Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake talks with Alexis Madrigal about how new location-based tools will help us to see our surroundings with fresh eyes.
Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More
The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.
He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).
Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.
Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake talks with Alexis Madrigal about how new location-based tools will help us to see our surroundings with fresh eyes.
Caterina Fake describes how her startup, Findery, is helping the Internet get local.
Augmented reality is very exciting. The promise of it is this: all the information on the Internet overlaid on the real world exactly where and when you need it. What's that mountain called? A pop up could tell you. What's the highest rated restaurant on the block? Boom, the reviews arrive on your Google Glass or screen. Want to know which neighborhoods of Oakland prevented non-white people from moving in? You could overlay the historical maps right onto the world in front of you.
But when you really start to think about it, the dream of augmented reality recedes. Who is going to make all this geotagged content? And how are people going to use it? What genres and forms are going to be natural to read out there in the world rather than (as we imagine readers) curled up on the couch?
Luckily, Caterina Fake has built a site that's testing the content question. Findery is a service that relies on user-generated annotations of the physical world. Her users are, in some ways, evolving towards finding good answers to some of the questions about augmented-reality content.
We spoke for a Q&A running in our beautifully redesigned magazine. This is an extended remix of that conversation.
You've been working at consumer-oriented Internet companies for more than a decade. How has the Internet changed in that time?
We've gone through this really expansive phase, and we are in a state of reunification and refocus on the local. I don't know how long you would say the expansive period lasted, maybe 10 years. It was a period of all-embracing, global vision. When we were making Flickr, we called it the "Eyes of the World." The idea was that everybody, everywhere, is looking. It was this sense of being able to penetrate worlds that you had never been able to access before--of global, universal travel. It was really big and really amazing and mind-blowing and mind-boggling, and it's the reason that I was into the Internet to begin with.
When I first got online, it was in the '80s, and I was on all these bulletin-board services. I was really into [Jorge Luis] Borges, and I found this whole group of Borges scholars in Denmark. Here I am, I'm a teenager, I'm living in suburban New Jersey, and I don't have anybody to talk to, but I meet all these people online, and I learn all about Borges. When you're remote like that, the Internet can give a sense of connection to people.
So we built a lot of tools to make it easier and easier for everybody to get online and do the same thing. I think we've reached capacity in that sense--in the sense of the globalization of the individual mind.
And now things are changing. Are we entering a new phase?
I think we are gaining a new appreciation for the here and now, for the place we live, for the people in our neighborhood, for groundedness. This may be something that comes from social-media exhaustion. You see the early indications of a return to the local.
The computers people have are no longer on their desks, but in their hands, and that is probably the transformative feature of the technology. These computers are with you, in the world. So your location is known. It used to be that you would search for a florist in Bellingham, Washington, and get the most popular florist in the world. But now the computer knows where you are; it even knows what block you're on.
How will this change what people actually read and watch and listen to? And how will Findery work?
Findery lets you tease out local knowledge, hidden secrets, stories and information about the world around you. People can annotate places in the real world, leave notes tagged to a specific geographic location--an address, a street corner, a stream, a park bench, the rock at the end of the road. Then, other people find those notes.
To give you some examples, I've lived for years in my house in San Francisco but had no idea, till Findery, that Anne Rice wrote Interview With the Vampire down the street, and that Courtney Love lived on the block when she was dating Kurt Cobain. The Safeway near my house turns out to almost have been a funeral home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and there's a famous artist working out of an abandoned building nearby. I've learned the names of plants I'd never noticed before. Someone has grafted branches from fruit trees onto the trees in the park near my office, and you can forage fruit from them. You shouldn't cross the street on the south side of Gough but on the north side, which will save you time, the way the traffic lights are timed.
People do lovely things on Findery, like leave drawings of a place in that place, and write poems about places and leave them there. People make little scavenger hunts and leave private notes for each other.
You are a longtime Internet person. Why do you care so much about sense of place?
My background is in art. I was a painter and an occasional sculptor, and I really like materials--you know, stuff. Physical objects. The world and the trees and the sunshine and the flowers. And all of that doesn't seem to really exist out in the ether of the Internet. Bringing people back into that actual, feel-able world is very important. My life project is humanizing technology: making technology more real and bringing it back into human interactions.
Where are you right now?
I'm sitting in a house that was built in the 1920s, in Finland. I have a book here that has the names of all of the people who have ever lived in this house--this wonderful old book. And you know this book should be out there: you should know this as you're coming down the street. You should be able to see that these were all railroad workers' houses once upon a time, and these are the families that lived there, and there were seven children living in two rooms.
What do you want Findery to feel like? How are we going to see this kind of content layered onto the planet?
It will be like a magic book, like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, when it is fully built out. It's this sort of magical little board that you flip open and everything around you is revealed.
An adventure machine.
An adventure machine! Information and queries start coming up around you.
Do you think we might see these things pop up on a hands-free, head-mounted augmented-reality display, like Google's Project Glass?
I actually find that heads-up displays in cars and on Google Glass remove you from the presence of the people around you. But in the end, I'm not really a hardware person. I'm ecumenical about delivery systems--I'm more focused on the what than the how.
Could more knowledge lead people to shun dangerous or crime-ridden areas?
There was a lot of crime information on Findery for Hunters Point, a poor neighborhood in San Francisco. As a team, we felt an urge to make the place come alive, to say, "This is the community, this is the history of the place, here's the important stuff that's going on now." That can't happen unless you give people a place to talk. If a newspaper reports on Hunters Point, the "if it bleeds it leads" attitude dominates. The news doesn't tell you the story of a place as the locals know it.
Are there any other downsides to consuming all this local knowledge?
If you have a beginner's mind when you arrive in a new place, it can be very wonderful. I went to Rome for the first time in 2006, and I honestly didn't know how wonderful it would be. I thought, Oh, it's a city of ruins. Not much more than that. When I got there, my mind was blown. I had never seen a place so dense with amazing things. So there's something to showing up somewhere without any local knowledge.
