Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Man, The Myth, The Microniche Brand

I'm moving me-centered updates to the new ultramicrotinyniche brand site, alexismadrigal.com, for all your Alexis Madrigal needs. That's where I'll be providing links to my work in Wired, my shared reader feed, Twitter feed, and other live mefeeds. It's also the (temporary?) home to a new project, Maps of Convenient Coincidences, a repository for my exercises in computational cartography. My maps look like this:


CC may return in a new form, but not for the time being, time being as precious as it is.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Me, According to Weiden and Kennedy

Note: I am not looking for a job, but Weiden and Kennedy has the most amazing profiling application, seen here, and I couldn't resist putting myself through the ringer.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Catchup 22

Here's a quick rundown of what I've been working on over at Wired and Earth2Tech.com. If you've got science or greentech news, let me know about it. We're always looking for new stuff.

Wired News Articles

Texas Investor Eyes Space Station as Orbiting Pharma Lab
A swaggering Texas investor with a famous name wants Big Pharma to pick up the tab for the International Space Station when NASA eases off.

New Fingerprint Tech Could Mean Never Losing Your Keys Again
Scientists in Great Britain hope you may never have to worry about losing your keys or forgetting your password again.

Video Sites Help Scientists Show Instead of Tell
Performing a biological experiment can be a bit like making your dad's famous chili. He sends you the recipe, but you just can't make it taste the same.

New Algae-Growing Technique Could Lead to Earth-Friendly Fabric, Paint
Going green is fashionable, but dyeing our clothes has remained a decidedly eco-unfriendly practice. Now, British scientists have developed a way to grow harmless algae to add color to fabric and paint.

Earth2Tech Posts

A Green Dilemma: Genetic Engineering For Biofuel Production
Back in February, BP Plc (BP) and UC Berkeley proposed a deal that could provide $500 million for research aimed at using genetic engineering to increase biofuel yields. The partnership was hailed by BP Group Chief Executive John Browne as “creat[ing] the discipline of energy biosciences.” Now, protestors on the famously liberal campus, largely from the anti-GMO camp, are stepping up their efforts. Though eight months have passed since the high-profile announcement, no agreement has been signed to actually bring the Energy Biosciences Institute into being.

Cities Are Key To Greentech Progress
While a lot of cleantech regulatory innovation clearly needs to come from the highest levels of government, local authorities are proving to be catalysts for the industry as well.

Solar In Space
The division of the U.S. government’s National Security Space Office known as “Dream Works” (no joke) has formulated a vision for a space-based solar system that would capture sunlight with satellite solar arrays and beam it down to Earth.

Ethanol Boom Fading, Monsanto CEO Predicts Corn Planting Decline
We don’t want to kick corn-based ethanol while it’s down, but in another sign that the ethanol boom is coming to an end, Monsanto (MON) CEO Hugh Grant is predicting a slight decline in corn plantings for 2008. This follows a 2007 crop season in which corn acreage leapt 19 percent to a record high.

BP: Going Back to Its Petroleum Roots
BP’s new chief executive, Tony Hayward, announced a major business restructuring this week that could result in the company’s clean energy initiatives getting pushed to the back burner. Calling it “a fundamental shift” in the way the oil giant does business, Hayward said BP’s gas power & renewables division would be folded into its two existing exploration and refining segments.

John Doerr: We Need Government to Drive Greentech
John Doerr, the high-profile Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner, closed Silicon Valley Projections 2008, a sold-out forum on responses to climate change, with a call for greater participation by the government in driving greentech forward.

MTI Micro’s CEO Talks: Getting Portable Fuel Cells To Market
We gave portable consumer fuel cell developer MTI Micro a bit of a hard time in a post this week about how long the technology was taking to get to market — it’s slated for commercialization in 2009. MTI’s CEO Peng Lim and VP of Corporate Development George Relan sat down with us this week to chat about the get-to-market process, their methanol fuel cell technology, their relationship with battery king Duracell, and how much a fuel cell refill might actually cost a consumer (less than a cup of coffee).

Urban Wind Turbine: A Rare Species Spotted
Ask a die-hard altpower fan if they’ve ever seen a functional wind turbine in the urban jungle, and chances are, the answer is no. Today we bring you some exclusive footage of this rare species. This Skystream 3.7, built by Altira-backed Southwest Wind Power, sits atop a remodeled corner house in San Francisco’s Mission District. The blades sit on a skinny 45-foot pole dropped in by crane. Here is the turbine in action on Wednesday’s windy afternoon.

