A tale of two photos

Posted: November 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

On Thanksgiving, I snapped this picture of a picture of my girlfriend and me, in front of our turkey. I knew it was a winner, so I posted it to Instagram, choosing the ‘share to Facebook’ option.

Happy Thanksgiving

The likes on Instagram started pouring in. By the next morning, I was up to 15 (a lot for my account) from friends from all parts of my life. When I checked it out on Facebook, I noticed I had 4: my dad, my boss, my cousin, and a colleague. My mom had also commented on it.

The contrast is somewhat striking. Facebook used to be the place you were scared your parents or boss would see your drunken pictures; now it’s where you go to engage with these people. If that’s not a social network grown up from adolescence into adulthood, I don’t know what is. On the other side, Instagram is where I go to look at pictures from people I care about or am interested in (whether I know them or not). It’s fun because it’s quick, it’s fun because my friends are there, and it’s fun because I know what I’m going to get: creative photos, very rarely commentary or news.

Let’s just hope Facebook continues to leave Instagram alone and let’s it be the fun teenager it seems to still be.

Some tools I use

Posted: July 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: tools | No Comments »
I’ve liked some of these other “what I use” posts, so here’s the tools (both computer and offline) that I find myself using everyday.
For software and webapps, I value data portability, simple formats, good keyboard shortcuts, continued development support, and mobile and offline access. You’ll notice that I don’t always follow these design principles religiously but I’ve found these work:
  • Email: Gmail (both for work and personal. works great in browser and mobile. couldn’t imagine using anything else)
  • Calendar: Google Calendar (same reasons as gmail)
  • Tasks: Checkvist (i like this webapp because its paradigm makes sense for both todo lists and normal lists like “don’t forget to pack.” It has killer keyboard shortcuts and a bookmarklet that integrates into Gmail and Jira, both of which I happen to use. Not perfect but it’s simple enough to not drown is and the developer is responsive. wish it had a real mobile app rather than just a mobile optimized site though)
  • Storage/syncing: Dropbox (just works. is awesome.)
  • Notes: Notational Velocity (what an app. everything is in plaintext so it’s super portable. i save it to dropbox so it syncs across computers and also into simplenote so I have it online and on mobile. notational velocity is incredible well designed. it’s fast, simple, unobtrusive, and keyboard driven if you want it to be)
  • Text editing: textmate (good syntax highlighting simple to organize files into a project. i’d like to use vim more, but i’m not there yet)
  • App launching: Alfred (i moved over from this after a long love affair with quicksilver. it’s solid, stable, under active development, and fulfills my wish to not take my hands off the keyboard)
  • Bookmarks: Pinboard (lightweight, simple and tagging is easy enough to keep doing it and keep things organized. it’s also mostly replaced instapaper for me)
  • Computer: Macbook Pro (though the new macbook air looks awesome, and i’d like one)
  • Monitor: 27″ Apple Cinema Display (huge, hi-res, east on the eyes. these pwn. hard.)
  • Cell: Nexus S (i’ll probably buy the next iphone, but i love my nexus. it’s powerful and customizable in all the right ways)
  • Reading: Kindle (cannot say enough good things. my first one got stolen the first week I had it, and I liked it so much i bought another the next day. bottom line: it’s made me read more)
  • Writing: Field Notes (they look smart and hold up in your pocket or bag. that’s all you need in a notebook)
  • Pen: Pilot G2 Extra Fine (i’ve been using these since middle school and can’t get used to any other pen)
  • Backpack: Topo Designs Daypack (i just bought this, but i think i’ve found the perfect backpack)
  • Wallet: Il Bisonte 6CC billfold (it’s expensive, but the leather ages beautifully to become your own and i can’t imagine this won’t last for the rest of my life)
  • Watch: Timex Heritage (interesting, not flashy, and matches everything)

How to have a ‘gut feel’ moment on demand or: how I make decisions

Posted: July 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Making decisions can be a real pain in the ass. Some people can just instantly make one, others agonize over the simplest choice for days on end. I put myself somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, but I’ve found a way to make the process easier: the coin flip.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Grab a coin or fire up this webpage if you don’t have one handy.
  2. Assign ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ to your two choices. i.e. “heads I go out to that concert tonight, tails I stay in.”
  3. Flip the coin.
  4. Pay really close attention to your reaction to the outcome. Were you happy that heads came up, or sort of disappointed? Did you say “okay, let’s make it 2 out of 3″ or “sweet, decision made”?

