Name-calling and Non Sequiturs

I may have, once or twice, stooped to derogatory name-calling when mentioning a major public figure in the past. If you look, I’m sure somewhere I may have called G.W. Bush “Shrub” as so many others did, thinking we were witty. But, in general, I referred to him as President Bush or Dubya. I can defend Dubya as not derogatory, as that’s what so many of his friends and family called him for decades. On those occasions when I was childish, I apologize for being childish.

It doesn’t seem that anyone on the Right is capable of calling the current President by his actual name. This does not make them seem witty, any more than referring to Bush as “Shrub” did years ago. Further, it seems that they can’t stop doing it, nor coming up with an ever-increasing list of names they think are clever. Not only are they not clever, they serve as a barrier to entry for anyone not already in the bubble where these things circulate. This may be deliberate on the part of some pundits, but certainly the average person one encounters is merely following along in someone else’s script. This has actually been going on far longer than the Obama administration. I can’t tell you how many times I had to ask someone to whom they were referring when they would use a completely impenetrable nom de wit for a public figure. Uncle Joe, Moochelle, Obummer, etc. – the list seems endless. The effect can frequently be that nobody who isn’t already part of the conservative movement even knows what you’re talking about and therefore won’t engage in conversation. This leads to conservatives erecting a wall of rhetoric, never hearing anything that doesn’t reinforce their belief that libtards and commies and nazis are taking over the government and the UN is leading troops into the US to round every True Patriot up and put them in FEMA camps, financed by the Amero coins and the Law of the Sea Treaty, or whatever Jerome Corsi wrote about this week.

I’m not saying liberals don’t engage in name-calling. I know they do. They’re just not as all-encompassing about it. Most of the liberal pundits will call Boehner by his actual name, no matter how tempting it would be to mispronounce it. And they referred to President Bush by his name most of the time. Most liberals do not call Republicans “Rethuglicans” except when a specific group is acting like bullies. Most of the time, these things are true. When conservatives refer to liberal name calling, they most often point to liberals calling conservatives stupid or racist or misogynist. This is a form of name-calling, to be sure, but they are at least actual words with known meanings, as opposed to “libtard” which is pretty darned weird. My theory on the ubiquity of conservative terms, as contrasted with the truly disorganized liberal canon, is that conservatives are just a whole lot better at staying “on message” and on framing debates. Hell, they even made “liberal” into a term so dirty that most Lefties call themselves progressive now. It’s impressive. The out party is much more likely to engage in rhetorical bomb-throwing, which is why the name-calling and general unpleasantness is heaviest from the Right currently. The Left should not get a pass on this either, but they’re just not as noisy about this particular gambit currently.

And then there are the non sequiturs. Yes, we get it, President Obama (sorry, B. Hussein Obummer) wears “mom jeans.” Haha. And this means what, exactly? At least come up with something that is relevant to the discussion, eh? Sure, it’s possible that unflattering casual wear is a thing that has some importance, but most of us do not work for GQ. Oh, and he wore a bike helmet? Yeah, so did GW Bush when he went for a bike ride as President. It’s just being a good example for the children of the country.

If you can’t call someone by their actual name, if you refer to anyone you don’t agree with by derogatory terms, do you expect to influence anyone? Or are you just trying to prove to your imagined audience of sycophants how clever you are, because you can parrot names someone else coined? It’s pathetic, and it’s a sure way to get blocked or ignored by me anyway. Grow up.

Exempt from Obamacare

If you’re passing around something saying that Congress and federal judges are exempt from the Affordable Care Act, you’re passing around bullshit. There is no health care program called “Obamacare” to be exempt from or to participate in. The federal government’s health insurance already complies with the mandates for coverage contained in the PPACA, so they don’t need to change. Is that “exempt” or is that “already compliant with” in your mind?

Congress is a special case. The GOP inserted language in the PPACA to require congresscritters and their staff members to participate in the health insurance exchanges, rather than stay on their (already PPACA-compliant) federal health insurance. This was a weird thing to do, as the exchanges were intended to be available to people who did not otherwise qualify for employer-provided or other health insurance. It was a deliberate political ploy to portray “Obamacare” as so repellent that the Dems would reject the provision. That ploy failed. They neglected to include language in the law regarding whether the government (as the employer) would continue to pay for the health insurance or not. The OPM issued a ruling this summer saying that, unless another law is passed changing it, the government will still be authorized to pay the same portion of the insurance premium they do for other federal employees. Is that an “exemption” or is that a “unique situation contrived to be as insane as possible” to you?

Many of these memes passing around also state that unions are exempt from “Obamacare.” Since that is still not a specific thing from which to be exempt, what could they possibly mean? Many unions got waivers from a particular provision of the law, which would have required coverage caps to rise to $750,000 by last year and be gone entirely by next year. Some companies and unions didn’t want to pass that expense on to their employees, so they asked for and received waivers until 2014. At that time, the waivers for coverage caps will go away. It’s kind of an exemption, but not from the full force of the law. And, it’s going to go away in a few months. So…not really “exempt from Obamacare” after all. Oh, and only 25% of the waivers have gone to unions, but you know how much the Right hates unions. Now, personally, I would have denied the waivers for caps. That particular provision was intended to prevent people from running out of insurance if they had a long period of illness or an expensive procedure. It’s somewhat inhumane to allow some people to be subject to caps, but not others.

