Wednesday, November 13, 2013

How much education do computing innovators usually have?

Today brings us this tweet from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Getting straight "A"s does not guarantee success, but plenty of evidence shows that not getting "A"s doesn't preclude it.

This is fine, as far as it goes. Having an imperfect academic record does not doom you to a life of mediocrity. And it is crucially important for anyone, no matter how you are assessed by the educational system, to continue striving towards a meaningful and successful life, however you choose to define that.

However, I foolishly clicked on the thread to see what people's reactions were, and came upon someone saying this:

@neiltyson you realize Everything you pretty much use on the Internet were created by people who never got grades at all.

Ugh. Sometimes I read something so wrong that I'm pretty much compelled to spend a couple of hours of my life disproving it. (Of course, this particular semi-grammatical tweet is so inconsequential that it's comical that it affects me at all, but it represents a much broader current of popular thought about the world of computing.)

The Internet is an outgrowth of computing and communications technology. Below, I have listed the educational attainment of a few dozen people who, it seems to me, created things that are important to the Internet as it exists today.

The list is, one might say, not drawn to scale. Everyone just gets a bullet, even though some are giants who left behind towering contributions that will be studied centuries from now, and others merely made something that seems to be widely used or influential today. I've also used a fairly subjective criterion for selecting the people: these are simply names that occurred to me in about ten minutes of thinking about the technology that's literally sitting in front of my face as I write this. Nevertheless, I think it is a decent sample, and although it can be improved around the edges, I doubt that you will be able to supply thirty more names that are better candidates and whose educations differ dramatically from these people's.

(I have used "bac." to indicate any 4-year undergraduate degree (B.A., B.S., or equivalent) since I don't find it useful, for this purpose, to distinguish among them.)

Foundations of computing

  • Alan Turing: Cambridge bac., Ph.D.
  • Alonzo Church: Princeton bac., Ph.D.

Networking and secure communication

  • Vint Cerf: UCLA Ph.D.
  • Bob Kahn: Princeton Ph.D.
  • Tim Berners-Lee: Oxford bac.
  • Robert Metcalfe: MIT bac., Harvard Ph.D.
  • David Boggs: Princeton bac., Stanford Ph.D.
  • Ron Rivest: Yale bac., Stanford Ph.D.
  • Adi Shamir: Tel Aviv bac., Weizmann Institute Ph.D.
  • Leonard Adleman: UC Berkeley bac., UC Berkeley Ph.D.
  • Whitfield Diffie: MIT bac., Stanford Ph.D. dropout.
  • Martin Hellman: NYU bac., Stanford Ph.D.
  • Ralph Merkle: UC Berkeley bac./M.S., Stanford Ph.D.

Operating systems and programming languages

  • Ken Thompson: Berkeley bac., M.S.
  • Dennis Ritchie: Harvard bac., Ph.D.
  • Rob Pike: unknown, possibly no college. Caltech (according to comment; bac.?)
  • Doug Engelbart: UC Berkeley Ph.D.
  • John McCarthy: Caltech bac.; Princeton Ph.D.
  • Kirsten Nygaard: U. of Oslo M.S.
  • Ole-Johan Dahl: U. of Oslo M.S.
  • Alan Kay: U. of Utah Ph.D.
  • Ivan Sutherland: CMU bac., Caltech M.S., MIT Ph.D.
  • Dan Ingalls: Harvard bac., Stanford M.S., Ph.D. dropout.
  • James Gosling: U. of Calgary bac., CMU Ph.D.
  • Richard Stallman: MIT bac., MIT Ph.D. dropout.
  • Bjarne Stroustrup: Aarhus M.S., Cambridge Ph.D.
  • Linus Torvalds: U. of Helsinki M.S.
  • Alan Cox: Swansea University dropout.
  • Theodore Ts'o: MIT bac.
  • Brendan Eich: Santa Clara bac., UIUC M.S.
  • Guido Van Rossum: U. of Amsterdam bac./M.S.
  • Yukihiro Matsumoto: U. of Tsukuba bac.

Founders of important technology companies

  • Gordon Moore: UC Berkeley bac., Caltech Ph.D.
  • Steve Wozniak: UC Berkeley dropout.
  • Steve Jobs: Reed College dropout.
  • Bill Gates: Harvard dropout.
  • John Warnock (Adobe): U. of Utah Ph.D.
  • Charles Gesche (Adobe): CMU Ph.D.
  • Marc Andreessen: UIUC bac.
  • Larry Page: Michigan bac.; Stanford Ph.D. dropout.
  • Sergey Brin: U. of Maryland bac.; Stanford Ph.D. dropout.
  • Jeff Bezos: Princeton bac.
  • Jerry Yang: Stanford bac./M.S.
  • David Filo: Tulane bac., Stanford M.S.
  • Diane Greene (VMWare): MIT M.S., Berkeley M.S.
  • Mendel Rosenblum (VMWare): Berkeley Ph.D.
  • Ed Bugnion (VMWare): Stanford M.S., Stanford Ph.D. dropout.
  • Evan Williams: U. of Nebraska dropout.
  • Mark Zuckerberg: Harvard dropout.

Assorted hackers

  • Jamie Zawinski: college dropout, institution unknown.
  • John Carmack: U. of Missouri dropout.
  • Michael Abrash: U. of Pennsylvania Ph.D. dropout.
  • Jeff Dean: U. of Washington Ph.D.
  • Sanjay Ghemawat: Cornell bac, MIT Ph.D.
  • Russ Cox: Harvard bac., MIT Ph.D.
  • Paul Buchheit: Case Western Reserve bac.
  • Lars Bak: Aarhus bac./M.A.
  • Paul Graham: Cornell bac.; Harvard Ph.D.

One thing you will notice right away is that there are lots of Ph.D.s and Master's degrees, generally from highly-ranked universities. A lot. Obviously far more than the general population, and probably more than leaders in most other industries. The notion that invention and innovation in computing are done mostly by scruffy, uncredentialed twenty-year-olds is a myth. Yes, you can see a substantial minority of college dropouts. But it should not surprise anyone that the major achievements in a field based on technological advancement are often created by people who studied technology at an advanced level.

Among those who do not have Ph.D.s or Master's degrees, many attended some grad school (usually meaning they finished an undergrad degree), and almost all attended some college. Even John Carmack attended some college, and he is maybe the best example alive of a hacker who created an entire industry with his mind simply by sitting in front of a personal computer and writing code nobody else could write.

That said, there is some truth to the notion that (college) dropouts succeed in the computing industry at a higher rate than in the general population.

As far as I can tell, most of the successful college dropouts quickly found something else to do that was unique and important at that moment. Based on this list, one sign that dropping out might be a good idea, rather than a copout, is if the thing you do instead requires much harder work than what your college classes require.

Also, I think it is worth observing that the people behind major technological advances tend to have advanced educations. By contrast, successful dropouts tend to be people who made their mark by designing and marketing commercial products using widely available technology, or with modest and incremental technological innovation.

There are a few anomalies: Carmack, Wozniak, and perhaps Pike (UPDATE: see comments) were supremely technical and don't have college degrees.[0] On the other hand, they are among the most brilliant hackers who ever lived. I think that, for a young hacker, betting that you are the next Carmack is an extreme long shot (although if you really believe that this possibility is substantiated by the evidence of your work quality, then go for it).

