A trip through the HTML time machine that is Warren Buffett's company's website.
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.
A trip through the HTML time machine that is Warren Buffett's company's website.
When Silicon Valley's old obsession meets one of its newer ones.
Clean Power Finance doesn't make solar cells. They don't make solar modules. They don't install solar systems. They don't put up the money to put solar systems on houses. And yet, they are an important part of the emerging clean technology ecosystem.
Clean Power Finance is a marketplace for all the pieces of the solar value chain to find each other. For many years, solar was a small and fragmented market. It was difficult to find the right suppliers, installers, and financial backers. Now, CPF is trying to streamline that process and take the friction out of the business.
The way they do that is to offer a business-to-business software platform. That's not exactly sexy. In fact, it may be the opposite of sexy. But it's this kind of solution that's helped other industries scale and grow. And it's the sort of thing that green tech was never big enough to warrant. Point is: the efficiency of a solar cell is not the only kind of efficiency that matters in driving down the cost of zero-carbon electricity.
A 156-second symphony honoring the sounds of the mid-century workplace.
The modern machine aims to be silent. The MacBook Air, eschewing the noisy optical and hard drives of yore, is a perfect example: It whispers through nearly all work. The quiet indicates the quality of the computer; it doesn't *need* some big noisy fan.
But go back to the office of the 1960s and you'd hear a symphony of mechanical noises: metal hitting metal at various rhythms and speeds. Playing with the cacophony of the age, Swiss composer Rolf Liebermann composed a short song for 156 machines in honor of his country's National Exposition in 1964.
According to UbuWeb, which hosts the original, the machines include: "16 typewriters, 18 calculator machines, 8 accounting machines, 12 office perforators, 10 caisses enregistreuses, 8 humidificateurs-colleurs, 8 tele-scripteurs, 2 metronomes, 4 bells of signalisation, 2 entrance door gongs, 10 claxons, 16 telephones, 40 experimental signal receptors,1 fork lift, a duplicator and a monte-charge."
I'll be honest: I'm not even sure what several of those machines are, but dang, do they sound good together. This is a fantastic little piece of music made from the sonic detritus of a pre-digital workplace.
And here, we can see what it takes to reproduce a similar sound with real live people playing the role of the machines.
Very high efficiency, rugged solar panels could find their first markets outside the green demographics.
How a dream team of engineers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google built the software that drove Barack Obama's reelection
The Obama campaign's technologists were tense and tired. It was game day and everything was going wrong.
Josh Thayer, the lead engineer of Narwhal, had just been informed that they'd lost another one of the services powering their software. That was bad: Narwhal was the code name for the data platform that underpinned the campaign and let it track voters and volunteers. If it broke, so would everything else.
They were talking with people at Amazon Web Services, but all they knew was that they had packet loss. Earlier that day, they lost their databases, their East Coast servers, and their memcache clusters. Thayer was ready to kill Nick Hatch, a DevOps engineer who was the official bearer of bad news. Another of their vendors, PalominoDB, was fixing databases, but needed to rebuild the replicas. It was going to take time, Hatch said. They didn't have time.
They'd been working 14-hour days, six or seven days a week, trying to reelect the president, and now everything had been broken at just the wrong time. It was like someone had written a Murphy's Law algorithm and deployed it at scale.
They'd been working 14-hour days, six or seven days a week, trying to reelect the president, and now everything had been broken at just the wrong time.
And that was the point. "Game day" was October 21. The election was still 17 days away, and this was a live action role playing (LARPing!) exercise that the campaign's chief technology officer, Harper Reed, was inflicting on his team. "We worked through every possible disaster situation," Reed said. "We did three actual all-day sessions of destroying everything we had built."
Hatch was playing the role of dungeon master, calling out devilishly complex scenarios that were designed to test each and every piece of their system as they entered the exponential traffic-growth phase of the election. Mark Trammell, an engineer who Reed hired after he left Twitter, saw a couple game days. He said they reminded him of his time in the Navy. "You ran firefighting drills over and over and over, to make sure that you not just know what you're doing," he said, "but you're calm because you know you can handle your shit."
The team had elite and, for tech, senior talent -- by which I mean that most of them were in their 30s -- from Twitter, Google, Facebook, Craigslist, Quora, and some of Chicago's own software companies such as Orbitz and Threadless, where Reed had been CTO. But even these people, maybe *especially* these people, knew enough about technology not to trust it. "I think the Republicans fucked up in the hubris department," Reed told me. "I know we had the best technology team I've ever worked with, but we didn't know if it would work. I was incredibly confident it would work. I was betting a lot on it. We had time. We had resources. We had done what we thought would work, and it still could have broken. Something could have happened."
In fact, the day after the October 21 game day, Amazon services -- on which the whole campaign's tech presence was built -- went down. "We didn't have any downtime because we had done that scenario already," Reed said. Hurricane Sandy hit on another game day, October 29, threatening the campaign's whole East Coast infrastructure. "We created a hot backup of all our applications to US-west in preparation for US-east to go down hard," Reed said.
"We knew what to do," Reed maintained, no matter what the scenario was. "We had a runbook that said if this happens, you do this, this, and this. They did not do that with Orca."
THE NEW CHICAGO MACHINE vs. THE GRAND OLD PARTY
Orca was supposed to be the Republican answer to Obama's perceived tech advantage. In the days leading up to the election, the Romney campaign pushed its
(not-so) secret weapon as the answer to the Democrats' vaunted ground game. Orca was going to allow volunteers at polling places to update the Romney
camp's database of voters in real time as people cast their ballots. That would supposedly allow them to deploy resources more efficiently and wring every
last vote out of Florida, Ohio, and the other battleground states. The product got its name,
a Romney spokesperson told
, because orcas are the only known predator of the one-tusked narwhal.
Orca was not even in the same category as Narwhal. It was like the Republicans were touting the iPad as a Facebook killer.
The billing the Republicans gave the tool confused almost everyone inside the Obama campaign. Narwhal wasn't an app for a smartphone. It was the architecture of the company's sophisticated data operation. Narwhal unified what Obama for America knew about voters, canvassers, event-goers, and phone-bankers, and it did it in real time. From the descriptions of the Romney camp's software that were available then and now, Orca was not even in the same category as Narwhal. It was like touting the iPad as a Facebook killer, or comparing a GPS device to an engine. And besides, in the scheme of a campaign, a digitized strike list is cool, but it's not, like, a gamechanger. It's just a nice thing to have.
So, it was with more than a hint of schadenfreude that Reed's team hear that Orca crashed early on election day. Later reports posted by rank-and-file volunteers describe chaos descending on the polling locations as only a fraction of the tens of thousands of volunteers organized for the effort were able to use it properly to turn out the vote.
Of course, they couldn't snicker too loudly. Obama's campaign had created a similar app in 2008 called Houdini. As detailed in Sasha Issenberg's groundbreaking book, The Victory Lab, Houdini's rollout went great until about 9:30am Eastern on the day of the election. Then it crashed in much the same way Orca did.
In 2012, Democrats had a new version, built by the vendor, NGP VAN. It was called Gordon, after the man who killed Houdini. But the 2008 failure, among other needs, drove the 2012 Obama team to bring technologists in-house.
With election day bearing down on them, they knew they could not go down. And yet they had to accommodate much more strain on the systems as interest in the election picked up toward the end, as it always does. Mark Trammell, who worked for Twitter during its period of exponential growth, thought it would have been easy for the Obama team to fall into many of the pitfalls that the social network did back then. But while the problems of scaling both technology and culture quickly might have been similar, the stakes were much higher. A fail whale (cough) in the days leading up to or on November 6 would have been neither charming nor funny. In a race that at least some people thought might be very close, it could have cost the President the election.
And of course, the team's only real goal was to elect the President. "We have to elect the President. We don't need to sell our software to Oracle," Reed told his team. But the secondary impact of their success or failure would be to prove that campaigns could effectively hire and deploy top-level programming talent. If they failed, it would be evidence that this stuff might be best left to outside political technology consultants, by whom the arena had long been handled. If Reed's team succeeded, engineers might become as enshrined in the mechanics of campaigns as social-media teams already are.
We now know what happened. The grand technology experiment worked. So little went wrong that Trammell and Reed even had time to cook up a little pin to celebrate. It said, "YOLO," short for "You Only Live Once," with the Obama Os.
When Obama campaign chief Jim Messina signed off on hiring Reed, he told him, "Welcome to the team. Don't fuck it up." As Election Day ended and the dust settled, it was clear: Reed had not fucked it up.
The campaign had turned out more volunteers and gotten more donors than in 2008. Sure, the field organization was more entrenched and experienced, but the difference stemmed in large part from better technology. The tech team's key products -- Dashboard, the Call Tool, the Facebook Blaster, the PeopleMatcher, and Narwhal -- made it simpler and easier for anyone to engage with the President's reelection effort.
The nerds shook up an ossifying Democratic tech structure and the politicos taught the nerds a thing or two about stress, small-p politics, and the meaning of life.
But it wasn't easy. Reed's team came in as outsiders to the campaign and by most accounts, remained that way. The divisions among the tech, digital, and analytics team never quite got resolved, even if the end product has salved the sore spots that developed over the stressful months. At their worst, in early 2012, the cultural differences between tech and everybody else threatened to derail the whole grand experiment.
By the end, the campaign produced exactly what it should have: a hybrid of the desires of everyone on Obama's team. They raised hundreds of millions of dollars online, made unprecedented progress in voter targeting, and built everything atop the most stable technical infrastructure of any presidential campaign. To go a step further, I'd even say that this clash of cultures was a good thing: The nerds shook up an ossifying Democratic tech structure and the politicos taught the nerds a thing or two about stress, small-p politics, and the significance of elections.
YOLO: MEET THE OBAMA CAMPAIGN'S CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER
If you're a nerd, Harper Reed is an easy guy to like. He's brash and funny and smart. He gets you and where you came from. He, too, played with computers when they weren't cool, and learned to code because he just could not help himself. You could call out nouns, phenomena, and he'd be right there with you: BBS, warez, self-organizing systems, Rails, the quantified self, Singularity. He wrote his first programs at age seven, games that his mom typed into their Apple IIC. He, too, has a memory that all nerds share: Late at night, light from a chunky monitor illuminating his face, fingers flying across a keyboard, he figured something out.
