Episode 22 - On the Entropy of the iToaster, CES, and Mega-Networks



Twister: An awesome movie from the 90s


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  • Parallel Submit - Feb 17-19, 2014 in Innsbruck, AU -- Alex will be here

  • SXSW  - March 7-16, 2014 Austin, TX (POSSIBLY SEE KLINT AND CHRIS PRESENT)  
  • Theorizing the Web - April 25-26, 2014 in Brooklyn, NY
  • Cyborg Camp - MIT Media Lab - August 2014 - Boston, MA
  • Buddhist Geeks Conference - October 16-19 2014; Boulder, CO



    Mindful Cyborgs, Contemplative living in the age of quantification, augmentation and acceleration, with your hosts Chris Dancy and Klint Finley.


    KF:    Welcome to Mindful Cyborgs. Chris Dancy is out this week but I’m joined this week with our new regular co-host Alex Williams. Hey Alex, how is it going?


    AW:    Hey Klint. Great. How are you?


    KF:    I’m doing well.


    AW:    Great.


    KF:    So what’s going on this week? You were not at CES.


    AW:    No, I didn’t go to CES.


    KF:    I didn’t either.


    AW:    What did you think of it seeing it from afar?


    KF:    I didn’t really follow it at all. I wrote one story about some new chips that are coming out from NVIDIA. But that’s about it. Did you follow it at all?


    AW:    I only followed it because I’m interested in the wearable stuff. I didn’t really follow that closely but I’m trying to find correlations between different technologies that we talked about. For instance, I had an interview this week with the cofounder of Neo4j talking about graph databases. And it seems like with graph databases that there’s a real correlation there between the wearable and the phenomenon and how those wearables will connect into other systems, and other things, into people, and everything else and kind of increases that possibility that actually we are all nerds. That was what I was interested in.


    KF:    Right. 


    AW:    How about you? You always tell me the things you were interested in correlating when you were watching CES. I find like the daily news flow is not what I’m really interested in. I’m more interested in just kind of picking up some of the big things.


    KF:    Yeah. It seemed like wearables was a big thing. I know there was a ton of new fitness trackers announced and I was actually kind of hoping that I could talk to Chris and find out which of those he was interested in so I wouldn’t have to filter through all the noise of all the announcements. That’s the thing about these types of conferences. They just dump so much stuff on you that it ends up just all kind of sounding the same at a certain point. I just don’t even want to bother following it. I just want to wait and see what actually comes out when it comes out.


    AW:    ...we did pick up on and maybe we can talk about this in terms of the stories we’re looking at this week. There’s one story that I read in MIT Technology Review about smart glasses that look like regular spectacles. That’s the title. And these sunglasses are being made with nano-scale optical technology, and to hint at it like this, this kind of wearable displays that you don’t even know are there really. You just take them for granted. But out of that, it’s more to me is the new vocabulary that we always are trying to learn when new technology become more mainstream. Still how confusing it is for people to kind of decipher all that. For instance I think I know a fair degree about the whole API space in terms of the market focus, where the market is and how developers are using that. But even there now I’m hearing about this whole concept of hypermedia which is an effort to kind of automate in some respects API so a developer doesn’t have to kind of like spend endless hours looking through an API to do trimming [00:03:45] see what they want to integrate with their application. But still that’s kind of a whole vocabulary that requires you to think of it in a whole different light. I think that to me is the sort of things that I would see out of this whole wearable phenomena. And I think particularly in this [00:04:01] we’re running across terms and in particular words that apply to wearables that I really hadn’t heard before. That to me shows how far ahead this stuff is but also how it kind of relies on vocabulary and metaphors of the past. So for instance there’s this Vuzix and the focus of this article in MIT Technology Review, they actually first used the technology in a recent released monocle meant for industrial applications, I’m reading here, such as displaying technical information about a piece of equipment that a worker is repairing. And it sells for something like 6K. But the whole term monocle, that’s almost like a steam pump. It almost has steam pump connotations to me. 


    KF:    Yeah. It’s like something people wore in the Victorian era. That hits on something else because that Vuzix company said it already had the industrial applications for it and I think that article also said that they were doing military heads up displays. That ties into the older trend of technology starting out being in the military or the government and then trickling down to business and then out to consumers. 


