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October 03 2013

Four short links: 3 October 2013

  1. Hyundia Replacing Cigarette Lighters with USB Ports (Quartz) — sign of the times. (via Julie Starr)
  2. Freeseerfree, open source, cross-platform application that captures or streams your desktop—designed for capturing presentations. Would you like freedom with your screencast?
  3. Amazon Redshift: What You Need to Know — good write-up of experience using Amazon’s column database.
  4. GroupTweetAllow any number of contributors to Tweet from a group account safely and securely. (via Jenny Magiera)

September 24 2013

Four short links: 30 September 2013

  1. Steve Yegge on GROK (YouTube) — The Grok Project is an internal Google initiative to simplify the navigation and querying of very large program source repositories. We have designed and implemented a language-neutral, canonical representation for source code and compiler metadata. Our data production pipeline runs compiler clusters over all Google’s code and third-party code, extracting syntactic and semantic information. The data is then indexed and served to a wide variety of clients with specialized needs. The entire ecosystem is evolving into an extensible platform that permits languages, tools, clients and build systems to interoperate in well-defined, standardized protocols.
  2. Deep Learning for Semantic AnalysisWhen trained on the new treebank, this model outperforms all previous methods on several metrics. It pushes the state of the art in single sentence positive/negative classification from 80% up to 85.4%. The accuracy of predicting fine-grained sentiment labels for all phrases reaches 80.7%, an improvement of 9.7% over bag of features baselines. Lastly, it is the only model that can accurately capture the effect of contrastive conjunctions as well as negation and its scope at various tree levels for both positive and negative phrases.
  3. Fireshell — workflow tools and framework for front-end developers.
  4. SICP.js — lots of Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (the canonical text for higher-order programming) ported to Javascript.

November 15 2012

Science Podcast - Cartilage regrowth, mussel declines, early human hunters, and more (16 November 2012)

The challenges of cartilage regeneration; investigating the loss of North American mussel diversity; putting a date on early humans’ hunting technology; and more.

April 13 2012

Developer Week in Review: Everyone can program?

I'm devoting this week's edition of the WIR to a single news item. Sometimes something gets stuck in my craw, and I have to cough it out or choke on it (hopefully none of you are reading this over lunch ...).

Yet another attempt to create programming for dummies ...

Just today, I came across a news article discussing a recent Apple patent application for a technology to allow "non-programmers" to create iOS applications.

This seems to be the holy grail of software design, to get those pesky overpaid software developers out of the loop and let end-users create their own software. I'll return to the particulars of the Apple application in a moment, but first I want to discuss the more general myth, because it is a myth, that there's some magic bullet that could let lay people create applications.

The underlying misunderstanding is that it is something technical that is standing between "Joe Sixpack" and the software of his dreams. The line of reasoning goes that because languages are hard to understand and require specialized knowledge, there's a heavy learning curve before a new person could be productive. In reality, the particulars of a specific platform are largely irrelevant to whether a skilled software engineer can be productive in it, though there are certainly languages and operating systems that are easier to code for than others. But the real difference between a productive engineer and a slow one lies in how good the engineer is at thinking about software, not C or Java or VB.

Almost without exception, any software engineer I talk to thinks it's insane when an employer would rather hire someone with two years total experience, all of it in a specific language, rather than one with 10 years experience in a variety of languages, all other factors being equal. When I think about a problem, I don't think in Java or Objective-C, I think in algorithms and data structures. Then, once I understand it, I implement it in whatever language is appropriate.

I believe that a lot of the attitude one sees toward software engineering — that it's an "easy" profession that "anyone" could do if it weren't for the "obfuscated" technology — comes from the fact that it's a relatively well-paid profession that doesn't require a post-graduate degree. I match or out-earn most people slaving away with doctorates in the sciences, yet I only have a lowly bachelors, and not even a BS. "Clearly," we must be making things artificially hard so we can preserve our fat incomes.

In a sense, they are right, in that it doesn't take huge amounts of book learning to be a great programmer. What it takes is an innate sense of how to break apart problems and see the issues and pitfalls that might reach out to bite you. It also takes a certain logical bent of mind that allows you to get to the root of the invariable problems that are going to occur.

Really good software engineers are like great musicians. They have practiced their craft, because nothing comes for free, but they also have a spark of something great inside them to begin with that makes them special. And the analogy is especially apt because while there are always tools being created to make it easier for "anyone" to create music, it still takes a special talent to make great music.

