Open Access

When I was in grad school in the late 90s, not very much scholarly work was on the web. I had to walk over to the campus library to access scholarly papers, and sometimes make photocopies of the physical papers I wanted.

Things have gotten better, but it’s still harder to do research than it needs to be. One potential improvement is called Open Access. Open Access is about making peer-reviewed papers available online where more people can benefit from them.

This topic has a lot of details and nuances that I’m going to skip over. Suffice it to say that I support Open Access strongly. Across the nation, the Open Access movement has been gaining momentum across the nation as well.

Two tidbits crossed my radar screen this week. The first was a piece by Alexander L. Wolf, president of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). In that piece, Wolf states “there is a sense among a portion of our community that we have still not done enough” regarding Open Access. To which I say: damn straight.

The ACM is an organization that has and should be focused on the future. I remember the first time I got to touch and play with a Macintosh computer. It was at a college ACM event and I was only twelve years old at the time. I still remember the sneaker demo. The fact that the ACM has not done more to embrace the future and to encourage wider dissemination of research through Open Access is shameful.

Luckily, a piece of much bigger–and happier–news about Open Access also emerged this week. The Gates Foundation announced that they will support a strong Open Access policy.

Under the new policy, the Gates Foundation will pay for publication costs, but after a two-year transition period, the papers must be accessible immediately upon publication. The underlying data must also be open and accessible. This is critical to help other researchers verify results.

So while the ACM continues to drag its heels, the Gates Foundation has made a big move to encourage Open Access. That should make it faster and easier to build on important research in order to make the world a better place.

Some thoughts on XOXO

The week before XOXO, a festival dedicated to independent artists and creators, I was in Juneau, Alaska for a cruise with my wife and my parents. I got off the ship with my Dad and we walked around town. We kept walking, past the touristy stores selling smoked salmon and tanzanite. We walked for a long time, and right when we were about to turn around, I saw a small gallery/comic store called Alaska Robotics. The door had a sticker that said “We accept Bitcoin!” I thought “these are my people” and we walked in the store.

Have you ever had a dream where you walked into a software store, and they have every game and piece of software you ever wanted, and everything costs $3.99? Legacy of the Ancients, Below the Root, The Bard’s Tale, and everything else–just $3.99. I had that dream sometimes when I was a kid. It was one of my favorite dreams.

Walking into Alaska Robotics was kind of like that. It’s a collective of different artists, but you could see their love in the curation–less superhero stuff, more stuff like Watchmen, a graphic novel about Richard Feynman, and Penny Arcade books. I bought several things, including a cool dinosaur shirt because it’s not hard to get me to do dinosaur impressions.

I didn’t know what to expect at XOXO. I’ve been to one artists’ conference where I didn’t know anyone and I felt pretty awkward a lot of the time. So when I flew up to Portland for XOXO a week later, I thought to myself “Okay, worst case I have a fun T-shirt to wear that no one else has probably seen.” Sometimes a good T-shirt can feel like a protective shield.

Spoiler alert: everyone at XOXO was superfriendly, working on interesting things, and just happy to talk. It felt like Andy Baio and Andy McMillan curated the XOXO experience as carefully as the group of artists up in Alaska curated their gallery. Even the conference volunteers were nice–I spent an entire break talking with a volunteer and Nelson Minar about business models for sustaining open source services (not just code, but web services). Or you’d be in line talking to someone and realize “Oh right, he’s the guy that does!”

I have a joke that I never turned into a blog post about how few people actually create things on the internet. Like you’ll stumble across a version of the U.S. tax code online for some reason, and then you realize that the guy who did that is named John Walker and he also founded AutoDesk. Or when you find out that the guy that built Upcoming also served as the CTO of Kickstarter back in the day.

So XOXO was a creator-rich environment. People were friendly enough that you could walk up to someone and say hello on the assumption that they’d enjoy talking. And if you dug a little bit, they were usually trying something different, weird, or fun, like biking across Oregon the following week.

