Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Piano Improvisor Merton + Random Webcam Chatroom = Viral Hit!



People go onto anonymous webcam chatrooms for a variety of reasons. Loneliness. Boredom. Sexual exploration. But to be serenaded by a hooded improvising piano-player was not one of them, until now.

Merton (not his real name) is now an Internet phenom. His video was seen over 4 million times in less than a week! On his Youtube channel, Merton wrote a note saying he was not Ben Folds, a semi-famous male piano player from Atlanta (of the band Ben Folds Five). As Merton's video became more popular though, some media insisted Merton and Ben Folds were the same guy. Playing up the joke, Ben Folds recorded his own "Ode to Merton" video in front of a 2000 member live audience, complete with hoodie and glasses.



Here is the very first interview with Merton on Mashable.

I love the combination of improvisational music performance and the randomness of the participants, with all of us watching. It's a bit like those old "You're on Candid Camera" TV shows, where a set of actors and a camera crew do things in front of unsuspecting people. Only now, none of the parties has to go anywhere in particular. Both sides of the chat could be anywhere, and the audience could also be anywhere. Imagine if two improv pianists in front of live audiences from random places in the world encountered each other on Chatroullette?

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Support Mentors!

Please help support Citizen School's mentoring campaign by clicking on the link above and voting. Only 140 60 22 more votes needed to get their cause to the next level! Now in 2nd place and off to the second round, but please vote if you haven't yet!

UPDATE:Thanks for voting! Citizen School made it to the next round and needs about 200 more votes to be in the top 10 of all ideas in the running. Please vote on the widget to the right.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Marriage Cannot Have Its Feelings Hurt, Nor Is It Taught In Schools

I'm quite shocked how many times I've seen a certain google advertisement supporting a "Eliminate Marriage Between Same Sex Couples" Proposition that California voters will be voting on tomorrow. It's all over the Internet on completely random websites, like youtube's front page, tech reviews, a Muppet site, a forum I visited about routers, even one in the UK!! Complete blitz.

While google can't censor it (free speech and all), it just seems very uneven to see it without the corresponding "Vote No on 8" ad next to it. Whoever is running their ad campaign is quite savvy -- buying up Google ads and keywords to bombard the Internet. Their advert is appearing on pages by folks writing AGAINST their cause.

I'm really quite bewildered that people are spending so much energy fighting to eliminate rights from people, ones that harm no one, spewing lies about how the rest of us are somehow harmed by same sex unions. Not merely protesting but lying and using extortion. This is not a whole lot different than Laws declaring that Voting is an option for Men Only, and that Blacks are Not People, which people fought hard to REMOVE in this country. Whether you approve of homosexual activities or not, Marriage, so-called traditional families, and heterosexuals are not under attack. This proposition is 100% discriminatory in its intentions.

Here's an op-ed against Proposition 8 from a Rabbi not in California.

We have serious issues with the Economy, with a corporately-governed War, with a corrupt but seemingly justice-immune government that bulldozes over our Constitution and regulations when it serves corporate interests, and a starving, environmentally decaying planet to deal with right now.

UPDATE: As expected, I merely write AGAINST this proposition and the pro ad shows up on my page. The only way to remove it is for me to use google's content ad blocker, but this takes a few hours to kick in.

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Testing my new webhost

This is a test of my new webhost...

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Watching the Olympics in London

One of the unexpected perks of being in London as the Beijing Olympics started was that I was able to see the entire (as far as I know) opening ceremony and watch some of the more obscure Olympics events (archery, women's weightlifting, sailing, etc) on a satellite TV, LIVE. If you're a U.S. citizen, you're getting a very processed, filtered experience with added sentimentality, sportscasting chatter, music, athlete story vignettes, and numerous commercial interruptions, delayed deliberately to maximize advertising revenue across time zones. NBC says "We don't care, we paid millions to have exclusive control over what you see."

Now that I'm back, I am finding I can't even replicate the UK experience because of the various entities involved (China, NBC, BBC) restricting access and enforcing geopolitical barriers. Seems to me with the Internet we ought to be able to shift viewpoints, but the old distorting lenses are being enforced even online. What a missed opportunity.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Nokia's "Get Out And Play" Site


Check out this impressive site for Nokia's N-Gage platform (which sadly won't work with my Motorola KRZR. Bummer!)

