Sunday, December 31, 2006

Way To Go

Ok, I really don't want to get into the habit of plugging products, but once in a while, something strikes me as so ingenious, and so unique, that it really deserves to be brought to people's attention. Besides, I can't think of anything else to write about.

A good example of this is the Trikke (www.trikke.com), a human-powered 3-wheeled scooter-like vehicle. The Trikke has a tall steering column with handlebars and brakes, and two back legs that you stand on. For the first couple of weeks of diligent practicing, it seemed to me that this would only be good for rolling downhill and crashing into things.

Once I finally got it, though, I was amazed. You can actually make this thing move at a pretty good clip just by turning the handlebars and leaning from side to side. You do have to get the hang of when to do what, but once you do, it's very natural. Moreover, as you play with it, you find all kinds of subtle ways to vary your weight to change the movement. After a short while, it becomes like dancing ... shifting your weight, swiveling your hips, and establishing your rhythm. You can actually propel yourself by dancing. I've done trips of about 15 miles, but I know others who've gone up to 100 miles in one (all day) outing.

There are two downsides to this thing. First, going uphill is a bitch. You can do it, but it's slow and difficult.

Secondly, oncoming bicyclists, walkers, roller skaters, etc. will think you're out of control, because you're weaving from side to side. They may jump out of the way, shout nasty things, or threaten you with bodily harm. Fortunately, these are outnumbered by the people who will say "Cool!", "Did you invent that?" and "Where did you get it?"

The upside? It's really fun!

Friday, December 29, 2006

My Life's An Open Book

I rarely read a book from cover to cover without digressions. I read mostly non-fiction, and of that, I like to dip into a book and read a bit as the mood strikes me. It's kind of a literary buffet. I have thousands of books lying around with bookmarks indicating where I last tasted, but I'll flit from one dish to another. This leads to several characteristics of my book consumption:

1) I'm almost never finished with a book. Even those I've read in their entirety may be sampled again at some future point. But most are nowhere near exhausted.

2) I'm always eager to add new books to the collection.

3) I love books that are written in a way that encourages this sort of tasting ... ones that have short chapters or sections, sidebars, illustrations with long captions, etc. Art books get an especially good workout.

I like to think this tendency reflects my insatiable curiosity in many fields, and Rennaissance-man-like pursuit of knowledge. More likely, though, I'm just a dilettante with a short attention span.

From time to time, I'll mention books here that particularly appeal to me. The latest is Designing Interactions, by Bill Moggridge (MIT Press). It's chock full of descriptions of some of the most fun interaction design projects of the last few decades, and interviews with the luminaries who made them happen. Moreover, it's full of illustrations, anectdotes, and other fun tidbits. Overall, it gives an excellent picture of the recent history and state of interaction design, and the guiding principles. It's also an excellent hors d'ouevre.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Gift Card Rip-Off

Most individuals and institutions pay for the privilege of borrowing money. People pay interest on mortgages and loans, credit card balances, etc. Similarly, you earn interest on money you put in the bank or invest, since you're basically lending that money to others.

But the Simon Malls gift card manages to rip-off both lender and borrower. When you buy a gift certificate, you're basically paying in advance for goods or services to be provided sometime in the future. In other words, you're lending money to the business that's providing the gift certificate. But to give a Simon Malls gift card, you have to pay them $5.95 for the privilege of lending them your money. As if that weren't enough, if the card balance isn't used in full within 12 months, they charge you $2.50 per month until the card expires or the balance reaches $0. Expires? Why should a gift card expire? It's your money you've lent them! But if it does expire, they charge you $15 to re-activate it.

I'm sure there are other, similar rip-offs out there, but this one bugged me. I think everyone should tell Simon Malls exactly what they can do with their gift card.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Xmas Shopping

I'm sure a recent trip to the mall is fresh in many of our minds. The store Brookstone's has the motto "Hard-to-Find Tools." Huh? I have enough trouble finding the tools I already own!

Then there's a clothing store called The Limited. Wouldn't you rather shop someplace that's not so limited?

Banana Republic? That used to be a derogatory term for an emerging Latin American country. How it's high-end clothing.

The Discovery Channel Store? What's next? The Court Channel Store? the C-SPAN Store?

There used to be some interesting department stores, but they're all Macy's.

Pottery Barn Kids - Now there's an accident waiting to happen.

In one mall near me, Eddie Bauer, American Eagle Outfitters, Banana Republic and The Walking Store all cater to the outdoorsy, pine-cone-and-burr set, while 25 stores are categorized as women's fashions. All together:
  • 30 clothing
  • 21 restaurants and food concessions
  • 14 shoes
  • 13 jewelry
  • 13 music/electronics/video
  • 11 home furnishings
  • 7 specialty food
  • 6 sporting goods
  • 1 books

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Natural Order of Things

There's too much information in the world. Somebody once said "The Internet has all the information in the universe, but not in alphabetical order" or something like that. I'm too lazy to Google it now.

