September Writing Challenge, Post 9: Brief Thoughts on Today’s Apple Event

There was a lot of cool stuff introduced today. I think we’re all (“we” = “Apple geeks”) looking forward to performance improvements and a more powerful SDK on watchOS 2. The iPad Pro would be seriously tempting to me if I hadn’t just bought an 11″ MBA (and even so). I really wish Pencil worked with other iPad models, because I’d like one. The new tv has some cool stuff in it (and another SDK to learn! yay!), but the killer feature for me is the multi-channel search; going through the siloed apps on my “smart” TV for each of the services I subscribe to – and I do use a few – is a PITA.

The most interesting news on the iPhone, to me, was 3D Touch. The snap consensus on Twitter seems to be that it has discoverability issues (which is true) and that a lot of people will have trouble explaining it to their parents (which they will). The same has been said, though – also correctly, to varying degrees – of double-click, right-click, pull to refresh, long press, swipe, long swipe, et al. It strikes me as another thing that people are just going to have to poke at for a while, then they’ll get used to the idiom, then they’ll all use it without thinking about it.

And my favorite thing about both iOS 9 & El Capitan is not any particular OS feature (though there are a few cool ones, especially on the iPad). It’s that I get to use Swift 2, with try/catch, defer, guard, protocol extensions, and API availability. Aside from the dynamic language features of Objective-C (I do miss method swizzling sometimes) and a few stupid preprocessor tricks, Swift has caught up to Objective-C as a tool on Apple platforms, and surpassed it in many respects as a general-purpose language. And now that it’s open source, there’s a chance it may even replace Ruby in my affections.

Amazon Echo Unboxing and Impressions

I just got my Amazon Echo, and since I know other people who are waitlisted until May or June, I thought I’d dust off the blog and share some impressions.

TL;DR: It’s extremely simple, it works out of the box, it works surprisingly well (though not perfectly), and it integrates well with the few services it integrates with. It is impressive, but not (yet) life-changing. I see a lot of potential.

This post sort of assumes you know what the Amazon Echo is, but it won’t take you long to check out the product page.


Unboxing pictures follow (14 of them). Skip past them if you want to go straight to my usage impressions.

It looks like any other Amazon package, to start...
It looks like any other Amazon package, to start…
Tabby the Cat is also interested.
Tabby the Cat is also interested.
I don't know whether the were trying to evoke the Monolith from 2001...
I don’t know whether the were trying to evoke the Monolith from 2001…
It's only after you take the sleeve off the box that you finally see a logo on the packaging.
It’s only after you take the sleeve off the box that you finally see a logo on the packaging.
Open sesame...
Open sesame…
That's almost everything...
That’s almost everything…
Okay, that's everything.
Okay, that’s everything.
More Monolith flavor.
More Monolith flavor. Note the ring around the top – it spins – it’s the volume control. (This borders on silly, because you can control the volume with a voice command.)
Controls at the top, plus the grille for the mic array.
Controls at the top, plus the grille for the mic array.
Power jack. You have now seen the entirety of the device's physical interface.
Power jack. You have now seen the entirety of the device’s physical interface.
This and the logo on the bottom are the only physical branding.
This and the logo on the bottom are the only physical branding.
Instructions are short and sweet. You do need a smartphone to complete them, though.
Instructions are short and sweet. You do need a smartphone to complete activation, though.
Things to try with the Echo - aka "Alexa".
Things to try with the Echo – aka “Alexa”.
More things to try with Alexa. Also, a handy little bookmark.
More things to try with Alexa. Also, a handy little bookmark.


Amazon has taken a lot of cues from Steve Jobs’ Apple on this one. Spare packaging, spare design, easy setup (took me all of 3 minutes to get the Echo on my wifi and hooked up to my Amazon account). It just works, to coin a phrase. It doesn’t do many things, but it does do them well.

The quality of the voice recognition and the round-trip time for a command (remember, Alexa’s brain is in the cloud) are impressive. The only time Alexa didn’t understand me was when she (yes, I’m anthropomorphizing, because it’s more fun!) repeatedly misunderstood my request to play Miles Davis as a request to play a different artist named Davis. I enunciated better, and she got my request on the third try. But I played with the thing for a while, and that was the only glitch.

