Trends & Quick Takes
Enough Free Stuff
to Write About
Free desktop software, that is: True “freeware.” “101 fabulous freebies” by Dylan Tweney in the May 2006 PC World lists a bunch of them—and, as Harry McCracken notes in his editorial, it’s been a few years since PC World did an annual freebie roundup. “The planet’s supply of no-charge gems seemed to be dwindling, as some acquired price tags and others simply vanished.” The old days weren’t always wonderful: “In the old days, free stuff was full of quirky interfaces and bugs.” That seems less typical these days.
Overstatements? Of course. McCracken says disk space now costs “pennies per gigabyte” which, while technically true, is stretching the truth (I wouldn’t call half a buck “pennies,” and server-class storage still costs more than a buck per gigabyte). The article tease says, “The best things in life aren’t just free—they’re indispensable.” There are nice items in this rambling list (which combines freeware and free web services)—but I’d be hard-pressed to call many of these “indispensable.” Best Bet awards go to Gmail, Blogger (I’ll take WordPress any day), Abilon (an RSS aggregator—but it may be an orphan, and it’s a desktop aggregator, making it less useful for people who check feeds both at home and at work), and Revver (a video hosting site that puts ads next to your videos).
All the software’s available from a directory at find.pcworld.com/52516.
Susan Crawford blogged about a frightening survey (posted April 6, 2006 at scrawford.blogware.com): Three-quarters of office workers were willing to give up their passwords in exchange for a candy bar. “Other surveys show that passwords will be given up for cheap pens or for nothing at all—just because someone asked.”
The connection to privacy? If you’re willing to give away your passwords, you’re automatically willing to give up online privacy (whether you know it or not)—and lots of kids don’t seem concerned about privacy. Why care? “We care about privacy because we live in a weirdly split world.” When people find out they’re being tracked, they get nervous and maybe a little crazy.
Crawford believes “within the next year or so there will be a tremendous privacy-related backlash related to search/advertising and social network applications” and it will come from some unexpected direction. “It will come because people don’t realize how public the internet is.” That was written in April; so far the backlash on one big privacy scandal (AOL’s release of sort-of-anonymized search logs) hasn’t been “tremendous,” but there’s plenty of time.
People who use social networks “may feel that they’re just having a conversation with their friends” with no awareness of data mining. Almost nobody reads end-user license agreements or privacy notices (how can you, using a 5-line window for an enormously long text written obscurely?), and most people aren’t too concerned about “minor” privacy issues.
There’s a lot more to Crawford’s post. She believes “the real battle over privacy has to do with how much the telcos [and other ISPs] will know…and who they’re willing to share it with.” We all know how wonderful the “telcos” (now down to two, essentially) are about protecting information…
James Fallows wrote this article in Technology Review (downloaded September 5, 2006 from technologyreview.com). Fallows tried to “live entirely on Web 2.0 for two weeks”—and in the process faced what he calls “the Dodgeball truth”:
This comes at the moment when you realize that one of life’s possibilities—a product, an adventure, an offer, an idea—is really meant for people younger than you.
Why Dodgeball? Because of his reaction to Dodgeball.com, a social networking site designed “to help you figure out, at any moment of the day or night, whether your friends or people who might be friendly are nearby.” [Yes, this is the article in which Fallows is annoyed by the term “mashing up”—which he relates to “what in English we call ‘combining.’”] His take: “Dodgeball is light, mobile, interactive. And for the life of me, I can’t imagine when I would use it.” He knows how to find the people who matter to him. “Dodgeball is meant for people in their 20s—my children’s age. Anyone my age who has signed up is probably also lurking on MySpace.”
Anyway, Fallows did this thing: “For a couple of weeks this spring, I shifted as many of my activities as possible onto the Web, using new, hip technologies.” He shopped for everything except food on eBay. He used Babel Fish for his translations. He stored his files on Gmail, uploaded photos to Flickr, called people on Skype, decided on books using Amazon’s recommendations, watched videos at YouTube, listened to music through Pandora and Musicmatch, kept his schedule on Google Calendar, his to-do list on Voo2do, his outlines on iOutliner. He wrote the article using Writely.
He does note that a lot of these sites and services “are terrific for people of any vintage, and they can handle more of one’s daily chores than I would ever have imagined.” His major conclusions after the period are that the new web is “a continuum of new ideas,” not a single big innovation; “we don’t actually live in an online world”—there are times when online information just isn’t reachable; handhelds don’t work as well as they should; “most is not all”—some web services may have primary functions, but lack the expert functions that specialized users need; Web 2.0’s “collective intelligence” may be good at yes/no decisions but not so hot for nuance; and “all this outpouring of knowledge is inspiring…but it is also potentially tragic” (the trust problem).
