Notable reads from this week

Though I find maybe one or two solid and thought-provoking articles each day, for whatever reason (maybe the Facebook/Twitter gods were smiling down on me), I came across a number of great reads yesterday that I wanted to share. In case you don’t have the time to read all of these articles, I’ve TLDR’ed them for your convenience. Enjoy!

Can Silicon Valley Be Saved?
Published March 6, 2014
TLDR: Though Silicon Valley, particularly San Jose in this case, is home to mega-corporations including eBay, Cisco Systems and Adobe, people don’t really want to live in this area. Some of the reasons that are brought to attention include the lack of a unified public transportation system, little walkability (San Jose’s congestion is the seventh highest in the nation), and barely any culture that attracts tech people who like food, bars and an overall urban atmosphere. Samsung is hoping to contribute to this change with a brand new building that promotes walking instead of driving.

The Ultimate Guide to Solving iOS Battery Drain
Published March 27, 2014
TLDR: My friend Jessie told me about this article and how the author of this blog, Scotty Loveless, worked on the Genius Bar for about two years. Though I already knew that leaving my 3G on in places with poor service drained my battery, I didn’t know about BAR (Background App Refresh) or that quitting my apps actually messed with the phone’s RAM. To get the most out of this article, I advise that you read it somewhere where you won’t be distracted, so you can follow each step in the article.

The Internet’s Telltale Heartbleed
Published April 9, 2014
TLDR: I had read plenty of other articles about Heartbleed, but none of them explained the bug as well as this one. Key takeaways include: 1) Up to 500,000 sites were affected; 2) Heartbleed is scary because you can’t detect whether requests for information are malicious or not; 3) OpenSSL is a volunteer project, and is only overseen by four people; 4) Unless websites have specifically told you to change your password, there isn’t much to be done as of now (maybe wait a little longer, then change all of your passwords).

Will starving artists turn to coding instead of waiting tables?
Published April 11, 2014
TLDR: A feature story on Fractured Atlas, a non-profit in New York that’s looking to help artists get and learn the resources they need in order to become entrepreneurs. Since the program is so new, there haven’t been any Atlas alumni just yet, but it might be worthwhile to keep an eye on this organization.

When the restaurant you Googled Googles you back
Published April 13, 2014
TLDR: A swanky, three-Michelin star restaurant is now catering a more personalizing dining experience by doing research on its clientele beforehand. Though it sounds creepy, the intentions are good. Taking a page from the article, “If a particular guest appears to hail from Montana, [the maitre d'] will try to pair up the table with a server who is from Montana.”

300M downloads and $600M in revenue say Google is the ‘loser’s choice’ in mobile games monetization
Published April 14, 2014
TLDR: In a VentureBeat survey, it was announced that when it comes to monetizing their mobile games, developers are using companies like Vungle or AdColony instead. As for which mobile ads proved to be the most annoying, banner ads, notification ads and surveys ranked in the top three.

Hacking the Facebook Hackathon

After my first hackathon, I’ve come to realize that aside from being free to make whatever your heart desires just with some code (though lots of it), hackathons create a perfect environment to GSD or “get shit done.”

I went to the Facebook SoCal Regional Hackathon on Friday with a friend, but we both had our own agendas. While he was planning to finish up a little bit of CS homework before diving into his personal project, I planned to work with some cool jQuery plugins I’ve been meaning to try out, since I haven’t had the time to experiment with web development tools in a while.

After signing in and finding that most of the seats were taken, we sat down near the back next to two UCLA students. We chatted for a little bit and found that none of us had prepared an actual hack for the event just yet, which was slightly reassuring. Though the returning champions from last year were just a couple of tables away from us, it was nice to know that people of all levels are getting involved with hackathons.

The hackathon was probably 99% dudes, but that wasn't going to stop this girl.

The one time we could use Facebook without feeling guilty about ourselves.

Soon enough, the two students next to us had formed a team with two other Bruins, while I continued to work with plugins and my friend hurried to get his CS homework done. From time to time, I listened in and chimed in on the UCLA team’s project, and found myself a little miffed since I decided to opt out of joining a team this time around.

But instead of throwing the towel in and going home, I decided to learn something completely new. Sure, I wasn’t creating a project from the ground up, but I was going to take advantage of this space and wanted to ride the productivity momentum that this environment was generating.

So no, I didn’t exactly “hack” the Facebook Hackathon, but I hacked it for my own benefit. Because, for the next couple of hours, using what I knew about HTML, CSS, APIs and Php, I worked through Tuts+’s Facebook Graph API tutorial, and managed to finish the whole project. Did I make something completely original? No, but in the time I was at the hackathon, I made my first *unofficial* Facebook app and learned how to integrate Facebook logins into just about any web app — not something I would’ve accomplished had I been by myself at my apartment.

