Things That Have Caught My Attention

Dan Hon's Weekday Newsletter

Episode One Hundred and Fifty Eight: WATCH; BERG

0.0 Station Ident

Of course I’m not going to be able to resist and will be writing about the new WATCH today. 3:32pm and at home, taking about half an hour to write this before getting on with some chores – it’s XOXO Week here in Portland and we have visitors coming to stay, so it’s Get The House Ready time.


Only one point, really. Or at least a thread to pull on and to see where it takes me. One of the things that stood out today was the Digital Crown[1], the scroll wheel-ish input mechanism that repurposes the conventional clock Crown and adds a healthy dollop of do-what-I-mean user interface design in software and potentially some haptic (sorry, taptic) feedback that will let you know when you’ve completed the requisite number of degrees of movement to ker-chunk into the next option category. But.

I’m aware that what I’m about to do is offer up one of those “Steve Jobs Wouldn’t Have…” opinions, the kind that can invariably be shooed away just by pointing at the Flower Power iMac G3. I don’t particularly care what the Digital Crown does, or how it does it, but more the name that’s been chosen for it. Previous Apple innovations have been given names like Thunderbolt, Lightning, Retina Display, Magic Mouse, MagSafe, FireWire and so on – but now we have names like Digital Crown which sounds just… off, to me. Yes, sure we get that it’s digital. You’re taking something old, the crown from a watch, and making it… digital? That’s kind of what you do, Apple. I had perhaps expected better. Names are a difficult thing, and you’ll note that I’m not offering up an alternative. And if I’m just reading the runes and post-hoc rationalising, I could see something like Digital Crown being a working title and then everyone using it as a name and before you know it, you’ve shipped something that has possibly more regal connotations than user interface ones. And, as it happens, is it *that* different from the Scroll Wheel?

And then, I suppose, some other reckons. I don’t yet have the concern, as some others do, about the whole “four different ways” to interact with the watch. Touchscreens are pretty de-riguer, and the Digital Crown (ugh) seems intuitive enough – though I’m intrigued to see if it will always work in the right direction, or if it will be in opposition to what feels natural (or did feel natural) on peoples’ touchpads.

The price is an interesting one as well. I’ve been saying for a while that we’ve been drafting off of Moore’s law, but I’m not sure how much that is going to continue. We have cheaper phones, but I don’t think it’s because of the so-called law, more that there are certain players who have built up manufacturing and supply-chain infrastructure. My naive view is this: it doesn’t matter if the proccessor in the WATCH gets smaller and faster or more energy efficient – that’s not going to be a significant proportion of the bill of materials. What will make the most user impact will be things like better displays and better battery life – neither of which, it seems, have directly benefitted from the suggestion that transistor count for a given area will double every year and a half.

Some other thoughts:

– watch faces are going to be an in-app purchase, obviously. Why wouldn’t they be?
– I had quipped, on Twitter, that it looked like it was going to be a pain to get a WPA2 passphrase into a WATCH, but it looks like they’re permanently tethered to your phone. So there’s that, I suppose, and the fact that it looks like they don’t even have wi-fi.

The other thing is that whilst, thank God, Apple didn’t just cram the iOS interface onto a watch-shaped and sized thing, they did do something a bit… different? Cook makes reference to this in the Keynote saying that it wouldn’t have made sense to do that, but I’m not persuaded yet about the utility (or need) for notifications to come up in on a wrist-based device. The fact that I *can* get Facebook Friend notifications or Twitter notifications or even email notifications on my wrist is feels like something Apple might have had an opinion about in the past about whether it was right or proper for that type of device to have that type of functionality. Of course, back then, you could also justify a lack of functionality on constraints such as processor, screen and battery life. Not so these days. There are nice uses. The Starwood Hotels app that lets you use the watch as a door access device is one, but for me, what’s interesting about that particular interaction is that it’s screenless, or that it doesn’t need the screen on the device.

There’s just a *lot* going on with the Watch. Perhaps it’s a surfeit of processing power and battery – well, as much as you can have a surfeit of such things in such a tiny package. But a lot of the functionality demoed – calling to mind things like Matt Webb’s early thinking about Glances (of which such information didn’t feel like it was particularly glanceable, not in that peripheral vision kind of way) just felt like a bit of throwing at the dartboard and seeing what sticks. It’s nice to see Apple reflect usage of emoji – from not having the keyboard in iOS to having it available if you knew what you were doing, kind of, to having it as an explicit installable keyboard – in the Watch. But then there’s Digital Touch – the Drawing Thing with the Hearts and the Heart Beats and you’re a bit: OK, I’ve seen the concept demo for this before. And you guys tried it out and it’s going to work? Using an Apple Watch as a small viewfinder whilst you hold your phone aloft? Would’ve looked cheesy in a Samsung ad. Something you might do at a gig? Maybe?

More later, inevitably.

2.0 BERG

You should know your history. BERG was one of those startups that, I feel, a whole bunch of people in London were jealous of. And not just a startup, really – one that was very good at talking about itself, and one that mostly epitomised what I’d call the Alternative Valley – a more considered, more whimsical and English sensibility, rather than the brashness of the West Coast. It makes me sad to be writing this in the past tense, as BERG closed its doors today, in its four hundredth and eighty third week[1]. Other people better than I have written better eulogies[2], all I really have to say is something like this:

I knew them when they were Schulze & Webb – and didn’t really know Schulze that well. Webb I knew back from early blogging days – he was at Oxford, I was at Cambridge and we were – are – roughly the same age. He’d built Dirk, was obviously a fan of Douglas Adams and we both had had our brains exploded by Greg Egan and books like Permutation City and Diaspora in the early 2000s. Webb would go on to do a stint at the BBC – in particular, the Audio and Music Interactive part – in that typical progression of Public Serviceland where he’d work with people like Tom Coates and Matt Biddulph. And then, of course, Dopplr grew up alongside, and Matt Jones eventually joined them.