There are some groups which are completely exempt from any health insurance mandate. The two biggest groups are Native Americans and some religious groups. The religious groups which are exempt are the ones which are also exempt from paying into (and drawing from) Social Security, such as the Old Order Amish, and groups which have a mutual self-aid system in place that essentially has everyone pay for anyone’s health care in the group. Also, if you make so little money that you don’t even have to file a federal tax return, you are exempt from the mandate. You’re also in a really crappy life.

Anyway, anything to do with the Affordable Care Act is complex and hard to nail down to just a quick meme, but don’t believe everything that you read just because it feels truthy to you.

Crazy Tablet Time

Tablet computers seem to have matured quite a bit in the past two years, giving the market a great deal of options for consumers to pick through. What’s really amazing is to see the older generations showing up on daily deal sites. Today, the DailySteals folks have the original Galaxy Tab (no 2 or 3 or plus) on sale for $100. That may seem like a great deal for a tablet that got middling reviews on its release, until you realize that its release was in 2010. How is there still any stock left of those things?

Meanwhile, over on Nomorerack, the Sony Xperia Tablet S is available for $280. This is a tablet that was launched 10 months ago for $400, so that may seem like a good deal to you as well. Ten months is not so long ago, and it has the same basic guts as the much-loved Google Nexus 7 (along with a full-size SD card slot for the shutterbugs out there). But, the reviews from last fall should make you think about staying away from that one too. It has issues with GPS lock-on and some strange concepts of when wifi should shut off, along with a skin that sucks some of the power out of that Tegra 3 chip. It might be a good deal, if you never use GPS and don’t need background data to run when the tablet is asleep, but then again this does appear to be a time of great new tablets this fall so you may want to wait just a little while.

Google is probably going to introduce the NewNexus 7 or whatever they end up calling it (the only inventory screen I’ve seen calls it the Nexus 2 7″ for what that’s worth) very soon. It’s showing up all over the place, and looks to be a giant leap above the rest of the 7″ tablet pack. And, there are a pack of Tegra 4 and Snapdragon-powered tablets from other manufacturers in the pipeline. If you’re a portable gaming geek, you probably already ordered your Nvidia Shield.

Last August, I bought a Motorola Xoom, not really sure if I’d really use it but willing to drop $200 for an $800 device. It turns out that I use it a lot, with the Chromebook just collecting dust for months now. With that in mind, I’m really looking forward to reading the reviews of the new batch of tablets when they come out. The Asus Transformer is what I’m leaning toward, as I’d certainly get the keyboard dock and then have a decent typing experience on the tablet when I needed it, while Asus has developed a great reputation with their previous tablets (let’s just forget about the TF201 entirely, shall we?). While I was willing to “go cheap” on the Xoom, just to test the waters, I’ll probably consider my next tablet a serious purchase, so no last-year’s refurb for me this time around.

Anyone else watching the tablet wars?

Trayvon Martin

Like anyone else with a functioning neocortex and access to modern media, I have an opinion about the Trayvon Martin shooting. And, like almost everyone else, my opinion was worth exactly zero in the legal proceedings that just ended. This is what is supposed to happen; if you’re not part of the case, your vote is not counted. Also, the media don’t share every iota of information that the jury received, but do add a lot of information that the jury is told to ignore from a legal standpoint. This is just how things work in America. There are rules of evidence that are fundamental to ensuring that innocent people don’t get convicted. These rules don’t always work, to be sure (check out The Innocence Project if you ever feel that police and DAs are infallible), but there are rules nonetheless.

The evidence that is agreed true by all legal experts is that Zimmerman saw Martin walking in the rain at night, in a neighborhood that has had a rash of burglaries. Zimmerman was told by the police dispatcher that they would prefer he not confront Martin directly, but that was not a legal order, just a request. Between that moment and the moment that the police showed up, the only other thing we all know for sure is that Zimmerman fired his pistol and killed Martin. We do not know who the original aggressor was. We do not know if Zimmerman was acting under some racist animus. We do not know what Zimmerman and Martin said to each other. If you claim to know, you’re wrong. If you claim that Martin assaulted Zimmerman before he was killed in self-defense, you are making that up. If you claim that Zimmerman gunned Martin down in cold blood, you are making that up. You just do not know.