I'm fascinated by the production side of this. So often, when content producers think about someone reading something, they imagine her curled up on a couch or sitting in a posture of repose. One thing that's fascinating about local content is that people are going to be reading it while they are out in the world. So how do the things that we make for them have to change?
You mean is the content immersive?
How do you decide what to write about? Let's say you're walking down a street and you see an interesting gargoyle on a building, and you think, "God that's the most interesting thing on this block" we should write about that gargoyle. When we start to think about publishing an entire city, how do we prioritize the stories?
So the last startup that I did was Hunch. Hunch uses a lot of heavy math and machine learning to reveal to you things that it thinks you are interested in. It uses all kinds of algorithms to figure out, "Oh this is a gargoyle guy and not a golf guy." Right? This is a person who is interested in history and not a person who's interested in celebrity gossip. So there's a lot of kind of heavy brute force computation going into figuring out those things. Putting that stuff together, hopefully you end up in a world where you are finding things that are interesting to you--but there's also a great deal of chance built into the algorithms, so you don't live in a filter bubble.
It seems like every distribution medium ends up coalescing around certain forms, specific ways of writing. Newspapers have the 600-word story. Magazines gave us longer profiles. What will be Findery's defining form?
The form Findery is zeroing in on is shorter than a blog post, longer than a tweet. It's pithy--a paragraph, maybe two. Because you're mobile, you're not going to read a novel; you want the précis, the distillation, the thing that you need to know. And then, if you want to dig deeper, you dig deeper.
The happiest city in America is Napa, California -- and the saddest all swear too much.
Sorry, Louisiana, you are the saddest state. And Hawaii (shocker!) you are the happiest.
That's according to a team at the Vermont Complex Systems Center, who posted their new analysis of 10 million geotagged tweets to to arXiv.org. They call their creation a "hedonometer."
They also found that the Bible belt stretching across the American south and into Texas was less happy than the west or New England. The saddest town of the 373 urban areas studied was Beaumont in east Texas. The happiest was Napa, California, home of many
drunk people wine makers. The only town among the 15 saddest that was not in the south or Rust Belt was Waterbury, Connecticut. (Although Waterbury has appeared on several "worst places to live" lists, which seems like mean lists to make.)
The researchers coded each tweet for its happiness content, based on the appearance and frequency of words determined by Mechanical Turk workers to be happy (rainbow, love, beauty, hope, wonderful, wine) or sad (damn, boo, ugly, smoke, hate, lied). While the researchers admit their technique ignores context, they say that for large datasets, simply counting the words and averaging their happiness content produces "reliable" results.
Here's a closer look at how they calculated a happiness for the top and bottom cities. The illustration is a little confusing, so let's walk through it because it really shows the methodology of the research.
Next to each word are two symbols, a plus or minus (+/-) and up or down arrows. The plus or minus indicates whether that word is considered happy or sad. The up or down arrow indicates whether that word was used more or less than average in that city. So, let's take 'shit' as an example. Shit, a negative word, was used less often in Napa and more often in Beaumont. The size of the bar that you see shows how much that word contributed to the happiness rating for the city. So, the lack of shits in Napa played a substantial role in its high rating, while the prevalence of shits hurt Beaumont's happiness rating. Looking just at Beaumont, one can see why it got a low rating. The only positive words at the top of its ledger are "lol" and "haha," and there were not enough hahas to bring it up to the national average. The rest of the words -- shit, ass, damn, gone, no, bitch, hell -- were negative and used often.
For individual cities, the Vermont researchers note, the amount of swearing contributed substantially to their final scores. They think it's worth investigating this phenomenon, which they call "geoprofanity."
One difficulty I have with the study is that it doesn't take into account that people might just talk about happiness differently in some parts of the country or within some demographic groups. The study identified people with Norwegian ancestry as happier than African Americans. Is that because the Norwegians are actually happier or do they just tweet as if they're happier?
This is not an easy problem to solve, but the authors of the new paper do an admirable job showing that their data correlates with other existing measures of happiness, primarily surveys conducted by Gallup. They also show that their happiness data correlates with income and the prevalence of obesity in an area.
We should also note that many people vacation in Napa (the top city) and Hawaii (the stop state), which might throw off the numbers at the very top. But if you look a bit farther down the lists, you see cities (Longmont, Green Bay, Spokane, San Jose) and states (Idaho, Maine, Washington) that are not year-round tourism hot spots, but still score very high on the hedonometer.
Another problem is that the researchers did not look at Twitter in Spanish. If the researchers contention that income is positively correlated with happiness is true, cities where the poor population is primarily Spanish speaking would appear happier on this list than warranted. The prevalence of Western states with large Latino populations on the happy list would seem to suggest this bias is worth exploring.
Nonetheless, it's fascinating to see people exploring how to quantify happiness beyond survey data. I'd love to see examples of cities that overperform on happiness relative to their economic factors. Do they just have good weather or has some set of policies had an actual impact?
Just a few pixels on a screen, moving slowly
When I tuned into NASA's livestream of the asteroid 2012 DA14's closest approach to earth, I'm not sure what I expected. What I saw was this: a few pixels moving up a screen. It looked like a screenshot from Pong. And that was it. The approach came and went (happily!).
Perhaps I have been conditioned by the Hubble Space Telescope and the movie Armageddon to expect a lot from space, visually speaking. The thing is, though: This is how a lot astronomy looks. Grainy images, tiny changes tracked through hard work and almost miraculous engineering. The stunning visual is the exception not the rule.
At least, that's what the early data suggests.
The meteor we all saw streaking across YouTube from Russian dashboard cameras was the largest in a century, a scientist who studied the event told Nature's Geoff Brumfiel.
That would make it the biggest rock to hit the Earth since 1908's Tunguska wiped out a big old patch of Siberia.
"It was a very, very powerful event," says Margaret Campbell-Brown, an astronomer at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, who has studied data from two infrasound stations near the impact site. Her calculations show that the meteoroid was approximately 15 metres across when it entered the atmosphere, and put its mass at around 40 tonnes.
