TQR Activity

I’ve been pretty active on The Quora Review lately. I’m really enthralled by Quora and what they’re doing. The company has the short tagline of “a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it,” but that’s not saying much. There’s so many things Quora can morph into, and the underlying infrastructure they’ve built can be scaled for so many interesting uses, to say nothing of the team that built it (which is also stellar). I could go into much more detail on all this, but I’ll save it for later!

As usual, I can’t help analyzing, writing and commentating on what interests me, so check it out:

The Tower of Babel Rebuilt: How technology will obviate language-learning

One of the more hyped startups from Y Combinator’s Summer 2011 class is Verbling, a web app that uses live video chat between those learning a language and their native speaker counterparts from around the world.

Unfortunately, the usefulness of services like Verbling is under attack. Recent technological advancement framed within the context of new theories about the pivotal role of language in human evolution are decreasing the value of foreign language competency.

Five years ago, the benefits of learning languages beyond one’s native tongue would have been self-evident. Traveling, career development and social life would all benefit greatly from time spent learning a language or two.

But this is 2011, and technology has swung the outcome of this cost-benefit analysis the other way.

Crucially, translation technology will evolve within the next five to ten years to make the process instantaneous and transparent to the end-user, rendering foreign language competency effectively useless.

Advances in speech recognition will make input clearer and thus manipulation easier. Companies like Nuance and Siri have been doing impressive work lately furthering speech recognition capabilities. The next iPhone, rumored to be released within the next few weeks, will give us an early glimpse of how speech input has become so sophisticated it passes even Apple’s very high bar of consumer-readiness.

Improvements in machine translation, coupled with powerful data analysis and association tools (“big data“) will make raw digital translation capability extremely fast and accurate. Both IBM and Google have been working on this for a few years now, and you can even try it today with Google’s consumer Translate service.

Similar gains in the power of server-side computation (the cloud), network infrastructure, and mobile devices that capture and demand translation (the end-user) will be the final pieces of glue that make it all a reality.

New startups like Vocre have harnessed all these advances to make real-life conversations across languages seamless. Last week they debuted their iPhone translation app that “allows anyone to communicate instantly with anybody from anywhere — without language being a barrier” according to their website. Essentially, the app will listen to someone speak, detect their language, translate and playback in your language, then take your response and translate and play it back to the other person.

Furthermore, powerful mobile apps like Word Lens even solve the problem of translating any text physically printed onto the world (signs, advertisements, anything), so that speech and verbal communication won’t remain the only domain of translation. This technology is available today and is surprisingly accurate and reliable.

Besides translation that relies on speech or visual input, seamless translation of text on the Internet, where a great amount of global communication already takes place, will also be fully realized within the stated timeframe.

As a corollary, it’s quite likely that a universal human language may never take hold (which many have predicted would be either English, Spanish or Mandarin). What’s the point if technology helps us cross these barriers automatically?

Our confidence in technology’s ability to rebuild the Tower of Babel should remain steadfast thanks to newly emerging scientific theories. It is now becoming clear that language was pivotal in the early development of humanity, and where such criticality exists, so do markets and business opportunities ripe for exploitation.

In his recent TED Talk, evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel asserts that language was a social technology that emerged out of homo sapiens’ new ability to accurately mimic anything they saw. In order to prevent this “visual theft,” language was used to protect the ideas and innovations of early human cultures from those of other competing groups.

In describing this theory, Pagel smartly identifies language as:

…a piece of neural-audio technology for rewiring other peoples’ minds … it allows you to implant a thought from your mind directly into someone else’s mind, and they can attempt to do the same to you without either of you having to perform surgery.”

These “discrete pulses of sound” allowed homo sapiens to cooperate on levels theretofore unwitnessed on Earth. Competing species like homo erectus were never able to develop language like us and remained outside of our cooperative networks (cultures).

