Friday, December 27, 2013

On Writing: A New Intro to Darkness!

It's been, well, years since I've posted anything about writing.  But I have been working on Darkness Before Light inbetween the rest of life's craziness.  So I wanted share a quick bit - the latest version of the introductory paragraphs of my story.  It's taken me many, many revisions to arrive at something that I'm much more proud and confident in.  Take a read send feel free to critique!

The black sphere of a gargantuan space station shook, vibrated by the internal explosions ripping swaths of hull from its surface.  Showers of red-hot shrapnel spun off into the endless dark, chased by ephemeral trails of smoke that rapidly dissipated into space.  No sounds pierced the long dark as gray specks, lit by their burning yellow chemical fuel motors, frantically rocketed away from the dying battle station.  Their survivors shivered, cried, cursed, and stared into speckled deep space, not yet at the point of wondering when, or if, rescue would find them before the zero energy cold of space seeped into their bodies.  They were survivors, but certainly only on a delay from their fate.
The battle station heaved one more time, then split diagonally, an instant of red flame and white glow separating the pieces of the structure.  Hundreds of segments, each thousands of tons massive, spread apart in a slow dance, a giant spherical puzzle coming apart in white-hot bursts of energy, crimson fire, and silent screams.
Thirty vessels thundered away from the shattering battle station.  Their flat, sleek hulls lit by the white exhaust of their curved, bulging engine clusters.  Some were small and nimble destroyers, only a few hundred meters in length.  Others were kilometer long battleships, armed with rows sleek twin-barreled Gauss cannon turrets.  Two were the truly massive five kilometer long behemoths, the Everest and Kilimanjaro assault carriers.  The other twenty-eight vessels were only there for their protection, for those two ships carried more than four-thousand anti-gravity tanks and twenty-thousand troops between them.  The fleet stretched across thousands of kilometers of space, angling for the third planet from the star Sigma Draconis, their weapons still warm from bombarding the space stations guarding the way into the system.
Sigma Draconis’s dim, cool yellow barely reflected off the hulls of the fleet.  Being cooler and smaller than Sol, it was only just bright enough to turn its third planet into a point of light a little brighter than the rest of the stars stretching across the void:  one small, un-twinkling speck against a backdrop of millions.  The way into Sigma Draconis had been forced and the Interstellar Navy was accelerating to begin the next phase of their battle and possibly reunite mankind.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On SXSW 2013: Vanishing Interfaces, Wearable Tech, & AI's.

Interfaces.  Interfaces everywhere.
Less than six years ago the Apple iPhone blew our minds with a new way to think of something we thought we knew really well:  the cellphone.  A couple years later, tablets crashed the party, giving us a big, rich interface to browse and connect with while leaned back in our recliners.  Technologists like myself have been scrambling all the while to find the best methods to utilize the capabilities of these new interfaces ever since.

The last year has presented us with the vanguard of the Wearable Tech revolution.  Faced with products coming out of Kickstarter and perhaps most prominently, the Google Glass project, the equation is about to become very complex.  How we think of technology is going to radically change, again, over the next five years.  With it, how our devices interact with one another and how we build our applications for them will need to evolve significantly.  One talk and one panel at SXSW underscored how we need to begin thinking and designing if we want to stay sane while managing a system of devices and inputs: Golden Krishna's The Best Interface Is No Interface , and How AI Is Enhancing the User Experience.

Krishna spoke specifically to the idea that we need to eliminate as many interfaces as we can in clever ways to enhance the User Experience.  The AI panel emphasized the changes coming to the User Experience as predicted by products like Siri and Google Now.  Together, they paint a picture of how building with an eye to streamlining interfaces with AI modules will build a new future for us - a future that is going to be increasingly filled with various devices.

We Are Interface Happy
It seems that every time I'm involved in the design of a new product we focus an especially great amount of time on the interface.  What buttons will go where, how big text fields will be, in what order they present, colors.  Which is good, right?  We want a great UX, so getting that interface right is key.

