Friday, April 30, 2010

Time marches on after all

[File this one under "not in any way profound, but felt compelled to write it anyway," or maybe "just really wanted to meet my self-imposed ten-posts-a-month quota."]

A funny thing would happen every time I returned to my hotel on this trip. More accurately, the odd thing was what didn't happen. It doesn't seem so long ago, but it must have been years ago (I hadn't travelled that much in the last few years), that about the first thing I'd do on returning to the hotel room would be to check messages. After that, I might turn on the TV to find out what was going on.

Check messages? I didn't even touch the phone in the room, except maybe to move it aside to make room for the laptop. Why would anyone? Forget the hotel phone rate deathtrap. Who needs another number to keep track of and another mailbox to check? The cell phone worked just fine.

Of course.

Then one morning I wanted to know what the weather was going to be like for the rest of the day (drizzly or clear being the main choices). Not being awake yet, I turned on the morning news. And waited while they talked about something morning-news innocuous. And waited some more. And then they cut to commercial. At which point the rest of my brain woke up, I pulled out the laptop and went to the TV station's web site.

Of course.

If there's anything interesting in all this, it's that the web and mobile technology aren't turning our lives upside down so much as slowly infiltrating them. Yet more reason to believe it's better to be pervasive than disruptive.

What's this year's Rorschach blot?

Continuing the trip down Silicon Valley memory lane ... the other day I was talking with someone else who'd been around during the madness about a job interview they'd had. Paraphrasing very heavily, it went something like this:
Applicant: So it looks like you need another round of funding. How were you thinking of getting that?

Interviewer: Well, we were thinking of going to the VCs with some sort of web play.

Applicant: What kind of web play?

Interviewer: Um, we'll figure that out.

Applicant: OK, thank you for your time.
These days we can all have a good laugh over those silly dot-com startups thinking all you had to do was say "web" (or put e- or i- in front of your name or, of course, .com at the end) and the world would beat a path to your doorstep. What exactly was "the web"? No one had had much of a handle on that at all and as a result it could be anything you wanted to be. Of course, we know better now. The web is ... hmm, still not really sure ... maybe I'll write a blog about trying to figure it out ...

So why did my spidey sense tingle every time I heard "social networking" for a while? Probably because it sounded like the same kind of Rorschach blot -- anything you wanted it to be. Of course, now we know better. "Social networking" means "Facebook and Twitter".

OK, I know that's not fair, or even true, but when the local drugstore is proud to tell you you can fan it or follow it, you can be sure that those brands have achieved a certain level of prominence.

Maybe I'm just slow, or addled by too many days on the Peninsula, but I'm not sure what the all-purpose trend is this year -- or if it's not quite here yet, what it's going to be. But I'm sure it's out there.

Silicon valley, then and now

There is a strip of land between the 101 and the Bay, from the boundary of Moffett Field north a ways (and when I say "north", I mean "west", of course). I don't know its history intimately but, from having visited the area intermittently since the early 80s and having spent a good chunk of the 90s living nearby, it seems to have gone through three major stages:
  1. Upstart companies, riding the wave of silicon miracles, moved in and made the biggest, boldest mark they possibly could. Glass and steel buildings rose, their curves and odd angles shouting "I am not a box!" Rents and property values went through the roof, but who cared?
  2. The wave broke, leaving a glut of empty not-boxes and an economic hangover the likes of which would not be seen again for, oh, at least a few years.
  3. The Valley licked its wounds and regrouped. A new generation arose and what had we here? A bunch of pretty cool buildings available at reasonable rates. The buildings stirred back to life.
The Boom has left its indelible stamp on the Valley. Even the new construction these days could, for the most part, have gone up ten years ago and still fit right in, had only the engine not run out of steam. But now both that new construction and those buildings that had proclaimed their new-and-differentness back in the day have, to my eye at least, a comforting, almost nostalgic look. Moving in may have been a coldly economic decision, like buying so much dark fiber to light up, but there's also just that hint of the 21st-century boutique law firm setting up shop in an old Victorian house.

Think of it as recycling, putting the byproducts of the manic energy of those times to useful work. Just so, the overheated "everything's different now" vibe that pervaded the region seems to have died away, leaving room for a steady stream of commercially viable improvements and maybe even the occasional boom-era fever dream come true.

