The Street Finds tts Own Uses for Things

Iran is Taking Marc Stiegler’s Final Exam

by Joey deVilla on June 25, 2009

Marc Stiegler

earthweb I met science fiction author, software developer and computer security guy Marc Stiegler at the first incarnation of O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology Conference in 2002, but I’d been acquainted with his work prior to that. I’d heard of his programming language called E and had read his science fiction novel Earthweb, whose plot could be grossly oversimplified down to the summary “Twitter saves the world” (it’s a little bit more than that, but I think it conveys the idea nicely).

Marc’s Final Exam

However, when I think of Marc, what comes to mind first is the final exam that he gave to students at his “Future of Computing” course and published online in 1999. In it, he posed a set of problems and asked them how a specific set of proposed web technologies could be used to solve them. The course and exam have a very strong sense of “technology trumps legislation”, an idea that was surfacing in the late 1990s.

In the exam, students had to pick 5 out of 11 problems that Marc posed and then explain how any combination of the following technologies could be used to solve them:

  • Unforgeable pseudonymous identities
  • Bidirectional, typed, filterable links
  • Arbitration agents
  • Bonding agents
  • Escrow agents
  • Digital Cash
  • Capability Based Security with Strong Encryption

(If some of these ideas are unfamiliar to you, don’t worry. They’re not important in the context of this article, and you can always Bing them.)

Here’s a selection of the problems posed in the exam. Remember, this exam is from ten years ago!

1) Searching for a decision analysis tool on the Web, you find a review in which the reviewer raves about a particular product. You buy the product and discover it just doesn’t work. You desire to prevent this person’s ravings from harming anyone else–and you desire to prevent the product from disappointing anyone else.

4) You start receiving thousands of emails from organizations you don’t know, all hawking their wares. You want it to stop, just stop!

5) You wish to play poker with your friends. They live in Tampa Florida, you live in Kingman. This is illegal in the nation where you happen to be a citizen. You want to do it anyway.

6) You hear a joke that someone, somewhere, would probably find offensive. You wish to tell your precocious 17-year-old daughter, who is a student at Yale. The Common Decency Act Version 2 has just passed; it is a $100,000 offense to send such material electronically to a minor. You want to send it anyway–it is a very funny joke.

7) Someone claiming to be you starts roaming the Web making wild claims. You want to make sure people know it isn’t really you.

The Final Question

The most compelling question on the exam is the final one. It required a far more extensive answer than the other ten – so much more extensive that Marc actually suggested that it might be better not to answer the question in the exam, but to at least think about it:

But…if you can answer Question 11 in your own mind, even though you choose not to write up that answer for this examination, then a most remarkable thing will happen: you will walk out of this class with something profoundly worth knowing.

Here’s that final question:

11) You live in North Korea. Three days ago the soldiers came to your tiny patch of farmland and took the few scraps of food they hadn’t taken the week before. You have just boiled the last of your shoes and fed the softened leather to your 3-year-old child. She coughs, a sickly sound that cannot last much longer. Overhead you hear the drone of massive engines. You look into the sky, and thousands of tiny packages float down. You pick one up. It is made of plastic; you cannot feed it to your daughter. But the device talks to you, is solar powered, and teaches you how to use it to link to the Web. You have all the knowledge of the world at your fingertips; you can talk to thousands of others who share your desperate fate. The time has come to solve your problem in the most fundamental sense, and save the life of your daughter.

The final question really stands out. Unlike the other questions in the exam, this one really pulls at the heartstrings, and it sparked a lot of discussion among geeks back around 1999 and 2000, in settings both online and real-life.

Iran and the Final Question

If you follow the American news cycle, the mental distance between North Korea and Iran is a short one; both are countries in the “Axis of Evil” (a term invented by a Toronto guy, by the way) run by repressive regimes and working on their nuclear weapons capabilities. What if we changed the final question’s setting from North Korea to Iran?

Unlike North Korea, Iran’s people have access to technology and communications with the outside world (there’s a recent Daily Show segment in which Jason Jones finds people in Iran who know Jon Stewart’s George Bush “I’m the decider” schtick). They don’t need to have Marc’s hypothetical iPhones delivered to them in care packages; they have things like Twitter and YouTube at their disposal. So I propose another slight modification to the final question: What if we changed the hypothetical hardware into actual working software like Twitter and YouTube?

(It’s another “software, not hardware, is really the trick” situation. Just as we found out in Terminator 3 that SkyNet was really software, it turns out that what might save Iran was social networking software, not portable internet-accessing hardware dropped by parachute.)

With my two suggested changes, it becomes very apparent that we’ve moved from theory to practice. The people of Iran are taking Marc Stiegler’s final exam, and they’ve picked its most difficult question.

Let’s hope they pass.

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5 Things You Should Know About Teens and Tech

by Joey deVilla on February 13, 2009

Teenage girls using a computer

The O’Reilly TOC (Tools of Change for Publishing) Conference took place in New York earlier this week. The conference was aimed at publishers of both the dead-tree and electronic variety and its purpose was to examine how new technologies are changing publishing. You can find out more about TOC on their “About” page as well as by looking at the conference schedule.

The people at the Publishing Trends Blog attended TOC and blogged about a session they attended titled Youth and Creativity: Emerging Trends in Self-Expression and Publishing. The speakers, Evangeline Haughney of Adobe and Bill Westerman of Create with Context, spent time observing teenagers involved in “interesting self-expression activities” and who were creating digital media to be shared with people outside their immediate circles of friends.

The five big things that the people at the Publishing Trends Blog took from the session are summarized below:

  1. Teens grind through many different technologies quickly, not as a “life event”. They use tools and tech for a specific need and move on.
  2. Teens concentrate on the tool’s immediate outcome rather than the tool itself. The example used in the article is that they don’t ask “How do I use Photoshop’s masking tool?” Instead, they ask “How can I create a cool rain effect?”
  3. Teens learn by asking for help from their more skilled peers and observing and emulating them. They’re asking for help, but from their own community rather than from the adults.
  4. Any niche site can become a social hub. It’s not just Facebook – any sites whose topics are focused around a specific interest provides a place to craft an online persona and get a sense of belonging.
  5. They’re not using the newest, fanciest technology. Most of the teens surveyed were using older machines and software – probably “hand-me-downs” from their parents.

While the presentation was aimed at publishers looking to reach teenagers, I’m presenting this article to you because I think that the lessons from the presentation are equally useful for anyone who’s trying to design software for teens and young adults.

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Cheap Camera, Interesting Shot

by Joey deVilla on January 13, 2009

Believe it or not, the photo below hasn’t been Photoshopped:

iphone_spinning_propeller_shot

The guy who took the photo says:

The cheap CMOS sensor of an iPhone does not expose the whole thing at once, it scans from left to right. If you take a picture of something that moves very fast (like an airplane prop) you can get some crazy pictures out of it since each column represents a slightly different time.

This oddball-but-cool effect is reminiscent of some of the distortions you see with scanner photography (for some examples, see this page).

Maybe it’s time to pull out those camera phones and start snapping pics of oscillating or rotating objects!

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