Used colors from here

Perfect Facebook color palette brought to you by Design Pieces

I even won a pair of Facebook sweatpants during one of their hourly raffles.

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If you squint just enough, you can make out my name.

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Comfortable and Zuck-approved!

What I’m trying to say is that just because you might not be a whiz programmer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attend hackathons. You might not be able to attend every hackathon out there — PenApps, for example, requires that you apply formally – but for hackathons that only ask that you RSVP, such as this one and the upcoming LA Hacks (I’ll see you there, if you’re going!), I absolutely encourage you to attend. The truth is that at most hackathons, there are always at least a couple of people who come to hackathons without a team, so don’t worry about not finding one.

And if you feel like you still need to hone in on some skills — just do it, but try to stay at the hackathon, so you get a feel for the environment and structure of a full-fledged hackathon. You’ll be better prepared for the next one.

What’s also amazing about hackathons is that for whatever reason, even if there is loud music playing and people chatting, everyone tends to get a lot done. One friend showed me his RescueTime log after HackTech, which calculated his productivity to be about 90% over a span of 16+ hours. Sure enough, when I opened up RescueTime on my computer, it said that I was being about 92% productive.

If you haven’t been to a hackathon yet, it’s definitely not too late. I might sound a little sappy when I say this, but a certain, unspoken camraderie is fostered among attendees through late nights, tired fingers and eyes, debugging frustration and not ever having enough snacks. It’s an irreplaceable experience that you can’t find anywhere else.

Thoughts on today’s food innovation

In 1996, Michel Lescanne, a food-processing engineer, came up with Plumpy’nut, an ingenious peanut-based paste that was meant to treat severe malnutrition. It’s an innovation in food tech and engineering that’s helped countless lives and changed the way nutrition is approached in third world countries.

It was one of the first products of food engineering that I had ever heard of growing up. Since then, I’ve heard of a couple of other inventions including ideas from Aseptia, an up-and-coming food science company that’s already patented tech that “enables the production of shelf-stable fresh food products without using preservation or refrigeration.”

These days, instead of actual food engineering, I’ve been seeing a lot of food innovation — startups revolving around food, which range from “disrupting” takeout or improving catered food. The rise of the foodie culture, where people live, breathe and “document” (aka Instagram) food, has become very prominent in recent years, and it’s becoming apparent that more people are willing to experiment with their tastebuds.

But unless you get paid to eat for a living, not all of us are able to eat great food all of the time, especially if you’re getting bogged down by school or work. A lot of these startups acknowledge this issue because they’ve experienced it themselves, be it in the role of a CEO or even as an extremely busy college student.

If you can’t wait for your food, there are startups that specialize in same-day deliveries. Munchery, for example, is a food startup where meals are prepared by local chefs and delivered the same night. For about $11 to $13, you can get a hearty dinner, and add sides, desserts or drinks if you’d like. But if you’re in the mood for something with a homemade touch, there’s Eatro, which lets you choose which homecooked meals you want, then lets you pick it up from his or her house. If you aren’t too picky, SpoonRocket claims to serve “the most convenient meal ever,” with super speedy delivery and meals that are fresh and healthy. Not to mention, the prices are a bit cheaper at $8 for some sweet potato lasagna or roasted pork chop.

What if you’ve just moved from New York to Wisconsin and suddenly find yourself craving Momofuku Milk Bar’s amazing pies? No, you don’t have to fly back to The Big Apple just for a taste of that famous Crack Pie. If you’re ok with a little waiting and are willing to splurge a bit, you can order from Goldbely, a food startup that is dedicated to taking the very best foods from cities across the nation and making them available for delivery.

There's a reason why they call it Crack Pie... | Photo courtesy of The Huffington Post

There’s a reason why they call it Crack Pie… | Photo courtesy of The Huffington Post

There are also many, many food subscription box services out there, including Skoshbox, a monthly package of Japanese candies and snacks, and even Taster’s Club, for those who are very into bourbon, a group of people who contribute to, what Fortune Magazine calls “the billion-dollar bourbon boom.”

The more popular of these monthly subscription services are Love With Food and Plated. The former, for only $10 a month, sends organic snacks to your door and, for every box that you receive, a meal is donated to a child in the U.S. The latter service sends you recipes along with the ingredients to make them, if you want to try your hand at cooking something yourself.

