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January 2007 Archives

January 1, 2007

Winner-Take-All: Google and the Third Age of Computing

IBM1950-1980
Microsoft1984-1998
Google2001-

Google has won both the online search and advertising markets. They hold a considerable technological lead, both with algorithms as well as their astonishing web-scale computing platform. Beyond this, however, network effects around their industry position and brand will prevent any competitor from capturing market share from them -- even if it were possible to match their technology platform.

To paraphrase an old comment about IBM, made during its 30 year dominance of the enterprise mainframe market, Google is not your competition, Google is the environment. Online businesses which struggle against this new reality will pay opportunity costs both in online advertising revenue as well as product success.

Competitors such as Yahoo should quickly move to align themselves with this inevitability. Yahoo could add an extra $1.5B to their revenue overnight by conceding monetization to Google and becoming a distribution partner for Adwords, as Ask Jeeves did.

Google is the start page for the Internet

The net isn't a directed graph. It's not a tree. It's a single point labeled G connected to 10 billion destination pages.

If the Internet were a monolithic product, say the work of some alternate-future AT&T that hadn't been broken up, then you'd turn it on and it would have a start page. From there you'd be able to reach all of the destination services, however many there were.

Well, that's how the net has organized itself after all.

From this position, Google derives immense and amazing power. And they make money, but not only for themselves. Google makes advertisers money. Google makes publishers money. Google drives multi-billion dollar industries profiting from Google SEM/SEO.

Most businesses on the net get 70% of their traffic from Google. These business are not competitors with Google, they are its partners, and have an interest in driving Google's success. Google has made partners of us all.

Why does Google make so much money?

It turns out that owning the starting point on the Internet is really, really valuable.

Not just because it gets a lot of traffic. It's because that traffic is so much more valuable than the rest of the page views bouncing around the net. Google's CPMs are $90-120, vs. $4-5 for an average browse page view elsewhere.

This value premium on search vs. content is because of the massive concentration of choice potential which exists on the decision point, Google.

John Battelle calls this power behind user search queries "intent". This is why the ROI of a clickthough bought from Google is so much higher than a clickthrough bought from a banner ad impression. It represents a higher likelihood that someone is going to take action if they came from a search instead of a mouse click.

No one wants to be on a search engine, they want to be on one of the 10 billion destination or application pages of the net. They may navigate "directly" to these pages because they know the name and/or have been there before. And they may move between pages by following links - say, from a blog like Valleywag to an interesting article. But these are 1:100 fan-out effects.

Google is a 1:10,000,000,000 fan-out effect. When you need to find a new page, or perhaps even to navigate to one you've been to before, you go back to the starting point -- Google.

To reconstitute Google's full value on the destination pages, you'd have to have a network which participated in a majority of the destination landings. Such a network would also participate in repeat visits which G does not see; but it would hit users after a decision point, and so might still have less overall value; it will be harder to distract someone to go elsewhere from the sidebar than when you're on the locator service.

But it's a lot easier to monetize G's 1:10B branching point than to participate in 10B destination pages.

And once you own it, you can have the rest of the net too. :-)

Google's next step: owning the rest of the page views on the net

Just as Microsoft used their platform monopoly to push into vertical apps, expect Google to continue to push into lucrative destination verticals -- shopping searches, finance, photos, mail, social media, etc. They are being haphazard about this now but will likely refine their thinking and execution over time. It's actually not inconceivable that they could eventually own all of the destination page views too. Crazy as it sounds, it's conceivable that they could actually end up owning the entire net, or most of what counts.

Complaints are already being heard about Google using their starting point power to muscle into verticals.

My 70% market share number was conservative so as to be believable; others report that Google is more like 78-80%.

Competitors who want to dethrone Google need to fight a two-front war. They have to build a killer consumer search service as well as a successful advertising network. Building one of these is difficult, but doing both simultaneously is nearly impossible. Google's dominance in both of these areas gives them an unfair advantage, and allows them to easily parry any attacks.

How zero switching costs paradoxically yield a winner-take-all market

Search engines have zero user switching costs. Unlike switching email providers, there is no user data to move over, or addresses which need to be forwarded or communicated to peers. You just type in a new name and go to the new place.

If switching costs are zero, the first thought is that it should be easy for a worthy challenger to take some share away from the leader. Paradoxically, it's the reverse that happens.

Zero switching costs lead to a winner-take-all market for the leader. Even a modest initial lead will snowball until majority market share is reached and maintained. This is because, faced with a choice between two products, in the absence of switching costs users will choose the better one, even if it is only slightly better.

Google had a vastly better product than any other search engine for a number of years. Competitors have closed the gap somewhat, but Google is still better. Everyone (70-80%) knows this now, and so the Google-has-better-search concept is now built into Google's brand.

Even if a competitor such as Yahoo, MSN or Ask were to fully close the gap at this point, they would still have to overcome the final brand perception gap. This is the effect where market research shows that users who see Google's logo on top of Yahoo's results perceive the results to be of higher quality; users looking at Google's results with Yahoo's logo on top view them as having less relevance. Brand perception effects have been measured to account for about 8% in things like beer. A few years ago an AOL researcher replicated this study in a shopping mall in Virginia with AOL Search results vs. Google.

Back to the zero switching cost and winner-takes-all. Suppose the product gap has been closed, and the two products are now identical. But one product has a powerful brand perception that it is better. In the marketing analysis, that's the same as being better. Users will stick with the leader.

Economic and social forces reinforce a feedback loop of success for the leader. The best programmers will leave the losers to work for the winning team. Major online sites will invest in organizing their sites to appeal to the winning search engine. Advertisers will be drawn to the leader, giving it a greater share of resources to invest in continuing and strengthening its lead.

Yahoo is leaving a lot of money on the table

Everbody wants to own their own advertisers. Talk to newspaper execs if you want to get an earful about ceding sales to the online giant. Controlling sales is a point of pride, and of some perceived strategic value. But quantifying the opportunity cost throws a stark light on the huge cost of opting out of Google's winning monetization platform.

This story has played out before. In 2001, Ask Jeeves was on the ropes. Battered by the dot-com crash, its ticker symbol was in danger of being de-listed from the Nasdaq. Skip forward to 2003, and they're flying high again. The magic in between was doing a deal with Google to have Adwords take over monetization. Google quickly become responsible for 70% of Ask Jeeves revenue, and Ask Jeeves stock rose 1,685% in the year following that deal.

Yahoo should accept Google's search and monetization dominance. Yahoo will not recover the search application, and browse views are not competitive and cannot be made to be so. They should do a deal with Google for Adwords/Adsense across their entire network, as Ask Jeeves did. They should be able to obtain at least an 85% rev share; that would take them from $0.10/search to $0.17, a 70% increase in search revenue overnight.

That's an extra $1.5B or so of yearly revenue being left on while they try to build a copy of Google's revenue platform.

