Bad Sci-Fi Movies and Real-World AI

LifeContinuing my theme of doing things other than fret about Donald Trump, I have spent some time fretting about other existential threats to humanity. So, that’s healthy.

Specifically, I’ve spent the last half day thinking about the threat of alien invasions and runaway artificial intelligence. One of them you can consign to the bottom of your worry list; the other probably deserves a higher spot on the list, somewhere below Donald Trump but above death panels and “radical Islamic terrorism.”

The topic of alien invasions is the overt theme of the movie I saw last night: Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa and starring, among others, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds. Without giving away the plot, it explores the question of what happens when humanity encounters a lifeform that turns out to be smarter and more dangerous than it appears. Suffice it to say not all ends well for our gender- and ethnic-balanced crew aboard the International Space Station.

Despite the title of this post, the movie is not actually bad; it’s suspenseful and engaging. As I watched it, though, I was struck by how shitty the science was. As the investigators probed the alien lifeform, they repeatedly demonstrated all sorts of stupid, unrealistic practices. They let a single investigator engage in isolation with the lifeform to the extent he loses perspective. They do not do carefully measured experiments to determine both what sustains the organism and what kills it. When it demonstrates exponential growth and unexpected abilities, the researchers don’t react to this with caution but instead step on the accelerator. And, when things go wrong, they discover that their failsafe mechanisms are either non-existent or simply failures. Any epidemiologist or biologist working with potentially hazardous organisms would have been appalled.

The good news is that we’re not out scooping up biomass from other planets and bringing it back to Earth. There’s also every reason to think that the product of other evolutionary forces would not be particularly compatible with Earth’s. And, finally, there’s the fact that – despite the fact that we’ve been actively looking for decades, there’s very little sign of life – particularly intelligent life – outside of our little blue ball despite the fact that it’s a very, very big universe. This is known as the Fermi Paradox. My best guess is that you can put this issue way, way down on your list of things to worry about.

Which brings me to the other one, the existential threat of runaway artificial intelligence.

AIAs I was driving home from the theater, it occurred to me that the movie was actually a commentary on the how we – not you or me, but some VERY smart people – are approaching the field of AI. As near as I can tell, we are using the same shitty scientific methods – the ones that would make any life science researcher cringe – to develop this technology. We have researchers all across the world laboring in secret, scientists who are less objective researchers and more would-be parents who are enraptured with the idea of strong AI or even the Singularity. Instead of running carefully controlled experiments and building in rigorous “kill steps,” AI is being deployed today in the real world – in Teslas, in fraud detection systems, in your washing machine, writing both press releases and news stories, in your favorite search engine, in the warehouses of your favorite retailer, as robo-calls and a thousand other ways. And, even though these creations are demonstrating unexpectedly rapid growth and ability (an AI-driven computer recent beat the world’s best Go players – widely considered an incredibly hard game – 60 games to none; a computer program performed a similar fear against some of the world’s best poker players), researchers are plowing onward at even faster rates.

This is perhaps not the smartest thing we’ve ever done. And, it’s not just me, your friendly blogger, who thinks so. Smart guys like Bill Gates and Elon Musk are worried about this. So are really smart guys like Stephen Hawking.

By way of fair disclosure, there are plenty of very smart people – Ray Kurzweil perhaps foremost among them – who believe the coming era of big AI will usher in an unprecedented era for humanity, giving us access to pretty much everything and an infinite lifespan to experience it. That seems like a better outcome, but this point of view is a little cultish and perhaps optimistic without hard, objective reasons. Life – whether artificial or otherwise – constantly finds ways to break out of whatever boxes it gets put into. Including the boxes we build.

If you’re inclined to read more on this, Vanity Fair coincidentally published a long interview with Musk on this topic. It is worth the 20 minutes or so it will take you and give you something to worry about instead of Trump.

There. Doesn’t that make you feel better instead of worrying about the latest cluster fuck from the White House? Next week, I’ll write about the threats of pandemics and global warming. Just call me Mr. Good News.

  • Austin

 

 

 

Hope and Branding

NEW SLAUGHTERBefore getting to the important stuff, as a member of “the single-payer left”, but also someone sees Obamacare as a substantial step forward, can I just say that I’m delighted to see a resurgence of skepticism among the “lamestream” press over the hysterical claims coming from Obamacare’s entrenched opponents?

First there was Eric Stern’s instant classic, “Inside the FoxNews Lie Machine”, where Stern fact-checked three sets of guests in a Sean Hannity interview. Then a couple of days ago Jim Tankersley of The Washington Post reported a story out of Rome, Georgia on a guy convinced his small business failing was entirely Obama’s fault.  (By all means read through the comments section on that one.) Then yesterday we had Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times doing the same thing as Mr. Stern in a piece titled, “Another Obamacare horror story debunked”.

