Thursday, May 28, 2009

The future has been demoed

Google Wave was just announced at our annual I/O developer's conference. You can read more about it at Techcrunch or O'Reilly Radar, but I'd like to specifically address the Search Engine Land liveblog, which is much more reserved, and doesn't get what the fuss is about.

Wave is one of those things that doesn't necessarily seem that amazing, until you use it. Now, that's a total cop-out and pretty unfair besides, so let me take a crack at explaining why I think it's so amazing.

First, it's a total rethinking of a fundamental communications tool. Even in its most sophisticated current incarnations, email is still the same basic technology that it was when it was created 38 years ago. Even instant messaging isn't really that sophisticated, from a technological standpoint (of course, implementations and add-ons and all the rest are very complicated, but the underlying technology is old). Wave is different - it's a system that is only technologically possible because of the cloud concept, it literally couldn't have existed a decade ago (even though the cloud is a very old idea, of course).

Second, it's so open. Read more in our blog post about what I mean by that - open source, on top of an open platform and an open protocol. In order for this to get any kind of mass adoption, let alone take advantage of the productive chaos of millions of developers and thousands of great ideas, it needs to be this open. But making great things open isn't always something companies are comfortable with, and I'm glad to see Google is.

Third, it's designed from the ground up to be as collaborative as possible. Here's why you'll actually love using it. Let's say I'm a speechwriter working in an office.

Phase One: Email and locally-hosted documents. Every time I update a draft of a speech, I email a copy to seven different people. Each one reads it, marks up their draft and sends it back. I have to manage EIGHT copies of the same document, merge changes as I see fit, and send it back out. For them to mark up again and send back. For me to merge.

Phase Two: Email and cloud-hosted documents. Now, everybody's working from the same draft. But let's say there's a paragraph that contains a controversial position. We still have to email back and forth, eventually come to a consensus about the language, and then insert it into the document, where we can all mark it up. Better, but what if the document gets updated during the email discussion? Since the two things - email and document - are separate, they can fall out of sync very easily. And god forbid you try to add anyone to the discussion after the fact - they'll have to scroll all the way up to the top and read each email in sequence, while consulting the most recent draft and keeping track of the difference.

Phase Three: Wave. I write a speech as a wave, and add my 7 contributors to it. They make changes directly in the wave, which everyone else sees instantaneously - while the changes are being typed. If someone doesn't like a paragraph, they can add a comment directly under it, and a discussion springs from that comment. If someone makes a change to the paragraph, everyone can see it immediately. If someone comes in late to the discussion, they can just hit the replay button and see the conversation and the speech evolve.

There's a whole lot more to Wave, and I'll be happy to talk more about it later. But I'm really excited about it, and I can't wait for everyone to be able to use it and get as excited as I am!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

This post is a metaphor for an interesting observation.

If you're like me, in school you learned that the difference between a simile and a metaphor is that a simile has "like" or "as". That always seemed pretty arbitrary to me: why only those two words; what's the point of having both types of comparison; why use one and not the other? It wasn't until a BART ride with Irina tonight that the implication, the subtle distinction between the two, occurred to me.

A metaphor asserts something to be true that isn't literally so, while a simile merely compares two unlike things. A simile is true, and a metaphor is a lie:

Baseball is like chess. A 100% true statement, and typically, the statement is followed by an explanation of why this is so.


Baseball is chess on grass. No, not really: chess on grass is chess on grass, literally.

But more than being literally untrue, a metaphor literally creates an entire alternate, fictional universe whenever it's invoked. Along the way, interesting aspects of one or both things being compared are illuminated, and some work has to be done by the reader - unlike with a simile, the meaning of the comparison isn't always provided by the author.

The dull glow of the laptop screen stared back at me, daring me to complete the blog post. I turned away, but the low whirr of the internal fans taunted me, calling my name incessantly until finally I turned back to finish the piece. Here, the reader imagines the scene, giving a face to the screen and a voice to the fans, neither of which exist in reality. Strictly speaking, this section is fiction, but it's much more evocative than a straight description. Not only does it describe the scene, it hints at the fact that the writer has been spending too much time with the laptop, and is beginning to think of it as a real person.


