Some thoughts on online relationships. No, not that kind.

I had an epiphany last night as I was falling asleep. I finally figured out the allure of talking to people online. Its ascendant path from novelty to necessity has always been curious to me, and I avoided it as it took root, through the rise of AOL Instant Messenger and similar software. But I succumbed somewhere around MySpace, and have been wading through the minefield of weird wonder ever since.

I don’t know what it was about last night that triggered the thoughts, but I cracked the code as I was drifting off to sleep and quickly grabbed my phone to leave myself a note as to the key.

Pen pals.

Stay with me. As a kid, the idea of having pen pals was really cool, right? Sometimes you’d do a project in school and write to someone in another part of the country or world, to get an idea of what life was like outside of your tiny kid bubble. When you got a letter back with some exotic postage, it was so exciting you could hardly contain yourself. What startling insight would we be able to glean from this passing of information between the walls of such different worlds? Usually it was something to the effect of “I go to school too” but it was always interesting on some level, because you felt, at least however briefly, that you had in your possession a snapshot into another part of the world.

Unfortunately, as I got older, I realized that I was far too lazy to maintain any kind of long-distance relationship, stationary-based or otherwise, and would let these things slide. I even neglected to write to my actual friends who had moved away. Pens? Paper? Buying and using stamps? THEN having to go to a place and MAIL this document and WAIT for a response? How depressingly archaic.

I’ve always had issues with instant gratification, and in a lot of ways (import video game auctions on eBay / media purchases on iTunes, I’m looking in your direction) the internet just made things worse on a global scale. But in doing so, it’s made a lot of things better. The tools that have been built in just the last few years have been insanely transformative. I never liked waiting to hear back from my friends. Now I don’t have to. They’re seconds away, wherever they are. Add in things like location based services (Foursquare, Gowalla) and suddenly you aren’t only talking to your friends, you can see them, and go to them. I would have killed a warehouse full of kittens for that kind of tech in college, when I came home to an empty house after class and just knew that fun was happening somewhere, and I wasn’t a part of it.

Furthermore, today I maintain a wide variety of what I consider to be fairly meaningful relationships with people I have never even met in real life (hence the pen pal metaphor), based solely on our mutual use of Twitter. Our interactions are near-instant through that network (and can be quicker if we go back-channel somewhere else). Through these connections I have the opportunity to strike up conversations with an almost unlimited number of other willing participants who share common interests. To be fair, you were always able to do things like this, as far back as online communication allowed, but never before with the speed or accuracy you can now.

With some of my new pen pals I have never even actually exchanged an email. There are so many better tools right now to facilitate these connections, so much more efficiently and in more enthralling ways than email, which when you get right down to it is just an updated metaphor for a slower way of communicating anyway. Yes, we all have email on our phones now, but there’s still nothing fun about it. It’s a tool. We make friendships with people because it’s fun to do so, and to meet someone who can share with you and with whom you can share as well. The myriad sites and services that sprang forth from the loins of email have brought with them a fully-realized, geo-located address book of nonstop fun, limited (only sometimes) by your current time zone.

Taking the next step to bridge the pen pal with reality: some of the people I’ve met online I’ve made efforts to meet in real life as well. Those that are close enough to me geographically, at least. Some of them end up being business contacts, some become friends. We’ve had fun together, and it makes our online chatting more enjoyable, because we have a commonality to fall back on since we know each other outside of that forum. You might have considered doing such things with your pen pals years ago, but it was nowhere near as simple as it is today. Furthermore, it’s almost irrelevant whether we met online or at an event in real life, because for many of us (and this holds true for a large majority of the people with whom I spend my online time) those two worlds are ever closer to merging.

The lesson is that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I still need real, human interpersonal contact on a regular basis, although there are many days when it’s the last thing I’d actually want. It’s good for me. It’s just that instead of feeling guilty for “wasting” time on Twitter, or whatever tool I’m using, I look at it very differently. If I’m doing something that I enjoy – engaging with real people, sharing ideas, making a joke, experiencing a common event – there’s no way I can view that as a waste.

None of this is earth-shattering stuff that hasn’t been coughed out on a million different blogs, in a thousand different countries. But I never gave it much thought as it was happening to me, and I started to wonder where the roots were psychologically that made it so attractive to me. The pen pal metaphor made perfect sense. It’s just that the pens I’m using now are my fingers.

