Corollary thoughts on auditory AR/ambient stuff

  • Many years ago I read about a dude who’d converted Unix server logs into a real-time auditory environment — specifically, a rain forest. Server load controlled the level of the rain, CGI calls were bird chirps, potential malicious attacks were the cough of a jaguar, etc. Sadly, I can’t find any info on this anymore. Anybody know anything?
  • A simpler, easy-to-implement application: you assign musical DNA traits to individual aspects of your collected data stream, and your Pandora/Last.fm/MOG/whatever retrieves music accordingly. For example: whenever I receive new mail, play “excited” music. Or whenever I sell an item on Etsy, play Iggy Pop’s “Success”. It’s not matching music to your mood, it’s matching it to your information landscape.
  • Once I turn on Stikki’s “local only” feature, I’m thinking of seeding the world with microcompositions — music only available when the user is in a specific location. Like “Soundtrack to the corner of Maryland and Harmon”.
  • Somebody ought to pay me to think about this stuff. Everybody email Joi and tell him to hire me at the Media Lab. ;-)

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Augmented (non-visual) reality

Been thinking a lot about augmented reality recently, for fairly obvious reasons. The other night I was talking to Yiying Lu at the first LaunchUp Las Vegas about AR and the possibilities inherent in it, and it got me thinking.

I’ve always had a big interest in ambient information interfaces and what is apparently called “calm technology“. Ambient information is really the idea that much of the information we’re required to monitor/process in our daily lives doesn’t actually require our complete attention all the time; that our interface to it can be passive, subliminal, rather than active and engaged.

For example, several years ago a company called Ambient Devices debuted a product called Ambient Orb that was basically a frosted globe with multicolored LEDs in it. This device connected up to your various data streams and changed color based on their status. For example, you could set the Orb to glow red if you had unread email, or change color based upon the performance of your stocks. The idea was that you wouldn’t have to sit and actively engage with your data; you could reduce it to a simple, nearly-binary yes/no or color-based alert system.

The Orb never really did much for me, because it used a weird non-standard wireless network to return data and it seemed pretty locked in to the use cases that Ambient had created for it; I have no need to constantly (or really ever) monitor stock data in real-time, for example. But it was an interesting idea in theory, and one which has never really gone away.

The most obvious example of a passive info display is a traditional clock face, with hour, minute and second hands. Most people on Earth can simply glance at a clock and instantly recognize what time it is — maybe not down to the precise second, but close enough for government work, as the old saying goes. Clocks are both ambient and precise interfaces, of course; if you look at the clock for more than a second you can determine the precise time — by “drilling down” past the “macro” interface (i.e. the general geometric configuration of the clock hands) and focusing on the “micro” interface (the second hand and the numbers).

A more modern example, in my opinion, are the icon “badges” that appear in Apple’s iOS (and, to a lesser extent, in Dock icons in their main MacOS X). The badge overlaid on the Mail icon, for example, shows you how many unread emails you have. But it also functions as a simple binary indicator: if it’s there, you have unread mail. Again, you drill down by focusing on the number inside the icon, which is the actual number of unread emails.

This is all very fine and dandy, but I started thinking about one of the basic underlying assumptions in both ambient information and in augmented reality: namely, that the primary interface ought to be visual.

In our everyday lives, at least for the non-deaf, sound is our most often-used tool for passively gathering information about the state of our environment. We listen to the world as much as we look at it. And my own experience suggests that my own brain is better at setting audio to a lower cognitive priority than vision, while still paying continuous partial attention to it.

I suspect this is true of most humans: this is why it is illegal (at least in America) to put a video player in front of the driver in a motor vehicle, but car radios have been with us since around 1930. You can listen to This American Life and simultaneously perform the complex mental gymnastics required to drive a car without killing yourself or anybody else…but very, very few of us could watch TAL’s companion TV series on an LCD screen above our dashboard and make it more than a mile or two without ending up in a ditch. I’m sure there’s a well-documented neurological reason for this, but I’m gonna just skip the Googling here and say with confidence: humans are better at passively monitoring audio than vision.

Musician/artist/producer Brian Eno discovered this in 1975, when he was laid up in bed after being hit by a car. As he explains it in the liner notes to Discreet Music, the album that essentially launched the “ambient” music genre:

In January this year I had an accident. I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn’t the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience. It is for this reason that I suggest listening to the piece at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility.

This gave Eno the impetus to create “make a piece that could be listened to and yet could be ignored… perhaps in the spirit of Satie who wanted to make music that could ‘mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner.'”

And yet, despite the obvious advantage of auditory interfaces, most ambient information interfaces are still visual displays, like the Ambient Orb. (One notable exception is in-car GPS, which usually uses some sort of celebrity voice to give you ambiguous directions.) And, so far as I am aware, the bulk of  augmented reality tools — which, by overlaying data onto our real environment, are a sort of cousin of ambient displays — use audio sparingly, if at all.

In these use cases, audio simply makes more sense in these contexts. For another thing, playing and even manipulating audio in real time is far less power and CPU intensive than rendering graphics in real time, which is why the iPhone can serve as a perfectly serviceable guitar stomp box.

