SMXQ: Bernard Goldbach

Bernard Goldbach is a lecturer in Media at LIT – Clonmel. (Previously the south campus of the Tipperary Institute.) He is a noted early adopter in the Irish tech and social media scene. He was one of Ireland’s first ten bloggers and also one of the very first users of Twitter in the country. He can be found on Twitter: @topgold

1. Could you tell us about your background (where you’re from, what you’ve done)?

I grew up American in Pennsylvania Dutch country, living next to the Amish but learning the value of “work comes first” from a German-Irish-Russian family. The family motivated me to become the first person in three generations to go outside of the State for a college education and that decision pushed me into qualifying as a multi-engine instructor pilot. Over a 10-year period, I racked up more than 3500 flying hours and I only got shot at once. In the mid-90s, I flew into Ireland where I parked my plane and started flying a laptop.

2. What was your route into social media?

I entered a very traditional social network involving “ring knockers” inside the Washington DC beltway in the mid-80s. This circle of insiders uses a classified and encrypted form of social networking that predates Facebook. Working with that insider social network took the wind out of me. I waded into the waters of electronic social media
on the heels of a stinging personal episode involving the compromise of extremely sensitive personal data in the early 90s. Today, as a social media lecturer, I feel empowered to teach others how to avoid the pain I have felt when sensitive information creeps into the public domain.

I started on Compuserve as an assistant forum administrator of the education forum where I monitored predators in 1993. I grew up on e-mailing lists, including the original webmaster-shoptalk in 1997. I’ve been blocked, banned and served solicitors’ letters for my activity over the years and now live in a semi-reclusive part of Twitter. (Ed. Really?)

3. Tell us a little bit (if you can) about what you’re interested in or working on right now.

Augmented Reality and specifically Layars displayed on Android devices interest me. I also feel a special kinship to Limerick OpenCoffee and the dedication shown by early advocates, James Corbett and John Kennedy. I’ve always been mesmerised by pinpoints on maps and will continue working with geodetic services in every third level module that I teach at Limerick Institute of Technology.

4. What social media services do you use regularly and why?

I try to have all the social media services come to me so I’ve set up a series of special words, phrases and user activity levels to vibrate my phone when something happens. Those e-mail and lightweight text alerts listen to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Last.fm, Typepad, YouTube, Qik, Delicious, Boards.ie, Get Glue and the O2-Ireland forum. I gave up following public timelines and work with lists of people and clouds of words instead. I try to have my alerts point me to what I should be seeing so I can share the important stuff with others.

5. If you could only keep one service or tool, what would it be, and why have you chosen it?

I live with just one service – Ovi Maps – even when without a mobile data connection. Ovi Maps are social tools. You can find things on those electronic maps and make your way around foreign destinations without the worry of extortionate data charges. I’ve used my Nokia handsets to add comments to maps, to connect with people while on the road and to spend my time wisely at well-defined free and open wifi points. Once I learned how to cache my map data, I had a significant part of the Lazy Web in my pocket.

6. Including your own area of expertise, what developments in social media do you think are particularly important?

I believe we are starting to unravel the metadata and core processes that give greater meaning to the context of our online interactions. I hope the research continues and that I can enhance my online life through better contextual awareness.

7. What can you do now that you couldn’t do before the arrival of social media?

Through portable systems like Online Meeting Rooms, I can see and meet people I have never physically encountered. I can carry on a live and totally synchronous video conversation with several other people without connected to either power or data cables while walking the Golden Vale of Tipperary.

This capability still amazes me and more so because it has enabled me to rejoin conversations I left 30 years ago with other pilots. And when I turn off the video camera, I can toggle into spaces like Facebook and the Zoomr network where I can see photos and read snippets from people I last saw in the 70s.

8. What issues, either technical or social, do you see with social media?

Location-based services infringe upon privacy and that has to be controlled. I think there needs to be an “eject” lever that people can use in every social network they join. Executing the eject sequence should vaporise all remnants of one’s existence in the chosen online space. Also, I believe newcomers should be shown examples of the snarky behaviour that exists in many online communities. Some of the rudest, loudest, and most obnoxious people also serve as key gatekeepers in social networks where their personal agendas erode the quality of online engagement for others.

9. What one piece of advice would you give to someone entering the social media world?

Real-time search, an ability to search at the speed of thought, is emerging faster than we can imagine. And when that real-time search becomes a native skill of the online community, meaningful online collaboration should improve markedly.

10. How do you see social media helping and improving things for us in the future

Learn to listen first, then to converse regularly. Like a real-world community, a social network improves with interdependent contributions.

Analytics: Check, Crosscheck and Check Again

It is a great peculiarity that after more than twenty years of existence there is still so much we don’t know about how the web really works and what really goes on. A lot of the developments have been surprising. Even the people who were actually creating the original social media networks had very little clue as to the significance their work would have. For the most part they thought they were doing something cool even if neither did they nor anyone else really understood what they were doing.

The ad hoc informality and general mashableness is one of the the Web’s greatest charms and is of course without doubt allows for all kinds of permutations and possibilities that permit the cross-fertilization of ideas which is the essence of creativity.

All well and good, new ideas lead to creations and not only will there be new ideas born into the Web the Web itself as an environment will have to adapt and change to cater for the changes being wrought within.

