Photos and video from Paris

There is little useful information in the captions, because we mostly stuck to well-known tourist areas, but I am trying something a bit different this time, embedding the Flickr slideshow below, with a few short video clips interspersed between the pictures. Full screen it for best effect. Now that we are in Perugia and I am once again with internet, the card reader in my silly little computer has stopped working, so I’m not sure when the Rome photos will come. I’m trying to keep up because otherwise I won’t end up posting anything until 2010, knowing my track record…

Customer-focused decision making

Reading Kevin Fox’s response to Doug Bowman, the designer whose post about leaving Google I linked to last week, I was struck by his closing statement:

Even when data-driven analysis is used to determine which design will be more profitable, at Google this is highly tempered against the impact to the user. Google could easily increase their revenue in the short term with just a few poor decisions, but they don’t. This philosophy of ‘put the user first and the money will follow’ is so ingrained into the Google culture that many designers and engineers for whom this is their first corporate job don’t even realize that this is unusual, and that is awesome.

I didn’t fully realize until reading this statement that the root of most of my job-related frustration over the past two years is directly related to this user-first philosophy, which causes me to butt heads constantly with workers and managers who follow a different path.

A Battlestar Cloister

This entry about Battlestar Galactica is spoiler-free.

Last night was a late one, and I woke up this morning having not seen the series finale of Battlestar Galactica. Getting ahold of the episode was a time consuming hassle, and in the meantime I was effectively barred from the entire internet, for fear that someone might have posted a spoiler on in my Facebook or Twitter feed, on email, in an IM away message, or on a web site.

BSG is the only long-running television show I’ve watched that has ended at a relative high point. Most other shows end or are cancelled well past their expiration dates. Watching the BSG finale unspoiled was important to me, and it was worth it. This show is deep, powerful, affecting. It is something I have been watching and analyzing and enjoying for over five years. Every week we talk about the latest episode at work. For a while I held and attended BSG watching parties each Friday. The end of the show feels like losing a friend.

I have decided, at least for now, to accept the finale as it is without deep analysis and nitpicking. The show is now complete, and there will be time to go back and analyze its entire run in light of where we ended up. All I will say about it now is that the episode’s ending cracked me up. As my roommate can attest, I was laughing hysterically through the last 5 minutes or so, and for a good five minutes thereafter. Not at all the emotion I expected at the conclusion of such a dark and deep story.

Now that I am BSG-full, and hopefully will wake up tomorrow morning well-rested, I can once again rejoin the (newly sunny) Earth!

A stunningly beautiful information-rich world

This Microsoft concept video envisions a future where pervasive computing devices surround us. It shows how interactive, data-rich environments can complement our lives rather than intruding into them. My vision of pervasive computing was always human-centered, in computing devices that we take with us. Google and others live in a network-centric world in which all data lives in a vast and inscrutable cloud. This Microsoft video is notable because it offers a hybrid approach, where data is delivered on demand from the internet, but most interactions are fundamentally physical — you “take” data with you from a meeting table onto a handheld device, you “share” data by bringing devices (and people) together.

Joss pulls a JRB

DollhouseThe pilots (first episodes) of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly are both notable for being narrow. You’re not going to get a mass ER-like audience from a story that starts with a vampire bite, much less from one that opens on a silent space salvage operation. You are going to get a genre audience, and that audience may well turn out to be a devoted one, but it will never be a large audience.

With Dollhouse, Joss Whedon seems to have embraced the network meddling that has so bothered him in the past. The open is a motorcycle race, followed soon after by sexy dancing, naked showering, a hostage crisis, shooting… Only once or twice does authentic “Whedon” writing shine through. The rest is equal parts FOX network filler, pandering, and standard tropes. The concept of the “dollhouse” is never adequately fleshed out. The sets and the stars are pretty, but the show is shallow.

Still, the creation, while flawed, is not without merit. It just isn’t exceptional. And much the same can be said about playwright and composer Jason Robert Brown, whose latest show, 13, recently ended its brief Broadway engagement. Brown’s previous works include the heartfelt Songs for a New World and the raw and emotional Last Five Years. All of his shows have had devoted fans, but not the sort of broad appeal that would carry them to Broadway. With 13, Brown made a conscious choice to aim lower, or, at least, broader. He made something that was good, that had merit, but that was not truly exceptional. It made it to Broadway, after many changes, and had a brief run before closing in a dismal economic climate.

Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse will follow the same pattern. FOX has committed to a 12 episode run, but each week the audience numbers (in the Friday evening “death” scheduling slot) are shrinking. It is unlikely that the show will come back for a second season.

What is the lesson here? That people who make deep and meaningful and heartfelt work are doomed to be marginalized? I don’t think so. I think that when it comes to art in modern society, we are no longer in an age where everyone likes, or pretends to like, the same thing. We no longer go from a period of Impressionism to the Heidelberg Schol and then on to Arts and Crafts. Our choice of media is so vast, our interests so varied, the number of artists so many, that we can’t judge things the way we used to. Joss Whedon, or Jason Robert Brown, can create truly good shows, and they can affect half a million people deeply, and that is nothing to scoff at. Shonda Rhimes can create Grey’s Anatomy and it can touch 20 million people lightly. But Joss Whedon probably can’t create Dollhouse and touch 20 million, or even 10 million. He isn’t that sort of entertainer. The lesson of Dollhouse, for Joss, is the same as Pushing Daisies for Bryan Fuller, and Veronica Mars, for Rob Thomas. Do what you do well, do it well, and find a good place for it. That place may not be a major television network. Pour your heart into it. Affect people. Don’t compromise. Hope for the best. And don’t try to be what you are not.

If that isn’t enough, if you really want that big huge break, the adoration of millions, then take comfort in this: some of the best artists of the past were never truly recognized until many years later. For what it’s worth.

Not even BBC World is immune

A story this morning out of Germany that a former student at a vocational school came back with weapons and killed seven students and three instructors, before going on the run and shooting various other people at random across two towns. The shooter was killed in a confrontation with police. Clearly, this is a tragedy caused by a deranged individual. A tragedy that happened to begin at a school.

So the BBC host asks, doesn’t Germany have a history of this sort of violence? To which the correspondent replies, yes, in 2002 there was a prominent school shooting, and some politicians say that since then nothing has been done to improve the security at schools.

Two shooting in a seven year period does not a trend make. There will always be deranged people, and there are many possible things we could do to try and catch them early or limit the damage they can cause. But putting metal detectors and sentries and cameras in schools is a feel-good measure for adults that has no practical benefit. In this case, if the school was too difficult a target, the shooter would have simply gone someplace else, like a shopping mall, or a town square, or a train station. But really, what obstacle do metal detectors, cameras, or guards pose to someone who wants to kill and is equipped to do so?

BBC, you, like so much of the rest of the media, are asking the wrong questions. This is not the only example, just a recent egregious one. Encouraging this sort of alarmism and push for security theatre is counterproductive and carries many hidden costs. Give it a rest.

Addendum: Right on cue, a “rampage” in Alabama today in which a gunman took the lives of nine people and burned down his mother’s house. Dare I take the liberal position that denying this man access to guns may have better limited the scope of his damage than, say, metal detectors in public buildings?

Currentlies in longform

Not many blog updates recently. This feels like an administrative day — laundry and cleaning and grocery shopping to be done, photos to be posted, computer files to be organized. For the last two weeks my home server that contains a few thousand hours of movie and TV and radio content was offline, due to a hardware failure, and I didn’t really miss it much. Besides Battlestar Galactica on TV and Watchmen in theaters, I’ve had no desire to engage in media. I don’t even listen to my NPR podcasts anymore. This doesn’t really bother me. But I’m also not reading books, which does bother me. Need to get back to that.

My social calendar has been unusually full lately, which is quite nice, but also exhausting. It makes me feel like I am behind on things, although I can never quite pinpoint what they are. I need some downtime, but when I get it I then feel like I’m missing out on things.

The sun has been out, the weather has been good. I really need to get my bike fixed up so that it is available on days like yesterday when it was randomly 60 degrees out and beautiful. Went down to the Blue Hills and wandered through their Maple Sugar Days event, petting lambs and watching the sugaring process and climbing trees. Did so in conjunction with folks who are less worried about sticking to a schedule or having a plan, and more worried about taking the time to enjoy whatever wonders the world presents. I can see the appeal of that worldview, and it was a nice change.

Last time I wrote one of these updates, it was winter, gloomy and misty gray, but now it is verging on spring, the snow melting and the sun shining and the people emerging from their hibernation. This is a good change, I think, but I am still firmly in a winter mindset. I need to get out of it.

Watch out, web comments may be put into print!

