Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: September 2007 (page 1 of 4)

Ringtone madness

I really like my iPhone, but in some ways it’s souring my relationship with Apple. Yesterday I watched Apple’s video introducing new iPhone features. Most of the new features are yawners, but I can’t help but notice that it seems like all of the big features in this release are just ways to make it easier for Apple to get customers to give them more money. I’d like an IM client, what I get instead is the opportunity to buy DRM-infested music tracks on my iPhone. Great.

What I really wanted to post about was the new ringtone feature. First, let me say that the interface to select and edit ringtones is seriously cool. Pick a song, pick a snippet of the song you want to use as your ringtone, and then add fade effects if you like. I’m not a ringtone person, but the elegance of the interface is impressive. The catch is that if you want to use a song as a ringtone, you have to buy it from the iTunes Music Store and then you have to pay an additional 99 cents to convert it into a ringtone. I already knew Apple was going to charge for ringtones, but seeing how nifty the tool is and then being reminded again that if I want to play a song on my phone when someone calls I have to pay Apple for it twice just makes me want to punch somebody in the face.

The fact that the ringtone industry is pure exploitation is not news. John Gruber wrote a great post criticizing Apple for participating in this farce a couple of weeks ago. What shocked me was my visceral negative reaction to the video. I like Apple’s products, but I don’t like the way they’re doing business.

Judge reverses two provisions of the Patriot Act

In troubling times, it’s hard not to pin all of your hopes on the Judicial Branch of the government. My brain knows that the best way to achieve lasting change is to build political support for policies you agree with and then get them passed as laws in Congress. When judges overrule the popular will, it creates a political rift that often causes problems down the road. That said, the judiciary is often the best hope of the sane and enlightened.

In any case, I’m glad that Ann Aiken, a federal judge in Oregon, has decided that the fourth amendment of the Constitution still means what it meant before the Patriot Act was passed. Not only did she overturn the provisions of the Patriot Act that allowed the FBI to collect email and telephone records without a warrant, but she issued a nice, scolding opinion as well.

I’m certain the next stop will be the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where I expect her ruling to be upheld, and eventually the US Supreme Court, where I imagine her ruling will be overturned.

Reading the Bible

If you liked Blogging the Bible, you’ll love James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible, or so it seems. I’m also delighted to read that David Plotz is writing a book based on Blogging the Bible.

Burmese monks demand democracy

This morning I heard on the BBC World Service that the Burmese military dictatorship has started cracking down on the Burmese monks (and the supporters who have joined them) in peaceful marches demanding democratic leadership. Soldiers attempting to suppress the protests have started beating the protesters, firing tear gas, and firing live ammunition over the marching crowds.

I’m not really sure what one blogger can do for the people of Burma beyond trying to make sure people know what’s going on there. The thugs who rule Burma, in addition to stealing as much money as they possibly can from their people, do everything they can to keep news of what’s going on in the country from reaching the outside world. We’ve all grown accustomed to be able to follow breaking events in photos by searching Flickr, but that doesn’t work with countries like Burma.

This post is, more than anything, an expression of solidarity. I hope that these protests will not end with Burmese soldiers gunning down Burmese citizens.

By the way, it is perfectly fine to refer to the country as Burma. Calling it Myanmar only gives legitimacy to the ruling junta. To hell with them.

The new Amazon.com Music Store

Jon Gruber reviews Amazon.com’s new online music store. Same track prices as the iTunes Music Store, 256kpbs MP3s, no DRM. Sounds like a good deal to me.

I just installed the download software and bought an album. The album cost $7.99 and the purchase process was simple. The only problem I ran into was that the download didn’t kick off on the download page. I navigated around to see if there was an alternate means to get the files, but it turned out that there wasn’t. When I used the back button a few times to get back to the download page, the download started automatically as expected.

Amazon.com restricts you to one download of the tracks you purchase, much like the iTunes Music Store. Here’s what their FAQ says:

Your Amazon MP3 Music purchases can only be downloaded once. After you have successfully downloaded the file to your computer at the time of purchase, we recommend that you create a backup copy. We are currently unable to replace any purchased files that you delete or lose due to a system or disk error. If you encounter a problem with an MP3 file immediately after purchase, please click the Customer Service button in the Contact Us box in the right-hand column of this page so we can determine how to help you.

eMusic’s policy of letting you download any tracks you’ve already downloaded as long as they’re available on the site is much friendlier.

The new Amazon MP3 store is a welcome addition to the market anyway. My new order of preference in obtaining music online will be to check eMusic first, then check Amazon.com for purchasable MP3s, and then if neither of those work out, purchasing a physical CD. Life is getting better for those of us who reject DRM.

Best recycling program ever

The San Francisco garbage dump has an artist in residence program. They give the artist studio space and first pick of all of the junk that arrives at the dump. The current resident is sculptor Nemo Gould — Telstar Logistics has a report on his art show this weekend.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Donovan McNabb

I wanted to write about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Donovan McNabb, and didn’t feel like writing separate posts for each, so they’re both getting tossed in together.

Today Ahmadinejad, in town for a United Nations summit for world leaders, took questions at Columbia University in front of an audience that he had no hand in selecting. I think that plenty of the things he said are outlandish and some are offensive, but I think you have to give him credit for coming here and taking that questioning. It amazes me that there are people who didn’t even want to give him that opportunity. Is there anything more basic to democracy than a leader standing before a free forum and engaging with critics? (One wonders whether Ahmadinejad is willing to grant Iranians the same opportunity.)