The infrasound stations are owned by Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, and are designed to provide independent data on weapons tests. The Russian meteor was substantially more powerful than the North Korean nuclear weapons test this month.
Brumfiel also reports that no scientist saw the meteor strike coming, which would have become visible a day or two ago. We might find out more about the meteor strike from military satellites, if the government decides to release that data.
Today, Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke at Goldman's technology conference with analyst Bill Shope. Among other factoids, Cook mentioned that 120 million people visited Apple's retail stores last year.
I wondered how that stacked up against Disney's theme parks across the globe. It turns out, they're close! Add up all the Disney lands and worlds and kingdoms and 125 million people visited a theme park in 2011, the last year for which statistics are available
The British Library has been digitizing some of its prize pieces and they announced a new round of six artifacts had been completed including Beowulf, a gold-ink penned Gospel, and one of Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks.
"Each of these six manuscripts is a true splendour, and has immense significance in its respective field, whether that be Anglo-Saxon literature, Carolingian or Flemish art, or Renaissance science and learning," Julian Harrison, the library's curator of medieval artifacts, blogged. "On Digitised Manuscripts you'll be able to view every page in full and in colour, and to see the finer details using the deep zoom facility."
All of these texts can be appreciated on a visual level, particularly because the scans are so good. Even the grain of the paper is fascinating.
Take heart. You could be controlling your television from a panel half the size of a pool table.
Sometimes, I take the remote control and the hardware and software it controls for granted. Increasingly complex television choices have overtaxed our television user interfaces. We ask too much of the humble remote, and so it disappoints for simple tasks like searching for a movie on cable.
But things could have been worse! Take a look at this video Matt Novak posted to YouTube. It anticipates the ability to dial up all kinds of entertainment at home from football in 3D to music delivered through orb-like speakers. It's all pretty ho-hum, actually, from today's perspective.
What really stands out, actually, is the proposed control system. The console that Walter Cronkite operates here is probably eight feet long and looks like a panel from a nuclear power plant control system.
No really, here's the control room from an American facility with a still I grafted on from the video:
This was a design sensibility that preceded the development of graphical user interfaces. Knobs abound, switches, too. And, of course, these elements would come packaged in a beige desk of a machine.
Much as I hate the modern remote and its limitations. This would undoubtedly be worse. And as a quick primer in UI change relative to expectations and the miniaturization of electronics, you could do worse than comparing this video with your setup at home.
Drones may not be delivering tacos through your window or following around your kids just yet. But this is one of the building blocks of that future, for good or for ill.
On a recent day, not so far from where I'm typing, Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired, current CEO of 3D Robotics, took a little drone copter down to the Berkeley Marina and told it to follow him around. It worked.
"That's me walking around with a laptop (with a USB GPS dongle), and the copter follows me around like a pet robot bird. Then at the end I tell it to land itself, which it does," Anderson wrote on his Google Plus page. "Note that there's no RC control at all. This is all autonomous flight, with mission command issued with a point-and-click interface on a laptop. And in some serious wind, too!"
I'm not even going to take a stab at what the widespread deployment of these kinds of flying robots could mean. And there are still some really big questions. The battery life on a lot of these devices is not so good, as in you'd measure it in minutes. (At least the ones I've seen: can't comment specifically on Anderson's model here.)
But bigger than the technology issues are the social ones: why would anyone want a flying follow bot? And will what they want to do with it infringe on the rights of other citizens? And how will those disputes be adjudicated. I've been thinking a lot about these things for months and I still don't even have the beginnings of answers.
I want to tell you a little story about how YouTube has become a unique repository for very useful information. What makes it special is that YouTube taps people who want to show you what they know, not write about it. Learning from YouTube is more like a momentary apprenticeship than it is like book learning, and that's what makes it so great.
So, our hot water went out a few days ago. We left for a night, came back, and the tap water was tepid, but not ice cold.
Perhaps many of you out there might know exactly how to troubleshoot this problem. Certainly when I called a local plumber, they made it seem as if it ain't no thing. The woman who answered the phone asked me immediately, "Did you check to see if the pilot is on?" I sputtered, "Umm, I, uh, I don't know." "The pilot probably went out. Just relight it," she said, and hung up.
I gulped. Maybe relighting the pilot light on your water heater seems ridiculously easy to you. (Having done it now, I'd agree: it is.) But I didn't know the first thing about hot water heaters. And I'm not a handy person. I grew up playing with graphics cards and HTML. I loved the random manual labor my parents required of me as a kid, but I don't learn how to do stuff around the house. I moved piles of gravel and planted or cut down trees. That's my comfort zone.
Obviously I did what any nerd would do: I started Googling. Using generic strings like "troubleshooting gas hot water heater" tends to lead to content farm crap. And the hot water heaters I saw on the content farms didn't look precisely like the one we have.
So, I crept down into the funny-smelling basement using my iPhone as a flashlight, found the make of our hot water heater, and then searched for the manual. It referred me to the lighting instructions posted on our heater, which (in a stroke of bad luck) were in a tough to read spot.
I could understand the basic process. But I'd never seen the innards of my hot water heater's pilot system. And without any experience mucking around with hot water heaters, I didn't exactly want to stick a flame near a source of natural gas without some kind of tutorial.
At the very least, I wanted someone to tell me that I wouldn't blow myself up. It must be easy, I reasoned, or the lady on the phone.
Somehow, then, perhaps Google surfaced the video through search, I found my way to YouTube, to this video, in particular:
In it, MrOzcar82, a YouTube user who has posted two videos ever, both on October 30, 2010, delivers a full and specific tutorial on how to light exactly my kind of hot water heater. He walks you through all the things you should be looking for, giving pretty decent verbal cues as he videos the process.
