Thursday, December 13, 2012

A new mobile app that gets it right

Mobile apps should do one of two things: present a convenient interface to a certain service, or take advantage of supercomputing power inside a user's pocket. Most existing mobile apps - the ones that make sense, at least - do the former. But it wasn't until I installed the excellent new Sitegeist app from the Sunlight Foundation today that I realized how few succeed at the latter.

The app shows you interesting data about whatever physical location you're in - age and demographic data, house price data, cool nearby places on Yelp, etc. Plenty of existing services do something like this, and this is hardly the first location-aware mobile info app (though it may be the most beautiful).

But once you use it, you realize how few apps really get it right: this little piece of glass in your hand is telling about your physical surroundings in an utterly useful, simple, charming, pleasant way. It's incredibly powerful and sophisticated, but it conceals that power and sophistication effortlessly, only revealing to the user simple, interesting, contextually-relevant facts.

I love that this came from the Sunlight Foundation, too, since they're all about government transparency. This app reveals that they're approaching the concept of transparency in a much more user-focused way than I realized: what's important for an individual person to know doesn't just come from a FOIA request. Walking around a neighborhood and effortlessly revealing how much the houses cost, how rich or young the people living around you are, tells you something civically-important. Democracy isn't just about government, it's about people.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fracking geopolitical foundations

What to make of the findings in the recent International Energy Agency report that the US will become the largest energy producer in the world in 5 years? As Kelly McParland suggests, at once it completely rearranges the global power structure.

Leaving aside for others the fairly important question of "is it true?", since I'm ill-equipped to fact-check the IEA and NYT on this, I feel like this kind of solidifies the timeline we're working with before the planet becomes too disastrously hot. We don't have to worry about "peak oil" ever again, but thanks to environmentally-problematic hydraulic fracturing, we now we have to worry that "no more than one-third of already proven reserves of fossil fuels can be burned by 2050 if the world is to prevent global warming exceeding the danger point of 2C".

So, ok, we have a target date about 40 years in the future - is that enough time to prevent the worst effects of global warming, and can we even do it? I'm inclined to believe we've passed a tipping point and the rise of the middle class in India, China and Brazil means we're going to have a really hard time stopping carbon emission increases for the foreseeable future - those nations are going to be legitimately angry to be denied the use of cheap fuel and plastics we've had for decades, because we used it all up - so we'd better get working on some good mitigation strategies.

Ultimately, I'm not that confident we're going to be able to mitigate our way out of the coming climactic disaster, so we're going to just have to adapt and suffer. We as a society will have to come to terms with the guilt unleashed by watching millions of people around the world die from the effects of the pollution we released into the atmosphere. If history is any guide, the people who suffer the most will most likely be poor, since the rich can afford to move away from unsafe coastlines and ensure a steady supply of fresh water. And the karmic injustice will be doubled, as those who pay the highest price will have been those who used the fewest resources.

That will hopefully turn out to be overly pessimistic, and if we're lucky, we'll make enough progress on mitigation strategies fast enough to avert the worst catastrophes. But if Sandy is going to keep happening to coastline after coastline, and we have more droughts like we had this summer (the worst in 25 years!), and the freaking coffee bean is going to be extinct soon - well, I don't know how much faith I have in engineers who aren't able to rely on the juice of nature's sweetest fruit.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Benton Harbor

It's a rainy morning in Benton Harbor, the city that Wikipedia tells us has the lowest per-capita income in the state of Michigan. I feel bad leading with that fact - I suspect that the narrative of a place like this is dominated by such ledes - but the boarded-up buildings in the gray rainy morning really are the most immediately-striking visual fact of this city.

The signs on one building are a mixture of black-and-white stencils ("city is changing but ignoring black men invest in us" with the non-bolded words merely outlined in white pencil against the white sign, almost invisible) and a professionally-printed call for "honest investor(s)" willing to put money into the local black community. A magnificent church retains the stained-glass and announcement board outside, but looks abandoned from within - I can't tell if it's still in use or not.

Young black men in black hoodies are the only signs of life outside. They're not, as far as I can tell, acting in solidarity with Trayvon Martin (though I certainly didn't ask, and can you imagine that conversation? "Why would you say you're wearing a hoodie today?" "Because it's 55 and raining!" "Sure, but why the specific choice of this politically-charged garment? You can be honest with me - I'm a well-meaning white guy with an audio recorder!") Inside the (good Yelp-reviewed, free-wifi-offering, Pride-flag-out-front) Phoenix cafe in the arts district downtown, the clientele and staff are almost exclusively white, all the more salient an observation in a town that (again, wikipedia) is 89% black. Really solid tracks from Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco play against a backdrop of beautiful black-and-white x-ray-looking images of plants hung on the wall, part of an exhibit called "Found Botany".

