Saturday, March 22, 2008

Steampunk for the (Locked-Up) Masses

Steampunk Magazine are "celebrating" the USA's 1% prison population by offering free subscriptions to the incarcerated.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Economics: Chaos and Optimism?

I had the post below drafted out, but I don't think I've got the time or energy to put more thought into it. I'll throw it out as an "open draft" for perusal/comments, while at the same time linking to this rather nice write-up of the financial mess we're in. What strikes me most is just how much of a chaotic system this is. What seems like a small move has had (or is having) gigantic repercussions. But is this embedded in the philosophy of investments? Check out these two paragraphs from the article:

They made $100 million bets with only $1 million of their own money and $99 million in debt. If the value of the investment rose to just $101 million, the investors would double their money.
Many of these bets were not huge, but were so highly leveraged that any losses became magnified. If that $100 million investment I described above were to lose just $1 million of its value, the investor who put up only $1 million would lose everything. (emphasis = mine)

Question is, why were people making those kinds of gamble anyway? Greed? False sense of security? Necessity? Probably a bit of everything, from what I can gather.

Markets still seems based largely around optimism from what I can see. In that sense, they're not too far away from faith-based religious institutions. Maybe Richard Dawkins should write a book about them.

Us Bank Bear Sterns has been sold at a huge "discount" - think Primark now, but for investments. The FTSE 100 has finally dropped below 5500 as a result and could be set to go lower if this paragraph is anything to go by:
Sterling was the only leading currency not to rise against the dollar as investors feared problems in the UK’s own financial sector.
The Euro, the Swiss Franc and the Yen all "rose" (or, rather, stayed the same while the Dollar jumped off the nearest skyscraper).

What does this mean? It means there's most uncertainty in the UK about what lies ahead. After selling off our all own industry, it means (as I see it) we're generally a lot more dependent on the choices made by other countries - including the US.

What intrigues me is the difference between market prices as "actual price", and market prices as an indicator of just how jittery everyone. Knowing things are going to go bad is very different from fearing things are going to go bad. If you know things are going to be bad, then you can make strategic decisions - the question is not should you spend the cash, but how you spend it. Sure, you may spend less, but there's more certainty, more unexpected shocks.

On the other hand, fear goes hand-in-hand with uncertainty. Instability means that people keep cash back in case of those unexpected tremors. Cash becomes a reaction rather than a strategy.

What stage are we at? Are we afraid of a recession? Or are we knowingly headed towards one?

Whither Twitter? : The Culture of Chat Mediums

[This post turned into a thesis, so for your reading "pleasure" I've split it up into 4 parts of roughly unequal sizes to aid navigation... Good luck, soldier.]

Just been catching up with the latest AOL and Facebook strategy shifts via Joshua March. Can Instant Messaging really be making a comeback? Like Joshua, my IM "buddies" list (always hated that term) is generally on the decline - I probably use it to talk regularly to less than half a dozen people now, and I can't remember the last time I actually added anyone to the list.

The form that "chat" comes in is hugely important to who we are (and something I really want to link in to over on Sphereless at some point). What makes for a successful chat medium? What different opportunities and possibilities emerge from each medium? How do these mediums affect who we talk to, and what groups we form? In an oddly-technologically-determinist kind of way, I think all these questions have gargantuan impacts on the economy of Internet Comms, modern day politics, and what is it to be someone with friends.

Over on Twitter, Luke asks "Do we know that twitter won't find a mass market as email and search did, tho? It shares their simplicity..." Sure, the simplicity is important but not, I think, the be-all-and-end-all of the success of a medium (and, I guess, few people say otherwise). Here are some Other Things that need to be taken into consideration when thinking about innovation of this type of thing (and which hopefully dispel any rumours that I'm a technological determinist...)

Part 1: Spheres of Influence

1. "Cultural" determinism - or, to be more useful, Usage Environment (in the sense that our Culture determines where and when we use our Technology).

What makes Facebook and MySpace so popular? Simple - they're timewasters. And we, as a race, have far too much time on our hands. Except it's not free time, it's work time. All those students, all those people in office jobs - all effectively tethered to a desk for 8 or 9 hours a day, with only the web for comfort. You need something you can switch on and off at the flick of switch or a Refresh Button.