There’s your answer.

The point is, I’m not really making the decision based on the coin flip. I’m just using the tool to access my gut feel at that moment. Sure, it’s no panacea, and I find it works better after I’ve given the decision at hand some time to bounce around my subconscious and simmer. But, I’ve found it enormously useful when I’m stuck and want to know what my gut is telling me.



The power of sponge learning or: why I read Hacker News even though I understand very little of it

Posted: May 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: learning | 64 Comments »

I love the Internet and technology in general, but when it comes to the core technical knowledge, I’m definitely a n00b. This is in stark contrast to my roommate, who I mostly chose to live with based on his deep knowledge of web development. jk! (sorta). I didn’t study computer science in college or anything formal like that, but I’m doing my best to learn as much about web architecture as I can, because a) it’s cool and b) I’m never going anywhere in this industry without doing so.

Despite not understanding most of it, I take a great amount of pleasure in reading articles about programming topics. Besides being plain interesting, doing so has helped me absorb (if only the surface) of these topics, and I’ve slowly begun to assimilate them into my vocabulary and way of thinking.

I’ve found the most useful place for this knowledge grazing to be hacker news. Hacker news, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a community driven link and discussion site run by Y-Combinator. People post links or short posts and others comment and vote them up or down, much like reddit or digg. The level of discourse is unusually high. There’s an active, engaged community, and perhaps most importantly, their interests align quite closely with mine: the internet and other technical topics. On any given day, there will be discussion about javascript, startups, ruby on rails, job postings, current events (usually with a science slant), productivity hacks and much more. Worthwhile posts get voted up quickly, and the comments are always a good place to dive in to gauge reactions.

I get a lot of what I call ‘sponge learning’ out of hacker news. For example, today I followed an innocent enough posting: A CoffeeScript Intervention. I didn’t know what I’d find, but now I know CoffeeScript is a syntax that compiles into javascript, that it seems to have some following and that global leakage is quite a problem in js. I’m not really going to do anything with that right now, but next time I start working on a project, I might give it a look. At the very least, I know there’s such a thing as another javascript syntax, that such a thing is possible.

There’s been examples of this type of learning too numerous to list, things I file away and come to me at the right time later: vim (didn’t get it, still don’t get most of it, but thought to start learning it the either day when I had to do some server file editing), django vs. ruby on rails (which to start with — the community seems split but my friend jake and I decided to go with django since we knew a little python), types of servers (apache, nginx and the like — helped me recently when I was setting up an app), what web host to go with (I chose web faction)…the list goes on.

Even if I don’t dive into the vast majority of what I read it, definitely reduces my unknown unknowns. Plus, it’s just damn inspiring and has pushed me to learn more. The level of passion and talent on that site is staggering. Being exposed to other people going after that dreams day in and day out, building incredible things, and having an awesome time doing it tends to rub off on you.

My strategy to conquer n00b-dom doesn’t stop with just reading hacker news, of course. Mostly through being inspired by sites like this and friends, I’ve started to learn python the hard way, setup a django test app, hacked around with css and javascript, and setup my own server.

I’m a level zero on this road to code journeyman, but it’s certainly been fun. Viewing the world through the eyes of Hacker News has been the most helpful to start to familiarize myself with what’s out there. Can’t wait to keep going.

Update: Realized I forgot to post the first ‘real’ programming project I put this learning to use on: twordsie.com which Jake and I built to visualize your top tweeted words.


