Monthly Archives: April 2012

Must-see Space Video

Ran across this today during my morning reading: Sander van den Berg has taken live video from various planetary space missions and made a video from them.

Really cool stuff. Great soundtrack also.

Outer Space from Sander van den Berg on Vimeo.

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Personal Operating Systems

We are thinking about the cloud completely wrong.

Think back to the first computers. If you had a program to run, you had to manually flip a bunch of switches to put the program into the computer’s memory. Over time, people started automating that process. First came cards, then tape, then discs.

The same goes for storing things. Initially, if you wanted to store something, you wrote it down. Then we started using all those other mediums as well.

But being able to run a program or store something is not what made computers useful. What made them useful was a unified way of running programs and storing things, the operating system. Somebody came up the bright idea that if we had one common way of storing things and one common way of running programs, people could write all sorts of programs and store all kinds of things without having to worry about whether you had tape attached to the computer or a disc. An operating system allowed storage and operations to be abstracted for both the user and the programmer.

Today when we talk about the cloud we’re still talking storage, and it’s still very much a game of which “device” you use. Google Drive has some features, Amazon EDS some others, Dropbox still some more — access models are all over the place. If you want to write an application for a computer using one service, it’s going to look a lot different than if you use another.

But even then — thinking about writing an application — we’re framing the problem backwards. It’s not the computer we should be thinking about, it’s the person. What’s happening slowly over time is that we are merging with the computer. When we store something — say a copy of a song we just heard — we want it to go away somewhere. It doesn’t matter where, and it doesn’t matter who the vendor or what the service is. We just want it stored. And when we want it back whenever we feel like it. It doesn’t make a difference to us where we are or what devices we have around.

Likewise when we want the computer to do something for us, say monitor for new emails, render a cool ray-traced image, or check the status of a project, we don’t care where those cycles are actually performed. We just want it done. Humans have a need to store stuff and run programs, not computers.

Right now people are still in switch-flipping mode. I get a new song to play and I have to make sure it’s on Dropbox, or make sure it’s copied to Google Drive. I have to set up a sync between this service and another. I’m always have to screw around with all the details of saving things and running programs.

But that’s not the way it should be. The computer should be molded around me, not the other way around. We need a way to universally abstract away all the details of storage and processing so we can have more time to be human.

We need a personal operating system.

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An Open Letter To Virginia 5th District Representative Robert Hurt

On tax day 2012,

Dear Congressman,


I’m writing you this for two reasons. First, due to circumstances out of my control, there have been times in my past where I have owed more than 50K in federal income taxes. I feel horrible about it, but I made amends as best I could. I served in the Marines, and I’m not about to let my country down. These things happen, especially when you are self-employed.

I read today, however, that there is new legislation proposing to prevent international travel for those owing sums like that. As a consultant, some of my clients are overseas. For people like me with international clients, they could easily get into a spot where the government prevents them from traveling overseas in order to pay back the money that the government is owed. That’s crazy. It is in neither party’s interests for the law to be structured like this. People who are flight risks will just leave. I don’t understand what the point here is, unless it’s to further stress people already in a bad situation. Surely because somebody got sick or you had a family crisis it isn’t the time to further stress them, is it? Remember — we’re not talking tax fraud or evasion. We’re simply talking about people who owe money. Not even that. About people the IRS says owe money.

But the second reason is more dear to my heart. I simply do not understand my country restricting travel because of owing money. To me, to restrict freedom of travel is like taking away the ability to own a gun or vote — it happens, but only under dire circumstances. Perhaps if there was some criminal aspect like tax fraud or tax evasion, I could understand it. But simply because the administrative system says so? Where are we living again?

When I was 25, due to a mistake the State of Virginia made, they thought I owed 20K in child support. In actuality I owed nothing. After four years of chasing them around, I finally made them reimburse me for everything they took. But let me assure you: they did everything they could during those four years to make my life living hell. They ruined my credit, they garnished my wages and my taxes, they hurt my reputation with employers, and so forth. It was a nightmare.

And now we are seriously considering giving the federal government more ability to hassle people along basically the same lines? Have we thought through the public and sometimes tragic impact this is going to have on real people? Just wait until little Susie needs an operation in Britain but her parents can’t go with her, or marines sent to combat aren’t allowed to go because of tax responsibilities. Or — heaven forbid — one of the Administration’s staff that owes so much on taxes isn’t allowed to travel with the president. The false positives will be legion. It’s a PR nightmare waiting to happen.

