The Unbearable Joy of Taxes

Ah, the opportunity to reflect on how craptacular our tax system is. Because of my stipend in grad school, there was no withholding, so we had to send in quarterly estimated taxes. Our Illinois state tax was always pretty close (last year it was only a $37 refund…that’s about as good as you can get). Illinois also has a flat tax system (3%) that’s pretty simple if you’re not a farmer (if there’s one special interest group that political folk in Illinois love, it’s farmers….deductions all over the place. You could even buy a Hummer in state with no sales tax because it qualified as a “farm vehicle”). Federal income tax…not so much. I’d always fill out their worksheet at the beginning of the tax year and then proceed to be hundreds of dollars of when I filed taxes the next year. This year we had to pay well over a thousand dollars. This tells me that the fed tax code is so freakin’ complicated that they can’t even tell people how to estimate how their final bill will turn out.

Humor me for a second while I go on my usual rant about why can’t we just have a single tax rate with an exemption on, say, the first $30,000 of income per person and no other exemptions or credits. I mean none…none for retirement, dependents, mortgage interest, income earned from commercial fishing operations, etc…none. So if an individual made $50K per year and the tax rate was 20%, you’d pay $4000 (0.2 * (50K – 30K)). If you make less than $30K or a married couple makes less than $60K, then they’d pay nothing. Not rocket science.

  • In other news, congrats to the Illini for their win over Indiana! Take that Eric Gordon and thug-a-rific Kelvin Sampson. Doubt they can beat Wisconsin today, but hopefully this is enough to get them off the bubble and into the tournament. I got my Dee Brown headband on today.
  • I stumbled across this awesome site while trying to find an Internet stream for Illini basketball (if you’re into Bit Torrent). They have the Chief’s Last Dance and a DVD-playable copy of the Illini’s miracle comeback against Arizona (the latter takes about a day to download since there’s not many seeds for the 4GB file). I think one of the commenters on the Arizona torrent put it best:

    i cried when i saw the dvd menu. this is outstanding!

    By the way, if anyone knows of any radio stations with audio streams that let you listen to Illini basketball live, please do share.

  • On a less positive note, Clemson did completed yet another end of the season implosion by losing in the first round of the ACC tournament. After starting out 18-0, they finished like 3-10 and blew any chance of going to the NCAAs. Just like the football team falls about every year (sometimes in the beginning, usually in the end) or the baseball team ends up in the top 5 every year only to go two and out in the College World Series. Sigh.
  • Some great Mac parodies: The One thing PC users can do that Mac users can’t and The Onion reports on Apple Unveils New Product-Unveiling Product.
  • Is it just me or does anyone else who comes across Headline News wonder if someone would actually name their kid “Rally”?
  • The US Postal Service is actually doing something so unbelievably cool that I pledge not to complain about their next postage increase. If it’s going towards this kind of innovation, it’s worth it. I gotta find one of these R2D2 mailboxes and get a picture next to it!
  • We watched The Prestige last night. Great movie! Just the right amount of twists and turns without getting too convoluted. You do have to be willing to suspend reality for a little bit though :).
  • Leigh Ann was filling out a background check to volunteer with the Red Cross online this week and it was one of those deals where you have to use Internet Explorer. Presumably, they do this for security which is kind of ironic since IE and it’s Active-X self isn’t exactly known as the pinnacle of secure computing. Pretty much any time a site only works in IE, that should be considered a design flaw. Either the site designer was incompetent, lazy, or has a system to complex for a web app. From now on, anytime I see these sites, I’m going to submit bug reports to the webmaster.
  • Let’s say someone just started shooting bullets up in the air in a crowded area. While not intentionally aiming at anyone, there’s a pretty good chance a bullet could fall and kill an innocent bystander. The cops see this, ask the person so stop shooting repeatedly, and then fire a beanbag gun to subdue him when he doesn’t stop. Unfortunately, the beanbag hits the shooter just right and turns him into a quadriplegic. Should he be allowed to sue the police for the resulting injury? I say no. Duh. The Supreme Court is currently deciding just such a case but in the context of a high-speed car chase.
  • I’m probably just getting old, but is anyone else a little weirded out by all these kids that’ll be walking around and then all of a sudden wheels just sprout out of their shoes and they roll past you? Oh those whippersnappers.
  • I always suspected iTunes didn’t adhere to a uniform distribution when it came to its “random” selections. Looks like someone else agrees. They’re even more conspiracy minded…are some labels paying for better placement in the algorithm?

The ACM Conference Talks

The student chapter of the ACM hosts a rather impressive student led conference here at UIUC every year. This year, Leigh Ann and I went to four of the talks they had.

