Diverse means a lot of things

In the course of two posts, Anil completely nails the problem of gender (and other) biases in the web industry. When I think back to the most interesting talks over the past 3-4 years, it was always from someone outside the norm, something that could bring a fresh perspective instead of the same tired “here’s another CSS trick you might not know!” presentation. It was often a woman (like Linda Stone, danah boyd, Caterina Fake, and Amy Jo Kim, all of whom I’ve seen give kickass presentations before) but always about something new.

But to be clear, it’s not just a gender issue — gender is just one part of it. It’s about expanding your vision, hearing from voices you haven’t before, and learning something new. That’s not just happy hippie rainbow talk either, it makes perfect business sense to go after the market you don’t have, not merely the one you already got because the people you don’t know how to reach are often orders of magnitude larger than your current audience. I’m reminded of the other day a teen emailed me saying that MetaFilter didn’t fully function on Opera Mini, which was their only interface to the web. I never even thought about teens or phone browsers when I designed it, and I know I’m missing out on a lot of potential contributors because of it.

When I think back to the biggest breakthrough talks of the past few years, stuff like Guy Kawasaki’s talking to teens always went over huge. Blogging While Black opens some eyes and ears to something you’ve never known about. danah boyd’s regular talks on teens, community, and identity are loaded with new findings. Every time I’ve witnessed one of these talks, I’ve learned something new and most everyone in the crowd was blown away by perspectives they hadn’t even thought of before.

After seven years of regularly attending technology conferences, last year I reached the point of burnout and only went to two (Etech and Webvisions). This year I’ll again be attending just a couple events but this time with an eye towards diversity in topics. Things like last year’s IDEA conference give me hope (something I missed and wished I attended but thankfully they podcast the talks). A place where artists, librarians, anthropologists, park rangers, programmers, and sci-fi writers gather to discuss their experiences and the world going forward is going to offer a lot more new information to me than the run-of-the-mill tech gathering.

A Proper Churchill Nap

“You must sleep some time between lunch and dinner, and no half-way measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That’s what I always do. Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imagination. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one-well, at least one and a half, I’m sure. When the war started, I had to sleep during the day because that was the only way I could cope with my responsibilities.”

— Winston Churchill

Help Find Jim Gray

Whoa: All Things Distributed: Help Find Jim Gray

Amazon is doing what they can to help find a missing sailor (computer scientist Jim Gray) using a combo of satellite photography flights they’ve taken and their Mechanical Turk system to let volunteers check the photos. This is an even better version of the idea I proposed a couple months ago, since it spreads the work out nicely to volunteers. I sure hope it pays off.

Distributed search of a different sort

I drove to the Oregon Coast today and the whole time I kept thinking about James Kim and his family. They have been missing for a week now and since there have been no phonecalls or credit card use, it’s not merely getting stuck in some snow (which we had last sunday or monday). It’s likely something worse, which caused me to scan the forests and embankments all the way to the coast.

I read about how they concentrated the search on the 38 highway, but if you check it out on Google Maps, there are 5 or 6 major roads (all about 60 miles long) that link the main cities along the 5 freeway with the coast. I know on my first trip to Oregon, I just randomly picked one and drove along the coast instead of the freeway. They could have certainly done the same.

I was thinking about how helpless it feels to sit at home and worry about this family, and how you could harness the power and goodwill of everyone. I’ve seen some pretty amazing stuff come out of MetaFilter, when people collaborate on a real world problem. Then it hit me. There are only 5 or 6 major roads to the coast, and they’re not that long. Why not run a surveillance plane 500′-1000′ feet above each of the roads, going slow enough that it takes maybe 20-30 minutes to follow the roads to the ocean. If the camera view could capture 100-200′ north and south of the road, you could probably film all 5 or 6 major roads in a single clear day like today.

