Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Goodbye, Lost and 24

The End of an Era

There was surprisingly little news last week that was interesting at all, which is fine by me because I'm exhausted from the past week of my life and I just got paged a little while ago so I'm looking ahead at more exhaustion. Still, since I saw the finales of Lost and 24 I thought I'd give some spoiler-free thoughts and then talk a bit about the few stories I thought were worthwhile from last week.

I'm exaggerating a bit in the heading here: my life does not revolve around television. I'm not one of the Lost fans who live to watch it - I simply enjoyed watching it. For me though, these shows kind of do represent the end of an era for me - mainly 24 though. It was the first show I started watching with solid acting behind an awesome cast that always had me engaged. Of course, it dwindled in recent years but it was my first ensemble cast show that I couldn't get enough of. Lost was the first sci-fi show I really took a strong interest to. So it's weird thinking back to when I started watching these shows, it seems like forever ago.

As I figured, the series finale of Lost was as divisive as it could be. Let's face it: there was no possible way for it to satisfy everyone. It's kind of sad how mad some people got when the finale didn't force feed them the answers to all the show's mysteries. That's one thing I respected about Veronica Mars and that I came to respect from Lost: it catered to viewers who wanted to figure things out, not to people who only want a passive experience. If fans of the show re-watch the last 5-10 episodes, I think you'll find that most of the big questions were answered. The finale just put a bow on everything so we can all have closure on the show - that's it. That's what a finale is supposed to do, in my opinion. Explaining 6 years of information in two and a half hours would be silly. I personally really loved it. I was so worried that the ending would go for a lame or far-fetched conclusion to things, but instead it went for a more logical one when you think back on the past season. Of course, I'm a sucker for character-based stories and care more about those interactions than just plot, but I digress. If you were waiting out Lost to see if the ending was good, I say watch it if you're willing to accept that you'll be confused a lot and will have to piece a lot of little things together. Sure, we never found out what the deal was with Dharma or little things like that, but the main plot line was ultimately resolved despite how much some people argue it wasn't. If you're one of the ones who disagree, then I'm going to direct you to this explanation. If that doesn't satisfy you then surely the writers couldn't have.

As for 24: I was a bit let down with this season. It was enjoyable, but it felt very mediocre compared to season 5, which is now a gold standard for action dramas. So if you missed this season, then you didn't miss much. I think it's still worth seeing, but don't go out of your way for it. I think the show ended the only way that it made sense to end it given the nature of 24, and I was glad for that. I was afraid that they'd go for something really crazy to end the show, but I'm glad they instead went with a more sensible approach. Excellent acting across the board. Not the most intense 24 season finale by far, and definitely not the most tragic, but I was glad that it wasn't a cop out.

Google TV

This is pretty big: Google has announced Google TV. It's one of those things that you have to say "it's about time" when you hear what it is. It's essentially a product that tries to bridge the gap between our computers and our TVs that the Internet has created. It's a bit short of what I expected out of what had been called IP TV, but given the fact that Google will have open APIs I think that it has plenty of room to evolve. If the principles behind Google TV were to merge with TiVo I think I'd piss my pants. It's really just a way to consume web media and interact with rich content on your TV, but it doesn't bring together dealing with your traditional television content. Apparently we'll see hardware this fall and we'll know more then.

Google Wave Now Public

Google Wave is now available for public consumption! If you don't know what that means, you'll want to start here. I'm interested to see where this will go now that the hype surrounding its initial announcement has died down. It's a really cool product, but it feels like a solution looking for a problem. It would be cool if integrated with Google TV though for better interaction with remote friends and family during TV shows.

Diane Birch

I'm fading fast here so I'm going to leave you with a video I took from a Diane Birch concert I took last week. It's a cover of a 90s classic:

The concert was really awesome, by the way. I posted another video here if you liked that one. I highly recommend supporting her if you liked that video, too.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Facebook Uprising

Bring Your Pitchforks on June 6

I'm really tired. I'm not sure why exactly, but I'm tired and I have a lot to do this week so I'm going to have to shorten this post a bit if I want to get it out at all. So I'm going to focus in on just a few really big stories and briefly highlight a few others. I've cut quite a few stories I would've talked about if I had more time, but oh well.

