Saturday, April 12, 2014

Documentary Night: Faster Than Sound


This is an older episode of Nova. It's not a "classic" episode. I don't think we can call anything after 1990 "classic" just yet, but it's old enough, being from the 97-98 season. Of course, you probably already knew that from the hilariously mid-1990's CGI applied to every logo at the beginning of the show.

Oh, 90's. You loved your CGI text.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Tablet And Cell Phone Sales Are Slowing, And That's A Good Thing

UPDATE: I didn't realize this when I wrote it, but Samsung's current ad campaign IS "The Next Big Thing". That's hilarious to me.

Apple and its investors are in a panic right now because tablet and cell phone sales are slowing. First off, I'm amazed that anyone is surprised by this. As soon as the Moto G came out, I knew that we were near the end of the smartphone explosion. And even before that, the writing was on the wall.

Apple's competitors have been trying very hard to be Apple. Aside from Samsung, which through sheer brute force managed to become the default Android phone, smartphone companies are not earning money. That's because they cannot be Apple. Apple is Apple because they were the first out the gate. They created a new market. Along with the apple cachet, this allowed Apple to charge a premium and make huge profits.

The only option for the Johnny-come-lately companies it to compete on price. None of them wanted to do this because it's not sexy. It's also a brutal place to be. But which is better, being in a brutal but profitable market, or being bankrupt? Obviously, for companies like HTC, Blackberry, Sony, and Nokia, they all decided that bankruptcy was the better choice. Man, those MBAs are really paying off.

During this slow motion train wreck, these companies threw everything at the wall. Gaming phones and tablets, curved screens, touch panels all over, specialized hardware. They threw it out there, didn't support it, and watched it die. For the winners, all this change resulted in huge profits. But one of the big reasons for that was that with every generation, big changes took place. The iPhone 3Gs was a huge leap from the original iPhone. That is no longer the case.

As I said, the Moto G was the beginning of the end. It was a good enough phone for less than $200 unlocked. The Nokia 510 is another good enough phone for dirt cheap. When products that are super cheap are good enough, the vast majority of people have no reason to upgrade.

And this is fantastic. I grew to hate Apple and their flock because it was always about the next great thing. This earned them huge sales, but stunted the actual potential of their creations. For example, biological evolution requires a stressful but stable environment for changes and selection to take place. If the environment is always changing, there is no persistent pressure to affect selection and evolution never takes places.

The technology market is the same thing. For practical progress to be made, arbitrary progress must slow down. Technological features and standards must remain static so companies can find ways to implement them. If they expect rapid changes, companies will not invest. Software will remain simple, light-weight, and easy to update.

Everyone who lived through the 80's and early 90's remembers that joke about technology being obsolete before you get it home. That joke stopped working in the 2000's because computers stabilized. Software complexity increased a hundred fold in the 90's not just because of technological advancements, but because the market remained mostly stable. A computer bought in 1995 could run software in 2000. I was using a computer that I built in 2002 in 2011. This allowed developers to dump huge amounts of time and money into development knowing that the market would remain open for years into the future.

Developers today have no idea what to expect from the next iPad or iOS. Android is even worse because Google is treating it like its own little fiefdom. Windows Phone has had three major architectural changes and it's barely three years old, with another change in the pipes. Windows RT is a disaster. Windows 8 is only a slightly smaller disaster.

I've always said, I don't want the next best thing, I want the thing that I buy to be functional for ten years.

---

I actually have a personal example of technological change causing harm. Back in the early 2000's, Microsoft was pushing a package of sorts on how to develop robust online applications through Visual Basic 6, Windows 2000, and a few other bits of technology. Visual Basic had already been around for years and had become an immensely successful programming language. This push of theirs was likewise a huge hit. Thousands of develops piled on to create online applications with Microsoft tools.

So Microsoft did the only logical thing: they deprecated all of Visual Studio in favor of .Net. You may not know what .Net is, but I'm sure that you've had problems with downloading updates to .Net to get programs to run. It's a software framework in which a programmer can make software. Any changes to the framework can break software and fuck developers. So when framework changes come down the pipe, it is a terrifying time.

Sometimes, major architectural shifts are great. Apple did that when they released OSX. But Apple had an installed base that was one one-hundredth the size of Windows. They needed change to survive.

When Microsoft did the same thing, they threw the world into chaos. Evolution stopped because people needed to adapt to this new framework, much of which was arbitrarily different.

Microsoft did this because technological stability/stagnancy is a poor profit generator for a company that makes money off the framework. They maximize profits by keeping the framework fluid. Keep customers and developers chasing the next big thing. Indeed, producing a perfect product is the last these companies want, and I hate that.

