Mozilla: Blogging’s Killer App

Last summer, I found that IE on my mac was so completely screwed up I was forced to use another browser until they released an update. While I had only occasionally used mozilla for testing, after a couple weeks as a browser refugee I was a mozilla convert, and have been ever since. I use IE for testing only now, and can't see any reason to move off mozilla anytime soon.
I always wanted a resource to point friends to that were not yet mozilla/phoenix/chimera converts and decided a few months ago to finally sit down and write it. The following instructions and screenshots are from November 2002 releases of mozilla 1.2 betas, but the tips and tricks should translate to current and future versions without too much trouble.
Living in an Ad-Free World
The first thing that got me, and what has kept me coming back to Mozilla is the ability to live in a world free of annoying advertising. I've gotten so used to it that I'm surprised when I see a coworker or friend's desktop mired in popunder windows or flashing banner ads. Why live with it if you don't have to?
Killing popups and popunders
The current 1.3 betas have an easier method to do this, but the following thumbnail links to the Advanced | Scripts & Plugins settings that will ensure you'll never see another popup or popunder ever again. The unchecked "allow unrequested windows" option is key here. The other settings prevent other annoying behaviors as well.

pref-scripts_small.gif

Hit Ok, and that's it. You can now surf any major newspaper, media site, or search sites without ever being distracted or annoyed by another x10 ad window ever again.
Dropping Ads
Mozilla also allows you to block ads, which presents a bit of a moral dilemma. If you block all ads, you'll never see them again, but the website operators will never see a cent because you'll never click on a hidden banner ad. Some people go as far as saying that reading websites after filtering out all advertisements is "stealing" content.
Personally, I block ads from certain servers for two reasons. The first is basic annoyance. If a banner ad is flashing, or shaking, or otherwise distracting, I find I can't read the text on the page. Mozilla makes this easy to do on a case-by-case basis, with a right-click menu option, shown below.

ad blocker

The other reason I block ads is for untrustworthy sites. I make a point to block the major networks like doubleclick that have a history of shady data mining practices of internet surfers' browsing habits.
You can go as far as you want with ad blocking in mozilla. To illustrate the point, I blocked a few servers that advertised on one of my favorite content sites. You have to admit, it's a lot easier to read sans distractions, though the jury is still out on whether or not it's a good idea to take it this far.

blocked ads

Alternately, you can also set your Mozilla preferences to only allow animations to loop 1 time (I don't have screenshots of this, but the newest versions make this easy). This eliminates annoyingly animated ads because they finish their animation loop very quickly and stop flashing in less than a second.
Tabs, Tabs, Tabs
"Tabs" are exactly what they sound like – ways to layer several web pages into the same window. The tabs themselves are then shown across the top of the browser window and are used for switching between views. They're not exactly a new idea, though the mozilla implementation is a bit different than things I had seen before. A few years ago Opera added the MDI (multi document interface) option to their browser, but it required an either/or option when you first ran it. Given the choice between a desktop full of windows and a single window restricted to a dozen views, the cluttered desktop seemed easier to work with for me.
Mozilla (and other browsers adding support) added flexibility by letting you selectively add tabs to a window. This way, you could have five browser windows on your desktop, but within each you can also have as many screens as you like.
Tabs for writing weblogs
For blogging especially, I've found this to be a useful feature, because it allows me to organize windows into specific working spaces on my desktop. I might have a browser window with a page pointing at my weblog posting tool, and the same window will also have a tab for each link I will be mentioning in a post. As I write my entry, I can quickly swap to the other tabbed links, reading, excerpting, and copying/pasting text for my post as needed. Or if I'm surfing around and find something interesting, I can save my place there, open a new tab with my blogging engine, then switch back to the site worth blogging and work on a post from there.
If you check out the next screenshot, you can see me doing just that. I've got a new entry in Movable Type, with two links mentioned in the post, and those two pages are tabbed in that browser so I can quickly copy and paste as needed.

blogpost_small.gif

Tabs for reading weblogs
I find that tabs are just as useful for reading lots of blogs because they allow you to organize your reading and branch your surfing into many different directions, without losing your place.
The preferences for tabs in mozilla allow you to enable a couple cool features. You'll want the "load links in a background" and "middle-click or control-click" features enabled as you'll soon see.

tabs pref pref-tabs2_small.gif

Loading tabs in the background (and with a keystroke) means if you're reading a blog post, and there's a link in the middle of a sentence, you can simply control-click it, and continue reading. Mozilla will open the link in a new tab, but in the background. This means your browser won't change focus, and can finish what you were reading without interruption. When you hit the end of the post, you can swap over to the tabs you loaded for additional background on whatever the weblog author was trying to say.
To illustrate the power of tabs for reading further, with the recent proliferation of sidebar link lists, there are quite a number of things to look at in a given day. For a site like the following pictured, I simply hold down the control key (or command on a mac), and load links from the sidebar list in new tabs while I read the captions and titles leading to them. This allows me to quickly read through 10-12 links pretty easily.

tabs

Tabs let you organize
The bottom line is that tabs allow you to organize your desktop just as you would with folders on your hard drive. I find myself now using two or three browser windows at any one time, each with several tabs within each. One will be my blogging window, as I read through sites, jump to links within them, and start new posts based on the sites I see. My other window will be news to read, and I'll start at cnn.com or google news or sfgate.com and open a new tab whenever I see an interesting story from scanning the front pages of the sites. I've often got a third window filled with a bunch of MetaFilter administration windows, to help me manage the site. Overall, it lets me organized my web wanderings and I can't possibly see moving to a different browser until they support this.
Other Nice Features
While the following features aren't solely in Mozilla, they make the browser even better.
Sidebars
Ever since I used the sidebar features in IE 5 on windows, I've loved the utility they offer. Mozilla's sidebars are simple and depending on how web applications use them, they can be pretty powerful. On MetaFilter, I provide a sidebar feed for quick scanning/reading of the site and quick link loading in the main window.

