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else 10.7: A Dread Pirate Gives Up His Bitcoins

By - October 06, 2013

Anonymity on the web becomes increasingly fractious as Tor and Bitcoin come into question with recent headline-grabbing stories. A quick scan of this weekend’s NYTimes reveals three big articles on the novel ways our digital histories stay with us. Clearly, our story has come to the fore.

This week, we’re also looking forward this coming week’s OpenCo and the Quantified Self global conference, both in San Francisco. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

The Dread Pirate Roberts, AKA Ross William Ulbricht, may suffer from the seedy reputation of the Silk Road, but as goes Silk Road, so go more legitimate uses of online anonymity.

FBI’s Case Against Silk Road Boss Is A Fascinating Read – Techdirt
The capture and revelation of dramatic details of the Ulbricht’s Silk Road drug trafficking website has called into question both legitimate and seedy uses of anonymous technologies like Tor and Bitcoin. NSA and GCHQ target Tor network that protects anonymity of web users – The Guardian
Tor, a routing system that masks traffic through a network of relaying nodes, isn’t safe from government spying. The latest Guardian NSA piece describes measures designed to peel ‘back the layers of Tor with EgotisticalGiraffe.’

How a Purse Snatching Led to the Legal Justification for NSA Domestic Spying – Wired
The unlikely story behind the precedent for monitoring metadata with a “pen register” illustrates how our technical systems outpace or legal means for dealing with them.

When Meta Met Data – NYTimes
There was a time when “meta” meant something self-referential and funny. This is a thoughtful take on cultural shifts as we begin to understand what our metadata says about us.

Rage Against the Algorithms - The Atlantic
“Algorithms, driven by vast troves of data, are the new power brokers in society, both in the corporate world as well as in government.” Makes the case for journalists and others to reverse-engineer these black boxes to better understand how they work and to develop algorithmic accountability.

Selling Secrets of Phone Users to Advertisers – NYTimes
Getting beyond cookies to bridge ad experiences across all connected devices, from desktop to tablet to phone.

Mugged by a Mug Shot Online – NYTimes
The business of reputation management is lucrative for these exploitative sites with high SEO ranking that bring up mugshots, long after you’ve been cleared.

Deciding Who Sees Students’ Data  – NYTimes
Systems for managing and tracking students’ progress offer great potential in personalizing education, but we’re still figuring out where more student data is appropriately applied and used.

Living with Data: Personal Data Uses of the Quantified Self - Sara M. Watson
I posted my thesis on the Quantified Self in full for those interested: “As Big Data becomes standard practice and more sensors enter into our homes, cars,devices, and bodies, data proliferates. This will happen whether or not we are actively engaged in the creation and uses of data. As such, we are all becoming quantified selves. We have a responsibility in this emerging data environment to recognize and engage with this fact. If we ignore this reality, we risk losing our agency.”

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Twitter’s S1: How Do the Numbers Stack Up To Google and Facebook?

By - October 03, 2013

Twitter’s S-1 filing is now public, you can read it here. There’s no dearth of coverage, just Google News it. I’m interested in a few metrics compared to its most likely comparables, namely Google and Facebook. First, a couple tidbits from Twitter’s S-1:

* Top line growth y/y: 118%. Twitter shows financials up to Q2 2013, so through June. Growth 1H 2012 to 1H 2013 is our most recent comparison: $101.3mm in 1H ’12, to $221.4mm in 1H ’13. That’s impressive y/y topline growth of $120.1mm, or 118%.

* Implied 2013 topline: nearly $600mm, but possibly pushing $750mm. Twitter’s earned 62% of its 2012 revenue in the second half of the year. If it does the same this year, that would imply a topline revenue for 2013 of $582.4mm and a second half of around $361mm. Given Twitter took the option of filing its IPO under the JOBS Act, which allows for confidential filing for businesses under $750mm in annual revenue, one could argue that it filed because it knew it was going to have a blowout second half, which would push its FY topline over $750mm. If indeed revenues are accelerating beyond the norms set in 2012, we may see a second half revenue figure of closer to half a billion, which would be pretty spectacular.