With all these new developments and the rapid rate of change one can understand why it is so difficult to actually track data on the Web. None of the services, Google Analytics included, can offer anything like a comprehensive accounting of what happens to data on the Web. Data is only doing things. It is either moving from place to place or it’s not moving. If it is not moving then there we should be able to assume that we have a way of knowing where it is whether it is buried in a database, in an excel spreadsheet or hanging dreamily in the Cloud. If it is moving then we can at least know where it left from and where it arrived and perhaps register a few stops on the way.

Although all data packets are created equal some are more equal than others. One data packet may contain information more significant to a given user than another. For many web users significant information of knowing what is happening on their website in terms of visitors and viewers.

Without doubt the single most powerful tool out there for measuring the performance of one’s website is Google Analytics. It truly is a treasure chest but in a vitally it does not tell you everything you need to know. At Technology Voice it is easy to understand that we would take a very keen interest in how our site is performing and in the quality of the metrics that we use to measure how various articles and blogs are performing.

But quite frankly after three months of detailed examination of various statistics derived from various sources that the whole process of identifying what works and what doesn’t appears to be really nothing more than a black art.

We have learned to divine meaning by comparing aspects of Google Analytics’ comprehensive metrics with data provided more narrowly by bitly, tweetmeme, backtype and so on. Rarely do they tally. But they are inconsistent in a somewhat regular way and after a while it becomes quite easy to determine anomalies and account for them.

During our period of investigation we found that many, many people swear by Google Analytics and use it as their prime data informational tool when making decisions about how to improve their content and their site. That so many people are moving forward on using the same envelope of data may explain why so many sites are so samey and so very dull.

By only looking at one set of parameters instead of the whole picture we have a distorted view. Taking action on this distorted view leads to activities not entirely relevant to what the decision making parties intended, And with everyone using the same set of limited parameters websites across the net become distorted in the same way. Just a few minutes surfing will show the truth of this.

There is also other issues with gathering data without the use of proper checks and balances and the conflicts of interest that may arise for the user. Jenni Cullen from Statcounter says “We also find that our members like to have an independent verification of the stats on their site – many don’t consider it the best idea to rely on an advertiser they spend money with to tell them whether their advertising dollars are well spent or not.”

Our experience has been to double check everything. As great as Google Analytics and as tiresome it is to take the trouble it is extremely advisable to find the analytic apps that are more focused on the area you are looking at and compare results.

We would love to have on analytics tool that would do absolutely everything but given that all software is written by humans and all humans have biases then we probably have no choice but to constantly compare and contrast data and information.

Ireland and the Future of the Web

“Most people are not formally trained to use the Web, however it has assumed a central role in their lives.” (quote from Web Science event press release)

Whether we like it or not we have all been thrust onto the Web. It is an ever-present daily reality for most of us. Our formal introduction to this technology has been minimal for the most part. Very few of us started out by taking any classes. Our understanding of etiquette, what to share and not to share, knowing if a source of information is reputable, etc. came for most of us in an ad hoc manner.

To avoid the mistakes of the past there is a need for the current generation to be educated about the Web in school. How to use it to find reliable and correct information, how not to use it in terms of protecting privacy and also how to conduct oneself when online. There is also a need to make sure that a given individual does not sabotage their future by writing or posting something that will come back to haunt them later on.

There are also lessons that have been learned by more experienced users which need to be applied sensibly and advantageously for all. We need to share our knowledge. The future designers of the Web need to have an understanding of how we use it so that they can create better services so that users can fully understand both the consequences and the possibilities that the Web offers. Services need to be provided as learning opportunities in addition to merely solving a problem. It is not enough for some people to be smart about the Web. For it to fulfill its promise the Web has to work for all of us.

The Story Up Until Now

The technical structures of the Web were developed over 20 years ago but there is still precious little general understanding about how things actually happen, how it really works. The Web was mainly an information source when it first began but that changed in the last decade when most people started using the Web as a communications and sharing medium for social and professional reasons.Then five or six years ago social networks and social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., exploded onto the scene transforming how we share information in dramatic and interesting new ways.

The implications of using these services are still being discovered. Will lots of ‘liking’ something on Facebook lead to some smart type of Internet search using the combined recommendations of your friends? Does it allow companies to build up a picture of us so that they can better target advertisements at us? How important is this exactly and what are the implications for all of us?

Attempting to answer these questions are various scientists from different backgrounds and disciplines. They are trying to develop an understanding of how the Web works. An effort encompassed by the term Web Science.

They are trying to answer a variety of questions such as how does popular information bubble from the bottom to the top in an overload of status updates and homemade videos? Where does people’s attention go to on the Web every day? How can this be harnessed? How can service providers and businesses make sure their message or product is delivered to the right people without scaring them away? And how can someone easily access information relevant to their interests?

Where is The Web Going?

There are various efforts ongoing in parallel to make the Web better.  There’s a bunch of terms for the future Web: Web 3.0, the Semantic Web, the Mobile Web, the Real-Time Web, Social Media and the Social Web. But they are all just efforts towards improving what we have today – the Web.

We know that it is becoming harder and harder to find the right results when we search for something. The Web is overloaded with noise. Words have different meanings in different contexts, and relevant terms don’t always float to the top of a search result or a social stream.

All of us exist in a world constrained by the amount of time we can spend doing anything before we are obliged to do something else. Finding the right information quickly is extremely important. It can be extremely time consuming to skim through the wrong search results on a mobile device and extremely frustrating as well.

