Entries in the ‘Essays’ Category:

In Defense Of Discussions

Comments have long been the monkey’s paw of blogs. Comment threads can foster a sense of community, and they add value for both blogger and readers. Comments are also breeding grounds for flame wars and spam. Moderating comments on popular blogs can take an enormous amount of time, leading many sites to eventually disable comments altogether.

Dave Winer’s latest idea to solve this problem would force comments to be short, direct responses to the blog post. He’d eliminate discussions in his comments by having a 24-hour blackout period during which all comments are hidden. After that time, approved comments are shown, and new comments are forbidden. He would also enforce a character limit to make sure that comments are short.1

The character limit sounds like a good idea. I think he’s right that long comments should be separate articles rather than an overwrought argument dangling off someone else’s work. But I don’t think I can follow him on condemning discussion threads.

It’s easy to say that most blogs shouldn’t have open comments. They certainly encourage spam bots and flame wars. There are some sites, like Slashdot, where the comment threads are more interesting than the articles, but those are an exception. Sites that give how tos or advice often collect additions and errata in the comments, but the Stack Overflow paradigm works better for sites like that.

I like open comments for a more visceral reason. Active commenters make the blog lush and vibrant, and they grow into little communities. Commenters reach out in different directions, they intertwine and compete for space. It’s something spontaneous and intimate, and it would be totally lost if people took it to their own blogs or always kept on-topic.

Comments on a blog following Dave Winer’s prescription will be dull and sterile. The whole blog will affect an exaggerated narcissism, where only talk about the blogger is welcome. Maybe that’s Dave Winer’s vision of blogs, but it isn’t mine.

  1. He’s long held that most commenters should be posting on their own blogs instead of commenting. Trackbacks were supposed to be a way to bridge the gap, but they were mostly used for spam. 

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The Myth of Privacy

Facebook has been playing around with their privacy settings a bit, making users’ formerly private data public by default, and in some cases with no options for hiding the data again. They’ve even brought other sites into the fray. Pandora, for example, will now show your playlist to your Facebook friends unless you opt-out.

This didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. You just update your privacy settings. But then I remembered an episode of The Wonder Years where Becky Slater, Kevin’s ex-girlfriend, tells Kevin’s friends that he made fun of them behind their backs. They’re mad it him for being a jerk. He’s mad at her for violating his trust. Hilarity, tenderness, and narration ensued.

Facebook is the world’s ex-girlfriend.

That’s why everyone is so angry. People trusted Facebook with their secrets. Now that some of those secrets are slipping out, they have no idea what else Facebook will talk about.

This really was inevitable. Facebook’s business model is based on selling your information to advertisers. Mark Zuckerberg has made no secret of his intention to eliminate privacy on Facebook, but I don’t think you ever had any to begin with. Sure, there were all the little rules you could tweak to throw up a customized walled garden around your life, but those walls were built on quicksand. It seems obvious now, but once they have your data they can do anything with it.

Do you have any options for keeping your data private? You could help Diaspora get off the ground,1 then keep your social network data on your own server. That’s not perfect, because I guarantee that there will be bugs that leak data which should be private. You could abandon social networks, stick to your personal blog, and smug your way to Smugtown, but anything you write down could end up in the public record through litigation. Robert Scoble knows first hand:

Remember, I worked at Microsoft. What happened in 2000? The DOJ took all of Microsoft employees’ supposedly private emails and put them into public. So I knew back then that anything I put on a computer could end up on the front page of the New York Times.

We need to start thinking differently about privacy. Zuckerberg is right: privacy is ending. I know, it’s scary, but it’s good for most of us. Tim O’Reilly reminds us that we’re trading our privacy for benefits like convenience, rewards, and security. Our entire lives are already out there. We’ve let the smoke out of the privacy bottle, and it’s not going back in. You can’t have privacy anymore.2 Now you have to be aware of who has your data, and make sure that you get enough value for the data you’re giving up.

  1. This is important anyway. We need to build open infrastructures that aren’t controlled by any company. 

  2. You can have privacy if you never make any permanent recordings, and you’re never in view of any cameras. Good luck! 

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Service With A Smile?

I’ve been reading Best American Essays 1998. Made me feel like writing.

I hate serving. It’s not at all what I expected. I had some image of an “easy” job: take the orders, bring the food, handle the check. I thought I’d make a hundred bucks in a four hour shift. All the stories I had heard from friends in the business supported my beliefs.

I was wrong. It’s not that serving is a hard job, but there is so much more to it than the customers see. That’s the point–good service is that which isn’t noticed. If your server gets your order right, times your courses right, fills your drinks, you don’t think about it because that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Keeping up with the guests’ expectations is hard enough; to go beyond them is sometimes impossible, and, more often than not, without reward. Most people tip a percentage of their total bill, and most always use the same percentage no matter how much attention they required, or how long they stayed at a table. There is just no payoff for going above and beyond.

Since my income is inexorably tied to the tightness of my guests’ wallets, it is extremely frustrating that I can’t control their spending. Sure, I can suggest things, point them towards premium liquor, upsell shrimp over chicken, but in the end what difference will a few dollars make? Every five dollars they spend is one dollar in my pocket–if they tip 20%.

