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Domain expertise for dummies

Earlier this month, realizing the year was already getting away from me and the box of junk I had resolved to sell wasn’t going anywhere, I started investigating my auction options. Being a hoarder I had never actually sold anything on eBay before, and being a software lover I naturally gravitated towards the ‘rich client’ apps before even thinking about logging in to ebay.com.au… just to see if I could avoid having to master the site. Web 1.0 is soooo last century, so I downloaded some clients, played with them, used them for an auction or two, and you know what?

I opted for the web interface.

Don’t get me wrong, the client software does the job as advertised (and with flair), it just doesn’t do anything more. There is nothing about it that makes it fundamentally any better for a new user than the site itself and, failing to attack any of eBay’s most basic flaws, ends up doing little more than looking nice and requiring fewer page refreshes.

Rather than putting an innovative UI on top of a web services API and delivering a great user experience, they’ve put eBay’s UI on top of eBay’s web services API and delivered eBay’s user experience… but with new buttons and templates.

The argument is this: I shouldn’t have to know how to use eBay’s site to be able to use a desktop auctioneer app, I shouldn’t even have to know what site I’m listing the items on! eBay itself is an implementation detail, a back-end that may be swapped out for Yahoo! Auctions or Google Base if eBay somehow went out of business; that’s what application programming interfaces enable. Instead, I’m given a Cocoa implementation of what already exists in HTML, and there is a minimum domain knowledge assumed before I can even get started. I end up having to learn ‘the hard way’ before I can appreciate the time saved from all the pages I don’t have to refresh. Maybe one day I’ll go back to those client applications and give them a second chance with more experienced eyes, but it isn’t likely.

If your client app is no easier to use than the web site it’s connecting to, offers no more powerful features than the web site it’s connecting to, and has a price tag to boot, what good is it? Something to consider as more and more of our apps move into the world in between the web and the desktop.


Lost, Desperate Housewives, et al

I like TV shows. I don’t like TV, as a rule, but I like TV shows. Television is loud, boorish, disruptive, and 99% crap; but there is ever so occasionally some programming worth one’s time. Same as anything, really. You pan enough dirt and you’ll find gold eventually. The beauty is the serial format. It’s not unique to television, and TV certainly didn’t invent it, but the serial has flourished —with over a billion shows and nearly four hojillion viewers— in the warm, flickering glow of the tube.

Serials are a wonderful thing. Compare them to big one-off productions like movies, where sequels usually disappoint, and you can really appreciate an entertainment medium where you have the time to invest in your characters. The heroes, the villains, the wallflowers; they all have stories, and given enough time you can get to know them all. Serials may also, conceivably, run for decades; but this is where the flourishing can take a bad turn. Some situations just shouldn’t be sustained for decades. Some stories need closure sooner, rather than later.

As if the title didn’t tip you off already, Desperate Housewives and Lost are on top of my list of ‘shows to be worried about’ right now. Consider the premise of each show. They are, respectively:

  1. “Why did Mary Alice top herself?”, and
  2. “What the hell is the deal with this island?”

Each premise (a mystery) is either long-solved or patently unsolvable. The shows persist because the network wants more success, more acclaim, more money; and eventually each show will run out of steam, lose its audience, and be relegated to the wastebasket of television history. Ridden straight into the ground by the network types who so celebrated their success.

Obviously, the guys who cash the checks feel a few more seasons can’t hurt. More seasons = more money, as we’ve already established, so it’s not a tough call to make when the money is your primary motivator. But pity the writers, directors, and actors who are suddenly tied to a license that can go nowhere but down. The same logic rules the music business, where one-hit-wonders are routinely granted seven-record deals on the off chance that their next album will do as well as their first. I don’t believe this is a business model anyone should want to emulate.