Why does this matter? Why did I write this? Mostly because when someone's wrong, it annoys me. But here are two other reasons.

First, people should be giving credit where credit is due. The vast majority of technological innovation in our field comes from people who participated, in some fashion, in the higher education system — in most cases, the elite part (broadly construed [1]) of the North American university system. The stuff you use on the Internet was emphatically not mostly created by people who "never got grades at all". Don't propagate this myth.

Second, it would be a mistake to generalize from the small minority of successful dropouts to the conclusion that a college education is not meaningful, and that skipping it would therefore be a good idea for you. Dropping out of college is a terrible idea for most people. I think it is probably a bad idea all the way up to, maybe, the top 2-3 percentiles of ability or motivation, and even for those people it is only a good idea in particular circumstances.

The past decade has seen outsized financial success accrue to a few consumer Internet businesses, like Facebook and Twitter, which were founded by dropouts. This has led to a certain current in our cultural imagination that substitutes a remote lottery-ticket shot at getting rich quick on a startup for the dream of broad-based prosperity based on equitable access to high-quality education, health care, and housing. Actually, both components are necessary. Big prizes do seem to drive risk-taking entrepreneurship. But the foundations of an innovative technological economy are built by people who mostly study hard, get good grades, and pursue advanced study in their field. The exceptions are just that — exceptions — and the sound way to get more innovation is to instill in more people the habit of studying hard, and to give more people the opportunity to pursue advanced education.


[0] Actually, it's not clear to me whether Rob Pike attended no college, or whether he did, and for characteristically eccentric reasons refuses to reveal it to the public. But until I find more information, I'm assuming he didn't. (UPDATE: If the anonymous comment below is to be believed, Pike went to Caltech, degree unspecified.)

[1] By "elite" here I mean roughly top-100-ranked four-year institutions. This may strike some readers as an overly broad class to label "elite", but the universe of higher education includes a much broader class still, including community colleges, professional and vocational schools, etc., and if you count heads in higher education then it is still a minority of students who go to top-100 4-year schools.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Quick Serbia impressions, August 2013

We flew into Belgrade from Tokyo last week. Eleven days in Japan is such a huge bolus of experience that I'm still digesting it, so the ongoing travelblogging will be out of order. (You probably don't care, but this does bug my OCD tendencies a little.) On the other hand, what follows will often mention Japan as a point of contrast.

Japan has a reputation for being a conformist culture, but upon landing in Serbia, one of the first things I noticed was that, to a first approximation, all young Serbian men seem to have the same utilitarian close-cropped haircut, which is a contrast with the carefully styled and sometimes flamboyant male haircuts sported by many young Japanese men. Likewise, Belgrade women's dress is casual and, again compared to Japan, almost drab (which isn't to say that it's drab in an absolute sense), for which I'll advance two tentative hypotheses. First, obviously, Serbia is a dramatically less wealthy and densely developed society. Fewer people can afford to invest extensively in personal ornamentation, and the lower level of economic specialization also leads to fewer opportunities to invest in distinctive fashion. Second, perhaps Japanese women, and especially women in Tokyo and other major Japanese cities, feel more pressure to invest heavily in self-presentation, although I'm unsure whether that's social pressure from peers and acquaintances, or dating market pressure. (Somewhat relatedly, the MR bloggers have a speculated rather extensively about where women are beautiful, but I'm not sure any of their hypotheses explain Japan very well.)

Belgrade is a small, easily digestible city. You can walk around the entirety of Old Belgrade in a day. The museums we visited (Nikola Tesla, Zepter, the Ethnographic Museum) were similarly human-scale. You will never have the feeling, familiar to anyone who has visited the Met or the Louvre, of spending three hours in a museum, being exhausted by the ancient, massive profusion of human culture, and still feeling that you have not even seen the whole museum. Of course, this is because Belgrade's museum collections are much more modest, but that's the tradeoff. (Note that several of Belgrade's major museums have been under renovation for years and are thus currently unvisitable.)

At current exchange rates, everything in Serbia seems cheap by developed-world standards. We stayed in private double room at a hostel in the city center, about three blocks from the National Assembly, for about 4000 RSD (US$47) per night. 1200 RSD (US$14) will buy a fairly extravagant meal, including alcohol, or alternatively will feed you well for a day on more modest fare.

Three days here have hardly made me an expert in Serbian cuisine, but it does remind me of the fact that hot dogs and American megabrews (Budweiser, etc.) are both lineal descendants of central European sausages and lager. Meat and pale yellow beer are the order of the day, and for what it's worth they're done reasonably well. Vegetarians and teetotallers will feel rather deprived. On the other hand, I had some of the best cooked squid I've ever tasted at Cafe Reka in the Zemen district.

There are many, many charming places to relax with a drink. The numerous cafes and bars on the broad pedestrian boulevards, the splavs (cafes, bars, and nightclubs built on river rafts), Skadarlija street, and the Zemen district could all feature as eye-candy backdrops for some terrible formulaic romantic comedy. I'm too old to go clubbing anymore, but Belgradian nightclubs are likewise rumored to be excellent. There is abundant street life everywhere in the central city.

The people are mostly friendly. It is difficult to believe that there are tens of thousands of living war criminals walking among them. I doubt that most Serbians think the war was excusable, but the body politic has certainly not owned up to its guilt. The museum at Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad contains a laughably self-pitying exhibit on the NATO bombing of Novi Sad, without a word about the wider Yugoslav War that prompted it. I can't really do justice to this subject at all, but if I get around to writing about Bosnia, I'll come back to it.

Religion seems to be taken seriously by a wide swath of the populace. Visit an Orthodox church and you will see people of all types (not just what Americans would read as "religious conservative" dress) kissing icons with evident emotion.

Overall, I think that Belgrade in 2013 would be an ideal place to visit if you're about 25 years old, not completely broke but perhaps watching your bank account closely, ideally with a mixed-sex group of five or six friends, one of whom you have an unconsummated crush on. It's cheap, fun, pretty, easily navigable, and frequently romantic, and the lack of top-tier cultural attractions is less important when you're young.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Assorted tech fails related to Copy.com

Lots of fail to go around today.

A. just tried to share some photos with her mother via Copy.com (disclosure: this is a referral link, because why not, although as you'll see I don't recommend using Copy much in its current state). Her mother's sole computing device in Taipei is an iPad.

Fail no. 1: Although the photo folder was shared with the email address that A.'s mom used to sign up, the folder is not accessible anywhere I can find via the iPad app UI. Blame goes to: Copy's developers, who either failed to implement sharing correctly or hid it behind some undiscoverable UI.

Fail no. 2: The Copy website's image viewer page crashes Safari on iPad. Blame goes to: the Copy developers for failing to test this configuration; the iOs browser developers, for implementing a crashy browser (note that current Chrome desktop doesn't crash, so WebKit/Blink alone is not to blame).

