Wednesday, March 31, 2010

iPad Hype: I Can't Take It Anymore!

WARNING: This is an acknowledged rant and does not necessarily have any meaningful connection to rational thought processes.

Ok, I understand that living in America in 2010 it's impossible to deny the cultural influence of iPods, iTouches, iPhones, and the rest of the "i" family of products. They're everywhere, and even if you manage the triumphant achievement of not owning any of them, they're still engrained in conversations and an undeniable part of the larger social consciousness.

And so it is also with the forthcoming iPad. Unless you're living the dream and residing in a mountain cabin cut off from civilization, you're unmistakably familiar with the new device. Every day for weeks, news headlines in print, on television, and in online RSS feeds have covered every possible aspect of the iPad. Never has so much been discussed about a product that no one has ever seen.

This is not one of my typical anti-Apple tirades. I have no opinion about the iPad and place no value judgement upon it in this embryonic stage. I'm just immensely sick of the fact that when I check my technology news headlines each morning, EVERYTHING is drowned out by the iPad!

Really, I can't take it anymore. I'm almost missing the maniacal conversations on blogs, the derisive commentary by Redditors, and the inane Twitter replies of anonymous followers. Instead, the social media landscape has come to a standstill and the only conversations taking place revolve around - you guessed it - the iPad.

If I was a PR consultant for Apple, I would have been thrilled by this hype a few weeks ago, but by now I'd be worried. We've reached the point where if the iPad fails to bring about world peace and align the planets in universal harmony, it's going to be seen as somewhere between a disappointment and a failure. It's been so completely overblown that short of fostering a new technology revolution, the company's stock price is sure to fall.

But I don't care about any of this, and that's the real point. Memo to CNN, David Pogue, TechCrunch and the rest of the media, both Old and New... leave me alone already. Some of us are more interested in following actual news events and can only stand so much of hearing about a gadget that remains, at this point, defined solely by potential rather than actual effect. This thing, as far as our mainstream experiences are concerned, doesn't even exist yet! I need reporters to cover stories about cyberwar and sexting and Chinese censorship; you know, things that are actually happening!

I understand that in the tech world, some of this hype is inevitable. I'm just calling for some proportionality. Until that happens, if any caring reader would like to make a donation of buying me a helmet so that I don't injure myself whilst banging my head against the wall, it would be much appreciated.
  

Friday, March 26, 2010

Is P2P Lending Worth It?

Peer-to-peer lending websites were once all the rage, then the economy collapsed and many of them like Prosper.com were forced to shut down their services.

Well, Prosper is back! The website is up-and-running once again, allowing people to borrow from and lend to one another at more desirable interest rates than what banks are currently offering.

So the original question about P2P lending remains... Is it worth it?

On the plus side, if you're a borrower, you can find much lower interest rates than your credit card company is no doubt offering. If you're a lender, you can earn far more than the measly 1% return that is now standard for CDs. Surely, this math is always what made P2P lending so enticing in the first place.

On the negative side, however, lenders' investments are not protected in any way by the FDIC, and although they can view their borrowers' ratings based on credit scores, ultimately they still have no idea who these people are, nor whether they might ever pay them back.

Ho-hum. Old news, right? Well, an anonymous friend of mine was courageous enough to invest some money in Prosper a while back as an experiment to answer some of these lingering questions. The results...



Total notes (loans): 37
Total charged-off notes (delinquent/ over 120 days past due): 23
Total notes paid-off in full: 14


Payments received: $2,661.88
Principal paid off: $2,145.24
Payments in excess of principal: $516.64
Principal charge-offs: $858.73
Gain/loss to date: -$342.09



Thus, from his experience, P2P lending was definitely NOT worth it. Of course, every situation is different, but let this be a data-driven cautionary tale to those who, once again, are overhyping P2P and microlending services. It remains more of an intellectual curiosity than a money-making enterprise.
  

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Enemies of the Internet...

Last week, Reporters Without Borders released its annual report on countries with the worst records of internet censorship. Read it here as a PDF file on Google Docs.

Most of the names aren't surprising: China, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, etc. Essentially, this reads like a Who's Who of totalitarian regimes.

However, it's turning a few heads that the democracies of Australia and South Korea also made the list. Australia, which I've criticized before, has tried implementing a draconian filtering system under the guise of eliminating child pornography (which it fails to do). Meanwhile, South Korea, the world's most wired nation with 90% of its citizens online, has attempted to censor criticism of the government through a "liberticidal legislative arsenal" that aims to fight against the spread of "false information".

