Thursday, May 27, 2010

Yep, it really happened (just not quite the way I remembered it)

My visit to the Valley last month was a chance to look back at the dot-com Madness from a safe distance and even to appreciate what's become of some of the leftover pieces. Throughout the visit, one tale from those times kept coming to mind: Excite@Home buying online greeting card provider for two billion dollars, half of it in cold hard cash, even though it had never produced any revenue, much less profits.

Well, not quite. It was actually $350 million in cash and stock worth (at the time) another $430 million, for a total of $780 million. True, BlueMountain had indeed never turned a profit, its main product was free, it didn't advertise and the company was well-loved for not trying to "push related services on its users." Nonetheless, they did have some revenue (not sure how much) from a deal with an online florist.

So everything's true but the facts. Even if it was only $0.8 billion for a company with a little revenue, it still seems no less jaw-dropping.

Just under two years later, Excite@Home sold to American Greetings for $35 million in cash. Excite's spin: "For Excite@Home, the sale of maps our action plan to focus on broadband and to bolster our cash position and lower our operating costs." The next month, Excite@Home filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Its buildings on the 101 had steadily emptied out as the bills came due, and they stood empty for what seemed like forever before eventually turning into a medical center. Not the only time a pre-dot-com dinosaur snapped up a dot-com brand for a song. The purchase of eToys by Toys"R"Us comes to mind.

The excite brand lives on, though, having changed hands a few times. Wikipedia has the rundown on that.

Oh yeah: Not only did they buy BlueMountain for $780 million, they didn't buy Google for $750 thousand, forcing Sergey and Larry to neglect their studies and make a go of it on their own.

Now here's what you'd call a niche market

What happens when you combine social media with a highly successful crowdsourcing project? Well, from a ridiculously unrepresentative sample of one tweet, you get a pointer to a "very useful web site", Useful, I suppose, if you're the type of person that really needs to know how many people are in space right now, but somehow doesn't already know the answer (it doesn't change that often, and when it does, it's on the news).

Even then I have doubts. When I chased the link it was still showing 12 (6 on the ISS and 6 on STS-132), even though Atlantis had landed for the last time hours before. So our hypothetical seeker of space population data would still have had to look elsewhere for the truth.

[The site is still there ... and they now have an app.  At this writing, the number of people in space is: 6 --D.H. Dec 2015]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It's a whole Zooniverse now

Almost two years ago now (has it really been that long?), I learned about the Galaxy Zoo. At the time it looked like an interesting approach to try -- invite the general public to classify galaxies, a task which is
  • useful (to astronomers, at least)
  • reasonably easy for humans
  • not at all easily or well handled by computers
  • able to be split into millions of independent pieces
Given those characteristics, the original project had at least a chance of succeeding, and indeed it has succeeded handsomely. Last April, it announced the 60 millionth classification, and as a result of all this work it now has "an incredibly robust, well-defined and scientifically valid catalogue of Sloan Digital Sky Survey galaxies." It has also produced some significant results, with more in the pipeline.

Along with all that, it's given hundreds of thousands of people (myself included) a chance to participate in real scientific research and see the same images working astronomers see. If that's not a clear win I don't know what is, and it simply couldn't have happened without the web.

As it became clear how well things were working, a second project was launched, aimed at spotting supernovas, again with good results. That project has since been joined by others and the whole crowd has overflowed the original domain into the Zooniverse.

The latest addition, Moon Zoo, is aimed at classifying craters and other features in the heaps and heaps of data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The problem looks to fit all four criteria above and so have every bit as good a chance of success as its predecessors.

For a bonus, some lucky classifiers will run across human artifacts, from orbiters to footprints of astronauts. Take the resolution needed for that times the surface area of the moon and you've got some idea how ridiculously much data is involved.

Not every bright idea on the web makes a significant impact on the outside world, but some do. If you accept that basic research is significant to the world at large, then the Zooniverse has to rank as a major success story.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Back in real time

I've just finished publishing all the unpublished drafts that had accumulated over the past couple of weeks. Sorry about that. I had a few ideas I wanted to jot down but not enough time to finish them. The easiest way to do that is start the post and come back and finish it later. Generally I don't let weeks pass before getting back to it, so it's probably not too noticeable most times.

I'm curious how all this looks on FeedBurner. I would assume they appear as published, with somewhat confusing dates attached, but maybe they appear with the publication date. To be honest, I don't use FeedBurner myself, as I already have too much to read, but it does seem useful for at least some folks out there (and thanks again for that).

We now return to our regularly none-too-scheduled programming.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hey, it works!

I'm writing this at 30,000+ feet, thanks to onboard WiFi and, surprisingly enough, it's pretty good. I haven't tried streaming a movie, but for just browsing the web as I try to bring the blog back into real time* it seems to work as well as anywhere else. Given that not so long ago there was some controversy as to whether you could even bring a WiFi-enabled device onto a plane without causing it to spiral into the ground, that's a pretty quick about-face. I'd have said "pretty quick progress" but I'm still making up my mind on the "progress" part.

If, bless your heart, you're actually following this blog, check for posts from early May, which will be appearing now. Blogger dates posts by the time of first edit, not by time of completion.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Google chutzpah

Maybe there's something to this whole "long tail" thing after all.

Ad writer Alec Brownstein spends $1 each to become the top ad result on six searches. The searches are for the names of six hiring managers. The ads read "Hey so and so! Googling yourself is a lot of fun. So is hiring me." with a link to his home page. He gets four interviews and two job offers, one of which he accepts.

This seems like one of those ideas that's great if you're the first person to come up with it, not so great if you're one of a horde of copycats. Kind of like the Million Dollar Home Page. Still a neat hack, though.

