Category Archives: Rough Drafts

Prose that hasn’t been published elsewhere

Why I’m fed up with Game of Thrones

Hot nude action, medieval style. Painting of "Adam and Eve" by Lucas Cranach the Elder, from 1533.

Hot nude action, medieval style. Painting of “Adam and Eve” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, from 1533.

Personally I don’t mind the gratuitous boobage in Game of Thrones. Any shape or size: I am a fan. But if those boobs are accompanied by a complete absence of relevance or character, it starts to feel a bit empty.

Throw in loads of violence — especially when that violence seems to have no point other than its own empty shock value — and it becomes disturbing.

Layer on top of that the most retrograde stereotypes of what women’s roles are; make the women conform to the most Hollywood-esque stereotypes of beauty; add ridiculously outdated and patently coded stereotypes for Irish people, Italians, Danes, and Mongols; and complement that with 47 different finely-shaded subtle variations on English accent sub-types; then completely remove all Jews or Moors from the medieval context, and what you have is … I don’t know what to call it. It bugs me though.

In short: Good god this show is bad. The acting is bad, the plotting is bad, the sex is bad (it’s nearly all rape or prostititution), and it is one of the most sadistic shows I’ve ever seen. Also, I might add, it feels racist as hell. (Is it any coincidence that the Mongol horde is led by a gorgeous blonde Targ-Aryan?)

I had to stop reading the book series for the same reason: The author clearly cares far less about developing his characters or making you care about them than he does about imagining new and horrible ways to make them suffer and off them. I was sucked right into the first book and loved it. The second book, a little bit less so. By the time I got a third of the way through the third book, I was completely nauseated by the endless raping and pillaging. It didn’t help that around the same time as I was reading about heads being put on pikes — a classic trope of medieval fantasy literature — I was reading about schoolkids in Texas who needed special counseling because, when they were living in Mexico, they had to go to school past actual heads stuck on actual sticks. People still kill each other this way, and they still put heads on pikes. It seemed irresponsible to be using this as an offhand trope for “mans brutality against man” in a fantasy epic without at least some recognition that this is also still a reality.

Anyway, that’s really the only inventive thing about the series: How cleverly it imagines death and torture.

It also is very clever in how it uses the old “interwoven multiple narratives” trick to keep pulling you forward through the story, through one cliffhanger after another.

So: Well executed, George R. R. Martin and HBO, you cynical bastards. I watched every single episode of seasons 1 and 2 on Amazon; I couldn’t stop, really. But I’m really looking forward to taking a break now.

 

Changing the world

apps over austin at sxsw

I went to Austin, and I came back with an excellent orange beanie. I also spent a lot of time talking to interesting people and — when I wasn’t busy producing content for VentureBeat — drinking a bit too much. (And I made a brief appearance on NPR, which made my mom really proud.)

I’m tired and happy to be home now. But I’m also feeling kind of inspired by the whole event. From the guy in the bar who is making an app to help people commit “random acts of kindness,” to Amanda Palmer’s challenge (at a session about startup communities) for more awareness of the way crowdfunding builds a sense of shared responsibility, to the huge, world-changing ambitions of the Founders Fund partners, there was one common thread for me at SXSW this year (my first): Changing the world.

Here’s an excerpt from my latest column.

AUSTIN, Texas — At South by Southwest, every party had long lines of people waiting to get in, sometimes stretching the length of a block.

Every party except one, that is. I walked down the street last night past a Microsoft Windows event, which not only had no line, it was so empty that a staffer was standing on the sidewalk urging us to come inside.

Maybe Microsoft needed to hire a more exciting band. Half a block further down, and the sidewalk was crowded with young folks hoping to get into a party sponsored by some technology company. I’m pretty sure the headliner wasn’t Robert Scoble.

SXSW is an interesting mashup of a music festival, a film festival, and a geek fest. This was my first year attending, and I was a bit nervous, given that everything I’d heard about it made it sound crowded, noisy, and uncomfortable. But I’m leaving impressed.

Short version: Yes, SXSW is crowded and in many ways a dysfunctional event. No, there’s no real news. But it’s a great experience.

Read more about SXSW, startup communities, Tony Hsieh, and Amanda Palmer in my latest Dylan’s Desk column: How I learned to stop worrying and love SXSW.

If you’re bored…

“If you’re bored, you’re not paying attention” has been the motto on my blog for at least a couple of years.

I’m not sure where the phrase came from, but to me it’s a statement that there is always something interesting going on, if you are simply willing to take an interest, open your eyes, and pay attention to what’s going on around you.

