Category Archives: Tech

Walking the Walk

Walking the walk has become a core lesson learned for me.  I’ve tried to live an adult life of walking the walk instead of talking the talk.  When I was a suburban, socially disconnected kid, I spent most of my time on early BBCs, gaming networks, and the internet posing as a normal adult because that was the only way I could fit in.  As I got older, I actually was a normal adult, but I still felt left out.  It wasn’t until I joined the Army that I began to understand how important it is to be a member of a community and to “know” what it is to be in a community.

Since then I have moved on from the Army and intelligence community, although I still keep in touch with people there, and can spot those types instantly from a crowd.  I went and joined another community, the Georgetown community, and, with more time, became a tangential member of the DC community.   Those people have their own customs, rituals, schedules, and uniforms.  In many ways, DC people are not unlike military people:  long hours, dedication towards greater purposes, responsibility, discipline.

My infatuation with starting a company has continued to grow.  But I’ve found just how incompatible the DC community is with social entrepreneurship in my area, online stuff.  While there are a lot of initiatives in DC, partly because of cloud computing, cheap CPU cycles, and Obama’s initiatives to drag the government into the present, you can sum up most early pitches in DC this way:

"Looking for Full-Time Coder for DC Start-Up"

It’s funny because in DC, you can stop anyone on the street and they will be some high-level program manager or policy wonk interested in federal-level funding and grant-making for this or some other project.  But when it comes to finding people to implement all these plans and programs in a tangible way, the pool is thin.

Contrast this with stories from Silicon Valley, which is continuously castigated for building only incremental improvements to useless features.  One-hit non-wonders.  Things that make a prettier gadget abusing a Google Calendar API.  Or making a more hipsterish movie review site.

So DC is great, important ideas in search of engineers, while Silicon Valley is talented engineers in search of serious projects.

If I had my way, I would found an engineering school in DC, and feed students into the projects that DC is dying to implement.  Instead of relying solely on schools like Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon, DC should have some sort of computer science/social entrepreneurship program.

It might even need a broader project than that.  I often think about the short booklet I read from SnarkMarket called the “New Liberal Arts”.  The booklet proposes a new curriculum for students to learn applicable skills to our digital world:  attention economics, coding and decoding, finding, food, home economics, inaccuracy, iteration, journalism, mapping, marketing, micropolitics, myth and magic, negotiation, play, and video literacy, among others.

I’ve found through my job, which involves me reading pretty much as much as I can that comes across the web daily, that so many people are lacking in fundamental skills to interpret their world.  They do not know how to parse a story to see a particular agency’s bias, or to see which facts are actually facts and which were selectively chosen for inclusion.  The ability to figure out important data from unimportant data is also woefully lacking.  There is so much fluff in the world, in the form of excess meetings, long and boring Powerpoint decks, redundant employees, stifling bureaucracy, that it seems like a system built more to protect constituencies than to be lean and efficient.

Just read internet comments some time if you want to see how badly people interpret data they read online.  It’s so bad that Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, said the inability to judge facts and disprove false stories online is one of the biggest problems out there.

“Sir Tim told BBC News that there needed to be new systems that would give websites a label for trustworthiness once they had been proved reliable sources.

“”On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable,” he said. “A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging.””

Students do not know how to build the things they study.  The top jobs are going towards lawyers and businessmen, but their studies are so abstracted from anything concrete that it’s all just theoretical to them.  The culture of hacking, where you sit down quickly and prototype things with simple building blocks, does not exist in most bureaucracies, and it’s certainly bred out of children by the time they reach high school.  The only escape for natural hackers has been the internet and for people who live out in the country and are exposed to working with their hands with minimal supervision.

Everyone has great ideas, but few have the know-how to implement or even prototype them.  Which means the ideas die.  Few are part of the appropriate communities to make things happen, either.

That is.  I learned in the Army that if you’re not in the military, you have no clue what military culture is like.  Military bases are usually separated from the rest of the American fabric, in small towns that exist only because of the base.  Veterans and their family members live in a separate world.  Thus to hear people talk about the military without never having been close to it is so hard to swallow.  Likewise, I just became a full Catholic, during a publicized, grueling, disgusting scandal of pedophilia within the Catholic bishopry. (Indeed, before the Easter Vigil before my baptism began, I stood outside the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and some guy in flipflops walking his dog tried to cut through our preparatory line and said, “Excuse me, child molesters”, as he walked through.  What, so all Catholics are child molesters?  Have we reached this level of disdain for strangers we meet in the world?)

My more agnostic and atheist friends ask me why I would join the Church, knowing about all this.  Again, a Catholic within the Church would not ask.  A religious person would not need to ask.  Churches, despite being so numerous, and religious folk, despite being a clear majority in the US and in the world, exist in a separate world than the rest.  Put a pastor next to a programmer and I’m sure you’ll rarely see such polar opposites.

So I’ve been in some pretty disconnected communities.  Would that make me a crypto-first-world-urban anthropologist?

I was actually fortunate enough to have a Mac Plus and subsequent Apple products (even the Newton) because my dad would get them as part of his professor’s grant.  And I remember learning Logo and Pascal in school, while playing with BASIC at home (typing in those programs out of books and then running them).  As I got older, I wished badly to be able to speak in different human languages.  I wondered why I couldn’t have known French or Spanish while a lot of people I knew were multi-lingual.  When I became an Arabic linguist in the Army, I really lamented it.

But since then, as the internet has exploded, English has become a comfortable lingua franca for me, and what has become far more important to me is computer language.  Why couldn’t I have become a god at C++ or Java?  Would I need to have gone into CS in school to do that?  Would that have doomed me to a linear career?  I’ve picked up PHP inasmuch as I need it to prototype and build stuff online — I guess it’s no accident I spent time learning PHP since it’s so easy to build out online.

One article I read recently from RSA, talked about employing the human “third drive”, which roughly coincides with Maslow’s higher levels of human needs.  The article claims that carrots and sticks at work is rarely effective and sometimes harmful.  Management leads to compliance only, in many cases, as rigid hierarchy means people are only ultimately going to care about their own lane and not take on extra work, which may get them in trouble.

It’s tough because in any organization, the top people may not be the best people to “start” a project.  Someone at the lowest level of an organization may have figured out what the organization needs in order to improve, but the authorization and legitimacy bestowed upon that person does not exist.  Thus the idea will never see the light of the day.  The higher up on the food chain, the less likely the people will be to possess skills needed to prototype.  I think this is why I’m so preferential towards organizations that hire strictly engineers and people with serious experience — they were at that lowest level once, and knew the pitfalls invisible to the highest people.

At The Future of Web Design conference in Miami a couple years ago, and with a recent NYTimes article, people have begged for more women in computer science.  I’m beginning to wonder if my above hypothesis, that there’s a disconnect between the cultural maps of doers/searchers vs. planners, holds true for women too.  DC is interesting because it’s known as the WORST city in the world for single women to find a mate, because women here are so highly-educated and well-off, while outnumbering men.

