Normalcy is overrated

I was briefly walking behind a mother and daughter in downtown San Francisco last week about midday. They were both very nicely turned out: The mother in her thirties, the daughter probably 8 or 9, in matching brown coats and matching mid-length haircuts. A pretty picture. The daughter was talking to her mother about something, and it was one of those conversations? Where one person says everything? And the phrases all end in question marks?

I thought of my own daughter, and how she and her brother and Karen and I all look so different, and dress differently, and how she likes to meow at me and paw at me as if she was a cat, sometimes even when we are out in public, even though she is already 12. It’s a habit that has annoyed me for too long, even though I know what it means: She’s showing affection, and she wants a hug, and her love of cats helps her express an emotional need she can’t express directly. But it’s unique, and it’s her, and I love her for it, annoying as it can sometimes be. Plus, she doesn’t speak with question marks at the end of every phrase.

And then it hit me, right there, with the force of a long-forgotten memory, that normalcy is overrated. That’s how I felt growing up, and it’s how I feel now. At some point along the way I had forgotten how boring conformity can be. Thankfully, my daughter came along to help remind me.

I went home that evening and gave my kids big hugs. “Meow,” my daughter said, looking up into my face and smiling her squinty-happy-cat smile.

This story deserves an award of some kind for business writing. A subject like this calls for just the right mix of completely straight-faced reporting and just a tiny hint of a wink. Plus, of course, a huge love of Doritos.

I laughed, and I wept a bit for the outright enthusiasm that Taco Bell’s CEO expressed over his company’s innovation. Or, should I say, “innovation.” But, as they say, welcome to America!

Also, those locos tacos actually taste pretty good. Though they don’t sit too well inside.

Deep Inside Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco

How apps are chipping away at the open web

My latest “Dylan’s Desk” column for VentureBeat looks at a disturbing trend: The way app developers are giving up on three decades of openness and interconnection.

I am not yet sure that this is a truly widespread or irreversible trend. But I do feel skeptical about the rush to replace mobile websites with native mobile apps. This piece explains why.

For three decades, HTTP (which Paul Ford called “the Web’s operating system”) and HTML have proven to be resilient, flexible tools for interconnecting people and machines, facilitating communication in the most decentralized way imaginable. Anyone can publish a web page to a server on the Internet, and within seconds it is readable by anyone in the world who has the address and a browser capable of rendering HTML.

What’s more, anyone can link to any page on the Web without having to ask permission and without having to worry about what hardware or software delivers that page. All you need is a URL — another widely accepted, well-defined standard for interconnecting information.

Now, however, there’s a threat to this openness. It’s called the app store.

Technically, it’s not just the store: It’s the entire ecosystem of apps, content, hardware, and software. Apple perfected the model, and it has transformed the company into one of the most profitable corporations in the world. Even though its share price has plummeted in recent months, Apple is still in a very strong position thanks to the leverage that this ecosystem gives it. Indeed, that position is so strong that Apple continues to generate profits even though its market share among mobile devices is shrinking.

But here’s the problem: Apps are difficult to connect to one another. There’s no universally accepted way to link to a specific page or location within an app. (Many apps don’t even have pages.) To connect with an app, you need to use its application programming interface (API), assuming it has one, or the API of the device it’s running on. Naturally, that API differs from device to device. Making app-to-app connections is far more difficult than linking to a URL because you need to be a programmer to do it.

Read more: How apps are chipping away at the open web

I’d like to hear what you think.

What to do about the complete failure of gun control

Here’s the deal: The NRA is simply *far* better organized than the gun control lobby. A passionate minority will prevail over an apathetic majority any day, in our political system.

Here’s what I think gun control people need to do, if they’re serious:

  • Start a “National Gun Safety Association.” 
  • Make the debate about “gun safety” not “gun control.” Focus first on how limiting crazy people’s access to guns is a safety issue, not a control issue.
  • If that shows some success, expand the safety discussion to limiting magazine size and assault weapons bans — also safety issues, not rights issues.
  • Pair the above efforts with an extensive gun safety training outreach. Offer training so people who own guns can learn how to use them safely — and how to store them safely.
  • Make the spokesmen people like Gabby Giffords, who are gun owners, not liberals like Mike Bloomberg, who are not — and make it clear that the organization has no opposition to safe gun ownership. 
  • Make it a membership-based organization that not only raises funds, but can also mobilize its members to write letters and call senators/congressman. Throw parties. Have events. Make people feel like they belong to something.
  • Throw money at strategic congressional and senatorial races to aggressively punish politicians who vote counter to the organization’s goals.

If there’s an organization out there like this, I want to join it, and I will contribute.

Update: Sunlight Foundation has stats on how much money various organizations on both sides of the gun debate have contributed since 1989. Detailed stats here. Notably, the NRA doesn’t even show up on the list of top contributors to the last election cycle.

Update 2: I found an organization matching many of the above points. It’s Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by Gabrielle Giffords and Marc Kelly. I gave them $50.

Discussion on Facebook

My stance on covering the latest Silicon Valley rumor fest

There are a lot of rumors going around about a certain blog founder. My take is that most of it is completely unfounded and comes from people with an obvious interest in discrediting him. So for now, VentureBeat is not covering this “story.”

After I posted this note on Facebook, I got asked: Are we afraid to cover this story because we’re afraid of blowback from the accused guy? And would we treat this story differently if it had to do with a true Silicon Valley bigwig, like Apple CEO Tim Cook?