But alphabetical order is a good way to deal with massive amounts of information. If the information can be described by a sequence of words, ranging from most to least significant, then simply alphabetizing will group the similar items together. This is really the idea behind sorting by last name first. In a sense, the last name defines the category, and the first name describes the individual within the category.

Unfortunately, other things don't work out so easily. For example, in the U.S., we tend to write dates as month/day/year (or mm/dd/yyyy, as geeks like to put it). Of course, sorting alphabetically on dates gives us all the things that related to April, regardless of the year, followed by all the things related to August, etc.

In general, in English, we put adjectives before the noun ... the big, red car ... the shiny, new iPod, etc. We may want to rethink that. Imagine giving names to image files, and then trying to sort them to be able to find types of images ... people-family-wife.jpg ... travel-europe-france-paris.jpg, etc. When you sort them, all the people-family-... images will be together, and all the travel-europe-france ones, etc.

Well, time to get off this computer stupid and get a life real.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Spammed If You Do, Spammed If You Don't

Lately, I've been getting my big news from the screen in my office elevator, running Captivate. It's a terrible way to get news, but it passes the time on those long elevator rides, and eliminates the awkward silences of complete strangers trying to ignore each other.

Recently, a vision bite mentioned that about 90% of all e-mail traffic is spam. Ouch! That's a lot of stock tips and low-interest mortgages. I get about equal numbers of messages informing me that bored housewives are waiting for me, and that I need to enlarge my genitals. These seem contradictory to me, but I haven't taken the time to sort it all out.

Lately, I think the dominant spammers are pump and dump stock traders. They buy some penny stock, and then send out 10 million messages advising you that's it's going to go sky high. If even 1% of the spam targets actually buy any stock (a percentage much lower than the actual National Stupidity Quotient), that's 10,000 people helping these spammers to make a killing on their investment.

I generally support the U.S. Constitution, but I believe we ought to allow cruel and unusual punishments for spammers. The resources they cost, in terms of computer and communication assets and human time, are astounding. If we could harness all that power for good, instead of evil, Vista could have shipped on schedule! So I say bring back public humiliation. Spammers should be locked in stocks in the town square. Or dunked in decaf. Or, to let the punishment fit the crime, per Gilbert's and Sullivan's The Mikado, they should be forced to ride elevators all day and read all the Captivate bites.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Finished?

I've been using Google's Gmail, among others, for over two years now, and it still says "beta" on the screen. Maybe that's the right model for software ... that it's always a work in progress. The Web 2.0 paradigm is helping to advance this idea. With Web-based applications, you don't know from one click to the next whether you're using the same version of software or not. In fact, you don't even have to click to be upgraded mid-stream. A page you're browsing may update itself and the code which runs it at any time.

In contrast, Microsoft's Vista is wildly late, and its timing is viewed by many as damaging to year-end, holiday-season PC sales. If Microsoft had followed the "work in progress" model, they would have been rolling out pieces of Vista for years, and would have gotten a lot of feedback with which to improve the product over time.

In some sense, software products have always been works in progress. There are major new version, minor versions, "dot" releases, etc. But the idea of throwing away the published schedule completely, and just introducing features, bug fixes, etc. as they are implemented, has been confined to in-house IT centers.

This might also force developers to rely on small, testable modules which can be integrated together, and less on large monolithic implementations. You have to build systems that way in order to be able to upgrade one component or another without having to rebuild the whole system.

So, what does that mean for the average user?

This post is in beta. Improvements may appear at any time.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Amazin'

I practically have my paychecks directly deposited to Amazon.com. If I got rid of all the books I've bought from there, my house would rise 6 or 8 inches from the ground. And almost all of these purchases have been very satisfactory experiences.

However, I just purchased a book from the Amazon marketplace, and the condition was definitely not "very good." Pages were loose, there were highlighter marks on some pages, and the cover was bent. The seller offered me a partial refund, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

On another occasion, I bought an audio book on cassette, only to find out that it was abridged. On Amazon, there was a list of "abridged" copies, and another list of copies with no indication of abridgment. So I assumed those were not abridged, since they were not listed in the "abridged" category. Wrong.

The upshot is there there are some instances when buying in person, and having the opportunity to look at the merchandise, is important. In a larger sense, this is indicative of how far we have to go in creating "virtual" presence. If I post something for sale, I'll list all that I consider to be the salient features of the item, but that may not match what you want to know. We could then begin a length e-mail exchange.

But first, we'd have to recognize that information is missing. I've seen a lot of e-mail exchanges that go on for 20 or 30 messages just to cover a seemingly simple piece of information being conveyed. Each bit of information raises new questions, which then have to be answered, triggering yet more questions, etc.

