when i was young

This picture was taken on October 17, 1986. It showed up as a random wallpaper on my computer, and I started thinking about all the details in the photo, and thought to post the picture here and look at them more closely.

compuserve contest

OK, upper left. I don’t remember where I got the DANGER sign … probably from the factory I had quit two years earlier. I’m guessing Robin made me the valentine. Next to the valentine is a Gandalf figurine from/by/? Royal Daulton. My mom gave this to me; she mistakenly thought I was a big Tolkien fan. I don’t know where this thing is today, but I see it sells for around $175 online. Oops, guess I should find it.

Underneath those items, left to right, I see a turntable atop a receiver, then a dual cassette player with a few tapes on top, a cabinet that held vinyl records, and a calendar from Major League Baseball (I think).

There’s Robin, obviously … she had just turned 33, which is how old Sara is now (when this picture was taken, Sara was 8). Then me, also 33, still with hair, and the remnants of the physique I had after ten years of hard labor as a steelworker. I’m not sure from this picture who the person is in the bottom right, but I have another picture from a different angle that would answer that question, if I felt like finding it.

On the wall, upper right, there are a couple of collector’s plates, a collector’s doll, a bare light bulb, and three mementos from my Spanish grandmother: a mixer, a washer, and a dryer (I believe the latter two were salt and pepper shakers). On the wall beneath those items is a San Francisco Giants calendar.

On to the desk. The monitor is a color one made by Commodore. There is a calendar on top of it, probably word-of-the-day, since that’s what Robin usually got me in those days. She still gets them for me every year, although the theme is different at times (this year it’s the Word Origin Calendar, and today’s “word” is “monkey wrench”). There’s a spray bottle of something … I’m guessing screen cleaner.

Ah, the screen. I am pointing at a trivia game. CompuServe had a nationwide trivia contest, and somehow, I made the finals. The event commemorated in this picture is the finals, me against some other guy I didn’t know. The match went into overtime; I lost on a Beatles question, as I recall. I wasn’t working for CompuServe yet, so I was paying to play in this tournament.

You can see floppy discs underneath the Giants calendar. On the bottom right is the printer, dot matrix I’m sure, sitting on a box with paper hidden inside it. I love the “I’M A WRITER” sign. At that time, I was in the second semester of my junior year at Cal, and had probably finally quit taking writing classes from the invaluable Marcy Alancraig. Not sure why I thought I needed the sign … I’ll leave it to you to decide if I ended up being a writer or not.

The books in front of the printer box are a baseball stat book (no Internet stat sites yet), a one-volume encyclopedia (no Wikipedia yet), and an atlas (no Google maps yet). I assume I had them to help with trivia questions, just as I had my friends with me to help, as well.

Finally, there is the gawdawful computer setup. Start with a basic Commodore 64. In the back of the C-64 on the left is the modem … might have been 1200 baud. That white line stretching from the modem to the bottom of the screen is the phone cord … the phone was on the wall on the other side of the room.

The cream-colored rectangular thing behind the C-64 on the right was the floppy disc drive. It wasn’t the right model … for some time after the C-64 came out, there was no disc drive for it, so we bought a drive made for the PET, a Commodore computer that preceded the VIC-20 and C-64. This particular drive wasn’t totally compatible with the C-64. Copy protection didn’t like it (not that we had many protected programs), and it had some trouble communicating with the computer. The flat thing lying between the C-64 and the hard drive was a circuit board (is that the word?) that contained software which allowed us to use the “wrong” drive. The white stripe underneath the board is probably a couple of books of checks … the board had a tendency to sag, which made it work kinda crappy, so we always had to stick something underneath it to prop it up, and checkbooks were just about the right size and shape.

One last note: doesn’t Robin look lovely?

kindle fire, first thoughts

The Kindle Fire is a piece of ideological machinery.

I suppose I should explain what a Kindle Fire is, for those who don’t know. The Kindle is an e-reader from Amazon that is very popular. There are now many models of the Kindle for you to read your books and newspapers on. The Kindle Fire is something like a tablet: it reads books and newspapers, and magazines, and plays music, and shows movies, and plays games, and … well, you get the idea.

