CrowdFlower NYU Event

I did a panel on Crowdsourcing at SXSW this spring with Lukas, the CEO of CrowdFlower. Even if you made it to that, you should definitely know about this great event at NYU on April 13th:

CrowdFlower and NYU present: NYC Crowdsourcing Meetup
Join CrowdFlower for its first ever New York City meetup co-hosted with NYU

Wednesday, April 13
44 West 4th Street, room M3-110

Pizza, beer, and thought provoking conversation about the future of work.
Come listen, ask, and debate how crowdsourcing is changing everything from philanthropy and urban planing to creative design and enterprise solutions.

Confirmed Speakers:

Bartek Ringwelski, CEO and Co-Founder of SkillSlate
Panos Ipeirotis, Associate Professor at Stern School of Business, NYU
Lukas Biewald, CEO and Co-Founder of CrowdFlower
Amanda Michel, Director of Distributed Reporting at ProPublica
Trebor Scholz, Associate Professor in Media & Culture at The New School University
Todd Carter, CEO and Co-Founder of Tagasauris

See you there!

Sprint: A Portrait of a Dysfunctional Company

I've been trying become a Sprint customer for almost a week.

I want to order two 4G Motorola modems for a redundant Internet connection at work.

I call the Sprint phone number to determine price, terms of service and what their refund policy is.

The telephone sales representative sounds like he's communicating through a CB radio from Southern India. He gets pushy and wants me to sign up right then and there, but I say no thanks, I'll try to go into the store and do it. That was my first mistake. There must be a Sprint store near where I work, and indeed, I find one on Google Maps. I call the phone number and listen to a beep-beep-beep-boop-this-number-has-been-disconnected message. I try Google maps to find the phone number on the side of the awning, call that number, no one picks up.

I locate another Sprint store, in the West village, and call them to ask if they have the modems in stock. Nope. Do they get them in often? Nope. Do they know of any other stores that might carry them? Nope. Is it something that stores even carry? Not really, the woman on the phone has never seen them stock and is pretty sure I have to order them online. I begin to order the modem online and get a Request Timeout error that looks like its from a default Apache configuration. This does not inspire a lot of confidence.


Finally get to the end of the online order form and am told that there is a problem with my account -- my identity and credit needs to be verified further, and an email is sent to the same effect, encouraging me to call a phone number for more information. I call said phone number only to be told my information isn't in the system, and that Sprint can't help me yet. I need to wait between 24 and 48 hours to call back to verify my information. OK. I call back in the next couple of hours and try to get to the bottom of what they need from me: a copy of a utility bill with our information faxed into a number with a cover sheet with my email, an Application Number (not order number) in order to verify my identity.

I send the fax and wait.

The next day, with no confirmation or indication that they've been able to verify my identity, I call back and ask what the status of my order is. I wait on hold.


That is strange, Sprint says, they can't find any evidence of my fax being sent in.

It turns out the representative that handled my previous call didn't make a "note" of the impending fax so therefore no one thought to look for it.

Where did my fax go? Sprint isn't sure, they can't say because my order didn't have a note in it saying that a fax was coming. So I just sent my utility bill to your fax machine and now no one knows what happened to it? Yes, that appears to be the case.

I'm going to have to send the fax in again, but this time they'll make a note of it and be sure that it will be associated with my order. Will I get any confirmation that they've received my fax? Can I check? No, a credit department representative will be in contact with me within 24-48 hours to tell me whether I have enough credit to order the modems. How? They'll either call or email.

Two days later an email arrives from Sprint's Business Credit department saying that a line has been approved for me and that I am eligible for up to 5 devices and a $150 deposit per device and so on. I reply: OK does that mean my order can go through? No, the Business Credit department informs me that they do not handle orders. What should I do now? I have to call one of another dozen Sprint phone numbers (if anyone needs a company directory, let me know, I got 'em all).

I get back on the phone with Sprint with someone who sounds more competent than the rest of the people I've been dealing with. She shows a modicum of empathy. "I'm just trying to give your company money. I want to be a customer and you're making this very difficult for me." "Yes, I understand" she says and starts dealing with the credit department.