Imagine, for example, a simple navigation system for a mobile device that directed you towards your destination via the simple means of adjusting the balance and volume of the music playing via your audio player. The sound is “centered” when you’re facing your destination directly; turn right and the music grows louder in your left ear and vice versa. The closer you are to your destination, the louder the music plays. Such a system would require no engagement at all by the user; the mobile device could remain safe in the user’s pocket for the duration of their journey. It’s an incredibly intuitive and simple interface to a fairly complex computational system.

(Of course, such an interface would be rather annoying on its face for someone who was simply trying to listen to their tunes, but it gives an example of one modality for such a tool.)

Talking to Yiying, I was reminded of an old idea of mine: an entirely musical social network based on generative music created via musical “DNA”. Think about how music discovery apps like Pandora work: each song is weighed against a set of criteria, such as “slow/fast” “exciting/mournful”, etc. Each track’s particular set of traits serves as its musical “chromosomes” so to speak.

So imagine that you sign up for this network and feed it your Pandora or Last.fm playlists. It analyzes your music and creates a new music for you: a sort of personalized, endlessly generated, changing score: your theme music.

Your theme music plays over your mobile device as you navigate through the world — ambient music, as easily ignored as paid attention to. Now, imagine you walk by someone else using this notional network — someone else with their own theme music.

As you pass them, some magic wireless technology (Bluetooth, near field communications or something powered by unobtanium) triggers off. It randomly merges your musical DNA with theirs, and your theme music is subtly altered by your encounter with them, and vice versa, incorporating elements of their musical genes.

This wouldn’t be limited to people, either. Buildings, landmarks, communities, even the time of day — your theme could be endlessly modified by the very landscape you walk through. Over time, your music would become a product of your encounters, your experiences, your movements. (Of course, this is true anyway of anybody’s music collection, in a metaphorical sense. But in this case it would be literal.) You could “follow” people based upon the grooviness of their personal soundtrack.

This is one — admittedly slightly silly — example of an auditory augmented reality. But there are more practical and practicable variations on this as well. I’d love to see more people think about and embrace the potential of auditory ambient/AR systems as they become more widely-used and prevalent in the UI/UX community.

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How can we go from 419 to Web 3.0?

Here’s a quote from an amazing TechCrunch article about former and current Nigerian 419 scammers by Sarah Lacy:

Boakye’s sheer hacker genius was the most astounding. It’s not just technical ability– he tries to figure out how the person who set up the security system he’s trying to break thinks, and outsmart him at his own game. If he can’t crack the software, he studies the hardware and learns its vulnerabilities. The way he described the chess match with this unknown nemesis reminded me of another entrepreneur in the Valley: Dennis Fong. Fong spent his teens as a professional gamer, better known by the name “Thresh.” He rarely lost thanks to an uncanny ability to anticipate opponents’ moves. Opponents called it “Thresh ESP,” and it earned him six-figure computing endorsement deals. The way Boakye explained how he breaks into multi-national banks was identical to Thresh’s approach. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s hacked into at least one of my accounts by now just out of curiosity. I asked him not to do anything malicious, and he promised he wouldn’t. But we were both pretty convinced he could. As a person, I found these meeting more terrifying than my run in with Bones and his machete men in Alaba. As a business reporter, I couldn’t stop the broad smile from spreading across my face as we spoke, even breaking out in laughter once or twice. It’s the same Cheshire cat grin I get when I meet any amazing entrepreneur, anywhere in the world. You know them after five minutes of conversation. And several of these guys just had it. Born into a different circumstance, they could be on the cover of any magazine, ringing the opening bell at the Nasdaq.

The article also points out that Nigeria’s small but fierce tech entrepreneur community is furious at the 419 scammers (or “Yahoo boys” as they’re called in Nigeria) for providing the ugly global face of Nigerian technology.

I have long been an advocate for an African technology community and industry. As Lacy points out in the quote above, the problem isn’t lack of ambition or knowledge; the problem is hooking into the outside global economy. (And probably things like endemic government corruption, one of the nasty legacies of Western colonialism everywhere.) The 419 scams always struck me as a fascinating example of the interface between the First World and the Third World; the criminals were the ones who caught on first and hardest on how to get the white man to part with his money.

One of the biggest hurdles for an African tech economy is that there’s no built-in local market for most tech revenue streams, aside from connectivity (re: cell phones, Internet cafés, etc.).There’s no b2b market and very little consumer market, because most people don’t have a whole lot of money. The real money for African tech companies, as far as I can tell, is exporting tech goods and services to the West…which means, as I said, that African entrepreneurs have to figure out how to hook into Western markets. It’s not just an economic problem; it’s also cultural, especially given the unfortunate reputation that Nigeria and other African countries have in the West, technology-wise.

(This is mostly conjecture on my part; I can’t claim to have any firsthand knowledge of Africa’s tech industry, other than things I’ve read and heard from people who’ve lived and worked over there.)

It would be wonderful to see a self-contained tech industry appear in Nigeria and Ghana and other West African nations. Most of the success stories I’ve heard seem as though they’re related to hardware and infrastructure-building (such as mobile phone-based projects). I can imagine why: mobile phones are usually subsidized by carriers whose main revenue stream is based on service contracts, and in a country like Nigeria where the average income is $330 per year, that means that mobile devices are probably often the primary technology that people are working with. It would be interesting to see how something like Google’s new strategy of renting netbooks monthly would go over there.

