Saturday, December 27, 2014

Software died three years ago. Why?

This is a weird time in software. Lots of things are going away, but few new things are appearing.

As best I can tell Windows software died around 2005. Based on what I’ve seen over the past year, particularly in the Mac App Store, OS X software died around 2011. The Chrome and Safari extensions I’ve looked for, like Pinboard extensions today, were often last updated in 2011 — around the time Google Reader died.

The iOS app store is such a well known mess that my fellow app.net (adn) geeks can’t find anything new to say, except that iTunes 12 is probably worse. Aperture died 6 months ago and yet is still being sold. Yosemite is still months away from release ready. My Google Custom Search Engines return fewer good results. Google Plus is moribund. Windows 8 might be fine but no-one I know uses it. 

I can’t speak to Android, except for second hand reports of increasing malware problems. If I strain to find a bright spot I’d say Google Maps is improving in some ways, but regressing in others. Ok, there’s the malware industry. It’s flourishing.

I seem to remember something like this in the 90s, both before and after Mosaic. Long time ago though, I may be confounding eras.

My best guess is that our software development is a lagging casualty of the Great Recession. Good software takes years to create, so the crash of 2009 probably played out in software around 2011. The effects were somewhat offset by involuntary entrepreneurs creating small but excellent products. The Great Recession’s effects started to fade in 2014, but that meant many Creatives were sucked back into profitable employment. The projects they’re working on now won’t bear fruit until 2015 and 2016.

The Great Recession is probably the main driver, but there are synergistic contributors. Apple was probably coming apart at the seams when Jobs fell ill, and it now behaves like a corporation riven by civil war. The stress of the mobile transition, and the related transformation of the software market from geek to mass user, hit everyone. I’ve little insight into how well ad-funded software development is working, but Google’s disastrous Plus effort suggests it’s not all that healthy.

The good news is that there’s hope. Google may turn away from Plus. Facebook is going to have to find new revenue streams. There’s a storm building among Apple’s customers that Cook can’t possibly ignore. Most of all, the Great Recession is fading.

Here’s to 2015. Hang in there.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Where does all the time go - video training from SafeSports to corporate marketing.

A few days ago The Economics published a long fluff piece on the allegedly modern malady of feeling we don’t have enough time — even though, supposedly, we have more free time than in the recent past.

I think they’re nuts. The time I spend debugging Apple’s decaying ecosystem (latest iTunes bug) doesn’t show up in their accounting — and that’s a big chunk of my week.

There are worse things than Apple bugs though. There’s … there’s … video training. Its our latest life-sucking horror. Let me explain what I mean.

As I type this I have two computers running video training materials. One is running USA Hockey’s SafeSports 90+ minute training video on bullying, sexual harassment and sexual abuse, the other is running my corporate mandated medicare law training. Both computers are muted, my phone is streaming Thelonius Monk, I’ve got lemon scented tea by my side, the family is nearby, I can look out the window…

All I have to do is click one screen or the other when the video stops; between the two screens I click every 5 minutes or so. If I fail to click nothing bad happens, I’ll just need to spend more time listening to Jazz and writing a blog post. Every 30 minutes or so I have to wake up and take a quiz. If I make a mistake on the quiz, I get to immediately retake it knowing the right answer.

This is instead of doing a few minutes of reading, taking a meaningful test that requires me to review my material, and filing key reference information in my Simplenote archive.

What’s so bad about that?

If you have to ask, I don’t wanna talk to you. I have about 30 years left to live, of which 11 years will be spent sleeping or commuting. That means I’m spending 0.03% of my life as a lab rat. That’s not even considering that my corporate marketing training made me claw my eyes out.

That’s bad if only I had to do this, but across America tens of thousands of kid sports coaches are drinking their way through SafeSport training. Imagine the liver damage alone. Let’s say 20,000 people for 2 hours at $15/hour - $600,000.

For my corporate home the wasted time bill is probably $1-2 million. I’ve seen execs agonize for years over a spend like this. A million dollars is loose change for our CEO, but for mortals it’s real money. In some parts of the world a million could change lives.

Yeah, it’s bad. So how did we come to this?

It starts, of course, with good intentions. The SafeSports training, in particular, is extremely well intentioned. If you avoid hitting the Scotch, you can even spot SafeSport guides to “red flag grooming behaviors” (not hair care) and “travel policy” [1]. Some of the corporate training can keep one out of prison, and many of the SafeSport recommendations protect both coaches and athletes.

But the good intentions could be met with a handout and a quiz. So what went wrong?

