Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: March 2010 (page 2 of 4)

The secret of the iPhone app store

In an Ars Technica article on the Palm Pre, Jon Stokes explains the benefit the app store provides for the iPhone platform as well as I’ve ever seen:

Even so, you might think 1,000 apps should be plenty to fit everyone’s needs, but then you misunderstand how the iPhone’s App Store contributes to Apple’s success. In short, 100,000 apps is a really, really long tail, and in that tail everyone can find one or two goofy, niche apps that they really like. And when they find those apps—my dad loves the bubble wrap and the Bible translations, my wife loves the koi pond and the kiddie apps that entertain my daughter, and I like the IRC clients—they show it off to friends and family. And when one of my dad’s non-iPhone friends sees the bubble wrap and the six different Bible translations, that person doesn’t say to himself, “my God, it has bubble wrap and Bibles. I must buy this phone.” Rather, he says, “if it has bubble wrap and Bibles, I bet it has something really cool for me, too. I must buy this phone.”

The power of the long tail for app stores is that everyone can find and share a handful of quirky little apps that really excite them for whatever reason. And when they share those apps, they’re essentially shilling for the platform, not the specific apps. Every time two people pull out their iPhones in a crowd and start trading recommendations for incredibly niche apps that fit their specific interests, everyone who doesn’t have an iPhone feels like they’re missing out.

I also learned that the Palm Pre has a mirror on the back. I had no idea.

Photo by Flickr user Ryan Orr.

Why broadband costs so much

Researcher Yochai Benkler explains why broadband Internet access is cheaper in other countries than it is here:

Last year my colleagues and I did a study for the Federal Communications Commission showing that a significant reason that other countries had managed to both expand access and lower rates over the last decade was a commitment to open-access policies, requiring companies that build networks to sell access to rivals that then invest in, and compete on, the network.

These countries realize that innovation happens in electronics and services — not in laying cable. If every company has to dig its own holes, the price of entry is too high and competition falters; over time, innovation lags, and the goal of broader and better access suffers.

I think this is a problem that is endemic in America. While we talk about the free market, the conditions for productive competition that benefits consumers are not present in many cases. For example, in America we have privately owned insurance companies and hospitals. If your state has only one private insurance provider and your town has only one hospital, there is no opportunity for competition to drive costs down.

Revisiting the individual mandate

Back in August, I made the argument that the individual mandate was the linchpin of health care reform. It wasn’t my idea or anything, I’d just read a lot of blog posts and articles on health insurance that led me to that opinion. I’m still sure that I’m right about it.

In a column Friday arguing that Congress should pass the health care reform bill, Paul Krugman succinctly explains the necessity of the individual mandate:

So what’s the answer? Americans overwhelmingly favor guaranteeing coverage to those with pre-existing conditions — but you can’t do that without pursuing broad-based reform. To make insurance affordable, you have to keep currently healthy people in the risk pool, which means requiring that everyone or almost everyone buy coverage. You can’t do that without financial aid to lower-income Americans so that they can pay the premiums. So you end up with a tripartite policy: elimination of medical discrimination, mandated coverage, and premium subsidies.

The very same trends that are driving Medicare costs upward are eroding employer-funded health insurance. If nothing changes, Medicare will have to be dismantled before it bankrupts the federal government, and employers across the country will be forced to drop health insurance as a benefit. If we allow things to reach that crisis point, any solution we implement will be worse than the partial solution this health care bill provides. The bill isn’t perfect, but it’s a place to build from. The status quo is not.

The other day, Ezra Klein posted a graph created by the Commonwealth Fund that showed how the health care reform proposed by Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton would have affected the growth in health care spending had they been enacted. All of them would have saved trillions of dollars. Passing this bill now instead of doing nothing will save us trillions of dollars. And tens of millions of people who would otherwise be uninsured will have health insurance. At this point the options are to pass this bill, or to do nothing. The idea of doing nothing is unthinkable.

Update: This Ezra Klein post is worth a read, Who does health-care reform help?

Stephen O’Grady on software patents

He lists a lot of good reasons to be against software patents, but here’s his favorite:

I am against software patents because it is not reasonable to expect that the current patent system, nor even one designed to improve or replace it, will ever be able to accurately determine what might be considered legitimately patentable from the overwhelming volume of innovations in software. Even the most trivial of software applications involves hundreds, potentially thousands of design decisions which might be considered by those aggressively seeking patents as potentially protectable inventions. If even the most basic elements of these are patentable, as they are currently, the patent system will be fundamentally unable to scale to meet that demand. As it is today.

The argument that designing a functional patent system for software is infeasible is interesting and correct.

Here’s another reason he doesn’t list that I think should give patent advocates pause. If you look at all of the software being written, is there any evidence that companies and projects that apply for patents are creating any more value than the companies and projects that aren’t? And if they are not, what is the point of the patent system?

