Friday, July 29, 2011

Data Visualization’s Rock Star

Looking at data really can be exciting

Many of us work in professions that can involve analyzing data.  Financial data, scientific study data, engineering data, demographic data, public health data – the list goes on. And looking at an endless stream of numbers can be yawn-inspiring. But just yesterday I was mentioning to a colleague that when it comes to data visualization, I have a hero. He's a doctor and public health researcher named Hans Rosling. This guy has a knack for getting people excited about the data that excites him. His cool data visualization approach not only helps to make the endless stream of numbers interesting, it helps to make the analysis possible.

Rosling realizes that the human brain can use certain visual cues like size and color and motion to show trends in data in a way that are instantly meaningful to people, and that by combining them we can easily track several variables at once.

Take a moment and check out the following video

For more on Rosling's data, check out Gapminder.

What could those sorts of data techniques do for the data you work with, the data you care about? Leave a comment with your thoughts.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Podcasts Grow Up

..and growing up is a mixed bag

Do you listen to podcasts? 

Podcasts are spoken-word audio or video files on a wide range of topics, some of which are bound to interest you. Some focus on technology, some on politics, some discuss cooking or hiking or gardening or travel. These files are made available through RSS feeds, so once you subscribe new episodes get delivered to you automatically. If you haven’t experienced them, give them a try.  iTunes provides a fairly good interface to get you started, and there are many other alternatives.

I’ve been listening to podcasts since their beginning in 2004-2005. In the beginning, they were usually low quality MP3 files of a techie speaking passionately about a techie topic, with only very simple production values.  They were great fun, and still are today.

Part of the promise of podcasts in the early days was that the little guy, armed with only modest equipment and some passion on a subject, could compete with “big media”. Anyone could be a broadcaster.  Maybe everyone.

A funny thing has been happening since those earliest days.  Companies formed, and these new media companies, such as TWiT and Revision3, collected more and more of the better podcasts under a small number of banners. The shows became much more polished, they included more commercial time, and over the years a small number of personalities have become real stars, such as Leo Laporte and Cali Lewis. They work hard, have charisma, really understand the medium and know how to produce well for it.  They have also managed to get the sizable audience and the advertisers needed to monetize podcasting.  In other words, in many cases new media started to become an awful lot like old media.

I really enjoy the top quality production from networks like TWiT, but a small part of me misses the old days and the idea that the field was level for anyone with a microphone and an idea.

What podcasts do you listen to? Would you ever consider producing one yourself? If you did, I'd subscribe.


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Friday, July 22, 2011

Lytro Brings New Focus

A new kind of camera may hit the market late this year
I’m in no way qualified to write about photography.  But I love technology developments, and this specific topic really interests me.  So please forgive me if I get the photography details wrong! Better yet, add comments at the end to set me straight.
Last month a company called Lytro started to make big news by announcing that they would make a new kind of camera available this year based on light-field technology. The implication, we’re told, is that we’ll be able to focus after pictures are taken. Upload and view the picture that you take on a computer with the appropriate software, click the portion that should be the primary focus, and the magic happens.
What that means for the user is that a picture can be taken without stopping to focus.  Even auto focus takes time that sometimes causes us to miss a photo. Ren Ng, the man behind Lytro, claims that the motivation for this project was that he was tired of missing shots of kids on the go who don’t stop long for photos.
A few other companies have worked with this technology in the past, but weren’t able to make a commercially practical product. The part of this that’s really new is the price point and form factor. Those that worked with light-field tech in the past never delivered a moderately priced consumer camera, and that's exactly what Lytro says that they'll do.
The Lytro camera will necessarily make a trade off, however. It may sacrifice 50% or more image resolution.  Whether that matters much probably depends on the kind of pictures you want to take.
Would a camera that allows you to take pictures without waiting to focus be of interest to you? Do you like the idea of being able to select the focus area after the fact? Leave a comment and let us know.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Streaming Music Gets Social

I’ll admit it.  I listen to music most often in iTunes or on my iPhone.  I just have a basic approach that works for me – buy and rip music, organize in iTunes, sync with my phone, listen on the go.  That approach, though, is “old school” these days., Pandora and Spotify are three of the big alternatives (and there are others) to carrying around your purchased music on your own storage. All have tens of millions of users, and they are growing. may be the oldest of the three.  Users access as an online radio service or through portable music devices and smartphones. Over time, the service develops a profile of musical preferences and tastes and can suggest new songs and new artists. is a free service in most areas, but there are pay versions with additional features.

