longbets.com: "the betting site for big thinkers"

Steven D. Levitt over at the Freakanomics blog (the companion blog to the book by the same name that is on my reading list) pointed me to the utterly fascinating longbets.org, which he described as “the betting site for big thinkers.”

In a nutshell, bettors publicly put real money on one side or the other of an issue with long-term implications, with the idea that one day the bets can be settled. So what are big thinkers betting on?

By 2030, commercial passengers will routinely fly in pilotless planes. Craig Mundie, CTO of Microsoft, has $1000 on “yes,” and Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, has $1000 on “no.” (I guess we won’t be seeing the GooglePlane, but am I the only one who is a little alarmed that the CTO of Microsoft is saying we’ll have pilotless planes? Once you’ve seen a giant blue screen in Times Square. . . . )

In a Google search of five keywords or phrases representing the top five news stories of 2007, weblogs will rank higher than the New York Times’ Web site. Dave Winer has $1000 on “yes,” and Martin Nisenholtz says, “no.”

By 2060 the total population of humans on earth will be less than it is today. (Kevin Kelly says “yes,” but there are no challengers yet).

Here’s another one without a challenger yet: By the year 2150, over 50% of schools in the USA or Western Europe will require classes in defending against robot attacks. Alex K. Rubin says “yes.” I’m not so sure about that one, but if I put up the cash, it would be up to my heirs to collect on that one if I won.

Reading the bets is good for some brain-stretching fun, and there are still plenty of predictions waiting for challengers. Winning is about pride, not money — all money is donated to charity.

Opera, the Amiga of web browsers

The news of the Opera browser’s tenth anniversary came from two different directions today: via Scott Rosenberg in my news aggregator, and via David Wheeler in IM. You can get a free registration code today from this page. I’ve tried Opera before but never quite switched. Still, it’s a reminder that IE and Firefox aren’t the only browser games in town.

I got the title of this post from one of my old InfoWorld columns. I think the larger point of that column (that Firefox could be the wedge that leads to the open source desktop) was lost by the (mildly) perturbed Opera fans who didn’t like being compared to Amiga, and the slightly more irritated Amiga fans who didn’t like being compared to Opera (see the comments from this post). I’ll admit that it was a superficial comparison, but as an aside within the column, it made a certain point.

The histories of both Amiga and Opera are extensively documented on the continually-amazing Wikipedia — well worth reading.

Backing up a Mac with rsync

If you want to avoid using all the goofy backup software that come with firewire drives these days, but you haven’t gotten around to reviewing the rsync man page and you’re starting to get a little worried about your backup situation on your Mac, this is the page for you. Rsync has always been a mainstay in my tools arsenal, but mostly on Linux and Solaris. This set of detailed instructions will clear any rsync cobwebs quickly, and throws in a few Mac-specific details to boot. I’m running my backup now. . . . looking good.

Wilco, Ken Waagner, and the future of music

Wilco is one of my favorite bands and has been since I picked up Being There sometime in the ’97 timeframe. If you take a look at my Last.fm artist charts and you skip past the Pink Floyd (no apologies, fellow indie rock fans — I enjoy it without irony), Wilco is in the top 20, and at various times, I’m sure Wilco has been on heavy-enough rotation in my household to be #1. (And yeah, my current Last.fm charts might suggest that I hold Prince in only slightly higher esteem than Buck Owens. And that would be right, but maybe it’s because I’ve seen Prince live three times and Buck only two.)

Continuing the speaker series here at Yahoo! that I mentioned last week when we had Mark Pauline with Survival Research Labs, on Friday we had Ken Waagner, the digital strategist behind Wilco.

I didn’t take detailed notes, but this excerpt from this Wired story by Lawrence Lessig gives you a sense of what Ken’s work has meant to the music industry at large:

The band Wilco and its quiet, haunted leader, Jeff Tweedy, is something different. After its Warner label, Reprise, decided that the group’s fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was no good, Wilco dumped them and released the tracks on the Internet. The label was wrong. The album was extraordinary, and a sold-out 30-city tour followed. This success convinced Nonesuch Records, another Warner label, to buy the rights back – reportedly at three times the original price. The Net thus helped make Wilco the success it has become. But once back in Warner’s favor, many wondered: Would Wilco forget the Net?

We’ve begun to see the answer to this question. Wilco’s Net-based experiments continue: the first live MPEG-4 webcast; a documentary about the band in part screened and funded via the Net; bonus songs and live recordings tied to CDs. Its latest album, A Ghost Is Born, was streamed in full across the Net three months before its commercial release. And when songs from it started appearing on file-sharing networks, the band didn’t launch a war against its fans. Instead, Wilco fans raised more than $11,000 and donated it to the band’s favorite charity. The album has been an extraordinary success – and was nominated for two Grammys.

Ken was the guy who put the song files for the unreleased Yankee Hotel Foxtrot up as Quicktime streams on a web server for fans to download for free while the record itself was in limbo. Aside from instigating a flurry of upset messages from his hosting provider (one of those $29.95 outfits) who were surprised at the massive surge of bandwidth usage, the success of the Internet-only (at the time, at least) album led to an appearance on Conan O’Brien. Ken said that Wilco was “the only band to ever play Conan O’Brien in support of a Quicktime stream.”

