Desert of My Real Life

{June 19, 2014}   HCF Redux

Three episodes into Halt and Catch Fire and I still can’t make up my mind about whether it is an interesting show or not. I really want to like this show. I love that it isn’t afraid to be confusing about the underlying geeky details of computing. The show almost relishes those moments when characters articulate what they’re thinking about the technology without speaking down to its audience. On the other hand, the motivations and actions of the characters outside the realm of technology are the stuff of melodrama and really cheapen the engagement we might have in the pseudo-historical story of developing a new technology that is very different than all that has come before.

Spoiler alert–there is one major plot twist that I’m going to discuss below that if you haven’t yet watched the first three episodes of this show, you might want to avoid.

One of the reasons that this show has intrigued me is that Cameron Howe, the (genius) developer of the BIOS of the new personal computer in the show, is a woman. She is androgynous in her name and her appearance and she is brilliant and defiant. All of that intrigues me when the story takes place in the early 1980s. She is focused on developing this really base level machine code without which the hardware cannot succeed. So psyched that a woman is central to the success of this new machine. On the other hand, she is the only character who is shown shopping for new clothes because, of course, in the middle of trying to revolutionize computing, she would be concerned that her clothing isn’t feminine enough. Annoying.

Another woman in the show, Donna Clark, is portrayed as both the nagging wife of our hardware genius, Gordon, and the unacknowledged originator of the chip layering idea that we already know will be the thing that allows our new computer to be light enough to be portable. I might appreciate the complexity of this character if it wasn’t done in such a shallow obvious manner. Donna seems to be the inhibitor of Gordon’s real genius because she keeps reminding him that he has children and they might need a little bit of his attention. The bird that shows up in episode three was a bit much for me, especially when Donna was the one who had to be practical and kill it with a shovel. Metaphor, anyone?

Lee Pace’s portrayal of Joe MacMillan has been particularly annoying. His single emotion seems to be anger. The story line about the scars on his chest is only interesting if the creators take advantage of the inconsistencies that Cameron pointed out in his telling of how he got them. I get it. He’s angry. With EVERYONE. So let’s start explaining some of the past events that have so far been alluded to. And here’s the big spoiler–what is up with sex scene with LouLu’s boy toy? That was a plot twist that surprised me. But I don’t think Lee Pace is great in this role because he seems to think that playing a genius means constantly displaying arrogant anger. I think it would have been much more interesting if he had played that sex scene more tenderly.

So where do I currently fall in regards to this show? I still like that the show doesn’t sugar coat the technicalities of what this group of people is trying to achieve. I want the show to succeed in telling that story. On the other hand, I think the layering of the interpersonal relationships has been a bit heavy handed and has taken away from what might be a powerful story.

{June 5, 2014}   HCF

I just watched the pilot episode of AMC’s new show, Halt and Catch Fire, which airs in Mad Men‘s Sunday 10pm slot. I was pretty intrigued by the slew of previews I saw while watching this spring’s half season of Mad Men (and by the way, since when does a season start in the spring of one year, take nearly a year hiatus, and then end in the spring of the following year?). I definitely recognize that a show about building a new computer in the early 1980s has the potential to be incredibly boring. There was a lot of good stuff in the pilot as well as some potentially bad but I definitely wasn’t bored.

One of the annoying things about the show is the arrogant genius behaving badly trope. Lee Pace plays the first arrogant genius, Joe MacMillan. When Joe is introduced to us, he is driving his Porsche very, very fast and runs over an armadillo, which is our first clue that he’s in Texas. Joe makes speeches full of the vision thing and gets annoyed when his fellow computer salesman, Gordon, tries to talk about mundane details like free installation. He is a master manipulator, which I found annoying, but he has some mystery in his background, which I found intriguing. I look forward to finding out what he’s been doing since his disappearance from his IBM job a year prior to the events of the show. The second arrogant genius is Cameron Howe, a woman who is a senior at an engineering school, where, for some unknown reason, Joe is a guest speaker. She is the misunderstood genius that no one pays attention to because she is so far ahead of her time. As Mackenzie Davis portrays her, Cameron reminds me of Watts, the  Mary Stuart Masterson character in Some Kind of Wonderful, complete with anger at the world and a punk soundtrack playing on her Walkman. But she’s a genius so we forgive her her quirks. The final genius is not as arrogant as he is depressed. Gordon Clark, played by Scott McNairy, was the inventor of a failed computer who has been reduced to selling other people’s computers. When we first meet him, he is drunk and his wife has brought their kids to the jailhouse to bail him out. He drunkenly reminisces about the failure of his computer–when they tried to turn it on to demo it, it wouldn’t turn on. But he is also a visionary, having written an article for Byte magazine about open architectures for CPUs. Joe quotes that article to convince Gordon to come work with him on his new project.

