Irony and digital music

So I’m sitting at home trying to organize various things (mostly computer-related) and I’ve been sitting at the computer for hours using Yahoo! Music Engine and dutifully rating various artists/songs and seeing what it spits back at me as recommended music. It’s doing a pretty good job, I have to say. When you’re going about your work and Sonic Youth‘s “Teenage Riot” comes on, you’re doing just fine (for music geeks of a certain age, such songs are a sacrament, an enduring part of the canon for head-nodding indie rock boys who aren’t predisposed to dancing).

Just a minute ago, I was startled to hear “GET OFF THE INTERNET!!” blaring from my speakers, which turned out to be a Le Tigre song (lyrics). Le Tigre has never been one of my favorites but has always been on my radar (saw them open for Beck recently). “Get Off the Internet” is a catchy song. . . I gave it 3 out of 4 stars.

Get off the Internet? I don’t think so. . . but there’s something deliciously ironic about this song bubbling up in the first place.

John Battelle, the Yahoo! TechDev Speaker Series, and the "Flickrization" of Yahoo!

John Battelle visited Yahoo! yesterday and wrote about it on his blog (see perspectives on the talk from Jeremy, Matt, and Nate. I took the blurry photo you see on your right). I invited John to speak for somewhat obvious reasons (he just wrote a book about search) but it was more than that. As the old saying goes,”journalism is the first draft of history.” If you look at John’s track record with Wired, the Industry Standard, the Web 2.0 conference, his Searchblog and now his book, John is the rare journalist who often seems to be writing the first draft of the future. That’s impressive.

John Battelle @ Yahoo!

Originally uploaded by jchaddickerson.

As Nate notes in his blog, these talks are a regular weekly feature at Yahoo! known as the “TechDev Speaker Series” — “TechDev” because it’s run by the Technology Development Group within the Search division at Yahoo! (that’s my group). Bradley Horowitz (our leader extraordinaire) started it last summer and handed it over to me a couple of weeks after I started at Yahoo! in August. His only instructions were: “Find interesting people for the series. Surprise me.” Bradley had already set the bar high by bringing in people like Chris Anderson, Mark Pauline, and Philip Rosedale (among others).

Since I took over the series, other than John Battelle we’ve had (in no particular order):

An impressive list without a doubt (and thanks to the folks within Yahoo! who’ve helped me bring some of them in). The subject matter of the series is intentionally broad and multi-disciplinary in nature. Chris Anderson spoke about the Long Tail, while Mark Pauline told us about hacking together fire-breathing robots for his performance art pieces with Survival Research Labs. Lawrence Lessig talked about how broken U.S. copyright law is in the digital domain and was followed the next week by Mark Hosler of the experimental and sound collage “band” Negativland, who gave us the artist’s perspective on the issue.

I think the multi-disciplinary content and focus of the speaker series as it continues to develop hints at something I’ve been noticing about Yahoo! in my first four months there. While Yahoo! continues to attract top talent with stellar computer science backgrounds, there’s another type of person Yahoo! seems to be attracting as well in what some have called the “Flickrization” of Yahoo!: folks who skipped the CompSci degree but built amazingly cool things on the web (I think the two complementary sides of Yahoo! are evident in the backgrounds of two Yahoo! employees recently named as top technology innovators under age 35 by the MIT Technology Review, for example). To me, working at Yahoo! these days is a heady mix of art and science (just like the web itself), and I’m glad to be a part of it. It rocks.

The Salon redesign

When I walked over to the Argent Hotel today to peek in at Web 2.0, I couldn’t help but feel a bit nostalgic when I passed the old offices at 706 Mission Street, right next door to the Argent. It was in that building where we migrated Salon to Linux and built our own CMS (though we used Solaris, Oracle, Apache, and Perl for that. . . SOAP, not LAMP, I guess. MySQL wasn’t quite there yet.) Ah, building a CMS. . . how Web 1.0 of us! logoEarlier tonight, I sent an IM to my friend Mignon (the founding art director at and designer of the Salon logo) to say, “Hey, I was over at the Argent today for Web 2.0 — remember back in early ’99 when I pulled an all-nighter when we rolled out the new CMS and redesign? You bought me breakfast there that morning and I almost feel asleep in my pancakes.” I don’t think I had actually been inside the Argent since then (six years ago!), but that long-forgotten image of my forehead drooping dangerously close to the maple syrup on my plate came to me out of nowhere today when I walked in. (Had I fast-forwarded six years to this morning for my breakfast at the Argent, I probably would have found my droopy head propped up with a stack of VC cash.)