Now, when I think “spectacular,” I think of the Google IPO, the original S-1 is here. How does Twitter stack up? Well, Google had far more revenue, and was very profitable. Twitter is profitable only on an adjusted EBIDTA basis, which is good, but not spectacular. On a growth basis, at the time it went public, Google’s y/y growth was 217%, if you take the comparable first quarters of 2003 and 2004. So from a financial point of view, Twitter’s no Google. But it’s no slouch, either. Here are the two companies financials, from their originally filed S-1s:

Google:

GoogS1

 

Twitter:TwitterS1

Now, what about Facebook’s initial S-1 filing?

Well, a quick look reminds us why there was so much hype: The company had huge revenues and was extremely profitable. See for yourself:

Facebooks1

 

Facebook was pretty much ready to go public a year or two before it actually did. By the time it went out, the public has already assumed it was a behemoth, and the offering failed to “pop.” It seems Twitter is learning from Facebook’s IPO, and is going out just at the moment it hits its financial stride, a bit earlier than Google, but before Facebook, in terms of financial maturity.

Now that Twitter is on the road to going public, it’ll be very interesting to see what the company’s third quarter filings look like. My guess is they’ll be very strong – the company is far too smart to plan it any other way. If I had to wager – and remember, I have no inside information, this is all speculative – Twitter will report a quarter that shows stronger growth than historical norms of 2012 might imply. We’ll know soon enough. If you’re a Twitter employee, partner, or investor: Congratulations on achieving such an important milestone. The world’s really watching now.

PS – I’d also be interested in a free-cash flow analysis of the company, but I don’t have the time to do that work. Anyone seen a good analysis? 

Here Are the Companies I Chose For OpenCo SF This Year. Damn, That Was Hard

By - October 01, 2013

opencosfI spent about an hour today choosing which companies I plan to visit during next week’s OpenCo. And I have to say – despite my obvious bias as a founder of the event – the difficulty I had deciding only gets me more excited about participating. There are just so many great organizations opening their doors during this two-day festival, and it makes me so proud that this thing is, well, happening. I mean, it’s really happening – 135 or so companies are letting the public come inside, and they’re talking about what makes their  organization special, what makes it tick. And for two days, I get to hang out in their space, take notes, get inspired. It’s just…really cool.

I like this so much more than hanging out in yet another ballroom at a tech industry confab. I mean, I love those conferences. It’s great to see all my pals and meet new people. But OpenCo really is different. The serendipity of each company’s vibe, the instant social network that forms around each session (“So why did you come to see Rock Health?!”), the seemingly endless choices. Nearly 2500 people have registered, and we expect to break 3,000 by the end of the week. You can’t fit 3,000 people in the ballroom at The Palace Hotel. But the city will welcome us all next week. It’s just … cool.

So here are the companies I chose, and why:

Thursday, Oct. 10

9am: San Francisco Symphony (City Center). Whaaat? The symphony is an OpenCo? I know, that’s what I thought. But OpenCo Advisor Nancy Hellman Bechtle has brought many key arts players into the OpenCo fold, including American Conservatory Theatre, the American Institute of Architects, the California College of the Arts, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, the San Francisco Jazz Organization, the Children’s Creativity Museum, the San Francisco Opera, and SF MOMA. How many opportunities do you get to go hear from the leaders of these vibrant cultural institutions? Very, very cool.

Companies also going off at 9 am that I wish I could see: Event Brite, AIA, Google, and IFTTT (it was sold out already, damnit). 

wework10:30 am: WeWork SOMA (SOMA area). There are about half a dozen collaborative workspaces that will be opening their doors next week, but I chose WeWork because I liked the vibe of their mission: “Do what you love.” A focus on “beauty” in workspace seems to drive their approach, and I want to see that up close. The company has workspaces in many cities around the country, I’m hoping they’ll all be OpenCos someday.

Companies also going off at 10:30 that I wish I could see: SoundCloud (full already), Presidio Trust, Rackspace.

