Monday, March 31, 2008

Electric evolution.

Alternating and Direct Currents have been on my mind quite a bit over the past 48 hours. It started by dragging out the AC powered Onkyo phonograph to play an original Star Wars LP on Saturday. As a side note, pure analog music signal is so clean! I can hear the digital sampling gaps on encoded recordings; annoying. The day ended with me taking my house completely off the power grid for Earth hour. Only the real-deal at my house; we literally cut the house off at the power meter breaker outside (none of this "turn off all the lights stuff"). That gave us plenty of time to reflect on alternating current power consumption by candle light. Kind of funny to think about the first municipal grids being DC.

Today was met with Tendril Networks announcing a new round of financing. They aim to give me, the consumer, visibility into, and control of, both AC and DC consuming devices in my home. The world going this long without a closed end-user feedback loop for power/utility consumption is beyond me. My local municipality, Boulder, has teamed up with Xcel Energy to put the entire city on a "smart grid." All this news provided an opportunity to catch up with a good friend at GridPoint who's on course to help me out as an energy consumer as well.

Power; such an un-tamed industry when it comes to consumer interfaces and control.

Looking at recent math around electric cars and power grid demands has me not-so-excited about them as an alternative anymore.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Original Star Wars soundtrack

Star Wars LP
Star Wars LP,
originally uploaded by valeski.
We're 50% of the way through the original Star Wars LP produced in 1977. What a great score for the film! The depth of sound in analog LPs is astounding; digital sampling (particularly the crappy 128bit encoding that iTunes uses) is shameful.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Daily Camera's Goss Metro is no-more.

Back in 1973, the year I was born, the Boulder Daily Camera installed a Goss Metro printing press as a major upgrade to its printing services. Over the past couple of days I've been watching the preparation for its disassembly as I walk to, and from, meetings in downtown Boulder. Today I saw it being taken apart.

Daily Camera Goss Metro disassembly
Taking old school printing presses off line reminds me of times past. From hard-copy newspapers to Kindles; the way we consume information is dramatically changing. This morning I sifted through fifty different news stories/blog posts from roughly a dozen sources using a blog reader on my laptop.

I'm feeling nostalgic. The hardware that has printed the paper I've seen on a table nearly every day of my life is no-more. I'll always remember walking into the kitchen as a kid and seeing my dad drinking coffee with the Camera open.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Push me, Pull me, please me, tease me!

Several of us (Josh Kopelman, Brad Feld) are having deja vu around various notification schemes floating around the network today. We're seeing the exact same pattern that has haunted us at various levels in the past, emerge again today with all the UGC being created, and the ensuing discrete activities flying around by the billions.

Everything always boils down to Push vs. Pull (polling). It's a permanent pattern... it's part of life... as integral as the air we breathe. Therefore, the choices we make around whether to push or pull affect the whole system. As Brad points out, RSS is cool, but in the end, it's been over-engineered to include features for everything including the kitchen sink. Furthermore, there are at least two competing formats still causing trouble for end users (Atom, RSS). There are times when Push is the right thing to do, and there are times when Pull is. Heck, there are times when starting with one, then evolving to the other when things change, makes sense.

We're very early in the evolution of UGC activity aggregation and notification; five or ten years out from true app distillation I'd imagine. End users don't care about these things, yet they're still in the foreground of how apps behave and function.

The activity aggregators popping up, new ones by the hour, often provide a "dashboard," and they're doing a fine job thus far. That said, in the process, they're trying to build their consolidated front ends using infrastructure that fundamentally doesn't support them (as a collection) at scale. A SNMP for the network at large is indeed needed. One that knows how to manage both Push & Pull, and Async & Sync access patterns, at scale. The current state of affairs is collapsing around us (just talk to anyone who's building one of the aggregators). Not to mention, how we, as end-users, can't manage the information we ultimately want.

Brad's comments on namespace management scratch the surface of what will become one of the most significant nodes on the network in the coming five to ten years. Authoritatively managing a user's identity across services will be a bear; if not technically, then behaviorally on the part of the user. OAuth, and OpenID aren't there yet (even assuming widespread adoption). OAuth does a fine job ensuring the user is conscious of authZ and authT between applications, without sharing their credentials. OpenID does a fine job canonicalizing credentials across services for authT. However, I haven't seen anything that authoritatively aggregates a specific user's namespaces across multiple services (without the user having to divulge their credentials; which is a no-no). In the end, these username bindings will have to be managed by the actual end-user, as machines can only infer, at best, whether two usernames belong to the same user. First one to provide this namespace aggregator wins! If it can be done in a distributed/federated manner, even better.