Such a deal could even see Google's triumphant return to powering Yahoo's search results, which would provide superior results for users. In a way, this is simply rolling back Yahoo's configuration a few years, to the point where Yahoo used third parties -- Google and Overture -- for both search and monetization. Yahoo's effort to vertically integrate these functions has failed; it hasn't yielded a winning consumer product, and it's leaving billions of dollars in potential revenue on the table.

What about Microsoft?

Microsoft isn't a player online any more than IBM is. IBM?

IBM still has a great business, inhabiting the business enterprise market where they've been since they started. When the PC era arose, the popular question was why IBM couldn't own that new market too. Sad requiems were printed the day IBM finally gave up and exited the PC business.

Stodgy old IBM was perfect to selling to Fortune 1000 CIOs and the government, but wasn't configured to deliver PCs to consumers. The winner of that game was Microsoft. Surprise...the winner of the PC market didn't actually sell PCs! How could IBM have known...

The PC market isn't going away either. Microsoft has a great business too. But now the question everyone asks is why Microsoft doesn't own this new thing, the Internet. Surely with all those resources it could own any new market that arose.

But it shouldn't be surprising that huge successful companies can't make the leap into owning a completely new and different market. New markets bring with them new rules, and require different skills to win. Microsoft has the same shot as any well-funded venture at knocking off Google's crown. But they don't get a special pass just because they make a lot of money selling Word and Excel and have their logo on keyboards.

We get used to seeing the giant squash everything it steps on as it strides through the domain of its market dominance. But sooner or later, the terrain changes, and the old leader can go no further.

Nobody even bothers asking why IBM isn't a player in consumer search. IBM and consumer websites just don't have anything to do with one another. PC software and websites don't have anything to do with each other either.

All Hail the New King Google

The interregnum between the end of the PC era and the rise of the online world has concluded, and Google is the new king of forward market growth in computing and software technology. Major companies will succeed by working within the framework of Google's industry dominance, and smaller players will operate in niches or in service to the giant.

"I for one welcome our new insect overlords."

:-)

January 3, 2007

Filter

"Avoid pedantic people like the plague: they want to prove they wasted a bit more time than you getting a nuance right."

      -- Andrew Goodman, Undistracted

 

"My field is artificial intelligence, but I'm sad to say that this subject started on the wrong page of the map many years ago and most of us haven't woken up to it yet."

      -- Steve Grand, The Strong Possibility That We've Got Everything Horribly Wrong

 

"You would think the distant #2 would be sucking up more."

      -- poster, Digital Point forums, in Christmas gift from Yahoo?

 

January 5, 2007

Mike's New Soap-Vox

My co-founder Mike Markson has gone and got himself his own blog, over at the new easy-to-use Vox service from Six Apart. Out of the gate he's got a head-scratcher about 527 groups and Internet syndication.

I don't have any unique insights around this, but it reminds me of the personal SEM campaigns that Chris Zaharias has been running for political and social issues.

No idea where this all goes, but I wouldn't be surprised if we've barely scratched the net's potential effects on political messaging so far.

Update:

Well that honeymoon with Vox didn't last long. But Mike's still on 6A, just hardcore hosted movable type now with his own domain.

January 6, 2007

Elevator pitch archaeology

So last year I read this story on VentureBeat about genius Tony Hsieh and how he's doubled his sales every year since 1999 for his online shoe store, Zappos. Mernit had mentioned Zappos before, and I don't usually think about shoes much, but got curious about how someone was succeeding in a retail vertical online. Two mentions of this guy, I gotta go read about it.

All the press about Tony talked about customer service and the 24/7 warehouse and having a fast website. That was great, operational excellence and all that. Sure.

But not being a big shoe shopper or shoe thinker, I was kind of flying blind in the space. I wanted to understand the original vision for the business, to glimpse the spark that lead someone to think they could make a successful startup out of selling shoes online. Retail is so hard, and I dunno, I would just expect that between existing bricks & mortar retailers with websites, and ordering direct from manufacturers over the web, shoes would be pretty much covered, and it would be hard to get a foothold to make a big business.

So I went to look at the site, but it didn't help. The tagline really left me stumped. "We are a service company that happens to sell ... Shoes Handbags Apparel Accessories". Huh.

I didn't get it. I mean, that's great and all. I expect that sort of thing on a poster in the warehouse over the drinking fountain. Like if you go to the restroom at Best Buy and see the wall with all of the reminders for the employees on how to upsell properly. Or the big "Check Your Appearance" over the mirror in the employee hallways in casinos just before the doors that lead back into the public areas. It's an internal motto, a way they think about themselves. McDonald's is "Quality, Service, Cleanliness, and Value", but that's not their advertising tagline. (It's currently "I'm lovin' it", unfortunately).

There was no way "We're a service company" was the original spark behind Zappos. Yeah, we're going to happen to sell shoes, and we're going to be great operationally. That elevator pitch didn't hook any VCs.

I know the kind of meeting that results in "We're a service company" ending up on the website, and it wasn't around a kitchen table. It happened later. After other people were hired.

I went over to the Internet Archive to see what Zappos had looked like when it first launched. Sure enough, Zappos circa 1999-2001:

World's largest shoe store. Of course! It's so blindingly obvious (in hindsight). They're the Amazon.com of shoes. That's the elevator pitch. "We're going to be the Amazon.com of shoes." They're going to have everything, be really comprehensive. And of course have a great website and handle returns and ship things fast and all that stuff you need to do well if you're going to have a hope in retail.

Now Amazon.com doesn't call themselves the "earth's biggest bookstore" anymore. They don't seem to have a tagline at all now, that I can see on their website. Books became limiting, and they wanted to become a superstore, and sell everything.

But then this Zappos thing came along. And although Amazon sold shoes on their website, I guess Zappos was getting all the shoe-buzz and eating away at the vertical. So Amazon has launched Endless.com, an online shoe store.

Now Endless.com has a tagline. Which is reminiscent of Amazon's original tagline, and Zappos.

"Endless Style, Endless Options." Earth's biggest... world's largest... endless... hmmm. So now Amazon has launched a site to be the Amazon.com of shoes. Ironic! :-)

January 7, 2007

Taste that beats the others cold

In his book, Adcult USA, James Twitchell tells a story about Rosser Reeves. An executive of Minute Maid once complained about Reeves's refusal to fiddle with the advertising, saying "You have 47 people working on my brand, and you haven't changed the campaign in 12 years. What are they doing?"

Reeves replied: "They're keeping your people from changing your ad."

    -- Is it the end of the ultimate advertising slogan?, Al Ries

...

How to Ship Code and Influence People

In 1995 I was working for an AT&T spinoff, Unix System Labs, in the kernel group, but USL wasn't doing too well. It looked like Windows was winning the OS wars (remember those?) and was going to scrape Unix from the face of the earth. My buddy Tom had been trying to get me to come out to the west coast to work for Sun.

