Sorny

[3F11] Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield

Homer: [gasps] Look at these low, low prices on famous brand-name electronics!
Bart: Don’t be a sap, Dad. These are just crappy knock-offs.
Homer: Pfft. I know a genuine Panaphonics when I see it. And look, there’s Magnetbox and Sorny.

People often ask me why I refuse to buy Sony products. Indeed, I boycott Sony, and I am not the one to hold a grudge against evil multinational corporations. The level of incompetence on the high levels of Sony’s management disgusts me.

I used to be inspired by the story of Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita starting a company in bombed Tokyo, and growing it from a radio repair shop into a giant corporation. I loved my Walkman, and thoroughly enjoyed the Playstation. I used to buy Sony Trinitron monitors which were brighter and sharper than the competition, but had visible horisontal lines formed by support wires made out of tungsten.

Over they years I felt that the quality of Sony products declined, while the company stopped to innovate and instead began to rely on brute force. They mostly missed the MP3 revolution. Instead they started to figh format wars.

The MiniDisk, the Memory Stick, Blu Ray: Sony would stop at nothing to control the format. They won with the CD and Blu Ray, lost with Betamax and just about everything else. None of these formats made me want to buy Sony products, and I’m very grateful that I don’t have to.

Sony would not stop at what’s legal – they even resorted to hacking their users’ computers – some Sony CDs installed rootkits on Windows machines in the name of copy protection! This is equivalent to breaking into your apartment just to make sure that you haven’t stole anything.

Normaly Hanlon’s Law is in effect, but I highly doubdt that things like these are benign byproducts of Sony being a large corporation. It seems like lawyers are doing a lot of thinking at Sony, and they aren’t thinking about winning people over.

Instead of trying to make their technology cooler, Sony through its lawyers started sending cease and desist letters to people who did things like making handmade iPod cases or toy racing cars out of outmoded Walkmen (I can’t find the original article mentioning the lawsuit about the racecars, but I remember reading it).

Then came the last drop. My wife runs a website about pipe organ event that she coded herself. She included an Amazon store that randomly showed different music-related items – it was a proprietory piece of software over which she had a rather limited control.

Sony employs a company called Net Enforcer that sends out DMCA takedown notices whenever they think they see any unauthorized “retailers” selling Sony products. My wife’s store’s algorithm used to include some Sony products sold by Amazon. Rather than dealing with the offending items, Dreamhost simply took down the whole store and notified me.

NetEnforcers would have you believe that they are protecting Sony’s brand, not letting various riffraff sell Sony products. I had to spend a good deal of time trying to figure out how to fix my wife’s store and not include any Sony products. As a result I refuse to buy any Sony brand electronics. I’m pretty sure this is not what Akio Morita would approve of.

The Vault

A friend of mine, a contractor, recently came to me with a strange problem. He did an excellent job renovating my apartment, and since then he got used to me delousing his Windows computer and coming up with creative googled-up solutions for just about anything. This one has me stumped though.

Right now he is demolishing a location, previously occupied by a bank. It has a vault door in it that my friend needs to cart away.

He wants to sell it. I mean, the thing looks valuable – but I have no idea of who would want something like that. Movie people? A restaurant? Eric Sink (his company has a product called Vault and he must be flush after Microsoft buying a chunk of his stuff). I wonder what would happen if we did place it on eBay. Well, in fact there are a few of them there, and people don’t seem to be buying.

Happy New Year!

I am continuing this blog’s tradition of a New Year’s cards, even while thinking of closing down deadprogrammer.com. I might do it the Dr. Fun way – get it to 10 years and call it quits.

This was a tough fricking year. I spent it on call for application breakdowns, learning system administration, stressing out of my mind, hitting hard deadlines, missing soft ones, gaining 15 pounds, etc, etc.

I was stupid enough not to listen to my very smart friend and keeping my 401K in S&P 500 instead of in cash equivalent funds. I did have enough sense to sell it after Lehman Brothers shat the bed.

This was my first year of being 99% free of Microsoft Windows. Indeed, once you go Mac you don’t go back.

An interesting new web application that I worked on in my spare time should launch around February. I did waste a lot of my free time watching “my stories” (“The Wire”, “Mad Men”, “How It’s Made”, and other yuppie deligths), but I did not waste all of it. You’ll see.

