VR Anticipation, and Oculus Rift vs. Google Glass

I’m not sure if the Rift or Project Morpheus are going to be huge but with the anticipation for their consumer releases, this is probably the first time VR has been really exciting for most geeks.

You can tell how big it’s going to be by the observation that people who try it get lost in it.  They put on the Rift and they emerge from it half an hour or hours later, completely unaware of how long they were wearing it and playing with it.  This is akin to when DOOM first came out (the id Software dudes Michael Abrash and John Carmack are involved in Oculus, so they anticipated that potential too), or Quake multiplayer, or the Civilization games, where you go play a short game and it ends up being 7 hours later and you don’t want to quit.  People will get lost in the rift.

Look at what people have said:

But Iribe couldn’t take his headset off. “Again,” he said, scarcely able to believe what he was asking for. They ran through the entire series once more. Finally Iribe took off the proto­type. His head felt strange—not dizzy, not displaced, but overwhelmed. “How long was I in there?” he asked Abrash and Binstock. It had been close to 45 minutes.

- from Peter Rubin’s Wired article which I’ve reread multiple times now

“Last time I was sick with the flu,” Carmack says, “I just lay in bed and watched VR movies on the ceiling.”

- Peter Rubin, Wired

This is no gimmick. This isn’t like 3D, where the difference to the viewer is a minor one. At worst, VR will be a niche format adopted by a handful of stalwart gamers. At best, we’re witnessing the birth of a significant new medium. Having seen its first baby steps, I want this technology to take giant leaps. I want to get lost in virtual reality. I want real-life Reginald Barclays to emerge just for the science-fictional thrill of it. Holo-addiction? Try Oculust.

- Andrew Todd

At my old company, we got to demo an Oculus Rift HD that was displaying a 360-degree view of one of Beck’s concerts:

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We took turns trying it out — people would watch for ages while the rest of us anxiously waited for them to be polite and finish.  It’s immersive and you’re so curious you can’t stop looking around.

Just check out the Node Studios guys playing beer pong and goofing around in the rift with a virtual hand interface add-on:

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E3 2014

Oculus has had high visibility at the E3 gaming conference in past years — this year was no exception.  The Rift was adapted to the new Aliens game, where you have to stealthily avoid an Alien xenomorph.  The Rift seems perfectly suited to that experience: suspense, surround sound, 1st person.  Another game, Superhot, lets you dodge bullets by moving your head around them, similar to Neo in The Matrix.

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When Facebook bought Oculus, I was pretty optimistic about it though I think the majority of people think it’s bad for Oculus’ future.  What I think is most interesting about it all is that it literally took just a little time for Mark Zuckerberg to meet Palmer Luckey (who is pretty goofy himself…) and then want to buy Oculus, even if it’s A) mostly unproven and B) not exactly aligned with Facebook’s core product.

If Facebook and Oculus are going to sell the Rift close to at cost, then perhaps that signifies that Facebook sees Oculus as a potential play to keep its userbase lost in the rift.  Facebook according to most stats is killing any other competitor in user time spent daily, and now it owns at least two of the other major players, WhatsApp and Instagram:

Even if you subtract from that a large portion of mainly mobile users, a rift that people are addicted to would be immensely addictive to people who spend a large part of their day socializing online.

Also we’re not quite at a point where you could serve up a rift off a mobile or even a tablet, but perhaps eventually you could.  I grew up romanticizing Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and William Gibson’s Neuromancer but was always deathly afraid of the almost certain future of Hiro Protagonist going to his rented storage space to zone out in the rift for a day or two.

And that’s another aspect: the popular culture anticipating this kind of timesuck.  Think of TRON:

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Or The Matrix, of course:

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Johnny Mnemonic:

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Pacific Rim’s drifting and neural handshaking:

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The book Ready Player One, reinvented as inspiration for this Oculus Rift game:

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The implementation I want to see most is from Daniel Suarez’s Daemon, which has a Darknet interfaced via glasses.  The glasses show peoples’ reputations, green paths leading to your location, even a way to perform alchemy on real-world objects and imbue them with special properties in the digital world (a real-world object being a key to somewhere else, for example), or showing what level of a profession someone has reached (so someone might be a level 7 farmer or a level 3 trader).  Those glasses were actually described as being subtle and hard to distinguish from actual glasses so I suppose Suarez saw them as more Glass than Rift (which was what Stephenson’s Metaverse equipment was more like).

The Rift vs. Glass

I see Google Glass as technology affecting culture, in the same way that adding a front-screen camera to the phone led to the phenomenon and official word creation of the selfie.  Glass has challenged accepted normal behavior in public settings: can you be recording in movie theaters, in a locker room, even just in a restaurant?  Are you a Glasshole just because you have the glasses on, even if you’re an experimenting artist or technologist?  Is it even legal to wear Glass to record interactions with police?  So far Glass has been rejected by social norms resoundingly, even amongst those who like the tech, just because it’s been associated with a “Glasshole” culture.

I think of anti-Glassholes as the new digital NIMBYs.  Digital NIMBYs are not, say, old folks who don’t like any new technology or who don’t think there’s a use for it.  Digital NIMBYs are actually fairly savvy with tech, having grown up with it, but they want to control their environment and the tech that exists within it to the extent that they believe they should dictate norms to others.  People who are proud to not have a TV, people who object to any cellphone use at all among others, people who want you to leave your cellphone with the others at the door, people who aren’t web developers but still scoff at IE users, that sort of thing.  Digitally savvy but not technically savvy.  Digerati, nimbies, whatever you want to call them.  They’re insufferable and they think they dictate tech culture.

But anyway Glass does bring about problems with cultural norms regarding eyesight.  We are told not to even look at others: homeless, children, people whose business isn’t yours, etc.  But Glass provides a possibility to record even a passing glance for future memory viewing.  This changes the whole security through obfuscation dynamic — instead of briefly viewing something with your eyes that you’ll soon forget, now every glance can be permanent.  That makes eyesight into a weapon in the same way that guys might ogle girls on the street.

Contrast with the Rift.  So far, the Rift looks almost comical to people not using it.  Someone has a Rift on and is cocking his head around and leaning about and looking behind himself, all with the headset on.  Most importantly and humorously, his eyesight is blocked and he can’t see what is actually going on around him.  Most importantly, he has become a complete non-threat to those around him, almost like a prisoner, without eyesight.  There’s no Rift asshole phenomenon yet, and I guess it’s because no one perceives a Rift user as a threat.

I imagine Oculus wants to enable some awareness for the user:

Oculus is also working on a second, outward-­facing camera that will be part of the headset itself. The Valve proto­type used such a camera to read fiducial markers on the walls for tracking, but Oculus seems to intend it for very different applications. For one, Carmack says, it can function as a pass-through camera, allowing Rift-wearing users to see what’s happening in the real world—a kind of external heads-up display that would allow you to grab a soda, for instance.

- from the Wired article

But I do think it’s interesting how eyesight augmentation between Glass and the Rift is perceived so much differently.  I’m anticipating consumer VR will lead to similar advancements in digital culture, and it seems like it will finally come soon.

P.S. As an aside, why is Keanu Reeves in two of these VR films?  Well, as you may know, I think Keanu Reeves is awesome, and I recently watched two of his latest films, 47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi — I think he tends to enjoy roles where he’s cast as the outsider to a foreign world, with himself as the bridge hybrid (him being like a halfie, like me) between two worlds.  He’s played this role in at least: Dracula, 47 Ronin, The Matrix, Parenthood, Constantine, The Devil’s Advocate, The Replacements, and of course, Point Break.  Anyway, just a theory.

The Coolest Stuff I’ve Seen While at NYU-ITP

Access to the latest info and tech is easy because of the internet now, but moving to NYC and going to an art/tech school in Manhattan (NYU-ITP) has pushed me even closer to the sources of ground-breaking stuff that eddies in github repos, IRC channels, and school projects before being cut loose to hackernews or reddit or the other nerd aggregators.

Here’s some shit that I’ve seen while at ITP that I thought was fucking awesome, not necessarily because it’s never been done before, but primarily because it’s so easy for any regular person to play with now.

Interactive Coding

From Dan Shiffman in his Nature of Code class, he passed along this link from Bret Victor‘s talk, “Inventing on Principle”.  In the lengthy vid (all of it worth watching), he shows real-time feedback for coding.  That is, if you change the logic in your code, you see how the variables change, in real-time:

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He extended this to showing a circuit diagram timeline with sync’d waveforms and how the electrons and flow through the circuit as you change resistance and parts:

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Then, he showed iPad swiping to change elements on an animation timeline, thus creating a sort of tangible real-time animation experimentation, seen below:

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The benefit of this immediate feedback is that one can begin to play.  Instead of usual software development, which consists of planning ahead of time exactly how something should behave, and developing contingencies for when things go unexpectedly, this sort of format allows for someone to play with variables, such as the size of a character’s head, or the physics of a world, with immediate results.  This allows someone to fine-tune a world, or to test the bounds to see if unexpectedly fun behavior emerges from it.

This is more consistent with how an artist might try multiple things in order to fully flesh out a concept, instead of hoping to get lucky with it, or spending ages understanding the mechanics so well that the result is contrived.

Here’s the full version of Victor’s talk:

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You can see an early application of this kind of coding mentality in, as an example, this indie game, Under the Ocean:

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Websockets

One of my classmates, now an ITP resident, Craig Protzel, was showing me some code he was working on with a professor, linking up heartbeat monitor-type data with a data viz timeseries graphing web site, showing real-time streaming of the data onto a line graph, with a backend of node.js and socket.io.