It’s a life philosophy. It’s probably also related to my reasons for being a journalist. And it’s a good way to learn new things and re-engage when everything seems slow.

Not everyone shares that view, apparently.

To be bored by the tech world this year is to have been bored by Google Glass, self-driving cars, limitless storage and music becoming available to all, the beginnings of an epic shift in the trillion-dollar enterprise market’s center of gravity, the rise of life-changing 3D printing technologies, at least one record-setting IPO, revolutionary changes in chip design, new game consoles, the sudden proliferation of excellent non-iPad tablets, a few entertaining gloves-off courtroom brawls, rockets to Mars, private rockets to the ISS, the revitalization of greentech, a hugely botched multibillion-dollar acquisition, a revolving door of CEOs at Yahoo, the public crashing and burning of at least two overfunded startups headed by celebrity entrepreneurs, and the SWAT-team-like arrest of a German business tycoon, amateur rapper, and alleged content pirate in New Zealand.

Just to name a few things that I didn’t find particularly boring.

Where is the data?

There is data on gun use in the U.S. Unfortunately, we don’t have good access to it, which makes informed discussion almost impossible.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms collects statistics on gun sales and where those guns wind up. They know the make, model, and details of guns used in crimes throughout the country, where those guns were sold (or stolen), and many other data points. They’ve got background check data from gun sales. However, because of the Tiahrt Amendment, most of that data is unavailable to citizens — or even, it appears, to police forces.

That’s a ridiculous situation. You can’t have an informed policy debate when an entire category of highly relevant data has been locked away.

I’ve quantified myself. Now what?

After tracking my daily sleep hours, caffeine and alcohol consumption, mood, weight, and exercise on and off for a year, I decided to see if this data could teach me anything.

And here it is: There’s a fairly strong negative correlation between the amount of caffeine I consume and the hours I sleep (-0.45, using Google’s CORREL() function).

So, duh.

Slightly more interesting: There’s a small positive correlation between my weight and my mood (0.24). The more I weigh, the happier I am, apparently.

But everything else is almost random. Maybe I’m just too consistent in my habits, but it seems like my life is a system in relative equilibrium, and I’m not seeing any obvious optimizations here.

correlations between sleep, mood, etc

 

What’s wrong with Windows Phone

I’ve been using Windows Phone for several weeks now, first on a Samsung I borrowed from VentureBeat’s CTO Chris Peri and lately on a Nokia Lumia 800 loaned to VentureBeat for review.

I really like the operating system in many ways. The Metro interface is frankly charming, with its flipping tiles and integrated hubs. It’s fast, modern-looking, and integrates apps and data presentation in a way that makes the iPhone and Android look dated. Even the “wait” animation is cute: Instead of a spinning wheel, there are five little dots that zip in from one side, slow down near the middle of the screen, then zip out again. It’s the first time in a long while that I’ve been this smitten with an interface.

Battery life has been impressive on both these phones, and their hardware is good (the Nokia is excellent), with gorgeous screens and excellent cameras.

But there are a few issues that are preventing me from loving Windows Phone. Some of these problems are big enough that they present a serious obstacle to anyone considering a switch. Here’s a quick overview of the issues I’ve run into:

Long lines of tiny type in the Windows Phone browser

Browser text wrapping. This is the big one. On many websites, mobile Internet Explorer doesn’t wrap text properly. It either shows the full column width (in which case the text is too small to read) or lets you zoom in to a readable type size (in which case you can’t read the whole line). In either case, the text is unreadable. Both Android’s and iOS’s browsers handle text wrapping much more elegantly, making them much more usable mobile browsers.

Gmail handling. Another big one for me, as VentureBeat has standardized on Gmail. I can access Gmail from the phone just fine, but I can’t “star” messages for later followup. Since I use my phone for email triage, that’s a problem: I need to be able to review messages, delete the irrelevant ones, respond to the few that need immediate responses, and star important messages for later followup. The Windows Phone mail client has a “flag” status, but it doesn’t sync with Gmail’s stars and I can’t seem to access this status any other way. Another problem: There’s no easy “archive” button: I can only delete messages.

Text wrapping is occasionally a problem in the mail client as well.

