May 2014

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I’ve been asked how EULAs — End User License Agreements — might affect the Internet of Things, now becoming better known as the IoT. Good question. The topic is hot:

google-iot-trend

Development, however, is another story. There we are headed straight into a log-jam that Phil Windley calls the Compuserve of Things. In the 80′s and early ’90s, Compuserve was as close as any of us could get to experiencing the real Internet (which was available only to a limited selection of governments, universities and big companies). Compuserve’s competitors were AOL (originally America OnLine), Prodigy, MSN and a few others not worth mentioning.

The problem was that all online services were closed and proprietary. Communication between them was difficult or impossible. Your Compuserve email only worked with other Compuserve members. Same with your Prodigy and AOL mail. Same with instant messaging (which retains its old proprietary problems even to this day.)

Where we are headed today is not the Internet of Things, but the Google of Things, the Apple of Things, the Microsoft of Things, and low-effort sports and war stories in the media misdirecting attention away from the real Internet and toward fights between giants.

Also evolving away from the Net will be the Every-BigCo-of-things, and their suppliers of proprietary platforms. (Let’s call that one EBCoT.) Every one of these, of course, will have its own EULA.

The Internet has no EULA. It just has an A, for Agreement. That’s because the Internet is defined by protocols, which are manners — agreements — among the things it connects.

For the trillions of things in the world to work in the actual Internet, they need be subject to that same agreement (and others like it, tuned for things other than computers), but not licenses from controlling parties, because that would not be the Internet.

EULAs suck already anyway, for two legacy reasons: 1) they are one-sided and coercive; and 2) nobody reads them other than the lawyers who write them. Let’s unpack both problems.

Most EULAs are what legal folk call “contracts of adhesion.” That term was coined by Friedrich Kessler in 1943, at the apex of the Industrial Age (when Industry was causing, fighting and winning WWII). Adhesive contracts, Kessler said, were the only way any one company could achieve legal scale with masses of customers and users.

But what worked as an upside for industry had a downside for everybody else, because adhesive contracts came at a cost. Freedom of contract, long a form of vernacular law in everyday life, was shoved aside by industrial expedience.

What Kessler saw as both an efficient hack and a moral drag became more of both in the Information Age in which we live today. And it be a far bigger drag if it encumbers every Thing we want to put on the Internet.

Most of us don’t read EULAs, or the privacy policies that often accompany them, because to do so is both useless and time consuming. They are useless because they exist mostly to scrape off liability and other inconveniences on the customer or user. And they suck up time because they are written in legalese, by and for lawyers, rather than the rest of us.

So: what can we do? I’ll take that up in the next post.

Bonus link: Tony Faddel on Nest’s independence from Google and why he doesn’t like “Internet of Things” as a label.

nytimesriverDave says “The New York Times home page needs a re-think.” But he doesn’t stop there, because thinking isn’t enough and complaining is worse than useless. (As I’ve often found. For example, here.)

We need to hack up something new, different, better and — most of all — simpler and easier to implement than anything the Times can do on its own.

(The Times is kinda busy now anyway. And it’s not inclined to simplicity, especially on the Web. That’s not a knock. We’re talking DNA here. But the Times can listen and act, as it did back when Martin Nisenholtz and his team followed Dave’s lead and adopted RSS, reforming and reinvigorating the whole publishing business in the process. We want the same kind of adoption and effects again this time.)

The simplest thing you can do as a programmer is leverage something Dave came up with years ago called river of news. As a reader you can blog, tweet and otherwise submit to the world your suggestions.

Hashtag: #timesriver.

Tagline: All the news that’s fit to flow.

Here’s Dave’s own current set of rivers.

That’s a handy model, but neither Dave nor I want that to restrict your thinking or your coding. We want new thinking, new hacking, new (and renewed) heads on the case and fingers on keyboards.

For that Dave has convened a hackathon. Here’s how he got it rolling:

Here’s an OPML file with all the NYT feeds I could find, in Oct 2012.#

Your task: Build a website using the flow of these feeds. A new way to sample the flow of news from the NYT.#

Here’s what I’m using now, designed years ago. Surely you can do better!#

Share a pointer to your work with this hashtag: #nytfeedfun.#

There’s a lot of data flowing through there. #

A picture of a slice of cheese cake.