sidebar2

One of my favorite ways to read blogs is by using BlogTracker. It lets you build a customized view of weblogs.com, only showing you your favorite blogs. While it takes quick a bit of wrangling to setup, once everything is in place, it's a great use of the sidebar feature. I find myself actually using blogtracker more than an RSS reader, since I can accomplish the same thing — keep up on lots of sites, and since it's in a browser, I can jump to offsite links quickly and easily.

sidebar1

Incidentally, I usually shy away from mozilla variants like Phoenix and Chimera due to the lack of sidebar functionality.
Remote Blogging
I have to admit, while I'm impressed by the xml-rpc powered Mozblog as a proof-of-concept (in a "wow, it actually worked!" sort of way), I honestly can't find a good reason to use it everyday. I've found the best uses for xml-rpc apps are those that live outside the browser, allowing you to do web things easier, or more powerfully, inside a real application environment. Since you're already in a browser, I don't see why you wouldn't just go to your Blogger or Movable Type backend page to post an entry, or use a bookmarklet to make it easier, than to pop open mozblog to do the same.

mozblogprefs mozblog

Skins
While skins have been historically synonymous with turning any app into "tiny font, too dark to read, quake clan-ified" versions, there are a few tasteful things being done with Mozilla skins. The basic benefits are there — if you don't like the way Mac/IE looks, there's not too much you can do, but with Mozilla, you just click a couple buttons to install a new one, and if you're really into it, you can make your own.
Personally I find the Orbit variants are highly usable, providing large, easy to read buttons that are high contrast as well.
Alternate Navigation Interface
While this is a bit geekier than the other features here, I love the site navigation bar (hit View | Show/Hide | Site Navigation Bar | Show as Needed to enable it) because it presents an alternate way to navigate weblogs that also puts the functions in a predictable place. For most weblogs, it gives me a visual indication that they've got an RSS feed and I can auto-discover it with good readers. For sites like MetaFilter with lots of posts and comments, I frequently use it to jump between discussions more often than the hard coded next/back links on the site itself.
Some have taken their use of the link element pretty far, with sites offering all sorts of information about the author, quick links to other sites, tables of contents, and copyright information. When a site uses this feature, it means I can find the search engine, about page, and archives instantly, which comes in handy when you're doing research. Greg Knauss proposed a standard for web site organization five years ago, and this feature comes pretty close to offering just that.

site nav bar

Web Searching
Google integrated with Yahoo Maps a while back, and I find it incredibly useful for searching multi-line addresses. Set your prefs to use Google first off.

search prefs

Then just highlight addresses with your mouse and right click to get a "web search for…" menu item to appear. Following it for an address will give you a map as the first result, making it easier than copying and pasting multi-line addresses one at a time.

web search maps

Cross platform, open source, and other rah-rah
Finally, I really like that there's finally a cross-platform web browser I can depend on. I split my time about equally between a mac laptop and a pc desktop, and in the past I've had to go without win/IE dhtml features in certain web applications when I was on my mac, and I've had to figure out ways to accomplish the same thing between the versions of IE for each platform. With Mozilla, once you get something working, it's going to work on all platforms.
The fact that it is open source is a good thing for the user. While it certainly dragged the project down a bit at the start, now that we're a few years into community development of mozilla, new features and fixes seem to come pretty quickly these days. The mozilla team has really hit their stride, just in the past couple months, they've fixed a handful of bugs that made my favorite browser even better. And if a good idea pops up in one browser (like the google toolbar in windows IE only), the sheer size of the community makes development of those features in mozilla rather speedy and complete (like the google toolbar for mozilla).
It also happens to be free, and if you're so inclined there are numerous hacks out there to extend mozilla further for the user.

