Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Malcolm Gladwell's new book "Outliers" demolishes universal preconceptions about success and opportunity. It argues that within broad ranges of intelligence, skills, and talents, incredibly success -- that is, becoming an outlier -- is driven by opportunity rather than the unique superiority of those skills. For example, being born in the first three months of the year is a primary indicator of whether you'll be a top hockey player in Canada. This is because age cutoffs in the earliest youth leagues result in January kids being bigger and stronger, leading to more coaching and practice. Rather than vanishing, this advantage continues all the way to the pros. Similarly, being born in the early part of the year translates into a measurable academic advantage in elementary school. Again, this advantage remains all the way through graduate school. "Outliers" contains too many stories to effectively synopsize, but suffice it to say that Gladwell describes cultural, geographic, and demographic effects that limit opportunities and that these opportunities gate success. Not that everyone is equally skilled or equally likely to succeed, but that above certain thresholds, opportunity, training, and practice are more indicative than additional intelligence. Gladwell drives the point home in the area of sports, where Canada literally ignores half of its population in building its national hockey team, but despite several examples of how transformative training can be -- Korean Airlines' dramatic reduction in accidents or the KIPP school's success teaching math and science -- stops short of stating the obvious.

Our understanding of innovation, collaboration, change, and success are sufficient for us to recognize that we our squandering the talents of many people. We prevent the majority of potential innovators in America from even trying. Only a very few ever are able to approach the 10,000 hours needed to become truly expert. For entrepreneurs, scientists, and researchers, that's years of experience and failure. And years of experience or failure you only have a chance to get if opportunities appear much earlier in life. Opportunities like learning to doggedly attack a problem until it is solved. Or properly manage power relationships in order to ask for what you want. Or to fail and try again.

We must do more.

Nota Bene: Some reviewers and pundits are attacking "Outliers" by arguing experimental science has a monopoly on The Truth. This is just silly. Every great advance in human understanding has emerged from the union of observational and experimental science. Both qualitative and quantitative research create knowledge -- my personal favorite examples are the meta-studies of the impact of funding source on experimental results. New ideas and interpretations spring both from unusual experiments and from unexpected observations. So, by all means, please challenge specific studies or stories cited in Outliers. Or craft better hypotheses and studies. But claiming the ideas are invalid simply because he's a journalist or the work is built on anecdotes demonstrates incredibly lazy thinking.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

redefining awesome

It may soon be illegal to use "awesome" to describe anything other than this video:

Found on WWdN, of course.

Friday, November 21, 2008

very interesting study

Congratulations to Mimi Ito, danah boyd, Michael Carter and the rest of their teams at USC and UC Berkeley, who spent over 3 years interviewing and studying 800 young people and their parents to better understand the impact of online activities and development. Thanks to Second Life, the MacArthur Foundation, and my time at Annenberg, I've known many of the people on this team for several years now and it's fantastic to see their work released. Amazing work and well worth digging through the results. A few high notes:

  • Youth are motivated to learn by friends online
  • Highly motivated to participate online
  • Most youth not taking advantage of all their opportunities online
MacArthur's Connie Yowell sums it up nicely:
“This study creates a baseline for our understanding of how young people are participating with digital media and what that means for their learning,” said Connie Yowell, Ph.D., Director of Education at the MacArthur Foundation. “It concludes that learning today is becoming increasingly peer-based and networked, and this is important to consider as we begin to re-imagine education in the 21st century.”

Thursday, November 20, 2008


As most anyone reading my blog already knows, the Intertubesweb, with its concomitant reduction in communication, collaboration, and computing costs, has dramatically increased the ability of small groups and individuals to innovate and impact thousands or millions of other people. Even if you know all that, Seth Godin's wonderful new book "Tribes", is well worth the hour you'll spend reading it. Tribes dives deeply into the drivers and implications of these changes. Tribes, communities built around ideas and leaders, thrive on curiosity and change. For organizations dependent upon stability -- Godin lumps them together as "factories" -- tribes are a heretical threat. Rather than engaging, growing, and changing with tribes, factories tend to fight them, succumb to fear, and are swept aside as the world changes around them. Godin exhorts everyone to find their movements, their tribes, and to meaningfully lead or engage. As with all his writing, "Tribes" is passionate, persuasive, and well worth reading.


Having used every tool around during distributed development for Second Life, I am jazzed to finally see people moving in the direction of EtherPad. Real-time, collaborative text editing on the web done really well. Plus, from quick mucking around, it seems to work in the SL browser.

So, collaborative text editing in Second Life. Very big deal.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

cscw08 keynote

The slides from my CSCW 08 keynote last week in San Diego.