TV news segments about cybersecurity might look lifted straight from his memories, but the b-roll they shot of darkened rooms and typing hands could not convey the sense of exhilaration he felt when he built something that works. Harper Reed got the city of Chicago to create an open and real-time feed of its transit data by reverse engineering how they served bus location information. Why? Because it made his wife Hiromi's commute a little easier. Because it was fun to extract the data from the bureaucracy and make it available to anyone who wanted it. Because he is a nerd.
Yet Reed has friends like the manager of the hip-hop club Empire who, when we walk into the place early on the Friday after the election, says, "Let me grab you a shot." Surprisingly, Harper Reed is a chilled vodka kind of guy. Unsurprisingly, Harper Reed read Steven Levy's Hackers as a kid. Surprisingly, the manager, who is tall and handsome with rock-and-roll hair flowing from beneath a red beanie, returns to show Harper photographs of his kids. They've known each other for a long while. They are really growing up.
As the night rolls on, and the club starts to fill up, another friend approached us: DJ Hiroki, who was spinning that night. Harper Reed knows the DJ. Of course. And Hiroki grabs us another shot. (At this point I'm thinking, "By the end of the night, either I pass out or Reed tells me something good.") Hiroki's been DJing at Empire for years, since Harper Reed was the crazy guy you can see on his public Facebook photos. In one shot from 2006, a skinny Reed sits in a bathtub with a beer in his hand, two thick band tattoos running across his chest and shoulders. He is not wearing any clothes. The caption reads, "Stop staring, it's not there i swear!" What makes Harper Reed different isn't just that the photo exists, but that he kept it public during the election.
He may be like you, but he also juggles better than you, and is wilder than you, more fun than you, cooler than you.
Yet if you've spent a lot of time around tech people, around Burning Man devotees, around startups, around San Francisco, around BBSs, around Reddit, Harper Reed probably makes sense to you. He's a cool hacker. He gets profiled by Mother Jones even though he couldn't talk with Tim Murphy, their reporter. He supports open source. He likes Japan. He says fuck a lot. He goes to hipster bars that serve vegan Mexican food, and where a quarter of the staff and clientele have mustaches.
He may be like you, but he also juggles better than you, and is wilder than you, more fun than you, cooler than you. He's what a king of the nerds really looks like. Sure, he might grow a beard and put on a little potbelly, but he wouldn't tuck in his t-shirt. He is not that kind of nerd. Instead, he's got plugs in his ears and a shock of gloriously product-mussed hair and hipster glasses and he doesn't own a long-sleeve dress shirt, in case you were wondering.
"Harper is an easy guy to underestimate because he looks funny. That might be part of his brand," said Chris Sacca, a well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist and major Obama bundler who brought a team of more than a dozen technologists out for an Obama campaign hack day.
Reed, for his part, has the kind of self-awareness that faces outward. His self-announced flaws bristle like quills. "I always look like a fucking idiot," Reed told me. "And if you look like an asshole, you have to be really good."
It was a lesson he learned early out in Greeley, Colorado, where he grew up. "I had this experience where my dad hired someone to help him out because his network was messed up and he wanted me to watch. And this was at a very unfortunate time in my life where I was wearing very baggy pants and I had a Marilyn Manson shirt on and I looked like an asshole. And my father took me aside and was like, 'Why do you look like an asshole?' And I was like, 'I don't know. I don't have an answer.' But I realized I was just as good as the guys fixing it," Reed recalled. "And they didn't look like me and I didn't look like them. And if I'm going to do this, and look like an idiot, I have to step up. Like if we're all at zero, I have to be at 10 because I have this stupid mustache."
And in fact, he may actually be at 10. Sacca said that with technical people, it's one thing to look at their resumes and another to see how they are viewed among their peers. "And it was amazing how many incredibly well regarded hackers that I follow on Twitter rejoiced and celebrated [when Reed was hired]," Sacca said. "Lots of guys who know how to spit out code, they really bought that."
By the time Sacca brought his Silicon Valley contingent out to Chicago, he called the technical team "top notch." After all, we're talking about a group of people who had Eric Schmidt sitting in with them on Election Day. You had to be good. The tech world was watching.
Terry Howerton, the head of the Illinois Technology Association and a frank observer of Chicago's tech scene, had only glowing things to say about Reed. "Harper Reed? I think he's wicked smart," Howerton said. "He knows how to pull people together. I think that was probably what attracted the rest of the people there. Harper is responsible for a huge percentage of the people who went over there."
Reed's own team found their co-workers particularly impressive. One testament to that is several startups might spin out of the connections people made at the OFA headquarters, such as Optimizely, a tool for website A/B testing, which spun out of Obama's 2008 bid. (Sacca's actually an investor in that one, too.)
"A CTO role is a weird thing," said Carol Davidsen, who left Microsoft to become the product manager for Narwhal. "The primary responsibility is getting good engineers. And there really was no one else like him that could have assembled these people that quickly and get them to take a pay cut and move to Chicago."
And yet, the very things that make Reed an interesting and beloved person are the same things that make him an unlikely pick to become the chief technology officer of the reelection campaign of the President of the United States. Political people wear khakis. They only own long-sleeve dress shirts. Their old photos on Facebook show them canvassing for local politicians and winning cross-country meets.
I asked Michael Slaby, Obama's 2008 chief technology officer, and the guy who hired Harper Reed this time around, if it wasn't risky to hire this wild guy into a presidential campaign. "It's funny to hear you call it risky, it seems obvious to me," Slaby said. "It seems crazy to hire someone like me as CTO when you could have someone like Harper as CTO."
THE NERDS ARE INSIDE THE BUILDING
The strange truth is that campaigns have long been low-technologist, if not low-technology, affairs. Think of them as a weird kind of niche startup and you can see why. You have very little time, maybe a year, really. You can't afford to pay very much. The job security, by design, is nonexistent. And even though you need to build a massive "customer" base and develop the infrastructure to get money and votes from them, no one gets to exit and make a bunch of money. So, campaign tech has been dominated by people who care about the politics of the thing, not the technology of the thing. The websites might have looked like solid consumer web applications, but they were not under the hood.
For all the hoopla surrounding the digital savvy of President Obama's 2008 campaign, and as much as everyone I spoke with loved it, it was not as heavily digital or technological as it is now remembered. "Facebook was about one-tenth of the size that it is now. Twitter was a nothing burger for the campaign. It wasn't a core or even peripheral part of our strategy," said Teddy Goff, Digital Director of Obama for America and a veteran of both campaigns. Think about the killer tool of that campaign, my.barackobama.com; It borrowed the my from MySpace.
Sure, the '08 campaign had Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, but Hughes was the spokesperson for the company, not its technical guy. The '08 campaigners, Slaby told me, had been "opportunistic users of technology" who "brute forced and baling wired" different pieces of software together. Things worked (most of the time), but everyone, Slaby especially, knew that they needed a more stable platform for 2012.
In 2008, Facebook was about one-tenth of the size that it is now. Twitter was a nothing burger for the campaign. It wasn't a core or even peripheral part of the strategy.
Campaigns, however, even Howard Dean's famous 2004 Internet-enabled run at the Democratic nomination, did not hire a bunch of technologists. Though they hired a couple, like Clay Johnson, they bought technology from outside consultants. For 2012, Slaby wanted to change all that. He wanted dozens of engineers in-house, and he got them.
"The real innovation in 2012 is that we had world-class technologists inside a campaign," Slaby told me. "The traditional technology stuff inside campaigns had not been at the same level." And yet the technologists, no matter how good they were, brought a different worldview, set of personalities, and expectations.
Campaigns are not just another Fortune 500 company or top-50 website. They have their own culture and demands, strange rigors and schedules. The deadlines are hard and the pressure would be enough to press the t-shirt of even the most battle-tested startup veteran.
To really understand what happened behind the scenes at the Obama campaign, you need to know a little bit about its organizational structure. Tech was Harper Reed's domain. "Digital" was Joe Rospars' kingdom; his team was composed of the people who sent you all those emails, designed some of the consumer-facing pieces of BarackObama.com, and ran the campaigns' most-excellent accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, video, and the like. Analytics was run by Dan Wagner, and those guys were responsible for coming up with ways of finding and targeting voters they could persuade or turn out. Jeremy Bird ran Field, the on-the-ground operations of organizing voters at the community level that many consider Obama's secret sauce . The tech for the campaign was supposed to help the Field, Analytics, and Digital teams do their jobs better. Tech, in a campaign or at least this campaign or perhaps any successful campaign, has to play a supporting role. The goal was not to build a product. The goal was to reelect the President. As Reed put it, if the campaign were Moneyball, he wouldn't be Billy Beane, he'd be "Google Boy."
There's one other interesting component to the campaign's structure. And that's the presence of two big tech vendors interfacing with the various teams -- Blue State Digital and NGP Van. The most obvious is the firm that Rospars, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, and Clay Johnson co-founded, Blue State Digital. They're the preeminent progressive digital agency, and a decent chunk -- maybe 30 percent -- of their business comes from providing technology to campaigns. Of course, BSD's biggest client was the Obama campaign and has been for some time. BSD and Obama for America were and are so deeply enmeshed, it would be difficult to say where one ended and the other began. After all, both Goff and Rospars, the company's principals, were paid staffers of the Obama campaign. And yet between 2008 and 2012, BSD was purchased by WPP, one of the largest ad agencies in the world. What had been an obviously progressive organization was now owned by a huge conglomerate and had clients that weren't other Democratic politicians.
One other thing to know about Rospars, specifically: "He's the Karl Rove of the Internet."
One other thing to know about Rospars, specifically: "He's the Karl Rove of the Internet," someone who knows him very well told me. What Rove was to direct mail -- the undisputed king of the medium -- Rospars is to email. He and Goff are the brains behind Obama's unprecedented online fundraising efforts. They know what they were doing and had proven that time and again.
The complex relationship between BSD and the Obama campaign adds another dimension to the introduction of an inside team of technologists. If all campaigns started bringing their technology in house, perhaps BSD's tech business would begin to seem less attractive, particularly if many of the tools that such an inside team created were developed as open source products.
So, perhaps the tech team was bound to butt heads with Rospars' digital squad. Slaby would note, too, that the organizational styles of the two operations were very different. "Campaigns aren't traditionally that collaborative," he said. "Departments tend to be freestanding. They are organized kind of like disaster response -- siloed and super hierarchical so that things can move very quickly."