They’ve made such influential work. The Chernoff faces of Schooloscope, a 4iP project. SVK, a comic book with a tangible superpower. They would be easy to make fun of for the videos they made instead of the *things* that they made. But those videos had the right stuff in them, the right ideas in them, and you just knew that they were bleeding smartness through pixels. And the crew that the Experimental Rocket Group accreted around themselves: I’m probably missing people, but Nick Ludlam, Tom Armitage, Alice Bartlett, Timo Arnall, Andy Huntingdon, Helen Rogers, Joe Malia, Denise Wilton. Such smart people concentrated in such a small space. Whenever you went to visit them, especially when the triumvirate of Jones, Schulze and Webb were around and you had this corona of superpeople orbiting them, it felt like a sort of Manhattan project. Like someone had left a fissionable pile of neurons over in the room and if you didn’t do something then something big, something dramatic, something *smart* was going to happen and knock everything over for a thousand mile radius.

We were all jealous of BERG. They did the smart work. They showed us how it could be done. Some of the stuff, I have to admit, might not have made sense from the outside. I’m sad that they’re not around. I’m irritated that others didn’t see what they could’ve done with the appropriate corporate fulcrum and lever to change the world. Instead, we’ll be cursed with idiot washing machines and an internet of things that almost, but not quite, resembles something like a teasmaid.

So this sounds sad, and it is, because they were a unique grouping of people at a unique time, pointing and tilting at a windmill that we needed tilted. But each and every one of them will go off to do some amazing things. I prefer to think of this as an explosion, not a whimper – and that seeds of BERGiness will erupt all over the place. That they’ll go off and change the world in different ways.

I’m still jealous of them.

[1] Week 483 – Berg
[2] For BERG, My London Launchpad – Warren Ellis

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Episode One Hundred and Fifty Seven: The Mezzanine; Doing The Job; Minimum Viable Whimsy

0.0 Station Ident

4:37pm, whilst the spare car, the one we would’ve sold by now but for the idiot accident that happened to us, is being cleaned. The strange situation where the car wash offers free wi-fi, but a hotel that costs a couple hundred dollars a night doesn’t. Because hey, customer service. Anyway. On with the show.

1.0 The Mezzanine

If you lived in the United Kingdom in the early 2000s, one of the things that you might have noticed was the rapid supermarket growth. It was about that time that Tesco, one of the leading retailers, cemented its position, owing its success as much to a property portfolio, a data warehouse connected to a loyalty card scheme and supply chain management. At its height, about 14 and a half pence of every pound spent in retail in the UK was going to Tesco.

One of the many factors that went into this was the mezzanine planning permission loophole. Imagine the situation: to increase revenue and profit, you can either increase the revenue per square foot of your stores, or you can build more stores. So when someone comes along and says that you can increase the square footage of your *existing stores* – ones that you already know are at capacity in terms of retail space and have high traffic, you’d be interested, right?

This was the mezzanine planning permission loophole: some clever person figured out that there were no planning permission restrictions affecting the building of mezzanine floors – the equivalent of the platform 9 and 3/4 at King’s Cross, the realisation that these big box stores had enough ceiling height for you to insert a brand new floor, giving you around up to 50-75% as much retail space, without having to worry about any regulatory requirements or paying out for the same amount in buying or leasing actual land.

Of course, the regulatory loophole was closed. It had made a mockery of the government of the day’s promise to restrict out-of-city development at a time that high streets were feeling increasing competition from new sub-urban developments.

This feels like the kind of disruption that we in the software industry like. Finding problems to change the world, right? It makes me think of Amazon. One of their major costs right now for the part of their business that is significant (selling and fulfilling physical product) is distribution and fulfilment centres[1].

So here’s a silly thought: forget about all those giant warehouses out their in algorithmically-optimised distribution areas for transport logistics. The land costs money, and sometimes they could be closer to the customers than they might be. It’s an n-body problem, right? Plus, there’s all those pesky regulations about how big a warehouse you can build and where you can put it.

So put them in the sky. Giant redundant arrays of inexpensive zeppelins, serviced and supplied by smaller drones, where picking and packing are performed by Kiva robots, deliveries made by shoving the packages overboard, GPS and inertial guidance systems tweaking fold-out fins deployed from the packaging cardboard itself, yet another use for weather-resistant Tyvek. Put them high enough and it doesn’t matter, right? And anyway, how long is it going to take the government to legislate for a right-to-light? You want fast, cheap consumer goods before you’re going to care about the Amazon Distribution Centre high above your city.

Or, take the distribution centre and explode it. In the same way that Zipcar tries to cut a deal with you if you own your home and have off-street parking, let Amazon park one of their distribution shipping containers – oh, okay, a *half* shipping container – on your property. It offers local-pickup for people in your neighbourhood, and in exchange for becoming part of the distribution network, you get a free Fire phone and Amazon Prime!

All because, of course, you want cheaper access to fast moving consumer goods.

[1] Why Amazon Has No Profits And Why It Works – Benedict Evans, Andreessen Horowitz

2.0 Doing The Job

I signed up to do speed mentoring sessions at How Interactive DC last week – one-hour sessions on Thursday and Friday with 10-minute slots to spend time talking with people. I like talking with people. Between those mentoring sessions and the prep that I did for the talk, it felt like I’d been reminded about how tricky it is to do our jobs sometimes.

At least a couple of the people I met with asked me to give feedback on designs or wireframes, and again, it felt like sometimes the most valuable advice (at least, if I’m to believe what they told me) was to look at things from an outside perspective and ask: well, what are you trying to accomplish? A non-profit, for example, was launching a new service, but had prioritised putting a video that explained what it did above helping people use the service in the first place. Frequently, designers would say that they didn’t have clarity from their superiors on what the service was supposed to do. Or again, to use the above example again, “our organisation is launching a new service, and this website is for that service” – so why is the first thing on that website a video that explains the organisation?

