I am using the Feedburner feed service. It allows many of you to acquire this blog through various mechanisms that don’t actually require that you to come to the site, a great way to read the blog if you are busy and/or lazy. It either emails my posts to you or by caching it on the Feedburner site makes it highly available in your feed reader.
Feedburner was the first to succeed in this market. It hadn’t been in operation too many years before it was acquired and Google and stuffed into its vast holdings. There it has been languishing, still working, but ignored. I can tell it is not being maintained because Google turned off the Feedburner API. In addition, it can’t even bother to maintain the documentation on the site. For example, it references Google Reader and iGoogle, which it retired a year or so back. This means that Feedburner is becoming untrustworthy. Google will probably get rid of it at some point.
Syndication is an important way for me to distribute my blog posts. Feedburner says I had 118 subscribers on average over the last week. This includes 22 active email subscribers. Given Feedburner’s problematic and untrustworthy status, I need to take some actions.
Those of you who subscribe via email will start receiving posts from my blog instead. Mail will come from m...@occams-razor.info. It’s possible your email program will move this into spam or trash. You may need to create a rule or filter to put these in your inbox. Each email should contain a link allowing you to unsubscribe.
Those of you that subscribe via news aggregators like feedly.com may need to change the feed URL. Rather than get it from Feedburner, you need to get it directly from my site. This generic feed URL should work fine: http://occams-razor.info/feed/.
You can also choose feeds for a specific feed protocol:
I have nothing against females as CEOs. It’s clear that females make up a tiny minority of corporate CEOs and members of corporate boards. Recent news reports suggest that progress on this front has stalled. But there are a few of them. Few have been more prominent in the news lately than Marissa Mayer, the relatively new 38-year-old CEO of Yahoo. She has been making a splash for herself, not just for leaving a job at Google to take on the troubled Yahoo, but also for her many changes to the relatively staid and unprofitable Yahoo, Inc., something of a great grandfather on the World Wide Web. These included bringing a nursery into the office for her now year old son and requiring her employees to actually come into the office instead of telecommute.
Mayer though has a track record of success with Google and she’s proving adept so far at changing the dynamics at Yahoo. Her old employer Google must really miss her because she successfully led a number of divisions at Google, including some of its principle products: its search engine and GMail. Yahoo had been losing revenue and market share, but things are quickly turning around with Mayer in charge. Yahoo now gets more web traffic than Google again, no small feat and while not quite profitable again, it is making strides toward profitability. She has purchased the blogging site Tumblr and Yahoo’s stock price is rebounding. It has more than doubled during her brief tenure as CEO.
So she is doing good for stockholders and with her reputation she can probably turn around Yahoo, which is good because a World Wide Web mostly overseen by the benevolent Google overlord is not a healthy dynamic. She is getting more eyeballs and more interest from advertisers. Yahoo stockholders should be happy with her performance to date, and hope that they can keep her around.
I was a Yahoo fan from early on. At one time it was the only destination worth going to on the web. It was my home page for many years. It attempted to index the Internet, and actual humans were categorizing content. I’m old enough to remember what Yahoo really stands for (Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle). It was the first web site to do a really good job, in a 1995 kind of way, of helping us find stuff on this new medium called the Internet. For many years I had a Yahoo email account. But Yahoo proved not very agile as it aged, and various ineffective CEOs tended to make things worse.
I don’t go to Yahoo more often than I used to and use Google and its services even more than I used to, although I often feel guilty about it. But I do keep Yahoo News as my principle news page, or did until recently. It was a habit hard to break. The page was edited by actual human beings, rather than Google News, which is edited by a human-programmed computer algorithm. Considering Mayer also ran Google News, I expected Yahoo News might look a lot more like Google News. It is taking on some of its characteristics, including more personalization options. It is also, I am sorry to say, loading up the news site with a lot of fluff. This is making me very unhappy.
Stockholders are probably applauding this move to add these “human interest” stories. If you go to Yahoo News, you can’t possibly miss them, as they comprise about one of every three stories on its main page. It’s not quite National Enquirer stuff, but it’s a lot of Good Morning America-like stuff. In fact, Good Morning America (ABC) is one of their featured content providers. What do I mean by fluff? Well, there was the recent live broadcast of The Sound of Music on TV, and Yahoo News was all over it (it was mostly dissed by the critics). Is this really news? It probably gets a lot of clicks so it surely must be interesting to a lot of people. But no, this is not really news, except possibly in the category of entertainment news. It would be fodder for Variety’s web site. It’s not news in my book.
Perhaps it is just me. News to me is a newspaper like the Wall Street Journal or the Los Angeles Times. I expect to learn, not just what is happening right now that could affect my locality, my country, the world and me. I expect some in-depth reporting on an issue so I can understand the dynamics of the many pressing issues of the day. In short, I read news not to be entertained, but to gain knowledge. I need lots of facts and I need unbiased, in-depth understanding of these facts by reporters who sift through these issues and talk with leading authorities. I seek knowledge because to change the world I must understand not just how it behaves but why it behaves the way it does. News should have its pulse on the planet and should tell citizens like me who are reasonably informed more of what we need to know to stay informed.
I’m not getting much of this on Yahoo News anymore, and I hold Marissa Mayer to blame. I get lots of popcorn articles like this Sound of Music piffle, which today includes an ancillary story about the von Trapp’s mountain lodge in Stowe, Vermont. I get Dear Abby, now available only online at Yahoo but linked daily through its “news” page. I get stories about the lottery. And when I do deign to read an article that looks like real news, it is often short when I want depth. Worse, I get articles that aren’t articles at all, but you don’t know that until you click on it. Instead, it’s video that starts loading even if you don’t want it to load, and for which you have to “pay the freight” of an annoying commercial first. Expect more of the same because one of Marissa Mayer’s recent ideas is to hire Katie Couric as its “global anchor”. I expect lots of little fluff pieces like this and “lite-news” interwoven into its news site during the course of the day. It’s all part of the Yahoo experience, or something that Mayer is planning.
It may be successful for Yahoo and Mayer, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a news site because most of this is not really news. It’s marketing designed to attract eyeballs, perhaps making it a somewhat toned down version of Huffington Post, another site designed by a female overlord full of sauce but little relevant news.