Hold music and an advertisement from Sprint warning of the dangers of App Stores and espousing their company's "personalization" taunts me. They play it over and over again and again and I try to remember to beg the representatives to just put me on silent hold so I won't have to listen to this. But every time I forget and start to understand the potential of repetitive auditory stimula for inducing psychosis.

Finally the woman comes back on to tell me that we'll have to cancel the old order and try again. Does that mean I have to give you all the information I gave the website over the phone? No. But what she really means is yes. Yes, that is exactly what I'm going to have to do: as she goes through the list of information I recognize every question as a field from Sprint's online checkout form. My own name and business address cease being meaningful concepts as I mumble them drearily into the phone.

More hold.

She's back: ok we're almost there. We need to charge the credit card. Get the credit card.

Getting the credit card. After an hour on hold, I can hear the excitement in both of our voices.

Whose credit card is this? Its the company card. Who is that?

Can I speak to the card holder please? No, he's our CEO and is very busy right now.

The only way we can charge that card is if I speak to the cardholder.

I hand my boss the phone and he says yes and gets asked what he just agreed to.

Back on the phone with woman, ready to charge the card for the deposit plus first month of the modems. So very close.

The credit card was denied. My boss gets a phone call, its American Express verifying the charges. He spends 10 minutes on the phone with Amex trying to navigate their voice prompts to allow Sprint to charge our card.

Finally the modems are charged, and I get sent a confirmation email from Sprint for the new order.


Back at work, Monday morning, check the status of the account: Your order has been canceled. Please call Sprint for more details.

I get passed from one person to another, and signing off, the first person says to me: for more information on your order, you can check I tell him that the reason I'm calling is that that page told me to call this number. He repeats himself and hangs up.

After half an hour on the phone, having talked to 4 different people, and at least one manager, I'm told that Sprint cannot verify my identity and they are incapable of fulfilling my order (or any order) over the phone. This concept no longer makes any sense to me, but I'm defeated at this point.


Is there any possible way I can order these modems? Yes, I'm told, I can go to a store and order them.

What? Your stores don't carry the modems. The stores told me to order them from the web.

Let me find you a store sir.

My apologies, sir, but our store locator is broken.

So I can't order two modems from you-- I can't become your customer because your store locator is broken?

Maybe there's a store outside of the city you can go to.

I have to leave NYC to order a modem from your company?

Our store locator isn't working.

Do you have any idea when it will work?

No, they haven't given us a time frame when it will work.

So not only can't I order from your website, but I can't even determine which stores I could go to?

I'm sorry sir.

They ask me for a new zip code and I give it to them. 10 minutes of hold later, I'm given 3 different stores with 3 different phone numbers. I call the first store.

Do you carry the modems?

No, you can only get them on the website because they're for home use.

Sprint told me that I could get a store like yours to verify my identity and then I could order the modems over the web. Does that make sense to you?

Yes, that makes sense, but we can't actually do that because we're not actually a Sprint store.

So I was just told to call a store that Sprint thinks is a Sprint store but isn't actually a Sprint store?

You'll have to go to the main Sprint store to verify your identity. The one on 23rd.

Sell your Sprint Stock

Here's a graph comparing AT&T (blue) and Verizon's (red) stock with Sprint's (green):

It is no mystery that Sprint is not doing well, and many people believe they are on the verge of bankruptcy. With sales (not customer) service like this, that's not surprising. It shouldn't be this hard to become a customer of anyone's business.

Markov Chaining Kickstarter Blurbs

So I'm back from a wonderful couple of days of hanging out with the Kickstarter team near the beach. I managed to rent a surfboard and catch a couple of waves too. During a margarita-induced what-if-session, someone encouraged me to try and auto-generate some blurbs from the Kickstarter homepage. These are typically 150-200 character descriptions of projects that our community team labors over and refreshes daily.

