Jon Christian

Comfort the afflicted. Afflict the comfortable.

Now, build apps using Firefox

I have a new story in VentureBeat, in which I chat with Mozilla’s Christian Heilmann about WebIDE, a development environment that will be built into future releases of the Firefox browser.

Firefox OS has been in development since 2011, but competing with the vast ecosystem of apps and developers associated with iOS and Android presents a nearly impossible challenge. The operating system has only gained a significant foothold in a handful of less developed markets, where low-cost devices running the system reportedly captured up to tenth of sales during 2013—one reason why Mozilla is keen to woo programmers in communities where hardware and software resources are limited.

“Many developers for Firefox OS are working in an environment where they cannot obtain new development resources,” Heilmann said. “We want to make sure that all the tools they need are inside Firefox itself. That was the original promise of the web.”

Dark Net Roasters

I have a new story in TechCrunch, about a seller on darknet marketplaces that’s branched out from drugs to coffee—that they roast themselves.

It may be lawful to sell caffeine, but the operation is still tied up in the sale of illegal drugs. The experiment started, in fact, as a promotion by an established seller of edible cannabis products: buy a brownie or a rice crispy treat laced with THC, get a complimentary six ounce bag of coffee. The reception was positive, the representative said, and they decided to spin Dark Net Roasters off as its own entity.

“Once we realized how much everyone was enjoying our coffee it was a natural progression to want to offer them to others,” said the representative, who told me that roasting coffee started out as a hobby that they shared with family and friends.

Longform reading list, week of 6/16

Courtney Balestier: Inside the Wild Comeback of Tournament Pinball. Wired, 2014.

Really, pinball is a game of skill and chance. Players say it’s about an 80:20 ratio on newer machines; older ones hew closer to 50:50, because their bumper action is more unpredictable and they have wider-set flippers through which the ball can “drain” out.

Boze Herrington: The Seven Signs You’re in a Cult. The Atlantic, 2014.

Jill Lepore: The Disruption Machine. The New Yorker, 2014.

We’d work a month here, a week there. There wasn’t much to do. Mainly, we sat at our desks and wrote wishy-washy poems on keyboards manufactured by Digital Equipment Corporation, left one another sly messages on pink While You Were Out sticky notes, swapped paperback novels—Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Gabriel García Márquez, that kind of thing—and, during lunch hour, had assignations in empty, unlocked offices. At Polaroid, I once found a Bantam Books edition of “Steppenwolf” in a clogged sink in an employees’ bathroom, floating like a raft. “In his heart he was not a man, but a wolf of the steppes,” it said on the bloated cover. The rest was unreadable.

Adam Rogers: Everything Science Knows About Hangovers—And How to Cure Them. Wired, 2014.

Peter Rubin: The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality. Wired, 2014.

This was the problem with virtual reality. It couldn’t just be really good. It had to be perfect. In a traditional videogame, too much latency is annoying—you push a button and by the time your action registers onscreen you’re already dead. But with virtual reality, it’s nauseating. If you turn your head and the image on the screen that’s inches from your eyes doesn’t adjust instantaneously, your visual system conflicts with your vestibular system, and you get sick.

Scott Stossel: Surviving Anxiety. The Atlantic, 2014.

“Uh, hi,” I said, racking my brain for a plausible explanation for why I might be running through the house at cocktail hour with no pants on, drenched in sweat, swaddled in a soiled and reeking towel. But he and his friend appeared utterly unfazed—as though half-naked houseguests covered in their own excrement were common here—and walked past me down the stairs.

Clive Thompson: The Revolutionary Quantum Computer That May Not Be Quantum at All. Wired, 2014.

The machine is literally a black box, 10 feet high. It’s mostly a freezer, and it contains a single, remarkable computer chip—based not on the usual silicon but on tiny loops of niobium wire, cooled to a temperature 150 times colder than deep space.

Benjamin Wallace: Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator? NY Magazine, 2014.

But [Richardson] seems either unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge the ways in which coercion can be unspoken and situational. A prominent photography agent identifies the potential for abuse. ‘Kate Moss wasn’t asked to grab a hard dick,’ this person says. ‘Miley Cyrus wasn’t asked to grab a hard dick. H&M models weren’t asked to grab a hard dick. But these other girls, the 19-year-old girl from Whereverville, should be the one to say, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea’? These girls are told by agents how important he is, and then they show up and it’s a bait and switch. This guy and his friends are literally like, ‘Grab my boner.’ Is this girl going to say no? And go back to the village? That’s not a real choice. It’s a false choice.’