I don’t like where this is leading. It will probably lead to profitability for Yahoo, but as far as leaving us citizens better informed, it’s a poor effort at best. There are plenty of other news sites out there including CNN and all the major networks, but most of these are becoming less newsworthy and saucier as well. Which leaves me looking for a real news site. There is the reliable and local washingtonpost.com site, but I get most of that content from my newspaper subscription. Ironically, I find myself getting most of my news from one of Mayer’s old projects: Google News. For the most part, unless you choose to delve into an area like Entertainment, its news is topical, relevant and in-depth articles tend to get priority. I find I like the algorithmic approach better than Mayer’s approach on Yahoo. I’m just hoping Google doesn’t try to sauce up its news algorithms.
Marissa, consider that public service may be part of Yahoo’s mission as well as enriching shareholders. How about a version of Yahoo News that is just news, instead of so much fluff, like maybe real.news.yahoo.com? And while I am making suggestions, please get rid of the cutesy Yahoo News animated image in the top left corner of the site. And surely you have noticed that since your top menu bar is stuck on the top and you can’t avoid it, when you page down it hides some content, which means you have to cursor up or drag the window up a bit to read it. And you often have the same article, or a variation of it, on the same page. Can’t these be cleaned up?
It seems moot to me. I like your old product better, so I’m hanging out now on Google News.
Google Glass, its internet-friendly eyeware, has been making news lately. It’s the creepy device that looks sort of like glasses (for one eye) that some nerds with close ties to Google are wearing that keeps them continuously connected to the Internet. It projects information from the Internet onto the inside of the glass so they can both walk around and see internet content at the same time. It also offers voice recognition capabilities so you can interact with the Internet. The truly creepy thing is that Google Glass can also record what you see in real-time, both audio and visual.
It used to be that if you used a camera its use was overt. A camera is pretty hard to hide. With Google Glass, it couId be on all the time but because it is like wearing glasses, we may not react to it like a camera. Yes, it could be recording everything it sees and hears, and perhaps storing it to your Google cloud permanently, and possibly the NSA’s cloud as well. The City of London, where there are cameras on every street corner and most places in between, might actually want people to use Google Glass: it could be one more tool at their disposal to keep an eye on crime. Here in the United States, the whole thing sounds ultra-Big-Brotherish, kind of like the NSA on steroids. It’s not that the NSA is necessarily able to tap into Google Glass content, at least not yet. Give them time and who knows? Whether or not the NSA can tap into Google Glass feeds, the whole idea is creepy at best and repugnant at worst. I don’t like the idea of anyone having a constant video stream from Google Glass in their cloud. I am imaging its use by perverts, voyeurs, estranged lovers and criminals, among others.
Google Glass strikes me as a tool that will make our already disappearing privacy shrink even further, maybe to the point where it can no longer be found, or is simply meaningless. I don’t want dozens of people recording me walking down the street! Moreover, their eyeware is also not in the least bit cute although they are working with eyeware manufacturers to sex them up. When people wear Google Glass, I think of the Borg, the evil villains, cyborgs really, half men, half machine, introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s one thing to become part of the collective. It’s another thing to become part of it so unconsciously. It’s an Orwellian sort of technology. We’re not that good at getting rid of technology that has some uses once it is commercially available. So I am putting my hopes in the power of shame. I am hoping we will reflexively tell people sporting Google Glass: “Your eyeware is creepy. I wish you would never wear it or use it. And it upsets me that you would use it at all, knowing that it can continuously record what you are seeing!” Shame might work, or be powerful enough where it is used so rarely that it has no appreciable impact. Its true impact happens when its use becomes commonplace and accepted.
Google though racks up enormous profits, so I am not too surprised that they have a research arm looking into technologies like this. A lot of their technologies do not get out beyond the labs. That may well be the case with Google Glass. On the other hand, sometimes you can see a technology that they are working on and think, “I got to have that! Can I have it now?”
A Google Car is completely cool and extremely useful. The Google Car, right now a dozen or so specially configured Toyota Priuses, an Audi TT and some Lexus RX450h, are driverless cars. You leave the driving to the car and it delivers you to your destination safely. Right now it is being tested in Las Vegas. The state of Nevada has actually issued a license, to a car, not a person, for its use within Nevada. With its computers, internet access and sensors, it takes you where you need to go in complete safety. Granted, there are not a whole lot of Google Cars working today, and they can be categorized as experimental. But right now they have an accident rate that would delight insurance actuaries everywhere: zero. That’s right; at least so far Google Car has proven to be completely flawless, if you measure it by its ability to cause an accident. With its radars it is always aware of traffic around you, not to mention curbs, speed bumps, potholes, traffic congestion and how to mitigate it. With reflexes far better and more accurate that the best trained racing driver, it can keep you safe getting you from Point A to Point B. Can it avoid every accident? Possibly not as it has been involved in some accidents caused when in manual mode or when it was hit by other cars. It is possible that some crazy driver will come out of left field so quickly that it cannot react quickly enough, and the driver will hit you. But (knock on wood, recalling issues with Boeing’s 787 fleet) so far at least it has not caused any accidents.
Senior citizens in particular should be rooting for Google Car, and demanding the right to buy one as soon as possible. For eventually senior citizens loose cognitive and muscular controls as they age, and this often means they lose the ability to drive safely, and the loss of freedom that comes from a loss of mobility. Yet to stay alive, they must meet with lots of physicians and need a way to get there. Maybe they can take a bus, but it’s a hassle. Maybe they can take a taxi, but it’s expensive. Get in a Google Car, and by using Google’s voice recognition system it will deliver them safely to their doctor. Safely means getting them into the parking lot and into a parking space all by itself. That’s cool technology; it’s mind-boggling stuff when you think about it.
Actuarial statistics don’t lie: if some accident is going to kill you, it is almost surely going to be when you are moving in a car. That’s because human beings drive cars, and we are obviously not perfect creatures. The only amazing thing about humans driving cars is that there are not more accidents. But, particularly if we reach the point where all vehicular driving is automated, death or injury from auto accidents may become a thing of the past, something that simply doesn’t happen except in very rare cases, like an unexpected and sudden bridge collapse.