Play the initial Break-out game while everything's downloading, watch the human "snake" and then try the pixelated human version of Break-out. Very clever!

via Guz off of Tumblr.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

TED: Dave Eggers and his After-School Pirate Supply Store Writing Center


A few years ago I went to a Revenge of the Bookeaters fund-raising event for Dave Eggers' 826 Valencia project, an after school writing program for kids. Dave put both a magazine and a tutoring center in one place so that kids could have one-on-one access with professional writers. What's novel about the San Francisco location is that it's not "Center for Teaching Kids Writing" or some dull name -- it's a crazy cool pirate accessory store! Having that sort of atmosphere expands kids' imaginations, and writing just becomes a means to express and dignify children's ideas. Other places have opened around the country and even Ireland, all with a nifty theme. One is time travellers accessory store, another a superhero store with a capery... I love it!

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Mystery Science Theatre 3K for Films You Have or Rent!

It was certainly bound to happen. Remember Mystery Science 3000? An early 90s cable TV show with the combination of bad movies with comedic commentary, featuring silhouettes of the commentators sitting in front.

Now, a website called Rifftrax by some of the original cast of this show offers downloadable synchronized files to play along with popular movies you might already own, or have rented from sites like Netflix. Some even feature special commentator guests like Weird Al Yankovic.

Seems like this concept could increase rentals of less popular, even god-awful movies out there on DVD. I wonder if other meta-content sites like this will emerge and catch on.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

The OM NOM NOM NOM Phenomenom nom nom


If you work in an office, there's a 97% chance you've been sent email about something odd, something interesting, gross, or funny spread from coworker to coworker, from friend to friend, from blog to friend, from some random person in the world with too much time on his hands to you (who ought to be working now, but hey...) It could be a political cartoon, a woman playing a ukelele cover of Britney Spears, or yet another photo of a cat with odd captions. The best of these memes inspire others to respond with their own versions.

Usually yours truly is a bit behind, riding the meme after it's already gone viral and spread everywhere like some media plague. At work, it's LOLCats and World of Warcraft-anything that have caught on, causing cascades of laughter down the cubicles. But yesterday, my coworker exposed me to a lovely, relatively nascent and contained meme, known by its trademark onomonopoetic label, OM NOM NOM NOM.

What is it exactly, you ask? Take a photo of something that looks like a mouth, preferably with some person or object near it as inevitable victim, draw teeth and menacing eyes, add the label "Om nom nom nom" to it and voilá! Now share it with others through email or posting to a website. (The semi-official Om Nom Nom Nom website though, is not user-friendly about letting you upload your own photos -- and may be inadvertantly keeping the meme from spreading as it should! *baps head*)

Mind you, the visual aspect of Om Nom Nom Nom, the cartoony monsterization of objects, dates at least back to the 1960s & 70s, notably with Jim Henson's Muppets and probably earlier artists before him. (Here's a Muppet example from the late 1970s):


I'm no Art Historian though. Can anyone find earlier examples of adding monster eyes and teeth to inanimate objects?

One of my favorite (and often blogged about) modern examples of this visual motif would be Amy Winfrey's Web (and soon Nickelodeon TV) cartoon, Making Fiends.

The most famous spoken use of "Om nom nom nom" I can find of course is from Cookie Monster, but I suspect earlier, less famous Muppet creatures also emitted that sound during their final feeding frenzies.

So far, I've found only one blog reporting about Om Nom Nom Nom as an Internet phenomenon, written last Fall, though "om nom nom nom" as a word (not a sound effect) seems to have been used on Internet forums and IRC chat channels as early 2003-05*.


So help me, fellow om nom nom-nivores, spread this meme across the globe!

* Apparently, some folks are using it as a slang word for oral sex.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Jonathan Coulton on Yahoo!


Jonathan Coulton has broken out into the semi-mainstream with an article about him on Yahoo News! Nifty.