E-mail used to do the job, but it turned out to be too free-form (not enough structured comms), too limited (no functionality or apps) and too antisocial (no group-forming). IM had a go at replacing it for a while, and fulfilled some of the first, none of the second, and a lot of the third. Now Facebook is filling in the gaps. Now you can hang out in groups and play games instead of working.

On the other hand, Twitter has very little functionality and basically zero group-forming. It's similar, in terms of the amount of "investment" or "engagement" needed (relatively little), but the twittersphere is an infinite sphere, with every Twitterer their own centre of that sphere. It's an individualistic technology for individualistic, busy people. A melting pot where the main game is conversation, not Scrabble. And, as such, it's (currently) attractive to a very different cultural set.

2. "Practical" determinism. Or "functional"? "Positivist"? In other (more) words, the extent to which people engage with a particular medium depends on their relationship to the issue being discussed, or the action being prepared/taken, via that medium.

Thus, Twitter is great for answering "What are you doing?", but not so good for "How can we make a car?" or "Should we build a new football stadium?" (unless you're into One-Click Politics and StrawPolls). It's not a way to share photos. It's not a way to order or filter conversations. It's not a CMS or a Wiki. It has archives, but you tend not to search through them. It's temporary, dynamic, continuous. "What are you doing?" implies "Now". But conversations aren't always about "Now".

Nor are they always about text, or about links. Sometimes you want or need a "richer" conversation, or an accountable one, or a formal one, and different media permit or discourage these in varying quantities. Hence the comments here about Flickr doing Video are generally conservative - Flickr does photos, and many of the more active members want/need a place that concentrates on photos exclusively. To diversify is to lose focus, which is good for a site built on top of connections, but not one where connections are built on top of functionality.

From this, then, we can say that any services offering a diversity of functionality (i.e. those based on social links rather than a core functionality idea, such as Facebook or AOL or Mash or Tribe) will need to offer a correspondingly diverse set of mediums to take this into account. (This also highlights problems with, say, fitting political engagement to certain "trendy" mediums such as chatrooms or video logs etc.) The key question for a service then becomes: "How does functionality get split across these mediums?" How does one do this without detracting from the usability or the allure of the service?

Part 2: Find the Gap

The flip side of this weird aggregation movement (that is, sites that try to do everything) is also fascinating. Given a set of usage contexts, conversational mediums and technological possibilities, not only are there the combinations addressed by services which bring them all together, but there are also holes between them. These holes are places which no combination of existing contexts and mediums currently fills.

Places which try to replicate something from the "off-line" world (in the same way that instant messaging replicates a face-to-face chat), but which are limited to certain contexts or mediums. The key challenge here is: how can one set of functionality or of context be "ported" to another?

I see these holes as "conflicts" - places where an acceptable solution doesn't yet exist, and so everything that tries to fit into such a hole is still experimental, still looking for a good fit. These holes are the places where niches exist, where small companies operate, and where PR is everything, because if you didn't even know the hole existed, there's no way you'd know you needed something to plug it up. Holes are created on a daily basis, so competition is fierce around them.

This is the realm where culture and functionality do not naturally integrate, given the tools we're already using. Some examples from off the top of my head include:

  • Video on hand-held devices - because we like to both use our eyes while moving and because we're used to watching things on bigger displays. (Hmmm, in which case... Are large screen TVs killing the mobile video market?)

  • Handheld book readers - because books and papers are cultural and personal things - the feel, the turn of a page, the weight, the slightly-worn edges... Replacing tactility in technology is light years off yet.

  • Electronic Paper - similarly, because paper is generally disposable while electronics generally aren't, and because pens are analogue and freeform while computing generally isn't. Disposability - of ideas - is a cultural thing, and one which bit-based tech is gradually drifting away from.

Everything fits into a hole, really. It's just that some holes are bigger and a lot easier to fill. The interesting holes are the ones that start out small or difficult to fill, but end up being large and filled just-the-right-amount.

