Saturday, December 29, 2007

Looking Backwards and Forward

This may end up being my last post of 2007 because I'm going to the Texans game tomorrow and Monday night is my brother's New Year's Eve party so I'm going to be pretty busy. I've already fallen behind in my projects! User authentication without cryptography is killing me. Anyway, I wanted to piggyback on Ars Technica's summary of the past year and predictions for next year, in true end-of-year fashion. They argue that 2007 was the year of open source, online video (and user generated content), casual gaming, RIAA lawsuits, and climate. While I've encountered all those things (though I didn't get sued), I don't think they quite characterize the year, except for the online video one. In my opinion, there were few things to characterize this year. Besides online video there was mp3s gaining more ground (e.g. Amazon Digital Downloads emerged), that little thing called the iPhone, Apple cracking down more on rumor mills, the steep freefall of Vista's popularity, the renewal of World of Warcraft as digital crack, viral marketing (especially via blogs), and 300 (everyone freaking keeps saying that line and it's not funny anymore) among several summer hits (that were actually entertaining). Piracy was a hot button issue, yes, but it has been every year for the past few years. These are scattered things (except for the first two) that didn't really dominate the year but were pretty big deals and hopefully you remember them and can reminisce. If not, you can probably find news on all of those things in my archives.

What about 2008? I'm never that great at predicting the future, I just occasionally get lucky with Apple announcements. I know that for me it will be a huge year because I'm taking the frightening plunge in moving to an entirely new city and starting my first permanent full-time job. In technology as a whole though, Ars Technica bring up the good prediction of the war of the iPods. I definitely see that. I also see a war of iPhone clones upon the horizon though, which they mentioned also. I think OS tensions will rise as people stick to XP, which will remain a magnet for viruses and worms. I think people will finally be able to buy Wiis on-demand, though the Xbox 360 will still hang on and continue to beat the PS3. Of course, the Wii will get very few new games though because it's a Nintendo console. I see PC gaming gaining some increase in popularity. I see the writer's strike ending in some compromise that will ultimately hurt the writers years down the line. I see more television going online and on-demand entertainment gaining a lot of steam. Hell, surveys already show that people like watching shows online and it's helping measure ratings more accurately. And I see piracy getting stronger than ever as the MPAA and RIAA martyr more and more people. Oh, I also think we'll see more solid-state disks and Flash memory used in more places. That's all I've got though! What are your predictions, Nostradamus?

Going back to this year, DVice has a great look at why the iPhone dominated (despite all the pundits who claimed it would fail due to price): they didn't inundate people with choice. There are too many iPods, there are too many crappy phones, and in this modern-age (as I've mentioned before several times) people have to make too many decisions. They get stressed out! It should be easy to pick out and use your phone, and many people are willing to pay crazy amounts of money to reduce the complexity of their lives. That's an important concept, especially in software. Don't tell me about how the iPhone doesn't support Flash or 3G or blah blah blah, the people who are buying it clearly don't care that much. It works and they're happy. Some of them hack, and that's good and well for them. The point is, Apple's strategy worked.

I hate to talk about Apple so much, but I have more interesting news from Cuppertino: they're trying to patent a process where people can add themselves to queues for products when they're on the go. So you could order something from Best Buy when you're heading to the gym, and they'd text you when it's ready so that you could go pick it up right away. Or maybe it could skip long lines at Starbucks while you're on the way there? On the flip side, it could also track your orders: good for businesses, bad for your privacy. Apple doesn't always act on these patents, but this could be interesting, if not scary. The other big news is that the movie studios are realizing that iTunes is here to stay and are ready to talk movie rentals. No information yet, the point is that iTunes is really gaining clout with the studios for them to consider this.

One more tech tidbit: I liked this list of startup tips. It's concise, comprehensive, and interesting. It's worth a skim.

