Friday, September 30, 2011

Chrome To Surpass Firefox

Can it be true? Can the browser that nobody asked for actually be on its way to market dominance? I hope so, but not because I like Chrome.

Indeed, I don't like Chrome. I have nothing against it, but Firefox is just so the bomb. I love Firefox. It freed me from the tyranny of mediocrity that was Internet Explorer for most of 2000's. And now that I think of it, I do have something specifically against Chrome. Namely, it's more closed than Firefox.

I don't mean closed in the hippy, open-source sort of way. I mean closed in that Firefox has a gargantuan amount of plug-ins and add-ons that Chrome does not because developers are given greater access to the core functions of Firefox. This allows me to browse with such unbelievably amazing toys as Javascript-blocking software NoScript. Once you have used this program, you can never go back. Chrome does not have this.

I'm not entirely sure of this, seeing as I've never programmed for either browser, but I think the way that it works is that in Firefox, when a page loads, developers can program add-ons that analyze the code before it ever reaches the renderer. Thus Javascript is stripped out at a very early stage. In Chrome, developers have had to cobble together a solution whereby the renderer receives the page, Javascript and all, but then runs code from the developer first, which then renders out all of the offending Javascript. Inelegant to say the least.

I have heard conspiracy theories about this. Namely, since Google is a huge advertising company, they don't want to produce a browser that can easily block their advertisements. I don't think that this is true. Google is primarily concerned with creating an elegant, end-to-end experience for a user, and if a user doesn't want to see ads, then the user doesn't see ads. Trying to force the user to do so will simply push them away from the browser completely.

One thing that I do like about Chrome, though, is the "sandboxing" of each tab. It's great for stability and amazing for security. But if I was going to make the jump to a third browser, I would jump to Opera. Now THAT is a fast browser.

But as I said! I hope that Chrome pushes into second place. One: I used the most recent Internet Explorer and thought that it was pretty good. Microsoft has finally been scared into action. Likewise, I hope that this scares Firefox into action. While Opera has been a source of near-constant innovation, their perpetually small market share has meant that the pressure they exert remains small. Chrome, on the other hand, has been small in innovation, big in market pressure. Firefox will have to respond with a big push, both in design and usability. And while I do not plan on ever leaving Firefox, I look forward to their response to Chrome.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Facebook Is Doing It Right

Facebook will be launching a major redesign of their profiles in the near future. As always, users are flipping out. I think that Facebook has figured out precisely what they need to do to avoid becoming another MySpace.

From the late 1990's up to the Facebook/MySpace battle, we saw the launch of dozens of social networks, most long forgotten (remember Don't worry. No one does). MySpace was the first one to really take the world by storm because its focus was on the profiles and direct interpersonal behavior. Social networks before MySpace had generally focused on creating group areas, games, and chat rooms. MySpace took what people had been doing on Geocities for years and systematized it.

But like all of the other social networks, MySpace got boring. It stayed the same, and I think that's why people ditched it. People have moved from network to network for the same reason that they change clothing. They like change. They might complain when it is forced upon them, but that constant updating is the only thing keeping them from jumping to an upstart competitor.

Analysts have been falling all over themselves in attempts at illuminating the drivers behind Facebook's rise and MySpace's fall, but I think that it's easy. It had absolutely nothing to do with the functional aspects of the service, it was entirely in the personality of the service. MySpace was glittery chaos, while on Facebook, no matter how trashy or horrible a person is, their profile is neat, trim, and organized. The whole service feels more professional.

But Facebook, I think, was a transitional service from the chaos of Geocities and MySpace to something more refined. Now that that role has been fulfilled, Facebook is in very dangerous territory. Facebook is explicitly aware of this situation, though, which is something MySpace certainly was not. Their frequent updates, strict image control, and constant refining of the user experience keeps them safe. Their personality remains refined, youthful, high-tech, and integral to a web-based life.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What Does It Mean For Something to Exist?

I've discussed this one before, but my thoughts have evolved to the point of needing a new post. What is existence? What does it mean to exist? The study of this nonsense is known as Ontology and it's officially a branch of metaphysics. It's not a question many people ask, because, why bother? I do ask the question because it bears on many other areas of inquiry, including very important areas such as epistemology.