Which brings us back to Apple's patent. Like most DWIM (do what I mean) technologies for programming, it handles a very specific and fairly trivial set of applications, mainly designed for things like promoting a restaurant. No one is going to be writing "Angry Birds" using it. Calling it a tool to let anyone program is like saying that Dreamweaver lets anyone create a complex ecommerce site integrated into a back-end inventory management system.

The world is always going to need skilled software engineers, at least until we create artificial intelligences capable of developing their own software based on vague end-user requirements. So, we're good to go for at least the next 10 years.

Fluent Conference: JavaScript & Beyond — Explore the changing worlds of JavaScript & HTML5 at the O'Reilly Fluent Conference (May 29 - 31 in San Francisco, Calif.).

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February 15 2012

Four short links: 15 February 2012

  1. Namebench (Google Code) -- hunts down the fastest DNS servers for your computer to use. (via Nelson Minar)
  2. Primer on Macroeconomics (Jig) -- reading suggestions for introductions to macroeconomics suitable to understand the financial crisis and proposed solutions. (via Tim O'Reilly)
  3. Smarter Cameras Plumb Composition -- A new type of smarter camera can take a picture but also assess the chemical composition of the objects being imaged. This enables automated inspection systems to discern details that would be missed by conventional cameras. Interesting how cameras are getting smarter: Kinect as other significant case in point. (via Slashdot)
  4. Not So Open -- 3D printing lab at the University of Washington had to stop helping outsiders because of a crazy new IP policy from the university administration. These folks were doing amazing work, developing and sharing recipes for new materials to print with (iced tea, rice flour, and more) (via BoingBoing)

October 29 2011

Dennis Ritchie's legacy of elegantly useful tools

On Sunday, 10/30 we're celebrating Dennis Ritchie Day. Help spread the word: #DennisRitchieDay

Shortly after Dennis Ritchie died, J.D. Long (@cmastication) tweeted perhaps the perfect comment on Ritchie's life: "Dennis Ritchie was the architect whose chapel ceiling Steve Jobs painted." There aren't many who remember the simplicity and the elegance of the Unix system that Jobs made beautiful, and even fewer who remember the complexity and sheer awfulness of what went before: the world of IBM's S/360 mainframes, JCL, and DEC's RSX-11.

Much of what was important about the history of Unix is still in OS X, but under the surface. It would have been almost inconceivable for Apple to switch from the PowerPC architecture to the Intel architecture if Unix wasn't written in C (and its successors), and wasn't designed to be portable to multiple hardware platforms. Unix was the first operating system designed for portability. Portability isn't noticeable to the consumer, but it was crucial to Apple's long-term strategy.

OS X applications have become all-consuming things: you can easily pop from email to iTunes to Preview and back again. It's easy to forget one key component of the original Unix philosophy: simple tools that did one thing, did it well, and could be connected to each other with pipes (Doug McIlroy's invention). But simple tools that date back to the earliest days of Unix still live on, and are still elegantly useful.

Dennis Ritchie once said "UNIX is basically a simple operating system, but you have to be a genius to understand the simplicity." It's true. And we need more geniuses who share his spirit.


September 29 2011

From crowdsourcing to crime-sourcing: The rise of distributed criminality

Crowdsourcing began as a legitimate tool to leverage the wisdom of the crowds to solve complex business and scientific challenges. Unfortunately, these very same techniques are increasingly being adopted by the criminal underground for nefarious purposes.

The concept of crowdsourcing first gained widespread attention in an article written in 2006 by Jeff Howe for Wired Magazine. Howe defined crowdsourcing as the act of outsourcing a task to a large, undefined group of people through an open call.

The increasing application of crowdsourcing is changing "business as usual" in a wide variety of industries. In a noted example, Don Tapscott, in his book Wikinomics, described how one Canadian gold mining company facing a looming shutdown desperately turned to the general public to help solve a critical business problem. The company, Goldcorp, was so frustrated with the inability of its own geologists to locate any gold that it did something unheard of at the time: it offered $500,000 to anyone who could find and map the location of the company's own gold in its own mines. To facilitate the effort, Goldcorp posted their full datasets online. After receiving submissions from more than a thousand people in 50 different countries, Goldcorp achieved the success that had so eluded the firm previously. A member of the public used Goldcorp's data to make an incredible discovery and to locate more than $3 billion worth of gold using techniques never previously employed in the mining industry.

While numerous productive examples of crowdsourcing such as the Goldcorp case have been documented over time, these very same techniques increasingly are being exploited for criminal purposes as well.

