Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Tea Party Is Wrong, Even When They're Right

The Tea Party has rose to a somewhat frightening degree of political prominence even though its most famous representatives are, let's just say it like it is, stupid. They lack historical knowledge, economic understanding, and at times grammatical principles. They have tried to convince us that it is government profligacy that is their primary target, and yet a hatred for government spending is not the only unifying characteristic they hold.

Ignoring the fact that these are the same people who, in their quest to prevent government control and spending, don't seem to understand what the government does, they are driven by ideals that define regressive idealism and religiosity. The Tea Party is predominantly white, male, and older. I would like to add highly religious to that. I have no data to back that up, but again, since Tea Partiers are predominantly pro-life, and all of the major tea party supporters in politics are pro-life, it must be assumed that they are religious.

I like the idea of less government spending. I won't touch the tea part with a thousand foot pole, but the ideal I like. The mountain of other baggage that they carry prevents them from being anything other than fringe kooks. They do not care about government spending. They care about that, and regressive ideals, and religion, and abortion, and stupidly nebulous ideas of America and nationalism.

They want less spending. If that results in fewer firefighters, or schools, or anything, so be it! Supporting those things don't jive with small government. Damn the consequences, let's indulge our insane ideals first!

My biggest issue is that these people are not driven by a purely conservative belief. That would be fine. I would be a supporter. But they are actually pushing an entire package of beliefs that is classist, seemingly racist, overtly religious, and internally inconsistent. Why is it inconsistent? "Government stay out of my life! Unless, of course, we're preventing a woman from getting an abortion!"

Monday, March 28, 2011

Humans And Monogamy

In an earlier post I attacked a book that made the argument that humans developed monogamy because of weapons. I find this hypothesis to be highly inadequate. I've read it before, but I'm not sure how widespread this perspective is, that human semi-monogamy as we have it now came about because of the concept of ownership. Some argue that this happened with the development of agriculture, others with artistic creations like necklaces. Whenever it developed, I think it makes much more sense if you look at the highly political lives of chimps and bonobos.

Basically, for men, if you own crap that you want to pass down, you want to give it to your own children. In chimp society, it's not a matter of passing down possessions, it's simply not expending energy to care for the children. There's no planning for the future. Ownership incentivises an understanding of blood lines. I find this explanation much more likely. But even then, there is no way to test these things. Every society on Earth has a system of ownership, so we can't go and find one that doesn't. We can't find a society without weapons. It's all intellectual masturbation.

More News on Teacher Evaluation

I must confess to a degree of ignorance with current events in the world of teacher evaluation. I had not idea that so-called value added bonuses had gained such traction. They make fun of the mathematical equation to figure this out, but it's not that complex. They project a student's performance based on past performance and then rate deviation from that projection.

Again, I think it's good that we're rocking the boat, but this formula wouldn't work for straight-A students. Also, projecting student performance based on past performance is a dangerous endeavor. I failed almost everything in high school, but got a 1430 on the SAT's. Do we credit that to a teacher that year, or the fact that I was failing because I was a belligerent prick when I was 17?

Everyone is aware of those problems, which is the ostensible reason why the teacher's unions are against this system. While I'm sure that has a large part to play, another part that they don't want to admit is the ridiculous level of protection and nepotism that the union provides them.

I still feel that the best way to increase teacher performance is anonymous evaluations from students and other teachers, grades, standardized tests, and of course graduation rates. Computer models to track students trajectory through school and determine correlations between graduation rates, SAT scores, college acceptance, and teachers that those students have had would take awhile to program but aren't too complicated.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Paying Teachers For Performance

Florida has become the first state to sign into government a performance-based pay system for teachers. I am hesitant to endorse this. On the one hand, teacher pay needs an overhaul. Our education system is crumbling and it's only getting worse. Talented people are becoming teachers at a declining rate, and those spots are being filled by idiots.

On the other hand, basing performance analysis on standardized testing will simply force teachers to concentrate on getting those grades up, resulting in a drop in education quality. It incentivises educating by rote to score highly on tests to maximize money and minimize the threat of termination. This is bad.