An article from BBC News earlier this summer goes into greater detail about the role language played in keeping homo erectus backward: [emphasis is my own]

“Yet Homo erectus was slightly bigger and more powerful than Homo sapiens, so why did we thrive when they did not? The most obvious answer is that we had bigger brains – but it turns out that what matters is not overall brain size but the areas where the brain is larger.

‘The Homo erectus brain did not devote a lot of space to the part of the brain that controls language and speech,’ said John Shea, professor of palaeoanthropology at Stony Brook University in New York.

‘One of the crucial elements of Homo sapiens’ adaptations is that it combines complex planning, developed in the front of the brain, with language and the ability to spread new ideas from one individual to another.. ‘

Planning, communication and even trade led, among other things, to the development of better tools and weapons which spread rapidly across the population.

The fossil records suggest that H. erectus went on making the same basic hand axe for more than a million years.”

Using technology to eliminate cultural barriers and thus enhance global human cooperation is a direct descendent of these early evolutionary developments. Rest assured great progress will be made within the decade, and with it, the diminishing usefulness of foreign language competency.

Gauging Craziness: Why I own an iPod Classic

I have the largest music collection among anyone I’ve ever met. As of today, I have 45,731 songs across 322 playlists, taking up nearly 334 gigabytes of storage space! That’s nearly 5 months of continuous, uninterrupted music! This is an unrealistic amount of music to enjoy, and here’s why.

The largest, currently available Apple iPod could barely manage to hold just half that amount! Today, that’s the iPod Classic (160 GB), which has a specific-capacity[1] of around 25,000 songs (depending on how you measure).[2]

By my logic, Apple still keeps this model around for the “few crazy people” that might actually need this much music on-the-go. Why? Because it still uses the basic, unaltered design of the original iPod that’s been around for a whole decade! This dated and rusty gadget uses antiquated software and control mechanisms that are dwarfed by the power and functionality of the smaller capacity iPod Touch line. To illustrate this point, let me just say that I have to manually reset and reboot the device every 3 weeks or so simply because “it got stuck.”

There’s no denying it: this thing is a dinosaur. You’d only buy one of these if the size of your collection was the only thing to dictate your buying decision. Hence, anything above this already “unfounded” bar of music collection size is, we can safely assume, truly and utterly crazy.

At this point, I can already here the skeptics…

“But you probably haven’t heard most of the songs you have, let alone having to carry all or just half of them with you at any given time.”

Rest assured: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed well over half this entire collection and will hear it all within another year or two. I must admit, however, that there’s an overwhelming number of tracks that are pure detritus, accumulated through years of sampling various tastes and genres without actually deleting the results of disliked forays.

There are also many albums that I was forced to buy whole for just that “one good track” because digital downloads–and selectively purchasing single tracks–didn’t exist ten or fifteen years ago.

To this end, I expect my collection to actually decrease in size for the foreseeable future. Not only is it unrealistically large by the definition we’ve just established (that is, unrealistic mostly because no company will make a functional, modern gadget to support its size), it must shrink if it’s to fit on more functional and converged gadgets that are currently available (like an iPhone).

Let’s face it: we don’t need our whole collection with us at all times, and that’s why I’m happy with just half of it on my MP3 player. If I could carry half a 256 GB collection on a hypothetical future iPhone with 128 GB capacity, I’d be within the bounds of reason again. Stacking ~46,000 songs against the iPod Classic “crazy meter” reveals that I’d have to trim ~21,000 songs from the collection to match even the craziest people that Apple accounts for when deciding to still keep this product on shelves year after year.

Will Apple actually keep increasing iPhone capacity to that point? It’s likely, but the one deterrent may be an industry-wide trend to shepherd users and their data to the cloud, reducing the need for on-device (or “client-side”) storage. Either way: my collection still needs quite the trimming. The first step in solving any problem is to first accurately measure the extent of said problem, and I think I’ve done that successfully here.

There’s just no reason to deal with the iPod Classic anymore, unless you’re just psychotically crazy about music.