Yosemite, 2003

Yosemite is a magical place for many. The thing that draws me there is the absolute awe that comes from being surrounded by so many natural wonders. Of all the places I've camped and hiked, most memorable places have one or two amazing views or remarkable formations. What makes Yosemite special is that it's got at least a dozen amazing things to see in a very small area. No matter where you look, you're rewarded with an awesome view. Even after being surrounded with natural beauty for days, the sense of awe never wore off. Around every corner and with the changing light, one new perspective after another was offered.
The wintertime ghost town
The drawbacks to enjoying Yosemite (for me at least) is dealing with the crowds. I can recall one summer trip involving a crowded campsite where one set of campers kept everyone else up all night as they played radios loudly while we tried to get sleep so we could climb Half Dome the next morning. The great thing about heading to Yosemite in the dead of winter is that no one else is there. During our time there (a Monday through Friday stay), we never had a problem finding parking, never had to wait in a line, and rarely had to share a location with anyone. There was almost no one around which contributed greatly to the solitude and relaxing experience we had.
It's also dirt cheap. Due to it being the off-season, the winter offers only a few choices of places to stay and we picked the Yosemite Lodge. In the summer, rooms go for about $150 a night for a place with the decor and amenities of your average Motel 6. Our winter, midweek prices were only $79 a night, and they gave us a newly renovated room in a single floor building, which was also nice. The week's lodging ran about $350. The whole trip (including a couple $100 meals and a day skiing with lift passes and rentals) cost less than $1k.
Things to do, places to see
While most photos I've seen of Yosemite are taken in the summer with lush green meadows and raging waterfalls, winter in Yosemite looks amazing on film. A coat of white snow makes anything look nicer, and the addition to Yosemite's natural wonders is breathtaking.
I quickly learned about the importance of light in photography. I read up on photo sites before I left, and seeing the changing light first hand brought the points home. The light on the walls of the valley looks best in the hour or so after sunrise and the hour before sunset, when the light is colorful and low in the sky, casting interesting shadows. Everything shot between those two times has a flat grayish quality. Shooting before sunrise or after sunset produced very blue, drab photographs. The middle of our stay included a full moon, which was bright enough to walk around by at night (and produce shadows on the snow), but sadly beyond my camera's capabilities to photograph.
Winter also meant there were new things to do in Yosemite. We skated in the outdoor ice rink under a full moon. We skied up at Badger Pass (which was a great small, mellow mountain). We hiked in snow to see trees without anyone else around. While we could have snowshoed, the air was cold enough that the snow stayed firm and we simply walked on packed snow. Next time, we'll probably give cross-country skiing up to Glacier Point a try.
The catch?
The down sides were few and far between. It was cold, but given enough layers (all non-cotton — never wear cotton in the winter while exercising), we were perfectly fine stargazing outside at night or hiking in the middle of the day. We got used to the 30 degree (F) temps and the powerful heaters inside our hotel made for warm nights. While we shared the area with a small number of people, we noticed on the way out (the start of a holiday weekend), there were some crowds showing up. If you want to relax and have a quiet time to yourself, midweek during the off season is the best. Being the off-season did mean that a lot of things were closed like other hotels in the area and some of the eating establishments. For food we were limited to just 2-3 choices for each meal. While we had clear skies and perfect weather, it could have turned at any time and made for a miserable day or two.
Memories
Looking forward to this trip got me through the last few months of 2002 (hadn't had a real vacation since summer of 2001), and now that I'm back from it I can say I wasn't disappointed. It was closer to the bay area than I thought, the driving was easy (we also took advantage of the free shuttle buses in the valley instead of driving everywhere), the prices were cheap, and overall it was the first time I got to relax and forget about everything in a long time.
Here are a few photos from the week
Here's a 3 minute (7Mb, quicktime) movie of us goofing around (since hiking isn't the most exciting thing to film, I had to make due). The song (used without permission) is from Rilo Kiley's new album.

Copyright and the Commons

Today's the big day in court. After four years of work, Larry's finally getting his chance to turn the tide, almost singlehandedly. I have high hopes for the Eldred case, though many predictions are for a landslide loss. The curious thing for me is hearing friends on both sides of the political spectrum (I have some big time Bush supporting pals) agree the extensions have gone too far, which is a good sign.
A year ago, I had little idea what the concept of public domain really meant aside from really old books and movies. Over the past 7 or 8 months that I've been working on the Creative Commons, I've come to recognize and respect what a true commons for our culture would mean. Of course, it's mostly imaginary, as copyright has encompassed almost everything from the better part of last century and limited the use of works.
There's the old saying that good artists copy and great artists steal, and that's not based on outright theft, but the acknowledgement that we are all influenced by others' work, and things like hip hop music and photoshop collages point out how great new art can be created when combining other works into new works.
There are more turntables sold today than guitars. People use both instruments to create music, but what specifically do people do with turntables? They play (usually) two previously released (and copyrighted) vinyl records, mixing them in various ways (scratching, layering, etc) to create new music works. I tend to think of "View Source" the same way. I don't copy others' code and layouts outright, but I started learning HTML from Justin Hall's source, I learned Cascading Style Sheets after sampling Zeldman's homepage in 1998. I learned javascript by copy and pasting rollover code people explicitly shared with the world. We all learned how to do layout tricks like tables, frames, and use of invisible gifs from looking at how others did their sites and visually deconstructing their work. I can create pages with 3-column CSS layouts today because Eric Costello, Owen Briggs, and the Bluerobot.com guy have done the legwork and shared their experiences with us all.
The past 8 years of web development depended upon and blossomed due to sharing code with one another. In the beginning there were no books, only sparse documentation. Then there were a few books and a lot of pages to learn from. Eventually you had new media college programs and books on any aspect of web development imaginable, and they owe their existence largely to the view-source menu option. I've seen perfectly good web technologies die from atrophy, because viewing and sharing code was close to impossible. When viewing others' source isn't possible, code exchanges fill the gap, and without them, the technology would go nowhere.
Right now, I'm listening to some music that has roots equally in rock and jazz. Each song fills ten minutes of time with meandering melodies, abrupt pauses and starts, and is layered with speech samples from 1960s political activists. To say the songs were developed in a vacuum would be ignoring the obvious. We all have influences.
I've toyed with the free resources at iStockphoto (as have others), and I've played with public domain video in the prelinger archives. If someday copyright was a different story, allowing people to use and reuse others' works instead of letting them decay and rot until they someday enter the public domain (in many cases over 100 years after their creation), our culture could benefit greatly in ways we can't possibly fathom today. The great promise of the internet was to house and make instantly available the entire scope of human knowledge. Without new works entering into the public domain, that knowledge is largely lost.
As the law currently stands, this very piece I've written here and the image I made to accompany it are protected from someone trying to sell it and pass it off as their own, and that's great for me as an artist/writer. Yet that also means neither will be available for reprinting, repurposing, or any other use without my permission for a very long time. If I die on my 75th birthday, you'll be free to reuse the above image or this text in 2117. Is that what copyright was intended for?
While most people are betting against Eldred and Lessig, I'm hoping the Supremes see the light and remember what the original framers intended. Here's to the public domain, the greater good, and the creative commons that someday might be.

