CoinAlts Chicago: Fireside Chat w Sam McIngvale of Coinbase Custody

A few weeks ago at the CoinAlts conference in Chicago, I did a fireside chat with Sam McIngvale, CEO of Coinbase Custody.  CoinAlts is a conference focused mostly on the institutional infrastructure around crypto assets -- legal, accounting, custody, etc.  So we started out talking about the evolving role of custody in the crypto markets, and also talked generally about what we're excited about in the next few years.  It was a lot of fun.  Here it is:


Blockstack Hong Kong: From Agile to Immutable

I gave this talk at the Blockstack Decentralizing the World Tour in Hong Kong earlier this month:


We Heart WiFi

Today at SXSW, we are launching a Wi-Fi network + advocacy campaign called We Heart WiFi.  Fred and Albert both have posts up about it this morning. Over the coming weekend, folks at SXSW will be able to hop on to one of our free “Super Wi-Fi” hotspots.  The “super” part is that each of these hotspots is connected to the internet backbone not by cable, but by another high-speed wireless link, operating in the “open” or “unlicensed” frequencies (meaning that anyone who wants to can use them).  These link back to a gigabit fiber connection (which is apparently higher bandwidth than the official sxsw WiFi network). The point we’re trying to make is that awesome things are possible when we open up our airwaves for innovation.  “Open spectrum” — or sections of our “wireless real estate” that anyone can build in, is a huge economic driver.   The fact that any person or company can build equipment (chips, laptops, phones, washing machines) and networks that run in open frequencies leads directly to massive innovation and broad choice. I like to think of it as a sky full of lego blocks:


The reason this is interesting is that the bulk of our airwaves are reserved for exclusive use — either by government actors, or by corporations (like AT&T and Verizon) that have purchased the rights from the government. We do this to encourage investment in infrastructure (by granting a monopoly), to avoid interference, and to raise money for the government (through up front fees). Of all of these reasons the last one is the most troubling — as we are consistently tempted to sell out our future to bring in some cash now. Part of our job — and I still don’t think we’ve done it well enough yet — is to make it really clear how massive the opportunity in the open approach is.  The same way that there are game changing dynamics in open systems like Wikipedia, Firefox and Android.  There is still more to be done there, and I’ll do some follow up posts on that. So for now: if you’re in Austin, please enjoy some Super WiFi on us.  If you’re watching from home, please join in with call to support the FCC in opening up more spectrum for innovation.


Hurricane Sandy

It's really hard for me to comprehend what happened in NYC last night. Everyone I know is safe and sound, and the overall death toll is amazingly low given the severity of what happened.  But man, what a hit the city took.  The aftermath is going to be long and painful. I was also blown away yesterday by the difference between the coverage of the hurricane on TV and the coverage on social media.  I spent all day with family mostly watching local (in Boston) TV coverage -- and then later in the evening I switched to following on twitter.  It blew me away how much more real the stories coming from twitter felt.  And it actually made me mad, somehow, at the TV networks.  Maybe that's now fair, but it's how it made me feel last night. On a positive note, I'm so proud to see a lot of activity around #hurricanehackers - an ad-hoc group of techies (led by Sascha Costanza-Chock from the MIT Center for Civic Media) that have been working nonstop all weekend to use tech & information to support the relief effort (including systematizing responses to help requests sent in to #sandyaid, and making a crowd-sourced timeline of events).  If you're technically minded and looking to help, checking in w/ hurricane hackers is a great way to do it. As hard as it has been to watch something like this happen to my home city from a distance, it's at least somewhat comforting knowing that the infrastructure we have in place is making helping out easier, from wherever we are. // photo of flooded East Village by jesseandgreg on instagram, via BuzzFeedAndrew.


Feasting on Good

I had the pleasure of spending the day yesterday at The Feast. I love their manifesto:

Mankind is now more connected with the tools to engage millions and more potential than ever to build a brighter future.

Our role is to inspire the next generation of doers. To empower more folks to ask why the world works the way it does. To not stop at “because it’s always been done that way.

And boy, did it work. I was buzzing yesterday.


Pretty much from start to finish, I found myself completely engaged with the presentations on the main stage, and with the conversations during the breaks.  Day 1 of the Feast is a set of inspiring presentations & performances.  Day 2 is a series of workshops, focused around a set of challenges presented during day one.  Unfortunately I was only able to be there for day one, so I'll look forward to hearing what comes out of today's session.