Where I work is generally a 20% restaurant. My tip average is actually around 23%, but that’s skewed by two-for-one coupons (always tip on the undiscounted price). Some days I’m really good. Most days I’m average. It’s hard for my scatter-brain to remember everything that I need to do, especially when I have more than three tables that haven’t ordered. That doesn’t happen often, since it’s a miracle when we have more than three tables in the restaurant at once.

This restaurant must be bleeding corporate dry. It’s a corporation that has opened a few different restaurants in the area (and St. Loius and Denver, apparently). All the other restaurants change the menu a couple times a year. They all redecorate every five years or so. All their employees know what the owners look like. Not us. We’ve had the same menu for three years. I don’t think the restaurant has ever been redecorated since it opened in ’89. The shade of every color is “hot”. The walls are fake adobe. There are ugly carpets on the walls, and garish coyotes framed in neon lights at the front, and nouveau-plaid carpet on the floors. I have seen one of the owners (there are two), since they took an interest in us in March. He sent in the corporate trainer for a few weeks and made regular visits. They planned a menu and uniform change for April. They changed our desserts from frozen, to house made. Things were looking promising.

It’s now almost July, and the great “new menu” idea has been quietly hung in the closet, next to our new uniforms. The new desserts take ten to fifteen minutes to prepare, too long for most people to wait. I don’t know if they ever planned to redecorate, or advertise so people know we’re here, or fix the signs on the outside of the mall so people can find us. More likely they just gave us up for dead. A review was published this week in the free newspaper in which someone in the company mentioned the possibility of moving us to another location. This company has never done that. Once they close a restaurant, it doesn’t reopen.

Is this the end of my restaurant? Maybe. I don’t plan to stick around. I’ve learned that I need to feel like I’m accomplishing something in my job. I need to have goals that I can reach, then sit back and say, “See that goal there? I reached it, no problem.” Even if it’s as simple as moving books from one side of a room to another, or mopping a floor, I can be happy doing it if I’m seeing my progress, watching the chaos retreat from my imposing order. The problem now is finding a job like that on which I can live.

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Fight Back Corporate Power

I sometimes wonder if the book 1984 has done more harm than good. It seems like it has made people believe an authoritarian government is inevitable and acceptable. When people see something like this (excerpted below) http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/users/rja14/tcpa-faq.html they dismiss it with a “big brother is watching.” That is not an appropriate response. An authoritarian government is not inevitable, and it is our duty to ensure it doesn’t happen.

Corporations are taking advantage of consumers, because we don’t care enough anymore to stand up for our rights. We live in a mostly free market, which means consumers are responsible for keeping the market in check, not the government. That is an extremely important concept that has been forgotten, so I’ll repeat it. The consumers are the group with the power in the free market.

How does this work? It’s deceptively simple. If you don’t like a company’s actions, you don’t give them business, and you let them know why. This is a boycott, and it has been an effective tool throughout history. There are two reasons it doesn’t work anymore. First, people don’t care. Most people have been screwed over by employers and the government for so long that they are just happy to be paying their bills. They don’t want to make waves. Second, people are not willing to make sacrifices for their beliefs. They may strongly oppose something, but they expect someone else to make the sacrifice needed to change it.

This is why I hate soccer moms so much. They embody these awful traits completely. As long as they have the illusion that their family is safe and happy, they couldn’t care less about the world. But who should make their family safe? The government, or special interest groups, or the entertainment industry. They aren’t responsible for it, and responsibility is really what we’re talking about.

Consumers have the power in a free market, but it is their responsibility to excercise that power. Corporations roll over us because we jump at the chance to lay down. Nothing will change until we stand up and take back what is ours. Nothing will change until we are willing to make sacrifices. You are not entitled to safety and luxury. You are entitled to dignity and fair treatment. We can’t just dismiss the authoritarian moves of the wealthy. We have to get mad and fight for what we want.

Read the excerpt about Palladium, the content control chipset

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I’m an Oreo whore.

I admit it. I’m not ashamed. I just can’t stop eating them once I start. Even before it goes in my mouth, the smell of the frosting fills my nostrils, and I know I’m going to have black teeth.

I think the packaging is conducive to binge eating. They don’t just give you one row, but three. That is three times the Oreo surface area to snack from, and we all know that something dissolves (or is eaten) faster when it has more surface area.

Aside from the surface area shenanigans, the bag is hard to close. You won’t find any Pringles-style lid here, no convenient chipesque sticky strips. No, with Oreos you have to roll the bag closed, but that can’t be done unless all three rows have been sufficiently depleted.

Once the bag is rolled to a point, the cardboard inside will constantly fight to be free. The bag unfurls itself, a flower releasing the sweet perfume of chocolate and frosting. It drags me by the nostrils and thrusts me into it’s cookie-sandwich bosom, where I’m lulled into eating just a few more.

Sometimes I am strong, and I can resist my evil temptress. That is when she tag teams me with milk. Oh, was there ever a better combination than Oreos and milk? Together they are the Sirens, drawing me towards diabetic rocks while I thrash against my restraints. But to be an oarsman, unmoved by the all-encompassing appeal of this chocolatey devil! If only I could keep to my intended mission, ignoring her call that whispers softly in my nose and makes my saliva run.

Damn you Oreos! You are a succubus that must be undone! How can I stand idly by and let another lose his way on the path to healthy snacking? There is only one way to destroy you for good–I must eat you all! I will save the world from your seductive charms! I will not stop until I have eaten every last Oreo! You will be defeated!

And that is why I end up eating too many Oreos at once.

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