Wish List

As soon as Thanksgiving ends, stores fling open their doors at 5:30 (AM!) the next day to entice Christmas shoppers. And inevitably, people start asking what you want for Christmas so they can just get the whole shopping thing over with as soon as possible. Merry freaking Christmas!

In an effort to get this out of the way in one go, I’m going to post my Christmas shopping wish list here. But first, some advice – I don’t really need you to buy me anything for the following reasons:

  1. I’m doing pretty well for myself: Good job, good money, and a happy home. I’ve pretty much got it all. What the hell else do I need? Even if there were something I really needed, I’d probably have bought it for myself already, except….
  2. I usually don’t buy stuff: I’m pretty minimal in what I need. Most of my input is in the form of bits not atoms. All told, there are some things I really want but…
  3. When I do, I have expensive taste: The few things I do want tend to be on the expensive side. I’d kind of like a nice house – I doubt you’re in the position to provide that, nevermind stick it under the tree. I’ll take care of those things myself, but thanks for the thought.

What’s left? Well, let’s see:

  1. Amazon Wish List: My Amazon Wish List has a pretty sizable list of books, CDs, and DVDs. Now, some might think this a bit boring – after all, they’re just bits packaged in atoms! Well, there’s always…
  2. Froogle Wish List: For the few atom-based goods I actually want, my Froogle Wish List contains the details. Yeah, they’re all basically proxies for bits (gadget stuff) – what can I say?
  3. Organization Memberships: There’s a few organizations in the Bay Area that are worthwhile joining. A “General Support – Couple” membership for the Computer History Museum would be nice (it gets you into the receptions prior to the events so you can rub elbows with the speakers). Similarly, a Passport Membership for the SDForum and the CSPA would be nice.

Beyond that, there’s nothing else I would like. Let me repeat that: Nothing. It may seem a bit harsh, but that’s the way it is – buying anything else is a waste of your money, a waste of your time, and, frankly, simply a waste. We live in a world of excess, of people chasing stuff that doesn’t bring them any happiness – don’t contribute to it by buying stuff that serves no purpose.

If all else fails, you could always just donate some money to a worthwhile cause and pretend to be me while you’re doing it.

GDS & Medical Information

I recently received information from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation warning against use of the Google Desktop Search tool:

Do you use the Google Desktop Search tool or use a shared computer to view PAMFOnline?

Google recently released a new tool that allows people to scan computers for information in the same way they use Google to search the Internet. To enable the search, there is a setting that will index and cache Web pages including secure web pages like PAMFOnline. In other words, the tool has a photographic memory of what is on your computer.

How does this affect me? If this tool has been installed on a PC that you are using, it is possible for your private health information viewed through PAMFOnline to be cached on the computer’s hard drive and retrieved later by someone else.

The good news: Google Desktop Search is only able to retrieve Web pages that are viewed after it is installed. In other words, if you view PAMFOnline on a shared computer (e.g., Internet café, Library), someone cannot come along after you, install Google Desktop Search and pull up the pages you previously viewed.

For more information on the Google Desktop Search Tool and your privacy go to: http://searchenginewatch.com/sereport/article.php/3421621

A full copy of the warning is archived here.

This is pretty impressive – the risk presented by a new technology to personal patient health information was discovered, analyzed, and a solution distributed in a fairly short period of time. Makes me wonder: is PAMF unique amongst medical care providers due to its proximity to Silicon Valley? Or is this a sign of increasing sophistication of healthcare providers in light of HIPAA and other regulations designed to protect personally-identifiable information?

Whither the V-Chip?

Jeff Jarvis has been getting his knickers in a knot the last couple of weeks over the continued annoyance that is the Federal Communications Commission, and I’m starting agree with him. His latest missive highlights how the threat of FCC fines for indecency has caused television stations to decide not to run “Saving Private Ryan“. I couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me most about this continuing saga until last night, just as I was going to sleep, it hit me: what happened to the V-Chip?

Oh, you don’t remember the V-Chip? Allow me to refresh your memory…

In 1995, I was an Engineering Science student at Simon Fraser University. One of my lab professors at the time, Tim Collings, had been tinkering on a system for blocking TV content based on a ratings signal embedded in a cable TV transmission. Central to Tim’s motivation was the desire to protect his children from indecent content.