Here is a quick run-through of my notes & takeaways.  This is straight from the notebook, so expect it to be rambling and scattered, but filled with goodies:

One of the first speakers was the project lead for the NASA curiosity rover. When asked about how they did it, he said two things that stood out:

Big problems don't get solved in a single sitting.  You just have to keep moving forward.

That struck me as fundamental and profound.  Another great line was:

Great works and great folly may be indistinguishable at the outset.

Also classic, and so relevant when you're launching a spacecraft that will be in space for a year before landing on Mars, via a "sky crane".  But relevant for any hard project, really.

John Sherry from Intel's Vibrant Data project did a nice job explaining several abstract issues (digital trust, data literacy, platform openness) through a handful of individual stories (in this case focused on how the elderly engage with technology and data).  A major theme through the day was the effective use of personal stories to explain things and get ideas across.

Lucky Gunasekara, representing The Collaborative Chronic Care project and Lybba gave a really compelling look into the potential power -- and also the perils -- of unlocking and interconnecting our health data.  I hope the Feast videos come online because I would really like to see this again -- but the gist of it is clear:  individuals are currently NOT empowered by their own health data (he used an example of a patient with Chron's disease, a chronic and complex condition); the potential to improve the user health experience is tremendous; the power of liquid and interconnected data sets is tremendous; but there is potential to cross "the creepy line" very quickly.  So: how can we conceive of managing our health data such that individuals, providers and third parties (networks, research organizations, etc) all have the appropriate interest in and control over the data?  He has some specific ideas which I'll follow up on in a separate post.  Hugely important, interesting, and hard topic.  Related: I downloaded the app, a "behavioral analytics platform" that uses our activity data to help provide health insights.

Bre Pettis gave an awesome presentation about the meteoric rise of Makerbot.  My favorite line:

In 10 years, having a Makerbot will be like having a microwave.

Paul Farmer discussed how Partners in Health has created a lasting and powerful partnership with Arcade Fire.  Among other things, Arcade Fire links to on the back of every album, and also adds a $1 surcharge to every concert ticket that goes directly to PIH.  Pretty creative way to partner.  And to top it off, Arcade Fire was there, and did an acoustic performance of "Wake Up" which was pretty cool.

Next: I had never heard of Warby Parker before, but they are a really interesting company.  They've made a successful, profitable business selling beautiful eyewear.  And, they have a social mission baked into the core of the company: for every pair of glasses sold, a pair is donated to a partner company somewhere around the world, which re-sells them at low prices.  So they are a social enterprise that cultivates the development of other social enterprises.  They stressed that they approach the market with messages in the following priority order: 1) fashionable, awesome product 2) great experience and service and 3) social benefit.  This makes a lot of sense, as they need to be commercially successful to make everything else work. Not only have the reduced their retail cost to $95 (way less than comparable fashion prescription glasses) by working w/ suppliers and selling directly online, they also operate their call center out of a loft in SoHo, and are carbon neutral.  Pretty cool.  The great quote from Neil Blumenthal (CEO of WP) was:

people build relationships with brands the same way they do with people.

Then: Joshua Reich from Simple. I have been a huge huge fan of this brand since it launched a few years ago, and I just got my card in the mail a few weeks ago.  One of the great insights of Joshua's talk (and of his business) was that -- until simple -- retail banking's business model (fees) depended on user failure.  Having a business that depends on your users failing is problematic.  Simple has built their business from the ground up to be aligned with their users -- to help them win at banking, and feel good about money.  I love it, and I love the product.

Then: we got into education.  I loved this video -- titled "The Future Belongs to the Curious" from Skillshare :

I couldn't agree more with that.  Giving curious minds things to grab onto, connect with, and make is awesome.

Thor Muller talked about Brightworks - an experimental, experiential school in SF that looks amazing. His great quote:

In order to create space for serendipity, we need structure.

Reminds me of something Andy would say.

Then: Story Pirates.  Wow.

In the past year, story pirates has collected 30,000 stories from kids in 250 schools.  Every one gets a comment back.  My favorite quote from Ben Salka, CEO, was:

All education is experiential.  Some of those experiences are flat, and some of them are great.

Story Pirates exists to create great, memorable, educational experiences.  They are so awesome.

Then -- shift away from Education to Opportunity.  First up: Defy Ventures.

