidText

TOC Sneak Peek series: BookRiff, MagAppZine, LiquidTextThe second round of TOC Sneak Peeks highlighted three new publishing startups. Their market areas included content curation, app creation for non-geeks, and multitouch content control.

BookRiff: Ever want to compile your own cookbook, travel guide or textbook? Has your publisher edited out sections of your book you'd like to share with interested readers? Publishing startup BookRiff aims to solve these problems by creating new ways to access and compile content. In an interview, company CEO Rochelle Grayson (@RochelleGrayson) talked about how BookRiff works and how it can benefit publishers and consumers. She said her company is based on an open market concept, allowing publishers to sell the content they want at prices they set and consumers to buy and customize that content as they see fit.

Read the BookRiff interview here.

MagAppZine: This startup is a platform that allows publishers to create custom apps without a lot of overhead. In an interview, company founder Paul Canetti (@paulcanetti), who worked at Apple during the birth of the iPhone and the subsequent app revolution, talks about how MagAppZine works and the benefits he sees for publishers.

Read the MagAppZine interview here.

LiquidText: In an interview, company founder and CEO Craig Tashman (@CraigTashman) said his annotation and document manipulation software began as an academic project, but commercial applications quickly became clear. The software allows users to annotate, highlight and manipulate PDF content with multitouch gestures. LiquidText may be the next major step toward making etextbooks more practical for students — and it's another nail in the coffin for the "death of marginalia" debate.

Read the LiquidText interview here.

TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

Save 100€ off the regular admission price with code TOC2011OR

Jim Romenesko's semi-retirement

Romenesko.pngAfter spending the past 12 years at Poynter blogging and aggregating news (which he started doing before anyone even knew what those words meant), Jim Romenesko announced his retirement this week. Well, semi-retirement. Julie Moos, director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications, explained in an announcement that Romenesko will continue posting part-time at Poynter. The Romenesko blog will live on, but under its new name, "Romenesko+" — the "+" designates an expanded staff that will include Romenesko and co-posters Julie Moos, Steve Myers and Jeff Sonderman.

Romenesko also will launch a new personal blog. In an interview with the New York Times, he explained he was ready to go back to his roots and start reporting again. His new blog "would still cover media but would also touch on other topics he's interested in, like food, finance and real estate."

So, though an end of an era might have been reached with Romensko's semi-retirement, being Romenesko'd might still be in the cards.

New York Times data artist Jer Thorp on the intersection of data, art, science and publishing

This segment was written by Audrey Watters

Jer Thorp (@blprnt), data artist in residence at The New York Times, was tasked a few years ago with designing an algorithm for the placement of the names on the 9/11 memorial. If an algorithm sounds unnecessarily complex for what seems like a basic bit of organization, consider this: Designer Michael Arad envisioned names being arranged according to "meaningful adjacencies," rather than by age or alphabetical order.

The project, says Thorp, is a reminder that data is connected to people, to real lives, and to the real world. I recently spoke with Thorp about the challenges that come with this type of work and the relationship between data, art and science. Thorp will expand on many of these ideas in his session at next month's Strata Conference in New York City.

Our interview follows.

How do aesthetics change our understanding of data?

Jer ThorpJer Thorp: I'm certainly interested in the aesthetic of data, but I rarely think when I start a project "let's make something beautiful." What we see as beauty in a data visualization is typically pattern and symmetry — something that often emerges when you find the "right" way, or one of the right ways, to represent a particular dataset. I don't really set out for beauty, but if the result is beautiful, I've probably done something right.

My work ranges from practical to conceptual. In the utilitarian projects I try not to add aesthetic elements unless they are necessary for communication. In the more conceptual projects, I'll often push the acceptable limits of complexity and disorder to make the piece more effective. Of course, often these more abstract pieces get mistaken for infographics, and I've had my fair share Internet comment bashing as a result. Which I kind of like, in some sort of masochistic way.