I said “something like a tablet” because it’s nonsense to compare it to “real” tablets like the iPad. It doesn’t have a camera, or a microphone, or GPS. This, among other things, is why the Kindle Fire only costs $199, while the iPad 2 goes for $499.

That is the magic number, 199. If it was $299, I wouldn’t have bought it. I don’t really need a tablet, even a crippled one like the Kindle Fire. But $199 makes it an impulse buy.

And so I pre-ordered one, and it arrived Tuesday, which was pretty quick considering Tuesday was originally the release date. I turned it on straight out of the box … it knew my name, it knew what books I had bought for previous Kindles, it knew what songs I’d bought through Amazon along with all the songs I uploaded into the Amazon cloud, it knew what apps I had gotten for my smartphone via the Amazon Market. There is something cool about turning on a machine straight out of the box, and it already knows who you are.

I signed up for a three-month free trial subscription to Wired. When I opened it, there was an animation of curtains opening, and then the cover gradually “drew itself” until it was complete.

I listened to a song, “Alcohol” by Brad Paisley.

I read a chapter from a book, A Woman of Heart by my friend Marcy Alancraig.

I downloaded the Amazon free app of the day, Bejeweled 2, and played it for a bit.

I checked my email, played around a bit on Facebook, looked at my blog.

I watched a movie, Vengeance with Johnny Hallyday. The movie was free as part of my one-month free trial of Amazon Prime.

I probably did some other stuff. Then I went to bed.

So, why is the Kindle Fire an ideological machine? Because, while it allows you to do all of the above, it exists for only one purpose: to get you to spend money at Amazon. The magazine came from the Amazon newsstand. The song was uploaded by me to my Amazon cloud storage, but if I wanted more Brad Paisley, I could buy it from Amazon. The book was from Amazon. The game was from Amazon. The movie was from Amazon.

It took less than a day for hackers to start breaking down the Kindle Fire so it could be used for extra functions, but I’m not much for that (too lazy). Without those hacks, you have a machine that resembles a tablet, except you can’t play outside of the yard Amazon has created for you. It’s like a prison with invisible walls. You think you are free, but you are only free to buy from Amazon.

This isn’t a bad thing for a person like me, who already buys stuff from Amazon. I don’t need most of the things a real tablet offers. I use my computer for most things (I am on it a lot), and I use my smartphone when I’m out of the house. To say that the Kindle Fire is like a crippled iPad misses the point … you know the old line, “you say that as if it was a bad thing.” The Kindle Fire is simple, it does what I want it to do, and does it easily. There are things it doesn’t do, and if I cared about them, I wouldn’t have a Kindle Fire. If you decide to stick a Kindle Fire in a loved one’s xmas stocking because they want a tablet, that loved one will be disappointed.

It’s not a tablet. The Kindle Fire is a media machine that locks you largely into the Amazon world. The ideology of the Kindle Fire is that Amazon will give you what they think you want/need, and you won’t ask for anything Amazon doesn’t give you. (Unless you’re a hacker, or you know how to get the fruits of the hacker’s labor.)

In case it’s not clear, BTW, after two days, I love my Kindle Fire. I could complain … the glare on the screen is bothersome, the screen itself is only 7” (although I’ve gotten used to reading and watching movies on my little smartphone, so the Kindle Fire seems huge to me), and, of course, it is nowhere near being a functional computer on the level of a real tablet like the iPad. But, like real tablet owners, I now have this little machine that lets me read books, listen to music, watch movies, play games, check my email, hang out on Facebook, read magazines and newspapers … you know, the stuff you do on a real tablet … and it cost $199.

One last note: it took me less than 24 hours to start treating the Kindle Fire like just another tool lying around the house. The thrill wore off by the time I woke up Wednesday morning. It’s fun to have around, though.

data and design

Steven Levy, author of In the Plex, has already created a Google+ page for his book. I placed that page into one of my G+ circles (Geeks, if you must know), and via that page, I read a brief post by Levy regarding a Mashable article, “Two Schools of Thought: The Key Difference Between Apple and Google.” Levy drew our attention to the following factoids in the article, which was written by someone who had just read both Levy’s book and the recent biography of Steve Jobs:

If you need proof that data is king at Google, look no further than In the Plex. The word “data” appears in Levy’s book approximately 319 times. “Design,” on the other hand, appears fewer than 60 times.