12:00 pm: High Fidelity, Inc. (SOMA area) Philip Rosedale’s at it again, this time with a head trip of a company that is pioneering a new approach to, well, time and space. (Rosedale founded the way-ahead-of-its-time Second Life). They’re re-imagining reality, based on, I kid you not, “sparse voxel octree data structures.” I gotta see this.

Companies also going off at 12:00pm that I wish I could see: Superfly Presents (my pals behind Bonnaroosfly and Outside Lands), Lit Motors (FULL!), Granicus, Rickshaw Bags, twofifteenmccann (did our logo design for OpenCo among other things!).

1:30 pm:  TechShop (SOMA/Downtown area). The concept of sharing resources is tearing up the old economy and making new kinds of innovation possible. I want to see it in action. From TechShop’s description: “Part fabrication and prototyping studio, part hackerspace and part learning center, TechShop provides access to over $1 million worth of professional equipment and software.” I’m in.

Companies also going off at 1:30pm that I wish I could see: Wired (for old times’ sake, but it’s already FULL), Dandelion Chocolate (more chocoloate in the world is a good thing), Net Power & Light, Ridepal….there are so many….

proj frog 23:00pm: Project Frog (Mission). By this point in my schedule, I’m starting to realize how many great companies I’m missing, but … chose we must. I liked Project Frog’s description – I’d never heard of it before. “Since 2006, Project Frog has been on a mission to revolutionize the way buildings are created by applying technology to overcome the inefficiencies of traditional construction.” When on earth am I ever going to get a chance to grok that idea in action? Apparently, next week! Cool.

Companies also going off at 3:00pm that I wish I could see: Dropbox (FULL!), the Kite Pitch Doctor, Exygy (I want to work with these guys!),  Innovate SF (Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation – a great partner!), Stamen (love their work). 

 4:30pm: SF MOMA (Embarcadero). OK, I know what you’re saying. Opening with the Symphony, closing with MOMA? Well, yes. I don’t really engage with these amazing institutions in my day to day life, and I want to change that. The director of SF MOMA will present in a “on the go” space at Pier 24, because the museum is closed (it’s undergoing a massive expansion.) This is a chance to hear what’s happening at a world-class museum, from the person who’s running it. Hell yes I’m going.

Companies also going off at 4:30pm that I wish I could see: The Slanted Door  (yes, the restaurant group!), HomeJoy (starting a movement to change cleaning! I love it), Twyxt (cool service for couples), WideOrbit (adtech/platform). 

jawbone

And that’s just day 1.

Day 2, Friday Oct. 11, rolls like this:

9 am: Federated Media Publishing (Embarcadero). Well, I’m actually giving the presentation for this one, so I better have it on my sked, no? I’m really looking forward to participating as an OpenCo after helping to found OpenCo. How great is that? I’ll be talking about connecting data and publishing, because I believe independent publishers must understand their data to thrive in today’s Internet ecosystem.

Companies also going off at 9 am that I wish I could see: ACT, Jawbone (FULL!), Salesforce (FULL!), NextDoor.

10:30 am: Inner Circle Labs (SOMA). This firm specializes in PR for innovative companies in SF, and is bringing in a great panel of its own clients. I think the professional services that help startups are an underappreciated part of our landscape, and I’m looking forward to learning more about this firm.

Companies also going off at 10:30 am that I wish I could see: RocketSpace, Instructables, SV Angel  (FULL, damn you David and Ron, open more space!), gitHub.

12:00pm: Scoot Networks (SOMA). “Combining battery-powered scooters with smartphone technology, Scoot allows for quick, affordable, one way trips around San Francisco.” Enough said. I love the city bike share nets that are popping up all over the world, but in SF, sometimes you need a battery! Hey Scoot, we should do something to get folks around OpenCo, no?!

crave toysCompanies also going off at 12:00pm that I wish I could see: SF OperaTCHO (FULL!), Crave (sex toys with data!!!), CleanTech GroupGirl Ventures.

1:30 pm: Mad ValleyThis agency-driven incubator is having a lot of success lately, and though I’ve been to the space many times to see clients, I’ve never heard the pitch. I am really looking forward to getting smart on a venture I’ve been close to, but never really seen.

