bookmark_borderFree to read

Beer and Computers
“Free” as in “How the HELL do I pay my rent?”

“What is ‘RSS?'”  Pooh asked, as if he’d forgotten how to use a search engine, which once again, he had.

“It’s short for ‘Rich Site Summary'” said Christopher Robin, though he liked to tell people it meant “Really Simple Syndication.” But he just couldn’t be mean to his friend like that.

“All the new information from a web site gets put into a ‘feed’ that you can read without having to go to the site and wade through all the advertising and bad design.  It’s a great way to get just the news from news sites, or blog posts, or any content from sites that update often. You can collect and read all  your feeds in one place, which allows you to organize, filter and read a lot of information from a lot of sources very quickly.”

“So it’s like a FaceyTwitPlusR newsfeedticker?”  asked Pooh, quoting Buddha, or maybe it was Ghandi.  Or Oprah.  Evs.

“Well, it’s the other way around–those are kind of like what you can do with RSS if you aren’t very clever and like seeing the same thing over and over”  said Christopher Robin, photographing his cat eating lunch.  

“You don’t sound very much like yourself today, Christopher Robin.”  said Pooh.  “You sound kind of like a cranky person who just had a tooth removed and is very tired of yoghurt and Jell-o and smoothies just wants something crunchy something goddamn crunchy for chissake is every ad on TV for goddamn crunchy goddamn things? “

“No, I’m afraid I don’t sound much like myself at all, and it was a terrible idea to think that I would.  I’m sorry.”  said Christopher Robin, who was in no mood to think of a better character to use.

“Let’s never do this again.” said Pooh.  And they never did.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to use Bloglines, which was an online RSS aggregator. That means that I signed up for an account, which was free, and then I subscribed to a bunch of RSS feeds, and then I could read and save the articles in those feeds on the Bloglines site.  That was really cool, because I could read my feeds from any computer that had an Interweresds connection.

Bloglines closed down, and then it didn’t, over and over.  I left the first time it closed.  I then started using Google Reader, which was pretty much exactly the same service as Bloglines, except I didn’t like the interface as much.  It worked just fine, but Google services are really a trade-off:  On one hand, the services are usually really good, and really reliable, for as long as Google feels like providing them.  On the other hand, it’s not much work to find the same services that don’t track and push advertising in my face all the time.

The other hand won, so I started using a desktop RSS feed reader. There are about infinity of these—you can get RSS feeds in your email client or through your web browser or whatever, if you want.  I was using a dedicated client for the Mac called Vienna, which is FOSS, and worked just great for me.

I don’t like being tied to one machine though, and I have hosting for my domains, so I knew that eventually I would want to set up my own web-based RSS reader on it.  I wanted something like Reader or Bloglines, that I could get at from anywhere, but not dependent on the whims of the pretend Inderenet “market.”

Then the power supply on my Mac let go.  That forced me to do something, because I couldn’t use Vienna to read my feeds.  Necessity is a mother, and all that.

I looked at a bunch of options.  I wanted Open Source stuff, and not just because I am cheap and clever and rugged and brave and very very handsome.  Generally when (when) the developer bails on an Open Source project, there is at least the chance that someone will pick it up, or at least document how to get your stuff out of it. With very few exceptions, when (WHEN) companies bail on closed-source, commercial software (or versions thereof), they give it  two to the chest and one to the head, lock the remains in a vault protected by ninja lawyers, and act like it never existed.

I didn’t want to get screwed AGAIN by some third party’s business plan, or lack thereof.

I quickly discovered the limitations of my hosting.  It’s running old versions of PHP, PostgreSQL and My SQL.  Most folks developing stuff will make it work with the current version of those packages, or only be one or two point versions behind. As a result, I couldn’t install the current versions of pretty much ANY web-based RSS reader I found. This is not the fault of the developers—in fact, it’s a virtue—but it meant more work for me.

Eventually, I found Tiny Tiny RSS.  It is small and light and simple and works very well.

Or at least, the version I am using does.  Because of my elderly PHP and database installs, I can not run Tiny Tiny RSS in a standard–or recommended–configuration.  Here are the problems, and how I solved them:

  • My PHP version is too old.  I found this very useful site by a person who has hacked/patched Tiny Tiny RSS to use older versions of PHP.  It works!  That is very cool, and I’m glad there are folks like this out there.
  • Tiny Tiny RSS can use either PostgrSQL or MySQL as the backend database.  The developer, along with everyone else who has tried both, recommends PostgreSQL, because the performance is just way better (faster).The version of PostgreSQL on my hosting is too old to work with Tiny Tiny RSS, so I used MySQL.  It works!
  • The developer, along with every non-annoying person who posts on the Tiny Tiny RSS discussion board, EXPLICITLY STATES that if you run Tiny Tiny RSS on shared hosting, you are on your own.  Also, probably dumb.  I am on shared hosting.  It works—ON MY HOSTING!  This does NOT mean that it will work on any other shared hosting, and if it doesn’t, tough. About the LAST thing you should do is bitch about that, because it says RIGHT ON THE TIN not to use shared hosting.

It took about an hour to get this up and running–most of which was spent reading and tracking down ways to make this work.  It took a few more minutes to subscribe to all my feeds.  It’s been working just splendidly for a couple of weeks or so now.

To recap:  Tiny Tiny RSS is FOSS, and I am running it in a configuration that it is NOT designed for—or supported under—and everything I am doing should give me terrible performance and problems.  And it is working just fine.

That is the highest, most backhanded compliment I can think of:  I am using this software the worst way I can, and I like how it works.  I am pretty sure the developer would slap me upside the head were I to tell him this over a beer, and I would not blame him if he did.  But I would still pay for the beer, because this is great stuff.