In the end, while I think that this system is just as broken as the system that it replaces, it is at least different. It rocks the boat a little, which we desperately needed.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

More Good Music

A recent study indicates that there is just as much good music floating around today as there was before Napster destroyed the world.

Anyone who has ever used TheSixtyOne knows that there's lots of good music being produced. So much, in fact, that it's impossible to listen to all of it. Services like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone review as many albums as they can, but even that is a tenth of the albums that they receive. When I worked at a radio station in the early to mid 2000's we had a team of four people listening to albums for broadcast. We listened to dozens of albums each week and it was still a small fraction of what was sent to us.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

How TV Did Nothing To Your Life

I've been thinking a great deal about How TV Ruined Your Life and its anti-consumerist message. It rips apart many of the arguably very negative aspects of our material society and highlights grotesque examples like My Super Sweet 16.

But hidden in these attacks, and truly the attacks from anyone who talks about how modern aspects of life are bad is the sociological fallacy of The Good Ol' Days. It is the same phenomenon as the World in Decay perspective that so many religions have. Essentially, now is bad, some other time is necessarily better. By almost every metric, this is wrong. That's why I call it a fallacy.

Instead, what I think the show, and all of the synonymous perspectives are lamenting are symptoms of underlying issues. Materialism, celebrity culture; these are not the problems. The problem is a society filled with shallow, half-dead shells of humans. People two-hundred years ago would have been materialistic just as they are today, only they didn't have the materials with which to do it. If anything, the only variable keeping the general population of this bygone day from turning to the perverted excesses of the the elite (who's opulence was either equal to or far greater than that of today) was a society that told them the abandon all hope.

The problem we need to address is a population of unfulfilled humans who reach out into the world for things that fulfill primal, nebulous, hind-brain type pleasures. These provide fleeting bits of happiness, and they're left unsatisfied and yearning for more, but at least they were something approximating happiness for a short time.

It's then no surprise that the things that he attacks directly in his show are all of the pleasures and fears that cater strongly to the reptilian parts of the noodle: Fear, death, possessions, and sex & companionship. We focus on these because we are animals programmed to focus on them. We shouldn't be pointing to TV and media, we should be pointing to an educational and societal system that doesn't bother to give kids an understanding of the world to inoculate them to such thinking and behavior.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

How TV Ruined Your Life

How TV Ruined Your Life is a highly entertaining short series of shows from British writer Charlie Brooker. I don't agree with some of it, but it avoids too many strong statements in favor of a simple but rather trenchant thesis that TV represents general problems with society. He then comments on this state in an enormously funny way.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Stay The Fuck Out of Amazon's Business

Brick-and-mortar retailers are pissing and moaning, as they have for years, that Amazon unfairly gets a free pass on taxes. Big-box retailers are now piling on in hopes of doing some serious damage to Amazon's bottom line. The Argument basically goes, if Amazon doesn't have to charge taxes, then ordinary stores could never match the price. Only, this is ridiculous. Amazon does have a tax that users have to pay, and that's in form of shipping. Shipping, especially for large items, frequently makes stuff on Amazon more expensive than stuff at Wal-Mart. I'm not going to Amazon as a replacement for Wal-Mart or Best Buy, I'm going as a supplement. I go for things I can't get at ordinary stores.

Furthermore, the states have no claim to sales taxes. Taxes are a due that we pay to fund some system, be it the economy, police, or schools. If the actions of a company do not partake in that system, then the system has no right to claim any money. I live in Rhode Island, and Amazon is not benefiting from Rhode Island's system. Amazon benefits from states in which it has warehouses, because Amazon relies on the fire, police, and regulatory agencies therein. As such, they owe taxes. Amazon does not owe taxes to states to which they are simply mailing crap. If the states have a problem with taxes, go after people who order from Amazon and don't report the purchases.

