Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Feb 28, 2006 7:41am

death to search engines

David Hawk writes:

As Google and Yahoo like to proudly proclaim, a PPC advertisement on one of their networks reaches "98% of active Internet users" with well over half of that metric coming straight from a search engine. So . . . with such astounding success, there's no better time than to predict the inevitable demise of the search engine.

...immediately prior to predicting the inevitable death of search engines, because he believes they will be disintermediated like travel agents and classified ads (and bars, and the phone company ...huh?). He believes that they will be replaced by smart sites that learn about your own habits as you browse to give you a more personal experience, imagining that typing "Los Angeles travel" into a search box should yield personalized travel results for you. Aside from the obvious holes (who's in the best position to deliver this personalization besides Google or Yahoo?), I think Hawk has too much faith in the power of personalization algorithms, too little faith in the strength & cheapness of recommendations from other people, and not a lot of imagination to see the ways in which internet search makes agents and brokers more valuable.

Personalization algorithms are pretty terrible. Amazon is the classic example, because their "People Who Bought..." feature is actually good, but it's working with a strongly-controlled universe of information and is under little consumer pressure to kick ass. If Amazon's recommendations aren't exactly what I want, the worst-case scenario is that I move on to somthing else, while Amazon loses a sale. The majority of the cost is borne by the service, not the user. If my hypothetical search results for "Los Angeles travel" are bad, I'm going to be pissed because I was actually looking for some help. Imagine the misery if they proved worthless after recommended hotels and flights are booked. Imagine the annoyance if I'm not even looking to travel to Los Angeles. Leaving this up to machines will be like the Smart Tags debacle all over again:

As Paul Thurrott of Paul Thurrott's WinInfo found out, this sort of thing can get old in a hurry. While typing up his review of Office XP (using Word 2002, of course), Mr. Thurrott typed the word "nice." Up popped a smart tag offering to book a flight to Nice, France using Microsoft's Expedia website. When he typed the word "long," up popped a smart tag from ESPN offering more information on Oakland Athletics centerfielder Terrence Long. As Thurrott put it, "Folks, this is lame."

Besides, there are millions of people out there perfectly willing to lend a hand, give advice, throw in their two cents, or start a business selling expertise. When I need to something, I usually contact one of these people, because I know that they know what I don't know. This used to also work on a slightly less-personal level with e-mail lists, though there's apparently a website called "Craig's List" which hosts these kinds of conversations for local interests.

A lot of the early noise about Web 2.0 focused on how a new breed of web technologies helped to focus interpersonal relationships around shared interests or goals, and how there was a lot of value to be found providing forums where people could communicate with each other more easily. I don't know why the bandwagon took a wrong turn into a wasteland of frameworks, collaborative filtering algorithms, and ajax portals, but I'd very much like to see it return to the main road. If it's going to be necessary to spend weeks or months waiting for some PhD thesis project to assemble a mathematical model of my wants and needs so I can conduct searches online, why not focus on solving the much simpler problem of connecting people to other people who are born experts at this? The "stars" of Web 2.0 excel at this now. The common thread running through projects like Delicious, Flickr, Digg and others is that they focus on this need first and worry about the crazy math shit later.

Feb 27, 2006 7:14am

live the dream

GFY points to Dion Hinchcliffe's latest at Sys-Con magazine, Thinking in Web 2.0. Here's what awaits you after the jump:

  • Four separate animated areas on the screen: an "IT guy" juggling windows logos at lower left, a blinking advertisement at upper right, marquee text at lower right, and video with audio set to auto-play at right.
  • A full-screen pop-over ad executed in dynamic HTML to circumvent pop-up blockers.
  • Two more ads below the fold.
  • Tom Coates's name spelled "Coat".
  • Tom Coates's Future of Web Apps warmed-over, served in a casserole dish.
  • The claim that privacy is "really a 20th century notion anyway".

Hinchcliffe's articles are really starting to make me mad whenever I encounter them - why must they be linked from otherwise respectable sources?

Feb 25, 2006 5:42am

fashion gets it

This CS Monitor article, Control of creativity? Fashion's secret, is over two years old, but resurfaced recently into my field of awareness. It contains this gem:

For virtually all players in fashion, some form of derivation, recombination, imitation, revival of old styles, and outright knockoff is the norm. Few denounce, let alone sue, the appropriator for "creative theft." They're too busy trying to stay ahead of the competition through the sheer power of their design and marketing prowess.

There seem to be two factors that make the fashion industry impervious to the kinds of intellectual property rigamarole plaguing the content industries: high speed and discernment. For the fashion world, creative cycles are measured in months, and any designer spending time pursuing creative rip-offs by others is probably falling behind on their next season's line.

