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Instagram-negative

If you were on the media social much shortly before Christmas, you no doubt heard quite the kerfuffle about changes to Instagram’s Terms of Service that would take effect on January 16th, 2013, in part related to Facebook’s purchase of the service earlier last year. While much of this response was overblown, and based on misunderstandings of the relevant legalese, and Instagram later apologized and canceled some of the changes, the folderol was a reminder to me that you can’t really trust a service you’re not paying for for hosting your content under the license you want. Thus, I quit.

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Posted in Code Projects, How-Tos, meta, Opinion

Kickstarting Apps

I have a tiny Kickstarter problem, but I mostly manage to resist. Earlier this year my excitement for backing video games overwhelmed me a bit, as you can see. I’m excited especially for The Banner Saga, but like any preorder, I’m out money now for something I won’t have for a year.

As you may know, I am also a big fan of the 5by5 podcast network, including the show Build & Analyze with Marco Arment. A few months ago, I wrote in to the show with this question:

I’m wondering if you’d talk about the recent large-scale Kickstarter video game projects, such as Double Fine Adventure, Wasteland 2, and Banner Saga. Do you think this would be a way fund non-game apps?

Marco and Dan answered this in Episode #70, 116 Degree Burns, starting at the 23:35 mark, right after the first sponsor, and going to about 34:25. I meant to follow-up a while ago, but the end of the semester was a busy time, so here goes.

My interpretation of Marco’s overall point was that software, especially complex apps like a game, is too risky to back. This is because it’s near impossible to estimate the total amount of development time, and therefore the cost, so the project can’t set a reasonable goal or backer rewards.

As a fellow software engineer, I totally understand this difficulty, but Marco’s take was definitely a downer for me. I think I wanted him to agree with my thinking, which is that Kickstarter could be an alternative source of funding for app creators, basically a way to gauge market interest before doing anything more than preliminary planning and development. I think Marco goes too far in claiming that Kickstarter possibly shouldn’t allow these projects because of that risk.

As an aside, there is some irony in one of the first high-profile app Kickstarter projects, Dark Sky, being an occasional sponsor on 5by5.

Kickstarter has a good stats page, but it just shows the breakdown of successful vs. unsuccessful funding; it doesn’t show how successful projects are at completion and wisely using their funding, which is at the core of Marco’s argument. At a glance,  I have seen a few updates from some of the projects I’ve backed that the project team didn’t accurately predict the cost and effort of putting together (and in some cases, shipping) backer rewards. I do note that Games as a category are on the higher end of the money range, but the lower end of the success rate, which probably bears out Marco’s point about risk.

That all said, I think Kickstarter has a very important role for the future of “the useful arts”. The content industry in particular is in the process of a major upheaval, so it’s not clear how someone with a good idea that doesn’t fit into the usual day job archetype can get the money they need upfront in order to take the time to create. Backers can in that sense collectively fill the role of Renaissance patrons.

Apps are in a bit different category, in no small part because the skills necessary to create an app are economically valued in the traditional employment market. Maybe some of my interest in the idea is that, while I love my job, I envy some aspects of Marco’s lifestyle as an independent app developer. (It doesn’t help that we’re within a few months of the same age.) I suppose then a subtext of my question was wondering if this is a feasible way to start working in this space.

What do you think?

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Posted in Opinion

Is the iPad for me?

What’s the question?

Like every other critic and salivating fanboy, I feel compelled to chime in on yesterday’s religious experience in which The Steve descended from on high bearing a tablet. However, this is not a review, but merely a (lengthy) answer to a simple question: is the iPad for me? I won’t be talking about the market for digital content distribution, I won’t be whining about what software and hardware widgets weren’t included, I’m not going to rant about Apple’s closed ecosystem, I won’t be begging to lick someone’s boots for a chance just to touch one. Additionally, although hopefully this is obvious, this is heavy on speculation, since I have yet to actually hold the product, let alone use it for any length of time.

I’ll also take this opportunity to brag that I got 29.5 points on the prediction score card, with only one question as yet unanswered: will textbooks be available (I said yes, and I think this is eventually likely, based on the list of publishers involved). I was briefly unsure if my existing Apple Wireless Keyboard would be supported, but the Design page indicates that in will be, in spite of the existence of the iPad Dock. I got the name right, and most of the detailed features based on the rumorsphere. The substantive places I was wrong were the absence of a camera, the price point (cheaper than I expected), and the lack of any information on iPhone OS 4. I had a hope for an open development environment, but I knew that wasn’t going to be true, so that’s more a self-docking principle point. I failed to predict the dock, and I gave myself a half-point for saying no 3G when there are models both with and without.

Below the cut I’ll start off with a brief history of my personal electronics habits from college through today, and then consider where the iPad would fit into my little niche… and, if it does fit, whether it’s worth it. I’ll also look at what still-open questions about the device would affect my potential buying decision (not the least of which is that I need to try it out in an Apple Store to get a sense of the ergonomics). While I’m only speaking for myself, maybe my analysis will be useful to people similar to me.

