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Should I buy an iPad to replace my computer?

the new iPad

There is very little that’s interesting to say about the new iPad. I’d sum it up this way: the iPad’s always been wonderful, and the new model improves the screen, one of the few things that was left to improve about previous models. (Still to go: the weight.)

Should you buy one? If you’re like most of us, and you use your computer mostly for browsing the web, absolutely. The iPad is a pleasure, and it goes places where we read (couch, bed, standing in the kitchen, bathtub) more gracefully than a laptop ever can.

Someone asked me today whether to buy an iPad to replace a dying laptop, and that’s a tougher question. There are still things that are infuriatingly difficult to do on an iPad. Try downloading a Microsoft Word document from the web, editing it, and emailing it to someone. It can be done, but if you’re the sort of person to consider having an iPad as your only computer, you’re probably not one to fiddle and work at figuring out things like this.

(For the record, here’s how: Download the file with a web browser that allows downloads, such as Atomic Web. Use Atomic Web’s file manager to transfer the file to Dropbox. Use a Dropbox and Office-compatible editor such as Documents to Go to edit your document. Finally, use an app such as GoodReader, which has the ability to attach files to outgoing messages, to send your email.)

But for 90% of what we use computers for, the iPad is just all-around better. And the cincher is the battery life, which aside from plugging it in at night you never have to think about. I ordered my iPad 1 the day it was announced, replaced it as soon as the iPad 2 was announced, and Ordered my new iPad Wednesday. (I’ve bought the $499 model each time, and managed to sell it on ebay for around $400 right before the new model’s announced. A few weeks without an iPad makes me appreciate the new one when it comes.)

Posted: Friday March 9, 2012 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [4]

 

An open letter to Oxford Dictionaries and Handmark software on the state of the Oxford iOS apps

[My apologies if this has reached you in error. Writing to large corporations can feel like yelling in the wind, so I’m cc’ing a number of emails in hopes that one may reach a sympathetic ear. Please consider forwarding this to someone who can do something about it.]

Dear Gents:

I’ve purchased several of your iPhone and iPad apps, including the New Oxford American Dictionary. I’m a big fan of the dictionary’s actual definitions, but not a big fan of the app itself. Most frustrating is how many taps it takes from launching the app to getting to look up a word. It’s (1) launch, (2) wait for the search command to appear, (3) tap search (a TINY button?!), (4) tap inside the search box, and (5) tap to delete the previous word looked up.

Un-reasonable, especially for a $29.99 app. If I were making suggestions to you, I’d recommend the app to automatically look up a word if one is in the device’s clipboard, and offer a blinking cursor in a search field upon launch otherwise.

Recently I was looking for a thesaurus app, and noticed your Writer’s Thesaurus. As much as I’d like to own this app ($24.99), I cannot buy it after reading some of the reviews. There’s content missing from the app that exists in the book? There are mini-essays throughout the app that can only be found by stumbling on them? And, most devastatingly, the search is no better than the dictionary app? Sorry, I’ll have to stick to the web browser for word discovery.

I hope you’ll invest some time and energy into improving these (expensive!) apps, so that the user interface is as useful and engaging as the content. And I hope you’ll write me back with your plans in this regard, so I can either begin to wait in anticipation, or put my hopes to rest.

Yours truly,
Alesh Houdek

Update: I actually received a response from Park Jacobs at Handmark (the software partner that produces Oxford University Press’ apps) almost immediately, but haven’t gotten a chance to respond to him or post it until now. Shame on me. Here it is:

Hi Alesh,

My Name is Jacob Park and I am the product manager at Handmark responsible for the Oxford dictionaries on mobile clients. I’d like to thank you for your feedback. We’re always looking to improve the user experience and your feedback is critical.

Your suggestion for automatically searching for text in the clipboard is great and a feature that has been added to the to-do list. The loading time you are seeing while waiting for the search command to appear on launch is a result of some libraries being loaded that are required for the ‘fuzzy’ search functionality. I am looking into what we can do to speed that up to reduce the time from launch to search. The search process you describe below seems to reflect the user experience of the iPad app functioning in portrait mode. Is that correct? I think there may be some relatively easy fixes we can get in that would improve the search functionality, particularly on the iPad, like assuming the user wants to execute a new search when the app is brought to the foreground – clearing out the previous text and displaying the search popover automatically with the search field active. I’ll put these in the feature list for the next point release of the application.

Again, thanks for the feedback. It really is appreciated.

Regards,
Jacob

Posted: Monday November 28, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

Gruber's wrong about Apple TV

On Wednesday I posted my article predicting how the future Apple TV will work, and I emailed a link to John Gruber of Daring Fireball, who’s been writing a lot about this stuff (here and here). No problem there, the guy’s busy, super-selective about linking stuff, and probably finds my ideas to be pretty obvious.

But then I listen to him on yesterday’s Talk Show, and holy crap. Gruber believes:

This is insane. Predicting what Apple will do based on what it’s done in the past is a great strategy, except when it’s not. My take-away from what Apple’s done over the last 5 years is that they’ve systematically become more and more realistic about what people need in a product to buy it, and putting that into the product. The obstacles that’ve kept people from getting an iPhone have been systematically eliminated (enterprise support, pricing, more carriers). So why the heck would they create an television that doesn’t work with cable?

Certainly there are people who get by without cable (I’m one), and the numbers are growing every year. But even more people can’t imagine life without cable. (I imagine Gruber is one, sports fanatic that he is.) Is your Apple TV going to connect to a cable box? I think Steve Jobs’ quote, “the simplest user interface you could imagine,” takes that off the table. So I’m sticking by my predictions there: the Apple TV will work equally well with or without cable. For those using it with cable, it’ll abstract away as much of the vestiges of cable — channels, schedules, etc. — as it can.

But the “apps as channels” thing is even crazier thing to me, for reasons that I don’t even think require explanation. Look at the mess that magazine apps have made of navigation. Do you really want every channel on your TV to have its own navigation?!

I usually agree with Gruber, but here I think he’s just as wrong as Marco was. John Siracusa will presumably discuss this today. I think he’ll be able to talk some sense to these people.

Posted: Friday October 28, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]

 

Main thing I want to --and can't-- do on my iPad

Rate photos. I’m talking about the 0 to 5 score that can be stored in an image file’s EXIF data. I’m talking about getting a batch of photos previously synced to my Mac to the iPad (perhaps in a reduced size), viewing them in a Photos-like app that allows me to set the rating (and maybe make other EXIF edits, but that’s strictly gravy), and then sync the ratings back to the original files.

You have NO IDEA how badly I want this. I’m learning iOS development in hopes of building the app that’ll be able to do this (Filterstorm Pro comes close, but ends up failing I think). The reason: I believe that my photo library will outlast any single photo organization software. Hence the EXIF approach. It’s the reason I use Lightroom instead of Picasa or iPhoto (tho I’m considering just using Bridge exclusively). But for me, looking at photos and making judgements is 100 times more pleasant on the iPad than on a computer. On the Mac, it feels like work — like a chore. On the iPad, it’s practically a game. I don’t know why, but I NEED this. Eventually, Apple will make an amazing iPhoto for the iPad the way they did with GarageBand. But I can’t wait any more. Help!

Posted: Friday October 7, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [3]

 

Published yesterday, my rant at The Atlantic about text messaging fees and how the new iOS begins to do away with them.

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Six things the iPhone and iPad still can't do

  1. Download an image from the internet, crop it, and upload it to a blog
  2. Post a video you find on Twitter to your Tumblr
  3. Download a song from a website and save it to your music app (or generally get music, or anything else, on or off the phone on anything but its “home” computer)
  4. Run Flash (and spare me, the $199 Kindle Fire does it)
  5. Check the weather from the home screen (or display any information other than the date: the calendar app customizes its icon with the current date, but no other app can do this)
  6. Adjust the size of text on a web page

Posted: Wednesday October 5, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [5]

 

Login names and passwords, right? What a pain. And “Connect with Facebook” is no better. Well, Jeff Atwood has an idea of what a long-range solution might look like.

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The Amazon Fire tablet is released. Pretty much what we were expecting, except that the web browser sounds like it feeds through Amazon’s engine, which supposedly makes it super fast (and able to run Flash) but which is a little icky.

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Go read my latest article at The Atlantic, Why Amazon’s new tablet could beat the iPad. We’ll all likely have a completely different perspective on this tomorrow, after Amazon makes their announcement.

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The overall quality thing with Dell

dell 24 I took a passing swipe at Dell in my latest article at The Atlantic, but I wanted to just tell you one specific story. Here’s the old-style Dell 24” UltraSharp monitor. Expensive, premium — it cost $599 back in the day, and the current version still goes for $399 today. I’ve had personal experience with three of these, and let me tell you.

  1. The first is the one I still use at work. It’s survived about three years. But. First of all, the USB-hub thingy built into the monitor never worked. Also, lately, the bottom left area of the monitor is way darker than the rest of the screen. I originally thought this was dust somehow getting sucked between the LCD and the backlight, but now there are weird faint horizontal bars in the same area depending on what’s on the display (i.e., a black square on a white background will make the area above and below it slightly than the surrounding white), so something funky is going on.
  2. The second one arrived in the mail, turned on for a split second, shut down, and never powered up again. DOA.
  3. The replacement worked fine for three years. Just about a month ago, though, the power button stopped working. Monitor works just fine, self-powers down when it looses a signal, but if I want to manually turn it off I have to unplug it. Mind you, I’ve never used the power button regularly, so it’s not like it’s worn out from overuse.