When you have a single interface, like a desktop website, this is fairly easy to maintain and design.  Add a mobile version and it becomes a little more complicated.  Add a 10'' tablet interface.  Now add in an interface for a TV, 7'' tablet, and maybe even a car dashboard.  Each adds a level of complexity and restrictions on space and sensors that may be present.

Now add in wearable tech:  smart watches, Glass, and even arm-bands, each with their own style of interface.  We will make ourselves crazy attempting to maintain a small solar system of devices, never mind maintaining applications for all of them.
The LG Smart ThinQ Refrigerator.
The first obvious question here is:  do you need to be in all of those places?

I would actually adjust that question a bit to:  what functions do your products have that best fit on those interfaces?

Eliminate the functions that don't make sense and streamline the functions that do.  In fact, automate as much of the process as you can!  This is something we're all already familiar with.  The most commonly used version is data caching so that a user doesn't have to enter their contact or credit card information over and over again on a particular site.

Here's a great example of this:  Amazon's 1-click purchase.  Why re-include all of these interfaces between what I want to buy and the actual purchase?  Automate it and make it seamless.

But how does this concept apply to all of these other devices?  We're used to thinking this way with web pages, but what about with physical activities?

The Evolution of AI
Seems like a bit of a stretch, I know, but this is coming.  The vanguard is already here in Siri and Google Now.  Each of these represents a type of agent that knows a few things about us.  Google Now will tell you, without your asking, the time it takes to get home from work.  Siri and Google Now both will take your voice input and perform actions that would normally be fairly complicated through a series of interfaces.

Google Now in action.
Let's look closer at the Google Now "time to get home" use case.  Normally, I would have to open up a browser, enter in some data, then pull up directions from work to home.  Depending on the service I'm using, that may or may not reflect current traffic conditions.  So to do that, I might have to pull up street cameras and observe what the traffic flow looks like.  There's quite a few steps in that process.  Nothing crazy, but there's a bit of work.

Since Google Now does this already, those intermediary steps are gone and the result is automatically presented for me.  This eliminates decent amount of interface.

Siri's voice recognition allows similar interface-elimination.  You can say to it "schedule a meeting at 4 o'clock on April 16th".  Normally, you'd have to open your calendar app, swipe to your desired date, then time, then tap, then enter in some meeting details.  This voice recognition eliminates all of that work.

Obviously, Siri and Google Now are not Skynet.  Or Johnny Five.  But they are clever bits of programming that represent a personal agent.  Voice processing allows them to take a set of spoken instructions and convert that to an action.  The better the voice recognition tech becomes, the better the agents will be able to perform and the more interfaces they will be able to eliminate.

A smaller scale example of this is the Nest thermostat.  The simple "AI" in this device learns your patterns and then begins to adjust the temperature in your home based upon what inputs you have historically given it.  No more getting up in the middle of the night to adjust it.  Sure, it has an app interface you can use to control it as well as an interface on the device, but the "AI" makes those redundant and simply a back-up plan.

What you don't want to have your phone become.

AI Meets No UI
But let's bring this back to earth.  Not all of us have access to complex and robust voice recognition libraries and a network of camera-equipped cars.  Many of us are, however, in a position to collect or analyze large sets of data.

I'm not sure about you, but we often have a situation where we're trying to figure out what's for lunch.  So let's say we want to build an app that suggests, every day, where to go for lunch.

It's easy to start with something like creating a mobile app that just shows you a map of the area with restaurants pinned.  The next logical addition are reviews from Yelp or Google Places.

But we still have an interface, right?  How can we eliminate it?  Why do I even need to pull my phone out of my pocket?

How about we have an AI, which pays attention to what restaurants you like to eat at, how much you spend, when you ate at them, and what types of food you like.  Then, to eliminate any sort of interface, this app sends you a text around the time you normally go to lunch with its suggestion.  Perhaps it even includes a suggestion of things to order at that restaurant.  If you use something like a wearable health monitor, maybe it can even read your general mood and suggest that one place you love to go to get away from work stress.

Maybe your smart phone's app sends the suggestion to your smart watch or your Google Glass.