I don’t know if you’re much on constitutional law or natural rights. I used to read quite a bit on it. This law fundamentally changes the nature of my relationship with my government. Up until now if I didn’t like things I was free to leave. Now my government is telling me I am no longer free to leave, and it’s not because I have committed a crime or am some kind of danger to others. It’s simply because they think I owe money. I love my country and I have served my country. Unless I am guilty of some crime, I do not understand my country telling me I am no longer free to leave. This is not the country I was born in.

We don’t have debtor’s prisons any more, and we don’t put people to work at hard labor to pay off creditors. This is a terrible idea not because of my personal story, but because of what it says about the people’s relationship to their government. As Reagan said, It used to be that the people told the government what it could do. We are entering an age where the government is actively and aggressively telling the people what they can do. It’s about much more than my sob story: this is structurally very bad and sets a dangerous precedent for the republic. Please listen! If you lose consent of the governed, it doesn’t matter how good your intentions were.

Thanks for your time and for listening to my story. Best of luck in your Congressional career.

Daniel Markham

Virginia

P.S. No mailing lists, please.

Note: For those Americans living overseas, including people who were born in the U.S. but have never lived here, the bullshit is even worse. We have truly created an insane nightmare of a taxation system and no amount of increased enforcement is going to make it any better.

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The Site I don’t Promote

This article makes me a hypocrite. I’m telling you about a site of mine — promoting it, basically — and at the same time telling you that it’s a site I don’t talk about.

Hopefully this will make sense to you by the end of my story.

I have a lot of sites and apps. I think somewhere around 30 or so. Most I am very happy to pump, like my funny picture site, my site for talking about paychecks, or my site for my e-book series on practically applying Agile in your team. But this site is a special case.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about what many are now calling “technology addiction” The problem is that many web sites are using psychological, social, and gaming tricks to pull readers into more engagement than they would naturally give. Facebook is a great example — it uses your own friends to suck you into the site. But there are others. Instead of a place for textual information that links to other textual information, the web is becoming a few addictive sites doing anything they can to get you to stay and/or click on ads. That’s not where we wanted to go, and it occurred to me my problem can be restated like this:

There is a finite amount of text I want to consume from the web each day. Perhaps I scan 30-40 editorials. Instead of chasing down these editorials on various aggregation sites, then clicking through and using something like readability to remove the graphics, it’s in my best interests to have a computer assemble all of these in one place in plain text format. No ads, no graphics, no commenting, no nothing. Just the text, please. That way I can consume much faster. Over time, perhaps I can train the system to order this list. Also it would be nice if it all was client-side so I could continue to consume without an internet connection, say on an airplane. Using AI to reduce the article size to a paragraph or two would also be nice

And so newspaper23 was born.

Newspaper23 isn’t much to look at. It’s really kind of a dull app with all that plain text and all. That’s kind of the point. But I’ve been using it daily for over a year now, and each time I upgrade I make a little tweak to it. Right now it only provides opinions: sports, religion, politics, world, science and miscellaneous. And it doesn’t count voting (although the only graphic I allowed myself was a neat voting animation) or reduce the article size. But I could expand. Add voting. Do some Bayesian ranking. But I remain conflicted about the app.

Why? It should be pretty obvious to most startup readers. Alarm bells should be going off. Web content providers do not want to provide me with content like that. They do not want me using first-click, or readability, or any other kind of tool to get just the text of the article. They want to build a walled garden and have me come and play in it. Perhaps stay there and poke around. Play a game or two. Exactly the opposite goal that I have. I don’t blame them. After all, creating these sites requires a lot of work. And I have no desire to hurt anybody or upset the apple cart. To me, the only thing I’ve done is automate a bunch of clicking I was already doing.

Yet the problem remains: this is a useful app which many people will not like.

I remain very conflicted. On one hand this is not something I want to promote to a mass audience. On the other hand this is something that I have found very useful and I am sure many more people would as well. But they’ll never get the benefit unless I say something about it. It’s an app many will like and many will be uncomfortable with — and these could be the same people!