Although I found the genius trope annoying and over the top, there was a lot about the show that I enjoyed. I really enjoyed the history of the show. Even though it’s fictional, it reminded me of a lot of things that I haven’t thought about in years. Byte magazine is one of those things. I loved that magazine and was a regular reader in the 1980s. It seemed completely believable to me that someone might have written an article for the magazine that inspired someone else to take a big chance on trying something new and different. Other mentions in the show that brought back memories: CP/M, SCP, the dominance of IBM (International Business Machines) in the computer industry of the day and the joys of playing Centipede at the arcade. I also liked the reverse engineering scene although I can understand that if you don’t have a tech background, that scene might have been confusing or boring or both. That’s probably why it’s kind of glossed over. Most viewers probably won’t be too excited about watching guys using an oscilloscope to record pin voltages and then recording the contents of 64K of ROM to get the BIOS instructions in assembly language. Just writing that sentence makes me smile. It’s a very cool scene.

I am a little torn by the title of the show. On the one hand, I think it’s cool that the title refers to an assembly language instruction, HCF. Assembly is a low-level computer language which means that there is a very low level of abstraction which means the programmer is very close to writing code in binary, the zeroes and ones that the computer understands. It is really geeky to program in assembly these days as most software is written in languages that contain instructions at a higher level of abstraction from binary. HCF is an instruction that halted operation of the computer by instructing it to repeat the same operation over and over. The “catch fire” part of the instruction comes from the story (myth?) that some of the wiring in an old computer heated up so much by this repetition that it actually caught fire. Nice. On the other hand, “halt and catch fire” seems like an obvious metaphor that sometimes the best laid plans blow up in your face. Bleh. In fact, metaphor in this show is pretty obvious. At one point, for example, when it looks like Gordon won’t work with him, Joe pulls out a bat that has the inscription “Swing for the fences” and so he does, literally, by hitting a ball over and over until he breaks a window. Not so subtle.

A couple of other things made me roll my eyes as well. Most of the bonding/conflict stuff between Cameron and Joe, for example. The trick quarter, the conversation about VLSI, and the stupid sex scene all seemed too superficial and lazy. But I understand that first episodes are tricky. The characters have to be introduced and established quickly and so shortcuts are often taken. I just hope the show relies more on the cool stuff once the story is established. I will keep watching to see what they do with this fairly promising start.

{July 31, 2013}   Whistle-blowers

Two whistle-blowers are in the news today: Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Manning is the Army soldier who was convicted yesterday of 17 of the 22 counts against him. He leaked top secret documents to Wikileaks and was convicted of espionage and theft although found innocent of aiding the enemy. He is now awaiting sentencing. Edward Snowden is the contractor working for the National Security Agency who revealed details of several surveillance programs to the press. He is currently on the run from charges of espionage and theft but is continuing to make headlines with further revelations. Some see these two as heroes and others see them as traitors. I think history will judge which they are. What interests me most are the ways these two cases are being discussed.

We already know that Bradley Manning has been found guilty of most of the charges against him. The prosecutor in the case has said that Manning is not a whistle-blower but is instead a traitor looking for attention via a high-profile leak to Wikileaks. Manning’s defense attorney countered by saying that Manning is naive and well-intentioned and wants to inform the American public. “His motive was to spark reform – to spark change.” Why is his motive important? Since when is intent important in determining whether someone committed a crime or not? Next time I get stopped for a traffic infraction, I’m going to try saying “I didn’t intend to break the law” to the officer. What do you think my chances of getting off will be? I also find it interesting that the prosecutor seems to think that Manning is not a whistle-blower because he believes that Manning wanted attention. A whistle-blower is “a person who exposes misconduct, alleged dishonest or illegal activity occurring in an organization.” Manning might not be a whistle-blower because the activity he revealed was not misconduct, was not dishonest or illegal. But to argue that he’s not a whistle-blower because he didn’t have the proper intentions seems to lead us as a society down a dangerous path. Of course, the Zimmerman verdict might have already sent us down that path.