App collects data, sends output to wearable tech.
Sure, an interface can still exist behind this.  You can open the app and adjust parameters or inputs, but these interfaces become supporting elements, not the primary interface element.  Data that's collected becomes the primary input, done automatically.

Let the robots do the work!

Its about Streamlining
So here are the brass tacks:  in just a few years, we're going to be surrounded by devices.  They're all going to have an OS, varying screen sizes, and use cases where they make a huge difference and others where they don't.  We have to be savvy in figuring out which interfaces makes sense to go on a device and which functions can be easily performed in that form factor.

Are you going to read a book on a smart watch?  No.  But you might set a reminder to do so.  Especially if you can talk into it ala Dick Tracy, right?  All it has to do is interface with your phone to gain access to something like Siri or Google Now.

More importantly, we need to look for ways to leverage our data and the sensors built into these devices to eliminate UI's.  Whether this is through a series of a "AI's" or sensors is going to be a decision to be made by us product designers.

We will have to learn how to use a brain-device, like a smart phone or desktop computer to centralize control over a system of devices.  These will control our interfaces with watches, tablets, thermostats and the like.  Application of AI-type of technology will give us numerous opportunities to streamline tasks that are tedious.

Are you prepared?  Are you ready to start thinking of ways to kill the UIs you don't need?  Are you ready to start identifying which you need and which you don't?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

On SXSW 2013: OpenHealth, OpenEducation, CrowdFunding, OpenEverything - OpenSource Principles Continue To Change The World.

Several discussions and talks at SXSW 2013 fit into a theme around Opensource principles.  Whether they directly talked about it or only showcased a particular element of the thought-model, SXSW is a place to find some of the best and brightest discussing how Opensource is influencing our lives.

Common among them all?  Giving freely of your own resources to create something.

3D MakerScanner in action at SXSW.
The first was the keynote by Bre Pettis.  He launched his company's new 3D MakerScanner, which an scan any shoe-box sized object into a 3D model.  That model can then be exported to a Makerbot for mass fabrication.  The second talk, Improve Your Business with Open Source Principles by Ruth Suehle (#openbiz) from Redhat, underscored how Opensource principles are migrating out of the world of geekdom and into mainstream industries.  She stressed to us that it's key for us, as technologists, is to find ways to not just use, but to give back to the community.

Much of what I talk about below is my interpretation of Ruth's points as well as taking them the next step in context of the rest of the content shown at SXSW.  What's most astonishing to me is the tremendous potential and speed of change occurring.  And it is all because of the application of a few principles driven by an active technology industry.

First, let's look at the classical example:  Linux/Unix.  It started with one man and a vision.  In the decades that have pased, we now see some flavor of Linux on virtually everything.  In fact, there are more computational devices running a derivative of Linux than anything else in the world.  Those Android devices?  All Linux based.  Mac OS?  Linux based.  Sure, they may be heavily modified, but they are possible because of a world-wide effort to create a free, functional, capable operating system by thousands of individuals.

Redhat is perhaps the greatest example of a company endorsing Opensource software development and being financially successful.  They recently crossed the $1B revenue mark while utilizing the donated efforts of who-knows how many software engineers.  That is pretty good momentum for a company barely a decade old.

So that's all well and good, right?  Opensource is in the domain of the IT geek, programmer, and maybe the product-idea person.  It might give me newer, shinier gadgets, but that's nothing new.


In the past two years the movement has made tremendous strides outside of technology.  There are four primary areas:


Below I dig into each.

Healthcare - Find others and help others.
What a trigger word: healthcare.  In the United States, this often conjures up visions of Republicans and Democrats dueling over Obamacare on Capitol Hill.  In Canada, it may bring visions of people with private healthcare getting service before their public healthcare planned fellows.  Elsewhere perhaps long lines at over-worked doctors.

Various groups have seen this, too, and instead of relying on our governments or insurance companies to solve the issue they have begun to build communities to allow the people to help one another.  PatientsLikeMe focuses on building smaller groups who have similar conditions and share experiences. CureTogether is building groups of anonymous folks that can share information about their treatments.

