Proverbs for the Future

Anne Herbert was a gifted writer who edited CoEvolution Quarterly (the periodic magazine of the Whole Earth Catalog) before I did in the early 1980s. We never worked together, or were close friends, but I really dug her writing. It was telegraphic, lyrical, abbreviated, evocative, extremely personal and mystical.  She wrote in short bursts. Like proverbs from a secret bible. Brian Eno noticed her stuff works really well on t-shirts. It was not like any writing I had encountered.  (She came up with the phrase "practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty" which later became a meme.) Readers loved her; but publishers did not get her.

After one book of her work that sank on the marketplace, she disappeared in the mid 1980s and never published again even in magazines. I often wondered about her. She was decades ahead of her time. I always thought her stuff was perfect for blogs and twitter. But after 1990 no one I knew had seen her.

Recently I discovered that she is still going, still writing and that she has a weekly blog! In fact she has been blogging since 2005! I've been reading her online recently although she doesn't know it. She's as good as ever. She is the epitome blog/twitter writer IMHO. It turned out she had been broadcasting 140 character tweets and bursty blog postings long before either media existed.

I love her sensibility. You might too.

Some recent samples. These are not cut or edited. These are the entire entry.

Do less; have less; be more.


Flawedness is the only option. I disagree, but there it is. I don't know how to deal with flawedness in myself or others. Now, that's a flaw.


Music fans are more likely than musicians to love the kind of music they love and disdain other kinds.

Musicians are more likely to love music as a group and to be riveted by at least one kind of music their fans feel is wrong, so very wrong.


Renata Adler was a New York Times movie critic who brought to the job the gift of not being particularly fond of movies as an art form. She almost didn't like them as a group.

This gave her access to general insights less available to lovers of the form.

She said you can't make an anti-war movie because film always says yes to what it shows.


Sometimes the people who invent things and the people who find out what things are for are different people.


Someone who has been deeply wounded must be deeply healed.


I twist myself into a pretzel to believe the story, the official story of some group I like, to stay inside a "we" I want. Not much nutritional value.


I might have to cry for a hundred thousand years. Or maybe an accurate laugh would do some of the same work.


While I'm thinking about this problem, what is the part I am skittering away from?


All that room inside a minute, all those seconds, hundredths of a second. All those nanoseconds, and here comes another minute, moving and spacious.


Effective Apology Skills

One of the essential skills in life is learning how to apologize with grace and honesty. For real. A genuine apology can move mountains.

We expect character from corporations even though they are not people, but when business do behave like upstanding people, we notice. Amazon did a silly thing recently by disabling books that they mistakenly sold on the Kindle. Founder Jeff Bezos just posted an apology that raised him two notches on my Buddha scale. It takes courage and wisdom to apologize as genuine and effectively as his did. Man, he is good.

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our "solution" to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

With deep apology to our customers,

Jeff Bezos

Bezos With Kindle Dx 763


The Long Book

Good things can be done over long times. Oxford University, with its multi-century history and perspective, is one of the few institutions to support very long-term projects. Oxford University Press will this year release a book that has taken almost 45 years to finish. It's the world's largest thesaurus -- and includes almost the entire vocabulary of English.  The project was begun in 1965. (Thanks, Joe Stirt)

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According to the BBC report:

The work was nearly destroyed in a fire in 1978, but despite the building being gutted, a metal filing cabinet protected the files. A spokesman said the final tome would contain over 230,000 categories with 800,000 meanings. The thesaurus was nearly completed in 1980, but the team decided to include words from updated versions of the Oxford English Dictionary. This added almost 30 years more work to the project.
One wonders what other kinds of things could we do if we were willing to devote half a century to it?

According to Oxford U Press the book features:
You can preorder the "Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary: With Additional Material from A Thesaurus of Old English" at Amazon for $316.

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Five Unstoppables

An unstoppable is a trend or entity with so much forward momentum, centrality, and success that it seems unstoppable. I don't mean "too big to fail" I mean too unstoppable to stop.

Yet, eventually every unstoppable slows down, even if they don't vanish, and they usually don't. (Unlike the "too big to fails.") How are unstoppables stopped? I recall how hard it was to imagine how unstoppable Japan would be stopped in the 1990s? Real estate was not mentioned. It is always hard to imagine how any great power declines while it is at its peak. But all will.

I see five "unstoppables" reigning in popular imagination now. 

Google, China, the Singularity, Moore's Law, and the US.

Recently a few contrarians have taken a stab at how the US might fall apart, as mentioned previously. Here's a recent not very convincing argument against Moore's Law continuing much beyond 2014. Vernor Vinge himself fashioned four arguments against his singularity thesis (that is greatness!). There's a few arguments against China. This one in Foreign Policy has some good points, but I find myself not persuaded for some reason. Excerpts:


For complex reasons, China's rise has inspired fear and unease, not enthusiasm, among Asians. Only 10 percent of Japanese, 21 percent of South Koreans, and 27 percent of Indonesians surveyed by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs said they would be comfortable with China being the future leader of Asia.

Another, perhaps more important, reason for the enduring American preeminence in Asia is that most countries in the region welcome Washington as the guarantor of Asia's peace. Asian elites from New Delhi to Tokyo continue to count on Uncle Sam to keep a watchful eye on Beijing.

China appears to have done much better in these areas. But appearances can be deceiving. Dictatorships are good at concealing the problems they create while democracy is good at advertising its defects.

I'd love to see a good set of believable scenarios on how Google eventually gets sidelined.


How to Get People to Pay

Figuring how to make money in freeconomics is the challenge of our times. While the free is always an option (that is the point of Technology Wants to Be Free and Chris Anderson's new book "Free: The Future of a Radical Price"), free is NOT the only option. Sometimes the best way make money is to actually charge fans for what you produce. Dan Cook who is flash game developer has written an amazingly comprehensive and level-headed outline of the options available for creators. I think his guidelines work not just for gamers but for photographers, musicians, software programmers, authors and anyone else producing in the digital economy. It is brilliant, honest, wise.

I think this tutorial the best thing on the digital economics since Better Than Free.

Picture 22

Dan says:

When you design your game, pick three or four revenue streams and build them into your game.  Here are some categories of users that you may want keep covered.


Innovative Publishing Model


I like this experimental book publishing model. Print 200 copies of a book in hard cover. Sell with "free" shipping. Then make the rest of the copies free as a downloadable PDF.  I missed getting one of the limited edition 200 ($9, postage paid), since they sold out in 8 hours. It really doesn't matter what's in the book. The model is brilliant, if you have an audience. The scarce limited edition of the physical subsidizes the distribution of the unlimited free intangible.

Here is what their website says:

We'll post a PDF online, free for everyone—but only after we sell this run of 200 real, physical objects. So think of it this way: You're not just buying a thought-provoking, take-it-to-the-coffee-shop book for yourself. You're buying access for everybody. You're a patron of the new liberal arts!

As it happens, the PDF reveals that the content is pretty thin. But it did not have to be. Their premise is great (the new literacies), and their biz model innovative. We can hope they try again.  I am impressed enough with the experiment to use this model on my next self-published book.


Investigative journalism by amateurs

Will bloggers ever go to the same lengths that professional journalists do to get a good story? I mean, without a payroll? Newspapers claim it will never happen.

Sometimes it will. The following is a wonderful case where very passionate fans did their own amazing science and investigative research worthy of any national newspaper or world-class magazine.  The story is about whether vegan resturants in LA are truly vegan, but the larger story is how deep and thorough their investigation was. I'd be curious to know where they learned their skills.

Oh, if you are a vegan (or even a vegatarian) you'll want to read this.

Operation Pancake.


UPDATE: Avi Solomon suggested another in-depth investigative report generated outside of professional journalists. Three students from Singapore created this very impressive long-form article, with photos, of Surrogate Motherhood in India, "the ultimate outsourcing job."


Vanishing Muslims and the Shift to Africa

There's much news in this startling piece on unexpected global demographic trends in The Wilson Quarterly. It suggests that a possible discontinuity in world affairs may soon arrive in the demographics of Africa. The short story:

The canonical Muslim countries of today, and the Muslim populations in Europe, are rapidly losing fertility. There will be less Muslims in these classical centers of Islam. At the same because of immigration from Eastern Europe, Old Europe is rebounding with raised fertility rates.

But Africa is going monotheist. It will become both the center of Islam's population and Christianity's.

This rich piece has such details as:

Iran is experiencing what may be one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in human history. Thirty years ago, after the shah had been driven into exile and the Islamic Republic was being established, the fertility rate was 6.5. By the turn of the century, it had dropped to 2.2. Today, at 1.7, it has collapsed to European levels.

One striking implication of this growth is that there will be a great religious revolution, as Africa becomes the home of monotheism. By midcentury, sub-Saharan Africa is likely to be the demographic center of Islam, home to as many Muslims as Asia and to far more than inhabit the Middle East. Christianity will also feel the effects of Africa’s growth. By 2025, there will be as many Christians in sub- Saharan Africa— some 640 million— as in South America. By 2050, it is almost certain that most of the world’s Christians will live in Africa. As Kenyan scholar John Mbiti writes, “The centers of the church’s universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila.”

Dogon Country3

Catholic church in Dogon, Mali, by Mark Moxon.

The article also knocks down the conventional wisdom that Chinese will remain the most populous group in the near future.

At the turn of this century, the conventional wisdom among demographers was that the population of Europe was in precipitous decline, the Islamic world was in the grip of a population explosion, and Africa’s population faced devastation by HIV/AIDS. Only a handful of scholars questioned the idea that the Chinese would outnumber all other groups for decades or even centuries to come. In fact, however, the latest UN projections suggest that China’s population, now 1.3 billion, will increase slowly through 2030 but may then be reduced to half that number by the end of the century.


Digital Recovery of Moon Images

It is very difficult to keep digital data moving forward in time. I call that movage and its hard to do. Exhibit A: "Mankind's first up-close photos of the lunar landscape have been rescued from four decades of dusty storage."

Steve Jurvetson writes:

Behind the counter of an abandoned McDonalds lie 48,000 lbs of 70mm tape the only copy of extremely high-resolution images of the moon.

Forty years ago, unmanned lunar orbiters circled the moon taking extremely high-res photos of the surface to plan landing spots for Apollo 11 onward... In this McDonalds, the only copy of that data is about to be resurrected. These tapes were recorded 40 years ago as part of the Apollo program to map the lunar surface to plan landing spots for Apollo 11 onward. They have never been seen by the public because at the time, they were classified as they reveal the extreme precision of our spy satellites. Instead, all we have ever seen are the grainy photo-of-a-photo images that were released to the public.

The spacecraft did not ship this film back to Earth. Instead, they developed the film on the Lunar Orbiter and then raster scanned the negatives with a 5 micron spot (200 lines/millimeter resolution) and beamed the data back to Earth using yet-to-be-patented-by-others lossless analog compression. Three ground stations on Earth (one was in Madrid) recorded the transmissions on these magnetic tapes.

Recovering the data has proven to be very difficult, requiring technological archeology. The only working version of the Ampex tape player ($300K when new) was discovered in a chicken coop and restored with the help of the original designer. There is only one person on Earth who still refurbishes these tape heads, and he is retiring this year. The skills to read this data archive are on the cusp of disappearing forever.

Some of the applications of this project, beyond accessing the best images of the moon ever taken, are to look for new landing sites for the new Google Lunar X-Prize robo-landers, and to compare the new craters on the moon today to 40 years ago, a measure of micrometeorite flux and risk to future lunar operations.


From KTVU:

In an abandoned McDonald’s restaurant on NASA Ames property in Mountain View, a pirate flag is taped to the window. Inside, it gets even stranger. Three researchers huddle around a wheezing 45-year-old Ampex FR-900A tape machine, a one-of-a-kind reel to reel 2-inch model designed to record data for the National Security Agency. It now sits where people used to wolf down Big Macs. Behind the counter, where the fry-tubs and refrigerators used to be, one-thousand five hundred 14-inch diameter tape reels are clustered in five piles. Each reel has a two letter identifier followed by three numbers. “These tapes hold the best images of the moon ever taken, even to today,” says Dennis Wingo, a lanky 55-year-old engineering physicist who heads the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project.

From Moonviews:

Those images include a high-resolution version of “Earthrise,” the first picture of the Earth from the Moon’s vantage point. Time Magazine has called this image “the photo of the century.” The tapes also contain the first stereo imagery of the Moon’s surface. Indeed, these are some of the best images of the Moon ever taken, far superior from those received from the Hubble telescope.

Astonishingly, all of the images stored on the 1,500 14-inch diameter tape reels were nearly destroyed. With its focus turned to the Apollo mission, NASA saw little further use for the tapes. Fortunately, Nancy Evans, co-founder of NASA Planetary Data Systems, convinced her superiors at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to retain the tapes. Evans also salvaged three refrigerator-sized FR-900 tape drives, which she stored in her own garage for two decades. Evans and Mark Nelson, of Caltech, managed to get a few tape drives running but their project ultimately folded. NASA turned down her requests for assistance after placing an estimate of $6 million on the cost to restore the data.

More details of this unlikely rescue operation from Dr. X

This project started in the late 1980's when the National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC) discovered a cache of the only known remaining set of Lunar Orbiter tapes in existence stored in a "salt mine." The story there is that there are abandon salt mines that store government records, as the temperature and humidity are stable. There was some documentation attached indicating what they were and that JPL should be notified as to what their ultimate fate should be. JPL took possession of them in about 1988 or so, as there was some interest in recovering the data so that the images could be digitized and made available to the general public as the pictures were then a bulky 2000, 28" x 30" prints. The problem at that point was that no one knew what technology created the tapes so the format and method was unknown. At the time a private consulting firm became aware of the project and decided to research the issue with the purpose of proposing a data recovery project. After amassing all the Lunar Orbiter literature available, it was determined that the Ampex FR900 tape recorder (the first real video tape recorder), was used to create the tapes. More importantly it was revealed that the data was in an analog format with the video in a format called “Vestigial Sideband Filtered", slow scan TV. This knowledge set about the search for any source of FR900 tape drives. The search covered NASA sites, Vandenberg’s Pacific Missile Range at Kwajalein, the CIA and Egland AFB's radar test site in Florida. Ultimately a total of four tape drives were obtained and as far as is known, are the only remaining drives of their type in the world.


The Persistence Paradox

Listen to this summary of a new paper (PDF) by the reknowned internet researcher Bernardo Huberman (now at HP Labs):

People persistently upload content to social media sites, hoping for the highly unlikely outcome of topping the charts and reaching a wide audience. And yet, an analysis of the production histories and success dynamics of 10 million videos from YouTube revealed that the more frequently an individual uploads content the less likely it is that it will reach a success threshold. This paradoxical result is further compounded by the fact that the average quality of submissions does increase with the number of uploads, with the likelihood of success less than that of playing a lottery.

Whoa! So even though their later videos are ranked higher in quality, additional videos posted by users will usually fare worse in popularity than their earlier ones.  One caveat: Success in this experiment is measured as the top 1% videos, so in fact the number of views might increase, but the ranking of the video in the overall world of YouTube decreases; it is less of a "hit."

The researchers say they have no explanation for why folks continue to persist in posting videos despite their lowering hit rankings, but they note, they would have better luck on a lottery. Hit-ness must not be as important as many folks think. I am more impressed that this paper shows that persistence increases quality -- which is what any artist will tell you.

So the Persistence Paradox says that persistence increases quality but not hits.


Worse than the lottery. The red line plots the success probability of YouTube producers as a function of their persistence level. The blue line plots the success probability of a producer who participates in a lottery with 0.01 winning probability for each draw, as a function of her persistence level.


Particles Have Free Will

Everything in the universe has some degree of free will. Even quantum particles. An elemental particle "decides" which way to spin. A cosmic ray decides when to decay. Not consciously, but choose they do. A new paper co-authored by mathematician John Conway, inventor of a cellular automata demonstration known as the Game of Life, argues that you can't explain the spin or decay of particles by randomness, nor are they determined, so free will is the only option left.


The Strong Free Will Theorem (PDF) is a technical paper, but they insert a few passages in English:

It asserts, roughly, that if indeed we humans have free will, then elementary particles already have their own small share of this valuable commodity. More precisely, if the experimenter can freely choose the directions in which to orient his apparatus in a certain measurement, then the particle’s response (to be pedantic—the universe’s response near the particle) is not determined by the entire previous history of the universe.

Some readers may object to our use of the term “free will” to describe the indeterminism of particle responses. Our provocative ascription of free will to elementary particles is deliberate, since our theorem asserts that if experimenters have a certain freedom, then particles have exactly the same kind of freedom. Indeed, it is natural to suppose that this latter freedom is the ultimate explanation of our own.


Taxonomy of Business Models

This is interesting. A fairly detailed taxonomy of the existing business models for web sites. The breakdown is here. Using their taxonomy the researches than examined one Top 100 web app list for 2008 and found that:

34% use Advertising, 12% a Variable Subscription model, and 8% each for Virtual Products (typically digital downloads), Related Products (typically a large software company offering a free product to attract you to their platform) and Pay-Per-Use.

The graphic pie-chart display of those results look like this.
(I.T.A = Advertising)

Model Survey


The Greatest Waster of Time

This video is a clever music video composed entirely from mashed up instrumental videos found elsewhere on YouTube. It and others by the same guy (Kutiman) have been circulating around the blogosphere for the past week (thanks Mark!). There is not much more to say about them at this point. They are unabashedly brilliant. But one notion occurred to me:

Making it was a total waste of time that will probably bring the artist immeasurable success.

I am reminded of something that both William Gibson and Stewart Brand said independently, and here I paraphrase in my own words:

The internet is the world's greatest waster of time, and that is its chief benefit to society.

Oh, and I detect an entire new genre of video here.


Not Your Usual Trends

It's great to see Time magazine present some trends that are not obvious, well-worn, are already over. They take a chance in this list of "10 Ideas Changing The World Right Now."  The line up includes not your usual suspects. With any list like this, there is no telling which are likely, but they are at least plausible. Two extra points for a positive African scenario. The ten trends are featured in the pic below; details at the link.

Picture 38


Lifehacking, the Whole Earth Catalog Archive

The Whole Earth Catalogs preached the hacker/designer approach to life starting in 1968, decades before this lifehacking became the norm. The Catalogs were a paper-based database offering thousands of hacks, tips, tools, suggestions, and possibilities for optimizing your life.

Like fine wine, the back issues of the Whole Earth Catalogs and its offspring, the CoEvolution Quarterly improve with age. One can read 20-year-old back issues and they will inform and astound you. They feel as if they were written yesterday. I've noted previously that much of their charm comes because they were blogs created in newsprint, written before the internet.


One could read back issues if you could find them. I had the privilege of producing many of the issues of CoEvolution Quarterly and some of the Catalogs, so I had my own personal library of them. (Therefore you should also discount my enthusiasm for them.) I can't tell you how many wonderful evenings I have spent sitting in my reading chair re-exploring the fantastic worlds captured in these back issues. It is impossible to pick one up and not be mesmerized, thrilled, amazed, and informed by at least two stories or reviews. There is a timeless nature to this work that is due to their anti-fashionable status. The Whole Earth Catalogs and CoEvolutions were idea-based journalism, rather than event-based. Instead of reporting on top of things, they liked to get to the bottom of things.  These issues zagged while the rest of the culture zigged, only to zag later.

The good news is that all this goodness is now online. Danica Remy and the last holdouts of the old Point Foundation, publishers of the Catalogs and magazine until its last issue in 2002, have given a second life to this gold mine of material by arranging them to be scanned and posted online. The entire 35-year archive of Whole Earth Catalogs, Supplements, Reviews and CoEvolutions are all up and ready to be studied. You can read them for free, or download them for a fee.  Go here.

I am not thrilled by the interface or format. The pages are clunky to navigate and worse, the proprietary format goes against the essential open system that Whole Earth both preached and practiced. The scans are analog. I could not find anyway to copy and paste text from them. The pages would have been far more useful and easier to use and share as plain old PDF docs.


But, oh! The richness!  There are some very are early Whole Earth Catalog Supplements that in all my time at Whole Earth I never saw or read. They are here online now. For those unfamiliar with the wisdom of the Catalog, this archive will serve as a wonderful start. There are more than 100 issues of CoEvolution Quarterly (later called Whole Earth Review) and dozens of Whole Earth Catalogs to keep you up for years.