But when I’m curled up in bed at night, crying myself to sleep over the plight of the Teri Hatchers and Matthew Foxes of the world, I fantasize what would happen if ABC had the cojones to do something crazy:

“Hey everyone, I know you’re all excited to be here and to start filming. We’ve got a great cast and the script is looking hot; we’re super confident this show will be a big hit. But there’s a catch. You have one season and one season only to turn it out, no exceptions. If it’s a success you will all remain on the payroll, and you will begin another project in the new year. Same writers, same directors, same actors, same gaffers, same caterers — different show. Hop to it.”

Could that work? Of course it could. I, for one, welcome the chance to see the cast of Desperate Housewives in a teacher’s-lounge comedy next year. Eva Longoria would have to play someone’s mother, though, lest the urge to write her into a story arc having an affair with a student (if she were cast as a teacher) be too great.


Verbal archaeology sounds so romantic

[via Heng-Cheong Leong’s MyAppleMenu] It’s probably unfair to call people who complain about language ‘whiny bitches’ as has become the standard around here. After all, I whine about things all the time and only very rarely admit to being a bitch. Come to think of it, I only go by that handle when I’m in prison, but I digress. Tim Greenhalgh is a whiny bitch; let’s see what he has to say.

It seems that every year the OED creaks at the seams as it concedes to words that have become so widely used, they must be given the OK. There are 355,000 words in the OED and some of the recent entries would make Milton, Keats, Shakespeare and my father turn in their graves.

I have to give him the “turn in their graves” bit because I used it myself last month, but I was taking the piss at the time — Shakespeare is credited with more neologisms than possibly any other writer in English history. To suggest that he’d be unhappy with others taking the same liberty is ludicrous. I really only have a problem with the part that reads “it concedes to words that have become so widely used, they must be given the OK”. Concedes implies the OED has lost some kind of battle, that they were coerced into including specious terms because they’re popular. Surprise! Dictionaries are descriptive accounts of the language as we use it! That’s why it’s always so funny to see organizations harass dictionaries over words they don’t like.

“Posh” is a lovely acronym to describe wealthy or privileged people, a word that derived from Port Out Starboard Home, meaning the better side of a boat on which to have a berth when going on a cruise.

Complete bullshit, of course, but why investigate unpopular (but well recorded) truths when the popular fantasies are so much easier? Backronyms are fun, but the real lesson here is that people love the language they grew up with, and hate anything newer. Crossword aficionados are the worst.

Me, I like new language. I like new language better than I like new music (too much emo). Right now my favorite contraction is I’ma. It’s short for “I’m going to”, as in “I’ma go to the store and get some eggs” or “I’ma go eat dinner”. Unfortunately its current usage (at least where I’ve seen it) restricts it to ‘going’ situations —“I’ma beat your ass” doesn’t work as well as “I’ma come over there and beat your ass” unless you name’s Bubba— but I can see that maturing over time. The sad thing about it is, there are millions of people spread across the globe who would grind their teeth and squint threateningly at me for using such a construction.

Fuck ‘em. Nothing sucks like a dead tongue.

The rest of the article, once he’s done with the language schtick, is quite amusing. Apparently the creative industry lacks ingenuity and would sooner follow whoever has cultural cachet right now (Apple) than do real creative work.

iMac, iLife, iTunes and iPod, (hence “podcast”), have all become so widely used in everyday language that “i” will surely get the OK in the next OED review. The problem for me, however, is that it’s not OK verbally and it’s not OK visually. Don’t get me wrong, I love Apple, but the extent of my verbal and visual language has been somewhat castrated in recent months because I cannot seem to go through a day without referring to some Apple thing as being entirely relevant to the creative debate in hand, meaning most other reference points have now effectively been “cut off” In the same way as everyone who was upper class was regarded as “posh”, (the opposite being the same today for chavs), anything remotely creative has, by definition, to be Apple.

No shit.