These groups are extracting the information they gain from their healthcare providers and putting it into a set of central locations for collaborative learning.  Will it replace a doctor?  No.  Could it be a vehicle to alleviate a reliance on doctors to treat everything?  Absolutely.

Consider:  do you really need to go to the doctor for every cold or flu?  I would argue not.  I would also argue that learning to be more self-sufficient and using services like PatientsLikeMe or CureTogether could help healthcare in a couple ways :  reducing cost through fewer doctor visits and prescribed medicine.

I'm excited to see how this could evolve over time.  Will it come to a moment when doctors and insurance companies will actively integrate group-sourced services into their policies?  That remains to be seen but don't be surprised - especially if it means a way to lower costs and increase margins.
Free your mind!
Education - Freely expand your mind.
This is, perhaps, the one piece that can truly change the world.  It will take time to do so and there will be people battling this tipping point, but you can count on this being a huge factor in the 21st century.  How is that?

There are two main threads inside of this larger effort:
Free Education.

There was a tremendous buzz about the web last year when MIT announced a free, online, AI course. They have since continued with other topics, freely sharing knowledge.  Sure, the courses are not credited, but at what point do we start to respect this line on a resume:  "Completed MIT online course on business administration" or some other subject?  Consider what this tells us:  the individual is willing to take their time and take advantage of a course offered by a leading university.

Additional resources are available as well, for free:  Khan Academy and Coursera.  People are freely donating their time and knowledge to build coursework for others to learn from.  It's free, people!  The people who are building it are doing it for free!  The web provided the vehicle to democratize education, but this truly is democratizing learning.

Cover of an OpenTextbook, credit:
All because people took some of those most basic Opensource principles and said:  let's creating something that everyone can benefit from and let us do it for free.  That truly is the most basic of Opensource thought.

Along with these course is an effort to write Opentextbooks.  Again, people are donating time and knowledge to create text that is freely available.  Download the text to your reading device and you're set.  Consider the savings that could happen in public education when you can take the publishers out of the loop.  Consider the savings college students would have, again, if you take the publishers out of the loop.  It is a direct transfer of text from the people that know the content directly to the person wanting to learn.

Hand in hand with free, online education, and this is a mix that can really change how our kids, and more so for their kids, are educated.  Don't forget us, either - we are able to now expand our own skill sets, for free, using these resources.

Funding - Power to the people's wallet.
This had to happen.  It really did.  You cannot build so many free resources without finding a way to apply the Opensource principle of providing your resources for free to the money equation.  How does this work?

Well, the simplest explanation is to head on over to Kickstarter and start snooping around.  Each of those "kickstarters" is an idea by a person or group of people who are asking you to donate funds.  The Pebble watch famously started off this way and is now in production.  Several games have started this way.  Most recently, this bled into pop culture with the huge speed with which the Veronica Mars movie kickstarter crossed 1 million dollars.  It's now up to 3.7 million, by the way.
A selection of Pebble watches.
Consider the broad implication this has on everything that requires funding:  books, movies, television, software, cars.  The list goes on and on.  Suddenly you can take the funding out of the hands of venture capitalists and investors and put it in the hands of the people.

This idea isn't necessarily new.  You could equate it to the stock market.  But instead of a money return, you get a product return.  But don't think that Kickstarter won't soon be engaged with stock.  It only takes a person to say "give me X dollars for Y and you'll not only get product Y, but N stock options in return."  Then anyone can be an investor through an interface centered around a specific product.

Crikey, that makes me a little tingly thinking about the potential!

Makerspaces - Fabricating ideas.
A photo of the ATX Hackerspace in Austin, TX.
Not mine, found on hackerspace wiki.
This is awesome and I love that people are doing this!  So what is a Makerspace or Hackerspace?  Essentially, it's a club of people that, well, build stuff.  They may or may not pay a monthly due to have access to a space which has a whole bunch of things.  Computers, Makerbots, mainframes, laser cutters, drill presses, circuit boards, robots, you name it, they probably have it.  The dues go to purchasing these items and as a member, you get access to not just the equipment, but also to the people who have knowledge using them.