It was neat technology, but ultimately I didn’t think it would ever take off. I mean, really, who would need a device to block television? Hadn’t they heard of the off switch and parental supervision? Besides, the infrastructure changes to provide the requisite rating signal would be immense! Nothing short of a Presidential declaration would force cable companies to make those kinds of changes.

And then in January of 1996, my housemates and I watched President Clinton’s State of the Union Address in disbelief as he made the following impassioned plea to Congress:

To the media, I say you should create movies and CDs and television shows you’d want your own children and grandchildren to enjoy. (Applause.)

I call on Congress to pass the requirement for a V chip in TV sets so that parents can screen out programs they believe are inappropriate for their children. (Applause.) When parents control what their young children see, that is not censorship; that is enabling parents to assume more personal responsibility for their children’s upbringing. And I urge them to do it. The V chip requirement is part of the important telecommunications bill now pending in this Congress. It has bipartisan support, and I urge you to pass it now. (Applause.)

To make the V chip work, I challenge the broadcast industry to do what movies have done — to identify your program in ways that help parents to protect their children. And I invite the leaders of major media corporations in the entertainment industry to come to the White House next month to work with us in a positive way on concrete ways to improve what our children see on television. I am ready to work with you. (Applause.)

Today, every new TV over 33″ contains a V-Chip. Problem solved, right? Children safe? Decency restored? And I can go back to disabling it so I can watch whatever the hell I want, when I want, unbridled by the attempts of government to tell me what I can and can’t watch, right?

Oops! Wrong!

The battle to save the tender eyes and ears of children should have ended with the V-Chip, but it didn’t. No, now even the adults have to be protected from offense. I mean, what goes through these people’s minds?

Television Announcer: Tonight, Saving Private Ryan, a gripping wartime drama movie blah blah blah, blah blah death blah harsh reality of war.

Viewer’s Brain: Hmm. War movie? I don’t know what that means. I know I’m in the mood for fluffy bunnies and mild moral-sounding platitudes dished out by anorexic pop stars. But I can’t quite figure out if this show will fit the bill…hmm, oh well, I guess I’ll just keep watching!

Five minutes later, a boatload of GIs get brutally massacred in the time between leaving their boat and hitting the sand.

Viewer (aloud): My God! This is violent! Well, that simply won’t do! I guess I’ll have to write an outraged letter to the FCC! After all, it’s not like I have the power to switch the channel or anything…

The way things are going, CSPAN’s going to end up getting itself fined! Especially if Cheney speaks his mind towards his opponents again and it’s caught on tape this time.

While I may agree that parents controlling what their children see is not censorship, having the FCC restrict what I see certainly qualifies as censorship. It’s only made more annoying by the fact that the FCC’s efforts to regulate what we see and hear are ill-conceived at best and downright idiotic at worst. Who in their right mind believes that the word “God” on TV is OK, and the word “damn” on TV is OK, but if you put the two together then you’ve gone outside the bounds of decency? Or that 10pm marks a time at which everyone magically becomes incrementally more tolerant of “indecent” material? I don’t know about you, but half the time I’d rather be in bed asleep by 10pm.

The sheer insanity of the FCC system of regulation was never more apparent to me than when I saw an episode of the Graham Norton Effect a couple months ago. In the show, Graham Norton had solicited male members of the audience to make candles. From their genitals. I am not creative enough to be making this up. Janet Jackson’s boob? Indecent! Guys’ schlongs rendered in wax and placed atop a birthday cake? Decent!

The continued interference of the FCC in the viewing decisions of the American people only underlines the failure of the V-Chip. And therein lies the lesson: the V-Chip failed because it was incapable of reflecting the diverse tastes of viewers and their individual interpretations of what constitutes “decent” or “indecent” material. Just like the FCC. But there is an upside – as the FCC continues to meddle, content producers will move to unregulated channels of distribution and consumers, driven by frustration at the FCC’s lack of respect for their right to choose to be offended, will follow them.

It’s only a matter of time before the FCC is relegated to the dustbin of history.

Random Acts of Thanks

I got a package from Amazon today in the mail, which was odd because the last thing I ordered from Amazon was a DVD for my mother’s birthday. Opening it, I got a pleasant surprise: a gift from a totally random person!

