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March 2008 Archives

Twitter Follow vs Facebook Wall

Here's something that kinda baffles me: Two of the most popular new conversation media are Twitter and Facebook Walls. They both have this odd property of semi-public conversations when the social graph is not fully-connected. Here's what I mean:

In Twitter, you can "follow" a friend and receive their Twitter posts. Twitter was originally designed for "broadcast" posts, essentially acting as a miniblog. You say something, and all your friends see it on their cell phones.

Soon, people developed "@ notation" to direct attention to a particular person, but the message is still broadcast to all your friends. This sequence might result:

Amy: I just had a sandwich.
Bob: This paper is taking forever to write.
Bob: @Amy: How was it?
Amy: @Bob: Pretty tasty. Finish your paper yet?
Bob: @Amy: Get me one next time. And yup. Finally done!
Amy: @Bob: Sure thing!

So far so good. If someone were friends with both Amy and Bob, the above is what they would see. Now let's say Bob has a friend called Chris, but Chris is not a friend of Amy. Here's what Chris would see on her cell phone:

Bob: This paper is taking forever to write.
Bob: @Amy: How was it?
Bob: @Amy: Get me one next time. And yup. Finally done!

It's like listening to half a phone conversation. Kinda weird. I guess this works well enough if you have a well-connected social graph, so that you're basically having a group chat, but people on the edges of your group will be confused.

Odder still, Facebook Wall posts are the exact opposite! With Twitter, you only see your friend's half of the conversation. With Facebook Wall, you only miss your friend's half! In the example above, Chris would see Bob set his Facebook status to:

Bob is taking forever to write this paper.

Then she would see the following on Bob's Wall:

Amy: Pretty tasty. Finish your paper yet?
Amy: Sure thing!

Again, if you're friends with both people, Facebook even provides a handy "Wall-to-Wall" view to follow the thread of conversation. But otherwise, you'll see lots of these half-conversations on your friend's Wall. I don't know the early history of Facebook, but I'm guessing Walls were originally meant to represent whiteboards on dormroom doors, and this Wall-to-Wall thing evolved from user behavior just like Twitter's @ notation.

And herein lies what baffles me: We have two models of conversation here that achieve precisely opposite results, but they are equally popular. Kenneth is confused. That's all!

Fixed in Time

So I was just listening to the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979". It was written in the mid-90s. Which means it's as old today as early 80s songs were when it was the mid-90s. But somehow, the Pumpkins don't feel as old to me now as 80s music felt back then. Yes, the song felt a little "classic" to me, but it didn't feel particularly dated.

I chalk this up to the fact that I didn't really start listening to rock music until the mid-90s, and so, even though I was in already high school, I kinda "grew up" on mid-90s music. It was in the mid-90s that I became aware of these decade labels for rock music and so forth. And so that the period of music was fixed in time. It will to some degree always be the music of "now" to me.

I've noticed a similar phenomenon with my parents' age. I always think of them as being in their early 40s. I know they're in their late 50s/early 60s now, and they had me in their late 20s/early 30s, but when I grew up enough to be able to really start understanding the world and understanding the concept of age, they were in their early 40s. And so, that age was fixed in time, and in my mind they always feel like they are in their early 40s.

Similar things happen to video games and to movies. The stuff you liked when you first really go into games or movies will always feel like the freshest. Star Wars and Super Mario Brothers are fixed in time for me, as are some classic Mac games. They always feel fresh and new to me even though some movies and games which are newer feel dated. First impressions matter.

Whatever happened to the picture phone? It's already here!

picturephone.jpg Throughout the history of science fiction, the picture phone has been staple of "futuristic technology". In fact, I'd consider it right up there with flying cars. And yet, even as they've gotten more commonplace, no one seems to care all that much about them. If we had flying cars, I bet people would be hyping about living in the future, but we have picture phones, and most people don't even want to use them.

