Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: February 2011 (page 1 of 3)

Anatomy of a cool hack

Andy Baio explains how he captured and published the list of stories in The Daily, the iPad-only newspaper, on a Tumblr blog.

More on McDonald’s oatmeal

Ezra Klein has a good response to the Mark Bittman piece on McDonald’s oatmeal that I linked to earlier in the week. Here’s his conclusion:

That gets to the part of this that I think Bittman is really right about, though. His post is basically an attempt to shame McDonald’s into making its “healthy” options, like oatmeal, less unhealthy. And that seems to me to be the key to better eating: better eating out, and better snacking. My lunchtime diet has gotten a lot better since Devon and Blakely opened on 15th and H, as I can now get soup that isn’t terrible. I’d eat less of Kelly’s chocolate if the other choice wasn’t Oreos in the vending machine. My hunch is that a lot of people are willing to opt for a slightly healthier option when they eat out during the day. The success chains like McDonald’s have had with faux-healthy foods suggests I’m right. But when they quietly make the seemingly healthy options into unhealthy foods, they’re making it very difficult for consumers to make better choices.

This problem goes far beyond McDonald’s. Not many products marketed as “healthy” at the grocery store are really that healthy. For example, take a look at this Special K Protein Shake (for weight loss). Each bottle has 18 grams of sugar, almost as much as a normal size bag of Peanut M&M’s. The idea behind these is that you should skip breakfast and drink this bottle of sugary goo instead. Kellogg should also be ashamed.

I have no idea whether shaming works, but Matthew Yglesias is hopeful that offering “healthy” food that’s not healthy instead of obviously unhealthy food is a step on the path toward offering food that’s actually healthy. Maybe he’s right.

What we can learn from McDonald’s oatmeal

Cookbook author and food activist Mark Bittman has a piece in the New York Times taking McDonald’s to task for adding oatmeal to its menu as an ostensibly healthy breakfast alternative and then loading it up with fat and chemicals to the point that from a nutritional standpoint it’s not significantly better than a sausage biscuit.

To me, this says less about McDonald’s than it does about the typical McDonald’s diner. If the restaurant could sell oatmeal that’s actually healthy in the same volume as the unhealthy oatmeal that they offer, they would probably do so. What we can infer from the composition of McDonald’s oatmeal is that the people who order it want to feel like they’re making a positive choice, but that when it comes down to it, their main interest is in eating something that satisfies their craving for fast food. That’s why they’re eating McDonald’s as opposed to making a bowl of cheap, healthy oatmeal in their own home.

This is, I think, a large problem with food activism in general. Food activists want to believe that most people are bamboozled into eating unhealthy diets of processed foods and that a little education will go a long way toward getting people to change their habits. I think it’s much more likely that people appreciate the convenience of processed foods and that food scientists and market researchers in the food industry have a very good idea of exactly which kinds of products people will be eager to buy. McDonald’s makes the oatmeal that they can sell.

My big picture view of Wisconsin

I’ve been watching the battle between the Tea Party governor of Wisconson and the public employees’ unions there with interest. First, let me say that it’s completely obvious that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is clearly trying to take an opportunity to permanently weaken his ideological enemies under the guise of addressing the state’s budget shortfall.

Conservatives hate organized labor, and he’s trying to stick it to organized labor. It’s not much more complicated than that. The question is, do unions, public sector or otherwise, have something to contribute to the national debate? Are they worthy of our support?

In my view, they are. Here’s a graph that’s been going around this week. It’s from a collection of data about income inequality in America published by Mother Jones. I saw the same graphs somewhere else last year, and they struck me then as well.

Inequality ctualdistribwithlegend

What the graph shows is that Americans, generally speaking, don’t know how much wealth is concentrated in the hands of the richest people, and that they think even their perceived distribution is unfair to the people at the lower end of the spectrum.

It’s a simple fact that labor unions are some of the only organized groups actually working to make America’s distribution of wealth look more like the bottom bar and less like the top bar.

The least painful way to address income inequality in America is to restore economic growth and make sure that the people on the lower end of the wealth spectrum benefit more from that grown that the people at the higher end. For the past decade, we saw the opposite – rich people reaped nearly all the gains of economic growth and it was bad for America. These days, conservatives don’t seem to even support policies that will lead to robust growth in the short or long term.