But even then, as far as I'm concerned, the states can go screw. They have no claim to that revenue. Simply because I live someplace doesn't mean that you can levy taxes on my behavior all over the planet.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The NY Times Unleashes Paywall; Confirms That it Has No Clue

The New York Times has finally released all of the details of their impending paywall. It is, somehow, both stupider and smarter than I was expecting. The details:

  • You can access articles for free via search engines and social media links, similar to The Wall Street Journal. Google provides five free articles per day.
  • Newspaper subscribers get access. This includes both weekdays and Sunday-only.
  • There are three levels of price: web & phone $15/month; web & tablet $20/month; web, tablet, & phone $35/month.
  • Those prices include 100 "archive" articles per month.
  • Users can view 20 articles per month for free.

Let's go through this step by step and find out why the NY Times is out of its freaking mind.

If you're going to have a paywall that's full of holes, why bother with a paywall at all. User conversion rates are going to be minuscule; less than 1% if other data are representative. As such, you'll get people interested in using the service for free, only to cut them off once they become frequent users. Conversion rates will remain low, and the bad experience will reduce the likelihood of their coming back even for free articles.

The Times doesn't go into details about how your monthly limit will be tracked. If it's done via a cookie, it would be very easy to simply delete the cookie and browse free for ever, so I doubt they'll do that. Instead, they'll force everyone who even just stumbles into the Times to create an account, which will send reader numbers even lower.

The pricing tiers are outright bizarre. You can get the phone and web, or tablet and web, but not phone and tablet, or just web. It also holds a twisted view of news as something that is defined by its container, and not by the content. It's all just data, so charging more for each variant of the same data is strange.

The archive limit is something that I find silly, if not stupid. The Times should be pushing their archive as hard as they can since it's the one thing that their competitors can't match. It's something that simply comes with age. It can bring eyes to the Times pages from people who were searching for something entirely unrelated to current events.

I'll reiterate, this behavior is being caused by a company that thinks its money came from somewhere it didn't, it's also confused as to what its product actually is. Newspapers always ran off of advertising revenue. Consumers classically paid as little as possible. It got to the point where magazine subscriptions cost $10 for an entire year. I wasn't even paying for the printing at that cost!

The product that magazines and newspapers once sold was, at the time, partially the publications. People did pay, so people were dispensing value units, money, in exchange for the paper. But their real product, the thing that they were actually selling to pay the bills, was access to those eyes that their publication had attracted. They were selling their readers to advertisers. The publications were merely an expensive way to attract a group of people every day.

The problem that newspapers are encountering is a drop in the value of each reader. Anyone could have predicted this, and many did. Newspaper value was high because it was one of the few games in town that attracted large audiences around a single medium: the newspaper. If the number of avenues (publications) increases, the value of each avenue will decrease. The internet suddenly made every newspaper a direct competitor. As such, the value of each person dropped precipitously. But that's not the whole story.

Newspapers were rarely read by just one person. Thus, the cost per impression was actually lower than the subscriber counts indicated. The Times charged a set amount per column inch in advertising, and if you divide the total number of paid column inches by print numbers, you were able to derive the earnings per print. If we assume that only one person sees a paper, then the earnings per print equals the earnings per impression, but that's not the case. Many papers are read by many people. For example, a newspaper in a doctor's office is read by dozens of people. This drops the value of the cost per impression since we have to divide the total revenue by a greater number of people. What this does is drop the value of individual people closer to the level of the cheap cost-per-impression that exists on the internet.

I think that the drop in impression value isn't as large as the shaky financial situation of the various newspapers would indicate. I think their situations are the result of bloat and bad management, which was allowable in the days when advertising revenue per column inch was very high. It all went wrong because the drop in per-impression advertising value was not met by an equal increase in impressions. And if we assume that there were far more impressions that prints, you can see how reader numbers must become very large to warrant the same income as before.

Again, that's why AOL is pushing SEO onto every post. They need to get those reader numbers very high to earn the kind of money that the Times used to earn. BUT IT CAN BE DONE! Not only can it be done, but the earnings of old will be eclipsed by the earnings of a well-networked content company today. For example, Gawker media has begun abandoning old-style advertising in favor of integrated advertising. This isn't an "ad" per se, but a brand that is integrated with the brand of the content creator.

