Welcome Back Me!

I’ve been on vacation for the past week and a half in the Bay Area. I mentioned this on my del.icio.us but not here, since I figured I don’t update this enough to really impact the update frequency. I loved CA. I’m still decompressing (still over 2500 RSS items to read, and that’s after unsubscribing from some feeds) so this will be even more disjointed than my normal posts.

I was reading Lessig’s The Future of Ideas and he argues for end-to-end designs and dumb networks. World of Ends makes the same argument. As web developers, are we making the network too smart? Or are web applications just more ends to the network?

Do web applications side-step the GPL? If I make a bookmark manager for the desktop using GPL libraries I’m forced to release my application under the GPL, yet del.icio.us isn’t required to be open source (and I’m not arguing that it should be). I’m not the first to raise the issue but it seems to violate the spirit of the GPL, if not the letter. Perhaps a software bill of rights for web applications needs to be drafted, something that guarantees access to my data on your server, open formats, etc.

Why can’t my bank give me an AJAX competitor to Quicken on their site? Web applications are best suited for dealing with remote databases, why deal with importing my account data into a desktop program when it’s already on their server? I wonder if Intuit has some sort of backroom deal to keep online-banking stupid, the way they keep the IRS from serving people online in any useful manner.

Airlines tell us not to operate cellphones on flights because of potential interference risks. If all a terrorist needs to take down an aircraft is a cellphone then perhaps we’re better off with semaphore. Maybe the open spectrum initiatives should rephrase their argument in the language of scare mongering. Can you tell I was reading Lessig’s chapter on open spectrum during the plane ride?

More later, maybe.

Updated to add more:

Expect to see Apple very interested in the Wine project when the x86 systems reach consumers. If OS X can run Windows binaries natively then there will be two commercial desktop OSs, one that can run Windows programs and one that can run Windows and OS X programs. It’s not a shoe-in win for Apple though, also running Windows didn’t save OS/2.

Buy.com sucking

[Update 2005-10-12: Resolved!]

Here’s something you weren’t expecting on my blog (aside from two updates in as many days): go check out this purse on Buy.com. OK, you don’t have to, but Buy.com is giving my girlfriend way too much shit over that purse.

In June, she ordered that bag for $27.60 including S&H, which is a good deal for a bag that lists for $69. In fact, if you look on Froogle you can’t find it for less than $50. The only problem is that Buy.com is refusing to give her the purse she bought ordered! (her credit card hasn’t been charged, or she could get their help with this)

If you look at the Buy.com page for the bag you can see a couple things. They’re not selling it for $27.60: they’ve jacked up the price to $53.90. Also, the page says it “usually ships in 3-5 days”. It’s been 69 days.

She’s called their customer service department repeatedly, only to be told that it would ship within 3-5 days each time (refer to her blog post for details).

(As an aside, Buy.com hides their phone number, so here it is: 1-877-780-2464. Buy.com’s phone number is 1-877-780-2464. I hope this helps someone searching for it, and that they have better luck with Buy.com than Jenny.)

My take? Buy.com fucked up, listed the bag for a price too low and is trying to get her to cancel her order by delaying shipment and not talking to her. Yeah, I’m biased, but there’s certainly plenty of other people with Buy.com problems (only a quarter of their customers would buy from them again). I don’t think she’s canceling the order in hopes that Buy.com sells it to her at a loss, which costs them money.

We’re not going to be ordering anything from Buy.com and, judging from the experiences of other people who had problems, this problem is endemic to the company.

Mr. Brin, Mr. Page, Tear Down This Wall!

[Update 2006-01-18: As of yesterday, Google supports S2S!]

Talk, talk, talk. Everyone’s talking about Google, well, you know. Aside from the standard Google buzz, Google Talk is getting a lot of interest because they implement the open Jabber instant messaging standard. To over-simplify, Jabber is to instant messaging what SMTP is to email; right now IM is the equivelenat of needed a Prodigy account to email Prodigy users, a CompuServe account to…

As it stands now (the day the beta launched), Google Talk speaks the Jabber protocol but it doesn’t enable the server to server (S2S) communication. This means that Google Talk is no different from any other IM network, except that there are a lot of clients already available. Jabber hasn’t hit the tipping point yet where the network’s value is enough to force other IM services to interoperate. If Google enables S2S, Jabber will hit that tipping point and I predict that walled-garden IM services will be largely gone in 2 years. So what’s stopping Google?

They address distributed IM and voice in the Service Choice section of their developer’s FAQ and it sounds like they want to open up to the network as a whole. They mention privacy and spam as reasons to delay opening up to the network as a whole, which are certainly valid concerns. Hopefully spam will not be a problem because people have to request authorization to contact you before they can, which means you have to add a spammer to your buddy list before they can spam you.