My current solution is to make this into a club for people who, like me, have attention-span problems on the net. I’m not sure if this is satisfactory. But it’s the only thing that makes sense right now.

I hate both to talk about this site and to not talk about this site. Hence it’s the site I don’t promote.

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Dear Future

Dear Future,

I thought it was important to write this to you because no doubt many of you will wonder what happened to technology between the years of 2000 and 2015. How did something with so much promise turn into a tool to monitor and control the population?

I wish I could say that there was one bad group or another that we could blame. This would make it much easier to explain. We certainly have a lot of bad groups at the moment. But instead of evil actors, most of the people who destroyed our individuality, privacy, and freedom were acting out of a spirit of helpfulness and kindness. This made the disaster all the more tragic.

Take Mark Zuckerberg. Brilliant guy, great observer of human nature. He noticed that people like sharing little tidbits about themselves, so he created an addictive site where everybody came and shared most everything about themselves. Or Sergei Brin and Larry Page. They noticed that by using certain ranking forumlae they could provide people with what they were searching for on the internet. They didn’t start out to own all the data on the planet, including data most people would have considered private, that’s just where they ended up. After all, a search is a search. “They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next,” said the CEO.

Governments initially had a hands-off policy towards the internet. Let’s see where it goes, they said. But after only a decade or so, it became apparent that people used and valued the internet more than they used and valued governments. It had become a part of their daily lives in a way that government never could. It was only natural that as political things happened on the net — secrets were stolen, criminals moved money around, people were tricked out of their savings, protest movements formed and took off — that governments wanted in on the action. Way in.

The police, who up until now had to actually figure out what was going on around them using limited resources, saw all this technology as a wonderful tool to find and prevent crimes. They could track you without a warrant. They could ask cell companies for your conversation information without your knowledge. They could monitor each detail of your life in an automated way. It was as if instead of the local town having 20 policemen, it had 20 million. It was progress, after all.

People who had jobs that had no purpose any more — and this included a lot of people — wanted governments to help them keep the old world they were used to. So they petitioned for laws to restrict the kinds of thinking that went on inside the net. No passing around crypto tools, no copying certain pieces of data, no mentioning of certain things. Some sites were okay to visit. Some were not. Some thoughts were okay to express. Some were not.

None of these groups saw themselves as hurting humanity. Each was willing to make a small compromise, heck, not even a compromise, just progress, in order to continuing doing the good things they were already doing. Because people already generally supported these groups to one degree or another, the population was suitably prepared not to realize the danger. Some were fiercely worried about bad corporations but less concerned about government. Some were worried about government but less concerned about corporations. Some feared foreign governments. Some feared organized criminals and terrorist but weren’t so concerned about corporations and governments. Each had their groups that they defended and their groups that they feared, but very few realized that it was the combination of all of these that was the danger, not just one group or the other.

In fact, it was our desire to identify bad actors and evil groups to hate that made us blind to the changing world. We kept focusing on the intentions and motives of outsiders, which ironically enough were mostly benign, and trusting our sacred cows to defend us, which also ironically they were woefully unprepared to do. We looked outward at others Instead of instead of inward at the general impact on each of us as a person, which was insidious and pernicious.

It was just our way of solving problems. Political rhetoric was full of all sorts of fear-mongering about dangers that, while important, were not of the same caliber as the (I hate to use this phrase) paradigm shift in the nature of humanity that was happening. It became difficult for most citizens to discern the difference in levels of danger. Was the fact that some people may not like other people of a certain ethnicity worse than the fact that most of the population was having it’s online behavior tracked by multiple entities? Was the country going broke at the same level of danger as embedded, locked-down-by-vendor computer implants? Was terrorism more important than preventing the government from effectively controlling all business travel? One person yelling about one thing on TV was much the same as any other. It’s not that nobody identified the danger. Quite the opposite. People identified too many dangers. We were awash in people telling us about all sorts of evils and dangers.

It became very difficult for the average citizen to prioritize. At some point, most people just gave up. Like a cancer patient waiting for a particularly difficult operation, or a passenger in a jumbo jet huddling frightened in the back as it rides the great storm, we maintained an outward air of calm. There was nothing else to do. It was so difficult to get our head around that we effectively gave up ownership of it. All that remained was a blind trust that somebody, somewhere was figuring all this stuff out. That the market, or my political group, or my favorite software company, or my clan, or technological progress in general, or whomever. Somewhere somebody was fixing it.

