In silico veritas.

Apple’s infrastructure problem, revisited

Posted: April 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Tech | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

It’s been some time since I wrote about my concerns about the increasing iOSification of OS X in 10.7 Lion and the Mac App Store. Since then, we’ve seen new reports of tweaks and enhancements that will help further improve an already-impressive user experience. But more importantly, I’ve had plenty of time to get acquainted with the Mac App Store, and to reconsider my original skepticism.

While I did note in my prior posts on the subject that I believed that the consolidation of quality, Apple-approved applications in one convenient and integrated storefront would be a boon to consumers, I still wasn’t too keen on the idea of a desktop app store. Perhaps it was the often-frivolous nature of most App Store transactions — $0.99 for Angry Birds here, another $1.99 for Hipstamatic there, etc. — that caused me to sense some inherent bad fit for the OS X environment. Desktop software is often substantial by its very nature, boasting complex features built to take advantage of what is still the predominant human-computer interface, with pricing models to match. One-click purchases in a centralized storefront did not seem to befit this paradigm.

I was wrong.

Although I haven’t spent nearly the same amount of money at the Mac App Store as I have at the (other) App Store, I have come away more impressed with the product than I could have predicted. Having installed a few apps (mostly freebies) on my Mac, I can now more fully sympathize with the argument made by the Mac App Store’s boosters that PC-to-Mac switchers with prior iOS experience will find themselves in a more familiar and therefore appealing environment. One-click installs and updates that are both so unobtrusive as to be practically invisible just work on the Mac. Centralized updates, too, are an enormous convenience. It also certainly doesn’t hurt for iOS fans making “the Switch” that the Mac App Store has desktop-sized versions of popular iOS games like Flight Control and, yes, Angry Birds, along with Mac ports of AAA titles from the other side of the OS pond (which are admittedly of varying quality).

Bottom line? If the ever-growing popularity of iOS devices does in fact lead to increased OS X market share, then the new switchers will find themselves more or less at home in their new computing environment. And if they in turn recommend OS X to fellow iOS users — well, that’s the basis for a winning strategy.

Commoditizing earnestness

Posted: April 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Culture | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

As a simple matter of habit, I don’t often listen to the ever-changing, nebulous product we call pop music. But I am certainly not immune to its effects. I recently had one of the commonplace problems of any avid music fan occur to me — an earworm of a tune had temporarily lodged itself inside my head. Oddly enough, it wasn’t one now topping the charts. In fact, it was a two-year-old song by San Francisco band Train, called “Hey, Soul Sister”.

As the song’s chorus began to subtly loop itself in my head, I somehow managed to actually examine what was being sung, and on an apparent whim, I stopped to attempt to draw out some meaning. For those unfamiliar with the song, I have reproduced the relevant lines below:

Hey, soul sister
Ain’t that Mr. Mister on the radio, stereo
The way you move ain’t fair, you know
Hey, soul sister
I don’t want to miss a single thing you do

I hadn’t the faintest idea what to make of this. (In fact, it wasn’t until I was doing the research for this post that I discovered that Mr. Mister was actually an ’80s pop band, and not some nonsensical lyrical construction specific to this song.) It led me to wonder, genuinely, what the song’s countless fans (it’s gone 5x platinum in the U.S.) saw in these words. What did this song mean to them? The answers would doubtless be almost as numerous as the people giving them. But one overriding theme seemed to stand out to me: the sheer force of earnest, emotional will by which the band’s frontman and vocalist seemed to affect the listener. Separated from their performance, the lyrics seem gauzy, if not downright silly. Nonetheless, the record sales speak for themselves.

So, what do we make of all this? Angela Watercutter wrote last year that we are entering a new, post-ironic era of earnestness. She posits that the rise of such shows as Glee, and their performances of hit songs (yes, of which “Hey, Soul Sister” was one) demonstrates that we are ready to leave irony behind. Granting her this for the sake of argument, it’s not hard, then, to see how music labels aim to profit off our newly-rediscovered sentimentality. This song, along with so many others written by similar bands, certainly appears to be able to revive, however temporarily, the feelings of compassion and earnestness that seem increasingly absent from the world. People buy this music to feel again. But at what cost?

The artistic goals of the members of Train notwithstanding, we are witnessing the shrink-wrapping of the heartfelt emotion. Like the imperceptibly shrinking containers of food at the supermarket, we are being given the appearance of fullness but receiving much less than we expected. What’s worse, earnestness is ill-equipped to resist such appropriation; a cathartic track or record filled with thinly-veiled metaphors for the greed of music labels neither evokes nor suits groups like Train. Such an approach is more typical of and frequently carried off better by indie bands (admittedly also a blanket term fraught with complications), whose songcraft often features lyrics that are equally allusive and elusive. (In some cases, this can be true to an excessive degree.) This, of course, brings us firmly back into the realm of the ironic, to the dismay of Watercutter’s earnest brigades.