Clearly, the biggest story last week was Facebook. I have to admit that I'm surprised at the reaction the tech media has had to Facebook's recent changes with turning your profile information into links to pages that expose you and other privacy changes Facebook has made recently. We let this happen gradually over time by not reacting enough to Facebook's previous changes, and now that they've really jumped the shark it looks like people are finally ready to step up and say something. I expected a reaction similar to previous changes, but it looks like we're getting really passionate posts from blogs and respected news publications every other day crying out against the changes, some of which are nicely summarized in this picture. It's a bit misleading, but it's not really exaggerating things when you boil down the facts. It's not likely going into great details about those points make the situation better.

The Huffington Report reported on a group of individuals who have decided to send as clear a message as possible to Facebook: an organized boycott of Facebook. They're planning to all delete their accounts on May 31 and are encouraging everyone to do the same. Of course, even after you delete your account Facebook will still have access to your data, but it may put a heavy enough dent in their numbers to wake them up and realize that this isn't like when people got a little annoyed by Facebook's past indiscretions. It's going to be hard to get everyone to quit Facebook though (myself included) so I'm actually in support of their second idea: don't use Facebook at all on June 6. It'll probably be much easier to convince people to do that. It may not be as powerful, but it may actually hurt Facebook's wallet.

After reading this interview with an anonymous Facebook employee, you may not find their movement so extreme. Like many startups, it looks like Facebook began without much long-term vision. It was all about getting a product to market, which is reasonable except that it ended up breeding a culture where privacy isn't a top priority. Half of the interview sounds nuts, but then the other half sounds more reasonable. A group of NYU students are actually trying to build their own Facebook called Disapora that actually respects privacy. Sadly, there's no word on when it'll actually be out whereas now is exactly the best time for them to ship and capitalize on Facebook's bad press. It's an interesting concept, but you've got to wonder if they can really stick to their morals in the face of investors wanting them to satiate advertisers, if it ever takes off. These guys seem smart though so I hope it works out.

The Flash Dilemma

I wonder if Apple predicted that the controversy regarding their disapproval of Flash on the iPhone/iPad would go on for this long? In a ZDNet article that almost seems to have been swept under the rug in everyone's mind since it was posted, it was revealed that a Flash demo on a Nexus One crashed twice. Granted, the rule of thumb for demos is that things will never go exactly as you plan, but you have to admit that, even in that philosophy, two crashes looks pretty bad. It's worth noting that he was using an outdated version ofFlash in the demo, but it's not like the build was months old or something.

Some people have noticed a technology called "Gianduia" popping up in random places that looks to be Apple's competitor to Flash. The reading I did on it was kind of boring and went over even my head, but if Apple were to make that an externally facing technology then I hope people would be a little insulted by the hypocrisy given their repeated argument that Adobe Flash is flying in the face of open web standards.

Part of why this story dragged on another week is that Gawker's Ryan Tate engaged in an e-mail exchange directly with Steve Jobs regarding Flash and porn on the iPhone and Steve's responses were well crafted and interesting. I don't buy his we-want-to-do-the-right-thing argument one bit, but I do believe that they just want to promote the user experience their envision. Whether you agree with that or not is for you to vote for with your dollars - there's no need to whine about it. There's nothing wrong with being willfully ignorant of what Apple's doing if you're happy with their products. They're not torturing anybody, they're just conducting business.

Let me cram in two more quick Apple stories. In the saga over the "stolen" next-generation iPhone, it has been revealed that Steve Jobs contacted Gizmodo directly to get a response that was an e-mail almost in the realm of extortion. They wrote it in a very clever way, but if you read between the lines you may come to my conclusion that Gizmodo was being sleazy. Lastly, Mac Rumors noticed that the new iPad ads are almost a sequel to the ad campaign for the hapless Apple Newton. I'm sure Apple is hoping for very different results this time.

Android Outsells the iPhone

I wish this was the biggest story of last week because it's such a cool one. Google Android, when you look at all the phones running the operating system, outsold the iPhone last quarter for the first time. Some analysts believe it's due in large part to Verizon's buy-one-get-one-free promotion, but I think it's more than just that. Android phones are just finally cool and the iPhone hasn't been new in a while.

If you're really excited about Android though, you should check out Froyo (Android 2.2), or at least AndroidPolice's impressions from trying it out on the Nexus One. It turns out to be quite a bit more performant.

Speaking of the Nexus One though: Google will no longer be selling it directly and will instead work with partners to actually sell it in stores. It may be too late for this to turn the phone into a financial success, but it's their only hope of salvaging the situation. The phone received much critical acclaim despite, unsurprisingly, not getting a lot of sales (since you can't play with it in a store).

The Rest

I'm going to go through these even faster then normal.

Steam (probably the best service for downloading and managing quality games) is now available for Macs and Valve is giving away Portal for free. Act now because that game is ridiculously fun for all ages.

