March 2013

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Personal Clouds, Identity and VRM

News-ish stuff

 

A comet is headed for Mars. impactNow approaching at 125,000 miles per hour, it will explode with the force of 35 million megatons of TNT if it hits. That’s a third the size of the collision that caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which famously erased the dinosaurs and ended the Mesozoic, around 66 Million B.C. It also left a 110-mile wide crater next to what is now Mexico. This Mars impact, should it occur, will also be larger than many other impact events that changed life on Earth utterly, causing mass extinctions countless times in in ages before ours.

The chance that this comet will hit Mars is one in two thousand. The chance that its tail will graze Mars and produce an impressive sky show there are high. Earth-made probes on the surface of Mars will be watching, if they survive. So expect some impressive news, either way.

By the way, my favorite comet of all time was Comet West, which glided slowly through our skies through several weeks in the Winter of 1976. It was beautiful. So was Hale-Bopp, in 1997. Here is an excerpt from what I wrote at the time:

By Doc Searls
March 6, 1997

It’s 5:15AM as I write this. A few minutes ago, after the kid woke us for his breakfast, I walked to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water. When I arrived at the sink, I looked up and saw the most amazing thing: Hale-Bopp, the comet, brighter than any star, hanging from the Northeast sky over San Francisco Bay.

I’ve seen five comets in my life. None have been more spectacular than this one is, right now. It’s astonishing. Trust me: this one is a Star of Bethlehem-grade mother of a comet.

Considering the comet’s quality, publicity has been kind of weak. Which makes sense, since I have noticed an inverse relationship between comet quality and notoriety.

KahoutekThe most promoted comet in recent history was Kahoutek, in 1971. Kahoutek was supposed to be the biggest comet since Halley last appeared in 1910. But after all the hype, Kahoutek was nearly invisible. I can’t even say I saw it. At least I can say I looked and that maybe I sawsomething. (But hey, I lived in Jersey at the time. Whaddaya ‘spect?)

Comet WEstIn fact, Kahoutek was such a big no-show that when Comet West appeared in 1975, it received almost no publicity at all. But it was a wonderful comet. First it appeared as a morning star with a bright little tail about one moon long, above the Eastern horizon. Then, after it whipped around the Sun and flew back out toward its own tail, the comet spread into a wide V that graced the evening sky like God’s own logo. At the time I lived in a rural enclave outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and every night for several weeks a few of us would wander out and marvel at the show.

HalleyThe next comet was Halley, in 1986. Astronomers had rightly mixed feelings about Halley. On the one hand, they knew this would be one of Halley’s least visible visits. On the other hand, they knew it would raise interest in astronomy. Well, Halley was nearly as big a bust as Kahoutek. At best the “Great Comet” was a tiny smudge in the sky. Can you see it in this picture? Right. My friend Jerry Solfvin and I had about the same luck when we joined a 3AM traffic jam of about 10,000 people who went to the far side of Mt. Diablo to look at this. By the way, this picture is from the Hyuktuke Gallery at the NEFAS (Northeast Florida Astronomical Society) site.

Comet Hyuktake showed up about a year ago, and enough time had passed since the Halley disappointment to allow the new comet a fair measure of publicity. And Hyuktake was a beauty. When it skirted the North Star, the comet’s tail stretched across a sixth of the sky. The best image I’ve found is this cool 3-D number by Dave Crum. Click on it to visit a larger version at the NEFAS site.

And now we have Hale-Bopp. Although Hale-Bopp won’t come nearly as close to Earth as Hyuktake did, it’s putting on a bigger show, mostly because it’s a bigger comet. lot bigger. This thing is more than 200 times larger than Halley: about 40km across. You can actually see some shape to it, even with the naked eye. To spot it, look to the Northeast in the early morning, when it’s still dark. You’ll see it below and to the left of Cygnus (the Northern Cross), pointing straignt down toward the horizon. It’ll be brighter than any other star in the sky, and with a tail that stretches across the Milky Way. On the 6th you’ll also see the last sliver of moon down to the East, and on succeeding days the moon will move out of the way long enough for a great view.