Is the Apple 27” display overpriced at $999? In light of all this, maybe not.

Posted: Wednesday August 31, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

How to move an iTunes library in 2011

It’s amazing, considering how invested Apple wants us to get in iTunes playlists, play counts, ratings, etc., how hard it is to move all that stuff when you need to move your media files. These instructions may work for some people in some situations, but they never worked for me. After having screwed this up a couple of times, I’ve got a system that seems to work whether you’re moving your files to a new drive, a new computer, or even from Windows to Mac. Based on this, this, and this.

<dict>
   <key>Track ID</key><integer>20376</integer>
   <key>Name</key><string>Don't Let Me Lose This Dream</string>
   <key>Artist</key><string>Aretha Franklin</string>
   <key>Album Artist</key><string>Aretha Franklin</string>
   <key>Composer</key><string>Aretha Franklin/Teddy White</string>
   <key>Album</key><string>I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You</string>
   <key>Genre</key><string>Soul</string>
   <key>Kind</key><string>MPEG audio file</string>
   <key>Size</key><integer>3354624</integer>
   <key>Total Time</key><integer>139728</integer>
   <key>Track Number</key><integer>5</integer>
   <key>Year</key><integer>1967</integer>
   <key>Date Modified</key><date>2009-05-20T14:06:57Z</date>
   <key>Date Added</key><date>2010-10-19T02:02:06Z</date>
   <key>Bit Rate</key><integer>192</integer>
   <key>Sample Rate</key><integer>44100</integer>
   <key>Play Count</key><integer>3</integer>
   <key>Play Date</key><integer>3388003973</integer>
   <key>Play Date UTC</key><date>2011-05-12T04:12:53Z</date>
   <key>Normalization</key><integer>338</integer>
   <key>Persistent ID</key><string>151E35E000A507A9</string>
   <key>Track Type</key><string>File</string>
   <key>Location</key><string>file://localhost/C:/Users/alesh/Music/MUSIC A/Aretha Franklin - I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You/05 - Don't Let Me Lose This Dream - Aretha Franklin.mp3.mp3</string></string>
    <key>File Folder Count</key><integer>-1</integer>
   <key>Library Folder Count</key><integer>-1</integer>
</dict>

Let’s pause here a second and consider that “Import Playlist” command. Apple chose to call it that instead of “Import Library,” making it completely non-transparent to a casual observer that there’s even a way to move a library from one place to another. Shame on you, Apple, for (a) not making this whole process automatic and/or easier, (b) playing coy about the fact that it can be done at all, and © changing how it works from one version of iTunes to another. Rant over.

Please let me know if I’ve missed anything, or if this information is incomplete — I’ll be updating this file as necessary.

Posted: Wednesday August 10, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [2]

 

I don’t get this: we get to see photos and video of the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor in Japan, and we get to see pictures of the drone that took them, and listen to its pilot compare the mission to Afghanistan. (Though this is not a plane-like drone — it’s a pod that looks not unlike the probe droid in Empire Strikes Back, powered by a lawnmower engine.) Yet: “The cone of secrecy around Fukushima extends far and wide. We don’t get to know where they launched from or what their camera targets were. He couldn’t discuss whether their operations center had a roof over it or not, or whether it was a tent. We don’t even know how many flights they made, though he confirmed it was ‘a bunch.’”

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My mind’s made up: I’m buying a Mac mini. Apple has a serious problem with their lineup: their middle of the road computers, the iMacs, only come with monitors built in. I already own a monitor, so I’m forced to choose between the underpowered minis and the outrageously expensive Pros. (I’ve never felt the need to own a laptop.) Well, it’s settled; with the next update, I’m going to get a mini.

[3]

 

The Amazon tablet

John Grubber recently speculated that Amazon might well be working on an Android-powered tablet. And why not—everybody seems to be working on one right about now. More speculation, and a mockup picture, at Gizmodo.

This seems promising—Amazon has lots of experience with reading devices, Android for tablets HAS to become good at some point, and the Amazon app store seems like a good step. But i dont think they need have even gone quite this far. Two years ago I described what I wanted in a slate computer. It wasn’t far from what the iPad eventually became, except that it came with this orientation towards apps. Which is great, sort of. But it sure is leading us away from the open internet and onto walled gardens. “But apps do lots of things that websites can’t,” you say. True, but were it not for appland, development of protocolls for doing that stuff on the web would be all the more robust.

Still, I’m sticking to what I said two years ago: all i need to make me happy on a tablet computer is a decent web browser (yes, it has to run Flash*) and some local storage (which, btw, the iPad in many important respects does not have—try downloading a file from the web, editing it, and uploading it to a web from it and see how you do**).

So, yeah, i’ve had an iPad from day one, and I love it. But I’m not married to it. It’s genius, for now, is that it’s the only reasonable game going. If the iPad Kindle app gets shafted by Apple’s 30% subscription and disapears from the iPad, it’ll be a huge blow. (I read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom almost entirely on the Kindle app despite having the hardcover handy, and it was fantastic.) An Amazon tablet could be just the thing.

* And mark my word—within two years TOPS the iPad will have Flash.
** I’ve recently figure out a way to do this using iCabMobile and Dropbox, but it’s basically a world of hurt.

Posted: Friday April 1, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

“Cannot start Microsoft Office Outlook. Unable to open the Outlook Window. The set of folders could not be opened. The server is not available. Contact your administrator if this condition persists.”

Seriously, Microsoft has been getting better lately, but they have a lot to live down. This is just fucking ridiculous.

[5]

 

I'm going to tell you one last time about The Awl

Last Friday I deleted the 400+ to-read items from The Awl in my RSS so that I could start fresh and really stay with it. And before I did, one thing caught my attention that deserves a little bit of explanation. If ever there was one canonical example of the sheer brutal Strength of this particular little site, maybe this is it.

Okay, so here is the post: I Mean, Really, “J-Setting”? I Spent Half An Hour On Wikipedia Figuring Out What That Is. You’re going to want to read it before I go on, and you may want to click through to the “J-Setting Marmaduke Welfare Office Cat Fight Video Dance-Off” link in it, and watch both the videos. I don’t want you to get lost here. There’s going to be a quiz.

A little backstory: Choire Sicha is a guy primarily known for being the editor of Gawker a few years ago, and though he’s been published in all sorts of other publications (even in print!), his name redirects to the entry for Gawker on Wikipedia, just to give you some idea. (I just added “wtf?” to the discussion page for the discussion page of the redirect, so that’s your half-hearted attempt at making the internet more coherent for the day.) Alex Balk worked for Gawker too, tho him I’d never heard of before the two launched The Awl last April. The consensus (scroll to #2) is (a) the Awl is fucking great and (b) how the hell is it going to survive, if the people who are writing it are hoping to eventually/soon do it as a major source of their income and not as a hobby (and keeping in mind that they’re good at their fucking job and live in New York City so a salary of like $30,000 is not really what we’re talking about here), considering the state of the publishing world and the generally accepted suckiness of online advertising revenue.

So you could be forgiven for thinking at first blush that this post is pretty sincere — we’re trying to make money, can we please take it just a touch more seriously. And while I ponder that there may be a grain of that literal sentiment behind it, I presume that would be about all there is. It’s an inside-joke of a throw away-post, quickly typed up by a guy who’s got so many hilarious/great ideas going that he can just pull stuff like this out of his ass anytime he wants. (Or is it? Read on!)

OK now on to the post with the videos. I’ll save you the 30 minutes on Wikipedia and just tell you that J-Setting is the dance that Beyoncé does in that Single Ladies video. Watch carefully: The guy in the first video does it as he’s being escorted out the welfare office. And the dogs do it at the end of the Marmaduke trailer. They are both fucking upsetting. Furthermore, you will note that the pairing is pretty interesting and maybe even says Something Important about our culture, and that the headline “J-Setting Marmaduke Welfare Office Cat Fight Video Dance-Off,” is just about prefect (if smart-alecky, but of course smart-alecky is what sites like this use to make the medicine go down).

But there is more. Because, it is not enough that The Awl (I’m pretty sure I need to capitalize the “T” every time for the title to hold together) publishes 25 posts per day, at least a few of which run long. Also shockingly great are the comments, and sometimes indispensable. That fake Balk memo? Well take a look at this and try to not crap your pants. You probably know that Nick Denton is the wildly controversial head of Gawker Media (not just internet-controversial either, since the wider journalism world is afraid that his management model may be the way of the future for writers, and it’s not representative of a world in which they feel they can live), and as such Balk and Sicha’s former boss. And so yes, this is how “successful” blogs are run, and this is how successful blogs that are not run this way mock and poke fun at the ones that are, while simultaneously wondering what the future holds for them. And more to the point, this is how clever you have to be in 2010 to make it out here on the internet.

Posted: Tuesday March 30, 2010 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]

 

The future of the location-based Internet

Here’s the text of my introductory talk from last night’s panel. I think it took me about 6 minutes to get this out (the closest to the 5-minute allotment that any of the panelists got, I timed them), but I think I might develop it a little more and present it maybe at a future BarCamp or something.