Selected Wired Blog Posts

Keep Your Food, Change Your Plate: The New Science of Eating
Have a few hundred harried lunches wolfing down a burrito while answering email made you a little chubby? Brian Wansink has some advice for you, and it's not trading the burrito for a salad. Just stop emailing while you eat.

Sputnik Documentary Provides Glimpses into Cold War Fears
Sputnik Mania is a new film made to coincide with Thursday's 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik I satellite.

Who Takes Steroids? 30 Year-Old White Guys.
A new study on anabolic steroid usage has pinpointed Wired's demographic as the primary users of the substances.

Study: Steroids Could Significantly Increase Home Runs for Professional Players
A Tufts physicist and baseball fan will publish an article in the upcoming issue of the American Journal of Physics detailing how a small increase in muscle mass could increase the amount of home runs a professional-baseball-level player would hit by over 50 percent.

Yucatan Jungles Are Feral Maya Gardens
The jungles of the Yucatán peninsula look as wild as a forest can: dense, lush and filled with dozens of varieties of trees. It certainly doesn't look cultivated in the way that Iowa does. But research suggests that the landscape was intensely managed before the Maya civilization collapsed over a thousand years ago, and that what we see as "wild" bears the marks of thousands of years of human intervention.

Scientists Mimic Beetle's Liquid Cannon
Scientists at the University of Leeds have engineered a new spray nozzle that mimics the bombardier beetle's diminutive liquid cannon.

Cockroach Training Goes Better in the Evening
Biologists at Vanderbilt have discovered that roaches' olfactory memories are better at night.

Have You Eaten Your Genetically Modified Food Today?
Monsanto, the real and symbolic leader in genetically modified crops, is a company that environmental groups love to hate. A “Monsanto +antichrist” Google search turns up 53,000 hits. The virtual hate carries over into the real world, too. Last month, Monsanto claimed that activists damaged 65 percent of its test fields in 2006. And yet, in the last 5 years, Monsanto’s stock price is up over 700 percent, and the company’s directors keep snapping up more shares.

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Thursday, October 4, 2007

Going to NASA

Where have I gone? Where is my consumer analysis? I'm afraid that there hasn't been much time. As a reporter these days, I spend my time with sweaty armpits and a pencil behind my arm. I'm a newsman and the news doesn't wait. Sad to say it, but we're probably looking at 2-3 posts a week from here on out.

Specifically, I've been down at the NASA Ames Research Center, (un)covering a pretty big story. I can't say much about it now because it's not up yet at Wired, but it's big and it's new.

But NASA itself, or at least Ames itself, was amazing. I thought I'd become jaded about astronauts and space by diapers and cost overruns, but standing near the hangar in which a shuttle once sat, in which rockets were built, you can't help but go a little weak in the knees. The scale of the dreams that once lived in those buildings. The fading optimism written in the peeling paint at the base of the hangar. These dreams are not new, and they did not yield enough to continue having them.

When I first arrived, I couldn’t find the right building. I called out to an elderly woman. "Excuse me, ma'am, is that building three?" As she walked up to my car window, I could see she had hearing aids in.

"I have a hearing problem," she said. I repeated my question. "That," she said, pointing to the building, "That used to be the old officer's club. They've turned it into some conference center."

She swiveled around and pointed at a building that said commissary in all-caps. "They're closing the commissary down too. Which is sad. It's sad for the retirees from here and there are a lot of us!"

I was late and tried not to look impatient. I'm not sure that it worked.

"You know, I'm getting my hearing back soon." She pointed to her left ear. "Well, in the left ear. They are giving me a cochlear implant. I'll be hearing like new," she said.

"That's great," I said, and rolled up my window as she ambled back to her car.

NASA's changing. It's got adapt to its new position. But it must be sad to watch the buildings you thought would ease you into death were disappearing one-by-one, being replaced by venture capital backed companies and university professors younger than your grandchildren.

In any case, I got to spend time with Noble laureate Barry Blumberg and the most famous astronaut from Oregon, Don Pettit. These men have done incredible things, i.e., invented the hepatitis B vaccine and spent 6 months in space. What they've done is so far beyond what human beings accomplish in an ordinary life, that you feel honored to stand in their presence. It's not hard to see how reporters covering the White House or military leaders can give in to the glow that surrounds these powerful figures.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Auto-Biography, a Conceptual Business Piece on Social Networking, Part II

Combining ancestry.com with MySpace and lifeofmine.com, I am imagining a website that would be a social networking site disguised as a biography aide. Many older people are now interested in preserving their life stories for future generations. “Vanity” or print-on-demand publishing is practically sustained by these types of storytellers.