Fail no. 3: Downloading Chrome onto her mom's iPad reveals that the crash occurs again, so the crashing defect is with WebView, not Safari-specific wrapper code. On an even marginally more open OS, Chrome (and Firefox, and every other browser vendor) would be permitted to ship an alternative browser stack, and I'd probably be able to download a browser that wouldn't crash. Blame goes to: Apple's business strategy bosses, for being control freak jackholes.

Fail no. 4: Searching for "Copy.com" safari ipad crash on Google is annoyingly filled with garbage. Blame goes to: Google for failing to recognize that when I write "copy.com" in quotes, I really don't care about web pages that merely contain some subset of the segmented lexemes in that query*; also the leadership at Barracuda networks, who gave Copy a ridiculously search-unfriendly name for branding reasons, thus guaranteeing that tech support queries for their service would be frequently frustrated by the current generation of search engine technology. (Also pity all the future users, of any operating system, who need some help with a copying feature not related to Copy.com.)

Welcome to the "post-PC era", where your storage is in a cloud you can't access because your shit crashes and your ecosystem overlords prevent you from installing workarounds.


*To be more precise, for this search, Google does prioritize "copy.com" over web pages that contain "copy" and "com" or even "copy com" (with a space or other punctuation between the two words). The absence of useful results for this query is due to the fact that there's just no relevant content on the web. I just wish the result page would make it more obvious that Google doesn't think there's any good match for this query, and it's scraping the bottom of the barrel for some weakly related content, so that I could give up my search sooner.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Acer TimelineX 1830T: 2 year report and hard drive replacement notes

Attention conservation notice: Google-food for a gadget you will probably never need to know about.

About two years ago, I bought an Acer 1830T as a cheap second laptop to throw in my bag (alongside my work-issued Macbook Pro; I segregate work and personal computing fairly rigorously when I'm employed).

Some people say you can't get a decent laptop for much less than $1,000, and indeed many cheap laptops are terrible. However, I found that I used this dinky little plastic laptop almost as much as the Macbook Pro, and often enjoyed doing so. Even now, having quit my job and bought a workstation-class laptop for personal hacking, I still reach for the 1830T pretty often because it's tiny and light.

I'm also planning a 9-week multi-country international trip in the near future. Losing my big expensive workstation laptop would be hugely painful. Losing the 1830T would be an annoying but tolerable inconvenience. Guess which laptop I'll be toting around the globe to hostels and sundry.

On the other hand, even after all this time, the keyboard and touchpad still feel a little awkward compared to other keyboards and pointing devices I use.

Overall, I'm happy with the return on investment for this machine. However, if I were looking for a new machine to fill a similar role today, I would probably spend slightly more and get an Thinkpad X131e (Intel version), mostly due to Lenovo's superior ergonomics.

Replacing the hard disk with an SSD

Recently, I dropped this laptop on a hardwood floor while the disk was churning vigorously on a vagrant suspend. The disk was destroyed. I back up everything that matters, to a mixture of external disks and remote git repositories, so the permanent data loss was minimal. Still, the laptop needed a new hard drive.

SSDs have gotten amazingly cheap. I got the 120GB Samsung 840, which currently retails for $100. Granted, spinning-platter hard drives are even cheaper — a 500GB 7200RPM 2.5" drive costs about $60 — but a 120GB SSD is silent, much more durable, much faster, and large enough for everything I'm going to do with this laptop. So I bought the SSD.

A younger version of myself would have installed Linux next, and called it a day. I decided to try to get Acer's Windows 7 image running on it again instead. In hindsight, I can't fully justify this decision, except with reference to vague worries about whether suspend and the HDMI output would work well. Regardless, if you're reading this, I imagine you might want to reinstall Windows too, so I'll go into some detail about the process.

Now, by default, Acer expects the hard disk to be configured with a recovery partition, so that the system can be restored directly from the hard disk ("D2D recovery") in case of OS corruption. I think this is a waste of time and space, particularly since I ordered recovery CDs anyway (see below). However, if you want to try to set up a recovery partition prior to installing the OS, then feel free to wade through threads like this for help. The instructions below won't bother.

Here are the steps I took:

  1. Order Acer eRecovery discs for my machine's serial number, and wait for them to arrive. It took 3 days in total, from the day I ordered online until the day I received the discs by expedited FedEx, and cost about $38 including shipping. The package I received contained 4 discs: "System Disc (1 of 1)", "Recover Disc (1 of 2)", "Recovery Disc (2 of 2)", and "Language Disc".
  2. Open up the laptop's bottom panel with a small cross-head screwdriver. The RAM, wireless card, and hard drive are all easily accessible. It is trivial to remove the old hard drive and swap in a replacement, as the image below shows.

    It's a refreshing throwback to see a machine made this way. This style of design seems to be on its way out, at least in consumer markets, as people prefer sleek and hermetically sealed to slightly chunky and upgradeable.
  3. Connect an external USB CD-ROM drive and insert the disc labeled "System Disc".
  4. Turn on the machine. During the boot screen, press F2 to enter BIOS setup. In the "Main" section, find the option labeled "D2D Recovery" and toggle it to "Disabled". Press F10 to save and exit.
  5. During the reboot, quickly press F12 to bring up the boot order menu. Select the CD-ROM drive and press Enter.

  6. At the first menu screen, select a language.

  7. At the second menu screen, select the option to "Completely Restore System to Factory Defaults".

  8. Follow the onscreen instructions, inserting new discs when prompted. The recovery program may eventually ask you to insert a nonexistent "System Disc 2". This is a defect in Acer's recovery software. I am not sure if this is somehow specific to the discs I got (are these recovery discs burned on demand, or mass-produced?). Regardless, here's what I did to deal with this error:
    1. Hard reboot by holding down the power button until the machine turns off.
    2. Turn on the computer. Once again, at the boot screen, press F12 and boot from the CD-ROM.
    3. At the first menu screen, select the option to "Restore Operating System and Retain User Data". There will be no user data to back up, but this is harmless. It appears that in this recovery code path, the defect which requests "System Disc 2" is not triggered.
    Eventually, recovery will complete and the system will boot into Windows.
  9. I found that, for some reason, the default recovery image did not include drivers for the Broadcom wireless card. I plugged into a wired network, went to Acer's 1830T driver page, and downloaded and installed the Broadcom Wireless LAN Driver dated 2011/08/23. (Not all 1830T machines contain a Broadcom card, so this step may not apply.)

From then on, it was merely the usual routine of repeatedly running Windows Update until fixpoint, uninstalling crapware, and installing the considerable complement of additional software needed to make Windows a tolerable development environment.

This probably sounds like a huge hassle, and it was, particularly the "insert System Disc 2" problem. Ultimately, though, I resurrected a broken laptop for about $138, and I expect this laptop to last at least another year, so I suppose it was worth the trouble.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Western US road trip report, June 2013

Attention conservation notice and disclaimer: Long, exhaustingly detailed post on the author's recent travels, with notes on gear (photographic and non-), parks, and a few restaurants. Also, many Amazon affiliate links, which are based on my honest appraisal of the referenced product and embedded herein with the sole motive of improving your life, but which you should treat with due skepticism.