None of this is to say that groups like Train don’t have a place in the vast sweep of the musical world. But perhaps we would do well to apply to yet another of our daily endeavors the classic maxim: caveat emptor.

The right to (be) content

Posted: January 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Tech | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

A new post up at Ars Technica talks (almost) universally-compatible DRM:

At CES today, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem announced more details of its “buy once, play anywhere” cloud-based authentication system for digital video content. The scheme, which was dubbed “UltraViolet” last year, will allow users to purchase video content from any participating retailer and then authenticate that content on any UltraViolet-compatible device.

UltraViolet will support six accounts per family, each of which can access the full set of family-owned video content, and it will support 12 unique devices per family. That might sound like plenty, but DECE envisions UltraViolet content being displayed on Internet-connected TVs, game consoles, smartphones, computers, Internet-connected Blu-ray players, tablets, and set-top boxes.

While this seems like a fine development on the face of things, I have to echo some of the concerns raised about it both in the article and in the comments section. First, the Ars take:

All of this could have been accomplished years ago by just selling the video without DRM, like the music industry finally did, since anyone interested in pirating the content had no difficulty in doing so anyway. But DECE and UltraViolet look like a decent second option, and people have shown their willingness to put up with DRM when it doesn’t get in their way (Kindle, iPhone apps, iTunes video, Xbox games). […]

Still, we’re quite curious to see how this works out in practice, especially without Apple’s support. The paranoia that Hollywood has shown for so many years around tight DRM, broadcast flags, and more makes us suspect that UltraViolet will be locked down tightly enough to be annoying, despite DECE’s many protests about openness. But we’re willing to be surprised by sanity.

I, for one, am not holding my breath, for precisely the reasons mentioned here. Paraphrasing one of the commenters on the article, do we really want the people who took over a decade to figure out a remotely equitable rights-management and authentication scheme to be the same ones governing said scheme across multiple platforms and media production outlets?

Nor is this scheme even a global panacea. Of particular note was this commenter’s critique of the still extant “regional” distribution model:

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A slice of the ‘net, vol. 1

Posted: December 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Education, Politics, Tech | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Here are a few things that have piqued my interest of late.

How Perception of Time Relates to Decision-Making

This lecture by Professor Philip Zimbardo, he of the infamous Stanford prison experiment, is absolutely fascinating. The video is well worth the ten minutes of your time it’ll take. I couldn’t help but think of my own time-perception leanings — I’m past-positive and present-hedonistic, primarily — as well as nod in agreement/self-recognition in the segment about how education must change in the face of an increasingly digitalized generation. What’s your perception of time, and how has it affected the way you live your life?

Saudi Arabia’s Creeping Liberalization

Or so we can hope. It’s actually kind of exciting to see this move forward, as I wrote briefly about the unveiling three years ago of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (mentioned in the article). The article does an excellent job of portraying Saudi Arabia as on a precipice of sorts — either this newest liberalization initiative will succeed and open the door for future efforts, or it could backfire horrifically and give broad political cover for the religious hardliners in the political establishment.

Want a Job? Give Yourself One

The New York Times examines a growing trend, and one I might very well be joining myself: recent college grads starting up their own businesses rather than shopping their résumés around hundreds of times to no avail.

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Wherefore page numbers?

Posted: December 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Tech | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

Chris Meadows at TeleRead cites a TechCrunch piece by Sarah Lacy on the lack of a reliable citation solution for e-books:

While there are a number of possible reasons one might think paper books are better than e-books (including aroma), Lacy’s reason comes down to simple annoyance at a lack of page numbers. In particular, she found herself at a loss for how to cite books she read on Kindle in her academic papers.

In the follow-up discussion of the article, some readers point out that the Chicago Manual of Style offers a guide to citing e-books […] And it includes an example of a “Kindle edition”. A “location” number would seem to be a perfect example of an “other” number. In fact, it might even be more useful than a page number, because the “location” would be about the same no matter which device you read a Kindle e-book on, whereas a page number only applies to one specific version of the printed book.

There are MLA and APA guidelines to citing e-books, too, though neither of them expressly mentions (that I can find) what to do about a book that has no page numbering. But I imagine “location number” would suffice in those cases too, especially with some explanation to the professor of the nature of the source.

While both TechCrunch and TeleRead are right to examine the real problem posed to current academic citation conventions by reflowable digital documents, it seems to me that there’s a serious case of missing the forest for the trees here.

