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In Response to Seth Godin “The erosion in the paid media pyramid”

I cannot recommend more highly Seth Godin’s recent blog post, “The erosion in the paid media pyramid“.  If you haven’t read it already, please follow the link, and come back.  It’s short, excellent, and we’ll wait for you.  The TL;DR is: digital distribution is putting the squeeze on the previously-cash-cow “Mass” media segment, which is largely being replaced by the “Free” segment at the bottom of the pyramid.

He makes many important points I agree with, however I think Seth makes two statements in his article that need to be addressed:

First, he writes:

The marginal cost of one more copy in the digital world is precisely zero.

This is a common misconception.  The marginal cost of one more copy in the digital world is very, very, very low – a ridiculously low number, a number so low, that if you weren’t careful, you might just decide to round down to zero.  But reading bits off a hard drive and sending them over fiber and copper wires – the process of making a digital copy – as inexpensive as it is, is not actually free.

“So what,” you say.  What’s the difference between “free” and “practically free?”

The problem is that the digital world has to scale, and very, very, very small numbers can still become very, very, very large numbers at scale.

I want to encourage everyone to please, stop using this trope.  TANSTAAFL still holds true even in the digital world.  Saying that digital copies are actually zero-cost leads to terribly erroneous conclusions at the scale of the Internet.

Secondly, he writes:

Media projects of the future will be cheaper to build, faster to market, less staffed with expensive marketers and more focused on creating free media that earns enough attention to pay for itself with limited patronage.

This is true for those mass-media projects that move “down the pyramid.”  But what about those mass-media projects that move up instead?

Moving down the pyramid is the easy move: creators keep doing what they’ve always done and get by through “doing more with less” (and also by just “doing less”).  Skip the art director, and freelance on DeviantArt.  Skip the editor / producer altogether.  Skip the marketing, and outsource through a service provider.  Etc.

It seems that the real opportunity for media / content creators is not to simply the product, but actually to complicate it.  Add enough complexity that it becomes attractively desirable, but hard to produce.  An example of this would be the ways that Lucasfilm differentiated the theater experience with 7-channel sound (hard to reproduce at home) or how Broadway differentiates with expensive special effects (hard to pull off in community theater).

Obviously it’s much harder to “move up the pyramid” to a more differentiated product than it is to simply something you’re already doing.  But that’s where the profit will be.

Dr. Chromelove (or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Goog)

In Which We Pit the Lowly Chromebook Versus the Exalted Macbook Air

Let me get something out of the way: I am a straight-up Macintosh fanboi. After owning a couple of Macs in the early 1990s, I switched to PCs around 1997, largely because my software-development-centric job compelled me to live in a pro-PC world.

Then, around five years ago, I fatigued of maintaining Windows and the generally crappy hardware that runs it, and switched back to Mac. I bought a beast of a notebook: a 15″ MBP quad-core i7 with 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. I wanted something strong enough to run Pro Tools natively, and to virtualize Windows and Linux machines without a stutter. And, five years later, that Macbook Pro is still a very current machine. It was expensive, but it was worth every penny, especially when amortized over five years.

The only trouble is: it’s big and heavy. As a machine to travel to and from the office, it’s fine, but these days I find myself increasingly traipsing all over the world, usually with everything I can carry in one backpack. Space and weight have become a premium, and I have a bad back to boot.

So I wanted to find a machine that would solve every computing need I have while I’m out on the road – basically, everything I use my Mac for except Pro Tools:

  • Must be small enough to fit in a day-bag and light as possible, definitely < 4 lbs
  • Must handle all my basic productivity & social needs (mail, docs, spreadsheets, twitter, dropbox, etc.)
  • Must be capable of running a development LAMP stack and typical development apps like git, ssh, etc.
  • Must be capable of light-duty audio editing (just editing, not a multitrack studio)
  • Must have good battery life (all-day unplugged usage)
  • Must have a good screen and keyboard
  • Must be inexpensive in case it’s lost, stolen, or damaged while travelling
  • Strong cloud support a big plus (see above)
  • Easy connectivity to phone a big plus

I admit that I came very close to knee-jerking and purchasing a Macbook Air.  The MBA would definitely meet all these needs but one: it’s awfully expensive to be a “beater” notebook.  After pricing them out and deciding that a new MBA would definitely not fit in my budget, I considered buying a used MBA.  But even a used MBA in decent shape and well-appointed costs around $600, which I still felt was more than I really wanted to spend.

Then I decided I should do some research on Chromebooks.  Like most people, I had fallen victim to the “Chromebooks are useless unless you’re always on the Internet” trope.  I think this might have been true at one time, but after doing some reading, I learned that the ChromeOS world had advanced considerably since I last learned about it.  In particular I learned that Google has made great strides in developing “disconnected” versions of its key apps – specifically docs and spreadsheets, the key things that one wants to edit while disconnected.

The other thing that really piqued my interest (yes, it’s piqued, not peaked) was the stunning realization that someone had figured out how to install Ubuntu on a Chromebook.  And folks, this isn’t Ubuntu running in a virtual machine, but Ubuntu running on bare metal – simultaneously side-by-side along with ChromeOS.  I was skeptical but intrigued: with Ubuntu as a fall-back, I could rest assured that anything that ChromeOS couldn’t handle, Ubuntu could.

“But Chromebooks are basically cheap pieces of crap,” was my next intuition.  Compared with Apple hardware, it’s true that most devices pale in comparison.  There’s no question that generally speaking, Apple makes the best hardware going, bar none.  But I don’t need perfect, I need good-enough and inexpensive.  And after a bit of research, I discovered an excellent machine for my needs, at least on paper: the Toshiba 13″ Chromebook 2 FHD.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 13" FHD

Toshiba Chromebook 2 13″ FHD

After living with this machine for a little over a week, I think I’m ready to start drawing some comparisons versus the 13″ Macbook Air.  Here’s how the two stack up.

Price

Let’s get the 800-lb gorilla out of the room.  No question who wins the first round.  At $330, the 13″ Toshiba is roughly 1/4 the price of a new 13″ MBA and 1/2 the price of a used MBA.  For the price of one new Macbook Air, you can buy a Chromebook for every member of the family.  ‘Nuff said.

Winner: Chromebook, by a country mile

Storage

The MBA comes with 128 GB of storage (256 GB is also available, but costs more) while the Chromebook comes with only 32 GB of local storage.  This is offset considerably by the fact that Google gave me 1TB of free Drive storage (100 GB is standard, but I already had that – your mileage may vary) and by adding a 128GB SDHC card as extra storage ($65 on Amazon) to bring total storage up to 160 GB.  Another mitigating factor is that ChromeOS minimizes use of local storage, while MacOS depends on it for everything, so ChromeOS presents a smaller footprint than MacOS in real-world use.

In the end I believe a 128GB Mac is no less limiting than a 32GB Chromebook for the applications I intend to use and it’s easy enough to bump up the Chromebook to 128GB if you need it.

Winner: tie

Keyboard & Touchpad

Here Apple is the clear winner, with a perfect-feeling backlit keyboard and a wonderful-to-use touchpad.  The Toshiba’s keyboard is perfectly usable and unproblematic but lacks the elegant feel of the MBA and is not backlit.   The touchpad is usable and sufficient but smaller and more plastic-feeling than the MBA.  It’s not a bad experience at all, but it’s hard to beat the best, and I think Apple offers the best keyboard / trackpad available.

Winner: MBA

Display

I hope you’re sitting comfortably, because the Toshiba’s display is absolutely spectacular.  How Toshiba managed to deliver a 13″ full-HD (1920×1080) display in a $330 machine is baffling, but they did, and it’s lovely.  Viewing angles are very good, colors are not perfect but whites are white, blacks are deep black, colors are bright and nicely saturated, and the resolution is astonishingly crisp.  The screen does not attract fingerprints and doesn’t have any coatings that cause pixellation or moire effects, though glare can be a problem if you’re backlit.

Winner: Chromebook

Sound

The Macbook Air has arguably the best speakers in an ultraportable notebook, so the competition is awfully stiff.  However Toshiba has partnered with Skullcandy to deliver a similar listening experience.  I still prefer the MBA because it’s a littler warmer, but I have to say that the audio from the Toshiba is very, very good for an ultraportable.

Winner: MBA, but just barely

Size and Weight

The Macbook looks smaller, but it isn’t – it’s just a design illusion.  In actuality the two machines are close enough in size and weight to be considered identical.  The MBA is a few hundredths of an inch wider and longer, the Toshiba is .06″ thicker.  The Toshiba weighs .01 lb less.

Winner: tie

Battery

The Macbook Air delivers better than 10 hours of real-world use, while the Toshiba falls short at roughly 8 hours.  8 hours meets my needs for “all-day unplugged use” but the winner is clearly Apple.

Winner: MBA

Inputs & Outputs

The two machines are very comparable.  Both offer 2 USB ports, audio out, power in, an SDHC slot, and a video output port.  In the case of Apple, the video is a potent Thunderbolt output, while the Toshiba offers a more basic – but more standard – HDMI output.  Unless you already use a Thunderbolt monitor, this means you’ll have to use a dongle adapter on the Macbook.  Both machines offer an HD webcam.  Both offer stereo mics, but the Toshiba’s are placed intelligently on the top of the display border (where the stereo image will actually correlate to the webcam), while Apple placed the mics in a poor location both on the left side of the machine.  Toshiba’s power supply is smaller, has a longer power cord, and is cheaper to replace; but the Mac offers the MagSafe connector.

Winner: tie

Horsepower

The Mac easily trounces the Chromebook in terms of sheer processing power.  However the only instance I have discovered where the Chromebook’s processing power is insufficient is multitasking while streaming HD video – which if you think about it, isn’t much of a shortcoming, as most people will pause the video when they leave it to perform other tasks.  It’s safe to say that if video editing ever becomes possible on a Chromebook, it will pale in comparison to the Macbook Air.  But for all other day to day tasks the Chromebook is more than sufficient for my usage.

