On Edward Snowden (Blog Post)

I've been following the Snowden whistle blower case - I've been fascinated to see where this is all going, maybe obsessed would be a better word. From doing a little introspection I realise it's because I know this guy - not him particularly, but the kind of person he represents.

In the late 90s I worked as a contractor for the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) in Arizona. I a was low-level system administrator for their Solaris boxes, hooked up to the SIPRnet. Where I worked, it was a weird mix of civilian and military types. Lot's of saluting in the hallways and security that gave an appearance of things being secure. We had hard disk degausers and signs over swipe doors that warned agains "tailgating".

Some of the people there were not well. There was a guy working on PKI certificates, reassigned from the bomb disposal team. I think he may have had PTSD, as he showered with a Beretta in a ziplock sandwich bag. The atmosphere in the place see-sawed between techie cynicism and fervent nationalism. Most of the military guys, both ex and current were certain that we were fighting against an enemy that wanted to destroy America and steal our secrets. The techie contractors tended to roll their eyes at this and get on with doing their work. Snowden reminds me of a lot of these guys. Generally wanting to do well and do the right thing - but unwilling to submit to authority or the paranoia that comes with an "ultra-secure" working environment. Snowden would have known that security warning signs and hard drive degausers do not make for real security - not when you can slide a USB thumb drive into a socket and drag and drop.

Although probably cynical and unbowing to authority figures - I doubt that Snowden would be called a slacker. In some ways he reminds me a lot of Sifters here and other "internet People". I've used the phrase "angry young men who see the world in shades of black and white" to describe people on VideoSift who are unwilling to compromise on issues, or apologise, or see a more nuanced views on situations. And although it does sound sexist - I don't mean it to be - it's just more likely to effect young males - just like Asperger syndrome.

There are clearly two sides to fervently held beliefs for which you are willing to sacrifice everything. On one side you have religious fanatics, shoe bombers, vest wearers, ultra-nationalists and religious fanatics. On the other you have whistle blowers, counter-culture leaders, trans-humanists and game changers. I'm glad that there are people who don't live in the gray murk of compromises - like Edward Snowden. I hope he makes it to Venezuela.

I'd like to hear what you guys think about where this is all going. I have some ideas about a "post state" era that we might be entering. Leave a comment.

If you like SciFi - go see Oblivion (Blog Post)

I like SciFi - and if you're like me, you'll like this movie. Sure, it's a big budget popcorn movie, heavy on special effects and light on character, but it has a pretty good story - and enough twists to keep you interested. It's high concept and very entertaining. You'll like it.

Three recommendations: A game, a TV show and a book (Blog Post)

I've had the flu over the past week and have been in and out of a delirious state. Even though I've been driving the porcelain bus that hasn't stopped me from getting in some good leisure activities. I have for you three solid recommendations for things to consume in your idle hours.

The first is the game FTL. Many of you in the indy gaming scene may have already played it, and I'm as usual, late to the party. I love this game. Its charm is that it's disguised as a very, very simple retro space battle game. In reality, it's an immersive strategic adventure that has given me more thrills than I deserve for $10. The basic premise is that you're a single vessel racing across the galaxy to bring news of impending rebel invasion. Along the way you build up your ship, meet aliens who join your crew and kick rebel ass. FTL is different than many games in its genre in that it's meant to be played in a single sitting. There are no save points, this adds a lot to the thrill. An entire game can be played from start to finish in about an hour.

FTL is a little bit famous for a very successful KickStarter campaign. If you're in to well-balanced space opera battle games, I heartily recommend this title, and for ten schmackos, you really can't go wrong.

My second recommendation is the TV show Fresh Meat. If you're in the UK you are probably well aware of it - as it's into a second season already. I have to admit, I've been a little disappointed with the new season of the now Harmonless Community. If you'd like to see a comedy that deals with college life that is a little more raw and sometimes side-splittingly funny, give it a try. It's made by the creators of Peep Show, and even has Robert Webb in a minor role as a sexually ambiguous college tutor.

