The Village vs. the Sheriff #W2S

Written by Ethan / Nov, 15, 2010 / Leave a Comment

Sitting in Eric Schmidt’s talk at Web 2.0 — he makes the observation that in England you’re subject to constant surveillance from video cameras, which would never be accepted in the United States.  This is true, but having lived in England, I’ll make the countering observation that in the United States, a highway patrolman swooping down at 90mph in his cruiser to write you a traffic ticket is perceived as bizarre over-reaction.  Perhaps it’s social in origin.  In England, a country that is fundamentally a village, people are comfortable with everyone seeing and knowing what you do.  In America, steeped in the frontier myth, we’re comfortable with an armed man on horseback in hot pursuit of miscreants, even if those miscreants are us.

Web 2.0, five years later #w2s

Written by Ethan / Nov, 15, 2010 / Leave a Comment

I’m at the Web 2.0 summit, five years after Zvents launched here.  Back in 2005, local was a blank slate.  Today, in the first 10 minutes of the conference, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, announces a new NFC “bump to check in” (or pay, or a dozen other actions) capability for Android within the first 10 minutes of the conference.  Local has come such a long way that it’s not called local anymore — it’s LBS or Places, and Google, Apple, and Facebook have decided to fight over this turn with enthusiasm.

This superb article on GigaOm really puts into context what Facebook is doing. Google’s search evolution was two stages:
1) Realize that the links that people create on the Web are a vote about the value and subject matter of websites (“hubs and authorities”, aka PageRank)
2) Realize that the clicks that people execute on Google search pages are a vote about the value and subject matter of websites (machine learning on clicks)

and then organize search results according to the composite of the value indicated by those votes.

Facebook is now re-executing stage 2) and moving to stage 3):
2) Capture clicks via toolbar integration on websites and do Google-comparable analysis
3) Realize that “like” and other social actions (forward etc.) that people execute on the Web are a vote about the value and subject matter of websites

and then organize recommendations and exposure (in the Feed, etc.) according to the composite *personalized* value indicated by those votes.

Facebook is truly turning itself inside out with this move, and may re-shape the web around itself, in the same way that desire for “Google Juice” has re-shaped the web as we know it today. The beta phase of social networking has ended, and the real product now emerges. This is going to be an interesting ride.

Geeks of the world, please help Dilbert!

Written by Ethan / Mar, 16, 2010 / Leave a Comment

I just spent five minutes at the Dilbert cartoon site being frustrated by my utter inability to find a comic strip from a few years ago that I’d like to hang on my wall. It’s the sequence where the new product is a box of twigs and nuts, which is integrated with the customer’s network by running a CAT-5 cable through the box.

There’s no text search function on No way that I can type in the relevant keywords and find the panels. Google and Bing are mute to the right answer. This is a tragedy. Given that approximately 100% of Dilbert’s target audience is search-savvy, 10% of Dilbert’s audience could configure a nice SOLR implementation between dinner and breakfast, and at least 1% of Dilbert’s target audience could implement a crawler/scraper/parser combo to pull ASCII text out of the GIF panel archive, this is highly sub-optimal.

Geeks of the world, please help Dilbert!

While there are definitely exceptions to the rule — exceptions whom I would love to emulate — in general it seems to be true that most serious executives at Silicon Valley startups have very little time for blogging. My personal experience is that it’s also quite difficult to blog about the most interesting topics raised by startup life. Either the item is somehow closely tied to some proprietary insight or information, or the item will complicate a relationship with a major partner. Since we have *many* major partners at Zvents throughout the local Internet space, I am particularly sensitive to the latter.

I literally have at least a dozen topics of both business neutrality and general interest stuck on my bulletin board to get onto Onotech in the next few months. Perhaps I’ll have time, or perhaps it will be a few months yet before I find an occasion to write again. In any case, rest assured that things are going very well at Zvents in the meantime.