Continue reading “Hope and Branding”

The $1,500 Question: Why Am I Paying Google to Beta Glass?

GoogleGlass_15Let’s start with the obvious.  I am a hopeless technophile and I need help.  I’m not a role model, I’m a cautionary tale.  I’m the people your parents would have warned you about if they had any idea how the future turned out.

The most recent proof of these truths is my – successful – application to be a “Glass Explorer” in Google’s project – Glass – to develop a wearable device that resembles a pair of glasses without lenses that projects a tiny image into the user’s right eyeball.  Think of it as computer that can be controlled with voice, gestures and taps with a display that sits in your field of vision. This project has been talked about for years and Google has offered various glimpses of the technology as it has developed.

Continue reading “The $1,500 Question: Why Am I Paying Google to Beta Glass?”

The Next, Next Big Things

OfficeWhite_House_Situation_Room_Friday_May_18_2007One of my preoccupations  is trying to guess what’s coming down the road.  This is an activity of both personal and professional interest and is pretty much what you might expect from a guy whose office sucks more electricity than the White House Situation Room.

I mean, really, we’re a global superpower and we expect the President to run it with what looks like maybe 10 monitors?  I bet the Chinese have a cool Sit Room.

But I digress.

What’s next for technology and those of us who depend on it for our livelihood and – increasingly – swim in its ubiquitous fog 24/7.  This morning I read a really thought-provoking post on that topic: “20 Tech trends That Will Define 2013” as selected by the folks at Frog, the design shop that helped Apple and others come up with the form and function of some of their iconic products.  It is highly recommended if you want to know what the folks who live 30 minutes in the future have planned for the rest of us.  Personally, I’m looking forward to it.

Happy holidays to all.  If this post gives you the urge to give your loved ones the gift of technology this season, I highly recommend checking on one of the many gadget sites on this list.  If it inspired you to give the gift of technology to me, I’m lusting after but haven’t been able to yet justify the purchase of a Windows Surface tablet.

– Austin

Digital Hipsterism

Blogging is dead.

I know what you’re thinking…and it’s not did he fire six shots or only five. You’re thinking the irony of blogging about the demise of blogging is pretty rich. It is. But bear with me.

The death of blogging has been widely reported in the online world lately, on Twitter and Facebook, and by any number of prominent authorities, not the least of them being Virginia Heffernan, the high priestess of all things digital and lately uber-correspondent for Yahoo! News. In fact, in the wake of the recent calamitous Facebook IPO, Heffernan wondered if social media might also be headed for the dustbin of digital history.

Virginia Heffernan

As welcome as that prospect might be…wouldn’t it be great if we could all get back to doing real work…I suspect most of the social media and even blogging are not dying but are instead evolving. I think all of these forms, as they adapt and refine themselves to the conditions in the digital ecosystem, will not only survive but get better. Let’s face it: How could they not?

They’ll survive by getting smaller and smarter and much, much less democratic. Information does not want to be free and it doesn’t want to come from everywhere all at once. Information wants to have value. What the heap of words reduced to bits and bytes that is the blogosphere needs now is a little natural selection. Let the hacks and the poseurs and the self-indulgent and the wingnuts of every persuasion go extinct.

There is a kind of digital hipsterism in force in the online universe…a constant, lurching, desperate search for a ride on the Next Big Thing. This leaves behind a trail of semi-useful tools that got discovered, over-used, and that are being gradually abandoned by people who no longer find them worthwhile, or who hate the loss of privacy that comes with every new digital identity, or who simply never had anything meaningful to communicate in the first place.

Where it once seemed that someday everyone would have a blog that nobody read, it now appears that just the opposite may come to pass: We have begun to look for voices that matter, prose that tracks, judgments that are more than the idle head-scratching of the uninformed. The blogosphere isn’t dying…it’s just ready for a heavy winnowing out. In the future, not everyone will blog. Those who remain will be those are read.

The same thing is happening with self-published books. Until recently, it appeared that ebooks had thrown open the door to anyone wanting to call himself or herself an author. The reality is that the odds of success with a self-published book are vanishingly small and are a function not only of the vastness of the competition but also the fact that most of the people who give this a try are, however earnest, simply not any good. The door may be open, but rarely does the real thing walk through it.

For those of us suffering in the transition from the analogue past to the digital future…the very subject of Virginia Heffernan’s forthcoming book Magic and Loss…that new sound that can now be heard faintly amid the din on the Internet is the the sound of our analogue hearts still beating.

Update on the Twitter Early Warning System (TEWS) Project

Readers may recall that back in October I started work on a research project to use Twitter as an early warning system for disasters, accidents, terrorist events and the like.  The notion is that in today’s hyper-connected world the first thing some of us do upon encountering an unexpected event is to Tweet about it and that in all but the most local of events, those Tweets will outrun any physical manifestation of the event.

