Unmistakable Marks

Warranted Genuine Snarks

The Pahr of Stahle

(As they say in places where they pronounce things funny. Texas, maybe.)

Anyway, when it comes to style, forget about Apple. Let’s talk about the Nintendo DS, which used to look like this and now looks like this. Just a minor cosmetic restyle, nothing major.

Unless you look at the sales figures, anyway.

Note to everyone who is not Steve Jobs: Pay attention to aesthetics.

Comments | August 16, 2006

RIP PlaysForSure

So you may have heard about Microsoft’s “Zune” initiative, which is a whole suite of media stuff — a line of players, software, a store — designed to take on Apple’s iTunes/iPod complex. And you may remember that Microsoft already has technology designed for this purpose, the PlaysForSure suite of protocols — the ones that they license to bunches of device manufacturers (iRiver, Creative, Toshiba, Dell) and services (URGE, Napster, Rhapsody, Yahoo). And it turns out that Zune doesn’t work with PlaysforSure.

Microsoft seems to be pretending that this isn’t the end of the road for PFS, but c’mon. They’re going to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars promoting and developing Zune, it’s a major strategic move for them, they’ve decided internally that PFS isn’t good enough for Zune, and they still want people to believe that PFS is in anything other than legacy support mode at this point? Nobody’s stupid enough to buy that.

The irritating thing is, this is a stupid move. Yeah, Apple is still dominating the market right now, but the PFS ecosystem is getting better on a daily basis, and in another six months to a year, it’d probably start making noticeable inroads to Apple’s marketshare; in five years, the combined weight of every non-Apple company in the world would likely be enough to make Apple a niche player. But no. Microsoft is determined to learn the wrongest lesson of all from Apple, that a closed system controlled end-to-end by one company with no point of integration for anyone else (except through a stupid “dock accessories” connector) is the way to go. It’s frustratingly wrong, and will only hurt consumers as they get their choice of walled gardens, with no way for clever and innovative companies to get their products in the mix.

Comments | July 27, 2006

After a long absence, I address the pressing issue of consumer electronics

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Well, here’s the deal: It turns out that I am most compelled to post when almost nobody is saying the sensible thing that I want to say. But these days, on most of the topics I pay attention to, it’s all sense, all the time. Bush? He’s a fuck-up, and everyone knows it. Using CSS on Web pages? Duh; it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when this was an argued point. Microsoft has switched from being incompetent fuck-ups to making excellent software? Obvious to everyone, now.

So I’ve got nothing to say. Or rather, I had nothing to say, and then I started reading articles about HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, which are more full of shit than a pile of, um, shit-filled boxes or something. According to everything you’ve probably read or heard, the new formats are barely better than regular ol’ DVD, it’s ridiculously silly to buy one now, and Blu-Ray is probably better if you are going to buy one. All so, so wrong. Let’s take ‘em in order.

“HD-DVD looks a little nicer than the regular DVD, but most people won’t notice.” Only if most people are not using HDTVs. HD-DVD is the single best HD source available — it’s better than cable, better than the trailers you can download off Xbox Live, and better than satellites. Everyone who’s ever seen HDTV knows that HD content is much, much better than old-style NTSC content, so why would the best HD source available not be a huge improvement over DVD? In reality, of course, it is. HD-DVD looks stunningly gorgeous, pretty much to the limits of your TV. It’s so pretty, I actually watched a big part of Phantom of the Opera.

“It’d be stupid to buy one now.” I’m not going to say it’s a no-brainer decision to buy one, but it’s hardly stupid. Toshiba’s HD-DVD player is $500. The middle of Denon’s line of well-regarded regular DVD players (which are fancier than your Wal-Mart $29 special, to be sure, but hardly high-end esoterica like a $3500 Krell player) is about $600, and the Toshiba player is generally said to be just as good as that, when playing regular DVDs. So if you care about DVD output more than the average joe (and if you’re following news about HD disc formats, you probably do), the HD-DVD player is not at all a bad buy. Even if HD-DVD goes belly-up next month, it’s not as if money spent on the player was wasted.

But obviously, you’re not really buying an HD-DVD player primarily for the purpose of playing legacy DVDs. You want to have yourself some HD fun. In the past, this is where you would have wanted to avoid being an early adopter, and particularly being an early adopter in a format war. The problem was, you could never go down to your local Blockbuster and just rent some of these new-fangled things. When I bought a DVD player lo these years ago, the only way to watch movies on it was to buy them. But these days, there are internets; and on at least some of the internets, there is Netflix. And Netflix will send you HD-DVDs at no extra charge. Which means that you can watch all the HD movies you want, and if the format fails, you’ve not spent a nickel building up a library. And this is supposed to be so incredibly risky that only the most foolish fool would jump in?