Obama grandstanding while Rome burns

Written by Ethan / Apr, 12, 2009 / Leave a Comment

You might have heard from the President that an historic opportunity exists today to refinance your mortgage. Rates are low, the sun is shining, and the green shoots of recovery are just around the corner.

In extensive prepared remarks, the most powerful man on earth took a break from puppy-choosing to inform the American people of the following:

“So the main message that we want to send today is, there are 7 to 9 million people across the country who right now could be taking advantage of lower mortgage rates. That is money in their pocket. And we estimate that the average family can get anywhere from $1,600 to $2,000 a year in savings by taking advantage of these various mortgage programs that have been put in place.”

Let’s take the high side of President Obama’s numbers. 9 million people * $2000 equals 18 billion dollars in annual savings.

So in the midst of the biggest financial crisis of the past eighty years, the President of the United States just expended a precious media outreach opportunity to talk about a program with a maximum impact of about 3/2000ths of the annual American economy of $13 trillion. I hate to be so cavalier with billions, but that’s not even a drop in the bucket.

This is insane.

Meanwhile public and steath bailouts such as a $300 billion loan guarantee to Citibank go undiscussed by the President. The increasingly dubious and never-ending AIG bailout has still not been adequately explained to the public by any public official, much less the President.

Talk about seriously misplaced priorities.

I know that Obama has only been in office about eighty days. I know that he’s dealing with dozens, if not hundreds, of critical activities. But by any rational measure, the financial crisis is #1 on his list — and probably #2,3,4,5 and 6 as well. It’s that important.

So far he’s blowing it. Come on, Mr. Obama. I voted for you because I expected better than this. If I wanted a crony-supporting, opaque, denial-ridden bailout of giant financial companies at the expense of the taxpayer and the common man, I could have voted for a Republican.

The American people deserve better than being patronized on the one hand and pillaged on the other. May we please have more change and less hope?

Facebook vs. Internet: Advantage, Facebook

Written by Ethan / Mar, 22, 2009 / Leave a Comment

Jesse Stay’s excellent post on the search potential of Facebook’s Lexicon has inspired me to put down a few quick thoughts on Facebook’s nearly unlimited potential to capture the future of what John Battelle calls the “database of intentions”.

Google’s extraordinary accomplishment is that they used superb statistical analysis to make some vague sense out of the complete mishmash that makes up the flat-text Web. But while that accomplishment is considerable, at the end of the day, they’re still dealing with mush.

Facebook’s great opportunity is that everything within Facebook is structured; and increasingly, users express their intentions against this structured data at scale in a way that can be very productively mined — for product improvement, for user retention, for advertising. For insight.

Riddle yourself this: You have 200 Facebook friends. They are all pretty active. Does your FB feed actually show every single event from every single one of them? No, it doesn’t. FB is algorithmically determining what is most interesting to you – dynamically – based on how much attention you pay to what those users do, and how you interact with them. Facebook knows how much you care about each of your friends. It knows whether you pay more attention to people near or far, to men or to women, to people you work with, went to high school with, or went to college with. It knows because you explicitly describe all those relationships, in a way that Google can never grasp no matter how world-beating its science and how vast its server farms.

Or consider the Lexicon graphs that Jesse highlights in his post. Google Trends can handily generate one of those for you from their painstakingly de-mishmashed dataset. But they can’t tell you the demographic breakdown of that interest, because they don’t know who’s male and who’s female. Nor do they know whether that interest is coming from people directly associated with the topic in question; for instance Ohio State, my alma mater.

Here’s the Ohio State Lexicon graph, which I have annotated to show the precision of Facebook’s read on the importance of a topic:
facebook lexicon "ohio state" - current version
Here’s the term ‘Football’ as a proxy from the new Lexicon, which doesn’t yet allow analysis of arbitrary search terms.
facebook lexicon "football" - new version
As you can see, FB could allow you to slice and dice the ‘Ohio State’ search by any number of associations — male vs. female, by age, and whether the person had attended Ohio State. Google can’t do that. No one else can do that, because no one else has assembled a gigantic graph of defined and structured entities within which users apply their attention and annotation.