Looking at it all from the outside, both the digital and tech teams had really good, mission-oriented reasons for wanting their way to carry the day. The tech team could say, "Hey, we've done this kind of tech before at larger scale and with more stability than you've ever had. Let us do this." And the digital team could say, "Yeah, well, we elected the president and we know how to win, regardless of the technology stack. Just make what we ask for."
The way that the conflict played out was over things like the user experience on the website. Jason Kunesh was the director of UX for the tech team. He had many years of consulting under his belt for big and small companies like Microsoft and LeapFrog. He, too, from an industry perspective knew what he was doing. So, he ran some user interrupt tests on the website to determine how people were experiencing www.barackobama.com. What he found was that the website wasn't even trying to make a go at persuading voters. Rather, everyone got funneled into the fundraising "trap." When he raised that issue with Goff and Rospars, he got a response that I imagine was something like, "Duh. Now STFU," but perhaps in more words. And from the Goff/Rospars perspective, think about it: the system they'd developed could raise $3 million *from a single email.* The sorts of moves they had learned how to make had made a difference of tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Why was this Kunesh guy coming around trying to tell them how to run a campaign?
From Kunesh's perspective, though, there was no reason to think that you had to run this campaign the same as you did the last one. The outsider status that the team both adopted and had applied to them gave them the right to question previous practices.
Tech sometimes had difficulty building what the Field team, a hallowed group within the campaign's world, wanted. Most of that related to the way that they launched Dashboard, the online outreach tool. If you look at Dashboard at the end of the campaign, you see a beautifully polished product that let you volunteer any way you wanted. It's secure and intuitive and had tremendously good uptime as the campaign drew to a close.
But that wasn't how the first version of Dashboard looked.
The tech team's plan was to roll out version 1 with a limited feature set, iterate, roll out version 2, iterate, and so on and so forth until the software was complete and bulletproof. Per Kunesh's telling, the Field people were used to software that looked complete but that was unreliable under the hood. It looked as if you could do the things you needed to do, but the software would keep falling down and getting patched, falling down and getting patched, all the way through a campaign. The tech team did not want that. They might be slower, but they were going to build solid products.
In the movie version of the campaign, there's probably a meeting where I'm about to get fired and I throw myself on the table
Reed's team began to trickle into Chicago beginning in May of 2011. They promised, over-optimistically, that they'd release a version of Dashboard just a few months after the team arrived. The first version was not impressive. "August 29, 2011, my birthday, we were supposed to have a prototype out of Dashboard, that was going to be the public launch," Kunesh told me. "It was freaking horrible, you couldn't show it to anyone. But I'd only been there 13 weeks and most of the team had been there half that time."
As the tech team struggled to translate what people wanted into usable software, trust in the tech team -- already shaky -- kept eroding. By Februrary of 2012, Kunesh started to get word that people on both the digital and field teams had agitated to pull the plug on Dashboard and replace the tech team with somebody, anybody, else.
"A lot of the software is kind of late. It's looking ugly and I go out on this Field call," Kunesh remembered. "And people are like, 'Man, we should fire your bosses man... We gotta get the guys from the DNC. They don't know what the hell you're doing.' I'm sitting there going, 'I'm gonna get another margarita.'"
While the responsibility for their early struggles certainly falls to the tech team, there were mitigating factors. For one, no one had ever done what they were attempting to do. Narwhal had to connect to a bunch of different vendors' software, some of which turned out to be surprisingly arcane and difficult. Not only that, but there were differences in the way field offices in some states did things and how campaign HQ thought they did things. Tech wasted time building things that it turned out people didn't need or want.
"In the movie version of the campaign, there's probably a meeting where I'm about to get fired and I throw myself on the table," Slaby told me. But in reality, what actually happened was Obama's campaign chief Jim Messina would come by Slaby's desk and tell him, "Dude, this has to work." And Slaby would respond, "I know. It will," and then go back to work.
In fact, some shakeups were necessary. Reed and Slaby sent some product managers packing and brought in more traditional ones like former Microsoft PM Carol Davidsen. "You very much have to understand the campaign's hiring strategy: 'We'll hire these product managers who have campaign experience, then hire engineers who have technical experience -- and these two worlds will magically come together.' That failed," Davidsen said. "Those two groups of people couldn't talk to each other."
Then, in the late spring, all the products that the tech team had been promising started to show up. Dashboard got solid. You didn't have to log in a bunch of times if you wanted to do different things on the website. Other smaller products rolled out. "The stuff we told you about for a year is actually happening," Kunesh recalled telling the Field team. "You're going to have one login and have all these tools and it's all just gonna work."
Perhaps most importantly, Narwhal really got on track, thanks no doubt to Davidsen's efforts as well as Josh Thayer's, the lead engineer who arrived in April. What Narwhal fixed was a problem that's long plagued campaigns. You have all this data coming in from all these places -- the voter file, various field offices, the analytics people, the website, mobile stuff. In 2008, and all previous races, the numbers changed once a day. It wasn't real-time. And the people looking to hit their numbers in various ways out in the field offices -- number of volunteers and dollars raised and voters persuaded -- were used to seeing that update happen like that.
But from an infrastructure level, how much better would it be if you could sync that data in real time across the entire campaign? That's what Narwhal was supposed to do. Davidsen, in true product-manager form, broke down precisely how it all worked. First, she said, Narwhal wasn't really one thing, but several. Narwhal was just an initially helpful brand for the bundle of software.
In reality, it had three components. "One is vendor integration: BSD, NGP, VAN [the latter two companies merged in 2010]. Just getting all of that data into the system and getting it in real time as soon as it goes in one system to another," she said. "The second part is an API portion. You don't want a million consumers getting data via SQL." The API allowed people to access parts of the data without letting them get at the SQL database on the backend. It provided a safe way for Dashboard, the Call Tool (which helped people make calls), and the Twitter Blaster to pull data. And the last part was the presentation of the data that was in the system. While the dream had been for all applications to run through Narwhal in real time, it turned out that couldn't work. So, they split things into real-time applications like the Call Tool or things on the web. And then they provided a separate way for the Analytics people, who had very specific needs, to get the data in a different form. Then, whatever they came up with was fed back into Narwhal.
It's just change management. It's not complicated; it's just hard.
By the end, Davidsen thought all the teams' relationships had improved, even before Obama's big win. She credited a weekly Wednesday drinking and hanging out session that brought together all the various people working on the campaign's technology. By the very end, some front-end designers who were technically on the digital team had embedded with the tech squad to get work done faster. Tech might not have been fully integrated, but it was fully operational. High fives were in the air.
Slaby, with typical pragmatism, put it like this. "Our supporters don't give a shit about our org chart. They just want to have a meaningful experience. We promise them they can play a meaningful role in politics and they don't care about the departments in the campaign. So we have to do the work on our side to look integrated and have our shit together," he said. "That took some time. You have to develop new trust with people. It's just change management. It's not complicated; it's just hard."
WHAT THEY ACTUALLY BUILT
Of course, the tech didn't exist for its own sake. It was meant to be used by the organizers in the field and the analysts in the lab. Let's just run through some of the things that actually got accomplished by the tech, digital, and analytics teams beyond of Narwhal and Dashboard.
They created the most sophisticated email fundraising program ever. The digital team, under Rospars leadership, took their data-driven strategy to a new level. Any time you received an email from the Obama campaign, it had been tested on 18 smaller groups and the response rates had been gauged. The campaign thought all the letters had a good chance of succeeding, but the worst-performing letters did only 15 to 20 percent of what the best-performing emails could deliver. So, if a good performer could do $2.5 million, a poor performer might only net $500,000. The genius of the campaign was that it learned to stop sending poor performers.
Obama became the first presidential candidate to appear on Reddit, the massive popular social networking site. And yes, he really did type in his own answers with Goff at his side. One fascinating outcome of the AMA is that 30,000 Redditors registered to vote after President dropped in a link to the Obama voter registration page. Oh, and the campaign also officially has the most tweeted tweet and the most popular Facebook post. Not bad. I would also note that Laura Olin, a former strategist at Blue State Digital who moved to the Obama campaign, ran the best campaign Tumblr the world will probably ever see.
With Davidsen's help, the Analytics team built a tool they called The Optimizer, which allowed the campaign to buy eyeballs on television more cheaply. They took set-top box (that is to say, your cable or satellite box or DVR) data from Davidsen's old startup, Navik Networks, and correlated it with the campaign's own data. This occurred through a third party called Epsilon: the campaign sent its voter file and the television provider sent their billing file and boom, a list came back of people who had done certain things like, for example, watched the first presidential debate. Having that data allowed the campaign to buy ads that they knew would get in front of the most of their people at the least cost. They didn't have to buy the traditional stuff like the local news, either. Instead, they could run ads targeted to specific types of voters during reruns or off-peak hours.
According to CMAG/Kantar, the Obama's campaign's cost per ad was lower ($594) than the Romney campaign ($666) or any other major buyer in the campaign cycle. That difference may not sound impressive, but the Obama campaign itself aired more than 550 thousand ads. And it wasn't just about cost, either. They could see that some households were only watching a couple hours of TV a day and might be willing to spend more to get in front of those harder-to-reach people.
Goff described the Facebook tool as "the most significant new addition to the voter contact arsenal that's come around in years, since the phone call."
The digital, tech, and analytics teams worked to build Twitter and Facebook Blasters. They ran on a service that generated microtargeting data that was built by Will St. Clair. It was code named
Täärgus Taargüs for some reason. With Twitter, one of
the company's former employees, Mark Trammell, helped build a tool that could specifically send individual users direct messages. "We built an
influence score for the people following the [Obama for America] accounts and then cross-referenced those for specific things we were trying to target,
battleground states, that sort of stuff." Meanwhile, the teams also built an opt-in Facebook outreach program that sent people messages saying,
essentially, "Your friend, Dave in Ohio, hasn't voted yet. Go tell him to vote." Goff described the Facebook tool as "the most significant new addition to the voter
contact arsenal that's come around in years, since the phone call."
