Monday, May 31, 2010

$4.99 a month? They just don't get it!

So, I got this email on Friday..
Dear Me,

At The Australian we are committed to delivering our world-class journalism in new and innovative ways.

That's why we have launched an iPad application to coincide with the release of Apple's new device in this country today.

This exciting technology will give readers the opportunity to enjoy the best reporting and analysis in the nation using the unique functionality of the iPad. The Australian's app brings together the best elements of both print and digital news in one convenient and seamless experience.

If you thought there was only one way to read the news, think again.

To purchase at $4.99/month, go to the App Store on your iPad and search 'The Australian'.

In association with our launch partners: Commonwealth Bank, IBM, Emirates and Optus.
As you can see it is from the Australian trying to plug their application for the iPad at $4.99 a month. Now, I don't know about you but this just seems over the top. I mean, I already subscribe to a couple of their mailings list for free, which deliver content to my email everyday for the princely sum of nothing. Then there is their website, which has all the content which is going to be in the app.

So I'm not really keen to stump up the cash for content that I can get for free and I know pretty much all my other tech minded friends think this way. Then there are other problems that the Apps face, which have been covered pretty well in this post. The basic summary is that using an App instead of using the browser destroys the interconnectedness that makes the web awesome. You can read this post, open that link in another tab in the background, flick back and forth between then, send out a tweet about the link etc, all without leaving the browser, the App has to be awesome to do all that and until there is good multitasking support in the iPad this isn't really going to happen, it'll be hard to get it as easy to use as you can with tabs.

Then again, me and my circle of friends probably aren't who this is being aimed at, I read this morning that 10000 people have subscribed to the Online version of El Mundo which is a Spanish news paper and they are paying around 4 times the price of the Australian iPad App. Perhaps there are ten thousand people out there, who like my dad, like gadgets and like to be parted from their money. But then again there are key differences, El Mundo has a paywall, they don't have everything straight up on the website. They only have summaries and you need to subscribe to see the whole article on line, just like the WSJ.

In the end I do see a place for the paid content apps I just don't think they've hit the price on the head with this one. I'd probably be happy to stump up $1 a month or $20 a year but $60 seems to steep to me.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Seagull Rule

I thought I better put this out there to inform the masses. The seagull rule is an integral part of any hot chip eating activity. To put it simply:

The Seagull rule entitles anyone that is vaguely friends with someone eating hot chips to take and eat a few of those chips.

It's pretty simple really but it did cause some consternation from the chip purchaser in the office today.

A couple of years ago I was at the pub after training when I saw an interesting and very amusing variation of the rule played out. Specifically that if you deliberately alter your meal to avoid the seagull rule, then whatever you get is now subject to the rule. This resulted in a fist full of mash potato being stolen.

So, there you go folks, a useful rule to know if you ever get the sweet scent of hot chips and have to succumb to the cravings.

A Month of Analytics

Ok, so its been just over a month or so since I started inflicting my drivel upon the masses 60 people that have visited my blog. Why 60 people? Well thats how many unique visitors Google Analytics tells me have visited my site.

So it would seem that the vague plans that went something along the lines of:

Aren't actually going quite as well as one would hope. Or is it I haven't quite nailed the '???' portion. I'll have to work on that more next month.

Anyway, if you've read my earlier post A Month of Reader(ing) you'll know that I am a bit of a stats junkie. So since getting Analytics setup on my blog I've been eagerly checking the stats (although I must admit that the excitement is starting to dissipate) and thought I should put together a post of observations on the first month worth of stats that have been gathered. So, without further ado here we go:

Ok, there are the basic stats, obviously I need to push up time on site, bounce rate etc but given that there isn't really that much content and I don't even have other pages like an about me or anything like that it's not too bad at this stage. Let's get a bit further into the stats:

Awesome, especially when I'm pretty sure that all those visits from IE where me when I saw setting up and testing stuff on the site. I am very glad to see that my readers are on the good browsers :)

Perhaps, more interesting (well it is for me anyway) is looking at what posts got the most interest, in terms of page views etc and here is the info

So it would seem that in terms of page views my post about engineers sucking at usability got the most page views, but people spent a lot more time reading about how Apple product managers shake their heads alot perhaps because my argument was so awesome that my visitors where reduced to sitting and staring at the screen in awe, or more likely they where trying to make sense of my ramblings. Other popular posts include my thinly veiled excuse to look at XKCD comics and my rant about password security (which may have spawned a new project..... more on that later). 