Who is Jonathan Coulton, you ask? Well, he's a great geeky singer/songwriter I've written about before who got his start through the Internet and is now touring.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Making Fiends: Web Cartoon Becoming a Nicktoon Soon

As I've blogged about before, UCLA MFA student Amy Winfrey created an Adobe™ Flash-based Web cartoon back in 2004 called "Making Fiends". The premise? Vendetta, a school girl with hobbies that include making evil creatures, eating clams, and taunting her neighborhood meets new kid on the block, Charlotte, whose optimistic attitude seems completely resistant to Vendetta's evil habits. Visually, the show has a playful mix of Edward Gorey, early Jim Henson monster drawings with a touch of the 1980s cut-out animated film "Twice Upon a Time."

Two seasons of webisodes and a community of fiendy fans later, Nickelodeon began hosting a few of them on iTunes, and has almost finished developing a TV version to be aired later this year. Hooray!

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Friday, December 28, 2007

DSL Woes

Today my DSL stopped abruptly. Still not clear what happened. I had thought it was an external problem with AT & T but after an hour on the phone with them and even the line connection specialists, the conclusion was that it was something on my end, possibly the modem. Strangely, while Internet access was down the modem was giving all the right signals; it was only when I was on the phone while they ran tests that it started blinking like the Bat Computer. Their advice was to go buy a new modem, since my model was really old. Indeed, the 4100 model I bought at Best Buy was 1/4 the size!

Still, it was more than simply plugging it in. First of all, my PC is not as healthy as it ought to be -- one of its fans may not be providing it with enough cooling. Then when I tried running the AT & T Installer, the CDROM and DVD drives weren't accessible. They just hung. Uh oh. After letting everything cool down and blasting out some dust, I started her up again. Sluggish drive access, but functional. It wasn't working at all with the old ethernet cable I had -- was that the issue? The new one got me most of the way there, but I needed to call tech support and get a new password. After a few reboots, the new modem and my PC were finally back in Internet bliss, and now my Macbook Pro is finally able to use my Wi-fi access point instead of someone's unprotected one. (Though thank you, random neighbor, for letting me use your bandwidth!)

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Build Your Very Own Ball Pit


Russell Monroe, the creator of my favorite geeky comic strip xkcd (featured in Wired magazine this month) wrote about making his own ball pit (you know, like those you find in kids' amusement parks or Chuck E. Cheese's) in his blog. Russell is on the far right side here, using his Fujitsu Lifebook.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Is Your Neighborhood Walkable?

Here's a neat website where you can find out whether your current neighborhood or one you're thinking of moving to is a good place for walking. Interestingly, my previous apartment in San Francisco is ranked 97. My current place is 91, which isn't bad for L.A. My parents house in Texas is a mere 27, because although the neighborhood itself is very lovely to walk around, there are no reachable businesses or restaurants nearby.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

My Hero Larry Lessig on TED

A few years ago I had the pleasure of sitting next to him at a fund-raising dinner for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit group devoted to issues such as free speech, consumer rights, and excessive copyright law. Some books of his worth reading are "Free Culture", "The Future of Ideas," and "Code & Other Laws of Cyberspace."

Watch his TED speech here.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Facebook Applications & the Long Tail

For those of you not hip to these things, there is an Internet phenomenon known as Social Networks. They are basically automated personal website construction kits (like GeoCities was, back in the mid-90s) where your site is mostly limited to your "profile" template, combined with a list of your friends and tag clouds, which are a set of keywords (typically interests, music you like, etc.), which are then cross-indexed with those of your friends and everybody else.

Why, you might ask? Well, today's youth love to share everything about themselves. They don't care so much about privacy. And if you have a profile on such sites, you can search for like-minded people.

I became aware of this trend with Friendster. Friendster grew popular -- so popular that it's architecture was not strong enough to handle the load. Shortly thereafter, a new site arrived, mySpace, and people left Friendster in droves. mySpace is ugly, but it functioned well-enough that it absorbed much of Friendster's users and grew like wildfire. It added more stuff to do with your network.

And then it got bought by Robert Murdoch for half a billion dollars. Go figure. The younger brother of a smarter social network with health problems takes over the world. Then the prim and neat youngest brother could possibly do even better.

