Year: 2009

They hate us

I’m starting to believe that American telecommunications companies actively hate their customers.

AT&T Mobility has just announced a change to their terms of service for 3G that basically makes any broadbandy use of it a violation of their TOS. Time Warner Cable has just announced monthly volume caps (these are sometimes called bandwidth caps, but that phrase strikes me as ambiguous), the highest of which will be 40 GB for $55 per month; overages will be priced at $1/GB.

Contrast this with Japan, where for about $35/mo, you can get a service with 47 Mbps downstream and 5 Mbps upstream. At maximum saturation, you’d burn through a 40 GB cap in 19 minutes. TWC’s lowest cap of 5 GB would take less than 3 minutes to burn through. Now, admittedly, nobody in the USA is getting that kind of bandwidth in the first place (I’m getting my carrier’s top level of service, which is about a quarter that speed up and down). And it should go without saying that NTT is not imposing any kind of caps on their service.

But wait, it gets better. Right now, Japan’s leading wireless carrier is field-testing the next generation in mobile broadband, a protocol called LTE (in the US, we call it 4G; over there, they call it 3.9G). This is running at 120 Mbps in their tests, and they plan on doubling that by the time it’s deployed commercially. At that rate, you could burn through a 40 GB cap in less than three minutes. Over the air.

American consumers are getting shafted by their telecommunications providers. Paying a nickel for a text message that costs exactly nothing to deliver is only the start. And let’s set aside spying on their customers for the NSA. With these increasingly restrictive terms of service and tariffs, I get the impression that carriers not only want to limit our expectations, they want to lower them.

I can’t explain the difference in pricing and service between American and Japanese companies, I can only speculate. And my speculations sound like a conspiracy theory.

Over the last ten or so years, we’ve seen Enron used as an inspiration for running the entire economy. A friend who used to be a muckety-muck at a cellphone maker said that telecommunications companies ultimately want to move towards a tithing-based pricing model—where you pay them a certain fraction of your income.

I have to imagine that in the boardrooms of AT&T and TWC, they rub their hands with glee at how they’re finding new ways to screw over their customers, just as Enron traders chortled over “aunt Tillie” sitting in the dark because they had engineered a power outage. That may sound over the top, but there’s definitely something about these companies that makes them want to provide the shittiest service they think they can get away with, not the best that is technologically possible.

And the thing about communications is that there’s really no way to “save up” those bits or bytes. Every second that fiber is dark is a second you can’t get back. Volume caps create an artificial scarcity where none exists.

Buzzword-compliant

Translating a press release about a new server with a new Intel chip, which describes all the buzzwords the chip is compliant with. Because the release is in Japanese, I’m not sure how these buzzwords are supposed to be rendered in English. Google to the rescue. They are:

  • Turbo Boost
  • QuickPath
  • Hyper-Threading

Got that? One is written as two words, one is InterCapped, and one is hyphenated. Get it together, guys.

Mobile Hub

Years ago, Apple promoted the Mac as a “digital hub” for media. Today we take for granted that computers can be used as hubs for media.

Two of the numerous points covered in Apple’s recent demo of version 3.0 of the iPhone OS was that Apple was finally giving developers access to the port, as well as unblocking bluetooth. These points have largely gone unremarked, but in the long run, I suspect they’ll be especially significant. I think Apple is positioning the iPhone to be a mobile hub.

Right now, the iPhone/iPod Touch has a sharper display, more processing power, and better input affordances than many of the gadgets that we deal with on a day-to-day basis. I predict that some manufacturers will take note of this and start producing headless products that will only work with an iPhone snapped onto the front to take care of these functions and/or provide new functions. This could be a nice moneyspinner for Apple, because of their “iPod tax” on products marked as compatible, and because it would make the iPhone that much more appealing, thus increasing demand for it. It could also be a profitable niche for manufacturers to exploit, since they could sell a product that is more functional than conventional equivalents but cheaper to build.