[1] Specific-capacity: The storage capacity of a consumer electronics device relative to the users’ media content quality. (I made this term and definition up for this post, but it’s actually useful for gadget-heads.)

[2] iPod Classic (160 GB) Storage Capacity (according to Apple’s own estimates): 40,000 songs (based on 4 minutes per song and 128-Kbps AAC encoding); in 256-Kbps AAC format, song capacity is up to 20,000 songs. Since my collection is split between high and low quality MP3 tracks, we can safely assume this iPod’s specific-capacity for my collection’s quality to be around 25,000 songs.

Fighting Rudeness with Rudeness

Anthony De Rosa of Reuters featured in this NYT article about how people checking their phones during social interaction has become the norm:

“I’m fine with people stepping aside to check something, but when I’m standing in front of someone and in the middle of my conversation they whip out their phone, I’ll just stop talking to them and walk away. If they’re going to be rude, I’ll be rude right back.”

Let it be known: I will be adopting this as a personal policy from now on.

Please let me text-while-I-drive without actually texting anymore

I’m guilty: I text while I drive. And I do it a lot. Like any entrepreneurially minded problem-solver, I’m looking for solutions to this problem, because somehow, everyone’s dropped the ball on this issue. Car makers, cellphone makers, entrepreneurs, the government: they’ve all taken way too long to address this often life-and-death issue. There still isn’t a widespread, consumer-friendly, handsfree speech-to-text solution while driving.

Let’s be clear: texting-while-driving is a major issue. I’m not the only one who’s doing it a lot. The Yuma Sun reports that:

According to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, texting while driving increases the risk of a crash 23-fold. The study further indicated that the average text message takes 5 seconds, which means that a driver who texts at 55 mph would travel the length of a football field without ever looking at the road.

A 2009 self-report survey found 51.4 percent of drivers age 16 to 19 admit to texting while driving, despite laws in many states prohibiting it.

These facts are alarming, and they’re not going to change anytime soon. As many people my age will know, texting is sometimes more appropriate than calling someone depending on the situation. Who you’re talking to, what you’re talking about, etc… all play factors in texting over calling.

I’ve recently turned to Dragon Dictation, an extremely useful iPhone app that let’s you dictate anything to it and will instantly transcribe it to text, which you can send out via SMS, e-mail, Twitter, etc…

While this can be handy, make no mistake, it does not solve the problem. It is still no where close to handsfree. I still need to take out my iPhone, tap Dragon’s app icon, tap record, tap done when I’m finished, tap send, tap SMS, etc… Now that’s a lot of taps, too many to be considered “safe” in any respect.

A truly integrated solution is what’s needed; something that’s built into what’s commonly called an “in-car user interface” (others call it “multimedia interface,” etc… basically the main ‘screen’ of the car). Placing the controls of this new technology into the automobile’s central user screen is the surest way to make it user-friendly and minimize taps, button presses, and fiddling around with other devices. As more and more of these in-car computers come standard, modern versions include auto-update features similar to cellphones, so these types of features could be added to any car. It can achieve widespread adoption in less time than if it were to debut three or four years ago.

If I were an automotive company, I would be jumping on this problem immediately. It’s just great marketing waiting to be exploited. Just imagine, “Company X was the first manufacturer to successfully implement speech-to-text messaging across all our cars, earning it Safety Award Y and accolades Z and W.”

This isn’t limited to just the big companies either; startups should actively approach this problem as well, seeking a solid exit to companies like Microsoft, who’ve developed the SYNC platform, or even being acquired by car companies. It’s not too hard to imagine this happening, either.

If free market incentives won’t make for a push, the government should mandate it as a standard safety feature in all cars, mirroring legislation in certain states that prohibit users from holding the phone up to their ears. That jumpstarted bluetooth implementation in a really big way. The same should happen for texting. (Note that bluetooth technology was cheap and widespread already when the law went into affect, as is the same for this speech-to-text technology. Apps like Dragon Dictation work miraculously, and best of all: they’re available to “plug-in” to other apps and services. Companies large and small alike could make use of their software development kit to mash-up a Dragon-based handsfree speech-to-text system. This puzzle’s just dying to be cracked already!

