June 30, 2011

A Note On #5byBond

Each week, Dan Benjamin and John Gruber cover one of the Bond films during the second half of The Talk Show. It's fun to play along, watch the film and make a few notes during the movie, summarizing how I felt about the flick, then compare my notes to Dan and John's.

Though I usually get my notes written up before The Talk Show airs live, this week I ran a bit late. I'll likely be late on next week's installment, since we'll be in Vegas through Friday.

#5byBond: License To Kill

This week's #5byBond film is License To Kill, the sixteenth in the EON Bond franchise.

This is the fifth and final Bond film directed by John Glen, who helmed all of the 1980s outings.

It's the second outing for Timothy Dalton as Bond, and after his first turn in the role I'm looking forward to what this film brings.

My notes:

  • some really dumb dialog (and action) in the initial scene, with Felix Leiter detoured enroute to his wedding. Bond flicks always go off the rails when they veer into comic territory. Looks like EON forgot how effective the understated Bond was in The Living Daylights.
  • Bond is driving a Lincoln. We're back to Ford vehicles.
  • we see a flash of the darker Bond when he throws the suitcase full of cash at Killefer, sending him into the shark tank.
  • aerial scene of Bond fighting to get aboard the aircraft holding Krest's drug payment holds some good action, not overdone.
  • Bond Girl Pam Bouvier, Leiter's contact and a contract pilot, is a young, pre-Law and Order Carey Lowell. Sanchez's henchman, Dario, is a young, pre-The Usual Suspects Benicio del Toro. Interesting to see these actors before they became better-known.
  • Wayne Newton as preacher Joe Butcher! He adds to the cheese-factor, but he plays the role well.
  • hiding cocaine by dissolving it into gasoline, I wonder if that would actually work. Seems it wouldn't actually dissolve, just sink to the bottom.
  • only one room is burning, but they abandon a $32 million drug lab made of stone.
  • man, that man-eating grinder is awful. I remembered that scene from the first time I saw this film, years ago. del Toro's character meets a gruesome end. Ugh.
  • shooting at a man, who is atop a gasoline tanker, with a machine gun. Top marks for dumb!
  • eighteen-wheeler does a car-on-two-wheels stunt. More dumb.
  • the truck cab has a built-in wheelie-maker!

Well, this one was a bit of a disappointment. After Dalton's performance in The Living Daylights I figured things were looking up for Bond films. While Dalton was still good, the pace of the film seemed to take a pause every time they changed locales. Pacing is the director's responsibility, and given the dreadful films also directed by John Glen through the 1980s it's likely the fault for this one is his.

I read somewhere, too, that producer Cubby Broccoli, commenting on The Living Daylights, said they had erred in that film by losing the humor of the Bond character. Trouble is, the films after Connery left steadily degraded into sophomoric humor that made the production more farce than spy flick. I blame Broccoli for bringing back the goofball humor in this one.

The combination of Glen and Broccoli's need for Bond "humor" makes this one a crapshoot. Overall I liked Dalton, and I'm glad I had the chance to revisit these two films. I probably wouldn't have gone looking for them on my own, dimly remembering them (and Dalton) as disappointments. Guess my taste in Bonds has changed. Dalton was pretty good.

Carey Lowell was good as Pam Bouvier, the Bond Girl. Very pretty, though less glamorous than previous Bond women. Sort of a girl-next-door.

It'll be another six years before the next Bond flick hits the screens. A legal controversy over ownership of the Bond character and story line would drag on longer than Dalton was willing to wait, so the next film will bring yet another new Bond.

Up next: GoldenEye, the seventeenth Bond film, starring Pierce Brosnan as James Bond.

June 29, 2011

The Network Effect, for Cars

Opel Media:

"If only five of 1,000 cars cooperatively exchange relevant data, this is sufficient to provide a representative picture of traffic flow. This is one of the interim findings of the DIAMANT field test which Opel is presenting at the ACEA congress “Our future mobility now” from June 22 to 25"

(Via Business Insider.)

A clear, rapidly-updated picture of traffic conditions, disseminated to drivers and vehicles by radio or data connection, lets drivers select alternate routes. Traffic congestion is eased or avoided.

With the recent law change in Nevada making auto-driving cars legal in that state, and VW's proposed automated driving technology feeding traffic data to a network, we've reached a starting point of sorts for creating a cooperative, smart network of vehicles. Let's hope the DIAMANT field test results prompt other states, and car makers, to further this trend.

MacBook Availability Constraint Should Signal the End, Not a Refresh

AppleInsider:

"Availability of Apple's current $999 white MacBook, built with hardware that is now getting long in the tooth, has become constrained, potentially signaling a forthcoming update to the entry-level notebook."

I wonder whether there is a future for this machine. The current MacBook Air 11-inch model is priced identically, and the 13-inch MacBook Pro is just $200 more. The 13-inch MacBook Air is $300 more. Given Apple's habit of keeping the same price points when introducing technically improved models, we can expect next month's rumored MacBook Air refresh to price out the same as existing models, but with improved features.

So it begs the question, why would I pay $999 for a polycarbonate MacBook, when I can, for the same money, have a thin, light, and functionally identical MacBook Air? Or spend a little more and have a same-sized MacBook Pro?

June 28, 2011

Nokia N9 Looking Better All the Time

Vlad Savov, writing for Engadget:
the N9 suffers from the typically narrow dynamic range of smartphone camera sensors, which is the cause of the consistently blown-out sky in our gallery images. Still, considering the quick software operation and consistently detailed imagery on offer from the N9, we'd say Nokia is on to a winner here.
It not only looks good, it shoots acceptably well, too. Maybe Nokia's management felt the company couldn't mount an effective app infrastructure, or provide detailed, useful APIs for developers. Maybe they figured it's too late for them to try all that, given Apple and Google's success with their phones, and Microsoft offered an easy way to avoid oblivion. But they were clearly onto something when they designed this device. Now they're going to become nothing more than Microsoft's phone hardware division.

Uphill Battle for Microsoft

Erick Schonfeld, writing for TechCrunch:
Office 365 is all of Microsoft’s cloud productivity apps rolled into one service. It includes Web-based email, shared documents, shared calendars, instant messaging, video conferencing and Web meetings, and websites. Customers can pick and choose which apps they want and pay a monthly subscription from $2 to $27 per month.
Microsoft has got an uphill climb with their re-branded cloud offering. It's tough to compete with Google Apps, even if Google has an occasional habit of shutting down APIs and services. For starters, Microsoft's previous cloud service umbrella, BPOS, syncs with older versions of desktop Office applications that the new service won't. So there's a potential upgrade cost involved in the new offering. Staying with BPOS isn't an option, because MS is imposing a 12-month deadline for transitioning away to 365.

June 27, 2011

Chromebook First Use Impressions

Randall doesn't-use-his-last-name:
"Today at work, I was excited to see that my Chromebook (Samsung Series 5) arrived a day early. So of course the first thing I did when I got home was tear it open. What were my first impressions?"
(Via farp.blog.) A brief rundown of a first-time Chromebook user's impressions. His verdict: it holds promise, but the hardware has a long way to go before it replaces his MacBook Pro. The Chromebook, a Google product built and sold by Acer and Samsung, is something new in personal computing: a laptop computer with no operating system, and no storage. Instead, it connects to Google's services with its built-in Chrome web browser, letting the user access his or her email, Google Docs productivity suite and file storage, and anything else that's web accessible via WiFi and 3G networks. It represents Google's idea of "cloud computing." It's an interesting idea, having no "stuff" to manage and back up. Just a laptop, devoid of content. In a way it's a lot like Apple's iPad, which doesn't give users access to local file storage, either. Apple's version of cloud file storage is the forthcoming iCloud service.