TiVo’s Next Move

TiVo's 3.0 operating system began quietly rolling out earlier this week, and among the improvements is the ability to load schedule data via both cable and ethernet. While it appears this feature is simply a way to streamline the unit, and get rid of the requirement for a phone line (I had to install a new phone jack just to accomodate the TiVo when I installed it), I think there's a bigger reason why TiVo is looking for alternate data delivery: TiVo wants to become a distribution network, and even at 3am, sending data through the straw of phone line is no match for the wide pipe of broadband.
There are a lot of TiVos in the world now, and people are getting used to their different view of media content. Who could have predicted that people would flock to a device that only keeps programming for a brief period of time? VCR tapes can last for years, holding baby's first steps as well as last night's syndicated Simpsons rerun. TiVo simply embraced the transient nature of most television programming, and filled that gap. Although their easy software and no-brainer recording system did a lot to help their success, VCRs have had several similar automatic timer setting features, and additonal hardware (like VCR Plus barcode scanners) for years, but it never really caught on. I think the big brains at TiVo realized this and also realized there's no need to commit episodes of almost any TV show to a tape that lasts ten years when you'll delete it the next day, after watching it once.
Dust in the wind
This embracing of the temporal nature of things previously thought of as permanent or semi-permanent is key. Ten years ago, who could have predicted that people would listen to music through their computers with files that were regularly deleted, added to, and/or erased en masse? I buy CDs to simply rip and forget about in storage. I've lost tens of gigabytes of music to hard drive failures, and it's not the end of the world. The storage on my Rio is regularly formatted, changed out, then formatted again. In regards to media content, consumers are buring the candle at both ends, so to speak, by constantly churning through television shows, music, and movies. As a hyperconsumer of media with a digital hub at the center of my life, I want new, new, new stuff to watch and hear and I want it now, now now.
The same way I treat a single episode of the Simpsons, I can also treat movies. A single episode of the Simpsons requires a lot of work and money, but it's still going to be deleted five minutes after I've seen it, even if I know it is something a team of writers worked months creating a storyline for, something the studio paid hundreds of thousands to produce, and something that took a team of overseas animators six months to create. Movies require more time and more money to produce, but a good lot of them are fluff pieces I wouldn't want to have in permanent storage, but still provide entertainment value.
The new TiVo features
Imagine the thousands of TiVo units are all on some sort of broadband connection, getting data through a fat cable line or a DSL-powered ethernet port. Now imagine them becoming a real distribution network, sending me the latest hollywood films for a few bucks. The satellite TV (including DSS) and cable TV industries have all realized that pay-per-view is a goldmine for them, and it's only a matter of time before TiVo embraces this. Imagine paying two or three bucks directly to TiVo to see the movies you wouldn't want to fork $20 over for the DVD, the movies that have interesting enough previews, but aren't anything you'd go directly to the theater to see. These are the same movies you likely rent if you have a VCR and a Blockbuster Video nearby, and TiVo stands a good chance of replacing them, and saving you a trip to the store. In my DVD collection, I have the Godfather box set, I've got every Coen brothers release, and I have Criterion releases of every one of my favorites they offer, but I'd never own Charlies Angels, Zoolander, or Shallow Hal. I wouldn't bat an eye, however, to pay a buck or two to see those titles show up in my TiVo's Now Showing list.

…from my couch, I could pay a few bucks directly to TiVo for instant, ephemeral entertainment

I don't know about you, but I love the simplicity and ease-of-use of all things TiVo, and I could easily imagine how this new type of content delivery would seamlessly slip into my recorder. TiVo already has my credit card info, as I pay them ten bucks a month for the program data, and they already know what types of TV shows I like, so it's not too much of a stretch to think of how a new system would work. Imagine setting aside 10% of your TiVo's storage to keeping 2 or 3 suggested movies ready to play (this would be much less noticable in the new 60 hour units), then selecting them from your Now Playing list, operating some sort of keystroke (like three thumbs up, then select) to confirm you want to pay for it, then watching the movie instantly. No need to schlep down to the Blockbuster and fork three bucks over to the Viacom empire when from my couch, I could pay a few bucks directly to TiVo for instant, ephemeral entertainment. TiVo wouldn't have to maintain a 24/7 television channel, they'd simply be selling premium content direct to the customer on demand.
While their competitors like SonicBlue enable a napster-like app on every RePlay hard drive and fight the numerous court battles to let their customers "steal" content, TiVo could instead be making a profit on every copy of a movie watched by their users by following a proven profit model that has been working for over ten years. The sad truth of the P2P revolution is that people want to pay creators for their content, but it's never been easy or possible. TiVo is the king of ease-of-use, and could make both things possible in their media distribution network.
The bottom line
Providing content the customer wants, in a quick and easy fashion is TiVo's forte, and it'd be nice to see TiVo make a profit and stick around. The increasingly hermit-ized, couch potato nation loves TiVo and loves movies, and would be a goldmine for TiVo if they simply put the two together. And like every episode of handcrafted Simpsons brilliance, I'd send those movies whose writers worked for months, whose budgets ran well into the millions, and whose actors worked on for six months, straight to /dev/null/ and the digital ether five minutes after finishing them.