He doubts he’ll ever use Writely again. He’ll use Wikipedia pages “when they come up high in a search and I have a way to double-check any crucial facts.” “As for MySpace—nah!” But he likes Google Calendar (now that his wife also uses it); he uses Google Earth a lot; and he’s sold on Gmail as a backup site, Flickr as a way to share photos, and eBay.
I still don’t like the label Web 2.0, I will continue to mock those who say “mash up,” and I will never use Dodgeball. But I’m glad for what this experiment has forced me to see.
Roy Tennant offers a nuanced discussion about “the perils of prediction” in his September 15, 2006 Library Journal column with that title. “Predicting the future accurately is extremely difficult” indeed. It’s not easy to steer between the wall of hype (and tendency to look at one hot new trend in isolation) and the cliff of denial (focusing on the cloud behind every silver lining). Tennant points out that new technologies and services are assumed to have majority or universal status far ahead of reality—don’t you assume that every teenager is on MySpace and that everybody owns an iPod? Tennant’s brief observations are well worth considering when you’re ready to predict—or deny—the Next Big Thing.
Ø A few months ago, I became aware of Good math, bad math, a blog by Mark C. Chu-Carroll at scienceblogs.com/goodmath. If you’re an Intelligent Design person claiming mathematical reasons for your belief, you’ll really hate this site. In late June 2006, I was impressed by Chu-Carroll’s take on conservative blog claims that An inconvenient truth couldn’t attract people to see the “propaganda film” after the first week or so. The number they use is dollars per screen-showing, and that’s an easy number to misuse. Yes, the documentary dropped from $70,333 per showing over the first weekend (the highest ever for a documentary) to $12,334 by its third week—but the actual gross went from $281,000 that first weekend to $1,505,000 the third weekend—and continued to rise after that. Not surprising: It was only in four theaters the first weekend, but 122 the third. So the movie was only “tanking” if you used a peculiar statistic. By comparison, the final Star Wars movie did $4,500 per theater on its fourth weekend—not per showing but per theater—about the same as the documentary (which went to 404 theaters the 4th weekend). Somehow, “An Inconvenient truth is only as popular as Star Wars 3” might not be the message such blogs as powerline want to convey.
Ø I’m not the only one who finds “x 2.0” (solve for any value of “x”) a tiresome formulation. Andy at TinkerX (www.tinkerx.com), a marketing person, takes this on in a September 18, 2006 post, “enough 2.0” (illustrated with “enough2.0” in a beautifully 2.0-style form, “BETA” seal and all). Andy gets “about 32,009% of the USRDA of buzz and hype” because that’s his job—and “it takes a lot, a whole lot…a really, really big friggin’ lot to make me tired of a catch-phrase.” He’s tired of “2.0.” He thinks “Web 2.0” mostly gets used for stuff that’s just part of the web (what “Web 1.0” was supposed to be)—and is tired of extending that suffix to everything else. “Now everything has to be friggin’ 2.0, dunn’ it? We’ve got Enterprise 2.0 and Banking 2.0. There’s Education 2.0 and Cinema 2.0 and…”
Ø This really goes a long way back, but (as NBC would say), it was new to me. Kathy Sierra posted a fine short essay on Creating passionate users on March 9, 2005: “Your brain on multitasking.” She believes—as do I—that multitasking is a great way to do several things badly, although she doesn’t use that phrase. She has a diagram suggesting that doing four things simultaneously takes longer than doing them one at a time. I suspect that’s true—and I’m sure they don’t get done as well. There are studies to show that multitasking doesn’t work (refer to her post for links)—but people just can’t seem to get away from it. Sierra focuses on mindfulness: being aware of what you’re doing. Mindfulness and multitasking don’t mix. She notes how great it would be if, when you’re talking with someone, you each gave the conversation your full attention—without watching TV, texting, or reading at the same time. She says to turn off the TV unless you’re watching something (which works for us). “If you want to get more done, be mindful. If you want to have more time, be mindful. Mindful means one thing at a time. It’s how the brain works, no matter how you try to convince yourself [otherwise].” Distractions always distract—but maybe that’s OK “if you’re quite content to let the quality of the work go down, or to be rude to the person you’re talking to.” One comment does note “specific, limited combinations of things” where multitasking works—listening to music while driving, for example. I’m never going to convince committed multitaskers that they’re missing out on doing and living their best. But I believe they are—and although, as Sierra says, young’uns may learn to do faster context-switching, there’s still a big hit on focus and perception.
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