there are 13 posts from September 2010

September 30, 2010

zero history touches the x axis

I just finished William Gibson’s Zero History, and while I’m a fan of his characters and his prose, something bothered me about the new book: it’s set now.

While I’m not a hard core fan or student of Gibson’s work, I’ve read most of his novels. Neuromancer and the sprawl trilogy? Felt way out in the future. Virtual Light and the bridge trilogy? A bit closer to the present, but still far enough out to feel distinctly different.

His latest trilogy is much more of the moment. According to Wikipedia Pattern Recognition was set a year before it was published (2003). That may be pedantically true, and the setting was recognizable, but the action in the book still felt like it was 5-10 years out. Spook Country got closer to “now,” it felt like it was maybe 2-3 years out. But Zero History? Very much today. Very now. Very much right now today this absolute moment kind of now.

If you plot the bibliographic timeline on the x axis and the delta between publication date and when the books “felt” like they were set, and you squint really hard, you get something that looks like this.

A Gibson graph

Zero History touches the X axis. And while I love the other two books in this trilogy, I couldn’t love this one. There’s too much Twitter. Too much iPhone. Too much MacBook Air. Too much selvedge denim. It’s too close to home, and I couldn’t help but start feeling a little Cayce Pollard-ish allergic reaction to all the brand names, and all that now-ness.

September 30, 2010

urban thermal warfare

This is the best thing I've read all day; BLDGBLOG on the plastic-melting parabolic reflector that is the Vdara Hotel, aka the Las Vegas death ray:

The surface of the building acts like a parabolic reflector, concentrating solar heat into a specific target area. It's the future of urban thermal warfare, perhaps: hotels armed against other hotels in a robust defense posture defined by pure heat.

Not unimaginable.

September 29, 2010

putting it behind you

I had lunch last week with a writer I admire and whose work I love. It was one of those perfect San Francisco days; cool breeze, warm sun, and we sat on the stoop across from Little Skillet and enjoyed some fried chicken and cole slaw. We talked about media, magazines, book publishing, the iPad, blogging, etc. A perfect hour.

At one point she asked how I got started blogging, and why I write. Without thinking, my stock answer came out: I've always written to think through a problem, to understand what I really think about a particular topic.

"Do you enjoy it?" she asked.

"Yes!" I said, without really thinking about it.

"Ha! I hate writing," she said. "I like having written."

September 17, 2010

more than 140 on #newtwitter, content embeds and markup

It's Friday! Which means it's time to piggyback on Anil's blog. He's got a short and sweet little post up about #newtwitter, OEmbed and transclusion. You should go read it.

Or you can get the summary from his JavaScript content embed below. (Why copy and paste a line of JS that renders content that Anil controls instead of copying and pasting a relevant graf? Because I can...and because I'm lazy...and because I'm making a point.)

Got that? For kicks, let's embed a related tweet I sent yesterday, using the Blackbird Pie tool that Robin Sloan cooked up.

thought: #newtwitter could leverage all the FB markup that publishers have added to their pages (for sharing) to show content previews.less than a minute ago via web

In more than 140 characters: they might not even need to use OEmbed. A lot of publishers are already stuffing their pages with enough markup to make sharing through Facebook easy -- here's the title, here's the excerpt, here's an image you should use, here's the URL you'll want to point us to. If Twitter's interested in doing more with arbitrary URLs (shortened through for safety) then they don't really need to throw their weight beind a not-so-widely-adopted standard, instead, they could just piggyback on the natural desire of publishers to get their content spread through networks, social and otherwise.