Across the river from the poorest town in Michigan with an 89% black population is St. Joseph, 88% white with nearly 3 times the household income ($49,982 vs a staggering $17,301).

We've only been in town since last night, a brief stay at the Red Roof Inn meant to keep us dry from the rain pelting the 94, sheets of water exploding out from beneath the wheels of semis that threaten to run us off the road every few minutes. It's hard to know what else to say about a place that surely hosts so many different storylines; but rather than let the moment go unrecorded (increasingly a rarity on this trip, and in our lives generally) I felt like pointing this out.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Reflections in the morning light

The hot caffeine makes me feel better. More psychological than physical, it reassures me that things are OK and I'm able to do whatever my day will demand. It gives me energy to press forward; when I wake up, I'm awake and may even be brightly so, but almost always lack the extra reserves of energy that anything beyond reading require of me.

Four years of Berkeley mornings have not warped me, but they have given me a glimpse of what tranquility can be: perfect sunshine, a gentle easy light that brings out the greens of leaves and grasses, the browns of wood fences and houses and treetrunks; a clearness to the air, lacking excessive heat or humidity; the fresh, clean, organic smells of plantlife awakening to the morning and disseminating their pollen for bees to find. Sure, there are cars and horns (though not too many of the latter); traffic and chores and strollers and people on phones. And of course it's easy to ignore the gentle pleasantness and focus on the podcast, or the day ahead, or a thousand other distractions. But Berkeley is always here, ready for the morning commuter to open his eyes and nose and perceive it.

It's the light that really makes our kitchen something special - the sunlight as it rises, giving the surprisingly elegant linoleum tiles a character far outstripping their simple black-and-whiteness. The morning gray sky (though not today; perhaps that's a relic of the winter months; I certainly remember many brilliant blue mornings) filling in the gaps between the tops of houses, as different from each other as their collective whole is from the suburban sameness that shamefully dominates so much of this brilliantly beautiful country. The shabbily-pale green of the hills off to the right (East) and the much richer greens and browns and whites of the leaves that block us from the Bay to the West (left).

Sunlight is not all the same. A clear February morning in Chicago, and a clear May morning in Berkeley: both are blue skies with a dominant sun just out of reach, but to look at them is to know instinctively the bitter cold or blissful warmth that awaits outside. How much of this is a trick of context, I'm not sure; I know that clear May mornings in Berkeley are typically not cold and so I see things that are not there, perhaps; indications of a temperature that isn't actually conveyed by anything more than the calendar. I know a clear February morning in Chicago is going to be ass-bitingly cold, and so I see that in the light on rooftops and sidewalks. Yet I feel certain that if I saw a photograph of a sunlit street in February and July, the light alone would help me know which was which.

It's the everyday pleasantness of life in Berkeley that I worry about missing the most, and that I'm not sure Chicago will replace. Of course there are those glorious spring days, coming out of the cold, where the energy and optimism of the imminent summer infects every activity with joy. But the November afternoons - will enough of those be quietly pleasant enough to make up for the lack of the everyday niceness of Berkeley? I suppose I shouldn't worry; plenty of people even in my own family have left here for there and never looked back. They must have experienced this same general pleasantness (the weather is changing, but not by that much in the last 30 years that they wouldn't have had such days as these), so maybe I should just ask them.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A new kind of literacy

Today I hacked my camera, taking it back from the limitations its programmers imposed on it out of a desire to sell more expensive models. I didn't write a single line of code, only used the command-line twice, and yet the process would have been bewildering for most computer users. I was able to do it because I've spent a short lifetime using tech and writing code; both the concepts and the computer-DIY skills I've picked up along the way helped me do something entirely outside my normal domain of experience.

This, I think, is what constitutes the sort of fundamental technical building blocks we should be giving every citizen - though we need to come up with a better name than "technical building blocks", since that metaphor isn't really domain-appropriate. This is an important type of literacy, increasingly relevant in the 21st century and kind of nonexistent for most of human history into the 20th century. The language of computing devices requires some training to understand, and Turing machines being what they are, and their programmers being who they are, a lot of that knowledge is transferrable. I learned about partitioning disks when I was first trying to install Linux on my desktops in high school, and since I was already familiar with the concept, I found it easier to install a hack on my camera today.