My third recommendation (are you still with me) is a SF book called Constellation Games. I bought it based on a recommendation from Cory Doctorow - and I have to say it's been a really great read. It's messy, written in the form of blog posts, emails and rants - but it somehow works. The plot involves an earth-visiting group of alien visitors who belong to a multi-species "hippy anarchist" society. The main character is an earthing who creates crappy video games for a living and wants to review alien video games for his blog. He gets samples of ancient gaming systems from multiple races and puts them through their paces. At the same time he's dealing with the integration of the entire human race into this new pan-galactic society. This is not a normal space opera SF, it's very Internet nerdy and hits me in my sweet spot. I make this as more of a guarded recommendation- if you love the culture of video games and want to get your head around what they would be like in alien cultures - you may find this book expands your mind a bit. Buy the ebook directly from the little publisher - it will make you feel good.

History of VideoSift Part IV and Happy 7th Siftaversary (Blog Post)

I've written a series of blog posts about the history of VideoSift. This is Part IV, the final chapter (for a while). You can go back and start at the beginning with Prelude to a Sift , Part I, Part II and then Part III. Today is also VideoSift's 7th birthday!

On April 1st, 2009 - I think we had one of the greatest April Fools days ever. Sure, it was smaller scale than, say, a Google AFD event - but I've never felt more mirth or gotten more enjoyment from a prank.
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Swedish SF Series "Real Humans" is pretty good (Blog Post)

If you like science fiction that deals with the social and cultural implications of technological changes - you might enjoy the Swedish series Real Humans. The show takes place presumably in the near future - though don't expect lots of futuristic vehicles or settings. The only real futuristic object are the hubots themselves. They are humanoid robots that have integrated themselves into society as appliances, maids, nannies and sexual aides.

I'm only half-way through the season but it's a fun show. Not perfect - but it gets my seal of approval as quality SF that makes you think. It's showing on the local Australian network SBS, and also exists out there in the ether ... you know where.

History of VideoSift Part III (Blog Post)

I'm writing a series of blog posts about the history of VideoSift. This is Part III, but you can go back and read Prelude to a Sift , Part I and then Part II.

2007 was my 20th high school reunion. I went up to my old home town in Alaska and stayed with @deathcow. We both went to the first night of the reunion in the old local bowling alley lounge. Afterwards, nursing cheap beer hangovers, we vowed to skip all future reunions.

Why is this relevant to VideoSift? On the way back from Alaska, I had an appointment with a man in San Francisco - let's call him "K".
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History of VideoSift Part II (Blog Post)

I'm writing a series of blog posts about the history of VideoSift. This is Part II, but you can go back and read Prelude to a Sift and then Part I.

Launched from its slightly murky beginnings, the new VideoSift community was thriving in the first few months of 2006. Traffic was growing and more importantly, all kinds of people were pitching their online tents at Videosift - making it their web home.
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The History of VideoSift Part I (Blog Post)

To commemorate the launch of VideoSift 5, I'm writing a series of blog posts covering the history of VideoSift. This is part I, but there is a prelude here.

I remember the first YouTube video that really hooked me. There’s a good chance it was the same one that got You- SNL’s Lazy Sunday. I saw it posted on Metafilter and then it was everywhere. Some think this single video was the cause of YouTube’s meteoric rise. At the beginning of 2006 though, the ecosystem for online video was still pretty scattered. Both Google Video and YouTube were gaining traction, but there were scores of other competitors trying to get on the new, no longer postage stamp sized Flash embedded video bandwagon.

I was an active member on Metafilter at that time and fell in love with the way a good web community works. I was impressed by the selflessness of the members and the civility and decorum of the comments. Most of all, I liked the fact that self-promotion was not allowed. This seemed the way to create content that did not turn into a spam fest. So much of the Internet is about “look at me”, it was nice to have a corner of the net that was “look at this great thing I found”.
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Prelude to a Sift (Blog Post)

To commemorate the launch of VideoSift 5, I'm writing a series of blog posts covering the history of VideoSift

In 2003, I was a transplanted yank working at a national satellite TV provider here in Australia (Americans, think "Dish Network" but with kangaroos). I started in the IT department in the basement, where I was doing Perl programming- pulling in big billing files and radius usage logs then manipulating the data.