I used to read the Economist and let my subscription lapse, but occasionally pick up a copy when I’m at an airport and desperate for something to read. This week it was an easier decision – it’s their Technology Quarterly issue, and I like knowing what other people think is worth knowing (bio-printing, Internet of Things, connected cars, air traffic control and so on stood out this time.

But it was the Schumpeter column on business and management[1] that caught my eye this time because of its promise of pulling out three core issues from the latest McKinsey Quarterly, ones that would “preoccupy managers for the next 50 years”. And yes, some of this is because I’ve been infected by the Cult of the Government Digital Service, but it just felt like the three core issues were a bunch of management theory fiddling while your organisation gets burned from the inside out and Disrupted by a bunch of people who understand Software.

Let me mansplain: the three issues identified by the Economist were smart machines, boosting productivity and the third wave of globalisation: mid-tier developing cities. From my point of view, the first two appeared to be subtly hinting at, but not really pointing out, a bigger issue, and again, I think it’s because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what software can do when allied with good organisation and management.

For example, the gist of the Economist’s focus on the first part – smart machines – is that much of the work of executives and management will be automated: “much of the work of bosses, from analysing complex data to recruiting staff and setting bonuses, will be automated.” The article pulls out a couple of answers here – one is of Google’s “human-performance analytics group”, the data-backed group that tries to put some science in human resource management, and the algorithm that’s been “appointed” to the Deep Knowledge Ventures board of directors and has a vote on what sort of companies the VC invests in. I covered the latter back in issue TKTK. Senior managers, says the Economist “will have to rethink their roles dramatically if they are not to become latter-day Luddites. They will have to hand some of their functions to intelligent machines, which will always be better at data analysis than humans, and some to the heads of business units, who will be in a better position to make use of the crunched data.”

I think this misses the point that defines the continuum between people like Marc Andreessen with his software-eating-the-world position and the GDS organisational change linked to IT done right position.

Nowhere is there the consideration that part of the job of the manager or executive is to identify areas in which smart machines can be deployed in the first place. Nowhere is there this idea of the executive focussing on the way that automation and technology can be applied to make what they and their teams do more efficient.

This ties into the second point, that of boosting productivity. Apparently, we should be optimistic about improving worker productivity because the “IT revolution is turbocharging what once looked like mature management technologies such as lean production and supply-chain management. Cloud computing lets small startups harness computing power that was once reserved for big firms. But the biggest potential gains will come from focusing on areas of the economy that have either been overlooked, because of a lack of imagination, or have stagnated, because they are protected by powerful interests.”

Schumpeter appears to miss the whole point of the IT revolution in the first place by focussing on productivity-boosting uses of industrial materials, whilst ignoring the already-impressive example of the UK government saving at least fifty million pounds a year through better systems.

It may be because I’m being overly simplistic, but part of the big changes that we’ve seen in terms of efficiency haven’t been because of cloud computing, although the cloud has certainly helped in terms of helping people get to product faster and a shift from capex into opex at the stating phase. They’ve been instead from using software as a material to solve problems from first principles. Instead, I feel it’s been people who’re familiar with what software can do – and the nous to know how and where to do it – and they’ve finally snapped and had enough. We should be able to do better.

[1] Schumpeter: Three issues that should preoccupy managers in the next 50 years – The Economist

3.0 Minimum Viable Whimsy

157 – I haven’t even *used* Slack[1], so this is the absolute worst kind of armchair internet punditry, so take everything that I’m writing here with a grain of salt as big as the amount of money in a Facebook acquisition. So.

One of the interesting things about Etsy is the way it’s taken a culture of dev/ops from initial beginnings at Flickr and exploded it into something that’s a part of the company culture of Etsy. I may well be projecting here, but it looks like what Stewart Butterfield and Cal Henderson have done is taken a look at the way developers and, I suppose, in a way Tim O’Reilly’s alpha geeks, have used a service like IRC and said to themselves: what would it be like if we made IRC (and its bots) as easy to use for regular people as it is for us?

It feels like irccloud tried to do something like this, but ended up creating IRC for people who know how to use IRC. But it feels like there was value in having the distance to step back and say: what are the bits about IRC that are, well, *good*, and would they be good for other people to use?

So you get channels and you get bots through webhooks. You get persistence and you get scrollback. You get conversation – which we know humans are good at – as opposed to correspondence. And maybe you can through the unbundling metaphor to look at what Slack is doing too: we experience email-as-conversation, when it happens to be the medium at hand, and perhaps not the medium best suited for the type of communication that’s needed. But Slack is also an organisational change: I first got an invitation a long time ago when I was working at Wieden+Kennedy, and it didn’t feel like something that could work unless a whole team was using it. And when those teams had only just discovered Basecamp, well…

As much of this feels like finding the good part of an old piece of technology and working out how it might be made accessible to a wider audience now that enough of the workforce has net-connected computers and phones. And perhaps Slack would’ve been a harder sell to a workforce that hadn’t grown up with IM, that wasn’t acutely aware of mobile messaging. From the outside, and the way people are talking about it, Slack is a tool for collaboration because it’s a better tool for conversation in a way that email was so far the least-bad tool for conversation.

At the same time, you can look at something like Slack and something like Google’s ill-fated Wave and see that they both are pointed in the same direction, but something went wrong with Google’s – dare I say it – user-empathy. Butterfield and Henderson (and doubtless others who I’m wronging by not knowing and not giving credit to out of lack of research) have proven themselves twice now about being able to find the thing-that-resonates-with-mass-users that they accidentally built. Or, perhaps, it’s just their whimsy, that they’re not afraid of designing and producing solid things that have Minimum Viable Whimsy (oh god, I just wrote Minimum Viable Whimsy, but see what I’m doing, I’m not going back and deleting it, am I).