Last but certainly not least, you have the digital team's Quick Donate. It essentially brought the ease of Amazon's one-click purchases to political donations. "It's the absolute epitome of how you can make it easy for people to give money online," Goff said. "In terms of fundraising, that's as innovative as we needed to be." Storing people's payment information also let the campaign receive donations via text messages long before the Federal Elections Commission approved an official way of doing so. They could simply text people who'd opted in a simple message like, "Text back with how much money you'd like to donate." Sometimes people texted much larger dollar amounts back than the $10 increments that mobile carriers allow.
It's an impressive array of accomplishments. What you can do with data and code just keeps advancing. "After the last campaign, I got introduced as the CTO of the most technically advanced campaign ever," Slaby said. "But that's true of every CTO of every campaign every time." Or, rather, it's true of one campaign CTO every time.
That next most technically advanced CTO, in 2016, will not be Harper Reed. A few days after the election, sitting with his wife at Wicker Park's Handlebar, eating fish tacos, and drinking a Daisy Cutter pale ale, Reed looks happy. He'd told me earlier in the day that he'd never experienced stress until the Obama campaign, and I believe him.
He regaled us with stories about his old performance troupe, Jugglers Against Homophobia, wild clubbing and DJs. "It was this whole world of having fun and living in the moment," Reed said. "And there was a lot of doing that on the Internet."
"I spent a lot of time hacking doing all this stuff, building websites, building communities, working all the time, " Reed said, "and then a lot of time drinking, partying, and hanging out. And I had to choose when to do which."
We left Handlebar and made a quick pitstop at the coffee shop, Wormhole, where he first met Slaby. Reed cracks that it's like Reddit come to life. Both of them remember the meeting the same way: Slaby playing the role of square, Reed playing the role of hipster. And two minutes later, they were ready to work together. What began 18 months ago in that very spot was finally coming to an end. Reed could stop being Obama for America's CTO and return to being "Harper Reed, probably one of the coolest guys ever," as his personal webpage is titled.
But of course, he and his whole team of nerds were changed by the experience. They learned what it was like to have -- and work with people who had -- a higher purpose than building cool stuff. "Teddy [Goff] would tear up talking about the President. I would be like, 'Yeah, that guy's cool,'" Reed said. "It was only towards the end, the middle of 2012, when we realized the gravity of what we were doing."
Part of that process was Reed, a technologist's technologist, learning the limits of his own power. "I remember at one point basically breaking down during the campaign because I was losing control. The success of it was out of my hands," he told me. "I felt like the people I hired were right, the resources we argued for were right. And because of a stupid mistake, or people were scared and they didn't adopt the technology or whatever, something could go awry. We could lose."
And losing, they felt more and more deeply as the campaign went on, would mean horrible things for the country. They started to worry about the next Supreme Court Justices while they coded.
"There is the egoism of technologists. We do it because we can create. I can handle all of the parameters going into the machine and I know what is going to come out of it," Reed said. "In this, the control we all enjoyed about technology was gone."
We finished our drinks, ready for what was almost certainly going to be a long night, and headed to our first club. The last thing my recorder picked up over the bass was me saying to Harper, "I just saw someone buy Hennessy. I've never seen someone buy Hennessy." Then, all I can hear is that music.
Nest is an awesome gadget that will over time pay for itself.
It would be hard to come up with any single area of energy that is less sexy than efficiency. Efficiency is the realm of window panes and insulation. The most widely adopted thing to come along for consumers who want to buy efficient stuff has been a special kind of light bulb Think about that.
Meanwhile, our gadgets are just about the coolest things in the consumer world. They are what people buy each other for the holidays and they are what teenagers want to own. There is a reason that Apple is worth more than a hundred billion dollars more than Exxon these days. People really, really like buying gadgets.
Nest is the love child of efficiency and gadgets. Co-founded by Tony Fadell and other Apple veterans, the company has somehow created a craveable thermostat, something you want to own because it's cool. "It's a thermostat!" I yelled at myself when I purchased one of the $250 gadgets. But then some other part of my brain responded, "No, it's an awesome gadget that will eventually pay for itself." And that's a pretty compelling proposition.
In a series of videos this week, the company's VP of Technology, Yoky Matsuoka, will explain how the Nest learns to save you money. And why someone like her, a specialist in artificial intelligence who ran a robotics laboratory at the University of Washington, ended up working for a thermostat company. The one at the top of this post kicks off the series.
Pinterest's user experience has drawn most of the attention, but the data users generate are what's really interesting.Ben Silbermann is quiet, reserved even. When I arrived at GigaOm's Roadmap conference this week, he wasn't in the speakers room BSing with the journalists and entrepeneurs there. Instead, he was sitting quietly backstage watching Om Malik interview Evan Williams under the bright lights on a small monitor. When I asked him how he was doing, he told me about life with his infant. We both watched a clock count down to the moment when we had to go on.
Just wait for 2016.
One of the leading narratives of the 2012 campaign is that data trumped all. Nate Silver! The polling was dead on! The blowhard pundits were wrong! The Obama campaign's Internet money machine got people to give lots of money over the summer with George Clooney-dinner enticements tailor made for West Coast females aged 40 to 49!
Some Romney aides were surprised too, especially since they had put an enormous amount of effort into tracking the hour-by-hour whims of the electorate. In recent weeks the campaign came up with a super-secret, super-duper vote monitoring system that was dubbed Project Orca. The name "Orca," after the whale, was apparently chosen to suggest that the project was bigger than anything any other campaign, including Barack Obama's in 2008, had ever imagined. For the project, Romney aides gathered about 34,000 volunteers spread across the swing states to send in information about what was happening at the polls. "The project operates via a web-based app volunteers use to relay the most up-to-date poll information to a 'national dashboard' at the Boston headquarters," said a campaign email on election eve. "From there, data will be interpreted and utilized to plan voter turnout tactics on Election Day."
Orca, which was headquartered in a giant war room spread across the floor of the Boston Garden, turned out to be problematic at best. Early in the evening, one aide said that, as of 4 p.m., Orca still projected a Romney victory of somewhere between 290 and 300 electoral votes. Obviously that didn't happen. Later, another aide said Orca had pretty much crashed in the heat of the action. "Somebody said Orca is lying on the beach with a harpoon in it," said the aide.
Let's not forget, either, that it was only in 2004 that it was Karl Rove and Republicans who were perceived (rightly, in my mind) to hold the edge on data.
Or take these details from Josh Green's 2004 Atlantic feature on Rove, who was, after all, a direct-mail guy.
But in the key state of Ohio, Mr Bush's support of a ban on gay marriage and opposition to abortion persuaded a critical margin of voters to overcome their economic concerns about job losses and support his re-election.
The Bush campaign plan was built by long-time adviser Karl Rove. It relied on creating an intricate database of evangelical Christians and others united by conservative issues such as abortion, gun control and same-sex marriages.
In the campaign's final days, core Bush supporters turned out a network of friends and family, overwhelming the Democrats' own strong turnout campaign.
"The thing that was most important to him was the mechanics: making certain that the campaign could block and tackle," recalls a staffer who worked for Rove's direct-mail firm in the 1980s and 1990s. Rove would typically begin a race by constructing seven-layer spreadsheets of the electoral history of a particular office, charting where votes for each candidate had originated and which groups had supplied them. In the 1980s these data led Rove to conclude that his candidates ought to target "ticket-splitters"--Texans who supported Ronald Reagan for President but voted Democratic in downballot races.
Rove's direct-mail experience had provided him with a nuanced understanding of precisely what motivates ticket-splitters. According to Karl Rove & Co. data on the 1994 Texas governor's race, Rove was aware, for instance, that households that received a single piece of mail turned out for Bush at a rate of 15.45 percent, and those that received three pieces at a rate of 50.83 percent. Turnout peaked at seven pieces (57.88 percent), after which enthusiasm for Bush presumably gave way to feelings of inundation, and support began to drop.
What's my point in all this? The left's celebrating the analytical method right now as if it belonged to them. But it doesn't. Regardless of whatever Peggy Noonan was saying publicly, this election was not a triumph of data over no data, of rigor over hunch. The 2012 election was a triumph of Democratic data over Republican data.
And you can bet that the first thing Republican operatives are doing right now is
taking a lot of Advil building a (better) mobile-first data strategy for 2016.
Update: I slipped that "(better)" into my last line based on Nick Judd's reporting at Tech President. The Romney team was operating "under a mobile-first digital strategy," he told me.
A new compose window makes writing emails much smoother.
Remember a few months ago, when I went on a whiny rant called, "What Went Wrong With Gmail?" In it, I accused the company of messing with a user experience that wasn't broken and in the process, made it terrible. In that version of Gmail, it was very difficult to email while you had chat windows open. If you spend your entire day emailing and chatting, that's a brutal, 10-hours-a-day problem.
Well, over the past few days, Google has been rolling out a new design for the window where you write your email. It feels more like a big chat window than the old compose function used to, and I love it. The trick it plays on my brain is to make it feel *easier* to write an email. In a sense, it's a move towards that Facebookian world where a message is a message is a message and there is no differentiation between lengths and genres, platforms and devices.
But it is a small step in that direction.
The big improvement is that the interface is clean, stripped of all the whistles, whitespace everywhere. It's ultrasimple.
There are some people who don't like it like my left-handed friend Meredith Hindley, who doesn't think the box should be anchored in the right corner of the screen...
But I'm guessing the majority of people will, like me, immediately love it.
P.S. Google is doing its traditional slowish rollout, so if you don't have the option to try the new compose window now, you will soon.
Our information networks no longer even try to optimize for truth. Here's how we worked with the imperfect system.
First came the fakes. Old storm photos dredged up and labeled Sandy. Photoshopped sharks in a flooded New Jersey town. A still from the Day After Tomorrow of the Statue of Liberty. An empty Times Square. A scuba diver in Times Square station. A lost seal borrowed from Duluth.
But very early Tuesday morning, a few hours after Sandy had made landfall, the flow of fake images of the storm began to slow, and by Tuesday afternoon, the unbelievable photographs of damage were almost all, tragically, real. For two days, our team here at The Atlantic along with journalist Tom Phillips (@flashboy) did our best to reduce the amount of disinformation spreading on the web and to confirm the work that amateurs and pros alike were publishing about the storm. Through the hours of detail-oriented tasks, some thoughts accumulated in my head about the state of our information ecosystem. I'm not sure if they're waste products -- like leftover browser tabs from a wild Internet goose chase -- or if they're an interesting distillate, but I thought I'd share them. I'm wary of overlearning from one case. And yet this is what I saw.