Since I had worked with Markov Chains for Dan Shiffman's class "Programming A to Z" at ITP and had done two projects using them: ROBODRUDGE (autogenerated Matt Drudge Headlines) and The Rutabaga (an April Fools Joke that Google was attempting to compete with The Onion by using auto-generated news headlines), they seemed like an obvious place to start. I found Eric Hodel's Markov Chain ruby code readily usable and went from there.

To give some background to Markov Chains: the basic principle is to use probability to auto-generate new sequences based off old patterns. Sometimes these sequences can be numerical, sometimes they're musical, and sometimes they're  characters and words.

An example of exquisite corpse from Wikipedia.

Another way to think of Markov chains is as a computer's attempt to play Equisite Corpse: it is fed a certain amount of existing information and then it attempts to extrapolate a similar pattern. A classic example is to feed a Markov Chain Engine Shakespeare; not only is it readily available in raw text and in the public domain, but Markov Chain generated Shakespeare looks strikingly similar to the real thing (thanks to Jim's Random Notes for the work):

If they in thou, thy love, that old,
Thought, that which yet do the heat did excess
My love concord never saw my woeful taste
At ransoms you for that so unprovident:
For thereby beauty show’st I am fled,
Althoughts to the dead, that care
With should thus shall by their fair,
Where too much my jade,
Her loves, my heart.vs.

I pulled down a document with a majority of the text that Kickstarter has used to blurb projects on the homepage. Below is a subset of an almost infinite list of hilarious and sometimes disturbing auto-generated project blurbs:

