"Well, that's just, like, your opinion, man."

Online Advertising

9/19/15, 10:07 AM

Oh my god, ad blockers are now available on iPhones! A bunch of online "publishers" are in high dudgeon!

About damn time, as far as I'm concerned.

Online advertising has been the bane of the internet.

To some, it would appear to have been the opposite. It has afforded the financial resources to create and offer so many sites and alternative news outlets.

From my point of view, advertisers represented a large pool of relatively easy money, and there was no shortage of, ahem, entrepreneurs ready to go after it.

I think nearly all of what passes for "content" on the web does not exist to inform, educate or entertain. It exists to sell advertising. At the most basic level, advertisers are seeking attention. Those who wish to receive advertising dollars must compete for attention. The result has been a worldwide cesspool, and that's a fairly apt metaphor, as most of the web consists of little more than the temporary storage of bullshit.

In the competition for attention, we have reduced cultural discourse to little more than rumor, sarcasm, snark, hype, provocation, gossip, titillation, and fear-mongering for the vast majority of what is blithely labeled as "content." Truthfully, much of this can be ignored with little effort. But with the rise of social networks and "sharing," the unwilling and the unwitting are still exposed to far too much bullshit than they would otherwise care to see. Facebook and Twitter acknowledge this by giving users the ability to kind of tailor what they see from their social network. And there's the common admonition to "never read the comments!"

I stopped watching broadcast television because of commercials and what the competition for "eyeballs" was doing to programming. Should we be surprised today that the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination is a reality television star?

Fox News exists because there's money to be made selling advertising serving an audience of frightened, angry, aging, resentful white people. Fox News doesn't exist to "report" anything. It exists to sell advertising, and it does so by attracting the attention of a certain audience. The fact that they can help influence the domestic political agenda is certainly also high on the agenda, but it's the fact that it can deliver an audience to advertisers that makes the whole proposition possible.

Advertising is a corrosive agent on culture. It's the power of money to drive discourse, both directly and indirectly.

I subscribe to Netflix, I will likely subscribe to HBO once my "free" subscription from Comcast runs out. I subscribe to the NY Times digital edition, and I subscribe to The New Yorker magazine, and I'm thinking about subscribing to The Atlantic. (I must say, you certainly do get a better class of junk mail once you subscribe to The New Yorker.) I'm a sustaining member of my local public radio station.

There will always be a market for reliable news and information, good writing and good entertainment. It may never be a lucrative one, but people will pay for good products. Part of the effort has to be in educating people what good products really look like. A lot of crap online publications going out of business isn't going to solve the problem, but maybe it'll reduce the noise level a bit for a little while.

I'll be asking for a refund for Marco Arment's Peace app. But I'll install another ad blocker in its place.

Republicans: Reaping As They Sow

9/17/15, 8:27 AM

The chaotic field of Republican presidential candidates, with the front-runner being Donald Trump, is the product of decades of Republican choices in rhetoric.

Although there is a common thread of hyperbole in American politics ("Extremism, in defense of liberty, is no vice!" Barry Goldwater, 1960.) the past two decades have seen the Republican party rely on increasingly belligerent, confrontational and provocative speech. Congressman Joe Wilson shouting "You lie!" from the floor of the House as President Obama was delivering the State of the Union Address is but one example.

The intention clearly seems to be to arouse the public to the issues they feel are important. But because it's horrifically over-used, it no longer genuinely arouses. In general, conservatives seem to rely on Fox News for much of their information, along with right wing talk radio. These two media outlets specialize in manufactured outrage, and instilling fear. The problem is, it's impossible to go around in a state of arousal and outrage all the time. Humans have an ability to adjust their interior emotional set-point, so that interior state eventually settles into one of resentment and anxiety. The good news for those media outlets, in terms of capturing attention, is that people will return to those outlets time after time to receive a stimulus so their interior state feels "normal." It's good for ratings, but its effectiveness for mobilizing action diminishes over time.

