Want to Spread an Idea Fast? Describe it with Software.

I’ve been thinking about ideas recently. What it takes to move from neurons in one person’s head to changing the lives of many.

The essence of an idea can be documented in a software’s backend system. Hidden behind the buttons you click on and input boxes you type into is a backend describes complex “business rules” or logic that describe the idea.

The focus of my work very recently is expression of an idea in software at its various user interface (UI) endpoints. A goal of this work is to build interfaces that communicate the fundamental idea to people while solving specific existing problems.

Even unknowingly, users are influenced by core concepts that drive a software system’s behavior. When people engage with a system via a software UI, it can establish new social norms and behavior.

For example, if you have used Wikipedia, you are immediately learning that it is possible for anyone to share important information using writing and pictures and that this can be reviewed by and edited by peers for free.

The idea that people could collaborate in such a way was not widely accepted as a good one to understand until a backend system and desktop web interface was created to express the idea.

In Facebook’s S-1 filing, Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook was created “to accomplish a social mission–to make the world open and more connected.” To express such an idea in software at the time meant reliving past ideas like MySpace’s wall and bringing new taste to the expression of the idea. Interestingly, part of Facebook’s success was in limiting the idea’s early availability to students.

Compared to reading a white paper or listening to a lecture, average folks will probably understand the meaning of an idea more quickly by interacting with it via software. That is, if the software is fun to use.

Software can now spread to individuals extremely fast.  This is exciting because when a sufficiently advanced new idea is described for the first time in software, the idea may be spread nearly as fast.

This suggests that if you have a big new idea and want the idea to influence how people think and behave, perhaps you should consider how it would be described using software.

Swartz vs Snowden OR Resist Restrictions that Seem Arbitrary or Capricious

MIT released its report on Aaron Swartz (.pdf) this morning. It is interesting to read about the amount of energy and concerted effort around Swartz, in contrast to Edward Snowden. Swartz’ prosecution and MIT’s “neutrality” to that effort seem sad when taken in the context of President Obama’s comment on June 27th where he said “No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker.”

In the report the authors pose questions to the MIT community, including: “How can MIT draw lessons for its hacker culture from this experience?” The answer includes:

MIT celebrates hacker culture. Our admissions tours and first-year orientation salute a culture of creative disobedience where students are encouraged to explore secret corners of the campus, commit good-spirited acts of vandalism within informal but broadly— although not fully—understood rules, and resist restrictions that seem arbitrary or capricious. We attract students who are driven not just to be creative, but also to explore in ways that test boundaries and challenge positions of power.

This raises the question of whether the MIT community is sufficiently aware of what the hacker culture is meant to be about, of the risks inherent in crossing lines as part of hacking, and the roles of faculty, staff and administration in responding to what might or might not be a hack.

Yet in the computer context, unlike as in the physical world, “unauthorized access”—ill defined as it may be—can be grounds for a major federal felony prosecution. For Swartz the end result was calamitous. The entire episode may create a chilling effect for those students contemplating exploits that may push the bounds of their and society’s knowledge, but will also take them to places where conventional rules say they are not supposed to be—“coloring outside the lines” so to speak, punishable by criminal records rather than mere forfeiture of crayons. [emphasis added]

I can’t help but think of the recently exposed removal of President Obama’s promise to “Protect Whistleblowers” from Change.gov. Which read:

Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance.

Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process. [emphasis added]

Later, in the answer to the above question, the MIT report asks “Are we misleading students and community members by advertising one kind of community and enforcing rules more appropriate to a different kind of community?”

This seems to be the question not just for the MIT community, but for all Americans.

Steve Jobs on Loyalty

This isn’t exactly Steve Jobs on loyalty, but rather comments from Joshua Michael Stern, director of the new Steve Jobs film JOBS:

“… I think that he was loyal to his vision and he was loyal to the one thing he wanted to bring to the world … I think he was loyal to what he was trying to achieve. If you were loyal to that too then he loved you and if you didn’t then you didn’t understand him.”

I think this comes from feeling that Steve Jobs’ execution toward his vision for how things could and should be was the greatest single contribution he can make to society. If you are following a vision of similar grandeur, you can not see another way to behave that would make the world a better place.