The future of music

The problem with music and mp3s today
I was introduced to the format in spring of 1997, when my then domain host sent a mass mail to all users saying that .mp3 files were banned and sites serving files would be shut down without notice. I hadn't even heard of them, and had to dig search engines for half an hour to find anything I could understand. I eventually got that it was a compression specification, but the real impact didn't come until six months later when a friend said I could have a copy of a new CD from his mp3 files.
Five years have passed since then, and in that time Apple has fully embraced the format, putting playback, ripping, and recording features deep into their digital hub as lifestyle philosophy. Along with iPods, Rios and Nomads adorn the hips of many geeks. PDAs and even cell phones tout mp3 playback as features. Everyone with a computer I know uses them, rips them from their CDs, and shares them with others. Napster (and later on, Kazaa) built massive worldwide networks based on the sharing of these files, spreading terabytes of files to millions of users. And yet, you can't walk into a store anywhere in America and buy a physical form of media embedded with mp3s.
Imagine if DVD players worked on the same philosophy. Imagine if you couldn't ever buy a DVD movie on disc, and the only way to get content was to use cumbersome software tools in your PC, with an attached VCR as input. Now where would DVDs be if that were the only way to get new content? Looking at the world of mp3s, you see that even despite that daunting hurdle, they are everywhere. A whole industry has blossomed to sell players for your pocket, your car, and your home. Computer companies have embraced it, Apple the most unapologetically, with many an iBook destined for music ripping, playing, and burning.
Five years of the record industry ignoring the problem, then trying to stifle and silence it, and it is easily the most popular method of listening to music on a computer. Five years of combating piracy by the RIAA and the "virus" has spread to everyone and everything. Even as the recording industry admits defeat and tries their own approach, they continue to stick it to artists and do everything wrong.
When dealing with the internet and mp3s, the RIAA has always seemed to operate based on fear. Fear that they'd lose their stranglehold on musicians and artists, that they'd lose their precious controls on distribution of product, and fear that their carefully crafted marketing campaigns wouldn't have the same impact in a world where consumers don't respond to the same old broadcast methods.
Given the ubiquity of mp3s among consumers, the continued rise in popularity of the format despite anything that's been put in place to stop them, and the millions of dollars being spent on mp3 encoding/decoding software and hardware, I no longer think the RIAA operates solely on fear. At this point, they're simply running on stupidity.
A Solution
The solution to the problem is a simple one, but would require an ambitious person (or persons) to take some gigantic risks. Just like Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, someone is going to have to stand up to the RIAA, at the risk of killing any chances of ever getting signed themselves. The Recording Industry thrives off its hyper-controlled means of production and distribution, but in the internet age none of that matters. Smart musicians have always understood the means of production and distribution and the business savvy among them have started their own labels, done their own packaging and pressing, and even done their own distribution. Artists like Aimee Mann that have decided to go it all alone had to face stiff opposition, but thanks to some luck and plenty of well-timed publicity, she was allowed to enter her material into the traditional channels. You can buy her CDs at your local record store, but it wasn't without a fight.
An ambitious and courageous band or artist could single handedly bring the whole system crashing down by going internet-only, and selling mp3-only, at a reasonable price. They would have to do a few things to accomplish this, and each step would entail great risk. Given the potential benefit, it's only a matter of time before someone successfully goes through with it.
If an unsigned band were to take this on, they'd need to have a huge underground following. This could happen easily if it were a new music genre, one where there is demand, but few available records. If an established artist were to do this, there is a strong potential that they'd be kissing their conventional careers goodbye, so it would probably have to be someone who is so sick of the system they're open to that risk.
The band or artist taking this risk would release their music via the internet only, at a reasonable price. The means of production used to dictate that a CD cost $15 to create, market, and deliver to the consumer. As the price of blank media went down to almost nothing, the price of CDs did not, as record companies enjoyed larger profits. For an internet only, mp3 release there are comparatively little costs for distribution, and once a song is produced, a million digital copies could be made, sold, and distributed at about the same cost of producing, selling, and distributing one copy. An infinitely popular song could create an incredible profit margin, without the problems that physical media presents.
The price would have to be reasonable. The mp3 format is a notoriously pirated format, but most people aren't going to go through the trouble of locating, downloading, and organizing pirated tracks if they could get them all in one place, legally, for a small fee. A band selling unencrypted mp3s at a low enough price wouldn't have to worry about piracy. In a sense, it would be like "legalizing" the mp3 format, if cheap and convenient, there'd be no reason to "black market" the music via the pirate networks. Unbound by the needs of record store shelves, trucks to ship units, and record companies, a band could charge a fee of say, $0.50 per track, so an "album" of music would run about $5-6. Of the few attempts by record companies to offer downloadable or streaming electronic versions of popular music, they've often set prices as high as $3 per song (scroll down to "digital downloads" and compare to the CD price), making an album cost two to three times the cost of a conventional CD, allowing companies to write them off as failures and say there is no market for electronically distributed music.
As a consumer, if I had the option to search morpheus/kazaa/napster/hotline for tracks from an artist I'm interested in hearing, or just paying 50 cents for a perfect 192kbps or higher recording I can have now, I'm most likely going to pay the money to save time, and feel better about supporting the artist. An artist making five to six dollars from a single album may not sound like much, but it's higher than most music contracts would ever allow. In terms of sales, selling just a few thousand songs would be enough for small artists to be fairly adequately paid, and if sales continued or grew, they could stand to make quite a bit of money.
If someone made the choice, took the risks, set their prices, and began selling big, there would surely be more to follow. Once a few become a handful, there is no turning back, and an entire industry could be born.
Conclusion
Here's the deal: I own a Rio mp3 player. I listen to all my music in mp3 format, and whenever I buy a CD from a store, I typically come home, rip it onto my home computer, send the files to my laptop and Rio, and set the CD aside. I currently only touch CDs if I want to hear them in my car, but soon I'll buy a mp3-encoded CDR reading stereo and be done with conventional CD media altogether. I'm not much of a media maven, though I may be a slight gadget freak, but I'm by no means alone. There are millions of people out there using mp3s everyday, on thousands of devices, but not a single artist is willing to sell them the media format they currently enjoy.
The market is out there, just waiting for an ambitious artist to take the risks and reap the rewards. In so doing, we could bring an end to an archaic, controlled distribution system known as the RIAA. Musicians could be free of their contractual shackles, supporting themselves and controlling their own destiny. Consumers would be completely free to pick and choose from any type of music they like, and support the artists directly.
You know what the best part is? You might never hear a boy band ever again.
(update: consider this a first draft to something bigger. I clumisly made a lot of points and there are more points to make. Keep on the lookout for something more fully fleshed out soon)