American McCarver

John Gruber:

"For the last nine years, I’ve written for one weblog: this one. Now it’s two."

(Via Daring Fireball.)

Gruber's writing inspires my weblog. Now he's branching out to sports writing. This should be quite a ride.

Magnetic Underpants Questioned

Lowering the Bar:

""For centuries people have believed in magnetic therapy to help improve circulation and relieve aches and pains," reads the copy on its webpage. And people don't believe things that aren't true, but it's not entirely clear whether people also believe magnetic underpants will make them slimmer. Actually, the ad copy doesn't literally say that the magnets will make you slimmer, or even that they will make you appear slimmer. The Spandex in these undergarments might well make you appear slimmer, and although the magnets won't, at $12.97 per garment (on sale!) it is not clear that a premium is being charged for the addition of a magnetic field. But maybe so."

and ...

Or, you might want to skip the underpants and go straight to the triple-threat power of theCopper Magnetic Therapy Jesus Bracelet. With copper, magnets and Jesus all working together, this bracelet could not fail to do whatever it is supposed to do. For only $9.97, you can afford to buy one for each limb.

(Via BoingBoing.)

A weblog, written by an attorney who defends companies against consumer complaints, but who occasionally highlights some of the more egregious marketing to the dimwitted. Gotta love it.

Why I'm a Fan

dooce, writing for herself:

I'm still processing everything I experienced, so please be patient with me. Right now I'm still trying to make sense of the luxury it is to be able to brush my teeth with tap water without fearing that I might catch a disease that could possibly kill me.

There are a lot of family pictures, dog pictures and general goofball posts to read through, but every once in a while Heather Armstrong knocks out a piece of writing that reminds me why I read her.

This post was a brief prelude to what'll probably be an avalanche of posts about her recent trip to Bangladesh. Expect a lot of difficult images. And probably a lot of earnest, well-written commentary.

Two New Apple Phones for the US Makes No Sense

Zach Epstein, writing for BGR:

"Apple will release not one, but two new iPhone models this September, Deutsche Bank analyst Chris Whitmore wrote in a note to investors on Monday. The Cupertino-based tech giant has a new iPhone 5 model lined up to replace the current iPhone 4, but it also has the rumored “iPhone 4S” in the works — a supposed modest upgrade that will maintain the same physical design as the current iPhone model. The 4S model, Whitmore believes, will launch as a $349 prepaid phone with a data plan that works much like the iPad Wi-Fi + 3G; users will be able to choose from multiple data plans and purchase them on a monthly basis without being locked into a contract."

The first device isn't surprising. When Apple didn't unveil new mobile phone hardware at June's WWDC conference, but rather previewed the next version of their OS products and iCloud service, we could infer a likely delivery date for the next-generation iPhone: this fall, when iOS 5 ships. The new phone should arrive with the new OS installed. I don't know which is pacing the delivery schedule, but my guess is that Apple wanted to rotate the iPhone delivery schedule forward in the year, to coincide with the beginning of the holiday buying season.

The second device is questionable. There have been rumors (Jim Dalrymple for The Loop) of an iPhone 4s making the rounds for much of this year. A pre-paid, lower-priced iPhone 4 only makes sense for markets that cannot get the iPhone because there are no carriers willing to subsidize the purchase price. The original story (Philip Elmer-DeWitt for CNNMoney) cites Africa and Latin America as two of them. Into those markets, selling an updated, unlocked (not tied to any particular cell carrier) iPhone 4 for $349 makes sense.

But Apple is already selling unlocked iPhone 4 phones here in the US, for $649. It makes no sense that they'd undercut their own profit by offering an updated phone for half the price. That's backwards.

My take: look for the iPhone 4s, if there is such a beast, to sell in those markets mentioned in the report, not here in the States.

Tech Bubble? What Tech Bubble?

Nicholas Carlson::

"Earlier today, a small, publicly-traded investment firm called GSV Capital announced that it has taken a small, $6 million stake in Facebook at a $70 billion valuation.

Guess what happened to GSV's stock?"

(Via Silicon Alley Insider.)

Click through for GSV's intra-day price chart. And keep repeating, "this is not a bubble. This is not a bubble."

Right. We've been here before, people.

Refunds for Crappy Apps

9To5Mac:

"In an attempt to comply with pro-consumer laws, Apple is going to allow customers who mistakenly purchase an iOS app or get burned by a shoddy one the ability to get a refund within seven days of purchase. Don’t get too excited, though: you’ll have to live in Taiwan to take advantage of the revised return policy."

(Via Cult of Mac.)

Hey, if they can do it in Taiwan, Apple can allow a refund grace period everywhere. Seven days is a bit long, if only to comply with Taiwan's consumer laws, but a one-hour timeout is reasonable.

Here's hoping Apple sees the benefit to their customers and carries over this practice to the rest of us.

June 26, 2011

∴ Skype Employment Contract: Maybe It's Time For a Guild

The news (Bloomberg) this week that several Skype executives were fired just before they could reap a benefit from their private shares says more about the state of employment in today’s technology industry than it does about Skype’s relative “evilness.” Companies are clearly doing their best to get the most out of employees for the least outlay. But who speaks for the employees, the engineers and designers and specialists who form the backbone of the industry?

No-one.

In Skype’s case, buried in their employment contract is language that allows the company to unilaterally retrieve stock shares already paid for by an employee, at the price the employee paid, if the employee is terminated for cause. In effect, the company gets a do-over, retroactively canceling the employee’s stock purchase. Whether or not the now-ex Skype executives were guilty of poor performance is another issue. The proximity of the Microsoft deal makes that explanation suspect. The fact that executives aren’t worker-bee engineers is irrelevant. Skype's other employees are under the same contract. And this kind of contractual language, now out in the open, will surely become more common. As Michael Arrington (TechCrunch) notes,

I bet that dozens of lawyers, venture capitalists and CEOs, now that they’re aware of this, are thinking “Hmmm, not a bad idea. We should do that.” And as long as they are crystal clear in their communications with new employees that these stock options, which are already a long shot, are likely to be extra-worthless, they’re probably in the clear legally.

I’m sure he’s right. (Click through for Arrington’s view on what’s really going on with those terminations.)

The trouble for technology employees, be they software engineers, UI designers, support specialists, hardware engineers, data center employees, or anyone else is, they have no say in the matter. They can take the contract with the job, or find employment elsewhere. That sort of arrangement is wrong, and it should not be allowed to spread.

There are occasional rumblings of union activity among tech workers. This commentary is from Wired five years ago. It mentions WashTech, a technology union based in Washington state, formed by Microsoft contract employees. They’re affiliated with the 700,000-strong Communications Workers of America (CWA), but how many workers do they represent? Why don’t more tech workers pursue representation?