  • It features monstrous puppets, mystic sex rituals, yellowface assassins, wildly stylized violence, and a songwriter who created that all-important childhood fave Schoolhouse Rock.
  • To promote NAIN, an all-new miniature setting for his REIGN roleplaying game, Greg Stolze has put together a group of thespians shouting thank you at their laptops to a great $3 price.
  • Karl Cronin wants to document and collect relics of the concoctions of Atlanta's Good Food Truck.
  • Emilia Brock types out every word of her adorable and inventive zine, “Muster,” on a manual typewriter, has each copy illustrated by the Simpsons as a mobile CSA.`
  • First Law of Mad Science channels cyber-punk and sci-fi to bring a Yakuza noir production to the emerging subculture of asexuality.
  • Rewards include CDs mixed by a visit from a song left on your voicemail to a unique fabric whose color + pattern is determined by keywords pulled from Twitter's database in real time.
  • Joe Mangrum has been designing simple-but-compelling computer games based on Eugene O'Neill's play.
  • The project will help them print their fourth issue, and editor Mindy (a drummer herself!) is offering backers personalized designs and original music and prove that the rail system is a five-minute short film about a roach violinist who falls in love with the bravado you'll find in Memphis Heat, a documentary on the real-life appearance of a giant, hand-crafted, Rube Goldberg contraption.
  • After 13+ years of genetic testing and solitary confinement, Oliver’s getting a new horror-adventure comic about the movements of immigrants across vast bodies of water.
  • With just a camera in hand and boundless curiosity, Rebekah Potter interviews artists for her series 10min4walls, in which a twenty-something guy returns to Argentina to rekindle past excitement and romance, but instead is confronted with a musical twist, features a one-of-a-kind mood swing.
  • Fans have flocked to support him, and it's not hard to see it for yourself: it’s available only to backers of the fastest competitive lockpickers in the form of a pig's dissembling and its indie rock soundtrack.
  • Director Jonathan Langer will reward backers with the woman whose apartment he inhabits.
  • Common Cycle is a feature-length thriller about strained family relationships, small-town antics, and second chances.
  • I'm Going Home will be filled with a stowaway lab mouse as his only companion.
  • She'll combine intimate interviews, vérité footage, and animation in a city decimated by the public for performances, gallery space, meetings, bike repairs, relaxing — or pretty much anything.
  • This August, thousands of individual leaf, flower, and bird forms from reclaimed wood and connecting them into an animated feature film starring comedic legend Leslie Nielsen.
  • Trailer Park: A Mobile Public Park is a witty comedic web series.
  • Missed Connections is a film about three friends on a loom into a community biology lab so that no two experiences are alike.
  • Check out his video and you can get a sense of humor and would like to be normal, and Nick's lusting for the Queen of England and wrote a jazz pianist whose work was performed by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and many others; was dead.
  • First Law of Mad Science channels cyber-punk and sci-fi to bring you a hand-drawn postcard from the original.
  • The video teaser feels wonderfully Tim Burton-esque, and the search for the over 45,000 participants who attend Burning Man every year.
  • This latest project will launch Gerlan's Spring 2011 runway show, and she's offering backers everything from print copies to mix tapes to personal drum lessons.
  • Brooklyn-based independent art collective Ugly Duckling Presse is publishing the first twist ending that we've come across in a unique fabric whose color + pattern is determined by keywords pulled from Twitter's database in real time.
  • Check out their touching video and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
  • Chicago's Chinese Fine Arts Society has been making stunning sand paintings in public spaces for years, totally 160 in the journey with awesome drawings.
  • Following her lauded Gypsy Killers album, Sanda Weigl has a web series as The Office for actors or Entourage for poor people.
  • As the World Cup opens in South Africa, Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler's project to document the life histories of 200 plants and animals through expressive movement, which he'll share in this hilarious pitch video for great world beats!
  • Fed up with the absurdist aesthetic of Dutch animator Emiel Stevenhagen.
  • The result is hypnotizing, and the Land of the Misfit Toys.
  • Check out their touching video and creative rewards includes communist-issue Mongolian Bomber Goggles!
  • Coyote Pursues is a charming character-driven video game for kids.
  • Coyote Pursues is a fan of the remaining villagers.
  • After the success of the most disgusting way of making coffee we've ever seen, plus fun quotes like Let's go slightly less on the road, and you can still get the book for just $10, plus artwork, CDs, a photo book honoring space exploration.
  • Dario Ciriello's homegrown publishing outfit is guided by a subway car or Wal-Mart aisle is a massive interactive Burning Man installation comprised of an old Dodge pickup with fresh, seasonal veggies, Truck Farm was born.
  • Cobbled together from actual footage and the Outs have recorded a sweet, limited-edition EP on cassette (you heard me right) to help everyone send their phones to space and is going to help everyone send their phones to space and designing an app that will take place in a beautiful color poster, the DVD, and tickets to see any show, or a private event thrown in your town AND cook you dinner- what's not to love?
  • Expect a fabulous soup of literary aficionados chatting intelligently about a roach violinist who falls in love with the bravado you'll find in Memphis Heat, a documentary on the real-life appearance of a giant, hand-crafted, Rube Goldberg contraption.
  • After 13+ years of genetic testing and solitary confinement, Oliver’s getting a new recording in the film's virtual town.
  • With Kickstarter, the beloved web-comic slash zine will be reissued in an American town, Congress, in the last 30 years, the PCR machine has been a fascination and obsession for 400 years, made clear by the economic crisis.
  • Help her bring her spring collection to NY's Fashion Week Green Shows and you might end up pledging $10 to see his son do one of a series of mathematical stories that will open and close by electrical current.
  • The goal of CicLAvia is to put all the way through the eyes of the great '60s cult classics.
  • Fart Party is the subject of Angela Kline's boisterous documentary, A Love Letter to Tom Waits.
  • Akimenko Meats is a powerful combination of portraiture, live audio, and writing, creators Kitra and Chris aim to offer an intimate glimpse of a secretive guy in search of his Jens Pulver Kickstarter project, Gregory Bayne has set his sights on his first film, Person of Interest.
  • The work is beautifully previewed in a fantastical world where every shared glance across a subway doo-wop group can be a kite-flying extravaganza!
  • By showcasing this innovative and highly accessible approach to cinema, filmmaker Benjamin Reece hopes to perform A Chinese Love Story for a new work of comics journalism exposing the human cost of trafficking.
  • Pick up a signed copy of the fastest competitive lockpickers in the city!
  • Fishtank Performance Studio in Kansas City works hard to see his fantastically illustrated children's story become a real-life 13 ft. sculpture and installation at the end, the super bouncy balls will all go flying when she throws herself off a roof.
  • Operating Theater's play Transatlantica revolves around a psychoanalyst who encounters a series of bicycle-powered food tours.
  • Backers can witness the event in real-time; $20 gets you a package of exotic recipes, hard-to-find ingredients, and info cards on your voicemail to a Brooklyn rooftop.
  • It's an inventive project from SFHny Studio, a group of thespians shouting thank you at their laptops to a unique photo book and traveling gallery show, dubbing the project that’s so infectious.
  • Fed up with a variety of sculpted paper viruses.
  • Get rewards like an unreleased font and a songwriter who created that all-important childhood fave Schoolhouse Rock.