As for movies, just two things. There's a new trailer for Harold and Kumar 2. Maybe it's just because I love the first one, but I really enjoyed that trailer. I'm definitely looking forward to it coming to theaters. The other thing is to look out for these Indiana Jones 4 promotional crates at your local theater:

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Excited About Abrams

I checked out my old movie new haunts after a long break from keeping up with them and came up with more interesting movies than interesting tech news, so let's start with that. J.J. Abrams' current projects have me pretty pumped. First of all, there's Lost. ABC put up the trailer for the new season of Lost, and I think it's pretty cool. I guess that the whole rescue operation gets pretty complicated (I loved the flash forward in the season finale last season). They've been putting some interesting deleted scenes, too. They're interesting and fun to check out, but I haven't yet found anything extremely important. The other cool Abrams project going on right now is Cloverfield, and Yahoo Movies put up a new clip from it (an extension of the teaser trailer). I didn't see the theatrical trailer until now and I like it. I'm pretty sure now that it's not a terrorist attack or an earthquake but actually a monster attack. Its his take on a Godzilla-like movie I guess, but told from a shaky cam. This style of cinematography surely isn't new, but could make for a pretty neat thriller. I don't expect a Blair Witch Project, I expect something that will actually put us in the shoes of genuinely scared people during a slightly more realistic portrayal of an attack on New York City. I'm still more interested in the attack on Gotham City, of course, and this poster will be in my room someday:

Speaking of superheroes though, the Hellboy 2 trailer is pretty sweet, too. Guillermo del Toro is just so awesome at dark fantasy and I was never that interested in the first movie but I like how this one looks so I may have to go ahead and rent Hellboy sometime.

There's more trailers to talk about though. Apple has the trailer for The Signal in HD and it's an interesting horror movie. I like horror movies that don't focus on gore but are more along the lines of a psychological thriller. What's much cooler about it though is that there are 3 directors portraying a signal that tells people to kill and focuses on their fears and such to get them to wreak havoc. I'd say it's a movie to keep an eye on. The other trailer I thought was worthwhile was for Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but only because Kristen Bell is awesome (I wish I bought the Veronica Mars Season 2 DVDs back when it was $15 on Amazon because it's back to $40 now). It's just a romantic comedy about a guy trying to get over his ex, who's a TV star, and it includes Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, and Mila Kunis as well, though I'm still skeptical. I think it could be funny, but I can't justify running out and seeing it until I've seen reviews because the trailer just didn't grab me. Plus, the main actor is the writer (Jason Segel).

Then again, I was wrong to think bad things about Walk Hard because Moriarty is pretty vocal in his recommendation of it. I can tell from his impressions that it'll be hit or miss with most people because of how off the wall and obscure it can be, but color me intrigued.

While I'm on movies, Gizmodo is still pushing DVD as being better than Blu-ray or HD-DVD, and I agree. The DRM, the lack of content, and the price are pretty big deterrents, but there's also the fact that you need a pretty big HD TV to tell the difference and so it's just not worthwhile yet.

Wired has a good list of the top 10 startups worth watching, and I definitely agree on a few of them. It kind of goes without saying that BitTorrent is hot because torrents are so popular. Powerset is a great one because semantic web is such a fascinating field and so I definitely think that there's a bright future in natural language search. Then there's 37Signals, whose Basecamp project management application is well-known among programmers as is Ruby on Rails. You can see the article for more, but those aer just my top 3 from that list.

Remember that whole Fake Steve Jobs being sued thing from last post? Yeah, that was a joke. I guess I'm just stupid for having not seen it coming, but it was just a big satire, though plenty of people commented on his blog and fell for it, so I'm not alone (though the ThinkSecret settlement was real). Also real is the Philips LivingColor Lamp, which is a cool lamp with a wireless remote that allows you to adjust the color settings on this really bright but subtle (and small) lamp. I would totally get that lamp if for nothing else but to help out at theme parties.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Yo Ho Ho, A Pirate's Christmas For Me