In any case, I wish you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

Paid ReviewMe Post: Phone Spam Filter

These days a controversial company RevieMe.com became downright unethical – they make it abundantly clear that they became a link purchasing company. On the other hand Phone Spam Filter is a site I don’t mind sharing Google juice with, so it’s a quick and fun way to add a 50 bucks to my Kindle fund. Here’s my review:

The goal of this site is pretty simple: Phone Spam Filter is asking you to snitch on telemarketers. You search for a phone number that you received a marketing call from and then complain about it. Besides getting a little relief from venting at the phone spammers, you get a bit of satisfaction from knowing that you added them to a blacklist. Nothing good can come out of this for the dinner-interrupting bastards. Meanwhile it’s a good place to find out if mysterious phone numbers that show up on your phone are from run of the mill telemarketers or not.

The even cooler thing is that they have an API that can help you block calls from this blacklist if you have an Asterisk PBX or are willing to install some Windows software and have a modem connected to a phone line. While Asterisk is pretty awesome, running Windows and having a modem connected to a phone line is a horrible idea these days – there are dozens of viruses that want nothing more than make a few 1-900 phonecalls. In the future Phone Spam Filter guys are hoping to add integration with VOIP providers.

The Phonespamfilter technology is not as cool as JWZ-endorsed audio-cock technology (“their computer’s speakers should create some sort of cock-shaped soundwave and plunge it repeatedly through their skulls”), but I guess it’s a start.

They also have sites in Australia, New Zealand, France, and UK

Surf Naked

I had to clean out my in laws’ Windows laptop this weekend, and this was my first major contact with Windows in weeks, outside of testing IE6 quirks on Parallels. The horror that is Sharepoint is only a distant memory. Even more distant (and not as unpleasant) memory of MS Commerce Server surfaced recently.

I received this shirt as a gift from Microsoft developers, some of whom actually wrote major parts of Commerce Server and Site Server when I visited Redmond. They were very competent, knowledgeable and sociable. I remember being surprised by seeing a lot of Perl books in one office, and being told that for parsing log files even the mighty Beast of Redmond relied on Perl.

I did not get to see Lake Bill or the Microsoft museum, but I did have a Blibbet Burger at the cafeteria. My favorite piece of swag was this polo shirt which I almost completely wore out. It is about to completely disintegrate, so I decided to scan the logo from it.

Flip Video Ultra Series Camcorder, 60-Minutes (Black)

The FVULT60MINB 60-Minute Flip Video Ultra Camcorder lets you capture the everyday moments that happen anywhere and share them with friends and family everywhere. It’s simple, portable, and amazingly affordable. Simple editing tools let you make custom-edited movie mixes with music Create and organize your personal video library 1.5 diagonal color anti-glare playback screen for instant viewing and deleting, 528 x 132 pixels screen resolution Video Resolution – 640 x 480 at 30 frames per second Video Bitrate – 4.5Mbps (average – auto adaptive algorithm) Video Format – Advanced Profile MPEG4 Lens Type – Fixed Focus (0.8m to infinity) Aperture – f/2.4 (fast lens for great results in low-light environments) Fast lens for great results in low and bright light, smooth multi-step 2x digital zoom Interface – 8 Buttons (Power, Play, Delete, Record and 4 way navigation) PC Connection – Built-in flip-out USB arm (up to USB 2.0 speed) NTSC TV Out with included cable Battery Life – Up to 2.5 hours with 2x AA Alkaline batteries, Up to 6.5 hours with 2x AA Energizer e2 batteries System Requirements – Intel Pentium 4 2.0 GHz, Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista, SVGA display monitor (1024×768) and video card, Windows Media Player 9.0, Microsoft DirectX 9.0, PowerPC G4 1.0 GHz, 512 MB RAM, Mac OS X 10.3.9, SVGA display (1024 x 768) monitor and video card, QuickTime 7 or later Dimensions – Height 4.17 x Width 2.16 x Depth 1.25

7 Things You Can (Mostly) Do Without in Your Web Business

I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings about websites. Not as much as I’ve spent building websites, but a sizable chunk of my career. I mostly spent that time listening and not being listened to. But now that I’m older, have “Sr” in my title (it stands for Senor), a beard, those cool designer glasses, and have a lot more weight in meetings. Mostly due to the fact that I got pretty fat.

