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How to Get From Here to There

June 10, 2013 Tech Stuff No Comments

Two pretty provocative takes on the meaning of maps, here. And neither has a thing to do with redistricting.

» Slate: My Map or Yours? (Evgeny Morozov)
» David Banks: Google Maps Can’t Kill Public Space (A Belated Reply to Evgeny Morozov)

These both seem to be written before news of Google’s near-acquisition of Waze, a more social-sharing and collecting map with a sizable fan-base outside of America. I’m not sure what, if anything, should be expected of the new purchase by my favorite map-makers, but it definitely lends itself to the desire to create increasingly more customizable map solutions.

There are some contributions to Morozov’s skepticism of internet evangelism that I admire and share. But like many of the devilish details, I do think he gets it wrong here. Still, fascinating reading on both sides.

(h/t Sullivan)

Adventures in Ad Targeting

November 10, 2012 Tech Stuff 1 Comment

Via the inbox, I thought this was a pretty good choice of ads for the Washington Post to run alongside of this story …

I hope they get a million clicks.

Gov Data Gone Rio

» NY Times: Mission Control, Built for Cities

Nice to see some reporting on this sorta thing …

The Rio operations center, which opened at the end of 2010, is part of an effort to gain a toehold in a market with more established players like Cisco Systems. (Cisco calls its local government initiative “Smart+Connected Communities.” The company is heavily involved in the Songdo International Business District, a new city in South Korea, where Cisco’s network technologies help commercial buildings control energy consumption, for example.)

But even for a company like I.B.M., Rio represents a grand challenge. A horizontal city sprawled between mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, it is at once a boomtown, a beach town, a paradise, an eyesore, a research center and a construction site. Oil-industry giants like Halliburton and Schlumberger have been rushing to build research centers here to help develop massive oil and gas fields off the coast.

Special police units have moved into about 20 slums, called favelas, in an effort to assert government control and combat crime. Rio is also reconstructing major arenas and building a rapid-bus system ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

This is a city where some of the rich live in gated communities while some of the poor in the favelas pirate electricity from the grid. And where disasters, natural and otherwise, sometimes strike. Rainstorms can cause deadly landslides. Last year, a historic streetcar derailed, killing five people. Earlier this year, three buildings collapsed downtown, killing at least 17.

The complex conditions create a kind of hothouse for I.B.M. to expand its local government business. If the company can remake Rio as a smarter city, it can remake anywhere.

Ideally, you’d see many of the data streams that a city has available open to the public, where solutions such as these could come from any number of places. I have my old-school qualms about anything IBM does being far less than open-source friendly, but if it helps nudge things toward a freer system of information-sharing, then all the better.

Most impressive of all from this article – to me, at least – is the price tag: $14M. That strikes me as relatively affordable given what a system like this is capable of adding to the productive value of government entities. The biggest thing missing from this story, however, is some sort of read on what it means to people outside of City Hall in Rio. In theory, you can send twitter updates to people about emergencies on a dedicated 311-style twitter account. But if there aren’t any followers, what good does it do you? So while its interesting how the system responded to a building collapse, it’d be more interesting to see what the real-world impact was among people on the outside of this story.

Fly By Night

February 18, 2012 Tech Stuff No Comments

» NY Times: Drones Set Sights on U.S. Skies

There’s nothing drones can’t do …

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department in Texas bought its 50-pound drone in October from Vanguard Defense Industries, a company founded by Michael Buscher, who built drones for the army, and then sold them to an oil company whose ships were threatened by pirates in the Gulf of Aden. The company custom-built the drone, which takes pictures by day and senses heat sources at night. It cost $300,000, a fraction of the cost of a helicopter.

Mr. McDaniel said his SWAT team could use it for reconnaissance, or to manage road traffic after a big accident. He said he regretted that he didn’t have it a few months ago, to search for a missing person in a densely wooded area.

Mr. Buscher, meanwhile, said he was negotiating with several police agencies. “There is tremendous potential,” he said. “We see agencies dipping their toes.”

The possibilities for drones appear limitless. Last year, Cy Brown of Bunkie, La., began hunting feral pigs at night by outfitting a model airplane with a heat-sensing camera that soared around his brother’s rice farm, feeding live aerial images of the pigs to Mr. Brown on the ground. Mr. Brown relayed the pigs’ locations by radio to a friend with a shotgun.

He calls his plane the Dehogaflier, and says it saves him time wandering in the muck looking for skittish pigs. “Now you can know in 15 minutes if it’s worth going out,” said Mr. Brown, an electrical engineer.

