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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.
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The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong

Here's a pocket history of the web, according to many people. In the early days, the web was just pages of information linked to each other. Then along came web crawlers that helped you find what you wanted among all that information. Some time around 2003 or maybe 2004, the social web really kicked into gear, and thereafter the web's users began to connect with each other more and more often. Hence Web 2.0, Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc. I'm not strawmanning here. This is the dominant history of the web as seen, for example, in this Wikipedia entry on the 'Social Web.' 

tl;dr version

1. The sharing you see on sites like Facebook and Twitter is the tip of the 'social' iceberg. We are impressed by its scale because it's easy to measure.

2. But most sharing is done via dark social means like email and IM that are difficult to measure.

3. According to new data on many media sites, 69% of social referrals came from dark social. 20% came from Facebook.

4. Facebook and Twitter do shift the paradigm from private sharing to public publishing. They structure, archive, and monetize your publications.

But it's never felt quite right to me. For one, I spent most of the 90s as a teenager in rural Washington and my web was highly, highly social. We had instant messenger and chat rooms and ICQ and USENET forums and email. My whole Internet life involved sharing links with local and Internet friends. How was I supposed to believe that somehow Friendster and Facebook created a social web out of what was previously a lonely journey in cyberspace when I knew that this has not been my experience? True, my web social life used tools that ran parallel to, not on, the web, but it existed nonetheless. 

To be honest, this was a very difficult thing to measure. One dirty secret of web analytics is that the information we get is limited. If you want to see how someone came to your site, it's usually pretty easy. When you follow a link from Facebook to The Atlantic, a little piece of metadata hitches a ride that tells our servers, "Yo, I'm here from Facebook.com." We can then aggregate those numbers and say, "Whoa, a million people came here from Facebook last month," or whatever. 

There are circumstances, however, when there is no referrer data. You show up at our doorstep and we have no idea how you got here. The main situations in which this happens are email programs, instant messages, some mobile applications*, and whenever someone is moving from a secure site ("https://mail.google.com/blahblahblah") to a non-secure site (http://www.theatlantic.com). 

This means that this vast trove of social traffic is essentially invisible to most analytics programs. I call it DARK SOCIAL. It shows up variously in programs as "direct" or "typed/bookmarked" traffic, which implies to many site owners that you actually have a bookmark or typed in www.theatlantic.com into your browser. But that's not actually what's happening a lot of the time. Most of the time, someone Gchatted someone a link, or it came in on a big email distribution list, or your dad sent it to you. 

Nonetheless, the idea that "social networks" and "social media" sites created a social web is pervasive. Everyone behaves as if the traffic your stories receive from the social networks (Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, StumbleUpon) is the same as all of your social traffic. I began to wonder if I was wrong. Or at least that what I had experienced was a niche phenomenon and most people's web time was not filled with Gchatted and emailed links. I began to think that perhaps Facebook and Twitter has dramatically expanded the volume of -- at the very least -- linksharing that takes place. 

Everyone else had data to back them up. I had my experience as a teenage nerd in the 1990s. I was not about to shake social media marketing firms with my tales of ICQ friends and the analogy of dark social to dark energy. ("You can't see it, dude, but it's what keeps the universe expanding. No dark social, no Internet universe, man! Just a big crunch.")

And then one day, we had a meeting with the real-time web analytics firm, Chartbeat. Like many media nerds, I love Chartbeat. It lets you know exactly what's happening with your stories, most especially where your readers are coming from. Recently, they made an accounting change that they showed to us. They took visitors who showed up without referrer data and split them into two categories. The first was people who were going to a homepage (theatlantic.com) or a subject landing page (theatlantic.com/politics). The second were people going to any other page, that is to say, all of our articles. These people, they figured, were following some sort of link because no one actually types "http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/atlast-the-gargantuan-telescope-designed-to-find-life-on-other-planets/263409/." They started counting these people as what they call direct social. 

The second I saw this measure, my heart actually leapt (yes, I am that much of a data nerd). This was it! They'd found a way to quantify dark social, even if they'd given it a lamer name! 

On the first day I saw it, this is how big of an impact dark social was having on The Atlantic. 

darksocial_atlantic.jpg
Just look at that graph. On the one hand, you have all the social networks that you know. They're about 43.5 percent of our social traffic. On the other, you have this previously unmeasured darknet that's delivering 56.5 percent of people to individual stories. This is not a niche phenomenon! It's more than 2.5x Facebook's impact on the site. 

Day after day, this continues to be true, though the individual numbers vary a lot, say, during a Reddit spike or if one of our stories gets sent out on a very big email list or what have you. Day after day, though, dark social is nearly always our top referral source. 

Dark social is even more important across this broader set of sites. Almost 69% of social referrals were dark! Facebook came in second at 20%. Twitter was down at 6%.
Perhaps, though, it was only The Atlantic for whatever reason. We do really well in the social world, so maybe we were outliers. So, I went back to Chartbeat and asked them to run aggregate numbers across their media sites. 

Get this. Dark social is even more important across this broader set of sites. Almost 69 percent of social referrals were dark! Facebook came in second at 20 percent. Twitter was down at 6 percent. 

All in all, direct/dark social was 17.5 percent of total referrals; only search at 21.5 percent drove more visitors to this basket of sites. (FWIW, at The Atlantic, social referrers far outstrip search. I'd guess the same is true at all the more magaziney sites.)

There are a couple of really interesting ramifications of this data. First, on the operational side, if you think optimizing your Facebook page and Tweets is "optimizing for social," you're only halfway (or maybe 30 percent) correct. The only real way to optimize for social spread is in the nature of the content itself. There's no way to game email or people's instant messages. There's no power users you can contact. There's no algorithms to understand. This is pure social, uncut.

Second, the social sites that arrived in the 2000s did not create the social web, but they did structure it. This is really, really significant. In large part, they made sharing on the Internet an act of publishing (!), with all the attendant changes that come with that switch. Publishing social interactions makes them more visible, searchable, and adds a lot of metadata to your simple link or photo post. There are some great things about this, but social networks also give a novel, permanent identity to your online persona. Your taste can be monetized, by you or (much more likely) the service itself. 

Third, I think there are some philosophical changes that we should consider in light of this new data. While it's true that sharing came to the web's technical infrastructure in the 2000s, the behaviors that we're now all familiar with on the large social networks was present long before they existed, and persists despite Facebook's eight years on the web. The history of the web, as we generally conceive it, needs to consider technologies that were outside the technical envelope of "webness." People layered communication technologies easily and built functioning social networks with most of the capabilities of the web 2.0 sites in semi-private and without the structure of the current sites. 

If what I'm saying is true, then the tradeoffs we make on social networks is not the one that we're told we're making. We're not giving our personal data in exchange for the ability to share links with friends. Massive numbers of people -- a larger set than exists on any social network -- already do that outside the social networks. Rather, we're exchanging our personal data in exchange for the ability to publish and archive a record of our sharing. That may be a transaction you want to make, but it might not be the one you've been told you made. 

* Chartbeat datawiz Josh Schwartz said it was unlikely that the mobile referral data was throwing off our numbers here. "Only about four percent of total traffic is on mobile at all, so, at least as a percentage of total referrals, app referrals must be a tiny percentage," Schwartz wrote to me in an email. "To put some more context there, only 0.3 percent of total traffic has the Facebook mobile site as a referrer and less than 0.1 percent has the Facebook mobile app."

    A Newly Constructed Movie of Earthrise From the Apollo 11 Orbiter

    earthrise.gif

    I love NASA nerds. They tirelessly mine our nation's space history looking for forgotten stories, adding to databases, correcting metadata. And sometimes, they encounter a string of images from a flight that was 43 years ago and reconstruct them into a beautiful new movie.

    Leonard Richardson stumbled across a series of shots that Michael Collins (The Other Guy on the Apollo 11 mission) took at decently regular intervals. Richardson realized he could transform the images -- which are archived at a spectacular old-school NASA History site -- into a short movie. The GIF you see at the right is the most dramatic moment from this resurrection of the footage.

    Also, fascinatingly, someone else posted a (less well-made) version of the same series of images a month ago, which Richardson stumbled upon while working on his own movie. Enjoy these convergent nerd outs! 

    Via @robdubbin

    Chart: Apple's Share Price Since the iPhone 5 Came Out

    appleshareprice.jpg

    After Clay Johnson joked on Twitter that Apple had lost a Facebook's worth of value since the release of the iPhone 5, I decided to pull the company's chart. The percentage change is rather small, only 8 percent or so, but the loss of market cap is about $60 billion since September 21 when the new Apple phone came out.

