University of Chicago techies represent

I’ve been delighted but surprised to find some University of Chicago homies in the tech business recently — because tech entrepreneurship seems totally inimical to the values for which Chicago has always stood: devotion to the past, reliance upon primary sources or direct experimental data, the Socratic method, the ability to write reams of crisp expository prose on command, genteel leather elbows on a tweed coat academicism, political extremism (thankfully totally theoretical), and a general lack of contact with reality. I’d like to be able to say that an intense liberal-arts education prepares you for all things blah blah… but honestly, I would have to admit that the form practiced at Chicago prepares you for many things unrelated to getting a job in a competitive industry, working effectively in teams, or managing your fellow human beings.

For years the only other practicing techie alum I knew (besides my own Timboy, of course) was John Wiseman, who proved his great intelligence by starting grad school with Tim but then dropping out way earlier. Then at OSCON 2004 I met Ryo Chijiiwa, whose extensive Open Source social software experience eventually led to him joining the Yahoo 360 team. I’ve heard he’s already recruited another recent grad, Yitz, to join him there; and we’ve talked about non-time-consuming things we might be able to do to help alumni who might want to make the trek out here.

Then in the process of meeting venture capitalists recently, I was re-introduced to Lara Druyan of Allegis Capital — who was in the same freshman dorm as me! I actually know of two other Silicon Valley VCs from Chicago: Joi Ito of SixApart (I guess he’s an ex-VC now, and bizarrely enough I’ve never met him in person), and Tae Hea Nahm of Storm Ventures (although he’s Law School, so I dunno if he counts :-)).

Lara introduced me to Mark Goodstein, founder of the desktop search company X1 — we had lunch recently and a good laugh about some crazy Alpha Delts we had known. And at OSCON 2005 we met Alex Bosworth of Seattle software startup Sourcelabs, who runs the Open Source wiki called Swik. He dropped out of Chicago, so he lacks the full bitterness of the true University of Chicago grad; but I think I can still include him in this blog post.

Any other U of C alumni out there in the tech biz? Maybe we could scrape enough bodies together for a drinks night or something.

Dream Song 385

Around this time every year, I rummage around for this poem:

My daughter’s heavier. Light leaves are flying.
Everywhere in enormous numbers turkeys will be dying
and other birds, all their wings.
They never greatly flew. Did they wish to?
I should know. Off away somewhere once I knew
such things.

Or good Ralph Hodgson back then did, or does.
The man is dead whom Eliot praised. My praise
follows and flows too late.
Fall is grievy, brisk. Tears behind the eyes
almost fall. Fall comes to us as a prize
to rouse us toward our fate.

My house is made of wood and it’s made well,
unlike us. My house is older than Henry;
that’s fairly old.
If there were a middle   ground between things and the soul
or if the sky resembled more the sea,
I wouldn’t have to scold
                                                my heavy daughter.

It was one of the last poems John Berryman wrote before he committed suicide, but even without knowing that it captures the regretful sorrow of late November.

Online traffic schools

It turns out that Orange County is like the single worst county in California to get a ticket in. I didn’t know this, but traffic schools in California are accepted by individual counties rather than the DMV. Guess which heavily-right-wing county regime doesn’t go for online traffic school?

But I’ll say this much for the OC: they’re worse to their own taxpayers than out-of-towners. If you happen to be an actual resident of Orange County who receives a moving violation, you will be forcibly attending a monopoly traffic school called the National Traffic Safety Institute at the county courthouse. Sounds like a barrel of laughs, huh? At least I’ll be getting pizza, tickets to a comedy club, and a guaranteed pass for my eight hours of quasi-jail.

Getting MyWeb

I have to admit I was skeptical of MyWeb when I first saw it. Well, let’s face it: the 1.0 version was dreadful. Bad in every way — it is better if we never speak of it. And the whole MyWeb concept struck me at first as creepy — do you really want your friends’ friends to see what you’re reading? But MyWeb 2.0 has snuck up on me over time, and now I think it’s the greatest thing since hot buttered toast.

MyWeb is unusually conceptual, and therefore hard to explain in five words or less. When forced to do so, as in James Fallows’ article a couple weeks ago, the Yahoos tend to default to the term “social search” — which sounds good but means nothing to most people. It’s too bad that Team Y! can’t find just the right way to explain it, because the product actually has three major aspects which correspond to (and clearly exceed) some of the hottest startups on the web right now.

First and foremost, MyWeb is a personal server-side bookmark-saving-and-tagging system à la Why is this good? Because saving bookmarks in your browser is retarded and always has been. It’s not webby, it’s not portable, it’s a single-purpose UI, and any UI with folders is dead in the face of tagging anyway.

I used the web for like 10 years without ever bookmarking — I just never saw the point when search was so good. What MyWeb has made me realize is that the meat of the web now is information-dense pages that don’t change very often, and that is precisely the competitive advantage of bookmarking over searching. For saving your personal bookmarks, MyWeb is clearly better than because it’s not just a pointer — you can also save a cached copy. Here’s an example: I had seen a particular drink recipe a few months back, but it turned out to be fiendishly hard to find by searching because it had very common ingredients. More recently the owner of the site pulled all the content in a ploy to sell the property — but with my cached copy in MyWeb, I’m laughing all the way to the wet bar.

MyWeb is also a way to find out what tout le monde is reading, somewhat the same problem-space as Digg. My friends usually send me that stuff via IM anyway, or I pick it up off their blogs — and in general I’m not entirely convinced that “finding fresh new stuff to read all the time” is a problem real people (as opposed to VCs) have — but if you’re bored at work, MyWeb can help you out with the socialnetwork-filtered linkstream. This aspect of MyWeb is the weakest right now, but I suspect it will be getting better.

And then finally MyWeb is a human-powered search engine in the Wink mode. But again, here’s the key: it’s already integrated into my normal search engine (Yahoo Web Search, of course :-)). Any normal web search will also check the MyWeb corpus and bubble those results up. So far MyWeb results are excellent in quality and freshness, a bit shaky in relevance — but there aren’t that many documents in the index yet and I don’t know that the A team is doing the relevance work on that product.

One of the strangest things about MyWeb, and possibly the reason it hasn’t caught the imagination yet, is that the three functions I mention above — personal server-side bookmarking, socialnetwork-filtered linkstream, and human-powered search engine — use what amounts to three different UIs, two of which are unattractive and/or hard to use. The main MyWeb page brings up the linkstream; the “MyWeb/myweb” page accesses your personal bookmarks; and as I mention, MyWeb search results are brilliantly integrated into normal Yahoo web searches. The three UIs are boring and unattractive in three divergent ways, and god knows MyWeb could use some Ajax love — who requires a separate page to tag something anymore, for fuck’s sake? Then there’s the whole question of Yahoo 360 integration and “inviting” people into your MyWeb network, which I’m sure have accounted for endless soul-sucking product meetings over in Building B.

Since I got religion about it, I find myself evaluating a lot of the new startups I see by whether they can take on the juggernaut that Yahoo MyWeb could be. One of the most intriguing things about the product is that it’s considerably ahead of the kind of mass-market demand that Yahoo meets best. In fact, only a tiny number of users has ever heard of, Digg, or Wink, much less are pushing Yahoo for a better-integrated alternative to those sites. It’s also worth noting that this product was developed completely in-house, without any acquisitions… and let’s face it, Yahoo won’t be acquiring any of these competing startups now, so they’ll need to compete head-to-head in the marketplace while being down 160 million users from jump. Should be fun to see whether Caterina et al can make their product comprehensible and usable to the masses before the competing startups — not to mention Google, MSN, and AOL — can even get out of the gate.

Los Stinkpads

OK, I’m sure you’re all sick of my whining about hardware, so hopefully this will be the final episode for awhile.

So when I called IBM to get the miniPCI card on my T42 (which I decided to name Omaha, by the way) fixed, they told me I’d voided my warranty by installing Linux but if I took it into the shop and the paid professionals determined that my problem was entirely hardware related, IBM would honor the warranty. Piss on that, I just went out and bought an external wifi card. Problem solved! At Fry’s I was interested to see that a lot of wireless cards are now USB rather than PC card.

Next I plunged into the saga of turning my R31 back from a Linux box to a Windows machine. I got to spend a lot of quality time this weekend contemplating the great truth that if you delete the Windows bootloader (aka NTLDR) from the Master Boot Partition AND you have an IBM recovery disk instead of a legit XP disk, you are so screwed. The journey to recovery involved scoring a sketchily-licensed copy of XP from a friend, vacuuming all the dust inside my lappy so it wouldn’t keep overheating, and finally buying and installing a whole new (power-sucking) hard drive. But hey, I got a BIOS upgrade and a new screwdriver out of the deal, so who says 12 hours of my life was utterly wasted?

Online trust

A well-known social networking site recently sent me an invitation to join their userbase, supposedly initiated by a former coworker of mine. I guess a lot of other people got these things too, and I was interested to see that the spokesperson for the company waved off criticism by claiming that my email was part of a “one-time mailing to people who were once invited but never joined the network”. I’m in a very good position to know that my former coworker did not invite me to (re)join the network after I quit it on August 31, 2004… so basically I’d have to conclude that the company in question is compounding their spamming by lying.

This reminds me of a dinner I recently had with a friend who was “convicted” of running a link farm by the judge, jury, and executioner that is Google. The Goog claimed they had discovered his malfeasances through some sort of super-intelligent artificial intelligence thingie… when in fact a well-known blogger had outed my friend a couple days earlier. Google of course consistently tries to maintain the claim that human hands never touch their index, when there is now a small mountain of evidence that they do. The interesting thing is that after this experience, my friend was now dubious of how Google was counting Adsense clicks.

I guess my point here is that Web businesses that deal in personal data really shouldn’t lie. Even a very small lie undermines their credibility to a vastly magnified extent — because all they’re ultimately selling is bits, and if you can’t trust the bits there’s no countervailing value to be offered. It seems like such an obvious thing, I feel sort of dumb saying it… but on the Internet, as the poet says, there’s always someone somewhere with a big nose who knows and who’ll trip you up and laugh when you fall.