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Monday, December 22, 2014


Original Story:

This fall, Susan Wojcicki, the chief executive of YouTube, appeared on a panel at Vanity Fair’s inaugural technology conference in San Francisco. Sitting on the same stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts where Steve Jobs once introduced the iPad to the world, she discussed the future of the media with Richard Plepler, the chief executive of HBO.

At one point, the moderator asked Ms. Wojcicki if she thought cable television would still be around in 10 years. She paused for a moment before answering, with a bit of a sly smile, “Maybe.” The crowd laughed, even though just about everyone in the packed auditorium knew she was only half-joking.

If cable TV is gone in a decade, Ms. Wojcicki and the global digital video empire over which she presides will be one of the main causes. YouTube, founded in 2005 as a do-it-yourself platform for video hobbyists — its original motto was “Broadcast Yourself” — now produces more hit programming than any Hollywood studio.

Smosh, a pair of 20-something lip-syncing comedians, have roughly 30 million subscribers to their various YouTube channels. PewDiePie, a 24-year-old Swede who provides humorous commentary while he plays video games, has a following of similar size. The list goes on and on. For the sake of perspective, successful network television shows like “NCIS: New Orleans” or “The Big Bang Theory” average a little more than half that in weekly viewership. The 46-year-old Ms. Wojcicki — who will soon give birth to her fifth child — has quietly become one of the most powerful media executives in the world.

It wasn’t so many years ago that the entertainment establishment thought it might be able to kill off YouTube with copyright lawsuits. Now agencies like United Talent and William Morris Endeavor are scrambling to sign up the site’s native stars, and prominent studios are paying huge sums to acquire companies that bundle together YouTube channels. Last year, DreamWorks Animation bought one such bundler, AwesomenessTV, for $33 million upfront. (It’s already looking like a bargain: This month, DreamWorks sold a 25 percent stake in Awesomeness at a valuation nearly 10 times that.) In March, the Walt Disney Company paid $500 million for Maker Studios, a different company in the same business.

Every day, one billion people around the world watch more than 300 million hours of videos on YouTube. In November, 83 percent of Internet users in the United States watched a video on YouTube, according to comScore.

Yet for all of its influence as a cultural force, YouTube is still finding its way as an economic one. Viewers may be migrating online in droves from traditional television, but the advertising dollars have not yet followed. The marketing research company eMarketer estimates that YouTube will log about $1.13 billion in ad revenue in 2014, a small fraction of the $200 billion global TV advertising market. CBS, for instance, brought in nearly $9 billion last year.

It’s not that corporations aren’t eager to advertise online; they’re desperate to reach the younger demographic that chooses digital video over cable or broadcast TV. But advertising on YouTube isn’t like advertising on television. Subscribers don’t translate neatly into viewers. Airtime on TV is finite. Airtime on YouTube is effectively unlimited — 300 hours of new content are uploaded to the site every minute — which suppresses the value of ads across the platform.

Above all, the quality of most YouTube programming is too unpolished to draw big investments from many blue-chip advertisers. “Despite YouTube’s size, a tiny fraction of it is what we call ‘TV replaceable,’ content where we would take TV money and swap it over to YouTube,” said one ad executive who spoke on condition of anonymity because he does business with YouTube. “It’s a funny thing to be sitting on top of something this massive and not really be able to totally control what you’re selling advertising against.”

YouTube creators, meanwhile, complain that the company takes too much of the ad revenue — as much as 49 percent — and does too little to market and promote its stars, which makes it hard for them to leverage their celebrity. The danger for YouTube is that it will become a kind of farm system, developing talent that is picked off by other distributors that are willing to make bigger investments in it. Netflix has already been trying to lure away YouTube creators, as has Vessel, a web video start-up founded by a former chief executive of Hulu.

Right now, YouTube’s red-and-white “play” button is everywhere; the site dominates online video. But competition for eyes and advertisers is coming from pretty much every direction. Not only are traditional TV networks like CBS and HBO moving content online, but digital media like Instagram and Twitter are increasing their video offerings. So is Facebook, with its vast numbers of users and global presence. Some of YouTube’s most popular channels feature people playing video games; to protect this franchise, Google, YouTube’s owner, recently tried to buy Twitch, an enormously successful video game streaming site. It was outbid by Amazon.

These are some of the known quantities. There are also unknown ones: the legions of young, tech-knowledgeable entrepreneurs who were raised on YouTube and think they can build something better. It’s worth remembering that the idea for YouTube was hatched at a dinner party in San Francisco less than 10 years ago. Just as abruptly as it changed how we watch TV, it could become the victim of disruption itself.

It’s Ms. Wojcicki’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen.

A Daughter of Silicon Valley

Not long after the Vanity Fair conference, I visited Ms. Wojcicki on a brisk, sunny November day in Northern California. YouTube’s headquarters are across the street from a Carl’s Jr. in San Bruno, about halfway between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The space is open and airy, and filled with predictable college-dorm-style touches — putting green, foosball table — as well as a steep, triple-chuted red slide. “No children or guests,” the sign next to it warns.

Ms. Wojcicki runs a media company that has been valued at $40 billion, yet her office has none of the expected trappings — no bronze statuettes or pictures of her posing with movie stars. On her bookshelf is a photograph of her oldest son’s recent bar mitzvah and a small box filled with her various business cards from Google. (She was employee No. 16.) She flipped through the cards nostalgically, remembering an early task as the company’s first marketing manager: redesigning Google’s logo. (She changed the typeface and removed an exclamation point.)

Nor is there any media-mogul swagger about her. During our conversations, she didn’t hold forth on the changing nature of entertainment or lay out a bold vision for YouTube’s future. She volunteered that she was still learning about content and, for that matter, getting a handle on YouTube’s place in the entertainment ecosystem.

