Your Home Theater sucks.

Leo stands in awe, like I do at the movies.

The phrase home theater is a very sad one. 60 inch LCD 1080p televisions with massive Bose sound systems are all well and good, but they absolutely pale in comparison with the real thing. This is something I’ve always believed, but only recently have I begun to appreciate movie theaters as the absolute necessity in my life that they are.

Movies are meant to envelop people into a world that is not their own, often telling incredibly complex story in the span of two to three hours. The goal of so many motion pictures is evoke a genuine emotional response from the audience regarding people who until a few hours before were essentially complete strangers. A good film will allow a character to evolve on screen in front of you in such a way that makes you feel as if you understand that persons innermost motivations, which is a feat that many of us never accomplish even for our closest friends. Home theater setups provide an environment which simply doesn’t allow this kind of experience to happen in the same manner. First, there is something to be said to looking at a picture that often taxes your peripheral vision in order to appreciate it all. Instead of looking to the left and catching a glimpse of a coffee table, all you get in a theater is more movie or unobtrusive darkness. Even a 60 inch television will seldom will produce this effect unless you’re sitting 4 feet away. But more importantly, distractions like computers, cell phones, lights, and other such things constantly remind people that what they are watching really is just a movie, and these are simply characters and not people to invest in. A proper movie experience is different; it’s more visceral, more real. Recently, I saw Inception with fellow Stone Soup poster Josh Morrison at the Boston Common IMAX here in Boston. From the very first moment of that movie, the pure scope of the theater allowed me to experience that movie in a way that simply isn’t possible within your average residential setup. The bass of the IMAX speakers within the room roared through not only my ears, but literally shook the entire theater as it did so. When you can literally *feel* the soundtrack of the movie, that evokes a different response than were I simply to hear that same sound at home. It makes you feel like you’re there with the characters; it makes you want to know more about the world they live in. I knew when I left that theater, that no matter how many times I saw Inception over the course of my life, in many ways I was seeing it for the first and last time.

The real driving force for why I’m writing this however, is neither the sound, nor the picture… it’s the people. In the past 12 months I’ve discovered a local gem near my apartment known as the Coolidge Corner Theater. The Coolidge as its patrons affectionately call it is a small independent non-profit theater which shows the kind of independent fare that doesn’t normally make it to the AMCs of the world until months later, if at all. However, they also have a propensity as many independent theaters do for showing screenings of classic movies quite frequently. In the past few months, I’ve seen showings of both Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Big Lebowski on the big screen and let me tell you, this experience has been awesome. The idea of viewing these films in a converted opera house does pique my interest for reasons of pure nerdyness, but more importantly, these films get the community to come out en masse. These shows sell out days in advance, and the folks who come out are true enthusiasts. At The Big Lebowski, there were several excellent Walter Sobchak look-a-likes who were often reminding people that, “This is not Nam, there are rules.” In addition to that, the crowd didn’t stop participating when the film began to roll, there was raucous laughter for every funny quip that came out, and absolutely nothing was missed by anyone. During Raiders of the Lost Ark, people cheered wildly when Indiana Jones first looked up from beneath the brow of his fedora in the opening scene, and again when he shoots the giant sword wielding goon in the square.

The crowd goes wild.

When you know that everyone around you is enjoying the movie in the same way that you are, that feeling of elation from can only be described as contagious. Seeing a movie with four or five friends at home is also good, but it simply isn’t the same.  Admittedly, these moments certainly aren’t experienced during every movie you’d see in theaters, as most films aren’t of that quality. Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that movies are a communal experience, and the collective gasp that occurs in theaters during tense scenes in great movies is a tough thing to replicate.

Anyway, go see a movie this weekend. I will.

Google Wave: the importance of export

Google recently announced that it would discontinue Google Wave at the end of this year. For me this was disappointing news, as Wave had recently become my web app of choice for collaborative writing and editing of debate cases (I currently compete in a collegiate debate league. It’s how I met David, Josh, and Will). Since I now have to prepare for a Wave-sized hole in my life, I decided to take a longer look at some of the reasons why Google Wave failed.

RIP, Wave. You had a good run. Well, more a terrible one. (PC World)

Wave was a peculiar invention. Developed in Australia, it was billed as a rival to Twitter and Facebook and even used the hype-building invitation-only model of Gmail, but it never truly caught on. The failure of Google Wave is fascinating, if for no other reason than because it is a failure by Google, a company founded just 12 years ago that has come to a dominant position in world culture, business, and even vocabulary (to “Google” something has blown by passing a “Kleenex,” making a “Xerox,” or even grabbing a “Thermos“). That being said, it’s easy to see why Google Wave ran into problems.

