Archive for October, 2009

Oct 21 2009

Who Wants to Hack Twitter With Me?

I want to modify the open source, multiplatform, iPhone capable Spaz client so that it has a mode to automatically translate all tweets into the user’s chosen language.

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I had intended to do this myself. But I’ve discovered that I’m back in graduate school full time, so I’m looking for a collaborating programmer who wants to do the majority of the coding. If you have some programming skill and you want to get into web apps, drop me a line!

But mostly, you’ll do this because you think that the world needs better multi-lingual communication. In particular, you want people to be able to keep track of news from places with oppressive internet censorship regimes (Iran, China, some Middle East), and you want the people who live there to be able to have public, real-time conversations with the rest of the world.

(Getting an uncensored internet connection in these places, one that can actually reach Twitter, is a different problem. But believe me, that problem has an active community around it.)

Spaz is written in Adobe Air and will need to call the Google Translate APIs.

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Oct 19 2009

“Low-Profit” Corporations Enable Social Venture Capital

A “low-profit limited liability corporation” is allowed to make money, but can also accept tax-deductible loans. Michigan,Vermont, Wyoming, Utah and Illinois passed laws this year defining a new type of corporation called an L3C, creating interesting new investment incentives and legal protections for socially-conscious market entities.

Chicago tax attorney Mark Lane, who helped get low-profit legislation passed in Illinois, suggests that we think of the L3C as a structure for socially-conscious venture capital.

In this video, Lane painstakingly presents the details of this new type of corporation. On first reading, it does seem like a plan that only a tax attorney could love. The L3C is, in some sense, little more than a carefully designed IRS category — but it could channel a lot of new money to social entrepreneurs. The trick is that private foundations would be allowed to deduct certain kinds of loans to L3Cs just like donations to non-profits, but the L3C would hope to make a profit and eventually return the money with interest. Given that foundations have to give 5% of their net worth to charity every year anyway, it’s a huge win for them to give it as a speculative loan rather than a grant.

The “low-profit” structure could also ease a classic dilemma between public and private operations. Public entities and non-profit corporations are legally obligated to operate in the public interest, but can be horribly inefficient due to the lack of competitive pressures and, often, shielding from financial accountability. Meanwhile, private corporations live or die on their efficiency but can be sued by investors if they fail to maximize raw profit. The L3C is something in between: a business that is required to operate in the public interest and can accept of tax-deductible investments, but can also pay a profit to partners and investors.

This hybrid funding model may prove especially useful in the production of public goods, the things that benefit everyone but are difficult to get anyone to pay for. The L3C has been proposed for groups working in education, small industry, biotech, arts, and journalism.

For more, see overviews from Social Earth and the Non Profit Law Blog.

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Oct 14 2009

“Risky” Interactive Art Returns to Tate Modern After 38 Years

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“Bodyspacemotionthings” is a playground-as-art, and it got completely trashed in 1971 when it premiered at the Tate Modern in London. Now it’s back, rebuilt slightly stronger and safer. And I think it’s awesome, and I want to swing on the rope and push that huge ball around.

Art you can fall off of will be familiar to anyone in the San Francisco independent arts scene (yes, I’m trying not to say “Burning Man” here), but it fascinates me to see how a very public institution in notoriously uptight country handles safety for an installation in a gallery which draws 100,000 people in a weekend.

The BBC report above focuses on splinters. Have we really become that lame?

Then again, I wonder if this piece could be shown at all in the US, a country with strong tort law and poor health insurance.

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Oct 12 2009

The Search Problem vs. The News Problem

I think I’ve found a useful distinction between the “search” and “news” problems. News organizations like to complain that search engines are taking their business, but that’s only because no one has yet built a passable news engine.

Search is when the user asks the computer for a particular type of information, and the computer finds it.

News is when the computer has to figure out, by itself, what information a user wants in each moment.

This definition has useful consequences. For example, it says that accurately modeling the user and their needs is going to be absolutely essential for news, because the news problem doesn’t have a query to go on. All a news selection algorithm can know is what the user has done in the past. For this reason, I don’t believe that online news systems can truly be useful until they take into account everything of ourselves that we’ve put online, including Facebook profiles and emails, and viewing histories.