There are two mechanisms by which people from the middle class down can claim a larger share of the spoils of a growing economy. The first is for the government to enact policies that shift the wealth from rich to poor, and the second is for workers to negotiate with their employers for a larger piece of the pie.

Unions assist workers on both fronts so I support them, imperfect as they are.

Will Apple’s in-app purchase terms hurt the iOS platform?

The folks who created Readability have published an open letter to Apple after their app was rejected because it violates the new license terms that require that all purchases made from within applications use Apple’s In App Purchase functionality. Here’s their response:

Before we cool down and come to our senses, we might as well share how we’re feeling right now: we believe that your new policy smacks of greed. Subscription apps like ours represent a tiny sliver of app sales that represent a tiny sliver of your revenue. You’ve achieved much of your success in hardware sales by cultivating an incredibly impressive app ecosystem. Every iPad or iPhone TV ad puts the apps developed by companies like ours front and center. It was a healthy and mutually beneficial dynamic: apps like ours get exposure and you get to show the world how these apps make your hardware shine. That’s why we’re a bit baffled here.

To be clear, we believe you have every right to push forward such a policy. In our view, it’s your hardware and your channel and you can put forth any policy you like. But to impose this course on any web service or web application that delivers any value outside of iOS will only discourage smaller ventures like ours to invest in iOS apps for our services. As far as Readability is concerned, our response is fairly straight-forward: go the other way… towards the web.

I have read plenty of arguments both ways about this new policy, but I’m pretty convinced at this point that aside from whether or not it’s evil and greedy, it’s almost certainly bad business for Apple.

Apple does many things incredibly well, which is why I love their products. The problem is that their confidence leads them to want to force their developers to do things the “Apple way” rather than letting come up with their own ways to do them. The fact that they can also dictate terms that require developers to pay a very large portion of their fees to Apple doesn’t discourage them either.

I suppose it’s possible that the new In App Purchasing framework Apple is mandating is so awesome that it’s worth the 30% you have to pay. In that case, while Apple is losing developers now, they’ll all come running back to take advantage of the new opportunity. It strikes me as more likely, though, that this mandate will be a disaster for Apple, because it snares too many producers who already have existing business models and can’t afford to suddenly start giving 30% of their subscription revenue to Apple.

Update: John Gruber rebuts:

Maybe I’m missing something, but these guys claiming to be surprised and disappointed by Apple’s insistence on a 30 percent cut when their own business model is to take a 30 percent cut strikes me as rich. And how can they claim that Readability isn’t “serving up content”? That’s exactly what Readability does. What they’re pissed about is that Apple has the stronger hand. Readability needs Apple to publish an app in the App Store. Apple doesn’t need Readability.

This gets at the tension. Readability doesn’t need Apple if they can sell their web-based service without them. Apple doesn’t need Readability if they’re one of a relatively small number of defectors from the iOS platform. I honestly have no idea which way this one’s going to go.

Update: Marco Arment explains why the new requirements are burdensome to developers aside from the 30% cut Apple will take. Adapting applications to fit into Apple’s payment framework will be impossible for some applications and require substantial reworking for many applications. That seems like too large a price to pay on top of the large revenue share that Apple will take.

Arment does a good job of listing some corner cases that put developers in a very tough position with regard to Apple’s requirements. I don’t expect Apple to have come up with all of these cases and accounted for them. What they illustrate is that Apple isn’t clever enough to come up with a system that will work for everyone and thus shouldn’t try to force everyone into one system.

Individual health insurance is not available to many individuals

Donna Dubinsky explains how her family was shut out of the individual health insurance market in the New York Times. Here’s how she starts out:

This isn’t the story of a poor family with a mother who has a dreadful disease that bankrupts them, or with a child who has to go without vital medicines. Unlike many others, my family can afford medical care, with or without insurance.

Instead, this is a story about how broken the market for health insurance is, even for those who are healthy and who are willing and able to pay for it.

I realize many people are against the Affordable Care Act, but I don’t see any of them offering feasible proposals for fixing this problem. On the left, the most reasonable alternative is Medicare for everyone. I’d be in favor of that, but there aren’t anywhere close to 60 votes for it in the Senate just as there weren’t when the Affordable Care Act passed. As activists, we can clamor for legislation that won’t actually make it through the legislative process, but it doesn’t do much good for elected leaders to spend too much energy on those types of proposals.