Contents

  1. Route
  2. On driving through the landscape
  3. A brief digression on politics
  4. Photography
  5. Reviews: Places
  6. Reviews: Gear
  7. Closing Thought

Route

We drove in a ragged counterclockwise loop, starting from San Francisco and touching every state in the western U.S. except Washington. For illustration, the following map includes connective lines, drawn as the crow flies, although of course roads are not nearly as direct as the neat polygon traced thereby.


View Road Trip June 2013 in a larger map

All told, we took thirteen days. This was not ideal. A month or two on this route would give each area its proper due. For example, Yellowstone National Park alone could consume the better part of a week without wearing thin; we spent just one full day there.

Nevertheless, although my travel partner A. and I both quit our jobs in the past year to make time for extended travel (among other things), we both had other plans that made it impossible to extend this particular road trip longer.

So: the blitz.

To cover all this ground, our itinerary included a half-dozen 8-hour driving days, and several more 6-hour driving days. I normally hate driving. The scenery and sparse traffic on many routes made this road trip much more tolerable, per unit time, than, say, a commute to Mountain View on 101. Still, we were much happier on the days we drove less than 8 hours. On your road trip, I recommend scheduling all-day drives sparingly, with lighter days in between.

Apart from the pace, the route itself was excellent, and I can recommend something resembling this loop to anyone considering a road trip through the West.

On driving through the landscape

The American West is a national treasure and everyone who lives in America should see a good deal of it in their lifetime. I had seen some of the West before — the Grand Canyon south rim, some of Phoenix and Las Vegas, ski resorts in Colorado and Utah, and of course much of western Washington State and California, where I've lived — but this trip was designed to be a fast ground-level survey of the West as a whole, especially those parts I hadn't seen.

The vastness of the West is a cliché, but driving through it gives you an emotional connection to that vastness. You experience the space as both liberating and oppressive. The liberating part is perhaps obvious, the oppressive perhaps less so. In short, distance is a hardship. As you stare for hours on end at one road after another, cutting laser-straight up to the horizon, it gradually grinds you down. You can imagine people in centuries past, with vehicles much less convenient and rapid than a modern automobile, trying to traffic in emotional or material commerce with their neighbors or far-flung relations, and being perpetually taxed, and often thwarted, by the physical reality of the West's gigantism.

Notwithstanding the difficulties that distance imposes on human beings, the West remains sublimely beautiful.

The Southwest is literally rainbow-colored: red and orange earth and stone mesas which turn purple in the sunset, yellow and green grass and shrubs, slate-gray rocks colored blue by reflected daytime skylight. Every color is represented, albeit with a sun-bleached desert cast.

The landscape gradually grows verdant as you climb up into the mountain prairies of Colorado and Wyoming, until you're surrounded by green. I had always ignorantly viewed Wyoming as one endless mountainous forest. In fact, much of the state consists of rolling green pastureland, dotted with black cows.

Spread out beneath the clear blue sky, it seems like an unsubtle advertisement's depiction of heaven. Bliss was taken in Northern California, but it would be a fair representation of eastern Wyoming in mid-June (better, in fact, than of Sonoma County, where the hillside would typically be covered with vinerows, not grass).

And all throughout, the land is a dynamic thing, stirred by the diverse energies of the Earth and the things living on it. I remember a long wind-whipped road in an Arizona valley where one sun-fringed tumbleweed after another blew across our path as we drove. Or driving through a nighttime thunderstorm towards Santa Fe, with purple lightning lancing the black horizon every minute. There are hundreds of images like these, and, memories being what they are, I probably won't even be able to hold them all in my head long enough to digest them completely before they evaporate.

(Hence, photography, which I'll discuss below.)

After Wyoming, we cut, finally, across the prairies of Idaho and eastern Oregon, towards Portland, and made our way down the coast back to San Francisco. This segment was more familiar to us, but redwood trees and sparkling oceans never lose their charm.

A brief digression on politics

One of the things that happens when you see the enough of this beautiful land is that you slowly grow to love it. You love it enough that you become convinced that some of it must be preserved for all the people who might live, and thus love it equally well, in the future. The love makes you resistant to totalizing ideologies which say that it would be more efficient, somehow or other, to cut every corner up into parcels to be sold and utilized for the enrichment of individual people alive today. Love makes this scheme sound like selling the bits and pieces of your child's body to investors so that they might profit from dismembering it.

Sure, some of the land should be in private hands. Most of it is, and that's fine. But you also appreciate the vision of people who set aside large tracts of the most remarkable land for public purposes, in consideration of those future people whose interests cannot possibly be accounted adequately by today's markets.

This logic leads one to broader implications that are troubling to certain strains of belief, and it is not surprising that many libertarians find national parks so vexing that they resort to absurdities and cherry-picked examples ("Wolves in Yellowstone! Never mind that they've already been reintroduced and that private sector ranchers are far less wolf-friendly than the NPS!") to undermine the staggeringly persuasive moral and practical case for national parks.

Photography

As noted, I take photos mostly to preserve things for my own memories. As a result, these albums are less carefully culled than a proper photo essay ought to be. I expect any rational viewer will get tired after a couple dozen pictures. Regardless, for completeness' sake, here are the albums.

My daily loadout consists of the following cameras:

The T2i and lenses aren't the highest-end gear — gear hounds would call them "entry-level" — but I've been very happy with the versatility of this combination, and the total cost is less than a 5D Mark II body with a single zoom from Canon's "pro" L series.

After you shoot with a multi-lens DSLR kit for a while, you realize why serious photojournalists sling 2 camera bodies around their necks. You can capture things with wide-angle or telephoto lenses that you'd never get with a single midrange lens...

...and swapping lenses on a single body in the field is agonizingly slow with a moving subject or changing light. Now, I don't want to carry a second DSLR body for my vacations. That's a Rubicon of photo geekery that even I am not yet ready to cross. So my current solution is to carry the RX100 in my pocket and the T2i around my neck, with either the wide-angle or telephoto lens on the latter, depending on what I expect to be shooting (wildlife, for example, demands telephoto).

With this setup, I use the T2i when I need a specialized lens, and can quickly pull out the RX100 for mid-focal-length shots. Thus, although the midrange EF-S 17-55 is the best lens I own (and it's a great lens, very versatile and sharp), it's become one of my less-used pieces of kit.

I can't say anything about the RX100 that photo review sites have not, but I'll add my voice to the chorus: it's an amazing compact camera, qualitatively better than any other compact camera I've ever used. Low light performance is especially impressive, but pretty much everything else is terrific too. And the RX100's panorama and HDR modes are surprisingly useful. I found myself reaching for the RX100 to use these modes, sometimes, even when I had a T2i lens mounted that would have worked.

HDR has a mixed reputation among photo snobs, because it can easily be misused to produce cartoonishly oversaturated garbage (and I admit even the example above looks a little cartoonish, although that's how it looked when I was there!). But some compositions, in some lighting situations, simply have inherently high dynamic range. When HDR is used solely to compress shadow and highlight detail back into the image's usable range, it produces vivid, naturalistic images that are much closer to your subjective experience of the scene than a "normal" digital capture.

I used the Galaxy Nexus mostly for photospheres. This feature alone should make a post-4.2 (Jellybean) Android device the cameraphone of choice for photographers. You won't take photospheres often — it's fairly time-consuming — but sometimes a location calls out for one. When the stitching (which can be finicky) works out, you get stunning results that can't be duplicated with any other type of camera.

