Optimization of Ponies

imagesI don’t think I’ve ever pondered the existence of My Little Pony fan fiction, and if I did I surely wouldn’t have imagined that I’d ever read any of it. But through a random link on Reddit’s singularity subreddit last December, I found a diamond hidden in the rough and feel compelled to share it with other science fiction fans:

Link (This link skips the prologue which doesn’t make much sense)

I am continually intrigued by the concept of “optimizers”. I posted a new link to reddit to drive some discussion on the topic, the responses were pretty interesting:

Yeah I wasn’t sure I was going to like this story, but I did. It was really interesting and made me think about a lot of things.

I almost ignored this because of the My Little Pony slant – but that would have been a huge mistake. I just got to the 3rd chapter and it is a very entertaining read. Very impressed. Author did a great job.

Oh my, that was… strangely haunting.

What about you — would you choose to emigrate? Are we destined for an “optimizer” fate no matter how much we try to prepare against it?

Read for yourself.

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Book Report #4

#4: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

This book by Daniel Kahneman was a satisfying read which made a clear explanation for the sense that I believe we’ve all had that humans don’t always use the best reasoning when making decisions.

In a detailed but comprehensible fashion Kahneman creates simple constructs such as System 1 and System 2 to explain the departure from rationality we see when Humans make decisions in certain contexts.

An excerpt from the conclusion nicely summarizes these constructs, but this is no substitute for the learning provided by reading the book in detail:

The two characters were the intuitive System 1, which does the fast thinking, and the effortful and slower System 2, which does the slow thinking, monitors System 1, and maintains control as best it can within its limited resources. The two species were the fictitious Econs, who live in the land of theory, and the Humans, who act in the real world. The two selves are the experiencing self, which does the living, and the remembering self, which keeps score and makes the choices.

Through these basic constructs Kahneman guides us through decades of personal and aggregated research showing systemic failures in the thought processes of our fellow humans.

After reading about half the book I took a rather depressive viewpoint on humanity. In discussing with my roommate and curling expert Steve Bice he provided a much more positive viewpoint in his own funny example, “It’s not like humans just sit there at dinner eating their fork and smashing their plate on their head.”

Touché, Steve, and Kahneman agrees: he makes clear in the book’s conclusion that he doesn’t view Humans as “irrational”, just “not rational”:

Irrational is a strong word, which connotes impulsivity, emotionality, and a stubborn resistance to reasonable argument. I often cringe when my work with Amos is credited with demonstrating that human choices are irrational, when in fact our research only showed that Humans are not well described by the rational agent model.

Although Humans are not irrational, they often need help to make more accurate judgments and better decisions, and in some cases policies and institutions can provide that help.

Anyone who possesses a Human mind and relies on decisions made by this mind would benefit from reading this book.

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Book Reports

As part of my New Year’s resolutions this year I’m trying to get to 25 books read in 2013.

This is an obligatory Book Report blog post stemming from that goal. Take it or leave it, but here we go.

#1: Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present by Cory Doctorow

This book is a series of short stories written by BoingBoing.net founder Cory Doctorow. Through these short stories and their thankfully brief prefaces I learned Cory had grown up on the same diet of Science Fiction as had I, with Isaac Asimov being a primary influencer.

A few short stories that stood out:

– I, Robot. While I abhor the use of this classic title, Doctorow’s rendition of this short story is not bad at all but holds very little in common with its namesake. This takes place in the future (surprise!) where the US is a regulated police state with tight controls over 3D printing and intellectual properties. The main character is employed in one of the few remaining legal occupations as a police officer to enforce IP regulations. The result of the IP conservatism puts the US in a horribly inferior position to the post-singularity “Eurasia” as referred to by Doctorow. The story has an adequate narrative slicing through the above, but I was happy enough with the presentation of a State retarded by IP regulation that the story was a bonus.

– “After the Siege” felt like a deeper and more violent rendition of Doctorow’s I, Robot, but each stood apart well enough that they’re both worth reading.

The other short stories aren’t so bad either. Definitely worth a read but it won’t blow your socks off.

***

#2: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

This book is about an old man (100 years old to be exact) who climbed out his window and takes on a wacky journey . The author is crafty with words and surprises abound in this well written book. Part of the schtick is that the old man had a life history of meeting famous people without realizing it, but it gets old about 3/4ths of the way through. Luckily the book ends shortly thereafter.

***

#3: DR BLOODMONEY OR HOW WE GOT ALONG AFTER THE BOMB by Philip K. Dick

My condensed notes:
REALLY WEIRD SHIT
1965
OLD SCHOOL
GUY
Hoppy Harrington
WEIRD
post-apocalyptic, POST-NUCLEAR

***

The quality of these book reports is going downhill, but I’m still on track 3/25 complete!