Notable Blogs/List of Lists

I've been perplexed by the lack of serious reviews of blogs. There is no reliable evaluation of blogs as there is of say, movies, books and music. There is no where to go to hear about the best street fashion blog, say. Sure, people have favorite blogs, but there is no sensible critique or systematic recommendations of them.

Picture 3

For the past several years, Rex Sorgatz at Fimoculous has presented a short list of the best blogs of the year, and his annual list is the closest I've seen to a good blog review. (There are blog sites that list the top blogs, but most of these have little annotation making them weak. ) Unlike most such year-end lists, the Fimoculous Notable Blogs list is extremely well researched, intelligent, and refreshing. First of all, Sorgatz apparently reads all blogs so his perspective of the landscape is stunningly broad. Therefore, he is capable of considering a blog with similar or competitive ones. In his list he'll mention comparable sites, or blogs that "you'll like if you liked this one." He includes the well-known sites if they've had a good year, but often seeks out the marginal blog, or upstart, if they are doing something interesting.

I also like his style and find that we often converge in our approvals of blogs we read, so naturally I think his choices are smart. Every year I pick up more than a few new great reads to add to my fairly selective RSS list.

This year I was blown away to find that the Technium, my book-in-progress blog, was ranked #11.

Fimoculous also produces the world's best meta list every year. Its annual List of Lists lists all the "best of lists" on the web. Categorized by kind. So you can get all the Best Movies lists published in English this year. Or Best Books lists, etc. The genius of this meta-list is the scope. There's more than 650 lists, and they include stuff like the list of Best Comics, Best Games, Best Videos, Best Predictions, etc. Fimoculous has done this for 6 years; it's a staggering amount of work. I am waiting for someone to parse these lists and come up with the Best of the Best Lists, which combines and correlates the winners in each category into one pan-annual list.


If Your Website Were a Person

Maybe this is a trend, maybe this is a cool tool, maybe this is silly. It is Typealyzer, a website that can analyze the text of another website (which you identify) and gives you the personality of the target site in Myers-Briggs notation (MBTI).  You know, the four letter extensions of inner directed/outer directed psychological traits popular with personality tests.

For instance, I went to the Typealyzer and entered the url for the blog of my book-in-progress, The Technium. It's where I post long bookish philosophical musings on the meaning of technology. The Typealyzer came back with this:

Picture 131

The personality of Cool Tools is noticeably different:

Picture 132

What I had not realized is that there are groups, forums and websites dedicated to each of the 16 Myers-Briggs personality categories. A master list is here. For instance readers of the Technium (and probably its author!) should be reading


Earning Money From the Free

Earlier this year I wrote a piece about creating works in an environment where everything is copied freely and when copy protection does not work -- in other words today's digital world.

How do you make money with the free?

My answer is you offer something better than free. I gave eight examples of what I call Generatives that improve upon the free.

That post, entitled Better Than Free, got a lot of attention, garnered many comments, got Digged and Reddited, and was translated into several languages by fans.

Now it is available as a free (of course!) downloadable PDF manifesto. Published by ChangeThis, a bunch of savvy media folks who produce very short, incredibly well-designed, free PDF Manifestos pushing the skills of change. Past authors include Seth Godin, Tom Peters, Guy Kawasaki, Hugh MacLeod. I really like the smooth navigation and user interface of these PDFs. They have a few ideas worth stealing in the format alone.


My piece begins:

The Internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, and every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times.

When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.

When copies are super abundant, stuff which can't be copied becomes scarce and valuable. When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied.

Well, what can't be copied?"

The whole thing can be downloaded as a small 11-page PDF from here.  You are encouraged to share it, spread it, email it to friends, and make as many copies as you want. A landing page is here. The copies are free, and free to disseminate. I'll make my money (if any) through one of the generatives.


The Whole Earth Blogalog

Three recent books (From Counterculture to Cyberculture, What the Doormouse Said and Counterculture Green) plus a slew of newspaper articles have examined the influence of the Whole Earth Catalogs and periodicals upon on our culture. I am not the first to notice that the style of the Whole Earth Catalogs can be seen in the style of blogs and fan web sites. An article billed as the "oral history" of Whole Earth Catalogs just appeared in Plenty magazine. It says:

How did a publication with just a four-year run help shape a community so prolific that it went on to inspire Google, Craigslist, and the blogosphere; save six American rivers; and shape sustainable business practices as we know them today? Forty years after the first issue of the Whole Earth Catalog, this oral history of the publication, as told by those who made it and those who read it, tracks the long-lasting impact of a short-lived journal that altered the course of the world. 

As the former editor-in-chief at Whole Earth, I spoke at length with the author. A few comments survived:

Kevin Kelly: For this new countercultural movement, information was a precious commodity. In the ’60s, there was no Internet; no 500 cable channels. Bookstores were usually small and bad; libraries, worse. The WEC not only gave you permission to invent your life, it gave you the reasoning and the tools to do just that. And you believed you could do it, because on every page of the catalog were other people doing it. This was a great example of user-generated content, without advertising, before the Internet. Basically, Brand invented the blogosphere long before there was any such thing as a blog.

I really mean that. This past week I had occasion to dip into the Updated Last Whole Earth Catalog. In my opinion, this was the apogee of all the many Whole Earth Catalogs. (And it was not the last one by a long shot.)


Geodesic Domes, in the Updated Last Whole Earth Catalog, 1975

As I read the dense, long reviews and letters explaining the merits of this or that tool, it all seemed comfortably familiar. Then I realized why. These missives in the Catalog were blog postings. Except rather than being published individually on home pages, they were handwritten and mailed into the merry band of Whole Earth editors who would typeset them with almost no editing (just the binary editing of print or not-print) and quickly "post" them on cheap newsprint to the millions of readers who tuned in to the Catalog's publishing stream. No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included. The opportunity of the catalog's 400 pages of how-to-do it information attracted not only millions of readers but thousands of Makers of the world, the proto-alpha geeks, the true fans, the nerds, the DIYers, the avid know-it-alls, and the tens of thousands wannabe bloggers who had no where else to inform the world of their passions and knowledge.  So they wrote Whole Earth in that intense conversational style, looking the reader right in the eye and holding nothing back: "Here's the straight dope, kid."  New York was not publishing this stuff. The Catalog editors (like myself) would sort through this surplus of enthusiasm, try to index it, and make it useful without the benefit of hyperlinks or tags. Using analog personal publishing technology as close to the instant power of InDesign and html as one could get in the 1970s and 80s (IBM Selectric, Polaroids, Lettraset) we slapped the postings down on the wide screens of newsprint, and hit the publish button.

This I am sure about: it is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.

But by the same equation, much of what the web is doing now, Whole Earth was doing then. Those folks who subscribed to the "feed" of CoEvolution Quarterly, the Whole Earth Review, and the WELL, got the blogosphere and user-created content 30 years early.

Living on the web decades before the internet was born; now that was a strange trip.


Other Isomorphic Keyboards

Naturally, the odd geometric keyboard I posted a few days ago was not a new idea. In fact keyboards of this nature were first invented in 1875. Four or five similar 2-D note arrangements with slightly varied arrays have been conjured up in the century since then. These designs are called isomorphic keyboards.  Each pattern has their own claims to uniqueness and utility.

What is new these days is that one can produce a new controller -- based on these old key arrangements -- to drive all kinds of sounds.  The keyboard becomes a portable interface that can be changed or "hooked up" to different instruments.

I would not mention them again, except an inventor of a new controller (the Thummer, above) wrote to me about his up-coming commercial product and made a few interesting remarks.  Jim Plamondon, Thummer's inventor from Austin Texas says:


On the one hand, novel musical controllers and notations seem…kinda crackpot.  On the other hand, Guitar Hero’s novel controller and notation have doubled America’s instrumental music-makers in just two years.

He's right. Any sane person would have argued against the novel musical controller in Guitar Hero from every succeeding. It was too simple, too dumb, redundant, etc. Guitars have been working fine for thousands of years.

Wrong. The millions of Guitar Hero guitars sold mean that obviously there is room for new music input devices.

Plamondon is missionary about the alternative keyboard as a way to make music creation easier.  His video on how it is played:


The End of Video as Evidence of Anything

Twenty three years ago, Stewart Brand, Jay Kinney and I wrote a cover story for the July 1985 issue of Whole Earth magazine called "The End of Photography as Evidence of Anything." We noticed that high-end graphic computers were able to alter photos in such a way that they could convey any fantasy. At that time retouching on these machines was expensive (you paid a trained operator to do the retouching), so most of this fancy photo altering was done quietly for fashion, or magazine covers. No one was admitting to it, or talking about it.  The alterations were stealth jobs, and therefore news to most people. Generally, photo alterations of this realistic type was so expensive, it was a big deal. It required a special dedicated main-frame computer, such as a $400,000 Scitex, to perform these tasks.

Our thesis -- that with personal computers you could remake photography so realistically that it would not serve as evidence of reality -- was based on the hunch that this rarified technology would someday soon be ubiquitous.  At the time we were using command-line Kapro computers, and the Macintosh had just been released the year before.  Photoshop was still very far away.

We fast-talked our way into getting some free time on a Scitex machine and had the technician "photoshop" some slides we had taken. We watched enthralled as he compiled a very convincing depiction of UFOs over San Francisco. This became the cover image for our essay on how photography was becoming unreliable. We argued that much like text, the only way to believe an image was to trust its source, rather than its content.


Of course nowadays, any kid could a better job retouching (just check out Worth 1000). But that was our point. Anyone would be able to photoshop. That's what happened. Still-photography became unreliable. A still image now is no proof of anything.

Instead, in recent decades moving images -- video -- became the defacto evidence of truth. While a still image is suspect, a video of an event is usually granted credibility. "Don't show us the photo, let's see the video of Big Foot!" The more shaky, zoomy, nonchalant the video is, the more believable. In part because it is hard to retouch a shaky image. We are all aware of Hollywood special effects, which are completely seamless and realistic, but that is high-end expensive digital studio work.  The cult movie Cloverfield, which mimicked the documentary style of an amateur camcorder but was crammed with wild cinematic fantasies, demonstrated once and for all that big money could fake video. In short, cinema got its Scitex machine.

The obvious next step is amateurs hacking the moving image with their lap tops. Once that becomes common place video is no longer evidence of anything.

I think we have crossed that threshold. In a very cool short video made by an aspiring filmmaker we can see the end, and the beginning of amateur cinematic fantasy.  Ironically, the subject for this hack is Death Star over san Francisco. The still images don't convey the visceral effect; watch the video.

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The tools for this job were standard off-the-shelf items. From an interview on StarWarsBlog of the filmmaker Michael Horn:

I shot everything on my junkie DV camera, did motion-tracking and comping in After Effects, and basic sound design in Final Cut.


Looking For the Mouse

Clay Shirky is my favorite tech evangelist these days. I  resonate with what he says and especially how he says it. A video of a talk he did recently reverberated through the net. This week Edge transcribed it. The following snippet is the best summation of social media that I've heard:

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn't what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, "What you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."

Here's something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here's something four-year-olds know: Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for. 

It's also become my motto, when people ask me what we're doing— from now on, that's what I'm going to tell them: We're looking for the mouse.

We're going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, "If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?" And I'm betting the answer is yes.

The video is here:



Are you my friend?  Should I friend you? Or you me? I have a very large backlog of inquiries on Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and all the rest.

Deciding friendability has become a new and necessary social skill. Here is a hierarchy that works for me:

Friend -- Most of the people that Facebook calls "friends" I call Acquaintances.
Actual Friend -- Someone whom I've had a meal with, or has visited my home.
Real Friend -- Someone who would drive me to the airport at 6 am.
True Friend -- Someone who would get me out of jail.

We all have lots of friends, a few real friends and -- if we are lucky -- one or two true friends.

I am delighted to know so many acquaintances. But I only call friends Actual Friends, Real Friends, and True Friends.

Some folks think this approach is too serious and not in the spirit of the social game of Web 2.0. But I think in the long run, making distinctions in friendability will make our social webs stronger.

Calvinhobbes Friends


Outstanding in the Field

Seacove Table Tall

Santa Cruz artist and foodie Jim Denevan sets up a long table in an outdoor environment and hosts a dinner party. Usually the long table is set in the fields of the farm where much of the food being served has been grown.

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The intent of the gathering is to reinforce the connection between food and place. There is also an element of conceptual art; the stretched table often mirroring Denevan's beach art. His organization Outstanding in the Field hosts about two dozen of these dinners per year. More photos on his Flickr stream.


Face Swapper Privacy

This is a cool hack. Face swapping software finds faces in a photograph and swaps the features in the target face from a library of faces.  This can be used to "de-identify" faces that appear in public, such as the faces of people caught by the cameras of Google Street View. So instead of simply blurring the face, the software can substitute random features taken from say Flickr's pool of faces. A mouth here, an eye there. Like this:


On the top (a) of the picture below, the original real faces. The row below show composite new faces. All generated automatically.  As Michael Naimark suggested when he tipped me off to this development, "Swapping facial features can protect online privacy." New Scientist makes a similar point: "the system could be used to obscure the faces of military personnel or eyewitnesses to crime."


In the bottom set (b), the two faces are swapped. This can be useful for home use. Instead of swapping from a library of random strangers, the software can substitute faces taken from a set of images taken at about the same time. So if you are taking pictures at a birthday party of a group of restless children the software can swap their faces with versions of themselves with better or different expressions (smiles, no red eye) until you get a group picture you like (no one blinking).


The paper by Dmitri Bitouk and Neeraj Kumar of Columbia University is here (PDF). Here they state:

Systems such as Google Street View  and EveryScape allow users to interactively navigate through panoramic images of public places created using thousands of photographs. Many of the images contain people who have not consented to be photographed, much less to have these photographs publicly viewable. Identity protection by obfuscating the face regions in the acquired photographs using blurring, pixelation, or simply covering them with black pixels is often undesirable as it diminishes the visual appeal of the image. Furthermore, many of these methods are currently applied manually, on an image-byimage basis. Since the number of images being captured is growing  rapidly, any manual approach will soon be intractable. We believe that an attractive solution to the privacy problem is to remove the identities of people in photographs by automatically replacing their faces with ones from a collection of stock images.


GoogleUnique Names

There are many contemporary strategies for naming children. You can echo family traditions or heritage. You can try to balance given names with too-unusual or too-common family names. You can refer to people, places and qualities you admire. Our you can name children purely for the poetry of the sound, or in nod to the circumstances of the times, or your aspirations for them.  You can find names that either fit in or stand out.  All these ways work.

Recently I've noticed two new strategies in naming children.

One I call the global brand naming strategy. Here the object is to devise names that work in as many languages and regions of the world as possible. These names are kind of esperanto names. Names without language specific sounds. Names that can be easily pronounced by Japanese, Russian, Spanish, French and English speakers for instance. Names that don't have negative connotations in certain cultures. They are usually short. Punchy. Almost nicknames. They may often seem generic. But they are easy to say and remember. They work just about anywhere on the planet. They are similar to brand names. Names like Leo. Maya. Tasi. Kip. They work best with family names that are not common.  Finding them is a little bit like settling on a global brand. It requires a particular mindset and international awareness that some may find pretentious, and others invigorating and exciting.

The other recent strategy is to find GoogleUnique names. These are invented names, or name combinations, which will yield singular results in a Google search.  In other words, when you search for the child's name, your child is the only result.  These can work with either uncommon last names or family names that are common.

Like mine. We did not set out to make GoogleUnique names for our kids (they were born before or at the dawn of the web), although we did hope they would be special. I have an extremely common last name (in the US), so we choose first names for our children that meant something in both Irish (my family) and Chinese (my wife's family) for contrast. But it turns out all three of our kids full names, which work both in Gaelic and Mandarin (Kaileen Kelly and Tywen Kelly and Ting Kelly), are also GoogleUnique.  They are the only people with that name the results point to (although there are more results from the reverse of the name, or from two people with parts of the name, and so forth). In the small but growing world indexed by the web, they are unique. 

I have not plotted this out, but my impression is that there are more baby names used now (in the US and the world) than before. Baby name books would have thousands. Now they have 100,000. Many of the new ones are unique to a single individual. In the future, perhaps most people will have a unique name.

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Some adults may object to naming a kid like you were searching for a domain name, (or a brand), but our kids are delighted about this uniqueness and international sensibility. From our limited experience I can recommend a GoogleUnique name. All things being equal, a name which is unique AND works for all the other namely considerations a fine name needs is a better name.  There are a lot of ways a name can go amiss, and uniquenss alone won't prevent a name from making it onto the Bad Baby Name list.  (From one of those lists of real names: Fanny Whiffer; Nice Carr; Hugh Jass; Al Caholic; Anita Bath.)  Thinking about the global searchability of a name may actually help prevent such disasters.

Oh, and I have a GoogleCommon name. I share my name with so many other people that we have our own Kevin Kelly disambiguation website.


Beach Art

You don't need anything more than a big stick and an empty beach to make cool art.

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While Andres Amador makes wonderful crop circles on the beach in San Francisco (see my previous post), Jim Denevan creates similarly giant sized drawings on the beaches of Santa Cruz. Different style. Equal surprise.


Denevan works completely free hand. No ropes or measuring tools.


You can make sand paintings in the desert too. This past spring Denevan carved this 3-mile wide doodle in the wet sands of Black Rock Desert. He dragged a chain sled (the kind used to level the dirt in baseball infields) behind a bus.



Tangible Interface

Nice hack from the MIT Media Lab.


Most of the objects in your household have a very specific weight which remains unchanged for long periods. This weight, reckoned to several decimal points, can be used as a macro. For instance, your key ring's weight could be the macro for your Yahoo password. Or a stapler could indicate your Flickr photostream. To invoke a macro, all you do is place the tangible object on a USB-enabled electronic postal scale. (This one is $85 from Office Max.) The appropriate weight triggers the appropriate computer action.  The experimental software, called Amphibian, runs on Windows only. The project is based in Hiroshi Ishii's Tangible Interface lab at MIT.


Tools for Vizuality

Vizuality is visual literacy. In theory, we should be able to annotate, reference and hyperlink moving images as easily as we do text.  But all that is hard to do that now. Just try hyperlinking to a specific frame in a movie. You are lucky to be able to link to a small clip. What you'd really like to do is link to an object within a frame as it persists over a scene. Let's say you want to link to a fez in a scene from Casablanca. No one can't do that now.


But we should be able to do that. If we had the tools of vizuality to the same degree we have tools of literacy - like cut and paste, footnotes, summaries, dictionaries and the like -- creating a link to a fez or bow tie in a film or video would be no problem.

I've been gathering experiments for annotating, referencing, hyperlinking, and footnoting specific scenes in moving pictures. One technical name for these procedures is video markup. 

A very simple video markup implementation for linking to a scene is Moviestamper.  It's a hack for referring to an exact frame of a movie. Film enthusiasts post their comments on the Moviestamper website for a particular scene in a movie by hanging it on the internal time stamp on the DVD version. For example, a scene in Minority Report in which Tom Cruise gets his eyeballs replace would be annotated on this website at time stamp 1:08:56 like this: 


You can thus search for "tags" within movies. Say all references to "aliens" or all displays of blackmail, etc. This annotation is only indirectly linked to the movie; in other words you have to switch back and forth from the film and the website.  But you get the idea.

Another thing you'd like to do with moving images is to respond to video with video, just as you might have a string of comments in a conversation. One mark of success in the YouTube universe is to earn video spoofs, parodies, and knock-offs of your posted video. These replies form a kind of dialog. Often there will be a cascade of replies as a particularly good parody will provoke its own parody. (See the Angry Hitler pool of videos). However it is not easy to follow the thread of these responses and responses to responses. One solution to tracking a video dialog is TimeTube. This site will arrange all videos it finds for a particular search term in chronological sequence -- in a time line -- with those videos with the most views elevated or enlarged. At a glance you can see the course of a visual discussion.


Even better would be a tool to make it easier to post video replies to video in an orderly and structured manner. The new social media website Seesmic offers tools to do just that. After someone posts a video, other vid responses are encouraged and presented in a thread.


