June 1st, 2013

Chicago journalists and writers: let’s drink and play video games that remind us of our childhoods

Update: We have an Eventbrite page! Please use that to indicate that you’re coming.

I’d mentioned last year that I wanted to get something like this together, and I think the time has come. Actually, it came a long time ago, but I’m a bit of a procrastinator.

When: Thursday, June 27th, 8pm until we are forcibly removed by bar staff.

Where: Emporium Arcade Bar, 1366 N. Milwaukee

What: The headline says it all. Drink, play, and hang out with some like-minded writers.

Who: You.

Why: Why not?

If this is cool and popular, we’ll try to make it a regular thing. Tell your writer friends! And try to let me know in comments if you’re coming (and who else you’re bringining/inviting) so I have a rough idea of whether I need to warn Emporium that they’re going to get overrun with nerds.

September 26th, 2012

Today is the day the FCC followed me on Twitter

Of the 54 accounts that the Federal Communications Commission’s official Twitter account currently follows, four belong to individuals. Two are FCC commissioners, one is the Secretary of Transportation, and one is me.

Strange, I agree. But let me back up a bit. Several months ago — mostly as a joke — I decided to take up the cause of getting the FCC to follow me. I tweet about wireless policy from time to time, and I like to think that I make some good points, so why not? I can’t say with much confidence that anyone on the FCC’s side is actually reading tweets directed at the account, much less taking action on them… but hey, let’s suspend reality for a moment.

In the months since, I’d occasionally send out blasts of tweets suggesting that @FCC check me out. I didn’t have much hope, but I never gave it up entirely. I eventually got some traction: so much so, in fact, that PhoneDog’s handsome editor-in-chief Aaron Baker wrote and starred in an ad telling my story.

Yeah, that’s how far we’d come. It was starting to get serious — I could practically taste the follow. It was within reach! My grassroots effort had taken on a life of its own.

The breakthrough, though, came just yesterday when my colleague and friend Nilay Patel spoke to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski at Vox Media’s headquarters in Washington, DC. Something happened — the details are murky, but here we are twenty-four hours later and I’m suddenly in one of the most elite social circles in the beltway. No big deal.

So will the FCC keep following me? Hard to say: looking through the list, I think I’m the only person there who isn’t a government employee, agency, or building. But it doesn’t matter, I set my sights on a goal and I made it happen. Well, Aaron Baker and Nilay Patel did. But you get the idea.

Don’t let anyone tell you the American Dream is over, folks, because I’m living it.

September 24th, 2012


The internet is filled with blacks and whites. There’s very little gray.

Reviews of the iPhone 5 have roundly described it as a superlative device, and some have declared it the best smartphone ever made.

That may very well be. I don’t know, I’ve only used it for three days now, and it’s getting a little blurry at the top either way (just tenths of a point separate the top-rated smartphones on The Verge). Irrational fears of scratching and scuffing aside — it’s metal, what did you expect? — I can tell you that the hardware is beyond amazing. iOS has developed a rather thick patina in the five years since its introduction, but it’s still serviceable. In many ways, it’s the easiest and most intuitive mobile platform available, just as it has always been.

But back to the black and white: what upsets me is the notion that overwhelming, record-setting retail success and phrases like “best ever” are somehow incompatible with a desperate need for improvement. They’re not. I commented last week on Twitter that iOS is “deficient,” which was met with particularly strong reaction. I don’t know any other way to describe a phone that always tells me it’s 73 degrees and sunny, can’t tell me what bus to take to a Cubs game, and won’t let me choose an input method that better suits my needs like Swype or SwiftKey. If you can think of a better term, I’d love to hear it.

And notice what I’ve done: I’ve created a gray area. The iPhone 5 can be excellent, wildly successful, and deficient all at the same time, just like pretty much everything else in the real world.

Unfortunately, legitimate gray areas like this make Apple pundits, anti-Apple pundits, and millions of trolls around the world uncomfortable because they’re both accurate and disarming. There’s very little entertainment in civil discourse, and I don’t expect them to take off.

