What is this Twitter thing anyway?

I spent most of my winter break in India and for the most part had a really relazing vacation. More than once something popped up on the local news channels about how some politician had said something embarassing on Twitter. Now while I don’t really pay much attention to politics, what struck me as interesting was that the news channel kept referring to Twitter as a “social networking site” and everytime I heard them I thought to myself “hmm… that doesn’t sound quite right”.

Twitter is certainly a social network, but it’s much more than a “social networking site”. In fact, the “site” aspect is probably the least significant part of the whole matter. Even though the website seems to be the most popular client, it still accounts for less than 30% of Twitter usage. Not only are there dozens (maybe hundreds) of Twitter apps, but perhaps more importantly there are lots of other services that plug into Twitter. Most recently WordPress and Tumblr implemented the Twitter API meaning than you can use Twitter applications and other services that post to Twitter and have them redirect to WordPress or Tumblr.

Twitter may have started out as a website, but now it’s become much more than that. It’s a platform and a service and in many ways, it is becoming an integral part of the modern Web. It probably wouldn’t be too far from the truth to say that it’s even becoming something of a public utility. Almost everything is on Twitter nowadays, including government, emergency response and notification and even revolutions. What started out as a way for people to send out 140 character messages to others has quickly become a better way for people to share just about everything they care to share.

While Twitter the service might be dead simple (though it has added features recently) there has been an enormous amount that has been added on top of Twitter by users and other services. Hashtags and retweets are probably the most common example. There has also been a recent request for a programmable Twitter client – some kind of simple Twitter shell script so that users can use Twitter just the way that they want to, without depending on the company to provide for it.

So what exactly is Twitter? I would be surprised if anyone could some up with a definite answer that accounted for all use cases. I think one way to describe it is as a platform for short message dispersal. In thinking of Twitter as a platform, instead of a service in and of itself, programmers are thinking of Twitter as a set of “dump pipes”. It becomes merely the medium for transport, relatively unimportant in comparison to the actual content. In some ways, it’s similar to a phone company — a company provides the service and facilities to make a phone call, but what’s more important is the actual data being exchanged. Even if there was no phone service, people would find other ways to make the same communications (VoIP for examples). Similarly, if there was no Twitter, people would just be using other media like they did before. And if Twitter someday goes away (or changes beyond recognition), we’ll find other ways to get our message across.

Exploring the Inner Space

I used to love reading. I still do actually, but in recent years I haven’t really been able to do much reading (that made me sound really old, didn’t it). Anyway, I just started reading again and I’m going to try to read one book a week. I just finished reading How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb and started on Ray Kurzweil’s Age of Spiritual Machines. For some reason I was also thinking of astronauts at the time and my subconscious very handily put two and three together to get the following result:

Human exploration has shifted from exploring outer space to inner space

It’s no big secret that the state of space exploration is pretty pathetic. It’s more 37 years since the last Apollo mission to the moon. The Space Shuttles are showing their age and there still isn’t a definite long-term replacement. Commercial space flight is just starting to take off, but we’re not going to have a Hyatt in space anytime soon. Being someone who loves Star Trek with a passion and who wanted to be an astronaut (and still wants to go into space someday) this makes me really sad. But as I read the opening chapter of Spiritual Machines, I realized that just as the exploration of outer space has declined, the exploration of inner space has exploded.

By inner space I don’t mean oceans or forest or anything physical like that. Rather I’m talking of mental and thought-related spaces. Since the 70s computer technology has progressed by leaps and bounds. The Apollo 11 computer had about the same amount of computing power that you’d find in a modern digital wristwatch and teenagers routinely carry around supercomputers in their pockets. More powerful computer clusters are starting to simulate significant sections of the human brain. No one disputes that computers have fundamentally changed just about everything, including all the other basic sciences.

Hand in hand with the growth of computer technology, there has been incredible growth in biology, particularly genetics and neuroscience. We know much more about ourselves, how we come to be and how we think than we ever did before. And of course computer technology has played no small part in this. Sequencing the human genome would have been practically impossible without powerful processing and data manipulation tools.

At the same time, there seems to have been a growing interest in developing the human mind as well as its tools. Self-help and self-development are huge business areas, but more importantly people in important positions are using techniques such as those in Think like Leonardo to push the limits of what they thought possible. Personal productivity is becoming more about living a fulfilling life than it is about cranking out more widgets per hour. And the internet has only helped this phenomenon to spread and thrive. Computer technology is quickly becoming an intelligence multiplier for the common person.

Is it a coincidence that the decline of the exploration of outer space happened at the same time? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps that question is irrelevant compared to the actual happening. And even that is less important compared to what might happen in the near future. Commercial space travel as well as missions by countries like China and India might breath new life into space exploration, but it might not. But the pace of computer development should still go forward just the same. Unlike space exploration, which probably seems very far-removed to most, computation is a part of all our lives and we can always use more of it.

