ETech Day 3

Had another great day at the conference. Here are a few things that jumped out at me today:
  • Ecocities is the recurring buzzword. They are: people living at greater density, but humane and livable. With plants! (Sorry, more thoughts about the tension between density and sprawl to come. I live in a small town, and the speakers at this conference were very much focused on answering our current environmental problems with increased urbanism.)
  • Recently I speculated about what an audio Mechanical Turk project might sound like: TurkSmith. Now I know! Aaron Koblin recently paid for several thousand people to emulate bits and pieces of the first digitized song, a version of Daisy Bell. You can hear the (slightly creepy) results at Bicycle Built for 2,000.
  • The sensors are coming! You are probably being sensed right now! A company called Path Intelligence is using the unique radio frequencies emitted by the electronic devices people carry as a signature to find out where they go, and how much time they spend in their clients' locations. Similarly, Ben Cerveny talked about using sensors and location-tracking to make amusement parks more interactive—and eventually public spaces.
  • Japenese culture seems weird to us in the West (think: cosplay, anime, scrolling text over video, ultra-ultra-cute), and after a talk about demystifying Japanese culture, it still seems weird to me. But the talk was a fun tour of cultural differences.
  • We're beginning to track more and more information about ourselves and without some ethical guidelines, that data could be used against us. Gary Wolf is part of a Bay Area group called The Quantified Self where members share their own personal data-tracking methods. He's interested in how people are tracking and visualizing their own weight, mood, health care, productivity, biology, etc. Just as we try to keep the ideal that "all people are created equal" when designing people-related systems, he thinks "all numbers are created equal" is needed in relation to designing personal data systems.
  • I've been shoulder surfing (sorry, everyone) to see what apps people are using. Guess which one is up most often? Yep, Twitter. But not just Twitter. People have massive full screen grids of tweets up in applications like TweetDeck or to a lesser degree TweetGrid. Holy Twitter overload. Seriously, as I scanned the room today everyone was running TweetDeck at full screen. WTF?
  • Lots and lots and lots of food for thought. It's always simultaneously fascinating and terrifying to hear from people shaping the future.
Time to sleep and dream, the last frontier where I'm not yet sensed, tracked, measured, and visualized. AFAIK.

ETech Day 2

Here's a quick list of talks I saw yesterday at ETech and something I took away from the talk:
  • Alex Steffen, the author of Worldchanging talked about how deeply unsustainable our western lifestyle is, how aggressively we're exporting it, and how the demographics of developing nations make this situation a train-wreck. One positive point that he mentioned is: that which is measured and shown is used differently. Of course, this reminded me of stuff we're doing with Fuelly.
  • Sameer Padania of talked about the network they're building to document human rights violations. He mentioned offhand that the ability for anonymous communication needs to be built into our tools so people can report problems safely. That's tough to do and has been sticking with me.
  • Mary Lou Jepen talked about innovating at the bottom of the financial pyramid and designing for developing nations can drive innovation here as well.
  • Mike Kuniavsky talked about the new ability with GPS and RFID to track individual products, not just classes of products. He had a great term for metadata about a product: "data shadow". He talked about porting subscription models in the context of consumer goods like bicycles, cars, airplanes, handbags, etc.
  • Lane Becker and Thor Muller shared some thought experiments about what a new post-consumer business environment might look like. Like Kuniavsky, they discussed how a "loanership society" might impact how we think about owning things.
  • Nick Bilton talked about some things they're working on at The New York Times R&D lab. One idea was repurposing disposed cellphones into a network of sensors to collect data for measuring the city. He mentioned printed semicodes and SMS codes as a big part of their current strategy for attracting advertisers to print.
  • Greg Elin explained how Washington DC works in terms that computer programmers would understand. He described government as a legacy system without the built-in logic of a compiled coding language. He works for the Sunlight Foundation trying to bring more transparency to government.
  • The last session I saw had folks from BioBricks, a Creative Commons for synthetic biology. They're trying to speed up the legal hassles of sharing synthetic biological, umm, "inventions"? The talk was a bit over my head, but it was interesting to hear about some of their approaches to sharing "content".
Now it's back to the second half of Day 3 for me.

ETech Day 1

As you can probably tell from the recent slew of photos I'm in San Jose for the Emerging Technology Conference. It was snowing on the drive to the Portland airport this morning which makes sunny San Jose seem even sunnier. The conference started tonight with Tim O'Reilly's radar talk about trends and topics he's interested in. My favorite slide was about scenario planning and featured a graph with potential futures including: "The Singularity" on one end and "Economic and Environmental Collapse" on the other. So you can tell his talk was generally upbeat. No, it's tough to have an upbeat talk in this climate. He touched on the themes from his post a few months ago about working on stuff that matters, finding a robust "middle strategy" between extreme futures, and striving to create more value than you capture. His examples of reacting to the present and planning for the future pulled from a few science fiction books including Young Rissa and Doomsday Book (if you're keeping book-score at home). He just spent a week in Washington DC and seemed excited about potential changes in government openness, transparency, and connectivity. He also read a great passage from Rilke about working on small vs. big problems that I'll have to track down.