A little over a decade ago, there was a Simpsons episode set in the future where Lisa talks to Marge on a picture phone, and Marge keeps forgetting that Lisa can see her. So it was still considered futuristic technology at least as recently as 1995. Now, we not only have picture phones, we can use them for free! You can run Skype, iChat, or MSN Messenger and do video chat at pretty reasonable frame rates. 3G cell phones with video aren't that wide-spread in the US yet, but my understanding is that people in Asia who have them still mostly talk audio-only.

I think this apathy stems from two things. First, picture phone technology has progressed extremely gradually. Prototypes have existed for decades, but the quality or frame rate has been low. Anyone remember CU-SeeMe? It was really crappy. It wasn't the future. In fact, it came out years before the aforementioned Simpsons episode, so it was so bad that people didn't even acknowledge its existence. Eventually, expensive video conferencing became more popular in companies for business meetings, but I think people think of conference calls as qualitatively different. Latency and frame rates then improved over time, as have costs, but very slowly, so there hasn't really been any one moment or one product where we thought, "Wow! Picture phone!"

The other side of it is social. We're used to being invisible while on the phone. We're used to talking on the phone while dressed shabbily (or not at all) without the other party knowing. We're used to doing other things while talking on the phone. Social norms change quite a bit if you can see the other person. In our multi-tasking obsessed world, the social pressure to keep looking at the other person while talking becomes a burden.

Who woulda thunk in the '50s that, 50 years later, people would often prefer to type to each other to chat rather than talk on the phone? Kirk and Spock never IMed each other! That's the other thing: Less is sometimes more. Sometimes, phone calls are too "heavy"; they require too much social framework, whereas IMs are more suited low-intensity conversations. Similarly, picture phones bring even more social conventions than phone calls (not all of them fully established yet), and so there's an even higher mental cost.

Still, there's a lot of non-verbal, visual communication cues that are missing on the phone. These tend to be more important with people close to us, I think, which is why most of the video chat I've witness has either been between significant others or among family members.

The biggest mistake of science fiction writers wasn't to assume that picture phones would become widespread; it was to assume that they would completely supplant other conversation media. In reality, video phones have arrived, but they merely serve one niche of communication among several others.

P.S.: Just saw this on /.: an article called 40 Years in the Future from 40 years ago. Much of it is hilarious or sad, but some of it is surprisingly on-target. One thing is clear from all the mid-20th Century speculation about the future that I've read: No one expected the Internet.

Ideal solution

I had a heated debate with a friend about Tibet tonight, and she asked me what my position was. I'm hesitant to take a position because I prefer not to take sides. Although I'm not a strict utilitarian, I tend to want to see what the consequences would be for each party involved. I imagine that the Tibetan people want independence, and the Chinese gov't does not want that. Then I thought, why does it have to be one or the other?

I think perhaps the ideal situation would be if the Chinese gov't were willing to make some concessions (and spin them as something else to avoid too much impact elsewhere) and have discussions with Tibetans to find some middle ground that both sides can agree to. Right now, the Chinese gov't is just squashing dissent with an iron fist, unwilling to show any signs of perceived weakness. I think that's not going to keep working in the long run. My friend's argument is that the Chinese gov't isn't likely to want to make any concessions. My response is that that's still more likely than them granting independence altogether.

I dunno. I'm still trying to learn more about the situation. And obviously having talks is really complicated and doesn't always work. I know this is a sensitive topic, so I'm actually kinda second-guessing my decision to even blog about this stuff in public. Usually my argument is that I stand behind everything I write, so I have nothing to fear, but in this case I am still confused, so please consider that a disclaimer/cop-out for anything I write on this topic. :P

Government of the people, by the people, and for the people?

I've been reading some articles about the disconnect between Westerners and Chinese people over the Tibet issue. One piece of it I think is worth pointing out is that, when Americans complain about the Chinese gov't, we* see a clear separation between the people of China and the government of China. We argue that we have nothing against the Chinese people, just against the Chinese gov't. I think this argument fundamentally stems from a denial of the legitimacy of the Chinese gov't, since we only consider democracies as legitimate representatives of the people.