If each recording is say 30 minutes long for a road, split it into 10 equal parts, 3 minutes long, and upload all of them to youtube. Ask viewers to leave comments pointing out when they see anything strange. The Kims were in a silver Saab wagon, so it’s probably something that can be seen from above. In total, there’d be 50 or 60 short clips and in a matter of hours you could have millions of people closely scan then and start pointing out the things worth looking into on the ground. If everyone says there’s a silver glint in the trees on video #6 from the highway 18 group, at 1:55 in, you could send a police unit out to investigate.

Hopefully an approach like the one I described is fairly normal in the future.

Two good bits of eco-friendly news

Two interesting climate crisis-related items in my feed reader today:

The First Solar Powered Biofuel Station Opened in Eugene, Oregon. They’ve got five blends of biodiesel and ethanol available from a solar powered station. Someday soon, all gas stations will be like this but for now it’s a novelty.

Terrapass, the company that has guilted me into buying carbon credits to offset my truck :), has partnered with Expedia to offer carbon credits when you buy airline tickets, so your trips are carbon neutral. This is a great convenience and I hope they strike a deal with Orbitz and the airline sites soon, since I don’t buy from Expedia. If it is as easy as clicking a checkbox while I’m buying a ticket, I’d probably go for it.

Vinod on ethanol

The other day I mentioned something that got a lot of feedback over email, the gist of which can be boiled down to:

– It’s a Shell executive saying biofuels are bad because they want to sell more fossil fuels
– We already make enough food to feed the world, it’s a distribution problem getting food to everyone

and yeah, I understand those points, but I was thinking 50 years out when most fuel we use isn’t fossil fuels, but biofuels and how we might have to make tough choices at that point. But then I realized we make those tough choices already, today.

Speaking of biofuels, I’d heard that super VC Vinod Khosla‘s Google talk “Biofuels: think outside the barrel” on ethanol was worth watching and will convert anyone into a backer of ethanol. I’ve always heard corn-based ethanol took too much fossil fuel to produce (in the form of fertilizer and pest control) and was so energy intensive that the benefits were small.

I listened to Vinod’s entire talk today while taking a long drive and I have to say he makes some compelling arguments. Vinod describes how even with corn-based ethanol, we can make some improvements in terms of lower cost gas, less pollution, and less use of crude oil. If we move to prairie grasses we can make some serious improvements to all those plus help restore the Midwestern US to more native plants while at the same time getting good animal feed as a by-product. After seeing this, I would love to see E85 pumps gain some traction and flex-fuel cars become the norm. It’s win-win-win, but the oil companies seem to stand in the way.

Don’t take my word for it, I encourage you to watch it yourself. I’ll drop the Google Video code here, but you can also check out the page on it where you can download versions to play on your iPod or desktop.

Lazyweb: accelerometers and MAME, if you please

I keep seeing novel ideas for using the accelerometer in laptops like this Google Maps one but I’m still surprised I haven’t seen anyone port games to talk to the device.

Seriously, if anyone knows the ins and outs of gaming applications like MAME, please make me a version that I can use to play Marble Madness on my macbook. I would kill for something fun like that, using a physical interface to interact with the game. I thought it would be a matter of days after the macbooks came out that someone would do it, but I haven’t seen a game yet that interacts with the accelerometer.

update: sweet, thanks to some comments, there’s an open source marble madness type app, in addition to the standard sensor app, making a tilt game possible. Here’s a video I just shot of it in action:

Amazon’s new Search Inside preview, and an idea for Amazon


(Amazon’s new Search Inside preview, originally uploaded by mathowie)

I haven’t heard that Amazon updated the “Search Inside” feature with a whizbang new page browsing interface until I stumbled upon it last night. It’s very easy to use, quicker than the old method, and honestly it’s the first thing that comes close to standing in a store and leafing through a book.

Like the old book preview, it lets you browse through about 20 pages before blocking you, but this book in the screenshot had so many good garden ideas, I bought it from Amazon.