One night, I was playing a 10-player (!!) indie video arcade game called Killer Queen and one of the people on my team said “Hey, nice shirt.” I was wearing my Rawr! dinosaur shirt that I’d bought up in Alaska the week before. And I said “Thanks!” and then a couple minutes later I looked at his badge, and it said “Patrick Race.” Hmm. That’s one of the people that does Alaska Robotics. And then it clicked–I’m playing a video game with the artist who drew the dinosaur. On the shirt. That I’m wearing.

It was just an awesome, bizarre moment. Like when you say you’re from Kentucky, and they say “Oh, do you know Drew?” And you say “Okay, not everyone in Kentucky knows everyone else, you know.” But it’s still kind of funny, so you play along and ask Drew’s last name. And then they’re like “Uh, I think his name is Drew Curtis, maybe?” And you’re like “whoa, Drew Curtis from Fark? Strangely enough, I do know Drew!” So there were a few moments like that at XOXO. I think it goes back to my joke/non-blog-post about how few people on the internet actually create things.

If this were a conference write-up, I’d summarize the talks. Screw that. Go watch them yourselves–XOXO is posting the videos of the talks on the web. I think you’ll enjoy them.

But I will share a few things that stuck in my mind from the talks. One is Kevin Kelly’s talk:

The whole talk is worth watching, but I especially enjoyed some things he said about halfway through the talk.

Kelly said this:

“One [type of success] is not better than the other. We think of evolution as a ladder but it’s really kind of a radial explosion, and so every single species alive today is equally evolved and is equally successful. They’re all successful. The dandelion and the cockroach are as successful as the bird of paradise, if they’re surviving. So what I’m suggesting is that all these different three million species that we have catalogued on Earth already, are all figuring out and all have their own definition of success.”

Kelly drew a parallel to the “Cambrian explosion” of technology and all the different types of success that enabled. Rather than imitating someone else’s success, technology enables new types of success that are measured in different ways. For example, the “fast growth” model of a startup is just one kind of success. Kelly talked about being liked (broad but shallow popularity) vs. being loved (deep but narrower engagement). Or things that succeed on the axis of longevity. Kelly also talked about how if you can find 1,000 true fans willing to pay $100 for your work, that’s $100,000, which is pretty darn good.

Kelly concluded by asking the audience “What do you want to optimize?” In other words, given that everyone can have a different opinion of what success looks like, what does success look like for you? Kelly said that what he was trying optimize in his own life was “opportunities to learn and time to make cool and useless stuff.”

It was a great talk. I highly recommend that you watch the whole thing, or at least the second half. Kelly’s points echoed Socrates for me: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Because if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to do (and that’s something only you can decide for yourself), how do you know how you’re doing?

I also especially enjoyed talks by Gina Trapani, Hank Green, and Darius Kazemi, along with many others. Really, there were just a ton of great talks.

My main takeaway though was that XOXO an interesting group of people trying to create awesome things and help each other out. The XOXO conference also brushed up against GamerGate, but I’ll save thoughts about that for a future blog post.

Kentucky, Galapagos Islands, Franchises and Groupthink

The state of Kentucky has 120 counties. It has so many because the idea was that you should be able to make it to the county seat and back in a single day. That speaks to how isolated people used to be.

Likewise, the Galapagos Islands are known for their diversity, in part because the islands are so isolated. That isolation provided the opportunity for species to evolve on their own.

I’ll bet that businesses that began from 1900-1950 were more varied than businesses that started from 1950-2014. I suspect that the growth of franchises has radically reduced the diversity of businesses. Drive around almost any city in the U.S. and you’re likely to see the same cookiecutter chains that you could see in almost any other city. The disruptive advent of the car brought all sorts of new opportunities, but it also encouraged a monoculture of franchise businesses.

The web has been an amazing invention. On one hand, you could create a website and instantly reach a worldwide audience. That disruption has created a ton of opportunities that are still being explored. But I do wonder if connecting so many people to each other will lead to certain types of groupthink.