What's it like working as a data artist at the New York Times? What are the biggest challenges you face?

Jer Thorp: I work in the R&D Group at the New York Times, which is tasked to think about what media production and consumption will look like in the next three years or so. So we're kind of a near-futurist department. I've spent the last year working on Project Cascade, which is a really novel system for visualizing large-scale sharing systems in real time. We're using it to analyze how New York Times content gets shared through Twitter, but it could be used to look at any sharing system — meme dispersal, STD spread, etc. The system runs live on a five-screen video wall outside the lab, and it gives us a dynamic, exploratory look at the vast conversation that is occurring at any time around New York Times articles, blog posts, etc.

It's frankly amazing to be able to work in a group where we're encouraged to take the novel path. Too many "R&D" departments, particularly in advertising agencies, are really production departments that happen to do work with augmented reality, or big data, or whatever else is trendy at the moment. There's an "R" in R&D for a reason, and I'm lucky to be in a place where we're given a lot of room to roam. Most of the credit for this goes to Michael Zimbalist, who is a great thinker and has an uncanny sense of the future. Add to that a soundly brilliant design and development team and you get a perfect creative storm.

This story continues here.


  • Why blogging still matters
  • When judging visualizations, intent matters
  • Data science is a pipeline between academic disciplines
  • More Publishing Week in Review coverage

  • August 09 2011

    Building data startups: Fast, big, and focused

    This is a written follow-up to a talk presented at a recent Strata online event.

    A new breed of startup is emerging, built to take advantage of the rising tides of data across a variety of verticals and the maturing ecosystem of tools for its large-scale analysis.

    These are data startups, and they are the sumo wrestlers on the startup stage. The weight of data is a source of their competitive advantage. But like their sumo mentors, size alone is not enough. The most successful of data startups must be fast (with data), big (with analytics), and focused (with services).

    Setting the stage: The attack of the exponentials

    The question of why this style of startup is arising today, versus a decade ago, owes to a confluence of forces that I call the Attack of the Exponentials. In short, over the past five decades, the cost of storage, CPU, and bandwidth has been exponentially dropping, while network access has exponentially increased. In 1980, a terabyte of disk storage cost $14 million dollars. Today, it's at $30 and dropping. Classes of data that were previously economically unviable to store and mine, such as machine-generated log files, now represent prospects for profit.

    Attack of the exponentials

    At the same time, these technological forces are not symmetric: CPU and storage costs have fallen faster than that of network and disk IO. Thus data is heavy; it gravitates toward centers of storage and compute power in proportion to its mass. Migration to the cloud is the manifest destiny for big data, and the cloud is the launching pad for data startups.

    Leveraging the big data stack

    As the foundational layer in the big data stack, the cloud provides
    the scalable persistence and compute power needed to manufacture data

    At the middle layer of the big data stack is analytics, where features are extracted from data, and fed into classification and prediction algorithms.

    Finally, at the top of the stack are services and applications. This is the level at which consumers experience a data product, whether it be a music recommendation or a traffic route prediction.

    Let's take each of layers and discuss the competitive axes at each.

    The emerging big data stack
    The competitive axes and representative technologies on the Big Data stack are illustrated here. At the bottom tier of data, free tools are shown in red (MySQL, Postgres, Hadoop), and we see how their commercial adaptations (InfoBright, Greenplum, MapR) compete principally along the axis of speed; offering faster processing and query times. Several of these players are pushing up towards the second tier of the data stack, analytics. At this layer, the primary competitive axis is scale: few offerings can address terabyte-scale data sets, and those that do are typically proprietary. Finally, at the top layer of the big data stack lies the services that touch consumers and businesses. Here, focus within a specific sector, combined with depth that reaches downward into the analytics tier, is the defining competitive advantage.

