Living In The Cloud

I find myself getting less and less patient with having to move data around between devices.  I want to have access to things where I want them, when I want them.  A lot of this has been building up over recent months, but I think the recent death of my old laptop (it’s GPU died…sad, sad day…) has brought it to a head.

Once the laptop died, I transferred some games to a desktop PC, but one I don’t leave on all the time.  This computer used to be my Linux web server, so this 5+ year old system is hardly up to heavy gaming…but that’s another story.  The new Linux server runs all the time, so it provides what we need for internet use, but there are a few key things it won’t do:  card reader functionality and iTunes.  I only have one device that has an SD card reader in it now, and it’s our netbook (Brooke has a USB card reader…somewhere…).  That, and iTunes is Windows and Mac, exclusive, so I can’t use it under Linux.

This means I’m relegated to using the netbook until I get some replacement parts to help speed up what is currently serving as my Windows machine.  And that netbook only has a 10″ screen, making it less than ideal for any kind of photo editing, or messing with an iTunes library.  Sure, it’s fine in a pinch, but netbooks weren’t really designed for heavy use.  Also, this poor netbook apparently won’t run Picasa: it actually “Blue Screens” Windows XP every time I try.  Because of these shenanigans, I haven’t been able to move pictures from our Nikon DSLR from the SD card up to the interwebs because the Picasa program is how I generally do this.

Which brings me to the point at hand: I love me some cloud computing.  Products like Dropbox (or Ubuntu One) to act as online storage, allowing me to share my files between the netbook, my Linux server, my work computer and my phone on the fly.  Google Music, so I can sync music from the cloud with my phone, and never mess with iTunes again.  Google+, which will automatically upload my photos from my phone to their servers (including Picasa) without me having to do anything.  Google Docs, which is where I’ve been typing countless cover letters and maintaining a spreadsheet of various jobs I’ve applied to, giving me access from anywhere on any device, including my phone.

Case in point: I could have transferred those pictures from the SD card to the netbook, and then in turn to a USB stick, and then to the Windows desktop that’s capable of actually running Picasa (or I could have found the cable to plug the camera directly into the computer…but seriously…who knows where it is…), or I could just transfer those pictures to my Dropbox folder on the netbook, allowing them to “magically appear” on whatever computer I wanted to use.  So much easier, and just as fast.

In short?  I’ve become too lazy for USB sticks and SD cards.  The act of physically connecting one thing to another has become a chore.  I’m in the 21st century and want everything, including my hard drive, to be “wireless.”

I have fully embraced the cloud.

The only thing keeping me from going “all the way” is my iPod Nano.  As our Kia Sportage doesn’t have an auxiliary jack, I can’t plug my phone into the stereo system.  My radio transmitter will only accept iPod-like devices: not my phone.  Thus, in order to listen to 8 GB of music or podcasts in my car, I have to use the iPod, which means I have to use iTunes, which means I have to use a cable to switch things around and update the playlist.

That, or I spend $250+ to get a new car stereo with an auxiliary jack, or $20,000+ on a new car.

I think I’m just spoiled…

A Bit Conflicted

A few months ago, Amazon launched their own Appstore for Android phones, however it took me until a few weeks ago to actually get it.  Long story short, Android users have the Android Market pre-installed that allows them to download free and paid apps to their phones, and the Amazon Appstore is a separate entity that does the same thing: just through Amazon.  AT&T, in their infinite wisdom, denied users the ability to install apps that weren’t from the Android Market (including the Amazon Appstore), but they finally reversed course at the end of May and decided to start allowing such things.  However, it took over two months for the update to finally make through AT&T’s network to my phone that would allow the change.  I was in constant contact with AT&T and my phone’s manufacturer, HTC, trying to get this stupid update.  They even sent me a replacement phone, but no dice.

Finally, one day I checked, and I had the ability to install the Amazon Appstore.  All of the sudden.  Lovely.

Since that time, I have grabbed a few apps and checked out some others.  There are some apps that are exclusive to Amazon’s store, and others that are only available through Android Market.  The killer feature of the Amazon Appstore, however, is their “Free App of the Day,” where Amazon allows you to download one free (normally paid) app during that 24 hour period.  Sometimes it’s a productivity app (like, today, it’s “iCooking Barbeque,” which gives you recipes.  Normally, it’s $0.99).  This past Monday, however, the free app was a game called Guitar Hero 5, which normally sells for $8.