“Blu-Ray is technically superior.” On paper, this is true. On paper, Blu-Ray and HD-DVD are basically identical except that Blu-Ray holds 50GB instead of 30GB. In the actual world of today, though, not so much. The Blu-Ray discs that exist today are only 25GB, as they’ve been unable to manufacture the 50GB ones economically. Worse, the discs out there right now are encoded in the ancient MPEG-2 codec, whereas HD-DVD is encoded in the vastly superior VC-1. The result of this is that Blu-Ray movies look really bad compared to HD-DVD. Oh, and did I mention that the only Blu-Ray player out right now is $1000, twice as much as Toshiba’s HD-DVD player? And that it apparently sucks on playing legacy DVDs, so isn’t a safe fall-back purchase? Well, I did now. Blu-Ray genuinely is a “maybe in the future it’ll be cool” sort of proposition, as there’s no compelling content out there right now, and the available hardware is highly expensive.

Upshot to you: If you have an HDTV, ignore the out-of-touch nonsense being spouted off in mainstream technical opinion colums, and seriously consider buying yourself an HD-DVD player. And I’m not just saying this because I’m now invested in this format war, and want to cheerlead for the side I’ve bought into. Or at least, not mostly.

Comments | June 29, 2006

Foot shooting

According to a story on Ars Technica, HBO wants to copy-protect its programming such that it couldn’t be DVRed. This is clearly and obviously problematic in the sense that it strips from the consumer rights that we’ve basically had forever; but more than that, it’s just stupid. If you tell me that I can’t DVR HBO, I’m not going to go out to iTunes and buy episodes of HBO shows that I missed — I’m going to drop my HBO subscription. I watch it rarely enough as it is, and if I couldn’t DVR it, I doubt I’d’ve seen anything on HBO at all.

Ultimately, this is the bargain I’m willing to make with content owners about DRM: You can go ahead and put as much DRM into your content as you want, but as soon as it stops me from using it in the ways that make it useful to me, I quit paying for it. If it comes to the worst, I’m ready for the DRM-pocalypse: I’ve got hundreds of unread books sitting on my shelf, which will serve nicely as emergency supplies in case of the collapse of the global entertainment industry.

Comments | February 10, 2006

Simple Solutions to Complex Problems

Matthew Yglesias points out a non-obvious truth about teacher salaries: That as Americans get more productive on average, labor in areas that don’t enjoy big productivity gains will get disproportionately more expensive. Specifically, you need to either a) pay U.S. teachers an increasingly large wage, even though they’re not getting more productive over time, or b) suck it up and get teachers who aren’t good enough to get a better job.

Yglesias briefly mentions avoiding this problem by sending kids off to poor countries to be educated, but dismisses it for obvious reasons. But what he doesn’t consider is in-sourcing the out-sourcing. H1(B) workers: They’re not just for IT any more. And it turns out that I’m not just being facetious: Some districts have already started bringing in foreign teachers.

I say, good on them. Being taught an abstruse technical subject by a teacher with an incomprehensibly thick accent may be the best preparation for college available in high school.

Comments | January 9, 2006

Do not pay money to those sons of bitches at Yahoo!

A few months back, I bought a subscription to the Yahoo Unlimited music subscription service. It was a bit flaky at first, but $5 a month (as it then was) for unlimited use of a huge selection of music is a hell of a deal, so I’ll put up with a bit of flakiness. I loved the service, and have since come to believe that music rental (and more generally, media rental — a true Netflix, in the future when bandwidth is higher and hard disks are bigger, will be ultra-cool) is the killer app of DRM.

The problem is that Yahoo is the biggest bunch of incompetent fuckups ever. A month ago, I stopped being able to synchronize Yahoo music to my portable device. It looked like a licensing problem, probably on Yahoo’s end but maybe on mine. I spent the next week exchanging email with Yahoo support (very slowly; every response took two days to get). They suggested a few things that didn’t help. And then they just got quiet, even though my account wasn’t fixed. They ignored subsequent email completely, which was charming. But now for the kicker, they just responded to my latest email (which still has the support case ID in the subject line) with a response indicating that they aren’t even paying attention any more. (”In order to use this capability, you must subscribe to the service that you already subscribe to. We hope this helps you.”)

I really, really love the Yahoo Unlimited service; but I am coming to despise Yahoo with the sort of hatred you can only get after a month of fruitless email, and no way to even get someone in India on the phone to talk to. I almost wish I hated the service a bit more, so I could just ask for my money back and never talk to them again. As it is, I want to beat them with sticks for a long time, but I also want to keep being their customer.