The word “design” and its variations appears in the Steve Jobs biography 432 times. The word “data” appears just 26 times in the book.

Levy adds, “the comparison itself is built on data. That's kind of an implicit indication that Google is on to something.”

All of this led me to reflect on the reasons why I have never owned an Apple product.

Take computers. Our first two computers were “toys” (VIC-20 and Commodore 64). Then we had various DOS clones, followed eventually by a Windows clone. At some point, we started buying actual name-brand machines: Acer, Compaq, HP. Were any of these computers as good as their Apple counterparts (Apple II and various Macintoshes)? Probably not. Did I care? No, because the computers we had were always cheaper than Apples, and they did what I wanted them to do. They weren’t always pretty about it, they were never something you fell in love with, but they worked just fine. Apple had better commercials, and their computers were lots prettier. I didn’t care.

Or take MP3 players. I was an early adopter, getting a Rio 500 somewhere around the beginning of the year 2000 (almost two years before the iPod made its debut). The second player I got was a Rio Karma, and holy moly, did that thing kick ass. It had gapless MP3 playing, an equalizer within an equalizer (I know that’s not exactly right, but I’m not a techie … it had a 5-band equalizer, and you could set “0” for each band, which gave it a wide range), a 20gig hard drive, and it played lots of geeky formats like Ogg Vorbis and FLAC. That sucker ruled. And it looked like this:


Honestly, it was uglier in real life than it is in this picture, thick, heavy, as if it was a prop from The Flintstones.

Eventually, Apple turned the music world on its head with the iPod, which was a lot prettier than the Karma. It didn’t do as many things as the Karma, but it was easy to use, and it worked with iTunes.

Somewhere in all of this, I started listening to subscription streaming services like Musicmatch, Rhapsody, Zune, MOG, and Spotify. Steve Jobs, meanwhile, famously said that no one wanted to rent music, they wanted to own it. So I had personal devices and computer software that allowed for streaming, and never much used iTunes. iTunes and iPods were pretty, but I preferred access to a gazillion songs whenever I wanted them.

Or smartphones. iPhones are pretty, and expensive. My first smartphone ran WebOS … I was a Palm user for more than a decade. After that, I moved to Android, a more popular OS than the one that Apple uses.

Where am I going with all of this? My brain started mulling it over when I saw that part about Google, Apple, data, and design. I have a clearly-established preference, one that goes back a few decades, for data over design. The first disk drive we ever bought was for the Commodore 64 … it was the model meant for the PET line of computers, which meant it was “better” in some ways than the official C-64 model, but it required an ugly board sticking out of the back end of the 64 to make it work. Apple makes wonderful products that are masterpieces of design (and are fine on a functional basis as well). But design doesn’t interest me nearly as much as does data.

Placing myself on this data/design continuum, I think I finally understand why the death of Steve Jobs was so important to so many people. There was an aesthetic element to the products Jobs gave us that inspired a romantic appreciation for those products. Competing products from other companies seem prosaic next to what Jobs produced; they lack romance, they lack the almost religious inspiration that Apple users felt about what Jobs meant to their lives. People like me never looked at our computers or our music players or any other piece of electronic equipment and thought “how pretty.” We look at those things and think “how much.” We choose data over design. We have a hard time understanding the outpouring of affection when Jobs died, because our machines don’t matter to us in the same way … our machines are tools, not works of art.

steve and al

When I am on the road (which doesn’t happen too frequently), I oddly get a narrower view of the outside world than I do from home. In the plugged-in world of the 21st century, it is easy enough to “keep up,” but I pay less attention. I don’t spend a lot of time searching for information; I get the stuff that falls into the basic categories of my already-established interests, because that’s what turns up on a cursory look at my feed reader and Twitter and Google+.

Thus, I have a shallow knowledge of the events of the past ten days or so, while a few items seem even more important than usual because of the rarity of anything breaking through. In particular, I’m referring to the deaths of two titans of American business, Steve Jobs and Al Davis.

Both men were known for their attempts to have complete control over their domains. In Jobs' case, this meant Apple products were playful, but hard to play with … they were intuitive, they were aesthetically pleasing, but for the most part, they did only what Steve wanted them to do … his need for control meant Apple products were mostly closed systems. (There are reasons why this might be useful. I have an Android phone that runs a version of the operating system several iterations older than the most recent, because the openness of the Android system allows companies like Sprint to alter the OS enough to make compatibility an issue.) Al Davis had a vision, and he followed it, and he was a huge success, changing professional football in the process. He also had a “my way or the highway” mentality that worked fine as long as he was ahead of the cutting edge, but which became an albatross when the game passed him by.

Ultimately, both Davis and Jobs were able to create products that invited an intense identification for their consumers. Apple users could be confident that the things they owned were cooler than other people’s (often true) and, at some level, better as well (not true as often). Apple products are the best combination of coolness and usefulness; there are more useful tools (I’m thinking of an old MP3 player I had that kicked the iPod’s ass … it looked like a fossilized owl turd and weighed a ton), but none of them are cool (did I mention the owl turd?). Al Davis’ legacy comes in large part from his forward-looking career in the 1960s, but in the East Bay, he’s known for Just Win, Baby and Raider Nation. Raider Nation is both a typical sports fan’s idea of community and a reflection of Davis himself. The Nation isn’t cool so much as it’s bad ass, but it has a clear identity with great appeal to its members. (It occurs to me that Steve Jobs created a similar sports-fan mentality for Apple users.) Raider Nation survived when Davis screwed over Oakland and moved to Southern California … it flourished when the team returned to Oakland, even as Al’s transformation of the Coliseum helped speed the demise of the baseball team that also played there.

Steve Jobs and Al Davis created products that inspired loyalty from their consumers. Even given their great and innovative accomplishments in their respective fields, it is that loyalty, I think, that has led to so many emotional responses to their deaths.

kindle fire

Tablets are still in that vague “do I really need one?” zone for me. They seem pretty cool, and I’d love to have one to play with. But I spend more time than most people on my real computer, and thanks to Sprint’s unlimited data plan, my phone covers my away-from-computer needs. So a tablet is nowhere near a necessity.

As the rumors began last week about the Amazon tablet, I asked my wife at what price would a tablet become an impulse buy. Obviously, I didn’t mean like when you buy a magazine for $2.95 at the checkout line in the supermarket. I meant, at what price would you consider a tablet, even though it’s a luxury, not a necessity. She said maybe $150-200.

Since the rumored price of the Amazon tablet varied, with the lowest predictions being around $299 with perks, and since I really had no reason to get a tablet except for Boys with Toys syndrome, I figured she was right, and that this tablet wouldn’t be for me.

So today, the big announcement came. It’s called the Kindle Fire, and it will cost $199.

JR Raphael said some of the things that crossed my mind:

Amazon's Kindle Fire may be based on Android, but it is not an "Android tablet" in the way we normally think of the term. If you're expecting the full-fledged tablet experience, you may be in for a disappointment. …

[T]his isn't to say the Amazon Kindle Fire is a bad device; it's just a different kind of device than what most of us envision when we hear the term "tablet." Ultimately, it's a media consumption slate that also runs some apps and has a Web browser -- a gadget that falls somewhere between an e-reader/media player and a fully functional Android tablet. …

All considered, if you're looking for a simple slate with an intuitive, easy-to-use interface -- and affordable price -- Amazon's Kindle Fire may be an interesting new option. But if you want the kind of experience and versatility you see on other tablets, you're probably looking in the wrong place. Make no mistake about it: For all practical purposes, the Kindle Fire is an Amazon media device, not a Google Android tablet. We're talking about a whole new platform.

What is odd, at least to me, is that the above makes a lot of sense, yet it also explains why I’ve already pre-ordered a Kindle Fire. As I told my wife, what has convinced me is precisely that it lacks many functions I expected. The price is right, and it doesn't really duplicate stuff my phone does. It leaves my phone to do what it does best, and takes the Amazon “experience” and does it better than my phone does.