As dependent as we are on text-based communication, like e-mail and text messaging, etc., it's a very narrow communication channel indeed.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

New Media and Old

I created an image recently for a theater poster. The director had a very specific idea in mind, and the way I wound up creating the image included:

1) Using two background photographs, one landscape and one sky, which were blended together in Photoshop using layer masks.

2) Using an outline shape which was embossed, blurred and smudged in Photoshop until it looked like a cloud.

3) Using e-Frontier Poser and DAZ Studio to create a figure model in the pose I wanted, and

4) Drawing and coloring clothing in pastel (Yes, regular old pastel sticks that you buy in an art store).

The whole image actually came together surprisingly well. I was worried that the different looks of photos, a computer generated figure model and pastel would really not go together, but it works.

The most fun? The pastel. Working at a computer is powerful, fast, flexible, versatile, and many other adjectives. But for the fun of creating, it still can't beat traditional art media.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Stereo Photography

Ever have a View-Master as a kid? I think that was my all-time favorite toy. I absolutely loved the 3D images of cartoon characters, travel spots, and famous people. I could spend hours staring at these, sometimes closing one eye so I could again be bowled over by the effect when I re-opened it.

Numbskull that I was, though, it never occurred to me to try taking stereo pictures myself. I understood the whole concept ... take two pictures from about 2 1/2 inches apart, and find a way to view them so your right eye only sees the right image, and your left eye the left one. Since this is how we see things normally, the brain interprets the slight differences between the right and left images as depth.

About a dozen years ago, I discovered that not only are there are people who take their own stereo pictures, but there are special cameras and other equipment for taking and viewing them. Alot of this stuff, film equipment from the 1940's to the 1960's, can be found on eBay for pretty reasonable prices. Of course, these are not state-of-the-art automatic cameras, so it takes a little learning to figure out how to load film, set exposure, focus and shoot. You also have to learn what to do with the film once you've shot it. If it's slides, you have to have the film developed, and learn how to cut and mount it yourself. For prints, you'll have to find a place that can do custom cutting.

The simplest approach is to use two cameras, either film or digital. Put them side-by-side, so the lenses are parallel, and get them to shoot at the same time as best you can. If you use digital cameras, there's software that can display the images on the screen in a variety of formats, including those cheapie red/blue glasses you get a movie theaters. StereoPhoto-Maker is one such free package.

For still subjects, you can even use one camera. Shift your weight to your left foot and take a picture. Then shift your weight to your right foot, holding the camera steady so it basically slides to the right, and take another picture. This is the cha-cha method.

This can be really fun! A little Google searching will turn up a number of Web sites on Stereo Photography, its history, techniques, cameras, etc.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Knobs

Ask non-artists to draw a picture, and most will say "Oh, I can't even draw a straight line." Nobody can draw a straight line without using a ruler or something. The arm doesn't move that way. The nature of the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints support moving a pencil in nice curves and arcs, but not really in straight lines.

The same is true for scroll bars and sliders in graphical user interfaces. Yet these things are everywhere, requiring the unnatural straight line movement to scroll up or down a page, left or right, or to set levels on things that can have their levels set. In the old days of computer graphics, you could get a box with a bunch of knobs on it, and have your program use those knobs to set whatever levels need setting. Unfortunately, that's all but disappeared.

Now, I'm not planning to plug products in this space, so I'll only write about things I know nothing about (which goes for most of the content here.) However, at first blush, the Logitech NuLOOQ seems very promising. I got a chance to play with this at SIGGRAPH this past summer. It's got various places where you can twist, spin, and press to get the effect of knobs and shuttle wheels. You can use it with Photoshop, to scroll around the art, change brush sizes, etc., all with your left hand, while your right hand is wielding the stylus from your Wacom tablet. Together, these gadgets make drawing pictures on the computer almost like ... well, like drawing pictures.

Are you listening, Santa?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Tis the Season

Christmas shopping, or holiday shopping as it's now called, so that Jews, Muslims and atheists can participate in the frenzy, is in full swing. I'm always reminded of the scene in the Marx Brothers' film, A Night at the Opera in which Harpo and Chico meet, exchange salamis, and go their separate ways.

This is pretty much how the game is played. You give people a bunch of crap that they don't want, so they can give you some comparable crap that you don't want. This is how we bolster the U.S. economy. There are whole industries dedicated to making this crap that nobody wants. In the history of the world, did anyone ever buy a Yankee candle for himself? Do your friends measure space in their homes for those little dancing Santa toys? (If so, do they already have a singing fish?) Have you ever heard anyone say, "Gee, I really could use a hanging reindeer holder for holiday cards?" even if actual people ever really said "holiday cards?"

And for the economy minded, there's re-gifting, a fancy term for passing the crap along. This is almost un-American. Instead of buying new crap, and thus helping to keep the global crap market solvent, people are passing along previously owned crap. Some of this stuff has been in circulation for years. I got a fruitcake last year that had a card in the bottom signed by Jimmy Hoffa.