Got this charming message in my inbox today:

I am the editor of the Forum section of the Justice, Brandeis University’s student newspaper. Thank you for your comment on the article “Brandeis hires PR firm to handle Rose media attention” on the Justice Web site. This is to inform you that your comment will be published in the form of a letter to the editor in our Feb. 24 issue.

They could maybe have asked me to publish it, rather than told me it would be published? No matter. The comment in question appears to be this one.

Obama isn’t following the rules

The way this was supposed to play out was relatively straightforward. Barack Obama proposes a massive stimulus measure, and the opposition vocally opposes the irresponsible spending. Obama makes a few half-hearted attempts to reconcile with the Republicans, but in the end he passes his stimulus bill with little to no Republican support. They go on TV to decry the “business as usual” partisanship, and then when the effects of the stimulus are not immediately clear, Republicans reiterate that it was ill-advised.

But then Obama started inviting members to Super Bowl parties, and holding office hours, and coming to Capitol Hill for negotiating sessions. He started giving consideration to the Republican’s outlandish additions. He refused to let his party pass the bill without Republican support.

And the days wore on. And here we are. I am curious to see how it all turns out, and who comes out looking better, and what difference it makes in the end. Already Obama’s approval ratings have gone down 6 points. In that time Congressional Republicans have seen steeper drops, and Congressional Democrats haven’t been doing very well either, but Obama is the one to watch.

What I Do All Day, 2009 Edition

While my previous employer was very pro-blogging, my current employer seems to unofficially discourage it. Or, put another way, my organization, due to a variety of historical factors, is very sensitive to reputation. It is felt, perhaps to our detriment, that it is important to keep up a unified front.

Fortunately, I have never directly mentioned where I currently work, which I suppose is for the best. And I have never been good about following edicts.

So. Work. This is pretty much the first thing I’ve posted about it of any substance since I started there nearly eleven months ago.

The job I applied for, interviewed for, and was hired for ended up being quite a bit different from the job I found myself doing. When I was reorganized, my duties shifted even more. I came into this job with a conscious desire to put ego aside and learn a system that is completely new to me, at an IT organization that is far vaster than any place I have previously worked. I started in March, 2008. It took until, oh, this month to decide that my approach was not cutting it.

To simplify for the sake of coherence, my primary problem is this: when I got here, I quickly figured out that the scope of my responsibilities was far more narrow than I expected, and that what I was ostensibly in charge of was, at its core, an aged and difficult to maintain system that had no notion of a lot of modern developments in computing. It was expected that I would learn and maintain the system, and work within it, when my first instinct, in fact almost everything within me cried out, “start over! Make something better!”

I told the little voices to go away, and they did, for a time, but I became increasingly unhappy.

I am unhappy when I see inefficiences to be corrected that I cannot correct. I am unhappy when I am forced to do unproductive and rote tasks instead of innovative ones. I am unhappy when the community I support is underserved by the solutions available to them. And I am unhappy with this system.

But I shoved the voices aside, and I tried to make the best of it, and I became more and more unhappy and frustrated and angry. I couldn’t get through to the folks around me just by hinting or asking or making the occasional sarcastic comment. And while I spent a whole lot of time creating, improving, testing, and proving my new system, I was having no luck selling it.

In the last few days, something finally clicked for me. People around me recognize the need for some sort of change, but the specifics are elusive. There is so much work to be done just maintaining old, creaky code, and they are so wrapped up in keeping things running, that they do not have the mental energy to also be proposing radical changes. But I do.

I was hired into a role that no one quite understood, and my lack of a clear position in the institutional heirarchy was mostly a curse. But in some ways, it was also a blessing, for it gave me the time and view to see what should be changed and how to do it.

I have realized that the only way I am going to be happy here is if I push hard for the change I think we need. This approach may be risky, but I have confidence in both the strength of my ideas and the quality of my coworkers. If my plans come to fruition, things will be better around here. If it goes badly, I will leave knowing that I tried my best and that this place and I weren’t a good fit. But the odds are more heavily for the former than the latter, and this is a quest I have put off for far too long.

There. I hope that was obfuscated enough to be safe. Unfortunately, you still have no idea what it is I actually do. That’s okay, very few people do, including many of my colleagues. But I’m finally figuring it out, which is a good start!