At 34, I was starting to feel the first twinges of the black dog of depression. I was sleeping more than I needed to, talking less than I should, porn, booze - that kind of stuff. At some point, something snapped. This may seem a bit hokey, but I read a self-help book that really helped me. It was the "original" self-help book, Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People". I don't mention this book much - because I usually get a lot of flack for it. It's seen as a manual for sleazy sales guys or a book of "tricks" for getting what you want. For me though, an introverted computer nerd, it was a manual for how to talk to people. That was exactly what I needed. Probably the most important thing I learned from it was to give honest praise to people that is accurate and true - and never flatter.

At the TV company, I got a different job out of the IT department, as the "Internet Product Manager". This was a job where I actually had to talk to people - so it's a good thing I studied for it.

My big deal was to push for video programming over the Internet, to allow video to be served up anywhere over lots of different Internet devices. Here's a presentation I made in 2004. I presented it to people in suits around a big mahogany board table. It didn't fly. I was completely shot down. ADSL and wireless broadband were too slow. Satellite broadband barely existed - and there was a lot of fear about cannibalizing a subscription TV service that had nice fat margins.

I was pretty burned out from all the billing programming and then subsequently fighting against conservative TV management people who couldn't see it my way and what I thought was the writing on the Internet wall.

So I quit. We sold the house, pooled our cash and decided to take 6 months off for a round-the-world trip. Here's a picture of me right before we left:

To this day, I still call this the happiest time in my life. If you can afford to do it, do it. Think of it as an investment in your soul. We spent our days hiking and exploring, thinking about what our next destination would be - and exposing the kids to some culture. Here's a picture of me after being on the trip for a bit:

We arrived back in Australia in late 2005 with our bank account severely depleted, but not yet empty. I couldn't cope with going back to work. I planned to take a few more months off to do … something. I had some ideas that had been bubbling around on our trip but hadn't settled. I rented a little office, the extra examination room of a chiropractic practice, down by the beach. My office mate was a good friend who had also had enough with corporate stooge jobs and was working on a kind of motorised skateboard idea. We sat in our office, drinking Coronas from a bar fridge and taking the occasional walk down on the beach. The perfect fertile ground for ideas.

Next episode: The history of VideoSift Part I where I reveal some Sift secrets:
  • How James Roe and I cheated on Metafilter to launch the site
  • My only true sock puppet
  • First contact with @lucky760
  • Michael Arrington makes a fool out of me and I throw a community under the bus
  • Meeting with the Reddit team in San Francisco

  • Peep Show Season 8 Has Started (Blog Post)

    Just a quick note to mention that Peep Show has started its new season. Definitely one of my all time favourite shows. I haven't watched the episode yet - just have to unfurl my extra long antennae to tune-in Channel 4 in the UK.

    Friction (Blog Post)

    I love how economics has borrowed from physics to create a metaphor.

    Economic friction is an obstacle that gets in the way of buyers and sellers settling on the best price. Service fees, middle men, transaction delays, difficulty in finding what you want to buy are all friction points. At the risk of sounding like a nutty free-marketeer, I'd like to posit that low economic friction is a Good Thing™.

    In the Web's early days - there was a widely held perception that it would enable "friction-free" buying and selling. Although it's not quite that great, it definitely has enabled some amazing efficiencies. I'm think of well-known businesses like Amazon and eBay and non-traditional new-type markets like Kickstarter and Kiva.

    What the Internet has done is reduce the number of friction points. If you're buying retail at BestBuy, you're driving to the store, paying a fraction of the polo shirted sales dude's salary, commission, heating, cooling, overhead lights and possibly walking out of the store with not exactly what you wanted.

    If you're buying from Amazon, your friction is Amazon's mark-up, shipping and your browsing time. Of course there's heating in the warehouse and stocking clerk salaries - but the no-frills nature of a warehouse setting means it's a fraction of what it would be in a retail outlet - and benefiting from massive economy of scale advantages.

    Moving money on the Internet has not kept pace with the efficiencies of buying stuff. PayPal blows. It's a common lament heard around the web. exorbinant fees, monopolistic advantage (few alternatives with their reach) and infuriating customer service. The biggest friction point is that giant piece of sandpaper that PayPal uses each time you make a transaction. It's amazing to me that PayPal is not classified as a bank and subject to banking regulation.