    AW:    Yeah.


    KF:    And we’ve been covering the consumerization of IT for the last few years and there’s this perception that that flow has changed, that things start in the consumer category and then flow up to business, to enterprises. But if we look at some of the stuff like augmented reality we can see that’s not necessarily the case. The military has been using augmented reality for years and years and years now. And they’re using virtual reality for simulation trainings and stuff. That stuff hasn’t really properly trickled down into consumer video games or anything like that yet either. So in a lot of ways business and military are actually still ahead of the curve in terms of technology. 


    AW:    Yeah. And I think you were writing about the influence of the VC’s [00:06:01] In-Q-Tel. Did you write about In-Q-Tel recently in the context of one of your stories? I thought I saw one of your stories.


    KF:    Yeah I mentioned that in my ‘Mega-Networks’ story. This fund that was setup, I think originally by the CIA and now other intelligence agencies are a part of it, to fund private companies that are building technology that intelligence agencies think could be eventually useful to them. So they’ve put a bunch of money into NoSQL and big data stuff.


    AW:    Right. 


    KF:    MongoDB and Cloudant are the two I remember writing about. And that’s pretty interesting that those companies are expecting to sell technology to businesses that in a lot of cases are probably actually trying to reach consumers themselves. But a lot of the money is coming from government agencies that expect it to be useful to them as well.


    AW:    Right. I wrote about In-Q-Tel back in June where the NSA story was pretty intense. There’s a lot of companies that we hear about every day that have funding from In-Q-Tel – a lot of flash storage providers, a lot of API managing companies. Like for instance Apigee has a lot of funding from In-Q-Tel and they’re [00:07:10] management company. 


    KF:    Really? I had no idea.


    AW:    Yeah. So I think your point’s right on. It’s kind of interesting how deeply tied in even the startup community really is into that military intelligence, and free email, and security and maybe some military weaponry for data processing, and you name it.


    KF:    Yeah. It seems like a lot of it is supposed to be for people building social networks or whatever but it definitely has some other uses up there at the same time or possibly before we ever see any consumer application for it. Well to shift things in a slightly different direction but still on the topic of wearables, I read an article this week about a Kickstarter for a new wearable bracelet. Do you remember the name of that? The moomi I think?


    AW:    Memi.


    KF:    Yeah. So it’s supposed to be just kind of a generic bracelet that doesn’t have a display on it. It vibrates a few different patterns to notify you of incoming phone calls or messages from your smartphone. It’s targeted primarily at women. The design is supposed to be gendered. But the big idea here is to create a wearable that can actually filter out what’s coming in on your smartphone so you don’t have to have your smartphone out or looking at it for every single notification that comes in. But a major notification from your kids or if you’re expecting some important call about a family member in the hospital or something like that, you could have the bracelet flag those and then those are the only calls or messages or emails that you would need to check on your smartphone. So you could otherwise just have it put away somewhere. Their idea is it would be buried in your purse or whatever and then you just pull it out when you need it. I really like that idea. Some of the smart watches that I’ve seen so far just seem nightmarish almost. I don’t want to see like every single tweet or email that’s coming in at me all the time on my wrist. I’ve already turned off a lot of notifications on my phone. It’s too much even there. So I don’t want them on my wrist also. But at the same time there are so many instances where I just can’t turn my phone off completely because there’s stuff I’m waiting to hear about but I only want to hear certain things. I’m sure there’s got to be some Android apps or something for selective push notifications or something like that for only certain senders or certain callers. This definitely feels like the sort of contemplative style computing that I’ve been wanting to see more of. And I did find this via Alex Pang, the contemplativecomputing.org guy who we’ve had on the show.


    AW:    Okay. That example is I think also one that emerged also at CES about these different ways to receive notifications. And I heard one story about a company that’s making jackets for women. When they’re for instance walking trying to find a place, instead of looking at their phone the jacket actually has sensors in the shoulder pads that tap them about to go left or to go right.


    KF:    Oh wow.


    AW:    There’s another signal for going straight. That to me is just a trend that’s just going to continue. 


    KF:    Yeah, like haptic feedback. 