I think there’s another reason, though. I believe that Google will provide a service for Google Talk users similar to IM Smarter. They will provide a searchable history of all your IM chats, which will raise a lot of the privacy concerns people had about Gmail. Right now there’s a growing backlash against Google and more people start to worry about what Google knows about you.

Perhaps part of the reason they’re slow to open their servers to the network is because they are worried that logging every IM that passes through their network might be—cliché as it is—evil. IM is different from email in that most people don’t expect it to be archived. I freaked out a friend once by referring back to a logged conversation recently and I imagine that will play out frequently once conversations are as searchable as Gmail archives.

Google is a strange beast. Their motto is “don’t be evil” but their mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” and sometimes those things are opposed to each other. Take the recent case of Google refusing to talk to CNet because CNet used the Google search engine to obtain information on one of their executives. Obviously Google feels that sometimes making the world’s information universally accessible is evil.

Perhaps Google is thinking about whether making IM logs permanent and immediately available is evil, and that’s holding up the grand unification of IM? I don’t think it’s evil, but I hope that’s being considered.

Disclaimer: I used the Google search engine to research this blog post and if they didn’t want me to see any damning information about the company, I wouldn’t know about it.

Update: Alf Eaton looks at the Google Talk privacy policy, highlighting some clauses to think about.

Google Maps thoughts

After the bajillionth Google Maps site it hit me: Google Maps is at its core a nifty UI widget for a common type of data. The OS doesn’t provide a widget for dealing with location data, and the web browser as a subset of OS widgets certainly doesn’t (hello combo box!). That’s like 10% of what makes Google Maps so cool, which is a lot considering how cool it is. People with location data are scrambling to put their data in a format that’s usable. Google Maps is literally changing the way people think about place.

Your homework assignment tonight is to think about what common types of data people have, and what kind of UI widget could be created specifically for browsing that data. Then create a multi-billion dollar business around your new web service. Bonus points for sucking up to my sympathetic nature towards the Semantic Web.

Opting out of the postal service

I want out. I want the mail to stop coming to me. It’s not a question of not liking what comes to me, it’s just 90% crud useless. And I’m willing to do without the useful stuff just so that I don’t have to deal with the useless stuff.

I get and pay my bills online. I’m not going to be getting anything from GameFly or Netflix. Packages arrive via UPS or FedEx or DHL. I’m with Kramer on this one, I just want the mail to stop coming to me.

It’s nothing personal, it’s just that I get so much clutter. I receive statements that I could get online, bills that I already get online, and more ads than I know what to do with. It’s 2005, if I can’t manage my account with you online or in person, I probably can with your competitor.

The closest thing I’ve seen to my discontent being discussed is actually with newspapers, not the mail. In figuring out why their subscription rates were plummeting, the Washington Post found out that 18 to 34 year olds wouldn’t accept a free subscription (much less pay for one) because “they didn’t like the idea of old newspapers piling up in their houses.” That’s exactly the same problem I have with the mail.

I’m not anti-mail, and I know a few people who worked for the USPS and they seem on the up-and-up. I’m willing to stick out the olive branch. How about a whitelist of accepted senders? That way I can still get stuff from people on eBay or Amazon, everything else gets returned to sender. Of course if I have to fill out and send in a form the deal is off. I need to be able to manage my whitelist online.

Always on Google

Google SMSMy girlfriend and I are sitting in a semi-darkened theater on Thursday night. The ticket says 9:45 PM, it was now that time and we had just finished watching 10 minutes of commercials. Instead of the movie, we get an in-depth ad for Ron Howard’s new movie and a great big view of Ron Howard. He is not looking good, probably because they didn’t bother with makeup for what is destined to become a DVD extra.

We can’t get over how bad he looks, like he’s a junkie one fix away from hitting bottom. I say it must be age, figuring that Opie was in black and white so it must have been quite a while ago. She says he isn’t that old. Normally this would be an impasse and we would move on.

With no interest in the Ron Howard featurette, I send an SMS saying “Ron howard age” to 46645 and get an immediate response saying

Q&A: Ron Howard Date of Birth:1 March 1954 Source www.who2.com/ronhoward.html

And yes, my phone is on silent.

Small things like that are what Howard Rheingold has been writing about for a while. If I can find out something as arbitrary as Ron Howard’s birth date from somewhere as disconnected as a movie theater seat, our entire relationship to information is changing. Kudos to Google for succeeding to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

RSS vs. the 24 hour news cycle

Bruce Schneier posted his response to a call for the media to pipe down about terrorist attacks. The argument goes that by publicizing terror attacks the media is creating terror, so why not short-circuit the terrorists’ goal? Mr. Schneier explains that the consequence of doing so would cause worse things than terrorism.