Crime and the crowd

The growing popularity of crowdsourcing has not gone unnoticed, either, by international organized crime groups and local neighborhood thugs, each of which is quickly updating its tactics to drive operational efficiencies. Welcome to the world of "crime-sourcing." Borrowing from Howe's concept, crime-sourcing can be defined as the act of taking the whole or part of a criminal act and outsourcing it to a crowd of either witting or unwitting individuals.

The growth in crime-sourcing is shaking up long-standing business models and traditions within the criminal underground and is leading to innovations in crime. For example, all organized crime groups have historically looked upon outsiders with great suspicion: don't trust somebody you don't know and who has not been vetted. Elaborate processes were established, such as the Mafia's Omertà, to ensure newcomers to the criminal enterprise were neither rats nor cops. It would often take years of robberies, loan sharking and murder to gain the trust and confidence of the "boss."

The distributed crime network

As the world turned to globalization, so too did organized crime. Their initial attempts were limited, but generally effective. Drug cartels in Latin American began to work with organized crime groups in Eastern Europe. The Japanese Yakuza and Chinese Triads developed ties and turned to one another for very specific tasks, such as carrying out a particular "hit" or laundering a large sum of money in a different jurisdiction. Though these disparate crime groups were located in different parts of the world, they found ways to build trust and work together in their joint illicit pursuits.

Eventually, specialties emerged and criminal enterprises learned to outsource all tasks not within their specific areas of expertise. For example, in a standard phishing operation, an organized crime group might commission the creation of a scam web page and contact a secondary broker to get a list of thousands of email addresses. Using another intermediary, the crime group would get access to a compromised computer and rent a botnet to distribute the spam emails for a period of agreed upon time, such as 12 or 24 hours.

As hapless victims readily provided their banking and credit card information, the data would be culled and forwarded to the contracting criminals. The crime group would likely rent a distributed proxy network to obfuscate their true locations and to run transactions against the compromised accounts.

Of course, all this money needs to be received, processed and laundered in a way that protects the criminal enterprise, and there are numerous illicit techniques for hiring unsuspecting participants to take on the task. The most common is to place an ad in a print newspaper or an online publication offering opportunities to "work from home" and make "quick money" as an "importer/exporter."

Using this ruse, organized crime groups have duped thousands into receiving stolen property at their homes and opening shell bank accounts in their own names. After the funds are received in the account of the unwary pawn, he is instructed to immediately send them overseas via Western Union exchange for a small fee or commission. In doing so, the crime groups have crowdsourced the most dangerous part of their business, leaving behind a trail of false leads for law enforcement to find.

Web 2.0 Summit, being held October 17-19 in San Francisco, will examine "The Data Frame" — focusing on the impact of data in today's networked economy.

Save $300 on registration with the code RADAR

Strangers with a common criminal cause

One of the more interesting developments in crowdsourced offenses has been the birth of the crime "flash mob." The practice of crime flash mobs has become so common that the media have now coined a term "flash robs" to describe the ensuing theft and violence. In these cases groups of individual criminals, who may or may not even know each other, are organizing themselves online and suddenly descending into unsuspecting stores to steal all that they can in a flash. The unsuspecting merchant has little he can do when 40 unruly strangers suddenly run into his shop and run off with all his merchandise. Dozens of these cases have occurred, including one in which co-conspirators planned an attack via Facebook and Twitter that lead to the pillaging of a Victoria's Secret store in London.

Sadly, flash mobs are increasingly turning violent as innocent bystanders are being attacked and assaulted in broad daylight. In Chicago in June 2011, dozens descended on a neighborhood street and began assaulting and robbing law-abiding citizens. In the Chicago incident, 15-20 youths dragged a man off his motor scooter and severely beat him. A mere two months later in Philadelphia, a similar incident occurred.

Flash mobs are an advantageous way of crowdsourcing a robbery for the criminals involved. Using the power of the Internet, they are able to assemble an overwhelming force of unrelated strangers. Thus, if any of the participants involved are arrested, they are unlikely to be able to "rat" on their co-conspirators, whom they met for the first time at the scene of the crime.

The crime request hotline

Crime-sourcing reached new heights earlier this year when noted hacking group LulzSec opened up a hacking request hotline for the general public. The group advertised the 614 area code phone number on its Twitter feed and allowed the crowd to select LulzSec's next hacking victim. This new modus operandi in crime-sourcing allows the public to vote, "American Idol"-style, on who shall be the next victim of a crime. The group later released a statement noting that it had successfully launched distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) against eight sites suggested by callers.