I would recommend reading the Wikipedia entry on Ontology, as it will help explain the various areas of study and thus provide you with the foundation to criticize my ideas.

Basically, in discussing being, we have three aspects of existence that play different roles: intuition, sensory experience, and language. They are of equal importance.

First and foremost, existence is linguistic. "To exist," are simply words and the meaning of those words is how they are used.

I think that language is fundamentally representative. It always represents something to the user of those words. Even words such as "oh shit," represent internal states. The word itself evolved from external usage between people, but it is used to represent something internal. For example, "I am scared" represents to the user an internal state that is inaccessible to those hearing the word. From the listener's perspective, the phrase "I am scared" represents a series of behaviors: hiding, cowering, sweating, etc.

As would be expected based on this model, I think that most words are a mixture of internal and external representations. I also think that this very mixture is the reason why the term existence is so contentious and hard to nail down. In conversation, our intended use frequently vacillates between an internal sense of what the word means and the external reality to which it must be tied when being spoken.

I think that existence has two types, real existence and metaphysical existence. I use the term metaphysical when referring to a concept that seems true yet is outside our ability to know.

For example, I climb a ladder, place a ball on top of a book shelf, and then get down. I can no longer see the ball, detect any shadows, or in any way know that the ball is there. For the sake of this argument, you shall be an omniscient third person, and the ball is actually on the book shelf. From my perspective on the ground, does the ball still exist?

Yes and no, and this is the root of our problems with the word. In reality, it does not exist. It only exists when I sense it, and even then, it only exists insofar as I am sensing it.

Continuing the example, let's say that I see the ball. Does the ball have texture? Metaphysically yes, but realistically, no. Let's say that I am touching the ball (*giggle*) with my eyes closed. Does the ball have color? Metaphysically yes, realistically, no.

This segues into the final element of the gestalt of our conception of existence: intuition. Intuitively, the ball is still on the book shelf. This intuition is called object permanence and it is something that we learn at a very young age. This intuition becomes one of the underlying principles upon which the framework of a human perspective on the world is built. Basically, the rule states that "there are things that exist that I do not currently sense."

For example, "there exists a planet that is covered entirely with frozen methane, under which is a liquid sea of methane where bizarre life forms swim about". This statement is either true or false. We can never know if it is false, and we only know if it is true if we find the planet. We then use intuition to say that the statement was always true. It was metaphysically true, which is completely useless. The complete intuitive concept is that "there are things that do and do not exist which I do not currently sense."

This sense is entirely internal. It is ineffable. I cannot explain the intuitive sensation about the existence of things outside of sensation, but this is identical to being unable to explain the sensation of hunger or the color red. But like we want to use red as though we are communicating our internal state, we are driven to use the term "exist" in the intuitive metaphysical sense. Other people accept this nebulous usage because (assuming the existence of other minds and their similarity to my own) we all have the same intuitive sense of things existing outside our sensory sphere.

These things do not exist! There is no way that they exist. They might eventually exist once we sense them, but they do not when in a Schrödinger's cat state of indeterminate existence. Truly, the famous cat thought experiment was created specifically as physicists dealt with the ramifications of understanding that things do not exist until we sense them.

Thus, the intuitive sense of things existing separate from sense or language is explained as a wavefunction of probability in modern physics. The wave collapses into a determined state (exist/not exist) only upon an observation. This is the nature of reality. Nothing exists unless I am sensing it, and even then it only exists insofar as I am sensing it, be it with sight, hearing, smell, or touch. Beyond that is intuition about the nature of reality that we learn as a child. Beyond that intuition is a word that means only how we use it, and we can only possibly use it to describe things to which all users of the word have access, namely, empirical reality.

Excitement For Windows 8

I want a tablet. I think that they are unbelievably cool. But, at the same time, I can't bring myself to buy a big cell phone. I already have one of those, and its screen is over 4". That IS a tablet. Cell phones are also a fantastic toy, because like a computer, it is a toy with legitimate uses beyond being simply a toy. It's very easy to rationalize the purchase of a bad-ass cell phone. It is not similarly easy to rationalize the purchase of what amounts to a more-bigger cell phone.