The bulk of the story is about Daniel Gárate, who shoots video for real estate developers with his $5,000 drone. I’ve already lost some free time scouring the internet for video quality of a number of these kind of drones. The Vanguard drones owned by the Montgomery Co. Sheriff’s office definitely seem to be top-notch. But they also run north of $50,000. So I’m real curious about the rig used by Gárate since its much cheaper. Who knows … at that price, using it for Texas’ budding Pork Chopper industry might be worthwhile after all.

The March of Quantification

February 12, 2012 Tech Stuff No Comments

» NY Times: The Age of Big Data (Steve Lohr)

Data, data, as far as the eye can see. And nary a scientific calculator to run basic statistical analysis on it with …

A report last year by the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the consulting firm, projected that the United States needs 140,000 to 190,000 more workers with “deep analytical” expertise and 1.5 million more data-literate managers, whether retrained or hired.

The impact of data abundance extends well beyond business. Justin Grimmer, for example, is one of the new breed of political scientists. A 28-year-old assistant professor at Stanford, he combined math with political science in his undergraduate and graduate studies, seeing “an opportunity because the discipline is becoming increasingly data-intensive.” His research involves the computer-automated analysis of blog postings, Congressional speeches and press releases, and news articles, looking for insights into how political ideas spread.

The story is similar in fields as varied as science and sports, advertising and public health — a drift toward data-driven discovery and decision-making. “It’s a revolution,” says Gary King, director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. “We’re really just getting under way. But the march of quantification, made possible by enormous new sources of data, will sweep through academia, business and government. There is no area that is going to be untouched.”

If you find that half as enticing as I do, you can download the report from here. Needless to say, I find it far more fascinating than I probably should.

On Visual Multi-Tasking

February 8, 2012 Tech Stuff No Comments

» NY Times: In Data Deluge, Multitaskers Go to Multiscreens

My world …

For multiscreen multitaskers, a single monitor can seem as outdated as dial-up Internet. “You go back to one, and you feel slow,” said Jackie Cohen, 42, who uses three 17-inch monitors in her home office in San Francisco, where she edits a blog about Facebook.

Her computer seemed to work a bit faster with one monitor fewer, she said. But her brain was a different matter.

“I can handle it,” she added. “I’m sure there are people who can’t.”

Certainly more people are trying.

Some time ago, my solution for multitasking was to get a 24″ big screen monitor. It’s seriously my favorite monitor in the whole world. But toward the end of the Bill White campaign, I started adapting to my new laptop a bit more … complete with a whopping 14″ screen. I could easily plug in the extra monitor when working at a desk. But it’s a bit more difficult at home since I’ve ditched the desk setup. Long story short, I’m way too comfortable with a single 14″ these days. Occasionally, I’ll steal an officemate’s desktop monitor, but rarely for more than a single day or so out of a month. My sense is that if I really get desperate, I’ll give up using the laptop like a laptop and plug in the big monitor and a keyboard/mouse – essentially leaving the laptop closed, operating like a desktop machine.

When I fall into any kind of serious lottery money, though, the six-screen setup will definitely happen.

Our iPhone Economy Problem

January 22, 2012 Politics-2012, Tech Stuff 3 Comments

» NY Times: How U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work
» NY Times: Why Students Leave the Engineering Track
» MassINC: Debt crunch

There’s something in reading these three articles together that compels me to re-read Michael Porter’s “The Competitive Advantage of Nations“. And once I decide between either plunking down the $33 cost of the Kindle version or lugging the 896 page staple of the personal library around with me on commutes, maybe I will.

A taste from the first link …

Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

Similar stories could be told about almost any electronics company — and outsourcing has also become common in hundreds of industries, including accounting, legal services, banking, auto manufacturing and pharmaceuticals.

But while Apple is far from alone, it offers a window into why the success of some prominent companies has not translated into large numbers of domestic jobs. What’s more, the company’s decisions pose broader questions about what corporate America owes Americans as the global and national economies are increasingly intertwined.

The thing about reading this that typically reminds me of Porter is that any quick fixes for problems such as this really seem to be non-existant. Think about it – if you wanted to plop a tech manufacturing conglomerate in the Mississippi Delta, what do you think the odds of success would be? Probably not good. The schools (private and public) aren’t turning out top-tier technical talent; colleges aren’t geared toward supporting the industry; and there’s no ready pool of talent to start hiring from. In short: place matters.

I’m by no means fatalistic on industrial comparisons to China. At some point, the urbanization process there slows down and corporate acquiescence to the relatively militaristic working conditions balance out. But for the problems that remain on our side, namely a fast-rising cost of higher education and challenges in turning wannabe engineers into degreed engineers … well, those are problems that would hopefully get addressed sooner rather than later. Because any cries for jobs of this nature aren’t going to magically convert the average 30-something workers into light-duty engineer workers.