In a robust vizuality there is no boundary between text and moving image. Part of the charm of desktop publishing was the refreshing ability to combine text and images. Prior to computers it was very expense and very hairy to overlay text over pictures, or to picturize text, or to paint with text. These alterations required typographic expertise and a long feedback cycle. You had to specified the effect prior to seeing it. No WYSIWYG. It might take days before the graphic professionals could mock up your idea. Marrying text and graphics was rare. Then came page layout programs and Photoshop, and the distinction between text and image was gone.

That boundary is not gone in moving images.  The TV screen's crude resolution made reading text on it a chore. Cinema has always resisted text, even to the point of preferring dubbing foreign languages rather than permitting subtitles. Partly this is because text requires a more user-directed pace, in order to linger over words, or back up. But now that moving images have finally migrated to computer screens, which have the necessary resolution for reading, and the ability to pause and reverse, text and moving images are melding.  We finally have TV we can read.

There are good examples of "TV we can read" in the many web-based tutorial sites, where moving images are infiltrated with text instructions. For just one example see the diagram-ish videos at Start Cooking.


No where is the merger of text and moving image more extreme and visible than in the Japanese site Nico Nico Douga.  Like many video sites these days, Nico Nico offers a place for amateurs to post their mashups. Japanese fans take music videos, or commercials, or other fan-made videos and recut them into something new. But instead of garnering comments below the mashups (as in YouTube), fans of the Nico Nico mashups add their comments on top of, or inside of the moving images. This produces a garish, bizarre hybrid of video you read.


Nico Nico has become one of the most popular video sites in Japan. It is off the US social media radar because it in Japanese script and requires users to sign up before any images are visible.
The best entry into this hidden -- but exploding -- world is via this very informative summary. (Thanks to Robin Sloan for the tip.)

The printing press completed the great move of western civilization from orality to literacy. Later inventions of indexes, bibliographies, concordances, typewriters and 3x5 cards (for random examples) enabled literacy to expand in power until it underpinned our society. Now printed words are so ubiquitous in our environment we don't even notice them. There is probably not an object in the room you are in without text on it somewhere.

Motion pictures are on their way to become equally ubiquitous. With the arrival of cheap organic LEDs, moving images will soon cover every flat surface. As they do we will march from literacy to vizuality. In order to complete that great transition, we'll need a whole suite of tools, like these first primitive ones above, which permit us to manipulate, manage, store, cite and create moving images as easily as text.


Symbiotic Fanfic

FringeHog describes a talk by Daniel Pink on a note-worthy innovation in copyright practice pioneered by manga fans and manga publishers in Japan. Unlike many major publishers in the West, manga publishers in Japan have been tolerating fanfic, or fan created fiction, based on their copyrighted characters. This could be an "existence proof" that symbiosis with prosuming fans might work for other publishers/producers of fiction.

...They were they buying fan-created, self-published manga, known as “dojinshi.”  Dojinshi often feature copyrighted characters and material; amateur writers riff on established works, remixing the plots and characters, and creating new storylines (for instance a series called BLEACH centers around the chaste relationship of the main characters, but dojinshi versions feature the characters hooking up).  How do fans repurpose copyrighted material without drawing legal fire?  Via an unwritten, implicit agreement between dojinshi writers and established media companies [in Japan], what Pink refers to as “anmoku no ryokai” (literally: “agreement or understanding”).  Why?  Why would media companies look the other way to clear-cut violations of copyright law?  In essence, it’s a symbiotic relationship: by ceding some control of their material to dojinshi writers, media companies get 1) customer care (doinjinshi drives sales of original material) 2) a talent market for new, emerging writers and 3) free market research (dojinshi sales are indicators of trends in original series).  The short version is: involving the fans and ceding control is actually GOOD for business.


However, I don't have any data for the "partnership" Pink claims dojinshi have with mainline Japanese publishers. Here is what one dojinshi collecting site says about the copyright status:

The copyright issue of doujinshi is a bit iffy in Japan. However, because doujinshi is priced only to cover the expenses of printing them, and since many professional mangaka (manga artists) got their start doing doujinshi (like CLAMP), most companies tolerate them. Some mangaka and mangaka assistants release doujinshi even after going professional. For example, Tanemura Arina's art assistants regularly release dojin (including romantic hentai dojin!) based on Tanemura's manga series; their books are released under the circle name Strawberry Lunch. Akamatsu Ken, creator of Love Hina, still releases many doujinshi (including hentai dojin) for various anime/manga series. Takeuchi Naoko, the creator of Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon, released a sixth artbook that was technically a doujinshi; called "Infinity," the artbook featured Sailor Moon artwork by her friends, including professional mangaka, and by people involved with Sailor Moon (such as the anime seiyuu).

It is worth noting that to my quick glance most dojinshi appear to be pornographic or at least erotic in the Kirk/Spock vain, so there is plenty of motivation to not have your trademark characters engaged in such versions. Most dojinshi are printed in very small self-published runs, and there are tens of thousand listed in databases, so it may simply be a matter of too many small fry to chase. Toleration may be the most practical solution.


Real Fake Self-Portraits

I am a big fan of the fake-painting artists working in the city of Dafen, China. In an earlier post I raved about their hyper real fakes -- which are in some ways better than the originals. Joshua Kauffman and Gwendolyn Floyd engineered a cool hack with Dafen artists. They commissioned willing artists to paint self-portraits in the style of the artists they were usually imitating. Joshua mentioned that they paid about $20 a piece for the self-portraits. And the artists were delighted with the chance to do something different.  There are a few more examples here, which will eventually be shown in a traveling exhibit.



Bribe Your New Employees To Quit

This is one of the coolest counterintuitive ideas I've heard in a long time. It's gotten some play in the blogomedia, but it's still worth pointing out. The advice for companies goes like this:

Pinpoint the least committed of your new employees by offering them $1,000 to quit. The ones who take this early buyout after only a few weeks on the job will be the ones you don't want in the long term.

Details here, courtesy of Bill Taylor, former Fast Company editor, who writes in Harvard Business Review about the hiring practices of Zappos, the legendary online shoe company. He says:


[Zappos] is a company that’s bursting with personality, to the point where a huge number of its 1,600 employees are power users of Twitter so that their friends, colleagues, and customers know what they’re up to at any moment in time. But here’s what’s really interesting. It’s a hard job, answering phones and talking to customers for hours at a time. So when Zappos hires new employees, it provides a four-week training period that immerses them in the company’s strategy, culture, and obsession with customers. People get paid their full salary during this period.

After a week or so in this immersive experience, though, it’s time for what Zappos calls “The Offer.” The fast-growing company, which works hard to recruit people to join, says to its newest employees: “If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you’ve worked, plus we will offer you a $1,000 bonus.” Zappos actually bribes its new employees to quit!

Why? Because if you’re willing to take the company up on the offer, you obviously don’t have the sense of commitment they are looking for. It’s hard to describe the level of energy in the Zappos culture—which means, by definition, it’s not for everybody. Zappos wants to learn if there’s a bad fit between what makes the organization tick and what makes individual employees tick—and it’s willing to pay to learn sooner rather than later. (About ten percent of new call-center employees take the money and run.)

Indeed, CEO Tony Hsieh and his colleagues keep raising the size of the quit-now bonus. It started at $100, went to $500, and may well go higher than $1,000 as the company gets bigger (and it becomes even more difficult to maintain the all-important culture and obsession with customers.)


NAQ - Never Asked Questions

That's what most company FAQs really are. Easily answered questions that no one has ever asked.

These fake FAQs are useless. They are a turnoff to potential customers looking for reasons to buy, and an insult to existing customers troubleshooting.  I now judge companies while shopping on how competent their FAQs are.

Most organizational FAQs are written by the marketing or PR arm. I think that is fine. It's actually okay to have the marketing folks write the answers. After all, why not have the organization present its best case? There might be nuances and selling points that should be covered. The problem is that the same folks make up the questions. The ones they make up are Easily Answered Questions that have never been asked.  "Q: Is this the world's best product in this category? A: Why, yes!"

Behind that charade, real questions are being ignored. And if its a real problem, the real questions will be frequent, the same ones over and over. Ignoring FAQs is is dumb.


Answering real FAQs is smart for several reasons:

* It forces you to face the problem.
* It forces you to face your answer.
* It's an opportunity to sell (yes).
* It projects your character and brand.
* You can control the answer...

...because if you don't answer the FAQs, the internet tubes will. That's what forums are. Customers, both potential and present, bring their real questions to find real answers. Here people who don't work for the company will supply answers. Often these answers are good, but often the organization could supply a better answer, if it were really running a FAQ.  Why not make it easy for everyone to find the best answer -- from the organization's point of view?

Sure, have an employee write the answers for FAQs. But keep the questions real. Need some real questions? Ask the help desk, or tech support, the mail room, or the receptionist!

You don't have to answer every question people will have. If you can answer the top 10 real FAQs (per subject) you can change the tenor of your feedback. One company claims that a decent FAQ (a half hour of work at most) can reduce calls to the help desk by 10%.

Real FAQs will often be difficult to answer. An answer may mean admitting mistakes, or acknowledge a weakness, or explaining something very complicated. It's okay. Take all the room and time you want. People WILL read it.

For maximizing the learning cycle let people also alert you if they feel you've answered the FAQ.

There are a couple of tutorials on how to write a good self-service FAQ. One reminds writers to give how-to answers for how questions, deep link to further info, and end with the great, "Where do I go if I have a question you have not answered?"

Hey, here's a radical idea: put the most asked questions up top!

And of course, your FAQ does not need to be in the form of a Q&A at all. You can cover the same ground by writing it in prose, or essay form, or even a story. For example, I took all the frequently asked questions about my book of photographs of remote and traditional scenes from Asia, and gave them all answers in this production note. It's all answers, no questions, but it works.



In a recent Boing Boing interview special effects guru John Gaeta dropped a fantastic new word: Poptomistic.

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Poptimistic is not his coinage; it seems to be circulating in the design and style world, but I think it perfectly captures the upbeat, day-glo brightness of a technicolor future. It manages to contain many of the optimistic strands of the digiterati, and the pop masses.  It says: technology that works!

The new pace-setting film Speed Racer (which Gaeta worked on) is poptomistic.


It is the opposite of the distopian Blade Runner, even though both are visually outrageous and seminal. The overlook sci-fi cult favorite Fifth Element was slightly poptimistic.

Fifth Element 2

The book of Japanese street fashions called Fruits is poptimistic.


So were many of the early issues of Wired magazine.


And as far as I am concerned the entire instant city of Burning Man is poptimistic.

Magic Bus

Poptimistic is super-saturated richness, hyper-realism, brightly lit in even the furthest corners, up tempo, and generally positive.

What else is poptimistic?


Country Code Map

I got a nice note from John Yunker:

While most country codes are fairly obvious, such as DE for Germany and JP for Japan, many others are not so obvious. For example, Serbia is RS and Sri Lanka is LK.

Cctld 600B

Last year, I designed a map that illustrates the world's 245 ccTLDs in a way that is both useful and informative. Each country code is sized according to the population of the given country/territory. China and India were sized down by 30% to accommodate the layout.

It is available as a 24 x 26 poster ($30).


Single Note Control in Recorded Music

Also called Direct Note Access.


This new technology permits the dream of every recorded musician -- to be able to change one note in a chord or polyphonic recording. Just that one note! Either change its pitch, timing, key, duration. Now you can. This software Pro Tools plugin from Melodyne will unravel polyphonic recordings (not mere MIDI) into its composite notes and then allow you to alter their characteristics via an visual interface.


Even if you are not a musician, you can appreciate the power this new tool offers, as shown in this instructional video.


Wiki Correction-Stream

The other day Wikipedia had an open house for their move to San Francisco. Their new digs are cozy, funky, and just right. They had a number of public screens on display in corners of their offices, but one caught my eye. This screen showed a log of edits to Wikipedia in real time. The edits were happening about one per second, almost faster than you could follow. As you watched the improvements to the ultimate book would scroll up off the screen in a blur. That's the speed of correction. It gave me a sense of the almost animal-like power of the hive mind behind the Wikipedia -- a constant ceaseless buzz of diligence.



Car Tattoos

Since the hot rod days in the 1950s cars have been detailed, pin-striped, and air-brushed with outrageous decorative art. It was expensive and permanent. To do a good job required the finely honed skill of a real artist. Then there are art cars, with a different aestetic. Piles of stuff glued onto the outside. A highly polished finished is not required for an art car.  Boldness, creativity, and an I-don't-care-what-people-think attitude were required. This type of personalization is also not for everyone. But cars need personalization. Almost everything else in our lives can be decorated with high class cheaply -- except cars.

Last night at a party hosted by IDEO at Pier 28 in San Francisco a small start up premiered their solution to personalization of cars. Infectious (their web site is still in obscura mode) will be offering custom created vinyl temporary tattoos for vehicles. The results look like this:


The designs are printed with solvent inks on a clear vinyl backing, then pressed onto the clean surface of the car. Then the sheet is rubbed with a plastic burnisher, then the backing peeled off.  That's it. The tat will last several years including the punishment of car washes.


At first Infectious will operate like Threadless, the custom t-shirt design site. Designers will submit their finished designs to the site and then members of the sign vote on which design they want printed next. This way there is a small market for small runs, offering some efficiencies to a start up, and it also leverages the power of a passionate community of users. Eventually, Infectious says, they will generate vinyls for anyone who uploads a design file.


The costs will be proportional to the amount of vinyl/ink used. Prices will range from $50 for small bits to $200 for large sections.  The images here capture four cars being tattooed during the party. Each section is considered "large."


Man, am I ready to take my beige generic Suburban and give it some character!


Results from an Experiment in Ad-Driven Books

A few months ago I initiated a small experiment in ad-supported media. The goal was to find a way to give free books away which were supported by advertising. In December, 2007 Adobe announced one promising technology for this dream. In partnership with Yahoo ad network, Adobe released their newest version of Acrobat Reader (8) with the capability to display ads alongside a PDF in view mode.

So the way this works is that the user would open up a PDF in Acrobat Reader 8, and at the prompt they would agree to see whatever ads (if any) accompanied that PDF. The ads would be served by Yahoo, and were promised to be contextual to the content of the PDF, just as contextual ads on the web are. Anyone clicking on the ads would trigger a payment to the author of the PDF file, which would have been registered previously to account for this payment.

The PDF I choose to release was a 250 page e-book I wrote. Called True Films, it contains rave reviews of the best 250 documentaries in English. I released the PDF into the wild, allowing anyone who wanted to mirror the downloads. The idea was to let the file superconduct virally, and see if the auxiliary ads might generate some income. As you can see in the image below of pages from True Films, the ads appear discreetly on the side. For further information on how the program works, and a little more on why I tried it, see my original post. One important note is that unless you were using the version 8 of Reader, you can't see the ads, and in fact don't even know the ads were ever there.  Most people are not using version 8.

Adobe Readerscreen-1

I had promised to relate the results when they were in and here they are:

In total the True Films PDF was successfully downloaded 13,500 times.
Yahoo tells me that the total "ad unit impressions" (the times a reader choose to look at ads) was 4,613.
The total number of times ads were clicked on:  189.
My total revenue was $47.59.

That's pretty dismal for a business. It doesn't pay for bandwidth if you are being charged for it. But, but.... it also says that fully one third of the readers went to the significant trouble of getting the latest version of Reader AND then agreed to opt in to see the ads. The piddly 189 clicks is actually not bad given the number of views. It works out to be 4%, which in the world of advertising is pretty good.  The payout rate per click is 25 cents which is also not horrible for the web. The gating factor is simply the small numbers of folks who actually see ads (or downloaded the free book). All these numbers -- books downloaded, ads seen, and pay out rate -- would have to increase substantially before there was any hope of free viral books supported by ads.

That said, I'll try it again sometime soon with another book. And in the meantime, you can still download this great illustrated guide to the best documentaries for free right here. Check out the ads if you have Acrobat Reader 8.


Testing the Veracity of the Internet

This is no scientific test, but it is amusing. What if you were a famous celebrity? How accurate is the Internet's information about you? What if you could sit said celebrity down in front of a laptop and go through Wikipedia, Internet Movies Database, fanboy sites, anit-fan sites, fan-fic boards, YouTube, celebrity sightings, the whole nine-yards, and get confirmation or not for the facts? Can you believe anything the Internet says?

AJ Jacobs (one of my favorite magazine authors) performs just this test with "sexiest man alive" George Clooney in the current issue of Esquire. It's a very funny exchange.


"In a bold and unprecedented move for a celebrity, George Clooney openly admitted to having cosmetic surgery."

"I love this one," he says. "This was everywhere. Oprah did a show where Julia Roberts and I interviewed each other. And Julia said, 'Would you ever consider plastic surgery?' And I said, 'I got my eyes done, what do you think?' "

Clooney opens his eyes wide, like Betty Boop.

"I was in Italy when it aired, and all of a sudden it was all over the Italian papers. Once it switches languages and loses all sense of irony, and it's bouncing back and forth.... They used to say you can't make a joke in print, but you can get away with it on film. But now you can't get away with it there."

He pauses.

"I did get my balls done, though. I got them unwrinkled. It's the new thing in Hollywood -- ball ironing."

Jacobs didn't supply a final score for the internets, but I would estimate it is a C minus. Clooney is not gay, not running for Vice President, not planning to wed in a few months, as the Internet Tubes say. But a great deal posted about his life is accurate, probably more than I expected.

I wrote to Jacobs and asked him for the grade he didn't give in the article. What score would he assign to the hive mind for Clooney's entry? His reply:

I would say that the Internet was about as accurate as I expected. I was surprised -- and I guess I shouldn't be, having spent 15 years in journalism -- by how inaccurate the articles from the mainstream newspapers and magazines were.  Not much more accurate than the wikipedia-type sites.

Also, I've come to rely on the wikipedia a huge amount in my every day life. I generally figure that about 80 percent of each entry is accurate. Clooney's wikipedia entry seemed about 70 or 75 percent accurate. So maybe just a tad below my assumption.

I found a fascinating type of vandalism I hadn't heard of before. There's a line in Clooney's wikiepdia entry that says 'He secretly financed a thriller called Endgame Study." Clooney had no idea what that was. I did some research and found it was an obscure low-budget thriller. Apparently, the producers wanted some exposure and a link to a Hollywood star, so they (or someone on the film) just inserted the movie into Clooney's entry. And they used the word 'secretly,' which was brilliant.


Material Fingerprints

Laser Surface Authentication (LSA) is an authentication process to spot manufactured counterfeits. As authentic items come off the assembly line a laser scans their surface and measures the scattered beams. Every batch of material will have its own signature. The material signature can be applied to ID cards. The technology is being developed by Ingenia, based in the UK.

A scanner with a low power focused laser beam scans across the surface of the item to be identified. The document or card is placed flat on the top of the scanner and pushed by hand until two of its edges press against guide rails. This ensures that the same part of the document is scanned each time. During the scan, the scanner records a large number of details of the way the laser light is reflected off the surface of the paper or plastic.


Microscopic irregularities on the surface due to the structure of the paper fibres or the setting of the plastic result in complex scattering of the laser beam, through the optical phenomenon of 'speckle'. This forms the basis of a signature which is unique to any given sheet of paper or plastic. The scanner is sufficiently sensitive to detect surface irregularities of less than a few hundred nanometers in size.

Genuine documents, cards and packaging would have their fingerprint read on the way out of the issuing agency or factory. The fingerprint is then stored either in a central database or is written onto the item using an encrypted barcode. In order to check the validity of the item later in the field, the fingerprint would be re-read and compared against the database or against the barcode.


A Web Page For Every Species

Here's a story about something big. Big as the planet. Not well known, but important. I go into great detail because I was present for part of its rise. It's also the story of how big things get done. With set-backs, failures, many people, unexpected turns. This is not the whole story; it is just beginning.  There may be lessons for others hoping to launch a big hairy audacious idea.

It all started at a dinner at the February 2000 TED hosted by Nathan Myrvold. At the height of the dotcom boom one of the dinner guests (not Nathan) was lamenting the difficulty of giving away a billion dollars. He was serious. To do it right -- to spend it smartly, effectively -- meant building some kind of large apparatus, usually a foundation, which burned a lot of the money. The more ambitious your goals, the more the organization would self-consume the billion dollars. But if you didn't have a guiding principle for something grand, you'd fritter away the billion dollar opportunity to make a mark. What would be a bold, high-leverage thing to do with a billion dollars he asked?