There is another more selfish reason why I want a Google Car. I don’t like to drive. I drive out of necessity but I don’t enjoy it. I never have. It requires sustained concentration. It requires constantly juggling lots of real-time inputs by my already overtaxed brain which, even while I am driving is also sifting with lots of stuff, including issues at work, various erotic fantasies that have no chance of actualization, issues in computer science which for some reason my brain prioritizes, and my desire to have a constant source of chocolate. I’d much rather leave the driving to Google Car and concentrate on this other stuff. Or maybe I’d prefer to lie down in the back seat (in a special restraint just in case of accident) and sleep. It will be a better use of my time than the tedium of driving.
So Google, give Glass the heave ho and focus on Car instead. It’s not just what we want, but don’t know it yet, but it’s what we need. And it will save millions of lives. I’ll be first in line to buy one.
Google recently announced its inactive account manager. If you have a Google Account, this new manager essentially tells Google, “Assume I’ve died if I haven’t logged in after X days. And if I hit that number of days, destroy all data about me.” You can also tell Google not to destroy its data about you, but to authorize a list of other individuals to then access your Google account.
This might be welcome news to the executor of your estate who has to slog through the odious task of getting your creditors to go away as well as notifying friends, relatives, distant acquaintances and your LinkedIn.com colleagues that you are no more. Assuming Google follows through, if you choose to have its records about you destroyed sometime after your death, not only are you dead in the actual sense, but also dead in the digital sense, at least for data about you in Google.
It’s nice of Google to plan for your demise. Other companies out there are likely not to be so willing to delete data about you. The predominant companies in the online world though are figuring out ways to handle your electronic data after your physical demise. Facebook is trying out a way to let people memorialize a dead person’s Facebook account. Twitter has a convoluted process for decommissioning an account which in its current form will make your executor not even want to bother trying. Doubtless other social media and internet conglomerates will develop their own policies, but is likely your square Instagram pictures will still be out there somewhere in cyberspace centuries after you are dead. Technology is providing a way for us to become immortal, at least in the electronic sense, long after our bodies have succumbed to their finite limits.
Also likely being immortalized about you are many of those digital fingerprints you left. Which ads you clicked on. The dreck you purchased from eBay back in 2003. Your rantings in public forums and comments on Yahoo news articles. Maybe even the porn sites you visited and your account on ashleymadison.com. Also your credit history, your spending patterns as documented on mint.com, your family history as you charted it with Facebook’s family history app and maybe all that stuff you uploaded to your personal cloud. All there for others to pick over. If you think about it, you should feel aghast. I have heard unconfirmed reports that one of my grandfathers snuck out the back door frequently for some booty down the street, presumably unbeknownst to dear old grandma. No one can plausibly confirm or deny it, so I will choose to remember my grandpa as the genial guy who grossed me out when I went fishing with him and he sliced off the fish’s head.
Our generation won’t have plausible deniability. Some enterprising great granddaughter in 2100 may be sifting through open source big data warehouses and be able to trace that message to a lover you made on ashleymadison.com to your IP and computer when five minutes earlier you had sent out an email to a friend. So that’s the downside, but the real bummer is it is probably too late to do anything about it. Being humans we’re bound to have moral failings, it’s just that in the past they did not normally come to light, so the living assumed the best about us. The good news is that if you can keep the researchers from putting all these facts together until after you are dead then it will all be moot. Your ex and children may be shocked when they subsequently learn of your immoral behavior, but it won’t matter to you. I am guessing that an account on reputation.com isn’t going to quite cut it.
So your drunkenness, lecherousness, gambling addiction, wife beating and stash of pornography, or at least some part of it, will be available for those willing to look for it. It is not too hard to envision companies that will do this for profit. In fact, I can see a whole new business model built around electronic blackmail. (The blackmail.com domain, curiously, is owned but parked. I should probably make an offer on the domain.) Something like:
Dear Mr. John Jones,
We are aware that you are seeing two other women on the side, plus you have a gay lover you see on alternate Wednesdays. But no one needs to know because we won’t tell! We guarantee that we will not reveal this information about you for the low price of $1000 a year paid now, or low monthly installments of just $100 a month.
Otherwise we will be sending a summary of the information we have about you to gawker.com and Pastor Vleek at the United Methodist Church where you tithe on May 1st, along with proof of the veracity of certain claims we will make so they are beyond plausible deniability.
We accept Visa, Mastercard and Discover, or you can make payments confidentially with your PayPal account. Please visit my.blackmail.com and enter your special confidential access code 6f7gjk93! to initiate payment.
What’s the upside? Well, electronic immortality! Because there won’t be just blackmail.com, you will also want to hire memorializedforever.com. In the past you were memorialized with fading photographs and copies of handwritten letters, if that. In the future you will have the ability to let people see you in high fidelity. You will want to buy their high fidelity service, in which you will be recorded in high definition 3-D. The voice quality will be high fidelity too. Your future great, great grandchildren will feel like they really know that guy otherwise known as the carcass planted under the tombstone at Crestview Cemetery. If you want you can expound about your history, your feelings, your concerns or anything you want future generations to know about you. You can even pay for the three way backup service, where your high definition memorial is hosted in redundant cloud servers plus immortalized in a blocks of digital friendly material, which can be readily uploaded in the event of a catastrophic failure.
I hope this is what you want, but it’s all sort of moot. It’s happening and there is not much that can be done to stop it. There will probably be federal legislation at some point to at least regulate this business, but as a practical matter the internet is impossible to really police, so it will all be stored somewhere anyhow and available for a price.
As for me, when I die I would prefer to be really dead, just like dear old possibly lecherous grandpa. I won’t have that opportunity, but I will at least take the time to set my Google inactive account manager settings, as a courtesy to my wife who will probably clean up behind me and really hates paperwork.
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”
Google, the benevolent overlord of the Internet, last week bared its teeth and bit us. Oh maybe not you personally, but certainly those of us who depend on Google Reader. Reader is not the only product that Google announced that it is pulling. It is also pulling its user portal, iGoogle.
Unsurprisingly, I first learned about this in Google Reader, which is where I spend a good part of my day. First there was the announcement in Reader itself saying it was going away July 1, and providing a convenient link so that you can download your list of sites to import into a different newsreader. But also, my Google Reader soon became full of articles about Reader’s demise. Indeed, I used Google Reader to learn about an online petition on change.org to try to persuade Google to keep Reader. I immediately signed it, of course, as have more than 120,000 others, but the mighty overlord is likely to be tone deaf to our requests.