Bonus links: Comet Ison, which might become “the comet of the century” later this year. After looping close to the Sun, it may become as bright as the moon, and visible in daylight. And Comet Panstarrs, which is visible now.

Blogging outlines of public bookmarks

Here are some of my open tabs, now closing as I list them here in outline form:

I’m working in WordPress here, going back and forth between the Visual and HTML tabs in WordPress’s UI for composing posts. I do this by making a plain unordered (bulleted) list, and then hacking it in HTML to make the list into a two-level outline. Labor-intensive, it is.

I would rather do this with an outliner. Which I will, thanks to the Little Outliner that Dave Winer and friends are working on. I’m one of those friends, and I’m looking forward to lots of fun with this. I’m an outlining freak going all the way back to when I first encountered Dave, in 1984, when he was working on Think Tank.

Outlining is one of those practices that are hard to get but easy to do once you get them. With the Little Outiner, people finally will. The right people, anyway. :-)

artifacty HD[Later (7 April)... The issue has been resolved, at least for now. We never did figure out what caused the poor video resolution in this case, but it looks better now. Still, it seems that compression artifacts are a mix of feature and bug for both cable and satellite television. One of these weeks or months I'll study it in more depth. My plan now is just to enjoy watching the national championship game tomorrow night, between Louisville and Michigan.]

What teams are playing here? Can you read the school names? Recognize any faces?  Is that a crowd in the stands or a vegetable garden? Is the floor made of wood or ice?

You should be able to tell at least some of those things on an HD picture from a broadcast network. But it ain’t easy. Not any more. At least not for me.

Used to be I could tell, at least on Dish Network, which is one reason I got it for our house in Santa Barbara. I compared Dish’s picture on HD channels with those of Cox, our cable company, and it was no contest. DirectTV was about the equal, but had a more complicated remote control and cost a bit more. So we went with Dish. Now I can’t imagine Cox — or anybody — delivering a worse HD picture.

The picture isn’t bad just on CBS, or just during games like this one. It sucks on pretty much all the HD channels. The quality varies, but generally speaking it has gone down hill since we first got our Sony Bravia 1080p “Full HD” screen in 2006. It was the top of the line model then and I suppose still looks good, even though it’s hard to tell, since Dish is our only TV source.

Over-the-air (OTA) TV looks better when we can get it; but hardly perfect. Here’s what the Rose Bowl looked like from KGTV in San Diego when I shot photos of it on New Years Day of 2007. Same screen. You can see some compression artifacts in this close-up here and this one here; but neither is as bad as what we see now. (Since I shot those, KGTV and the CBS affiliate in San Diego, KFMB, moved down from the UHF to the VHF band, so my UHF antenna no longer gets them. Other San Diego stations with UHF signals still come in sometimes and look much better than anything from Dish.)

So why does the picture look so bad? My assumption is that Dish, to compete with cable and DirectTV, maximizes the number of channels it carries by compressing away the image quality of each. But I could be wrong, so I invite readers (and Dish as well) to give me the real skinny on what’s up with this.

And, because I’m guessing some of you will ask: No, this isn’t standard-def that I’m mistaking for high-def. This really is the HD stream from the station.

[Later...] I heard right away from @Dish_Answers. That was quick. We’ll see how it goes.

I was talking with @ErikCecil yesterday about the sea change we both detect in people’s tolerance for unwanted tracking. They’re getting tired of it. So are lawmakers and regulators. (No, not everybody. But not a small percentage. And it’s growing.) See here, here,  here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Somewhere in the midst of our chat, Erik summarized the situation with a metaphor that rang so true that I have to share it. Here’s roughly what he said: “The backwash that’s coming is a tsunami that hasn’t hit yet. Right now it’s a wide swell over deep water. But you can tell it’s coming because the tide is suspiciously far out. So we have all these Big Data marketing types, out there on the muddy flats, raking up treasures of exposed personal data. They don’t see that this is not the natural way of things, or that it’s temporary. But the tidal wave is coming. And when it finally hits, watch out.”