There’s a few factors going on here: the fact that (then) Tiny Speck identified (yet again) a need and also delivered against that need with a product that worked. Then there’s the fractal attention to detail and the Butterfield-esque friendliness that infuses the types of things that he’s involved in producing. I mean, notice the casual and accessible tone of voice pioneered by Flickr (and now adopted by Facebook, of all places, in their usage of Dinosaur Stickers to educate users about their privacy tools) that at times was compared to the Innocent Smoothie-ification of the English Language. That was a bit of a run-on sentence, but what I’m getting at is a sort of sideways nod to the whole GDS (if you’re playing Newsletter Bingo then you’ve probably won this episode) “digital services so good people prefer to use them” to a wishy-washy sort-of “digital products that are pleasant to use.”

There’s a difference in tone here – Government shouldn’t be matey with you, it’s fulfilling an institutional and societal role. Consumer/”enterprise” products occupy a different space – and it’s perhaps that “enterprise” bollocks that does a sort of context switch in the kind of language used in enterprise software. Enterprise software is serious. Enterprises are Serious Businesses full of Serious People in suits. But it turns out that a lot of those Serious People in Suits also take off those suits every now and then and apparently do things like go and watch The Hangover. This isn’t to say that there’s a casualification of language in business software, but that there’s value in getting to the point. An enterprise is just a business that’s pretending to be more serious than it is. We do this all the time, and in a way, you’d think that all of this context-switching that we have to do when we switch between different language registers takes a toll on our poor hardly-evolved brains.

[1] Slack

Thinking about Reddit. Annoyed about Reddit, like everyone else. Thinking about a recent car accident – well, the incident in which someone accidented themselves into the car I was in, and who, it appears, has subsequently claimed that our stationary vehicle instead was moving into theirs at the same time. At that, nothing to do, other than sigh and install a dashcam for next time. Or, in other words: get that dashcam, because when you have a word-vs-word insurance account and another party to whom you have no idea as to their trustworthiness, well. Get backup. No Destiny on pre-order. And, of course, the elephant in the room: Apple Keynote Day tomorrow, 10am PST.

Oh, and the one sobering thought, when I saw my primary care doctor for a follow-up after my fall. People have died falling from lesser heights. Time to get that life and disability insurance sorted out.


Episode One Hundred and Fifty Six: Space; Other Dyson Products; Not Yet, But Soon

0.0 Station Ident

2pm, 2 hours after my talk finished, a short metro ride to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The talk went well – they mostly do, and the nervousness before it was the normal kind. Not the worst, not the kind with the nausea, just the general uneasiness and anxiety. And, afterwards, the come-down, the hiding in Starbucks and the occasional “hi” from someone who wanted to say how good it was, or how it helped them see things in a different way.

I used to get a bit weirded out about this, especially if I’d just given a talk that really didn’t feel *new* to me anymore. This feels like it happens if you do a lot of public speaking – you’re saying the same things a lot, and then, after a few years, there’s this detachment and you realise: no, wait, this *is* actually new to people who’re telling you it’s new to them. Knowledge doesn’t by default spread at the speed of light just because it can. Ideas don’t spread just because someone’s published them. Things don’t get attention and get passed along on their own, and there’s still, I think, a requirement to be a messenger sometimes – if you want to play the messenger role. It’s not as if this absolves you of giving a content free talk of just reckons or hand-waving general prognostication – you always have a responsibility, I think, of changing the system in some way. Whether it’s in the way that people will approach their work, or helping them see things in a different way. And, of course, being humble about the whole thing. Because I can read all of the above in a different tone of voice, and fuck me if it doesn’t sound privileged and smug.

1.0 Space

I’m writing this on the second floor at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. There is an exhibition here celebrating 10 years of Spirit and Opportunity – more properly, Mars Exploration Rovers A and B, that NASA launched from Earth in 2003. Ten years later, Opportunity is still running, having exceeded its 90 sol (92.5 day) mission by over ten years. We lost contact with its Opportunity’s twin, Spirit, on March 22, 2010.

I want you to understand what Spirit and Opportunity mean to me. I didn’t get Apollo. I’m too young. Born in 1979, I’m a child of the Space Shuttle age. My cohort weren’t even ten years old when the Challenger disaster happened, and in 2003, when Columbia happened and the space age that we grew up with really died, we’d only just finished university.

I’m kind of kidding, but only because I’m processing what this *feels* like. It’s our tendency to anthropomorphise things, but we send out these probes on their own, agents and emissaries of humanity, and they’re so, so far away. Space, you see, is really big.

It feels like this: when I see the banner at the entrance to the exhibit, proclaiming a celebration of ten years of these probes and what they’ve done for us, Spirit and Opportunity are, in their way, a knock-out punch straight back to eight year old me who watched Space Camp and dreamed of going into orbit. I remember when I was quite young when my dad, an academic and an engineer, would proudly bring home the product of his department’s latest acquisition: a full-colour large print plotter, for CAD diagrams. One of them was a contour map of re-entry temperature tolerances of Shuttle. It was beautiful. Growing up, my brother and I had a tent in the back garden, one modelled after the Shuttle, too.

Just a young boy, and everything, everything I could get my hands on about space. Watching The Sky at Night when Patrick Moore was excitedly telling us about Giotto, about to rendezvous with Halley’s Comet. The British Interplanetary Society’s plans for Daedalus, a ship that might take us to the stars.

But we were British, in Britain, and gazing from afar at America’s reaching outside that thin layer of atmosphere we had and the plans to past that, the international space station – all of that, all of that felt like it vanished when the Shuttle died.

It didn’t, of course. We send our avatars into space now, unfurling wings of solar cells, dropping SUV-sized autonomous probes in engineering feats compared to landing a hole-in-one from the next county over when the hole itself is moving faster than a plane.

And such avatars. Because I look at them now, I look at those probes now and they’ve got as much character and as much dream inside them, as much yearning to get out there and *see* what’s out there and to touch it and be a part of it as Shuttle ever did.

Curiosity – the SUV-sized rover that we landed on Mars, had perhaps the most stunning landing, a powered descent stage, and the famous sky-crane landing before ending with a perfect-ten soft-touch, wheels-down landing that was watched online by over 3 million people.