At the moment there are various efforts to either make the information on the Web more meaningful through what is called the Semantic Web and Linked Data. There are also attempts to derive meaning from what people are doing on the Web and in social media through ‘data scientists’ and information mining. If they are successful then it means we can then do the cool stuff like providing better recommendations, improving and enhancing search engine results, enabling joined-up views of information on certain topics across previously disconnected websites to name just a few possibilities.

Ireland is Leading the Way

Two thirds of our population can go online, and one third regularly use Facebook. In the past two years, our percentage of internet users has increased from 50% to 65%.

Ireland is at the forefront of future web developments through its combination of world class research and successful multinational / indigenous web companies in Ireland.

DERI at NUI Galway is the world’s largest web research institute. It has been contributing to the future web infrastructure from the West of Ireland for some years now. They are funded by Science Foundation Ireland, and Tim Berners-Lee is on the advisory board.

TSSG in Waterford IT are a leading R&D centre focussing on the telecommunications software industry. Clarity in UCD, DCU and Tyndall Cork is focussing on the sensor web. And there are various other research groups around the country.

Facebook and Google both have very successful operations here. Google Ireland recently announced 200 more jobs to add to their existing workforce of 1500. LinkedIn is coming to Dublin, EA Games to Galway, and more.

We also have various Irish web success stories, like StatCounter, ranked in the top 200 websites in the world; PollDaddy, HostelWorld, boards.ie and RTÉ all regularly feature in the top 5000 websites in the world.

The Immediate Future is Bright

No one can know what will come over the horizon but what we can see happening in front of us is very heartening.

With its highly educated population and its clear track record in Web innovation Ireland is clearly the key nexus in the design an co-creation of the next iterations of the Web. The next current and next generation of web users cannot be anything other than deeply influenced by the work that is taking place here.

Development and change can have chaotic and unpredictable consequences but as our experience grows with our willingness to pass on our knowledge to those that will follow we will be able to progress confidently into a much bigger much wider world than has existed before and be in a better to position to avail ourselves of opportunities as they arise.

Crowdsourcing: Getting Attention is the Key to getting the message out

It’s either ironic or admirably humble that an article in Wikipedia on crowdsourcing contains no reference to Wikipedia itself being one of the largest and most significant crowdsourcing project going on today. The entry itself claims that the word crowdsourcing is derived from ‘crowd’ and ‘outsourcing’ and first coined by Jeff Howe in this Wired article from June, 2006. Neither of them mention the term ‘wisdom of the crowds’ which was used by Francis Galton, a nineteenth century English polymath. He attended a local fair and noted that when other fair goers joined a competition to guess the weight of an ox the mean of the guesses was surprisingly accurate although no individuals were precisely right and some of the experts were really quite wrong.

But this conventional idea that a sample average is taken from a group or of people and assessed by others to formulate public opinion or design marketing programs may no longer have the relevance it once had.

Legacy media, the old style news and broadcasting mediums which are still in existence and still influential, no longer dominate the landscape of public thought in anything like the reach or depth they once did. However, the idea that there is such a thing as public opinion is still there along with the notion that it matters.

“How does the public agenda get set when most of the conversation is bottom up instead of top down?” is the question that Bernardo A. Huberman, Fang Wu both of the Social Computing Lab, HP Laboratories in Palo Alto ( Fang Wu has moved on since the report was written) and Daniel M. Romero from the Center for Applied Mathematics at Cornell University attempted to answer in their paper Crowdsourcing, Attention and Productivity.

Figuring out how and what bubbles to the top of the public agenda is a very important problem. Bernardo says, “Should we decide x,y or z about something? That about something is now getting very confused because grass roots movements though technology can have a huge sway.

“In the United States we have tea party movements and so on that are getting an immense amount of attention internally and externally. But it’s truly something we don’t understand; how is it out of all these chaotic conversations in Twitter, in Facebook, in blogs, in email and so on stuff bubbles all the way to the top? That to me is something that is going to be profound because eventually it’s going to start setting up the public agenda which is what society as a group, a community and an organization pays attention to.”

If you are going to examine the behaviour of crowds and mine their activities and opinions for data then it makes sense to go where the crowds are. Wikipedia, Digg, flickr are obvious contenders for examination as virtually all the material is provided voluntarily by contributors as and when they please with minimal restrictions. Huberman, Wu and Romero eventually settled on Youtube. There is a great deal of activity on the site. In May 2010 Youtube exceeded 2 billion views a day. At certain points it has accounted for about 10% of all traffic on the internet.

In April, 2008 The HP Labs team put together a dataset of almost 10 million videos which had been submitted by nearly 600,000 users. These were weighted accordingly to account for such factors as older videos having a greater amount of views and so on.

For topics to grow or even exist in the first place then content has to be provided. So what would be a major motivating factor to engage the time and effort to create a video? Since at the very basic levels of distribution where there is no financial reward or incentive then we can turn to considering attention as a possible primary driving force. After all why put anything up anywhere on Social Media if you don’t want people to see it?

In studying “the dynamic interplay between productivity and attention” it can be confirmed through experiment and evidence what most of us thought might have been true. “For those contributors who were active for a minimum number of periods, the more views they received in one period, the more videos they uploaded during the following period.” A virtuous cycle was created where the more attention a video received the more inclined the producer of the video was to produce more videos. It wasn’t down to what the contributor thought about their own video. They were motivated to produce more content because other people were giving their previous videos attention.