Personally, I wish there was more focus in the West on investment in African entrepreneurship rather than in relief aid. Don’t get me wrong; I fully understand that, for most Africans, technology advancement comes a distant second to having enough food and not getting murdered by some random lunatic asshole. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a solid place for us to focus on helping Africans help themselves, whether it be by helping to provide educational resources or straight-up venture capitalism.

I’d love to get involved in these sorts of initiatives, but a) I don’t have any money to invest, and b) I’m not a hardcore enough techie that my skillset would be appealing to nonprofits or anybody else trying to help start initiatives in Africa. I don’t have a BS (much less a master’s degree, which is often a requirement) and I’m a talented generalist, not a specialist. (I still think I would be extremely useful to any such organization, but the few times I’ve reached out and offered my services I’ve mostly been ignored.)

The day will come, though, when Africa becomes a force to be reckoned with in technology. Twenty years ago, who would’ve believed that India and Bangladesh would be hubs of technology labor? The wheel always turns; eventually, it’s going to turn south.

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An Immodest Proposal: iqCAPTCHA

One of my friend Alex’s hard and fast rules is: never talk to the Internet people. Don’t read blog comments, don’t reply to blog comments, don’t get in flamewars. It’s a rule I follow myself, by and large; I almost never read blog comments (Update: except here, of course) and never, ever, ever engage in debates within them. In my considered opinion, blog comments tend to be a home for trolls. Most people who comment on my blog posts or tweets do so either directly in Twitter or in Facebook, where most of my data gets cross-posted. And I’m fine with that; I’ve actually gotten comments from non-friends on Twitter to things I’ve said that genuinely made me rethink what I was saying.

One of the most unfortunate notions in our current society is the idea that every person’s voice deserves to be heard. By this I don’t mean that people don’t have the right to speak; I believe in absolute freedom of speech, even for those I most despise. But I don’t believe that anyone is innately entitled to an audience for their speech, or to have their speech carefully considered or taken seriously by society as a whole. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to earn that right, by saying something worth listening to.

I’ve found that nothing enrages a person more than having their opinion summarily dismissed. Hence the Tea Party, which is primarily comprised of people who feel as though their voices aren’t heard in the public forum. By and large this is true, but it’s also for good reason: judging by what they do say (and write on placards) when the cameras are on them, most of them seem to have much the same capacity for reasoned and critical thought that a ring-tailed lemur has for forming a really good metal band. We ignore them not because they’re poor or disenfranchised; we ignore them because they’re ignorant and stupid — and willfully so, in a country with some of the best access to educational tools on Earth — which, ironically, most Tea Partiers and similar right-wing libertarian types seem to want to get rid of entirely. I can only assume that this is because walking past a school or a library fills them with shame and self-loathing.

I don’t engage these people in debate either on the Internet or in real life. What’s the point? They don’t listen, they seem incapable of understanding a nuanced position, they simply want to be told that they’re right, and also that Barack Obama was actually born on a small moon orbiting Tau Ceti and that he’s merely laying the groundwork for an invasion of aliens who will invade our country and then sit on their lazy tentacles all day, doing nothing but soaking up our welfare dollars.

Why would I waste a minute of my time listening or even talking to these sad specimens of the American gene pool?

For this stance, I am occasionally asked that most American of questions: who are you to judge other people? My answer is: I’m a guy who paid enough attention in grade school to know the proper usage of homophones like “there”, “their” and “they’re” or “your” and “you’re”. I don’t believe the world is six thousand years old, because I get my cosmology from people who actually study the universe, not a collection of oral folk tales invented by nomadic goat herders in the days when bronze was still a daring and radical new invention. (I’ve also personally stood in a city that is demonstrably older than that, but don’t take my word for it.) I can not only spell “Afghanistan”, but I know where it’s located on a map of the Earth, and why it’s so goddamn difficult to fight any kind of war there. I’ve been lucky enough to live in one Islamic country and visit another, and gain some small understanding of the differences between that culture and my own — an understanding which is desperately necessary in our times.

Most of all, I’m someone who believes that no intellectual or ideological position is worth holding unless it can be sustained against criticism and debate, both internal and external; that if you cannot successfully defend your opinion on a topic, you probably shouldn’t have one; and that your only guarantee of admittance into the global forum of public conversation is your ability to be articulate, intelligent, coherent and convincing in the things you choose to say.

That’s who I am to judge.

Now, then: if you spend any time online, you’re probably aware of CAPTCHAs. The most useful one, in my opinion, is reCAPTCHA, which not only ensures that the user is human, but uses their innate language-recognition skills to help digitize books. CAPTCHAs are not infallible ways of preventing spam, but they’ve done a lot to lower the volume.

I’d like to propose something along similar lines, but in a different direction: a web service that inserts a different sort of CAPTCHA into a blog or news website, one that’s not aimed at blocking spam bots, but blocking cretins: an intellectual CAPTCHA. (I’m aware that I’m not the first person to come up with this idea, but I think the others who came before me were kidding. I’m not.)

I think the following mockups pretty well sum up my idea:

 

Such a tool would be perfectly accessible to visually-impaired Web users, utilizing audio cues for both the example sentence and the option words (which would be spelled out: “W-O-U-L-D apostrophe V-E”). It would simply present a barrier to anyone without basic literacy skills.

