Monthly Archives: January 2011

Thoughts on Egypt

This week Egypt erupted in protest as the people cried out for change. The government responded by cutting off their internet access, causing even more outrage among the people.

I spent this morning reviewing what information I could find, and the situation is basically chaos. All the experts are at a loss as to what might eventually occur, and governments can’t commit to anything until they see how it plays out. Interestingly enough, though, what I’m starting to hear from the talking heads is a simple question “Is access to the internet a basic human right?”

I come from a right-leaning libertarian background, and I absolutely hate this fuzzy-headed thing we do where we’ve made “rights” out of everything from health care to pubic sinecures, but I think internet access is a right. Here’s why.

The internet is our right to speak and assemble. Computers are becoming extensions of our brains and not just machines you play movies and tunes on. As such, I think there’s no avoiding the fact that internet and computer access is a fundamental right. More to the point, it’s evolving as a human right. Not completely there yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

That doesn’t mean I have to pay for your cable modem — rights are not about making one person pay or do something for another. But it does mean that things like where the secret service uses cell phone jammers, or the NSA evesdrops on internet traffic, or the local government sells out broadband access because of cable company payoffs — these things need to be looked at in terms of human rights violations and not just murky bureaucratic and criminal issues.

I’m afraid where the law needs to be (both international and national law) is nowhere near being where it actually is.

Two things to watch in Egypt: First, will the cutoff of internet access result in a changeover or not? Now that Egypt has cut off net service, if things don’t change, this will set a precedent for other governments. When they have uprisings, the first thing they will do will be to cutoff net access too. Either way this goes, this is setting a precedent for future rebellions. For that reason alone, Egypt has to change governmental structures. There’s just too much on the line with the rest of the world for it not to.

Second, assuming Egypt changes governments, will the new government make constitutional promises not to cut off the net again? Once again, this is going to set a precedent. If they do, then there’s a good chance people still might remain free. If they don’t? We could easily see one bunch of corrupt egocentric leaders change places with another one. This is all too common in the world. Let’s hope it doesn’t play out that way.

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Web 3.0: The New Rock Bands

Yes, it’s true. The recent announcement of a cool $150K for YC graduates proves it.

Web startups are the new rock bands.

The analogy falls apart very easily, of course, but the important thing here isn’t to figure out the many ways the analogy is wrong: that’s easy enough to take apart. The important thing is to realize the many ways that it is true. After we look at similarities then we can see where the analogy fails.

Web companies — including really big ones — are operating as popularity-driven small ecosystems that grow, plateau, then slowly fade out. It’s gotten so that instead of one really big effort, YC and others are promoting hundreds of little efforts, each with the same rise-stall-fade growth pattern. Mechanics are in place to garner publicity, to introduce them to money, to help leverage their social impact on the marketplace. And now, with more cash involved, it’s got more of an “American Idol” feeling than ever.

Most web startups fail. Some do very well — for a short while. Some very rare ones keep generating hit after hit: Facebook is one of those. But overall, the pattern is very clear: package an idea, do quick and rapidly scaling customer development, generate buzz, watch numbers soar, flip to a larger company who is unable to do any of that. Stay for a while, then walk.

In a way, you could say that YC and places like it are doing what middle-management is supposed to be doing for some of these large companies: developing innovation and increasing customer mind-share. But I think that makes it sound a little too businesslike for what’s really going on: a big old talent search, contest, media, and investing frenzy. If that isn’t rock bands, I don’t know what is.

The term “rock star programmer” used to have a good meaning. Now nobody likes it. Perhaps the term “rock star founder” will take it’s place, perhaps not.

This latest cash injection for YC grads is just increasing the pull of talent coming in. It’s like those old shows where if you won a contest they would make you a record and send you on a promotional tour (albeit a rather cheap one by industry standards, but the point was engineering the contest to draw the most applicants and generate the most publicity, not to actually help a particular band or singer)

Personally I think it’s a good thing: lots of little groups of folks with marginally new ideas driving the technology to make things appeal more and more to mass audiences. Tech addiction issues aside, and there are some really serious ones, it seems to me to be the best way to optimally change things.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Even companies that claim to provide some serious, hard-nosed practical value directly to users are still out there shining the image up, doing the tech interviews, adding game mechanics to their sites — doing whatever it takes to push the popularity peak out as high as possible before the plateau begins. It’s not just the wannabes that fade away. Everybody knows that ten or fifteen years from now the vast majority of the successful startups won’t be around either. Except perhaps for fans of startups in general and trivia nuts, of course, who can remember all of the one-hit-wonders and tunes-from-way-back-when.