They also found the opposite to be true. People stopped uploading videos if attention declined relative to previous uploads. Without attention being paid to their product contributors ceased to upload them.

In the conclusion to the paper Bernardo Huberman, Daniel M. Romero and Fang Wu say the following “By analysing a massive data set from YouTube we have shown that the productivity exhibited in crowdsourcing exhibits a strong positive dependence on attention. Conversely, a lack of attention leads to a decrease in the number of videos uploaded and the consequent drop in productivity, which in many cases asymptotes to no uploads whatsoever.”

All this suggests a mechanism for ideas to bubble up through oceans of data and set the public agenda begins with contributors being rewarded by attention being given to their work, the subject of which could be shared beliefs of a political, financial or of any other nature. As more attention becomes centred on these ideas the more motivation the contributors have to create more product along the same lines and thus create more attention and so on.

Instead of an old style news editor sitting in their office deciding what hundreds of thousands of their readers are going to read about or what millions of viewers are going to watch on their televisions we now have random individuals coagulating around an idea and creating content simply because other people are willing to pay attention to it. Instead of the world being presented to us through the filters and ‘judgment’ of a relatively tiny amount of editors and their editorial teams we now have the world being shown to us by content creators who have managed, by whatever means, to bring attention to their work.

Using the Arduino: Turning Thinkers into Doers

The Arduino is a physical computer based on a microcontroller board that can be directly programmed from a regular computer using a USB cable and the Arduino development environment. It can sense and control the world around it and is enabling thousands and thousands of users worldwide to build almost anything they dream of, from a simply blinking LED to a plant that twitters when it needs water. This open-source electronics platform is giving individuals the ability to have control over things by accessing technology in a way that was never thought possible.

A previous article, Arduino: A Big Revolution in a Small Package, introduced and discussed the microcontroller, its accessibility, and the value of the huge community surrounding it. Projects that are constantly emerging from this huge online community show that the real potential of the Arduino lies in the notion that physical computers can be used to improve the quality of everyday life, from novelty tasks like using a wii nunchuck to control an espresso machine, to useful energy saving solutions such as a wireless electricity monitor.

The Arduino enables even complete beginners with no prior electronics or programming knowledge to hack, make, build and customise objects and environments to make things work better for themselves and others in their daily lives. Whether you want to program your television to turn on when you arrive home in the evening or remotely activate your home heating, it can allow you to do this. By making DIY projects like this easier than ever the Arduino has paved the way for a wave of makers and hobbyists to add interactivity to everyday objects and environments, simplifying or adding an element of fun to everyday tasks.

I was introduced to Arduino at college when doing a Masters in Interactive Media. My first project involved learning some basic soldering skills and creating a very basic circuit using a potentiometer to control an LED. I have since gotten an Arduino starter kit which comes with tutorials and everything you need for the projects like sensors, motors, buttons, switches and LEDs. There are also really useful online tutorials.

In jogo I used an Arduino to control an LED array which I built to act as a playhead that indicates the sequence of the notes playing in the sixteen steps of the concentric circles. This was left out of the final project for other reasons.

I had previously learned some Java and Actionscript so I already had a grasp of object-orientated programming which meant I didn’t find it to be a steep learning curve for me. Even so, one of the strengths of the Arduino system is the massive community that surrounds the project. One of the benefits of this community is having a massive library of examples and tutorials to learn from. Someone, somewhere, has more than likely done something similar to what you plan to do. For some projects you want to create you may not even have to start writing code from scratch.

With the Arduino, individuals, rather than businesses and institutions, can now make intelligent tools customised for their own particular needs. From DIY home alarm systems, to a robot that reads and speaks RSS feeds. The power is now in the hands of everyday people to have control over things in a way they only ever imagined was possible. Everyday objects and environments are becoming more and more embedded with computational power.

The technology of the Arduino and the community that surrounds it enables people to be doers, not just thinkers. Rather than sitting back and letting the technology that surrounds us have all the control, people are now using Arduino as a tool through which they can sense, control and automate things around them.

All that is required is an Arduino, a computer and your imagination. Access to the online community of hackers and makers would greatly assist DIY-ers of all skill levels. Inspiration and help can be found on the Arduino-Tutorials page, the Arduino Playground, Makezine and Instructables.

The possibilities are endless for amateur and expert enthusiasts to use Arduino to improve aspects of their daily lives or simply make things more fun. So whether you chose to make your sitting room furniture re-arrange itself according to your mood or remotely control your microwave to cook your porridge while you’re still in bed, you are only limited by your imagination.

From my own perspective the real benefit of the Arduino is that it is an accessible platform that allows me as an artist and designer to add interactivity to my work. Currently I am using Arduino to build sound based interactive pieces that aim to encourage playful and social interaction among both adults and children. My first project on this theme, jogo, was developed using a web camera. While this works perfectly, it is unfortunately restricted to being used in environments with controlled lighting. To overcome this I plan to use the Arduino to make a hardware version of this in the near future.

The pictures in the text are from an Arduino project that Emma and Loraine Clarke contributed to Tweak.
You can visit Emma at her website or follow her on twitter: @legolady

David H. Hansson from Basecamp: Starting Up in the ‘Real World’

David Heinemeier Hansson is one of the creators of Basecamp. It is a web-based application designed to help people share and coordinate the ongoing work they have to do on their projects. At Technology Voice we use it primarily to keep track of to-do lists and schedules, but also for other things such as shared document editing. Last year, David gave a talk at Future of Web Apps which is being held again in London in October, and we thought we would share some of our notes from his session.

