Category Archives: Rough Drafts

Prose that hasn’t been published elsewhere

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning,” said Mark Twain.

An editor’s job, at its best, is about turning lightning bugs into lightning.

The future of education: Tablets, or hands-on?

Two Bit Circus founder Brent Bushnell with an interactive game.

Two Bit Circus founder Brent Bushnell with an interactive game.

I read the Times story on Amplify, Rupert Murdoch’s 650-person startup aimed at reinventing education via tablet games, with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, as I wrote in a piece today on VentureBeat, this is exactly the vision — shared by One Laptop per Child — first outlined in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age.” A self-guided curriculum, embedded in a digital book, that could teach children everything they need to know via engaging songs, games, and interactive projects.

Screenshot from an Amplify video.

Screenshot from an Amplify video.

On the other hand, like the Times writer, I have an urge to yell at the tablet-focused kids in the book: Go outside! Climb a tree! And in fact I probably do yell that at my own children, from time to time, when they are on the verge of disappearing into a screen-centric vortex of digital media.

But then it occurred to me that an interactive tablet is perhaps not the best way to use technology to engage children. It’s certainly not the only way.

Earlier this year, I visited the studios of Two Bit Circus, an exciting experiment in “STEAM” education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics — the A is an addition that makes the acronym much more interesting, and inclusive, than the usual STEM). I wrote about Two Bit Circus and their STEAM Carnival project when it was just getting started on Kickstarter. The project achieved its funding goals, and the team has been busy putting together their act since then.

The project, in a nutshell, is to create a traveling “carnival” that would amaze children with steampunk- and Maker Faire-like circus attractions. Instead of slamming a hammer down to make a pellet ring a bell, the hammer would make an electrical arc rise up on a Jacob’s Ladder. Instead of a 3-ring circus with lions and clowns, the circus would offer the chance for kids to pit robots they’ve made against one another.

The Steam Carnival approach to educational technology is to make kids understand that tech is something they can build, not just something they use. I like that approach, and I think it’s increasingly important.

In other words, don’t just go outside and climb a tree. After you come down from that tree, figure out how to make a robot, a computer program, a musical score, or a digital video that you can show others. Put it together, wire it up, program it, direct it, edit it.

The tablet should be a tool for engaging creativity, not just a game that helps kids learn rote lessons mapped out by their state board of education. There’s room for both, I think. But the vision is not fully realized unless children are hacking into their tablets and writing their own software for it.

Or using their tablets to control battlebots.

The lovely leather of Walnut Studiolo

About a year ago I wrote about Walnut Studiolo, a Portland-based craft shop that makes leather and wood accessories for bicycles.

If you think it’s reasonable to spend $72 for a leather cup holder that’s the perfect size for a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, then you’ll love Walnut’s work.

I love the way their stuff looks, and their barrel-shaped saddlebag ($126) looks like an amazing piece of kit to tuck behind your Brooks saddle. Some of it is pretty silly though, like the leather six-pack holder ($89).

But now a video crew called Cineastas has made a short, loving documentary of all the hand-crafted labor that goes into making Walnut’s goods. It’s pretty gorgeous, in image and in sound.

You can almost smell the leather as Geoffrey Franklin carves strips of it with his razor-sharp blades.

This story deserves an award of some kind for business writing. A subject like this calls for just the right mix of completely straight-faced reporting and just a tiny hint of a wink. Plus, of course, a huge love of Doritos.

I laughed, and I wept a bit for the outright enthusiasm that Taco Bell’s CEO expressed over his company’s innovation. Or, should I say, “innovation.” But, as they say, welcome to America!

Also, those locos tacos actually taste pretty good. Though they don’t sit too well inside.

Deep Inside Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco

What to do about the complete failure of gun control

Here’s the deal: The NRA is simply *far* better organized than the gun control lobby. A passionate minority will prevail over an apathetic majority any day, in our political system.

Here’s what I think gun control people need to do, if they’re serious:

  • Start a “National Gun Safety Association.” 
  • Make the debate about “gun safety” not “gun control.” Focus first on how limiting crazy people’s access to guns is a safety issue, not a control issue.
  • If that shows some success, expand the safety discussion to limiting magazine size and assault weapons bans — also safety issues, not rights issues.
  • Pair the above efforts with an extensive gun safety training outreach. Offer training so people who own guns can learn how to use them safely — and how to store them safely.
  • Make the spokesmen people like Gabby Giffords, who are gun owners, not liberals like Mike Bloomberg, who are not — and make it clear that the organization has no opposition to safe gun ownership. 
  • Make it a membership-based organization that not only raises funds, but can also mobilize its members to write letters and call senators/congressman. Throw parties. Have events. Make people feel like they belong to something.
  • Throw money at strategic congressional and senatorial races to aggressively punish politicians who vote counter to the organization’s goals.