An argument could be made that this also presents a barrier to persons with reading difficulties such as dyslexia. My response is that finding the correct answer to these problems is really only a simple Google query away. Or you could include a link to this helpful visual aid within your iqCAPTCHA. In this way, an iqCAPTCHA could not only weed out undesirable commenters, it could serve as a valuable learning tool for those who feel the uncontrollable urge to post their deathless thoughts to a primarily text-based Internet without the benefit of basic literacy skills. And frankly, if they’re not willing to work for it, fuck ‘em anyway.

I am absolutely, 100% serious about this. I think that it might serve as a very small way of rebalancing the signal-to-noise ratio of the “conversation” we’re all apparently having (even with people we wouldn’t actually piss on if they were on fire in real life). It would work similarly to reCAPTCHA, as a web service you would sign into and create an API key for. A WordPress plugin would be an absolute must, and optional adoption by Tumblr and Blogger and Facebook would go a long way towards significantly reducing the assheadedness of Internet discourse in an expedient fashion.

If you’re interested in such an idea, let me know in the comments below. (Which are currently only protected by a reCAPTCHA, so if you’re an idiot, you can still be included in this forum…for now.) If enough people are interested, I’ll do it and set up a PayPal donation box or something.

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Rhapsody Blind

Just a shout-out here on something my friend John has created: Rhapsody Blind, a set of scripts that allow visually-impaired Windows users to navigate Rhapsody, the streaming music service.

From what I can tell, there aren’t really a whole lot of good tools for blind computer users; we rarely think about how the traditional GUI interface is much harder to translate for a visually-impaired person than old text interfaces (which work, as I understand it, relatively well with Braille mechanical display devices that “pop up” the characters as Braille underneath the user’s fingers). So it’s really great to see tools like this out there.

So if you’re visually-impaired or know somebody who could use this, please check it out. The scripts are free, though they require the JAWS screen reading app.

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More Wikileaks thinking

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the whole Wikileaks thing these past few weeks, like a lot of people who belong to my particular sub-set of the human population. (First World, technology-oriented, somewhat politically minded. White as a goddamn ghost.)

I’m massively ambiguous about the whole affair, which has earned me my fair share of sneering and disbelieving virtual glares from my friends and fellow travelers. (I use that term in the most ironic way possible.) My own ambiguity surprises me, because in theory this is the sort of thing I’ve been wanting to see happen for most of my life. I’ve always been a card-carrying dyed-in-the-wool cyberpunk type; even though I’ve disagreed with the EFF on issues involving digital music, I support them with all my heart (and occasionally, when I can afford it, my wallet). Transparency in government is something I’m a fervent believer in.

So why does this whole thing make me uneasy?

I think it’s tied into a lot of the reservations I’ve been feeling, for a long time now, about the hacker culture in general. Not the “get excited and write code” part of hacker culture, which I find deeply meaningful and valuable to humanity as a whole, even if some of the participants can be deeply tedious party guests. But there’s also a flip side to the cleverness and ingenuity of hacker culture; a deep arrogance and near-sociopathology.

In America at least, there’s a big crossover between the hacker and libertarian communities. Though I was at one point in my late teens registered as a libertarian — mainly because they were the political party least likely to send me irritating snail mail — I’ve come to have a deep distaste for libertarianism. These days, I tend to believe that European Union-style socialist democracy is probably the most humane economic and political system we’ve got. I might be wrong on that…but I don’t believe that American capitalism works, and I’ve come to abhor the notion of a world ruled entirely by capitalism, oligarchy and the Grim Meathook Future of a totally free market.

A lot of hackers I know personally are basically heavy libertarian types. They hate the government, they hate taxes. They’re smart and very capable of taking care of themselves and don’t have a lot of time for people who don’t. They seem to apply the same sneering contempt to poor people that they do to clueless Windows users; it’s that same sense of superiority to those who haven’t figured out how to hack the system. Most of them are only political in as far as privacy and tax issues are concerned. I’m not saying all hackers are like this…but this archetype certainly covers a fair number of the ones I know, and I know quite a lot of them.

(Even though I write code professionally, I don’t consider myself a hacker, because I’m not interested in code or systems or exploits for their own sake. There’s not really a name for what I am — somebody who thinks about lots of different things and then talks about them or tries to make them happen in a variety of media. “Dilettante” is probably le mot juste.)

Another trait of a lot of hackers I know is an unwillingness to concern themselves with the long-term ramifications of what they do. Their primary motivation is boredom and a desire to be very clever. Which is a great motivator for smart people…but when you’ve got the keys (or lock picks) to a lot of kingdoms, a lack of foresight can cause some very serious problems in the real world. Being capable of hacking into credit card companies and getting millions of card numbers and personal identification information for people is a really cool skill…but putting it out into the world can cause some really serious harm to people who, unlike the credit card companies, don’t even deserve it in theory.

The Gawker thing is a perfect example. When Anonymous (or whatever subset of Anonymous) hacked into Gawker and put the user logins and passwords up for display, the first people who dived for that information were spammers, who used it to log into people’s Facebook accounts and email and send massive amounts of penis enlargement spam and other weird nonsense — for their own monetary gain, of course. (Happened to me, which is why I’m never, ever going to comment on a blog again.) It was an inconvenience at worst, but the point remains: the collateral damage wasn’t done to Gawker, it was done to people whose chief crime was wanting to respond to a post about the Doctor Who Christmas special or to tell other like-minded people what their favorite note-taking app for the iPhone was.