Do engineers, designers and other tech workers eschew labor activity as a matter of pride? Do they believe labor unions are only the province of manual workers? That was my attitude early in my career. I’m a technology professional, I reasoned. I don’t need a union. My employer reinforced that feeling when it needed to staff up a new part of our organization, making promises it would later ignore. The court provided no remedy. Had I and my colleagues the benefit of a union writing those promises into a binding Collective Bargaining Agreement, we’d have reaped the benefits that were promised, back when our employer needed us to go the extra mile.

The Skype employment contract that allowed the company to unilaterally retain equity value that had been promised to, and paid for by, their employees is the sort of thing that a labor union can work to eliminate. With technology workers making an ever-increasing contribution to the economy, it’s time those workers had effective representation at a bargaining table.

Call it a guild, if the word “union” doesn’t fit. The Technology Guild.

June 25, 2011

Just For the Lulz

Joe Weisenthal, writing for Business Insider:

"LulzSec, the notorious hacker group that's been on a rampage, just announced that it's disbanding."

Click through for their Exit Manifesto.

LulzSec, the disruptive group behind a string of Internet hacks, is calling it quits. Was the water warming too quickly? G-men hot on their trail?

These guys were all about the mayhem, a contemporary Project Mayhem worthy of Tyler Durden, my hero. My only question, as we watch them ride into the sunset is, who was their Marla Singer? Ah, sweet Marla.

I just liked their logo.

June 24, 2011

Ally. Hmm.

NYTimes.com:

“The discovery indicates that Bin Laden used the group, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, as part of his support network inside the country, the officials and others said. But it also raised tantalizing questions about whether the group and others like it helped shelter and support Bin Laden on behalf of Pakistan’s spy agency, given that it had mentored Harakat and allowed it to operate in Pakistan for at least 20 years, the officials and analysts said.”

(via BoingBoing).

Oh, surprise, surprise. This NYT article tells us that an intermediary extremist group in Pakistan was perhaps a link between Osama bin Laden and the Pakistani security agency, ISI.

If Pakistan had been a true American ally, as they claimed, it wouldn’t have taken a daring raid to kill and extract the body of OBL. The ISI would have found him and handed him over, because an ally wouldn’t have reason to harbor that known, admitted terrorist murderer, right?

Right.

Disney, Roy Disney

Letters of Note:

"In the following days, Roy Disney announced the postponement of his retirement and spent the next five years overseeing the completion of his brother's latest project: Walt Disney World. He opened the park in October of 1971 and immediately retired. Two months later, Roy Disney passed away."

My family spent a vacation in Orlando in 1975, just four years after Roy Disney opened Walt Disney World. We visited Sea World, and Busch Gardens over in Tampa, and Kennedy Space Center on the coast. Most of our time in Florida, though, was spent at Walt Disney World. I had no idea the park had only opened four years earlier.

I remember the rides: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, It's a Small World. And Frontierland. And the Hall of Presidents. And of course, geek nirvana at WDW, Space Mountain.

My wife and I returned to WDW years later, during a business trip. We only spent a day, ending with the parade along Main Street, USA, but it brought back all the memories of my visit years before. It's a great place to spend a few days, even without kids.

I had no idea that the visit of my youth was to a nearly-new park. I've visited other amusement parks over the years, but none have brought as much enjoyment as WDW. It wasn't until I read Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom years later that I realized what a hold WDW had on the imagination of others.

Oh Sir, Uh, One More Thing...

Peter Falk has died.

TODAY.com, an msnbc.com property:

"Falk first played Lieutenant Columbo (his first name was never clearly announced, though one badge image lists it as "Frank") in a 1968 TV movie. Its popularity led to a second film and then to the series, which ran from 1971 to 1978. Even after the show was canceled, Falk would play the laid-back detective in "Columbo" TV movies."

Perhaps more than any other tv cop, Falk's Columbo character was iconic.

Why Macs Cost More

Matt Richman:

“Apple makes more money from the sale of one Mac than HP does from selling seven PCs.”

(via DF).

Hit the link to see Matt do the math leading to that conclusion.

Yep, Macs cost more. About $320 of that “more” is profit (Mac profit - HP profit, per machine), the rest is hardware and software costs.

If the average selling price of a Mac runs about $710 more than a PC (ASP of a Mac - ASP of an HP machine), and about $320 of that is profit, then the remaining $390 must be those higher costs. Apple’s computing hardware, and the software development behind OS X, actually cost more to manufacture. Given the volume their manufacturing partners are turning out and the squeeze to contain costs put on them by Apple, one has to wonder why.

The answer is fairly obvious to anyone coming to Macs after years of using commodity PC equipment: better design and build quality costs more. What you get is a machine whose hinges don’t begin to wobble in the first six months of use, and whose keyboard doesn’t degrade to a rickety mess of loose keys and hidden debris. I’ve owned or used at least a half-dozen Dell and Winbook laptops over the years. Each required at least one service call during its three-year life cycle, one as many as three, leaving a single piece of plastic from among the original parts. I’d bet that HP repair statistics are similar.

Apple customers are people willing to pay $390 more for computing hardware and software, and reward the company with commensurately higher profits. All I can add to Matt’s post is, “you get what you pay for.”

June 23, 2011

Driverless Cars Take One Step Forward

Following up on a previous post, the state of Nevada has legalized driverless cars.

June 22, 2011

Clooney Heard the Wrong Words

The Scoop, an msnbc property:

"Just weeks after Elisabetta Canalis' comments about one day being married were published, she and George Clooney have split."

Another View on Nokia's N9

Vlad Savov, writing for Engadget:

“And that, dear friends, is why the delights of the N9 lead me to despondency. It’s a terrific phone that’s got me legitimately excited to use it, but its future is clouded by a parent that’s investing its time and money into building up a whole other OS. MeeGo, and in particular its Harmattan variety, looks set to become the unfortunate victim of the cutthroat economics that dominate competition in the smartphone realm today. Which would be a damn shame considering the wonderful concepts it espouses.”

I posted a link to a demo video for the N9 yesterday. And gushed about it. The new smartphone from Nokia is quite nice. Quite a competitor for iPhone, if only for the hardware and OS, not the app store and cloud infrastructure promised for this fall by Apple and lacking from Nokia.

Never mind all that, because Nokia made its bed with Microsoft. They’re switching gears, abandoning in-house OS development in favor of the Windows Phone OS. That OS might be lovely, but it better be damn lovely to achieve what Nokia is ready to deliver in the N9.

Again, a shame.

June 21, 2011

Wow, Real Competition for iPhone

Daring Fireball:

"Great-looking hardware and what appears to be a true, modern mobile touchscreen OS. Watch the “Swipe” video, it’s only two minutes long and it’s worth it. They’ve made a phone with zero buttons on the front face."

I'm going with Gruber's write-up only because the Nokia site doesn't have any good, quotable text. If you're a smartphone user, or a technology geek, you need to watch the two-minute video on Nokia's site. This is their N9 smartphone.

Witness the only worthy competitor to the iPhone. Nokia switches to Windows Phone technology after its debut. What a shame. It, and its OS, show beautiful design.