PS - I'm going to start providing cool pictures in my posts that add a bit of poetry. Pete Warden does an amazing job of this on his blog! I'll be curious to see if I can pull it off.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Gnip Gnop & Abuse

Brad swung this by my desk the other day; thanks man! It's an original Gnip Gnop game by Parker Brothers. Notice any resemblance to Gnip's logo? I'm particularly enjoying the condition the game is in; it's beat up with several glue and scotch tape repairs. It's condition is so indicative of the problems we're trying to solve with Gnip. People have been having so much fun sending things through hoops, that they've gotten careless and too aggressive. As a result things are breaking.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

My diet, and data.

I'm getting older. It's mid-winter. I have trouble keeping aerobic exercise going during these colder months because I'm a mountain biker, and plowing through snow and ice in the high-country during the winter is a pain. To top it off, I only eat at home roughly 3-5 meals per week. Eating healthy while dining out all the time is really hard.

For these reasons, as well as an ever growing one (my mid-section) prompted me to actually start tracking my diet (itself a pain, but I'll stop once I get my head around all the data). After one, fairly typical, week of data collection, produced this graph for me.

I had a feeling most of my calories were being stuffed into my mouth at dinner, but actually seeing the data, relative to the other meals, really hit me.

Needless to say I'm going to start eating more for breakfast, try to keep lunch about the same, and really take a cleaver to dinner and post-dinner snacking. I can't cut out dessert because I'm a sucker for good sugar and chocolate based stuff, but I can make a major dent in dinner.

I know carbs comprise much of my diet, but I'm not changing that either all you protein diet hounds! Baked goods rule!

"If you can't measure it, you can't manage it."

Friday, March 14, 2008

GNIP's official!

TechCrunch published our funding scenario earlier today. Eric Marcoullier has done a super-human job of pulling this thing together and getting it off the ground, and I'm stoked to be working with him!

Things have kicked into whirlwind gear; very exciting! Having a hard time biting my tongue about what we're doing; not my style. But, there's a timing element involved, so we need to be a bit careful. We'll be opening up in the coming months however, so... patience.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bailouts, aka Corporate Welfare

How is it that we constantly lose sight of the bigger picture? With the constant flow of massive financial bailouts on the part of the US Government, it makes me wonder if we have a privatized economy at all? Feels a lot like Socialism at the end of the day, just on a delayed timeline. Someone needs to do the macro math and determine if America's large scale industries actually are private, or if all the bailouts over the years amount to publicly funded corporate welfare.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Of Carbon, Marketing, Consumerism, and Natural Capitalism

I’m really happy to see that “carbon neutrality,” as a concept, is making its way into mainstream media and business. It is a sign that our impact on Earth’s resources is real, and that everything has a “cost” associated with it.

We’re at the beginning of the cycle however, and it will take years for reality to find its way into regulation, standards creation/adoption, and reporting. In the end, millions of dollars will be spent contending and lobbying, and it will boil down to the usual “simple number” that consumers can digest, even though it is hardly representative of the whole picture. The food industry is a good example of this process in the US. Consider that Nutrition Information label on nearly all complex food stuff you buy at the grocery.

The particularly unique challenge with carbon emission measurement and reporting is that it is diametrically opposed to capitalism and consumerism; the two pillars of the “American Way of Life.” The only way to truly be carbon neutral around a product or service is to simply not partake in it at all. Are you worried about the impact the auto manufacturing industry has on the planet? Then don’t buy/use a car. The very act of engaging in product acquisition and use sets in motion enough environmental impact to negate your enlightened sense of being to begin with. Rather than walking this blog post down the rough path of activism and counter culture, I’ll stay on course.

I was an intern at IBM for 3.5 years during my college years. I wrote software for the Logistics department, that optimized supply chain management scenarios for the company on a global scale. How many variably sized widgets can you fit on that pallet? Is it more cost effective to manufacture chipA in countryX, given the import tariffs on silicon, and the export/customs fees for volumeY, blended with construction costs, labor market, and government/political stability? I had a total blast! I had great exposure to the infinitely complex cost models required to vet supply chain management. Those models are equally complex when trying to evaluate and measure the impact a company, or product, ultimately has on the environment.

If you want to get smart on these challenges, I recommend Carbon Confusion published by Business Week, and the book Natural Capitalism. Both, are fantastic reads.

As a counter intuitive example of the measurement dilemma, consider this. AOL was pummeled for the carpet bombing of installation CDs across the globe. The environment impact of production and distribution and litter of those CDs has been enormous. But... Was the net effect a gain or a loss. Did the act of getting more of the world’s population online benefit the environment more, or less, than the impact of the CD distribution itself. Moving shopping, media consumption, bill payment, and account statements online has had an incredibly positive impact on the environment. The natural counter is that people had to use heavy metal laden computers in the process, and that shipping of goods purchased online has had a negative effect. The argument goes on and on and on; frankly, it doesn’t end unless you simply disconnect yourself from the grid entirely, and don’t “consume.” Natural Capitalism provides a fascinating, engulfing, look at these complexities, and offers suggestions and hope around how we can all do the right thing, as individuals, and businesses.