There’s no corruption in the VC industry that I can see, and there’s no industry lawyers suing folks — the analogy has many flaws. But the two systems are eerily similar. Since the systems are so similar in overall shape, it should bear watching to see what other similarities emerge in the details.

UPDATE: There’s one big difference that bears identifying in case you want your own startup: rock bands needed the record labels, media, agents, and promotional machinery in order to reach their audiences. With Web 3.0, the little ecosystems themselves provide a huge boost — no doubt that YC has built up a lot of machinery for launching little startups — but all of that scaling can happen from anywhere. The distribution part is free. Web 3.0 may be full of rock bands, but we don’t need record stores any more. To a large degree, there are a lot of “groupies” in the startup world — hangers on that are out just to ride the waves. One month it’s one startup, the next month another.

With the tech situated the way it is, it’s probably a good time to have a small band playing little venues — if you know what you’re doing, it’s probably much better doing that for a living, perhaps making it big or perhaps not, than thinking of this in terms of fame-and-fortune-or-die.

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It’s Painting, Stupid

I think I finally get the “Painters” thing.

A while back, I read “Hackers and Painters“. What a great book. Written by Paul Graham, it’s all about the world of technology and startups. The problem was, Paul uses an analogy between hackers and painters.

That didn’t work for me.

All my life I had heard that there were two types of programmers. I had met both of these types. One was a good type. One was a bad type.

The good type was the programmer who realized that there is a structure to solving problems. You figure out what is needed, you design or model a bit, you code, you verify. Repeat and rinse. Programming was structured analysis — perhaps done in a highly flexible and iterative way — applying itself to technical problem-solving. The emphasis was on teamwork, having fun, and making folks happy.

The bad type was an “artist”. They were special and wanted to be treated differently. They just kind of made up where they were going. To them, the technical beauty of a solution was more important than whether it made folks happy. The emphasis was on the artist, the message, purity and beauty. I thought Paul was saying that programming is a high art form, and that each program was somehow some special work of beauty and the art of programming should be emphasized over it’s use as a tool.

But that’s not what Paul was saying at all. When he started using the word “artist” or “painter” it brought up these other examples in my mind. I completely missed the point.

Continue reading

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Start Small, Stay Small

Got through reading another great startup book over the weekend, “Start Small, Stay Small”

It’s for hackers who want to learn how to become entrepreneurs. Sound familiar?

I really enjoyed the author’s style and the depth of coverage. Hn-books.com has the full review of “Start Small, Stay Small

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How to Write the Perfect Meta Article

Tired of stories with titles like “17 best ways to improve your marketing”? Or “Do this one thing and drastically improve your productivity overnight!”? Or “4 Haskell functions you can’t live without?” Everybody tries to exactly define their target or their article’s value, and this is great for a while, but after a thousand highly-targeted articles it all just sorts of runs together for the reader, as I demonstrated with my “Roll Your Own LinkBait Tech Headline” article.

Perhaps it’s time to move up to the meta-article. The meta article takes all articles of a certain type and provides advice at a higher, meta, level. Meta articles promise to give the reader more general — but still very practical — advice. I’ve been writing blog articles for many years now, and I’ve written some fairly popular meta articles. Meta articles can have a positive impact on your readers, and people will keep coming back to read them. In fact, recent studies show that a well-written meta article has on average 127 times the value in readership than a regular article does. It’s because they don’t fade or lose their value with time. But it’s not easy. Picking up and handling effectively such a large topic can be scary, I know. Stick with me and I’ll show you how it’s done.