The Snowden situation is more recent than the Manning case so we don’t know what Snowden will be found guilty of. He’s accused of disclosing details about some secret surveillance programs being conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States. The NSA is supposed to gather information about foreign entities strictly outside of US boundaries. Edward Snowden revealed the existence of several NSA surveillance programs focused on domestic as well as foreign communications. He then fled the country with several laptops “that enable him to gain access to some of the US government’s most highly classified secrets.” The question that interests me most about this case is how a contractor, an employee of a private company, an employee who probably should have failed his background check on the grounds that his resume contained discrepancies, was able to gain access to such secret information. “Among the questions is how a contract employee at a distant NSA satellite office was able to obtain a copy of an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a highly classified document that would presumably be sealed from most employees and of little use to someone in his position.” Yes, that IS among the most important questions to answer. The NSA director, Keith Alexander, has said that the security system didn’t work as it should have to prevent someone like Snowden from gathering the sensitive information that he did. Snowden claims that he was authorized to access this information. The NSA claims that he was not authorized. Why does the NSA think it’s preferable that an unauthorized person gained access to its information?

I’m going to pause here to say that I’ve been reading a lot of speculation about how Snowden gained access to this information that he shouldn’t have had access to. There may be some people who know how he gained this access but in the dross of the Internet, the methods aren’t yet clear. From a technical standpoint, however, I find it incredibly disturbing that someone with Snowden’s computer security background (which appears to be rather mundane–he was no genius computer hacker) was able to gain access to all of this sensitive information within the agency that is supposed to be most expert in the security game. No matter what you think of Snowden and his intentions, I think you have to be concerned about the ease with which someone was able to gain access to these “secrets.” Having now read a whole bunch of information about this case, I feel like it is similar to the one in which the high school student is punished by the school’s IT staff for pointing out how weak the school’s computer security setup is. Perhaps we should be focused on the (lack of) security around this information rather than the fact that it has been disclosed.

In the Senior Seminar that I teach, we often discuss whistle-blowing. If I use the term “whistle-blowing,” my students generally feel that the person doing the disclosing is doing a service to society. If, instead, I say that the employee is revealing corporate secrets, my students generally feel that the person is betraying his/her employer. The cases of Manning and Snowden are more complex than I can easily comprehend but I guess I generally feel that shedding light on situations is better than trying to maintain security by secrecy, by obscuring the facts. In a democracy, sunshine is a good thing.

I went to see Prometheus last week with some good friends. I had been eagerly anticipating the film, both because it has a great cast and because I LOVED the original Alien film. I had seen the original in the theater in 1979 when I was 16 and very impressionable. Because the film had been written with no particular gender in mind for Ripley, the main character, she was a strong lead, with none of the usual frailties associated with female lead characters. I loved Sigourney Weaver in this role, a great role model for a 16-year-old girl. Despite the few hints of misogyny in this first of the franchise movies (for example, the ship is called Mother and when she “betrays” the crew, Ripley calls her a bitch), the portrayal of women is surprisingly positive, especially for its time. I couldn’t have articulated these thoughts when I was 16 but I knew I loved it and Sigourney/Ripley and the movie stuck with me, prompting me to see the many sequels as they were released.

Prometheus, like that first Alien movie, was directed by Ridley Scott, a director whose work I have enjoyed at times and hated at other times. But I have almost always found his films interesting, with lots to talk about. I remember seeing Thelma and Louise with friends and having a long debate about whether the film presents a feminist perspective. That was an engaging question, one for which the film provides no easy answers. Ridley Scott’s perspective on women has so often been thought-provoking.

So imagine my disappointment when Prometheus turned out to be not only a horrible, boring movie but one full of simplistic, misogynistic moments. To see why the movie is horrible and boring, read these comments. To see why the movie is misogynistic, keep reading here.

I was a bit concerned early on in the movie when we discover that out of the ship’s crew of 14, only 3 are women. Very small percentage, especially when you consider that the crew of the Nostromos (the ship from Alien) had 2 women out of 7. Still not a great percentage but better than Prometheus. I guess job discrimination based on gender isn’t one of the things we will have eradicated by 2093 (the year the movie takes place). Some people are probably rolling their eyes at me right now, thinking I’m focused on bean-counting. So I’ll move on to some more blatant examples.