Reading list

On a weblist, I responded to the question: What books have been most influential about the way you see the web now and in the future? with the following, and felt it was worth sharing.
1 – In 1996, I read Douglas Coupland's Microserfs and it got me thinking that I could and should work in this technical industry, if for nothing else, to be surrounded by smart people doing interesting and fun things. After a few months as an environmental engineer (after getting my masters in environmental chemistry), I chucked it all to do web development full time and haven't looked back since.
2 – Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think brought all the best lessons from usability down to a readable text that began a discussion, and explained the give and take that usability and design sometimes have to work against. It was refreshing to read after hearing only decrees from on high, delivered in the full style of academics telling everyone how Things Should Be Done. If I had to pick one web-specific book as my all time favorite, this would be it.
3. Philip Greenspun's Philip and Alex's guide to Web Publishing did much of the same things Krug's no nonsense text did: it brought down cerebral discussions of how to separate content into databases from display structure, how to build those database-powered applications, and how to scale them into a community. It's general enough to almost read as tool/technology agnostic (if you can ignore the "oracle is the best, ever!" type sentiments) as it teaches the basics of how to think like a database programmer and how to construct web applications where there were once only web pages.
4. Chris Locke, et al's Cluetrain Manifesto is pretty much the short version of Futurize Your Enterprise by Siegel (the person asking the question mentioned this in their list), and presented a lot of good ideas at how to conduct business in an honest, upfront way that doesn't pander or patronize the customer. I thought it was mostly hype at first, but after helping build a business that subscribed to many of the same goals as the book, I found out how rewarding it was, to treat customers with respect, and as humans, and see how they loved us.
5. Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point isn't a technical book by any stretch, but was a great read into how ideas spread like wildfire. If you're into tracking internet memes or trying to market something someday, it's worth picking up.
6. George Olsen (list member I didn't know at the time) suggested I read a comic-turned-book in 1997, called Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, and I thought he was crazy. Then a week later, I heard another web developer mention Understanding Comics was the best thing they'd read in ages. Then I found out a friend's internet company gave him a stack of books at his time of hire, among them Understanding Comics. I finally picked up a copy in 1998 and read it. It's about comics, but general enough that there are clear lessons to glean for web work. How to tell a story in a limited space, with limited words, limited attention spans, and limited color palettes applies both to the sunday newspaper as well as the average win98 box running IE on a 17" monitor. He breaks down comics to the essential mechanics that could be easily applied to web page design, web copy writing, banner ads, etc.
I'd say these are all a must read, in addition to texts about the medium itself and its future, like Weaving the Web, the various books about recent internet history offer some great background (there are several good netscape-in-1995/Microsoft-vs-Netscape-browser-war titles I've read in the past couple years). A fantastic pre-web interface book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum is another must. If you're doing design, it helps to get a little history, perspective and inspiration from the profile of Tibor Kalman in Perverse Optimist and Andy Goldsworthy's amazing natural stuff.
Taken together, these books build a foundation for critical thinking about the web, help solve current problems you may face in day-to-day web development, and lay the groundwork for how to process new technologies in the future.