But not long after, Facebook arrived. It was lean and clean, and it was conservative about who was allowed to join it (invite-only), at first limited to college students. It began to offer MORE things to do with your network, but then it did something unusual -- it gave away the plans to its innards. Now anyone with some programming skill can develop his own "thing to do" on your network, to share with everyone on the system.

So over the last year or so, there have been thousands of applications developed.

Today I read an article about how 45 of these have more than 100,000 users; the rest have much less. 87% of the usage goes to just 84 of the applications! Considering that Facebook has an alleged valuation near $10 billion, I agree with the author that this ecosystem is "a Long-Tail with a vengeance."

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Blog your Sketches


It was only a matter of time. First, blogs let you upload short text clips that folks can subscribe to. Then there were podcasts for audio and video. Now, there's sketchcasting, which basically combines those old playback animation tools (in Java or Flash) with YouTube videos.

Of course, this has been done the the hard way many times before, but now everyone can do it. It even lets you record live sound.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Virtual Worlds On Your MySpace Page? Not Far Off...


The Web today is all about projecting your identity, connecting with your friends and strangers with similar interests, and sharing media with them. Tools have advanced to the point where it's trivial to upload and share photos, videos, text, animation and music to everyone and anyone. This is how we communicate today. Like songwriters have said for ages, we can say "I love you"* with a song (or electronic greeting card, or hilarious YouTube video). We don't even have to be its creator.

Now imagine what you could say by sharing a virtual world** with someone?

In recent months, toolkits have emerged that enable us ordinary people to build or customize 2-D and 3-D spaces and invite others to join in simultaneously. There's Multiverse, and now Metaplace, being developed by a San Diego company, Area, Inc.

The former is a downloadable (Windows-only) client that lets you load any virtual world out there made with it, and a free set of tools for setting up worlds to share. The latter (which to me is more interesting) is designed to be flexible enough to use web techniques (like RSS feeds, links, and good old cut 'n paste) to fit into web page-based applications like Myspace and Facebook. Here's a quote from their website:
Right now, there aren't enough good games, for example, and they all seem to be about elves in tights or soldiers in battle armor. Metaplace allows more diversity. Right now, there are lots of people who want to use virtual worlds for research, or education, or business, but it's just too darn hard to get one going. Now you can create a world in just a few minutes and start tailoring it to your needs. Basically, we wanted to democratize the process of making online spaces of all sorts.
...
We knew it was all coming together when one of our team made a game in a day and a half. And then stuck that game on a private MySpace profile. You can inherit someone else's world (if they let you) and use it as a starting point.
So get out there and start building worlds and sharing them with others.

* ... or typically "This is so funny!"
** ... or online game

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posted by Brian at 6:26 AM 0 comments links to this post

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

AFI 40th Anniversary Online Ticket Sales Fiasco


We all know what it's like when there's some big event that we're all dying to see. Not long ago, if we wanted a ticket to it, we'd have to camp out in front of the ticket office, days earlier even, to be reasonably certain we'd have a shot at getting in. And while most of us probably wouldn't camp out, we'd possibly be thinking "God, I'd never do that, but hey, that guy should get in. He's crazy enough to do it, he should get in."

Today, much of life is online. We sit at home or at work, our eyes and hands attached to computer screens and keyboards. (Or, you have an iPhone and fondle it all day, but I digress) Tickets become available for purchase on websites. Ideally, people get ready to order at a certain time, click their way through the ordering process, and if tickets sell out, they are told immediately. Tickets can then be printed and voila. No waiting in the rain overnight.

This is not what happened last night for the American Film Institute's 40th Anniversary film screenings. Yes, one should expect an exceedingly high demand. After all, when in your life have you the opportunity to choose to see any one of these:
  • Star Wars, presented by George Lucas?
  • When Harry Met Sally..., presented by Billy Crystal & Rob Reiner?
  • The Shawshank Redemption, presented by Morgan Freeman?
and 8 other films with insane celebrity-ness?

I applaud AFI's choice of screening the films at the Arclight. However, Arclight Cinemas online ticketing system is infamous for having a lousy web-server architecture that buckles under any sort of ticket demand. AFI went with a third party solution for email registrations and notifications called Convio. They were SUPPOSED to email registerees with news and "tickets are now on sale" reminders, one would hope well before there was no chance of getting them.

