This is Your Brain on Twitter

With condolences for all those who lost relatives in Mumbai.

As Indian special forces made their way into the Neriman house in Mumbai, I found myself on the front lines of the reporting – sitting in front of my computer, in Jerusalem.

The latest news was always on Twitter, and I was, for a time, one piece of the rapid-response network pushing the news through. Collectively, we had our eyes on every news source, first-hand, second-hand, and other. The stream of tweets often contained every fact and its opposite – there are gunshots, the raid is over, the hostages are dead, there is celebrating in the streets, the commandos are still in action, the police are charging the crowd, there’s gunshots, the hostages are released, the police should push the crowd back. Time delays of different sources made for a bizarre admixture of contradictory reports.

I bounced between browser tabs – video feeds, blackberry messages from men on the ground. Those that seemed to have the ring of truth (how do we judge truth?) I sent on. I was a nerve cell. I received signals and sent them forward. 40 years ago, Marshall McLuhan pointed out that electric media effectively creates a worldwide nervous system for the planet. Indeed.

I feel as if I personally lost someone close to me. A consequence of being a nerve cell in this global body, it seems.

How Powerful are the People?

Lawrence Lessig just won me as a new fan. I feel like I can breath better after listening to this interview (below).
(For those of you reading via syndication, click through to the original post to see the video.)

Topics include Professor Lessig’s relationship with Obama, national emergencies, transitional government, trust, the virtues of amateur creativity, hybrid economies, copyright (the entrenched policy, the dangerous reaction, and a more reasonable reform), remix as fair use, Creative Commons, his shift into focusing on corruption as the core underlying problem, the influence of money on politics, how to break the political dependency on money, and getting congress to put their reform chips on the table.

Favorite Quote:
“These are not the hard things that congress are getting wrong; these are the easy things that congress is getting wrong.”

Update: Here’s the powerful presentation on changing congress that he refers to in the video.

Showing Google Reader Feeds on a WordPress Sidebar

Google Reader has some great tagging and sharing features.  You can easily get an Atom feed of those stories that you have tagged with a particular tag – this is a great way to keep a public ‘current reading’ list.  It wasn’t as easy as I had thought it would be to get this feed up on my WordPress blog, but I found a way.  Hopefully the below will be helpful to anyone trying to do the same.

The feed, with concatinated titles

The feed, with concatenated titles

The Problem:

WordPress uses the Magpie RSS parser to parse feeds. This is true for the built in RSS widget and also the advanced KBRSS widget. Magpie has some limitations that are highlighted by Google’s feeds. In particular Magpie has a nasty habit of taking multiple <link> tags and squishing them into one, and doing the same with multiple <title> tags. Very bad behavior for a parser. Without any additional treatment, WordPress digests Google Reader links like the picture at right.

The Solution

I’ll cut out some of the wrong turns along the way.  This post, from EconTech, solves a parallel problem and gave me the key to fixing this one.  We need to scrub the feed before we send it over to WordPress.  He used Feedburner to clean it up and translate it to RSS, than let WordPress and Magpie digests the RSS that Feedburner spits out.

The Step-by-Step

  1. Get your Google Reader Feed URL (Settings -> Folders and Tags -> View Public Page -> Get the feed from your browser)
  2. Set up a Feedburner feed using the URL from step 1
  3. On the Feedburner feed, deactivate Browser Friendly and Smart Feed (under the Optimize tab)
  4. Still on the Feedburner feed, activate Convert Format using RSS 2.0.
  5. Note the URL of the feedburner feed
  6. Use that one to populate your RSS widget in WordPress


Bonus Points

  • I assume that the default WordPress RSS widget works, but I didn’t try it.  Part of what I like about Google Reader is the ability to add notes to the items you share, and I wanted to make sure those got fed in.  So I’m using the kbrss plugin.  You can follow the instructions to set that guy up – it’s pretty straightforward.  I use a template along these lines to get the fields I want:

<li><span class=’reading-date’>^pubdate[opts:date=F jS Y]$</span><br/>
<a class=’reading-link’ href=’^link$’ title=’^title$’>^title$</a><br/>
<span class=’reading-annot’>^gr=>annotation_content$</span></li>

  • If you get deeper into kbrss, you’ll probably want to use the ?kbrss=feed_url option to take a look at how WordPress reads your feed.  On my setup, I had to encode my feed url before this option would work.  Probably some sort of security issue.  Here’s a string encoder.


Missing Pieces

What’s left out of this solution is those second and third links and titles that were in the original feed.  In particularly, the title of the blog that the story originally came from doesn’t get carried through.  If you want to take up the charge, that’s something that should be picked up in a more robust solution.

Mission: Lifestyle Income

I’m going to admit it. I don’t want to spend my life programming. It’s fun and interesting, but it’s not what I would call ultimately worthwhile. What I really want to do is learn, teach, grow in love, and raise a family. I think these are supremely good things for a human being to be doing.

None of the things that I really want to do are good ways to bring in income. It may be possible to make a living as a teacher, but it has too many downsides for me to be enthusiastic. Firstly, teachers are grossly undervalued and underpaid. Don’t get me started. This is one of my hot buttons. Secondly, I’m spoiled by high tech income. It’s tough to take an 70% pay cut. Thirdly, I don’t want to start skewing what and to whom I teach based on where I can churn up cash. I think that would be injurious to the love and joy I’d like to teach with.

Even though learning, teaching, and loving aren’t great ways to bring in money, that’s the way I want to spend my time. I’m a bit of an idealist that way. I don’t want to devote too much time to financing the whole affair. The blessing is that I have pretty simple tastes and a modest budget. I want to live in my community in Jerusalem, keep the kitchen stocked, and go out once in a while. I’d be perfectly happy with about $30k a year.