Newt, As the Hindenburg

First Read, an msnbc property:

"The Associated Press reports another round of resignations from the campaign, this time from the Republican presidential hopeful’s campaign finance team. A spokesman for Gingrich confirms to NBC News that fundraising director Jody Thomas and fundraising consultant Mary Heitman have stepped down."

I try to keep politics out of my writing, because we're just not there yet on the current election cycle, and no-one likes a drum-banger.

And yet, I present this for its "holy crap" factor. I'm enjoying my summer too much to consider politics.

I thought Newt's candidacy would elevate this year's political discourse while providing an alternative intelligent voice to Mitt Romney's moderate conservatism (ahem). It appears to be not long for this world.

Either someone really doesn't like this guy, or there's some serious buffoonery afoot.

Thing Are Looking Up For Next Windows Phone OS

Matt Buchanan, writing about Windows Phone 8 for Gizmodo (via Business Insider):

It feels alive. Everything bounces. Everything swoops. Everything flips. Every single action is lushly animated. It just doesn't sweat the details—blood was spilled. The lock screen isn't a simple shade. It has a sense of weight and gravity; the further up you drag it before you let go, the faster it slams back down (if you don't completely unlock it). It's almost like the phone is happy to be alive. Which kind of makes you feel happy to use it. No other phone is like that.

Not sure I buy the "no other phone..." bit, but it's nice to hear that the upcoming Microsoft competitor to the iPhone and Android devices bears a thoughtfully designed OS.

Not sure what to make of this comment, though:

If anything, I sometimes wonder if Microsoft paid too much attention to the details—the way a conversation thread springs downward when you open one in mail is gorgeous, among a million other effects that shows how much they care—and not quite enough on making sure some of the big ideas worked perfectly

It's a lack of attention to fine ergonomic and style details that has relegated Windows to a utilitarian existence, at best, all these years. That goes doubly for their Windows Mobile operating systems. If nothing else, the news that Microsoft is working in earnest along these lines is refreshing. I'm looking forward to seeing what they produce in Windows Phone 8.

June 20, 2011

The US Fed Will Have Its Hands Full, Again

msnbc.com:

"When they meet Tuesday and Wednesday, Fed officials will likely discuss what they might do to help shield U.S. banks and a still fragile U.S. economy if Europe's crisis worsened. Some analysts suggest that a panic would cause the Fed to intervene as it did during the 2008 financial crisis, when it lent billions to banks.
"The European debt crisis has the potential to have as big an impact as the subprime mortgage crisis did in the United States," said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University. "If it spreads to Spain and Italy, then the global economy could be facing huge problems.""

It begins, this time, with Greece. A Greek default will trigger holders of Greek sovereign debt (their bonds) to cash in the hedging investments they made as "insurance" against such a default. That "insurance," called a Credit Default Swap (CDS), is an investment instrument sold to bondholders by large investment banks an insurers to protect the bondholders against loss.

Sound familiar? Bear Sterns sold a lot of CDS products against mortgage-backed securities pre-2007. So did Lehman Brothers. Bear sold for pennies on the dollar just before they became insolvent. Lehman was allowed to fail, and the credit crisis of 2008-2009 was the result. The US economy fell into recession at about the same time.

Germany and France are major holders of Greek debt. Guess where they bought their hedging CDS instruments?

Dubai: No Past, Itinerant Future

Anne Applebaum, writing for Slate Magazine:

"Foreign travelers visiting New York or Chicago in the 19th century often came away with mixed impressions. Some found American cities ugly by comparison to their European counterparts: They seemed vulgar, blatantly commercial, lacking in taste.

(...)

I thought about those old visions of urban America not long ago while strolling through the Marina, a neighborhood in "new" Dubai (as opposed to "old" Dubai, mostly constructed in the 1970s). The architects were hired in 1999; the first phase was finished in 2004; soon the Marina will contain 120,000 people, along with hotels, restaurants, yacht moorings, shopping malls, and canals meant to remind visitors of Venice.

Dubai, and the other emirates, might be the new world of the twenty-first century. But it's a land without history and short on permanent residents. Can one go there and just disappear? A short essay on her visit there by Anne Applebaum.

June 19, 2011

∴ Just Plain Awful

Hideous cat wall hanging

Kelly and I were wandering around a second-hand shop in Culpeper a couple of weeks ago when I came across this travesty. It’s a wall hanging, suspended from a metal rod for display, depicting a card-sharp cat taking his mates’ money.

We’ve all seen these before, usually showing a pack of dogs playing cards. This one, though, included such dismal artistic rendering that I just had to take a picture. It belongs right over the sofa, in a trailer, parked behind mom’s place just outside of town.

I mean, wow. No velvet Elvis ever descended to this depth.

The shop, quite large, had a local AM radio station playing in the background. Walking around the place, looking at the personal treasures for sale and listening to that scratchy AM station with its half-hourly ABC network news blasts was like taking a stroll through 1950s rural Virginia. It was actually kinda fun.

They had a nice collection of cocktail shakers, too. Pricey. These were of the old glass-and-aluminum variety, with drink recipes in black and red paint over a frosted, white glass background, which you don’t find new anywhere, anymore. I found an old cartridge seltzer bottle, too. Not sure if anyone still makes the CO2 cartridges.

I really liked that shop. One corner was devoted to a model train shop, a collection of people’s Lionel and HO-scale trains from years ago. Many of the sets were unopened, from the factory. I wondered how many were Christmas gifts, never enjoyed. The sign read, “if you open it, you bought it.” Viewing the collection was by appointment only. I’d like to wander through that section, too. One of these days.

June 18, 2011

Watch This

Bloomberg:

"“The problem you have is that it’s extremely unlikely the political system will work” in a way that solves Greece’s crisis, Greenspan, 85, said in an interview today with Charlie Rose in New York. “The chances of Greece not defaulting are very small.”"

That's Alan Greenspan, past chairman of the Federal Reserve and parent of the American housing bubble just burst. The Greeks, long of poor monetary policy and non-payment of taxes, are about to reap what they've sown over the past decade.

Their economy isn't growing them out of their debt (a debt that now exceeds their total annual economic output), they can't sell more bonds at reasonable rates, and their current bond-holders (Germany and France among them) are demanding extreme reforms, which the Greek people are protesting. Something is going to give, and when it does it'll take out the Greek government, the Greek economy, Eurozone economic policy and, perhaps, the US economy with it.

Portugal, Iceland, Ireland, Greece. The PIIGs. Keep an eye on this, it's going to be huge.

June 17, 2011

#5byBond: The Living Daylights

This week's #5byBond film is The Living Daylights, the fifteenth in the Bond franchise. It's the first for Timothy Dalton as the iconic spy, and the last for Walter Godell, who played KGB General Gogol in this and previous outings. It's also the first of two appearances for Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny.

Dalton's selection was a matter of some controversy, as Cubby Broccoli, EON producer, originally wanted Pierce Brosnan to take over the Bond role. Brosnan's connection to NBC's Remington Steele sank his Bond prospects. Patience, as they say, is a virtue, and patience would bear fruit for Brosnan as he replaced Dalton two films later.