Previously I wrote about the evils of redesigns in The Russian Tea Room Syndrome, and about how web developers are like cooks and prison inmates. Restaurants are a notoriously difficult businesses to run, mostly because there are a lot of amateurs who do not understand what is not important. It’s not what’s important. Everything is important. It’s knowing what can be cut, especially in the beginning, that makes some restaurants succeed when others fail.

Here’s my list of 7 things that seem like they are important in websites, but really aren’t. These are not deal breakers. These are the things to think about last.

1) Looks. It’s nice to have a clean and beautiful design. But making a site pretty is not going to make you more money. Just look at plentyoffish.com – probably the ugliest dating website in existence. It does not stop its maker from raking in 10 mil a year without any hard work whatsoever.

2) SEO. SEO is the alchemy of the web business. I’ve seen more sites get sandboxed by Google than gain pagerank from SEO efforts. Most big url rewriting efforts create broken links, which are bad no matter how you look at it. Don’t break urls, if you can – make them descriptive, and try to make your site linkable (i.e. GET instead of POST search forms), but that’s about all that might help you. Spending a lot of money on SEO is just plain stupid.

3) Performance. Everybody hates slow and crashing websites. But unless this lasts for years, it’s not a deal breaker. Twitter suffers from worst imaginable performance trouble. Livejournal went through a long stretch of bad performance. Even the big dogs like eBay and Amazon have a slow spell or outage or two. MS Windows became the most popular OS in the world not because of its stability. Of course it’s currently losing market share to Apple, but this precess took decades. If anything, it looks like Twitter outages make its users miss the service so much, that when they get back in the twitter their brains out after bitching about the outage for a bit.

4) Good branding. A good name, url, and logo are not going to make you more money. They are just not that important. As long as it’s not too embarrassing, like therapist.com it’s going to be ok. If you look on Alexa, icanhascheezburger.com has almost as much traffic as tvguide.com.

5) Pure CSS markup and web standards compliance. I’m sick and tired of being told that “tableless” design is somehow important. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not. Go to google.com, amazon.com, ebay.com, nytimes.com and view the source. You will see tables galore. Wasting time eliminating tables is just plain stupid. And all-div completely web standards-compliant XHTML markup is not going to make you any more money. I refuse to feel bad about using tables. And perfectly validating XHTML is only going to help page scrapers.

6) Keeping the site ad-free. Site users are ok with ads. They really, really are. If you have what they want they will suffer through the biggest ads you can throw at them. “Half Page Godzillas”, “Skyscrapers”, “Page Killas”, “Shrieking Flash Sound Diddlers” – whatever you call your most annoying ad – despite heated assurances from the users, it’s not going to make most of them leave. Some will and more will follow, but it’s not as drastic as you might think. If you have something unique. I’m not advocating horrible Flash ads. “Flash Sound Diddlers” are not more effective in selling stuff than tasteful Adsense ads which will not have anybody at all leave. You can use ad money to buy more servers, more content, ads of your own. This will bring in more users.

7) Widgets. If your entire web strategy is based on building widgets, well, you are in trouble. You are entering an frenzied and very crowded market. Widgets are the bastard child of old school web “badges” and “push technology.” Widgets sometimes work great for increasing pagerank, just like the “web awards” that were given out by some sites in Web 1.0 times. They might get people to link to you, especially if these people are Myspacers that are constantly looking for shiny things to line their pages with. But in the big scheme of things widgets are not a great way to spend ttime and money.

Masonic Apple

It’s been a few months already that I haven’t used Windows. The unreal amount of time that it takes to make Ubuntu play sound or use a second monitor and then do it again after a software update drove me straight to Mac.

By the way, why does the “applications” icon look so masonic?

Lazyweb

Dear readers, I have a couple of things you could help me with..

1) Do you know a cheap and usable alternative to godaddy.com? A service with even cheaper domain prices (it’s $10/year for a domain) and a reasonable user interface?