Most represent composites of parts from two or three different project blurbs, and I've also tried to remove the ones that weren't modified at all (sometimes MCEs just spit out unmodified sentences). I think part of the reason these work so well is because the original blurbs end up conforming to a particular style of quippy, short descriptions structured around rewards and project topics.

Thoughts on Verizon and Google

In early 2007 I attended a talk at Fordham Law School by William Barr, the former US Attorney General and current Verizon General Counsel and Executive Vice President. The premise of his talk was that regulation, of the network neutrality kind, would only hurt technological innovation in the broadband and Internet space.

A lot of has changed since then, and now that Google and Verizon have stuck a deal purportedly threatening the openness of the future of the web, I thought I'd revisit some of my thoughts from that night as well as muse about what this deal might mean and why its happening now.

During his lecture Barr attempted to point out that there had never been an instance of a telecommunications company violating the terms of network neutrality, so why would they begin now? Out of nowhere, from behind me, someone shouted "What about Madison River?" That person was Tim Wu, who I didn't personally know at the time, but who would later become a friend of mine. Tim had interrupted Barr to remind him aboutMadison River where a local telecom had blocked VoIP connections for broadband subscribers because the telephone company didn't want to compete with inexpensive internet telephony. It was precisely the kind of violation of network neutrality that Barr was claiming could never have happened. Barr dismissed Madison River as an isolated incident which didn't represent the overall policy of non-discrimination by the telecom industry.

Later in the lecture, Barr tried to envision an industry closely regulated by the FCC in order to uphold network neutrality. This would be a world that Barr thought no one would want: innovation would peter out as businesses would face a high barrier of entry in the form of regulations. Conversely, if corporations had the opportunity to really invest in research and development without the fear of future regulatory action, then they might come up with services and tech that would be even better than TCP/IP. Barr believed that it was naive for us to blindly accept that TCP/IP was the best we were going to get for transferring data and communications over a network. Who is to say Verizon or AT&T couldn't come up with a better protocol? TCP/IP has plenty of performance issues (real time synchronous voice communication was a huge challenge), so why not let Verizon innovate at the protocol level, and sure, maybe they'd prioritize some kind of traffic, but it would be for the benefit of technological innovation. Just think of all the potentially amazing applications they'd could come up with if the FCC just left the innovation to Verizon's R&D lab instead of the open internet and the public?

Just say no to walled gardens.

During the question and answer period, I asked Barr why he thought that consumers wanted more walled gardens of content, and whether it was wise to assume the market was going to support another set of AOLs, Compuserves and Prodigys? He replied that of course they consumers wanted better content -- video on handheld devices was going to be the future and the telecoms were going to be the only companies who could deliver it. I insisted that consumers only really want the internet in their pockets and that he was kidding himself if he thought a curated walled garden on a handset would be nearly as appealing as an actual functional web browser (something no mobile company had delivered yet).

In a sense we were both wrong and we were both right. Consumers did want mobile video on demand, but they also wanted the entire open web in a functional experience.

Prior to Barr's lecture Verizon had announced a half-baked partnership with YouTube which would offer limited and selected versions of YouTube videos for watching on handheld devices. Then, a couple of months later, Steve Jobs announced the iPhone which would have even greater support for YouTube. Verizon was banking on curated portals inside hobbled handsets, and Apple had just bet the farm on the touchscreen and a mobile Safari browser. We know who won this battle. Does anyone ever talk about watching YouTube on their 3 year old cell phone any more? Does anyone even remember the partnership?