(OK, the Street View team has cameras that can do better, but civilians don't have access to those — with a few exceptions.)

When Samsung first started releasing compact cameras that ran Android, I scratched my head a little. Now I wish my RX100 ran Android, so that it could make photospheres.

One final piece of photo gear that I carry and recommend: a Sun Sniper shoulder strap. It's so much more comfortable than the stock Canon neck strap, which traps sweat, irritates your skin, and holds the camera in a maximally annoying spot against your chest or ribs. It's like the difference between hiking in flip flops versus proper hiking boots. Get one; your physical comfort will be immensely improved.

Reviews: Places

The marks on the map embedded at the top of this post are not a full list of places we visited, but rather an idiosyncratic subset of locations that I found enjoyable or at least memorable. (Also, clearly, I don't literally live on Japantown Peace Plaza in SF; that's just a convenient central location to mark on the map.) My brief thoughts on each...

  • I'd flown into Las Vegas before, but I can say that driving into it is a qualitatively different experience. You really sense how absurdly this city popped up in the middle of nowhere when you've been driving through the desert for hundreds of miles. And it's not an unpleasant realization: why shouldn't humankind make something utterly ridiculous and festive here? There's plenty of non-ridiculous desert left over.
  • Cirque du Soleil Mystère is one of Cirque's better shows. Certainly, their touring shows (I've seen Ovo and Totem) are more spectacular than their fixed-venue shows, but there are enough jaw-dropping feats in Mystère to make it worthwhile even if you've seen a few others. Be sure to use your favorite search engine to find discount tickets and/or coupons when making reservations.
  • I'd been to Grand Canyon National Park before, but never the North Rim. My previous visit, to the South Rim, was decades ago, so my memories are fuzzy, but the North Rim seems far more verdant and less crowded than the South Rim, and just as spectacular.
  • For various reasons, we only ended up camping one night of our trip. Car camping is easy and brings costs down a lot. If you can make camping work, it's definitely worth doing. Anyway, Goulding's Campground in Monument Valley is a relatively pricy campground (albeit still much cheaper than most motels), but it is also weirdly well-appointed, with many bathrooms, a gift shop, and even an indoor pool. Be advised that you can't drive tent spikes all the way into the ground (there's not enough of the dry, sandy dirt over the rock; possibly it's concrete under there?), so you'll have to weight down your tent with luggage.
  • Amazingly, Petrified Forest National Park is every bit the equal of the Grand Canyon in picturesque beauty. The vistas of the Painted Desert here are insane. The petrified wood, for which the park is named, is actually the lesser attraction here, although it's interesting enough.
  • Meteor Crater is unique and visually impressive, but it feels like a tourist trap, and you don't get to hike all the way down into the crater. Go here with moderate expectations and you'll be satisfied, I guess.
  • The cities of Arizona felt mostly underwhelming. Scottsdale's Old Town is cute, although very kitschy, and Phoenix mostly feels like a miniature copy of the most boring parts of Los Angeles. On the other hand, the Heard Museum and Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum were both excellent, and I'd classify them as must-see destinations in the Southwest. And Cafe Poca Cosa (Yelp) in Tucson was the best food we ate on the entire trip. A. loved it, and she doesn't usually like Mexican food. (For my vegetarian friends: I didn't try their vegetarian dishes, but the chef has such an excellent command of flavors and ingredients that I suspect they're great too.)
  • White Sands National Monument is visually surreal, like something out of a dream. You can rent sand sleds from the visitor center; they're only moderately entertaining, but it's super cheap and you might as well try it. Bring your best sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Santa Fe is a very touristy town, but remains charming nevertheless. It's sort of a Carmel in the desert, but with more history: lots of little walkable streets and charming old architecture, lots of art galleries and other stuff catering to well-heeled visitors. Where Carmel has an Eyvind Earle gallery, Santa Fe has a Chuck Jones gallery (which is thoroughly enjoyable). Etc. The Georgia O'Keefe Museum was especially interesting after driving through the Southwest for several days; being immersed in the landscape alters the way you see O'Keefe's paintings of it. The Museum of New Mexico is also a well done presentation of the state's history, which is more interesting than you probably suspect, given that New Mexico's contribution to America's global cultural footprint today is rather modest (with perhaps one notable exception). Lastly, if you visit Santa Fe, get The Streets of Santa Fe: A Walking Tour from 1880 to the Present (available on Kindle), which is an astonishingly thorough catalog of Santa Fe local history. It must be a labor of love, because I've never seen a travel book that embodied a comparable, and irrationally exhaustive, amount of research focused on such a modest subject.
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park is as surreal as White Sands, but in a different way: the dunes are simply unbelievably huge. The thin air at this altitude and the difficult footing on the dunes makes ascending them more tiring than you expect, but the reward is worth it.
  • We blasted straight through the rest of Colorado and southern Wyoming in a day, and ended up in tiny Lusk, WY, where we found Pizza Place (Yelp). Now, I've had Lombardi's in Manhattan (and other decent-to-great New York pizza); I've had brick oven pizza at well-regarded places in the Bay Area; this place literally measures up to any other pizza I've had in my life. It is weird, shocking, and unfair that this restaurant is stuck out in the middle of nowhere in eastern Wyoming. Anyway, if you ever happen to be in eastern Wyoming, make a detour to Lusk and stop here. Incidentally, Wyoming probably also had the friendliest people, on average, of any region we visited on this trip. (Note that A. and I are not white!)
  • Mount Rushmore was impressive, but not very fun or charming. I'm glad I went, but I'd rate it my least-favorite park among those we visited on this trip.
  • Yellowstone National Park: Really I can't add anything about this place that hasn't been said before. It's amazing. Go there, repeatedly.
  • We passed through Boise, ID on the way back west, not expecting much, and were pleasantly surprised. It felt a bit like a smaller, less verdant Portland. I can easily imagine that lots of Pacific Northwest refugees, fleeing rising prices in Portland and Seattle, might be settling here happily. There's a large Basque population, and Epi's Basque Restaurant (Yelp) easily earns all its five-star reviews: the food is hearty homestyle fare, not haute-cuisine, but it's completely satisfying, and the service is the friendliest and most pleasant that I've ever encountered in a restaurant. Nobody who comes anywhere near southwestern Idaho should skip it.
  • Portland, OR: you can read lots about Portland elsewhere, but I'll just add a couple of food notes: Voodoo Doughnuts is overrated (it's certainly good, but it's just huge piles of super-rich frosting slathered onto fairly ordinary doughnuts), whereas Screen Door lives up to its accolades (I'm not an expert in Southern food, but their fried chicken is exceptional, succulent and crisp and not overly greasy).
  • After Portland, we drove down the coast and stayed overnight in Port Orford, OR. If you're ever in the area, don't miss Griff's On the Dock, which is located on a working fishing dock — you almost can't believe there's a restaurant down there until you round the corner onto the dock and see it — and has a tiny but charming maritime museum inside.
  • Anyone who drives down the Northern California coast and does not detour through The Avenue of the Giants (Google Maps) to see the redwoods has no soul. Seriously, it's so easy and doesn't even add much time to your trip.
  • Mendocino and Mendocino Headlands State Park were both places A. and I had visited together before. On clear, sunny days, I'm convinced that Mendocino is among the prettiest places on Earth. Certainly, many places surpass it by far in sublime beauty or visual dynamism or what have you, but few places manage to be prettier. Go if you can. While you're in the area, be sure to stop at Cowlick's Ice Cream Cafe in nearby Fort Bragg and try the mushroom ice cream. It's flavored with candy caps (Lactarius rubidus), a delicious regional ingredient that's challenging to obtain even in Northern California.

