No business model is the new business model

After much shopping around for online to-do lists that I like, I have settled on one called tasktoy. It’s not very flashy, and it’s not very professional looking, but it works well, and it has a few features that I absolutely must have. The most important is that I can post new items to it using a URL rather than having to go to a special web page and click on a special button. Clicking on buttons is so 2004.

The site’s creator is Toby Segaran, a Boston-based New Zealander who made tasktoy not as a business opportunity, but merely because it scratched an itch for him. And since he found it useful (here comes the fun paradigm-shifting part) he thought, “Say, while I’m at it, why not make this available to everybody in the entire world?”

One reason being cited for all the recent proliferation of hot young Web 2.0 companies is that the cost of launching a business has plummeted since Bubble 1.0. Some cheap hardware, a handful of open source software, and a good idea can take you pretty far these days. But if making a company is dirt cheap, then so is not making a company. I read some recent musings by Toby Segaran in his blog, and the following passage hit me on the head like a figurative heavy thing:

A number of people have emailed and asked me how I’m making money from tasktoy and lazybase. Others have said, somewhat critically, in blog postings and forum comments that they just “don’t see the business model” for such applications. The truth is that I don’t make any money from these applications. They were never intended to be a business. I wrote them because I wanted them, it was an opportunity to learn something new, and like most people I love creating things.

I determined that for less than I spend on coffee, I could put them online and share them with everyone.
… There is no business, and there is no business model. Think of something that you would do anyway and imagine being sent thank-you notes from all over the world just for doing it, and you’ll see why there doesn’t have to be.

I added those italics, because that’s the part that really knocked me on the head. For less than he spends on coffee, he can run a service that adds significant ongoing value to my life and the lives of hundreds of others. Tasktoy is a service I would pay for. At any other time in the history of mankind, it’s a service that would absolutely demand payment or subsidy. This kind of new age gifting is bound to have a significant economic impact over time. Software gets more interesting every day.

Stump the Semiotician

I just got back from a vacation in northern California, and while I was strolling down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, I happened across this sign at the Mediterranean Cafe.

I haven’t seen a sign like this in a long time, but I suspect partial nudity is a bigger problem in Berkeley than in most of the places I frequent. Seeing this sign reminded me of another sign outside the playground just around the corner from my house. I often go there with my kids.

These signs have similar syntactical construction. What about their semantics? If we believe both signs follow the condition-consequence model, then the following is clear: Unless you bring two or more dogs to my park, you may not play golf. Or maybe you can play golf if there are dogs on the premises somewhere. On the other hand, if each is merely a list of negatives, then it follows that patrons of the Mediterranean Cafe should expect neither a shirt, nor shoes, nor service of any kind. How they stay in business is anybody’s guess, but presumably they have no objection to partial nudity, since they dispense no clothes.

Do you find semantic sharpshooting entertaining or intensely irritating? Know any weirdly ambiguous signs? I want to hear about them.

Animal-like robots

We’re definitely entering a new realm with robotics. Before robotic motion was always painfully awkward and stilted, not something you would ever mistake for the smooth motion of an animal. But these days you can find plenty of examples of remarkably fluid “un-robotic” behavior. Things will progress very rapidly from here. The YouTube video below shows human-controlled robots. They’re being driven by remote control, but they’re still a treat to watch.

This next example is a video of a robotic eel, and it truly has to be seen to be believed. Again, it’s radio-controlled, but still, LOOK AT THAT FELLER SWIM! Straight out of a Bond movie.

Tattoos Sacred and Profane

You may have heard about, the site that tracks amusing abuses of the English language in Japan (“Let’s happy and feel the lucky!”). But what about the view from the other side? Are Americans abusing Asian languages by any chance? Yes they are, and whereas Japanese have a knack for zany T-shirts and signs, Americans prefer to make their mistakes in the form of permanent tattoos. Tian Tang, an engineering student who lives in Arizona now but was born in China, has a site called Hanzi Smatter that is dedicated to airing the kinds of mistranslations, mistransliterations, and textual nonsense that pass for Chinese in American pop culture. Recently he’s been getting some high-profile press:

Cool Tat, Too Bad It’s Gibberish – New York Times
Indelibly lost in translation – Los Angeles Times

The whole concept of what people look for in a tattoo, and what constitutes magical writing, has fascinated me for some time, so I collected my thoughts in the somewhat longer ramble below.

Continue reading “Tattoos Sacred and Profane”

Chimpanzees in context

Jane Goodall and her team are still at it, observing chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, but now they, like every other primate on the face of the earth, are also blogging. What’s interesting, even beyond the bit about the chimps, is the fact that the blog appears (primarily) in Google Earth rather on a web page. This allows you to see exactly where Emily saw Fifi’s eighth child Flirt. In a more general sense, it answers the question “Okay, I know chimpanzees come from Africa, but where in Africa? It’s a big place, after all.” Seeing the Gombe preserve set among the mountains of along the shores of Lake Tanganyika and then reading about camp life provides more tangible context than the maps in National Geographic ever did. Plus it’s got news you can use: if you visit, put your shoes in the “large cage where we hang the laundry… because if you leave those things outside unprotected, you will almost certainly lose them to a crafty baboon or chimp.”