Thursday, January 26, 2012

Beach Bum Business

So, I had one of those ideas that brings along its own surge of adrenaline. You know, the kind that invariably means you're too excited and overestimating the idea.

To explore it a bit, I'm going to write up some of the details.

Over the past few days I have been visited by the Ghosts of Projects Paaaaast. Certainly, I do fail to finish most of the projects I start. But it is not my failing alone: the whole world fails to finish the projects they start. I've seen open source projects with millions of dollars of funding go into permanent stall as the team just... kind of... wanders off.

There's a lot of advice about how to stick to a project when you're bored of it or distracted or stuck. And one of the major things companies do is just that: they force their employees to work on the boring, stupid, shitty stuff. Hell, almost every company has, at its core, something that is interesting and cool to somebody, even if that somebody has to be an HVAC-obsessed architect.

However, I have had a number of successful projects mixed in with my failures, and I got to thinking. What if there's another way to approach the idea of a project?

Think of a project as a surfer. A surfer catches a wave and rides it until the wave is gone (or until he gets dangerously close to some rocks). Then he paddles back out into the deep water to catch another wave.

It may be possible to run your projects in the same way. A "beach bum business model" where you opportunistically wait for interest, take advantage of it to move the project forward, and when the interest fades, reposition the project to wait for more interest. If you had a number of such projects, you could probably always have some project that is currently riding a wave.

This is a slightly complicated thing to say, because when you give examples, you quickly stumble into the fact that it's considered unprofessional to treat your projects in this way. You're basically saying "do what you can while you want to, and then don't do any more until you feel like you want to again".

Let's shake that stigma, at least until the end of this essay, and talk about how we can do exactly that.

Let's talk about an open source project. You and your buddies start a project. You do okay, but you begin to get bored. This is inevitable - in a few months, you will get bored even if you get a fair number of customers. Your efficiency drops. You spend most of your time surfing the web and working on that toy you always wanted to build.

Then, suddenly, a big company tosses a few million dollars your way and you're back in the saddle! Wahoo! ...At least for a few months. Long before the millions run dry, you are again getting tired of it, bored.

Standard protocol? Work anyway. Beach Bum Business protocol? Stop! Reposition!

So you've created an open source project, but you're getting tired of working on it? Fine. Nobody can stay interested forever. Your priority now should be to make sure your project is ready to catch the next wave.

This involves two big pieces. The first is arranging your project so that it can catch the next wave. This means making it so that someone new (or you, after six months of not having touched it) can almost immediately begin making progress again. This is a bit different from simply creating documentation. Documentation is really a necessity, but this is more about actually creating a "modular hole".

The next wave comes with a sudden uptick in interest. You want to be able to start programming immediately. Filling the hole will be the first step for the new programmer (or you). This will, in the process, teach you of how everything around the hole works, and allow you to step into those shoes as well.

I'm using a software project, but this is equally suitable to something like a storyline. You create some short stories in a particular universe, then get bored. Well, getting back into that universe is going to be a serious hurdle unless there is a place where you can write a new story without requiring too much of the details of the old IP. By explicitly introducing that kind of gap before you get off the wave, you can prep to catch the next wave. This is also useful as it will allow you to change the medium or cater the message to the new wave.

To make the example explicit, if you were writing short stories about space nations at war with each other, you could prep a very rough scaffold for a story about piracy in a tiny star system in the middle of nowhere. When you write that story later, you simply have to make sure you don't go against any of the major pieces of your IP: you don't have to remember all the characters and places and starships and history of everywhere else. A software project is similar.

Okay, after you have created a modular gap, you need to reposition. Repositioning means moving your project out to where the waves are likely to start, and getting ready to catch a new one when possible.

Fundamentally, this does mean reducing burn. If you are a company, you would drop everyone down to retainer status. However, more than reducing burn, it actually involves repositioning your project.

If you just scale back burn, you're not going to catch the next wave. You're just going to languish with whatever users/audience you currently have.

So how do we reposition? Well, I'm open to suggestions, but here's some basics:

Keep your current users/audience. You don't have to make them dance with joy every day, but make sure they don't feel betrayed. Don't vanish, just scale back your involvement.

Keep your project alive. This means occasionally acting. The actions don't have to be meaningful. If our project is that space opera mentioned above, we might "front" one old story per month, meaning that anyone can read it for free. We might post notes, sketches, fanart, keep involved in the forums, run some simple contests... a quiet project is a dead project, and a dead surfer cannot swim.

Position your project to catch shifts in popularity and power, but don't forget that you want to catch a wave, not a splash. I imagine this is where all the skill comes in. In the case of our theoretical space opera, be ready to instantly ramp up and tackle our modular hole if your name comes up on Penny Arcade or whatever. Be ready to radically shift your message or media, as far as you feel comfortable, because a wave coming from Penny Arcade is going to be very different from a wave sliding in from The New York Times.

I think the easiest way to catch shifts in popularity is to have a simple Twitter/Google alert on your project's name. When things start to roll in, act!

I'm sure there are lots of other things that could be said on this subject, but I only thought of it a few hours ago, so that's all I've thought of so far.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Local Convention

I've been thinking more about augmented reality. In a sense it's difficult to do, because we haven't come up with any good way for the digital world to communicate with a human in a way other than them staring at their phone.

However, what if we turn the idea on its head? Instead of giving humans the ability to see the digital world, what if we focus on letting the digital world see the humans?

Augmented reality can be roughly divided into two parts.

The first is "helping people traverse the area". This is what I would call "slow AR". This is putting up a blue line guiding you to your destination, pointing you to a tasty restaurant, helping you find a hotel - all the things phones do today, basically.

The second is an important but underrated concept: "helping people interact with people". This is what I would call "fast AR". Fast AR is largely unexplored because of technical difficulties: it requires people to be in contact with AR basically all the time, and it requires a large number of people to be that way.

Let's talk about an example. Let's imagine a futuristic anime and comic convention. It has no set showings, only a few set events. Instead, it has a list of all the things it has a right to show. It's configured around many small, multi-purpose rooms instead of large theater halls.

When a group of a few people decides they want to watch a particular anime that the convention has the right to show, they tap their phones against the door of a theater and reserve it starting in half an hour.

On the walls all around the convention, that anime pops up as "showing in XXX in 29 minutes", with an arrow pointing the way. If you miss it because you're doing something else, no biggie: get together with some people who want to see it and show it again.

Seem limited? It's a simple example. Let's kick it up a notch: the whole point is to connect people to people. So let's do that more directly.

Let's say that some artists are chatting and get into a conversation about the topic of tangent lines in comic art. One pulls out a sketchbook and starts to draw an example. Well, the other can tap his phone against the door of a conference room and register a "workshop" - these artists, this topic. Even include a tag or avatar that allows people to see the level of artist they are. And now there's an impromptu, loose workshop for artists to discuss a technical point that is surprisingly interesting.

People can wander in and get involved, watch from a distance, whatever. You can even record the meeting for playback later if people want to see it after it happens, or catch up with it if they are coming in late. (Recording is, of course, a touchy subject that would need to be addressed well ahead of actually having the conference.)

These impromptu affairs would initially probably clash a bit with the old way - the idea of having a specific event at a specific time. Planning is a key component of today's conventions. And some things do require planning, such as the keynote speaker, or the big contest.

However, as most experienced con-goers can tell you, the real meat of a con is the meets of the con. The people you talk to, the things you talk about on the fly. Obviously, not all of those are suitable to become a recorded public meeting, but a surprising number are.

In addition, some conventions have roaming points of interest, such as cosplayers, and those could be tracked using a switch-onnable RF card. Switch it on, and now you're added to the wall maps as a point of interest, and if there are photographers whose video/photos are being CCed to the con as they are being made, you can find yourself on the walls...

I can definitely see a time where the convention staff are actually taking part in the con - stirring up interest in a particular topic or thing in order to get the events flowing smoothly. However, they wouldn't be trying to set it up using some kind of official meeting-maker system: they would simply be drumming up interest and then letting the interested parties use the scaffolds provided to self-organize.

If you think this is pure fantasy, well, there are a surprising number of unconferences already being run, including at least one in Boston - my turf. This is not a fantasy, it's just one baby step further than what we're already seeing.

The reason I used cons as examples is because a conference/convention is a lot of people interested in more or less the same thing all in the same place. It's very dense compared to, say, walking down a city street.

Start with the easiest targets - the ones that offer the most calories per bite. And that's probably conventions. Or unconferences/unconventions.

What do you think?

Friday, January 06, 2012

Phantom Town (Speculative World)

This is part of the speculative worlds thingie. If you haven't read this link, do so now.

I was in a bookstore not long ago, in the science fiction section, looking at books. One talked about a city which was actually two overlapping cities that didn't interact. I thought "oh, interesting! Is it because of AR or..."

As you may have guessed if you've read a lot of books recently, it was nothing of the sort. It was a misfiled fantasy novel.