“I didn’t really get how different a medium this was until I got here,” Ms. Wojcicki said. She was seated on her office couch, flanked by red throw pillows embroidered with YouTube “play” buttons and wearing a maternity shirt and jeans. As she spoke, music drifted up from the eucalyptus-lined courtyard beneath her window, where hundreds of YouTube employees were drinking microbrew ale and eating sliders at their weekly Friday afternoon social.

Silicon Valley legend has it that Google was started in Ms. Wojcicki’s garage in Menlo Park in 1997. This is not the whole truth. The company’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, also rented three of her four bedrooms for their start-up. It was the first home for Ms. Wojcicki and her husband, but according to the words scrawled across a whiteboard inside, it was also “Google Worldwide Headquarters.” Their monthly rent of $1,700 gave Google’s early employees access to the hot tub and washer-dryer, too.

Ms. Wojcicki was raised in Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley, the oldest of three girls who would all go on to high-powered careers. Her middle sister, Janet, is a medical anthropologist and an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied obesity in the United States and the decriminalization of prostitution in South Africa. Her youngest sister, Anne, is the chief executive of 23andMe, a biotech company near Google headquarters that specializes in genetic testing. (Anne also married Mr. Brin, though they are now separated.)

The sisters grew up on the campus at Stanford, where their father, Stanley, taught physics. A next-door neighbor was George Dantzig, the mathematician who invented a widely used algorithm known as the simplex method. Many of their family’s friends were scientists.

“Part of what makes us successful in this valley is that we’re used to people who are superanalytical and not supersocial,” Anne told me one morning at her office in Mountain View. “Our childhood was spent with people who challenged Einstein.”

Their mother, Esther, taught English and journalism at Palo Alto High School. After winning a state grant for several early Macintosh computers in 1987, she started putting out one of the country’s first computerized high school newspapers. “I have to admit that I had no idea how to even turn them on when they arrived,” Esther told me.

Susan was hard-working and goal-oriented. She went to Harvard, concentrating on history and literature. “We didn’t know anything outside of academia,” Anne told me. " When she graduated, we were all like: ‘What are you going to do? You’re going to get a job that you have to go to every day? That’s terrifying.’ ”

Ms. Wojcicki didn’t really know what she was going to do herself. She settled on technology after a stint as a photographer at an English-language newspaper in India — she came home in a sari for Anne’s high school graduation — and a pair of graduate degrees in business and economics.

She was working at Intel when Mr. Page and Mr. Brin offered her a job. It wasn’t an easy decision. Ms. Wojcicki was pregnant with her first child and still paying off her business school loans. She was nothing if not sensible about money. Growing up, frugality had been a kind of family religion. When the Wojcickis went out to Sizzler for dinner, they would get three all-you-can-eat meals for the five of them.

Google had no revenue, and a small, predominantly male staff, most of whom had just graduated from college. Mr. Page and Mr. Brin hadn’t even thought about the company’s maternity-leave policy until Ms. Wojcicki asked.

There was financial upside, at least. “If it works out, I could make a million dollars,” Ms. Wojcicki told Anne, whose jaw dropped at the number. Susan, of course, is now worth hundreds of millions. “The Internet was happening, it was happening all around me, and I wanted to be part of it,” Ms. Wojcicki said. “I could tell that Google was going to go somewhere. I wasn’t sure where, but I could tell that it was going to go someplace interesting.”

Ms. Wojcicki became Google’s first mother and most senior female executive. She helped recruit and train Sheryl Sandberg, who is now the chief operating officer of Facebook and the author of “Lean In,” the manifesto on women in the workplace. “When I was there, she was the working mother at Google,” Ms. Sandberg told me. “She’s the one who showed me it could be possible.”

As both the company and her family continued to expand, Ms. Wojcicki almost accidentally created a model for female tech executives like Ms. Sandberg to follow. Ms. Wojcicki is home for dinner with her family almost every night — her husband, Dennis Troper, is a director at Google — and she generally doesn’t answer weekend emails until 9 p.m. on Sundays. “Productivity and success in this industry are based a lot of the time on insights and prioritization and actually on doing the right thing, not necessarily on 15-hour work days,” she said. “Google is very results-oriented.”

A Video Epiphany

When Ms. Wojcicki was named chief executive of YouTube in February, succeeding Salar Kamangar (Google employee No. 9), it was a kind of homecoming. In 2005, she was a leader of Google’s first foray into video, a short-lived product that came to be known as Google Video. It seemed to Ms. Wojcicki that people might want to watch videos on their computers, but she wasn’t sure what sorts of videos would appeal to them. After a little experimentation at Google Video, she figured it out. The well-known TV clips that she licensed drove just a fraction of the traffic of a video uploaded by some college students in China of themselves singing and dancing in their dorm room to the Backstreet Boys.

“That for me was the insight that this market really does matter,” Ms. Wojcicki said. “People want to see other people all over the world. They want to share experiences. They love their TV and they love their shows, but they’re also interested in seeing new and different creators and new and different types of video.”

The only problem was that Google Video was getting crushed by a competing start-up, and Ms. Wojcicki thought it was too late to catch up. So she encouraged Mr. Page and Mr. Brin to scrap Google Video and buy that start-up, YouTube, for $1.65 billion.

It was a steep price — YouTube had no revenue and was embroiled in copyright disputes — and the deal was widely criticized, even ridiculed, at the time. But eight years later, YouTube has become central to its parent company’s financial future. Google depends heavily on the ad revenue from its search engine, but that ad growth has begun to slow. People are spending more and more time on their mobile phones, which thus far haven’t proved very ad-friendly. YouTube’s extraordinary reach and the booming popularity of online video make it an obvious candidate to help offset these declines.

At this point in YouTube’s evolution, it might have made sense for Mr. Page to bring in a seasoned media executive to run the company. But Google typically prefers to recruit its leaders from inside. And Ms. Wojcicki had some relevant experience: She had helped build Google’s $50 billion-plus ad business. “YouTube is one of the most used media assets in the world and one of the most undermonetized media assets in the world,” Mary Meeker, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, told me. “That’s exactly what the Google search bar was when Susan first focused on advertising.”