For all the women and men who worked and are working at JPL and NASA and all the other supporting institutions on MER-A and MER-B, for everyone who’s working to increase our understanding of space, thank you.

That’s not all, though. For all that I was emotionally affected by the MER exhibit – and the sadness that I felt in its quietness compared to the people crowding through Skylab, or looking at the Apollo exhibits, that didn’t compare to a preview exhibit on the ground floor.

On the ground floors, there’s a look at post-1970s spaceflight, and that’s the part where it’s a punch to the gut. That’s the part where you see exhibits commemorating and explaining the Challenger and Columbia tragedies. That’s the part where you see the word “compromise” next to the phrase “Designing the Space Shuttle”. That’s the part where you see where we thought we were going to go next, how we thought the Shuttle was going to be a taxi. It almost – but not quite – took away the tears-in-the-eye pride that I felt in Spirit and Opportunity, in those little rovers that could, in those testaments to engineering and ingenuity and doggedness that’s led to one of the most successful off-planet exploration missions ever. It felt like 90% of the exhibit was dedicated to that Shuttle phase in our development, that Helvetica-labelled piece of complicated machinery that was a magnificent flying elephant, and it didn’t matter that the other 10% was of NASA human-scale robotics. It didn’t matter that there was a huge screen showing off Station, that aggravating love it and hate it installation that we have resting on the cusp of our atmospheric bubble.

I’m planning on visiting Enterprise tomorrow, at the Udvar-Hazy. I’m pretty sure that, judging on how today went, I’m going to have something verging on a religious experience.

2.0 Other Dyson Products

Denise Wilton wrote a good piece[1] the other day about the inexplicable and yet wearily predictable naming of Dyson’s robot vacuum, the Dyson 360 Eye, bemoaning the fact that the product name has absolutely no indication or signalling that it is indeed a robot vacuum. It could be a great many number of things, and actually sounds like a previous-generation videogame console knockoff peripheral (not even the console itself!)

I’m not sure who’s doing Dyson’s advertising and communications, but Denise makes such a valid point that at this stage, it’s worth asking what Dyson are trying to achieve. The way they *talk* about the Dyson 360 Eye it almost feels as if they have a certain audience in mind. You know, the kind that’s more interested in technical specifications than whether the vacuum is a good cleaner or not.

There are so many other good things about the Dyson, not least of which is that if it actually does its job *you don’t have to vacuum anymore*.

Perhaps that’s a better way to talk about it.

[1] Dyson Have Launched A New Product – Denise Wilton

3.0 Not Yet, But Soon

  • The first military RAID deployment – formerly the acronym for a Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives, instead, a Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drones. Tested out by the British Military in late 2014 with the first mass order of Dyson 360 Eye robots – in consumer use as cleaning robots – but firmware-flashed to provide border policing and intelligence for the Ukraine/Russia border.
  • Google Neighbourhood Watch is a free, voluntary program where you can help improve the security and privacy of your neighbourhood by signing up yourself – and your neighbours! – to install a drone and drone charging station at your house. Make sure you have permission from the landowner first, and as more of your friends and neighbours install Google Neighbourhood Watch on their property, your neighbourhood will benefit from the security and comfort of always knowing who’s in your neighbourhood, and what they’re doing. The Neighbourhood Watch cloud service seamlessly knits together all the data gathered from the individual drones and provides access to authorised Google accounts.
  • You wish that you could ever have something as simple as the Three Laws. You won’t. Imagine how complicated that legislation’s going to be, if it ever comes about.

Friday. The plan is to go see the Space Shuttle Enterprise tomorrow, as well as a bunch of other stuff at Udvar-Hazy. Seeing family friends today, and their grown-up kids, one of whom is a confirmed Whovian, so we’ve got that going on. I am assured that a Real Live British Accent will go down a treat. DC remains, as ever, hot and muggy.

Send me notes. Tell me your space stories.



Episode One Hundred and Fifty Five: “Web” “Content” “Strategy”; “Probably Not”; Firewall Earth; To Clean The House

0.0 Station Ident

2:13pm after a nice lunch and stimulating conversation. Stupid jokes on Twitter about the new Dyson 360 Eye robot vacuum for which a teaser video basically screams: hey, did you see Robocop? Wasn’t it awesome when you had that point-of-view shot from the robot/Murphy and all the technicians futzing with him? And then they booted him up? Yeah, let’s do that because THAT’S TOTALLY NOT A TIRED REFERENCE or something that paints you into a certain corner of culture. But hey, you’re Dyson. Maybe someone else can make a vacuum cleaner for the rest of us who’re not quite so into biting social satire and ultraviolence.

DC, still. Hotel room. Wrote a bunch of notes for tomorrow’s talk, some restructuring to do, probably later tonight as well as frantic image searching. Maciej Ceglowski is on tonight, so it’s not like there’s a hard act or anything to follow. Jesus Christ. Anyway, on with the show.

1.0 “Web” “Content” “Strategy”

I’ve never seen Karen McGrane[1] talk before, but she opened up today’s conference day with a section on content strategy, formally titled “Content in a Zombie Apocalypse”, which was more-or-less this talk[2] on Slideshare.

McGrane made good points, but I felt like there was something deeper that didn’t quite come out. The general gist for those following along at home is that people involved in “web content” and “web publishing” are having an increasingly difficult time because of all the different places the web (or: internet) has extended its tendrils. So “web content” can increasingly appear on unused internet fridges, in-car entertainment systems, mobile phones, digital signage and so on. McGrane makes a good case for the tyranny of paper – reminding us that it was Xerox that invented What You See Is What You Get, and one of the reasons why they invented it is because they’d just invented the Laser Printer, which needed an excuse to exist. And then, blink and you’ll miss it because you end up with Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop still requiring canvas dimensions for new documents, badly made school newsletters and PDFs.