Reviews: Gear

Capsule reviews of the non-photographic hardware we used on our road trip follow. I'll admit we were somewhat comically overprepared, but you'll probably want some subset of this stuff on a long road trip.

  • Toyota Corolla LE (2003): My car is 10 years old and had about 31,000 utterly trouble-free miles on it when we started (I don't drive that much). We added about 5,500 more miles, at a cost of about $550 in gas, give or take. I don't have much to say except that my trouble-free streak continued. Toyota made great cars in the early 2000's.
  • USGS Interagency Annual Pass: No-brainer. Buy in advance and remember to put it in your car; it's easy to forget (I know from bitter experience) and there's no way to get it replaced once you're on the road.
  • Collapsible cooler: You will get hot and thirsty driving across the American desert. Bring a cooler and refill it with ice every day.
  • Swim goggles and swimsuits: The motel pool is your friend. After sitting cramped in a car seat for many hours as you blast through the hot dry desert, swimming a few laps serves to cool you off, relax you, and give all your muscles a workout. It is almost always worth paying a small premium for a motel with a pool.
  • Google Maps + Android turn-by-turn navigation: My primary mode of trip planning was to have one huge browser window open with a map, alongside another browser window for making hotel reservations. I starred all my destinations (hotels, park visitor centers, etc.) in the the Google Maps web client; the starred locations would be synced transparently to my Android devices, making it easy to invoke navigation from the Android UI on our dash-mounted phone later when we were on the road. While planning, I would also compute driving routes in the Google Maps web UI, then generate a short URL and paste it into our shared Google Doc. We allegedly live in the "post-PC era", but when you're planning a road trip, the huge screen, fast text entry, and multitasking window manager of a desktop UI crushes today's tablet interfaces so utterly that it's embarrassing to compare the two. And nobody else's current maps offering is even remotely comparable to Google's for serious planning (Apple Maps, for example, doesn't even have a web UI).
  • Rand McNally Road Atlas (print): I've had this in my car for years. Google Maps on Android has offline maps, but I think it's essential to have a paper map on hand as a backup. We were extremely well-provisioned with gadgets, but still there was one point where we had no cell coverage and wanted to look up a route we didn't have cached on Google Maps.
  • Audible audiobook of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus: Audiobooks are tailor-made for people who spend long stretches of time in the car and I strongly recommend bringing a couple on any extended road trip. This book came highly recommended by T. Cowen, among others, and lives up to its reputation. If you've read Guns, Germs, and Steel then 1491 is in some ways a mandatory corrective, as it will considerably alter your perception of Diamond's ideas (without exactly invalidating them). It was especially enjoyable to listen to this book while driving around in the landscape where some of the history being described happened, albeit a small part (most of America's great indigenous civilizations were centered elsewhere).
  • Audible Android app: Tolerable. It's sluggish, resource-hungry, and glitchy, but it gets the job done. We ran this mostly on a Nexus 7 paired to a Bluetooth-to-FM car audio adapter: my car, as noted above, is old, and it doesn't have an external audio input. The Flexgroove x2 is currently Wirecutter's pick for FM adapters and it performed exactly as advertised. It has a USB power pass-through port, which we usually hooked up to charge the phone we were using for navigation.
  • Car power inverter: We often found ourselves wanting to charge more than one device in the car. The 2003 Corolla has a second power outlet hidden in the driver/passenger armrest compartment. We plugged a 75W power inverter with 3-prong and USB outputs into that outlet. It's a little bulky, but it fits, with enough room left in the compartment to stash a couple of charging devices. You can power your laptop from it as well. Overall this product was exceedingly handy. Note that higher-wattage inverters are available on the market, but many cars' power plugs are only rated for about 120W of load. The results of connecting higher-wattage devices to your car are questionable and might include tripping breakers in your electrical system.
  • USB 4-port, 4 amp wall charger: Hotels just never have enough power outlets and laptop USB ports often don't put out enough amperage to charge devices quickly. This device solves that problem and also reduces the clutter in your bag. Be warned that I bought a Bolse branded charger (not the one linked here) and it died after about a week of heavy use on the road. So far the Skiva charger has held up, although I haven't loaded it as heavily. If you're going on a long trip, you should bring a backup charger in addition to this one.
  • USB power pack: I bought an Anker 13000mAh power pack a few weeks ago as an Ingress accessory (more gear tips here), but it turned out to be pretty useful on this trip too (and not just because we played a little Ingress in Santa Fe, Portland, and West Yellowstone).
  • iPad Mini AT&T (2013): I'm on T-Mobile; A. is on Verizon; I bought this at the last minute so that we'd have triple carrier coverage. I expected that the iPad Mini could function as a portable hotspot as well. In practice, there were almost no areas with AT&T coverage and without either T-Mobile or Verizon coverage. The most common situations were (a) no cell service, (b) Verizon and nothing else, and (c) all three providers had some signal. Additionally, the iPad functions abysmally as a portable hotspot. It takes a long time for devices to connect, and connections frequently stop working (but do not disconnect; you just get a spinning throbber). I observed this with multiple client devices, including devices running multiple Android flavors, Windows 7, and OS X. I was so frustrated with the iPad's performance that I returned it to the store immediately after I got back to San Francisco. If you want a portable hotspot, buy a dedicated portable hotspot: it's cheaper, and it might actually work. Finally, Apple Maps and Waze provided no additional benefit, compared to Google Maps alone, on this kind of long-haul road trip. Overall, I found the iPad Mini much less valuable than our Nexus 7.
  • Portable stove: I have this Coleman propane grill/stove, which worked perfectly at the campsite but is frankly more hardware than we really needed. Knowing what I know now, I'd probably buy something smaller (and ideally cheaper), although I'd still choose a model with a built-in igniter. We also had a compact camping cookset (REI has other good choices), although for car camping it's obviously possible to pack a regular pot and plates instead.

Closing thought

Ha ha! Like anyone's going to read this whole thing.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

RFID-proof wallets

7 years ago, I noted that RFID tags can be remotely read out of your wallet, and suggested lining wallets with aluminum foil as a countermeasure. At the time, a reader emailed to say that a good fashion designer could do interesting things with this idea.

Metal-lined travel wallets have been on the market for a while now, but today Grand St. brings me news of this. It turns out that sometimes you imagine things and then they happen.


UPDATE 2013-06-24: Hmm, interesting detailed negative review of the first version:

The current (version 2) wallet may not suffer from all of the issues highlighted in this review. Also note that I can't find any independent testing of its alleged RFID-blocking effectiveness.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Get a vacuum bottle

A high-quality reusable vacuum-insulated bottle* costs about as much as 5 lattes at Starbucks, and will last you for decades; you'll probably lose it before it breaks. If you're a typical middle-class American coffee or tea drinker, keeping a portable 16-oz bottle in your day bag will reduce your consumption of disposable paper cups a hundredfold.

