Are social networking services nightclubs without dancing?

Young people flock together. They dress up and show off, make small talk and flirt, identify in fashion tribes. At any moment, there’s a hot venue, the place where everyone has to be. And then, suddenly, there’s a new hot place, and the old hot place is shuttered. And then, gradually, there’s a new generation, with different music, different dancing, a different style of gathering. Dance halls, driveins, discos, raves, different generations of the same always-shifting cultural pattern. People who used to be young graduate to other forms of association, related to work, family, neighborhood, interest.
Are social networking services similarly ubiquitous and ephemeral, the same cultural pattern, but with many more people per club and without the dancing? Friendster was the hot place to be, and then it wasn’t. Orkut was in for the technotribe for a few minutes, and then for Brazilians. MySpace is huge right now. Will Myspace carry over to the next microgeneration, or will it be replaced by the next online hangout?
Will generations stay with their network as they grow up, like the baby boomers stayed with rock’n’roll and their parents stayed with Sinatra? Or will they move on to other places? Will other types of online association have greater stability, with fashions that wax and wane over longer generations, like Haddassah and Elks and DFA?

The war on hair gel

This MSNBC interview with aviation consultant Michael Boyd confirms what you might have thought — the latest ban on hair gel, toothpaste is theater, not real protection. Meanwhile, the TSA and DHS are ignoring serious security problems at the airport cargo backdoors, delaying investing in technology that can tell explosives from suntan lotions, and spending our money instead on dog booties, beermaking machines, and golfing retreats

Can flywheels keep the California grid up next summer?

Where the Saudi oil production numbers are potentially influential and very bad, this story is potentiall influential and very promising.
A company in the Boston area, Beacon Power, is running trial systems for the grids of New York and California that use flywheels to balance out the fluctuations of supply and demand in the grid. Today, when peak demand strains the grid, the network sends a signal to a power plants with idle capacity to start producing. This is costly and polluting, since power plants are cheapest to run and least polluting when they are producing at a steady level. The flywheel system can respond faster — seconds instead of minutes — and doesn’t add pollution.
If the six-month pilots of scale model systems in New York and California go well, the company will be able to sell their first production-scale systems next year, perhaps in time to spare the grid in air conditioning systems. The company, which started by selling backup power for telecom, and went public in 2000 right before the bottom fell out of that market, has retooled to sell to the electric grid. They’ve been losing $2-3 million per quarter, and have working capital of $8.5 million. Here’s hoping the technology, timing and investment banks all work out to get this technology on line.
One piece of information I haven’t yet been able to find — how much C02 and other polution is due to the marginal use of natural gas plants to cover spikes in electricity demand. If the role of spare power was filled by flywheels instead of power plants, how much would emissions be reduced?
Found the story in the Renewable Energy Access blog, pointing to this MIT tech review article on Thursday.

