Category Archives: Technology

Nerd stuff, nerd toys, and nerdy things. Like USB snowmen and home cellular repeaters.

On The Burning Shore: John Perry Barlow

My mentor, friend, and confidante George Spehar used to describe himself as a “rancher and a banker,” re-investing his Wall Street compensation into his family ranch in Colorado, doubly reinforcing my first impression of him as a literal salt of the earth man. While handling billions of dollars a day, George was finely attuned to life with technology. When things broke, rather than slathering more technology on the problem, he had us pick up the phone and talk to someone in charge. Those calls to call were almost always punctuated with his “I’m freaking out” mantra, which impressed me as someone a Dead Head would say at the point of sensory overload. People, and the right answer, dominated his thinking and actions.

A few years earlier, long before “podcast” entered the vernacular as a way of connecting narrow audiences to quality content, Tim O’Reilly produced a series of technology interviews on audio cassette. One of them was with John Perry Barlow, with whom I was vaguely aware as a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and through that decided non-digital introduction I learned of his non-standard introduction as a rancher, Grateful Dead lyricist and big thinker about what we now consider our digital identities. Like George, “rancher” had a high placement in the career ladder, and on a much grander and global scale Barlow insisted that we stay attuned to basic human needs even as technology encroached from all sides.

Much of what we consider as digital freedoms, the use of the internet as a level playing field, the removal of social, technological and regulatory barriers that would form impediments to speaking, being heard and creating engagement, stem from Barlow’s guide star manifestos. He showed us how to hold up the technology mirror to our selves, reminding us that sometimes the personal contact equivalent to a phone call was the most critical engagement.

John Perry Barlow died this week, and the EFF’s Cindy Cohn captures his influence on that body beautifully.

The story comes full circle as I began exploring the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station in more detail. Opening track “Estimated Prophet” was the hook that made me listen to the Dead beyond what was on rock radio, thanks to my roommate Tom. It’s one of 30 songs whose lyrics were penned by Barlow.

Laid down in a very funky, wah-rich 7/4, full of imagery of Moses and Ezekial, its lyrics have ended up in our Passover Haggadah. The wild-eyed prophet – whether he is (as Bob Weird once said) the crazy guy on the rail at a Dead show, raging on in his own bit of sensory overload, or a prophet of smoke and illusion who promises a future, fearful world – that’s the antithesis of Barlow’s work and intents. Re-read his calls for adult behavior, his belief in true digital freedom, and you see that the prophet isn’t a person, but technology itself. As a long-touring Dead Head might admonish, he wanted us to figure out how to be kind, in every way. While I never met him personally, that interview with Tim O’Reilly remains a foundation of my view of the socialization of technology, more than 20 years later, and his influence on people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of interacting is immeasurable.

We are left standing on the burning shore, and now more than ever need to carefully weigh the words of our prophets.

Whit Diffie Wins The Turing Prize

I am so thrilled to see Whit Diffie honored with the Turing Prize, sometimes called the Nobel Prize of computer science. I had the distinct, wonderful and often times quirky pleasure of working with Whit at Sun Microsystems, where our paths intersected three or four times a year: at the bi-annual CTO nerd fests and at a research computing or privacy event where his wisdom was always shared with a smile, a story and subtlety. He is one of the most approachable people you will ever meet, and despite the fact that he is half of the reason you can safely transmit information over public networks, he has advocated tirelessly for us to continually rethink and reconsider our notions and mechanisms for privacy.

My favorite Whit story seems to have disappeared with my former Sun blog, so I can use the occasion of his fete to re-share: Every year the Sun Analyst’s Conference would feature a “CTO Panel” where each divisional CTO would join corporate CTO Greg Papadopoulos for some direction, big challenge, and market sensing banter. Seating order was never decided in advance, and after throwing out tenure, age, and alphabetical ordering, I quipped during walk-on that we should order ourselves by Erdos number. Without missing a beat or step, Whit said, with perhaps the most excitement I’d heard from him, “Great, mine’s 3, so I’m sitting first.”

He is one of the best people at marrying deep mathematical theory and practical applications, as they relate to real people, whether it’s nerd seating charts or worrying about how we balance security, privacy and risk. I found him to be a stanch advocate of diversity in all views, from what defines “good engineering” to how to recognize valuable work.

This is an award presentation worth sharing.