So here’s my idea for Amazon: copy something from the book of O’reilly. They have these services called Rough Cuts and Safari which help them sell books online. The cool thing that O’reilly does is once you purchase say, the Flickr Hacks book, they give you instant online access to the full text as a PDF.

Now, I’m not saying Amazon should give away PDF copies of everything I buy (though that does sound cool, I imagine the publishers would go apeshit over it), but you’ve got this great reader interface now and the full content of the entire book. After I purchase the book and it’s on the way to my door, how about lifting the 20 page limit on viewing?

Why not offer full online access to purchased books immediately after purchase (provided customers agree they can’t cancel the book order after viewing the content)? I know this book will get here on Tuesday, but it’d be cool if I could leaf through the whole thing and look at the rest of the pictures (what I normally do in a store — I buy and take it home to read the full text).

update: D’oh: They already have this (sadly, not many books are eligible — thanks Jason)

Two things you should build because I don’t have the time to do it but would like to use them anyway

1. Sippey talked about the loss of the water cooler effect when watching a TV show on DVD, years after it aired. This week I finally broke down and started watching Lost. The first night I made it to episode 5 and after viewing it, I wondered if there was some way I could combine the wayback machine, technorati, and the google cache to give me a view of the web soon after that episode aired, so I could read about it without knowing what comes next.

Then I realized, someone could build a forum system dedicated to this kind of thing. Think about it: somewhere right now someone is watching the first season Entourage DVD and laughing their asses off. Or maybe they’re finishing up season two of Buffy. Or maybe there’s someone somewhere that never viewed the Simpsons until today. And where can they go to exchange stories and guesses about the plot of the next show? Nowhere, really.

So it goes like this: a big forum site that breaks down every TV series you can get on DVD, then further breaks each one down to seasons and episodes. Let’s say the goal for a user is watch season 1 of Lost, episode 16, then enter the site and leave it without ever hearing spoilers, and during their stay, they can talk to other people that recently viewed that episode (which had a lame story arc, possibly the weakest episode of the season so far and hey, what ever happened to the buried mystery hatch from like four episodes ago, huh? And when on earth is that woman going to have her baby? And are the whispers real or what?).

The rub is keeping the future out — have a system where users are rewarded when someone successfully rats out a troublemaker from the future, popping into the episode 16 thread to mention that in episode 23, that one guy gets killed, and remove those comments to keep the threads clean and clear for the rest of the viewers to enjoy gabbing about.

So someone build The TV Time Capsule for me, I could use it.

update: oh sweet, someone sent me the Lost forum’s episode-specific threads. Now I can see what that whole boar thing was supposed to represent.

2. You know how small towns have little league baseball teams every spring and the teams are sponsored by local merchants that get a bit of advertising out of it in exchange for donating a couple hundred bucks to buy uniforms? Why not build a site that helps match up teams and sponsors from local towns, or sponsors from out of town, or sponsors with business that don’t even have a town. Post scores and results from games so sponsors can monitor the progress of their far off team.

Why build something like this? There are lots of web communities, mailing lists, and bulletin boards with users that like to pitch into various charities. If there is a shortage of funding for little league baseball, let the web fill the gap. I’d love to someday see the Slashdot Penguins of Peoria, IL take on the Craigslist Reds.

JetBluePlus?

After reading an interesting Business Week piece about Eos Airlines, I couldn’t help but notice while I love the concept, and their seating arrangement looks amazing, the price is still out of reach for anyone but Fortune 500 business travelers.

Why doesn’t someone go after the normal everyday traveler that is willing to pay a bit more for a bit more comfort? I know JetBlue operates on razor thin margins, stuffing as many people into a plane as possible for the lowest possible price, and then keeping the planes up in the air as much as possible. I fly JetBlue when I can but the experience is just barely above a tolerable hell for several hours.

Given their prices are so low, I’d be willing to pay double their rates for half as many seats in the same plane offering twice as much room. Their prices are often 1/3 or more off other airlines, so in the end it wouldn’t cost too much more than a United or American flight.