For healthier options that won’t require you to lift a finger, you can order from Zesty, which delivers from restaurants dedicated to serving low-carb, gluten-free or even paleo dishes, or you can get your favorite smoothie or some organic vegetables from grocery delivery services like Good Eggs, Instacart, or AmazonFresh, Amazon’s very own delivery service.

It’s exciting to see so many companies dedicated to making food even more accessible, more convenient and, of course, more delicious. They’re solving problems like nostalgia-driven cravings and healthy eating, and packaging them in ways that make life a little easier. I’ve tried my share of subscription boxes, and I will say that it’s pretty fun to get a package every month with all sorts of goodies that you don’t expect. Not to mention, most, if not all, of these startups offer promo codes for first time users, which shows that they’re willing to shave off some of their price margin to show that A) they’re worth your time and money and B) to grab the attention of curious, open-minded food lovers.

As great as these startups sound, unfortunately, their services are not always widely-available. For instance, SpoonRocket is only available in the East Bay and San Francisco, Eatro is primarily based in London and Munchery is, again, Bay Area-centric.

And if you haven’t guessed already, these startups are catering a very specific, upper-middle class to upper class demographic, a target audience that doesn’t need to worry about very much aside from what to wear and what to eat. The prices for these dishes and products, including sometimes hefty shipping costs, are not very affordable for the average middle class person.

Nevertheless, these are creative ideas that are all executed very well. We’ll always need food to survive and, even though we might not always need to have our pies shipped from the east coast, changing up our meals every once in a while adds some spice (no pun intended) to our lives. Though it may be cost-effective to live day-to-day on oatmeal, it doesn’t bring us a whole lot of joy (unless you really freakin’ love oatmeal). Tasting a friend’s brother’s wife’s “world-famous” tuna casserole, sharing a meal with a stranger or trying an Ethiopian meal of Gomen Kitfo for the first time connects us on different levels and brings us a little closer.

Whether you find yourself with the same expression of bliss as the person sitting next to you in a restaurant or you’ve brought your girlfriend over for dinner to try your mom’s homemade lasagna, be it for sustenance, entertainment, love or friendships, food is certainly here to stay.

Maybe only sometimes.

Maybe only sometimes.

Update: Just got an invite to City Lunch Club, a catered lunch service which is only available in New York at the moment. If you want to give it try, click here.

Facebook, WhatsApp and the Third World connection

Another day, another acquisition.

While companies are secretly filing IPOs left and right, there’s one company that will never have to worry about going public — WhatsApp. If you haven’t heard about Facebook’s whopping $19 billion acquisition of the 55-employee mobile app company by now, it’s the latest bit of news that’s making everyone go crazy with the question: Why?

Though there’s a lot of speculation in the air as to why on earth Facebook would pay approximately 10% of its own worth for an app that, yes, many people in the U.S. don’t even use, we can’t be entirely sure what the Palo Alto company is planning on doing with this app.

I didn’t want to add to the thousands of articles and blog posts already on the Internet about the WhatsApp acquistion, but there’s one small observation that I’ve had on my mind that I’ve yet to see in anything I’ve read so far. That observation? The fact that something like this has been in the works for a while now.

In July 2013, The New York Times published For Developing World, a Streamlined Facebook. It’s a fascinating article that talks about how Facebook has been working on its project, Facebook for Every Phone, which is dedicated to getting the social network onto feature phones which are still used in countries like India and Brazil. Because I’m an iPhone user, I haven’t been able to play around with Facebook for Every Phone, but at the time I read this article, I thought it was a pretty cool initiative Facebook was working on. In fact, in May of that year, Facebook was making deals with phone manufacturers like Nokia, offering $99 feature phones that included free Facebook service for carriers like Bharti Airtel. Interestingly enough, just yesterday, Bharti Airtel became the first Indian company to cross 200 million mobile subscribers. Is this just a coincidence that Facebook, nearly a year ago, had teamed up with Bharti Airtel? I think not.

Though I didn’t hear much about Facebook’s interest in Third World countries after that, in October, Facebook picked up Onavo, an acquisition that did get press, but not to the extent that WhatsApp has (not entirely surprising, considering that the WhatsApp acquisition is anywhere from 95 to 190 times pricier). The interesting part about Onavo was that, not only was it one of the Israeli-based companies Zuckerberg was interested in, but also the fact that Onavo helps to reduce mobile data usage, which means that it has the ability to cut down on phone bills. Yet again, another smart move by Facebook that left people a little confused.