The site would take a cue from genealogy sites like the group run by The Generations Network, including ancestry.com and genealogy.com. The Generations sites received 10.4 million unique users in March 2007. In about a year, 2.5 million people built out a family tree on ancestry.com detailed genealogical family trees. That 2.5 million people (of which my mom is one) were clearly willing to invest time and effort into building out their histories.

The site would be designed in two stages. The first would be a set of tools that would walk older users through their lives. We’d start basic, extracting information on where the user had lived. Second, we’d have some built-in genealogical tools, possibly linking to existing genealogical applications. For older folks, building out the family social network is probably the most important one of all.

From there, we’d start to extract an organized set of information about what our users had done. Users could select a chronological order to go in and then we’d walk them through their lives, extracting and organizing data all the way. School, work, military, sites of children’s birth, churches/synagogues, summer camps, vacations, prison-time, etc, etc.

Then, within each of those locations/activities, there would be another set of organized questions, mostly memory jogs about people they might have known there. Relationships would begin to be built out there and notes could be added about various bosses, relatives, friends, etc. Pictures could be uploaded and easily tagged. Contact information including the offline stuff would be included.

The deepest ring of auto biography creation would use tools like the ones available on Life of Mine or in any autobiography book to help people add color to their lives. Life of Mine has a database of events and popular culture stuff that can be added to the life story just by clicking on them. Even simple questions like, “What were you doing on your 16th birthday?” or “How did you spend the holidays in 1968?” can go a long way towards bringing memory back to life.

All of this data could be entered and viewed in a variety of ways outside the standard surveys and forms. There’s probably many ways that the organization could be presented, but here’s some ideas:

  • Timeline, not unlike facebook; collapsible through years; media and annotations could be added
  • UserText, users could simply type things in with simple tags (person, place, year);
  • Geographical, the interface would be a map, pictures could be geotagged
  • Visual, which would show the web of relationships, starting with family and extending to people known the longest, although there are infinite ways to sort this information

These applications would have real value for boomers and upwards, who’ve led full lives and have been highly mobile and worked many jobs. It’s a pretty 1.0 idea but it’s important to realize the value in those applications. For the consumer, it is a great organization and memory aid. For the company, they have far more information about the user than other sites. The barriers to exit would be very, very high.

At that point, users could choose to Connect. The point would not be to link to all their friends in two-way relationships. The social networking part of the site would revolve around helping people flesh out their own biographies more than their social networks. While users were browsing other biographies, they could easily add locations, events, cultural events that others had tagged. Users could create “Events” or “Times” which users would their own recollections to and from which they could draw for their own biographies (e.g. Lincoln High School Prom, 1987, the day MLK, Jr was shot, or Woodstock).

Obviously, with users entering so much detail and opinion, access to that information becomes a sticky issue. (On the other hand, it gives us a good opportunity to think about permissioning issues.)

Privacy/permissions settings would allow users enormous flexibility. Certain information would compose the “standard” profile. For information beyond that, there would be an in-depth permissioning process that would allow users to keep birds of a feather together if they wanted to. A user could allow only people from a certain time period and geography to see that time period, geography, or activity. So, for example, all the people I knew in Portland in 2005 could only see items related to that time period. My life since then and in other places would be opaque to them, but people I went to college could perhaps see that time period (or only just college).

I’m sure there are lots of holes and things I haven’t thought of. Tell me all about them in the comments. Am I selling older consumers desire to social network short? Maybe it’s just my mom who is happy having 7 facebook friends, as long as two of them are her two children.

Part III, due this week, will discuss monetization and how the best ads are already embedded in people's minds and memories. |

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Auto-Biography, a Conceptual Business Piece on Social Networking

So, this is a conceptual business piece called Auto-Biography: Social Networking for People Who’ve Really Lived. It could be the beginning of an open source business plan for building a social network for older consumers. Take it, mash it, money it, etc. Just remember to hire me while there are still options available.

By way of explanation and in the style of Craig Damrauer’s New Math: Equations for Living, I offer the following:

Conceptual business piece = (What’s The Big Idea? – Capital) + No further ado

As social networks push out beyond the 14-25 year old demographics, the way that relationships (contacts, friends, associates) are extracted will become of increasing importance. Structuring the input of relationships will become important. Most social networks provide little structure for discovering and entering data about one’s life story.

Notable exceptions are LinkedIn via company networks and job histories, Classmates via high schools, and Facebook via colleges and companies. Note first that these are three of the most widely used networks and second that many people have meaningful relationships that were formed outside of their work and school experiences.

