Messing Around With Images

The Side Dish

If you know me at all, you know that I always have a side project. I mean, I love the main course as it is full of challenges, but sometimes I need to do something else. I need a Gedankenvacation.

Dude, you may ask, why do your vacations include hours of code in front of a small screen? Why not go out, get some fresh air and enjoy the sun? That’s actually a good question. Maybe it’s because I love to code. Maybe I’m just a bit lazy. Maybe I’m a vampire. Who knows?

All I know is that when I work too hard on one problem, I can tap out of resources pretty quickly and then I turn into a Facebook Zombie. Learning a new skill or working on a different problem usually helps me get out of the rut, and allows me to go on for much longer stretches.

My side projects usually have some sort of visual or artistic nature. I’m hardly any good at it, but I love doing it, and I don’t mind failing. One year I have written detective stories in a blog format (think of how a blog of a private investigator would look like). One year I’ve founded (and terminated) an online T-shirt store. One year I have worked on a massive multi-player online game (that we abandoned unfinished). And one year I helped organize reality-hacking events, where I got to meet interesting people and edit lots of videos. This year I want to work on a combination of visualization and social themes, simply because it’s the complete opposite of what I’m working on during my “day job”.

Messing Around With Images

It’s been almost a decade since I last did anything related to image processing. I was in the second year of my computer science degree, and I was looking for any practical course I could find. I never felt engaged by highly abstract mathematical courses such as Computational Complexity Theory. Call me a heretic, but in my mind Turing machines aren’t very practical mental models for computers, and I don’t understand why they are still being taught.

Anyway, digital image processing was exceptionally suited for my practical needs. First, you could actually see the results of your work. Second, it included just enough math so it wasn’t completely technical and boring (unlike, unfortunately, most of the programming tasks in Data Structures) and just enough code as to be useful.  Third, did I mention you could actually see results with your own eyes?

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Social Media Vs Social Commitment

If a million people join this group, it will have a million people in it

It’s easy to start a group on Facebook. It’s easy to join. But does your group have meaning? Does it move people to action? Opening a new group is easy, creating a movement is hard. Creating a movement requires commitment.

Most people are afraid of failing. Some think they will lose the respect of their friends and families. Some can’t risk the financial costs. So we need validation from the group for everything. That’s why most Facebook groups use weak language. The creators don’t want to link their reputation too tightly with the failure to achieve the goal.

If X people will join, Y will happen – the creators of these groups leave themselves a nice exit route. If X doesn’t happen, we’re off the hook. We don’t promise to do anything. Oh, and we really don’t have much contorl over Y either, we just kind of hope Y will listen.

Example: If 100,000 people join this group, Nike will stop child labor in China. The language sends a message, and the message is: we’re not serious about child labor. Instead, try Help us stop Nike from using child labor in China. Now we have to be active. Now we are about change. Now we have started a movement.

What’s in a movement?

There’s a video going around the internet about a guy dancing at some music festival. This video is used as a perfect metaphor for a movement in three minutes. It depicts all the stages of a movement, from inception to full blossom.

  1. The Leader – every movement needs a leader. The leader is not afraid to stick out, to be different, to do what he believes even if he has to do it alone.
  2. The True Fans – the first to join the leaders are true fans. They believe in the movement, they just aren’t willing to take the risks. The risk of no-one joining. The risk of failing. They are not alone. They have a leader. This is very important. We’re not all fit to be leaders. If you believe in something, find who else does, and join them. You don’t have to open a new movement to make change.
  3. The Tipping Point – notice what happens after the third guy joins in. This is the tipping point, the critical mass. This is the point where change begins. Suddenly, there’s enough energy in the movement to challenge the status-quo, to be noticed.
  4. Change Complete – as more and more people join in, it becomes riskier not to join. As change builds, which were once the heretics are now the in-crowd, and those still sitting on the sidelines are conservatives, holding on to a fading life-style.

Notes from the trenches

In 2008 a group called Improv Everywhere created an event in New York’s Grand Central Station. The 200 or so participants of the event froze in place for five minutes in the midst of one of the busiest places on earth.

The video was so powerful it attracted many followers. In fact, there were over 70 similar events worldwide. I was lucky enough to help with the organization of the event in Tel Aviv (shameless plug). We weren’t the only group in Israel trying to create such an event. Why were we the only ones to succeed?