When you see only one vision for how you can help the world, you must have people around you who support this. Otherwise, those people are blocking a better world. When the vision is big enough, there is no room for half-hearted allegiance or simple cooperation. It is ride or die.

I'm on Your Roadz, Scanning Your License Plates

For a long time, I’ve imagined what it would be like if you could see information about other drivers around you in real-time. For example, if you are driving down the freeway you would see a red arrow over cars that are known to have been involved in bad driving practices.

This information would be presented in a heads-up-display. You could dive into information on any car to see what its previous behavior had been, such as cutting off other drivers, reckless speeding or other stuff that would cause any reasonable person to be upset on the road.

The data would be sourced from normal people.  If someone dangerously cut you off and flipped you the finger for good measure, you could simply type in the license plate, the make of the car and this would be added to a public database. The location and time of the incident would be stored, along with your own reputation of identity. This would make the “colored arrows” over the cars more valuable to other drivers, and hopefully reduce the risk of getting in an accident or otherwise entangled with a Ne’er-do-well.

There are a lot of problems to sort out, such as how do you ensure people are not trolling each other, mis-reporting driver behavior? What if a car is shared, and one driver “ruins” the license plate of a car for all users. What if the system is used to screen for other things, such as entry into a gated community? How can the license plate and car make and model be collected safely by someone who is driving a vehicle and witnesses something wrong. And most importantly, what are the privacy implications of creating such a vast database?

Some of these questions have easier answers than others. Two things seem clear to me now:

  1. It is simply a matter of time before such a public database and the accompanying software to populate it exist.
  2. We are quickly entering a time where if you own and regularly use the same car, you are giving up the privacy of your real-time location and possibly that of your family.

The reason I write this now, is because the ACLU recently published a study (pdf) (overview) on the growing use of police cameras and how the information is being collected and used by government authorities to circumvent the need to get warrants on GPS trackers.

If law enforcement is using automatic license plate readers, and we have russian drivers almost universally using dashboard cams, we are very close to civilian use of automated readers. And the use case I describe above will become a reality.

The user experience probably won’t jump directly to HUD, however a push notification to your smartphone that a car ahead is dangerous seems a fairly trivial feature. All that’s missing is the software.

How do you protect the privacy of your movement when you commonly need to travel the intermediary and custom pathway that automobiles provide? It would be great if you could travel by car and avoid revealing your location to mass surveillance by getting getting rides with strangers you can trust. Such a system does not exist today, but it could be created to counter concerns described above.

If you wanted to start today, you might have some success with ride share services like Zipcar. But those require registration and some level of identity validation. It seems like Lyft, the citizen cab company might be a better value and deliver more privacy. But even that requires Facebook connect, and thus full real name and photo exposure to the driver and company itself.

Update 3/20/14: Los Angelas police argue “All [license plate] data is investigatory.” See EFF’s “Los Angeles cops Argue All Cars in LA are Under Investigation.”

Obama on PRISM

I very much respect our President, Barack Obama. I watch his speeches and press conferences with great interest. I am impressed by his thoughtfulness around issues and ability to craft language and sentiment that offers digestible feedback for the public on complex civic issues. I’ve voted for him twice and hope to meet him one day.

So watching and reading his reaction to questions about PRISM, a program which may shape public sentiment toward government oversight of private communications for the next decade or longer, is of great interest to me.

The Wall Street Journal published a copy of the transcript from Obama’s first comments on PRISM, and I wanted to call attention to two particular passages bolded below:

“So — so we have a system in which some information is classified, and we have a system of checks and balances to make sure that it’s not abused. And if, in fact, this information ends up just being dumped out willy-nilly without regard to risks to the program, risks to the people involved, in some cases on other leaks, risks to personnel in very dangerous situations, then it’s very hard for us to be as effective in — in protecting the American people.

That’s not to suggest that, you know, you just say, trust me, we’re doing the right thing, we know who the bad guys are. And the reason that’s not how it works is because we’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight. And if people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.

…But I know that the people who are involved in these programs — they operate like professionals. And these things are very narrowly circumscribed. They’re very focused. And in the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential, you know — you know, program run amok. But when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.