Speaking of which, Tiny Tiny RSS is developed by ONE guy, who is doing it in what probably used to be his spare time. He also posts on the discussion board for the product’s support.  The software is free, but he does take donations. I’d be shocked (and happy) if those donations bought him even a quarter of the beer and coffee it must take just to get through the discussion board posts every day.

He’s kinda crabby on to some people on the boards—those who ask stupid questions, bitch about how this free software doesn’t do what THEY want it to, or make stupid demands—and I find that incredible.  I don’t know how he finds the time to even respond to that kind of crap. Much more patient guy than me.

Think I’ll buy him a beer.

bookmark_borderWe like to go out for home-style cookin’

Steel, man.
Doesn’t taste as good without the gravy

Kids, please. You have GOT to calm the hell down, because you are making the Ineerweebs boring by whining about the same things over and over, every time a big shiny new movie comes out based on a book or a comic or something else that you care about.

And it’s only going to get worse, because it looks like there are going to be tons of them in the next little while.

Take a second, take a breath, take a step back, and get this into your head.    It’ll seem all cynical and snarky, but you will feel better by the end, I promise.

Right.  The big companies that make expensive movies have one primary motivation for doing so:  To make as much money as possible.  Everything else–EVERYTHING else–they do is in the pursuit of this.  In a nutshell, the model goes like this:

  1. Spend a buttload of money making a movie
  2. Spend a buttload of money promoting a movie
  3. Make more buttloads of money than you spent, from people going to the movie in theaters + additional buttloads from merch and a few more buttloads over time from DVD/Streaming/On-Demand and whatever new formats you can resell the thing on later.

It’s pretty simple.  When it works, it really works, and when it doesn’t work quite so well, it still usually works OK, and when it doesn’t work at all, well, that’s what some of the additional buttloads from the movies that did work are for.  Yes, I read the stuff Spielberg and Lucas said recently.  Hilarious stuff, coming from two guys who kinda drove the whole thing in that direction.

I’m not saying this is how things SHOULD be, or even how they HAVE to be.  Please read this line again.

But make no mistake. Big money movies made by big companies are fundamentally money-making projects.  All the writing and the directing and the acting and the scoring and the promotion and the gaffers and clapper-loaders and grips, all that stuff is in the project because someone who controls the money thought it would make the movie make more money.  The people who do the actual work might have some other reason for doing what they do, and that’s nice. It’s great to do work you believe in. But the reason that those people are doing that work is so that the movie will make more money.

Every word of Step 1  is important.  It is VERY important to this process that the projects cost a buttload of money.  Have a buttload of money behind them is what differentiates these projects from other projects.  Hollywood movies HAVE TO LOOK LIKE Hollywood movies. There are two problems if they don’t:

  1. Not as many people will want to see the movie, because people are used to Hollywood movies that LOOK like Hollywood movies
  2. Instead of only competing with the few other movies that look like Hollywood movies, the movie would have to compete with every other movie.

Helicopters, cranes, exotic locations, big-name movie stars, directors and composers, huge stunts and really cutting-edge CGI are all expensive.  So are re-shoots, focus groups, delays, and two-storey trailers.  Having a buttload of money means that companies can put all that stuff in a movie, and it differentiates that movie from all the movies that can’t afford those things.  It doesn’t necessarily make it better (or worse) as a piece of art, but the primary intention isn’t to make a piece of art. It is to make a profitable project.

But it goes farther than that.  Fast and Furious movies are not made to compete with ANY other movies in the world.  Neither are Die Hard movies, or Bond films, or any other franchise.  They are made because they don’t HAVE to compete with other movies.  A big movie project doesn’t WANT to compete–apart from the unavoidable part about being in theaters at the same time as other movies.  Competition means splitting ticket sales with competitors. Even if you come out on top, doing this makes no sense if your intention is to make as much money as possible.  The best product for a project like that is unique in a way that appeals to as many people as possible.

That means using as many things as possible that other projects can’t. The most expensive-looking shots and effects, the limited resources of stars, directors, and products.  And it really helps if the concept for the movie is some property that can be bought or licensed, and no-one else can use–like a comic book or a novel or a board game.

Yeah, I said “board game.” Crazy, right? What are they even thinking? A freakin’ BOARD GAME!

I know–Let’s make a movie based on a board game!  We’ll get a couple chunks of beefcake and have a famous sort-of singer shooting a .50 calibre machine gun, and tons of CGI and flying saw-balls and stuff blowing up and people saying “Let’s DO this!”  and walk Liam Neeson through a day of shooting, to add some gravitas.  We’ll call it “Battleship” and it will be universally decried as a cynical piece of crap.  It will cost about $209 million to make.  OH WAIT SOMEONE TOTALLY DID THAT!

Are you laughing right now because of how dumb it was to spend that much money on a crap movie?  It’s good for you to laugh.  Go ahead and get all the laughing out before you read the next sentence.

“Battleship” grossed about $100 million MORE than it cost worldwide.

One.  Hundred. Million. That’s about three times what “Blade Runner” cost to make.  It’s five times what “Gosford Park” cost.

And I’m sure that what you find most annoying about that movie is that it wasn’t ANYTHING like the board game.

Great time to bring up Step 2.  Every word of Step 2 is equally important.  It can’t happen until you have Step 1 in place, but it’s just as important. Ideally, everyone in the world will be aware that the movie is coming out, that it cost more than coating the Burj al Arab in prosciutto and took more organization, and then entire planet will be just PUMPED to line up at midnight on Thursday to buy a ticket.