September 15, 2010

sara corbett's nyt magazine piece, learning by playing

This weekend's NY Times Magazine features Sara Corbett's piece on transforming education through game mechanics. (It's now up in preview on

Once it has been worked over by game designers, a lesson doesn’t look like a lesson anymore. It is now a quest. And while students at the school are put through the usual rigors of studying pre-algebra, basic physics, ancient civilizations and writing, they do it inside interdisciplinary classes with names like Codeworlds — a hybrid of math and English class — where the quests blend skills from different subject areas. Students have been called upon to balance the budget and brainstorm business ideas for an imaginary community called Creepytown, for example, and to design architectural blueprints for a village of bumbling little creatures called the Troggles. There are elements of the school’s curriculum that look familiar — nightly independent reading assignments, weekly reading-comprehension packets and plenty of work with pencils and paper — and others that don’t. Quest to Learn students record podcasts, film and edit videos, play video games, blog avidly and occasionally receive video messages from aliens.

Can't wait to dig into this.

September 13, 2010

The Thump of Fallen Icons

From: Carl Steadman 
To: A secret invitation-only list run by Michael Sippey 
Cc: Majordomo 
Subject: The Thump of Fallen Icons

"Suffice it to say that in our view the premises of 
revolution, on the cultural as well as on the strictly 
political level, are not only ripe, they have begun to 

We have been lulled to sleep. Safety is not in numbers! 
The Digital Revolution is in danger of being lost to 
profiteers and opportunists, to hollow souls and weak minds.

At first, I believed my rallying cry to be, "Purge all 
lurkers!" The Times and Time-Warner alike, they are mere 

But then, I realized.

What we need is a sacrifice.

So I admit myself to exile, for the greater good.

Do this in memory of me,


September 10, 2010

instant address bar?

Here's an interaction design problem that I'm sure someone at Google is working on: how to integrate the Google Instant experience into Chrome, without resorting to the obvious solution of splitting a search box from the address bar...or losing the ability open addresses, or search the combination of your bookmarks and browser history.

Update:  of course right after I post this Ken Norton points me to a TechCrunch post about Instant coming to Chrome. #whatevs

September 10, 2010

forked: forking is a feature

This post is a fork of Anil Dash's Forking is a Feature. And yeah, sure, I could have done this on GitHub, and boy wouldn't that have been clever.

While Linus Torvalds is best known as the creator of Linux, it's one of his more geeky creations, and the social implications of its design, that may well end up being his greatest legacy. Because Linus has, in just a few short years, changed the social dynamic around forking, turning the idea of multiple versions of a work from a cultural weakness into a cultural strength. Perhaps the technologies that let us easily collaborate together online have finally matured enough to let our work reflect the reality that some problems are better solved with lots of different efforts instead of one committee-built compromise.

You've probably seen Linus Torvalds on the cover of a magazine or two; he's the guy who created Linux. But did you know he also invented the fork? No, not that kind of fork, silly.

GitHub's map of code forks

I know that image doesn't really look like a fork. And that people usually think of forks as things you stick into steak (yum, steak!). But forking is also a way that angry geeks who could really use a hug used to threaten to ruin your weekend project by taking it and making their own. The jerks.

The idea of "open source" in the technology world is really a set of cultural beliefs, despite usually masquerading as technical or legal choices made by a community. All cultures have norms, and standards of behavior, and most importantly, they have behaviors they consider antisocial or destructive.

For most of the first three decades of open source's ascendance, the most destructive action that one could threaten to do, the nuclear option, was to fork.



There are several related technical concepts that can answer to the name "fork", but the one I reference here is the dramatic moment when a software project undergoes a schism on ideological or technical grounds. Instead of merely taking their ball and going home, those who forked were taking a copy of your ball and going to a new playground. And while splitting a community could obviously cause an open source community's momentum to grind to a halt, even the mere threat of a fork could cause significant problems, by revealing conflicting goals or desires or motivations within a previously-united community.

But! Forking can be a good thing. Firefox is a fork of Mozilla. WordPress is a fork of B2. (It's OK, no one else remembers B2 either.) And forking isn't just for geeks! (Mmmmm, forking.) Reformation? Fork. Christianity? Fork. America? Fork.

Still, forks have had important consequences. Firefox (earlier Firebird and Phoenix) was originally a fork of Mozilla, the open source browser that had been mired in indecision for half a decade. WordPress was born as a fork of B2, a neglected early blogging tool.