You can hopefully see why I was anxious to get this appstore.  Sure, there are frequently things I don’t want, but sometimes, something comes along that’s normally $8 that you can get for free.  You don’t even have to install it: you just have to “buy” it and Amazon will remember that you own it.  If anything, you can just get everything and never use any of it, and not even take up the virtual space on your phone.

I am, however, at odds with what Amazon is doing with their appstore.  Sure, as the consumer, I like free stuff.  It gets me to use their service and I end up purchasing more through them than I would otherwise.  This is Amazon’s strategy in doing this in the first place (and they are paving the way to release their own tablet at the end of this year, with full integration of their own appstore, effectively bypassing Google).

But what happens to the developers of these apps?  You know, the folks that actually made the app that Amazon is giving away for free for that day?

There are more than a few horror stories out there on the internet.  One company put their app up on the store and would get a few hits a day.  Amazon offered to host their app as a free app for the day, and they decided to go ahead and do it (so, yes, it’s voluntary).  Amazon tells the developer that “We have seen tremendous results from this promotion spot and believe it will bring you a great deal of positive reviews and traffic. It is an opportunity to build your brand especially in association with a brand like Amazon’s. The current price of this placement is at 0% rev share for that one day you are placed.So, basically, Amazon gives the app away, and neither Amazon nor the developer makes anything for it on that day.  And this is what happens:

This particular developer was making some money from a few sales a day, and then effectively gave away 100,000+ copies of their app.  Almost $55,000 of product, given away.  After that sales spike, the developer says the sales returned to the original levels.

And this developer is not alone, In another case, the developer ended up giving away 180,000 copies of their app, but they ran into a separate problem from the first example.  The Amazon Appstore apparently doesn’t discriminate between Android phones, so in some cases, a given application won’t be fully compatible with your phone…and Amazon may not tell you this.  If you download the app and it doesn’t work, you tend to review the application unfavorably.  This particular app didn’t work on a certain set of Motorola phones, which meant that anyone that downloaded it gave it a bad review.  All the sudden, these guys ended up with thousands of bad reviews for their application, on a product that shouldn’t have been on some phones in the first place.

So, am I happy I have the Amazon Appstore?  Absolutely.  However, I’m also conflicted about it.  I have heard folks on podcasts that watch the store for updates in order to hear about new products, and if a particular app comes up that they want, they wait until the next day and go ahead and purchase it in order to make sure some revenue makes it to the developer.  Amazon also offers a nifty “Test Drive” feature for many of the apps they host that allows you to actually try the app out for 30 min on your Windows PC before buying it.  Thus, you can try it out on the free day, and if you like it, choose to wait to buy it the next day.  Others will get the free app, and then if the developer makes another application, they will be sure to buy that one also (which is kinda the whole purpose of this model…you get a free app, decide you like it, and then go to the developer’s page and buy more apps from them.  Doesn’t always work, obviously…).

Just something important to keep in mind.  What’s free to us, as Consumers, isn’t free to the people that made it.  Someone is losing money when we are given things for free.


Who Needs Another Music Player?

Spotify just launched in the United States this week, yet another music player entering the digital ecosystem. This time, however, we get one that has been around for awhile in Europe, and quite popular.  In short, it’s an audio program that lets you stream millions of songs to your device, and has other functional features including Facebook integration to check out your friend’s playlists.  One of the key features is that it functions much like Apple’s iCloud will, scanning your personal MP3 library and “mirroring” it on their servers, allowing you to stream that same library to any computer without needing to carry the physical media around with you.  It will do the same thing with your mobile phone.  Spotify’s library is substantially larger than many of the others (Pandora has maybe 800,000 songs, while Spotify has 13 million available), and most reviewers simply think it provides the better service for the money.  You get about 20 hrs of listening time per month for free, $5/mo gets you no ads, and $10/mo gets you other features, including the ability to use the service on your mobile phone.

Digitaltrends has a good summary of the pros and cons of a few of the popular options.