Defy Ventures is an entrepreneurship program for outgoing prison inmates.  It's an amazing, amazing idea.  Think about it: gang leaders, drug ring leaders, are natural entrepreneurs.  As DV CEO Catherine Rohr put it -- "they have crazy business skills, but are just weak on risk management, since they got caught."  But in all seriousness: this is a program that is turning a "failure industry" into a generator of opportunity.  Here are the stats:

70% of prison inmates return to prison.  70% of their children go to prison.

Think about that.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program graduated 687 men -- with a resulting 5% recidivism rate.

Think about that!

Defy Ventures takes the idea a step further, into multi-step program: "boot camp", followed by a $100k business plan competition, followed by a business incubator program.

One of the most touching moments of the whole day was when two of the recent business plan competition winners -- both former convicts in prison on drug charges -- took the stage and described their stories and talked about the new businesses they were working on (one was a  painting and handyman services, another was a personal concierge).

In Catherine's words:

the prison population is one of the most overlooked talent pools in America.

Pretty cool.

Then, on to cities: physicist and urban scholar Geoffrey West took the stage to describe the parallels his research has shown between how nature scales and how cities scale.  This has been written about previously but is super interesting.  Geoffrey's money quote was:

It's largely thought that cities are buildings. Not true.  Cities are people.

When we talk about cities, it's easy to talk about them in terms of the physical infrastructure -- roads, bridges, buildings, parks.  But all of that -- all of it -- is really just a medium for connecting the people who live there.  With that in mind, it's much easier to conceive of cities as organisms -- that therefore have common characteristics with other areas of biology -- than as some other sort of foreign creation.  Without getting too far into it, Geoffrey presents a concern about the pace at which cities are scaling, changing -- and what this means for sustainability.  In the end, he described himself as a pessimist.

But this event was about optimism, and as such, it closed with a great story: The Low Line

If you haven't heard of this yet -- it's a project to convert the abandoned Williamsburg Trolley Terminal, which sits beneath Delancey Street at the end of the Williamsburg Bridge, into the world's first underground urban park.  It would be a revitalization project to parallel the awesome and successful Highline project, and it would look like this:

... using nifty solar reflectors like this:

What a cool project, and what a great way to end the day.

So, that was a lot -- and I didn't touch on everything from the day.

But this was enough to get my wheels turning and to get inspired about my own work and all the exciting things people are working on.

Kudos to Jerri and the Feast staff.  Can't wait til next year.


Advocacy in the Age of Peak Guilt

Yesterday, I spent the day at the Awesome Summit -- the first wholesale gathering of folks involved with the Awesome Foundation. In case you don't know, the Awesome Foundation is a "micro foundation", where each month, a group of 10 "micro trustees" donates $1000 (total; $100 per trustee) towards a project that is awesome.  No strings attached.  It's a really neat idea, and it has caught fire over the last few years. And it's an open source brand -- anyone can start an Awesome Foundation in their city (no need to ask permission from Awesome HQ).  So far, there are 45 city-based chapters worldwide.  For example, here are the projects that have been funded in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, and the ones that have been funded in Melbourne, Australia. At yesterday's summit, I was on a great panel, entitled "The End of Peak Guilt". We talked about alternatives to guilt-driven advocacy -- new ways that folks can engage in ways that are creative, fun and social.  The panel moderated by Alexis Ohanian, and featured some great folks: Zach Walker from Donors Choose, Andrew Slack from the Harry Potter Alliance, and Michael Norton from the Harvard Business School. For my part, I talked a little bit about what we're doing with, and did a quick roundup of examples that I feel exemplify guilt-free advocacy. There wasn't a video of the talk, so I did a little experiment and created a voiceover video of my slide deck.  I recorded this today, and I'm sure I didn't deliver this with the same gusto as the live talk, but I figure it's better than simply posting to slideshare. Side note: in the process of doing this, I realized that there really isn't a good enough way to share presentations on the internet.  People spent countless hours preparing decks and presenting talks -- and some of those are recorded and shared, but the vast majority get lost in the wind.  Slideshare has a ton of presentations, but they just feel crippled to me without the voiceover.  I feel like they have so far missed a huge opportunity to create a deep and interesting content channel.  SlideRocket has the generally right idea (in-situ editing, easy audio recording, interactivity, etc.) but they take a super proprietary approach to their service which really turns me off (I should write about that in more detail). Anyway, that mini-rant out of the way, here's the voiceover video (which also doubles as the media component to my SXSW panel proposal):


