Current Events

Better Driving thru Optical Camouflage

This is pretty smart idea.

Using principals of Optical Camouflage, researchers at Keio University project the image from a camera on the back of a car onto a recursive reflector which looks like one of those glass screens politicians use for their teleprompters. The mirror sits at an angle to project an image right where the backseat would be,essentially making the back seat disappear.

As you can see in the video, it’s really useful when backing up your car to see all the objects behind you in context and in the proper size, lined up with everything else you see out of the rear view mirror.

– via DigInfo TV

Current Events

The Art of Flight

I saw the most amazing video yesterday.

The Art of Flight was released last year and is one of the best snowboarding movies I’ve ever seen. If you like the Warren Miller skiing flicks, this one is for you. It’s got Red Bull branding all over it but  if you can get past that it’s an amazing bit of filmmaking. It is like the Endless Summer for the snowboarding crowd. But instead of touring the world looking for the perfect wave, they visit places like Alaska and Patagonia in search of untouched “first descents.” Oh, and instead of hitchhiking their way around, they get a rides from their sponsor’s helicopters.

I have to thank the folks at Red Bull for underwriting the whole adventure and capturing it all on high-end Red Digital cameras because what they produced is truly amazing. The locations are amazing, the tricks are incredible, the cinematography top notch, and soaring, full Dolby  music by M83 & The Naked & Famous is worth listening to on a good set of headphones. Watch it and get ready for winter.

Current Events

Unbundled Lectures and the Napsterization of Education

In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as as songs came unbundled from CDs.

– Clay Shirky, Napster, Udacity and the Academy

Digitization and distribution via the internet is a great unbundler, disrupting every industry it touches. A great unbundling is coming to education and will overtake it’s institutions, altering them forever, just as it did to the music industry. It may not happen as rapidly as it did to the record labels, academic institutions are much older, but it will happen. As long as a four-year education sets students back $250,000 and saddles them with a crippling, non-forgivable loan that leaves them no better off than an indentured servent of old, the alternatives will continue to chip away at the established institutions such as private universities.

Just as MP3s and Napster were originally dismissed by the labels as poor quality alternatives to records and CDs, the tidal wave of enhancements to the production and distribution of digital music improved the ecosystem to where we have iTunes and Spotify as serious alternatives to the traditional methods of how to acquire and consume music.

The same will happen to education. The core nugget of a university class, the lecture, is online(Kahn Academy, iTunes U, Udacity). Tests can be taken online. Class discussions are taking place over email, on wikis, in forums. Bit by bit, the elements of a formal education are being replaced with lower cost, asynchronous alternatives. It’s the Napsterization of Education.

Over 200,000 have enrolled in Introduction to Computer Science on Udacity. There is a course on how to build a start-up taught by Steve Blank. Everything on Udacity is completely free, shared, re-shared, and improved as each student makes their way through the courses. It’s not just introductory stuff either, check out CS373 on Udacity where a Sebastian Thrun, a Google VP & Fellow, will teach you all you need to know to program a self-driving car.

Exciting times!

Current Events

As Above, So Below

My sister noticed that a recent photo I uploaded to Instagram looked familiar. The photo I uploaded below is of my two kids on a recent trip to Mt. Shasta.

The next photo is from a hike in Yosemite with my sister when I was a student at UC Berkeley.

Brother – Sister. 20 years hence.

Current Events

Long Now Bottle Keep

As I grow older, I have come to appreciate the power of stories. I collect them as I go through life, sometimes seeking out experiences because a good story may come out of it.  I was invited this past week to join the staff of The Long Now Foundation to share a story that I have been telling for years but never took the time to add to this blog.

Back when I was living in Tokyo, I had a several university mates that stopped by to visit. Like any host living overseas, I had gotten things pretty well wired where I could suss out what they wanted to see and could arrange from a number of “module” walks that could be strung together to make for an interesting day. But there was one visit, by an old fraternity brother, that really stood out. Mike was legendary for living life to the hilt, his laugh was infectious and he always went for the most extreme just to see what it was like. While most people traveled through Europe in between high school and college, Mike went to Africa. He was that kind of guy.