What is it to experience a major and fast-moving news event primarily through the Internet? I don't think we've done nearly enough anthropological research on this topic. We know what it is to sit in front of a network news or cable news or even the radio. (One of my most distinct memories of childhood is sitting in front of the TV watching the LA riots unfold, drawing fantastical guns in a sketchbook.) Without really knowing it, you learned how to discount or rely on information depending on where it was coming from. If you saw a shot of dozens of fires across Los Angeles taken from a helicopter, you could count on that being real. If anchors said on the air that there were snipers on the 405, you knew to weight that report appropriately.
The nominal authority of the media and the natural authority of their live, on-sceneness combined to create an experience you could pretty much believe. What you watched was certainly mediated and in no way unproduced. The reports media outlets produced could be biased or wrong or framed in an idiotic way or otherwise terrible, but during a breaking news event, they were rarely total and complete bullshit. (Caveat granted that this is not 100 percent true: see, for example, the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad.) But at the very least, some reporter had to stand on television and put his or her name on a story. In our mostly correct and psychologically satisfying desire to criticize the mainstream media's flaws, we sometimes forget how many techniques and procedures they developed over the 20th century that were good. Not out of the goodness of their own hearts, but because the incentives of their industry aligned to encourage veracity and the culture stuck. Judith Miller and the New York Times at least had to answer for her inaccurate reports about Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.
The same incentives do not exist for most of the people who post the things you see when you're paging through Facebook, reading forwarded emails, scrolling through Tweets, or thumbing around Instagram. All of these platforms *want* you to post photographs. The algorithms at Facebook privilege photographs because they are what people are most likely to interact with. And users love a picture that's worth a thousand words, four thousand Facebook likes, 900 retweets, a bunch of hearts, and some reblogs: everyone likes being an important node. The whole system tilts towards the consumption of visual content, of pictures and infographics and image macros.
Particularly in a situation like the build up to Sandy's landfall, everyone is just itching itching itching to post something cool and interesting about the storm. Rebecca Greenfield noted in The Atlantic Wire, people really *wanted* to believe certain kinds of fake photos because they wanted there to be something to say. After the fake photos stopped popping up, my friend Rob Dubbin (a Colbert Report writer), tweeted to me, "classic case of supply finally meeting demand." Once there were real storm photos, people were more than happy to post those. They were going to post storm photos, whether they existed or not.
In the drive to flatten the production of media, to make everyone a publisher, we've ended up destabilizing the system we have for surfacing bits of truth. All pictures are the same on Facebook (or other social networks). Fake photo from 2004. Stock photo from 2009. AP photo from last night. Your mom's friend's cousin's flight attendant sister's friend's photo. They're all in the stream, just as likeable. And if one turns out to be fake, well, no one's career is on the line. No one is responsible for amplifying bad information, and more often than not, it's impossible to figure out who the original source of it was.
I'm not one for writing GET OFF MY LAWN posts about the social web. People have been creating and spreading bullshit since language was invented. But the way that the sites work is part of the problem. Right now, social networks are platforms of decontextualization. They could make creating chains of attribution easier. They could preserve the data embedded in photographs better. Instagram and Facebook, especially, in their closedness, make it more difficult to find any given source of information. Sooner or later, all the networks are going to have to take on the responsibility that comes with being millions of people's window on the world. Facebook, in particular, optimizes what you see for what you're most likely to click on. Is that the appropriate way to deal with news about a massive, dangerous storm?
Of course, the people on these social networks (i.e. all of us) are partially responsible as well. So many people rip photographs out of context. But cut and paste also tends to erase: erase provenance, erase responsibility, erase the internal integrity of a digital object. For example, photos can come loaded with a bunch of metadata that helps interested parties understand where they came from. Reuters, say, puts out photos with captions, credit, and dates embedded in them. Or an Instagram photo can have a geotag. Facebook photos (obviously) indicate who posted them. But all it takes is a simple cut and paste to get rid of that stuff. What was a photograph by Reuters becomes just another pic on Instagram with the same level of built-in verification -- zero -- as the pic your cousin Anthony's cell phone pics. This is a huge loss of value.
Some things are the same as ever: The bigger your distribution platform, the more impact you have. But in the old days, people with the big guns developed an ethical code to deal with this responsibility. They created a culture that said, "You must get things right or you will pay for it with your job and credibility." Nowadays, there are many more small distribution channels, people who influence their friends. And they don't have the same sense of responsibility, nor any incentives to encourage them to get one.
Perhaps rightly so. It's not their job to get it right. And yet, they are doing the job of information dissemination that used to be done by professionals. That's the rub.
Given this current system and the tide of fake photos Sandy had brought, I decided to do the only thing that seemed likely to help, in some small way: create content that would A) counter the misinformation, B) have authority, and C) be as viral as the bad information. I began, with the help of my team, to try to verify each viral photo, collecting the results in one post. The results of our work reached nearly a million people.
The first decision we made was to focus on photographs. Those are relatively easy to debunk or confirm. And we could take advantage of the preference for visuals that I noted above.
Then, we realized that we needed a way to post the photos without adding to the problem. So, anytime we posted a fake photo, it had a prominent (digital) red sticker on it that said, "FAKE." And I put, in text overlaid on the photos, how we knew it was fake with a shortened URL to that information. That way, even if people did cut and paste those images, the key information would remain attached to them. In fact, the branding practically encouraged people to take the images and post them to social media. (We tried to meet the problematic system on its own terms.)
The hardest part was actually (B). Sure, we're The Atlantic. That helped. But I think the key was the tone of the post. We were not pronouncing from on high, but reporting from the Internet trenches. We were transparent about how we knew what we knew and left room for doubt, if appropriate.
We also drew heavily on our community, asking for help, and incorporating our networks into the search. People could see us thinking on their screens, and I think they saw that we were approaching this task fairly and with the pursuit of truth as a goal. I know that sounds high-minded, but you can't do this sort of thing for craven reasons or people smell it. I hope.
Along the way, I tried to note the techniques that we were using to try to verify information. This actually was part of the virality of the post. Each photograph was a mini-mystery that we were trying to unravel.
The second component of creating the conditions for viral spread was keeping every post in the same place. We didn't want to split the traffic and social media momentum between multiple URLs. In today's information marketplace, big posts tend to go VERY BIG, and everything else tends to sink like a rock.
The last part of the virality was that we used my Twitter account to talk about individual photos. I probably tweeted the link to the post 20 times, but each time focusing on the latest photograph that we'd demystified. Each tweet reinjected the entire idea back into the social ecosystem. Some got 500 or more retweets. And then as the story rippled outwards, people would find ways to scavenge the post for their own purposes. Oftentimes, people who'd tweeted fake photographs would tweet the post and apologize for having done so.
You can never make some things go viral, no matter how hard you try. In this case, though, all of our efforts paid off. Something like 900,000 people visited the post and many, many more saw tweets, Facebook posts, or references to the work. (For reference, that's more than twice the audience any post of mine has ever gathered.)
What we did was pair the long-developed media desire to get at the truth with the tools and ethos of the new ecosystem. I think we helped increase the truth-quotient of the social media posts out there by some small but measurable percentage. And that's one of the things I'm most proud of during my time at The Atlantic.
And yet, I know it was not enough. Millions of people think things happened in the world that did not.
With old media still largely moribund and no impending changes in the information ecosystem at the major social networks, the only current systematic answer is the laissez-faire one: over time, people will learn who to trust and who not to trust based on what they post. The people who "provide value" will win. I can't say that I saw such utopian ideas actually working during Sandy's media explosion on Monday. In fact, I saw the opposite. The best fake things -- like the sharks of New Jersey -- traveled further than anything real, precisely because they were designed as fictions to press our narrative buttons.
With Hurricane Sandy approaching the New York metro area, the nation's eyes are turning to its largest city. Photos of storms and flooding are popping up all over Twitter, and while many are real, some of them -- especially the really eye-popping ones -- are fake.
This post, which will be updated over the next couple of days, is an effort to sort the real from the unreal. It's a photograph verification service, you might say, or a pictorial investigation bureau. If you see a picture that looks fishy, send it to me at alexis.madrigal[at]gmail.com. If you like this sort of thing, you should also visit istwitterwrong.tumblr.com, which is just cataloging the fakes.
The fakes come in three varieties: 1) Real photos that were taken long ago, but that pranksters reintroduce as images of Sandy, 2) Photoshopped images that are straight up fake, and 3) The combination of the first two: old, Photoshopped pictures being trotted out again.
[Update, 10:30am: Alexis is at a conference this morning, so your morning photo-verification crew -- Atlantic social media editor Chris Heller, IsTwitterWrong's Tom Phillips, and I (Megan Garber) -- are taking over for the moment. Keep your submissions coming! You can send them to me at mgarber[at]theatlantic.com. --Megan]
This image of NYC -- and of, yes, a double rainbow -- made the rounds on social media this morning. (It was helped along by a Facebook post from none other than George Takei.)
You can see other takes on the same rainbow scene, also dated this morning, at the Mild Amusements Tumblr.
Less legit, unfortunately, is this wondrous image.
You so want it to be real ... but it is not. Or, at least, it's not real when it comes to Sandy. The image, best we can tell, dates from December 2011. It was taken in the Philippines during Tropical Storm Washi.
Here, on the other hand, is one you don't want to be real ... but it is.
Here's another, clearer shot of the Seaside Heights roller coaster -- different angle, same scene -- sent from Brian Thompson, who covers New Jersey for NBC News's local New York affiliate. And here's a statement from New Jersey governor Chris Christie confirming Seaside Heights's Boardwalk devastation and mentioning that "the roller coaster or the log flume is in the ocean." Sigh.
So the image is most likely a real one. It's been posted by JetBlue's blog. There are corroborating images -- including one sent from the Twitter account of the New York/New Jersey Port Authority -- that make clear visually what we know from news reports: that LaGuardia is, indeed, flooded. A high-res version of the C34 photo has been posted to Facebook by a fellow who seems to be a pilot.
Then again, that pilot -- after a cancelled flight due to Sandy -- was in Phoenix yesterday, according to another Facebook post, so it's unclear how he could have gotten to LaGuardia to take the photo himself given the airport's suspension of air traffic. Almost certainly, he's sharing an image he got somewhere else -- best evidenced by the lower-quality version of a similar image that was posted to Facebook several hours before the pilot's.