McGrane’s trying to get us to understand something important here when she talks about separating content from presentation. Mobile devices and fridges are all reminders that the “content” that we put on the internet can increasingly be consumed or interacted with or whatever in a variety of mechanisms, some of which might not even involve screens (to which those who’ve been dealing with assistive devices breathe a big sigh of where-the-fuck-have-you-been).

I’d even go so far as to say that what we actually want to do is separate *meaning* from presentation. Clients/organisations want potentially unicorn systems that can take “content” and deploy it, in the right way, in whatever place, be that digital signage around a campus to a push message that gets delivered to mobile phones to a set of notices in whatever learning management system they use.

But the tyranny of the page is pretty hard to get over, and the web hasn’t really helped with that.

I’d like to go a bit further though and say that the web has unhelpfully confused those of us in the land of content strategy. Because the web is – at the very least – two things: a protocol for the transport of information (the Hypertext Transfer Protocol part of the web) and a set of standards about how you define and display that information (the Hypertext Markup Language part), before you even get into Web 2.0 things like runtimes and server/client-side processing and scripting.

My point here is that the *internet* is the real transport mechanism. The web as experienced by lay-people is just another display format mashed together *with* a transport mechanism, one that has been, over the last twenty to twenty-five years, predominantly associated with screens.

But the way McGrane (rightly) wants us to think is that we have atoms of *meaning* that can be transported over the internet into wherever they may be: printed onto toast, 3D printed onto tissue-scaffolds, projected by laser onto the moon, released by water droplets timed to the millisecond or, even, printed out onto paper.

In other words, content strategy for “places where there are electricity” or content strategy “for the internet” helps move a mindset away from content strategy “for the web” where web inherently is taken by lay-people to mean “something with a screen”.

Perhaps helping people think about content that way, rather than inherently screen-based, will help move us away from meaning and display-bound unfindable, unsearchable, unparseable blobs.

[1] and @karenmcgrane
[2] Content in a Zombie Apocalypse – Karen McGrane on Slideshare

2.0 “Probably Not”

I was doing that thing where I actually read a long-read on Medium: this particular one was about the abhorrent prosecution of scientists in Italy for a supposed failure to communicate the risks of an earthquake[1]. It’s a compelling read, but one of the things that stuck out for me was something that was somewhat orthoganal to the actual point of the article (putting science on trial), and it was how humans deal with probabilities and risk.

I mean, we know that we’re not good at judging probabilities and dealing with risk. You didn’t know that? You should (ha) know that. You should probably start with a Wikipedia grounding[2] that covers some of the cognitive biases and black holes we have in terms of risk perception.

Anyway. I’m just going to wholesale quote the interesting bit, but you should also go away and read the entire article, too.

In the winter of 1951, a group of CIA analysts filed report NIE 29–51. Its aim: to examine whether the Soviets would invade Yugoslavia. And the bottom line? “Although it is impossible to determine which course the Kremlin is likely to adopt, we believe… that an attack on Yugoslavia in 1951 should be considered a serious possibility.” Once finalized, the report made its way into the bureaucratic machine.

A few days later, a State Department official met up with the intelligence whiz whose team had composed the report. What did serious possibility mean? The CIA man, Sherman Kent, said he thought maybe there was a 65 percent chance of an invasion. But the question itself troubled him. He knew what serious possibility meant to him, but it clearly meant different things to different people. He decided to survey his colleagues.

The result was shocking. Some thought it meant there was an 80 percent chance of invasion; others interpreted the possibility as low as 20 percent.

Years later, Kent published an article in Studies in Intelligence that used the Yugoslavia report to illustrate the problem of ambiguity, particularly when talking about uncertainty. He even proposed a standardized approach to the language used for risk analysis — “probable” to indicate 75 percent confidence, give or take about 12 percent, “probably not” for 30 percent confidence, give or take about 10 percent, and so on.

– The Aftershocks, David Wolman

which just kind of blew my mind. Not only do we have massive holes in our cognitive architecture that are essentially probability-based backdoors into rooting our behaviour, but now we don’t even know how to talk about them! It’s some kind of deliciously evil double-jeopardy situation where:

a) we don’t understand and can’t grasp probabilities without engaging our slow brains, or what Kahnemann calls System 2, the logical and non-intuitive aspect to our intellect; and

b) even when we do, we can’t reliably communicate them!

It looks like the followup to Kent’s findings are a more pragmatic attitude: instead of defining new expressions for quantified probability, a more descriptive attitude that looked at what the majority of people understood by certain expressions of probability and the advice to standardise on *those* definitions when you had a quantified probability. You can read more in the CIA’s unclassified document Definition of Some Estimative Expressions[3] which is a pretty good idea to what some people, at least, think when you say “probably”.

[1] The Aftershocks by David Wolman on Matter / Medium
[2] Risk Perception – Wikipedia
[3] Definition of Some Estimative Expressions – CIA

3.0 Firewall Earth

It’s a standard SF trope – invasion/co-option of our planet and species by way of an infovirus or a meme or whatever. So the idea of creating a planetary firewall[1] – physical or informational – is interesting. Imagine that: national missile defence, or Star Wars – for the entire planet. A Dyson Sphere, not for capturing the total energy output of our sun, but because we’re scared of what’s out there. The Red Scare, but not from just one country, on our doorstep, but the *entire universe* as a possible threat, ready to infect us just by us being in the way of stray EM radiation. Celestial spheres not to explain the movement of the stars, but to protect us from them.

But then, how would you implement the software version? Do you end up with the whole problem of needing to emulate a human, emulate consciousness or ten-odd-billion in order to see whether to let the packets through? Do you nominate a demilitarized zone, a sort of safe human colony out on Europa where humans are free to accept-all packets from the rest of the universe, and watch them from a distance with a sharp stick? Would you have volunteers? (Probably!)

And anyway, what sort of material do you train a Bayesian filter to work on for a universal firewall? Hey, here’s a list of previous Outside Context Problems, just make sure no more get through, ok?