I don't have too much else to say about these holes at the moment, although I think they are an interesting way to look at the world. If you're looking for the Next Big Thing, I think there's mileage in the idea of conflicting contexts. Too many people wonder "How can we use technology X to fill hole Y?" But the important question is really "Which hole does technology X best fit?"

Part 3: Whither Twitter?

But let's bring this back to chat. When, where, and why do we chat, and can we use this to predict the success of a particular medium or service? Why is Twitter doing well but videophones aren't? Does anyone actually use Skype to make video calls?

In my eyes, Twitter does a job that nothing else does: it brings together SMS messaging (as a cultural action as well as a technology) with the web and, by extension, Desktop apps. Both are hugely popular, but for different reasons - SMS is quick, simple, and efficient while the web is rich, complex, and "functional". Twitter works because, unlike other services, it goes from SMS up to web, rather than trying to cram the web down to a mobile. This goes back to something I was saying before. (And maybe there's a hierarchy of availability to be explored here?)

But if we take into account the cultural context, maybe it's not enough for Twitter to just "work". To become bigger, it must become attractive to where people spend 8 hours a day, or people that are intent upon procrastinating. Maybe the problem with Twitter is that it lets you get on with your work too well!

Stepping away from Twitter, and in spite of the above paragraph, I think the real losers here are the mobile phone carriers. Their insistence on seeing everything in terms of voice damns them to a hellish world of working out just where their next quick buck is going to come from. Certainly in the UK, for mainstream users, functionality is limited to voice and SMS. There is generally no integration at all with anything else - I still can't forward an e-mail address to an SMS on my Vodafone account. I have an on-line bill, but that's about it. The Mobile Carriers are sitting right on top of a KISS Comms Goldmine, but their insistence on getting a) "big" content to drive business and b) customers to pay for anything they do on top of free minutes/texts is doing NOTHING for them. And, as there's no way Apple's iPhone or Google's Android are going to be anything but the reserve of businessmen and geeks, we're in stalemate.

Part 4: Predictive Text

So to return, what does my chat list do nowadays, and where is it heading? Would I use it more if all the people on my Twitter list were added to it, or if all the people stored on my mobile were on there? I suspect this would just be an intermediate stage (although a big one). Contact books are the important thing here. How you chat to someone depends on where you are and what you want to talk about. It makes sense then to synchronise lists across mediums - it makes sense that people would say "This isn't working on this medium - the topic has changed. We need to move to Medium X instead." Just like you switch to a big whiteboard when you need to hammer out an idea with someone.

Here's a prediction to end with: The iPhone will succeed in opening up the rift between mobiles and the web.... for iPhone users. Nothing will change for the rest of us. All-encompassing sites like Facebook will tie in text messages - probably as some kind of premium plan. Mobile operators (in the UK, at least) will make some moves towards integrating the rest of into the Twitter-like-verse, but in a half-hearted way which means it's still not economically viable. Something much akin to Twitter will come along, but aimed at non-geeks (e.g. all messages go to "your group" only, which need to be set up on the web via OpenID), and will probably do fairly well.

And Bill Gates will be banging on about voice recognition.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Poverty: Cash and/or Status?

Posting about Status Poverty over at Into the Machine, but thought I'd cross-post here as I feel it's an important and useful concept. In summary, John Hutton has done me a favour by confusing cash poverty with status "poverty". In doing so, he's brought up an interesting and far-too-overlooked field. Just how is happiness related to both status and money?

The classical economic perspective assumes that happiness = getting most for your money (partially because turning things into numbers makes it easier to measure and calculate). More "modern" approaches feed off psychology/psychiatry and the now-"blossoming" fields of happiness science and positive psychology. But IMHO, these are overly-scientific and concentrate far too much on both the positive side and the individual side - something which classical economics also suffers from. Such a focused view will only ever account for half (or maybe a third) of "contentment", because humans are inherently both individualistic and social. (I'd say that we are also intrinsically linked to the nature of experience/the universe, adding another half again. Something reminiscent of this post.)