But I suppose in this ephemeral, throw-away world of ours, it's nice to know that some gifts keep on giving.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Public Opinion vs. Arbiters of Taste

The theory behind YouTube and MySpace and blogs and other "look at me" Web sites is that people will post whatever they want to share, and public opinion will help separate the wheat from the chaff. Really good, entertaining videos, blogs, etc. will catch on by word of mouth, attract an audience, and then a following. Less entertaining material will languish in obscurity. In other words, the market decides what is or isn't worthwhile. The economic model is ads, which will get more visibility, and hence earn more revenue, on really popular sites.

This model is not new. In book publishing, there have long been what are called vanity presses, which will gladly take your money in exchange for printing a few hundred or thousand copies of your self-edited book. They advertise in writer's magazines, which are themselves an attempt to capitalize on the huge number of wannabe writers looking for the secret of success.

The arguments against vanity presses are two-fold: 1) They don't screen or edit anything, so there's no reason for readers to assume anything of the quality of their publications, as compared with those of a traditional selective publisher, and 2) vanity presses don't promote their publications, and don't have the clout (see #1) to get their publications reviewed, stocked in stores, etc.

The problem with the Internet isn't lack of information. It's lack of filtering. There's too much information, and no way for typical users to assess the quality or reliability of the information they want, if they can even find it. This is true with vanity publishing, and now Internet publishing as well. The word of mouth approach is interesting, but it is subject to the "famous for being famous" syndrome. Once a slight buzz is generated for a particular video, or site, or whatever, it could just grow and grow based on the momentum, and the ease of forwarding links around the net. If all arts sink or swim on the basis popular opinion, will we end up with a culture of fast-food-quality art and literature? Is there something that could be considered "good" art which may not be popular? If so, who will champion that in the age of You-this and My-that?

Friday, December 8, 2006

Re/ Re-inventing the Wheel

My first job in software development was writing FORTRAN. I had also written some BASIC programs before that. Then I got a job for which I had to write COBOL. Then Assembler Language. Then Pascal. C. PostScript. C++. Perl, Java. C#. JavaScript.

And what did we write? Programs to display information on the screen and let you edit it. Programs to make documents look pretty. Programs to track expenses and income. Programs to schedule appointments and events. Programs to manage contact information for other people. Programs for creating art. Programs to send and receive e-mail.

So for all this time, we've been rewriting and re-rewriting the same programs over and over again, in new languages, on new operating systems, with new GUI bells and whistles. But basically the same stuff.

Progress.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

How to Be an E-mail AH

1) Sign up for lots of e-mail mailing lists. Be sure to call them listservs.

2) Immediately delete the confirmation messages that say "Save this message." Don't bother reading the mailing list rules. That's a waste of time.

3) Post messages to all these lists asking the moderators to switch you to digest mode. Don't write to the moderator directly. Share this with the whole list.

4) Once you're in digest mode, make sure to include the entire digest as a quotation in every post you make to the list.

5) Reply to any subject on the list with a completely different subject. Never post an original message. Always make it a reply.

6) Post about anything other than the topic of the list. That gets boring.
a) Be sure to forward all your spam to the list, asking if its legitimate.
b) Also forward any virus warnings you get to the list. If you don't get any, make some up.

7) Post messages implying that other list members must be idiots or otherwise mentally deficient.

8) If the moderator ever posts to the list, accuse him or her of censorship, and draw a comparison to Hitler.

9) Post messages to all your lists asking to be removed. Better yet, post several such messages.

10) Go to step #1.

That's about it. Simple, eh?

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The Killer App

The Killer App! It's practically legendary. It's the great American novel. It's the fountain of youth. It's the great white whale, the Holy Grail and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It's ... e-mail!

That's right. E-mail is the killer app. It's what everyone who uses the internet has in common. Doesn't matter if you're a researcher or a programmer or a secretary or a store clerk or a kid looking for porn. Everyone uses e-mail.

And e-mail sucks!

Historically, e-mail goes back to the late 1960's or early 1970's, when all computer users were geeks. E-mail was just a way of moving files from one user to another on the same computer. Then the ARPAnet came along in the 1970's, and the idea was extended to sending plain text from a user on one computer to a user on another. Since then, it's gotten loaded down with every imaginable kind of baggage ... HTML, file attachments, links to Web pages, etc.

I'm all in favor of having nicely formatted e-mail messages, with embedded images, links, etc. But the way these things were added was pretty haphazard. Most of this stems from a specification called MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions), basically allowing a mail message to be conglomeration of different components, in different formats, allow loosely held together. Unfortunately, although MIME allows all these parts to be assembled, it doesn't allow, for example, new text in a message to be distinguished from quotations from earlier messages, except by guesswork. The MIME format is very primitive compared with something like XML, but because there are so many e-mail archives and so many programs that support it, we're stuck with it.