The dull glow of the laptop screen was like a face staring back at me, daring me to complete the blog post. I turned away, but the low whirr of the internal fans was like a voice taunting me, calling my name incessantly until finally I turned back to finish the piece. The "like"s interrupt the flow, keep the reader from fully imagining the scene and maintain the strict division between truth and fiction. The blurring of lines that reveals interesting possible truths is totally prevented.

Of course, both simile and metaphor can be used nearly interchangeably (which is why they're taught with so few distinctions). But just because they can be used interchangeably, doesn't mean they ought to be.

I recognize this is all probably pretty obvious, but what are blogs for, if not pointing out the obvious?

I know the word "racist" gets thrown around a lot, but...

It's almost as though some of Obama's critics on the right...actually are racist! I know, I know, it's crazy, but hear me out.

I really believe that most prominent conservatives aren't racists, at least, not by any definition of the word that I'd accept. I think the Left uses that word too often, and diminishes its power. I think we always need to keep in mind that these are people who feel as strongly as we do, but who simply disagree with us. And just as our passions get aroused by politics, so do theirs, so we should always give the other side the benefit of the doubt.

But sometimes, you really have to wonder if there isn't some actual, honest-to-God racism taking place [pause while you gasp in astonished horror]

Take, as an example, this piece in the Weekly Standard by Michael Goldfarb. He excerpts a 35-year-old op-ed by Justice Sotomayor, in which she accuses Princeton of ignoring its heritage by refusing to hire enough people of Puerto Rican or Chicano descent. A pretty fair point, and I can only imagine how much more fair it would have been 35 years ago, at one of the most prominent Ivy League institutions - an old (white) boys club if ever there was one.

Goldfarb's response? To note that Obama is using the same logic in nominating Sotomayor that she used in excoriating Princeton - that he's elevating experience and background, that he's giving her this position because of her ethnicity (a charge that, on its merits, could not possibly be more full of shit. It's not like she went to Princeton and Yale, or has served on the federal bench longer than any justice appointed in over 100 years.)

That would be bad enough, but what really moves Goldfarb over the line from "opportunist asshole" to "this guy is probably an actual racist" is this bit:

on the issue of diversity, Obama seems to have the views of a 21-year-old Hispanic girl -- that is, only by having a black president, an Hispanic justice, a female secretary of State, and Bozo the Clown as vice president will the United States become a true "vanguard of societal ideas and changes."

Wow. "21-year-old Hispanic girl", as though she were a teenager with no valid argument, instead of an adult student at one of the most prestigious institutions on the planet. The overt argument that Obama's commitment to diversity clearly stems only from his superficial belief in a Benetton rainbow for a cabinet. The implicit argument that a white male president, justice and secretary of State would be so much more serious, not some flaky tableau with no real substance.

That sentence could not be more dripping with condescension for Justice Sotomayor, nor a more blatant attempt to trivialize her intellect or her concerns.

What a racist asshole.

Why didn't Wired become Boing Boing?

There's a fascinating discussion going on over at Boing Boing Gadgets, where current and former Wired staffers debate What Went Wrong. True, Wired is very much still around, in print and online (at one point in the discussion, the current editor, Chris Anderson, claims the magazine just had a record year for ad revenues, and other sales metrics are equally robust). But there's no question that Wired missed its moment, and financially, it's struggling (as is everyone else).

For me, what's interesting about this is that Wired should have been perfectly positioned to capitalize on the emergence of web culture: it's been covering the geek beat since 1993, and had the circulation, history and street cred to serve as the tribune of the Newest Age. I spent the first dot com boom in my Chicago high school's computer lab, so I don't really know if Wired was considered essential by those involved at the time, though I suspect it was (at least, it was more essential than it is now).

So the fact that Wired has faded into near-irrelevance during an explosion of geek culture so unimaginably huge that even the most Kool-aid-intoxicated Wired editorial of 1995 could never have predicted it is rather ironic. But why did it happen? Why did it miss its moment so utterly?

From reading the above thread, one reason might be the split between the print and online divisions, with a "Berlin Hall" running between them. Is it better to split the two groups, since writing for the web and writing for print are entirely different activities? Or would it be better to unify the two and benefit from a shared editorial voice, and a shared level of access to new and exciting information (not to mention a shared set of resources for the poor pixel-stained bloggers to take advantage of)?

A lot of blame also apparently goes to Conde Nast (unsurprisingly), for still failing to appreciate the value of online ad impressions, saddling the site with an ancient CMS and a baroque subscription process.