Do women fall into communities and roles that by their nature seek to improve the human condition and standard of living?  Would it be fair to say that while men have sought power in DC, women have sought to use social institutions to improve human lives?  Could one say that women have not been as interested in hacking, which in many ways is a very solitary, almost autistic profession, and have sought instead positions that are more socially networked and responsible and creative?

Would there be more female hackers, and hackers in general, in DC if an institution existed to encourage computer science in a town that’s so heavily geared towards policymaking?  I am beginning to think so.  How can we link together the separate groups of engineers and policymakers/changemakers?

In a broader sense, shouldn’t America, which likes to see itself as a greasy-knuckles, hard-working blue-collar country (despite being the richest and fattest), find in itself a core value of walking the walk?  After all, we used to subscribe to walking softly but carrying a big stick.  We have imposing science, nuclear, and military programs.   We were great because we had substance and experience unmatched elsewhere in the world.  It is not like now, where what we value are lawyers who can argue any case as long as they’re paid well enough, or bankers who can innovate money out of our pockets while underlying assets remain unchanged in value, or businessmen who spend their lives adjusting reports while barely understanding the very product or service they sell.  That is all image, abstracted away from the core economic and power realpolitik.

I just finished watching Season 4 of The Wire, which brings in the new component of Baltimore life, the public school system.  What struck me was the experimental pilot program to remove the problem kids from the general population and try to socialize them, since they were all training to be “corner kids” and learning that school was just a safe zone to learn how to test rules and adults.

Are we preparing people to live and work in the world we now and will live in?

Can we move away from a culture of FOXNews, with its chickenhawk lawyers who rattle their swords on patriotism, love for the military, and mercantilist realpolitik but who consistently seem to have absolutely no experience in anything except morning zoo drive DJs, sportscasting, lawyerships, working for conservative thinktanks, etc.?  Can we move away from seeking advice on small business and policymaking from people who have never started a business or who make fun of community organizing?

Can we praise a culture where walking the walk, being a member of a community instead of an outside criticizer and observer, becomes the gold standard?

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Filed under America, Anthropology, Tech

Public Transit Adds Data Points

Here in DC, WMATA (Washington Metro Area Transit Authority) has started putting up signs at all its bus stops that have a unique stop number on them.

wmataWhat this number symbolizes is a unique ID that riders and WMATA operators can use to point to an exact location and stop.

As you can see from the sign, it’s not exactly intuitive what this number is for, but you can call that number and tell the system the unique stop ID and it would tell you when the next bus is coming.

More useful is that WMATA has put up a mobile version of the same functionality at http://www.wmata.com/mobile/ which allows you to go on your iPhone or whatever and type in the stop # to find out when the next bus is coming.

This app also lets you check when the next trains are coming on the Metro, once you’ve entered the station.

But I think there are some interesting applications more on the bus side, what with WMATA having to add the pictured signs to ALL of its bus stops.  This is no small number; according to Wikipedia, that number is 12,301 total bus stops.

It will take some time for WMATA to get signs on some of the lesser-traveled stops, but I’ve noticed that a lot of the work’s already been done as I travel around town.

That means there are now 12,301 new data points (maybe not new to WMATA’s internal logs, but certainly new to us) that could be used.  Right now, people can’t interact actively with those data points.

But I could imagine that if the data points were all mapped onto Google Maps or OpenStreetMap, then interesting things would begin to emerge, e.g. emergency responders could be told that there’s an injured person at that location.

This might be done by turning the bus stops into communication posts:  the sign itself could be connected to a WiMAX network and thus displays the next-bus time without you having to look it up.  But it could also allow for emergency requests, or you could touch your phone or an RFID-enabled device to it to get more information on whatever was needed; this information would be primarily localized, like where the nearest convenience or grocery store was, etc.  This would make up for a lot of the shortcomings that still exist in being able to use the GPS/triangulation on your phone but still not having any context on your map that’s meaningful beyond what cross-streets you’re at.

New York supposedly is about to try out its own version of having next-bus displays at bus stops, according to the NY Times.  It’s not entirely clear to me what their technology is although they claim it is some sort of “mesh network technology” which to me sounds like it’d be fraught with errors and lost coverage.

The new data points could be used in different applications:  you could check in to FourSquare from them as you travel around town, playing its social game.  If WMATA played ball and opened up the data, you could calculate total hits on a station by a bus over a year.  Even more interesting would be if you could see how many people were on each bus, to see how congested things are over time (I can already see privacy zealots complaining about that).  How about figuring out overall transit times for Metro users?

What else could we do with this stuff?

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Filed under Communications, Computers, Design, Government, Internet, Openness, Policy, Tech, Web

Labor Costs

One of the topics I want to study more about is what we’re all going to do in the future for work and jobs.  Part of the sharp upheaval of the 20th century of rapid economic development was that a stable career was not sustainable except for certain professions.  It is true in the US that most jobs that students are being taught for, ostensibly, do not even exist yet.

The manufacturing jobs we used to have have been pushed abroad to cheaper labor markets.  Farming has been turned into a large-scale industry needing expensive fertilizer inputs and economies of scale.  Services and data processing have, for a while now, been offshored to cheaper labor markets as well.

The idealized hope was that at least with the offshored jobs, those countries that welcomed such labor-intensive tasks would develop their way into the first-world club.  That has not exactly happened the way people hoped; instead, what has happened (and which is well-documented in Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo”) is that international companies shift resources to whichever country prostrates itself by way of tax-exempt zones, cheap wages, and lax regulation.

Furthermore, as machines and robots will become increasingly capable of completing labor-intensive tasks, they will replace the vast pools of labor that we currently use.  The limits of technology have made vast human workforce scale cheaper (that is, it is still cheaper to use humans to finish sock production than to use machines, if only by pennies per sock).  But that will eventually change.

So what the hell are we all going to do?

We can at least rely on a flattening population curve, which (one would hope) will lead to international competition for higher education for newer information and programming and mapping and engineering jobs.

But what I’m hoping for is that, freed from some of the requirements of labor in order to make the world function every day (whether it’s through a massive breakthrough in energy production, perhaps through solar, or if it’s through using robots instead), that we will actually need to work fewer hours per day and can spend more time engaged in creative and teaching endeavors.

Right now among my friends in DC, it’s pretty common to work from 8 or 9AM up to 8PM or even 9PM, daily.  What on Earth takes them so long to complete tasks at work?  Why is there so much work to do?  Is it because labor costs are so high that firms choose to hire fewer people, but work them harder, knowing that American work ethic looks highly upon those who work long hours for their pay?  Is it because people are just highly inefficient workers when they put in longer hours?