Pandora plays songs similar to song suggestions that you, the user, enter. As music plays, you provide positive or negative feedback for songs played and that is taken into account for future selections. Pandora has a free subscription (ad supported) and a for-fee subscription with no ads. It can be accessed through some stand-alone Internet radio devices and Apple iOS and Google Android devices. Users can purchase the music they hear through online retailers.

Spotify is the newest of the streaming services to become available in the US via desktop clients, web and via iOS and Android devices.  It has generated a great deal of excitement. Like the others, Spotify has a free subscription (ad supported) and a for-fee subscription with no ads and with access to higher bitrate music. Users can search music, browse and create playlists. Spotify offers on demand, offline access, cloud storage and allows users to share content on Facebook, Twitter and more.

Pandora had an IPO back in June to much fanfare but the stock has slipped some since. More recently, Pandora announced that it is rolling out new social features, hoping to compete with the challenge of Spotify.  Expect all of these services to leverage existing social networks and new ones to allow you to share your selections and playlists with friends and discover new music based on what they are listening to.  While not a new idea (Apple tried this with Ping and failed), it may be an idea whose time has come.
How do you listen to music?  Does a streaming service appeal to you? Leave a comment and let us know.


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Monday, July 18, 2011

Google+ and Google News

Using Google+ yet?  If not, I’m betting that you will be soon.  In fact, if you’d like an invite, just ask me.

Google+ is a social network tool that's still in "beta" but that already has millions of users.  It's visually similar to Facebook but with some key aspects of Twitter and some differences when compared with each. I wrote about Google+ back on July 1 and July 7. I really am very impressed.  The capabilities, the performance, and the user interface are all very solid.  Getting a “fresh start” on a big and credible social networking tool is fun and interesting, and the community is growing rapidly, so the network effect is working for Google here, too.

An astute Google-watcher named Vincent Wong makes a compelling case in a short slide show getting shared often on Google+ (and even Facebook) that what Google+ is about is getting more users to use more of Google’s services in the cloud. He does this by going over the obvious cases for comparison with Facebook and Twitter and talking about how those cases are weak, but that as part of using Google+ you now have toolbars at the top of your screen that promote the use of some of Google’s tools, and that those toolbars do a great job of drawing your attention and interest.

Meanwhile, another key service of Google’s is taking an interesting step. Google news is bringing online game aspects to Google news.  Acknowledging the appeal of the badge systems in services like foursquare (which I wrote about back on May 6), Google is bringing a badge system to Google News, allowing you to collect badges as you read up on certain topic areas.  They are betting that as a result, people will spend more time in Google News and share that fact using badges in social networks.  I’m betting that they are correct.

Are you using Google+ or any or Google's services a little more lately? Google hopes so, and seems to be making all the right moves to make that happen. Leave a comment and tell us about whether Google is getting more of your time lately.


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Friday, July 15, 2011

Clams on the Grill

(I got a request for a cooking or fishing blog, and I do take requests :)

Summer is prime time to cook meals outdoors on the grill, enjoying sunny skies, green gardens in the backyard, and the company of friends and family as the grill does its magic.  Summer is also a great time to enjoy seafood.  Why not choose menus that bring the two together?