Coupled with provocative speech, right wing media focuses on unrelenting criticism of government. It seems this is to promote its ideological belief in the idea of "small government," or at least government that allows the rich and large corporations to do whatever they feel is in their interest to do.

What the right wing media have created in their own constituency is an electorate of resentful, anxious people with no confidence in politicians. It's the perfect recipe for someone like Trump or Ben Carson. Neither has any experience in government, and both play very well to resentment and anxiety. Carly Fiorina is less of a perfect match, she hasn't captured the resentment and anxiety electorate, but she isn't a politician and she's something of an anti-Hillary, which may work to her advantage.

I don't know if Donald Trump will or even can win the Republican nomination for president. I do know that the Koch brothers and other moneyed interests in the Republican party will spend a fortune to try to destroy him, and possibly Ben Carson if he overtakes Trump. While the moneyed interests have strategized and subsidized this campaign to anger and frighten people (leading only to resentment and anxiety), and to destroy any confidence in government, they by all means want a career politician who knows how the game is played so they can work the levers of power when he or she is elected.

It'll be interesting to watch what happens. The Koch brothers, Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, Karl Rove and all these geniuses have just made it that much more difficult for them to achieve their goals. They've certainly made it more expensive for them to win the White House.

The Banality of Google

9/10/15, 7:49 AM

Like it or not, by its own design, "evil" has been a part of the Google brand since its inception. At the time, it was likely intended to be a kind of clever riposte to the reputation of the then-dominant player in the marketplace, Microsoft, sometimes referred to as an "evil empire."

Evil is an adjective, but it's often treated almost as a noun, "The forces of evil." And it also seems to be tied up with supernatural forces, either as a description of the nature of those forces, or indeed their essence or identity.

So, for better or worse, its use is often intentionally hyperbolic.

But it was Hannah Arendt, writing about Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who coined the phrase, "the banality of evil." While Arendt's book has since become somewhat controversial, I think the observation that "evil" people don't necessarily look like "monsters," is valid.

Some of the controversy around Arendt's book revolves about the true character of Adolf Eichmann. Was he an anti-semitic, ideological "true believer," or was he just a middle management functionary, just following orders, doing his duty and following the law?

Arendt's point, as I understand it, is that it is not necessary to be somehow a "monster," to be a sociopath or otherwise psychologically damaged in order to carry out "evil" (profoundly immoral and malevolent) acts. It is merely necessary to be willfully oblivious to the consequences of one's choices, whether they be "doing one's job" or "following the law," which are the kinds of things perfectly ordinary, mentally competent people do every day.

One can ask if the people at Enron were "monsters" as they cooked the books? Were the folks at Arthur Anderson, Enron's auditor, monsters?

Of course not. The only way we know about what happened at Enron is that they weren't clever enough to keep fooling investors, and eventually their schemes collapsed.

What does this have to do with Google? For much of its existence, Google has been the quintessential Silicon Valley entrepreneurial epic. A couple of really smart guys with a good idea and a garage get rich. Yay! American dream™! Go free enterprise! And for the most part, Google's business was mostly a benefit to the public, making the resources on the internet more readily available or easily found.

What follows are my thoughts and opinions on what Google has become. I have no special knowledge about what goes on inside Google, I'm just inferring this from the things I've read in the press. I believe they're reasonable, logical inferences, but they're not "facts," just my opinions offered in a series of assertions. You are encouraged to do your own thinking.

Initially, Google's revenues came from advertising. As players in the market began to figure out how Google's search algorithm, PageRank worked, they began to game their websites to earn higher PageRank and appear higher in a search result. Google became involved in something of an arms race between "search engine optimization" and Google's wish to provide truly useful search results to the user. Google and search engines like it created the phenomenon of "link farms" and huge "aggregation" sites, where low-value content was cross-linked to boost PageRank. To some extent, it was probably inevitable, but Google probably accelerated the degeneration of the World Wide Web from an idealistic information resource to the almost useless craptacular information cesspool it has become. (So there's some "evil" right there for you! And I haven't even gotten to the good stuff!)