The best demo I could find of something similar to this is this Arduino board with two potentiometers streaming output via websockets and a Python script up to the web:

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Here’s the implication.  The web has been fairly static since its inception.  Even when AJAX came and ushered in web 2.0, you were still doing with an active getter-type web.  Databases, bandwidth, and client browsers just couldn’t handle unrequested data coming in.  But now they can, what with the cloud, key-value stores like redis or AMQP, faster and bigger bandwidth pipes, etc.  The web is going to start looking more like a stream and less like a restaurant menu.

In my Redial class last semester, a lot of our final projects involved setting up an open-source Asterisk telephony server with a cheap phone number routed to an Ubuntu server instance in the cloud — that stack was all the same, but our applications were different: one team (Phil and Robbie) made a super-easy conference call service, another dude (Tony) made a multiplayer sequencer controlled by people dialing in and punching numbers on their keypads:

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Server stacks are flattening in a sense — you can use any language you want to set up a server (Ruby Sinatra/Rails, JavaScript node.js, Python Flask), and then plug in extra services you need (database, key-store, admin tools, task and load balancers).  HTML5 and some degree of normalization on the browser side is allowing JavaScript to mature so that we have all these kickass visualization and interface libraries for making better user interfaces now, too, which can easily handle the structured data being thrown at it by all the stuff going on on the backend.

The last note is that you can now easily, with a little help from an Arduino and a network shield, control the digital world with analog sensors, or vice versa.

Drones

I read Daniel Suarez’s latest book “Kill Decision” (review here), in which a scientist is targeted because of her research into weaver ants, the most warlike species on Earth, being inspiration for algorithms for killer drone swarming behavior.  We’re living in an age of the dawn of drones, where the US has found it can cheaply deploy drones to kill and monitor the enemy, broken down into a bureaucracy of various levels of kill and targeting authorization.  We’ve all seen the videos of quadcopters acting together using simple rules.  It won’t be too long until law enforcement and federal agencies will be able to use drones domestically.  Drones are far more versatile, expendable, and cost-effective as overhead imagery.  Look at the quality on this RC with a GoPro camera attached:

Here was a “robokopter” sent up to monitor the police in Warsaw as they kept two hostile groups of marchers apart:

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I can’t see how drones won’t be banned soon, but how will they enforce it?  Shoot down rogue drones?  Jam them?

Somewhat corny, but here’s FPSRussia using what seems to be a terribly unsafe quadcopter with a machine gun attached:

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Suarez’s book takes its name from the idea that an unknown actor has built drones that target individuals, assassinate them, and self-destruct, without any instructions coming in after they’re released.  They destroy their own fingerprint and are mostly impervious to being jammed or tracked back to their makers.

All with fairly cheap parts.  It’s not the same thing as weaponizing, say, biological weapons, or building a big enough EMP, which I would imagine are two of security apparatuses’ biggest fears.  I’m kind of sad more people haven’t read Suarez’s books because they’re addressing pretty near-term implications of emerging tech.

FaceShift

I didn’t get to take this class, but Professor Kyle McDonald (whom I took for Glitch) had his students play with this new kickass software, FaceShift.  Check the demo:

Basically, you plug in a Kinect to your computer and spend half an hour mapping your facial expressions to the software.  Then it renders a model of your face, which you can then use to map any skin you want (say, another person’s face) onto it.  So quickly and easily you can do this.  Previously this sort of work was the domain of special effects studios and game development teams.  Now it’s downloadable, and you can buy a Kinect (or other similar cameras) to capture yourself.

Holy Grails That are Still Missing

Self-Recording

Here’s what I wrote my buddy Chris after he showed me this upcoming product, the Autographer:

Problem with it is threefold:

  1. unproven, not much evidence of what it actually delivers
  2. angle is all wrong, you have to wear it on your purse (!) or on a lanyard, so it will jerk around, not stay right-side out, won’t have a good angle to see what’s important (even if it’s supposedly a 135 degree lens)
  3. the holy grail of something like this would be something that takes photos OF you, not FROM you
That last part is key.  If I could, I would build a little floating ball (think the trainer that Luke uses to practice with his lightsaber) that can take photos of you without you being aware of it, or posing for it.  Candid photos.  Those are the winning photos.  Not posed photos of people mugging for the camera.  Even having another person take the photos for you steals from the atmosphere — someone is actively choosing to become disengaged from the scene in order to take a photo of it.

It also means that photos of people and recording peoples’ lives has been primarily a solo adventure at this point.  Hence the phenomenon of mirror photos, the forward-facing camera (so you can see yourself and the person you’re with while you take the photo), etc.  Not so many people are lucky enough to A) want photos and B) have someone else who loves to take photos along with them at that time.  I have no awesome photos of Iraq as a result (and those that I took, as you know, got me in a shitload of photos…can’t even claim to have returned with anything beautiful from that hard-knocks lesson).  Maybe this also explains why photos of animals have done so well.  They are ignorant of us taking photos of them, and do their crazy animalistic shit with reckless abandon, and thus make excellent photo subjects.

Extend that to personal data collection (which is what Galapag.us will start off as) and it’s a somewhat isolating experience.  Who is going to follow you around and collect data on you?  You have to do it for yourself, or participate in activities that can be tracked automatically (marathons, online social networking sites, Fuelband, etc.).  Maybe social media whores (like me) became that way because that’s the cutting edge for living a quantified, recorded life.

Anyway, I think it’s pretty fascinating that among friends who are social users of online stuff, Facebook and Instagram are the key players (which is why Facebook paid $1bil for Instagram).  I love Twitter but very few casual users use it.  Pinterest is primarily women, fantasy leagues are men, etc.  But photos are HUGE.  Facebook knows it.  But we’re not even a third of the way towards reaching the full potential of capturing the human experience through a camera in my opinion.  The tech is not there yet.

Decentralization

The web is not very distributed or decentralized.  There is a myth of digital democracy.  When Amazon AWS has a hiccup, usually in its Virginia availability zone, half the American internet’s most popular sites go down.  The NSA and other countries’ intelligence agencies are up the telcos’ asses with eavesdropping, and sites are being shut down by ICE and the FBI.  Virtually the only site that has remained impervious to government attacks has been The Pirate Bay, which is constantly coming up with new ways to thwart efforts to shut it down, primarily through redundancy and distribution.  Torrenting has almost become a political act, even though it’s a resilient model for an unevenly distributed modern-day internet.

Social networks are walled gardens.  Twitter, a darling, was caught by the more traditional walled garden peloton, and is now locking down its data, after having, at one point, a role model API.

At some point we will have IPv6, which, thankfully after Windows has gone through some lengths to secure its OS, has been slow to roll out so far, but which will eventually allow any sensor, device, appliance, whatever to have its own internet-available unique ID, for better or for worse.

In Closing

Will be adding more to this periodically for a while; still got about 7 months or so left at ITP, plus there might be some stuff I overlooked.  What else do you think has been cool that you’ve seen lately?

Glitch: The Flip-Flop Technique

For our final Glitch class, our assignment was to employ the flip-flop technique, as described by Robin Sloan.  Technically, our job was to glitch something by flipping it between the analog and digital x times, or as Sloan says, “the process of pushing a work of art or craft from the physical world to the digital world and back again—maybe more than once”.

I decided to make a puzzle of it, to see if my idea would work.  First I had to put a file online, shorten it via bit.ly (to reduce encoding complexity in the QR code), and then generate a QR code for it.  Here’s the summation of that:

In order to do my flip-flop, one would need to graph out the x,y grid coordinates from a txt file onto graph paper. (ANALOG) Check out the text file here.  0,0 is the top-left of the 25×25 grid.

You can see it’s a 25×25 grid.  Once you draw out the pixel coordinates, you’ll get what appears to be a QR code.  Here’s my work, partially through it:

I wasn’t sure if this part would work, though in theory it should have.  When I first filled in the QR code on my graphing paper, neither Google Goggles nor QR Droid could detect the QR code.  Google Goggles found the closest match to be photo images of bathroom tile patterns.

Then, figuring my drawn QR code wasn’t precise enough, or perhaps dark enough, I erased my axis labels and filled in the square pixels with a black pen.  To my amazement, the QR code then worked in QR Droid! (DIGITAL)

I was surprised that it could pick up the code, because I started getting sloppy while filling in the squares, figuring I could just use the final product as some artistic hand-drawn rendering of a QR code.  Apparently though, QR codes, depending on encoding, can handle quite a lot of error, and correct for it.  Here’s some information about how its error correction works (thanks Neil).

One interesting project handling data error and error correction was our professor Kyle McDonald’s Future Fragments project, where he had other classmates encode messages into colored grid squares, then keep the printouts in their wallets for a summer, then decoding the blocks back into a message after the pieces of paper had been worn down a bit.

The QR code takes you to a bit.ly link, which forwards you to an image on my site, a reproduction of Caravaggio’s The Card Sharps, one of my favorite paintings. (DIGITAL)

 

The next task would then be to hand-draw the painting. (ANALOG)

Then you take a photo of it to auto-save to Google+ or upload to the cloud. (DIGITAL)

Then the final task would be to color in the drawing using Photoshop or another digital tool. (DIGITAL)

Here was my final product:

As a final test, I thought I’d see if I could run the drawings through glassgiant.com’s ASCII converter.  The results for my drawing were not too good, probably mainly because I did not make bold enough lines and outlines to make the ASCII conversion stark enough.  I also ASCII’d up the QR code (ink) and the original Caravaggio. (DIGITAL)

Note: along the way, I found this awesome site that has a QR code stencil generator, for making stencils in hobo code!