Billshrink has a great infographic on wireless dissatisfaction in America and pricing comparisons.

Sprint will start selling the HTC Evo 4G, the first 4G phone ever, on June 4 for $199 (subsidized). That's a pretty standard price for a new high-end smartphone, but Sprint is obviously a small player so we'll see how the release goes.

If you have Windows 7 then you really need to check out this article on how to speed it up. It's already fairly fast for me and some of these tips make it even better.

YouTube finally fixed how private videos work to make more sense.

The FCC is allowing the MPAA to activate set top box controls to deactivate pieces of your home theater system if they think you're breaking the law. Definitely scar stuff.

Ars Technica has a great article on the government plan to bring 4 Mbps Internet to the whole country. It's a very steep bill for taxpayers.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Iron Man 2

Let the Summer Blockbuster Season Begin

Since I saw Iron Man 2 on Friday I figure I might as well share my thoughts before we get into the normal stuff.

The original Iron Man is without equivocation considered one of the best comic book superhero movies ever by any comic book geek. Definitely top 5 if not top 3. Given that Iron Man was never a blockbuster franchise like Batman or Superman, I thought it was definitely special what Jon Favreau was able to accomplish with Robert Downey, Jr. and the Iron Man universe. It was a better origin story than Batman Begins in terms of pacing and probably a few other things and just a fun all-around summer movie. That's really huge shoes for a sequel to fill. Did it get it right? That's hard to say, to be honest. I think when people's expectations are high like they were for this movie you've gotta be perfect to really blow them away, and this movie didn't do that. Nonetheless, I thought it was a more than acceptable sequel and definitely well worth seeing.

Plot-wise, this movie takes over literally right where the first one left off and shows how the ending (which I don't want to spoil) gave rise to physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) as a villain using Stark's own arc reactor technology. Meanwhile, Tony Stark is dealing with the adverse health effects of the arc reactor in his chest while being watched closely by Nick Fury (Sam Jackson). I don't want to spoil anything by revealing any more than that, but suffice to say it's an interesting, though comic book far-fetched, storyline that diverts somewhat from the Iron Man comic book storyline to tell its own story. I thought it was actually a pretty well-written story. You have to really forgive the hand-waving with regard to the technological expertise of some of the main characters, but I personally watch 24 and am already well-seasoned in that.

Please marry me, Scarlett

I thought the acting was superb across the board. Robert Downing, Jr was possibly even better in this movie, Scarlett Johansson was the perfect casting for Black Widow (so glad that they didn't go with Emily Blunt), and Gwenyth Paltrow was still as sexy and sophisticated as ever. Johansson's role was a pretty decent female empowerment character (sans a couple of her outfits) and I was glad to see that they didn't really overdo it. I think some hardcore fans will be a little disappointed with her portrayal, but I thought it worked in the context of the movie. I think the re-casting of Rhodes was noticeably weird. I think Don Cheadle would've been fine if he was in the original as well, but whenever I saw him I just kept picturing Terrence Howard. I was happy overall with Mickey Rourke, he did his hokey Russian accent well.

The problem is that Iron Man 2 didn't bring to the table what Iron Man did because it didn't break the formula of superhero movies like that one did. It felt more like a continuation of the previous movie instead of something totally new. So less like The Dark Knight, which was a huge breath of fresh air, and more like X-men 2. The action scenes were great and the movie was so much fun to watch - especially the well-timed humor. However, it felt like a comic book movie. There's nothing wrong with that, it just means that it can't be extraordinary. I still give it an A- and strongly recommend seeing it yourself while it's on the big screen. Just don't bolt after the credits - they snuck in an extra scene like in the first one. It's not life-changing or anything, but it's something that will give you goosebumps if you're a comic book geek.

Kin Available this week

I know you've been waiting with bated breath so here it is: the new Kin will be available in Verizon stores on May 13 and is already available online. The creatively named Kin One and Kin Two are priced at $50 and $100, respectively, but apparently will have interesting data plan like the Sidekick.

However, Pre Central aggregated some of the reviews and they don't seem to be very positive. It seems like the phone was pretty half-baked overall and an uneven experience. The ideas from the original presentation that I originally raved about were apparently poorly executed. It looks like Kin Studio, the online timeline of your phone, is pretty decent, but the Kin Spot and a number of other features are disastrous user experiences. Despite the pricing being good, I'd be surprised if these flew off the shelves and insulted if people chose them over the Palm Pre or Palm Pixi, which are usually easy to find at those price points and have a lot more features, like pretty good call quality.