Video advertising, though, is a very different proposition. Advertising on Google is the modern-day equivalent of buying space in the Yellow Pages. Producing digital video ads requires a much bigger investment, and companies expect their ads to be placed strategically against high-quality and appropriate content.

Those who have worked with Ms. Wojcicki describe her less as a visionary thinker than an open-minded and analytical one. There’s an argument to be made that her understated manner could be an asset as she makes her way in a rapidly changing, competitive industry where people are naturally wary of one another. “I think she’s somewhat nonthreatening,” Ms. Meeker said, “and I mean that in a good way.”

Betting on Its Own Stars

The day I visited YouTube, in November, the company had just unveiled a new subscription-music service. YouTube is the world’s most popular music platform; someone, somewhere has uploaded just about every song imaginable to the site. And all of them are available for free streaming at a click.

But the company decided that there was a market for a premium service, so it rolled out Music Key. For $8 a month, YouTube will provide users with better-quality audio and remove advertising from music videos. The new service was at least partly a response to pressure from a music industry that had grown frustrated with YouTube’s stingy royalty payment structure. But it also represents a potential new source of revenue for YouTube. Plans for Music Key were already underway when Ms. Wojcicki arrived at YouTube, but she describes them as a “first step” toward more subscription services without ads.

The subscription model, like everything YouTube does, is an experiment. Despite its size and dominance, YouTube remains a work in progress. For all of the countless hours of programming created for the site, YouTube has yet to produce a truly premium show. It may be hard to imagine something like Netflix’s “House of Cards” or Amazon’s “Transparent” on YouTube, but if the company wants to generate more revenue, it’s going to need more professional content.

Toward that end, Ms. Wojcicki is awarding development deals to creators. YouTube has been down this road before. A couple of years ago, it invested more than $200 million in 100 new channels; a number featured mainstream celebrities like Shaquille O’Neal and Ashton Kutcher. YouTube calls the effort a success, though the consensus in the entertainment industry is that it failed to create any real breakout channels.

Either way, the conclusion was that YouTube is its own entertainment universe with a unique breed of programming and talent. This time, the company will invest only in native YouTubers, spending an undisclosed amount to help cover the production and marketing costs for a number of new shows. “We want to invest in people who understand the environment,” Ms. Wojcicki said.

These investments are part of a broader effort to quell the long-simmering revolt among YouTube creators. “They have the recognition so they’re kind of halfway there,” Ms. Wojcicki said, “but how do we give them the same options or the same economics that they would be able to get in other places?”

The goal is to bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and Hollywood, to turn YouTube stars into just plain stars. To help get them there, Ms. Wojcicki has led a major marketing push — YouTube’s first — with billboards, magazine ads and even traditional TV commercials for some of its most popular celebrities. She has also been wooing potential advertisers. During her first few months on the job, she met with representatives of a variety of major companies, including PepsiCo, L’Oréal and Unilever.

In the past, when advertisers bought packages on YouTube, they never knew quite where their ads would appear — a big problem, given the wide range of material on the site. Ms. Wojcicki is trying to solve that in part with a new product called Google Preferred, which allows companies to target the site’s best-performing content across a variety of categories. Early signs have been encouraging: YouTube’s anticipated advertising revenue for 2014 is up 40 percent from last year’s, according to eMarketer. The net effect of these initiatives is that YouTube is doubling down on its biggest stars. “That’s always been my struggle with them,” said Brian Robbins, the founder of AwesomenessTV. “Look, if you guys want to get into this business, you have to make bets and you have to market those bets and you have to get lucky. That’s show business, and it’s exactly the opposite of their business: ‘We don’t promote anything; we let the community decide.’ ”

It’s a logical move for the company, but not without risk. The power of YouTube is bound up in its grass-roots, democratic identity — in the possibility that a group of college students in China can upload a goofy video in their dorm room that will be seen by millions of people all over the world. YouTube’s multitude of smaller creators and hobbyists may not be attracting advertising dollars to the site, but, taken together, they give the site its defining feature: its towering scale. Without them, YouTube would no longer be YouTube.

While I was in San Bruno, I sat in on a meeting in a small conference room about the beta version of Music Key. A group of marketing executives and engineers — a few with “play” button stickers on their laptops — were gathered around a table, listening to a run-through of the early numbers: how many sign-up requests, how many mentions on social media, how much news coverage. Ms. Wojcicki was seated at the head of the table, not so much directing the conversation as guiding it with questions and suggestions.

Most of the talk revolved around the feedback YouTube had received from its partners and users and the changes the company might make to the service in response. It struck me as unusual that a company would introduce such a major product with so much fanfare, then immediately begin discussing how to tinker with it.

I asked Ms. Wojcicki about it later, after a party honoring YouTube employees who were promoted in recent months. “Whenever we launch a product, there’s always something we didn’t expect,” she said. “Things are always changing. Part of being successful here is being comfortable with not knowing what’s going to happen.”


Original Story:

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has sought China’s help in recent days in blocking North Korea’s ability to launch cyberattacks, the first steps toward the “proportional response” President Obama vowed to make the North pay for the assault on Sony Pictures — and as part of a campaign to issue a broader warning against future hacking, according to senior administration officials.

“What we are looking for is a blocking action, something that would cripple their efforts to carry out attacks,” one official said.

So far, the Chinese have not responded. Their cooperation would be critical, since virtually all of North Korea’s telecommunications run through Chinese-operated networks.

It is unclear that China would choose to help, given tensions over computer security between Washington and Beijing since the Justice Department in May indicted five hackers working for the Chinese military on charges of stealing sensitive information from American companies.

The secret approach to China comes as American officials, convening a half-dozen meetings in the White House Situation Room last week, including one of the top national security team on Thursday night, have been developing options to give to the president during his vacation in Hawaii. They include new economic sanctions, mirroring those recently placed on Russian oligarchs and officials close to President Vladimir V. Putin, which would cut off their access to cash — the one perk that allows the elite surrounding Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, to live lifestyles their starving countrymen can barely imagine.