    Fast data

    At the base of the big data stack — where data is stored, processed, and queried — the dominant axis of competition was once scale. But as cheaper commodity disks and Hadoop have effectively addressed scalable persistence and processing, the focus of competition has shifted toward speed. The demand for faster disks has led to an explosion in interest in solid-state disk firms, such as Fusion-IO, which went public recently. And several startups, most notably MapR, are promising faster versions of Hadoop.

    FusionIO and MapR represent another trend at the data layer: commercial technologies that challenge open source or commodity offerings on an efficiency basis, namely watts or CPU cycles consumed. With energy costs driving between one-third and one-half of data center operating costs, these efficiencies have a direct financial impact.

    Finally, just as many large-scale, NoSQL data stores are moving from disk to SSD, others have observed that many traditional, relational databases will soon be entirely in memory. This is particularly true for applications that require repeated, fast access to a full set of data, such as building models from customer-product matrices. This brings us to the second tier of the big data stack, analytics.

    Big analytics

    At the second tier of the big data stack, analytics is the brains to cloud computing's brawn. Here, however, the speed is less of a challenge; given an addressable data set in memory, most statistical algorithms can yield results in seconds. The challenge is scaling these out to address large datasets, and rewriting algorithms to operate in an online, distributed manner across many machines.

    Because data is heavy, and algorithms are light, one key strategy is to push code deeper to where the data lives, to minimize network IO. This often requires a tight coupling between the data storage layer and the analytics, and algorithms often need to be re-written as user-defined functions (UDFs) in a language compatible with the data layer. Greenplum, leveraging its Postgres roots, supports UDFs written in both Java and R. Following Google's BigTable, HBase is introducing coprocessors in its 0.92 release, which allows Java code to be associated with data tablets, and minimize data transfer over the network. Netezza pushes even further into hardware, embedding an array of functions into FPGAs that are physically co-located with the disks of its storage appliances.

    The field of what's alternatively called business or predictive analytics is nascent, and while a range of enabling tools and platforms exist (such as R, SPSS, and SAS), most of the algorithms developed are proprietary and vertical-specific. As the ecosystem matures, one may expect to see the rise of firms selling analytical services — such as recommendation engines — that interoperate across data platforms. But in the near-term, consultancies like Accenture and McKinsey, are positioning themselves to provide big analytics via billable hours.

    Outside of consulting, firms with analytical strengths push upward, surfacing focused products or services to achieve success.

    Strata Conference New York 2011, being held Sept. 22-23, covers the latest and best tools and technologies for data science -- from gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and storing data to communicating data intelligence effectively.

    Save 20% on registration with the code STN11RAD

    Focused services

    The top of the big data stack is where data products and services directly touch consumers and businesses. For data startups, these offerings more frequently take the form of a service, offered as an API rather than a bundle of bits.

    BillGuard is a great example of a startup offering a focused data service. It monitors customers' credit card statements for dubious charges, and even leverages the collective behavior of users to improve its fraud predictions.

    Several startups are working on algorithms that can crack the content relevance nut, including Flipboard and Klout delivers a pure data service that uses social media activity to measure online influence. My company, Metamarkets, crunches server logs to provide pricing analytics for publishers.

    For data startups, data processes and algorithms define their competitive advantage. Poor predictions — whether of fraud, relevance, influence, or price — will sink a data startup, no matter how well-designed their web UI or mobile application.

    Focused data services aren't limited to startups: LinkedIn's People You May Know and FourSquare's Explore feature enhance engagement of their companies' core products, but only when they correctly suggest people and places.

    Democratizing big data

    The axes of strategy in the big data stack show analytics to be squarely at the center. Data platform providers are pushing upwards into analytics to differentiate themselves, touting support for fast, distributed code execution close to the data. Traditional analytics players, such as SAS and SAP, are expanding their storage footprints and challenging the need for alternative data platforms as staging areas. Finally, data startups and many established firms are creating services whose success hinges directly on proprietary analytics algorithms.

