Google Helpouts

What’s intriguing about Google’s new Helpouts is that it could encroach on a TON of startups, everything from Verbling (peer-to-peer language learning through video chat) to Skillshare (platform for hosting real life classes on anything) to 7 Cups of Tea (YC startup for getting emotional help online). Google had been using my college campus to beta test by getting student tutors onboard with the platform; that’s a whole ‘nother market. Each of the services out there has a solid niche but Google seems to purposely frame Helpouts incredibly broadly. And that’s the selling point. Only Google (or one of the other tech giant as opposed to a startup) can have enough power to consolidate the entire market.

For startups that this encroaches on, not great news. For consumers, though, I think it’s seriously great. No one has cracked this market EVER (remind me if I’m wrong). When you have a problem, and I often do, there’s no top-of-mind place to get help. If you have a technical problem, you need to have a familiar tech forum, or perhaps the Stack Exchange network. If it’s a random life question, Metafilter was probably one of the few standout destinations; or maybe Reddit nowadays. Or people would tweet a question with #lazyweb and hope for an answer because that has become the easiest way to ask. In many circumstances, willingness to pay correlates positively with urgency, and damnit most times when we have a problem it’s urgent.

Now that I think about it, this is a pretty big push for Google, and not just an experiment. People don’t think about it because it’s not dealing with any new technology, but I’m sure Google wants this product to change our lives, or at least become a big part of it. Helpouts to me is Amazon Kindle Fire’s Mayday on-demand 24/7 live video customer service help mixed with Google Now’s mantra of what you need when you need it. Imagine how much that could change our lives (okay, our early adopter first-world lives).

 

 

Duolingo and me

Duolingo has always been an interesting one among education startups. It didn’t embroil itself in any debate about pedagogy; it didn’t say it was going to revolutionize education. All it was was a website, and later an iPhone app, and after that a cross-platform app that promised to help you a learn a language for free.

The original model was to let language learners translate documents and texts that could not be machine-translated (after first learning with structured practice exercises), providing for hopefully better and more coherent translation. I’ve always questioned the effectiveness and long-term value of this, and it appears that it’s not working great because it’s been pulled from the normal learning sequence; it’s now a separate page on the site as opposed to a built-in part of the learning structure. From first-hand evaluation, I would also say the quality of translation isn’t too impressive. At the same time, it has promised “no ads” and “completely free now and forever,” which I say is bold and a lot to promise. I want to say I admire the idea though; this was after all the same founder who made reCAPTCHA and sold it to Google.

That’s not a point I want to emphasize, however, because Duolingo has consistently been one of the most high-quality experiences I use in my daily life. As an iOS app, it’s one of the smoothest I’ve seen and the experience just FEELS premium (don’t even talk to me about that app icon). In terms of the learning, I have other options to learn Spanish, but Duolingo was simply the friendliest, simplest route (perhaps also a testament to user retention done right).

I was also pleasantly surprised with Duolingo’s way of teaching. I took 4 years of German in high school. In real life foreign language classes you get tables of vocabs that you need to look up and memorize. You have quizzes on them. You learn grammar rules. You get mnemonics to try to remember conjugations. In Duolingo, there’s none of that. You simply see words and when you don’t already know them you can hover or tap (on mobile) to see a definition and hear the pronunciation. Even when you’re learning a word for the first time, it’s simply presented in context. When you think about it, it’s one detail that digital does massively better. In my classroom, we relied on good, old paper dictionaries to look up any word we didn’t know. Compare that to having a definition and pronunciation for any word and phrase on-demand at a second’s notice. It is incomparable. (I am also a huge fan of this official Chrome extension and install it everywhere I set up a new instance of Chrome.)

That, of course, is only one detail where Duolingo differs from in-classroom foreign language. However, it more or less sums up how Duolingo works. No overhead, just progression.

Simply turn on Duolingo everyday, and do the next short lesson (about 5 minutes tops) or two or three or four or you can practice something you’ve already learned. You leave your learning to Duolingo and trust that it will get you somewhere as long as you engage with it every day or with some regularity. It tracks every, single, word you’ve ever learned, every single time you encounter a word, every time you use it correctly or incorrectly, how long it’s been since you last saw it. You don’t see all of that data, and it’s not quite adaptive learning, but you can tell there’s some careful tracking going on behind the scenes. It, not you, tells you how well you know a word and when you need to brush up on something. It’s refreshing to a data hog like myself, but also fascinating.