The exposure of PRISM (and the Verizon meta-data tap) shook people into realizing their conversations (textual and otherwise) data are part of a dataset being monitored for suspicious activity. The NSA and Executive Branch may have tangible, real-world examples that, in their minds, justify PRISM. However, it doesn’t change the fact that many people are surprised, shocked and alarmed at its exposure.

Absent specific proof about how PRISM has enhanced security, all people can do is trust the systems that Obama describes are in place. And further, that neither he, nor his successors will allow PRISM to be abused.

In the first bolded passage, Obama seems to almost make light of the idea that Americans might have an active distrust of the Executive Branch, Congress and Federal Judges. To contrast the idea of trust at this level, let’s take it to extremes: these are the same folks trusted to authorize a nuclear attack. Surely, if you can trust them with the bomb, you can also trust them not to abuse PRISM.

Americans are ok with the President carrying the nuclear football to his daily basketball games. The implication being that Obama might need to call a timeout, take a phone call and authorize a nuclear launch courtside. At least everyone would know it happened.

Having your email read by the federal government seems to be a bigger cause for concern.  It is easier for normal people to see how the responsibility to collect, retain and analyze private communications would be abused and directly affect them. With PRISM the American people must trust a rather large and hard to properly identify security apparatus. They also are unlikely to find out if a mistake is made using PRISM and a misguided follow-up information request ends up violating their privacy.

Clapper’s Cuteness

A major, major problem in my mind with regard to establishing trust with the American people over PRISM is the March testimony of the Director of National Intelligence before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

My home state’s Senator, Ron Wyden, (who I have personally discussed electronic privacy with here in Portland), asked Clapper point break about PRISM. Clapper gave what he described as an answer that was “too cute by half.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-Ore.): “This is for you, Director Clapper, again on the surveillance front. And I hope we can do this in just a yes or no answer because I know Senator Feinstein wants to move on. Last summer, the NSA director was at a conference, and he was asked a question about the NSA surveillance of Americans. He replied, and I quote here, ‘The story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is completely false.’
“The reason I’m asking the question is, having served on the committee now for a dozen years, I don’t really know what a dossier is in this context. So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question, does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
Director of National Intelligence JAMES CLAPPER: “No, sir.
SEN. WYDEN: “It does not?
DIR. CLAPPER: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.
SEN. WYDEN: “Thank you. I’ll have additional questions to give you in writing on that point, but I thank you for the answer.

It is unfair for Obama to make light of Americans’ potential distrust of congress when there is recent evidence, that even our duly elected government officials can not pry even a semblance of truth, under oath (which indicates rule of law) from the Director of National Security.

I believe a reasonable person would assume that Ron Wyden was asking his question on behalf of the American people. Presumably, Wyden was well-briefed on PRISM at that point and knew the answer to his question was yes.

So allowing the false verbal testimony to stand seems to have done more harm than good: the exchange was misleading to the public, It was supposed to appear as truthful testimony and a matter cleanly resolved. In fact it was neither.

Happy New Year

I’m pleased to wish the world a very Happy New Year. I believe 2013 will be a year of limitless possibility. I look forward to helping fulfill its potential as a year where society makes progress in demonstrating greater love and compassion for each other.

M.I.A. Uses Twitter, "Space Odyssey" to Bring Attention to the Continued Plight of Tamil Civilians in Sri Lanka

Musician M.I.A. released a song titled “Space Odyssey” this past week that has become notable for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was her reaction to a New York Times travel guide spotlighting Sri Lanka as a travel destination in 2010.

First, new work from M.I.A. is eagerly anticipated as she went on hiatus following a tour for her Grammy nominated record, Kaya. I was at the far edges of the crowd with my sister when she told the audience at Bonnaroo in 2008 that it would be her last performance.  Since then, M.I.A. has largely kept away from music creation.

Second, M.I.A. chose to deliver “Space Odyssey” to fans via a twitter update, where she shared the video via TwitVid, a popular 3rd party service for video hosting that competes directly with Vidly.  While M.I.A’s choice of TwitVid as the media player allowed her to use her Twitter feed to deliver new music directly to her fans, it also has forced everyone to listen to this critically important release in terrible quality video and audio.  Check out the embed above.