I have my own biases and beliefs and feelings about the case, and I think Zimmerman is a well-meaning man who did something stupid that ended tragically. But, I don’t know that for sure, and it’s equally likely that any number of scenarios are true. The problem I had with the case from the beginning was not that a “white” (hispanic is not a race, no matter what Nixon thought) man shot a black “kid” (17 is not a little kid). The problem I had was the lack of a real investigation at the beginning. If Florida did not have a “stand your ground” law, the police would not have been allowed to just let Zimmerman leave the scene that night on his own. If the police weren’t so lenient with their definitions of what “your ground” meant, they would have launched a real strong investigation that night, rather than dropping it until public outcry forced them to investigate. That seems like a problem to me. You may disagree, and that’s fine.

Once the investigation was complete, it seems that the DA didn’t really have a good case but felt compelled to go to trial anyway, because of the same public outcry. This led to the fairly bizarre trial we just saw unfold. If the DA really didn’t think it had a case, it should have dropped it after the investigation. The Zimmerman trial did not help anyone feel good about our justice system.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of posts on Facebook with titles like “What about …” with some other shooting victim’s name at the end. These are all, without exception, some white kid who was killed by a black man. If that isn’t a classic case of race-baiting, the term has no meaning. What about those other people? Well, did their killers get investigated? Did their killers get charged with a crime, if it was deemed appropriate? That’s the difference, not what skin tone the guy with the gun had. If you think the uproar last year was because a white guy shot a black guy and got away with it, you’re not paying attention.

I’m really happy to see that most of the protests about Zimmerman being acquitted are peaceful (what’s up with Los Angeles?). I hope everyone understands that being acquitted in a criminal trial means that the jury found some reasonable doubts about his guilt. It does not mean that he was an angel or a devil, just that there is reasonable doubt. That’s how things are supposed to work. Sometimes, we let people go who might be guilty, rather than lock people up who might be guilty. If you think Zimmerman is a horrible person, it may make you feel better to realize that he’s going to be paranoid about vigilante justice coming for him for a long time to come. That may be irony.

Dear Abby

There are a number of media personalities who define an era. Those of us in Generation X grew up with a few TV networks and a relative conformity in popular culture until the late 1980s. This led to a few names being instantly recognizable, even if they were originally marketed to our parents and not to us. This was, after all, before the rise of child-centered life in America, when we were expected to be seen and not heard and did not get a veto over things in the home. It seems the icons of the Boomer generation are almost all gone now, and so the comfortable feeling of Gen X childhood memories are tainted as well.

My mother has always been a reader, and the books I read when I was a kid (at least between library visits) were frequently hers. Thus, I became a fan of Erma Bombeck, one of the great humorists of the 1970s and 1980s, who could be considered a precursor to the “mommy blogger” phenomenon of today. Erma died far too young in 1996, but I still remember the cover art for “The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.”

In the days of the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio was not nearly as pervasive and fragmented as it is today. One voice that everyone knew was Paul Harvey. When I attended a broadcast journalism class in the early 1980s, we put together a television news and commentary show. I chose to use the persona of Saul Garvey, which I thought was clever at the time. Paul Harvey died in 2001. And that’s the rest of the story.

We didn’t always have cameras following our every move in public, and we certainly didn’t have YouTube to share our private moments of embarrassment or inadvertent comedy. From 1948 until 1993, we got our dose of schadenfreude from Allen Funt and “Candid Camera.” Rarely mean-spirited, the pranks were hilarious and rather obvious to our older, jaded eyes today. Allen Funt died in 1999. I like to think he was smiling, and in on the joke.

This week, another of the great figures of the latter half of the 20th Century left us. Abigail van Buren was the woman everyone looked to for advice from 1956 until 2002. With wit and empathy, she made us all feel that she could be trusted with any secrets. Pauline Phillips died in 2013. Sadly, she was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was unlikely to be very much like her old self, but we can remember her wit, and her daughter continues the column with some inherited awesomeness.

I don’t think the younger generations will ever know the monolithic nature of popular culture we lived with before 100 channels of television and high-speed internet came along. We have so many more choices today than we did twenty years ago, not to mention the dark ages of the 1970s. Choices are great, and I love the options we have today. But, will there ever again be someone who is going to be remembered as such a pervasive part of everyday life as Dear Abby?

What Does Gun Control Actually Control?

There is a great deal of hyperbole, misleading statistics, and just outright lying surrounding the great gun control debate. Conspiracy theorists have also thrown their crazy two cents into the mix, which may be entertaining but ultimately not helpful. I approach many things with a scientific mindset. That is not to say that I have no emotions, but merely that it is better to look at things which have evidence for or against and weigh that evidence. Saying that something should work because you think it is obvious in no way proves that it will work in practice. Many things which I have thought to be true are not.

One statistic I’ve seen recently says that a handgun in the home is more than 20 times more likely to be used against a member of the household than to defend them. This includes suicides as well as domestic violence and accidents, and is certainly plausible. A reasonable person might like to prevent the bad things which arise from gun ownership, but keep the good (home defense). Is that even possible? The President says he wants to prevent avoidable gun violence, but not infringe on the Constitutionally protected right of individuals to own firearms. That’s a laudable goal, but how would you do that, exactly?