Lastly, I’ll note particularly interesting anecdote from the first article again.

A few years after Mr. Saragoza started his job, his bosses explained how the California plant stacked up against overseas factories: the cost, excluding the materials, of building a $1,500 computer in Elk Grove was $22 a machine. In Singapore, it was $6. In Taiwan, $4.85. Wages weren’t the major reason for the disparities. Rather it was costs like inventory and how long it took workers to finish a task.

“We were told we would have to do 12-hour days, and come in on Saturdays,” Mr. Saragoza said. “I had a family. I wanted to see my kids play soccer.”

Bottom line: $22 vs $5-6 to build a $1,500 computer isn’t that big of a deal. Whether there’s room to fix the other side of the issue is a bigger question.

Anyways, read the source material if you want to follow the mental exercise. And if you want to get really deep into it, pick up any book by Michael Porter.

A Month of (Kindle) Fire

December 27, 2011 Tech Stuff No Comments

» NY Times: As Kindle Fire Faces Critics, Remedies Are Promised
» UseIt: Kindle Fire Usability Findings
» David Pogue: Amazon Makes the Fire Less Balky

With a little over a month of Kindle usage, I thought it might be worthwhile to do a bit of a review after more extended usage of the device. You can see what I had to say about it after a few days of use. By and large, my affinity for the Fire still holds.

What I’ve seen of the more critical takes on the Fire are best summed up as follows: It’s not a terribly great tablet computer.

That’s true. Much of Jakob Nielson’s take on UseIt centers on just that critique. What strikes me as odd is that that isn’t what the device ever set out to do. I’m not the biggest fan of corporate-skinned versions of Android. And Amazon’s version isn’t anything to write home about. But it serves the purpose of getting the user to think about the device as a bookshelf of media to consume rather than a desktop to do work on.

So what if you wanted to just root the thing, install a clean version of the real Android OS and go to town on it? I think you’d still be disappointed. Some of Jakob’s criticisms get to why this may be: a 7″ screen is an awkward form factor for doing work on or using for more web. On the other hand, it’s great if you’re reading a book since the screen replicates a page width in portrait mode. It’s also great for movies and TV since the widescreen replicates a TV. Even wider-screened movies lose little when translated to the device.

To restate the case: I picked up my Fire with the intent of getting a reader that did a little bit more. The tie-in to Amazon video is a biggie for me, but your mileage may vary. I don’t use it for music, but the speakers on the device are pretty solid. Some light internet usage and a few (emphasis on few) good apps help justify the $199 price point. Adding a pretty good version of EA’s Madden ’12 will set you back about 1.99 as I write. All in all, I’m probably using it about 50% for video and 30% for reading books, 15% for web and 5% for games.

The bugs that are worth noting is that the screen’s auto-rotate will frequently bug out and temporarily freeze or hiccup. There was an update to the OS that seems to have made the issue less of a concern. But it still happens. I’m not overly enamored with the “bookshelf” concept that Amazon forces on you, but it’s not a deal-breaker as long as getting to the items I want can be done quickly. The browser, in short, was oversold as a great technological leap forward. If there’s anything under the engine that’s worthy of mention, it does little more than compensate for a Safari ripoff that’s fairly buggy. About the best feature of the browser that I can mention is that it at least offers up the solution of restoring crashed tabs for you. The device as a whole, seems to freeze up about once every week or two. Rebooting is easy enough, but the experience is still annoying. For a device that’s a luxury item, I can live with it. If I had my life tethered to it, I’d be steaming over it. So don’t be surprised if the device doesn’t fully replace your smartphone.

A few test runs on my part to see how well the device held up were as follows:

Social Media at JerryWorld. … Not having to drain my phone battery over 12 hours of football games is a huge help to the experience of taking in a full day of football without being able to recharge. Sharing the drain over two devices was something I looked forward to. The main limitation here is that the on-screen keyboard is an awkward fit on the 7″ screen. If I’m in horizontal mode, I have to hunt and peck due to the spacing of keys being odd. But it’s noticeably better in portrait mode – basically a slightly roomier version of a phone’s keyboard.

The screen’s touch sensitivity is still a bug here, as you still have to make sure you’re cursor is properly situated. I used the mobile version of twitter and facebook sites, although the device comes pre-installed with a facebook app. Among Jakob’s critique of the tool is that many websites are designed for either a full web experience or for a 3-4″ phone screen. Again, the 7″ issue comes into play as both mobile version of facebook is a bit clunky and contains a great deal of unused space. Twitter is light years ahead on this score.