Fashion appreciation also seems to require a high degree of perceptual subtlety and historical awareness. You don't just waltz into the haute couture industry without a deep understanding of the effect of small decisions and the web of aesthetic influences among competing designers. The entire industry is founded on the idea that there is a crucial and fundamental difference between a dress you see on the runway and one you see at the TJ Maxx. The former gains credibility and distinction by the presence of a near-identical latter, the same way that quoting another musician or filmmaker confers status on the source of the gesture.

The saddest aspect of Big Content's lawsuit blitz is the complete banality of the material they are defending, its utter and complete worthlessness. The total creative bankruptcy of these industries makes a nitpicking IP-based lawsuit culture necessary, because there's nothing else of value to defend. I suspect that their zeal to squash any artisic form or distribution method which doesn't pay tribute to traditional cartel privileges results from a deep realization of how useless their industry is in the face of genuine culture and spontaneous creativity.

Rant off.

Feb 17, 2006 5:43am

887 (structure)

Banco De Gaia's album Last Train To Lhasa (1995) is a monumentally beautiful sound sculpture, especially track #7: 887 (Structure). Every time it comes up on shuffle, I have to stop whatever I'm doing and sit back for a few moments. It sounds like the city at night, from a distance.

"If the potato cannot survive out of the earth's sphere of influence, then I would be very, very cautious if I were concerned with the total problem of sending man out into outer space until I had found out what it was that the potato lacked in order to permit it to survive out there."

Feb 15, 2006 10:43pm

baychi talk

I'm not sure why I didn't post about this beforehand, but it's kind of a big deal. Rashmi invited me to speak and demo at the monthly BayCHI meeeting on information visualization. Eric and I went to PARC's auditorium to show a bit of our work among a group of other distinguished speakers.

Jock Mackinlay of Tableau Software was the main presenter, and spoke for an hour about his company's visualization software. It's sort of an Excel-for-visual-thinkers, and uses VizQL (a kind of visual analogue to SQL) to display and manipulate databases. Jock critiqued Excel's graphing features (simplistic, assume you already know what you want) and showed Tableau's possibilities for manipulating visual display of information and automagically assuming optimal displays for different collections of data. I was skeptical of the software's output when it was first described (How dare they replace the work of a competent designer!) but totally sold by the end of the demo.

Two reasons for this:

  1. Realistic goals. Tableau is a step above Excel, but not a huge one, and the information displays it supports are still within common visual expectations for normal people. This is advanced software for corporate Excel ninjas, not a generalized WattenbergBot.
  2. Deterministic results. Suggested graph styles are not arbitrary, and they have a deep set of rules for effective ways to display many kinds of information (categories, dates, numbers).

Jeff Heer followed with a ten-minute description of a force-directed graph of Friendster connections he produced using Prefuse, based on ethnographic research with Danah Boyd. Quote of the evening: "People played with the slider until the graph looked right, and then marvelled at how smart the algorithm was."

Josh On talked about TheyRule and other work, after doing a quick role-playing experiment with audience members. "Place your hand on the shoulder of the person in this group you've known the longest."

We finished out the evening, exceeding our alotted ten minutes by 50% because we didn't come to PARC to be succint, dammit! We showed five projects, breezing through Mappr, In The News, Root Markets, Cabspotting, and Backchannel.

The evening ended with a brief trip the British Bankers' Club in Menlo Park, and then home. Thanks Rashmi!

Feb 11, 2006 7:43pm

lessig on net netrality

On February 7, 2006, Professor Lawrence Lessig appeared before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation's hearing on Network Neutrality. A few excerpts from his testimony follow. Lessig is an amazing logician, and his writings on legal issues on-line are worth reading.

On the rational basis for his argument:

...there is something especially wrong with network owners telling content or service providers that they can't access a meaningful broadband network unless they pay an access- tax. I don't mean "wrong" in the sense of immoral, or even unfair. My argument is not about the social justice of Internet access. I mean "wrong" in the sense that such a policy will inevitably weaken application competition on the Internet, and that in turn will weaken Internet growth.

On diversity:

This diversity of innovators is no accident. By minimizing the control by the network itself, the "end-to-end" design maximizes the range of competitors who can innovate for the network. Rather than concentrating the right to innovate in a few network owners, the right to innovate is open to anyone, anywhere. That architecture, in turn, has created an astonishing range of important and economically valuable innovation.

On the history of current Internet behemoths:

For the first time, network owners would have a strategic capability, as well as incentive, to create barriers to entry for new innovators. We should remember that the current leaders in Internet innovation all began with essentially nothing. Google, eBay, Yahoo! and Amazon all started as simple websites providing limited, but fantastic, services. They had to pay no special access-tax to be on the Internet; there was no special channeling by Internet providers that disadvantage these competitors relative to any others. They succeeded because the product they offered was better than others. Competition on the merits thus drove this market.