Last night at roughly 12:05 AM I checked my email. Hmm, no AFI announcements. I checked the AFI page. "Tickets are on sale! Buy now!" Huh. Clicked the link, which redirected to Arclight's main AFI listing page. I picked "Star Wars". My cursor spun and spun for about 3 minutes. Then, a text page with XML errors, spitted out by a Microsoft ASP web server. Not a good sign! I opened up two more tabs in my browser -- maybe the site hadn't started selling tickets yet and the techs at Arclight were getting things ready. For those I selected "Shawshank Redemption" and "When Harry Met Sally..." More XML error pages. About ten minutes later, I finally got a page asking me how many tickets to look for. Yay!

I noticed it allowed one to buy up to 10 tickets, just like for their normal movies. Damn, that's not a good idea at all. There are maybe 400 seats in a theatre. Does that mean the first 40 people to log in could take all the seats??? Hardly a fair policy. I tried 2 Star Wars tickets. Very long pause. Another XML error page. Shit! Then I tried just asking for 1. Nope. Server crash. The other two movies just hung forever and I finally set them to go to the Arclight front page and clicked back in. I tried other Arclight services just to see if it was movie demand or some critical failure on their backend. Tried requesting my password. "Sorry, not available" on a page with garbled HTML. Huh! Good job, Arclight techs. AFI (sponsored by Target) would be proud.

On and on this went, constantly managing three tabs, trying all movies till 1:40 in the morning. At 12:30 AM, I received my first email: "AFI Tickets are now on Sale!" Gee, thanks -- there are none left, you schmucks. Getting to any sort of real pages was tedious and rare. Nearly always, XML server errors. I did manage to get to a few "Sorry, there are no seats available" screens eventually, but even those were difficult and slow to get. This server was getting the crap beaten out of it by something and I don't think it was hundreds of people all doing what I was doing. If the scenario were the first hundred people all logged in asking for 10 seats each, a normal web-server could have handled it and let everybody else know "Sorry, there are no seats." But Arclight's was choking to death.

And that leads me to my suspicion, which my coworker colleagues who know a lot about web-server architecture agree with. The Arclight was probably hit with a MASSIVE attack of automation scripts (called "robots") designed to order tickets. These guys could (theoretically) hit the site hundreds if not thousands of time per second, choosing 10, 9, 8... down to 1 tickets over and over. Arclight has absolutely NO ROBOT prevention in their system. No password check, no captcha's (those annoying things where you have to type letters you see). I bet you $$$ that if one were to check the server logs, there would be a dense pattern of activity unnatural to human beings.

The result of course is that nobody I know got tickets. The only movies available in the morning were for Spartacus and Beauty & the Beast. (I bought 2 of these as a consolation prize to myself for all that wasted time.) How could anyone have? Now some enterprising folks can charge $100+ for tickets that were $25 (although I have not seen these up online yet. Let me know if you do.)

Nobody camped out the night before. There's nobody to say "Oh, well you fool, you deserve it." to. There is no good side of this story, only pathetic planning, poor technology, and probably lots of money spent on worthless marketing, since their was no way for anyone (short of a hacker) to buy these tickets.

I just hope the AFI decides to go with competent partners for its 45th Anniversary.

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posted by Brian at 11:21 AM 1 comments links to this post

Friday, August 24, 2007

Behold! Customizable Animated Electronic Greeting Cards

Apparently, the online greeting card business is upwards of $80 million a year so far. There are gazillions of card sites these days. Most I've seen are not so much cards anymore, but animated or live action footage. More like "-grams" as in singing telegrams, candy-grams, etc.

The trend now is to allow user-customizable cut-out faces on prefabricated animations. The first one I saw is called Starring U from the JibJab brothers (who showed me in person. Whohoo!) But they are not alone, and probably not the first either! There is also the oddly-named Mushy Gushy site, which seems to have more prepackaged animations lined up already. The JibJab brothers are a lot more famous though, minor celebrities ever since their Flash-animated parody of Bush & Kerry singing "This Land is Your Land" hit the Net, seen by millions of people and landing them major TV talk shows.

