January 24, 2014

Episode 2: The Desire To Fix Things

I'm writing this on the way to New York, where from what I can make out, it's officially the coldest place on Earth.

1. The Desire To Fix Things
According to some people, San Francisco is having something of an integration problem: a new influx of people, groaning infrastructure, enemies and bogeymen being cast left and right, what with Gawker pub Valleywag appearing to whip up a binary frenzy Fox News style (an entirely unsurprising move given the Gawker media background) and internet titan Google becoming the whipping boy for the simple crime of trying to make life easier for its employees, many of whom would prefer to live in San Francisco.

Into this all comes Anil Dash, whose Stupid Simple Things SF Techies Could Do To Stop Being Hated obviously comes from a good place, but at the same time also appears to come from the place that a lot of geeks can't resist: that of seeing a problem, presuming to know the solution to that problem, and trying to impart said solution as a way to help with a capital H:

http://dashes.com/anil/2014/01/stupid-simple-things-sf-techies-could-do-to-stop-being-hated.html

The funny thing about this is that a piece predicated upon the supposed lack of empathy of an entire sector which, in reality, is in all likelihood down to a small number of people setting policy, itself lacks empathy. And here we are with the tragedy of the geek: always wanting to fix things and wondering why everyone can't just sit down and listen to this really jolly good solution to all things that at the very least would be a *start*.

Look: the Bay Area ex-startups that are now moulding the world in their image are simply looking out to optimize things for their employees. And yes, perhaps they need some help in seeing what some of the non-quantifiable values might be that need optimizing. And if anything, no one, not even smart people, like being mediumsplained to.

2. The New Subscription Television Is The Old Subscription Television Only Tweaked Slightly
Netflix announced its fourth quarter earnings and released its letter to shareholders, revealing just over a couple million new subscribers in the US, bringing their US total to about thirty three and a half million members. Which is about half the population of the UK, and pretty scary if you think about it that way. Predictably, their stock soared, but in a lull between meetings today, I asked a couple of colleagues why, exactly, given that Netflix's average revenue per user is lower than HBO's. Best guess is that Netflix is still at the pre-hockeystick stage of growth, which has the rational market all irrationally excited. Secondly, while Netflix can't compete on acquisition of existing content (in our wonderful disintermediated future, there won't be one place we can get all of our favorite films or tv shows thanks to exclusivity windows and deals), they've proven with shows like Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards (and more the latter than the former) that they can do original content pretty well. 

Which would be all well and good if House of Cards *was* original content (fans and Brits will note that the original series did pretty well, thank you very much), so all of that remains to be seen. 

http://files.shareholder.com/downloads/NFLX/2914769797x0x720306/119321bc-89c3-4306-93ac-93c02da2354f/Q4%2013%20Letter%20to%20shareholders.pdf

3. And Now Some Short Fiction
Greg Egan is one of my favorite science fiction writers. I picked up Diaspora while I was in college, and pretty much tore through the rest of his novels and collections in short order. Reading Permuation City was probably one of the best introductions to hard science fiction, and by the time you get to Schild's Ladder, you're scoring about a 10 on the moh's scale of science fiction hardiness. In any event, here's another good short story of his that came out recently:

http://subterraneanpress.com/magazine/winter_2014/bit_players_by_greg_egan

And if you liked that, you'll be bawling your eyes out if you haven't read Ted Chiang's The Lifecycle of Software Objects.

Chapter one here: http://subterraneanpress.com/magazine/fall_2010/fiction_the_lifecycle_of_software_objects_by_ted_chiang
Full book here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Lifecycle-Software-Objects-Chiang/dp/1596063173

4. Please Get Addicted To Our Product
A short one, this. It's not often you get a CEO unabashedly saying they'd like people to get addicted to their product, but HBO CEO Richard Plepler apparently doesn't have a problem with that at all. 

http://www.theverge.com/2014/1/19/5324736/hbo-ceo-doesnt-mind-hbo-go-account-sharing

You don't really get video games companies with the balls to say that these days.

5. Internet of Thing
At dinner with friends, the ur-Internet of Things object, the Cambridge Trojan Room Coffee Pot from 1991, an internet-connected (ish, one of the first webcams, a 128x128 pixel greyscale image) coffee pot, to see if the coffee was done. Seeing as there was a) hardly an internet, b) a nascent world wide web and c) the coffee pot implemented over X on an Acorn Archimedes, it's nice to see how far internet connected objects have come. Or not come, if you're stuck with an internet fridge.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trojan_Room_coffee_pot

Follow-ups
Simon Wistow (@deflatermouse) sent a link to a post by Alex St. John commenting on yesterday's epidemiology-based Facebook doom prediction. Short version: the paper most likely didn't take into account the phenomenon of re-engagement, which in St. John's opinion means all bets are off.

http://www.alexstjohn.com/WP/2014/01/23/forecasting-demise-facebook/

And, of course, Facebook fired back with their own data science post, showing that Princeton should probably worry about its student population dwindling to zero within a few years. 

https://www.facebook.com/notes/mike-develin/debunking-princeton/10151947421191849

All of this, at least, has helped some people realize that papers posted on arXiv aren't peer-reviewed, highlighting one of the issues with science journalism. Again.

That's it for Episode 2. See you again on Monday.

Dan