Hutton's comments open up the idea of happiness as being informed by society as well. I'd need to go back and check, but perhaps this relates to Leary's second circuit of consciousness, the emotion circuit, linked to walking, height, position and status. Of course, Hutton tends to ignore such links between status and happiness altogether. He seems to be rather "classical", in this sense.

What's intriguing me now, as mentioned above, is the link between cash poverty and status poverty. What you want, what you need, and what you can afford are clearly all wrapped up into one somehow, and feed into what makes us content, but for now this identification is all that's ready to be written down.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

You Lose the (Happiness) Game

Hum, I was going to blog something about the foolish approach we have to "happiness", but it made me all depressed so I can't be bothered. Maybe if I ignore it, it'll all go away.

See also: Happiness as a mental disorder

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Screens are not Zen

This 43 folders article about unplugging yourself really points towards a lot of what I'm thinking at the moment. I spend far too much time "defaulting" to a PC screen, just as some people "default" to a television screen.

I'm slowly getting out of the habit. But a whole new perspective involves a very different lifestyle.

I'm trying to do more of my job on paper, for example, so that I don't get distracted by the multitude of twitter/news feed sidebars that a widescreen monitor seems to just make happen. I'm thinking more about pen and paper, in fact - free from distraction, but freedom to doodle. That's what I call convergence.

Does it bother anyone else that 90% of what we do is just to distract ourselves from doing nothing?

Mobile Silverlight: Eh? (More Mobile Ranting)

There's some news and Twitter chat around the/a hook-up between Nokia and Microsoft's Silverlight technology.

First up for those who live in the real world, what is Silverlight? According to the Silverlight site, it's nothing less than "a cross-browser, cross-platform plug-in for delivering the next generation of .NET based media experiences and rich interactive applications for the Web". Hell yeah!

What does that mean? Who the feck knows. As I understand it (which is not to say what it actually is), it's a way of designing interfaces that let you access something (e.g. an on-line service) from wherever-you've-installed-Silverlight: your Windows PC, your Mac, etc... and now your Nokia mobile phone.

Darren Water's article at the BBC blog notes that Silverlight has been dubbed a "flash killer". I'm guessing that doesn't mean it hunts down college jocks out to save the Planet Earth, nor that it murders your computer with a particular panache and flair. (In fact, that should probably be a pedantically-phrased "Flash[tm] killer".)

More interestingly, further down, Darren says:

It could mean that the latest cool web 2.0 application that you've been playing with on your Mac or PC will run just as well on your mobile phone.
This, for me, holds some interest, because - well, because so far I'm quite dismayed that the "latest" services haven't been accessible via my mobile. At least, not without the usual stupendous mobile rates.

Take ebay, for example. I'd love to get alerts and bid via text message, but looking at how to go about it, I get a charge of 12p per "item" (is that auction item, or SMS item?). Bugger that, then. SMS alerts are a "premium service", I'm told.

And maybe this is the crux of it. "Cross-device" technology, especially in the UK, is doomed to be a "premium service". Silverlight is coming out on "Nokia's high end smart phones" we're told. But will I ever get it on my bog standard Nokia? Will I be able to afford ridiculously-priced data charges, or want the risk of a stupidly large phone bill as a result of installing Silverlight? Not really.

I get far too many free texts on my mobile. I want to use them. Twitter is good, but getting messages as texts only really works for certain people, and I'm not one of them.

There's a reason Silverlight will have problems, and it's the same reason why Mobile Video on demand has problems: too much complexity, for too much money, on too small a device. Silverlight runs the risk of trying to blur the lines between PC and Mobile, just as Mobile Video tries to blur the lines between TV and Mobiles. Mobiles are not TV or a Desktop. Get over it. Mobiles have limited input and limited output - that's their restriction, but also their beauty. That's why they're popular.

Hey, here's an idea - why not make Desktop/Palmtop interfaces based on mobile interfaces? The scaling up of simplicity (rather than the scaling down of complexity) might even make navigation easier to detach from keyboards and mice, and more amenable to gestures or other input devices. We might expect our PCs to do "less", but do more with what they do do. (Hint: I really don't use or need desktop widgets all that much.)

In fact, the more I think about this, the angrier I get. Time to go and look at a picture of kittens in a barrel.