Strangely enough, Mignon IM’ed me back to say, “We’re pushing out a redesign right now!” I took a quick glance and it looks great. Nearly five years after I left Salon, I’m still proud to have been a part of it and remain a big fan. A big congrats to the folks over there who made this redesign happen. . . . nice work.

Web 2.0 and Punk Rock

While keeping an eye on the discussion about what “Web 2.0” means over the past few weeks/months (especially Tim O’Reilly’s vision made explicit recently), I had been thinking that the basic participatory DIY ethic embodied in what some people are calling “Web 2.0” had a punk rock feel to it at its core. Without a doubt, our industry is at a tipping point of some kind, and the rhetorical battles over what Web 2.0 is are getting into issues of authenticity.

It’s hard to read Jason Fried’s latest post (“The top 10 things that aren’t Web 2.0“) and the resulting comments and not think that the “Web 2.0” discussion viewed in a certain way is a different take on the perpetual “what does it mean to be truly ‘punk’?” debates that have kept independent record store employees and only-three-chords guitarists occupied for over twenty-five years now. Like those debates, the discussion about Web 2.0 is personal and (if you look at the language in the comments on Jason’s post) political. danah’s words were certainly prescient when she wrote: “The reality is that when people talk about Web2.0, they’re talking about a political affiliation with The Next Cool Thing, even if no one has a clue what it is yet.”

This punk rock angle had been bubbling in my thoughts for a few weeks now, so today I dusted off my favorite punk rock history book (England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, by Jon Savage), looking for some historical perspective. I found a passage about what Savage saw as a tipping point of punk rock, when talk show host Bill Grundy interviewed the Sex Pistols on national television. The Sex Pistols dutifully played the part of the fearsome punks that the general public was afraid of and that brand of “punk rock” became a caricature of itself ever more quickly, feeding a new breed of punk rockers who bought the right clothes but cared little about the original philosophy behind the music. From the book:

A lot of people who had been on the scene disappeared as soon as Grundy happened,” says Jonh Ingham. “It became stupid very quickly and no one with any snazz wanted to be associated with something like that. They were into it for the clothes and the elitism and as soon as it became Rock’n’Roll they didn’t want to know”. . . .

“Bill Grundy was the end of it for me really,” says Marco Pirroni, “from something artistic and almost intellectual in weird clothes, suddenly there were these fools with dog collars on and ‘punk’ written on their shirts in biro. It had been like the Warhol scene, filmmakers and poets and artists and God knows what. Then there was Sham 69: Jimmy Pursey leaping about like an idiot, and his band with long hair, flares, and Hawaiian shirts.”

Yet there was another side to this process of definition. All pop movements have started with elites — and none, to that date, more self-consciously than Punk — but there is always a point where the elite loses control. That point is reached when the mass market and mass media take over, a necessary process if that movement is to become pop. Within this transaction, simplicity is inevitably imposed on complex phenomena, but there is also a fresh burst of energy released with unpredictable, liberating results.

Punk was a living exemplar of the subcultural process: the dispossessed gain cultural access, but at a price. Pop music is the site of this sale and the record companies are the auctioneers. Definition is a vital part of this, not only pinning down Punk, but opening the floodgates of commerce. As the trade magazine Music Week stated: Punk “might be THE NEXT BIG THING so long awaited.” For the next few months, any male Rock group with the requisite stance had an interested hearing from the major record companies.

Is Scoble’s begging for the Microsoft checkbook the “Web 2.0” equivalent of saying, “hey, I’m about to sign the next Nirvana“? I guess we’ll see.

Jason’s “what is not Web 2.0” list is useful as a warning to those who might think throwing AJAX and RSS on their sites is a shortcut claim to Web 2.0 cred, much like the preppy suburban kid who buys a studded collar from the Hot Topic at the mall on a Saturday and comes to school as a self-certified “punk” on Monday. At the same time, you can’t help where you were born, and maybe you’ve got to start somewhere. "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, 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.

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!