Granted it's always tricky to tell how much the times have changed and how much oneself has changed. Maybe it's really the same as it ever was; maybe it's still all different now. I really don't know. All I know is that we're all a few years older now.

And, one hopes, a bit wiser.

Mr. Jobs's eras

Apple and Adobe have a long history together, as Steve Jobs points out in an explanation of why iPhones and their cousins won't run Flash. Good times, good times, he says, reminiscing about their shared past, and then goes on to give, in a cool and evenhanded tone, six fairly blunt reasons for the choice.

Now clearly, supporting flash or not, and choosing HTML5 and other standards in favor of it, is all about the web, but what jumped out at me was Jobs's contrast between the "PC era" and the "Mobile era", which would seem to be more about generations of hardware. Guess which era he puts Flash in. Give up? OK, I'll tell you (or rather, I'll let Jobs tell you):
Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.
There are several interesting implications in that one little paragraph. In particular, it would seem that mobile devices are in some way webbier than PCs. Even before the web, people were using PCs, to write documents, play games and whatever else. Sure, the web can enhance all that, but PCs were a success before the web ever came along.

The distinguishing feature of a mobile device is not just that you can move it around, but that it (generally) stays connected when you do. A good portion of the pizzaz of an iPhone etc. comes from its webbiness. Not only is there an app for that, you can get it right now, and chances are that app interacts with the web in some essential way.

Now, you can have mobile devices without the web. The first generations of cell phone were exactly that. Nonetheless, as Jobs asserts and I tend to agree, the real potential of mobile devices comes from their fit with the Web As We Know It. The tighter the fit, the better.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Steampunk heaven

This one's another not-particularly-on-the-web item, though you can, of course, learn more about it on the web.

Over a hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Babbage designed his Difference Engine (actually, he designed it twice, the second design requiring many fewer moving parts). Less than a decade ago, it was finally built. One can be seen at the Computing History Museum in Mountain View, CA, at least until its owner finishes reinforcing his living room floor to accommodate it (hey, you can never have too many five-ton Victorian computing machines in the house).

I remember reading about the difference engine many years ago. The wisdom at the time was that it could not have been built to acceptable tolerances with the technology of the day, or if it could have been, it would have required too much force to operate.

Both of these notions have been disproved, and in fact two working examples have been built, using modern numerically-controlled milling machines, but with carefully-introduced errors to mimic the imprecision of the time (not as much as you might think -- the Victorians knew a bit about machining). With some training and practice, and with the aid of a 4:1 reduction not in the original plans, a person of average physique can literally crank the thing up and watch it produce values of a seventh-degree polynomial to thirty-one digits.

It's something to see. Forget about retro PC keyboards, this is the real deal.

Of course, the real fun would be in cranking up a Babbage Analytical Engine, but alas, the design for that one is not complete enough to implement. Not that that stopped Ada Lovelace from hacking it anyway.

E-commerce in China

Browsing The Economist, I ran across an interesting article exploring, um, economics of all things. In particular, the economics of online retailing in China. Key points:
  • China provides a particularly good environment for online retailing because delivery of goods is unusually cheap and storefronts are unusually expensive, at least in relative terms.
  • Online retailing couldn't take off without widespread internet access (of course), but the other sticking point was the lack of a trusted, home-grown payment system. "Just use PayPal" wasn't an option.
  • Online retailing favors well-established brands, including Western brands, which would not necessarily be favored in the brick-and-mortar world.
  • Just as has happened elsewhere, physical retailers can be undercut by their own online prices. People come into the store to take a look, then buy online.
Once again, it's worth noting that the economic issues are in the driver's seat. Technology never gets far until the economic conditions are favorable. Only then (I claim, for the moment) does it begin to affect the economic conditions in turn.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Security and the appearance thereof

I'm traveling at the moment, which means I'm currently blogging at you courtesy of a hotel WiFi system. The WiFi is the usual hotel setup: you connect to an unsecured network and the system then intercepts your first web page request and replaces it with a login screen. At first blush, this may give the impression that the system is secure, except that the username/password are put together from the name of the hotel, its street number and the word "internet". They are the same for all guests.