Look at Windows XP. 30% of computers still run Windows XP and Microsoft is beginning a campaign of annoyance to try to force these people to switch to a newer OS.They made an amazing product with Windows XP. In fact, they made it so good, they were unable to convince people to leave it. And in the twisted logic of software companies, that's a bad thing.

What happened to .Net? Well, I can't directly associate the betrayal of Microsoft's developer base with this trend, but it must play at least a part; Visual Studio saw a massive drop in significance. Visual Basic went from being one of the top three most widely used languages on the planet to, as far as I know, not even in the top ten, although this is a very hard measurement to make. I do know that good old VB6 is still more popular than VB.Net, though, and that says something very important about developers:

They want their shit to work, nothing more.

---

For a few years, everyone seemed wrapped up in the "Post-PC" era nonsense. This was of course just marketing blather to sell tablets. If anything, we are entering the true age of the PC, when they become as stable and ubiquitous as cars and refrigerators. Do we see double digit growth in car sales? No. Of course we don't. That doesn't mean we have entered the post-car era.

But sales are what matters, not actual development. So the stability of the PC was lambasted as dying, while the white-hot tablet and cell phone market was thriving. What they actually meant was that tablets and cell phones were obsolescing faster. It was like the 1980's and 1990's PC market all over again. But just as with the PC, the tablet was cruising to stability. It had to. Which again explains why I was so amazed by anyone who was surprised when the steam started to go out of this Post-PC epoch.

Perhaps it is because our experience in the past moved more slowly. But that was a different time, a different world. Tablets and cell phones moved far more quickly than computers did. Because of that, I think they have already reached their proverbial Windows XP moment, where the products and frameworks being bought today will be good enough for the next five to ten years.

And I couldn't be happier. I love tablets. I think they have an immense amount of potential to do great things. But their consumer focus and ever-changing frameworks prevent real progress from happening. Instead, tablets are primarily used as tools to fuck around on Facebook. And while smartphones have a lot of fun apps, the vast majority of them are mere junk — trifles with which people can while away some time.

I want something more from them, and for that to happen, they need to stop changing. Apple and their ilk will fight this. They always want us chasing the next big thing, real change and development be damned. That's why everyone is starting to flip out about Google Glass and Smart Watches. They need us focused on the next big thing. (See update above)

Tablets and smartphones are no longer the next big thing, and that's great.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Lean Out, Lean In, Lean Out, Then Shake It All About

Sheryl Sandberg has been making noise ever since the release of her book Lean In which encourages women to be more aggressive in their social attainment. I have nothing against Sandberg and think that her heart was in the right place, but her Lean In movement is total horseshit and it has long since worn out its welcome.

First, let's ignore the white, hetero-normative, cis-gendered focus of her book. This is a problem that could fill a book and others have come close to doing so. I actually think that this criticism effectively negates Sandberg's arguments entirely, but it's not the biggest problem that I have with her work.

I also want to point out that while the core argument she is making is nonsense, she makes tons of great points about equality and sexism that are worthy points. If these were novel points or analyses, it would be a bigger deal, but they aren't. These are data points that have been known for a long time.

The biggest problem that I have is that Sandberg further reinforces socio and econo-normative behaviors and values. For Sandberg, success in life is found in a nuclear family, money, and property. Again, this is utterly without merit. Research has shown that economic stability is critical to happiness, but economic stability is relative, and that once stability has been reached, property and money do not correlate with happiness.

If the world were different, she would just be another author saying less-than-correct things, but the world is not different; the world is the world. And the world is one which is filled with damaging and counterproductive value programming that encourages people to try to find happiness in money and status. As such, her message is actually dangerous.

There is no inherent value to climbing the proverbial ladder (or jungle gym as Sandberg rephrases it). As far as I know, she never once addresses the underlying assumptions of value that undergird her thought. For her, they are taken for granted.

Well I don't take them for granted. Money is not inherently valuable. Success is not inherently valuable. Our national discussion rarely focuses on these subjects because it is the last thing anyone wants. Our economy is based on people not believing these things. Businesses are based on people not believing these things. Governmental power is based on people not believing these things.

People who addresses these underlying issues and try to discuss them and not simply the icing on the capitalist cake are labeled as fringe or fanatics — people with their heads in the clouds. By belittling these people, we can avoid discussing things that are, on a societal scale, very scary.

Sandberg would have been much more groundbreaking if she had used her priviledge and position, the bully pulpit, to discuss our underlying values. Because it is these values that are the wellspring from which our prejudice flows. The patriarchy and all its concomitant misogyny and sexism are products of these very basic values.