I had a couple of noteworthy items on privacy, so I felt like I could stretch the title a bit. The RIAA just gets more and more ridiculous as time progresses, it seems. They decided to distribute their own news segment about a big crackdown on pirated CDs and how to look out for pirated music. It's one of those things that's so stupid that to even highlight what's wrong with it is to state the obvious. I can assure you that a pirated CD does not have worse sound quality than a normal CD though, that's one of the things wrong with this video. Oh, and no one wants Christmas ring tones. The bottom line is that they're focusing too much on the negative and their scare tactics are clearly not effective. When you tell your consumers that CDs that are "too good to be true" are probably pirated, you're kind of a moron. I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but it seems like everyone realized but them that there has just not been an upward trend in the quality of the content of music nowadays and so the reason the industry has been faltering is that people have been using the Internet to become more selective and only buy what they know they'll like as opposed to the 90s where people bought CDs that looked pretty or were from familiar/recommended artists. In this world of Internet radio and Seeqpod and Pandora and, the playing field has changed. They need to move towards embracing that.

Famed torrent site Mininova found their pirate spirit and decided to use it to build a legitimate service: content distribution. You give them the content and they'll help you seed the torrent and everything, all for free. It's intended for independent artists and filmmakers, but there doesn't seem to be any restrictions on who takes advantage of it. I love it because they're just showing off how torrents can really help the world past just piracy.

Apple's PR people never cease to piss me off. Their desire to protect trade secrets is relentless. They finally got to Think Secret, which was a pretty well-known blog for Apple rumors and leaks. So basically, they were paid off to shutdown. They went to the Fake Steve Jobs blog and made him the same offer. He's under contract with his sponsor, so he's resisting at his own peril. Get this: they sent him a detail list of his assets at risk if he doesn't cease a desist, including his kids' college funds (with their names). That's all kinds of messed up. Their case against him is pretty thin. There's nothing wrong with writing a satirical blog about someone, even if it is about Steve Jobs. The posts they claim that are in violation don't prove that anything was leaked; the evidence is circumstantial. It's just upsetting to me that they have this cult following and they choose to run their name in the ground among geeks, their most loyal followers, with this craziness. Oh, and Fake Steve criticized the EFF for promoting censorship (i.e. helping bloggers settle with Apple and basically being sell-outs) so they won't help him. Hypocrites. Hear that, EFF? No one takes you seriously and no one ever will.

While I'm pouncing on Apple, they've filed for a couple of patents. The first patent made sense: auto-shutdown after charging or file transfers. Great idea. The other patent is for programmers to inject code into software's run-time stream so that it can restrict execution to certain hardware. So if you tried running a Mac application on hardware that Apple didn't like, it wouldn't work. First of all, this is bad for the same reason DRM is: you're restricted use too much. Let consumers do what they want with what they bought, don't nickel and dime them out of possible uses. Don't force them to use your hardware just because you wrote the software. That's called being snooty. Second of all though, am I the only one who sees the potential for security issues? If it actively checks the hardware and you put out a virus that gives it faulty information, couldn't you theoretically crash people's machines who ran software based on this patent? Oh, and what about the false positive rate? Let's not forget about base rate fallacy. I hope that this patent is an idea they don't intend to implement, but I'm afraid given their issues with people hacking iPhones that they will. On the bright side though, Apple is adopting Intel's UMPC platform Menlow. That doesn't mean a whole lot to us right now except that they're following Intel's roadmap so we can hopefully expect to see Apple on the cutting edge of mobile applications past just the iPhone (or even improving the iPhone in 2G).

Just a couple of quick, fun items. Google Talk lets you translate in real-time if you invite one of their translation bots into a group chat. Isn't that pretty cool? I've run into the language barrier before on Google Talk many months ago, and that would've totally helped then. Remember Y2K? It turns out that Linux wasn't built to last past 2038! I'm sure it'll be fine by then with the increasing acceptance of 64-bit processors, but it's still kind of quirky. This and this are wickedly funny. They're what video game boxes would say if they told the truth. This is one of my favorites:

Have a great Christmas, everyone! I'll have another post for you soon enough. Hopefully I'll be more productive over the next couple of days.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Hulu and Cranium Wow