Currently I am working days at Harvard, and nights on Bookly. Currently I am dealing with the season: short days, lots of snow and cold, not many opportunities to see the sun. Currently I’m eating badly and not playing much frisbee, and playing video games instead of reading, and watching TV instead of cooking, and staying up late instead of going to bed early. Currently I’m slowly making my way through The Great Gatsby, and then on to The Sirens of Titan, and then on to the next five things on my queue. Currently…I’m going skiing this weekend! Hooray!

Things aren’t especially bad, or especially good, they just are. It is winter, and winter is gloomy, and misty gray. It saps the color and the spirit out of everything. I’ve decided there is nothing to do but accept it, and read some more gloomy books, and fight with the cat, and trod onward towards spring.

What iTunes’ tiered pricing scheme means for Amazon, the record labels, and consumers

At last week’s Macworld Expo Apple announced that they are transitioning all of the music in their iTunes Store to DRM free. This means no more arbitrary access restrictions, no more having to “authorize” computers, and that finally all of Apple’s music offerings can be played on non-iPod devices. Along with the moves comes a switch to variable pricing: back catalog songs will go for $0.69, midrange songs for the standard $0.99, and new hits for $1.29. This tiered pricing model was previously rejected by Apple, but appears to have been their tradeoff with the labels for the ability to sell music without restrictions on usage.

A year ago launched their own music store, the Amazon MP3 Store, which provided exclusively DRM-free music downloads, priced competitively with most albums selling for $8.99 and most tracks for $0.89 (Apple generally charged $9.99 and $0.99, respectively). The Amazon MP3 store never had the depth of catalog as iTunes, but does currently host over 3 million tracks, including most all currently popular major label music.

Record industry players were at times coy, but it seems clear that their goal with giving Amazon access to unrestricted music along with the ability to sell at lower price points was to attempt to dislodge iTunes as the market leader. I have always maintained both that Amazon is the better value, and that if Amazon overtook iTunes, their prices would very quickly rise to at least meet the iTunes price points. Which is to say, the cabal was continuing to fix prices, this time to give Amazon an unfair competitive advantage in order to topple iTunes.

It didn’t work. One year on, the Amazon store is a distant second to iTunes, holding only 8 percent of the digital download market. Meanwhile, iTunes sold somewhere in the range of 2.4 billion songs in 2008. ITunes remains the market leader, the iPod the dominant music player. And by withholding DRM-free music from iTunes, the record industry was shooting itself in the foot: the more tracks consumers purchase through iTunes, the more locked in they are to the iTunes-iPod empire. The best hope for the record labels, rather than stifling Apple’s attempts to sell unrestricted music, is to encourage, nay demand the practice.

The newly announced compromise in which Apple allows tiered pricing and the labels allow all iTunes music to be DRM-free looks at first blush to be a win for consumers, but it is bad news for Amazon. It means, in short, that the experiment is over, that their preferential pricing is no longer necessary or desirable for the industry. And sure enough, search for albums today on the Amazon MP3 store and you will see that most of them are selling for $9.99 instead of the previous $8.99, and single tracks have gone up to $0.99 from their original $0.89. If Apple does well selling hits for $1.29, expect to see that tiered pricing reflected in the Amazon store soon enough. And expect, in general, to pay at least a buck more per album, sometimes substantially more. The era of pricing competition in digital music sales is over.

Giving Brandeis students heart palpitations

In the course of some archiving I stumbled across the April 1st, 2003 hoax I perpetrated on the Brandeis community. On that day the home page of Boogle, the search tool I maintained to make finding and sharing files on the campus network easier, was replaced by a letter from the Recording Industry Association of America explaining how students would have the price of all music and movies on their computers added to their term bills. The reaction was, in many cases, sheer terror, probably because the hoax seemed so plausible.

Sadly, we did shut down the service shortly thereafter, due to mounting pressure from the actual RIAA and the increasingly hostile legal environment. The school newspaper covered both the hoax and the actual shutdown.

Cities I visited in 2008

Inspired by Jason Kottke’s yearly list. One or more days and nights were spent in each place. Those cities marked with an * were visited multiple times on non-consecutive days. Those marked with a † were visited for a full day but not a night.

Cambridge, MA*
Santa Ana, CA*
San Francisco, CA
Santa Rosa, CA
Southampton, Bermuda
Bristol, UK
Cardiff, UK†
Glasgow, UK
Edinburgh, UK†
Barcelona, Spain
London, UK
Northport, NY
Brooklyn, NY
White Plains, NY
New Brunswick, NJ
Scotch Plains, NJ
Mashpee, MA*
North Egremont, MA
Salem, MA†
Washington, DC