Spotify is not alone in this venture, though it’s new to the U.S.  Grooveshark is another, alternative, web-based application with a mobile version, though I question its legality.  Like Spotify, it has a massive library, but it works a bit more like YouTube in that other users have uploaded music that you then stream to your computer or to your mobile device.  While Spotify has high-quality, licensed music, your experience is more “hit or miss” with Grooveshark, as some people may have uploaded high bitrate versions of music (i.e. good sounding) while others uploaded lower bitrate versions (i.e. very, very bad sounding).  Of course, Grooveshark is free, so most people don’t complain when the song selection is that good.  They also charge various amounts for their services above and beyond the base service, but it doesn’t sound like many people do.

Pandora is the main competitor that folks in the United States have at least heard of, if not used.  It’s much more of a radio system in that you select a station and then music will come up almost at random that you can then skip or “Thumbs Up” so that more music like it ends up in your station.  You have no real choice in what the next song played is, though, while you can make your own playlists in Spotify and Grooveshark.  Pandora also has a very nice mobile app and has been integrated into a wealth of home devices, including Bluray players.  Their only paid plan is $36/yr, removes all ads, and grants you higher sound quality.

For now, I’ll give Spotify a quick go-round, though I doubt I’ll get much use out of it.  The only computer in the house with good speakers attached is a Linux box, and as there is no native Linux client available, I can’t use it.  I will probably try their “preview release” for Linux – thankfully, Linux is more popular in Europe, so this company actually has an incentive to make a client.  Obviously, this is where its competitors, Grooveshark, Pandora, Google Music and Amazon MP3 shine, as they are almost completely multi-platform.

That said, the Spotify client under Windows is silky smooth, unlike iTunes.  It’s nice to see iTunes finally getting some viable competition (and no, Windows Media Player is not “competition”…).  It navigates similarly to iTunes, so if you’re familiar with its style of getting around your library and making playlists, you should feel right at home.

In the end, I’m glad there are plenty of options out there for your digital music needs.  Gone are the days where you would walk down to the record store and thumb through various discs until you found something interesting, then bought it for $20.  Now you can get your music in the comfort of your own home, or on-the-go, and it’s great that there are countless ways to do it effectively.

And legally.

Yet Another Social Network

Way back in the dark ages of 2004, I joined Facebook.  At the time, the idea of a “social network” was foreign to most people, though the advantages it gave you, especially in the college setting, were immediately apparently.  At the time, you could “Friend” someone, post on their “Wall,” “Poke” them, share pictures, and basically just see what everyone was up to.  Initially, you could only do this if you were at a college that was supported by the network, but it expanded to anyone over the age of 13 in September 2006.

It was all downhill from there, as far as I’m concerned.

Don’t get me wrong, I still use Facebook all the time…and likely more than any healthy, rational person should.  It’s still very addictive, it’s still the network where most of my friends congregate, and it lets me post my inane political rantings where I can annoy as many people as possible.  It’s just that there’s all this extra stuff that clutters up the whole thing.  I feel like I constantly hear people complain about Facebook, yet they still use it because they have no alternative to what it does best: posts, links and pictures.  Sure, there are alternatives, but few that allow you to look up a person and see everything they have posted in a semi-organized manner that doesn’t require you scrolling down an endless feed of information.

In recent years, I have delved into Twitter and LinkedIn, two other social networks that serve vastly different audiences.  My LinkedIn profile is, by far, the least used as its primary purpose is to serve as a sort of online resume.  I think it tends to be more useful in the business community than it is elsewhere, but it’s something I have so I can check out other people’s profiles.  My Twitter feed has gotten more use recently, but I still mostly use Twitter to “follow” celebrities, blogs, and a few select friends that actually use it.  Again, while LinkedIn is good for your personal information, Twitter is good for status updates.  Neither is particularly good about posting pictures and videos.  Facebook does a reasonable job of tying all those together, but then you also get the extra problem of FarmVille updates in your News Feed.

This week marked Google’s (second) entry into the social networking sphere in the form of Google+.  Yet another social network to join.  Google is making the smart decision to really tie together their web presence with Android, seamlessly linking communication between these disparate entities as best as they can.  Google+ involves a “Stream” news feed (just like your Facebook news feed), “Sparks” that let you follow particular interests, and “Huddles” and “Hangouts,” text-based and video-based chat systems, respectively.

