Category Archives: Words

Silly Punditry

I’m tired of articles that oversell a perceived lack in a software-based product by assuming that the product is the be-all and end-all of what the maker envisioned. I am thinking in particular of iPad apps. I wish I had a dime for every person who has raged at the fall of Western Civilization (or destruction of journalism) because some iPad app they are using doesn’t have a bunch of linking and social features.

Building good interactive experiences—on the web, in apps, wherever—is hard. Everyone smart who is doing this, especially with a very young device like the iPad, is adopting a “build and then iterate” strategy. To do anything else would take too long, cost too much, and still get it wrong. Get it out there with the minimum feature set to be engaging, and then revise it to do more stuff, do more interesting stuff, do stuff better.

Wish you could email a friend an article, send a link to Twitter, or even, FSM forbid, “like” it on Facebook? Awesome, send the maker of the app a request, post to Twitter, write an article on your blog, shout it on the corner if that floats your boat—and here in San Francisco it might be surprisingly effective. Hey, hit all the channels you want. But do you honestly believe that anyone making an iPad app for subscription material is already completely done with the feature set? Really?

And when Murdoch’s iPad thingy finally comes out, and it omits all that stuff by design and has no plans to add it in, please don’t complain about that, either, because how could you not see that coming?

Groupon Humor Taboos

Groupon’s public guide to editorial voice includes a discussion of humor taboos. Learn what’s a problem not because it’s offensive but simply because it’s not funny. Learn which topics are “over-used, unfunny humor crutches” (hint: includes ligers). Includes bonus religious double-standard:

Steer clear of jokes that could offend religious people. Even if it seems harmless and playful, there are some religious people who will freak out. It’s not worth the headache.

Example of great teeth whitening joke that got us lots of angry letters & just wasn’t worth it: “whiten by an average of eight shades, equivalent to being punched by God twice.”

Roman mythology is an innocuous substitute: “whiten by an average of eight shades, equivalent to being punched by Zeus twice.”

The voluminous list is intended to help Groupon writers avoid “easily avoidable problems for us with vendors & customers.” The rest of the document fills out an interesting little crash course in issues of commercial writing.

Magazine Subscriptions Are Too Hard

OK, not really, but sort of.

Some magazines I just leaf through and toss in the recycling, but for others I love having back issues on disk (I’m looking at you New Yorker and National Geographic), and I want a subscription that gives me online access and then sends me a CD at the end of the year. Or maybe a little flash memory card. Or a link to an archive file. (Yes, as I’ve written this, I realize I don’t want to process them weekly or even monthly. I am sure that says something substantial about me. But even just logistically speaking, I am talking about magazines that, as I understand the demographics, people tend to form long-term relationships with.)

As it is, magazines push you to the paper product OR the digital edition OR occasional omnibus archive sets. Often sold so separately, you might not even be aware of the other formats. I don’t like that.

Part of the problem I’ve had over the years is that I don’t much like the proprietary magazine apps I’ve used. My idea of what I want, I guess, is a full-text-searchable PDF of each issue. But I do like meaningful search functions (“All ‘Shouts and Murmurs’ pieces for x date range”). So files I could load into a proprietary viewer would be fine. I would happily pay an annual subscription fee for viewer software and software updates.

Would this be way harder for most people than whatever they have now? Are people so lulled by installers that they would balk at “drag this into whatever folder your viewer is in”? Do I feel this way just because I’ve used apps that pair with file formats for so long? It seems like a more reasonable trade-off than, say, Microsoft Word–only compatability, because elegant and customized search options feel like good value added to me—especially if they could break out some components and consolidate across issues, like slideshows by subject in NG. I like back issues, but I also want to be able to navigate an archive.

National Geographic does something like what I want. It offers a digital edition, and it sells a big archive product for which you can buy annual updates. But I don’t see those features sold together, and I’m turned off by the hassle factor of figuring it all out on my own. And I don’t want to cancel my subscription and then try to remind myself to order the update disk at the end of the year.