 

 

Eleanor SearlsMom would have turned 100 this week. She got to celebrate her 90th ten years ago, though it seems like yesterday. She died several months later, of a stroke while recovering from a botched gall stone removal procedure. The stroke was preventable, I believe; but I won’t lay blame. Mom lived a long and full life, and wouldn’t have wanted to make a stink about it. That wasn’t her style.

She was a smart, fun, loving and thoroughly wonderful woman. I remember once, when I was in my twenties, sitting around a fire in the little commune-like community where I lived near Chapel Hill. One of the others asked, “Who is the most sane person you know?” When I answered “My mother,” the rest were amazed. Not many people our age said things like that about either of their parents. But there was no doubt in my mind. Mom was profoundly sane. There wasn’t a crazy cell in her mind.

She was raised in Napoleon, North Dakota, the middle child among five. Her parents were from large Swedish homesteading families. (For the genealogists, Oman — or Ohman — and Sponberg.) She could read as a small child and entered school early, graduating high school at sixteen. Her colleges were North Dakota State and the University of Chicago. For a while she taught in a one-room schoolhouse, starting at age 19. She was doing social work  in Alaska when she met the man who became my father, and who proposed to her by mail while in Europe fighting in WWII. They married when he returned in 1946 . I showed up a year later, and my sister Jan two years after that. We lived in Maywood, New Jersey, during the year, and in Brick Township, by the Jersey Shore, in the summers. Mom’s last and longest job was teaching 3rd and 4th grade in the Maywood school system. She and Pop retired to Graham, North Carolina in 1974. Pop died in 1979, and Mom carried on as a pillar of the local community — just as she was a pillar of everything she supported in her life.

I could go on, but instead I’ll share what I posted on my blog on the day she died:

1953 Wanigan:
Except for school, I had a happy childhood. That means my summers were idylls.
In the summer of 1949, a couple months after my sister was born and while I was turning two, my parents bought an acre and a half of land near Cedarwood Park on the edge of the pine barrens in South Jersey (near The Shore, pronounced Da Shaw), bought a small wooden building, towed it to a clearing on a flat-bed truck, sat it on a shallow foundation, built a kitchen out of cast-off boards and windows, erected an ourdoor privy over a pit, pounded a pipe into the ground for well water, screwed a hand-pump on the top of the pipe, furnished the place with garage sale items, hung a pair of Navy surplus canvas hammocks between scrub oak trees, and called our new summer home “The Wanigan,” which they said was “Eskimo” for “house that moves.” (Apparently the derivation is Ojibwa, but so what.)
It was paradise. Grandma and Aunt Ethel had a place nearby. So did my great aunt Florence and Uncle Jack. Aunt Grace, Uncle Arch and my cousins Ron, George and Sue all lived in Marlboro, not too far away. They’d bunk in Grandma’s garage. Other friends and relatives summered nearby, or would come visiting from near and far, sometimes staying for weeks. Over the next thirteen years the Wanigan got an additional room and indoor plumbing, but was otherwise blissfully unimproved. We never had a TV. For years our only phone ran on DC batteries and connected only to Grandma’s house.
We went to Mantoloking Beach almost every day. For a change we swam the beaches and lagoons of Kettle Creek (we had a little land with a dock on Cherry Quay Cove) or the Metedeconk River on Barnegat Bay. We fished and crabbed in small boats. On the way home we stopped at roadside farm stands, bought tomatoes and corn, and enjoyed perfect suppers. We rode our bikes through the woods to the little general store about a mile away, bought comic books and came home to read them on our bunk beds. We grazed on blueberries, three varieties of which comprised the entire forest floor. We built platforms in the oak trees, collected pine cones and played hide-and-seek in the woods. Bedtime came when the whip-poor-wills started calling. We fell asleep to a cacaphony of tree frogs and crickets.
The picture above was shot in the summer of 1953, when I was turning six (that’s me with the beer in the front row), behind “Bayberry,” the house Grandma Searls shared with her daughter, our Aunt Ethel. That’s Grandma at the top left. Aunt Ethel is in the next row down next to Mom. Behind both are Aunt Grace Apgar and my great Aunt Florence Dwyer (Grandma’s sister). Then Aunt Catherine Burns, cousin Sue Apgar, Mary Ellen Wigglesworth (a neighbor visiting from back in Maywood, our home town), then Uncle Arch Apgar. In front of Arch is George Apgar. Pop (Allen H. Searls) is in the middle. In the front row are my sister Jan Searls, Kevin Burns, myself, Uncle Donald Burns and Martin Burns (who today remembers being scratched by that cat).
Grandma lived to 107. Aunt Florence made it to her 90s too, as I recall. Aunt Grace is now 91 and in great health. (Here we are at Mom’s 90th birthday party last April.) Aunt Katherine is still with us too, as is everybody from my generation (now all in their 50s and 60s).
I’m waxing nostalgic as I plan a return visit this weekend to North Carolina, probably for the last time in Mom’s life.
I’m also remembering what late August was like back then, as we prepared to end another perfect summer. It was wanting paradise never to end — and knowing, surely, that it would.