According to Scott Berkun, “any software in this century that reinvents the scroll bar deserves to fail.” (thanks to Josh for the link) And he’s right that a major problem with Google Wave were its many minor idiosyncrasies – the weird new scroll bar, the strange keyboard shortcuts, the paucity of formatting buttons. But Wave had more fundamental issues that prevented it from reaching its full potential.

First, it tried too hard to overthrow everything. Google Wave arrived on the scene in 2009, at a time when Facebook and Twitter had already established themselves with loyal users. The problem with facing such well-established rivals was that Wave, like most web technologies, faced a “network effect;” that is, because Wave was a technology meant to facilitate communication and collaboration, its value was directly tied to the number of users using it.

But that wasn’t all. After all, Facebook and Twitter came to their positions by overtaking other, older technologies. What made the problem worse was that Wave was trying to be more than Google’s social networking application (that would be Google Buzz, which would confusingly come out shortly after Wave). Google Wave attempted to rival even more basic technologies:

What would e-mail and instant messaging look like if those technologies were created today rather than at the dawn of the Internet?

That’s the question that drove a trio of developers in Google’s Australia office to create a new tool that the search engine giant is calling a model for the future of online interaction: Google Wave.

Google changed the way we scour the Web for information and now with Wave seems to have grander designs on rethinking our digital experience by changing the way we work, connect and collaborate through the Internet.

The end result is nothing short of an ambitious rethinking of online communication, one that makes e-mail and instant messaging seem as stale as last night’s pizza crust.

–Matt Hartley, The Globe and Mail

Ambitious indeed. And of course, if Google Wave couldn’t rival Facebook and Twitter, it wasn’t about to remake the world built by instant messaging and e-mail.

The strategic flaws of Google Wave were amplified by its tactical errors. Wave was slow, buggy at release, and its invitation rollout, so successful with Gmail, built hype but kept people from actually using it (because no one had friends who had it). The biggest impact Google Wave made on my life was that it clogged my Facebook feed with people offering Google Wave invites (perhaps also signaling that they were one of the cool kids who had already received one*).

Recently, though, I’ve become enamored with Google Wave. It’s become faster, more reliable, and more smooth at collaborative real-time editing, making it less of a pain to work with. Because it’s lightweight, it’s a bit more fun to collaborate on than a Google Doc. I can get my ideas out (and hear feedback from others) more rapidly using Google Wave than with any other tool I use on the Internet. But at the same time, working with Wave inevitably showcases its greatest flaw: no exporting.

Google Wave is completely proprietary. Want to download a Wave as a PDF, Microsoft Word document, or just as a file to have offline? No can do. Wave doesn’t even have a print option. Being able to update a document and work on it with many people is a powerful tool–but how many documents that I work on with multiple people will never need to be accessed in a different format?

We descended from AltaVista users. They used sticks to make fire, and AOL for e-mail. (TechCrunch)

The question, “What would e-mail and instant messaging look like if those technologies were created today rather than at the dawn of the Internet” is an interesting one, to be sure. But to me, the answer has to be: fully integrated, interchangeable, and manipulable. Google had this right with Google Documents (Docs), which gives a multitude of options when it comes to exporting and printing, and Gmail, which does a great job printing e-mails. After all, Gmail is growing rapidly and Google Docs has prompted a Microsoft response. But they failed to grasp that with Wave, and it’s frustrating.

Compounding its harm to users, the lack of an export option left Google Wave in isolation, unable to interface with other applications and unable to carve out its own niche. For a technology to truly get off the ground, it needs to plan import/export as a central part of its strategy, not as an afterthought. Through those basic features, a web technology becomes a part of peoples’ lives and finds its home. Facebook will rifle through your e-mail account to search for your friends. Twitter will interface with a thousand different desktop apps that make it easy to switch over. But Wave required a new commitment, an open-ended commitment, so people weren’t willing to make the effort.

Luckily, for any of you who continue to use Google Wave, there is a workaround to the exporting problem. This could also be useful if Google doesn’t provide a method for exporting before Wave is taken offline.

Here’s how it works: You can use a Google Wave robot, Ferry, to export from Google Wave to Google Documents. Ironically, an extension that covers one of Wave’s most fundamental flaws also shows off one of its major strengths–its developer API. While it’s not ideal, it’s enough to keep me using Wave at least until the debate season starts.

*Full disclosure: I offered people invites. I never miss a chance to be one of the cool kids.