The sessions also included discussions of “information operations” directed at the North Korean people, officials said, but similar efforts by South Korea to sway opinion in the North have often created a furious backlash.

As part of the administration effort to plan a response to the first major, state-sponsored destructive computer-network attacks on American soil, the president has asked the military’s Cyber Command, which is led by the same four-star admiral who directs the National Security Agency, to come up with a range of offensive options that could be directed at North Korea.

For now, the White House appears to have declined to consider what one Defense Department official termed “a demonstration strike” in cyberspace, which could have included targets such as North Korean military facilities, computer network servers and communications networks.

One obvious potential target is Yongbyon, the center of North Korea’s nuclear program, where the state has invested huge sums to produce plutonium and uranium fuel for its small arsenal of nuclear weapons. Because of its geographic and technological isolation, Yongbyon is considered a far harder target to attack than were Iran’s nuclear facilities, the subject of an American cyberoperation code-named Olympic Games.

The administration’s restraint grows out of a concern over the risk of escalation with North Korea, since the United States has far more vulnerable targets, from its power grid to its financial markets, than North Korea.

“There are a lot of constraints on us, because we live in a giant glass house,” said one official involved in the high-level debates. The official said the challenge was to find a mix of actions that “the North Koreans will notice” but that will not be so public that Mr. Kim’s government loses face and feels compelled to respond.

Several administration officials said the White House woke up late to the growing confrontation with North Korea, with senior officials not realizing at first the scope and long-term implications of the attacks on Sony for its plans for a Christmas Day release of “The Interview,” a crude comedy built around a far-fetched C.I.A. plot to have two bumbling journalists assassinate the young North Korean leader. But by last week, the combination of the destructive attack on Sony’s computers and the threat of attacks on moviegoers at any theater that showed the film sent the administration scrambling for a response.

In interviews over the past two days, officials said the president’s decision was to have the United States directly accuse the North Korean government — a public naming of the perpetrators that went beyond previous American criticism. Then the president, in his year-end news conference, cast Mr. Kim as an insecure leader so weak that he could be provoked by an outlandish satire, even while Mr. Obama castigated Sony Pictures for giving in to intimidation by withdrawing the film.

The attacks on Sony appear to have been routed through China and then conducted through servers in Singapore, Thailand and Bolivia. Each of the countries, officials said, had been contacted in an effort to cut off access for the hackers.

But the key is China. United States officials said that American efforts to block North Korea’s access to the Internet, which is available only to the military and the elite, would necessarily impinge on Chinese sovereignty. But they also saw in the confrontation a chance to work with the Chinese on a subject the two countries have been warily discussing for several years: Establishing “rules of the road” for acceptable behavior in cyberspace.

By some accounts, what the administration is trying to create is a computer equivalent to the Proliferation Security Initiative, an effort begun in the Bush administration, also aimed squarely at North Korea, to stop the shipment of nuclear materials and other weaponry. But in cyberspace that is a far harder task, since it is easier for the North Koreans to reroute computer code at lightning speed than to reroute a cargo ship carrying missiles.

Any financial sanctions also are tricky. The North is under perhaps the heaviest sanctions on earth. Yet the one sanction in the past decade that caused the most pain to the North Korean leadership was the freezing of its accounts at a small bank in Macau, which held the money the North Korean leadership uses to buy luxury goods — and serves as an escape route if officials need to leave the country.

Even if Mr. Obama was ready to respond with a cyberattack, it would not be instantaneous.

“One of the things people often overlook is the complexity and time it takes to launch an attack,” said Oren Falkowitz, a former analyst at the National Security Agency who now runs Area 1, a security company based in Menlo Park, Calif. “Most attacks take hundreds of days, if not years, to plan. People often want to move quickly, but they forget a lot of legwork must be done.”

In the past, other countries have resorted to basic distributed denial-of-service attacks, in which hackers flood a target’s systems with Internet traffic until they collapse under the load. But unlike systems in the United States, very little of North Korea’s network infrastructure is connected to the global Internet. The result, Mr. Falkowitz says, is that a similar denial-of-service attack on the North would amount to “ankle biting.”

Tom Kellermann, a former member of the presidential commission on cybersecurity, said one option was what security experts refer to as a “hack back,” in which they use the attackers’ own computer footprints and back doors to deploy an attack that destroys North Korea’s attack infrastructure, or compromises the integrity of the machines that did the hacking. For example, the United States could deploy a malicious payload that encrypts the data on North Korea’s machines, or renders them unable to reboot — clearly “proportional,” in the president’s words, because that was what happened to Sony’s computers.

But attack tools can be swapped out, and by destroying attackers’ systems, the United States would lose its ability to monitor them for future attacks.

Mr. Kellermann predicted a campaign of information warfare, in which the United States plays on North Korea’s worst fears by using its access to the North Korean domestic computer and radio systems to deploy propaganda inside North Korea’s closed media bubble.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Original Story:

Robin Williams topped a list that also included the World Cup, Ebola, ISIS and Flappy Bird

Robin Williams topped Google’s list of the top trending searches in 2014.

The comedian and actor, who died in August, led the list of the people, places and things that got the biggest boost in search traffic this year compared to 2013. The list of actual “most searched” terms is actually pretty boring, Google says, because it includes generic terms like “weather” and website names like “Google.”

Overall, the list reflects the way global crises co-mingle with pop culture phenomena on the Internet. Second to Robin Williams was the World Cup, which sparked widespread discussion across the Web. Third was Ebola, the viral epidemic that sparked scares in West Africa and elsewhere around the world as it emerged in different locales. Fourth was Malaysia Airlines, which was in the news first for a plane that mysteriously disappeared in March and later for a second plane that was shot down over Ukraine in July. Rounding out the top five was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, in which people recorded themselves being doused in cold water to raise money for charity.