As a postscript, I should add that Grace is still doing fine at age 100. Katherine made it to 99. My cousin Ron Apgar (one of Grace’s two sons, who opted out of the picture above when he was eleven) died early this year at 70. He was an awesome dude and like a big brother to me when we were growing up. The rest of us are all well. Life is good.

It’s been more than six months since Apple introduced iOS 6, and nearly as long since Tim Cook issued a public apology for the company’s Maps app, which arrived with iOS 6 and replaced the far better version powered mostly by Google. Said Tim,

…The more our customers use our Maps the better it will get and we greatly appreciate all of the feedback we have received from you.

While we’re improving Maps, you can try alternatives by downloading map apps from the App Store like Bing, MapQuest and Waze, or use Google or Nokia maps by going to their websites and creating an icon on your home screen to their web app.

Everything we do at Apple is aimed at making our products the best in the world. We know that you expect that from us, and we will keep working non-stop until Maps lives up to the same incredibly high standard.

In spite of slow and steady improvements, and a few PR scores, Apple’s Maps app still fails miserably at giving useful directions here in New York — while Google’s new Maps app (introduced in December) does a better job, every day. For example, yesterday I needed to go to a restaurant called Pranna, at 79 Madison Avenue. On my iOS Calendar app, “79 Madison Avenue” was lit up in blue, meaning if I clicked on it, Apple’s Maps, by default (which can’t be changed by me) would come up. Which it did. When I clicked on “Directions to here,” it said “Did you mean…” and gave two places: one in Minster, Ohio and another in Bryson City, North Carolina. It didn’t know there was a 79 Madison Avenue in New York. So I went to Google Maps and punched in “79 Madison Avenue.” In seconds I had four different route options (similar to the screen shot here), each taking into account the arrival times of subways at stations, plus walking times between my apartment, the different stations, and the destination. For me as a user here in New York, there is no contest between these two app choices, and I doubt there ever will be.

Credit where due: Apple’s Maps app finally includes subway stations. But it only has one entrance for each: a 9-digit zip code address. In reality many stations have a number of entrances. At the north end of Manhattan, the A train has entrances running from 181st to 184th, including an elevator above 184th with an entrance on Fort Washington. Google’s app knows these things, and factors them in. Apple’s app doesn’t yet.