Also, we're not 100 percent sure that the photo originated with JetBlue. It's a tiny point, but as far as we can tell, JetBlue is served by Terminal B at LaGuardia, rather than Terminal C. So it's (a tiny bit) strange that JetBlue would be, itself, taking pictures of a gate that it doesn't use. Then again, it could just be that cabin-feverish airport workers and stranded travelers are roving the place, terminal by terminal -- and that this was the photo that the JetBlue folks chose to share.
Either way, we can't say for sure what the source of the image is at this point. So while it's likely the real thing, we'll call it "Unverified" for now, and will update when we find out more. If you have any tips, please do send them along.
Meanwhile, here's another verified photo:
The image isn't a still from a Christopher Nolan movie; instead it's a Reuters picture of the skyline of lower Manhattan shrouded in storm-induced darkness. That one lucky, lighted building? The Goldman Sachs headquarters. Though power outages encompassed everything from 14th Street on down -- and though the building at 200 West Street falls within that zone -- the building made use of a generator to keep the lights on. (Or to keep the power on, as it were.) This move was, unsurprisingly, controversial.
It's worth noting (Alexis here!) that part of the reason this photo is so striking is that it is very dark and the contrast is very high on the image. I took a look at other skyline photos of New York from earlier in the year and found that it wasn't that hard to make the Goldman building look ridiculously lit up by just pushing the contrast up and the brightness down. Like this:
I also found that if you took the Goldman image above and performed the opposite operation -- increasing the brightness, decreasing the contrast, the building didn't look quite so awkwardly bright in the early morning light.
Does this all make the Reuters photo less real? No. But it's a good reminder that the reality a photograph captures is always subject to the vagaries of lens and light. Small tweaks in the way you capture light can lead to very different images. (If you'd like a deeper reflection, I'd refer to Errol Morris.)
Also verified is this incredible image of a tanker washed up last night on the shores of Staten Island.
And ... yes, it is real. Here's video from last night's ABC Eyewitness News broadcast showing the tanker at rest. The journalists heard a report of the tanker's grounding; they sent reporter Michelle Charlesworth down to check it out for herself. She was greeted with a scene that, save for being actual, was incredible. "We just couldn't believe it," Charlesworth said in her broadcast. "It looks like something out of a movie."
This is an easy one: this scuba diver in a flooded Times Square station was trotted out before the storm. Gizmodo (which is down) had it up at 11:05am. It's fake. At best, think of it as an artist's conception.
Everything about the lit-up Jane's Carousel pictures from Dumbo scream fake. One, the carousel is gorgeous. Two, it's lit up like a beacon amidst the dark of the flood waters. Why are the lights on? Three, it seems difficult to get this photograph from that area. Shouldn't the photographer have evacuated?
Well, yes, it turns out. Anna Dorfman, a book designer who lives in Dumbo, took this photo shortly before evacuating. She's confirmed that she took it. Another Instagram user and Dumbo resident, Ana Adjelic, also posted a photo of the carousel from a different angle. And we also got independent confirmation from a journalist Jeff Howe that another friend who lives in the area had sent him similar photographs. These may be the most improbable and striking images of the night, and they are real. There will be moments of serendipity and islands of beauty amidst any storm.
Here's an meme that's been resurrected. This seal survived the Duluth Zoo flood earlier this year. He's now being trotted out as a "wide-eyed seal" that appeared in Manhattan. Do not be fooled. This is not from Sandy.
This 86th Street Station photo seems dubious. Brendan Cain laid out the case against the photo. "Track trough shouldn't be that opaque. It's not *that* deep," he wrote to me. He also noted that Broadway and 86th is 77 feet above sea level, much higher than downtown areas.
But, the origin of the photo is an Instagram user named ninjapito, who hashtagged his posts, #brooklyn. If it does turn out to be real, it is most likely a picture of the 86th Street Station out in Brooklyn. I'm keeping this one at unverified, but it is definitely *not* a photograph of the 86th Street station in Manhattan. Stay tuned for updates.
Ok, update 1:32am: Mashable Stephanie Haberman notes that the geotag on the Instagram photo is 9.5 miles away from the 86th Street station at which it was supposedly taken. Suspicious. Consider that circle down there to be closer to orange than yellow.
Dang, update 1:33am: Countervailing evidence! Brooklynite @RoseTintedVisor reports that the N line is, in fact, inundated with water, including the station near his house further down the line. "It looks like a fucking river," he told me. He also pointed me to another photo showing the N as waterway.
Update, 1:51am: @RoseTintedVisor delivered pics of his own from further down the N line. It looks bad.
Buzzfeed posted a shocking image of FDR Drive underwater without clear provenance although in the square style of Instagram. Our social media editor, Chris Heller, followed up on that video with a YouTube clip that clearly shows the road near the E 34th St exit under water. (That user, Ethan Ruttenberg has posted a series of videos of FDR under water to his YouTube account.) It's not a perfect verification, but even if someone took the time to create an elaborate fake, the reality outside is equally as bad.
I'm sad to report that this is as real as it gets. The photo below is an official Associated Press photograph by John Minchillo.
Risk management experts have warned that New York's subway infrastructure could flood. Still, this photo was one of the most suspect I've seen so far. Sadly, it turns out to be real. It shows water rushing into the Hoboken PATH station through an elevator shaft. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey just tweeted it from an official account. This actually happened.
Here we see massive flooding in Stuy Town at 20th and C. At first I was suspicious of this photo, but it appears to have been taken by Sriram Satish, an NYU Stern student who lives in that area.
I haven't been able to reach Satish, I reached Satish and he says that a friend of his posted it to Facebook, but that he's been in contact with that person and considers it verified. (The context provided in his Twitter feed also gives me confidence that this is a real photograph, i.e. he is a real person living in this area of New York.) It's also important to understand the geographical context of this photo. Though it looks like it was taken in the middle of the city, the East River is very, very close to where the photograph was taken. Take a look for yourself in Google Street View (That's the reverse shot of the image below.) So, it's plausible that this level of flooding could take place there.
Update: More confirmation of this level of flooding. Christopher Confessore emailed me this video, which was posted to the tenants' association. I'd say that's incontrovertible.
The latest photo to circulate on social media is a building that collapsed on 8th Ave in Manhattan. It is real. It was posted by journalist Meg Robertson, who has confirmed she took the photo and has posted several follow ups from the scene. (At least one other person near the building has also posted photographs.)
Here's a photo of a shark purportedly swimming in the streets of Brigantine, New Jersey, a city which has experienced serious flooding. This photo is fake. The shark fin was Photoshopped into the image of the city. Tom Phillips found the source shark fin in a Google Image Search, which I've overlaid on the original fake image in the GIF below.
This image popped up while we were researching a *different* supposed shark photo from Brigantine, which we have not been able to verify one way or the other. Though we've found no evidence to indicate that the photo below is fake, we're suspicious because of the number of times fake shark photos have cropped up during floods. The photo below was originally posted by Kevin McCarty, who appears to live in that town. This is a complicated situation because McCarty posted both of these photographs, one of which we now know to be fake, and on the Facebook thread for that image, people call out his Photoshop skills. It's still possible, all these hours later, that the photo below is real and McCarty decided to have some fun with the picture above, or that they are both fakes.
For fun, I overlaid the source photograph on the image of flooded New Jersey, so you can see how the job worked.
Here we see an example of the third variety: an old, Photoshopped image that's been cropped up for more than half a decade. This Statue of Liberty shot was actually created by merging a supercell image from Nebraska with one from New York. Snopes had long ago done the investigation on this.
Here we see midtown Manhattan in a real photograph ... taken in 2011. This photograph first ran in the Wall Street Journal, as sleuthed by IsTwitterWrong.
Here we see the Old Guard, which guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The photograph is absolutely real, but it was taken in September, as the Old Guard's Twitter feed has been pointing out this afternoon.
Not every stunning image is fake, though. Here's one from Red Hook, a Brooklyn neighborhood. The person who took this photograph, Nick Cope, has confirmed that it was taken today. And there is corroborating evidence both from local officials and journalists that Red Hook streets are flooding, particularly in this warehouse district (which I actually know well).
Updates (These Will Be Rolling)
Below, we see a still from movie, The Day After Tomorrow, which has had a New York TV logo superimposed on it to fool people.
@twitsplosion sent in this photo of Times Square, which has also been making the rounds. Unfortunately, it's a ZUMA Press image from August 2011.
The next two pics are both from Atlantic City. I haven't been able to track down the provenance of either, but I think they pass the plausibility test. The first was posted by Weatherboy Weather on Facebook with credit to an unlinked man, Dann Cuellar.
UPDATE, 9:14pm: Ok, mystery solved! The original Facebook poster misspelled Cuellar's name as 'Dan Cuellar.' Dann Cuellar is a reporter with WPVI in Philadelphia. It turns out, as we hypothesized, that it was taken from the Flagship Hotel. (We got there by noting that it was quite similar to this image geotagged from that same spot, although minus the flooding, of course). Cuellar's Twitter page has various other shots from the same location.
One of the reasons I'm willing to do so is that other photographs from the early high tide in Atlantic City corroborate that this area of the city was badly flooded. With Bing Maps, I was able to view the streets in this area and find plausible vantage points from which the photos could have been taken. (Google Maps did not have coverage of the area for some reason.) There is a tall building in just about the precise location that this photograph would have to be taken from. So, again, I'm wouldn't bet my life on it, but I think there is a very good change this photograph is real. If it's not, you should probably hire its creator for your next CGI spectacular.
And finally, Garance Franke-Ruta sent this one over, which didn't take too much investigation.
Thanks to @nathanjurgenson, @edyong209, @discoverymag, @neve_science_wx, @kathyf, @KateRoseMe, @harmonicait, @NigadamaSoup, and @sebprovencher for their help rounding up images.
The storm might be a thousand miles across, but its impact across the earth is even larger than that.
On most days, the simply named 'wind map, is a beautiful visualization of the nation's wind patterns. Little lines, representing the speed of the wind, swirl into swoops and swooshes and whorls. There are usually scores of different wind phenomena that appear on the map. But not today.
Today, the massive storm system heading right for the New York metro area has entangled a vast chunk of the continent's wind, not to mention the entire Atlantic's weather, which we don't see on this map. Sandy is a hemispheric scale storm. If you're east of the Mississippi and west of central Europe, this system is influencing the air around you.