Anyway, that concludes my work for Glitch class.  Thank you Kyle McDonald and Jeremiah Johnson!  This ITP class was fucking kickass.

Redial Final Project: Hermes Ordering System

In my Redial class, we learned about the dark arts of telephony in an age of digital, packets, and VOIP.  Once we learned the basics of operating in an Asterisk telephony server environment, we moved on to how to write scripts in Ruby, bash, whatever to interact with Asterisk during a phonecall.  We set up our own Rackspace servers loaded up with Asterisk and used our professor’s script to install needed software on its Ubuntu instance.  I’ve saved that script to add extra stuff when I’m setting up a new Ubuntu server from scratch.  Ubuntu basic literacy is now attained.

That part was fun enough, but it started to get interesting when our badass professor, Chris Kairalla, published some code to Github for interacting with a web front-end in JavaScript by using socket.io, node.js, and a Ruby-Asterisk Gateway Interface script interfacing with calls placed to Asterisk. That’s when the realm of ideas greatly opened up.  Real-time interaction with the phone dialpad to control a screen, an Arduino, robots, electric switches, whatever.  And with the explosion of JavaScript and Node.js, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Here are the class notes:  http://www.itp-redial.com/class/

And the Github repo: https://github.com/itp-redial/

I set out with confidence, knowing I could use Professor Kairalla’s brilliant tinyphone code, which provided the framework to facilitate an incoming call into a caller object that one could manipulate in the web page DOM.

My idea was to build a bar or restaurant menu displayed on screens around a bar which would let customers place orders by just pressing digits on their phone, instead of waiting on waitstaff or having a gimmicky touchscreen or table screen.  The orders would be tied to someone’s phone number so paying for bills wouldn’t require the awkward splitting up of the bill, and customers would be able to use a very personal device to them, their own cellphone, to control interaction in the bar/restaurant.  Orders could be processed quickly, verified afterwards, and immediately incorporated into a database which could provide business intelligence in the form of statistics on food orders, frequencies, favorites for each customer, etc. All in a scalable, modular framework such as Node.js + Express.

Previous blog documentation: post #1.

Demo video:

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Screenshots of some functionality:

Initially I figured I’d follow advice and build out the API first.  For that, I’d need an admin dashboard to perform CRUD operations to build up the menu.  I’m pretty tired of having to build out AJAX and menus to add, remove, edit, etc. so I’ve started building a Node.js app with all that stuff built-in, including JSON operations and other common usage events so I don’t have to keep testing it.  Anyway, I got my menu add functions working so I quickly started adding all my favorite Stellas, Dark & Stormies, Mojitos, etc.

Then I spent most of my development time building an interface that could only use the dialpad numbers 1-9, 0, *, and #.  Because I was fairly ill-versed with JavaScript still, I actually ended up refactoring my interface about three or four times, each time becoming more and more modular, using JavaScript objects which contained each “menu” (i.e. a beer menu that would point to each individual beer’s screen, which would pass to another object that would fill out a screen to let you order the beer) pushed into an interface that had no more than 8-9 choices.  Then the screen would have to have text displayed large enough to read, yet still accomodate perhaps 3-4 simultaneous callers at once.

var menuFoodObj = {
	name : "Food/Drinks Menu",
	upMenu : "Main",
	currentMenu : "Food",
	id : "",
	p : ["", "Beer", "Wine", "Liquor", "Non-Alcoholic Drinks", "Water", "Burger", "Specials", "Chips & Salsa"],
	pClick : ["", "Beer", "Wine", "Liquor", "Other", "Water", "Burger", "Specials", "Chips"]
}

By the end of the refactoring though, I had a really nice (but still a little soupy) interface of JavaScript objects being pushed into the DOM by jQuery.  I learned OO JavaScript pretty well although I didn’t understand fully how to create new objects and then properly make methods for objects (I was declaring new functions within objects).  Since I did most of the development and testing just using the web browser and mouseclicks, I was happy when all my refactoring allowed me to easily map a phone’s keypresses to the interface interactions using jQuery’s .triggerHandler event.  My code is still quite soupy though, and I think I’m about ready to learn backbone.js for injecting data from models into a static template — it would have been perfect for this type of project where the layout remains mostly the same but the data changes frequently.  I’m happy, though, that it was easy for me to instantiate new user objects (e.g. user[1] = new User();) for the 4 users that Hermes currently supports.

I actually ran into a weird problem after I’d hooked in caller keypresses, which I thought at first was within the DOM.  Keypresses from my softphone (I used Zoiper to connect via SIP) were happening twice and I thought the click event handler was being called twice in the DOM.  This did not occur on normal phone calls over, say, a cellphone.  Further inspection saw two keypresses coming across in Asterisk:

 <SIP/general_sip-000000ae>AGI Rx << WAIT FOR DIGIT -1
 <SIP/general_sip-000000ae>AGI Tx >> 200 result=50
 <SIP/general_sip-000000ae>AGI Tx >> 200 result=50

Prof. Kairalla found that we were actually picking up feedback on my laptop from the call being made over the software.  Once we muted my laptop, the audio wasn’t being sent to the Asterisk server, which had been detecting the extra audio as what it assumed was an extra keypress.

I added an option to check news headlines from Google News’ API, which has been deprecated so will probably disappear soon?  The other bad thing about this was that you can’t really link to the body of an article since 1) Google News just provides the link and the source’s weak abstract and 2) news sources are so proprietary about people stealing their content.  APIs always leave a bad taste in my mouth because they’re hamstrung from the outset.  Anyway, there’s a definite art to creating headlines, as I learned in my previous job covering the news cycle, and most headlines are expertly packed with relevant info, enough for you to get an idea of things just at a glance.

I also added features for sending drinks/orders to another table, to facilitate social interaction within the bar.  Trivia can be played as well, though it wasn’t built into a central system where scores are kept.  Right now it just tests a user’s response against the correct answer and then generates a random question.  Another feature added was to flirt with other tables and send them messages.

I used Flowroute, which was super easy to set up in my sip.conf and extensions.conf for Asterisk, using Flowroute’s web-based cheatsheets for config settings unique to my account.  Very nice set-up screens there.

emailjs and Twilio

To process orders (when someone wishes to buy a beer, but he hasn’t received it yet) and tabs (for delivered food/drinks), I took advantage of node.js’s awesome modules and found emailjs, which lets you package up a JS object and send it as an email via SMTP to, say, gmail.  So when a customer places an order in Hermes, the order is sent via email to the company for later verification.  Easy, piece of cake.  Can be used with any SMTP server you have an account on and that has permissions.

Then Prof. Kairalla mentioned that it would be great if a customer received a text message thanking them after they close their tab.  So I bought a phone number on Twilio ($1/mo) and used the Twilio SMS API to package up another JS object with the tab details, and then have it again email the company but also text msg the caller with his closed tab details.  I actually had some problems with this and didn’t like the available Node.js modules (because they didn’t include examples for SMS), but luckily I found Dustin McQuay’s godsend blog post in which he posts some easy node.js code as a sendSMS() function, which I used to get my Twilio SMSs working.  I then had further problems but I found out I had pasted in the wrong Twilio auth token, so once I re-checked that, it then worked!  I feel as though the auth token changed because I funded my Twilio account, changing it from a free account to a paid one, and changing the token.  I assume?  Anyway, too much time wasted on that…

I also got a fraud alert from my credit card after trying to fund my Twilio.  Apparently they get a lot of fraudulent credit card funds, which makes sense since I’m pretty sure telephony and stuff related to it are havens for people trying to commit fraud, fake identities, and game systems.  But my credit card company cleared my purchase and I was fine within minutes.  Just thought it was worth mentioning.

Conclusion

I demo’d this in class and had 4 people call in.  They quickly broke it, but it was mostly the display of each person’s menu on the page.  That’s an easy UI fix.  I also found that I would need to make each person’s number more clearly visible so he’d know which interface he’d be working on.  But I felt like people were very quickly navigating through the menus and would learn it fairly quickly once they figured out it was just using a phone dialpad.  One thing that broke the demo was that the bottom bar (telling you how to use ‘*’, ‘0’, and ‘#’) got pushed down so people couldn’t see it.  Big problem there!

This app works hand in hand, I think, with my other app, Karaoke Flow.  I would love to create products to make the bar/restaurant/club/concert/dance party/rave/big gathering experience more enjoyable for people looking to have a kickass time and more profitable for the businesses providing it to them.

And I’m blown away with what is possible now with socket.io and Node.js.  All these projects I’ve wanted to do, like a web-based MUD to hook into Galapag.us, real-time chat, real-time flowing data, it’s now possible.  Love it.  And Redial…what a great class.  It’s recaptured the mystique of phones before they went smartphone, the weirdness and coolness of the phonebooth which has become a portal in pop culture (Doctor Who, The Matrix, Danger Mouse), and the fun of messing with somewhat quirky and buggy technology after it’s fallen out of vogue.  And to see how easy it is to set up a Vonage-like system!

My Goals for NYU’s ITP Program

I’m really excited to be starting my Master’s in Professional Studies program at New York University for the Interactive Telecommunications Program in August. In a way, it’s a true culmination of all the things I’ve been doing on my own OUTSIDE of school for so long. BBS‘ing and Sierra Networking in high school, telnetting and MUDding and daytrading and webdesigning in college, blogging and searching in the Army, coding a bit at Georgetown. Not really finding folks who found value in doing anything technical in any of those tribes.