After Tim's talk there was an Ignite event where the talks seemed surprisingly focused on the past instead of the future. Molly Steenson had a fantastic talk about the history of pneumatic tubes and Victorian messaging. Then there was akrasia, knitting history, photography history, and famous leaders blowing things up as kids.

Leonard has been working on a networked photo booth called Lensley, and it was fun to see that in action. The box takes pictures automatically like a photo booth and sends the results to Flickr and/or Twitter. And combined with the conference RFID tags, knows who is in the photos. I ended up in these photos. Great start, the conference sessions start tomorrow morning.

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 Day 3

ETech Day 3 (for me) was yesterday, so I'm a bit late with the GIPs (generic info-packets).
  • Lawrence Lessig started the day with a talk called Re:MixMe. He made the case that the ordinary way culture has been built has been through remixing—recombining pieces of the culture in different ways—and recent changes in technology have meant less freedom to remix. New "ordinary ways" to communicate mean laws need to change to protect rather than limit freedom to communicate.
  • JC Herz talked about some emerging military technology. There was an impressive demo of cheap and fast photorealistic 3-D rendering. And a look at some "scene understanding" technology that allows a computer to find targets in a video stream and move the camera to follow their movement. I had the creeps throughout. (It's an important reminder to me to think through the potential application of any technology I work on.)
  • In a very surprising session, Paula Le Dieu from the BBC announced that they would be encouraging their users to rip, mix, and burn their content. Instead of sending lawyers after people who use BBC material in ways they may not have envisioned, they'll be encouraging use of their "creative archive". Unfortunately, their creative commons-inspired licenses will only apply in the UK, but she said they're working internally to make it an international effort. She left with the question: Could big media companies enable massive creativity?
  • Chris Anderson from Wired explained his Long Tail concept in detail. One point: recommendation engines push people into the long tail of non-hit (or past-hit) products. And we have an abundance of recommendation engines these days.
  • I heard Marc Hedlund talk about getting venture capital funding for a project. It was interesting to hear his stories—like hearing travel notes from some exotic locale I'll probably never visit. A point: get your company to the point where you don't need VC funding to be in a position to get VC funding.
  • Danny O'Brien and Merlin Mann talked about Life Hacks, which are productivity tips & tricks that alpha geeks implement for themselves, but don't often share with others. One point: change your work habits to make failure difficult. If you think about your system of working as if it was a software system, you can think about "hacking" it to improve efficiency and get more stuff done.
  • I saw Ev's demo of his new application: Odeo. This whole podcasting thing could be big. The app is surprisingly polished for something still in alpha testing. One impressive bit is a Flash interface for recording and mixing audio.
  • Ben Trott talked about making web services personal. He announced Six Apart Power Tools, and showed how you could grab existing data and turn it into some compelling applications. One point: there is a lot of metadata out there (FOAF, Exif tags) just waiting for the connections to be exposed.
  • And finally, Mark Fletcher of Bloglines fame talked about his "rules of thumb" for birthing web startups. Lots of practical advice about funding, servers, and system administration.
And that brings my emerging technology adventure to an end. It was a great conference and now I'm tired.

ETech Day 2

There was no less information on Day 2 (for me) of ETech, but some packets are definitely being dropped en route. ;) Here are some more generic info-packets from the sessions I was at today:
  • The theme of looking to biology for digital inspiration continued today with Neil Gershenfeld linking digital fabrication with ribosomes. He called the human body a machine that includes all of the instructions for making itself. (In a way.) He discussed the illiberal art of making things, and machines that can make machines; fabrication labs that can produce more fabrication labs. (His forthcoming book: Fab: Personal Fabrication, Fab Labs, and the Factory in Your Computer.)
  • As the discussion of fabrication continued, Gershenfeld mentioned the value of digital fabrication would be found in the "market of 1" where the prototype is the product.
  • Cory Doctorow eloquently discussed the dangers of giving up too much liberty in the pursuit of less complex systems. He said that we've given up a lot in the battle against spam (closed relays, time and effort) but haven't gained a thing. We all still get spam. More of the same type of controls won't fix anything, and what will we give up in the process? (The same goes for DRM.)
  • Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia talked about collaboration on a massive scale. The English Wikipedia site has over 500,000 articles—written and categorized by volunteers. (Also: he feels group sites solve problems he called author fatigue and quality control.)
  • Clay Shirky interviewed Stewart from Flickr, Joshua from, and Wales from Wikipedia about mass categorization and user-tagging. One point: hierarchies are completely different from folksonomies, so stop comparing them. (Also: tagging doesn't really address individual vs. group tension, but it's "good enough" at what it does.)
  • James Surowiecki quoted Pascal, "All man's miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone." (Which sort of sounds like Sartre's "Hell is other people.") But of course it's not that simple for a guy who wrote a book called The Wisdom of Crowds. He talked about the good and bad of group interaction, information cascade, and the value of diversity/randomness in group selection.
  • Joel Spolsky discussed the importance of aesthetics in design, and ways to let users feel they're more in control of the applications they use. (He mentioned the book, Learned Helplessness.)
  • Jeremy Zawodny gave a tour of Yahoo!'s Web Services, and their new developer network. He mentioned that they used their Web Services to add an RSS-subscriptions feature for Yahoo! search results. (It just took a couple hours to implement.)
  • And James Larson showed video of some of his crazy hardware hacks. They included a VCR he turned into a scheduled pet-feeder, and "biometric silverware" that can measure stress (sort of).
And such. I guess my info-packets are blurring into overviews.