Those who believe that the internet's decentralization will naturally bring about freedoms are dead wrong. As Lawrence Lessig famously argued, the internet will only come to embody those political values that we create for it, and "architectures of control" will arise without specific efforts to counteract them.

Treading that fine line between freedom of expression and protecting citizens from the worst of social elements always requires a delicate balance. But when journalists cite that they fear retribution simply from reporting the news within these nations, the line has clearly been crossed.
  

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Killing Innovation: The iPhone Developer Program License Agreement...

Give it up for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Yesterday they managed to (legally) blow the lid off the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement, and now we can all take a look at just how oppressive Apple has become to developers.

Basically, whenever someone or some company wants to create an iPhone app, they have to 1) register as an official developer with Apple by signing a license agreement and paying $100, and 2) submit their app for approval before it's listed in the App Store.

Here's the rub. Once you sign the agreement (copies of which are extremely scarce), Apple prohibits people from making any "public statements regarding this Agreement, its terms and conditions, or the relationship of the parties without Apple's express prior written approval."

In other words, you're not allowed to speak out and criticize it. Think about that! A curb on speech and commentary as a prerequisite for writing a dumb computer program. That's why you undoubtedly haven't heard too much about this tyranny before.

Well, the EFF has found a loophole. When they saw the "NASA App for iPhone", they used the Freedom of Information Act to ask NASA for a copy, so that the general public could see what rules controlled the technology they could use with their phones. A copy of the license agreement can now be found here.

I recommend reading the entire Agreement as well as the EFF's summary, but, in a nutshell, the license agreement...

  1. Bans developers from making "public statements" about the terms of the Agreement.

  2. Stipulates that developers can only distribute their apps on the App Store, and bans them from distributing their apps on competing app stores.

  3. Prohibits any type of reverse engineering (in spite of the fact that the courts have ruled that reverse engineering for interoperability is legal under the Fair Use Doctrine).

  4. Stipulates that, no matter what, Apple will never be liable to any developer for more than $50 in damages. As the EFF says, "So if Apple botches an update, accidentally kills your app, or leaks your entire customer list to a competitor, the Agreement tries to cap you at the cost of a nice dinner for one in Cupertino."


Apple has been able to get away with this simply because it is the sole gateway to the 40 million iPhones in circulation. And the reason we should all be concerned is that "no competition among app stores means no competition for the license terms that apply to iPhone developers."

What's needed is an emulation of what's worked for PCs for nearly 30 years... separate the software market from the hardware market. Competition and innovation suffer when customers and developers are "locked in" to one platform for life. Instead, just like with PCs, there should be many competing software developers for each platform, thereby creating a wider, more diverse array of products that are priced according to market principles rather than monopolistic controls.

The EFF has done us all a real service by tracking down Apple's license agreement. Now it's our turn to all speak out. Indeed, Apple has been acting as "a jealous and arbitrary feudal lord". Developers should demand better terms and customers who love their iPhones should back them.
  

Friday, March 05, 2010

Beware of Chat Roulette!

If you haven't heard of it yet, you will.

The latest internet craze is a program called Chat Roulette, which pairs you with a random video-chat partner. People who've used Skype to have webcam conversations online, but couldn't recruit enough of their friends and family to join them, have latched on to this so that they can at least enjoy the webcamming experience with strangers.

Sounds simple enough. The only problem is that in the short time that Chat Roulette has gained in popularity, it's already become a cesspool for nude exhibitions, sexual predation, and general depravity.

If you're reading this, you should not let your kids ever get on Chat Roulette! For adults, it is not safe for work!

That said, the site is fast acquiring a reputation for being addictive in a more humorous way. As Fast Company describes, "things start tripping into psychedelic performance-art territory... It's the Internet. UNFILTERED. The big lure is basically seeing something strange - or doing something so strange that you blow your partner's mind."

Some examples cited... You might see people in horrifying masks dancing around. Chinese users seem to love virtual high fives. One person's shtick is a puppet who makes like a caring psychotherapist and will sit with you for hours. You might start by eating a page of your favorite book. You might end by calling your mother and screaming that you're being murdered.