  • Joel Spolsky: He writes a well-known blog in the tech community and is the CEO of Fog Creek Software. He was a good speaker and had some rather extensive slides prepared. I’m sure he’s used them many times before, but putting in the effort to simulate Windows with Powerpoint macros is pretty impressive. The content was very untechnical, but entertaining nonetheless. His basic claim was that once products reach a certain threshold for functionality, then things like aesthetics can be the difference in hitting a tipping point. CS types like to focus on what he calls the “guts” of a product whereas most non-CS types (which includes most customers) care more about the “lipstick”. An example he used was the iPod versus the Zen music player where the latter had more storage and cost less, yet still was about as popular as the Teach for America table at a career fair. Apple, on the other hand, spent a lot of effort on “lipstick” (e.g., a dedicated speaker for the clickwheel, the glossy finish, no ugly design aspects for battery replacement). Though, according to my dad, this is all wrong and the real reason the iPod was so popular is due to Steve Jobs’ “snootiness”. I have no idea what he’s talking about, but undoubtedly this would be the first time someone wrote a business plan based on “snootiness”.
  • Max Levchin: And, speaking of business plans, that brings us to the PayPal founder who said that they aren’t that important to start-ups since that’s time you could be coding. Leigh Ann and her business degree were not amused (and even less amused when he told a student that non-technical people weren’t very important in the early stages of a start-up). His talk was very interesting because it was basically Venture Capital 101, giving an introduction to all the different types, different approaches (e.g., team, product, market), motivations, etc. He didn’t have any slides for his presentation because his site had crashed the night before and he spent all night getting it back up and running. Still, it was a good talk with lots of numbers and bullet points. His basic words of advice were to think up some idea (not too important according to him…only about 2% of the product…the team you have is usually much more important) that provides a web app for free to consumers and makes money from advertising or premium content subscriptions. This was actually the second time I heard Levchin talk at UIUC (the last time was about 3-4 years ago when he was still working with PayPal).
  • yale_patt.jpg

    Yale Patt: This was another speaker who I had heard talk at UIUC a few years ago. He’s an architecture prof at UT-Austin, but he’s really one of those speakers that just keeps you entertained even if you couldn’t care less about chip design. He also got an award from seniors for the prof most likely to be mistaken for a bum. He basically had a free format talk where he just started taking audience question on everything from multi-core processors to politics. It might have been better if he had a minimal theme, but it was still really good. Though, you tend to get those students that are just annoying questioners. Either they don’t ask that great of questions (I swear there was some obsession at the conference with finding out the speakers’ thoughts on net neutrality…which was generally “I don’t know”) or they don’t know when to stop (if they don’t answer the question to your liking the first time, take it offline) or their “question” basically consists of them making a bunch of statements.

  • Jawed Karim: The last talk we attended was that of one of the original YouTube founders (two of the three were from UIUC). His talk is actually up on YouTube so you can watch the whole thing for yourself if you want. He was much more soft-spoken than the other speakers, but his talk was pretty good. The talk was basically about how the idea for YouTube started and how the site got going. An interesting tidbit is at one point they were having so much trouble attracting traffic that they placed an ad on craigslist offering attractive women in LA $100 if they’d upload several videos of themselves. They didn’t have any takers. His main point was to look at emerging enabling technologies to decide what ideas will be the next big thing. As an example, some of the enabling technologies that made YouTube possible last year were: (1) more prevalent broadband access at home, (2) cheap dedicated servers, (3) video support in Flash 7, and (4) the ubiquity of video capture on cameras and phones. I don’t know how well the talk translates to a YouTube video, but based on the live talk, I’d highly recommend watching the video when you get a chance.

The Darndest Thing

Sometimes you just learn something that shakes your entire concept of reality. Last night, someone was telling us about a kid she went to college with who was black but had two white parents. After the obligatory “milkman’s baby jokes”, we decided to look it up. According to genetics experts, this isn’t unheard of.

Can white parents have a black baby? Even if the grandparents are white too?

Tough question to answer but here’s my best shot. It certainly seems possible for two white people to have a black baby even if the baby’s grandparents appear white as well. Even though the genetics behind all of this are really poorly understood, there are lots of stories where white parents have black babies.

Here’s a story of a black lady born to white parents during South Africa’s apartheid.

Nature had played a trick. Abraham and Sannie Laing were white, their parents, grandparents and great grandparents were white, yet their daughter was dark. By a biological quirk, the pigment of an unknown black ancestor had lain dormant for generations and manifested in Sandra.

I honestly had no clue this was possible. Amazing! Who says Friday night activities aren’t educational.

The Virtues of Openess

Here’s an interesting post advocating open salary knowledge within a company.