Two fairly early scenes of casual misogyny were of no consequence to the plot and so it’s difficult for me to understand why they were included. In the first, the two pilots are discussing a bet that they’ve made. One of the pilots says that perhaps if the other wins, he could use the money to pay for a lap dance from Vickers. Meredith Vickers is the character played by Charlize Theron. She is a strong woman who is in charge of the mission that they are on. And yet, to these pilots, she is another woman whose main purpose in life should be to give them sexual pleasure. In another scene, when there is a horrible storm raging outside the ship and two of the crew members are stranded in it, Janek, the captain of the ship, asks Vickers to have sex with him. She says no. He makes another comment (I can’t remember what it is but it was something like “Come on. You’ve got nothing better to do.”) and she changes her mind. Neither of these two scenes has anything to do with subsequent events and seem only to serve the purpose of marking Vickers as a sex object.

But the plot line that annoyed me most and made me actively hate the movie involves Elizabeth Shaw, the character played by Noomi Rapace of Girl With a Dragon Tattoo fame. Shaw is the hero of this movie and it’s clear at the end that the filmmakers hope she will become the Ellen Ripley of a new movie franchise with many sequels. Shaw is the embodiment of the movie’s conservative agenda. She is an archaeologist whose motivations are almost comically driven by her faith in God. There are numerous scenes that I could point to but I’ll focus on just two. At some point in the plot, Shaw is unconscious and one of the other characters begins to remove her cross from around her neck. Sensing this, she immediately wakes up and protests. The other character insists and so she allows the cross to be removed. A bit later in the movie, with danger all around her, she takes time to search for her cross and when finding it, puts it back on, saying “That’s better.” At another moment, after she and her fiance have had sex, she finds (despite an earlier, ham-fisted scene in which expresses her sadness at her inability to “create life”) that she is pregnant and not just with any fetus. This is some sort of alien fetus that anyone would want removed from her body immediately. Despite having been impregnated less than 24 hours earlier, she declares her desire for a caesarean. That’s right. A caesarean. No abortion for this hero. She spends the rest of the movie being ridiculously active despite the 12-inch incision closed with staples in her lower abdomen. What kind of movie would equate a caesarean with an abortion? And what kind of movie can’t use the word abortion even when removing scary, killer, alien life form from a woman’s body? One with an extreme, right-wing, conservative agenda that sees women as nothing more than their sexual and reproductive abilities. No need to debate whether this movie has a feminist perspective. It takes more than putting a woman in a leading role to create a feminist perspective.

I hope the next movie that I’m looking forward to doesn’t turn out to be such a disappointment. I’ll let you know after I see Brave this weekend.

{October 10, 2011}   Qwikster Part II

Although it is not a personal email written by founder and President of Netflix Reed Hastings, I was happy to receive the following email this morning.  Perhaps “the Netflix team” will start doing some market research before they make big announcements.  But at least they listened to the overwhelming majority of their subscribers.

Dear Cathie,

It is clear that for many of our members two websites would make things more difficult, so we are going to keep Netflix as one place to go for streaming and DVDs.

This means no change: one website, one account, one password…in other words, no Qwikster.

While the July price change was necessary, we are now done with price changes.

We’re constantly improving our streaming selection. We’ve recently added hundreds of movies from Paramount, Sony, Universal, Fox, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, MGM and Miramax. Plus, in the last couple of weeks alone, we’ve added over 3,500 TV episodes from ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, USA, E!, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, ABC Family, Discovery Channel, TLC, SyFy, A&E, History, and PBS.

We value you as a member, and we are committed to making Netflix the best place to get your movies & TV shows.


The Netflix Team

{September 19, 2011}   Quikster

Like all Netflix subscribers, I received an email from Netflix founder Reed Hastings this morning.  I will post my comments on their blog but I also decided to post the my response here.  I’ll follow it with the original email so those of you who have already left the company can see what prompted my response.  The upshot?  Netflix is screwing up again.

First, my response:

Dear Reed,

Although I know that you personally didn’t write this email, I’m going to respond as though you did.  You are making another big mistake.  You are giving the impression with this email that you expect Quikster will go bankrupt and out of business (did you deliberately choose Borders as your example so soon after it’s going out of business?).  I believe the separation of the two websites and therefore, the two queues will simply hasten the demise of your DVD business.  It’s probably too late to stop the forward motion of this separation but just in case it isn’t, I’m writing to you to suggest that you not move forward with that part of your plan.  It has nothing to do with improving customer experiences which is what you should be focusing on right now, especially in the wake of your previous “mistake.”  You seem now to be focused on issues other than your customers and their experience of your company.  If you put customers first, we will stay with you.  If you put the “very different cost structures, that need to be marketed differently” first, you will lose us.  I just hope it isn’t already too late.