Outside of tech, forks have an even bigger meaning. You could make a pretty strong argument that the Reformation was a fork, or that Christianity itself is a fork. So clearly, forking a community can have a significant, even profound impact. But in tech, it had largely been seen solely as a violent, schismatic action.

Forks are threatening because they create alternate universes, kind of like in LOST. You know how everyone hated that about LOST? People used to hate forks like that, too. In that "Ahhh! Too complicated! Makes my brain hurt!" kind of way.

Part of the predicate for forks being so disruptive was the idea that there is One True Version — a creation, like a piece of software, a written work, or anything else, that can only be accurately represented by a single ideal expression. Even some of the most disruptive technological innovations like Wikipedia are still built around the idea of achieving consensus on a definitive work, and striving mightily to avoid forks arising within the community.

Until a git named Linus changed that. (Git. Get it? God, I'm clever.)

In The Road

You know Linus Torvalds, he's the guy who created (and nearly eponymized) Linux. But perhaps his most impressive act of creating technological culture is in fathering Git, the enormously popular distributed revision control system. That mouthful of a description basically means "system that lets a decentralized group of creators efficiently collaborate on a complicated bit of software". Other systems had enabled distributed revision control before, making it easier to rapidly evolve software, and to appropriately assign blame to whomever had introduced a bug into the program, but few had found any notable degree of popularity.

Off the road

Anyway, Linus created git. It this complicated thing called distributed reversion control, and you should read more about it on Wikipedia. Which doesn't support forking, by the way. Wikipedia doesn't. Git? It does. Support forking.

Forking on GitHub

But Linus' pedigree, influence and outstanding implementation immediately put Git at the forefront of choices to solve this class of problem. Even better, his credibility with the new generation of social software creators inspired the rapid launch and brilliant evolution of GitHub, a social network for developers that relies on the technology of Git as its underpinnings, but has also embraced the philosophy of Git as its fundamental interaction model.

Often, the very first thing a coder does when she sees an interesting new project on GitHub is to make a fork of it and start tinkering. And what's great about that is that people do it! And they're doing it now in other disciplines, like design! Or, say, blogging!

That's only one of the reasons that GitHub so important, though; The GitHub principle of "see it, make your own version, and then get to work" has started to filter into other disciplines, as exemplified by design sites like Dribbble, and upcoming new sites for creatives such as Forrst.

These new sites are admittedly still in their formative stages — Dribbble just had its breakout moment with the recent popularity of redesigning the iTunes icon — but it's easy to imagine a more mature version where, instead of merely focusing on the pretty pixels on the screen, the designers who frequent the site were encouraged to describe their rationale, and to use the site's replying abilities (called "rebounds"on Dribble) to do something more akin to forking, where raw Photoshop and Illustrator files were shared.

In fact, literally hundreds of people have forked the new iTunes icon. Can't wait to see Apple adopt one of those for version 10.1!

The One True Version

The One True Ring Around Her Slender Finger

Most importantly, the new culture of ubiquitous forking can have profound impacts on lots of other categories of software. There have been recent rumblings that participation in Wikipedia editing has plateaued, or even begun to decline. Aside from the (frankly, absurd) idea that "everything's already been documented!" one of the best ways for Wikipedia to reinvigorate itself, and to break away from the stultifying and arcane editing discussions that are its worst feature, could be to embrace the idea that there's not One True Version of every Wikipedia article.

A new-generation Wikipedia based on Git-style technologies could allow there to be not just one Ocelot article per language, but an infinite number of them, each of which could be easily mixed and merged into your own preferred version. Wikipedia already technically has similar abilities on the back end, of course, but the software's cultural bias is still towards producing a definitive consensus version instead of seeing multiple variations as beneficial.

More places should support forking. Have I mentioned that Wikipedia doesn't support forking? It doesn't! It should. Those crazy Wikipedia change control nazis keep rejecting my edits to The Lord of the Rings. Don't they understand how important my fan fic is to the cultural history of Tolkien's entire milieu? CENSORSHIP!!