Most notably, following the surprise release of the song, M.I.A.’s publicist confirmed that “Space Odyssey”  was released specifically in reaction to a recent New York Times story on the Top 31 Places to Go in 2010 written by Lionel Beehner.  In the NYT piece, Beehner acknowledges that the country has been “plagued by misfortune…but the conflict ended last May.” and goes on to suggest that “miles of sugary white sand flanked by bamboo groves that were off-limits until recently are a happy, if unintended byproduct of the war.”

If you are unfamiliar, a brutal civil war was being fought between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).  Leading up to the end of major conflict in May of 2009, many civilians were killed in efforts by the government to put down the rebel group.  The US State Department has issued a report outlining areas of concern (pdf) where International Humanitarian Law is believed to have been violated.

For some time following the end of combat, a quarter million people from the Tamil minority were forced to remain in refugee camps for months.  Between the brutality on both sides during the war and subsequent forced confinement afterwards, Sri Lanka’s international standing is quite low.  M.I.A. is of Tamil ancestry and fled the country as a refugee.  She has specifically decried (see her explanation at 3:25) the violence on both sides of the war.

M.I.A’s made a bold move in connecting her new artistry directly to a major US news publication’s pithy and embarrassing portrayal of Sri Lanka as a top tourist destination.  She did so using her platform of roughly 82,000 Twitter followers, all eager to hear what she would follow Paper Planes with.  M.I.A. has hit upon a near perfect mix of social networking, social action and artistic expression, most certainly setting her apart as an artist to watch in 2010.

Donations for Haiti

Haiti was devastated by an earthquake this week, resulting in the loss of countless lives and suffering among many.  A quick read reveals how much this country has suffered before this natural disaster.

You can learn more from the wikipedia entry on the Haiti.

If you are capable of giving money to assist in the rescue and recovery efforts, please consider a donation to one of the following organizations:

Using your cell phone:

  • Text “Haiti” 90999 to be billed a $10 donation to the Red Cross.

On the web:

Thank you.   Rob

The Concept of Self and Use of RFID on the iPhone in Entertainment and Social Space

My friend Elissa turned me on to an article by William Deresiewicz titled The End of Solitude that addresses the culture of celebrity and connectivity as symptoms of an impulse for becoming known.  Much of the article offers an overview of the historical concept of Self and what we get out of it.

Something I liked about the article was that it gave context to a technical social mashup idea I’ve been exploring, which is the increased use of near field communication (NFC) to increase one’s visibility in a meaningful way.  More specifically, people will use RFID tag readers in a mobile device like the iPhone to alert the world of their participation in entertainment experiences.

In The End of Solitude, Deresiewicz suggests the culture of celebrity is connected to the video camera, which I connect to broadcast television.  Regretfully, in the year when we could least afford it, reality TV gave rise to pointless distractions like the Balloon Boy and the White House Party Crashers.  But the article also describes the culture of connectivity as a product of the evolving use of computers and mobile communications in society.  As something of an evangelist for new media and a critique of old media, it is somewhat humbling for me to read Deresiewicz’s grouping of celebrity with connectivity in the contemporary self:

“Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known.  It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity.”

The value of different participatory entertainment activities runs the gamut.  A film at your local movie theater requires you to only buy a ticket before the film is sold out and ensure you show up at the scheduled time.  Getting yourself twenty feet from the stage at The Dead on July 4th at Rothbury Music Festival in Michigan requires a significantly greater level of planning.  But the relative interest in the social grid in any given activity is less important than the simple declaration to the post modern self that you “did it.”  People want to shout from the top of their literal or figurative mountains, “I am about to (or have just)  ____ at _____.”

Given that a lot of people love to share their experiences, many are simply limited by the inconvenience.  I’ve given some detail to my sense that there is a big splash still yet to be made by Apple’s touch platform.  And that the Touch lineup of the iPod Touch, the iPhone and the iSlate we will see a revolution in mobile computing.  They will allow us to enjoy the impulses of the modern self which are to take part in connectivity and some element of celebrity.

A topic that hasn’t been explored enough is the effect of including an RFID reader in a breakthrough device like the iPhone.  There is reason to believe that an RFID reader will be incorporated in the near future.   I believe that the inclusion of such hardware will open up opportunities to more quickly identify and disseminate interesting information about the entertainment spaces we’re inhabiting.