Doing a startup in the real world

Something you often run into is this notion of the real world.  The real world is a pessimistic place, no good idea is going to change anything, and often is a phrase that is put to you in a negative way: “It wouldn’t really work in the real world”, “people are not going to pay/sign up/care for that”. The real world is full of only people, not individuals, not different kinds of groups. People don’t all think the same way, but that is how it is presented.  

The problem with the real world is that it is presented as if it has a monopoly on reality. Arguments aren’t fleshed out because of pre-existing assumptions that X won’t work in the real world. The real world can trigger all your worst fears – I’m going to fail, it’s going to fail, etc. The real world is a nasty term, and there are serious consequences for taking it at face value. Lots of people have been discouraged from trying things out because of the real world.

The first thing you have to do as an entrepreneur is ignore anything anyone claims as the real world unless properly evidenced. Even then double-check it for yourself. Living your life based on nothing more than what other people’s opinion is of what constitutes reality is insane. Don’t let the ‘real world’ govern your ability to succeed.

The formation of Basecamp

David had a real task and a real project called Basecamp which launched in 2004. It wasn’t supposed to work in the real world. There were only three people working on it in their spare time. David was the sole programmer.  There were all sorts of objections along the way as to why it couldn’t work:

  • Too simple.
  • Basecamp hardly does anything – message board, to-do list, calendar – what’s complicated about that?
  • Anybody could do it in their spare time.
  • People are already using Outlook.
  • Couldn’t work, too simple.

But guess what?

Simple things work

People like simple things simply because most people have simple problems. There is an endless list of simple devices solving simple problems which were utterly discounted by those purveying the conventional ideas of what works in the so-called real world.

For example (and there are so many of them), the first review on Slashdot by Cmdr Taco regarding the iPod said: “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame!” The  Flip camera was never a critical darling. Video recording – been around for ages. Innovative – all these big guys have it narrowed down. Quality – beaten on most counts. Yet, despite all real world rationalisations, someone puts a crappy video camera with one USB connection and it sells millions.

Too simple? Strong indicator it is going to work

Conventional thinking says you need a business plan to prepare for the future. Fact – nobody knows the future. Things go up, things go down, things you didn’t think would work! Companies too big to fail disappear from view. If a business plan had been a necessary prerequisite, Basecamp would never have been done. Plans rarely ever work: ask any general.  

If it involves writing it down, your business plan is probably too complex. That time is better spent doing rather than writing about it.

The power of no

The number one attribute to being able to make progress is the power to say no. No, not going to do this feature. No, not going to target this customer. “Basecamp within my firewall?” No, totally different business for that.  

Listen to your customers.  But sometimes you listen and say no. Doesn’t mean you have to say yes. If you will say yes automatically, why bother listening in the first place.

The ability to say no is the most treasured power an entrepreneur has at their disposal and they should use it often. David could not remember a no that he really regrets, but can name plenty of things he has said yes to that he regrets.

Trust your people

It is not about the talent. It is about the environment. “Hiring rock stars is a reckless way to run your business!” It is total nonsense. A much better and saner approach is to have a rock star environment. Let people be who they want to be.

Forget about company policies and all the arbitrary bureaucratic impediments to letting people express themselves as fully as possible. Most company policies are based on mistrust and fear. Assume employees are not crooks, liars or cheats (as per normal corporate policies). Of course, the downside to this sort of thinking can lead to crazy policies like “trusting people”. Well, I never. At Basecamp, all staff get a credit card linked to the company account. One rule: spend it wisely.  

The secret to a having a workplace filled with trust is to hire reasonable people in the first place.  

Easy

Easy isn’t easy to do – it’s pretty damn hard to do simple. It is more about you and your style and what you are trying to accomplish.

It’s easy to create something simple. How did we get an easy-to-use web application?  We chose to have a really simple domain because we wanted simple tools for simple needs.

Don’t be a startup: be a business

David despises the categorisation of startups as a separate business entity almost as much as he loathes the obstructive conceptualisations of conventional real-world thinking.  

People have being starting things since the beginning of time, and calling it a startup doesn’t pull you away from the fact you are creating a business.  

A great idea has to be worth enough to someone that they are willing to pay you for it. A great idea is not enough.  A great way to access the validity of your own business ideas is to ask yourself: “Would I want to pay for this?”, “Would I reach for my credit card?” The baseline thinking has to be that these ideas are going to come together as a business and you have to focus on it being a business from the get go.

Execute and persevere

Focus on execution and perserverance. Mediocre ideas with fantastic execution can be an awesome success. This is because ideas are almost worthless when it comes to creating a new business. But almost worthless is not the same as completely worthless. Have faith and patience in the ideas that you do come up with. Invest yourself! Invest your time and don’t listen to statements about the real world – you’ll be just fine.

Reality Will Provide: The Four Cs Of Journalism

Dave Marash, a proud possessor of a press card for the last fifty-one years, came to speak yesterday at the MA in Journalism speaker series at NUI Galway. The talk was comprehensive and wide reaching. But underlying every comment and observation was Dave’s belief in the truth, and our search for the truth as journalists, scientists, artists, and as ordinary citizens filled with curiosity for the world around as a fundamental force for good.