What’s truly astounding is that the audience at Columbia today was granted an opportunity by the President of Iran that the President of the United States has refused to give any Americans throughout the course of his Presidency. President Bush takes questions from pre-screened audiences or appears at press conferences, but he never steps up to the podium at an open forum.

I think that it’s worth noting the differences between a press conference before the White House press corps and a meeting like the one at Columbia. There are definitely tough questioners in the press corps, but President Bush knows who they are. He has a working relationship with all of them, and can choose who he wants questions from depending on which issues he wants to deal with, and there are always reporters in the audience who are glad to give him an opportunity to spew talking points. Looking out before a crowd of unknown folks and being ready to answer (or evade) the questions they pose is a different kind of challenge entirely, one President Bush has not accepted. That’s a shame.

As far as Donovan McNabb goes, he’s catching flack for saying the following:

There’s not that many African-American quarterbacks, so we have to do a little bit extra. … Because the percentage of us playing this position, which people didn’t want us to play … is low, so we do a little extra.

And this:

Let me start by saying I love those guys [some white quarterbacks]. But they don’t get criticized as much as we [black quarterbacks] do. They don’t.

I don’t exactly agree with him. I think that on the whole, quarterbacks get criticized an awful lot, and a lot of blame or praise for the good or bad fortunes of a team falls upon then, regardless of the degree to which they deserve it.

What I do think is that the criticism applied to specific black quarterbacks is often generalized to apply to all black quarterbacks. It’s not “Vince Young looks to run too much,” it’s “black quarterbacks look to run too much.” And so on. And that’s true whenever minorities begin to gain a toehold in some new endeavor. The other day I was listening to a radio program where several female members of the military were being interviewed, and they expressed McNabb’s sentiment exactly. They work under of the pressure of knowing that any mistake they make will be applied to their gender in addition to being applied to themselves.

I think that it’s foolish to discount that pressure or pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Update: Anne Applebaum reports on Ahmadinejad’s record as Iran’s leader. He can talk about free speech at Columbia University or in an interview with 60 Minutes, but he represents a regime in Iran that imprisons and executes dissenters. It’s still a shame that he’s more willing to engage (albeit dishonestly) than is our own President.

Expanding innovation in the mobile industry

Tim Bray proposes a new business model to expand innovation in the mobile industry. Seems economically sound, and so sensible and yet radically different than today’s models that it almost certainly will never be adopted.

Here’s what I wish my phone would do that it doesn’t, right now. I think that Tim Bray’s model would probably accelerate the availability of all of these features:

  1. Load Web sites faster
  2. Allow me to delete more than one email at the same time
  3. Allow me to archive email from Gmail in my Gmail in box so that if I read it on my mobile phone I don’t have to file it later via the Web interface
  4. Know where I’m located so that looking things up on the map is easier
  5. Support instant messaging

Ditching Rails

I found Derek Sivers’ post on ditching Rails interesting. He spent two years trying to reimplement the code for CD Baby in Rails, abandoning PHP, and then abandoned the Rails project and rewrote his old PHP application in PHP (its original language) instead. From his list of reasons, it sounds like he made the right choice.

Perhaps he should have read Joel Spolsky’s essay on the dangers of rewrites before getting started. Interestingly, you’d have to say that Joel was wrong in chastising Netscape for rewriting Mozilla from scratch. Nothing as good as Firefox could have been written using the existing Netscape Navigator code.

By the way, PHP’s autoload feature looks like a lifesaver.

MailPlane and specialized browsers

Everybody knows that the trend is toward applications that run in a browser as opposed to desktop applications. What I’m starting to see is an emerging trend toward specialized Web browsers customized to make it easy to deal with specific applications. The proximate cause for this post is MailPlane, an OS X desktop application built strictly to interact with Gmail, based on Safari. In other words, it’s a Web browser that only works with one Web site.

Why would you want such a thing? Jeff Atwood describes some of the reasons in his critique of tabbed interfaces. When you have multiple browser windows open, and multiple tabs open in each, finding the tab you were using to read your email can be painful. With MailPlane, I have an icon on my dock that’s associated with email, and I can quickly get to my MailPlane window by way of Quicksilver. It also has a lot of nifty interface features that I rarely use, mainly because I’m so accustomed to using Gmail in a regular browser window and relying on keyboard shortcuts. I’ve been using MailPlane for about a week, and it would be painful for me to go back to treating Gmail as just a Web application.

The reason I’m calling this a trend is other applications I’m seeing. The first was Pyro, a standalone application for using the Campfire chat application. There’s also eMusic Remote, a customized version of Firefox for the eMusic Web site.

There are also plenty of other applications like offline blog composition tools and Twitter clients that interact with Web sites via Web services, but those fall under a different category.

I think we have Microsoft to thank for these specialized Web browsers. They produced a browser that also worked as a component in other applications. I worked at a company where some developers created a version of Mosaic that ran as a plugin for a videoconferencing application back in 1995, but that project never saw the light of day.

The Web may be the platform of the day for deploying new applications, but I’m not ready to discard all of the advantages of the desktop in favor of doing everything in the limited environment provided by the Web browser. Specialized Web browsers are a good compromise.

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