Windows Phone Series 7: fighting yesterday’s battle. (Again.)

It’s finally arrived, and it’s very impressive. Seriously. As a former Windows Mobile addict (reformed), I have to say, I wish this had happened three years ago, when my distaste for the stagnancy of the OS was at its apex. I spent entirely too much time hacking and whittling function into every device I had because I was under the delusional impression that this was how things needed to be. I jumped ship for a BlackBerry Curve, which held my attention for about six months, until I realized how pitifully anemic the OS underpinnings really were pertaining to extensibility. Then I got an iPod Touch, and well, shortly thereafter made the jump to an iPhone.

But this isn’t about what Apple did. It’s about what Microsoft didn’t do. It’s become a company fractured by success, splitting into divisions that compete and snipe at one another internally. The XBox platform is a winner, as is the Zune interface (while being a little late to the party hardware wise, despite the introduction of the really nice Zune HD). But MS’s major problem is that it is still fighting yesterday’s battle. The decision to push Bing so hard, when the search land grab is long since over is a failure to understand where the market’s moved. Its glacial pace of product announcement and release is its greatest failure in some aspects, and is reinforced by today’s decision to release the extremely well-received Windows Phone Series 7 for the “Holiday 2010” season. Which is long after Apple will likely release iPhone 4.0, and will almost certainly be after new Android updates, RIM updates, webOS updates, and a deluge of consumer-confusion with the litany of new OS choices from phone manufacturers themselves. It’s a crticial tactical error (see Palm’s release and subsequent delay of webOS for an example of lost opportunity to capitalize on interest). And I like Palm – but it’s undeniable that the wait for the original Pre hurt possible market success.

The hardware battle is over. Actually, it’s not over, but it’s becoming irrelevant. The content connectivity/ecosystem battle will determine the next phase’s winner. As long as MS continues to look behind itself for progress, it’ll always be bringing up the rear, no matter how nice the products end up looking. Microsoft, despite leading in advances like Surface, is not a company that’s comfortable with looking ahead and doing what’s next. In the extremely volatile mobile handset world, this is tantamount to failure.

But man, it really does look nice.

Facebook wants access to your hard drive. You’re cool with that, right?

Poor Facebook. It’s been such a hot topic lately. From its changes to the privacy policies on a system-wide scale to the Zynga kerfuffle and now the idea to scan users’ computers with anti-virus software before allowing access, it’s the target of a lot of speculation, FUD, and intense debate among technology enthusiasts and from news organizations looking to do what they do best – incite panic among the general populace. Remember swine flu? We should all be dead by now. But I digress.

With a network as enormous and valuable as the one Facebook maintains, any miniscule change to the way users interact with the site won’t simply fly under the radar. And due to the platform created for applications focusing on connection and ease-of-use within the massive user base, it’s become a natural point of interest for hackers, spammers, and otherwise nefarious individuals.

The anti-virus story is the one with which I’m concerned. On one hand, it’s perfectly understandable that FB wants to keep intrusions and infections to a minimum. Nasty things can propagate extremely quickly throughout the community, since people have been totally de-conditioned to be suspicious of activities on Facebook that would ordinarily raise a million red flags on their own machines. Oh, someone from high school that I don’t really talk to but felt obligated to reciprocally add as a friend wants to see what movies I’m watching? Sure, why not. Someone has a funny video of me from a party I never attended and I “have to see it!”? Might as well click that link and see what’s so funny! In cases like this, comfort breeds bad behaviors.

These are things most people would avoid had they come from anywhere other than Facebook, but since it’s all part of this lovely blue-and-white gated community we all joined, it seems safer. Which is why they’ve partnered with McAfee to try to stop any extra garbage from entering the neighborhood from our dirty, filthy machines. So they might give us a quick checkup before we walk in from now on. That’s cool, it seems like killing two birds with one stone, and gosh darn it – isn’t that thoughtful of them to be looking out for us?

Problem is, I keep a lot of information on my computer that appears nowhere online, and is completely private – financial data, personal correspondence, business contact information and conversations, and so on. The thought of an entity like Facebook poking its (admittedly) vulnerable nose around my hard drive’s innards just so I can log in and hide a bunch of crap updates from people who have entirely too much free time on their hands and for whom actual agricultural work is an abhorrent idea is NOT one that sits well with me.