Golden Gai

When Mike said he was coming to Tokyo, I of course planned an epic evening of carousing. We started at Shimokitazawa at around 4 pm and hit Ginza, Shibuya, Harajuku, and finally, at around 2am, stumbled into Shinjuku where I planned to show him Golden Gai. It’s hard to describe this area except to say it’s about the size of a city block but houses over 200 tiny little bars piled all up on top of each other. It’s been described as Ridley Scott’s inspiration for the street vendor scene in Blade Runner if you want to put an image into your mind. The place hasn’t changed since the war and each bar there has it’s own story and storied clientele.

Remember, it’s 2am and Mike and I have been drinking since the afternoon so we’re basically stumbling around leaning on each other but I feeling good, knowing whichever bar we pick it’s going to be weird. In a good way. I’d been here several times and each time, it’s kind of like a Disneyland for adults. Go into one bar and you might meet a bunch of John Wayne fans where the bar stools are saddles, the drinks are burbon, and music is strictly C&W. Hit another place and it’s all old Zero fighter pilots drinking sake and telling tales from the war. Another place is a haunt for movie buffs that have a weakness for Fellini. Each bar is tiny, they only have 6-10 seats so they are real cozy. But in the wonderful openness of Japan, each bar will welcome anyone that joins them with the proper deference and curiosity.

So I was feeling pretty good and turned fate over to Mike. I slurred out to him to, “Pick any one you’d like, they’re all fantastic in their own way!” and asked him to choose where to go. He spun on a heel and waved his left arm and pointed to some rickety stairs that went up the side of corrugated steel, painted a shade of faded blue.

We made our way up the stairs and stumbled through the door into a place that was amazingly elegant compared to the jumble outside. It was dark but lighting under the bar and via colored sconces on the wall gave the place a very sophisticated feel. There was some jazz playing, something like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue – very cool. There was only one other patron, off in the corner with his whiskey and the “master” or owner of the bar. He’s there, beard and glasses, slowly polishing a shot glass with a linen napkin.

Mike & I stumble in and made a bit of ruckus but quickly quieted down and settled into the open seats in front of the bartender. He keeps looking at me, slowly studying my face over his glasses. Finally he says,

“Moshikashitara, Kennedy-san no musuko jyanaidesuka,” which is the basically, “If I’m not mistaken, you’re Kennedy’s son aren’t you?”

I look up, incredulous. How does this guy know me? And my father? I have been to a few bars around here but have no recollection of this place. He tells us to wait a minute and then goes into a back room where we hear the clinking and clanking of bottles. He returns holding a bottle aloft like a prize-winning catch. It’s a whiskey bottle with about 1/3 left in it and as he places it on the counter I can see my handwriting on the side of it.

It all comes back to me then. A couple of nights before I went away to boarding school, leaving my parents at 13 to fly halfway around the world to Concord, Massachusetts, my father took me to this bar to have a drink with his son. He bought a bottle and we wrote our names on the side and, as is the tradition in most Japanese bars, the owner would then keep it there for us whenever we returned. This is the Japanese tradition of “bottle keep.” Only in this case, I had not been there in over 10 years and not only had the bartender somehow recognized me, he also had been hanging on to this bottle in case either my father or myself would return.

It was at that moment that my friend Mike fell off his chair. He could not believe that such a thing was possible. That you could have a relationship with an establishment over such a long arc. The funny thing about this story is that the bar was called “Gu” which is the word for “closed fist” as in the closed-fist from scissors/rock/paper. Basically hanging on, determination.