Try going to one of Gawker's sites, be it Gizmodo or io9, you'll find at least one of them with some brand plastered right up there with the website's logo. It's part of the website. Adblocker does nothing, and importantly, it doesn't need to. Adblocker is helpful because banner ads are usually garish, screen-filling, CPU-hogging monsters. They've changed the nature of the advertisements. Not entirely, but one that's only really feasible in a digital environment.

The Times needs to increase readership, not decimate it. They need to come up with new ideas for advertisements, not simply shovel out the same ones. The paywall does neither of these things. The paywall will be a failure, guaranteed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Human Monogomy Is The Result of Weapons?

There's a new book coming out that I, admittedly, have not read. So I don't know whether my criticisms of this article should be aimed at the author or at The New York Times. Regardless, someone doesn't know jack-shit about chimps.

First off, the author is assuming that our behavior is similar to chimps, while that is hardly an accepted fact. Lots of researchers think that our ancient society was closer to the bonobo.

So what caused us to become primarily monogamous? Well... wait. Since when have we been primarily monogamous? I know lots of sex researchers who would dispute this claim. What about theories that we pair-bond for three years, with a huge burst of sexual desire at the beginning. This gets us pregnant and provides care long enough for the baby to become self-mobile. Where does that fit into his theory? In born behavior like that must have come long before our development of weapons.

Regardless, the article, at least, contends that the force behind monogamy was "perhaps, the invention of weapons — an event that let human ancestors escape the brutal tyranny of the alpha male that dominated ape societies."

What brutal tyranny of alpha males? Apparently, the NY Times didn't bother reading the Wikipedia entry on chimp social structure, where "more than one individual may be dominant enough to dominate other members of lower rank."

Furthermore, "the 'dominant male' does not always have to be the largest or strongest male but rather the most manipulative and political male who can influence the goings on within a group. Male chimpanzees typically attain dominance through cultivating allies who will provide support for that individual in case of future ambitions for power."

There is no tyranny of the alpha male in chimp societies. And to put the explanation exclusively on the males WILDLY ignores the complexities of chimp society. Again, from nothing more than Wikipedia;

"Its often the females who choose the alpha male. For a male chimpanzee to win the alpha status, he must gain acceptance from the females in the community as they are the ones who actually dictate the lifestyle... In some cases, a group of dominant females will oust an alpha male who is not to their preference and rather back up the other male who they see potential of leading the group as a successful alpha male."

Tyrant, indeed.

This is the reason why there's such blowback on evolutionary psychology. They make inferences and conclusions that are, at best, fleetingly supported by evidence. Broad statements can be made, but to argue that details that this or that variable was definitely the cause of a shift in behavior or evolution is not, NOR EVER WILL BE, supported by evidence. This book is intellectual masturbation.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

AOL, The New York Times, And The Future of News

As is being passed about the interwebs, for the first time, the internet has surpassed newspapers as a source of news for those surveyed. Everyone is aware, even the New York Times, that print is on the way out, at least as far as news goes. This news comes as even more significant because of recent events involving the old guard of the news world and some big bets being made in regards to the emerging players.

First, we have The New York Times, probably the single most visible newspaper in the world, erecting a paywall. We've already seen the effects that paywalls have on readership. Newsday implemented one and received, after three months, thirty-five subscribers. Thirty. Five. They then took down the paywall for about a month, which caused a small spike in their Alexa numbers, which immediately went back to its pathetic standing after the paywall was reinstated.

News Corp. instituted a paywall for the Times of London, reducing its online readership by 95%. Two websites that have paywalls but remain successful are both financial, The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. What that means, I'm unsure, but I doubt that it's a coincidence. Furthermore, the "paywall" of the Wall Street Journal can be largely bypassed if you always enter through Google search. I also know that the Economist's paywall isn't absolute, since I've read many articles on their site.