And from the right, what alternatives are on offer? Or is the argument from the right that this is not a problem worth tackling?

Don’t freak out about Watson

Mark Bernstein explains why people shouldn’t be freaking out that Watson the Jeopardy-playing computer means that humans are obsolete:

We’ve made machines that answer questions for a very long time. We need better ways to get answers and better answers. When we decided that it was self-evident that all men are created equal, lots of people were worried: Won’t this be the end of civilized life? Who will make dinner and clean up the mess? I think we can manage.

On a related note, don’t miss Ken Jennings’ first-hand account of facing off against Watson. It’s funny.

Also interesting: Stephen Wolfram explains how to build software that answers natural language questions. Michael Coté looks at the technology behind Watson.

What the Church of Scientology denies

For those of you too lazy to read all ten billion words of Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker article on Paul Haggis and Scientology, here’s a list of the things the Church of Scientology denies:

He staffed the ships with volunteers, many of them teen-agers, who called themselves the Sea Organization. Hubbard and his followers cruised the Mediterranean searching for loot he had stored in previous lifetimes. (The church denies this.)

Scientology defectors are full of tales of forcible family separations, which the church almost uniformly denies.

Hawkins told me that if a Sea Org member sought outside help he would be punished, either by being declared a Suppressive Person or by being sent off to do manual labor, as Hawkins was made to do after Miscavige beat him. The church denies that Hawkins was mistreated …

… he presumed that the church had obtained its information from the declarations that members sometimes provide after auditing. Such confessions are supposed to be confidential. Scientology denies that it obtained the information this way, and Davis produced an affidavit, signed by Scobee, in which she admits to having liaisons.

The church denies that it pressures members to terminate pregnancies.

The church denies this characterization and “vigorously objects to the suggestion that Church funds inure to the private benefit of Mr. Miscavige.”

He worked for fourteen months on the renovation of the Freewinds, the only ship left in Scientology’s fleet; he also says that he installed bars over the doors of the Hole, at the Gold Base, shortly after Rathbun escaped. (The church denies this.)

Cruise brought in two motorcycles to be painted, a Triumph and a Honda Rune; the Honda had been given to him by Spielberg after the filming of “War of the Worlds.” “The Honda already had a custom paint job by the set designer,” Brousseau recalls. Each motorcycle had to be taken apart completely, and all the parts nickel-plated, before it was painted. (The church denies Brousseau’s account.)

Why do all those galley slaves seem so happy?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the users of social sites being “serfs” and “galley slaves.” Scott Rosenberg has a good rundown of these sentiments at his blog. What I find interesting is that these writers don’t seem to offer the basic value proposition of sites like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Posterous, or to an even greater degree, user blogs on sites like the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos.

Social sites enable you to exchange control for audience and convenience. Many people don’t understand this tradeoff fully, but they do understand that signing up for Tumblr or posting their links to Facebook is achievable for them in a way that building their own robust Web presence is not. And plenty of people have moved to positions of more control over the years as their writing gains popularity. Plenty of popular blogs started out under the blogspot.com domain and wound up on their own domains.

I’ve set up blogs in pretty much every way you can, including manually editing an HTML file and uploading it to the server when I created new posts, and for my most recent blog, a link blog for people who are interested in college sports at my alma mater, I set up a Tumblr blog on a custom domain. Why? Mainly because the Tumblr bookmarklet makes it so easy to post things to it. I can just read the news I’d read anyway and quickly turn the interesting news into blog posts.

In the end, most people are writing on the Web for fun, and they’re using the software that lets them keep it fun rather than turning it into work. They understand the strengths and weaknesses of social networking sites far better than the professional writers who see them as serfs.

How black hat SEOs justify their existence

Here’s how an anonymous black hat SEO consultant justifies the existence of his industry:

I think we need to make a distinction between two different kinds of searches — informational and commercial. If you search ‘cancer,’ that’s an informational search and on those, Google is amazing. But in commercial searches, Google’s results are really polluted. My own personal experience says that the guy with the biggest S.E.O. budget always ranks the highest.

That’s from a long New York Times piece on search engine optimization.

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