Check out the full Top 10 below:

Robin Williams
World Cup
Malaysia Airlines
ALS Ice Bucket Challenge
Flappy Bird
Conchita Wurst
Sochi Olympics

Monday, December 08, 2014


Original Story:

Just in time for the holidays, Google is throwing its money, brain power and technology at the humble spoon.

Of course these spoons (don't call them spoogles) are a bit more than your basic utensil: Using hundreds of algorithms, they allow people with essential tremors and Parkinson's Disease to eat without spilling.

The technology senses how a hand is shaking and makes instant adjustments to stay balanced. In clinical trials, the Liftware spoons reduced shaking of the spoon bowl by an average of 76 percent.

"We want to help people in their daily lives today and hopefully increase understanding of disease in the long run," said Google spokesperson Katelin Jabbari.

Other adaptive devices have been developed to help people with tremors — rocker knives, weighted utensils, pen grips. But until now, experts say, technology has not been used in this way.

"It's totally novel," said UC San Francisco Medical Center neurologist Dr. Jill Ostrem who specializes in movement disorders like Parkinson's disease and essential tremors.

She helped advise the inventors, and says the device has been a remarkable asset for some of her patients.

"I have some patients who couldn't eat independently, they had to be fed, and now they can eat on their own," she said. "It doesn't cure the disease, they still have tremor, but it's a very positive change."

Google got into the no-shake utensil business in September, acquiring a small, National of Institutes of Health-funded startup called Lift Labs for an undisclosed sum.

More than 10 million people worldwide, including Google co-founder Sergey Brin's mother, have essential tremors or Parkinson's disease. Brin has said he also has a mutation associated with higher rates of the Parkinson's and has donated more than $50 million to research for a cure, although Jabbari said the Lift Labs acquisition was not related.

Lift Lab founder Anupam Pathak said moving from a small, four-person startup in San Francisco to the vast Google campus in Mountain View has freed him up to be more creative as he explores how to apply the technology even more broadly.

His team works at the search giant's division called Google(x) Life Sciences, which is also developing a smart contact lens that measures glucose levels in tears for diabetics and is researching how nanoparticles in blood might help detect diseases.

Joining Google has been motivating, said Pathak, but his focus remains on people who are now able to eat independently with his device. "If you build something with your hands and it has that sort of an impact, it's the greatest feeling ever," he said. "As an engineer who likes to build things, that's the most validating thing that can happen."

Pathak said they also hope to add sensors to the spoons to help medical researchers and providers better understand, measure and alleviate tremors.

Shirin Vala, 65, of Oakland, has had an essential tremor for about a decade. She was at her monthly Essential Tremor group at a San Ramon medical clinic earlier this year when researchers developing the device introduced the idea and asked if anyone was interested in helping them.

As it was refined, she tried it out and gave them feedback. And when they hit the market at $295 apiece, she bought one.

Without the spoon, Vala said eating was really a challenge because her hands trembled so hard food fell off the utensils before she could eat it.

"I was shaking and I had a hard time to keep the food on a spoon, especially soup or something like an olive or tomatoes or something. It is very embarrassing. It's very frustrating," she said.

The spoon definitely improved her situation. "I was surprised that I held the food in there so much better. It makes eating much easier, especially if I'm out at a restaurant," she said.


Original Story:

A former designer at Google took to the blog site Medium to explain—in strong but not virulent language—that the company has uncharacteristically missed a big opportunity with Google+, its three-year-old answer to Facebook.

The former employee, Chris Messina, said in his somewhat lengthy post that the company has missed so many opportunities to make a unique, industry leading product with Google+ that it's hard to understand what purpose the platform still serves.

Or, as Messina put it: "So what the f*** is Google+ for anyway?"

With privacy both an important and misunderstood concept in cyberspace, Messina wrote that the Google's lack of strategic thinking means that the development of online identity—with all its positive and negative connotations—has been essentially ceded to Facebook.

Google did not respond to a request for comment. Read the entire post below.

Thoughts on Google+
I fucked up. So has Google.

It’s been over a year since I left Google. Over 450 days, actually. During that time, I joined and left a startup; traveled to Paris (twice). I got divorced. I started a new relationship, moved, and became a bonus dad. Now I’m on the cusp of starting a new company (I think, details pending).

Any of these changes could be significant on their own, but I bring them up merely for comparison’s sake. I’m one person and these things happened to me over the course of a year. If there are roughly 3000 people working on Google+, what have they been doing during the same period?

While this post touches on the recent-past, present, and future, I’m going to start with a stupid mistake I made earlier this week.

I fucked up

I need to make a retraction. I fucked up. Publicly.

I cast aspersions where none were warranted. I called out Google+ on Twitter (in front of 68K followers no less) for a bug that—I argued—proved that they’d stopped doing QA (an essential step in the launch of any product at Google) and must have therefore and finally abandoned its social network.

But I was wrong.

The problem—as diagnosed by Googler Melissa Chang —was interference from Jesse Middleton’s Better BCC extension. Once I disabled it, the problem went away. (He tells me that he’s updated his extension to address this.)

Egg on my face. My bad. And apologies to my Googler friends Ade and Paul, in particular, for pointing out my mistake.

So what the fuck is Google+ for anyway?

When I thought about what motivated me to lob this snarkbomb, I realized I was looking for a reaction. I wanted some kind of defiant response to questions that’ve recently bugged me—What’s going on with Google+? Where is it headed? What the fuck is it for, anyway?

The last time David Besbris (Vic Gundotra’s successor and top exec on Google+) was interviewed by Recode, he said nothing. Literally.

No vision. No insight. Just pollyannaish platitudes: “We’re … very happy with the progress of Google+.”

The most salient thing he said was, “[The Google+ audience sees] Google+ as a social network for their interests.”, which at least suggests how the team must be thinking about the network internally. But if they’re more worried about Facebook, Snapchat, or Pinterest—I can’t tell. And if they have a plan and a vision for creating something new and wonderful in the world, I certainly can’t deduce it from their Oct 9 feature release: Polls (a feature I contributed to over a year and a half ago when I was a UX designer on the team).