Around the beginning of the 2005 I came across the websites Gothamist and LAist. They were part of a network of blogs dedicated to what was happening in one particular city, along with a network called Metroblogging. And I said to myself, why doesn’t Miami have a blog like this?

It wasn’t quite as easy to start a blog in those days as it is now, but I was coincidentally just getting to a place in web design where the idea of creating a blog seemed possible. And what’s striking is how odd that sounds today, when everybody has a blog. Because what I had in mind was a site where there were five or six people contributing, and I talked to lots and lots of people, but for some reason the idea of writing for a blog was really intimidating back then. I got lots of interest, but with some notable exceptions, Critical Miami ended up being basically a blog that I wrote.

And it sort of took off, and by the time I packed it in three years later, it was getting around 10,000 page views a day, and around 100,000 unique IP addresses visiting every month. There were over 11,000 comments posted over the three years. And still to this day, two years later, when people meet me they say, ‘aren’t you that guy, who used to have that blog….?’ So, it hit a nerve.

But something else happened during that time, and since, which is that everybody else started blogs. When I stopped writing Critical Miami there were dozens or maybe hundreds of great local blogs, lots of them wonderfully specialized.

But what’s happened since then is even more interesting. Because today everybody I know has a blog. And a twitter, and a facebook, and sometimes a Yelp account and a Foursquare. And what’s happened is that the internet has become, instead of this flat thing where everyone is accessing more or less the same stuff, it’s become this very personal and social thing. I read my friends’ blogs, and I see what they’re reading on twitter and facebook, and it’s this interconnected thing where you’re still reading stuff on the internet, but you’re also connected with your network of friends and acquaintances.

But what Yelp and Foursquare do is, they also begin to connect the internet to the physical world. So, I get here to MoCA, and I check in on Foursquare, and now not only does it know I’m here, but if one of my friends is here, or say a few blocks away, we instantly know about each other. And right now it’s this manual thing that I have to remember to do, but phones have GPS and WiFi, and it’s only a matter of time before it’s completely automatic and integrated into all the other services. I want to know what’s around here, I pull up Yelp, which incidentally just got this spiffy Augmented Reality feature built in, and I can look up what bars are nearby, and see what people have said about them.

So, in a very real way, the internet is becoming aware of where it is, right? We have WiFi hotspots here, and we can look up what people have posted to Twitter from this room over the last few months, and you can drop a pin on a map and get information on the architecture of this building and the history of this neighborhood and see what’s going on.

But this is all just the beginning. Jesse Schell gave a talk to game designers recently (there’s link on my blog, which by the way is Buildings and Food) where he was talking about how little video games are beginning to permeate out lives, and how in the future everything — every coke can — would have a little camera, a touchscreen, and a WiFi connection. Everything you interact with knows who you are, and the internet, instead of being this thing that lies on a screen that sits on your desk, is literally right there around you. For now we have these little screens we carry around in our pockets, and we have screens on the walls at the bank and at the theater, but soon the augmented reality tech will be built into regular eye-glasses, and it’ll be exactly as pervasive as you want it to be. And the internet will be sort of right there between you and the wall, and it can give you whatever you want anytime, usually before you have to ask for it. (Think how Twitter feeds you information you want and need, without you having to request it.)

Posted: Thursday March 18, 2010 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [6]

 

What will make or break the iPad

ipad

OK, I have all these links that I’ve been meaning to assemble into a weekendly clickables post for like a month now, but the fact is that they’re like 99% stale at this point. And what’s interesting is that it’s my iPhone’s fault — I do so much of my web consumption on that thing these days, and it’s — just — hard enough to turn around and create blog posts on that it frequently doesn’t happen.*

Which brings me to the iPad. Which, first of all, but correct me if I didn’t predict it almost a year ago? Yes, I did. The big difference between between the iPad and what I predicted is Mobile Safari, which I think is also going to determine whether the iPad will work for me (and, by extension, the billions of people who are LIKE ME). I currently use Perfect Browser, which is an improvement over iPhone’s built-in Safari, but uses the same rendering engine and is in many ways tied down in the same way. All sorts of little things are difficult or impossible to do.

Just by the nature of its larger screen, the iPad alleviate some of these pains. And we’ve seen that the Apple apps will be custom-tailored to the device, and more powerful then their small-screen rivals. But whether this turns out to be enough to make the device useful enough to earn its $500 price tag remains to be seen. We don’t need that much, really. But I think that it’s going to take opening up the platform to some true alternative browsers. I want Chrome and/or Firefox, otherwise I’m going to be spending lots and lots of time at the Apple store playing with this thing before I put my money down.

* If you want to be bored with the details, it’s just hard grabbing URL links from all sorts of places and jumping to my web-based blogging window and pasting them in, then jumping somewhere else and being able to return. Plus there are scores of little inconveniences everywhere, wherein websites recognize that you’re on an iPhone and put you, in one fashion or another, into a sandbox. Show me how to get to ask.metafilter.com’s search box in mobile safari. Show me how to post an embedded video to tumblr. The list goes on…

Posted: Sunday February 21, 2010 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [6]

 

Stefana Broadbent: How the Internet enables intimacy: Not exactly earth-shattering news, but there’s something sweet and compelling in the way Broadbent describes these changes.

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Stupid internet tricks: a guy RFID-tagged his cats and wired his cat door to only open for them, then added a camera and an internet connection. Result: Twittering cat door.

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Gizmodo is sad that Google just killed Garmin and any other maker of navigation software/hardware, and wonders what industry is next. This is nuts. Think of all the profitable industries that, e.g., widespread electric power must have killed. Plus, have you ever used a Garmin product? Not quite Microsoft-level faliure, but not exactly a company who’s design anyone is going to be missing.

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As augmented reality moves from handheld devices like the iPhone to graphical-overlay glasses (soon!), it will be able to — for example — block out real-world display advertising. Sort of the way ads are currently digitally inserted into broadcast of sporting events. (A passing thought from an article on AR in The Atlantic, which yes, I am going to keep linking to every single month, because the Atlantic is the best magazine evar.)

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Pandora

Pandora illustration from NYTimes In the beginning, we were all blown away by Pandora, right? Type in the name of an artist, and it generates an instant radio station based on their music. You rate particular songs up and down and it refines the station. You can store multiple stations of your own, and mix and match them at will. And it works really, really well; you discover music you’d never heard of that you love, and more importantly the music experience is just really good.

So how does it work? I guess shockingly, the hard way. They have people — Pandora employees, no croudsourcing here — sitting around listening to and categorizing songs. So when Pandora says you’ll like something because of “swung rhythm, minor tonality, syncopated guitar, and whispered singing” (or whatever it says), those are tags that someone manually applied to that song. Amazing. This is from a feature on Pandora in NYTimes’ magazine last week. Here are a few particularly interesting bits (and do not miss the completely absurd accompanying “infographics”):

[Tim Westergren, Pandora founder] likes to tell a story about a Pandora user who wrote in to complain that he started a station based on the music of Sarah McLachlan, and the service served up a Celine Dion song. “I wrote back and said, ‘Was the music just wrong?’ Because we sometimes have data errors,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Well, no, it was the right sort of thing — but it was Celine Dion.’ I said, ‘Well, was it the set, did it not flow in the set?’ He said, ‘No, it kind of worked — but it’s Celine Dion.’ We had a couple more back-and-forths, and finally his last e-mail to me was: ‘Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion.’ ”

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They moved on to vocals [in Indian classical music, a new genre being added to Pandora], and Alan Lin, a violinist, ticked off the scores he came up with for things like rhythmic intensity and the relative exoticism of the melody scale. “I actually put exotic at 3.5,” he said. This prompted Sameer Gupta — a percussionist and an expert on Indian music who was weighing in by speakerphone from New York — to lead a brief discussion of how to think about melody and exoticism in this context. Seven or eight scores related to melody, and then about the same number for harmony. (“A 5 for drone,” one analyst announced.) More scores related to form. Tempo. The timbre of the reeds. When Gupta gave his score for riskiness on the percussion — a 3.5 — Lin did a sort of fist pump: “Yes!” Evidently he’d scored it the same way, meaning progress toward properly fitting Indian music into the Music Genome Project. Things went on like this for a while. “Even if you have a solo violin with a tabla, you’re still going to have monophony,” Gupta remarked at one juncture. “I just wanted to point that out.” It was hard to believe there was a business riding on this kind of conversation.

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Maybe the more vivid illustration of social influence on listening habits isn’t in what we share but in what we obfuscate. Last.fm, for example, publishes a chart listing the songs that its users most frequently delete from their public listening-stream data. The guilty pleasure Top 10 is dominated by the most radio-ready pop artists — Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” several tracks by Lady Gaga. The service iLike compiles similar data on the most “suppressed” songs its users listen to in secret; Britney Spears figures prominently. Apparently even listeners who can set aside certain cultural information long enough to enjoy something uncool would just as soon their friends didn’t know.