Thing is, people in China don't think of it that way. They might complain about their own gov't themselves, but when foreigners bash it, they rally around it. (Kinda like quibbling with family but defending them against outsiders.) Even if the Chinese gov't isn't elected, Chinese people still do think of it as representing them, and they still do consider attacks on it as attacks against them. Furthermore, when Americans imply subtly or directly that Chinese people are being brainwashed by propaganda, Chinese people understandably find that condescending. Americans and other Westerners often don't expect this, I think.

Hm, come to think of it, another interesting thought: A lot of people on the left are big advocates of the Free Tibet movement, and they are also against a lot of American military foreign policy. Yet, I bet a lot of people in China actually lump Free Tibet and Bush policies together as "Americans thinking they're the world police".

Without better mutual understanding of each other's positions, it'll be really hard for there to be an international dialog about the relationship between the Olympics and Chinese actions in Tibet. Currently, both parties are just talking right past each other.

* I find it a bit odd that I'm referring to Americans as "we" and Chinese people as "them" even though I was born in China. I guess I identify more as being American, though I do identify as Chinese to a large degree as well.

P.S.: One article I read pointed to anti-cnn.com, a site some Chinese people made to point out misleading images in Western media about the recent riots in Tibet. Most examples are of pictures of Nepalese or Indian police dragging protesters away while the caption implies the picture was from Tibet. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, yes, the pictures are misleading and should have been more accurately labeled, but on the other hand, the only reason these news agencies used these photos is because Tibet itself is so locked down and censored by the Chinese gov't that few photographers were around to take pictures there. :P

I feel sorry for Medusa

So I was reading up about Medusa on Wikipedia, and I noticed something they didn't tell me in elementary school: You know how Medusa became so hideous? Poseidon raped her in a temple of Athena. (The winged horse Pegasus and his giant brother Chrysaor were conceived there.) Athena was pissed off, but of course she didn't take it out on Poseidon. No, she decided to punish Medusa for the horrible crime of allowing herself to be raped, by making her so hideous no man could look at her again without being turned to stone. :\

Poor Medusa. I'd chalk this up to messed up ancient Greek morality, but of course there are still plenty of misogynistic societies today that punish women for being raped.

Dog, Car, Ming and Ping

Lucy on the Grass:

Lucy on the Grass

I played softball with some friends this afternoon while their dog chilled out on the grass.

I loved how this Cars playset contained a video game controller and big screen TV for Lightning McQueen to play with in his downtime:

Video game for a car

And finally, "Ming and Ping":

Ming and Ping

I saw this bizarre electronic music act last week. They had a bunch of people dancing around in Peking Opera outfits, but this was the lead singer.

I wasn't so much into the music, but I liked how "Ming" claimed that the guy on the video screen behind him was his identical twin brother "Ping", when it was clearly a pre-recorded video of himself. They would sometimes sing together, and other times they would banter with each other.

Review: 3 Musketeers Mint with Dark Chocolate

They totally ruined the 3 Musketeers bar!


The whole point of 3 Musketeers is that it's nothing but sugary nougat goodness, but this thing just tastes like a freaking York Peppermint Patty. I mean, I like York Peppermint Patties just fine, but that's not what I expect in a 3 Musketeers bar! What a horrible misuse of a cherished brand name.

That said, if you like York Peppermint Patties and feel like having one, well, feel free to have one of these. Just don't expect it to taste remotely like a 3 Musketeers bar!

Goodbye, Arthur C. Clarke

The Arthur C. Clarke novel that affected me most was Songs of Distant Earth. Just when I was getting disillusioned about space opera due to the impossibility of faster-than-light travel, here came a book about sending "seed ships" of frozen embryos to colonize the galaxy. Upon arrival, robots rear the first generation of young. It may not be as glamorous as traveling through hyperspace or warp bubbles, but it meant that humanity could have a future beyond the Sun.

Unfortunately, while Clarke lived long enough to see the real 2001, he didn't live long enough to see human colonies outside of Earth orbit. I hope I do.