This brings us to WhatsApp, which brought about a lot of confusion when the news first broke. After all, who actually uses WhatsApp in America (omg like #tbt)? Some publications have surmised that this move was made in part because Facebook doesn’t have the best track record with mobile applications (other than its official app). Consider the initial reactions to Facebook Home and the non-success of Facebook Paper, Facebook’s newest mobile application. Though these thoughts certainly make sense, looking at WhatsApp’s user data as well as Facebook’s past acquisition, it would also make sense that Facebook is really looking to really take over Third World countries now.

Take a look at these two graphs from App Annie. The first graph is for WhatsApp on iPhone and the second graph is for WhatsApp on Android. I’ve compared India and Brazil, two countries that still use feature phones, as well as the United States to see how the app stacks up among these three countries.

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WhatsApp on iPhone comparing Brazil, India and United States download ranks from February 8 to February 21. Source: http://www.appannie.com.

In this first graph, you can see that the download rank in Brazil and India have both been fairly steady, hovering around one to five in terms of platform rankings. WhatsApp in the United States, on the other hand, only recently climbed to that region, mostly likely in part to all of the press from the acquisition.

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WhatsApp on Android comparing Brazil, India and United States download ranks from February 8 to February 21. Source: http://www.appannie.com.

What’s even more interesting is this second graph for Android, where WhatsApp ranks first in overall, applications and communication for both Brazil and India (United States, not so much). It’s no wonder that Google also wanted in on WhatsApp, but could “only” offer $10 billion.

If you’re still wondering why Facebook forked over $19 billion (though I’ll admit, that’s still a HUGE amount of money), let’s review what we’ve observed: Facebook has been wanting to expand to Third World countries because they’re growing and have so much untapped potential. Countries like Japan, Korea and China are already hooked on LINE, KakaoTalk (possibly filing for an IPO) and WeChat, respectively, but India, for example, has mostly been using WhatsApp, which is popular among multiple countries.

Facebook’s past acquisitions have been mobile-first, with an emphasis on reaching out to Third World countries. WhatsApp is extremely popular among Third World countries since, for just 99 cents, people can engage in cross-platform mobile messaging without having to pay for SMS.

In summary, WhatsApp is a gold mine for Facebook. Though Google would have been happy to have WhatsApp, Facebook needed WhatsApp in order to effectively tap into Third World countries. It’ll be exciting to see how exactly Facebook is planning on implementing WhatsApp. Though I don’t see ads in the future of WhatsApp (WhatsApp is very adamant about having no ads, though only time will tell) at this point, I think Facebook is now looking to see how they can leverage this immense user base potential they have after the acquisition.

What I learned from my first UX Hackathon

Last summer, I attended the first annual SoCal UX Camp, hosted by both the Los Angeles and Orange County User Experience groups. The event was packed with people, but as a college student, I noticed that there weren’t too many others who were my age. I met a couple of people who have been out of college for a while but were looking to try something different and dabble in the emerging and exotic user experience industry.

Though a lot of people who currently work in user experience come from IT-focused backgrounds, many of them are also graphic artists, journalists and even anthropologists. Unlike programming, which people looking to transition into more tech-related jobs think they’ve missed the boat on (though some think the opposite), UX  is a way for people to hone in on a certain skill and really get good at it. Plus, since user experience is starting to become popular as a singular industry (though the concept of user experience has been around for quite some time) these days, even if you start tinkering with UX now, you can still catch up quickly.

This brings me to the subject of the UX Hackathon hosted by General Assembly in Los Angeles on Sunday. A group of USC students decided to attend after word about it traveled about our group of techies here.

When students like us think of “Hackathons,” we assume that most everyone in attendance will be around our age (or, in the instance of HackTech, even a little bit younger). But at this UX Hackathon, there were a lot of adults. At traditional Hackathons, even if the age range is wider than usual, it usually doesn’t matter. If you’re young and brilliant, you still have a chance against someone who might be older and more experienced. But since UX design, in addition to having an eye for it, gets perfected with experience and time, being younger put us at a slight disadvantage — but we weren’t disheartened. The three of us teamed up with three others and, after the introductory speech, we went to work.

No students to be found at the UX Hackathon.

No college students to be found at the UX Hackathon.

Unlike traditional hackathons, instead of being assigned or choosing to incorporate a specific API into our project, we randomly picked a topic and a “wrench,” or a guideline we had to follow, from bowls. We ended up getting sports and “the end-of-brick and mortar” as our wrench. A little confusing, but do-able nonetheless.

Not to mention, we didn’t have a whole weekend to come up with this project. We only had five hours to brainstorm, research, plan and design.