But there’s a problem that emerges with Pandora, right? It’s anti-variety. If what you want to hear is just plain good music, it hasn’t really got your covered. If what you’re craving specifically is variety, or great new music that sounds like nothing you’ve heard before, you’re out of luck. I happen to enjoy completely disparate sounds back to back with each other. And while Pandora allows me to combine my stations into a “quick mix” (in fact of course, that’s how I created the “listen now” button in the sidebar), it’s limited by my imagination and my existing taste, which is exactly what I’m trying to get away from when I turn to internet radio rather the, say, my own iTunes playlists.

Not everyone wants quite the level of variety I do, but to some extent this is a real problem for anyone looking for more then background noise. If you care about music, then you want to have your tastes pushed, you want a music service to favor brand new music, and you most definetly do NOT want to hear Celine Dion (and no, it is not a shocker that her music is in fact completely pleasant and enjoyable in a bland sort of way).

Even the “listen now” link I’ve got is sort of a dead thing. I put it together something like a year ago, and it’s been exactly the same thing since. There’s a mix of genres, and it’s “eclectic” in a sort of a way, but not in a satisfying way, because the formula emerges and then becomes predictable. I could go in and tweak it once in awhile, but I’m never going to surprise myself in the way I want to be surprised, because that takes the real work of discovering stuff. And I can’t help but feel like all those people sitting at Pandora HQ are chasing a dead end. That croudsourced “people who liked X also liked Y” systems are inherently better, but that even that only goes so far.

My two favorite recently-discovered artists are the Bird and the Bee and the Brazilian Girls. And not only did I not find them through Pandora, but there’s no way I could have found them through Pandora. Their “musical qualities” do not match anything I listen to now; in fact, their musical qualities don’t much match anything else at all. (Well, maybe the Bird and the Bee have musical qualities similar to Beach House, but let us not digress.) This has less to do with sociocultural issues then with great musicians making pop music in a smart new way. The way you get to this is by reading blogs like Gorilla vs. Bear, and by keeping an eye on Pitchfork, and by checking out what your clued-in friends are listening to, and by listening to smartly curated online radio stations.

Pandora is great from time to time, but relying on it as your main source of music leads to nothing but ruts.

Posted: Thursday October 22, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [5]

 

Dispute Finder

Dispute Finder While discussing the alleged death of polite disagreement at Rex’s blog last week, I expressed the idea that a lot of the disagreement stems from a disagreement about simple facts. It’s almost impossible to support healthcare reform bill if you think it includes “death panels,” and there are folks who consume media in such a way that they genuinely believe this. But even those with every right to call themselves reasonable are at prone to this effect — we tend to be more likely to believe the facts that jibe with our view of the world. Those facts then push our opinion farther along toward certainty, and make those who disagree with us seem ever less reasonable.

It follows that clarifying the facts is a potential way to begin restoring some of the civility that’s been lost from public discourse. By this I mean not only correcting incorrectly held beliefs, but also by exposing reasonable disagreements about what are often presented as established facts.

Interestingly, there is a tool intended to do exactly that: the Dispute Finder. It works like this: you install it as a Firefox extension, and it then alerts you when a fact you are seeing on the internet is in dispute, and cites a few disagreeing sources. It gets to know what sources you respect, and so if you’re a Republican, say, it’s more likely to point you to a story about how death panels are a hoax in the Wall Street Journal then in Harper’s magazine. (Demo here.) Try this at home!: do any of the statements below make you nod in agreement? Click through for contradictory evidence.

The point here isn’t that any of those claims are wrong — the point is that they are not nearly as clear cut as we might suppose, and that having our beliefs challenged makes us more likely to listen to those we disagree with, ergo more civil discourse. Two problems.

1) This is all well and good on the internet, but can we attach it to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck’s asses? And also better yet, what about my uncle who parrots Limbaugh, Beck, et al. at the Sunday cookout? Well, it turns out they’re working on that! Explains Dispute Finder developer Rob Ennals on a recent On the Media:

The bullshit detector is a thing that we’re planning to do next. It’s trying to apply the same kind of ideas we’re applying to the Web to information you hear in real life. So let’s say you’re in a conversation with somebody and they tell you something which is disputed. The device is going to buzz in your pocket and let you know that you just heard something disputed and perhaps you should question it. … [A]nother thing we’re planning [is] to apply this to closed caption TV text; that if some pundit on TV says something disputed, a thing will flash up at the bottom of your screen saying, this is a disputed claim. This source you trust disagreed with some of this.

Nice, right? Sign me up. And sign up my uncle. Better yet, sign up YOU and YOUR uncle, which brings us to

2) This is great, but how do I get the people who disagree with me to sign up for this? To wit, aren’t the very people who are disagreeably disagreeing the least likely to pay any attention to this type of technology? And at first I think this will be true. But I think it’ll have a snowball effect. As this type of technology spreads and improves, the desire for intellectual honesty will begin to drive its adoption. That is, even the most extreme conspiracy theorists want to claim to be open to opposing arguments, right? So unless this whole project manages to get painted as part of the liberal conspiracy (not inconceivable!), some portion of even the wackos at the fringes of the political parties will get on board, which will begin to soften — maybe — the craziness that’s therein harbored.

Posted: Wednesday September 16, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]

 

Something is rotten in the state of C-SPAN: I subscribe to C-SPAN’s Podcast of the Week [iTunes link], and yesterday heard a pretty great speech that Bill Clinton gave [mp3] last month to the Netroots convention. Pretty great speech, if only just to hear how well he can hold interest over a near-hour. Thing is, that link goes directly to an mp3, hosted locally at that, because I have no idea what’s going on with C-SPAN’s site. This page refers to the podcast, and as of this moment still links to the audio file, but there is no reference to the speech anywhere else on C-SPAN’s site that I can find, and no permanent link to the podcast item. Pardon me, but this does not seem like the right way to run a service that is the de-facto record of our government’s activities, does it?

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What the internet knows about YOU — “since the problem isn’t an issue with any particular Web browser, but inherently tied to the way the Web works, there are no quick and painless ways to fix this issue.” (via)

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Gizmodo’s essential iPhone apps, Fall 2009. I’m not much into iPhone games, but that Star Defense is pretty cool.

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diversity of species in the rainforest

Illustration by Oro Verde. (via)

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Self Magazine recently “retouched” about 30 pounds off Kelly Clarkson for their cover photo. But that sort of thing is nothing new, right? What is entertaining here is what Lucy Danziger, Self’s editor, came up with when her handlers apparently told her to write an explanation that ‘yeah, of course we “retouch,” but it’s all about producing a self-confident and happy image, not about making someone look skinnier.’ Here’s what she came up with: “This is art, creativity and collaboration. It’s not, as in a news photograph, journalism. It is, however, meant to inspire women to want to be their best. That is the point.” The hypocrisy here is on par with politicians talking about Social Security. There is the widening gulf between reality and what can be acceptably said, and there is the requirement for people willing to talk around that gulf. (via)

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You paste software and website legal agreements into EULAlyzer and it flags suspicious and obnoxious phrases. Cool, but I would prefer this in a web-app format. (via)

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Personas searches the web for a person’s name and creates a graph to “characterize” the person. For my name, it seems to be latching on to the phrase “ALESH HOUDEK IS DIM-WITTED AND SAD.”

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Apple Tablet. Pretty cool, and very close to what I requested in an e-reader. But the problem with this is the same problem the iPhone has (exacerbated by the big screen) — you forget that you’re not using a “real” computer, and you keep getting frustrated by the stuff you can’t do. Which is anything to do with real typing. And forget about plugging in an external keyboard, because then the touch-screen becomes very awkward to use. Also, the big piece of glass that makes up its face is going to make this a very fragile object in any situation other then sitting on the couch. If this is really what’s coming, I worry that it’ll be Apple’s Segway — a beautiful and inspiring device that isn’t useful beyond a few specific niche markets.

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iPhone notes

iphone I’ve had my iPhone less then a week. Here are some observations

Posted: Monday July 27, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

A look at the new NPR website. Good enough! (via)

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How the NYTimes.com home page gets made (via). What’s interesting is that it’s — for now — not tailored to tracked user preferences. The ad you see on this blog are determined in part on the interests Google knows you’ve got, so why not the content of the NYT website homepage? If you’re known to search for clothes, why not push the fashion section? And etc., etc., etc.

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If extraterrestrial civilizations are monitoring our TV broadcasts, then this is what they are currently watching. (via)

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You should be angry about how much text messages cost, even though it’s only 20 cents per. And now, a telling detail from an article about teen texting habits: when reality shows like American Idol do voting by SMS, the phone companies split the revenue with the TV network! Update: David Pogue.

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Is the space program a massive waste of money?

space! NicFitKid asks, “Is your beef with the shuttle program, or with manned spaceflight in general?”

Well, I mostly think that both the space shuttle and manned spaceflight the space program in general are super cool, but I do not trust my reasons, with what them (the reasons) hinging entirely too much on little-boy “wow” appeal. Meanwhile, when you look at the costs involved your mind really does reel (even putting aside “you could feed X hungry children” lines of argument, which strike me as naive).

Said reeling is particularly vivid as pertains to the space shuttle program; it was supposed to be a more-cost effective (reused vehicle = recycling) way to get to space, the costs end up averaging out to $1.3 billion per flight.

