I want a personal sharing site

I’ve wanted this for a long time. It’s something I used to use Google Reader for, but I haven’t really found a replacement since it shut down.

I want a personal sharing site, like the weblogs of yore. I want it to be simple to share to, and easy to read. I want to be able to email a link, or share a link to an app on Android, or cut and paste a link to the site. From there, the site would snippet-ise whatever I had shared (a la Google+ or Facebook does), and make the link and snippet available via RSS.

I think there are services that already do this, sort of like Tumblr or Delicious. But I want to be able to set it up on my own server, so I don’t have to pray that some company doesn’t shut it down.

I know I could do this with a WordPress blog, like this one, but frankly that’s just too much work. Sharing into WordPress is a lot of work.

I’m a cowbug.

Fiat currency is called that because it doesn’t have any intrinsic value. It’s backed by confidence alone. The solution usually seems to be “invest in precious metals”.

But it seems to me that precious metals suffer the same problem. It’s simply buried a little further into the woodwork.

Gold has no real function other than decoration, and trading for real goods such as cows and grain.

In that case, backing up fiat currency with another, even more abstract fiat currency seems like a bit of a bad plan. The American dollar should be backed by cows and grain.

Google & low-hanging fruit

Google has picked all the low-hanging fruit of search. Easily spidered pages on public websites? Done. Basically anything with machine-readable text is done.

This is both good and bad. It’s good because the low-hanging fruit is the best and most useful fruit (as far as I can tell). It’s bad because this kind of search is now something of a well-understood problem. Competitors are now popping up with their own spin on search.

The rest of the fruit is more difficult. Image search is more difficult. The relative lack of image search tools compared to text search tools speaks to that difficulty. Video search is more difficult still. Right now video search mostly involves indexing the pages the videos live on. Google’s purchase of YouTube makes sense in that context. But any other kind of video search (within video for instance), is an engineering and a computational challenge. Indexing of audio faces the same challenge. Indexing the dark web is difficult. Indexing information that isn’t yet online is nigh impossible.

I’m sure you can think of a few more difficult search arenas. (Leave them in the comments!)

If it doesn’t look like anyone’s enthusiastically pursuing these search technologies, it’s probably because of diminishing returns. Problems with a high computational component tend to be future technologies. You can argue Google is a product of low bandwidth cost, low storage cost, and low computation cost with a bit on engineering prowess mixed in.

We may not be at the point where these problems make sense to solve. We may never be. Computation cost is essentially energy cost, and energy cost is not trending down. There may never be a point at which (barring of course the kind of engineering breakthroughs that make these sorts of technologies suddenly and oddly viable) it makes sense to index video itself instead of the pages it lives on.

Google faces a choice, then. It can pursue indexing all information ever, with diminishing returns at ever higher costs, or it can branch out.

I think Google is branching out. They have been for a while. They keep throwing things at the wall. A few of them are sticking. And very few of them are directly related to search. Most are orthogonal to it. Most are instead directly related to ecosystem lock-in (Gmail, Docs, etc), and userbase protection (Chrome, Android, etc).

This is what you do when the low-hanging fruit is gone, after all.

Slow revolutions

I’m a fan of revolutions. Not real ones in my country. No, I’m a fan of revolutions everywhere else. Specifically disruptive ideas and technologies.

There’s something thrilling about seeing a paradigm change in action. Which makes now an awesome time to live. We exist in a state in-between slow and constant change. We haven’t gotten to the point where paradigm change is the paradigm. Yet we’ve left the past of slow and gradual change behind.

It’s a great time to be alive.

Take the web as an example. I’ve watched it hatch as a military invention, then grown into an academic channel, then be co-opted by geeks, be over-run by n00bs, be penetrated by business, and finally become pervasive. A web site and email address is more important than a phone number now. Maybe one day that will be a Facebook page or something.

(As an aside, Facebook pages are not as accessible as a regular website. Where a regular website has an address, a concrete naming mechanism that does one thing only, which it lead to site, a Facebook page doesn’t, per se. This may be my age showing, but not knowing the address of something and instead just knowing I have to search something or click on a link somewhere is not as accessible as a plain old address. Imagine if you had to search up a friend from an obfuscated list of names in order to send them an email: This is Facebook’s problem. Its pages seem ethereal and anchor-less compared to a regular website.)

At the same time, lasting change is almost always slow change. This holds true biologically and ideologically. It may not hold true technologically, though. We’ll see.

I’m kind of torn about technology for this reason. I think slow change allows us time to take in the consequences of our collective actions before we move forward again.

This is the Amish way. Say what you will about the Amish, but they have a very slow-change sort of view of technology. They adopt it, but very slowly.

I’m not sure if that’s ideal. It won’t work in a free society. But it does allow the Amish to get a good look at the technological landscape (the water we swim in) before they adopt and adapt.

Biological communication

Since DNA is a molecule that encodes for the creation of other molecules (a meta-molecule, if you will), it by definition encodes information. This is useful in many ways, but there might be some ways we haven’t really thought of yet.