CSCW 08 Keynote
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: cscw08)

Thanks to everyone who helped put together such a great conference!

Monday, November 17, 2008

star raiders living room mods

Wil Wheaton talks about playing Star Raiders on an Atari 400:

When I was 10 or 11, I arranged a TV tray, a dining room chair, and a worn blanket to make a small tent in front of our 24-inch TV set. I carefully moved our Atari 400 onto the tray and plugged Star Raiders into the cartridge slot. I flipped the power on, picked up the joystick, and booted up my imagination as I sat in the command chair of my very own space ship. For the next hour, I was a member of the Atarian Starship Fleet. I was all that stood between the Zylon Empire and the destruction of humanity. Through my cockpit’s viewscreen (developed at great expense by the RCA corporation back on Earth) I blasted Zylon starships and Zylon basestars, and I would have defeated them all, if my meddling mother hadn’t made me stop and eat dinner!
Other than my viewscreen being developed by Sony, this is an eerily familiar story.  Were all mothers actually Zylon spies, paid to disrupt the resistance?

Star Raiders, along with Rally Speedway, were probably the two games I played the most on my Atari 400.  Star Raiders, because it had so many ways to play -- do you just run away and turn it into tail gunner? try to finish the game without docking at a base? -- and it was like playing Star Wars and was the first person game to play until Behind Jaggi Lines! leaked out into the Atari underground.  Rally Speedway, because it was multiplayer and let you make your own tracks!  Incredibly impressive stuff for 8-bit computers.

Oh, and Dog Daze, the most perfectly balanced two-player combat game ever.  I shudder to think how much time my friend John and I spent playing that game.

Friday, November 14, 2008

balsamiq, lighthouse, and basecamp

Another application that is making me -- and a lot of other people -- happy is Balsamiq Mockups.  How often have you wanted a quick and dirty way to mockup a visual layout?  Mockups works very well for this.  It is also a wonderful demonstration of how quickly unified web/desktop app development is moving.  Mockups is built on Adobe Air and while the UI occasionally seems a little flakey ("oh, you wanted to click there?  No, I want you to wait a few seconds until I wake up.") it is really quite strong.  It's enjoyable to use and I wish Peldi all kinds of luck in coping with success and growth.

We're switching over to Lighthouse for issue tracking.  While Basecamp was nice and easy to use, it sits at a local minima for how we're working.  Despite weekly and bi-weekly iterations, we still have tasks that are long enough lived to benefit from state and multi-person comments.  Basecamp has made intentional design decisions in order to encourage simplicity and a very project->milestone->to dos approach, which I generally agree with, but they don't alias to our workflow very well.  I'm also finding that adding tasks in as full tickets encourages a more complete brain dump as opposed to Basecamp's to-do lists where terse and cryptic aligns with the user experience.  I suspect Basecamp is better suited to slightly smaller teams, as well as teams who already know each other.

Not that I'm sure Lighthouse is the final solution, either, but so far so good.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Congratulations to Daniel and the rest of band of pirates at 3 Rings!  Whirled, their very cool virtual-world meets digital items meets game creation engine meets whacky has launched.  Just lost 30 minutes to Fantastic Contraption.  Go check it out!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

mixed reality

One of the last projects I was part of at Linden was building a partnership with the MIT media lab. As we built out the Boston office, it was such an obvious fit, especially with a wide variety of SL projects already underway at MIT. A particularly exciting one was just written up in Forbes, Professor Joe Paradiso's X-Reality. Last year, one of his students, Josh Lifton, was doing some amazing experiments as part of the Plugs projects, so it is very exciting to see this moving to the next level. Especially apropos as yesterday I keynoted the Computer Supported Collaborative Work conference in San Diego, an ACM/SIGCHI conference on a broad range of collaboration topics. Somewhat ironically, I had agreed to this conference nearly 15 months ago, so it was a bit of a trip down memory lane.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

yes we did

I'm writing 38,000 feet over the North Atlantic and I feel like jumping up and down. I'd probably end up arrested and the flight diverted to Reykjavik if I did, so perhaps not.

But I want to.

One of the flight attendants just passed along "200 to 90. Obama won Ohio." I can't remember enough of Nate's work to know if this makes it a sure thing and part of me is still convinced that he'll somehow lose and I'll have to move to New Zealand.

I was a Linden employee for 3 days when I got on BART to head home and heard they had called Florida for Gore. People were laughing and joking on the train, happy the math looked promising. It was a good night. New job, world's coolest project, cool people to work with in Philip, Andrew, Tessa, and Frank, and the country going in the right direction.

When my fiance picking me up at BART, she said Florida was back in play. We spent the night huddled around the television, waiting to see what happened.