What I love about this kind of knowledge transfer is that it's so human. The video is shot from a first-person point-of-view, the narrator talks directly to you, and there are no cuts. The lack of production value is a feature, not a bug. When MrOzcar82 struggles for a few seconds getting the flame lit, I think that's useful information. If you too struggle, as I did, to get the flame lit, you realize, "Hey, no big deal, just try again." And I'm clearly not the only one who finds his videos useful: his two tutorials one pilot lighting (one water heater, one furnace) have received something like 300,000 views.
If you start to search around on YouTube for various household fix-ups, you find all kinds of people posting similar how-tos. Some of them have higher production values than this one. Others are created by companies trying to capitalize on how-to videos. But mostly it's just helpful people who decided to record a video and post it to YouTube for some reason.
At a time when it's easy to get jaded about changes enabled by Internet technology, I find myself coming back to YouTube -- and this kind of video -- to be reminded of the mundane wonders of this network. The Internet is not all trolls writing about pop culture; there are a lot of MrOzcar82s out there just adding a little more to the world for no good reason.
A lesson about the success of Great Men from Intel co-founder Bob Noyce's life story.
A couple of weeks ago, Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey tweeted this:
Success is never accidental.-- Jack Dorsey (@jack) January 26, 2013
At first, snuffling through a head cold, I wrote several snarky responses -- e.g. " 'Success is never accidental,' said all multimillionaire white men." -- but never tweeted them. Because I've seen a lot of successful people in action and sometimes you're like, "Holy hell, Bill Gates (or Paul Otellini or James Fallows) is an impressive person." These are hardworking, brilliant people whom I did not want to demean. So, what I ended up tweeting was simple: "And failures?"
It's important that we can recognize the skills of the successful while also noting the many prodigiously lucky factors that allow them to show those skills. To make this point, I want to tell you a couple of stories about Robert Noyce, "the mayor of Silicon Valley" to show what I mean.
Noyce plays a major role in the new PBS show, "Silicon Valley," which debuted this week, and for good reason. Noyce co-founded both Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel. He's a classic in the human genre of "Great Man."Tom Wolfe, who profiled him ("The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce") in the December 1983 issue of Esquire, said Noyce made people see a halo over his head. In fact, he's the model entrepreneur for people like Dorsey, whether they know it or not. He was selected by his peers to lead the world's most important semiconductor companies, established the start-up funding and organizational model that now defines the Valley, and almost certainly would have won a Nobel Prize if not for his death.
People always seem to find stories about men like this from their youth that seem to mark them with greatness and serve as a metaphor for their genius. With Jobs, perhaps it's his time wandering in India developing his intuition. Edison had his newspaper business. Zuckerberg has his run-in with the Harvard's administration over hacking. Bill Gates has his own run-in with authorities over sneaking access to computers. Stories proliferate; usually you have a few to choose from.
The plain truth was, Grinnell had Middle West written all over it. It was squarely in the middle of Iowa's Midland corn belt, where people on the farms said "crawdad" instead of crayfish and "barn lot" instead of barnyard. Grinnell had been one of many Protestant religious communities established in the mid-nineteenth century after Iowa became a state and settlers from the East headed for the farmlands. The streets were lined with white clapboard houses and elm trees, like a New England village. And today, in 1948, the hard-scrubbed Octagon Soap smell of nineteenth century Protestantism still permeated the houses and Main Street as well.
And within that city, there lived the Noyce family. They did not have a lot of money, but they were devout and educated. Their mother was, in Wolfe's words, "a latter-day version of the sort of strong-willed, intelligent, New England-style woman who had made such a difference during Iowa's pioneer days a hundred years before."
There was something about Bob. "He was a trim, muscular boy, five feet eight, with thick dark brown hair, a strong jawline, and a long, broad nose that gave him a rugged appearance," Wolfe writes. "He was the star diver on the college swimming team and won the Midwest Conference championship in 1947. He sang in choral groups, played the oboe, and was an actor with the college dramatic society. He also acted in a radio drama workshop at the college, along with his friend Peter Hackes and some others who were interested in broadcasting, and was the leading man in a soap opera that was broadcast over station WOI in Ames, Iowa. Perhaps Bob Noyce was a bit too well rounded for local tastes."
There was, after all, a certain event that had been memorialized in the local paper and remembered by all the local townspeople. That event was, of course, the incident with the plane, that is to say, the glider.
Here's Berlin's meticulously researched account:
The two boys designed the glider themselves, working from their experience building model planes and from an illustration that they found in the Book of Knowledge, a multivolume encyclopedia that their parents kept deliberately accessible on a low shelf in the living room bookcase.
The brothers pooled their combined savings of $4.53 to buy materials and sent word to their neighborhood pals that a great invention was under construction. Soon the friends were helping too. Bob Smith, whose father owned a furniture store that regularly received rolls of carpet wound around bamboo spindles, provided sticks for the frame. Charlotte Matthews, the only girl on their block of 17 boys, sewed the cheese cloth to cover the wings. When the Noyce brothers declared the glider finished, it stood some four feet tall, and its wings stretched nearly 18 feet from tip to tip. Constructed largely from 1´ × 2´ pine boards, it had neither wheels nor skids and ran entirely on boy power.
The pilot moved and steered the plane by standing amidship in an opening, holding up the frame with his two hands, and running as fast as he could. "We succeeded in running and jumping to get a little lift as experienced by the pilot," Gaylord recalls. "In running off a mound about four or five feet high, we got more." This was not good enough for Bob. Together he and Gaylord convinced their neighbor Jerry Strong, newly possessed of a driver's license and the keys to his father's car, to hitch the glider to the auto's bumper. Jerry was instructed to drive down Park Street fast enough to launch the glider and keep it aloft. The experiment, which in no way involved a seven-year-old brother, proved more terrifying than effective.
Still this was not sufficiently thrilling for Bob Noyce. He and Jerry Strong decided to try, as Noyce put it a few years later, "to jump off the roof of a barn and live." The barn in question was in Merrill Park, just across the empty fields and asparagus patch behind the Noyces' house. Word spread through town, and the Grinnell Herald sent a photographer.