2) I am still planning my switch to Mac – I am still using my Windows desktop and latptop at home and a Ubuntu desktop at work. Ubuntu is great for web dev, but at home I do need to connect to a lot of various peripherals that are basically unsupported in Ubuntu. Also, I like the pretty. Anyway, I am thinking of buying a G5 tower on eBay for about $1000. Hardware-wise it’s a dual processor machine similar to my dual Xeon Dell, but it was only $500 on eBay.. So, is this the best way of getting into Macing on the cheap? I don’t want to buy a Mac Mini because it cost an arm and a leg to add a second monitor.

3) I already mentioned this, but does anybody know a good Linux sysadmin with Apache/MySQL administration skills who’s looking for a job (preferably with some php coding skills)? Let me know, k?

Optimus Mini Three Full Review

I once read a book called “The Mouse Driver Chronicles: The True-Life Adventures of Two First-Time Entrepreneurs” about two guys who started their own company with an unorthodox business plan: making a real, physical product and selling it. This happened during the dot com era, when everyone was making money hand over fist with immaterial products: websites, content, synergy and such. At the very most, bits and bytes would overlap with physical world in online stores – you could order something online and get it delivered, but there were very few companies that produced an actual product. Well, there was one place that would send a real dog turd to a recipient of your choice, but they went under and I can’t even find their website. “Brick and Mortar,” a metaphor for physical world (as opposed to online) stores became a pejorative.

So, these two guys embarked on creating a company with a single product: a mouse that is shaped like golf driver and selling it to big novelty stores and catalogs. Very not dot-com. Designing the product was easy: take a golf driver head, slap mouse buttons on it – there it is. Dealing with the manufacturer was a lot more difficult. These days most of electronic products are made in China, and flying there is pretty expensive. You have to deal with the language barrier, timezone shift, and cultural differences, while collaborating on making a physical product. A single miscommunication and a whole batch worth tens of thousands of dollars might be ruined.

This is the reason why so many great product ideas go unrealized. A great example of that is SiliconFilm: a film roll-sized device that would convert your regular SLR into a digital one. Many people would want to buy one, but it’s been a stady winner of Wired’s vaporware awards.

Mousedriver was a simple product: a stock mouse in a slightly different housing. When I’ve heard that Art. Lebedev studio was actually planning to make one an OLED custom input device, Optimus Mini Three, I had my doubts that it would ever become real, but plunked down 100 bucks (a special pre-order price, it’s $160 or so now) and was prepared to get my money back in a year or two. Instead, in less than half a year I got a parcel from Taiwan. Inside was a working Optimus Mini keyboard. A was dumbstruck.

Now, Art. Lebedev Studio is a slightly more serious outfit than the mousedriver guys. It’s a large (about 150 people) design firm lead by a brilliant designer Artemy Lebedev. This guy:

Artemy (aka Tema aka Art.) Lebedev is so notorious in Russian web design scene, that he goes by the moniker “Youknowwho.” The Studio is based in Moscow, with satellite offices in Latvia and Ukraine. Web design is their bread and butter, but lately they’ve been branching out into industrial design. Starting with a funky coffee mug called ColorShift Atmark, they’ve been steadily building their portfolio of actually manufactured objects.

There are only two other design companies that excite me as much, IDEO and Frog Design. Lebedev Studio in my mind is destined to be as great as IDEO. One day I found out that my favorite toothpaste tube(Crest Neat Squeeze) and toothbrush (the “fat” Oral-B one) were both designed by IDEO, as well as many other wonderful things. Good design is very important to me, and Art. Lebedev Studio is finally starting to come out with things that I can buy.

The concept design for a keyboard with buttons containing little OLED screens called Optimus recieved a lot press coverage. Lebedev would be crazy to attempt manufacturing something complicated like that, just as it would have been stupid to attempt to create Apollo spacecraft without building a Redstone rocket first. So Youknowwho decided to do a proof of concept – a three button OLED “keyboard” and called it Optimus Mini Three. As I mentioned before, mine arrived from Taiwan a short time ago.

I opened the box, plugged in the USB cable, installed the software and was up and running in about a minute. USB devices are supposed to be plug and play, but can be very finicky – refuse to be recognized, fail to install drivers, etc. Wasn’t the case with OM3 – the usb communication code is rock solid.