And by the way, I’m going to use “Alexa” and “the Echo” sort of interchangeably here – I’m a little surprised they didn’t just call the product “Alexa”, because that is how everyone who ever interacts with the thing will think of it. Seriously, people will get so used to addressing the thing by that name that they will forget it’s called the Echo.

Besides playing Bitches Brew, I also got weather, played the local NPR station, asked some questions, added stuff to a shopping list, and explored the Prime Music catalog.

The questions were hit-and-miss. One of the suggested questions in the instructions is, “Who is the lead singer of Green Day?” (Unsurprisingly, she got it right.) Asking, “who are the surviving Beatles?” was a bit too deep, though, and she didn’t understand the question. She correctly served up the date John Lennon was killed, when asked. Apparently, you can also ask for Wikipedia articles, but I can think of few things I’m less interested in than a slow reading of the Wikipedia article on the Wolof language when I could read it about eight times faster. Asking for the DJIA and the price of AMZN proved beyond her capabilities.

One big gap is the licensing in Prime Music. She did well when I asked for Bob Dylan and Miles Davis, but there was exactly one (1) song available from The Police. When I hit this and other gaps in the Prime Music catalog, Alexa suggested that I create and connect to an iHeartRadio account. So, there’s that. And you can use it to listen to streaming radio, using either the name of a radio station or its call letters.

The shopping list (and the to-do list) are surfaced in the Echo’s companion app. They aren’t very fancy – the shopping list, for example, lets you check off an item, search for it on Amazon or Bing, or transfer it to the to-do list. As stand-alone apps, these would fail entirely. When you add in the fact that you can just speak a thing onto one of these lists – while you’re working in the kitchen and your hands are covered in flour, or when you just don’t feel like getting off the couch and getting a pen and paper or phone or laptop – then it becomes pretty damn cool. Remember when talking to your house was a gimmick in sci-fi movies? We’re in that future now.

And of course, you can connect via Bluetooth and play your music/iTunes/podcasts/whatever.

Interestingly, there’s not a lot here that we haven’t seen elsewhere. Why is this cooler than Siri or Cortana? It’s still speech recognition + cloud brain + integration with a few services, saddled with a wake word protocol. With “Hey Siri”, we’ve even seen the always-on feature (sort of). The cool factor for me is that my phone can stay in my pocket, and my laptop can stay closed. This morning, I got the weather report while my hands were busy dishing out cat food, and I did it without having to pull out my phone and wake up Siri or open a weather app – and without having to wait through the IQ-eroding chatter of TV news or drive-time radio. It was the information I wanted, and nothing else, with absolutely no friction. It’s like talking to someone else in the room. That sounds simple and obvious, but as a user interface it’s one of the biggest wins imaginable.

I’m still playing with it. I know I haven’t gotten around to all its features yet.

Completely Unsupported Speculation

The limited feature set makes sense to me. Understanding your speech is hard, and interpreting your intent from that speech is hard. They rolled out with a small, useful set of features that they could nail at a price point that was accessible to technofetishists with a modicum of disposable income ($100 if you’re enrolled in Amazon Prime). This is pretty cheap, when I think what a similarly-sized device with comparable audio quality from, say, Bose would cost – something that did nothing but play the music on my iPod. But the big win for Amazon in this rollout is not my hundred bucks. They’re collecting a metric shitload of data, refining their speech and interpretation models, and (I’m hoping) integrating with more services. And they’re learning about the things we wish Alexa would do for us (like my failed stock ticker query).

If they play it smart, they’ll keep the buzz going with a painful trickle of a rollout. Another smart play would be to introduce new features every few months in batches, when they’re really solid, and without prior announcement – we’ll all just wake up one day to a smarter Alexa, who will tell us herself that she has learned some new tricks.

There are a lot of obvious improvements of incremental value to the user (even if some of them are more than an incremental effort for Amazon): Better capabilities for search, both for information and products. The ability to refine or filter your search. The ability to summarize information after it’s been found for you. (That is a hard problem, but easier when you have a large corpus of data.) A medium-sized win would be to be able to do something with the information besides listen to it (e.g. “email that Wikipedia article to my wife”).

How about doing some of the heavy lifting of digging through search results? “Alexa, email me a list of four-door luxury sedans with a four-star or better crash rating and 25 miles per gallon or better, priced under thirty thousand dollars.”

The ability to take & make calls seems like a no-brainer – maybe even through Amazon’s own voice service & calling plan, because why shouldn’t they be in that business too?

And what about commerce? Right now, as far as I can tell, you can only buy music a song at a time (I haven’t tried this feature yet). That’s a pretty low-risk transaction, but what about ordering more expensive, physical goods? How could you do it securely with a voice-controlled device? Could Amazon be working on the equivalent of Apple’s Touch ID, but for voice? Could the Echo be made to integrate with payment services on the user’s smartphone (if not directly, then through Echo’s smartphone app)? There are a few possible paths to Alexa being able to take your money, and I’ll be interested to see which one(s) Amazon picks – the Voice ID, if it’s possible, would be the one most in line with the Echo’s thrust so far.

And with commerce, I think it’s interesting to point out that Amazon seems very able to compete in the voice-recognizing virtual assistant space, and anyone can connect their software to a bunch of third-party services, but I don’t see how Apple or Microsoft or Google can possibly compete with Amazon’s efficiency at delivering physical goods anytime in the next decade. (Well, maybe Google could crack it – but it’s an even-money bet, at best.)

Put an Echo in every room, and Alexa could tell you who’s home and act as an intercom. Is there a reason she couldn’t connect to your Nest thermostat, or your Philips Hue lights? How about the music you’re listening to following you from room to room? How about answering the phone, and taking messages?

What about an Echo 2.0 that connects (wirelessly, duh) to the huge flatscreen television you just bought because they have become so stupid cheap, and displays your search results and your shopping cart? Connected to your home entertainment system, Alexa could play anything in your Amazon digital library (including, presumably, your Kindle content), or other content through integrated services, without having to use a remote control. How about email dictation? It would finally be the computer for the living room, in a way even the iPad can’t be - controlled by and responding with voice, connected to all your devices wirelessly, and giving you access to some significant chunk of the knowledge and media on the Internet. You wouldn’t be doing spreadsheets on it, but you’d be communicating, searching, and buying, which is most of what most people use computers for at home.

Like I say, an Echo taken from the box today is impressive, but not life-changing. I think it’s a sleeper product, though. I think it could go way beyond being a cool gadget into being the product that defines a new category – your outboard brain, the Internet-in-a-can that you can talk with, a half-decent virtual assistant and a really amazing personal shopper.

We’re very, very close to being able to say, “Alexa, I need a hardcover copy of Neuromancer in German/a bottle of 18-year-old single malt Islay scotch/another one of my favorite sketchpads”, and having a drone drop it on the porch in 30 minutes or less. (Or I’m pretty close to that, anyway, because I live near Amazon’s Plainfield, IN distribution center.) How about, “Alexa, send my mother your highest-rated Ansel Adams coffee table book on her birthday”? We’re even closer to being able to say, “Alexa, set the mood” and having her dim the lights and put on some Portishead. It’s easy to be jaded about technology, but dude… This is The Jetsons (without the regressive gender roles). This is Star Trek (without the aliens). Maybe it’s just a sign of my advanced age and the science fiction media I grew up with, but this almost feels like the future.

In the meantime… May I please have an SDK?

Why I Want to Delete My Geeklist Account, Even If They Put Out a Real Apology

I feel the need to repeat my frequent disclaimer: My opinions are mine, and not anyone else’s. They have nothing to do with my employer.

You may have heard that sexism and gender equity are issues in technology and science (where I’ve made my occupational home for most of my life now). The issues, general and specific, have been described amply all over the Internet, so I won’t go into the broader picture here except to say that the problem is real, and that I try to do better and associate with people who do better.

So, today’s specific kerfuffle: There exists a social network for techies called Geeklist. I have an account there (but only because they haven’t implemented account deletion yet). Like young companies building a brand sometimes do, they sell apparel – t-shirts for men and women, and a couple of different styles of panties that look somewhat less unisex. No boxers or briefs for the guys. (Note: As of this writing, it looks like they’ve taken down everything but the t-shirts.) The videos on the product pages for this apparel, as well as another promotional video on Vimeo (also taken down), featured a young, shapely woman dancing around in a Geeklist t-shirt and panty set, and occasionally associating with a fully-dressed, bespectacled man who I guess was meant to be some kind of male geek archetype.