Suggestions for Congress:

It is my view that any policy that weakens competition is a policy that will weaken the prospects for Internet and economic growth. I therefore urge this Committee to secure and supplement the work of Chairman Powell, by enacting legislation that protects the environment for Internet innovation and competition that the original Internet produced.

In a nutshell, Lessig is arguing that the current kerfuffle about network neutrality brought on by belligerent recommendations from At+T and others ("...what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that..." - Ed Whiteacre, SBC AT+T) is an attempt to create scarcity where none exists. It's the same fundamental response to the Internet we're seeing from the music and film industries, and there's no need for it.

Feb 9, 2006 12:05am

reblog 2.0 beta 1

A fresh update to Reblog 2.0 has been released. Be first on your block to install it from http://reblog.org/#download.

This release includes a raft of enhancements, including better documentation for plug-in developers, slightly modified tag behavior that makes it easier to navigate your extensive feed collection, experimental plug-ins for automatically publishing entries to WordPress, TypePad, Blogger and Del.icio.us accounts, and minor usability improvements too numerous to mention.

This BETA version has been extensively tested, and is recommended for most users.

Feb 6, 2006 6:30pm

global warming

Shocking, new evidence for global warming:

  • ... "tens of thousands" of game players connecting at McDonalds restaurants. ... indicating that competition in the mobile platform space is heating up. ...
  • "Competition in the online lending space is heating up, with a number of regional players working hard to make their web sites as good as the traditional ...
  • ... companies vying to acquire the major players in the mobile games business. ... The mobile search investment space is heating up for sure: US publishing ...
  • The mobile search investment space is heating up for sure: US publishing house ... Expect more such deals with other players to happen this year: Motorola ...
  • As far as rumors go, the one about Google's move into the browser space is heating up. ... two key players in the development of the Firefox browser, ...
  • I think it's great that the Internet consumer space is heating up again. ... Now we have talented, capable players on the margin who might as well be feral. ...
  • ... to the medical device market with new players grabbing major market share, ... The remote monitoring space is heating up, what with companies like ADT, ...
  • The behavioral targeting space is heating up, with competition between leading ... The players are jockeying for position in the still-nascent arena. ...
  • Competition in the RNAi space is heating up as companies work toward developing ... Global Health Issues: New Money, New Players, New Opportunities ...
  • The Web mail space is heating up and players such as Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google are trying to differentiate their respective services, an analyst says. ...
  • Competition between vendors in the B2B space has been heating up, with SAP, Oracle and other ERP players taking on established exchange software and service ...
  • In the second of a series of occasional interviews with key players in the entertainment industry, ... The darknet business space is heating up. ...
  • The event space is heating up, with Upcoming.org and Whizspark with their ... On hiring and cycling: Looking to add new players to the team at all times. ...
  • To say M&A activity in the storage space is heating up is a gross understatement, especially when the conversation involves EMC; ...
  • It looks like the video space is heating up. Ars Techna noted a recent Variety ... to turn iPods into video players are now online at the above address. ...
  • The Web mail space is heating up and players such as Microsoft, Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc. are trying to differentiate their respective services, ...

Feb 6, 2006 7:14am

awards show

I’ve been doing a lot of grousing lately. And posting very short entries.

This post is an attempt to fix the damage.

I am the technical director at Stamen, which means that when I’m not crouched under the desks routing ethernet cables, I’m often goofing off online, looking for weird new technologies to play with and develop into experimental projects or client work. Over the past year, I’ve come across a range of new tools that really made my socks roll up and down, and I’d like to describe each one and why I think it’s so cool. Think of this short list as my own personal technical Oscars.

Five things that helped make my year:

  1. Python

    It was necessary to overcome my strong aversion to syntactical whitespace, but Python turned out to be totally worthwhile. Mark Pilgrim’s book Dive Into Python was my entry point, and it explained the language in a way tuned for experienced programmers. List comprehensions are a dream. “Batteries Included” means I don’t have to look far for useful code. Python was my immediate replacement for Perl and command-line PHP, and I tend to use it wherever I need utility scripts or screen scrapers these days.

    I had this same reaction when I first started reading Paul Graham on Lisp, but that language turned out to be almost completely devoid of a useful community and software libraries. I remembered a lot of Scheme from 61A, but it was a dead-end.

    Python still has not replaced PHP for my web applications programming, but it’s replacing just about everything else. I’ve looked at a few of the currently-hot web frameworks such as Django and Turbogears, but each feels as helpful to me as Rails, which is to say: not very.

