Monthly Archives: February 2013

RLST Post #11: Together, Alone


I was struck by this frame while watching Sherry Turkle’s video, Connected, but alone?. Perhaps it was simply the technopunk poetics of the word choice (I feel that this phrase could spawn a novel or two), but something about it caught in my mind.

I was caught off guard when Stephen Colbert asked me a profound question .. he said, “don’t all those little tweets, don’t all those little sips of online communications add up to one big gulp of real conversation?”

My answer was no, they don’t add up. Connecting in sips, connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information, they may work for saying, “I’m thinking about you”, or even for saying, “I love you.” … But they don’t really work for learning about each other, for really coming to know and understand each other. And we use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves. So a flight from conversation can really matter, because it can compromise our capacity for self reflection. For kids growing up, that skill is the bedrock of development.  Over and over I hear, I would rather text than talk, and what I’m seeing is that people get so used to getting short changed to out of real conversation. So used to getting by with less, that they become almost willing to dispense with people altogether.

Dr. Rosen came to similar results – although I can’t find them publicly available for linking – about preferred modes of communication with “a close friend”:

Group Most Preferred Less Preferred Even Less Preferred
Older People Face-to-face Phone email
Young Adults Face-to-face Texting Phone
Kids These Days Texting Email/Im/Phone Face-to-face

Face-to-face drops to fifth place in terms of how young kids (defined as Rosen as those born in the 2000s, or so) communicate. So, are we tempted by these machines that offer companionship in place of real communication? Definitely. Is this a bad thing? Nobody is sure, but it’s looking like it. Depressed people chat more online. While correlation does not equal causation, those who use the internet more can become depressed. If both of these are true, we have a kind of negative spiral for anyone with an internet connection and a deep feeling of sadness.

Texts are far easier than actually having to talk to someone, especially because they work across enormous distances. I can see how a generation used to instant gratification would love to be able to have instant communication with anyone anywhere. They’re also incredibly private, so you don’t risk someone overhearing, even if they’re in the same room as you.

I don’t actually have a point about any of this right now, I just think it’s interesting.

RLST Post #12: “just another talkative Egyptian Retweet”

The Earth Turns

On June 13, 2009, I was working for a startup in Boulder, Colorado, and I took the bus to work every day. The night before I had spent on the internet, carefully following the emerging Iranian election protests.

Revolutions fascinate me. I spent evenings in 2011 following the video livestreams from Occupy Oakland and Occupy Boston later that same year, and on the morning of the 13th I sat on my bus seat glued to the screen of my smartphone, refreshing twitter feeds from Iran, Google News, Facebook.

Malcom Gladwell, unarguably more of an expert on this topic than I, posits that the medium is unimportant: people have been organizing revolutions far before the internet became mainstream. His article about the hierarchical formation of the civil rights movement of the 1960s argues that having twitter or facebook could have hurt the movement by turning it from a well-organized force into a sprawling, ineffective network:

Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.

And yet Egypt seems to have benefited from these modern innovations. In this photo from 2011, an Egyptian protester holds a sign thanking Facebook for enabling the revolution. (At least, that’s what the translations have told me. I don’t read farsi myself :P)



And from Gladwell’s October 2010 article (this is four months before “Arab Spring” officially started):

“Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize

Yet Gladwell argues (in 2010) that our view of the revolution is skewed by our own media:

In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

I remember on the bus that morning in 2009 a constant stream of English-language tweets directly from Iran, and perhaps they were tailored toward me as a westerner, but I can’t imagine they wouldn’t be helpful to anyone in the situation – locations, names, tactics. Shared with the knowledge that the police were watching the stream as well.

The contemporary (her last tweet at the time of this writing is from 5 seconds ago) Egyptian blogger  blogs in English, her Twitter feed is almost entirely in Farsi, leaving me to pick out the few English RTs to make sense of the situation. Her 100k followers probably get a lot more meaning from her stream than I do.

The internet moves fast, and it’s helping to accelerate the speed of our lives. Gladwell is probably right, and these revolutions would have happened without Twitter and Facebook, but I think that the Internet is acting as a catalyst to accelerate these movements. The internet is a kind of Central Nervous System for humanity.