Cathie LeBlanc

Now, the email from Reed Hastings:

Dear Cathie,

I messed up. I owe you an explanation.

It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology. Let me explain what we are doing.

For the past five years, my greatest fear at Netflix has been that we wouldn’t make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us). So we moved quickly into streaming, but I should have personally given you a full explanation of why we are splitting the services and thereby increasing prices. It wouldn’t have changed the price increase, but it would have been the right thing to do.

So here is what we are doing and why.

Many members love our DVD service, as I do, because nearly every movie ever made is published on DVD. DVD is a great option for those who want the huge and comprehensive selection of movies.

I also love our streaming service because it is integrated into my TV, and I can watch anytime I want. The benefits of our streaming service are really quite different from the benefits of DVD by mail. We need to focus on rapid improvement as streaming technology and the market evolves, without maintaining compatibility with our DVD by mail service.

So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are really becoming two different businesses, with very different cost structures, that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently.

It’s hard to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to “Qwikster”. We chose the name Qwikster because it refers to quick delivery. We will keep the name “Netflix” for streaming.

Qwikster will be the same website and DVD service that everyone is used to. It is just a new name, and DVD members will go to to access their DVD queues and choose movies. One improvement we will make at launch is to add a video games upgrade option, similar to our upgrade option for Blu-ray, for those who want to rent Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 games. Members have been asking for video games for many years, but now that DVD by mail has its own team, we are finally getting it done. Other improvements will follow. A negative of the renaming and separation is that the and websites will not be integrated.

There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!). If you subscribe to both services you will have two entries on your credit card statement, one for Qwikster and one for Netflix. The total will be the same as your current charges. We will let you know in a few weeks when the website is up and ready.

For me the Netflix red envelope has always been a source of joy. The new envelope is still that lovely red, but now it will have a Qwikster logo. I know that logo will grow on me over time, but still, it is hard. I imagine it will be similar for many of you.

I want to acknowledge and thank you for sticking with us, and to apologize again to those members, both current and former, who felt we treated them thoughtlessly.

Both the Qwikster and Netflix teams will work hard to regain your trust. We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words. But words help people to understand actions.

Respectfully yours,

-Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO, Netflix

p.s. I have a slightly longer explanation along with a video posted on our blog, where you can also post comments.

{June 25, 2011}   Technology in Education

I just got back from a three day workshop on academic technology.  As a computer scientist, I was intrigued by the idea of this workshop but I was worried that it would be a disappointment because so many of these workshops focus on what I consider to be the wrong things.  I am so glad I attended the workshop because I learned a lot and was inspired by a lot of what I heard.

The reason I’m often disappointed by technology workshops and technology training for educators is because they are often led by people whose focus is on the technology and teaching the participants how to use that technology.  This is definitely an important task but it is one that I typically find tedious because I’m comfortable with technology and want to go faster than the workshop usually go.  And I want to have conversations about more than “how” to use the technology.  I want to talk about “why” we should use the technology.  We discussed this topic quite a bit (more than I ever have) at this technology workshop.

My big take-away from the workshop concerning “why” we should use technology came from the Day 2 keynote speaker, Michael Caulfield, who is an instructional designer at Keene State College.  He presented research that shows that average students become exemplary students if they can have conversation about the topic they are learning, can have instruction that is customized to them and what they are not understanding, and can receive immediate feedback about their learning.  Basically, if every student can have a full-time, one-on-one tutor, she can move from being an average student to being an exemplary student.  Sounds great, but who wants to pay for that (especially in this economic climate)?  So, Caulfield explained, we really need to figure how to provide “tutoring at scale.”  That is, we need to figure out how to provide each student with conversation, customization and feedback in classrooms that have more than one student.  Caulfield then discussed various uses of instructional technology (which was called “rich media” at this workshop, a phrase that I’m still processing and deciding whether I like) and how to leverage technology to provide “tutoring at scale.”  Caulfield’s talk gave me a great perspective through which to view all of the activities we engaged in during the workshop.

My one critique of the workshop (and it is a small one) is that we didn’t sufficiently separate faculty development of “rich media” artifacts for use in providing “tutoring at scale” from faculty development of assignments that require students to create their own “rich media” artifacts.  It feels like the issues are related to each other but are also quite separate, with different things for the faculty member to consider.