Crime-sourcing's unwitting accomplices

Not all of those who participate in a crowdsourced crime do so knowingly. In fact, employing crowdsourcing techniques, it is increasingly possible for organized crime groups to get hapless innocents to carry out key elements of a crime on their behalf. In one example, the unsuspecting (and the lustful) were enticed to solve a CAPTCHA word puzzle in order to get access to free online pornography.

It seemed like a good deal for the end-user: for each CAPTCHA they solved, a person using the name Melissa would provide access to more and more pornographic images. What the end-user did not know is that, in fact, the CAPTCHAs being solved were being used to break into Yahoo email accounts and steal information. By tapping the public appetite for pornography, organized crime groups were able to create a useful crowdsourced method of automating CAPTCHA solving in order to give them unauthorized access to email accounts.

Crowdsourcing a criminal casting call

In perhaps one of the most ingenious uses of crime-sourcing seen to date, a bank robber in Seattle utilized Craigslist to recruit a crowd of unwitting participants to facilitate his escape. In the days leading up to the robbery, the perpetrator placed an ad on Craigslist seeking workers for a purported road-maintenance project paying $28.50 an hour. He instructed his "contractors" to show up at a street location at the exact place and time an armored car was to be delivering cash to a local Bank of America.

The robber instructed all those showing up for the promise of work to wear their own yellow vest, safety goggles, respirator mask and blue shirt — the criminal's exact outfit the day of the robbery. After overpowering the armored car driver with pepper spray, the suspect grabbed a duffel bag filled with cash, ran past a dozen or so similarly dressed innocents and made his escape 100 yards away to a local creek where he floated away in a pre-positioned inner tube. 911 calls reporting the robbery described the suspect as being a construction worker in a yellow vest. When police arrived on seen, they had numerous robbery suspects from which to choose.

Crime-sourcing meets "investigation-sourcing"

While crime-sourcing has allowed organized crime groups to commit more crimes with less risk, law enforcement officials are now leveraging the power of crowdsourcing to fight crime as well.

The NYPD has already launched a social media unit to track criminals on Facebook and Twitter. More recently, as the streets of the UK burned in the aftermath of violent protests, citizens of London banded together online to identify looters.

In one of the most impressive uses of "investigation-sourcing" to date, the Canadian public came together to identify the thousands of protesters who caused millions of dollars of damage as a result of the Vancouver Canucks losing the NHL championship in June 2011. Using a variety of image processing techniques, the firm Gigapixel was able to assemble 216 publicly submitted photographs and assemble them into one seamless high-resolution image. The phenomenal resolution of the resultant picture allowed the faces of tens of thousands of riot participants to be viewed in high resolution. The identification of more than 10,000 participants by name was completed by tagging individuals in Facebook, breaking a record for the number of tags in a given image to date. Many of those identified in the photos have now been successfully arrested and prosecuted by Canadian authorities.

The future of crime-sourcing

The technology involved in various crowdsourcing techniques is, of course, neither good nor bad. What started as a legitimate methodology to tap the wisdom of crowds for the betterment of business and science has unfortunately been adopted by the criminal underground. As demonstrated in the numerous examples listed above, organized crime groups clearly understand how to employ these techniques to commit more crime with less risk.

Undoubtedly, criminals will continue to innovate and develop new tactics to grow their profits from crime-sourcing. Whether this crime trend continues unabated depends on the ability of the police and the law-abiding members of our society to organize themselves as an effective countermeasure. In the looming clash between cops and robbers to crowdsource good versus evil, victory will belong to whichever group proves itself capable of mobilizing the larger crowd.

Thanks to Tarun Wadhwa for his helpful comments on earlier drafts of this post.

Below you'll find video from Marc Goodman's Strata Summit presentation, "The Business of Illegal Data":

Photo on home and category pages: Crime Scene by alancleaver_2000, on Flickr


July 05 2011

Search Notes: Why Google's Social Analytics tools matter

The big search news over the past week has been the launch of Google Plus, but lots of other stuff has been going on as well. Read on for the run dow.

Google social analytics

Plus isn't the only social launch Google had recently. The company also pushed out social analytics features in both Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools.

If you use the new version of Google Analytics, you'll now see a social engagement report. Use the social plugin to configure your site for different social media platforms to monitor the behavior of visitors coming from those platforms. Do those coming from Twitter convert better than those coming from Facebook? Do those who "+1" a page spend more time on it? Those are the sorts of questions the new social reports aim to answer.

You can also use Google Webmaster Tools to see how +1 activity is impacting how searchers interact with your pages in search results. In particular, you can see if the click-through rate of a result improves when it includes +1 annotations.