I think most people would agree, however, that e-mail's biggest weakness is its lack of security. Anyone can forge an e-mail message, and spammers routinely do this. There's no way to detect who actually sent a message, or whether its contents have been tampered with.

We have technologies to solve all this, but it would take a major effort to replace the current e-mail structure. We need to really launch an initiative to introduce a completely new e-mail infrastructure, in parallel with the existing one until the new structure is fully deployed, and the old one can be scrapped.

Until then, we'll be stuck getting bombarded with a dozen spam messages for every legitimate one we receive. It really is the killer app.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Picky picky

It is often said that in the world of illustration, you may have spectacular illustrations of lions, tigers, panthers and jaguars in your portfolio, but if the art director is looking for someone who can do a leopard, you'll be passed over. It seems many art directors can not imagine that you can do something other than exactly what you've shown them.

With the tight job market in high tech for the last few years, the same is true in hiring technology workers. "Oh, you worked with Visual Studio 6.0? We need people with expertise in Visual Studio 2005."

The problem has many parts. One is that when the job market is tight, hiring companies get lots of resumes, so they can afford to be very selective. Also, they tend to rely more and more on quick resume reviews, often done by software. If the software doesn't find the right keywords in your resume, you're out of luck.

Despite the obvious shortcomings of this, more and more companies are using automated resume submission Web sites, and automatic resume review to thin the herd. So what if people start packing their resumes with keywords to get past these gatekeepers? Will employers start filtering for this, the way search engines do with metatags?

To further complicate matters, some sites let you upload a Word document as your resume, some require you to paste a text resume into an HTML edit box, and some require you to fill out forms that essentially duplicate your resume. Some even require you upload and fill in the form. How dumb is that?

Why don't we have a standard resume format yet ... CVML! (Curriculum Vitae Markup Language). This seems so obvious to me I can't believe I haven't seen it yet. Software could easily parse and interpret XML-based resumes, and formatters could make it look pretty for human consumption. C'mon, all you unemployed engineers! Get busy!

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Form and Function

HTML and other SGML derivatives are founded on the concept of separation of form and function. The idea is that there's something that could be called content, and that identical content could be presented in various ways, depending on the preferences of the viewer, the physical device being used for presentation, etc. The concept of style sheets, borrowed from traditional publishing, is a further elaboration of these ideas, based on the notion that style is something that can be applied to arbitrary content to make it display correctly.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a load of hooey. Talk to a graphic designer, or read a book on graphic design, and you come to understand that form is function. Style is content. Sure dull stuff like e-mail ("Check out this cool video...") and instant messages ("i m 2 ql 4 u") could be displayed in a variety of ways with no loss of information.

But look at ads in a slick magazine, or even well designed Web sites, and you'll see that the look is an important part of the message these are trying to convey. The colors, typefaces and sizes, and layout on the page or screen are all important to the impact. Usually many sketches and increasingly refined prototypes go into developing the desired look.

And designers have struggled for years with making Web sites because HTML is so hostile to design. It's anti-design. HTML says only the words matter ... everything else is left to the viewer.

Now, of course, because HTML is such a design-hostile environment, many Web designers have made great livings by knowing how to work around the shortcomings of HTML. They know how to pack images into tables, and how to use <DIV> elements, etc. to get the look they're after. Many books have been written on the subject, training courses have been developed, and Web design studios flourished.

But this tends to be very fragile. Browser incompatibilities can wreak havoc with even the most carefully wrought sites, and ever-changing technologies are sure to bring new pitfalls.

So, I'm sorry if I'm stepping on the toes of Web designers, but
FORM AND FUNCTION ARE NOT SEPARATE!

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Jelly Buttons

When desktop publishing first came along, designers observed a phenomenon that became known as "ransom note typography." Basically, unsophisticated users were so intoxicated with the capabilities of PageMaker and other desktop publishing software that they started using multiple fonts with reckless abandon. The result resembled a note contructed of various letters cut from a newspaper or magazine.

Pretty much the same disregard for design principles is taking hold now on Web pages. The latest symptom of this I've noticed is the ubiquitous "liquid" buttons or "jelly" buttons that seem to adorn all sites now. This is information overload. Sure, they look very cute, and I'm sure when the Web team proposes them, the buttons look impressive enough to get the go ahead. But really, who needs this? They just make the buttons harder to read, and harder to hit with a mouse.

This is actually the continuation of the "2 1/2 D" trend ... making graphical interfaces appear to be made of real physical buttons, by highlighting the left and top edges, and darkening the bottom and right. This makes the buttons appear raised ... not quite 3 dimensional, but 2 1/2 dimensional. Cognitively, this makes sense, as our visual system is adept at picking up and these depth cues, and so we can readily distinguish buttons from other information via this pseudo-depth. (This is one reason why the 2 1/2 D look of HTML table borders is a really bad idea.)