He was working in a group that did network security. He said that it didn't matter what OS won, we'd always have network security to worry about. That made sense to me. He set up the interviews, and since I didn't know anything about security, told me to buy a copy of Applied Cryptography and read it before I got there.

So I got hired into Sun's group developing firewalls and IP-level encryption. This was great work. Security is really intellectually challenging and rewarding. Little unseen errors in apparently simple code or protocols can lead to collapse of the entire system. Rigor and thought count.

But commercially our group was a bust. In addition to our firewall product, the Sun sales force was reselling a third-party product too. And they seemed to like to sell the third party product better than Sun's homegrown one.

We were also trying to sell an add-on security workstation package. The sales force didn't seem to think much of the commission on our $99 software bundle when they were pushing their multi-million dollar hardware orders.

Furthermore, the US government didn't seem to want to let us sell our stuff. International sales of cryptographic products are regulated, since they're classified as "munitions". We had Swiss banks that wanted to buy our encrypting firewalls. We'd have to meet with the NSA to get export approval, but were never able to sell the full strength versions. There was a dark story about a rebuffed offer to include a backdoor in the crypto for the powers-that-be, which lead them to subsequently look on us unfavorably. We tried all sorts of shenanigans to loophole around these restrictions but it was an uphill battle.

The final nail in the coffin came when Sun's crypto protocol lost out to another faction's in the IETF.

I was just an engineer in this group, but the reality of what was happening in the market to our product line started to seep in. Here I was putting all of this effort into stuff that never would be used by anyone. It was still intellectually challenging...like doing crossword puzzles or something. But it had no utility to the world.

I started to look around and I saw many other examples of groups working on stuff that no one would ever use or care about. Mobile IP initiatives, endless work around standards that nobody cared about, research from the labs that would never be applied or even cited.

Yikes.

I had written stuff that people actually used, before. It felt good. I had written a usenet newsreader that was used by hundreds of thousands of people. I was running an online game, as a commercial hobby on the side, which had several hundred paying customers. Sheesh, I thought. My side projects have more customers than my day job.

So I made a simple resolution. I wanted to work on stuff that people would actually use.

This sounds simple. But if you walk the halls of Sun, AOL, HP, IBM, AOL, Cisco, Siebel, Oracle, any university, many startups, and even Google and Yahoo, you'll find people working on stuff that isn't going to ship. Or that if it does ship, it won't be noticed, or won't move the needle.

That's tragic. It's like writing a blog that nobody reads. :-) People make fun of bloggers who are writing "only for their mother". But what about the legion of programmers writing code paths that will never be traversed. Wasted effort!

Some of that may be inevitable. You try experimental things. Sometimes they don't work. Everyone can't be maximally productive 100% of the time, so there may be lesser-value tasks that still keep the engine warm and have some marginal utility. But still. Evolutionarily, frustration is useful. It kicks us out of non-productive ruts. People should get frustrated more easily. Frustration should be driven by an awareness of futile effort.

* * *

Without business models, bizdev deals for distribution, and market economics that afford a place for your product, it doesn't matter how pretty the code is. Ugly code and awful products win all the time.

From an engineering perspective, it's simply zooming out the field-of-view to include the entire market, including the users, competitors, and so on. They're part of the total engineering solution. If you've written an app with some web forms and a database, but you haven't solved the problem of how to get users to come to the web form, then you've left part of the problem unsolved.

Greg Linden details some of the tricks that have been used by startups to get a leg up in a crowded world. He wonders if you have to be, perhaps, a little bit evil to have a hope. I'm not sure, but you should have some idea of how you're going to launch the bird, and the market and distribution economics that let it stay aloft.

All of this is a long-winded way of explaining why I include all this gunk about network effects and switching costs and distribution and brand perception on my blog. Because the world, full of competitors and networked humans with their set of behavior patterns, is part of the spec. If you're designing a product, but don't understand how the system of networked humans will work around it, you really can't understand how your product will work either.

No minute lost comes ever back again
Take heed and see ye nothing do in vain

Redwood City Fire

View from my house of a fire on Seaport boulevard today. The smoke trailed off down towards San Jose and lasted for hours.

Fire at car shredding business in Redwood City creates heavy smoke
Bay City News Service

Redwood City firefighters have contained a one-alarm fire that broke out in a large heap of trash at a car shredding business in Redwood City, but the smoke is visible from miles around, a fire chief reported.

The fire was reported at 2:38 p.m. at Sims Metal at 699 Seaport Blvd in the port area of Redwood City, Fire Chief Gerald Kohlmann reported.

There were no injuries reported, but the fire department got calls from as far away as Oakland reporting the smoke, Kohlmann said.

The fire broke out in a pile of flammable materials from scrapped cars, including roof liners and upholstery. The fire is contained, but it could be hours before the fire is extinguished, Kohlmann reported.

Nothing indicates that the fire was set intentionally, Kohlmann said. The firefighters are in the process of extinguishing the flames, but the materials are still burning deep within the pile.

There are no special precautions to be taken, but Kohlmann advises residents nearby with respiratory conditions to remain inside.

Firefighters from Menlo Park and Woodside Fire District were called to help extinguish the fire.

(Story via Topix)

January 9, 2007

Sebastopol

Tim O'Reilly, Brady Forrest

The smiley was invented in Pittsburgh :-)

Time is the one thing that can never be retrieved. One may lose and regain a friend; one may lose and regain money; opportunity once spurned may come again; but the hours that are lost in idleness can never be brought back to be used in gainful pursuits. Most careers are made or marred in the hours after supper.

      -- C. R. Lawton

Where do I find this crap?

Tom and I ..snarfed.. a giant pile of jokes & quotes from Mike Fryd's joke program running on CMU's TOPSA.ARPA in 1985. As a graduate student in the 80's, Mike Fryd wrote a phototypsetting language called SCRIBE, and then, if I recall correctly, sold for a nice chunk and apparently became some kind of beach bum in Florida.

I've been dragging the stolen joke collection around with me in a file called yukko.dat ever since. It seems to have a different lineage than fortune, and is a nostalgic relic from the CMU Tops-20 culture, so this weird file of old jokes is special to me. joke is the first program I write in any new programming language that I learn, since it exercises primitive string operators, file I/O, and calling a decent random number generator.

Mike Fryd also has the distinction of having participated in the CMU bboard thread where the smiley was invented. Although, unfortunately for the purposes of this post, he was not the one to invent it. :-(

January 11, 2007

Typing Trumps Pointing

Windows Vista's main navigational mode from the Start menu relies on typing, not pointing:

Google was right all along. It's not quite a command line renaissance, but it is an implied victory of textual search over traditional point-and-click desktop GUI metaphors. Typing trumps pointing. There's far too much content in the world-- and even on your local computer-- for browsing and pointing to work reliably as a navigation scheme today. Keyboard, text and search are the new bedrock navigation schemes for the 21st century.