Winner: MBA

Apps

Here, the Macbook trounces the Chromebook in terms of choice – at least on paper.  The Mac ecosystem offers a wide variety of apps to choose from, while the ChromeOS ecosystem is still a work in progress and definitely lacking in the multimedia department.

However, for my day-to-day use, I’m quickly realizing that I am missing very, very little.  I already live in the Google ecosystem (Chrome browser, Gmail, Drive, Docs, etc) which function as good or better on ChromeOS.  The key thing I lack is a top-notch image editor, but Google has promised to deliver a ChromeOS version of Photoshop in the near future, and in the meantime there’s Pixlr.  For text editing and software development, there’s Caret, an outstanding replacement for SublimeText on Mac. For light-duty music editing, I have to switch to Ubuntu (more on that later) but this gives me access to Audacity, which is a very full-featured editor.  I have yet to find a good video editor for Chromebook or Ubuntu, but this wasn’t part of my original requirements.

In short it’s pretty amazing to me that the ChromeOS ecosystem can even begin to compete with the Mac ecosystem with all of its advantages, particularly its 20+ year headstart.

Winner: MBA

LAMP-based Development

On the Mac, I use MAMP Pro as a turnkey LAMP server for web development.  It’s pretty hard to beat turnkey, and MAMP Pro is really easy to use and set up.  There does not currently exist a MAMP-like turnkey server solution for ChromeOS.

However, I was very surprised to discover how well Ubuntu runs alongside the ChromeOS.  It isn’t turnkey – you’re going to have to get your hands dirty – but the process is deceptively simple: you enable “developer mode” on your Chromebook, you install a script called crouton, you execute a few shell commands, and voila! Ubuntu is running right alongside ChromeOS – you literally switch back and forth between the two OSes by hitting CTRL-ALT-BACKARROW and CTRL-ALT-FORWARDARROW.  It’s super-slick, and opens up your Chromebook to the entire world of Linux.  I encountered zero issues with the process – no driver issues, no battery issues, nothing – though as usual I had to noodle around with Apache settings to get the environment working to my satisfaction.

While it’s true that turnkey beats DIY, if you’re a developer, you’re already accustomed to getting your hands dirty, and you’ll find nothing onerous about the process of installing Ubuntu alongside ChromeOS.  It’s weirdly easy and took me roughly 45 minutes, soup-to-nuts, which included the 20 minutes to download and install Ubuntu.

The cool part (for me) is that once you have a local development server set up and running, you can resume your development workflow entirely in ChromeOS, and forget completely that there is a Ubuntu server running alongside.  You can edit files on the local filesystem directly using the Caret editor.  SSH is provided inside ChromeOS using an extension called SecureShell so it’s quite easy to work with remote servers right inside the Chrome browser.  It all works a lot better than I would have ever guessed.

Winner: MBA + MAMP Pro

Backup / Restore

The idea behind an ultraportable is that if you lose or break it, it should be of minimal impact.  Here the Chromebook kicks serious ass.  Unlike the Mac, which relies on “old-school” backup & restore solutions like Time Machine, the Chromebook is literally a “throw it away and buy another” type machine.  All of your data is already backed up on Drive.  And all of your apps live as Chrome extensions.  So if you get a new Chromebook, you log in to your Google account for the first time, and magically, your device restores to exactly how your old device looked, without installing a single application.  Technically you can restore a MBA with a Time Machine backup, but seriously, it’s an entirely different and more perilous process.

Winner: Chromebook

Etc.

Apple has a good track record of keeping OS updates to a minimum, but this is starting to change as Apple keeps pushing Mac more and more into an iOS-like App Store model.  Increasingly there are more and more updates and downloads that require restarts, etc.  ChromeOS, by contrast, is more or less always up-to-date.  I really like how minimal the OS footprint is on the Chromebook and think that this bodes well for the device’s long-term usability.  I really admire how painless the install and update process is for apps.

The Mac is a metal-body machine, and while the metal can dent or bend, it’s undeniably more premium grade than the almost-identical-looking plastic used in the Toshiba.  Apple manages to brand its computers with an actually-cool illuminated logo, while the lid of the Toshiba sports ugly “Toshiba” and “Chromebook” branding.  Like all non-Apple computers, the Toshiba ships with a plethora of stupid, ugly stickers that have to be removed.

If you have an Android phone or a Chromecast dongle, you’ll love the seamless integration with ChromeOS.  Likewise, Apple offers similar integration with an iPhone and Apple TV, but those devices can cost considerably more than their Android counterparts.

Summary

Let’s face it: a $330 ChromeOS portable shouldn’t be able to beat a $1200 Macbook Air.  It’s a terribly unfair comparison.  The Mac has a superior processor, more storage, more memory, a better keyboard and trackpad, and of course a “full” OS and the 30-year-old Mac app ecosystem.  It’s like a bantamweight getting in the ring with Tyson.  Not a fair fight at all.

What’s surprising is just how well the Chromebook actually stands up in real-world use.  The display is better, the size and weight are identical, and for typical day-to-day chores, the Chromebook is just as usable as a Macbook Air.  Battery life isn’t quite as good but is still very good.  It meets my needs for a development machine just as well as a Macbook Air.  Software updates are easier.  There is essentially no need for backups, as all the data is backed up to Drive automagically, and the OS is practically disposable.  The only place I care about where I think the Chromebook falls short is multimedia editing.

So the verdict: if, like me, you’re a power user, you will probably not be happy with only a Chromebook as your sole device.  There are still areas like multimedia where the low-power processor and / or lack of robust applications will prevent you from ditching that Mac or PC.

But if you’re a “consumer grade” user who doesn’t edit music or video, or if you’re a power user who needs a cheap, lightweight, travel-ready portable, then you owe it to yourself to take a good hard look at Chromebook.  Especially if you’re already using the Google application suite.

Take a Greyhound to Fredericksburg

A Story in Three Parts

Pt. 1: December 1994

1994 was a good year to be in the Dallas music scene.  Bands like the Nixons and Tripping Daisy and the Toadies were breaking out with national hits.  Record labels were eyeing Dallas bands with eagerness.  A local-national DJ named Redbeard had the drive-time rock show on the rock station (Q102) and was aggressively spinning local music during drivetime.  It was just a great time to be in a rock band in Dallas.

That winter, my band was tracking some demos at Crystal Clear Studios with owner Keith Rust.  Over a lunch break one day, I casually asked Keith if any interesting bands had been in the studio recently.

Keith replied that they had just worked on a CD for an art-rock band called the Moon Festival that was pretty good.  And, he added, there was a killer sort-of-punk-country band called the Old 97s who had just finished up a CD.

So I checked out the Moon Festival, and met front man Salim Nourallah, and needless to say, that turned out great for both me and Salim.  We’ve worked on lifetimes of wonderful music together and have learned greatly from each other.  Salim’s influence on my tastes – the entire way way I think about music – cannot be underestimated.

And I checked out the Old 97s.  They had a great draw at Dada where they played regularly – a club where we also drew well – so we conspired to get on their bill as openers for a series of shows.  And that’s how I finally got to see the band live, and I was floored.  The kinetic energy onstage was electrifying.  The band thundered through its set and the sweating crowd ate it up. And the songs – this collection of unpretentious but infectious tunes – were a kind of music I’d never heard before.

In 1994 “rock” was grunge.  If you had a twang in your guitar or a twang in your voice, you were country – and the Old 97s had both.  But in those days, “country” meant sterile Nashville pop-masters like Randy Travis and Garth Brooks.  The Old 97s played more like the Clash or the Replacements.  And the twang was more Wichita Falls than Nashville.

I bought the record when it came out, and I was instantly charmed.  After that run of shows, I didn’t see the band again for many years, but I kept up with the records.  The band has made a number of killer records and for sure, records like “Wreck Your Life” and “Fight Songs” and the latest “Most Messed Up” are maybe the band’s best efforts, from a sense of musicality or artistry.

Old_97S_-_Hitchhike_To_Rhome

Hitchhike to Rhome

But over the years, for me, nothing had the staying power – nothing “took me back to the club scene days” – like Hitchhike.  Overlong, minimally produced, sometimes cacophonous / sometimes playful – this record had a sort of naive charm that is impossible to maintain the moment record labels start waving contracts in front of you.

“Getting noticed” changes a band.  Where before you were just kids with dreams and hopes having a good time with no expectations, suddenly you have a responsibility to create something marvelous.  And you have to do it naked, under a microscope, with everyone watching.  The act of observing something changes the thing observed.  It’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in action.

The band never made a record like “Hitchhike” again – and really, they couldn’t even if they wanted to.  You can’t re-have your first kiss. You can’t see Star Wars again for the first time.  You just can’t get back to those places once they’re gone.  And in this way, records are like time capsules – and Hitchhike to Rhome is truly that: a time capsule of the undiscovered, youthful band playing their first full “set” and just having a grand old time.

Meanwhile, Salim went on to work and tour with Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller for his solo work.  Later, Salim and the Old 97s and I would go on to make several records together.

Over the years I quit listening to the Toadies, and the Nixons, and Tripping Daisy, and Buck Jones, and Ten Hands, and Hagfish, and 66, and Fletcher, and Pop Poppins, and all the rest of the local bands from that time.  But Hitchhike to Rhome wormed its way into my heart and soul.

It’s karmic, somehow… I grew up with Rhome in my blood, literally, because half of my family is from there.  My great grandparents even founded the tiny, adjacent community of New Fairview.  So when Rhett sings,

Hitchhike to Rhome
take a Greyhound to Fredericksburg

it always evokes a palpable image of dusty, poor North Texas in my mind.  Rusty metal windmills.  Grain silos.  Dirt.

Over the decades I’m sure I’ve listened to that silly romp of a record over 1000 times.  I know every word, every guitar lick, every bass groove, every drum fill by rote memory.  I shit you not: its in my desert island collection, right alongside Please Please Me and London Calling.  There’s not another “local release” in my Top 20.