Going, going back to, back to Facebook, Facebook

Posted: October 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

About five months ago, I deactivated my Facebook account and said goodbye to my friends and family. In doing so, I effectively deleted myself from the Internet, becoming the modern day equivalent of a Sadhu, a wandering ascetic with nothing to feed upon but the alms of Twitter links. Well, not really–but you get the point.

It all started in a bar. My friend David and I got into an impassioned discussion on what we were really getting from Facebook, the terrible things they were doing to the Internet, and how we didn’t need their brand of connection anyway. So, a couple beers in, we tromped back to my apartment, logged into one another’s accounts, changed the passwords and deactivated our accounts. We were off the grid.

Three months later, David succumbed to the gravitational pull of the social network and asked me for his password so he could get back on. He got his online life back, and I got $20, having won the bet. Win-win. I could’ve gone back on without shame at that point, but still didn’t feel the need. I held out. Like a lone ranger, I was fighting a cause, me against the Man. I didn’t need them.

Except, apparently, I did. Fast forward to yesterday. I wrote an email to David, reset my password and jumped back into the fray. It was scarily easy. All my friends, my feed, my latent requests–they were all waiting there patiently as if to say “We knew you’d be back!” I clicked accept on the friend requests I had, looked at some photos and went back to my work.

But then I logged back in. And then I did it again. I’d forgotten all you could do! I commented on friend’s status, listened to a song my roommate had posted, even friended somebody I met last weekend. I quickly checked the profiles of all my ex-girlfriends’ to make sure they were okay, but not too okay.

So why’d I do it?

  • First and foremost, as a well informed Internet citizen, I felt it was my duty to understand the 800 pound gorilla in the room. No matter how much I disagree with some of their policies and strategies, Facebook is an important force on the Internet, and they don’t actually do personal harm to me. I weighted the cost benefit of being able to keep up in tech conversations with my one-man boycott, and better understanding something that 500 million users are on won.
  • I forgot the fight I was fighting. I didn’t quit Facebook with much fanfare, but I did take a certain smug satisfaction in telling people I was off. I was stronger than them and better! Except, that’s not true. I just shifted all my ‘sharing’ time to Twitter and Buzz. Nothing really changed about my online behavior, and I sort of forgot why I quit in the first place. I got as fired up about Calacanis’ quit Facebook campaign as anyone (though to be fair I quit before this)
  • I was curious about what people were up to. Facebook turns out to (obviously) be a good way to keep in touch with what people are doing. When I reactivated my account, I reactivated all sorts of weak ties I’d been missing out on. It felt good–so shoot me. Random observation: I think people are more active on Facebook now than when I quit. My stream is like a 100mph train. Every status update I see has like 20 Likes. So much for people losing interest.

So I’m back. Maybe it’ll last, maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll regret it tonight when I see The Social Network and my flames of hatred for Zuckerberg’s walled garden are stoked once again, but for now, I’m sort of enjoying it. I’ll still refuse to sign in with Facebook Connect when I have the choice, I doubt I’ll be clicking to many ‘Like’ buttons, and I still hope Diaspora or someone else presents a viable alternative to the Facebook gestapo. But, I’ll be commenting away on statuses until I get bored and maybe even posting a picture or two.

Either way, I still like Twitter more :-)

Mobile Phone Numbers and Identity

Posted: February 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Despite living in SF, I still have my 617 number and use it with a little bit of pride. Whenever I trade numbers with a fellow 617er, I feel a mini connection is made.

Annoyingly, some cab companies will only take 415 numbers, so I got a forwarding number to use for these purposes.

But this post makes an excellent point: numbers are one of the things that are unlikely to change, much more so than email addresses, so why not use them more as an identifier? Coupled with the physical phone, which we pretty much always have with us, this makes an interesting combo for login.


We are spending a lot of time thinking about how identity will play itself out on the Internet.  We are constantly running into the limitations of the existing arrangements even when companies from our portfolio are trying to collaborate.  While there is definitely movement afoot with Facebook, Google and others extending their authentication to third parties and possibly moving the OpenID standard along (see previous posts on this).

