Curiousity-driven work

Jason Fried wrote about what he calls the “Two i’s” – important and interesting:

For a long time I’ve felt like the only thing worth working on is the next most important thing. Why spend time working on something that’s less important if there’s something more important that needs work?

I’ve changed my mind on this. I think it’s always good to be working on two things: The next most important thing, and the next most interesting thing.

Last week, Kinnon and I attended an event at MaRS that featured Bill Buxton and Bill Reeves in conversation. In it, Bill Buxton talked about  “curiosity-driven work.” He lamented that so many technical people at universities are focused on building businesses and commercially viable projects, rather than pursing what truly piques their interest (even if it might not be financially fruitful).

“You can’t predict where the great ideas are going to come from,” Buxton said. “The university needs to cultivate smart people with imagination.”

Rings true to me.

It seems like a lot of what ends up being important starts out as simply interesting.

“The details are not the details. They make the design.”

So the other day, on the walk back from the grocery store, I listened to this past week’s On The Media. It began with a question:

is the Golden Age of content sustainable, or just a supernova, a dying star burning exceptionally bright?

Then, thirty-one minutes and forty-five seconds later, a small bit of instrumental music underneath an extro and sponsor read. The tune sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place where I’d heard it before.

Then it clicked.

“Champagne Supernova” by Oasis.

A tiny detail, easy to miss. But boy oh boy, that’s craftsmanship.

The CBC’s crummy low-bitrate MP3 streams, and what to do about them

About six weeks ago, without any apparent warning, CBC Radio One’s audio streams switched from MP3 audio to AAC.

aac stream details

This left a number of people unable to listen to streaming audio, namely those with internet radio receivers that don’t support AAC.

Luckily, a commenter named Brian let me know that Radio One MP3 streams still exist:

The trick is to change the “H” to an “L” in the URLs.

Thus,

http://playerservices.streamtheworld.com/pls/CBC_R1_HFX_H.pls

becomes

http://playerservices.streamtheworld.com/pls/CBC_R1_HFX_L.pls

and you get an MP3 stream, compatible with your MP3-only internet radio receiver.

But there’s a pretty big caveat here. While the MP3 streams still exist, they sound like garbage. Crunchy, low-bitrate garbage. And indeed, they are low-bitrate. They’re 32kbps MP3s, with a sampling rate of 11025 Hz:

mp3 stream details

Quick audio lesson: the range of human hearing is approximately 20 to 20,000 Hz. There’s something called the Nyquist theorem that says that to properly reproduce sound, the sampling rate of a digital recording should be twice the highest frequency contained within that sound. If the upper range of human hearing is 20,000 Hz, then you need a sampling rate twice that (this is part of the reason CD audio’s sampling rate is 44.1kHz).

So, yeah. The CBC Radio One MP3 streams have a sampling rate that’s 1/4th that of CD audio. They sound crummy. Understandably, this has some listeners frustrated. And for some reason, these frustrated listeners find their way to my blog.

What to do?

This past week, at the CBC Broadcasting Centre, I ran into two people who should have the power and authority to get the MP3 streams back up to a respectable bitrate. I asked them what frustrated listeners should do. The response: contact CBC Audience Relations and let them know that you aren’t happy with the low-bitrate MP3 streams.

Both of the people I talked to were aware of the lowered bitrate, and are building a case for restoring the previous bitrate.

I can’t pretend to know the myriad reasons why they can’t just flip a switch somewhere immediately, but apparently, measurable audience feedback is an important part of getting these higher-bitrate MP3 streams back.

So again, if you’re frustrated by 32kbps MP3 streams, contact CBC Audience Relations. And tell ’em Dan sent you.

“At every age we’re wrong”

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of laughing at our former selves.

So then, I rather enjoyed John Tierney’s NYT piece about new research into people’s self-perceptions:

“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

Though this part hit a little too close to home:

Dr. McAdams was reminded of a conversation with his 4-year-old daughter during the craze for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 1980s. When he told her they might not be her favorite thing one day, she refused to acknowledge the possibility. But later, in her 20s, she confessed to him that some part of her 4-year-old mind had realized he might be right.

Something to keep in mind for the next GRTTWaK.

(via Dave Pell’s NextDraft newsletter)

“Loyalty” ≠ Loyalty

Apparently, CBC management is thinking about a “loyalty” program:

[T]he CBC is considering adding game-like challenges on its websites, offering reward points to keep people engaged with the broadcaster’s programming, an approach known in the retail business as “gamification.”

Setting aside my belief that most “loyalty” programs are creepy, I find this announcement troubling on a deeper level. Personally, I’d prefer that the CBC focus less on “loyalty,” and more on loyalty.

How exactly do you build loyalty? Consistently make quality stuff that people want and use.

I consider myself a loyal listener to lots of programs: On the Media, TAL, a bunch of 5by5 and Mule Radio and indie podcasts, Radiolab, Bullseye, etc.

What do these shows (and their respective distributors and networks) have in common? Certainly not reward points or “gamification.” Quite simply, they make quality stuff I want to listen to.

You can’t earn my loyalty by offering me 10 reward points for every episode of Dragons’ Den I watch (even if I can trade those points in for a DVD box set of Mr. DressUp).

You earn my loyalty by consistently making great stuff that I find relevant and useful.

All-you-can-watch movies

If you ever find yourself in France for a year, and you want some serious bang for your entertainment buck, I suggest you look no further than an unlimited movie subscription from your local cinema.

At the end of January, Jenna and I signed up for something called UGC Illimité 2. For a flat rate (€35.50/month, plus a one-time setup fee of €30), membership entitles a primary cardholder plus one guest to all-you-can-watch movies, without restrictions.

With two UGC locations within walking distance, and a lot of time on our hands, we tried hard to improve our French comprehension through cinema. Sure we saw some duds, but on the whole, I think going to the movies was reasonably educational. The French films were great for training our ears, and the English films (with French subtitles) were great for our reading and simultaneous translation skills.

We made sure to keep all of our ticket stubs, so at the end of the year, we could run the numbers and calculate the cost per film.

Tonight I did the tally: 180 tickets.

That’s €2.14 each.

Like I said, bang for buck. I wish Canadian theatres had unlimited movie subscriptions. I’d sign up in a heartbeat.

What if every show on CBC Radio had a live chat room?

Now they do.

I’ve been thinking a lot about radio and live chat ever since I started listening to shows on Dan Benjamin’s 5by5 network.

You see, many of the shows on 5by5 are recorded live. If you’re so inclined, you can tune into these shows and listen along in real time as they’re recorded. What’s more, 5by5 has an IRC channel, so in addition to live streaming audio, there’s often a chatroom full of people engaged a meta-discussion about the shows as they happen.

Naturally, I wondered if something similar was possible for CBC Radio.

So I coded up a little website.

Essentially, it’s CBC Radio + IRC.

Using information from the CBC’s official program guide, the site figures out which shows are currently on-air, then generates IRC channels so people who are listening to the same show can chat with each other.

It’s an experiment. But I’m curious to know what you think.

Kickstarter gets a little less open

Late last month, Kickstarter quietly removed its “Open Hardware” category, and added a broader “Hardware” category.

At the same time, Kickstarter re-categorized every single “Open Hardware” project (past and present) into this new “Hardware” category.

"Open Hardware" -> "Hardware"

I reached out to Kickstarter about this.

“This is not a policy change, just a name change,” a representative told me. “The hardware projects that were not open source had no subcategory, so we decided to simplify the name to house both.”

Still, I wondered what the open source community thought about Kickstarter’s removal of the dedicated “Open Hardware” category. So I got in touch with Erik Kettenburg, who recently raised more than $300,000 with his open-source Digispark development board project. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions by email:

Kickstarter has removed the “Open Hardware” category from its website, and replaced it with the more generic “Hardware” category. As someone who’s successfully crowdfunded an open hardware project on the site, what’s your reaction to this change?

I think the change to just “hardware” reflects the quasi-open source projects that were already being accepted to the category, I have no problem with not-completely-open-source hardware but I think they should instead make two categories because open source is more consistent with the culture of the site and should be emphasized as a result. I think the bigger issue at hand is the changes introduced by their blog post “Kickstarter is not a store” – it showed a fundamental lack of understanding of the open hardware industry and what both makers and customers need for a product to get off the ground. The Digispark would not have been the run away success it was if these new limitations (max of 1 item per reward specifically) had been in place, one Digispark is minimally useful and not really worth the shipping, but 3, 5, 25 are much more useful to a maker and in fact the Digispark was designed to be a building block that one could afford many of. On the production side, the demand for Digisparks allowed us to build an entire platform around it and, in fact, launch a new American family business from it, but it seems kickstarter is saying that they don’t want to promote that kind of success, at least not in hardware.

How do you think this might impact the ability of open source hardware projects to receive attention and funding on the site?

I think it will remove one of the incentives for making hardware projects on Kickstarter open source, and that is a shame. I think the changes in Kickstarter rules will hurt funding of open hardware projects even more.

When you launched your campaign, it was originally listed as an “Open Hardware” project. Now, in archived form on the site, it’s been recategorized into the more generic “Hardware” category. As a project creator, how do you feel about this after-the-fact recategorization of your project?

That doesn’t bother me, Kickstarter like any community is evolving and our campaign has move to our website where we are taking pre-orders, hosting a community forum, and will be launching a full web store in December. What remains to be seen is whether or not we’ll launch the Digispark Pro on Kickstarter, we think Kickstarter is a great platform for getting a project out there and making it possible, but the new rules make us wonder if hardware like ours is really welcome.

Kickstarter now identifies intellectual property disputes

Late last week, I wrote about how Kickstarter was quietly removing projects from their site, despite claiming otherwise. The removed projects were replaced with a simple message stating: “Sorry, this project is no longer available.”

To date, at least 14 projects have been taken down in this way (Kicktraq has a good list). Most of the takedowns seem to be related to intellectual property disputes.

Commenting on the story in a piece for Wired, I suggested that Kickstarter should be more transparent when it comes to this issue:

Dan Misener, who runs Kickstarter project-tracking site The KickBack Machine, says Kickstarter should be clear about its policies, and provide a public explanation when it removes a project. “There’s a built-in public education opportunity here, and it would indeed be more transparent,” says Misener.

This morning, I was pleased to notice that for at least one removed project, Kickstarter is now being more transparent about why it was taken down. The project page for enclave eyewear: twenty&twenty line now looks like this:

Project is the subject of an intellectual property dispute and currently unavailable.

Rather than an opaque “Sorry, this project is no longer available” message, the text reads:

enclave eyewear: twenty&twenty line is the subject of an intellectual property dispute and currently unavailable.

No need to check the servers — the rest of Kickstarter is doing just fine.

Thanks for your patience.

This does look like progress, and kudos to Kickstarter for making the change.

But it still doesn’t address my initial concern that Kickstarter is saying one thing and doing another. They continue to remove projects from their site, yet their FAQ still claims that projects remain on their site “Forever! Projects are not closed or taken down, they remain on site for reference and transparency.”

Despite claiming otherwise, Kickstarter quietly removes projects

“Transparency is vital on Kickstarter.”

Or so says their FAQ. But if you look closely enough, Kickstarter isn’t living up to its own transparency promises.

It seems that Kickstarter has quietly removed several projects from its site, despite claiming that they never do this. Again, from their FAQ:

How long does a project remain on Kickstarter?

Forever! Projects are not closed or taken down, they remain on site for reference and transparency.

For the same reasons, projects cannot be deleted, even if they were canceled or unsuccessful. Please note that deleting your Kickstarter account will not delete your project.

But here’s the thing. Kickstarter has taken down several projects. The most recent example comes from Vinted Goods, a handbag company that raised more than $70,000 on Kickstarter. They’re claiming that Kickstarter suspended their campaign just 10 hours before it was scheduled to end.

Indeed, as I write this, the Vinted Goods Kickstarter page simply says:

Sorry, this project is no longer available.

Vinted Goods isn’t alone.

The Drone “DMND” Controller campaign from Evolution Controllers also says “Sorry, this project is no longer available.”

As does the ironically named F.I.N.A.O.= Failure is NEVER an option campaign.

And Gubble 3D: New Retro Maze Videogame.

In fact, if you search Google for Kickstarter projects containing “Sorry, this project is no longer available” it seems there are a small handful of projects that have been quietly removed.

If all Kickstarter projects “remain on site for reference and transparency” and if transparency really is vital at Kickstarter, I’d love to know where these project pages went.

Update 21 September 2012 09:50 CEST: Last night, a representative from Kickstarter reached out with this statement:

Like any site, Kickstarter removes content due to intellectual property disputes, inappropriate content, and Terms of Use violations.

Looking through archived versions of the projects Kickstarter removed, there’s definitely an undercurrent of IP disputes.