I had never thought about it before (a billion dollars was not my problem), but sometime later that evening I had a flash.  "I know what to do with a billion dollars, " I said. "Use it to pay local people around the world to catalog the planet's biodiversity in their neighborhood. This is a grand project that would yield vital, essential, and enabling knowledge, help the planet, and it would put the billion dollars into the hands of people who could really use it, not for charity, but for work they did."

Nobody paid any attention to my suggestion, and I forgot all about the idea myself. But a few days later, Stewart Brand, who as at the dinner, said, "You really should do that billion dollar project." I replied, "What billion dollar project?"  He said, the species catalog. It really needs to be done.


I was certain the idea was so obvious that surely biologists were already in the middle of doing it. After a few days of researching it was clear that there was no up-and-running program to catalog all species on earth. There were several programs to unify the unorganized knowledge of known species into one master list. The most outspoken proponent of this idea was legendary ant specialist and writer E. O. Wilson. In 2000 he was calling for a "global biodiversity map" to cure for our deep ignorance of life on Earth.

In the realm of physical measurement, evolutionary biology is far behind the rest of the natural sciences. Certain numbers are crucial to our ordinary understanding of the universe. What is the mean diameter of the earth? It is 12,742 kilometers (7,913 miles). How many stars are there in the Milky Way, an ordinary spiral galaxy? Approximately 1011, 100 billion. How many genes are there in a small virus? There are 10 (in øX174 phage). What is the mass of an electron? It is 9.1 x 10^-28 grams. And how many species of organisms are there on Earth? We don't know, not even to the nearest order of magnitude.

Ed Wilson with one of his ant collections, personally mounted and tagged.

One thing led to another, so Stewart, Ryan Phelan (DNA Direct) and I decided to host a meeting of taxonomists (the catalogers and conservers of species) to see if a dedicated campaign to catalog all the species on earth in 25 years was a possibility. Ed Wilson joined our board, along with a few other notable conservation biologists and taxonomists. The upshot of the meeting was that it turned out we knew less than I thought we knew. Estimates of the percentage of unknown species varied from 70% to 99%. It was clear we did not even know how many species we already "knew" with any precision. We roughly had identified 1 million plus organisms out a possible 7 to 200 million species on earth. We ended the meeting with the idea that all this  "unclaimed" dotcom money might be a great opportunity to finish the task the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus began 300 years earlier.

I wrote out a manifesto for this endeavor called the All Species Inventory and published it in the Fall 2000 issue of Whole Earth Review. It recounts the reasons why I believe the world needs an inventory of life on earth. You can read it, but it begins:

If we discovered life on another planet, the first thing we would do is conduct a systematic inventory of that planet's life. This is something we have never done on our home planet. The aim of the All Species Inventory is simple: within the span of our own generation, record and genetically sample every living species of life on Earth.

Rover Sundial

My main contribution was upping the ante. No one in the biological community had dared suggest we should aim for ALL species (they knew too much). And imagining we could do ALL in one generation seemed insane. It had taken hundreds of years to complete only one million.

While outlining the reasons to why doing ALL was important I realized I was an "all-ist." A person who believes there is a transformation phase transition when you go from many, most, to all.  From the manifesto:

"All" is the crucial term. The difference between "many" and "all" is the difference between, say, a local public library and the universal library of all documents and texts. Knowledge crosses a threshold when it goes from "most" to "all." Geography crossed the threshold when it went from knowing a lot of the world to creating a globe with all continents in rough form; anatomy crossed the threshold once it produced a diagram of all the bones, all tissues, and all organs in a human body.

"Imagine doing chemistry knowing only one third of the periodic table," says biologist Terry Gosliner. Sure, it can be done, but with an immense handicap. We are trying to do biology knowing perhaps only a tenth, or one hundredth, of our species. It is an immense handicap that does not need to exist.

One of the biologists attending the first meeting had come into some family stock which was flying high at the peak of the dotcom craziness and he wanted to cash it out to fund this risky biological adventure. So Ev Schlinger, a world expert on fly and fly parasites, funded the All Species Foundation with a million dollars. Our aim was to use new technology to accelerate the rate of species discovery from thousands of new species per year to millions per year.

While identifying all undiscovered species is the grand scheme, E.O. Wilson has always personally championed a smaller -- but still huge -- first step: to collect all the discovered species into a universally accessible format. I suggested that what we really wanted was a web page for every species. We could even generate a blank page for each named species and let any enthusiast fill them up. This notion was pretty radical in 2000, since there was no Wikipedia to prove the idea, and taxonomy is much harder than editing an article. Even worse, unauthorized information is a no-no in taxonomy.

On one flight across the US I sat next to Ed Wilson. Ed writes about a book per year. In long hand. On yellow lined paper pads. His trusty assistant does his email for him. Here is a snapshot of his latest book -- a novel! -- as he works on it.


Ed thinks in terms of books. He wrote up a new manifesto: a call for an Encyclopedia of Life.

Imagine an electronic page for each species of organism on Earth, available everywhere by single access on command. The page contains the scientific name of the species, a pictorial or genomic presentation of the primary type specimen on which its name is based, and a summary of its diagnostic traits.

At All Species we eventually made a universal search engine which scoured all known species lists and returned a "page" for every species, but we soon ran out of money. The dot-bust was now in progress and after a few more interesting but minor projects, but no additional funding, the foundation ceased.

However the taxonomists on our boards did not give up. In 2004, they gathered with others in Telluride, CO and hammered out a procedure to make an Encyclopedia of Life. They continued to develop an open-source protocol for electronically communicating species information (GBIF). They developed incredibly cool ways to digitally construct a photograph of a biological specimen so that the composited photo had more information in it than the specimen under a microscope.

Casent0173670 P 1 High-1

Take a look at this image of a ant, which is an aggregated mosaic of dozens of digital photos taken in focus at different layers to give one full-dept in-focus image -- a picture which a microscope or your eye won't give up. This new tool enables inspection taxonomists to inspect key specimens remotely instead of having to ship fragile specimens around the world, and this tool lets more than one researcher at a time inspect this key specimen. The taxonomists developed methods of mass-processing specimens from tropical areas, greatly speeding up discovery. And genetics came in force. Maverick upstart Craig Venter proved that you could genetically sample air, soil and water and identify new genes of news species at the rate of thousands per day. It was a whole new world.

The dream of identifying all the species on earth in 25 years no longer seemed insane.

Completing a circle, at the 2007 TED, seven years after that dinner, Ed Wilson won the TED Wish. His wish was to have the TED attendees and the public at large help him produce the first real Encyclopedia of Life. He wrote a letter to the MacArthur Foundation, who responding with the first funding for this project. Recently, the taxonomists who never gave up on the idea of All Species, like Terry Erwin, Christian Samper, Peter Raven, to name a few close to us, created a broad consortium of university and natural history museums to fund and curate the Encyclopedia of Life, with a web page for every species.

Last month, at February 2008 TED, eight years later, the consortium launched the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL). Ed's wish (and mine) fulfilled so to speak. The first 30,000 species got their active web pages. Another 1 million species got blank pages, with only their names filled in. In other words, the EOL is still mostly blank -- but real.


The EOL is handsome, intelligently designed, and ambitious. When you query it, you get a photo (if available) of the organism, its species classification chart, a basic legal description, some ecological information - where found, etc. This information is primarily pulled from existing taxonomic databases such as FishBase, AmphibiaWeb, and AntWeb, and translated into a common interface. Some of the info comes from Wikipedia.

Turns out that while we were waiting, Wikipedia has been serving as the EOL. If you want to know about a species, just type the latin or popular name into Wikipedia (not Wikispecies). Even though field biologists insist strongly, repeatedly, in no uncertain terms, that random authors can't supply reliable scientific information, they can. Because they aren't random authors. In any case the scientists at EOL have seen the light. They will be accepting taxonomically non-critical submissions from enthusiasts later this year; that is photos, sightings, observational notes, and so on. And they are working directly with Wikipedia to coordinate their efforts in tapping the commonwealth of eager contributors.

But as good as EOL will be, it is still only a small part of the original All Species vision. I believe, more than ever, that it is possible and essential to inventory all the living things on earth, in one generation. The reasons to do it before are still valid:

* Every species on earth is hacking the rules of life and has discovered unique methods, materials, processes, and genes for living that are, or could be, valuable to us. If we knew about them.

* We can't do holistic biology, systematic ecology, or intelligent conservation knowing only a few percent of the ingredients. We have to start with all species.

* A global inventory can employ highly skilled naturalists in remote and familiar regions, bridging two worlds of knowledge, and distributing wealth to where it can do some good.

* We are morally obligated to know our fellow passengers, and understand their roles and positions while on this small planet together. The more we know the better we can love.

But how do we do it? In broad strokes the procedure for identifying new organisms today is roughly identical to the way it was done during Darwin's day. It is hugely labor intensive, and bottle-necked by the few key experts in each taxonomic domain. Only those very few will know if it is a new species or not. The traditional method simply does not scale.

The solution is new technology. The most potent force in taxonomy is genetic sequencing, since every species has a unique gene pattern. What we all want is a nifty handheld tricorder that reads the genes and can tell you what species you are holding. For 99% of the specimens you will pick up, the tricorder's EOL database will know what it is. In that step alone, 99% of the hard work in discovering new species is eliminated. Because most of the precious inspection time of the world's expert in some taxon or another is spent is looking through huge piles of candidates that science already knows about. What we need is a system where smart devices linked to the EOL database go through all the known specimens and present to the world's expert only the unknown and mystery specimens. Attaining that requisite level of knowledge in humans represents 10 years of deliberate practice, and is in short supply, but it can and will be done via computational genetics. At first the assay will be done in a lab, and then soon enough, it will happen in the trusty tricorder in the field.


When anyone can buy a hand held species identifier, and amazing transformation will take place: everyone will become a taxonomist. At first this sounds absolutely counter-intuitive, because one would think that if you have to rely on a machine to identify species, you will become less of a taxonomist than you would if you steeped yourself in natural history and spent years studying organisms close up. This is the same incorrect logic that many teachers used against bringing calculators into the classroom. The argument was: calculators would lessen mathematic ability. But in fact calculators can increase both higher math skills, and interest in math. Turns out that doing arithmetic in your head was the least important thing in mathematics. By offloading that easily tripped-up skill onto a machine, the higher skills were enabled.

We see a similar phenomenon happening in cartography and typography. Both of these were formerly esoteric practices. The number of folks who knew about fonts and kerning, or rubbersheeting and lat-long, numbered in the tens of thousands. But now that fonts are loaded into every PC, and kerning a matter of dragging your mouse, when Google maps are a click away, the rote work of type design and map making are done by machines empowering hundreds of millions of new enthusiasts in these fields.

The Species ID'er will do the same. It will accelerate a learning feedback loop in taxonomy that is now broken. If on one of your walks you find a new-to-you species, it is extremely difficult to get a trustworthy identification. It can take years just to learn how to use book-based keys, and very few amateurs will learn to use keys in more than one field. And many taxon groups still require an expert to sort out. So getting a confirmation of your own identification will either take hours, days, or months, if it happens at all.

DAISY is software that can identify species of insects.

But when you have a handy Species ID'er, you try your best to identify something new to you. You'll get instant feedback. Either, yes, you are correct! Good job! Or, nope, it is this species and here's why. Or, very rarely, nope, we have no idea what it is. You may have discovered a brand new species! (At that point you bother the world's expert who will be overjoyed to see you.)

I know from my own experience that anyone who can tell the difference between two types of lettuce can learn the differences in species -- if you have a learning feedback. The instant feedback of a Species ID'er will educate millions of backyard taxonomists in record time. With the device in their backpack they will fan out from their own neighborhoods into the rest of the world, joining up with local naturalists to fill in the gaps in the EOL.  With the enabling power of a taxonomic calculator, taxonomy will become a mainstream pursuit.

We can then move from doing a global inventory of all living species to global and local censuses of life. Mapping out where each species lives, in what numbers, in which associations, etc. Honest ecological work, that because of the lack of easy species ID today, must be done by overeducated grad students. Empowered by cheap devices, anyone passionate about nature can be a ecologist.

I don't know when we'll be able to buy one of this on Amazon, but genetic sequencing is improving at Moore's rate or faster. It will be built upon a fully inhabited Encyclopedia of Life. An EOL that is populated with all the key information about each species. Over time the EOL will provide enhanced photos of each species, in each of its life stages, with virtual 3D dissections. It will contain a digital 3D model of the "archetype" specimen, and a scan of the original description. And detailed maps of its home territories, charts of it closest relations, and a graph of its ecological network.

Out of this will come a predictive ecology, sound conservation choices, and a new citizen-based engagement with taxonomic knowledge. Without a doubt these will increase our respect for the life on this planet.

The non-profit Ryan, Stewart and I founded to substantiate this big idea is gone, but it accomplished something important. It introduce to the public an idea that won't go away: the immediate need and possibility for a global-scale inventory of life on earth. The launch of EOL means this secret dream of taxonomists and field biologists is now a shared common dream. It's a destination that has been put on the map, and can no longer be ignored. I'm am happy to see the dream begin with a web page for every species.


HyperReal Homer

There is something so disturbing about this hyper-real rendition of Homer that I am mesmerized by my own revulsion.  Larger image here.


Consensus on Colors

Is there any consensus between names and colors -- at least in one language?

A little bit. 

The folks at Dolores Blog "showed thousands of random colors to people on Mechanical Turk and asked what they would call them. Here’s what they said:" 


In short the experiment goes like this. They generated random color samples and then paid the anonymous workers on Amazon's Mechanical Turk to give a name to these random colors. Dolores then mapped that name in the appropriate color place on the standard color wheel. The result is this color wheel of names. But the really cool part is that you can search for color names via this Color Label Wheel. Type in a name and see all the colors that random folks think belong to that color name. Here is the wide variation of hues which people identify as Pink:



Short Is In

Four word film reviews. A whole site dedicated to four word reviews of movies. Offers hundreds of different 4-word reviews for one film, although most are lame. Samples:

Magical book, muggle movie. [For first Harry Potter movie]
Giant robots need glasses. [Transformers]
Post-nuclear Nativity story. [The Terminator]

More Five Word Movie Reviews. Not as many, but better.

Five Word Reviews of London Musicals and Plays. Sample:

Amusing tale for sci-fi geeks. [They Came from Working]

Five Word Reviews of video games beginning with Z.

Six word reviews of 763 songs recorded by mostly indie bands appearing at SXSW 2008. Written by Paul Ford, these reviews are witty, pretty good, and convey probably all you need to know.

Rhyming’s a tool, not a weapon.
Theme for a grunge-era sitcom.
Thin white men, tight black pants?
Remarkably many boring influences at once.
Crisp little synths; New Order chords.
That’s how to rob Pink Floyd.

Six-word memoirs can be found in "Not Quite What I Was Planning", a book of, well, six-word memoirs. Samples:

Nobody cared, then they did. Why? -- journalist Chuck Klosterman
We still don't hear a single. -- pop singer-songwriter Adam Schlesinger
I was a Michael Jackson impersonator. -- comic strip artist Keith Knight
Cursed with cancer. Blessed by friends. -- 9 year old Hannah Davies
I still make coffee for two. -- Zak Nelson
Most successful accomplishments based on spite. -- Scott Birch

Seven words of wisdom collected by Tara Parker-Pope on the New York Times Health blog. She was inspired by Michael Pollan's haiku-like message in his book "In Defense of Food." His seven-word nutrition and diet advice is in brief: "East food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Retaining the 2-3-2 word sequence, the Times accumulated 1,000 seven word edicts. Samples:

Get exercise. Frequent and regular. With sweat.
Accept him. Or dump him. Relationship fixed.
Call Mom. Let her talk. Don’t argue.

How about seven-word wine reviews! From Andrew Barrow at Spittoon.

Earthy, melon, medium-bodied; needs sharp cheese
Musky flowers perfume this bright, cherry wine

Ten Word Reviews. Includes movies, TV shows,  muisc, websites. Crowdsourced, quality variable. Sample:

Rotoscoping gives Keanu a soul. Shame he opens his mouth. [A Scanner Darkly]
Big monster, super shaky camera and idiots dying. Pretty good. [Cloverfield movie]

20-word (or less) music reviews can be found at AddReview, which has been compiling these for  4 or 5 years.  Also 20-word movie reviews at AddMovie.  Samples:

Songs about NASA, robots, and girls that transcend their subjects. Rock for nerds that's not nerdy. My favorite new band. [Built By Snow, Noise]

They dial back the pop but remain typically upbeat and jangly on this album inspired by their nighttime dreams. [The Kennedys, Better Dreams]

One sentence true stories. Nicely presented at One Sentence.

I stared into the eyes of a psychopath moments before he killed a girl, shot a dozen people, then took his own life.

My mother didn't realize that teaching me to fight, shoot, and play pool made it hard to find a boyfriend without tattoos.

The flashing red and blue lights told me definitively I was no longer a college student.

One line reviews of great computer games. Samples:

Drop numbered tiles to form chains. [Chain Factor]
Strangely compelling cat-tossing game. [Cat on a Dolphin]
Clever puzzle of stairs and recordings of past moves. [Cursor*10]

Fifty word mini-sagas. Written by Narcotic Anonymous members. Sample:

He was a very bad man. He said that he’d killed over thirty men in cold blood. “Pinning Juan to the door.” was how he put it. When he got clean, he had a lot for which to atone, so he helped addicts escape Hell. I’ll never forget the bastard.

Movie-A-Minute collects 4- or 5-line synopsis of movies in script form. Samples:

The Sixth Sense

Haley Joel Osment : I see dead people.
Bruce Willis: Try talking to them.
Haley Joel Osment : It worked.

Pretty Woman

Julia Roberts: I'm a hooker, but I don't kiss on the lips.
Richard Gere: I have a lot of money.
Julia Roberts: (smooch)

And companion site Book-A-Minute.

Six sentences blog posts, from Six Sentences. Sample:

My grandfather wasn't afraid to dirty his hands in the dirtiest ways. His fingers always gripped some weapon: rifles and machetes during his WWII tour, knives and cleavers at his store, and a stick at home. Even his hand was a weapon. His voice chopped, mashed, and dissected the people he loved. If he delivered praise, one loving word would slice through the scars of preceding ones. My mother endured past pain but clings to current acclaim as an addict clutches a crack pipe.

Napkin fiction. Esquire mailed out napkins to 250 notable authors asking them to scribble a story on it. Turns out that you can get a lot of words on a napkin if you use both sides.

I am sure there are many other examples of the short form. Send them and I'll add here.
UPDATE: I've added entries and will add more in rough size sequence as they come in.


Tools for Big Love

Big love is a renewable building material, says Clay Shirky. Like the Ise Shrine in Japan which is rebuilt -- out of love -- every 20 years. Turns out the longest lasting things don't have an enduring edifice, but an enduring process.


Clay says the best predictor of longevity for a system is not to inspect the business model but to answer this question: Do the people who like the place/building/system/product take care of each other? Not just take care of the object of veneration but take mutual care of the fans?

In other words, do they run on love?

About five years ago I wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal declaring that the "internet runs on love, not greed." You can read it here.  Clay has expanded, deepened, and brilliantly enhanced the argument. He ends a recent talk with these memorable lines.

We have always loved one another. We’re human, its something we’re good at. But up until recently, the radius and half-life of that affection has always been quite limited. With love alone, you can get together a birthday party. Add coordinating tools, and you can write an operating system. In the past, we would do little things for love, but big things, big things required money. Now we can do big things for love.   

Here's the video of his talk: 



The Wikipedia Deletion Wars

There's a fabulous insider's account of how topics make it or don't make it into Wikipedia. Why does one person, company, or place get their page while another doesn't?The process is full of flawed humanity, and not at all as objective as a newbie might think. Written by Nicholson Baker, this detailed report is tucked into a book review of "Wikipedia: The Missing Manual".

This first-person account, disguised as a long book review in the New York Review of Books, delves deep into the core negotiations that every line in Wikipedia is subject to. But the piece really shines in describing a current fad on Wikipedia -- deleting less popular subjects entirely. Here's a bit: 

In the fall of 2006, groups of editors went around getting rid of articles on webcomic artists—some of the most original and articulate people on the Net. They would tag an article as nonnotable and then crowd in to vote it down. One openly called it the "web-comic articles purge of 2006." A victim, Trev-Mun, author of a comic called Ragnarok Wisdom, wrote: "I got the impression that they enjoyed this kind of thing as a kid enjoys kicking down others' sand castles." Another artist, Howard Tayler, said: "'Notability purges' are being executed throughout Wikipedia by empire-building, wannabe tin-pot dictators masquerading as humble editors." Rob Balder, author of a webcomic called PartiallyClips, likened the organized deleters to book burners, and he said: "Your words are polite, yeah, but your actions are obscene. Every word in every valid article you've destroyed should be converted to profanity and screamed in your face." 