I still don’t know what I’d do with a tablet. But I do know what I’ll do with a Kindle Fire, and I know that I won’t expect it to be a “real” tablet. I suspect, come November, if people ask me if I have a tablet, the correct answer will be, “no, I have a Kindle.”

the further adventures of customer service

Or, what Netflix could learn from Baseball-Reference. com.

I sponsor several pages on the Baseball-Reference website. Some are gifts, some have sentimental value, most were chosen on a spur-of-the-moment basis. I like supporting the site, which is invaluable for baseball fans, and, to be honest, it hasn’t really cost that much (for instance, I only paid $2 to sponsor the Marshall Renfroe page for a year).

As an annual sponsorship nears its end, the site emails me to let me know I can renew. If I understand the way it works, if I don’t renew, the cost will be higher for the next buyer (on a sliding scale where the price gets lower the longer the page remains available). Anyway, the two most recent renewal notices brought something to my attention: pages are a LOT more expensive than they used to be.

Two years ago, I sponsored the Rich Aurilia page for $15. Last year, I renewed for $10. This year, it will cost me $55 to renew. Last year, I sponsored the Darrell Evans page for $10. This year? $85.

Needless to say, I won’t be renewing at those prices. But I wondered, why these large increases for players who wouldn’t seem to have increased in value over the last year. So I contacted customer service.

I got a timely reply, explaining that the cost of a page is based on the traffic it gets, and that there was a bug in their software that was undercounting those page hits. The bug was fixed, and what would have ordinarily been a gradual increase in the cost of pages was instead instantaneous.

I don’t know … I realize to some extent, this is no different than Reed Hastings saying he screwed up. But it felt different. I didn’t get a sob story, I didn’t get a rude dismissal, I didn’t get any “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” I just got a clear explanation. I don’t have to like the price increase; I don’t have to pay it. But now I understand it, which is how it should be.

Look for me on the Marshall Renfroe page.

google+, three months in

Despite what you may have heard, Google+ still exists. No, it’s not Facebook, but for some, that might be a selling point rather than an entry on the debit side. Facebook seems to like G+, since they are scrambling to add services to FB that emulate G+. Meanwhile, Google is busy adding things, as well, which I’ll mention at the end of this post.

Personally, I haven’t seen a big growth in the number of G+ users with whom I interact. Most of the people I know who are interested have joined, and most of them are still around and reasonably active. I still see posts that say, in essence, “I still don’t know what this is or why I am here,” and yesterday, I saw my first “I never should have joined, bye” post. Most of my online friends, even those who use Google+, still assume their primary audience is on Facebook, so photos and the like get posted far more often at FB.

The majority of posts I see are still from geeks and techies. My family doesn’t show up very often. I do see a lot of posts from people I “know” but don’t really know. There are also a lot of posts that consist of links to other works by the poster (I’m guilty of this, myself). In short, amongst the people I know, there hasn’t been much growth over the last couple of months. (Of course, I have no idea what is going on in private and semi-private posts, which is something to keep in mind when you see G+ evaluated by the number of posts … no one knows how much is happening out of the public eye.)

Me, I find myself checking G+ before I check Facebook or Twitter. When there is breaking news of some sort, Twitter is always my first choice, but I use FB pretty much just to keep in touch with all the people I know who aren’t on G+. Yes, that’s a lot of people, but give Google time.

As for what Google is up to, the biggest news is that Google+ is out of beta. Well, I’ve used the wrong terminology. Up to now, G+ has been in “field trial”, and now it is in “beta”. Whatever … the key point is that anyone can now sign up for Google+. Invitations are no longer needed. Beyond that, Google has been working hard on Hangouts, the multi-user chat function in G+. They’ve added collaborative features, and for the first time, you can participate in Hangouts with your phone. The latter has been a point of contention for my son since the day he signed up, so he’ll be happy to see this new feature. Unfortunately, it requires a better version of Android than is currently available for the Sprint Epic 4G, so we’ll have to wait still longer to try this out.