There are three major reasons why salaries secret are silly:

  1. It frustrates employees because any unfairness (real or perceived) can’t be addressed directly.
  2. They’re not secret anyway. People talk, you know.
  3. It perpetuates unfair salaries which is bad for people and for the organization

Making salaries public (inside the company of course) has some major advantages:

  1. Salaries will become more fair. The system gets a chance to adjust itself.
  2. It will be easier to retain the best employees because they’re more likely to feel they’re getting a fair salary.
  3. The pressure is on the people with the high salaries to earn their keep. Everybody has to pull their weight – the higher the salary, the larger the weight.

I agree with most of the post. I think that the salary taboo is one of those things that just became conventional wisdom in the business world without evaluating the alternatives. Corporations love to err on the side of secrecy, but as more executives see that their can be some benefits to open standards. Obviously there need to be some trade secrets, but it may be better to make information open by default and evaluate the secrecy exceptions rather than the current mindset of making information closed by default.

What is especially entertaining to me having been around academia for a while is the pseudo-open salaries. In most states, the salaries of state employees that earn over a certain amount are public information. Thus, anyone can theoretically find the salary of most professors and university administrators. In practice, you usually have to go to some obscure corner of a library to find the data and, if someone does publish it widespread, people usually aren’t too happy about it. Back at Clemson, one of the student newspapers had an annual issue where they’d publish the data.

An interesting tool we have hear in Illinois is this website where you can find the salaries for virtually all K-12 teachers and administrators in the state. I’m sure parents love using this tool :).

And finally, on the subject of openness, check out this article about how some proprietary data formats are allowing software companies to withhold patient data from doctors unless they renew their software.

Intracare is the publisher of a popular practice management system called Dr. Notes. When some doctors balked at a drastic increase in their annual software lease, they were cut off from accessing their own patients’ information.

This is always something I think about before I start using software and I lean almost exclusively towards non-proprietary formats for my data (or, practically non-proprietary formats in the case of my relatively simple Microsoft Office data given the advent of Open Office). This is one reason I use Excel for all our budget data instead of Quicken, for example. In the case of iTunes, you can already see the problems that Apple’s proprietary music causes by not allowing users to play their purchased music on any hardware other than an iPod. One day a lot of people are just going to be out of luck when they decide the iPod isn’t the best music player anymore.

The Joys of Video Editing (Or Lack Thereof)

Goal: Take an hour of camcorder footage, digitize it, splice out the best clips, and burn it to a DVD.

Why does this process have to be so freakin’ hard? This details my adventure. First, there’s the matter of getting the film from my friend’s camcorder, which only has composite outputs, to a digital format. I’m sure they make adapters for this, but they’re not something I see very often. So, I go to another friend who has a standalone DVD-recorder. We try a Sony DVD-R that I brought over and it doesn’t work. And, by “doesn’t work”, I mean locks up the recorder to where he has to restart it. So, he uses one of the el cheapo generic Office Depot DVD-Rs that works fine.

What the heck is up with optical media? I mean consumer CD burners have been mainstream for over a decade and the process is still hard as all get out when compared to copying files to a hard drive or flash drive. Whereas most things in technology show exponential improvement, making the use of optical media easier for the consumer is still basically where it was in 1996.

So, I get the DVD and take it home to place on my DVD player. It plays, except you can’t skip chapters or fast forward or else the player locks up (seeing a pattern here?). Honestly, why on earth are their so many compatibility issues? We can put man on the moon but making a recorder that creates media that plays on a player is beyond current technology?

Next, there’s the matter of transferring the DVD footage to my computer. To do this, I open up one of the few programs that I paid for: Adobe Premiere Elements. We bought it because it’s supposed to be the best program available in the video editing department. Let’s just say I’d hate to see the worst. First, the program takes over a minute to load. I attribute this to Adobe Bloat. Adobe Reader loads every plug-in under the sun just to read the simplest of documents. Photoshop Elements takes like ten times longer than GIMP to load and has half the capabilities. If you want to get fired at Adobe, just create a program that loads in under ten seconds and loads less than fifty plug-ins.

Finally, Premiere opens and gives me one of those crappy “What do you want to do today?” screens that you can’t bypass. Maybe I just want to check out the features without creating a new slew of folders. Unfortunately, I don’t get this option.

But everything up until now is a walk in the park compared to the user interface that pops up to new users. Note to designers: bringing up six internal windows the first time a user opens your program is not good. No freakin’ clue where I was supposed to start doing stuff. If you have to Google and read the 100-page instruction manual just to figure out the first step, something’s wrong. If I have to read instructions just to get started, it’s not a well-designed program.