From Coding Horror.

Appropriate Discoverability

95% of SEO is getting the basics right: title, meta, h1 h2, link anchor text, sane url structure, and so forth. That stuff still matters and it's amazing how so many businesses with tons of content don't do it.

I have a little rant that I give the folks who run online newspapers about SEO.

Newspapers actually pay writers to go to restaurants and eat food. Of course they're supposed to write a review of the place afterwards.

They have thousands of these reviews, often going back years, for every restaurant of note in the newspaper's market. For major restaurants, there may be multiple reviews.

Yet if you go to Google and type in any restaurant name, you're not likely to ever come across a newspaper restaurant review in the results. Yahoo local, yelp, chefmoz (heh), zagat's, chowhound, jatbar. The only newspaper I found was Dan Pulcrano's Metroactive, which is doing a pretty good job of getting their reviews in front of the searches in the Bay Area.

These would be very valuable pageviews to be getting. Adsense could do $10-30 CPM on these landings. Not to mention the value to the newspaper to hold on to a claim of authority for restaurant reviews in their area.

Newspapers also pay writers to go watch movies. When the movie is later released on DVD, they pay writers to rent the DVD and watch it. And write reviews. Yet again, if you type any movie name into Google, there are no newspaper results.

For a major newspaper chain, across the multiple properties they have, and given the separate reviews often written for the theater release and DVD release, they may have a number of individual reviews for the same movie. Enough to create a whole mini IMDB with a stack of editorial around each movie. If they organized the content right and got it indexed properly.

Again, these are very valuable pageviews. But they're being claimed by Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes, and other aggregators.

Here's a third example. Who best knows about all of the garage sales in your town this Saturday? The newspaper... But I'll bet if you type 'your town garage sales' into Google you're going to see other people there besides your local newspaper. Even though the newspaper has the most comprehensive list of upcoming garage sales.

SEO continues to have some dark connotations from its spammy past and the aggressive tactics it sometimes uses. But there are really three levels of SEO:

  1. Inappropriate discoverability. You've got something that should be findable, but for technical reasons your content is either not indexed or not ranked appropriately.

  2. Appropriate discoverability. Your content shows up for the right searches, in the right rank. If a human editor at Google were to review your rankings, they'd agree that it was appropriate.

  3. Inappropriate discoverability. You're ranking for terms for which you have no business ranking for, or the position within the results is out-of-whack with what a human reviewer would deem appropriate. Affiliates showing up ahead of the main company, content-generated spam farms ranking for random queries, etc.

Newspapers have a lot of great content, really high quality stufff that cost them a lot of money to develop. Users would love to come across this content, when appropriate. Google would even like to help users find that content, since the users will be happier. But often technical best practices aren't being followed with the CMS and the valuable content fields lie fallow.

Todd Friesen:

It still shocks me to be on a call with a client or a potential client and to talk about the 95% and get that "wow" reaction. 99% of the online world does not know what we do and more importantly does not know what we know. To them it's rocket science and when we show them results in a month they happily pay their bill and get back to doing what they do best - which, quite often, feels like rocket science to me though I'm sure they think it's easy.

We do a fair bit of SEO at Range and we recently have a great success story that involved online revenue moving from 6 figures a year to 7 figures a year (and I don't mean from 9M to 10M). Most of that campaign was the fundamentals that weren't in place prior to our involvements. We fixed Titles and Metas, URLs, ALTs, internal linking and did some external linking work. We also rewrote thousands of pages of content. Go ask the CMO what we did and you may hear terms like rocket science and magic and to that CMO it is rocket science with a huge payoff in revenue.

Anchor text not limited to the anchor

I tried a search for 'google third age' and this came up:

Now that's an odd snippet. It's not from my document, it's from Stanley Wong's reference to my post:

I just read Rick Skrenta’s great blog post,
Winner-Take-All: Google and the Third Age of Computing

Rick is right on the money with a lot of his observations, especially the fact that Google has built their huge lead on the backs of the Search and Advertising dominance.

Why did that snippet come up instead of one from my document? I think it's because 'third age' doesn't actually appear in the body of my blog post. But why not just show the beginning of the post? Maybe the little blockquote table with IBM and Microsoft and the dates threw it off? Hmmm.

If I search for 'google insect overlords' I get the appropriate snippets from the body of my post:

So it looks like Google hasn't just added the text within the anchor href to the target document index material, it has gone quite a bit outside of the anchor to pull in surrounding text, and added that as well.

index material for a page =
    text on page + anchors to page + relevant text surrounding anchors

This could boost relevance in cases where anchors aren't optimally formed from the point of view of the search engine, but sufficient confidence can be gained that the nearby text is relevant to the link. e.g.: "The text for the U.S. Constitution can be found here." Clearly 'here' is not very valuable anchor text, but "U.S. Constitution" is tantalizingly close...

This isn't just for snippet purposes, words from that extended snippet/anchor work on the query side. "rick's great blog post" turns up my post, even though 'rick' doesn't appear in the link proper or anywhere on my site (I go by 'Rich', not 'Rick').

Maybe Google has been doing this for a while but I've never noticed it before. It could certainly lend a whole new angle to Googlebombing, if you can not only spike the searches for someone, but actually write their site's snippets for some queries. :-)

January 12, 2007

Over-Communicate

At AOL I learned a management dictum: "Over-communicate". The idea was that lack of communication caused all manner of ills, and if you didn't take it for granted that everyone knew what was was going on, that everyone knew what you knew, then you would tell them, and thus avoid problems that would otherwise occur. Pick up the phone, send an email, and avoid a project trainwreck.

I've been thinking about how blogging is such a scalable communication tool. The dynamics of the blog mean that you don't necessarily have to meet with everyone to establish the common frame-of-reference that's so handy for effective communication.

I'm sure all of Fred's portfolio CEOs read his blog so they know what's on his mind. They don't have to have a lunch or a call with him to cover that background stuff. And when they do meet in person, the meeting will be more productive, since they'll have had time to think about what he's been writing about.

Jason's another blogger I can't stop myself from reading. I first directly encountered Jason several years ago when he flamed me in the comments on Battelle's blog, claiming Topix had blacklisted Weblogsinc from our crawl. I thought we were headed for our first PR disaster. Who was this guy? Who is Weblogsinc? Why did we blacklist them?

Jason and I chatted on the phone and it was all straightened out. And I started reading his blog.

When I see Jason post stuff like this I have to stop for a second. It seems new, this idea that you broadcast everything in your head and there is a net win. It seems to work for him. How generalizable is that, though? When does it work, when doesn't it work? Hmmm.

Today is the one-month anniversary of my blog. I'm still trying to get my style and rhythm and voice down. So far it's been pretty rewarding. I'm sure you'll let me know how I'm doing. :-)

I can't draw

But I do anyway!