Paywalls are a disaster waiting to happen for whichever publication is stupid enough to try. But on the other side of the coin, they are a massive opportunity to any enterprising competitors, which is exactly what's happening with the recent AOL purchase of The Huffington Post. First off, I think it was idiotic that Yahoo! didn't buy the Post first, but that's another story. Second... off?... we have the New York Times complaining about The Huffington Post, calling them thieves, following a similar charge levied by The New Republic (which, shocker, is also behind a paywall). It is not at all coincidental that these comments are coming after AOL's buyout.

Further evidence of the coming shakeup is the supposed "AOL Way" that is being pushed out to all of AOL's online properties, including mega-blogs like Engadget. This strategy, and truly the strategy of Huffington Post from the beginning, has only one goal: to dominate the online newscape. The number of stories being produced is going to be staggering, and even the copy of those stories will be SEO'ed. Any competitor who's stupid enough to go behind a paywall will immediately be decimated by open competitors who are optimizing their entire site to draw in as much traffic as possible.

AOL is positioning itself as the replacement to any news organization that shoots itself or otherwise fails to adapt. The AOL Way is the core of this mission. Yes, we'll have lots of boilerplate garbage, and lots of aggregation meant to do nothing more than draw search clicks; but the more of that AOL can manage, the more quality production it can afford, eventually leading to a massive, dominating news presence. What these news stories indicate is that AOL seems to understand something that the old guard is completely incapable of grasping.

AOL understands that the biggest issue is not now, nor has it ever been, people being unwilling to pay for news. Obviously, they are willing; when that access is the only game in town. That's what made newspapers valuable. For a long time, in any given area, they were the only games in town. That meant a very limited and focused pathway from advertiser to consumer. The internet has changed that. It's not piracy or entitled consumers. It's the very CORE of economics. When there are more competitors, the value of whatever is being produced goes down.

Thus, the issue is a huge drop in per-person advertising value. Theoretically, that should be more than compensated for by the large increase in the size of the audience. Each person is worth less, but there are tons of them. Instead of embracing this, old-world companies are desperately clinging to their old models. Well I'm sorry. You can no longer expect to get multiple dollars of daily revenue for each reader. Per person revenue is now measured in cents. It's Econ101. Get used to it, otherwise, AOL is going to eat your fucking lunch.

Can ANYONE Do It Right?

Apple's released the new iPad2, and like so many product segments in which Apple participates, their annual release blows the competition clear out of the water. It's as though other companies honestly don't know how to make products. It pisses me off, because I refuse to buy Apple products! Everything is locked down and closed off. I hate it! Instead of something perfectly designed, I'm left with a selection of sub-par, over-priced options. HP's products all have the build quality of a 1930's Bakelite radio. Sony's are overpriced with horrendous software. Other companies manage decent software and hardware, but the design's as sexy as Margaret Thatcher. God!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Secret Video of North Korea

Photographer Steve Gong has managed to shoot some video of Pynongyang in North Korea. This is quite a feat since they are pretty strict about what images are allowed outside of the country. There's plenty of video of people dancing in giant groups and marching soldiers and whatnot, but not much else.

What struck me most about the video was confirmation of earlier impressions that I got from other videos. The constant stream of marching soldiers, singing citizens, and a seemingly endless series of statues smacks of desperation. It is a country defined by a leader who's playing nation like a kid plays house. It's a city with the wrapping of a major western city but none of the content. Specifically, the building that is quite obviously intended to be a mall (at about 7:50) but doesn't have any stores. It's just filled with flowers and shrines to Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. So strange.

Pyongyang Style - North Korean Haircut from Steve Gong on Vimeo.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rand Paul And Idiot Conservatives

I'm a conservative. I'm a conservative in the sense that I'm actually pro-small government. I'm not pro-small government when I like it, or when it fits ideologically with my other beliefs. Other "conservatives" like small government, unless that is applied to the military, or pro-choice, or things that economically affect their constituents.

In this ideological school is Rand Paul (professional idiot), who recently, while arguing with a representative of the energy department about regulations that affect things like light bulbs, refrigerators, and essentially anything that consumes electricity. He's arguing that the government shouldn't be restricting our choices and increasing prices with laws.