Update: Oh wow. Back in December, for his 90th birthday, he made a video talking about technology throughout his lifetime. He said he wanted to be remembered as a writer, and that he no longer had any personal ambitions, but he had three wishes: to see evidence of extraterrestrial life, to see the end of oil dependence, and to see lasting peace in Sri Lanka (where he lived the last 50 years of his life).

YouTube Link

He ended the video with this:

So at the end, with these words of Rudyard Kipling:

If I have given you delight
by aught that I have done.
Let me lie quiet in that night
which shall be yours anon;

And for the little, little span
the dead are borne in mind,
seek not to question other than,
the books I leave behind.

This is Arthur Clarke, saying thank you and goodbye from Colombo.

What's the solution to the pacifism problem?

I just ranted about my confusion over Tibet, but I thought the central theme from the end deserved its own post.

I love this Boy on a Stick and Slither strip about pacifism. Go take a look and come back. I'll wait.

Okay, so what's the solution to the problem posed in that comic? What if you were Boy on a Stick, and you wanted to get to Peaceland without getting shot down? What do you do? Do you get a balloon made of Kevlar? They'll just use armor-piercing rounds. Do you flood the skies with millions of balloons so at least some of them will make it to Peaceland? is that enough? Do you try to have a chat with the shotgun-wielder and convince them not to shoot you down? Or perhaps you might even just keep trying over and over again (and be sure to pack a parachute)?

Can pacifism truly win over violence in the long term? As I mentioned in my last post, the country that Gandhi helped free through non-violent protest now has nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Will violence always be the last word?

Voices from China about Tibet and confusion

Here's an interesting roundup of Chinese people using twitter clones to microblog about the situation in Tibet. Many are angry at the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese gov't says is behind the riots. There's also an interesting quote in this WaPo article where a Chinese blogger accuses Westerners of being brainwashed.

I find it interesting how both Westerners and Chinese tend to see the situation as "obvious". Most Westerners see it as a clear-cut case of the right to self-determination and human rights abuse and see Chinese arguments as being self-serving propaganda, whereas most Chinese see it as a matter of national sovereignty and unity and see Western arguments as being self-serving hypocrisy.

Personally, I tend to see the Tibet situation as complex, and I prefer not to take either side. (Also, I've got both Chinese and Western elements in me, and I get brainwashed from both sides, causing me to become very confused. :P) I agree that the Chinese gov't has made human rights abuses in Tibet, but I also agree that our own gov't also regularly makes human rights abuses for geopolitical gain. (And I'm not just talking the most blatant stuff we've been doing recently, but all the other stuff we've been doing all along that we tacitly accept.)

I dunno, I feel like there's some element of geopolitical Darwinism in effect with these things. You may think something's immoral, but what if that very immorality helps a group gain power, or take over a group with a more moral stance? There's a reason why we're not all Quakers, and why the India that Gandhi helped free now has nuclear weapons. What succeeds does not necessarily correspond to what is moral, and what succeeds is what, well, succeeds. I guess the best we can do is to try to redesign the rules of the game so that what's moral and what succeeds can become more closely aligned. That is, of course, difficult, and perhaps not even always possible.

Precision Helicopter Flying

This is pretty nuts. The helicopter hovers right at the water's surface, flooding the cargo area, so a speedboat can drive right on to the helicopter.

YouTube link

Amusing Washington Post headline of the day: "White Male Vote Could Be Key"

Hahahahaha. Wow! Amazing! What white men want might actually matter in America? Shock! :) Yes yes I know the context of what they're probably talking about (though I didn't bother reading the actual article), but it's still just amusing to see that headline. What a surreal election year.

Alien Landing Site

Alien Landing Site

I spotted this base off the side of CA State Route 237. I think we're being invaded.

Real Live Robocop


It's a home-made robot [Flash Video] to shoo drug dealers away! It flashes a light and shoots water. Awesome. :)

About March 2008

This page contains all entries posted to the klog in March 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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