Only it didn’t work out that way.

Men at sometime were masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Anyway, I thought I’d let you know how it all happened. Since the victors always write the history books, I’m sure that no matter how it turned out you are happy and assured that it was the best way for everybody. That it was the only solution that would work.

We here in the past are not so sure.

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Rethink your Startup Website: Make a Net, not a Funnel

Everybody tells you to build a funnel for your startup website. That is, have 1,2, or 3 pages that serve to take the site visitor from reading something that interests them to buying/signing-up for your product.

They are wrong. Here’s my experience.

A few years ago I wrote a small site called paycheck-stub.com. The potential traffic looked good, and I thought it might be fun doing a site with paycheck trivia. Since the topic was money-related, perhaps there were some people visiting that wanted to buy something. Specifically I was thinking about those payday loans you read about. You know, you look at last week’s paycheck stub and think “Gee. Sure would be nice to borrow 50 bucks before next payday.” My working theory was that people were looking at their paycheck stub and wondering what kind of loan they could get from it, what was their paycheck stub good for?

So armed with this theory, I completed the site, and sure enough, a year or two later I had a lot of visitors. The only problem is, they were not doing what I expected them to do. People were visiting, poking around a bit, then leaving. I had placed a couple of loan ads, but got very few takers.

Confused about how so many people could visit and still I was clueless about what they wanted, I logged on to the Hacker News IRC channel and asked the room “Can anybody help? I have a site I don’t know what to do with.”

After a very interesting sidebar conversation with a guy for about an hour or so — no, I am not trying to trick anybody, yes, I am always interested in making the content better, etc — we came up with a list of six or seven things people visiting the site might like.

“But there’s no way I can code all of that up based on the traffic and income of the site,” I moaned, “I have enough material here to spend the next three months trying things out, and the return from the site simply isn’t worth it.”

“So don’t do that. Just make some buttons with these items on it. When pressed, record it over in Google Analytics. Then you’ll know more about what people are looking for.”

So I made buttons. One button said “I want to create a fake paycheck”. One button said “I need a payroll system”. One button said “I need a loan” And so on.

Bingo. This simple idea, turning around the workflow from push-based to pull-based, changed my entire site and the way I think of sites in general. You see, like most startups, I really don’t know what people want, I just know what I’m offering them. I can’t construct too much of a theory about what they want and spend tons of time developing on my theory. Instead, I have to get some feedback from them as I go along. Otherwise I waste a lot of time and resources.

So the best thing to do is to engage first, covering as many of the angles of things people might be interested in as possible, then instrument the hell out of it. This was the beautiful thing Facebook did when they started. They didn’t want you to do anything but what you wanted to do naturally, they just wanted to pay close attention and help. The money comes later.

Now if you visit the page paycheck stub sample, I know that you’ll most likely read the entire page. Half the time you’ll go onto another page, usually “Example of a paycheck stub” Why? Because you are researching the format of a paycheck, that is, you have to make a paycheck for somebody and are trying to figure out how to do it on your own. Any click you make, including outgoing links, downloading templates, clicking on ads, or going off to Amazon, I’m watching. I’m carefully listening to your side of the conversation. In fact, I want to give you lots of options and watch what you do. That way I can learn more about what to provide you. Because of what I’ve learned, I’m able to remove most of the Google ads and just provide a link to a couple of nice online payroll systems. As time goes on, more and more ads disappear and more and more links for what you want appear directly in the text. That makes the site cleaner, more informative, and more naturally-flowing for the reader.

Every startup I have ever read about has to pivot at some point, change direction. If you’re thinking in terms of a funnel, the only thing a web presence is going to give you is a headache. You’ll know people leave at some point but you’ll never really know why. If, however, you’re thinking in terms of a really slow and difficult conversation, a net, then you have a shot at listening instead of talking so much.

Make a net, not a funnel. Funnels say you know what people want and are measuring how good you are at getting them there. Nets say you have no idea what they want and are interested in what they have to say. Once you are making something people want, then make a funnel. Until then, make a conversation.

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