January 14, 2007

The programmer productivity front

Programming Language
Operating System
Cluster/Grid     <--- you are here
Knowledge Base
AI
I looked at inbound traffic for a recent post and was surprised to see programming.reddit.com at the top of the list. I knew about Reddit before but not this sub-reddit. I checked it out and the articles were geeky-cool (for a programmer). But after a few days of reading I started to get an uneasy feeling about the place.

What was all this fretting about why nobody uses Lisp or functional languages? Haskell, ML, yikes. I felt like I'd been teleported back in time to my college days. Maybe this was an east-coast vs. west-coast thing? Reddit is in that Boston/MIT corridor, Paul Graham talks about Lisp all the time, are they really still worried about this stuff?

Language? Bah. The action is in the frontier after the OS.

Don't get me wrong, I love programming languages, and I have a soft spot for language design. I tried (and failed) to design a new language early in my career. I even have a collection of books about historical programming language design. I've seen huge productivity wins with better programming abstractions, and sure, picking nonconventional choices can often give you a leg-up over the competition.

Picking a language isn't just a personal choice though. It has to be tempered by the realities of how mature the platform is, whether you can hire people who will want to work in your language, how appealing your tech platform will appear to partners, investors, acquirers... Yahoo Shopping isn't written in Lisp anymore, they rewrote it. Of course.

But the productivity and development problems that I see building search and web apps just aren't happening at the language statement level.

Language statements generally live inside a program process. But coordinating all the pieces of communicating software across a modest 500-node application like Topix is a bitch, though.

I want a fast scratchpad for my 50 front-ends to be able to share, kind of like sys V shared memory, but networked. I want get, put, append, tail, queue, dequeue, infinitely scalable across some RAID-ish cluster. Billions of keys, petabytes of data, if I get something a zillion times a second from all the front ends it should adapt so it can serve that fast, but migrate stuff I never get to slower storage. Everything should be redundant, fault-tolerant, self-repairing and administratively scalable.

You end up building some version of this every time you make an eBay, Second Life, Hotmail, Bloglines, AIM, Google, Inktomi, Webfountain, Facebook, Flickr, Paypal, Youtube.

A zillion machines, a zillion concurrent connections, a big mess of data, never lose any of it, never go down, oh and the SLA is never take longer than 50ms to do anything. And be simple and fun to program on top of so the programmers can work on the actual app instead of spending all their time firefighting the cluster support layer.

We all keep cobbling together solutions for whatever app we happen to be writing out of ad-hoc clustered RDBMs, Reiser, Berkeley DBs, piles of coordination code and scripted admin.

Language innovations like Ruby are great, especially when they get some traction and acceptance so that you actually could use them if you wanted to. But all of the recent languages that get use have come out of individual eccentrics. They're incremental aesthetic exercises. They're also all more alike than different. Language innovation is basically done, and mostly has been for a long time.

Machine-level OS research died too, probably sometime in the 90's. Rob Pike, one of the inventors of Unix, put out a paper in 2000 called "Systems Software Research is Irrelevant."

Systems software research has become a sideline to the excitement in the computing industry...

Ironically, at a time when computing is almost the definition of innovation, research in both software and hardware at universities and much of industry is becoming insular, ossified and irrelevant...

What is Systems Research these days? Web caches, web servers, file systems, network packet delays, all that stuff. Performance, peripherals, and applications, but not kernels or even user-level applications.

Now after Pike wrote that he left Bell Labs and went to work at Google.

Of course. Google is doing more cluster OS research than anyone right now. You could argue that Google's technology success owes more to the block & tackle work of managing 500,000 servers than to little algorithms that power search and ad targeting. GFS, Map/Reduce, BigTable.

A smart researcher can write an ad targeting algorithm or some pagerank variant in a weekend. It's relatively easy to think up new algorithms; implementing them and getting them to run, especially for web-scale problems, is the hard part. Without the platform to develop and deploy against, it's like you're writing code on paper waiting for the computer to be invented so you can run your program.

It's too bad there isn't a standard platform for all this stuff, so we wouldn't all have to stop and write a new custom version every time we want to code something that will need more than a single machine to run on.

Peculiar distribution and economic dynamics -- giving the source to Unix away to universities -- lead to the entire industry eventually standardizing on the C/Unix/posix syscall OS model. GNU and Linux helped vastly here by obliterating the stranglehold that AT&T held over the technology, which was holding adoption back. New languages get scale by being free, so they can get critical adoption mass, bake their platform to maturity, and become viable, become socially acceptable by pragmatic users.

But we don't need a clone of SYSV or a free C compiler or a dynamic language with socially-acceptable syntax now. We need an industrial strength, hyper scalable cluster OS.

The problem is that the kind of eccentrics that gave us Unix, GNU, Linux, Perl, Ruby, aren't likely to be able to deliver here. Who has 500 machines in their garage and a million pageviews/day as a personal thorn in their side? Only companies have these problems, and when companies build a platform to solve the problem, the platform isn't general, and it's not given away.

Hmmm.

January 16, 2007

Referer Rankology

I started this blog last month. I figured there was no point writing a blog that nobody reads, so I set about getting some initial readers. I tried to write a couple of ..interesting.. posts to establish this base. I figured my daily observations would be as good as the next blog's (although now I see that it's harder than it looks, though it is rewarding). I decided on a format which interspersed little eccentric, personal items to give breaks between the longer essays full of harder-to-digest industry analysis.

My first few major posts did pretty well, but the third one was the real zinger. It got quite a bit of pickup, including lots of link love, ranking #1 on Techmeme, being Slashdotted, and resulting in a few reporters calling me. So what's that worth? Here's the tally.

The post directly received about 20k total hits so far (not counting RSS reads or reads from my homepage), linked from about 500 unique domains. The top 15 inbound referers were:

2836  slashdot.org
958  reddit.com
826  stumbleupon.com
619  del.icio.us
439  google reader
424  groklaw.net
419  techmeme.com
372  blogs.zdnet.com
368  battellemedia.com
324  arstechnica.com
303  gigaom.com
277  valleywag.com
263  bloglines.com
174  newsgator.com
159  dnjournal.com

I didn't rank equally on all of these sites, so it's not a completely apples-to-apples comparison. But still the relative ranks are interesting, since there are some new names sending strong traffic. StumbleUpon looks like it's going to be a winner. Other mentions of StumbleUpon that I've seen in the blogosphere suggest that it's growing like a weed, and is sending strong traffic to featured sites.

This post has also received 179 del.ico.us bookmarks, compared with 344 for my previous bell-ringer post about Google in 2004. The archives do indeed turn out to be worth more than the homepage. Even for my month-old blog, most of the action is in refers to the archived posts, as opposed to readers of the front page.

