The Cola Wars Go Binary

Coke Zero, Pepsi One
First Pepsi One, now Coke Zero. One, Zero… could there be a connection? Nah.

Haven’t tried Coke Zero yet–I’ll let you know.

But man do I love that Pepsi One has a wikipedia entry.

Who Doesn’t Love Pirate-Themed Error Messages?

gmail arrgh!Check out this neat error message I got from gmail today! Of course nothing had actually gone wrong on the page, as far as I could tell, and a click on “refresh” made the error go away, but still, interesting. Also interesting was the fact that the humor totally took the sting out of getting an error message. Though I probably wouldn’t have been so Zen about it if I had actually lost something. But isn’t a pirate snarl so much nicer than an icon of a stop sign or a bomb?

Spy Versus Spy

No wonder Italy has run out of mobile phone wiretaps… they used them all up chasing CIA agents! And I really like this “extraordinary rendition” concept. It’s like a Tom Clancy novel. We go into an allied country without approval and extract a subject to a third country where fewer rules apply. Can you imagine how we’d feel if countries started doing stuff like this to us? I mean think about this. Imagine how we’d feel if teams of foreign agents were running around New York or Florida operating completely outside the law, planning to abduct or even kill people. Wait, didn’t this happen about four years ago? I think it was around the second week of September.

I’m not saying there aren’t bad guys out there. But we’re clearly on a path to considering ourselves above the law anywhere on the planet we choose to go. I’m guessing many people will see Italy as the bad guy and the CIA as the victim in this situation. Our sense of universal moral entitlement has us going into friendly countries, European countries, countries responsible for quite a bit of our own cultural heritage, and doing “extractions” without any kind of respect for local sovereignty or rule of law. Is this really the example we want to set? Do we really want to put forth the impression that it’s all just a global free-for-all? Because I believe there really is a non-trivial relationship between the words “civilization” and “civility.”

How much longer can we pretend to inhabit the moral high ground when we continually violate the most basic laws of justice and humanity? And to put it in words even the far right ought to be able to understand, what ever happened to “do unto others?” In all of our global moralizing and selective attention to biblical literality, did we forget the second half of that basic tenet? Because it doesn’t end, as we sometimes jokingly say, “before they can do unto you,” nor even the less antagonistic but still cynical “as they do unto you.” What we are most certainly not doing is what it actually does say: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Do you want to get pulled into a white van and sent to another country for torture? Do you want to live with a complete absence of due process? Of course not. And if you want to this to happen to other people–even your enemies, even very bad guys–I’d say you have something seriously wrong with your morality. But guess what. This is what we’re doing. This is what 51% of us voted in favor of in the last election. We’re the people in the white van. We’re the people in the black hoods holding the electrodes to someone’s genitals. We’re an entire country that has, to steal a phrase from the spy-thriller world, gone off the reservation. We’ve gone rogue, and the results aren’t pretty. Where, in all our professed “morality,” is our conscience?

Blogger, Sucking Evermore

Has anyone notice that every single thing they do to blogger makes it worse? Recently they changed the way Ctrl-I works from adding an “<em>” tag to some kind of style=”font-style:italic” bullshit. That is just a step in the wrong direction. “<em>” is not deprecated, you morons!

Today I discover that they’ve broken the way image upload and insert works. It use to upload the raw image and give you an image tag. Now you get at least two copies of the image, an href, a bunch of style crap, and no clear way to control what size it’s going to use. All undocumented, of course. Again, this is not an improvement.

I was already wondering how blogger could dare show its face at SXSW Interactive this year due to how badly they suck. They seem to have all kind of money to throw around and yet absolutely no talent for making a blogging system work. If things keep going as they are, I can only imagine that by the next SXSW they’ll be the AOL of blogging, the shameful has-been that instantly marks its users as newbies and losers.

Here’s my solution: Google (owner of Blogger), buy WordPress (which has its own problems), keep everyone currently involved on purely as evangelists, hire new technical talent that understands things like standards and usability, and then treat it like an actual application. Then maybe we’ll get what we’ve been waiting for ever since the IPO: a blogging system with the slickness and functionality of Gmail.