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Why I resigned from Geary Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) board

I love Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Implementing BRT is recognized by transportation professionals across the world as a proven set of techniques to significantly improve a bus line’s performance with little up-front investment in costly infrastructure such as rail. BRT has proven itself to be a real-life “silver bullet” for cash strapped transit agencies to implement serious improvements with minimal time and cost.

Imagine my excitement when I moved to San Francisco in 2006 as a fresh faced transit enthusiast and heard wind of a planned BRT line on Muni’s 38-Geary bus line! The Geary corridor is often touted as the single busiest bus line by ridership west of the Mississippi and is a critical component of transportation infrastructure connecting western San Francisco residents to the downtown Financial District. Like the rest of Muni’s lines, the corridor suffers from unpredictable travel times, poor on-time performance, lack of dedicated lanes, excessive stopping, etc. contributing to an unreliable transit corridor. BRT, I thought, would be the perfect solution — cheap, quick to implement, with quick return on investment for the residents of San Francisco.

So, I followed the “rules” of community engagement to support a transit overhaul: over the past 6 years I joined a volunteer action group for Geary BRT, petitioned business owners and residents, presented to our local elected officials, found that the SF County Transportation Authority (SFCTA or simply the TA) had secured initial approval and exploratory funding, was appointed to an advisory Committee for the BRT project, and the dream comes true, right? Wrong.

What I’ve seen in the past 6 years has been a severe disappointment during which I have lost trust in America’s regulatory framework to enact effective transit improvements.

This has led me to no other choice than to resign from my role as a member of the Geary BRT Citizen’s Advisory Committee and begin a personal campaign to revise this process, both at the State and Federal levels.

During last week’s Geary CAC meeting I delivered the below statement. In the coming months I hope to followup to this post with a series of suggestions and actions to fix our federal and state processes for improving transit infrastructure.

Below is a transcript of my resignation, original audio here.

So, first of all I want to say I appreciate the engineering effort that has gone into this project. From an engineering perspective this is one of the best alternatives I’ve seen on this project since its inception. I think it does a great job of providing the hybrid approach of increasing speed and travel time while also serving the needs of local residents and folks that need shorter bus stop distances.

However, I am concerned because we have had these conversations multiple times before. When we look at these charts that say, well, “Here’s the parking [changes] that we’re going to see and we need to do community outreach again,” I’m highly concerned that we’re doing this over and over again. In the parlance of startups, which is the world where I come from, what this seems like is we’re having developers redo the same product 5 different times without ever launching it to the public, and that’s really concerning.

Another thing that concerns me is that prior to this presentation I was curious to get a status of, at a very high level, where is the status of this entire project relative to its completion or the start of service. Instead of hearing a response to that, I really feel like that was pushed off and that is not something you want to talk about, and I really do feel like this is a core failing of the Transportation Authority’s core responsibility.

A bit of a reminder, I joined [the Geary BRT] CAC in 2008. At that time [Elizabeth Bent] and Jesse [Kohler] were running this project and they are not here today. You guys have joined this team and I think the only person that has been here is maybe Paul [Bignardi from SFMTA] since that time.

I met with [TA project managers at the time Bent and Kohler] in 2008 to express my excitement about this project launching in 2012 which was the original planned start date because that [anniversary] coincides with when Muni was started in 1912 as a rail line, and that was the first municipalized line ever.

But, since then this project has slipped, and never once during a slippage has the Authority told the CAC or the public “Here is a slippage and here is why.” We have now learned over the past few years that the expected start date is 2020. [The currently proposed alternative as presented today] is a great plan and this is fantastic, but I’m concerned this is continuing to slip.

As an attempt to try to address this [slippage] I have asked multiple times for what I would call “sunshine” on what is the TA’s approach toward project management, and one of those specific requests was to have a Gantt chart about what is the current status, and we got that about a year and a half ago and that basically said “There are 3 phases, we’re in [phase 2] of EIS/EIR and here’s where we are.” I then asked, “Hey, can we have a Gantt for [phase 2] EIS/EIR.” And I’ve asked for that multiple times and that was never provided and so I’m very concerned there is not visibility into what is the actual process and what will actually going be completed and I do understand that there is some precedent for how long [EIS/EIR process] takes, but I’m not convinced that’s really being accelerated as fast as possible. I see repeating elements here like [fellow CAC member] Bruce [Osterweil] had mentioned earlier that we’re reaching out to citizens, especially the business community. I was present in 2009 and I videotaped multiple interactions with folks, this was with [Elizabeth Bent] and team, talking to citizens, elderly community members and the business community, about loss of parking. This has been done before and I’m very concerned this is continuing again.