The jelly buttons are completely gratuitous, and in many ways, diminish the legibility of the buttons. They are essentially eye candy. People are evidently impressed that it's possible to make something so cool looking, and mistake that for goodness.

People think interface design is about making screens look pretty. Not only is it *not* about making screens look pretty, it's not even about making them look readable and manipulable. Well, partly it's about that. Interface design is really about figuring out what model of data and operation the user should have in his or her head, and how to present information, and allow manipulations, that support that model. The prime directive is to make the user understand what he or she is doing, and what effect his/her actions will have.

Or, to put it more succinctly, good design is invisible.

By the way, there are countless other examples of wrenchingly bad Web site design. Many of these have already been discussed elsewhere, but I might still take a pot shot for fun.

Friday, December 1, 2006

M&A

M&A (mergers and acquisitions) are once again flourishing, driving a new wave dot-com boom. We don't have quite the "irrational exuberance" of the 1990's, but hey, $1.6 billion for a site that hosts home videos of people lip-syncing is plenty irrational and plenty exuberant.

In addition to the Google/YouTube affair, other recent romances include News Corp/MySpace, Adobe/Macromedia, Microsoft/Groove, and many others. And like the 90's, I think the business plan of many of these companies is simply to get acquired. They demonstrate just enough technology and sizzle to attract attention and wham, the lawyers from some big company or other are down on them like flies on ... well, you get the idea.

And it's all about the Web. For YouTube and MySpace (I think the next big one will have to be TheirWhatever), it was branded sites for people with too much free time to hang out. In the case of Macromedia and Groove, it was leading technology for building Web sites or for sharing data on the Web.

So basically, billions and billions are being spent so that people who sit in cubicles and drive around in cars and walk around with cell phones and iPods in their ears and live in separate houses or apartments can sit in front of their computers and interact with each other.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Vista Matter

So Microsoft's big news is that they're finally unveiling their breakthrough new operating system. And what are the breakthroughs? Well, it won't crash as much, and it won't be as vulnerable to attacks by every freshman comp. sci major with too much spare time. Whoop-de-doo!

Ok, there's nothing original about bashing Microsoft. They're trying. In some ways, the sheer volume of their sales means there are bound to be disgruntled customers. They deserve some credit for trying to re-gruntle them.

My biggest complaint with Microsoft is not faults with Windows or the Office applications. (Those are littler complaints.) My biggest beef is that developing software just isn't any fun anymore. When I started writing software, back in the days of the abacus, you'd think of what you wanted to do, and get it working within a day or so. Running it would then give you more ideas about what it could do, and you'd start coding again. There was a feedback loop of writing code to solve a problem, and then seeing opportunities to generalize the code to handle more and different problems.

Now I know all the history of software engineering as a discipline, with procedures for developing specifications, designing, implementing, testing, etc. I have no problem with that. What I object to is that now I spend probably 80% of my implementation time on complying with various APIs, interfaces, protocols and conventions. That leaves 20% (minus other overhead) for actually doing the fun stuff. And for that, I think the structure and definition of the Microsoft SDKs, frameworks and APIs are largely to blame.

I'll elaborate on this later.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The non-post post

Sorry. No time to post today. I'm watching reruns of Grey's Anatomy to catch up for tomorrow night. (I know ... I said I don't watch commercial TV. My wife got hooked on this show.) I'm sure never going to want to have surgery after this.

After suffering through back and leg pain all summer, and having an MRI confirm that I have sciatica from a herniated lumbar disc, and waiting yet another month to finally see a neurosurgeon, I was told I should definitely have the discectomy surgery, because the condition had not resolved itself in the 3 months that it normally takes. I chose to get second opinion.

After waiting another month to see a spine specialist, I was told not to have surgery. It takes 6 to 8 months for this condition to resolve itself, and apparently in that last month of waiting, things had finally started to improve. So now, a month after that, I feel great! From May through October, I was in constant pain, 24/7, especially when sitting, driving, putting on my socks, etc. I still get the pain occasionally, but it's infrequent.

Lo and behold, a new study last week confirms that waiting is just as effective as surgery for this herniated disc/sciatica condition.

All of which goes to prove nothing, except that I had more time than I thought.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

eConomics

eBay has had a major impact on the global junk market. People are crawling through their attics and basements looking for those hard-to-find treasures they can fob off on other unsuspecting ... er, appreciative buyers. Parents shopping for their kids buy an extra toy for themselves, kept pristine in all the original packaging, for the purpose of extorting money from a collector at some future date.