On the road, Apple’s app still only shows slow traffic as a dotted red line. Google’s and Nokia’s (called Here) show green, yellow and red, as they have from the start. Google’s also re-routes you, based on upcoming traffic jams as they develop. I don’t know if Apple’s app does that; but I doubt it.

But here’s the main question: Do we still need an Apple maps app on the iPhone? Between Google, Here, Waze and others, the category is covered.

In fact Apple did have a good reason for rolling their own Maps app: there were no all-purpose map apps for iOS that did vocalized instructions and re-routing of turn-by-turn directions. Google refused to make those graces available on the Apple Maps app, which was clearly galling to Apple. Eventually Apple’s patience wore out. So they said to themselves, “The hell with it. We’re not getting anywhere with these guys. Let’s do it ourselves.” But then they failed hard, and Google eventually relented and made its own iOS app with those formerly missing features, plus much more.

Bottom line: we no longer need Apple to play an expensive catch-up game. (At least on iPhone. Google still doesn’t have a Maps app for iPad. Not sure if that’s because Google doesn’t want it, or because Apple won’t let them distribute it.)

Unless, of course, Apple really can do a better job than Google and Here (which has NAVTEQ, the granddaddy of all mapping systems, behind it). Given what we’ve seen so far, there is no reason to believe this will happen.

So here’s a simple recommendation to Apple: give up. Fold the project, suck up your pride, and point customers toward Google’s Maps app. Or at least give users a choice on set-up between Google Maps, Here, Waze or whatever, for real-world navigation. Concentrate instead on what you do best. For example, flyover and Siri. Both are cool, but neither requires that you roll your own maps to go with them. At least, I hope not.

 

 

Echo Cliffs

I say that because I didn’t find those entries when I went looking for them yesterday, when I was putting up and annotating this photo set here.

If I get a chance later I’ll put some links here.

[Later...] And now there is a Wikipedia entry, thanks to Phllip Stewart, @pmsyyz, who improves Wikipedia as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Pmsyy. I just made a few additional edits myself as well.

I just looked up facebook advertising on Google News, and got these results:

More Facebook Ads Are Coming, Your Friends Will Finally Hit Delete
Forbes-8 hours ago
Now, Facebook is doing a pretty smart thing here rolling out the more prominent advertising along with an updated user experience, but will…

Facebook’s New News Feed Is a Binder Full of Advertising The Atlantic Wire-4 hours ago

Disruptions: As User Interaction on Facebook Drops, Sharing  New York Times (blog)-Mar 3, 2013

Facebook Isn’t Your Platform. You’re Facebook’s Platform -Businessweek-Mar 5, 2013

Facebook’s advertising strategy cannot win
USA TODAY-Mar 5, 2013 Facebook presumably did not purposefully create a freeadvertising vehicle (that is, the standard posting function) that’s more effective than its … 

all 84 news sources »

Facebook may charge users to remove ads, patent application reveals GigaOM-by Janko Roettgers-Mar 5, 2013 Facebook may offer users to get rid of ads, highlight custom messages or even select the friends displayed on their personal profile in 

Mostly negative stuff.

But there are some plusses, down below the fold. For example, Facebook advertising works, and couldn’t be more fair, by Rocco Pendola in TheStreet. His gist:

Roughly five months into my job as TheStreet’s director of social media, I can tell you — firsthand — that Facebook advertising works incredibly well for a brand/multimedia organization such as TheStreet. In fact, I argue that if Facebook’s platform doesn’t work for you, you’re simply not doing it right.

Well, good for them. Over here on the receiving end it isn’t so pretty. For example, here’s my latest ad pile at Facebook:

A few questions:

  1. Where does Facebook get the idea that I want to cheat on my wife, to whom it knows I’ve been married for almost 23 years?
  2. Why would Facebook sell an ad to an advertiser that would rudely suggest that there is a chance in hell that I’d ever cheat on my wife?
  3. And why would anybody want to be told, over and over again, as the AARP ads always do, that they’re old?

