Category Archives: Web

The Digital Africa Surprise

For my African Development class, I was required to write a 15-page paper on some aspect of African economic development. I chose to write about converging factors, such as the east coast Africa backbone coming online, the cloud, and cheap online tools, contributing to a surprising boom in African digital connectedness to occur in the next decade. Will people be paying attention?

Read my INAF-450 Paper 1:  “The Digital Africa Surprise”.

[I’ve also converted the paper to Google Docs if you’d like to read it. (and here’s the .doc format).]

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Filed under Africa, Communications, Computers, Economics, Education, Globalization, Government, International Affairs, Internet, Mobile, Policy, Tech, Web

Ten Years of Soapbox Essays

A little while ago I made my Soapboxes available again. I had made them private and had removed some posts because my unit commander while we were deployed to Iraq did not approve of my posting information about my experiences in Iraq.

But I decided to make them public again (offending posts removed and operational security taken into account) because to be quite frank, it is an extensive history of where I’ve come from since I started writing regularly on my site in 1995.

I had been using the web a little earlier than that and had started posting some small news tidbits on my web page, but the Soapbox became a formalized weekly rant on different topics.

Once PHP and mySQL became standardized, I was able to convert my individual essays into a database and template format. This shift towards databases on the internet fundamentally changed the way we use the web. Data became easier to manipulate and to display. Tools such as blog software and stat trackers came out that let people with absolutely no design or coding skills start to write on their own within minutes, while allowing designers to perfect the design templates. This was huge.

So I had to hand-convert about 250 essays into a database format. I didn’t quite finish doing the same with all the Soapboxes, which ended up being 373 total. It was highly labor-intensive. It was one of several complete site upgrades I had to do, since web standards were changing so rapidly.

For the statistics I have on the 250ish posts, as displayed on the Soapbox homepage, I wrote over 360,000 words. I wrote about the early days of the web, about life in college, about the 2000 elections, about the dotcom bubble and its subsequent collapse, and about post-9/11 and eventually about deciding to enlist in the Army. I was very young. And in over my head. But the fact that kids were able to use such advanced (but crude) tech was pretty fucking hot.

I find it interesting that my very first post was about the Telecom Decency Act of 1995. Obviously I didn’t know how to dissect the policy issues the way I could now, but for a kid of the digital age, even then I was thinking about the future of the internet.  As it turned out, amidst all the controversy about this act, Section 230 was added, and still exists to this day, absolving content providers of liability for third-party user content.  That meant that ISPs couldn’t be sued because John Doe decides he wants to post something defamatory or illegal on his blog.  This in part led to the explosion of user-generated content and blogging, a large influence in my life online.

At the end of the first year, I wrote a Christmas wishlist for things I’d like to see on the internet. There were plenty of problems online back then, but no one had any clue that we’d see things like cloud computing, blogs, wifi (which is still a significant obstacle), advanced spam filtering, and social networking. It’s just awesome to see how far things have come since just 1995.

Anyway, check the Soapbox out. I spent a lot of my time writing instead of socializing during high school and college and it shows. But it’s a large corpus and one I’m rather proud of, even if it’s led to some pretty embarrassing moments of naivete and ignorance.

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Webheads for Africa

This is an aside but today’s market rally (Dow +936) was astounding. I barely made any money though (sadface) because most of the move was on a gap up and I think you would’ve had to be suicidal to buy on Friday to hold over the weekend. To be honest I don’t know what the market will do next. I’m not sure the US has taken any moves to make the system more structurally sound. They’re just trying to recapitalize it.

So recently some web experts (inspired by Tim O’Reilly’s keynote at Web 2.0 New York) have been talking about how the community needs to start designing applications that matter; that is, not beer-drinking or sheep-slinging apps for the iPhone but apps for poor people in Africa.

Any time you hear this kind of stuff, watch out. It’s just either guilt or self-righteousness talking. The idea that some developer in San Francisco is going to make some app that Africans (the poorest of whom have slow data connections, no security, unstable food supplies, little defense against disease, et al will want more AJAX is absurd.

In fact this “help the dark-skinned people” is the same philosophy that’s been pushed in international development for the last few decades. It led to technocrats enforcing strict, paternal structural adjustment programs on countries that just don’t seem to get this whole free market thing. It led to flooding money to leaders who realized they just had to say they were trying to reform while in truth they used the money to keep themselves in power. It led to thinking that persists today that Africa is a backwards place that will never sort itself out.

The truth is that the American web folks should keep doing exactly what they’re doing: working on open standards and protocols and authentication systems that allow us to share data without compromising passwords so that we can ensure data control and privacy. That seems to be the big thing we need to work on, along with moving the tools into business and government. And you know what? That stuff will migrate immediately to African platforms and sites when they need it. What? Do webheads know the first thing about HIV prevention programs and deployment, agricultural productivity, or conflict management?

Right now I’m reading a lot more Africa blogs and it sounds like they’re developing their own culturally relevant tools. Could they use technical help? Sure, we all could. But they’re not sitting around waiting for the web experts to swoop in and bless them with tools that will lift them out of poverty.