Longform reading list, week of 5/26

Hunter S. Thompson: The Curse of Lono. Playboy, 1983.

“I had long since got over the notion that just because we were fishing, we were going to catch fish. The idea of trailing big-bore lines from the outriggers and rumbling along at trolling speed was absurd. The only way we were going to get any fish, I insisted, was by going over the side with scuba tanks and spear guns, to hunt them where they lived.”

Lessley Anderson: Seduced by ‘perfect’ pitch: how Auto-Tune conquered pop music. The Verge, 2013.

“The Auto-Tune or not Auto-Tune debate always seems to turn into a moralistic one, like somehow you have more integrity if you don’t use it, or only use it occasionally. But seeing how really innocuous-yet-lovely it could be, made me rethink. If I were a professional musician, would I reject the opportunity to sound, what I consider to be, “my best,” out of principle?”

Zach Baron: 50 Cent Is My Life Coach. GQ, 2014.

“I’ve already dragged Whatshername into this far beyond what she deserves; suffice it to say what came next were tears and a conversation we’d never had before, about children, ones we might actually have together, how many and how long from now—but also talk of our respective careers, and money, and the future. In that moment, I loved her even more. And who knows what any of it meant, but it happened. It went exactly like 50 Cent said it was going to go.”

Vernon Silver: The Song Remains Pretty Similar. Business Week, 2014.

“For live audiences, Stairway’s power starts with its introductory notes. ‘Can you think of another song, any song, for which, when its first chord is played, an entire audience of 20,000 rise spontaneously to their feet, not just to cheer or clap hands, but in acknowledgment of an event that is crucial for all of them?’ Observer critic Tony Palmer wrote in a 1975 profile. Dave Lewis writes in Led Zeppelin: The Complete Guide to Their Music that ‘Stairway has a pastoral opening cadence that is classical in feel and which has ensured its immortality.’

But what if those opening notes weren’t actually written by Jimmy Page or any member of Led Zeppelin? What if the foundation of the band’s immortality had been lifted from another song by a relatively forgotten California band?

You’d need to rewrite the history of rock ’n’ roll.”

Patricia Wen: The short, unhappy life of Jeremiah Oliver, failed by all. The Boston Globe, 2014.

“The public furor over his death, however, threatens to obscure a deeper truth about Jeremiah’s life. Yes, he was a child the system literally lost, exposing the hazard at the heart of an overtaxed, undersupervised, and error-prone bureaucracy, where complaints are sometimes never fully investigated, where critical files go unread, and where one employee’s negligence can spell the difference between life and death.”

Longform reading list, weeks of 5/13/14 and 5/20/14

There’s tension between at least two of the following works. I finally got around to reading Andrew Rice’s brilliant profile of Jonah Peretti, which details the cynical gamesmanship Buzzfeed uses to promote a poorly-differentiated soup of memes, serious journalism and sponsored advertising. And Steve Kandell, whose sister died in the World Trade Tower attacks, criticizes the pageantry of the 9/11 Memorial Museum and the culture associated with it — in an excellent article published by Buzzfeed. Many of the rest are culled from The Atlantic’s Slightly More Than 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism list. The Atlantic is pretty respectable by the standards of the day, but Rice drew attention to a tiff I barely focused on last year, when the site ran a sponsored fake-news story about the Church of Scientology, which it quickly pulled after heavy criticism.

Adam Green: A Pickpocket’s Tale. The New Yorker, 2013.

“When Robbins hits his stride, it starts to seem as if the only possible explanation is an ability to start and stop time. At the Rio, a man’s cell phone disappeared from his jacket and was replaced by a piece of fried chicken; the cigarettes from a pack in one man’s breast pocket materialized loose in the side pocket of another; a woman’s engagement ring vanished and reappeared attached to a key ring in her husband’s pants; a man’s driver’s license disappeared from his wallet and turned up inside a sealed bag of M&M’s in his wife’s purse.”

Alice Gregory: Mavericks. n+1, 2013.

“I’m struggling to remember the last time I had fun. People who do karaoke probably have fun in the way I’m imagining. As do, maybe, skeet shooters. Surfers definitely have fun in that way, the way going down a slide is fun when you’re a kid: anticipatory, goal-oriented, breath-altering. Some crude calculations reveal that I haven’t felt anything like that in at least six years, not since the last time I went surfing.”