Secretly, I think that Google suffers from passive aggressive behavior. That’s because it now wants me to do everything in Google +, its latest social network, because it has a serious problem with Facebook envy. It has been aggressively pushing me to use G+. I believe that Reader’s demise is at least in part because people continue to doggedly use it rather than G+. It’s pretty obvious why we are still using Reader: it is a really elegant solution to reading lots of content that we care about.
Still, it is not popular like GMail. It is one of their niche products, something they threw together as newsfeeds began to take off. Newsfeeds are still all over the place. Most sites wanting to attract traffic wouldn’t be caught dead without a newsfeed, along with their Twitter account and Facebook page. It’s all part of building, promoting and sustaining a brand on the web.
With Reader, I don’t usually have to visit a web site to read its content. I simply grab its feed, which it usually advertises either explicitly with a link on its page or implicitly with HTML markup that my browser recognizes. With a couple of clicks the site’s news will be forever tucked inside Google Reader. Now I can go to one place, Google Reader, to read content for all my favorite sites and favorite bloggers. I don’t necessarily have to visit the site again, unless the publisher chooses to publish only teaser text and I choose to read more on the site. Infoword.com, one of the many sites I have in Reader, uses this approach. I can’t imagine trying to keep up with tech news without these site’s newsfeeds.
Reader saves so much time by keeping me from needlessly going to sites of interest. It’s like my own personal newspaper of the web, always topical, and always with stuff I am likely to care about. Okay, maybe 80% of it I don’t care all that much about. Most of what I read amounts to scanning headlines and then digging deeper if I find the content of more interest. I do the same thing with a newspaper. I scan the headlines but except for the front page rarely make it beyond the first couple of paragraphs of an article. That’s the whole point of a newsreader like Google Reader: to allow you to efficiently browse news and content. A good newspaper contains all sorts of divergent topical areas: national news, international news, sports, style, arts, local news, business, etc. Reader does this for the web except it customizes it based on your interests. It will even suggest feeds you might like based on what you are reading. It’s like getting the Washington Post without the sports section, which I never read, but with a bonus tech section stuffed with content it knows that I will want to read. In short, it’s brilliant!
Google Reader is certainly not the only newsreader out there; it’s just the first I found that made reading newsfeeds elegant, simple, intuitive and fast. I had tried other newsreaders before Google Reader came out and they all sucked pretty badly. For one thing, Google Reader was web-based whereas most newsreaders were client programs. So you would see stuff at home you already read at work. Reader also has intelligent search algorithms, prefetching your content. Boom! It’s there. If you see something of interest that you want to read later, you just “star” it and it keeps your list of starred items indefinitely.
Clearly Reader is not for everyone since you have to be a bit geeky to get it. A little education on the business of “feeds” is in order. It helps to know what a newsfeed is, how to subscribe to it and why Atom formatted feeds may be better than RSS 2.0 feeds. (Actually, there’s a bit of a holy war about this.) Once you “get” it, and it’s generally the geeks that quickly grasp the enormous potential of a newsfeed, then the only question is “which newsreader?” After you try a half dozen and you try Google Reader, you don’t want to use anything else but Reader, even if it is boring black type on white pages.
The argument against newsfeeds is that you can get the same stuff by other means. Everyone is publishing to Twitter now, so follow the site on Twitter. And maybe that’s okay if you live your life on Twitter and find the most elegant Twitter client to organize it for you. But not everyone publishes to Twitter and there are only 120 characters there per tweet. Typically a tweet is full of annoying hashtags and @ symbols to parse. It comes across like Spanglish. Facebook is another sort of alternative. Often a site’s Facebook page will have similar content, or not, but again you have to be a Facebook aficionado and read your Facebook newsfeed, which likely includes tons of stuff from friends and family to throw you off stride. The whole point of newsfeeds though is that they are independent of proprietary delivery mechanisms. They are about liberating content on the web. One of its chief evangelists and founder of reddit.com Aaron Swartz recently committed suicide, arguably because he was pushing too hard for the idea that information should be free.
This stuff matters. Newsfeeds matter. No, I’m not kidding. They really matter, big time! In my case it matters because it is an incredibly efficient way to read or at least scan lots of relevant content. Newsfeeds are like Cliff Notes for recent content on the web that you care about. It may be geeky and unsexy but it matters. Most likely the people you read the most on the web also depend on newsfeeds and are probably spending most of their days in Google Reader. That’s how they maintain their edge. If in part I manage at all the project an erudite manner on this blog it comes across because I read a lot, I read it fast, and I read it efficiently in Google Reader.
But it will soon be gone! Which means that while newsfeeds will still be around that I must find another way to get my news. I am experimenting with alternatives, and the Feedly browser extension looks promising, but it’s still not Reader. I was used to Reader. It offered zero latency, i.e. I just didn’t have to think about it. Feedly looks gorgeous but I want to be absorbed in the content, not the window dressing.
I wish the mighty Google would rethink this decision. The intellectual brainpower of the Internet is going to decline sharply when they pull the plug on the unsexy but remarkable Google Reader.
There is plenty of upheaval in my office. We are completing a painful (and I do mean painful) transition moving from one email system to another. In this case, we are moving from Lotus Notes to Google Mail. Lotus Notes meant lots of expensive email servers inside our firewall closely watched over by a crew of technicians who, like grease monkeys, spent their days (and nights) constantly oiling Lotus’s gears. GMail of course is “in the cloud”. A Google enterprise team manages it for us. It’s all sort of magic and at least so far seems to mostly work.
Switching email systems in a large enterprise of 70,000 people is quite a trick. It is roughly like switching out your car’s engine while driving down the street. It can be done. Essentially you have to have two email engines running at the same time processing the same incoming email. Eventually all the email accounts are successfully migrated from one email system to the other and you pull the plug on the old email system. But of course there are thousands of gotchas. You also have to migrate calendars, contacts and to dos. All sorts of applications and systems are tied into the email system. Each of these individually has to be taught to use the new email system. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is hard.