Reducing iPhone Music Clutter

Despite all of the changes in the iOS 7 user interface to reduce clutter, Apple seems to find ways to heap more stuff into previously simple interfaces. My latest fight: I only want to see the 7 or 8 albums that I download onto my phone at a time. The last time I want is to have to wade through 40 different artists with one song each simply because they represent iCloud resident song purchases.

In “Settings” on iOS 7, under “Music”, there’s a slider for “Show All Music” — it defaults to “on” and it shows you what you’ve synced to the phone as well as what’s available in your cloud. Turn it “off” and you only see what you wanted to see. While I appreciate Apple wanting to drive awareness of those goodies in the cloud, I want my music unobscured by clouds.

Five Network Services You Need To Use

Here are five network services that I use, consume, promote and on which I rely heavily. My affiliations with them are purely tangential (I’m on the board of the MIX, which does indirect business with; and a friend works for Evernote) and this isn’t paid or promotional; I just felt like vamping on where I invest my modicum of work time, free time and money.

Kiva Kiva is a microfinance funding service that aggregates small-scale lenders to provider sub-funding for microloans around the world. Kiva works with a variety of field partners who do the face-to-face work of finding borrowers, collecting payments, handling currency, default and delinquincy issues, and aggregating small sums into the $800-$8,000 dollar range that’s impactful. It’s not charity – you get paid back, and can repeat the loan cycle just as a bank would, but with your intellectual capital replacing fees and interest charges. For as little as $25 you can support a loan in places like Rwanda, Tajikistan, or Cambodia. I started with about $300 in funds, and have just made loan #64 – essentially I’ve reloaned the same funds nearly five times over, and along the way helped start a taxi business, retail stores, a bar and restaurant, and financed the construction of houses. There’s a new free trial offer available: sign up and you get your first $25 loan paid for by an anonymous donor. Where else will someone give you $25 to change the fortunes of a person halfway around the world? Click and loan.

Kickstarter Kickstarter is the Small Business Administration and Facebook rolled into one – it’s the future of funding small businesses, the way America grew and innovated during the 20th century. If you’re looking for the next Hewlett and Packard garage, it’s likely being discussed, funded and promoted on Kickstarter. In the last year, I’ve funded a two print and electronic book editions of my favorite comics, the newest Renaissance CD, an independent movie about a mitzvah project, and my newest favorite, Devi Ever’s Console guitar effect box. The brilliance of Kickstarter is tying the crowdsourcing aspect of a Kiva with the notion of “early access” and rewards – if you back a project, you’re typically offered some extra swag with it; it’s the premium you receive for providing seed funding. So far I’m batting about 0.800 on projects that reached critical mass, and every funded project has delivered on the premium gifts (a nice baseball from the mitzvah movie and a signed poster from a King Tut City Gardens rockumentary). You may pay a premium for the swag, but you can say that you were there at the beginning.

Yelp After our favorite restaurant in the Miami area (Chef Allen’s) closed, we needed to expand our culinary horizons during a recent short vacation. Yelp to the rescue: crowdsourced commentary on everything from car repair shops to charcuterie. You need to discount a bit and check the timeliness of some comments, but for a first order approximation to a real time dining guide, it’s hard to beat. I found my new favorite Indian buffet in Sunnyvale via Yelp – ‘nuf said.

Dropbox. I work on at least two different computers a day, and when I’m editing a slide deck or book chapters, I frequently need to update my collaborators with the latest version of a file. Dropbox provides a free (for limited capacity) service that lets you sync folders between multiple machines, and share folders with multiple users. Whether it’s creating a family photo folder or a workflow for our book editing process, I use Dropbox at least a dozen times a week.

Evernote. Evernote is the single service I use more than anything else excepting email. Think Dropbox for notes, except the notes can be organized into notebooks (folders), and contain text, images, links, or other media. See something you want to research later? Take a picture of it and stick it in a note. Suddenly remember something to add to the “to do” list while in a parking lot? Add it to the tally via the Evernote app for your phone. I use it for everything from meeting action items to lists of research ideas to upcoming events or future “to do” lists, with about 50 notes in flight at any time.

Instagram Is About Context

There have been lots of bytes written about Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram, with the eigenvectors of sentiment pointing in roughly these directions: keep it away from Google, pick up wickedly smart engineers, build on their mobile expertise, get a rapidly growing user base at a reasonable cost per user.