My favorite way to eat clams is ice cold, raw on the halfshell with lots of lemon and some cold Corona beer at the ready. But a few years ago I found another great way while at a barbecue hosted by a friend of a friend.  The host showed me that throwing little neck clams and cherrystone clams on the grill just until they open and then quickly taking them off is a real winner.  The clams open by themselves, and the texture is interesting – a little firmer than raw but not at all chewy.  It’s a nice alternative! I’ve done this many times since, and have served them to lots of friends.  The response has been universally positive.

Place the whole, live clams on the grill and turn them with tongs from time to time.  The moment they open, take them off to a plate you have off to the side at the ready.  Serve with lemon, Worcestershire, or cocktail sauce.  All are great.

Serve a few dozen as an appetizer, or go with a larger number as a meal.  Serve with watermelon and fresh summer corn, and don’t skimp on the cold beer.

If you try this recipe, please let me know how it worked out for you and your guests.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

HBO Knows The Way to "Go"

Television continues to evolve

This really isn’t an advertisement for HBO, but it may sound like one.

I’m very interested in the changes taking place over time in the way people “watch TV." I first wrote about this back on May 20.

DVRs allowed us to “time shift”, Netflix gutted the traditional video rental business by giving us new ways to get movies and other programming on our schedule, Hulu delivers conventional television content to our computers, and IP Set Top Boxes let us get web video onto our TVs. In short, we no longer watch our father's TV.

The next big thing, what the cable TV industry calls "over the top" video, might be packaging up premium content in slick web interfaces and mobile device apps and making it available to existing subscribers.  HBO has done a masterful job of this with HBO GOHBO GO is an elegant web interface that allows users to log in with the credentials associated with their cable television provider account (Verizon FiOS in my case) and then to select programming to watch online.  The interface is pleasing and intuitive, and the selection of content is great. The application has a "watchlist" feature that allows for bookmarking individual shows and series to watch in the future.

A minor disappointment is that HBO GO seems to only allow one viewer at a time with a single set of credentials.  While I understand the need to avoid abuse through password sharing, this restriction does seem to mean that two family members in the same subscriber household cannot watch HBO GO at once.  Perhaps the answer involves acquiring multiple sets of login credentials with the cable provider.

HBO has figured out that the “app” on mobile devices is the new frontier. Over time, I believe that more people will consume entertainment video content on smartphones and tablets than in any other way. The iPad app for HBO GO is the first killer app in this space. It's top-notch, and the iPad's simple ability to connect by cable to a TV means that I can easily put my HBO GO content on any TV with HDMI interfaces.

How long until HBO GO without a cable TV subscription becomes an option? How long until you can just have a direct billing relationship with HBO (and other favorite content providers) rather than your cable company?  This dis-intermediation has obvious appeal for consumers who want unbundling of cable TV content rather than paying for large packages with many channels that go unwatched. But it is unlikely to happen in the short term, since the big cable TV distribution companies (like Comcast and Cablevision) and the premium content providers (like HBO) have a well established business relationship that neither wants to break – until it becomes clear that breaking it is a financial win for one or both of them.

Have you tried HBO GO? Can you see yourself moving toward web and mobile devices for your premium content? Please leave a comment here and tell us what you think.


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Monday, July 11, 2011

A Hand Possessed

Another step toward the man-machine interface

What if you could strap a simple looking belt around your upper forearm, and instantly have the skills of a concert pianist, a virtuoso harpist, or a skilled surgeon?

Well you can’t – at least not quite yet. But you might be surprised to hear that there’s work being done at University of Tokyo that is leading in that direction. It's called PossessedHand (really) and they are well beyond the theory phase. They have working prototypes that reliably allow electrical signals to muscles to prompt very specific finger movements. In the lab, they’ve had a set of people use the technique to help learn to play songs on a Japanese harp called a koto, with good results.

A belt (which isn’t so simple looking at this point) is strapped around a forearm and electrodes allow stimulation to reach the proper muscles to allow for specific movements.  This allows for control of 16 different joint movements.

While learning to play musical instruments seems like an interesting possibility, life-saving skills like surgery seem a little far off. Other applications might include physical or occupational therapies, prompting muscle movements that can help people on the road to recovery from injuries.