That complete lack of interest in the damage inflicted upon innocent bystanders is psychopathic. It’s putting one’s own political or personal ideology, or simple desire to feel like God, above the well-being of others. It is, in fact, precisely the sort of thing that people despise about corporations and governments in the first place.

But most of the hackers I know winked and tut-tutted at the whole thing, or the Anonymous attacks on Visa and MasterCard and Paypal. Because, really, anybody stupid enough to use the same password for all their accounts — or to use credit or debit or online payment systems — really deserved what they got, right?

The same way a woman who’s assaulted while walking down the street dressed provocatively deserves what she gets, for being so stupid, right?

Which brings us back to Wikileaks, in a roundabout way. The debate over the sexual assault case against Julian Assange has become incredibly tedious to me. I don’t know if he raped or assaulted those two women, and neither do you. I do find the reaction of the Swedish authorities and Interpol to be a bit unlikely, at the very least: I can’t think of any other occasion when Interpol put an APB out on someone accused — not convicted — of sexual assault. Whether the charges were politically motivated or not, the response very obviously is.

But as for the charges themselves, I care as much as I care about any other investigation into assault charges involving people I don’t know, which is not a whole hell of a lot. Sorry. If it happened the way the women say it did, Assange needs to answer for it. If not, he should walk. That’s the level of my concern and care now. The hysteria on every side of that debate (feminist, anti-feminist, conspiracist) has just become horrible noise.

For the record, here’s what I believe about Wikileaks:

1) I don’t think they’re journalists, in the traditional sense. There’s no journalism going on; just massive data dumping. Redacting things isn’t the same as verifying material, putting it into perspective; all the things traditional journalists would do. (Snarky prick alert: Nor do I think that traditional journalism is just “Old Media” and totally lame and the past, and that Wikileaks is the “new way” and totally awesome and the future, and if you do I don’t care, because I’ve walked every side of that particular fence and I know every inch of it by feel and smell and I doubt you do, so be quiet. That debate is deeply nuanced and it’s not played out yet.)

2) I absolutely, utterly, completely believe that the American government has no right to prosecute Julian Assange or to attack Wikileaks in any way. He’s not an American citizen and he does not fall under American jurisdiction. Even if he was, it’s fairly clear he would fall under First Amendment and whistleblower protection, the same way that Daniel Ellsberg was when he gave out the Pentagon Papers. It would also be a grievous moral act on my government’s part…not that anybody seems to care about that anymore.

3) I believe that what Wikileaks has done with the Afghanistan information and with these diplomatic cables is not going to make the American government more transparent in its dealings with its citizens or with other nations. It’s going to have the opposite effect: it’s going to make people who are already paranoid about information leakage a lot more paranoid. And I don’t like the idea of hyper-paranoid people with their finger on the metaphorical button or buttons.

4) I don’t believe that Assange gave one nimble rat’s fuck about the collateral damage he might cause by releasing this information, any more than the Anonymous hackers who’ve been hacking into things in his name did about the damage they might cause. Assange strikes me as a rather archetypal sociopathic black-hat hacker type. I’ve debated other people who are involved in Wikileaks, and it’s my impression that several of them are precisely the kind of libertarian hackers I’ve been talking about; from everything I’ve seen, so is Assange. I could be wrong about that, but based on the evidence I’ve seen, that’s my guess.

I’m also bemused by the sheer hypocrisy that is being shown by every player in this affair. Assange wants transparency but gets outraged when somebody leaks details of his sexual assault case to the Guardian; Anonymous wants to tear down the walls of the secret-keepers, but do so from behind their own obscuring wall of anonymity; the hacker community that is so vocally supporting Assange’s attack upon secrecy are the same people who routinely also bitch about the government spying on them and searching them at airports and trying to make them, as private citizens and as business operators, pay their full share of taxes. I’m a big believer in consistency of thought and action: you can’t have it both ways, kids. You want an end to secrecy, fine; but that means your secrets can be spilled too.

Do I ultimately think Wikileaks is a good thing? Yes. And no. Both. Either way, I think it’s a Pandora’s box that has been irrevocably opened. Things are going to change because of this; the whole notion of privacy and secrecy is going to be turned upside down, not just for governments but for all of us. I also think this is the beginning of a new era of net warfare, played out between governments and NGOs and groups that don’t even have memberships or know who they themselves are, like Anonymous. I think the main outcome is going to be that living online is going to get a whole lot more irritating.

And I’d like to believe that, just like with the mythical Pandora’s box, hope still lies somewhere at the bottom of all of this.

(For further reading, Big Bruce Sterling‘s thoughts on all this.)