Pt. 2: January 2014

Early this year I received a message from God.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, God used His child, “Diamond” David Lee Roth, to deliver His divine message to me.

rothreview4

David Lee Roth, Agent of God

The issue was almost existential: I was trying to figure out if I wanted to take up residency in a studio somewhere, build a new studio of my own, or just quit music altogether.  All musicians struggle with the decision to keep making art in the face of an increasingly hostile musical environment – and this was one of my moments of doubt and pain.  This decision lasted literally months, and culminated one day in a trip to Essalunga, the Italian version of Kroger.

That day my indecisive brainstorming reached near-seizure levels.  So wrapped up in decisionmaking that I could barely see straight, I went with my wife Vanessa to the grocery store. On the way I laid it all out for her.  The costs, the risks, the rewards, the probabilities.  I wanted to build a new studio, but the costs are high and the probability of payback is low.  Conversely, I could shack up in someone else’s studio and grind out an income, but that can quickly become soul-crushing work that makes you want to gouge out your eardrums.

I was really wrapped around the axle, as we say in Rhome.  As we walked up to the gleaming automatic sliding doors of the Essalunga, I desperately asked Vanessa, “how can I ever decide?!”

The doors parted, and from inside, accompanied by the swell of fuzzy synthesizers, David Lee Roth loudly proclaimed the answer to my question:

Might as well JUMP!
Go ahead and JUMP!!

There was a certain logic to the illogic, and Diamond Dave’s was the exact answer I needed. I heeded the call. I started seriously and methodically planning the design.  I started assembling a new audio recorder – 48 channels of the latest Pro Tools HD, a lovely vintage “big iron” mixer from the 70s, and a pile of my favorite vintage gear.  There’s old vacuum tube gear and cables piled all over the house now, while the building is currently under construction.

I fully expect to have Diamond Dave over to cut some hot tracks.

Pt. 3: Spring 2014

By now you should be asking where all this is leading.

So, Constant Reader, it was with coronary-inducing excitement that I received a call from the band this spring, asking for some help.  “We’re putting out a 20th anniversary re-release of Hitchhike,” explained guitarist Ken Bethea, “but we were never really happy with the mix of that record.  Would you be willing to remix some tracks?”

Wut?

Remix Hitchhike to Rhome?!?  One of my favorite records of all time?

Are you fucking kidding me?!?

I stammered agreement over the phone, hung up, and immediately started wondering, “where the hell am I going to mix this thing?”  I had the gear, but the building wouldn’t be ready until long after the album’s release date.

I considered a number of alternatives, including mixing it at Treefort (where the last few records were mixed) or even going back to Crystal Clear and mixing it at the original studio.

But I work best when I Do My Own Thing. So finally I decided to wing it: I set up an entire studio’s worth of equipment in my bedroom – not a spare bedroom, mind you, but my bedroom, wife and all – and got to work.

It was a very mad-science endeavor – but in a way – mixing Hitchhike on a bunch of old vintage gear piled into in a bedroom is kinda perfect.  And I couldn’t be more happy with the way the record came out: raw, punchy, and rowdy.  I kept it real – no digital editing or “fixing” was used – and it’s an all-analog mix with all-analog gear for a big fat analog sound.  When I crank it up on a good stereo, I can close my eyes and I’m standing in front of those old JBLs at Dada.

Mixing this record was a complete blast and I’m super grateful to have been a part of it.  I hope everyone enjoys listening to it even half as much as I enjoyed mixing it!

Stay tuned to the Old 97s to find out about the re-release later this year.

Quick Review: Logitech Tablet Keyboard for Android

As I mentioned in my last post, perhaps the secret to phone blogging is to carry a keyboard.

Today I’m writing this blog post using my Logitech Tablet Keyboard for Android and the WordPress Android app, and it’s definitely a completely different experience.

The keyboard itself is about as small as it can be and still be considered “ergonomic.”  The keys and spacing are almost exactly the same proportions as my Macbook keyboard, and though the keypress travel is a little shallower, the overall typing experience is very good.

The keyboard travels in a case that doubles as a stand for your phone / tablet.  This makes it very easy to convert your device into something with a form factor very similar to a computer.

I have never gotten used to touching a screen instead of moving a mouse / trackball / touchpad, and I wonder if I ever will.  I find the experience of taking my hand from the keyboard and lifting it to the screen disruptive to data-entry (as well as leaving the inevitable fingerprints)  – but it works.

The keyboard works very well with the Android app.  I haven’t taken the time to learn the various shortcuts available with the keyboard, but the usual hotkeys like CTRL-C work as expected.

Of course, carrying a keyboard is not much better than just carrying another device, like a Macbook Air or Chromebook.  The keyboard is only a little smaller and lighter than a small computer.  One advantage comes to mind though: with the phone + keyboard solution, I always have the option of jotting down a quick blog post just using the phone sans keyboard, or jotting down some ideas in the app and fleshing the post out later with the keyboard.

Of course you can achieve a similar result using a phone + computer but this option saves a step.  And of course it’s easier to post photos taken on the phone directly from the phone itself, instead of having to transfer the content first to the computer.

Maybe the smartphone didn’t kill the blog after all.

Did the Smartphone Kill the Blog?

Used to be, I consumed all of my internet content on my computer. Any time I wanted to read an article, check my friends’ statuses, send an email, check the weather… it always meant a trip to the computer.

In that world, blogging came naturally. Here I was already at the computer, with its spacious and ergonomic keyboard inviting me to type my thoughts. It was almost irresistible.

I created a lot of content back in those days. I created the original prorec.com, participated in a group blog with my friends on cuzwesaidso.com, started and killed a humor site called skeptician.com, and of course blogged here on my personal blog.

But these days I no longer head to the computer when I want to interact with the internet. Now I reach for my phone.

The phone is a lovely way to consume internet content. It’s always with me. It’s 4G wireless. The form factor is convenient. I read novels on my phone.

But as a data entry device, it’s horrible. The keyboard is no match that of my Macbook and the screen is just too small for editing hundreds or thousands of words. And no phone app can compete with the page-layout power of a real computer.

And so I rarely blog anymore. It’s become inconvenient. When I want to say something I’m likely to jot down an email to my buddies (email being a forgiving text medium that does not mandate perfect grammar and page layout, where incomplete sentences and clumsy writing aren’t a showstopper). Or I’ll tweet or post a photo.

But blogging? This is my first blog post in years. I suspect it could well be my last. I’m actually writing this entry on my phone. And, I gotta tell you, it’s a royal pain in the ass, even though the WordPress app is mature and powerful and I’m hard-pressed to see how it could be improved.

Perhaps a Bluetooth keyboard could work. But then I’m practically carrying a computer again.

Time will tell if the phone has killed the blog. But from where I sit, things are looking gloomy in the blogosphere.

Forza Italia!

A few weeks ago, while I was visiting family in Georgia, the subject of Italy came up.  Somebody asked me if I would consider moving to Italy, and my reply was, “in a heartbeat, if I could figure out how to make it work.”

Vanessa’s uncle Mike asked why, and I replied “the way of life is better.”  He didn’t buy it.  And I understand why.  There’s a lot going wrong in Italy, especially at the moment.  And, as a red-blooded American myself, I also have a natural instinct to defend the USA as the best “way of life” there is.

But the proof is in the pudding, as they say.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Italy now, and feel at least marginally qualified to back up my claims.

But First The Downsides

Lest you think I’m irrationally positive about Italy, here’s a quick rundown of some of its many flaws.

Government / Financial Collapse

Italy’s government is fundamentally broken.  It’s on the verge of catastrophic bankruptcy, it’s run by criminals and clowns, and it’s completely hog-tied by crushing levels of bureaucracy.  Not unlike America in about 20 more years.  Italy is living proof that with government, smaller really is better (pro tip: vote Libertarian).

It’s a common misperception that the problem with Italy is that the society is too socialist and the people are too lazy and unproductive.  This is totally false.  Italy actually provides modest and reasonable social-welfare benefits which are well within its means – Italy spends less of its GDP on social welfare than the USA.  Italians are also very hard working and highly entrepreneurial.  Most importantly, unlike Americans, Italians do not have a culture of personal indebtedness.

The problem is, quite simply, a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy.  From the thoroughly corrupt former Prime Minister, Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi on down, the country is strangled by a government grown vastly beyond its requirements.  Something like 50% of government expenditures goes to paying needless government employees and their exorbitant pensions and benefits.  Once you get a government job, you’re set for life.  Just like in the USA but much, much worse.  For example, thousands of employees get “work cars” – Mercedes S350s.  You see them everywhere.

Unless you haven’t watched the news in a year, you know that Italy is on the verge of insolvency, and when that happens, it will probably take out the world economy.  It’s far too big to bail out.  Curiously, Italy actually runs a primary surplus – the government takes in more money than it spends on its services – but it’s carrying a mountain of old debt, and it’s the interest on that debt that is breaking the budget.

Unlike Ireland, Spain, and Greece, however, Italy has a very strong manufacturing base and a large GDP.  Even a 1% uptick in GDP would resolve the current debt situation.  GDP, however, continues to stagnate.

Americans, beware.  This will be you, if you don’t change course.  (see pro tip, above).

Crime

Here in Lucca, crime is not a problem at all.  It’s a very safe town.  But there are certainly parts of Italy that are overrun by crime and are relatively dangerous.  The mafia is alive and well here in its native land.  The corruption that plagues the country is in no small measure driven by organized crime which controls various aspects of government.

Third-World-ism

It boggles the mind that the society which literally brought Western civilization to light (and which brought us Gucci, Ferrari, da Vinci, Versace, Verdi, Galileo, Maserati, Michelangelo, Puccini and even Chianti) also produces some amazingly craptastic products sold in supermarkets that rival Fiesta and Dollar General for sheer tastelessness.  Some of the world’s most beautiful and well-constructed architecture sits in stark contrast to ugly industrial plants and bleak, communist-era high-rise condos.

There is no doubt that this country has a deep and rich legacy of the world’s best art, science, design, construction and manufacturing, with a deep appreciation for quality and taste.  You see it literally everywhere – so many things are so freaking right. And yet, there’s a lot of serious crap.  I have yet to see an Italian airport that didn’t look like something you’d find in the Congo – dirty, ugly, stinky, hot, and confusing.