Equally importantly, it will improve your drinking experience in three ways: it will keep your hands cool; it will keep your drink hot; it will allow you to carry your drink around without worrying about spillage.

If you're the type of person who brews a pot of coffee in the morning, then, without a vacuum bottle, you're stuck with either lukewarm coffee by midday, or a profligate waste of energy to keep the pot heated. Instead, you can get a large vacuum bottle and fill it from your pot in the morning. It will literally keep the contents piping hot all day long. In fact, I have sometimes filled a bottle in the morning and had warm, drinkable coffee still left over the next morning.

All this may seem kind of underwhelming and obvious, but it is striking how few adults I know carry a thermally insulated bottle. I mean, just go to a coffee shop and look around.

Somehow "thermos" has become associated with childhood lunchboxes and camping. But it shouldn't be. I say this as someone who only recently converted to bottle-carrying, after wasting countless paper cups over the years, frequently cursing when hot coffee splashes up through the hole in the lid as I'm walking. Get a vacuum bottle today! It's awesome!

* a.k.a. "thermos" although that is a semi-genericized brand name, like "kleenex".

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Ars on the YouTube-on-Windows-Phone fracas

Disclaimer: I used to work for Google, although not on YouTube. This post reflects only my personal opinions.

So many crocodile tears from Microsoft, and a shallow, silly writeup from Peter Bright, who is reliably pro-Microsoft but lately has been treading perilously close to shill territory.

Please, imagine how Microsoft would behave (indeed, has behaved in the past) were the shoe on the other foot. Imagine that any Microsoft competitor implemented an app for their platform which allowed Zune or Xbox content to be streamed in full fidelity outside of Microsoft's control.

Bright's analysis of the current behavior of the YouTube mobile site is neither here nor there. An app operating outside Google's control cannot be responsive to future changes Google makes to the YouTube user experience. Perhaps Bright has never heard of building a compelling product first, and profitably monetizing it later — also known as the business strategy of every successful consumer Internet service?

Now, leaving aside what Microsoft would do, or what makes business sense for Google, what policy is in keeping with the spirit of the Internet? The Internet is an internetwork — a network of networks — and historically it has been considered impolite to direct significant load to other people's networks without some form of reciprocal exchange, whether that's money, peering, or some other resource. Streaming videos off someone's service in your app is like hotlinking images off someone's web server in your web page, only a thousand times more bandwidth-intensive. (Since streaming video is more complex than HTTP-over-TCP, it's also greedier with non-bandwidth computational resources too.) Google gives away so much stuff gratis that now people apparently expect them to give away everything forever. But unilaterally giving away everything forever has never been a sustainable basis for internetworking.

Microsoft knows this perfectly well; as a smart man once said in a different context: "Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?"

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Progressives should not support an Internet sales tax

Sales tax is one of the most regressive taxes. Sales taxes fall on those who spend money, not those who save it, and rich people save a gigantically larger fraction of their income than poor, working class, or even upper middle class people. Nevertheless, state and local governments prefer imposing a sales tax to raising progressive taxes, such as a land tax, because property owners, being relatively wealthy, have much more political influence than the relatively diffuse constituency of people who rent their housing and buy stuff.

Sales tax, in other words, is a plutocratic policy victory — a classic instance of relatively wealthy people successfully using their outsized influence to divert the burden of taxation onto people who are less wealthy.

This is not a trivial matter. At the federal level, taxation is relatively progressive; the thing that brings the U.S. much closer to a flat tax structure is exactly the regressiveness of state and local taxes (for example). If we could successfully make state and local taxes more like federal taxes (at least in terms of tax incidence), a huge tax burden on lower income people would be shifted onto relatively wealthy people.

As an added bonus, economics tells us that sales tax is one of the worst taxes for efficiency. Sales tax, like the payroll/income tax, discourages voluntary positive-sum economic interactions, which creates deadweight loss. Contrast that with some of the alternatives:

  • Land tax discourages passive landownership, which is zero-sum (it is, in fact, the canonical example of a rent).
  • Pollution taxes discourage a negative externality.
  • Tolls on use of public infrastructure, like highways and parking, decrease congestion (and other tragedies of the commons).

All of these effects are better than discouraging commerce (or labor, which is what payroll/income tax does).

Furthermore, on a national level, sales tax compliance is a competitive advantage for large retailers like Amazon (who can easily handle its stunning complexity) and a crushing liability for small businesses. So it is regressive in that realm as well. Internet sales tax would be a gift to Jeff Bezos and large Amazon shareholders, who would have less to fear from competing entrepreneurs and independent Internet sellers. As Declan McCullough posted on Plus:

Let's say I'm a eBay seller and I have an 6% profit margin. That means if I make $60,000 or more a year in profits, and the Senate goes ahead today and this bill becomes law, I have to deal with:
  • Audits by up to 46 different state tax collectors
  • Up to 10,000 different sales tax rates (it's not one-rate-one-state)
  • Integrating as many as 46 state government-supplied software packages into my Web shopping cart.
  • No reimbursement for my compliance costs
  • No judicial review if I feel I'm getting screwed over by one of those 46 states
These things aren't a big deal for Amazon.com etc. to deal with, but for someone making $60K a year in profits?

This is the background against which you should read proposals for an Internet sales tax. The Internet sales tax expands the reach of sales tax, and allows state and local governments to extend their addiction to their existing regressive tax structure. Progressives should not support this extension, as ThinkProgress, for example, advocates*. Instead, they should advocate for governments to eliminate sales taxes completely, and replace them with land taxes, pollution taxes, and tolls.


*Two last notes on the ThinkProgress post. First, it's sad that the author notes in passing that "the loophole also makes sales taxes even more regressive", without taking the next logical step: to consider whether further entrenching a regressive tax is a good idea, even if it makes that regressive tax marginally less regressive. Second, the post calls the non-taxation of interstate transactions which happen to have some online component a "loophole"; but this instance of non-taxation is a straightforward consequence of the U.S. Constitution's Commerce clause, which reserves the power to regulate interstate commerce to the federal government. It's not a "loophole" when a law does exactly what it was designed to do. Liberals have happily stretched the Commerce clause to justify all kinds of federal policies (policies that, as a liberal myself, I largely support!); to support those uses of the Commerce clause, while dismissing the claim that the federal government has the reserved power to tax interstate commerce as a "loophole", is an astonishing feat of intellectual contortion.


UPDATE 2013-04-23: See Twitter discussion from Tim B. Lee, Karl Smith, Ashok Rao, et al. The most substantial objection is that states and municipalities are so addicted to sales tax that we can never hope to reduce or eliminate it. In other words, the grip of the plutocracy is so strong that progressives should just give up and live with it. OK, fine, but that's a far cry from saying that progressives should help it along. Moreover, even if it's true in the short run, we should still be working to change people's minds about sales tax in the long run. Entrenched attitudes can only change when people consistently point out their preferred policies before pragmatically settling for second-best ones.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

What should an email client cost?