He asks the rep whether she's pro-choice. She responds after an awkward pause that she's pro-choice on light bulbs. He then comes back with this shockingly stupid statement.

"You're really anti-choice on any other consumer item we've listed here."

Before we've even gotten into the ideological issues, he has just called abortion a consumer item. Really? I've never thought of it, or anything that I can have done to my own body as a consumer item. He's likening the process of aborting a fetus... to refrigerators.

But, again, he's only conservative as far as his ideology allows him. He is explicitly anti-choice. He has NO PROBLEM telling a woman what she can and can't do with her own body. But regulations that are, at the very least, intended to prevent lasting damage to the environment are right out?

Many of the regulations that he's against are, I think, stupid regulations, but at least they've got their heart in the right place. This is opposed to Paul, who's heart isn't even in the right place. It's planted firmly in the Bible. His head is certainly planted firmly in the clouds.

Is there any non-religious reason to believe that aborting a fetus, even a very advanced one, is anyway even close to murder? No, there isn't. If we define a human as more than simply a body and the product of the brain, then a person doesn't exist until possibly well after the baby has been born. A human likely exists before a baby is born, and whether that happens at the point of viability (about 24 weeks) or later is debatable. But while that is debatable, the fact that the mother is, in fact, a fully-functioning human is not.

But Paul doesn't care about that. He thinks that it is more important that we have the freedom to buy cheap, inefficient refrigerators than to give women rights over their OWN BODIES. Gotta' love that old, white guy logic.

And on an economic note, he's complaining about these regulations driving up prices, specifically arguing that "You raise the cost of all the items with all your rules, all your notions that you know what's best for me." This doesn't make sense since durable goods have been tracking well below inflation for a long time. Services have been increasing wildly, but televisions, refrigerators, toilets, air conditioners, lawn mowers, and many of these other pet peeves of Paully Boy are likely cheaper as a function of inflation than they ever have been. So how, exactly, are these regulations raising the prices on all of these goods?

Oh right, I forgot, when you're an Austrian economist, you don't need data. It just gets in the way of your feelings.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Who Is The Bilderberg Group? Who Cares?

You can find out who the Bilderberg Group is via its Wikipedia entry, suffice it to say, it's a small, secret meeting of big, important people to discuss things. Lord knows what gets talked about, probably nothing. What I find interesting about the group is how much attention it attracts, especially from the fringe groups.

Back in the day, and by "the day," I mean 1996-1997, I was big into conspiracy theories. I never believed in aliens (I always thought that was stupid), but things like secret governments, the Illuminati, the Philadelphia experiment, and any number of other crackpot ideas were fair game... Don't look at me like that. Like you didn't have some stupid ideas back in high school.

What I think lies at the heart of conspiracy theory appeal is that the conspiracy exists. At attributes an almost gnostic like aspect to reality, and that we can see through to the hidden but still mechanistic and predictable truth. It's both exciting (the secret knowledge) and comforting (that the knowledge is there to be had at all).

Think, what's scarier? That there is a huge secret government ruling the world and choosing things for its own benefit, or that bad shit really does happen at random. The US government planned 9/11, or that certifiable wack-jobs can actually muster the power to do great damage? That this government will never let things get too bad, or that we really, truly did come within a hair's breadth of the end of the world during the Cuban Missle Crisis?

A world that conspires against you is better than a world with no mind at all, it seems.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Unplanned Stupidity

A woman by the name of Abby Johnson is causing quite the hullabaloo by defecting from Planned Parenthood and lambasting her former employer as an "abortion machine." After reading the headline, I was a bit concerned, but have since calmed down. Both she and her book are doing nothing but preaching to the choir.

If she had been a person who said "I still believe in pro-choice, but Planned Parenthood is not the way to go about it," then that would have been a damning indictment of the organization. Instead, we have yet another religious wing nut attacking the organization for explicitly religious reasons. She is against abortion in any situation, even rape and incest. She now prays outside abortion clinics. She even went into the organization already strongly religious. This is not a level-headed woman.