Reality isn’t like that though, so the aim is to get a bunch of people REALLY excited, and they will drag their friends along to the theater. And then later, the less excited will watch it some other way for less money, which is better than nothing.

Some of that marketing pays for itself too, through cross-promotions and licensing.  Kids should want a toothbrush based on a character in the movie before the movie is even out.

Marketing a product is a heck of a lot easier when that product already has brand recognition in the market.  If people already know something–pretty much anything–about the movie you are trying to get them to buy a ticket to, then you have a hook to draw their interest with.  It could be actors’ or directors’ or even the writers’ name recognition, or it could be the title or whatever concept the movie was based on, but that hook is important.  You put Mel Gibson’s face on the side of a Whopper box, and people will want to know why. It doesn’t matter if they hate him, as long as people get curious about the movie, and buy tickets.

And the fact is, once the tickets are sold, nothing about the movie itself really matters.  The actors might do their best work, or they might phone it in, but the people who go to movies to see those actors are added to the number of people who will buy tickets.  It’s the same for everything about the movie, right down to the high concept, like a comic book or novel or board game or whatever the original idea was that started the project on the path to being done.  Once the people drawn to that idea have paid for a ticket, the idea has done its job.

Hollywood movie projects are expensive, and they have to bring in a LOT of tickets and rentals and copies–way more than the goofy little numbers that comic books or novels sell–in a relatively short amount of time. A Hollywood movie that sold as the same number of tickets as a typical best-selling book in the same amount of time would be a dismal failure.  If every person who read a particular comic book went to see major movie based on that comic, that movie would probably not make money, and if the comic was a niche title, the movie definitely would not make money.

The target market of movies then, is not just the people who bought the book or read the comic or played the board game–it’s all the people who have HEARD about the book/comic/game, plus all the people who are attracted by all the other movie stuff.

And that’s why major movie adaptations that are “just like” the source material are very rare exceptions.  Making a big-money film project that can only be appreciated by people who have absorbed the source material is an enormous risk that is simply not worth taking most of the time.  It makes much more sense for a big company to make a movie that a lot more people will buy a ticket to than it does to make a movie that will satisfy a smaller number of people who will probably buy a ticket anyway.

It doesn’t matter that the folks who loved the book hated the movie, as long as they bought a ticket.  Or enough other people bought tickets.

So there it is. Getting bent out of shape over a movie because you happened to know the source material makes about as much sense as getting bent out of shape because the food you eat in a fast-food restaurant isn’t just like the food you eat at home.  That was never the plan, and you’re being silly when you act like it was.  Over and over and over.

There are lots of movies that aren’t particularly true to the source material they were based on and still worked out pretty OK, like this one, this one, and this one.  I would wager that most of the people who loved those films never actually read the source material.  Something about bliss, I think.

If you managed to read this far, you might also find this article from the New Yorker about “About Schmidt” a bit enlightening as well.  Didn’t hear a lot of bitching about that one.

Haven’t seen it myself. I’m waiting for the graphic novel.

bookmark_borderA life more interesting – One

Parking lot
Or start leaving flowers in the same stall in a parking lot…

Bored?  No-one talking to you?  Try this:

– Put a bag of sand in the trunk of your car
– Run around a bit, until you look kinda sweaty.
– Drive up to a gas station or convenience store.
– Park right in front, head in, so that folks in the store can’t see the trunk
– Rush in, buy a bottle of water and a sandwich or something, look like you are in a hurry, and just grabbing the first things you see to eat and drink.
– Keep your face down. Pay in cash.
– Go to your car, open the trunk, throw the stuff you bought in and yell “THERE! NOW SHUT THE HELL UP!”
– Punch/kick the bag of sand a couple of times.
– Drive off really fast.

bookmark_borderCop talk is a gateway drug

werds werds werds
Werds werds werds

 

This  article, which was found by a link from an site with no other known connections to the article, is thought to be quite illustrative of a counter-productive tendency within a certain community.

Speaking for myself, I would venture to assert that it was indeed exposure to this form of writing and speaking style that gave rise to the increased popularity of what I would deem, to coin a phrase,  “Long-Speak,” if you will.  This form or mode of writing relies heavily at its base on the considered opinion that more words—and words of longer and, shall we say, more rarified usage—lend more meaning to the statements at hand which are being made by the speaker, if you will.

As one, or indeed, all of the people involved, if you will, progresses in this style of executing the writing of a thought or placing words on the page that reflect the thinking of an individual, the reader, or listener, if you will, will notice at some moment in time the marked tendency to repeatedly fall back on entrenched habits and time-worn clichés in terms of the choice of phraseology, as this proven technique has repeatedly shown great success in the explosive growth of what is soon to be known as “content-free elevated diction.”

If you will.

The end result of this continuous upping of the anté vis-a-vis the on-going competition to enhance the putative and nominal importance of what is being said, if you will, while in point of fact ignoring or indeed, if one parses the content being mooted by the writer and/or producer in the harsh light of day, negating the need for content or at any rate, the clear display of what that content may be, per se.  A view might be held by some parties in certain camps that the end result of this was always the intent. That is to say, the objective of this idiom of the writing arts is to artfully obscure the originating motivator for the writing’s existence, and is rather the aggrandizement of the author or voice of the piece, while distancing that self-same entity from any possible repercussions resulting from what content manages to filter through the sieve of the medium and catch in the public eye, if you will.