For reference, my total readership for month one is approx 350k visits for my 40-odd posts. There appear to be approx 1,000 regular weekly readers here after a month, based on measurements of posts with an image which I could track independently of readership medium. This gives a total conversion rate of about 0.3%. Ouch. Converting linkbait hits to readers is hard.

Update: Wait, that's not right. I had the wrong option to my script. I've had a total of 20k inbound referers, out of 60k total visits. Not 350k. This gives a trial-to-reader conversion rate of about 5%. That's not too bad.

Attack Products

Whether invading countries or markets, the first wave of troops to see battle are the commandos... Commandos parachute behind enemy lines or quietly crawl ashore at night. A start-up's biggest advantage is speed, and speed is what commandos live for. They work hard, fast, and cheap, though often with a low level of professionalism, which is okay, too, because professionalism is expensive. Their job is to do lots of damage with surprise and teamwork, establishing a beachhead before the enemy is even aware that they exist. Ideally, they do this by building the prototype of a product that is so creative, so exactly correct for its purpose that by its very existence it leads to the destruction of other products. They make creativity a destructive act. more...

    -- Accidental Empires by Robert X. Cringely

I was thinking about this in the context of Yahoo and Microsoft's competition with Google on search, compared with Steve Jobs and the dazzling launch of the iPhone.

On one hand you have essentially copycat search products which, while perhaps competently implemented, haven't significantly innovated the space or gained back any market share.

On the other hand, the iPhone's design is so dazzling that it's left designers worldwide gaping in open-mouthed awe.

Mike Davidson:

There are so many things to say about this iPhone that it's hard to know where to start. To me, the single most impressive thing about it is that, like a lot of Apple products but specifically this one, there is no other company in the world capable of inventing it. How many times do you see a new product come out and you think "Damn, I wish I would have thought of that!"

The iPhone is no such product.

You couldn't think of it, and even if you did, your finished product would be a godamned fingerpainting compared to this. It is so fulfilling to watch technology unfold like this, in the hands of the most indispensable and world-changing CEO of our lifetime. It makes all other work you may be doing in the technology world seem like peanuts.

When Apple says they are five years ahead of every other phone on the market with this offering, they are being conservative.

Jeffry Friedl:

Motorola has been around for a long time... has it never learned anything about designing a product for humans to use? ...

I watched the introduction of Apple's iPhone today ... and was astounded, not that the iPhone seems to have such a great user-interface design (although it does), but that it's so great in the face of a history of moronic phone design.

This isn't just a slick PR machine success. This is a genuinely stunning product, something "that is so creative, so exactly correct for its purpose that by its very existence it leads to the destruction of other products." How do you ship something so great it leaves the top people in the field awestruck?

How is it possible that Steve Jobs runs big, old Apple like a lean startup? And not just any average startup, but a kick-down-the-doors successful one. Repeatably, too!

This usually gets chalked up to the cult of the genius. Sure Jobs is a genius, but management theory is all about getting good results out of large groups of people with varying talents. And Jobs doesn't have a monopoly on all the smart people in the valley. If you're in charge of managing product development somewhere, isn't there some playbook (something like The Innovator's Dilemma) for how to organize your team to more reliably ship devastatingly effective, innovative products instead of me-too, committee-designed clone exercises that fail to achieve their goals?

Cave Man Programmer

I sometimes feel like some kind of cave man programmer. Frozen in ice sometime after the 6502 assembly era, thawed out in the post-OO LAMP age. There's lots of new stuff. Some of it good. Why am I so damned cranky?

Some aspects of the modern world delight. I discovered Applied Cryptography with glee; like a box containing a lighter, sharp knife, flashlight, mirror, binoculars, and a compass, the usefulness of the tools in that book immediately leapt out at me. Far beyond the security domain, knowing how to do protocol analysis, use MD5/SHA, decent RNGs, salts, Diffie-Hellman, stream ciphers and the like seem like essential tools. Does everyone learn this stuff as core CS in school now? I certainly hope so.

I search for an analogous "Applied AI" to no avail. Some algorithms seem promising, but instead of sharp knives and binoculars there are only plastic toys. Useless Bayesian 85% A/B classifiers that require tons of training data, only good for writing papers, but not actual code.

Entire chattering research volumes of nonsense, tautologically proving nothing very interesting, because if the books knew how to do what their titles suggested, we'd all be a lot further along with this stuff.

The damned book I want hasn't been written yet. I should have stayed frozen longer.

January 17, 2007

Speculative Fiction

Fred Vogelstein of Wired has a fascinating account about Yahoo's decision not to buy Google, and their choice to purchase Inktomi/Overture instead and go it themselves:

"Five billion dollars, 7 billion, 10 billion. I don't know what they're really worth -- and you don't either," he told his staff. "There's no fucking way we're going to do this!"

Semel could talk tough because he had a backup plan. Yahoo would go out and buy its own top-notch search engine and its own search-advertising technology, and it would beat Google in the emerging arena of little text ads that pop up next to search results.
    -- "How Yahoo Blew It", by Fred Vogelstein

Office discussion ensues...

Mike:

Of course, if Yahoo had bought Google, they would have killed it. Google wouldn't be Google today in that scenario, they'd look more like Intkomi or Overture.

Rich:

Yes, the tyranny of the linear time continuum. We can never really know what things would have looked like if they had paid the $5B. But, since most big acquisitions wreck both companies, it probably wouldn't have come out too well.

Chris joins in. Paraphrasing:

The $5B meeting that Semel rejected is a journalistic device. Someone needs to be to blame for Yahoo's mess; it might as well be the CEO. And if you can find a smoking gun meeting, so much the better -- regardless of whether that particular choice really was an actual decision point for them. The overall truth that we valley techies believe -- that culturally Yahoo chose the wrong road, pursuing media over technology, is still true.

Chris, not finished, cranked up the what-if ray further:

Although, if Yahoo had bought Google, thus killing it, there would be no Google today to make Yahoo look so bad by comparison. There would just be the regular industry mess we had before. People would still think Yahoo was cool. They should have bought Google, not to capitalize on its potential growth or technology, but to take out a dangerous competitor. The move would have succeeded, regardless of whether they integrated it well, or completely fucked it up.

The thing is, the real mistake here was not buying Google sooner. Yahoo was seriously late to the party in 2002. Heck, I tried to buy Google for AOL in 1999. I had no authority, having only been at AOL 2 months after the acquisition of NewHoo. Dave Beckwith, VP of Search at Netscape and I visited Larry and Sergey in their Menlo Park garage headquarters. Dave was being cagey so I asked Larry flat out -- how much? Larry's reply: "You don't understand. We don't want to just get rich ourselves. We want to make our family and friends rich too." Cool. Of course AOL would have killed them.

Jim Lanzone of Ask Jeeves also tried to buy Google, but the $1B ask was too high. Overture tried to buy them and was rebuffed. There seems to have been a long line of folks in 1999-2000 who recognized Google's value, but couldn't justify the price then.

