Spam, Spam, Spam Spam…

Sorry about the spam that some of you might have seen — I’ve cleaned it up. Color me concerned as I’m running the latest version of WordPress — I suspect there must be an as-yet-unpatched hole that spammers can use.

If you see any more spam here, please let me know.

In other Spam-related news, I’m learning Python so I can contribute patches to existing software at work, rather than just poke around the edges by writing little Perl scripts here and there. Not that my job officially involves writing software, but sometimes it’s the most straightforward path to a solution. I’m about halfway though Learning Python and it’s going pretty well so far. I’m taking a break from the book to rewrite one of my aforementioned peripheral scripts, as a learning exercise.

The Folly of Crowdsourcing

Before I make a leap, especially one involving travel or durable goods, I like to feel that I’m basing my decision on hard information. I used to think that the Internet held the answer to this problem, but instead it’s only raised my frustration and anxiety when I’m trying to book a scuba trip or decide if a particular book is worthy of my attention. This problem came into slightly better focus for me last Tuesday, when I read two articles, back-to-back, from The Atlantic Monthly.

The first article, Wayne Curtis’s Weni, Widi, Wiki, told the story of a visit to Seattle using only Internet guides, specifically those with user-generated content. It seemed to highlight for me the reason I’m no longer so interested in Yelp, Amazon Reviews, or most of the crowdsourced Internet. My first thought after reading this article was that I was simply tired of opinions.

Several years ago, I enjoyed being a fire-breathing opinion columnist with the primary mission of thinking provocative thoughts and the secondary mission of generating page views, with only a tertiary mission of being right. If I was wrong in a way that made people stop and think about the problem, I’d won.

I don’t think I’d enjoy that job much today. By and large, I just don’t care whether people like my opinions, or agree with them. If people ask me what I think, I’m more than happy to share my opinions, but I’m not all that likely to volunteer what I think. (This has made it harder for me to blog, since I feel so reluctant to say anything without prompting.)

Then I read the very next article, Corby Kummer’s Beyond the McIntosh, about John Bunker, a man who has dedicated his career to preserving heirloom varieties of apples. At the Capitol Hill farmer’s market, I buy most of my apples from one guy, who grows a mix of things people have heard of, and things that most people haven’t. I discovered my favorite variety of apple there, and was tickled pink to discover that it’s the same as John Bunker’s favorite: the Black Oxford, native to Maine, and the apple that launched Mr. Bunker on his career.

If I didn’t care about opinions, why would I be so excited by the information that John Bunker’s favorite apple was the same as my own?

The answer, I think, is the difference between solo and aggregated opinions. Crowdsourced reviews have the same grey, mushy feel of meals at The Cheesecake Factory. When I first paged through the copy of Zagat’s restaurant guide for Seattle I’d been sent, I couldn’t believe that people were as likely to praise the Cheesecake Factory as to dis Lark, my favorite Seattle restaurant.

But of course, Zagat’s guide polls hundreds or thousands of people (myself included), and averages out their opinions. On average, people will prefer an unchallenging place, with giant portions of bland food, to a restaurant specializing in small plates of often strange or exotic food – and that’s true even if each individual’s preferences are otherwise.

I suspect that almost everyone who reviewed The Cheesecake Factory has an interesting, even unique, set of food preferences, and that I could talk for a good long while with most of them and find their individual opinions fascinating, even when I disagreed with them. But, taken together, these individual opinions cancel each other out and leave you with an uninflected average opinion.

I remember some science fiction story I read as a teenager, in which one character posited that the Venus of Willendorf represented an averaged-out map of what men desired in women, which puts me in mind of Jason Salavon’s work.

In other words, preferences are more interesting individually than when they’re aggregated. This is the lesson of Apple versus Microsoft, where the former is a distillation of one man’s particular aesthetic and the other is the product of endless usability tests. I’d go so far as to assume that Microsoft’s software would be more interesting, and more pleasing to myself, if it were the product of Bill Gates’s personal vision, or even that of a single usability research subject. But such software would likely be less successful overall, if we define success as marketplace success, the definition by which The Cheesecake Factory succeeds.

I never pick up my Zagat, and I’m not much more likely to rely on Amazon, Yelp, TripAdvisors, or its myriad crowdsourced descendants. I’d rather go up to a stranger, as my boss did one night in New York City, and ask the name of his favorite bar. In fact, one recommendation was the first bar I ever remember going to in order to see a band, The Continental. I was surprised, and more than a little pleased, to find that they were still there. But most of the recommendations were places I hadn’t heard of, or would have found on my own.