This is a little bit about paper, but it’s more about clutter. I like paper magazines as an experience and for their portability, but I also LOVE moving stacks of them out of my place periodically (and retaining a digital archive). I just want the publishers to make it easy for me to give them my money and still have the mix I want of subscription and archive. (Super extra ultra bonus points if they adopt an archive format that is widely parsable, eg, so you could always leaf through with, for example, a PDF viewer even if value-added nav apps are no longer supported. Also, a pony.)

A Fitting Monument

Securing the Washington Monument from terrorism has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult job. The concrete fence around the building protects it from attacking vehicles, but there’s no visually appealing way to house the airport-level security mechanisms the National Park Service has decided are a must for visitors. It is considering several options, but I think we should close the monument entirely. Let it stand, empty and inaccessible, as a monument to our fears.

Read the rest at Bruce Schneier’s site.

Dear Marine Leaders …

who can’t quite cope with the idea of your boys sharing rooms with gay Marines:

I thought you were grown-ups. I thought you were tough. I find it hard to believe that you are foolish enough to encourage your Marines down a path that opens them up to blackmail, and that encourages an atmosphere of distrust and secrecy among what should be team members … you know, distractions from the job at hand.

So here’s the thing. You know your Marines are already serving with – and bunking with – other Marines that happen to be gay. You know that, and I think you know it would be pretty appalling to act as if gays are unfit to serve. General Pace tried something like that, and he didn’t get too warm a reception, did he?

Don’t give me a line about “introducing sexuality” – you already allow women to be Marines, and you’re already awarding some of them Combat Action Ribbons. More to the point, your Marines know all this, too, and the majority of them are fine with rooming with their gay comrades. In fact, Tammy Schultz, an Associate Professor of Strategic Studies at the US Marine Corps War College, has noted that there’s more support for serving side by side with gays than there was for desegregation.

So what will it take to toughen you up, grow you up, or get you to just show a little leadership?

A sampling of recent news:
General Pace backtracks on “immoral” remarks [WaPo, 2007]
WaPo on Pentagon survey about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
NPR report with Marine leaders claiming “vast majority” favor DADT
NPR Interview with Tammy Schultz

Writing Tips

I’m not usually a big fan of lists of writing tips from famous people, but this particular tip from Chuck Palahniuk is laser-focused on a big problem I have:

Number Eight: If you need more freedom around the story, draft to draft, change the character names. Characters aren’t real, and they aren’t you. By arbitrarily changing their names, you get the distance you need to really torture a character. Or worse, delete a character, if that’s what the story really needs.

Yeah, OK, and Number 11 is pretty funny.

Read the rest at 13 Writing Tips.

Other Ways of Knowing

Nice post by Russell Blackford about the fact that humanities does, in fact, have methodologies, making a clear distinction from mystical claims. I think the most helpful part is pointing out that rigorous investigation is available throughout human endeavor.

What I believe is simply that there are many techniques that are used to find out stuff. All of those techniques are available to scientists, just as they are to everyone else. However, science has refined some techniques to unprecedented levels of precision, control, systematicity, and so on, and has thus made progress with problems that were intractable for thousands of years … but started to become more tractable around about the beginning of the seventeenth century.

It should also be pointed out that the techniques that science has refined to this extent are also available to humanities scholars, just as those used by humanities scholars are available to scientists. There’s just one world and there’s no clear demarcation as to what techniques are going to be useful to find out stuff about it.

Maybe it’s helpful to think of these as “other ways of learning.” There seems to be a lot of anxiety locked up in the learning–knowing matrix.

Read the whole thing at Keeping the humanities alive – and a bit on “other ways of knowing”

Netflix and the Changing Consumption Equation

Netflix has raised prices on DVD plans while introducing a low-pricing, streaming-only option. I understand the business shift, and, if I recall correctly, they raised prices when they introduced the streaming option in the first place. Introducing streaming was never a value-add for me—I’ve never actually been able to get it to work properly, so I haven’t even got to the point of evaluating the streaming selection. But while I have just shrugged over previous price changes, this one had me heading over to downgrade my plan immediately on receiving the announcement email.

I’ve heard a lot of others say they either did or plan to downgrade, too, and it makes me wonder what numbers Netflix expected for that. I’d love to see the projections and, in a couple of months, the reality.