How to Find Yourself – with Lighthouse

It happens all the time. You find yourself in a new city, and, perhaps with some time to kill, and being the clever inhabitant of the 21st-century that you are, you manage to Yelp and Google Map your way to a location that offers at least a modicum of familiarity – the shopping mall.

Then, as soon as you walk through the door, Whammy! You’re suddenly cast adrift, without your technology life raft. Swallowing your pride, you soon find yourself standing in front of one of the most depressing of 20th-century anachronisms, the mall directory.

“You Are Here.” Ugh.

Airport flight schedule... meet map of the human genome.

Airport flight schedule, meet map of the human genome.

Soon, thanks to Lighthouse Signal Systems, and founders Parviz Parvizi and Mohammad Heidari, you’ll have indoor maps to help you avoid the shaming leers and jeers of, “What are you, lost?” and “Gonna cry, baby?” (That happens at everyone’s mall, right?) The technology’s first applications have helped casino goers find their way through gaming floors, and with Lighthouse’s plans to include popular shopping centers and other locations, there’s hope for the rest of us, too.

Altruists, however, need not apply – there’s clearly huge revenue potential from location-based advertising and data mining. Personally, I’d happily suffer through a few creepy ads – “Psst, you walked right past our sale, c’mon back!” – for reliable indoor mapping.

A few months ago, a friend and I found ourselves at the McCormick Center here in Chicago for the annual Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, a.k.a. C2E2. Perhaps “found ourselves” is a misnomer. Even with thousands of other convention attendees to ask, or follow, it took us around 45 minutes to find the convention floor. In our defense, the facility is a sprawling labyrinth, and there were several other conventions taking place. In any case, I’d have given all the gold in Smaug’s lair for a Lighthouse app that would’ve have snatched 45 minutes of enjoyment back from the jaws of wasteful, wandering defeat.

I know, I know… “Not all who wander are lost.” If you’re a touchy-feely bumper sticker, or into that whole “serendipity” thing, then maybe Lighthouse isn’t for you. If you actually want to get where you’re going – all the way there, not just to the parking lot – then maybe it is.

Lighthouse has a host of early competitors, including “Google, Cisco, Ekahau, Euclid, Shopkick, PointInside, Aisle411, Sensionlab, Indoor.rs, Yfind, and CSR,” according to Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat. With any luck, Google will develop a Glass offering that’s useful for normies, and not just its apparent target market of megalomaniac super-villains and murderous cyborgs.

The race to uncover the most vile use for Google Glass will be decided by one of these. Or pornographers.

The most evil application of Google Glass will be discovered by one of these. Or a pornographer.

I’m eagerly looking forward to the coming buildout of Lighthouse and related services. They’d be great help for travelers attending large conventions or visitors to unfamiliar shopping centers. Ever had to buy a last-minute gift at a mall you’ve never visited before? Talk about playing an “away game.”

A useful extension of the technology would be into the doors of mega-retailers like Target and Walmart, or grocers like Whole Foods. While employees would certainly rue the day when they no longer have to answer “Hey, where can I find…” questions, customers would welcome the chance to get in, find what they want, and get out. Shopping list apps could even leverage Lighthouse store maps (perhaps further enabled by RFID technolgoy) to finally uncover that holy grail of route optimization that would allow retail customers to more quickly get what they need and get on with their lives.

Retailers who see potentially lost sales from the impulse buys that our wandering often induces could create value by showing super-precise, location-based in-store advertisements. Doubtless, there are other useful ways to leverage an app that charts a customer’s exact movements through a store, similar to the data mining genius that allowed Target to famously (or infamously) predict its customers’ pregnancies before they’d broken the news to friends and family.

With seemingly unlimited potential for unlocking value for both consumers and retailers, this is definitely an exciting technology to watch for in the year ahead.

5 Reasons Facebook is Still the Sick Man of Social Media

With all that pomp, who needs circumstance?

By now you know that Facebook smashed earnings expectations last week, and that a great many cheers went up among its stakeholders. After getting caught flat-footed on mobile, they finally got it right, successfully leveraging the mobile platform and cashing in on targeted ads. Yet where it concerns innovations that affect actual human beings, Facebook is pushing rope.

There was a time when you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a drastic Facebook overhaul that had users ready to roast Mark Zuckerberg in effigy. Of late, however, the brightest of the social media stars has exhibited a shrinking impotence when it comes to the kind of bold innovations that once earned our ire.

When Facebook has fired the guns of “Big Dev” lately, it has mainly been for the benefit of advertisers, with users benefiting only tangentially. Facebook has proven that it can effectively monetize mobile, and this is due in no small part to the fact that at every turn, dev has served rev (enue). Last Wednesday’s earnings report was a direct result. But while improvements have padded Facebook’s top-line earnings, for users, they’ve packed about as much of a punch as the Joker’s flag gun. “BANG!”

The world’s largest social network is once again the willing bride of Wall Street, but while raking in targeted ad revenue tickles shareholders, it does nothing to excite the user base or halt desertion by younger users. Rather, the company’s tremendous quarterly performance could lull the giant more deeply into its slumber. False complacency will render it incapable of the daring development required to stay on top of the social media mountain. Facebook needs to stop drinking the blue Kool-aid and pause for the cause of sober reflection.

Suggested Posts and the Uncanny Valley

Suggested Posts were shoehorned into News Feed as part of the otherwise unremarkable March 2013 update. It was an attempt to slake advertiser’s vampiric thirst for more “content-rich” ads (read: bigger, leveraging pics and video, but looking like posts from your Facebook friends), and it worked. And while Suggested Posts have been a boon to earnings, they risk alienating users in unexpected ways. Facebook butters its bread by extolling the efficacy of its data-culling algorithms, and waxes poetic about how its targeted advertisements are better for me than banner ads for Mountain Dew, yet the best it can do is nag me to sign up for Lyft and serve me ads for male grooming products – as though I need yet another reminder that I’m unemployed, or that god-like abs but a Stegosaurus-plating of bacne is a situation that affects us all.

Facebook’s unprecedented access to our personal information makes poorly targeted ads seem all the more ridiculous, but the more well-targeted the ad, the more likely we are to get that creeping sensation that Facebook is, well, creeping. Better targeting is not the issue. Our aversion to Suggested Posts runs far deeper. Welcome to the Uncanny Valley.

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of human aesthetics which holds that when human features look and move almost, but not perfectly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. - Wiki

That’s why every time you see targeted ads in your News Feed, you feel as though you’ve been had. Suggested Posts are the sinister spawn of the Uncanny Valley because they parade as something they most certainly are not – organic content – and so they make banner ads look noble by comparison, drumming up the same instinctive alarm that one feels upon realizing that a friendly stranger is trolling for Amway franchisees. Pauly Shore and Syd the Kid might as well show up, chanting, “You got Got! You got Got!”

Suggested Posts pose an insidious problem for Facebook, and one that it doesn’t even know it has. Where the company believes it has unearthed a rich new vein of revenue, users find a fly in the ointment. The company risks dependency on something that contains the seeds of its undoing, as more invasive ads give users additional impetus to abandon Facebook for newer services that have yet to evolve to the monetization stage.

Facebook’s Latent Identity Crisis

Amidst the bleating over Facebook losing its cachet with younger users, there’s a question that no one is asking: how much should Facebook care? More to the point: will Facebook be the defining social network of a generation, or of all generations? The fate of the company will wax or wane on its response.

Among teens who admit to spending less time on Facebook, they report the typical reasons: they’re bored with it, there are too many ads, and their parents are on Facebook. Therein lies there’s the rub – parental presence. If Facebook intends to remain the social network of the moment, indefinitely, this single issue poses the greatest threat to its long-term success, albeit not for the reason you would think. It’s not that Facebook is becoming less cool because your mom is on Facebook; Facebook is becoming less cool because you are the mom on Facebook.