An insecure network is not necessarily a security problem. Rather than expect the network itself, wired or wireless, to be secure, it's better to use some sort of end-to-end scheme which will be essentially equally secure whether or not the network is. The problem comes when a component that you think is secure actually isn't.

Is that the case with a hotel WiFi? It depends. If you take the login page as an indication of security, you've got a security problem waiting to happen. If you take the totally insecure user name and password as an indication of insecurity, then no problem. Unfortunately, it's perfectly reasonable for the non-technical user -- that is to say, almost any user -- to associate passwords with security. That's what they're supposed to be there for, after all.

Web pages should speak only when spoken to

For various reasons, such as laziness, inertia, and, um ... what's another word for "laziness" and "inertia"? ... never mind, can't be bothered ... I've done much of my web browsing for the past few months with the sound off. Since I mostly interact with the web textually, this hasn't really been a problem. I hadn't been trying watching videos or listening to podcasts because, well, sound wasn't hooked up because of laziness, inertia or whatever ...

It came as a surprise, then, when I logged into the web site for a particular service provider, a site which I'd been happily using for months, and heard a voice exhorting me, at typical TV commercial volume, to scroll to the bottom of the page to see some wonderful something or other.

No, thanks.

Podcasts and videos are indeed cool, and if I visit, say, a musician's or band's home page I would expect to hear music, but everyday nuts and bolts sites should have the courtesy to be quiet unless I specifically invite them to talk. Granted, the occasional loudmouth "check your account status" page isn't as obnoxious as, say, scented junk mail, but it's obnoxious enough.

Grumpily yours, etc. etc.

I have been assimilated

So, where have I been all this time?

Monday, April 19th was my first day at work for Google or, as I've sometimes thought of it, the Mostly Harmless Empire. This doesn't necessarily mean that I know anything more than you can find out on your own about what Google is up to. If I did, I couldn't tell you anyway. Obviously. Likewise, any opinions I may express here remain my own, and not those of my employer, as they always have been.

To avoid any potential gray areas now that I'm no longer idly speculating from the outside, I intend generally to recuse myself from all things Google. How much territory this leaves for a blog dedicated to "figuring out the web as I go along" remains to be seen, but I expect there will be enough to keep the posts coming. If not, I'll go do something else.

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Anonymity and civility

(Yes, I'm still here, just really busy at the moment. Normal service should resume soon.)

Over the virtual transom comes a link to Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald lamenting the awful tone of newspaper message boards. The culprit? Anonymity.

I certainly agree that the tone of message boards is often lamentable. Pitt's claim that "when people don't have to account for what they say or do, they will often say and do things that would shock their better selves" seems almost self-evident. And yet, there must be something more subtle going on, because the argument doesn't quite add up.

Anonymity does not necessarily make people uncivil. Consider anonymous donors, for example. And, as one of Pitts' own examples shows, incivility does not require anonymity: "the milquetoast accountant who insults the quarterback's mother from the safety of the crowd" is in the middle of a crowd. Probably even on camera from time to time. Not the best way to assure one's anonymity.

Message board posters are generally not completely anonymous. They are, and forgive me for what may seem a pedantic distinction, pseudonymous. Message boards tend to require registration, tying a handle to an email address at the very least, and even those that don't generally require some name under each post. Sure, you can use a different one for each post if you like, but your posts will carry more weight if you don't.

In another case Pitts cites, the daughter of a judge leaked information under a pseudonym. Clearly the idea was to build an identity -- a pseudonym -- to establish the credibility of posts over time. On the other hand, there was clearly also an effort to hide the identity behind the pseudonym. In that sense, there is a degree of anonymity. Nonetheless, I don't believe that the poster's anonymity is the major reason for uncivil behavior.

The more important factor, I think, is not the anonymity of the aggressor, or lack thereof. It's the anonymity, or at least weakened identity, of the target of the aggression. The accountant insulting the quarterback, even if by name, is insulting a helmet and a uniform some distance away, not a recognizable person sitting face to face. The angry driver stepping on the accelerator is likely extracting vengeance on the back of a head seen dimly through glass. Likewise, the message board poster is venting at someone not in the room at the moment, whether that person is the subject of the story or a fellow poster.

Depersonalizing -- in the worst case dehumanizing -- the other party is a sure and well-worn path to behavior that would shock our better selves.