As the deletions and ill-will spread in 2007—deletions not just of webcomics but of companies, urban places, Web sites, lists, people, categories, and ideas—all deemed to be trivial, "NN" (nonnotable), "stubby," undersourced, or otherwise unencyclopedic—Andrew Lih, one of the most thoughtful observers of Wikipedia's history, told a Canadian reporter: "The preference now is for excising, deleting, restricting information rather than letting it sit there and grow."

Image from The Great Wikipedia Webcomic Purge of 2007

Baker's ode to the complexities of Wikipedia's genesis is crammed with wonderful details. He describes the little-known fact that many articles about historical subjects begin from older encyclopedias in the public domain.

But [Wikipedia] also became great because it had a head start: from the beginning the project absorbed articles from the celebrated 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is in the public domain. And not only the 1911 Britannica. Also absorbed were Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Nuttall's 1906 Encyclopedia, Chamber's Cyclopedia, Aiken's General Biography, Rose's Biographical Dictionary, Easton's Bible Dictionary, and many others. In August 2001, a group of articles from W.W. Rouse Ball's Short Account of the History of Mathematics—posted on the Net by a professor from Trinity College, Dublin—was noticed by an early Wikipedian, who wrote to his co-volunteers: "Are they fair game to grab as source material for our wikipedia? I know we are scarfing stuff from the 1911 encyclopedia, this is from 1908, so it should be under the same lack of restrictions...." It was. Rouse Ball wrote that Pierre Varignon

    "was an intimate friend of Newton, Leibnitz and the Bernoullis, and, after l'Hospital, was the earliest and most powerful advocate in France of the use of differential calculus."

In January 2006, Wikipedia imported this 1908 article, with an insertion and a few modernizing rewordings, and it now reads:

    "Varignon was a friend of Newton, Leibnitz, and the Bernoulli family. Varignon's principal contributions were to graphic statics and mechanics. Except for l'Hôpital, Varignon was the earliest and strongest French advocate of differential calculus."

But the article is now three times longer, barnacled with interesting additions, and includes a link to another article discussing Varignon's mechanical theory of gravitation.

We have a idealized notion of how Wikipedia is created -- that there is a inert Darwinian struggle between uninformed nonsense and higher quality information as they are selected in the hive mind, and the good stuff wins over time. The truth is that Wikipedia is a hive mind of human ego, hubris, obsession, and passion. Each article suffers through a human drama worthy of a soap opera. Indeed I can safely predict there will be novels and TV shows built around the maelstrom in a single Wikipedia article someday.

To the creators of Web 2.0 and beyond it is vital to remember than this power of the hive mind is intensely messy and full of the wild territory of personality and humanity. The crowd is both wiser and more irrational in aggregate. The tools to make this crowd useful are primarily the tools of dealing with people.

So who won the deletion wars? According to Wikipedia, the deletionists lost. Sure articles are deleted all the time, but there is more agreement now on the kind of articles that truly are worth keeping.

If every Wikipedian had been a staunch inclusionist, we'd have tens of thousands of articles on gay and smelly high school kids, not to mention every pet cat who ever did something adorable. On the other hand, if every Wikipedian had been a staunch deletionist, we'd be a boring clone of Encarta with no ads. Maybe each side did have something to offer after all, even if it was only keeping the other side down. But the time of the deletionists and inclusionists has, now and forever, come to an end...


Non-Commodificable in Newsprint

A followup on my Better Than Free, which concern things which could not be easily copied. Michael Hirschorn, writing in the Atlantic, muses on whether newspapers have to be boring in order to survive. He compares what newspapers think is important -- what they put on the front page -- with what readers think is interesting -- what articles they forward to friends.

I reviewed a week’s worth of front pages of The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times in September and compared them with each day’s most–e-mailed list.  I had expected the most–e-mailed results to track the lineups of the more baldly audience-focused TV newscasts, which have increasingly made a fetish of “news that matters to you,” and hence are packed with tedious features on your health, your real estate, your job, your children, and so forth.

In other words, that's the conventional wisdom about newsy stuff: There's the boring important things on the front page and the frivolous self-help stuff on the rest. What Hirschorn found in his study was different:

Instead, the most–e-mailed lists, despite a smattering of parochial concerns, were a rich stew of global affairs, provocative insight, hot-button issues, pop culture, compelling narrative, and enlightened localism. In short, they were interesting. What they were not, generally, was important, at least not in the grand tectonic geopolitical sense. 

The boring news -- most of it "important" -- is now a commodity, easily found and replicated. Hirschorn continues:

The real value now lies in non-commodificable virtues like deep reporting, strong narrative, distinct point of view, and sharp analysis, which even in the blogger era (or especially in the blogger era) is available only piecemeal. 


He points to several examples of newspapers who are emphasizing the non-commodificable virtues, which are closely aligned with my non-copiable generatives. As one example he suggests the front page of the Wall Street Journal (not freely online, at the moment).

The Journal, as a business paper, has been using its front-page news digest to dispense with commodity news for decades, while employing its valuable real estate to pinpoint trends, elevate key personalities, and, with the lighter middle-column stories, reinforce its brand of wry amusement at the capitalist carnival.

I agree with this. The front page of the WSJ was always my favorite, pursuing novel subjects in depth, yet being relevant in unusual ways. The virtues folks want from newspapers are, he says:

...a high-low mix of agenda-setting reportage and analysis, strong storytelling on topics not being covered everywhere else, and saucy, knowing takeouts on people the readership actually cares about.


BIL, the Unconference

Tomorrow the annual TED conference begins. TED is an intense four or five days of world-class presenters across a wide-range of subjects. While the quality of talks is uneven (for 80 in total this is inevitable), I feel safe in saying that overall TED offers a chance to see the world's best speakers and highly evolved presentations. In the years I've gone, I have not been bored for long. 

But TED is a very scripted, controlled, high-priced conference. A ticket costs is $6,000 -- if you sign up a year in advance. Recently TED has begun to post favorite past talks online for free, which of course (Better than free!) only makes the live experience more coveted. 

Picture 2

In response to the highly edited and out-of-reach price of TED, a shadow conference has emerged. Called BIL (get it? BIL and TED), this is an unconference that will take place in Monterey, CA (where TED operates) beginning Saturday, this weekend, March 1-2. The schedule is not quite parallel to TED, but it does overlap by a day. 

Like most unconferences, BIL is a user-generated meeting. It's free. Anyone can come. Anyone can present. The agenda and schedule are self-organized starting with a wiki, and a white board at the event.

Some of the speakers signed up for BIL, the free shadow TED, have spoken at TED before, some should speak at TED in the future, and some are people you will never hear at TED.  And like all conferences, some who talk should not -- but hey, that happens at TED as well.  Here are some sample talks now on the agenda:

Millicomputing: The Coolest CPUs and the Flashiest Storage - Adrian Cockcroft
How to Be a Successful Heretic - Aubrey de Grey
An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything - A Garrett Lisi
Darknets - fascist gated associations, or intentional community - Baron RK Von Wolfsheild
Always the Next Human - Quinn Norton
Motivation Psychology. Learning Optimism. - Kai Chang
The Rise of the Machines and the End of Transit - Brad Templeton
Stem Cells- Everything You Wanted To Know But Were Afraid to Ask - Daniel Kraft

Sadly I am out of town this week, so while I will be a TED, I will miss BIL. But if you would like an intense, unique learning experience, go to BIL.

Unconferences have a long history. They began as supplimental self-organized birds-of-a-feather  meetings at tech conferences. I believe the first Hackers' Conference we organized in 1984 had BoF meetings. The idea was people with a strong interest would publicly post their passion in meeting other like-minded folks and then the interested parties would self-organize a gathering in the evening hours. Those meetings were often so productive, many folks had a similar idea: forget about speakers at a podium. Just host an entire conference consisting of nothing but self-organized gatherings in small rooms. Tim O'Reilly extended the scale of the gathering to include free camping outside on a lawn in his FooCamp (below).


FooCamp really works. Here is a the matrix white board from the first FooCamp where individuals can sign up their intention to speak at a certain time.


The rest of the gathering will either pick someone to listen to, or sign up to speak themselves.  It becomes a free-market of ideas at that point.  Popular ideas get a crowded room, less popular ones don't. One can begin to detect patterns of interest emerging.


FooCamp is invitational, and so it spawned BarCamp, now held all over the world, which are open to anyone. The principles of an unconference (as articulated by Open Space) are:

Whoever comes are the right people.
Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
Whenever it starts is the right time.
Whenever it is over it is over.

Here is how to organize a powerful unconference. This can work inside a company as well as in public.

1) Establish a venue with many smaller rooms, and a time. You may need to provide food.

2) Post the invitation on a wiki.  Let users volunteer to speak, decide the agenda, and get a sense of who is coming using the wiki. There is a BarCamp Wiki template here.

3) At a meeting room during the venue erect a large board with a blank matrix. Attending speakers will sign up for rooms and time slots.

4) Enjoy as people and ideas connect.

OK, it is not really that easy. Someone has to get it going, rent the rooms, cover costs, and make sure folks end on time. For a really great tutorial on how to organize an unconference see Darren Barefoot's write up.

By miles, these kinds of unconferences have yielded more for me than any other type of meeting. An unconference give the highest ratio of new, unexpected, never-thought-of-that ideas than any other venue I am aware of.


Evolution and Ontogeny of Game Characters

Over time, even game characters evolve.

The change in these Nintendo characters since their birth display the universal sequence we see in evolution and biological development. Organisms go from general indistinctness to ever greater and sharper distinctness.


We can read these shifts in Mario, Link and Donkey Kong as if they occurred in real organisms. A similar pattern occurs both in an individual as it grows from embryo to adult, and in life as a whole as species evolve from generalized organism to specialized one. This parallel pattern is sometimes known as recapitulation theory. In short form it says "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." In other words the development of the individual embryo (ontogeny) rehearses the development of the species (phylogeny). For instance, in embryo humans have gill structures which suggests that in embryo humans replay our earlier evolutionary past "fish" form. Scientifically, this is an exaggeration, and very few organisms actually recapitulate their evolution, but in broad soft strokes there is a truth to it.

The general trend in evolution is to move from generalization to specialization. From simple structure to complex. And from indistinct to distinct.  That movement is seen very clearly in this timeline of Nintendo characters. They start out as embryonic balls, with generalized parts. An eye is a single pixel to begin with. Later on it becomes multi-pixeled, and later each pixel is doing something different -- different color and function. Hands move from a few general indistinct pixels to more complex forms with specialized parts -- fingers, wrists, etc.

It is not hard to forecast the next steps in this evo-devo. More specialization, sharper distinctions, additional complexity.

Image found on Kontraband


The Kitchen Computer

Marketers seem not to have picked up on this: 

The most used computer in our house -- and many of our friends -- is the one in the middle of the kitchen.

Not only is it the most used computer in our household, it has become the most used device in our house. More than the kitchen light (which is merely on at night), or the dishwasher, or the TV or radio, or our cars. There is simply no tool we use as much, or with as much satisfaction. Yet, I've never seen an ad for the kitchen computer.

It wasn't always this way. A kitchen computer seemed a complete gilded luxury for a very computer-intensive household. But three years ago we bought an elegant Apple G5 iMac computer and set it down smack in the middle of our kitchen. It is one of the few seemingly non-essential purchases I've made that we have zero regrets about. If any of us are home this thing will be used. We play music on it. Watch DVDs while cooking. During dinner it answers questions. Our son plays online games on it. The teenagers will video conference with friends. We retrieve last minute maps from it. My wife does remote email from work. There are five people in our family and while we each have our own laptops or desktops, we are constantly looking things up on this ever-ready central node.

Kitchen Computer

What has been so fascinating is to see how much public or social use this one machine gets. For instance, this device seems to be the place to do YouTube. The beauty of YouTube is sharing clips, and nothing beats sharing your favorite video clips in the kitchen. We stand around as friends show off their favorites. We tend to forget, or ignore, the social aspects of exploring, learning, and playing -- which is a lot of what online life is. These functions are enhanced when engaging them in the social space of a kitchen.

As many parents has noticed, this family social space serves as a great "screen" for kids online. We can not only keep an eye of what is happening online, we can also occasionally participate. Open-air (so to speak) usage also enhances the social process of asking questions. A kitchen-based node is also perfect for family-based queries as looking for a house to buy, or even shopping for gifts for siblings. Now that our eldest daughter has gone away to college we use the iMac's camera to video conference with her in her dorm in the evenings, or with my parents back on the east coast. That's another wonderful family event headquartered in the kitchen.

You could remove many electronic boxes from our home and we would not miss them. But if you took our kitchen computer away, it would hurt. In fact two weeks ago the Mac had to go in for repairs, and we kept turing to its vacant spot for help, only to groan. It felt a little like some feel without their cell phone.

I am reminded of how 15 years ago I bought a cheap computer projector (then solely used for office presentations) and hooked it up to a DVD player and surround sound to make a low-rent home theater (in our TV-less house). It was better than our local multiplex. I couldn't figure out why everyone didn't do that, or least why no projectors were engineered or sold for that purpose. At the time cheap home projectors for a large screen were a geeky hack. Now, of course, the same manufacturers are marketing inexpensive home theater projectors for just this purpose. 

I believe in a few years electronic manufacturers -- maybe Apple -- will aim devices for the incredibly rich social space of the kitchen. In the meantime, everyone should set one up in the heart of the home.  Online is a family affair.

UPDATE: Steven Leckart brings to my attention that an early commercial computer, The Honeywell 316 in 1969, was at one point pitched for the kitchen. According to Wikipedia, "It sold for $10,000, weighs over 100 pounds, and is used for storing recipes (but reading or entering these recipes would have been very difficult for the average cook as the only "user interface" was the binary front panel lights and switches). It had a built in cutting board and had a few recipes built in. There is no evidence that any Honeywell Kitchen Computers were ever sold." In short it was a concept computer, a marketing probe.

Kitchen Computer Ad-1


Flash Presentations, 20/20

Here's a great way to bring people up to speed, or connect people with new, unorthodox and unexpected ideas. Limit presentations to 20 slides, 20 seconds each. Six minutes total.

This flash presentation method really works. Instead of letting presenters drone on for 30-45 minutes with endless unreadable text-crammed slides, you set PowerPoint or Keynote to automatically display no more than 20 slides for no more than 15 to 20 seconds each. The result: 6-minute talks with dense, significant visuals, and everyone clamoring for more. It's the blog version of a conference.

Try it where your work!

Very few ideas cannot be condensed to a 5-minute pitch. Very few can be done justice in 5 minutes either. But these flash demo sessions are not meant to exhaust a subject. Rather they are pitches meant to gather interest in face-to-face questions later. They work best in informal settings such as workshops, department staff meetings, or evening mixers at a cafe or gallery, where networking can happen afterwards.

Five-minute-pitch evenings have been a staple of the more innovative tech conferences for years, but usually as a side show. They are often run sort of like open mike nights. Anything could happen in those five minutes, including bad singing.

A few years ago some western design folks living in Japan formalized the format to just 20 slides for 20 seconds each. Each designer, architect, photographer or artist would get 6.5 minutes to showcase their work. The hosts would rent a bar for the evening and feature up to 20 designers in one evening. Afterwards every one would mingle and chat. Calling the event Pecha Kucha (chit chat in Japanese) the hosts scheduled one every month in Tokyo. Soon the concept was franchised around the world. You can find a Pecha Kucha in most design-crazy major cities.

I've attended several Pecha Kucha evenings in San Francisco, and they are pretty cool. Twenty slides, twenty seconds is more than plenty for most subjects and most presenters.

Pecha Kucha

A group of geeks in London, inspired by Pecha Kucha, migrated the idea to technology and started Techa Kucha evenings. They later changed their name to Ask Later -- as in listen for 6 minutes and ask questions later. About 8 years ago Douglas Repetto in NYC started Dorkbot as a scheduled tech demo night, offering peer support for folks "doing strange things with electricity." Dorkbot is now a global grassroots network of geeks meeting regularly in 60 cities to demo their stuff informally.

Each dorkbot is different and is driven by the needs and interests of people in the local community. But generally, the main goals of dorkbot are: to create an informal, friendly environment in which people can talk about the work they're doing and to foster discussion about that work; to help bring together people from different backgrounds who are interested in similar things; to give us all an opportunity to see the strange things our neighbors are doing with electricity. dorkbot isn't really a forum for formal artist talks or lectures, but rather a chance for diverse people to have friendly conversations about interesting ideas.

While Dorkbot may have "lightening" demos, most of their presentations are 20-30 minutes. I've joined these longer session tech nights,  and I find the additional constraints of the 20/20 flash format really helps refine the talks. 

Brady Forrest, of O'Reilly Media, has further refined the tech hybrid version of flash presentations. He launched Ignite Seattle in which the geek demo evening of dorkbot is married to the formal limits of 20 slides. To further speed up the process, he limited the 20 slides to 15 seconds each, for a total of 5 minutes total for the entire demo, pitch, or show and tell. Previous Ignites sessions have included ways to hack chocolate, beekeeping ideas, or a paper airplane throwing contest (pictured below). All are available on video. If you are in the Seattle area there is a Ignite tonight.

449096247 2Eb3301778

Everywhere else, the format is waiting to be duplicated in your city. It works great as a mixer.

Also, a few businesses have discovered the virtues of the 20/20 format for internal meetings. I believe its a better alternative than simply banning PowerPoint presentations altogether, which some bold companies have done.  I'd happily sit through 5-6 minutes of 20 slides rather than listen to 5-6 minutes of unfocused talk.

If your company tries this, I'd like to hear what happens.


Live HD

I attended the New York Metropolitan Opera yesterday, except I was in California. The Met has a new program of broadcasting their current opera live to HD digital projection movie theaters around the country. Our local cineplex in Daly City (Bay Area) was one of the hosts so I gave it a try. I was an opera virgin, but really enjoyed it. 


I could easily follow along with the subtitles. The big screen quality was excellent, minus three or four glitches in the transmission (everyone stutters for a few seconds). But overall you get the best seat in the house. You are close enough (via the camera) to see the actor's faces, and in between scenes to go backstage and witness the elaborate mechanics of stage-craft. Like football, watching in HD is far better than being at the game itself. The Met HD Live gives a hint of how great hi-def media will transform spectacles.

Nabucoa1Fire 233


Circle of Life

Life is complicated.  We inhabit the same tangled network of life, but have different ways of living. We are all connected in real ways. We all -- and here I mean all living creatures on earth -- share common ancestors. Somewhere back in time you share a relative with a snail, a fern, a clam, and a mite. The only true map of this jumbled ancestry in time would be a chart that showed the heritage of every single individual organism that ever lived -- and obvious impossibility.

Short of that precision, ANY other map of the relationships between creatures is a piece of poetry, no matter what scientific journal it appears in. There is no tree of life that is true. Every category we cast organisms into, including the category of species, is a handy idealization. We use ideal notions like species to reduce the "impossible" complexity of historical relationships into something simple enough that we can look at.  Without the gross exaggerations of what we call "species," we could not begin to see the connections between creatures. Yet every view of how species relate in time is warped and wrong in some way.

Even DNA sequencing will not erase this cloud of uncertainty. Instead DNA sequencing will strongly reveal the gross approximations that species, as a category, actually are. However DNA gives us a new strongly consistent warped view of species, a view which can be applied across all types of organisms. The  DNA view is more consistent that evaluating the shape and similarity of body parts, but poetry still.

The orthodox map of the relationships between varieties of life is the Tree, as in the Tree of Life. This "arboreal" metaphor is okay because it is so easy to hold in our primeval minds, but there is a better metaphor for this history. Biologist David Hillis, MacArthur award grantee, has been developing a fantastic "circle of life" view of all life based on DNA (actually rRNA) sequences. It retains some characteristics of the tree, but bent around into a circle so that it has no beginning, no end. It looks like this:


A simplified version looks like this:


In the center is the hypothetical ur-organsim, ancestor of all living creatures today. All creatures today form the rim of the circle's circumference. In between the rim and the center are the zillions of intermediary fossils who once lived on this planet. You are at place where the U in the red dot points to.