It really makes me sad but I would like to say that I have lost my trust in the TA working on this project. I am concerned that the TA involvement is slowing this down compared to if the MTA had managed this project directly; and what I’m seeing is that this is actually happening now — because the MTA’s improvements to its operations are basically providing the improvements claimed to have been providing back in 2012. I am basically left with no alternative but to voice my concern for the record here. I have tried to have individual meetings with Zabe, Jesse and you guys and I really am left at this point with nothing else I can do. I’m very concerned and I’m sounding the alarm.

I think it would be appropriate for me to resign at this point because I feel as though my presence on this committee does not help accelerate the project or get it delivered at a date that is acceptable to our residents.

But I like this idea.

Posted in happiness, politics, tech, transit | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

New Year’s Post: Life Goals and 2013 Resolutions

I love flying. I feel as though it gives me a greater perspective on myself and the rest of the universe. I wanted to take advantage of this on my recent flight back to San Francisco after visiting my family over the holidays in the midwest. It was New Year’s Eve Day which might explain why after a few minutes of reflecting on my life goals and accomplishments, this introspection bloomed into a full set of resolutions for the coming new year.

One of my resolutions is to resume blogging, at least once a week, and although I initially hesitated to share some of the list below, I think it’s a fitting start to the new year and will help keep me accountable. I hesitate as I’ve shown my life goals to friends in the past (I drafted my first life goal list back in 2004 a year before my college graduation) and their responses have ranged from outright laughter to statements like, “You can’t be serious!” or “Those are silly, why would you want to do that?”

This time, however, I’m including a list of previous life goals that I HAVE accomplished, with a view toward recognizing that although my life goals may be strange and wide ranging, I AM serious about accomplishing them, no matter how unrealistic they may seem. Plus, now if I want to refer to them I can just google “Kieran’s life goals” instead of digging up a Google doc.

Remaining life goals:

  • Self sufficiency – $1MM or greater in liquid assets bearing yearly interest (I proved driving a cab that I can live off of $20k/year even in SF. I should be able to get more than 2% back yearly on $1MM.)
  • Drive bus for large municipal transit agency (would love to drive the electric trolley busses in SF)
  • Lead a major transit system/transportation agency to positive change (Most likely this will not be a dense city and instead will be suburban agency with a history of underinvestment. Self-driving vehicles will enable amazing revolutions in transit in the next few years.)
  • Work at university or hands-on learning institution (incubator/accelerator) as advisor/mentor/teacher
  • Travel south of the equator: South America, Asia, Australia & NZ (did visit Japan but still have other countries on the list)
  • Raise a family
  • Drive an emergency vehicle
  • Attend burning man
  • Assist humanity to positively deal with upcoming challenge of technical innovation irrevocably changing our society and economics (eg join relevant startup, be outspoken advocate/writer, political office, etc)
  • Become fluent in a non-English language – unfortunately Python doesn’t count, I’m not fluent in that anyway. French is best bet as I’m halfway there, if I’m able to live in a French-speaking country longer hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to do so. Clement do you have a vacation home I can crash at yet?

Achieved life goals to date:

  • Start a tv station (done, wiki IUSTV)
  • Experience living in a dense metropolitan area (done, SF)
  • Work in job/industry of my studies – advertising (done, worked at OMD, thanks Sara for hiring me way back in 2006)
  • Start my own company (in progress w VidCaster and going better than I could have ever imagined)
  • Drive a taxi (done, thanks Greg at Desoto for making this a reality)
  • Be a journalist (done, sort of, made hundreds of local SF news videos w VidSF, SFGate, SFist and SFAppeal; it’s surprisingly tough and not in the ways you might think)
  • Work abroad (done, thanks to pushing by Clark I lived in Scotland for 6 mo working for NHS, and Ireland for 4 mo working for Matheson Ormsby Prentice with other side jobs thrown in)

Resolutions for 2013:

  • Blog once per week – anything / no need to be work related
  • Meditation at least once per week (link)
  • Exercise >30 min at least once per week (biking for transportation not included)
  • Dress better (buy suits, dress up at least once per week)
  • Read 25 books in 2013

“Would be nice” resolutions:

  • Visit extended family with kids to help them take breaks / vacations
  • Enable my siblings Eliza and Zach to visit me SF
  • Go camping once per quarter

Here’s to 2013!

Posted in family, happiness | 5 Comments

Video SEO Sitemap Standards and Documentation get a Refresh from Google and Partners

I don’t know about you, but nothing gets me more excited than video SEO! (Well, at least it’s a close second after racing cars, driving taxis, and public transportation, but none of those pay the bills at the moment.) By the way, if you’re new to video SEO, you may want to read this older blog post about what exactly is video SEO and why it matters to you and your business.)

Last week I had the pleasure of joining some of the Google team at their Los Angeles Venice office as VidCaster prepares a beta of a Google TV app for our users. I thought most of the dev session would be dedicated to the particulars of Google TV (more on that in a later post), but much to my surprise there was a great deal of new info about the evolution of video search in general including some brand new documentation from Google on the subject of video search.