Duolingo is about learning through use, learning by repetition, learning by habit. I was highly skeptical at first that this was the right way to learn a language. After all, I had slaved through 4 years of high school German and still don’t feel too confident in my Deutsch sprechende abilities. However, Duolingo worked for me, and to a much better extent than I would’ve expected.

Among my other self-improvements after dropping out of college in January of this year, I decided to finally tackle my goal of learning Spanish and to really make it into a habit. Basing it on the Duolingo model and how much time I can realistically take in my daily life, I’ve established and maintained a habit of doing language learning for 10-20 minutes every day. I’ve been tracking my language learning and other habits independently (with Lift, if you’re curious) and as of today, I have actively been learning Spanish for 155 days. It’s not actually every day, of course (that would be 263 days), but it is still one of my most successful habits taking into account missing habits when I’m traveling. I have been complementing Duolingo with immersion (reading labels and signs everywhere, I mean that’s one of the joys of learning Spanish in America, isn’t it?) and Spanish podcasts that give me a conversational and cultural dimension.

Duolingo today told me that I can now understand 30% of a news article (based on its tracking), and from my own experience that is true. At this point I can say that I can read most Spanish articles and have decent comprehension.

I also finally “get” Taco Bell’s slogan!

This week, Duolingo introduced a few new interesting concepts: a virtual currency, a virtual store, and certification.

The virtual currency, called Lingots, is perhaps surprisingly not an attempt at monetization. It is an addition to the gamification already present in Duolingo, like coins or rings you’d collect in Sonic or Donkey Kong. The store, perhaps also surprisingly, does not have a way for you to spend real money; it’s a place for you to spend Lingots on power-ups such as extra lives. The final significant addition, the certificate, is hidden at the bottom of the store. It has a big red Beta stamp, and unlike certificates some MOOC providers are trying as monetization, costs only 25 Lingots (I already have 33, for context). It is given with a 20-minute test, and a sample can be seen here.

Duolingo is also announcing that in the 15 months it has been open it has amassed 10 million students, which is impressive when you note that much-hyped Coursera is showing 4.83 million users on its homepage user count as of today. For some past landmarks: Duolingo boasted 300,000 active users in November 2012 before it first launched its iPhone app; had 1 million active users when TechCrunch reported on it mid-January; 3 million users at the end of May, when it launched its Android app and said it expected to double its user base to over 6 million; passed 5 million “active users” in early July when it updated its iOS app to be iPad-optimized, and is now celebrating 10 million users in late September.

Phonebloks and the deeper messaging of sustainability

Something just blew up on my Tumblr dashboard. This:

Phonebloks.

The video was posted onto YouTube on Sep 10, 2013 and it is currently the evening of Sep 11, 2013 with 2.6 million views. I first noticed it after it circulated many times on my Tumblr dashboard (90,000 notes currently). It is so popular that as I am writing this Phonebloks.com is down and its campaign page is also intermittently not showing up (more on this at the end).

It’s a project created by new design school graduate Dave Hakkens who is based in the Netherlands. On his website, we find that he is a fan of The Story of Stuff.

Which is awesome, because that’s exactly what this reminded me of.

In a recent Sustainable Product Development course, one of the first things we did was watch The Story of Stuff and write down our ideas for what it says about product development.

Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote:

Having watched that, it seems difficult to answer a question on product development when our addiction to products is the overarching problem. To me, “Story of Stuff” worries me with the problems in our habits and the systems that facilitate our habits. However, product development does play a role in the system, and more of us need the knowledge and desire to change it.

 

Where I believe product development can truly be reshaped for the era of sustainability awareness is timeless functionality versus fashion. I mean that in all consumer product, not just apparel. Ditch the focus on consumer tastes and trendiness, instead go for the most simple, long-lasting way to do something. Instead of selling with emotional appeal or new features, sell on a core function perfected, a product that does exactly what is needed of it better than all other products. As Elon Musk said, you can’t just do green, you have to make a far better product than what’s out there already.