Same goes for just about everything NASA does, right? You wonder just where the money’s going, and can’t help but think that this could all be done a heck of a lot cheaper. And maybe it can, but probably not without making the program even less safe, and anyway, don’t the costs of all large-scale projects seem impossible to wrap head around? (Maybe not?: quick, how much would you guess that the Hoover Dam cost to build in today’s dollars? Here’s the answer, which I found surprisingly low.)

NASA’s budget over its 50-year history has averaged 1.23% of the federal budget, though it’s been under 1% since the early 1990’s. It’s .55% of the 2009 budget, or about $17.2 billion. In the 1960’s, while the Apollo program was being developed, it spiked to 5.5% of the budget, over $33 billion (these dollar figures are in 2007 dollars).

So, what have we gotten for this money, other than the undeniable fun of watching it all slowly, slowly unfold? Well, precious little actually. There are some scientifically useful things, e.g. the Hubble space telescope. And there is the list of advances that came about as by-products of getting stuff into space. Lots of useful stuff on that list, but it all could — and probably would — have been developed (and much cheaper) outside the context of a space program. Scientific experiments done in space mostly consist of testing the effects of weightlessness on various things. The results are rarely particularly interesting, and in any case almost completely useless to us here on earth.

One day, maybe, we’ll be a space-going civilization. The argument that we should be working towards that holds some water. Yet I wonder if the challenges of going into space wouldn’t be better tackled later, when advances from pure science and other scientific endeavors make them far easier to solve. We weigh the money it would cost to work this stuff out later not just against the money we’re spending now, but against all the missed opportunity cost of what would have otherwise been done with that money. If all we have to show for the difference is the entertainment value of the space program, then it seems difficult to justify rationally.

Update: See also The Economic Value of the Space Program.

Posted: Saturday July 18, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [7]

 

Amazon must not want people to buy Kindles anymore, because they’ve made it perfectly clear that, among other things, they’ll delete books(!) from your device if they feel the need. So, I guess James Wolcott can relax!

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In the spirit of pissing in everyone’s lemonade, Criticism of the Space Shuttle program. (You may also enjoy: Whitey’s on the moon, Gil Scott-Heron.)

[3]

 

An interesting account of how the photo pool worked at the Michael Jackson memorial service.

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The new iPhones it are out. Sign me up, signy. Update: Same stink, different site.

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What if you’re in the market for a non-SLR digital camera? The old standby has been, and continues to be, Canon compacts. My current favorite would be the SD800 IS (for the wide angle lens), but there is a plethora of options. But! On the horizon is a batch of large-sensor, fixed-lens, small-body (and stylish looking) cameras which might be worth waiting a few months for. The one that’s out now is the Sigma DP2. This mixed review is worth reading in part because it explains the whole phenomena. But check out leaked pictures of the maybe-upcoming Olympus E-P1. Update: The head-on image of the Olympus disappeared from the page, but here it is:

Olympus E-P1

I also feel like I should be throwing in a word for the Panasonic DMC-LX3, but it seems to not be selling much, which is usually a red flag.

[6]

 

“I do think that ebooks are a step backwards, however. It’s like the fax. It’s not flexible or useful enough. Handheld computers should have greater power, and the Kindle instead has less. You should be able to access encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other searchable resources, just like we can on the computer or the iPhone. That’s where the real benefit of portable handheld units are. Who cares about downloading Twilight? I care about having access to entire online libraries of reference works, maps, and encyclopedias.” — David Barringer on the Kindle.

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What's so great about Twitter

twitter fail whaleA pretty good argument for Twitter by Steven Johnson in Time (via). People keep asking me this question, but I figured someone would come along and make the case. Still, a few thoughts:

For the time being, the only way to see what Twitter is about is to try it out for a few days. It’s pretty easy to find people to follow — just see who other people are following. The harder part maybe figuring out what to say. I guess it’s like blogging — the fear of the proverbial blank piece of paper. On Facebook there are a million pictures to comment on, cheesy quizzes to play with, and an endless stream of other stuff to react to. Twitter is all about you and what’s in your brain at that particular moment.

Posted: Friday June 5, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [6]

 

Wow… it feels like smartphones are finally getting somewhere. This summer we have coming the new iPhone, new T-Mobile Google phone, new Palm, and even an AT&T Google phone. Update: Sorry to get all gadget-geek obsessive on you, but it looks like the new iPhones might be matte black. HOT.

[2]

 

Hulu desktop

I guess it makes perfect sense that Hulu Desktop has no stop button — it’s “simulating” a TV, you see. But it still seems disconcerting and weird. I’ve also noted that Hulu has not been adding new shows at any particular speed (at least, not anything I’m going to watch). Still, it works — sort of — with the Hauppauge remote that came with my Dell, and figuring out how to use it is obvious, so I’m giving it a shot. Update: Complete clusterfuck. Forces you to download software updates, otherwise refuses to start. Hangs intermittently. Sometimes impossible to exit fullscreen mode. Crashy.

[3]

 

What's the future of Wolfram Alpha?

wolfram alpha Wolfram Alpha launched the other day. The reception has been mixed, but most of the positive press seems to be from folks who’ve gotten a guided tour. You can get the same experience, if you haven’t already, by watching Steven Wolfram’s screencast. Awesome, right? All the world’s knowledge at your fingertips?

Well, not quite. Farhad Manjoo’s reaction is actually typical for folks who’ve played with Alpha for a little bit:

Once you start conjuring your own searches, it’s clear that the samples offer a misleading impression of the site’s depth. Ask how many calories that male runner would burn if he were swimming, cycling, playing tennis, cross-country skiing, or golfing—it’s clueless. Say you wanted to know how life expectancy differed by state in the United States—what’s the life expectancy of a male in California, and how does that compare to the life expectancy of a male in Kansas? “Wolfram Alpha doesn’t know what to do with your input,” the site tells me. And on and on it goes. Wolfram Alpha doesn’t know the homicide rate in South Africa or Baltimore, it doesn’t know how many copies M.I.A.‘s last album sold, it can’t tell you the per-capita GDP of the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’s got nothing about the top speed of the Bugatti Veyron. It may sound like I’m nitpicking, but I was careful to construct questions that emulated Wolfram’s own examples. As it kept coming up empty, Wolfram Alpha came to seem less like HAL 9000 and more like a chatbot.

Even more embarrassing, Alpha sometimes shows outdated data when the more up-to-date data is easily findable on Google.

What’s happening here is Wolfram Alpha is pulling information from discrete online databases, including the CIA factbook, Census reports, and the stock market. These sources are connected to Alpha by its human handlers, who teach it how the data relate to each other. (Many other websites, e.g. Every Block, do the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale.) Insofar as it’s just launched, we should expect Alpha to get smarter and smarter as the months turn into years, right? Well, not necessarily. Using human operators to organize the web is how Yahoo! search used to rule the world, until Google came along and let machines give it a try. As the web grew, it outpaced the ability of any number of human librarians to keep up with.

So how can we make software be able to understand the databases that are scattered around the internet? Well, mostly you do it by changing the way the databases are organized, to make them more easily machine parseable. What we’re talking about is the semantic web, which Tim Berners-Lee explained (he’s one of the people with a claim on inventing the internet) earlier this year at Ted. He describes the frustration of connecting data one database at a time, and he lays out some ideas of how things might work when data are connected. (Raw Data Now! It’s going to improve the world!)

Berners-Lee throws out a few examples of how this might work, but it’s mostly along the line of mashups. We can create all sorts of data mashups (that second thing is cool, click on it, seriously), but the act of creating the mashup and using it are distinct, right? The genius of Wolfram Alpha is that, within its currently limited sphere, it allows you to mash anything. Well, once the Semantic Web tips and more and more data starts to become available in machine-readable format, the potential power of tools like Alpha will grow exponentially.

Whether the tool that ends up winning the race to harness this data is Wolfram Alpha, Google, or something else remains to be seen. But at least we can now imagine what that tool will look like — something like what Wolfram Alpha looks like today, but able to handle any question that Farhad Manjoo (or any research scientist, or any kid in school) can throw at it.

Posted: Wednesday May 20, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink ·

 

The sense of humor, such as it is, of Wolfram Alpha.

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Google Street view tricycle!

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When the new iPhones come out in June I’m getting one. Sample rumors: 720p video, 3 megapixel camera with autofocus, faster processor, 32GB, compass, and a $59/month plan (currently the cheapest is $69).

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A collection of meta/weird/arty twitter accounts and related twitter sites, including @On_Kawara, a twitter feed of a pet door, and an app that creates tetris blocks out of tweets. (via)

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Swiss Post Box is powered by technology from Seattle-based Earth Class Mail. The service emails multi-sided color images of incoming envelopes and parcels to their recipients as soon as the mail reaches the first sorting center nearest where it was collected by the post office. While the mail and parcels are held in an automated temporary cache, recipients decide which mail pieces they want to have opened and scanned to PDF inside an ultra-secure scanning center at the Post Office (where confidential documents for Swiss banks are also scanned), and which are to be delivered physically to the address on the envelope, redirected to another address, shredded, recycled or archived for safekeeping. Three-quarters of the mail ends up leaving that first sorting center bound straight for recycling, either after being scanned to PDF or discarded unopened by customer’s choice.

Also, as you may have heard, the United States Postal Service is royally fucked.