Stroke

She shook him awake and said "Matthew is here."
"There's Thay?" he mumbled out.
"What?" I had to ask.
"Thor thife, thor thife" he said, to clear things up.
"Oh, my wife! She's in San Francisco, has another week of school left to teach and was sorry she couldn't come. How are you doing?"
My mom was perhaps too optimistic when she spoke to me on the phone the previous day. It was far from the speedy recovery she described.
Quick recap
On Friday, December 7th, around 5:30AM, my mom and dad were setting out to begin their workday (They sell food on a lunch truck, a sort of convenience store on wheels that is sometimes affectionately described as a "roach coach." Growing up, I was usually too embarrassed to have such blue collar parents, and would hide it from friends by saying "they're caterers, they do catering, you know."). They were fully stocked and ready for their first stop at 6:00AM, but as my dad sat at a green light, my mom piped up from the grill in the back "go, it's green." My dad slumped over a bit, and she could tell something was wrong. The next thing she knew, he punched the pedal and fell to the right. The truck jumped the traffic island and knocked over a street light, but thankfully within minutes paramedics and firemen were on the scene. My dad is a large man, and it took them a good 20-30 minutes (according to my mom) to get him out and onto a strecher bound for the hospital. He was speaking at the time and reasonably coherent.
Around 10:30 that morning I got a call from my brother. Seeing my caller ID popup with "Michael – Home" didn't bode well. My first thought was "Why the hell is my brother calling me from his home on a Friday morning? This can't be good." He explained the problem and the prognosis. Later that day, I spoke with my mom and heard the same thing, a stroke, probably caused by a clot going up to the brain, his left side paralyzed. Saturday brought better news, that he could move his left foot down a little bit, and his left arm raised up involuntarily when he waved goodbye to someone. I felt powerless at home, didn't know what more I could do down in Southern California, but I headed out late Saturday to get down for an early morning visit Sunday.
The hospital
When I got to the hospital Sunday morning, no one else was there with him in the Neuro ICU, just me standing at the foot of his bed. His body laid almost completely motionless while he slept, with tubes coming out of every possible place, connected to monitoring devices nearby. My thoughts ran to a couple days before when I read a few emails he sent me, and responded to his instant messages. Friday afternoon, I got a package he mailed me the day before. All that was lively just days before now looked empty. A battered machine lay before me, a machine that pumped blood and air and electricity through flesh and bone that used to talk to me was now still. The machine was hooked to other machines, cold, beeping, machines.
My hearing suddenly went into tunnel mode, and my urge to faint was only being held back by my inability to breathe.
Outside, under the trees I sat in the breezy shade for about twenty minutes before my mom walked past.
When she woke him up, he'd look up at us on his right side, and request handshakes. He had a surprisingly firm grip and mumbled a few short phrases to us. Later on, my mom told me about how he didn't recognize his brother or her brother from their visits the previous day but was happy to hear he knew who I was and recognized me. He asked to see the TV, watched it for about a minute and fell back asleep. We stayed a couple hours, following much the same routine. Wake him up, ask him questions, talk, and watch him fall back asleep.
It seemed clear his mental capacity was there, and like I mentioned before, his language centers were probably not affected. He can talk alright, it's just that his muscles seem to be causing the slurring. The damage appears to be physical and after three days, most likely long-term if not permanent. Mom mentioned he had lost 45 lbs on his most recent diet, but that he was up to his all-time high of 380 lbs when he started the diet. Recovery and physical therapy are sure to be slow, as he wasn't much of a walker before the stroke.
the aftermath
I talked with my mom about what big changes this would bring about. They're about twice my page, at 58 and 57 years old, but had figured retirement was still a decade away. Their house is a two-story one, with their bedroom at the top of a long curving flight of stairs and would have to be sold asap. Their business could be sold, and their truck along with it, or my mom could continue doing it with a new driver if my dad recovered to the point he could stay at home alone. She didn't seem to like the idea of her own early retirement or starting over with a job. They had various retirement investments, but she wasn't sure if now was the time to start drawing from them. She hoped their health insurance was good enough to pay for the long stay and post-recovery period. She brought up the problem I had pointed out years earlier, the fact that my dad did all the finances, and how she wasn't sure what bills needed to get paid or where they were at. She had been staying at her parents place (my grandparents) and would continue doing so. My grandmother is currently battling alzheimer's, so there would be two major problems she'd have to deal with on a daily basis from now on. The worst part of this whole thing seemed to be the toll his current absence would cause. They've been married almost 35 years, and during the last 25 years, they've spent almost 24 hours everyday in each other's presence. They slept next to each other, went to work together, worked alongside each other, came home together, ate dinner and watched TV in the house together. I look at my mom and see a woman that is missing something right now. I couldn't imagine what it would be like if he were gone forever.
Shared experiences
I had received dozens of emails from people that had experience with their parents' strokes. The aftermath for each seemed to run the gamut. Some recovered fully in a short time. Some required a few months. A good deal responded to therapy, some in short periods of time, others taking longer. For some, the therapy seemed to reverse the process as the brain re-mapped new ways of controlling muscles, for others, the therapy seemed to simply make the paralysis manageable. A small portion didn't talk about recovery, and mentioned follow-up strokes and their parent's passing. It was wonderful to hear how others felt in the same situation, what I could expect, and what typically happens. Part of me wishes there were someplace to share such experiences online, to be browsed when the need arises.
It still remains to be seen what will happen next, but for now I can only hope for continued stabilization in his vital signs and a possibility for recovery.