This isn’t sustainable, particularly for raising children, enjoying life, being creative, being social, being helpful in the community.  Surely part of that has assisted the drastic decline in civic life in the US (again, see Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”).  But we don’t want to end up letting robots do anything while we lounge around and become fat (think Wall-E).

I watched a talk given by the host of Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe.  It takes a while for him to set up his talk, beginning with lamb castration.  But eventually Rowe, whose show has him apprenticing for people who have really dirty, labor-intensive jobs, talks about how these people tend to be really happy, satisfied people.  Rowe says that we work too hard in jobs we don’t enjoy.  He also says that “following your passion” isn’t actually good advice — more important is that you go do something that no one else is doing, to find your niche.

“We’ve declared war on work,” Rowe says.  He says that working people on TV are portrayed in horrible ways (fat plumbers as punchlines).  Rowe says that we consistently feel a longing to have more personal time, but we aggressively fight it in our culture.  We marginalize lots and lots of jobs.  Trade school enrollment is on the decline.  Infrastructure jobs are disappearing.

Think about the old NASA engineers and nuke engineers.  With the strangling of the NASA budget and the public abhorrence of nuclear power plants, those with the technical skills to remember how to build spaceships and construct programs, and create nuke plants, are dying and disappearing.  The ranks aren’t being re-filled.  As a society we are forgetting how to build things and how to do things.

What is going to happen if we run out of products to market and advertise?  What is going to happen if we’re too busy working to raise our children properly and enjoy life?  What is the standard of living that we want?  How do we balance work, family, religion, recreation, creativity, et al?  Do we even know how to measure all that yet?  We’re going to need happiness and well-being metrics on an individual and an aggregate scale.

The path of the internet’s development has shown us that software and hardware are hollowing out the core of labor within modern goods and services.  A small software company of 5 people can now use the cloud to host their data — all they’re doing is programming and internal business management and marketing/sales, pretty much.  Large-scale projects can now be done by a handful of people.  Sure, somewhere the cloud must be managed, but the costs to start a well-educated programmer/business idea are so low now.  You don’t need the capital for hiring lots of people or the capital expenditures to purchase equipment.  You can work out of your apartment.  What are 8 billion people going to do when software runs a highly-autonomous network of computer systems in the future?

Guess we better start learning to enjoy each other’s company and free time…

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Filed under Anthropology, Business, Computers, Development, Economics, Education, Globalization, Policy, Tech

Surpluses and Shortages

I’m moving out of my Georgetown rowhouse and just started my job, so I’ve been a little busy and haven’t been able to write much.  That’s one reason Twitter is so great — I’ve been able to just send some quick tweets (the other reason it’s so great is its generativity (see Jonathan Zittrain) — Twitter provides such a vast platform/ecosystem for other ideas to thrive in).

[edit:  I didn’t know this until after I published the post, but apparently the Pop!Tech 2008 conference was focused on the subject of abundance and scarcity.  Fitting!  Here’s the opening video presentation that the Pop!Tech conference began with.]

Anyway, since it’s been so long, I’m going to ramble a bit.  The blog is still great for that.

When I took all my money out of the market back in September/October of 2007, I did it because there were vapor bids on all the stocks out there.  Nothing was supporting any equities.  About two years later, the financial markets have stabilized quite a bit, with the TED spread finally dropping back to the levels before the markets got a whiff of collateralized debt obligations going sour.  Companies have shed a lot of jobs and have made a lot of cutbacks.

As an investor, I’m feeling a lot safer about putting my money back in.  I wanted to wait until at least this summer, when a lot of mortgage and housing resets hit the market.  Now is the dreaded velocity period of August-October, when the market is most likely to crash, historically.  But it can also rally pretty strongly in that time period — I think this has something to do with new fiscal years beginning and a lot of annual inflows/outflows taking place around that time.

I’m still only interested in Amazon ($AMZN) stock, but since it’s already pretty high I have to leave it alone.  There is no other stock out there worth holding right now, in my opinion.  I suspect the next big runner in tech will be a Facebook IPO or perhaps Yahoo! ($YHOO), if  they can ever find a moneymaker.

I went to the premiere of Barack Stars, a play showing at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in DC, done by the Second City Comedy Troupe (SCTV, some Saturday Night Live folks).  It’s a play lampooning the reverence for Obama and all the political scandals in DC lately.  One of the joke skits involved poor laid-off finance guys from NYC.

Funny to be sure (I highly recommend you go see this), but how accurate?  My suspicion is that while a lot of finance types in NYC lost their jobs, it wasn’t long before they found new ones.  All the smart money that didn’t vaporize probably went to the next unregulated market out there, or as some have hinted, towards carbon credit markets, the next bubble target according to Rolling Stone’s Matt TaibbiThe NYTimes just ran a story about how the big brokers were trading with a 3ms advantage on retail traders, racking up tons of money through arbitrage.   This just goes to show you that when you combine fierce NYC finance types with the new quant PhD players, every aspect of the market is a game that no layperson is going to win.  Back in the 90’s, daytrading was somewhat fair, but now the game is entirely stacked towards brokers.  Combine this with the scam that is now common stock:  common stock is worthless, effectively, since there’s now so many classes of preferred and private stock for the company insiders that no common stock holder is actually entitled to as much equity as he/she may have thought.

That really leaves the only effective vehicle for making money in the stock market picking solid companies that are undervalued.  Tech stocks are especially good for this; the thing about NYC types and PhD folks is that they’re not particularly good at identifying good companies.  Yes, they make money selling companies’ stock to their clients, but they come up with long bullshit reports that they charge over $100 for that just basically say how every company in a sector is worth buying.  However, if you know your tech, or you know the zeitgeist about a company, you can still stand to get a triple-bagger on a stock (triples from the price you bought at).  Long-term investing, in my opinion, is dead.  The market is set up to scam you unless there’s a major regulatory overhaul.

Anyway.  Surely there are many people who were working in NYC because of connections, hook-ups, etc. and they don’t have the goods to keep doing it.  But I bet many of the financial class either have merit-based wealth (good skills either in smooth-talking or in quant models) or status-based wealth (being born into east-coast privilege), a dichotomy discussed in John Clippinger‘s “A Crowd of One”.  In other words, they did not lose their money and leave town.  This wasn’t like the Great Depression, where people ended up leaving the cities and going back to their family farming traditions or joining the military.

Sadly, the military adventure continues.  Afghanistan now looks a lot like Iraq a few years ago.  Soldiers are still dying and money is being wasted.  To Obama’s credit, we are now pressing into the Taliban as we always should have been doing, and Robert Gates seems to be a responsible steward of the armed forces.  But the inertia of occupation still continues forth and it’s only those Americans who give a damn and enlist who seem to be paying the price.

The rest of America goes on as usual.  Unemployment is higher, for sure.  This could end up being a large problem, especially since I view those lost jobs as jobs that will never return — the high velocity of job destruction and creation requires adaptability, quick learning, and higher and higher levels of education…qualities that the American innovation and education systems are no longer producing in any citizens except wired kids, who are doing all that learning outside of the system anyway.