I can answer with some concrete examples. Keith Rabois, COO at Square, left his company after accusations that he sexually harassed an employee. We covered that, because A, he really left the company, and B, he wrote a post about it. We also covered a sexual harassment case at VC firm CMEA, and last year, we covered the sexual harassment case at Kleiner Perkins.

VentureBeat has been one of the few (if not the only) tech blogs to cover all three big sexual harassment cases in Silicon Valley in the past year. In all three cases, we didn’t hesitate to take on a story about someone powerful and/or friendly with us. (Rabois has been a speaker at VentureBeat conferences, for instance, and KP is obviously hugely powerful in the valley). In all three cases, we stuck to reportable facts but didn’t pull any punches.

So to answer the question: Say Tim Cook gets accused of harassment. We’d cover immediately if there was a civil or criminal action. But suppose it’s all rumors and hearsay, and thanks to mob mentality all the other tech blogs start covering it. In that case we’d probably weigh in with a post saying “Here’s the rumor that everyone is talking about, but there is no evidence for it at all.” Because at that point, the chatter itself is newsworthy, and the absence of evidence would be the most salient, reportable fact.

Back to our competing blog founder: We’re staying away from the story because of lack of evidence, not fear. But also we have a special reason to be reticent, which is that he founded a competing site. I know from experience that we care more about our competitors than our readers do. Readers really aren’t looking to VentureBeat for stories about our competition, and they get annoyed when we get sucked into blog wars. So we have a special reluctance to cover competitors for that reason.

We’ll override that reluctance if there’s anything material to talk about. But for now, I see no reason to publish anything.

Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

- Roger Ebert

via Susan Barnett

Ebert obituary from the Chicago Sun Times

Ebert’s last tweet

What is wrong with HTC’s Android sync service?

I’ve had several HTC phones, and I never seem to learn. The latest is an HTC One V. They all start out great — excellent hardware, seemingly fast and snappy interfaces — and turn into useless, molasses-slow junk within a few weeks.

I think I’ve isolated the source of the problem: It’s something to do with HTC’s approach to contact syncing and, in particular, the Contacts Storage app. I have about 3,000 contacts in one Google account and 700+ in the other, so I might represent a minority case, but it seems to me that this isn’t an inordinate number of contacts. Somehow it gets incredibly bloated on the phone, though: 62.7MB at the moment. I’ve tried deleting the data file and letting it re-sync, and it quickly zooms back up to the same gigantic number.

By contrast, when I export my contacts to a CSV for backup, both sets combined take less than 3MB of storage. So HTC is somehow increasing the storage needed for my contacts by 20X.

This causes a huge performance hit. Any app that needs to access contacts gets incredibly slow to open. Just opening the phone dialer can sometimes leave me staring at a blank screen for 30 seconds. Mail is the same story. I can get notifications about incoming text messages, but tapping on the notification to actually open the message itself will put the phone into a wait state that lasts two or three minutes.

It seems to be worst if the phone is actually syncing data (indicated by the “sync” icon in notifications). Over a 3G network, this sometimes takes ages — even when there are no significant changes to my contacts.

On top of that, a previous HTC phone littered my contacts’ notes fields with strange HTC codes. It’s as if some HTC engineers decided that people never use their notes fields, so they might as well just throw sync tokens in there. It’s disconcerting and rude behavior.

But rudest of all is the notion that the phone, when it’s syncing, is too busy to respond to me. That’s a fundamentally broken UI. Computers should always be immediately responsive to humans, and should always be interruptible. There is no reason a sync operation could not be stopped so I could make a freaking phone call.

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.

 

Dylan’s Desk: Somehow, we’re all stumbling along without Google Reader

Photo credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/aloha75/8304864237/

Photo credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/aloha75/8304864237/

My latest column for VentureBeat started off as an attempt to describe how I’ve replaced Google Reader, with a custom-rigged PHP-based RSS news river of my own, supplemented by some IFTTT recipes and a minimalist RSS reader called Skimr.

But it turned into a meditation on impermanence and change. Here’s an excerpt:

With the passing of Reader, I’ve had to build my own alternatives from what’s available. I use IFTTT.com to email VentureBeat’s stories, as they’re published, to my mailbox. For now, Gmail works fine for reading these stories, and it has the offline capabilities I need for my commute. I’ve had some problems with IFTTT’s reliability (and it’s too slow to be a real-time notification tool), but for catching up on essential reading, this works well.

I’m experimenting with a minimalist RSS reader, Skimr, to scan news stories. It’s fast and easy. I’ve also rebuilt my own RSS news dashboard on my personal website (using a PHP-based RSS parser called SimplePie, along with some custom PHP I wrote and a stylesheet I borrowed from Readability a long time ago, back when it was just an Arc90 project) so I can scan my personal “river of news” as it breaks.

And I’ve honed some Twitter lists that I use to give me a real-time heads-up display of the news in Tweetdeck.

I’m cautiously pessimistic about all of these solutions. RSS is an open standard and it’s widely used, but I’m nervous that with Reader’s passing, websites will have less and less incentive to maintain their RSS feeds. Twitter lists are functional, but they’re entirely dependent on Twitter continuing to support and maintain them, and they’re certainly not based on any open standards. Skimr is still in alpha testing. PHP is tricky and error-prone.

So none of these solutions is perfect, and they probably won’t last more than a year or two before I have to replace them or substantially rebuild them.

That’s the price of living on the Internet: Everything changes, nothing remains still. As the philosopher Heraclitus supposedly said, some 2,500 years before the Web, you cannot step into the same river twice.

Read the full story at http://venturebeat.com/2013/03/21/somehow-were-all-stumbling-along-without-google-reader/

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.