Windows Phone Marketplace search for "skype"

Marketplace. It’s obvious that app makers are gaming searches in the app marketplace. The result is that it’s very difficult to find relevant apps. Example: A joke app called “Fart Nukes” shows up in the first few results for almost every search, whether that’s “twitter,” “camera,” “facebook,” “skype,” or “instagram.” (There’s no Instagram app, btw. And I have no idea if there are good photo-editing apps, because I couldn’t find a good equivalent of Camera+ or Hipstamatic.) Another frequent appearance: “Airhorn Ultimate.” It took me several days to find the official Twitter client. Also: There’s no Skype app. That’s just bizarre, given that Microsoft now owns Skype.

Lack of core social features. The “people” hub is nice, in that it lets me see recent Twitter and Facebook updates from anyone in my contact list. Unfortunately, it lacks several key features. For one thing, it doesn’t give me access to the groups or Twitter lists that I really care about, so updates from everyone I’m following drown out those from the few I do want to hear from. I can create my own groups on the phone, but it should sync with the groups I already have. For another thing, there’s no easy way to “like” or retweet items in this stream, making it frustratingly read-only.

CORRECTION: @J4rrod informs me that I’m a joke. In fact, you can “like” or comment on Facebook items, and you can retweet (system retweet, not modified retweet-with-comments) Tweets. However, I don’t think you can repost a Facebook item to your own timeline, and you can’t retweet with comments or favorite a tweet. I stand corrected, partially.

Google Voice. There’s no native Google Voice app, so I can’t easily place calls using my Google Voice number, and I need to use the mobile browser to access voicemails.

Lack of multitasking. Not a major problem in most cases, but it was a noticeable problem twice recently. Once, when the Nokia Drive app was downloading a set of maps, and then when Runkeeper was synchronizing my workout data. In both cases, I had to leave the apps open for the entire duration of the sync operation. If I switched to a different app or to the home screen, it paused the update until I returned to the app. I’m not one of these fanatics who insists on keeping many programs running at the same time, but apps ought to be able to do user-initiated download operations in the background, so that you can continue using your phone during these lengthy processes.

Now, most of these problems are probably easily fixable. It may be that there are user fixes I can implement for each of these, and if so, please let me know! This post is my first attempt to outline these problems and I will happily pass along any fixes I learn about.

However, if I can’t easily figure out the fixes in the first couple of weeks of intensive usage, other people are going to be stymied by these problems too.

My provisional conclusion is that if you use your phone to browse a wide variety of websites, or if you rely on Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, or Skype, Windows Phone is not yet quite ready for you.

Other recent news

Speaking of phones, my column this past week talked about how all gadget manufacturers, not just Apple, utilize Chinese factories whose conditions many of us would find appalling:

Dylan’s Desk: You are all to blame for Apple’s factories

It’s not just Apple. Motorola (whose acquisition by Google got a green light this week) and Nokia are doing it. Toshiba, HP, Dell, and Sony all use factories the New York Times reports as “bleak.”

It’s virtually guaranteed that behind every gadget stands an army of underpaid workers and polluting factories.

Your address book is mine: Many iPhone apps take your data

VentureBeat’s Jennifer Van Grove got a hell of a story this week when she dug into the data-handling practices of many iPhone apps, and found evidence that lots of them are uploading users’ entire address books to their servers, often without making that fact clear and sometimes without even encrypting the data. The New York Times cited her story and it even appears to have provoked a reaction from Apple, which announced the next day that it would start enforcing its rule against this kind of behavior.

 

How to fix Silicon Valley’s race problem: A 4-step program for white guys.

President Obama flanked by Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

Silicon Valley has a race problem.

You don’t need a Twitter fight to tell you that. And, while it’s great that CNN has made waves with previews of its upcoming show on the subject, you don’t need cable TV to tell you that, either. (For two smart views on the controversy, read Hank Williams and Angela on BlackWeb.)

Just look around. Anyone who works in the Valley for any length of time will have noticed the alarmingly large number of white guys occupying positions of power. There are a few women, and there are sizable contingents of Asian entrepreneurs among the entrepreneurial and venture capital classes. But there are not many women and there are almost no black or Hispanic entrepreneurs.

The White House photo of Barack Obama having dinner with a table full of Silicon Valley titans in February is the perfect illustration of this. Look at the table: It’s almost all white guys. There are two women, one of whom (I think) is the wife of the host, and the other of whom is Carol Bartz, then the CEO of Yahoo, who is known — and criticized — for being loudmouthed and aggressive. And there’s just one black guy: the President of the United States.

This picture is probably 100% representative of dinners among Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs and investors, except that the black guy isn’t usually there.