An old friend and Army buddy (which feels weird to say, like I’m in an old movie) lived in Chicago a number of years ago. She wanted to own a handgun but it was illegal. Chicago has one of the most restrictive gun control regimes in the country, yet the city is rife with illegal guns and gun violence. It’s possible to argue that removing legal guns from Chicago homes may have eliminated their use in domestic violence, accidental discharges, and suicides. But, it certainly didn’t reduce the number of criminals with guns. Is the tradeoff worth it? Did the tradeoff actually work to begin with? An honest gun control advocate would have to admit that the only way to prevent the bad things is to also prevent the good things. You simply can’t have it both ways. Meanwhile, thugs continue to own guns in great numbers.

And then there’s the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004 and Senator Feinstein wants to bring back. Some of the things which this legislation banned in 1994 included folding stocks on semi-automatic rifles and large handguns with threaded barrels (to accept flash suppressors). The idea that those things make a weapon more deadly is laughable. Banning cosmetic features in no way changes the lethality of a weapon. The media seem to be almost obsessed with the term “semi-automatic” which they obviously don’t understand. Every pistol I’ve ever held was a semi-automatic. Almost every rifle I’ve seen was a semi-automatic. If you don’t have to pull a charging handle every single round, it’s semi-automatic. That in no way indicates what the rate of fire of that weapon is, but it sure sounds like it means something. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the assault weapons ban of 1994 and could not state that it was effective at its goal of decreasing gun violence. You would think ten years of a law would produce unequivocal evidence of its utility. The fact that it didn’t should make any new law subject to extreme scrutiny.

One of the few provisions that could potentially cause a slight decrease in the effectiveness of mass shooters is banning high-capacity magazines. But, there are still plenty of large magazines available, and a recent demonstration shows that a hard plastic magazine can be produced on a 3D printer, so that genie is no longer anywhere near the bottle. And, even if the ban on high-cap magazines worked to slow mass shooters, how many gun deaths per year are from mass shootings? Over 30,000 people died from a gunshot wound in the USA in 2010. According to the Brady Campaign, 225 people were killed in mass shootings in 2010. If every mass shooting that year was prevented entirely, that would have been nothing to the overall gun violence rate. The legislation as proposed and as implemented in 1994 is a flawed “solution” to one nearly insignificant part of the larger problem. Of those 30,000 people in 2010, nearly 19,000 of them were suicides. What law can even be conceived of that would prevent that?

And then we have the “blame the media” approach taken by a large number of misguided people from both sides of the gun control debate. Study after study has been done, attempting to find some link between violence on television or in video games and violence in real life. These studies have generally shown no such link. Most people are capable of discriminating between reality and fiction, and many people actually find catharsis rather than inspiration in these things. Oh, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly found 1st Amendment protections apply to media anyway.

I have no solutions; I propose no path forward. I merely point out that we must have truth in our debates, or we’ll never get anywhere. Reenacting a ban on bayonet lugs and barrel shrouds will do nothing, because it was tried and did nothing. Banning violent video games will do nothing, and is unconstitutional besides. Banning handguns has done nothing to make Chicago safer. These are things which we have tried. They have not worked. Trying them again is stupid and possibly insane. Doing something just to be seen doing something is no way to make society better or safer. Gun violence engenders a great deal of emotion, as does gun control. Emotion drives us to try to fix things, which is great, but we need logic in our laws.

It’s Not That Simple

Why do these things happen? Why do they keep happening? What can we do to stop them from happening?

These are the obvious questions asked, screamed, and cried out whenever something as horrific as the Newtown murders or the Aurora murders reach the national news. We want things to make sense, and we want to fix things which are broken. For many years, various groups have worked to demonize various trends, items, and products in order to stop violence. There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer, but we don’t want to deal with complex ones. There may not even be a complex answer.

Homicide by weapon

Homicide by weapon 1976-2004

First, is gun violence on the rise in the United States or not? If you watch the news, you’d think every public place is only a hair’s breadth from utter annihilation from a nut with a gun. Although gun violence in America is higher than most other industrialized nations by a rather large ratio, it’s actually not at a particularly high level compared to our own historical norm. Many people think that we live in especially dangerous times, but that’s simply not true. We’re no more in danger now than in 1975. Of course, our parents didn’t have four channels of 24-hour news that needed to be filled. We hear about more violence, but that doesn’t mean we are experiencing more violence. So, we aren’t seeing any more gun violence than our parents saw.

Second, is restricting gun ownership a panacea that would prevent gun violence? This seems obvious to many people. More guns must lead to more gun crimes, after all. But, other countries have higher rates of gun ownership than the USA does, and have much lower levels of gun-related homicide. Switzerland is a great example. Every able-boded male between 18 and 50 is a member of Switzerland’s armed forces and there are approximately 2 million firearms in private hands in that country of 6 million people. Approximately 25% of Swiss households have a firearm in the home. That’s about the same percentage as the USA (The Swiss have 46 guns per 100 people and we have 88 guns per 100 people in the USA, since we seem to have a lot more collectors or arsenal-builders here). There were 0.52 gun homicides per 100,000 citizens in Switzerland in 2010. In the USA, that was 3.2 – over six times the rate. So, availability of weapons doesn’t necessarily lead to more gun violence.