Amazon still doesn’t get links

One of the persistently frustrating things about Amazon’s reader reviews is that they don’t have permalinks. Reviewers can’t respond to other reviews, or even bring in references to reviews of other books. This prevents people from talking to each other. It prevents flamewars, and it prevents community.
Recently, Amazon has added several new “features” that borrow from the forms of social software. A “plog” looks like a weblog. It is a listing, in reverse chronological order, of posts about products you’ve seen or expressed an interest in. Unlike a “blog”, which consists of posts the author has written, a “plog” is a marketing newsletter, with messages from authors and others who are trying to sell you things. Apparently the right to write is bestowed by Amazon upon slected authors or marketers. The recipient of this unnatural hybrid has very little over the content. You can make a comment, and comments even have permalinks. But there is no venue inside the Amazon sprawl to use these links to write back. The user doesn’t have obvious ways to write or link. This is the opposite of user-generated content, it is content inflicted on the user.
In the same family of mutant social software is Amazon’s wiki feature. The so-called wikis appear near the bottom of a well-shaft-long scroll of various product description and review features. If you log in with a username and credit card (!), you can edit a page about that product. I need to upgrade my credit card, apparently, in order to see if the wiki even has a linking feature. It is clear from perusing the top wikis that linking isn’t part of the idiom. People who are writing collaborative commentary about, say, the XBOX, aren’t building a rich , interlinked history and knowledgebase of the games market, trends, and technology, unlike the WIkipedia entry. Instead, the Amazon “wiki” is a short and shallow review that happens to have been written by more than one person. The Amazon XBOX wiki doesn’t even have it’s own link as far as I can tell, all you can do is get to the xbox page and scroll all the way down. This is the opposite of the design pattern of atomic entries, identified by links, and interconnected by links, that allows the Wikipedia entry to grow and deepen with links to Microsoft, components, games, market trends, and related information.
The problem with Amazon’s reviews is that the absense of links inhibits the creation of community. The wikis are antithetical to the concept of building a rich knowledgebase using shared vocabulary as links. The plogs don’t allow user-generated content. In all of these “features”, Amazon’s interface designers have borrowed the appearance social software but missed the meaning and the social dynamic that makes the whole of blogs and wikis to be greater than the sum of the parts.

Affective computing: the mood thermometer in the lecture hall

Here’s the anecdote that was most telling about the wrong track taken by Affective Computing, the book by MIT’s Rosalind Picard about the digitizing of emotion.
Picard writes about giving a lecture as part of an elearning program. She was troubled by the fact that she could not read the emotional responses of people in the audience, unlike a physical lecture hall, when you have visual signals of interest. Her suggestion was to wire the audience, and get a digital readout of the emotions.
In recent years, conferences and remote meetings have developed a different mechanism to read the response othe participants. A simple text chat enables people who are engaged to show and share emotions with smiles praise, questions, or heckling. In great presentations, the backchat is dead silent, as the audience is spell-bound.
Unlike a physical room, where even someone silent may reveal emotional signals through physical signs of boredeom, excitement, or anger, a backchat reveals nothing from someone who is silent. That’s not quite true – someone who wants to telegraph excitement or displeasure in a 3D meeting room will also use backchat signals. In small groups, silence in a teleconference and backchat is also revealing. A group leader can ask someone who is unusually silent to say what they are thinking.
Another big difference is that in a lecture hall, or a remote presentation with backchat, participants have substantial control over the emotions they display. Picard’s hypothetical mood thermometer might pick up on involuntary emotions, or emotions the participant might want to hide. A participant might be feeling angry at a family member, or lustful for a fellow member of the audience, or exhausted because of a small infant at home. Picard’s hypothetical mood-reader would transmit those emotions to the lecturer.
Picard herself notes that all known emotion-detecting technology can be fooled by skilled humans. So emotional surveillance in the virtual classroom would lead to unnatural emotional repression. what’s weirder, the mood thermometer is one-way — the lecturer can see the mood of the audience, but the audience can’t read each other. Backchat is very different from the mood thermometer. Like same-place emotions, backchat allows participants to feed on each other expicitly. This difference comes directly from Picard’s belief that affective computing is “personal” — her model doesn’t include the social aspects of much of human emotion.
The backchat model can be extended to include emoticons, color feedback, and other signals to share emotions with other participants and the leader. These nonverbal signals can complement text chat; allowing people to do the thing they’re good at, combining thoughts and emotions in communication.
Picard’s theories rely on complex tools to automate emotions, rather than on simpler tools that allow people to share thoughts and emotions with each other. I think her theories are misguided, in an interesting and revealing way.