  • We made decisions. When you lead a tribe, there’s always a chance people won’t like your decisions. Do you take a risk and alienate some people? Do you put everything to voting? In a lot of groups, everything was up for vote and consensus was a must. Most of them couldn’t even choose a date. In our group, we’ve set the date up front. Even if your tribe is a democracy, the tribe elects a leader that has the power to make decisions in the name of the group.
  • We inspired confidence in the tribe. We had to communicate to the tribe that the event will take place as planned, and it will be a huge success. Once we earned the confidence of the first true fans, the tribe grew organically.
  • We engaged and empowered the tribe. Participants were asked to do whatever they could to improve the event. We asked them to bring friends. We ignited their imagination. We accepted their suggestions. We joined forces with others who wanted to help. We kept going until due date, and we came back to the group and published the results after the event.

The Tribes We Lead

We are bombarded with a contradictory message: You are unique, just like everybody else. We are supposed to express our uniqueness by buying branded shoes. We are supposed to wear our own style, as long as it’s skinny jeans. Brands spend billions shouting at people who don’t listen. They try to be noticed even though we don’t care. A lot of us go for it. It’s easy to be part a movement when someone else tells you what to do.

That’s OK. Most of us aren’t built to lead a tribe. Think about it. If we were all leaders, who would we lead? A tribe has leadership and followers. Followers don’t have to be passive. We can be passionate and active. We can recruit our friends. We can organize events. We will take risks for the cause.

We don’t need millions to create change. If we are a thousands active fans, we can reach a hundred thousand people, easy. Maybe even a million. That’s a lot of power, a lot of awareness, a lot of movement. In order to lead, find followers who are passionate and create a platform for them to spread the word.

Help us realize we can be part of a tribe that believes in something more than skinny jeans and branded shoes. Don’t be afraid. We need you to lead us. It is easy for us to find you, now more than ever. We are looking for you. We are connected. We want to help. We just need you to empower us.

Winning The RSS Race

The RSS Race

I’m a long time user of Google’s RSS reader, and it changed my life. I’m not kidding. Google is the first RSS reader I’ve ever used. I started using an RSS reader because Google released one, and I have a habit oftrying out Google’s new services. Call me a Google Fanboy, if you must. Anyway, after using an RSS reader, I was hooked.

I’ve never been one to follow the news. I hate the newspaper industry with passion. Even the name makes me cringe. Newspapers are a method of delivering news on paper. Paper is an expensive delivery form, slow and wasteful. Paper is a byproduct, for the lack of better delivery systems. Then we get to the news. We don’t need journalists to deliver news. We need them to verify facts, summarize ideas and filter out noise – all the things the journalists claim bloggers fail to do. However, most of what I read in the newspaper is rubbish, written by someone who understands nothing of the subject and edited by someone who must please the advertisers.

Malcolm Gladwell told a great – albeit probably fictional – story about the beginning of his career as a journalist. It was recorded live at The Moth. You can listen to it here (mp3). Well worth ten minutes of your time.

Blogs, on the other hand, are completely different. There are a few archetypes of blogs that I’ve encountered, when the most commons are:

  • Personal Diary – the personal diary writer just needs to vet, and they do it on the internet instead of into a little locked book. I have met, I have ate, I have slept, I am anxious, I am in love, I am confused, I will be on vacation, I will be thirty five, I will die. If you don’t know the writer, I’ve quickly discovered, these are really very boring.
  • Professional Blog – Blogs meant to teach, to share a point of view. Stock trading, coding, blogging, cooking, origami, etc. are all fair game. If you have an interest in any subject at all, there’s a good chance you can find a few blogs worth following that you can learn more about the subject. These bloggers are often immersed in the subject.
  • News Distribution – usually these blogs have multiple writers, they tend to write about anything new in their field of expertise and they post several time a day. In terms of content value, they create very little. All they do, just as the newspapers do, is aggregate, summarize and filter data from other sources. It’s quantity over quality.

So by now I have over 110 sources in my RSS reader, almost all of them are professional blogs in the categories of: web development and code, venture capital and entrepreneurship, cloud and high scalability, design (these tend to change more often), a few friends (mostly personal diaries) and an assortment of interesting thinkers of various fields I’ve encountered.

Running Behind

By rule of thumb, a blog I follow will post less than once a day. I just don’t have the time to follow anyone who’s chattier than that. As always, there’s a long tail, and most of my daily read focuses around about 10-20 most prolific sources.