Riding again

From the age of about 7 to about the age of 22, I rode a bicycle everyday. Between the ages of 14 to 20 I would ride it two or three hours each day, in small flat areas, and always twirling, twirling, twirling.
Fast forward to age 21 – after the first couple years of college, I had to lighten up on my riding. I was doing alright in school, but not excelling in my coursework. I liked riding a great deal and it was my life for so long that it was hard to give it up. I can still remember riding in my street and being idolized by the neighborhood kids. I can remember riding whenever life got stressful, to keep a bike upright and spinning required absolute concentration, and when I was concentrating on riding, I couldn't think about anything else. It was a popular study break.
I missed it at first, but still dreamt about new tricks, I kept in touch with my friends that chose bikes over college, and I continued reading bike magazines and watching videos. After a few months though, things began looking up. Spending a couple more hours studying each day meant I started enjoying all my classes, and getting the highest or second highest grade in every course.
There were a few dark moments in college; once while delivering pizzas on a friday night (a shit job I've never wish upon my enemies), a pack of guys rode past and my thoughts immediately went back to being 16 in southern california. I'd ride with 3 or 4 close buddies every weekend night, sometimes in downtown LA (no cops or security to bust you), sometimes at the local college campus, or sometimes in the industrial parks near home. When I got home that night from work, I told my then-girlfriend about it, and she likened my saddened state to being a domesticated dog, and catching a glimpse of your old wolf pack buddies running past.
I rode occasionally throughout college, maybe a couple hours here and there, enough to re-learn everything I'd forgotten until then. When I first met my wife, she would stare at my back in fascination, due to some weird musculature bike riding caused. When I moved away to attend grad school, I remember leaving my bike in my parents' garage. It was the last nail in the coffin, and since then I've ridden only once or twice.
Over the past year though, the x-games inspired marketing machines have put bike riding back in my life. Every time I crank up tivo, there's a few episodes of Bluetorch TV waiting to be watched. On the day of my wedding, there was a bike contest less than 100 feet from my apartment. And when I parked my car today on Hayes, I was just a few feet from the "Frisco Freestyle Bike Shop."
Kay mentioned a few months ago that she popped in the shop, and noticed it was filled with bikes like my old one. I've been wanting to visit it for a while, but it always seems to be closed when I get home from work. A couple months ago, I started doing research. I found the bike I wanted, and began saving up for it. Five hundred bucks was beyond the "what the hell?" level of impulse spending, and I had to wait. Leaving a job and looking for a new one didn't help matters either.
I entered the shop and looked around. They carried the brand I wanted, but unfortunately, only the top of the line models (~$700 each). I asked if they could order the exact one I wanted, and the owner said yes. I bought a video, and on the way out, he said "hey you want to test ride it?" I said no, thanks, and walked out… maybe ten feet. I turned around, he took it out of the racks, and the next thing I know I'm riding a freestyle bike for the first time in four or five years. It didn't feel as sketchy as I thought it would, and I even tried a few tricks. Megaspins? Check. Steamroller? Check. Hang five? Check.
Oh god it felt good to be riding again.
I put the bike back in the racks, thanked the owner, and walked home. The whole way back I ran calculations in my head. We've got that trip to Australia coming up, but with our big tax return, my current savings and upcoming paycheck I could easily cover it without any problem. Of course I could cover it. Isn't this what being adult is all about? I can buy anything I want, can't I? Of course I can! Next month we won't go out to eat much. I'll keep eating breakfast and lunch at work. No frivolous purchases for the next few months, I promise. Sound good Kay? Great!
I watched the video I bought, looked down at my watch, and put my shoes back on. "Where are you going?" Kay asked. "I'm going out to buy that bike I've always wanted." "Cool." she said.
As I walked back to the shop, a "full circle" thought ran through my head. When I was fifteen years old, I won first place in a flatland competition held in Southern California. The person that came second behind me was named Day Smith, and today, thirteen years later I was buying his pro model from Hoffman Bikes.
(note: the cover image above is a shot of me, when I was sixteen or so, practicing at a contest in the Rose Bowl parking lot)

Towed

Working on the web the past few years, I've grown hyperaware of the interfaces I use everyday, and not just those limited to web sites. I'm talking about typical things like supermarket checkouts, automated telephone menu systems, and freeway on-ramps. Why are they constructed the way they are? How do they make you feel? How could they be improved?
So last week, when I had the unfortunate opportunity to go retrieve my towed vehicle, I couldn't help but notice a pattern developing throughout the day, from one interface to another.
You have to go downtown, in a part of town where no one lives, so it's automatically a different part of the city than where you normally hang out. The towing office is located in the same building as the police station, requiring you to go through a series of metal detectors and security checks, while people are being dragged in and yelling in angry outbursts. Once inside, you have to make your way down long, dark, windowless halls. The walls are black marble, and the floors are dark green. When you make it into the room where you must pay, you're met with something resembling a theater box office in prison. Workers sit behind windows of ultra-thick bulletproof glass, with small circular holes for speaking through. To top it off, the bottom four feet of walls and the entire floor is covered with a layer of textured aluminum you might see lining the back of a large truck.
By the time I got in line, I could feel the anger and rage building inside. It was going to cost me over $150, I was taking a couple hours out of my day to do this, and I was in a dark and cold place. The room drove home the point of how powerless everyone was. Even if a gun-toting maniac ripped through the assembled crowd, I could imagine the workers taking a five minute break to hose out the room before getting back to work, taking $150-300 from each and every person waiting in line. The police station was also mere footsteps away, to remind you of what happens to people that can't keep themselves together.
I also noticed that after dealing with getting there, waiting in line, and paying, I was demoralized, powerless, and still very angry, and that feeling prevented any semblance of coherent argument and ensured payment for my wrongdoing. When the room was most busy there were 3 people in front of me and four behind, and two people in line were so angry that they audibly muttered one explicative after another to themselves. These people were not in any position to make valid protests, and the likelihood of them getting the infraction overturned was close to impossible.
Now that I think about it, it's no accident that the entire process came out feeling that way. It's almost engineered for prompt, protest-free payment.

Participant/Observer

A thought just ran though my head that I felt like writing down.
Driving home from this past wedding weekend, I was thinking hard about memories vs. "living in the now." I thought about the difference between documenting something and participating in it. I think about this whenever I feel like I'm doing too much of one thing and not the other. At the last SXSW, in one 24 hour period I took something like 70 or 80 photos of people. Instead of meeting and talking with them I was documenting them, and I didn't feel at all like a participant. Though, throughout the wedding weekend, I was all participant, rarely stepping outside the participant role to document what was going on.
I took almost no photos, and didn't blog or write a single thing (didn't touch a computer until the last day and it was just to check email and to make sure metafilter was still working). I tried not to chronicle the event, and instead live it up and enjoy it. I figured others would do it for me (like the photographer). But looking back, and having little physical record of the event right now (photos are still being developed), it's almost like it didn't happen. It was all a blur, and I think I realized why I like photography so much. Keepsakes and physical reminders of memories are more important to me than I thought. Also, I realized most of the photos we'll get back will be staged, posed images meant to highlight how young and perfect we were that day. My memories aren't always like that, and I love seeing candid, natural shots from an event instead. I guess this is a roundabout way of saying I wish I took more photos last weekend, to help me remember how absolutely beatiful Kay was, and how wonderful all my friends and family were at the event. Years from now, it's going to be hard to remember much beyond what the photos we have show us.
What brought all this on in the first place? I read Zeldman's piece about his mom, and memory ties into it a bit. It also moved me to tears, and got me thinking about the importance of people, and memories of those people in my life.