The real answer (in my network-centric view of the world) is that Instagram is worth a billion dollars, a re-filed S1 and pre-roadshow signal to noise diffusion because it makes Facebook’s advertising platform more valuable through increased context. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then context about a photo is probably good for a few Gbytes in a map/reduce job.

What can you learn through Instagram? Where I take pictures. Who I share them with, who follows me and who I follow (perhaps shedding light on not just subject but style and composition). How I color-adjust the pictures provides more clues – am I nostalgic (sepia tones, black and white) or having fun (color over-saturation)? Know who is in the pictures, and where they were taken, and there’s significant weighting inferred for the edges in my page, group and friend social graphs. The data available to advertising campaign management is increasingly rich and timely — if your business depends on campaign generation, then creating richer campaign marketing data is nominally a high return investment.

I’ll be blunt: Facebook can do with Instagram what Yahoo! might have done with Flickr. It’s not about the content, it’s about what the content construction and conversation tells you.

So yeah, I can see why Facebook would spend a billion dollars on Instagram. Andy Balo (Kickstarter principal) provides some other metrics for measuring how far a billion dollars goes, but they’re all trailing indicators. An incremental $40 million in advertising revenues puts $1 billion of market cap back into a company that will be (supposedly) trading for roughly 25x annual sales post-IPO. That’s a leading indicator.

Maybe I’m being way too optimistic, but if Facebook can trawl through my Instagram photo data, then perhaps I’ll stop seeing ads that offer dental insurance to employees of a former employer.

Networking Killed Kodak

I’m watching with both sadness and bemusement (perhaps the definition of schadenfreude) as Kodak limps toward bankruptcy. The company that gave us song titles (Kodachrome), vernacular (Kodak moment), iconic Olympics television ads, and made it possible for the consumer to chronicle his or her life is now about to end its own corporate lifetime. Disclaimers: Kodak was a customer of mine when I was at Sun Microsystems and Kodak sued Sun over some patents. I didn’t, and don’t, benefit one way or the other from this, but I’ve been watching this situation evolve since 1990.

The common wisdom is that digital photography killed Kodak. Digital images were the secondary effect. Networking was the primary. Kodak’s consumer business is about narrative: they thrived because people wanted to tell stories through snapshots of their lifes. The places I remember, to quote the Beatles. Kodak’s tag line was “Take Pictures – Further” for quite some time, a snapshot of both imaging and sharing the thousand words to do justice to the picture.

Kodak had the first digital camera (I had a consumer version of it; it used a floppy disk and took almost ten seconds per VGA quality image). They own a truckload of patents in digital imaging science, color science, and image manipulation. But their business model was predicated on taking pictures, having them developed, printed, and mailed to relatives in Iowa. It wasn’t just film; it was chemicals, paper, and the photofinishing “mini labs” that popped up in every chain drug store, camera shop and mini mall. As soon as that entire vertically integrated business was challenged by kids with smart phones posting pictures to Flickr, Photobucket, and now Facebook, the consumer business entered its denouement. Doesn’t matter that Kodak invested in Ophoto for digital image sharing, or that they make a really nice waterproof digital video camera. The higher end camera companies were able to continue to push professional grade innovation down into the consumer space, and for hack photographers like me, better glass and effectively zero cost of “wasted frames” meant that I began taking many, many more pictures than before. Every picture I take goes into an email, through MMS, up on SmugMug, or onto Facebook. Kodak adds no value to those processes, so I became a Kodak non-consumer.

Kodak bet against networking. Their business model was not predicated on telling analog stories using digital images. Adobe (Lightroom and Photoshop, not to mention the rest of their suite) and Smugmug (for high volume sharing and archival) represent the endpoints that Kodak could very well have defined had they bet that broadband networks would be cheap, ubiquitous and intimately attached to the vast majority of imaging devices (read: camera phones). They would have created a vertically integrated value chain from image capture to context (borders, ribbons, tags, clean up, editing) to archival to personal narrative. It’s not just the consumer business — Kodak also had a large medical business (X-rays and medical films). If you’ve read stories about remote radiology or remote diagnostics, you’ve seen how networking and digital imaging conspired against Kodak there as well. Both aspects are necessary; simply having great digital imaging but no networking capability means you’re making analog prints and using FedEx as your network layer to get a second opinion.

Moral of the story: You can’t stop Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law from disrupting businesses. If your business model changes as a result of netowrking, you need to figure out how to deal with it. Once the publishers realized that is a re-intermediator, not a dis-intermediator, and that building marketing, pricing and distribution relationships with would actually increase sales of their entire front and back catalogs, they survived. Everyone who had a Brownie camera, who waited patiently for the fat picture envelope to return from Rochester, New York, is a bit sadder that the Kodachrome is being taken away.

