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”.

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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.

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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