So what kinds of things should we be teaching people, in order to give them this basic skillset? Here are a few proposals (that perhaps betray a mindset already a few years out of date):

1. Scripting - most people don't really ever need to know how to program, but would benefit from knowing how to make a computer do something automatically. Both the process of learning how a computer thinks about things like "commands", and the actual ability to issue those commands in an automated way, are an important part of computer literacy.
2. Assembling a desktop - this is increasingly an unnecessary skill for most people's lived experience - laptops and smartphones don't really permit any real kind of hardware hackery. But understanding how a computer's parts fit together, how to take them apart and assemble them, and what those basic parts even are, is as useful as knowing the basic geography of a car's hood.
3. Using a command line - not only is it helpful for future job prospects (command-line familiarity, in my experience, is surprisingly rare outside of coders and sysadmins); learning how to phrase questions in a language a computer speaks teaches you a lot about how it thinks and what its capable of. In many ways, this is a skillset very similar to scripting, and a lot of what you learn on the command-line is helpful when programming (and vice-versa).
4. Learning how to learn - the most important skill I ever learned in the Internet age was how to learn how to do something I don't already know. In my previous jobs, I've been the lone technical person on non-technical teams; and the questions I got asked were often not ones I knew the answers to. But I knew how to teach myself what our team needed in order to get the job done; and in my day-to-day life, I use these skills all the time. This goes far beyond just Googling a question (although that's very important, and there are subtle tricks to know); it's about how to approach a problem so as to make it comprehensible; how to break it down into component parts and solve those; knowing what types of things computers are good and bad at, and what places on the Internet are good gateways for the former.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Stop saying the Internet is making us more isolated

An article in the New York Times last weekend argued that the Internet is replacing conversation with mere connection. It's the latest in a long line of articles decrying technology's impact on society (cf. the Atlantic's most recent cover story: "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?"), and they pretty much always look dumb in retrospect. Not always, but shockingly often, given how self-satisfied their authors tend to be.

So I was looking for a reason not to like Sherry Turkle's article, and I think it's this: she presents absolutely no data, zero, none, whatsoever. Fine, she's not obligated to, this is more of a polemic about a certain type of human interaction, and it's not clear exactly what data one would want to use to support this argument.

And yet, she's a researcher who mentions, repeatedly, that she's been studying this for 15 years. And here she has a couple hundred words in the NYT to make the case for what she does (not to mention flog her new book on the subject) and she doesn't reference a single study?

Ultimately, what evidence she does provide is beyond weak. People in meetings would rather pay attention to only the subjects they care about?  A 16-year-old boy is socially awkward? People in offices see their younger coworkers listening to headphones while they work? Seems to me that people got bored in meetings, and were socially-awkward teenagers, long before the iPhone existed. She's clearly longing for an era that only ever existed in her mind.

She doesn't even really address any possible counterargument about why this shift in our social behavior might be a good thing. And yet, at least one stands out to me: we're social creatures, not really physical ones. We survive best when we work together, when we communicate. Ultimately, humans are basically brains tethered to fleshy appendages. The Internet has begun to break the link between our bodies and our brains, allowing our brains to communicate with each other easier and easier, faster and faster, more and more often.

People like Turkle lament an era when our lives were bound by our frail physical selves, but it doesn't seem to me that that's a good thing at all. Shy people, physically-challenged people, people physically separated from each other by great distances, are increasingly able to connect, deeply, with each other. We're not hostages to our biology anymore, which is probably both good and bad. But it's lazy nostalgia to automatically assume that our modes of interaction were somehow superior when we were held hostage to the weakest part of ourselves.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Seizing power in Mali and Russia

Control is no longer as simple as pointing a gun at an uncooperative journalist. Power itself has changed phase and become fluid, leaking around the sites where force is applied:  you can no more take over a country by occupying a handful of buildings than you can compress water by squeezing it with your hands. Recent events in two entirely separate countries beautifully illustrate this point.

Last week, a faction of the army in Mali overthrew one of the oldest democratic governments in West Africa a month before their scheduled elections. Around the same time, Russia's private NTV broadcast a takedown of recent demonstrations in Moscow called "Anatomy of a Protest," for which they've come under widespread criticism.

