Posts from March 2006


Today I chatted with someone from Musicstrands and found out a bit about the company. They're based here in Corvallis, Oregon and employ somewhere around 30 people locally. It's fun to learn that a little piece of Web 2.0 is being built right here in my backyard. I use their competitor (my profile), but I don't feel too bad because I've been sending my listening habits there since Audioscrobbler appeared several years ago. Sharing music seems so natural that I bet iTunes or YME will ship with more social features (like those MusicStrands provides) in the future.

If you want to see what Musicstrands is cooking up, check out MusicStrands Labs. They even have a tool for people like me that gives music recommendations for users. (Thanks in part to the Audioscrobbler API, I assume.) Also fun: MusicStrands patents.

eJournal USA mentions onfocus

The US Department of State mentioned this site in their monthly eJournal, an issue called Media Emerging. It was in an articled about online photo journals, and you can see the article here: Online Albums. Click Enter Album to see all of the photoblogs mentioned. They also have an article about blogs: Bloggers Breaking Ground in Communication. It's great to be mentioned as a photoblogger even though I don't necessarily think of myself in that category anymore. But it's a good reminder that I should keep posting photos. They contacted me about the article a week or two ago and it was strange to see an email in my inbox with the subject, request from U.S. Dept of State.

Mechanical Turk

ETech has been over for a week, and one presentation is still nagging at me on a regular basis. Amazon has a Web Service called Mechanical Turk (named after this Mechanical Turk), and Felipe Cabrera from Amazon spent 15 minutes or so talking about MTurk during one of the ETech morning talks.

The talk focused on the idea that artificial intelligence hasn't materialized, and there are still some tasks that are easy for humans but impossible for computers. For example, a human can look at a picture of a chair and answer the question: Is this a picture of a chair or a table? A computer would have a tough time with that.

MTurk farms out these sorts of questions to real live humans and wraps their decisions (or HITs in MTurk parlance) into a Web Services API so they can be used in computer programs. Cabrera called this process of tapping humans to make decisions for machines Intelligence Augmentation (IA) as apposed to Artificial Intelligence (AI). The talk was good, and MTurk is definitely a clever hack, but the idea has been bothering me.

I can imagine a world where my computer can organize my time in front of the screen better than I can. In fact, I bet MTurk will eventually gather data about how many HITs someone can perform at peak accuracy in a 10 hour period. Once my HIT-level is known, the computer could divide all of my work into a series of decisions. Instead of lunging about from task to task, getting distracted by blogs, following paths that end up leading nowhere, the computer could have everything planned out for me. (It could even throw in a distraction or two if that actually increased my HIT performance.) If I could be more efficient and get more accomplished by turning decisions about how I work over to my computer, I'd be foolish not to.

I guess this idea of people being managed and controlled by machines is nothing new, and it was the bread and butter of science fiction books I read as a kid. But MTurk puts this dystopia in a new, immediate context. Machines are smarter than ever, and control of human decision-making could be highly organized.

MTurk is only a few months old, and there's nothing inherently wrong with it. But I can't stop projecting the ideas behind the system ahead a few years, and that's what's bothering me. I can't even fully articulate why it's bothering me. I don't have any conclusions, or even concrete hypotheticals of MTurk gone awry—so I'm just using my blog as therapy. Obviously my computer didn't ask me to write this.

slashdot topic feeds

Matt was looking over my shoulder while I was reading feeds at the airport yesterday, and he noticed that I have a feed for Google-related posts at Slashdot. I told him I was scraping it together because Slashdot doesn't offer topic feeds (and I don't want to see everything at Slashdot), and Matt thought I should share the rss-generating love with the world. I agreed, and here we are.

Here's the script I'm using to scrape Slashdot. It's in Perl, and you'll need a couple modules: LWP::Simple and XML::RSS::SimpleGen. Once installed, grab the code:

You'll also need the numeric topic ID for any Slashdot topic you want to track. They're easy to find. Those big icons in any Slashdot post link to a topic page. Click on one of those, and look for a number in the URL. For example, the Slashdot Google Topic Page is here:

Note the tid=217 in the URL. That's your Slashdot topic ID for posts about Google. You can browse the directory of all available Slashdot topics at the top of the Slashdot Search page.

To generate an RSS feed full of Slashdot Google goodness, run the script from a command prompt, passing in a topic ID like this:

% perl 217

The script will spit out a file called slashdot_217.xml that contains the latest Google-related posts, RSS style. Just make sure the script saves this file to a publicly addressable web folder (you might need to tweak the output file path on line 55). The final URL should look something like:

Throw your new URL in your feed reader, and run the script on a regular basis with cron or Windows Task Scheduler. That's all there is to building a topic-specific Slashdot feed.

Scaping is notoriously brittle, so if Slashdot changes their HTML this script will break. If that happens, view source on the Slashdot topic page and rewrite the regular expressions on line 39 or so of the script. That's the only labor-intensive bit in this script.

ETech 2006 thoughts

I'm back from ETech. The theme this year was The Attention Economy, and I have to agree with Matt's Thoughts on etech that I didn't walk away with much new information about attention. But ETech is always about more than the theme, and a 2nd emerging theme from the conference was ubiquitous computing. In fact, Bruce Sterling's opening talk was called The Internet of Things where he discussed his concept of Spime—a virtual object that manifests itself physically for a time while retaining the trackability of a virtual object. (As I understood it.) For example, shoes could be digitally designed, fabricated, and made location-aware. That way you could simply Google them if you can't find them in the morning. (His extended thoughts on Spimes are in Shaping Things.) Many sessions touched on ubiquitous computing and controlling the physical world in a more fluid, digital way.

Another emerging topic was Yahoo!, with three or four sessions devoted entirely to Yahoo! products. Of course I'm very interested in Yahoo! after working on Yahoo! Hacks, but their presence felt heavy-handed. (Granted, many members of the ETech selection committee were acquired by Yahoo! over the past year.) But the sessions I saw were straight product-pitches with little or no bearing on the conference theme of Attention Economy. I don't mind seeing demos or product pitches if they're within the context of larger ideas. Yahoo! wasn't the only offender there. Just to compare: Google was absent from the conference, and I only saw one pitch from Microsoft.

My favorite sessions were about big ideas: Maribeth Back's reading rooms, danah boyd's G/localization, Derek's distributed communities, and Clay Shirky's patterns for social software. I think what I'm personally looking for is a more academic, less commercial conference devoted entirely to social interaction mediated by technology. That's a convoluted way of saying Social Software Conference, but I'd also like to hear about trends in ubiquitous computing and networked devices as well.

Once again, I came away from ETech with notes full of ideas to digest and play with. And even though I might not have a better handle on attention, it's often the unexpected threads that emerge from the conference that turn out to be the most valuable.

ETech 2006

eTech Tomorrow I'm heading out early for the Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego. I can't think of a better place to spend a few days inside under fluorescent lights learning about new technology. Only kidding—maybe they'll have a few sessions outside on the lawn this year. ;) I'm really looking forward to the conference, there's always way too much to take in. (In a good way.) If you'll be at ETech and want to meet up at some point, drop me a note.

Link Blogs

The only reason I'm still not caught up on reading after my vacation: link blogs. Email, done. Weblogs, done. Link blogs—over 1,000 links still unread. How do I keep up with this stuff on a daily basis?