    This is despite the fact that the iPhone 5 broke all previous Apple sales records, which gives you some kind of idea bout the tremendous expectations that Wall Street (and Main Street) have for Tim Cook's company. 

    If I Fly a UAV Over My Neighbor's House, Is It Trespassing?

    Even a toy drone with an HD camera scrambles our sense of property and privacy rights.

    dronefence.jpg

    The AR.Drone.2.0 in action in my backyard.

    My poor kitten, who my unfortunate Instagram contacts know too well, gets beat up every time he goes outside. There's a bully cat in the neighborhood who appears to relish in attacking cute, fluffy things as soon as they get out of human oversight. So, naturally, I bought a Parrot AR.Drone.2.0, a remote-controlled quadcopter with an HD camera attached, to see if I could spot where the punk bully cat hangs out.

    Notes and Dispatches from the Urban Future
    See full coverage

    After some training runs in which I crashed the little UAV every fifteen seconds, I started to get the hang of where to push on my iPad to get the little AR.Drone to go the way I desired. And then, dodging trees and power lines, I sent the machine flying higher in the sky and scooted towards the fence, popped over it, and -- terrified of crashing in territory I didn't control -- sped back across to the safety of my own backyard, and engaged the automatic landing sequence. 

    Technically, I'd gone over the fence line, and if I'd done so on foot, intentionally, I would have nominally been guilty of trespassing. But if I were flying in a helicopter, a few hundred feet up, I would *not* have been guilty of trespassing. So, what about the air in between? 

    There aren't many specific laws or cases on the books to address my specific situation, but we do know that the idea of airspace has changed in the decades since humans started flying around. 

    "Once upon a time, you had the rights to your property under the soil and to the sky.  It went by the colorful, Latin label "ad coelum et ad inferos"---to the heavens and hell," Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor and former research director of Stanford's Center for Internet and Society, told me. "But subsequent case law recognized the limits imposed by commercial aviation and other realities of the modern world.  Now you own the air and soil rights you might reasonably use and enjoy."

    That original dictum -- ad coelum et ad inferos -- was never part of legislation, but rather passed to us from British common law. The process by which this notion of property was limited really began in the early twentieth century, when we began to regularly reach into the heavens and nominally closer to hell. Timothy Ravich is an aviation lawyer who contributed an article to the North Dakota Law Review (UND is a major hub of civilian aerospace training) on "the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace." I figured if anyone knew the legal status of my neighborhood flights, it would be him. 

    "If you were to take your Parrot drone over my house, I suppose at one level, it is a trespass," he said. "You were not invited there and could potentially have disrupted my quiet enjoyment of my home. I suppose I could sue."

    Whoops, I thought. But it's not really that simple. Regardless of whether someone technically had the right to stop me from flying my little UAV over a house, "It's quite another thing to exercise those rights in a court of law," Ravitch said. "If someone does take a Parrot and fly it over your house every day for a year. Are you injured? What are the actual damages?"

    In other words: what are you gonna do about it?

    "What [property] rights you have beyond what you can physically touch has always been difficult for the law to grapple with," Ravich told me. 

    "Good fences make good neighbors," Ravitch said. "But we don't build fences in the air."

    droneview.jpg

    The drone's eye view, sadly no Bully Cat in sight.

    guille.jpg

    There are two fascinating analogous cases to look at. The first reaches all the way back to the early 1800s, when balloonists (!) were first making their uncertain journeys skyward. In 1822, the Supreme Court of New York heard the case of Guille vs. Swan. Guille was a balloonist. Swan had a vegetable garden. Guille launched himself in a balloon near Swan's patch and as he descended, hilarity/mayhem ensued. Here's the court's description of the situation:

    The facts were that Guille ascended in a balloon in the vicinity of Swan's garden and descended into his garden. When he descended his body was hanging out of the car of the balloon in a very perilous situation and he called to a person at work in Swan's field to help him in a voice audible to the pursuing crowd. After the balloon descended it dragged along over potatoes and radishes about thirty feet when Guille was taken out. The balloon was carried to a barn at the further end of the premises. When the balloon descended more than two hundred persons broke into Swan's garden through the fences and came on his premises beating down his vegetables and flowers. 

    Guille was found liable both for the damage his own balloon caused and the damage perpetrated by the crowd following him. But in that case, the problem was not the flight over Swan's veggies, but its descent back down where property rights make more sense. 

    The real touch point for UAV law in civilian air space, though, is the case of United States v. Causby, which the Supreme Court heard in 1946. It demolished, "ad coelum et ad inferos." The Thomas and Tinie Causby owned a few acres of land near Greensboro, North Carolina on which they farmed chickens. It happened to be underneath one of the glide paths to a municipal airport, so planes passed roughly 83 feet above his property. The planes -- old-school bombers and fighters in many cases -- scared the wits out of his chickens. They literally killed themselves flying off the walls in fright. "As many as six to ten of their chickens were killed in one day by flying into the walls from fright. The total chickens lost in that manner was about 150," the Court noted. Production also fell off. The result was the destruction of the use of the property as a commercial chicken farm."

    What resulted from this set of circumstances, though, was a triumph for aviators. The Court affirmed that "the air above the minimum safe altitude of flight... is a public highway and part of the public domain." Poor Causby and his chickens were out of luck. 

    [The] doctrine [of cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelum] has no place in the modern world.  The air is a public highway, as Congress has declared.  Were that not true, every transcontinental flight would subject the operator to countless trespass suits.  Common sense revolts at the idea.  To recognize such private claims to the airspace would clog these highways, seriously interfere with their control and development in the public interest, and transfer into private ownership that to which only the public has a just claim.

    The question remains: what do private citizens and the public have just claims to? The reasoning of the court in these old decisions is one that I like: the air should be a space for everyone, not whoever can purchase the most square acreage on the ground.

    But the wide availability of UAV technology (combined with HD video) scrambles my sense of what is right. Specifically, it points out how much of our sense of privacy is intimately connected up with our expectations of our property rights. Drones -- as flying, seeing objects -- scramble our 2D sense of property boundaries, and along the way, make privacy much more complicated.

    "This idea of a reasonable expectation of privacy has always been accepted as the standard and the interface of that privacy right and emerging UAV technology is fascinating," Ravitch said. "There is not an answer. The best we can do is arrive at laws and practices of the then-existing sensibilities of the population."

    Because while my hunt for the neighborhood's bully cat is a lighthearted endeavor, the real difficult decisions in this domain will come when local police have as many unmanned aerial systems as they do trained dogs.

    The Enablers: 3 Unsung Energy Technologies

    Welcome back for another round of energy entrepreneurs. I want you to meet Lynn Jurich, co-founder of SunRun, CEO Siva Sivaram of Twin Creeks Technologies, and Alex Tkachenko, President of Siluria. They're the latest interviewees in our series on The Energy Puzzle. I think of this series as our opportunity to show you technologies that aren't necessarily making headlines like Tesla or Solyndra, but are part of how innovation is changing the energy system. 

    Take Siva Sivaram's Twin Creeks Technologies. They've come up with a machine that allows them to cut very, very thin silicon wafers. Rather than becoming one of the many solar manufacturers (who have to compete against very cheap Chinese panels), Twin Creeks decided to use its technology to make equipment that it can sell to those would-be competitors. They're part of an emerging supply chain that's helping make each and every piece of solar electricity get cheaper. 
    On the exact other end, you'll find Lynn Jurich's SunRun (video at top), which takes money from lenders and uses it buy solar panels that it leases to homeowners. They sell solar-as-a-service, which reduces the high upfront costs that have long plagues the industry. It's not a technology innovation, but it's transforming the way that solar is done in this country. 

    And lest you think that we were too focused on renewables, we have Alex Tkachenko, a former biochemist who is now at the helm of Siluria. That company's technology is fascinating in that it radically reduces the cost of transforming natural gas (which we're awash in right now!) into ethylene, the most widely used organic compound in the world. It's used in plastics and other chemicals. Normally ethylene is produced by "cracking" oil, but Siluria's technology allows them to build the compound from natural gas. They see it as a gamechanger as the easy-to-reach oil gets pumped out of the ground, and a possible route for all the natural gas that the extractive industries have discovered through fracking and other advanced recovery techniques. 