My notes:

  • the opening sequence is non-ridiculous action, a good start for Dalton. No gadgets, no goofy double-entendres.
  • Q operates in the field, once again. Still played by Desmond Llewelyn.
  • a new actress, Caroline Bliss, plays the familiar Moneypenny, and she's a looker. Utterly unconvincing, though. She'll play this role only once more.
  • ooooh, the "ghetto blaster," a grenade-launching boom box, is a bad gag.
  • Koskov, the defector, is a buffoon. I'm not sure how that makes for a good story line. How does a buffoon rise to a level worthy of defection?
  • sawing the cop car from its chassis with a laser is a dumb gag. It's an element out of the later Roger Moore Bonds.
  • ugh, more skliing! This time, on a cello case. I thought we were rid of this with Moore's departure!
  • beautiful location shots in this film, par for Bond films. Morocco, Afghanistan, Vienna. Very nice.
  • Joe Don Baker as an arms dealer. Hmm. I guess he makes a good jovial bad guy.
  • Felix Leiter, CIA: a man in a Member's Only jacket. Nicely feathered hair, though. A kinder, gentler Felix. A man of the eighties. I liked Jack Lord (Dr. No) better, and most of all Leiters, Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Bond 23).
  • lots of silly action during the Russian airfield raid.
  • and Bond saves the day.

All-in-all, this wasn't a bad film as Bond films go. Timothy Dalton played an understated Bond, a nice change from the tongue-in-cheek role that Moore had morphed it into. And there was some amusingly period-correct action that aligned Bond with the mujahideen, the Afghan resistance fighters battling Soviet invaders. It was 1987, after all. Not sure if we could see anyone named Osama among the happy freedom fighters depicted here.

I'm a fan of more sedate spy flicks, a la The Quiet American and The Good Shephard, so Dalton's laid-back Bond isn't unwelcome. That said, I think Bond films, and the guys who play the role, should be more intense. It comes with the territory. So we'll see how Dalton does in the next film, his second and last as James Bond.

Up next: License to Kill, the sixteenth Bond flick.

Blackberry, RIM, Effectively Dead

Cult of Mac:

"BlackBerry Messenger was RIM’s best selling point, even attracting teens to the device usually found in corporations rather than college campuses. Now iMessage is “effectively identical,” making lame the pony from Waterloo. Even worse, RIM limped into the smartphone market too late and too limited."

Each iteration of iOS, the iPhone/iPad operating system, reduces the list of competing device capabilities missing in Apple's devices. iMessage in iOS 5, due this fall, was the final straw for RIM in that progression.

Unless you're locked into the Blackberry universe by your employer, there's just no good reason to buy into it anymore. That's a great example of why the king of the hill can never rest easy.

An Informal SSD Benchmark

Cult of Mac:

"15 seconds. Just 15 seconds. That’s how long it takes a 3.4GHz Sandy Bridge iMac armed with a Sandy Bridge processor and an SSD drive to launch all of its apps simultaneously."

SSDs provide an incredible speed increase in any machine. Even a multi-year old laptop can become a screamer by simply dropping in a solid state drive. I can't think of a single one-step speed jump of this scale in over thirty years of personal computing. It's that significant.

And pricey, still.

June 16, 2011

Flight of Rust

ginandtacos.com:

"Almost exactly 24 years ago today, 18 year old West German (remember when that was a separate country?) Mathias Rust boarded a tiny Cessna not unlike the kind you see at small, rural airports everywhere in the U.S. As of May 28, 1987 Rust had exactly 49 hours of experience as a pilot. After a brief flight to Helsinki, Finland he refueled and took off with an announced destination of Stockholm, Sweden. Once airborne, the teenager turned his fabric-skinned plane toward the most hostile, heavily defended airspace on Earth, the Korean DMZ notwithstanding. Yes, Mathias Rust decided it would be fun to fly his Cessna to the Kremlin."

Short, interesting piece. Doesn't seem like 24 years.

June 13, 2011

Facebook IPO May Come Soon, But...

Business Insider:

The long-awaited Facebook IPO looks like it will come as early as the first quarter of 2012, CNBC's Kate Kelley reports, citing sources. Facebook could file its S-1 to the SEC in October.

The piece speculates that the initial valuation might be in the neighborhood of $100 billion.

However (Business Insider),

Facebook has had two straight down months for active user growth, including unusual traffic drops during the month of May in markets where it has been available the longest,according to Inside Facebook Gold.

Facebook's advertising reach has fluctuated in its oldest markets (such as the US) over the past few months, leading some to wonder whether the company has reached a point of saturation in some markets.

Facebook responded to the contrary (Business Insider), pointing to comScore's traffic analysis numbers but declining to provide their own:

From time to time, we see stories about Facebook losing users in some regions. Some of these reports use data extracted from our advertising tool, which provides broad estimates on the reach of Facebook ads and isn’t designed to be a source for tracking the overall growth of Facebook. We are very pleased with our growth and with the way people are engaged with Facebook. More than 50% of our active users log on to Facebook on any given day.

Having waited to file for an initial offering, I wonder if Facebook might now face a plateau in customer adoption just as they try selling themselves to the public as a company with room to grow.

In any event, two things are known. First, an Facebook IPO will net the company a huge pile of cash, and second, you probably won't be able to snag any of the shares until they trade on the open market. At that point the initial round of profit will have passed and it's anyone's guess where the shares will trade thereafter.

But hey, someone's going to make a killing.

Goodyear Blimp Burns, Crashes

MSNBC:

"The pilot of a Zeppelin airship was killed when the aircraft caught fire and crashed in western Germany on Sunday, AFP reported. Three passengers were able to leap to safety."

Click through for a dramatic image of the craft in distress.

June 11, 2011

Underwater Spider

Science Magazine:

In the ponds of northern Europe lives a tiny brown spider with a bubble on its back. The 10-millimeter-longArgyroneta aquatica is the only spider in the world that spends its entire life underwater. But just like land spiders, it needs oxygen to breathe. So every so often, it leaves its underwater web home to visit the surface and brings back a bubble of air that sticks to its hairy abdomen. It deposits the bubble into a little silk air tank spun for the purpose. This "diving bell," researchers have now found, is not just a repository. It's actually a gill that sucks oxygen from the water, allowing the spider to stay under for up to 24 hours.

(via Slashdot)

iCloud To Eschew Windows XP

Engadget:

"Unlike its MobileMe service and recent versions of iTunes, which have somewhat surprisingly supported Windows XP all this time, use of Apple's iCloud service on a PC will require either Windows Vista or Windows 7."

Not surprising. Windows desktop users with iOS mobile devices will need to upgrade if they want ubiquitous access to their personal stuff.

Or buy a Mac, and be happy.

Movie Hounds Rejoice

Roger Ebert's Great Movies series has been captured in an iOS app.

Engadget:

"In addition to over 300 reviews from Ace in the Hole to Yojimbo, the app offers stills and fully searchable details for each film in the series, plus links to add a movie to your Netflix queue or buy it from Amazon, and the ability to make your own lists of what you've seen and what you want to see."

June 9, 2011

∴ Resolving the Future

Apple's preview of OS X Lion, iOS 5, and the introduction of their iCloud service this week were a lens onto the future of personal computing. Like 2008's iOS App Store debut, and the Mac App Store that followed two years later, they resolved the broad strokes of Apple's long-term plans.

