Were we wrong about Mass Effect? That’s not really the point. Personally, I think it was a better game than the reviewer said it was, but then again we almost always disagreed internally about the games we reviewed. Netjak always inhabited that quasi-professional level, where we weren’t getting paid to write about video games, but we all approached it with solemnity approaching the sepulchral. So, how exactly should we have been approached?
In his book “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”, Cory Doctorow introduced the concept of whuffie: a quantitization of personal reputation that had replaced money as the way to gain non-essential luxuries (basics were freely available). People who did good things, like composed symphonies or let people ahead of them in line, gained whuffie, while people who did bad things, like cutting people off in traffic, lost it. It is instantaneous and mostly subconscious due to constant neural connections to an/the internet. In short, it puts a number on positive attention, while penalizing negative attention. While it sounds like the ultimate in egalitarianism, it sits poorly with me as something that should ever be implemented, even in the internet, simply because it’s instantaneous. Someone who just made a bad mistake will have a low whuffie score due to the snap-judgments of those around them drowning out or undoing the good they’ve done in the past.
If you try, but fail, you may have gained experience, but you have still failed. In private, the only one who ever sees it is you, and thus it’s easier to take. The problem is when your failures are public: if someone sees you fail, no matter how close you came, the memory of that failure is still there. On some level the witness will always have that knowledge about you, and there’s a good chance that it will in some way color their perceptions about you. When the failures are ephemeral– like bumping into a glass storefront because you thought it was an open door– the effect is minimal. When the failures are permanent and/or replayable– like a Youtube video of that very same collision– the effect is compounded.
With blogs and the internet, the temptation is to take everything as being instantaneous. Something posted years or decades ago is just as accessible as something posted right now, and whether or not it’s just as relevant today is, ironically, irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how long ago you posted that topless picture, or if it’s just one ill-conceived moment among thirty thousand exquisite photographs; it’s there forever and it’s all that matters. There is no statute of limitations on the internet.
It should, of course, go without saying that I think that’s a load of absolute bullshit. For my part, I try very hard not to let one mistake in the past color my perceptions of any site, professional or personal. The big names are capable of cranking out stinkers once in a while. But the little guys who don’t get any attention sometimes have the biggest ideas. The internet was supposed to let everyone’s voice be heard.
So remind me why we’re ignoring some of them, just because everyone else is?
The question then becomes one of effort and consistency. If 99% of the posts on a blog are filler (cough), does that automatically condemn the 1% of the posts that have genuinely good and interesting content? More important to the point at hand, does that 1% of posts command the blog’s readership attention for the uninteresting 99%? If it’s not a 1%/99% ratio, where exactly do you draw the line? How do you judge a site’s real worth?
The “fun” thing about all of this comes when you realize that some of the internet intelligentsia happen to have some rather cruel streaks in them as well (and I most certainly include myself in that categorization from time to time). The egalitarian nature of the internet just doesn’t sit well with some folk, and that gives rise to sites such as “Web Pages That Suck” and “Your Webcomic Is Bad And You Should Feel Bad”. This is to say nothing of the legions of commenters and forum-goers who pooh-pooh anything that isn’t a work of magnificent perfection.
Now, far be it from me to say that criticism isn’t warranted or desperately deserved in some cases– and I’l be the first to own up to the many, many mistakes I’ve made in the past. But as I’ve always said, honest and constructive criticism will always beat just plain ol’ criticism. For everything that’s wrong, there should at least be something that was done right. This isn’t always the case, obviously, but the cases where it doesn’t hold true are so astonishingly rare as to be worthy of the ire and bile that are heaped upon– well, more or less everything.
It gets worse when you start trying to quantitatively and objectively assess the quality of something based on a relatively incidental number. Back when Netjak was still around– which was itself a remarkable example of a professional blog– we raised our fair share of hackles with certain of our reviews. The biggest offender here was with Mass Effect, which didn’t get the glowing praise from the reviewer that the rest of the gaming press was lauding onto the game. This prompted an individual to sign up for our forums (which we used in place of a comments system) and berate us for not falling in line. The individual went so far as to suggest that our small userbase on the forums (because we’d just gone through a dormancy period due to technical failures) as well as the low number of threads and posts (because it was set to auto-purge posts older than a certain threshold) “did not give [us] the right” to our opinion of the game. Nevermind that Joystiq had linked to us repeatedly; we were small, therefore we didn’t count.