I don’t know how this program will end up, but given that it’s throwing people headfirst into Arduino circuitboards, coding, hacking, social media remixing, designing, creating…I’m hoping to find peers who love to experiment and play and make.

Having seen various sectors of the American economy while living in CA/DC/TN/TX/IZ, particularly the knowledge economy, what I’ve been struck by most has been the lack of technical knowledge. People know their tiny sliver of the world, such as collateralized debt obligations, US-Pakistan policy, aid packages, writing reports…but anything broader than that knowledge is usually treading on very delicate ground. Even in some of the more technical areas I’ve worked in (military intel, social media, innovation projects), there is literally no knowledge of or curiosity for experimentation or remixing.

When I see people who don’t tweet or blog or have much of a presence online, particularly when they claim to be pretty digitally savvy, it makes me wonder. Twitter is all about remixing ideas, combining cultures and taboos and tribes. It’s a swirl of information waiting to produce the next memes or companies or news or collaborative one-offs. To me, not only is this environment fascinating, versatile, and by its nature educational, it also is a cauldron for the next generation of successful projects and people. It’s a testing ground for future successful workers. How can you compete in the working environment if you can’t keep up digitally? I understand if you don’t like computers or the internet, but it’s your own livelihood.

About a year ago, before I applied or even knew what I was going to do, I quit my job for 2.5 months. I got to enjoy the DC summer, but mainly I was coding full-time for my personal project, Galapag.us, having no clue where it would go or how it would ever be more than just a dumb idea. But I was super-frustrated with where my career was going. I wanted to build, to create, to do more with my hands. I think I called several family members and friends looking for advice. I ended up applying for ITP (and nowhere else), shelving Galapag.us for a bit, and returning to work. In April I found out I got in.

The way I see it, heading to NYC, the most creative, diverse, urban, and pragmatic city in the world (I’d argue), to finally be a true geek, I can only see this as a huge personal victory, a huge opportunity to be myself and to create a lot of great things that are useful to a lot of people.

And since I’m older this time around, and have an international development/international affairs Master’s under my belt from the best IR school in the world, this time I know I should have a plan of attack.

Galapag.us

Galapag.us is what I’d like to be my life’s work.  It’s what I want to be known for.  An open reputation system providing alternative forms of credit and trust, verified through a balance of different interests, using all your life’s data to compute what kind of person you are.

I want my projects to all work on some aspect of Galapag.us, to test its weaknesses and experiment with what it could eventually look like or become.

 

Prototype Glasses with Visual Augmentation for Reputation

To that end, I want to build the glasses used in Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom (TM).  Regular-looking glasses that you put on, plugging you into digital layers that show reputational score layers next to someone’s image, route planning towards your next objective, visuals of your level and trade (Level 19 Farmer, Level 3 Government Analyst, etc.) and others, digital inventories you can use with real-world objects, etc.  Augmented reality is being worked on at the platform level, but I’d like to build a functional prototype of some sort (PDF).

Prototype Location-Aware RFID Organizer Bins and Objects

Cory Doctorow’s Makers had his two tinkerers create a cheap and easy tech that consisted of RFID chips in containers and on objects, so that when you needed to locate something in your closet, you could call it up and the container it was in would glow for you so you could find it faster.  RFID and its intermixing with IPv6, linked data, and object reputation will lead to greater connectedness between the digital and real world, and will enhance our ability to interact with the real by mapping the computational digital world onto it.  It’s pretty kludgy the way we look at a real-world object (a book) and then google or amazon it online.

Video Editing

We have already reached textual literacy on the internet.  To the extent that we can remix and reuse text without violating the horrible, innovation-choking copyright laws that currently exist, we’re actually pretty good at finding, searching, and sharing text.  With bandwidth and storage and access increasing for video, we will need to reach video literacy next.  I already know that my posting a video will have far fewer hits than if I post just text.  Many people don’t want to watch a long video, or are at work and are blocked from YouTube.  But once a video goes viral, it has far more of an impact.  I would like to capture some sort of Marshall McLuhanesque understanding of video and get smart on video, Final Cut Pro, AfterEffects.  Video editing I see similar to web design — it’s a way to create and express your own view of the world without relying on others to make it for you.  And now that video is social and allows for feedback, through perhaps the most important tech given to us after the dotcom revolution besides Google (no, not Twitter or Facebook), YouTube:

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Music Creation

Instead of being a guy on his night out at the club, I always wanted to own the club, or be playing the music for the club.  While I have no musical ability, I think I’ve at least accumulated enough knowledge from a broad enough swath of songs to be able to start mixing them together.  The tools for music creation, however, are somewhat arcane.  I want to get more comfortable with it.  Out of my straight-laced DC policy/analyst friends, I have seen their better parts/personalities emerge only when drunk and on the dance floor.  That is the power of music and communitas with alcohol and Cee Lo Green-revealed magic of Friday and Saturday night.

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Miscellany

I have a few other projects I want to prototype.

ProbablyGonna. DC culture consists of a bunch of people who live in the District and want to go to happy hours/networking events EVERY NIGHT.  I came to DC and went immediately to Georgetown, so I had a built-in group of friends to hang with.  I have a feeling people in DC have a bunch of different circles and tribes they hang with, so the best way to meet up is not necessarily blast e-mails or FourSquare checkins.  What might work best is you signaling your intent to go out on certain nights on the calendar.  Say you want to have a night of clubbing on Friday night, until late, and maybe you want to do Adams Morgan.  You signal that on ProbablyGonna (as in, I’m probably gonna do this on Friday), and anyone else connected with you can signal their intent to do the same.  It’s not mutually exclusive to other events, so you could signal for multiple events.  This solves the FourSquare problem of knowing someone is at a location after they’re there, or in most cases, long after they’ve left.

Men’s tailoring. Most men do not know how to dress.  They certainly don’t own the essentials, the basics, for different social events.  What if you go to a site, select that you want a “business casual” outfit for work, enter your rough dimensions, and order a pretty basic outfit of a suit, shirt, starter tie, socks, shoes, underwear, belt, cufflinks, watch?  Then that kit either goes to a local tailor working with my company, or it goes to you and you schedule your time with the tailor later.  The tailor establishes a personal relationship with you and zeroes in your dimensions for the clothing.  The tailor then mends your kit, and gives you a business casual basic outfit that actually fits you, flatters your shape, and is worth far more than a regular tailoring job.  The best part?  Over time, your purchases get better.  Different outfits (going out Friday, wedding, weekend wear) go straight to the tailor, who tailors your kit, then gives it over to you.  It helps you dress far better for your body shape, it helps the tailor develop clients, it helps my company move product.  Then I can also sell you your pieces of personality, usually in the tie, the socks, shoes, kerchief, etc.

Reputation badges for your outfits:  piggy-backing on Galapag.us. You unlock badges that you wear on your clothing or bags when you go out.  They have QR codes or some other unique form of code (e.g. Itizen TRACKit).  Say you’re an excellent wingman and have saved three mates.  You get a wingman badge with two oakleaf clusters.  Or you know CPR.  You get a CPR tab (designates a skill, not an accomplishment).  Designated driver?  Badge.  This mirrors the military uniform system of achievements.  Clothing subconsciously is used to denote class, personality, and tribal association, but we’ve lost individuation and accomplishment that Papua New Guinea and Maori and other tribes used tattoos for, or Roman colors for their togas.  I want to bring that back.  Using Galapag.us’s reputation system as the backend and standardization platform.

So in short I want to play with things.  I don’t expect to get good at any one thing.  I’m not sure I will be very good at 3D printing or laser cutting or making actual models of things, having no prior design background, but I’ll give it a shot.

Setting the Tone

Those are the actual products.  Mostly what I want to do is create things that are useful and happy.  Two of the biggest problems among Internet-Americans is that they 1) have no clue how to make tech that benefits the poor, weak, and under-represented, and 2) they get too cynical or unhappy.  Fortunately NYC is taking on the personality of a digital city, thanks to Mayor Bloomberg and his efforts to push the city online, including appointing a Chief Digital Officer, Rachel Sterne.  As for me, I’ve realized how happiness and laughter and fun make more of a difference in peoples’ everyday lives than being sarcastic, sardonic, cynical, pessimistic, or mean.  While I’m sarcastic and dark in my humor, I want to try being happy.  I want to make peoples’ lives better and happier.  I want to stay away from the easy, which is being critical, doubtful, and resentful, while at the same time being pragmatic, useful, and iconoclastic.

So that’s what I want out of the next two years.  Hold me accountable to it.

Walking the Walk

Walking the walk has become a core lesson learned for me.  I’ve tried to live an adult life of walking the walk instead of talking the talk.  When I was a suburban, socially disconnected kid, I spent most of my time on early BBCs, gaming networks, and the internet posing as a normal adult because that was the only way I could fit in.  As I got older, I actually was a normal adult, but I still felt left out.  It wasn’t until I joined the Army that I began to understand how important it is to be a member of a community and to “know” what it is to be in a community.

Since then I have moved on from the Army and intelligence community, although I still keep in touch with people there, and can spot those types instantly from a crowd.  I went and joined another community, the Georgetown community, and, with more time, became a tangential member of the DC community.   Those people have their own customs, rituals, schedules, and uniforms.  In many ways, DC people are not unlike military people:  long hours, dedication towards greater purposes, responsibility, discipline.