There are plenty of other cultural predecessors for the idea of forking, all demonstrating that moving away from the need for a forced consensus can be great for innovation, while also reducing social tensions. Our work on ThinkUp at Expert Labs has seen a tremendous increase in programmers participating, without any of the usual flame wars or antagonism that frequently pop up on open source mailing lists. Some part of that is attributable to the cultural infrastructure GitHub providers for participation.

ThinkUp supports forking. And my company Expert Labs supports forking. Wow, did I wait until now to mention that? My bad.

Moving forward, there are a lot more lessons we can learn if we build our social tools with the assumption that no one version of any document, app, or narrative needs to be the definitive one. We might even make our software, and our communities, more inclusive if we embrace the forking ourselves.

God I love forking.

September 08, 2010

richard misrach's destroy this memory

Tyler Green on Richard Misrach's new book of post-Katrina photos of New Orleans, Destroy This Memory: "Consider Misrach’s book an affirmation that artists can bring strikingly different, equally valuable points-of-view to the same subject and that their contributions to story-telling and creating our collective memory are every bit as valuable as journalism or oral history."

I had a chance to look through the book this past weekend, and it's an incredible piece of work. Shot with a 4MP point and shoot, Misrach deftly sidesteps the temptation of turning the flood destruction into beautiful images; instead, each photo features graffiti left by survivors. Every photo has its own story, but taken together they all say one thing: Fuck You, Katrina.

September 08, 2010

pro publica news applications

Pro Publica launches their nerd blog, which is where they'll talk about the "news applications" they're building. Which is great and all, but what's fantastic about this is their simple definition of a news application. "It’s an interactive web page that uses software instead of words and pictures to do journalism." Nice.

September 08, 2010

aggregators and opinion labeling

A couple of interesting media-related bits this morning. First, the Nieman Journalism Lab is running a piece by Kimberly Isbell of the Citizen Media Law Project that gives an in-depth look at the legal issues around news aggregators. She reviews the different types of aggregators, existing case law, and issues around copyright, fair use and the definition of "hot news." And while there are no clear cut answers re. legality (are there ever?) I like her conclusion...

We are in the midst of a sea change in the way in which journalism is practiced in the United States. The past few years have seen an explosion of innovative approaches to both the practice and business of journalism. At a time of great flux in the media ecosystem, it would be premature, and likely counterproductive, to create rules which would have the effect, if not the purpose, of privileging one journalistic business model over others. In order for experimental business models to flourish, we need legal rules that promote flexibility and free access to information, not closed systems that tilt the playing field in favor of incumbents.

Second, Jonathan Weber of the Bay Citizen has a great post up about what their partnership with the New York Times looks like, and takes on the Times' new public editor re. the boundary between reporting and opinion, and the differing styles of the gray lady and the Bay Citizen.

The whole idea of a reported column is that it marries facts and point of view. Journalism today embodies a whole range of styles, some with more point of view and some with less, and while clear labeling of what's what is a good goal, it's not realistic to think that there can be some kind of calorie counter measuring the amount of opinion in a given piece.

As always, both are worth reading in full; of course now that you've read the key bits through this user-curated aggregator that layers on a specific point of view you probably don't need to.

September 03, 2010

tried to do too much

Instead of blockquoting the entire Ars Technica piece on Wil Shipley's Delicious Library 2, I'll just grab this bit.

For instance, a memory leak in the display of PNG graphics led to major performance hits and eventual crashes for users with thousands of items. Unfortunately, no one expected users with these huge libraries to attempt to publish their collections to the web. "Who has that kind of time? Well, it turns out, die-hard collectors do," Shipley said.


September 01, 2010

viral and transparent


Buzzfeed opens up their dashboard. This is brilliant; let the meme makers in on the data to see if they can pour fuel on their own fire. And...

For publishers who want it on their own domain, you can get on the waiting list for the beta. And we will make a self serve version available end of Sept. We want everyone in the world to have one. If you're already in our Publisher Network, let us know if you'd like to make your dashboard public, as we have with ours.

The future is fully instrumented.