Now that our office is all GMail all the time the office has ditched the dependable email client in favor of using GMail inside the Chrome browser. I like GMail at home and on the road and use it all the time. However, the experience of using GMail on the web casually versus using it all the time is quite a bit different. When sixty percent of your day is spent reading and replying to email, productivity is important. While GMail has lots of nifty features (like its swift search engine to find emails) it also has some significant drawbacks. Specifically you have all the limitations and annoyances of working in a browser. GMail does its best to minimize these drawbacks, but when you are reading and replying to hundreds of emails a day and using a browser for an email client the experience becomes very irritating.
Take, for example, simply navigating between emails. Typically you want to just go to the next or last email. When using a browser and a desktop computer, you must use a mouse. This means you have to reach for the mouse, point to the email you want to read and then click on it. It takes three actions to do something that previously required simply pressing your up and down arrow keys. You don’t notice this at home, but at work I find it is more than irritating. It makes reading and replying to email an annoying hassle.
We don’t have a lot of options. Our service desk supports Microsoft Outlook as an option if you whine about wanting an email client, but as Outlook users know it really prefers that you are using Microsoft Exchange on the backend. Plus it’s a Microsoft product, which means it will have the usual mixture of brilliant, quirky and downright annoying features. Most importantly, it has feature bloat. Ninety percent of the time you need to either delete or quickly file an email. The other ten percent of the time you just need to reply or forward it. You probably don’t need to turn your email client into a newsreader, or to have it transparently integrate multiple email accounts or create multiple personalities. You just want to get through the couple of hundred emails in your email box as efficiently and as quickly as possible, with minimal fuss and keystrokes.
In short, you need Mozilla Thunderbird. The open source email client is not dead, and thankfully Mozilla Thunderbird keeps refining its product, in spite of the fact that its big brother browser (Firefox) gets almost all of the attention. Arguably if you really feel you need an email client with GMail, you should ditch all of the other ones and just standardize on Thunderbird. This is because it works across all the operating systems pretty much identically and it is elegantly simple. And should you feel the need to dress it up with themes or add-ons, it’s easy enough to do. Outlook users can even install a theme that sort of makes it look like Outlook.
It’s possible to use Thunderbird with GMail but it is not intuitive. After installing it, you need to go into your web-based GMail and select “Generate Application Password” (click on the More link near the top). It will create a long string of impossible to guess characters, numbers and symbols and you have to use to authenticate Thunderbird with GMail’s mail servers. Then in Thunderbird you have to find its account settings (Tools > Account Settings) and know the names of Google’s email servers (smtp.google.com for outgoing email and imap.google.com for incoming email). When asked for a password, use the applications password. You may need to tell it to use port 993 and SSL/TSL for connection security. You probably want IMAP instead of POP (Post Office Protocol) because IMAP allows you to keep your email in the cloud, instead of moving it to your computer. This is generally preferred since you never can lose it this way. It’s worth the hassle to make Thunderbird and GMail talk to each other because you sure will get sick of using GMail through a browser if you have to do most of your business day.
Certainly there are some features of the web-based GMail that are occasionally desirable. You can assign multiple tags to more than one email rather than just throw it into a folder. You can do sophisticated searching using a host of qualifiers. The nice thing is that the one percent of the time you might need these features, you can just bring up GMail and peck away. Most of the time you will prefer the speed and efficiency of Mozilla Thunderbird.
Curiously, Thunderbird excels as a purely email client. Maintaining a calendar is very much a part time activity, and GMail’s calendar is slick, easy to use and attractive. You can install an add-on to Thunderbird that will integrate a calendar, but it is relatively ugly. Google Calendar allows you to easily see other’s calendars, once they give you access to their calendar, and you can even see calendars outside of your office network. So if I need my calendar, I go into my browser.
GMail comes with Google Talk for instant messaging. Instant messaging is almost as important as email in the enterprise. With the right program placed in your task bar, you can be notified of instant messages even if you are not focused in your browser. Or you may prefer to install an instant messenger that works with Google Talk. If so make sure you keep that application password because you will need it. Warning: if you generate a new application password, you will need to replace the passwords in other applications you may have connected to Google’s infrastructure. Currently I am using Pidgin, which works well. However you really need to select the XMPP protocol instead of Google Talk protocol. Connect to talk.google.com and use port 5222. Also make sure encryption is enabled.
Facebook finally made its stock market debut on Friday. The stock, initially available to select investors at $38 a share, closed at slightly above that price at $38.23 a share. Time will tell how investors really assess the stock. Most are probably waiting on the sidelines to see which way the wind blows.
Facebook won’t have to worry about me buying its stock. I strongly suspect the company is already massively overvalued at $38 a share. More importantly, I am not convinced that Facebook will be around in five or ten years. If the Internet has demonstrated anything, it is that web sites tend to be ephemeral. MySpace, which Facebook largely replaced, is a good example. Moreover, the web phenomenon of the moment is not Facebook, but Pinterest. You have to look hard to find web sites that have endured and remain profitable. Fifteen years ago Yahoo was phenomenal. Now it is hanging on, losing money, shedding employees and moving through CEOs at an alarming pace.
Facebook does have huge market share in part because it has figured out (it thinks) what people want in the way of a social networking site. It is already clear that it will never get everyone on the web. So many of its users are not active users. They have created accounts and then largely abandoned them, or check them out irregularly. Of my 54 Facebook friends, on a weekly basis I see about 15 of them post or comment. Only three of them post regularly (every day or more). As I mentioned some time back, its user interface is confusing, although less so now than it was when I griped about it. Its privacy policies feel whimsical, giving you little confidence that your settings today will be there tomorrow or that your privacy policies will actually be handled correctly. Of course, Facebook is really about making money, so they keep trying new advertising strategies. The general thrust is to send you more ads and to make them more highly targeted. More and more, time on Facebook feels more like having a salesman regularly interrupt you while you are interacting with friends.
Its tepid IPO suggests stock analysts are right. To justify its price, it has to keep growing and more importantly it needs to convince advertisers that it can tie social networking and advertising together in a way that provides a unique advantage. General Motors gave it a try, and decided they just were not getting the return they wanted from advertising on Facebook, so they stopped using it.
Just how influential are your friends in convincing you to buy stuff anyhow? I like my friends just fine. I might see their dentist if they rave about him or her, because a personal recommendation makes choosing a dentist much simpler. But particularly with “friends” I rarely see in person, particularly those nebulous friends and friends of friends I have never actually met, and whose posts I mostly ignore, I doubt any attempt by Facebook to sell me stuff because my “friend” liked it will have any influence on me.