For example:

  • Car stereos: A car stereo with no faceplate, but simply a bracket and plug for an iPhone strikes me as the most obvious category. Many aftermarket car stereos already have detachable faceplates anyhow, and this would be a logical extension of that idea. Giving direct access to music on the phone would be the obvious benefit, but it would allow tidier integration of phone functions into the car, and add navigation as a lagniappe. A custom app might give simplified access to phone, nav, and music, and perhaps would have a radio controller that communicated with an actual radio in the car stereo over the port.
  • Bike computers: There are already a number of interesting apps that can use the GPS chip on the iPhone to track performance and routes over a bike ride, but these are hampered by some of the phone’s limitations. One is that there’s no way to continue logging GPS data when the app is not running, for example, when answering a call. I’m not sure if 3.0 will change that. (A friend who works at Apple suggests it will, but I’m skeptical. All that would really be needed would be a simple background daemon that logged GPS data at regular intervals, allowing the actual app to pick up where it left off.) Apart from that, a bike-mounted cradle for the phone would permit wheel and heart-rate monitor data to be fed into the phone through the jack and could provide extra battery power to the phone—so far, the only way to get heart-rate monitor data into the phone has been through a specialized product that uses wifi. This is a clever hack, but bluetooth or some kind of low-power radio communicating with the cradle would be more appropriate.
  • Cameras: I’m not the first person to observe that serious cameras could use an interface more like an iPhone’s. Snapping an iPhone directly onto a camera back would be ungainly, but tethering it over a wire could make a lot of sense, making it a tool for managing captured photos, backing them up, appending metadata (including GPS), and transmitting them.
  • Trackpads: Again, there is already an app for the iPhone that allow it to function as a trackpad (or as a tenkey input, etc), but again, these work over wifi. Apple has done a lot to make the trackpad on laptops not only a tolerable alternative to the mouse but in many ways a superior one. I can imagine a keyboard with a snap-in slot for the iPhone that turns it into a trackpad, giving those advantages to people using desktops.

What is not clear so far is whether a new port connection can trigger an app on the iPhone. This would be helpful—if not necessary—to create a seamless experience. Ideally one would simply snap one’s phone onto one’s car stereo in order to put it into car-stereo mode—the phone would recognize what it was connected to, and an application would have been registered to automatically launch when that connection is made.

Later: Looks like I’m not the only person to think about this. See iPhone 3.0 As the Accessory to …? and PC 1.0, iPhone 3.0 and the Woz: Everything Old is New Again

Finally, something I can point to

One of my disappointments as a commercial translator is that I seldom see my own work in its final form. I’ve been translating for over 20 years, and I’ve seen my own work in print only two times that I can think of. The overwhelming majority of my work has been consumed internally within one company, or distributed to a very limited audience.

These days, some amount of stuff that I’ve translated is also made available online, and I’ve had occasion to see some of it in its finished form a few times, which brings me to another disappointment (which may be particular to Japanese-English translation): seeing how my work gets butchered. I’ve done hundreds of press releases for a large Japanese electronics company. I do them for an intermediary company, which then passes them back to the end-client. I try to do a good job on these, and my direct client is happy with my work, but somebody at the end-client is not: they routinely rewrite my translations to be literal, awkward renderings of the Japanese.

So it is a rare pleasure when I get to see something that I’ve done and also can take pride in pointing to it and saying “I did that.” In this case, it’s one of the meatiest and most gratifying jobs I’ve done in a long time, a guide for developing Firefox addons. (Here’s the Japanese original. The English version has been updated for Firefox 3 since I translated it.) Working on the job was a pleasure: it was well-written source material on a subject that I understood in depth. I felt like I had the latitude to do the best job possible, as opposed to the best job the client would let me get away with.

Museum screens

Gwen recently got a new Macbook, and I’m thinking mighty hard about getting a new iMac. One controversial feature of both is the glossy screen.

These days, most laptops and many desktop monitors have glossy screens—Apple held the line for a long time, but has gone over to the shiny side (with the exception of the 17″ Macbook Pro, where the anti-glare option costs $50 extra). Glossy screens look great—better than the anti-glare screens—but only when there’s no glare. That’s an environmental condition that is hard to control, especially when out and about with a laptop. In the presence of direct light, the glare from the screen can make the screen image almost invisible, and generates a lot of eyestrain. Add-on anti-glare films do exist, but seem to get negative reviews, and strike me as an imperfect solution.

There is another way, and I’m surprised nobody has tried it yet: museum glass. This is a specialty product that I’ve only seen at framing shops. Its appearance is startling: the glass is just invisible. No glare, no visible matte coating, nothing—the only way you can tell it’s there is by poking at it and getting fingerprints on it. It’s worth going to a framing shop just to check it out. As far as I’m aware, it’s never been used for computer monitors, and I don’t doubt it would be a somewhat spendy upgrade, but it’s one that I suspect many buyers would gladly spring for—I know I would.