But there is also another candidate for identity at least in some situations and that is the mobile phone number.  I was reminded of that several times yesterday.  First, I met with someone who has been living in San Francisco for quite some time but still has her 917 cell number.  That made me realize that I have had my cell number for over 10 years and can’t imagine changing it voluntarily going forward.  Then I spent some time with Jeff Lawson from Twilio, which makes it super easy for web developers to add voice interaction to their services.  We talked about how IVR is often a pain, but generally that’s the case because the call starts out knowing nothing about you.  Since mobile phone numbers change so rarely, that does not have to be the case!  When I call say an airline, it should know who I am and immediately offer information directly relevant to me, such as whether my flight is on time.  A good example (surprisingly) is the New York Times, which when I call from my home phone pulls up all my information and makes reordering a missed weekend delivery a cinch.

I know that phone numbers can be spoofed via IP telephony hacks, so I am not suggesting that the mobile phone number can easily be turned into a reliable form of identity for security critical applications, but it could be used much more extensively than it is today.  This is especially true when you look at some type of multi-modal integration, such as calling in, being recognized and then being able to receive information back via SMS.

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Inside the Tornado

Posted: October 17th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

“Such are the market forces generated by discontinuous innovations, or what more recently have been termedparadigm shifts. These shifts begin with the appearance of a new category of product that incorporates breakthrough technology enabling unprecedented benefits. It is immediately proposed as the natural replacement for a whole class of infrastructure, winning early converts and enthusiastic predictions of a new world order. But the market is a conservative institution, and it presses back against the new changes, preferring to stay with the status quo. For a long time, although much is written about the new paradigm, little of economic significance happens. Indeed, sometimes the innovation is never embraced, falling back into some primordial entrepreneurial soup, as did artificial intelligence in the 1980s and pen-based computing in the early 1990s. But in many other cases there comes a flash point of change when the entire marketplace, under the pressure of continually escalating disequilibrium in price/performance, shifts its allegiance from the old architecture to the new.”

-Geoffrey A. Moore, Inside the Tornado

Day 1 of the Internet Identity Workshop

Posted: October 1st, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Today kicked off the Internet Identity Workshop 2008b. I headed over to The Computer History Museum, just a mile from Google, after lunch. Slowly, the room began to fill with the giants of the identity world, those personas I’d only read about on the blogs.

I’ll give a short outline of the talks, but John McCrea has a post up with some great photos too.

Johannes Ernst of Net Mesh started off with an overview of the identity landscape. He did quite an admirable job of running throught the standard. Given all that’s happened recently (and over the past few years), an overview is getting harder and harder.

David Recordon followed up with a great talk on OpenID. Good overview, and one key thing I learned was how OpenID can support many ways to login–passwords, sitekeys, and information cards are all fair game.

Paul Madsen continued with a talk on SAML and Liberty, which though a bit over my head, was a good introduction to some standards I’d like to know more about.

We then got a killer overview of Information Cards by Charles Andres, exec director of the Information Cards Foundation. He talked a lot about trust and accountability, and I’d definitely like to know mroe about Information Cards, which are seeming more and more like a good solution to secure login and handling multiple identities online.

Then, it was time for Joseph Smarr to take the stage. I was really excited for his talk on The Open Stack, given that I’ve been watching thesocialweb.tv lately and keeping up to date on his blog. He didn’t dissapoint, delivering a remarkably clear explanation of the emerging social stack built on OpenID, XRDS-Simple, OAuth, Portable Contacts, and OpenSocial. I’m further convinced that these are the building blocks of the social web, and it’s great to see that they’re already being used all over the place. As Joseph said, this isn’t just talk about the future anymore–this stuff is really happening. Plus, he was super nice at the dinner and bar later in the evening, encouraging myself and some others to try to go out and build simple implementations of this stuff and tell the community where the stumbling points are. I’d really encourage all to check out hisblog for more explanation of the open stack.