So, I figure out that I need to add media by importing the DVD video. This consists of three *.VOB files on the disc, which makes no sense to me considering it’s one video. Ten minutes later, the program finally finishes “importing” the video.

OK, now I have to add the video clips to the timeline. Each clip is represented by a row with a thumbnail followed by info, such as the frame rate. Every other program I’ve ever used would let you highlight the entire row to drag it to the timeline. Not this one. Through trial and error, you have to figure out that even though the entire row is highlighted, you have to drag the thumbnail to get the clip to the timeline.

Ah, finally I have the video to the point I can edit it. The splicing part was actually pretty easy and intuitive. But, now we hit another little performance road block. See, when you go to play the video in the timeline to see what’s happening, it goes at like one frame per second for some reason. So, it’s basically useless except for the fact that the audio is smooth.

After hours of wrestling with Premiere’s wonderful clip player, I finally have the finished product ready to export. First, I wanted a digital video. What in the heck is up with all these stinkin’ formats? With audio, I can just choose MP3 and know it’s compatible with virtually every device in existence, well compressed, and 99% of the population won’t care about that it’s lossy. With video, I have to choose Quicktime, Windows Media, or MPEG. Seems MPEG is the most compatable, so I go with that one. It’s a sad state for video formats when the de facto standard for platform independent video is quickly becoming….drum roll, please…Flash! I’m sure that Macromedia never in their wildest ideas thought the most popular use for the technology would someday be streaming video.

Now, I find out that encoding this 24-minute clip to MPEG takes like two hours and produces a 350 MB file. And, of course, the process is so resource intensive that you basically can’t do anything else on the computer concurrently. Next, comes the DVD burning part. Oh joy. For one thing, I wanted to copy the original video (before splicing), which was still on DVD. I thought, I’ll just use the “Create DVD files on hard drive” option and then burn those to a DVD-R. The encoding process to get the files from the DVD to the hard drive takes like three hours…which makes no sense to me since there shouldn’t be much coding involved since it’s the same file format. And, here’s the real beaut, to get burn these files back to a DVD in such a way that they play in a DVD player, you have to re-encode those same file which takes another three hours. I tried just burning the files directly to a DVD, but this just gave me coasters that couldn’t be played. OK, so six hours later I finally have a playable DVD.

Another nice quirk about the whole process is when you leave the encoding process unattended and the screen saver comes on, Premiere just silently crashes. No error message or anything. You just come back three hours later to see that Premiere is no longer running and the DVD wasn’t burnt.

Surely, with the massive growth in YouTube and Google Video, there has to be a better tool on the way. Something that gives you more options than Windows Movie Maker (e.g., DVD burning, more fonts, DVD menus) without the complexity, terrible interface, and hideous performance of Adobe Premiere.

Go Ahead and Be Evil, Google

Here’s a funny article that imagines what products could Google bring to the market if they decided to abandon their “Don’t Be Evil” motto.

Google Murder

Why pay top dollar for a professional hit man when an amateur will do it for a few bucks and a good alibi? Google could leverage the technology behind Google Answers to match amateur killers with those looking to eliminate a business rival or key witness. While high-end assassins have all sorts of overhead and pass the costs on to you, Google Murder could match you up with sociopaths who were thinking of going on a rampage anyway, and who would be willing to shoot up the office building or motel of your choosing for a reasonable fee.

Sony’s Downward Spiral

Fresh off their rootkit debacle from last fall, Sony seems to be missing on all cylinders with the upcoming Playstation 3. The PS3 has such low expectations that if it doesn’t blow up when you plug it in, it will be hailed as a major success. Here’s a good article about Sony’s love of proprietary departments, their repeated failures, and the implications for Blue-ray.

Obsessed with owning proprietary formats, Sony keeps picking fights. It keeps losing. And yet it keeps coming back for more, convinced that all it needs to do is push a bigger stack of chips to the center of the table. If Blu-ray fails, it will be the biggest home-electronics failure since Betamax. If it drags PlayStation 3 down with it, it will be one of the biggest corporate blunders of our time.

A Bad Week for the MPAA/RIAA

First, allofmp3.com, the popular Russian site that sells non-DRM’d songs for about a tenth of iTunes’ price, gets an article in both CNN and the NY Times. That’s some pretty good advertising for the site.

tiananmen_square.jpg

I guess the MPAA/RIAA lobby is trying to keep Russia out of the WTO as long as the site stays operational. There is a certain irony that China can enter the WTO despite using Tienanmen Square students and Falun Gong practioners for target practice, yet the US will fight tooth and nail to keep Russia out because of a website that lets you download Britney Spears music.

pirate_bay.jpg

Then, the world’s largest Bittorrent tracker, The Pirate Bay, gets taken offline by Swedish authorities….only to come back up online four days later by moving operations and file backups to the Netherlands, Russia, and Ukraine. Wow, their enforcement powers are underwhelming to say the least. Target a site for a year only to have it come back up four days after you take it down.