 

Where functionality can be upgraded through consumer-serviceable parts, let’s do that. Let’s pay for the ideas, not an entirely new product that is completely built from scratch and distributed but is only marginally better than the old. Simplify! Make products that can be put together with optional parts that increase functionality as desired by the individual consumer. If all products are more interchangeable and reusable, we would lose this system of single-use products that constantly need replacement. We need easy disassembly of products so that parts can be recycled at end-of-life. We want as much circular, as little finite as possible. There is definitely a market for this already; the importance is to develop with this emphasis and sell with this emphasis.

(I actually used this Microsoft patent illustration to demonstrate the concept in my class, but Phonebloks does a much better job.)

Microsoft Windows Phone interchangeable parts modules

 

I am serious about my sustainability views, and I know that selling another new product, HOWEVER SUSTAINABLE, isn’t the way to solve the world’s problems.

Still, I focus on product in my work, and product is indeed part of the system. Without products designed for sustainability, consumers have to basically rely on discipline to be sustainable in a consumerist world. It’s always an interesting and controversial way to tackle the problem, but it can work. It’s the chicken or egg problem, do we get consumers to change behavior and force businesses to adjust, or do businesses build a more responsible product that nudges consumers to change behavior? Both are hard, but neither is impossible.

There are, of course, massive implications for the world, for lifestyles, for our consumer habits, and most of all for businesses. Think: an Apple that gives your phone a planned obsolescence life of 3 years and does everything possible to build desire for its newest iPhones every year earns its money on this consumption system and will not happily adjust to a revolutionarily sustainable system. However, never forget that everything about the system that we live in today didn’t just happen; people created it.

Victor Lebow, an economist, wrote in the mid 20th-century:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption… we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.

Ask your grandparents, what did they value? It was not to shop or to buy the newest, shiniest thing. Consumerism has been growing; we are now consuming twice as much as we did 50 years ago. Yet, believe it or not, our national happiness has gone down at the same time that our consumption has gone up.

The old way was created when environmental science was on the fringe and sustainability hardly had the definition we now give it. We are in an era of better understanding of the world and change to an outmoded system is not only possible but needed.

So how does this project play a role? What’s interesting about this project is that it is not a ready-to-go project just looking for funding. The product shown in the video is actually quite conceptual, not designed in the most realistic form factor at all (based even on my surface knowledge of phone hardware). In fact, it isn’t a crowdfunding video – it calls its goal “crowdspeaking.” What it asks is for you to “donate your social reach,” to raise awareness of the project by automating a social media post to Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr on October 29, 2013. There is a platform that does this and it’s called Thunderclap.it; I’ve not heard of it before but I can see how it’s useful. I believe and hope that the creator will harness the fleeting enthusiasm and create a sustained effort.

The final and urgent point I want to express is that in this mass focus of public internet attention what we want to convey is not ooooh this is a cool new shiny thing take my money me want, it’s the deeper reasoning of why we need products to be designed like this now and in the future.

If you’ve gotten to this point and still haven’t decided to watch or rewatch the Story of Stuff, here you go:

What do I do with all this data

This isn’t actually a post; more a question I’m thinking through and asking others for any tips on.

So I have a ton of data (short observations I’ve gathered in my ubiquitous text capture system). An item or observation is usually a sentence separated from the next item by a blank line. It’s all in plain text.

So I wanna browse through this and give it some order other than just reverse chronological (I add every new observation to the top of the document).

I was starting to categorize them in plain text but then I started thinking I should really leave the raw data like this, and organize and add metadata (mainly tags I’m thinking) later otherwise the data gets all messy.

I’m thinking I should put them into an array. Don’t know a magical way to do this but search and replace can help me replace the blank lines into the correct array syntax. Don’t have exact dates for any item but I think I can evenly-distribute onto a timeline (I have start and end dates, about a year worth of total time) because all the notes are in reverse chronological order. This way I can attach an approximate date onto each item for my reference. Perhaps also as an interface tool with a horizontal timeline. Then I can display with Javascript and read it in my browser.

I have no idea what else. If I was really fancy I could try to make a way to edit the info (add tags) in browser but probably not worth the commitment. Don’t know how I want to organize or tag this information honestly. What else can I do with all this data?