My Fall semester is officially over! Academically, I couldn't be happier that it's over, to be honest. Aside from Network Security and Privacy, I won't really miss my classes very much. I managed all the grades that I wanted, so I'm pretty excited about it. Marketing was lame, OS was a drag, and Vision was just way too difficult. Finance was alright, though I wish I didn't have to take that final (she drops the lowest test and I screwed up my last one). Network Security was definitely a ton of fun though, and I really took a lot away from it. Now I can start my extremely busy Spring Break. I have to start looking at this research project I want to help with, I have to code up an internal professor review feature for the NSC site, and I have to help write a web application to help prepare high school students for TAKS (standardized test). Nice break, huh? Oh well, I prefer it to be productive rather than boring. Plus, I should have a pretty easy time this Spring, which is nice because I want to hit up all the happy hours in Austin.

On to the good stuff. I got my private beta invite for Hulu and I was definitely pleasantly surprised. You can find out a little more about it here. The concept? Basically, your television on-demand from anywhere. It has full-length shows, clips, reviews/previews of games, and feature films. It's a huge step up from Joost, mainly because it's so ridiculously easy to use and very responsive. I eventually stopped using Joost (though I still have it installed) because it was clunky and it always took me forever to find the content I wanted. I really wanted to love it because the videos were high quality and generally loaded pretty fast, but it was a pain to navigate.

Hulu, on the other hand, is like everything I could've imagined in a free, on-demand service. It really lends itself to casual browsing. You can browse popular clips or search for content and then there's a little link below each video to add to your playlist (see the first screenshot). Then, you can just mouseover the playlist link in the top right corner to see a drop-down of the top 5 items and start playing them (see second screenshot). It keeps your history as well so that you can always show your friends videos you saw a week ago. Each video page shows you related videos, lets you submit reviews and rate it, and all that good stuff. What's really neat about sharing the videos is that you can not only e-mail it but embed the whole video or a clip of it. Check out this clip from Friday Night Lights from the second to last episode where Smash Williams is in over his head with college recruiting:

Plus, the ads are unobtrusive. There's occasionally an ad before the video, but they're usually really short and the ad in the top right corner is pretty small also. The video quality is also better than I expected (much better than YouTube), and it's all legal so you don't have to worry about your favorite Family Guy clips disappearing.

I do have a few gripes though. When you browse by show, you can't add episodes to your playlist, which is kind of annoying. You also can't do this from the video itself, only from the home page, popular clips, or a search. You can't mark favorite videos, which would've been nice. You can't tag videos, which would be really good for making search easier. Overall though, it's pretty amazing for being just in beta. There's a ton of content, and I think that the major networks could shut down their full episode players and hand over their content to Hulu. It makes it so much easier than going to each different site for a different show.

Now to switch gears, I want to give a brief review of Cranium Wow. I got it as a birthday gift a little over a month ago, but I've played with other people's sets to so I've played it quite a bit. So what's different about this from the old Craniums? Well, a few rule changes, different die, new games, and movers. The rule changes are pretty minor: the soonest birthday rolls first and I think that's new. When you get to the middle of the board you do all 4 categories in clockwise order and then your opponents pick one more for you to do, which I believe is new. The die has 10 sides for the 4 colors plus purple to fast track to the brains. The new games are Side Show (move a team mate's body to get your team to guess whatever the card says), Team Gnilleps (spell the word backwards, except that the whole team has to participate now), and Mind Meld (everyone on the team writes down 3 things in a category and if 2 people match in 1 item then you win the roll). I think that's it, but I haven't played regular Cranium in a while so there's also Copycat (act like the person on the card) and Odd Couple (pick the 2 things on the list that don't belong) in case that wasn't in original Cranium. The movers are cute and the hair is changeable. There are 12 in all, and your box comes with 4 of them. Oh, and it has 600 cards which appear to be all new and has some more pop culture mixed into them.