    At VideoSift, we've been long-time PayPal customers and whingers. Paypal is what we use to pay the server bills, receive advertising funds and take charter membership. As much as we complain, it is unfortunately the most friction-free way to pay the bills. We've definitely investigated payment gateways, processors, merchant accounts etc - but when we add up all the fees and restrictions, for a small organisation like us, PayPal wins the math contest.

    I don't expect this to last much longer though. Moving money on the Internet looks ripe for a big juicy disruption - and attacks on Paypal are coming from multiple fronts.

    The company I'm most excited about is called Dwolla. They are enabling PayPal-like transactions with infrastructure embedded at the bank level and only charge 25c per transaction and no fee for transactions under $10. They have iPhone and Android apps and are starting to roll out the service to coffee shops and other retailers. Read this arcticle about the 28-year-old founder. It's got legs and the banks are behind it.

    Square is tackling the problem from the credit card side. They've built a little magnetic strip reader that plugs ino the audio jack of an Android mobile or iPhone device. Neat. Completely mobile payments for things like markets, street vendors or any retailers who get around (escort services, drug dealers?)

    Lastly, don't forget the big guys like Apple and Amazon. They have your payment details already and are starting to "white brand" their own payment systems to external vendors. Log-in with your Amazon account to buy a drink from a vending machine. You can't do it yet but I expect it's coming.

    In my next blog I want to talk about interesting ways of doing business on the web pioneered by Radiohead, Louie CK and others. Then I'll prognosticate on what the near future may hold.

    Canberra - a few lists (Blog Post)

    We've moved more times in the last 10 years than I'm comfortable admitting. We've been in Brisbane for the last few years - but we're about to make a big move to Australia's capital city, Canberra.

    I've been flying down every week from August since I started my new day job and my contract says that I'll move there full time by the end of the year, so off we go.

    Canberra seems to be a very polarising place. When you tell people you are moving there, sometimes they scrunch up their nose and ask "why?" The complaints are as follows in descending order of importance:
    1. Boring
    2. Full of public servants
    3. Hot/cold
    4. No beach

    But, for the people who live there by choice - I've heard it described as "Australia's best kept secret". I would have to agree. Nobody wants to live in Canberra, thank goodness. This means:
    1. Great jobs are plentiful (I've got one)
    2. Traffic is minimal
    3. People are there because they love it (generally)

    I don't really live there yet, but here's what I think I like about the city:
    1. It's a planned city - all clover leaves and roundabouts, no traffic jams
    2. The architecture is starkly beautiful - think modern lowrise futuristic - Gattaca.
    3. People there seem to be generally nice and accepting
    4. It's international - we had the Queen of England and Obama there in a 3 week span. I work with a melting pot of people from all over.
    5. It's called "the bush capital" - and has a feel like that. Surrounded by mountains and greenery - it's not a huge town.
    6. This will sound elitist but I'm also glad that the CUB* level seems to be pretty low. (too many broken beer bottles on the sidewalk at 3 AM in Brissie)

    Do you have to be an asshole to make great stuff? (Blog Post)

    In all the paeans to Jobs there seems to be a big "but". He caused amazing things to be made, but - he was an asshole to people around him. Firing employees in lifts when they couldn't give him a succinct definition of what they do at Apple HQ (for example).

    That self-assured laser-focus vision of what's right seemed to burn right through a lot of people close to him. I don't think I would want to work for him - but I can't deny the fruits of labor. He burned and he shipped great stuff, on time.

    He probably didn't mind that people thought he was a bit of a prick because he had his success in business as a counter-weight. By all accounts, he was a flawed bundle of intensity, ego and passion. Very human and far from a saint.

    I greatly admire his work and I'm thankful for what has come down the Apple pipe. I don't want to be more like Steve - but I'm glad he was.

    Go See Hanna Instead of Cowboys & Aliens this Weekend (Blog Post)

    Cowboys and Aliens is not a terrible movie. It's a mix of western and SF cliches that barely holds together thanks to the strong character leads of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. Lots of old fart testosterone flowing around to smooth out the jarring theme changes and scenes that seem to lifted completely from old Clint Eastwood films. It also has the great Sam Rockwell, but his weak character is completely overshadowed by the leads.