There is actually a term for this, mores: folkways of central importance accepted without question and embodying the fundamental moral views of a group. These are deep-rooted assumptions. They are like the id and ego of a society — the reptilian hindbrain of a nation.

Sandberg didn't do that. She produced a digestible little nugget of fluff. And funny enough, this perfectly embodies her underlying values. Her fluff sold hundreds of thousands of copies and earned her spots on talk shows. If she had written a truly trenchant and piercing analysis of society, no one would have bought it.

She did precisely what she said we should all do: she leaned in... straight into the top of the best sellers list.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Documentary Night: A Short History of In-Home Heating

I get the feeling that this is somehow funded by a petroleum company trying to convince us that they "care." Regardless, Neil Oliver is awesome and even this five-minute short is worth a watch.

Texas Needs More People Like This

Texas has an image problem. Not as bad as, say, Mississippi or Alabama, but bad. A lot of it probably has to do with their sheer size and visibility. Texas is massive, politically influential, wealthy, and oil-rich.

Thus, when they do something stupid, everyone knows about it. For someone not living in Texas, it's very hard to remember that that stupidity is a product of only a subsection of the population.

Obviously, we have Austin, which is famous for being "weird," as they like to call themselves. But I, and most of the people that I know, consider Austin as almost another state. That's not good. It is part of Texas.

Similarly, Texas has large numbers of intelligent, tolerant people. They may currently be out-shouted by the maniacs, but they are no less a part of the state. Texas needs more visible people like this to help drive that point home. It might help their tourist industry.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Youtube's 1080p Option Is Unavailable To Me In Firefox

I have spent some time trying to track down a reason for this and, failing to succeed, I am posting the question here.

YouTube is a source of near-constant problems for people because cell companies and internet service providers hate it. They hate it because it's so popular and sucks up a lot of bandwidth. Because, remember, telecom companies are generally evil, and their ideal scenario is where you give them $100 every month and then never use their product.

But I digress. I have three computers in my house, two on WiFi and one CAT-5'd into the wireless router provided by Verizon. The two computers on WiFi always provide the option of 1080p in videos that have it, but the computer that is hardwired never does when using Firefox. Chrome sometimes won't show it, but Internet Explorer will always give me the option.

I thought it was my cookie blocker, my ad blocker, my script blocker, or my security suite, but the issue persists in Firefox with all of those programs turned off. I am at a loss.

UPDATE: SOLUTION FOUND

I discovered the problem. I have a few accounts connected to Google, and a few computers, and this led to some confusion.

On one account, I had opted into the HTML5 video beta that is available at the bottom of the YouTube page. On others, I was either not signed in, or had not opted into the HTML5 video beta.

YouTube's HTML5 video option does not currently support 1080p videos. They are only available through the Flash video player.

If 1080p videos are mysteriously not available to you, click "try something new" at the bottom of the page and opt out of HTML5.

Monday, January 13, 2014

To Catch a Trader And My Mixed Feelings


I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, these guys are a pack of assholes. They are masters of the universe, wealthy, mostly white, and almost all male. They have undoubtedly been part of the global economic crisis as we now know it and would, given a position of power, exploit and abuse that power. I would hate these people if I knew them. (Watch the full documentary here.)

On the other hand, what they did is one of the smallest problems in the stock market, and yet it is the only problem we ever seem to prosecute. The intro of the documentary quotes Preet Bhahara saying "It doesn't matter who you are, the rules are the rules and the law is the law."

Well... that's wrong. It does matter who you are and everyone knows that. There is far shiftier behavior transpiring on Wall Street and those criminals never go to jail. These people wrecked a good hunk of the global economy, and very few of them have even been investigated. Look at how long it took them to investigate Madoff!



I'm speaking about this as an ex-day trader. That's one of the reasons I'm angry. I've seen the inside of the machine. I've seen the gears turning. There are genuine changes that can, and should, be made, but focusing on some insider traders ignores those prospects. It is similar to the year or so after the crash, and how so many people were obsessed with vilifying short traders, all the while completely ignoring the actual problems.

And yet here we are, the problems aren't fixed, and we're going after the same people instead of the real criminals. How's that windmill, guys?

Friday, November 29, 2013

Why Do We Regulate Pain Killers But Not Antibiotics?

Two points: I just finished watching the PBS|Frontline documentary Chasing The Nightmare Bacteria; I also just read about a massive study showing that access to pain killers is poor. You can watch the documentary below.

The takeaway from the documentary is that we are charging headlong into a massive, global, health crisis the likes of which the post-war era has not seen. We are overusing antibiotics in our food supply, and even with that not taken into account, fifty-percent of antibiotics are unnecessary. We should be regulating antibiotics like crazy, and yet we aren't.