So how does it play? To be honest, it's faster and at times can be easier. There are a number of easy cards, and some hard ones. Then again, difficulty is subjective based on who you're playing with. But still, the purple color on the die makes the game a lot faster. You can finish a whole game with 2 teams in under an hour. If you have more teams though or if you get a lot of hard cards the game can take about 2 hours. Despite this though, it's still a lot of fun. I find my friends pining to play it whenever we have out get togethers. I think it really does revitalize the series with great presentation inside and on the outside of the box, and it's a lot better than getting a booster pack if you have an old Cranium set. It's pretty much what you've come to love, plus more. Yeah, it has quite a bit of easy cards, but that doesn't mean your team will get them. I don't regret getting this game at all, and I think it actually doesn't work too bad with small groups (though it's obviously best with larger groups).

Alright, I gotta jet for now, gang. I'll bring you guys another post this weekend!

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Dark Knight Trailer

I'm seriously only posting today to tell you good people that the first theatrical trailer for The Dark Knight is up. I really want to blog right now. It's taking a lot of willpower to not chunk my Finance notes and just wing the final. However, I've come too far to not see this class through. I'll try to put up a post tomorrow night, but it all depends on how many martinis I go through after my final in the process of celebrating. From then on out you'll definitely see posts more often (my goal is at least twice a week, and all being high quality posts). My next post will be a review of Cranium Wow and Hulu (I just got in the private beta).

Until then, keep re-watching this. It's only the most phenomenal trailer I've seen in a while because of my intense anticipation for this movie, so I don't want to get your hopes up. That being said, omghi2u Joker. For the first time, I think I finally believe in Heath Ledger in this movie. I didn't hate him before, but I wasn't convinced until seeing him in the role. I know I've said this before, but what I love about the Batman series is that the villains are really human, just like Batman. Batman has no super power, and his villains' strengths and plans really play off of dark, sordid histories or psychotic tendencies. There's this gray line that Batman begins to play with over time as far as his own sanity goes, and the Joker is this awesomely complex character who I just love as a bad guy. He's more than just prototypical, he's a great arch-nemesis. I have faith in Nolan bringing that out in this movie because he's just a great director. When you bring back Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, and then you decide to add in Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart, how can you go wrong?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Speaking of Usability

My Hell week was quite interesting culminating in me screwing up my Finance test and forcing me to take my Final or be stuck with an embarrassing 89. Since then I've been trying to play with my Vision final, but it's really not very fun. So I thought I'd take a break to write this post. This weekend has had its ups though, my friend has a murder mystery party last night and I highly recommend trying it out if you haven't before.

Anyhow, I don't think you guys came here to read about my weekend. For some reason, I like talking about usability. It's a gift and a curse since it's really important in today's fast-advancing society that people can keep up with technology, but at the same time I feel like a broken record player. At least one other person is with me on this one as he talks about usability problems on a professional blog. I like that he makes it a conversation, because that's really what our interactions with technology devolve to. I know it sounds silly, but don't you think you subconsciously talk to your computer? 90% of the time, you say how much you hate it and want to kill it. The rest of the time, you're praising it for those cute pictures of your brother's dog, or for answering #4 on your number theory homework, or for finding you a route to the liquor store so you can pick up some gin. When it comes down to it, we've become a little spoiled nowadays with the web when you consider how it used to be.

Back then, it was just text on white backgrounds with images that took a commercial break to load. Now, have you noticed that we're mad when pages don't load fast enough or when we can't find exactly what we want? He kind of unknowingly makes a great point: our attention spans are so much lower. When we don't find what we want, we register a bad experience and move on. We search somewhere else. First impressions really are everything, and the web has gradually shifted over the past few years to being dominated by blogs. So it's definitely important for professionals to relay to their users what their site is really all about very quickly and easily. The RSS button should be easy to find. Any ads should be unobtrusive. Basically, the opposite of this blog. I'm not much of a fan for Dvorak anyway because his opinions are almost purposely ridiculous to get a rise out of geeks, but I only know what that blog is about because I'm a nerd. Yeah, my blog could be better, but it's far from professional. I could go on and on, but I think I've made my points pretty concisely about the importance of usability on the web.