Technology

The civilization that brought us running water and sewer systems seems to be content with Roman-era amenities.  There are plenty of “squat toilets” still around (though in truth, they’re getting pretty rare, but hell, it’s the 21st century already!)  Showers are often completely uncontained – you just stand in the corner of the bathroom and get water everywhere.  There is internet, but God help you if it goes down, and free wi-fi is extremely rare.  Most Italians are not very Internet savvy and Italian websites look like something from 1997.  Most businesses have no Internet presence whatsoever.

Energy & Transportation

Energy is extremely expensive.  A gallon of gas costs about $9.00!  Natural gas and electricity are also far more expensive than in the USA.  There is a good highway system here (the autostrada) but it’s toll-based and relatively expensive to drive on.  There are trains, too – including the thoroughly badass 200 MPH Frecciarossa – but they can get expensive.

I could go on.  While Italians enjoy some of the best health outcomes in the world, the public healthcare system seems pretty vintage.  The big cities (Rome, Milan, Bologna) are dirty and shabby.  Italians are generally obnoxious and careless drivers.  The old sewer systems sometimes stink.  It’s impossible to find good sushi.  And so forth.

So let it not be said that I’m a Pollyanna who only sees the good side of Italy.

Cost of Living

Compared to America, to live with equivalent amenities in Italy will probably be marginally more expensive, if for no other reason than the cost of energy and taxes.  I’ve mentioned the energy / transportation beat-down.  Taxes are roughly 30%-ish – not too much worse than the USA – but there is also a 21% “sales tax” on many items that definitely affects the cost of things.  However, some things are curiously less expensive, even including the tax.

I pay about 2/3 the price in Italy for high-speed internet and maybe 1/2 the price for high-quality 4G cell phone service that’s better than what I get at home in Dallas.  If you are dependent on your cell phone like me, Italy is a big win.  Service is exceptional, data speeds are high, and it’s pay-as-you go – no contracts.  I spend about $20/month for service that surpasses the typical $60-90/month service in the USA.

Gas is super-expensive so cars are super fuel efficient.  In the USA there are a handful of cars that get 40+ MPG, and they’re all north of $30K.  In Italy you can get decent, highly fuel-efficient cars cheap (if you like Fiat) – a 65 MPG (no shit!) 2012 Panda will set you back about $11K – a great little car, actually, and nothing like the flimsy rust-buckets from the 1980s.  It’s a good driver with good build quality and simply astonishing mileage at a value price.  And unlike a Prius, there are no batteries to replace or recycle.  Fiat also makes a turbodiesel van that seats 9 (or 6 + tons of storage) and gets better than 30 MPG highway (compare to Ford E-series at about 17 MPG).

Most food is cheaper than in the States – about 1/2 to 2/3 the price for equivalent food.  A cappuccino at Starbucks will set you back $3 – in Italy they’re a buck (and they’re a lot better than the swill they serve at Starbucks).  High-quality drinking water is completely free in most areas and tastes noticeably better than anything you can get in a plastic bottle.  A delicious three course dinner for two with wine and coffee can be had for under $20 apiece.  Groceries are maybe 1/2 to 1/3 cheaper.  A totally tasty sandwich is about $3.  More on the food later.

You can take the high-speed train from Florence to Rome (about 180 miles) for about $30 and it’ll get you there in an hour.  A second-class train seat is roughly the same comfort and space as a 1st class domestic flight on a major airline like Delta.  By comparison, a 180-mile flight on Southwest (also one hour) costs twice as much and offers no comfort.  And the trains have no security lines and are rarely delayed so they are actually considerably faster and lower stress than flying.  You just run up and hop on.  I think Americans oppose high-speed rail only because they’ve never used it.  It’s a vastly superior experience to flying, especially for under-500 mile trips.

But cost of living is only part of the story.

Way of Life

Let’s get real about cost of living: cars are freaking expensive.  Say you drop $25K on a decent car.  Then there’s insurance.  Fuel.  Repairs.  It’s pretty hard to own and use a car in the USA (as a typical American driver) for under $8K per year.  A lot of people spend two or three times that much, easy.

There are a few cities in the USA where you can live well without a car: New York, Chicago, DC, Boston.  Any American will tell you: these are the rare exceptions.  Otherwise, if you’re American, and don’t have a car, you’re struggling.  Let’s just say it’s not a good life for a carless Dallasite.

We love our cars.  They’re awesome, fun, exciting, and provide a nice ego-boost for us less-well-endowed men.  However, they’re totally non-value-added.  Meaning – they don’t actually make our lives better – they just provide comfort and sex appeal while we get from point A to point B, all the while draining our bank accounts.

But what if you didn’t need a car?  And by that, I mean: what if everything you needed – everything – was practically within arms reach?  What if you could live as well without a car as you could with one?

What if you could live better?

That’s the case for a large number of Italian towns and cities.  Let me give you an example.

Our apartment

Here in Lucca, we have a little apartment on an ordinary street in a nondescript and workaday part of town.  In the photo on the left, our apartment is on the top two floors of the gray building in between the white and blue cars.

It’s not a special location – in fact, for central Lucca, it’s a little out of the way.  But life is pretty freaking sweet.  Let’s draw an imaginary line 100 yards around the apartment and walk around, shall we?

I can buy vegetables and fruit from a vendor who is literally 150 feet from my front door.  And these aren’t crappy Wal-Mart vegetables grown in Chile and genetically engineered to survive two months of storage and transportation.  Quite the opposite: these are organic fruits and vegetables (grown typically within 20 miles of town) that totally outclass the best stuff you can buy at Whole Foods or Central Market.  Tomatoes that taste like the ones grandmother grew in her garden – no, forget that, they’re better.  I’m talking about real food of the sort you can’t even find in America.  Shit that makes you actually like salad.  The best part?  It’s about  1/4 to 1/2 the price of the Wal-Mart crap!  Seriously – we routinely make dinner for two for under $5 – and this isn’t Hamburger Helper, it’s totally top-shelf gourmet stuff.

Other food is the same.  Across the street from the vegetable guy is a store that sells freshly baked breads and homemade prepared foods.  They have better bread than the good stuff from Whole Foods (a half-loaf is $1.20) and cured meats (prosciutto, salame, pancetta, etc.) better than anything available anywhere in the USA for about the price of Oscar Meyer bologna prepacks.  The milk is produced less than 20 miles away and barely pasteurized – it’s the milk we old dudes had when we were kids – and it’s cheap as dirt.  In Dallas I buy bottled water, because the tap water tastes like calcium and rust.  Here, there are community fountains of aquifer water (UV-sanitized) that is deliciously clean and soft.  The closest one to our apartment is across the street from the bakery – still within the 100 yard radius.

But I’m just getting started.  A few doors down from the vegetable guy is the cobbler.  He makes custom-fitted shoes to order.  And they’re HOT.  I mean, seriously badass.  There are at least four or five styles that are some of the coolest shoes I’ve ever seen.  They cost $100-$150 – which, if you knew the quality of these shoes, you’d realize what a bargain they are.  And they’re custom made in your choice of materials and colors and individually fitted for your feet (which are always different sizes).  Try to find that kind of quality anywhere in the USA.

Next door to the bread guy is the leather bag guy.  He makes bags, purses, briefcases, etc.  He has a lot of cool stuff ready to buy but also will custom-make a bag for you.  For about $80 I’m getting a new leather bag for my camera and the other stuff I carry around – and it’s custom made to fit my camera, lenses, etc..

There’s a laundry next door to the shoe guy and a laundromat down from the bag guy.  Next to the laundry is the butcher.  Chianina beef is as good as the best USDA Prime beef from Texas and sells for about the price of Choice.  All steaks are cut to order from freshly-butchered sides of beef that have never been frozen.

There are three bars within the 100 yard radius.  In Italy a bar is not just a place to drink beer but also your coffee-and-pastry shop in the morning and sandwich shop in the afternoon.  Each one makes coffee that’s better than 98% of the coffee you can get in the USA, terrific homemade pastries, and awesome sandwiches on homemade foccacia bread.  A coffee and delicious pastry will set you back about $2.

Across the street from the shoe guy is the gelateria.  They make all their gelati every day from scratch.  A 2-flavor gelato is $2 and better than pretty much any ice cream you can get anywhere in the USA.

There are at least four sit-down restaurants within the 100 yard radius.  Each one is completely amazing, serving delicious local food and wine.  A typical dinner at one of these places (with a pasta or meat, a vegetable, and a glass of wine) is about $20 per person.  There are two places in Dallas that offer Italian food of equivalent quality and you can’t get in and out for under $50 per head.  I had a roasted pork dish at one of them that was simply the tastiest damn pig I’ve ever eaten in my life.  One of the restaurants does a delicious “plate lunch” type meal and you can usually get in and out (again with wine and bottles of water) for around $10-ish.  Tipping is not customary so you save money there too.

Are you getting the point?  Almost everything I want to do on a typical day is not just within walking distance, but within crawling distance.

If you want to talk about walking distance – meaning, up to about a 1/2 mile – then the entire inner city is available to you.  Let’s talk about that for a minute.

To begin with, Lucca (link to Wikipedia) – like hundreds of other towns in Italy – is simply lovely.  Lucca is surrounded by a medieval wall that is at least 30 feet tall and 30 feet wide, which is now lined with trees and closed to cars.  It is one of the most lovely parks I’ve ever visited.  At approximately 4 km circumference, it’s walkable and easily bikeable.

The walls of Lucca

 

Via Fillungo is the “main drag” for shopping.  If you can name it, they probably have it.  Gucci, Versace, Armani, Boss, Lucky, Nike, Diesel are just a tiny number of stores on that street.  There are local tailors who make beautiful designer suits to order.  There are probably 100 different stores, all selling The Good Shit.  There are at least 6 shoe stores and 4 eyeglass shops selling awesome designer frames – really cool frames, not the Lenscrafter stuff.  Stuff that’s really hard to find, even in D/FW, a metro area of over six million people.