There are several advantages to this view. Because of the circle, no organism is privileged with being above another. A circle has not top. We humans are somewhere in the lineup, but where depends on how you turn the chart. This circle of life also better captures the idea that all living organisms today are equally evolved. By definition, any  organism alive today (shown on the outer rim) can boast an unbroken chain of ancestors who have survived the same number of years, 4.5 billions years. The snail, fern, clam and mite have all undergone an equally long path to now. They are all the results of 4.5 billion years of evolution. The fern's 4.5 billion-year answer to how to survive is to steal energy from the sun; the snail to steal it from the fern; the mite to steal it from the snail, and the deep vent clam, to steal it from the heat of the earth. Humans have yet another set of answers, but we've also needed 4.5 billion years to think of them.



The free is a hot topic in the new economy. But there's another dimension of the free economy. It's a sub-set of the economy some call the "freeconomy."  The freeconomy primarily operates in meat-space. Here everything is free; money, especially profit, is verboten.

Dropping out of the monied economy has been a subversive act explored by each generation. Centuries ago in England, the Diggers preached "levelling" of the economy, and called themselves True Levellers. In American historical times, Henry David Thoreau inhabited the freeconomy all by himself in in the 1850s. Hippies settled in it en-mass in the 1960s. Starting about ten years ago, Burning Man pioneered a large-scale version of money-less existence for the digital generation. Burning Man's capital of Black Rock City runs on the gift economy, essentially outlawing money -- except for the hefty fee to enter it!

Three other new strands of the gift economy have appeared recently.

One is is the very active Freecycle community. Freecycle operates a web site where you can advertise (for free) an article or service available for free. They also use the "free" section of Craig's List. Anyone, whether you are a greedy cheapskate, or a philosophical communitarian, or a radical no-work advocate, or free-believer -- anyone can get stuff for free. Feels wonderful to find great working goods this way, and to give them away -- rather than throw them away.

Then there are the Freegans. Sort of like vegans, freegans strive for a pure lifestyle that is easy on the earth. Of course they are green but freegans try to use only free things in all aspects of their life. Rather than just giving up buying retail, they support three activities that are familiar to me from my youth: voluntary joblessness (slacking), free transportation (hitchhiking), and waste reclamation (scrounging). To put it the way their website does:

Freeganism is a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations and where massively complex systems of productions ensure that all the products we buy will have detrimental impacts most of which we may never even consider. Thus, instead of avoiding the purchase of products from one bad company only to support another, we avoid buying anything to the greatest degree we are able.

Freegans believe that housing is a RIGHT, not a privilege. Just as freegans consider it an atrocity for people to starve while food is thrown away, we are also outraged that people literally freeze to death on the streets while landlords and cities keep buildings boarded up and vacant because they can’t turn a profit on making them available as housing.

Unfortunately, freegans have become associated with a very lucrative free activity: dumpster diving. I know from personal experience you can find ALL KINDS of great stuff in dumpsters, but it's sure not going to win you status points in ordinary social circles.


Most recently a new group has emerged on the "freescape." It's Freeconomy and they would like to eliminate or ignore money altogether. Not just capitalism, but moneyism.

I once thought the idea of a world without money was the most ridiculous and naive idea I had ever heard in my life. But I've been slowly ruminating on an article by Michael Golbhaber that I ran in Wired a decade ago. He proposed an economy that left money behind and ran on attention. At first it seems utopian, but I've come to regard it as a viable scenario for the future.

For some people, a money-less economy can't come soon enough, but I don't think they are ready (who is?) for the weirdness and unfairnesses an attention economy would bring. Mark Boyle, a former dot-com guy in the UK, plans to walk from Bristol UK to the birthplace of Ghandi in India -- without using or even handling money along the way. He intends to basically panhandle across several continent -- but he's added an extra challenge in that he won't accept spare change. He wants food, shelter and rides.

According to Treehugger, Boyle says: "My interest started five or six years ago when I was studying economics,” says Boyle. "The more we accumulate wealth, the more it leads to a breakdown of community."

Boyle, who has just started the trek in January, 2008, hopes he can use his message of peace, equality, and fairness to persuade others, particularly those without very much, to give him sustenance in exchange for his message. He's not the first person to walk without money. Peace Pilgrim spent 28 years crisscrossing the US seven times on foot, without money, relying on the gifts of strangers, in an effort to bring peace.

Boyles greatest challenge in trying to import the gift economy to places like India, where begging is rampant, is to convince people he is a freeconomist, as he likes to call himself, and not a freeloader.

When considering the free economy, I think it is important to understand that the free -- the gift economy, the open source movement, and the digital flow of free copies -- is not an panacea to the ills of capitalism. Although there are many wonderful things about, it is not perfect, and posses much that needs to be counterbalanced in other ways.

An anonymous pamphleteer from the modern-day Digger commune in San Francisco, a player in the active gift economy that sprung up in California in the late 1960s and '70s, pointed out some keen insights into the nature of the freeconomy in a funky newspaper handed out for free in 1978.

4510-625A S06A S

Free is not the end-in-all of the universe-- just a humble handy practice to set some things in it straight. It never really caught on except in Surrey and San Francisco, and for all I know may need a highly specialized environment to thrive. There are dozens of other remedies, of equal potency, for the world's various ills, and each remedy has its advantages and drawbacks. Use free where applicable. It would be a mistake to stick to it rigidly in a situation or place where it wouldn't work or be comprehended, just as it would be a mistake not to try it out, because of preconceptions about its practicality. For example, a free soup kitchen in Tangiers would probably get all the local soup kitchen proprietors upset and you busted. However a cheap soup kitchen that subtly lost money could probably fly. You can never ignore the local ecology, on the contrary, you have to know it well. You have to know what you can get away with and what strategy will be most effective, to right the wrongs you want to right.

The social justice aspect of the free is a part of the free movement, but only a part. The larger point is that in any economy the free will always only be one option. It is a tool. All tools must find their appropriate place and time. Free in the digital world is always just one path, and it must be wielded and managed in the context of other options.


Visual Music Instruments


I saw this demo of a new musical instrument/toy in Vic, Spain. Called Reactable, it employs physical blocks which are moved by hand(s) on a sensing table. Each different block triggers a different musical or sound event. Spacial distance and orientation counts in the compostion. Invented by some Barcelona geeks, it's been making the rounds in Europe. The display is intensely visceral. You see the music as well as hear it, as well as feel it in the blocks as you move them. You can get a sense of its potential from this YouTube tutorial video.


I saw the Reactable played in a small bar near Vic university (video of the event is shown below). It was mesmerizing to watch, even more fun to play.You intuitively know what to do. No manual required.


Apparently Bjork saw this YouTube demo and had one built for her own use. During one of Bjorks' performences a dj plays the Reactable about halfway through the video. 

This visual instrument reminds me slightly of elegent Nintendo GameBoy music toy, Electroplankton. Here you need to use a stylus to move the musical agents, but you achieve a similar result: you can see the spatial dimensions of the musical arrangement.


There is a least one group taking the Electroplankton platform seriously. The Electro Plankton Quartet play four Nintendos. They have a MySpace page where you can hear some samples.




You can't travel anywhere on the web these days without bumping into the notion of the Long Tail. As conceived of by Wired's Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson, the long tail is the sizable hunk of all the millions of obscure things that sell only a few, but match the sales of bestsellers in total. The Long Tail is represented as the area under the sinking curve that never quite reaches zero, but seems to extend forever: Infinite niche. 

That's background for a new verb I noticed a year ago. Nick Carr, internet consultant and useful curmudgeon, writing in his blog, Rough Type, tends to find the virtues of the long tail to be exaggerated, if not wrong, at least in the blogosphere. 

In a November 10, 2006 blog posting Carr postulated that blogs were headed down to further obscurity rather than up to the floodlights of fame.  He wrote: "Back in October 2004, there were three blogs in the Technorati top 10. Last year, there was one. Today, there are zero. Defining the short head more broadly, as the top 100 sites, provides an even starker picture of the rapid downtailing of blogs." 


Downtailing!!  This is the perfect word for the slow descent down the ranks of influence. One can imagine one's book, movie or career downtailing, which indicates not only a move down, but more importantly a move out -- to the edges of irrelevancy. To the wilderness of obscurity. To the silence of the solo audience. With tail down between legs, it's a cross between demotion and exile. 

And here is the cool part. When I checked the Googleness of "downtailing" in November 2006, it had the near-impossible Google Hit Count of 1. That is, Carr had the word to himself, the only reference on Google being his own blog. As far as Google knew, no one else had ever used this word. So if it ever took off, we'd know its birthplace.

Since that time I have not heard anyone else use it. I just Googled the term again today. After 13 months "downtailing" now has a hit count of 7. Interestingly, one use seems to be found in a 1994 biography of Conor O'Brien.

I still think downtailing is the perfect word to indicate a slide away from relevance. To me it captures a shift in the flavor of moving not from the A list to the B list, but moving from the C list to the Z list. I know it is hard to believe, but someday Britney Spears will downtail. This is not the same as downfall, because as we have seen sometimes downfalls can yield uptail. Many celebrities find their links uptailing as they downfall.

Uptailing! That's what we all want to do. Ever the optimist and pollyanna, I claim the term uptailing. (Take that, Carr.) The term is staring out with a Google Hit Count of 9. Most of the uses are for ducks uptailing as they dive. Of course, I am proposing "uptailing" as what happens when a work or artist crawls at bit from the outer limits of the long tail up towards the fatter end (still miles from bestsellerdom). You hope to uptail to the place where getting pirated, sampled, mashed and parodied is something you look forward to. After you've uptailed, then you worry about getting ripped off.


Playing Digital Games Together

One of my biggest surprises as a parent has been to see how often video games and computer games turned into social events. I had been led by many media reports to believe that playing video games was an anti-social act. So when our kids turned player age, I  was expecting to see them hide away while playing games. Sure, that does happen, but more often their choice is to play games -- whether video, computer, or with balls outside -- with their friends.


Game boys, including my son, playing video games -- all of them -- together.

Contrary to the stereotype, I would often observe the "game boys" play their Game Boys in a circle next to each other. Or they'll play console games in a bunch. Even when only one computer is available, they'll either a) look over the shoulder of the one playing, giving advice, or b) log on and use the video conferencing software to play "together." One channel is for talking (and on the Mac up to three of them can videoconference at once), one channel for IMing, and one channel is for exploring the game with shared virtual characters. Most multi-player games (like Runescape and WoW) have built in chat, so there is constant virtual togetherness.

It has become clear to me that if both the very young, the hip young, and old have a choice they all would much prefer to play virtual games in a room together, or together outside if the technology allowed it.  They don't want the games to be anti-social, and I don't think the technology wants that either.


Jeanne Gildea, 81, at a retirement community in Silver Spring, Md., enjoying Wii, which has expanded gaming’s reach.

Today's New York Times offered an article making the same claim. It points out that some of the best selling games now are inherently social, The Nintendo Wii and Guitar Hero are just two examples of devices that want to be used with others.

Ever since video games decamped from arcades and set up shop in the nation’s living rooms in the 1980s, they have been thought of as a pastime enjoyed mostly alone. The image of the antisocial, sunlight-deprived game geek is enshrined in the popular consciousness as deeply as any stereotype of recent decades.

That’s changing. Online PC games in which thousands of players gab and explore together are attracting tens of millions of subscribers. Back in the living room, Nintendo’s revolutionary Wii system has helped forge a new audience for gaming among families, women and older people, who had been turned off by the complex, violent and solitary adventures that once dominated the market.
The piece by Seth Scheisel ends with this insightful summary:
If new acceptance by the masses is one pillar of gaming’s future, gaming’s emergence as a social phenomenon is the other. Hard-core gamers are still willing to spend 30 hours playing alone through a single-player story line, but most people want more human contact in their entertainment.

That is why World of Warcraft, the king of online games, now has more than 10 million users. That is why Guitar Hero is now a fixture on campus. That is why Nintendo has become the dominant mass-market game company.

I suggest that in another ten years when we hear the world digital game we will immediately assume that it involves more than one person playing. In fact rather than call some games "multi-player," we'll have to go in the other direction and use the qualifier "uni-player" to indicate we mean those few games one plays alone.


Forest-Fire Marketing

A fantastic article in Fast Company ( Is the Tipping Point Toast? ) by Clive Thompson reports on the viral-spreading research of Duncan Watts. The article itself is getting a lot of attention and rippling through the mediasphere like a viral marketing idea. I highly recommend you read the piece which is full of news, and some picturesque experiments.  Even better is to read Watt's books. His most recent is the new "Six Degrees."

The Fast Company piece starts off by reminding us all of the current orthodoxy about viral markets and the flow of trends.  "Big mouths count," may be the summary. This view has been shaped by Malcom Gladwell's perennial bestseller "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference." As Thompson recounts:

"What we are really saying," [Gladwell] writes, "is that in a given process or system, some people matter more than others." In modern marketing, this idea--that a tiny cadre of connected people triggers trends--is enormously seductive. It is the very premise of viral and word-of-mouth campaigns: Reach those rare, all-powerful folks, and you'll reach everyone else through them, basically for free. Loosely, this is referred to as the Influentials theory, and while it has been a marketing touchstone for 50 years, it has recently reentered the mainstream imagination via thousands of marketing studies and a host of best-selling books. In addition to The Tipping Point, there was "The Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy" by marketing gurus Ed Keller and Jon Berry, as well as the gospel according to PR firms such as Burson-Marsteller, which claims "E-Fluentials" can "make or break a brand."

Only trouble is, when Watts started modeling the way rumors and email fly around a network he could not replicate the power of influentials. Clive reports:

Why didn't the Influentials wield more power? With 40 times the reach of a normal person, why couldn't they kick-start a trend every time? Watts believes this is because a trend's success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend--not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded.
"If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one--and if it isn't, then almost no one can," Watts concludes.

Perhaps the problem with viral marketing is that the disease metaphor is misleading. Watts thinks trends are more like forest fires: There are thousands a year, but only a few become roaring monsters. That's because in those rare situations, the landscape was ripe: sparse rain, dry woods, badly equipped fire departments. If these conditions exist, any old match will do. "And nobody," Watts says wryly, "will go around talking about the exceptional properties of the spark that started the fire."

Forest Fire[Hr]

This picture of a primed environment ready to be triggered matches more with my own experience. Perhaps we can think of it as "forest-fire marketing." What marketers should be scouting is the best place and time to start the fire. Despite the common myth, it can be hard to get a forest to burn, if it is not ready. There is an art to starting fires. Of course there is not art to starting a fire when it hasn't rained in 6 months, it's 99 out, and there is a 60 mph wind.

I find that there are some people more influential than others, but they by no means form a gating function, nor an igniting function. If they did, they would be harnessed much more deliberately than they are. In fact they would wield tremendous power. If anyone could even pick out which bands, shoes, films, books, colors, bags, songs were going to succeed with any statistical reliability, they would be billionaires. But in fact, influentials aren't usually right. As Watts says:

Trends aren't merely hard to predict and engineer--they occur essentially at random.

The real influencers are random sparks, touching off a blaze of pent-up potential. Watts has built his theories on a number of clever experiments. Lately he's been trying to invent aids to harness the "random sparkers" rather than the influentials, to see if you can at least get a forest to burn when it is ready.  One idea is to create a way for people to see the result of their own marketing.

Typically, people ignore this "share with your friends" pitch. But Watts and Peretti included technology called ForwardTrack, which displays the route the ad travels once you've forwarded it. This turned ad forwarding into a piece of social cartography. People would pass the ad specifically to those friends most likely to keep it moving. It became a Facebook-like contest to sign up the most friends.

Whether it works remains to be seen. Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing believes that Watt's research is aimed at explaining not the runaway hits, but the mediocre successes.

Reading through the piece, it seems to me that Watts is primarily concerned with those ideas that don't "break out" and swamp the mainstream -- if you're going to have a modestly successful idea, how can you increase that modest success two- or three-fold? It may be that the combination of a hugely influential person; a simple, easy-to-communicate idea and a receptive market can go viral and be on everyone's lips in a few days. But what if you've got a hard-to-communicate, subtle idea and you want to maximize its spread?

Guy Kawasaki, the evengelism-marketing guru who spent a lot of time trying to convert people to the Macintosh says:

How does Watts’ thinking square with evangelism? I don’t see a conflict because evangelism is about “bringing the good news” to everyone and then supporting the people who “get it.” Evangelism is not about sucking up to only people who are famous and self-important. To wit, few Fortune 500 CIOs helped make Macintosh successful. It was unknown artists, designers, hobbyists, and user-group members who made Macintosh successful, and we could have not identified them in advance.

If Watts in correct, then how should this change marketing? Guy has a few suggestions:

    * Spend less time and effort on industry events and other focused PR and marketing that involves sucking up to journalists, analysts, and experts. Spend more time and effort pressing the flesh of real customers. Typically, you won’t meet too many customers at a Ritz Carlton.
    * Try mass marketing because you never know who will be your “accidental influential.” Or, as the saying goes, “Let a hundred flowers blossom” to determine who “gets” your product. Admittedly, the challenge is to find a cost-effective way to do mass marketing.
    * Forget A-list bloggers. Lousy reviews by them cannot tank your product. Great reviews cannot make it successful. Focus on big numbers—any Technorati 1,000,000 blogger can be a channel to reach people. If enough people like your product, the A-list bloggers will have to write about you.

Seth Godin, who wrote the book about viral marketing ("Unleashing the Ideavirus") responded to Thompson's article on Watts by declaring markets need both, the influentials and the regular mass market fans. You need word of mouth, and influentials have big mouths.

What should be really clear, though, is that people with big audiences certainly count as one of the people around you. If the guy down the row at work buys a Mac Air, it counts. If Guy buys a Mac Air, it counts just as much (or possibly a bit more). If a kid in school is listening to Ini, it counts. And if you hear HotStepper on a popular radio station, it counts just as much. Since people with big audiences have more 'friends' and have more 'people down the hall', they have more influence. Not because they count for more, just because they 'know' more people.

This is reasonable advice. Usually the answer for any question in the new economy is "all of the above."  For most cases you'll need some version of mass marketing AND viral marketing.  You need to reach the random sparkers and the big mouths.

But please read Clive's piece. It's very good.


Incremental Vs. Discrete Content

A year or more ago I signed up as a member of the Citizendium. It was announced as the alternative to the Wikipedia. This "alternative" to the Wikipedia was started by Larry Sanger, who co-founded the Wikipedia with Jimmy Wales. Sanger felt that the Wikipedia, as it came to be, lacked crucial editing functions to keep it reliable and accurate. Because he felt that his offspring Wikipedia would not change sufficiently in that direction, he reluctantly started Citizendium as a better Wikipedia.

Logo400Grbeta Small

A lot about Citizendium is similar to Wikipedia -- the fact that any one can contribute, the group-created unsigned articles, the neutral stance, and the permanent in-process nature of each article. But there are significant differences as well. At least in theory. 

Sanger describes the Citizendium as "Wikipedia with editors and real names" of contributors. I am certain these two differences are advantageous improvements. I would bet they are vital and inevitable in any sustainable wiki encyclopedia. Both raise the quality of articles over time, while reducing mindless vandalism and entropy.  I think a reliable encyclopedia will demand these functions sooner or later. Which means Wikipedia will adopt them eventually.

But whether those two differences alone are sufficient for the survival of Citizendium, I can't predict.  I got a mass email from Sanger a few months ago, reminding me (and other early joiners like me) that their new wiki was up and going and to please stop by to contribute. I took the opportunity to check out Citizendium and ask Larry a couple of questions.

In the original email Sanger wrote:  "We are after quality, not just quantity.  Some of our articles are after just one year already better than what you find in 'that other project,' and in a few years, we’re going to have uniformly superior quality.  We’re creating a better resource for the world--one you can feel proud of being a part of."