This is a lot of reading. It’s hard to keep up.

Lately, I’ve noticed I’m losing the RSS race. I skim more, I focus less. I’m clicking through the items and I just want to mark cleaning my reading queue as done on my to-do list. I tried reducing my reading list. I’ve went through the list and cleared a few blogs, but this has done no good. All of the blogs I’ve deleted were inactive.

With this uneven distribution, I can’t control the throttle with any level of finesse. I can follow or un-follow a blog. I can’t ask for the best five posts from my top twenty blogs.

Some of these blogs are connected. In the venture business, perhaps since it is such a small pond, it seems everybody is reading and posting reply-posts on everybody else’s blogs. This means that for a lot of subjects I get duplicates and triplicates of posts on the same subject (The subject of where to open a startup had four or five different posts on the same week). I want to get only one of these posts, or have the aggregated somehow.

Also, in every blog there are themes I’m less interested in (for example, talk dates and conferences in the US).

I could really use something to help me sort out the trash. The only service I know of that tries to help is my6sense, which seem to be focusing on the iPhone for some reason, so I can’t use it. They claim they can learn what is relevant to me through my behavior and filter or sort my reader appropriately.

My Perfect RSS Reader

Here’s what I need for my perfect RSS reader:

  • Filtering – As mentioned above, filtering by content relevance to me. I want to be able to filter topics (either by content or blog tags). Also, I want the reader to automatically remove duplicates. Anything that is too close to something I’ve already read, shouldn’t appear. I don’t care if I miss anything, really. A good blog post will probably find its way to me through other means as well (social media FTW).
  • Serendipity – I use blogs for learning. When I was building a few web sites for the first time, I followed a few web development blogs. I was also into user interface and design for a while. Later, I removed most of these and started looking for blogs about databases, IT and cloud computing. Now it’s all about venture capital. I can’t follow everyone, so I remove blogs when they are no longer “useful”. I’d still love to get great posts from any of the subjects I was once interested in.
  • Throttle – most blog authors tend to post in themes. They have subjects they are passionate about, and they tend to write about them a lot. I tend to get bored after a while, but I don’t want to give up on a blog entirely. I need to throttle them down to make room for new blogs.
  • ConversationAll RSS readers fail here. RSS is just so bloody passive. It is a way of pulling information, but provides no interface to pushing information back. I want to be part of the conversation. Reading all the comments? Heck no! But I will want to see some of the comments, and probably post my own comment every once in a while. I haven’t heard of an RSS reader that solves the conversation issue. (In fact, most blog commenting systems fail here as well. I’ll rant about this at some other time)

My Life Line To New Information

Since I haven’t found my perfect RSS reader, I will probably have to develop it myself. This is part of my effort to take control over the data I’m consuming and my Internet browsing experience. For now, I dub this effort “LifeLine“. LifeLine is my dream Social Media/RSS Reader/Email client, which I’ve been thinking of for a while, but haven’t started working on yet. Under the LifeLine category, I’ll post my ideas about the various features I require. If you know of any service that does any of these, please, let me know and save me the trouble.

Twitter Will Make Money (Just Not That Much)

This is the last part of a three-part post series, trying to analyze the future of social media and the web. In part I, we examined what tools Facebook has to make it a dominant force on the internet and in our lives. In part II, we analyzed the battle over the architecture of the Internet. In part III, we make some predictions about Twitter’s future.

The Thing Everybody Is Talking About Right Now

There’s always something everybody’s going bananas over. In 2000 it was the entire Dot Com. In 2007 it was the iPhone. The end of 2009 belonged to Twitter. Everywhere you turn headlines are buzzing: X Radically Changes Our Lives, 10 Things You Must Know About X To Stay Relevant and Whatever-Came-Before-X Is Dead – Long Live The King.

Once the excitement cools down a bit, we realize that very little has actually changed in our lives. It usually takes another five to ten years for us to notice how dramatic the effects actually are. I’ve come to expect this, so I’ve learned to ride the hype out and look into the future with clearer eyes. And I’m going to teach you the model by which I’m working.

Every year, Gartner publishes a summarized state-of-technology graph called The Hype Cycle. The Hype Cycle is a model of expectations over time for technologies. In general there are five stages to the Hype Cycle (from Wikipedia):

  1. Technology Trigger — The first phase of a hype cycle is the “technology trigger” or breakthrough, product launch or other event that generates significant press and interest.
  2. Peak of Inflated Expectations — In the next phase, a frenzy of publicity typically generates over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations. There may be some successful applications of a technology, but there are typically more failures.
  3. Trough of Disillusionment — Technologies enter the “trough of disillusionment” because they fail to meet expectations and quickly become unfashionable. Consequently, the press usually abandons the topic and the technology.
  4. Slope of Enlightenment — Although the press may have stopped covering the technology, some businesses continue through the “slope of enlightenment” and experiment to understand the benefits and practical application of the technology.
  5. Plateau of Productivity — A technology reaches the “plateau of productivity” as the benefits of it become widely demonstrated and accepted. The technology becomes increasingly stable and evolves in second and third generations. The final height of the plateau varies according to whether the technology is broadly applicable or benefits only a niche market.

Here’s what the Hype Cycle for 2009 looked like:

The Dot Com Bubble

The Dot Com provides excellent proof-by-example and insight into the Hype Cycle. For example, let’s examine Amazon’s stock between 1998 and 2005. Amazon is the poster child of the first Dot Com bubble. Notice how it’s stock (thus, expectations for success) follows the model. The unsubstantiated rise in 1999, the realization it’s actually losing bucket-loads of money in 2000 and the gradual rise as the model proves itself after a long period of time. It took Amazon 10 years to pass the peak of the hype, only doing so this year:

Oops I Did It Again (Bubble 2.0)

Web 2.0 went through the same cycle. Two examples:

YouTube exploded into our lives so fast it’s almost hard to believe how we could live without free online video. It launched in February 2005, and was acquired by Google less than two years later, in November 2006 for a hefty $1.65B. That was the peak of YouTube’s hype. Three years later, Eric Shmidt, Google’s CEO, admits: We’ve paid a $1B premium on YouTube. Free online video is yet to be sustainable.

Facebook’s valuation is harder to analyze as it is still a private company, but here are some key numbers (mostly from CruchBase):

  • 2004 – $10M – FriendFeed tries to buy Facebook.
  • 2004 – $100M – Round of funding.
  • 2005 – $525M – Round of funding.
  • 2006 – $1,000M – Yahoo tries to buy Facebook.
  • 2007 – $15B- Microsoft acquires ~1.5%. This is the peak of the hype.
  • Feb 2009 – $3.7B – Facebook values itself. This is probably too low (this valuation was given by Facebook in trial, where it had incentive to lower the number).
  • May 2009 – $6.5B-$10B – Round of funding.

So, as you can see, there was hype around 2007. Then the economy collapsed, forcing Facebook to spend less (as funding was harder to come by), and revealing a much lower yet more substantiated valuation based on revenues. From here, I predict, Facebook will continue to rise.

Third Time A Charm (A Bubble In Real Time)

Ashton Kutcher has 1 million followers! Twitter was on Oprah (or, perhaps, Oprah is on twitter). Everyone is so excited! Twitter raises $100M, valuated at $1B! Twitter’s new offices are shagadelic! Facebook is dead, long live the king!

As appropriate to a real time service, the hype around Twitter was fast to rise and fast to fall. It didn’t take long for the following to appear:

No big surprise there, I can tell you. Here’s what I believe is going to happen. Twitter has a lot to do with real time sharing of information and very fast propagation of data. Media junkies – i.e., anyone who’s job depends on identifying and reacting trends – will find it very useful. In the third world, Twitter’s open architecture is better suited to pass through governmental firewalls, as the API and third-party applications make it much harder to block, so it will be a “force for good” there. Lastly, it is a publication platform, allowing businesses to put a widget on their website to strengthen communications with users.

The general population doesn’t need real-time. Real-time is too fast, unprocessed, unsummarized information. The early adopters that hyped Twitter in the news miss this point. Early adopters have to be fast to be early, so real-time is important to them. Most of us? We want someone to filter things for us.

From this, I conclude that ads on Twitter will fail. There just won’t be enough people there for ads to work. So, I predict a premium model for businesses and heavy users will probably prevail. I think Twitter will be profitable, just not as much as people expect. It will be a niche player, and its profit will grow slowly over a very long period of time.

‘Nough Said

Our expectations of the currently hyped technology will take longer than expected to come into fruition. 3D took a long time to reach the cinemas and it’ll be a very long time before it’s mainstream in our homes. News papers are dead for more than a decade, and I still read them, in print, whenever I stop at the coffee shop on my way to work. Facebook is only now reaching maturity and Twitter is so young it’s almost irresponsible to have any expectations from it. And don’t get me started about the flying cars.