PS: Deadline? We’re having an RSS meetup in NYC in mid-June.#

Guidance from my (non-programming) corner:::

Think about turning the Times from a static thing to a live one* — literally, from a paper to a river.

Think about how a river forms. Its sources are tributaries: branches that flow in, not out. The biggest rivers sustain life in their waters and alongside their banks. They are at the very core of culture and civilization. And they pour out through a delta to the ocean. The ocean is the Web. The delta is whatever we make it.

I’ll be writing more about this topic in the coming days and weeks, both in service to journalism’s cause (whatever it is — and I mean that seriously) and to wrap my tour of duty as a visiting scholar at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter,Journalism Institute. (In that I’m following the large footsteps of Dave, who served in the same post under our friend and mentor Jay Rosen.)

So hack away. I’m very eager to see the results — but not as eager as I hope the Times itself will be — for everybody’s sake. (I’m serious about that too. The Times is the anchor institution for civilization as well as journalism. Helping it adapt may be the highest calling we have.)

* Some background on the static/live distinction, written almost a decade ago, and now more relevant than ever.

cnn-screenshot

Update: 2am, Sunday 25 May: The Long Tail/Tale tellers have this whole thing under Wikipedian control at 2014 Isla Vista Shootings. So I’ll let them take it from here.

Update: 12:37am, Sunday 25 May, and the main details are mostly filled in. The most complete report I’ve seen so far is this one in the Independent. As noted in comments below, YouTube has taken down Elliot Rodger’s video, but it’s back up elsewhere. He was a sad, sick dude.

Update: 6:15am Saturday 24 May in Santa Barbara, and Elliot Rodger’s Retribution, a video by the presumptive shooter, appears. Hard to watch. The Telegraph and the Mirror say more. The Independent says the video was posted on Thursday.

It’s 1:30pm here in Paris and 4:30am in Santa Barbara, our home town, which is all over the news: at least seven people were shot dead a few hours ago in Isla Vista, UC Santa Barbara‘s adjacent college town. (UCSB is actually in Goleta, the next town west of Santa Barbara itself — but it’s all Santa Barbara, basically.) The morning news organizations haven’t gone live yet, so for now I’m just compiling sources, some of which are tweeting and re-posting heavily:

Meanwhile, we wait to hear who the victims were. Both UCSB and greater Santa Barbara are not large communities. At least some of the victims are likely to be no more than two degrees away from me and the many people I know there. And, since it happened on the streets of a college town on a Friday night, it’s also likely that many or all of the victims were young people. Sad, terrible news.

Aaron SwarzI 399px-Malik_Bendjelloul_Deauville_2012was digging around for links toward a post on Brian Knappenberger‘s crowdsourced Aaron Swartz documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy, when I learned that Malik Bendjelloul, the documentary filmmaker who won an Oscar last year for Searching for Sugar Man, was also dead — like Aaron, a suicide.

I would guess that readers of this blog are more familiar with Aaron than with Malik, though the ratio is probably reversed for the rest of the world, or at least for the part of it that cares about movies.

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t urge, in the strongest way I can, that people see Searching for Sugar Man. I also urge people not to read up on it first. Better to just go see it. The story works best if you start knowing little or nothing about it.

Sugar Man is one of those rare things: a deep-hearted feel-good documentary. There is no tragedy to it, but rather an almost holy sense of transcendence. And just a great, great story. Please watch it. Note the artistry behind the titles, the transitions, the editing. And think on how Malik did most of those in his apartment.

I was interviewed by Brian for The Internet’s Own Boy, but I don’t know if what I said ended up in the movie or on the cutting room floor. I suspect the latter, because most of what I said pertained to Aaron’s genius rather than the narrative vector of the film. (A correct one, about Aaron being hounded to death by prosecutorial overreach.) And I don’t care either way. I trusted Brian to make a great movie, and it looks like he succeeded. It got a standing ovation at Sundance, and other reviews I’ve seen were all positive.

It is gratifying to see a number of my still photos of Aaron in the trailer, thanks to having been published under a Creative Commons license (attribution only) that encourages use. Creative Commons was co-created by Aaron when he was still a teenager.