Treasury Site and Google Chat Hacks

There were a few security breaches last week, the most flagrant of which I felt was the U.S. Treasury websites being compromised and giving malware to its visitors. Well, technically they redirected to a Ukrainian site that gave out the malware, but what an embarrassment to that IT department that these guys injected HTML code. I'm guessing it was some sort of XSS variant, but they're being hush on the details. They already look bad - hiding the truth from the people who pay these idiots' salaries isn't going to make them look any better.

I thought I'd throw in this AP story about a vulnerability in how your web site requests are routed that could be disastrous if exploited. The bottom line is that TCP/IP, the protocol that the Internet operates on, was not built with security in mind because it was not designed for massive public use. I think this is something the U.S. government should step into to motivate a fix. The private companies apparently don't have a strong interest in fixing things but an attack on how Internet packets are routed could be really bad for our infrastructure.

Techcrunch was tipped off on a pretty big vulnerability last week regarding Facebook. It turns out that in where in your Privacy Settings you can see how other people view your profile, you can also see who they're chatting with. Rather than applying their restriction to how you view your profile, they basically gave you a window into their Facebook, more or less. You could even mess with their friend requests. Who knows how many people have exploited this without reporting it. It really calls into question Facebook's quality assurance principles. It's fixed now, but disturbing that it was out there for an indeterminate amount of time.

Facebook Under Fire

Riding off the coattails of that story, let's talk about the rabble growing against Facebook. It used to be that Facebook's changes were an annoyance that people just got used to. Now though, multiple people are being very vocal about their problems with Facebook and these editorials are getting a lot of eyeballs.

One blogger gave his ten reasons why you should quit Facebook while Wired calls for an open alternative where things make sense instead of following the whims of Facebook. This was mostly prompted by how Facebook is now sharing a lot of information about you to developers taking advantage of its new APIs and how the fact that Facebook encourages you to turn your text in your profile to "Pages" means that you're exposed through these "Pages" as being a fan of that thing to the world. Of course, there have been plenty of offenses leading up to this (how you can never really remove yourself, how your information is being passed along to third-party application developers, etc.), but ultimately their misleading policies have really become cause for some concern.

If you're stubborn like me and are hesitant to quit Facebook cold turkey, at least consider abating the amount of information you feed to it.

Final Notes

Ok, I'm running way behind on what I wanted to get done tonight because of a nap I took earlier. I'm going to have to cut out sooner on this post than originally planned. Here's what else I had for you:

Apple is now in the middle of an antitrust suit for anti-competitive practices. It's not clear if this is because of their ban on Flash or their patent lawsuits against HTC, but it'll be interested to see what happens. Some of their practices are unconscionable, but I'm not sure that they're illegal.

The FCC is still pushing forward on net neutrality trying to find a way around the court decision ruling that they can't regulate the ISPs.

The U.S. ranks 30th in the world in Internet speed. Even Andorra is beating us. Ouch.

Netflix is moving more of its computational power into Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). Smart move. Much more efficient than buying and maintaining your own hardware for solving those big problems.

This is a pretty eye-opening breakdown of the cell phone providers in America by customer satisfaction and dropped calls.

Check out all the new features coming in the forthcoming Kindle firmware upgrade including password protection and better sharing capabilities.

It looks like Amazon has one of the biggest databases in the world, and it's pretty exciting that I help process some of that data every day. Anyway, check out who has the other enormous databases.

If you want to know what's on TV the Interweb, check out Clicker.

If you're on Windows and didn't know about Microsoft's Fix It tool, then go check it out now.

Last but not least, Google made a really awesome video advertising how fast Chrome is compared to things like sound and a potato gun. It's a lot of fun to watch.

Monday, May 03, 2010

HP Takes Over Palm

HP Buys Palm

For the past 18 years, Palm has been the little company that could. Despite having been a frontrunner of innovation in PDAs starting with the Palm Pilot and creating the first true mainstream smartphone in the Treo 650, Palm lost its way in the past few years and now finds itself in the hands of HP in a $1.2 billion deal. It's not technically a done deal yet, but it's pretty much sure to complete. You can see Rubinstein's letter to the company here. It sounds like HP is not only interested in Palm's huge patent portfolio but also keeping webOS alive with more smartphones and possibly tablets. Given the strong indications that the HP Slate tablet based on Windows 7 has been killed, it makes it more clear why HP would want Palm. The iPad's sales are, ostensibly, exposing a market for tablets not concerned with the power of a full computer but rather interested in the easy UI, something that webOS could definitely provide.