    My first clue that that this was going to be pretty bland, middle-of-the-road fare happened before the credits ended. So many writers! This script has been massaged to death, wringing out almost all originality or real story.

    Hanna on the other hand was awesome! A quirky, tight, euro-thriller with a fantastic lead actress who makes you believe in the premise. The move was brutal in places but it kept me fascinated all the way to the end. It even has a small SF component that left me more satisfied than all of the gooey aliens in the former movie. Lastly, it's a great recommendation for home schooling.

    If you see one movie this weekend, make it Hanna.

    Technorati and the Scummy Paid Blogging Racket (Blog Post)

    Jeez it's tough to make a living on the Web. I respect bloggers and their craft. I do consider them journalists and quite possibly the most important dispatcher of news in the world. While big corporate news outlets are failing us, we rely more and more on the citizen blogger to reveal corruption, dig into world events and formulate opinions.

    That's why I'm so disheartened by the paid blogging racket. Corporate influence is worming its way into your daily reading whether you like it or not. Recent FTC rules have made it a requirement to disclose payola or free products gifted to bloggers for review. However in this recent email from Technorati Media, there were no guidelines about this:

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    Some Thoughts on the Ape Movie (Blog Post)

    I wasn't going to see this movie - another dead franchise being milked by canny re-imangineers for a little more sucker money. Then, people I trusted started coming back with favorable reviews.

    I saw it tonight and thoroughly enjoyed it. The reason it succeeded was not because of the special effects - but because it had developed characters that I cared about. Mainly the apes.

    But this is not a review of the movie. I had a couple of other thoughts I wanted to jot down.

    The first one is that apes make us uncomfortable. It's a living uncanny valley - we catch glimpses of ourselves in them. Apes tell us that sentience isn't a demarcation line but a sliding gray scale. We're all human to a lesser or or greater degree - and by human, I mean self-aware, living creatures.

    I've seen self-awareness in chickens and it makes me uncomfortable that I find them to be delicious. The difference with apes is that they look so much like us - it's much harder to live in denial of their humanity. Yes, I know they were CGI in the movie, but their creation by us, with little tweaks to the face that give them human expression is interesting in itself.


    My other thought is that there sure are an awful of lot of apocalyptic movies lately. I'm wondering if this a collective expression of self-loathing that humanity is putting out there. Do we have a death wish as a species? Are we aching for something to take care of our 7 billion strong infestation of the planet? Or maybe it's just a recognition that we're at the end of a certain cycle of growth, ready to change into a different kind of civilisation. I hope it's the latter but fear it's the former.

    Oil & Water (Blog Post)

    I'm still in the US visiting friends and family. Having this much time on my hands puts me in a ruminative mood. A conversation I had with @lucky760 got me thinking about the differences between communities and businesses.

    The difference is that they are completely in opposition and cannot exist in the same space. This sounds a bit absurd - I know there are lots of companies that work to have "communities" attached to them. Community is one of those words thrown in to the mix of any and all online endeavours, a bit like social networking. In my mind though, a community has a very clear definition: A group of people working altruistically together to create something that could not otherwise be accomplished by an individual.

    Altruistic is the key word in that definition for me. Community members give their effort away and push others up in their participation. Business people work in opposition to altruism. It's self-interest all the way. The goal of any business is to make money. That doesn't make business bad. We need them - I need to be paid - but it certainly puts them in opposition to communities.

    Any time an IT company talks about their "developer community" you should substitute the words "user group". Because the user group works to create monetary value for the business and value for its contituent members. Not a community.

    Communities and businesses can definitely be complementary. I think about the Minecraft community. It's an amazing bunch of nerds building imaginitive, cool stuff to bolt on to MineCraft. It's a community. They do not work at the behest of Notch or his company, they do it because they love it, and they do it together - and undoubtably Notch and his company benefits.

    Narrowing in on VideoSift - We're registered as a company, we do some commercial things to support our site - but I think, we are a community. The members and admins here work together, not at my or any company's orders - but because it gives us a little rush to find and push up someone else's cool video or find something that you know another Sifter will love. That's how things operate here.

    We're probably never going to be a real business. And that's OK.

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