    The Internet Museum of Oddity Records

    While hunting for information on an obscure type of DIY records, I stumbled across a DIY site that's a perfect example of the early Internet ethos.

    wilcoxgay.jpgI've recently become obsessed with an odd kind of old record, Wilcox Gay Recordio disks. The company sold record-it-yourself machines that allowed people to cut one-off records from the comfort of their ranch homes. Many people recorded themselves singing, but others recorded letters that they sent to their loved ones. The first few discs I picked up were a mixture of Christian hymns ("Onward Christian Soldier") and a relatively pedestrian description of a 1941 trip from Indianapolis through Muncie and on to Ohio. I've embedded the latter below, but you'll really have to crank up the volume to hear much. (I've done my best with the de-noising but this is a metal disk from 1941 and it's not in great shape.)
    In any case, I've started trying to hunt down more of these records -- and more information about the class of records -- because they each provide a little peek into the day-to-day world of the past. And while looking for that information, I stumbled upon an digital relic, The Internet Museum of Flexi/Cardboard/Oddity Records, assembled by Michael Cumella, a collector of truly obscure records, who is also a DJ at WFMU. Here's the site's introduction, formatting intact:
     

    Once bound by cereal boxes, held in the pages of a magazine, wrapped up in envelopes sent through our postal system or given away casually with some product, these bits of paper and plastic yearned to be set free to fulfill their destiny as...

    PLAYABLE RECORDS

    Come and take an aural and visual journey through a partial history of these strange but true recorded anomolies.

    Who knew that there were so many oddity records out there? And thanks to the Internet and Cumella's hard work, you can actually listen to them from the comfort of *your* ranch home. 

    The museum was built, from the looks of it, around 2000 and it's the kind of passion-filled site that people used to create before the web's more commercial side took over. This is not a Tumblr full of recycled GIFs. This is a networked archive of someone's offline passion overflowing onto the web. As Verge writer Tim Carmody put it one time, "The Internet is best when it's not just made of other Internet," and this old-school site exemplifies that ethos.

    The OED Needs Your Help With These Words: Bellini, Disco, FAQ, Cootie

    If you look up august in the Oxford English Dictionary, there's a picture of the Oxford English Dictionary itself. This is the world's gold standard for word origins and usage. So, you might think that you don't have much to contribute their corpus of knowledge, or that they'd ever need your help. 

    But you'd be wrong. 

    Today, the OED launched a new site they call "Appeals," which seeks crowdsourced evidence of early references to today's words. For example, 'disco,' is a hard one to pin down. 

    Was a disco a dress before it was a nightclub? That's the surprising implication of the evidence OED researchers have uncovered while revising the entry for disco n. The earliest quotations our editors have found for the word, which is shortened from discotheque, mean 'a type of short sleeveless dress' (such as one might wear to a discotheque) and date from July 1964... 

    It isn't until the September 1964 issue of Playboy that we see disco meaning 'a nightclub' (though references to disco dancing are found as early as August)

    What the OED editors hope ou'll do is pull out your early 60s magazines (you have some, right?) and go looking for references to disco that precede the July 1964 references to the short sleeveless dress. 

    There is some interesting context to consider here. The editors are trying to bridge the gap between the time when subcultural printed media exploded in the post-war west and when all that printed media was regularly digitized. It's those materials, the stuff produced by cheap means or only circulated in certain regions or among certain groups, that are hardest for researchers to get their hands on. But they are also the prized possessions of certain types of collectors and weirdos (among whom I would include myself on certain topics). 

    So what I particularly love about the OED's Appeals is that it is an exceptionally well-designed ask for participation. They want specific information from specific subsets of people who are extremely interested in these topics. This may be filed under crowdsourcing, but they are surgical asks, not carpet bombing. 

    Photo of the Day: The Space Station Launches 3 Tiny Satellites

    The ISS sends a few mini-experiments on their way.

    tinysats.jpg

    Behold three CubeSats launched from the International Space Station, aka The Mothership. Future ISS commander Chris Hatfield tweeted the photo this morning, calling it (accurately) "surreal." Two other CubeSats were launched from the ISS, as well. They were all part of a technology demonstration by the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA.

    The CubeSat program has been a cheap way for researchers at universities and elsewhere to fly experiments in orbit without paying for a whole launch themselves. The tiny satellites are only about 4" on a side, so they can be piggybacked on larger missions. That means the total cost of a CubeSat can be kept under $100,000. 

    The basic tech was developed at Cal Poly and Stanford in the late 1990s, and roughly 75 of the cute little guys have made it into space.

    Via Tim Maly

    The Surprising Trajectory of Facebook's Growth to a Billion Users in 1 Chart

    The company's hypergrowth began long after younger Americans had adopted the service.

    facebookusergrowth.jpg
    If you were in college in the mid 2000s, you think you saw Facebook's fastest growth period. That's when the site was being deployed school-by-school across the country. In every individual school, Facebook's growth followed pretty much the same exponential curve from no one to everyone in a matter of weeks. That is to say, for me personally, Facebook's main growth story was over by September of 2004. 

    Later, as the company pushed outside colleges to high schools and the military and then to everyone in September 2006, individuals' social networks tended to follow a similar trajectory. Once a few people were infected by Facebook in your circle, soon everyone else was, too. For the average reader of this blog, a tech-savvy someone in his or her late 30s, Facebook's conquest of our social networks happened long ago. Facebook the company has long stopped being an exciting new service and started seeming more like a local gas and electric utility. You never stop using its services, but you constantly complain about it.

    I think it's difficult to think past one's microsociological experience to the scale of the company. The truth is that while an individual's Facebook's network growth explodes and then quiets down, the same has not been true at the global scale.

    Facebook just keeps growing and growing as individual after individual experiences what you did way back when George W. Bush was still president. Look up at that graph. Facebook's really hyper growth did not take off until August of 2008, when Facebook had something like 33 million US users, 25 million of whom were between 18 and 34 years old. 

    Eventually, and maybe sometime in the not too-distant future, Facebook may have a hard time finding people with Internet access and socialization habits that make them easy to capture. But for now, Facebook keeps adding another 500,000 users a day, each and every day, right through every privacy debacle and user-interface snafu. 

    Has growth slowed a bit since 2011, when the company was adding almost 800,000 people a day? Sure. But don't mistake deceleration for contraction.

    A quick note on the numbers used above. In most cases, they are the official Facebook numbers. In other cases, the numbers were quite difficult to find (700 million particularly). Here's where they all came from with estimation explanation, if necessary. 

    100 million: Facebook official
    200 million: Facebook official
    300 million: Facebook official
    400 million: Facebook official
    500 million: Facebook official
    600 million: Goldman Sachs note
    700 million: This one is tough. Facebook confirmed on July 6 that it had more than 750 million users. Socialbakers predicted Facebook would pass 700 million users in early June. But that would have meant the company adding 50 million users in a little over a month, so I picked May 15 as an earlier, somewhat arbitrary but reasonable date. 
    800 million: Facebook official
    900 million: Facebook official

    Chanel's *Renewable-Energy-Themed* Fashion Show

    The aesthetics of wind and solar are unlike any power source that's gone before them.

    Energy analysis is a dry business. It's underpinned by spreadsheets showing depletion rates, carbon intensities, and kilowatt hours.

    Notes and Dispatches from the Urban Future See full coverage

    It is not, in short, normally associated with high fashion. And yet, here we see Chanel's ready-to-wear show. Models strut on a solar panel walkway underneath towering wind turbines.

    Forget that the wind turbines were almost certainly powered by electric motors or that the solar panels were not producing. Obviously, the producers of the show were not trying to make a green-in-practice statement. No, what's really fascinating about this is that Chanel thought that the renewable energy future's aesthetic was worth abstracting and displaying. They were not after the electricity generation but the *look* of the panels and the *rhythm* of the wind machines.

    To my eye, perhaps the most interesting thing is that this does not come out looking dystopian. Imagine this same kind of display with an oil refinery or a coal mine or a power plant. Or consider the feel of the show set near a tiny nuclear power plant giving off the trademark Cherenkov glow. There's almost no way to imagine models walking through those landscapes without it feeling like a commentary about humans *against* the machines. 

    In Chanel's show, the models are dwarfed by the turbines, but not threatened. The world is fresh and clean. Though both these technologies have been around for decades now, this still feels like The Future, capital F.

    Via Cara De Fabio

    The Forgotten Mapmaker: Nokia Has Better Maps Than Apple and Maybe Even Google

    It's impossible to create a perfect map, but that hasn't stopped Nokia from trying. Here, we go inside the company's neverending drive to create a digital copy of the world.

    nokiamap2.jpg
    Apple's maps are bad. Even Tim Cook knows this and apologized for them. Google's maps are good, thanks to years of work, massive computing resources, and thousands of people handcorrecting map data. 