What are we regulating? Pain killers. The study to which I linked above says that the regulations applied to pain killers had good intentions, but now they are causing harm.

No. They never had good intentions, and the intentions that we actually had all but guaranteed the negative outcomes that we now face.

We regulated pain killing drugs because they are "fun" drugs. Any and all fun drugs are bad, because fun is bad. Semi-legal fun drugs are even worse, because we cannot call those who use them necessarily scum. We regulate it because doctors judge their patients and disregard their pain.

My father has diabetic neuropathy in his legs, a type of pain that is known to be resistant to opioid analgesics. He is also opioid-resistent, making the problem worse.. (I am also opioid-resistant, but I'm not in pain, so it doesn't much matter to me.) This means that very few pain killers work for him. He actually had a doctor tell him "this dose works for me, so it will work for you."

Along with that stunning, stunning, display of arrogance, my dad has had to face judgmental stares, questions, and disapproving tisks from nurses and doctors. It took months of pain before a doctor finally listened to him. Months of pain.

I have felt it, especially now that I have to present an ID to get simple pseudoephedrine: guilt. I have been trained by society to feel bad about using particular drugs. This mindset extends into the medical world, but the coin is flipped. Whereas I feel guilty about using the drugs, the person in a position of power, the doctor, feels judgmental about my using and asking for the drugs.

If I am in pain, then I must suffer nobly, otherwise I am a bad person. No fun drugs for me! Because having fun is bad.As I mentioned, semi-legal fun drugs are the worst for a judgmental society, because we cannot automatically label those who use them as deviant. As such, we must put those who do use them through a rubicon of pain, judgment, scorn, and red tape to ensure they feel correctly bad about using them. You may not be scum, but you are almost scum.

We regulate pain killers for the same reason we regulate marijuana, cocaine, and heroin — for the same reason we imprison huge numbers of people every year for victimless crimes. We do it out of sheer, unmitigated stupidity driven by a history of conservative, Christian judgment and racism. And as I said, the problems we now face of unaddressed pain in patients: almost inevitable.

When we base decisions on blind dogma, the outcomes are always going to be bad. Dogma is almost never right, because if it were right, then it wouldn't be dogma. It would simply be knowledge.

If I smoke marijuana (which I do not do, never have done, and never will do) I hurt no one. I barely hurt myself. But if I take an antibiotic, I could theoretically create the germ that kills us all.

So tell me again, why is marijuana the one that gets me thrown into jail?

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Science Proves: Avoid Politics If You Care About Your Sanity

A study came out awhile back showing that politics kills your ability to effectively analyze data. For most informed people (and informed is a label that could be correctly applied to a very small percentage of the population), this was a total well duh! moment. Still, it's always good to have some rigidly-created data to back up anecdotal observation.

Every time I see something like this, I get depressed. As someone who loves science and philosophy, history and literature, the predilection for humanity to just revel in its own prejudice and stupidity is enough to send me off a bridge. To combat this suicidal drive, I read Machiavelli. While I think that The Prince may have been dark satire, its cold, cruel views of humanity always make me feel that if humans want so desperately to be tricked, then goddamnit, trick them.


Monday, June 10, 2013

This is Obama's Legacy


While I know that my voice is small and insignificant, while I know very few care about my thoughts, I feel the need to speak on this. I feel the need if for no other reason than to simply add one more spit of fuel to a fire that desperately needs to grow. I speak in the hope that this fire may engulf the nation and burn away that which needs to burn.

I never had hope. I never expected change. I never expected this. I never expected a president who, time and again, has proven himself the equal of George W. Bush in almost all matters. His failure has been spectacular. And while he has had some high-profile successes, such as Obamacare, and for these many of my progressive friends have given him props, I was reading about his constant and persistent failures in the journals and articles on civil rights, copyright, freedom of speech, and equal rights. I was reading about the small, operational decisions that most people don't care about. For me, this blowup over the NSA was, for lack of a better word, expected.

Osama Bin Laden should be proud. He didn't destroy the U.S. like he, for some reason, thought he would. Instead, thanks to fear mongering politicians, an idiotic populace, and two presidencies headed by men without scruples, he has managed to cause us to build what is perhaps the infrastructure to the greatest police state the world has ever known.

The U.S. is obviously not currently a police state. Progressive activists will point to certain elements of it that are similar to it -- be it police abuse, overreaching government, the TSA, or institutional bigotry -- but on the whole, the U.S. is decently free. But we are on a precipice. The slope is not nearly as slippery as conservative wingnuts would have you believe, but we have spent the past thirteen years, slowly but surely, walking down that slope. And now, here we are, further down that slope that many probably suspected we were.