He also discusses the nature of the news media in general:

If the press did not report the 9/11 attacks, if most people in the U.S. didn’t know about them, then the attacks wouldn’t have been such a defining moment in our national politics. If we lived 100 years ago, and people only read newspaper articles and saw still photographs of the attacks, then people wouldn’t have had such an emotional reaction. If we lived 200 years ago and all we had to go on was the written word and oral accounts, the emotional reaction would be even less. Modern news coverage amplifies the terrorists’ actions by endlessly replaying them, with real video and sound, burning them into the psyche of every viewer. [emphasis added]

Kathy Sierra says “you can’t be afraid and rational at the same time.” She writes about how the brain deals with fear at low and high levels, and how the media sidesteps higher brain functions to appeal directly to the reptilian brain.

Unlike television shows, movies, and video games–which your brain knows aren’t real–a brain perceives the news as “real” and often concludes that things are far more dangerous than they really are, [emphasis added] thanks to the dramatic statistic imbalance (reality distortion field) between what is displayed on the news and what is actually happening outside your front door. It’s not like you’ll ever hear, for example, a nightly new run down of all the people in your city who were NOT in fact killed in a drive-by shooting that day.

Since I’m a geek, I’m constantly applying technical solutions to social problems. The social problem is that it’s unthinkable for a 24 hour news channel to announce “It’s a slow news day, so we’re taking a break for a while. Enjoy this test pattern until something happens.” Instead, they’ll latch on to whatever story they can because they need to keep people tuned into their advertisements.

The buzzword-compliant solution to this problem is RSS. Well, RSS or something like RSS. RSS provides the model, and it might even provide the format. Chris Anderson wrote about how RSS changes blog posting styles: “in a subscription age, where publishers don’t have to entice you back each day with a flood of new content, quality trumps quantity.” Why wouldn’t the same thing happen to TV?

Continue reading “RSS vs. the 24 hour news cycle”

iPod headphones as homework

I got home yesterday and saw my iPod headphones on the coffee table, mangled and broken. This wasn’t that big a deal because I had first noticed they were broken a few days earlier. I figured they got caught in the vacuum cleaner like my ill-fated SOCOM headset, or maybe they got underfoot. Except a few days earlier the metal speaker was simply disconnected from its housing, now the whole ear bud was removed. Oh yeah, and I threw them out when I saw how broken they were. WTF?

I had grabbed another set of the ubiquitous white ear buds after throwing out the broken ones and used them to fill the hole in my heart ear where the old ones had been. And, just like the old ones, I sort of left them on the coffee table. Then I realized what was going on.

As it turns out, my girlfriend’s dog really loves earwax. He’ll dig through the trash looking for the cotton swabs she uses to clean his ears if we let him. He’s always trying to pick his ears and eat it, even though it’s a lot harder without digits to manipulate. Yeah, it’s gross, but if a dog is going to eat its own waste products I guess it’s better than most.

The working theory of the crime goes something like this: the dog ate it. He had motive, means and opportunity. I didn’t test the forensic evidence when I walked him last night because I didn’t have probable cause, but I suspect he’ll make an emission of guilt tonight.

Thank you for not mentioning the outside world

Is there a proxy that would let me filter any content with the words “SXSW” or “ETech”? That would help me feel a bit better about being in Michigan over the next week. I suspect the Chinese have it in place to keep all their geeks from spending this week in the US. Maybe there’s something to auto-block people who use those words in IM, or I could install something like netnanny and tell it that those are swear words. Not that I’m bitter…

Pop-ups are click fraud

In Media Sites: Say No to Pop-Ups, I don’t think Adam Penenberg spent enough time on one point:

One survey conducted in 2004 by Bunnyfoot Universality, a U.K.-based web consultancy, determined that as many as nine out of 10 users who clicked on a popular pop-up ad were really just trying to get rid of them and clicked through by accident ‘because the close button was so difficult to find.'”

This means that pop-ups are essentially click fraud. If you advertise online and you buy pop-ups you are most likely overpaying. Nine out of ten accidental clicks means you could be paying 10 times too much for pop-up ads, for clicks that won’t do anything for you.

Don’t take my word for it, take a look your logs. Compare how long a visitor from a pop-up ad spends on your site with how long a visitor from an in-page ad sticks around. I’ll bet most of the pop-up ad people close your site before all the images on your page load.

[Update: MeFi is saying that there was a pop-up on the Wired story, and one person got a screengrab before Wired removed it. Physician heal thyself.]

[Update 2: Adam Penenberg posted a comment apologizing and saying that “the ‘money side’ of the house is investigating the matter.” There is generally a separation of editorial and advertising in news organizations and while it was kind of embarrassing in this instance, it’s a good thing to have a wall between the two. While it prevents a writer who bad mouths pop-ups from keeping pop-ups off their own article, it also prevents an advertiser from telling a writer what they can and can’t say about the advertiser.]