The first key decision is to determine what set of keywords to use as trip wires.  As the first post indicated, I started out by looking for incidences of “WTF” and “what the fuck” under the assumption that those are the most likely terms used to express unpleasant, unknown surprise in our modern lexicon.  Similarly, I tested other broad terms such as “whoa,” “holy shit” and “what the hell.”

My conclusion is that the global background levels of “WTF” and its ilk are way too high to filter out the truly anomalous incidents from the overwhelming expressions of things like, “WTF? No Coke Zero again?”  “WTF are you doing wearing that dress?”

That has led me to build a more complex but ultimately more useful search set around specific terms.  Using the close-to-real-time filtering of TweetDeck, I’m now tracking:

  • “building shaking”
  • “flash of light”
  • “ground shaking”
  • “hear gunfire”
  • “hear sirens”
  • “huge explosion”
  • “huge noise”
  • “incredibly loud”
  • “lights in the sky”

I’m still getting false positives, of course, but the number is greatly reduced and some meaningful data is beginning to emerge (today’s very small earthquake is eastern Ohio/western Pennsylvania, for example, popped up on this search stream about an hour ago). This is very encouraging, but if anybody has ideas for additional terms, please throw them over the transom.

Next step is to find a way to map Tweets in real-time.  If anybody knows of an application that does such a thing, please let me know.

Happy new year to all.

– Austin

 

 

Crowd-Sourcing a Research Project

OK, Rowdies, I need some creative juice for a research project I’m working on.

Last week, I went to an interesting lecture by Michael Chorost, an author and speaker on science and technology.  Mr. Chorost has written two books, one detailing his experience with a cochlear implant and the other, just out, on the interaction between people and technology and how that exchange is becoming more intimate. The lecture was sponsored by the local PRSA chapter as the first of its John Beardsley lecture series.

One of the interesting ideas Mr. Chorost threw out was that Twitter is the beginning of a global nervous system, at least in the sense of conveying emotions.  When the Arab Spring took hold, for example, the emotions of those tweeting their experiences from Tahrir Square and elsewhere reverberated around the world.

Of particular interest to me, given my endless fascination with “bad things” was the notion that the first news of a sudden event – an earthquake, an explosion, a plane crash, etc. – will travel almost instantly around the world via Twitter not in the form of specific news – “a plane has just crashed” – but in the form of a more emotional “WTF was that?” sort of Tweet.  I’ve seen this anecdotally – the first news of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s Abbottadad compound was a series of Tweets from a neighbor wondering what was causing all the noise in the middle of the night – but Mr. Chorost’s lecture got me wondering if it would be possible to somehow track such sentiments in realtime and to alert us when there’s a spike in such comments.  This might only give you a couple extra minutes heads up, but in some situations, a couple minutes is a huge advantage.

Thus was born over the last couple of days my first efforts at the “WTF Index.” All rights reserved.

The WTFI is trying to track first notice of incidents by scanning the Twitterverse in more or less realtime for the occurrence of certain terms that would be most likely to be Tweeted in the moments immediately following an adverse event. I’m looking less for specifics words than I am for expressions of surprise, fear, shock, etc.  My assumption is that in such situations, most people won’t immediately know the specifics but they will report “huge explosion” or “bright light in the sky” or simply “Whoa” or “WTF?”

There are a couple of challenges with this.

First is finding the right tool.  The volume of global Tweets per second is staggering – at peak times it can pass 8,000 (as it did for the globally significant event of…wait for it…Beyonce’s pregnancy) – which creates  issues of both bandwidth and processing.  The best place to do something like this would be from inside Twitter itself, but since they’re not likely to offer me a job anytime soon (“Hey, Biz…I’m @jmaustin just in case you’re looking) I have to make do with the tools at hand.  For me, that means Tweetdeck and a collection of search terms.

And that’s where I need your help.

So far I’m tracking:

  • Whoa
  • “what was that”
  • “what the hell”
  • uh-oh
  • “huge explosion”
  • “huge noise”
  • “light in the sky”

And, of course…

  • WTF
  • “what the fuck”

Needless to say, these terms produce a huge number of false positives in the sense that most posts that end up in the net are variations on “WTF…no peach yogurt AGAIN???”  There are also way too many hits per minute – between 25 and 125 in my observation so far – to scan each one. Accordingly, I’m just looking at the total number of Tweets that fit the search terms and using that number to look for moments when the Tweeting activity deviates sharply upward from the normal background noise levels.  I haven’t seen it yet (no global disasters since Thursday shockingly) but my expectation is that I’d see a spike when something happened.

So…I’d love the Crowd’s ideas on what to add to the list of search terms.  If something unexpected happened right now in your vicinity and your first instinct was to reach for your Twitter client, what would you Tweet?