Companies also going off at 1:30pm that I wish I could see: Imagine H2O, Code for America (went last year!), Hotel Tonight

3:00 pm: yerdle. Look, how much stuff do you have sitting in your house that plagues you with guilt – it has value, but you’re not using it? But it’s too much work to figure out how to get it to a useful place in the universe, right? Enter yerdle – a way to share or give stuff you’ve got to those who want or need it. Love this idea.

Companies also going off at 3:00pm that I wish I could see: Bloomberg (FULL!), Viglink, isocket

4:30 pm: 99 Designs. This site has taken off, helping connect creatives and those looking for creative inspiration. I want to see what makes it tick.  I also want to learn how to become a good client of its services.

everlane

Companies also going off at 4:30pm that I wish I could see: Everlane (bespoke and transparent!), SEAGLASS, Hightail, IDEO (Full, DAMNIT).

Well, that’s it. A dozen amazing experiences await me next week, a dozen new groups of people, a dozen founders, idealists, and entrepreneurs telling their stories for us to hear.

I. Am. Stoked. Thanks to American Express OPEN Forum, Yahoo!, IPG/MediaBrands, the Mayor’s office, SFBIG, and the team at OpenCo (and all our wonderful partners) for making this possible. What an honor to say I was there at the founding of the OpenCo movement. If you’ve gotten all the way to this point in my post, GO REGISTER, IT’S FREE! 

See you out in the modern working city!

else 9.30: The “Monkeys with Typewriter” Algorithm

By - September 30, 2013

This week, the blind see with data, algorithms are uncovered, networks are analyzed, and data remains siloed. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

Disruptions: Visually Impaired Turn to Smartphones to See Their World – NYTimes
Assistive technologies in smart phones help the blind read the world as data.

Eulogy for a Horse – Dan Sinker
Susan Orlean broke that the @horse_ebooks twitter account that tweeted seemingly random selections from books is not a bot, but performance art. The internet got up in arms about the revelation, mostly because it disrupted our desire to believe that there was beauty in algorithms and randomness. Dan Sinker (of @MayorEmanuel parody twitter account fame) offers some final thoughts for his “monkey Shakespeare.”

Goodbye, dear programmatic poet. We believed in you.

Google Alters Search to Handle More Complex Queries – NYTimes
Search gets semantic as Google quietly replaces keyword based search algorithms with Hummingbird, which understands context.

Facebook Launches Advanced AI Effort to Find Meaning in Your Posts – MIT Technology Review
Facebook introduces “deep learning,” or more advanced machine learning and AI, to uncover more meaning in all our data.

N.S.A. Gathers Data on Social Connections of U.S. Citizens – NYTimes
As we might have expected, the NSA is conducting social network analysis or “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata.” Immersion is still a great tool for visualizing and understanding what your own metadata social graph looks like.

NSA Internet Spying Sparks Race to Create Offshore Havens for Data Privacy – WSJ.com
As trust in US-based internet companies falters, international alternatives jump at the opportunity and compete on local law.

The Extremely Quantified Self: Meet Rachel Kalmar, Who Wears 21 Fitness Trackers at the Same Time (Video) – AllThingsD
Kalmar suggests that even as she collects so much data, it’s all locked up in proprietary silos. This is a recurring theme in the world of personal data that I’ll explore further in a breakout session at the upcoming Quantified Self conference.

From Anonymous to Bitcoin, The Good Wife Is the Most Tech-Savvy Show on TV – Wired Opinion
Clive Thompson shares his enthusiasm for responsible and nuanced depictions of technology in fiction as they shape the way we see the world. Adding The Good Wife to the Netflix queue…

else 9.23: From “Pulp to Prototype” and Other Good Reads

By - September 22, 2013

This week we’ve been thinking a lot about driverless cars and related data-driven innovations in transportation. (We even saw one up close this week at Google Zeitgeist.) We looked at Google’s newest effort to extend life with data in its new company, Calico. We thought about the relationship between science fiction and technological development, and we’re excited about a new crop of literary takes on tech industry.