I expected eBay would have one of three effects on the market for "yard sale" quality goods: prices might stay the same, or they might go up, or they might go down. (I'm such a shrewd analyst.) Specifically, I figured prices on most items would go way up, when eBay shoppers first discover obscure, long sought items. After the spike, however, I expected prices to go down, as everyone started dredging up old junk, and the once rare Elvis ashtray or Gangsta Barbie suddenly appeared in profusion across a wide range of inappropriate categories.

From the few categories of items I actually check out, however, it appears that prices have stayed about the same. I think this means the number of buyers has grown faster than the number of sellers, so even though more people are cleaning out their garages, there are yet more and more buyers to bid up the prices on this stuff.

It also means that buyers don't have a clue what things are worth. I know, I know. Things are worth what people are willing to pay for them. Putting the word "rare" in an auction title automatically raises the price by 15%. Putting in big pictures makes the item more valuable than smaller pictures.

With all the social networking sites out there, like MySpace and LinkedIn and whatever, I'm surprised eBay hasn't tried to take advantage of this. After all, you can form instant connections with other people around the world who are into Elvis ashtrays and Gangsta Barbies.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Water Cooler or the Spigot?

I run about 25 Yahoo! groups, and one large, busy Mailman list. I have also run lists with Majordomo, Onelist and eGroups in the past. I also belong to a number of mailing lists that I don't own or moderate.

From all this, it seems to me that there are two basic philosophies about e-mail lists (often mistakenly called listservs, after one of the early software packages to support this.) Some people regard lists as a kind of virtual water cooler ... a place to hang out and talk about whatever comes to mind, often but not always related to whatever the participants have in common. Thus a list for taxidermists may have discussions on where to get "authentic" pizza, which political candidates can most easily be likened to Hitler, and who has a video of the last episode of Lost to lend.

The other view is that an e-mail list is like a spigot. I join the taxidermists list because I want to talk and hear about taxidermy. If I want to talk about other things, I can join the pizza list, or the Hitlerian candidate list, or the Lost list. When I turn on my hot water, I don't want radiator fluid to come out, even if it's really awesome radiator fluid.

Invariably, there will be people frustrated with whichever approach the list moderators take. There's no walking the line. Some moderators have created two lists ... an on-topic list and a chat list. In my experience, this is about as effective as a "Yield" sign on the highway.

I'm firmly in the spigot camp, but I've learned to let the lists I moderate seek their own center. I get occasional complaints from one side or the other, but I can live with that.

I have a bunch of other pet peeves about e-mail lists, but I'll save those for a future posting.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Confession

I don't have an iPod or other MP3 player. My cell phone plan has no minutes. I don't have a laptop computer. The CD player in my car has been broken for over a year. I can't remember the last time I watched a commercial TV show.

Sometimes I like just to be where I am.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Restarting

Why is it that so much software requires restarting your computer during, or after, installation? Or both? When I worked on Unix and similar operating systems, we installed, removed and re-installed with reckless abandon. What is this software doing that's do intimately connecting with operating system that it simply cannot be installed without completely rebooting the system?

For years, science fiction movies depicted computers as being vulnerable to paradoxes. Heroes in tight-fitting clothes would defeat the evil computer by posing an unanswerable question, thus causing the computer to spin its tapes and flash its lights helplessly for a few seconds before erupting in smoke and sparks, proving yet again the indomitable superiority of humankind. For years, we scoffed at those movies, joking about what an absurd depiction of cybernetics they offered.

But danged if those old movies and TV shows didn't get it right! In fact, they overstated the case for computers. You don't even need to pose an unanswerable question. All you need to do is try to install the latest word processors or Web browsers or graphics software. Sometimes not even that.

When I first started writing BASIC programs in high school, we used to dream of crashing the remote time-sharing system to which we were connected. Now I have a thousand times that much computer power under my desk, and I dream about getting through the day without having to restart.

Progress.

Friday, November 24, 2006

It's An Ad Ad Ad Ad World

You may have heard the buzz about Web 2.0. The Internet is the computer. Everything will be Web-mediated, allowing you to share documents, spreadsheets, blogs and video clips with people scattered across the face of the globe. And it will all be free!

Well, not actually free. It will exact a price from you which is the most valuable commodity to marketers, and the one thing you can never recover once paid ... your attention. All Google and the other Web 2.0 pioneers want is some portion of your attention ... your ears, your eyes, and a share of your brain ... to give them an opportunity to sell you something.

This shouldn't come as a surprise to us. The entire broadcast industry has been founded on this principle since its inception. The programming is free, but you pay by having to live through the commercials, whether you watch them or not. It's like those timeshare deals where you win a free vacation but you have to spend a few hours in a locked room listening to a high pressure sales pitch.

Advertising has a sort of manifest destiny to completely overwhelm all of human experience. Billboards on highways, commercials on TV, product placements in movies, buildings and sports venues named for the highest bidder, newspapers and magazines with less than 50% actual content. Heck, even this blog has Google ads at the bottom.

