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Google Star Search

Note to reader
Always read the fine print.
Note to self
Endeavor to make your deceitfulness more obvious in future.

I was visiting a buddy of mine in the Valley this week, catching up over coffee when the conversation —as it inevitably does— turned to work. Generally speaking he’s pretty tight-lipped about what goes on at Mountain View, but when I asked him what he was working on these days his eyes lit up and the sides of his mouth curled into a tight grin.

You wanna see?

He pulled his laptop out of its cute little protective slip and booted up, opening Firefox to the default home page and grinning all the while. I just kind of stared at it, looking for something novel; something worth smiling so much over. Nothing. Sam looked like he was going to burst if I didn’t notice whatever the hell it was that he was trying to show me, but I was drawing blanks. Preempting my WTF, he interjected…

The bookmarks button!

I looked up at the toolbar and saw, well, nothing astonishing. The normal bookmark icon —a book with a bookmark in it, surprise— was absent. It had been replaced by a star, not unlike the star icon Internet Explorer uses for Favorites. I still wasn’t getting it.

So you changed the icon to look more like Explorer’s. Nice to see they’re paying you so well to hack on Firefox like this.

No, dummy. Not like IE. Like Picasa. Like Gmail.

Branding issues aside, I was starting to think the barista hadn’t flushed the cleaner out of the machine properly this morning. Sam was sounding less and less like a computer science PhD and more like that guy I saw rooting around in the dumpster last night.

This isn’t just the bookmark manager that’s built into the Firefox software, it’s the front end to a web service I’ve been working on. We’ve been calling it Star Search, but it probably won’t go public with that name.

And at that he began outlining exactly what Star Search does, and why he is so excited about it.

Essentially, Star Search is a little man that sits on your shoulder and logs every page you visit. Sounds kinda nasty at first, bordering on spyware, but I’m assured it’s completely above board and totally secure. Instead of logging the pages locally, it pings Google’s servers with the URL and your Google ID —using only the slightest of bandwidth and system resources— and lets the server take care of the rest. When you come across a page you want to bookmark (or star, as Sam is adamant I call it) you hit the star button on the toolbar. It pulses for a second (cute, but not exactly Firefoxy) and you go on your merry way. Basically, this Firefox extension sits around looking unintrusive all day while it tracks your every move on the Internet.

But what does Google do with all this information? Well that’s the fun part. Have you ever recalled seeing something online but can’t remember where? You search and you search and you search to the best of your ability but you come out empty-handed because that particular page isn’t ‘important’ enough to warrant a decent PageRank… it’s too obscure to be found in the first hundred results of your search, so you give up and try to forget about it. Well, Google Star Search solves that problem: when you visit Google you can now choose between a full-Web search and a search limited to the pages in your history; a full-content, ranked query of everything you’ve ever looked at in your browser. Not only that, but pages that you flag (or star, rather) are automatically given higher ranking in the results. You get a clever history and bookmark search, and Google gets a better idea of what real human beings think is useful by analyzing their trajectories through the Web and their favorite (starred) sites.

I was impressed. Sure, the OmniWeb browser had full-content bookmark and history search, but it always felt kinda clunky… and there was no way you could keep your history around forever like Star Search does, your hard disk would choke. The Google solution isn’t just lighter and indisputably more useful, you can also use it on any machine you’d logged into with your Google ID. You can take your history and starred pages anywhere!

That’s not all, he says.

When you log into Star Search you can also view and manage your starred pages explicitly like you would in a traditional bookmark manager. And there’s an option, when you star something, to mark only that specific page or to generalize it to the whole site.

So like Rollyo or Yahoo My Web 2.0? You’re setting up a custom Google Search?

No, not like Rollyo. Rollyo is third-party and it’s hacked onto the Yahoo API. And you can’t search more than 25 sites in your roll! And Yahoo is child’s play compared to this. We’re going to kick ass with this.

I had to agree with him… the demo he gave was pretty compelling, and it was near-seamless. It’s the “search, don’t sort” culture that gave birth to Gmail, and it looked oh-so-effortless I wondered why anyone would ever want to file their bookmarks manually again.

Something that chaffed me at this point was del.icio.us, and Star Search’s similarity (or rather dissimilarity) to it. Obviously being a web-based bookmarking service is the biggest part of it, but if there are two things any Web 2.0 service needs right now —besides AJAX and an API— it’s free-form tagging and a social element, and while Google Star Search had all the other checkmarks I’d expect from such a service it seemed to lack those crucial two.