And that’s just Via Fillungo.  Branching out onto some side streets, there are hardware stores that have locally-made ironworks, camera shops carrying the full line of Canon and Nikon lenses, a B&O stereo store with super-nerdy hi-fi gear, bike shops selling kick-ass custom bikes and stationery stores selling hand-bound notebooks.  There are literally a hundred different bars, dozens of restaurants and wine shops, custom-made wood furniture, leatherworkers, and on and on.

All of this is within a 10-15 walk from the house.  Or less than 5 minutes by bike.

The best part of all of this is that Lucca is a small town – about 20K people in the central area.  If I told you that I was going to move to a small town of 10-20K, you’d probably wonder about me.  In most of America, unless it’s a suburb of a large city, living in a small town pretty much is a guarantee that you’re living in the sticks.  I’m thinking of maybe Granbury or Palestine, Texas.  Even a cool small town like Durango is kinda small-townish.  The country is nice, but the amenities usually suck.

By comparison, a place like Lucca is like having all the benefits of the most cosmopolitan cities and all the benefits of a small, friendly town at the same time.  It’s clean and safe and mostly quiet, like a small town.  You quickly meet lots of people and make lots of friends, but all of the creature comforts of the big city are right there.  Hell, Lucca is even home to a summer music festival that brings in artists like Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Blink-192, and Norah Jones.  Walking distance.

And if you’re willing to hop on a train for an hour, for under $10 you can go here:

Or here:

Or here:

Or here:

Or any of a hundred other places.

Hopefully, you’ll come visit us sometime in Lucca, and let us show you around.

The Problem with EC2 Micro Instances

If you keep up with my blog you know that I really dig the EC2 micro instance running the Bitnami WordPress stack.  I’ve written about it before.  I’ve been hosting a few low-utilization web sites on mine for over a year now and generally speaking, it’s a great concept.

The problem is the occasional lockups.  Maybe once a month or so, the site dies, and the only information I can find that helps me to troubleshoot is that there has been prolonged periods of high CPU utilization whenever the crash occurs.

Well it turns out this is a problem with the Amazon micro instance.  On a micro instance, Amazon allows CPU bursting of up to 2 cores – but if CPU utilization stays high, it gets severely throttled.  And when that happens, sometimes, it crashes the server.

Today I decided to move up from a micro instance to a small instance.  I’m using the same disk image, so I’m running the same virtual machine.  But where the micro instance has up to 2 cores (with throttling) the small instance just has one core.

How much difference did the change make?  Turns out, a big difference.  Micro instance throttling is far more debilitating than I ever would have guessed.

Here’s typical CPU utilization for my server running as a “micro” instance:

As you can see, there is a bump every half hour as a cron job cranks up – and sometimes the CPU is maxed out for several minutes.  That almost certainly results in the web site becoming unavailable or at least very sluggish.

Here is the exact same virtual machine running as a “small” instance:

Wow – that’s an incredible difference: almost 10X the performance!

So while the micro instance is a great way to “get started” with EC2, the “small” instance provides far greater value – at 4X the price, it offers roughly 10X the performance.

Bring Social to the Blog, or Bring the Blog to Social?

I create content: I write, I shoot photos, and I create music. I also make the occasional video.

I want an online location where I can keep up with all my content, and my interaction with others.

My website – a WordPress blog I self-host – the one you’re reading now –  is the only place that truly gives me the control I want over my content. With my blog, I can

  • Create text posts with any length or formatting I like
  • Upload photos at any resolution with my choice of viewers
  • Upload music for download or insert Soundcloud or Bandcamp widgets
  • Interact with my guests using comments or Disqus
  • Integrate 3rd party content from other sites that offer feeds
  • Maintain 100% creative control over the look, feel, format, and style

The problem is – and it’s a biggie – is that the now-dinosaur-like “blog” format is completely isolated from social media. If I post something here on the blog, a few dozen people will see it. Nobody really reads my blog. But if I post something there, on Google+, a few hundred or even a thousand people might see it. It might even go viral, and millions of people might see it. On my blog, there is a next-to-zero chance that any content will go viral.

Of course, I can do what Guy Kawasaki does: publish on my blog, and link back to my blog from social media. But by failing to bring the content actually into the social media stream, I’m losing a lot of potential readers.

Or I can do what guys like Robert Scoble do: post everything everywhere. Scoble is ubiquitous. I don’t know how he can keep up with it all. In the memorable words of Mick Jagger, “I just don’t have that much jam.”

Alternatively, I can migrate to the available social tools instead. I can post my text diatribes over on Google+, but I have no control over the formatting and the layout is terrible for anything longer than a few paragraphs. I can also post my photos there and that works, mmm, OK, at best. I can’t post music, but I can share videos (a terrible situation) if I upload them to YouTube first. I can interact, which is probably the best feature. But I have zero creative control over the look and feel of my content. And I can’t integrate with 3rd party tools like Instagram, Twitter, Tripadvisor, or Hipster where I also create content.

So I end up with most of my most important content – my long blog posts and my music – hosted outside Google+.

What I really want – what someone needs to figure out – is how to have my cake and eat it too. Allow me to have my content on my blog – give me full creative control over it – but also allow me to interact on my blog through social media.

Alternatively, allow me to do everything I can do with my blog on a social media platform: customize it, post anything on it, and integrate anything into it.

The closest thing out there, actually, is Tumblr. Tumblr offers a social platform that is rich in content and customization and strong in supporting “viral multimedia.” The two problems Tumblr has are:

  1. Almost zero support for interaction – the only real interaction on Tumblr is sharing others’ posts, and
  2. Almost zero support for long text, since 99% of the content on Tumblr is visual. It just doesn’t work well for long posts, like this one.

Let’s figure this problem out together! I know I’m not alone. What are you doing to combat this problem?

Nobody Speaks for #OccupyWallStreet

Adbusters occupy wall street

I think it is critical to spread the word of where Occupy Wall Street came from, because as it gains momentum, we are seeing many political groups trying to bend it to their wills.

Occupy Wall Street began as a single-issue protest.  It started when Adbusters posted a message suggesting a protest whose central demand is that President Obama “ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.”  This is a broad-based demand that should (and did) unite people on all sides of the political spectrum, from ultra-Liberals to Tea Partiers.  In fact, as many point out, the target of the rage should be Washington as much as Wall Street.

Now, we are seeing lists of “demands” from a variety of parties who claim to speak for the few thousand people participating in the protests.  I am very skeptical of anybody who claims to speak for this group.  The lists of demands – several have been floated, all quite different – range from fairly specific legislative proposals to more whacko rantings of ultra-leftists.

And the groups which have stepped in to participate all have their own unique agendas.  Labor unions, for example, are supporting the cause – which is ironic, since labor unions definitely are part of “the influence that money has over our representatives in Washington.”  What’s next, support from Exxon?

What really got me suspicious was when I found out that MoveOn.org was supporting the cause.  In 1998 I joined Wes Boyd and MoveOn.org because it claimed to be an issues advocacy group focused on ending the impeachment of Bill Clinton.  I was no big fan of Clinton, but I was furious about the impeachment and its resultant waste and misdirected politics.  But instead of being a single-issue group focused on “moving on” from the impeachment, MoveOn.org was instead a PAC raising money for the Democrats.

Lo and behold, I had apparently signed up as a card-carrying member of the left wing of the Democratic party.  That was hardly my intent.  I just wanted the Republicans to get back to the business of the Contract for America and off the stupid and wasteful impeachment proceedings.  I had been co-opted by a so-called “issue group” into a PAC for the Democratic party.  Likewise, I suspect a lot of people occupying Wall Street are probably rather surprised at the demands that “they” are now supposedly advocating.

That’s what happens when a movement gains steam – people get out in front of it and try to use it for their own purposes.

So ask yourself: how can labor unions and MoveOn.org be in support of “ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington” – they _are_ “the influence money has over our representatives in Washington!”

One of two things has happened / is happening.  Either

  1. The entire Occupy Wall Street protest was intentionally organized by Adbusters to tap into the general anger and then co-opt the group into a hard-left movement, or
  2. Seeing the success of the protest, a bunch of hard-left activists are trying to co-opt the original goal of “ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.”
So here’s a message to all the souls protesting in Wall Street: don’t become a shill for someone else’s agenda.

Lights Out In The Tunnel

In his new book, “The Lights in the Tunnel,” Martin Ford postulates an interesting (if not novel) thought experiment: what if the Luddites were right?

I have to start by confessing: I have yet to read the book.  I have only read this review of the book.  And looking at my schedule, I may not have time to read the book.  So my comments are not directed at the book, but at the synopsis presented by the reviewer.

The premise (according to the review) is that “the Luddite Fallacy will only remain a fallacy so long as human capability exceeds technological capability” and according to the analysis of his book, once that tipping point is reached, people will be unable to find work, and without jobs or purchasing power, the economic system will collapse.

On the surface, it makes sense.  Only large corporations will be able to invest sufficient resources to fully automate hospitals with robot doctors, produce food entirely without human intervention, or run governments with robot bureaucrats.  Over time, the means of production will be controlled by a small number of people who will aggregate weath, but with no jobs, there will be nobody to purchase products.

Here’s where this thesis falls apart: in a world where all work can be best performed by machines, the cost of a product is, essentially, the cost of the energy used to power the robots that provide the service.

If energy continues to be increasingly scarce, then the cost to automate becomes high relative to the cost of human labor.  For example, people will always be cheaper than machines if oil is the only way we produce electricity and costs $500 a barrel.  So the economics remain much the same as they are now – people will be used where they are cheaper, and robots will be used where they are cheaper – and the economy will move along.

So the premise – that the Luddite tipping-point is reached once machines achieve the technical capability of humans – is incorrect.  For the tipping point to be reached, two things have to hold true:

1. Machines’ technical capability must exceed human capability (Ford’s premise), and

2. The cost to power the machines is low relative to the cost to “power” a human

But, if condition 2 hold true, then Ford’s thesis falls apart again.  Here’s how:

Let’s postulate a world in which energy is so abundant it’s practically free, perhaps by having robots that operate on internal micro nuclear reactors or robotically-built multimillion-acre solar and wind farms.  In this world, the cost to produce something by robots is, basically, free.  After all, the cost of the raw materials in your cars is negligible.  It’s the cost of transforming iron and sand and oil into steel, glass, and rubber that costs money.  And the cost to transform something (raw iron to steel) is equal to the labor cost (the workers) plus the energy cost (the energy used to fire the smelters).  In an all-automated world, the “labor” cost equals the energy cost. If energy is practically free, then the products will be practically free, too.