I would strongly encourage my PSU colleagues to apply to and attend next years Academic Technology Institute.  It is well worth the time!

{May 1, 2011}   Tumblr Review-Part 1

As I wrote in a previous post, I have been testing Tumblr as a way of consolidating my web contributions in one place.  After using the site for a couple of weeks, I’m ready to write a review of it.  My review will come in two parts.  In this, the first part, I will review the site regarding the intentions of the designers of the site and how well (or not) those intentions have been implemented.  In the second (future) part of my review, I will explain what I wish the designers would change regarding how the site is supposed to work.

Tumblr bills itself as a micro-blogging site, which would make it a direct competitor of Twitter. Unlike Twitter, Tumblr provides two interfaces for each user.  The first is the page on which the user can post short statements.  This page is called a tumblog.  This interface can be customized with a variety of themes that determine how the page is to be organized.  Twitter has no interface that is equivalent to this so this portion of Tumblr is really more of a direct competitor to WordPress or Blogspot, a more traditional blogging platform.  The second interface is a dashboard, similar to Twitter’s interface, providing a mechanism for the user to post items that will then appear in the newsfeed portion of the dashboard as well as on the user’s tumblog.  The user also has the option of following other Tumblr users so their posted content will also appear in the user’s newsfeed, again in a manner very similar to Twitter.

One of the most obvious ways that Tumblr differs from Twitter (besides the use of a tumblog) is that in Tumblr, it is very easy to post content of all different types.  In Twitter, for example, there is no easy way to post a photo while in Tumblr, it is quite easy to post a photo.  This is a welcome development and the tumblog themes integrate the variety of content types quite nicely to create a nice-looking blog site.  This means that people can follow you either through Tumblr, in which case your posts will show up in their newsfeeds on their dashboards, or by checking your tumblog, which is given a unique URL so it can be easily viewed outside of Tumblr.  My tumblog, for example, has the address of

The thing that excited me most about Tumblr when I first began my investigation is that a user can easily import RSS feeds into her tumblog.  I immediately saw the potential for this feature for integrating my web contributions into one location.  For example, I have a Flickr page for my photos and every Flickr page has an RSS feed.  So I figured I could easily set up my Tumblr account to post any new photos from my Flickr RSS feed on my tumblog.  In addition, Tumblr has built-in support for Twitter so that any tweets a user posts can automatically be also posted on her tumblog.  I immediately set my Tumblr account up to post from this blog, from my Flickr account, and from my Twitter account.  I then posted a blog entry here, posted some pictures on Flickr and wrote some tweets. And then I waited for those posts to appear on my tumblog so I could how everything looked.  And I waited.  And waited.  And waited.

This is where my issues with Tumblr arise.  It doesn’t work as advertised.  I read the (pretty pathetic) help files on the site to discover that Tumblr tries to check the feeds from which it is supposed to update every hour or so.  But, they go on to say, they recognize each feed’s “need to live.”  And by the way, now that I go back to their help files to get an exact quote, I see that they’ve removed all references to their RSS feeds and how they are updated.  I engaged in an extended email conversation with the tech support folks at Tumblr and found them to be pleasant but pretty useless in terms of giving me help.  They had a lot of (illogical) suggestions for things for me to try to get the updating to happen in a timely manner.  Eventually, when I pointed out that they were being very illogical, they admitted that there is a problem with the automatic updating of RSS feeds.  In other words, it doesn’t work.

A second problem with Tumblr is that they say you can set things up so that your posts automatically appear on Twitter and Facebook.  This also doesn’t work.  So right now, Tumblr is having significant communication problems both coming into and going out of the application.  As I did more research into this, it appears to have been a problem for at least a year.  And still no resolution.

In my email conversation with tech support, I found out that Tumblr is designed so that if a user does not update within the application at least once a week, the automatic updating of RSS feeds will stop (if they ever get that working).  In answer to my question about the rationale for that design decision, Danii (from tech support) told me that they want to make sure that people don’t just use Tumblr to recycle material that has been posted elsewhere.  The problem with this answer is that their solution doesn’t ensure that original material will be posted on Tumblr.  As long as I don’t use the RSS feeds to post the material to Tumblr, it will be seen as original material even if it is really a reposting of material from elsewhere.  My guess is that the Tumblr folks want to make sure people sign into the application for some other reason, likely related to whatever plan they have for eventually making money.

My experience with Tumblr so far has been less than satisfactory but it has helped me to articulate for myself what my ideal application would look like.  I’ll write about that in part 2 of my review of Tumblr.

{April 25, 2011}   New Tumblr Site

Because I spend my time thinking and writing about today’s online media, I have a fairly significant web presence.  I write this blog.  I have a web site and a PSU web page.  I use Twitter and Flickr.  I’m on Facebook, Linked In, and My Space.  I use a variety of Web 2.0 tools, some of them often, some not so often.  I have been experimenting with a variety of tools, looking for something that will consolidate the content I create in one place.  Ideally, this tool will allow me to easily customize the look of the page that my followers will see.  I’ve tried a number of tools and have not found any that I really like (for reasons that I will explain in a future post) but, based on a tip from Ann, I recently came across Tumblr, which has some of the features that I want but contains some annoyances and is based on a mental model that means it really won’t do exactly what I want it to do.

What is Tumblr?  It is a micro-blogging platform, similar to Twitter, Plurk and so on.  These sites allow users to create short content and share it with their followers.  Since I’m already a Twitter user, the micro-blogging aspect of the platform was not what I was excited about.  Instead, I was excited about the fact that Tumblr makes it really easy to share content of all types, not just text.  In addition, Tumblr has a feature which allows the sharing of RSS feeds, that is, content from other sites.  So I thought that perhaps Tumblr might be the simple solution to the problem that I’ve been trying to solve for a while now–how to aggregate all of the web content that I create into one site.  Here‘s my tumblelog (yes, that’s what Tumblr sites are called and yes, it’s dorky).

There are a couple of annoyances that come with using Tumblr.  It is indeed easy to set your site up so that it reposts feeds from other sites.  So, for starters, I set mine up to automatically repost anything I put on this blog, my Twitter feed or my Flickr photostream.  The first annoyance is that there is no way to force Tumblr to go out to your feeds to determine whether there is anything on them that should be posted to your tumblelog.  The documentation says that when Tumblr searches your feeds, it will automatically repost anything that is less than two days old.  So I have a fair amount of content on these sites that should be showing up already on my tumblelog.  But only the content from this blog is currently showing there (I hope that changes by the time you’re reading this post).  When I first set up the feeds, Tumblr told me they would be updated in an hour.  But that hour counted down on the site and no update occurred.  Further research suggests that perhaps these feeds will be updated soon–one source said it sometimes takes 12 hours–but I’ll just have to wait and see.  That leads me to the second annoyance of using Tumblr: there is no way to test how your feeds will look on your tumblelog.  I can test out how each media type will look but I can’t test an actual feed because there is no way to force an update from that feed.  This seems as though it would be a simple coding change from the folks at Tumblr so I’m putting in my request right now.

Beyond these annoyances, Tumblr still doesn’t solve the problem that I want solved because there is a fundamental mental model behind the way Tumblr works that is an obstacle to solving my problem.  I’ve encountered this mental model and its limitations in the past–actually, I encounter it just about every time I try out a new Web 2.0 tool.  I’ll write more about that in my next post.

In the meantime, enjoy my new tumblelog.

{April 14, 2011}   Amazon’s Android App Store

I received this open letter from the International Game Developer’s Association. I think it’s a very reasoned, educational letter and points to a dominant theme of our times.  Corporations are demanding more and more “rights” in their strive to make higher and higher profits.  Amazon’s distribution terms take away all control of developers for their own content.  This is just another step in a long trend.  I think the IGDA’s focus on educating its members is right on target.  Game developers may still choose to distribute their products through Amazon but at least they will know some of the implications of what they are agreeing to.

To all members of the game development community:

Two weeks ago, Amazon launched its own Android Appstore. We know that many developers have been eagerly looking forward to that launch in hopes that it would represent a great new revenue opportunity and a fresh take on downloadable game merchandising. The IGDA applauds Amazon’s efforts to build a more dynamic app marketplace. However, the IGDA has significant concerns about Amazon’s current Appstore distribution terms and the negative impact they may have on the game development community, and we urge developers to educate themselves on the pros and cons of submitting content to Amazon.

Many journalists have noted the unusual nature of Amazon’s current store terms, but little has been said about the potential implications of those terms. In brief: Amazon reserves the right to control the price of your games, as well as the right to pay you “the greater of 70% of the purchase price or 20% of the List Price.” While many other retailers, both physical and digital, also exert control over the price of products in their markets, we are not aware of any other retailer having a formal policy of paying a supplier just 20% of the supplier’s minimum list price without the supplier’s permission.