But neither of these explanations feel satisfactory to me. The split that some of the online folks are complaining about might not be ideal, but far better for an emerging media group to have the freedom to experiment and try new things, than to constantly have to apply for permission from an organization that doesn't understand it. And a bigger budget is always nice, but many of the online success stories about which Wired writes have zero budget and are run by volunteers. DailyKos didn't get to be so big by paying its writers hefty sums or laying out a ton of money for fancy graphic design.

Ultimately, I wonder if a big part of the reason has nothing to do with Wired at all. The early web is dominated by fads, and even a site like Slashdot that really did get it and really was essential for a while didn't last forever (it, like Wired, is still around but its influence is a pale shadow of what it once was). The internet is simply fickle, and not much that was popular a decade ago online is so today.

Part of why this might be so can be seen in the headlines of any random tech blog on any particular day (which probably attracts Wired's core audience). Internet culture has become a relentless pursuit of the new, with every new service being heralded as the "killer" of a preexisting one, and with every new fad needing to be digested, exploited and run into the ground as soon as possible, until the source of those fads becomes so rife with reporters seeking story ideas for the newest meme that there's no room left for the people who made that place so interesting in the first place.

EDIT: The NYT tries to get it right: Memo to staff on the hiring of a "social media editor".

Thursday, May 21, 2009

RSS, Twitter, Facebook are dying - what's next?

Steve Gillmor's deeply half-wrong TechCrunch piece about the end of RSS got me thinking about how I consume content online, and what I think is changing. His basic argument is that RSS used to be his essential method of reading content online, but now he doesn't use it anymore and has moved on to Twitter. I think that's an interesting observation, but I only think he's got it partially right.

RSS does need to change:

There's no built-in filtering mechanism, and the most popular RSS reader (Google Reader, but I assume this is true of other major readers) doesn't do a very good job of filtering at all. This is essential, because subscribing to any more than a handful of feeds means that your reader will quickly be totally overwhelmed by new items, and you'll have to do so much picking and choosing that you're spending as much time manually filtering as you are reading, and it's a giant hassle. This is an insanely tractable problem, but I haven't seen any promising attempts to solve it yet.

It's too one-way. There's no standard mechanism for incorporating comments from your friends, or random strangers, or replying to an item and having it be visible by the author or anyone else.

There aren't any interesting or useful social or discoverability aspects. If I want to see what my friends are reading, I can't - Google Reader is making headway here with shared items and bundled feeds, but not nearly enough people I'm friends with use these things to make them worthwhile. And if an item is created somewhere, but I don't subscribe to whatever feed(s) it appears in, I'll never see it, even if it's really similar to stuff I've previously starred or shared.

Gillmor thinks Twitter and, to a lesser extent Facebook, are going to replace RSS. But they have their own share of problems:

Twitter is basically a subset of RSS, feature-wise. Posts are too short to be anything more than headlines in a normal RSS reader. To the user, "following" someone is exactly the same as subscribing to their feed, except it uses a proprietary service. Why can't I simply have all the people I'm currently following appear in my RSS reader? No real reason. Once that happens, why do I care about Twitter, exactly? If RSS and Twitter merged in some way, as they really ought to, then both would be greatly improved - an interactive RSS feed would be very interesting and fun to read.

Links, @replies, RTs and other metadata take up too much of the 140 character limit. Twitter's great for pithy remarks, but it's exactly as much fun as non-fulltext RSS feeds for anything substantive.

Twitter does a great job of being open, but it's still a proprietary service, and if the Web has shown us one thing, it's that Open beats Proprietary almost every time.

The other part of Gillmor's equation, Facebook, also seems (to me) to be in trouble. It's still a very useful tool, and given how much data it now has, I think it's likely to be relevant in some way for a while. But I've used it less and less for a while now, and I've heard anecdotally from many other people that they use it less often as well:

The Newsfeed is too Twitterish - it's filled with stuff I don't care about from people I don't really know. The only filtering available requires me to do too much work.

Applications are a massive disaster that FB can't go back on. The only app that was ever useful was Scrabulous, which they had to take down. Other than that, not a single one that I've seen (which is an admittedly small number, and I'd love it if someone proved me wrong, but I know that nobody will) has been useful or interesting: it seems like they're basically all quizzes at this point, and that got old a couple months ago. Everyone's profile is now way too cluttered with meaningless app detritus, and it makes the site both way less useful and way uglier. It's become Myspace. But apps are too big a bet, and too much a part of the site, to remove now.