We excerpted a section from Dave’s talk and he has very kindly rounded it out into a mini-essay for us:

I’ve tried, for the convenience of students (and myself) to boil down ‘The Standards for Journalism’ to a simply-grasped formula: the 4 Cs: These are Correctness, Context, Clarity and Communication.

Correctness means getting it right. As the great ancestor of all of us journalists, Dr. Samuel Johnson put it: a story is of absolutely no value unless it be true. Hence, always be sure that what you think you see is what you did see. That what you think you know is in fact accurate. And, of course, the way to do that is to ask another question. And with every answer that you get, that seems to make sense to you, reality test it with the next person you question. “I’ve been told thus and so, do you agree?”, ad infinitum (or at least until deadline). The principle here is, everything you think you know, test it again, test it again, test it again.

Not for nothing has it always been a basic rule of reporting that nothing exists unless it is verified by a second source (and better if verified by three, four, many sources). The new information universe of billions of single voices is the antithesis of this. The greatness of the interactivity of the ever-more-sophisticated Internet is the wealth of information that it provides. The problem is that it disables almost every way to identify the source, much less verify the accuracy of information. This is why citizen journalism, which is a brilliant addition to the information universe, especially in areas where the “legacy media” have a history of state control or reporter-corruption, is neither the same as, nor a substitute for honorable journalism in the “Old Media”.

The thing about the Old Media and what distinguishes them from the single practitioner is that they have a greater range, because they have much greater resources. They can put one, twelve, twenty-five people on the story, if a story is complex and confusing. And they can afford not to blurt it out day by day. No, they refine and digest what they know and only when they think they finally understand it, do they publish or broadcast.

Because they are institutions, they have the budget to buy time, people, and when they function, journalistic results. But equally important, they are accountable: they have recognizable names, addresses and public identities staked to their credibility. If the New York Times gets a story wrong, it can be punished. But if someone with a cellphone and a masked identity has photoshopped a picture, or misdescribed what the picture seems to show – who’s to be held responsible, or even more basically, who’s to know?

This is a very important limitation of the world of citizen journalism.

Stories are more than what’s happening. Almost everything in the present tense has roots in the past, and aims at some goal in the future. This is Context. To understand the reality of a story, one must know its antecedents, its alternatives, its likely consequences. Interrogations about what’s in front of the reporter must also include questions about what’s behind the statement or event, and where the speaker or the perpetrator thinks he or she’s going. And again, single answers rarely suffice, and even tentative judgments must be repeatedly re-tested.

When we speak of technique, we speak of Clarity and Communication. Journalism is a communications medium. It’s no good if you know all but your consumers don’t get it. So your work must be clear. Your language must be colloquial, ordinary, everyday usage. Your sentences should be short, simple and direct.

If you have to deal with ambiguity or complexity, break the grand thought into its components, and spell it out in a series of short sentences. “On the one hand this. On the other hand that.” With a full stop in between. Makes it so much more digestible. Makes it so much more accessible.

So Clarity is the obvious bold-faced point in the standard of journalism.

Which brings us finally to Communication, and by Communication I mean penetration. Did reality as you proposed it really sink in? Will the story stay with the consumer until tomorrow. We all see and hear news broadcasts many times a day. I, myself am particularly “teflonized” against weather forecasting. Even when I want to know the weather, my brain will not engage. I hear it, but then, a minute later it’s like, “Oh, what did they say?”

In news, if your audience has to ask the “What did they say?” question, it doesn’t matter how clearly you stated it and how well you researched it and how accurately you reported it. Journalism forgotten is nullified. So the effect of communication must be sustained. Make sure that you frame a story, not just in clear language but memorable language. The picture or portrait you paint must be vivid. The argument you make must be not just logical, fair-minded and accurate, but accessible, engaging, enduring.

That’s Communication, and Communication like everything in life lives in time. If your Communications have too short a half-life they might as well never have lived.

An addendum: Our lives, like our stories and their subjects exist in time. Time is the essence of reality. Time is the essence of our lives. Time is the original zero-sum game. We all only have so much of it. And everything we do with our time preempts doing something else. The seduction of the Internet, and I am a guy who spends four to six hours almost every day in front of my computer screen, takes me away from something else. Generally speaking, time spent in virtual reality is time not spent in real reality. We are in danger of developing a generation that knows a lot virtually but has very little real experience. Whose virtual concepts never really get tested in real life. So a lot of bad concepts survive long after a genuine encounter with reality would have knocked them out. Time has become the critical issue for me in journalism.

Reporting complex reality takes time. Telling truths about reality takes time. Absorbing the products of journalism takes time. In the world of 24-hour news, rolling deadlines, instant analysis, the missing ingredient is time, and the missing outcomes are truth and understanding. This is true of the journalism produced by reporters who have barely landed in a place before they are rushed in front of a camera or microphone or keyboard. This is true of the reports which purport to inform in a minute or two. And most alarmingly, this is true of video reports in which the tempo of editing prevents any frame from being left before a viewer for enough time for it to be truly mined for information. These days, we rarely get truly to see any frame, much less to discern its many zones or levels of sigificance and action. And the frames themselves are not selected for what they can reveal, but for what they can proclaim in a rapid montage. Thus instead of images full of information, we are fed a string of images which are iconic, which is to say generic, and are good only for leading the viewer to a conclusion, absent of any evidence to support it.