Inside the package, a gift-wrapped copy of “Ender’s Game” with a note:

Thanks for writing up the Signed Java document and others on your website.

Opening up the invoice, I found that the sender was one “Lawrence Kesteloot” from San Francisco. I guess he must have been in a jam and my document helped him out. How cool is that?

Talk about karma – thanks Lawrence!

BloggerCon Summary

I’m attended BloggerCon on Saturday and spent the entire day milling about with a fair percentage of the blogosphere’s brain trust. If there’s one thing I love about these kind of events, it’s the quality of the conversations that people have at these events. The vibe is that of an autistic four year old hopped up on sugar trying to stand still for two seconds.

Conversations here have this rushed, gasping quality – the participants are hemorrhaging ideas and running out of breath at the same time. The experience seems to almost cause physical pain for the person talking, as if their ability to push out the maximum number of ideas per syllable is being sabotaged by their own body’s inferior low-bandwidth design.

That said, not all everything was smiles, sunshine, and cerebral hemorrhages in bloggerland yesterday. One of the rules of the conference, that vendors are not allowed to pitch their products, caused a certain amount of difficulty during the day. One particular incident involved Dave Winer shutting down Bob Wyman (of PubSub) when he attempted to provide an explanation of some aspects of aggregation technology during Robert Scoble‘s “Information Overload” session. This was not especially well received by the audience (I actually left the session along with Paul Schreiber in protest), and served as a somewhat awkward point of discussion during the final wrap-up session. Dave Winer is to be commended for having the strength and courage to take the discussion on directly, especially given the fact that some of the attendees were not happy with Dave’s equally strong desire to bend the conference to his personal vision.

Inevitably, someone (Mike and Eleanor) got the bright idea that they could circumvent Dave’s control over the conference and hold a backchannel conference of their own. And include the vendors. This is especially ironic, given the origins of the conference: Dave Winer was sick of going to conferences where vendors dominated the discussion and the attendees could only have conversations in the hallway. No sooner that BloggerCon ended than a dozen or so of us wandered over to the backchannel conference, complete with just about every aggregator vendor eager to tell us what they were planning next and listen for user feedback. And if that wasn’t enough, Russell Beattie was screening Star Wars on his phone just to prove a point (it was amazingly watchable!).

All in all, an excellent experience. I have a number of other thoughts on the conference contents itself, especially with respect to Doc Searl’s “Making Money” session, but I’ll save them for another day until they’re fully baked. Besides, there’s plenty of excellent summaries of the conference sessions available out there. And if you’re really interested, you can listen to the conference yourself.

The one thing I would like to highlight is how much of the value of the conference came from the quality of conversation and connection between the participants. It’s funny – we live in a society where we close ourselves off more and more, but at the slightest inkling of a common interest the walls we erect between us come crashing down. While blogging is all about conversation and connection, we sometimes forget how important it is to just get away from the technology itself and be with real people. I’d like to thank everyone for making it a really enjoyable day and ask you to try to find a way to make these same connections in your everyday life. We don’t need a conference to make these connections happen. They should happen every day.

Between Us French

In the midst of the seriousness of the results of the election, a drama comparable only in excitement to watching paint dry, I thought it might be fun to take a little detour into the world of Bush and language. But not just any language. Freedom, er, French!

There’s a quote that’s been floating around the Internet, a comment attributed to George W. Bush in a conversation with Tony Blair. According to Bush, the story goes, the problem with the French is they have no word for entrepreneurship. Any educated person with even the slightest knowledge of language immediately lapses into giggles over this story. “No French word for ‘entrepreneur’? It’s a French word, you dolt!” is the typical response.

Now, I’m a Canadian. I went to a private Catholic school in BC where, despite no native French-speaking population, we started learning French in kindergarten. It’s safe to say that I can speak a smidge of French. And when I started thinking about this quote, I got curious: does entrepreneur mean the same thing in French as I think it does? Part of this line of thinking was prompted by Ashley‘s comments on how one of the French guys at work insisted that he was an entrepreneur. According to him, in France, anyone who has been to university and works in a company qualifies to be called an entrepreneur.

Just what does “entrepreneur” mean in French?

In my mind, I rewound back to high school French class. “Entre”, I recalled, means “between”. But I was damned if “preneur” meant anything. A quick trip to my French-English dictionary revealed:

preneur: nm (acheteur) buyer; (locataire) lessee, taker, tenant.

