Tuesday, March 29, 2011

SXSW 2011: Bruce Sterling admonishes

If social media can be used for social good, this good can't come soon enough for Bruce Sterling, science fiction writer and a long time SXSW keynote speaker. Bruce Sterling's speech is traditionally the last SXSW session. I don't know if this is his usual habit, but for the last two years he implored 20-somethings ("some of you are younger than SXSW") to go out and be the force for a better world. He demanded to know why we aren't using social networks for political change. If Texans knew what was good for them, they would be marching in the streets and taking to social networks demanding wind power, he said.

We, the crowds, should also be funding projects to study bacteria that can convert materials to biofuel or break down pollution, said Sterling. As it is now, a certain scientist (whose name escapes me) got 300 billion from Exxon Mobile to study them, but that's because people on the street don't know what's good for them. I guess he implies that it is a job of social media-savvy people, such as SXSW'ers, to disseminate these ideas to the general public. Craig Venter, the famous biologist and entrepreneur who sequenced the human genome, may have come to SXSW this year with just this goal. Bruce told the audience that Venter's goal for coming to SXSW was "to reframe 20th century genetic engineering as 21st century synthetic biology". To put simply, it may mean that Venter was trying to create good PR for genetic engineering. Bruce Sterling has hopes for public support of synthetic biology, specifically, the kind that creates pollution-neutralizing or fuel-producing bacteria. There shouldn't be knee-jerk objections to it neither from the left (microbes are not cuddly baby seals) nor from the right (microbes are not in the Bible).

But for all his lamenting that SXSWers' tweets are all parties and name-dropping, Bruce Sterling himself is not without celebrity obsession. He spent part of his speech rambling about Italy's prime minister Berlusconi's escapades, which seemed beside the point to me. He also pointed out that Catholic Church in Italy stands with Berlusconi, supporting behavior they have condemned for centuries. Hypocrisy of the Catholic Church isn't news to anyone, but it's still an easy way to score points with the audience, which unfailingly applauded. In his Twitter feed he also regularly updates us on the lives of the failed femme fatale spy Anna Chapman and other has-beens... so I don't know how this ties into a call to use social media for greater good.

While ranting is Bruce's typical mode of speech, I noticed that over the last two years his rants have become less edgy and irony-tempered, and more plain and despairing. "Where is the moral compass of these people?" he says about the Catholic Church's support of Berlusconi. "Do they think it will make pedophile scandals look better?" But his speeches are still enjoyable because he peppers them with phrases that you can't decide whether they are too pretentious to mean anything, or perfectly capture what he's talking about -- such as "There are infinite wars on abstract now's". (Ed. -- maybe he said abstract nouns, such as terror? Then it makes more sense.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

SXSW 2011: Gamification: a buzzword streaks across SXSW sky

Gamification was high on the radar at this year's SXSW, judging by how many panels it was mentioned at. To put it simply, gamification means devising a system of points, rewards and incentives to motivate people to do certain things -- in a software application or in real life. It's funny, but 2-3 years before it became big at SXSW, this trend was noted by "old media" newspapers like New York Times. Even I blogged about an application idea that could combine gamification and lifelogging three years ago. This year at SXSW however, it was brought into spotlight by Seth Priebatsch, creator of location-based game SCVNGR, who gave a keynote address about building a game layer on top the world.

Like other keynotes, it was broadcast live in many SXSW venues -- convention center rooms, and probably those in the satellite hotels. I caught the beginning of it in the Samsung Blogger lounge. For the first 10-15 minutes of Priebatsch's speech the room was quiet, but as he continued, most people tuned out and went back to their conversations. So I missed the rest of what was said. A pity, because Seth Priebatsch is a lively and energetic speaker. (That would be an understatement, according to this New York Times article, which uses Priebatsch to illustrate an idea that hypomania may be an essential trait of an entrepreneur.)

Seth Priebatsch gives his keynote address at SXSW 2011 Seth Priebatsch, as seen on a TV in the bloggers' lounge. More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Of course, I could have gone to one of the conference ballrooms that were dedicated entirely to watching the keynote, but I was tired from all the walking I did that day, and loath to leave the power strip I found in Blogger's lounge, which I used to recharge my laptops. The opening part of the speech, that held everyone's attention, was Priebatsch saying that many human behaviors are ripe for gamification. For example, parents give young children stickers and points for brushing teeth. School is another area that could be gamified, but in Priebatsch's opinion, incentives are set up in such a way that you can only fail. I think what he meant was that bad grades are penalized, but high grades do not provide any noticeable rewards. (I don't know if that's universal -- it probably depends on a teacher, and also on a curious phenomenon called regression to the mean, described by Doug Lenat in his speech on artificial intelligence.) In any case, it was around that point that the audience in the Blogger lounge lost interest in Priebatsch keynote, and the failed gamification of schooling was the last observation from this speech that my Twitter friends tweeted.