If you’re black, Hispanic or female, I can’t tell you anything about racism that you don’t already know. You’re going to need an extra dose of moxie, persistence and determination to make it here. You may want to consider, as Vivek Wadhwa did, hiring a white man to be the public face of your company. (Wadhwa also points up the importance of building your own networks.) These decisions will have to be up to you and whatever friends and allies you can recruit to your side.

But I can tell you what I’m doing about Silicon Valley’s race problem. And if you’re one of the white guys who run things around here, you should consider that you have a responsibility to do the same things.

I’ve hesitated about writing this post. But I decided I couldn’t keep silent about this, because one of my career goals, for the past 10 years, has been to make Silicon Valley more accessible to people like my daughter, who is both black and female. I hope this post helps advance that agenda.

So, here are my tips for white guys on how to fight racism and sexism.

First, educate yourself. You don’t know squat about racism or sexism. Period. End of sentence. So read. Watch movies. But most of all, talk to people. Find people who are trained in anti-racist education and invite them to educate you.

In my case, I have spent many, many hours in anti-racism seminars, educational programs about race and culture, and dinner table discussions with my family, extended family and friends. It’s a topic that is never far from my mind.

Second, make an effort to connect with people who are different from you. Make friends with people. Extend your social circle.

And really make friends. A friend once told me, early in my education, that the diversity of your circle of friends is best measured by who comes to dinner at your house. You may work with people who aren’t like you, but if you’re not having them over to dinner, you’re not really getting to know them.

In my case, work is now the least diverse part of my life. My family is multiracial, my kids go to a school where there are people from diverse racial and economic backgrounds, my neighborhood is all over the map, and I live in one of the most diverse areas in the country. It’s only when I start talking to PR people and Silicon Valley executives that the diversity level drops. But it’s taken me a decade of conscious decisions to get to this point.

Third, when you’re recruiting, widen the circle of candidates. Make decisions about who to hire (or invest in) based on merit. But make sure the pool is diverse, so you can at least make fair choices.

I try to follow this principle whenever I hire people. I’ve reach out to professional associations like the National Association of Black Journalists. I ask people I know to recommend talented women they know. I ask for help from my existing networks wherever I can get it.

Once I get that pool of candidates, I evaluate everyone on their merits. I’ve never given a job to anyone because I wanted to increase the diversity of my team. But I have gone to lengths to make sure that the pool of candidates is diverse.

This is, I think, the most important thing that white people in positions of power can do.

There’s a real benefit to this diversity, too, beyond some abstract notion of fairness. A diverse workforce is going to better at producing products that appeal to a broad range of customers.

And diversity breeds creativity. People who come from different backgrounds are more likely to have different approaches to problems, or different ideas. Bring them together and yes, there can be conflict and misunderstandings. But out of that conflict can often come much better ideas than you’d get from a roomful of people who have the same backgrounds.

Finally, be willing to talk about race. Realize that you are going to sound like a clueless idiot much of the time. But also know that for people of color, race and racism are constant topics of discussion. Race is an incredible taboo only for white, middle-class people. We are embarrassed to talk about it, or even to acknowledge it. But until we do, we can’t really learn.And yes, I am sure it sucks when someone holds you up as an example of white-guy cluelessness.

But when you refuse to talk about racism and race, whether from fear of embarrassment or out of ignorance, you can’t learn. If you pretend that it’s just a meritocracy, or that the problem is too mysterious to be addressed, or that you yourself are not racist, you can’t learn.

More importantly, you can’t do anything good about it.

I don’t expect that most white guys in power will follow these steps. It’s too uncomfortable and too difficult to do, unless you’re motivated by someone you love. But I can say that it’s something very much worth doing.

The Nook Nearly Nails It

Nook Simple Touch

I bought a Nook Simple Touch a couple weeks ago, just in time for a vacation reading binge.

I can’t improve much on John Abell’s review for Wired, The Nook Nails It, as I agree with everything he says there.

This is the best reading machine I’ve come across so far: It’s light, easy to read, compact, and elegant. There’s no ugly keyboard reminding you that you should probably be writing something instead of just kicking back with a book, or a magazine: It’s just a reading device, plain and simple.

With it, I’m reading far more than I was before, and I look forward to continuing that trend when vacation ends, by reading on the train and in the evenings at home. I even got a clip-on book light for reading in bed or in the tent: Works great.

The Nook’s touchscreen works very well. It’s easy to highlight passages, somewhat less easy to make annotations, and page-turning is a breeze with left or right hand buttons, or swipes or taps on the touchscreen. Like John, I wish there were some kind of “back” function, as it’s occasionally easy to get lost among the endnotes, but that’s a minor quibble.