Last week, Pez mentioned (via Twitter) that he was in the bad habit of disregarding blog posts that don’t have comments. His argument– and it’s not an unfounded one, but I’ll get into that later– was that if nobody had bothered to respond to it, it wasn’t worth his time to read. He himself admitted that it’s a flawed reason to not read something, and when I made the snarky self-deprecating remark that “nobody must read my blog, then, if there’s no comments”, it was mostly as a joke. But then, I got to thinking about why he’d have that policy about feedback uber alles, and why its scarcity somehow indicates a lack of quality.
My introduction to the social internet was, as I’ve said often, Usenet. That was nothing but feedback. It’s post upon post upon post, each one building off the rest, and a community emerging from nothing– not even a structure more concrete than “post about this here, and that there”, and even that was fluid to some degree. Occasionally one post or another would become a foundation for more discussion, either by virtue of its own content or by containing a reference or link to something else, like a World Wide Web page. It would be the “big topic” for a while, and then fade away as the next one came to the table.
A good friend of mine, who I met during our shared time in Usenet, dislikes the idea of blogging in general. He feels it to be narcissistic and unnecessary, as the vast majority of them are people just endlessly talking about themselves into the void to make themselves feel important. I, of course, can’t argue with that, considering the fantastic amounts of pure crap that I put out here, but as the past month or so seems to have shown I’m working on fixing that. But what I think that friend is missing is the rather important distinction between a personal blog and a professional blog, and a rather frightening blurring of the lines between hobbyists and professionals.
The coming of the World Wide Web made everybody rock stars, and elevated all content to the same plateau. Suddenly, personal blogs, not necessarily intended for widespread consumption, are being presented and styled as if they are. Structurally, there’s nothing different between my site and say, Joystiq, aside from the content and the tools used to produce them. Where it all breaks down is in content: Joystiq has it and I, to be quite frank about it, don’t. At least, I don’t regularly have any content nearly as compelling as Joystiq’s constant feed of gaming news. And that’s where things start to get hairy.
Last week, Macworld’s Jason Snell argued against iTunes’ continued existence as a monolithic, do-everything application, and for the implementation of its features as a suite of interconnected applications. He’s right, of course, and Apple knows he’s right. But it’s still not going to happen.
Some background is in order here. iTunes, as an application, was first introduced in January of 2001, for Mac OS 9. The 1.0 version didn’t support the iPod, mostly because that wouldn’t be introduced until October of that year (alongside 2.0). It was a somewhat lackluster media player, and it wouldn’t come into prominence as the main iPod “driver” software until the 2.0 version was released. The Windows version wouldn’t be out until 2003.
Flash forward to today, where it runs on Windows and OS X, and it’s still a lackluster media player, with godawful playlist support and worthless organization and randomization tools. It also has a metric assload of useless crap bolted onto it, including videos, podcasts, Cover Flow, the mobile App Store, books, and Ping. I honestly couldn’t tell you who gives two flying farts about Ping; no Mac user I’ve ever talked to does. And Cover Flow is pointless when the vast majority of a user’s library isn’t sourced from the iTunes Store. iTunes does everything, and everything it does, it does abysmally. I vehemently hate iTunes.
Apple doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot of fondness for iTunes as an application, either. When the Mac App Store debuted, it was its own application. On iOS devices, the individual functions that iTunes serves on those platforms are split out into individual apps (“Music”, “Videos”, “App Store”, “iTunes”– actually the music store, and “iBooks”). The trend has progressed on newer devices for secession out from a monolithic app. Meanwhile, the very next day, rumors arose that iTunes 11 would include a dedicated “iCloud” panel of some sort, in an astonishingly backwards move.
Unfortunately, there’s a very good reason Apple simply can’t break up the iTunes racket, and it’s one that got forced on them as the iPod took off in popularity: Windows. When an average user buys an iPod or an iPhone, they’re not going to want to have to install a dozen different applications just to get the thing to work. Apple recognizes this and has made overtures towards steering users away from iTunes; iOS 5 allows you to buy an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch and get it going without it ever being connected to a traditional computer.
At the same time, though, iTunes remains the single point of entry for non-Apple-distributed music to get on your device, even with its iTunes Match service. Many genuinely useful apps like ProPlayer or Avid Studio are hamstrung by iTunes’ de facto gatekeeper role for files. On Windows, it’s a crash-prone piece of bloatware that I wouldn’t install even at gunpoint. Probably worst of all, though, it’s just old technology, and I would be honestly shocked if the internal code libraries that iTunes is built on haven’t been completely obsolesced; Apple can and has done much better in the intervening ten years.
I still think that iOS and the devices running it are good, and the fact of the matter is, I bet I’d have the same problem syncing stuff to an Android device, just backwards (as I’ll bet there aren’t many reliable Mac clients for those). But honestly, some of the sheen is starting to wear off of iTunes. It’s time to put the old dog down and work with our new technologies in new ways.
Over the last few years or so, I’ve come to rely on my smartphone for a great deal of my ability to stay connected, both socially and technologically. I’ve had it since 2008, and it wouldn’t be until ’09 that I really started to notice how much I was seemingly dependent on it; the few times that I did leave it home accidentally, I felt detached and uneasy. This isn’t anything new, really; the tethering to a device feeling really started when I first got a cell phone of my own in the first place.
The Shutdown Days experiment at the beginning of the month helped to ground me back in reality, and I’m doing more to try to leave the phone in the car or tucked away in my bag when I don’t need or want to be disturbed by it. It’s easy, however, to see the constant connectivity as a bad thing: I’m at the beck and call of a device no bigger than a deck of cards. It’s not the case– not really, anyway. I can see how it would be taken to an unhealthy extreme, and I’m doing what I can, within reason, to curb that tendency.
Still, it’s not for nothing that these technologies were developed, and I dare say that they have even helped to make me more productive. Between the smartphone and the tablet, I’m able to turn unproductive cycles– like waiting for an order at a restaurant, or sitting in a theater before the lights dim– into opportunities for either accomplishing something or reducing stress. These are devices whose purpose is to do anything, everywhere, with every amount of time. It’s foolish not to use them for those purposes.
That said, there is something rather wonderful to be said for leaving the phone in the car and simply waiting for my food, calmly drinking in the atmosphere of the place. We cannot constantly be doing many things. Every once in a while, it helps to simply do one thing, and put your whole being into doing that thing.
Thoughts on the weekend past are coming on Thursday, as per what is becoming my usual idiom.
Nowadays, nobody even uses the term “home page”; the idea itself is outmoded as browsers offer bookmark syncing capabilities and browsing session restoration. There are huge services dedicated to keeping your bookmarks completely accessible, thus obviating the need for you to learn HTML and have hosting space set up. Personal hosting sites are vanishingly rare since the collapse of GeoCities, their purposes having been melded into social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter; their most common use case even at the end– a weblog– is now handled far more elegantly by services like WordPress and Blogger.
I maintained a links page on my old site for just shy of about nine years now; it went live at 7p on Thursday, April 24th, 2003. At some point this month– likely by the time you read this– that will have ended, as I’m migrating my bookmark list to iCloud. The Links page on the old TFO.net site, which remained an open-secret since the 2009 move to this domain, will be deleted, as it doesn’t serve any purpose anymore and is prohibitively difficult to maintain. I’ll talk a little bit tomorrow on why that is.
Important Service Note: In many cases, the links provided in Link Wednesday posts are referrals; by using them you provide a benefit to John, which will be disclosed for each service or product advocated during Link Wednesday. In this specific instance, using the referral link to sign up increases John’s storage space as well as your own. A “clean” URL is obtainable by hovering over the link.
We live in an increasingly decentralized society. Talk of “the cloud” permeates a lot of technology these days, and the increasing size of our data files means that devices which seemed roomy and unfillable a few years or even months ago now feel cramped and restrictive. Take my own portable-computing dilemma, for example: I have an iPhone with 32GB of space and an iPad with 16GB. As I’ve worked with both devices, I’ve found that I really need the inverse– I want more space on the tablet and need less space on the phone. In some cases, this is because I want the same files on both devices but don’t want the hassle of constantly syncing them.
Dropbox is a way around that, and one that I’ve been using for about two years now. It’s one of the oldest and most well-respected “cloud” file services in business, and it’s also one of the most economical. The free service offers you 2GB of online space that can be synced to a mobile device (iOS or Android) or a desktop computer (Windows, Mac OSX, or Linux). Paid services bump that up to 50GB or 100GB depending on your outlay, and referrals allow you to expand your capacity– if you refer someone, you get 1GB added on permanently, while the person who you referred gets half that. This even works for free accounts.
On desktops, the process is completely transparent– Dropbox sets up a folder that’s automatically synced to its servers as long as you’re online. Mobile usage is where it really shines, though, and this is due in no small part to the fact that mobile devices are becoming far more robust. I can only speak to the iOS client, but even that has strong integration to other apps such as the Elements text editor. Recent additions allow the app to accept files for upload, making it a great tool for collecting content on the go. Moreover, you can use your Dropbox account to share large files with friends (though certainly I would use some restraint in doing this for certain types of files).