For comparison to the image above, here are two other GIFs of other days. The first shows Hurricane Isaac, the other Tropical Storm Debby.
Sandy may flood New York's transportation system. Meet the Columbia risk researcher who told us this could happen last month.
If you would like to see the definition of prescience, take a look at this New York Times article from September by Mireya Navarro. She quotes Columbia's Klaus Jacob essentially predicting the trouble that New York now faces, namely, that a big storm surge could paralyze its transportation system.
Today, Andrew Cuomo announced the MTA subway, buses, and trains will shut down this evening and may remain out-of-service until Wednesday.
Klaus H. Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University's Earth Institute, said the storm surge from Irene came, on average, just one foot short of paralyzing transportation into and out of Manhattan.
If the surge had been just that much higher, subway tunnels would have flooded, segments of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive and roads along the Hudson River would have turned into rivers, and sections of the commuter rail system would have been impassable or bereft of power, he said.
The most vulnerable systems, like the subway tunnels under the Harlem and East Rivers, would have been unusable for nearly a month, or longer, at an economic loss of about $55 billion, said Dr. Jacob, an adviser to the city on climate change and an author of the 2011 state study that laid out the flooding prospects.
"We've been extremely lucky," he said. "I'm disappointed that the political process hasn't recognized that we're playing Russian roulette."
We may not know which of those two scenarios we face, however, until just hours before the storm hits. "Sandy is a very moody storm," Dr. Jacob added. "It changes its mind as it goes along, so it will take probably until tomorrow or early afternoon before we know exactly what the exact timing will be."
Regardless, it seems like we're in for some subway flooding. According to Dr. Jacob, the most vulnerable are subway stations are those in downtown Manhattan, particularly along Wall Street -- newswire photographs showed transit workers boarding up subway grates near the Staten Island Ferry on Friday -- as well as on the Upper East Side near the Harlem River, and near the Newton Creek boundary between Brooklyn and Queens.
Besides the subway, car tunnels, coastal streets, and even the airports should expect flooding from a Category 1 hurricane, according to one city report. Both LaGuardia and JFK airports, where serious delays and travel disruptions are already expected, may experience as much as three feet of flooding.
She's huge. She's strong and might get stronger. She's strange. She's directing the might of her storm surge right at New York City.
Update 10/29, 4:49pm: The Eastern seaboard has battened down the hatches. Hurricane Sandy is expected to make landfall in New Jersey in the next few hours, but flooding has been reported in Atlantic City and pieces of New York during this morning's high tide cycle. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority already shut down rail, bus, and subway service in NYC, as did Washington DC's authorities. All eyes are on the 8 o'clock hour, when the storm surge from Sandy will combine with a very high tide to create maximum water levels. In the worst case scenario, the storm surge will hit precisely at the moment the tide peaks at 8:53pm. In that scenario, New York City, in particular, could sustain substantial damage, especially to its transportation infrastructure.
The good news, if there is any, is that the forecast hasn't worsened much. It is what it has been, which is grim. Meteorologist Jeff Masters put it in simple terms. "As the core of Sandy moves ashore, the storm will carry with it a gigantic bulge of water that will raise waters levels to the highest storm tides ever seen in over a century of record keeping, along much of the coastline of New Jersey and New York," Masters wrote today. "The peak danger will be between 7 pm - 10 pm, when storm surge rides in on top of the high tide."
Here's the latest map of the prospective storm surge tonight. You can compare it to the image at the bottom, which shows what the forecast was yesterday.
* * *
Hurricane Sandy has already caused her first damage in New York: the subway system will be shut as of 7pm tonight. Meteorologists are scared, so city planners are scared.
For many, the hullabaloo raises memories of Irene, which despite causing $15.6 billion worth of damages in the United States, did not live up to its pre-arrival hype.
By almost all measures, this storm looks like it could be worse: higher winds, a path through a more populated area, worse storm surge, and a greater chance it'll linger. The atmospherics, you might say, all point to this being the worst storm in recent history.
I've been watching weather nerds freak out about a few different graphs over the last several days, which they've sent around like sports fans would tweet a particularly vicious hit in the NFL. You don't want to look, but you also can't help it.
Dr. Ryan Maue, a meteorologist at WeatherBELL, put out this animated GIF of the storm's approach yesterday. "This is unprecedented --absolutely stunning upper-level configuration pinwheeling #Sandy on-shore like ping-pong ball," he tweeted. It shows how cold air to the north and west of the storm spin Sandy into the mid-atlantic coastline. (Nota bene: his models also show very high winds at skyscraper altitudes.)
This morning, the Wall Street Journal's Eric Holthaus (@WSJweather), tweeted the following map. "Oh my.... I have never seen so much purple on this graphic. By far. Never," he said. "Folks, please take this storm seriously." The storm is strong *and* huge. And when it encounters the cold air from the north and west, it will develop renewed strength thanks to that interaction, a process known as "baroclinic enhancement."
"According to the latest storm surge forecast for NYC from NHC, Sandy's storm surge is expected to be several feet higher than Irene's. If the peak surge arrives near Monday evening's high tide at 9 pm EDT, a portion of New York City's subway system could flood, resulting in billions of dollars in damage," Masters concluded. "I give a 50% chance that Sandy's storm surge will end up flooding a portion of the New York City subway system."
Update 1:06pm: To get a taste of how forecasters are feeling, here is The Weather Channel's senior meteorologist, Stu Ostro:
History is being written as an extreme weather event continues to unfold, one which will occupy a place in the annals of weather history as one of the most extraordinary to have affected the United States.
On Twitter, Alan Robinson pointed out that I left out another scary map, the rainfall forecast, which shows the storm "sitting over the Delaware and Susquehanna watersheds." Much of the damage that Irene caused came from flooding rivers. However, there is one key factor militating against similar damage, Jeff Masters of Wunderground says. Irene hit when the ground was already very wet. Sandy is striking when ground moisture is roughly average. Here's Masters whole statement:
Hurricane Irene caused $15.8 billion in damage, most of it from river flooding due to heavy rains. However, the region most heavily impacted by Irene's heavy rains had very wet soils and very high river levels before Irene arrived, due to heavy rains that occurred in the weeks before the hurricane hit. That is not the case for Sandy; soil moisture is near average over most of the mid-Atlantic, and is in the lowest 30th percentile in recorded history over much of Delaware and Southeastern Maryland. One region of possible concern is the Susquehanna River Valley in Eastern Pennsylvania, where soil moisture is in the 70th percentile, and river levels are in the 76th - 90th percentile. This area is currently expected to receive 3 - 6 inches of rain (Figure 4), which is probably not enough to cause catastrophic flooding like occurred for Hurricane Irene. I expect that river flooding from Sandy will cause less than $1 billion in damage.
Those proton accelerators aren't just good for particle physics anymore.All of the computer technology everywhere is built on chips. These chips are made of silicon that has been manufactured into the purest material on earth. And then that silicon is cut into wafers with a saw. A really nice saw, but a saw.
Oh Psy! The Korean rapper who is responsible for inciting a global dance craze that is 2012's Macarena has entered elite territory. His 'Gangnam Style' video is now the third most-watched YouTube video of all time. Since it launched in July, the video has received 531 million views. More than half a billion views!
Who -- or what -- could have more views than that? Well, two other music videos. Sitting at number two, we find the indie sensation Jennifer Lopez on a club banger featuring noted Bud Light endorser, Pitbull. Since March 2011, this video has been watched 611 million times.
And now we come to the most-watched video on YouTube of all time. This Bieber-Ludacris bowling alley bildungsroman is a pop gem, but holy moly, 791 million views for this?
If you're old, you may not understand why these music videos have such obscenely high view counts. But the kids these days -- by which I mean everyone in their 20s and below -- seem to use YouTube like a jukebox. A jukebox that's free and shows motion pictures! (Even if it is low-fidelity and seemingly the worst possible way of listening to music on a computer.)
If I remember my (rapidly fading) tween years, I could listen to the same song ("Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Ruby Soho," anything from Punk in Drublic, and the disco classic "Ring My Bell") hundreds of times. I mean, the Repeat 1 setting was practically invented for the adolescent brain. So, maybe, a mere 10 million kids could be responsible for pushing Bieber to the top of the tubes. That is still a lot of Beliebers.
Author's note: Especially considering the amazingly awkward pool table dance roll he pulls at about 1:30 of this video. I mean, has everyone forgotten Michael Jackson? Bieber is an OK dancer, but that move is like watching Will Ferrell slide over the roof of a car or David Spade jump into a convertible's driver's seat.
The new Google FieldTrip app probes the question: What digital information do you want to see overlaid on the physical world?
It is The Future. You wake up at dawn and fumble on the bedstand for your (Google) Glass. Peering out at the world through transparent screens, what do you see?
If you pick up a book, do you see a biography of its author, an analysis of the chemical composition of its paper, or the share price for its publisher? Do you see a list of your friends who've read it or a selection of its best passages or a map of its locations or its resale price or nothing? The problem for Google's brains, as it is for all brains, is choosing where to focus attention and computational power. As a Google-structured augmented reality comes closer to becoming a product-service combination you can buy, the particulars of how it will actually merge the offline and online are starting to matter.
To me, the hardware (transparent screens, cameras, batteries, etc) and software (machine vision, language recognition) are starting to look like the difficult but predictable parts. The wildcard is going to be the content. No one publishes a city, they publish a magazine or a book or a news site. If we've thought about our readers reading, we've imagined them at the breakfast table or curled up on the couch (always curled up! always on the couch!) or in office cubicles running out the clock. No one knows how to create words and pictures that are meant to be consumed out there in the world.
This is not a small problem.
* * *
I'm sitting with Google's former maps chief John Hanke in the company's San Francisco offices looking out at the Bay's islands and bridges, which feel close enough to touch. We're talking about Field Trip, the new Android app his 'internal startup' built, when he says something that I realize will be a major theme of my life for the next five or 10 years. Yours too, probably.
But first, let me explain what Field Trip is. Field Trip is a geo-publishing tool that gently pushes information to you that its algorithms think you might be interested in. In the ideal use case, it works like this: I go down to the Apple Store on Fourth Street in Berkeley and as I get back to my car, I hear a ding. Looking at my phone, I see an entry from Atlas Obscura, which informs me that the East Bay Vivarium -- a reptilian wonderland that's part store, part zoo -- is a couple of blocks away. That sounds neat, so I walk over and stare at pythons and horned dragons for the next hour. Voila. "Seamless discovery," as Hanke calls it.