I suspect badly written mandates play a role, but never underestimate the power of well intentioned incompetence mixed with corporate purchasing and enabling technology. It’s not hard to edit video these days and it’s not hard to buy or build a training toolkit. With a bit of luck and pluck a small firm can sell material to 100 firms at 30K+ a pop. What do you think they’d get for a 1-5 page handout? Without a budget of a few hundred grand, how would HR justify its headcount? Sure there’s a price to be paid, but its someone else’s price.

It’s just one of those things. I don’t think we can make it go away.

If you’ll excuse me, I gotta click a button.

- fn -

[1] One of the worst aspects of the SafeSport training is there are sensible tips buried in the morass. Such as having one’s own kid in the car when helping transport an athlete. It’s too easy to miss them in the burning need to get out of the chair.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Anecdote - exercise and weight control. It takes a lot.

This is pure anecdote, but it’s not inconsistent with the past decade of research.

Once upon a time I used to advise patients to lose weight through diet and exercise. This advice was not as spectacularly bad, in retrospect, as my advice to use estrogen to prevent osteoporosis. Still, it hasn’t held up well.

We now believe (never use the word “know” when it comes to medicine) that weight loss for the overweight is approximately impossible. If weight loss were a medical procedure it would never get FDA approval. The best we can do, for most people, seems to be weight control.

And, by overweight, I mean you and I. The medical standard for ideal weight is skinny.

We need a Pill. Which is kind of hard, because we’re fighting 2.5 billion years of evolution — organisms never get enough energy. In the meantime public health interventions focus on diet changes and increased activity. The latter might help diet, especially if it involves muscle development, and we now think of exercise as spectacularly good even if it doesn’t lead to much weight loss.

Even so, there is physics. Surely if one exercises enough, and has some rough dietary discipline, it should be possible to actually lose weight. Which brings me to anecdote, because this kind of thing is hard to study for reasons that will become obvious.

Two years ago, fed up with the inevitable fattiness of my 54 yo body, and motivated by research on the relationship between exercise and cognitive function, I took advantage of income and increased my exercise level. I’d always been relatively active, but over the past two years I went to a consistent exercise level well above anything in my youth (except for bicycling from Vancouver to LA — which took me down past skinny because I didn’t have enough money to eat).

This actually worked. I can keep my BMI at the (high!) end of ideal, about 14 lbs below my baseline, while eating roughly the same diet including, on occasion, beer, pie, pizza, and pastry. Also bread.

It works — but it takes a lot of exercise. To stay at an ideal BMI on my diet I need to do something like

  • Do CrossFit 3 times a week. (I can’t seem to do more, even with scaling my old body needs time to heal.)
  • Do a two hour road bike ride at least once a week.
  • Do a 1/2 mile swim, 5 mile walk, or 10 mile inline skate once a week.
  • Do a multi-hour high intensity mountain bike outing once a week (without head injury, hopefully)

It’s a fine balance, in winter I lose the biking and gain about 4-5 lbs. (Yeah, I’m getting a fat bike next year. Global warming sucks - I miss Nordic Skiing.)

This is so much exercise no clinical trial is going to risk it on a population over 35 — we all have heart disease. I really didn’t think it was going to take this much. I do enjoy exercise, but it’s easy to see why it hasn’t worked out as a weight control tool. The exception, again, proves the rule.

Humbug - Amazon, Apple and Pottermore

In the spirit of the season, which science tells us is Scrooge before his psychotic break, a call out to Amazon, Pottermore, and Apple.

To Amazon for the increasingly common practice of merging multiple product reviews into a single listing (example, Dec 2014). This renders the reviews worse than useless — because they are now misleading. I don’t know whether this is some kind of emergent fraud that enables vendors to hide bad reviews, or whether it’s an incompetent Amazon implementation, but I’m now boycotting any product that is part of a unified listing that blends inconsistent products. You should too.

To Pottermore and Apple for the hash the two of them have made of Potter audiobooks. They’re no longer available on iTunes, and if one downloads the MP3 from Pottermore they import into iTunes as music. Thanks to Apple’s comprehensively botched iTunes 12 removal of multi-edit [1], few will be able to transform these into audiobooks that play in sequence, have the right controls, and remember their playback location when stopped. Worst customer experience of the season.

And an extra call out to Apple for removing, with iTunes 11 (2013), the ability to print iTunes Gift Certs at home. I didn’t notice this because I stayed on iTunes 10 through Dec 2013. Email delivery is the only option now. Way to go Apple.

And some people wonder where all our leisure time went.

On the Marley side of things, my gift was a minced fruit pie and it is quite delicious.

[1] Through a bug or the last act of some desperate dev, there’s a hidden way to access the old multi-edit feature. Hold option then click on Get Info. Not one in 200 will know this.