Sometimes aggregated opinions are toxic. I had a particularly bad experience when I tried to find reliable information on picking out a Blu-Ray player. HD-DVD partisans had so poisoned the pages on Amazon and other sites that I was unable to tell who had really used the player in question, and who was merely trying to sow uncertainty and push people to HD-DVD instead. Claims and counter-claims proliferated, with no end in sight.

In the end, I bought a low-end Sony player, upgraded the firmware to the latest before trying anything else, and have had not a single one of the myriad reported problems. Was I just lucky, or was all of the concern overblown? The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, even if it’s my anecdote. What, exactly, do we call the plural of “opinion?”

The e-Book future…

Amazon’s Kindle is getting a lot of well-deserved press, even if it’s a first-generation device I’m unlikely to buy. (The short version: too low-res, too bulky, no PDF support.)

Of course, it goes without saying that the future e-Book would be far lighter than the present version, with longer battery life, and more flexible. What does it look like, when it’s finally light enough, and cheap enough?

Google could mint them by the millions, with Google AdWords embedded in the margins of every page, and could mail them out to people, like AOL floppy disks, or hand them out in Las Vegas like pornographic come-ons for strip clubs and escort services. They’d be free to use, free to connect to the Internet, and self-funding, so long as the AdWords revenue holds out.

You’d have all your books stored online, like WebMail, with some sort of token-based instant login, so you wouldn’t bother to take it with you if you were done. Instead, you might leave it on a bus stop bench, or in a cafe. Someone might want to check e-mail, or read a book, and pick it up, then put it down somewhere else again. And all the time, the ads roll by…

Automator Workflow to convert .zip files to .tar.gz files

Inspired by this automator workflow, which zips a file or directory selected in Finder, I’ve written a shell script to convert a .zip file to a .tar.gz file without further intervention. In the case of files, it silently skips to the next file.

The easiest thing to do is probably to grab the automator workflow from the linked post, and replace the shell script within with the following bits:
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Professionalize Tech Support, part two

A few months ago, I wrote about professionalizing technical support.

Last week, I presented at SASAG on this topic. I’ve made my presentation on Professionalizing Technical Support available here; it’s still a PowerPoint document. Please let me know if you’d like this data but require a different format. The extensive notes, of course, represent what I wanted or tried to say, not what I ended up actually saying. (Like any good SAGE meeting, the presentation was much more a discussion than unidirectional transfer of information and ideas.)

Read on for my impression of the meeting.

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Apple TV missing feature: iTunes Output Device

Laura and I recently upgraded the Airport Express in our living room, replacing it with an Apple TV.

Sad to say, this was a side-grade as much as an upgrade, as we’ve lost the ability to play music in our living room without turning on our television. The Airport Express can be selected as an output device directly from iTunes on the computer, without requiring any messing around device-side.

For most people, having to turn on the TV to play music is no big deal — it is, after all, called the Apple TV. However, we have a projector in our living room, and the screen pulls down in front of a big glass door to our balcony, so it’s normally retracted. Furthermore, in daylight it’s tough to see the screen unless we close all of the other blinds in the living room, too. Therefore, to use the Apple TV to play music, we have to close three blinds, pull down the screen, turn on the projector, and wait thirty seconds or so for the projector to be ready. Which means that, right now, it’s easier for me to shamble to the other side of the room and dig through seven-hundred-plus CDs to find what I’m looking for.

I hope that a near-term software upgrade for the Apple TV enables the Apple TV as an alternate output device, as one can do with the Airport Express.

[ 2008-04-05: This feature is no longer missing! ]

Professionalize Tech Support

[ Update, 2007-07-16: Please see my followup post ]

I’m in tech support, and I love my job: I love helping people solve problems, and I love working on the tricky things. I like working on streamlining processes to reduce support effort, I like figuring out how to communicate internally and document our processes. I even get to do a little bit of writing scripts for internal use and to solve customer problems that, strictly speaking, shouldn’t be our problem.

That said, I often feel like I’m making it up. I feel like my management’s making it up. And I don’t think that’s their fault, or mine.

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Probabilistic List E-Mail Delivery

It would be neat if you had a mailing list that didn’t actually send mail to everyone on it. Instead, it might send mail to everyone in a given zip code (yes, you’d have to give the mailing list manager your zip code), 90% of people in adjacent zip codes, 80% of people in zip codes adjacent to that, and so on. This would be geographically-centric but still deliver to a mix of people, reducing e-mail volume for folks and adding potential for creating pockets of local flavor.

You could do something similar with e-mail on a social networking service: to 100% of my friends, 50% of their friends, and 25% of the friends of the friends of my friends. This could be neat, and less overwhelming than the current setup.