For instance, futurists often assume we’ll communicate with binary computers directly to store and retrieve information (in wetware scenarios, for instance). It’s not that far-fetched to imagine that encoding happening by manipulating DNA. It would have to have massive redundancy built in, but then DNA seems to already have that.

It might be possible to send biological messages. Like other animals sense pheromones (although we arguably do too, though not consciously), except on a much more sophisticated level. Sort of like sending a message by talking drum, for instance. You could even have a biological public/private key encryption. You send out a biological message (by touch, through the air, whatever). It’s encrypted with a public key so anyone but the intended recipient will see gibberish.

Now, this kind of messaging is obviously rather fragile, at least for long-distance communication. But for close-up communication, it would be fantastic. You could exchange massively parallelised pipes of information almost automatically using existing infrastructure (your nerves, your brain, etc). It would give (perhaps) shaking hands a whole new meaning, or meanings, literally. It would also be almost eavesdrop-proof.

Of course it raises the spectre of actually hacking a person; if we’ve learned anything from Microsoft, any vector that can be used in an attack will be. But that aside, it’s a pretty cool idea.

Netbooks, Sublaptops, Laptots, Whatever.

I don’t want to predict the future. It turns out I’m pretty bad at predicting the future and chances are so are you. But I do want to delve into a possible future, one that could develop if certain things go a certain way and certain other things do not go a certain way.

Imagine a world where people stop demanding a faster, more awesome computer, simply because they don’t need one any more. Imagine a world where the pendulum swings back to where it came from and remote servers are the big deal and local terminals are essentially (but not totally) dumb.

This would be a surprising (and frightening) world to both the founders of IBM with their big iron and the founders of Microsoft with their big desktop iron. They would both be wrong at least a great deal of the time. Even in those places one might expect big iron there are simply commodity machines connected together. In those places where one might expect big desktop iron there are simply a bunch of web applications. This would be the miracle of the network. This would be the Cloud at work.

Maybe something will come along soon to make this possible future extremely unlikely. I have no doubt that is possible. The web, the big network connecting the small networks, is that sort of disruptive technology. Note though that the web first developed over existing infrastructure: Telephone lines were the first transport technology to support the internet. Now the internet is drawing that infrastructure into itself. It’s not that strange to imagine that the internet will be the infrastructure that draws all the separate infrastructures we know and dislike (telephone, cable television, etc) and unites them. This is happening right now. The internet is the One Ring, if you will.

But my point is not to state the obvious, but to point out that the infrastructure that replaces the internet as we know it will probably (barring any truly disruptive technologies; keep in mind that I don’t claim this is a necessary development but merely a likely one) use the internet as its infrastructure and gradually subsume it. Anyone who has coded a AJAX application is praying desperately for that day to come, and soon.

I can imagine a world where Netbooks (or whatever you like to call them: I choose Mark Shuttleworth’s term because I happen to admire him) are essentially access points to the Cloud. Certainly specialised hardware exists: No one wants to edit video on something just larger than their palm. But small laptop like devices become at least one of the dumb(ish) access points to the internet at large. This, also, is already happening.

It’s entirely possible that Moore’s Law will stop functioning. It’s not a physical law, after all, and it is a meme entirely subject to physical impossibilities that require a great deal of ingenuity and expense to circumvent. It’s also entirely possible that Moore’s Law will become irrelevant as computers become smaller, more ubiquitous, and less visible. It’s hard, for instance, to fit a heat sink in your shoe; it’s easier to simply make a smaller program and use a processor with less processing power.

Perhaps soon processors themselves will become obsolete. Who knows.

I know this post has been long and taken many un-needed detours but let me interject some personal thoughts on personal computers: Good riddance and could you please give me my fish back. I am so sick to death of overpowered computers that need to be constantly upgraded to do (essentially) the same thing. I could run a word processor on my 486 that did almost everything that the word processor on my P4 does (namely, process words). There are really very few applications that deserve the sort of processing power we’ve got idling in our living rooms. Video editing, sure. Audio processing, sure. Graphic-intensive games? Absolutely.

Instant messaging? Web browsing? VoIP? Creating text documents? No way.

I’d rather like a future where I could buy a box as I needed it. Not tailored to a one size fits all Swiss Army Knife approach (I’m looking at you, Windows) where every five years brings a new chance to upgrade to a shiny new (and despicably slow) operating system with shine new (and despicably slow) hardware. I want something I can purchase and use and throw away when I’m done. I want something disposable.

Imagine if the only options you had when buying a car were Porches, MacLaren F-1s, and Jaguars. Would that make sense?

So my challenge (ringing loud and clear to about five people) is this: Make my future fast, inexpensive, and disposable. Make my data live out in the Cloud so I don’t have to tie it to a piece of physical hardware. Please. For the children.

How to Build a Church in a Few Easy Steps.