As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

 

How a self-driving car sees the world, Popsci.

Inside Google’s Quest To Popularize Self-Driving Cars – Popular Science
A long-read look at the current state of Google’s driverless car program.

Tesla’s Elon Musk says self-driving cars will be produced by 2016 – Daily Mail
Will healthy competition drive innovation? Tesla throws down the gauntlet with a tighter timeline to put driverless cars on the road.

A Self-Driving Crash Test – Stanford Center for Internet and Society
Bryant Walker Smith poses an interesting hypothetical for tackling fuzzy questions about liability in driverless car accidents.

California finally legalizes Lyft, SideCar, and other rideshare app firms – Ars Technica
California Public Utilities Commission legitimizes ridesharing, setting standards requiring background checks, driver training, and insurance coverage, so expect to see more pink mustashes on the road.

TIME Talks to Google CEO Larry Page About Its New Venture to Extend Human Life – TIME
Google’s Calico aims to use data to extend human life. John was reminded of the end of The Search on Google and the question of immortality.

Digital Advertising Alliance Exits Do Not Track Group – Adweek
Might this be the end of Do Not Track efforts? Multistakeholderism is at an impasse.

Science Fiction shapes the way we think about technology.

Why Today’s Inventors Need to Read More Science Fiction – The Atlantic
An MIT Media Lab course “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication” aims to connect visions for the near future with the makers and builders realizing our technological future. “Reading science fiction is like an ethics class for inventors.”

Project Hieroglyph – Future Tense
This podcast introduces a center for connecting writers and scientists in an effort to inspire science fiction with a more optimistic take.

The Deepest of Webs – Faz
Evgeny Morozov reviews Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, which came out this week. It takes place in the tech scene in New York in the period between the dot com bust and before 9/11.

Dave Eggers’s ‘The Circle’ Takes Vengeance on Google, Facebook – Wall Street Journal
Egger’s new novel tackles the tech giants head on.

Did Dave Eggers ‘Rewrite’ Kate Losse’s Book? – The Atlantic Wire
Truth is stranger than fiction it seems, because Eggers new book sounds a lot like Kate Losse‘s The Boy Kings, based on her experience as employee number 51 at Facebook. Guess we’ll have to read both now.

Get Out of Your Office, And Into The Modern Working City: OpenCo SF Is Live!

By - September 19, 2013

Openco113I’m bustin’ with pride to announce that after great festivals in London, New York, and Detroit, OpenCo is returning next month to its home base of San Francisco, and the lineup is 135 companies strong*.

For those who haven’t heard about it before, OpenCo is an “inside out” event – instead of going into a ballroom and hearing CEOs talk at you, you go to literally inside their companies, and interact with the people and the cultures that are changing our world. It’s a really cool idea, and it’s really, really a different experience.

Oh, and it’s free. As in, no cost.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a business if we didn’t have an upgrade from free: you can buy various levels of upgrades that get you early access to picking just the companies you want to visit –  last year, many companies sold out the same week that the schedule picker went live. And guess what – the schedule picker is now LIVE! So….go register.

If you upgrade to “Reserved” you’ll get early access to the picker – that’s just $95. If you want to go to the Plenary, which is a VIP cocktail before the event kicks off, featuring Mayor Ed Lee, Ron Conway, Airbnb’s Brian Chesky, Rickshaw’s Mark Dwight, and more, well, that’ll cost more – a “Backstage” pass is $495. But you also get access to the picker right now, as in, first. General admission, you get to pick your companies at the end of this month.

In any case, it’s a great event. I’m so proud of it, and I hope you’ll support it in any way you can**. The spirit of open communication, open collaboration, and the open Internet are alive and well and driving change and innovation in San Francisco. Come see it this October!

* Host OpenCos include the American Conservatory Theatre, Cloudera, Code For America, Eventbrite, Github, Google, IFTTT, Jawbone, Nextdoor, Presidio Trust, Project Frog, Rickshaw Bags, Salesforce, Scoot Network, Sidecar, SVAngel, Wired and many more.