Scratchings

John Gruber has a pretty comprehensive write-up on the continued dominance of the iPod after what feels like decades of journalist-predicted demise stories. Reading it, I’m reminded that the widespread complaints against the iPod’s preciousness —its delicacy— have done little to damage its reputation. In fact, they’ve probably helped. Snip from one of Joel Spolsky’s (draft) articles quoted in John’s piece:

The iPod nano […] is the only product I’ve ever seen that can be scratched beyond all recognition just by touching it lightly with your finger, and the shiny mirror back will be permanently covered in greasy fingerprint smudges from the moment you take it out of the elegant package until the battery wears out and you have to throw away the whole thing and buy another. But who cares?

Who cares indeed. Online around the time of the nano and video iPods’ launch you couldn’t spit without hitting an “iPods scratch too darn easily” story. Offline, I didn’t hear a thing. Offline, the only negative comments I ever heard came from non-iPod users; people who (by and large) used other players for political reasons, people who saw the iPod as too fashionable and too popular, and therefore took opportunity to taunt and ridicule the pitiful herd of shortsighted iPod lovers. You’ve met these people before, no doubt, and a modified version of Godwin’s Law must be applied to all discourse with them — you just replace Hitler with sheep or conformity.

The word for that kind of person is snob, or elitist. Or maybe wanker. Funnily enough, these are descriptors historically reserved for Apple’s customers, not Apple’s detractors.

iPods do scratch easily, it’s true. My nano is scratched as all hell, though I don’t particularly care. I’m an abusive electronics owner, and my iPod usually shares a pocket with an equally-scratched phone or digital camera, so I knew what I was getting into. By contrast, I have a friend who only ever puts his nano in the breast pocket of his ninety-dollar business shirts, and his looks as shiny as the day he bought it.

And there’s the key. iPods are fashion accessories. Eighteen months back I wrote of the fourth generation iPod:

This click–wheel iPod, or (more fittingly) the July 2004 model iPod, is just a little something to keep us on the leash; and like any good fashion accessory, you should expect to see an upgrade in ten to twelve months. We’ll be falling all over ourselves to get our hands on that one, too.

Since then I’ve lost track of the iPod generations —where does the video model bring us… six?— so the article was true to its point. iPods fit all the criteria for fashion accessory status: they’re expensive, they’re delicate, they’re beautiful, and they say something about the person wearing using them. Nobody complains that their Oakley sunglasses scratched when they put them in the same pocket as their car keys, and for good reason: you’d sound like an idiot who refuses to accept the nature of sunglasses.

But sunglasses don’t need to be fragile. A special coating could render them absolutely scratchproof, as could a treatment to the paint on a Mercedes-Benz, or the smooth face of a gold locket, or the front side of an iPod. But those things are manufactured to be delicate and beautiful and expensive. On purpose. Really. Spill coffee on your $400 Manolo Blahniks and you’ll be pissed, but not at the designer; it isn’t his job to scotchguard your shoes. The same is true of cars, sunglasses, and jewelry, and is fast becoming the accepted wisdom for iPods, too.

Like it or not, the new truth is that it’s less about features and more about elegance. The new truth says it’s the cheap junk that is scratchproof and waterproof because real quality, real prestige, real beauty is fragile. In less than a decade that truth will swing back the other way —that’s the nature of taste— but for now Apple is doing a good job exploiting everything we believe about beauty and utility. So my hat is off to them.


Michele Phillips is a whiny bitch

Part three of the Journalist X is a Whiny Bitch series (parts one and two, for those playing catchup) finds me skimming the pages of my hometown newspaper, The West Australian, deciding that it’s high time I gave up trying to figure out why people have such an aversion to linguistic change, and that I should just accept that they’re idiots and move on.

The article itself is available online, but being behind The West’s paywall and horrible ‘online newspaper’ interface I don’t think it’s worth directing you there. For those playing along at home, it’s on page 2 of March 25th’s Weekend Extra and is titled Name gayme blues. After a long introduction chronicling her obsession with the unusually spelled names of today’s youth, Phillips gets right to the meat of her argument:

I suppose when it comes to the world’s Emilees and Kerstyns and Madalynns, though, you could always look at it this way; the ability to think up creative new spellings for traditional given names is a real gift.