Finally, BusinessWeek publishes an article entitled The DVD War Against Consumers that highlights some of the exciting features you can look for in the new high def DVD players to make them less consumer friendly. This includes, among other things, the ability for Sony to ruin you DVD player remotely if they’re unable to adequately secure their own system. That’s right…if Sony’s security protocols are shoddy and someone breaks them, then their idea of taking responsibilty includes destroying all their players worldwide.

HDCP (High Bandwidth Digital Content Protection) is a DRM system invented by Intel that attempts to control video and audio as it flows out of a player and onto a display. In other words, if the player is connected to a monitor without the right cables, the quality of the image will be deliberately degraded.

Blu-ray, however, goes beyond the AACS, incorporating two other protection mechanisms: The ROM Mark is a cryptographic element overlaid on a “legitimate” disk. If the player doesn’t detect the mark, then it won’t play the disc.

If a particular brand of player is cryptographically “compromised,” the studio can remotely disable all of the affected players. In other words, if some hacker halfway across the globe cracks Sony’s software, Sony can shut down my DVD player across the Net.

Coding 2.0

Replacement office chair suppliers in the Redmond area must be smiling today. Today, Google announced the release of the Google Web Toolkit which allows you to write code in Java and convert it into AJAX that can run in any browser as a web application. To me, this is a potentially huge development that could represent a turning point in software.

In theory, writing web pages and apps should be write once, run anywhere since open standards have been defined. However, if you’ve ever tried something as simple as using style sheets, you know that practice is a completely different story. Every browser has its own little quirks and none are 100% standards compliant. Thus, something as trivial as specifying how many pixels a text area on your page should be can become a huge ordeal.

I’ve never learned AJAX, but I can imagine that it’s orders of magnitude more complex than style sheets. One of the main advantages of AJAX is it allows you to create dynamic web pages that don’t need reloaded every time the content changes. If you’ve ever used GMail, Google Maps, or Yahoo!’s new mail or map applications, then you’ve seen AJAX in action. It’s one of the current building blocks for the web applications that you see popping up everywhere.

So, in a way the current state of web app development is like desktop app development used to be when you had to write everything in a low level language (e.g., assembly). Anytime you wanted to run the code on a slightly different architecture, you’d have to a non-trivial amount of time figuring out the quirks of the new platform to get your code to run. Eventually, we got really good compilers so most developers only have to work in high-level languages (e.g., C, C++, Java) without worrying about the gory details of the underlying hardware. Similarly, web app developers today have to spend a lot of time hammering out the rather unpleasant details of how to write web code that will work on any browser (e.g., Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, Safari) rather than concentrating on higher level code.

Enter the Google Web Toolkit. This lets you write code in Java, a language that any computer science student should know, and they provide the “compiler” that translates this high level code to something that can be used as a web app by all the major browsers.

So, why would Microsoft not be too keen on this latest tool by Google? Well, it provides a major incentive for application development to move out of Microsoft’s territory (the desktop) into Google’s territory (the Internet). I think this is Google’s goal: to enable the web as the predominant application development platform. Anything that encourages users to create content that Google can more easily index. After all, that’s their business…organizing content effectively.

As a developer, it makes a lot of sense to release web-based applications. For one thing, there’s no installation necessary by the user. And, patches and upgrades are trivial since they’re done behind the scenes without the user ever knowing. The main disadvantages are that you have to be online to use them and there’s not exactly a tried and true business model for them yet.

But fundamentally, Google is opening up a divergence with Microsoft in this arena. Whereas MS would like to beat developers over the head with their .NET and Visual Studio sticks to force them to use their platform, Google wants to make it as easy as possible to create content accessible to any platform since indexing that content is their business. For Google, they don’t care how you create your content as long as it’s presented such that they (and competing search engines) can index it. By contrast, Microsoft’s mantra is “We do care about how you create your content and strive to make it in a manner that locks you into our products” (think Office). You can see that (1) Google is breaking Microsoft’s business model, (2) users are trending towards the Google model, and (3) Microsoft doesn’t seem to have a clue what to do about it.

As mentioned in a previous post, maybe Microsoft’s best bet is to focus on becoming the OS and browser leader in a new market of thin clients. No matter how web-based stuff gets, you’re always going to need locally installed software to access the web applications (at least for the foreseeable future) and MS is well-poised to be the leader in that market. Or, they could just drop the OS, office, and browser markets all together and focus all their efforts into the gaming market since XBox and XBox Live seem to be about the only positive the giants from Redmond have going for them these days.