My infatuation with starting a company has continued to grow.  But I’ve found just how incompatible the DC community is with social entrepreneurship in my area, online stuff.  While there are a lot of initiatives in DC, partly because of cloud computing, cheap CPU cycles, and Obama’s initiatives to drag the government into the present, you can sum up most early pitches in DC this way:

"Looking for Full-Time Coder for DC Start-Up"

It’s funny because in DC, you can stop anyone on the street and they will be some high-level program manager or policy wonk interested in federal-level funding and grant-making for this or some other project.  But when it comes to finding people to implement all these plans and programs in a tangible way, the pool is thin.

Contrast this with stories from Silicon Valley, which is continuously castigated for building only incremental improvements to useless features.  One-hit non-wonders.  Things that make a prettier gadget abusing a Google Calendar API.  Or making a more hipsterish movie review site.

So DC is great, important ideas in search of engineers, while Silicon Valley is talented engineers in search of serious projects.

If I had my way, I would found an engineering school in DC, and feed students into the projects that DC is dying to implement.  Instead of relying solely on schools like Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon, DC should have some sort of computer science/social entrepreneurship program.

It might even need a broader project than that.  I often think about the short booklet I read from SnarkMarket called the “New Liberal Arts”.  The booklet proposes a new curriculum for students to learn applicable skills to our digital world:  attention economics, coding and decoding, finding, food, home economics, inaccuracy, iteration, journalism, mapping, marketing, micropolitics, myth and magic, negotiation, play, and video literacy, among others.

I’ve found through my job, which involves me reading pretty much as much as I can that comes across the web daily, that so many people are lacking in fundamental skills to interpret their world.  They do not know how to parse a story to see a particular agency’s bias, or to see which facts are actually facts and which were selectively chosen for inclusion.  The ability to figure out important data from unimportant data is also woefully lacking.  There is so much fluff in the world, in the form of excess meetings, long and boring Powerpoint decks, redundant employees, stifling bureaucracy, that it seems like a system built more to protect constituencies than to be lean and efficient.

Just read internet comments some time if you want to see how badly people interpret data they read online.  It’s so bad that Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, said the inability to judge facts and disprove false stories online is one of the biggest problems out there.

“Sir Tim told BBC News that there needed to be new systems that would give websites a label for trustworthiness once they had been proved reliable sources.

“”On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable,” he said. “A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging.””

Students do not know how to build the things they study.  The top jobs are going towards lawyers and businessmen, but their studies are so abstracted from anything concrete that it’s all just theoretical to them.  The culture of hacking, where you sit down quickly and prototype things with simple building blocks, does not exist in most bureaucracies, and it’s certainly bred out of children by the time they reach high school.  The only escape for natural hackers has been the internet and for people who live out in the country and are exposed to working with their hands with minimal supervision.

Everyone has great ideas, but few have the know-how to implement or even prototype them.  Which means the ideas die.  Few are part of the appropriate communities to make things happen, either.

That is.  I learned in the Army that if you’re not in the military, you have no clue what military culture is like.  Military bases are usually separated from the rest of the American fabric, in small towns that exist only because of the base.  Veterans and their family members live in a separate world.  Thus to hear people talk about the military without never having been close to it is so hard to swallow.  Likewise, I just became a full Catholic, during a publicized, grueling, disgusting scandal of pedophilia within the Catholic bishopry. (Indeed, before the Easter Vigil before my baptism began, I stood outside the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and some guy in flipflops walking his dog tried to cut through our preparatory line and said, “Excuse me, child molesters”, as he walked through.  What, so all Catholics are child molesters?  Have we reached this level of disdain for strangers we meet in the world?)

My more agnostic and atheist friends ask me why I would join the Church, knowing about all this.  Again, a Catholic within the Church would not ask.  A religious person would not need to ask.  Churches, despite being so numerous, and religious folk, despite being a clear majority in the US and in the world, exist in a separate world than the rest.  Put a pastor next to a programmer and I’m sure you’ll rarely see such polar opposites.

So I’ve been in some pretty disconnected communities.  Would that make me a crypto-first-world-urban anthropologist?

I was actually fortunate enough to have a Mac Plus and subsequent Apple products (even the Newton) because my dad would get them as part of his professor’s grant.  And I remember learning Logo and Pascal in school, while playing with BASIC at home (typing in those programs out of books and then running them).  As I got older, I wished badly to be able to speak in different human languages.  I wondered why I couldn’t have known French or Spanish while a lot of people I knew were multi-lingual.  When I became an Arabic linguist in the Army, I really lamented it.

But since then, as the internet has exploded, English has become a comfortable lingua franca for me, and what has become far more important to me is computer language.  Why couldn’t I have become a god at C++ or Java?  Would I need to have gone into CS in school to do that?  Would that have doomed me to a linear career?  I’ve picked up PHP inasmuch as I need it to prototype and build stuff online — I guess it’s no accident I spent time learning PHP since it’s so easy to build out online.

One article I read recently from RSA, talked about employing the human “third drive”, which roughly coincides with Maslow’s higher levels of human needs.  The article claims that carrots and sticks at work is rarely effective and sometimes harmful.  Management leads to compliance only, in many cases, as rigid hierarchy means people are only ultimately going to care about their own lane and not take on extra work, which may get them in trouble.

It’s tough because in any organization, the top people may not be the best people to “start” a project.  Someone at the lowest level of an organization may have figured out what the organization needs in order to improve, but the authorization and legitimacy bestowed upon that person does not exist.  Thus the idea will never see the light of the day.  The higher up on the food chain, the less likely the people will be to possess skills needed to prototype.  I think this is why I’m so preferential towards organizations that hire strictly engineers and people with serious experience — they were at that lowest level once, and knew the pitfalls invisible to the highest people.

At The Future of Web Design conference in Miami a couple years ago, and with a recent NYTimes article, people have begged for more women in computer science.  I’m beginning to wonder if my above hypothesis, that there’s a disconnect between the cultural maps of doers/searchers vs. planners, holds true for women too.  DC is interesting because it’s known as the WORST city in the world for single women to find a mate, because women here are so highly-educated and well-off, while outnumbering men.

Do women fall into communities and roles that by their nature seek to improve the human condition and standard of living?  Would it be fair to say that while men have sought power in DC, women have sought to use social institutions to improve human lives?  Could one say that women have not been as interested in hacking, which in many ways is a very solitary, almost autistic profession, and have sought instead positions that are more socially networked and responsible and creative?

Would there be more female hackers, and hackers in general, in DC if an institution existed to encourage computer science in a town that’s so heavily geared towards policymaking?  I am beginning to think so.  How can we link together the separate groups of engineers and policymakers/changemakers?

In a broader sense, shouldn’t America, which likes to see itself as a greasy-knuckles, hard-working blue-collar country (despite being the richest and fattest), find in itself a core value of walking the walk?  After all, we used to subscribe to walking softly but carrying a big stick.  We have imposing science, nuclear, and military programs.   We were great because we had substance and experience unmatched elsewhere in the world.  It is not like now, where what we value are lawyers who can argue any case as long as they’re paid well enough, or bankers who can innovate money out of our pockets while underlying assets remain unchanged in value, or businessmen who spend their lives adjusting reports while barely understanding the very product or service they sell.  That is all image, abstracted away from the core economic and power realpolitik.

I just finished watching Season 4 of The Wire, which brings in the new component of Baltimore life, the public school system.  What struck me was the experimental pilot program to remove the problem kids from the general population and try to socialize them, since they were all training to be “corner kids” and learning that school was just a safe zone to learn how to test rules and adults.

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Are we preparing people to live and work in the world we now and will live in?

Can we move away from a culture of FOXNews, with its chickenhawk lawyers who rattle their swords on patriotism, love for the military, and mercantilist realpolitik but who consistently seem to have absolutely no experience in anything except morning zoo drive DJs, sportscasting, lawyerships, working for conservative thinktanks, etc.?  Can we move away from seeking advice on small business and policymaking from people who have never started a business or who make fun of community organizing?

Can we praise a culture where walking the walk, being a member of a community instead of an outside criticizer and observer, becomes the gold standard?

Public Transit Adds Data Points

Here in DC, WMATA (Washington Metro Area Transit Authority) has started putting up signs at all its bus stops that have a unique stop number on them.

wmataWhat this number symbolizes is a unique ID that riders and WMATA operators can use to point to an exact location and stop.

As you can see from the sign, it’s not exactly intuitive what this number is for, but you can call that number and tell the system the unique stop ID and it would tell you when the next bus is coming.

More useful is that WMATA has put up a mobile version of the same functionality at http://www.wmata.com/mobile/ which allows you to go on your iPhone or whatever and type in the stop # to find out when the next bus is coming.

This app also lets you check when the next trains are coming on the Metro, once you’ve entered the station.

But I think there are some interesting applications more on the bus side, what with WMATA having to add the pictured signs to ALL of its bus stops.  This is no small number; according to Wikipedia, that number is 12,301 total bus stops.

It will take some time for WMATA to get signs on some of the lesser-traveled stops, but I’ve noticed that a lot of the work’s already been done as I travel around town.

That means there are now 12,301 new data points (maybe not new to WMATA’s internal logs, but certainly new to us) that could be used.  Right now, people can’t interact actively with those data points.

But I could imagine that if the data points were all mapped onto Google Maps or OpenStreetMap, then interesting things would begin to emerge, e.g. emergency responders could be told that there’s an injured person at that location.