Peterme on Tufte’s latest

I confess I haven’t yet read Tufte’s latest information design tome, Beautiful Evidence, but have been following along peterme’s review posts. In the most recent writeup, peterme take’s issue with Tufte’s desire for unambiguous diagrams. I think I can put a finer point on it.
This consulting deliverable, is a an illustrated artifact of a research project that Adaptive Path did with a client. Adaptive Path and the client lived through the research together, and the illustration complements the story they put together about the experience people have when comparing financial products online. The illustration doesn’t stand alone. If peterme didn’t tell the story in a few paragraphs of text below the picture, it wouldn’t mean much to someone who wasn’t there. And the illustration didn’t need to standalone. The client was paying Adaptive Path to talk to them. So there was no need to make an artifact that would speak for itself.
By contrast, the seemingly plain yet elegant graphic of SARS transmission is more self-contained. The textual narrative adds content, but the picture tells more of the story by itself. The medical article needs to be self-explanatory, since, unlike Adaptive Path consulting deliverables, the journal article does not come with a set of medical researchers explaining it to the reader, and the readers were not already part of the research team with the writers.
There is no single standard for explicitness in an information diagram, because the need for explicitness depends on the context in which the illustration is used.

Campaigns without people

I’ve found three slick websites supporting greenhouse gas policies. This Climate Choices site from the Union of Concerned Scientists, focused on the California Legislative session is nicely designed, links to the bills, has videos and action alerts. But no obvious people, and no direct feedback.
This national site from Environmental Defense focuses on getting signatures in support for the languishing McCain Lieberman bill in Congress. It has a petition and videos, as well as gizmos you can put on your site, including banners, instant message icons, and PC wallpaper. But no humans, no way to provide direct feedback, no obvious way to meet fellow activists. I can see that over 100,000 people have signed the petition in California. Uh, yay, I guess.
This National Resources Defence Council has an action alert, a postcard to send, and a place to sign in and see the history of actions you’ve taken. . But no humans, no way to provide direct feedback, no obvious way to meet fellow activists. I can see that over 100,000 people have signed the petition in California.
These campaigns use the internet as if it were a fancier form of direct mail. A beautiful brochure, with some more widgets and animation. No opportunity to take advantage of the ability to meet to the people behind the scenes and to talk to each other. None of the messy, potentially unpredictable consequences of actual political organizing.

California’s greenhouse bill, results this month?

California’s greenhouse gas bill promises to cap state emissions at 1990 levels by 2020. The bill would impose mandatory reporting and a “cap-and-trade” system. This vision is far ahead of US national policy which is to shut eyes tightly while headed for the cliff.
The legislature is pushing to get the bill done before a recess at the end of August. A hearing is expected in the Senate Appropriations committee in two weeks.
It sounds like the bill outlines the goals, and delegates the implementation rules to a task force. The current squabbling surrounds who will have the power to write the implementation rules. The original bill gives the power to the California Air Resource Board, while the Governor wants to give that power to a board appointed by the governor.
Backers of the bill include the
Union of Concerned Scientists They have a Climate Choices very polished site with action alerts, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense. These sites all have action alerts, press a button to support the bill.

Smart meters in Northern California

On July 20, California’s energy regulators approved a program to roll out smart meters to 9 million gas and electric household customers. These meters report electricity consumption on an hourly basis. This enables PG&E to set pricing that varies by season and time of the day, rewarding customers who shift energy use to off-peak periods. The peak pricing program will start out on a voluntary basis, and the full rollout is expected to take five year.
So far, the only source I’ve found for this is the PG&E press release, which was picked up by a number of newspapers and trade publications, and the PG&E earnings call.
The he said/she said coverage found an industry watchdog group that is skeptical that the increased rates to pay for the capital costs of the program will pay for benefits in conservation, and concerned that the program does nothing to decrease overall demand. It seems logical that giving consumers feedback and differential pricing will shift demand off peak. Thipilot programwith 100 households in Oregon shows the successful shift of demand away from peak hours.
Jesse Berst, the former IT analyst who’s now covering energy cautions that smart metering technology is changing, and buyers should watch out for total cost of ownership and standards support. I haven’t yet found information about who is supplying the meters to PG&E.