While I'm not sold on there being a very big market for tablets in general, I do think it's a good thing that HP bought Palm. HP hasn't made the best hardware decisions in the world, but they do have a lot of cash. Assuming that they don't fire a bunch of people from Palm, which I think is unlikely given that their interest in webOS, I believe they're ultimately going to re-think how they market the next webOS-based phone and pump a lot more into R&D for future iterations than Palm could afford to. Ultimately, if HP can't make webOS viable than no one can. I still believe that webOS has a decent base of developer support and a pretty stable platform - we just need new hardware to get people excited about and it needs to be available on multiple carriers.

Apple's War on Flash Continues

Once again, the media has really overblown Apple's dismissal of Flash on the iPhone. As a result, Steve Jobs has actually written an open letter explaining why there are are no plans to support Flash on the iPhone or iPad, and this has made the debate even more heated between those who agree with Jobs and those who think that Apple is being an evil purveyor of their closed garden. The letter actually has a number of good points, the best in my opinion being that Flash wasn't designed with touch interfaces in mind. There is no rollover event with touch like there is with a mouse, and that's actually a commonly used event in Flash. However, as good as those points are, the letter is ultimately just a MacGuffin. The real reason that the iPhone won't support Flash is the same reason Apple removed arrow keys from the Macintosh keyboard: Apple wants people to re-write their applications better to provide a quality experience for their customers. Plus, it gives them more control over the platform if they dictate the rules than if they allow Flash to dictate rules, as well.

Personally, I thought it was silly for Jobs to write this letter. Whatever the reason is for Apple not wanting Flash on the iPhone, they can do whatever they want. This shouldn't be a shock to anyone. The iPhone has always been a walled garden. That's not necessarily a terrible thing, especially given how strong sales are for the iPhone, but the fact of the matter is that it has always given Apple the precedent to do what they want.

Adobe countered quickly via an interview with the Wall Street Journal and seem to be taking things rather personal. Ultimately, they believe that the letter spreads lies and that Adobe's vision is a multi-platform technology whereas Jobs wants applications to only be developed for their walled garden. Take it with a grain of salt, but Adobe has a video on Vimeo claiming that Flash has better performance than HTML 5, even on mobile phones. We should be able to see for ourselves once Flash hits webOS, Blackberry, and Android 2.2 later this year. This is really going to be a make or break year for Adobe. If this Flash release flops, as I'm afraid it may given its push backs, Flash may begin a downward spiral as HTML 5 becomes the only viable game in town for mobile devices.

Google's Foray into TV

Google was linked to a couple of interesting television stories last week. First, it was discovered that Google has added TV episode search. Then, Wall Street Jounal's sources revealed that Google is going to be announcing TV set-top box software this month. It doesn't seem to provide anything new compared to what TiVo or Boxee offers right now, but the announcement has yet to be officially made.

Possibly more interesting: Verizon FiOS will now offer YouTube and Internet radio right on its users' TV screens. They're first cable provider that's actually embracing YouTube instead of fearing it. Then again, their huge push for laying fiber in the past few years has been more progressive than most of its competitors.

Broadband Access

Sometimes Slate can really hit it out of the park. They responded to a quote from the Verizon CEO claiming that U.S. broadband is #1 in the world with an article explaining that the US is ranked 15th in broadband penetration, has some of the highest prices per bandwidth, and competition is often a duopoly. To make matters worse, broadband rates are often mis-advertised. It's a good sobering read and a reminder that we need to encourage the FCC to take action.

Final Notes

Alright, I've been distracted all night but I really need to get to bed now so it's time to wrap up.

Microsoft's security intelligence report last week revealed that most attacks on Vista and Windows 7 systems are against third-party applications rather than Windows itself.

By this time next month, Lala will be dead. It's a travesty, but not totally unsurprising since Lala has never been profitable and Apple really bought Lala for the talent.

Microsoft has confirmed the Courier, their secret folding tablet, and announced that they have nipped it. It looked cool but must not have been feasible.

The guy who sold the iPhone HD that was found has been discovered and claims he wishes he turned in the phone to the bar owners now instead of being a jerk and selling it to Gizmodo. Even though he's probably not technically a thief, I think he was way unethical.

Apparently Microsoft has had a running comic on people's real life IT stories.

Comcast has won Consmerists' infamous "Worst Company in America" award. Congrats, you've earned it.

This is a great resource for helping develop cross-browser compatible websites.

Have a great week!