You Want a Piece of Me?

jury summonsApparently Travis County does. A big fat piece. I already had a Thursday morning hearing scheduled to protest a blanket 12% increase in the appraised value of my home (in an utterly flat to declining housing market, at least in this neighborhood). Then yesterday what do I receive? A Jury Summons!

I have to admit, I’ve spent the last 19.5 years successfully (and legally, as far as you know) dodging jury duty. For some reason I felt like it was one of the four or five worst things that could happen to you as an adult. I think this goes back to high school when I took some law classes in which all we seemed to do was take field trips to the county seat and tour government facilities. And though being locked in a cell for 15 minutes and getting “scared straight” by felons (though DWI was probably the most heinous crime represented, and the scariest thing about the prisoners was that they all had horrible dandruff) in the prison chapel were certainly formative experiences, it was probably the tour of the jury duty waiting room that most scarred me. All those poor people sitting there all day long with nothing to do! It seemed like some kind of nightmare trip to the DMV in which you were never even allowed to get into the endless, serpentine line. You just had to sit in a chair with nothing to do but watch talk shows for hours/days/years. You know, kind of like living in Louisiana.

Strangely, when I received this jury summons, it was almost a relief, akin to what I’m sure a bank robber on the run feels getting picked up at the border after living in Mexico with his reformed Tijuana donkey girl and doing nothing but drink beer and relax (well, and occasionally pretend he’s a donkey, of course) for 20 years. So yeah, a bittersweet relief you might say. But seriously, I’m kind of looking forward to it. Of course for all the wrong reasons.

I should not be on a jury, especially in Texas. I’m an atheist and an anarchist. I want to stick it to the man so bad I can taste it. I don’t even have a case yet and I’m envisioning hanging a jury on some minor possession case and then somehow parlaying that into a book deal and a tour of the talk show circuit. Where all those poor people waiting for jury duty can watch me! It’s my civic duty, you know?

The Revenge of OOP (Again)

rubyIt’s amazing to me how often technology concepts stall for years, long enough for everyone to forget how old they are and how close we were to implementing them way back when. Two recent (for me they both came up yesterday) examples of this are mobile web content and object-oriented programming.

I remember way back in 1998, WML became available, allowing web sites to format a subset of their content for mobile devices. I saw it work and was vaguely tempted to convert my web sites over to it, but it never seemed to go anywhere. Fast forward to 2005 and we now have XHTML allowing basically the same thing. But the adoption is still very low, especially considering how many Internet-enabled cell phones are out there. I think that’s about to change, now that we have Google Mobile. So if I was seeing web sites on mobile devices in 1998 and have been carrying around a web-enabled cell phone since 2000, why is mobile HTML just now becoming the hot thing? Because it sure ain’t new.

And OOP is even older. OOP was the hot, new thing back when I was in college. The simple explanation of object orientation is that programming “objects” bundle up all the aspects of a piece of data plus all the operations that can be performed with or upon that data into one portable, replicable, extensible data structure. Yeah, and that’s the simple explanation.

And believe me, it was considered a pretty serious brain-baker at the time, but everyone agreed that someday in the bright, glorious future absolutely everything would be object-oriented. The main argument for this being that the real world was object-oriented; that is, there is a connection between things, the data that describes them and the actions you can logically perform with them. But man, was OOP a metaphor without a country! The first three or four books I read on the subject all used the same incredibly-lame examples–mostly fruit and cars. Sure, it’s somewhat illustrative of the OO concept to say, “well, you can drive a car, but not a banana, so driving is a method of the object ‘car’.” It was literally years before you started seeing real-world examples in OO texts. Why did it take years to be able to say, “AccountBalance is a property of the object Customer, and GetCustomerBalance is the method to retrieve it?” I have no idea. Probably we were all just morons.