In Mali, the military coup has for the last week or so been something of a lazy affair: outside of the presidential palace and state TV station, it's not clear that the army controls anything of substance - though the President hasn't been seen since the uprising began and it's not clear who else is in charge. But what has struck me in reading reports out of Mali this week has been the tone - it's no longer simply assumed that taking power in a country is as simple as taking over the presidential headquarters and state broadcaster.

It almost seems as though the coup plotters didn't really have a plan beyond "send a couple guys to the TV station and a couple guys to the palace, put out a press release, and … profit?" The Underpants Gnomes theory of military revolution, perhaps.

What's interesting to me is that this probably would have worked a few years ago. It's not like the army in a West African country has never taken power before, so the playbook may be dusty but it's certainly seen some use. What changed?

Well, probably the same thing that changed in Russia. The demonstrations leading up to Vladimir Putin's re-coronating re-election appeared to have been a bit of a surprise (although Putin is far too sophisticated to have been caught off guard, and the deftness with which the Kremlin has handled the last several weeks is notable). The Russians have a playbook, too, however, and so a week ago, the private national television station NTV (whose director hilariously doesn't even attempt to conceal his collaboration with top officials: "we have very tight personal relations with the power holders, with the president and prime minister, because we have known each other for years") put out a hit job on the protest movement. An ominous voiceover introduced shady surveillance video and accusations of treachery and Western influence.

The tactic was predictable, and in another context, so was the response. But this is a Russia still run from Red Square, and the general hostility NTV engendered, from Twitter hashtags to prominent pro-democracy scolds severing their ties to the station, to threats of resignations and angry talk-radio callers, feels like a new development.

Of course, sardonic comments on Twitter and irate calls to talk radio hardly herald the imminent downfall of one of the craftiest world leaders in power today. The Kremlin has probably decided that allowing people to vent their frustrations publicly, for the moment, is a handy escape valve to prevent the buildup of more dangerous pro-democracy resentments. And even NTV is claiming that, for all the bluster from the commentariat and even their own employees, nobody has resigned since the program aired.

Which is why the Mali example is so interesting: there, too, the levers of power are being manipulated by familiar forces, while commentators bemoan the lack of democratic legitimacy; and yet, the bemoaners seem at least as significant as the lever-operators. Just because the latter group is nominally in charge today certainly doesn't mean they will be tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Do the Right Thing, Jon Gruber

It's easy enough to blame Mike Daisey for making stuff up, and you're heroically up to the task in your most recent post, among many others. But now would be a perfect time for you to also listen to the parts of the last This American Life episode that directly, legitimately criticized Apple: if Apple actually cared enough to end these abuses, they could, immediately. They play hardball with suppliers, give them razor-thin margins to profit off of, and then are shocked, shocked! that there are labor problems in Casablanca.

Come on. This is the wealthiest corporation in the world; conditions in their plants are awful (if not at Daisey levels of awfulness, or even if not as bad as practically any other factory in China); they could improve those conditions easily and immediately; and all that it would require is paying out slightly smaller dividends to relatively wealthy shareholders.

You have a reputation as being an Apple water-carrier. You seem to think that's not accurate or fair. Giving Apple legit criticism right now, rather than piling on Daisey, would be a great way to prove your independence. Let's see if you do it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Prediction and suggestion

Prediction: That This American Life will ultimately come out of this Mike Daisey fiasco looking better for having so seriously addressed a problem most media organizations sweep under the rug.

Suggestion: Embracing the same logic that the public wants to support organizations that do the adult thing when confronted with a mistake, President Obama should take direct responsibility for high gas prices in 2012 - even though the responsibility isn't really (or even practically at all) his. By declaring that he's big enough and mature enough to accept responsibility for a bad thing, he'll look so vastly different, better, more elevated than whomever his GOP opponent will be - and especially in comparison to the spineless Mitt Romney. Congress is historically unpopular because of partisanship - this isn't just some Brooksian-centrist fantasy voter we're talking about, but one who, like most adults, thinks the worst of her elected officials these days.