May the best Terry Gilliam-esque cut-out face animated e-greeting card Web 2.0 website win!

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Friday, March 23, 2007

The Daily Show discusses Viacom vs. Youtube

While I wouldn't go so far as wanting to "drink Jon Stewart's bathwater" as This American Life writer David Rankoff once commented, oh how I do love his show. It would be the only reason (other than maybe The Food Network) for me to pay for Cable (which I have not done for 4 years now). This clip discusses the legal battle between Viacom and Google's Youtube.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Before there was YouTube, Sony's Screenblast.com

Right about when I started working for Sony, I found an intriguing website called screenblast.com. Sony had just purchased a music and video software tool company called Sonic Foundry, creators of a program dear to my heart, ACID. I remember when an office building (called "Smith" for some reason) next to us over at Sony Pictures Imageworks was being cleared out (around 2004) to make room for more of us, but it had formerly housed folks at Sony Pictures Digital including screenblast.com. Indeed, all that's left is a Screenblast poster hanging inconspicuously as one enters the building past the security guard.

The vision (back when Sony had such a thing) was just slightly ahead of its time: sell near-professional level tools at a cheap price for making videos and then encourage creators to upload them for free to a website for distribution. Sounds like a great idea, no?

Unfortunately, it didn't take off. The software business aspect already had stiff competition. Apple acquired Final Cut Pro and Logic, and with its great brand was able to make these de-facto standards in content creation tools. (They in turn helped sell Macintosh computers because they were exclusively available on them, not Windows PCs). In contrast, ACID and Vegas, while great, are still not nearly as popular.

I never used the Screenblast site itself, but I don't recall it having a particularly easy to use interface. If anyone out there tried it, I'd love to know how it compares to YouTube. (Their interface beat out even Google's own service, enough to where Google decided just to purchase the whole company.)

Meanwhile, right around that time was Sony's mind transplant. Sony acquired BMG Music, and found itself confused -- are we a hardware/software company enabling people to become creators in their own right? Or are we concerned about piracy and locking down our Intellectual Property? Much of the original brilliance at the top left in a huff as Sir Howard Stringer (the hired Axe-man) took over. Screenblast was one of the casualties, perceived as a waste of money, presumably.

But whether or not screenblast's web interface was good, there was no "killer app." No content went viral from it, as did the Saturday Night Live sketch "Lazy Sunday" in 2005 which made YouTube a household word. Somehow I doubt it offered the ability to show videos in blogs, like YouTube.

Poor Sony. It's a bit late in the game, but they bought up Grouper last year. Ever heard of them? Hmm, not so much.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Lessig's "The Withering of the Net" video


Fantastic-ly informative 39-minute lecture by Lawrence Lessig describing how it was Republican inititiatives back in 1984 that broke up AT&T's proprietary, exclusive control over the communications network up until then, enabling the Internet to grow to what it is today, and jump-starting the explosion of innovations in Consumer Electronics.

Intriguing Principles:
  • The owner of the network does not have absolute control, meaning that layers can grow ontop of it
  • The past does not get to dictate future innovators out of fear of competition.
  • Device-makers are not liable for how users use their devices.
  • Two spaces evolving, the Read-Only Internet, and the Read/Write Internet
  • Apart from the "Berkeley-esque" reasoning that Read/Write Internet is better for democracy, Lessig provides the "Stanford-esque" reasoning that it will increase monetary growth exponentially larger than the Right-Only Internet.

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posted by Brian at 5:10 PM 0 comments links to this post

Friday, August 11, 2006

Puppets on Yahoo!??


Man, I bet this street marionettist (from Barcelona, apparently) has never had an audience this big before. And right there on the front page, a link to Yahoo! Directory: Puppetry.

The comments on the video are all enthusiastic. So many people have never seen a decent live puppet show before. Thank you, Internet!

Now if we could just get some footage of master puppeteers on the front page of Yahoo! Then we're talking. How about it, Hugo & Ines? Bob Hartmann? Phil Huber? Albrecht Roser? Let's get your work online if its not already.

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posted by Brian at 11:22 PM 0 comments links to this post