Despite all the digital ink spilled on the topic, neither Meadows nor Lacy mentions the perhaps too-obvious reasoning for page-number-centric citation — to facilitate quick fact-checking for peer or professorial review. When you have a medium that allows for instantaneous word and text-string searches, why do you need to know the page number? You can determine if a particular quotation in a paper is actually in the cited work literally as quickly as you can type. As semantic search technologies in particular mature, it’ll become easier than ever to determine the veracity of a particular citation even in cases of paraphrasing.

Now, I might very well be over-trivializing the issue, but I can’t for the life of me understand why, as Lacy puts it in her TechCrunch post, Amazon has “to design for it [the academic market]” by correlating Kindle “locations to “real page numbers” (which, as Meadows rightly points out, are a nebulous concept at any rate). It seems even now, in the age of the iPad and Kindle, we’ll have to wait for yet wider adoption of e-books and tablets/readers before we stop mentally forcing e-books into the print paradigm of consumption. Once we begin to recognize the full implications of instantaneous search and annotation in e-books, I suspect we’ll wonder how we ever lived without them.

[Image: Flickr/bjornmeansbear]

Latter-day learning

Posted: November 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Education, Tech | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Responding to this New York Times feature, MG Siegler reflects on learning in an age of constant connectivity:

I’m tempted to be cautious in the way I say this, but I can’t come up with a real reason to be, so I’ll just say it: I have definitely learned a lot more on the Internet than I ever did in high school.

High school, at least when I attended it, was much more about learning social skills than educational information. The education side of things was more like one big game. You had to figure out how to play the game so you could get into a good college. It was about memorizing things for tests that you’d forget a week later, and figuring out how you could do your homework in the free period before the class in which it was due. I more or less remember nothing from high school beyond the times I spent with friends. And I know I’m not alone there.

One major problem with high school learning is that you are forced to take certain classes which you couldn’t care less about. I understand that the rationale behind this is that it makes you a more “full” person, and you might learn you love something that you didn’t realize you would. But that mentality is from a pre-connected world. I would guess that a lot of students these days know what they’re really passionate about at a much earlier age, thanks to the Internet.

Certain people will need to go to places of higher education for the access those institutions have to tools that a person would otherwise not be able to get access to. And there’s no denying the value of a good teacher/professor. And certain people will definitely always benefit from the combination of social environment mixed with structured learning. But not everyone learns the same way.

If you’re a self-starter, why shouldn’t you be able to get your education on the web? Because there are too many distractions?

I personally find it remarkable that it’s 2010 and we haven’t yet had a serious discussion along these lines. MG’s summary hit the nail on the head in my case.

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What would you cut?

Posted: November 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

This interactive budget deficit feature from the New York Times has been making the rounds in conjunction with multiple élite perspectives on the recently-announced Simpson-Bowles plan. Reuters’ Felix Salmon criticized the tool for what he saw as artificially limiting various budget and tax options. My own deficit-busting plan is here:

While I’m no budgetary expert — and as such am in little position to pass judgment on the validity of Salmon’s criticisms of the NYT’s budget tool — I found it an informative experience. And I think this is where Salmon’s criticisms miss their mark. While Atlantic readers, or avid NYT or Reuters readers, might have identified some of the same deficiencies as Salmon brings up and indeed might even sympathize with them, the NYT’s tool is still factually correct in its summarization of the major details and probable effects of various budgetary and taxation options. That’s good enough for 98% of people using this tool.

I suspect that that was the entire point: to move the deficit debate from the realm of the abstract, even for the reasonably well-informed, into a concrete and manipulable entity in order to move the public discourse onwards and upwards. The built-in Twitter integration is key in spreading the deficit-busting fun from one predisposed policy wonk to his friends and family, and on and on from there until suddenly average Americans are talking seriously about previously arcane concepts like capping Medicare growth to 1% above GDP growth starting in 2013. That can only be a good thing.

Of college degrees and start-ups

Posted: October 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Education, Tech | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Former classmate Ben Casnocha has some astonishing statistics up at his blog about the underemployment of degree-holders across the spectrum:

Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.

That’s from this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, via Jon Bischke on Twitter. […] For hundreds of thousands of Americans, spending four years and untold amounts of money (and debt?) gets you a job as a waiter, parking lot attendant, or janitor. Yet everyone from Barack Obama to Bill Gates keep pushing a college education as the way to secure one’s economic future. That is a view that should be heavily qualified.