Or you could look at it this way. People who do it ought to be shot.

Congratulations, you’ve already alienated your readership: the people who did the naming, the people who ought to be shot.

Her reasoning for all this is that the language is going down the crapper, spelling is getting worse, you need look no further than the Internet to see the worst of it in action (yada yada yada), and unusually spelled names are the root. If people “can’t spell” simple names, what chance do real words have? This from a woman whose name is Michele. By all accounts —in this country, at the very least— that’s an unusually spelled variant of the more popular Michelle. In Italy or France it’d be even more unusual: Michele is a boy’s name.

But this is where it really starts getting funny:

I know that language is — and should be — a living, growing thing but worry that the people who come up with spellings like Raychelle and Kaycee are also the ones who get on the internet and write “definately” instead of “definitely”, “loose” instead of “lose” and don’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re”, “its” and “it’s” and “their” and “there”.

I love that line —“I know that language is a living thing but…”— because it betrays her so immediately and so completely. Ring familiar? How about:

It says “I’m wrong, and I know I’m wrong, but my opinion is already set in stone” and I can’t help but laugh every time I hear it escape someone’s lips.


‘Scratchings’ addendum

The emails in my inbox and the comments on The Unofficial Apple Weblog tell me a lot of people missed the point of Sunday’s Scratchings. More an expression of amusement that the market hasn’t punished Apple for what everyone the nerd population is calling a technical blunder, I wrote that that the shift from “computer peripheral” to “fashion accessory” has had the net effect of not that many people giving a damn. People who read TUAW and MacSurfer and their ilk are not ‘most people’. The iPod isn’t just for computer dorks any more:

Each of us individually acknowledges that it would be nice if our iPods, our sunglasses, our cars, and our watches were resistant to damage. We'd probably pay a price premium for it, too (how much does under-body coating on cars cost these days, anyway?). But as a whole, we aren't punishing Apple for making a delicate device because they've changed the game. They've changed our expectations, and now if you're opposed to scratch-prone electronics *you're* the one who's out of touch. A full 180.

It isn't so much an exercise in devil's advocacy as a salute to a company so clever that they've made us believe that worse is better. — [me, at TUAW]

This is a triumph of marketing, that’s all. Many have been screaming “bug! not feature!”, and for them that’s right. I’m in that camp too, because I’d prefer only to replace my iPod when it dies a mechanical death, rather than an aesthetic one. But for some other people, Apple in particular, that position is flat-out wrong.

When the Nano first launched there were isolated reports of cracked screens which, mixed with the more widespread reports of scratched faces, led people to believe there was a major flaw in manufacturing. The cracked screens, yeah —they were replaced by Apple because they were actually broken and it wasn’t the user’s fault— but the softness of the plastic casing isn't just some kind of manufacturing error; if they really wanted to, they could engineer the damn things to be bulletproof. (Please note the use of hyperbole, I’m aware that bulletproofing would be prohibitively expensive).

The common explanation for this generation of iPods’ ease of scratching is that Apple employed a cheaper material in production. Yeah, right. In reality I don't think there's any significant cost difference between our theoretical Resin A (slightly softer, as they exist today) and Resin B (slightly harder, less prone to scratching, as we seem to remember them in days of old and how we’d like them to be in future), where the two look and feel the same. If there is, it's fractions of a cent… we're talking about changing the proportions of a chemical or two in an industrial manufacturing process.

Whether they've chosen the path of softer plastics because they want people to coddle their iPods and treat them like ‘holy relics’, as one poster mentioned, or whether their motivation is profit driven —to capture more of the lucrative “I replaced my iPod because the old one was scuffed” market and boost sales of leather cases— is purely speculation. Neither would surprise me; I've heard worse tales of ‘manufactured flaws’ in equipment.

I suppose it’s absolutely no surprise that people are so divided on the matter. Letting alone iPods, we can’t even agree on whether Paris Hilton’s face is a design bungle or a work of PR genius… it just so happens that nobody can get close enough to scratch the shit out of it.