It doesn’t feel *that* inconceivable, though. Fear motivates so much in the wake of a threat. London’s Ring of Steel, so many years ago. NMD. TSA and wholesale terahertz screening of air passengers. But, like I pointed out, we can’t assess risk correctly. So a species-terminating risk like infection via alien infovirus? Low risk. Asteroid? Low risk. Shoe-bomber? OMG shut all the borders.

[1] Can You Ever Really Know An Extra-Terrestrial? – Caleb Scharf, Nautilus

4.0 To Clean The House

The Dyson 360 Eye Robot[1] – a product that wants you to know that it can see everywhere and is a robot, but not necessarily that it’s a vacuum cleaner. One that riffs off science fiction tropes in its teaser video and recalls Robocop[2], with prime directives and interlaced video and all: every trope you could reasonably think of, thrown into the can for the marketing mix. A launch website that recalls the Mac Pro, hijacked scrolling (of which I’m guilty of, too) and rendered CGI showing cutaways of highly advanced technology. Tank treads, for operating in hostile tactical environments. That blue LED for, well, what other colour should an LED on consumer technology be?

An alternate Patrick Farley Spiders-esque future where the British Government throws just a few million pounds toward Dyson, orders several tens of thousands of robots and uses them to police the Ukraine/Russia border. Another one where Amazon counters with drone cleaning robots – the ideal combination of automation and cheap human labour, robots that can clean your house, humans who guide them to make sure they get that bit under the table that your cleaners always miss, ones that use the always-on camera to identify products in your house and email you offers for substitutes or click-n-save subscribe deals.

Robots. Everywhere and networked.

[2] Dyson project N223: what new technology is ready for launch? – Official Dyson Video

4:50pm. Maciej Ceglowski on in about 25 minutes. My talk notes in a TextWrangler scratchpad, looking forward to doing those image searches and captions later tonight. The usual pre-talk nerves. It’ll all be OK. Just send me your notes.



Episode One Hundred and Fifty Four: The Networked Lens; Twitch; Sufficient Density

0.0 Station Ident

Is it really hiding if you’re telling a whole bunch of people you’re hiding? In any event: crashed in my hotel room in DC having made wonderful intentions of going to all of today’s conference talks and didn’t sleep well at all. Woke up most of the night and did that thing where you perpetually hit the snooze button before deciding (and, I guess listening to my somewhat bruised and battered body) that maybe I should just give in and try to sleep for a bit.

This hotel room doesn’t have a minibar, but it does have one of those G-Link ports just in case you’re the kind of person who carries a spare HDMI cable to plug their laptop into the TV. Or, you know, you want to plug in an S-video video source. Because…? I’m not sure. This hotel is also the kind where your room can look out onto a massive internal atrium, and the feeling that you’re less in a building and more an arcology, a sort of vertical spaceship full of identical corridors and maintenance lines, lifts, cubbies, support staff. I’ve only ever been on a cruise ship once – a family holiday – and it felt like we were living in a shopping mall. If we ever do get off this planet and start heading somewhere, anywhere else, how long until those ships feel like shopping malls, too?

So: 1pm. Hotel room. Room service ordered. Writing now. Plans to reorganise my talk for Friday. Looking at an email backlog. Buddy-taping my toe.

1.0 The Networked Lens

The collision of two things in my head: Derek Powazek’s earlier essay, The Third Wave of Photo Sharing[1] from which I pulled his coined phrase “the web created the modern camera” for episode one hundred and thirty eight[2] and, predictably, the celebrity photo theft that now looks like it wasn’t the product of one specific flaw, but more the implosion of a ring of secrecy around nude celebrity photo trading darknets[3].

Amidst all of this, lots of hand-wringing, and I’m not excusing myself from this, on what the “cloud” is and whether we people should be afforded reasonable expectations of privacy and security, a whole bunch of victim shaming and at the same time probably not enough recognition of the nuance that you can be a high-profile target or a low-profile target or anywhere in between. That said, I think it’s possible these days for *anyone* to be a high-profile target. In other words, what made Jennifer Lawrence a high-profile target was her celebrity, what makes *you* a high profile target is the fact that you might at one point have, or have had, a jilted ex-lover.

And then: even more decisions to be made, even better (more understood? more transparent?) products to be made and their benefits communicated. John Gruber asserts that we’re missing the silent benefit of having automatic backups[4] with services like iCloud and Google+ Photos – but this strikes me as being the trade-off that you have to make that you don’t really want to have to make. Your choice is binary at the moment: either back nothing up automatically, or back everything automatically. But in the same way that people would look at Facebook and see a collapse of context around who you’re friends with and the environments in which you interact with them (on this, I frequently cite Matt Locke’s Six Spaces of Social Media[5], but you could also pick up a copy of danah boyd’s latest[6] for an introduction to context in computer-mediated social relationships), you have a singular application that’s used in a variety of contexts – business and personal, at the very least – for which there is only one backup setting: on or off.

You can see Apple’s dilemma: they want to make things that are simple to understand, easy to use and that more often than not, do the Right Thing and don’t offer surprises. So what are some alternatives? Not using the main Camera app, the one that, at least until iOS 8 has been privileged in accessing certain camera functions? Using separate photo-taking apps that back up to their own stores? Remembering which app to use when you want to take a photograph? Those don’t sound particularly intuitive, but they’re off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts on how you might start to separate out these different use-cases.

I was reminded by Chris Locke of Dave Eggers’ The Circle[7], a sort of Swiftian cautionary tale as to what the geniuses are up to in Silicon Valley busy inventing the future, and whilst Eggers can come in for a lot of criticism for not actually knowing what he’s talking about in terms of *specifics*, I can honestly say that the *feel* of the novel is remarkably accurate in spaces. There is, undoubtedly, a sense of *mission*. But anyway.