So anyway, when I saw “Ruby” jotted on a whiteboard in the company of things like PHP, Ajax and DHTML, how could I have known that is represented yet another attempt at the holy grail of 100% object orientation? But it is. And they’re serious about it. How serious? How about “In Ruby, the number 1 is an instance of class Fixnum.” Yeah, that’s heart-attack serious. I mean really, does the number “1” need to be an instance of anything? Even setting aside the overhead (both mental and computational) of the abstraction, the threat is that given this level of flexibility there lies somewhere down the line the temptation to override what “1” or “addition” or something equally fundamental about a “FixNum” means. And while I can see the value of this as an exercise in abstraction, as a thought experiment in the inherent existentialism of computer code, I’m not sure this is a neighborhood I want to inhabit. Because you very quickly end up in situations where your neighbor believes “gallon of milk” should mean “gallon of bleach,” and then you have to know who owns the grocery store this week before you make your shopping list. Because it’s pretty likely your idiot neighbor in this hypothetical OO hell also directed all “poison control” calls to the “dial a joke” object interface.

I’m Not Entirely Sure What’s Going on Here

giant animatronic elephantBut it seems to involve a wooden spaceship, a 20-foot-tall marionette and a giant, quite-possibly-steam-driven, 40-foot-tall, walking animatronic elephant. My non-existent French is rusty, but I think this has something to do with the 100-year anniversary of Jules Verne’s death. Either that or Burning Man just happened to take over his home town.

Does it strike anyone as amazing that we can just whip up a giant, drivable, walking elephant these days and use it as a parade float? Does that seem a tad decadent? I mean we’re used to special effects, especially those involving elephants. But I seem to remember something about making vehicles and robots that walk actually being a challenge. Did we just solve this problem while I wasn’t looking, and then instantly scale it up to a point where one of these things can sashay through a crowd, no problem? Because if so, we really are living in the future, and Jules Verne would be proud.

update: On closer inspection I see that the elephant’s legs are not load-bearing but are, in fact, suspended. The elephant is basically a giant puppet on an articulated tricycle chassis, complete with on-board puppeteers to control the appendages. Beautifully done.

Think We Live in the Heyday of Market-Driven Economics? Think Again.

I used to subscribe to Reason magazine, but recently let it lapse because they’re a little too hard-line, a little to heartily chomping at the bit for free markets. I agree that the market is a powerful force and can accomplish a lot. I even enjoy the occasional thought experiment in just how far market economics could take us. But not every month, month after month.

But then I run across something that reminds me there was a time when the market was all, when things like political correctness and human decency had a different definition. For example, apparently the successful care of premature babies was pioneered (and financed) via a carnival sideshow on Coney Island. If making premies entertain the public to pay their own way isn’t market economics at work, I don’t know what is. And no matter how distasteful and offensive we find this today, we have to admit that it worked. Incubators and other technologies were developed that wouldn’t normally have been, via willing, market-driven public contributions. In a way I guess this is no different from reality television, where people give up their privacy and self-respect for a chance at a million dollars. And frankly, in our current culture of baby-worship, this idea is a little refreshing. It makes me wonder if maybe we have other untapped markets to work with. For example, could cancer patients agree to have drug company (or insurance company, for that matter) logos painted on their bald heads in exchange for free chemotherapy drugs? Could really well-built people be encouraged to tattoo the 24-Hour Fitness logo on their biceps in exchange for a free membership?

Why not? Because this is the forgotten side of economics. In the new economy, we are all first and only consumers. We may, additionally, be cogs in a production machine. But we are not producers. And we are not products. It takes true entrepreneurs to make this connection, to personally produce and productize. And to be willing to break some taboos to do it. We’ve got porn, prostitution and reality TV, industries where people literally sell themselves. But I think there are more opportunities waiting out there. And it’s not human nature that’s keeping us from exploiting them, but merely social mores and conventions, and those change over time. Maybe it’s time we shook off our delusions surrounding work. Time we stopped denying that we are selling ourselves, cheap, every time we show up at work on time and put in effort for a set salary. This used to be call “time selling” by the late-night TV self-help hucksters, who considered it the purview of chumps and suckers. That’s a nice irony, but one of the central skills of the huckster is understanding and exploiting a fact that most of us ignore. Maybe we need to start thinking more like hucksters. Maybe it’s time we stepped back and took a look at what we really need in life, what skills and assets we really have to offer, and thought about a disintermediated way to connect them. Because everything else is just helping out “the man.”

In case the Times “archives” the referenced article, here’s a PDF.