If there’s an organization out there like this, I want to join it, and I will contribute.

Update: Sunlight Foundation has stats on how much money various organizations on both sides of the gun debate have contributed since 1989. Detailed stats here. Notably, the NRA doesn’t even show up on the list of top contributors to the last election cycle.

Update 2: I found an organization matching many of the above points. It’s Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by Gabrielle Giffords and Marc Kelly. I gave them $50.

Discussion on Facebook

My stance on covering the latest Silicon Valley rumor fest

There are a lot of rumors going around about a certain blog founder. My take is that most of it is completely unfounded and comes from people with an obvious interest in discrediting him. So for now, VentureBeat is not covering this “story.”

After I posted this note on Facebook, I got asked: Are we afraid to cover this story because we’re afraid of blowback from the accused guy? And would we treat this story differently if it had to do with a true Silicon Valley bigwig, like Apple CEO Tim Cook?

I can answer with some concrete examples. Keith Rabois, COO at Square, left his company after accusations that he sexually harassed an employee. We covered that, because A, he really left the company, and B, he wrote a post about it. We also covered a sexual harassment case at VC firm CMEA, and last year, we covered the sexual harassment case at Kleiner Perkins.

VentureBeat has been one of the few (if not the only) tech blogs to cover all three big sexual harassment cases in Silicon Valley in the past year. In all three cases, we didn’t hesitate to take on a story about someone powerful and/or friendly with us. (Rabois has been a speaker at VentureBeat conferences, for instance, and KP is obviously hugely powerful in the valley). In all three cases, we stuck to reportable facts but didn’t pull any punches.

So to answer the question: Say Tim Cook gets accused of harassment. We’d cover immediately if there was a civil or criminal action. But suppose it’s all rumors and hearsay, and thanks to mob mentality all the other tech blogs start covering it. In that case we’d probably weigh in with a post saying “Here’s the rumor that everyone is talking about, but there is no evidence for it at all.” Because at that point, the chatter itself is newsworthy, and the absence of evidence would be the most salient, reportable fact.

Back to our competing blog founder: We’re staying away from the story because of lack of evidence, not fear. But also we have a special reason to be reticent, which is that he founded a competing site. I know from experience that we care more about our competitors than our readers do. Readers really aren’t looking to VentureBeat for stories about our competition, and they get annoyed when we get sucked into blog wars. So we have a special reluctance to cover competitors for that reason.

We’ll override that reluctance if there’s anything material to talk about. But for now, I see no reason to publish anything.

What is wrong with HTC’s Android sync service?

I’ve had several HTC phones, and I never seem to learn. The latest is an HTC One V. They all start out great — excellent hardware, seemingly fast and snappy interfaces — and turn into useless, molasses-slow junk within a few weeks.

I think I’ve isolated the source of the problem: It’s something to do with HTC’s approach to contact syncing and, in particular, the Contacts Storage app. I have about 3,000 contacts in one Google account and 700+ in the other, so I might represent a minority case, but it seems to me that this isn’t an inordinate number of contacts. Somehow it gets incredibly bloated on the phone, though: 62.7MB at the moment. I’ve tried deleting the data file and letting it re-sync, and it quickly zooms back up to the same gigantic number.

By contrast, when I export my contacts to a CSV for backup, both sets combined take less than 3MB of storage. So HTC is somehow increasing the storage needed for my contacts by 20X.

This causes a huge performance hit. Any app that needs to access contacts gets incredibly slow to open. Just opening the phone dialer can sometimes leave me staring at a blank screen for 30 seconds. Mail is the same story. I can get notifications about incoming text messages, but tapping on the notification to actually open the message itself will put the phone into a wait state that lasts two or three minutes.

It seems to be worst if the phone is actually syncing data (indicated by the “sync” icon in notifications). Over a 3G network, this sometimes takes ages — even when there are no significant changes to my contacts.

On top of that, a previous HTC phone littered my contacts’ notes fields with strange HTC codes. It’s as if some HTC engineers decided that people never use their notes fields, so they might as well just throw sync tokens in there. It’s disconcerting and rude behavior.

But rudest of all is the notion that the phone, when it’s syncing, is too busy to respond to me. That’s a fundamentally broken UI. Computers should always be immediately responsive to humans, and should always be interruptible. There is no reason a sync operation could not be stopped so I could make a freaking phone call.

Why I’m fed up with Game of Thrones

Hot nude action, medieval style. Painting of "Adam and Eve" by Lucas Cranach the Elder, from 1533.

Hot nude action, medieval style. Painting of “Adam and Eve” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, from 1533.

Personally I don’t mind the gratuitous boobage in Game of Thrones. Any shape or size: I am a fan. But if those boobs are accompanied by a complete absence of relevance or character, it starts to feel a bit empty.

Throw in loads of violence — especially when that violence seems to have no point other than its own empty shock value — and it becomes disturbing.

Layer on top of that the most retrograde stereotypes of what women’s roles are; make the women conform to the most Hollywood-esque stereotypes of beauty; add ridiculously outdated and patently coded stereotypes for Irish people, Italians, Danes, and Mongols; and complement that with 47 different finely-shaded subtle variations on English accent sub-types; then completely remove all Jews or Moors from the medieval context, and what you have is … I don’t know what to call it. It bugs me though.

In short: Good god this show is bad. The acting is bad, the plotting is bad, the sex is bad (it’s nearly all rape or prostititution), and it is one of the most sadistic shows I’ve ever seen. Also, I might add, it feels racist as hell. (Is it any coincidence that the Mongol horde is led by a gorgeous blonde Targ-Aryan?)

I had to stop reading the book series for the same reason: The author clearly cares far less about developing his characters or making you care about them than he does about imagining new and horrible ways to make them suffer and off them. I was sucked right into the first book and loved it. The second book, a little bit less so. By the time I got a third of the way through the third book, I was completely nauseated by the endless raping and pillaging. It didn’t help that around the same time as I was reading about heads being put on pikes — a classic trope of medieval fantasy literature — I was reading about schoolkids in Texas who needed special counseling because, when they were living in Mexico, they had to go to school past actual heads stuck on actual sticks. People still kill each other this way, and they still put heads on pikes. It seemed irresponsible to be using this as an offhand trope for “mans brutality against man” in a fantasy epic without at least some recognition that this is also still a reality.

Anyway, that’s really the only inventive thing about the series: How cleverly it imagines death and torture.

It also is very clever in how it uses the old “interwoven multiple narratives” trick to keep pulling you forward through the story, through one cliffhanger after another.

So: Well executed, George R. R. Martin and HBO, you cynical bastards. I watched every single episode of seasons 1 and 2 on Amazon; I couldn’t stop, really. But I’m really looking forward to taking a break now.

 

Changing the world

apps over austin at sxsw

I went to Austin, and I came back with an excellent orange beanie. I also spent a lot of time talking to interesting people and — when I wasn’t busy producing content for VentureBeat — drinking a bit too much. (And I made a brief appearance on NPR, which made my mom really proud.)

I’m tired and happy to be home now. But I’m also feeling kind of inspired by the whole event. From the guy in the bar who is making an app to help people commit “random acts of kindness,” to Amanda Palmer’s challenge (at a session about startup communities) for more awareness of the way crowdfunding builds a sense of shared responsibility, to the huge, world-changing ambitions of the Founders Fund partners, there was one common thread for me at SXSW this year (my first): Changing the world.

Here’s an excerpt from my latest column.

AUSTIN, Texas — At South by Southwest, every party had long lines of people waiting to get in, sometimes stretching the length of a block.

Every party except one, that is. I walked down the street last night past a Microsoft Windows event, which not only had no line, it was so empty that a staffer was standing on the sidewalk urging us to come inside.

Maybe Microsoft needed to hire a more exciting band. Half a block further down, and the sidewalk was crowded with young folks hoping to get into a party sponsored by some technology company. I’m pretty sure the headliner wasn’t Robert Scoble.

SXSW is an interesting mashup of a music festival, a film festival, and a geek fest. This was my first year attending, and I was a bit nervous, given that everything I’d heard about it made it sound crowded, noisy, and uncomfortable. But I’m leaving impressed.

Short version: Yes, SXSW is crowded and in many ways a dysfunctional event. No, there’s no real news. But it’s a great experience.

Read more about SXSW, startup communities, Tony Hsieh, and Amanda Palmer in my latest Dylan’s Desk column: How I learned to stop worrying and love SXSW.