In such cases as might occur in the form I describe, a fine balance must be artfully struck between the soothingly meaningless tropes expected by the core audience, and some amount of novelty which defines the voice of the writer as unique within the market structure. This gives rise to further twisting of the language, as writers personfully strive to create new but instantly and easily digested terms based on the acceptable limited dictionary of common vacabulatory usages, verbifying nouns, nounifying verbs, and adverbingly adjectiving. Also, sentence fragments, the end of which unnecessary prepositions are put at.

It is this self-same line of thinking which provides both the writer and audience, if you will, with new coinages, per se, while at the same time reambiguizing the terms that the audience might have a glimmer of recognizance of, but not full defination, particularly those of foreign or non-native origin to the audience. These terms are the cookie dough of the language, taking on whatever shape the writer, or word-baker, if you will, decides to impose upon it, and accepted without question by an audience, listener or reader, raised on words that, like sweet foods, are pleasing in the mouth and do no good elsewhere.

Additionally, weak and obvious metaphors—analogies, if you will—become an qualifier of distinguished letterpersonship, as they stand out like a tall mountain against the flat plains of the level of the remainder of the bulk of the writing, in the main, if you will.

But as Knute Rockne once said to Walter Cronkite “Mens rea, Tempora mundi!

bookmark_borderI don’t even know what’s real any more

8_bit_heartAs a part-time IT crank, people ask me a lot of questions. One of the questions I get asked a lot is “What’s the difference between ‘emulation‘ and ‘virtualization?'”

This is a good question–both are ways of using one type of computer to do things as if it was some other type of computer. They are different in how they work, but is that what matters to the basic end user?

I’ll answer that question first: No. It is not.

Here then, is the best working distinction between the two, as far as users are concerned:

Emulation means that someone has figured out how to make games from some other system work on a computer that currently has a resale value greater than $1000. So when someone says “Have you tried the Intellivision emulator?” they actually mean “You should have your childhood destroyed by realizing how crap Body Slam Super Pro Wrestling actually was!”

Virtualization means that someone has figured out how to make a computer that currently has a resale value over $1000 pretend that it is a computer that you didn’t actually want to buy, except that it won’t play any of the really good games that you would have played on that other computer. So when someone says “You can do all the work you would normally do in Windows in this virtualized environment on your Mac.”  they actually mean “We really REALLY don’t want you to play games on this computer.”

bookmark_borderUpgrading to worse

It all starts with my mother. Now with more better than nothing!

My mother has an Intel Mac Mini that she got a few years ago. It works like a champ, and she has had fewer problems with it than any other computer she has ever had.  She does not have the need, interest, eyesight, or digital dexterity to use chip jewelry.

Before she got the Mac, she was using a Windows 98SE machine.  It was old, she’d had it quite a while, and it worked just dandy for her.  She liked it very much, and was pretty choked when she finally had to replace it.

There were two programs that she particularly liked on her Windows machine:  Quicken, and Maximizer. Maximizer is/was contact management software, which she used as an address book, calendar, to-do list and more.  (I used to work at the company that made Maximizer).  These two programs, along with a Web browser, email client, and some Word-compatible word processor, were pretty much all she used on the computer.

They don’t make a Canadian version of Quicken for Mac. Maximizer has unfortunately remained convinced that their only market is Windows users (too bad, as it was very useful stuff, and there was nothing quite like it).  Mom had to make a decision, and at the time, any new Windows machine she got would have run XP, which was as different to her as anything else would be. Also, I was using a Mac as a daily driver, and I’m the one who gets called when Mom has questions.  So Mom went with the Mac because the reasons for doing so were stronger.  It doesn’t matter whether you agree with this or not.

It is hard to explain to people who don’t know much about computers but actually think about what they are buying why computer X can’t run the same software as computer Y.  Normally, when dealing with boring products that perform a function, we define product Foo as being “better” than product Bar largely because Foo can do everything that Bar can do, and/or do more than that, or do it better.

You know–“This vacuum can pick up everything that vacuum can, AND it can pick up bigger things, and it can do stairs and it filters more crap out of the air.  So it’s better and it costs more.”

But because the personal computing market has been fundamentally defined by operating systems, we’ve been comparing apples to oranges (sorry) the whole time.  You can not buy an operating system that does everything the other operating systems do AND more.  Not simply.  And shut up about virtualization unless you are willing  to go set it up for my mom.

We use really screwy metrics to make our purchase decisions for personal computers, like:

  1. Computer X is faster (which is usually irrelevant, as all options are usually faster than the user needs)
  2. Computer X is what more people use (which is irrelevant, if you are only using formats that are cross-compatible)
  3. Computer X has more software titles available (which is irrelevant, because most people use their computer for a very small number of tasks, and almost becomes  a contradiction of #2 anyway)
  4. Computer X is ready for the next operating system (which is a really stupid argument, because despite what you see in ads from operating system manufacturers, most normal people don’t buy computers in order to get an operating system. They buy computers to do things.)

I used to look down my nose at people who bought computers because they looked nice, or were thin, or fit in their luggage, or matched their eyes. But you know, those are probably more reasonable arguments in most cases than any of the four above.  You’re better off making sure you like the screen, the keyboard and the mouse than the processor.

But let’s get back to Mom’s problem.  Last year, a friend of Mom’s sent her a Flash e-card.  It was one of those nice advent calendar thingies. It looks like an old town. You go to the calendar every day in December, and you click on the number of that day, and something nice happens–some decorations go up, some birds fly around.  It’s a sweet little thing.

This year, Mom got two of them.  She followed the link to get the cards, and was told that she didn’t have a compatible version of Flash. So she tried to update her Flash plug-in and was told that she didn’t have a compatible version of her browser. She tried another browser, and got the same message. So she tried to update her browser, and was told that the browser no longer supported her version of the operating system.