And so yet another trend streaks like a meteor across the SXSW sky, and retreats to... not obscurity, but a long, pothole-ridden path to maturity.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

SXSW 2011: Where are the women in startups? Um, everywhere!

Carla Thompson, the founder of women's entrepreneurial network Sharp Skirts, and a Forbes reporter Meghan Casserly moderated a discussion "Where are the women in startups? Um, everywhere!" at SXSW. Carla Thompson is often asked why is there a need for an entrepreneur organization for women. The answer comes from the audience. Talking about her startup in a group of men, a woman first has to get past the "woman" issue. "Oh yes, I'm a woman, but I'm looking for an app developer".

However, not everyone in the audience has had the same experience. Another woman, who is in a tech startup with a bunch of MIT grads, does not feel she is judged differently. Investors ask her the same questions as everyone else. Others commented that this may be a difference between East Coast and Texas. Texas still lags behind treating women equally.

Carla Thompson and Meghan Casserly in the Women in Startups panel at SXSW 2011

Carla Thompson and Meghan Casserly. More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.

There were about 5 bootstrappers (startup founders who focus on making their business profitable from Day 1, as opposed to living off investment money) in the room, and none of them had venture capitalist (VC) funding. Only one woman had angel investor funding. Her experiences trying to get VC funding had been, in her own words, terribly demoralizing. 9 years ago she went from VC to VC, and was given messages that she was the wrong gender and wrong everything. Then she found an angel network, and raised some funding from them.

Then we got to hear from the other side, a venture capitalist in the room, named Laura. She noted that over the years, women who come to her for funding don't ask for as much money as they will need, and a business plan they show can't be executed on that money. She challenges women to think about growing their business, and ask for as much money as they need. However, considering the difficulties women have when they ask for even more modest amounts of funding, this may be a vicious circle.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

SXSW 2011: Google's Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer, vice president of consumer products at Google, spoke at SXSW 2011 about new products Google is developing. She focused on location-based services. She started her speech with a demonstration of some kind of Google service that shows skiers on mountain slopes. Coming in late, I wasn't sure if this was a new Google Earth feature, or a new product. Superimposed on the live video of skiers was an augmented reality view that provided the information about the ski routes and the weather. Seeing tiny, ant-like skiers zipping around on the slopes, Marissa Mayer emitted a low, warm chuckle, so infectious that the audience giggled with her. Or maybe they laughed at the contrast of a Google VP being amused by the little silly things in life, such as ant-like humans bustling around like particles in Brownian motion.

Augmented reality -- applications that overlay information about objects around you over their images -- can give you a richer, more detailed experience of those objects than real life itself can. Google Art project is an example of that. Google Art images of famous paintings, such as Van Gogh's "Starry Night" were made with a giga-pixel camera, said Marissa Mayer. This lets you zoom into any part of it, and examine every square inch, every brushstroke as close as you would never be able in a museum.

Marissa Mayer at her keynote speech at SXSW Marissa Mayer at her keynote speech at SXSW

Augmented reality is no doubt a hot trend in location-based services, but Mayer spent more time on context-based discovery. That's a new direction of Google's location-based services. If you are standing in front of the Capitol (to non-Austinites, that's where Texas Legislature meets), and whip out your phone, that doesn't always mean you want information about the Capitol. If you are a first-time visitor to Austin, you may indeed be interested in its history, the date it was built, its architectural style, etc. But if you are an Austinite, you probably just want to check your email. So context is the key.

Then there was time for questions and answers. A guy in the audience asked Marissa Mayer if Google Maps will ever have customer service. Currently it takes up to a year to remove "deadly routes" from Google Maps, he said. Given that it has 8 or 9 million users, Google Maps ought to really do a better job of that. Marissa replied that customer support would be a good idea, as she herself has ended up in wrong places following Google Maps routes. From that I inferred that "deadly routes" meant "dead" routes, or ones that no longer exist -- as opposed to routes with high lethal accident counts. :-)

More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Monday, March 14, 2011

SXSW 2011: Life as a Startup Parent

Synopsis: You're starting a startup, freelancing as a designer / developer, working on the next Big Thing, or otherwise being a web entrepreneur. But at home, your little one is toddling around in a playpen, learning how to play soccer, working on a science fair experiment, and growing up. How do you balance your role as a parent with your role as a co-founder? How do you reconcile these two worlds, each of which would happily consume you completely? How much do you rely on your (life) partner? Your (business) partners? How do you reconcile the tension between these two worlds? Come talk with other awesome web workers with kids. Share secrets of success, awkward failures, and other startup / parenting war stories.