Viewed in this way, it’s much more a Utopian fantasy than a Luddite nightmare.

Backing Up a Bitnami WordPress Stack on an AWS Micro Instance

If you follow me, you know that I am quite enamored with Amazon’s EC2.  Scalable, reliable, powerful, and cheap – it’s a revolution in computing.

The smallest and least expensive EC2 instance is the Micro instance.  It’s perfect for a light-duty web server: it has low memory and CPU capability but is capable of bursting to two processors, giving it responsiveness when you need it.  And Bitnami has the perfect partner for your Micro instance: a WordPress stack customized to live in the cramped space of the Micro instance.

What you get in the package is nice: a complete LAMP stack running on a simplified Ubuntu 10.04 server with WordPress preconfigured and ready to go.  Bitnami conveniently puts the entire stack in a single directory – you can zip that directory and drop it on another server and with very little effort you’re up and running again.

There’s plenty of info on the Bitnami site, so if you’re interested in setting it up, head over and check it out.

Where I was left a bit in the dark was… backups.

My first instinct was to use an S3 rsync tool to sync the Bitnami stack to S3.  There’s S3rsync, but that costs money, and I’m seriously committed to spending the smallest amount of money possible on my web server.  So I passed and instead settled on using S3cmd instead.

Using S3cmd, I was able to write a simple script that performs the following:

  1. It stops the Bitnami stack temporarily (this is acceptable in my application)
  2. It ZIPs the contents of the Bitnami folder to a ZIP file that uses the date as the filename (2011-07-11.zip)
  3. It copies the ZIP file to an S3 bucket
  4. It restarts the server

As a once-a-week backup it worked pretty well.  Backups were a little large, because they contained a full snapshot of the entire stack, but S3 storage is cheap, and it’s nice to have your entire stack in a single backup file.

However, occasionally, the ZIP process would crash the little Micro instance (HT to +Ben Tremblay for first noticing during a heated debate on his Google Plus page).  So I started looking for another solution, and realized there is a much more elegant and powerful option: automated EC2 snapshots.

Turns out there are a number of different ways to skin this cat.  I chose Eric Hammond’s ec2-consistent-snapshot script.  Turns out this was a good choice.

Since the Bitnami Ubuntu 10.04 server was a bare-bones install, a number of prerequisites were missing, notably PERL libraries (DBI and DBD) etc.  Fortunately all of the answers were already available in the comments section of Eric’s web page.  For me, all I needed to do was:

sudo apt-get install make
sudo PERL_MM_USE_DEFAULT=1 cpan Net::Amazon::EC2
sudo apt-get install libc6-dev
cpan -i DBI
cpan -i DBD::mysql

The first time I tried it, it worked.  One line of code – in about 0.8 seconds I had taken a snapshot of my disk.  In no time at all I had installed a CRON job to automatically snapshot my server.

EBS snapshots are always incremental (only the changes since the last snapshot are written to disk) and restore in a flash.  I’ve done a restore and it takes just a few seconds to reinstantiate a machine.  And the actual backup is absurdly gentle on the machine – the script runs in about a second.  Bang! Instant incremental backup.  It’s a miracle.

The script is designed to flush the database and freeze the file system so that the snapshot is performed in a “guaranteed consistent” state.  Unfortunately, to freeze the filesystem, you have to be running XFS, and the Bitnami machine uses While I agree that it is important to quiesce the database prior to snapshotting, I don’t know that it is required to flush the filesystem, since EBS volumes are supposedly “point in time consistent”.  Regardless, my web sites do so little writing to disk that it is inconceivable that my file system would be in an inconsistent state.

In short: *rave*.

Kickstarter Campaign Launched

As we all know, the music business is in a new era. People are decreasingly willing to pay for music and the business is decreasingly willing to fund its production. As a result, quality artists like Vanessa – who would have had no trouble securing a solid label deal in 1995 – are turning to new social models in order to fund the expense of record production.


Please support this endeavor by visiting Vanessa’s Kickstarter Campaign.

Lessons in WordPress Conversions

Over the past few days I’ve been performing a pretty significant WordPress migration for a set of sites that I have been hosting.

The source is a set of individual WordPress sites running on an small Amazon EC2 Windows instance.  I migrated them to a multi-site installation running on a micro EC2 Linux instance.

Over the course of the conversion I learned a variety of lessons.

First, I learned that the WordPress multi-site (“network blog”) feature is still fairly half-baked.  You have to be prepared to get your hands pretty dirty if you want to make it work.

I also learned to really appreciate the Bitnami WordPress Stack AMI.  It allows you to spin up a fully-configured, ready to use Ubuntu LAMP / WP stack onto an EC2 micro instance with a minimum of fretting.

I will update this post with some details of the process for those interested.  In the meantime – success is mine!

The Descobleizer: Solving the Scoble Problem on Google+

Today, Rocky Agrawal offerred an interesting article on Techcrunch, “Solving the Scoble Problem on Social Networks.”  it’s a good read.  The gist is that in certain social networks (for example, Google+) there are certain people whose presence in the stream actually ruin the value of the stream, even though their content is worth reading.

Rocky uses Robert Scoble as an example.  Robert has so many avid followers that when he posts, there is so much commentary that his posts dominate the Stream, shouting out all other commentary.  Rocky concludes that there is no choice for him other than to block Robert Scoble altogether.

As a solution, Google+ allows you to view the content from individual circles.  This feature is useful, for example, to see only the posts from your family or a specific group of friends.  But it doesn’t solve the problem of having your main Stream wrecked simply because you happen to follow Robert Scoble.

What Google+ needs is a way to filter the main Stream by excluding one or more circles.  By curating a circle of “noisy” posters, it is then possible to easly “de-noise” the stream by deselecting only those circles.  I call this solution “The Descobleizer”.

 

As you can see, I’ve filtered out the “noisy” elements of the stream by de-selecting my “Acquaintances” and my “Following” circles.  What’s left is a non-noisy Stream of everybody else.  This maintains the value of having a Stream as well as allowing me to still follow guys like Tom Anderson and Robert Scoble.

iPad vs. Android vs. Windows 8 – Further Thoughts

Several people made some good points in regard to my article on iPad vs. Windows 8.

The most salient one, and the one I keep hearing, is the comparison to iPod.  It goes like this:

Yes, Apple only garnered a minority market share with the Macintosh and the iPhone.  But with the iPod, Apple was able to create and hold a substantial majority market share by establishing such a strong brand identity that “iPod” became synonymous with “portable MP3 player.”  Now, the iPad seems to be holding a majority market share as well by making itself synonymous with “tablet.” Therefore we should compare its trajectory to the iPod, not the iPhone or Macintosh.

The other salient argument goes like this:

Apple has a lock on the “high end” tablet market.  The iPad is better conceived, designed, and constructed than its Android or Windows counterparts.  Users really aren’t that interested in a marginally lower priced machine that offers lower design / build quality, and its hard to see how other manufacturers can “out-quality” the iPad, or if users really want a “better quality” tablet than the iPad.

I like argument #2 best.

The problem with argument #1 is that it ignores the market dynamics.  Macintoshes, iPhones, and iPads all have one thing in common: they are pieces of hardware running an operating system.  OK, technically, this is also true of the iPod, but only technically so. The OS of the iPod is more like an embedded firmware.

Apple’s minority market position with the iPhone and Macintosh stems from the fact that the OS and hardware are coupled.  Apple competes not just with Microsoft (for the OS), but with a gazillion other PC manufacturers (for the hardware).  It does this with phones as well, competing not just against Android but against every phone maker that produces an Android device.  So Apple can sell more PCs than any one PC maker, and more phones than any one Android manufacturer, but against the market as a whole it remains a minority player, albeit a large, powerful one.

Well, tablets are no different from phones and PCs: they are a piece of hardware running an OS, and it is a matter of time before tablet makers are able to closely copy the hardware designs of the iPad and the software advantages of iOS and release an Android tablet that competes well.  Will people buy it?  Yes.  Android has a majority market share in phones and a compelling tablet offering will appeal to that majority.

Windows is more of a wild card here.  In my previous post, I pointed to the fact that corporate IT departments will be much more likely to adopt a Windows 8 tablet than an iOS or Android tablet since it is an OS which they already support and understand.  I still think this is true.

Many people countered with the argument that with HTML5, it is irrelevant which device you support.  I agree but remain skeptical whether corporate IT departments will develop mission-critical wireless HTML5 applications. Corporate IT is happy with hard-wired web apps, but when it comes to running a mission-critical app over 3G or 4G networks, I think that is a far more risky proposition.

If I was asked to develop a mission critical application that ran wirelessly over a 3G or 4G network, I would almost certainly develop a “fat app” that replicated its data with the mother ship and which could run at 100% during network unavailability.  And, as a corporate IT developer, I would lean heavily on Windows as the platform of choice for developing that application, especially since the odds are very strong that the company already has a sizeable investment in technologies like .NET and MS SQL server.

If (and this is a very big “if”) Microsoft can deploy a compelling tablet version of Windows before the market has saturated, I think there is a good chance that they will capture significant corporate sales.  As we’ve seen in the past, inability to penetrate the corporate market was a serious impediment to Macintosh and, for a while, also the iPhone.  If Microsoft can execute, this is a strong opportunity for them to stay in the game.

Google+ Android App – Getting from Good to Great

I’ve been traveling since the arrival of Google+ and therefore have been forced to use it almost exclusively from my Android phone. I’ve enjoyed the Google+ app immensely – it’s a really good app – but there are a few features that, taken together, would significantly enhance the experience of using the app.

In short, the app designers need to focus on answering this question: “what if the user has to use the Android app (virtually) exclusively?” The app works great as an add-on to the web app.  But a truly mobile user may be stuck with using the app exclusively for days if not weeks, and may bump his head on the tiny limitations of the app and give up.  These enhancements would go a long way towards solving these problems.