(Clearing out the backlog of old drafts...)

This was pretty spot-on. $15 for a really well-written piece of complex client software is not even close to the right price level. People who want a high-quality email client that is not subsidized by any other revenue stream should be thinking along the lines of Photoshop, Maya, or Ableton Live. Yes, I'm serious. With the rise of webmail, native email clients have become a niche software category for expert users, and that is what feature-rich, niche software written for expert users costs, because the development costs cannot be amortized over a hundred million users who upgrade every couple of years.

In the not-too-distant future, you should expect to pay $500 or more for a really high-quality piece of client-side email software. Or else you should expect high-quality client-side email software to go away (with the exception of Thunderbird, which is being maintained by Mozilla for basically philanthropic reasons; we'll see how long that lasts).


Edit: I should add that various Free or semi-Free Software email clients are not really an exception. Their development is funded by a completely different model which permits sustainable, lower-cost, but also slower development. The lower development throughput of freeware email clients manifests itself in two different ways. Email software "for geeks" like mutt, gnus, and pine completely abandons the goal of conforming to expectations of modern UX. On the other hand, free email software like KMail and Evolution, which is allegedly targeted at non-geeks, tries to track modern UX trends but perpetually lags behind in features and polish. Note that "modern UX" is a notion that is always changing, and thus requires high development throughput to track, sometimes because the UI itself is complex (consider gmail's conversation view) and sometimes because there is also a challenging computational problem behind it (consider gmail's spam filtering).

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The web's original sin, and its possible redemption

Anil Dash made a good point last December, but he also missed something. The rot was there from the beginning. The original architectural sin of the Web was that, in the name of security, we made web browsers unable to communicate with each other directly. This made browsers completely dependent on server intermediaries, which inevitably centralizes power in the hands of those who can afford to run servers. Shortly thereafter, web browsers crowded out all other Internet client software, and that was all she wrote.

This was not the original design of the Internet. The Internet is an end-to-end system, not an end-to-middleman-to-end system. There is no fundamental reason that the software you run on your personal devices must be neutered so that it can't talk directly to other personal devices.

So, the current state of the Internet could be a temporary condition. Eventually, clients might regain the ability to open socket connections to each other directly, with discovery mediated by an open distributed protocol. Servers will still be important, but it will become possible again to write peer-to-peer protocols, and to distribute peer-to-peer client software that (unlike, say, Usenet nodes) has true mass-user accessibility and appeal.

Think of it this way. It is completely infeasible for Facebook to run its massive server farm without demanding some toll. But it is probably feasible for you to share status updates and pictures with the people you personally know, using only the spare computing power and connectivity that you all collectively own. You don't need a 1000-CPU-hour MapReduce to share baby pictures with your extended family. You need blob storage, an email-like store-and-forward messaging protocol, and a pool of hosts that's available and connected enough to distribute, say, 100 MB of data per person per week. If you're a middle-class citizen of the First World, there's an excellent chance that you and your social circle own enough computing resources to support this infrastructure already — provided those resources could be utilized properly.

Thus the most interesting thing about WebRTC is not even the real-time communication it enables (although that's pretty interesting!). WebRTC is the first step towards enabling users to send nontrivial quantities of bits directly to each other, traversing through common firewall setups, without a server intermediary and without any native client software other than a web browser.

However, WebRTC is only the first crack in the wall. Fully cutting clients loose from the server layer will be challenging. Peer-to-peer web apps will have to operate in an intermittently disconnected state, and serve content to each other reliably without the crutch of a reliable web host paid for by somebody else's money. This is a challenging computer science problem, involving aspects of system and protocol design, software engineering, and human computer interaction.

It will also be a challenging business problem: how do you convince people to use this application rather than the ones they are already used to? Facebook works well enough, if you squint and ignore confidentiality, transparency, and control with respect to your personal data. And disregarding hardware and networking costs, how does the software development itself get funded? Eben Moglen is an interesting thinker, and it seems true that when you spin the planet, software flows through the network, but I am not convinced the current induced thereby is strong enough to satisfy all our software needs.

But if we are truly to regain "the web we lost", we may have to hack around the fundamental economics of the web that replaced it.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Decloak!

A few small announcements...

First, I'll be posting under my common name now [Update 18 April 2013] as soon as I finish wrangling my Google accounts into proper condition, which is proving more annoying than expected. I posted under "Cog" for a long time out of shyness. I assumed people I met would, from time to time, search for my name on the web, and I didn't want this blog to be the first thing they saw.* Now that I'm older, I care less. Blame aging-related disinhibition, or a more secure social and economic position (I'm in a committed relationship; I'm not so worried about prospective employers turning me down anymore); or maybe I'm just more at peace with myself, who knows.

Second, and perhaps relatedly, I recently left Google, so the various complicated disclaimers that I used to apply to technology-related writing will no longer apply. On the other hand, I still have some unsold Google stock left over from my tenure there, so you can continue to consider me a bought-and-paid-for mouthpiece if you like.

Third, as the link in the previous paragraph demonstrates, I occasionally post on Plus when something doesn't seem substantial enough to be here. (Actually, I'm decloaking here partly because I want to write longer pieces under my name and crosspost the link there.) If you follow this blog, you may find that feed worthwhile as well. I don't love Plus, but I think the most plausible path to ending the unipolar Facebook-controlled social web is for people to contribute to the growth of Facebook's competitors. Google's not quite the champion of the open web that it once was, but hoping for a permanent champion from capitalism is a dubious prospect. The alignment of any particular organization with the path of righteousness is a temporary condition. Look around at the forces at play in the world, and ally yourself with those that seem, at the moment, to offer the best hope for movement in the right direction.

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, I've gone through the archives and deleted or lightly edited a few posts. Mostly I've been deleting linkrot — this blog started out as a way to clean out my bookmarks file, and thus many of my old posts consisted of a now-broken link and some cryptic text — but I've also taken the liberty of deleting some stuff that simply seemed, in my judgment, like a waste of time for any conceivable future reader. Yes, this is a bit of a blogging faux pas, but I honestly believe that the archives are more useful now that there's somewhat less chaff. If you really care to see the full unvarnished past, you can of course consult archive.org, although I warn you that you'll never get those moments of your limited lifespan back.


*Note that I've always used the hapax legomenon "char bootred cataphora" to allow anyone to find me in the other direction, going from this blog to my common identity.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The death of refrigerators

Suppose that, around the time microwave ovens were invented, business analysts had a market category for "electrical devices which change the temperature of food".

Now, in the decade following the mass-market introduction of microwave ovens, you would be able to draw lots of graphs showing that microwaves were taking over the so-called "thermofluxion" industry from refrigerators, which were experiencing an astonishing relative decline. But if you had seen home appliance geeks circulating photocopied 'zines breathlessly proclaiming the "death of refrigerators" then I think you would have greeted this speculation with skepticism.

It turns out that thermofluxion is not just one thing. There are different thermofluxion devices and they have different uses. Some households have just one or the other but most people eventually want both, if they have the money. To some extent, having one even increases your desire for the other: when you have a refrigerator, a microwave oven becomes vastly more useful.

Application to recent punditry in other fields left as an exercise for the reader.