Furthermore, if you simply look at the velocity of iOS releases across the most popular social apps over 2014, you’ll see that Google+ and Hangouts lag significantly behind (WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook this year, which likely explains their lack of updates).

Why do I care about Google+?

Dear reader, I wouldn’t fault you if you’re wondering why I give a shit. It’s not like I work there anymore. Sure, I have a few friends who do but most rolled off to work on other projects at Google, left, or started new companies. And yes, I run a popular mixology community, but it’s not like it’s blowing up or anything.

So why do I care?

Simple: for the same reason that motivated me to join Google in 2010— that the future of digital identity should not be determined by one company (namely, Facebook). I still believe that competition in this space is better for consumers, for startups, and for the industry. And Google still remains one of the few companies (besides Apple, perhaps) that stands a chance to take on Facebook in this arena—but Google+, as I see it, has lost its way.

(Or maybe never found its way. I dunno.)

It matters to me because there’s a lot at stake here—way more than the success of a mere social network. What’s at stake is how individuals participate in the web ecosystem, and whether one company will determine how we get online, gain access, connect and communicate through the increasing number of apps, devices, and digital experiences that we rely upon.

If you take the long view, you’ll understand why this moment in time is important: the companies and apps that solidify their position in our lives today will likely live on far into the future. Google is one of those companies that has already done this. I believe Facebook will too. So the fundamental problem that I have with Google+ is that I just don’t understand it. And what I don’t understand makes me nervous—and should make you nervous too.

Digital identity, circa 2014

I’ll be the first (well, maybe the second) to admit that we’re no longer living in the golden era of social networking. We’ve migrated away from the mouse and keyboard era of computing and replaced them with glossy, touchable surfaces that we carry around in our pockets and alert us to all of our friends’ most recent doings. We have access to our contacts, to information, and to superpowers that we’ve never had before. And not only are we starting to take this all for granted—there’s a younger generation growing up without any conception of a time Before Siri, and are living Post Browser.

All this is perfectly normal to them. Things are exactly as they should be, and always have been.

So why does the competition for control of digital identity matter anymore? Frankly, because as I’ve long held, identity is the platform—the killer app of networked personal computing devices (even more so as we increasingly depend on more than one authenticated device at a time!).

Digital identity unlocks universal personalization (i.e. better ads), payments and commerce (i.e. Snapcash), environmental adaptation (i.e. an Uber that plays your Spotify music), communications (i.e. Path Talk), and access (i.e. Sosh Concierge). Today’s most exciting apps are barely scratching the surface of what will be possible when there are years of preferences data stored up on each of us, that we can leverage at a moments notice, in any context.

Privacy is a four-letter word

But before you go get your pitchfork and scream bloody murder about the loss of individual “privacy”, stop for a second.

This word, privacy ?— it’s a problem.

It’s one of those words that puts a stop to useful conversations and prevents us from actually engaging with what’s going on in our digital lives. It obscures and glosses over.


Maintaining your privacy doesn’t strictly mean keeping people from having data or information about you. Certainly not preventing yourself from having access to data about yourself. Privacy is about the ability to be left alone, or about not being watched, if you don’t want to be. Which is fine. Turn on Do Not Disturb. There—you’ve got a bit of your privacy back. But that has nothing to do with the huge amounts of data you’re still producing and is being tracked.

So, given that expectations of privacy are changing (or being changed), I challenge you: what if you want to be watched? What if you were offered an outsize amount of value in exchange for allowing someone else to watch you? What would you do? Who would you want to watch over you? Who would you want to look after you and your best interests? Who would you trust? Do you feel like you have reasonable choices in today’s marketplace?

This, my friends, is the dilemma presented and the opportunity omitted by an overused term like “privacy”.

Taking the data-positive perspective, it seems completely reasonable to me that companies would vie to become my lifelong “data bank”. Ultimately I do want companies to know more about me and to use more data about me in exchange for better, faster, easier, and cheaper experiences. But I also want to be treated like an adult when talking about my data. Watery terms like “cloud” or “dropbox” or “backup” sound utilitarian but mask the true aspirations of these service providers. They should just come out and say it: they want all this information to establish a competitive advantage in delivering more personalized services to me and people like me. Backing up my files is absolutely not the long game (but it’s a convenient lock-in strategy in the meantime).

Seizing your data capital

Here’s the thing: you and me, we’re being tracked whether we like it or not. Use a web browser, use apps —and there’s a company or companies out there amassing huge amounts of data about every click, tap, photo, notification, or icon in your digital life. Sometimes they anonymize it so that your preferences or behavioral data can’t be easily tracked back to you, but then you have no way of auditing that information, accessing it, or perhaps granting access to some other trusted party of your choosing. This may reassure you that your data won’t be that valuable if its leaked when there’s another breach, but this also means that you’re leaving a ton of value on the table. And frankly, most of these companies (especially the ad-driven ones) don’t really care about your data specifically. They can target you just as effectively through other means. And frankly, most would rather anonymize it to avoid embarrassing moments than do the heavy lifting to make your data accessible to you in more useful formats.

Taken at the individual level, you’re just a rounding error at the millionth decimal. And yet this data could be hugely valuable to you if you collect and let it accrue for long enough. This is why I’ve called this kind of information exhaust “data capital”. If you think of this data as your money being burned, maybe you’ll rethink what “privacy” is all about, and what stake you should claim in the data being captured about you.

So what about Google+?

So what does this have to do with Google+?

As it stands, Facebook, Apple, and Google (and to some degree Amazon) are in a battle to know you better than you do. Facebook is pretty clear about what they’re doing, and do a fair job explaining it—and have improved over the years. Apple recently came out aggressively about their own commitment to user privacy (but they make money from hardware, rather than ads). Google’s efforts, meanwhile, seem disjointed and confused, despite significant improvements to their settings and security features. If Google+ was intended to serve as Google’s “social backbone”, it should be the locus of control and access over the kind of information I’ve described above. And yet… it’s not. Far from it, in fact.