ETech Day 1

I'm at the Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego. ETech always expands my geek consciousness, and I can't possibly write a summary of everything I've learned today. Here's a stab at one generic info-packet from each presentation I saw today:
  • One point that Tim O'Reilly and Rael Dornfest made in the O'Reilly Radar session is that data is the next "intel inside" (eg. Navteq powers most web mapping applications).
  • Stewart Butterfield used the term curate when talking about Flickr's favorites feature. This is a nice improvement over sharing favorites, or publishing bookmarks. I think the term curate shows a respect for users and their data.
  • It's not always easy to extend firefox, but at least you can—and in many ways.
  • Danny Hillis demonstrated the value of interacting with technology in a group, face-to-face. He showed video of a table—with an interactive display as the tabletop—which lets the user scroll and zoom around map data. Like rolling a paper map out onto a table, this device allows for pointing, eye-contact, speech, and body-language. But it uses the dynamic digital display, which we're all used to using in isolation. (Also: he showed video of a 3-D topographic map table that looks like it's from the future.)
  • Jeff Bezos introduced an extension to RSS developed by Amazon that lets people syndicate search results. It's called Open Search RSS, and it adds a few tags to describe the results in the file: totalResults, startIndex, and itemsPerPage. (Also: vertical search columns in A9 provided by anyone.)
  • Microsoft Research is working on a wearable computing device called a SenseCam. It measures motion, temperature, infrared, gps position, and takes still photos at various points. It's like a "black box recorder" for people. He mentioned practical uses for patients with memory loss, or "automatic tourist recording" for vacationers—but I can't get past the privacy implications. What if the government could mandate that people wear this, and have all of the data sent to the home office?
  • Yahoo! Research Labs announced a joint-venture with O'Reilly called Tech Buzz Game. It sounds like a virtual stock-market for tech terms that may be able to predict/track tech trends through which words are "bought" and "sold" most.
  • Google Labs has some cool user-interface stuff like the slider for Google Personalization that takes you from min to max personalized results.
  • George Dyson gave a history of Von Neumann's pioneering inventions that are now ubiquitous in computer hardware. One idea that struck me is thinking about each individual node on a network (IP Address) as a cell. Thinking with this metaphor, it seems we're in pre-historic times, and the cells need to evolve into larger, more complex organisms. (Note to self: study more computing history. [And biology?]) Cory Doctorow's notes.
  • AT&T Labs wants to "virtually bleach" the network to get rid of spam, but I wonder what else might be sanitized in the process.
  • Chis Heathcote and Matt Jones talked about taking computing beyond the monitor. They showed that they could exchange business card data by touching their phones together, and mentioned that Dance Dance Revolution is the biggest success in body/digital interaction.
  • Nelson Minar from Google pointed out why SOAP isn't easy.
  • And then Sam Ruby pointed out why "simple" HTTP isn't easy. (Which reminded me that Bertrand Russel said, "Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise." Maybe we're getting to a point where we need the Web to be more precise.)
And those are the Day 1 packets—a lot to think about.

Amazon's Improbable Phrases

How did I miss this? Amazon is analyzing the text of books to find Statistically Improbable Phrases (SIPs) contained within. This is a funny, interesting way to get a glimpse inside the book before you buy. For example, here are the SIPs for Gladwell's Blink: rapid cognition, intuitive repulsion, sip test, adaptive unconscious. (Overheard on #ETech.) I hope someone builds this for weblogs.

Making ETech

The good news is that I'll be heading to San Diego next week for the Emerging Technology Conference. I was looking at the conference schedule yesterday and I'm really looking forward to it. In fact, I can't find a time to skip out on the conference to visit the San Diego Zoo. That will have to wait for another trip sometime. If you're going to ETech, and want to talk at some point—drop me a line. Or just say hi at the conference. I'll be the introverted computer geek staring at my laptop. (That joke never gets old.)