Google faced a kind of Heisenberg paradox. The more they indexed the web, the more the web changed to try to game the index. The web "knows" Google is looking at it, so it's constantly trying to guess what makes it look "better" to Google, which isn't necessarily what makes it "better" for the rest of us.

But users, they're the other side of the search equation. All they want from Google is a relevant answer to their search query, they don't really care about Google itself. It's just a service! And it's free!

While the web was a constantly morphing phenomenon, always seeking to game Google's search algorithms, users were a relatively "fixed" resource. If you understood what a user was truly looking for, it would be easier to isolate the relevant information in the index and present that, instead of whatever just bubbled to the top from a generic keyword search.

You can't train users to construct sophisticated search queries. Google offers the facility, go try to teach your mom how to use it. I'll wait.

But if you know enough about a user, you can make some pretty sophisticated inferences about what they're looking for from a generic keyword search. And, by a happy coincidence, that information is pretty valuable to advertisers as well.

It seems that "organizing the world's information" went from just organizing what was available on the public-facing web, to organizing everything that interfaced with the web, meaning information about users.

This is where it gets a little hard to conceptualize this stuff, so please bear with me a bit. This blog post is prompted by something my good friend Shelley Powers wrote the other day. She's got a new blog up documenting her experiences with home automation called Hack Your Home .Space. In a post reviewing Google's new OnHub home wifi router, Shelley wrote:

Google states it does not track which sites we go to, or collect the content of any of our traffic. Do I believe the company? Yes, I do. Commonsense [sic] compels me to believe the company.

Contrary to what Mom tells us, none of us are inherently special—not to the point where a billion dollar company like Google wants to breathlessly track our every movement. And if we're concerned about tracking for ads, well, if we enable cookies and JavaScript, use Chrome, visit sites that use Google Analytics, and we use Google search, Google has all it needs to determine which ads we should and should not see.

Shelley doesn't quote the privacy policy page that she says "states it does not track which sites we go to, or collect the content of any of our traffic," so we don't know exactly how Google is phrasing that disclaimer. Does that mean that Google doesn't "track" (Whatever that means. "Examine?" "Index?" "Note?") internet protocol packets leaving her home IP address to another IP address on the web (whereby we "go to" some site)? Does it further disclaim that Google does not examine, index, note or otherwise give any attention to IP packets coming from another web site to Shelley's home IP address?

My point here is not to be tin-foil hat paranoid about this, but this language is opaque in common use, and no one truly knows what Google is doing absent some kind of external inspection or audit. They may be perfectly honest saying they're not looking at anything that "goes to" another site, but can we simply believe that they're not interested in what's "coming from" another web site to Shelley?

And how does any of this make "common sense?" Internet traffic is about as far removed from "common sense" as quantum physics.

As to whether or not we merit attention from Google, Mom's assertions notwithstanding, Google is a multi-billion dollar company that is built on a business model that relies on tracking our every movement! And they've assembled an enormous machine that beggars the imagination to accomplish just that very goal! Because, just like why Al Capone robbed banks, that's where the money is!

Google bought Android because it watched Apple developing the iPhone and realized that an internet fragmented by the "app culture" would eliminate Google's biggest source of user data. They needed Android because they needed to know where users were, and what they were doing on the web so they could serve them relevant and timely ads!

Google is offering high-speed fiber connections to the home, not out of the kindness of their cold corporate hearts, but because they want to see what people do with high speed internet access.

Google is offering the OnHub because it's another access point for Google to peer into a home and gather data. They're not making money selling routers!

They didn't buy Nest because they wanted to get into the home heating business! They wanted to know how much energy people were using. When were they home? How long were they away?

Glass? While you're peering out at a world mediated by data from Google, Google is peering back at you!