The fact that America and the rest of the world are still pumping away and doing okay must be because the world is just awash in money.  There are far too many people you or I or anyone can name who do not seem to have earned their money or their ease of life.  Deals that are completely nonsensical still seem to happen.  People make careers out of nothing more than proposing meetings that never happen.  Job hiring, as I’ve talked about a lot lately, is a complete farce of a system, an inane game that we all have to play.

My own impression of venture capital is that it’s become extremely risk averse and dumb money.  There are some cool angel firm ideas, seeding start-ups with a little money and lots of training.  But look at the trash they are producing.  Some incremental improvement on video watching.  Some tiny adjustment to file sharing.  Did Twitter come out of one of these programs?  No, and it never would:  it had no financial model (if you’re unimaginative, anyway, like most people) and it took a while to catch on.  As it turns out, Twitter is a massively open platform for innovation.  How do you put a valuation on that, exactly, using today’s financial models?  You can’t.  That’s why vencap and angel insistence on financial modeling is so retarded.

If the world is awash in money, why are there so many poor?  Amartya Sen intimates that there are no longer food shortages worldwide, just rationing.  More specifically, he says that no democracy has ever had a famine.  In other words, when food is allocated at least somewhat responsibly and with a conscience towards those who need it, there is enough of it.

The fact that people are poor, hungry, weak, sick, etc. has, in the past, been because of material shortages.  But now it seems as though poverty exists because of socio-political power structures.  Clientelism, warlordism, authoritarianism:  these are the systems that withhold from those who need resources to survive.

The American Republican party itself has become a curious modern system bordering on clientelism but within a democratic system.  Made up of a steeply declining older white male base of paternals, the Republicans have somehow convinced even the poor that cutting taxes, reducing responsibilities and ties to the government, and getting more privileges in society will somehow benefit everyone.  That Republicans immediately think of government as being 100% inept, refuse to pay more taxes to help out fellow Americans (even when more accountability and transparency has been promised, under Obama’s Gov2.0 plans), and yet still claim themselves to be the most patriotic Americans is absurd.  That poor, disenfranchised white people go along with it is even worse.  You have people who have never been rich before advocating that Goldman Sachs plunderers and profiteers MUST receive higher and higher bonuses in order for them to be sufficiently motivated to work at all.  What the heck?

The Republicans have successfully blended Friedman/Reagan trickle-down economics with moral conservatism — highly successful for recruiting, but only if you’re white, old, and usually rich.  No one takes them seriously in financial conservatism anymore, their having been responsible for ballooning the national deficit in the name of security.  Sadly, fiscal conservatism is probably one of their strongest platforms.  That they abandoned it gives you some idea of how defunct their party is.  Perhaps one of the biggest flaws was assuming that the “invisible hand” is naturally benevolent.  Incentives can, at some level, often be predictable, and that’s where economists and public policy people would be important for identifying where the market will exploit resources and prices to make a lot of money.  The proof of this most recently was in the financial crisis, which resulted from the market splendidly moving away from regulated areas into shadow pools through hedge funds, cascading collateralized debt obligations and packaged mortgages on top of each other.  The market did exactly what it was allowed to do.  But that impulse is not always used for good.  Does that not imply a need for government checks and balances upon ravenous capitalist incentive?

So the US needs a jumpstart to get its innovation pipeline going again.  China and India and other countries are hungrier than we are.  They want success more than we do.  And they are at least attempting to modify their education, technology, innovation, legal, and health care systems to get success.

We, meanwhile, are plodding along with a broken health care bill.  Health care is a massive taboo subject in the US and, as I’m interested in reading about lately, anywhere where there’s a taboo, there’s some deep-seated cultural issue that is a dangerous setback for that culture’s competitiveness and advancement within the international community.

Fortunately we have smart people assessing our national broadband plan (Obama has picked some great tech guys and has enlisted the Harvard Berkman Center to look at broadband).  Combined with a great secretary of education, a new CIO, et al, the US should start to pick up again in another 5 years after the investments in basic research and education start to kick in…or at least the promise of them.  The force multipliers of these basic investments will be greatly increased if Obama is elected to a second term.  I can only hope.

The Republicans see anyone in government as being inept and unable to control costs or execute even the most basic project (as David Brooks pointed out recently, this is partially true).  But what is the proposed solution?  Radical privatization?  Are we supposed to trust the “invisible hand” of the markets to manage complex human health care problems or educational pipelines?  The problem with the libertarian viewpoint is that it seems to not take much interest in HOW you actually make people healthier, or make people smarter.  You just let the market do it.  But SOMEONE has to know these things, whether it’s a government or a private company established to do that task.  In a democratic system, citizens are the deciders of how those things are done, so it is their responsibility to become better educated about their mission.  A private company’s sole task is to make money, and combined with profiteering hit-and-run executives, there is little incentive to act with accountability — unless government puts legal safeguards on it to keep it from running off the rails.  For all their talk of incentives, Republicans can be pretty selective in how they decide to employ them.

I see the US government in today’s massively complex world as being a gardener of a national ecosystem.  The libertarians are right that a government with no incentives to cut costs will use its bottomless pockets to buy influence.  But conservatives and libertarians are wrong that government cannot play a role.  It seems anti-competitive to suggest that only private companies should be the sole provider of all goods and services and public space.  The truth is that companies provide excellent goods and services, but only with intense competition.  The truth is that companies are HORRIBLE at providing public space, because giving something away is not part of their incentives.  As Naomi Klein points out, a public square lets you protest and assemble, whereas you can’t even run a camera at a shopping mall because it’s private property, let alone pass out flyers or collect petitions.

So it seems simple-minded now to not talk about an ecosystem where public companies, private companies, the government, non-government non-profits, unions, and community networks all work in the same space with and against each other.  The competitiveness imperative must be extended from not just providing good and services but to also providing public space, social capital, and public capital.

The only factor that has mitigated the lack of such space and capital has been the internet.  Its realm of free speech and free time/space has led to places for minorities and youths and fringe movements to experiment and organize.  It is no secret that social networking has exploded online, while a privatized “meatspace” has become deathly quiet in terms of social capital, as Robert Putnam’s famous “Bowling Alone” book described, with the death of American civic life.

The people who created the building blocks for the internet should be recognized for their massive contribution to society and for bringing an end to a pretty savage era of radical privatization.

The internet and computing have driven storage and connection costs down rapidly, killing many industries and incumbents except those with the power to lobby our old, white Congressmen (i.e. the telcos and “entertainment” labels).  One of the only correct things Tom Friedman wrote about was how the internet, combined with globalization, led to a massive networking of human effort worldwide.