What we lost with both men was their promise. When Aaron died, I wrote, “We haven’t just lost a good man, but the better world he was helping to make.” The same goes for Malik. Like Aaron, he was a sweet, brilliant and talented young man. The world is lessened by his absence, in ways we will never know.

Bonus linkage:

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black holeMost of what we call news is filler. The practice of filling space and time — stuffing “content” into a “news hole” — is a relic of an era when printing and broadcast space and time were limited, privately held, and paid for mostly by advertising, which requires ears and eyeballs showing up predictably and in fixed places.

The Internet obsoleted all of it, including the frame of news as filler.

There is no hole.

The river is a good metaphor for what news is, and should be. Sometimes it’s a trickle, sometimes a flood. But it always flows.

With news rivers, destinations are personal. So are many sources. Individual people are the first and best discoverers and producers of it. And also its only consumers.

They can also be customers. But no news publisher has come up with an optimal way to charge for news that works across all of them. The best they’ve come up with is their own private silos, each with paywalls and counters on them. And those all suck.

There is no centralized service that has done news right yet, and I don’t expect there to be. News is naturally distributed in both supply and demand. Some routes between the two are better than others. But they are all limited by the hole-filling frame in which they still operate.

Of all the publishing concepts we have, including publishing itself (around since Gutenberg), the one with the best leverage for the Internet is syndication. This is why RSS works so well.

Let’s build from there.

(Note: The first draft of this post appears as a comment under Dave Winer‘s Middle-of-the-night’s thoughts on news, with which I agree. Dave invented syndication and rivers as we know both today. His fingerprints are also on blogging, outlining and much else.)

More: Dave’s hackathon idea.

Bonus link, from Jay Rosen. Another from Jeff Jarvis.

Outlet_to_go_4-plug_BlkMonster’s Outlets To Go power strip is the most useful many-purpose accessory I’ve ever thrown into a bag and plugged into a wall. Or a floor. It’s a light and compact four-outlet power strip with a short cord that wraps around it and plugs into one of the four outlets. It’s smaller than most remote controls and weighs remarkably little. And, while I believe it’s rated only for 110-volt outlets, I’ve used it with 220-volt ones in Europe and elsewhere.

I’m writing about it now because my last one, after many years of heavy use, finally failed. So I went to Fry’s, here in Palo Alto, assuming that, if anybody had it, they would. (It’s a legendarily huge place with lots of electronic stuff.) But they didn’t. Nor did Any of the Radio Shack stores I checked. It was at Radio Shack that I bought mine in the first place. But alas, Radio Shack seems to be mostly about cell phones and games these days. (They’ve seemed lost for many years now.)

Anyway, Monster still makes the things. Guess I’ll have to order one online. The list price is about $20, but I’ve seen it for half of that. I also see that Fry’s has a 3-outlet version for about $20 on its website. But get the four-outlet one.

apple-beatsIf Apple buys Beats, it will bite off more than it can eschew.

Beats is a Big Brand. Everywhere you go, you see that red b over countless auditory canals, with red cords snaking down into pockets and purses. And Beats is expanding into other categories, such as portable speakers and sound systems for cars. And, of course, there is Beats Music, the streaming service that is reportedly the main thing Apple is after.

Even if all this looks good on paper, or whatever, it is wildly out of character. Namely, Steve’s.

To Steve Jobs there was only one brand that mattered: Apple.

This is why Apple never bought big brands. It bought technologies, people and intellectual property. Look down Wikipedia’s list of Apple acquisitions. None of those listed is (or was) close to being a household name.

I suppose Apple could spin off the hardware. Or rebrand it in some way. But it won’t be easy for Apple to remain its pure self — the most singular brand in the world — if it turns into an umbrella for other brands.