Ok, this is a bit annoying

I'm at an airport (a lot of it going around lately) and they offer free wi-fi. I connect and bring up a web page. As usual, there's a page to accept the terms and conditions. Fine, par for the course.

Then there's a brief 30-second ad before my actual web page loads. OK, fine, an airport has to make a buck.

Then my web page loads. With a frame full of ads at the top. Oh come on.

Come to find out there's a banner full of ads at the top of every page that loads. Now that's just annoying.

Funny how my eye seems to have tuned out the top part of the page ...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The case of the strangely persistent kiosk

A couple of times I've wondered how there could still be internet kiosks in airports given that I'd never, ever seen anyone use them. My wonder was compounded somewhat when I ran across a new generation of kiosk, one that seemed tuned toward online gaming. That at least made some sense -- you'd have a full online experience, gaming included, for somewhere around the cost of pumping quarters into old-school arcade machines. Not that you see too many of those at an airport these days, either. But neither did I see anyone actually using those.

And then, voila, I saw two kiosks in use on the same day. At two different airports, even. One gentleman appeared to be watching music videos on YouTube (I didn't look all that closely). The other, on the newer model, was better shielded from public view so I have no idea. But maybe there is a market for the service, after all.

Or maybe it was just national "use an airport internet kiosk" day and I didn't get the memo. I haven't seen one in use since.  [Still haven't, as of 2015, or maybe once or twice.  Not sure there are even many such kiosks around any more]

Friday, May 7, 2010

Blogs on the BBC

[I'm writing this post considerably after the fact, as I chew through a pipeline of started-but-not-finished-until-weeks-later material. Nonetheless, now that I've finally read from top to bottom the piece I'd meant to comment on, I found I still had a comment or two. So here goes.]

The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones, who seems to have blatantly lifted my "figuring out the web" theme (how dare he?), blogs under the headline So was it an internet election? My first reaction was, "internet election?" that sounds so ... Blair era.

Mind, I haven't followed British politics closely for some time, so I hardly knew who Nick Clegg was until I heard the buzz about the televised debates. Hmm ... maybe that's not a good illustration ... let me put it this way: I still have my ceramic fridge-magnet-sized Spitting Image portraits of Messrs Major and Blair, which, back in their day, I would have loved to have stuck on my monitor except that they were about half again too heavy for the suction cup on the back.

But I digress.

Anyway, I was a bit surprised that there would be talk of an "internet election" in 2010. I'd have thought that email campaigns, mad bloggers, Twitter, Facebook and so forth would have been part of the scenery by now. Arguably the 2004 presidential election was the first major "internet election" in the US. Certainly by 2008 the major outlets were falling over each other to see who would be the most net-savvy (sorry, CNN, but a cheezy Max Headroom-style virtual Will.I.Am is not the way to web.cred). Going on the default assumption that the rest of the industrialized world is at least as wired as we are, I would have expected the same in the UK.

Which, actually, seems to be Cellan-Jones's point. Yes, social media etc. were a visible presence, and yes the major parties made the internet a significant part of their machinery, but really other factors loomed larger in determining the actual outcome:
So it wasn't an election won or lost by the internet, but nor was it untouched by the technology. New voters appeared to enjoy their first experience of an election campaign, and will now expect to engage with future elections via the web.
I like the way this guy thinks. Hang on while I add the not-so-disruptive technology tag [hmm ... judging by the dead links in several directions, this blog -- like so many -- was fairly short-lived --D.H. Dec 2015].

Really, it seems like more a matter of timing. The 2005 election may have been too early to really feel like "the internet election" and 2010 too late. Thus has fate robbed the British press of an easy sidebar. Ah well. In the event, 2010 looks to have been newsworthy enough without it.

Cameras everywhere

In the late 90s I worked in central London, near the Royal Courts of Justice. One day I looked up to see how many surveillance cameras I could count. It was at least a dozen, possibly two dozen.

Not all of them were safeguarding the Courts. They were stuck all over the place, on both public buildings and private. The intent was clearly not just to keep an eye on things, but also to make it abundantly clear that someone was doing so. Likewise in Oxford street, where the stated aim was to deter shoplifters and pickpockets (but not, so it seemed, shell games and sellers of counterfeit watches).

Surveillance cameras in major cities are not unusual, nor were they then, I'm sure, but the density of bristling, in-your-face obvious cameras seemed particularly high to me.

Fast forward back to the present and it seems like the rest of the world is catching up. One pattern I've noticed, in two different parts of the US, is a city adopting red light cameras at selected intersections (as far as I can tell), but sticking cameras on top of pretty much any piece of public infrastructure that will hold one.

As far as I can tell, most of the cameras are just webcams. The actual red-light cameras tend to be conspicuously big boxy affairs that flash a bright light when they nail someone. But for all a paranoid new driver in the area knows, they could be, and for that matter it doesn't seem a great feat of engineering to turn an ordinary webcam setup into a red-light camera.

Come to think of it, you wouldn't necessarily need any sophisticated software or full-time employees to monitor them. Just crowdsource it. Proud citizens of Anytown: Do you really want that new recreation center? Just stream the following URLs and click the "You're busted" button when you spot a transgression. Remember, every illegal left turn you spot brings us $X closer ...

Yikes. I should just stop typing now.

How did we get here, anyway? Is Big Brother taking over? Well, not exactly. It looks more like a combination of two pretty mundane factors:
  • People want to see what's going on.
  • Digital cameras and web connections are cheap and getting cheaper.
The limit is no longer technical, but what people will put up with. Interesting times, indeed.