Thanks!

– Austin

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

If you’re reading this posting, say a little thanks to Steve Jobs and wish him well on the next leg of the journey.  As much as anyone of in the last 25 years, Mr. Jobs helped create, promote and define how we use computing devices of every sort.  Less of an inventor or engineer, Jobs’ genius lay in the areas of promotion and salesmanship and in obsessive focus on elegant design and a simple interface.  He didn’t invent the mouse, the graphical user interface, multimedia PCs, digital music players, cell phones, tablets or online stores, but he promoted them and refined them relentlessly to match his ideas of what such devices should be.

Mr. Jobs was reportedly no easy guy to work for or even hang around with, but his obsessive nature made Apple products among the most thought-out, deliberate objects any of us ever encountered.  There are stories without end of him stopping or even killing project over things like buttons that made the “wrong sound” when clicked, an inelegant design inside a component that no one would ever see and so on.  To a rare degree in a company so big and with such a broad product line, everything with an Apple logo reflected the design and functional sensibilities of Mr. Jobs.

This is not to say Mr. Jobs never missed.  People who only know him for the last decade – the iPod era – know him for the successes he’s had in music, in phones, in tablets, in on-line stores, but those of us who’ve been around the block a few more times remember when he was basically forced out of the company because of his unwillingness to compromise in even the smallest of details.  We remember the Newton and the Next and have – for decades – cursed Apple products for things like one-button mice and no forward delete keys simply because Mr. Jobs decided we didn’t need them.  Even in the last decade, there’s been a few clinkers (using Ping anyone?  Apple TV?).  It is, however, a testament to the power of a determined, forceful personality and what a person like that can accomplish.  It’s probably a good thing he never fixated on politics.

I will miss Mr. Jobs and not just because he ran a company that makes cool things I use.  I’ll miss him because he embodied his company’s slogan:

“Think Different.”

We could use more of that in all walks of life these days.

– Austin

The Earth Shifts Orbit, the Sun Dims, Water Runs Uphill

No, these are not the end times.  And, no, this is not a wrap-up on yesterday’s Vikings’ performance (we should have just sent a letter that said, “Here, you take it, we don’t want it.”)

It’s something more important, more super-duper, more bigger than that. Apple is getting ready to make a new product announcement.

Unless every pundit on the tech beat is wrong, on Wednesday, Mr. Jobs will unveil a tablet device, something he’s apparently called, “The most important thing I’ve ever done.”

Unless you live in a totally tech-free environment, chances are you’ve heard something about this already.  The pre-announcement publicity on this device has been nothing short of amazing within the technology space.  The build-up has been coming on for months – way back to August at least – and hit the afterburners about two weeks ago when the Consumer Electronics Show ended.  Since then, this one announcement of this one device from one company has eclipsed pretty much the entire CES buzz (3D TV, in case you’ve forgotten).

All without uttering a word.  The entire media plan, including key messages, Q&A, FAQs, etc. leading up to Wednesday is contained in, “We don’t comment on rumors and speculation.”

Period.  And, if David Carr, writing in the New York Times, is right, there’s no nudge-nudge, wink-wink backchanneling going on either.  His column yesterday pretty much captured the magic that is an Apple announcement.

I guess the lesson for those of us who are occasionally called upon to capture a tiny bit of this lightning in a bottle for our clients is, “Work for a company that inspires a cult-like following, produces great products, is led by a messianic-type CEO and that cultivates an air of mystery about how it does what it does.”

The danger with this sort of strategy is that reality doesn’t live up to the hype.  Apple experienced some of this with the introduction of the iPhone, but in general their products mostly live up to expectations.  And, in the tightly connected world in which we live in, the obsessives following every tick and tock of Apple’s product development process generally winkle out a pretty close picture of what’s coming by assembling little bits of information from all over the world.  The latest t0day, for example, is from a company that has picked up evidence of its apps – originally written for the iPhone – being run on an unidentified device in and around Apple’s headquarters.  This little tidbit strongly suggests that the new device will be running an updated version of the iPhone operating system (versus the Mac operating system) and will be able to run applications much like the iPhone.

I personally am expected to be let down by the announcement if the rumors are directionally right.  I want a full-fledged computing device, not a scaled-up iPhone, one that runs lots of apps simulataneously and something that’s priced at the mid-point between the $200 iPhone and the $1000 iBook.  It doesn’t look like I’ll be getting what I want, but I’m prepared to be convinced.

And, probably, to stand in line to buy one (iPhone) or at least play with it (Mac Air).

– Austinnon profit grants nice

Supreme Court Just Destroyed the Country, Liberals Say

Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling giving corporations the right to advertise on political issues and candidates has liberals’ heads exploding.

