On ambition

A few years ago, a friend asked me that if I could insist upon one trait in my child, what would it be? I picked ambition.

My fifth year reunion is wrapping up now, and one thing I realize is that I used to be ambitious. Ridiculously so. Like take-over-the-world ambitious. Maybe I’m mellowing out and settling for a quiet life. A career. Maybe I’ll meet someone and settle down and have two-and-a-half-children and live in suburbia and drive a minivan. I’ll be a respectable lawyer working for big companies at a white shoe firm, and if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll be a cartoonist too — that sort of life. Choice C instead of “all of the above”. A world where I don’t call and hope others call me. Maybe.

We’ll see what happens to me. I hope there are explosions involved. But if not, I still hope my children end up ambitious. And I especially hope for that if my child ends up being a girl.

One of my favorite professors in law school has a daughter, and I remember him telling my class that he was worried that social stereotypes would pressure her to reject math and science. So he went out of his way to make find and make mathematical puzzles for her to solve, in the hopes that she might love math and science as much as he did.

Hopefully, that won’t backfire. My parents tried to make me a math-science wiz. And largely because of that, I dropped out of Computer Science and majored in “Government”. Oops. But I understand and respect the motive.

If I ever have a daughter, I probably won’t insist she be a math / science wiz. But I will insist that she be ambitious. Like take-over-the-world ambitious. Like Sheryl Sandberg meets Hillary Clinton ambitious. And she’ll probably hate me for it. But if I had a choice, that’s the daughter I’d choose. I hope she chooses that too.

P.S. If you actually are my daughter and you end up reading this through the magic of the Internet, no pressure. Also, listen to your mom. I don’t know she is, but she’s right.

Thoughts on Instagram

I’m not entirely sure why Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion. It doesn’t solve a personal pain point. But someone asked me about the deal, so … here we go.

Instagram’s user value is instant gratification:

  • The time I most to want to share a photograph with friends is right after I take it. If I have to interact with other apps on my phone, or (heaven forbid) upload the pictures to my computer, photo sharing becomes less fun and more chore. Or I’m just going to forget to upload / send the photo to my friends. Instagram makes it easy to share the picture immediately, all within one app.
  • It’s hard to take a good photo on a phone — even if the phone has high quality camera, the phone may be shaped awkwardly, hands are unsteady, etc. Instagram’s filters quickly makes photos “acceptable” for sharing. Of course, I could edit the photo in a photo-editing app on my laptop, but that means I can’t share my photo right away.
  • Likewise, let’s say you take a photo of your friends and it’s sort of “meh”. Should you take another photo or is this fixable with some Photoshop filters? You can’t ask your friends to hang around while you fool around with Photoshop. On the other hand, Instagram lets you know right away.
  • Instant gratification generates positive feedback loops. If you take a photo and Instagram makes it look awesome, you’ll want to take another photo. You’ll also want to share it. Sharing makes the Instagram community seem more active, which attracts new users. It also makes existing users want to come back and check for new content.

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No Acronym Must Be Left Alive

In light of legislative acronyms like USA PATRIOT, PROTECT IP, E-PARASITE, and STOCK, I propose the The No Acronym Must Be Left Alive Act:

Sec. 1 – The Comptroller General of the United States shall have the power to declare that any piece of proposed legislation is silly.
Sec. 2 – For the purposes of sec. 1, legislation is silly if a substantial factor in how it was named was creating a contrived acronym.
Sec. 3 – The Comptroller General shall provide adequate notice that a piece proposed legislation has been declared silly, preferably by posting a yellow sticky note on his office door.
Sec. 4 – Once legislation has been declared silly, the sponsors of said legislation shall deposit $100 into a jar outside the Comptroller General’s office. The proceeds of this jar shall go towards reducing the national debt.
Sec. 5 – If the sponsor of silly legislation fails to comply with Sec. 4 in a timely manner, any member of the public shall have the legal right to deposit one (1) dead fish on the sponsor’s office desk.

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 blogger.ru/piratedmovies. Suppose also that this is the only piece of infringing content and that the vast majority of content on blogger.ru 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 blogger.ru. While the Russian operators of blogger.ru 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 google.com 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

<rant>

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.

</rant>

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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