No coincidence the iPhone comes in black and white, I suppose.

September 13th, 2012

Chicago journalists and technologists: let’s get together

No one outside of Chicago really believes there’s any tech scene here. We, of course, know better — and it’s gotten hotter in recent years thanks to Tech Cocktail, Techweek, 1871, and many others. It’ll get stronger still once Motorola Mobility completes its move to Merchandise Mart next year.

I’m not exactly sure what I’m pitching yet, but I’ve long felt that there’s room for some sort of monthly gathering of the minds in this city — Chicago-based journalists in tech and people making great products, meeting at a bar, passing around gadgets, talking about stuff. Maybe there are some pitches and presentations involved, maybe there aren’t. Maybe we just throw darts and play poker. (Note that this wouldn’t be anything related to The Verge.)

Am I making sense? If you’re in the Chicago area, drop me a comment with any ideas or thoughts that you have.

December 10th, 2011

Where does the ‘basic human right’ end and private industry begin?

When Twitter made sweeping changes this week — changes that I find largely unhelpful, and in some cases, counterproductive — it really drove home for me that a service I consider to be a fundamental part of my day-to-day internet activity is a privately-offered venture, accountable to no one but itself and its investors. That’s not a new revelation, I understand, but it was my personal “ah-ha” moment.

And that’s fine, that’s the way innovation works in a free-market economy. And there’s nothing to prevent a competitor from coming out of nowhere and ultimately eclipsing it, just as Facebook did to Friendster and MySpace. My concern, rather, is with the tendency of governments and international organizations to focus not on the overwhelming power and ubiquity of popular services like Twitter to disseminate information and organize people — as we’ve seen time and time again recently in the Middle East and in the Occupy movement — but rather on the power of the internet itself.

And the internet is powerful. But considered in a vacuum, it’s a road without cars.

The UN’s Human Rights Council issued a groundbreaking report earlier this year arguing that the internet is protected under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in that it “has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression.” It’s about as close as the UN could come to flatly declaring the internet a basic human right without explicitly saying so as it possibly could. What the Council failed to recognize, though, is that the internet is only a vehicle for opinion and expression inasmuch that the products and services exist to facilitate it. The FCC regularly makes the same mistake in expressing its goal to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas of the US.

And that got me to thinking, exactly where is the line between “the internet” and the privately-operated services that are connected to it and make it useful? And what can’t you do on the internet in the absence of private innovation and support? I think it can be boiled down to three very critical things: searching, indexing, and online data persistence. As it stands today, none of those things can be effectively accomplished without companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook. Basically, anything that makes it really easy to get your message in front of a lot of people in a reasonable amount of time requires the help of a corporation. (Email is one of the few services that doesn’t need a lick of private investment, and that’s because it doesn’t require search, indexing, or online data persistence to function — it can work point-to-point. But it also isn’t effective at disseminating information to a wide audience.)

Again, I’m not arguing against an open market. It’s hard to look at the internet as a whole today and say that the free-for-all model hasn’t done extraordinarily well for us. But what I’d like to see is for the UN go a step further and define, in generic terms, the types of capabilities that have bore themselves out to be critical to advancing causes and bringing about change: microblogging (Twitter), public contact management (Facebook), web search, and so on. The mere capability for a bunch of computers to communicate with one another — which, on some fundamental level, is all the internet is — isn’t in itself a basic human right, simply because it isn’t useful to the average human. It’s the combination of the internet and the services that live on it that make it such a powerful, world-changing tool.

Beyond that, I don’t know. The idealist in me thinks that these “basic” services, once defined, should be globally socialized in a very generic and completely open way, allowing unrestricted innovation in the private sector on top of them. For instance, Twitter would plug into an open microblogging system and offer branding and additional (proprietary) capability on top of it, rather than controlling the microblogging system itself — it would be the car, not both the car and the road. Of course, the realist in me understands that’s a completely unreasonable notion.

I’m open to your ideas on this one.

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