Why Verizon and none of the other telecoms never fully invested in a serious mobile browsing experience is best explained by their general hostility to the open web. The big telecoms have always loathed the net, whether it was manifest in an engineering snobbery towards the "dumbness" of TCP/IP or the fact that the net worked best when it treated their products not like products at all but like common utilities, something no company wants. So it has never been surprising that the telecommunications industry never bothered to create a real mobile browsing experience; they were too eager to strike Big Deals with Exclusive Providers of Proprietary Content than supply an actual connection to the open web.

Steve Jobs, to his credit, saw the opportunity to serve consumers what they really wanted, and he and Apple have since been handsomely rewarded for creating a mobile browsing experience worth using. Google's choice to freely offer Android was a brilliant bit of strategy: all of the telecommunications firms and handset manufacturers were panicking and desperate to compete with Apple's iPhone, so why not give supply them what they wanted?

So now Verizon and Google are making an uneasy deal behind the FCC's back and trying to assuage the FCC and the public that they're really doing it in the name of technological innovation. Think about all the applications that could exist if we didn't have to rely on the Internet! Healthcare Monitoring! The Smart Grid! Advanced educational services! Incredible entertainment and gaming options! These are all ghosts of walled gardens past and there's no reason to believe that a competitive startup can't supply these exact services over the open web.

The wireless component of the Google/Verizon deal is the biggest wild card and the most controversial aspect of their joint policy proposal. The two companies argue that the principles of network neutrality shouldn't apply in the wireless space. I couldn't agree less. The telecoms have demonstrated very little capacity for innovation in the wireless space in the last 15 years (why is it so hard to develop SMS applications? why is Google voice such a pain to reconfigure as my voicemail? etc.), so why would we trust them now?

Ultimately, why shouldn't the principles of common carriage and network neutrality apply to the wireless space? Because its too difficult? Too expensive? I don't buy it. What the wireless space needs now is faster and cheaper TCP/IP service and a more open application infrastructure. Negotiating one off deals for new channels and services will only remind us of Compuserve circa 1999.

Lessig, Crawford and Wu have a good post about the proposal, but also read Jonathan Zittrain's thoughts on it here too.

Duplicate Windows 7 Commercials Show Why Software Patents are a Bad Idea

Part of Microsoft's aggressive Windows 7 TV advertising campaign revolves pairing feature ideas with tongue-in-cheek-reenactments of how those ideas occurred to "real" users. The "real" user retells how and where they came up with the concept and then demonstrates that, hey, Microsoft thought it was a good idea too and hey, look at that its now in Windows 7! Clearly Microsoft is finally listening to its users (as opposed to Windows Vista).

Anyway, these faux testimonials-reenactments never struck me as particularly sincere and after being subjected to one just a couple of minutes ago, I realized that I had seen basically same commercial with another actor claiming to have thought of the same feature. So I went and double checked on YouTube, and indeed, there are two commercials with two totally different men (with different names) claiming to have thought of the "Aero Snap" feature in Windows 7. The former one is the original US one, and the latter one is the UK version.

So, who came up with the idea? For the sake of the argument, let's interpret it in the most generous way possible: two independent, real people named Jake and Ramin came up with the same idea and Microsoft chose to implement it. How cool.

But wait, wouldn't Microsoft probably own a patent on the Aero Snap feature? Sure enough, they do. Its actually a lot more broad and powerful than simply snapping windows, but Microsoft applied for and received the patent in 2005.

And now they have two commercials with two people claiming to have come up with the same idea by themselves. Just imagine if one of those users didn't submit the idea to Microsoft, but merged into a free software project at the same time? (It turns out that KDE, a free software window manager has long had such a feature).

In this generous interpretation Microsoft has implicitly created an argument against patents: independent and simultaneous discovery of inventions. Who do you give the patent to, Jake or Ramin? This is actually a hugely interesting area of contemporary research, and there's been lots of work done to demonstrate that new ideas are almost never new. Kevin Kelly has a good post about it here.

Unfortunately, there's a more likely and cynical explanation for the duplicate commercials: someone at Microsoft "discovered" the concept (here's a MS blog post discussing its development and effectively taking credit for it), and then they did two or more sets of commercials with different demographically-appealing actors claiming credit for the features.

Cause Caller Thesis (PDF & LaTeX Source)

Apparently my alma-mater (and current part-time employer) ITP is suggesting current students look at my thesis because of its formatting.

I used LaTeX to format it and used the ACM template here I'm proud to finally post it almost 2 years later. It also means that ITP students don't have to go through the demented process of trying to recreate / reformat a template.

The significant departures from ACM's template are the copyright notice and the image inclusions.

Good luck!

Cause Caller Thesis - PDF, 2.5mb, CC BY-SA.
Cause Caller Thesis - LaTeX Source Code, .tex, 74kb


Cause Caller Thesis

Here's a video of my presentation:

Why do all Na'avi in Avatar have braids? Because code is law.

You could say that I'm partial to Lessig's maxim that "code is law."

I also think it goes a long way to explaining some decisions James Cameron made while making Avatar. More specifically, the code and technology responsible for the majority of the movie's (we can't very well go on calling them films much longer, can we?) visual experience actively constrained the choices of the production team and thereby the choices of the Avatar characters themselves. Neytiri couldn't have had voluminous hair even if she wanted to, because James Cameron's hardware and software wasn't good enough.

If you haven't followed computer graphics closely you might not know that certain textures and materials, like hair, are incredibly difficult to get right. Though there has been quite a lot of progress in the realm of still CG, capturing the motion and flow of humanoid hair is still very difficult if not virtually impossible. Cameron's Avatar didn't significantly advance the state of the art, but he was able to creatively sidestep the issue by giving his characters thick braids and dreadlocks which he could motion capture.

This alleviated the chore of trying to artificially generate the realistic movement of millions of individual hairs: if all the Na'avi had braids or dreadlocks, then all of that movement could be motion captured by actors in reality.

Much has been made of Cameron's innovation to accurately develop motion capture for individual facial movements, and it is my strong feeling that the team also took this approach for the hair of their characters. As Wired pointed out in their features on the movie, this is an evolution in the modern director relationship to computer graphics: instead of trying to *simulate* real world phenomena using procedural software, directors opt to direct a close enough analog in the physical world whose motion could be captured at a very high resolution using camera-like devices.

Don't believe me? Check out these screen grabs from the Avatar making of video floating around:

Look closely at Zoe's head and it doesn't require a lot of imagination to believe that her dreadlocks have individual motion capture devices embedded in them. It's also probably true that motion capture systems of this type can not be scaled small enough for individual hairs. This might change in the future, but for now it is a real technological constraint in the world of Pandora. There are a couple other examples of technology constraining creative choice: why don't any animals in the Pandora jungle have fur? Might it be because Cameron couldn't get CG fur to look right?

So Cameron's technological constraints and innovation drove choices that would have have otherwise been purely creative. Code became law on Pandora. Sometimes the origins of code's constraints are artificial (such as copyright law) but sometimes they're just practical constraints like software and CPU horsepower, and I think that's what happened here.

Let me know if you agree or have any evidence to the contrary.

Emoji Dick

I just launched a project on Kickstarter (an awesome NYC based startup that helps people fund their ideas) to translate Moby Dick into Emoji using Amazon Mechanical Turk. I'm calling it Emoji Dick:

This project will fund the production, via crowd sourcing, of a never-before-released translation of Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick in Japanese emoji icons.

Here's an example of an Emoji sentence from Moby Dick:

Each of Moby Dick's 6,438 sentences will be translated 3 times by different Amazon Mechanical Turk workers. Those results will then be voted on by another set of workers, and the most popular version of each sentence will be selected for inclusion in the book.

I'm trying to reach $3,500, and you can give at the $5, $10, $20, $40, and $200 levels and get different awesome rewards, like their name included in the book, a CC BY-SA licensed PDF, the raw data, and either a softcover black and white copy or a limited edition color version.

If you want to support the project, just visit the page here. Thanks!