** Huge thanks to American Express OPEN Forum, Yahoo!, and the InterPublic Group of Companies, among many others, for helping make this possible. 

 

Search and Immortality

By -

google.cover.inddFunny thing, there I was two days ago, at Google’s annual conference, watching Larry Page get asked questions so pliant in nature they couldn’t be called softballs. They were more like tee balls – little round interrogatives gingerly placed on a plastic column for Page to swat out into the crowd. Not that we would expect anything else – to be clear, this is Google’s event, and I see nothing wrong with Google scripting its own event. I had moderated the final session of the day, but Larry was the final speaker. Perhaps wisely, Google brought  someone else on to “grill” Page – those were his words as the interview started. (You be the judge –  a sample question: “What are your thoughts about tablets in schools?”)

Anyway, I was certainly not the right choice to talk to Larry. I know the folks at Google well, and have tons of respect for them. We both know I would have insisted on asking about a few things that were, well, in the news at the moment of that interview on Tuesday. Like, for example, the fact that Google, on the very next day, was going to announce the launch of Calico, a company seeking to solve that “moonshot” problem of aging. Oh, and by the way, current Apple Chair and former Genentech CEO Arthur Levinson was going to be CEO, reporting to Page. Seems like pretty interesting news, no? And yet, Larry kept mum about it during the interview. Wow. That’s some serious self control.

And yet I think I understand – each story has its own narrative, and this one needed room to breathe. You don’t want to break it inside an air-conditioned ballroom in front of your most important clients. You want to make sure it gets on the cover of Time (which it did), and that the news gets at least a few days to play through the media’s often tortured hype cycle. It’s grinding its way through that cycle now, and I’m sure we’ll see comparisons to everything from Kurzweil (who now works at Google) to Bladerunner, and beyond.

But what I was reminded of was the very end of my book on search, some 8 years ago. I was trying to put the meaning of search into context, and I found myself returning again and again to the concept of immortality.  This was my epilogue, which I offer here as perhaps some context for Google’s announcement this week:

“Search and Immortality”

On a fine sunny morning in 2003, not long after the birth of my third and most likely final child, I typed “immortality” into Google and hit the “I’m feeling lucky” button. I can’t explain why I turned to a search engine for metaphysical comfort, but I sensed the search might lead me somewhere—here I was writing a book about search, but what did it matter, really, in the larger scheme of things?

In an instant, Google took me to the Immortality Institute, an organization dedicated to “conquering the blight of involuntary death.”

Not quite what I was looking for. So I hit the search again, but this time I took a look at the first ten results, etched in blue, green, and black against Google’s eternal white.

Nothing really caught my eye. Cryonics stuff, a business called Immortality Inc., pretty much what you might expect. I couldn’t put what I was looking for into words, but I knew this wasn’t it.

Then I noticed the advertising relegated to the right side of the screen. There were four ads, each no more than three lines of text. The first was someone who claimed to have met immortal ETs. Pass. The third and fourth were from eBay and Yahoo Shopping. These megasites had purchased the immortality keyword in some odd and obliquely interesting hope that people searching for immortality might well find relief through . . . buying shit online. (In fact, what Yahoo and eBay were doing was the equivalent of search arbitrage— buying top positions for a search term on Google and then creating a link to the exact same search term on their own sites, in the hope of capturing high-value customers).

Interesting, but I wasn’t looking to buy the concept of immortality; I wanted to understand it. I took a pass on those as well. But the second paid link pointed to the epic Gilgamesh, which I hazily recalled as the first story ever written down—in Sumerian cuneiform, if memory served. I clicked on the link, earning Google a few pennies in the process, and landed on an obscure bookseller’s page. The epic of Gilgamesh, the site instructed me, recounts mankind’s “longing stretch toward the infinite” and its “reluctant embrace of the temporal. This is the eternal lot of mankind.”

Bingo. I didn’t quite know why, but this was the stuff I was looking for. My vague desire to understand the concept of immortality had brought me to the epic of Gilgamesh, and now I was hooked. My search was bearing fruit. But I didn’t want to buy a book and wait for it to come. I was in the moment of discovery, the heat of possible consummation. I wanted to read that epic, right now.1 So I typed the title itself into Google, and once again found myself larded with options.