It’s a tough issue. Justice Anthony Kennedy called this a free speech issue, and he’s right. And when there are challenges to free speech, as the axiom goes, the answer is never less free speech but more. Those who object to the decision — Keith Olbermann of MSNBC called it the worst decision since Dred Scott — are also right that it gives corporations too much power.

It’s amusing that Olbermann is going apoplectic tonight, but has to break for — wait for it, wait for it — advertisements from corporations that keep his program on the air.

There are other remedies to corporations having so much power. One is to drag it out in the light of day and let people see how it works. I’ve for years advocated that every media story about legislation should routinely report to the public what interested parties have given to each legislator. “Senator Leghorn, who leads the opposition to the bill outlawing electric dog food, has taken $2 million in the last five years from the electric dog food industry, which has also spent $7 million advertising on his behalf, and only $300,000 from organizations trying to outlaw electric dog food.” Show the public exactly where each legislators’ funding and advertising comes from. Let people know who’s bought and paid for by whom. Right now, all that funding stuff comes out quarterly at best and is buried in wonkish stories that nobody outside political boiler rooms understands.

Another remedy — take back the airwaves. Under Ronald Reagan we lost the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time Rule at the FCC. We could bring that back with a vengeance. The concept was that, because the airwaves radio and TV broadcast on were public, the public, through the government, could regulate what traveled on those airwaves. Let’s use the same rationale — which was creative, at best — to regulate cable and satellite TV, not just traditional broadcast. The internet is public, so we can if we want regulate that. We could require TV and internet broadcasts (and narrowcasts) to give free “air time” or cable time or satellite time or screen time to all bona fide candidates (5% of vote at last election, a certain number of signatures, whatever). So the advantage of rich companies and candidates buying advertising time could be blunted.

The republic might be able to survive giving more advertising power to corporations if we in turn give more power to opposing forces through even more freedom of speech.

That said, I think corporations already have way too much power and influence in our society. The court decision from the 19th century that gave corporations the rights of people was ludicrous and started us down the path where we are not a democracy or a republic but a corporate subsidiary. Corporations are not people and should not have the rights of people.

But Olbermann is saying tonight that within 10 years all politicians will be bought and sold openly. Mark Twain talked about purchasing congressman in the 19th century — this is nothing new. Today we don’t have legislators bought by their contributors? Come on.

This is a big deal, and probably a bad decision. Corporations don’t need more power. But we have power too, and we can survive this if we exercise that power. Reporters and bloggers and watchdogs will have to do a better job of informing the public who’s buying their legislators and their opinions, and opponents of corporations’ points of view will have to be more creative in getting the public’s attention.

It was amusing to see the authors of Game Change, the book about the 2008 campaign, talking about how little John Edwards read, how little attention he paid to legislation, on Chris Matthews’ show tonight. Where were these reports when Edwards was running? Mark Halperin, one of the authors, said most senators considered Edwards a fraud when he ran for president because he knew so little about issues and legislation. Halperin was shocked at how little Edwards knew about one of his own legislative proposals. But did these guys write this at the time? No!

Journalism needs to start covering not just he-said-she-said pissing matches in Congress, and not just parroting candidates’ message points, but actually reporting what these people are like, what they know, and who’s paying for them. Now, more than ever.

— Bruce Benidt
(AP photo of liberal spokeshumans denouncing today’s decision on steps of Supreme Court)brand marketing nice

New News is Mostly No News

Pew Research Center: How News Happens
“New Media” produces almost no new news, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Baltimore area news stories.

Pew found that eight out of 10 stories in the Baltimore area contained previously published information. About 95% of the stories with original content came from mainstream media sources, mostly newspapers. According to Pew, only 4% of the new news comes from New Media.

Continue reading “New News is Mostly No News”

Tigers Having Sex In The Woods (VIDEO) – Part 2

Author’s note: I wasn’t intending on posting this, but in the course of putting together the post about “What Should Tiger Do?” that follows this one, I wrote up the ‘graph of how I came to know of this tomfoolery and even recreated a graphic to illustrate it.  When I was done with the larger post, this stuff no longer fit but I was reluctant to throw away perfectly good content.  As a result, I’m recreating in miniature the same shameless SEO gaming I poke fun at to see if it works.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

– Austin

Marketwatch‘s Jim Bernard, a speaker at David Brauer‘s #ofon gathering about the future of news, noted the Huffington Post had put up an item featuring a video of tigers (not Tiger) mating in a natural setting.  This was enjoyed for what it is – a blatant example of trying to game the search engine algorithms – that has been ridiculed elsewhere as well. It’s particularly fun to note the terms the post is tagged with (see the call-out in the image below), particularly the “green news” add at the end of the list.

It will be interesting to see what the same blatant exploitation of this situation does for us here at the Crowd.