Overall, I like it quite a bit over Apple’s iCloud service; even though iCloud support is “baked into” iOS and a number of apps are starting to embrace it, Dropbox is still a better deal in terms of flexibility and expandability. It might not replace having a USB stick on hand at all times– many workplaces clamp down on its use due to security reasons– but it’s still worth free.
It occurred to me while I was looking up something for work that a lot of the geniuses that brought to life the vast majority of the technologies we now use on a daily basis without even a second thought– and I’m talking about the real geniuses, the Cerfs, the Bradners, the Bellovins and the Berners-Lees– those guys are getting old. You’d never know it unless you looked for them and found that these guys, who’ve given so much to the world– who have fundamentally changed the world– now resemble Gandalf.
I suppose it fits, honestly. But there’s still something sad about it.
Today is January 18th, 2012. You may have noticed a few of your standard sites not providing normal service today. I won’t remove my content, but I do need to address the topic that’s presented this situation.
In November of 2011, the United States Congress introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. The goal of the act is, of course, benign on the surface: it is meant to curtail the violation of copyright that occurs on an almost routine basis on the internet. However, the act’s broadly-worded authorities and overtly punitive enforcement measures create the single most tyrannical threat to the protections conferred by the US Constitution’s First Amendment since the day the Constitution was ratified.
To sum up: SOPA would place the responsibility for copyright enforcement on the internet service providers (ISPs) who serve that content to their users. A copyright holder, upon receiving knowledge of infringing material being made available, need only contact the ISP or site administration to have the offending site “black-holed”, or simply cut off from the internet. If the server exists outside the United States, however, ISPs would be required to block access to the site by users within the United States. ISPs will be legally bound to comply immediately and without question. There is no due process involved, no fact-checking, no assurance of fair use rights, no recourse for blacklisted service providers, and no consequences for erroneous blocking.
The fact of the matter is, even if we disregard that the internet is a global resource, this places a tool for restriction of speech that has the force of law behind it in the hands of a non-governmental agent, specifically content producers. Let me restate that: it gives the power of the law to a private entity with zero accountability.
I’m sure this would never be used for nefarious purposes!
It’s not a difficult stretch to see the law being perverted to the complete elimination of freedom of expression rights. Not many people know this, but the speech that practically defined Martin Luther King, Jr.’s career– the “I Have A Dream” speech– is under copyright in the United States until 2038. Under SOPA, an executor of Dr. King’s estate would have the power to erase from the internet any site that bore any significant portion of the speech. Lest you think that this is an unlikely occurrance, recall that under the current US copyright laws– even without SOPA– an entity must actively engage in protecting its copyrights, or else risk losing them and having the work pass into the public domain. Currently, that would mean sending a DMCA takedown notice to the company hosting the offending material; a process that, despite having its own flaws, at least has measures to dispute or bring to legal attention the case. Under SOPA, no matter how well-intentioned that executor might be, he would have no choice but to start wiping websites off the map, regardless of the good intentions of those taking inspiration from Dr. King’s words.
The nightmare scenario, however, is far more chilling. The bill as written could be interpreted to allow content producers to deliver legally-binding takedown notices without judicial oversight. Now, ideally, the content producers would utilize this power to act against all infringements equally; but in practice, applying the oft-stated phrasing of Murphy’s Law that claims “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”, the content producer might be disinclined to press its charges against infringements that show its product in a positive light, and may crack down hard on negative or dissenting opinions of the product. This selective enforcement is tantamount to censorship; imagine a world where nobody could have said, for example, that William Hung was a bad singer. (I’m reaching for an example, here, because I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes for the sake of making a point; also, while I respect him for trying, dude just can’t sing.)
I don’t begrudge content producers the right to protect their work. It would be awfully damn hypocritical of me to do so, as I am a content producer. However, that does not imply that content producers have the right to circumvent the law. Nor does it mean that content producers are no longer subject to the same mechanics of the free market that tangible-goods industries are.
Peter David has voiced a rather interesting opinion on SOPA. Mr. David, who is a well-known and respected science fiction and comics writer, concurred with the general opinion that SOPA’s enforcement language is overbroad and damaging to the health of information freedoms. However, he also claims that the responsibility lies with the public, who both generates the unauthorized copies and consumes them. Without the ravenous demand for pirated works, Mr. David claims, SOPA would be unnecessary.
I certainly respect Mr. David’s opinion, and I agree that there is a significant market for low- or zero-cost works. I must, however, respectfully refute his implication that SOPA, or an act like it, is the only reasonable response to the upsurge in copyright violations. There is an alternative, rooted in the most classic tenet of capitalism: if there is demand, supply that demand.