Even though Moore’s Law may have slowed down and will probably come to halt within the next few decades, there are other substrate technologies hiding just around the corner. Quantum computation seems to be coming along nicely and as our understanding of biology progresses we may even seen DNA based computing (and direct neural interfaces). And while the backends are evolving, so will the frontends. E-ink is already making a splash in ebook readers and very soon we’ll have flexible low power LCD screens will enable a range of devices that we can’t even begin to imagine. Personally I really hope to see proper voice interfaces and better touch interfaces in the next decade. Kurzweil seems convinced that we will see real AI within the next few decades and while I’m still skeptical on that front, I’m certain that we will use computers to amplify human intelligence and capabilities i.e. true cyborgs will emerge. We already use computers to curate and search massive amounts of data and such applications will only become better and more powerful.

In many ways, the last century was a century of shrinking. Distances shrunk as air travel and then instantaneous communication became more popular. Technology shrunk and we began to understand increasingly tiny structures in our bodies and in the universe at large. However, this century will probably be a century of expansion again. As we deplete Earth’s resources we’ll be forced to expand outward into space and new space propulsion technologies currently being developed (ion engines and solar sails). On the other hand we’ll also be expanding our mental capacities and intelligences. I won’t try to make any guesses as to exactly what will happen, especially since technology is rarely the sole determining factor in the course of human history. But these are certainly exciting times and I’m glad to be in a position to be taking part in the events that shape our world.

How many devices is enough?

I love gadgets and devices. I really do. Before I got introduced to the world of computers, I loved wristwatches. Then it was phones and computers. Now I have a fascination for mobile computers and phone-like devices (I don’t like phones as phones, just the physical gadgets). I’ve only really started buying my own devices since I moved to the US of A about two and half years ago. My current stock of devices is:

  1. A 15.4″ ‘work’ laptop
  2. A 4-year old Mac Mini
  3. A recent Eee PC netbook
  4. An old G4 used as a backup server (to be replaced by a VM when I leave school)
  5. A 2-year old iPod Classic
  6. A 7MP Canon Camera
  7. A dirt cheap Nokia cell phone

Though I use pretty all of them fairly regularly (except the camera) I think I have a few too many pieces of hardware. A lot of my friends think 4 computers is way too much, but I think I would really need about 3 computers: one machine (a desktop or larger laptop) for daily work, a netbook for travel and a remote server for backups and emergencies. However, it’s the portable devices that are starting to frustrate me.

I’m at the point where each of my portables does one job (and does it pretty well). My phone makes calls, my camera takes pictures and my iPod plays music. I can appreciate the fact that it’s a vaguely UNIX-y setup, but I’m coming to realize that the UNIX philosophy does not really apply to hardware, at least not to portable devices. In the case of software, it doesn’t really matter if you have 5 installed programs or 50. You have 50 functions either way. However the more devices you have, the more you need to lug around. And you only have two hands to hold them with.

In many ways, the iPhone is a stroke of pure genius. It’s combines all of my current devices into a single package. And it’s just the right size too: pocket-size. But I’m not going to get a iPhone for a good few years. I really don’t need¬† any of the expensive plans that the contracts require, especially since I don’t really like making phone calls. Also I want to take slightly better pictures than what the iPhone currently allows. Many of the same reasons apply to Android phones. And the third reason is that I’ve been thinking a lot about yet another device for a while: the Kindle.

On Ebook readers

Ebook readers are finally starting to make it into the mainstream. I like the idea of having a portable library that I can take everywhere with me. But at the same time it’s yet another dedicated device. Now you could argue that it’s possible to read documents on the iPhone or a similar device. It’s certainly possible, but it’s probably not something you want to do.

It’s a question of form-factors: the phone form-factor is good for always-on, in-your-pocket communication devices. Anything smaller and you wouldn’t be able to use the Internet with any comfort and much larger and it won’t fit in pockets. But when it comes to actual serious reading for extended periods of time, you want something that’s larger than can fit in one hand. The reasons may be psychological as well as physical, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re used to book-size material and would rather not adapt to something else. The sizes of the Kindle and Nook are bigger than what can fit in your pocket, which means that they won’t fill the role of smaller devices.

In some ways, a netbook and an E-book reader are of comparable form factors. They’re both too large to fit into your pocket, but they are small and light enough that you don’t need to think twice about slipping them into a backpack. This isn’t to say that they are comparable devices. I certainly wouldn’t curl up in bed with my netbook, and I wouldn’t use the Kindle to do any sort of serious text-processing (though web browsing, certainly).

As I keep wondering if I read enough books in enough places to warrant a Kindle (I probably don’t), I can’t help but also think about another contender waiting to jump in:

The Apple Tablet

My professor wants a device the size of a Kindle DX, but that connects to the Internet and can run apps. This is pretty much what the Apple will probably be. So no one really knows for certain what the Apple tablet will be like. But it’s probably going to be about the size of an ebook reader with features similar to, but not the same as, an iPhone. It’s almost certainly going to have some sort of wireless connectivity and might come subsidized with a data plan.

I’m sure a lot of people except the Apple tablet to cannibalize the ebook reader market the same way that the iPod took the over the MP3 player market. I doubt that’s going to happen, the main reason being that the distribution channels are already out of Apple’s reach. But going by Apple’s track record the tablet will certainly be an interesting device. And it’s going to be yet another device that I won’t get.

Firstly the price will almost certainly be too high for what I feel uncomfortable spending. Anything less than $500 and it risks eating into the iPod Touch market and I’m not ready to spend more than that. Secondly, I don’t want yet another semi-general purpose computer. Given the tablet’s probable size, I feel that wherever I’d take my tablet, I already take my netbook. And I’ll take a computer with a full keyboard over a tablet any day.

So how many devices do I really need?

I think the truth is that right now I have just the right number of portable devices. I have devices that do everything that I want to do when I’m moving (music, pictures, phone calls). I also have my netbook that acts as a quick way to get online when I don’t want to go find an actual computer.

None of the other devices offer really compelling devices for me to buy them. I don’t move around enough to justify an iPhone’s pricey plans. I have access to a wide selection of paper books at my school library and I don’t buy nearly enough books to justify a Kindle. And I simply do not have a suitable use case for using a tablet over my netbook.

As my current stock of items starts to fail, I will try to consolidate somewhat. The battery on my iPod is starting to show its age, but I’m waiting for an iPod Touch with a decent camera to come out to replace it. Combine that with a Skype number and constant wi-fi and I can leave out my phone too.

I’m still going to keep my eye on things and if I see a device that’s useful and low-priced enough, I might consider a buy. But only after I’ve thought things through on this blog.

And my mum wants a Gmail account

So you’ve all probably heard the news about Google deciding to stop censoring the Chinese version of it’s search engine and considering pulling out of China entirely. It’s already being beaten to death around the intertubes with lots of opinions ranging from “hero” to “hypocrite” and I really have nothing important to add to the matter. My personal opinion is that they can run their business however they choose and morality isn’t something that can be externally imposed, whether by law or public opinion. Google is a business entity and it’s up to them to decide what the moral consequences of their actions are (and to choose between morality and money, if it should come to that).

I don’t like blogging about “current events” like this because I feel that more often than not everything that needs to be said gets said pretty quickly (and usually by lots of other people by the time I get to it, thanks to my being a full-time student). Anything deeper generally doesn’t come out for a good few days later, so it’s still pointless to rush to talk about it.

But I did find it mildly amusing that my mother wanted me to make her a Gmail account since she says she has problems with her MSN account (I suppose it’s technically a Windows Live account now) just minutes after I read the news. She’s not one to keep up with tech news and I doubt she knows about the Google China business,¬† so I put it down to an interesting coincidence.

And life goes on.

Lessons learnt from being disconnected

I returned from a week-long family vacation a few days where I was without Internet or a computer the whole time. To tell the truth, being disconnected wasn’t bad at all and I didn’t really find myself missing the internet very much. Part of the reason for that might be that I was pretty busy doing other stuff for most of the day and was too tired by evening. But I also think that the fact that none of my work actually depends completely on the Internet makes it easier to disconnected. I’d probably be much more stressed out and worried if I needed to stay connected in order to make a living.

Though being disconnected wasn’t a problem, I did sometimes wish that I had a computer handy. In retrospect, I would have appreciated the chance to be able to keep some sort of a daily log, especially since I had ample time in the evenings for actually writing. Admittedly, I could have done it on paper, but I’m used to putting down everything electronically and moving it around easily. And then there are also the times when I was just plain bored and would have like the chances to play some games or maybe do some light programming (especially since I just picked up my copy of SICP again). I made do with my dad’s cell phone for the games (and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the physcis simulations they used), but I did miss my computer.

Always by the fifth day, the battery on my iPod was dying. It was partially my fault for not actually charging it fully before leaving. Having music being piped into your ears makes waiting at train stations far more bearable. Add to this the fact that I had brought my netbook home from school instead of my larger work laptop and I can safely say that I made a mistake by not taking it along.

But life goes. I’m definitely going to be taking my netbook with me whenever I travel. Maybe not on day trips, but certainly for anything more than a day or two. I had also considered buying an iPhone or an Android with a data plan, but I realized that I really don’t care all that much about being connected when I’m on the move. I am considering getting an iPod Touch so that I can connect via the school’s wifi whenever I’m on campus (which is 90% of the time) but even that may be overkill. We’ll see.

In other news, I’m happily Scheme and getting excited about two really cool projects I’ll be doing next semester (and will of course be blogging about). I’m also starting to miss the always-on really fast Internet I get at school as well all my customized setups, so it’ll be nice to get back. But I have a week and a half till then and will definitely have some more to write about till then.