– Austin

Wireless

blackberry_abuse_1I’ve found a fabulous new productivity tool. I know you’ve heard this before, but I think this one could really change everything.

This thing does a terrific job organizing my scattered thoughts and projects. It helps me prioritize work, think “outside of the box” and provide much better service to my clients. It helps me connect better with key people. It dramatically increases my efficiency. It’s imminently affordable. And as all things must be these days, it’s completely wireless.

But it can’t be found among the dozens of productivity and communications applications installed on my smart phone and computers. And it can’t even be found at Best Buy, Brookstone or the Consumer Electronics Show.

But I can hook you up with one. I like to call it Long Walk 2.0. I’m no expert on productivity tools, but this is rougly how it works:

1. Exit from all other applications.
2. Put one foot in front of the other.
3. Repeat.
4. Think, uninterrupted, for 60 minutes or so.

Yes, I have taken to regularly unplugging from the alleged productivity of my relatively high tech mobile office to do something that looks suspiciously like slacking. Most days, I now set aside time for an hour-long walk or run with my Golden Doodle business partner.

The results have been astounding. On the relative solitude of the stroll I eventually unwind and begin to ask myself questions that don’t get resolved in the office: “If I didn’t have constraints, what would I recommend for them? Are those constraints real or imagined, permanent or surmountable? Are we truly differentiated, or are we spinning ourselves? Am I really giving that client the candid counsel they are paying for, or am I pulling punches because it is more comfortable? Is there a better way to do X? Is Y really necessary?”

And here is the weird part about my unplugged excursions: Sometimes I actually come up with pretty decent answers to the questions.

Of course, there is not a single reason why these issues couldn’t come up in the office. Actually, there’s a couple dozen reasons: “If I didn’t have constraints…(insert email interuption here) Are those constraints real…(Twitter interuption) Are we truly differentiated…(text interuption) Am I really giving candid…(pop-up meeting reminder interuption) Is there a better way…(cell phone interuption).

Like all of us, my personal and professional lives have become an endless symphony of chimes, chirps and vibrations. And for me, the concerto isn’t always soothing or conducive to my best work.

Don’t get me wrong, the electronic interruptions are wonderous in a lot of ways. And love ‘em or hate ‘em, they aren’t going away. But if your job or life sometimes requires you to think deeply for more than a few seconds at a time, the gadgets do have a downside. And the answer for me is not more or better gadgets. It’s a regularly scheduled dose of no gadgets.

– Loveland

New Tech Update

9-19-2009 10-49-41 AMI’ve spent the morning playing with Google Voice and it seems like a fun, shiny new toy.

The concept is pretty simple: you create a master phone number – 612-234-5172 in my case – and then link to that one number all the other phone numbers of your life – home, work, cell, cabin, grandpa’s barn, etc.  When someone goes looking for you, they dial the master number and GV then finds you regardless of your location.  You can add numbers on the fly so if you’re staying someplace where cell service is spotty, you can add the landline of your cottage or the number of your colleague who’s covering for you.  Google has added lots of nice embroidery like voicemail that you can listen in on as it’s being recorded (and pick up if you want), voice transcription, chatting, cheap international calling and more.

There’s even a widget you can embed on a web site so visitors can call you right from the page:

Which is supposed to be right here, but I couldn’t get it to work.  Oh well.

Let me know what you think.

Google Voice is not without controversy, of course.  Apple has pretty much refused to allow Google and others to distribute iPhone apps for the service and some people question the need for this kind of service in an era when people are increasingly shifting to a single phone number i.e. their cell that’s always with them.  That said, there is plenty to like about this tech and the capabilities it offers as Lance Ulanoff recently wrote.

GV is so far an invitation-only affair, but I don’t think this is a tough ticket (I got one, after all).  There’s a link on the homepage above where you can sign up for an account.

I’m looking at using GV to create a virtual call center for crisis response and while I have to test it a bit more, in theory it should work.  If it works as advertised, I should be able to stitch together a group of 5-10 people who – without having to convene at a central location – can receive calls dialed to a single number (replicating the “roll over” feature we old-timers recall from yesterday’s phone systems).  There are some questions to be answered about how much volume the system will handle and how much control I have over what rings and what goes to voicemail, but it’s intriguing.  Couple some functionality like this with some on-line collaboration tools so those same 5-10 people could be working off the same set of information and you’d address one of the big challenges of crisis response, namely the lag time between something bad happening and the company spinning up an organized communications response to the crush of inbound calls.

Wouldn’t that be cool?

– Austin

The Power of Social Media

9-14-2009 11-42-08 AMCaptain Keliher and I are gearing up to give a presentation tomorrow on social media to a group of HR execs.  Our premise, not surprisingly, is that social media is not a fad nor is it simply another “channel” but instead a shift in the way we communicate with one another and as a society.  As I pulled in the mail today, the cover of this week’s National Journal illustrated perfectly the medium’s potential power.