    Notes and Dispatches from the Urban Future
    See full coverage
    But there are more than two horses in the race to create an index of the physical world. There's a third company that's invested billions of dollars, employs thousands of mapmakers, and even drives around its own version of Google's mythic "Street View" cars. 

    That company is Nokia, the still-giant but oft-maligned Finnish mobile phone maker, which acquired the geographic information systems company Navteq back in 2007 for $8 billion. That's only a bit less than the Nokia's current market value of a bit less than $10 billion, which is down 93 percent since 2007. This might be bad news for the company's shareholders, but if a certain tech giant with a massive interest in mobile content (Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo) were looking to catch up or stay even with Google, the company's Location & Commerce unit might look like a nice acquisition they could get on the cheap (especially given that the segment lost 1.5 billion euros last year). Microsoft and Yahoo are already thick as thieves with Nokia's mapping crew, but Apple is the company that needs the most help. 

    Business considerations aside, I'm fascinated by the process of mapping. What seems like a rather conventional exercise turns out to be the very cutting edge of mixed reality, of translating the human world and logic into databases that computers can use. And the best part is, unlike web crawlers, which were totally automated, indexing the physical world still requires people heading out on the roads and staring at imagery on computers back at the home office. 

    As I described last month, Google has spent literally tens of thousands of person-hours creating its maps. I argued that no other company could beat Google at this game, which turned out to be my most controversial assertion. People pointed out that while Google's driven 5 million miles in Street View cars, UPS, not to mention all the other logistics companies, drives 3.3 billion miles a year. Whoever had access to these other datasets might be in the mapping (cough) driver's seat. 

    Well, it turns out that Nokia is the company that receives data from many commercial fleets including FedEx, the company's senior VP of Location Content, Cliff Fox, told me.

    "We get over 12 billion probe data points per month coming into the organization," Fox said from his office in Chicago. "We get probe data not only from commercial vehicles like FedEx and UPS trucks, but we also get it from consumers through navigation applications."

    Depending on the device type, the data that streams into Nokia can have slight variations. 

    "The system that they have for tracking the UPS trucks is different from the way the maps application works on the Nokia device. You'll have differences on the amount of times per minute they ping their location, though typically it's every 5 to 15 seconds," Fox said. "It'll give you a location, a direction, and a speed as well." (* See correction at the end of the story: UPS does not send data to Nokia.)

    They can then use that data to identify new or changed roads. In 2012, they've used the GPS data they get to identify 65,000 road segments. (A road segment is defined as the strip of surface between intersecting roads.) The GPS data also comes in handy when they're building traffic maps because they know the velocity of the vehicles. 

    (Fascinatingly, one of their consumer privacy protections is to black out every other 30 seconds of tracking information so that the company can't say "that a particular individual traveled a particular route.")

    In the future, Nokia may be able to extract as many as 30 other attributes from the GPS probe data alone. "That kind of data can help us keep the map more current without having people go out and drive," Fox said. 

    But for now, as with Google's map data "operators," there is still no better option for gathering data about the physical world than putting a human being in a car and sending him or her through the streets of the world. 

    * * *

    tonycha.jpg

    Meet Tony Cha. He's a world crawler, a driver of one of Nokia's "True" vehicles. He's spent roughly three years on the road, moving from city to city in a modded car that the company's Chief Technology Officer, Henry Tirri, called "a data collection miracle." Cha tells me, "You could be gone for months at a time if you're mapping a big city back east. I live from a hotel. It's good and bad. You don't see your friends and family, but the company is expensing your travel." He's lucky right now. His hometown of Fresno is his latest collection area. It'll take a month of driving eight or nine hours a day to complete that city. And then it'll be on to the next location in Tony Cha's Neverending Drive. 

    "It's kind of surreal. You think, 'You drove every single street in this city,'" Cha told me. "There are multiple cities where I drove every single street." 

    The camera cars work best in dry, temperate conditions, so there's even a seasonality to the job. The drivers do northern cities in the summer and then the fleet moves south during the winter. Cha gets to follow the good weather. 

    Within cities, his route is planned by an algorithm that has determined the most efficient way to cover every road on the map. It's flexible and can accommodate mistakes, but the system "has a specific route it wants you to drive," he said. He drives for the duration of a work day, then heads to his hotel. The next day, when it's time to start again, he returns to where he left off and starts again. "I'm almost robotic, in a sense," he said.

    Along the way, he's seen his fair share of weird reactions to the car. Some people see it and come rushing out of their businesses, so they can be photographed outside. Others flip him the bird. "It doesn't really bother me," Cha said.

    The car is not inconspicuous. Rising out of the roof, there is a tower of components stacked on top of one another. It folds down for travel, but deployed, it's probably six feet tall. 

    The Volkswagen is stocked with $200,000 worth of equipment (that's Fox's number) including six cameras for capturing street signs, a panoramic camera for doing Bing Street View imagery, two GPS antennae (one on the wheel, the other on the roof), three laptops, and the crown jewel -- a LIDAR system that shoots 64 lasers 360 degrees around the car to create 3D images of the landscape the car passes through. 

    annotatedTRUEcar.jpg

    Detail of the TRUE car's roof equipment: 1. The sign camera. 2. LIDAR system. 3. Panoramic imager.

    There is so much data feeding from the roof of the car into its interior that the bundle of cables alone looks like a tank tread. The LIDAR, when it's switched on, rotates around and emits a high-pitched whine that would probably drive you crazy if someone piped it into your headphones. 

    The LIDAR is useful for a whole bunch of things, especially when used in combination with the other imagery data. Nokia takes the 1.3 million point measurements per second** that the LIDAR outputs and combines them into what amounts to a wireframe of the street. Then, they drape the imagery they've taken with the other cameras on top of that to create a digital representation of a place. Here's what the process looks like for a spot in Regensberg, Germany, the Agilolfing Tower. 

    LIDARprocess.gif

    The GIF format reduces the number of colors and detail that the actual cameras have. This is what the actual end product looks like. Feel to click to see a high resolution version.

    lidar4.png

    Once they've got a digital representation of a place like this put together, they can do all kinds of data extractions from the images. As you can see in the GIF above, they can determine the height and length of the bridge, reading the physical world itself. And they can decipher human signs that provide valuable clues about the road network. Nokia can extract 100 different types of road signs in 13 different countries automatically. That said, the process is still only about 25 percent automated with a goal of getting to 50 percent; they don't think it'll be possible to do much better than that.

    * * *

    The biggest mapping problem -- the thing that makes Tony Cha's Neverending Drive necessary -- is not dimensions one through three, but number four. The world changes in time. 

    "To build it the first time is relatively the smaller task compared to maintaining that map," Nokia's Fox said.

    It's like that semi-true urban legend about painting the Golden Gate Bridge. They say that they start at one end and by the time they're done, the spot where they started needs to be repainted. It's a maintenance loop from which you can't escape. And it means there is no perfect map. Most maps aren't even 99 percent accurate, the number that Apple's been tossing around

    "I'd be shocked [if Apple had 99% accuracy]," Fox commented. "You have real world change. From the time you collect to the time it ends up in a consumer's hands, there will be more than one-percent change."

    In fact, there might be much more than one percent change, depending on the region. Jacksonville, which isn't changing much, Nokia "added, modified or deleted geometry" about 6 percent of the road network. In Houston, which is growing more quickly, there were changes to 13 percent of the network. And if we're talking about Delhi, there were edits to 85 percent of their database. 

    Now, lived experience tells you that the paths of roads don't change five or ten percent every year. Many of the changes in the map database are behind the scenes, in the logic of how a road network works or in more subtle data.

    "We capture up to 400 pieces of information for every road segment. It could be information about all of the signage, whether or not it is divided road, the number of lanes, where the lanes constrict or expand," Fox said. "There is just an enormous amount of information. When I'm talking about percentage change, it could be the speed limit or the names that change on specific roads. It's a never-ending process of understanding the dynamic nature of changes on these road networks."

    Nokia has a concept they call "The Living Map." The idea is that as people use the maps -- and related location services -- the map starts to know what you're looking for. Searched for Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco? Perhaps you'd like to know which Oakland places serve Blue Bottle, too. And bit by bit, you wear tiny little grooves into this giant 3D representation of the entire world, connecting the places that you love together into a new layer that sits on top of all the road network data and Tony Cha's drives and the LIDAR wireframes. The map will come to life, and you will be in it. 

    alexismap.jpg

    While Cha and I were talking, an unshaven guy in a v-neck t-shirt and sweats walked by and started peppering us with questions. "Do you only come out when it's a blue sky day?" "Does Apple have street view?" "Can the camera articulate on your rack?" "So you're directed by software?" This is not uncommon. 