First of all, there’s a lucrative financial arrangement with McAfee. Assume there’s a truckload of money getting dumped daily at Facebook HQ for the opportunity to be the safety chief over there. Assume also that since the AV market is generally more reactionary than proactive (hey there, TSA!) that even if something bad happens, no one’s taking credit for dropping the ball. In fact, you, the user, will probably get blamed somehow. McAfee is doing well here too – think about how many eyeballs see those ads every day.

Secondly, knowing what we do about Facebook’s penchant for nebulous privacy policies – even in spite of efforts to clarify their own statements – I’m not exactly comfortable with anyone, let alone someone whose intentions for my data are not completely transparent, go peeking at EVERYTHING I have on my computer! I use a Mac, so I’m in a smaller subset of users who are at slightly reduced risk for infection (I’m not going to make hyperbolic, ill-conceived statements about safety right now), but if I have to submit to a search every time I need to log in to do something, I might be leaving.

Which is not what I want to do at all. I’m not interested in leaving. I like Facebook – really. I’ve reconnected with long-lost friends, made new ones, stayed in touch while abroad and generally enjoyed my time using the service. I’ve placed only things I feel comfortable sharing online within its walls, and my experience has been a very positive one. But that’s going to change if I have to let this overreaching marketing experiment into the confines of my personal machine. It’s only being talked about for some users right now, who’ve been previously compromised, and I’m assuming ones running various flavors of Windows, but if it becomes a service-wide standard for all users, it’s going to be an issue for me.

I know, I know. Complaining without offering a solution is a waste of everyone’s time. So, let’s start with this.

A better solution (for users, not the marketing department) would be to scan the chosen PC for the presence of an AV package, and check the definition updates. If it’s been more than a predetermined period of time since the last scan, then the user must update and run THEIR OWN software before gaining admission to Facebook. This way the door to the network is closed, but personal data remains that way. It seems simple enough, and I’m not a security expert, but it feels like a better compromise than forcing yourself into a machine that’s not yours. Then again, we’re talking about users who probably don’t pay much attention to what’s going into their machines as it is.

There needs to be an implicit trust between the two parties, based on the knowledge of the situation, and some level of gatekeeping is involved, but it’s specific to the needs of both parties, and not invasive to an extreme.

I know this is far more complicated with network security, but like I said, it’s a start. Facebook’s growth makes it a perfect target. But forcing users to an electronic strip-search before coming in is not the solution.

Nexus One naming issues.

I love Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick, and all associated androidery as much as the next nerd, but this is dumb.

The PKD estate is getting all uppity because they think that Google is biting off the Nexus name for the new phone.

nexus: 1. the means of connection between things linked in series; 2. a connected series or group

one: really? Come on. For our purposes, let’s just say it’s the first of its kind.

Given what Android (and Google, both with Chrome and in general) is trying to do, by converging your data and unifying your user experience, I feel like the PKD estate is a little overreaching here. I know you have to defend trademarks to have them at all – that concept isn’t lost on me – but the name makes sense within the confines of the definition.

Touch is not always the answer.

Touch.

It’s become the new buzzword with gadgets, and a surefire way to get people’s attention. Who wants to use those smelly old buttons anymore when you can use your greasy little finger?! Why have a stylus when you can stab your device with digits?

I’m oversimplifying, of course, but it also illustrates a point. The iPhone’s UI only works as well as it does because Apple spent a really long time working on it. In fact, they’re still working on it, but it’s easily the one to beat. Simply taking an existing interface and removing the access to it that you’re used to in favor of a finger is where everything else has failed up to this point. It’s not about bigger poke-able icons on a screen, but how the screen and the items on it interact with you when you use them.

Nothing I’m saying hasn’t been said before, or better, but it drives me crazy when devices tout touch capability because it’s the feature du jour. Who the hell needs a printer with a touch screen? Who the hell needs a printer anymore for that matter? I know. We’re not all there yet. 

But look at the first (and possibly second) BlackBerry Storm – a perfect example of how touch took a good idea and made it suck. I had a BlackBerry Curve before my iPhone, and it was a seriously solid device. BBs always have been killer at what they do best – push messaging with small hardware keyboards. Jump on the touch train, and the phone falls apart. You just can’t force a sea change in user interaction like that without redesigning the OS from the ground up to accept that kind of input. Add in a failed experiment in haptics, and you start to realize why “one giant button” was a bad idea from the start.