But this time the organic results (the search results in the middle of a Google page, as opposed to the ads on the right) nailed it: the first two offered direct translations of the stone tablets upon which the epic is written. Clicking on the first link, I found a Washington State University professor’s summary of the Gilgamesh story. It read:

Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 b.c. Although historians . . . tend to emphasize Hammurabi and his code of law, the civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, among the first civilizations, focus rather on  Gilgamesh and the legends accruing around him to explain, as it were, themselves. Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down about 2000 b.c. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets which still survive . . . written in the script known as cuneiform, which means “wedge-shaped.” The fullest surviving version, from which the summary here is taken, is derived from twelve stone tablets . . . found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, 669–633 b.c., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 b.c., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets actually name an author, which is extremely rare in the ancient world, for this particular version of the story: Shin-eqi-unninni. You are being introduced here to the oldest known human author we can name by name!

In my search for immortality, I had found the oldest known named author in the history of Western civilization. Thanks to the speed, vastness, and evanescent power of Google, I came to know his name and his work within thirty seconds of proffering a vaguely worded query. This man, Shin-eqi-unninni, now lived in my own mind. Through his writings, with an assist from Google and a university professor, he had, in a sense, become immortal.

But wait! There’smore. Gilgamesh’s story is one of man’s struggle with the concept of immortality, and the story itself was nearly lost in an act of literary vandalism—the destruction of a great king’s library. As I contemplated all of this, sensing that, just possibly, I had found a way to explain why search was so important to our culture.

I read the first tablet’s opening lines:

The one who saw all (Sha nagba imuru) I will declare to the world, The one who knew all I will tell about [line missing] He saw the great Mystery, he knew the Hidden: He recovered the knowledge of all the times before the Flood. He journeyed beyond the distant, he journeyed beyond exhaustion, And then carved his story on stone.

What does it mean, I wondered, to become immortal through words pressed in clay—or, as was the case here, through words formed in bits and transferred over the Web? Is that not what every person longs for—what Odysseus chose over Kalypso’s nameless immortality— to die, but to be known forever? And does not search offer the same immortal imprint: is not existing forever in the indexes of Google and others the modern-day equivalent of carving our stories into stone? For anyone who has ever written his own name into a search box and anxiously awaited the results, I believe the answer is yes.

Something to think about, anyway. Good luck, Mr. Levinson and Mr. Page. I’m cheering you on, even if I can’t quite explain why. Maybe it’s that missing line from Gilgamesh we’re all trying to find….

*Hat tip to one of my editors Bill Brazell, for pinging me as I was writing this about this very news.

At Google Zeitgest 2013: A Conversation with Mark Kelly, featuring Gabby Giffords

By - September 18, 2013

For the past four years I’ve been honored to help moderate portions of Google’s annual Zeitgeist conference, which assembles a powerful lineup of speakers each year in the Arizona desert. I hosted the last segment of the day, and sat down with astronaut Mark Kelly, who is known for his career as a fighter pilot and Space Shuttle commander, and of course, as the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords. Since Giffords was shot two years ago, and after the terrible Newtown attack, Kelly and Gifford launched Americans for Responsible Solutions, a SuperPAC that is trying to take on the NRA using NRA lobbying tactics. Gabby comes on toward the end and left no one in their seats. Inspirational stuff – one of many such talks at the conference.

else 9.16: Start Making Sense

By - September 16, 2013

This week, we’re excited about what the new M7 sensors mean for iPhone activity tracking, we’re thinking about how to rebuild trust in the internet and tech companies post-Snowden, and we’re listening to some music that plays with the boundaries between analog and digital. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

Apple’s M7 Motion Sensing Coprocessor Is The Wizard Behind The Curtain For The iPhone 5s – TechCrunch
One of the most interesting new features of the iPhone 5S is the M7 sensors that bring fitness tracking to the devices we already carry in our pockets, making it easier for us to all become quantified selves without having to remember to wear our Fitbits or Jawbones.