To my point, most people would likely describe Google+ as a newsfeed, a kind of Facebook-lite. Sure, it’s got neat photo and video chat apps hanging off of it. And die-hard users would call out the interest-based communities as the reason they return, as Bez did. But few if any would say that it’s where they go to understand the data that Google holds about them, or where they go to adjust their preferences, or to adjust how people see and find them online. And maybe that’s intentional and maybe that’s the point—but if so, then I don’t get it. Why did the world need another Facebook, unless to benefit Google by making their ad targeting more effective? Why wasn’t Google+ one of Google’s famous moonshots, intended to improve personal social networking by 10x? Why did they take a conventional approach to social networking rather than think about what controls people might need in the next 5–10 years in their digital lives? Moreover, how does Google+ help deliver better, richer, more interesting, and more personalized experiences, to motivate people to store more information with Google? I mean, why did Google hitch their digital identity strategy to 2004-era social networking trends?

And damnit all, why am I so disappointed?!

When it comes right down to it, maybe I just don’t want to admit that I spent 3½ years working on something that will become irrelevant. Even if Google+ regains focus and simplifies its mission, I want to believe that we were working on something significant and that had an opinion about what the world should look like. Lately, I just feel like Google+ is confused and adrift at sea. It’s so far behind, how can it possibly catch up? I mean, Facebook launched a polling ad unit in 2009; five years later, Google+ launched their own. Is mentions really a differentiator? (Nope, Facebook has a dedicated app for that, and it’s been baked into Twitter for how long?) Is this kind of slow-following going to win the future?

I’m disappointed because I expect better from Google. Like, self-driving cars better, or hot-air balloon internet access better. I don’t want excuses. I don’t want to hear about how competitive or political the internal environment is. Larry is a strong leader. Sundar is too. And I know that they’re getting a ton of mileage (and cash) out of ads, Chrome, and Android —there are plenty of resources. Leaving internet identity in Facebook’s hands would be a massive fail. At least Twitter is making a go at it with Digits. But how does Google[+] fit into this picture? Will it ever? (And no, Google+ Sign In isn’t enough.)

Is there any hope that Google+ will find a compelling reason to continue to exist, and perhaps deliver on the data-positive vision I’ve outlined above?

The missed opportunity

I remember the primordial days of Emerald Sea (the codename for Google+). Its original name was Google Me (at least until Kevin Rose leaked the name and a new name needed to be chosen). I loved the name, not because it was a good name, but because of what it implied: “Just google me and I’ll be there”. Google Me was necessary to improve Google’s profile and social graph to make search more personalized and humane. It was like Google was saying, “We’re going to be your trusted partner in cyberspace, and we’ll help you surface the right information to the people you choose, at the right time.” The value proposition was search oriented, rather than social.

So, if I searched for my mom’s phone number on Google, I could find it—because it‘d be on her profile and she would have shared it with me. An obvious query like “mom’s phone number” would work.

“Google is where I search for things and I should be able to find useful information about my friends if they’ve shared it with me.”

But when the name to Google+ (cue terrifying echos of Microsoft Plus!), the focus shifted. Now, not only was Google+ fast-following Facebook, but the name of the product was a hedge against another Buzz-like debacle. If for some reason the product failed (and lots of Buzz veterans actively worried about this), Google could just drop the “+” and pretend the “project” never existed. Genius.

But this was all wrong. By starting off on a defensive footing, Google+ didn’t defiantly stand for something special in the world. Instead it defined itself by what it wasn’t—i.e. Facebook—though it was positioned internally as chasing after their success. And while Facebook executed a bold, ambitious (and uncomfortable) plan to create a “more open and connected world”, Google+ confusingly claimed to be rethinking real-life sharing on the web, with “nuance and richness”, even though we clearly hadn’t figured it out. Indeed, our solution (Circles (read: “lists”) put the onus on the user to manually curate groups of people—a great concept in theory, but too arduous and awkward in practice.

Now, it’d be one thing if Circles and “better privacy” (there’s that word again!) were merely a launch ploy to drum up interest (it’s worked for others in the past). Instead, Google+ continued to throw its weight behind this narrative long after Facebook overhauled its privacy features, and “grew up”. To this day, I still don’t know what Google+ is for, let alone better at than Facebook. Some might argue it’s “cleaner” and has fewer ads, but even those won’t be lasting competitive advantages.

What’s sad to me is that the promise of Google Me could be found in launch post: “We want to make Google better by including you, your relationships, and your interests.”

Yes! Yes!

But by launching a conventional social network, Google missed the pivotal opportunity to establish a data-positive paradigm for sharing, individual control, and personalization that set itself apart from Facebook. Ultimately it offered too little, too late.

More recently, the Google+ marketing team came back to the message of personalization— at least for Google’s own apps. Instead, Google+ was about uniting Google products with one user account —something that should have been inevitable after Eric Schmidt’s tenure ended anyway.

So now what?

I read this passage from the launch post for Google+ and I get excited, to this day. The sentiment here echoes Ello’s claims upon their launch. The difference is that I actually believe Google to make good on these promises.

You and over a billion others trust Google, and we don’t take this lightly. In fact we’ve focused on the user for over a decade: liberating data, working for an open Internet, and respecting people’s freedom to be who they want to be. We realize, however, that Google+ is a different kind of project, requiring a different kind of focus?—?on you. That’s why we’re giving you more ways to stay private or go public; more meaningful choices around your friends and your data; and more ways to let us know how we’re doing. All across Google.
Yes! Yes!

But now what? Google’s work here is far from over.