The World Cup 2010 and Facebook

The World Cup Trophy

Many Americans are paying attention to competitive soccer for the first time in years because of the prospects of this year's US team. What's in store for US soccer? (ESPN.com)

Everyone watching the US vs. Slovenia World Cup game on Friday morning knows it was a great game. Soccer is growing in popularity in the US (at least right now) because this year’s national team is a good one and has a chance to make a run into the elimination rounds of the World Cup final. But because of the time zone difference between the US and South Africa, millions of Americans are caught on the brink of committing to soccer but unable to watch the games at home on TV. This has lead to a greater focus on Internet marketing and broadcasting, allowing people to watch the games online. Some people still didn’t get to watch the game. But what the time zone difference definitely couldn’t stop was people’s commentary on the World Cup game between the US and Slovenia.

As I watched the game, I noticed that commentary on the World Cup game was dominating my news feed on Facebook. Through its chat client, private messaging, the links posted and the statuses updated in people’s news feeds, Facebook has become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. I began to ponder after the game the massive scope of what Facebook does to connect us with other people around the world. I figured that the World Cup game was a better time than any to measure how many people’s opinions Facebook connects me to in any given day.

So I went through my Facebook newsfeed and compiled a list of all the people who referenced the World Cup in their status, commented on the World Cup, or commented on other people’s comments on the World Cup during and after the 10:00AM EST game. The list is below the fold as an Appendix (to read, click on the title of the post or click “Read more…” at the end of the post). For now, I’ll just summarize the results, since the sheer multitude of reactions I found allow me to create something of a zeitgeist with my findings:

facebook logo

Facebook is changing our lives in ways we take for granted. This morning, I received the opinions of approximately fifty people on the World Cup game I was watching.

Overall, using Facebook, I received the opinions of 37 (thirty seven) friends and 13 (thirteen) other people about the World Cup match, both while and in the first few hours after it happened. That’s a total of 50 (fifty) people. I have 601 (six-hundred and one) friends on Facebook, which means that I received the opinions of approximately 1/12 (one-twelfth) of my friends. Pretty cool. Here’s a bit of a breakdown:

Only one person cheered for Slovenia. Eleven people (22%) cheered for the United States (though most people who were complaining about the referees were certainly sympathetic to the United States more generally). One person, he recently married my cousin actually, booed the United States, but that was over their poor play early in the game.

fifa world cup soccer

One of my friends posted a picture that demonstrated why the referee's call was bad.

A lot of people complained about a controversial refereeing decision made by Malinese referee Koman Coulibaly (poor guy, it was his first World Cup finals match ever). Sixteen (32%) of my friends complained about the referees, but six additional friends made jokes about the referee, and more blamed the referee for the loss.

A significant chunk of the people just “liked” something that was posted by someone else. Facebook recently added a feature that allows users to “like” individual comments beneath statuses; however, no one used that feature to like a comment about the World Cup.

Most people in my news feed were acquaintances or family friends, but a small minority included my roommate, my immediate family, and some former debate partners. A friend of mine posted a funny video of Robin Williams’ comedy routine that featured a bit about the referees.

As you may know, David set up the StoneSoup World Cup Fantasy League last week on ESPN.com. As I like to get into some of the extreme patriotism that is so clearly wildly popular among my friends (at least according to my news feed), I believe I am the only person in the league who has picked the US to win the World Cup. As such, I am paying a lot of attention to the games – getting up in the morning on a Friday I have off was something I haven’t done for a sports event in a while. But if my news feed is any indication, it seems that plenty of my friends are just as excited as I am.

Continue reading

My quick take on Cryogenics.

I think Josh pretty much covered everything in his final summary. Like Josh and others, given the technology, I wouldn’t hesitate to freeze myself, especially if my assets would be taken in the estate tax. But I do have two thoughts to add.

First, when do you freeze yourself? Time and timing are both important. In order to maximize your chance at future resurrection, you should probably freeze yourself before you die, as Josh points out. As soon as you die, your brain cells are deprived of oxygen, and start a rapid cascade into death. In a more compelling example, if you’re shot in the face, chances are future scientists won’t bring you back, cryogenics or no. This means that you basically have to decide at some point before death that you want to go into a deep freeze. There’s a chance that you won’t ever be brought back, in which case you’re basically exchanging a few hours, days, or perhaps months/years of life for the possibility of a presumably longer period of time later. I’d probably have to calculate the expected value of the cryogenically extended life vs. the probably amount of life I’d be potentially giving up by freezing myself before death. I’d be far more worried about that sacrifice than the specific monetary cost, i.e. I don’t know if I’d want to “die early.”