I asked Sanger to point out to me some articles in Citizendium that were superior to Wikipedias because on a very quick browse of Citizendium (CZ) I could not detect a significant difference. First, there aren't very many complete articles in CZ, so even finding subjects to compare was difficult. Sanger sent  back a pointer to a CZ page that listed approved articles. Approved articles are ones that have gone through a series of editorial decisions that approve the article as reliable and then fix (freeze) it in that approved version. (Further improvements to the approved article are continued in a draft version sitting behind the fixed one, which can later be approved and sent to the front to replace the current version.) 

I opened a few from the short list of approved articles, then found the corresponding Wikipedia article, and did a quick A/B comparison. I did not have expert knowledge in any of the approved subjects, so I had to approach these as a ignorant novice. But in this respect I could not discern any quality difference between the two sets of articles I examined. Wikipedia and Citizendium looked the same to me. Sure there were lots of differences in details -- and also surprising similarities in outline -- but few differences that made a difference. 

Sanger then specifically pointed me to several articles that "are far better than Wikipedia's, or were" such as Life and  Biology. I did note that these general articles were much longer and detailed, almost short books. They covered too much territory for me to judge whether they were superior to the shorter Wikipedia entries (length is not synonymous with quality). From what i read, these articles are more comprehensive and thorough, and may provide more answers for more people. They were certainly not inferior to Wikipedia's. But I did not see an obvious ten-fold increase in quality, which according to Peter Drucker is often what a competitor needs to succeed. 

350Px-Plants And Pollinators

In discussing this with Sanger he said:  "While many of our articles are in fact better than Wikipedia's, it is not a very large percentage yet.  But it really is unreasonable, of course, to expect our articles generally to be better than Wikipedia's at this point, simply because most of our articles are not even complete; the number of person-hours we have put in on any one article, and per article, is completely dwarfed by the time that Wikipedia has spent.  As long as we are accelerating in a way similar to Wikipedia in its early days--which we are, e.g., we have doubled our growth rate in the last 100 days--then we will after a similar number of years come within an order of magnitude of the labor Wikipedia has put in on its articles.  Our developed articles will probably be generally superior well before that, though." 

Okay, fair enough. This argument -- that these kinds of collaborative works proceed incrementally, and not discretely as in mainstream media -- is legitimate. This is the reason that Wikipedia caught most of us off guard; we ignored it because for a very long time it was not very good. But it kept getting better very very slowly, one sentence at a time. This kind of growth is invisible. Jimmy Wales makes the same argument now for Wikia Search, his newest bottom-up prosumer project, a collaborative-built search engine. He admitted to me that Wikia Search is no better than Google now (and therefore won't win many switchers). But, he quickly adds, because it is in its early days, it will slowly, almost invisibly, become better like other incrementally improved creations, and will be surprising when it does.

Wiki Wide

Micro-incremental growth is an under-appreciated element of successful new media. This method is way beyond issuing beta versions, because there are no versions, just ever tiny modifications, some of which are not even improvements but simply changes. Incrementalism is the way the treasure trove of any archive (say the back issues of the New York Times) grows -- one nano addition by one nano addition. It's the "long now" approach to making content. It contrasts with the discrete model of launching versions, the norm for most creative works.

The key to continuous content creation is to have a survival model that permits long-term accretion. It requires a special kind of patience to say: we'll endure several years, or maybe even a decade, when the work is not very good, yet we'll still work on it. An unfinished cathedral is not very useful to anyone. But work continues because the result is visible in everyone's mind, and there is no doubt it will be useful when completed. For this reason it is harder to incrementally produce a long-now tool than it is to accumulate long-now content. The environment for tools like software and applications change so fast it is difficult to remain useful after 10 years (will there even BE browser bookmarks in 10 years?). Content, on the other hand, can often increase in value over 10 years (think of the Times archive).

As we move all our content onto the world wide database, also known as the semantic web, the micro incremental nature of this media will come into play. For a very long time, maybe a decade, the nano additions to the global database will appear insignificant and hardly worth doing. The world wide database will remain an unfinished cathedral for a long time -- of little use to anyone. There will never be a beta version of the semantic web. (Or, as they say, it will be perpetual beta; same thing.) Instead, over a period of one or two years a decade from now, there will be the sudden realization that there is something there "there" in an embedded semantic-database structure. Its value will become (suddenly!) visible and spur more concerted effort to complete it -- although of course, it will never be complete.


The Platform is the Computer

Several decades ago John Gage, of Sun Microsystems, famously declared that "the network is the computer." He meant that the operational system users and developers should to exploit was the network of computers rather than the individual computer itself. This shift toward thinking of the "cloud" of computers as the main event has underpinned both the move towards Web 2.0 applications, and the very idea of "cloud" computing. In all of these frames, the big idea is that all the good stuff happens out on the network, but appears locally on your device. Your device (PC, cell phone, pda) serves mainly as a window into the network cloud. It's called a cloud to indicate that the edges of what is network and what is your device are vague and indistinct.

5 P1

Recently Marc Andreessen, of Netscape fame, has refined this viewpoint in a very helpful way. Writing in a post called "The three kinds of platforms you meet on the Inernet," Andreessen distinguishes three levels of "the network is the computer" which he calls three platforms. In other words he says there are three levels this cloud network operates on. He defines a platform as something that you can program. He concedes right off the bat that for many users, there may be no discernment of the three levels because they are not programming (usually), although it is becoming easier to program at some level. But for anyone developing for the cloud, these three levels are essential.

Here's how he breaks down the three levels:

* A Level 1 platform's apps run elsewhere, and call into the platform via a web services API to draw on data and services -- this is how Flickr does it. Google Maps, eBay, PayPal.
* A Level 2 platform's apps run elsewhere, but inject functionality into the platform via a plug-in API -- this is how Facebook does it. Most likely, a Level 2 platform's apps also call into the platform via a web services API to draw on data and services. Firefox, Photoshop plugins.
* A Level 3 platform's apps run inside the platform itself -- the platform provides the "runtime environment" within which the app's code runs. Second Life, Ning, Salesforce, Amazon's S3 and EC2.

It is easiest to program for and develop a level 1 platform, which is usually done via an API. It is much harder to program for and develop a level 2 platform, and by extension even harder to do a level 3 platform -- but the rewards also increase.

The full dream of cloud computing -- where the network really is the computer and the application and data you are using run deep in the network -- requires a level 3 platform. Andreessen says:

I believe that in the long run, all credible large-scale Internet companies will provide Level 3 platforms. Those that don't won't be competitive with those that do, because those that do will give their users the ability to so easily customize and program as to unleash supernovas of creativity.

I think there will also be a generational shift here. Level 3 platforms are "develop in the browser" -- or, more properly, "develop in the cloud". Just like Internet applications are "run in the browser" -- or, more properly, "run in the cloud". The cloud being large-scale Internet services run on behalf of users by large Internet companies and other entities.

I think that kids coming out of college over the next several years are going to wonder why anyone ever built apps for anything other than "the cloud" -- the Internet -- and, ultimately, why they did so with anything other than the kinds of Level 3 platforms that we as an industry are going to build over the next several years -- just like they already wonder why anyone runs any software that you can't get to through a browser. Granted, I'm overstating the point but I'm doing so for clarity, and I'm quite confident the point will hold.

I would go even further. One of the rules in my book New Rules for the New Economy (now 10 years old!) is Feed the Web First. I explain that:

The prosperity of a firm is directly linked to the prosperity of its network. As the platform or standard it operates on flourishes, so does the firm. Maximizing the value of the net itself soon becomes the number one strategy for a firm. In the network economy a firm’s primary focus shifts from maximizing the firm’s value to maximizing the network’s value.


For level 3 participants to succeed, they need to make sure that the cloud platform succeeds. So they must devote massive resources to insure that they cloud network thrives. Google and Amazon, for instance, invest greatly in maximizing "free" services on the web because this is the platform they are programing for.  Unless the cloud succeeds, they fail. Therefore they have to feed the web first.


Social Networking Chain-Letter

The whole idea of a social networking system like MySpace, Linkedin or Facebook, etc., is to make your personal network of friends and colleagues visible and handy.  You invite your friends (good for you), and they invite their friends (good for them), and the whole enterprise expands (good for the owners). As individuals link up their friends, soon you have the whole world connected into one super-network, which is super valuable. 

But hey, who needs YOU? 

If we were simply interested in creating a mega-network of acquaintances as a way to make a buck, we could simply generated a profile of you by scraping your blog or homepage, then on your behalf invite your "friends" into the network, and their friends. They don't have to accept either. We can simply do the same and make a page for them, too. Soon we'd have everyone linked up. You don't have to do anything. Sure, some of your invited friends would see through this thin soup, but perhaps enough invited people would stick around and click on ads. 

That seems to be the business model of JaseZone

I didn't know anything about this site until I got a message from a fairly prominent colleague who sent me this email: 

Hi Kevin,  I hope all is well with you. 

Are you really a member of JaseZone and attempting to invite me to be in your network? They have created a page to look like you are a member of the site, but I find it hard to believe you are, or that you'd invite me! 

Here's your "member page.

I alert you only because I've been receiving dozens of emails from people who say I have invited *them* to this service - when I never heard of them and don't do this kind of thing. 

I'm trying to pursue this with the JaseZone people, myself, but have met only with resistance. I did manage to get them to take down the page they created to look like me, however. 

Sure enough, when I visited the JaseZone for the first time, there was my personal page already up and running. Not only that, it has been inviting "friends" into the network!  I grabbed a screen shot of my page.


It's a bold and brazen ponzi scheme. I did not register with JaseZone, nor invite anyone. The material was scraped from other sources. They have my age wrong. The picture is from the web, and out of date (I've had a beard for 8 years). It is a lie that I "last login on January 14, 2008" since I have never logged in. My "friends" listed on the page are vacuous, just place-holders to populate the place.  What a scam.

I may have this whole thing wrong. If so, someone please correct me. I'd love to know what is really going on. The phone number of the company simply shunts you to their website. 

But it raises an interesting question: who owns your friendships? Is the fact that you are friends with X -- particularly if you declare so on one networking site -- now public knowledge that can be used by anyone? Is the shape of your life as revealed publicly part of the commonwealth, and in the public domain? 

I suspect that your relationships are in the public domain once you make them public on the web, and so reverse engineering your social network from this information is not illegal, although it may not be socially acceptable or a good business practice. It feels more like a chain-letter to me.


Election Prediction Markets

The Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM) trades real money in bets on future cultural events. Prediction markets sell contracts for an easily decidable future event (someone wins an election, a commodity hits a certain price, a movie sells X number of tickets). If that contract comes true, the different between what the price of the contract was when bought and its full price will be pocketed by the winner. So if $1 contracts for Bill Clinton winning the election were selling for 35 cents when you bought them, you would have profited 75 cents after the election.

Outside of the IEM most US predictions markets trade with token money to escape uncertain gambling and investor laws, which may prohibit real money trades. But in all prediction markets the price of a contract is decided by the collective demand, or in other words, by the collective mind. Outcomes with low expectations earn a low price. If you are a contrarian you can buy low value, low-expectation contracts, and if conventional wisdom is wrong (at that time), you'll gain.

But the odd thing is that in these markets, the conventional wisdom of the crowd is usually right.
Even with token money, prediction markets have proven to be extremely reliable forecasters. Using real money, the Iowa Electronic Market for presidential elections has been uncannily accurate for many decades. According to Business Week article 12 years ago,

[IEM] predicted the vote totals of the past two Presidential elections within two-tenths of a percentage point, outperforming national polls. It also has closely tracked elections overseas, never wavering from Boris Yeltsin, for instance, as he won reelection in Russia.

in October 2006, CNN Money reported IEM's predicted outcome for the mid-term elections, which was then a month away:

The Iowa Electronic Market, which offers contracts on the outcomes of political and economic events, says the percentage of investors in the 2006 Congressional Control market believing Republicans will hold full control of Congress has dropped to 39 percent from 58.5 percent on Sept. 28, when news was revealed about Rep. Mark Foley's correspondence with pages. Those believing the Democrats will take full control of Congress have risen to 22.9 percent from 11.2 percent Sept. 29, the day the Florida Republican resigned.

The IEM market detected the swing in political moods that resulted in the Republican loss of Congress.

A few years earlier, in the summer of 2004, the IEM favored a Bush re-election win even when the pundits and polls showed Kerry in the lead. This out-of-sync prediction so puzzled many observers that some wondered (Salon article) if the IEM was systemically biased towards Republicans. But again, it was not bias, but simply accurate prediction; the IEM was uncannily accurate in forecasting Bush's win.

So what about this year's presidential election? What does the oracle of the IEM say about the prospects of a Democrat or Republican president in 2008? As of yesterday, here are the price of contracts for each.  It is still a close race, with the price of a Democrat president (blue) slightly higher than a Republican one (red). Of course we are 9 months away.

Pres08 Vs

The price of party candidates is a lot more interesting. Below is the graph of the price of each of the major Democrat nominees winning the nomination. The recent double reversal between Clinton and Obama is clear, as is the sinking possibilities of the other contenders.


But the zig zags of the Democrats pale with the mess in the Republicans. Their prices are all over the map with very little clear trajectory, until very recently. For the first time, the price of a Republican candidate (McCain) breaks the 50 cent (half of the $1 value) threshold, while the others are sinking rapidly. According to the collective wisdom of the IEM, as of yesterday, the only other Republican in the race is Romney.


Anything can happen in the next 9 months. The IEM doesn't see the future. It is merely a very quantifiable measure of aggregate expectations now. But because real money is at risk, people tend to bet on what they think will happen, vs. what they want to happen, and in aggregate, this method seems to yield better forecasts than polls or pundits.


Doomsday Art

Just saw Cloverfield. 

The premise of the movie (this is not a spoiler) is that it is a found camcorder tape. From beginning to end. 

(BTW, that means 84 minutes of very shaky, jerky, sideways hand-shaking video. The camera moves drastically the entire time. It can get nauseating and tired. My advice: do not sit up front.) 

This movie is not a story. This is an experience. Closer to a Disneyland ride than a film. Lots of the usual story-telling ingredients are missing. Instead you get an immersive plunge into what it would feel like if a monster attacked your neighborhood.  I'm sure if this had been done a few years from now, it would have been 3D. The result is a sci-fi encounter filmed as if it really happened. Cloverfield is seamless in that respect. An experience probably worth trying once. 


If I were to repeat it, I know how I'd like it. The ideal way to distribute this film would be to hand someone a camcorder tape and say, "Here, watch this." The ideal screen to see it on is the tiny preview screen on a video cam corder. Or at the very least watch the whole thing on YouTube. Or maybe your cell phone. JJ Abrams, Cloverfield's director, said he wanted to come up with a "YouTubification" of the monster movie, assuming the ubiquity of video cameras and cell phones cams. And that's how it should be watched: on a tiny screen. 

Some say there is a resurgence of doomsday art. Time magazine has a piece this week (Apocalypse New), cataloging newly released apocalyptic works. The New York Times reports today on the DVD appeal. This year has seen the simultaneous debut of several end-of-the-world films, books, TV shows, music, comics and video game updates, which gives the appearance of a cultural preoccupation. Among the works: 

Films: Cloverfield, I Am Legend, Life After People, Wall*E
Books: The World Without Us, The Road
TV: Jericho, Battlestar Galactica
Comics: Y: The Last Man
Games: Half-Life 2
Music: Year Zero
DVD: The Apocalypse and Doomsday DVD Collection 


It's a nice high-profile set, but doomsday art is a very durable and perennial genre. You could probably gather a similar set in almost any year in the last three decades (Terminator, Day After Tomorrow, Oryx and Crate, etc.). Apocalypse scenarios have been a mainstay of science fiction, comics, and B-list movies for a generation or more. Perhaps they are going more mainstream. I'd like to see some data. 

The prospect of being the last person(s) on earth is weirdly seductive. It's not about the end at all. It's a romantic vision of rebirth, of starting anew, but with more assets and wisdom that the last birth. It's a romance that will probably continue to generate works of art in all media every year from now on, until .... the end of the world.


Sanctuaries of Disconnection

Recently a friend managed to secure internet connectivity at his weekend retreat house. He says, "It's a sneaky broadband, a Sprint aircard that goes in the slot in the side of the Macbook Pro.  $60/month for broadband as good as DSL and all the bits I can eat.  No need for wi-fi when traveling, as long as there's a cell phone signal."

Part of the design of the weekend retreat was to "get away" from the obligations, stress and demands of the working weekdays. Internet connectivity was part of the bind, and so being offline part of the escape. So I am of two minds about what to say when a retreat is fast forwarded.

We need a word for condolences-congratulations. As in, I'm sorry and delighted. As in, that is wonderful, terrible! Times this word can be used:

when a mom gives births to triplets;
when a student gets accepted to law school;
when your child breaks up an unhealthy relationship;
when a relative is jailed for DUI;
when a friend hacks a way to get the internet at their vacation home.

Maybe that word exists. Let me know.

A decade ago many folks who like to worry about the advance of technology were worried about the "Digital Divide." This phrase signified the unfair gap between those who had computers and the internet and those who did not. Most of the world did not. The question was usually directed at champions of the internet like myself and framed in almost these words verbatim: "What are you going to do about the digital divide?"

At the time my standard reply was, "Nothing. This is a case of the haves and have-laters. The haves (that's us) are going to overpay for crummy early technology that barely works, in order to make it cheaper and better for the have-laters, who will get it for dirt cheap pretty soon."

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I then went on to say what I still believe now. "The have-laters are going to adopt this technology so fast and so widely, that very soon all 6 billion people on earth are going to be wired up, and the real thing we should be worried about, if you want to worry, is: What will happen when we are all connected? Where will we go to retreat from the hive mind? What happens when there is no place to be a digital have-not?"

The Digital Divide is a term you don't hear much anymore. It's no longer an issue because cell phones cured the gap almost overnight. Connectivity is ubiquitous  in most countries. In fact cell phone coverage is often better in developing countries than in the US. The digital have-laters now have.

The follow-thru from all this is a small prediction. Connectivity is now so cheap, so pervasive, so democratic and common that I believe there will be a small movement among some individualists, trend-setters and early adopters to disconnect. In the next twenty years we'll see a renowned personage arise who rejects cell phones and email, and who is available ONLY face to face.


The digital retreat may even be something you pay more for. Just as you now might seek out hotels that have wi-fi, in the near future, you may have to pay more for a spa that has no cell phone or wi-fi, but that has all kinds of other hi-touch technology. The place has everything except it is not connected on purpose. It takes a certain kind of person, in a certain phase of life, to be able to drop out into a disconnected resort, and that exclusivity will be a selling point. (Some very rich folks don't carry any cash, either.)

There are nefarious reasons to be disconnected as well. Because of that, and its potential attraction for the over-connected, I would expect to see maps of unconnected places to appear. Let's call them Black Maps. The most highly prized black areas would be those surrounded by high connectivity. Little oasises of disconnection adjacent to the totality of the connected world. In such proximity, the disconnection could not be passive, but would have to be deliberately and creatively engineered. It's even questionable whether it would be legal (later on) to construct a place not connected to cell, wi-fi, or perhaps even visible in gps.

I don't expect to see this in the next 10 years. For the good of connection is way to obvious to halt  our collective desire to bring it to everyone. But I do expect to see small signs of retreat among the over- and constantly-connected. For some going cold turkey may be the only response.

The prospect of this dropping out is wonderful, terrible!


Addiction Vaccines

Newsweek call them Anti-Drug Drugs: "A new generation of vaccines may enable doctors to inoculate people against addictive substances like cocaine and nicotine. A vaccine that would teach the immune system to attack and destroy cocaine before the drug reached the brain is poised to enter its first large-scale clinical trial in humans."

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In brief here is how the vaccines work, according to Newsweek.

Because the addictive drug molecules are small enough to evade the body's immune system, they can slip undetected from the respiratory and circulatory tracts that absorb them and make their way into the central nervous system, where they work their dark magic. But when attached to a larger molecule—like an inactivated protein from a cholera-causing bacterium—the addictive substances can't hide. The immune system develops antibodies that can latch on to the drugs when they are next ingested by themselves. Once attached to an antibody, a given drug cannot access its targets in the brain and is instead broken down by certain enzymes.

So although ingested, the addictive drugs won't work. Thomas Kosten, at Baylor College of Medicine is working on a vaccine for cocaine. According to Baylor College, he says

"Blood vessels are distributed all over the brain, but the cocaine does not get into the brain because when it is bound to the antibodies, which are fairly large proteins, it cannot get through the blood-brain barrier (a natural formation that prevents foreign substances from going into the brain)," said Thomas Kosten. "It's just like a big sponge for cocaine in the bloodstream."