  • Start your story with a question. People like answering questions. So hit them with a question that they can easily answer “yes” to. Or one that makes them intrigued. A question creates tension that you can then resolve with the rest of your piece.
  • Tell them why they should care. Don’t be subtle. Punch them in the gut with the main reason why they should read your article. Make up a statistic if you have to, as long as you tell them later on. As long as you don’t lie to the reader, it’s okay to push them around a bit. Writing is a contact sport.
  • Assure them of your expertise. People don’t trust general advice from just any schmuck on the internet. Tell them that you’re the person who can work at a higher level. Reassure them that your advice can help.
  • Make a list. People don’t have time for long. drawn-out windbags. Give ‘em a quick list of bullets they can thumb through
  • Make a generalization at the end. Make some kind of pithy or insightful observation at the end. It helps if you sprinkle in a big word or two: gives the text a bit more impact. People are more trusting of folks who can talk at their level, but still remind them that they have a lot to learn.
  • Leave them smiling. Any article, no matter how badly done, can be a success as long as you leave the reader feeling better than when they started. So finish up on a high note.

As you can see, it’s really not that hard. Be gentle to the reader, go over the concepts in an easy-to-read format (especially if the concepts are difficult), draw some conclusions, then give them a smile on the way out. Avoid loquaciousness and diffuse meandering.

And of course, if you go back and look carefully, that’s exactly how this article is structured! :)







For the humor-challenged among you, this is satire. But like all good satire, there is a nugget of important truth in there. Meta articles are very difficult to write, as they must be breezy and general without being vacuous. The good ones can appear trite or superficial to the casual observer, but hold deep truths for those looking for them. Even if sometimes you have to spell it out. (wink)

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Roll Your Own Linkbait Tech Headline

I’ve noticed two things in the last month. First, there seems to be an overwhelming number of stories in the tech world about how Google search results all look the same. Second, and ironically, how these stories themselves look all the same.

In fact, just like the Google Search Results for answers to tech questions, or reasons why git, Apple, and Node.js are so totally awesome, or ways your relatives can die in far away places and leave you fortunes, tech article headlines are beginning to all look like the same stuff, just re-hashed in various ways in a desperate attempt to try to appear new.

Since everybody else is doing it, you can too! Here’s my handy-dandy “Roll Your Own Linkbait Tech Headline” generator, complete with embeddable code for your blog. Sure, you’ll have to write the rest of the article, but I can’t be expected to do everything now, can I?

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SEO Boot Camp

I don’t know if there’s an SEO boot camp around — if there was I’d probably like to go, but the next best thing is getting a bunch of famous guys writing books that we can all read.

Since I’m trying to learn as much about SEO as I can — I am beginning to feel that it is a critical factor in any web content, whether an app, blog, or other site — I finished reading and reviewing a good book the other day — “The Art of SEO

More details over on hn-books. Suffice it to say that the more I learn the more I know that SEO is very important, but it also drives me completely nuts.

Also, I coded up some social sharing buttons over on hn-books. I’m not a member of all of those social sites (The horror! I know.) so you guys who use the buttons to submit please let me know if you run into any errors.

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The Social Disease

Stephen King once said that he could publish his grocery list and it would be a best seller.

Of course he was exaggerating — maybe a bit — but I couldn’t help but think of that quote as I was reading a pretty good book about SEO.

I think we easily confuse popularity with quality. Search Engines have little to go on, so somebody came up with the idea that if a link was included editorially that it implied approval (or interest) from one work to the other. Collating and walking these webs could give us an idea of what pieces of content were interesting to the most number of people.

Of course, that’s just an easy generalization and you can quickly find out why it’s false: simply watch the news on television. On any evening, you’ll see stories about people that do not impact world events, do not have great ideas, and do not lead any kind of movement. They are on TV simply because they are popular.

I’ve been very curious over the years as to how folks find things on the net, and it’s definitely not quality. The idea that writing quality content is somehow magical is total bullshit. This is like saying that rock stars are at the top of the charts because they are the best singers or players in the world. Nobody who has ever been around musicians would ever believe that. Trust me, the guy who wrote iFart was not a quality maven.

Last week I started working on another small project. This time there’s no AdSense — lots of folks have their panties in a bunch about sites that have AdSense on them and quite frankly I’ve been there, done that. Through with that for a while. Time for something new. I decided to create an information hub around a random product. For this experiment I picked the maker of my home stereo system, but you could pick anything. (The site is still in development, but you are welcome to drop by, adcom-review. I picked “review” as the second word because it is the most searched-for term. Exploring further, I found that reviews for this brand are very hard to find, so it looks like the site’s theme is going to be putting the most quality review information possible in a smallest amount of space. Should be easier to do because I’m a big fan of the gear.)