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Posted in Computers, Opinion

Going Paperless

Introduction

First, Happy 39th Earth Day! I assume we’ll hear big things next year for the 40th, since we love our decimalist celebrations so. I think 3×13 is a nice number myself, but I guess we like those nice round multiples of ten. Hopefully most people do something environmentally conscious every day, as opposed to just once a year, but progress is progress, and I hope the annual holiday continues to improve awareness.

If you know me, you know that I’m pretty big on “Going Green”, and have been since before it was cheap or popular. I think this was in part due to an excellent green civic education obtained through programs that existed in Minnesota in the early ’90s when I was growing up. There were a number of animated mascots teaching important lessons like turning off the lights, buying used, recyling your waste, and so on.

By no means is this intended to be me tooting my own horn; I’m hoping you’ll find some interesting tips and/or data in this post. For one thing, I don’t always succeed, in part because I’m not ready to go “off-grid” and live 100% sustainably. I like my technology a bit too much for that :oP. Last I checked my lifestyle would still require about 3.5 earths if everyone lived as I do; that’s mostly because I eat from the industrial food system and travel cross-country and internationally by jet. One place in particular where I’ve made some progress but hit a wall, the topic of this post, is trying to reduce my paper waste; for the most part this is because other people/organizations with whom I interact still insist on a paper record of our interaction.

I focus in particular on mail that I’ve received (note: this is not a post on the future of the USPS, although that is in and of itself an interesting topic to me), although there’s certainly plenty of other paper I’m forced to waste, such as forms filled out at work and school, receipts received from points of sale, and so on. I finish up with a quick overview of several services out there that can help you reduce the amount of unsolicited paper waste you generate just by existing in modern society.

Data

Since early January, I’ve been using Daytum to track a few trivialities of my day-to-day life. This includes miles traveled (and by what means), beers I’ve drank, what I eat, where I get my caffeine, and relevant to this post, what I’ve received in the mail. You can see my entire data feed; Daytum is a pretty nifty service, and for a monthly subscription you can have additional data sets and display panels. Even free users like myself get CSV export of their data sets, which is what I’ve used in this analysis.

This pie chart shows the percentage breakdown of postal mail received by me January-April 2009

This pie chart shows the percentage breakdown of postal mail received January-April 2009

Here’s how I filtered the categories:

  • Charity – any charitable or non-profit organization with whom I have a preexisting supporting relationship.
  • Scam – a special case of Junk, I occasionally get notices about free cars. I think these are linked to my DNS registration.
  • Package – Orders from Amazon and other sites.
  • Financial – Statements, prospecta, and other communication from my banking institutions.
  • Personal – Cards and letters from friends and family.
  • Junk – A catch-all for other unsolicited paper mail.
  • Magazine – Either a subscription, or something from an organization with which I am associated.
  • Customer Service – Non-financial communications from utilities and other companies with whom I have a client relationship.
  • Netflix – Little red envelopes full of DVDs.

Analysis

A few caveats about this data: first, this is already after enabling a number of paperless billing options from all of my utilities and banks. By my count, that reduces my monthly statement mailings by 8. Second, this data reflects tax season – many charities and financial institutions are legally required to send me paper copies of documents, even when they’re available online. This material spikes at the beginning of the year, in the months leading up to April 15th.

I find it kind of depressing how much money charities I support spend soliciting me for more money by mail. It’s even more annoying to see when a charity I do support has apparently sold my name to related charities, and I get junk from them when I’m not interested.

Netflix, magazines, and packages are all items I have a choice in. Magazines are definitely a luxury; I enjoy reading them, and their longer-term informativeness beats out my usual internet addiction to news and the like. Many magazines are becoming available as a digital subscription, although we’re not quite there yet. Netflix is an example where Big Content wins; there’s no technical reason all of these movies can’t be available via streaming, but I’m sure there’s all kinds of crazy licensing involved.

Another thing to note is that because I am in a multi-unit home with shared entrance but without a central mail room or mailbox unit, my mailbox is apparently in some legal class where I can receive junk like local restaurant menus and other hand-dropped notices; those are included in junk, as a side-effect of having a physical address.

My overall opinion is that the only things I should receive at my address are packages and personal correspondence. I want everything else to be digital, both because it’s easier to use and organize the information that way in the first place, and because that way I don’t have to recycle large amounts of paper or waste fuel having that paper shipped to me.

Solutions

So, how do we get down to this point, and how do we reduce it further?

1. Enable paperless options

This is time consuming, but generally a one-time operation. Most major financial institutions and utilities have a pretty straightforward option on their website to disable most (but not all; again, legal requirements) paper notices. You’ll have to do this separately for each institution, unfortunately.