Under the right circumstances, I think I’d give it a try.  Would you let your hand be “possessed?” 

Please leave your comments here.


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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Social Media Update

(RapidGroove took a short break earlier this week while I was on vacation. When on vacation in the future, I may sometimes skip blog posts and at other times I may re-post past blog entries. Thanks for reading!)

Facebook made an announcement this past Wednesday, promising “Something Awesome,” and delivering Skype integration. Now you can use video in your chats, directly from within Facebook. The trade press has been a little rough on Facebook over this. Okay, maybe adding 3 or 4 year old technology is not “awesome,” but it was a good development.  Facebook was lagging behind other platforms by not providing a video chat tool. Was this what Microsoft had in mind when it purchased Skype? Microsoft needs to find better toe-holds in modern social network tools, and this might be one way.

There are some rough edges, such as limited 2-way video conferencing rather than supporting more participants, and an interface that largely takes over the browser screen. It also appears as though there is no ability to use the Facebook Skype interface to speak with the broader Skype community of users. You can only use it to video chat with your friends on Facebook. Perhaps that makes good sense as this is a communications facility within Facebook, but given the very large community already using standalone Skype, some ability to communicate with them might have been nice. 

Have you tried video within Facebook yet? I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

Meanwhile, Google+ seems like it’s working fairly well and catching on with its early beta community. New invitations are currently closed, so my circles can’t grow very rapidly right now, but I can already see that Google has produced a nice tool in “plus”.  It’s intuitive and pleasant to work with and in addition to the good "circles" concept, it has a nice multi-party video chat tool called “hangout”.  

Computerworld has a nice piece discussing and comparing the two video facilities. 

There are plenty of opportunities for Google to drop the ball, but so far Google+ seems to have great potential. If you don’t already have access, I encourage you to join and give it a try when invites open up again – hopefully very soon.


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Friday, July 1, 2011

Google Challenges Facebook

Google+ beta is launched

Can we agree that it would be good for Facebook to have some competition? 

Competition is often healthy, driving innovation (an area where Facebook may not need help) but also in creating pressure on an otherwise dominant vendor (more relevant for Facebook). We may be uneasy with some of Facebook’s quirks and its handling of our privacy, but we have no real alternative. Sure, there’s up-start start-up Diaspora who is rethinking the friend and group concept, but their progress is almost as slow as their servers. Diaspora is only in “alpha” but it really is unusable.

In 2010, Google introduced Buzz as a way of having status messages and conversation elements linked together within the Google email interface. Interesting, but there were some privacy concerns and concerns over the direct linkage with email, and the idea didn’t seem to catch fire. More than a year later, while technically still alive, Buzz is pretty clearly not getting large market share.  I think Buzz is all but dead.

Google does many things well, but not every effort of theirs comes out a winner. Buzz, Wave, even Google Voice are all really interesting ideas, even fairly well executed, but with these services Google didn’t tap into the magic that makes an online service catch fire with the huge community of users already using Gmail or Google Apps, let alone Search in which they are the dominant player.

Back in May, the tech community was talking about the likely Google entry in the short list of challengers to Facebook. This week, Google jumped in with Google+. The official google blog describes it thoroughly and includes video clips. A limited beta is in progress. My friend Chris Mustazza has early access, and blogged about his first impressions.

The starting point is that as a user you create groups (called Circles), and then can interact with your online friends by selecting the relevant Circle for any communication or activity. That seems to me to be addressing one of Facebook’s biggest downsides. It should be noted that Diaspora also targeted this aspect of the friend relationship. It seems clear that lots of people think that Facebook has this wrong, that their group concept is weak, and that friends are not one-size-fits-all.

Building on Circles, Google+ includes text chats (called Huddles) mult-party video chats (called Hangouts), some nice ways to handle photos, and more.

Does Google have a good chance with Google+ at drawing in some of the 750 Million Facebook users? Or is Google+ the next Buzz - functional but unable to generate excitement?

Please post your comments here.


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