So there we are: Mom has to install a new version of her operating system JUST TO RUN AN E-CARD.

  • Does the e-card even use the new features of Flash?  Who can say?
  • Does the browser actually need its new features to run the Flash plug-in? Who can say?
  • Does the browser actually need all the functions of the new operating system just to run the Flash plug-in?  Who can say?

But nobody is going to say, and it wouldn’t matter if they did, because the answer is still “Install a new version of the operating system.”

Despite what it looks like in the ads, updating or installing a new O/S is not a super-fun happy time. You should back up your stuff first.  No matter what, a bunch of your settings will change, and a bunch of stuff will be in a different place, or have different names, than what you were used to.  It takes a long time too.  Oh yeah–and it costs money.  I live about half a continent away from Mom, so I have to bug a friend to help her out with this.

Yes, the easy way to look at this is particular problem is “It’s not worth it just for an e-card.”  But while it’s a masterfully-chosen example, it’s not just e-cards that this affects. I have recording hardware and perfectly functional computers in my basement which are no longer considered usable because they are no longer supported by operating systems.  The recording hardware and software I use on the current Mac I am writing this on will stop working if I “upgrade” the operating system.

It works just fine now.  And after I upgrade, it won’t work at all.

And the only solution is to buy more stuff–stuff that doesn’t work as well for me as the stuff I am using, by the way.  And of course, the new operating system does more, but not necessarily more of what I want it to do, and it does so at the cost of performance on the computer I am using.

In short, upgrading will make this computer worse.

Everything all the way along here is broken, as far as the user is concerned. Every link of this annoying chain of compromise was forged by a decision that something was more important than providing actual daily value to the user. And the user is the customer.

Here I go again: Software companies exist to make money.  They want to sell a new version of the same thing on a regular basis to an ever-increasing user base. I say that so often that even I am tired of hearing it, and I love the sound of my own typing.  It’s true though, and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea.  The problem is that the model operating system manufacturers use is more appropriate to applications than operating systems.   I believe it was JWZ who said “My application shouldn’t break just because you did something as trivial as replace an operating system.”  I think he was going at that from a different angle, but it still obtains.

And it could get worse.  There is some conjecture that Microsoft wants to move to an annual OS update schedule like Apple’s. That’s a new operating system every 12 months. That’s an ASS-TON  (Kelvin) of broken drivers, suddenly obsolete software and hardware, and seriously non-productive users. Which is nothing but good news for hardware and software manufacturers and IT types, and thus pits them squarely against users.

You should not need to buy a bunch of new stuff just because a small thing on your computer has changed.  And when you get new stuff, it should work better than the old stuff.  All rationalizations about why this is not so ONLY make sense if you accept that this broken system is how It Has To Be.  It is not.

Right now, personal computing (including mobile) is a marketing scheme that happens to involve computers, and it is hurting itself and its users.

I had an idea though.  I’ll get to that next time.

bookmark_borderSo the maples formed a union

It's simple math

You should read this article if you are a Facebook user of any kind. It will let you know a bit about what is going on with FB, and why your newsfeed doesn’t behave the same way it used to:

http://dangerousminds.net/comments/facebook_i_want_my_friends_back

I end up of two minds on this. I am always a fan of small things that fit well [underwear joke redacted], and rarely a fan of mass-marketed things that will do anything to fit everyone inside them [Madonna joke redacted].

That means I get particularly frustrated by situations like this, when small things make the decision to risk their value on big things. It’s a common mistake, and a usually leads to noble but futile gestures. Lemme ‘splain.

First I will say that FB has always been an OK site for “social media” (Which you may read as “mostly pointless conversation between people bored at work and/or school”). It started out as a really pretty good social media site and keeps getting worse, but if you keep your friends count low, lock and block just about every stupid new thing offered, stay on top of the privacy settings and and ignore almost everything but the middle of the page, it’s still OK.

All FB really does is combine a bunch of functionality that we have had for quite a long time in Interweebs years. It’s a threaded discussion board with a clunky interface that makes it hard to contextualise past conversations combined with a clunky text chat interface combined with a media gallery with a confusing interface combined with a shared calendar that only provides you with one view. There are very simple games and apps, which can only work inside FB inside a browser, and minimal user customisation of the interface is offered.

It is not rocket surgery. It’s just really big. Particularly, it’s really, really, really big in the back end [Mix-a-Lot joke redacted]. And it keeps getting bigger, because it keeps every little bit of data that anyone puts into it, and there are over a billion accounts.

Facebook started out as a thing that a few people used, became thing that lots of people used, and is now a thing that almost everyone expects everyone is using. It did this very quickly, without any real idea idea of how to monetise the thing. All of that would be just fine–the same thing happened with fire, shaving and sidewalks.

The problem is, the dominant mentality in technology business is that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing for far more money than it’s worth. Facebook became ridiculously, unworthily popular, with ridiculous, unsustainable growth, so the only possible business decision was apparently to figure out a way to value Facebook at a number so ridiculously ridiculous that the popularity and growth looked relatively sane and reliable.

But even people who can’t remember ten years ago couldn’t justify a value that ridiculously ridiculous without some kind of plan to explicitly generate revenue. So FB tacked on more advertising, which they tried to tie into all the data that people were voluntarily providing, just like the Googles. And they tried to partner with other sites by sharing data about who went where in order to make it easier to use that data to shove advertising in users’ faces.

FB then discovered that they would have to strike a balance between just using that data to shove advertising in users’ faces, and making it look like that wasn’t actually what they were doing. This is largely accomplished by trying something, gauging the response, and, if the response is dangerously negative, undoing what they did and issuing statements with the words “take our users’ privacy very seriously.”

