‘aka Syscrusher’ Category Archive


When I became old, in one chart

Whatever happened to my rock and roll?

I turn 33⅓ today, and while I’m not spinning any LPs, it does seem like a good day to get into this little self-analysis.

I’m not just a quantitative researcher; I am dispositionally quantitative. I think in terms of numbers about just about anything for which that makes sense. I also love music. So naturally, my iTunes library is loaded with song ratings, which I’ve used to do a little investigation of my trends in finding new, much-loved records.

Concurrent to this, I’ve read somewhere or other that the music you love at 24 is what you stick with for the rest of your life. So let’s see what we’ve got here. I started really paying attention to music in 1991, the year I turned 12. The chart to the right shows the trends in overall rating of my favorite album from each of the last 21 years, as well as my #5, #10 and #15 (I haven’t got ratings for 10 from 1991 or 1992). What we see is that my teenage years generally have higher ceilings than my 20s, but that the mid-range stuff stays fairly steady until a sudden and horrible drop-off the year I turned 29. Now that I’m a third of the way through my 30s, things are just continuing to decline.

What got me thinking about this was a quote from a recent Neil Young interview: “Piracy is the new radio.” The ability to be exposed to exponentially more music than I was ever exposed to via commercial radio and MTV has expanded my taste and introduced me to superb bands I would’ve otherwise never known. It even works going back in time — Audiogalaxy’s recommendations led me to Burning Airlines, which led me to J. Robbins’ previous band, Jawbox (piracy also takes over some of the function of used record stores because of this).

At the same time, it’s a lot harder to focus on any of this new stuff. Unless it’s incredibly awesome, a new song or album has a tough time catching enough of my attention to get repeated plays and become a new favorite. This is true of new stuff from old artists, too, which makes me think a lot of it is that I’m old and set in my ways. But who knows? This new environment could privilege breadth of exposure at the expense of depth.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 8:43, October 29 || View Comments


Her likes are real, but she is not

OMG cant wait 2 have sum Kraft Anything Dressing & Welch's Fruit Snacks 4 dinner lol

Facebook’s business model, like that of Amazon, Google and myriad other network-driven companies, depends to a great extent on having good predictive algorithms for what their users will respond positively towards. Amazon uses characteristics about you and your past purchases to show you things that maybe you’ll want to buy; Google and Facebook want to show you ads that will be relevant and effective.

But with Facebook, it’s not just ads; they also use algorithms to determine what things you might want to like, what events you might be interested in, and which people you might already know. Generally, when those people come up for me, they’re people who have some connection to my family, school and work networks — I may know this person, and Facebook tells me we’ve got 12 mutual friends. Occasionally, though, I get people that I have no clear connection to, and sometimes I’ll click through to see if it’s someone I’m connected to locally or through some group.

Today I got the one seen in the screenshot to the right (names and images obscured). Who is this? It’s a young lady who apparently graduated from Lyndon High School in Lyndon, KS, in 2010; she has three Facebook friends. She has an extremely common last name, which is shared by two of her friends. Two of her friends are also part of the Lyndon High School network. Now that seems weird. Needless to say, I don’t know her. I’ve spent a total of about nine hours in the state of Kansas, and none of it in Lyndon, which is about 30 miles due south of Topeka.

But check out the things she likes: PetSmart, Honey Bunches of Oats, Seattle’s Best Coffee, etc. Everything she likes is a retail store or a consumer product in the food and beauty sectors. How many 20-year-olds do you know that have three Facebook friends and like Snausages? So I’m pretty sure this is a bot, designed to get slow-witted, 30-something men to check out how Country Time Lemonade can bring a little excitement to their lives. This is a pretty interesting tactic if that’s what it is, but you’d think a cross-promotion with a record label and a TV network would make the thing look a lot more realistic.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 16:52, September 10 || View Comments


How is TV formed?

Of the pre-release excerpts from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the one that intrigued me the most was the one that related Jobs having “finally cracked” the next-generation television set. It was tightly related to the then-upcoming iCloud, but this bit of narration seems like the money quote: “No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels.”

Now rumors are rampant that Apple will soon unveil its TV, most recently suggesting it will come in three sizes (32″ at the low end, 55″ at the high end) and that the next iMac will bridge the gap by offering TV functionality. Key to all the rumors is the clear notion that Apple’s television set, unlike the extant Apple TV, will be an all-in-one set, not a set-top box. Jobs seemed pretty set in his belief that a set-top box wouldn’t work, even though one could do all the functionality he envisioned, and that Apple already sells a set-top box.

For a couple reasons, I’m not sure what to make of this. First, most households already have at least a couple of set-top boxes — the cable/satellite receiver and a video game console, which doubles as a media player. My living room has three set-top boxes (a DirecTV receiver, a PlayStation 3 and a Wii), and that’s not counting the VGA cable that sometimes connects my laptop to the TV. The second issue follows directly from this separation of functionality — I need to be able to update or replace my TV distinctly from my set-top boxes, or the entire enterprise becomes cost-prohibitive. The all-in-one model that was attractive to computer consumers who flocked to the iMac shouldn’t look nearly as viable in a market a) full of people who are already comfortable plugging cables into their TVs, and b) lacking in big educational customers who want all-in-one devices for ease of maintenance.

At the same time, Jobs was also thinking about interface complexity — getting rid of all your complicated remotes. Part of this is about getting Siri on your TV and using voice commands to control everything, but I’m pretty skeptical that most TV consumers will want to do that. Imagine that you just want to channel-surf on a Saturday afternoon; do you want to keep saying, “next channel,” until you find something worth stopping for? Or you’re flipping through several football games to follow your fantasy team; is repeatedly calling out channel numbers an attractive control scheme?

Of course, none of this takes content availability into account. I really wonder whether the success Jobs had manhandling the big record labels left him overconfident in his ability to bend TV and movie studios to his will. The reason why most people have multiple set-top boxes is that they want access to multiple, exclusive content libraries. I want a broad selection of channels, including premium channels, to be available to me live; I need a cable or satellite receiver. I want to play Little Big Planet; I need a PlayStation 3. I want to play Super Mario Galaxy; I need a Wii. For other things I have other choices — if I want to play Blu-rays or watch Netflix, I can use my PS3 rather than add another device — but even the hyper-converged, iCloud-driven Apple TV isn’t going to get rid of the basic functionality of my existing equipment. So I’m still left wondering — unlike with the iPod, iPhone or iPad, but much like the current Apple TV — what the point of this device is. Voice commands and better user interfaces can be added to any existing box, and streaming video will be a central component of every TV device that’s ever designed from here on out. What benefit do I get from buying a TV that’s hardwired into that content control functionality?

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 15:50, December 9 || View Comments


Crazy different

I don’t really have anything of value to add to all the commentary on the death of Steve Jobs, other than to note that I don’t think its volume can be attributed solely to the fact that everyone knew it was coming. Though his revolutionary work lasted three and a half decades, he really became a titanic figure in the last 15 or so years. Calling him the 21st century’s Edison is probably not overselling his impact and stature.

My first computer was an Apple //c like the one seen here. Remember the closed Apple key? Good times. Photo by Mike Maginnis.

What struck me reading the MetaFilter obituary thread was how many people’s experience mirrored mine — starting with a classroom Apple ][ Plus running BASIC, secretly coveting your friend’s IIgs, eventually moving into the more open design and development world of the early Macs — and how many didn’t. There was something really communal in reading people describe the same path, but starting with an iMac G3 and ending with a MacBook Pro and an iPad. As tough as it is to measure the impact of Apple (and Pixar, let’s not forget) on society in general, it may be even tougher to figure at the individual level. There are whole industries full of people whose lives have been altered by Jobs and his determination to pursue the path as he saw it.

And it probably won’t get much press this week, but Jobs credits that vision to his 70s-era use of LSD and other psychedelics, which he called “one of the two or three most important things” he had done. In a very real way, the revolutionary promise of the counterculture was finally brought to bear by Jobs and his unusual and uncanny ability to understand how people relate through information. It’s no accident that Jobs referred to the original Mac as “insanely great” or that the first ad campaign after his return to Apple was the “Think Different” series, featuring a monologue beginning, “Here’s to the crazy ones.” His legacy is one of having the foresight to understand what most of us could only grasp looking back, and of having his contemporaries perched on his rear-view mirror, desperate to figure it out for themselves.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 16:03, October 6 || View Comments


I’m gonna cuss on the mic tonight

The declining relevance of physical media for audio has led to a declining relevance of printed parental advisory labels:

Parental warning logos are set to be introduced before songs and music videos on services such as Spotify and YouTube that contain explicit material, following recent concern about the amount of risqué music content too easily available to children online.