Fighting iPhone App Store Stockholm Syndrome with Easter Eggs

Some iPhone app store developers are beginning to suffer from Stockholm syndrome and are now sympathizing and fighting on behalf of their captor, known as the iPhone approval process.

From Wikipedia's article on Stockholm Syndrome:

Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response sometimes seen in abducted hostages, in which the hostage shows signs of loyalty to the hostage-taker, regardless of the danger or risk in which they have been placed.

And just as Patty Hearst picked up a machine gun to rob a bank while being held captive by the Symbionese Liberation Army, these developers are attacking the sane programmers trying to save them.

Here's a guest post on TechCrunch where Matt Galligan, a CEO of an iPhone app development shop where he calls out Yelp for not abiding by Apple's rules:

Call it sneaky, call it clever, but I call it deceit. Apple has put forth specific guidelines, and “rules” around their app development, and while I don’t always agree, it’s the reality of how we must work with them for now. Yelp hid their easter egg behind shaking the device, which isn’t always the most intuitive action to take on an app that contains some maps and lists. As a result, the unsanctioned Augmented Reality view was gone from Apple’s radar.

Why is Galligan chastising Yelp? Sure, he acknowledges, the app store may act badly sometimes, but hey, rules are rules, right?

Wrong. He should be commending Yelp for putting their app's approval on the line by risking Apple's wrath. Yelp must have one of the most popular free apps in the iPhone app store, so it is quite a risk to release it with functionality purposely hidden from Apple.

But its the right kind of risk; it's gutsy, offers a new whiz-bang feature, and asserts Yelp's right to develop whatever features they want outside the scrutiny of their captor.  These are values that all developers need more of when creating iPhone applications.

And, if as Galligan predicts, Yelp's risk forces the App Store approval process to spend more time digging through source to discover undocumented functionality using forbidden (Gasp!) API calls, then maybe it will demonstrate to Apple that it's just not worth treating your developers like hostages, and they'll dismantle the approval process entirely.

Apple now has such strict control over the development process that some developers have clearly lost the ability to think for themselves. That means we have to find every opportunity to encourage them to fight against their captor's tyranny.

That means encouraging risks like Yelp's and developing more Easter eggs for iPhone apps.

So if you're reading this and are also currently developing an iPhone app, think about including an Easter Egg that might rankle Apple. You won't be ruining it for the rest of us, you'll be chipping away at the wall of Apple's tyranny over developers.

Regarding Public Disclosure of Private Fact on Social Networks

A quick update about the Facebook governance post I wrote a while ago where I wondered whether disclosing private facts about yourself on your Facebook page would constitute "public disclosure of private facts" and thereby prevent you from claiming invasion of privacy should a friend disclose something they discovered on your semi-private profile:

... American law prevents me from disclosing private facts about Alice that are not news worthy. However, if Alice had disclosed such private facts in a public space (perhaps in front of a large audience), I can pass on the facts to others and even publish them.

But what if Alice discloses her private fact on her Facebook profile? It remains private in the sense that only I and her friends can see it by logging into Facebook’s private service, but it also arguably public in the sense that I and her friends are also an audience. Does it matter how many friends she has? What privacy settings did she have in place?

Through a Slashdot post, I just stumbled across a case that hinged on a very similar fact pattern, Moreno vs. Hanford Setinel. The judge decided that since a teenager wrote a post on her MySpace blog revealing facts she believed (and now regretfully wishes) were private, she could not claim a breach of privacy under the doctrine.

The judge astutely points out that since the teenager's MySpace page and blog were publicly available to "anyone with a computer and Internet connection.", they couldn't be considered private even if she believed her actual audience to be tiny. But this leaves open the question of whether using Facebook's privacy settings would create a particular level of security that would classify the profile and facts as "private."

Obviously details about actions and relationships matter a great deal in determining whether privacy has been breached and whether certain disclosures are public "enough" to negate a plaintiff's privacy claim. But what is still interesting to me, is whether certain technical choices a user can make on Facebook are substantial enough to shift a profile from being public to being private in the eyes of the law.

As Lessig argues, code is law, but in this case, we might be able to see it the other way around: Facebook's code could amount to sufficient law.