The Google+ feed does nothing towards addressing the issues I’ve raised about data capital and privacy. Sure, Google gives you controls to set your ads preferences, but this framing is all wrong. Whereas Pinterest helps you express your aspirational self, Google pigeonholes you into what you already are, based on your previous search activity. This is where improving the data that Google has about you—in turn trusting Google as a steward of that data—changes the nature of the conversation by making it less about “privacy” and more about empowerment. While some people will freak out (as they always do), this would be a bold, productive, future-forward direction to take. Hell, we’re living in this reality already—but few give straight talk about what’s going on, and how their data is, or could be, used for their benefit. If Google took the approach I’ve suggested here—becoming more user-centric—I’d finally understand why what they’re doing is different. And then I could evaluate Google on being a steward of my data, and acting as my universal user agent in my digital life.

But until that happens, [object Object] makes just as much sense to me as their strategy.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014


Original Story:

Google engineers have trained a machine learning algorithm to write picture captions using the same techniques it developed for language translation.

Translating one language into another has always been a difficult task. But in recent years, Google has transformed this process by developing machine translation algorithms that changing the nature of cross cultural communications through Google Translate.

Now that company is using the same machine learning technique to translate pictures into words. The result is a system that automatically generates picture captions that accurately describe the content of images. That’s something that will be useful for search engines, for automated publishing and for helping the visually impaired navigate the web and, indeed, the wider world.

The conventional approach to language translation is an iterative process that starts by translating words individually and then reordering the words and phrases to improve the translation. But in recent years, Google has worked out how to use its massive search database to translate text in an entirely different way.

The approach is essentially to count how often words appear next to, or close to, other words and then define them in an abstract vector space in relation to each other. This allows every word to be represented by a vector in this space and sentences to be represented by combinations of vectors.

Google goes on to make an important assumption. This is that specific words have the same relationship to each other regardless of the language. For example, the vector “king - man + woman = queen” should hold true in all languages.

That makes language translation a problem of vector space mathematics. Google Translate approaches it by turning a sentence into a vector and then using that vector to generate the equivalent sentence in another language.

Now Oriol Vinyals and pals at Google are using a similar approach to translate images into words. Their technique is to use a neural network to study a dataset of 100,000 images and their captions and so learn how to classify the content of images.

But instead of producing a set of words that describe the image, their algorithm produces a vector that represents the relationship between the words. This vector can then be plugged into Google’s existing translation algorithm to produce a caption in English, or indeed in any other language. In effect, Google’s machine learning approach has learnt to “translate” images into words.

To test the efficacy of this approach, they used human evaluators recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to rate captions generated automatically in this way along with those generated by other automated approaches and by humans.

The results show that the new system, which Google calls Neural Image Caption, fares well. Using a well known dataset of images called PASCAL, Neural image Capture clearly outperformed other automated approaches. “NIC yielded a BLEU score of 59, to be compared to the current state-of-the-art of 25, while human performance reaches 69,” says Vinyals and co.

That’s not bad and the approach looks set to get better as the size of the training datasets increases. “It is clear from these experiments that, as the size of the available datasets for image description increases, so will the performance of approaches like NIC,” say the Google team.

Clearly, this is yet another task for which the days of human supremacy over machines are numbered.

Monday, December 01, 2014


Original Story:

If Sony Pictures employees return to work Monday after the Thanksgiving weekend without computer or email access, it will mark the beginning of the second week of blackout for the Culver City movie studio after a widespread hack.

And Sony's headaches do not appear to have lessened. Pirated copies of some Sony movies have begun to appear online on file sharing websites in the days after the attack. It is not known whether the two problems are related.

Among the titles that have popped up are the Brad Pitt World War II drama "Fury," the musical remake "Annie" and the upcoming film "Still Alice." Copies of "Mr. Turner" and "To Write Love on Her Arms" have also surfaced.

"The theft of Sony Pictures Entertainment content is a criminal matter, and we are working closely with law enforcement to address it," Sony said in a statement.

Of the Sony movies that have leaked online, "Annie" is the biggest that has not yet been released, but according to the website TorrentFreak, "Fury" (still in theaters) is by far the most popular among file-sharers.

This comes just days after the arrest in Britain of two people suspected of stealing and leaking a DVD-quality copy of Lionsgate's "The Expendables 3" before is domestic debut.

On Nov. 24, Sony Pictures workers who turned on their computers were met by an ominous message from a group calling itself GOP, or Guardians of Peace, which threatened to release "internal data" and "secrets" if its unspecified demands were not met.

Sony has declined to comment on its progress in investigating the attack since it released a statement on Nov. 25, saying, "Sony Pictures Entertainment experienced a system disruption, which we are working diligently to resolve."

Employees have been unable to use their devices and have resorted to pens, paper and fax machines to do their jobs. The company has set up Gmail addresses to use instead of its regular employee emails.

As Sony tries to get itself back online, speculation has swirled over how the attack could have happened and who is responsible.

On Friday, the website Re/code said Sony was investigating the possibility that hackers working on behalf of North Korea could be responsible.

Re/code speculated that the attack may have been in response to Sony's upcoming comedy "The Interview." Seth Rogen and James Franco play a pair behind a TV tabloid show who become part of a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un. The movie hits theaters on Dec. 25 and is not among those that have popped up on file-sharing sites.

On Tuesday, the tech blog The Verge said it received a message from an email associated with last week's attack that claimed the group had help from Sony employees. The email could not be verified.

A thread on the website Reddit has been full of speculation, trying to piece together what happened.

According to the thread, the hacker group claimed to get ahold of troves of sensitive data, including copies of actors' passports and contract documents. However, none of that information appears to have been released, despite the group's threat to unleash data.

A person close to Sony, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, said that the scale of the breach was likely limited to internal passwords, which have been changed, and general financial projections. This person also said the North Korea connection was far-fetched.

The issues at Sony could encourage companies to ramp up online security efforts, said Adam Levin, chairman of the identity management company IDT911.

"This is not an isolated incident where there was a fire in one building," Levin said. "This apparently affected their entire system. It shows how companies have to step up even more, whatever their efforts are."