I'm glad that this woman tried to do what she thought was right, but she ended up on the same imbecilic side of the debate as the extremists that she laments as not being reasonable or helpful. Her beliefs are just as extreme, the only difference is the form of the behavior that those beliefs take.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau Is Retarded


If you don't want some details about this film revealed, do not read further. First watch the film, then come back to find out why it's philosophically inane.

In the original short story, which is available online in the public domain, the story is essentially simple. God is adjusting the flow of cause and effect to achieve certain ends and some poor schmo discovers this. The book all but directly states that it is God.

The movie goes into much greater detail. It is God, the adjustment guys are angels, and they determine everything that takes place. In fact, the adjustment bureau is adjusting things all the time, we're simply not aware of it because anyone who would be aware of the changes has their mind adjusted as well.

They could have conceivably gone into Matrix-level questions of the nature of reality, only with regards to free will, but they don't. Lots of chases happen and no questions are asked aside from the usual, simpering, movie questions. And to really drive home how intellectually bankrupt the film is, it is the love of the two protagonists that achieves their deliverance.

Why God needs wacky gadgets is never explained. Why an omnipotent and omniscient God would need to adjust his plans is never answered. Why there is any difference between a God picking events to sway our destiny and random events doing the same thing is not addressed. That the brief mention of the "Dark Ages" indicates an all-knowing God that is woefully inept in world history isn't addressed. Why an all-powerful God needs agents to get this stuff done at all isn't addressed.

And, again, whenever the existence of God is known within a film, that results in a number of consequences. The fear of death is eliminated. As with The Lovely Bones, which Roger Ebert called deplorable, if we know that the afterlife is real, all of the drama associated with death is gone. Also, the simpering questions about whether the plan is always right or not is stupid. Of course the plan is always right! It was written by fucking God!

That's only a smattering of the questions that exist between the lines of this film. It could have asked them. It could have gone deep. It, importantly, could have ditched the religious aspect that makes no sense at all if you include the world outside of Europe and the US. But it didn't. And it's the worse for it.

Good Christian Bitches

ABC is considering a show called Good Christian Bitches. It's the standard televised potboiler involving women trying to destroy each other that's been popular for... ever. But nothing the show could ever do is as entertaining as the response that has, not surprisingly, been generated by those of faith.

Christian publisher Tessie DeVore says the show could "damage perceptions [of Christians in this country]." Oh, honey. There is nothing that the heathens could do to damage public perceptions of Christians any more than what you've already done.

Friday, March 04, 2011

The PSP And The Problem With Gadgets

I generally try to avoid writing about anything overly geeky on this blog, but Sony's PSP holds a special place in my heart because it was a gizmo that almost literally overflowed with potential, most of which was wasted by terrible design.

I've worked in the business and design world before, and if there's a word to describe most managers' perspective on designers it's "expendable." They usually inflate their own position in the hierarchy of responsibility (idea men), and reduce those who actually do the work (grunts). That design is something that anyone can do is, one would think in this Apple-fied world, is a perspective that would have quickly gotten the boot. One would be wrong. It's here and it seems here to stay.

I assume that this is because of how most executives got to their positions, namely good-ol'-boys clubs and connections formed at business school. You're encouraged to believe that you have achieved this position by some natural state, as opposed to getting there by old-fashioned elbow grease.

Regardless of why this situation is, it is, and that is all that must be addressed. Sony is one of the best examples of great engineering and horrendous design on the modern market. Everything Sony makes is wonderfully engineered, efficient, and well-made. The software, on the other hand, is usually a train-wreck, the features are poorly implemented, and actually getting the products to do what you want requires the same PhD that the engineer had.

The PSP was wonderfully engineered. It was beautiful to hold, built well, looked gorgeous, was insanely powerful, and was loaded with features. Unfortunately, it was also a grand example of a design mandate that I hold sacred: if you aren't going to implement something 100%, don't implement it at all.

The PSP had an MP3 player... that sucked. A video player... that sucked. A web-browser... that was actually OK. The LocationFree player, which was just atrocious. It's gaming feature was good, and the screen was excellent, but that was the ONLY thing it did well. And instead of dumping everything they had into expanding the gaming experience, they spent money on more useless features and on an endless cold war with hackers who kept cracking the machine's software open to futz around.