Here is what I wrote about “Apple rot” in January of last year:

…we’re talking about high-turnover consumer electronics here. The life expectancy of a phone or a pad is 18 months. If that. Meanwhile, look at what Apple’s got:

  • The iPhone 5 is a stretched iPhone 4s, which is an iPhone 4 with sprinkles. The 4 came out almost 3 years ago. No Androids are as slick as the iPhone, but dozens of them have appealing features the iPhone lacks. And they come from lots of different companies, rather than just one.
  • The only things new about the iPad are the retina screen (amazing, but no longer unique) and the Mini, which should have come out years earlier and lacks a retina screen.
  • Apple’s computer line is a study in incrementalism. There is little new to the laptops or desktops other than looks — and subtracted features. (And models, such as the 17″ Macbook Pro.) That goes for the OS as well.
  • There is nothing exciting on the horizon other than the hazy mirage of a new Apple TV. And even if that arrives, nothing says “old” more than those two letters: TV.

Yes, there is a good chance Apple will have a big beautiful screen, someday. Maybe that screen will do for Apple what Trinitron did for Sony. But it will not be an innovation on the scale of the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone or the retail stores, all of which debuted in the Steve Age.

Steve built Apple on the model of a Hollywood studio — or, more specifically, Pixar. Apple’s products are like what Hollywood calls “projects.” And, like Pixar, Apple has very few of them. The business model — yea, the very nature of the company — requires each project to be a blockbuster: one after another, coming out a year or few apart. This model is suited to movie studios and the old computer industry. But it isn’t to consumer electronics, which is where Apple lives today.

There hasn’t been one Apple blockbuster since Steve died. Dare we consider the possibility that there won’t be another? It’s more than conceivable…

Apple’s job is to make trends, not to chase them. At that it is failing today.

big time.

 Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 19-28)

Back in ’99, I went to a mini-retreat with a small group of people in Santa Cruz. Y2K possibilities were much feared then, and over lunch outdoors at a Moroccan restaurant one of us laid out levels of concern along two axes: social disruption on one and technical disruption on the other — low and high in both directions. We were asked to place our bets in four quadrants. As I recall, I was the only one who expected close to zero, both ways. (Mostly I thought Y2K would poop the biggest New Years party in a thousand years. And, to the absent degree it mattered, I was right.)

Now I have been asked, on one of the lists I inhabit, to contemplate similar scenarios for the fate of humankind in a time of global warming. This time I’m going the other way and betting on a high degrees of badness. But my angle on the future is not one biased toward preservation of our species — or even a high degree of concern for it.

Species tend to last a couple million years, give or take. (Horseshoe crabs and other relics from the Paleozoic are rare exceptions.) On the geological scale of the Earth’s own maturation, two million years isn’t much. The genus homo has been around longer, but our current human model has only been around for a couple hundred thousand years, give or take. So who knows.

Still, humans have long been a threat many life forms, including their own, plus a number of elements in the periodic table. (Helium, for example.)  It’s not for nothing that geologists are seriously considering renaming the Holocene epoch (the latest slice of the Quarternary period) the Antropocene — for the simple reason that human agency is all over it.

Any species risks ruining its ecosystem without other forces to keep it in check. Our species, however, has mostly eliminated those forces, especially disease. Thus our natural rapacity toward other species, and toward the Earth and all its exhaustible resources, goes unchecked, while our numbers steadily increase. Our only natural enemy, it seems, is ourselves, and not just because we grow in number toward a statistical cliff. We also have a boundless capacity to rationalize killing countless numbers of our own. Our intelligence and ingenuity, in service to our own needs, in oblivity to negative outcomes, have made us the ecological equivalent of Agent Smith: a rogue program proliferating itself on the Earth’s operating system like a self-replicating virus.

The more I study geology, especially from altitude, the more I see the history of the Earth in four dimensions, and the evanescence of our present geologic time.