To illustrate a point, when I was writing the above paragraph I searched twitter for “Sherlock Holmes” which premiered this past weekend.  The third tweet from the top was from a student I’ve never heard of or met named Nicholas King.  From his Twitter bio, we know Nicholas is a student at Eastern Michigan and studies business.  Quite simply, Nicholas tweeted:

RFID Technology iPhone iSlate Twitter Self Post-Modern Concept

A quick search reveals that Trillium is a cinemas in Grand Blanc, Michigan and Nick was keeping his followers up to date with a text message from his phone.  While a text message accomplishes the goal of updating his thirty or so followers, it falls down for a few reasons:

  1. Part of being fully connected is also having your information quickly sorted and grouped with similar data.  Twitter provides a reverse method for grouping information through its search.twitter.com functionality.  Users are capable of directly grouping their tweets with hashtags.  Both of those methods suffer the potential for data entry error.  I wouldn’t have known about Nick’s experience achievement if he had spelled it “Shelock Holmes.”
  2. Manually updating your followers with the activity you’re participating in requires extended effort.  If you’re walking in the door of an RJD2 show you might have a drink in one hand and a gaggle of pals pulling you forward with the other. It isn’t always possible or at least socially acceptable to whip out your phone and type out an update.

The concept is this.  Sherlock Holmes is being distributed to theaters by Warner Bros Pictures.  In addition to sending out reels of film, Warner Bros would also send a small stand up display that is to be placed near the entrance to the theatre showing the movie.  If Nick carried an iPhone with an RFID reader, he would need only to wave his phone at the entrance and it would automatically pick up his preferences for sharing his location and the movie title he’s seeing via Twitter or Facebook.  More interesting things would be to automatically enter you in a contest for people who attended an Sherlock Holmes on opening weekend.

Another illustration to the benefits of adding an RFID reader to the iPhone in the realm of participatory entertainment is in live music or very large public entertainment events.  For instance, scanning the RFID tag in your section at a football game will identify the mobile capability to an application that could cue everyone to hold up their phones at a given time, display a particular set of images on the screen and turn the entire stadium into a megatron.  At a music festival like Rothbury, it might allow people to collect virtual zoo keys which turn an already amazing Sherwood Forest into something that is digitally enchanted.

The total extent to what could be done with connected devices incorporating RFID tags in combination with the impulse to reinforce personal visibility is impossible to see right now.  What is clear is that culture, technology and the increasing value of participatory entertainment rapidly is converging with all-in-one devices like the iPhone and iSlate.

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Update 12/30/09:  A few additional things: 1. There is a strong sense that RFID will be most valuable for payment and wireless financial transactions.  The basis of my interest in RFID has been from seeing the NFC-enabled registers at places like McDonalds and Regal Cinemas.   When I first started seeing them, I would ask how often they took payment using the NFC at POS and I’d get blank stares from the employees.  MasterCard’s PayPass and American Express’s ExpressPay have been around for a while but have mostly only survived market tests as far as I can tell.

To look at how NFC/RFID payments and entertainment overlap, I love what it could do to damage the secondary ticket market.  I’ve long felt that secondary ticketing and scalping does more harm than good on the average would-be live entertainment participant.  Locking tickets to phones is a great way to help track and possibly reduce scalping while still allowing some flexibility in transferability.

There are some articles about how an RFID, NFC enabled phone are useful outside of entertainment which are worth linking to.  Here’s one that simply gooses the idea.  Here’s a second article that talks explicitly in terms of marketing opportunities.

April 2009 Song of the Month: N.A.S.A – Gifted


I struggled with April’s song of the month, “Gifted,” which appears on the album  Spirit of Apollo by N.A.S.A.  N.A.S.A (North America / South America) is a project of Sam Spiegel aka Squeak E. Clean and  Brazilian DJ Zego spent five years assembling a gang of artists spilling across genres.

Performers on this record include:  George Clinton, David Byrne, Cee-Lo, Seu Jorge, Sean Lennon, RHCP, Tom Waits, Ol’ Dirty, RZA, Method Man, oh and Kanye West. Continue reading April 2009 Song of the Month: N.A.S.A – Gifted