Obviously I need to keep exploring new content areas to determine what is most successful but given that the audience is probably full of like minded engineers I am just going to stick with what I know. That and I obviously need to work on my writing skills because as I am sure you'll all agree they could do with some improvement.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Hackendesk!

I'm cheap.

There I've said it. I'd like to clarify a bit. It's not that I am cheap so much as I don't like spending money unnecessarily.

What's the difference?

Well I'd like to think quite a bit. How about an example, I moved to Melbourne less than a year ago into a brand new townhouse, which was one of three. The house is awesome and had a colour theme and style designed by a highly acclaimed architect/interior designer. We (my girlfriend and I) moved the entirety of our not particularly large collection of furniture into the house and don't mind the fact that the antique sideboard acquired cheaply at auction a while doesn't really fit in. We needed some "new" furniture, for instance, we didn't have a coffee table so we procured one from a shed that was being cleared out for the princely sum of nothing.

On the other hand, another of the townhouses went to someone else in a similar position to me, not much cash, bunch of furniture that had followed him around. But he went out and got all new furniture, new couches, dinning table, stools etc etc.

This struck me as a unwarranted, sure I would've like a new couch but that can wait a bit and the old one fits in quite nicely and still functions perfectly and sure I could've bought a new coffee table but why spend the cash when I could get one that was good for free!

This brings me to the desk, we picked up a freebie, but really it wasn't big enough for our desking needs. It fitted  my desktop PC but not much else. So we needed more desk space, there were a couple of options.

  • Buy a new desk and get rid of the small one.
  • Buy a new desk and cram it in next to the old one.
  • Build the Hackendesk!
Clearly, the only logical choice was "The Hackendesk!"

What's "The Hackendesk!" I hear you ask?

Well its quite simple really. Its a big plank of wood (in my case a piece of MDF with a lovely white laminate) and a couple of legs, some left over pine and the too small desk.

This is where the photo would go but I haven't actually taken it yet.....

Simple really and it works a treat! With only an our or so of screwing and nailing (I'm thinking I over engineered it) it came together and for less than $50 (plus an excuse to wonder around Bunnings for a while) it was well worth it.

In the end cheapness does pay off occasionally. And with the savings I am a step closer to resolving MacBook vs MacBookPro?

Monday, May 24, 2010

In plain text...

So I took up a free offer from Snapfish (here it is you cheap skates :P) because, well, who doesn't like a free offer, anyway thats not the point of this post.

The point is the #@$#%! sent me the password in the notification email in plain text!

Now to the average punter probably doesn't give a toss. But then again they probably don't get the implications. Basically it makes easier for the nefarious amongst us to get your password.

Firstly there is the possibility of the password getting intercepted in transit, email is sent unencrypted which makes it easy for someone to filter network traffic and get a hold of your password.

Secondly, in the world of freemail accounts with ever increasing storage limits, there are many users that wouldn't delete the email, even intentionally keeping the email around in case they forget the password. So if there email is ever compromised then the password is as well.

Thirdly, it means that the password can be retrieved from the service should that service ever be compromised. At best the password is stored in some reversible hash format, but in this day and age that doesn't really slow down people for long and at worst it is simply stored in plain text. *shudder*

Finally, your average punter is probably using the same password for 28 different sites and perhaps getting tricky by adding a number to the end for sites that need more "security" (like their internet banking). This means that all those services would then be compromised as well.

So, I'm thinking that there needs to be something done to bring this issue to the attention of the masses and perhaps prompt these sites to change there practices. With that in mind I do have some vague ideas for how to enact this starting with embedding the results here.

As you can see if you tweet with the hashtag #inplaintext the results will show up here. So for now, this will do my curiosity. Hopefully I can expand on it a bit in the future. I'm thinking build a good list of all the sites that do it and name and shame or something.

MacBook vs MacBookPro?

Uh oh, if you saw my earlier post "Should I buy in Australia or in the USA?" you would know I was all set on purchasing a Mac Book Pro, now with the new line of Mac Books, I'm thinking I'd be better off getting one of them and chucking a bit more memory into it.

So the question is whether the extra stuff you get with a Mac Book Pro is really worth it. Here is what you get.

  1. Display: SAME
  2. Processor: SAME
  3. Graphics: SAME
  4. Memory: 2Gb Standard versus 4Gb. Would cost $140 to upgrade to 4Gb.
  5. BatterySAME
  6. Hard Drive: SAME
  7. Optical Drive: SAME
  8. Ports: Two USB ports versus Two USB ports and a Firewire Port and an SD slot
  9. Wireless: SAME
  10. Ethernet: SAME
  11. Keyboard: Normal keyboard versus back lit keyboard.
  12. Case: Polycarbonate versus Aluminium
  13. Size: Slightly larger versus slightly smaller.
  14. Weight: 90g. Slightly heavier (2.13kg) versus slightly lighter (2.04kg).
  15. Price: $1249 ($1389) versus $1499

So basically are those differences worth the extra $110?

I'm not sure. I'm not going to be carrying it around too much (couch surfing FTW!) so weight probably isn't a big factor. Back lit keyboard is kind of cool (especially for the aforementioned couch surfing!). Who uses Firewire? Not me.
Does anyone know the differences in case longevity?
Does the Aluminum case cool better?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

XKCD Jokes an Engineer Can't Share

So todays (well probably yesterday by now) XKCD comic was pretty good.

Now, I'd love to be able to share this joke with my girlfriend. But I know what will happen.
I don't get it. Whats a 192 block?
Now, not for a moment am I saying that my girlfriend is stupid, it is just not her field of expertise. I'm sure she has some awesome jokes about corporate finance that would go straight over my head.

Now I know that XKCD does give users a warning

Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors).

And that is all well and good but really it still doesn't help me when I want to share the wealth. I must admit that occasionally he hits the nail on the head for another subculture such as that of cat and cat owners And at this point I could make several disparaging remarks about my Father...... 

But there are few that fully transcend the barriers and allow me to share his genius with the, for want of a better word, common man.

This frustration began long ago with, the oft cited (by the nerdy few) Bobby Tables Comic.

Which will remain a classic while there are bad databases and database programmers around, such as whoever did the Sacramento Credit Union's site. Damn it seems like they took down that page! Anyway, I am sure there are people out there that share my frustrations.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Should I buy in Australia or in the USA?

So I'm looking to get a new laptop and well having been an early Mac user (Mac Classic FTW!) and slightly more recently an iBook (circa 2001 G3) and also deciding that I'd like to try my hand at maybe developing an iPhone App or two I've pretty much decided that it'll be a 13in Mac Book Pro. I don't need anything fancier than the base model so that should do it. Another important factor is that I now have sufficient funds to get back into the Apple world. It still feels odd that I have money after being a money scrounging, penny pinching student for so many years.Whatever you think about Apple the word cheap usually doesn't immediately to mind.

Anyway, as I am heading the states in July I could purchase it over there. So I'm going to compare buying it over there to buying it over here and all the extra savings I can squeeze out of it. Because despite having more funds I still like to use them as little as possible.

So, to start with lets just compare basic prices. I can get it from the Apple Store in the States for US$1199 and I can get it in the Australian Apple Store for AUD$1499. So converting both to AUD (using todays conversion rate of 0.87281 from Oanda I get

US Apple Store AUD$1,373.23 versus AUD$1,499 from the Australian store.

So, looks like a no brainer at the moment, but the US price does not include sales tax, so lets check where I am going.

Sales tax in New York City is
City sales tax rate is 4.5 percent (in addition to the New York State sales and use tax of 4 percent and the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District surcharge of 0.375%), for a total Sales and Use tax of 8.875 percent.
So that'd make it New York City Apple Store = 1,373.23*1.08875 which is AUD$1495.10, suddenly it doesn't look so good there.

Now, sales tax in Washington, DC is 5.75% so in DC we get 1,373.23*1.0575 which is AUD$1452.19. Hmm still not that much better.

What about in Boston? Sales tax is 6.25% so we get AUD$1459.06

Lets dig a little deeper. Here in Australia I can get an Educational Discount which knocks $100 off the price and brings it down to AUD$1,399 which already looks better than the US prices.

Also, in Australia if you're about to travel overseas and you purchase something you can get the GST back via the Tourist Refund Scheme the catch is that you have to take the goods with you to present at the Airport to get the refund. There are other requirements, which you can see on the website linked but they are all met by this purchase anyway. So if you're eligible you can get a refund as follows.

The GST refund is calculated by dividing the total amount of the purchase by 11.

So, if I get the laptop for AUD$1399 and take it in my carry on luggage with me on the trip then I'll get 1399/11 = AUD$127.18 cash back. Which would bring the grand total for purchasing the laptop here in Oz to 1399- 127.18 = 1271.82.

So basically we get

US Purchase = AUD$1452.19
Australian purchase = AUD$1271.82

I know where I'll be getting it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why Engineers Suck at Usability

This post actually follows on a bit from my earlier post Apple Product Manager Just Say No where I discussed how some of the success that Apple enjoys flows from their ability to deliver core product well without all the extra crap. The problem is

Engineers Love Features

They crave the latest technology, they need the latest widget and given the option an engineer that is developing a product will go all out to solve all the technical challenges that they can think of and incorporate them all into the product.

The problem here isn't really that the Engineers want to solve as many cool problems as possible and jam it into whatever product that they are developing, it is rather that they don't recognize that most end users don't want them all. And also to pick up on my earlier post, that the Product Managers don't exercise enough control over their product.

The paradox here is that when the Engineer is a consumer of a product they recognize well designed products over badly designed ones and will probably choose the former rather than the later. I say probably because there could always be that one kick arse feature that they want in some crappier product (Div X support in a DVD player for example).

The reason that Engineers don't see a problem with the product or program is

They have a much higher Threshold of Complexity.
Basically they don't tend to be bothered by a device having 48 buttons instead of 4. One example that springs to mind is a washing machine. Before the advent of fancy control circuitry a washing machine probably only had one controller, a knob you turned to the desired wash cycle, now you can get ones with LCD displays and a menu system and 20 buttons all controlling different specific features. Now while the Engineer may not be bothered with this display of controls the average user (my mother for example) would look at it and have a slight panic attack.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Month of Reader(ing)

So, as of about a month ago I switched to using Google Reader from Bloglines. The main reason I switched? Unexpected glitches and slow loading times on Bloglines. Bloglines was good and I've been using it for a fair while but unlike Google's Beta Apps the reliability was atrocious. At least once a week I would not be able to access it at all. So finally I cracked it and switched over to reader.

And now that I've been using reader I can honestly say I'm never going back. If Bloglines actually worked then the features, in terms of an RSS reader are basically the same. However I've come to appreciate the extra features that Google Reader has, the ability to share and comment on peoples stories via Buzz/Reader and Trends.

Like any self respecting nerd I love stats even if they aren't particularly useful. And also, like pretty much everyone I can think of I have a healthy dose of Narcissism in my. So here is my run down on a month of Reader Trends not trends for feeds, but how I've been reading in the last month.

My Trends
From your 54 subscriptions, over the last 30 days you read 6,673 itemsstarred 3 items,shared 20 items, and emailed 1 items.

As you can see in the last 30 days I've "read" almost 7000 items and shared 20. Not a particularly high conversion rate I must admit but I put this down to the fact that I don't share my feed with many people so I don't see the point in sharing to often. Now I say "read" but really it would be more appropriate to say "read headlines". Now I hate leaving stuff in reader unread (and in my email for that matter as well). But again when I say unread I really mean un"read headlines".

If you check out the table below you'll see that I've "read" almost 2400 items from the BBC. I would say at a rough estimate that I click through on say 1-2 stories a day from the BBC and I'm content with the headlines for the rest. That basically works out as reading 2.5% of the stories. It'd be awesome if I could pull that stat out of Reader Trends but you can not, or at least I haven't figured out how to.

Subscription# Read% Read
As you can see from the table below, of the 20 items I shared 9 were comics, basically I like to spread the laughter.

Subscription# Shared

What's Missing from Trends?
So after using Reader for about a month now I think I've gotten used to it quirks and while writing this I've noticed that there are a few things that I'd like to see included in Trends.

  1. Number of articles that I have clicked through to view on the website, or where I have selected to play an embedded video or similar. This would be awesome for the BBC which only has headlines and abstracts in its feed.
  2. Number of articles "read" where in this case read is displayed long enough in the browser to actually skim read the contents not just the title/abstract.
  3. Time spent reading a feed. Obviously there are some challenges with this one, but for the feeds that show all the contents in reader this would be a good estimate of actual reading of the feed. You could possibly even show average time in each item.
Now, I'm not conceited enough to think that anyone with power will actually read this but I think they'd be cool features and I'm sure you could harness that information to enhance advertising etc that is embedded in feeds.