The impotence of political journalism

I have never agreed with anything so wholeheartedly as I do with this Matt Welch piece calling the media out for its obsession with “narratives”.

Viacom’s YouTube hypocrisy

So copyright giant Viacom is suing YouTube for failing to take the necessary steps to prevent copyrighted material from being distributed through the site. But as it turns out, ViaCom has been secretly uploading its own content to the site for marketing purposes, using third parties and fake names to cover its tracks. Here’s the kicker:

Viacom’s efforts to disguise its promotional use of YouTube worked so well that even its own employees could not keep track of everything it was posting or leaving up on the site. As a result, on countless occasions Viacom demanded the removal of clips that it had uploaded to YouTube, only to return later to sheepishly ask for their reinstatement. In fact, some of the very clips that Viacom is suing us over were actually uploaded by Viacom itself.

Via Daring Fireball.

Defending view source

Dojo developer Alex Russell continues to look out for view source:

If HTML is just another bytecode container and rendering runtime, we’ll have lost part of what made the web special, and I’m afraid HTML will lose to other formats by willingly giving up its differentiators and playing on their turf. Who knows, it might turn out well, but it’s not a vision of the web that holds my interest.

I linked to his previous warning on this subject back in January.

Why’s it taking so long

The big question I’ve had this week with regard to health care reform is, “Why is it taking so long to vote?” The path forward is that the House will pass the Senate bill, and then the House and Senate will pass a small bill that amends the Senate bill by way of reconciliation, so that it can be passed with a simple majority in the Senate. My impression was that the holdup was due to the Democrats having insufficient votes to pass both bills, but that’s actually not the case.

Jonathan Cohn explains:

But, as Lori Montomery explains today in the Washington Post, the devil really is in the details. And the devil, in this case, has a name: the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). In order to satisfy the requirements for the budget reconciliation process, through which Congress will consider the amendments, CBO must certify that the changes will reduce the deficit both in the decade following enactment and the decade following that.

By “reduce the deficit,” I mean reduce the deficit relative to whatever the Senate health care reform bill would do on its own. And that is no small thing. The Senate bill, as written, was projected to save quite a bit of money. As such, the amendments must result in reform, as a whole, saving even more money than the CBO projected originally.

So basically legislators are tinkering with the reconciliation bill and then letting the CBO score it until they get a bill that accomplishes what’s necessary and is eligible for reconciliation. Once we have a bill that’s been scored acceptably by the CBO, we’ll see if the Democrats have enough votes to send it to Obama for his signature.

March Madness dorkiness

As you may or may not know, the NCAA Tournament starts this weekend, and people around you are probably doing their best to predict the winners of all of the games in the tournament. Most years I join one (or more) pools, but I don’t watch enough college basketball to make educated guesses about who will win each game. This year, I wrote a program to do it for me.

I started with Ken Pomeroy’s team ratings. Here’s his explanation for how the system works:

My ratings produce a number that actually means something–it’s the chance of beating an average D-I team on a neutral floor. For instance, Michigan’s current rating of .8006 means that the Wolverines would win 8 out of 10 games against the average D-I team. Every March, I borrow Bill James’ log5 formula to take these ratings and compute probabilities for each team to win its conference tournament.

I’m not sure how the log5 formula got its name, but it’s fairly intuitive. Think of a coin with one side labeled “win” and the other side labeled “loss.” The chance of the coin landing on “win” is the team’s rating. Log5 is derived from the probability that a team’s coin will land on win and its opponent’s coin will land on loss. (If they land on the same side, you re-flip.)

My script takes the source from Pomeroy’s ratings page and reads in all of the teams and their ratings, and then picks a random winner for each game based on the log5 comparison of Pomeroy’s ratings. Here’s the output for a hypothetical Final Four the script generated:

Maryland has a 45% chance of beating Syracuse
Winner: Syracuse

Kentucky has a 56% chance of beating Baylor
Winner: Kentucky

Syracuse has a 51% chance of beating Kentucky
Winner: Kentucky

The script has no way of knowing which teams will upset higher seeded opponents, other than by giving teams that Pomeroy’s system likes a better chance of winning, but it should pick roughly the right number of upsets based on the odds.

I’ve uploaded the script to a repository named bracketologist on GitHub if you want to play with it. It’s written in Ruby.

Apple’s restrictive platform

Here’s Tim Bray (now officially part of the loyal opposition) on the iPhone:

The iPhone vision of the mobile Internet’s future omits controversy, sex, and freedom, but includes strict limits on who can know what and who can say what. It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord’s pleasure and fear his anger.

I hate it.

I hate it even though the iPhone hardware and software are great, because freedom’s not just another word for anything, nor is it an optional ingredient.

I love using the iPhone, but to a growing degree I’m starting to hate the fact that I love using the iPhone.

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