Notice anything different in that picture? No? Actually, neither did I when I first tried it. It looks just like Firefox 2.0. Surprisingly, it's Firefox 3. You can try out the early beta yourself here. What's really awesome about it is that it's a "portable edition", so it's essentially running in a sandbox and won't write anything to your machine (except for transient data during execution I'm guessing while it's running because of virtual memory usage) or screw with your current install of Firefox. It lets you just try this one out. I couldn't figure out how to get to the famed "Places", but I did like a couple of things that I stumbled upon. You can bookmark things with that star on the far side of the address bar. I like it because I never was a fan of the whole pop-up to add a bookmark. The other big thing is that when you click on the URL favicon (left of the address bar), it basically tells you if this site is really who they say they are and how Firefox knows it is, or if no information is available on it (which most sites I looked up were as such, so I don't know how this will work). Also, it'll give you the extended SSL information I showed you above, which is much easier than clicking the little lock in the corner and is much more detailed so that people other than security gurus can understand it. The verifier is who gave you the key that you're using to encrypt (i.e. hide so that eavesdroppers can't understand your messages) anything you send to Gmail, which is more important than you may immediately realize. It provides just a huge overhaul of security features though, and I'm extremely impressed. All these things make a lot of sense and go a long way in helping people browse the Web safely. If they really pull all this together, I will become a Firefox evangelist, because this really goes beyond IE's stabs at improving security.

I should really get going here, so just a few quick things. If you're looking for a free, online project management tool, consider Project2Manage. I just started playing with it tonight and I think I may use it. Netflix is going to be redesigning their mailers because the current ones are causing extra labor for Postal Service workers and, thus, costing more to ship than Netflix is paying. I wonder what they fix to make it easier? Any thoughts here? Facebook is mad at people putting up ads on their pages because they claim it'll make pages too cluttered! Isn't that the craziest thing you've heard the executive team at Facebook say? Not the applications, no no, but people trying to put up ads now. Really, they just want to be making money off their own product. That's cool: just make a first-party application to put ads on your profile and the hosts will just share in the profits. How many people will really do this anyway? You can keep banning these 3rd party things, but you don't want someone else to monetize this kind of thing before you. At worst, you decide you don't like it and you take it away later (like course listings). Apple's next man in line may be a Briton! I just found that interesting. Lastly, if you're on a Treo or another phone with wireless web but haven't been able to figure out IM (like me), check this out. it's not great, but it's not bad either.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Hell Week

Hey guys, I promise a post this weekend. That's right, I actually guarantee it. I'm itching to post again, but I physically cannot right now. I'm so swamped. It's actually a little scary (I went to bed last night at 8AM), but I think I can get through it with enough willpower This week (past and future) involves an OS homework, a gigantic OS project, a gigantic Vision homework, difficult Network Security homework, an OS exam, a Marketing test, and a Finance test (back-to-back on the last two). Yeah, it's beyond ridiculous. After this though, my next (and last) exam is next Thursday, plus a take home final for Vision. So I'll definitely have time to post this weekend. I didn't get a chance to post last week because it was my last week with someone very special in my life. They're not dead or anything. In fact, she's still around and it's nice that I can still hang out with her. I have every faith that we'll end up together if it's meant to be. If not, I've been happier beyond all measures with her and I'm so glad that she's still a part of my life.

There are a couple of quick things I would like to briefly mention. Gmail has made some great improvements to the Gmail including Group Chat, AIM support, and better usability of labels. I love how the Gmail team is so receptive to user feedback; good job, guys! The other thing is that my Network Security professor, being the badass he is, made Slashdot last week. He broke anonymity with the Netflix contest data. Netflix has a running contest with a prize of $1 million for an algorithm that recommends movies more accurately than their current algorithm by at least 10%. They attached the records of 500,000 of their users to the contest with their identities stripped from it, but my professor and a grad student here at UT found an algorithm to link identities extremely accurately to IMDb. How crazy is that?

Oh, and please sign this petition. YouTube marks videos of stutterers as comedy. To me, this is utterly unacceptable. Speech impediments are not a laughing matter to those of us with them, and I also fear that kids who sneak onto YouTube and see videos like that being called 'comedy' will feel motivated to make fun of stutterers or clutterers at their school.

Before I sign off here I'll leave you with a picture of my loot from Black Friday: