Tuesday, September 2, 2014

On The Wire: Melodrama and Expecting Better

I originally came across this link from the Los Angeles Review of Books through the MediaREDEF daily email newsletter. Since reading the review and the thematic ideas presented in On The Wire by Linda Williams, I've been consumed with thoughts about how this notion of melodrama fits with a broader view of things. Quoting from the review,
Melodrama, on the other hand, is, again, a liberal, democratic mode, in which suffering is presented as unnecessary if only the authorities, and indeed the viewers, would commit to change.
We started watching The Wire several weeks ago, not long after Amazon Prime began offering HBO series on their unlimited viewing options. As you're probably aware, it's one of those shows that critics always rave about. The critical reviews are so passionate, it sometimes leaves you feeling like you should probably avoid the show just on principle -- at least, that's sort of where we were with it. More like, not something we were going to seek out. But when it fell in our lap and we opened up to watching it, we've become absorbed.

But that original sense of skepticism runs deep, and it often leave me with a desire to avoid critics ranting about The Wire. So the link to this review wasn't one of the first things that I clicked from that email.

“melodrama always offers the contrast between how things are and how they could be, or should be.”
This isn't simply a theme in The Wire, it's a design theme, a Silicon Valley theme.
The Wire does not aristocratically call for an acceptance of the war on drugs or racism as inevitabilities to which its characters must resign themselves. Rather, it demands moral commitment and social transformation even as it demonstrates the power and intractability of institutional barriers to change.
This is the grand struggle, envisioning a better world, then striving to make that world a reality. This is also the dream of work life in Silicon Valley -- that we don't have to accept the status quo, that we don't have to absorbed by the machine and made a part of a mindless bureaucratic structure -- we expect better.

We expect better. We expect better from the people around us. We expect better from the people and the businesses that we work with. We expect better for the world. 

Why Isn't Apple More Helpful When Your Stuff Is Stolen?

My Macbook Air was stolen last week. Right after lunch, some guy walked into our small office through a back door that somebody left open and walked out with my laptop. There are extremely sucky aspects to this, but -- for the purposes of this post -- the most significant one is how surprisingly unhelpful Apple is when your device gets stolen.

Sure, when you go to the Apple store, they can look back through historical aspects of your account. They know enough about your devices to determine whether your warranty is valid -- probably more. But how much of that do they share with you?

When your Laptop is stolen, one of the first things you think about is the "Find My Phone" functionality. More recently, Apple added this functionality for Macs (Location Services) and I thought I had enabled it at some point, but -- either because of the sleep issues or perhaps I didn't successfully enable it, it wasn't active.

That being said, while finding the top result for Find My iPhone has information about the functionality, there is no login point on this page. In fact, most of the links in this area of their site won't take you to a login page. Need to log into find my phone? Better try another search.

Find My Phone
To use Find My Phone, you need to use the App on your phone or iPad -- or log into iCloud. Do you want to log into iCloud? You won't find that by searching iCloud login either. You know who does a better job of pointing to the iCloud login page? Google. Here's where Google takes you. Once upon a time, Apple used to have a login link on the main pages of the site... but I digress.

Of course, the problem with Find My Phone in iCloud is that, if your location services isn't enabled, the software has no idea about your system. Your history of devices? No. No access to any of that information. Sure I've authenticated and Apple thinks it's me, but other than access to your iCloud storage and apps, you get nothing. Contrast that to Amazon, where I have access to the history of things that I've ordered.

How about from the Support menu? What you'll find here is crap too. The only time I could actually find helpful information was at https://supportprofile.apple.com. This will provide you with a login page and, correspondingly, access do some of the devices associated with that Apple ID. Once logged in here, I was actually able to get my device serial number.

And what kind of support do you find in the Apple Discussion Groups (other links that Google found)? Here's what they have under "Report Stolen Laptop" on their support forum. And to quote Ryan's question to the Apple response, "I don't see why they couldn't have some sort of feature for this in their portal app for when the look up the serial numbers to see if computers are still under warannty, etc." You'll also find this information there:
Sorry but Apple does not have a flagging process for reporting stolen property. They recommend that if you have lost an Apple product you contact your local law enforcement agency to report it.
Off to the Local Apple Store
You might think that, your device having been stolen, you could head to the Apple Store and get some helpful assistance from the from Apple, possibly doing a remote wipe on the system or something. While the guys at the Genius bar are actually willing to talk to you when you tell them, "my Macbook was stolen and so I need your help to lock it down". They will then direct you to one of their systems and help you log into iCloud so that you can use the "Find my Phone" app on their system. Beyond that, not much help.

Changing the password your Apple ID forces anything that accesses your existing Apple ID to use the new password -- helpful to prevent stray devices from accessing your Apple universe -- but providing little help beyond that.

The "Open Letter to Apple and Tim Cook" Portion of the Post
The idea that Apple has no way to "flag" the serial number of a device is flat out ludicrous. Any time your apple device is connected to a network, it shares a number of communications with Apple. Any time it connects to an Apple ID, it shares data about the user, the device they are connecting from, and more. There is even geographic information shared. Some of this is the stuff you enable with location services, so while the idea of "my system is HERE" may not be straightforward, their systems have to have some access history.

But beyond location, the idea that you, Apple, can't flag a device serial number and say "this device was stolen" is bullshit. What you're saying is that you can't add another field into your database - a simple checkbox to "flag" the system. What would you do with such a flag you might ask. Well considering that, unlike most PC vendors, most Apple devices go through Apple for service, it hardly seems far-fetched to raise an alert if a system with a history that includes being stolen comes into your store.

In the end though, what is the most mind-boggling is that for me -- as a long-time customer who has bought numerous Apple devices over the years and as someone who has authenticated my identity with the company repeatedly -- that I can't go to a page that contains electronic records of all of the systems I've told you that I owned. Like a Facebook timeline, I should be able to see my history of everything, every device, every serial number, and maybe even the times when I've brought them in for service. And if there was a page like that, when my device died or was stolen, I'd probably go in and update it's status.

And why do you have so many portals and so many identities that don't seem to talk to one another?

Honestly, the reason that it comes up (and you can find it if you search on Google) is that we, your customers expect that kind of service from you. We expect better than this... this wave at the problem and say, "bummer for you. Sorry we can't help." Because the result is a sad Mac face on an already sad customer.

One More Thing...
I wrote this post prior to the release of this large number of nude celebrity photos, personal pictures allegedly stolen from their iCloud accounts. For more on that, you can read this, this, or this. While I must say that I have my doubts that all of this data was grabbed from Apple's iCloud, my purpose in referencing it is to underscore the broader thematic message pointed at Apple -- we expect better from you.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What Really Matters: Game Consoles and Input

I thought that this was a great post looking at the AppleTV for gaming, comparing it to consoles, and the idea of what really matters for gaming. Considering that the XBox still gets hours more game play than my iPhone or iPad, I found it's a great reminder about form and function. At the same time, if only the damned console had a touchscreen to make it easier to enter codes and passwords, cause that sucks on a console.

Differences Between China and India - the iPhone

I came across this post a few days ago and I was going to share a link, but things got busy. This morning I thought I should probably share the post else I would forget entirely. This is some interesting analysis of differences between China and India as a market.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Innovations in Horse Hockey - James Surowiecki Spins Uber Pricing

Unbelievable. Let me start by saying how shocked I am -- I've read James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds and I think it's awesome. It's on my recommended reading list. So imagine my surprise when I realized that this article that I just read on the MIT Technology Review site about Uber's surge pricing was, in fact, written by Surowiecki. Mind-blowing, and not in a good way.

The headline and subhead provide a pretty good synopsis of the theme here:
In Praise of Efficient Price Gouging
Uber’s most important innovation is the way it prices its services. But that innovation has not been unreservedly welcomed by customers. They’re wrong.
While he addresses the controversy around Uber's surge pricing including highlighting some of the public criticisms, Surowiecki eventually gets to characterizing this surge pricing model as similar to airlines, hotels, and happy hours -- all using variations on pricing to address demand at different hours. He then endorses the Uber position that their surge pricing helps put additional drivers on the road.
What this means is that in the case of Uber, surge pricing doesn’t just make rides more expensive (as is the case with airline tickets or hotel rooms at times of high demand). It also expands the number of people who are actually able to get a ride. Customers pay more, but they also get a ride that they otherwise would not have gotten. This is exactly how a market is supposed to work: higher demand induces more supply.
You know who else is a fan of Uber's surge pricing, "venture capitalist Bill Gurley, who’s an Uber board member." Surowiecki links to Gurley's blog post noting,
that when Uber first tested dynamic pricing in Boston in 2012, it was able to “increase on-the-road supply of drivers by 70 to 80 percent."
In Surowiecki's article and Gurley's blog post, much is made of this aspect of increasing supply as though multiplying the rate a customer pays mines black cars from empty space. It's as though price multipliers suddenly connect with the philanthropic aspects of humanity -- "my God, it's after 1:00am on a Saturday in Boston -- there are people who need rides in black town cars. Jeeves, bring the vehicle around. There is money to be made and riders to be saved." Or, "sure it's snowing and I'd rather be inside where it's warm, but there are desperate people out there willing to pay 8X the normal fare for a ride. I must help them."

The more nuanced reality is that there are only so many vehicles that are around in the first place. First and foremost, these drivers and cars that Uber is "putting on the road" with their surge pricing don't just appear from the clouds. We're talking about people who've signed up with Uber and met certain, rather specific vehicle requirements. Them "not being available" is not a question of not existing, instead it's a function of a free market where one side says, "you know, I have better things to do with my time than participating in the Uber system."

The way that the business is set up, drivers aren't Uber employees. This is a fundamental element of the problem. Uber can't make them stay on the clock, but it does "fix" the pricing. So instead they say, "suppose we change the system and give you license to gouge riders during these periods?" 

My favorite quote around this comes from the Gurley blog. In "Clarifying Certain Specifics Regarding Uber", Gurley says,
Uber is remarkably transparent about its dynamic rates. Ever since the company first encountered feedback about its pricing model, the company has gone out of its way to make sure that customers are aware of the policy and how it works.
The emphasis is mine. But that's one of the other elements that's missing from these surge pricing justifications. When Uber first rolled out surge pricing, they didn't even tell you it was in effect. Your first notice was when you received the bill. You can argue that those are the pains of a growing start-up, but I think it speaks to the company values.

Regulation. It's one of the words that the Libertarians and the followers of Ayn Rand hate. It's that thing that they're trying to disrupt, the thing that they claim is that's holding us all back. It's the rules and policies that govern the taxi industry and the limo industry. Somebody from Uber's PR team can probably tell you about all of the crazy rules that they impose...

But if you look around the world, there are places where you are warned about trusting the taxis. You're warned about getting ripped off, charged crazy amounts, driven on circuitous routes. Even here in the states, some cities offer flat rates from the airport to downtown so that you can feel comfortable about not getting ripped off as your welcome to the city. Taxis are part of our transportation infrastructure, and many aspects -- including the fare -- are part of the social contract that we set up with these companies in trade for letting them work that business.

While there isn't the existing software infrastructure to make the taxi experience equivalent to the Uber experience, there are certain things that you can count on with a metered taxi. When you get in, the metered rate will be the same, regardless of time of day or day of the week.

I Like Aspects of Uber, but...
Don't get me wrong. I've used Uber and I like aspects of their service. I think that, overall, the software interface for requesting a car, the detailed receipt, and the streamlined payment process are all excellent. Often, we'll choose an Uber ride because the vehicles are usually clean and and free of unusual or unpleasant smells. At the same time, many aspects of the way they do business offend me. And I refuse to use Uber when they run surge pricing.

Ethical existence is not as simple as supply and demand. As a society we frown on certain types of marketplace behavior like war profiteering or profiting on disaster. Surge pricing during floods and snow storms is an example of that same kind of bad behavior. But with their surge pricing, Uber's ethical lapse is more than just billing during disasters. The "multiplier" function that they use for surge pricing is particularly egregious. Not only does a multiplier make it more difficult to estimate what your final fare will be, it magnifies all of the negative aspects of the transaction.

There has already been a lot of digital ink spilled over Uber's surge pricing. What spurred me to write this post was not the overwhelming need to rehash those same points. Rather, it was Surowiecki's contention that, "Uber's most important innovation isn't a car service, it's a pricing algorithm". I call bullshit on that. There are of historical examples of dynamic and surge pricing. And profiteering. No, I don't see how this is innovative.

Innovative might be something like, an electronic pre-commitment to a tip amount as an incentive for a pick-up during "high-demand" periods. Innovative might be something like a capped price -- sort of a reference price -- with all rates discounted from that defined cap.

When I first read Surowiecki's article, my instinct was that this was an astroturf piece. That's why I was so disappointed when I realized who's name was on the byline. My biggest take-away from this is sort of a "please, say it isn't so..."

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Another Look At Twitter vs Facebook and Algorithms

Here's another story courtesy of the MediaREDEF newsletter. This link is from the Washington Post, again comparing feeds from Twitter and Facebook on Ferguson. What this does have is a great little bit of analysis about why you probably aren't being deluged with stories about Ferguson in your Facebook feed.
Content that causes dissension and tension can provide short-term rewards to Facebook in the form of heated debates, but content that creates accord and harmony is what keeps people coming back.
The article backs it up with some study data that suggests that when that guy you sort of new posts a bunch of anti-Obama political crap, not only do you regret adding him as a friend, it makes you uncomfortable -- and therefore less likely to log into Facebook.

Soulmates: Ideas You Fall In Love With

Recently, I found myself providing some assistance on a side project helping with food branding -- I love new projects. I always enjoy working through the challenges and variations on a new project, connecting with your creative processes in very different ways. It's like going for a bicycle ride in a new area instead of turning the pedals through your regular training loop.

As I was working through this project, one of the things that it reminded me of was this experience years ago at the How Design Conference. During this one session, the speaker presented this idea that he would present just one idea, because the right concept was just that -- the right concept. That there is one perfect concept that fit the problem and that everything else was just not as good.

Over the years, I've seen my share of good ideas and not so good ideas. And while the notion of the one perfect idea seems rather elegant, in reality, it seldom works. To start with, most clients are going to be unhappy with one idea. The want to believe in the idea of choice and of some participation in the process. What may seem like the perfect idea to you will probably seem like you didn't consider any other possibilities to them. If you had only one idea, maybe you aren't creative.

That being said, sometimes there are ideas that just seem SO perfect that you find yourself falling in love with them. Once you come across those, everything else -- all of the other ideas -- seem to suck in comparison. Of course, the reason that you may be so passionately connected to the idea is that it is your baby, your creation.

Let it go. As a creative pro, you always need to be able to detach from your ideas, to put them down and move onto the next. You work for a client, and sometimes the client selects the other idea (whether it's good or not). Artists can fixate on an idea - you have to keep moving forward.

Sure you feel heartbroken when the client didn't pick The One. It doesn't matter. Are you an under-appreciated creative genius? Of course you are. Now get back to work making that second rate idea shine.