And they don't need every single piece of information about every single person. They just need enough to form reliable models! They need a lot of data from a few people, and a little data from a lot of people, to form useful predictive models about anyone! This is what "big data" is all about! And no company on Earth, with the possible exception of the NSA is more into "big data" than Google.

Does any of all that necessarily make Google evil? Not on its face. The problem is, "evil" is just human behavior; and we know how humans behave when they think they're smarter than everyone else, and they don't believe they're accountable to anyone.

Google is accountable to no one. There is no law regulating what they're doing. It is unprecedented in history. Nobody knows what Google is doing, today, in its data centers. There is no transparency whatsoever.

Google is not accountable to shareholders. Larry and Sergey own the controlling interest.

Larry and Sergey are unaccountable, and they think they're smarter than everyone else.

That's a recipe for "evil." ("Pure and simple, from the eighth dimension!")

Well that, and intelligent people choosing to ignore what they see before their own eyes.

We won't find out until it's too late. There will be some horrible, immoral, malevolent outcome, like Enron, or Union Carbide's Bhopal, or the financial meltdown, or the Ashley Madison hack. We won't know what choices are being made without regard for the consequences until the consequences come home to roost. Are they steering Congressional legislation or oversight away from their activities? Why isn't Congress interested in the largest surveillance activity outside of the NSA? Seems kind of odd to me. We audit banks because we want to make sure bankers aren't doing anything too "innovative" with people's money, why don't we audit Google's data centers to make sure they're not doing anything too "innovative" with people's data?

And buying Google's products and using their services, while trusting their disclaimers without any transparency is just enabling the "evil" and hastening the day when it all comes home to roost.

The Big Screen

9/9/15, 8:26 PM

So Apple had a thing today. I watched the live stream on my television. Is the excessive use of superlatives getting really tiring to anyone else? "Truly remarkable," anyone? "Amazing!" "Super excited!" I don't know, I guess I'm becoming somewhat jaded in my old age. Nothing I saw this afternoon was particularly inspiring. Maybe that's a good thing, because it might mean I can keep a few more dollars in my wallet.

Who am I kidding? I'm sure I'll buy something!

I'm still not convinced of the value proposition of the watch. I'm going to wait and see how the app ecosystem evolves.

The new Apple TV is a nice evolution, but it's hardly a revolutionary platform. I like the fact that it can search across a number of content providers for a particular title, that's been entirely too long in coming. I'm not terribly persuaded by the remote as a game controller. My guess is there may be more traditional Bluetooth controllers coming down the pike from third parties. Some of the playback features were nice, though I guess I'd like to see the additional information come over my iOS device, either an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad, rather than clutter my screen. I'm one of those guys who looks up movies in IMDB as I'm watching them to see what other movies the actors or director have done, or how old they were when they made the movie, so it's kind of a natural fit. (Watched Eight Legged Freaks the other night. An early Scarlett Johansson flick with Cary Agos from The Good Wife (Matt Czuchry). He was 25, she was 19.) Come to think of it, I wonder if we'll see an updated iOS Remote app that can essentially duplicate the remote's functions while offering a second screen for information. That would be something I'd be interested in.

I'm surprised we didn't see any integration with HomeKit. I'm pretty sure that's something that'll be coming eventually.

The iPad Pro is intriguing. I love the idea of the additional screen size for doing photo editing. I'm thinking the 32GB model is probably adequate for me, given there is so much storage available offline. I don't need the LTE version, as I could use my iPhone as a hotspot for those occasions when I'm not on another wifi network. It's definitely heavy. I have an iPad 3 that my hands get tired holding after a while. I think you're going to want to be using the Pro on a surface of some kind, maybe your lap. I suppose we'll have to see how hot it gets for that to be a practical idea. The Apple Pencil is a $99.00 accessory I'm guaranteed to lose, so I probably don't need one of those. I'm sure any Bluetooth keyboard will be fine, I don't need one in a "smart" cover.