As websites smarten up and learn to sniff out the midrange screen-sizes, I think this fixes itself over time. I find the same issue in choosing to view full or mobile versions of news sites and blogs. The “solution” is that I find it easier to do more news reading on my phone and use the Fire for Google Reader and a smaller subset of bookmarks. For what it’s worth, the WordPress plugin that does the sniffing for my site still send you to the mobile version as a default. Many of the other sites did the same. But I tend to prefer the full version for almost any site that I do a fair amount of reading on.

Updates to TXPoliticalAlmanac.com This is really stretching it since I really have no intention of using the device for extended typing/thinking/whatnot. But for the sake of testing the idea, I decided to kill some dead time last week by taking it out on a test-drive with the Almanac. The process got a bit smoother with regard to typing speed and thought process getting in sync. But – again – the 7″ screen played havoc with the input form. It was great for typing in portrait mode, but I occasionally had to rotate to landscape to view portions of copy that weren’t getting compressed into the portrait view when I wanted to review or edit. By no means is blogging something that I plan on doing with the Fire. But for emergency purposes, it’ll do in a pinch. The biggest obstacle for this is always acclimation to the keyboard.

Kindle Singles. This strikes me as a good medium that could take off at some point and really make the e-reader concept a game-changer. I picked up two items – a 60-pager and a 120-pager. If there’s a suffering to be had, it’s that the authors going to this medium aren’t the same caliber writing real books. If that changes, the short-book medium strikes me as a huge plus.

Magazines. I picked up a copy of National Geographic just to see how it translated to a Kindle. Reading is a chore on it since you still have to zoom and scroll to follow the copy. There’s also the issue that pre-dates the Fire, as Amazon would love to have you purchase an automatic subscription to blogs, newspapers, magazines, etc…. As opposed to viewing them on the web for free (to the extent that the content is available as such). I’ve seen a few others really take to the graphic novel and comic book treatment that Fire does. I’m not big on either of those genres, though. For my taste, I’ll stick to the copy that I can read online for free.

PDF Support. This takes a bit of getting used to since there’s a lot of zooming and scrolling to get used to. But it comes in handy for those moments where it’s easier to email a PDF to the device and read it during a commute rather than save it for laptop reading later on. Reading a couple of issues of The New Republic was easy enough due to the basic column-oriented layout. But court briefs, opinions, and professional documents took a great deal more scrolling to navigate. Again – good in a pinch, but not necessarily a selling point.

Amazon Prime Lending Library. I downloaded “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and haven’t read more than 10 pages of it yet. The available titles don’t necessarily speak to me, but there’s easily 5 or so titles on there that I’ll want to get to first. If Amazon expands this offering by the time I’m done with those, then great. If not, I’m perfectly fine buying the books I want and sampling those that I’m curious about.

Still No Google Apps. I can download a Yahoo Mail app, a Hotmail app, and a Mapquest app. But I cannot use Gmail or Google Maps. This is purely my bias, but it’s the biggest failing that I see with the device. If I could at least substitute some of the email reading onto my Fire, that would be great. Gmail’s full version is too much for the Fire’s browser and the mobile version suffers from the same failing as mentioned earlier with regard to 7″ screens. I’m still not planning on running my Gmail through the dedicated email app that comes with the Fire. It really needs a dedicated Gmail app.

Maps (and maybe even Earth) would be a nice followup. I use my phone for checking bus times and route options on a daily basis. The small phone screen is a particular limitation with the latter.

Video Out. It may be that Amazon is too vested with Roku to concern themselves with adding an HDMI plugin that lets you translate the media consumption device to a fuller media consumption environment. I hope I’m wrong since I’m in the market for a new TV sometime this year. Being able to plug my laptop into the TV is something I’m long overdue for. I can hook my phone up with HDMI … so why not the Fire?

Kindle Fire Review: A Few Days In …

Now that I’ve had a few days – including a football-intense Saturday – to play with the Kindle, here are some early thoughts on it. Based on the abuse I’ve put a couple of cell phones through, I expect to do another review a few months from now to see how it’s held up.

The bottom line is that if you buy the Kindle Fire for the right reasons, it’s a good product. What that means, I think, is that you don’t buy it as a $199 tablet. If you think you’re in the market for a 7″ tablet for computing with, I refer you to the pure-Android Viewsonic tablet instead. What the Kindle Fire does offer, however, is a good media consumption device.