  • Here’s Kettle Point in Ontario, on the south shore of Lake Huron. From above you can see old shorelines written in rows of trees in forests that first grew beside retreating beaches. These rows march away from the shoreline as the land below rebounds from the relieved weight of a glacier that melted, leaving Huron as a puddle, not long before humans began building pyramids. You see the same rebound along the shores of Hudson Bay.
  • Here are the San Gabriel Mountains, Los Angeles’ own alps, raised in the last few million years by the crumpling of the Pacific Plate against the North American one along the San Andreas Fault. Note the empty reservoirs at the bases of ravines in the mountain front. The reservoirs are are there to catch “debris flows” and boulders that frequently break loose, like ice calving off a glacier, and roll toward the suburbs below. Few geologies short of volcanoes are more active than these mountains, which are wasting down almost as fast as they are rising up, one catastrophic lurch after another.
  • Here is the Long Valley Caldera, which I shot while skiing on Mammoth Mountain (an active lava dome with hot and toxic vents that occasionally claim a wayward snowboarder). The Caldera was produced by a “super-volcanic” eruption many times the size of Krakatoa, in the late Pleistocene. It is still active, and stars as one of the US Geological Survey’s roster of volcanic hazards.
  • Here is the seaside community of La Conchita, between Santa Barbara and Ventura, on the South Coast of California, a few days after a mudslide killed ten people there. (You can see the slide clearly in the photo.) The whole town sits on a beach below an unstable mass of land that has clearly slid before and will surely slide again — soon.

While human agency contributes to global warming in the Anthropocene, what makes the Quarternary special is its rhythmic series of glaciations. Our current warm period is an interglacial one. Ice caps will likely grow again, whether we’re here or not. The Quarternary ice age (which we are still in) is the fifth known one, and likely the last, because the Sun is heating up. A billion years from now, the Sun will have boiled off Earth’s water. But the planet will already be too hot for life in less than half that time. A half-billion years is about age of the Manhattan schist I see out my window here in New York.

At 4.568 billion years old, our solar system is about a third the age of the Universe, which has been producing and reproducing galaxies and stars at a rapid rate and with unimaginable degrees of violence. That we’re in such a relatively quiet corner of the cosmos owes to the Sun’s rank as an ordinary star. All the named stars in the night sky are bigger than the Sun, and most are much younger as well.

We should consider ourselves fortunate to enjoy a few moments late in the life of a remarkably durable set of little spheres out in a rural arm of the Milky Way. Just being here, now, is an amazing grace. But it’s going to get harder, whether we fight the inevitable or not.

My main hope toward humanity waking up and doing what it can to stop shitting up the planet is the Internet: a grace designed (at the protocol level where its means are organized) to put each of us at zero functional distance from everybody and everything else, and at zero cost. The Net is a new platform for living, thinking, talking and inventing — without having to raid the world of irreplaceable goods in the process. And I hope we make the most of it.

“In the long run we are all dead,” Keynes said. And, if “we” includes every living thing that ever walked, swam or oozed around on Earth, death has already proven to be hugely productive, as well as abundant.

It is the job of the living, in their brief hours upon the stage, to do more than strut, fret, and be heard from no more. In the long run every thing will be nothing. But we don’t need to signify that in the meantime.

Bonus linkage on Mother’s Day: Jean Russell‘s Thrivable (@Thrivable). Here’s the philosophy, the book, the blog, and herself aka @NurtureGirl. She and her colleagues are doing the Leading Work here.

Back in the mid-’00s, a group of us in Santa Barbara got some balls rolling toward fiber-ing up the City and/or the County (by the same name), since it was clear that Cox Communications, our monopoly high-speed Internet provider, cared less about our city than the rest of the ones it served. And, when we met with Cox, that’s pretty much what they told us as well: that Santa Barbara was relatively small and far away from the company’s Atlanta headquarters. Our main upside, they said, was that whatever we ended up getting would be already proven elsewhere.

Since then I’ve had a few problems with Cox, but in the last year service has actually been pretty good, as cable Internet goes. I’ve measured as high as 80Mbps down and 18Mbps up. We had a gathering of techies at our house in January, all doing heavy data lifting with their laptops and smart mobiles, without a hitch. And, when I’m elsewhere, I get to watch our Dish Network TV rig over a Slingbox and DishAnywhere, in HD. That means Cox is giving me adequate upstream as well as downstream data traffic capacity. Not bad. (Here is the current set of data plans for Santa Barbara. Not sure which one we have. Note that all have data caps. Far as I know we’ve never hit any.)

But, as they say in bad late night ads, that’s not all. Now comes news that Cox is planning gigabit fiber to homes as well as businesses. In other words, to do for its footprint what Google is doing for Kansas City, Provo and Austin.

So here is an appeal to Cox, on behalf of Santa Barbara: front-burner us this time.

Thanks.