If you are to look forward, it is getting to the point where there are not many shortages left in the world to limit human progress.  I already discussed money — I do not see money as something there’s a shortage of in the world anymore.  Aggregate time is no longer a shortage.  People can be more productive with better online tools, and they are also watching less TV.  As Clay Shirky hints at, this means there’s a lot of surplus time out there now, although it’s up to us to figure out how we want to distribute that time.  Food (energy) is no longer a shortage — while we do it incredibly wastefully and unsustainably, we have figured out how to have more obese people in the world than starving.  There is not exactly a shortage of energy inputs either — “peak oil” seems highly dubious compared to when we will drastically reduce petroleum consumption, while the sun provides easily enough power to provide to the entire world.  If we just knew how to harness it properly.

We can expect processing power and time and storage to continue to plummet.  The cloud online will allow us to build holy grids of collaborative supercomputers, eventually perhaps providing a platform in which we can upload ourselves, the digital singularity.  At that point, it will be interesting to see which people stay and which people “go”.  Who will maintain the systems that keep the internet going so that we may live digitally forever?  When will that question cease to be relevant?

There is, right now, a significant limitation in one area of electronics that has hindered all othes:  energy storage.  It affects what kinds of cellphones we can use (a G1 barely lasts a day with background apps and GPS on), the miniaturization we can achieve with smarter devices, the distance our devices can be from plugs, and so on.

I was using a lot of electronics gear while I was in the Army.  Our equipment could operate off standard power, but it could also run off batteries if we were in the field.  But these batteries seemed to weigh 1-2lbs each, and we needed to replace them maybe once a day.  So if we were on a mission, we might need to carry 7-14 extra lbs of batteries, plus spares.  On top of our other gear.  Batteries just haven’t miniaturized like everything else in an electronic gadget has.  This is holding us back tremendously.  At the very least, we are starting to use RFID chips that are activated briefly by being stimulated by electrical interfaces like at metro stations.

The good news is that Obama has put $2 billion into manufacturing and research for battery technologies.  Even that has a wrinkle, according to the “Breakthrough team”, quoted in a NYTimes blog post:  if money is diverted into deployment, it will take away from basic R&D:

“The Breakthrough team warns that while deployment of today’s technologies is vital, if money for deployment is included in the $150-billion pie, that dangerously reduces the amount of money for laboratories pursuing vital advances on photovoltaics or energy storage and for big tests of technologies that must be demonstrated at large scale — like capturing carbon dioxide from power plants.”

Our inability to localize energy storage has meant that concentrated power has been the name of the game — it is the same for wifi right now, but WiMAX will make that issue obsolete.

So eventually there will be at least one valuable resource which is always limited and finite and definitive of our cultures and personalities:  individual time.  We will only have 24 hours in a day.  If our brains can handle more than one task at a time, our bodies can’t.  We still require sleep, eating, drinking, education, socialization, play, etc.  What’s more, we love to take part in those things, even so far as to do it alone or with others, whichever we have the opportunity to take part in.

What becomes most valuable to us, on an individual level, is whatever we spend our time doing.  And the chances are that it will be interacting with each other, or building things, or being creative, or relaxing.  These, as they should be, will be the most valuable things we both seek and trade and sell and share.  Time will dominate as a currency.

To some degree this is already occurring.  There are a lot of poor people willing to work for next to nothing, and their active time is being used abusively to produce stuff so we don’t have to.  We develop a product and market it and then buy and sell it, but it’s the poor people who put in the hard labor.

I’m not sure this human tendency to exploit the weak and poor will change on its own — certainly not under capitalist impulses.  Perhaps robots could take their place, ultimately becoming more productive than humans, who require food and water and sleep.  This is why some scifi people dwell so much on what happens when the robots decide they’ve had enough with us treating them like slaves.  Less a Terminator outcome than an I, Robot outcome.

The Pope released an encyclical which discussed globalization and economics at length.  I think his emphasis on helping the poor makes a great deal of sense; only through humanity’s constant effort will the number of poor be reduced.  We’re obviously not sure how that is to be done yet — but I think the development economists on the cutting edge who suggest that it has to do with leadership in government and power mainly, but then reinforced by all the other stuff:  human capital, good governance, nutrition and health, girl’s education, non-intervention, etc., are going to figure it out.

I’m not pushing for paternalistic top-down programs by any means, even if I’m talking about strong government leaders and a Catholic papacy.  Certainly I feel I’m as entrepreneurial as they come, wanting to build a massive reputation and identity platform and make big bucks from it, along with fame.  But it has a not-for-profit data-protecting component as well, and I am after all a product of mostly public institutions (public high school, UT Austin, the Army) until I went to a private institution (which is heavily influenced by Catholic Jesuit values).  I have benefited from a healthy blend of so many different structures and organizations, to include a multi-racial lineage and multiple nationalities among my family and friends, that I can hardly avoid seeing the world as REQUIRING a flourishing ecosystem of diversity and intense competition that also provides for learning and apprenticing and mentoring and teaching.

So at some point I’m looking to bring the international development component of my studies back in to my career.  But more and more this is looking like I’ll have to apply development theory to my own country, as it struggles to balance its technological and entrepreneurial bents along with entrenched and powerful radical corporatism, along with a declining propensity to seek bold policy overhauls where it needs it (education, health care).

To me, the economics of our world system demand that the most important future input will be education from low-level grade school all the way to advanced studies.  The effects of technology upon society and economics have been pervasive and profound, and in order for us to continue making breakthroughs, we’re going to need more and more advanced understanding to reach even basic levels of academic research in tomorrow’s future areas:  solar, nano, genetic modification, quantum-level, as well as reputation and forgetting/forgiving, identity, cultural anthropology, ecosystem gardening/curating, gift economics, happiness economics, etc.

The US, being so heavily reliant on its entrepreneurial technology, should be even more concerned in building up its education pipeline than any other country on the planet, because technology and risk is the US lifeblood.  So I feel as though any efforts I make in the future will have to incorporate policy and private incentives towards education.

These are my first few stabs at understanding what my career will ultimately look like, but I see them in line with the needs of the country, the trends of technology, and the progress of social demographics.  It’s kind of exciting, don’t you think?

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Ticket Re-Sellers and Scalpers

Trent Reznor wrote a post on his Nine Inch Nails (NIN) forum about re-sellers and scalpers of concert tickets.  In it, he discusses the motivations for TicketMaster to encourage the secondary market for tickets, which leads to scalpers poaching tickets and re-selling to customers at huge mark-ups and at huge inconvenience to them.

As I’m sure you’re familiar with, event ticket purchasing is a scam, the bigger the event is.  Smaller events use an online purchasing framework and charge a usage fee, which you’re somewhat willing to pay because event organizers don’t have the infrastructure to go around middlemen.  But as events get larger, the more likely they’re swept up into TicketMaster’s orbit.  TicketMaster is tightly coupled with the physical venues where events are held, and thus they can control all distribution, access, and promotion.