You know, whatever. That shit is sexist and kind of insulting to thinking geeks of both genders, but I have code to write and bigger fish to fry (have you seen what the Republicans are up to lately?). If it were limited to this, I’d have just rolled my eyes and moved on.

Someone had a stronger reaction to it than me. Predictably, it was a female programmer. Her name is Shanley Kane, and she tweets as @shanley. Her initial tweet on the matter:

@csanz @rekatz why the ads with a woman in her underwear dancing around to dupstep?

(@csanz and @rekatz are, respectively, Christian Sanz and Reuben Katz, the founding CTO and CEO of Geeklist.)

OK, great. She has every reason to be annoyed at the public intersection of soft-porn sexism and geek culture, and every right to speak her mind on the topic just as publicly.

At this point, it would be instructive to read the full exchange between the @shanley and the Geeklist guys. I encourage you to read it in its entirety, so that you don’t have to take my word for it when I summarize that @csanz and @rekatz:

  • Avoid any meaningful discussion of @shanley’s complaint.
  • Tell her they don’t like her tone – a common tactic to avoid substantive discussion.
  • Claim that all the women involved with the video were cool with it. (This might even be true, but does not change the fact that the video reinforces crap stereotypes of both genders.)
  • Claim that it’s not really their fault or their problem, despite the fact that their brand is all over the thing.
  • Tell her she’s unprofessional for not emailing them privately – despite the fact that their offense was public. Clearly, they’d rather make the problem go away quietly – and they clearly saw the problem as the complaint, not their imbecilic video.
  • Finally – and here’s the kicker – they try to drag her employer (Basho Technologies) into the discussion, and point out that they are clients of her employer, and suggest that she’s not reflecting well on their brand. (To Basho’s credit, they were supportive of Kane’s right to express her personal opinion.)

Most of this stuff is no more or less than the usual asshattery exhibited by educated men who should know better but somehow remain clueless. In the face of most of this behavior, I might give the bad actors the benefit of the doubt, assume them to be educable, and have settled for expressing myself with a tweet or three. For most of what @csanz and @rekatz said and did, a genuine apology (rather than their half-assed “I’m sorry you were offended” non-apology) would have covered it.

Even if they issue that apology, I still want to delete my Geeklist account and make sure I never support another Katz and/or Sanz venture. Most of their behavior could be described as clumsy or unnecessarily defensive, but forgivable. They went the extra mile, though, to attempt to drag her employer into the conversation and throw in implied threats to her livelihood. This is not the act of a geek entrepreneur out of his depth in the social arena – this is attempting to silence a critic without addressing the issue, by threatening her ability to pay the rent. This goes way beyond casual sexism, or cluelessness, or anything else that should be gotten over with an apology.

I want to be clear on how strongly I feel about this – and, in case of the unlikely event that Katz or Sanz reads this, I’ll address my main point directly to them:

You amoral pricks acted from a position of security to threaten someone else’s livelihood because she criticized you. You are fortunate that I am not one of your investors or on your board, because I would be making your lives all kinds of hell until you either gave me my money back or resigned your positions in favor of better people – and I would be doing my level best to make sure that no respectable investor ever touched one of your ideas again.

The fact that the tactic of dragging Basho into the discussion seems to have backfired (presumably because it is run by better people than Geeklist) matters not at all. What matters is that Sanz and Katz were great enough scumbags to even try it – and I’m not going to give them a pass for it no matter how many months they decide to highlight women’s achievements in technology. This is not a PR problem; this is a problem of people in a leadership position who clearly do not deserve it. I want my Geeklist account deleted and my data off their servers.

And of course, I am not a Geeklist investor, and about four people read this blog, and not many more actually pay attention to me on Twitter. But I have Twitter handles for some of Geeklist’s investors (Crunchbase FTW). Maybe someone should raise their awareness of how Sanz and Katz are representing the Geeklist brand?

(Irony intended.)

Advertising: Why Bother?