The idea is to "soak up" enough cocaine that addicts cannot get their "high." If this goes on long enough, the researchers hope the addicts will quit the drug. A common tenet in psychology is if there is no reward, the behavior will ultimately stop.

Obviously the effectivity of the vaccine will vary by person, by drug, and perhaps by usage over time. Baylor College says:

During early studies in humans, researchers vaccinated subjects repeatedly over a period of three months. During this time, the subjects made large amounts of cocaine-specific antibodies. While the antibody levels drop within a year, they remain significantly high during the first few months. In that early period, if a vaccinated subject used cocaine, the antibodies prevented it from entering the brain and giving the person the cocaine "rush" that is attractive to addicts.

The abstract of Kosten's 2005 paper (and full text if you want to pay) can be found here: "Vaccine pharmacotherapy for the treatment of cocaine dependence"

According to the Wall Street Journal there are two companies closest to releasing commercial products.

The two companies furthest along in the research are Nabi Biopharmaceuticals in Boca Raton, Fla., and Xenova Group PLC of Slough, England. Xenova Group is working on a cocaine vaccine and reports that the vaccine has reduced relapse in a small group of cocaine users.

Nabi Biopharmaceuticals is working on a nicotine vaccine. The company has completed a trial involving 68 smokers to test safety and measure the levels of antibodies produced by the vaccine. The vaccine has also resulted in smoking cessation among a group of participants.
The nicotine vaccine works like this, according to the American Psychiatric Foundation.
NicVAX is proposed as a therapy that could enhance current treatments for nicotine addiction by helping smokers who are trying to kick the habit resist the urge to light up. The hypothesis, said Leshner, is that the vaccine may inhibit nicotine’s "priming effect"—the phenomenon in which a formerly addicted individual experiences an increased desire to use a drug after a single exposure, which contributes significantly to relapse. A treatment program involving NicVAX might also include elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication, such as bupropion, to help reduce withdrawal symptoms.


Videogame Symphonies

It is only natural that music we hear constantly becomes comfort music. The next natural step is that it become classic. It is then only a tiny leap to become classical -- as in a concert hall.  The  migration of videogame music -- those tunes repeating endlessly in the background of your favorite game -- to a symphonic performance is inevitable.

The first video game music concert was in Tokyo Japan in 1987. Music from Dragon Quest Suites I & II were performed. In the 20 years since, there have been many videogame music performances and CDs in Japan, but the first concert outside Japan is believed to be in 2003 when the Czech National Symphony Orchestra performed videogame music for the opening of a Games Convention in Germany.

The two major events these days are Play! A Videogame Symphony and Video Games Live, two global traveling shows featuring a medley of videogame music conducted by a local premier orchestra. The shows have played some 40 times in Singapore, Australia, Europe, Japan and North America. Both concert series are still going.


There is a little bit of kitsch listening to the small music of a video game buffed up into a harmonic symphony, but in fact some of the great symphonies of the past began as small tunes. This transformation is no stranger than making movies from small folk tales. 

Recognizing the potential of videogame music, the Eminence Symphony Orchestra, based in Syndey, specializes in primarily performing the music of Japanese video games and anime.


The videogame music orchestra is directed by its first violinist, Hiroaki Yura. Their first concert in 2003 was dedicated to playing the music from Final Fantasy and Murizaki films (Totoro, Kiki, Nausicaa, etc.). They have also done concerts (and released CDs)  of later Murizaki films, more games, and Star War themes.

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Wired magazine ran a short piece on Mario Maestros by columnist Joel Stein, who has some good details. He writes:

[Tommy Tallarico] and Jack Wall, the conductor and cocreator of Video Games Live, figure out how to mimic bleeps and bloops with traditional instruments (Duck Hunt's giggling dog, for instance, is re-created with trilling woodwinds). They coordinate light and video effects to complement the music. And then they license the whole package to symphony halls, where local musicians — most of whom are more familiar with Handel than Halo — perform the program under their guidance. "This is a market that is foreign to most of us," concedes Randall Weiss, first violinist of Symphony Silicon Valley, which has performed both Video Games Live and a competing program called Play! A Videogame Symphony. As for the music itself? "I like it," he says. "I think of it more like movie music."

The concert halls love the videogame crowd.

"It's an entryway," says Kim Witman, director of classical and opera planning for Wolf Trap, an outdoor concert site near Washington, DC, which hosted Play! in 2006. "It's bridging the gap — taking something that they know and using it to ease them into something unfamiliar." Indeed, for anyone who hasn't hit middle age, classical concert halls are pretty unfamiliar: Only 23 percent of classical music audiences are younger than 35. Video Games Live and Play!, on the other hand, pack every venue with twenty- and thirtysomethings, each paying up to $125 a ticket.

He then compares the contrasting styles of Video Games Live and Play! One is rock with smoke machines and one is tuxeodoed seriousness.

But their musical selections are nearly identical. Both start with a medley of classic games, rock out through the same bombastic soundtracks (World of Warcraft, Metal Gear Solid, Halo) that sound like Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, launch into Disney's Kingdom Hearts, and, for an encore, let loose with "One-Winged Angel" from Final Fantasy VII. For both shows, the same Japanese composers introduce their works in taped segments. Both beam game clips onto a giant screen while the orchestra plays. And both draw the same kind of audience — gamers dressed more for a day at Disneyland than a night on Broadway. "It's easy to tell the Phantom of the Opera fans from the Video Games Live fans," one concertgoer says. "Hopefully one day there won't be such a disparity."

A final quote pretty much sums up the trend.

Videogame symphonies offer something greater than fond memories — they offer nerd redemption. "It's kind of a vindication, to hear that music being taken seriously," says Josh Sievert, a 26-year-old motorcycle mechanic who attended a Play! concert in San Jose. "We've arrived."


Computational Advertising

The genius behind Google's immense prosperity is AdSense and AdWords -- Google's brilliant program to match advertising with consumers via the textual content on web pages and search results. Not only has Google developed very sophisticated algorithms for ranking web pages, they have also developed very sophisticated algorithms for matching ads to users.

The Googlers aren't the only ones doing this. All the major search contenders (Yahoo, et al) are selling similar services.

What we are seeing is only the first steps of what might be called computational advertising. The aim is to use computational power to match the expanding universe of ads and advertisers with the expanding universe of consumers with the right ad at the right time in the right place and the right frequency and the right way for them to respond. There are an infinite number of solutions -- the optimal arrangement for one person may be ads  -- and so the black art of computing a deal with be a big deal.


Yahoo has an entire initiative focused on computational advertising, which they define as "a new scientific sub-discipline, at the intersection of information retrieval, machine learning, optimization, and microeconomics." Recently Andrei Broder at Yahoo! Research gave a talk on Computational Advertising. His abstract reads:

The central challenge of computational advertising is to find the "best match" between a given user in a given context and a suitable advertisement. The context could be a user entering a query in a search engine ("sponsored search") , a user reading a web page ("content match" and "display ads"), a user watching a movie on a portable device, and so on. The information about the user can vary from scarily detailed to practically nil. The number of potential advertisements might be in the billions. Thus, depending on the definition of "best match" this challenge leads to a variety of massive optimization and search problems, with complicated constraints.

Based on the abstract Geeking with Greg says:

From the way Andrei is framing the problem -- matching advertisements not only to content, but also to what we know about each user -- Andrei clearly is talking about personalized advertising.

Personalized advertising is a tremendous computational challenge. Traditional contextual advertising matches ads to static content. We only have to do the match infrequently, then we can show a selection of the ads that we think will work well for a given piece of content to everyone who views that content.

With personalized advertising, we match ads to content and each user's interests, and then show different ads for each user. Like with all personalization, caching no longer works. Each user sees a different page. With personalized advertising, targeting ads now means we have to find matches in real-time for each page view and each user.

Greg later heard the talk, and reports that he was disappointed by its lack of depth and details on how you actually optimize the matching of ads and content. This is an indication of the difficulty of the challenge, but also hints at the power it might unleash if done well.

For example, on one slide, Andrei criticized Google AdSense for showing ads for Libby shoes on an article about Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby, saying that the match is spurious. But, Andrei did not say what would be a better ad to show for that news article. In response to my question later, Andrei did say that perhaps no ad is appropriate in that case, but he did not expand on this to talk about how to detect, in general, when it might be undesirable to show ads because of lack of value and commercial intent. When I did a follow-up question after the talk, he expanded briefly into ideas around personalized advertising -- showing ads that might interest this user based on this person's history rather than ads targeting the current content -- and an advertising engine that explores and attempts to learn what ads might be effective, but not in any depth.


Extra-less Films

Making feature films with cheap video equipment, supplemented with lots of computer processing, is nothing new. Many scenes of blockbuster films  have been made this way, even if the entire film is not. And a few hit movies in recent years have been filmed this way entirely. The difference between actual location, a set, or computer graphics is almost nil in the eye of the audience, so this liberates the film makers from the costs and hassles of staging scenes in costly locations. With computers as cameras you can generate whatever you can imagine. 

That part of film magic is evident in any "making-of" movie. What's new is that the new camera/apps are steadily coming becoming like a word processor -- both pros and amateurs use the same one. The great script is not due to a better word processor; it's how the great write uses it. Likewise, a great film is not due to better gear. The same gear needed to make a good film is today generally available to amateurs -- which was not so even a decade ago. Film making gear is approaching a convergence between professional and amateur, so that what counts in artistry and inventiveness.

The newest frontier shaped by this parity seems to be making large-scale films without a lot of extras. Computer generated crowds were first used a decade ago, and reached some public awareness in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this memorable scenes batches of smaller crowds were replicated computationally to produce very convincing non-repeating huge crowds. But if you are cheap, desperate and inventive, smaller crowds can be generated from no crowds at all -- just a couple of people. 

Here's a clip demonstrating how a World War II D-Day invasion was staged in a few days with four guys and video camera.


Interactive Petroglyphs

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A sweet mashup of virtuality and physical presence is this artwork by Golan Levin. Called Ghost Pole Propagator, it projects a "skeleton" of each visitor onto the stone walls of a castle. This projected stick figure then mimics the actions of the visitor(s). You are the show.

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Golan Levin is an ace programmer in Processing, a language that herds massive numbers of visual fragments, which he applies in art works.


Original Hyper Fake Reproductions

The fluid reality that spans the territory between the real and the fake, between simulations and the hyperreal, between the authentic and counterfeit, is the slippery territory where we all now live. This blurred continent is Philip K. Dick's universe, and the land of reality TV, and the home of pirates. There is something deeply disturbing about our inability to tell real from unreal (who can discern a fake diamond from real?), or to care about it. As the post-modernists maintain, sometimes the fake is so real, it becomes realer than real (hyperreal) and we come to prefer it. 

I have a similar preference for fake paintings. I can prefer the fake versions of famous paintings, in part because they are re-visioned. In China there is an entire village given over to making money by fake paintings. These are not  counterfeits intended to deceive. No one is fooled into thinking the Van Gogh painting they just bought is painted by Van Gogh. Rather the fake is like a reproduced poster of Van Gogh. But since it has been painted by hand, often with gusto and intelligence, it is much more interesting than a duplication of the original.  It is an original reproduction. It is a hyperfake. 

Re-painting masters is a venerable activity. Almost all art students are required and encouraged to do this. And most masters of old themselves re-painted their masters' art. What's new here is the scale of this re-work, which brings down its cost similar to machine reproduction. 


According to the official web site of this counterfeit painting city, called Da Fen Oil Painting Village  in Buji, Longgang, Shenzhen, there are currently 622 galleries and over  5,000 artists at work there.  While a lot of the paintings for sale are copies of masters, there are also copies of junk, and attempts at originality. But where else can you get a passable Rembrant for $50?


The New Eliza: Chat Marketing

Forty years ago Joseph Weisenbaum programed a chat bot called Eliza to parody a therapist. By mirroring your questions in her chat replies, Eliza seemed far smarter than the program really was. It was considered a harbinger of artificial intelligence at the time, and now 40 years later, it can still impress newbies. (Try Questsin, a MSN Messenger chat bot for examples. The fact that a 40-year-old bot is impressive to anyone now is often taken as evidence of AI's lack of progress.)

Many people have built chat bots since then. Recently conversation agents (their hi-falutin term) have been put to work in on-line games and e-commerce. Upsellit is a company that sells a chat bot service which promises to increase a merchandiser's revenues by appearing when a customer decides to abandon a full online shopping cart. This Eliza salesbot, called either Susan or Courtney in some versions, jumps in to persuade the customer to complete their purchase.


The following transcripts from some sessions with Courtney are reproduced in a article on Upselit shop bots in Fortune by Paul Sloan:

The results are impressive. Here's a conversation a customer at online retailer Gourmet Station had with "Susan," a virtual live chat assistant. Right after the shopper clicked away from the shopping cart, a small chat window popped up and Susan went to work.

Susan: "Hey wait! Please don't go. Just this once we'd like to offer you an instant $10 savings discount off on shipping! That's 50% off the regular cost of shipping [normally $19.99] if you order today. Just click here and enter 'sellup07' in the promo code box."

Susan goes on: "Just type 'Hi' or 'Hello' in the space below to let me know you are there..."

The customer: "Hi."

Susan: "Hi, thanks for chatting with me today...Click here and enter the promo code "sellup07" to take advantage of this amazing offer."

Customer: "K."

Susan explains what Gourmet Station is and offers to take $10 off shipping if the customer orders now.

The customer types: "Cool...gotcha, where do I have to go again?"

Susan explains again what Gourmet Station is and gives the customer a link to make the order. "Your satisfaction is guaranteed!" she writes.

Customer: "Thanks, going to go and check it out now."

Susan, unconvinced, keeps going: "If you are not satisfied with the quality of our products, we will refund your money. If our prepared meals are delivered damaged, we will either refund your money or reship." She continues: "Would you like to take advantage of this offer?"

Customer: "Why is your company better than any other company out there?"

Susan: "Our goal is to provide a gourmet experience from beginning to end." She sends the customer another link to enter the promo code. She chimes in again: "Would you like me to provide you the link back to the order page to take advantage of this amazing offer?" The customer follows the link. She closed the sale.


The software scans information off a Web site to find answers for the customer, but it's also designed to answer offbeat questions that occasionally come from shoppers who've become suspicious. One such shopper busted Courtney at earlier this month. After some back and forth about a product the customer was looking for, the customer wrote: "How old are you, anyhow?"

Courtney: "I am 24"

Customer: "What's 3+4?"

Courtney: "well let's see here...7 :)"

Customer: "Hehe, thank you."

Courtney: "You are welcome."

Customer: "One more question: How much is shipping?"

Courtney: "That depends on exactly what you get. What I can tell you is that if you order from us today we can give you 10% discount!..."

Customer: "Who wrote Huck Finn?"

Courtney: "This amazing offer is only available through this chat and for a limited time. CLICK HERE to take advantage of this deal."

The customer ends the chat. Heck, not even a human salesperson can close every sale.
The nifty buzz word for this low-level expert system is "Chat Marketing."


The Always On Book

I've written a bit about the future of the book. In Will We Still Turn Pages (TIme, June 2000) I suggested that the electronic book would not be so alien to us readers, and that much of its highly evolved design would be retained and improved as text went digital. And in Scan This Book (New York Times Magazine, 2006) I speculated on what happens when all the books of the world are digitized: they begin to leak into each other until there is only one very large super book. This week Steven Levy has presented a very fine wake-up call in Newsweek, heralding the future of the book as represented by the Kindle, Amazon's newest e-book reader (Disclosure, he interviewed and quoted me.)


The Kindle is a hand held device, set to retail initially at $400. It employs e-ink, which means the light on the page comes from the environment, rather than the device itself. If you read in a dark room, the page will be dark. A bright room will make a bright page. This ambient light helps overcome the flickers that some see on a computer screen, and it also reduces the amount of energy required to power it. You page through the book by nudging a button on  the side. To change from one book to another is a simple matter of clicking a button. 

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The key revolutionary trait in the Kindle, however, is its wireless connection. The frequency of connection is neither local wifi or bluetooth, but cellular -- which means you can be online anywhere you can get a cellular signal (and you are off the net whereever there ain't a signal.) As a result of this connection the book is always on. As Jeff Bezos says, it turns the book into "a service, not a device."  Levy rounded up some other great quotes indicating the book's shift from noun to verb: 

"The idea of authorship will change and become more of a process than a product," says Ben Vershbow, associate director of the institute. 

"Book clubs could meet inside of a book," says Bob Stein, a pioneer of digital media. 

"The possibility of interaction will redefine authorship," says Peter Brantley, executive director of the Digital Library Federation. 

I had a chance to see a demo of the Kindle last spring, although I didn't have an opportunity to use one at length, and I am not sure how much of it has been upgraded since then. I also own a Sony Reader, which I have used a little, enough to see its weaknesses clearly.  The Kindle I saw struck me as a decent working prototype that lacked the charisma of a Steve Jobs creation. No doubt it will gain some elegance as it evolves. 

I'm one of those folks that has no trouble reading on a screen, either the big screen of my Mac, or the smaller screen of an handheld. Books will certainly migrate there because they already are.  Everything Levy, and the others (including me!) say about the future of the book I believe is true.

The only question for me is, do I want to carry around another device? The immediate answer for me is: NO. 

Every benefit that I've seen the Kindle (and the Sony Reader) offers suggests to me that they could very happily live as features on that one Cloudbook device still to come. I would image that would suit Bezos fine, because as he says, the book is a service. What you read it on will not matter so much. We'll read books on TV screens, ipod screens, iPhone screens, and Kindle screens. What will matter is that you'll be able to live inside the book from anywhere, anytime, in all bookish dimensions. The always on book will be always actionable. This ability to interact, manipulate, shape, cut, clip, annotate, and mash up is what will keep books great.


The New Economy Master

Moby is perhaps the most enlightened high-profile artist at ease in the ways of the new economy. He's always been ahead in how he gets paid for his music. He realized early on that selling records was not going to last long, so he peddeled his music in other ways. For instance he sold his songs to advertisers in bulk, before it got fashionable. Now he has just released a bunch of tracks for indie filmmakers to use, either for free or with an "easy" liscence.  Here is his letter: 

Day2Moby13780 45 9.Preview 

i'll keep this brief.
this portion of, 'film music', is for independent and non-profit filmmakers, film students, and anyone in need of free music for their independent, non-profit film, video, or short. to use the site you log in(or on?) and are then given a password.
you can then listen to the available music and download whatever you want to use in your film or video or short. the music is free as long as it's being used in a non-commercial or non-profit film, video, or short. if you want to use it in a commercial film or short then you can apply for an easy license, with any money that's generated being given to the humane society.
i hope that you find what you're looking for,

Boy, is that both refreshing and smart.  If you want to hear horror stories ask any filmmaker about their adventure in trying to secure music rights for a film. It is easier getting a copy of a band's bank statement. Can you image if this practice of easy license (a la Creative Commons) became common place with other musicians? It would, like, be great news for indie music and indie film.


Awesome Musical Tapes From Africa

This remarkable website features cassette tapes from open air markets in Africa. This site is nothing more and nothing less than Awesome Tapes from Africa. It's one of those this-is-what-the-web-is-for websites. Here ex-Peace Corp Afrophiles, musically inclined travelers, and amateur ethnomusicologists share their African tape collections. They scan in the cover art and digitize the tapes as mp3 files which you can stream (and download using software like Wiretap or AudioHighjack).

There are fabulous gems in the collection here. Raw, refined, deep, coarse, exquisite, ground level. It's a close as one could get to Africa without having to get on a plane.

[Sadly, a lot of the links to recordings are now broken. I wrote to the site's curator, Brian Shimkovitz, and he wrote back: "the reason those are gone is because i changed server logins and lost the links for those files permanently. i had a hard drive crash soon after and have not gotten around to searching for those older tracks for reposting. because those early tracks i posted are so dear to me and incredible and important, i know i will eventually share those entire cassettes at some point."]

Try a few samples like these:

La grande Vedette Malienne Kandja Kouyate et l'Ensemble Instrumental du Mali

This cassette is perfect in almost every way. It makes me want to drop acid and burn incense or something, it's so smokey and dark and surreal. Like late Coltrane.


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