Vita in the Living Room

This is one of the most unexpected but happy (at least, for me) news in a while.

Sony isn’t quite the market-leading innovator these days, and here they are making a fantastic multilevel move that should make everyone happy. It is supposedly Japan-only for now, but come on Sony, how could you not?

One of the first things you notice is that it’s branded Vita, which is GREAT because the Vita platform as a handheld console is seriously withering. As a long-time fan of PlayStation, Sony released a phenomenal hardware product with the PS Vita but the market just doesn’t need a super powerful dedicated gaming handheld that’s heavier than a smartphone and can’t do smartphone things. This extends the Vita software ecosystem onto a far more open space…

Which brings me to my second point. The television is still a fairly open space right now, and Sony would be an idiot not to make a grab at it. The television today is just a display; the television as a media portal is a whole new market. A market that has been PROVEN lucrative with products like Roku and Apple TV and countless less-marketed devices. Google has long been attempting to get into the space and the $35 Chromecast is finally a hit; Apple is clearly going to rebuff its Apple TV effort sooner or later if not the rumors of a true Apple television; Amazon is fielding rumors of wanting to get into the living room because they are a media service after all; and Microsoft is putting a ton of focus on media content with the new Xbox One.

And that brings me to the third point. Sony got a huge PR win over Microsoft as gamers puked on the new Xbox One’s new policies of DRM on reselling or trading of games. Sony is appeasing old console gamers by keeping things how they were at least for a while more; meaning, you can just go to a used game store to trade in your game or hand your game disc to a friend if they want to borrow it. However, a PR win is not a sales win and Microsoft’s content strategy could make the Xbox One quite prominent in living rooms. Here, the Vita TV provides a second option for consumers that could take eyes away from the Xbox One as a media solution.

And finally the last point. A $99 game console, are ya kidding me!? Okay, it’s not a real console but it plays Vita’s games AND has enough hardware to emulate classic PSP and PS1 titles. Now tell me how that’s not a console. The OUYA was a huge Kickstarter success yet now it’s not quite the same success in big box stores. One of its biggest problems? A scarcity of compelling titles. I mean, come on, what’s the last Android game that you’ve really eagerly awaited to play? There’s a wealth of AAA titles in Sony’s older generations of game consoles, and just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s not fun.

Edit: Specs show the same CPU (ARM Cortex A9 quad-core) and GPU setup as the handheld PS Vita, 1GB of storage, WiFi b/g/n, 1080i output. Power consumption is a shockingly low 2.8W, but then again it’s based on mobile parts. Sony says “will be available first in Japan prior to any other regions, on November 14, 2013.” Sounds good.

Another thought: Nintendo just released a cheaper 2DS handheld that gets rid of a core interaction feature of the 3DS, 3D. Now Sony releases out a Vita system that doesn’t use the new touch features but uses the same DualShock controller that’s been around since PS1. Guess we don’t need gimmicks. Game on.

What do I not like about Skype?

Its lukewarm position in my life. That's a completely vain-sounding complaint.

I don't like that it's a standalone program and I have to schedule calls with people. I want to videochat on a whim, as part of my social experience (what Hangouts was supposed to differentiate on all along).

This depends on your use pattern. I never leave Skype open, because my friends never do. So it’s just a weak shell of a social network and one more social service I would rather not have to keep track of. And maybe at some point everyone did leave Skype open, but Skype never attempted to go beyond its functionality as a basic communication service, and when our modern generation of social services came up which allowed for much richer interaction and a relational "permanence", Skype isn't so compelling. Skype is a utility that I open when I need to have a meeting with someone, and that's no fun.

Skype, and most messaging/calling apps, grow when more people start using them and grow even more when even more people start using them. That's an inherency of being a social service.

In parallel, when people stop treating Skype as something worth dedicating their time to, others close in the network also stop treating it as something worth dedicating their time to. Skype will remain a competent tool for audio/video calls with strangers or acquaintances because of its wide adoption, but adoption or userbase is a different game from engagement, and a social product that doesn't see engagement from its users becomes even less engaging for remaining users. I'm guessing Microsoft will finally try to give it more integration, but even if Microsoft were to attempt some kind of social product, Skype would not be a suitable place to start because it has little ties with Microsoft's core offerings.