Moreover, as technology makes it easier to skip ads, by fast-forwarding or pop-up blocking, the ads become more intertwined with the content, until it becomes impossible to separate them. Even now, there are marketing ploys in which people are payed to start conversations with strangers on topics that lead to product or service recommendations.

Qualcomm provided an interesting choice with its Eudora e-mail program. You could run it for free, but have ads placed on the screen, or pay for it and run it with no ads. This makes perfect sense. You get to choose. Evidently, this model didn't work for Qualcomm, which is now planning to make Eudora free and open source, a polite way of saying they're giving up on it.

In general, the free/fee model will succumb, and you will be subjected to advertising whether you pay for your content or not. Then all content will be just a way to attract attention to the ads. Your books, movies and music will all have paid plugs woven into the content. So-called news reports will be thinly disguised industry or government promotions. Even scientific research will be "owned" by sponsors who will dictate the findings.

Oh wait! This has already happened.

Sorry I couldn't make this funnier.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Reflecting on Anniversaries

Today, on this 43 anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it would be appropriate to reflect on the state of leadership and political will in this country.

But I'm not going to do that. Instead, I'm thinking about numbers, and why 10th, 25th, 50th and 100th anniversaries seem so significant. For some, I think it's the odometer effect ... the fun of watching the car's odometer turn 100 or 1000 or 10000 or 100000 miles, and seeing all those 0's appear. (It used to be more fun when the numbers were printed on little plastic wheels.) After all, this is exactly why so much of the population was determined to celebrate the dawn of the 2nd millenium a year too early.

But what about 25th and 50th anniversaries? Is it just because those are interesting fractions of 100?

The whole concept of anniversaries has gotten out of hand. Ancient Egyptians developed a calendar so they could predict when the Nile would flood, bringing fertile topsoil with it. But now we use the year to measure our ages, determine when we should celebrate or commemorate past events, and know how often our insurance will let us visit the dentist. The year and its multiples have become so ingrained in our thinking that we characterize them by historical trends and developments. Oh, the sixties was the hippie decade, the seventies the disco era, etc. And the nineteenth century was so ... well, nineteenth century. It's as if some part of the human psyche ticked along with the atomic clocks, and underwent some transformation at midnight.

What's behind all this? Could it be that we have a fundamental need to see all of experience as cyclical, to take comfort in the repetition of patterns like seasons?

Damned if I know. Hey, my high school class was such a bunch of procrastinators, they had a big 26th reunion party!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Interactive TV

I don't understand all the excitement over this new technology called Interactive TV. To my mind, the one and only virtue of TV is that it is NOT interactive. I firmly believe in every citizen's right to sit in his or her underwear, feet up on the coffee table, immured in beer and potato chips, and stare moronically at the flickering phosphors of the TV set, or home entertainment system as we like to say nowadays. I will defend to the death this basic right, as long as it's during a commercial.

I don't mean to criticize all the technologists and scientists who even now are working feverishly to bring this miracle to our homes. I'm sure their motives are purely altruistic, and they see no other consequence of this technology than the enrichment of our lives, and the betterment of our planet for generations to come. Why else would they do it? I, however, unrecoverable cynic that I am, view this all as a plot to deprive me, and others like me (numbering in the ones) of our precious mental inertia. Remember that old notion, inertia? That's the law that says: "A body at rest tends to remain at rest, unless acted upon by his wife." Well, that applies to minds as well as bodies.

Now before you get the wrong idea, let me explain that the mind is most active, most creatively fertile, while watching TV. What could be more stimulating than contemplating the possibility, however remote, that Simon Cowell will again bruskly dismiss another would-be Idol? Or that the interns on Gray's Anatomy will unwittingly divulge the most intimate details of their sexual exploits to their patients? And what, of course, could possibly provide more mental stimulation than professional wrestling?

And if you don't want all that mental activity, there's always the evening news.

So I say we must fight against interactive TV. Stand up for ... ok, well sit down for your right to remain passive. Whatever.

Introduction

Ok, so I have a love/hate relationship with technology. I love checking out the latest and greatest gadgets. I want wall-to-wall flat panel TV screens, all HDTV/DVD/PS3/Wii enabled, with multi-function remotes, etc. I want GPS, GSM, GPRS, WiFi, 16 Mp, 4 GB and all that that entails.

On the other hand, none of this will work for more than 6 months. The MTBF ("Mean time between failure") of these gadgets is somewhat less than the time to get them home. Everything's made of the flimsiest possible materials, the poorest quality construction, and the lamest design as far as usable buttons, readable menus, etc.

And if it does last 6 months, it will be obsolete anyway.

So, this will be a place where I rant about technology in general, and about digital media in particular. I may occasionally sprinkle in some helpful information. Please excuse these lapses in judgment.

Note:
Everything in here is copyrighted as hell! You can look, but don't touch.