    The emergence of data startups highlights the democratizing consequences of a maturing big data stack. For the first time, companies can successfully build offerings without deep infrastructure know-how and focus at a higher level, developing analytics and services. By all indications, this is a democratic force that promises to unleash a wave of innovation in the coming decade.


    July 14 2011

    Four short links: 14 July 2011

    1. Digging into Technology's Past -- stories of the amazing work behind the visual 6502 project and how they reconstructed and simulated the legendary 6502 chip. To analyze and then preserve the 6502, James treated it like the site of an excavation. First, he needed to expose the actual chip by removing its packaging of essentially “billiard-ball plastic.” He eroded the casing by squirting it with very hot, concentrated sulfuric acid. After cleaning the chip with an ultrasonic cleaner—much like what’s used for dentures or contact lenses—he could see its top layer.
    2. Leaflet -- BSD-licensed lightweight Javascript library for interactive maps, using the Open Street Map.
    3. Too Many Public Works Built on Rosy Scenarios (Bloomberg) -- a feedback loop with real data being built to improve accuracy estimating infrastructure project costs. He would like to see better incentives -- punishment for errors, rewards for accuracy -- combined with a requirement that forecasts not only consider the expected characteristics of the specific project but, once that calculation is made, adjust the estimate based on an “outside view,” reflecting the cost overruns of similar projects. That way, the “unexpected” problems that happen over and over again would be taken into consideration. Such scrutiny would, of course, make some projects look much less appealing -- which is exactly what has happened in the U.K., where “reference-class forecasting” is now required. “The government stopped a number of projects dead in their tracks when they saw the forecasts,” Flyvbjerg says. “This had never happened before.”
    4. Neurovigil Gets Cash Injection To Read Your Mind (FastCompany) -- "an anonymous American industrialist and technology visionary" put tens of millions into this company, which has hardware to gather mineable data. iBrain promises to open a huge pipeline of data with its powerful but simple brain-reading tech, which is gaining traction thanks to technological advances. But the other half of the potentailly lucrative equation is the ability to analyze the trove of data coming from iBrain. And that's where NeuroVigil's SPEARS algorithm enters the picture. Not only is the company simplifying collection of brain data with a device that can be relatively comfortably worn during all sorts of tasks--sleeping, driving, watching advertising--but the combination of iBrain and SPEARS multiplies the efficiency of data analysis. (via Vaughan Bell)

    July 08 2011

    Four short links: 8 July 2011

    1. OpenPCR Shipping -- A PCR machine is basically a copy machine for DNA. It is essential for most work with DNA, things like exposing fraud at a sushi restaurant, diagnosing diseases including HIV and H1N1, or exploring your own genome. The guy who discovered the PCR process earned a Nobel Prize in 1993, and OpenPCR is now the first open source PCR machine. The price of a traditional PCR machine is around $3,000. This one is $512 and would go well with Ben Krasnow's Scanning Electron Microscope. Biological tools get closer to hobbyist/hacker prices. (via Gabriella Coleman)
    2. Apple App Store Figures (Fast Company) -- 1 billion apps in a month, 200M iOS users, $2.5B revshare to developers so far (implying a further $5.8B revenue kept by Apple). Another reminder of the astonishing money to be made by riding the mainstreaming of tech: as we move from dumb phones to smart phones, the market for Apple's products and App Store sales will continue to rise. We're not at the fighting-for-market-share stage yet, it's still in the boom. (via Stephen Walli)
    3. Open Hardware Repository -- open source digital hardware projects, such as a tool for generating VHDL/Verilog cores which implement Wishbone bus slaves with certain registers, memory blocks, FIFOs and interrupts. CERN just approved an open license for hardware designs. (via CERN)
    4. Wingu -- SaaS startup to help scientists manage, analyze, and share data. Recently invested by Google, it's one of several startups for scientists, such as Macmillan's Digital Science which is run by Timo Hannay who is one of the convenors of Science Foo Camp. (via Alex Butler)