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Twitter vs. RSS vs. Web

I don’t post here much very often these days, mainly thanks to Twitter. (I also haven’t really felt like I had much to say, this past year or so.) Twitter is quick and simple, and unlike a blog post, I don’t really have to think about what I’m trying to express. (Not that I have to do that with a blog post, but I’d rather write something coherent than not.) Twitter has become my dominant Net experience these days. For years, my day began with Google Reader. I’d open it up and surf through my feeds, my equivalent of picking up the Times. But nowadays, I hit Twitter first, starting with the newest tweets and working my way backwards to the last tweets I saw. Only then do I go over to Reader — or, more often, Reeder, the iPhone Reader app I picked up a while back based on Warren’s recommendation. Alan Watts once said something along the lines that each of us is a node through which the universe looks at itself. That’s what Twitter feels like: watching the universe watch itself through different eyes. It’s a way of immersing oneself in the collective experiencing of a given moment, in a much more immediate way than reading structured news or even blog posts. You open Twitter and you see what a thousand people are doing at any given moment. It’s like a downmarket version of Professor Xavier‘s Cerebro. It’s instant and ephemeral (no matter whether it’s archived or not). Twitter, for me at least, belies the notion that mediated networks are isolating. I feel more connected to the world around me with Twitter than I did before — particularly as I get older and my face-to-face relationships with people become less constant and more scattered, as my friends get married or work jobs that keep them from socializing constantly and as I myself undergo that natural withdrawal that happens when you reach your thirties and no longer feel the constant need to expand your social circle. And yet, my circle is expanding, with every new day and every new person I follow on Twitter and who follows me. I probably spend more time talking to my Twitter friends than I do to my local friends (and often I talk to them via Twitter). Maybe that sounds sad, but I don’t feel that way. It makes me happy. And perhaps it would be different if I lived in a different city. Las Vegas is a terribly isolating place, both socially and environmentally. When it’s 110º outside and you can get third-degree burns from putting your hands on the wheel of your car, nobody wants to leave the house to congregate. The fact that I don’t drink often anymore is also isolating, as Las Vegas is a city whose socializing is predicated entirely upon alcohol. Which makes me think that what I’m really trying to say is that I ought to get out of here.

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At A Crossroads

So I’d like your advice, my dear Internet.

I have a software project called dbasr that I’ve been working on for a while — several years, on and off, in fact. Weirdly enough, it’s actually probably more relevant and useful now than when I started it.

I’ve rewritten the code base several times, but I think I’m on the final iteration for a beta release now. There’s nothing really to look at unless you’re a coder, but I’m literally working on building the UI right now.

I’ve been keeping the exact nature of it under wraps, because I wanted to simply drop it on the world. Not that it’s a secret — I’ve told a few people about it — but I’d like to be the first to market with it. (I can tell you it’s a combination of a web application and a service. If you know me and my interests, you might be able to fill in some gaps from that.)

Unfortunately, it’s a pretty substantial project for one person, and the reason I haven’t finished it is because real life intrudes. It’s a lot of code and a lot of UI design and there aren’t enough hours in the day. I’ve tried to get other people on board, but understandably nobody’s been particularly willing to invest themselves into a project with no immediate paycheck.

I’ve talked to a few people I know about securing investment money — going the traditional angel-funding route. But after a lot of consideration, I’m not sure I see the point of doing so. I don’t need a lot of money — really just enough to pay my expenses while I finish writing the software, and a very little bit of hardware and running costs.

I also don’t trust anyone else to run this. My experience tells me that if I get money from angels or VCs, they’ll expect to direct the company’s business decisions, and I don’t think that’s a good idea in this case. In fact, the reason that dbasr is such a unique concept is not because I’m necessarily that smart, but because everyone who’s ever tried anything similar has ended up letting money people make the decisions on how it ought to work. I won’t do that.

I keep looking at tools like Kickstarter and Indie Go Go, which several people I know have successfully used to fund projects, and I’m thinking about using one of these for dbasr. Doing so means telling the world what it is and committing myself to a particular set of features, but I’m probably okay with that right now.

What I’m afraid of is somebody else running with the idea. In this case, I think it’s a cool enough idea that I’d be happy to simply see it out there…but I’d also like to make some money from it, and I think I’ve figured out ways to do that which are completely non-evil.

I’ve run the numbers and done my homework and I don’t think I can reasonably expect to get super-rich off of it, but I do think it will be profitable pretty quickly and make me enough money to live comfortably, and possibly expand into a thriving little business. “Little” being the key here. It doesn’t need to be a megacorporation. It’s a simple software platform that can be maintained by a small team, maybe even just me by myself to start.

I think it’s a tool that could seriously affect the way a certain subset of business in the world is done. Certainly the people who know about it have all seemed enthusiastic.

Look, whether you like me or not or think I’m a windbag, you have to admit something: I’m good at understanding where holes in the market exist. I’m neither capable nor interested in filling most of them; when I came up with an idea for an augmented reality device in 2003, I ditched it because I didn’t have the faintest idea of how to actually build something like that, even though I had most of the broad strokes of an iPhone in mind (digital compass and GPS with gyroscope, camera on opposite side of screen).

But this hole I can fill. And it might change the world, at least in a little way. It won’t cure cancer or feed starving children or teach Beyond Petroleum how to build an oil rig…but it’s pretty goddamned cool, nonetheless.

So here’s my question to you: do I go for it? Do I make some UI mockups, set up a Kickstarter fund, ask for money, share my idea with the world even though it’s not even ready for internal testing? Or do I keep soldiering away?

If I could just work on this 8-10 hours a day, without having to worry about paying rent, I’d have it done in just a few months. And it would be amazing.

Tell me what you think, in the comments here or on my Twitter @jzellis.