The nature of the issue – namely, demographics – dictates that this problem will only be exacerbated with the passage of time. Tomorrow’s teens will opt against Facebook the same as yesterday’s teen’s opted against joining their mother’s bowling league. At least the bowling alley was never decked out with photos of them with their umbilical cord still attached. This will be an issue for tomorrow’s teens, because Facebook features exactly that.

Facebook is a brand, just like Coca-Cola. But whereas Coca-Cola can refresh itself every couple of years with a new marketing campaign, Facebook is a warehouse of potentially embarrassing digital artifacts that also doubles as a sandbox where mom and dad can see all.

In roughly five years, the children of Facebook’s first adopters will be of age to join the ubiquitous social network. And while playing to the taste of Tweens is holy writ when it comes to Hollywood launching tent-pole film franchises, in the realm of social media, this conventional wisdom is ill-applied as a strategy, and worse as a tactic. There is a generational specificity to each social networking service that the social media industry as a whole has yet to fully comprehend.

Facebook is inextricably linked to the Millennial generation; those persons the rough age of a millennial’s younger siblings and parents form the respective book-ends of a bell curve, the snapshot of which constitutes the Core Facebook Generation. Continually reaching beyond this core group for more users in attempts to re-position Facebook as the “it” social network for each successive generation is a fool’s errand.

If the company acknowledges the relative fixity of the identity of its user base, it can turn its lament over the loss of younger users into an opportunity for future growth, much in the same way that the financial planning industry has been buoyed by Baby Boomers eyeing retirement. Facebook has the chance to enter into a long-term and evolving relationship with its core demographics, devising new revenue opportunities over time as the needs and tastes of existing users mature. In this way, it could position itself as the gold standard of social networks. The timeless is often characterized by the chief aim to be the best, not necessarily the hottest or trendiest. Facebook could serve as the social network that everyone eventually matures into.

It is irrational exuberance for Facebook to think it will be the social network of every generation. Until the company acknowledges this truth, and the ramifications of its strong ties to the millennials (and their adjoining adopters), it will see diminishing returns as it chases ever-younger users. Worse, it will continue to think that this phenomenon in itself is the problem.

Facebooks Risks Becoming the Next Yahoo

Spare me the protests about Yahoo’s stock being on a run, and how Yahoo is “cool again” after its $1.1 billion purchase of Tumblr.

Quite apart from stock performance, the analogy surrounds the circumstances under which the leader in a given space sees its hegemony slowly deflate as a result of stagnation and uninspired design. And buying Tumblr makes Yahoo about as cool as your dad in skinny jeans (when he valets his Mazda Miata at the bar (on college night)).

In contrast to its glorious beginnings as a “web” “portal,” Yahoo is now a bloated amalgam, an Akira monster of poorly defined functionality. What exactly does Yahoo do? It does a lot of things, but none of them particularly well. Yahoo’s strategy is to speckle the wall with services and hope that some stick, and profitably, with little apparent regard for how anything looks or feels. Yahoo’s landing page should be shot before it can reproduce.

While it’s still a stretch to call Facebook ugly, it has long since ceased to be beautiful, and it shares this trait with Yahoo. Both feature tired interfaces, and competing services have iterated well beyond both in terms of aesthetics, making each look dated by comparison. Just like Yahoo, Facebook competes across numerous categories, but never rates best in show. It offers instant messaging, photo-sharing, and status updates, yet users still opt for WhatsApp (or Snapchat), Instagram (or Tumblr), and Twitter. Each of these stand-alone services outperforms Facebook in their chosen arena, and each looks better while doing it.

It wasn’t always this way. It was only four years ago that Facebook danced over the rotting corpses of Myspace and Friendster, ascending to the heights of social media. But that was in a primordial age of the Internet, an antebellum, ugly Internet. MySpace was comically ugly, to say nothing of the overcrowded UI’s of other leaders of the day, Amazon and eBay. At the height of its popularity, the MySpace interface looked like a crime scene photo of a disemboweled piñata. Every login was like watching an episode of Battling Seizure Robots.

Facebook’s relatively spartan aesthetic was once beautiful in its simplicity – but that ship has sailed. Just as Yahoo appeared content to sit out the mobile movement, Facebook seems immune to the “Pinterestization” of the Web, and from the beautiful design movement at-large. One can’t help but wonder, where is Facebook’s Jony Ive?

Facebook risks becoming the Yahoo of its generation – an ambiguously purposed woolly mammoth of market capitalization; a jack-of-all-trades, but master of none, with a bland UI and questionable long-term relevance.

Facebook’s Instagram Problem

The $1 billion purchase of Instagram seems like a coup in retrospect because of the massive popularity and growth of the photo-sharing service, but it also speaks to Facebook’s underlying weakness. The most important developments no longer happen in-house, they are acquired. Acquisitions are surely part-and-parcel of the tech industry, but Facebook should be leading from the front, setting trends more often and playing catch-up less.

Sorting out how these two services fit together is a more acute problem. Although Instagram is certainly the crown jewel of Facebook’s acquisitions, it remains unclear where the photo-sharing app fits as a piece in the Facebook puzzle. Instagram’s one-at-a-time upload interface is wholly antithetical to Facebook’s binge-and-post approach. Where is the middle ground? Facebook thinks it stepped in a big bucket of win with Instagram, but it is taunted by the Cobra Commander of inevitability: “You may have won the battle, but I will win the war!”

By bringing Instagram fully into the fold, Facebook risks snuffing out the very spirit of Instagram that makes it Instagram; but if it doesn’t, then what was the point of the acquisition in the first place, especially from the smaller company’s perspective? For Facebook, the purchase smacks of exactly the kind of tail-chasing it should avoid in the future, trying to always be – or to acquire – the next big thing. If it was purely a financial play, as seems to be case (see: big brother coach little brother on monetization), then Facebook is just one two underperforming quarters away from hearing shareholders howl for an Instagram stock spinoff.

The most legitimate ground from which to defend the Instagram purchase is as a stratagem to keep it away from competitors like Twitter. If this was not the case, then it was a puzzling acquisition. Where Facebook’s aesthetic limitations shout, “Iterate or die!” the Instagram issue leaves us with, “Integrate, or, why?”

How Foot-in-mouth Thwarts Facebook Freemium

In the run-up to Facebook’s 2012 initial public offering, a rumor surfaced that it would begin charging a monthly subscription fee. Predictably, hundreds of millions of people found nothing better to do that day than to completely lose their shit. The company was prompted to quash the rumor, and issued a statement that Facebook was “free and always will be.” Predictably, we all missed the point.

Facebook isn’t free. Even though there’s no out of pocket expense to use the service, every time you see an ad or Suggested Post, there’s money changing hands. It just happens to not be yours. There’s nothing underhanded in this of course. It costs money to spin the wheel, and Facebook is a business. But by going out of its way to repeatedly assure over 1 billion users that the site will always be free, the company has painted itself into a corner on a viable idea whose time has come: Facebook Freemium.

Most of us are familiar with services that start as freeware, then later implement a two-pronged revenue strategy of placing ads in the free version but offering an ad-free version for a fee. Music services Spotify and Pandora are examples, and the latter consistently ranks among the Top Grossing apps in the iOS App Store. While music and social aren’t a perfect parallel, the point remains that people will pay for a service that they like if they can opt out of advertisements. Note the subtext here: apps are good, ads are bad.

Yet in spite of the those loud assurances that Facebook would never pass the hat, the company already owns a patent that would pave the way for an ad-free version, according to the MIT Technology Review. As welcome of an idea as this might be to users whose patience has worn thin with Suggested Posts, Facebook Freemium would face at least three substantial hurdles.

Facebook would first have to do a complete about-face on the “free and always will be” doctrine. While some of us can appreciate the nuance of “We have no plans to charge for Facebook” – as in no current plans, as of the time that particular statement – most, already distrustful of the social network after numerous privacy policy blunders, would just hear more of Facebook’s double-talk.