And the full desktop PCs that have giant touch screens? Why would you want to sit at a desk and do that? Simply to do away with the mouse-keyboard combo? I guarantee after you’re done showing everyone who would give a crap how rad it is that you’re going back to your other computer, or just plugging in those peripherals.

Innovation isn’t coming from following someone’s good lead and smashing it together with whatever you’ve done already. It comes from taking a good idea that you had and building it up – or tearing it down yourself and building something new. Palm did it with WebOS when everyone thought they were washed up, RIM needs to do it with their OS too, if they want to keep moving into the consumer, non-enterprise space. Windows Mobile… don’t even get me started on that one. Talk about squandering an opportunity by resting on your laurels.

Everything in tech right now – at least the majority of the mobile consumer electronics space – seems like a giant me-too; everyone’s got an app store now, and everyone’s adding touch. There’s a place for buttons in our world, and plenty of arguments against them. But we all lose when companies don’t choose to innovate and keep polishing up hackneyed ideas and calling them new. But luckily, enough companies are getting it right, and we’re moving into one of the most exciting times we’ve ever seen in the CE space.

Epiphanies.

After a delicious Korean dinner with my sister and brother-in-law tonight, I had two thoughts occur to me on the way home, courtesy of my ~18-mo nephew playing with the iPod in the car.

  1. Listening to Kelly Clarkson’s music, and most pop songs in the same vein, is roughly equivalent to the act of an adult eating Pixy Stix. You know it’s a terrible idea, but something is compelling you to do it anyway. Upon starting to eat the overly-sugary treat, you start regetting the decision, and ultimately end up killing the idea 2/3 of the way through, having become comepletely disgusted with yourself. Later, you become angry with yourself for even considering it and do something diametrically opposed to the earlier mistake (either eating healthy food or listening to Nine Inch Nails).

  2. The music of Jason Mraz is the result of the unholy union of Steely Dan and Jamiroquai having sex in the backseat of a Chevy Nova. Mraz has some chops, and some similar studio tricks to Steely Dan, such as the liberal use of overdubs on his vocal tracks, but a peppiness and slightly annoying tinge, as Jamiroquai is pretty ok, but can also get on your nerves after a while. The Chevy Nova comes into play because I feel like it’s the kind of car in which those two entities might fornicate. Also, it seemed funny at the time.

A belated thank you to ThinkGeek.

In stumbling across my action shot that I sent in to ThinkGeek after getting my new-in-box Dreamcast (my third system, it was my favorite console of that generation), I remembered that I was going to post a public thank you to their impeccable customer service division, and never got around to it. So I’m doing it now.

The reason I had to deal with CS at all is because some of the Dreamcasts had that not-so-fresh feeling, you know? And instead of being douches (wordplay!) about it, they were exemplary in how they handled everything. After a bit of an outcry on the Internets, they offered to replace them, no questions asked, and I was among the few who needed new systems sent out. It came before I even had a chance to put my laptop on standby, and they were awesome throughout the experience, in constant communication through Twitter DMs and emails, and even offered me a gift certificate to the site.

So in a nutshell, ThinkGeek deserves crazy respect, in this day and age of absolute garbage CS, with people rushing to get rid of you so they can post their numbers. Thanks, ThinkGeek. You rock.

And here’s the awesome shot of me with Declan, enjoying the sheer glory of the most underrated home console ever.

 

I miss my life.

The one I used to have when I was an idiot kid, and my only concerns were driving my crappy car, listening to music, and girls. I miss the mystery of what hot summer nights could bring. I miss the novelty of having an impromptu party happen around you as people show up to wherever you are. I miss the challenge of figuring out ways to get drunk, and the unbridled excitement and potential that an eagerly awaited liquor delivery from an older brother or friend used to bring. I miss having adventures that involved nothing more than driving around a town that wasn’t mine, and finding fun and trouble. I miss meeting a cute girl and having that moment of unsteady realization that she might like me. I miss sleeping late and being a bum, and having a job that served only to pass the time, until I could hang out with my friends again. I miss reading incendiary books and feeling cool for doing so. I miss defining my existence by the concerts I chose to see, the movies I chose to watch (whose posters undoubtedly adorned my bedroom walls) and the band t-shirts that spoke volumes about me, or so I believed…

Most of all, I think I miss the person I used to be. Not that I’m not happy now, and not that I would give up any of what I’ve worked for, but the world changes you. And those people who prance around like Peter Pan telling you “it doesn’t have to, unless you let it” are retards. It does.