Facebook is also trying to make itself the center of your web experience. It is doing things like adding email (“messages”). Ideally, they hope you would never go anywhere on the web but Facebook. This of course defeats the whole purpose of the web, whose open nature is its key selling point. AOL tried this and failed spectacularly. Yet this is exactly the direction Facebook seems to be heading. Rather than be a utility on the web, it wants to largely replace the web by framing everything within a social context. However, the web is so much more than a social frame. It’s most about the ability to get information of interest.
I see Facebook as ultimately a limited business model simply because the premises on which it went IPO cannot be indefinitely sustained and population growth will limit its market. It’s bound to hit a brick wall eventually, and that time is likely to come sooner rather than later. Moreover, Facebook is no longer sexy. It has become ubiquitous and tired.
This is not to suggest that Facebook has no value. Obviously it knows a huge amount about its users based on what they choose to disclose and by analyzing what they do within Facebook, but this value diminishes quickly once it loses users. Its true value may be not in what it knows or can predict about your buying preferences, but by mining data among its users to determine trends. In particular, it should focus on thought leaders: those who set trends and convince others to follow them. Knowing what they and their friends care about is very valuable.
I suspect if Facebook is to grow that this is where it should be concentrating its resources. Operating as if users will not drift elsewhere as interest and whim takes them is delusional. Operating as if social relationships were all that mattered is also delusional. The history of the web suggests that users will move to another web site on a dime, which is why Pinterest is now a phenomenon, particularly among women. Pinterest clearly satisfied an itch for sharing information that Facebook simply had not thought through sufficiently.
To the extent that things endure on the web, it is because sites present tools that add value about the web as a whole. Particularly valuable is “meta” information: information about information. Google’s value is probably not inflated. This is because it can organize and present the Internet’s information in a coherent way that we need. Facebook does make it easier to keep and maintain social connections, but this is an ancillary feature of the web, not its heart. Information is its center.
As part of a balanced portfolio, perhaps owning some Facebook stock makes sense. As a strategy for acquiring great wealth, being heavily vested in it is likely to subtract from your wealth instead of add to it.
At least some of the Left Behind crowd think that Rapture means that the Earth will become paradise, a perpetually blissful Garden of Eden for the virtuous where death is banished. The raptured get to live forever on a happy, lush Earth singing praises to God and effused with eternal bliss.
Stan the Dinosaur near the center of the Googleplex
Well, I got news for the Left Behind crowd: if you are a geek lucky enough to be hired by Google and work at its headquarters in Mountain View, California (officially called The Googleplex), there is no need to wait for The Rapture. You can have it today. Yes, paradise is already available on their campus. Heck, you might even have a hard time finding the motivation to go home, which I am sure is by design. What is the point of ever going off campus? I mean, going off campus you have to deal with bills, your cranky spouse, and your Ritalin-laced kids. Stay on campus and there are none of these bothers, just all the gourmet food and smoothies you can eat for free within a short walk, exercise rooms galore, seminars by leading luminaries in various computer and scientific disciplines, twenty percent of your time (if you are an engineer) to play creatively, discount massages just down the hall, and a room or two on your floor filled with snacks and drinks (all free). There are even free classes in how to dance that are specifically tailored for us left footed engineers.
I know this from visiting the campus first hand on Wednesday. The tour came at the end of the meeting, but we got a prequel at lunch. Paradise could not have been any more picture perfect: blue skies, dry air, light winds, and with the temperature hovering about seventy. Crossing the street we had to beware not just of automobiles, but also of bicyclists on the many bike paths. Most of the bicyclists rode on the ubiquitous Google campus bike, with its big basket on the front and decked out in Google’s signature fluorescent colors. Of course the campus was perfectly manicured with palm trees rising nearly a hundred feet in the air framing the background. The closest cafeteria was just across the street. To get in you had to have the official Google badge. Our official nametags would have to suffice, but fortunately our hostess had an official badge and let us in.
The ubiquitous Google bikes
The cafeteria was more than a bit overwhelming. Maybe you like a good salad bar and Ruby Tuesdays comes to mind. Multiply that salad bar by about ten and stock it full of organic produce, cheeses, nuts, all attractively arranged and constantly restocked. The salad bar was just one feature of this cafeteria. There were many, many entrees to choose from. I sampled the pork with almonds and regretted not taking seconds. It was delicious. About the only part of the cafeteria that was understated was the dessert section, but each dessert was organic, unique and of those I sampled, beyond delicious. And yet you did not want to gorge. None of the desserts spiked your blood sugar. When you have Google’s billions in profits, you can hire chefs who know these sorts of secrets. Also oddly missing: the cash register. Lunch, like almost anything on campus, was free.
I could find no part of the campus untouched by the Google creative team. You would think a trip to the loo would be safe, wouldn’t you? I was in for a start when I sat down and the seat was almost hot: no need to suffer the indignity of having cold buns. Looking for something to read in your stall? Each stall has a collection of Google newsletters (oddly issued on paper) that you can read. It looks like they have a whole team working on newsletters for their toilet stalls. Google will use every opportunity to communicate information, and if that means a newsletter in a stall or healthy eating strategies written on the walls of the cafeteria, so be it.
Idea boards along the corridors
It’s hard to look anywhere without seeing the Google design team’s touch. In the building we were in the walls were covered with what look like bubbles of Braille. Just down the hall from the snack room was a massage room which, when I peeked, had a note saying that a session was in progress. If you are not important enough to warrant an office, you can still personalize your cubicle. There must be some things you cannot do to your workspace. Perhaps putting up Playboy centerfolds is against regulations, but I doubt it. Personalizing your space (and this includes your laptop, almost universally Apple, often festooned with logos) is encouraged. It might stimulate a creative thought when someone passes your space, and that’s good.
When the bulk of our work was behind us, we got a somewhat hurried campus tour. Much of the campus is built on top of a landfill. You can see methane pipes to allow the landfill to vent. Some of this methane is captured for energy use, but the campus also has lots of solar panels. About a third of its electricity is generated from renewable sources on campus.