But Windows 8 makes this prospect different. The boot time on Win8 appears to be nearing the instant-on nature of current tablets, although will likely never actually get there, and having a tablet mode or something similar would allow Win8 to extend the battery life to something beyond the few hours possible on most super-lite laptops. Moreover, since the OS is the same, I will be able to do actual work on a Win8 tablet.

It also prevents ridiculous artificial restrictions on tablets. For example, various tablets try to market themselves as nearly-computers, but most of the media websites that would be best-suited to the tablets: Hulu, Spotify, etc.; are blocked by the media companies. It turns tablets for the majority of people into glorified e-readers.

Granted, I think many of the problems with tablets has to do with the app development. There's very little heavy-hitting software available for cell phones or tablets, and I'm perpetually puzzled as to why. Android and iOS are HUGE markets. There should be tons of things for power-users, yet the bulk of the market is dominated by super-small little developers. Is it raging arrogance on the part of the big companies? Is it something about the phone/tablet market? What?!

Regardless, Win8 eliminate all of these issues, at least for me. I'm not saying that I would ever get a tablet. I might opt for a super-thin laptop. But at least this makes what is arguably one of the coolest things to be perfected, like, ever, a reasonable option.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

X-Men First Class And My Issues With Comic Book Movies

I just saw X-Men First Class. I liked it. It was well-directed, stylish, and some truly excellent performances. But I would never watch it again.

A great review of a movie explains perfectly why the critic did or didn't like said movie. For example, Roger Ebert's review of Dark City made me go back and watch it again, and it is now one of my favorite sci-fi's. My partner, Danielle, ruined the movie Aladdin for me by asking where the hell the narrator/salesman from the beginning of the film went.

Likewise, a great review, by whom I've forgotten, for the first X-Men ruined the film for me and further drove home the importance of keeping comic book worlds and the real world separated. Basically, the whole use of mutation as an analogy for racial undertones and bigotry is just amazingly stupid. Fear and hatred of black or Asian people is wrong because they're just people, they just look slightly different. Fear and hatred of someone who can level whole cities with their mind is very, very legitimate. Even mutants should be terrified of other mutants.

As it is with X-Men First Class. They place the movie during the early 1960's and have the X-Men stop World War III by being the actual reason the Cuban Missile Crisis didn't come to guns. First problem, this opens up a metric-crap-ton of historical inconsistencies, but disregarding those, there are issues on the story's own terms.

For example, people don't know about mutants? How did WWII even happen? You're telling me that not ONE of the people that the Nazi's massacred wasn't a mature mutant? There are just now, spontaneously, millions of mutants? And ALL of them are in hiding? No. I'm sorry. Some of them would turn into superheroes and some into supervillains. And that logical requirement works just fine in comic books, because that's what comic books are: heroes and villains.

It is impossible to shoehorn in comic book logic (I refer to as a cause-&-effect system) into real-world logic. It was the reason why I found both new Batman films insufferable. Batman Begins took itself gravely seriously, and its climax centered around a microwave gun that magically doesn't effect the 80% of the human body that is water. It was stupid.

First Class isn't that stupid, but every second of the movie has logical issues with its setup, logical issues that I just couldn't get past to fully enjoy the film.

I think the reason why my favorite recent comic book film is Iron Man is that the director, Jon Favreau, understands the nature of comic book movies perfectly. When interviewed about the upcoming Avengers film, he said he didn't envy the producers of that film since they had to try to merge the technological world of Iron Man with the magical world of Thor. He said that comic book movies have to operate in their own worlds, disconnected from others, for them to work. Why so few directors understand this is beyond me.

It's not just comic book films, though. It's all of Hollywood. When critics refer to jarring shifts in tone, usually in a derogatory sense, they're frequently referring to shifts in cause & effect. For example, a movie that was borderline unwatchable for me at times was the 2008 film Hamlet 2. There were scenes of slapstick C&E, scenes of real-world C&E, scenes of uplifting teen drama, Saturday Night Live, and genuine attempts at pathos. None of these can live together in a film.