I miss the blind acceptance that cool things will happen because I’m young, and the world is rife with possibilities.

So much time passes so quickly, and none of what I’ve said is new or original, but it’s no less true. Our lives continue to accelerate around us, and we all move at a quicker pace, to what end?

Just got to thinking about some summers past tonight, and the people that filled them, and how young I was as life happened around me, and how I didn’t try to orchestrate. I just let it go. Existential, beat life. Just go.

Truly, I love my life. But I miss that person, too.

Sorry about that overly personal nonsense, but I let my mind wander. It happens sometimes.

All I want for Christmas.

Sometimes I wish I had a tiny camera embedded in my skull, wired with a high-speed shutter to my eyes. There are just some things you notice as you’re driving your car, and you just can’t stop the music/podcast/ audiobook in time on your iPhone and turn on the camera to catch the most insane thing you may ever see that no one will believe without photographic proof. This sort of thing happens to me no less than 4-5 times a week, leading me to believe that either my standards for surreal comedy are just too low, or that as long as I live without this bionic implant, life will continue to mock me.

When real life just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Of course, that’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek. What I mean is that so much of our time is spent on increasingly demanding information flows from social networks, RSS feeds, and just the web in general, that it becomes hard to pull yourself away from the screen sometimes. I know that personally, on any given day, I can spend up to 12-14 hours “online”. I put that in quotes because I do all my work on the computer, as well as engage in social meanderings, and whatever else grabs my attention that particular day. I’ve started making a concerted effort just to read actual, paper books, because if I get a Kindle or something similar, my eyes will positively melt out of their sockets from electron overload.

It’s definitely harder in the winter months, when the outdoors might as well have a big “Don’t Bother” sign hanging in space. I am a warm-weather person, and as such, have trouble functioning in the cold. In the summer, I’m very active – surfing, bike riding, just walks in general – but in the winter, I might as well have chains made of lazy wrapped around my ankles. So I drown myself in information. And it’s hard to staunch the bleeding once it starts.

What’s really crazy is that your reality, however departed from actual real life it is, becomes the life you live online. And when you start to extrapolate that in a massively geeky way, you realize that you’re actually living in the Matrix, and you sort of don’t really care. Sure, you can’t taste Twitter, but with the amount of time you spend there, it’s got to be leaving some kind of taste in your mouth. And blogs that post the equivalent of gadget crack for someone like me, multiple times a day, are slowly paring away layers of my brain that used to be designated for creative pursuits like art and music, let alone conversation and human interaction. I can’t help myself. I love information. It’s an undying need to satiate my constant curiosity about what’s coming next. But it hurts sometimes. It’s a sickness, albeit a controllable, self-inflicted, psychological one.

I recently went to Aruba for a few days and purposely made an effort to detach the mechanical tentacles of my everyday world. I yanked that data stream right out of the back of my skull, but only after I managed to stick together a connection between my Dell Mini 9 Hackintosh Wi-Fi and my iPhone, you know, just in case, since I didn’t have consistent data on the phone. But immediately following that, I began engaging in “life” again. Talking to people – in person(!), snorkeling, walking on the beach, you know, stuff humans do. I found that I was still good at doing these things, and that I actually enjoyed being away from circuitry for a while. I started to ponder exactly what kind of horror I had wrought upon myself by choosing a career in tech, since I can’t exactly turn my back on it. But I realized that all I really need is balance. It’s so simple, but so true. I need to say “No, thank you, Internet. I need some time to myself” occasionally. And that just has to be ok. I seriously doubt I’ll look back when I’m old and wish I posted more stupid things to TwitPic, but I’ll probably wish I spent more time with the people I loved.

Now if you’ll excuse me, while I was writing, 132 tweets, 23 Digg articles, 19 RSS posts, and a few Facebook status updates came in, and need my immediate attention.