RLST Post #10: Web Development

Watching “The Social Network” was a strange experience for me. During the times that the Sorkin obviously tried to lose the average viewer in “technobabble“:

I understood all of that. The world of web development is truly insane. I’m sure I would be just as lost during a biology or chemistry babbling session, but this one happens to be the world I belong to.

I’m not writing this to brag – just to share that the movie hit very close to home for me. Even now I’m sitting in front of my computer, working on a PHP project in Apache (the same technologies that powered the early versions of Facebook). My resume says “Web Application Developer” at the top. I make things like facebook for a living.

The keyboard they use in that scene is the one that I brought in to class to share – the IBM model M.

Language and Culture

Any culture is going to have its own in-jokes and words. For a traditional religious example, I still don’t know what a catechism is (but it sounds dangerous). Web developers have this effect amplified by their very nature – creating things to share on the internet. A new word, phrase, name, or technology that makes it to the top of Hacker News or Reddit can quickly be assimilated into the language of other developers. In any field, it’s important to stay on top of the current language and culture, doubly so in the fast-moving world of web development. Click on the “truly insane” link up above and you’ll get an example of what I mean.

Because of the reliance on computers, technobabble for programmers becomes even more cryptic. 13375p34k, though a relic of the 90s, is still understood by any hacker worth their salt. Even the word “hacker” has a different meaning in the tech community (and that meaning is hotly contested).

Personal Note

The craziest thing about the whole Facebook debacle lawsuit thing, is that I have been there before. My friend Alex and I put up a site online that let you google 4 things at once. We called it “”, bought the domain name, and within 2 days had gone viral, thanks to an anonymous post on MyLifeIsAverage.

And by viral, I mean 1.5 million pageviews over two months. About 50k users, if I remember correctly. Gizmodo wrote an article about us, Huffington Post wrote one, gave us a link, and we even had an Urban Dictionary definition.

Then we got a cease and desist from Google, and in 7 days they took our domain name and shut us down. We were both pretty upset about it, but hey, it’s not every day you make Google feel threatened.

That’s why Facebook hits really close to home for me. Hopefully I’m not an asshole like Zuckerberg is portrayed as in the movie.


“You know who knows about web development? Spiders.” — Evan Conway

RLST Post #9: Ignoramus et Ignorabimus

We Do Not Know

When I took the Theory of Computation class last term, I was fascinated by the amount to which it stretched the limits of human knowledge. Perhaps it is because computation is so new a field – just 60 years ago, a “computer” was a woman at a desk with a pen and paper – or perhaps because it is a field that intrinsically bumps up against universal computation limits.

The ideas in the theory of computation that I want to focus on are related to Gödel’s (pronounced more like “guhdel”) incompleteness theorem. The actual proof is written in very technical language, but the idea is (according to the well-curated wikipedia page on the proof),

Any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete. In particular, for any consistent, effectively generated formal theory that proves certain basic arithmetic truths, there is an arithmetical statement that is true, but not provable in the theory (Kleene 1967, p. 250).

Ignoramus et Ignorabimus – we do not know and we will not know. There exists some arithmetical statement that is true but not provable. If you’re not mathematically inclined, you could think of “this sentence is false”, as a kind of english-language nonprovable. If the sentence is true, it is also false. Not the most rigorous, but it gets the idea across.

We Will Not Know

The idea that there is a limit to what science can tell us was proposed in 1872, by a German scientist Emil du Bois-Reymond, about such things as “the ultimate nature of matter and force”. Scientists are still working on that, and discovering things like the higgs boson, purported to be the giver of mass. But the theory of computation bumps up against this threshold, with things like the Halting problem:

From Wikipedia’s page on the Halting Problem:

 The question is simply whether the given program will ever halt on a particular input.

For example, in pseudocode, the program:

loop forever

does not halt; rather, it goes on forever in an infinite loop. On the other hand, the program

print "Hello, world!"

halts very quickly.

While deciding whether these programs halt is simple, more complex programs prove problematic.

One approach to the problem might be to run the program for some number of steps and check if it halts. But if the program does not halt, it is unknown whether the program will eventually halt or run forever.