MAXIMUMROCKNROLL #133 coverThe discussion of major label music reminded me of an old issue of punker-than-thou zine MAXIMUMROCKNROLL (#133, June 1994) that gave a seriously grim and uncompromising punk rock view of major record labels. The image to the left says it all — signing with a major label is like putting a gun in your mouth — one can only assume that a pull of the trigger is imminent. The original issue has been preserved here.

A few additional links on Wilco and Ken Waagner:

Frederick Brooks / Ruby on Rails smackdown

Over at the 37Signals blog, there’s a post praising Frederick Brooks’ absolutely timeless Mythical Man-Month book (Wikipedia entry here), following up on a prior post espousing a “three people for version 1” philosophy, described as follows:

If you can’t build your version 1 with three people, then 1. you need different people, or 2. you need to slim down your version 1. Now, before I get yelled at, this doesn’t apply to every project, but I do believe it applies to the majority. And sure, if you are building a weapons system, a nuclear control plant, a banking system for millions of customers, or some other life/finance-critical system, then you may need a fourth.

But keep it in mind: three for version 1. Remember, it’s better to make version 1 half a product than a half-assed product. Three people will keep you closer to half a product and a cleaner, tighter, simpler base on which you can grow later.

The mysteries of the art of software development have always intrigued me, and I wrote about Frederick Brook’s amazing “No Silver Bullet” essay a couple of times in my blog and weekly column when I was at InfoWorld (man, that column about web services seems DATED now!) It’s one of those essays that’s worth re-reading every couple of years.

One of the comments to the post at 37Signals makes reference to the “No Silver Bullet” essay and puts it into the context of the Ruby on Rails phenomenon:

His essay called “No Silver Bullet” predicted that there would be no single significant development in programming that would increase productivity by an order of magnitude (whatever that means).

I’d be interested to hear JF/DHH’s opinion on that re: Ruby on Rails. Does RoR constitute an advancement of this type? Or, does RoR incorporate multiple technologies which collectively increase productivity (thus validating Brooks’ assertion).

Interesting question — I’ll stay tuned with my newsreader to see the response (and this isn’t really a Frederick Brooks / Ruby on Rails “smackdown,” I just liked the way that sounded as a title to this post!)

Incidentally, my friend and former Salon.com colleague Scott Rosenberg is currently deep in the process of writing a book that touches on some of the issues he wrote about in one of his Salon columns — can’t wait to read it.

PHP/Perl programming language mashup!

(Via O’Reilly Radar) My friend and former Salon.com colleague David Wheeler announced on Saturday that the new version of open source CMS Bricolage supports PHP templating via a new Perl module developed by George Schlossnagle. From the README:

This module provides a way to load a PHP interpreter into your Perl programs. The PHP interpreter then automagically has access to all of the modules and variables loaded into Perl. So PHP executed from Perl can use any Perl modules.

This is so cool and generally amazing (and it gave me the opportunity to debut the word “mashup” on this blog). When you’re remixing at the language level, you’re enabling all sorts of potential. Go Team Bricolage!

Fun with robots and fire at Yahoo!

Mark Pauline of Survival Research Labs at Yahoo! This week has been a VERY cool work week. Closing out my first week, I attended an amazing lunch-time presentation by Mark Pauline, founder and director of Survival Research Labs, a talk put together by my boss Bradley Horowitz as part of a regular series here at Yahoo!

How to describe SRL? Well, you could look at the description on their site:

Survival Research Laboratories was conceived of and founded by Mark Pauline in November 1978. Since its inception SRL has operated as an organization of creative technicians dedicated to re-directing the techniques, tools, and tenets of industry, science, and the military away from their typical manifestations in practicality, product or warfare. Since 1979, SRL has staged over 45 mechanized presentations in the United States and Europe. Each performance consists of a unique set of ritualized interactions between machines, robots, and special effects devices, employed in developing themes of socio-political satire. Humans are present only as audience or operators.

For me, it was just as interesting to look at the Flickr tag “srl” and the related tags:

The last performance SRL did was in downtown Los Angeles (covered nicely on BoingBoing), so if you look past the location tags (“downtown” and “losangeles”, of course), you’re left with art, performance, machines (like the deliciously insane Pitching Machine), robots, and fire. That sums it up to a certain degree, but it wasn’t your typical pretentious run-of-the-mill performance art. What Mark Pauline really is is an extraordinary hacker whose work has artistic implications, but with absolutely zero pretention. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from someone who others might describe as a “performance artist,” but he had the demeanor of a very thoughtful and determined hacker who really enjoyed working with people to build cool stuff and make it work. I left the session inspired and excited to get back to work. (It sure as hell beat the lunch-time “Getting the Most out of Microsoft Word” sessions offered at most companies.)

Of course, Yahoo! is doing a lot of hiring, so if you’re passionate and talented and this is the kind of thing that inspires you and gets your creative juices flowing, be sure to search the jobs database. If you need more encouragement, read this interview with Prabhakar Raghavan, our new head of research. I read this interview right after I accepted the offer from Yahoo! and it left me with one thought: get me there now.