M7 motion coprocessor will make tracking walking, running, or even driving more efficient.

This bracelet could replace your passwords, your car keys, and even your fingerprints – The Verge
Using ECG as a unique biomarker, the Nymi might introduce new ways of using our physical attributes as digital identifiers.

E-ZPasses Get Read All Over New York (Not Just At Toll Booths) – Forbes
A hacked E-ZPass reveals other checkpoints where it is surreptitiously read on the road. Must we assume that if a sensor is present, it will be read?

Video: Google Finally Explains the Tech Behind Their Autonomous Cars – PopSci
It’s a little old, but it’s a great walk through of what’s going on with driverless cars. We’re especially intrigued by the programmed signaling that goes on at four-way intersection.

Government Announces Steps to Restore Confidence on Encryption Standards – NYTimes
NIST needs to restore trust after it was revealed that the NSA is able to break encryption standards.

CloudFlare CEO: ‘Insane’ NSA gag order is costing U.S. tech firms customers – Washington Post
Customers demand greater transparency, but there are barriers to disclosing data requests details that explain tech companies’ interactions with the NSA.

Government Secrecy and the Generation Gap – FT
Bruce Schneier writes that the culture of loyalty and secrecy that intelligence agencies relies on is breaking down with generational differences. Expect more whistleblowers.

Dawn of Midi – Radiolab
This Radiolab short features Dawn of Midi, a band that plays with the boundaries between acoustic and electronic music production. We’ve gone from analog to digital and back again. Worth a listen for the music, and for the description of the process we’re going through as our tools expand our understanding of what we might be capable.

The Best Platform for Incubation Is the Web

By - September 10, 2013

egg_20hatch1(image) Yesterday in the course of my seemingly endless attempt to stay current in this industry, I came across this article on VentureBeat: Searching for the next Zuckerberg: A day in the life of a Lightspeed Fellow. It chronicles the experiences of the chosen few who have made it into a VC-backed incubator, focusing on two Stanford students who are trying to create a new sensor for lap swimming.

I recently took up the sport, and find the gadget interesting. But what really struck me was the casual use of Zuckerberg’s name in the headline, and how it was used in context of the ecosystem that has sprung up in the past five or so years around entrepreneurship. Don’t get me wrong, I think incubators and accelerators are important components of our business ecosystem. But I’ve always liked the fact that anyone with a great idea, access to the Internet, and an unrelenting will can spark a world beating company simply by standing up code on the Internet, and/or leveraging the information and relationship network that is the web.  That’s how Facebook started, after all. And Google, and Amazon, Twitter and eBay, and countless others. No gatekeepers, no contests, no hackathons or pre-seed rounds. A great idea, and a great platform: the Web.

I wonder if the next Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg would ever start at Lightspeed, Y Combinator, or TechStars. Certainly amazing companies and ideas have come from inside those estimable establishments, and more will come in the future. But the peculiar fire which drives folks who are truly “the next Zuckerberg” – I wonder if that fire needs stoking from anything else than the Internet itself. If we institutionalize that fire, I think we lose something. A simple page on the open web, offering a service, waiting to be engaged with, to learn from that engagement, to rapidly iterate and grow, to fall down and fail and try again.

In the past few years, entrepreneurship seems to have become a profession, like acting or sales or architecture. On the one hand, that’s a good thing, it means more companies, more jobs, and more great ideas. On the other, something about it strikes me as a bit …forced. I can’t put my finger on it, quite yet, but it centers around the idea that we’re credentializing innovation.  That feels somehow off. The beauty of the innovation that flows from the open web is that no one has to ask for permission, get a credential, or win a Disrupt or Launch award to go prove their idea is worthy. They just…put up a page on the web, iterate, iterate, iterate…and eventually, a Facebook emerges.

I may be just an old school dude, reacting to how the kids are doing it now. Maybe – but I never saw starting companies as a career path. I saw it as something I just had to do – the only thing I could do. I plan to spend more time at these incubation spaces, to check my gut and see what I might be missing. Consider this some out loud thinking for a late Tuesday night. What do you think?