Our Latest Discovery

August 27, 2007  3:44 PM

Netflix, Zipcar … Flexpetz (rent a pooch online)

SarahCortes Sarah Cortes Profile: SarahCortes

While I’ve never used the Zipcar service, I was, at one time, a loyal Netflix subscriber.  I’d love to check my mail and look for that red evelope among the piles of junk mail in my mailbox.  Now, a service called Flexpetz allows would-be dog owners to rent a dog.  Now granted, the delivery of service doesn’t come to you quite as conveniently as a Netflix envelope, but the concept is real interesting.  I know plenty of dog lovers who (for assorted reasons) do not own a dog — but would love to spend some quality time with one.

The following Business 2.0 article describes the service in more detail:


You can also visit the company’s web site for more info:


And here’s an idea for the company — how about pairing dog owners in need of “dog sitting” (say, for a weekend) with would-be FlexPetz “renters”.  I’d love to send my dog to a pre-qualified renter while I’m away for a weekend

August 27, 2007  12:26 PM

Facebook: A social network evolves into a social utility

GuyPardon Guy Pardon Profile: GuyPardon

What can I say about Facebook that hasn’t been said? Newsweek has placed Mort Zuckerberg, the founder of the social networking giant on its cover. And the press has been hyperventilating about Facebook for months.

So what is Facebook? It’s a simple idea, done well: move the “facebooks” of incoming college undergraduates online, with headshots and interests constituting a basic profile, and then create the tools for nodes on the network to interact and browse each other’s profiles.

It’s also my “latest discovery,” as I joined earlier this spring, egged on by a neighbor. Back when I went to college, we had such a thing, printed on “paper,” bound and distributed to the freshman class (and just as quickly appropriated by upperclassmen frequently interested in more than discovering who else was into rock climbing or Pearl Jam). Facebook was, at its inception, a social network for college students, with access limited to only students in the same institution. Now, Facebook has laid claim to being a “social utility,” bidding to become the platform or framework we use to organize our online lives.

Audacious, perhaps, but not unprecedented. Friendster had the early start in filling that role but never recovered from an inability of its original technical architecture to scale to massive traffic demands or challenges from MySpace and other networks.

To be fair, over the past spring and summer, the social networking phenomenon has continued to explode in popularity and innovation, but Facebook has grown much faster and pulled in the digerati like no other.

Why? There’s no single reason. While the decision to open the formerly closed network to the Internet at large is an obvious place to begin, instead of limiting membership to isolated pools of collegians, other factors are in play. Making APIs available to developers resulted in a tsunami of applications that help to further interconnect nodes within each social network has attracted enormous amounts of energy (and, increasingly) venture capital to the platform.

Choosing to keep a clean, easily navigated interface has mattered as well. While MySpace is still the biggest social network — and by most measurements, the most popular site on the Internet, the contrast between the two services couldn’t be much larger, aesthetically, as Facebook (by comparison) radically limits the visual control a user has over a profile. It doesn’t hurt that all of the young college graduates enter the workforce with profiles, either.

If you need a sense of how bound into the tech community Facebook has become, consider how Silicon Valley reacted to a recent Facebook outage.

There’s plenty of evidence too that spending time on Facebook has also evolved into a significant productivity drain (though some disagree) and security risk. (If you’re wondering which companies lead in embracing Facebook, along with the most risk, just read Elisa’s post). The trouble is that sysadmins with itchy trigger fingers may not be able to quickly shut off the flow of bandwidth by firewalling Facebook. Unlike other more informal networks, many professionals have been using to “friend” their coworkers, clients and collaborators, along with former college roommates and dorm buddies. While LinkedIn has long been the social network of choice for many professionals, Facebook has begun eating into that market. In the online social media world, the gaps between online and offline networks are continuing to close, along with whatever space remained between work and personal lives.

Netizens my age (proud members of the “XY generation” that bridges the gap between Gen X (children of the 80s) and Gen Y (folks who don’t remember life before CDs and email or who said “trust but verify“) and older may find some elements of Facebook surprising, though perhaps not more so than MySpace. Older users are joining, however, and finding a place. While privacy options for profiles exist, unlike MySpace, there’s significant potential for embarrassment and even calamity for college or career prospects for those who aren’t wary about posting photos or blog entries that don’t put them in a good light, to put it mildly. PR professionals and marketers would do well to consider the advice of social media gurus. And, as neighborhood applications crop up, there are also alarming security concerns regarding personal safety and property, given that clever criminals can posit where and when individuals are away.

While much of the value of joining these networks can be found in keeping touch with friends and alumni — and making new ones from within that social network — the amount of information that many people are adding to their profiles has also been identified as a valid phishing risk, with significant potential for social engineering hacks that allow access to corporate networks.

What to do? As is the case with the rest of the Web-based applications that have made their way into enterprise and personal desktops alike (users keep outwitting IT when installing consumer apps, apparently), the key is likely to be adaptive security policies that both recognize the increasingly blurred boundaries between work and personal life while respecting both the bandwidth limitations high usage may inflict upon a network and the need to limit the leak or theft of potentially damaging proprietary or personal data. No one is suggesting that developing, implementing or enforcing such a policy is easy, but the consequences of failing to try may extend well beyond a public relations disaster to the organization or individual who doesn’t consider Facebook to be a risk.

There are also no shortages of critics who view the closed nature of Facebook with some distaste — “yet another profile to populate” is a new form of fatigue in the digital age. Personal data portability may become a online movement. It’s certainly been the inspiration for a business plan or two. The founder of LiveJournal, for instance, has published a mini-manifesto for portable, open social networking, according to Mashable. (It may help that Google appears to be backing him). Other observers have noted that Facebook hasn’t been proven to be a rewarding platform for advertisers yet either, though the model is still evolving, as described in this excellent article from Business.com, the Facebook Economy.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy watching classmates and friends pop up on Facebook; lest you wonder, you can find me there as well. Be warned: I’m sticking with adding friends, coworkers and neighbors, lest I develop social networking fatigue myself.

August 22, 2007  8:37 AM

Purple squirrels

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Poem: A Purple Cow

I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.
~ Gelett Burgess

My mom used to like to quote that one — still does, in fact, with (or without, truth be told) any prompting. I don’t know what might ever have inspired such verse but I’m totally down with the sentiment: I, likewise, have absolutely no wish to be a purple cow, despite occasional difficulties managing being a nonpurple human… On the other hand, if I’m ever looking for a job, I might fervently hope to be a purple squirrel.

In a WSJ Career Journal article, Sarah Needleman put together a list of jargon used by various recruiters as shorthand to describe applicants.

You don’t want to see the recruiter scribble PP (poor presentation) as you speak.

TMI? In reality, they don’t likely want to hear much about your hobbies or your cat.

A search virgin is someone who doesn’t understand how the process works. Which means that they won’t behave appropriately — and aren’t likely to get lucky.

You might get branded a “mortician” if you pull an outdated and ill-fitting suit from the back of the closet (My apologies to David and Nate Fisher. You guys are hired!).

But what’s a purple squirrel? That elusive creature is the rare individual with the specific qualifications that make them perfect for the job. Score: All the nuts.

On the other hand, some organizations ask for a tad much… From RecruiterGuy.net:

Anyone that has been in recruiting for any amount of time has been asked to find the purple squirrel. It’s that perfect candidate that has 5 certifications, 10 years of industry specific experience, speaks 3 languages, is willing to relocate to the Antarctic with 24hrs notice (w/o relo), and will work for minimum wage.

(For more purple cow fun, see these parodies of the poem in the manner of Poe, Dickinson & etc.)

~ Ivy Wigmore

August 20, 2007  6:06 PM

WikiScanner: How Googlebombing Virgil led to radical transparency for Wikipedia editing everywhere

GuyPardon Guy Pardon Profile: GuyPardon

Sometime this past summer, future CalTech grad student (and self-styled”disruptive technologist”) Virgil Griffith decided that he wanted to see if he could elevate his personal home page to the top of search results for “Virgil.”

While that dream may or may not come true, there’s no doubt that the “quotes” should now be removed from disruptive technologist, (along with my self-styling). Virgil hasn’t written an epic quite yet but he’s clearly provided a useful tool to journalists and inquisitive netizens alike. Meet WikiScanner.

In two weeks, Griffith created a Web site that matches the IP addresses attached to edits of Wikipedia pages with the IP addresses listed in the publicly accessible whois database for companies and media organizations worldwide.

Using a simple, minimally designed interface consisting of a form, text, dropdowns and hyperlinks, Griffith’s site allows users to first determine what the IP address of an organization is and then plug it into to discover what edits have been made from that IP range.

By providing the means to cross reference who is editing what, Virgil’s code nearly approaches poetry, at least judging by Jimmy Wales, who told the AP that “It is fabulous and I strongly support it.”

It’s not quite fair to say that the effort is all about the Virgil Google bomb, either. According to this Wired article, Griffiths was inspired by the discovery that many Congressional offices were editing their own entries. Wondering what corporations were doing the same thing, he created WikiScanner.

As Griffiths notes wryly in his WikiScanner FAQ, the reaction to the tool’s discoveries has been more or less as expected. The CIA and FBI, Disney, Diebold, Exxon and a rapidly expanding universe of other entitities, large and small, have been editing away. Take a look at Wired’s “list of salacious edits” to see how far the count of “minor public relations disasters” that WikiScanner has enabled — and be aware that any edits that you make to Wikipedia may not be as anonymous as you might think.

August 15, 2007  2:13 PM

Got a minute? Create (or edit) a solar system at Galaxiki.

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. ~ Carl Sagan

(Public domain image created by NASA and the European Space Agency. Hubble material is copyright-free and may be freely used on the condition that NASA and ESA are credited as the source of the material.)

Oh, I love Carl Sagan! And I think Sagan might have really liked Galaxiki, a wiki site created by Jos Kirps where users collaborate to edit a fictional galaxy. You can edit for free or — if you want to play God — you can lay down a little local currency ($12 USD) and become Creator of your own solar system.

Here’s part of Kirps’ description of Galaxiki:

Millions of stars, planets, moons, pulsars and black holes can be explored using an intuitive 2D map. The site software manages most of the physical properties and behaviours of the solar systems, from orbits to the chemical composition of planetary atmospheres. Some planets offer conditions that may allow life – the idea behind Galaxiki is that community members can create fictional life forms and write about their histories on their planets. The ease of use attracts all kinds of users, so that the target audience is not limited to science fiction and astronomy addicts.

The Galaxiki physics allow taveling faster than light, and journeys between solar systems become possible within a reasonable timeframe for advanced fictive civilisations. This also means that different civilisations may meet each other at different time points, the challenge for advanced users will be to keep the global history of all civilisations in the galaxy consistent. Galaxiki is both fun and challenging, for individuals and for the community. It’s like dreams becoming true, and you’re part of it – I think that’s what makes it so attractive.

Meanwhile, back in this world, I’m not likely to be baking an apple pie any time soon. But I just might invent at least a tiny part of a universe…

~ Ivy Wigmore


August 13, 2007  5:54 AM

Could your heatbeat power your iPod?

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

It’s not quite perpetual motion — but it might be the next best thing. Dr. Steve Beeby and a team of researchers at the School of Electronics & Computer Science (ECS) at Southampton University in the UK have developed a kinetic energy generator that harnesses the energy of environmental vibrations and movement. When you think about it, Elvis was right: There’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on. And the scientists working on the VIBES (Vibration Energy Scavenging) project want to put all that energy generated to good use.


Actual size: less than 1 cubic centimeter

Although the generator is not the first of its kind, it’s said to be 10 times more powerful than any previous implementation. The technology, which has an industrial background, is being adapted for use with pacemakers. In this application, the beat of a person’s heart could power their pacemaker, which would mean that they would no longer require surgery to replace the batteries.

Here’s Beeby’s explanation (quoted in IndiaTimes Infotech):
“There is a big drive towards using wireless devices, but one of the challenges in supplying power to these devices is that batteries have a finite supply that needs to be replaced. We have a spin-out company that is now looking at powering pacemakers from the movement of the heart.

“As the power consumption of electronic devices continues to fall, the opportunity to use these devices to power them becomes more apparent. The potential is there for devices like mobile phones and MP3 players being at least augmented by vibration generators. There is quite a lot of energy available on a human such as the impact of a heel on the floor which could also be used.”

When you think about it, there’s no end of vibrational energy being generated all day every day. The VIBES team and other researchers are also exploring the potential of vibrations from roads and bridges. ~ Ivy Wigmore

August 7, 2007  3:31 PM

LOLcats: I can haz control of the Internet meme space?

GuyPardon Guy Pardon Profile: GuyPardon

Sometimes, Internet memes are just too powerful to ignore. Especially for a blog that delves into online humor at times. Witness the rise of the LOLcats.

For me, the tipping point may have been when a fellow editor emailed the WhatIs team a Schrodinger’s LOLcat.

For those unschooled in quantum theory, Schrodinger’s Cat is a famous illustration of the principle of superposition, proposed by Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. Our definition of the concept also happens to be one of the most popular pages on WhatIs.com, as you’ll often see on our recently added/updated page.

As pictured on the right, it’s just darn funny.

GeekFriendly.org tells the story of how the Schrodinger’s LOLcat was created, if you’re intrigued. Credit goes there for the image, naturally.

It’s just one of the latest creations (albeit one more thought-provoking than some) to emerge from the minds of punchy technologists and quirky geeks.

So what is an LOLcat?

Put simply, an it’s an image of a cat with text on top of it.

As usual, there’s considerably more history to the etymology of the word.

Adam Koford, in fact, believes that the idea is much older, going alllll the way back to the early past of last century, where a cartoonist (his great-grandfather, Aloysius “Gorilla” Koford) he produced a comic strip entitled “the Laugh-Out-Loud Cats.”

Whether you believe the modern phenomenon is based upon that or not, LOLcats are in many ways a throwback to the early days of the Internet, where Usenet posters would use image macros to insert an appropriate image behind text captions to make a more emphatic point.

And, in fact, that concept fully fleshes out an more accurate definition for LOLcat, an image macro where humorous, idiosyncratic or insightful text is pasted as a caption onto an image of a cat that’s engaged in some sort of funny activity.

Call them “cat macros” for short.

For once, we might be “chasing the tail” of deadtree media, as TIME Magazine wrote about the LOLcat phenomenon recently, bringing this element of Internet culture out of the blogosphere and into mass culture.

While the fervor over LOLcats has subsided a bit over the past few months as netizens hit the beaches, these furry funnies are still popping up everywhere, not just encyclopedia entries over at Wikipedia, UrbanDictionary, Encyclopedia Dramatica or Answers.com.

And, lest you think this is just about “kittybloggers,” BoingBoing has been blogging up a storm about LOLcats.

Witness this tremendous post that dives deep into the etymology of the LOLcat (alluded to above.)
Or this one, where Xeni alternately praises, with tongue firmly in cheek, a “pedantic overanalyzation” of LOLcat history.

Personally, I rather admired how the author, David McRaney, offered such a thorough discussion of leetspeak and Internet slang.

BoingBoing and David aren’t the only commentators on the phenomenon, of course. Anil Dash, of SixApart fame, made a thoughtful post about LOLcat grammar and Internet pidgin languages.

Mahalo also has a great LOLcat roundup.

If you just want your LOLcat fix, however, Xeni also linked to two huge archives of LOLcat pictures, here and here. You can find more at LOLcat.com, LOLcats.com and ICanHasCheeseburger.com.

If that still isn’t enough, you can sort through images and pages tagged with lolcat at Flickr, StumbleUpon, del.icio.us and WordPress. (This relatively new phenomenon of being able to link to tag aggregations on social bookmarking sites as useful reference material is, by the way, one of my favorite outcomes of the Web 2.0 movement.)

If those reams of LOLcats still don’t slake your thirst for cat macros, you can always make your own at either of two great LOLcat generators, LOLcatr.com or kscakes.com.

If you want to extend the LOL meme beyond cats, you can also roll your own LOL at laughingsquid.com.

Above is a personal favorite, to round out the post for those of you who love a good unexplained paper jam.

(Credit: ljg)

August 2, 2007  2:49 PM

More flying cars. And a flying minivan.

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Car spot in the future. (Note: It will become very important to mention that it was a closed course and the cars were flown by professional…um… flyers.)


And for those of you who already looking beyond the flying car, how about a flying minivan?
flying minivan

Ok, these two are spoofs.

~ Ivy Wigmore

August 2, 2007  2:48 PM

The long wait is over — your flying car is here

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Ok, we’re still not seeing any personal jetpacks but the flying car has arrived. If we had a definition for it, I’d have to go in and change all the references from future to present tense. Because a company called Moller has — finally! — developed the Skycar.Here’s Moller’s definition of what they’re calling a volantor (from “volare” — nothing to do with volunteering. No point in even calling to ask. I tried.):

vo – lan – tor (vo-lan’ter) n. A vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that is capable of flying in a quick, nimble, and agile manner. –intr. & tr.v. -tored, -toring, tors. To go or carry by volantor. [Lat. volare, to fly. Fr. volant, to move in a nimble and agile manner

It flies! Ooooh … and it’s a sedan. Room for the kids and the picnic basket!


Sign up here! You can guarantee a spot between 25 and 100 on the delivery list for only $995,000 — yes, less than a million bucks! — assuming the FAA certifies by Dec. 2008.

I’m so excited! I’m gonna get a red one.

~ Ivy Wigmore

July 30, 2007  5:11 PM

Picnik: Free web-based photo editing in real-time

GuyPardon Guy Pardon Profile: GuyPardon

Up until the wonderful moment that my camera was exposed to the wonders of North Atlantic wave action a few weeks ago, I’d enjoyed over half a decade of great digital pictures from my little Coolpix. (For some of my lessons learned, listen to this podcast). Taking pictures, however, was really always just the start of the process of importing, editing, optimizing and uploading them to the Web. While I’ve been using iPhoto and Photoshop for years for that purpose, lately I’ve been using so many different machines and platforms that neither has been as convenient as I might wish.

Last week, however, a friend pointed me to Picnik, which offers a level of functionality and ease that lies somewhere around iPhoto… except that it’s a free Web-based application!

Amazing. It’s a cinch to take a photo from around the Web or one that you’ve uploaded, resize it, flip it, crop it, use the red-eye reduction and even apply some advanced filters and effects.

There are some caveats. First, Picnik is currently in beta, so some of the more advanced functions won’t be free forever.

Second, you’ll need a relatively new PC (from the past few years) and a speedy Internet connection to make use of the application (mimimum 1 Ghz processor and 256 MB of RAM) . The Picnic FAQ also recommends at least Firefox 1.0 or Internet Explorer 5.0, which brought a huge grin to my face… if you haven’t upgraded your browser beyond those two, it may be time! Picnik is also Flash-based, so you’ll need to download and install the player to use it.

There are also other nifty features that Picnik offers. For one, you can pull a picture directly from your hard drive into the application for editing. For another, it’s easy to do the same with the major online photo sharing sites like Flickr or even from MySpace, assuming you’ve been brave enough to post pictures there. Flickr users will especially enjoy the ability to choose to overwrite the original image with an edited version. If you allow Picnik to access your account, you can also add a new photo, as I did for the picture of the waterfall seen on the left.

Sharing photos right from Picnik is easy as well; just edit and click share to email them or send a link.

It’s rare to find free applications that offer such a smooth, well-conceived user experience, combined with a functionality that’s genuinely useful. In a few short years, it seems like we’ve all become photographers. Picnik, ideally, will help take the pain out of the process that takes place after you capture the image.

[Editor’s Note: Both photos on this post were edited with the application. One is a bridge in Acadia in Maine, the other a waterfall in Oregon. If you have shots you’d like to share of your own travels and online edits, please feel free to link to them in the comments. Cheers!]

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