Steve Jobs and Buzz Lightyear Changed My Life

Social media is lit up tonight from the warmth of words expressing sympathy, sorrow, and condolences over the death of Steve Jobs. Everyone has their story of how Jobs changed their life – in a chance meeting in the elevator, at a conference, through his insistence on insanely great product design. Steve Jobs indeed changed my life as CEO of Pixar, via Buzz Lightyear,something that I say in almost every “Intro to Hal” talk I’ve given in the last 10 years.

Midway through 1995, Sun Microsystems was riding a wave that wasn’t quite yet attributed to Internet surfing, but had its origins in the tidal forces that made the at sign part of our vernacular. We had introduced a new programming language called Java that May, and during one of our engineering conferences, I sat at rapt attention while our keynote speaker — Steve Jobs — introduced his talk with the trailer for Toy Story. Having learned a small fraction of the interactive computer graphics canon (enough to say “Gouraud shading” with a straight face), I was immediately blown away. The texture mapping, the motion blur, the quality of the rendering — it didn’t seem possible within what was “normal” data center architecture, until Jobs told us how it was done and what part Sun Microsystems had had in the rendering farm that generated the movie, frame by animated frame. The “thank you” poster with Buzz Lightyear and a Sun logo that we received as a party favor at that conference still hangs in my home office. Up to that point, computer animation was an interesting experiment, but it hadn’t entered the mainstream; four months later I was taking my then-four year old daughter to see Toy Story at its Thanksgiving weekend premier, and stayed until the very end to see the sysadmin and server credits.

Toy Story’s release marked the point at which it became socially acceptable to be a nerd. Email, the web, blogging, social media and wireless client devices bled nerd colors onto everyone else, but the summer of 1995 was definitely the tipping point. And Steve Jobs pushed us front and center. Family conversations that opened with “What do you do?” no longer involved companies named Xy-, Mega- or something-ix; they revolved around talking about what computers could do in the social mainstream.

Of course, Steve Jobs took things to the next level of abstraction. After making entertainment a function of computers, he made computing a function of fashion. We love our iPods, iPhones and Macs because of their elegant design; celebrities talk about what kind of phone they use and we follow them on social media sites. We’re all nerds now. We even have our own TV show (and I’m referring to Big Bang Theory, not Eureka or The Guild even though those are equally outstanding answers).

For every comment about Jobs’ style as CEO and engineer, consider this: What if most executive boardrooms, state legislatures, and our Congress functioned with the same ruthless passion? What if a design — for a bill, a strategy, a foreign policy — that was so obviously underwhelming was simply met with “This is stupid” and forced into re-work? What if we worried incessantly about the design and experience of our work product, and let the profits come as a result of a job well done? There are management and leadership lessons beyond those recorded in the Harvard Business Review, but significantly more valuable.

Thanks, Steve, for the impact you’ve had on nerds everywhere. To infinity, and beyond.

Do Facebook Lists Leak Personal Information?

Since Facebook introduced Lists a few days ago, I’ve had two people comment to me about actions I’ve taken adding them to pre-defined lists — actions that should have been completely and totally private. This makes me believe that the Facebook lists feature bleeds private information or actions.

Background: Facebook will pre-define lists for you based on your education, work, geography and other easily sortable criteria. It then suggests people to add to those lists, usually based on mutual friendships with those already in the list, or common data such as both having attended the same school. It’s a nice big JOIN problem at its finest.

Problem: I have a friend who is married to one of my fellow Tigers. She and I have mutual friends who are all alumni as well, and I tend to think of her in the “Princeton” category. So I put her in the Princeton list (at Facebook’s suggestion, I should add, again, probably based on common edges in our social graphs).

The Leak: My friend was notified of the list addition and asked to confirm “Princeton” as part of her education (again, assuming that was the criteria that generated the suggestion). Major, major privacy #fail: The fact that I add anyone to a list is private; it’s how I sort my friends and acquaintances and my criteria and grouping algorithms are completely and totally my business.

Unless Facebook would like to tell us that list additions are communicated to the other party, this seems to intrude in my own categorization. What if I create a list called “Ignored Former Coworkers” and add people to it, mostly so that I can avoid their updates that I find distracting? Are they notified of my feelings toward our time together? My guess is that if the list title doesn’t match one of the criteria used by Facebook, there’s no additional information leakage, but my two simple experiments to confirm this weren’t conclusive.