So the other day, I was looking for a guitar pedal – a digital delay with recording loop, and if it had some on-board effects, so much the better. This is kind of a specialty item – mass-produced, but you can’t get it an WalMart. So I googled some relevant keywords, scoped out the brands and products that came up, and spotted a brand I trusted from a previous purchase. I checked out some other options, but eventually settled into researching the product from the trusted brand.

On the product page for the pedal I was considering there was a short instructional/demo video featuring a musician from a band I like and one of the engineers who had designed the pedal. That pretty much sealed the deal – I could see that it did what I wanted, and more. To be sure, I looked at user reviews at a couple of retail sites (one specialty site, one general). From there, I went to a price comparison site to see what my options were. I didn’t purchase at that moment, but I could have.

And I did all this in less time than it takes the Chinese restaurant on the corner to bring my food. So, to recap, that’s:

  • Impulse
  • Brand-level research
  • Product-level research (to the depth of getting instruction from the product designer)
  • Polling user reviews
  • Comparison shopping
  • Where the hell is my Szechuan chicken?

Probably once or twice in that process, I was presented with a paid, third-party ad – I can’t say precisely, because I paid attention to ads exactly zero times.

Compare this with what the process would have been in 1990. I could ask friends about similar products they’d used, but I’d be limited to the small set of products they had experience with, and by their personal biases. I would probably have to learn about products from catalogs and mailings, assuming I had found my way onto a suitable mailing list – and even then, I’d only have access to information about a subset of available products. I could also have dug through the Yellow Pages, and if there were one or more retailers nearby that carried something like what I wanted, I could call or drive over and talk to a half-informed salesman who was going to steer me toward whatever gave him the best commission. I sure as hell wasn’t going to get any instruction from the product designer, and this wasn’t all going to happen before dinner was ready.

When’s the last time you used the Yellow Pages for anything? (I use them to clean paintbrushes.) Will a kid born today even know what the Yellow Pages were? Remember the old 800-page Sears and JCPenney catalogs – ever wonder where those went? When’s the last time you bought a new kind of product or service based solely on the ad copy, without checking reviews online?

I admit: I live in an urban, Internet-connected, tech-savvy social bubble. But even the most non-technical people in my life are using the Internet for buying, and – much more importantly, for learning about the products they buy.

Television ad revenues are tanking. The news is not much better online. Sure, we can blame it on the economy, but is that the only force at work? Check the chart in the link on online ad revenue – the growth rate was declining a year before the banking crisis hit.

Here’s my point: Whereas we were once almost totally dependent on paid advertising interspersed with our media to tell us about the existence of products, where to get them, and what they cost, paid advertising is now worse than useless for these things. We know that advertising has always been mostly posturing and lies, but when that was all we had, we dealt with it. Now we have access to actual information on price and user experience (much better organized than it was even ten years ago), and we’ve gotten very good at filtering out ads, using either our brains or technological fixes.

So what does get people in the door? I can say what worked for me in this case:

  • The company makes great products. It will become increasingly difficult to sell crap as more people learn to use online shopping tools. The customers you burn will out you in a heartbeat, and it won’t take me much longer to hear about it.
  • I had purchased from the company before, and it was good. The relationship matters. It is now trivial to find many, many other options if one company doesn’t do right by me.
  • They informed me rather than selling to me. Free videos with real information and instruction – not just rigged demos or canned endorsements – delivered by authoritative people such as product designers and power users go a long way toward helping a purchase decision.
  • They respond when I ask questions on Twitter and Facebook. If they didn’t, they’d risk losing me to a competitor that did respond.

Boiled down, that could be stated as: Engage me, and don’t suck. Attempting to pay for my attention only convinces me that you have enough money to buy an ad – and I automatically assume that the ad is a one-sided half-truth at best. But be excellent, evangelize, and engage people, and I’ll come sniffing around eventually.

So where are ads useful? No tool or evolutionary strategy ever goes away. You can still buy buggy whips if you’re so inclined (even if your best bet is probably to check your local fetish wear shop first).

I actually finally purchased my new pedal based on an ad – a vendor I’d done business with before emailed me about an insiders-only sale. Even here, though, the new rules trump the old rules – the discount wasn’t enough that I’d have taken it if I didn’t already have a good relationship with the vendor – and the ad didn’t try to sell me anything, but gave me information about a price break that I probably wasn’t going to get elsewhere. Also, it was not a third-party ad – it was a direct communication through a channel from which I can opt out.

