SOPA and PROTECT IP chill free speech

There’s a lot of outcry over how pending copyright legislation (SOPA (PDF), formerly known as E-PARASITE, in the House, and PROTECT IP (PDF) in the Senate) would “break the Internet”. Hyperbole aside, the bills would enable the Attorney General and rights holders to go after payment processors, domain name registrars, and the like to disable access to “foreign” websites that infringe U.S. intellectual property rights.

My concern is that the bills are overbroad. They take down too much non-infringing speech in order to get at the stuff that does infringe upon copyright. I’m not sure whether the Supreme Court would hold that the bills abridge free speech rights under the First Amendment, but they would have a serious chilling effect upon free speech.

For example, suppose that the Russian equivalent of Google’s Blogger service hosts infringing content — say, at Suppose also that this is the only piece of infringing content and that the vast majority of content on is stuff like critiques of Dostoyevsky and recipes for borscht. Under Sec. 102 of SOPA, the Attorney General can obtain a court order to block off all U.S. access to While the Russian operators of could, in theory, appear in a U.S. court to dispute the Attorney General’s actions, it’s unlikely that the operators of a Russian language website are going to go to that effort for the handful of American users interested in its Borscht recipes. Collectively though, this would block off Americans from a lot of “foreign” Internet account. It would, in effect, create a “Great Firewall of America”.

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Google vs. Microsoft

Building Windows 8 is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs to follow.

I probably won’t agree with all of UI choices being made with Windows 8, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty to gripe about when it finally comes out. But the one thing you get from Windows 8 blog is that Microsoft spends a lot of time thinking about their UI choices and trying to make their users happy. For example, the team uses a good chunk of this blog post to explain concepts like Fitts’ Law and minimizing the amount of time to launch an app. Arguably, some of the “big picture” stuff gets lost with this attention to very specific metrics. But you get the sense that a lot of care is going into Microsoft’s Windows 8 UI.

Contrast this to Google’s new UI changes.

One of the most atrocious implementations of the Google’s new gray, black, and red theme is the new Google Reader. I’ll defer to criticism from folks more familiar with the product. But suffice to say, the new Google Reader redesign raises the question of whether anyone on the team actually put the product in front of real people.

I remember stories about how how Google conducted massive amounts of AB testing on even tiny changes to the interface. Engineers would analyze each extra link on or use of a different shade of blue. Guess that’s not being applied across the board.

I get the impression that Google’s UI team really wants to be like Apple. Like there’s some creative overlord that just imposes “freshness” and “good taste” across each of Google’s products in a consistent manner. Well, I don’t know how Apple works. But whatever it does, Google’s doing a piss poor job at imitating it.

Remove Notes from Powerpoint (PPTX)

PowerPoint lets you add notes to each slide that are not visible when you play your PowerPoint as a slide show. Let’s say you want to remove all of those notes — e.g. so you can distribute the PowerPoint file — and don’t want to manually remove this all by hand.

If you’re using one of the newer versions of PowerPoint on a PC, this is straight-forward enough. You just pull up the Document Inspector and tell it to remove notes, along with other possibly sensitive metadata. Here’s how to do it in PowerPoint 2007 and PowerPoint 2010.

But let’s say you’re using a Mac. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to remove notes in PowerPoint for Mac 2011 (if there’s a way to do it, please let me know in the comments). You may be able to use some VBScript macros, but explaining scripting to someone with little technical experience can be difficult.

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Faux Physical Surfaces Suck


Here’s a screenshot of the iPad calendar, courtesy of GigaOM.

It’s a small nitpicky thing of mine, but Apple’s UI decisions here annoy the heck out of me. Note how they’re using the brown to give off the appearance of an actual calendar, something physical that people can grab and manipulate.

Hogwash I say.

First, it’s half-assed. Apple prides itself on delivering a complete UI experience, but seriously, this UI here?  It clashes with the rest of the iPad UI, unless real calendars have black floaty selection boxes hovering over them. Or have buttons and search boxes built into them. It looks like they thought of a more traditional computer UI first, with all the buttons and what not, and then slapped on this layer of velvety brown physicalness. That’s half-assed.

Second, it’s pointless. The velvety brown look isn’t more intuitive. It’s the exact same UI you would use on a computer, except it looks more physical. I guess that invites me to touch it, but really, do I really need a cue to touch the iPad?

Third, it’s ugly. Seriously, Apple has this steel, chrome, elegant look down. iPads are supposed to be shiny. The last thing it needs is brown.


Get rid of credit card numbers

Short Version

Credit card companies should switch to a PayPal-like system for online payments, and use “blank” cards (no number visible to the human eye) for offline payments.

Long Version

As Sony restores service to its network after the possible theft of millions of credit card numbers, I wish people would start asking one simple question: Why do we need credit cards numbers?

By this, I don’t mean, why do we need lines of credit? That’s a question for the economists. I’m simply asking why we need some 16-digit number (plus an expiration date and 3-digit “security code”) that people can use to magically make you owe money. It’s an inherently insecure system.

I tried to split a bill once by asking my friends to let me swipe their cards using Square. For those who don’t know, Square is a little credit card reader that you can use with most modern smartphones. My friends were nervous about the security implications of me initiating a transaction with their credit cards on my phone. My response: If I really wanted to steal their credit card info, I would just memorize the number while it’s sitting on the table in front of me. Second response: Everyone seems quite OK with handing their card over to the underpaid high school student waiter.

The problem is that a credit card number is supposed to be a “secret”, but it’s one we frequently share with all sorts of random strangers. So what’s the alternative? Use a different “number” for every transaction, like PayPal does.
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A Long AT&T Rant

Courtesy of XKCD
Licensed by Randall Munroe under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Noncommercial License

I’m pretty sure a monkey must have designed AT&T’s sales and tech support system. That’s not to say that the actual staff are monkeys — they’re perfectly nice people trying their best, but at the end of the day, they can only do whatever their sales / tech support computer software lets them do. Basically, I’m saying the engineers who designed this entire system were monkeys.

Or at the very least, their managers were.

But first, the beginning of this story: Back in April or May or so, I decided to switch from Comcast to AT&T for Internet service — mostly because I was pissed off about how they were raising my bill by $1 each month. The bills, of course, provided no helpful hints about why the amount kept going up. Yes, I could’ve just called Comcast and contested it, but I wasn’t keen to get into a pissing match with Comcast over $1. So I decided to dump the bastards altogether and switch to the only other game in town — AT&T.

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Harvard and The Social Network

I have a longish list of coincidences between my life and Mark Zuckerberg’s. It extends beyond going to Harvard and founding a startup but does not include success. So watching The Social Network was unsettling, to say the least.

That’s not what this post is about. This post is about how accurately the film portrays Harvard. Note that there may be spoilers below, so read at your own risk.

Anyhow, it’s easy to point out what the film gets wrong. Life at the Harvard I knew was not driven by final clubs and rigid social hierarchies. The notion that Zuckerberg screwed Eduardo Saverin because Zuckerberg was jealous about Saverin getting into the Phoenix is just slightly more plausible than Barack Obama being born in Kenya. That opening scene where’s there some musical prodigy playing violin outside in the courtyard? The only person I knew playing violin outside at night was homeless. And he sucked.

I think this misses the point. What The Social Network gets right is the mythology of Harvard. Yes, the mythology doesn’t accurately reflect what Harvard actually was (or is), but Harvard students were intimately aware of it. To the extent that the film portrays how out of place that mythology is within the real world, it captures the zeitgeist of the Harvard. Continue reading