As a filmmaker, you must know precisely in which universe of cause & effect your movie is going to live. All characters must then follow that system. You can't decide that you want some drama, and suddenly have everything shift to a dramatic system in hopes of wringing out a tear or two. You'll end up like Family Guy, which, regardless of its quite genuine humor and inventiveness, is horribly written.

As a writer, this is difficult, which is probably why so few do it. You must think out the complex network of effects that any event in your story would have within the world that you've chosen. This is the reason why so many super-dramas are very tightly scripted. They only write a few characters, and what they do, who they are, and where they live is highly limited. It allows the writer freedom to concentrate on the characters about which they actually care, and not have to worry about potential inconsistencies and plot holes involving hypothetical outside variables.

Unfortunately for those lazy writers that don't want to do go through the trouble, this is what makes good writing. Without it, you may as well not bother. Stop clogging up the gears of movie production with your shitty scripts and make room for story tellers who have something worthwhile to say.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Netflix Subscribers Abandon The Service.

I find the large exodus of customers from Netflix following its price increase to be of immense interest. I've been ranting for over the past ten years that media is actually worth very little. What has been valuable has always been the medium by which the media is transmitted. Television shows weren't valuable, television itself was.

In this day and age of nearly limitless claims on our attention, no company can safely say that their media is so valuable that people would seek it out. Obviously, that is not the case. Take, for example, me. I pirate. I pirate just about anything that I want to see, which is very, very little. I haven't "stolen" a movie for over a year. The few movies that I have watched I've done so through my Netflix account. Piracy isn't the issue, it's something else.

We can argue about what's causing this, but that's an academic issue. People are, for whatever reason, assigning an ever-decreasing value to movies and television. But even I had no idea how far that had gone. The huge drop in subscribers confirms that it is much further along than I think anyone had initially assumed.

When you think about it, the price increase was actually rather small. As a function of percentage, yes, the increase was very large. But in absolute numbers, it was small. Most people are paying an extra eight dollars per month. If we place the average American household income at $50,000, that means that for 70% of American families, that increase is almost invisible in the grand scheme of their budget.

Yet, still, we are seeing an ever-growing customer loss. While those in the media industry would like to believe otherwise, I think that this confirms what basic economics would tell them: the value of media is approaching zero. ECON-101 will tell anyone that the cost of something will drop to the marginal cost of producing a copy of that thing. With data such as movies and music, that marginal cost is, near as makes no difference, zero.

Netflix is unfolding as a massive economics experiment, one that doesn't bode well for the traditionally modeled media companies.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Bartz Fired And Yahoo! For SALE?!

Carol Bartz has been fired from Yahoo!. I liked Bartz. I had high hopes. Understandably, then, this is a bit of a disappointment.

I think that Bartz should be somewhat happy about her performance, even though she was eventually fired. She was brought on as a kick-ass manager and she did kick-ass manager things. She trimmed about a metric ton of fat from the company, jettisoning winning properties like Geocities. But she also failed to bring in a clear vision for the company. Was Yahoo services? Was it content? Was it web-applications? Yahoo! does all of these things in a very disconnected way.

Yahoo!'s services are great. I like Yahoo! Mail, I love MyYahoo!, but that's where the goodness ends and the mediocrity begins. Yahoo!'s apps are terrible. They bought Konfabulator for widgets... and did nothing with it. Yahoo! Connected televisions are slow and buggy, and even if they weren't, customers seem to be less than thrilled.

Yahoo!'s content is hopelessly hosed. They want to dance the line between inert and edgy, trying to be cool while not insulting anyone, thus appearing hip only to people over the age of 65. In the age of websites like Gizmodo, Engadget, and countless smaller sites that will not mince words, the old maxim of "insult no one," forced upon mass media by the FCC, fails miserably. Instead of realizing that the world is growing up, and thus daring to use naughty words, Yahoo! has been left behind, stuck in the same weird, existential hell in which other Internet old guard like Cnet are trapped.

For evidence of this shift, go to The audience for Yahoo! is basically flat for all age groups except for 65+, which is highly positive. Same with Cnet. Compare this to a youthful website such as Gizmodo. It is essentially not read by anyone over the age of 40. Even the New York Times is younger than Yahoo!'s audience. Yahoo! cannot pretend to be hip, it has to actually be hip. And being hip means pissing people off.