Given one of these programs of significant length, we have the problem that is unsolvable. Mathematical models of Turing Machines often expand out to quadrillions of steps, although they might simply be drawn as a few symbols on paper. For example, a Turing Machine that takes a Turing Machine as input, and determines something about the nature of that machine could take billions of steps to simply read in the other machine, much less process it.



Via Aaron Diaz / Dresden Codak

Via Aaron Diaz / Dresden Codak

From a religious studies standpoint, we see an obvious hole to fill. What is beyond the edge of the known universe? What is the machine that can decide the halting problem? For some, a god fills this gap, something that technically possesses infinite power and knowledge, which exists outside of our natural universe.

Defining a mathematical “god” perhaps is useful. One can use it to define the origin of the natural numbers (a debate still held by, for example, Profs. Porciau and Sanerib in our own Mathematics department). Yet for others, the  notion is empty – there is still so much of our universe and ourselves to be discovered that deciding now whether or not there is an answer is ridiculous. It is okay to acknowledge that the answer may be discovered by humanity far after our lives are over, or perhaps never.

And yet, is that not a reflection of the halting problem? We do not know if we will find it (halt) or search for the answer forever.

Excuse me for a minute while I go lie down and process all of this.

RLST Post #8: How Much Does Google Know About You?

Since I work in web application development, it behooves me to keep up on the latest in browser technology. I noticed a blog post by Google, posted on hacker news, titled High Performance Networking in Google Chrome.

Cool Chrome Stuff

The thing I found the coolest in this article was the way that Chrome used heuristics to start loading pages before the user has finished typing the full url.

  • Users hovering their mouse over a link is a good indicator of a likely, upcoming navigation event, which Chrome can help accelerate by dispatching a speculative DNS lookup of the target hostname, as well as potentially starting the TCP handshake. By the time the user clicks, which takes ~200 ms on average, there is a good chance that we have already completed the DNS and TCP steps, allowing us to eliminate hundreds of milliseconds of extra latency for the navigation event.
  • Typing in the Omnibox (URL) bar triggers high-likelihood suggestions, which may similarly kick off a DNS lookup, TCP pre-connect, and can even pre-render the page in a hidden tab!
  • Each one of us has a list of favorite sites that we visit every day. Chrome can learn the subresources on these sites and speculatively pre-resolve and perhaps even pre-fetch them to accelerate the browsing experience. And the list goes on…

If you visit chrome://predictors in your chrome browser (Turn on “filter zero confidences”), you can see the sites that Google thinks you’re going to visit. Of course, this is all stored locally, but it got me started thinking about what other kinds of data Google is keeping track of without me knowing.

Google Dashboard

Google has been in trouble for this kind of thing before, and they’ve very much improved their transparency. Google Dashboard gives a listing of the knowledge that Google has about you, and gives options to delete that data from their servers.

For example, I can see that Google Chrome has 1068 “Omnibox data” stored for me, which I assume is things like the predictors I linked to above.

Google also has 73 of my passwords on file. They’re encrypted, of course, but that’s still access to my life that’s stored on Google’s Chrome Sync servers.

They know that I have 75 apps installed on my Android phone. I even use Google Analytics on my sites, so unless you’re using NoScript, Google knows that you just visited this site.

What does this mean?

This means I give a lot of my information to google. Especially since I carry an android device in my pocket with me all day, I assume Google could potentially locate me via my devices if they so desired. But Google doesn’t gain anything by doing this – they know that transparency and security are the things that people trust them for. Google knows when I’m in class, since I use Google Calendar.

Funny enough, I use adblock in chrome, so really I guess I’m stealing all of these services? I see it as customizing my experience. As a google fan, I think it’s wonderful that I can give the details of my life to Google, and they’ll help me organize my life.

Speaking of religious studies, I think I’m happy sharing everything with Google – at least they have oversight committees, compared to most deities.


Edit: I just found this fascinating article on some potential upcoming facebook privacy changes, if you’re interested.

RLST Post #7: Analysis of a company analyisis

Just today, on, “walker” posted a blog post about his business, TeeSpring, titled Our Path to $1M in Sales. I want to analyze the business decisions made by the company to make it to $1M in sales from the viewpoint of this class.