Clearly the two operating systems are drawing closer together. More precisely, OS X is morphing into iOS, even as iOS becomes more fully fleshed out and capable. Paperlabs has a succinct piece counting the Lion features lifted from iOS. Multi-touch gestures that let you operate your laptop or desktop with a flick of your fingers, rather than mouse or keyboard action. Full-screen apps, auto-save and resume to let you focus exclusively on the task at hand, and ensure your work is saved and available for immediate recall when you re-start your machine. Full FaceTime integration, and automatic OS updates. The system improves itself.

And while OS X runs on both laptop and desktop machines, Apple revealed that nearly three-quarters of their computer sales are laptops. Consumers are pointing the way, and the direction is mobile.

At the same time, iOS is making major inroads to becoming your everyday computing environment. Apple has eliminated the hated sync cable by adding WiFi sync and iCloud to the next version. The list of new and improved features runs to about two hundred items. Tabbed browsing, notification improvements, reminders based on date and time, or even location, are a few. These new and improved features allow you to stop returning to your "regular" computer when you need to get something done. Now you can accomplish more with the gadget in your hand.

iCloud will remove the need for you to understand and organize a file system. It'll put all of your data in reach of all of your devices, all the time. Everyone can stop worrying about where their stuff is, whether it's been recently saved and how to back it up.

How often have you come across a friend or family member who hasn't organized his or her files, or worse, has all of them saved to their desktop? iCloud eliminates that situation by moving all those files to a conveniently hidden place, on a server farm somewhere "in the cloud," where the only thing your friend need know about them is that they're safe.

These changes follow Apple's two App Stores, which have a similar "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" import. There's no longer any need to deal with installation disks or dialog boxes. Pick an application from the store, authorize payment with your Apple ID, and the software installs automatically.

I got to thinking about the people in my life who rely on me for computer support, and how much better the App Store experience would be for them. They can install new software for themselves! It automatically tells them when an update is available! And then I tried the process for myself, installing a copy of the superb Mars Edit, and I was sold. This is a better way for most people.

(I still like to see the blood, though. I'm a geek, one of those people who would rather spend a quiet day by myself setting up a storage array than attending a party. I've gotten away with creating a lot of computing capability out of spare parts over the years, but lately I've noticed something about my attitude. I just want stuff to work. I don't mind tinkering, hell, I still revel in it. But I want it to be when I choose, rather than out of necessity. It's a poor choice to give consumers: hack and get it cheap, or pay through the nose for convenience. Apple is offering a better way.)

The direction this is all headed will eliminate maintaining your computing devices, leaving only the use and enjoyment them. And devices, too, recede into the background as the application you're using fills the screen and accesses your data through iCloud. What's left is the task you're performing, whether it's editing a document or playing a game. The details of operating the device will no longer exist; the gadget becomes the task. First it's a GPS, now it's a weather map, next it's a blog editor, just like that.

Longer-term we can see Apple fully moving away from the familiar Mac platform. As Bob Cringely wrote this week, Apple will sacrifice the iconic Mac in order to command personal computing through their iDevices. What they usher in will be an era of ubiquitous computing. Not just mobile, but agile.

Agile computing is what you're doing when the devices you own simply mediate your interaction with your personal data (think songs, documents, medical records, tax returns, movies and books) as well as your publicly available interests (think everything you've ever seen online, bookmarked in a browser, or told someone "you've gotta see this"). Open your eyes and information surrounds you.

Integrated, ubiquitous computing. Agile computing. It's almost here!

The Wind Blows This Way...

Paperlabs has a fourteen-point summary of the new features found in OS X Lion, due next month, brought over from iOS and the iPad. If there had been any question of which direction Apple will take in future computing devices, this gives a big clue.

June 8, 2011

“It Just Works.”

MG Siegler's insightful piece on the fundamental differences in cloud computing efforts:

Files are something Microsoft worries about. Files in the cloud are something Google and Amazon worry about. Apple’s iCloud is about opening an application and the thing you want to access being there.

Thoughts on a Keynote

DiogeneX:

"Apple is making the compelling case that none of this matters without the knitting (a robust services layer) tying each piece together. Anyone can put puzzle pieces in a bag, but it takes a certain skill to assemble the total picture."

(Via Shawn Blanc.)

The combination of OS X Lion, iOS 5 and iCloud gives direct evidence of what Apple fans have long enjoyed but famously been unable to explain: tight, well-designed integration. That's what the user gets for paying the Apple premium.

Apple is the only company today that can surround the user with a seamless computing and media experience, because they're the only company that has thoughtfully designed all the pieces to work together.

Click through to DiogeneX for a succinct, three-minute read on Monday's keynote.

June 7, 2011

iMessage Update

Cult of Mac:

"iMessage is not a stand alone app. Instead, Apple converged iMessages and SMS Texts into one app called “Messages.” This is great because instead of having to switch between different apps, and worrying about how to get all your contacts synced up for both of them it’s all taken care of on the back-end."

A great hands-on from Cult of Mac. Key revelation: iMessage is integrated into the existing iOS messaging app. iOS figures out whether or not your text message recipient is also running an iOS 5 device. If so, your iPhone automatically sends the message as an iMessage, via the available data network. If not, iPhone sends your message as standard SMS, and your carrier's texting rates apply as usual.

Elegant.

∴ iCloud Feature: iMessage

This one's easy. It's a text messaging app, but with an important difference from the typical SMS app: it doesn't use your wireless carrier's texting allowance.

Most smartphone users learn something in common after the first month of use: their new smartphone is great for text messaging, but text messaging isn't a data service like email and web browsing. No, it uses the carrier's network in a different way, one that the carrier charges separately for, one that just racked up a huge overage charge. It's in month two that many smartphone owners add a texting package to their account.

Not anymore. iMessage lets you exchange text messages, photos, contacts and bookmarks via an SMS-like app, using WiFi or 3G data networking. That means messages sent and received with iMessage don't count against your carrier's text message allowance. Many iPhone users already beat that allowance by using the Textie app. Now that capability is built into iOS 5.

One downside of the iMessage app is that it only functions between iOS devices. An iPhone user can only exchange iMessage traffic with another iPhone or iPad user. An upside is that iPads will now have text messaging capability.

Blackberry users have had this capability for a long time. It's called Blackberry Messenger, or BBM. With iMessage, Apple is making an obvious play for Blackberry holdouts who demand that direct-device service.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of iMessage is that the carriers, AT&T and Verizon, found out about it at the same time as the rest of us.

∴ iCloud Feature: Photo Stream

iCloud incorporates a feature that has until now required third-party apps to accomplish: easily getting your photos off your phone and onto your other devices. Apple calls this feature Photo Stream.

Shoot a photo on your iPhone and it's instantly pushed to your iCloud library. From there it's automatically pushed to your other devices. Since iCloud demotes your desktop and laptop machines from the center of your data world, they become devices like your iPhone and iPad. They get a copy of your photo, too, in an iPhoto album for Macs and the My Photos folder for Windows PCs.

Now you can use whatever device you wish to edit, copy, post, save and incorporate your photos. Tweet or post to Facebook from your phone, post to your blog from your desktop, show your friends on your iPad. Your photos are everywhere, all the time.

iOS will keep a rolling last-1000 photos on your mobile devices, while OS X will preserve all of your photos on your Mac desktop and laptop machines. You can copy your photos from the Photo Stream album to another on your mobile device if you'd like to keep them on the device longer. iCloud will keep all of your photos, too, but only for 30 days, long enough for them to be pushed out to all of your devices.