    Then, out of nowhere, the passerby said, "We're so close to the day when you can put on VR goggles and literally just walk through the world, anywhere in the world."

    Yes, basically that is the idea: A map of the world that is also a copy of the world. 


    Bonus footage: My Parrot AR.Drone.2.0 circling the Nokia TRUE vehicle, with extra dubstep for effect. My apologies for my horrible piloting skills. Forgive me, I'm a beginner. 


    * This portion of the story has been updated to clear up some confusion that I had with Nokia about who they were receiving data from. While they receive data from many commercial fleets -- and it seemed to me that Fox's statement implied UPS contributed data to Navteq, that is not actually the case. In his quote, he's using the named logistics companies as examples of the types of fleets that they work with.  
    ** A previous version of this story overstated the number of data points gathered by Nokia's LIDAR. We regret the error.

    Happy Birthday, NASA! Here's What Might Have Happened If You Were Never Born

    Our space program almost ended up under the control of the Atomic Energy Committee and the precursor to DARPA.

    nuclearpropulsion.jpeg

    The NERVA test engine being put through the paces. It was to be the centerpiece of a nuclear-powered space program.

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a popular new technology in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a government agency. And this was the problem with space travel. 

    On this day in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration opened for business a mere two months after President Eisenhower signed its existence into law. The new agency was created largely out of people and infrastructure inherited from the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, which had been the government's civilian vehicle for aviation research. 

    But before NASA became a sure thing, it was only one of several prospective bureaucracies that might have been put in charge of space exploration. And though I love our space agency, a couple of the other alternatives that the government considered may have been more exciting. 

    In February 1958, the President appointed a panel to investigate "the organization for the exploitation of outer space." S. Paul Johnston, director of the Institute for Aeronautical Sciences and a member of the panel, laid out the four ideas that were floating around during that year before the formation of NASA. Here's a reprint from his original memo:

    purcell-panel.jpg

    We know that, in fact, the government decided on the third alternative here. But take a look at options two and four. 

    Proposal two would have given over space exploration to the Atomic Energy Commission! Johnson even said that "strong Congressional support is in evidence for assigning the mission to the AEC." Furthermore, the AEC was a powerful organization within the government at that time: "[t]he AEC has unquestionable adequate management and all the authority it would need," Johnson noted.

    To me, at least, this is nuts. Producing atomic energy and sending rockets into space are wholly different things united only by their newness as technologies. Johnson took a similar view. "The technology of flight both in and out of the atmosphere is not part of the normal AEC competence," he argued. "Although it is true that nuclear propulsion for aerial and space vehicles comes within its field, consensus seems to be that practical utilization of such propulsion is 5 to 10 years away."

    Well, here we are 54 years later and nuclear propulsion has not reached "practical utilization." The AEC's power has waned. But let's imagine, just for a minute, what would have happened if our space and atomic programs had become conjoined! We might have doubled down on our nuclear space program, which was considerable in the early days through the Nuclear Space Propulsion Office. While that might have failed in the short-term, it might have actually set us up better for solar-system exploration beyond the moon. 

    "The destinations dictate the power system," Rao Surampudi, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer who works on the development of power systems, told me in 2009. And if you're not trying to go beyond the moon, it doesn't make sense to develop nuclear rockets. 

    Oftentimes in technology, though, we see what a technology does best suddenly become its goal. So, if nuclear rockets were great at sending people far into the solar system, perhaps an AEC-controlled space program might have privileged such missions over or beside a moon landing? 

    For that same story in 2009, Patrick McDaniel, a nuclear engineer and co-director of the University of New Mexico's Institute for Space and Nuclear Power Studies, passionately argued that not pursuing nuclear propulsion was what limited our space program and led to its current decline. "[With nuclear rockets] we could have done a lot more things in space. We could have gone more places. It's highly likely we would have gone to Mars."

    And that might not even be the most far-out alternative scenario we can imagine for our space program. Consider if option four from the memo above had been adopted: the Advance Research Projects Agency, precursor to DARPA, would have been running our space program. The argument for ARPA, as Johnson saw it, was "on the grounds of immediate action." The ARPA facilites were "well staffed and the experience level is high." 

    Imagine again how our space program might have changed if it were under largely military control. And don't forget: ARPA might have been changed, too. If ARPA had been concerned with getting a man to the moon or some other space possibility, might it have been as focused on its computer research (headed by JCR Licklider) on the key research that led to ARPANET, which in turn, led to the Internet? What if it was common to cruise around space in the 1990s, but we were decades from having the web?

    I'm asking these questions because A) they are really fun counterfactuals and B) to bust up the idea that the development of the American and global space agendas was inevitable. JFK was right, we had to choose to go to the moon. Not only was JFK's decision not inevitable, but the political calculus that led Eisenhower and Congress to organize the space technology effort under NASA helped determine the options that Kennedy thought he had. 

    In this one decision, the futures of nuclear power, the space program, and the Internet were all tangled together. We got this version of the present, but I wouldn't bet that if we reran the experiment, we'd be able to reproduce this result. 

    Driverless Cars Would Reshape Automobiles *and* the Transit System

    The big opportunity of robocars isn't the cars themselves; it's how they could create a far more efficient transportation system.

    driverlesscar.jpg

    When I've thought about driverless cars, which if you believe Sergey Brin, will be available within "several years," I've tended to think of them as a drop-in replacement for our current automobiles. So, you'd buy a VW Automaton and it would sit in your driveway until you wanted to go somewhere. Then, you'd hop in, say, "Take me to Lake Merritt," and then just sit back and pop in the latest Animal Collective while the computer drove. 

    Notes and Dispatches from the Urban Future
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    But maybe that's not what would happen at all. Changes in transportation technology have tended to be accompanied by changes to transportation systems, too. Long-time technologist Brad Templeton argues that this will, in fact, be the case. And he's even got an idea of what the big shift might be. We could enter the age of the "whistlecar." If one can hire a cheap specialized 'robotaxi' (or whistlecar) on demand when one has a special automotive need," Templeton writes, "car users can elect to purchase a vehicle only for their most common needs, rather than trying to meet almost all of them -- or to not purchase at all."

    This vision is kind of stunning: imagine the Kiva Systems logistics robots that now speed around major warehouses, but for people. Transportation-as-a-service models could really take off in a world of hyperoptimized robotaxis. Not only would the robotaxis be built differently from normal cars, but people's private vehicles (if they had one) would change as they realized how they could use the new system more effectively.

    That is to say: right now, people buy big old SUVs and cars that drive 400 miles on a tank because they are buying for the maximum number of use cases. Really, most people drive their cars a few dozen miles at most and they do it alone. People have WAY more car than they need. So, Templeton's conceit is that if we had roaming driverless vehicles that would show up at your door when you called one, you might be inclined to buy "less car" because you'd get the rest on-demand. 

    My own thought: perhaps when you bought a small, electric vehicle, you'd get a "service plan" that came with X number of trips in a driverless vehicle of your choosing; your bundle would be the small, energy efficient daily car and access to self-driving vans, trucks, station wagons, and sports cars.

    Templeton's theorizing could also answer some of the critiques from transit-oriented environmentalists who see driverless cars as perpetuating the doomed auto-heavy American system. Don't think about the driverless car as a fossil-fuel powered car replacement; think of it as one mode of a radically more efficient system: what could you do now within a system that now has free-floating semi-autonomous people transporters? 

    googledriverless.jpg

    Let's say the tech opens up the system to change. Templeton's main argument is that the new system would bounce back on the tech. The design of cars would change because they'd have a new set of uses, possibilities, and constraints. I'll just provide the bullet list here of what might happen to cars in the auto-automobile era. You can check out his post for the details

    Range is much less important

    Battery problems are considerably reduced

    Refueling is not usually done while humans travel

    Single passenger vehicles will be much more common

    Reverse and face to face seating

    Windshield requirements are different

    Cargo space is not necessary in all vehicles

    Acceleration is not a big requirement

    Speed may not be that important

    Cars may be much lighter

    Suspensions can be super-soft

    In time, safety concerns change considerably

    The in-car environment changes considerably

    Sleeper cars

    Robo-RV

    Parking is not a problem for the humans (or society)

    Many car owners may rent out their cars

    Mars Curiosity Looks Up, Sees a Crescent Moon

    Phobos hanging in the sky

    moonshot.jpg

    If there's one thing about space travel that's always enchanted me, it's the idea of looking up into a different sky. Not to reveal too much about my inner nerd, but I may or may not have watched a few hundred episodes of Star Trek: TNG in the lazy Sunday hours after the football games ended. (Oh, Channel 12! The mysteries of your programming choices! Was Weird Al secretly selecting your programs?) The best part, for me, was when they beamed down to a new planet and you'd see two suns in the sky, or a huge planet close by, or ... an unfamiliar moon.