Hacking Society

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of being part of an event called Hacking Society -- I helped organize the event w/ the folks at Union Square Ventures, and it was a real honor to spend a day surrounded by many of my internet heroes. It's taken us a little while, but we've been working through the transcripts and recordings from the event, and have been piecing together some video clips.  Today we posted the first set, and a bunch more will be ready soon.  Fred has a post up today about one of them: a conversation about the problem of money in politics, kicked off by Larry Lessig, leading to some brainstorming about how we might hack at the problem.  As always, the commenters on Fred's blog are having at it, so I'll go jump in the conversation there. I've spent a decent portion of the last few weeks listening through the audio from Hacking Society, to the point where I feel like everyone from that day is actually residing inside my head.  Which is weird, but also nice.  I encourage you to head over there and check out the video, audio, and transcripts and invite those folks into your own brain for a few hours.  More videos will be ready soon and I'll link them up as they come.


Web 2.0 Expo: The Opportunity for Civic Startups

Last week at the Web 2.0 Expo, I gave a talk on The Opportunity for Civic Startups.  I was filling in for Code for America's Jen Pahlka, and the presentation itself is an hybrid of a version I did at the t=0 Entrepreneurship Festival at MIT a few weeks ago, a version Jen did at Future of Web Apps earlier this year and a version that Andrew McLaughlin has been giving.  Here are my slides. I broke it down into two main sections: (1) trends that are setting the stage for civic startups, and (2) models/approaches that civic startups are following.  Unfortunately, the timing of the speaker notes on slideshare doesn't match the slides, so the notes are in off by a few slides, but you can get the idea. One of my favorite threads in this story is "the rise of the civic hacker" -- folks who use their coding & product development superpowers to make cities work better, almost always from outside of official channels.  The "civic hacker ethic", if you will, is about making shit, and it represents a pretty new way of getting civically engaged -- less about arguing policy or politics and more about building something helpful.  What's even cooler is that there are now a solid handful of civic hackers who have parlayed a passion project on the side into a real business or career: Dan O'Neill & Adrian Holovaty with EveryblockHarper Reed (transit hacker and now Obama campaign CTO), Jon Wegener of Exit Strategy NYC, Joshua Tauber (GovTrack & Pop Vox), Ben Berkowitz of SeeClickFix and many more. And there's more where that came from.  I believe that we're just at the beginning of a big wave of civic startups (here's looking at you, Code for America 2011 graduates), and I am looking forward to continuing to follow them, help them, and learn from them.


Big Data

Next week, I'm heading to Santa Clara for a few days of "big data" at the O'Reilly Strata Conference.  I'm really looking forward to it, and expect to have my mind blown several times over.  I'm on the program committee for the conference, though I joined late and missed the chance to review proposals, so I'll be coming at it with pretty fresh eyes. The illustration above is from a recent Economist issue dedicated to the subject -- according to the article, worldwide data production has increased nearly tenfold in the past 5 years. It's really hard to fathom the scope of this increase, and I'm excited to spend a few days with a group of people who are at the cutting edge of understanding and managing this space. It seems clear to me that manipulating massive amounts of data is one of the next great skills.  A few months ago, Andrew Parker wrote a post (quoting Zed Shaw) that really stuck with me -- the gist of which is that programming is a great "secret weapon" to apply to your work in another field. I totally agree. So, I'll add that manipulating big data -- a sub of programming in some ways, but an independent field in others -- should be part of every rising undergrad's toolkit.  If I could press rewind on my life, there's no question that I'd add computer science (with a focus on data and stats) as a minor area of study, and use it to supercharge my major. I will definitely be posting quotes and photos from the conference at The Exobrain.


Getting My Transparency On


This past weekend, Phil Ashlock and I headed down to DC to participate in TransparencyCamp, a BarCamp event put on by the Sunlight Foundation.  We spent two days with ~200 open government and transparency advocates from all sectors -- government, non-profit, tech, etc.  All in all, it was a pretty amazing event -- great people and good sessions.  We learned about some cool projects, met a ton of people, spread the word about TOPP, and basically got our transparency on.  Here are some of my really quick takeaways, in no particular order: Tech people love twitter. The whole weekend was basically a giant twitter party.  Walking around any session, pretty much every single person's screen looked like this: ­


In case you're wondering, that is TweetDeck, an all-powerful Twitter client.  Using TweetDeck, you can follow conversations along twitter hashtags just like you'd follow conversation in an IRC channel.  Amazingly, the ~200 people at TCamp pushed #tcamp09 to be the #1 Twitter search term for the weekend.  So every session was two conversations at once -- one in person and the other via tweets.  The tweet stream also served as live, distributed note-taking, and is probably more rich than the wiki in terms of content.