Facebook’s latest attempt to make money involves controlling which of their users see which posts, and charging for access to user eyeballs.

Quick recap: All FB has going for it is its user base: FB adds practically NO value beyond that, has no other unique technology. FBs history has been one long story of trying to figure out how to convert that base into value, and doing just slightly more than failing at it. The overwhelming majority of FB users are on FB because “Everyone is on FB.” And as we’ve seen repeatedly with Internet stuff, that can change pretty fast.

Which brings us back to this article. I feel the writer’s pain here, really I do, but I think the focus is simply misplaced, and overly narrow. Sure, it sucks to have 53,000 users and not be able to reach them for free any more. But you are on a closed, proprietary system on which everything is controlled by a third party who does not share your agenda. Or even care about it. In fact, they are trying to subvert it.

People trying to sell things on FB are a tiny minority of users. And they are competing with FB itself for the same value that FB is trying to find in its users.

As well, despite the fact that “everyone” is on FB, lots of other social media platforms have buttloads of users. So anyone who depends solely on FB as a key part of their on-going marketing is more than a bit of a chump.

Putting it bluntly, using Facebook–or any one social media platform–as a key part of any long-term business plan is a really, really, really stupid idea.

And there are lots of alternatives.

I’ll say it yet again: All Facebook has of any potential value is a user base. They need to monetise that base. They plan to do that with advertising. It is hard to think of anything that they would care about less than a bunch of other companies being able to advertise for free on Facebook.

So sure. Get your 53,000 FB likers mad. Hope that some percentage of them get all up in arms. But understand that, even if they ALL do, that will be a whopping 0.0000053% of FB’s user base. And if you throw in all of George Takei’s 2.8 million likes, you would be almost up to .28%. If all the folks trying to advertise for free on FB with big like lists who are not willing to pay for placement gang up as much as they can, it is doubtful that they would mobilise even 2% of FB’s user base.

And there ARE companies out there who would be willing to pay the stupid rates that FB wants for featured posts. Big companies. Remember what made you think that FB was a good advertising platform? It was because you were on a level playing field where you could reach people who knew you better than those big companies.  It was somewhere big companies couldn’t out-spend you for customer attention.

Well, now they can, and they are loving it.

Facebook, a public company that is trying desperately to look like it has a plan to make billions and billions in value can not shitcan any part of that plan over 2% of their users whining that someone can’t get free value out of Facebook. Especially not if big companies are paying value into Facebook

I sound pretty cold here. I’m trying to be. I also sound like I’m against these smaller companies finding a way to reach people with their products. I am not. I do think that depending on Facebook to act in anyone’s interest but Facebook’s is utterly foolish, and standing too close to a flailing giant is a great way to get trod upon.

I really hope I am wrong here. I really, really do. But if you are small and what you do has real value, then you need to spend your resources finding another way to reach users, and just take what you can get for free from Facebook, with the understanding that what Facebook does for free will get smaller and smaller as time goes on.

 

bookmark_borderDouble-bladed Hanlon Razor

Still life with 2mm LEDHa! This guy uses readily-available technology to intercept the feed from wireless cameras. Sometimes he makes displays that show the camera feed and mounts them on the camera pole, so that people can see what the camera sees.

The “trick”–or lack thereof, really–is that most of these cameras send their wireless signal unencrypted. That means anyone in range with the right gear can just pick up the signal and see what the camera sees.

So that’s pretty fun.

Of course, lots of folks have wireless cameras in their homes and businesses now. They use them for “security”–basically, to see who robbed their place, though I suppose that, if you were watching the camera all the time, you could also watch the robbery take place.  Which I guess could be pretty fun.

But it can be fun for EVERYONE!  Because if that wireless camera is not sending a well-encrypted signal, anyone within range could just watch the camera as well.  So while the owner of the camera might be using it to see when someone who shouldn’t be in the house is in the house, everyone else can use it to see when the folks who should be in the house AREN’T in the house.

They could also see a lot about the house, like where the cameras are located.  A lot of people aim those cameras so that they can see the things in the house that they consider particularly valuable.  Speaking of which, wireless video baby monitors are also getting more and more popular.

A lot of home automation stuff –light switches and thermostats and whatnot–are wireless as well. I wonder if those are encrypted, and what their range is.

Most cameras take a few seconds to adjust from bright light to darkness and vice versa, so if you flip the lights on and off fairly quickly, those cameras aren’t able to get much in terms of usable images.

Oh–for no apparent reason, I feel like I should link to some stuff on software-defined radio.  But I digress…

It’s almost like this stuff is designed to work really well when you don’t want it to, and work really badly when you need it to.  But that’s conspiracy theory stuff, and flies in the face of the obvious.

 

 

bookmark_borderYou say dumb, I say unicorn.

 

It just keeps running!This whole long post grew out of this short Cringely article about how Microsoft is dumbing down Windows. Cringely figures that this is being done so that Windows8 will run on Mobile devices.

Now Cringely can sometimes be right out to lunch about stuff, but I think the point he is making here should be obvious to anyone paying attention: All major desktop OS platforms are now rushing like mad to crank out operating systems that will work on fondleslabs and chip jewelry (now collectively known as “Mobile”) AS WELL AS desktop/laptops.

Because that’s where the money is going to be.

After the last couple-three decades nobody should need convincing that the point of a software company is NOT to create, innovate, forge ahead, or make the world a better place. The point of a software company is to sell as much software as possible, and make as much money as possible doing so. Like any other commercial enterprise.