Bob clambered up to the barn's roof and a few other boys handed him the glider, which weighed about 25 pounds. Bob then took a deep breath, thrust his sturdy body against the glider's frame ... and jumped. Then, for one second, two, three, young Bob Noyce was flying. He hit the ground almost immediately, but as he proudly reported in a college admissions essay a few years later, "We did [it]!"
I'd chalk this whole thing up as a myth were it not for my trust in Berlin and that photographer from the Grinnell Herald, who is responsible for the images you see in this post.
Reading a story like this, it is impossible not to draw parallels with Noyce's later achievements. His ability to coerce and lead. His daring. His smarts. His willingness to toss himself into the unknown. This is the stuff of Great Man narratives.
But let's look at an interesting complement to this plane story from the end of Noyce's life, the day Noyce took Steve Jobs out for a ride one day in 1979.
Noyce's wife, Ann Bowers, had taken to working with Apple. Jobs, for his part, had sought out Noyce as a mentor. He called their house late at night, dropped in at odd times, and generally made himself a scruffy presence in their lives. They took a liking to young Steve and so Noyce took Jobs flying in his Seabee, a World War II-era plane, which could land on land or water. Here's what happened:
After landing on a lake, Noyce pulled a wrong lever, inadvertently locking the wheels. It was not until he tried to land the plane on a runway that he realized there was a problem. Immediately upon hitting the ground, the Seabee leapt forward and nearly flipped. Jobs watched with mounting panic as Noyce furiously tried to bring the plane under control while sparks shot past the windows. "As this was happening," Jobs recalls, "I was picturing the headline: 'Bob Noyce and Steve Jobs Killed in Fiery Plane Crash.'
I thought about that moment while watching the American Experience film about Silicon Valley. What makes a good story are the characters, and so we focus on a Noyce or a Jobs. But the deeper you look at a given time and place, particularly the milieu associated with a series of technologies as powerful as the transistor, integrated circuit, microprocessor, and personal computer, the more the contingencies and luck crop up. Both were undeniably great entrepreneurs but there were so many near misses and near deaths and wrong turns. You can't help but ask, what if? Jobs' success was not accidental; but his death would have been.
Sheer contingency is, in fact, a dominant theme of Wolfe's piece about Noyce. What were the whole series of pieces of good fortune that positioned Noyce to be in exactly the place to seize the opportunity to create his fortune and legacy?
Just consider, through Wolfe's telling, the sheer luck involved in Noyce's early exposure to the transistor, which is basically a precondition to the rest of his life.
It was in the summer of 1948 that Grant Gale, a forty-five-year-old physics professor at Grinnell College, ran across an item in the newspaper concerning a former classmate of his at the University of Wisconsin named John Bardeen. Bardeen's father had been dean of medicine at Wisconsin, and Gale's wife Harriet's father had been dean of the engineering school, and so Bardeen and Harriet had grown up as fellow faculty brats, as the phrase went. Both Gale and Bardeen had majored in electrical engineering. Eventually Bardeen had taught physics at the University of Minnesota and had then left the academic world to work for Bell Laboratories, the telephone company's main research center, in Murray Hill, New Jersey. And now, according to the item, Bardeen and another engineer at Bell, Walter Brattain, had invented a novel little device they called a transistor.
It was only an item, however: the invention of the transistor in 1948 did not create headlines. The transistor apparently performed the same function as the vacuum tube, which was an essential component of telephone relay systems and radios.... [Gale] thought it would be terrific to get some transistors for his physics department at Grinnell. So he wrote to Bardeen at Bell Laboratories. Just to make sure his request didn't get lost in the shuffle, he also wrote to the president of Bell Laboratories, Oliver Buckley. Buckley was from Sloane, Iowa, and happened to be a Grinnell graduate. So by the fall of 1948 Gale had obtained two of the first transistors ever made, and he presented the first academic instruction in solid-state electronics available anywhere in the world, for the benefit of the eighteen students majoring in physics at Grinnell College.
One of Grant Gale's senior physics majors was a local boy named Robert Noyce, whom Gale had known for years.
Then consider that Noyce had almost been thrown out of school for a prank before his senior year, i.e. before the time when he was exposed to the device. Only Gale spending his own reputational credit kept Noyce from a much worse punishment. His help eventually helped Noyce land at MIT instead of slapped with a felony conviction for messing with a farmer's pig. Was Noyce's success accidental? Not really. But his lack of failure was. Deal a few more hands, and it's easy to doubt that Noyce would have kept getting dealt a flush, no matter how skilled a player he might have been.
Or as Wolfe put it:
Well, it had been a close one! What if Grant Gale hadn't gone to school with John Bardeen, and what if Oliver Buckley hadn't been a Grinnell alumnus? And what if Gale hadn't bothered to get in touch with the two of them after he read the little squib about the transistor in the newspaper? What if he hadn't gone to bat for Bob Noyce after the Night of the Luau Pig and the boy had been thrown out of college and that had been that? After all, if Bob hadn't been able to finish at Grinnell, he probably never would have been introduced to the transistor. He certainly wouldn't have come across it at MIT in 1948. Given what Bob Noyce did over the next twenty years, one couldn't help but wonder about the fortuitous chain of events.
To ask these things is not to demean Noyce's talents, but rather to wonder how many other would-be Noyces were frustrated? How many other legends just missed? Jack Dorsey and Steve Jobs and Bob Noyce: all brilliant, hardworking people. But how many brilliant hardworking people were just in the wrong place at the wrong time? How many encountered a system that made it harder for them? How many people from uneducated families or inner cities, immigrants or the grandchildren of slaves never found themselves in a position to show their awesomeness? How many women were forced to act as mere appendages to their husbands -- as Berlin's research shows that Noyce's first wife was? William Shockley, the man who originally brought Noyce to Silicon Valley once "dismissed a potential recruit with a jotted notation in his notebook that he 'did not want a man whose wife was annoyed about it all.'" These were not conditions in which it was equally possible for all people to flourish. And yet we hand down these stories from generation to generation as if everyone had an equal shot at success.