The implications for local search alone boggle my mind
– that’s food for another post.

It’s worth noting that Lexicon is really, really slow right now. My hat is off to FB for making it work at all — I assume that some implementation of Cassandra is behind the current Lexicon, and one reason they may not be allowing open-text searching in the new Lexicon is because while they’re pushing the envelope developing it, they’re crunching big batch jobs on a limited set of terms in Hadoop for the more sophisticated analysis presented there. Zvents has developed some pretty sophisticated internal analytics based on Hypertable, and I’m familiar with the challenges that this sort of slice-and-dice presentation presents — they are considerable.

Google has taken the statistical analysis of flat text about as far as it can go. The question is, what next? Powerset attempted one approach, which was the semantic analysis of that same flat text. We’ll see whether Microsoft and Powerset can make a go of that – the jury is definitely out whether it adds value in a computationally and commercially tractable manner. But in the meantime, my bet is on Facebook — because the information potential of a structured system is vastly greater than that of a flat corpus, and it is far more tractable to parsing.

Internet, watch out. Here comes Facebook.

Reality Check of the Day: China v. USA

Written by Ethan / Mar, 16, 2009 / Leave a Comment

One of my great realizations from living in the UK for a couple years is just how utterly the U.S. media lacks any perspective on American military actions abroad. The ‘abroad’ is completely redundant, of course – unlike every other country on earth, aside from our distant independence and single civil war, the U.S. military has NEVER had military action that wasn’t abroad.

This piece in Newsweek caught my eye:

“The confrontation last week between a U.S. ship and five Chinese naval craft was just the latest of many low-grade military clashes in the South China Sea, the site of numerous territorial disputes. It was eerily similar to the “Hainan Island” incident in 2001…”

But the punch line was the ending quote:

“This confrontation had been preceded by increasingly bold behavior on the part of People’s Liberation Army ships and planes. “They seem to be militarily more aggressive,” said Obama’s new National Intelligence director, Dennis Blair…”

Um. Yeah.

For the reality-based coalition, here’s a handy world map showing the location of the United States, China, and the 2001 and 2009 incidents between the U.S. and Chinese military:


Who, exactly, is being “militarily more aggressive”?

I randomly found my grumpy notes on this whistling-past-the-graveyard gem from Sage Alan in February 2004, and thought it was well worth posting:

The finances of American households are in generally good shape even though consumers have increased their debt and bankruptcy filings have surged, the Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, said yesterday.

In a speech to the Credit Union National Association in Washington, Mr. Greenspan said that an extended period of low interest rates and extra cash from mortgage refinancing had given borrowers flexibility to better manage their debts…

Consumer debt reached a record $2 trillion in December, according to the most recent figures from the Federal Reserve. That includes credit cards and car loans, but not mortgages…

[Greenspan] said that American households own more than $14 trillion in real estate assets and that mortgage refinancing and the rise in home values have helped to bolster consumer spending in economic hard times as well as better periods.

“Over the past two years, ” he said, “significant increases in the value of real estate assets have, for some households, mitigated stock market losses and supported consumption.”

Boy, he sure got that one right, didn’t he?

Geography is Destiny: Religion

Written by Ethan / Feb, 11, 2009 / Leave a Comment

This fascinating images came my way via Paul Kedrosky:


I read Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” a few years back, and am also familiar with Edward O. Wilson’s population biology. The two have led me to believe that climate and geographic circumstance have a huge impact on social outcomes. And so when I look at that chart, I see that in the tropics, religion is common; and in the temperate zones and in the northern regions, it is far less common.

This does not have to be a direct causal relationship. There is a lot more poverty, disease, and tragically shortened lifespan in the tropics. There is more civil war in the tropics. But it can certainly be an indirect causal relationship, as people wracked by suffering brought about in part by the effects of their climate turn to the solace of the hereafter.

What a fascinating image.