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VGrid for CSS nerds

Here’s a little something I just whipped up for my own uses, but you might find it useful as well: vgrid.css, a CSS style sheet for handling vertical height of objects by em, as a sort of companion to the 960 grid. It’s got vgrid_x classes from 1 to 100; if you’re assigning onscreen elements to be more than 100 lines high, this probably isn’t the tool for you.

I mainly whipped it up for use with input forms with textareas, so that I could easily assign a height to textareas, but it’d probably be useful for other sorts of line-by-line layout as well. I just thought someone else might find it useful.

If you’d rather just cut and paste, the CSS is below:

.vgrid_1{ height: 1em; } .vgrid_2{ height: 2em; } .vgrid_3{ height: 3em; } .vgrid_4{ height: 4em; } .vgrid_5{ height: 5em; } .vgrid_6{ height: 6em; } .vgrid_7{ height: 7em; } .vgrid_8{ height: 8em; } .vgrid_9{ height: 9em; } .vgrid_10{ height: 10em; } .vgrid_11{ height: 11em; } .vgrid_12{ height: 12em; } .vgrid_13{ height: 13em; } .vgrid_14{ height: 14em; } .vgrid_15{ height: 15em; } .vgrid_16{ height: 16em; } .vgrid_17{ height: 17em; } .vgrid_18{ height: 18em; } .vgrid_19{ height: 19em; } .vgrid_20{ height: 20em; } .vgrid_21{ height: 21em; } .vgrid_22{ height: 22em; } .vgrid_23{ height: 23em; } .vgrid_24{ height: 24em; } .vgrid_25{ height: 25em; } .vgrid_26{ height: 26em; } .vgrid_27{ height: 27em; } .vgrid_28{ height: 28em; } .vgrid_29{ height: 29em; } .vgrid_30{ height: 30em; } .vgrid_31{ height: 31em; } .vgrid_32{ height: 32em; } .vgrid_33{ height: 33em; } .vgrid_34{ height: 34em; } .vgrid_35{ height: 35em; } .vgrid_36{ height: 36em; } .vgrid_37{ height: 37em; } .vgrid_38{ height: 38em; } .vgrid_39{ height: 39em; } .vgrid_40{ height: 40em; } .vgrid_41{ height: 41em; } .vgrid_42{ height: 42em; } .vgrid_43{ height: 43em; } .vgrid_44{ height: 44em; } .vgrid_45{ height: 45em; } .vgrid_46{ height: 46em; } .vgrid_47{ height: 47em; } .vgrid_48{ height: 48em; } .vgrid_49{ height: 49em; } .vgrid_50{ height: 50em; } .vgrid_51{ height: 51em; } .vgrid_52{ height: 52em; } .vgrid_53{ height: 53em; } .vgrid_54{ height: 54em; } .vgrid_55{ height: 55em; } .vgrid_56{ height: 56em; } .vgrid_57{ height: 57em; } .vgrid_58{ height: 58em; } .vgrid_59{ height: 59em; } .vgrid_60{ height: 60em; } .vgrid_61{ height: 61em; } .vgrid_62{ height: 62em; } .vgrid_63{ height: 63em; } .vgrid_64{ height: 64em; } .vgrid_65{ height: 65em; } .vgrid_66{ height: 66em; } .vgrid_67{ height: 67em; } .vgrid_68{ height: 68em; } .vgrid_69{ height: 69em; } .vgrid_70{ height: 70em; } .vgrid_71{ height: 71em; } .vgrid_72{ height: 72em; } .vgrid_73{ height: 73em; } .vgrid_74{ height: 74em; } .vgrid_75{ height: 75em; } .vgrid_76{ height: 76em; } .vgrid_77{ height: 77em; } .vgrid_78{ height: 78em; } .vgrid_79{ height: 79em; } .vgrid_80{ height: 80em; } .vgrid_81{ height: 81em; } .vgrid_82{ height: 82em; } .vgrid_83{ height: 83em; } .vgrid_84{ height: 84em; } .vgrid_85{ height: 85em; } .vgrid_86{ height: 86em; } .vgrid_87{ height: 87em; } .vgrid_88{ height: 88em; } .vgrid_89{ height: 89em; } .vgrid_90{ height: 90em; } .vgrid_91{ height: 91em; } .vgrid_92{ height: 92em; } .vgrid_93{ height: 93em; } .vgrid_94{ height: 94em; } .vgrid_95{ height: 95em; } .vgrid_96{ height: 96em; } .vgrid_97{ height: 97em; } .vgrid_98{ height: 98em; } .vgrid_99{ height: 99em; } .vgrid_100{ height: 100em; }

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The value of music

So apparently a group of musicians in England called the Featured Artists Coalition have voted to support a “three strikes” law against illegal file downloaders: get caught three times and have your bandwidth reduced to a point where you can no longer download big files. It has not met with enthusiasm from the British blogosphere. Signatories to this support document include Steve Jones (presumably the one from the Sex Pistols), Annie Lennox, David Gilmour and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Tjinder Singh from Cornershop, Ed O’Brien from Radiohead, Patrick Wolf, George Michael, and Billy Bragg, who is not exactly known for his rabid capitalism.