I listened to a lot of NPR over the next weeks. Wrote the land code to arguments about chads, fairness, and the democratic process. Worked on strain gauge geometries with Andrew as we played with the rig. Created predator-prey models for the forest and whipped out the first version of lltask. Called Philip from the train home, excited about an idea to integrate a 3D Sodaplay.

And then it was over. The Supreme Court ruled and Bush was our President.

Fast forward 4 years. Our country went through 9/11, invaded two sovereign nations, failed to capture bin Ladin, survived the dot com bubble, and become more partisan than any time in recent memory.

Interesting times for Linden as well.

The forest transformed into Linden World and then into Second Life. We launched, failed to grow, laid off 1/3 of the company, gave residents IP ownership, changed the economic model, and received a big round of funding just before the State of Play 2 conference in New York. Everyone I knew was excited for Kerry's prospects, expected it to be close, but had faith that American's would see what a disaster the first term of Bush's Presidency had been.

Jerry Paffendorf had asked me to speak at the Accelerating Change conference at Stanford, so I was writing on Tuesday as the exit poll numbers started leaking out. A Salon article riffed on those numbers and suggested that Kerry was going to win. Again, a happy trip home on BART. Again, very different numbers by the time I was home. Another night up late watching the numbers. My wife and I went to sleep knowing that Bush had won again.

The next day half of Linden stayed home and commiserated over irc and email. We had more people in the office on 9/12.

On Thursday I was staring at a talk that just wouldn't pull together. Angry, depressed, sad, it was hard to build the kind of talk Accelerating Change deserved. Philip suggested I write angry, so I did. It wasn't filmed, but the audio is online.

I listened to that talk while waiting for my flight. As hard as it is to listen to myself -- I sound like that?? Seriously? -- it was a nice trip back, because this was the first time I spoke about some of the underlying drivers of Second Life that have impacted so much of my thinking since then.

Cultural production. Real-time, collaborative creation. Continuous improvement of content in the world due to breadth of participation and competition. Economic motivations driving massive and long-term cooperation and organization. Using Second Life for education, training, and as a filter for hiring.

People and communities not being evil.

As mad as I was, I'm a little surprised I remembered that. After all, my community, my country, just let me down. We allowed bigotry and fear to profoundly impact our decisions. Listened to sound bites rather than each other.

But the evidence of Second Life was compelling. Given tools and capabilities, people worked together in amazing ways. Leveraged amateur-to-amateur education on a scale no one anticipated. Cooperated. Created. Innovated.

Which brings us to now.

Virtually everyone smart I know was somehow involved in the Obama campaign. I first brushed against the campaign nearly two years ago and they were already asking questions, creating a ground game, and building on what Trippy and Dean accomplished with everything learned about viral communities in the intervening years.

I didn't end up involved with the campaign to any degree. Sure, I blogged about it and donated, but mostly I was working. I was asked to sign on to Obama's tech policy when it was released last November and would have, except that the final version hit my inbox a few minutes ahead of Philip's email informing me that he wanted me to leave Linden. Unfortunate timing, that.

Fortunately they had plenty of voices of support. It was, and is, a good start for thinking about technology. More on that in a later post.

I do smile remembering a wide ranging brainstorm session at Aspen airport on the way home from the Aspen Institute. There were both Obama and Clinton advisors there and we were talking voter registration and turnout. Traditionally, ground teams focus on getting people to make 3 commitments in order to ensure turn out.

Make a donation. Go to a rally. Vote in the primary.

If you do those things, you'll vote in the general election.

We talked about how to use technology to help. Give volunteers online communities to feel more connected. Use participation in social networks as overt acts, commitments. Mashup data to help registrations. Remember that "email is for old people", so focus on cell phones and SMS to connect to the youth vote. I doubt much of this was new to the Obama team, but over the next year there were some follow up questions and phone calls. A lot of knowledgeable online community people get very, very busy.

All of which led to an historic, game-changing election.

An election where we spent more time learning from each other rather than from Rovian sound bites. Where communities connected both internally and across boundaries. Not that we're done, but Obama's broad base of support should be a mandate to heal the destructive red-blue divisions so exacerbated during the last 8 years.

Healing that should serve as a model for how America -- and more importantly, Americans -- reengage with the world.

A flight attendant just passed along "Obama has 324."

Maybe I will start jumping up and down.

Congratulations, President-Elect Obama! Hooray as well for everyone involved in his campaign.

Yay, us!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

no on 8

Supporters of Proposition 8 should take a moment to reread John Stuart Mill's essay, "On Liberty."  Particularly his thoughts on the tyranny of the majority.

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.

Please remember to vote Tuesday!