Open Government and Transparency are a really big deal. If you don't know, now you know.  This was evidenced by the big, high-quality crowd -- folks from major federal agencies, the Obama campaign,, Tim O'Reilly, Craig Newmark, just to name a few -- and by the tangible sense of community and excitement.  The train has left the station and everybody is along for the ride. Andrew Hoppin is breaking new ground at the NYS Senate, Sunlight is driving the transparency bus (to continue the transit metaphors), and events are happening at rapid-fire pace (like Government 2.0 Camp next month).

Governments are just learning how to handle it all. One session was called "Drinking from the Firehose," where the firehose is the potentially overwhelming stream of constituent feedback that can come in once you open the spigot.  For agencies that are already under-staffed and generally not as web-comfortable as the private sector, this can be a lot to handle. Getting it right can require a pretty significant re-thinking of government->citizen communication -- most importantly, this means managing constituent expectations, and empowering more people in an agency to be communicators.  Other potential solutions included encouraging more citizen-to-citizen communcations (w/ gov acting as a router), prioritizing questions and responding in bulk (like NH power did via twitter during the big winter storm), etc. etc.

Many "government 2.0 sites" are actually rethinking core concepts of government. I am no political scientist, but it's clear that technology is leading the way in exploring twists on representative democracy as we know it.  Projects like WhiteHouse2, MetaGovernment and YourOwnDemocracy are exploring new ways of employing citizen preference (voting) to impact decision-making.

Transparency has many levels, and starting at the source is the best. For example, is collecting and aggregating info from all recipients of federal stimulus/bailout money.  They will then be republishing it all in machine readable format.  However, this introduces a layer of abstraction, and in strict terms, an opportunity for corruption.  Transparency advocates push for access to data at the source -- in this case, directly from each individual recipient.  This is, of course, not practical at the moment, and many new transparency-related services are doing the hard work of transforming the data to make it accessible (in a geoserver-ish kind of way).

There are many policy barriers to transparency, and they're not just technical. The actual government employees at tcamp expounded on the internal bureaucratic hurdles to transparency.  While the larger tech community is tackling the strictly technical issues (such as formats and standards), many of those inside government are working to reform 20th century policies that make transparency difficult to achieve.

Government transparency and civic engagement go hand in hand. One line I overheard that I really liked was: "a 'push' government can encourage relevant contributions from citizens by providing relevant data."  I think there's something really powerful in that, and somewhere in there is a core idea for TOPP and TOPP Labs.  If we are interested in encouraging citizen participation and empowering individuals, the opening up of government data will be a core component.  It's my theory that there's a huge latent demand for participation, but that people just don't know how or don't have the right ways to engage.  The proliferation of civic data that's on the way should provide ample seed for interesting citizen engagement projects.

Distributed systems need a way to cooperate. Of course, a huge challenge here, that's not unique to government -- information and accounts are siloed across systems.  A lot of the conversations at TCamp focused on ways to share data across systems.  There was talk of OpenID, OAuth, microformats, DiSo, semantic web, and all the others.  One of the more interesting presentations was on the potential civic uses for the semantic web.  Joshua Tauberer of keeps a piece of the Linked Open Data cloud in his data store, and can do pretty impressive queries of distributed data regarding federal legislation, lawmakers, campaign contributions, etc.

Ok, that's about it for my little brain dump, for now.  I'll leave you with some photos of the event after the jump:

­ Opening session.  Photo by Avelino Maestas

­ Craig Newmark delivers opening address.  Photo by Avelino Maestas. ­

A typical session.  Photo by Corbett3000. ­

The session board.  Photo by Corbett3000.

Clay Johnson of Sunlight Labs working the board like the commodities market.  Photo by notbrucelee. ­

Smaller session.  Photo by Corbett3000. ­

People tweeting.  Photo by notbrucelee. ­

Some familiar faces.  Photo by Avelino Maestas. ­

Phil trying to stay awake during a session.  Photo by Avelino Maestas. ­

Session notes from "Drinking from the Firehose".  Photo by forumone. ­

­ Another session board.  Photo by Andrew Macurak.