As part of that experiment, I bought a small $10 e-book about how to integrate your pages with Facebook. The guy recommended using Fivers to help spread the word that your fan page was available.

Sounded interesting — always willing to pay a bit for advertising if it works — so I came up with ten bucks and paid a couple of fivers to announce my site to their friends.

The results were very informative. Both of them posted something along the lines of “please like this page!” to all of their friends, which was fine. Not exactly a ringing personal endorsement but I didn’t want to pay for an endorsement, I just wanted to pay for a megaphone.

The interesting part is that both of them came back to me and offered to guarantee likes for another five bucks.

Ugh.

From their standpoint, it was clear what I wanted: people saying they like my page. After all, what better to make something popular than to pretend it is already popular? Lots of very popular companies today (no, I will not name names) started out simply by faking their own popularity: creating dummy accounts and posting comments and links back and forth to each other, making the illusion of activity. One of the funniest things about the net is folks that complain about sites using gimmicks to trick them into visiting — on sites that have used gimmicks to trick them into visiting. Enough to set your irony meter off on emergency mode.

Let’s grow up and face what my new fiver friends were telling me: popularity can be engineered. You can pay somebody directly to like something, you can trick people into thinking other people like it, or you can associate what you’re doing with somebody or something that’s already popular. And that’s just the beginning. This entire idea about using people’s behavior as an indication to me the consumer of how valuable something is? It’s crap. If it were true, I’d still be listening to the top 40 on the radio and watching “Dancing with the Stars”. Yes, there’s a huge majority of folks who do this, but I’m not one of them.

Examples of this effect are legion.

There was a story recently about a guy using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to pay folks to upvote things on Quora. Many a time I’ve visited Stack Overflow to find a question with the top answer as being of very poor quality — it sounded good and worked, but it missed the larger point of the issue. How did it get upvoted? People recognize the answerer and voted them up based on their popularity. Everyday one of my friends on Facebook passes along something they consider innocuous — a game, a catchy phrase, a joke, or whatever — but it’s purpose is to get me to visit a site. These are not items that are designed to improve people’s lives: these are items designed to manipulate people’s behavior.

As any movie promoter, agent, or marketing wonk will tell you, people can be engineered. More to the point, they are being engineered. It has been this way for centuries and it will continue to be so. (I do not especially like it. I refuse to watch television ads because I can’t stand the manipulation that go into these things. But that’s just me. My liking it or not will not change things one way or another.)

You see, we have a problem on the web. The web is either going to provide quality information to people or it is going to provide popular information to people. It’s going to be the library or its going to be the dance hall. They are not the same thing. They are at cross-purposes. As long as we reward popularity, the system will increasingly become less useful to those of us seeking quality. And vice-versa. Indeed, there are many times when I want the most popular thing. Just not all the time.

The problem is rooted in people themselves and not in the computer systems that connect them.

The big deal now is social networks. But this is just going to be another version of the same thing, only more painful. We’ve been down this road with newspapers, we’ve been down this road with radio, with television, with web content, and now, social networks. Nothing is going to change the facts of human nature. This is a social disease, and social networking will just exacerbate it.

Anger and ranting and raving are not going to fix this. To fix this we need to both come up with new structures for our information and new ways of consuming it. Personally, I think we need a new browser that throws out everything but data (including links, ads, and other engagement devices) and provides that data in the simplest format possible to the consumer. Separate the data from the presentation. That’s my solution. Anybody have any others?

EDIT: Just to be clear, I’m not advocating surrender. My solution is to organize on the browser-side, using multiple cues from various sources. Add a bit of machine-learning, and some p2p goodness, and you can have a much better experience without all the trade-offs involved in the current way of doing things. Corporate, popularity-driven systems tend to congregate around hubs: Facebook, Google, MySpace, HackerNews, etc. Can’t have a dance hall without having a dance hall. Seems to me that the problem is that by putting the smarts in the hubs, we are always coding to the lowest common denominator. Data should go in the hubs. Smarts should go with the person (whether those smarts actually live in the cloud or not is not germane here) Remember that the entire purpose of HTML was that the user could flexibly choose how to display and process the information. I think we should get back to that idea. It was a good one.