We’ve already seen social media affect the arc of lesser tragedies – the Abu Ghraib abuses, the Iranian uprising, the tsunami off Thailand – so it’s a reasonable conjecture to think it might have made a difference here as well.

That’s a pretty good ROI.

– Austin

What’s Your Workplace?

03att01-650What’s your preferred work environment?  Do you like silence and minimalism?  Stimulus and movement?  Do you write with pen and paper or in front of the keyboard?

I started thinking of these questions this morning when I stumbled across this picture of the AT&T “Global Network Operation Center” and it reminded me – again – that this is the kind of workspace I’ve always wanted – and tried to recreate wherever possible.  NASA’s flight control center, NWA’s systems operation control center, the bridge of the Enterprise are the kinds of places where I want to be.

But, is it really a good environment for decisionmaking and creativity?  As was detailed in last weekend’s New York Times, multitaskers like me are apparently kidding ourselves when we think this level of stimulus and distraction are conducive to creativity and clear thinking.  As one of the researchers put it:

“Multitaskers were just lousy at everything,” said Clifford I. Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford and one of the study’s investigators. “It was a complete and total shock to me….I was sure they had some secret ability. But it turns out that high multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy…”

So…how do you do it?  Are you a multitasker or not?  Where do you do you best thinking and feel most creative and productive?

Enquiring minds want to know.

– Austin

(In the command center)

One More Technology on the Scrapheap

vcr-blinkBeing an old guy has very few advantages as far as I can tell, but one is the perspective of time.  In my 50 years I have seen more technologies than I can remember arrive with the herald of great expectations only to expire with a whimper.

  • CB radios
  • 8-track cassettes
  • Cassettes
  • Film
  • VCRs
  • Floppy disks
  • CDs/DVDs
  • Zip Drives
  • Fax machines
  • Blogs

Blogs?  Wait a minute, you may be thinking, isn’t this a blog?  Aren’t we sharing big ideas (Keliher), penetrating commentary (Mrje), economic analysis (Carideo),  erudite opinion (Benidt) and “MILF Porn Tube” (Austin) via this forum?

Yep.  And we’re a dying breed.

That’s the conclusion I draw from a report in Friday’s New York Times that points out the truth most of us know about the blogging world – the vast majority of blogs are essentially abandoned, standing like empty ghost towns along the information superhighway.  Started with the same misplaced enthusiasm that led Sam Parkhill to open a hot dog stand on Mars, most of them were never well-patronized even in the boom days and now have been left even by their owners whose dreams of wealth, fame or influence went “Poof.”

The Times‘ story reports that “[a]ccording to a 2008 survey by Technorati, which runs a search engine for blogs, only 7.4 million out of the 133 million blogs the company tracks had been updated in the past 120 days.”

The hard truths are threefold:  first, lots of people have discovered that successful blogging is hard work – not in the ditch digging sense but in the sense that it takes time and effort to create new posts that are interesting and thoughtful enough to merit reading and to do so frequently enough to bring readers back.  The SRC has always run best when all of its contributors are posting frequently and adding comments to one another discussions that – along with the excellent commentary by all 7 of our most frequent readers (and you know who you are) – make the joint lively and worth visiting.

Second, lots of undiscovered authors and pundits have discovered that the reason they were undiscovered was not lack of access to the audience.  One of the big insights from the blogging phenomenon is the confirmation that most of us, when given the opportunity to speak our minds on anything we want to a potential audience of billions, don’t have much original or profound to say.

Third, blogging – like any species – is evolving to fit a niche in its environment.  A year or so ago, the news of Governor Spitzer’s stupidities was broken by bloggers; today the first notice would almost certainly come via Twitter.  Bloggers who previously viewed their mission as delivering breaking news have moved on to an even faster, more urgent channel.  Ditto the bloggers who thought it important to provide instant “reaction” to such news.

Technological obsolescence is not a new story, of course, but it’s also not a story that’s ending any time soon.  Looking forward, here’s a couple that are about to peak (or maybe already have):

  • Flash drives
  • Voice mail
  • Incandescent light bulbs

What are your candidates for the technological scrapheap?

– Austin

MILF Porn Tube Is Following Me…

MPT…and so is Willow Creek Soap, Franchise Expert and the Mel-O-Glaze Bakery.  Bless Twitter for bringing me such a wealth of social networking opportunities.

In the ongoing debate about the value and the uses of Twitter, add the rapid spam-choking of this communications channel to the “Cons” list.  Most of the entities who have followed me in the last month are clearly seeking to build their follower count or are simply hoping I’ll click on their embedded URL.  In a related trend, I have unfollowed a half dozen people who I thought offered interesting content but turned out to be spammers or who offered so much marginal content that my Tweet box (what is the Twitter analog for an inbox, anyway?) grew clogged.