Maybe it’s because they’ll sell anything to anybody. Or maybe it’s that SeniorPeopleMeet and SeniorsMeet simply buy exposures across the entire “senior” demographic, regardless of what Facebook’s intelligence might say about individuals in that demographic. Clearly Facebook doesn’t mind, regardless of the reasons, which is worse than insulting: it’s stupid and wrong.

It’s hard to imagine a company that has more “big data” about its users than Facebook does, or better means for delivering truly relevant ads to individuals. And yet Facebook’s advertising is mostly ignored, unwelcome or worse. Yes, its advertising program has made Facebook financially successful. But that success masks other failures, such as the very high percentage of misses, many of which have negative results. I see no reason to believe that these failings won’t also be leveraged into the company’s new advertising ventures, covered in the news above.

I’ve been told by adtech professionals that a funny thing about their business is that Google and Facebook are terribly jealous of each other: Google is jealous of Facebook because Facebook can get especially personal with its users, while Facebook is jealous of Google because Google can advertise all over the Web. And yet both are missing real human relationships with their users, because the users are not customers. They are the products being sold to the companies’ real customers, which are advertisers.

What’s keeping Facebook from offering paid services to individuals — or Google from offering more than the few they do? Here’s one reason I got from a Google executive: it costs too much money to serve individual human customers. This isn’t verbatim, but it’s close: If our users were actually customers, we would have to support them with human beings, and we don’t want to make less than $1 million per employee (Yes, that was the number they gave.) And yet, all advertising-supported businesses could benefit a great deal by having at least some of their users become subscribers.

Start with the money. How much would Facebook make if the company offered a subscription service that came with both no advertising and better privacy protections? Depends on the subscription price, of course, multiplied by the number of people who go for the deal. Maybe one of ya’ll can give us some run-ups in the comments below.

Then look at to the signaling issue. Real customers can send much better signals to Facebook than mere “users” can. They can offer real feedback, and good ideas for improving services — the kind of stuff you get when you have a real relationship, rather than a vast data milking operation. For example, a company with human customers can hear, personally, how they’re screwing up, from people who care enough to pay for services.

I’ve dealt with a lot of highly successful companies, and they all risk the same problem: getting high from smoking their own exhaust, and thinking their shit doesn’t stink. Facebook is there right now. And they are making the same mistake that AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy, MySpace and countless other online services did when they were high and thought their shit didn’t stink. They assumed that occupants of their private habitats love being there, and wouldn’t leave. In fact many inhabitants of Facebook only tolerate it, or are there because it’s what works for now, or because lots of their friends and relatives are there. But they can leave, and so can their friends and relatives, as soon as attractive other choices appear. Which is inevitable.

Everybody has limits. Facebook is hell-bent on testing them, apparently.

Bonus link.

In Google Bringing TrueView Ads to Apps, Games Marks the first time users will be able to skip ads outside video Tim Peterson (in AdWeek) begins,

Seventy percent of YouTube’s in-steam ad views are those skippable TrueView ads, Google’s svp of advertising Susan Wojcicki told attendees of the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Annual Leadership Meeting on Tuesday in Phoenix, Ariz. And consumers should expect a lot more of TrueView, as Wojcicki announced that now users will soon be seeing—or not seeing—such skippable ads in apps and games.

The move marks the first time Google will run TrueView ads against nonvideo inventory,Wojcicki said, and is intended to “enable users to have more choice.”

In Google sees the value of free customers, Joe Andrieu, writes,

Even though it is the same old advertising game–something that could use some fixing–what’s impressive is that with the ad-skipping feature Google saw “a 40 percent reduction in the number of people who click away from a video when shown a pre-roll” ad.

It’s real-world proof that a free customer is more valuable than a captive one. Give people the freedom to leave and more will stay than if you had forced the issue.

I agree. Read the whole thing.

Bonus link.