Ability to Parse Links into Previews

In the web app, there are four ways to enhance your post – Add Photo, Add Video, Add Link, and Add Location.  In the Android app, one of these – Add Link – is not available.  When you add a link, it just gets pasted in, and Google+ doesn’t create the nifty thumbnail / summary of the page to encourage viewers to click through.

Ability to Edit Posts and Control Sharing

In the web app, you can edit and delete posts as well as control resharing.  It is imperative that these functions be added to the Android app.

Ability to +Mention Someone Who Isn’t Already in Your Circles

When I comment on a post in the web app, the app is able to convert +mentions into hyperlinks.  in the Android app, this only works if the user is in one of your circles.  Otherwise, the app doesn’t prompt you with the correct name, nor does it create the hyperlink.  This should work the same on the web or on the phone.

Improved Notifications

I’ve found notifications on the phone to be spotty at best.  Usually it notifies me only after launching the app and reading the posts… not really a useful notification.

After using the Google+ application exclusively for a week, I feel confident that if it supported these features / functions, it would be where it really needs to be in order to keep people using Google+ when they’re away from their computer for extended periods.

Windows 8 vs. iPad: Advantage Microsoft?

There’s been a lot of buzz in the industry press recently about Windows 8, the new touch-centric Windows from Microsoft.

Much of the press has been understandably skeptical.  Apple definitely hit a home run with the iPad, building it on top of the iOS mobile touch interface.  Microsoft, instead, is building “up” from Windows by layering a new browser and application UI paradigm on top of existing Windows.  It’s easy to see where Microsoft might stumble, and hard to see how Windows 8 could possibly approach the seamless elegance of iOS.

And, the truth is, it probably won’t.

And, the truth is, it probably won’t matter.

Here’s why.

A History Lesson

The year is 1990.  I’m sitting at my workstation in Classroom 2000 on the University of Texas campus in front of two state of the art machines: a 386-powered IBM PS/2 running OS/2 and Windows 3.0 and a Motorola 68030-powered Mac IIci.

I’m teaching a class of IBM Systems Engineers (a glorified term for salespeople) who have come to learn about desktop computers. In this class we’re learning about PostScript, but really, the whole exercise is to throw Macintoshes in their face to scare the hell out of them.  And it works.  More than once, you hear an IBM employee mutter, “we can’t win.”

But they did.

In designing the Mac from the ground up as a windowed operating system, Apple has the clear technical advantage.  The machine is slick as hell: 32 bit architecture, peer-to-peer networking, 24 bit graphics, multitasking, and a beautiful, well-conceived UI.  Conversely, in PC-land, there’s Windows running on top of 16 bit DOS: a veritable Who’s Who of Blue Screens of Death and a nightmare of drivers and legacy text-based apps running around.

And yet, Apple failed to capitalize on their obvious competitive advantages, barely growing their market share over the next 10-15 years.

Why?  Because the largest purchasers of computers are corporations, and corporations purchased IBM / Microsoft as an extension of their current computing platform.  In part this was out of ignorance of what Macintosh could do, in part it was due to specific shortcomings of the Macintosh platform – but those aren’t the reasons corporations failed to embrace Macintosh. The real reason Macintosh never broke through the corporate barrier was because it never made sufficient sense to throw out all the legacy apps and start over again on a new hardware and software platform.

Office applications are not the engine of the productivity boom.  Word processors and spreadsheets don’t offer competitive advantage.  Factory automation, enterprise resource planning, sales force automation, customer and supplier portals – these are the expensive and risky custom-built applications that drive competitive advantage.  For that reason, you sometimes still see applications that remain GUI-less – you don’t screw with stuff that works – and oh by the way, throwing a nifty UI on an app like that can cost a fortune and offer negligible – even negative – payback.

So to synopsize our history lesson: Apple failed to sell to corporations because it never made good financial sense for those corporations to reinvent their line-of-business applications for a different platform.  Apple established itself as a great consumer brand and carved out niches in media production and desktop publishing – markets that were not tied to traditional corporate IT.  But because the corporate world used PCs, most individuals purchased PCs for the home, and Apple was unable to substantially grow its market share in spite of technical advantage and overall coolness.

Fast-Forward

We are now seeing the same history lesson repeat itself with the iOS-based iPad tablet going head-to-head against the next generation of Windows tablets.  In order to create the ultimate tablet experience, Apple has adopted iOS as the application platform for the iPad.  And while the iPad is a formidably slick and compelling machine, iOS is probably not the operating system of choice on which to develop mission critical corporate IT applications.

Enter Microsoft with Windows 8.  Will it be clunky?  Almost certainly.  Will it fray around the edges?  Yes.  Will there be jarring experiences where the user drops suddenly and unexpectedly into the old mouse-based paradigm?  Definitely.

But Microsoft can offer something that Apple can’t.  There are thousands, maybe millions of line-of-business applications deployed with technologies like C++, .NET, Access, and SQL Server.  Companies cannot and will not jettison them in order to rewrite for iOS.  But they will extend them to a Windows 8 tablet.

Microsoft’s decision to layer a touch interface on top of Windows is the only logical decision.  It’s the same decision they made in the late 1980s when they layered a GUI on top of DOS.  With Windows, Microsoft retained the established customer base while expanding their market reach by extending, rather than reinventing their operating system.  The business advantage outweighed the technical disadvantage. With Windows 8, they can do it again.

I think the decision is brilliant.

The Proof is in the Pudding

Now, we simply have to wait and see if Microsoft can deliver.  That may be a stretch.  Microsoft has a “hit-miss-miss” record with Windows.  With Windows, it was not until Windows 95 that Microsoft pulled within reach of Apple, and only Windows XP was solid enough to truly compete technically.  Microsoft cannot wait 10-15 years like it did with Windows to catch up.

I think that it’s fair to guess that Windows 8 will not be an iPad-killer, no matter how great it is.  Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an iPad-killer.  It just has to establish a baseline of functionality and provide a suitable application development platform. Corporations will develop impressive line-of-business applications for the touch interface – specifically field-worker automation applications – if the platform is robust.

If compelling touch-based business applications can be deployed on Windows 8, it will have done its job: it will have convinced corporations that Windows can meet their needs for a touch-tablet computer, and Apple will be stymied in their attempt to finally break the barrier keeping them out of corporate America.

PS: I am writing this on my brand new, and very sweet, MacBook Pro.

Sony. Really???

Yep.  It’s happened again:

Computerworld – LulzSec, a hacking group that recently made news for hacking into PBS, claimed today that it has broken into several Sony Pictures websites and accessed unencrypted personal information on over 1 million people.

The attack?  A simple SQL injection attack.  Most web sites built since 2002 have known how to defend against SQL injections.

What’s worse?

“What’s worse is that every bit of data we took wasn’t encrypted,” the group claims. “Sony stored over 1,000,000 passwords of its customers in plaintext, which means it’s just a matter of taking it.”

Storing passwords in plaintext is simply negligent.

If customers experience identity theft as a result of this breach, you should expect a class-action lawsuit.  These aren’t secure websites breached by a sophisticated attack.  These are utterly inept programming decisions.

I have a bad, bad feeling that this is going to get a lot worse for Sony.

What’s even worse than all of this?

I own Sony stock.

#ouch

To the Dark Side

I have finally done it.  Please forgive me, Mom.

That’s right.  I bought a Mac: the new quad I7 15.4″ MacBook Pro.

And what’s more: I’m switching to Pro Tools 9 from Sonar.

I’ve had a long love-affair with my Dell Mini 9 Hackintosh.  The little sucker went with me everywhere.  I used it as my travel computer.  I used it in my keyboard rig.  Small to the point of silly, and relatively inexpensive, it was the perfect travel machine.

Well, it got stolen in Mexico.

A confluence of needs had me wanting a new MacBook Pro anyway, and what better time than after the sudden loss of the Hackintosh.  So I have finally taken the plunge for real.

More to come…

Double-Dip

Hate to say I told you so, but in April 2009 I wrote:

The keyword to watch for now is #doubledip.  Because with the recent uptick in the economy, the investing world is going to start looking for signs of a double-dip recession.

Now this article confirms my prediction:

The prices of single family homes in March dropped to their lowest level since April 2009, confirming a “double dip” because values are now below where they were since the housing market collapsed, according to a closely watched price index released Tuesday.

Sony: Security Fail Redux

By now, everyone knows that Sony’s Playstation Network got hacked earlier this year.  It’s a big mistake that shouldn’t have been made, but we all make mistakes.  The key to Sony’s viability as a player in the online world is that it be able to learn from its mistake.

Today, Sony is reporting a new intrusion:

In a warning to users issued on Thursday, So-net said an intruder tried 10,000 times to access the provider’s “So-net” point service […] from the same IP address.

There is absolutely no reason why any online service should allow an intruder to attempt 10 unsuccessful login attempts from the same address, much less 10,000.  This represents a complete failure to grasp the fundamentals of security, and any reasonable observer would have to conclude that Sony is completely security-blind and totally naive.  You can expect many, many more stories like this to emerge unless the company adopts a complete reinvention of its online presence.

Italian Home Construction

Vanessa and I had the opportunity to visit some friends who are building a new home just south of Arezzo, Italy.  The home was in a partially-completed state, which afforded a very interesting look at construction techniques.

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Almost-finished home

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Honeycomb brick used for inner wall structure

The first thing you notice about homes built in Italy – and across most of Europe – is that they are built almost exclusively out of concrete and / or stone and brick.  The “bricks and sticks” construction we use across the United States is practically unheard of.

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Textured styrofoam used for insulation in walls and floors

The construction is very, very strong.  The home we visited was a modest, three bedroom home of perhaps 1500 sq. ft.  The walls were built of three layers: an inner structural brick honeycomb is layered with sheets of textured sytrofoam and then covered with exterior stonework.  The resulting wall is well over a foot thick: exterior stone / concrete / honeycomb brick / styrofoam / inner concrete.  As you can guess, these layers can withstand significant earthquakes and are almost impervious to heat and cold extremes.