David Raether: What It’s Like to Fail. Priceonomics, 2013.

“I was neither a drug addict nor an alcoholic, nor was I a criminal. But I had committed one of the more basic of American sins: I had failed.”

Andrew Rice: Does BuzzFeed Know the Secret? New York Magazine, 2013.

“‘Could you make a list of cute animals that gets 5 million views?’ [Paretti] snapped when I mentioned Graf’s comment that night at the bar. ‘It’s actually really hard.’ After a moment, he switched tracks: ‘It’s actually better for us if people don’t take us seriously.’”

Emily Witt: What Do You Desire? n+1, 2013.

“I overheard someone talking about his lunch at the Googleplex. “Quinoa cranberry pilaf,” I wrote down. And then, “coregasm.” Because that was the subsequent topic of discussion: women who have spontaneous orgasms during yoga. The barista was saying how wonderful it was that the issue was receiving attention, coregasms being something a lot of women experienced and were frightened to talk about. Those days were over.”

Steve Kandell: The Worst Day Of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction. Buzzfeed, 2014.

“By the time I finally reach the gift shop, the indignation I’ve been counting on just isn’t there. I stare at the $39 hoodies and the rescue vests for dogs and the earrings and the scarves and the United We Stand wool blankets waiting for that rush and can’t muster so much as a sigh. The events of the day have already been exploited and sold in ways previously incomprehensible, why get mad at a commemorative T-shirt now?”

David Kushner: The Six Seconds Between Love and Hate: A Vine Romance Gone Wrong. Rolling Stone, 2014.

“Last summer, they became Vine’s first reality stars, courting each other so publicly it was hard to believe it wasn’t staged. As their online romance unfolded in daily updates, it became the biggest story Vine had ever seen, spawning countless hashtags, video tributes and talk of a reality show. When the couple Vined their plans to meet in New York, some 2,000 screaming fans mobbed Washington Square Park to watch their first kiss. But the fairy-tale romance quickly became a nightmare.”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus: No Exit: One Startup’s Struggle to Survive the Silicon Valley Gold Rush. WIRED, 2014.

This is one of the best things I’ve ever read about the manic self-delusion of startup culture — and how the naivete of Mark Zuckerberg wannabes is exploited by several huge companies. There is a slightly extended version of this story available on Amazon as an e-book, which I haven’t read yet but certainly will. 

Greg Miller: Electrify Your Mind. WIRED, 2014.

“It’s a rare thing for a scientist to stand up in front of a roomful of his peers and rip apart a study from his own lab. But that’s exactly what Vincent Walsh did in September at a symposium on brain stimulation at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain… ‘It doesn’t show what we said it shows; it doesn’t show what people think it shows,’ Walsh said before launching into a dissection of his paper’s flaws. They ranged from the technical (guesswork about whether parts of the brain are being excited or inhibited) to the practical (a modest effect with questionable impact on any actual learning outside the lab). When he finished this devastating critique, he tore into two more studies from other high-profile labs. And the problems aren’t limited to these few papers, Walsh said, they’re endemic in this whole subfield of neuroscience.”

Natasha Singer: Never Forgetting a Face. The New York Times, 2014.

“The police scanned tens of thousands of fans without their awareness, identifying a handful of petty criminals, but no one was detained. Journalists coined it the ‘Snooper Bowl.’”

Jason Tanz: How Airbnb and Lyft Finally Got Americans to Trust Each Other. WIRED, 2014.

“Paolo says he’s never had a second thought about letting a stranger drive off with his vehicle, perhaps because he is ‘unreasonably trusting,’ as he describes himself. (Though not, apparently, trusting enough to let me publish his real name, which is not Paolo.)”

Total number of Political Action Committees (US) correlates with number of people who died by falling out of their wheelchair

New: a blog dedicated entirely to spurious correlations.


Boston TechCollective

I have a new story in the Boston Globe about a tech support firm that operates as worker-owned cooperative.

There’s a faint smell of warm electronics in TechCollective’s headquarters near Davis Square, and the muffled sound of fingers on keyboards. Here in the shop, some of the five co-owners root out computer viruses, recover data, and diagnose dire computer problems. Others are out in the field, visiting client businesses on site to troubleshoot errors and perform network maintenance.

“These guys are great,” said Gina Kamentsky, a Boston area visual artist who brought her MacBook to the shop after it began to behave erratically. “They make me feel comfortable. Sometimes you go into a tech place as a woman, and they give you a hard time.”


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