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The Online Photographer has been counting down its top 10 recommended cameras. #1: Nikon D700.

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One eye-rolling Maureen Dowd column and suddenly everyone feels like they need to defend Twitter. I say forget it — if someone’s not persuaded to try it, they’re not going to read your pleas, and they wouldn’t be convinced even if they did. Still, some nice arguments: In defense of Twitter (Bldg Blog), In defense of Twitter (Kottke). Then again, this is hardly untrodden ground

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Stephen Mallon's Flight 1549 recovery pictures

Images of Flight 1549 recovery: Stephen Mallon was hired to photograph the recovery of US Airways Flight 1549, and was subsequently blocked from releasing the images by some asinine legal crap. Anyway, the images are back online, and every single one sings. Truly a spectacular body of work.

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Online image editing: I’m working on a computer that I don’t want to install anything more then I need to, so I’m trying to use all online apps to get my stuff done. Here’s a relatively awesome online replacement for Photoshop: Splashup. No ads, no registration, easily loads images from your machine or from the web, and relatively powerful (layers!).

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Four of Jorge Colombo’s iPhone sketches are available as editions on 20×200: 1, 2, 3, 4. They’re literally selling like hotcakes.

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Wikipedia is considering switching to a Creative Commons license, and they’re putting the issue to an online vote by their frequent editors.

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I think they’re going to make the e-reader I want.

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How to not win the Picture of The Year in Denmark

Photojournalist Klavs Bo Christensen was recently disqualified by the Danish Union of Press Photographers from their Picture of the Year prize due to “excessive Photoshop” (via). After the committee reviewed the pictures, they requested his original camera RAW files, before making the determination. Lucky for us, they released a few of the before/after images. Let’s look at one:

Klavs Bo Christensen photoshop

Klavs Bo Christensen photoshop

This looks like a pretty spectacular modification, but I decided to see just how much was really being done by attempting to re-create the changes myself. Feel free to fire up Photoshop and play along at home.

Klavs Bo Christensen photoshop Step 1: Obviously the cornerstone of what’s happening is an increase in contrast. The levels tool allows a photographer to adjust lightness and contrast in a single step. And this single adjustment resulted in the above — an increase in contrast has the natural effect of increasing color saturation, because the contrast is being increased in the individual color channels.

Klavs Bo Christensen photoshop

Step 2: Since the ground in the original image is in shadow, the sky is of course much brighter (this is a common issue in outdoor photography), and it’s now blown out. The solution is to mask the above layers adjustment so that it only effects the ground.

Klavs Bo Christensen photoshop

Klavs Bo Christensen photoshop Step 3: Better, but the sky still looks anemic relative to the rest of the picture, so we apply a second levels adjustment to the areas unaffected by the first. This time the sliders are toward the right of the graph — the contrast is increased by about the same amount, but this time the overall exposure is darkened rather then lightened. Now the image is just about identical with Christensen’s.

Klavs Bo Christensen photoshop

Step 4: Finally, dodged the chair and the window above it just a little, and sharpened the overall result. Save for some nasty jpg compression resulting from modifying images already compressed for the web, the results are remarkably close.

Klavs Bo Christensen photoshop

Conclusion: I’m not trying to say that because Christensen’s modifications are trivial to make his photos were disqualified unjustly. Anyone who’s ever played with an image manipulation program and found the contrast adjustment knows it’s trivially easy to make a photo look completely insane and artificial. The question is, how much contrast adjustment is appropriate before an image leaves the realm of photojournalism. Christensen is correct that referring to RAW files is misleading, since digital cameras have their own contrast adjustment, and the RAW files often produce deliberately low-contrast results which do not correspond to the way a scene looked. Additionally, human vision corrects for variations in lighting when looking at the world in a way that it does not adjust for viewing photographs.

What’s striking is the ignorance of digital photo manipulation from the committee. They speak of a wall and some concrete that the photographer has colored blue, which is just wrong — the increase in contrast has brought out the blue shade that was present in the original photograph. A photographer who applied a gentle, more pragmatic levels adjustment would have achieved a commensurately modest shade of blue (which after all is the color that gray concrete takes on in shadows of the early-morning sun). The exact same process is at work in the case of the sweater that appears to turn from brown to red.

I do not deny that for me this set of Christensen’s images crosses the line, but I note that his transgression is a quantitative one, not a qualitative one. His use of masking to modify only one area of the photo was used exclusively to separate the sky from the foreground, a technique no doubt used commonly by photojournalists. So the complaint here can be summed up as “too much stupid contrast.”

(By the way, check out Christensen’s website. Few of the images there exhibit this effect, though the black and white images seem again to be suspiciously high-contrast, to their apparent detriment. His photos of masked Iranian women, however, are spectacular.)

Posted: Monday April 13, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [3]

 

How to make an e-reader

Everybody’s raving (via Fimoculous, where I first typed most of this out) about the Kindle, and I do not doubt their sincerity. But neither Amazon nor Sony have quite figured out what they need to make. These devices are the Treo of five years ago — good enough to be loved, but about to be made irrelevant by the coming iPhone.

No matter how good the Kindle is, it is patently absurd to pay $2.50 per month to read Slate on it. And Bezos should be blushing at the contortions people go through to get PDF on their Kindles. The point here is that mostly what people want on an e-reader is not books — it’s the internet, stupid.

So, what do we want? Simple: a Kindle form factor with the guts of a Dell Mini, and a little sprinkle of iPod Touch. It goes roughly like this:

The Kindle is $350, as is the new Sony reader (which has the touch-sensitive screen). The Dell Mini starts at $199. The 16GB iPod Touch is $300. Come on hardware makers, you can do this.

Update (4/13/09): TechCrunch is working on it.

Posted: Wednesday March 25, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [7]

 

Available online for free.

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Weekendly clickables VII

Posted: Sunday March 1, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [2]

 

Mac vs. Windows part 1

So, we got an iMac at work. I’ve used Macs before, but I was particularly interested in whether I could get it to talk to our Windows network, and how much prodding it would take. Our network is a little squirrely, and getting a new Windows machine to talk to it is always a bit of a hassle (and occasionally brings seasoned IT pros close to tears). Well, I plugged in a cable, turned on the iMac, clicked the hard drive, and there it was: all the computers on the network just showed up in the sidebar. I clicked on one, entered a password, and from then on everything worked seamlessly. It hasn’t asked for the password again since.

So, screw you, Microsoft. On other thing. 5 years passed between Windows XP and Windows Vista. You employ like 100,000 people, right? And like a third or something are working on Windows? Well, I see where Vista is an improvement and everything (frankly, it’s got tons of things wrong with it, too), but aside from the cosmetic stuff the changes are really pretty modest. What the hell have you people been doing all this time?

Posted: Wednesday February 25, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [4]

 

Megapixels

How many megapixels do you need? Well, for most people, as I said in my camera buying guide, the answer is 6. But what if you’re an artist, and you’re making big prints and trying to approximate the effect of using a medium or large format camera? How many megapixels of digital resolution would you need? This has always been a moot point, because the answer was “much more then any digital camera has.” But with the introduction of the Canon 5d Mark II and the Nikon D3X (21 and 24 megapixels, respectively), it deserves to be revisited.

Online photographer takes an analytical approach, attempting to determine what, for an 8 × 10 inch print, constitutes the highest theoretically possible resolution. The answer: 100 megapixels. Maybe. (It might also be 400.) Ken Rockwell compares the D3x to 35mm film and determines them to be very close in resolution. But we’re not interested in an 8 × 10 inch print, and we’re not interested in matching 35mm film. We’re interested in matching big prints made from medium and large format cameras.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at these big prints (recommend visiting the Margulies for a near-lethal dose). It seems to me that in the best of the 30 × 40 inch prints, the resolution on an per-square-inch basis nears that seen magazines images. Since magazines typically consider 300 dpi to be the minimum resolution for print, it’s easy to calculate 30 × 40 × 3002 = 108,000,000 — 108 megapixels.

But looking at real-world results belies the mathematical precision that is suggested by talk of dots per inch, etc., and the fact is that the actual resolution of those large format print-based prints also varies greatly. This has everything to do with the subject matter, and in what an artist considers acceptable. A 6 megapixel image printed 16 × 24 inches is 120 dpi, yet looks surprisingly good. (A print from the D3x at the same resolution would be 34 × 50 inches.) It’s imperative for each person interested in this to familiarize themselves with what 100 dpi, 150 dpi, etc. looks like for their subject matter, and with today’s technology it’s trivially easy to do this.

Just for fun, check out the picture above. It’s a tiny crop from a picture off my Canon pocket camera, scaled up by 150%. Not fantastic, but at this resolution (assuming a 100 dpi monitor), a print of the whole picture would be 50 inches across.

Posted: Friday February 13, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

Micropayments

The world internet is abuzz with talk about this weeks’ Time cover story advocating micropayments for online content. Rex Sorgatz even put together a really smart model of how they might work.

The problem, for those not following along, is that newspapers and some magazines are dying, loosing revenue from their print editions (because they didn’t play nice with the internet early on), and they think this (i.e. not playing nice with the internet now) is going to be their salvation.

