Social Networking – We’re missing the point.

Social networking as it stands is missing a very essential component – some type of social contract. Right now, there isn’t a good way in digital communication/interaction/networking to know whether someone got the message. Sure, you can see if they reply, ‘like’, ‘retweet’ or otherwise indicate they got it – and email has read receipts which call back in the background. Even at that, though, someone can open or glance at a message without actually reading or paying attention to it.

From real life, the allegory for Facebook is a huge dorm of people (gigantic, really). Everyone has a door into their room, and the door can have pictures, news articles, amusing comics, etc. as well as a white board where visitors can leave notes. In real life, you can tell when someone is there and generally see why. When someone looks at something and you’re there, you can comment back, open up a channel of communication, and actually interact. (“Oh yeah, that’s when I went to Costa Rica for J-term and we hiked in the Cloud Forest” or “you think that’s good, check this one out” –> pulls up xkcd for today).

Right now, our doors are all shut, and we have towels along the bottom so they’re soundproof. This means we only interact with the world when we step outside. When we do, everything happened in the past and it hits us all at once – more of a chore than fun experience. Everything’s tape delayed. We already have discovery (news feed, activity feed, messages, email notifications) but there’s no way to jump into someone’s stream as it happens.


  • I see a few friends checking out the Spotify track I’m listening to and we start up a Turntable room
  • I see my friend’s pictures from the 5k, he notices I’m there and gloats about his time
  • I glance through a college classmate’s wedding photos and they strike up a conversation

Ultimately, there’s no way to hang a sign on your door indicating that you’re open for engagement and interested. Everyone dumps everything they can out on their door but then shuts it again without seeing what the response is. I’m not talking about a violation of privacy or anything like that – you can make it entirely optional on both sides. If you don’t want the spam of knowing when people are digesting your social timeline, that’s fine. If you’re snooping on someone’s page and don’t want to reveal yourself, you can hide your actions too. But I imagine most of the time people won’t care that so-and-so knows they’re there – and most of the time it will be a good thing.

Right now, we’re missing the point. We’re all linked up. Some of us are even talking – but the words are all surface-level and it could be so much better.

Distraction and Web browsing through life

I heard an interview the other day with Nicholas Carr, author of the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  The basic idea is that the brain is a flexible machine that grows and improves itself based on how it is used.  If you spend a lot of time practicing an activity, like playing the piano, your brain is designed to emphasize those skills so that it’s better suited for each subsequent try.  While the brain is improving in one area, however, those that remain unused don’t get the same type of attention.

Mr. Carr’s argument suggests that throuh years of surfing the web and becoming daily more immersed in the online experience, we have trained our brains to be good at that type of interaction.  Reading an article, we expect lots of links and widgets pulling in and exposing lots of information at one time.  The very activity – “surfing” – expresses the flowing nature which is really good for absorbing a broad range of information at once.  This breadth, however, comes at the cost of depth.  Just as Nicholas describes, we find ourselves leaping from thing to thing without the same kind of focus and dedication as we might with a long news article or chapter of a book.

Conversations come in short chat or text messages, squeezed in between or layered on top of other activities.  At any given time, I have access to huge wealths of information, but not the time or focus to get into any of it.  It takes real work to hone in on the details of anything and we’ve been training ourselves to do be bad at exactly this.  Skimming the surface can be great, but it comes at a cost.  It will be a sad day when generations begin to grow up in a world of hyper-experience, without the grounding of concrete and focused interaction with the world.

NPR Interview with Nicholas Carr


How cranes are assembled

This is really cool.  How cranes are assembled is one of those things that would never have occurred to me to think about. As it turns out, it’s a pretty complex and creative affair.  Engineers must have spent some serious time thinking through the implications of trying to ratchet such a monstrous and durable item way up in the air.

Watch animations of two different types of cranes going up.

Core77 – Animation explaining how they erect cranes

Teaching light to travel around objects

Boston College: Illustration shows light propogating around the East Coast of the US according to instructions from the metamaterial device
Boston College: Illustration shows light propogating around the East Coast of the US according to instructions from the metamaterial device

Looking for an invisibility cloak or a car that blends right into its surroundings? Researchers at Boston College have managed to use what they call ‘metamaterials’ to instruct a beam of light to follow particular pathways.

The researchers accomplished their feat by developing a much more precise set of instructions, which create a grid-like roadmap capable of twisting and turning a beam of light around objects or space. Their discovery is an extension of earlier metamaterial “cloaking” techniques, which have conjured up images of the Harry Potter character disappearing beneath his invisibility cloak.

“Our method combines the novel effects of transformational optics with the practicality of dielectric construction,” Padilla and Landy report. “We show that our structures are capable of guiding light in an almost arbitrary fashion over an unprecedented range of frequencies.”

The process is definitely still in its early stages but the mere thought that such a thing is possible is quite incredible.


Filling a tech job slot

New to the field of computer science, I set out this month to find myself a job for after graduation in the Spring.  As a new graduate, I’ve been looking for entry-level positions into the field.  As my search grew, I became more and more astounded by the degree to which it was impossible to directly find potential jobs.    

To some degree I’m sure this is a reflection of the miserable general job market and the especially poor tech job market at the moment.  That’s to be expected.  There are nevertheless plenty of possible jobs listed.  It’s just that none of them are actually done by companies themselves.  At least 90% of all interesting job listings encountered are done by recruiters from staffing agencies looking to market me as a consultant.   

The decision by companies to look to consultants rather than individual job seekers probably comes down to a question of qualifications.   When a company or division is expanding or replacing someone on the team, someone in human resources is tasked with filling the spot.  These people are not necessarily informed enough to know that Ubuntu administration and linux administration skills overlap or that someone with Javascript expertise is qualified to some degree for AJAX.  Rather than go to the trouble of bothering the software guys in the company to screen applicants, they turn to staffing agencies to supply people, the same staffing agencies which, by the way, skim off a significant chunk of change for their services.  

This setup makes it quick and easy for HR people to fill developer slots, and maybe some developers with targeted skills can benefit from this matchup.  I am of the opinion, however, that a software company without the informed scrutiny to screen applicants on its own may not be as concerned about the quality of the employees it settles for, and may not care whether they’re happy enough to stick around for the long term.


I’ve recently had a number of friends lose large amounts of information (music, essays, and photos that can never be replaced) due to hard drive damage and it has gotten me thinking about how easy backups can be, but how rarely people use them.

Windows – Backup to external hard drive: Backup Magic

Network Linux Box – Great article on network backups

Online options: Carbonite

The Paradoxical Outdoors Geek

Grand Marais Waterfall


I am a geek. I read technology blogs, carry an iPod, work for a tech company, receive regular tech support calls from family and friends and am never too far from internet access.

Lately, though, I’ve discovered a rather unexpected trend in my habits. Nearly all of the things I truly love to do for fun are conspicuously devoid of any technological component. It’s almost as if such routine exposure to technology drives me to places where I won’t be reminded of it at all. Strange, huh.

When I was younger, I was the kid who brought his laptop to the campfire circle while camping on the family trip in Canada. These days the thought of sitting in serene silence without any hint of developed civilization have replaced the need for constant connectivity to the outside world.

Contented shivers make their way up my spine at the thought of a week in the woods. I sit and wonder whether the constant drive to develop new more powerful forms of technology is the only way to improve civilization. After all, the capacity for happiness has existed way longer than the knowledge of electricity or industrialization.