This might be done by turning the bus stops into communication posts:  the sign itself could be connected to a WiMAX network and thus displays the next-bus time without you having to look it up.  But it could also allow for emergency requests, or you could touch your phone or an RFID-enabled device to it to get more information on whatever was needed; this information would be primarily localized, like where the nearest convenience or grocery store was, etc.  This would make up for a lot of the shortcomings that still exist in being able to use the GPS/triangulation on your phone but still not having any context on your map that’s meaningful beyond what cross-streets you’re at.

New York supposedly is about to try out its own version of having next-bus displays at bus stops, according to the NY Times.  It’s not entirely clear to me what their technology is although they claim it is some sort of “mesh network technology” which to me sounds like it’d be fraught with errors and lost coverage.

The new data points could be used in different applications:  you could check in to FourSquare from them as you travel around town, playing its social game.  If WMATA played ball and opened up the data, you could calculate total hits on a station by a bus over a year.  Even more interesting would be if you could see how many people were on each bus, to see how congested things are over time (I can already see privacy zealots complaining about that).  How about figuring out overall transit times for Metro users?

What else could we do with this stuff?

Labor Costs

One of the topics I want to study more about is what we’re all going to do in the future for work and jobs.  Part of the sharp upheaval of the 20th century of rapid economic development was that a stable career was not sustainable except for certain professions.  It is true in the US that most jobs that students are being taught for, ostensibly, do not even exist yet.

The manufacturing jobs we used to have have been pushed abroad to cheaper labor markets.  Farming has been turned into a large-scale industry needing expensive fertilizer inputs and economies of scale.  Services and data processing have, for a while now, been offshored to cheaper labor markets as well.

The idealized hope was that at least with the offshored jobs, those countries that welcomed such labor-intensive tasks would develop their way into the first-world club.  That has not exactly happened the way people hoped; instead, what has happened (and which is well-documented in Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo”) is that international companies shift resources to whichever country prostrates itself by way of tax-exempt zones, cheap wages, and lax regulation.

Furthermore, as machines and robots will become increasingly capable of completing labor-intensive tasks, they will replace the vast pools of labor that we currently use.  The limits of technology have made vast human workforce scale cheaper (that is, it is still cheaper to use humans to finish sock production than to use machines, if only by pennies per sock).  But that will eventually change.

So what the hell are we all going to do?

We can at least rely on a flattening population curve, which (one would hope) will lead to international competition for higher education for newer information and programming and mapping and engineering jobs.

But what I’m hoping for is that, freed from some of the requirements of labor in order to make the world function every day (whether it’s through a massive breakthrough in energy production, perhaps through solar, or if it’s through using robots instead), that we will actually need to work fewer hours per day and can spend more time engaged in creative and teaching endeavors.

Right now among my friends in DC, it’s pretty common to work from 8 or 9AM up to 8PM or even 9PM, daily.  What on Earth takes them so long to complete tasks at work?  Why is there so much work to do?  Is it because labor costs are so high that firms choose to hire fewer people, but work them harder, knowing that American work ethic looks highly upon those who work long hours for their pay?  Is it because people are just highly inefficient workers when they put in longer hours?

This isn’t sustainable, particularly for raising children, enjoying life, being creative, being social, being helpful in the community.  Surely part of that has assisted the drastic decline in civic life in the US (again, see Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”).  But we don’t want to end up letting robots do anything while we lounge around and become fat (think Wall-E).

I watched a talk given by the host of Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe.  It takes a while for him to set up his talk, beginning with lamb castration.  But eventually Rowe, whose show has him apprenticing for people who have really dirty, labor-intensive jobs, talks about how these people tend to be really happy, satisfied people.  Rowe says that we work too hard in jobs we don’t enjoy.  He also says that “following your passion” isn’t actually good advice — more important is that you go do something that no one else is doing, to find your niche.

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“We’ve declared war on work,” Rowe says.  He says that working people on TV are portrayed in horrible ways (fat plumbers as punchlines).  Rowe says that we consistently feel a longing to have more personal time, but we aggressively fight it in our culture.  We marginalize lots and lots of jobs.  Trade school enrollment is on the decline.  Infrastructure jobs are disappearing.

Think about the old NASA engineers and nuke engineers.  With the strangling of the NASA budget and the public abhorrence of nuclear power plants, those with the technical skills to remember how to build spaceships and construct programs, and create nuke plants, are dying and disappearing.  The ranks aren’t being re-filled.  As a society we are forgetting how to build things and how to do things.

What is going to happen if we run out of products to market and advertise?  What is going to happen if we’re too busy working to raise our children properly and enjoy life?  What is the standard of living that we want?  How do we balance work, family, religion, recreation, creativity, et al?  Do we even know how to measure all that yet?  We’re going to need happiness and well-being metrics on an individual and an aggregate scale.

The path of the internet’s development has shown us that software and hardware are hollowing out the core of labor within modern goods and services.  A small software company of 5 people can now use the cloud to host their data — all they’re doing is programming and internal business management and marketing/sales, pretty much.  Large-scale projects can now be done by a handful of people.  Sure, somewhere the cloud must be managed, but the costs to start a well-educated programmer/business idea are so low now.  You don’t need the capital for hiring lots of people or the capital expenditures to purchase equipment.  You can work out of your apartment.  What are 8 billion people going to do when software runs a highly-autonomous network of computer systems in the future?

Guess we better start learning to enjoy each other’s company and free time…

Surpluses and Shortages

I’m moving out of my Georgetown rowhouse and just started my job, so I’ve been a little busy and haven’t been able to write much.  That’s one reason Twitter is so great — I’ve been able to just send some quick tweets (the other reason it’s so great is its generativity (see Jonathan Zittrain) — Twitter provides such a vast platform/ecosystem for other ideas to thrive in).

[edit:  I didn’t know this until after I published the post, but apparently the Pop!Tech 2008 conference was focused on the subject of abundance and scarcity.  Fitting!  Here’s the opening video presentation that the Pop!Tech conference began with.]

Anyway, since it’s been so long, I’m going to ramble a bit.  The blog is still great for that.

When I took all my money out of the market back in September/October of 2007, I did it because there were vapor bids on all the stocks out there.  Nothing was supporting any equities.  About two years later, the financial markets have stabilized quite a bit, with the TED spread finally dropping back to the levels before the markets got a whiff of collateralized debt obligations going sour.  Companies have shed a lot of jobs and have made a lot of cutbacks.

As an investor, I’m feeling a lot safer about putting my money back in.  I wanted to wait until at least this summer, when a lot of mortgage and housing resets hit the market.  Now is the dreaded velocity period of August-October, when the market is most likely to crash, historically.  But it can also rally pretty strongly in that time period — I think this has something to do with new fiscal years beginning and a lot of annual inflows/outflows taking place around that time.

I’m still only interested in Amazon ($AMZN) stock, but since it’s already pretty high I have to leave it alone.  There is no other stock out there worth holding right now, in my opinion.  I suspect the next big runner in tech will be a Facebook IPO or perhaps Yahoo! ($YHOO), if  they can ever find a moneymaker.

I went to the premiere of Barack Stars, a play showing at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in DC, done by the Second City Comedy Troupe (SCTV, some Saturday Night Live folks).  It’s a play lampooning the reverence for Obama and all the political scandals in DC lately.  One of the joke skits involved poor laid-off finance guys from NYC.

Funny to be sure (I highly recommend you go see this), but how accurate?  My suspicion is that while a lot of finance types in NYC lost their jobs, it wasn’t long before they found new ones.  All the smart money that didn’t vaporize probably went to the next unregulated market out there, or as some have hinted, towards carbon credit markets, the next bubble target according to Rolling Stone’s Matt TaibbiThe NYTimes just ran a story about how the big brokers were trading with a 3ms advantage on retail traders, racking up tons of money through arbitrage.   This just goes to show you that when you combine fierce NYC finance types with the new quant PhD players, every aspect of the market is a game that no layperson is going to win.  Back in the 90’s, daytrading was somewhat fair, but now the game is entirely stacked towards brokers.  Combine this with the scam that is now common stock:  common stock is worthless, effectively, since there’s now so many classes of preferred and private stock for the company insiders that no common stock holder is actually entitled to as much equity as he/she may have thought.

That really leaves the only effective vehicle for making money in the stock market picking solid companies that are undervalued.  Tech stocks are especially good for this; the thing about NYC types and PhD folks is that they’re not particularly good at identifying good companies.  Yes, they make money selling companies’ stock to their clients, but they come up with long bullshit reports that they charge over $100 for that just basically say how every company in a sector is worth buying.  However, if you know your tech, or you know the zeitgeist about a company, you can still stand to get a triple-bagger on a stock (triples from the price you bought at).  Long-term investing, in my opinion, is dead.  The market is set up to scam you unless there’s a major regulatory overhaul.

Anyway.  Surely there are many people who were working in NYC because of connections, hook-ups, etc. and they don’t have the goods to keep doing it.  But I bet many of the financial class either have merit-based wealth (good skills either in smooth-talking or in quant models) or status-based wealth (being born into east-coast privilege), a dichotomy discussed in John Clippinger‘s “A Crowd of One”.  In other words, they did not lose their money and leave town.  This wasn’t like the Great Depression, where people ended up leaving the cities and going back to their family farming traditions or joining the military.

Sadly, the military adventure continues.  Afghanistan now looks a lot like Iraq a few years ago.  Soldiers are still dying and money is being wasted.  To Obama’s credit, we are now pressing into the Taliban as we always should have been doing, and Robert Gates seems to be a responsible steward of the armed forces.  But the inertia of occupation still continues forth and it’s only those Americans who give a damn and enlist who seem to be paying the price.