Most institutions will say on the web form that it could take “several billing periods” for paperless billing to be enabled… does anyone have an idea why it would take so long? Are they just covering their bases so as not to promise an instant fix? It seems to me it should just be a bit associated with my account that gets checked whenever something would be printed, and have it e-mailed to me instead.

2. Reduce junk mail

The junk mail reduction service I used in 2007 was GreenDimes, although it’s been renamed Tonic MailStopper. I guess they got bought; however, filling out the cards they sent me definitely reduced unsolicited junk mail. I did this for both me and my sister at my current address (she briefly had mail forwarded here).

3. Recycle

With what junk you do receive, make sure you recycle it through either your municipal curbside pickup or drop-off at your nearest recycling center. Just because they waste paper on you doesn’t mean it all has to end up in a landfill.

4. Digital signatures

A lot of the “legally required” category above suffers because when I respond to an official e-mail, I have no way of affirming that it’s me, or that I’m making a binding decision. A friend of mine pointed out a service, DocuSign, that does electronic signatures and contract execution. I haven’t used their service yet, but as I understand it they’re very popular with realtors. I’m planning to buy a place in the next couple of years, and I would definitely pick a realtor that uses DocuSign over one who insists on paper forms. I also like reading about companies that “get” social media; they have an interesting blog and are on Twitter.

My main hope is that Harvard (where I’m pursuing my part-time Masters) would adopt a system like this one; every semester I spend a lot of time going to campus just to run around and collect signatures from professors, advisors, administrators, registrars, and the like.

5. Complain

No, seriously. For companies that keep sending you crap, calling or writing might be able to get you off their lists. Look for a phone number on the back of catalogs or in the letterhead of the junk they’re sending you. I’ve had some luck getting rid of a couple of catalogs this way.

If you have relationships with a non-profit, encourage them to rely less on paper mass mailings, especially ones sent to reliable givers who maybe don’t even need the wasteful reminder.

6. Opt out

If you’re signing up for something that requires your address, opt out of any mailings or catalogs. Again, a little extra one-time effort, but it can significantly reduce your incoming paper. Web sign-up forms are particularly bad about this, because sometimes they’ll hide the checkbox and have it default to checked.

Conclusion

The best part about the above steps is that any one of them helps the environment a little bit. You don’t have to take all of them, or enable all of them with every company or organization, but every one you do work on gets rid of a few pieces of paper coming into your home, and prevents a lot of trees, water, and energy being wasted getting a stack of paper to your door that you won’t even read before throwing out.

What do you do to reduce your paper usage?

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Posted in Opinion

Genesis and Science

This morning at University Lutheran, in our weekly Morning Forum, we had a discussion of the interaction between the law (specifically, the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution) and the teaching of science (specifically, evolution in the classroom). The discussion was led by Tara Grove, Climenko Fellow Lecturer on Law from Harvard Law School, and Sasha Keyel, Provost Fellow in Biology from Tufts University.

They both did a great job presenting the issues in a Christian context, with Tara focusing on past case law from the Scopes Trial to Kitzmiller v. Dover and Sasha discussing the scientific method and evidence supporting the theory of evolution, such as the phylogenetic development of feathers in dinosaurs. There are few people that I know who get as excited about case law and science when speaking as Tara and Sasha :oD. After their initial presentation, the forum opened up for discussion, with various members of the congregation joining in with questions.

One of the most interesting comments was from Dr. Helmut Koester, Professor of Divinity (Emeritus) at Harvard Divinity School. I am paraphrasing as best I can from memory, as I didn’t think to record the discussion:

The account in Genesis 1 is in some ways a scientific document from 2,500 years ago. It was an attempt to demythologize the natural world: the sun is not a god, it is a lamp placed in the sky to light the day; the moon is not a goddess, it is a lamp placed in the sky to light the night. Similarly, it says that there is an order to the animals: things that fly, things that swim, things that walk on two legs, on four, and so on. We shouldn’t see it as an opponent of science; it was part of the demythologizing at the advent of monotheism.

It’s a viewpoint I hadn’t considered exactly before. I recall when I was preparing a statement of faith for confirmation, about 10 years ago now (!), that I made a point along these lines: the theory of evolution is not incompatible with the creation story, because the Genesis story (at least, for a non-literalist like myself) merely reflects the best scientific understanding of the nature of the world at the time the story was written down. I do not believe that it is impossible to see science as the “how” and God as the “why” of the Universe.

Darwin, even on the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, remains at the center of a legal and cultural battle, at least in the United States. I love that UniLu is a religious community that has open and heartfelt discussions on issues like this, especially when the focus is on the side of science, which is all to often ignored or rejected (selectively, it seems) by many American Christians. I hope to see a lot of debate in this area this year as Darwin’s birthday is celebrated.

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Posted in Opinion

Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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