Furthermore, Amazon dictates that developers cannot set their list price above the lowest list price “available or previously available on any Similar Service.” In other words, if you want to sell your content anywhere else, you cannot prevent Amazon from slashing the price of your game by setting a high list price. And if you ever conduct even a temporary price promotion in another market, you must permanently lower your list price in Amazon’s market.

These Amazon policies could have far reaching effects on game developers. The IGDA has identified five potentially problematic scenarios in particular:

1) Amazon steeply discounts a large chunk of its Appstore catalog (imagine: “our top 100-rated games are all 75% off!”). Some developers will probably win in this scenario, but some developers — most likely, those near the bottom of the list — will lose, not gaining enough sales to offset the loss in revenue per sale. Amazon benefits the most, because it captures all the customer goodwill generated by such a promotion.

2) By requiring all developers to guarantee Amazon a minimum list price that matches the lowest price on any other market, Amazon has presented developers with a stark choice: abandon Amazon’s market or agree never to give another distributor an exclusive promotional window.

3) Other digital markets that compete with Amazon (both existing markets and markets yet-to-be-created) may feel compelled to duplicate Amazon’s terms, and perhaps even adopt more severe terms in an effort to compete effectively with Amazon. In essence, we’re looking at a slippery slope in which a developer’s “minimum list price” ceases to be a meaningful thing.

4) Amazon steeply discounts (or makes entirely free) a game that has a well-defined, well-connected niche audience. The members of that niche audience snap up the game during the promotional period, robbing the game’s developer of a significant percentage of its total potential revenue from its core audience.

5) Amazon steeply discounts (or makes entirely free) a hit game at a time when the game is already selling extremely well. This sort of promotional activity may attract consumers away from competing markets and into Amazon’s arms. But it might actually represent a net loss for the developer, which was already doing quite well and didn’t need to firesale its game at that moment in time.

The IGDA’s bottom line is simple: under Amazon’s current terms, Amazon has little incentive not to use a developer’s content as a weapon with which to capture marketshare from competing app stores.

The IGDA does not have the power or inclination to dictate how others conduct their business. However, the IGDA is permitted to express its views on business practices that affect the developer community, and it is the firm opinion of the IGDA that:

1) A developer’s permission should be required by any retailer seeking to pay less than the standard percentage of a developer’s minimum list price. This could be automated and even “opt-out” with a reasonable period of notice, but ultimately, a developer’s permission should still be required.

2) Developers should have the freedom to set a minimum list price of whatever amount they see fit, without regard to pricing in other app stores.

The IGDA has formally communicated its views to Amazon, and while Amazon has been very willing to engage with the IGDA, it has thus far expressed zero willingness to adjust its distribution terms. We believe that the people currently running Amazon’s Appstore may have the best of intentions and a desire to make their development partners successful, in general. The problem, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, is that things tend to change when a marketplace achieves any degree of dominance. The terms of Amazon’s distribution agreement give it significant flexibility to behave in a manner that may harmful to individual developers in the long run. Any goodwill that Amazon shows developers today may evaporate the minute Amazon’s Appstore becomes so big that Android developers have no choice but to distribute their content via the store. It would be foolish to assume that because Amazon’s Appstore is small today, it will not become the Walmart of the Android ecosystem tomorrow.

If Amazon responds to this open letter, it will likely invoke the success of games that have already been promoted in its Appstore; for example, games that have been featured as Amazon’s free app of the day. The company may claim that the success of those games is proof that Amazon’s model works. The IGDA believes that this argument is a red herring. Amazon does not need the terms it has established for itself in order to give away a free app every day. Nor does it need the powers it has granted itself to execute a wide variety of price promotions. Other digital games platforms, such as Xbox LIVE Arcade and Steam, manage to run effective promotions very frequently without employing these terms.

Amazon may further argue that its success depends on the success of its development partners, and therefore, that it would never abuse the terms of its distribution agreement. Given that Amazon can (and currently does) function perfectly well without these terms in other markets, it is unclear why game developers should take a leap of faith on Amazon’s behalf. Such leaps are rarely rewarded once a retailer achieves dominance.

We respect Amazon’s right to stay the course, but as part of our mission to educate developers, we feel that it is imperative to inform the community of the significant potential downside to Amazon’s current Appstore terms. If you feel similarly, we urge you to communicate your feelings on this matter directly with Amazon.


The IGDA Board of Directors

et cetera