The rest of America goes on as usual.  Unemployment is higher, for sure.  This could end up being a large problem, especially since I view those lost jobs as jobs that will never return — the high velocity of job destruction and creation requires adaptability, quick learning, and higher and higher levels of education…qualities that the American innovation and education systems are no longer producing in any citizens except wired kids, who are doing all that learning outside of the system anyway.

The fact that America and the rest of the world are still pumping away and doing okay must be because the world is just awash in money.  There are far too many people you or I or anyone can name who do not seem to have earned their money or their ease of life.  Deals that are completely nonsensical still seem to happen.  People make careers out of nothing more than proposing meetings that never happen.  Job hiring, as I’ve talked about a lot lately, is a complete farce of a system, an inane game that we all have to play.

My own impression of venture capital is that it’s become extremely risk averse and dumb money.  There are some cool angel firm ideas, seeding start-ups with a little money and lots of training.  But look at the trash they are producing.  Some incremental improvement on video watching.  Some tiny adjustment to file sharing.  Did Twitter come out of one of these programs?  No, and it never would:  it had no financial model (if you’re unimaginative, anyway, like most people) and it took a while to catch on.  As it turns out, Twitter is a massively open platform for innovation.  How do you put a valuation on that, exactly, using today’s financial models?  You can’t.  That’s why vencap and angel insistence on financial modeling is so retarded.

If the world is awash in money, why are there so many poor?  Amartya Sen intimates that there are no longer food shortages worldwide, just rationing.  More specifically, he says that no democracy has ever had a famine.  In other words, when food is allocated at least somewhat responsibly and with a conscience towards those who need it, there is enough of it.

The fact that people are poor, hungry, weak, sick, etc. has, in the past, been because of material shortages.  But now it seems as though poverty exists because of socio-political power structures.  Clientelism, warlordism, authoritarianism:  these are the systems that withhold from those who need resources to survive.

The American Republican party itself has become a curious modern system bordering on clientelism but within a democratic system.  Made up of a steeply declining older white male base of paternals, the Republicans have somehow convinced even the poor that cutting taxes, reducing responsibilities and ties to the government, and getting more privileges in society will somehow benefit everyone.  That Republicans immediately think of government as being 100% inept, refuse to pay more taxes to help out fellow Americans (even when more accountability and transparency has been promised, under Obama’s Gov2.0 plans), and yet still claim themselves to be the most patriotic Americans is absurd.  That poor, disenfranchised white people go along with it is even worse.  You have people who have never been rich before advocating that Goldman Sachs plunderers and profiteers MUST receive higher and higher bonuses in order for them to be sufficiently motivated to work at all.  What the heck?

The Republicans have successfully blended Friedman/Reagan trickle-down economics with moral conservatism — highly successful for recruiting, but only if you’re white, old, and usually rich.  No one takes them seriously in financial conservatism anymore, their having been responsible for ballooning the national deficit in the name of security.  Sadly, fiscal conservatism is probably one of their strongest platforms.  That they abandoned it gives you some idea of how defunct their party is.  Perhaps one of the biggest flaws was assuming that the “invisible hand” is naturally benevolent.  Incentives can, at some level, often be predictable, and that’s where economists and public policy people would be important for identifying where the market will exploit resources and prices to make a lot of money.  The proof of this most recently was in the financial crisis, which resulted from the market splendidly moving away from regulated areas into shadow pools through hedge funds, cascading collateralized debt obligations and packaged mortgages on top of each other.  The market did exactly what it was allowed to do.  But that impulse is not always used for good.  Does that not imply a need for government checks and balances upon ravenous capitalist incentive?

So the US needs a jumpstart to get its innovation pipeline going again.  China and India and other countries are hungrier than we are.  They want success more than we do.  And they are at least attempting to modify their education, technology, innovation, legal, and health care systems to get success.

We, meanwhile, are plodding along with a broken health care bill.  Health care is a massive taboo subject in the US and, as I’m interested in reading about lately, anywhere where there’s a taboo, there’s some deep-seated cultural issue that is a dangerous setback for that culture’s competitiveness and advancement within the international community.

Fortunately we have smart people assessing our national broadband plan (Obama has picked some great tech guys and has enlisted the Harvard Berkman Center to look at broadband).  Combined with a great secretary of education, a new CIO, et al, the US should start to pick up again in another 5 years after the investments in basic research and education start to kick in…or at least the promise of them.  The force multipliers of these basic investments will be greatly increased if Obama is elected to a second term.  I can only hope.

The Republicans see anyone in government as being inept and unable to control costs or execute even the most basic project (as David Brooks pointed out recently, this is partially true).  But what is the proposed solution?  Radical privatization?  Are we supposed to trust the “invisible hand” of the markets to manage complex human health care problems or educational pipelines?  The problem with the libertarian viewpoint is that it seems to not take much interest in HOW you actually make people healthier, or make people smarter.  You just let the market do it.  But SOMEONE has to know these things, whether it’s a government or a private company established to do that task.  In a democratic system, citizens are the deciders of how those things are done, so it is their responsibility to become better educated about their mission.  A private company’s sole task is to make money, and combined with profiteering hit-and-run executives, there is little incentive to act with accountability — unless government puts legal safeguards on it to keep it from running off the rails.  For all their talk of incentives, Republicans can be pretty selective in how they decide to employ them.

I see the US government in today’s massively complex world as being a gardener of a national ecosystem.  The libertarians are right that a government with no incentives to cut costs will use its bottomless pockets to buy influence.  But conservatives and libertarians are wrong that government cannot play a role.  It seems anti-competitive to suggest that only private companies should be the sole provider of all goods and services and public space.  The truth is that companies provide excellent goods and services, but only with intense competition.  The truth is that companies are HORRIBLE at providing public space, because giving something away is not part of their incentives.  As Naomi Klein points out, a public square lets you protest and assemble, whereas you can’t even run a camera at a shopping mall because it’s private property, let alone pass out flyers or collect petitions.

So it seems simple-minded now to not talk about an ecosystem where public companies, private companies, the government, non-government non-profits, unions, and community networks all work in the same space with and against each other.  The competitiveness imperative must be extended from not just providing good and services but to also providing public space, social capital, and public capital.

The only factor that has mitigated the lack of such space and capital has been the internet.  Its realm of free speech and free time/space has led to places for minorities and youths and fringe movements to experiment and organize.  It is no secret that social networking has exploded online, while a privatized “meatspace” has become deathly quiet in terms of social capital, as Robert Putnam’s famous “Bowling Alone” book described, with the death of American civic life.

The people who created the building blocks for the internet should be recognized for their massive contribution to society and for bringing an end to a pretty savage era of radical privatization.

The internet and computing have driven storage and connection costs down rapidly, killing many industries and incumbents except those with the power to lobby our old, white Congressmen (i.e. the telcos and “entertainment” labels).  One of the only correct things Tom Friedman wrote about was how the internet, combined with globalization, led to a massive networking of human effort worldwide.

If you are to look forward, it is getting to the point where there are not many shortages left in the world to limit human progress.  I already discussed money — I do not see money as something there’s a shortage of in the world anymore.  Aggregate time is no longer a shortage.  People can be more productive with better online tools, and they are also watching less TV.  As Clay Shirky hints at, this means there’s a lot of surplus time out there now, although it’s up to us to figure out how we want to distribute that time.  Food (energy) is no longer a shortage — while we do it incredibly wastefully and unsustainably, we have figured out how to have more obese people in the world than starving.  There is not exactly a shortage of energy inputs either — “peak oil” seems highly dubious compared to when we will drastically reduce petroleum consumption, while the sun provides easily enough power to provide to the entire world.  If we just knew how to harness it properly.

We can expect processing power and time and storage to continue to plummet.  The cloud online will allow us to build holy grids of collaborative supercomputers, eventually perhaps providing a platform in which we can upload ourselves, the digital singularity.  At that point, it will be interesting to see which people stay and which people “go”.  Who will maintain the systems that keep the internet going so that we may live digitally forever?  When will that question cease to be relevant?

There is, right now, a significant limitation in one area of electronics that has hindered all othes:  energy storage.  It affects what kinds of cellphones we can use (a G1 barely lasts a day with background apps and GPS on), the miniaturization we can achieve with smarter devices, the distance our devices can be from plugs, and so on.

I was using a lot of electronics gear while I was in the Army.  Our equipment could operate off standard power, but it could also run off batteries if we were in the field.  But these batteries seemed to weigh 1-2lbs each, and we needed to replace them maybe once a day.  So if we were on a mission, we might need to carry 7-14 extra lbs of batteries, plus spares.  On top of our other gear.  Batteries just haven’t miniaturized like everything else in an electronic gadget has.  This is holding us back tremendously.  At the very least, we are starting to use RFID chips that are activated briefly by being stimulated by electrical interfaces like at metro stations.

The good news is that Obama has put $2 billion into manufacturing and research for battery technologies.  Even that has a wrinkle, according to the “Breakthrough team”, quoted in a NYTimes blog post:  if money is diverted into deployment, it will take away from basic R&D:

“The Breakthrough team warns that while deployment of today’s technologies is vital, if money for deployment is included in the $150-billion pie, that dangerously reduces the amount of money for laboratories pursuing vital advances on photovoltaics or energy storage and for big tests of technologies that must be demonstrated at large scale — like capturing carbon dioxide from power plants.”