I, of course, am speaking from my corner of Skype's massive network. I am a 19 year-old, Millennial -- may or may not be typical. I have no doubt other areas of Skype's network are thriving or maybe even growing. But for me, this is why I don't like Skype and it's bigger than any issue I have with its functionality or interface.

I'm not totally intimate with Skype's corporate history, but it changed hands multiple times and is profitable with a big userbase so I fear that their innovation has been sucked out of them.

My general outlook on “overconsumption” of resources

self-ownership:

Dagny Taggart: I keep thinking of what they told us in school about the sun losing energy, growing colder each year. I remember wondering, then, what it would be like in the last days of the world. I think it would be … like this. Growing colder and things stopping. Hank Rearden: I never believed that story. I thought by the time the sun was exhausted, men would find a substitute.

Ohhhhhh maaaan you are sooooo wrong on that. Or I can’t flat out say you’re wrong, but that is completely ill-considered. I totally believe in technological process, I believe in human ingenuity. I believe that if it came down to it, humans would be able preserve its species. If the world as we know it is largely destroyed and many vital species go extinct and huge swaths of our population dies, we would have to give up what we’re used to but would probably be able to survive with many artificial supports. That much I believe in technology. But no, we do not ever want to get even close to that happening. An idea that I didn’t really grasp until last year (in a freshman year sustainability class) is that all “sustainability” and “environmental” and “reducing consumption” stuff comes down to one thing: slow the fuck down the rate of change of EVERYTHING. This probably doesn’t sound enticing to your “free-market” ideologies but fuck dat economic crap. It’s not just about ensuring the world is livable for future generations. It’s not to protect nature because it’s our “home” and it’s beautiful and everything. And it’s certainly not to “save the dolphins” or “save the koalas”. Fuck that shit, they’re not even that important. We don’t need to argue whether species should be going extinct *anyway* because that’s what nature intended. We don’t need to argue whether climate change is created by human industry or not. It doesn’t matter a shit what your views are on that. What’s perilous is the rapid change itself, and what we need is to slow everything down. There are all kinds of macro changes that are happening too fast right now. And you are very wrong if you think the problem with overconsumption is that resources will be gone and then we won’t have any more. Or even that the consumption produces hazards to the environment or our health. Humans’ rate of changing the planet has grown stupendously massively since the 1800’s. I believe the figure is that the amount we’ve changed the planet in the past 100 years has surpassed all change that has happened to the planet in the previous few hundred thousand years. The thing is all life, including us, adapt to change. Yet life does NOT adapt quickly. We know cutting down rainforests destroys habitat and causes species extinction. But put that in a different way: we’re changing conditions faaaaaaar more quickly than those species can adapt to, and it’s clearly unfair because our extraordinary human powers allow us to change things far more quickly than nature ever could. That’s just on a very local scale. On the macro scale, our climate change is unprecedented and happening very quickly on a geological time scale. That’s very bad, because it affects a shit ton of things and that affects a shit ton more things. By accelerating the rate of change of everything, we are not only threatening all non-human species but also putting ourselves on a road to nowhere in a car with no headlights and an accelerator that might get stuck (um how did I think of that metaphor). When species can’t adapt quickly enough, they die. We as humans might not realize it first-hand. But we are dependent on all the ecological systems around us. We can defend our survival with technology, but our technology will not keep up. Think about how GMO advancement has slowed down after years of increasing crop yields. Think how difficult it is for us to contain new flus. The more rapidly our environmental factors are changing, the more we are exposing ourselves to the risk of things happening that we don’t anticipate. Consumption is what drives our need to alter the Earth. Population, of course, is the other massive issue; the more people there are the more we need to collectively consume. But we are already trying our hardest to reign that in, and yet even if we could cut global population growth to 0 right this second, we would still have far more population than the Earth can support. That’s saying nothing to the nasty quandary of developing nations moving up to Western levels of consumption. Long story short, slowing things down makes it more suitable for us and other species to adapt, reducing the risk of shit happening. To slow things down, we mostly need to reduce our consumption. Other sustainability-minded people feel free to examine this, because I don’t think this was ever directly taught, just something I concluded.

Everything leads to everything else.