    July 07 2011

    Four short links: 7 July 2011

    1. Commodore 64 PC -- gorgeous retro look with fairly zippy modern internals. (via Rob Passarella)
    2. Designing Github for Mac -- a retrospective from the author of the excellent Mac client for github. He talks about what he learned and its origins, design, and development. Remember web development in 2004? When you had to create pixel-perfect comps because every element on screen was an image? That’s what developing for Cocoa is. Drawing in code is slow and painful. Images are easier to work with and result in more performant code. Remember these days? This meant my Photoshop files had to be a lot more fleshed out than I’ve been accustomed to in recent years. I usually get about 80% complete in Photoshop (using tons of screenshotting & layer flattening), then jump into code and tweak to completion. But with Cocoa, I ended up fleshing out that last 20% in Photoshop.
    3. Feedback Loops (Wired) -- covers startups and products that use feedback loops to help us change our behaviour. The best sort of delivery device “isn’t cognitively loading at all,” he says. “It uses colors, patterns, angles, speed—visual cues that don’t distract us but remind us.” This creates what Rose calls “enchantment.” Enchanted objects, he says, don’t register as gadgets or even as technology at all, but rather as friendly tools that beguile us into action. In short, they’re magical. (via Joshua Porter)
    4. -- hosted continuous integration. (via Jacob Kaplan-Moss)

    April 25 2011

    Announcing the TOC Sneak Peek webcast series

    TOCEvery week I come across countless interesting articles and press releases about new econtent products and services. Many sound promising, but who has the time to research them all or even figure out which are worthy of further consideration?

    We're about to launch a new TOC webcast series to help solve this problem. Each "Sneak Peek" webcast will feature 3-4 of the most interesting startups in the publishing tools, platforms and technologies space. All of these startups will still be at the pre-release stage, so the webcasts will give you a unique opportunity to learn what makes them special before their products go live.

    Details are still being finalized for the first Sneak Peek webcast, but I can tell you that it will take place in the next couple of months. Two of the slots have already been spoken for but we expect to finalize the entire lineup in the next week. All of the Sneak Peek webcasts will be free. Stay tuned to Radar for more details on the inaugural event.

    Also, if you're part of a publishing startup at the pre-release stage and you'd like to be considered for a Sneak Peek, we'd love to hear from you. Email me the details and a member of the TOC team will get back with you.

    Four short links: 25 April 2011

    1. E-Referral Evaluation Interim Findings -- in general good, but note this: The outstanding system issues are an ongoing source of frustration and concern, including [...] automated data uptake from the GP [General Practitioner=family doctor] PMS [Patient Management System], that sometimes has clearly inaccurate or contradictory information. When you connect systems, you realize the limitations of the data in them.
    2. c64iphone (GitHub) -- the source to an iPhone/iPad app from the store, released under GPLv3. It incorporates the Frodo emulator. Sweet Freedom.
    3. mlpy -- machine learning Python library, a high-performance Python package for predictive modeling. It makes extensive use of NumPy to provide fast N-dimensional array manipulation and easy integration of C code. (via Joshua Schachter)
    4. What is The Truth Behind 9 Out of 10 Startups Fail? (Quora) -- some very interesting pointers and statistics, such as Hall and Woodward (2007) analyze a dataset of all VC-backed firms and show the highly skewed distribution of outcomes. VC revenue averages $5 million per VC-backed company. Founding team averages $9 million per VC-backed company (most from small probability of great success). The economically rational founding team would sell at time of VC funding for $900,000 to avoid the undiversified risk. (via Hacker News)