Suddenly the creative juices move out of the office building or garage and into a community of people who are paying to spend time creating things for, well, the sake of creating something.  Sure, a bunch of those folks are thinking that down the road it may be lucrative, but to get there the act of creation must happen and that's what these spaces are for.

Wouldn't it be neat to...
I wonder if we could...
Hey - I had this idea...

Add a few doses of high octane coffee or booze and you have a mixture that could alter minds.  The Makerbots and Maker 3D Scanner, launched at SXSW Interactive 2013, fast forward this effort by providing cheap methods to fabricate ideas.  The plethora of Opensource software available simplifies the integration of software with fabricated products.  And let's not forget the Google Arduino integrated circuit board plugged into Android or the Texas Instruments' modular circuits!

Hardware is sexy again.  Hardware + Opensource software is kickassenly sexy.

Example Makerspaces:
757 Labs
ATX Hackerspace

What Potential!
Mind = blown.
Think about this for a moment.  A few people in a Makerspace could fabricate an object, maybe write some software for it.  But maybe they need some insight on a problem, so they hop online to MIT or Khan Academy, poke around and find a course.  They take some time to learn about the problem and find a solution to their idea's hurdle.

Then they jump on Kickstarter and say:  Look what we created.  Fund us and we can take this from just a neat idea to a viable product.  A whole bunch of people jump in, thinking it's an awesome product, and then months later, we see a new product roll out.  Maybe it completely changes how we think about our health.  PatientsLikeMe start talking about how this thing has helped them and then others adopt the same tech, improving a bunch of people's lives.

This isn't a dream - this is a real possibility and the entire chain of events can exist outside of the traditional models of creating a business, product, and getting it to the people who need it most.

How are you utilizing Opensource principles?
It's easy for us to grab some product of Opensource thought and use it to our own advantage.  But are you giving back?  There are many ways to work in the space ranging from programming or marketing, to evangelizing and funding.  The system works best when you just don't take, but also give.

What's more, how is your company participating?  Are you another RedHat and finding ways to leverage the principles and thought processes?  Or are you a closed environment?  You cannot ignore the influence the open thought movement is having on the world around you.  Businesses will need to find a way to integrate, accept, and leverage - especially if they want to stay ahead of the curve.

Friday, March 15, 2013

On SXSW: 2013 Retrospective

I've attended two SXSW's now, both as a representative of Dominion Enterprises.  Both have been eye-opening experiences, each with their own "flavor".  I'm sure this flavor is a bit different for everyone since the ingredients reflect the panels, talks, and networking one attends.  Last year I was impressed by the focus on story telling, tipping points, and DevOps.  This year it was a different perspective and one focused on two things significantly different:

Simplicity.  A Better Place.

The last ten years has bombarded us with a myriad of technology:  phones, big tablets, small tablets, apps, Android, iOS, Blackberry - you get the picture.  The choices and decisions we make between these items shapes our experience of the world around us.  It seems that the very near future is going to see a new evolution of technology and applications focused on diminishing, or at least minimizing, the disruption devices and applications present.  Like last year, I'll be digging further into each of the topics below.

So how did I get Simplicity out of SXSW?  I mean, one is surrounded by gadgets and apps and ideas while there, right?

Simplicity:  The Amazing Vanishing Interface.
This one trend is likely to be the "smart phone" of this decade.  Last decade we received a horde of new screens and operating systems to manage.  Never mind all that "smart" tech that's showing up in watches, glasses, microwaves, thermostats, dashboards and anything else that has a power source.

How can we reasonably expect everyone to keep up with three, really five common devices:  phone, tablet, desktop computer, television, and car?  Depending on your choices, you might have five completely different operating systems, set of applications, and ecosystems.

You do it by removing the interface and constructing smart controlling devices.

There really isn't a reason for your TV to be a smart device.  Your computer, tablet, and phone already are.  And they're perfectly capable of managing your TV.  They're also capable of managing your car dashboard.  Devices are going to start forming into ecosystems of open and closed groups, with dumb devices acting as satellites to your smart devices.  Things like Google Glass will plug into your phone the same way Pebble does.  All of the fitness bands and gadgets will also extend your phone's capability.