And yes, I do want my news engine to keep track of cool YouTube uploads and recommend videos to me. This in addition to telling me that Iran has a secret uranium enrichment facility. In the online era, “news” probably just means recently published useful information, of which journalistic reporting is clearly a very small segment.

It’s worth remembering that keyword web search wasn’t all that useful until Google debuted in 1998 with an early version of the now-classic PageRank algorithm.  I suspect that we have not yet seen the equivalent for news. In other words, the first killer news app has yet to be deployed. Because such an app will need to know a great deal about you, it will probably pull in data from Facebook and Gmail, at a minimum. But no one really knows yet how to turn a pile of emails into a filter that selects from the best of the web, blogosphere, Twitter, and mainstream media.

Classic journalism organizations are at a disadvantage in designing modern news apps, because broadcast media taught them bad habits. News organizations still think in terms of editors who select content for the audience. This one-size fits all attitude seems ridiculous in the internet era, a relic of the age when it would have been inconceivably expensive to print a different paper for each customer.

Of course, there are some serious potential problems with the logical end-goal of total customization. The loss of a socially shared narrative is one; the Daily Me effect where an individual is never challenged by anything outside of what they already believe is another. But shared narratives seem to emerge in social networks regardless of how we organize them — this is the core meaning of something “going viral.” And I believe the narcissism problem can be addressed through information maps. In fact, maps are so important that we should add another required feature to our hypothetical killer news app: it must in some way present a useful menu of the vast scope of available information. This is another function that existing search products have hardly begun to address.

Not that we have algorithms today that are as good as human editors as putting together a front page. But we will. Netflix’s recent million dollar award for a 10% improvement in their film recommendation system is a useful reminder of how seriously certain companies are taking the problem of predicting user preferences.

The explosion of blog, Twitter, and Wikipedia consumption demonstrates that classic news editors may not have been so good at giving us what we want, anyway.

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Oct 05 2009

iPhone Augmented Reality Arrives — But When Will We Make Art With It?

Last year I imagined an iPhone app that superimposed virtual objects over video from the phone’s camera. With the advent of the iPhone 3GS and its built-in compass, it’s now happening.

This video shows NearestWiki, which tags nearby landmarks/objects and guides you to them. I am aware of a few other AR apps, as this post on Mashable and this AP story discuss. Many of these apps do building/object recognition, and one even recognizes faces and displays a sort of business card. We’re already seeing annotation with data from Wikipedia, Twitter and Yelp, and I suspect that we’re going to see these tools get very deep in the very near future, with Wikipedia-style tagging of  the entire history and context of any object.

Just a moment while I get over the fact that the future is already here.

Ok, I’m properly jaded again. Yeah, it’s an app platform, and that’s cool — but imagine the possibilities for art. Bets on who’s going to make the first “alternate reality spyglass” piece? Bets on how much Matthew Barney will sell it for in the app store?

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Oct 04 2009

Advertisers Smoking Crack, and the Future of Journalism According to Leo Laporte

Leo Laporte of This Week in Tech gave a truly marvelous talk on Friday about how his online journalism model works. The first half of the talk is all about how TWIT moved from TV to podcasting and became profitable, and includes such gems as

Advertisers have been smoking the Google and Facebook crack. And they no longer want that shakeweed that the [TV] networks are offering.

The second half is in many ways even better, when Leo takes questions from the audience and discusses topics such as the future of printing news on dead trees

Maybe there will always be [paper] news, but it will be brought to you by your butler who has ironed it out carefully for you. It will be the realm of the rich person.

and the “holy calling” of being a journalist:

You reporters are really the monks of the information world. You labour in obscurity. You have to be driven by passion because  you’re paid nothing. And you sleep on rocks.

He goes on to discuss the necessity of bidirectional communication, Twitter as the “emerging nervous system” of the net, etc. — all the standard new media stuff, but put very succinctly by someone who has deep experience in both old and new media. Very information-dense and enlightening!

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