I know that the glass on the iMac is removable, with some difficulty. I wonder if it would be possible to get a piece of museum glass cut to fit it.

A humble case against everything buckets

Alex Payne recently wrote The Case Against Everything Buckets, which earned a rebuttal from Buzz Andersen.

Alex Payne’s post is ranty and prescriptivist, but there’s a nub of a good point buried in there: “Computers work best with structured data…With an Everything Bucket, you … miss out on opportunities to do interesting things with data”

What Alex Payne means by an “everything bucket” is a notebook-style application that you dump all your random notes, clippings, web links, pictures, etc into. There are a lot of independent software developers making interesting apps that fall in this general category. I don’t use one myself, mostly because I don’t need to manage big piles of notes.

I’ve always gravitated towards structured data—I put my contacts’ info in my address book, my links on delicious, and so on. And this can pay dividends—on a Mac, if you use the Address Book, other apps know where to look for your contact info and can do “interesting things” with it—like sync it to your phone, or check whether incoming e-mail is from someone you know. That’s what Alex Payne means by “interesting things.”

Here’s what’s funny, though: the distinction between the everything bucket and structured data may be a false dichotomy. That is to say, there’s still a difference in how you would get to the endpoint, but you’re still getting to the same endpoint of being able to do interesting things with your data. Those two paths are what Mark Pilgrim referred to as million-dollar markup vs milllion-dollar search.

Macs today (and also about ten years ago, right before the switch to OS X) come with “data detectors,” which will notice when a chunk of unstructured text contains something that looks like, say, a date, and will offer to create an iCal entry based on it.

Long before that, Simson Garfinkel wrote an app called SBook that looks like an everything bucket, but also attempts to do interesting things with your data. This is pretty much limited to contacts and related notes, but the idea is there.

Google searches can recognize mathematical formulas to give the results, personal names to give their contact details, musical groups to give their discographies, and so on.

If the software is smart enough—perhaps with a little coaxing from a person—to recognize the structure into which a chunk of data might fit, it shouldn’t really matter whether everything gets tossed into an everything bucket or meticulously sorted into multifaceted, hierarchical, schematized structures. The tools aren’t quite there yet, but there’s no technical reason it wouldn’t work.

Right now, though, it doesn’t work, and the benefits of those interesting things outweigh whatever cognitive load is associated with context-switching between different containers for different kinds of data.

Backing up your Delicious library on a Mac

The recent implosion of Ma.gnolia and a growing skepticism of entrusting your data to the cloud got me thinking about the data I’ve got that’s “out there.” One particular point of vulnerability is Delicious, where I keep my bookmarks.

Fortunately, Delicious makes it pretty easy to download all your bookmarks if you know what you’re doing. Unfortunately, you have to know what you’re doing, at least a little.

With that in mind, here’s a simple Applescript that any Mac user can run to create a backup. Delicious requests that you do this sparingly, so I’d recommend doing it only, say, once a week.

To make this work, open Script Editor on your Mac (it came with it, and should be lurking about somewhere unless you deleted it) and paste the following into it, changing the username and password. There may be a linebreak on the last line—edit it so that it is all on one line. Save it using “Application” as the file format with whatever name you like—this will result in a mini app that you can double-click to run.

Running it will create a file called deliciousbackup.xml in your Documents folder. That file will not be in the most readable format, but it will have all your data. Each time you run it, it will overwrite the previous version of the file. It would be possible to do multiple snapshots, but I haven’t gotten that fancy.

set thefile to "deliciousbackup.xml"
-- change myusername to your username, keep the quote marks
set theusername to "myusername"
-- change mypassword to your password, keep the quote marks
set thepassword to "mypassword"

-- this is where the magic happens
do shell script "curl https://" & theusername & ":" & thepassword & "@api.del.icio.us/v1/posts/all -o \"$HOME/Documents/" & thefile & "\""

Butterfly garden blog

butterflygarden

Gwen and I were walking home from the gym, and swinging past the neighborhood greenbelt when we spotted the sign above. I’d noticed the sign before, but not the URL. We exclaimed and laughed that the butterfly garden—a tiny, improvised corner of something that can’t even be called a park—had its own blog.

A couple of guys were walking a dog behind us, and one of them said “Hey, that’s my blog!” He apologized for the fact that both the blog and the butterfly garden were looking sorry because of the drought.

It’s great that one of the neighbors has stepped up and decided to do something interesting with that corners, and it’s great that he’s got a blog for it too.