Things are more subtle now. Things are better, too. I'd rather be a half-Mexican kid from a nowheresville town now than at any other time in American history. (Which is not to say everything is fine.) And I think people like Jack Dorsey or Jason Calacanis should own their success within this tiny world we call Silicon Valley. Well done, guys. Completely earnestly, what they've accomplished is commendable.
But you can't just relive building the airplane. Part of the responsibility of success is to consider the near crashes, the ways the world let you slip by, the mountain of accidents that put you in a certain place at a certain time where you could fly.
In my perfect world, this reflection would lead these people to use their power to make similar levels of luck more likely for a wider variety of people. Given the chance, I bet their skills can take them from there.
Two seemingly trivial services are a lot more interesting if we take them too seriously.
vine.co/v/b1qarUHB6be-- LOST CAT (@LostCatBook) February 1, 2013
Vine and Snapchat are the latest poster children for frivolous technology! Six-second looping videos and pictures that disappear -- what kind of silliness is that?
It's because of the widespread assumption that these technologies are not worth taking seriously that I want to call your attention to two great essays about them. Investigating the seemingly trivial can lead down interesting paths.
The first essay deals with Vine and what visual loops mean. Steeped in history, the piece is by Chris Baraniuk and appears on The Machine Starts:
That the visual loops enabled by computer technology are always, in my opinion, disturbing, is perhaps best explained by noting a diametrical clash of ideals in human culture. The broken record, the Groundhog Day effect, the punishments of Hades which involved endless repetition, all of these things, as the term "wheel of the devil" indicates, signify disruption through relentless order. The complete absence of teleology and catharsis within the loop destroys our sense of self, our idea of progress, our intention to accomplish anything.
The loop is certainly demonic, for it is a dance of fire, it is uncompromising and incessant - like a recurring nightmare or the sound of knocking on the door at Macbeth's castle. From criticising media coverage of 9/11 (in this example of a contemporary zoetrope) to mocking celebrities, the loop has announced itself as a powerful way of undermining the world as it wishes to be seen, of amplifying absurdity and overturning normal.
The second essay comes to us from Jeremy Antley and concerns Snapchat. Antley weighs what ephemerality does to the relationship between what he calls "the data self" and "the lived self," with reference to Foucault's concept of parresia, which I will not endeavor to explain here:
The genius of Snapchat, and ephemerality in general, is that it frees the lived self from the constraints of the data self. Whereas NEP's continually have users conflate the truth of their utterances encoded in likes and retweets to that of their lived reality, producing disruptive asynchronicity, platforms that embrace ephemerality tell users, "Don't worry about the conflation of your data and yourself- the data will disappear, leaving only your true self behind." However, while ephemeral platforms may claim to solve the data self conundrum, in reality they provide only a more ameliorating experience for the user to engage in bad parresia.
A deeper global history of the animal-borne incendiary bomb
You may remember this disturbing image from a recent post of mine. It appears to show a bird and cat with bombs strapped to them. The archive title reads, "Illustration, cat and bird with rocket packs." It was originally painted around 1420, though the version I drew on was created in 1584.
This image circulated fairly widely on the Internet for obvious reasons. And that led historian Mitch Fraas at Penn to dig into the global history of the cat bomb image. And you know what he found? MORE CAT BOMBS!
First, Fraas attempted to figure out exactly how the cat/bird bombs were used. The book from which the original illustration was drawn did not contain any information about how to deploy them, though he did end up finding another example of the imagery. This one's from 1590's "Book of instruction for a cannon master":
Then, following up on a tweet from another scholar, he tracked yet another instance of the bird/cat bomb to a text from a century later, penned by Franz Helm some time around 1530. It has "large new sections on siege warfare and different types of explosive weapons." And this illustration:
Penn has a printed version of the Helm manuscript, which also contains the catbomb illustration! And finally, here, we can read how Helm recommended deploying these weapons:
In the text accompanying the images is a section entitled "To set fire to a castle or city which you can't get at otherwise" . This section details how to use doves and cats loaded with flammable devices to set fire to enemy positions. On cats the text paints a grisly picture of attaching lit sacks of incendiaries onto the animals to have them return to their homes and set fire to them. In my awkward translation:
"Create a small sack like a fire-arrow ... if you would like to get at a town or castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place. And bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well and thereafter let the cat go, so it runs to the nearest castle or town, and out of fear it thinks to hide itself where it ends up in barn hay or straw it will be ignited."
Man, that's cold. (And, as if it needs to be stated, I love cats and would never do anything to harm them.)
Even more amazingly, Fraas discovered animal bombs reaching even farther into history than medieval Germany. A mid-20th century Finnish scholar named Pentii Aalto found "examples of incendiary-bearing cats and birds from a 3rd c. BCE Sanskrit text, the Russian Primary Chronicle, early Scandinavian sources, and an early modern history of Genghis Khan."Fraas quotes the Russian Primary Chronicle's story of Olga of Kiev thusly:
"Olga requested three pigeons and three sparrows from each household. Upon their receipt, her men attached rags dipped in sulphur to the feet of each bird. When the birds returned to their nests, they lit the city on fire and the Derevlians perished in their homes.Olga's vengeance was now complete."
I think the moral of the catbomb story is that no matter what thread of history you pull on, you eventually find your way back to Olga of Kiev.
Maybe God did make farmers, but why'd Dodge only show us the white ones?
Dodge Ram turned heads with its high-production value remake of a Farms.com YouTube video, featuring conservative radio broadcaster Paul Harvey's voice laid over beautiful photographs of Americans farmers.
The arresting images combined with the crackle of what everyone immediately recognizes as old audio made everyone at our Super Bowl party stop and watch. Dodge, I'm sure, had good demographic analysis of their audience, so they knew they could go godly with the message and encounter little backlash. So God made a farmer, and also the advertising agencies who will use him to sell trucks. Quibbles aside, I'd rather have this kind of Americana than GoDaddy's bizarre antics.