In other words, the rapid fire of pre-digested images invites, permits no interactivity on the part of the viewer. Not for you at home to question a story and examine its elements. This sort of journalism, and the accompanying or pre-empting contributions of “experts” enforce passivity on the audience. They can accept or reject the arguments, but usually only on the basis of competitive rhetoric and not considered information.

There is a word for what’s happening to today’s journalism: I believe that word is “auto-lobotomy.” And I believe the prevention and the cure are Correctness, Context, Clarity, and Communication.

Predicting Box Office Returns using Twitter: Bernardo Huberman from HP Labs

Last week, Technology Voice spoke to Bernardo Huberman, Senior HP Fellow and Director of the Social Computing Lab at HP Labs. For the last two years, he and his colleagues have been focusing on the phenomenon of, in his words, “social attention”. Our world has exploded in terms of the amount of information that we have available to us. But like so many plentiful things, all this information has very little value. As Bernardo puts it, “ The only things in life that have value are the things that are scarce.”

One commodity that is very valuable because it is limited is our ability to give attention to the myriad potential distractions we face each day. Only so much time and energy is available to us to focus on anything. It is the competitive vying for our attention that has led to the constant bombardment from providers of goods and ideas with messages such as “look at me, consume me, buy me, watch me.” Spam is a great example.

Social attention is not measured from a perceptual or psychological point of view, as fascinating as that is, but from how certain things draw our attention as measured by the number of downloads of a given video, the amount of times an article is read, the number of things people discuss, and so on.

Bernardo says, “One interesting follow up of this was my conjecture that where attention goes usually it portends something and the money follows. So that’s why providers want a lot of attention to their content.

“So one thing we decided to do was to see whether or not we could actually predict something about the future by looking at how attention is allocated to certain things that are about to happen… How do people discuss forthcoming movies that are about to open and the rate which they tweet about them on Twitter? Could we come up with predictions about how well those movies were going to do at the box office?

“Now the reason I chose movies is because that is a very clean-cut example of something that you can measure. If I say to you I will predict certain things will happen and they are diffuse, then it is very hard. But [we can] predict the box office revenue at the end of the day or the end of the weekend… We know a number, that number’s public, how much that movie made.

“So, what we did, basically, we chose about 24 movies that were about to open. We followed the rate at which people were tweeting and we were able to – by calibrating to movies that had already opened and [we] saw the attention they were already getting on Twitter – we were able to come up with a fairly accurate prediction about how much money the movie was going to make.”

Bernardo and his team then compared their findings with the Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX). This is a site where people can buy stock on actors, movies, directors and other aspects of the movie industry. The HSX has a reputation for being a good predictor of box office revenue. The predictions of the HP Labs team worked so well that patents have been applied for and a business mechanism has been created.

The HP Labs team were also able to improve the quality of their forecast for the next week because now that people saw the movie, they were expressing feelings about whether they liked or disliked it, etc. With this feedback, they were able to fine tune and calibrate their predictive methods.

“It is obvious you can use this for other things. We know that it works for movies, you could do that for new products, new trends, and so on. So if you have a way of tapping a social medium, and that’s our idea, you [can] look at the way that attention is allocated to certain things – sometimes you can predict fairly accurately how certain things will happen.”

This predictive technology has very important implications for political as well as all sorts of other marketing campaigns. The work of Bernardo and his colleagues combined with the techniques of sentiment analysis offer a solution to the Provider’s Dilemma.

But there is still important research to be done using these techniques to inquire into aspects of other modern-day social phenomena. The public agenda is no longer being set by the ‘legacy media’. The power of old-school editors lay in dictating the news agenda by their choices as to what featured on the front pages of their newspapers or what the lead story of the main nightly newscast would be. But that ability to influence public debate is fading. The power for setting the terms of what constitutes public discussion is now dispersing from the few to the many.

Increasingly, our main topics of discussion that concern us as a society are what rise up from and through the various social mediums, but as yet no one has identified the mechanism by which this works.

As Bernardo says, “It’s truly something we don’t understand. How is it out of all these chaotic conversations in Twitter, in Facebook, in blogs, in e-mail, and so on, [does] stuff bubble all the way to the top.”

The answer to that question may have more profound implications than being able to create a more accurately-targeted advertising campaign.

The Virtual World of Gifted Kids [VIDEO]

Click on image to see the children interact with Gifted Kids Virtual World

At the Gaelscoil Eoghain uí Thuairisc in Carlow, Ireland where lessons are taught in Irish they are implementing the use of 3D technology for the learning support of gifted children. This is the first time that this technology has been used in Ireland to teach part of the school curriculum. The interactivity and detail of the 3D technology means that anything you can do or build in the real world can be replicated in this virtual world.

Gifted children who, at the most conservative estimate, make up 5% of the entire school population are taking part in a pilot programme devised by the school in conjunction with Irish software company Daynuv, and Giftedkids.ie, an association specifically set up to advocate for provisions to be made in the education system and elsewhere for the needs of gifted children.

Bríd Uí Mhaoluala, who runs the project for one hour every week in the school with the children helped to devise the pilot program. She has been working with gifted children for over ten years and she welcomes the lack of need for any real learning curve when initially engaging with the software. She says, “I’m not a computer whizz. I am the sort of person who presses the button without reading the instructions to see what this thing does. But if we can do it here any teacher can do it and that’s the most attractive thing about it, I think. It’s accessible to any teacher who wants to try it.”