It’s not going to work, and Clay Shirky has done a great job of explaining why (via). Essentially, because people pony up on micropayments only when they have no other alternative. The only way for this to succeed is for the New York Times (or whoever) to convince all similar content providers to implement a micropayment system system at the same time.

For those following along at home, I’ve made two of my own proposals for saving the newspaper industry over the years: the non-profit model, and the break it up and rebuild it model (see comment #2).

Posted: Tuesday February 10, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]

 

Everyone has been on the edge of their seat waiting to hear if Obama would be allowed to keep his Blackberry. The Answer: he gets a brand-new, customized Blackberry with a “super-encryption package.” (via rainey305)

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A fitting near-conclusion to a disgraceful history: AOL shuts down scores of user websites with minimal warning. And Jason’s right — everyone spending hours and hours on Facebook is risking the same fate. There need to be laws for how sites hosting user content are shut down, just as there area laws governing physical evictions. (via Waxy)

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Ken Rockwell’s How to Win at eBay article should be worth a read.

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What's up with text messages?

cell phone I’ve been griping about this for years: it costs cell-phone carriers effectively nothing to send text messages, yet they’re charging 10 or 20 cents a piece. Consider the size of an mp3 file vs. a text file: my This American Life downloads (which are of course efficient, low-quality files) are 27,700 kilobyte files, which comes to 470 kilobytes — or 470,000 bytes — per minute. How many bytes is a 160 character text message? I actually had to work this out, but you’d be correct to guess that in text messaging, one character still = one byte, so it’s 160 bytes.

I.e., one minute of audio costs phone companies several thousand times as much to transmit as a text message. Calling plans are of course totally arcane, but an average between pay as you go and the less expensive monthly plans seems to be about ten cents per minute of calling. So, they’re charging twice as much for the text message while it’s costing them 1/1,000th as much to send (this is actually a conservative estimate which assumes that the phone call uses a quarter of the bandwidth as the This American Life mp3). In other words, Highway 2B Robberiez.

So the obvious solution is to not send text messages? Well, not really. If we knew they cost 20 cents before, they’re obviously worth it to us to send. This is what happens in Europe: Nobody has a prepaid plan: you pay for the minutes you actually use. (In an added twist, only the person initiating the call is charged.) Text messages are charged some trivial amount, which makes a round of texts much cheaper then a short conversation.

So, I’m not sure we want a world where minutes on the phone are expensive and text messages are cheap. I guess what I’m saying is, look at your cell phone bill. If it makes sense for you to switch to a cheaper plan, do it. If you’re off-contract, consider a pre-paid plan. And if you’re sending and receiving an average of 5 text messages a day, consider whether that $30 per month is really worth it to you.

Image: IamSAM

Posted: Tuesday December 30, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [4]

 

Fuck you, Picasa

Like a complete n00b, I use Picasa to manage my computer photo archive. In conjunction with a couple of lightweight photo viewers and Photoshop, I can do whatever I need. It easily imports, does light photo modification, and exports in conveniently resized batches.

It’s got it’s share of flaws too, though. The color balance is just useless for removing anything but the faintest of color casts, there’s no way to darken midtones (fill light will lighten midtones, but the slider only moves in one direction?!), and it’s impossible to apply sharpening after an export/resize, which is the only time sharpening makes any sense (so everything going to the web needs to be run through a photoshop unsharp mask first).

But it was all stuff I could deal with, until yesterday. See, it turns out that the import option “Safe delete: only pictures that are copied will be deleted from the source media,” really means “UNLESS ANYTHING WHATSOEVER GOES WRONG, THEN I DELETE YOUR PHOTOS PERMANENTLY.”

What happened apparently was that the destination drive was full, and instead of doing what it SAID it was going to do, Picasa (yes, 3, the latest version) decided to drop me a friendly warning and then delete the photos off the memory card. Didn’t even crash, just hapily sat there while the realization that two days worth of photos were flushed down the digital crapper.

I just finished Planet Google, and now I’m really having some second thoughts about trusting any more of my information to this company. If a version 3 of one of their products can do this, what am I to expect from the legion of “Beta” products they’re pushing on the world?

Posted: Monday December 8, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [5]

 

100 blogs that will make you smarter. No Kottke!

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Camera buying guide 2008

I get asked “what camera should I get?” all the time. And it’s worse around the holidays. First the answer in a nutshell. If you’re rich and want the best, but don’t want to fiddle doing years of research, and trial and error, get a Nikon D700. If you’re on a serious budget but still want a serious camera, get a Nikon D40. If you’re really on a shoestring budget, get a Canon A590. Before we delve into some details, three points to keep in mind:

  1. Pentax, Olympus, Panasonic/Leica, and even Sony make some interesting, and sometimes very good, products. But Canon and Nikon stuff has fewer weird quirks and ugly surprises, and more options for expansion.
  2. Megapixels don’t matter anymore. The difference between 6 and 12 is actually sort of small, and for the kind of prints you’ll be making any camera you can buy today has enough resolution. The exception is for artists*.
  3. Three things you need to pay attention to if you’re a novice using your new camera: ISO, Flash (just leave it OFF most of the time), and exposure compensation.

Pocket cameras

Canon SD880 IS

The current shining star of small, inexpensive cameras is the Canon SD880 IS, currently selling for around $250 (it’s brand new — the price will come down over the next few months). All the Canon compacts are great, but this one, an update of my beloved SD870, has a wide-angle lens and a big display. If you want even cheaper, Canon makes a zillion ever-shifting models in the SD and A series, of which the current cheapest is the aforementioned A590, which currently sells for around $115. The picture quality is the same; the difference is that the A series is bigger, doesn’t come with rechargeable batteries, and is missing some of the extra bells and whistles. (This strikes me as a great camera for kids.) For some reason, Nikon compact cameras haven’t been worth very much for the last few years.

Cheap SLRs

Nikon D40

The larger sensor on SLRs allows them to take pictures that are much much better then any compact, especially in low light. They also don’t have any shutter lag, and are more fun to use. If you enjoy taking pictures, you probably want one of these. Good news is that the Nikon D40 has been around for awhile, and you can find them for just over $400 sometimes, which is sort of amazing considering SLRs average around a thousand bucks. The downside is that there’ll probably be a new version of this camera soon with a bunch of spiffy new features, and more megapixels. On the other hand, it’ll cost hundreds of dollars more, and trust me, those features are silly. Canon has a line of inexpensive SLRs, too, and they’re worth looking at. For most people, though, the Nikon will be easier to use. (The one big issue with Nikon SLRs is lens compatibility. If you think you might want to start collecting and switching lenses, the D40 will cause you grief.)

The Camera-for-Life

Canon d5 Mark II

Just in the last six months, two interesting cameras have come out that are interesting because they arguably have “everything you’ll ever need” in a digital camera: the Nikon D700 and the Canon 5D Mark II. These cameras have three things that make them exceptional: (1) full frame sensors, meaning that old lenses are compatible, and work the same way they did on film cameras, (2) Big and high-resolution displays, and (3) lots of megapixels. They’re made out of solid metal, take fantastic photos in very low light, and are a pleasure to use and hold. They’re also big, heavy, and very expensive. Do what you will, but I’m saving up for the new 5D (it’s actually not even out yet).

Conclusion

The bad news is that every single model that exists has something kind of important going against it. The good news is that digital cameras have been around long enough that they’ve been refined to the point where they’re all pretty great. Let your instincts guide you, and you’re probably not going to make a bad choice. (One funny thing about the three pictures above: not to scale! The first camera is actually smaller then it looks in the photo, the middle one is about right, and the 5Dii is much much bigger. Seriously, if someone tries to take it, you can use it to clock them upside the head.)

One last note, about movie modes: the compact cameras all have a movie mode, and most SLRs do not. The two exceptions are the Canon 5D Mark II, and the not-yet-mentioned Nikon D90.

Update: Ken Rockwell’s rave review of the Canon SD880.

* If you’re most people, you’ll be looking at your pictures on the screen and ordering 5×7” or 8×10” prints, for which 6 to 12 megapixels is great. You can actually order nice 13×19” prints from these cameras, too — I’ve used to make 11×14” prints from 3 megapixel images, and they looked fine. Of course if you’re an artist, you want to be able to print big, and in this case a digital camera is not going to be much more then a toy for you. You need a medium or large format film camera.

Posted: Thursday November 20, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [10]

 

What the hell are we going to do about the idiot auto industry?

General Moters ev1

The American auto industry deserves to die so richly it makes me sputter. It’s pretty well exemplified by Bob Lutz, G.M.’s vice chairman, who’s been infamously quoted as saying, “…global warming is a total crock of shit. … Hybrids like the Prius make no economic sense.” It’s been just like with the housing bubble and the Iraq war, where a chorus of reasonable voices called out for the obvious correct action for years. Except that with the auto industry, we’ve been telling them for decades. Please build us better cars. Please not with the upsized SUVs. Oh, and, who killed the electric car again?

Thomas Friedman was watching TV in September:

They were interviewing Bob Nardelli, the C.E.O. of Chrysler, and he was explaining why the auto industry, at that time, needed $25 billion in loan guarantees. It wasn’t a bailout, he said. It was a way to enable the car companies to retool for innovation. I could not help but shout back at the TV screen: “We have to subsidize Detroit so that it will innovate? What business were you people in other than innovation?” If we give you another $25 billion, will you also do accounting?