So full circle back to The Long Now. A friend,  Mikl-em not only heard me tell this tale but remembered it as something that might interest the folks from The Long Now Foundation. Their mission is to help people think about the long term and one of their more famous projects is the 10,000 Year Clock which, if you don’t know about it, you must read more about as it will change your perspective on technology and human permanence.

The reason my Bottle Keep story is relevant is The Long Now Foundation is opening a Salon and will stock it with a special batch of gin distilled by the folks at St. George’s Spirits using juniper berries for the 5,000 year old bristle cone pines that happen to grow on the side of the mountain in Texas where they are building the 10,000 year clock. The idea is that for a donation, The Long Now Salon will hold your bottle for you on site so you can come at any time and enjoy it with your friends. As my sister says, “With bottle keep, no need to ‘buy’ someone a drink and all that implies.”

I’m happy to hear that they are bringing the bottle keep concept to San Francisco. It’s the perfect thing for The Long Now Foundation to do and they are going about it with the same sense of care and craftsmanship as they are with their other projects. Indeed, my visit was part of their learning. The staff took in my story and weaved in their own experiences and asked questions for more details. The conversation was relaxed and philosophical. It was a beautiful day outside and their offices in Fort Mason look out over the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate. We drank tea. Before I knew it, I had lost track of time and realized I had to get back to work.

Thank you Mikl-em and thank you Long Now folks for a wonderful afternoon.

Current Events

Revenge of the Nerds

While everyone spoke of New York Times blogger, Nate Silver’s uncanny, almost witchlike ability to call the election last night, the big winner was the triumph of big data and smart algorithms over gut feel and egos.

Those in tech that have been following Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog at the New York Times broke out in collective high-fives when FiveThirtyEight finished the evening correctly calling 50 out of 50 of the states (besting his 2008 call of 49 out of 50). A baseball statistics geek, Mr. Silver turned to politics and the aggregation of state and national polls as a playground of data ripe for his insights. Traditional polling agencies such as Gallup accuse Nate Silver of standing on their backs and taking all the glory (1 in 5 visits to stopped by to visit FiveThirtyEight). Their complaint is one we’ve heard before, that without their original polling data, Nate would have nothing to aggregate.

Sounds like the what the newspapers used to say about Google News.

But in reality it’s more than just aggregation. Nate Silver and others like him (Votamatic, Princeton Election Consortium) rigorously analyzed what they pulled together and revealed patterns that let the data speak for itself. The accuracy of this approach is a huge wake up call to any pundit that did not take into consideration a data driven approach.

While Nate Silver has put the Science back into Political Science, the data-driven approach to politics is also transforming the sell side, the people that run the campaigns. Time magazine has a fascinating piece on the team that would use modern data aggregation techniques borrowed from online advertising exchanges and e-commerce funnel analysis to segment and target potential supporters of the Obama campaign.

As one official put it, the time of “guys sitting in a back room smoking cigars, saying ‘We always buy 60 Minutes’” is over. In politics, the era of big data has arrived.

Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama Win

With the use of data to predict a winner or run a campaign, it is only natural that news organizations too use data as a way to make a point. Data visualizations are one way to convey information that is now becoming de riguer for any self-respecting newsroom. The Guardian started the Data Blog and the New York Times launched beta620 to experiment with data. Some of the best coverage of the local and state elections  (such as the image below) came from the Los Angeles Times’ Data Desk which I think is a great idea for any media organization, anything that raises data literacy.

Data can be the source of data journalism, or it can be the tool with which the story is told — or it can be both. Like any source, it should be treated with scepticism; and like any tool, we should be conscious of how it can shape and restrict the stories that are created with it. – Data Journalism Handbook




circa 2012

“I believe in the human element of news,” says Matt Galligan, the co-founder of circa, the hot news curation app released for the iPhone a few weeks ago. Matt was speaking about circa with Founding Editor Dave Cohn, at a Hacks/Hackers meetup in San Francisco, where circa is based.