I bought an iPad Mini 2 last spring because I didn't want to spring for an iPad Air 2 with the rumors of a Pro model coming in the fall. The Mini 2 is faster than my iPad 3, though it gets kind of bogged down sometimes.

The iPhone 6s is pretty much everything it was rumored to be. The 3D Touch interface is nice, I think that's a pretty neat little innovation. Not game changer by any means, but a useful evolution of the platform. The 12MP camera was expected, I'm sure it's wonderful. I have no need for 4K video - I hardly do anything with video.

I'll probably get a 6s, only a Plus this time. From a handling standpoint, the iPhone 6 is already too big. My right hand gets sore from playing Threes for any length of time. If the small one is already too big, might as well have a really big phone and get a nicer screen! I find I appreciate the ability to use larger text sizes in my advancing age. I'm not in a hurry because there's nothing about the phone that I absolutely have to have. Any urgency I might feel is more related to preserving whatever trade-in value my iPhone 6 has. In any event,I won't do anything right away. I'll wait for the reviews to come out.

I'm sure Apple will continue to print money, but whatever thrill there once was in watching the scrappy underdog out-innovating everyone else has been lost to overwhelming market dominance. They still make nice products, just not anything that really feels exciting anymore.

Which is fine.

Baseball

9/9/15, 10:50 AM

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Mitzi and I went to the last night game of the Jacksonville Suns' 2015 season, and the last night game under the long-time ownership of the Bragan family. I'm not sure if that was the reason, but the fireworks display after the game (Suns beat the Mississippi Braves, 7-4) was pretty amazing. I'd brought along the E-M1 with the 14-150mm lens. I shot a bunch of frames bracing my elbows against my knees, shutter priority at a half second exposure. 5-axis image stabilization kept the scoreboard pretty sharp.

The weather was remarkably nice considering it's been in the 90s with greater than 90% humidity for the past few weeks.

All in all, it was a very pleasant Sunday evening.

Headed For Mars

9/8/15, 7:32 PM

Be Here Now

9/3/15, 7:29 AM

Well, this endeavor certainly stumbled. I have a laptop, explicitly so I can maintain some continuity on the web when I'm away from home; but it didn't seem to work out that way for past couple of months.

When last we met, I had just moved in with my girlfriend because Bodhi, my Golden Retriever, had ruptured a ligament in his left knee. He has since had a surgical repair called Tibial-plateau-leveling osteotomy (TPLO). The surgery seems to have been successful as Bodhi is now able to successfully go up and down the stairs to my condo with little difficulty. There are many months of recovery ahead, but it looks like we're going to be okay.

While staying with Mitzi, I was spending much of my time here at my condo because we'd had a catastrophic fire in one of the buildings, causing a loss of twenty homes. For the past several years, I've been the president of the condominium association's board of directors. For the most part, I enjoy the role. I like where I live, and I like to think I'm contributing to keeping it a nice place. We've struggled with a number of challenges due to the nature of the conversion, the collapse of the housing bubble, and the influx of investor-owners and the concomitant rise in the percentage of tenant residents. We've been able to meet most of those challenges, though seldom can you make everyone happy. But this fire has been one of the biggest, and most novel, challenges we've faced. It's certainly been an education for me.

The combined distractions of Bodhi's injury and the consequences of the fire seemed to have left me with little in the way of energy to write, apart from the occasional Facebook status updates.

Bodhi and I returned to Action Dave's Cool-Guy Bachelor Pad™ yesterday, and so now I'm trying to get back into what once was a "normal" routine. So here I am!

I must say that I am indebted beyond words for the graciousness and hospitality of my wonderful girlfriend, Mitzi. Bodhi, despite his nine years, remains a very, VERY energetic animal, and he loves Mitzi. There was always a certain element of chaos whenever Mitzi appeared. Add to that the shedding, and an incredible amount of water slobbering all over the place whenever Bodhi wants to quench his thirst, and it takes a special kind of woman to put up with all that. I really don't know what we'd have done without her help.