Finally, does media violence lead to actual violence? We are not the only country with violent video games and television shows and movies. Yet, we are an outlier in terms of gun violence compared to those other countries. Studies sometimes show that violent imagery can cause violent behavior, but the imagery is usually out of context and not how we actually encounter those images in real media consumption. Further, looking at violent behavior in a lab is only interesting to the researchers; looking at the rise of media violence and whether that correlates to real-world violence is what matters to society. There is no such correlation. As anyone who has lived through the past thirty years could tell you, media violence has not decreased and yet (as shown above) gun violence has decreased. If there’s any causative motion, you might be able to claim that the rise of more violent video games in the 1990s (as opposed to the cartoonish games of the 1980s) has actually caused us to become less violent. There is no proof for that statement, but if you look merely at correlation and ignore plausible causation, you could make that argument. So, media doesn’t make our citizens more violent.

What does make the United States different from other countries? Why do we have more gun violence than societies similar to our own? Why does Canada have one-quarter the gun-related homicide rate the USA has? Is our society so different from Canada and England and all the other industrialized nations? Before we try to make sweeping changes to our laws, it might be educational to figure out whether the things we want to change would plausibly make any difference. It’s not as simple as “more guns” or “fewer guns” or “video games” – it’s not obvious, and it’s not something we have figured out yet. It’s not a new problem, it’s not an increasingly large problem, but it’s definitely a difficult problem. Banning one thing or another might feel like the right thing to do, but it likely won’t make a difference.

This does not mean we should just give up and accept a certain level of murders because we don’t have a simple answer to fix the problem. But, we need to actually identify the cause of the problem before we can fix it.

Tablet Thoughts

Two months ago and with the urging of my lovely bride, I splurged on a toy I did not need but has become quite frequently used – a Xoom tablet. For those not immersed in the Android geek zeitgeist, the Xoom was intended to be the first “Pure Android” tablet, the first one actually blessed by Google, and hoped to be the iPad Killer. It fell short of killing much of anything, but all the reviewers said it was a nice piece of kit, just too expensive. In the Spring of 2011, it was a $799 device; in August of 2012, it was $199. My how the mighty have fallen.

This is not to say that it’s not a great device, it was just priced out of the market. 800 bucks is how much I spend on a desktop computer that can play Crysis, it’s not even close to what I’d pay for something that I use to surf the web from my recliner. It’s obvious that I’m not the only one with that opinion, as the $200 7″ tablet market is quite competitive. Somehow, nobody has been able to beat Apple on the price and quality of their 10″ tablets, but since Steve Jobs famously said that 7″ tablets were stupid and wrong, Amazon was able to get a toehold there. People like $200 devices. When the VCR was young, it had to drop to $200 before people would buy them. The same phenomenon happened with CD players, DVD players, ad nauseum. At $500 or more, the iPad is a luxury item and requires thinking and planning to purchase for most of us. At $200, the Kindle Fire was a ludicrously popular Christmas gift.

Now we have the iPad Mini on the market, a 7.9″ shrunken iPad 2 and the cheapest iPad ever. Of course, it’s not the cheapest decent tablet ever – that’s the $159 Kindle Fire (2012 edition). These two devices should probably not be compared head-to-head, since even the rather elderly silicon in the iPad Mini can kick the Fire’s digital butt without raising a sweat. But, we also have the Google Nexus 7, which is cheaper and more powerful than the Mini. And, we also have the coming Nexus update next week, with promised price drops and a higher-memory model. We’ll see how that works out.

There was a rather strange period in the Mini introduction where Apple showed how much larger a 7.9″ screen was compared to a 7″ screen. Of course, they used the aspect ratio to their advantage as well, only demonstrating applications that didn’t take advantage of a 16:9 screen. But, using the number of inches of screen as a discriminating factor seems odd to many geeks – we care much more about the number of pixels. And here, the Mini is at a disadvantage. There is not a tablet on the market from a big manufacturer other than the Fire (non-HD variant) with a lower number of pixels than the Mini. I’m sure the screen is quite pretty, but it’s just a peculiar thing to go on about.

Much more important in the comparison was the problem of Android tablet apps. They suck. I’ve had my Xoom for two months now, and I’ve never used an iPad of any kind for comparison, but Android tablet apps are a mixed bag of great and shitty designs. I love using my Xoom as a radio for when I’m reading, tuning into KROQ in Los Angeles or KNDD in Seattle. None of the online radio apps recognizes that a tablet is not a phone. They all have portrait-only interfaces and are just crappy to operate. Even Pandora, which has a decent tablet app that wastes a relatively low amount of space, has a homescreen widget that doesn’t work on a landscape orientation without cutting off its control buttons. Games are a definite bright spot, but I notice that a lot of games on Android are subsets of their iOS equivalents. I loved Galaxy on Fire 2, but it’s not a very long game until you look at the DLC. This DLC is, unfortunately, only available on Apple products. Android gets the base game and should be happy for it! I really like Plants vs. Zombies on Windows, but the Android version is incompatible with anything using Android 4.x – so that kills it for the Nexus 7 and my updated Xoom as well as any newer devices coming out. There are a lot of reasons for the moribund application development for Android tablets (market share, fragmentation, piracy, to name a few), but I’ll let analysts beat that drum. Looking at it from an end-user perspective, it just sucks.