If someone were so inclined, this subject would probably make for an excellent muck-raking book.  I certainly don’t understand the business and economics behind it but I think most of us can intuit what’s going on behind the scenes.

So Reznor, who put his last album up on his web site for free under a Creative Commons license, and who put his album with Saul Williams up for $5, is pissed off with the music industry labels and monopolists.

And it’s fair to say that most of us are too.  I have not been to many concerts in my life.  The sort of ninja moves you need to obtain tickets are not in my repertoire.  People fight over a small pool of tickets released online at a known time, crushing servers in the process.  Tickets are sold out in minutes.  This certainly incentivizes certain people to game the system, knowing they can re-sell the tickets at a mark-up that companies like TicketMaster benefit from (especially since they apparently own re-sellers, according to Reznor’s post).

TicketMaster is pushing a future of auctions, but this is still a closed system, so essentially all it’s doing is creating more profit for them while letting us see just how much we’re getting screwed in a public arena.

So I just skip out on concerts.  Some bands just plain suck live, anyway.  So the variables required for me to find a concert I can get tickets to while also enjoying and making sure my friends can all go too are too much for me.  I just give up.

Right now with the advent of internet collaboration (through web 2.0/web 3.0 tools) and the success of the change.org movement, a bunch of people are looking to organize to solve systemic problems that have existed since before most of them were born.  A lot of problems were created in the 50’s and 60’s and were institutionalized in people like in my generation:  we grew up buying CDs from Columbia House and seeing a newspaper on our front lawn and watching junk food ads in between our Saturday morning cartoons.  The next generation won’t even know what I’m talking about.

It’s quite amazing to see the problem-solvers approach every entrenched, fucked-up problem out there.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I’m finally reading now, discusses our culture of corn and petroleum.  So people are trying to figure out how to wean our culture off the industrial food complex.

Electricity, oil, and cars go hand-in-hand.  They have promised us cheap solutions but those solutions are going to be far less palatable very quickly.  So people are now excited about solar energy, sustainable living, electric cars, the smart grid, and radically new forms of housing and energy usage to break away from the cartels.

American politics has become somewhat frozen — the Democrats and Republicans for a while became clients to Bush’s administration, both differing very little and unwilling to break too far from what the elite thought was.  So people voted in a candidate using web sites and community organization and grassroots initiatives.  That energy is now being put into transparency and collaboration tools for monitoring the government, and insurgents within Obama’s administration are now wanting to push government data out to the public, after Cheney’s attempt to classify everything.

Universities pay exhorbitant license fees for software and administration tools.  But MIT just decided to open up its scholarly articles for free while people like Kevin Donovan and CNDLS at Georgetown are pushing free tools and OpenCourseWare as alternatives.

Cellphones are notoriously tying together handsets, access providers, spectrum control, and software in the United States.  It’s a very restrictive model.  Google, while out to make a profit, is now testing the limits of the incumbent system with Android, its fairly open system that will work across devices.

Then there’s the busting of cable TV and the advent of online content streaming…  And new journalism models…  And more and more and more.  Information is being distributed faster than organizations can lock it down.  So what’s going on is a war.  And we’re winning.  All these shitty businesses that exist by locking people into a closet and abusing them are now being blown apart by the internet and by peoples’ sharing of ideas.  Facilitated by a brutal economic and financial crisis that no one can avoid.

Concerts are another battleground.  Why can’t music artists successfully organize against companies like TicketMaster?  If more of them worked like Reznor does, eschewing contracts and the desire to maximize profit without any of the negative effects of current ticket-selling schemes, then they could quickly tip the balance.  Wikipedia’s “Ticket resale” page lists alternatives.

Lottery…  Have a period of time where anyone can offer to purchase tickets.  But then winners are randomly selected.  This allows anyone a chance to get in.  Tie it to credit cards.

Authentication…  Print out names and photos on tickets, then verify at the gates.

Float prices…  Obviously some people will pay more.  Let them pay for the front seats, fine.  Float the front-row prices but make everything else lottery.

Distribution…  Must be combined with floating prices.  Bands should see concert tours as a way to promote their brand, not just make a shitload of money from each appearance.  That is, internet stream the concert to all those who couldn’t make it to the venue.  Bands may not want this kind of accountability though, to be judged by the same online viewers through each performance every other night.  But that drives up incentives to produce quality while maximizing potential future customers of your band’s music and product.

Venues…  Venues need the big acts to make revenue.  What if all these abandoned stores and buildings were turned into cheap venues themselves? (they’re already being filled with churches, libraries, and other public centers)  Then you don’t need the mid-size venues anymore.

It’s a war.  A war on the middlemen who begin to enjoy their cut a little too much and try to grow it.  A war on the people who act as gatekeepers between content and consumer.  It’s a war they are going to lose.

The Great Disruption is going to destroy the old infrastructure and build a sustainable infrastructure in its place, one that links value directly with those willing to pay for it.  In time, the middlemen will be back in new forms, but for now, the internet is giving us infinite tools to take control of our lives back.

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Filed under Business, Internet, Music, Tech

Future of Web Apps, Miami, 2009

Back last semester, I decided to pony up the resources to travel to Miami to attend the Future of Web Apps conference run by Ryan Carson’s Carsonified.  The ticket cost $200 for just the conference day (the workshop day was on the prior day but cost quite a bit).  It ended up that I had to skip two classes in order to arrive on Monday, get settled in, and make it in time the next morning on Tuesday for the lectures to begin.

So I decided to book a night at South Beach hostel, having learned from my Australia trip never to stay in a hotel if I’m by myself or with a buddy.  It cost only $15/night in Miami Beach, which was across the causeway from where the conference venue was.

Took a shuttle from MIA airport (which is nowhere near as cool as Ft. Lauderdale).  I’m sure there’s a cheaper way to get into town but it sure is a pain in the ass.  Nothing like going to Reagan National from Georgetown…which is a shuttle and a metro ride away, very conveniently.

The hostel was awesome.  Reviews on online hostel sites complained about the recent construction but I didn’t think it was as bad by the time I got there.  I had an 8-person co-ed dorm room.  There were only like 5 of us in there though.

The great thing about hostels is that everyone’s there to hang out and they’re from all over.  One person I met is a forensic linguist in grad school.  His friend is a masseuse from up north.  Another roommate didn’t speak English and I can only assume she was shy and Scandinavian.

I ended up only checking the beach nearby out for a little bit since it was overcast and a little chilly.  Met up with a friend of mine and ate at a cool Cuban joint down the street called Puerto Sagua, a low-key, family-style place with great food that a Miamian at Georgetown recommended to me.  I got the bistec de Palomilla, also on her recommendation, to go with plantains.

After that, I went back to the hostel and ended up hanging out the rest of the night in the lounge/bar area that had a pool table and a great vibe.  My roommates and I played pool and shot the shit until late.

So much more value in a $15 hostel than in a $100+ hotel room, for sure.  If you don’t mind communal bathrooms and bunk beds.