The freemium model would then immediately beg the question of what it means for ads. The subtext of the freemium model, and Facebook’s adoption of it, would be a tacit admission of what all of us outside the Facebook C-suite and the advertising industry already know deep down in our very bones: advertisements are misleading, they suck, and we hate them. Facebook Freemium would be incongruous to what users have been spoon-fed ad nauseam about how targeted advertisements provide an enriched user experience (always laughable, since we all know that the ones being enriched are Facebook and digital ad networks).

Facebook Freemium would lastly prompt the question of whether or not Facebook is worth a monthly fee. In a hypothetical world where Facebook was a true, one-stop social media -shop, and its UI wasn’t the dusty relic of a bygone era, I would gladly pay per month for an ad-free version. Unfortunately, we don’t yet live in such a world, because there isn’t a single service that Facebook offers that isn’t offered more competently by another more specialized app, and one that likely has far less intrusive advertisements. Facebook doesn’t yet pass muster as a value proposition – it asks too much, but gives too little.

The uphill battle facing freemium is a perfect illustration of the threat posed to the company as a whole when the guns of “Big Dev” fall silent for users. Freemium is a compelling idea, but a long-neglected user base could reasonably decide that Facebook is no longer worth the price of admission.

A Rumor of a Different Kind

In light of these dreary realities that bubble below the surface of record revenues, Facebook users should be thrilled at the rumor that there’s a drastic redesign in the oven, one that would effectively out-Flipboard Flipboard, the beautifully designed social media aggregator. The news is one part Bat signal over Gotham, one part smoke plume rising from the stacks of Mr. Wonka’s long-dormant factory.

Instead of simply serving as a separate Facebook offering, such a drastic overhaul should supplant the News Feed entirely. This bold move would strike at the heart of the specters of doubt raised by Facebook’s recent negligence of user experience. Of course, user reactions would be characteristically swift, vitriolic, and irrational, but Facebook should see these as welcome signs, indicators that it is once again leading instead of chasing.

Just as The Wall was forced to give way to Timeline, so too must News Feed evolve. The appearance of the main landing page has stagnated long enough – please don’t mention that dreadful third column on the desktop version, my brain tumors simply won’t abide it – and a sorely needed upgrade would benefit both Facebook and its users in several important ways.

The redesign would immediately temper user revulsion to Suggested Posts by creating a more hospitable landscape from which Facebook can peddle such dreck. Suggested Posts would then be no more annoying than magazine advertisements. Although the move wouldn’t address the company’s identity crisis directly, it certainly would reassert an identity. It would allow Facebook to outflank social media aggregators, while also making concrete Mark Zuckerberg’s oft-mentioned desire for Facebook to become the newspaper of record for the Internet age.

Facebook’s new, Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat would definitely shore up the aesthetic deficiencies it is beginning to share with cretaceous relics like Yahoo. And while it wouldn’t necessarily solve the Instagram problem, the redesign would create a new playing field on which to do so, and integration of Instagram’s sublime design might suddenly prove less unwieldy. Finally, the new News Feed would show that the company is still willing to flex its muscles to improve user experience, showing the kind of commitment to innovation necessary to justify the potential costs of a freemium model.

Diagnosing Facebook’s ills is a joyless task for me. At 30 years old, the Facebook story is part of my story. When Mark Zuckerberg wins, I feel like a less attractive, but infinitely more intelligent, Ivy League version of me wins. It’s too easy to say that an IPO kills the social media star, but many of Facebook’s woes can be traced to that seminal moment. It admitted to being caught flat-footed on mobile. It delayed the introduction of hashtags until long after it mattered. It beat its chest at the introduction of Graph Search while we all scratched our heads (what’s it for, again?), and has generally just looked increasingly out of touch with its user base. These aren’t the understandable errors of a hungry innovator or the deft feints of a wily veteran. They’re the bungling missteps of a contented winner.

Admittedly, the rumor of redesign is still pretty thin, but Facebook fans are left to grasp at thin hopes such as these. Mark Zuckerberg must force the issue and take the bold steps that are needed to turn an oil tanker around in a puddle. If such drastic measures are not taken, then the slow bleed of users abandoning Facebook will become a mass exodus. Today’s trickle will be tomorrows torrent.

So it goes. After all, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m just a friend that stopped by to say “hi.”

Instagram: I Don’t Get It

I’m deeply conflicted about digital photographs and how we all share them online, and because of this, I’m ill-equipped to really “get” Instagram. I love pics but I hate them at the same time.

I Love Them:

Digital photographs are part-and-parcel of the online social networks that we share them on. Increasingly, they’re the platform on which we tell the stories of our lives. It rules, in the way that only THE FUTURE can rule, that I have a rough record of my life dating back to my joining Facebook in 2006. This isn’t without its pitfalls, sure – and you can’t turn on cable news without hearing someone crying about “the children” and online privacy concerns – but I take a decidedly more positive view.

I wish Facebook and Instagram would have existed when I was a kid! Granted, there would be a lot more pictures of me wearing JNCO jeans and Georgetown jerseys, but, hey, I can’t help it if I was sweet in ’95.

The average twentysomething posts more selfies in a month than there are pictures of them in total prior to the advent of social networking. It would be great to be able to look at my parents’ Facebook profile back when I was born and say, “Wow, look, I was just a baby.” (Sidenote: don’t post pictures of your baby with the umbilical cord still attached – it’s repugnant.) Sure, I can drive five hours back to my parents’ house and find an old photo album, but it’d be better if I could just scroll through their feed.

In twenty or thirty years when we’re all living on a space station because we’ve destroyed the planet, we’re going to eat our astronaut ice cream and laugh hysterically as we look back at all the cool stuff that we did and dumb stuff that we said back when we were young and beautiful. It’s places like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter that we’re going to look back to. That’s what’s so great about them. They’re like time capsules that you never have to seal.

That “when we were young and beautiful” factor is especially important, because, SPOILERS: we are all going to be old and shitty some day. Pics are awesome because when we’re bed-ridden and dying alone, we’ll be able to call up a floating, futuristic monitor and reminisce over pics of when we were young and sexy. Trust me, no matter how insecure you are about your looks now, by the time you’re 80, you’ll look back and think you were Adonis or Aphrodite in the flesh.

Remember how happy it made mom or dad when you saw an old photo of them and you were struck by how handsome or beautiful they were? It will be like that for us, but times a billion because we now have the technology and inclination now to snap a photo of just about everything.

Sure, a ton of what we’re documenting now is pointless minutiae, but I can worry about that in fifty years when I’m convalescing in the Fortress of Solitude with nothing better to do.

I’m excited to see how Instagram can help me record how awesome I am.

"Damn, I was awesome back in the day," he said to no one in particular.

“Damn, I was awesome back in the day,” he said to no one in particular.

I Love Them Not: 

There’s a sniveling little imp that lives inside of me. I try to keep him caged because he’s not a pleasant individual. He can be damn witty sometimes, but no one loves the Imp, because he’s a total hater. He lives for nothing but to guzzle “Haterade,” spew venom, and devise crafty ways to hate on stuff. He’s like the Noid with a library card.

i don't get it instagram imps

Melee options; also, the makings of a great weekend.

The Imp hates digital photos because thinks the pics that people post tell a boring story that he’s heard a thousand times already. He’s pretty sure that 95% of all new pics uploaded to Facebook consist of a.) group photos of people at the bar, which bear a striking resemblance to every other group photo of people at the bar ever taken, 2.) pictures of food, or D.) staged close-ups of a perfectly sweating beer or margarita (how did you manage to get that beer to sit still, that’s so cool).

Pictures of puppies and nature are awesome because puppies and nature look awesome. Pictures of food and beverages are inherently less interesting because these things are experienced primarily through the senses of scent, touch, and taste. Yeah, food looks good, but “looks good” is commentary on expected taste. It doesn’t make the Imp hungry when he sees a collage of food on Facebook, it makes him angry because he already knows you, like, omg,  totally love food. If the Imp has seen one plate of tapas he’s seem them all.

What’s worse? The Imp isn’t above posting his own food pics on Facebook, which means he’s a hypocrite, and this vexes him. It vexes him, grievously.

Overall, the Imp is extremely leery of Instagram.

“What am I, and why am I here?” – Instagram:

At first glance, I wonder, How is Instagram any different than Facebook? Which is to say, Why do I need it? It’s silly to request justification for the existence of app or a website as a whole, since we always have the option to simply not use it, but people pose this question to themselves before jumping onto a new social networking site. If not, they should. Who has time to be on every social networking site?

My guess is that Instagram is special and the differences between it and Facebook lie in the nature of how Instagram content is distributed, the nature of how Instagram users are linked together (via site design and self-organization), and the experience of how Instagram content is consumed.

According to research that I intentionally minimized so that I wouldn’t color my preconceived notions before actually using Instagram, there seems to be a social contract in effect that states, “Don’t upload crappy photos.” I can definitely get down with that. If there’s a tacit agreement in place about only posting cool stuff, Instagram is already vastly different than Facebook in terms of content distribution.

I suspect Instagram also differs fundamentally from Facebook based on the way that each respective social network is constructed. Simply put, friending randoms on Facebook is weird. Facebook friend networks tend to reflect real-life associations (“If not, they should, loser.” – The Imp). I expect that on Instagram it’s subtly flattering to get random followers, much in the way that it’s cool to attract random Twitter followers. Having never used Instagram, I don’t know if Twitter works as a proxy, but when I get a random Twitter follow @TechBeef or @OnceADelgado, it shrinks my brain tumors because the world loves me.

Having a lot of Twitter followers is cool because it means that you must be interesting in some way, and I expect it is similar on Instagram. No one cares how many friends anyone has on Facebook.

Then, there’s site design. Is Instagram beautiful? I wouldn’t go so far as to call Facebook ugly in the way that Yahoo is ugly, but it’s not beautiful, either. Facebook is like The Bernstein Bears and The Messy Room – it’s not so bad underneath, but there’s so much damn clutter. People seem to think that Instagram is beautiful, and that scrolling down one’s Instagram feed is borderline cathartic. If this is even remotely true, Instagram differs from Facebook by orders of magnitude.

Check back soon for the follow-up post on how much more awesome I am (or how insufferably vapid I become) on Instagram!

i don't get it bstein brs

I Don’t Get It: An Introduction

One of my secret fears is that I’ll run out of subjects to write about. Admittedly, this is an absurd fear. With the way that the creative mind works – leave house, get aggravated by the world and its inhabitants, say, “Why can’t it be THIS way, instead?” – such a dearth of ideas will literally never, ever happen.

Also, besides the fact that it inherently interests me, one reason I chose to write about technology is because I’ll never run out of source material. Someone is always inventing something, and consumer tech will continue to drastically affect our lives. Notwithstanding the Hobbseian nightmares of doomsdayers and Ayn Rand readers, technology’s forward march is, if not certain, at least reliable.

Another of my no-longer-secret fears is that I’ll write to the limits of my knowledge, and not run out of topics, per se, but run out of things that I’m knowledgeable enough of to actually talk about. I don’t stop playing Candy Crush Saga long enough to actually sit down and write something unless I can add a spoke to the wheel, so to speak, and doing that requires some modicum of knowledge.

This latter fear, too, is unfounded. There’s an immutable law governing the time and effort it takes to consume versus what it takes to produce. It takes only a modest effort to passively experience a new development, to hear about it, experience it, or download it. This is a stark contrast to how long it takes me to sit down and write something. The Borg Collective notwithstanding, our knowledge of the world will always exceed the time and ability we have to sit down and relay that knowledge.

Still, for the sake of humanity, it’s best that we at least prepare for this sum of all fears. I’ve devised a contingency plan: if I run out of things to write about, I’ll just start writing about things that I know nothing about. Ha!

To that end, a new series of posts, entitled, “I Don’t Get It.”

I’ll wax ignorant on developments where I’m woefully behind the curve, or subject matters on which I’m just plain uninformed. Apps like Instagram and Snapchat come to mind, as well as macro-realms, like online advertising.

This isn’t where I make baseless conjectures and talk shit about the things that people love. This is where I’ll boldly bare my ignorance in hopes of learning more.

Each post will consist of two parts.

#1 – My uniformed opinions, pre-conceived notions, conjectures and questions that I hope to answer through firsthand exploration

I’m like Socrates, I openly confess my lack of knowledge. Plus, most readers will have some experience with the subjects, so my initial thoughts will be unintentionally humorous in the way that only true ignorance can be. Basically, you can watch me stumble along, and point and laugh at how silly and uncoordinated my puppy limbs are.

Or, maybe I’ll surprise you with a fresh take that only an outsider could offer. Maybe you’ll fall prostrate before my wit and candor, worshiping me like Oz as I land in my great balloon of ideas, like an explorer from another world. Like an anthropologist of sorts. Not quite as eloquent as Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but almost.

Either way, when I return home like a modern-day Jonny Quest with a belt full of Lizard Men scalps, I expect a hero’s welcome. Or at least a frosty pint of Guinness.

#2 – Wrap-up post, where I’ll compare the truth of my findings with what I inexplicably thought just a week prior

See Matt. See Matt dumb. Dumb, Matt, dumb. Then see Matt dimly grope for understanding. It will be a charity dunk tank of my own making, except you won’t be able to see to the bottom, because that’s not water in that tank. It’s a Campbell’s Chunky Stew made of TRUTH.

Until then…

Remember, I don’t mean “I Don’t Get It” as in, For the life of me, I can’t fathom why anyone likes this. Instead, I’m admitting, Fine – you all win, I can’t avoid this anymore – it’s time to see what all the fuss is about. I’m feeling a total stranger in a strange land vibe, Encino Man-style.

It’ll be fun.

Tune in tomorrow to see just how dumb I can be.

“See ya later, crapburgers!”

3 Oddly Sexual NBA Playoff Ads

If you’ve watched the 2013 NBA playoffs – or any recent prime-time programming on TNT, ESPN, or ABC, for that matter – you’ve seen the following three ads. But have you really seen what’s going on in them?

My expert analysis paints you the picture, but I can’t promise that it’s pretty.

#1 – Prisoner Freed, Only to be Raped by Pirates:

  • Product: Captain Morgan Spiced Rum
  • Subtext: Rape
  • Unfortunate because: 1. the obvious 2. Pirating is a hard enough career choice to explain to your parents

It’s 1668, in Port Royal, Jamaica, and an anonymous criminal of indeterminate guilt sits in the guard tower, slowly going mad while soiling himself.

Given the era, there’s zero chance he’s been mirandized. Given the squalid prison conditions, there’s a great chance he’s been tortured and has already gone partially insane. Did you see a chamber pot in that cell? Hell no. Using beard length and that thousand-yard-stare look in his eyes as rough measures of time, there’s two weeks worth of feces caking this man’s pantaloons. Put enough shit in his pants and any man will go crazy.

But, wait – hark! Here comes Captain Morgan to bust his ass out of jail… only to throw him like a piece of meat to his crew, so they can literally bust his ass. “Haha”… except there’s nothing funny about rape. Even stinky pirate rape.

Luckily, by the time they get back to the boat, Captain Morgan has already gone out of his way to make sure the viewer knows who the good guys are. The breakout and escape is all very Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. You’re supposed to root for the plucky insurgents, with their shoestring budget and MacGyver-like cleverness, because the ruling regime is always assumed to be corrupt. Note the cheering throngs of people at 0:16, a decidedly different public reaction than the usual prison escape receives – commonly known as a manhunt.

In case you were still undecided about which side to be on, they even stop to play Temple Run at 0:19, because, you know, Captain Morgan is just like you, he plays all the best app games.

The Captain repeatedly hits us over the head with the obvious stick, telling us who the good guys are. He does so because when they get back to the ship, all bets are off. It’s go time. No, not let’s-escape-as-quickly-as-possible time, but give-me-what-I-really-broke-you-out-of-prison-for time.

I used to think pirates were cool. Why’d they have to get all rape-y? It’s all right there at 0:45, when Captain Morgan doubles down on despicable deeds for the day (and uses alliteration, because he aced Ms. Dietz’s 10th-grade Pirate English).

As if using sexual assault to get a treasure map isn’t bad enough, of course it has to be the hulking, black crew member who takes first crack at that lily-white ass. The Captain enlists Deebo from Friday, as if to say, “Arrrrrrr! Just in case you were still vague on what’s about to go down, white people, I’m invoking the most bigoted fear of your racist grandparents, and throwing it in your comfortably middle-class faces.”

I know, this is all in my imagination. After all, they couldn’t have shot the scene any other way, right? Unless they put the map on his chest, so he doesn’t have to be bent over a barrel when they uncover it. Unless he pulled an actual map out of his mouth like a clown scarf. (You call it ridiculous; I call it the magic of Hollywood.) But, no, pirates gotta take it by force. So bend over, Mr. Map.

The implied rape is there, and if you didn’t see it before, you see it now.

In the final scene, the victim is shown having a merry time with his assailants. Stockholm syndrome notwithstanding, that mirth is clearly roofie-induced – that is, if he’s even still alive.

Do you really think they keep him alive after they get their filthy pirate mitts on the map? No, he’s just one more mouth to feed. The pirates need the map, not the skin canvas it’s painted on. It’s quite likely that he’s already dead, and that raggedy corpse is being reanimated by pirate juju, or some devious rope-and-pulley system (recall that endearing pirate cleverness, above).

However, Captain Morgan is aware of the bad publicity pirates have gotten over the years, so he draws the line at killing this poor sap (or disposing of the corpse) on camera. The Captain is working double-duty here: one on hand, he’s adventuring and indulging his sadistic tendencies, and on the other, he’s rehabilitating the image of pirating worldwide.  You could say the captain is an ambassador of sorts. He doesn’t want to tarnish the recent public relations coup they just pulled off in Port Royal (recall that cheering crowd, above).

So, instead of killing this poor shmoe, the crew is inching him closer and closer to the edge of the deck railing in the final shot. As soon as the cameras stop rolling, and that ball-busting pirate director says it’s a wrap, Mr. Map surely becomes shark chum.

This tale didn’t have a happy ending. Or beginning. Everyone loses.

Unless you pick up a bottle of Captain Morgan Private Stock from your local retailer. It’s really good, and it makes me feel like I’m fifty feet tall and carved out of diamond, so no one can hurt me.

Run.

#2 – Wet Dreams On Rise for NBA Stars, Redefines Morning Shoot-Around:

  • Product: Gatorade
  • Subtext: “Kevin, who used all the Kleenex?”
  • Unfortunate because: Dwyane should totally just tell Kevin how he feels

All you need to know about this one is that Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant wake up at night in cold sweats thinking about each other. HOTT. (With two T’s, that’s how you know it’s for realz). (With a Z, that’s how you know it’s serious.)

Hey, if Kevin and Dwyane want to get it on, good on them, I’m not here to judge them.

Even if they don’t want to hose each other down with G2, I’m sure it’s difficult to see past a mountain of Gatorade money to care much about the art direction of a commercial. But I seriously doubt that wet dreams were part of what Gatorade wants to peddle here.

This generation of NBA stars – oy vey!

Do you think Michael Jordan ever woke up thinking about his contemporaries? No, he was busy being a creepy weirdo in social situations. He was focused on winning… the NBA’s Worst Dressed award, every year he was in the league.

Do you think Magic & Bird ever dreamed about each other? No. Magic never slept. He was busy mowing down groupies on his way to contracting and beating AIDS. Larry Bird never slept. He just sat in the dark for eight hours, silently grinding his teeth and waiting for the rest of the world to wake up so he could punch it in the face.

However, this does beg the question: if two people each have nocturnal emissions about the other, does it count as sex?

#3 – Suburban Housewife Discovers Husband Missing, Lustily Eyes Replacement:

  • Product: Sprint Truly Unlimited Data
  • Subtext: Cuckoldry
  • Unfortunate because: Marriage seems hard enough without multimillionaire , non-identical husband-impostors taking a stab at compliant housewives, am I right?

This wins the award for Most Blatant. This has to be on purpose, right? Where the undertones of infidelity and cuckoldry are so obvious that it gets me thinking/talking/blogging about it, thereby bringing more attention to Sprint Truly Unlimited Data?

No, this isn’t coincidental or accidental. If Mad Men has taught me anything, it’s that advertisers put the ‘b’ in subtle when it comes to surreptitiously communicating messages to consumers. Then again, there’s nothing subtle about your mother leering at Kevin Durant like Wile E. Coyote licking his lips over a bucket of fried roadrunner legs.

She can’t get the kid out of the room fast enough at 0:16. “Go play,” because, you know, chores are private things that mommies and daddies do. Or mommies and Uncle Kevin. At 0:19 she even starts to take off her wedding ring.

Further, if the total lack of smartphones on Game of Thrones has taught me anything, it’s that magic and technology never exist simultaneously. This commercial has technology, so we know that magic is not real. Ergo, that doesn’t look like Kevin Durant, that is Kevin Durant. He’s standing in their kitchen, wearing dad’s pajamas no less! It couldn’t be more macabre if he showed up wearing dad as a skin suit. Dad is gone, and if he isn’t worm food already, he’s slowly suffocating in the trunk of an abandoned car on the South Side of Chicago.

Ask yourself, America – is Truly Unlimited Data worth cuckolding and murder?

Then there’s the racial component. I often like to say that “I live in a post-racial world,” and, “I don’t see race, I just see people,” because it’s the truth. Then again, I won’t pretend I don’t live in a world full of shitty racial stereotypes and tired cultural tropes. A fair number of you saw this commercial and thought, Uh-oh, huge black man and an Asian woman, there could be trouble here.

Sure, it’s an NBA ad, so there’s just a demographic likelihood that it’s going to be a tall black guy, because white athletes are more likely to be funneled into baseball and accounting, but if it’s Steve Nash that shows up in the kitchen, you wouldn’t be thinking the same thing. You’d be thinking, Did that drifter follow this lady home from the market?

This is probably where someone tells me that they “didn’t really see that” in the ad, so I’m supposed to suddenly feel weird about feeling weird. Double egg on my face.

In any case, this ad has enough stink on it that I’ll never consider switching from Verizon to Sprint. Verizon’s network is the bomb, yo! Sprint’s wholesale endorsement of infidelity and tacit disdain for the institution of marriage is appalling.

This ad truly disgusts me. Verizon doesn’t even offer unlimited data!

UPDATE: Online magazine Asiance – Connecting Asian American Women to the World gives this ad the “OK,” and even though it seems to be due in large part to the fact that the commercial doesn’t overtly perpetuate any worse/more well-known stereotypes, perhaps Sprint gets a pass? Anyways, if anyone needs a White Knight, you know where to find me. On the Internet.

Sadly, he retired before he could clean up YouTube comments.

Sadly, he died before he could clean up your racist YouTube comments.

Sounds Like The Future

Long story short:

In the future, your movie-going experience will be drastically upgraded by noise-cancelling headphones that will not only block out the sounds of people eating popcorn, but will also provide superior sound quality.

Long story long: 

There’s been a lot of whining over the years about how everyone walks around with earbuds, disconnected from the world. What the social commentators fail to acknowledge here is how annoying the sounds of the world can be! Earbuds are a godsend, and if you try to take them away from us there can be no guarantees of your safety.

Twenty-somethings yapping on the bus? Earbuds. People chatting at the library in college when I was trying to study? Earbuds. Excessive office chit-chat that kills my productivity? Earbuds.

Current generation iPhone earbuds are perfectly adequate for negating the intrusive sounds of boys crying wolf, false alarms about the sky falling, and weeping over spilled milk. That is, provided they fit your ear – and they tit mine like a glove, which is like hitting three numbers of the Mega Millions genetic lottery. Not once have I had to listen to the godawful dreck they play at the gym, and that’s a good thing.

Better than standard earbuds are those heavenly specimens from the noise-cancelling phylum, Bluetooth species. The feeling of being liberated from the accidental tug of that white cord? Friend, if you could bottle that you could save the world.

They might nuzzle perfectly in your ear, as though they were made by little audio angels, or they might not. Maybe they dangle at the end of a white cord, or maybe they don’t.  Either way, the fact that we all walk around with earbuds stuck in our headpiece is a truism of modern life. We’re almost always listening to something. And, increasingly, people are reaching out for better audio options. Try turning on the TV without seeing a Beats Audio ad.

So we spend all this time consuming audio content, and have great headphone options available for a price, yet somehow, movie theaters are the dark side of the moon when it comes to great audio. I’m tempted to say great audio is a lost art when it comes to the movie houses of America, but I’m not sure this was it was ever found. Superior audio at the multiplex is more like an undiscovered country.

Even with the best sound quality, we’re still at the mercy of fellow audience members, whose human decency is always dubious at best. A $13 movie ticket should come with more insurance against the ignorance of others than that public service announcement that runs prior to the previews. You know the one, where a flamboyantly dancing box of candy gets shamed into a silence by an unrealistically united crowd of theater patrons.

I love going to the movies, but only when I’m not sitting near some guy who’s:

  • talking or texting,
  • coughing or sniffling,
  • loudly grazing on popcorn,
  • or digging like a backhoe for those last few Snowcaps.

It’s rare that the stars align for a hassle-free cinema experience, and that’s near the top of the list of reasons not to go to the movies. The other reasons are the cost, and the fact that going to the movies requires me to leave my apartment, which I try to do as infrequently as possible.

Can I politely ask someone to be quiet? Yes; but as a superhero’s alter-ego, do I try to avoid picking fights? Yes. As we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.

Hollywood hopelessly inflates film budgets with media buys to try to entice me to leave my house; if I go to the theater, the audio sounds like it’s being piped down a collapsed mine shaft; and the only assurance I have that I can enjoy the film in peace is a flimsy social contract, one that becomes null and void as soon as someone thinks it’s time for their audition for Mystery Science Theater 3000. This is incomprehensible.

Why not just let us use headphones?

Another honest day's work for Captain Obvious.

Another honest day’s work for Captain Obvious.

There should be a headphone jack in every arm rest. Yes, just like on an airplane. Better still, there should be a wireless signal broadcast for every film. Takes care of my ladies-behind-me-who-won’t-shut-up problem, and my long-neglected-movie-audio-experience problem. Two birds, one stone.

I know – who’s gonna pay for that? We will. We’ve done it before.

In 1993 we paid extra to see Jurassic Park in something called Dolby Digital. We didn’t know what Dolby Digital was, we just knew it was better, because it was new. Simple logic, right? We paid extra to see it in Dolby Digital, or we felt like total schmucks if we didn’t. We’ll pay a premium again, this time for the theater  that has the private audio option. Some will decline the option, but not in the same numbers that forego seeing a film in 3D. Simply put: all movies can be improved by great sound. Only a handful of movies really need to be seen in that luxurious third dimension.

I won’t pretend that this is some spark of pure genius on my part. Anyone who has writhed in agony as someone else a few rows back talk through an entire film has silently cried out for this development, even they they didn’t realize it. In fact, there are related offerings already in existence:

Leave it to a bad infomercials and decrepit airliners to almost, almost connects the dots. Why can’t some kindly stork swoop in to deliver this brainchild to the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago, or the ShowPlace ICON theater?

The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX, takes a novel approach to crowd control:

I applaud them for taking a stand, but ejecting talkers and texters is only a removal of the negative. It does nothing to improve the quality of the sound in the theater. Besides, I just don’t get down to Austin as often as I’d like.

Somehow, not one of the world’s ten most enjoyable movie theaters gives a thought to giving viewers a private or improved audio experience. It’s bizarre.

Unfortunately, I don’t have much hope for ever actually seeing this idea come to fruition because, like most old-economy dinosaurs, the movie industry is reticent to change. Theater owners are ever a curmudgeonly part of the equation. Just another reason to stay home, I guess. That and the fact that it costs about 3,000% more for two people to see a movie in theaters than to watch it at home.

Oh, well. One less reason to leave my apartment.

Reading the Future

Long story short:

In the future, you’ll be able to pay one price for a book and consume it in any format – hard copy, digital, and audiobook.

Long story long:

Q: Do you prefer eReaders, or “real books?”

A: WHO CARES?!

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been sneered at by paperback readers for using an eReader. She’ll… and I’m not being a chauvinist here, it’s just that it’s always a she, because guys I know don’t read; every conversation I’ve ever had about books was with a woman… anyways, she’ll backhandedly say, “I just like the feel of a real book, ya know?”

People get selectively discriminant against eReaders, versus, say, the iPhone, GPS, and various other gadgets that they use. No one ever says, “I just like the sound of a rotary phone dial,” or, “ya know that impotent feeling of not knowing where you are on a map, yeah, I love that.” Whatever.

Then, Little Miss Paperback might extend an olive branch and say, “Well, at least you read.”

There’s an implied wink-and-nod to what most readers – male and female, alike – accept as a universal truth: anyone who doesn’t read for pleasure is a sub-human troll. Apparently, there’s no point in feeling good about something we do unless we can look down on others who do differently.

This is why non-readers are forever walking around feeling so damn guilty.

“I’d like to read more, I just don’t have the time,” or, “I haven’t read a book since college… I know, I should.” We’ve all seen people squirm with discomfort while saying these things. That’s not indigestion. It’s shame! To most readers, books are like ice cream and soup – they can understand if you don’t like certain kinds, but they can’t wrap their head around you just not liking them at all.

Somehow worse than not reading at all is admitting to listening to audiobooks – gasp! eReaders and paperbackers alike will line up around the corner to crap in your hat about this. After the outright look of disgust, they might manage something like, “At least you read, I guess,” because, to them, reading – or, listening to, since they’ll no doubt point out that it’s not actually reading – an audiobook is lazy.

In truth, there are advantages to all three formats. Paperback is great for the beach, or poolside, or any time when I’m concerned about a digital device getting wet, sandy, or stolen. Audiobooks are great for reading while I’m on a long car trip, or walking down the street, or brushing my teeth. eReaders are great for getting instant access to must-have titles, and for reading in the dark when my girlfriend thinks I’m sleeping (ha!).

However, all this choice introduces a new wrinkle to buying a book: now you have to make the irrevocable decision about how, and by implication when and where, you’re going to read it.

Sometimes we have the leisure to sit down and read, but often we don’t. Different days call for different formats, but having a book in multiple formats means paying for a book multiple times. Even if this isn’t a total affront to common sense – we pay the author for the book, but we pay the publisher for its distribution – paying twice is obviously a financial non-starter. Still, being boxed in to one format when I can greatly benefit from utilizing others is a constraint, and such constraints vex me. They vex me, grievously!

A few summers ago, somewhere between sweating profusely on the steamy Blue line train here in Chicago, side-stepping urine-soaked vagrants, and reading a ratty copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, I thought, why do I even have to choose between formats? In a perfect world, we would have the option to choose not just one, but all available formats, in a streamlined purchase, with the price being less than buying all three formats separately.

I thought of calling it the P.U.L.L. system. As in, Personal Usage and Lending License. You’d pay once for the license to the title, get all the formats, and do whatever you want with them, including lend them (which, in all honesty, I included only to round out the acronym), ’til death do you part. PULL could even be used as a verb, as in, “Yeah, I just PULLed the new Harry Potter.”

There is an untapped market of people who would be willing to pay a premium to consume a book across multiple formats. I assumed this untapped market consisted solely of myself, until last week.

I was deliberating over audiobook-versus-Kindle for American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. I had decided on the former, when, like a lightening bolt of “HELL YEAH!” sent by the Ghost of Ideas Past, it hit me: I could finally download both for one low price.

PULL

This process shouldn't require a separate page to explain it; with Amazon, unsurprisingly, it does.

This process shouldn’t require a separate page to explain it; with Amazon, unsurprisingly, it does.

It isn’t a seamless process, at least not yet, and Amazon’s presentation is characteristically muddled. Until both versions showed up on their respective devices, I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting. Also, alas, there is no hard copy version included.

However, the Sync to Furthest Page Read feature between my Kindle and the Audible app for iOS works perfectly. Note: you’ll need to download the free Audible app for this to work. If you download the file to your device and listen through iTunes, there is no sync between iTunes and your eReader. Also, your furthest point isn’t properly indexed until you turn off your eReader or close the Audible app.

Photo Jun 11, 6 04 31 PM

Bingo….

... bango!

… bango!

We live in a world of readers who align themselves neatly along lines of “real books” versus digital formats. Unfortunately, Amazon and Audible take their cue from this stale, digital-versus-non-digital dichotomy, which is why it’s taken so long to see this blindingly obvious idea come to fruition.

We don’t yet live in a world where enough people see that there are compelling reasons to own hard copy, digital, and, yes, even audiobook. Call me an optimist (please, call me an optimist – no one ever does, and it’s hurtful), but I have a feeling that day will come.

It’s a conceit, but part of the joy of reading is telling other people about what we’re reading. One of the best ways to do that is still the book shelf. It’s the best way to “show, not tell” what kind of books I’m into, and it does so better than any Facebook Like ever can. I’m optimistic that some day Amazon will recognize this conceit in all of us – anyone reading a paperback on a train secretly hopes someone will single them out as being awesome based solely on the book they’re reading – and, like any good company, exploit it!

One price, all formats = a big bucket of win for everyone.

Now… if only a box of books weren’t so damn heavy to move.

I know, I'm sweet; now who wants to touch me?

They all say… something.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Note: this post contains spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness, none of which should surprise anyone, and none of which ruin any of the fun. Read on!

Star Trek Into Darkness is four-quadrants of summer movie season fun. It has the optimal mix of spaceships zooming around, shit blowing up, and people doing those things that people often do. I pay it the highest compliment I can give a film: “Well, I don’t feel like I want my money back.”

Will it win Best Picture, or make you see the world differently? Probably not, but not every film has to speak to high-minded, deeper truths of the human condition. Sometimes people just want to sit in the dark for two hours and forget that someday, they and everyone they know are going to die, horribly. Am I right?

That said, I do have some questions. Mini-beefs. Sliders, if you will.

‘How big was it?’

What kind of budget is this thing working with? I don’t mean the movie, I mean Starfleet! I’m not a scientist and I’m not an economist, but even conservative estimates put Starfleet’s yearly budget higher than the total sum of all currencies existing in the world, ever. Just look at some of the hardware that Starfleet regularly trots out, totally making all its neighbors jealous:

vengeance-b STARK TREK INTO DARKNESS

This begs the question, What economy drives the world in which Starfleet operates? Because if there isn’t enough actual money to fund Starfleet, there must be some massive co-operative, communist utopia, or outright slavery. There’s a wiki stub that partially speaks to this, but the Star Trek canon is largely silent on the issue. Cooperative utopia is the general assumption, but what about all those little alien species that no one really gives a shit about? Who’s to say they’re not an exploited underclass, forced into labor?

In the Star Trek universe, if you’re not a human, Romulan, Vulcan, Klingon, Borg, Cardassian, or Ferengi, you’re probably that little clamface guy, Keenser, who you’ll recognize as Scotty’s mute punching bag/shoulder to cry on. At best, he’s (she’s?) an indentured servant; at worst, an outright slave. Sure, Keenser seems happy enough, but what choice does he have? Poor little guy is probably just resigned to his fate.

stid-cla-07

“One day, I will kill you,” Keenser thought…

tumblr_ljtsxiWI8X1qdpwnfo1_500

… but there were some good times.

Did the earthling government of the future decide to swap fluoride for Soma in the drinking water of the citizenry? Everyone seems remarkably chipper to work for room & board. I don’t see the requisite propaganda that characterizes the typical state-run economy, or a gun to anyone’s head compelling them to work. As a matter of fact, there’s a decided lack of artillery in this future. Kinda paints a rosy picture of earth in the 23rd century, which is all well and good, but…

How does Earth not have at least one gun pointed into outer space?

Khan commandeers a sick new warship, the USS Vengeance, but later crashes it into downtown San Francisco. As it hurtles toward the city the camera pans over dozens of faces, each of which generally approximate the pants-shitting panic that one would feel in such a situation. But has it never occurred to anyone that this might happen? Is the warmongering Admiral Marcus really the only member of Starfleet brass that is overly concerned with the safety of Earth?

If the clandestine untraceable photon torpedo program was Marcus’ brainchild, wouldn’t it also have been a good idea to point at least one rather large gun directly toward the sky, just in case? It seems silly that there isn’t a single gunboat or drone orbiting the human homeworld, tasked with the sole purpose of shooting down a potential threat from above.

Star-Trek-Into-Darkness-trailer-USS-Vengeance-crash

stid-t1-37

“It’s exactly like we never expected.”

Hold on tight in the topsy-turvy future!

Why is gravity even used on starships?

Relying on gravity while operating the ship – read: spending all your time walking upright, as if you’re on earth – leaves the crew completely vulnerable when the ship gets damaged to the point where gravity systems fail. This inevitably happens, leading to the one of the most dependable scenes in any Star Trek movie, where characters are sent flying across the room after their ship gets hit by an enemy attack. It’s kind of hard to fly your spaceship if half your crew is spattered against the wall like a hamburger piñata.

Also, note: if the ship loses gravity capabilities, no one would be falling, they’d be floating.

There’s one scene in the film where everyone on the bridge straps on futuristic safety belts, just to show how Khan is totally harshing their mellow. So, there’s some thought given to safety on a spaceship, just not enough. If I’m designing starships, the most important people – the ones flying the ship – are absolutely going to be strapped in at all times. In a cockpit, perhaps? But, no, aboard the Enterprise, everyone is strolling through luxury hallways big enough to make Cal Hockley feel right at home.

As soon as the bad guys flip off the gravity switch, sure enough – lookout “below”! – everyone becomes a tumbling meat wad.

fans-of-the-film-titanic-are-sure-to-love-hanging-out-in-the-grand-staircase-where-jack-and-rose-met-by-the-clock

Captain’s quarters on the Enterprise.

Uh-oh, comms are down! (Again?)

While Khan is scuttling the Vengeance in the middle of San Francisco, the Enterprise is having issues of its own. It’s a general truism across all Star Trek media that an endless number of mini-dramas can be generated by unreliable technology, namely issues arising with the following:

  1. Warp drive
  2. Communications
  3. Life-support systems, including gravity (addressed above)

I’ll buy that a finely tuned piece of machinery doesn’t take kindly to getting hit with photon torpedoes, so I’m fine with warp drive being on the fritz, but constantly losing the ability to communicate with other ships or the homeworld? C’mon. If we have the tech to launch ships across the universe, we’re past the point of dropped calls.

We’re getting no response, captain!

The gamma rays are jamming our hailing frequencies!

What does everyone want on their space pizza?

Spock goes Super-Saiyan aboard a flying garbage truck

How does Spock beat up Khan? I’m not saying Spock isn’t tough, but as a viewer I can’t help but recall that in the first act, Khan single-handedly mows down a platoon of Klingons. In their own barn no less! (Away games are tough in any league.) Later, when Spock beams down to apprehend Khan on the back of that flying trash disposal unit, sure, he’s pissed because he thinks Kirk is dead. Still, even a Vulcan hopped up on adrenaline is no match for a genetically engineered super-soldier. Yet somehow, Spock manages to hold his own.

Realistically (ha! – I know, I know), his only chance at killing or subduing Khan is a quick strike with the famed Vulcan death grip, but Spock doesn’t even try this move until about a minute into the fight. I understand that good must vanquish evil, but where I come from, “genetically engineered super-soldier” means something. It means our bookish second-in-charge would be a grease stain on the side of a futuristic building if he didn’t immediately uncork the VDG!

Capt. James T. Kickstarter

Kirk saves the day by taking a radiation bath in the ships bowels. Leaving aside the fact that he would be dead waaaaay before he ever reached the Enterprise’s misaligned warp core – which looks like uncomfortably similar to a huge, mechanical uterus that might birth squidees in the Matrix universe – once he reaches it, he just kicks the damn thing into submission.

So broken piece of machinery that is sophisticated enough to travel across space is made all better by repeatedly kicking it? Like a vending machine?

*Shrug.* Whatever.

What about that Klingon threat?

Back in the first act, Kirk and his buddies chase Khan to, Kronos, the Klingon homeworld. They prove to be ungracious guests, to say the least. They kill maybe two dozen Klingons who are just minding their own business, doing their jobs, patrolling, when a bunch of aliens show up and start fighting on their planet. Shit hits the fan, as it has a way of doing, and the offshoot is two dozen fatherless Klingon families that the Klingon Empire now likely has to support through raising taxes on Klingon cigarettes and Klingon Coca-Cola.

Do we care? Of course not, but we’re repeatedly hit over the head with the real consequences, outright war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire – gasp!

CUT TO: the final scene of the film. Kirk addresses a graduating Starfleet Academy class. Not a single mention of the fallout of their foray into the badlands of Kronos, any looming alien threat, or that that time “we toilet-papered the Klingon’s house and totally killed, like, twenty of them.”

stark-trek-into-darkness-klingons

Klingons live for battle. And fall fashion.

Summary

All that said, I’m absolutely willing to accept a serving of sliders in return for an enjoyable kickoff to the summer movie season. Star Trek Into Darkness was great fun. See it in theaters, with other people!

Please Put Cover Flow Out of My Misery

There’s a ton of reasons to hate the iTunes app. I’ll try to focus on just one.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. This is a bit like talking bad about my own mother.

Apple struck out on the Oregon Trail with the iPod back in the days of “1,000 songs in your pocket.” We’ve all benefited from that pioneer spirit. iTunes was a huge part of that – but even good companies makes mistakes.

Yes, iTunes was instrumental in freeing us from the tyranny of the Discman. Sadly, soon after that liberation, if you listened really closely, you would’ve heard a large, sucking sound.

Thwwwwooop! That’s the sound of an engineering brain drain, funneling minds out of the iTunes project and throwing them headlong into the new frontiers of iPhone and iPad.

Since then, mission control in Cupertino has left the design of this unappreciated, flagship product to wither on the vine.

There’s one feature in particular that sends my E-meter reading into a nosedive: Cover Flow.

One Beef – Cover Flow… What’s the Point?

You can assert that album art matters, so a view where all your pretty album covers are showcased is desirable. Fine, but it’s precisely for this reason, that album art matters, that Cover Flow is better left down in the grease trap of history, because – surprise surprise! – all of my albums don’t have cover art.

Pretty, I guess... but what's the point?

Pretty, I guess… but what’s the point?

Cover Flow is thus always inferior to List View for the simple reason that the latter shows as many as eight albums. If I’m lucky, Cover Flow shows me five, plus a couple blank default images. Not to mention the fact that scrolling up/down alphabetically in List View is infinitely more intuitive than in Cover Flow. Don’t believe me? Try it. Somewhere in that moment when you have to forcibly remind yourself what order your cover art is arranged in, I hope you see my face, smilin’ atcha :-)

Eight albums viewable a.k.a. more than five

Anyways, Cover Flow has already been axed from the desktop version of iTunes. Why are they still cramming it in my cramhole via the mobile app?

Two Beef – the “ARGH” factor

There’s no way to truly disable Cover Flow. Struggling under the yolk this draconian lack of a no-brainer user option makes me seethe. I’ll say this for Cover Flow: it’s reliable! I can consistently count on it to infuriate me when I tilt my iPhone into landscape view, which usually happens inadvertently (such as when iPhone is tucked in an armband while I’m running on a treadmill, for instance).

I can disable landscape view universally, but that workaround only enrages me further when I later want to type an iMessage or email from landscape.

Red Beef – Apple’s refusal to acknowledge iTunes’ inferiority/lack of a Swipe function in Now Playing view

The one good thing about Cover Flow is that it supports a left/right swipe function that lets you swiftly scan through albums. The utility of this function cannot be overstated. There are a hundred reasons why the Spotify mobile app is a better media player than iTunes, but chief among those reasons is the simple ability to swipe from one song to the next.

That’s what makes Apple’s blind spot here so stupefying – swipe is the method of user interface within Cover Flow, but I can’t swipe from one song to the next in Now Playing.

IMG_2829

Many Spotify functions are not supported by iTunes, and the greatest of these is Swipe.

Blue Beef – Improvements That Aren’t

The most noticeable update to the iTunes app over the past few years is the graphics overhaul that came as part of iOS 6. Yes, the one that makes the Now Playing buttons smaller. Apple thinks that making me marshal all of my attention just to skip to the next song is what passes for app engagement, but it feels like I’m playing a game of Operation. I shouldn’t have to roll a high Dexterity score just to switch to the next song on a playlist.

iTunes (right) vs. Spotify

iTunes (left) vs. Spotify

Besides that (*ahem*) improvement, iTunes hasn’t gotten better with age, it’s turned to vinegar. Witness the wailing and gnashing of teeth online at each new desktop software iteration.

If you want to see the definition of “living in hope but dying in despair,” skim the Apple Support Community pages that turn up if you Google ‘iTunes 11 sucks.’ Then go hug your children extra tight, because it’s a cold world out there.

Summary – The way forward/How Apple can be Andy Dufresne and crawl through their self-created river of shit

It’s sad and strange at the same time how in just ten years, iTunes went from this…

To this…

That’s Apple CEO Tim Cook, mumbling, “but wait, here comes iTunes streaming.”

Apple may have several game changers still up its sleeve as it claims, but streaming music isn’t one of them. They’re just too late to the party. If Apple feels Spotify and Rdio looking over its shoulder… it shouldn’t. These services are so far out ahead of iTunes, and the streaming music landscape is already so crowded that Apple should just make a play to acquire Spotify.

There’s no shame in admitting you missed a revolution, then buying your way back to relevance in the space. Right, Yahoo? This one master stroke would fix the iTunes interface and immediately make Apple a player in streaming music, like, “Tada!”

If you don’t think Spotify would go for it, you’re not listening hard enough – thwack, thwoomp-thwoomp. That’s the sound of Spotify flopping around in the bottom of the boat, struggling to implement a sustainable revenue model. I mean just look at Spotify’s desktop and mobile software – the damn things look like the best parts of iTunes already, with the worst parts surgically removed. I’d be surprised if Spotify wasn’t halfway designed with eventual acquisition by and integration with iTunes in mind.

Call me, Tim Cook! Call me, Sean Parker! I’ll be at the Sizzler!