Second, in response to Tom’s idea of downloading a digital copy of your brain, I’m not sure that I’d benefit from that. Josh might blog later about how he believes that the idea of a unified consciousness is false, but the fact is that we perceive ourselves as a unified being, a unified self. I am the same person as I was when I was 5 years old, even though my neuronal patterns are very different. More importantly, I’m making decisions right now… right now, n-now… er, now… that will affect me, my future self. So the downloading thing is only valuable IF I think that I, a unified self, will be able to appreciate being alive in the future. One of Josh’s links had a great example of why this might not be the case. So if you (say, David 1) downloaded your exact neuronal signaling, etc. into a computer, and then uploaded it perfectly into a cloned body, the clone (David 2) would think that it was me. It would perceive that it was David 1, the unified self. But what if I were still alive? It’d be clear to me, the true and original David 1, that David 2 was just an imposter, even though he might genuinely believe himself to be the original. So if I died, and my memories were just transplanted into a cloned body, I think that clone (or even several clones) would think himself to be “me” but…. they’d still be imposters. That means that I wouldn’t enjoy the fruits of the process; I’d still fear the eternal death just the same. The difference is being able to replicate oneself, and being able to live forever as a unified self. And if the only advantage to the “digital download” is there’s someone running around with my genetic material thinking that he’s me… well, like Josh, I think I might as well just have natural genetic progeny.

Computer vigilantism and a call for a Dark Knight.

Josh recently brought my attention (via Twitter) to a website he dubbed “basically the most evil product ever” (to clarify, Josh meant “evil” in intent, as a business model, not in effect). According to a Wired article, websites like av-check.com and virtest.com will scan your file to check that is not detected by the most common forms of anti-virus and anti-spam protection. These websites allow hackers to test their viruses before releasing them into the Internet to maliciously infect our computers. After reading this article, I tried to think of a good legal way for the authorities to stop this activity. Not only do I doubt the federal government could ban these websites under the law, but even if could do so, I doubt that any such measures would be very effective. I have no idea where they are hosted, but not in the United States is a good bet. The Internet is like the underbelly of Gotham City, so filled with a myriad of niches for criminal elements to hide it is beyond the reach of the government’s law enforcement.

Like in Gotham City, the innocent civilian users of the internet need a protector that can go where their flatfoots cannot, that can use tactics that the feds are not allowed to use. We need dark knights who would bring the terror of the night back to those who would shroud us in darkness, courageous computer programmers who would bring the spam back to the spammers who would shove it down our throats. We need an Internet Batman, an Internet Punisher, a veritable Internet Justice League.

Internet vigilantism, judging from Wikipedia, is nothing new. There was a case in 2007 where an internet vigilante distributed Trojans that would infect computers and report if they contained downloaded child pornography, and caught a California judge who confessed to the crime. Another famous case involved an anti-spam firm, Blue Security Inc., which galvanized over half a million users in a return e-mail campaign to cripple spammers. It folded after a denial of service counterattack by spammers shut down its website, which it closed for good. Lycos attempted a similar anti-spam war, but was also forced to back down; its DDOS attacks at spammers might have even been illegal. A major flaw in the latter anti-spam campaigns was that the instigators were too public and accessible; a vigilante must be as anonymous and masterful in guerrilla tactics as his criminal prey.

There is a huge niche for internet vigilantes to combat the spammers and hackers that infect our computers. Large corporations, and/or the government, can’t or won’t act because they don’t want to become targets themselves, or they lack authority and jurisdiction. I suspect that many computer programmers, like me, grew up on comic book heroes that stood up for those too weak to stand up for themselves, and secretly dreamed of finding a Green Lantern’s ring or building a Bat Cave. Unlike me, they actually have the programming and hacking skills (we blog on WordPress.com…) necessary to mount a decent counter-attack.

To start the counter-hacking war, I can suggest no better target than the sites indicated at the top of this entry. Sites that profit by helping hackers check their work before unleashing it are clearly responsibly, at least partly, for incredible destruction–financially, and emotionally. These sites should be taken down, and the only people in a position to do that are internet vigilantes.

(update: 1/5/2010)

Hackers attack Ahmadinejad’s website.

Users trying to access it last night were redirected to the following message:

Dear God, In 2009 you took my favorite singer – Michael Jackson, my favorite actress – Farrah Fawcett, my favorite actor – Patrick Swayze, my favorite voice – Neda.
Please, please, don’t forget my favorite politician – Ahmadinejad and my favorite dictator – Khamenei
in the year 2010. Thank you.