My initial attraction was to have something that served as a reading device first. I’d attempted a few books on the phone and found it a chore to read a 200+ page book on a 4″ screen. The difference that a 7″ screen makes for that is enormous. I’m speeding through the remainder of James Peterson’s “Freedom Is Not Enough” and looking forward to starting over with Gordon Wood’s “Empire of Liberty” in short order. Like each of the other Android Kindle apps, the Fire’s version doesn’t allow the device to read to you. I’ve never been big on that from a few test runs with the older Kindle devices that did offer that feature. But if it’s audio reading that you need, look elsewhere.

The device ships with a month-long trial of Amazon’s Prime service. I’ve already had that for nearly two years to take advantage of the free 2-day shipping. But the service also offers some freebies for TV shows and movies. To nearly everyone I’ve discussed this with, the fact that all four seasons of “ALF” are available for free is a huge selling point. I’ve also been re-appreciating free episodes of Brendan Small’s former cartoon, “Home Movies.” If you happen to fall outside of the realm of people impressed by either of those, there’s also “King of the Hill”, “My Name Is Earl” and “Arrested Development” to name but a few. The movie offerings are generally a great deal more obscure, though I am looking forward to blocking some time out to watch “Man on Wire” sometime soon.

The web aspect of the device is a plus in the context of having a device that does something more than serve as a reader. I’m still not settled on a pattern of how much web usage I’ll end up putting the device through since my phone usually serves as my commute reading device (thanks to a 3G connection as opposed to the Fire’s wifi-only status). And when I’m home, I’d rather be on the laptop. In testing the Fire, however, I can’t say that I’m sold on the new browser, despite all the tech drooling over the Silk browser’s mechanics.

For one, I use Gmail and Google Maps a lot. And I first thought to test the Fire as a substitute for Google Reader since that site is a bit lacking on the phone. But the Silk browser seems to have some hangups with either HTML5 or Ajax coding that Google relies heavily on. I’ve gotten numerous crashes and stalls on each site, with Google Maps being practically unusable for me on the Fire. I’m not bothering with the Fire’s own email client, so I have nothing to offer on that. Unless the browser stops gagging on Gmail or Amazon and Google start playing together, the Fire isn’t an email device for me.

For more normal news reading, the browser seems as good as any other. If there’s any alleged tech improvement in Silk’s ability to cache and “learn” browsing history, I’m not seeing it yet. Page load times are still a bigger function of the wifi connection being used and with a few different locations tested, I’ve already gotten results that are all over the map. For whatever it’s worth, the authenticated wifi at my local Denny’s kept flaking out on my Kindle while it’s never been a problem when I’ve broken out the laptop. The result: I ended up reading from my phone over pancakes.

I’ve also been wifi-less at the homestead for a while now. I may change that to benefit a bit more from the Fire at home. But it obviously means that I’m not falling asleep to “ALF” reruns or checking news sites from it late at night. Your mileage may vary depending on the setup you have at home. But the long and short of this for me is that the Fire still serves as a niche device between my laptop and phone.

The Apps are presently a drawback for the Fire if you intend to use it as a game or productivity device. Two big items missing for me are my baseball game (Com2Us’ “9 Innings”) and my football game (EA’s “Madden ’12″). I did install “Finger Football”, Autodesk’s “Sketchbook Mobile” and even bought Konami’s “Frogger” to test what the bigger screen would allow for. Each definitely seems like a richer experience on the bigger screen and I’m having a fair amount of fun with Sketchbook. But my gaming needs begin and end with sports games. And there aren’t any good options that I see for that right now. For a device that seems destined as ADD-molifyers for kids, the lack of good game options may be a bit of a hangup. For my own needs, I hope they’re working with both Com2Us and EA right about now.

I mentioned the lack of Amazon+Google apps with regard to email. But there’s also no app for Google Maps or Google Earth. You can imagine how this detracts from my view of the device. There’s time to fix that, but I suspect it’s more of a meta-issue for the two companies to resolve more than it being a matter of time for Google coders to offer up the apps to Amazon.

The Music player on the device is as good as any other I’ve seen pre-installed on an Android device. But the Fire’s 8GB storage limit seems to nudge the user to store tunes on Amazon’s cloud storage. Since I’m old enough to remember when the cloud was called the internet, I’m not willing to follow along. My phone lets me switch out the memory if needed and the non-Amazon Android install on the phone means I can install an MP3 player that offers better EQ options for cranking my 80s hair bands more to my liking. So it’s just a personal issue on my part that means I won’t be using the Fire for tunes. In testing, however, The Cars, Lucinda Williams, Paul Gilbert, and yours truly sound awesome on the device.