But it got me thinking about the idea in science fiction terms. The idea of a city where the classes don't interact. Hardly an original idea, but what if we approached it from the perspective of a technology which creates or forces this situation, rather than a situation where there is a hierarchy of classes that ignore each other. I guess you could call it "the filter bubble city".

Two things are necessary to see this city. First, widely available augmented reality - some people have it in their eyes, some people wear contacts or glasses, a few people are still holding up their eCellophane tablets and squinting through them.

Second, a reason for the population to have drifted into different layers. In this case I will be presuming that the economy as it stands today has vanished, and instead there are multiple economies in operation, each of which uses very distinct kinds of policies and practices, and each of which has serious technical and cultural barriers from trading with the others.

As you might guess, that second thing is the meat of the speculation. The first thing just enables us to frame and explain it.


We can introduce the fundamentals pretty easily: a main character is not wearing his AR glasses at the moment. The reason can be whatever plays into the plot, but the point is that without the AR glasses on, the city looks pretty much like any other city: storefronts, ads, cars sliding by.

When the main character puts his glasses on, all the ads vanish, digitally erased from the world, replaced by what the view would be if they weren't there. Similarly, names and icons float above people's heads, and the car-filled street is suddenly awash with red, yellow, blue - denoting safer and more dangerous areas to stand. The cars are also labeled - owner, destination, whether driven or automatic...

The point of this is to show how strongly his world is altered by AR. This becomes the basis for the way the different economies can ignore each other while literally occupying the same space. As the story or game progresses, it is possible to see the world through other people's AR, and most of them have the people who aren't members of their economy grayed out, and the people who are members of their economy are "painted". For example, the "digital collective" economy that runs almost entirely off of minifacturing and local hydroponics actually puts digital tattoos on their members, representing their specialties and standing. These are clearly visible on the outer layer of clothing, since they are digitally applied, not actually on the skin.

The main character is a "biotracker": his job is to monitor the ebb and flow of disease, pollution, and other health risks, as well as discover and counter any new diseases which emerge. As such, he is truly a local. To him, it doesn't much matter which economy a person is part of, they are still a disease vector. He actually gets paid piecemeal from each economy as he renders service, which, as he notes, makes taxes a real bitch. He could get paid in government scrip if he preferred, but he points out that getting paid by individuals in proxy (direct deduction from their owed taxes) is more valuable, since scrip is largely worthless.

The story is largely about his efforts to track and contain a new disease, which is difficult to track but not terribly serious. It's called the "tattoo bug" because its main effect is to create complex, almost mathematical depigmented shapes on your skin. It doesn't appear to spread from person to person, so he's searching for the vector and the source.

His tour takes him through most of the economies, allowing the audience to see each in turn, how it works, what it likes and dislikes, what sort of people it creates... and most importantly, the way it sees the city. It allows us to explore new ideas for economies, including how the economy will interact with foreign powers - in this case, the foreign powers share the same physical space!

We can also see how they treat research, development, intellectual property, personal rights... including all the ways they "break" traditional economies by having excessive computation and high-tech automation. For example, the "panhuman" economy relies heavily on continually and automatically renegotiated relationships. That is, when you wake up today you may find you are dating someone you've never met, but you can feel comfortable with that fact because your outboard brain knows you and your wants pretty well. Trying to ask a panhuman who they slept with a month ago when the tattoo bug first manifested for them... well, it's not as straightforward as you might think.

It also allows us to see how completely the economies and populations can self-segregate. The people on the street that aren't your people don't matter - you walk by them every day without even seeing them. But that can break down, such as in the case of a man who kept downrating a dangerous bicyclist from a different economy, only for the two to end up dating.

We explore the edge cases where the economies might have to bow to the greater good, even if it goes against their ideology. Comparisons can be made to class, but in honesty it's probably more like religious barriers.

Anyway, each economy appears to be a victim, rather than a source, and the disease is mostly an opportunity to explore how the world might be able to keep running even in a fractured and chaotic space where people can manufacture new diseases in their basement and the concept of 'money' has largely broken down.

As such, the plot of the book or game is really second fiddle to the excuse to try to explore exactly how something like, say, the panhuman economy would work. When people get seriously involved, maybe the automated negotiation keeps them together... but what happens if you wake up and find it's been negotiated away? Is it because your relationship was at its end... or was it just a blurp in the algorithm? What do you do in such a situation?

Fun questions, and a light exploration of some of the more obvious points that might arise in such a setting.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Speculative Worlds Summary

A few people have expressed interest in the worlds I create, so this year I'll be releasing a few of them as posts. I'm calling it the "speculative worlds" project, just to have a tag for this kind of post.