The Smart Phone is not a phone.  It's a sensor and a broadcaster.  It's an interface to AI's.

Downtown Austin with JWST model in foreground
Product designers are starting to see this and are beginning to eliminate unnecessary application interfaces.  The Nest thermometer learns your patterns so you don't have to manage it.  Sensors in car doors and in bumpers automatically open doors or lift gates for you.  This trend of seamlessly integrating robotic action into your life is going to continue at a rapid pace and your smart phone is going to be the brains that manages all of it.

AI's like Siri and Google Now are going to continue to expand and become better, eliminating bulky forms.  Start-ups are rolling out industry specific AI's (think travel, food)  and these will streamline what is today a very input-heavy experience.  Why should we always re-enter the same data over and over?  Why couldn't an agent existing on our device auto-supply data points and learn our behavior patterns?

In the end, experiences will become simpler.  We will configure the dumb devices around us through our smart device to respond to our particular set of unique needs.

Unfortunately, I suspect the car industry is going to be the last to realize and implement these ideas.

A Better Place: Big Open Thinking.
Bre Pettis launching the Maker 3D Scanner at SXSWi.
OpenSource has been a buzz word for a long time.  Emerging today is "Moonshot Thinking".  Combined, these concepts have a tremendous amount of power.  Now add to that mix Makerspaces or Hackerspaces and you have a recipe for real, tangible change.  What's more, they are already altering the world around us, bit by bit.

We're seeing the effects of big thinkers with resources in things like Google Fiber and SpaceX.  What is happening on a smaller scale and gradually infiltrating other aspects are big thinkers using OpenSource community principles to affect world-wide change.  Linux was, perhaps, the first few bars of what's a greater piece which involves the ingenuity displayed in Makerspaces around the world:  people with knowledge joining others with different knowledge and building things just for the sake of creating them.

LeVar Burton speaking at the 100 Year Starship Panel.
Education and health care are both evolving under the Open principle.  MIT, Coursera, Khan Academy, and OpenTextbooks epitomize Open learning.  PatientsLikeMe and CureTogether are the first steps in democratizing health care to groups of people.  OpenPacemaker has solved basic issues within pacemaker software that I'm sure none of us realized even existed.

 The 100 Year Starship project exemplifies this on a massive scale.

Our challenge is going to be adapting modern business practices to a world that is not closing, but opening it's doors.  No one has a true hold on any knowledge or content today.  Will we also be able to leverage the OpenSource community?  Will we also be able to Moonshot Think and stretch for big, beneficial goals?

There are strong undercurrents rippling beneath our every day lives.  They start in the depths around technological innovation and are finding their way into many industries - industries we cannot live without or succeed without.  The success of certain types of thought are being applied in new, creative ways to old problems in education and health care.  New thought is changing how people are thinking of devices and how they enrich our lives - and by extension how they change those old-world problems.

SXSW is a great place to get a tad of exposure to those currents.  And, one hopes, enough warning to keep one's head above water when those currents become a wave of change.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Lucky 7 Work In Progress

Lucky 7?  What's that?

Well, there's this "game" where authors (or wanna-be's in my case) share their lucky 7 lines.  You pick either page 7 or 77, scroll down 7 lines, then share 7 lines of your WIP!

Here are my Lucky 7 from Darkness Before Light - Part 1 :

Gabriel shook his head slowly, smirking.  Lucy could be such a computer sometimes.  Horns and drums played a few hundred meters away, orchestrating the rising and swaying anthem of the United Terran Government, but Gabriel wasn’t paying any particular attention.  His mind diverted, remembering how it all began.
At fourteen he had been scooped up, having scored very high in spatial awareness and computational skills, and thrust into the nascent Urban Combat Armor training program.  His class was the third into the academy.  One of the first things they did was add the brain, ear, and body implants that allowed him to merge with the ten meter tall robots and their assistant AI’s.