Comments | January 5, 2006

In Which the Future Surreptitiously Arrives

So you know how you’re sitting there, waiting for the future to arrive, and then one day you look around and BAM, it’s the future already? It happened to me when broadband suddenly went from being “available in limited markets for a lot of money” to “available just about everywhere for $40”, and it just happened to me again when I traded in my five-year-old clunky cell phone for this portable brain augmentation device.

I’d been looking at PDA phones for years — really old Palms, Treos, Samsung’s PocketPC phones — but they were never quite what I wanted. They were too slow, too clunky, too limited, too stylus-oriented, and just generally not quite all there. But the PPC-6700 suddenly and amazingly nails it. It’s not any one thing about the device that makes it into magic future-tech instead of just a nice try, it’s the confluence of several things. First, Windows Mobile 5, which is the first version of Windows Mobile (nee PocketPC nee Windows CE) that’s actually designed to work well as a phone. Then there’s the side-sliding keyboard, which is an absolutely brilliant (and obvious in retrospect) design that makes the keyboard big enough to be usable while simultaneous making the screen more useful for computing purposes (Windows Mobile is smart enough to automatically re-orient the screen when you slide out the keyboard; it’s slick). Then there’s the connectivity: EV-DO, which is broadband-ish speed over the air (for only $15 a month extra, unlimited, with Sprint); WiFi, if you happen to be in a WiFi-able place; and Bluetooth, if you want to hook up a headset or whatever.

My fear when I bought the thing was that it’d end up just being a clunky phone, and that the PDA/Internet aspects of it would be a novelty. Not so. With the smooth notification system and contact integration, it’s the best damn phone I’ve ever used (though to be honest, it probably helps in this regard that my last phone was five years old). And the Internet capabilities are good enough that when I was doing some morning Internet browsing in a hotel, I didn’t even wish that I had my laptop with me. After a month of living with this phone personal communications device, I can’t imagine going back to a plain ol’ phone. No email? No web? No way.

I don’t want to sound like a salesman here, because the thing isn’t perfect — it’s still a little bulkier than would be ideal; it feels a bit less well-constructed than I’d prefer; and there are a few quirks of the software that I’d like to see changed (like the screen coming on when it checks email) — but it’s rare to get something that’s even better than you were expecting, and it’s even rarer when it’s the thing for which you’ve been waiting impatiently for years, so allow me a bit of gushing.

Comments | January 4, 2006


Me, predicting the demise of PalmOS two years ago:

Palm is staying alive by retreating to the phone arena, where hardware is still less powerful, and efficiency therefore in greater demand; but this is obviously just a stalling tactic. In the very near future, Palm is doomed.

The WSJ, today:

Palm Inc. ... is planning on Monday to announce a new version of its Treo smartphone that runs Microsoft software, a person familiar with the matter said. Up to now, the Treo has exclusively used Palm`s operating system.

Comments | September 23, 2005

The March of Science, cont.

I kinda thought I was kidding when I predicted a five-blade razor, but nope:

The Gillette Company today announced the launch of Gillette Fusion and Gillette Fusion Power, revolutionary new wet shaving systems for men... Both shaving systems feature a breakthrough 5 blade Shaving Surface technology on the front of the cartridge, with blades spaced 30 percent closer together than MACH3 blades.

Please, please tell me that there will never be a six-blade razor.

Comments | September 15, 2005

The Uncanny Omnicompetence of Techies

Smart techies have, with disconcerting regularity, a deep-seated belief that the most difficult and complex subject in the world is tech (of whatever persuasion they’re interested in), and that since they’re smart enough to have mastered this tech stuff, they are therefore automatically smart enough to be an expert in any other field of human knowledge. This gives them a license to pontificate knowledgeably on any other subject without giving more than a few hours’ thought to it.

So it is that we end up with Lisp programmer and dot-com millionaire Paul Graham mathematically proving that you can’t reduce inequality without reducing economic growth, and that we therefore shouldn’t try.

You might think that Graham’s conclusions would suffer from not having any particular expertise in the area, or (apparently) not even having looked into the considerable economic literature on the topic, but this isn’t the case. It turns out that when actual economists discuss the relationship between inequality and growth, they just blather on about models and statistics and data, and end with a wishy-washy conclusion that the data and the state of economic theory is inconclusive to prove any relationship. This indecisiveness can’t compare to Graham’s absolute mathematical proof and definitive conclusion.

Advantage: Graham!

Comments | September 5, 2005

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