If connecting so many people ultimately leans toward less diversity of thought, that might prevent society from making faster progress or exploring new approaches to problems. Maybe that’s why many successful recent businesses have seemed crazy or contrarian at first blush?

Marathon similarity

Imagine that you’re training for the San Francisco Marathon. You’d like to prepare for the distinctive pattern of hills on the course:

Elevation map for SF Marathon

Now if you live in San Francisco, you could just run along the actual race course. But what if you don’t live near San Francisco? Wouldn’t it be cool if a service could suggest a running course near you that was similar to San Francisco’s marathon? That way, you might live somewhere like Portland or San Diego, but you could still prepare for the hills that you’d face in the real race.

This could be a fun/tricky problem. You could start by just dumbly comparing elevations to see how similar two runs are. A site like Strava already has GPS traces from runners, so they could compute similarity between runs. Within a selected radius, Strava could say which runs were most similar to (say) sections of the Boston Marathon.

Elevation similarity might be the easiest way to start, but Strava has other measures like “Suffer Score” that it could use instead. I’d be curious to know what running route in the Bay Area of California is most similar to the Boston Marathon, for example.

Earning loyalty

Here’s something that I wrote internally within Google in mid-2013. I think at the time, folks within Google were discussing XMPP. The discussion wasn’t as much about client-to-server XMPP, but server-to-server XMPP, which is a less followed area. Anyway, here’s the internal post I wrote:

We want to compete on a level playing field

We’ve expressed the principle of “Don’t be evil” from the early days of Google. Yet it wasn’t until 2006 that Eric enunciated the statement that “We would never trap user data.” I think Google’s DNA has another principle encoded in it that we haven’t called out clearly enough: We want to compete on a level playing field.

When we play on a level field, we work harder for users because we have to compete based on merit. If another search engine crawls the open web and returns better search results, people will switch to that new search engine immediately–so we’re constantly looking for ways to improve our search results.

Likewise, when people can leave Google, it makes us work harder to forge excellent products that earn our users’ loyalty. Data Liberation means that anyone can download their Gmail or their Calendar or Docs or their ad campaigns and then take their business elsewhere. That keeps us honest and working hard. We should strive to put our own products on a level playing field so that our incentive remains to deliver the best products and services we can.

The desire for a level playing field also partly explains why Chrome and Android are so important. Without Chrome, we’d be at the mercy of Internet Explorer or other web browsers when users want to get to Google. Without Android, phone makers could shut Google out of mobile phones completely. Chrome and Android help ensure that users can get to Google without interference; they protect our users from other companies’ potentially unlevel playing fields.

I think to many Googlers, the open web represents the ultimate level playing field. That’s why so many Googlers react so negatively to the idea of walled gardens, proprietary standards, or products that don’t interoperate well. The desire to compete fairly on a level playing field leads naturally to open standards, protocols, and interoperability.

Some other companies that don’t federate well have succeeded recently. [A specific company I won’t call out explicitly] sucked contacts out of Gmail but refused to export contacts back out. But I worry we learned the wrong lesson from that. The lesson isn’t that data liberation or a level field makes us a sitting duck for bad actors; the lesson should be that we may need to get creative to encourage better behavior–for example, Google modified its contacts export to require reciprocity.

At the top levels of Google, there’s a clear vision: a beautiful, seamless experience for users. I agree that’s vitally important, but I believe a large part of Google’s brand is also “functional”: Google is always up, it always works, it’s always fast, it always gives you what you need. I believe a beautiful, seamless experience has to rest on a functional foundation. And for many Googlers, a large part of “functional” includes openness and interoperability–again, a level playing field.

Google has done very well while promoting the principles of the internet: openness, transparency, and a level playing field. I think “We want to compete on a level playing field” follows from “Don’t be evil,” but I’d like us to recognize this part of our DNA and emphasize “We want to compete on a level playing field” more strongly.