Furthermore, this is an easy problem to solve. Most cars now have built-in bluetooth handsfree calling solutions, so microphones and speakers are already in place. The more advanced setups have easy to use address book and phone buttons built into the in-car computer and controls. This would be just a small extension to that. I guarantee that if in-car systems were more like their “grown-up” personal computer counterparts, this would have already been done. Someone would have just made an “app” for it in a few days. But since they’re mostly proprietary systems, that doesn’t happen.

Speaking of apps, there have been a few that have tried to address this problem, although indirectly and without really solving it. For example, Daniel Finnegan put an app together called “No Text While Driving.” It basically uses the phone’s accelerometer to measure when you’re moving in a vehicle, and automatically sends out “Sorry i can’t text right now, I’m driving” messages to anyone who texts you. That way you don’t have to seem rude. This app’s intentions are good, but it’s only a half-step on the way to increasing highway safety while keeping us connected.

Dvorak is Wrong: Apple’s App Store Does More Good than Bad

In this week’s column, longtime computing pundit John Dvorak discusses the “Apple Gamble” major publishers are making by submitting to Apple’s “walled garden.” By utilizing the App Store framework for subscription-based magazine apps and foregoing their own third-party offerings, they’re just contributing to the authoritarian rule of Apple, he argues. Dvorak, however, crucially misses a more moderate perception of the App Store that’s less draconian and more pragmatic, Machiavellian even.

More specifically, he says that these companies are, apparently like the rest of us, deceived by Apple’s campaign to promote their closed system under the pretext of making things easier for us without viruses and malware etc. Dvorak says this isn’t about making things better for the user, it’s about control and money. Apple just wants everyone under their system so they can charge 30% across the board for all types of content. It started with music in the iTunes Store, then it surged with apps, but now it’ll be magazine subscriptions and any other media.

But I interject: Dvorak completely ignores the middle ground here. Apple’s closed system is about both making things easier for users and money. There’s no denying that their 30% cut is a clever revenue play , but at the same time, their squeaky clean App Store (and eventual newspaper stand or whatever it will be), have actually helped a lot of users out. I know this from direct personal experience.

If it weren’t for Apple’s extreme user-friendly design with Mac OS, my own mother wouldn’t enjoy the benefits of automatic, scheduled backups, easy to use email and web surfing, and music listening. Prior to her getting a Mac, it had taken years of repetitious teaching to get her to even remotely grasp these concepts, and in the end, she hardly understood anything. With the Mac, that all changed. Sometimes dumber/simpler/closed is actually better. And if Apple can accomplish that while making their fat margins too, then more power to them.

The closed App Store system is something even I could personally vouch for. Google Earth is notorious for the suspicious “update” software it installs on computers, Mac and Windows machines alike. It’s almost impossible to clean this update software and it’s very annoying. I consider it full-blown malware. On the App Store, it’s a different story. You get the full benefits of Google Earth with none of the annoying malware. Again, I ask, what’s wrong with that?

One might respond that there is in fact nothing wrong with the App Store’s “walled garden,” but would in turn ask what’s wrong with having that garden without all the walls, so the people that want the things outside the walls can have access to them if they desire.

While this is a valid argument, I think the potential downside of a “slippery slope” of loosening App Store policies would render it moot. If we allow a set of apps here, and disallow a set of apps there, it’s going to be hard to apply consistent and easily understood rules. There’s got to be a line drawn somewhere. I will concede that there’s still some room for slackening in Apple’s policies, but there’s no wholesale change that should take place. In any case, I don’t think it’s worth publishers second-guessing the whole system and going off to do their own third-party iOS apps. If Steve’s system will prove itself like before, there’s no reason to look further.