Music industry body BPI is to update its 15-year-old Parental Advisory Scheme – which is responsible for the well-known warning symbol appearing on CDs, DVDs and records with strong language, sex or violence – to “bring up to date what happens on the high street to the digital age”.

It’s an interesting attempt, but of course the thing they can’t replicate is the one thing that makes the sticker most useful (to the extent that it is) — the parent as physical intermediary in the consumption of media. A label that can be seen while the parent is making the purchase on the child’s behalf, or that the parent might notice when seeing a surreptitiously purchased CD sitting on the kid’s bookshelf, is much more noticeable than a warning that plays before a streamed song or an icon that appears next to a download button. If parents aren’t physical intermediaries anymore, solutions based on physical sensations (sights and sounds) aren’t going to work. I’m a little surprised they’re not jumping straight to a technological solution, like the parental access codes that are commonplace on TV receivers.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 10:16, June 6 || View Comments


Assumed technological innovation in the free-marketeer worldview

Following up a bit on the last post, it occurs to me that the idea of “perfect information,” which looms so large in the free market model, is something that we’re actually very close to in the age of information digitization. Specifically, bar codes and hand-held scanners should conceivably allow distributors and merchants to monitor not only minute-to-minute inventory, but also purchasing patterns over time. If a situation like the one that raised my ire yesterday were to occur, this technology could easily be used to alert the store to ask the distributor for more of Product X, or to alert the distributor to just show up with more next time. This would be a valuable system, at least at some scale, because every time this particular inefficiency happens, somebody is losing $4-5. In a competitive market, it’s to Coca-Cola’s benefit to keep me from going my next preferred parity product, sold by PepsiCo, and it’s also to Grocer X’s benefit to keep me from checking the shelves at Grocer Y.

But clearly if such a system exists in the world of retail sales, it’s not being employed by either of these two grocery chains. And it strikes me that part of my annoyance here is that I know the technology exists (both because I’m a technologist by trade and because versions of it are featured in ads from IBM, UPS and others) and I reflexively expect it to be in use. I wonder how much this view exists out there in general, and specifically among strong free market theorist-proponents — I’m thinking specifically about the Reason-types who are happy to argue for free markets based on abstraction and theory. The market and the information here and qualitatively different than those that are found in high finance, insurance and exchanges, to be sure, but the principle of efficiently organizing and providing relevant information is the same.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 22:24, April 23 || View Comments


I agree with that extremely smart, good-looking previous commenter

Apparently creating corporate-friendly sockpuppets is now Big Business:

After I last wrote about online astroturfing, in December, I was contacted by a whistleblower. He was part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them. Like the other members of the team, he posed as a disinterested member of the public. Or, to be more accurate, as a crowd of disinterested members of the public: he used 70 personas, both to avoid detection and to create the impression that there was widespread support for his pro-corporate arguments. I’ll reveal more about what he told me when I’ve finished the investigation I’m working on.

But it now seems that these operations are more widespread, more sophisticated and more automated than most of us had guessed. Emails obtained by political hackers from a US cyber-security firm called HB Gary Federal suggest that a remarkable technological armoury is being deployed to drown out the voices of real people.