Google and Small Business

Here’s some interesting insights about the business models of Google and Microsoft by Robert X. Cringley.

Here’s the most important key to Google’s success: Most Google advertisers don’t advertise ANYWHERE else. Its mainly small and medium sized companies whose advertisements the average person would NEVER have seen before the Internet. Google is making a ton of money from people who never advertised before. Heck, Google is making a ton of money from people who never were even in business before. This is not only a fundamental change in how advertising is done; it is a fundamental change in how BUSINESS is done.

I’m counting on Google and eBay to save America.

If Microsoft really wanted to compete — if they really wanted (or even knew how) to truly defend their turf, here is what they would do. They would throw away Vista and develop a new operating system, one that is simpler, lighter, and more secure — an OS that would run on any machine now running Windows 2000 or XP. They would price it right, which is to say cheap ($49.95). The associated and trimmed-down version of Office would be priced the same ($49.95). The upgrade market is probably five times bigger than the OEM PC market, so Microsoft needs (but probably doesn’t realize it) an OS that will run well on most of the PC installed base. It needs to set the pricing of the OS so that we’ll run to the store to get it. Instead of designing products exclusively for new equipment, now it’s time for Microsoft to focus on the installed base.

The whole article is worth a read as it points out some perceived flaws in Apple, IBM, and Google’s business models as well. It will be interesting to see if a small, minimal function operating system garners a critical mass of users in the near future if the thin client model of Web 2.0 is indeed the way of the future.

From the “Cool Things I Didn’t Know Existed” Department

A friend from Korea told me that Korean airlines offer WiFi in-flight on their flights to/from America. He said the cost is about $30/flight and the bitrate is about 1-2 Mbps. Evidently, the connectivity is good too. Plus, they have plug-ins for each seat so you can work on your laptop the entire trip. I had no idea that some airlines offered such a service nowadays.

Random Tidbits from the Web

  • Amidst the MySpace hysteria, Congress proposes banning access to the site from libraries and schools. Isn’t telling teenagers “No” the most effective way of ensuring that they will do the activity? In other news, I think I’ll change my career track to be a “MySpace Pedophile Bounty Hunter”. Seems like that’s the hottest career there is right now…if your business card says that you can pretty much write your own paycheck I’ll bet.
  • The search engine business gets all middle school with Yahoo pimp slapping Microsoft: “My impartial advice to Microsoft is that you have no chance. The search business has been formed”.
  • A list of the top 50 most visited domains. Sadly mattandleighann.com hasn’t cracked the list yet. I’ll bet we were number 51 though. 🙂
  • You’d better stop working on your hyperspace teleporation device and stick to your day job. John St. Clair of Puerto Rico already owns the US patent on the technology. In other news, the US Patent Office loses its last shred of credibility.
  • George W. Bush gets pwned by Bill Clinton in a poll of Americans. Even in Bush’s most popular signature issue, taxes, Clinton out polls him by 51% to 35%! You know it’s not good when more people think Bill Clinton is more honest than you. With a 29% approval rating in hand, I think it’s safe to say that, short of catching Osama Bin Laden, this president’s never going to be anywhere near a 50% approval again.

The CEO Work Day

I found this article absolutely fascinating.

It has people like Bill Gates and other CEOs essentially walk you through their work day. Of particular interest to me was the way people use email. Basically for the two tech people (Gates and the Google VP) and two law people (the law firm partner and Posner from Univ. of Chicago) it’s integral in how they operate pretty much from the minute they awake to when they sleep. Everyone else pretty much avoids it like the plague with the exception of the HarperCollins CEO who seems to use it constantly.

I was also struck by how the two tech people use relatively simple tools for a large portion of their work…email and, for the Google VP, a text file of priority and delegated tasks.

Overall, it does seem that pretty much everyone is working about 18 hour days with the exception of a couple of hours that they may intentionally devote to something like yoga, working out, or spending time with family (though I think only one, the Nissan CEO, mentioned this last one explicitly).

I’d be interested to hear any comments ya’ll may have in response to this article. What were some of the things that struck you about their work styles?

Apple Pwns Little Girl

Before Steve Jobs starts running Disney, he might want to figure out how corporations should deal with those little rug rats that we call kids.

When 9-year-old Shea O’Gorman and her third-grade class began learning about writing business and formal letters, she thought who better to write to than the chief executive of the company that makes her iPod nano.

In her letter to Mr. Jobs, little Shea offered her ideas on how the company could improve on its iPod digital music players, such as adding song lyrics so listeners can sing along to their tunes.