    This photograph taken by the Mars Curiosity Rover shows the Martian moon, Phobos, in the upper right quadrant above. A faint crescent hanging in the sky. (That black speck to its left is a bad pixel, FYI.) I know Curiosity's job is to do science, but I just want it to explore on our behalf, to be our eyes, to look up.

    Everyone Who Wants a Drone Will Have One Soon

    Our Brian Fung brings word that Iran has a drone, and I think it's reasonable not to worry about it, per se.

    But let's talk about the (very) near future. 

    Drones are not like the atomic bomb. There won't be a day when suddenly we realize that a horrible new weapon has changed the world forever. Instead, one day we'll wake up and there'll have been a terrorist attack by a swarm of drones launched by hand from a park across the Potomac from Washington, DC, and no one will know where they came from or who sent them. We'll wake up one day to a drone peering in our window as preparation for a common burglary. 

    The price of these unmanned aerial vehicles is plummeting from two sides. On the one hand, you've got the toys like the $70 iHelicopter you control with an iPhone. This little guy even has two plastic missiles you can fire!

    There are already pretty good surveillance drones, too. Like this $300 Parrot AR.Drone.2.0, which can shoot HD video. You control it with an iPad. That quadcopter's users are already submitting video that looks like this:

    And don't even get me started about these nanobot swarms.

    At the other end of the spectrum, you've got the military-grade drones, which come with real missiles. These ones are still expensive and obviously procuring the bombs and missiles is still hard.

    But the fancy, long-range drones have now left the Pentagon costing and production ecosystem. Hobbyists like Wired's Chris Anderson are working on high-capability DIY drones. Here's a chart showing the relationship between "drone/autopilot production volume and price."

    drones_anderson.png

    Chris Anderson

    The upshot of all this is that it's not going to take much to procure a drone and do anything you want with it. And if you try to outlaw them, then, well, only the outlaws (and government) will have drones.

    To me, the best parallel is the improvised explosive device, the IED. This weapon gives every army/police force fits because the tech is cheap and commodity and its action is at a distance. What's going to stop anyone from turning a cheap drone into a flying IED? Or a swarm of cheap drones into flying IEDs? What's to stop your neighbor from hovering one above his house and streaming HD video of the neighborhood? (The current answer to that last question one is battery life on the toy UAVs, but that's improving, too.)

    Semi-autonomous flying things are already available to the general public and will continue to become more available. Yet our intuitive privacy settings, our security forces, and our sense of property all assume humans on the ground.

    Let me posit this: Drones will make traditional fences as obsolete as gunpowder and cannons made city walls.

    The Post-Apocalyptic Tech Scene

    A reflection on what happens when only the rich have a place in the world.

    childrenmen_615.jpgI spent the last week traveling around the Rust Belt talking with startups and entrepreneurs. We spent time in incubators and accelerators, in co-working spaces and rehabbed manufacturing complexes. As I wandered through the post-industrial landscape, I kept recalling something that author and farmer Novella Carpenter said at a panel she did with my wife at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association a couple months back. Commenting on her neighborhood in west Oakland she said something like, "Where I live, the apocalypse already happened."

    Jobs went away. Crack swept through on a wave of violence. People abandoned their homes. Businesses fell apart. This is the story of so many major American industrial cities. Everything went to hell. I think of Jay Z talking about what crack did to his neighborhood: 

    It changed the authority figure. Crack cocaine was done so openly, and the people who were addicted to it, the fiends, had very little self-respect. It was so highly addictive that they didn't care how they obtained it and they carried that out in front of children, who were dealing at the time. So the relationship of that respect, 'I have to respect my elders' ... that dynamic shifted and it broke forever. It just changed everything from that point on.

    "I was very aware of the dangers involved because there were people dying [and] there were people going to jail and it wasn't a one-off. It wasn't an occurrence where everyone was shocked. It wouldn't be a shock like, 'How could that happen in this neighborhood?' It was really a weekly or monthly occurrence."

    When I was growing up in rural Washington, meth swept through in much the same way as the exurbs experienced wrenching economic change. The Multnomah County Sheriff south of us in Portland created a website showing how people's faces changed after meth use: It's no exaggeration to say that heavy meth use makes people look like zombies

    Point is: there are a lot of places where the apocalypse has already happened. Where "post-apocalyptic" is not a term for a new television show. Whole communities have been destroyed, predatory gangs and drugged out zombies left to roam the vacants as the locals hurry indoors before night falls. 

    And yeah, things have gotten better, violence and crime down, in a lot of places. There's some hope all over, a feeling that we hit bottom some time in 2008 or maybe 2009. Most places, we're not *in* the apocalypse but past it. 

    A lot of that hope comes from the Internet that you're reading this on. Everywhere, people are banking on technology. Technology for clean energy. Technology for local economic development. Technology for everything and everyone!

    But few cities are lucky enough to hit it big with a Microsoft, a company that poured hundreds of millionaires out into the streets. For example, Groupon hasn't done that for Chicago. And as I've noted elsewhere, just across the border from Palo Alto, there's East Palo Alto, where 96 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced lunch at school. My favorite data design firm, Stamen, released a map showing all the private buses that run from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, the elite's mass transit. Work in one of those places, and you have a wonderful travel experience. Everyone else gets the bus or an underfunded Caltrain. One way for our country's elites. The car and a crowded highway for everybody else. 

    It reminded me of Detroit's gleaming startup tower, the Madison Building. It's beautiful. And yet downstairs, the streets get flooded if it rains because the infrastructure isn't sound. And there's another Madison Building a couple blocks away, the Julian C. Madison building. It's old and dingy. The best you can say about it is that it's occupied. 

    So many startup spaces (Shaker LaunchHouse in Cleveland, say) are just so bright and shiny and brimming with talented people. And always, within a mile, there are people living the hardest lives you can imagine. (Actually, we probably can't imagine them.)

    Every time I come across one of these mindbending contrasts, I think about the movie Children of Men, set in dystopian London. Immigrants live in ghettoes, basically locked in. Gangs control the streets. No one can reproduce. The (ailing) state security apparatus has locked down everything. And yet when the main character goes to visit someone called "The Minister," he crosses into a poncy other London filled with guards on horseback and overdressed men listening to a nice orchestra. A woman leads a zebra around, another a camel. 

    Inside, the great art of the world is being stored in the residence of an upper-crust guy who is very powerful politically. Picasso's Guernica sits on the wall behind the dinner table; the city stretches out from the windows opposite the painting. At the dinner table sits Alex, a tattooed, scarred kid controlling some digital device with finger swishes in the air, pretty much exactly like a Leap Motion controller

    "Bastards. I know they have nothing to look forward to," The Minister says. "After all, the human species ends with them. But let me tell you, these last children are evil little pricks."

    Utopias and dystopias are supposed to exaggerate the features of our world, the things that could go right or wrong. When I first saw Children of Men when it came out in 2006, it seemed like a wildly improbable guess at the future. Most days, it still seems that way. (Certainly the inability for anyone in the world to have kids doesn't seem to be on the horizon.) But other days, it seems the "developing world" model of an ultra-rich class living in heavily guarded isolation from the desperate underclasses is becoming the way of the world. 

    Perfect world travelers versus people who don't have passports. The drone owners versus the drone targets. And, strangely, those who can move freely in physical space and those who can't.

    Tech plays a role in structuring the way this bifurcation is going down. There is a set of official augmented reality technologies that will allow us to see the information that humans impose on and decode from the physical world. My hope, as a human, is that they lead to a reinvestment in the places people live and not a further retreat. Because one chilling vision of the future would be that one in which only the rich can afford a place in the world. For the poor, there will be cyberspace.

    Pivoting a City: Can Startups Help More Than Themselves?

    Pittsburgh has proven fertile soil for new companies, but the startup mentality may meet its match in a real town's legacy problems. 

    pittsburgh_600.jpg

    The Hot Metal Bridge (flickr/kordite).

    I have a tip for coastal-dwellers traveling to the brick-and-steel cities of the Rust Belt. It is a lame trick, and I am ashamed to admit that I used it. But it is useful and it is my duty as your faithful correspondent in the field to share it with you. 