Naturally, the site was created by a 17-year-old Russian kid named Andrey Ternovskiy. CNN recently interviewed him trying to ascertain to what extent he was trying to create a playground for sexual predators, but he managed to come off as surprisingly well-intentioned.

I created this project for fun. Initially, I had no business goals with it. I created this project recently. I was and still am a teenager myself, that is why I had a certain feeling of what other teenagers would want to see on the Internet. I myself enjoyed talking to friends with Skype using a microphone and webcam. But we got tired of talking to each other eventually. So I decided to create a little site for me and my friends where we could connect randomly with other people.


Just to stick it to all of our parents, the idea of talking to strangers has officially gone mainstream. I think of this as a system of sanctioned prank-calling, where the recipients answer in the hopes of getting pranked in a funny, novel way. Admit it, even with all of the inherent dangers, you're curious.

Just keep the kids away.
  

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Participatory News Consumer...

The Pew Research Center released a report earlier this week that's getting a lot of buzz, not only online, but also on CNN and in other major media outlets.

Here are some fascinating statistics revealed by the study about the changing habits of "news consumers"...

  • 92% of Americans now use multiple platforms to get their daily news.

  • The internet is now the third most-popular news platform, behind local and national television news and ahead of national print newspapers, local print newspapers and radio.

  • "The internet and mobile technologies are at the center of the story of how people’s relationship to news is changing. In today’s new multi-platform media environment, news is becoming portable, personalized, and participatory":

    • Portable: 33% of cell phone owners now access news on their cell phones.

    • Personalized: 28% of internet users have customized their home page to include news from sources and on topics that particularly interest them.

    • Participatory: 37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.


  • People are using their online social networks to "filter, assess, and react to news. And they use traditional email and other tools to swap stories and comment on them. Among those who get news online, 75% get news forwarded through email or posts on social networking sites and 52% share links to news with others via those means."


These stats are being read a number of ways. The business world is agog over the rapidly rising percentage of people who get their news through their cell phones. Jim Cramer immediately cited this as reason to buy more stock in Apple and Research In Motion (Blackberry's creator). Others have taken these stats to further bemoan the impending death of traditional newspapers.

What's most interesting to me, though, are the last few revelations about the role of social-networking sites. According to this report, people actually are using MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter to swap news stories with each other, and to comment on them. The fact that 37% of people have "contributed to the creation of news" on such sites really does indicate a shift towards "participatory journalism". We're not just passive consumers of the news anymore; we're active producers.

And you thought everyone was just stalking each other's photos.
  

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Facebook Patents Your News Feed...

Check this out. Facebook has just been awarded a patent by the federal government, which it applied for in 2006, for "displaying a news feed of users’ actions in a social network".

There's been some confusion about this, so to clarify, this does NOT mean Facebook owns a patent on the entire idea of a news feed. Most importantly, status updates are not covered. However, it does mean that certain items within your news feed, like messages about people joining groups, becoming friends with others, and giving someone a virtual gift, are indeed covered by the patent.

So, to see the implications of this, no other website or company can implement the same features on their site's news feed unless first given permission by Facebook.

Many people were quite shocked to learn that it was even possible to patent something so ubiquitous. After all, they thought, where was the invention?! News feeds on Web 2.0 sites are everywhere.

In the technology world, it definitely happens. In one notorious case in 1999, Amazon.com was awarded a patent for its "1-Click Ordering System", which is essentially nothing more than an efficient shopping cart mechanism.

The big fear in cyberspace is that Facebook will use this patent to bully its competitors. That fear is made obvious when reading the comments on blogs like AllFacebook.com. However, Wired is correct in refuting that likelihood:

It’s highly unlikely that Facebook will decide to go on the patent warpath — in no small part because it’s bad public relations. Large tech companies are known to build libraries of patents that they use simply as defenses — so say if Google decided that Facebook had replicated a search feature it patented, Facebook could pull out this patent and point at Buzz.


Nevertheless, it's a little frightening to think that a company now legally owns the rights to how we share information about ourselves. Lost in all the hubbub over patents, competition, and innovation is the fact that the user hardly gets any mention. Shouldn't we at least be included in the discussion?
  

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

To Publish or Not To Publish a Killer's Manifesto?

Believe it or not, I can remember the very first website I ever visited. Way back in 1995, it was my first semester in college, and I was taking a Political Science class. My professor told us that we each needed to go to the library, ask for help "logging in to Netscape", and type in this address (he wrote it on the blackboard).