Magic: Why Consumer Technology Doesn’t Impress Anyone Anymore

What sort of psycho-social paradigm shift has taken place in our collective minds that prompts us to say, “My smartphone is so damn slow! When’s the faster one coming out?” as opposed to, “Oh my god! It’s a small pebble-type object that can (sometimes visually) communicate with any other human being on the planet while allowing me to consume and share an infinite amount of information!”

Exactly what happened in the past ten or twenty years to facilitate that type of “spoiled” thinking and what can we learn from that shift?

By the way, I even have a nifty title for a book or paper that would explore this topic:

Magic: Why Consumer Technology Doesn’t Impress Anyone Anymore

…because, as Arthur C. Clarke put it best,

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Begun the Mobile Payment Wars Have (and Other Early Assessments)

One of the big tech trends for 2011 will be the strong growth in mobile payment solutions, led on two fronts: hardware and software. With the former, a short-distance wireless broadcasting technology known as NFC (near-field communications) will be built into next-gen smartphones that will enable these devices to act as mobile wallets, mobile keys, etc… With the latter, a range of companies from old titans like PayPal to new upstarts like Square and FaceCash will gain rapid adoption with their mobile payment offerings. The main goal here seems to be: replace cash and wallets for good. Wired Magazine’s in-depth feature back in February of this year entitled “The Future of Money,” foreshadowed this trend, but now, several months later, the wars over this booming field have begun in earnest.

My personal experience with this sector started just recently, after I signed up a week ago and received my Square reader in the mail the other day. The reader is a small device the size of a quarter (stacked four-high) that plugs into an iPod/iPhone/iPad’s headphone jack to act as a super-svelte (and highly mobile) credit card slider. You don’t need the reader to use Square (manual entry is offered too), but it sure expands your options quite a bit. Delivery was fast, compared to what I had been hearing from a few early adopters, and the device is seems well-designed and durable.

The reader made me realize something, however: a nagging business problem Square will definitely have. Their reader (and other offerings) will never go viral, and that’s the same for the other mobile payment companies as well. Here’s why: You’d never advertise it to your friends. Imagine:

“Just got my Square Reader! If you owe me money, I now take credit card! Woohoo!”

The tackiness of that announcement goes without saying, and expect very few people to actually advertise their readers to friends, family, and co-workers. This also applies to non-reader uses of Square, too, such as their manual credit card entry mode, where a user can type in another person’s credit card information to make a payment (without swiping). In this alternate case, it’s still difficult to envision individuals spreading this product virally, or recommending it through social contexts. This is a problem, but not big enough to rain on Square’s parade entirely.

I think the use case of interpersonal payments will be minor compared to Square being used “institutionally” by business vendors large or small. There, too, Square faces competition from other mobile payment solutions, including established juggernauts like PayPal, but it seems that their reader will be far more successful spreading itself in those environments. A business can easily recommend to another business a product they’re started using for point-of-sale systems. That’s entirely feasible and Square’s marketing department can bet on that. But when it comes to individual-to-individual, think about that hypothetical ‘recommendation’ I crafted above. Yea… not so pretty.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m truly psyched that if my buddy owes me money and he’s out of cash, I can fetch my reader and force him to pay up with a credit card. (Heh) But practically speaking, that probably won’t happen, and I probably won’t tell anyone I have my reader standing by to swipe cards either (except this post, of course).

These are all problems the mobile payment companies will have to figure out in the next year. It also really depends what part of their business will become the main revenue generator: businesses or individuals. I think that’s obvious, but you never know. The answer to that question will answer whether or not this little marketing issue will matter. Stay tuned: begun the mobile payment wars have.

How do you get an e-book signed? Novelist Justine Musk on the future of marketing [VentureBeat]

“I recently attended a lecture of a favorite author of mine where signed copies of his book were being sold. With my new iPad in hand, I was poised to download a copy of his work. But then I had a dilemma: If all I had was an e-book, what would I get signed?