Dozens of publishers are tagging their posts with geocodes that Field Trip can hoover up and send to users now. Hanke's team works on finding the right moment to insert that digital information into your physical situation.
And when it works well, damn does it work well.
It's only a slight exaggeration to say that Field Trip is invigorating. That is to say: It makes life more interesting. And since I switched back to my iPhone after a one-week Android/Field Trip test, it's the one thing that I really miss.
At first, I was tempted to write off this effort as a gimmick, to say that Field Trip was a deconstructed guide book. But the app is Google's probe into the soft side of augmented reality. What the team behind it creates and discovers may become the basis of your daily reality in five or 10 years. And that brings me back to Hanke's comment, the one you could devote a career to.
"You've got things like Google Glass coming. And one of the things with Field Trip was, if you had [Google Glass], what would it be good for?" Hanke said. "Part of the inspiration behind Field Trip was that we'd like to have that Terminator or Iron Man-style annotation in front of you, but what would you annotate?"
There's so much lurking in that word, "annotate." In essence, Hanke is saying: What parts of the digital world do you want to see appear in the physical world?
If a Field Trip notification popped up about John Hanke, it might tell you to look for the East Bay hipster with floppy hair almost falling over his eyes. He looks like a start-up guy, and admits to being one despite his eight years at Google. He refers to its cofounders like old college friends. ("Sergey was always big on, 'You should be able to blow stuff up' [in Google Earth].") Not a kid anymore, Hanke sold an early massively multiplayer online gaming company to the legendary Trip Hawkins in the '90s, then co-founded Keyhole, which became the seed from which Google's multi-thousand person map division grew.
When maps got too big for Hanke's taste, he "ultimately talked with Larry" [Page], and figured out how to create an "autonomous unit" to play with the company's geodata to create novel, native mobile experiences. This is Google's Page-blessed skunkworks for working on this very specific problem. They are Google but they have license to be unGoogle.
"You don't want to show everything from Google Maps. You don't want to show every dry cleaner and 7-Eleven in a floating bubble," Hanke said. "I want to show that incremental information that you don't know. What would a really knowledgeable neighborhood friend tell you about the neighborhood you're moving through? He wouldn't say, 'That's a 7-Eleven. That's a fire hydrant.' He would say, 'Michael Mina is opening this new place here and they are going to do this crazy barbecue thing.' "
Some companies, like Junaio, are working on augmented-reality apps that crowdsource location intelligence through Facebook Places and FourSquare checkins. Hold up your phone to the world and it can tell you where your friends have been. It's a cool app, and certainly worth trying out, but there isn't much value in each piece of information that you see. The information density of of that augmented reality is low, even if it is socially relevant. If you're opting into 24/7 AR through something like Glass, that cannot be the model.
* * *
Google had previously offered up a vision of how Glass might be used in a video they released earlier this year to pretty much universal interest.
But consider the cramped view of augmented reality you see here. What information is actually overlaid on the world?
You can see why Google would put this particular vision out there. It's basically all the stuff they've already done repackaged into this new UI. Sure, there's a believable(ish) voice interface and a cute narrative and all that. But of all the information that could possibly be seamlessly transmitted to you from/about your environment, that's all we get?
I'm willing to bet that people are going to demand a lot more from their augmented reality systems, and Hanke's team is a sign that Google might think so, too. His internal startup at Google is called Niantic Labs, and if you get that reference, you are a very particular kind of San Francisco nerd. The Niantic was a ship that came to California in 1849, got converted into a store, burned in a fire, and was buried in the city. Over the next hundred and twenty-five years, the ship kept getting rediscovered as buildings were built and rebuilt at its burial site. Artifacts from the ship now sit in museums, but a piece of the bow remains under a parking lot near the intersection of Clay and Sansome in downtown San Francisco.
Now, not everyone is going to want to know the story of the Niantic, at least not as many people as who want to know about the weather. And the number of people who care about a story like that -- or one about a new restaurant -- will be strongly influenced by the telling. The content determines how engaging Field Trip is. But content is a game that Google, very explicitly, does not like to play. Not even when the future prospects of its augmented reality business may be at stake.
The truth is, most of the alerts that Field Trip sent me weren't right for the moment. I'd get a Thrillist story that felt way too boostery outside its email-list context. Or I'd get a historical marker from an Arcadia Publishing book that would have been interesting, but wasn't designed to be consumed on my phone. They often felt stilted, or not nearly as interesting as you'd expect (especially for a history nerd like me). You can handtune the sorts of publications that you receive, but of the updates I got, only Atlas Obscura (and Curbed and Eater to a lesser extent) seemed designed for this kind of consumption. No one else seemed to want to explain what might be interesting about a given block to someone walking through it; that's just not anyone's business. And yet stuff that you read on a computer screen at home has got to be different from stuff that you read in situ.
What happens when the main distribution medium for your work is that it's pushed to people as they stumble through the Mission or around Carroll Gardens? What possibilities does that open up? What others does it foreclose?
"Most of the people that are publishing now into Field Trip are publishing it as a secondary feed," Hanke told me. "But some folks like Atlas Obscura. They are not a daily site that you go to. They are information on a map. They are an ideal publishing partner."
They are information on a map. That's not how most people think of their publications. What a terrifying vision for those who grew up with various media bundles or as web writers. But it's thrilling, too. You could build a publication with a heatmap of a city, working out from the most heavily traveled blocks to the ones where people rarely stroll.
Imagine you've got a real-time, spatial distribution platform. Imagine everyone reading about the place you're writing about is standing right in front of it. All that talk about search engine and social optimization? We're talking geo-optimization, each story banking on the shared experience of bodies co-located in space.
* * *
What role will Google play in all this? Enabler and distributor, at least according to their current thinking. And on that score, there are a few kinks to work out.
One, in an augmented-reality world, you need really good sound mixers. Too often, Field Trip would chime in and my music would cut as I walked through streets. This is a tough request, but I want to be informed without being interrupted. It's a small thing, but the kind of thing that makes you bestow that most hallowed of compliments, "It just works." Take this also as an example of how important all kinds of "mixes" are going to be. An augmented-reality annotation will be a live event for the reader; the production has to be correct.
Second, there is a reason that the Google Glass video above was parodied with a remix that put ads all over the place:
No one believes that Google will make products that don't create a revenue stream. Hanke's got at least a partial answer to this one. Certain types of cool services like Vayable, a kind of Airbnb for travel experiences, will be a part of the service. And that's good, even if I do expect that a real Google Glass would look as much like the bottom video as the top.
Even if you don't mind the ads, Google would have to master the process of showing them to you. That's something that Niantic is putting a lot of thought into. Hanke frames it as a search for the right way to do and show things automatically on the phone. We're used to punching at our screens, but in this hypothetical future, you'd really need a little more help.
Hanke's not the only person at Google thinking about these things, even if he is one of the most interesting. Google Now, the personal-assistant app unveiled in June, is traveling over a little bit of the same territory. Their challenge is to automatically show you the pedestrian things you might want to know.
"Google Now is probably the first example of a new generation of intelligent software," Hugo Barra, director of product management for Android, told me. "I think there will be a lot more products that are similarly intelligent and not as demand-based."
So, if you search for a flight, it'll stick a little card in your Google Now that tracks when the flight is due to leave. It'll show you sports scores based on the city you're in. It can tell you when you need to leave for appointments based on current traffic conditions. And it can tell you the weather. "We've unified all these backends. Things you've done in [search] history, the place where you are, the time of the day, your calendar. And in the future, more things, more signals, the people you're with. Google can now offer you information before you ask for it," Barra continued. "It's something the founders have wanted to do for a long time."
Google Now, in other words, is the base layer of the Glass video, or of any Google AR future. It's the servant that trains itself. It's the bot that keeps you from having to use your big clumsy thumbs.
In my week of testing, I liked Google Now, but I didn't love it. Very few "automagic" things happened, even after a week of very heavy use. I rarely felt as if it was saving me all that much time. (Anyone have this experience with Siri, too? I sure have.) And while the traffic alerts tied to my calendar were legitimately awesome, if Google Now's info was all that was embedded in my heads-up display, I'd be seriously disappointed.
Again, as with FieldTrip (not to mention Junaio), the problem is content. Google's great with structured data -- flight times, baseball box scores -- but it's not good with the soft, squishy, wordy stuff.
* * *
Perhaps a writer's task has always been to translate what is most interesting about the world into a format that people can understand and process quickly. We perform a kind of aggregation and compression, zipping up whole industries' fortunes in a few short sentences. But if an augmented-reality future comes to pass, and I think it will in one form or another, this task will really be laid bare. Given a city block, the challenge will be to excavate and present that information which the most people are curious about at the precise moment they walk through it. Information on a map at a time.
Some of what legacy (print and digital) media organizations produce might work nicely: Newspapers publish (small amounts of) local news about a city. Patch could provide some relevant updates about local events. Some city weeklies (OC Weekly!) do a fantastic job covering shows and scenes and openings (while muckraking along the way). But everyone is still fundamentally writing for an audience made up of people who they expect are at their computers or curled up on the couch. The core enterprise is not to create a database of geo- and time-tagged pieces of text designed to complement a walk (or drive) through a place.
What you need are awesome "digital notes" out there in the physical world. That's what Caterina Fake's Findery (née Pinwheel) is trying to create. People can leave geocoded posts wherever they want and then other people can discover them. It, like Junaio, is very cool. But the posts lack the kind of polish that I'd voluntarily opt into having pushed to my AR screen. I wouldn't want to have to sift through them to find the good stuff.
To me, in the extremely attention-limited environment of augmented reality, you need a new kind of media. You probably need a new noun to describe the writing. Newspapers have stories. Blogs have posts. Facebook has updates. And AR apps have X. You need people who train and get better at and have the time to create perfect digital annotations in the physical world.
Fascinatingly, such a scenario would require the kind of local knowledge newspaper reporters used to accumulate, and pair it with the unerring sense of raw interestingness that the best short-form magazine writers, bloggers, tweeters, and Finderyers cultivate.
Back to the future.
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