The campus is fairly new since Google is a fairly new company. This gives the campus a feeling of impermanence, but it is undeniably gorgeous. Food is everywhere and free. When you have Google’s deep pockets, you don’t want to waste your highly productive engineers’ time by making them go off campus to get it. It’s not only free, it’s terrific and high quality stuff: the best foods, the best coffees and smoothies, and even the best desserts often just a short walk down the hall. Got to go somewhere on campus? Take a bike. There are usually a half dozen parked next to each building. Working in exercise during the day is encouraged, but if you prefer more formal exercise, there are plenty of enormous exercise rooms, allowing both structured and unstructured exercising.
Engineers like to show off their works. It’s hard to go far in any building without seeing some of them. Go into a 3D Google Earth simulator. See real-time global simulations of Internet traffic (with most of Africa in the dark). In one building we saw a vintage server rack (1999 is vintage), stuffed with commodity hardware you could have picked up at a Best Buy, which forms the nuts and bolts of Google’s enormous hosting platform.
We wandered by seminars in progress, free to anyone on campus, a hall of pictures of dignitaries, all posing with Google’s largely unknown “Jolly Good Fellow” Meng Tan. It’s hard to find a dignitary who has not visited the Googleplex, and they include President Obama and the Dalai Lama.
Suffice to say us decently but not obscenely enumerated government employees were impressed and more than a bit jealous. While we pay to attend our own Christmas parties, Google employees have practically every convenience of life available to them within, at worst, a short walk, much of it for free. While our time is metered like lawyers, they are allowed to have time to goof off. They are constantly stimulated by the presence of so many brilliant people, an infectious working environment and are given practically any freedom on the assumption that it will all contribute to the bottom line. Given Google’s enormous profits, it’s hard to argue with success.
If my pictures don’t suffice, try watching the YouTube video:
In spite of the rumors that winter gave the United States a miss this year, there is winter out there in parts of the country. These include Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming for sure, as evidenced by the white stuff on the ground viewed from a height of 36,311 feet. Of course, it is 36,311 feet because on Virgin America, at least, you know these sorts of things without having to ask. Even in Economy class you get a nifty personal information device attached to the seat in front of you, which shows you where your flight is on a map, along with the aircraft’s altitude and ground speed, all rendered on a ubiquitous Google Map.
Seeing where you at any moment is just one minor strategy in Virgin’s attempt to keep you distracted from the tedium of flying. You can also watch a host of satellite channels, watch on demand movies, listen to music or radio, and order your meal with the device. You can even do a text chat seat to seat, or so they promise when the feature is enabled (it wasn’t on our flight). What I can’t do on this flight, and what was advertised, is use the Internet. I was planning to work on this five and a half hour flight between Washington Dulles International Airport and San Francisco. I was looking forward to it, to relieve the tedium of a long flight, because it is work that needs to be done and it would be kind of cool to do testing at 36,311 feet over a VPN.
Virgin America is trying to drag airlines into the 21st century. They missed it on this flight by leaving out the Internet but otherwise they are getting it. Each seat comes with 120 volt power socket, a feature I have not seen on any other airline. Each seat also has a USB port and for those of you afraid to use the WiFi, an Ethernet port as well. Maybe it will be available on my return flight on Thursday.
Anyhow, I am being hurdled across the country at 36,311 feet to go visit one of the masters of the universe. That would be masters of the Internet universe, also known as Google, headquartered in nearby Mountain View, California. Yes, all this way and three days taken out of my week for a five hour meeting at Google headquarters tomorrow. It’s little known, but the mighty Google gives one percent of its profits to its nonprofit arm, google.org. And google.org has had mixed success getting my agency involved in its nonprofit mission. Google.org creates quick websites around major events, such as the Japanese tsunami last year. They are working to integrate more real-time information on emergencies into their search engine, so if you are on their search page and there is a tornado nearby it will tell you. It’s exactly the sort of information the U.S. government collects in abundance, so we have been seduced in spending a day in Mountain View with other agencies where they try to coax us to publish our emergency information in a rather obscure protocol called Common Alerting Protocol. Google hates developing and maintaining custom programs to acquire this kind of information. I can’t say I blame them.
So I am being hurdled across the country at 521 miles an hour. Meanwhile there is this flight to finish, all five and a half hours of it. At least February is a great time to travel, if you don’t like crowds. Washington Dulles was nearly deserted this morning, which meant getting through security was a breeze. If there is no precipitation there are no flight delays to worry about either. Moreover, this flight on Virgin America was dirt cheap, beating the other carriers by hundreds of dollars, and it was also nonstop as well. I am depending on Virgin America to be on time, not so much today, but on Thursday. I have to get home in time to teach a class that evening.
Virgin America is likely a more laid back version of Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Airline’s international wing. On Virgin Atlantic you get flight attendants who pass rigorous tests for grooming, tact and friendliness, or so I have read. On Virgin Atlantic: not so much. They basically try to stay out of your face. So instead of actually talking with flight attendants, you are encourage to order from a device at your seat instead, which also reads your credit card. You do get a round of beverages but at least so far no second round has arrived. The captain is not the least bit loquacious and to make this cross country flight even less interesting, the flight is amazingly smooth. This leaves me with time to kill. With no Internet I have few excuses to avoid blogging.
But I did my best anyhow. I spent much of the flight absorbed in my iPad, parked in Airplane mode. It is still a fairly mysterious device to me, but I’ve been making my way through its user manual, finding more things to like about the iPad and others to pan. I like its built-in cameras. It is so easy to take pictures and movies. I am trying it out with this quick business trip. With the camera and email program sort of integrated, it should be nearly effortless to take pictures, dress them up, and post them to friends. The same goes with taking movies. With luck I’ll be able to use it to take pictures and movies of the Google campus tomorrow. Reputedly Google doesn’t know what to do with all their money, so they have couches you can sleep in in their lobbies. I’ll know soon enough if the rumors are true.
It’s hard to argue too much with their success. Though we know all that data they are mining on us comes at a hidden price, we like the illusion of a free Internet better. Anyhow, Google is a big enough force that even the mighty U.S. government which I represent may deign to afford it a special accommodation, since its dominance helps us spread important emergency related news. Still, we have our ethics rules to ensure we cannot be bought off by Google and its billions. We have been assured that the free lunch in their cafeteria won’t be an ethical compromise, because it is valued at less than $20 per person and that’s the maximum amount we can accept from a company or organization per calendar year without getting in trouble. $21 implies corruption, but $20 does not. Go figure. We are also wondering whether we will be allowed to sign their non-disclosure agreement. Supposedly they won’t let you in their building unless you sign it. But we are the mighty government, mightier even than the mighty Google, and we have pricey lawyers too (just not as pricey as Google’s; they are living on a civil servant’s salary) and they are parsing their nondisclosure agreement and frowning at it. Google might have to cut us a pass. I’ll find out tomorrow.