Photos moved in Photo Stream don't count toward your 5-gigabyte iCloud limit, but they do if you move them to separate directories within iCloud.

∴ iCloud Feature: File and Document Storage

Apple's iCloud service provides each user with up to 5-gigabytes of free file and document storage. Your iTunes-purchased and iTunes-Matched music, essentially every song stored in your iCloud library, don't count against that number. Nor do the apps and books you purchase from the iTunes Store, nor photos taken or imported by iPhones or iPads and pushed to and from iCloud (more on Photo Stream in a future post). What does count toward the limit?

Email. If you use today's MobileMe service for your email, or plan to move to a .me address when iCloud opens for business, the email you send and receive will be stored on iCloud servers and automatically pushed to all of your devices. Apple's email application, re-engineered for iOS 5 and OS X Lion, will let you access and store that mail locally. iCloud storage for those messages and attachments counts toward your 5-gigabyte limit.

Documents. This is a catch-all word to describe 'stuff you create, edit or view with another program.' That's my description. Basically anything you have floating around your Documents directory (My Documents on Windows) falls into this category. Create or edit a file on one device and it's automatically pushed to iCloud, then out to all your other devices. This is the "everything, everywhere" that I was hoping Apple would include in iCloud, making the service more than just iTunes in the cloud.

Document storage in iCloud can replace Dropbox for those who use that service, and because Apple will expose an application programming interface (API) for it, we can expect document editing tools such as Microsoft's Office suite and popular text editors like Text Wrangler to offer direct load/save to it. Apple's own mobile office products, iWork, already include iCloud access capability. There's no limit to what can be stored and accessed with this part of the service, however, all of these files count toward the 5-gigabyte limit.

(5-gigabytes is two-and-a-half times more free storage than you get from Dropbox. Expect to see the Dropbox folks bump up their free offering in the coming months. Also expect to see Apple offer more storage for a nominal fee.)

Backups. Today, your iOS devices are backed up each time you tether them to a computer running iTunes. Since iCloud is Apple's move away from iTunes on the desktop, those backups have to go somewhere else. They will go into your iCloud library, and count against your 5-gigabyte limit. The backups happen via WiFi or 3G when you charge your device.

The great news is that when you buy a new device, it need not be plugged into a computer running iTunes before using it. You'll just turn on your new iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, sign into your iCloud account, and the service will ask if you'd like to restore a previous device to the new one. Select the old device's backup file and in a few minutes you have a fully-restored replacement for your old device. Android users have enjoyed this capability from day 1, and now Apple customers may do the same.

By moving your file and document storage to their iCloud service, Apple fully moves your desktop and laptop machines away from the center of your data world. Those machines have been "demoted." You no longer need worry where one document or another resides, because iCloud is the canonical data store. That means your official data repository is in one place, on Apple's servers, and the iCloud service takes care of pushing new, changed and removed content out to your devices.

∴ iCloud Feature: Scan and Match

Or, in simpler terms, iTunes in the sky with diamonds. The diamonds are high-quality song file replacements, courtesy of Apple and their new agreements with major record labels and publishers.

This iCloud feature will scan your music library as it exists in your desktop copy of iTunes, and try to match each file with a known, published song. If a match can be made (a good bet for all music published by the major record labels), a high-quality version will be put into your iCloud library, automatically. No upload of your version is necessary, and you get a better-than-CD-quality copy, to boot. Apple claims this process takes minutes, unlike competing products from Google and Amazon, which can take hours or even days for large libraries.

If a match can't be made, perhaps because the song in question is published by an independent label, or because it's ripped from a bootleg CD, your version of the song file will be uploaded to your iCloud library.

Either way, all of your music will appear in your iCloud library and will be available for automatic download to all of your devices, without your intervention. This process even legitimizes music you've downloaded via bit torrent or other shady means. Once the music is in your iCloud library, you fully own it, no matter where you got it. Very handy, and all for $25 per year.

That price is cheap for what you're getting, but it got me wondering what would happen if I didn't want to pay the fee. Would iCloud upload all of my songs without scanning and matching, since I didn't pay? Would it do anything at all? I haven't been able to find a definitive answer to that question, but here's what makes sense to me: in the absence of a paid Scan and Match subscription, iCloud will place into my account only those songs I've purchased through iTunes.

Keep in mind that iCloud is, in part, a replacement for your PC- or Mac-based iTunes library. The only action necessary for keeping your music library up-to-date going forward is to keep a copy of your new music purchases in your iCloud library. Since Apple already tracks what you've previously purchased from the iTunes store, those songs come along for the ride, too. But in order to get your personal music files, ripped from your own sources or otherwise, into your iCloud library, you must pay the yearly fee.

(The alternative isn't bad, though. Leaving your music in a PC or Mac iTunes library will be easier to deal with going forward, too, because iOS 5 brings WiFi sync to your Apple mobile devices. You'll probably have to go the extra step of tapping a button on your iPhone or iPad screen, but beyond that your device will sync content with your desktop or laptop machine over your household network just fine.)

So you'll have a choice: manually synchronize your music files over WiFi free, or have it handled automatically for $25 per year.

June 6, 2011

The Long and the Short of WWDC 2011

Cult of Mac:

"As a follow-up to last week’s super guide of everything we expected at WWDC 2011, here’s everything Steve Jobs and Apple actually did announce at this year’s WWDC, from Lion’s exciting new features to the revolution of iOS 5 and iCloud."

Cult of Mac summarizes all the goodies. Have at it.

∴ Apple Unveils iCloud, Lion and iOS 5

Apple put on a two-hour demonstration today. They showed major new features in their flagship operating system, OS X; the next version of the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch operating system, iOS 5; and their new Internet-based service, iCloud. I’ll have thoughts on the three as I wrap my head around the details, but the take-away from the WWDC keynote, is that this set of updates and debuts is huge. They form a cohesive whole by connecting all of your devices with all of your data, all the time, seamlessly.

The key is iCloud. Much more than a simple online replacement for iTunes, iCloud is everything I wrote about this past week, and more. Its API (application programming interface, the connections programmers need to make their software work with a service) will support not only the Mac, but PC computers, as well. But what does it do?

iCloud allows you to completely forget the computer’s file system. No more folders or directory trees. Organize your files as you wish. As you create, modify or purchase your documents, spreadsheets, pictures, music files, unprotected video (think ripped DVDs) and the like, those files are automatically and immeditately pushed to iCloud, and from there to all of your other devices. Ditto your calendars, contacts, and mobile apps. iPads, iPhones, iMacs, Macbooks, Mac Minis, and yes, Windows PCs, they all share the same “data repository,” iCloud.

This is huge because with this ecosystem (and herein Apple has legitimized that term for computing), you no longer need be a geek to be connected to and stay connected to everything that matters to you. Everything is everywhere, all the time.

I’m slack-jawed.