So, Apple points out that of the gajillion apps in the App Store, over a quarter million of them are tablet-specific. And when Apple says tablet-specific, they don’t mean, “make your phone app bigger.” Those apps are well-designed and use the large screen of the tablet to good effect. The ecosystem is an ever-more-important part of a gadget purchasing decision. Amazon realized that early on, with their Kindle ereader producing massive lock-in and extending that to the Kindle video and music ecosystems. Apple has been heavily invested in promoting their iTunes/App Store ecosystems and they are winning this competition. The race isn’t even close, and anyone who claims otherwise should probably be examined professionally.

Apple charges a premium when you just compare the hardware. But, there’s no fragmentation in their App Store, and there’s a great supply of apps. Is the enormous gulf between iPad apps and Android tablet apps enough to validate charging $130 more for worse hardware? As we get closer to the holiday purchasing frenzy, it should be interesting to watch how much people are willing to pay for the ecosystem over the hardware.

Surface = Zune

Microsoft’s announced Surface tablets remind me of Zune and not just because of the Metro interface. Sure, it looks nice. Almost everyone who ever touched a Zune said they were built phenomenally well. But there aren’t that many people who touched one. Why is that?

Of course, the “late to market” problem is obvious. Zune came to market after the iPod had already eaten Creative’s lunch and only a few players like Sandisk and Sony stuck around with new devices, all of which worked with Microsoft’s own “PlaysForSure” system. Network effects will lead to a difficult path for pure Metro apps, now that iPad and Android have years of customer buy-in behind them. Would you leave your current environment, just to buy all the programs you use a second time? This assumes that the programs actually materialize. And a tablet without Angry Birds is no tablet at all.

Besides the network effects, the Windows RT experience duplicates the Zune (and iOS too) in the locked-down nature of the entire ecosystem. You can’t boot anything but WinRT on the tablet (UEFI is locked), you can’t install anything except approved Metro apps from the Windows Store, there is no sideloading and no bypassing the paywall. Anyone who likes that sort of thing already has an iPad. Those who find those restrictions onerous won’t buy an iOS device nor WinRT device.

Competing with your own customers is a very Zune-like move I see in the Surface tablet. Zune tried a completely new ecosystem, ignoring the PlaysForSure ecosystem which had preceded it and annoying Microsoft’s former partners in the process. Surface tablets are going to be competitively priced with Microsoft’s own partners’ tablets. That’s not really competitive, it’s predatory in many minds.

Not Zune-like, but still weird to me is the whole announcement itself. I’d have thought that manufacturers would have learned by now that vapor announcements are just stupid. Look at Apple – they announce something when it’s ready for sale. Those few items which they may “pre-announce” have solid shipping dates and prices. Microsoft says their tablets will be competitively priced and will arrive eventually. Also, nobody was allowed to touch the full Windows Pro tablets. It makes one wonder if they’re hiding something there – not ready for even sympathetic tech media to handle?

Those covers do look neat though. So there’s that.

They Grow Up So…well, eventually

The Boy really surprised me this Father’s Day. Part one of the surprise is that he actually remembered the day, although that may be thanks to Kat. The next part of the surprise is how nice a gift he got me. It was relevant and not cheap (Calphalon bakeware to replace some of the cheaper things banging around in the kitchen). Finally, we were at the local media store (books are such a small part of their stock) and he ran off to buy a t-shirt. He used that t-shirt to wrap the pans! Not only generous, but ingenious as well. And the shirt was Doctor Who themed, so bonus points there.

All around, I could not have asked for a better recognition that I’ve got some sort of place in his heart. Maybe this parenting stuff is working after all.

Everybody’s Special

Seeing as many birthday parties as I do (helping Kat at her job), it’s obvious things are different from When I Was A Kid. The new kid order is further highlighted by the end of the school year, which I’ll get to in a moment. First, parties.

Back when I was a kid, the only one who left a birthday party with anything other than cake in their belly was the birthday kid. I don’t know when it changed, but by the time Alex was attending birthday parties, the gift bag culture had developed. If you didn’t hand out candy and toys to the guests at a party, good luck getting your kid invited to anyone else’s. Are we teaching kids that even on a day when one kid is rightfully the center of attention, everyone is still Special?