The reason it needs to have a tag and an explanation is that I'm not releasing the worlds as any kind of strongly coherent narrative. It's a mishmash of notes, scenes, and sketches, depending on the nature of the world I've developed. So don't expect to find a beautiful coffee table book!

The reason I'm calling it speculative worlds is because these are not just generic science fiction universes. The idea is that a created world casts light on the beliefs and norms of the author. By creating a world, you can cast light into the parts of your brain that are hard to illuminate, explore your suppositions, and come up with interesting insights.

So I'm not trying to create "cool" or "complete" worlds. I'm trying to create "interesting" ones - ones which explore an assumption. I hope, if you choose to comment on any of them, you will do so understanding that this is my aim.

And I hope people do comment, because the same exploration turns out differently when done by a different person. I recommend following standard improv policy, though: negation's not a great idea at this stage in a world's development.

Lastly, I have no interest in controlling this project. If you want to do the same thing, feel free. If any of my worlds strike you as interesting, they are all available with a creative commons attribution license, so feel free to use them, too. Just link a lot, and everyone will be happy.

Buying Time

I've been thinking about ways to make money publishing stuff on the internet.

There are a lot of ways. Usually, I settle into talking about the "extras" method, where the core content is free but you allow the audience to pay more for more. This has been discussed lots before, so I'm going to skate over it here and get to a different kind of issue:

Publishers, rather than content creators.

Normally, my stance is "screw publishers, don't need 'em." However, that's an unfair stance brought about by bad experiences. A good publisher helps polish, check, distribute, and market your content. Those are valuable services, especially if you're the kind of creator who is bad at those things. Which, really, should be most creators: the only reason creators have to be good at that stuff is because most publishers have not been keeping up with modern technology and are hopelessly obsolete.

But in a world where content is free, how can a publisher hope to make money?

Well, "gating" is common. The idea that you're the publisher, so you're the sole distributor and can charge for the product. But gating is obsolete, and getting obsoletier each year. The only way to enforce gating is to try to use DRM, and that gets more hilariously awful with every passing month.

Another common method is advertising. By serving ads either in the content or around the content, the publishers hope to eke out some indirect cash. This is in some ways better than gating - YouTube has proven that most people will weather ads without going off and pirating the content, so a publisher can still be the primary distributor... at least for a while, until it actually becomes easier to find the content by Google search.

However, I don't like ads even without the coming Googpocalypse. What other methods are there?

Well, a publisher can offer bonus expensive goods in much the same way as an individual. A publisher can create a "standard" swag set - shirts, mugs, signed copies, and so on. This does reduce the price of creating the swag slightly, and the author might be happy to not have to handle it. But that seems like it wouldn't work, to me. Maybe it's because much of the draw to pay for swag like that is specifically to support the author, not the publisher. I think it would really decrease the amount of swag sold, although the larger number of interested parties might balance it out.

Even if the swag pays off, however, there are a lot of situations where it's just not viable. For example, a publisher that publishes scientific data sets. "Oh, I want the hat that supports trial 293101-B!"

How can a publisher make money on this kind of publishing?

I say: buying time. Or, more accurately, buying expedience.

Look, you can't gate your content. If you gate your content, you'll cripple your draw and lose tons and tons of audience. If your content is such that your audience really wants it, they'll get it or a nearly identical version from another source and you'll get nothing.

But you can gate it briefly. You can say "oh, this article on type B diabetes will be out on Monday. You can read it now if you're a member/pay, but if not, enter your email here and we'll send it to you on Monday."

See, this is a double - no, a triple win.

People who want the data fast, or people who want to support you, they'll pay. People who want to read it see it isn't available, but instead of just being told to fuck off, they're told "we'll deliver it to you personally ASAP." That's a promise of service and permission to contact them.

Now, that time gap isn't always ideal. But it serves a surprising number of media. Webcomics can use it, science publishing can use it, financial publications can use it - anything where there's a continuing stream of information that some people will want to see ASAP and others are willing to wait for.

The gap will, of course, vary in length depending on the kind of thing you're publishing. Webcomics might have a one week delay, while a science journal might have a three or six month delay. But that delay isn't determined by what you think the delay "ought to be", it's determined by how long it takes for the content to be pirated and distributed and how much damage each day of delay causes your adoption rates (if any damage is done).

There are other services you can provide for members, as well. Deals on swag, recommended articles, delivered articles based on their filter preferences, contact with the author or other experts...

There are ways to make publishing work. Flatly gating content isn't one.