If you’ve decided that walker’s post is TL;DR, here’s a few quick excerpts that explain TeeSpring’s business and path to $1M:

The plan:

Just over nine months ago, armed with a few beta users and a short wait list, we launched Teespring to the world. The concept was simple: Kickstarter for custom t-shirts. Instead of dropping thousands of dollars to get your tees screen printed and trying to figure out how to get them to your buyers, all you had to do was come to Teespring, design your tee, set a goal (the higher the goal, the cheaper the price per tee), and launch the campaign. Buyers could come to your campaign and pre-order your tee, and once you reached your goal we’d handle the production and fulfillment and send you a check for the profit.

The Ethic:

From the day we launched we always said we wanted Apple quality with Amazon’s customer experience. It’s something that’s core to us.

The Success:

Campaigns started popping up organically and selling hundreds of t-shirts, TWiT launched their first campaign and sold almost 3,000 tees, we finally got that article in Techcrunch, we flew past $1M in sales with over $250k in December and, above all, we’re finally profitable.

So how did TeeSpring become profitable? By following the path of modern startup culture.

TeeSpring and Google’s 10 things

Google’s first rule is to “Focus on the User”, and that’s just what TeeSpring did. Check out their story of acquiring their first few sales:

Right away we could see that it wasn’t as easy to sign up new customers as we’d hoped, especially without a design tool. While people seemed sold on the concept, nobody wanted to take the time to create their own design or launch their campaign. We ended up providing hours and hours of design consultations to groups that would only sell ~50 t-shirts, it was hugely unprofitable and there wasn’t a chance it would scale – but it created happy customers and that was what we needed.

TeeSpring knew that a focus on the user was the lifeblood to starting a user-oriented service. The small-order custom t-shirt niche is no longer empty, and TeeSpring went into this business with a lot of very strong competitors. The only way they could be successful is by offering a better small-order custom t-shirt service. Custom design consultation, personalized service, etc. All focused on making their users happy, so that they will generate word-of-mouth advertising and happy return sales.

Moving on down the list, we see that TeeSpring abides by Google’s 10 rules on almost every line. Their business plan is democratic – if not enough people “vote” on a t-shirt, the design is scrapped and the money returned. They don’t try to rip off the customer, and they allow anyone to make a design – crossing borders.

They even know that dress codes are a thing of the past. Here’s their dev team:



T-shirts and jeans all around. The look  of the modern developer.

TeeSpring and the individual

When we started planning the Gaming House trivia team for this year, a good friend of mine suggested getting T-shirts for the team. We didn’t use TeeSpring (we went with, who were super awesome!), but the idea was to have our community defined in part by our clothing, through matching T-shirts. Custom clothing can help define a community by clearly delineating the people who are part of that community. At the risk of being exclusionary, custom clothing helps people feel like they are really part of the group.

(If I had known about TeeSpring, I would have gone with them, since I ended up not ordering enough T-shirts for everyone).

Kickstarter, the wildly popular croudfunding website, is all about bringing together communities to support an idealistic individual. TeeSpring, a more specialized version of Kickstarter, does the same. From shirts, suicide prevention awareness, and even the SigEp fraternity at Stanford, people with an idea for a t-shirt for a community can use TeeSpring to get their swag. The idea of allowing the people who are going to wear the shirts to buy the shirts before having to put up the capital for the initial order.

TeeSpring and the $1M

TeeSpring’s path to success (for now) is defined by their attention to the individual and ability to cater to communities and groups other than themselves. With this comes the monetary gain marked by our current era of tech-savvy startups. People are beginning to ask, are we in another tech bubble? But nobody seems to know the answer. Perhaps we’re in a new era, cautioned by the late ’90s, guided by the current giants, Apple, Google, Facebook, that will see a less volatile bubble of tech.

Either way, this new round of startups and entrepreneurship will be guided by companies’ attention to their customers, and not their brand name or cheap tactics as the past may have allowed. There is no more foregiveness in the market for anyone who is rude to their customers. Unless they apologize, but that’s a different story.