As Powazek says that the Web created the Modern Camera, the field of connectivity is the next upgrade. We kind of know this because we keep talking about the Internet of Things, but celebrity photo hacking is a sort of weak signal of what happens when all lenses are networked. Pretty soon it will be easier – or even *cheaper* for you to get something that takes photos and has them automatically backed up, somewhere. You will not know, nor would you be expected to know, I suppose, whether that online store is “secure” or not. In other words, if you wanted to unbundle even more (and this goes against the tendency for bigger, more expensive things to aggregate in computing devices), you could imagine free-at-the-point-of-consumption cameras, hooked into ubiquitous wireless network coverage, that came with their own backup store either ad-funded or subscription funded. Free cameras. Lifetime storage. Just click past this message from our sponsor. Or, you know, Amazon provides the service and runs backend vision processing spun-up on its servers that will dynamically provide buy-it-now links when you view the photos.

The point that I’m taking from Powazek’s essay is that the default will be – in case it isn’t obvious already – that all photographs taken *will be* online. They are only marginally hard to get online now, and that’ll become even easier. The first internet of things object may well have been the lens.

[1] The Third Wave of Photo Sharing – Derek Powazek
[2] Episode 138: The Web Created The Modern Camera
[3] Notes on the Celebrity Data Theft – Nik Cubrilovic
[4] Security Trade-Offs  – Daring Fireball
[5] Six Spaces of Social Media – Matt Locke
[6] It’s Complicated – danah boyd
[7] The Circle – Dave Eggers / Amazon

2. Twitch

At dinner with one friend and a new acquaintance, scratching our heads as to how so many other companies could have passed up the chance to buy Twitch. For about $1bn, a steal for Amazon, because if you’re reading the signs and portents right, then this is pretty much an instant replay of what happened when Google bought YouTube, only, as pointed out by my friend – we know what happened when Google bought YouTube.

So, here’s who didn’t buy Twitch: Disney (ABC, ESPN, any number of videogame properties), Sony (media outlets, televisions, videogames and videogame consoles), Microsoft (perpetual failed media/entertainment ambitions, not really sure what it’s doing online other than “services”, videogames and videogame consoles), GoPro (an emerging media brand in its own right, and yes, I shoot myself for writing “media brand”), Red Bull (which will be interesting to watch because they’ve focussed on “live” stuff, it feels), Any Other Broadcaster Worth Their Salt and, obviously, YouTube.

Look, we know these things: we know that live events work. We know that championship videogame matches are routinely returning concurrent streams in excess of 5 million viewers, and cumulative viewer figures are just a bit mental[1]. So you’d think broadcasters would be looking at this sort of thing and saying: hm, what other live events could we capitalise upon? You don’t even have the problem of needing physical space, in a sense, to start with videogame streaming, and it’s only going to get easier.

Is it the cultural legitimacy problem? Is it that the broadcast networks are still looking down on their noses toward the “gamers” – and after the last few weeks, who could blame them? Probably, yeah: these types of cultural change don’t happen quickly, they happen when they happen and what mostly needs to happen is that management needs to age out and get out of the way for the people who understand what’s going on, most of the time.

Twitch is going to be a big deal. It’ll be interesting to find out who else was in the running.

[1] The International Dota 2 tournament watched by more than 20M viewers, Valve says – The Verge

3. Sufficient Density

The idea behind Miranda July’s Somebody[1] isn’t necessarily a new one, but it’s one of those ideas whose time is just about coming. Basically, a sort of real-life implementation of Bruce Sterling’s Maneki Neko[2], the realisation that when you have a sufficient density of network connected people, you can treat them like, well, nodes in a connected network. And you can use them to route packets from one to another. It’s the kind of thing that people would’ve had the idea for years ago – the writing’s been on the wall for ages for this kind of thing – but that tech people get a bit too excited about, or only really works as an art project (which, to be fair, is what July’s project is) because you need that Sufficient Density. But, we kind of have it now. It’s a sort of phase change. You see it in Bluetooth-powered mesh networking chat apps like Firechat[3] – no reliance upon existing network infrastructure, just on the individual nodes having sufficient density to throw up a network. Again, mesh networks have been on the weak-signal radar for years, but they’ve always relied upon having some sort of extant infrastructure that can be repurposed. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, the in-universe equivalent of the Xbox 360 is repurposed through live boot CDs that bring up a custom, unauthorised operating system that creates an ad-hoc mesh network using the built-in wireless adapters in consumer gaming hardware.

But now – what’s the density of smartphones that can run a Bluetooth stack in the background, act as a little anonymous identifier and pass off packets to each other in the wild? Or, think about it this way: given what state actors did with Stuxnet, and how it got to where it needed to go, and how many zero-day vulnerabilities went into it, what could you do with a massive network of rootable phones?

This is partly what’s meant by software as a material – there’s a computing substrate that’s been deployed in our cities, and whether you’re Team Android or Team iOS, there are enough of them out there for you to think of this as a computing substrate, a nascent infrastructure that’s just lying in wait. Until recently, we haven’t had the battery life, hardware and OS maturity to have persistent, low-power connections on devices, but now we do thanks to protocols like Bluetooth LE. And that’s just the malware – what could Transport for London do with a smartphone based mesh network?

[1] Somebody
[2] Maneki Neko – Bruce Sterling
[3] The Latest Chat App for iPhone Needs No Internet Connection – MIT Tech Review
[4] Little Brother – Cory Doctorow

10:20pm, a day full of hiding in the hotel room and doing things like re-watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier (did you notice that the bit where Black Widow is making backups and then has to dive through a window because of a grenade has a pretty much identical counterpart with Zhen in Mission: Impossible 3, when the team is extracting Lindsey?), the first of the new Capaldi Doctor Who and listlessly poking at the internet, suspiciously eying a bottle of prescription hydrocodone sitting on the desk, being irritated by the pain down my left side.

Send notes. Tomorrow is the day before my talk on Friday, so I’m going to be a gibbering wreck, as always.