This is just one example of how the silos of the web are integrating. You shouldn't think of "social" users and "search" users when you are doing audience analysis for your site. You instead have one audience who many be coming to your site any number of ways. Engaging in social media can help your site be more visible in search, as results become more personalized and pages that our friends have shared, liked, and "plussed" show up more often for us.

Some may wonder if integrations like this mean that Google is weighting social signals more strongly in search. But those kinds of questions miss the point. The specific signals will continue to change, but the important thing is to engage your audiences wherever they are. The lines will continue to blur.

Google Realtime Search goes offline "temporarily"

A few day ago, Google's realtime search mysteriously disappeared. The reason: Google's agreement with Twitter expired and Google is now working on a new system to display realtime information. While this has temporarily impacted a number of results pages (such as top shared links and top tweets on Google News), it has not impacted Google's social results, which show results that your friends have shared.

Google social results

New Google UI

Google launched the first of many user interface updates last week, with the promise of many more changes to follow throughout the summer.

Google, Twitter and the FTC

But the Google world is not just about launches. The FTC formally notified Google that they are reviewing the business. Google says that they are "unclear exactly what the FTC's concerns are" but that they "focus on the user [and] all else will follow."

The Wall Street Journal reports that the investigation focuses on Google's core search advertising business, including "whether Google searches unfairly steer users to the company's own growing network of services at the expense of rival providers."

The FTC may also being investigating Twitter, due to how Twitter may be acquiring applications.

Android Open, being held October 9-11 in San Francisco, is a big-tent meeting ground for app and game developers, carriers, chip manufacturers, content creators, OEMs, researchers, entrepreneurs, VCs, and business leaders.

Save 20% on registration with the code AN11RAD

Google Plus (or is it +?)

Google PlusAnd of course we have to dig into that well-chronicled launch. As you're no doubt aware, Google launched their latest social effort last week: Google+. Or Google Plus. Or Plus. Or +. I don't know. But it's different from Plus One (+1?). Also it's not Wave, Buzz, Social Circles. Or Facebook.

I've just started using it, so I don't have a verdict on it yet, although I don't know that I buy intoGoogle's premise that "online sharing is awkward. Even broken." And that Google Plus will fix that. It doesn't mean I won't like the product, either. Google is of course under more scrutiny than usual since earlier social launches haven't gone over as well as they'd have liked. What do you all think of it?

Lots of sites have done comprehensive run downs, including:

(Google's Joseph Smarr, a member of the Google+ team, will discuss the future of the social web at OSCON. Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD.)

Yahoo search BOSS updates

Yahoo launched updates to their BOSS (Build your own search service) program. If you're a developer who uses Yahoo BOSS, you might be interested in the changes. and rel=author

A few weeks ago, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo launched the alliance, which provides joint support for 100+ microdata formats. At the same time, Google announced support for rel=author, which enables site owners to provide structured markup on a page that specifies the author of the content.

The announcement seems to be a foundational announcement to encourage platform providers, such as content management system creators, to build in support of microdata formats for future use by the search engines.

On the other hand, Google has already launched integration of rel=author with search results. You can see examples of how this looks with results for the initial set of authors Google is working with.


February 28 2011

Argentina: Hackathons and budget transparency in Bahía Blanca

Written by Renata Avila

Manuel Aristarian

Manuel Aristarian

As we have witnessed in the last month, there are moments in civic life that drive citizens to change and challenge institutions, to create solutions and to express their concerns about things that matter. In a short interview with Renata Avila for the Technology for Transparency Network, Manuel Aristarian, an Argentinian leading several different initiatives, shared his views on data and the tools to turn data into a valuable asset for citizens, to claim their rights and demand transparency. He is the man behind Gasto Público Bahiense in Bahía Blanca and GarageLab.

When Manuel Aristaran (@manuelaristaran) heard the news about controversial contracts by the local government in the Argentinian city of Bahía Blanca, he explored its website and noticed that expenses by the municipality were simply not accessible: they were published in a long list and without tools to explore the data, and the format did not offer an efficient and effective way to watch the expenses. He decided to solve that problem and take transparency in Bahía Blanca to the next level, a more participatory one.

RA: Why did you start your project?

MA: I've always been interested in public policies and the real impact of data on how they're designed. After the news of some controversial purchases made by the government of Bahía Blanca broke out, I learned that its website contains information about some of the public contracts and purchases. Those documents were published as a long list, and the municipality's site doesn't provide any additional tools to explore that information. I thought that scraping, structuring and building a simple site to display that information (that is, transforming data into knowledge) might be a nice weekend project. After few weekends, I released Gasto Público Bahiense.