Our inability to localize energy storage has meant that concentrated power has been the name of the game — it is the same for wifi right now, but WiMAX will make that issue obsolete.

So eventually there will be at least one valuable resource which is always limited and finite and definitive of our cultures and personalities:  individual time.  We will only have 24 hours in a day.  If our brains can handle more than one task at a time, our bodies can’t.  We still require sleep, eating, drinking, education, socialization, play, etc.  What’s more, we love to take part in those things, even so far as to do it alone or with others, whichever we have the opportunity to take part in.

What becomes most valuable to us, on an individual level, is whatever we spend our time doing.  And the chances are that it will be interacting with each other, or building things, or being creative, or relaxing.  These, as they should be, will be the most valuable things we both seek and trade and sell and share.  Time will dominate as a currency.

To some degree this is already occurring.  There are a lot of poor people willing to work for next to nothing, and their active time is being used abusively to produce stuff so we don’t have to.  We develop a product and market it and then buy and sell it, but it’s the poor people who put in the hard labor.

I’m not sure this human tendency to exploit the weak and poor will change on its own — certainly not under capitalist impulses.  Perhaps robots could take their place, ultimately becoming more productive than humans, who require food and water and sleep.  This is why some scifi people dwell so much on what happens when the robots decide they’ve had enough with us treating them like slaves.  Less a Terminator outcome than an I, Robot outcome.

The Pope released an encyclical which discussed globalization and economics at length.  I think his emphasis on helping the poor makes a great deal of sense; only through humanity’s constant effort will the number of poor be reduced.  We’re obviously not sure how that is to be done yet — but I think the development economists on the cutting edge who suggest that it has to do with leadership in government and power mainly, but then reinforced by all the other stuff:  human capital, good governance, nutrition and health, girl’s education, non-intervention, etc., are going to figure it out.

I’m not pushing for paternalistic top-down programs by any means, even if I’m talking about strong government leaders and a Catholic papacy.  Certainly I feel I’m as entrepreneurial as they come, wanting to build a massive reputation and identity platform and make big bucks from it, along with fame.  But it has a not-for-profit data-protecting component as well, and I am after all a product of mostly public institutions (public high school, UT Austin, the Army) until I went to a private institution (which is heavily influenced by Catholic Jesuit values).  I have benefited from a healthy blend of so many different structures and organizations, to include a multi-racial lineage and multiple nationalities among my family and friends, that I can hardly avoid seeing the world as REQUIRING a flourishing ecosystem of diversity and intense competition that also provides for learning and apprenticing and mentoring and teaching.

So at some point I’m looking to bring the international development component of my studies back in to my career.  But more and more this is looking like I’ll have to apply development theory to my own country, as it struggles to balance its technological and entrepreneurial bents along with entrenched and powerful radical corporatism, along with a declining propensity to seek bold policy overhauls where it needs it (education, health care).

To me, the economics of our world system demand that the most important future input will be education from low-level grade school all the way to advanced studies.  The effects of technology upon society and economics have been pervasive and profound, and in order for us to continue making breakthroughs, we’re going to need more and more advanced understanding to reach even basic levels of academic research in tomorrow’s future areas:  solar, nano, genetic modification, quantum-level, as well as reputation and forgetting/forgiving, identity, cultural anthropology, ecosystem gardening/curating, gift economics, happiness economics, etc.

The US, being so heavily reliant on its entrepreneurial technology, should be even more concerned in building up its education pipeline than any other country on the planet, because technology and risk is the US lifeblood.  So I feel as though any efforts I make in the future will have to incorporate policy and private incentives towards education.

These are my first few stabs at understanding what my career will ultimately look like, but I see them in line with the needs of the country, the trends of technology, and the progress of social demographics.  It’s kind of exciting, don’t you think?

Ticket Re-Sellers and Scalpers

Trent Reznor wrote a post on his Nine Inch Nails (NIN) forum about re-sellers and scalpers of concert tickets.  In it, he discusses the motivations for TicketMaster to encourage the secondary market for tickets, which leads to scalpers poaching tickets and re-selling to customers at huge mark-ups and at huge inconvenience to them.

As I’m sure you’re familiar with, event ticket purchasing is a scam, the bigger the event is.  Smaller events use an online purchasing framework and charge a usage fee, which you’re somewhat willing to pay because event organizers don’t have the infrastructure to go around middlemen.  But as events get larger, the more likely they’re swept up into TicketMaster’s orbit.  TicketMaster is tightly coupled with the physical venues where events are held, and thus they can control all distribution, access, and promotion.

If someone were so inclined, this subject would probably make for an excellent muck-raking book.  I certainly don’t understand the business and economics behind it but I think most of us can intuit what’s going on behind the scenes.

So Reznor, who put his last album up on his web site for free under a Creative Commons license, and who put his album with Saul Williams up for $5, is pissed off with the music industry labels and monopolists.

And it’s fair to say that most of us are too.  I have not been to many concerts in my life.  The sort of ninja moves you need to obtain tickets are not in my repertoire.  People fight over a small pool of tickets released online at a known time, crushing servers in the process.  Tickets are sold out in minutes.  This certainly incentivizes certain people to game the system, knowing they can re-sell the tickets at a mark-up that companies like TicketMaster benefit from (especially since they apparently own re-sellers, according to Reznor’s post).

TicketMaster is pushing a future of auctions, but this is still a closed system, so essentially all it’s doing is creating more profit for them while letting us see just how much we’re getting screwed in a public arena.

So I just skip out on concerts.  Some bands just plain suck live, anyway.  So the variables required for me to find a concert I can get tickets to while also enjoying and making sure my friends can all go too are too much for me.  I just give up.

Right now with the advent of internet collaboration (through web 2.0/web 3.0 tools) and the success of the change.org movement, a bunch of people are looking to organize to solve systemic problems that have existed since before most of them were born.  A lot of problems were created in the 50’s and 60’s and were institutionalized in people like in my generation:  we grew up buying CDs from Columbia House and seeing a newspaper on our front lawn and watching junk food ads in between our Saturday morning cartoons.  The next generation won’t even know what I’m talking about.

It’s quite amazing to see the problem-solvers approach every entrenched, fucked-up problem out there.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I’m finally reading now, discusses our culture of corn and petroleum.  So people are trying to figure out how to wean our culture off the industrial food complex.

Electricity, oil, and cars go hand-in-hand.  They have promised us cheap solutions but those solutions are going to be far less palatable very quickly.  So people are now excited about solar energy, sustainable living, electric cars, the smart grid, and radically new forms of housing and energy usage to break away from the cartels.

American politics has become somewhat frozen — the Democrats and Republicans for a while became clients to Bush’s administration, both differing very little and unwilling to break too far from what the elite thought was.  So people voted in a candidate using web sites and community organization and grassroots initiatives.  That energy is now being put into transparency and collaboration tools for monitoring the government, and insurgents within Obama’s administration are now wanting to push government data out to the public, after Cheney’s attempt to classify everything.

Universities pay exhorbitant license fees for software and administration tools.  But MIT just decided to open up its scholarly articles for free while people like Kevin Donovan and CNDLS at Georgetown are pushing free tools and OpenCourseWare as alternatives.

Cellphones are notoriously tying together handsets, access providers, spectrum control, and software in the United States.  It’s a very restrictive model.  Google, while out to make a profit, is now testing the limits of the incumbent system with Android, its fairly open system that will work across devices.

Then there’s the busting of cable TV and the advent of online content streaming…  And new journalism models…  And more and more and more.  Information is being distributed faster than organizations can lock it down.  So what’s going on is a war.  And we’re winning.  All these shitty businesses that exist by locking people into a closet and abusing them are now being blown apart by the internet and by peoples’ sharing of ideas.  Facilitated by a brutal economic and financial crisis that no one can avoid.

Concerts are another battleground.  Why can’t music artists successfully organize against companies like TicketMaster?  If more of them worked like Reznor does, eschewing contracts and the desire to maximize profit without any of the negative effects of current ticket-selling schemes, then they could quickly tip the balance.  Wikipedia’s “Ticket resale” page lists alternatives.

Lottery…  Have a period of time where anyone can offer to purchase tickets.  But then winners are randomly selected.  This allows anyone a chance to get in.  Tie it to credit cards.

Authentication…  Print out names and photos on tickets, then verify at the gates.

Float prices…  Obviously some people will pay more.  Let them pay for the front seats, fine.  Float the front-row prices but make everything else lottery.

Distribution…  Must be combined with floating prices.  Bands should see concert tours as a way to promote their brand, not just make a shitload of money from each appearance.  That is, internet stream the concert to all those who couldn’t make it to the venue.  Bands may not want this kind of accountability though, to be judged by the same online viewers through each performance every other night.  But that drives up incentives to produce quality while maximizing potential future customers of your band’s music and product.

Venues…  Venues need the big acts to make revenue.  What if all these abandoned stores and buildings were turned into cheap venues themselves? (they’re already being filled with churches, libraries, and other public centers)  Then you don’t need the mid-size venues anymore.

It’s a war.  A war on the middlemen who begin to enjoy their cut a little too much and try to grow it.  A war on the people who act as gatekeepers between content and consumer.  It’s a war they are going to lose.

The Great Disruption is going to destroy the old infrastructure and build a sustainable infrastructure in its place, one that links value directly with those willing to pay for it.  In time, the middlemen will be back in new forms, but for now, the internet is giving us infinite tools to take control of our lives back.