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Wikileaks: the “Yes But” Story

Do we live in a time of unprecedented secrecy? One in which the government is no longer accountable for it’s actions? One in which the average citizen is not informed enough to make a wise decision about his or her vote? One in which we need to take action?

Yes, but a blanket release of diplomatic cables is not an appropriate response to that. Finding and telling specific stories? Yes. But I can’t find any time in our nation’s history where releasing diplomatic cables in this fashion would be appropriate, so I am either left to conclude that our nation has always been overly secretive — or this is just a trojan horse, an attack on my government coming under guise of something I support.

So it’s an attack, right? Shouldn’t you personally lobby the government to see that the attackers are brought to justice, so that this does not happen again?

Yes, but I agree with the goal of more openness. This puts me in the odd position of feeling like the Wikileaks guys might be heroes, but heroes that are doing the wrong thing. Because of this conflation, I don’t think it’s possible to take an easy and clear side on this as far as pushing a new law or policy. Yes, they are law-breakers, but I am not sure what kinds of laws we need in place to assure us this does not happen again.

So they should be left alone? Treated as any other publisher would?

Yes, but they are not publishers, at least in the sense that the constitution protects publishers. A publisher publishes, that is, they seek to bring to light facts in some sort of narrative fashion the educates the voters. Printing up a list of all the unlisted telephone numbers in the nation and leaving them on everybody’s doorstep is not publishing. At least not how I understand it. So as far as I can tell, they are well-meaning (perhaps a bit lightweight on political theory and history) folks who are attacking my government because of a legitimate gripe. Some sort of action must be taken. Yes, they distribute things, but no, they are not publishers. No more than a guy who finds the combinations to all the safes in town is a publisher who mails them all out to everybody.

So they should be charged as criminals?

Yes, but only if charging them makes sense in the current environment. People have a natural understanding of what they can and cannot do, if some 1915 law is dug up and applied to Wikileaks — while not being applied to a hundred other cases — it sets an extremely bad precedent. We could conceivably all be charged the same way. Yes, charge them. But don’t be stretching laws or making up new ways to apply old laws simply to settle the score. That scenario is not acceptable.

So perhaps we should skip the legal route and just punish them? Destroy their integrity and reputation, tarnish their image, harrass those who give to them? Perhaps even use some amount of force?

Yes we should do something, but I don’t think purposely harming well-intentioned (but perhaps fuzzy-headed) people is a good strategic idea. I also do not feel leaving them alone is a good strategic idea either.

Sigh.



EDIT: After writing out my thoughts on this, it occurs to me that the best course of action is to do nothing. After all, the United States lives in an ecosystem of dozens if not hundreds of other nations. Each of those needs to use our diplomats in confidence and each of those needs something of our system of secrecy to work. In the end, it hurts all of them more than it hurts us. So do nothing — somebody else is sure to take care of it. And then the problem is solved.

The problem will solve itself. If you wanted to be especially malicious, you’d find a boatload of secrets the U.S. has about a foreign government — one which does not play nice with others — and make sure Wikileaks gets them. Then, if they don’t publish, they’re selling out. If they do publish, they’re punching themselves in the head.

No need to be so overly dramatic, though. It will play out this way anyway. I think the only open question is how long it will take. In a very Orwellian way, putting them in jail might be the best thing you can do for them.

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The Sparrow

I had five sci-fi books in my “fun” reading stack for the holidays.

Three books were okay, but were mostly average. For instance some folks might have loved “Containment” but it didn’t do a lot for me. It was good, but average good.

The Sparrow“, on the other hand, was one of the best sci-fi books I’ve read in years. And it was last on the list! Boy I’m glad I decided to go ahead and read it.

If you’d like the complete review, head on over to hn-books. Or you can click the Amazon link and read all the reviews over there.

This pattern I’m using — going for books with lots of positive reviews, reading the negative reviews first, then picking the best singleton? It seems to be working out very well. I plan on doing it this way again over the summer when I get back into sci-fi again.

I tell you, it’s going to be tough to go back to SEO internals after having so much fun. If you get a chance, check “The Sparrow” out.

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