If it hasn’t happened already, the next thing in the development cycle will be Twitter spam filters.

– Austin

“Nobody Goes There Anymore…It’s Too Crowded”

yogiYogi Berra, who contributed the title of this post when explaining why he never went to a particular restaurant anymore, would understand perfectly the adoption cycle of communications channels over the last 20 years or so.  Like a hot restaurant, the technology of staying in touch begins as an unknown, gets “discovered” and shared by early adopters, gets trendy with opinion leaders and “fast followers” who like to be at the front edge of such things, “explodes” into the general population and become quickly overexposed and ubiquitous.  By that point, the early adopters and the fast followers have forsaken their formerly cool hangout and moved on to the next new thing.

In the early 90s, it was e-mail.  Then, when the signal-to-noise ration got too low and the signal itself too overwhelming (400 e-mails a day, anyone?), some of us jumped onto instant messaging via proprietary system like AOL, Yahoo, Google, etc.  Then came texting, blogging, Facebook, MySpace and Tweeting.  Now, as we have been talking about in the comments section of a post a week or so ago about Twitter, it is possible that Twitter too has reached the Yogi threshold and is becoming too crowded and mainstream to be cool.

This doesn’t mean that the old, no-longer-cool apps will cease to exist.  I still e-mail (though I notice my kids’ generation does it only as a courtesy to the old folks and as a low-tech FTP method), I will keep Twitter on my desktop and my iPhone for alerts and such, I will continue to build out my Facebook and LinkedIn pages, but I’m kind of hoping the singularity arrives before I have to add too many more channels to the stream in order to keep up with things.

What’s next, then?  According to some of the stuff I read (here, here and here) coming out of the South by Southwest Festival, the breakthrough app was something called “Foursquare” that adds location-awareness and gaming features to social networking.

Unfortunately, Foursquare has already been written up in the New York Times so it’s already passed the early adopter phase and is probably destined to exit the cool quadrant even faster than Twitter or blogging (yes, my fellow bloggers, this activity is no longer cool per se – though the SRC will ALWAYS be cool because of the content and the participants who come hang out in our soul kitchen).

What’s the next next thing?

– Austin

The Final Word on Twitter

Garry Trudeau’s opinion of Twitter, never much in doubt, comes in the final panel.

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I get it for breaking news. Ditto for keeping in touch with my circle of friends and acquaintances.  I read @jojeda’s book and listened to my guru, @mjkeliher, about how it works in business as an early-warning system and as another way to relate to customers, etc.  I’ve seen real example of the “crowd-sourcing” functionality.

The problem I think with Twitter, though, is that it doesn’t scale well.  How will the Scott Monty’s of the world track and interact with the Tweetings of not just 4 million people muttering about Ford now and then, but 50 million?  When I’m following 1,000 people instead of 100 and every Tweet request delivers 200 new messages to my stream, how much of it can I process?

The answer, I think, is not much.  Once I get to that point, Twitter becomes just another overflowing cup on the kitchen counter of my digital life along with my mailbox, my Facebook page, my LinkedIn page, my RSS feeds, my Google alerts and on and on and on.   I run from cup to cup and mop up the spills, but never get the chance to drink.

– Austin

Yes, I’ve Done It…

…and I bet you have too.

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We don’t judge here at the Crowd, we just pass along the news.

And, along those lines, let me take a moment to congratulate our own Mr. Keliher who this week joined local communications firm Fast Horse as a “Client Relationship Manager.”  I’m not sure what that is, but it sounds way more impressive than any title I’ve ever held.

– Austin

If The Service Is Called “Twitter” Does That Make Us “Twits”?

Day Three of the Doonesbury assault on (or free ad campaign for) Twitter.

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I’ve seen tweets from journalists that aren’t too far removed from Roland’s.  Rick Sanchez had an interesting exchange about his boxers a couple weeks ago, I seem to remember.

Can’t remember Edward R. Murrow waxing on about his foundationwear, but then again, most people who read this blog can’t remember Edward R. Murrow either (who’s real name, I just discovered, was Egbert Roscoe Murrow).

– Austin

Roland Does Twitter – Day 2

The Doonesbury skewering continues…

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Mr. Keliher is our leading light on Twitter and has posted some interesting comments on its uses already in response to yesterday’s posting.  Also, I have to confess that I’m reading Julio Ojeda-Zapata‘s book, Twitter Means Business, which quotes Mr. Keliher.

Or, as I said in a Tweet last week, “How cool is this?  I’m reading @mjkeliher in @jojeda’s book @twitinbiz on my new #kindle in the middle of #snowmaggedon!”

What could be clearer than that?  And, more interesting?

– Austin