RA: Why did you get involved? What is your inspiration to dedicate your weekends to Gasto Público Bahiense?

MA: I think that involvement in public affairs is impossible if we don't understand how the government works. In other words, you can't commit to something you don't understand. Making government data available in a simple, concise and clear way is a step in the direction of “educating” people about their actions of their government.

RA: How are things changing after the release of your idea? Any success stories?

MA: There's been some reaction from inside the government: the city's legislative body declared the site of ‘municipal interest'. The project also succeeded in educating some government officials on the importance of publishing  information in open and standard formats.

RA: Can you describe the obstacles and barriers you overcome to create your project?

MA: The lack of good government data and the lack of a solid legal framework that guarantees that they won't stop publishing the information just because. In Argentina, the OpenData grassroots movement is just starting. Together with other transparency NGOs, we're trying to think of ways of raising awareness about the importance of making governments more transparent and accountable. That, I hope, will lead to better policies of transparency and information.

RA: As a concerned citizen, do you want other local governments to do the same? Are you sharing your knowledge and expertise with others? Tell me more about “the power of shared code”.

MA: During an Open Data Hackathon, the code that powers Gasto Público Bahiense was used to display purchase data from other local governments in Argentina.  Anyone can grab the code and adapt it. It just had to write the code that extracts the data from those cities' websites.

RA: Your idea has inspired others to explore the potential of open data, right? How are people using your tool?

MA: Yes, different actors have used my project in many ways, for example hyperlocal news outlets used the website as source, businesses that sell to the local government use the site to check on their competitors, and when government purchases are available, consumers can access a good reference to compare prices.

It is well known that corruption in Argentina is widespread and hinders the political system and the economic growth, in spite of its highly educated citizens. However, “social entrepreneurs” like Manuel use their skills to foster change and invite others to copy the idea and do the same, everywhere.

November 30 2010

Free to Choose ebook deal reveals the programmer zeitgeist

Allen Noren, who runs, including all our online e-commerce, sent around a list of the top titles resulting from our Free to Choose Cyber-Monday promotion. I was so struck by the titles on the list that I thought I'd like to share it more widely. While it's clearly a self-selected list -- the people who order directly from O'Reilly are more likely to be our core audience of cutting edge "alpha geeks," while people who buy in stores are more likely to buy consumer titles like the Missing Manuals -- it still gives a fascinating view of what's on the minds of that audience today.

Here's the list:

Here are a few of the things that jump out at me:

  • Python and Javascript have become the foundational languages for developers. We have been watching these languages for some time. HTML5 and node.js make Javascript even more important for web developers, while Python has a particularly large following in data science. It's particularly interesting, and important, that using Python to collect data from sensors (Real World Instrumentation with Python) made it onto the list.
  • The "big data" themes we've been sounding in conferences like Strata are resonating in our publishing business, as six of the top titles focus on data science. The rise of data science, coupled with the rise in data entrepreneurship, may well be the most important trend in computing.
  • HTML 5 matters. HTML5, coupled with Javascript, turns the browser into a full-fledged application platform that spans everything from phones to tablets to desktops. It is the big Web story for the next few years. The only question is whether some sort of "embrace and extend" strategy will harm portability and lead us back into browser-dependency hell.
  • Microsoft and Adobe aren't going away any time soon. It's easy to write both companies off: Microsoft for losing ground to Apple in the consumer audio, phone, and laptop markets, and Adobe for being banned from Apple's mobile devices. But they've both proven extremely adaptable. Microsoft's Kinect shows they can still produce a winner, and their quick turnabout on hacking Kinect demonstrates an agility that is rare even in much smaller companies. Adobe quickly made alliances with Google, and is developing tools to generate HTML5 from Flash.

It's no surprise that these themes are related: HTML5 drives the importance of JavaScript, big data drives the importance of Python, and both are driving the changes to which Microsoft and Adobe are reacting.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

February 26 2010

Silence Speaks: Multimedia storytelling in Republic of Congo

Gertrude cutting stones. Photo published with permission of Silence Speaks.

“My name is Bahamboula Gertrude. I was a stonecutter in Kinkala before the war. I helped make stones used for building houses. When the war began they started destroying houses instead of building them …” Photo of Gertrude cutting stones published with permission from Silence Speaks.

Seven women affected by Congo-Brazzaville’s (also known as Republic of Congo) civil wars between 1997 and 2003 came together in November 2009 for a four-day digital storytelling workshop organized in a partnership between the United Nations Development Programme Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Resolution (UNDP-BCPR) and the Center for Digital Storytelling’s initiative Silence Speaks. Since their beginnings in 1999, Silence Speaks, which is based in the United States, has coordinated more than 40 projects across the United States, and in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Congo-Brazzaville, South Africa, and Uganda.