    If you find yourself in Pittsburgh, say, on a Saturday morning, and you want to get a quick tour of the neighborhoods in which you might find some interesting things, here's the shortcut: Go to Yelp. Type "hipster coffee" into the search box. Up comes a map of places that other Yelpers have helpfully labeled "hipster," which tends to mean places where dudes in funny t-shirts bring their laptops to work. These are the unofficial co-working spaces of the town. 

    The last stop on a tour of Rust Belt startups.
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    In a city like Pittsburgh, this data probe also tends to highlight neighborhoods where these people tend to live. This simple search pinpointed the Strip (historic district), Lawrenceville (the New York Times' "go-to destination"), the North Side (home of The Mattress Factory Art Museum), the South Side (the dense home of the accelerator AlphaLab), Squirrel Hill (east of Carnegie Mellon), and Garfield (home to sundry art galleries, Awesome Books, and the Center for PostNatural History). 

    It's important to note that you don't even have to like hipster coffee to deploy this glowing tracer for MacBook Airs. It is just a sign that where startups go, a very particular kind of culture goes with them. You get fancy coffee from individual coffee plantations. You get an Apple store. You get Belgian beer places. You get vintage shops where you can buy many different things made of teak. 

    But can start-up culture change a city?

    Pittsburgh is a great place to investigate the possibilities of a start-up led urban resurgence because of all the cities between the coast and Chicago, it's the one that's farthest along the path towards techdom. It's got a world-leading research institution that focuses on artificial intelligence. Because the steel mills collapsed so quickly and so thoroughly, its leaders were forced to put together a long-term plan for the city's future. Here's how the New York Times summarized the situation in 2009:

    "If people are looking for hope, it's here," said Sabina Deitrick, an urban studies expert at the University of Pittsburgh. "You can have a decent economy over a long period of restructuring."

    Pittsburgh's transition has been proceeding for decades in fits and starts, benefiting some areas much more than others. A development plan begun in the 1980s successfully used the local universities to pour state funds into technology research.

    And much of this story is real. Pittsburgh is a vibrant, fun place with cool neighborhoods, lots of young people, excellent universities, beautiful housing stock, strong tech companies. It seems like a great place to be an entrepreneur.

    But can these entrepreneurs become the backbone of this city? Can they own its problems, not just its advantages?

    Startups all over the country tend to be very white. And Pittsburgh, like many other major cities, has even more acute black unemployment problems than it does general ones. Unemployment data isn't broken out by city and race, but nationally, black unemployment was almost twice that of whites in 2011, peaking at 16.7 percent (!) in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

    So, as long as we're thinking about scale, the biggest challenge facing Pittsburgh isn't how to make a vibrant startup scene (though that's not easy either) but how do you make one whose benefits extend beyond the edges of the start-up bubble?

    * * * 

    I'm outside StartUptown, a 10,000-square-foot co-working facility run by Dale McNutt, who lives here, too. This is ground zero for where Pittsburgh problems meet its new solutions. McNutt's been renovating the place since 2002, and it shows. The brick buildings are now set in a wonderful garden, and the whole place just sparkles with DIY flourishes. 

    Around me, the streets are mostly deserted. Most of the houses seem occupied, but in poor condition. There are few businesses. Kitty corner from StartUptown, there is a mental health facility and the Jubilee Soup Kitchen. 

    This area, which McNutt calls Uptown, might fairly be termed the lower reaches of The Hill, which was, in essence, the Harlem of Pittsburgh. The story of The Hill is sad. The community was leveled by an ill-considered redevelopment plan in the 1950s that displaced 8,000 families. It had a "devastating" impact on the community, one from which it still has not recovered. 

    On the other side of Uptown is the Bluff, where steel mills once lined the banks of the river. There's not a steel mill left in Pittsburgh proper, but the old sites are now home to economic development groups like the Pittsburgh Technology Council and Innovation Works, in addition to companies and university facilities they've helped bring to town. They even named the street running adjacent to the river "Technology Drive." 

    Downtown is precisely a mile to the west, and Oakland, home of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, lies a couple miles to the east. The street names around here sound aspirational to an outsider: Forbes runs east, Fifth Avenue runs west. 

    mcnutt_615.jpg

    Dale McNutt in StartUptown (Alexis Madrigal).

    Inside, StartUptown is a cross between a traditional co-working space and something with more soul. The walls are held together by clamps. There's a crazy chandelier made from industrial supplies hanging from the ceiling, which has the punched tin roof of an artisan cocktail place. Southern exposure sends daylight streaming in all day long. And McNutt's poodle will happily nuzzle any passersby. 

    It would be hard not to like this place or Dale McNutt. He clearly used to be/is an artist at heart -- he knows the sculptors in town and recalls the art program at Carnegie Mellon with appropriate nostalgia -- but now he's taken to tending entrepreneurs. Plenty of people move to rough neighborhoods thinking they're going to fix up a place; only tough optimists like McNutt can manage to stay. 

    He's arranged for a couple of companies to meet with me. Both companies are growing and interesting. 

    AllPoint lets you take 3D images and transform them into architectural renderings with its software. "We do really rapid 3D survey and data capture," founder Aaron Morris tells me. "A lot of it is going into digital capture for retrofit design for manufacturing facilities that want to put new equipment in." Morris got a PhD from CMU and worked on "an autonomous robot program that mapped underground spaces with 3D LiDAR."

    The other founder I met was Robb Meyer, whose company created the NoWait app, which helps restaurants that don't take reservations to manage their wait times. It's in use at some of the country's hottest restaurants, like David Chang's Momofuku in New York.

    They are two very impressive entrepreneurs, as good as I've seen on this trip. We take a quick trip into the basement to meet Harold Lessure, a former CMU physics researcher who has spun out the company Lechtzer to make ultra-sensitive natural gas detectors. His work space is a crazy lab filled with doodads for making stuff and prototypes in various states of assembly. With the boom in natural gas across the United States, it is a good time to be in the methane-detection business, Lessure tells me. 

    Lessure is just one of many people I met in Pittsburgh who remind you why having a premier research university is so important to a city that wants startups. They can just do and make things that other people can't. They might not hit on something like Google's "backrub" algorithm, but they can make best-in-class products that businesses will want to buy with American dollars, not Klout points. 

    * * *
    googlepgh.jpg

    Strada Architects

    Our next stop is Google Pittsburgh.

    Google obviously isn't a startup. But having Google put down some roots in your city is like having Warren Buffett invest in your company. It's a mark of distinction. It's a mark of value. Not only that, the offices are growing. There are hundreds of Googlers in Pittsburgh now.

    The company's offices in Pittsburgh are stone-cold beautiful. Set-up in an old Nabisco factory, the office is actually better looking than the Mountain View buildings. There are bee hives on the roof, and a chicken coop awaiting tenants. There's a trapeze net hanging above a corner of the office that you can have meetings in. (I jumped in. It's harder to walk on a net than it looks.) The cafes and event spaces are nice. As office manager Cathy Serventi and product manager/native Pittsburgher Mike Capsambelis showed us around, you could feel that this office was a proof point that tech was changing Pittsburgh. For the good. 

    Carolina Pais-Barreto Beyers, a VP at Urban Innovation 21, who is driving me around, wants to make sure that I see the part of the city that has not been transformed, just half a mile away. Her organization has a fascinating mission. They want to connect startup hubs with the broader community. "We want to make sure everybody does well," Beyers told me. They want to find ways for startups to create jobs not just for people with CS degrees from Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, but people who thought they'd work in steel mills, people who didn't finish high school, people who have grown up watching their communities ripped apart by dumb development decisions, drugs, and the decline of the industrial economy.

    A half a mile from Google's gorgeous building, just across East Busway, you find corners that look like this.

    streetview.jpg

    Even in Silicon Valley, the hub of startup activity, you can cross the border from Stanford's home town into East Palo Alto, a community where 96 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced lunches, a measure that indicates the high level of poverty in the community. It's actually hard to find the levels of poverty and misery that you'll find in San Francisco's Tenderloin anywhere else in America. And along the route that many drive, bus, or train from San Francisco to the valley, you can find the homeless camped under the freeway and wandering along its stretches. 

    Perhaps it is too much to ask of a single industry that it create stability for an entire region. And that's fair. But in city after city, we've found that entrepreneurship has become a central tenet of local economic policy. And yet the literature on how startups can grow a local economy is skimpy. I'm not saying that it doesn't happen, but simply that there aren't a lot of good studies showing precisely how this is all supposed to work. 