This should come as no surprise, though the Internet is full of people who seem to believe that one software company or the other is a Magic Software Unicorn, and all the rest are Evil Evil Bastards Who Are Only In It For The Money. They will sit in Starbuck’s and blow spit at their screen as they make this point, the irony bouncing off them like an anti-trust ruling bounces off a Magic Software Unicorn.

We find ourselves now at the same point we have found ourselves many times before–some new way to sell more software has arrived, and it’s become a large enough market that it is worth moving into for these large companies. This time the new thing is Mobile. The Magic Software Unicorns will leap bravely into this market, vowing to make the world a better place for all involved. The cost for this better world is, of course, consumers buying more stuff more often–otherwise there would be no point in making the world a better place.

This is what the cool kids call one of them “disruptive moments.” And for the Magic Software Unicorns, it couldn’t really come a moment too soon. We ran out of low-hanging fruit in the desktop/laptop markets a few years ago, and now there some doubt that the fruit will last at all. Even with the shorter lifespan and improved destructibility of laptops, the rate at which people buy new computers and turn over their operating systems is not going to grow much where the pickings are easy. In fact, depending on whether it’s a week before or a week after one of the Magic Software Unicorns issues a profit report, it might even be slowing down.

That’s lethal to a mentality based on infinite constant growth forever this quarter forever.

Magic Software Unicorns have made a buttload of money by convincing their customers that there is some value in buying a new operating system or computer every couple of years or so. The reality is that most people only use their computers for a very small number of tasks, and most of those tasks could be done on a much simpler machine. Most people don’t need a new operating system that does more things every two years. They don’t explore all those things. They would be happy with a less-expensive system that makes it easier to do their small number of things. And when they want to do something else, it would be nice to just get that one thing simply and easily, with as few confusing steps as possible.

A less expensive, simpler device, sold as a premium device that does more than other premium devices. Put that on a two- or three-year contract, with the idea that OF COURSE you will get a new device when you get a new contract and you can watch the Magic Software Unicorn prance with joy.

And when you buy a new Mobile toy, it LOOKS different. You don’t just get just another beige or silver rectangle, you get a A WHOLE NEW THING that solves all the problems you didn’t know you had when you bought the last one.

The whole scheme friggin’ sells itself.

I overheard a conversation yesterday in which someone asked a clerk in a department store if they carried “that app to get Siri to call me ‘Rock Star’ like in the commercial.” And the clerk referred the customer to another clerk who “knows all about that app stuff.” The nerd in my head thought “Do you really need an app to change your own name on your own device?” I have no idea if you do, but this guy was willing to pay for an app to do it.

Is he nuts? Or is he just a normal user? I’m going with “normal.” Most people are net consumers on their computer. They read more than they write. They view more pictures than they put out. They get more help than they give, and they learn more than they teach. They fill in more blanks than they make forms. They watch more people get hit in the crotch than they get hit in the crotch (I’ve got a million of these, but I’ll stop now).

This might sound like a cranky assessment but in fact, it’s not a criticism in any way. Most people simply have more of a requirement to use their computer to do simple tasks–talk or write short messages to other people, view and read and listen and play–than they do to create content and products for other people. They are mostly consumers, not producers. They do not care how it works, and do not think it is their job to set up, fix, troubleshoot, or understand the device. They just want to use it to do a few simple things, and they will pay to have those things done.

A smart phone or tablet is a much better fit for this vast majority of computer users. It is a consumption device, not a production device. It’s terrible for writing or editing long documents (I will make you a deal: don’t give me anecdotes about someone writing a novel on Twitter or tell me about the dude who does New Yorker covers on his iPad, and I won’t make an analogy about people who paint by holding a brush in their butt), passable for recording the events of the day with a shaky camera or microphone (“Watch–it hit him right in the crotch!!!”), very handy for reading/watching/listening/playing.

As an added bonus, the phone/tablet market is growing like a weed, and the consumers in that market are pretty easy to sell new devices and operating systems on a regular basis right now. It’s like computer sales were in the 90’s, only faster and cheaper, without the need to make or deal with any physical software media. The return on investment for Magic Software Unicorns can be quite high, and the lifespan of the product is short and pretty much enforceable. Carriers will subsidise the product in order to get contracts, so the user never knows how much the operating system costs, so they don’t get mad at OS vendors as often. Customers get mad at the phone, and at the carrier, and that puts two lines of support between the customer and the OS vendor.

Compared to the cost and risk of trying to convince a jaded user-base to buy a new thing to do the same thing on a desktop/laptop, mobile is the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Though it was a bad fit for most users, the desktop/laptop was easy to sell because it is much, much better than nothing. That’s how we got luggables, and XTs, and the Apple II, and that advantage carried on for as long as the choice was between computer-as-we-sell-them on one hand, and NO computer on the other. Extend that idea just a little bit, and you see how  Microsoft achieved and maintained a monopoly position for so long: Everyone used MS’ products because “everyone” used MS’ products. No-one wanted to be on the outside looking in, or have to think/spend too much trying to do things another way–even if that meant putting up with a higher price, a worse fit, or a troublesome product that didn’t do exactly what you wanted it to.

The largest amount of the most customisable type of mass-produced product in the history of ever was mostly sold in a form that is completely uncustomisable.

And that’s because most people using computers do not want perfect software that that have to think about. They just want good ‘nough software that lets them do their stuff as simply as possible.  That’s actually not such a dumb thing to want.

There is a much larger population in the emerging markets for computers than in the existing user base. That is to say, there are still many more people Over There who don’t own computers than there are people Over Here who do. But reaching those markets poses more problems than reaching the existing one. First of all, there are more comfortable options open to non-users in those markets than there are for existing users Over There. Over Here, we are trying to improve and work with what we already have.  We’re trying to improve on things, even if that means dumbing down.