Congo-Brazzaville workshop group. Photo published with permission of Silence Speaks.

Congo-Brazzaville workshop group. Photo published with permission of Silence Speaks.

On behalf of Global Voices, I interviewed the director of Silence Speaks, Amy Hill, to learn more about this wonderful project. Amy explains that their workshops blend oral history, popular education, and participatory media production, enabling people to create short videos about their own lives, with stories that may otherwise go unheard.

“We modify our methods to accommodate languages, literacies, and technologies in a given setting and emphasize reflection on the implications of bringing sensitive personal narratives into the public sphere. Following careful informed consent processes, stories are shared locally and globally, as strategic tools for training, community mobilization, and policy advocacy to promote well being, gender equality, and human rights,” she says.

GV: How did you start working with women survivors of war in the Republic of Congo?

Amy: “In April of 2009, I was approached by a staff member with UNDP’s Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Resolution (BCPR) in Geneva about the possibility of developing digital storytelling work in the context of UNDP’s Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs…

“In recent years, BCPR personnel have recognized that critical to the success of their efforts are the development of communications strategies that ensure a voice and audience for those directly affected by conflict. Because we shared a particular interest in women’s health and well-being and because DDR efforts have been criticized for failing to emphasize the need for gender-specific approaches to post-conflict support, we outlined a collaborative project to assist a small group of women affected by/involved with the most recent civil war in Congo Brazzaville (1997 – 2003) in sharing their stories.

“The goal of the project was two-fold: (1) to use a participatory production process in creating a collection of short videos and radio pieces that can be screened by UNDP in various local and international settings (ie, at community events,  trainings, conferences, meetings, web presentations, etc.) to highlight examples of success and positive change; and (2) to provide a mechanism for addressing the deep scars left in the region in the wake of years of conflict (both through the workshop process itself, and through subsequent distribution of the digital stories in Congo).”

GV: With what local organizations did Silence Speaks work with in Congo?

Kinkala. Photo published with permission of Silence Speaks.

Kinkala. Photo published with permission of Silence Speaks.

Amy: “The BCPR chose Republic of Congo as a site for the project because its DDR team maintains a special emphasis on income generation activities for women. Local UNDP communications officers and program staff based in Brazzaville (the country’s capital) and Kinkala (a heavily war-affected city in Congo’s Pool region, where much of the most brutal fighting took place) were involved in project planning from the outset.

“A key piece of the participant recruitment process involved informing interested women from the outset that their stories were intended for public sharing. After years of working in extremely resource-poor settings and in communities experiencing high levels of poverty and distress, I do not view “informed consent” as a one-time procedure involving the signing of forms. Instead, I am committed to weaving the notion of consent throughout projects…

“Our goal with the project was to support as best we could a process that gave the women themselves a sense of clear ownership over their work and a sense of commitment to how their stories can assist community reconciliation and peace building activities in the wake of war both locally and globally.”

Workshop in Congo-Brazzaville. Photo published with permission of Silence Speaks.

Workshop in Congo-Brazzaville. Photo published with permission of Silence Speaks.

GV: What forms of media did the women survivors select (video, audio, text, photographs, internet-based) to narrate their stories?

“Most of the women who participated in the workshop had less than a sixth grade education and had never had access to any media-making tools. We wanted to design a workshop process that would be empowering rather than intimidating, and we were limited in terms of local technology resources (again, electricity is scarce in Kinkala, and computers are virtually nonexistent), so we focused the participatory aspect on photography and drawing rather than on the use of computers.

“Prior to the four-day session, UNDP staff carried out an orientation for the women to go over the purpose of the project and describe what would happen in the construction of stories. Each participant was given a disposable camera, and UNDP staff offered a short training session on photography basics and camera use.

“Several weeks later, we gathered in Kinkala for four days, where the women shared and recorded stories and drew illustrations. We also shot additional photos and videos on site. Participants turned in their cameras, and the photos were developed. Afterwards, I edited these materials into finalized short videos and radio spots.”

GV: How did the women who participated in the workshops describe the experience of telling their stories?

Florence Malanda at the Coop. Photo published with permission of Silence Speaks.

Florence Malanda at the Coop. Photo published with permission of Silence Speaks.