The service is quite extraordinary in how hand-crafted it feels. Optimized specifically for the mobile device, the app aggregates news into a series of snippets and photos organized by topic. Aggregate is really the wrong term because each topic is manually curated by an editor who scans their online news sources and pulls apart source material to separate fact from “fluff.”

It is the presentation which makes this app shine. The care in how the images are carefully cropped and manipulated to the clever imitation ruffled edges on the screens to emulate newsprint give the app an artful feel.

Users of the app are presented with a series of topics to read, all editorially chosen. You can dive into a topic and scan through what Matt describes as a series of cards (flash cards were an important design inspiration) which highlight key facts, quotes, images, or other information that adds to the topic. Each fact that is brought in is referenced so that the reader can drill down to the originating piece should they want to read further.

The entire experience is designed for mobile. The snippets of a story are presented like snacks that you can nibble throughout the day, while waiting for the bus, between meetings, or over coffee. It is your news, broken down.

Additionally, you can Follow a topic much as you would subscribe to an RSS feed or follow a hashtag on twitter. Big news stories such as Hurricane Sandy have “arcs” that develop over time and a key feature of circa is that you can pick up and follow any thread you want to watch closely and, if you opt in, get push notifications of updates whenever a new fact is added to any thread you are following. Following developing stories is a key use case around with circa was designed. Often when following developing stories in the mainstream media, follow on stories often include prior material for the uninitiated. Circa gathers only the new material and tacks it on to it’s thread, dropping readers where they left off.

This Follow signal is particularly interesting. A Google search or Facebook like are signals of intent but they are fleeting. When someone opts in to getting push notifications of a story, that is a very strong signal of interest that will help the circa team understand what stories to follow in the future. This symbiotic loop will help improve the service over time and the early usage and engagement figures show strong engagement that bodes well for the service and its future.

John Herrman wrote that, “Twitter is a fact-processing machine on a grand scale,” when he was describing how news about Hurricane Sandy, both real and fake, was quickly shared, distributed, and verified via tweets. Circa takes a different approach. Positioning itself as a meta-source that can be trusted, it’s editors are taking the care to pull in the most important stories of the day and updating only when something is significant. It’s a human powered approach that limits their scale but they seem ok with that.

The app was a germ of an idea in December 2011. Back then it was called Circuit and was about the “closed loop” relationship between news that is read driving an algorithm that gave you more of what interested you. They started building the app in March and launched six months later as circa, a name which reflected the evolution of the product into something which was approximately around or about the news but not necessarily in it. The formal name of the company is circa 1605, the year of the first newspaper.

The team is small. 11 editors which cover 22 of the 24 hours a day (they have an editor based in China). There are three engineers, an iOS developer, their CTO who built their custom CMS, and a third engineer working on the APIs and data. The investor team is a hot shot lineup of media wizards so they have a strong wind with lots of experience from companies such as Tumblr, Facebook, and Al Jazeera behind them.

But, as Matt shared, launch day was difficult. Just 15 minutes after their app hit the iTunes store, a rouge server took down their service and for the next four hours. Those that had the app couldn’t use it while others couldn’t download it. The team answered over 1,000 tweets and were greeted to over 100 one star reviews once they recovered. But they did recover and within the next four hours after coming online they shot up to be the #1 news app in the iTunes app store, beyond the NYT and CNN.

The app is only a few weeks old but going strong. The Follow feature has a magnetic pull to bring you back into the app as stories develop over time. The team has purposefully chosen to go after areas where their approach to curation will have maximum benefit. Big news stories such as the Election or Hurricane are perfect for circa as you can follow along with out drinking from a firehose. They are next going after the tech news vertical where the typical earnings announcement or product launch story varies little from outlet to outlet.

Monetization options remain to be seen but Matt did share that their engagement numbers are very strong and, with the Follow feature, it’ll be easy to target readers with advertising or premium subscription topics. iPhone only for now but both the circa app and the team shows promise.