Doc Searls capped it off with an overivew of ‘vendor relationship management,’ something I know little about. This is being posited as a balancing weight to customer relationship management systems in order to give some power back to consumers. He says to look for some exciting VRM stuff to come out of NPR next year that will change the model of two week long pledge drives. I can’t wait.

We finished the formal part of the day in small groups discussing the question, “How do we get to the Big Bang of Identity.” Max Engel, one of the key MySpace identity guys was in my group, as was Paul Trevithick, who’s doing a lot of work with the Higgins project. One thing I never thought about was how obviously MySpace lends itself to being an OpenID provider. MySpace is one of the only places online where people really do think of their identities as URLs, e.g. myspace.com/whoever. They don’t have to deal with this confusion over URL identifiers as much as the rest of the ecosystem. Luckily, email addresses are being talked about as part of OpenID 2.1. We’ll see what happens with that.

Debate was spirited and soem of the suggestions that came out of the mini-session were:

  • UX is big
  • Most users don’t care yet
  • We’ll reach the big bang when 51% of sites only take OpenID, etc.
  • Decouple the underlying technology from the UX. This is about consumers, not technology
  • Solve more of a business problem than just identity
  • Start small and snowball to the big

Anyway, that’s a pretty vague list, but the stage has most certainly been set for the next two days.

We finished up the day at The Tied House in Mountain View, drinking and eating together. I met more people than I could possible name/remember, but I’d encourage everyone to check out dandyid.org. I talked to one of it’s co-founders, Aaron, who had a lot of interesting stuff to say. I think there’s more to that company than may immediately meet the eye.

An exhausting and action packed day for sure. Can’t wait for the open session tomorrow, which conference organizer Kaliya (a.k.a. Identity Woman) explained to me over steak and beers. Most of all, I’ve been blown away by the openess of this community (no pun intended), and I’m excited to even have the chance to participate.

Until tomorrow…

P.S. You can follow my conference updates on my Twitter at twitter.com/alexmr


Posted: August 7th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Seth Godin has an interesting piece up about the word “architecting” (not a real verb) vs “designing”:

I think architecting something is different from designing it. I hope you can forgive me but I think it’s a more precise way to express this idea…So I reserve “architect” to describe the intentional arrangement of design elements to get a certain result…Architecture, for me anyway, involves intention, game theory, systems thinking and relentless testing and improvement.

This is something I have been thinking a lot about lately and have been meaning to post about.  I think Godin nails the basic idea of how much architected space (whether “real” or virtual) affects how we interact with products, people, and ideas.  I find how design affects social interaction to be the most interesting subset of this field.

Architected interaction has always been an important underlying force in the world (think urban planning, projects, and public space), but it becomes even more obvious in a computer-mediated environment.  Services like email and Twitter fundamentally affect how their users relate to one another through the constraints they set up (e.g. the character limit on Twitter).  The architecture of Identity and reputation systems similarly affect interaction, such as whether someone is comfortable buying an item on eBay or connecting with another on Facebook. Lessig’s dictum “Code is Law” is easiy applicable here, and it gives programmers and designers more power than city planners could every hope for.

Examples are everywhere, and I believe this is an important topic that is ready to come to the forefront.  Just a few weeks ago, I began baby steps of mapping out what a book on subject might look like.  I’m glad that Godin started the conversation.

What my thesis is about

Posted: February 23rd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Any website that relies on interaction between agents requires an effective reputation system to build trust or otherwise support the site’s purpose, whether this be developing a community, engendering socially networked capital, supporting trade, or providing entertainment.  So far, sites have maintained their own siloed reputation mechanisms, but as the web evolves to become even more social, and websites further develop the links they have with each other, this walled-garden model of reputation will cease to work.  A consolidated reputation network that takes further advantage of the web’s still untapped potential for cheap, context-specific ties must replace these many individual mechanisms.  Without such a system, trust will continue to break down in the face of an onslaught of prisoners’ dilemmas, leaving the Internet an ineffectual place for meaningful social activity.