So can we drop that canard now? It seems like the World Bank, IMF, and other international agencies have, and look! Things have quickly improved in developing nations worldwide.

[addendum: Tim Berners-Lee recently sensibly announced the World Wide Web Foundation, which I think has a more realistic approach for getting everyone wired and collaborating.]

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Filed under Communications, Development, International Affairs, Internet, Policy, Web

Optimism

So the G7 is meeting up with Dubya this weekend and so far nothing substantial has been announced. These people are useless. Dubya gets wheeled out to give a clueless speech that inspires no confidence. If anything, it encourages fear. Fear that we have no leadership to help us fix these problems. McCain for his part offers this fucking stupid platitude that Americans are the hardest-working people in the world, EVER. How banal.

Last week’s stock market action was unlike anything I’ve ever seen — relentless selling every day for the last few months. This made 2001 look like a cakewalk.

This in turn caused the web crowd to froth itself into a tizzy talking about the coming Silicon Valley slowdown. Led by Sequoia Capital, the clarion call is for cutting costs, firing employees, reducing burn rate, and trying to extend runway.

I guess my question is: if you’re a start-up, you’re already concerned about bootstrapping every nickel. Why wouldn’t you be relentlessly cutting costs before this crisis even started? Doesn’t this suggest there’s some bloat in the web space right now, a lot of people who are just dragging down companies with salary, ideas that don’t add value to the value chain, etc.?

So isn’t this a good thing?

I tend to be optimistic about this downturn, personally. Then again, I’m a wannabe entrepreneur who is still safe within the confines of grad school. I have less than a year now before I’ll be looking for a job so this will directly impact me.

There’s reason to be optimistic. Check out what Gary Vaynerchuk says about advertising, for example, in this totally awesome video:

“ROI. I am talking about Return on the Investment of your advertising dollar. Traditional media advertising is incredibly expensive and doesn’t provide nearly the rate of return you can derive from intelligent web-based marketing campaigns in 2008 and beyond.”

His point is that those who will be truly hurt by the downturn will be newspaper, magazine, and TV advertisers. Smart advertisers will move more and more towards Google Adsense and online marketing. It’s a lot cheaper and you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck.

The underlying point is that there’s still a lot going on on the internet. There’s projects created by love and collaboration that will continue to grow while the economy reorients itself towards the internet model. The shakeup in the workforce will reorient workers towards better ideas, letting bad ideas die. I still think good ideas will be funded by angels since the startup costs are so low.

Even if the good ideas aren’t profitable, they’ll still thrive through word of mouth and love online. At least in this way, the downturn will resemble 2001’s bubble burst: the internet will continue to evolve.

The good news for me I think is that layoffs might make it easier for me to find coders who want to help me build a reputation management platform for persistent identities. So far I haven’t had much luck.

The only thing I’m really looking for in terms of something negative looking forward is policy or legislative change. In the same way that we need structural changes worldwide to fix the financial system, Congress or the EU or the incoming president (doubtful if it’s Obama since he has a great tech policy lined up) could pass laws that fuck things up for the internet.

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Filed under Business, Communications, Economics, Internet, Policy, Stock Market, Tech, Web

Meetings

After experiencing a lot of bureaucracy when I was younger, I promised myself that if I ever ran a company, I would never have meetings.

Now obviously this is unrealistic, but I think it illustrated some awareness of the uselessness of certain types of meetings. There are great meetings: you bring in a group of people who really click together and immediately start crafting a strategy or fixing a large systemic problem. It’s a way to bring together participatory involvement.

And then there are bad meetings: the arbitrary weekly meetings that are held at a bad time (i.e. Monday morning, first thing), don’t get anything done, and mainly recap what different teams have been doing (i.e. this is why we’re behind on our deliverables).

The Army loves meetings whether they are weekly update meetings, morning/afternoon/evening formations, weekly barracks cleaning meetings, chew-your-ass meetings, whatever.

I have a weekly meeting with my fellow Yahoo! fellows, which is quite good because each meeting we end up pushing our methodologies and frameworks further, thanks to the senior fellow who is doing an excellent job. I also meet weekly with my partner on a development consultancy project in which we discuss strategy and reaching the next milestone.

Anyway, this is all beside the point of this post. I’ve found through my recent research that Twitter and Facebook’s News Feed are built perfectly for reducing the our most useless meetings’ impetus: explaining why the project is behind.

These tools promote lifestreaming or passive sharing, where each person gives microupdates on what he’s doing, and other people can tune in to what he’s doing instead of having to waste the time of asking. Certainly conversation is good for catching up, but within a workplace, it may be that you do not know what many other departments outside yours are doing.

With lifestreaming within the organization, you could get “just published” updates on a great report on mobile penetration released from the R&D department, even if you work in the product design department. This information flow promotes internal innovation and knowing what the other hand is doing.

I think what’s coming is the maturation of these tools from something that even my friends scoff at as being completely useless and narcissistic towards something that increases innovation and collaboration and organizational identity.

And that means better-prepared, more interesting meetings. And not the complete lack of meetings that I’d originally envisioned!