Memories of the WELL and its geek-infamous server

When I saw that Salon had put the WELL up for sale, it brought back some interesting memories. I was CTO at Salon when the WELL was acquired, so I was ultimately responsible in an org chart sense for integrating the WELL hardware and software into our environment, although the “real” work was done by people like Doug Herr (still at Salon), Neil Harkins, Pete (“Wolfy”) Hanson, and Brian Dang. I should say up-front that I was never personally active on the WELL, so I definitely don’t write as a been-there done-that old-timer, just someone who saw a slice of WELL time in an operational sense. I could never get my head around things like “picospan”, the horrid command-line interface to the WELL conferences (there was also a web interface). None other than Steve Jobs called picospan the ugliest interface he had ever seen. All I know is that for the rest of my life, I will remember holding my breath at midnight in the Salon server room on New Years Eve 1999 as I waited for the certain implosion of picospan — and perhaps the WELL itself! — as we moved to Y2K. Thanks to the efforts of people like Pete Hanson, that didn’t happen.

To put it bluntly, at the time of acquisition in 1999, I had never seen hardware in such sorry shape as the stuff we inherited from the WELL — we’re talking OLD equipment, though it still worked. I actually recall seeing some loose bits of solder on at least one piece of equipment. While this all presented an aggravating short-term operational problem (one that was relatively quickly solved with the last batch of new Sun equipment I ever bought), it was also cool from a historical standpoint. One of the servers we retired during my tenure was the one that proved to be Kevin Mitnick‘s Waterloo. I always thought it was cool to have that server, and I think I even suggested that we auction it on eBay as an important historical artifact at some point (we never did).

You can see exactly how the WELL played a major role when Tsutomu Shimomura snagged “the prince of hackers” if you read this reprint of a John Markoff story that was in the New York Times back in ’95. Coincidentally, I happened to be working at the local newspaper in Raleigh, NC on the day that Mitnick was arrested in Raleigh (February 15, 1995) and remember the reporter on the case (Grant Parsons — you out there, Grant?) coming into the newsroom with a cassette tape with the taunting answering machine messages from Mitnick to Shimomura wanting to put it on the ‘net (this little newspaper in Raleigh was a real pioneer, launching its first web site in July 1994). I took the cassette from Grant, hopped on my bike, and headed home to digitize the audio on my Power Mac 7100, producing AU files eventually (if you thought podcasting was a hassle. . . .whew). There are AU files of those same messages here, and a lot more about the case than you probably ever wanted to know.

But I digress. Back to the sale of the WELL. . . JD says that the WELL community should buy the WELL. Doesn’t seem like a bad idea to me. In any case, best wishes to Gail, Kathy, Pete, and Cynthia!

Bye-bye OS X: I'm back on Windows

When you join a new company, if you’re lucky, you can choose whether you want a Mac or PC. Since Yahoo! supports both, I had the choice — and I chose Windows with very little hesitation. I wanted to be where most of the users were, and besides, Macs just aren’t the magic machines they are sometimes made out to be (see Dan Gillmor’s latest struggle, for instance).

Still, there are a few things I do miss about my PowerBook:

  • Exposé (oh, how I miss this! The right-mouse-click over the task bar in Windows giving me “Show the Desktop” is a poor, poor substitute for the clean and easily-reversed desktop sweep provided by hitting F11 in OS X) Thanks to Peter Hoven (see comments), I’ve got a nice replacement for this functionality — just press Windows key + D. I wasn’t aware of this. Not as pretty as on the Mac, but it does the job. Thanks, Peter!
  • The backlit keyboard with ambient light sensor
  • The instant-on when you open the PowerBook from its sleep state (and instant-off when you close it)

I’m sure some Mac zealots will flame me for my choice, but I’ve been on the receiving end of those attacks before. Just search for “under mac attack” on Yahoo! or Google and I’m your #1 hit. I can take it.

First two days at Yahoo!

I was really honored to see Phil Windley’s post tonight in which he called me “one of the good guys.” Phil, the feeling is definitely mutual. Phil has that rare mix of humility and expert knowledge that I wish all technologists I work with had. I’m looking forward to reading his Digital Identity book when it comes out. Phil closes his post by saying: I hope he enjoys the new gig. Well, I already am enjoying it!

My previously-former-InfoWorld-and-now-Yahoo-colleague Matt McAlister did a good job describing the first day of orientation already, so I won’t go into that here too much except to say that everyone I met made me feel very at home. I’ve been in high-growth environments where rapid hiring was used as an excuse to handle things sloppily, but I experienced none of that in my first day yesterday — everything ran smoothly. I haven’t even had any parking problems, so I haven’t availed myself of the complimentary valet parking yet, either. I am a member of the Cult of Diet Coke (no coffee for me) so I have been pumping myself full of the free fountain Diet Coke in the cafeteria. I was able to have lunch today with my good friend and fellow Yahoo! employee John Allspaw, which was the icing on the cake on a day where my brain just started to feel the sweet overload of Really Interesting Stuff.

There’s a lot going on here, and I can’t wait to get even deeper into it.