The foundation is likewise impressive.  In the US, a typical slab foundation has footers poured around the exterior and a thin slab floor.  Here, deep and thick footers are poured underneath all of the walls, and the slab itself is about six inches.

Heating is provided with floor heaters.  The slab is covered with textured styrofoam, onto which is laid heat transferring tubing.  This is then covered with a thin layer of self-leveling concrete.  The insulated concrete layer holds heat well and keeps the interior isolated from the cold foundation.

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Floor heat distribution system. Each valve controls heat to a different zone. The tubes for each zone aren't installed yet.

Each room is a separate zone, so it is very simple to heat some areas of the home and not others.  This is a very efficient design. The multi-zone distribution system with its independent thermostats and valves is a work of art in itself.

We have a floor heating system in the home where we are staying and it is interesting how well it works.  Since the building itself radiates heat across the entire floor, it is virtually draftless, and you feel very comfortable even though the room itself is much cooler than would feel comfortable with a furnace.  The home is a rambling restored farmhouse, but due to the multi-zone heating system, we only bother to heat the bedroom, since we aren’t at home much.  This would be impossible to pull off efficiently using American style furnaces.  My sinuses are also really happy with this approach.

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Master plumbing distribution center.

Furnaces and boilers are practically unheard of.  Here, homes are outfitted with powerful, efficient instant water heaters.  The heaters are designed to heat water for the radiators and floor heaters as well as the hot water supply for the home.  Unlike models I’ve used in America, these suckers pump out a lot of heat.

Since the home is very dependent on a lot of water tubing, and since this tubing is built into foot-thick walls and foundations, plumbing is taken quite seriously.  Instead of the haphazard approach taken in American construction where water supply is run rather ad-hoc, in Italy the water is brought to a central utility room where each zone has independent cutoffs.  As you can see from the photos, the tubing is substantial and built to last.  It needs to be – any leak is a major headache.

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Typical beam-and-tile construction. Layers of tile and insulation keep the ceiling cool. No attics needed.

Roofs here are almost universally made of Italian tile.  It’s a shame we can’t use tile in Texas any longer – ever since the Mayfest storm of 1995, tile is a thing of the past.  The layers of tile, styrofoam, and more tile create a well-insulated roof that doesn’t produce radiant heat like asphalt shingles.

Windows, as in the States, are double-paned “Low-E” design.  Unlike in the States, however, almost all Italian windows can be easily opened and are installed with shutters.  The combination of open windows and shutters to block the hot sun helps to keep the heat out while still providing a breeze.

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Preinstalled solar and A/C hookups.

Most Italians don’t bother with air conditioning.  Summers are hot – about as hot as in Texas – but with such energy efficient homes, a reasonable set of fans can keep you comfortable on all but the hottest of days.  Homes, however, are often plumbed for air conditioning with coolant tubing pre-installed.  This makes it easy to decide after you’ve lived in the space for a season or two exactly how much air conditioning you want and in which rooms.

Likewise, all homes are required to have preinstalled hookups for solar panels.  You see a lot of solar going on here.  The farmhouse where Vanessa and I are staying features an array of 40 panels producing quite a lot of power.

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Electrical utility, wired for everything currently imaginable.

Since the home is hard to modify once it’s built, Italians have a strong incentive to go out of their way to use good materials and put a lot of thought into planning.  Electrical utilities along with phone, cable, fiber, alarm wiring, etc. are all carefully planned and brought into a central utility room.  We do the same in the States, except that here, you’ll see a lot of wiring pulled for appliances that don’t exist, “just in case.”

Italy is a nation that learned lessons about “building to last” a thousand years ago.  All over the country you find homes, churches, and entire towns that are well over five hundred years old and still in perfectly usable condition.  It’s no surprise, then, that while we build homes and neighborhoods that last fifty to a hundred years, the Italians are still building homes and neighborhoods that can last five hundred or even a thousand years.

It is a set of lessons we would do well to learn.

Epicurean Tour 2011

Me, with dancing Spaniards

I’m writing this from the Piazza del Campo in Siena, where a huge group of littering Spanish tourists, who, failing in their attempts to start “The Wave,” have just embarked on a mass-performance of “La Macarena.”  Seriously.  It’s pretty epic fail. At least, for a change, the embarrassing tourists aren’t Americans.

So, how came I to be in Italia, you might ask?  At least, you might ask this question if you didn’t know my Italophile wife.

It all started after our honeymoon.  We were bemoaning the fact that, so soon after our wedding, she had to pack up and go on tour in Holland for two weeks.  I dutifully sent her on her way, and I was, as always, proud of her for her work, but sad to see her go.

A simple twist of fate later, and I found myself with some free time on my hands.  I got a decent deal on a plane ticket to Amsterdam and, lo and behold, found myself on tour with Vanessa for the second half of her tour.

The next thing you know, and we’ve found a pair of cheap tickets to Italy, and a free place to stay, and, uh… well… you guessed it, we’re in Italy for a couple of weeks.

We’ve been eating our way through Europe like a pair of starving Gypsy moths.  As usual, Tuscany does not disappoint.  From Bistecca alla Fiorentina to Ravioli con Ricotta e Tartufo, we’re dining like Scottish kings – amazing food, really cheap.

For updates and photos, just follow my Twitter feed.  I’ll update this post when more photos come online.

Hackintosh vs iPad

A lot of people come into the coffee shop with iPads and are intrigued by my Hackintosh…. As a portable, I’ll take my Hackintosh over an iPad for most everything I do, with some caveats.

First off, it cost about $500 as configured (includes the cost of a Snow Leopard install disc) – 2 GB RAM, 64GB SSD (soon to be 2x for 128 GB total), camera, Wifi, bluetooth.  That’s considerably cheaper than a comparable iPad (actually there is no comparable iPad, but if there were it would likely cost close to $1K).  It can run almost any Mac, Windows, or Linux app (I *love* the Ubuntu 10.10 netbook edition) – “almost” because it won’t run apps that exceed its screen size without connecting to an external monitor.  With 3 USB ports and an SD slot, it can connect to a KVM so I can use it as a desktop Mac – it’s about as powerful as a Mac mini.  And it runs Snow Leopard *very* well – I never have lockups, everything works – I even use it onstage for my software synths, which usually are the litmus test for stability.

The keyboard is cramped and requires a slight relearning curve but I am confident I can out-type compared to the on-screen iPad keyboard – if you have an iPad keyboard case, however, you’ll win.  The battery life is less but still impressive – ~5 hrs of heavy use, 6+ hrs of light use, 48+ hrs of sleep, depending on monitor brightness.  It’s about as thick and heavy as an iPad if you have an iPad keyboard case.  It’s also tough.  Mine has been dropped on concrete many times thanks to clumsy drummers and shows almost no signs of wear.

I have the Mini 9, while Vanessa has the 10v.  The 10v has a slightly larger screen and keyboard (the keyboard is a lot less cramped) and can accept a standard 2.5″ hard drive so you can up it to 500 GB or more, or use a big SSD (if you can afford it).  The 10v, by all accounts, is as good as a Mini 9 as a Hackintosh.

Of course there is a level of tweakery required to get the thing running, but it’s actually fairly easy to do, as there are really good guides and helper apps available now.  In short, you copy a file onto one small USB drive, you copy Snow Leopard install onto another, larger drive, and then boot up from the USBs.  Two or three clicks and you’re installed to 10.6.  A couple of tweaks and you’re ready for 10.6.7.  The only thing that doesn’t work at that point is the internal mic, which requires a hack to enable (USB headset mics work fine).  The hack took me about 15 minutes to complete.

Next step: install Snow Leopard on my desktop.

Jupiter Journey

Jupiter

Once upon a time a Jupiter Jumper came to Earth.  The Jumper asked me to come to Jupiter.

He said, “Would you like to come to Jupiter?” then said, “Of course you would.  It’s only a matter of two blocks, Mars Street and Jupiter Street.”

“And that’s only 6,000,000,000 miles,” he continued.  “You travel only on Halley’s Comet Bus, and Falling Star Airlines!”

I said, “Okay!” and the Jumper beeped with joy.

At the Comet bus station I said, “Two tickets to Mars.”

At Mars I said, “Two round tickets to Jupiter.”

At Jupiter I asked, “Where are we?”

No responce [sic]!  I looked back.  He wasn’t there!

Also Jupiter

I rented a Braniff Flying Saucer and set the dial on “Earth.” I went between Venus and Mars.  No Earth!  The Jupiter Jumper was about 100 miles away.  He destroyed Earth!

I shot a missile at him from the Flying Saucer.  It hit him and he fell into the Sun and got burned up.

The Earth came back together and the dead and injured people, animals, fish, and birds came back to life.

Next time I take a trip I’ll go to Pluto, Neptune, Uranus, or Venus.

Rip R.
3rd Grade

Lookout Mobile Security

Lookout is a nifty utility that performs a few useful functions on your Blackberry, Windows Mobile, or Android phone – virus detection, backup, and location.

I’m not that interested in virus detection: since I don’t install non-Market apps, it’s very unlikely that I would pick one up – and so far there have been no real virus outbreaks on Android anyway.  Likewise, backup isn’t all that useful to me, either, since pretty much everything on the phone that I care about is already backed up with Google.

But the location service is something that might come in very handy someday.  In less than a minute on the web site, Lookout had located my phone with frightening accuracy.

When it says “zero meters” it isn’t kidding, either.  Lookout located not only the correct room in my house, but also pinpointed the side of the room where my phone was sitting.

The other location feature that promises to be useful is the “Scream” function.  If you misplace your phone in the house, you can usually call it, and when it rings, find it.  However, if I’m alone, I’m screwed, because I don’t have another phone from which to call my cell phone.  And if the phone is muted then calling it won’t work. But Lookout’s “Scream” works even if the phone is muted, and it’s pretty loud, too (it maxes out your phones volume).  You will, however, want to keep your Lookout account private.  Otherwise, your roommate might be tempted to make your phone start screaming while you’re out on opening night of La Boheme.