Amy:Time and resource limitations made it impossible for us to do focused interviewing with the participants about how they felt in the aftermath of sharing their stories, but the sense of relief and pride was palpable, on the last day of the session. During a short debriefing conversation, workshop participant Florence Malanda, Head of the Kinkala Women's Cooperative, said, “These testimonials will help to raise awareness with all Congolese people on the consequences of war. We hope that UNDP's support will also help other women who are suffering around the world.”

GV: What is the role of multimedia tools and the Internet in these storytelling projects?

Amy: “At the Center for Digital Storytelling, we view multimedia/digital media tools as just that: tools to assist people in sharing meaningful stories from their lives. We do not glorify them or see them as in and of themselves capable of bringing about change. We believe that what is important is how and why these tools are used.

“With Silence Speaks, I am not interested in “collecting stories” just for the sake of creating an archive of stories; I am interested in critically examining the ways in which the process of sharing and listening to stories can lead to specific changes across multiple levels of human experience and influence.

“Of course user friendly digital editing and production tools are essential to this idea, if the stories are to be developed in media formats. But teaching people technology skills alone or dumping equipment into their communities absent a coherent plan for how these skills or equipment can be utilized to promote an analysis of people’s life circumstances, build political consciousness, or support community/civic engagement, etc., seems to me to be extremely misguided. Instead, I take a Freirean approach to the use of the tools – one that views technology as an enhancement to a process of learning and empowerment.

“When it comes to the role of the internet, particularly in relation to projects like the work with women in Congo, I would caution readers to think carefully about who benefits from the proliferation of narratives of suffering and sorrow, online. Is it the storytellers themselves? Or is it media outlets, NGOs and government agencies with particular funding/programmatic agendas, and distant viewers sitting alone at their computers who can feel safe and secure in the knowledge that such tragedies are remote and pitiable?

“Certainly I am complicit in this equation, since I clearly stand the benefit from the outreach and publicity that sharing stories on the internet can bring about. However, when it comes to project development, I prefer to focus not only on strategies for internet distribution but on mechanisms for sharing stories with local audiences, where they have the potential to really make a difference.

“My colleagues at WITNESS have offered useful mentoring along these lines, with their emphasis on “micro audiences” and video advocacy. In the case of the Congo women’s stories, the collaboration with UNDP stresses not only distribution in international venues but also distribution locally, via community screening and dialogue sessions in Kinkala, and distribution throughout the Pool Region and nationally, via radio broadcasts and associated call-in programming on issues of conflict and reconciliation.”

Workshop participants. Photo published with permission of Silence Speaks.

Workshop participants. Photo published with permission of Silence Speaks.

GV: How can telling one's story be empowering?

Amy: “Trauma expert Judith Herman contends that while telling one’s story can be healing, participating in collective action at the community level also plays an important role in nurturing recovery. This is why Silence Speaks aims to support individual transformation and empowerment while simultaneously building the resilience of participants for involvement in community building and social justice movements.

“It’s really important to stress, though, that before any of the above benefits can be realized, people must feel ready and able to share their stories. Most people will come to the digital storytelling process when they are emotionally and physically strong enough to do so, but some may not be able to assess their own readiness.”

December 08 2009

Four short links: 8 December 2009

  1. Python's Moratorium -- Python language designers have declared a moratorium on enhancement proposals (feature requests) while the world's Python programmers get used to the last batch of New And Shiny they shipped. I'm reasonably sure that the ALGOL designers went through exactly the same discussions, and I know Perl did too. So, don’t be afraid of it - don’t think that Python is evolutionarily dead - it’s not. We’re taking a stability and adoption break, a breather. We’re doing this to help users and developers, not to just be able to say “no” to every random idea sent to python-ideas, and not because we’re done. Reminds me of Perl god Jarkko Hietaniemi's signature file: "There is this special biologist word we use for 'stable'. It is 'dead'. -- Jack Cohen.
  2. This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics -- I can't meaningfully contribute to the math, but golly them pictures are purty! (via Hacker News)
  3. x86 Assembly Encounter -- To use a construction industry metaphor, an average x86 assembler has the complexity and usefulness of a hammer, while the DSP world is using high-speed mag-rail blast-o-matic nail guns with automatic feeders and superconducting magnets. [...] I find it ridiculous that the most popular computing platform in the world does not have a decent assembler. What’s even worse, from the discussions I’ve seen on the net, people are mostly interested in how fast the assembler is (?!) rather than how much time it saves the programmer. (via Hacker News)
  4. Finding Tennis Courts in Aerial Photos -- more hacking with computer vision techniques and publicly-available data. This is going to lead to good things (and some unpleasant surprises, as that which was formerly "too hard to find" ceases to be so). (via Simon Willison)

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