    March 30 2011

    March 28 2011

    Four short links: 28 March 2011

    1. Anatomy of a Y Combinator Demo Day Pitch (Bryce Roberts) -- lovely deconstruction of the basic six slide show, demonstrating exactly how to give a talk with your audience in mind.
    2. Who Says What to Whom on Twitter (Yahoo! Research) -- we find a striking concentration of attention on Twitter---roughly 50% of tweets consumed are generated by just 20K elite users---where the media produces the most information, but celebrities are the most followed. One of the researchers is Duncan Watts of Small Worlds fame.
    3. Saylor Foundation Free Education Initiative -- notes, readings, tests, that take you through the curriculum for real university courses. Important because most online education stuff is either lectures, or course notes, but never enough for you to autodidacticise. (via Regan Mian)
    4. Blink -- A state of the art, easy to use SIP client available for Mac, Windows and Linux. SIP = open standard for voice over IP. (via Simon Phipps)

    March 14 2011

    Four short links: 14 March 2011

    1. A History of the Future in 100 Objects (Kickstarter) -- blog+podcast+video+book project, to have future historians tell the story of our century in 100 objects. The BBC show that inspired it was brilliant, and I rather suspect this will be too. It's a clever way to tell a story of the future (his hardest problem will be creating a single coherent narrative for the 21st century). What are the 100 objects that future historians will use to sum up our century? 'Smart drugs' that change the way we think? A fragment from suitcase nuke detonated in Shanghai? A wedding ring between a human and an AI? The world's most expensive glass of water, returned from a private mission to an asteroid? (via RIG London weekly notes)
    2. Entrepreneurs Who Create Value vs Entrepreneurs Who Lock Up Value (Andy Kessler) -- distinguishes between "political entrepreneurs" who leverage their political power to own something and then overcharge or tax the crap out of the rest of us to use it vs "market entrepreneurs" who recognize the price-to-value gap and jump in. Ignoring legislation, they innovate, disintermediate, compete, stay up all night coding, and offer something better and cheaper until the market starts to shift. My attention was particularly caught by for every stroke of the pen, for every piece of legislation, for every paid-off congressman, there now exists a price umbrella that overvalues what he or any political entrepreneur is doing. (via Bryce Roberts)
    3. Harper-Collins Caps eBook Loans -- The publisher wants to sell libraries DRMed ebooks that will self-destruct after 26 loans. Public libraries have always served and continue to serve those people who can't access information on the purchase market. Jackass moves like these prevent libraries from serving those people in the future that we hope will come soon: the future where digital is default and print is premium. That premium may well be "the tentacles of soulless bottom-dwelling coprocephalic publishers can't digitally destroy your purchase". It's worth noting that O'Reilly offers DRM-free PDFs of the books they publish, including mine. Own what you buy lest it own you. (via BoingBoing and many astonished library sources)
    4. MAD Lib -- BSD-licensed open-source library for scalable in-database analytics. It provides data-parallel implementations of mathematical, statistical and machine learning methods for structured and unstructured data. (via Ted Leung)

    February 10 2011

    What investors are looking for in publishing companies

    As the publishing industry undergoes fundamental changes, new processes and ways of doing business emerge. Companies are now "mobilizing" content, building multimedia, and incorporating social media — concepts that would have seemed utterly foreign just 10 years ago.

    In the following interview, Catalyst Investors co-founder Ryan McNally reveals the publishing trends that are catching investors' attention and he explains how a full embrace of new technology will help the industry evolve.

    What are the biggest growth areas related to publishing?

    Ryan McNally: Publishing is playing catch-up to the capabilities of new technology, and that makes this an exciting time. Digital publishing and new platforms for consumer engagement — tablets — will be the biggest drivers of growth for the foreseeable future. Ebooks and e-magazines will be the immediate product opportunities.

    More broadly, the evolution of what we think of as "publishing" will continue. Incorporation of video, multimedia, and social interaction will foster innovation. In the short term, I think this will mean that publishers will look to the past for their future — using archived content in new ways.

    Publishers will attempt to innovate by bringing social media into the mix to utilize the capabilities of tablets and other digital devices — look at Vook, for example. There will be opportunities to meld video, text, images, and social media into ebooks and e-magazines. As this kind of content becomes widespread, consumers will expect more than just a digital presentation of their analog content. Some of the more interesting start-up opportunities will involve services or technologies that help publishers create this kind of material.