When I was a kid, the only graduation ceremony you had (before college) was when you got a diploma after 12th grade. That is graduating. Any graduation that ends with, “See you in the fall” is not much of a graduation. I understand marking major events in a child’s life, but when Alex “graduated” from kindergarten, I don’t think he nor his classmates gave a damn about it. The whole thing was for the parents to prove their kid is Special. When he “graduated” from elementary school a year ago, I’m pretty sure the kids didn’t care much either. The boys seemed uncomfortable in their nice clothes, but otherwise they acted like it was just another day. Which it was!

I suppose in two years, he’ll “graduate” from middle school. It still won’t mean much to him, nor should it. Why have we started doing this? If your child doesn’t know how much you appreciate him on a regular basis, if your child doesn’t know how much you love him every day, do you really think a silly ceremony is going to make him feel Special? It seems like we’d be better off celebrating our kids’ individual (or team) achievements when they happen, rather than just wrapping up the year with one big ceremony. It seems to be an admission that we don’t have time to recognize actual accomplishments if we recognize “not being held back a grade” as worthy of a ceremony. When everyone is special, nobody is.

Aero Dead

According to Microsoft’s Windows 8 blog, Aero is dead in Win8. This is being touted by many of the geek press as a long-overdue reduction in skeuomorphism, and a move to a “purely digital” view of the computer environment, rather than viewing everything on the computer as a metaphor for a real-world object. Of course, the original Windows wasn’t very analog, but it did pepper physical objects around as icons (a floppy disk, painter’s pallet, etc.).

BeOS A number of commentators make it sound as though Microsoft is doing something radically new and different, with flat colors and sharp corners. They seem to have forgotten every other operating environment ever. For a quick look at some examples, here’s a post I wrote comparing BeOS and Mandrake Linux to Windows 98 (yes, that long ago). Notice the BeOS windows? They look nothing like a real-world object, and they use bright primary colors and minimal shading. Huh. Imagine that.

I’m not trying to say that moving away from shiny translucency is a bad thing. All that extra compositing the graphics engine has to do just wastes cycles, and who really needs fuzzy drop shadows anyway? I think Microsoft is trying to squeeze as much battery life out of portables as possible, and making the graphics card less stressed is a good way to do that. I can’t help but wonder when the Apple i-world is going to start reducing skeuomorphs. I understand the address book is particularly hideous.

Tivo vs. MythTV

It’s been over a month since my MythTV DVR committed suicide and I replaced it with a Tivo from my cable company. I think I’ve explored the features enough to be able to deliver a decent comparison of the two. Overall, I think I’d be very satisfied with a Tivo if I’d never used MythTV. Let me go into some more detail.

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We’ve Come a Long Way

Every so often, an event reminds me of the rapidly changing face of technology. I was reading a review of Gnome Shell this morning, and of course there’s the never-ending stream of iPad news this month…but the trigger for me this week was the purchase of a terabyte hard drive and being upset that it cost over $100. Coincidentally, it’s almost exactly 20 years since I got my first Windows PC. Let me take a look at how far I’ve come from that old CompUSA 486 to my current machine, which I call Ralf (the Wise and Powerful).

My desktop computer now has 2.5 terabytes of fixed disk storage and 1.5 terabytes of external storage. The 486 had 120 megabytes, so I’ve got twenty thousand times more storage space. The single-core 486 had a 33 megahertz clock, and Ralf has 3.0 gigahertz quad-core chip – 90 times the clock speed and at least five hundred times the computer power (bogomips of around 800 times greater).

While the 486 had 4 megabytes of RAM, Ralf has 12 gigabytes – three thousand times more memory. In 1992, I was glad to have a 14″ monitor, with the impressive resolution of 800×600 with 16-bit color; my 24″ LCD has 1920×1080 resolution and 32-bit color – five times the number of pixels and ten times the video bandwidth.

One of the most influential games of 1992 was Dune II – the first realtime strategy game to become a hit and the precursor to Warcraft. 2012 is barely begun, but it’s hard not to think of Mass Effect 3 as being a big deal on the PC.

Wow, have we come a long way in twenty years.
Also on my desk, I have a Chumby One. The Chumby has a 454 megahertz processor, 64 megabytes of RAM, 1 gigabyte of storage, and a 320×240 touchscreen. Except for the screen resolution, the Chumby beats the 486 by leaps and bounds – it cost me 45 bucks.

Playlist for Life

I was thinking about playlists (formerly known as mixtapes) the other day and decided to make one that involves songs which evoke a particular location or event. Since this set of criteria is so loose as to allow a playlist of thousands of songs, I set myself some rather arbitrary limits. It had to fit on a standard audio CD (74 minutes) and each song had to be specific to a particular location/time and only one song per location/time. So, although high school is four years long, it gets one song. I went to Korea three times for a total of four years, so that’s three songs (one per trip). I also decided that any trip of less than two months didn’t count. So, no song for BNCOC or CEWIOC or business trips. Here’s the 57 minutes I ended up with; commentary follows:

Doug E Fresh La Di Da Di
Living Colour Cult of Personality
Violent Femmes Blister in the Sun
Faith No More Epic
Ministry Everyday Is Halloween
Divinyls I Touch Myself
Ace of Base The Sign
Soundgarden Black Hole Sun
Los Del Rio Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)
Smash Mouth Walkin’ On The Sun
Kid Rock Bawitdaba
Transplants Diamonds and Guns
Evanescence Bring Me To Life
The Waterboys When Will We Be Married?