To the dismay of Shea and her family, the letter wasn’t from Mr. Jobs. It was from Mark Aaker, Senior Council of the company’s Law Department, telling the third-grader that Apple doesn’t accept unsolicited ideas, so she should not send them her suggestions and if she wants to know why, she could read their legal policy posted on the Internet.

Apple is also reported to have held a meeting this past Wednesday in which it discussed ways that it could amend its corporate policy when dealing with children.

MySpace…More Like Waste of Space

With MySpace cracking the Top 10 most visited sites last month, it seems like a good time to offer my thoughts on this waste of Internet space. If this is supposed to be Web 2.0, it definitely uses Web Design 0.1. Some may be worried about sexual predators lurking in MySpace. I’m more worried about the seizures that your average MySpace site could cause.

It’s like all of a sudden we’ve gone back to 1996 when people were infatuated with all the bells and whistles this new HTML thing could offer. Raise your hand if you’re familiar with the <blink> command….now tell me if you’ve ever seen this command used in a useful manner <crickets chirping>. And music on your site whenever someone loads your page…that is so 90s.

I know this stuff because I started learning HTML back in the day. If having a bold word is cool, then having a blinking, bold word must be even cooler. If having an image on which user can click to send email is cool, then having a moving pencil image must be even cooler. If having a silent page is cool, then having a page that has Ric Flair say “Wooo!” when you load it must be even cooler. Hi, my name is Matt and I’m not ashamed to admit that I too was once an HTML abuser.

Now, it’s like millions of users are rediscovering all these irritating things you can do with HTML that every sane designer stopped using years ago. So what do you get on your average MySpace site? Well, first there’s the immaculate background that has simultaneously personalized the site and made it near impossible to read (bonus points if you use transparency!). Then you have the person’s picture in their profile. This generally falls into one of the following categories: (1) the me in a quick webcam pic with terrible lighting, (2) the me wearing a dress at some social event (for girls), (3) the me and a group of my BFFs (for girls), (4) the me looking so hardcore it hurts (for guys), (5) and, of course, the me drunk/in underwear/imitating lewd acts pic (and, quite possibly all three captured in a single photo).

At this point, we are treated to the person’s song of the day which automatically starts playing whether you want it to or not. As if these people don’t think you’re smart enough to press the play button if you’re interested in their favorite music, it’s immediately forced up on you. If you’re really lucky, they have a video that automatically plays when you load the page.

And then, we have the Friends’ Comments section. This is were people leave you such profound messages as “Just wanted to say hi!” and “We should get together sometime! LOL!”. Basically, this is where stuff goes that wasn’t even worthy of an email. And, look out if it’s your birthday, because then the comment sections going to fill up with about 30 meaningless birthday wishes.

And then there’s the animated GIFs. Evidently some people think the bigger these things are the cooler they are. So not only do you have the page’s owner throwing up the glittering pictures of, say, Tinkerbell for no apparent reason, but your Friend’s also have the ability to toss these things all over your comment section.

Then, I guess you have to figure out a reason to even venture in to MySpace in the first place. I guess that there’s four major reasons for frequented such sites (well, five, I guess since MySpace has some allure for musicians):

  1. Dating: This has to be the biggest one…I’m sure if you removed all the pics that the site would just shrivel up and die. I’m sure that this will make for some good stories 20 years down the road…”When I saw the glittering Tinkerbell on your Mom’s site, I knew that she was the one for me”…”Your Dad just looked so hardcore in his pic that I knew he was the one for me…LOL”.
  2. Finding People You Lost Contact With: This is the reason I stumbled across the cesspool of MySpace….looking for people from my high school. Didn’t really find anyone that I cared to keep in contact with, but at least it did allow me to discover how hideous MySpace is.
  3. Communicate: Maybe I’m old school, but I just don’t get the leaving comments on someone’s page. Just send them an email or, if it’s not worth that, then just don’t waste your time typing it. I’m sure there are reasons for taking time to write “That’s a cute pic! LOL!” for all visitors to see. I just haven’t discovered them yet.
  4. Status: Back in the day, it was the size of your AIM Buddy List…nowdays it seems to be the number of friends you have in Facebook or MySpace. I guess this is just an incredibly great way to quantify the worth of a human being.

And, thus, I conclude my rant.

The Beginning of Crash 2.0

According to BusinessWeek, Facebook turned down $750 million because they want $2 billion.

Facebook, the Web site where students around the world socialize and swap information, has put itself on the block, BusinessWeek Online has learned. The owners of the privately held company have turned down a $750 million offer and hope to fetch as much as $2 billion in a sale, senior industry executives familiar with the matter say.