Yahoo's stock was higher in 1999-2000, and Google only cost $1B. Two years later, Yahoo was down and Google's price had shot up. It was too late.

January 18, 2007

Yahoo World Explorer: geosurf hyperlocal with photos

Yahoo Research Berkeley has launched World Explorer, a cool little app that lets you type in a location and browse geotagged photos from Flickr. Here are some from Palo Alto centered over Google. :-)

The blog philosophers

Blake's blog: career, management and life philosophy, via kitchen utensils:

Job descriptions are evil. Though they serve a purpose in the grand scheme and organizational hierarchy of large companies, in the end they harm the long term growth of the employee. They are debilitating because they train us to focus on coloring within the lines, and never ask us to look outside for ways in which we can add value. We are trained to just multi-task on the job, but never multi-task our jobs.

Blake's got some very cool bay area restaurant reviews too. Worth a read.

But I hope this doesn't progress as far down the rabbit hole as Phillip Eby has... Phil is a well-known python programmer who seems to be morphing into some kind of new-age guru via his blog. He has a book, motivational seminars, the whole works. I actually like his stuff, in appropriate doses. The Multiple Self really weirded me out...but you gotta be careful when you start trying to hack your own brain...

:-)

Platform Shrugged

I think a lot of people have been willing to give Semel and the whole "Yahoo as a media company" so much space over the years because of its sheer size. SEM only got mainstream attention in the past 2 years, so now everyone realizes what many of us realized since 2002: Overture was a shambles.

What some of us formerly speculated about, has become more obvious: Semel, and others who shy away from technology, don't add value to a company like Yahoo. Platform and technology issues aren't trivial, obviously. Hands must be gotten dirty, even in the top jobs.

      -- Andrew Goodman (in the comments)

Andrew's previous comments on media vs. technology, from 2004, were prescient.

January 19, 2007

Search isn't over

A number of commenters have interpreted my winner-takes-all post as saying that I don't think startups have a chance taking on Google. Not at all. My point was that Microsoft and Yahoo have the same chance as any startup at that game. Maybe more so, because of extra resources and distribution; but less so, because it's hard to innovate inside a big organization; I figure those about cancel each other out. But the big "incumbents" don't get a special pass to win.

Bill Burnham says that search startups are dead. His points are generally reasonable, but I think it's a mistake to write off the category again.

Search was written off as 'done' before, in 1998, but it wasn't. There is far more depth here, both on the technology front, as well as new markets, that has not yet been plumbed. Google has got a great business because they are focused, for the most part, on the some of the most interesting computing technology problems we'll face for the next 50 years. This is no shallow vein. It is not just advertising. Rich ore is yet to be mined....and Google will not own it all.

Giving in to Despair

I knew industry people on the east coast in the early 90's who thought the fledgling Internet was essentially doomed because AT&T was going to own it, once they got their act together and woke up to the opportunity. That sounds absurd, I know, but the thing is, that there were people who really did believe this, and based investment decisions around that idea, based personal career choices around it.

Later in Silicon Valley I met people who thought the growing Internet was essentially doomed because MSN was going to own it. Once Microsoft woke up to the opportunity, they would surely just eat the whole thing, and nobody could stop them. The valley really had a conditioned fear complex around Microsoft. Well the despair that leaked into their thinking compromised the quality of the decisions they made regarding how to approach the net -- for product development, investments, career choices.

Now I see the same kind of despair in the search space, thanks to Google. Heck, I've helped feed it. Is the despair appropriate? Should it be influencing your decisions about investments, product development, career? Should we all pack up and move off to clean tech, or the once-and-future enterprise 2.0, or nano or bio?

I'm amazed that new ventures are launched in mature industries like beverages, airlines, or toothpastes.

Or that such an innovative leap is possible in a mature space like cellphones and PDAs.

Now you have a rapidly changing field like software, algorithms, extraction, AI... plus the rapidly morphing social composition of the Internet, the evolving composition of the net's content... all this change makes for opportunity.

Google puts its pants on one leg at a time too

Young companies on hypergrowth trajectories seem to inevitably stumble. The painful exercise transforms the company; the free-wheeling culture is clamped down on, process and bureaucracy are instituted. Then more nimble competitors can scurry around them. Who knows if the big G will be able to escape this trial but it sure is a common pattern.

Organizations are difficult to scale. Management gets a smaller and smaller rudder for the growing boat. Turning fast was a luxury of youth.

One of their current best practices, a strategy that seemed great in 2002-2003, such as red-zone hiring rates, 20% time, or vast build-outs of infrastructure, could bring significant challenges later.

Don't get me wrong, I believe Google is a fantastic company, as anyone who has read my posts knows. But to bet against the search startup space is equivalent to betting that Google is going to bat 1000. And nobody ever bats 1000.

"When Being a Verb is Not Enough"

Google is building for a future they see but most of the rest of us don't.
      -- Cringely, in his latest article on PBS.org

January 22, 2007

Brain Cloud

Youtube is further proof that worse is better.

Lisp is a brilliant failure, by a bipolar student.

"My love for Lisp pretty much destroyed my career as a programmer."

Smalltalk, Lisp, Scheme, Eiffel, QNX, Pick, Ryze. These things share something in common.

To paraphrase Tony Hoare, premature commercialization is the root of all evil.

If you have something that depends on a network effect for success, and you decide to charge everyone money upfront, you won't get the uptake necessary for platform success. You won't create the large-scale network effect which would create your future market of customers.

So if you come up with some nifty new programming language, and want everyone to use it, don't immediately go start a company and try to sell the compiler. You have to give it away. Maybe you can bake some kind of upsell into the thing, maybe not. Same goes for operating systems, social networking platforms, whatever.

Another way of saying this is that you should trade revenue to get market share.

It's interesting that the computing platforms we use today seem to have come out of either academic distribution or a quasi hippy Berkeley culture. "Code should be free". If you go all capitalist on your platform innovation too early, it goes nowhere.

...

I was trying to research Dick Pick, of Pick Systems, the guy who built the database language, to find material for this post, but Google kept messing up my queries. You can't search on Dick Pick. You get all these hits for "Dick's pick's". I sat in a meeting once where Larry and Sergey explained why stemming was bad. They were right. They should have stuck with it.

January 23, 2007

What I'm reading


Foundations of Genetic Programming, Terascale Knowledge Acquisition, Introduction to Evolutionary Computing, The Ghost Map, Granta, The Oxford Handbook of Computational Linguistics, What Predicts Divorce?, The Blind Side, The Text Mining Handbook, Anticipatory Learning Classifier Systems, Memory-Based Language Processing, Scalable Optimization via Probabilistic Modeling, Foundations of Statistical Natural Language Processing, Blink, Universal Principles of Design, Genetic Programming IV.