Advice: Create a list for your close friends and family members, and ignore or delete all of the other ones until Facebook figures out how to avoid leaking our non-obvious inclusion criteria.

Copying Pictures Off Of Your iPhone

Apple makes it very easy to put things on client devices: playlists and music to your iPod, pictures, calendars, photos and music on your iPhone, applications on just about anything other than an iPod. What’s hard is getting your own content off of those devices with cameras. All of the pictures I took on last week’s trip to Asia are on my iPhone (since I managed to kill the battery on my point and shoot digital camera, wedging in a “lens error” inducing corner of my backpack). I want to retrieve them, without mailing them one at a time to my home email, and then saving into a folder.

Turns out the Image Capture tool (built into Mac OS X, in the “Applications” folder) will see your iPhone as a camera device, and let you download some or all of the photos to a selected folder. This is now right up there with Senuti as one of my favorite “gimme back my stuff” applications.

You Can’t See Your Facebook Profile Viewers

The volume of clickjack spam on Facebook is astounding, and getting worse each day. It’s our own fault. By participating in a social network, we choose to make certain bits of our private lives much more open and available then we would in a real-world circle of friends. It’s somewhat fun to “like” the artists, restaurants, and products that you use, and to implicitly add your public endorsement on their behalf. Nobody is going to pay me to be in an advertisement for my favorite local hockey outfitter, but if my friends happen to do searches on Facebook they’re more likely to find things that I like, and I’m indirectly helping out. That’s the good part of sharing our personal bits.

The more we share, though, the more intriguing it is to see who might be consuming that information. Who doesn’t want to know the people who visit their Facebook profile the most often, looking at pictures or wall postings? It’s the adult equivalent of finding out who put you on the list of the “cute guys” in 7th grade (this never happened to me; I’m guessing here). If we post things in public to share and elicit reactions, why not track the quietest actions?

Because you can’t. Those applications that claim to show you who visits your profile or your “favorite friends” are virus vectors. Here’s how it works: Someone creates a Facebook application with an appealing name. The application promises to give you some personal and revealing knowledge, and in return you grant it permission to look at your personal information. The problem is that the personal information accessible to Facebook applications isn’t sufficient to determine who has visited your profile on that site. It’s not available to applications, and making it available would create privacy headaches that dwarf anything Facebook has in play.

When you grant a “Profile Tracker” (or stalker, or creeper, or anything else that implies unwanted online hovering) application access to your personal information, it typically does the following:

Grabs your email address(es), pages that you like, and list of your friends.

Posts an item on your friends’ walls so that the virus spreads itself.

Uses the information gathered to build a better phishing scam, social engineering attack, or brute force attack. If you, say, use digits from your birthday as a security code like an ATM PIN, or online banking PIN (which is a horrible, very bad, egregiously dumb idea, by the way), and your birthday information is in your Facebook profile, then you have provided more useful information to a potential identity attacker. That’s what these viruses do – they gather information to make more calculated, and therefore more fruitful, attacks on other parts of your online life. Someone with a Yahoo email account is more likely to bite on a Yahoo phishing scam asking for password information for “security purposes” than someone who only uses Gmail.

Bottom line: Be very careful giving any Facebook application access to your personal information. If you think you clicked through on something you shouldn’t have, check your privacy and security settings on your Facebook account. Don’t use easy to derive passwords, especially if you share a lot of your personal information (How many banks use “Name of your pet” as a security question? – I can probably name random people’s pets by looking at their Facebook public pictures; couple that with some banking services page “likes” and it’s much easier to brute force a password reset).

Facebook does track the pages, interests, likes and profiles you visit, and uses that information to govern the advertisements you see on the sidebars, the items that show up in your news feeds, and the ordering of various search results. It’s all very you-centric – not based on what others are clicking through and to, and not revealing anything about others’ browsing histories. It still think it’s creepy that I can comment on someone’s post, and the sidebar advertisement changes to reflect a keyword I might have used in a different context. But that’s the nature of online advertising; removing the annoyance factor also reduces our ability to use social networks as recommendation engines. I’ll keep my eyes front and center on the screen in return for useful information from the well-behaved pages that I follow, and I don’t click on things if I don’t know where they came from.

That’s probably the way we were all taught to behave in public.