We dedicated the first half hour to research. After doing some competitive research on compete.com, we looked into franchises that specialized in sports equipment and merchandise. At the time, we still weren’t clear on what the exact rules were even after the presentation, so we decided to put a spin on our wrench and take the concept of pickup games and turn it into a mobile app. Each member in our group agreed, and we started working on our own tasks.

However, two hours or so into the event, mentors started coming around and asking about our project. One of them handed out a sheet of rules that we hadn’t seen before, and we started realizing that perhaps we weren’t going about this in the expected manner.

The paper that almost pulled our team apart.

The paper that almost pulled our team apart.

Then the disagreements started happening. Two of our members decided that we should go back, scrap our work (nearly completed mobile app designs, a working website and our presentation) and start over. The other two, who had been toiling away on their tasks, were ready to split. To keep the group together, we made compromises and decided to base our app, TeamUp, on our interpretation of meetup.com‘s sports meetups.

Time was up before we knew it, and we walked into the main room to hear the final presentations. There were redesigns of Epicurious, Southern California Edison, Sephora and other pretty big names. The level of professionalism, to our relief, was across the board, from people experimenting with UX to very seasoned professionals. Our team was third to last to present, so patience was running thin in the air. Nevertheless, we gave it our all and just like that, we were finished.

Brainstorms such as this one mostly covered the white board walls at General Assembly.

Brainstorms such as this one covered the white board walls at General Assembly.

Aside from what I had observed earlier on, there were many more differences between a UX Hackathon and a technical hackathon than I had previously thought. The minute we thought of our own idea, we started getting lost in it. We focused a lot of our efforts on the branding, name and look of our product, and though it turned out looking incredible, by coming up with TeamUp, we only covered the “Hackathon” part of the “UX Hackathon”. After seeing which teams the judges picked as winners, I realized that all we had to do was make a website easier to use for the end-user. We got too caught up in our ideas and forgot the whole purpose of UX.

Though everybody on our team was great, it’s difficult to tell, when meeting people, what their working styles are. Though this difference didn’t hurt our team, the way each of us worked sometimes clashed. When we were forming groups, we let people come to us, and ended up maxing out the number of people on our team before we actually got to mingle with others. Unless you’re coming to a hackathon with a team already, make sure to meet people before settling on your final team (but don’t dawdle for too long or you may not have a group!).

As for our presentation, in school we’re so used to having each person in a group project speak that I had forgotten the same doesn’t always apply at hackathons. Most, if not all the presentations, had delegated the speaking portions to one or two people, which made the presentations more fluid and paced. Because we had six people speak on our team, things got a little harried and we just barely ran out of time.

Despite the ups and downs we went through as a group in just five hours, we did a pretty good job despite the fact that we didn’t place. But something tells me that there will be many more UX Hackathons in the near future, if the trends in UX and hackathon popularity continues in this way.

Curious to see our presentation? You can view it here. Graphic design credits for our mobile application go to Grace Duong and design/coding credits for our website go to Stephen Chen. Presentation designed by yours truly.

Crowdfunding can be a risky proposition

 

In just a couple of days, Keiji Inafune, the creator of the original Mega Man series, was able to raise a cool $1.2 million on Kickstarter.

Even though his project, which he calls Mighty No. 9, won’t be available until 2015, enough people believe in Inafune’s vision that he’s already raised $300,000 more than his original goal — and he still has a month left in the campaign.

The days of going door-to-door to ask for donations are over. If you have an idea, garnering support from generous strangers has never been as easy as it is now.

Crowdfunding, the act of pooling money from a group of people to fund an idea, can be dated back to Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift, who began a fund to help low-income families in Ireland. But this way of crowdfunding has changed immensely since then. In 2000, artistShare debuted as the first documented crowdfunding site for music. Five years later, Kiva came along as a microlending site for entrepreneurs in impoverished areas, with Indiegogo and Kickstarter following in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

Anyone can crowdfund — from average folks to the likes of Zach Braff and Spike Lee. Seeing a great project come to life is exciting for both the creator and his or her backers. Because many crowdfunding sites put the responsibility of investigating the validity of the creators and their projects on the backers, however, if you find out that you’ve been scammed, it’s your problem.

Continue reading…

A brief hiatus

As much as I hate to do this, for the next couple of months, I’ll be taking a hiatus from Techvolo to focus on the tech column I’ll be writing for the Daily Trojan this upcoming semester. I’ll be posting some of my articles up here, so look out for those. In the meantime, you can always follow me on Twitter for updates in tech news as well as browse my Pinterest for some helpful infographics about marketing, tech and much more.

FF