Way ahead of you. The management interface I told you about before is completely tagged. We shunned the file/folder metaphor and stuck with the labeling system we used in Gmail.

And with social networking and sharing and whatnot?

It’s all available through the API, so people with API keys could set up their own ‘search my favorite corners of the web’ kind of thing, but right now we don’t have any collaborative or social features in the works. There may be something in the future, maybe through Blogger or Orkut, but that isn’t something for the 1.0

You mean beta.

[laughs] Yeah, the first beta.

Which will be when?

Soon. Very soon.

Persistent web-based bookmarking and history with full search, tagging, and an Internet all of your very own. Throw in some very swanky browser integration, and a near future where third-party developers can integrate URL logging into their own apps (imagine NetNewsWire contributing to your star history too) and you’ve got Star Search in a nutshell. Well, that’s what I heard.*


It’s the thought that counts

I was planning to leave this as a comment to Bret Treasure’s thoughtful analysis of the cubic zirconium conundrum, but as the reply grew longer it started taking on a life of its own. Stupid brain. The essence of the problem being that a jewelry business founded on creating “cheap imitations” will have a hard time selling itself to an image-conscious public.

A jewellery purchase is usually a symbol of love or commitment. These sorts of decisions are made in the limbic system of the brain. Rational decisions like saving money and notions of societal norms reside in the neocortex. For most people, a business proposition like the Secrets shhh one is going to cause cognitive dissonance. Equals purchase resistance.

Note that this isn’t the case with every purchase: Bali’s entire tourist trade is in selling designer knockoffs and pirate DVDs to vacationers, as is the case with most of South East Asia’s shopping hotspots. But when you’re buying there, even as gifts for others, both you and the gift recipient are aware of the diminished value of the item. This is normally corrected by buying your cousin Tammy eight faux-designer handbags instead of the one she really wanted from her local boutique, but everyone is still acutely aware of the exchange taking place. It’s a token gift; it doesn’t mean “I think you’re worth it”, it means “I was in Bali and this shit was forty cents a piece”.

It is immensely difficult to align the “mock jewelry” or indeed the “imitation anything” experience with what people already believe about luxury items. Luxury is almost entirely defined by cost, and in the case of jewelry the (monetary) sacrifice of the buyer is practically the whole point. But forget cubic zirconiums, what’s going to happen to the gemstone business when lab-grown diamonds cost a dollar and are bigger and clearer than anything you could ever dig out of the ground? Either the diamond cartels go crazy, demanding that all gems be certified by the Gemological Institute of America as “naturally derived” in a vain attempt to protect their dying business (sound familiar?), or the value of diamonds crashes and we all start preferring opals. Playing our prejudices against “the artificial” is working well for now, but give it time.

Where does that leave luxury? It means a realignment of mental models. It means a reassessment of value. As mentioned in the Wired article I link above, “if you go into a florist and buy a beautiful orchid, it’s not grown in some steamy hot jungle in Central America. It's grown in a hothouse somewhere in California. But that doesn't change the fact that it’s a beautiful orchid.”

In time jewelry buyers will have to choose between honest beauty and cachet. And then they’ll go make their sweetheart something with their own two hands and show her how much they really love her. Screw the cachet.


Rock out with my cock out

June of 2003 I treated myself to a then-new Sony Cyber-shot DSC-U20 digital camera. It was nothing special; clocking in at only 2MP and with no zoom, there were already dozens of cameras on the market that outperformed it, but its magic was in its tiny size.

Sony CyberShot Even today, it’s tough to find something smaller. You can get thinner, and you can get lighter, and you can get ‘em with three times the resolution and a massive optical zoom, but you’ll be hard pressed to find smaller. And it’s all about the smaller… if my camera were any bigger I wouldn’t be able to take it anywhere. I’m a guy, I have pockets: I don’t do manbags.

After two years and a good 3000 happy snaps, tragedy struck. I was camping, it was cold, and I was snuggled up inside a doona in my 3-man tent (which comfortably sleeps 2 men) after a day of barbecuing, football, and binge drinking. By the next evening, any photos I took looked like this:

Ben’s head, illuminated by the flash against a night backdrop, is barely recognizable because of a weird vertical smudging in the photo

The best explanation I could muster was that either:

  1. I slept on it and crushed something important, or
  2. The moisture that builds up in a cold tent occupied by two warm bodies got into it.

Either way, I put it down to the short half-life of modern gadgetry, and pondered what my next camera would be like.

On return from camping I visited a store in the Hay street mall to check the price of cameras nowadays and inquire about repairs, at which I was snootily informed that I could buy a newer, better camera than that one for a paltry $700. Comments about the relative size of these “better” cameras were met with no answer… the permed dork in a suit working at the camera store had no better suggestions and no advice for repair, so I was shit out of luck.

For the next few months I pondered different models of camera, different models of cameraphone (don’t get me started on those, even as they push the 2MP barrier their photo quality is lousy and their flashes are barely worth labeling as such)… always coming out disappointed. Until today.

No, I’m still not getting a new camera, but Sony has announced that the CCDs in my (and many other) model camera, when exposed to humidity, have a high likelihood of failure: failure that looks identical to the kind I’m experiencing. And they’re offering free repair, even out of warranty. I gotta say, Sony, you’re all class. I’ll be consulting permed-camera-store-jerk at my earliest convenience.


Book covers

What’s wrong with this picture?

Left to right, they are the US and Australian paperback releases of Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics, and the same of Don Norman’s Emotional Design. So… what’s wrong with them? Could it be that each of these pairs is the same book with basically the same cover —though different enough to have cost a bit of the publisher’s dough— released simultaneously in two countries with no significant cultural differences that could necessitate such a redesign? Probably, yeah.

What’s interesting is that these aren’t very different takes on the same cover art, but they are different works nonetheless. They took time to create, and a graphic designer’s time costs money. Somebody got paid to take the Freakonomics paperback and make it “less hokey”. Spot the difference on those Emotional Design covers: some guy sat, literally for hours, recreating some other designer’s work… but with a different source photo. And for what?

I sympathize with package designers. I really do. Packaging can be a tricky business. After all, it is (depending on whose tripe you’re believing this week) the most important element of a product’s marketing, and marketing is a fucking tricky business all of its own. When a product goes international, the packaging must (inevitably, for reasons the company feels are important enough) make an attempt at remaining true to “the brand message” even as it adapts to the values of the target market. And it must adapt. The American housewife thinks differently about Tide than does her Indian counterpart, and the British shopper feels differently about Tim Tams than his Australian friends; if you try to sell the same product the same way to those wildly different markets, you will lose. Different strokes for different folks, as they say, so the packaging has to change. Big deal, right? An international transition already means alterations to weights and measures, to standardized nutrition panels, barcodes, even product names, so you expect the odd redesign! But book covers?

Book covers shouldn’t need redesigning

That’s really the bottom line. Books don’t have weights and measures. They don’t have nutritional information. A book’s title doesn’t change the way Rice Krispies become Rice Bubbles when they cross international waters. The barcode and the ISBN remain the same worldwide; the blurb, the pullquotes from the New York Times, and the “#1 Bestseller!” badge can move from region to region without a lick of editing. Crossing language boundaries, there’s another story, but this is Australia and the United States! Their tastes couldn’t be so divergent, could they?

Well yeah, apparently. And one can’t help but wonder why.

Update

The American and Australian covers for a book of Gabriel Zaid’s Michael Honey points out another fantastic example: Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books. Jess tells me she likes the American cover. I think she’s batshit crazy, but that’s the judgment I cast on women who are willing to date people like me.

Part of me suspects American designers of uglifying the paperback to drive sales of the hardcover. Lucky (?) for we in Oz, that is rarely the case, as the choice between hard and soft cover is often made for us. Still wishing I could get Freakonomics in hardcover though, alas alack.


Nerd jokes are always more amusing when you’re trashed

After several weeks of high-tension work, unfortunate deadlines, and all-nighters in gdb, I finally had some time to unwind this weekend, mostly involving a very enjoyable night on the town with friends.

Maybe it’s the onset of maturity, something I hoped I’d never live to see, but I’ve lost my zest for nightclubs of late. The lines, the music, the smoke, the having-to-get-drunk-enough-to-forget-you’re-white to enable dancing, the fauxhawks and ironic mullets… I can do without the lot, so I’ve come to enjoy the classy mid-thirties bars all the more. Last night saw us in the CBD, starting at the Belgian Beer Café (Hoegaarden on tap), Box Deli (very decent martinis of the French [for the ladies] and Dirty [for myself] varieties), and Carnegies (not as classy, but it’s hard to dislike a bar with such shelves of spirits that the staff must fetch them by ladder).

We were out with the Sex & the City gang sans Samantha Emma, when Miranda Paris and I were introduced for the first time (who, incidentally, is more of an Angelina Jolie than her New York doppelgänger would suggest).

Paris
So, what are you studying?
Chris
I move between an interesting major and a boring one.
Paris
And they are?
Chris
Linguistics and Computer Science.
Paris
So Computer Science is the really interesting one.
Chris
Hah, sure.
Paris
So you’re a linguist? Lemme show you something. [Removing a bracelet and showing me her wrist] My family are Celtic pagans, I had this tattooed on my wrist; it means ‘free’.
Chris
Free as in speech? Or free as in beer?
Paris
Huh?
Chris
Never mind.

Mad lib

The following is a heavily-paraphrased excerpt from Paul Graham’s speech at OSCON 2004 (full text), with a few edges rounded down and some semantically related terms pulled out for fun. Reading through it, what springs to mind for you?

A couple years ago a friend told me about a new project he was involved with. It sounded promising. But the next time I talked to him, he said they’d decided to build their [PRODUCT] on [PLATFORM], and had just hired a very experienced [PLATFORM] [PROFESSIONAL] to lead the project. When I heard this, I thought, these guys are doomed. One, the guy couldn’t be a first rate [PROFESSIONAL], because to become an eminent [PLATFORM] [PROFESSIONAL] he would have had to use [PLATFORM] voluntarily, multiple times, and I couldn’t imagine a great [PROFESSIONAL] doing that; and two, even if he was good, he’d have a hard time hiring anyone good to work for him if the project had to be built on [PLATFORM].

Graham’s terms in the above concerned software. It was a software project, the platform was Windows NT, and the professional was a software developer. His presentation was about the qualities that define a great hacker, and the Word Of Graham is that Windows developers don’t make the cut. Whether he’s right or not, it’s funny to see how you can play people’s prejudices off of a passage like this.

Try slotting ‘Linux’ and ‘interface designer’ in there. Smooth fit, huh? What about ‘Macintosh’ and ‘game developer’? This isn’t an operating system war alone, though: I know photographers whose bias towards black and white film stock would have them pick digital as the platform that no great photographer would ever voluntarily use. The greats used 35mm; damn those new-jack digital kids, right?

The sentiment is oft-dittoed amongst acoustic musicians (drummers in particular), and recording engineers whose enduring affinity for the warmth of analog tape won’t allow them to consider the alternatives. Scornful grammarians —the type who won’t tolerate double negatives and split infinitives— think the English language is going to hell in a handbasket because the kids today are too fast and loose with their words. Some baristas will refuse to serve you a coffee with low-fat milk. I could go on.

So what’s wrong with these people? Are they just crusty old trolls with calcified mindsets? Well yeah, duh, but so are you. So am I. People don’t like to change their worldview: their worldview gives them certainty, it gives them a way to think and feel without having to exert themselves with thinking and feeling. This is why your racist uncle and your vaguely homophobic father don’t hesitate to share their views at the dinner table: they’re right, damnit, and no politically correct punk brats are going to tell them different. Change is a scary thing. And when it happens from the inside out —when you see a whole side of yourself you never noticed before— you might not like what you see. Better to stay the same.

Don’t read this as some kind of call to action or anti-stagnation manifesto. When I bitch about things, I fully expect it’s because I have a selfish, short-sighted brain. Revel in your inflexibility. It makes you what you are.


iTMS AU

iTunes Australian Music Store Helloooooo music store. It’s about freakin time!

At A$1.69 (US$1.26) per track, $16.99 ($12.71) for an album, and $3.39 ($2.54) for videos, it’s hard to see the Oz iTunes Music Store as a particularly great value equation when their biggest competitors —BigPond and Destra— have been around longer and have underpriced Apple since inception. iTunes’ only saving grace is that it has the iPod.

There’s plenty of content, with what appears to be a wholesome front-page focus on Australian acts like Kasey Chambers, the Veronicas, the Dissociatives, Missy Higgins, and Evermore, with some exclusive content thrown in there too. This is important: Aussies are more patriotic in their music than their politics —seven of today’s Top 10 downloaded tracks are from Aussie acts— and as I’ve mentioned, if you don’t tailor your service to your audience, you’re doomed.

Personally, I’m unlikely to use the store all that much. I like CDs, and I like buying CDs. I have a backlog of albums that I’ve pirated that I still want to buy —some of these albums I ripped from friends as much as a year ago— and the fact that I haven’t deleted them yet means I value their presence in my music collection: I will be buying them in time, probably next time someone tricks me into visiting JB HiFi. I buy CDs for the same reason I buy LPs: I like physical objects, I like physical ownership, and I like keeping my options open. I know, I’m a dinosaur.

Plus there’s that whole DRM thing that I’m not altogether supportive of.

Podcasts are there, but… well, podcasts have always been free and available to anyone with or without an iTMS account, even though they’re something I really haven’t gotten into until recently. I think it just took this long to get the decent content out there. IT Conversations has been around a long time, and I get a lot of value out of them, so between ITC Programming, ITC Marketing, CocoaRadio, and 43Folders I have myself pretty well covered on commute, at the gym, or just around the house.

Where I probably will end up using the store is in impulse buys of single tracks from the kinds of artist I know don’t have anything noteworthy on the rest of their album, if only because iTunes will be quicker and more reliable than P2P networks. Ditto to music videos: I love music videos, but very few CDs come with them on board and the file-sharing networks just don’t cut it. Then, of course, there’s the Free Download Of The Week and iTunes Exclusives.

I can already feel them breaking my will.


Viagra spam for iPod owners

Fresh from the inbox:

Swallow one tab of viagra soft tabs, wait only 15 minutes, love her all night long!

I think it goes without saying: good artists copy, great artists steal.


Improbable iPod peripherals, Part 2

It was some eighteen months ago that I unleashed the Quietune onto the world, and since that day tech companies have been beating down my door for the rights to such a fabulous invention with such a strong market demand, so I figured it needed a sequel. Well, not it. But you know… things. Things needed a sequel.

When I’m at home I use a wireless keyboard and mouse with my 12" PowerBook —itself perched on a nifty laptop stand— to bring the tiny computer somewhere within the realms of the ergonomically sound. What’s neat about this setup is that I can, at any time, just pick the laptop up and move it elsewhere: whether I’m moving to the living room or slipping it into its glove before dropping it into my bag, the wireless keyboard, mouse, and internet make for a no-plugs experience.

The only downside to the wireless keyboard/mouse combo are the batteries: both have a nasty electricity habit they just can’t kick, and a pack of six new AA-size batteries every three months (more often if you buy shitty batteries) isn’t the most economical way to interface with your computer.

Get ready for something that looks exactly like your iPod power adapter, or maybe your Airport Express… This is where the Freewire™ Bluetooth USB adapter comes into play.

Yes, it’s a powered USB hub. With Bluetooth. Plug in your standard Apple Pro Keyboard, plug in your Mighty Mouse, or plug in your camera (if you’re masochistic. Bluetooth still has a very low data rate), pair the Freewire™ hub with your computer, and tap your afternoons away in semi-wireless bliss. The power consumption is actually worse than your other battery-powered options, but a few cents tacked onto your electricity bill every month is practically invisible compared to the inconvenience of buying batteries. And when you buy batteries you have to go to a store. A store! Great for machines with a shortage of USB ports.

But there’s just one more thing…

Upgrade to the Freewire™ Extreme™ Plus™ 802.11g USB adapter to WiFi-enable your USB hub. Distinct from its Bluetooth-enabled cousin this wireless device isn’t just faster, it allows you to serve any connected device to the entire network! Plug in your external hard drive for instant network storage, connect your iPod for shared music, or jack in your printer, scanner, fax, VoIP handset, mug warmer, ‘lectric pianny, or surveillance camera for whatever wacky WiFi fantasies you’d like fulfilled.

So g’head. Make my day.

(Note: Freewire™ Extreme™ Plus™ 802.11g USB adapter may indeed just be an Airport Express with updated firmware. This doesn’t make it any less appealing. Do not cease with the going ahead and the making of my day.)