Web 2.0 seems to be officially overheating. If someone pays $2 billion for Facebook, is there anyway they’ll ever get a make a profit within, say, a decade? What is the business model that generates profits on this purchase? There’s no way you’ll come close to make that with a purely ad-based model. Facebook already has ads, so it doesn’t make sense that they’d sell it for a price that they thought was equivalent to what they’re already making on ads. Yea, you get a connection to a few million college and high school kids. But you could buy that data from direct marketing for a lot cheaper. You could build a website that gets a lot of college-age visitors for a lot less than $2 billion. Why you would pay $2 billion for Facebook I don’t understand.

It’s becoming frighteningly close to being like the end of the dot com boom. Back in the day when people were paying obscene amounts of money for companies with no sustainable revenue stream that just had a mega “cool” factor. Now, social networking, AJAX, and Web 2.0 are the buzzwords that are the foundation for sites and companies that are hoping to get bought up before someone realizes they’re cool, but not a good business model.

As an example, I heard (via TWiT) that Yahoo! is regretting their purchase of Flickr. Flickr is mega expensive in terms of bandwidth and Yahoo! can’t figure out a way to make much money on the deal. You can’t really close or limit access without making a huge population of users mad and taking a rather unpleasant PR hit.

The bubble pops when a few more companies figure out that these companies may be cool but aren’t that great for generating money. Only so much money can be made by placing ads on a heavily viewed site (plus, you have to pay the owner significantly more money than they’re already making on ad revenue). Charging a subscription for a previously free site seems like a losing proposition as then someone else will just come along and build a comparable free site again. Am I missing an obvious reason to pay $2 billion for Facebook and the like?

The BBC on DRM

The BBC has an article about DRM. Money quote:

Yet, there seems to be a belief that rigorous enforcement of technological restrictions, backed up by the ruthless application of draconian laws that allow the replacement of copyright with contract law and criminalise activities which used to be considered legal – or acceptable even when not clearly legal – will enhance the market, keep customers coming back for more and ensure the future success of the “content industries”.

Somehow, I doubt that this will be the outcome.

Here’s just some of my random thoughts on DRM. (1) Is it really fair that people can get sued for 10s or 100s of thousands of dollars for downloading songs? Is grabbing something off Bittorrent really a reason to put someone in financial ruin? (2) As long as you tell people here’s a template of how we expect you to use our software, someone is always going to find a way to hack around it. (3) The more DRM you add, the less usable your product becomes. (4) The less usable your product becomes, the more people will find alternative methods of getting more usable (read non-DRM’d) products. (5) In 20 years, do these companies really thing DRM will preserve their antiquated economic system or that, like text publishers, successful content distributors will have found a new business model?

MPAA/RIAA: Let People Die, Just Don’t Let Them Circumvent DRM

Pop quiz: What’s more important:

A. Protecting people’s lives
B. Protecting critical infrastructure
C. Thwarting terrorists
D. A, B, and C
E. Making sure users don’t circumvent the copy protection on the latest Britney Spears song that they bought

If you answered E, you probably have a bright career ahead of you working for the MPAA or RIAA. A request was made to the US Copyright Office to allow an exemption for the removal of DRM systems that “employ access control measures which threaten critical infrastructure and potentially endanger lives.” The MPAA/RIAA, of course, opposes this. Their retort is that this would greatly hinder their ability to deploy DRM that threatens critical infrastructure and endangers lives.

You read that right. They’re worried that there might be “serious doubt” about whether their future DRM access control systems are covered by these exemptions, and they think the doubt “would be even more severe” if the “exemption would turn on whether access controls ‘threaten critical infrastructure and potentially endanger lives’.”

Yikes.

One would have thought they’d make awfully sure that a DRM measure didn’t threaten critical infrastructure or endanger lives, before they deployed that measure. But apparently they want to keep open the option of deploying DRM even when there are severe doubts about whether it threatens critical infrastructure and potentially endangers lives.

Cory Doctorow Interview

Here’s a nice, short interview with Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing fame about copyright and the Internet.

I mean, the plan that the industry has is basically to come up with a world where all digital devices have to be approved, all analogue devices have to recognise watermarks, and the internet as we know it is torn down and replaced with a place where you can be disconnected from the internet in 5 minutes flat by merely having an accusation of copyright infringement levelled against you. That’s the proposal underlay at WIPO. That’s a terrible world to live in.

Even if you leave aside all the copyright issues, the outcome of the scenario that’s really bad is that it breaks the most important communication tool we’ve ever devised in order to protect the tiny, unimportant, cushy racketeering business model of the content industry.