This isn’t just about book signings. The iPad and other new devices like it are altering how we consume media. But we also need to think about how they change the business of content.

For answers to this question and many others, I turned to acclaimed fiction writer Justine Musk for some answers about the future of media marketing in the age of the tablet.”


Computing @ College: Evernote

Computing @ College is a series focused on helping college students enhance their lives through technology tools they already use or potentially could use, increasing their awareness of the capabilities and limitations of the technology they might already possess or perhaps should possess. The series is neither traditional news-reporting nor works of opinion, but rather a lifestyle feature for college students who are progressively finding that clever technology use is paramount to their success.

As a busy college student, I rely on precarious “post-it” note-keeping to keep my life in check. On my computer, I’ve had a growing collection of simple text files with names like “School-Keep-in-Minders” or “Apartment To-Do’s.” Then there’s a mobile component, where notes on my phone grow out of control like an unruly hedge. Then there are physical post-it notes to really remind me of things. With this many notes and reminders to keep track of, no wonder my friend yells at me for forgetting the $50 I owe him or my roommate can’t stop complaining about how I always forget to buy the milk.

I recently started using the new Evernote online note-keeping service to keep track of all my notes (which include reminders to do things, listen to things, buy things, remember concepts and ideas, useful advice, just about anything I have jotted down in note-form somewhere). Evernote is an example of what we would call a “cloud computing application.”

I’m sure most of us on campus aren’t as into clouds as say the geology majors, but as college students, we should definitely get used to hearing about Cloud Computing. It is a general term used to describe the next trend in computing whereby software moves off of people’s personal (or ‘client’ computers) and onto large and powerful ‘server’ computers (a.k.a. “the cloud”) so that they may be accessed anywhere, anytime, and on any device. Users would still have personal computing devices such as small, low-powered computers, internet-enabled televisions and mobile devices, and other connected machines to access the cloud, but they would only be as powerful as is necessary to deliver content and services. Good examples of cloud computing software include a variety of web apps offered by Google, Inc. (such as Gmail, Google Calendar, etc…) and even social networking sites like FaceBook or MySpace.

In fact, most of us have been working with the cloud for years, but we just didn’t know it! Web-based email from the likes of Microsoft’s Hotmail to Yahoo! Mail are all software models based on the cloud computing idea, where users access their email accounts which are stored on a corporate server from their own personal devices. Most of these apps, like Evernote, are designed to be accessed from a number of devices, including PCs (any OS) and mobile devices.

I was introduced to Evernote through my iPhone, where I downloaded it through the App Store. This allowed me to essentially bridge the notes I had lying around on text files on my PC and Mac and the notes I had on my iPhone (not to mention those pesky multi-colored post-its lying around everywhere).

The service is actually quite useful and filled with a lot of handy features. I liked it so much, I pushed my iPhone’s standard “Notes” application a few menus deep where I wouldn’t have to see it anymore. Elevating Evernote to the top spot on my iPhone’s main page, I began to solely rely on it for my note-keeping.

Using Evernote has simplified my life a great deal. What I personally recommend is downloading their client application for your Mac or Windows machine and put in the bulk of your notes with a real keyboard and a decent-size display. Then use their mobile version on your phone (either the app or the website, either will work) when you’re out and about. Because it’s all in the “cloud,” your notes go wherever you go, and syncing them across all devices you interface with isn’t even an afterthought.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: whether we’re the president of a student organization or just putting together a function for our Greek house, or maybe just trying to keep track of grocery lists and expenditures for a 4 or 5 person apartment, we’ve got an almost unbearable amount of lists and reminders to keep track of. No student makes it out of a college campus without being in a situation that a program like Evernote couldn’t make easier! Take my advice, learn to live with the “cloud,” get your notes in order, save time and money, and by the end of the day (or graduation) you’ll be thanking me!