I look forward to the progression.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

data URI, favicons, small graphics, and latency

The "data" URI scheme has been around forever, however IE7 (effectively the only browser ever to *not* support it) dropped support for it years ago, which has pushed its use into obscurity. My hope is that with IE8 bringing back support for it, its use can proliferate.

Over the past few years little graphic droplets have sprinkled web pages like a fine mist. From favicons, to "share this" links, to RSS broadcast icons, to..... the list goes on and on. Just pick your favorite website and see the dozens of little graphical tidbits. Here are a couple that come to mind.

The trade-off between the bytes transfered for the image data, versus those in the HTTP request/response exchange is often a wash for these kinds of images. The real optimization comes from the elimination of latency in the system. For many blogs, the number of HTTP requests for these specs of image data can be reduced by the dozens; that's a huge win! Often, entire page layout/rendering can be blocked on these little images.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

lazy loading and UX

The concept of lazy loading is an old one in the context of software programming. The idea is that you only do an expensive operation at the last possible moment, as to not do a bunch of expensive, slow, stuff unless it's absolutely necessary. As an example, you might only instanciate list objects when they become visible to a user as they scroll through a list of items. Creating every list item when the user might not ever scroll to 99% of them to see them, is a waste.

This is starting to apply in the user experience across many online services/products I use. The "expensive" operation is perceived as registration or the act of login in with a username/password, and those operations are being pushed down the line of the user experience with the product. Guess what; if I want to use the product, I don't mind logging in.

I'm seeing an unfortunate trend in the online user experience around "login." Services like Amazon, and eBay, are starting to let me do a lot of things on their sites without having to login. Things that have traditionally required a login. For example, I just added an item to a "watch list" on eBay, and it was added to a "Guest Watch List" even though I'm an eBay member. I had to login and convert the watch from a Guest Watch to my account. It was a confusing user experience.

Another way of putting the example is letting me get knee deep into functionality without logging in, then at the last possible moment, asking me to login.

There's a fine line here, and it's being crossed. We're also probably on the verge of some new
UX paradigms, so I may just be griping because change is coming.

Someone once said "if there's gold in the mountain, people will find it." I'm concerned products are becoming less and less useful, and are therefore driving their creators to make them easier and easier to use. They then blame the usability of the product for the lack of uptake. The problem generally lies in the underlying value folks. If you find yourself lazy loading the value of something, in order to become easier to use, you've probably got a problem.

As for the big companies I mentioned doing this, they're off in the weeds messing around with a paradigm that doesn't belong where they've applied it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

collapsing meta-data

I've been looking at several companies and products recently, who are all trying to derive context/categorization from content. Editorially it's pretty easy to see that a blog post is about "cars," but programatically it's not so straightforward.

The combination of user generated tags around URLs in general (e.g. technorati with blog posts), tags around bookmarks (e.g. with random URLs), and "tags" derived from keyword search terms on a given blog (e.g. lijit for blog search), are a wealth of categorization material.

It's probably time to collapse all these sources of meta-data about a resource, into more broadly useful services.

Monday, March 3, 2008

scaling an abstraction

The applicability of "long-tail" content applies beyond UGC, into applications and programming languages themselves. 37signals has pushed the industries' thinking around building applications fast with Ruby on Rails. It feels like Merb will push that even further.

It's time to push the programming language abstraction down the stack though. It's a solved problem (probably solved years ago, but now w/ RoR and Merb, it's _really_ solved).

Sure building out functionality quickly matters, but if you're going to succeed you need uptake, and uptake equates to scale. Your application needs to be able to scale. Twitter's a great example of being built in no-time at all, yet stumbling with scale.

Scale remains the real problem. The brains that know how to scale win. The brains that can build functionality fast will become commodity (probably have already).

YouTube quality

No offense to my friend at YouTube, market dynamics are what they are, but YouTube needs to evolve. With Apple TV now pumping YouTube content to my large HD screen in the house, I need remotely decent video quality. The cheap pixelated gunk that YouTube sends isn't going to cut it. I know there are high quality video sharing sites out there, but they're obviously not prolific . I wanted to use the ubiquitous YouTube this past year for my annual family video, but the quality was too poor. I opted for video sharing via my Apple .mac account which provides nearly six encoding quality options (it'd be nice if iTunes provided those same options for video download; 720p HD is too low as well).

Thanks in advance to all the iTunes and YouTube product folks and engineers now scrambling to make my dream a reality ASAP.