I wrote a whole long post two days ago, saved it, and am returning. I kept approximately 5% of it, and if you had read it you’d thank me for my slash-and-burn editorial skills. Still, I think the post bears writing. It’s an important topic and one that is lightly addressed in scripture. Or to put it another way, there’s lots of room for opinion, pretty much the inverse of me. With these introductory comments in mind, let’s blaze on, machetes and chainsaws in hand.

Every time I get near a book on church building I feel an irrational urge to break its spine and repurpose the pages as a certain toiletry item. It’s just who I am. Sometimes I have a hard time accepting that you can do this and do that and suddenly have a successful church. The idea that you can simply follow a formula and arrive at anything but a formulaic church seems irrational.

But there have to be guidelines, right? There are a lot of wacky things going on in North American churches, mostly due to this idea that everyone can have church they way they like. I’d like to sketch out a few thoughts and see what happens.

First, church needs to be organic. Don’t be relevant, don’t be topical, don’t be with the times, don’t be postmodern, don’t be a counter-cultural ghetto. Like that awkward kid everybody’s known, the one who’s always trying to be cool but ends up a huge loser, churches that chase culture look stupid. They look like they need attention or something. Let your church be a reflection of and a reflection on the community it comes from.

Second, some churches will play hymns on a piano, some will have elaborate bands, and some will have no instruments at all. I’ve been blessed by all three. It’s not really a big deal. It’s something we have to get over collectively. Music is an important part of the human experience, and an important part of the Christian experience. Some people will simply not be comfortable with an organ. I can’t stand pipe organs; with the amount of noise they make you may as well have a rock band playing, but that’s just me. If your community happens to include a lot of people who like pipe organs, why not?

Third, an effective church does a bunch of things. It provides people a place to gather in community, it provides a clear path to God, it provides for its own members, it provides help for those in need, and it provides a bunch of different opportunities in different areas. You could write entire books — and trust me, people have — on just those statements. This means that a church needs to be scriptural and Spirit-filled. Everything that a church does flows from scripture and from the workings of the Holy Ghost. Without either of those things, none of us would go to church. There wouldn’t be a church. That means that you need scriptural community, etc. You need the Spirit because, well, these things are pretty hard to do.

Fourth… that’s it. I think I lied, though; none of these things is easy. But they are pretty simple, right?

PulseAudio suggestions.

Getting the perfect PulseAudio setup in Ubuntu 7.10 isn’t hard. It’s basically installing a bunch of packages and editing a config file, then making sure ALSA is using PulseAudio instead of ESD.

The problems are these: there’s no metapackage that installs all the needed utilities, modules, and libs; the GUI tools pretty much suck; and there is no usable documentation that I could find for the base install or the GUI tools. The metapackage should be easy enough to implement, but the GUI tools need lot of work. The documentation needs to be created.

PulseAudio is a great idea. It’s well-implemented (afaict) at the system level. It enables the user to do a lot of pretty cool things, like sending audio to different computers. I would very much like to see it replace ESD, but before it can really do that, it needs a lot of usability tweaks.

For instance, “sinks” may be a nice technical name for where the daemon sends the sound, but the difference between sources, server, and sinks will probably be lost on the target audience of the Ubuntu distribution. These differences should either be elaborated with end-user oriented language, or the less-accesed hidden from view in a less visible part of the interface.

Ideally, I’d like to see a graphical representation of the possible output locations, much like the graphical representation of filesystems and available drives in the “Computer” dialogue. I could select “Send sound to” with a check box, and select multiple locations if I wanted to, something that’s difficult to do with the available user tools. Or alternately I could select, “Get sound from”, which would pick up the sound on an available server. Volume controls, server management, RTP multicast, default servers, all these things could be placed in an options dialogue. Much like, for instance, when a user is selecting a Metacity theme. Padevchooser is too technical, t0o complicated, and it lives in the tray: stop making things too technical, too complicated, and for the love of all that is holy, stop making things live in the tray! I already have a volume control there: that’s enough, thank you very much.

With these usability tweaks, I think PulseAudio would be ready for prime-time. Maybe even for Hardy Heron + 1.

Here’s an idea for Google.

You want to do something interesting? Start a netlabel. Start giving away music. Let those enterprising people who will give away music for free for whatever reason do so. And be picky.

Why do we have so many different kids of cables and plugs?

I have a question. Consider serial cables and data cables for a moment. We have SATA, Ethernet, FireWire, USB 1.0, USB 2.0, PS2, Serial ports of all kinds of stripes, etc. Each of these has its own plug design, its own specification, and in many cases its own internal bus. In some cases, there are variations on the plug design: see USB. In some cases (I’m looking at you, hard drives), there’s a data cable and a power cable; in other cases they’re both in the same cord (USB, power over ethernet).

Why can’t we have just one cord with two or three plugs? Certainly the thing that would send information and power to a hard drive could do the same thing for your digital camera, your screen, your video camera, and your network. We could have on kind of plug for removable devices, another kind for semi-permanent devices, and a small version of both for compact devices.

Am I missing something here? Why can’t this be done?