In all, an excellent e-reader.

There are a couple of more serious drawbacks that keep the Nook Simple Touch from perfection:

Very limited wireless delivery. The Nook has Wi-Fi, which you can use to purchase books and magazines and newspapers. (And you can read the full text of any e-books in B&N stores, a nice touch.) Periodicals are delivered to you automatically. But to get anything else onto your Nook, like PDFs, you need to plug it into a computer via USB and sync. There’s no wireless sync, and there’s no way — as there is with the Kindle — to e-mail documents to your reader. That’s a big drawback for one of my main uses for the Nook, which is reading articles I’ve saved to Instapaper. I use Calibre to fetch those stories, which works very well (although I feel compelled to add that Calibre is the ugliest piece of software I’ve come across in a long time). But I have to remember to dock and sync the Nook whenever I want to get the latest Instapapered stories. Bummer.

Text rendering is a little buggy. For instance, superscripts (like footnotes) add a bit of extra leading to the line spacing above them, which is distracting and sloppy-looking. Occasionally hyphens just disappear, so instead of “twenty-four” it displays “twentyfour.” (This happens with both PDFs and with e-books purchased from Barnes & Noble, so I think it’s some kind of intermittent rendering bug.) Text resizing doesn’t work all that well on some PDFs, with a huge jump from “pretty small letters” to “gigantic headline type” and nothing in between.

Both of these should be straightforward to fix through a firmware update and, in the case of e-mailing to your Nook, the addition of some kind of back-end support. If not, I’m hoping that someone will soon hack the Simple Touch’s Android-based OS and figure out how to make it happen.

Gawker.com traffic graph

Beyond the blog.

Gawker founder Nick Denton is one of the most aggressive and successful blog publishers around.

He started with a good gut understanding of what works online, and built a federation of blogs that exploit a similar model (low overhead, smart and fast writers, efficient tech and ad sales) to great effect. Gizmodo, Gawker, IO9, Lifehacker are all category-leading blogs, or close to it; some of them (like Gizmodo) are starting to compete with traditional media as well.

But what is more significant, his operation is devoted to objective, metric analysis in a way that no one else is. Gawker’s metrics are public — and the metrics for every writer are public too. It’s at the core of the organization. And carefully watching the data, I think, has shaped his strategy more than anything. It’s also led him to be way ahead of the curve in many cases (I’m thinking of the way he started planning for a 40% decline in ad spending, in 2008, long before the rest of the media were willing to face up to what was coming).

It’s somewhat amazing, then, that he’s willing to share the results of his insights. Lifehacker today hosted his thoughts on where Gawker Media is going in 2011.

Now, this could be a classic head-fake, and perhaps Denton is only publishing this plan to throw the rest of us off. But I don’t think so. I think the advice in here is solid, and he’s publishing it because the odds of his slow-moving competitors actually being able to capitalize on this information are slim to none. Meanwhile, Denton raises his cred among smaller publishers, editors and writers, some of whom may be eager to work for him at some point.

Be that as it may, there are some good pointers in Denton’s roadmap.

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:

1. The news drives traffic — and more importantly, brings in new readers/viewers. Or, as Nick puts it, “aggressive news-mongering trumps satirical blogging.”

2. Aggregation is important for filling in the gaps between a few breakout stories each day. The solution? First, two types of edit staff: editors/curators, and reporters/producers/scoopmongers. Second, relegate the reverse-chron “blog flow” to a sidebar, and make the stories, not the blog, the center of attention.

3. Having a variety of content is important — even more so as your audience grows and becomes more diverse.

4. Photos, videos, and strong visual presentations work really well now.

5. You can sell video ads in banner ad spaces.

6. Gawker is being programmed more like a TV network, with time slots for stories and ad campaigns, and less like a newspaper or magazine.

7. Gawker is going after brand advertising, the traditional stronghold of magazine companies like Hearst and Conde Nast — and the TV networks. To do that, they’re going to be moving upmarket this year. Sponsorships and time-slot campaigns are the key to moving out of the doldrums of low-value, high-inventory web advertising.

Big media, watch out. Denton’s done with blogging; his next target is finding an even more profitable form of new media that blends aspects of blogging, magazine journalism, and TV.

This story subsequently edited and much improved by Ryan Singel, after which it appeared on Wired.com: Gawker Gives Up on Blogging (And That’s a Good Thing!)