But there's a problem. The ad paints a portrait of the American agricultural workforce that is horribly skewed. In Dodge's world, almost every farmer is a white Caucasian. And that's about as realistic as a Thomas Kincade painting.
Stipulating that visual inspection is a rough measure for the complex genealogical histories of people, I decided to count the race and ethnicity of the people in Dodge's ad. Here's what I found: 15 white people, one black man, and two (maybe three?) Latinos.
I couldn't help but wonder: Where are all the campesinos? The ethnic mix Dodge chose to represent American farming is flat-out wrong.
It's true that whites are the managers of 96 percent of the nation's farms, according to the USDA's 2007 Census of Agriculture. But the agricultural workforce is overwhelmingly Mexican with some workers from Central America thrown in. The Department of Labor's National Agriculture Worker Survey has found that over the last decade, around 70 percent of farmworkers in America were born in Mexico, most in a few states along the Pacific coast. This should not be news. Everyone knows this is how farms are run.
And yet when a company decided to pay homage to the people who grow our food, they left out the people who do much of the labor, particularly on the big farms that continue to power the food system. You want to tell a grand story about the glories of working the land? You want to celebrate the people who grow food? You want to expound on the positive 'merican qualities that agricultural work develops in people? Great! What a nice, nostalgic idea!
Now, did God make Mexican farmworkers or only white farmers? Is the strength and toughness that comes from hard work God's gift to white people only?
To borrow Ta-Nehisi Coates' phrase, the way this ad whitewashed American farming leaves Mexican farmworkers and their children "excluded from the process of patriotism," even though many identify as American. Almost 75 percent of foreign-born cropworkers have been in the states for more than five years. Hell, more than half of the farmworkers surveyed by the Department of Labor have been in the U.S. for more than ten years. These are members of American communities and prospective citizens.
Contrast the advertisement with what you get from Lisa Hamilton's Real Rural project, which documented the lives of people living on California's farms and in its small towns. It's a better portrait of reality, though no less stirring, as you can see in the portrait below.
Word of DARPA's experimental 1.8-gigapixel surveillance video camera, ARGUS-IS, first surfaced in 2009. And now that they probably have something better hidden, more details continue to emerge.
A PBS video got to look at the actual video feeds -- and they are stunning. Take a look. Watch for the arm waving guy at about 1:55 or so:
One thing to note is that a drone can just hang out at 15,000 feet over a small city-sized area (roughly, half of Manhattan) and provide video surveillance of the whole thing. The other thing to note is that they are running machine vision on the moving objects, which means they are generating structured data out of the video, not just displaying the pictures.
I won't get completely into the legal details, but what if some branch of government or a corporation (maybe not Google, but maybe Google) set one of these guys up over an American city. They say that Big Data analysis has told them that criminals (or consumers!) display certain types of behavior that can be spotted at that distance, helping them deploy police (or marketing promotions) on the ground more effectively. And the rest of the city's citizens? Well, they're collateral data.
Maybe far-fetched for the United States, but imagine this technology widely deployed in a country with a more repressive government.
His legacy, however, is unclear.
It's different on the way out.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu is, as expected, stepping down from the top post at the Department of Energy. He'll stick around until a successor is chosen and then, I assume, head back out here to the Bay Area and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Politico broke the news, getting a hold of (or being sent?) the memo Chu emailed to his staff.
After some tough years under the Bush administration, Chu's selection buoyed hopes among scientists that the Obama administration was serious about funding good science to deal with climate change, an infrastructure built on cheap oil, and the relatively slow pace of energy technology improvement over the past few decades.
He leaves having presided over a huge but temporary boost in energy science fundingt, a boom in natural gas production, the BP oil spill, the creation of ARPA-E for high-risk research, and the overblown bust of a few companies like Solyndra. Republicans blocked efforts to pass climate legislation, but that can't really be counted against Chu.
Though the stories tended to be short of specifics, the narrative in Washington became that Chu was a political naif, even though he was a brilliant guy and competent administrator. I wondered if he could ever have been painted otherwise, given his background and the state of play in energy politics. Despite Chu's support for nuclear and solar energy, in Congress, supporting solar is for Democrats and nuclear is for Republicans. Coal state representatives support the coal agenda and the same goes for wind. One guy, no matter how smart, isn't going to change these structural divisions. At the very least you can say he survived Washington longer than any previous Department of Energy head, which is something.
One sign of what the Obama administration thinks about Chu's tenure will come when his successor is selected. Darius Dixon gave this short-list of candidates for his replacement:
Obama has not yet announced a successor, but speculation in Washington has focused on a short list that includes former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Other people who have gotten recent buzz include Ernest Moniz, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who served as DOE undersecretary in the Clinton administration.
I can't evaluate how accurate this list is. National Journal's Coral Davenport had a similar, but slightly different list: Dorgan, Ritter, Gregoire, and then ex-Googler Dan Reicher and the Center for American Progress' John Podesta.
Let's say both lists encompass what the administration is thinking. We've got two natural-gas state politicians, two other northern-state politicians, a Google policy wonk, a Washington think tanker, and a single academic. And Moniz, for his part, has been a part of public life for a long time. None of these folks has a Chu-like profile.
Nonetheless, I'm not sure we know yet what Steven Chu's legacy will be. Or to rephrase: I certainly don't. He was given a monumental task of distributing $35 billion dollars to energy projects through the stimulus package, and though the disbursements weren't perfect, they seemed, to an outsider, to be the mix of "shovel-ready" (remember that term?) projects and longer-horizon research that you'd expect. Who knows what fruits the seeds planted during his tenure will bear?
In which a new technology trial is proposed: The Shotwell's Test.
Two people wearing Google Glasses walk into a bar.
Nope, that's the whole joke.
Don't get me wrong: I'm as excited about Glasses as the next nerd, but I'm not so sure the rest of the world is going to love their arrival.