Innovators and early adopters have to remember that most people take longer to accept for change. This means the effects of any technology are most interesting when the technology has become boring. And, boy oh boy, I can hardly wait.

Google VS Facebook: A Battle Over The Internet’s Architecture

This is the second part of a three-part post series, trying to analyze the future of social media and the web. In part I, we examined what tools Facebook has to make it a dominant force on the internet and in our lives. In part II, we analyze the battle over the architecture of the Internet. In part III, we will try to see into the future and I’ll make some wild claims about Twitter – and try to prove them too. Stay tuned.

Google Is The Source To The Internet

There is no doubt that Google is the dominant force on the Internet. Most people don’t understand how the internet works. They can’t tell the difference between a search engine and a browser. When Google is down, they think the Internet is broken. In their minds, Google is the internet.

When I need something, Google directs me there. Google is the traffic cop of the Internet. From Google’s point of view, they are the source, pointing out to all the other sites.

Notice these attributes:

  • Switching cost is low – If a new search engine will produce slightly better results, switching to it is easy. I just replace my home page. Boom. Switched.
  • Ecology is loosely coupled – Google depends on the sites it indexes to survive. The site creator does not. If Google’s search engine disappears, others will take its place (Bing comes to mind). The site does not depend on Google.
  • Spam is getting worse – Google is fighting a battle against SEO experts, who try to game the system. The algorithm that once revolutionized the search engine business, is slowly losing its grip. The basics of the search engine has stayed the same for so long, spam is getting worse (or better, depends on your side of the table, I suppose).

Facebook Creates An Internet Mesh

In Part I, I’ve discussed how Facebook is integrating with other services. In fact, some services exists solely inside Facebook (FarmVille is a dominant example). The interaction with Facebook is bi-directional, and it creates a much stronger dependency.

Facebook’s Internet is different:

  • Switching costs are high – If another social network comes in, it better have all my friends there. If I’m the only one using it, it has very little value for me. Network effects are what pushed me to move from ICQ to MS Messenger to Google Talk. One day, I had more friends on one network than on the other, and then I switched.
    Also, I’d lose my Internet identity, with so many sites connected to my Facebook profile, it is almost unimaginable.
  • Ecology is tightly coupled –  There’s all this code written to integrate well with the Facebook Feed, with Facebook Connect, with Facebook Credit. Any competitor will really have to provide some very serious ROI benefits for a site or service to move. The ecology around Facebook has an interest in Facebook continued success much more than Google’s ecology.
  • Spam is getting worse – Well, you can’t win it all. But it still should be easier to detect, as Facebook has much more information about its users (real and fake).

Not A Winner Takes All

I interact with these two services in a profoundly different way. What am I searching for? Let’s see: documentation, product, product, documentation, how-to, cryptic error message, a blog post I read once that I vaguely remember a bit of and I want to quote in a post. It’s all very static. I don’t use search engines to find things of interest. They come to me.

I have streams for that. The Facebook feed (“Yo, check out this commercial, it’s hilarious for realzees”), Twitter (“OMG, somebody posted something on TechCrunch“), my RSS Reader (“Google Aligning Its Starts And Applications“). New stuff is coming my way, but old stuff stays at the same place. Google is my memory bank. Facebook is my sensory input.

They are both useful, but a paradigm shift is occurring. Search engines were the lords of the Internet for a decade, but like the portals, they will give way to something new. It is going to be very hard to remain rich and powerful as a search engine. Google better get new revenue streams fast.

The Twitter Conundrum

For a long while, when I was asked what I think of Facebook, my answer was: “meh“. I didn’t get it. Everybody was signing up, but there really wasn’t much to do. It was good for coordinating events and sharing images. It took some serious competition from Twitter to force Facebook to innovate the home page. Now, with the feed in place, I think Facebook is awesome. Twitter? Meh.

As for Google, the flimsy implementation of Buzz is, most likely, a response to the hype around Twitter. Google should direct its efforts against Facebook. Why is this not obvious? Because technology is only interesting when it is boring. I’ll explain this remark in Part III: The Hype Cycle, in which I’ll explain how reading the news distorts the judgment of decision makers, and how this gives Facebook a fighting chance before everyone catches on. Also, as promised, I’ll try and predict the future of Twitter in all this mess.