On an even-more techier note, the Android install on the Fire has been covered thoroughly by others. This is essentially your grandmother’s Android – one that she can work her way around without being distracted by thinking of the device as a computer. That’s not an awful thing, in and of itself. But it’s definitely a limiting factor if what you really want is a tablet computer. One note on battery life that I can add is that I managed to get through the bulk of the UH-SMU game while at church on a single charge. Modest reading/web/video usage during a more normal day still fails to drain the battery. So no complaints on battery life out of me.

Two things missing from the Fire that I wish it had are an HDMI hookup for sending the media to a TV and the ability to tether my phone to the device. The first isn’t too much of a biggie since I still need to get a TV that can take a HDMI hookup. But if I can do that trick from a phone, it boggles the mind that a device intended for being a media consumption tool wouldn’t offer it. The tethering issue is, for me, the fallback to getting the homestead set back up as a wifi shop. It would also come in handy if I saw the Fire’s non-Kindle options as a plus for my morning and evening commute. Not a dealbreaker, but something the limits the Fire to a niche for me.

All things taken into account, I’m right about where I expected to be with the new toy: it’s a great reader that does a little more. If that’s all you get it for, I think you’re likely to be happy with it. If you want a tablet computer, keep looking. If grandma needs something to do email on, this may or may not fill that void. The Fire seems to be finding, if not creating, its own niche. If there’s a $199 hole in the pocket for something to read books on – and maybe do a little more with – then it’s a solid device. If your needs vary for a portable tablet, keep looking.

When Math and Journalism Collide

February 15, 2011 Tech Stuff No Comments

» NY Times: The Dirty Little Secrets of Search
» NY Times: Web Words That Lure the Readers

Two good reads on how search engine optimization is changing the web … and maybe not for the better. If you want a bit of background on the topic before diving in, I think Nick Denton’s thoughts on web design as they pertain to blogs is a good start. That’s not to say I agree that his suggestions should be followed … a number of them, I find extremely annoying. I’ve pretty much written off BleacherReport.com after a handful of “Best Teams for Kevin Kolb” posts that are nothing more than a quick slideshow of a handful of teams with a photo and a ‘graf that parallels with a garden variety mock draft take on the team. But then again, they got my pageview, didn’t they? Tread at your own risk and feel free to either take notes or dread what the internet will be like in a few years as your level of cynicism warrants.

Dirty Little Secrets” is a nice expose on JC Penney getting top search results for a large number of items they sell. The folks at Penney aren’t liking it one bit and are fighting back (with PR. Not with emails threatening legal action, it seems). The article ends with Google taking manual action to re-score of the black hat “hacks” that juiced Penney’s results. It’s a case study in a point that Ive always made to anyone who ever asks me how to get good search engine results: don’t try to game the system, Google eventually dings you when you try. It’s better to just put a good website up … good UI practices are what Google’s algorithm is chasing. Of course, blogging on a regular basis for several years is another good way to get good results. But for that approach, I think the first love has to be the subject matter you happen to be blogging about … not seeing yourself ranked highly on search terms for the latest teenybopper sensation that gets sent to jail.

Web Words” is a similar report that focuses on the means of getting those curious clicks. It focuses on the practice as used by Huffington Post. There’s nothing “black hat” about this … it’s just annoying to people like me who are looking for reading material, not the latest celebrity gossip. It’s also part and parcel to why I rarely read HuffPo.

One thing that HuffPo does do that I’m genuinely interested in is their use of A/B testing on titles. I don’t think my meager traffic warrants the coding that would go into finding ways to accomplish that, but it’s something that I would expect to see out of more serious news operations.

Taken together, what’s obvious from all of this is the way that math and journalism are coming together. And that genie, I suspect, will not go back in the bottle. I just wish that people were less enamored with the following:

- slideshows
- aggregater posts
- photos as posts
- lists (irony noted)

But what do I know, I’m still operating on the Jim Rome philosophy of “have a take, don’t suck.” Or trying, anyways.

Smart Phones Outsell PCs

February 9, 2011 Tech Stuff 3 Comments

» Washington Post: Smart phones outsell PCs for the first time

An interesting datapoint of the times …

For the first time ever, smart phones such as Apple Inc.’s iPhone are outselling personal computers, according to a report by research group IDC that was released Monday.

Worldwide, consumer electronics makers shipped 100.9 million smart phones in the last three months of 2010, an 87 percent jump from a year earlier. PC shipments were weaker than expected, edging up just 3 percent to 92.1 million.

The world doesn’t change in an instant with that bit of news, but if it holds up to remain a trend, it’ll be interesting to see how text and email communication change along with it. My first question as to what this might mean is where people primarily read email: on their phone or in front of a computer screen. I’m on record as saying that political email marketing will have to adapt to email readers who pick up their email by phone. Whether that kicks in for 2012 or later … we’ll see.