It was an overused phrase during Bush's reign, and perhaps we are all still weary of it, but I will repeat it anyhow, in its non-paraphrased form. They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Friday, June 07, 2013

I Have Stopped Reading The News


I give up. I'm waving the white flag. I simply can't take the punishment anymore.

I am, of course, referring to the news. I used to get my news via MyYahoo!, which actually provided me a degree of protection of which I was unaware. It did it by being a really poor product. Feeds would fail to load on a regular basis, refreshes wouldn't happen, and the overall speed was pretty slow. This forced a restrictor on the flow of news from the various services to my eyeballs. This meant that, on any given day, I would only be exposed to a small handful of big news stories that reminded me that the world is shit.

Unfortunately, Google had to go and upset my little arrangement. A couple of months ago, Google announced that Google Reader was getting shut down. This caused everyone who had been using it to make the jump to another program called Feedly, which became an instant superstar. Out of curiosity, I made the jump from MyYahoo! to Feedly, and ho. Lee. Crap. The feeds to which I'm subscribed produce over five-hundred posts per day. I would spend hours just digging through the headlines, much less reading them. I was completely unaware of how much stuff is written. Billions of words, every day, efficiently being dumped into a list of stories that, no matter how fast I read, never seemed to empty. There was always more to read.

This alone would have been enough to overwhelm me. The subject matter, though, was what pushed me over the edge.

From my analysis of news stories over the past two months, I feel safe in concluding that the world is, and I believe that this is a scientific term, fucked. Like, really fucked. There is no place on Earth that isn't fucked. If the government is alright, then that country can expect to be turned into a burnt cinder by global warming. If the environment is alright, the government is set on being as bad as possible. If neither of those things are bad, then the economy is shit. And in all places, at all times, corporations are trying to destroy us all.

The first thing that I stopped reading was Alternet. I like the website. I think that it is a useful website. But the constant outrage -- the fact that no matter where you look there is extreme injustice -- I just couldn't take it.

The next thing that I stopped reading was Salon, another progressive website that is lighter on the injustice than Alternet, but still depressing enough to drive me into the arms of a warm coffee for comfort and a blank wall for entertainment.

After that, website after website fell. I lost interest in my gadget websites because everything on them is being manufactured by slave labor in shit-hole countries. I stopped reading about cars because gas costs $4,345.92 per gallon. I stopped reading economics news because no matter our education level, we are doomed to a future of poor pay and no free time. I stopped reading foreign policy news because other countries suck, and the U.S. sucks, and when the two combine it's like speed and kinetic energy -- double the country count and you don't double the suckiness, you actually quadruple it.

These trials and tribulations did provide one positive thing, though, and that is a new perspective. Currently, progressive media has a problem: very few people read it, and even though the Internet is overflowing with options for news, the majority of people get there news from a small number of sources. Before this experience, I was as puzzled as everyone else. I am no longer puzzled.

Not only is it freaking difficult to actually access with some acceptable speed all of the stories being published every day, but the subject matter is so universally depressing that it turns people into shell-shocked zombies, incapable of integrating further news in any meaningful way. To truly know what's going on is to feel depressed and powerless. There are so many wrongs that need righting, and those in power, nearly them all, couldn't care less. It is a war with a thousand fronts. It is overwhelming.

Since I stopped reading the news, I've been able to get more work done. I haven't been much happier, because I still know that nearly unfathomable injustice is being perpetrated whether I know about it or not. I have been more capable of dealing with that, though. Seeing the photos of this or that catastrophe would sap every bit of emotional energy that I had. I would simply sit there, unable to do anything.

I'd imagine that I will go back at some point. I care too much and think it too important to never go back. But for now, at this point in my life, when things are so difficult, I simply can't. I can't be made aware of the events because I cannot help but care. I cannot turn off my empathy and sympathy mechanisms. When exposed to certain stimuli, they activate, and on many days, it cripples me. I cannot afford to be crippled.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert

I have been profoundly affected by the death of Roger Ebert. I’m finding it difficult to simply do things.

When someone who is so good dies, especially someone as iconic as Ebert, it's hard to believe that they will ever be replaced. It's as though the world has suffered an irreparable loss. Even though my rational mind knows that there will be others, at this moment, my emotions will not let that thought take hold. Today, the world is less.

It seems odd to wax so poetic about a movie critic, but Ebert became much more than that. He was a prominent and charismatic intersection of social criticism, entertainment, art, and politics. He was a singular person. No other film critic comes close, and few writers begin to approach his scope of social analysis. Fewer still did it all while being so amazingly entertaining.

For me, this is the end of an era.