June 5, 2011

US Postal Service Nears the Edge

msnbc.com:

“The USPS is a wondrous American creation. Six days a week it delivers an average of 563 million pieces of mail — 40 percent of the entire world’s volume. For the price of a 44¢ stamp, you can mail a letter anywhere within the nation’s borders. The service will carry it by pack mule to the Havasupai Indian reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Mailmen on snowmobiles take it to the wilds of Alaska. If your recipient can no longer be found, the USPS will return it at no extra charge. It may be the greatest bargain on earth.

and yet …

The problems of the USPS are just as big. It relies on first-class mail to fund most of its operations, but first-class mail volume is steadily declining — in 2005 it fell below junk mail for the first time. This was a significant milestone. The USPS needs three pieces of junk mail to replace the profit of a vanished stamp-bearing letter.”

A first-class stamp costs 44 cents. That’s far too cheap for the service it guarantees. Raise that to one dollar. At the same time, there’s just no good reason why junk mail, er, direct-mail marketing, should get a break on postage. Direct mail marketing makes up the majority of the mail stream, so it generates the majority of operational costs. Even if only 20% of the USPS budget is spent on operations (it’s in the article), raising the price of junk mail postage has got to help offset the cost of carrying mail that almost no-one wants. Raise the first-class rate to something resembling market pricing (compared to what Fedex or UPS would charge for similar service) and cut the junk mail discount, and the USPS’s problems will abate.

The other aspect of the problem, of course, is labor costs. The other 80% of the USPS budget is spent on pay and benefits. I’m a union man and expect a worker to be paid a fair wage and fair benefits. The trouble is, we have too many post offices, and therefore too many people manning them. Raise the junk mail postage and see how much of the junk dries up. At the same time, set a large jurisdiction size per post office and begin closing those that aren’t needed. Perhaps we need to build or lease new facilities, larger buildings to handle a larger jurisdiction. There’s got to be savings in consolidation.

Much of our population has shifted to email and electronic bill paying. That number will only increase. What can’t (or won’t) be handled electronically can be consolidated into larger and more efficient post offices and carrier routes, financed by everyone paying their fair share.

Or maybe it’s time to admit something new since 1775: we don’t need the government to provide reliable mail delivery anymore.

June 4, 2011

∴ Pre-WWDC

A few thoughts before Apple formally unveils their iCloud service.

The iPhone debuted in 2007. Its form hasn’t changed much since then. It’s become less rounded, but not much smaller. Its industrial design was right, right out of the gate. Apple has continued tweaking its operating system, iOS, all along, making the iPhone a greatly more useful tool. Monday brings a new version that will link the device to Apple’s new service, iCloud. More on that in a moment.

The iPad debuted in 2010. Its single hardware revision since then made it thinner and lighter, providing a fundamentally different feel. It morphed from a tablet of modest heft to something like a magazine. Again, iOS has steadily improved since the device appeared, and will link the iPad to iCloud Monday.

In effect, these devices, and Macs, too, are about to be linked into a single, Internet-based service that will revolve around the user, not the hardware, by iCloud. The hardware remains isolated and independent. Software will make the connection, and usher in the third age of computing.

I wrote about this a while back. These mobile devices have done something unlike any before: they put a computer network node right in your pocket or portfolio. A computer constantly connected to the global Internet, worn on your body as you move about the world. Now iCloud will be the glue that makes the user the network node, by surrounding him or her with a populated data cloud available everywhere.

Consider what happens when all the data you’ve amassed, both your personal collection and those public items of interest, whether music, movies, books, documents, friends, magazines, accounts, bookmarks, travel plans, are unified by their connection to you and independent of the device with which you access them. Your location is not relevant to what you can do with them. The focus becomes less on the device you’re using and more on you and the task you’re doing. You live with all of your data, full-time. Constant access, for instant reference.

I think that’s what iCloud, the cloud that moves with you, will be all about.

June 3, 2011

Ohio Woman Has Had Same Bank Account For 98 Years

The Consumerist:

"According to the AP, the branch manager of the Huntington National Bank where that ancient account is held learned about its history when one of the customer's friends mentioned to him that the woman had been using the account for 98 years."

Click through for the full story. It's a short piece. Kind of heart-warming, actually.

∴ Just Say NO to Groupon's IPO

Short logic:

“What’s so frustrating is that on paper, Groupon appears to be one of the best business ideas in the world. You convince small merchants to give extreme discounts to get access to more customers, and you get to keep half of the revenue yourself. No need for warehouses, distribution, or inventory. Add a recession-battered, coupon-hungry public and presto, the gold faucet is flowing!

If only. The S-1 tells us the reality is far from that ideal. Groupon had to spend $208M on marketing in the first quarter and another $178M on sales people and the rest.”

(Via DF.)

Groupon turned down (Chicago Tribune) an over $5 billion purchase offer from Google late last year, hoovered up more VC money (Venture Beat) since then (the Short Logic piece has those numbers), and now they want to sell themselves to the public for around $750 million. Good luck with that.

(A short disclaimer: my wife and I own a small business, which she has operated full-time for over six years. We have an intimate understanding of how business works, and we hate Groupon. Our reasons why are becoming Groupon’s long-term problem.)

As the Short logic piece says, Groupon sounds like a good idea on the surface. Customers get a deal, businesses get more business, Groupon collects a fee for putting the two together. Dig deeper and you’ll find that Groupon is just bad for business, period.

Groupon-participating businesses are forced to discount well below cost in order to set up a deal, and Groupon takes much of what’s left. So the business will operate at a significant loss for the duration of the deal. The rush of Groupon customers on deal-days means more employees are needed, adding to expenses. The bottom line goes further negative. But at least they’re getting new customers, right? Wrong. Groupon customers share one unifying trait: they’re cheap. Shopping with Groupon is an exercise of that cheapness. They will (by and large) not become return customers after getting their big deal-of-the-day. The merchant is left wondering what hit her.

How long will it be before merchant disillusionment begins to make it more expensive for Groupon to find new victims? I think we’re already seeing it happen. The cost to acquire new merchant customers should be going down for Groupon, given how widely they’re known among consumers. It isn’t (David Sinsky for Yipit). That Yipit analysis is particularly damning, backing up my two points with charted data.

My take: Groupon’s IPO is an act of desperation. The founders should have taken Google’s money and run, and now they know it. The financial numbers are telling the tale, and initial VC funders and company founders are eager for an exit. How lucky for them that inept investors are salivating at opportunities to invest in anything with the words “internet” and “social” in the prospectus. A fool and his money…

This company is going to implode in the next twelve to eighteen months.

Anyone want to buy into that?

UPDATE: validation. This article appeared on Hacker News shortly after my post. Note the word implode in paragraph 13.

The author gives a good overview of why Groupon is unsustainable, too. You don't get something for nothing. Take a big piece out of the retailer's income and someone is going to suffer. Even when that retailer is Wal-Mart.

Cooking With Bond

msnbc.com:

"British spies hacked into an al Qaeda website to replace instructions on how to build a bomb with recipes for making cupcakes, newspapers reported on Friday."

Yum.

June 2, 2011

Apple Signs Universal Music to iCloud Service

CNET:

Apple has cut a licensing deal with Universal Music Group that will enable Apple's online music store to offer songs from the largest of the four top record companies, sources with knowledge of the talks told CNET.

What slays me is the notion that four labels represent the totality of recorded music in North America. What about the independents?