So, yeah, this is sure as hell an industry that does not deserve to be encouraged. Steve says let ‘em die. But Friedman is more cautious. He quotes the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Ingrassia, who wrote:

In return for any direct government aid, the board and the management [of GM, and any other U.S. automaker accepting a bailout] should go. Shareholders should lose their paltry remaining equity. And a government-appointed receiver — someone hard-nosed and nonpolitical — should have broad power to revamp GM with a viable business plan and return it to a private operation as soon as possible.

That will mean tearing up existing contracts with unions, dealers and suppliers, closing some operations and selling others, and downsizing the company. After all that, the company can float new shares, with taxpayers getting some of the benefits.

But you see where this starts to lead. Back to Friedman:

I would add other conditions: Any car company that gets taxpayer money must demonstrate a plan for transforming every vehicle in its fleet to a hybrid-electric engine with flex-fuel capability, so its entire fleet can also run on next generation cellulosic ethanol.

Of course others have plenty of more drastic ideas, and those strict minimum-mileage requirements we’ve been talking about for years are just the tip of the iceberg. But you see it’s not as easy as “fix it and then make them run it better.” You can solve problems with banking with more regulation, because “innovation” in the banking industry is generally considered the source of trouble. In the auto industry, innovation is the way out, and you cannot use legislation to force innovation. Just doesn’t work. Might work for a few months or a year, but eventually you’ll be forcing the wrong kind of innovation, and digging yourself a deeper bailout hole for next time. Friedman even acknowledges this — sort of — by jokingly suggesting putting Steve Jobs in charge of GM for a year.

No my friends. The American auto industry has had ample opportunity to fix itself. Instead it has chosen to cruise on easy Lincoln Navigator profits (“take a Ford Expedition, add some sound insulation, raise the price by $10,000, and hold your breath”) and a powerful Michigan legislative delegation. It fought safety standards, it fought milage standards, and it churned out the same crap, clad in differently styled plastic, for decades. The legion of workers it employs are the only plausible argument for saving it, but ultimately you’d be doing them no favors. Bailing out an industry and then regulating it to “improve” really is straight Socialism. And even if Republicans are right that this is the time to throw everything they’ve ever stood for out the window, the problem remains that Socialism does not work. Good money after bad. Delaying the inevitable.

Sorry, but I’m with Steve on this one. These companies have been bailed out before. They’ve been warned. They had plenty of opportunity to fix their shit when they were flying high on those 100% SUV profits. And they staunchly refused. They need to survive on their own or die this time.

Posted: Thursday November 13, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [6]

 

Abandoned formats

The Lost formats archive. Sort of more interesting for the design then the content. It’s cool they included Sony Memory Stick, though.

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Change.gov

CHANGE.GOV The Barack Obama Twitter account appears to have packed it in, and I think that’s as it should be. The campaign is over, and it would be a mistake to link Obama’s campaign marketing efforts too much with his presidency. Adam Lisagor wondered if Obama would continue to use his logo, and it would appear that he will not.

This, on the other hand, is more like it: Change.gov, a brand new site designed by Obama’s people as only they could, and bringing a completely fresh approach to how the government uses the internet to interact with the people. It’s a little light right now, but it has lots of potential. I would like to see the “share your story/share your vision” features turn into something more like an internet forum, where the stories can be shared and discussed.

And I’d like at least a little of that radical transparency brought in: What newspaper articles and editorials did Obama find provoking today? Who’s he meeting with today? What’s being talked about inside the White House today?

I don’t think we’re ready for, “fire the publicist / go off message / let all your employees blab and blog,” in the White House, but we would benefit from whatever baby steps Obama can take in that direction, and Change.gov seems like just such a step.

Posted: Friday November 7, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [2]

 

Every Block launches in Miami

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30 Rock S03E01 on Hulu, a full week before the on-air broadcast. I take back whatever smack I may have talked about Hulu in the past. This is the future of TV.

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WTF?

A certain shady South Florida “museum” has been sending me spam at regular intervals with the following message affixed to the top of the message:

This e-mail has been classified as WHITE MAIL by AOL (America On Line).
This mail is originated by a 501©(3) non profit cultural organization and cannot be considered as Spam. You have the right to be DELETED from our mailing list sending back this email with the word UNSUBSCRIBE on the subject. This mail has been sent with the authorization of AOL (America On Line) and according the U.S. laws. Thank you.

Is it just me, or is this weird three ways to Sunday and back? Anyone seen anything like this or have any explanation whatsoever?

Posted: Wednesday October 22, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [2]

 

There is a nice article about Facebook and Twitter in the New York Times. I got into Facebook late, and into Twitter early, but the appeal of both is forehead-smackingly obvious to me now. (via)

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Chrome

As I was installing and loading up Chrome, my general thought was, “yeah, sure Google, I’ll switch as soon as you can replicate my favorite dozen Firefox plugins.” Fast forward five minutes, and my reaction is, shall we say, mixed.

OK, this is a beta, and it’s not all roses — in my first 5 minutes a couple of little bugs have already cropped up. Nothing fatal, though. Maybe there’s even a Flashblock functionality built in here somewhere.

Chrome may not be displacing Firefox as my primary browser yet, but it’s pretty close to displacing Opera as my backup go-to browser.

Posted: Tuesday September 2, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [4]

 

The future of words (on the internet)

First, let’s look at some interesting recent, and not so recent, developments:

  1. Google History. Tracks everything you’ve searched for on Google, and which links you followed. Bear with me.
  2. Google Books. Allows you to search the text of most(?) books ever published. Amazon has a similar feature, and both are somewhat crippled while we get our uneasiness about copyright worked out.
  3. Good Reads. A pretty decent website that lets you track what books you’ve read. Has some unexpected advantages over just keeping a list.
  4. Action Stream/Activity Stream. A running tally of everything you’ve done on the internet (more or less), and by extension potentially everything you’ve read; maybe best explained by looking at an example, in the sidebar of Anil Dash’s blog. Here’s my stream, although as of right now it’s busted.
  5. Zoomii. A visual bookstore interface to Amazon. You zoom in/out, and click individual books for information, to order, or to flip through the book. (This is only tangentially related, but cool enough to include.) Looks like this (but you’ve really got to play with it):
zoomii


So where’s this all headed? Well, one place I’d like to get to is a search box that works on everything I’ve ever read: books, magazine articles, and web pages. The web aspect should take no more then a little Firefox plugin that creates an index as you browse the web. The book thing would require some clever mashup of something like the Goodreads feed with the Google Books search. I’ll give you odds there’s already an engineer at the Googleplex working on it. The magazines are a little tougher, since not all the text is online yet. But lots of it is, so what you need is a service to track your magazine subscriptions/purchases along with some tricky database work. Maybe when Google’s done scanning the world’s books they’ll start in on the mags. Or maybe the publications themselves will create a system to allow this to happen.

The magazines are the trickiest aspect, but I hope this happens, because some great information is locked away in magazines (and I for one do not want to have all that paper laying around, since about 99% is still completely useless). I give it a year or two before some embryonic form of this exists, maybe five until the kinks are ironed out.

Posted: Thursday July 10, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [7]

 

We're not all going to die

We’re all going to die. Just not all together in a couple of months when the Large Hadron Collider is turned on.

Built near Geneva on the border between France and Switzerland, it’s the biggest particle accelerator ever constructed by an order of magnitude. These machines shoot highly-energized subatomic particles at each other in an attempt to see what happens at the very extremes of existence. It all has to do with very esoteric particle physics, and an attempt to understand gravity, electromagnetism, and the other fundamental forces and particles that make up the universe.

It should be fairly obvious at this point that I have no idea what I’m talking about with all this. Of course neither does the overwhelming majority of people who will hear about the project, and that’s what’s interesting about it — never before has a project this huge been so opaque. And I do mean huge: the Hadron Collider is a massive 17-mile long underground tunnel with adjoining facilities. It’s total cost is somewhere around $8 billion in US dollars, funded by numerous governments and hundreds of universities. When it’s running, it will produce 10 to 15 petabytes of data per year (that’s 500 Libraries of Congress). A cross-section of the tunnel looks like this:


Now, here’s the cool part of all this: the Hadron Collider will produce some interesting things, including Higgs bosons, the subatomic particles that give mass to other subatomic particles, strangelets, essentially microscopic quark stars, and micro black holes. And it’s the latter that have folks a bit alarmed, because while we don’t really understand any of this stuff, we know that black holes are, like, bad. They swallow things. Do we want to be deliberately creating them just under the surface of our favorite planet?

The important thing to note here is that all the scientists claim this is all very very very safe, and the Earth is like for 100% sure not going to be demolecularized or anything. They further claim that all these particles are flying through space all the time, and in fact flying through the planet earth all the time, because matter is of course made up almost entirely of empty space. (That much we do remember, right?) The only slight difference is that these particular micro black holes are going to be moving much slower, sort of drifting through our planet in fact. But really, no worries.

Brian Cox, an experimental physicist working at the collider, says, “there are layer after layer after layer of tests and some of them are observational and some of them are theoretical and it turns out that it’s utter nonsense.” Then again, he elsewhere says, “it’s truly a leap into the unknown.”

Posted: Tuesday July 1, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [7]