What is missing, really, is a sense of time passing. Facebook and MySpace were designed to capture a right-now social network. But older folks have had and lost friends. People have died. Cities have been moved to and from. They didn’t have children and then they did. And that entire fourth-dimension is missing.

All current social networking attempts to do two things: 1) present an autobiographical sketch via profile, pictures, etc and 2) highlight the “friendships” between these abbreviated people. Almost all social networks have emphasized the second part of the mission, very narrowly defined. The price of that choice is authorial control over one’s narrative. I can’t say that Ed is my friend without him agreeing: two-way connections require that both parties agree. This is difficult when one of the parties is, for example, dead. I can’t even define my relationships beyond simple friendship or non-friendship, “Top friends” excepted.

My guess is that older consumers want more of part 1—autobiography—and less of part 2—showing connections. A conceptual framework for building out the social networks of older people is necessary to make the social internet work for them. We need tools that will allow them to access the crusty memories of yore first, and then allow them to reestablish contact.

A big part of the reason behind sticking to very basic user network extraction tools is that information input requires work on the part of the user. The goal of the process—the profile—is of very little value. It is little more than a glorified name tag with some outlinks to people you know and some “lifestyle” markers. If these are our online representations, they are very reduced and not quite adequate for making a snapshot of a real life.

What if the very building of the profile created value for the user? What if the building out of the profile was practically a single-user application that helped our older consumer organize the information and relationships of their increasingly complex and geographically disparate lives? Then, the time cost of inputting more data into a 2.0 application would decrease.

Stay tuned for Parts II and III this week.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

When in Rome... The Spring Break Sex Hypothesis

During my self-imposed blog exile, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG interviewed Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge. She had an excellent take on the consumer psychology behind tourism:

We tend to think that tourists are dupes being flogged crap which they don’t realize is crap. Actually, I suspect that most people, like you and I, do realize that it’s crap. The point is to buy crap, because that’s part of what the deal is – that’s the transaction which you’re doing.

I suppose it’s all part of what I’m thinking in general: people are much smarter about their engagement with these places than we often give them credit for. They/we have quite a highly developed sense of what the touristic game is all about. I might be an expert when it comes to the Parthenon, but I go to hundreds of places where I know nothing at all – but I still know what the contract is, between the tourist and the monument.

I heard Steven Pinker on Science Friday last week talking about the linguistic/organizational categories we have for verbs in our brains that help us order the crazy amount of raw information that we encounter. Here, Beard is describing a similar phenomenon. In a world full of dislocated people, artifacts, products, plants, animals, and buildings, we need guidelines for how to interpret the demands placed on us by situations that would have been incomprehensible a few short decades ago.

So, we have a category for the human encounter with the ancient monument within the tourist context, and that distinction allows us to behave and consume in ways that would otherwise not be acceptable. In this case, it tends to loosen our wallets for things that we wouldn’t buy at Cost Plus World Market. Other specialized social situations allow all sorts of novel behaviors. Let’s call this idea the Spring Break Sex hypothesis.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Consumer Wind Turbine in the City

Here’s an article I wrote for GigaOm’s cleantech site, Earth2Tech. It features this residential wind turbine that is mere blocks from my house. Also, it is a block from Sf’s version of Rucker Park. There are mad pickup soccer games during which only Spanish is spoken. Then a block away, you have this wind turbine. Sf is quite a city.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Ikea and the Middle Road

Since every move anywhere now requires a trip to Ikea, my team braved the Emeryville store on Sunday. Hanging above the gaggles of children, we found the following sign:


Take a careful look at which size is highlighted as the best value: it’s the Regular size, not the Large. In all my years, I’ve never seen an American company NOT promote the largest size as the best deal. Super-sizing encapsulates the normal approach our businesses have taken to sales. Buying more means getting a better deal. Take movie popcorn. For a small bag of popcorn, you pay $4. But for a bucket of popcorn—with 4x the amount of food—the price is only, say, $5.25.

Ikea is bringing a new sensibility to the states: moderation, not volume, as the new best value.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A One Week Break to Move

Sorry caballeros, I'm going to have to take a one week break to move down to the Bay. In the meantime, you can check out my writing over at Wired Magazine's science blog.

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Best Sentence

"It was more of a "what’s your favorite color" kind of dialogue, and at one point I turned to my colleague and said, "ok, so ... what should I do here?!" She goes, "Um, ask them if they like pancakes...Tell them to wave if they like pancakes..." and suddenly all these little avatars are waving at me and talking about their favorite foods, springing off in a whole new direction."
from a Ypulse interview with Danica McKeller, who you know as Winnie Cooper from the Wonder Years, but who is also a summa graduate in math from my imagined alma mater UCLA. She's talking about her experience inside the teen virtual world, Habbo Hotel.