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Amazon as an Investment

Back in 1999 I bought a lot of AMD on the basis of their developing a chip, popular among overclockers and DIY builders, that would be superior to Intel’s. The market hadn’t picked up on this superior product yet. Later, when the market finally got wise, AMD stock went from something like $10 to $60, before the bubble popped; eventually of course Intel’s superior warchest of resources punished AMD again, and almost a decade later, AMD stock is under $5.

In 2006 I invested my Iraq blood money into Nintendo on the basis of the new Wii being a sleeper hit with gamers. I was right. Its stock went from the low teens to $77, so I made a killing.

After I sold my Nintendo, I looked for another stock to invest in and couldn’t find anything. Apple had already made its run, and Google’s stock had been stagnating for a year.

The IPO market is pretty dry and there’s not really any web companies that are currently private that would be screamers if they IPO’d. I mean, would Facebook be able to justify a high valuation?

That should have been a sign to me that a bull market was taking a break…   I love to study tech and web stuff and I couldn’t find a single stock worth investing in with expectation of a large gain. There are great tech companies of course but they’ve matured to the point where they won’t have screaming stock prices.

The closest contender I can find is Amazon. Even the daytraders right now are not clued in to what Amazon is doing these days. Most think Amazon is just selling books and CDs online still. But they’re doing so much more.

It’s not just the Kindle, which is the first of the gadgets that will end up turning books into nostalgia purchases. It’s also the massive cloud of computers Amazon, using Amazon Web Services, built in order to handle their order processing and database calls so that you get pages of books displayed on your screen.

Now they are letting other companies buy time on their cloud or grid to borrow process time for their own web sites, database queries, and sales. Imagine you have an online retail company: you can use Mechanical Turk to get bored programmers to construct parts of your site for you. You can use Amazon’s database format to save some of your inventory list of stock. You can use Amazon’s front-end order processing system so that people can easily buy your goods.

In other words, Amazon is making money multiple times off the same hardware and software that it runs to manage its own inventory system. They make money off you vacuuming up books and magazines into your Kindle (since it’s so easy for you to acquire new reading through the Kindle now).

And there is a perception gap: most people do not know Amazon is doing this, even though they are by far the leaders in providing cloud services. Most people doubt the Kindle will succeed also, even though the paper book is doomed once e-readers can add more utility like pull out your favorite quotes and publish them online, fully search books on the fly, etc.

An e-reader will be a killer app one day. (but probably as part of a multi-use device)  The Kindle will take off in its next iteration or two, if Amazon can improve the look and versatility of the device (although this potential re-design for Kindle 2.0 isn’t what I was hoping for…).

I’m not naive enough to think Amazon will do well in the current environment. Both weakness in retail (consumer confidence is low and there’s less perception of disposable income) and stock market pressure on tech stocks will drive (and have driven) AMZN down. Here’s a chart:

Costs are also dropping so fast that margins will decrease on sales of media as well as on processor time.

But if I had to bet on any stock out there to be low risk, high reward, I think Amazon is the play. I haven’t bought it yet, for full disclosure.  Given that the market is in danger of crashing, AMZN’s stock could very well get crushed as well.  If macroeconomic factors take precedence, stock price means nothing.  So I’m watching, but wary.

Amazon is one of the nimblest companies out there right now and Jeff Bezos knows how to manage his resources. He’s at the forefront of the companies exploring the future of the Internet.  He has a good architecture in place; certainly we do not know what the future will look like, but the companies with the smartest people and the best tools will be the ones who will recognize it before the rest.

That’s my best bet right now.  What do you think?

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Filed under Business, Internet, Stock Market, Tech, Web

Implications of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk

I got this link via Waxy of Waxy.org.  In it, he writes about how he needs to transcribe an interview he recorded onto MP3 files.  He decided to use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which is a service that lets people post micro-jobs for other people to do in exchange for micropayments.

He set up small jobs for people to transcribe the MP3s for him. He posted them before he went to sleep, and when he woke up, other people had completed his task for him for less than $16.

What are the implications of this system?  Well, so far it is being used by what seem to be spammers, using humans to describe images to beat security systems or to collect data for use in spamming.

But being able to pay others to do menial tasks has precedent — outsourcing to a surplus of labor, this time online.  Obviously it’s as prone to slave/poor labor abuse as gold farming in multiplayer online games is.

But on the positive side, it might allow us to tackle problems more quickly, such as allowing non-programmers to build applications by outsourcing small tasks of writing small code for them.  I know I could use it right now, but I’m not sure what I need yet.

The problem of translating/transcribing videos and audio used to be monetized by translation companies who charged a fortune to do it — now it can be done on the cheap online.  Companies that properly use this service could put a lot of tasks out online and let their employees work on more important things.  One problem of course is that one is limited in the data he can send to Mechanical Turk — he couldn’t let someone else work on his internal databases or phone registry, for example.

So it has its limitations.  But it’s a fluid, transparent system, isn’t it?  Who knows what will come out of it?

It reminds me of a different approach that uses games to get users to voluntarily — and for fun — label and classify photos and words:

I haven’t looked into other speculation about possible applications, but the Wikipedia page should continue to be updated with the more interesting of them.

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Filed under Economics, Globalization, Internet, Web