The piece goes on to describe the process by which “persona management” companies provide “pre-aged” fake personae, which have built-in histories of social media use, various profiles and accounts, etc. Apparently the Air Force has just signed a big contract for these types of sophisticated sockpuppets, which is seems have “the potential to destroy the internet as a forum for constructive debate.” Really? I kind of can’t imagine that anyone of note takes newspaper site comments that seriously. If the past several years have taught us anything, it’s that online discourse is a powerful tool for political organization, but probably not much in the way of a discursive public sphere. Has there ever been an instance of public policy deriving from the balance of blog posts favoring one side or another? Of sentiment analysis driving legislation? No matter how many sockpuppets elite organizations deploy — even if that number were zero — we have better ways of measuring public opinion than looking at what people are saying online. And if our concern is providing a productive environment for learning about policy issues, well, online discussion already doesn’t do that.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 22:51, February 23 || View Comments


The black box of Facebook

Facebook’s latest innovation is its new Lightbox-esque picture viewer, a very slight change in comparison with the recent big profile changes. Some are predictably annoyed by this change, but it’s an interesting illustration of the inability of any large web organization to ever let well enough alone. Unlike other media, the web is in a constant state of flux. People inside Facebook would probably tell you that this is part of an effort to capitalize on the intense user interest in using the site as a Flickr/Picasa/Imagebucket alternative. But really, those are pretty diverse services serving diverse markets and needs. Instead, I suggest the following is at play.

First, Facebook, the site itself, is a fairly complicated thing. Together with the databases that power it, understanding the site is a big undertaking, and one that requires a decent-size permanent staff of coders. And even if it weren’t that complex, it’s the kind of thing you probably wouldn’t want a bunch of freelancers coming and going on anyway. So you’ve got all these in-house hackers, occasionally doing something big and visible like the new profile, and often doing lower-visibility things like optimizing site speed, developing new ad opportunities, etc. But some of these folks are interface specialists. They just did the new profile. Do you suppose Facebook wants to pay them to sit on their thumbs until it’s determined that the user base is ready to tolerate another significant interface change? Probably not. They need to be working on and changing something in order to justify their salaries. And that’s fine, because a) users have consistently shown that their initial annoyance will subside without any significant number of account deletions, and b) some seemingly minor interface changes that are hated at first become major deals later on (e.g., the news feed). If this really is just about Flickr, well, Flickr is constantly updating, too. So is Google and everybody else. And before you know it, the market has produced a non-stop interface churn.

(And yes, after more than a month, this is what gets me back to posting.)

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 23:56, February 19 || View Comments


Too many easy puns for this one

Apparently you really can’t go home again — new revisions of the iPad and iPhone are due to lose the home button:

We have exclusively been told that the reason Apple just added multitouch gestures for the iPad in the latest iOS 4.3 beta is because the iPad will be losing the home button. Yes, we are told that Apple, at some point in time, will remove the home button from the iPad’s design. Instead of button taps, you will use new multitouch gestures to navigate to the home screen and also to launch the app switcher.

Apple have made major physical interface changes before — I’m thinking specifically of the introduction of the touch wheel on the classic iPod — but this one strikes me as a particularly bad idea. Multi-touch gestures can be incredibly useful, to be sure; there’s enough potential there to create an entire physical language for human-computer interaction. But like a language, they’re not at all intuitive. As I’ve noted previously, intuitive usability is not just a tremendous advantage for the iPad and its potentially non-techie users, it’s something that Apple has explicitly used as a selling point. Adding multi-touch adds functionality, but adding multi-touch while removing the home button may just add unnecessary complexity.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 11:53, January 17 || View Comments


Fractal copyright

Perfect 10, the porn site that’s been waging a copyright-based war on Google’s ability to cache, excerpt and thumbnail Internet content, is taking a novel approach:

The copyright-infringement allegations are part of Perfect 10’s ongoing lawsuit against Google, a suit with a tortured procedural history. In 2007, a federal appeals court rendered a far-reaching decision, saying search engines like Google were not infringing copyrights by displaying thumbnails and hyperlinking to Perfect 10’s perfect babes.

Fast forward to today.

Part of the case, originally filed in 2005, is back before the San Francisco-based appeals court. Among other things, Perfect 10 alleges Google’s forwarding of Perfect 10’s takedown notices to the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse website constitutes copyright infringement.

Yes, Perfect 10 are claiming that the takedown notices they send out under the auspices of the DMCA can’t be published or redistributed because they’re copyrighted. Say what you will about the potential for overreach by IP owners, that’s kind of hilarious. Presumably if Wikileaks ever comes through with their rumored archive of Bank of America documents, BoA’s first move will be copyright-driven.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 9:35, December 27 || View Comments