Right now, Google+ feels kinda like Blu-Ray. Those of us who are dedicated to it consider it part of our daily lives, and we tend to forget that much of the world doesn’t care.

the social me

There’s been a lot of noise today coming from the park a couple of blocks from our house. I’ve been out a couple of times, and had to drive a bit out of my way to get around. Plus, our entire block is filled with parked cars … I even saw one person waiting for someone else to leave so they could take their spot … understand, this is not normal, even when someone on the block has a big party, there is usually a space or two to park your car.

Being clueless, I had no idea what was happening at the park. I could have walked over there … that would be, oh, a two-minute jaunt. I could have driven by there when I was in the car. But no, I searched for the name of the park on Twitter, and found out that the affair in question was a Berkeley High reunion party.

Is the point of this anecdote that the modern era of social networking is a good thing because information is at our fingertips? Or is it that I am such a pathetic hermit I’d rather find out what’s happening in my neighborhood via the Internet than actually talk to a human being?

further thoughts on breaking news

Souciant has published a piece of mine that grew out of a few recent posts here. Check it out:

"Breaking the News"

ETA: I told myself several times yesterday to remember to mention this when the Souciant piece went live, then forgot about it today. This piece wouldn't have happened without Charlie Bertsch and his excellent editing skills. Or, if it happened, it would have been half as long, one-quarter as interesting, and would have really been a rehash of the blog posts.

google+, four weeks in

The basic structure of Google+ continues to be enticing and marginally useful. I say “marginally” because, despite an impressive growth in the number of G+ users during this “field trial,” most people I know are either not participating yet in Google+, or are still posting the vast majority of their online output on Facebook or Twitter. I haven’t changed my mind about the pleasures of using Google+, nor have I changed my opinion that what a service like this needs is more users.

Meanwhile, though, Google has its own ideas about which users they want. Specially, Google is not happy with the use of pseudonyms, and have closed the accounts of people they find who aren’t using their real names. Two examples:

Dr. Kiki is an established online presence, a neurophysiologist who has moved from academia to science journalism. She makes no effort to hide her real name (Kirsten Sanford), but it is as Dr. Kiki that most of us know her and her work. She has a weekly netcast on TWiT, “Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour” (TWiT is not only one of the most popular producers of tech-related netcasts, but has spent a lot of time the last month talking about Google+, largely on “This Week in Google,” with that talk being objective but very positive). Yesterday, Dr. Kiki made a guest appearance on TWiG, explaining that Google had cut off her G+ account. The story was a bit complicated … I wasn’t sure if she was canned for simply using a pseudonym, or for having “Dr.” in her name (apparently that isn’t allowed, either). The point is that someone clearly not trying to scam anyone, someone with a following, someone who appears on a popular online network, was booted from Google+ because her real name isn’t Dr. Kiki.

A friend of mine has had a pseudonymous presence online for as long as I have known her, and that’s a long time. She does a good enough job of keeping her “real” life and her pseudonymous life separate … I don’t think I realized they were the same person for quite awhile. She has good reasons for using a pseudonym … as I recall, these reasons have changed over time, and at this point, many of her online companions know her by her pseudonym. She climbed on the Google+ bandwagon, and I looked forward to seeing her there. But she didn’t last long, deciding to preemptively remove herself from G+ before her pseudonym led Google to eject her. I have more than 300 people in my G+ circles, but only a couple of dozen of them are actual friends (most are semi-famous techies of interest). Now I have one less G+ friend.

There are reasons for requiring real names in online environments. Pseudonymous comments sections often devolve into useless bastions of vicious screeds (I’ve given up reading comments on SF Gate, for example). But there are important reasons for maintaining a pseudonym, as well, and thus far Google does not seem willing to treat users on their individual behaviors rather than on the name they choose to use.

On a different note, here’s a good, short article on being a newcomer to Google+. It’s written by someone with extensive online experience; she’s not a newbie to the tech world. And she likes what she’s seen so far on G+. But she also finds it is still a bit intimidating: “Stumbling through Google+ with two left feet.” (It is perhaps noteworthy in the above context to note that the author is Amber MacArthur, a respected, veteran Canadian reporter and online personality who goes by the pseudonym “Amber Mac.” That is the name she uses in the above-mentioned article, which appears in The Globe and Mail, and is the name she uses on Google+.)