Meanwhile I am flying over the partially snow covered peaks of Utah. Our descent into San Francisco cannot be too far away.
Microsoft Windows has shown amazing resilience for much of its existence, in spite of its arguably inferior status. Microsoft is now busily creating its next version of Windows, Window 8, and is already heavily hyping it. Many years of observation suggest to me that this means the company is running scared. They fear the success of the iPad and the whole new mobile computer market, where Microsoft has floundered.
Apple dazzled the world with its iPad, but it was just the latest in a number of well-received innovations that included the iPod and the iPhone. The cool factor was primarily a result of its amazingly well thought out user interface. Its success spawned a huge developer community that wrote apps for these devices, making them even more useful. While Microsoft was arguably first in the tablet market by creating stylus-based devices like the Tablet PC, they naturally tethered it to Windows. It’s understandable that they would see value in embedding it with Windows, since it is their brand. What they did not see was that a tablet computer needed an operating system where mobility was at its center, not at the periphery. When Apple and Steve Jobs delivered the iPad, they achieved a breakthrough: a highly useful mobile and connected computer that could also do virtually everything you could do on a desktop computer yet not weigh enough to feel burdensome.
What cemented my feeling that Windows days were numbered at last was observing a woman in my chain of command. She dutifully dragged around the required Blackberry for years, but it was largely used for reading and responding to email. With its tiny keyboard, it was hardly ideal for email either. When the iPhone came out, because she had the clout, she quickly got one and realized the freedom of having a useful mobile product. She retired the Blackberry. Just this week her iPad arrived. It’s bigger than her iPhone, of course, but not too big or too heavy not to be easily carried around. Moreover, it was WiFi and 3G friendly. She could be as productive on the go with her iPad as she could in the office.
Executives everywhere are discovering the iPad and to a lesser extent Android-based tablet computers like Samsung’s Galaxy pad. Some of those executives are CIOs and CTOs, and the light bulbs above their heads began glowing brightly as they figured out that these devices make them more productive on the go while also doing 95% of what their desktop computer can do. In fact they do more than their desktop computer can do, because their tablet computers are so portable and geographically aware. When something is 95% as useful as your desktop computer while you are in the office, and more useful than your desktop computer when away from the office, the end of Windows as a client operating system is not hard to infer.
No, Microsoft won’t go away, but desktop computers will become a declining share of the market in general, which in fact is already underway. Instead, you will carry your iPad or Android-based tablet to work, but probably plug it in to keep the battery charged. You will also probably skip the network cable for the convenience of the office’s wireless network. You will mostly use a wireless keyboard to put content on it (at least until voice recognition software too become ubiquitous), and if its relatively small screen is insufficient for the office, you will plug it into your big honkin’ high-resolution monitor. When it’s time to go home you will slip it automatically into your briefcase or bag. It will follow you pretty much everywhere you go, and its low power requirements will mean you can go for many hours without needing to recharge it. But if you do, you are probably near the power grid anyhow.
Windows 8 is supposed to be Microsoft’s answer to iOS (Apple’s mobile operating system) and Android. But no matter how well it is engineered, it is unlikely to be more compelling than iOS and the iPad, which the nation’s opinion leaders are already using. It is they who will slowly strangle Microsoft Windows, and over time kill its Office suite and the other products tethered to it as well. In time, we will discover that iOS and Android are really nothing but smartly thought out thin-client operating systems, because content (most of it resting securely in the Internet cloud) and an optimized mobile user interface to read and manipulate it is what really matters in our 21st century information age.
I think Windows will die a slow death, with income principally coming from its server-based products like Exchange. Eventually the backroom tech team will find alternatives for Exchange, Active Directory and many other Windows server based products, because they will be cheaper and many of them will not be proprietary.
If you own Microsoft stock, I would not dump it all at once since it probably still has a decade of profits ahead of it. However, I would be selling it in hearty slices over the next few years because its value is likely to sink. I believe that eventually Microsoft will become just another niche company, like Novell or Computer Associates, selling dated legacy products at premium prices to a reduced set of customers too incompetent or lazy to go through the cost and hassle of ditching them.
› I kept coming back for your excellent writing and clean designs.
› Your political posts really do help me understand things better as it's hard for me to read through all the rhetoric out there and see what's what.
› I like your style. You're not afraid to dish it out to both major political parties -- I wish everyone could be as willing to accept the faults of both.
› You've always got something interesting to say.
› A wonderful source of reading for me.
› Great blog.
› I think your blog is great, and most of your entries are engaging and well thought through.
› Your output recently has been amazing... I particularly like to hear your thoughts on life.
› You write well and with humour and an endearing humanity. I am envious.
› Thanks for your great website.
› Little insights like this entry are exactly why I read O.R., despite the obligatory self effacing humor.
› Your site is an excellent part of our struggle against that slide into ignorance, I congratulate you for it and thank you for taking the time to provide what for some may be a helping hand from ignorance to reason.
› I hung on your every word as if it was life.
› On behalf of many women (and certainly myself, because I am one and coping with many men I really love and respect), I thank you profusely.
› Keep up the great work on your blog.
› I found Occam's Razor through Potomac Tavern. The writing in both places is both stimulating and relevant.
› You are an excellent writer and I admire you.
› This guy is so smart that he sometimes gives me a headache. His site is well worth reading and watching. Freaking genius.
› Keep that poison pen working.
› I have just found you on the web and am greatly taken by your essays.
› I am sitting here with tears streaming down my face. That is beautiful.
› You have some superb posts. Twitter has its place, but cannot substitute for such a decade of delicacies and deliberate commentary.
› Wow, what can I say....! It is so well written. Thanks for sharing your intimate thoughts on this topic.
› I think your movie reviews are great! It amazes me you can capture the tiniest details about the plots and the characters from your own point of view. Keep blogging.