At bottom, FB has done almost nothing interesting to take advantage of the fact that they know who all my real life friends are. I find that fucking amazing. They're sitting on a ridiculously valuable set of data, and I'm sure they're banging their heads against the wall trying to come up with a new way to take advantage of it, and they've got bupkus. The move to become an OpenID relying party was genius, but that's not really the same thing, and it doesn't make me want to use FB itself any more than I already do (which is almost never, aside from reply to very occasional messages and invites).

So what really replaces Facebook, Twitter and RSS? I think it's got to be some combination of the three - and that's probably Friendfeed, although I just logged in for the first time in a while, and it's clearly not there yet (it doesn't actually bring in your tweets or your RSS items, unless they're from a friend of yours, which greatly limits its utility.)

Here's what I envision: One site that knows who all my FB friends are, and allows me the option of following their news feeds. If I want, I can follow a random other person's news feed as easily as I can with Twitter, but they don't get automatically added to my "friends" list unless I ask. I have a merged news/RSS stream that I can read, and it gets annotated with interesting items from outside sources similar to those I've expressed some interest in previously (say, by reading the full text of, or starring, bookmarking or sharing).

In other words, a site with three lists of acquaintances: Friends (see all their contact info and updates about them if I navigate to a certain page); Short News (Twitter-style updates); and Long News (blog posts, news articles, etc). One mega-feed that can do all kinds of fancy filtering. And all on an open platform so that I can interact with this service using the web or desktop app of my choice.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why we're in this mess: Stupid California propositions (that actually passed!)

Today's Election Day in California, which means you should probably go vote. If you're curious how to vote, I have some suggestions (as does, who actually know what they're talking about).

But since we're voting on a bunch of bad ideas today whose passage or failure will equally guarantee California's continued ungovernability, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look back. This isn't the first time that Californians have been presented with a bunch of stupid ideas that we get to put RIGHT IN OUR CONSTITUTION. What other crummy notions have we seen fit to enshrine in our most important legal document?

Prop 16 (1922)
Regulated chiropractors. A worthy goal, sure, but why is this in the state Constitution? (Because of this proposition, future changes to chiropractor regulation have to be run past the voters first, which is kind of unwieldy for such a specialized profession.)

Prop 13 (1978)
This is one of the big ones: Reduces and limits the property tax, and requires a 2/3 vote in the Legislature to increase any taxes. Why doesn't California have any money? Pretty much, because of this proposition. An all-time bad idea.

Prop 4 (1979)
Another big, stupid legacy of the anti-tax movement. This one limited state expenditures to only slightly above what they were the previous year, which sounds kind of reasonable but has the practical effect of choking off spending for important programs and enshrining ugly budget battles in the state Constitution.

Prop 38 (1984)
Called for voting materials to be in English only. Because the last thing we want our citizens to be able to do is to understand who or what they're voting for.

Prop 63 (1986)
Designates English as the official language, and allows citizens to sue state or local governments if they diminish or ignore "the role of English as the common language of the State of California."

Prop 163 (1992)
In part, exempted candy, snack foods and bottled water from state and local sales tax. So that our children can finally have access to the abundant supply of Little Debby snack cakes that our soldiers have fought and died for! Seriously, it's not like there was about to be an obesity epidemic or anything. Come on, 1992, help us out a bit.

Prop 187 (1994)
Prevented illegal immigrants from receiving public services. Glad to see the American Dream is alive and well!

Prop 184 (1996)
Three strikes and you're out! Or, in jail for life. Because nothing demonstrates the seriousness with which we take criminal justice better than applying arbitrary baseball rules to determining punishment.

Props 195 and 196 (1996)
Made 4 more types of murder eligible for the death penalty. I guess I just have a philosophical objection to a state, which has to hold a referendum whenever chiropractor license renewal dates need to be changed, having the power to kill its citizens.

Prop 6 (1998)
Ban on eating horses. Because we the people find horses too cute to be eaten?

Prop 8 (2008)
Prevented same-sex couples from marrying. At last! Marriages are safe, once again!

All of this data comes from the super-invaluable! (Ballotpedia doesn't have individual pages for all amendments, so where it doesn't, I'm relying on a document from the Initiative and Referendum Institute.)