Pivoting off this information, TechCrunch’s Sarah Lacy covers an intriguing Founder Institute presentation (with video) from angel investor Mike Maples about resisting the urge to give in to the predominant build-it-and-flip-it culture in the Valley right now:

In the talk below, Maples walks you through three examples he invested in: ngmoco, which did a pricing pivot; Chegg, which did a product pivot; and Odeo/Twitter, which did an entire company pivot. Maples doesn’t do that thing that startup PR departments love. He doesn’t sugar coat how horrifying and uncertain these moves were at the time. He doesn’t make the startups or investors sound like they’d seen the future through some magical product/market oracle. He shows that each of these pivots were made out of semi-desperation, and he talks about how risky each move was. In each case the entrepreneurs had something, but not enough to make a big business and they had to throw that thing they’d already slaved over away in order to get to the larger business. Watch the video for the details.

I keep hearing from other super angels out raising funds that LPs are ga-ga over Maples and until this talk I wasn’t sure why. Now, I get it. In one talk, he details severals ways his investing model is distinct from the broader super angel movement: He still believes this business is about homeruns. He still believes you have to have a business model. He believes product fit isn’t just lots of people using your product, it’s about being able to make money delivering it, otherwise, it’s “wasted innovation.” He still believes that huge upside usually requires huge, gut-wrenching risk.

On the one hand, a college degree generally (but especially in economics or business) instills the kind of attention to detail and perspective that would give potential entrepreneurs a good idea of how to craft a solid business model — and, more importantly, to know when to “pivot” (that is, transition) to a new state of doing business in order to make the business a sustainable entity. Of course, anyone who knows Ben knows that he has repeatedly extolled the idea of self-education for those highly predisposed towards curiosity and motivation, so it’s clearly not required for everyone. But for the vast majority of entrepreneurs, is a college degree still required to achieve something greater than a build-it-and-flip-it product?

Apple’s infrastructure problem, ctd.

Posted: October 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Tech | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Well, that didn’t take long. Apple has released its app review guidelines for the Mac App Store, and sure enough, they’ve imported most of the iOS App Store guidelines over wholesale. (You needn’t go far to find out why I think this is a bad move.) Engadget’s Nilay Patel points out some of the more egregious offenders:

  • 2.1 Apps that crash will be rejected.
  • 2.2 Apps that exhibit bugs will be rejected.
  • 2.6 Apps that are “beta”, “demo”, “trial”, or “test” versions will be rejected.
  • 2.14 Apps must be packaged and submitted using Apple’s packaging technologies included in Xcode – no third party installers allowed.
  • 2.19 Apps that require license keys or implement their own copy protection will be rejected.
  • 2.20 Apps that present a license screen at launch will be rejected.
  • 2.21 Apps may not use update mechanisms outside of the App Store.
  • 2.24 Apps that use deprecated or optionally installed technologies (e.g., Java, Rosetta) will be rejected.
  • 6.2 Apps that look similar to Apple Products or apps bundled on the Mac, including the Finder, iChat, iTunes, and Dashboard, will be rejected.
  • 6.3 Apps that do not use system provided items, such as buttons and icons, correctly and as described in the Apple Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines will be rejected.
  • 7.4 Apps containing “rental” content or services that expire after a limited time will be rejected.
  • 7.6 In general, the more expensive your app, the more thoroughly we will review it.
  • 9.2 Apps that rapidly drain a products battery or generate excessive heat will be rejected.
  • 11.1 Apps portraying realistic images of people or animals being killed or maimed, shot, stabbed, tortured or injured will be rejected.
  • 11.3 “Enemies” within the context of a game cannot solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity.
  • 11.5 Apps that include games of Russian roulette will be rejected.

I’ve left out Nilay’s commentary on each of these points — you can click through at the second link above to read his thoughts in the original post. But I’ll add a couple of thoughts of my own.

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Apple’s infrastructure problem

Posted: October 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Tech | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

While tech pundits have long been anticipating some form of cross-breeding between OS X and iOS, not until today have we seen any real evidence for such a trend. And while I, as a Mac user, am excited to see Apple returning to its roots in the Mac, I found myself more troubled by questions about what was revealed than giddy with anticipation.

Much of my trepidation comes from the software side of the equation. OS X 10.7, or Lion, provides an intriguing look into the future of desktop computing. But I can’t help from feeling, to a certain extent, like Apple is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Granted, the enhanced multitouch features of Lion like Launchpad and full-screen apps — shamelessly ganked from iOS — provide a new and compelling raison d’etre to products like the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad that had previously lacked one. Given the apparent lack of a niche for those two products at their respective launches, and knowing that Apple has a plan for just about everything, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect something like this to happen.

But like the original MacBook Air, Lion seems to be ahead of its time — and not in a good way.

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