In 1999, many a person became familiar for the first time with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The organization came to public attention when, in response to the overwhelming success of fledgling filesharing tool Napster, it began filing lawsuits against individuals it believed were the biggest providers of unauthorized copies of music under its oversight. The stories are, by now, legendary: computer-illiterate grandmothers being sued for tens of thousands of dollars in damages; universities taking pro- and anti-filesharing stances; and a myriad of filesharing tools being produced in the meantime, including the now-ubiquitous BitTorrent protocol. The RIAA was also firing back, trying to stem the tide of unauthorized copies displacing sales, but very few of its efforts were successful.
Shortly thereafter, in 2003, Apple introduced the iTunes Music Store, which laid out an ambitious plan: each track would cost 99 cents, and would be (legally) free-and-clear. (We’ll set aside the issue of DRM and lock-in for now, as it is only tangential to the point.) Critics thought that the service would fail, citing the aphorism “Why would you pay for something you could get for free?” Astonishingly, the service caught fire among Mac users, and when it was introduced to Windows users later that year it became even more popular. Rivals such as Amazon and Wal-Mart began offering competing services with lower price points and in some cases differing artist lineups. Soon, downloads were counted for the purposes of “top-40″ charts. Today, iTunes and digital sales are the largest portion of the music industry’s revenues.
The point– and it’s not a socially-outlier one, nor is it incompatible with traditional American values by any stretch of the imagination– is that piracy, be it of music, movies, video games, or otherwise, is a symptom of the supply not meeting the demand entirely. Piracy is undoubtedly a real problem for the entertainment industry, but SOPA and its related bill PIPA is not the solution. History, and very recent history at that, has shown that the solution is not to protect the old business model, but to adapt to changing situations and emerging technologies. The solution is not to tighten the grip on what you have, but to open your palm and let more money in.
In the recent days running up to the protest actions being implemented, many members of Congress and the Executive Branch have issued statements of opposition to the SOPA bill as written. President Obama has himself indicated that he will veto the Act should it somehow cross his desk. The problem is that the bill will not come up for a vote until next week, and that its PIPA counterpart will be in committee until February. That’s plenty of time for people to think that the battle ends today, and for the outrage to subside into apathy. Worse, it’s entirely possible that SOPA/PIPA are Trojan Horses meant to soften resistance to a less-draconian but still irrevocably harmful plan to implement these far-reaching powers, or something like them, without sufficient oversight or recourse. I’ve made calls to my representatives in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and I urge you to do the same.
Piracy is a problem, yes. But tyranny is not the answer.
When it first came to prominence, I said that Blu-Ray was not going to supplant DVD in terms of the average movie viewing experience. I still stand by that, but the truth of the matter is that I have bought a handful of Blu-Ray movies since then, and have in some cases willingly sought them out. I have some very strict criteria for what gets bought on Blu-Ray, though.
1) Nothing older than 2008 will be bought on Blu-Ray unless it’s remastered, out of print otherwise, or offers some benefit over a DVD copy besides picture quality. Anything older than about 2008 probably wasn’t filmed with any kind of HD resolution in mind, and so it’s pointless to waste the money in order to see high-resolution film grain.
2) No TV series will EVER be bought on Blu-Ray. This is so I have the option of ripping the series to my iPhone or iPad and watching it in a mobile environment.
3) The only movies I’ll buy on Blu-Ray are ones where the visual effects are strong enough to necessitate the high quality. So far that’s been Inception, Summer Wars, and the new Star Trek. The Rebuild of Evangelion movies get a pass due to the CG and the fact that they’re the tinkered-with re-release versions and not the theatrical ones.
4) When possible, buy them used. This is just common sense.
The sole exception to the rules has been the ROD boxed set, but even that grudgingly fits Rule 1 because Aniplex decided not to release a DVD version. I only picked it up because I was able to get a decent deal on it, dropping it down to what the individual discs would go for on eBay. But it was still under protest.
I don’t think that the format has legs enough to completely supplant DVD. What I’m seeing more and more stores do, however, is scale back their physical media sections considerably owing to the fact that there are more people streaming stuff online, and owning a disc is seen increasingly as an oddity. Yeah, I do kind of hope that streaming catches on, but I still like the idea of having a physical disc on the very likely chance that contract squabbles take away a movie I want to see just before I want to stream it. Streaming services are too fragmented and volatile right now for me to entrust any of them with my sole desire to watch new movies and so forth. Maybe that’ll change, but I truly doubt it.