She gave the children minimal instruction in how to get started and in a very short time they were way ahead of her in terms of understanding the capabilities of the software and their inventiveness in what they were able to create. The exceptional nature of gifted children, even within the educational community, can be the source of many problems as Brida explains, “Some teachers can be a little bit scared of exceptionally abled children and don’t want to admit that they don’t know how to do it but you need to pack your ego [away] and say, Right, you are going to get this more quickly than I did. You’re probably going to be better at this then I would. So run with it.”

James Corbett, co-founder of Daynuv (an Anglicisation of the Irish word ‘deanamh’ which means making,) a company that provides virtual worlds for education says, “It’s an open source platform called OpenSim which is an open source version of Second Life. What it does is give you a 3D space which, on first blush, looks like a gaming environment that you see on a console.

“It’s a 3D space, you have six degrees of movement, up and down, left and right and in and out of the space. But unlike a game it is not a pre-programmed environment it’s something you can decide exactly what you would like it to be.

“So, what the kids initially get from us is a clean slate, sixteen acres of land that they can terraform, build their own terrain. If they want to build mountains or valleys or rivers or lakes then they can build that. On top of that they can use building tools to build whatever they want. First and foremost it is a platform about building and constructing unlike a lot of console games which are about destructing. It’s…about collaborating.”

Margaret Keane is a strong supporter of the Gifted Kids Virtual World project. She runs Giftedkids.ie which describes itself as “An Online Survival Guide for Parents & Teachers of Gifted Children in Ireland.” It is specifically set up to advocate for provisions to be made in the education system and elsewhere for the needs of gifted children.

Margaret explains the original genesis of the idea, “We were looking for something that we could bring into the classroom because we were getting a lot of requests through the website saying, “We want to know what this information is, we want to know what the characteristics are. What do we need to to look out for? We have [children with] this range of special abilities and we don’t know how to support them.” So they’re looking for practical solutions.”

She met with James and it was agreed that there would be a certain kind of synergy in combining their efforts and Bríd became involved through her participation on the GiftedKids.ie forums.

Margaret says, “I was very excited by the fact that you can use this technology to support the entire curriculum. You can link to all sorts of learning objectives.”

But as important as it is to acquire knowledge and practical skills the Gifted Kids Virtual World technology also acts as a vital communications tool for the children when they are away from the school.

Margaret points out, “That’s where it really helped the social skills because a lot of these kids find it hard to find a peer group within their school or even within their classroom.”

With the inbuilt messaging capability the children can still participate in the Gifted Kids Virtual World from their homes and continue collaborating on the various projects they are working on together.

We made a short video and you can see and hear the children describe for themselves how they interact with both the application and each other. It is only six minutes long and is a testament to the power that 3D technology can have if properly applied.

The pilot programme is expanding and very soon 20 schools in total will be involved. The software is made freely available to schools but sponsors are needed to pay for server and administration costs. 3D technology has moved from the gaming console to the classroom and is facilitating the education of our gifted children. One can only imagine the possibilities if it were made available for all our children.

There is also a flythrough video of the 3D environment in Gifted Kids Virtual World available for viewing here.

Margaret and James would like to offer a special thanks to Social Entrepreneurs Ireland for their part in helping to make the Gifted Kids Virtual World project possible.

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Tweak: An Exhibition of Digital Artists and Interactive Designers

Tweak is taking place in Limerick at the moment and it goes on until the 24th of September. The exhibition celebrates contemporary art mediums such as computer coding, creative recycling, rewired sound sculptures and electronic art installations.

There are workshops for people with all levels of prorgamming skill. There are off-site exhibitions at other venues in Limerick in addition to the main one at the Church Gallery Space at the Limerick School of Art and Design. There is a Tweak Cinema event showing the best of contemporary films, both live action and animation which is on Saturday the 18th. There are live performances, a culture night, and a party to round it all off on Saturday the 25th. There is so much going on that we urge you to visit the Tweak.ie site and check the listings for yourself. There is something there for everyone. I am hoping to get back to see the twitter powered model cars in “Hard Driving.”

This is the third Tweak for Nora O’Murchu, the creative designer and curator of the event. She explained the thinking behind starting Tweak, “There is this emerging practice of artists who are appropriating technology for artistic and creative means and a lot more people were getting interested in it but there was nothing that supported that or reflected that at the time. Even though there is a very high density of engineering, IT and science based industries and talent in Ireland.”

With her background in interactive design she saw the need to create a space where it could be shown how ideas and technology have come together and could come together and create new, interesting possibilities.

Planning for Tweak is pretty much a year long affair with work beginning on the next one as soon as the last one is finished. As well as a broad range of locally raised Irish talent being represented there is a strong contingent of international artists from such diverse places as the UK, Korea and the U.S. There are also artists coming from France and Germany plus a couple of Canadian artists as well.

But for Nora the focus is on the audience, “The festival relies very heavily on audience participation. Audience engagement is a crucial thing for me. It is the first and foremost thing that comes into my mind. So when I am putting the programme together and selecting the artists I always try and look at what the experience would be for the person who is looking at the exhibition [and] In terms of designing the workshop and the events that go with the festival as well.

‘If they are going to the talks, how are they going to experience it. What way can they influence it or what way they can participate as well. I am focused very strongly on audience engagement. That’s the key thing for me when actually coming to design the festival.”