Over There, because any computer is better than no computer, an inexpensive used computer that you can afford with a free operating system on it (“free” has a few definitions here, some legal, some not) is infinitely superior to a new computer that you can’t afford. There’s a lower standard for Good ‘nough.

This makes the advantage of “everyone” using a particular product disappear. Existence before essence and all that. But these markets are also more work to develop for other reasons.

It might be that some of these new markets don’t have the same view of copyright and licensing that we do Over Here. It may be that the governments in those jurisdictions don’t want the same features that we take for granted Over Here available to people Over There.  It may be that those governments place a higher value on getting computers into the hands of their people than they place on making sure that licensing payments get to the software makers over here. They might also have other reasons for wanting everyone to be connected.

Centralized control of the technology–like a cell or data system–works for both the software vendor and these other interests. A cell or data plan can subsidise, or at least amortise, the cost of the device and the operating system, so people who couldn’t normally afford the device all at once can now pay for it over time. The system can determine which devices or operating systems it will work with, so software vendors don’t have to constantly compete against any other technology–including old versions of their own. And the system can determine who has access to what, ensuring that everyone toes the line, and it’s easy to find anyone who doesn’t. Last, but certainly not least, the infrastructure for mobile devices is just a lot easier to put in place, control, and maintain if you are starting from scratch right now.

All of this–the slowing desktop/laptop market, the growing mobile market, the potential of emerging markets, makes Mobile The Obvious Way Forward for Magic Software Unicorns. And as they rush into that space, we see what at first glance look like odd developments by the big desktop OS players, but are usually moves that fit with their overall approach.

Apple, always thinking of user experience, is making the user experience of iOS and OS X more similar to each other. That makes it easier for users of one Apple device to feel comfy buying and using another. And Apple is starting to push people more and more towards the idea of the App Store as the only reliable source of OS X software, the same role it plays on iOS.

Ubuntu, which tries to make a user-indifferent system appear friendly, is making their default user interface uniformly non-functional for both computer and mobile users (Sorry man, but I tried Unity on a desktop, and it seems built specifically to get you to do about 8 things, at the cost of being able to do anything else. It is horrible).  I wish there was some upside to this, but I can’t find it.

And, as mentioned in the Cringely article, MS is dropping their shiny, cheesy (sic), porky desktop interface, probably in order to make their mobile OS work on the lower-performance hardware we can cram into phones and tablets right now. This appears to be an historically uncharacteristic move, as MS has never had a problem simply requiring the user to buy more horsepower in order to run new versions of Windows, but as all three fans of the aptly-named WinCE can attest, it’s not complete unprecedented. What’s important is the licensing fee, and that the user sees the Windows logo on startup.

You’ll notice that two of the Magic Software Unicorns are trying to reduce their resource use by building just ONE system that will work on both Mobile and desktop/laptops. Those are the two who do not build their own hardware, and they are smart enough to know that if they get some traction in the market, then hardware manufacturers will come to THEM and the unicorns can go back to calling the shots.

Cranky as I sound, the move to Mobile is not an altogether bad thing. Feature- and function-wise, it’s a better fit for most users. Cost of entry is lower, and updates and compatibility issues between hardware and operating system are taken care up farther up the tree, instead of driving users nuts.

And you never know, after a few years, people might learn that they don’t have to have the things glued to their hands every waking second and might start to act like functional human beings again.

Unfortunately, none of this bodes well for those of us who produce things with technology–who actually use it to make complex things or do large jobs. While there is always lots of money to be made by cobbling together low-featured Mobile versions of software and selling it based on name value, it’s unrealistic to think of someone editing a film or mixing a complex recording or developing 3-D images–or large 2D images, or composing a poster layout or..or.. on the tiny screen and limited resources of a mobile device. Not with the current technology, anyway.

As I mentioned 400,000 words ago, the point of software companies is to sell software, and any innovation or initiative they may pursue falls out of that basic need to separate people from their money. Development of “better” operating systems or software is only profitable with the right combination of price and sales. Most improvements we have seen in commercial software have largely been the result of those products being over-built for most of the people who buy them. The development cost for that has been offset by a large sales volume.

In a Mobile-dominated model, there’s no benefit to an operating system that does more than it has to–it’s just a bare-bones system that supports apps. There’s no incentive to build in any features or capability that you could sell separately.  Like the ability to change the user name to “Rock God.”

We may see again a time in which products like Photoshop and ProTools become small-market items, and cost a lot of money, not just because they are named “Photoshop” and “ProTools” but because they are actually tools built for specialists, and they just don’t sell very many copies.

The future may be very easy to watch, but more difficult and expensive to make.

bookmark_borderHOW TO BE AWESOME, part 34 or so

Is Pokey the 99% or just some kind of jackass?

Where I live, Target currently has dancing sock monkey puppets in their clearance area. When you squeeze their left paw, these monkeys play some kind of horrible pop song and twitch spasmodically. They are quite loud, and run for about 30 seconds to a minute.

  • Go to Target
  • Locate these monkeys and take one
  • Work your way up to someone standing amongst the clothing racks
  • Ask the person politely if they will hold the monkey for a moment
  • Hand the person the monkey, squeeze the monkey’s left hand, duck down below the level of the racks, and run away.

This will also work outside of Target, and seeing as the monkeys are now about two bucks each, there’s no reason not to hand them to people right before you jump back out of the elevator, or off the bus.

You are welcome world. You are welcome.