The next morning I checked out and took the public bus across the causeway.  Checked in.

Jason Fried began the day.  He heads up 37signals, a cool company that sells project management web app services like Basecamp and Backpack.

This company is interesting because they keep a small staff and have varied ways of distributing and charging for their products.  Their book, “Getting Real”, is excellent and is available to read free online, but pay if you want a PDF or physical book.  Basecamp lets you run a small project off it but for more features and access, you subscribe.

Fried set the tone early in his talk by contradicting popular startup notions.  For one, he said startups should not see failure as something to be proud of, as many entrepreneurs do.  You should learn from all the small successes you make, not the big failure or big successes.  That is, how did you win these clients?  How did you identify this target base to go after, leading to increased sales?  The small things you learn through experience and not through books or blogs.

Fried said that the oil and lumber industries learned to turn their waste into more successful products.  Sawing wood produced sawdust and wood chips, that became marketable.  Oil by-products allowed for plastics.  So startups should find ways to use the by-products and waste of their main projects to see if they can turn in to products of their own.  I think Basecamp was a result of 37signals needed a project management suite to run their interior operations, for example.

Fried also said he doesn’t believe in giving your service away.  The relationship between a company and a paying customer is key — Fried noted examples of companies that got bought out and then ceased to operate, partially because they had no more responsibility for their users.  This contradicts the belief in advertising and radical freemiumism that is popular now among startups.  Fried believes people will pay for a product they love.

And finally Fried said that if you’re going to hire for a position, you need to know how to do that position in some capacity first.  Else, how would you know what to hire for and who to get?  Are you going to just let HR take over?  What does your business need?  How can you give orders to someone if you don’t know what he does?

So I really liked Fried’s lecture.  He tells you what you don’t want to hear:  charge for your product instead of try to build users first.  He questions assumptions.  He has a good product.

Ben Galbraith of Mozilla and Dion Almaer formerly of Google spoke about four changes coming down the pipe for browsers.  They likened the switch to when AJAX came out in terms of how our web site experience changed.

They talked about Web Workers, which is similar to Google Gears in that it takes scripts out of the browser, which can only really handle one script at a time, and can poll them when needed.  This allows for thread-like browser operation.

They also extolled the virtues of Canvas, which lets you (I assume) create in-browser Javascriptish 3D interfaces using the HTML standard.  So, think gaming. (what is Quake Live using?)

Then they talked about increased rendering capability in the browsers due to optimization, which will mean web apps will respond far faster and allow for things like Photoshop through the web.  And finally they brought up how something like Ubiquity can make browsing a more natural experience for you than “click to go to destination” and have content that doesn’t ever match you.   It’s somewhat like a command line for the web.  An implication of all this is that web apps will be readily converted into native apps as needed.  As Al3x of Twitter said, “They could rename the “Future of Web Apps” conference to “Past of Desktop Apps”. I still wouldn’t go, but they could.”

So our user experience with the web is going to fundamentally change yet again.

Joe Stump of Digg was interesting because he talked about keeping his developer teams small enough in essentially military-squad sizes of 5-6, even if there are far more developers than that.  It keeps them in the loop with each other.  Stump also advocated any project using a code repository and keeping a consistent documentation style, along with e-mail addresses to claim blocks of code.  Stump says developers are meant to be lazy…they know they can automate something with code so they don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Aza Raskin talked about Mozilla Weave — your “state” follows you from desktop to cellphone, as an example.  He calls for Tabs 2.0, a breakthrough in our still clunky tab management as many of us keep 10+ tabs open in our browsers now.

Dave Morin and Josh Elman promoted their company, Facebook, with Facebook Connect, which looks like Facebook is now allowing you to link any site to your vast (hopefully) Facebook friend network/social graph, thus immediately populating a new account with any of your friends also on the service.  This is a great change from the past where friend networks on each site take ages to develop.

The implications for what Facebook is doing are staggering.  They are creating a massive data feed of your social graph so you can employ your friends in participating in your life, your causes, etc.  At the same time, Facebook will eventually start letting you promote products to your friends (Beacon) across various networks, bringing in serious cash.  All this while we spend hours doing social grooming on Facebook with our friends, sharing more and more content with less and less concern about privacy.

It’s no wonder Facebook is taking over in countries all over the world, even against steadfast competition.

FOWA did this lameass panel on diversity on the speaker tour at one point.  It was good to see Chris Messina up there, a huge advocate for OpenID and also pushing for co-worker, providing shared spaces for people to be creative…  Kristina Halverson was also on the panel, after giving what was really a pretty boring speech on creating good copy.  Halverson was complaining about the lack of women at the conference and speaking on stage.  Wow, really?  You mean at a coder/developer conference, there aren’t many women?

I agree that there are awesome female coders and women working in Web 2.0.  Fine, great.  And to be honest some of them are more famous than most of the men…  So why aren’t they speaking?

Maybe specifically finding women to speak is something to keep in mind for the conference, but how about just finding entertaining, informative people?  It’s only a day of talks.

If you want to talk about gender equality and inclusivity, the conversation should be around earlier programs to get kids into engineering and math and science.  The rest of the fucking argument is moot.  Coders don’t disrespect women…they want to work with whomever can get the job done.

After a brief lunch there was a Phizzpop contest.  The first team of three guys created a Kiva-like funding site for space research.  It had a great Flash interface, funny video, good presentation.  These guys couldn’t have been very old.  The second team was made up of these old guys and their presentation was flat.  Wiry, blocky graphics, no coherent business strategy or model, trying to get astronauts and Twitterers to talk and share photos in space?  The presenter was horrible and said nothing of value.  The first team won, no contest!

One thing I think is interesting is how pro the web community is with slideshows.  If you’ve ever seen a military PPT or business PPT, you know how BORING they are.  300 slides of 100 words per slide.  Miserable…no fun.

But you get startup and web people, who are so used to pitching ideas and having fun, and you get these slick, fast-moving presentations that are engaging and interesting.  Something cool I noticed.

Joel Spoelsky gave a great talk on how he thinks attracting talent is the main aspect you should focus on.  Don’t skimp on the code or you’ll get a skimpy product.  To get great talent, pay up for it.  And buy good equipment for them, like adjustable desks and Herman Miller chairs.  Give the developers private offices around the business floor so they minimize distractions.  Developers die with every interruption; they need privacy to store lots of variables and thoughts in their short-term memory while coding.  Leave them be.  Only have meetings right after lunch to minimize distraction periods.  Coders only need to feed once a workday.  Closed door means no talkie.  Have a team lunch every day in the office’s kitchen at long tables to promote a good work atmosphere.