Of Apps and Mobile Browsers

February 1, 2011 Tech Stuff No Comments

» ZDNET: Google hiring mobile app developers…And 6000 other Googlers

Noted for the next time that I have to listen to someone tell me that I need to spend $10,000 on a mobile app that does nothing more than pull web content that I can put on a mobile site for next to nothing …

Do users love interacting with the web on 3 inch screens? No. Do specialized apps work better on small screens? Oftentimes, yes. And how about the iPhone, that silly little smartphone from some company in California that so many people seem to like? It doesn’t support Flash, so the web experiences available to users before HTML5 becomes prevalent aren’t exactly rich. Mobile apps, of course, bypass that issue, enabling great experiences on Flashless small screens.

Interestingly, though, the majority of data usage on mobile phones comes from actual web surfing. Mobile access to data and information remains the primary use case for these devices (and tablets, for that matter). People may be downloading billions (literally) of apps, but they still spend extraordinary amounts of time simply online with their phones.

What if the web experience could be as rich as the native app experience? A look at what Google (as well as Microsoft and Zoho, among others) has done to replicate and, in some ways, advance, productivity software presented as a web-based service shows just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to rich web applications.

My morning newspaper routine has migrated to the cellphone over the past few years. I usually make sure to check on the bus ride into work or at any other venue where people are killing time with their phone/tablet/whatever to see what kind of usage other people make of their phones. I can’t say that the amount of time I spend online on my phone is anywhere near normal yet. But I do find it useful to ask people what apps they actually read. I have apps that I check the weather with and that I play miniature golf with. I occasionally make use of the WordPress app to approve a comment or two and YouTube and Amazon’s MP3 app are staples. But when it comes to something to read, the browser is all that’s needed.

GSeverance

November 30, 2010 Tech Stuff No Comments

» NY Times: Google Grows, and Works to Retain Nimble Minds

From garage band to corporate behemoth?

Google, which only 12 years ago was a scrappy start-up in a garage, now finds itself viewed in Silicon Valley as the big, lumbering incumbent. Inside the company some of its best engineers are chafing under the growing bureaucracy and are leaving to start or work at smaller, nimbler companies.

Recent departures include low-level engineers, product managers and prominent managers like Lars Rasmussen, who helped create Google Maps and Wave before he left for Facebook, and Omar Hamoui, the founder of AdMob who was vice president for mobile ads at Google and is now looking for his next project. At least 142 of Facebook’s employees came from Google.

Corporate sclerosis is a problem for all companies as they grow. But a hardening of the bureaucracy and a slower pace of work is even more perceptible in Silicon Valley, where companies grow at Internet speed and pride themselves on constant innovation — and where the most talented people are often those with the most entrepreneurial drive.

On the whole, I tend to agree with Google’s spin in that the number of departures isn’t terribly severe. What tends to counteract that a lot, however, is that Lars Rasmussen is a hero of mine for his work on Google Maps and any sign of fracture from the AdMob purchase isn’t terribly wonderful news either. Right there, we’re talking about people that have or have had a key role in the one online tool I use more than any other (GMaps) and another that I’ve worked with know to be a great add-on to Google’s bottom line (Google’s ad network). Even if those were the only two departures Google saw, I think they’d be huge losses as they’d likely turn into competitors for either something Google might develop or for something already providing a key revenue source.

That said, I still hope Google has my resume on file. But then again, I’d actually consider working for Facebook if it meant working with Lars.

Keep Austin Mobile

November 21, 2010 Tech Stuff No Comments

» Statesman: Mobile Internet revolution rearranging the tech landscape in Austin

Interesting things are abuzz in the capitol city …

The mobile Internet revolution is playing out across the globe, but Austin is one of the vital centers of technical action. It’s the force behind the 3,000 workers in hard hats building the $3.6 billion expansion to the nation’s largest chip factory in Northeast Austin. It’s why chip engineering companies in Austin are quietly scooping up top design talent for new low-power processors that will run portable Internet devices or larger computers.

Samsung Electronics Co. is a big Austin player in the new wave. So is Apple Inc., which bought an intriguing chip-design Austin startup in April. And ARM Holdings, a British chip company with a fast-growing Austin engineering operation, is intent on pushing a low-power approach toward computing – one that increases the battery life of mobile devices and cuts the energy consumption of other kinds of products.

The full article is an interesting read on what the hardware industry is doing to meet the rising demand. I can only speak to what I’ve seen from metrics for web traffic and design patters for other sites that are recognizing the need to meet this audience where it is – on the phone.