    TOC: 2011 -- Tyler Newton, partner and research director at Catalyst Investors, will host the first ever TOC Publishing Startup Showcase at next week's Tools of Change for Publishing conference.

    Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD

    When reviewing a company, what are the most important aspects an investor should consider?

    Ryan McNally: We are growth investors rather than start-up investors, which means we provide capital for companies that have already proven their technology and business model but need capital to expand. Nonetheless, the things that we look for are very similar to classic venture investors.

    Broadly speaking, we look at such things as potential market size and how it is growing. A growing market can forgive a lot of mistakes that earlier-stage companies are likely to make along the way and reassure investors that there will be multiple options to exit. We also look at novelty or uniqueness of the idea or technology or content. Scalability of the business model and its level of profitability at scale are other important considerations. People are important, too. For instance, we look at the ability of the team to execute against the challenges the company will face in its growth. We also look at who is the most likely buyer of the business.

    On the other side, what should an entrepreneur consider when starting a new company in the publishing industry?

    Ryan McNally: All of the issues I just mentioned are important in deciding whether to start a business. They're not just applicable to investors. After all, the entrepreneur is the first investor and has the most at stake.

    There are other issues that apply just to entrepreneurs, though. You have to ask yourself, can you lead an organization? Do you have the vision, motivation, discipline and creativity to deal with the ups and downs that come with starting a company? You also have to ask: Do you have the skills to run the business or will you be learning on the job? And can you devote the time and make the family sacrifices required to put in the sometimes grueling hours to build a business?

    Money is a big question, too. If you're going to start a business, you should anticipate that you'll need 6 or more months of working capital without revenue.

    The unasked question that runs through all of these other questions is, do you have the passion? If you can satisfy yourself on that one — and assuming your idea is good — you can sort out the others.

    This interview was edited and condensed.


    January 24 2011

    Four short links: 24 January 2011

    1. The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks (The Atlantic) -- After more than ten days of intensive investigation and study, Facebook's security team realized something very, very bad was going on. The country's Internet service providers were running a malicious piece of code that was recording users' login information when they went to sites like Facebook. By January 5, it was clear that an entire country's worth of passwords were in the process of being stolen right in the midst of the greatest political upheaval in two decades. Sullivan and his team decided they needed a country-level solution -- and fast. [...] Sullivan's team decided to take an apolitical approach to the problem. This was simply a hack that required a technical response. "At its core, from our standpoint, it's a security issue around passwords and making sure that we protect the integrity of passwords and accounts," he said. "It was very much a black and white security issue and less of a political issue." cf Google and China. National politics of snoopiness vs corporate ethic of not being evil aren't directly compatible, and the solution here only works because (let's face it) Tunisia is not a rising economic force. If you're selling ads in China, you don't get to pretend that the Great Firewall of China is a security issue.
    2. Emoticomp -- what happens if you subtly imbue objects with personalities? Obviously it could be incredibly annoying (cue Douglas Adams's Sirius Cybernetics Corporation) but there's potential here to add depth to devices. We are, after all, customized over hundreds of thousands of years to read and interact with the emotional objects known as people. (via Matt Jones)
    3. My Mistakes (Slideshare) -- Perry Evans (Mapquest, Jabber, Local Matters, Closely) gave a presentation on what he's learned from his failures. I bought into the strategy of growth via acquisition. In most cases, this is an excuse for not fixing your current business.
    4. The Autodidact and the Khan Academy (Chris Lehmann) -- [...] it seems to me to be one more moment when people who should know better are, essentially, saying, "See! We don't need teachers anymore!" As if every student could learn from a pre-packaged delivery model of content. It doesn't work that way. I like the Khan Academy but, as Chris says, it's not a replacement for education for most kids.

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