Alex Hunter from Virgin gave my favorite talk of the day about Brand 2.0.  You could tell he’s been talking with Gary Vaynerchuk a lot because both of them are always going on about going out there and ripping it and killing it when it comes to promoting your business and engaging your customers and fans.  They’re so animated when talking about ways to engage and interact.  How do you get a consumer to love you?  Then Hunter previewed the new Virgin web site that will affect all of Richard Branson’s properties.  The site has a sort of reputation system and virtual currency and rewards you for contributing to it.  Pretty cool!  I love to see that level of interaction with the customer…  He announced that Richard Branson and Ryan Carson and Gary Vaynerchuk would be blogging on the new Virgin site.  That’s a LOT of passion right there in those names.

Makes me desire even more to have my own web startup and spend much of my day engaging customers!  That was the goal of this conference, for myself:  to get myself totally psyched to work.  As if I weren’t enough already…

After Hunter finished his great talk, I had to leave.  I caught a cab to the airport and suffered a gate change and muzak.  MIA airport really is bad.  And I missed the launch of 280atlas (interface to quickly make web apps) and Gary Vaynerchuk, who’s always hyper and always awesome.  He finished off the day and judging by the FOWA tweets, everyone was loving what he had to say.  [edit:  here’s his video] But I had a great (but brief) time, even missing all that.

Bottom line, I learned a hell of a lot, and seeing these people in person made it more personal to me.  Seth Godin would call it seeking to be part of the tribe.  I can’t afford to go to any more of these things, and I am not friends with any of the people involved yet, but perhaps that will change.  For now, though, I felt it was an awesome, informative trip for a multi-disciplinarian who’s studying international affairs and international development.  It was invaluable to see where the future of things is going.

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Mash-Up Culture is Still Young

A buddy of mine on IRC posted a YouTube video that mashes up (a phrase meaning to mix up different sources of music and video and other media into one product) drum n’ bass (dnb) music with footage from church sermons with people dancing and being overcome by religious experience and priests giving emotional sermons.  I used to listen to a lot of dnb so I enjoyed the video a lot.

These particular videos below are 3 parts of “Baptazia” called “Super Sunday”, posted on YouTube by a user named airloaf.  I don’t know much about him except for what’s on his profile.

Watch the three below:

Well done, dude! Indeed, there’s a whole slew of related videos that mash up gospel stuff with dnb. airloaf calls it “speedgospel”, but I guess it could be dnb gospel too.

It’s funny posting so many YouTube links; the “other” founder of YouTube, Jawed Karim, used to be in the IRC channel I still use to this day.

One of the more well-known mash-up artists right now is Girl Talk. The guy behind Girl Talk is mentioned quite a bit in Lawrence Lessig‘s new book about remix culture, entitled “Remix”.

Girl Talk, coincidentally, has a similar video for the new single off his album “Feed the Animals”; “Play Your Part” also uses church footage:

I don’t know who thought to put the two together, but obviously mash-up artists like using the crazy dancing in church sermons for their video bases.

Intellectual Property Law Hurting Innovation

In Lessig’s “Remix”, he talks about how intellectual property law is constricting innovation in video and music at a time when it’s possible for any individual to mash stuff up easily on their computers. The freedom we have to mash-up and remix text is what needs to happen for video and music next, but we’re a long way from that both in terms of technology and of legal protection.

The Concept of the Screen

Kevin Kelly, former editor of Wired Magazine and well-known internet visionary, recently published an article in the New York Times Magazine about “screen literacy”. Kelly makes similar points to Lessig, saying that we have already achieved “text literacy”, freely cutting and pasting text and bookmarking and Kindle-ing and quoting and referencing in papers freely. Both Lessig and Kelly point out that no one has any problem or legal disagreement with being able to quote someone else’s text without their permission, as long as attribution is made.

Kelly then goes on to say that video sharing is still in its infancy. We can’t yet really link an article about a scene from a movie to the actual scene from a high-quality feed of that movie. Says Kelly:

“With true screen fluency, I’d be able to cite specific frames of a film, or specific items in a frame. Perhaps I am a historian interested in oriental dress, and I want to refer to a fez worn by someone in the movie “Casablanca.” I should be able to refer to the fez itself (and not the head it is on) by linking to its image as it “moves” across many frames, just as I can easily link to a printed reference of the fez in text. Or even better, I’d like to annotate the fez in the film with other film clips of fezzes as references.”

Kelly then closes his article as follows:

“With our fingers we will drag objects out of films and cast them in our own movies. A click of our phone camera will capture a landscape, then display its history, which we can use to annotate the image. Text, sound, motion will continue to merge into a single intermedia as they flow through the always-on network. With the assistance of screen fluency tools we might even be able to summon up realistic fantasies spontaneously. Standing before a screen, we could create the visual image of a turquoise rose, glistening with dew, poised in a trim ruby vase, as fast as we could write these words. If we were truly screen literate, maybe even faster. And that is just the opening scene.”

The Four Screens

Interestingly, Nokia has been doing a lot of hardcore research into the future.  It employs the now well-known (as the result of an inspiring NYTimes article from April of this year) Jan Chipchase as an anthropologist who goes out and studies how people use cellphones or how they build solutions to everyday problems.

Nokia also published a video called “The Fourth Screen”, about how cell phones are a fourth screen of history that are just beginning to revolutionize our world:

Nokia argues that the moving picture or movie was the first screen we ever used.  It was a public meeting place-type viewing experience.  The second screen was the TV, which allowed us to stay in our homes.  The third screen was the computer screen and internet, which let us share with each other again, but still from our homes.

And now there’s the fourth screen, the mobile phone, that lets us go out and be social again, while still having the power of the internet and digital communication with us.

It is interesting to think about this only being the beginning.  In many ways we consider technology to have a predictable path now.  We have cellphones, and okay, maybe they will be a little faster on the internet and have better cameras soon.  But do we really imagine much more?

Nokia and more international development-oriented organizations (Grameenphone, etc.) think that cellphones can do a lot for poor people.  A lot’s been written on the topic.  But how will humankind interact and mash things up once technology is freed from the tyranny of the literate towards video and music, which even the illiterate and uneducated can relate with?  What will happen when we can search videos with the same relative ease as we can with text on Google?

It’s still too difficult.  I’ve been messing with ACID (audio editing) and Final Cut Pro (movie editing) and it takes a long time and it’s hard to get all the different file formats from different media under one roof.  You have to use the tools a lot to learn how to mix up the content well.  I just made a mixtape for a Christmas gift, under a silly pseudonym I like to use, DJ Industrial Average (for DJIA, the acronym for the Dow Jones index), and the quality of my mixing was poor, given especially that it took me many hours to do it.

So there’s still lots of work to be done before everyone can use this stuff.  But the flood is coming.

More on Girl Talk

To conclude this post, I’ll leave you with some more mashed up YouTube videos, this time using Girl Talk’s blend of 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s music with their accompanying music videos.  Make sure to watch all 14 parts, which are not all from one user as YouTube is probably removing them gradually for copyright infringement (sadly).

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