(this mess was on my nightstand until last weekend, when I moved it to the floor so I could scan all the covers at once, and see my clock again)

Years ago I made a decision that if I ever was curious about a book, any book, and thought I might one day read at least a few chapters, I'd buy it. No questions. Ideas and knowledge are so hard to come by, but sometimes nearly infinitely valuable. Surmounting the barriers of time, motivation, and effort are hard; I might as well tempt myself by collecting a store of good bait.

It's worked well for me over the years. Novels and historical books get read linearly. Tech books get a random access scatter pattern where I basically try to follow some thread of interest throughout a collection of sources. I've currently got more technical books in the set than normal, since I was curious about whether AI had made any recent progress with web-scale datasets.

The divorce book has been causing me problems though. I bought that as a deep-dive from Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. One of Blink's chapters describes a psychologist, John Gottman, who can predict whether a married couple will get divorced within 6 years with 90% accuracy, based on watching a 15 minute videotaped interview of the couple. "That's amazing," I thought. "How on earth does he do that?" The details in Blink were sketchy.

So I bought Gottman's 500-page tome detailing his research, as well as related material about observing interactions and the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). I've even ordered FACS training software so I can try to learn to recognize the thousands of facial micro-expressions and what they mean. It seems like this would just be handy to know, in negotiation, or acting, or business, or life. (Try the smile test to see a little demo about what FACS is about).

I haven't gotten back to Blink yet because I'm still down in this sub-thread it spawned. It's been incredibly interesting, and I intend to blog about the whole business at some point. But in the meantime I have this book about divorce laying around. People see that and they instantly think they know why I have it. My mother-in-law spotted it and that's lead to all sorts of sideways glances.

I also had a book about how to own & operate your own bar sitting around. People would come over and ask my wife if I was thinking of leaving the technology industry and opening a bar. Good lord no. Foodservice and retail are the last things on earth I would get into. But there was the book in the restaurant supply store, and it had chapters like "How to know when your bartender is stealing from you" and I just couldn't resist.

Eyes work using a page fault mechanism. They're so good at it that you don't even notice.

You can only see at a high-resolution in a fairly small area, and even that has a big fat blind spot right exactly in the middle, but you still walk around thinking you have a ultra-high resolution panoramic view of everything. Why? Because your eyes move really fast, and, under ordinary circumstances, they are happy to jump instantly to wherever you need them to jump to. And your mind provides this really complete abstraction, providing you with the illusion of complete vision when all you really have is a very small area of high res vision, a large area of extremely low-res vision, and the ability to page-fault-in anything you want to see -- so quickly that you walk around all day thinking you have the whole picture projected internally in a little theatre in your brain.

      -- Joel Spolsky, the Big Picture

It's a stretch, but you can kind of look at knowledge acquisition through reading that way too. Your head is a fast index in RAM. You can page-fault in whatever you want to know about from the slower offline world of paper and ideas. But that's a slow, expensive integration process. It requires reading, understanding, even sleep.

It's not just about wanting to keep the reading machine from getting bogged down in useless drivel or dead-ends. It's about actively managing the reading-input queue, nearly at the paragraph level, just like an engineering product queue. I think, if I've got time to read 20 paragraphs of something now...should they all be from this book, or that book, or should I scan 5 and then focus a bit? Am I still getting useful yield out of this thread, or could the next 10 minutes be better spent skipping forward?

You might think that's kind of a scattershot approach, like maybe I just can't focus on anything long enough to pay significant attention to it or something. But I don't think that's it. I'm a coder, I can focus like a madman for hours. But I don't have infinite time. I just want to maximize my data input yield.

I have an uncle who is a university English professor, and I'm sure he'd spit his coffee out at my engineer's approach to reading. But I'm pretty passionate about learning stuff, and I get even more excited about making use of that learning to make new stuff. It works for me...

January 25, 2007

Knight News Challenge

I'm off to Miami to help judge the applications for the Knight Foundation's News Challenge grants for community media projects.

The Knight Foundation has launched a new competition that will award as much as $5 million in its first year in community news projects that best use the digital world to connect people to the real world.

If the quality of entries warrant it, the foundation may spend as much as $25 million during the next five years in the search for bold community news experiments.

They got about a zillion applications...I spent the last 24 hours reading grant proposals...

January 26, 2007

The joy of the hack

A reporter just called me and wanted to talk about my virus, Elk Cloner, that I wrote back in 1982, when I was in the 9th grade. Apparently it's the 25th anniversary of the virus and since I wrote the first one she wanted my thoughts.

First thought: "25 years? Aaaah I'm old!"

Fortunately I still regularly get the feeling I had back when I wrote cloner.

"Why did I do it", she asked. "Was it malicious?"

No, not malicious. It was a practical joke combined with a hack. A wonderful hack.

Back then nothing was networked. We had these computers in a lab, and there was software for them on floppy disks. You stick in the disk and run the software. Simple.

The aha moment was when I realized I could essentially get my program to move around by itself. I could give it its own motive force, by having it hide in the resident RAM of the machine between floppy changes, and hitching a ride onto the next floppy that would be inserted. Whoa. That would be cool.

Insight without implementation is worthless, so to work I went.

That aha feeling is the burst that let's you know you just had a really cool idea. The moment you realize a hack is possible. NewHoo was like that. How do we build a web directory with human labor if we have no money? There were elements in Topix too that made us giddy when we thought of them. The hack doesn't have to be code, it can be little business insights. Even groups of people and individuals have hacks.

The essence of the hack isn't just realizing you can use a system in a new, unexpected way. It's getting a disproportionate effect from your effort. It's catalyzing potential energy stored in the system.

And the hack often changes the whole world. The user-generated content model we developed with NewHoo is ubiquitous now; it was the main inspiration behind Wikipedia. Viruses and exploits are of course all too common. You can't put the genie back in the bottle.

The only consolation is that the genie would have gotten out anyway. But it's fun to be the first to let it out. :-)

January 27, 2007

Foggy view today

Foggy view today towards Redwood City. On a clear day you can see Hangar One, the old military dirigible station, at Moffett. Today you can barely see past the port.

Party Topix

I was on a long flight back from Miami and missed the Paidcontent mixer. Bah. At least Bob and Mike appear to have had fun. :-)

January 30, 2007

Topix Classified Network

Heh:

Stock analysts credited yesterday's gain [of Tribune Corp's stock] to the announcement that classifieds for general merchandise from Topix.net also would be posted on Newsday.com and other Tribune Web sites. The papers' ads also would appear on the Topix.net site.

via Newsday

This follows Topix's announcement yesterday of powering free listings across Tribune online newspaper properties.

Team Topix is at the Newspaper Association of America convetion in Vegas this week. If you're here, stop by our booth and say hi.

January 31, 2007

Eeny meeny, jelly beanie, the Polycom is about to speak

About January 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Skrentablog in January 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2006 is the previous archive.

February 2007 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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