So what I’m left with is this puzzle: What’s the best way for a person like me – with solid skills in programming, design, analysis, and business – to make a modest income while spending only 4 hours a day on the job?

I think it’s all sorts of possible, and the idea of giving it a run is in itself exciting. It may not be the big hairy audacious goal that star-struck startupists are driven by, but it’s audacious in a different sense. I feel like I’ll be prototyping a sane and sustainable approach to a balanced, enjoyable, and fulfilling life. That’s pretty worthwhile – no?

Why do the 5 Whys Work?

Earlier this year, I wrote about the “5 Whys”, a problem-resolution technique honed at Toyota.  Eric Reis yesterday posted his experiences using the 5 whys in his own organization, and adds an important piece the I wasn’t previously aware of.  The technique starts by taking a problem and asking ‘why’ 5 times, successively.  Why did the server crash?  It didn’t have the latest patch.  Why didn’t it have the latest patch?  Our policy is to only patch once a quarter.  Why do we only patch once a quarter? We don’t have enough staff time to patch more often. etc. This process helps you identify some of the root, systemic causes of the problem.  What Eric adds is the following:

So far, this isn’t much different from the kind of analysis any competent operations team would conduct for a site outage. The next step is this: you have to commit to make a proportional investment in corrective action at every level of the analysis.

There’s where the technique hits the pavement.  Is it better for an organization to have deep knowledge of their problems if they don’t act on them?  There are usually ingrained habits and policies that go against addressing problems occuring on the deep policy and organizational functioning level, but it’s what seperates dynamic living organizations from walking corpses.

It’s important to tease out the knowledge, and even more important to be comitted to acting on it.

How are we Going to Beat Oil?

In case you haven’t heard, Better Place is the effort to completely wire-up an electric car infrastructure. It’s starting in Israel, and Denmark and Australia have also signed up. Tim O’Reilley sat with Better Place founder Shai Agassi for a solid half hour discussion at the recent Web 2.0 conference.

While at PresenTense, I heard Mike Granoff, the first investor in Better Place, tell a story of the formation of the company. While still at SAP, Shai pitched his plan to get the world off oil to Israeli president Shimon Peres, wanting the Israeli government to take up the charge. Peres called him late that night, and told him that it wasn’t going to happen that way. A government couldn’t do it; something like this is the job of a business man – “It’s your job”, he said. Shai protested that he was near the top of SAP, one of the most important software companies in the world. Peres responded – “I don’t know what you’ve got in the pipeline over there, but it better be some damn good software.” The next week, Shai left SAP.

The conversation jumps into the brass tacks of how the technology and the business will work. A lot of my questions on the business model were answered here. It’s a great to see Shai Agassi in action, and really worth watching the whole thing.

I’m psyched to trade in my gas guzzler – really psyched.

Can Newspapers be Saved?

Hank William’s paints a bleak future for the traditional print newspaper industry. Readership is increasingly going online for its news, advertisers certainly aren’t interested in buying ads in unread print editions, and, unlike search ads, website display ads don’t work.

How is a cultural institution like the New York Times to survive? That’s the problem Mr. William’s article has had me thinking about all day. His solution, however, leaves me scratching my head. He wants to solve it by making the browser experience more like the newspaper experience – give them the power, he claims, and users will gladly fall back into familiar newspapers modes of browse and scan, making ads more relevant and saving the life of the venerable newspaper.

I don’t buy it.

I agree that display ads are less effective online than in print, but that’s just one piece of the equation. Traditional ads in general are losing their effectiveness. Print ads themselves don’t do as well as they did before the Internet. As a consumer, what use do I have for advertisements? They no longer inform, as they once did; I can ask questions online and get trusted answers instantly. With my needs well covered, I do my best to avoid ads in whatever medium they are found.

The online ad purveyors are busy adding in support for geo-location, but hyper-local ads don’t recover the utility that newspaper ads used to have. True, I may be interested in a new local restaurant, but when the local store will never beat the price of the online store, I don’t care if they’re having a sale. The only advantage they have over the online store is their location, and that’s a fact I can easily find out when and if I care to. There’s precious little that an advertisement can tell me that I will really care about.

What we’re seeing is not just a breakdown caused by a new interface to the same old content, we’re seeing the crumbling of a business model whose assumptions have eroded away underneath it. The new medium, as every major new medium before it, is entirely rewiring the way our society, our businesses, and our brains work. A browser with scan and pan isn’t going to bring back the relevance of traditional advertising.

So what will newspapers do to save themselves? Not knowing what else to do, they’re going to put the ads where people have to read them – in the story. Movies have done it with product placement and radio with announcer-read advertisements. The traditional reliance on ads will force their hand, and a good portion of the public will just learn to deal. The ads that are the basis of the business will begin to show on the face of the business, but I doubt that even this will save them. It will just be the last gasp of the dying enterprise.

With big-budget ad-supported players failing to make the turn, the real reporting is going to come from one and maybe two sources. The first is the massive number of plugged in people who are already becoming the nervous system of the planet. This source is a sure bet to remain a major force. The generation of news online is already a distributed and complex interweaving of parsed and recombined news streams – we can only expect that to grow and take on new forms.

The other source may or may not come into being. As the newspapers and magazines pass away and the organic news network gets noisier and noisier, there may be a thirst for the best of what the newspapers had offered – the investigation, the insight, the sharp analysis. If there are those who can provide what the network can not, if there are individuals who by their unique point of view can create content that the market desires, then we have all the makings of a natural news market – without the massive players and without the ad dollars. Those who can provide value will be valued. The market will drive the business, and it’s ultimately something very close to a subscription model that will keep good news alive.