    AW:    Not having to fish through your pockets or for women through their purse trying to find their phone, or who’s calling, or the directions to go.


    KF:    That’s where things sound really nice some place like here in the Northwest where it rains a lot and I don’t always want to be wandering around with my phone out in the rain trying to get directions to somewhere. 


    AW:    Yeah.


    KF:    It’d actually be really nice to have that built into like a waterproof rain jacket or something, a layer underneath the raincoat.


    AW:    Yeah, that sort is on its way. I mean it’s here really. But in the meantime the mobile devices that we carry around are still most predominant. I think you do start to see major fashion houses start to show up at CES. I think it kind of points to this trend. And a lot of is like promotions, but I think it still signals something. So for instance [00:11:41] was there as I understand. There were other companies that are more in the fashion business who see this new opportunity there which just points to again that everyone’s a cyborg now, right?


    KF:    Yeah. I kind of wonder about the fashion angle of all this though because a part of what goes on in fashion is that designs become outdated every season or whatever, every year, and so people stick their old clothes, their old accessories in the closet, or get rid of them or whatever. So I wonder what’s that going to end up meaning for embedding technology into clothing. It’s probably going to be fairly expensive even by fashion standards. What’s the impact going to be long term? Are most people going to be able to afford wearable clothing or is it just going to get cheap enough that we can just sew this stuff into every sort of jacket which is bracelets that are practically disposable with the seasons or whatever? In that case what’s the ecological impact of something like using all the rare minerals and toxic materials in all these electronics that are going to become increasingly disposable. I don’t know where things are going in terms of that.


    AW:    I think there’s projections about the amount of waste from mobile devices is supposed to triple in the next few years.


    KF:    I worry about that with the internet of things also. If we want to start building computers, putting circuits into everything, are we all going to throw away our old microwaves, all of our old toasters, all of our old refrigerators? Everything that we have right now, is all of that stuff destined for the landfill just to be replaced by web connected tools that are going to become outdated in a couple years and need to be replaced again? As is it people use a dishwasher for years and years, or decades, or a refrigerator for years and decades. 


    AW:    Right.


    KF:    But a computer will last two three years usually before it’s too obsolete to run contemporary applications. I mean a lot of people still run very old computers, but is it going to be possible to upgrade the ram in your internet of things household?


    AW:    I don’t know. It’s clear that this does point to the way we think about how products are developed and unveiled and then used by consumers. I think there’s an interesting kind of correlation to kind of waterfall methodologies for application development versus agile and how those waterfall methodologies kind of were the foundation for product development post war. For example a car, traditionally, a company like Ford will introduce a new Mustang every year or something or every two years. And that car then becomes the focus for the company. And so they think of the new features that are going to go into it and then they do all this marketing preparation for this launch. It’s all quite secret and then they unveil. And the same is true with laptops, personal computers, you name it. Now the agile methodology – I was reading this article about how it’s starting to disrupt all those processes. If a company is constantly updating their product, it kind of changes customer expectations because customers have expected to have the same product year after year after year without any update to it. They know if they buy like a 2013 Mercedes that when the 2014 Mercedes comes around it’s going to be a different car. But that’s not necessarily true anymore because cars can be updated increasingly. And so that 2013 car could just have the same features as the 2014 car or 2015 car. I’ll just do a continuous integration and I’ll upgrade.


    KF:    Yeah. I mentioned that I had written something about a new NVIDIA chip and that’s part of what they’re going for is to be able to actually have all of the in-car features for cars be updateable, programmable. Right now different features like pedestrian detection or parking assistance, a lot of those things are actually controlled by completely separate computing systems. But what they’re hoping to do is create a way that all of them can run off the same integrated system so that each one can be updated. You could almost have like an app store for your car. “Okay I’ll pay this amount for this parking assistance feature,” and continuously upgrade it, something like that. That’s pretty interesting. Like right now if you buy a car you have to buy all the features you want in it up front. I guess there’s potentially some ways to take it back in I guess and get some features added. But it’s not a trivial process. If you just wanted to shave a few hundred dollars off your purchase up front and then upgrade later. That could be something that you could do in the future.


    AW:    And there’s also the customer expectations that they don’t want things that fast. And I’ve heard this from enterprise technology companies like Salesforce who say that their customers will often say, “Can you slow the pace down of new feature updates?” because they’re just trying to get used to what they have.