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The Well-Heeled Gamer

Bloomberg News recently posted their look at how much it costs a family of four to be gamers. They apparently believe a family of four to be composed of members of Michael Bloomberg’s family, because they came up with some whoppers for their hardware choices.

They believe that gamers pay $3000 for a gaming PC and $800 for the monitor, in addition to having an Xbox 360 with surround sound system attached to a 60″ television and paying $200 per month for internet service. WTF?

I can play every game out there for Windows, and I built my machine over a year ago for $800, plus (generously estimating) $250 for the monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Today, you can easily buy a gaming PC or laptop that will play Crysis 2 or Arkham City or Skyrim for under $1000, all in.

They don’t stop with just a few ridiculous assumptions, though. They also believe we gamers routinely pay $250 for headsets. We all own iPod Touches, $250 chairs with built-in speakers, and pay full MSRP for 70 games per year (30 Xbox, 30 Steam and 10 iPod).

All of this stupidity leads them to say it costs $17000 per year to be a gamer. They are smoking crack. I buy at least a dozen or so games per year, but I never pay full price. I maybe drop $200 on games for the year, not the $2000 that Bloomberg thinks I do. And how many gamers who don’t work for a magazine actually own a steering wheel or other exotic add-ons? Nuts.

Adventures in Customer Service H&D

I’ve been wary about ordering from Harry & David since their bankruptcy last year, but finally could stand the lack of Moose Munch no longer. The local Target used to carry a nice array of H&D products, but I presume the bankruptcy is to blame for the disappearance of my beloved popcornd and chocolate snack.

Using my mother’s birthday as an excuse to treat myself (hey, I was already ordering from them anyway!), I picked out four flavors of yummy goodness and awaited the mail delivery. Opening the package, I couldn’t help but wonder if my fingers were working without conscious thought on ordering day. Why would I have nothing but milk chocolate products? Why did I have two of the same one? This can’t be right… I hit the email archive to see what I’d actually ordered, and I wasn’t crazy – Harry & David screwed up my order. *sigh*

After alerting them, I got an email two days later (which is an eternity in internet time, but they are primarily a fruit delivery company so we must make allowances) which told me they were shipping me the correct set and to please keep the wrong order as well.

So, that worked. I’m still wary of post-bankruptcy H&D, but at least I got some extra confection out of the deal. Oh, and their S’Mores flavor is really good.

Stoopid Suddenlink

While playing Cityville and checking GearDiary for new geekery, suddenly the internet stopped. DNS requests are failing as unresolved for such smaller and little-known sites as Google. As of now, 20 minutes later, I cannot get to Google or Facebook or Youtube or GearDiary. Somehow, I can get to Woot and LOLCats and Livejournal.  Yet another example of high quality Suddenlink service.

SOPA

There are some people who are expressing incredulity that anyone believes the Internet Blackout scheduled for the 18th is a good idea. The argument goes something like this, “Not producing content on Wednesday is like not buying gasoline on Wednesday. You’ll just do the writing on Tuesday or Thursday, so what do you gain?” This fungibility theory of content is, I think, missing the point. While boycotting Texaco for one day is relatively pointless and unnoticed by the corporation you’re trying to hurt, that is not at all like blacking out Wikipedia for one day.

While gasoline boycotts are intended to send a message to the big oil companies (who don’t even notice the blip), the Internet Blackout is intended to raise awareness among the non-geek set. Those of us who read Gizmodo or Slashdot are very well versed in SOPA/PIPA and DMCA and all the other acronyms we hate to see pop up in a news story. But, think about your less-geeky friends who don’t know that DMCA is evil and don’t know what DRM is. They are like Jon Stewart, who only last week had someone in his audience ask him about SOPA and he had to profess complete ignorance. The normal folks in the world have not been following the SOPA debate and they aren’t mad about the United States attempting to erect the same sort of censorship plans as China (with the added benefit of giving corporations nearly unilateral police powers to shut down any site they don’t like).

How to get those non-geek people to add their voices to those of Vint Cerf and Eric Schmidt (who have already been ignored by Congressional committees because they don’t understand all that computer stuff)? You need to get their attention in a way that is hard to ignore. Since most people use Google regularly and Wikipedia frequently, slapping a giant black banner on those sites with, “Imagine if this site was down forever” will make at least some of them pay attention to what our elected representatives are proposing to do in our names. SOPA is bad legislation, it’s bad information security, it’s bad business. And, it won’t stop one damned pirate anyway.

Andysocial.com will be offline tomorrow. I know nobody will notice, since I have virtually no visitors, but it makes me feel better anyway.

Gary's random musings and clippings