    On the other hand, what else are you going to do? Build arenas? Recruit companies from neighboring regions by promising them huge tax breaks? If there is a proven strategy for lifting large numbers of people out of poverty in an urban area, cities sure don't seem to be deploying it at the scale of the problem.

    The main policy vehicle for Urban Innovation 21's work is the Pittsburgh Central Keystone Innovation Zone that surrounds StartupTown and pieces of The Hill and the North Side. They describe it like this

    PCKIZ orchestrates a combination of tax incentives, entrepreneurial resources, educational and internship programs, networking events, and technology showcases. Its goal is to multiply technology and economic development activities, creating economic sustainability and transforming central Pittsburgh into a vibrant community.

    This method of development--economic gardening, people call it sometimes--sure seems like a better idea than the ones we've had in the past about how to help underserved populations. But you know what they say about good intentions. 

    The one thing you hear over and over from entrepreneurs is that the idea hardly matters. Winning or losing is in the execution, day after day, challenge after challenge. Perhaps there are hundreds of ways to connect ghettos and Google. But who wants to put that effort in when there is no exit, no acquisition, no IPO? The reward is just a thriving, safe, equitable city. And where are the legions who are actually willing to work that hard for the noble, capital-inefficient goal? 

    The mentality that dominates startup culture is all about efficiency. Finding better, cheaper, faster ways of doing things. There's nothing lean, though, about providing mental health services or soup kitchens for starving people. I wonder how well such a worldview can deal with the legacy problems of big cities. I think the jury is out. But judging from the sheer magnitude of startup experiments across the whole Rust Belt, we're going to have a lot more data soon. I'm rooting for Pittsburgh to become that model of development. Because if they can't do it, I'm not sure anybody can. 

    Bringing Innovation to the Funeral-Home Business (No, Really)

    "We had more information on where to go to dinner... than we did for my cousin's funeral."

    efuneral_600.jpg

    eFuneral's offices are located on the 21st floor of a downtown Cleveland office building. Running late, I stepped into the elevator and noted with consternation that the elevator buttons only went up to 20. I rode up to that floor, looked briefly around, texted the company's CEO Mike Belsito, and rode back down.

    "I'm looking for a place called eFuneral," I said to the security guard I found in the lobby.

    "They're putting that 'e' on everything now, aren't they?" he said. "They used to actually bury the bodies."

    He thinks this joke is so funny that when Mike Belsito, the CEO of eFuneral comes down to get me, he repeats it to him. Judging from his polite, restrained reaction, Belsito has heard more than a few jokes about his business. Reinventing the way people shop for funeral homes "is not the sexiest thing," he admitted. 

    We headed back up the elevator to the 20th floor and into a set of offices that are half Being John Malkovitch, half Hudsucker Proxy. There are windows looking out on all sides at Cleveland and the lake that made it. Each one is a perfect half moon. It was here that Belsito spun out the story of their founding.

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    The idea for the company did not originate in dreams of Instagram glory or joviality. His cousin died, and when his family went to plan the funeral, they encountered some difficulty in selecting a funeral home. There were 12 places within two miles of where his cousin lived. How do you pick one?

    "For us, the big question wasn't, 'Where is there a funeral home?'" Belsito said. "It was, How are we supposed to know which of these is going to provide us good service? And what is it going to cost?'"

    "I remember my dad was saying, 'I've used Angie's List for contractors. Is there something like that for funeral homes?' And I said, of course, yes, there had to be... But it turned out there wasn't," he continued. "There are dozens of directories. Funeralhome.com. Or TheFuneralHomePlace.com. They weren't going to give us information to make a decision. They were just phone numbers."

    They eventually picked a spot and had the funeral. Later that night, he was out at dinner with his wife at a restaurant they'd picked with help from Yelp, when he realized something weird.

    "We had more information on where to go to dinner, where we're spending 40 bucks, than we did for my cousin's funeral," he said.

    "After doing some research, it turns out that [a funeral] is one of the highest ticket items that someone pays for in their life after a house and a car," added eFuneral co-founder and lead developer Bryan Chaikin.

    Yet it's precisely the kind of industry that a room full of 24-year-olds is unlikely to choose to work on. Why help grieving families when there are more fun apps to build? Plus, you have to spend months dealing with funeral home directors, who are not all as fun as the cast of Six Feet Under.

    Funeral homes are subject to certain regulations, including that they have to reveal their prices if someone asks. But there's publicly available and there's publicly available on the Internet. So eFuneral has had to do some heavy data-acquisition lifting to populate the site with pricing and service information. The other big problem is, as always, getting the word out.

    They've found recently that hospice care facilities are turning out to be helpful partners. Hospice social workers can't recommend individual funeral homes, but they can recommend an impartial service like eFuneral. "It's morbid to say, but where people are dying, we're trying to go to those groups and say, 'Hey, this can actually help the families you're working with," Belsito said.

    They plan to make money in two ways. One, funeral homes can spruce up their profiles. And two, they can offer coupons (Groupon for funeral services!) for ancillary funeral services like flowers.

    Think of all the places trying to help you buy a car or a house. Turns out there was no one trying to help you buy funeral services. Yet it's precisely the kind of experience where online shopping could be helpful. I mean, who wants to turn down upsells from a funeral home director? Who wants to be the one who cheaps out on the funeral of a loved one?

    "We're passionate about transparency for the consumer," Chaikin said. "This is an industry that isn't transparent and hasn't been innovative for hundreds of years."

    A Framed First Dollar for the Internet Age

    Or, the most awesomely nerdy conference table ever.

    ConferenceTAble.jpg

    You know those framed dollar bills you see in some businesses that commemorate the first money they ever made? Well, this is sort of an update to that concept for the Internet era. 

    Above we see Cleveland-based SparkBase's conference table. The components of their first servers were built into the wood of the table by the founder of the company, Douglas Hardman, and his brother. Hell of a way to commemorate the start that you got in digital biz.

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    SparkBase is a nice success story. They've been hiring like crazy in Cleveland, particularly in the last year and a half and are up to 50 people working out of their new offices. They're one of several middleware vendors in the retail space that are emerging to collect and analyze retail data.

    "If you have a loyalty, gift, or reward card in your pocket, there are 4 or 5 networks that process those transactions. We're one of them," said Hardman. 

    They can offer sophisticated analytics on merchants' customers retail spending habits, which can then be used to fine-tune promotions.

    "I can say about [a customer], our research and all the other programs he's listed in say that he actions more often on a percent-off offer. And we can say that his average purchase is $5. So, instead of sending him a $1 off coupon, I can send him a 20 percent off coupon. He's more likely to use that, even though it's the same monetary value," Hardman said said. "It's all about data analytics and getting people to shop at the stores that they're shopping at more often and merchants rewarding their customer base."

    They're now building what he calls "a transaction engine" by integrating their network with merchants. They expect to be up and running with 500,000 businesses by next year.

    Helping Apartment Complexes Help You

    All those thousands of apartment buildings? They all need a social-media presence now. And this company wants to build them.

    lindsaysims.jpg

    Renter's Boom founder Lindsay Sims

    For many young people, searching for an apartment is a completely online affair. They search for listings on Craigslist, ask their friends about places on Facebook, and Google for specific apartment complexes and neighborhoods. Several Internet startups are trying to aggregate the renters' side of that marketplace, but Lindsay Sims' Renter's Boom is trying to organize the property-management companies who own the buildings.

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    "We work with rental-management companies to turn their social media pages into leasing hubs," summarized Sims. They call it "socially integrated leasing."

    They set up Facebook pages for these companies and help them build apps so that people can check out apartments, make appointments, and send referrals within the social network. They also work to help the companies integrate Google's various products that renters may use. "We're integrating Ads with Local and Pages, so that when someone Googles your apartment complex, they get everything they need to know about it," Sims explained.

    This isn't your next Path or Tumblr. This is a company that has found a real inefficiency in the market -- property-management companies that are lacking in-house Internet savvy -- and has figured out a smart way to fill that gap.

    She responded, "We work with companies that have 250 to 5000 units and it's really difficult for them because they are not in the business of the Internet. At all."

    Sims' company has benefitted from Cleveland's emergent startup ecosystem. She received initial funding from Cleveland's Bizdom, a cousin to Dan Gilbert's accelerator of the same name in Detroit.

    She moved from there into a new co-working spot, the Manufacturing and Advocacy Growth Network (MAGNET), BetaSpace. MAGNET has helped hundreds of manufacturing and engineering companies build better products and companies. They opened BetaSpace up earlier this year to help young entrepreneurs with offices and legal, marketing, and finance training. It may turn into a "soft place to land," for local student entrepreneurs looking to build companies in the area.

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