Entrepreneur = “between buyer”? A go-between? I suppose that was an accurate description, at a rudimentary level, but it lacked the flair we associate with the word in English. Perhaps the combined word in French packed a little more punch. A quick flip through the dictionary revealed:

entrepreneur: nm contractor. ~ (en bâtiment) building contractor; ~ de transports haulage contractor (Brit) trucker (US); ~ de peinture painter (and decorator); ~ de pompes funèbres undertaker (Brit), funeral director (Brit), mortician (US).

That’s an entrepreneur? A contractor? A guy who hammers up drywall? It hardly conjures up the image of glamour that is associated with the word in English. On a whim, I checked the French-English translation of entrepreneur (i.e.: translating from the “English” version of “entrepreneur” to the “French” version). I know, it seems silly – after all, they should be the same, right?

entrepreneur: n entrepreneur m (chef d’enterprise).

Entrepreneur means…entrepreneur in French. Whoppee, no big surprise there. Except, the alternate meaning is “head of an enterprise”. So the translation from the “English” version of entrepreneur to “French” actually carried an additional meaning – someone in charge of a business, not merely a contractor.

I reeled at this revelation: could it be that in a moment of unrecognized lucidity, George W. Bush had uttered an insightful comment on the difference between the French and Americans? That the French, despite being the source of the original word, actually had no single word to convey the meaning that the word entrepreneur had gained in English? That entrepreneur in English no longer meant the same thing as it did in French?

My world views shaken, I numbly returned to watch the conclusion of the wall-to-wall election coverage, afraid for a future that could include a President George W. Bush who might not actually be a complete moron.

Election Insanity

Last night, the local news ran a story about a couple who were seriously considering moving to Canada if the election didn’t go the “right” way (not sure if there is a right way). Canada wasn’t the only place they were considering; they were apparently doing a lot of research, and Canada and Costa Rica were amongst the top candidates (good to know that Canada ranks right up there with Costa Rica). There’s only one problem: they apparently were under the mistaken impression that they could simply apply for Canadian citizenship.

Uh. Waitaminute.

Speaking as an Australian-born immigrant to Canada with an American wife who recently gained her Permanent Residence status in Canada, all I can say is: huh? I don’t know what these guys were smoking! The only way to become a citizen in Canada is to first gain Permanent Residence status, and then apply for citizenship after having lived in Canada for at least three years.

Rewind that for second: permanent residence status required, three years residence required.

Seriously, you’d think Canada was handing out citizenship like candy. Don’t get me wrong – we’re friendly, but we’re not that friendly. We didn’t make it that easy during Vietnam, and hell, that was a draft for a war. And don’t try the whole “political refugee” angle either; if it didn’t work for that guy wanted for marijuana possession, it won’t work for people who don’t like how the election turns out.

The Tyranny of Atoms

My buddy Kevin is lamenting moving his cache of dead-tree technology to his new apartment. I don’t blame him. When we moved down here, I was in the same position – why the hell did I have so many books? Especially so many books that I would never read again. Come to think of it, why was I moving anything at all?

We live in a world where Henry Ford’s mass-production legacy enables me to buy the same book in Mountain View that I bought in Vancouver. Not just a similar book, the same book. Ditto the clothes at from the Gap. And the IKEA furniture. And the personal electronics. With the exception of some personal effects, there’s really no reason that I couldn’t have simply sold everything in Vancouver and bought it all anew once we arrived in Mountain View. Except, of course, for the fact that it would have been a pain in the ass, and my company wouldn’t have reimbursed me for the “move”; after all, I wouldn’t have really moved anything!

As a society, we’re really addicted to shipping a lot of atoms around. Look at us – we ship water halfway around the world, simply because it’s from another country, and contains a few different dissolved minerals. How insane is that?

Travel is another area where we ship a lot of stuff. If we were really smart, there would be a service that you could request along with your plane ticket that would provide you with clothes at your destination. After all, is that pair of Dockers you’re going to need for the business meeting really that unique?

Methinks there’s an opportunity here for eBay or AuctionDrop to enable people to easily arrange to swap identical items to facilitate moves from one city to another.

Vodcasting?