Below I summarize my learnings to share with others, all of which are public to the best of my knowledge.

Explicit push for a “Play Page” Standard

I have always been a proponent of the concept of a “playback” page or “video landing page” for user experience and indexing purposes. Even the non-technical readers can understand this concept — you have seen a “play page” each and every time you view a video on YouTube. Each video on YouTube has a unique web page URL (look in your browser address bar and you’ll find a URL usually ending with a confusing unique video ID such as “oHg5SJYRHA0“) where you watch the video, view comments and can click on related videos such as cats playing pianos.

Interesting to note, Google has now begun to refer to video landing pages as “play pages” and highly recommending their use:
> “Make sure you have a publicly available video page where users can watch your video. Google recommends using a dedicated video play page for each video.”

I am very happy to see Google et al. promoting the standardization of a “play page” as it is truly best-practice for a good user experience. Curious what makes a best-in-class video play page? Check out my recent post — 10 tips for optimizing your video play pages.

In-Page Markup has Renewed Importance

One of my key recent learnings is that Google, Bing and Yahoo are renewing emphasis on in-page markup to identify video content, in addition to (but not replacing) the XML video sitemap.

While there are a number of competing standards for in-page markup of video content metadata, including Facebook’s popular Open Graph protocol (incidentally the GoogleBot can parse Facebook share / open graph markup), Google, Bing and Yahoo have recently come out in support of schema.org, a new initiative to simplify and standardize in-page metadata tags.

What’s the Difference between In-Page Markup and Video Sitemaps? Push vs. Pull:

I like to describe video sitemaps as being a “push” mechanism and on-page markup as a “pull” mechanism. Both are important for getting content properly indexed, but they serve somewhat different purposes and work well together in tandem.

PUSH – A video sitemap can be “pushed” or uploaded to Google by any user with access to their Webmaster Tools. In fact, if you’re a savvy developer you can even automate the submission process using an HTTP POST request when new content is posted.

PULL – In contrast, in-page HTML markup on a video play page is “pulled” or fetched by a search engine only when the page is being indexed by the search engine crawler.

By combining these mechanisms, and ensuring that the data is consistent and matches on both, you can maximize the chance that your users will find valid content they are searching for.

In-Page Markup can be Harder to “Game”

One of my favorite parts of the schema.org standard is that some of the core components, such as title and description of the video, are simply plain text (displayed to the user on the HTML page) enclosed in tags with appropriate schema.org syntax. Check out this example from the Google Video SEO documentation:

<div itemprop="video" itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/VideoObject">
  <h2>Video: <span itemprop="name">Title</span></h2>
  <meta itemprop="duration" content="T1M33S" />
  <meta itemprop="thumbnailUrl" content="thumbnail.jpg" />
  <meta itemprop="contentURL" content="http://www.example.com/video123.flv" />
  <meta itemprop="embedURL" content="http://www.example.com/videoplayer.swf?video=123" />
  <meta itemprop="uploadDate" content="2011-07-05T08:00:00+08:00" />
  <meta itemprop="expires" content="2012-01-30T19:00:00+08:00" />
  <meta itemprop="height" content="400" />
  <meta itemprop="width" content="400" />
  <object (...) >
    <param (...) >
    < embed type="application/x-shockwave-flash" (...) >
  </object >
  <span itemprop="description">Video description</span>
</div>

Notice that both the Title and the Description are plainly visible to the user, encouraging site owners to simply leverage the “real” text that users can see to pull double duty as tagged metadata. I’m a big fan of this approach since it reflects the actual data visible to users and encourages site owners to be “good players” and not game the system by including spammy keywords hidden inside of HTML.

HTML5 Still gets the Short Straw to Flash in Video SEO

I’m sorry to say that the current state of indexing HTML5 video playback objects is very poor across the board and this is still a work in progress for Google et al. We have found that support for indexing HTML5 players is spotty, owing to the very nature of HTML5 players — an “HTML5 video player” is simply a regular HTML page that plays back a video in the full width of the rendered document frame.

Usually an HTML5 video player is embedded in another page using the iframe tag — the HTML5 iframe looks just like a Flash based video player for humans in our browsers. However it’s really tough at the moment for the GoogleBot to distinguish the difference between a “play page” and a “video player” HTML page. As such it’s safest to continue to use a Flash based player (or at least have a backup Flash player) until Google announces clear support for HTML5 players in video sitemaps and schema.org markup. (Again, I hate to recommend this, but HTML5 video is still a bit early when it comes to video SEO.)

Testing and Getting Started

Get started now with these updated “features” to video indexing: check out Google’s brand new video SEO docs and use Google’s “Rich Snippet Testing Tool” to see how well your pages make out.

(Or you can just use a cloud video SEO solution like VidCaster and we do all this for you.)

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