It was the Unabomber Manifesto.

Thus was my initiation into cyberspace.

The reason for the assignment was that the Unabomber was front-and-center in the news that week. The domestic terrorist had just threatened to kill X number of more people if the New York Times and Washington Post did not agree to publish his 35,000 word manifesto in their pages.

Ultimately, after consulting with the F.B.I, both papers agreed to publish the document in order to prevent the murder of innocent civilians. But it was a controversial decision. With yesterday's post about the suicide-murder of Joseph Stack still in my head, the central question is still relevant... What is the responsibility of publishers when it comes to disseminating the writings of lunatic murderers?

Here's the dilemma. When I, a mere lowly blogger, write a post about how Joseph Stack flew his plane into a building and then left behind a manifesto explaining his reasons for doing so, is it my responsibility to A) link to that manifesto so my readers can see it for themselves, or B) not link to the manifesto because it simply helps spread his ideas, adds to its prominence in search engine rankings, and even, as some argue, contributes to giving it so much attention that it actually encourages future similar actions?

Just like the Unabomber, Joseph Stack did indeed write a manifesto that he posted online the morning of his attack. The link for it can be found here: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/us/20100218-stack-suicide-letter.pdf.

It's my opinion that by making the writings of crazy people accessible, they will be exposed for being exactly that... crazy people. This is the classic notion of a democratic society relying on a free "marketplace of ideas". Put everything out there, no-holds-barred, and the truth will emerge. Good ideas will be seen as good. Bad ideas will be seen as bad. Thoughtful as thoughtful. Lunacy as lunacy.

Also, to be clear, this is not an issue of free speech (as some amateur pundits might rant). Stack's manifesto is not being censored by the government. Private entities are deciding for themselves whether or not it is in their best interests to spread the link. In other words, Stack's "speech" was produced freely and unobstructed by government; but at the same time, private companies and website operators are not, in any way, required to publish it.

Deciding whether or not to link to a killer's manifesto is not an easy decision, nor is it one that responsible publishers will take lightly. In the end, I've included the link above because I have faith in my loyal Nerfherder readers' abilities to decide for themselves.

But the question persists nonetheless.

Thoughts?
  

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Online Response to Joseph Stack's Terrorist Act...

A week and a half ago, Joseph Andrew Stack, fed up with Big Government, taxes, and entitlement spending, decided to fly an airplane into a building that houses the IRS in Austin, Texas, killing one innocent 68-year-old veteran in the process. Most reasonable Americans wouldn't consider this a "protest" action, but murder. Terrorism.

One thing that's fascinating is the response online to Stack's suicide-murder. Geekosystem reported that within hours, several Facebook groups appeared in praise of Stack. Among them: "Joseph Andrew Stack, we salute thee," "The Philosophy of Joe Stack," and "The Joe 'Take My Pound Of Flesh' Stack Anti-IRS Fan Page."

The Facebook groups each differ slightly, but the sentiment is largely the same. As one of them self-describes, "This page is NOT to glorify his actions, but simply to say that after reading his note, we can agree with and sympathise with Joe Stacks’ thoughts." Or another: "Finally an American man took a stand against our tyrannical government that no longer follows the constitution and is turned its back on its founding fathers and the beliefs this country was founded on."

Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote a revealing op-ed about how the most disturbing aspect to this story isn't Stack's suicide-murder, but rather the shocking willingness of politicians to sympathize with him. Congressman Steve King was quoted as saying, "It’s sad the incident in Texas happened, but by the same token, it's an agency that is unnecessary. And when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the I.R.S., it’s going to be a happy day for America."

Other reactions online echo that response. From Facebook groups, to blogs, to Twitter, to actual fan sites, it's stunning how much sympathy for Stack is proliferating on the internet.

Tons of other news organizations and blogs are covering this angle, and I don't want to simply regurgitate the same old stuff. I'll just add that, from an internet perspective, one of the most promising developments has been the counter-reaction. After the initial wave of pro-Stack content, there has been an enormous online backlash of people using the same web outlets - blogs, Twitter, etc. - to condemn the attack. For example, dozens of Facebook groups have since been created describing him as "NOT a hero" and a "terrorist".

The internet may indeed provide the nutjobs out there with a soapbox. However, it also provides that same outlet for the too-often silent majority of reasonable citizens. Thank goodness for that.