I don’t claim to know what these observations mean in a global sense – I know that ad revenues are shrinking. I know I’m probably not a typical consumer. I know that I don’t need advertising to find, learn about, or acquire anything I want or need. I know that some of my favorite companies and performers eschew traditional ads and commercial channels in favor of engaging me and not sucking. I know that advertising isn’t going away anytime soon. I know that I see the new strategies working for smaller companies, and it’s not clear to me how they would scale for the WalMarts and Budweisers of the world, who seem to see the new strategies as next-generation astroturfing tools anyway (and will probably not stop sucking nor rush to embrace true engagement).

Mostly, I know how this informs what I want to do for my own projects – websites and software I’m working on. I know I do pretty well at not sucking, but also that I need to work more on engagement – both as a personal habit, and in terms of making time for it.

And I don’t know, but I have a hunch, that the future is probably not as bright as some assume for the advertising business and all its epiphytes – the targeters and optimizers and analyzers springing up everywhere now will help with advertising ROI in the near-term, even as they commoditize audiences, make the advertising market more efficient, and thereby cut margins in that business to the bone. They will eventually drive themselves to a steady state where the only way to compete is on price, at which time the whole business will be engaged in a race to the bottom. (That’s the commercial bottom, not the cultural bottom that ads are widely accused of pursing already.)

So go ahead, tell me where I’m wrong in the comments.

P.S.: If you were wondering which pedal it was: It was the Stereo Memory Man by Electro-Harmonix. It should be here Thursday, and shortly after that I plan to review it over at the GuitarCardio blog.

Who is the iPad for?

Techies and Apple fanboys make a lot of noise about the iPad, but this gem buried in John Gruber’s extensive and balanced review of the device tells the real story:

When you create a new page in Safari on iPad, text focus goes to the Google search field by default, rather than the URL location field. That’s a change from both desktop and iPhone Safari. I’m finding this hard to get used to, but I can see how this might be a better design for typical users. It makes the default search engine all the more essential to the web browsing experience, though.

By “typical users”, he means people who get to their Hotmail accounts by going to and typing in “hotmail” – people who have only a loose and slightly warped idea of what the web is and how it works, and who are keen to maintain as large a degree of willful ignorance as they can while still being able to check their email and read TMZ. Makers of hardware, software, websites, and everything else having to do with computing (including Apple) have been making their wares to a standard that was originally meant to accommodate the sort of people who make computing hardware, software, websites, et cetera. Apple is probably the first company to take a viable stab at making a computing device for everyone else.

It’s what I’ve been saying all along: The iPad is for your mom. (I know, not everyone’s mom. And, actually, not mine. But you know what I mean.)

Nerd Trick of the Day – iTunes Move

The Problem: The main drive on my Mac Mini was filling up, but I needed room to install more development tools. The main culprit, of course, was iTunes – between the music, tutorial videos, and language lessons, it adds up. And I’m not deleting any of it.

The Non-Solution: iTunes has a preference for which folder you want to use to store your stuff. Unfortunately, it doesn’t move any of it – even if I specified a folder on my huge-ass external drive, iTunes would start using that folder in addition to the old folder, and wouldn’t free up any space for me.

The Fix: (only for those comfortable making symlinks)

  1. Close iTunes
  2. Copy the iTunes folder to the huge-ass external drive.
  3. Rename the old iTunes folder.
  4. ln -s /Volumes/HugeAssDrive/iTunes ~/Music/iTunes
  5. Start up iTunes and make sure everything works.
  6. Nuke the old, renamed folder.

Victory! Now I can install my Xcode update and the fix for the Ruby DoS issue.

In Lieu of a Real Blog Post…

Besides my technical exploits, I haven’t had a whole lot to share here. (Though after the current round of projects, I plan to get back to painting in a serious way, so watch this space if that turns your crank.)

Things on the software side have been buzzing, though, and in light of that I direct you to my most recent post at Kickass Labs, covering bending Google Maps to my will on an iPhone. Also of interest: Gabe has posted about a subtle gotcha in Rails ActiveRecord.

Expect another period of silence here, followed by a flurry of project announcements, then (hopefully) a more regular stream of activity as I get back to having a life.