That is the reason why the Nintendo DS whomped the PSP in the market. Nintendo concentrated on the gaming experience and ways to entertain that were novel and well-implemented. If a feature didn't fit into that paradigm, it wasn't included. It was a very Apple perspective to take. Granted, Nintendo also continues to tilt against the windmill of user-modified systems.

Sony is again doing the same thing with upcoming PSP2 (known as the NGP). Instead of pushing something new and novel, they're simply upping the specs of the PSP. They have the touch surface on the back of the system, which is cool, but nothing compared to the novelty of the 3DS. I have doubts about the 3DS as well, but whereas Nintendo's absolute success with the DS and DSLite has earned them the benefit of the doubt, Sony's complete design failure with the PSP hasn't. I wouldn't be surprised to see another poorly designed interface, crippled with restrictions.

While on that subject, Sony also embodies, better than any other company, the issues with trying to release a good product while being restricted by other parts of the company. The perfect MP3 player is one that rips and stores music by itself, can browse Torrents to download music and video, plays all extensions, only has features that work perfectly, and can be accessed without some proprietary software but includes it for ease of use. As you can imagine, all of these features are incompatible with an overarching corporate philosophy of proprietary integration and anti-piracy.

And it is that philosophy that Apple has unfortunately pioneered. You do not buy ONE Apple product. You buy into Apple's entire system when you buy anything from them. They have a giant, vertically integrated system (granted, with every step wonderfully designed and user-friendly), that locks you in, locks everyone else out, and squeezes money from you every chance it can. It is an enormously profitable machine, evinced by Apple earning more than Microsoft, even though it holds relatively small percentages of most markets.

Understandably, and sadly, every company and its brother is drooling at the prospect of creating its own closed system to drain consumers of cash. As such, product features that are completely logical never see the light of day because they would punch a hole in that closed system. Too bad all of those companies seem to forget that Apple has spent decades building a loyal user base, and billions of dollars on excellent software.

But why bother with all of that? That's just design work that anyone can do. It's the idea that was difficult.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Censorship and CD's

Wal-Mart censors CD's. Did you know that? They will not carry CD's with parental warnings on them for naughty words. To be carried by Wal-Mart a band must release a version of the CD with all of said naughty words bleeped out or changed. This wouldn't have been an issue if Wal-Mart hadn't been the largest music seller on the planet. As such, their requirements was tantamount of large-scale censorship. For a long time, if you lived in a rural area, the only place where you could easily purchase music might have been the local Wally World. This is a textbook example of why monopolies are against the law. They are anti-consumer.

Apple finally passed Wal-Mart as the largest retailer of music in mid-2008, striking a blow for the easy dissemination of information, unadulterated by the ideology of one, retarded company. But, oh right! If we're to believe the record companies, MP3's and digital music are inherently evil! They've tried to tax blank CD's, iPods, and online music. They've sued file-sharers and companies trying to distribute digital technology legitimately. They forced digital resellers into restrictive Digital Rights Management, and had to be dragged kicking and screaming, into the 21st century by Apple and iTunes.

But! You might say, what I'm actually arguing for is digital selling, not piracy. Piracy is still bad! I would counter, telling you to think back to the late 1990's, when the nascent market of MP3 players was driven because of piracy. The only people buying those crap players were geeks known as alpha consumers. They drove adoption of the format because of services like Napster and Morpheus (remember them?!) making it easy to access music. For most people, it was a pain in the ass to rip CD's and then transfer the music to a player. Apple realized this. Why do you think that they released iTunes and iPods concomitantly? The integrated, easy access to already digital music was the key element of the player.

But that disregards the fact that the MP3 industry was at the point that it was because of piracy. It's a perfect example of how it wasn't bad. It was simply the advancement of technology and the market. Trying to fight it was blatantly wrong even back in the early 2000's, and the rash of bankruptcies in the record industry, while companies like Apple continue their meteoric rise, is proof of that.