Alright, maybe my last suggestion on podcasting went down like a lead balloon with Dave Winer, but I’m going to give another idea a shot. I’ve been ruminating about buying a Tivo, if only to stem the amount of time I spend in front of TV. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that a lot of the most interesting stuff isn’t on TV. It’s on the net.

I know I’m not alone in thinking the combination of RSS and Tivo (or a Windows Media Center equipped PC for that matter) would be a desirable thing to have. With the proliferation of cheap and easy-to-use digital video cameras, video production software, 3D animation tools, and Flash animation tools, I’d wager that the majority of content in the world is currently produced by independent artists. And they just keep getting better, partially because the artists are unencumbered by the traditional economics of distribution; the artists can rev fast, get good fast, and build audiences fast – all the things traditional broadcast video media can’t do. All that’s required now is a simply medium to enable Jill and Joe Couch Potato to access it easily.

I don’t know about you, but there are numerous online flash cartoons that I’d love to follow regularly (StrongBad and Red vs. Blue, to name two). They’re not only free, they’re high quality (nevermind what Craig Palmer might say). But it’s a pain to check back regularly for new releases, and I’d like to watch them on a TV, not a laptop. On the other side of the equation, the bandwidth demands of supplying video is likely a disincentive that is preventing artists from sharing a lot of content – adding BitTorrent capabilities into the mix would enable the audience for an artist’s work to contribute value by partially shouldering the bandwidth load.

All the elements are there. All it needs is a little software to kick start the revolution. The same explosion in personal websites that resulted when blogging software and syndication came on the scene could kick start another revolution in the visual arts.

Of course, once you’ve got this in place, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump from there to a future where people are using the same technology to scarf down the same content and sync it between their home media center and their portable video players. It’s inevitable that video will follow the same path as audio: from a broadcast medium to websites to syndication feeds to personal media devices. Is Video On Demand via Podcasting (vodcasting) an appropriate way to describe this phenomenon?

Why The Labels Will Fall

Saturday night, Ashley and I were wandering home along Castro Street in Mountain View, when I heard the strains of a bluegrass jam in full swing. We took a quick detour over to the Dana Street Roasting Cafe to see what was going on.

The place was, in a word, packed. Every chair filled, every patron’s eyes and ears glued to the band of the evening, Houston Jones, as Glenn “Houston” Pomianek ripped through a babbling bluegrass solo. We grabbed a coffee and stuck around for a half dozen songs and then toddled home to watch Saturday Night Live.

And that’s when Ashlee Simpson proved, once and for all, why the mainstream music labels are wholly unsuitable to be the stewards of culture.

Ashlee, as you may or may not know, is the younger sister of Jessica Simpson. She’s been following in the trend of other equally untalented starlets expanding their empires into the world of music. She (or at least the genetic pool that gave rise to her) can’t spell, I hear you saying, but surely she can play an instrument? Of course not, says I! Fair enough, you think, I guess she’s a vocalist.

Or so you would hope. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

In her first performance of the evening, Ashlee demonstrated that the task of lip-synching her performance stretched the limits of her meager abilities. And it only got worse, as the lip-synch track for the second song was for the wrong song, forcing her rush off-camera. Of course, the all-seeing eye of the Internet caught it all on video.

There are millions of independent bands out there like Houston Jones, stocked with real musicians, with real talent, and original material that they actually wrote. Previously, these bands were unable to reach an audience without the help of a label. But that’s changing. I expect that over the next ten years, the label grips will weaken, driven in part by dissatisfaction with the quality of product available, but also by the shear amount of much better (however the listener chooses to define “better”) material available from independent musicians.

The question now is one of discovery. Chris Anderson’s Long Tail article made a good point of demonstrating the value that lives outside the mainstream – all we need now is a way for people to easily find the stuff. Amazon.com recommendations can only do so much, as Amazon.com is ultimately limited by what it can carry. Bloggers will probably carry some of the weight, though I’d feel a little more confident in this turning the tide if there were some way to reward bloggers for directing traffic to artist’s sites, especially when such redirection resulted in a sale. With that kind of assistance, hopefully the money currently imprisoned in mainstream acts would get smeared across a much larger number of people. Nobody should be making millions for crap music; but any artist with talent and even a modest following should be able to make a living.

Of course, rewarding those who recommend products via their blog comes with its own set of issues.