Case-in-point: yesterday, I saw that Tom Madonna the co-owner of my favorite bar, Shotwell's, had posted this to Facebook:
Last night around 9:45 two people walked into the bar. Looked me square in the eye, and acting as if everything was normal they ordered beers.. Oh did I mention they were wearing Google Glasses! In public! In A BAR!
To Madonna, the presence of these technical artifacts at Shotwell's was absurd. Like, patently, ridiculously, absurdly absurd. And I think that matters.
Shotwell's is a fascinating test case for how tech-savvy regular people might take to Google's new toy. Let me tell you a little more about it. Shotwell's is located at 20th and Shotwell, right in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District, which also happens to be where a lot of the young tech people in the city live. (It's where a lot of the infamous SF-Silicon Valley buses run for a reason.) But Shotwell's is also a bar-bar. It's not some Las Vegas version of a bar with iPads embedded in the tables. You pay cash. They have beer. People get too drunk sometimes. There's a pool table. Salty snacks abound. Lots of different types of people come through: tech zillionaires, journalists, people who have read every William Gibson novel, service industry hipsters, regular old drunks, first-generation web people, writers, Giants fans, people who like Quiz nights, etc.
It is, as Mother Jones Clara Jeffery put it one night, "the platonic ideal of the bar." And it so is. It so, so, so is. If we were playing one of those mindgames where you said, "Don't think of your favorite bar," I would think of Shotwell's. And if you said, "Don't think of an elephant," I would still think of Shotwell's.
And so, this is a place, right near the beating heart of the tech world, where you might think that Google Glasses would go over well. Perhaps people would come up to you and say, "My, those are excellent Google Glasses. May I buy you a refreshing Belgian ale?"
I called up Madonna to get a little more information about what happened when the Glasses couple walked into Shotwell's.
"When you buy a new phone, it's in your pocket, but this, you're wearing something on your face. Anyone that cares what they look like is not gonna wear Google glasses. That's my opinion," Madonna said. "If you are super nerdy and you like to show off that you're in tech and smart and all those things, I can see you probably wearing Google Glasses, but you are probably in a bubble or ... new. We've all heard all this stuff. Like, this guy moved to SF and he comes to the bar. He's from Scottsdale and he's using all these [tech] words. I had to stop him. I said, 'You sound interesting and different in Phoenix, but you sound boring here. You are cliche.'"
And Madonna was still shocked by the Google Glasses despite the fact that he recognizes how pervasive technology is in San Francisco culture, even relative to New York.
"In Brooklyn, you don't see people put their phones on the tables. They have it in their pockets. That is the culture of San Franaciso. It's so pervasive, it just dones't seem weird. It seems *normal* to them to walk into a bar with Google Glasses, even though everyone's smirking at them," Madonna continued.
Everyone? "Ok, maybe a couple people were jealous," he admitted.
I asked him if he had any actual exchanges with the couple. Of course, he said, "That's why I love being a bartender."After they ordered their beers, I made a disparaging remark. I asked her, if you could see the future, and she said, 'It's not on right now.' She was just poker face. I was here making fun of her and she was like, 'It's not on right now.'"
Then, he dragged her down the bar to the regulars corner. "The two regulars who work in technology were like, I'm outta here. She ended up talking with the person in from out of town," Madonna said.
He remained stunned by her attitude. "She was very matter of fact. Like, this is her reality," he concluded. "'Oh, this old thing? It's not on.'"
But, in the end, that was not the weirdest technology-in-the-bar story he had. That crown goes to a trio of people exploiting the latest in some telepresence tech (maybe Kubi?):
"These three people came in. They sat at the end of the bar where it makes an L-shape. They have this white device, a foot high, white plastic, sleek. It's basically a tripod. What you do is connect your iPad to it. Then these three people all have a beer as they FaceTime with this guy through the iPad, who is also sitting with a beer. And the iPad moves to which face he wants to talk to. It was sorta like he's the fourth person in their party," Madonna said. "That was the most nerdy thing I've ever seen at Shotwell's and they were sitting there like it was TOTALLY OK."
"To think of sitting behind a computer coding all day and when you finally get off the hour bus from SIlicon Valley and get to your local bar to talk about something else, you bring out your iPad and have a conversation with your high school buddy who lives in Cleveland. That to me, is so weird," he said. "I used to work downtown for Morgan Stanley. And on the weekends, I didn't even want to look at a computer or a phone or go downtown."
So, I propose a new trial for our augmented technologies: The Shotwell's Test. If it can't pass muster with Madonna and the crowd at the platonic ideal of the bar, it may not be ready for use outside of CES and the office park.
For all its ubiquity and $1.59 billion in revenue, the company's net income was $64 million in its last quarter.Every month, a billion people offer their two cents to Facebook, literally. That's roughly how much income the company generated per user per month over its last quarter.
Add it all up and the company made just $64 million on revenue of $1.59 billion. That means the company is generating about half a buck a month of revenue per user, and just $0.02 a month in income. Facebook says that a run-up in R&D hurt their profitability for the quarter.
Nonetheless, compared with the other tech giants (save Amazon, which has its own profitability problems), Facebook is not much of a money machine. It isn't even within an order of magnitude of old-school companies like Microsoft or Oracle, let alone Apple.
But hey, it's young. And detailed data on all of our lives has got to be worth something, right? Right? And the good news is that for the full year 2012, Facebook generated $13.58 in revenue per user in its most developed markets, the US and Canada. That's up more than $2 over 2011 and $4 over 2010.
Update: Facebook would also probably like me to note that if you don't follow the GAAP method and use Facebook's own accounting, they made $426 million for the quarter, which is considerably more money than $64 million. Then again, there's a reason they're called Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.
Update 2: The chart I originally posted had an egregious error. I used Apple's year income number, not its quarterly one. The trend remained the same but the number was obviously grossly inflated. My apologies, and I'll update the chart as soon as I can.
Sign up to receive our free newsletters