The first half of this panel the people were divided into groups and asked to come up with ideas for applications that will make their life as a startup parent easier. Over the last few years this has become a common approach to web and technology-related panels. I, however, have become more skeptical whether software applications can be a solution to many real-life problems, let alone parenting problems. But several groups came up with similar sets of ideas: (1) a coworking space that's also a day care (though this wouldn't be a computer application), (2) locating other parents who live nearby and are in the same boat, e.g. starting startups. So you could get together with them and take turns watching kids while everybody works on their projects.

Charlie Park in Life of a Startup Parent panel Charlie Park, the moderator. More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Some people asked questions that could not be answered by technology. Somebody wondered if there are any investors out there that understand that sometimes an entrepreneur's family time comes first? Moderator Charlie Park said that such investors, while a minority, do exist. You can tell them that you can't take their call right now because you're putting your child to bed, and they'll understand. A guy in the audience added that angel investors are typically more often family-friendly than venture capitalists. Venture capitalists invest more and expect more returns, so they feel entitled to demand that you work all the time. Angel investors invest less and correspondingly expect less.

Among the more lighthearted smart phone app ideas was a hologram of the parent that repeatedly says "no".

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Candidate books for Science and Religion in Fiction book club

This post will be mainly of interest to the members of, or those who have an interest in, the Science And Religion In Fiction book club at the Center For Inquiry Austin. Here are the books we are considering for our upcoming discussions.

March meeting will be an encore of Ted Chiang "Stories of Your Life and Others", which was originally scheduled for January, but none of the interested parties could make it to the meeting. It's a collection of relatively short speculative fiction stories, though some are novella-length. They cover many fascinating topics such as superintelligence, religion, Singularity, how language shapes our perception of time, and others.

Here are the candidate books for the upcoming months:

Greg Egan "Incandescence"

From Amazon.com review: "Hugo-winner Egan, champion of ultra-hard SF, devotes most of this slim novel to the efforts of the Arkmakers, who live in a neutron star's accretion disk at the center of the galaxy, to develop orbital physics from first principles and save the artificial world created by their more sophisticated ancestors. Meanwhile, Rakesh, a more or less human member of a distant posthuman society, sets off on an unrelated quest to find the Arkmakers and is soon trying to save them from their current danger. Whole chapters are devoted to physics problems and include a variety of diagrams and cited sources."

John Scalzi "The God Engines"

From Amazon.com review: "Captain Ean Tephe is a man of faith, whose allegiance to his lord and to his ship is uncontested. The Bishopry Militant knows this -- and so, when it needs a ship and crew to undertake a secret, sacred mission to a hidden land, Tephe is the captain to whom the task is given.

Tephe knows from that the start that his mission will be a test of his skill as a leader of men and as a devout follower of his god. It's what he doesn't know that matters: to what ends his faith and his ship will ultimately be put -- and that the tests he will face will come not only from his god and the Bishopry Militant, but from another, more malevolent source entirely...

Say your prayers...and behold The God Engines."

John Scalzi is mostly known for light, humorous space opera, but this bok promises to be a much darker fantasy novella that "takes your expectations of what fantasy is and does, and sends them tumbling".

Helen Collins "Neurogenesis"

From Amazon.com review: "Helen Collins' second SF novel, NeuroGenesis, continues her compelling exploration of the meaning of "intelligence" that she began with her first novel, Mutagenesis." According to a reader review, it involves a spaceship with a carbon-based operating system that "begins to evolve in erratic and unexpected ways, and finally reprograms the ship to land on a planet inhabited by an intelligent and startling human-size saurian species called Corvi. The crew struggles to survive, to determine how the Corvi sensed the OS and saved the ship, and to find a link between the race of humans and the race of Corvi."

Ellen Klages "The Green Glass Sea"

A young adult novel. From Amazon.com review: "Two girls spend a year in Los Alamos as their parents work on the secret gadget that will end World War II. Dewey is a mechanically minded 10-year-old who gets along fine with the scientists at the site, but is teased by girls her own age. When her mathematician father is called away, she moves in with Suze, who initially detests her new roommate. The two draw closer, though, and their growing friendship is neatly set against the tenseness of the Los Alamos compound as the project nears completion. Clear prose brings readers right into the unusual atmosphere of the secretive scientific community, seen through the eyes of the kids and their families. Dewey is an especially engaging character, plunging on with her mechanical projects and ignoring any questions about gender roles."