Having had the opportunity to manage a fairly well-trafficked website during the campaign season, I can attest to the fact that mobile web traffic is rising at a very fast clip. This fair blog presently gets about 5% of direct traffic from mobile devices, but it’s not uncommon to see sites that are primarily aimed for a desktop web audience to see something around 10% of their traffic from mobile devices. Those are roughly the starting point numbers that drive action for catering to a niche web audience. The shift in web design is already moving there and I’d be the first to point out that a well-designed mobile site can sometimes make the difference in choice of reading when I’m primarily using my phone.

WhoseSQL?

November 30, 2009 Tech Stuff No Comments

» NYT: Open Source as a Model for Business Is Elusive (Ashlee Vance)

A sign of the times? Or trend-spotting, plain & simple? Emphasis mine …

In many ways, MySQL embodies the ideals of the populist software movement known as open source, in which a program’s creator releases it to the world free of charge, and legions of volunteers contribute improvements that are also freely shared.

But like most open-source companies, MySQL’s sales, tied to support deals, never matched the astronomical number of downloads for its product, about 60,000 a day. In January 2008, the founders decided to sell the company for $1 billion to Sun Microsystems. And this year, Sun agreed to sell itself to Oracle, which makes database software aimed at larger companies and tougher jobs, for $7.4 billion.

Now, disagreement over the value of MySQL — both as a stand-alone entity and as part of a big company — lies at the heart of a bitter public battle between Oracle and the European Union over the Sun acquisition. The fight illuminates a larger truth about open-source companies: their societal and strategic importance far exceeds their financial value as operating businesses.

You can probably draw several different trajectories for what this means for the future of open-source software. Does it become the domain of non-profit foundations? … a side project by big tech firms? … forever the domain of private coders? … or does a National Endowment of Technology evolve to ensure the sustainability of open-source projects?

I won’t suggest a favorite of the bunch, but I do find an interesting parallel to the way in which mainstream media has suffered in part because of news essentially becoming “open-sourced.” Interesting because the response in the tech field is vastly at odds with the response seen in the media industry. At least for now.

Kindle vs Smart Phone

November 19, 2009 Tech Stuff No Comments

» NYT: Cellphone Apps Challenge the Rise of E-Readers
I can relate to this …

With Amazon’s Kindle, readers can squeeze hundreds of books into a device that is smaller than most hardcovers. For some, that’s not small enough.

Many people who want to read electronic books are discovering that they can do so on the smartphones that are already in their pockets — bringing a whole new meaning to “phone book.” And they like that they can save the $250 to $350 that they would otherwise spend on yet another gadget.

As I’ve blogged about in previous posts, I’ve been on the hunt for a Kindle to try out. Turns out, I finally got my hands on one for a few days. It’s fine enough for my taste, but the issue for me is one of availability of the type of stuff I read. Turns out that at least half of my recent purchases would not be able to be read on the Kindle. I suppose it would be fine to split reading styles, but my first question had to do with amortizing the cost of the tool with the likely savings in purchase of books. And I’m skeptical of the tool lasting beyond two years.

Now, having said that, I’ve been a bit surprised at how well I’ve adapted to reading on the G1. About the only issue I have with that is that I have to bump up the tiny font when the bus ride into downtown is bumpy and crowded. The world still awaits a Kindle app for the G1, so I’m not sure about the joy of reading a full book on the thing. Hopefully that’s in the works, though.

WhiteHouse.gov on Drupal?

October 28, 2009 Tech Stuff No Comments

» Slate: Why running the White House Web site on Drupal is a political disaster waiting to happen. (Chris Wilson)

I wish Drupal and the White House nothing but happiness. But I have a feeling this story ends badly. If the administration had conducted a few polls among the swing demographic of Web site administrators, it would have realized that Drupal is pocked with political landmines. To wit: Drupal represents everything the Obama team does not want to project.

I’d definitely be among those who agree with this sentiment. I’ve tried Drupal in it’s earliest stages and again when it was first lumped in with CivicSpace. I didn’t take to it for much of the reasons Wilson spells out.

For the record, I’m mildly content with Movable Type running the show here. And I have far fewer quarrels with WordPress than I did in their earlier stages. Both are solid for doing the techy work of building a site and turning it over to non-techy people to type in the content. I’m not sure if there are limitations for the scope needed of WhiteHouse.gov, but I’d at least think that there would be some suitable option between those two and Drupal.

Gone Mobile

October 26, 2009 Tech Stuff No Comments

For the mobile crowd …

m.gregsopinion.com

The mobile site has been up and running for a while, but I’ve finally gotten around to a nice little mobile URL and will probably be tweaking the template sometime this week.

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In Session

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