    KF:    Yeah.


    AW:    And they are trying to keep people continually accustomed to the service itself. 


    KF:    That’s one of the big things that like Facebook users also get aggravated about is Facebook coming in changing the layout, changing the where you find a feature, that sort of thing. Twitter users get upset about the same thing. Something changed, I don’t know where to find that feature or that feature is gone. Or there is a new feature that I don’t really want yet. It’s a constant problem.


    AW:    Any tweets that you saw this week that you thought were interesting?


    KF:    I don’t have any this week. No. Do you?


    AW:    I actually jut ran across one as we were starting things up. I was looking around and there’s one here [00:18:21] venture capitalist and he pointed to an article about Bitcoin. The title is, “Bitcoin isn’t money. It’s the internet of money.” And it correlates I think to our conversation about the internet of things and wearables. And the article basically argues that this new online currency really is designed for the internet. Now a lot of things we use online are designed just for use online and it kind of points at this whole issue about these institutions that have been in the physical world and how they integrate very tightly as they do with things that were built for the internet.


    KF:    Yeah. I just wrote a story about an open source project called Twister that uses Bitcoin in a completely different way. It’s not being used as currency at all. And it’s not the actual Bitcoin network. This developer just took the Bitcoin protocol and set it up. He uses it essentially as an authentication system so that you claim a username with it and then the Twister network which is people running basically mining software or just running it on their computers, their mobiles or whatever, then handle authentication of that username in a distributed fashion the same way that the Bitcoin network handles Bitcoin transactions to make sure that people don’t double spend the coins to make sure that the coin belongs to the person who’s spending it, that sort of thing.


    AW:    Right.


    KF:    That same idea is just being applied to make sure that a username only gets registered once. I didn’t mention it, Twister is basically a Twitter clone. So then it also makes sure that posts then are only posted by the right username. And he also uses the BitTorrent protocol to distribute all the posts and content. So it’s this completely distributed peer to peer Twitter clone that actually works surprisingly well.


    AW:    Where did you write that? 


    KF:    It’s going to go up on Monday.


    AW:    Okay. 


    KF:    It will be in the past already by the time this gets posted. It’s a really interested example of how something like the Bitcoin protocol can be just completely repurposed. Very interesting possibilities. 


    AW:    That has so many different kinds of applications and uses because it is virtual.


    KF:    Yeah. And the BitTorrent protocol as well. It was not its initial purpose either.


    AW:    Right.


    KF:    Cool. Are there any events coming up that you’re going to be at so people can catch up with you?


    AW:    I’ll be in San Francisco the week of January 20. [00:21:27] around if anyone wants to reach out. Then after the only thing I can think of is potentially the Parallels Summit in February. I always find the Parallels folks pretty interesting. They use containers instead of [00:21:46] virtualization. Containers are the hot item right now, at least in the cloud application development space. Then in March I expect to be at South By Southwest. How about you?


    KF:    I’ve got Tomorrow’s Future Today which is co-organized by our other co-host Chris Dancy. It’s a virtual online conference February 18 and 19. I believe he’ll be presenting as part of that. And then Theorizing the Web which is co-organized by Nathan Jurgenson who is a past Mindful Cyborg’s guest. That’s April 25 and 26 in New York City. I believe Chris will be at that. Then Cyborg Camp at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 2 through the 4, co-organized by another past Mindful Cyborgs guest Amber Case. I believe Chris and I will both be at. Are you planning on making it out to that?


    AW:    Yeah I’d really like to get out to that for sure.


    KF:    Cool, all right. And then even further down the road the Buddhist Geeks Conference which I think is in Boulder, Colorado, scheduled for October 16 through 19. Vincent Horn who’s been on the show before is the co-organizer of that. I’m pretty sure Chris will be there. I have no idea if I’m going to be there or not yet. That’s way too far into the future for me to think about.


    AW:    Well good.


    KF:    All right, thanks a lot for your time Alex.


    AW:    Thanks Klint. Enjoying this weekly podcast. So thanks for having me.


    KF:    Yeah, see you next time.


    AW:    Bye.


    KF:    Bye.