Regardless, listing the ways that Yahoo! has failed achieves little. It's how Yahoo! can still succeed. They are the fourth largest website on Earth. They are third in the US, behind only Google and Facebook. They have massive reach. They have four major resources that I see: MyYahoo!, Flickr, Yahoo! Pulse, and Mail/Messenger. They have two minor resources, Finance and search.

Yahoo! needs to start with their major portal, MyYahoo!, and generate as much value as possible for the end user. Value comes from integrating all of their tools as easily as possible onto a single page. Facebook, Flickr, Pulse, eBay, news, live video. Integrate Yahoo! shopping into the home page as a service and sell it on the back end as a product, just like Google's search revenue. Don't rely on companies to develop MyYahoo! content, do it yourself. Make it graphical and compelling. Hell, sell the development of MyYahoo! content.

Use Flash and HTML5 to make content boxes dynamic. It allows people to visit other sites and read news without leaving their portal page, which keeps them on your services longer. It also gives you significantly more vibrant versions of mail, messenger, and video.

Fuck your own services! If customers are using other things, let them use them. Develop high quality YouTube, GMail, and MSN boxes. Do EVERYTHING that you can with others' products. Do this because no matter how much you do, you will be able to do more with your own. Always develop, always innovate. If you are not releasing a major update once per year, you're dying.

The goal is to turn the MyYahoo! page into an "app" that people leave on for all of the time that they are at the computer. Facebook is already this for many people for social reasons. Yahoo! can become the flipside of the coin, being the portal through which people find things to share via the social connections.

Flickr is still the premier place for pro photographers. The service has stagnated almost entirely with no updates whatsoever for months, and no major updates for years. Design Flickr Apps, push Flickr integration with digital picture frames, and push Flickr onto cameras. Flickr is integrated absolutely nowhere else in Yahoo!. WTF?! You want Flickr everywhere. Make it easy to do whatever the hell a user could ever want. They still, STILL, do not have an Android app. That is pathetic.

Yahoo! Pulse will be great once they integrate it into MyYahoo!. Until then, it's a wan rejoinder to Facebook and does little to attract people to Yahoo!.

Mail and messenger are still strong platforms for communication. Again, with better integration between Yahoo!'s other services, it encourages users to use Yahoo!.

Finally, Yahoo! cannot succeed with the detached, mathematical advertising of Google. Google does it better and will win. Instead, Yahoo! needs to follow the lead of Gawker media, where they heavily integrate ads into the overall experience. Yahoo! needs to work closely with advertising partners to develop compelling pieces that are both prominent but not intrusive. The era of the ad-blocker is coming, and soon no one will see any ads ever.

Make ads a choice. Make them desirable. Think about all of the ads that are viewed willingly on Youtube. For example, have a list of "See This Week's Fliers." Companies buy a spot on the list and can also buy a "featured" position that is always at the top. The remaining list is sortable by most popular, most recent, or by category. People click on it and a big, Yahoo! designed (or customer, just so long as it looks good) flier made from ANYTHING OTHER THAN PDF appears through which the user can peruse. This provides excellent advertising data and reveals user engagement. Integrate the same user-optional advertising all throughout the site.

Finally, some of Yahoo!'s content is good. Finance has good user engagement and a decent reputation. Sadly, they are doing little with this. Other financial websites like MarketWatch and Bloomberg are blowing Yahoo! out of the water. The same goes for Yahoo!'s OMG! and Shine pages.

Basically, I think that Yahoo! should ditch the branded names scheme and create entirely new .com addresses. For example, AOL has TMZ for gossip. It is a standalone entity owned by AOL. Yahoo! needs to do this with ALL of their content immediately. Build other brands that you can then integrate into your parent brand. Don't try to grow the parent brand beyond its boundaries. OMG! and Shine are already entrenched and have good readerships, but they need much more. They need to start spewing content. Gadgets, clothing, politics, cars, environment, science. If they're not producing original content, they need to partner with someone who does.

Yahoo! can grow, but it will require significant investment in new, productive talent.