And anyway, if you want to blame Obama for high gas prices, you're going to do it whether or not he accepts responsibility. It's not clear who he'd lose by saying "I take full responsibility for not keeping your gas prices as low as possible, because I believe we have more urgent priorities and we all have to confront challenges like this together." But I think there are people on the fence, part of the original Obama coalition who've been feeling disenchanted lately, who expected him to be the kind of West Wing President this would be typical of.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Let's thank the kids (and maybe pay em)

As March Madness gets ready to begin, let's just take a moment to reflect on two fundamental truths: this is the best month in sports, entirely because it's happening to young people who've done nothing more than work hard for years on something they believe in; and, for that reason, they deserve some compensation.

Maybe it cheapens the proceedings somehow, though I doubt it - but a whole lot of people are about to make a whole lot of money based on the hard work of a handful of hustling, talented teenagers and 20-year-olds in the next month and a half, so why shouldn't the kids get a piece? Isn't to do otherwise the very definition of exploitation (if not harsher terms I don't want to muddy the waters with)?

So thank you, Nation's Young People, for your imminent contribution to national happiness. Not just on the court, of course, but in your quantity of inappropriate celebrations of sporting prowess, however they manifest themselves over the next 40 days! Go forth, drain some 30-footers, be they with a basketball or beer bong, and let's all have a good March!

Friday, March 9, 2012

The 11:10 Larkspur - San Francisco

In a few moments, the commuter ferry will leave the coastal suburban haven of Larkspur and plow out into the cold blue San Francisco Bay. As it leaves Marin County, it passes within a few meters of the infamous San Quentin prison, recently the site of a day of action by local Occupy protesters, and daily the locus of uncountable acts of violence and humiliation. Drifting swiftly and comfortably by the floodlights, high stone walls, barbed wire fencing and barracks housing, how many of the passengers aboard this ferry are thinking about what separates them from their countrymen mere meters to port? How many have tried to connect to the (protected, naturally) SQSP wifi network that comes briefly into range? The few packets their device sends to a router somewhere on the outskirts of the prison are probably the most contact they'll ever have with the inside of one of the country's most notorious correctional facilities.

Like the Alcatraz prison island that our ferry passes to starboard a few minutes later, San Quentin represents both an uncomfortable reminder of the price society exacts for criminal behavior and an object of fascination on the horizon. Most communities keep their prisons far out of sight, the only glimpse of their existence a vaguely ridiculous highway sign encouraging drivers not to pick up hitchhikers. San Francisco, however, has two maximum-security prisons within an easy glance across the Bay; one has even become a tourist attraction, with hundreds of prisoners a day pretending to lock themselves behind bars that once held Al Capone captive.

How many people have ridden this ferry and later in life found themselves watching it through the narrow windows of San Quentin? There must have been at least one such person, but the demographics of Marin being what they are, this is unlikely to have described many people. What are their names? What did they do, or were accused of having done, that got them sent away? When they see the ferry, their regular seat filled by some blissfully-unaware 1%er listening to This American Life on his iPhone 4 headphones, does it inspire anger, sadness, regret, indifference?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

{End,Beginning} of an Era

They've been five of the most fascinating years of my life, but on Friday, March 2nd I'll swipe my badge through Google's front doors for the last time. No more will I be privy to the deep, dark secrets of the Chocolate Factory; my inbox will be free of dogfood debugging statements, stack traces in place of hot new features and thousands of auto-generated emails letting me know at 3:35am that one of my logging jobs is failing.

Even the logging failure emails, I'll miss. Being connected to the beating heart of the technological now is thrilling, and no matter how religiously I read techmeme and the Google News Technology section, that zeitgeist will no longer be a part of my life.

Which is something I'm excited about, actually. Working for a technology-platform provider, while insanely interesting, keeps one necessarily at arm's-length from specific uses of that platform, which I'm keenly interested in exploring. Google News hosts thousands, millions of articles - I've spent the last five years obsessing over them in the aggregate, and now it's time to write a few of my own. To focus on the micro rather than the macro.

So for the next few months, before Irina and I leave for Belarus, my intention is to write as much as possible, in order to exercise the muscle that I'll rely on daily while abroad. I suppose I'll start running again - building one muscle is easier if others aren't atrophying - and maybe drop a few of the Google Fifteen. I don't quite know what I'll write about, but I need as much practice at finding the story in a single blade of grass as I do at writing five paragraphs on something fascinating. By finding subjects in familiar objects, the things I habitually ignore and gloss over in my now-daily life, I hope to develop some semblance of a reportorial instinct.

Are there any tricks or techniques you know of to help build reporting and writing muscles? Please leave them in the comments, or send me an email (if you have my email address :)