  2. Blosxom (“The Zen of Blogging”)

    I moved my own site from NanoBlogger to Blosxom just about a year ago. Blosxom dispenses with an editing interface, a database of posts, and a lot of other features of more typical blogging software. Posts are edited with a plain text editor such as vim, and consist of text files batched together into a list of stories, with a head at the top and a foot at the bottom:

    (head) (story 1) (story 2) ... (story n) (foot)

    Configuration is minimal, and almost all fat has been trimmed. The script itself is short, yet affords flexible URL’s (e.g. all posts in July or all posts in directory /foo) and various output formats triggered by request file extension, called flavours. These are demonstrated in a neat hack by Don Marti called “Blog To Congress.”

    The joy of Blosxom comes in its sparseness: extra features such comments, calendars, or new input formats can be triggered by loading optional plug-ins, and there is a clean separation of core functionality and bonus functionality. Over time, I’ve added and removed a number of plug-ins, and I feel that I’m at an optimal balance of simplicity and power.

  3. Atom

    Atom was looking to be an nerd’s over-engineered answer to RSS when I first heard about it. I resolved to ignore the whole thing until hit 1.0 or fell into the abyss. It didn’t go away, and I love the end result.

    I appreciate two things about this spec:

    1. Respects XML.
      SOAP is bloated, and XML-RPC seems determined to re-implement XML in XML. Who needs that? Atom defines a small vocabulary and sticks to it.

    2. Respects HTTP.
      Atom actually uses methods like PUT and DELETE, apparently in the way they were intended. It also requires that every entry has an associated URL, and uses this address when communicating changes.

    I’m aware of some disagreements, but to be honest I don’t understand them.

  4. Drupal

    The appeal of Drupal for me is similar to that of Blosxom. This is a super light-weight content management system for PHP & MySQL that seems have been worn down to a perfectly-shaped nub through careful development & use.

    I was first turned on to Drupal through Mike Frumin’s choice to write a Reblog module that would let us outsource user account creation and management for a hosted, multi-user Reblog.

    It’s a tremendously flexible piece of software that can do a lot of work without sacrificing elegance. The core does one job well: content management by multiple users with overlapping responsibilities. It ships with a bunch of modules that implement useful add-ons like blogging, menus, URL aliases, file uploads, and so on. Writing new modules seems to be a piece of cake. If I were to switch to a more advanced piece of blogging software, this would be the one. In the meanime, I’m using it for sites that need blog-like features plus a little bit more than what Blosxom is made to do.

  5. Twisted

    I was turned on to Twisted three weeks ago when Rael Dornfest (coincidentally also responsible for Blosxom) showed me a bit of Peerkat. It’s as cool as Max/MSP & Jitter were when I first fell into that world five years ago, for many of the same reasons. Twisted is glue software: it implements a simple event-based network programming infrastructure, and includes a gob of protocol implementations for HTTP, IRC, IMAP, and many others. I’m excited because it opens the door to a world of net-mashing possibilities, the same way that Max and Jitter put me in a position to manipulate live media.

    In my first week of messing with Twisted, I was able to put together a completely serviceable HTTP Attention Proxy. In my second week of messing with Twisted, I’m snarfing IRC data and emitting live visual interpretations (more on this later).

    Twisted is an enabler.

Honorable mentions: Debian, XMLHttpRequest, ****, JSON.

Feb 6, 2006 2:08am

victory through apathy

Sam Hughes:

As an ordinary human being, you may feel that there is nothing you can do in the fight against terrorism. You couldn't be more wrong. You see, terrorism directly targets ordinary people. You, an ordinary person, can deny terrorists their victory simply by refusing to be a victim. Believe it or not, you have a choice in the matter. This is because the victims of terrorism are not simply those who get blown up during the initial attack. It's the people who are scared to fly in airplanes or visit big cities afterwards. It's the people who get dragged into a war against an abstract concept. It's the people who get attacked in the street because they look like they might come from a hot country.

In retrospect, this form of victory through apathy was the obvious moral lesson of Iain M. Banks's The Algebraist.

Feb 4, 2006 7:32am

dave rogers

The End of Business as Usual:

In my opinion, today things are out of balance. The commercial sphere has become the center of gravity, and the social and civic spheres are orbiting and shrinking around the commercial sphere. Marketers are the people most responsible for enabling that, by blurring the boundaries, by mixing the messages, by inuring people to the misuse and corruption of important ideas by making them part of a marketing message. "It's just marketing."

If you're not reading Dave, perhaps you should be?

Feb 3, 2006 1:30am

thursday, 6pm PST/9pm EST

Sources have confirmed that MoveOn is planning to use our map application tonight, at 6pm PST / 9pm EST. It's the one we presented at Where 2.0.

Go have a look!

Update, 5:30pm...

Feb 1, 2006 11:31pm

you've got your JSON in my PHP

There's an archived thread from PHP-DEV up that has Rasmus Lerdorf, Douglas Crockford and others discussing the sense in building JSON support right into the core of PHP, with JSON-formatted request accessible via a _JSON superglobal.


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