One thing you should know about the organic led screens is that they are extremely hard to photograph. They behave kind of like the old tv screens and computer monitors, having some sort of a refresh scan. Ideally, I would take pictures in a professional light tent with a camera on a tripod taking a lot of pictures with a slow shutter speed. I ended up taking a lot of pictures hand holding the camera with the exposure of 1/13th of a second. My lens has an anti-shake feature and I have very steady hands, but the pictures could be a touch sharper if I used a tripod. There are also problems with moire pattern that shows up in pictures, but is of course not visible to the human eye.

Here I loaded some sample images from the web. They look very crisp live, but even with all the camera artifacts, they look passable photographed. The contrast and resolution is very impressive. Also, the plastic that covers the screens gives off very little glare and does not hold fingerprints well. The only thing that shows up is light-colored specks of dust. I did not even bother wiping down the buttons after pressing them for the most part.

Here’s an example of the silly slot machine game that comes with the software.

Here’s a closeup of a single button. There is a bit of an issue with the pixels right at the top and bottom: they are a bit off.

The memory and processor resource tracking application shows a \little artifact: a small stripe of dead pixels. This seems to be a software issue though: these pixels work in other applets and images, and actually show up in the software preview. In resource monitor mode the software itself takes about 10% of processor time for itself. This can probably improved, but this is not much more than I would expect from any resource monitoring application. Overall the “configurator” software is in a pretty solid beta. It does not crash, but certain features need some work: the Windows Media Player widget keeps scrolling “Winamp” messages, time and weather widget does not change the weather and is hard to read, etc.

I could not resist opening the this thing up. I pried up the non-skid rubber and found two screws. Mr. Lebedev has a habit of leaving funny notes in code comments of most of his websites. I was looking for a message, or the design team’s signature on the inside of the case (like with the original Apple Macintosh), but did not find anything.

The keyboard is not completely silent – when in operation it generates a very faint buzzing sound and the buttons are slightly warm to the touch. I thought that there might a little fan inside, but did not find one.

The keyboard looks like it’s made out of metal, but it’s actually very high quality plastic. To make it more hefty, the designers used two strips of metal as wedges that hold the pcb in place.

I did not take apart the screen assembly, but unlike most electronic devices these days, the mini keyboard seems to have been designed with future service in mind. Replacing the screens is easily within the abilities of do-it-yourselfers. As you can see, the key mechanism is the soft, rather than clicky one. This is a matter of preference, of course, but a click, as a feedback mechanism would be nice.

A lot of message board nerds cry – “unlike the full keyboard it’s useless!” The usefulness of mini three is in the software, of course. Even in it’s present state with one minute of spare time I came up with at least one cool use for it – a three webcam viewer. The picture is worse than the original, but the idea is that the left button shows Mount Fuji (at the moment under the veil of the night), the middle one – the Empire State Building and the right one – a live seahore webcam that lets me know what the weather is at my favorite fishing hole. I haven’t played with the SDK kit that is available yet, but it seems to be super nice. “What can I do with this?” – whine some on digg and reddit message boards. A hacker’s reaction would be different – “what can’t I do with this!”

160 bucks seems like a lot of money for a three button keyboard. I’ll admit, it’s not for everyone. The thing is, people spend a lot more on stupid case modifications and other blinkenlghts. And this well-designed gem of an accessory would be the coolest thing as far as the eye can see in your personal hell of a cubefarm. It’s a little hackable art piece. Practical? Not very. Cool? You bet your squeedly-spootch. Is it a good deal? Well, a much lamer lcd display goes for 80 bucks. A very neat laser keyboard goes for 180. Shiny is expensive.

I have one gripe with the design. The keyboard is made so that it will lie flat. I’d like to have a little wedge, so I’d be able to see it at an angle (I think I’ll make one myself). What I do like, is that the screens are easily rotatable in software, so you can just lay it vertically.

Of course, it’s a bad idea to program Optimus Mini Three to trigger self destruct, as it’s not cat-proof. But I think I’ll program a cat toy sequence in it though. So far the plastic stood up very well to cat claws.

For sticking with this lengthy and rambling post, I’ll let you take a little glimpse in my geeky life. Here’s a snapshot of a part of my table, including my fancy input accessories, for which, as you might have noticed, I have a bit of a weakness.