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Historically Black College Football

From the world of niche videogames, comes this press release about the November 23rd PC release, Black College Football Experience, from Nerjyzed (En-er-gized! Get it?) Entertainment (via Kotaku):

"Nerjyzed Entertainment, Inc., a privately held, African American owned digital entertainment company, announced today the launch of its new sports videogame, Black College Football Experience... 'Nerjyzed Entertainment was founded by a veteran team whose mission is to create positive interactive products for the urban market,' said Jacqueline Beauchamp, chief executive officer."

Normally we’d be pretty skeptical of this sort of project, marketed as it is at the “urban” audience (what does urban mean anyhow?). But, this is coming from inside the community: the founders “share the distinction of having graduated” from HBCUs and they clearly love them. Nerjyzed Entertainment’s other project is a documentary on the history of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. With that kind of consciousness, we wouldn’t expect them to fall prey to lame culture marketing like My Black is Beautiful or the former Good Friends cereal.

In fact, CEO Jacqueline Beauchamp addresses just that point on the Nerjyzed website:

"So far, attempts have been made to "target" and "appeal to" the African American market, but these have fallen quite short of being fair and accurate and have relied more on unfortunate stereotypes. Here at Nerjyzed, we aren't looking to "target" or "appeal to", but instead we are simply creating a world -- a world that not one specific, but several varied cultures can enjoy and take part in."

The other key feature appears to be the interactive halftime shows, where players will live out their drum major fantasies. Promotions will include touring 12 Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Best Sentence

"A fondness for microwave buttered popcorn may have led a 53-year-old Colorado man to develop a serious lung condition that until now has been found only in people working in popcorn plants."
Via an excellent NYT article on the issue.

Can we reflect on the state of a society wherein there are diseases peculiar to our popcorn manufacturing plants? This is, literally, a niche illness, caused by inhaling the chemical (diacetyl) that we call "butter flavoring."
Heated diacetyl becomes a vapor and, when inhaled over a long period of time, seems to lead the small airways in the lungs to become swollen and scarred. Sufferers can breathe in deeply, but they have difficulty exhaling. The severe form of the disease is called bronchiolitis obliterans or “popcorn workers’ lung,” which can be fatal.

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The explanation for going dark...

My new home base, in Sf's Mission District. It's beautiful. And there is a sweet Abuelita downstairs and the incredible Mexican restaurant Pastores just down the street.

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Monday, September 3, 2007

A Community of the Advertised To: Helio

Via Jossip, we hear that, “Of Vogue’s 840 pages, 727 are ads, or: 13 percent is editorial.” But of course what you’re paying for is ad selection. And let’s be honest, in a lot of these magazines, the ads are at least as “editorial” in the sense of expressing an opinion or point of view.

A great example is Helio’s amazing pull-out ad booklet, The Mobile User’s Guide To: THE NEW SOCIAL ETIQUETTE. You can grab the pdf or find it in Wired’s September issue.

It’s not an ad in the traditional sense. There is almost no information about Helio’s products. Instead, they are pitching a way of seeing the world. The booklet is a pocket worldview for a particular age and class. The key is the last page, the “About the Authors”:

“Helio is a group of like-minded individuals dedicated to connecting people better than ever before.”

This ad is about creating (the illusion of) community (i.e. Like-minded individuals connecting). To join this community, you get the jokes and have the experiences. Probably the best page is The Pie Don’t Lie:

This ad assumes that you or the like-minded individuals you know A) work in an office B) have crushes on “hot coworkers” with whom you go to happy hour C) have one-night stands D) have experienced or imagined experiencing the loss of one’s drawers in this process E) Use MySpace extensively F) Have a stockbroker G) Who is sort of an ahole and hard to get a hold of H) Have good English grammar I)Have healthy enough disrespect for authority to appreciate intentionally bad grammar …

Remember, this is advertising a freaking phone and this is the set of assumed experiences explicitly referenced. This ad certainly defines a young, cool niche. But do people really care that their phone company (sorry, “mobile services provider”) recognizes their hipness?

The booklet is just one piece of the campaign. Their 2.ish HelioSocial allows users to post their own “rules” for dating, college and the office, which are rated on a DIS-DIG scale. Personally, we liked College Rule #39, “Read the rules before posting a new rule!!! I get it. Headset on all day=tool. But is it necessary to post it 20 times?!?!?! Jesusinapinktutudoingthepolkachrist!!”

Ah, the hazards of user created content. It turns out that a group like-minded individuals all have the same, like, minds.

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