Interestingly, this comes on the heels of a blog post by Amanda Palmer, who’s become a sort of poster child for DIY Internet promotion for musicians. Entitled “Why I Am Not Afraid To Take Your Money, By Amanda Fucking Palmer”, the blog details Palmer’s happy willingness to be shameless in her requests for cash from fans. A quote (orthography is hers):

listen. artists need to make money to eat and to continue to make art. artists used to rely on middlemen to collect their money on their behalf, thereby rendering themselves innocent of cash-handling in the public eye. artists will now be coming straight to you (yes YOU, you who want their music, their films, their books) for their paychecks. please welcome them. please help them. please do not make them feel badly about asking you directly for money. dead serious: this is the way shit is going to work from now on and it will work best if we all embrace it and don’t fight it.

Though they are saying it in vastly different ways (and with vastly different responses from their audiences), the core of what the FAC and Palmer are saying is the same: musicians need to be paid for their efforts.

The traditional model, as Palmer points out, is this: artist signs to a record label, who fronts them the money to record and tour and in return collects the profits from sales of the artist’s recordings, keeping the vast majority. This is increasingly no longer true, for two reasons:

  • File-sharing is making it increasingly difficult to make money from selling music;
  • Technology is making it easier for artists to make their own recordings and bring them directly to their audience.

I can’t imagine that anybody in the world really thinks “Fuck this band I love. I’m gonna steal their music and not pay them. I hope they fucking go bankrupt and live in cardboard boxes somewhere.” Music sharing is not data piracy in the traditional sense — where some prick starts selling bootlegged copies of an album without giving any of it to the artist or the label. Music sharing is about loving music.

(It could be argued, though, that somebody makes a profit off of file-sharing: namely, the software companies who create file-sharing software and earn revenue from subscribers or advertisers. If that revenue isn’t shared somehow with the artists (or, as they refer to such people in the Internet industry, “content creators”) then I would say these companies are engaging in a form of piracy, and ought to have their asses handed to them, so long as they’re profiting off of the work of others without compensating those others. This is where my problem with a lot of the copyfighters comes in; they sound less like crusaders for the common good and more like shills for the software industry.)

But here’s the problem: musicians have, for the past century, made their living from selling records. There’s no other model in place yet that really replaces that one, no model that allows musicians to devote themselves full-time to recording, releasing, promoting and touring to play their music. Amanda Palmer is experimenting with one, and it seems to be working for her right now, but only time will tell.

The FAC “three strikes” idea is ludicrous, of course, and it’s creating an incredible tide of ill-will towards them; on their website, commentators are comparing Bragg and other artists to slaves supporting their corporate masters. If one takes a deep breath and steps back, this of course is not true. In point of fact, a lot of the “demands” of the FAC are the sort of thing that make record label executives reach for the Alka-Seltzer, including a “use it or lose it” provision in British copyright law that would require copyright holders to actively renew their claims or lose their copyrighted material to the public domain…not to mention demanding that artists who are signed to labels get paid when the label finds new technologies to sell the artists’ work.

I really don’t believe that the FAC are a bunch of slavering fatcats lounging around on fainting couches made from the tanned skin of file-sharers, eating grapes and demanding that every penny be accounted for. I think they’re a group of people who’ve spent their lives making music that lots of people claim to love, but don’t want to reward them for creating. While some of them may not be fully aware of the fundamental changes that have occurred due to Internet file-sharing or the possibilities that are open to them, I find their “three strikes” notion more pitiable than infuriating.

The people who really piss me off are the ones Amanda Palmer’s addressing, who claim to be irritated by her requests for money. These people are beneath contempt. They’re the ones who really want whatever they want, when they want it, and don’t want to pay for it, and fuck you for asking. These are the people I’d cheerfully smash across the skull with a bottle.

Being a musician is hard work. It takes time and effort to make music — time and effort that ought to be rewarded somehow by the people who enjoy the results. Does anybody really disagree with this, in theory at least? If so, I’d love to hear a logical, well-thought-out objection to the idea that musicians — like waitresses and law clerks and software developers and cab drivers — should be paid for the work they do that benefits others.

Lily Allen is not the problem here, though she seems to be the target of a great amount of vitriol. After reading her thoughts on the subject (before she took her blog down), I don’t think she’s some evil pop star diva; I think she and the group of people she’s been talking to have come up with an untenable solution to an incredibly complicated and quite real problem that lots of very smart people have been devoting a lot of mental processing cycles to over the past decade or so. That doesn’t make her the Devil, and treating her as such is simply childish.

Not that it matters. I sometimes feel like absolutely no one with a voice in this discussion is interested in finding a reasonable, non-combative way to solve this problem in a way that makes life better both for musicians and for fans. Everybody wants to get up and rant about freedom or build imaginary file-sharing straw men. Maybe if people had been a bit more constructive in their conversations and willing to reach out to the other side, we wouldn’t be faced with the FAC’s silly demands and the blitzkreig of hatred it has engendered.

All of this, of course, conveniently ignores the fact that file-sharing, like casual drug use, is still illegal in most jurisdictions; whether you agree with that illegality or not is essentially irrelevant until you figure out a way to change the laws where you live. If you live in a democracy, you have ways to change that, assuming you care enough to put your time and effort — and probably money — into actually changing the law, or at least supporting the people who are trying to do so.

If not, then you’re worse than the FAC could ever be. You’re sitting on your couch shouting at people who are being proactive in this debate, even if you don’t agree with their stance. You should probably shut up now.

If you’d actually like to discuss these issues, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments. If you want to talk seriously, I’ll respond.

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