The primary innovation, in my mind, is the idea of “Circles.”  This is the thing that Twitter and Facebook don’t really do at all, let alone well.  Circles allow you to group your Friends together in subgroups that you can then easily post to.  So, for example, I tend to post political videos and articles on my Facebook wall.  Everyone sees those unless they have removed my updates from their wall.  In Google+, I can specifically designate who gets those posts by putting them in a Circle.  You can still send posts to everyone’s news feeds, but at least there’s a mechanism for limiting who your comments go to.

Google has used various humorous examples to describe Circles, including having Circles specifically for co-workers and not your boss, or your family, but not your in-laws.  It is also this feature that many analysts and journalists are most excited about.  While Circles may be innovative, the other trappings of Google+ aren’t all that revolutionary, yet the system does a good job at replicating the Facebook experience without the stuff you hate about Facebook.  From Ezra Klein:

That’s where I could imagine Google+ coming in. It’s not that any of its features are so revolutionary. It’s not that it’s better at doing social networking than Facebook. It’s that it’s an opportunity to start over, to build your social network with years of Facebook experience in mind, rather than having to face the accretion of mistakes and miscalculations you made over almost a decade of trial-and-error with a new technology. It’s not Facebook’s fault that “what it means” to have a Facebook account has changed four or five times over the last few years, even as most of us have only had one profile over that period. But it is an opportunity for Google.

The Mobile App, which integrates a variety of functions from within Android, is also pretty slick and much faster than the Facebook app.  For a walkthrough of the Mobile App, you can check out various sources, including ArsTechnica.  To me, the most interesting function is the “Nearby Stream.”  Think of this as your regular “Stream,” or Facebook News Feed, but this one pulls down your GPS location and gives you the posts of random people near you.  It may not be the most useful feature all the time, but I can imagine going to a baseball game and getting fan reactions from random people in the crowd to what’s going on, all through my phone.  Other than that, it’s an app that’s very similar to Facebook’s, without all the “clutter.”

As Klein wrote in his article, Google+ is a “cleaner” way to have a social network, one that isn’t cluttered by 7 years of Applications, Groups, Likes and Pokes.  Whether it will gain any traction remains to be seen, but this is the first full-on assault by Google on Facebook, and Google+ seems like a pretty good attempt and wrestling control of The Social Network from the folks that made history with the concept.

We’ll see how it does.  I’ll certainly give it a go.  While there are some good ideas in there, it seems almost too much like Facebook to really pull people away.  People hopped on Twitter because it did one thing that Facebook does, but did it better (News Feed…).  In that respect, you could justify having both accounts because you used each one for different purposes.  Google+ really serves the same purpose as Facebook.  So in that respect, I’m not sure it presents much of an attractive alternative.

But then again, I use Google products on a daily basis, and so to millions of other people.  I bet they’re all willing to give it a try.  If the flood of invites rolling out isn’t indicative of their curiosity, I don’t know what is.

Primer: Psychopharmacology, Part I

These posts, tagged “Primer,” are posted for two reasons: 1). to help me get better at teaching non-scientists about science-related topics; and 2). to help non-scientists learn more about things they otherwise would not.  So, while I realize most people won’t read these, I’m going to write them anyway, partially for my own benefit, but mostly for yours.

It’s crazy to think that I’ve been posting these things monthly since last June.  For my first Primer, I talked about Pharmacology, as I had just completed a Ph.D. in it.  Now, a year later, I’ll elaborate further on the subject that got me interested in it in the first place: psychopharmacology.

As I wrote back then, I took a class at Truman State based out of the Psychology department that taught students about psychopharmacology, defined as:

Psychopharmacology — noun

the branch of pharmacology dealing with the psychological effects of drugs.

In broad strokes, we’re talking about how a drug can change your state of perception, whether it causes or alleviates hallucinations, alters your mood, dampens your emotions, and so on.  Something that changes your “normal psychological state” to something else, whether that be therapeutic or “recreational.”

In order to grasp what happens in your brain when your mood is changing, you need to have a basic idea of the structure of the brain and neurotransmission, both subjects I have discussed in the past.  For example, much of your cognition happens in the brain region called the Cerebral Cortex, and it is dependent upon neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and dopamine.  Alternatively, emotions like anger, aggression and fear tend to be centered in another region called the Amygdala.  Bear in mind that the varying areas of the brain “talk” to each other, and if you affect the signaling in one area, you may very well affect another area.  This may well be the point of any pharmacological intervention, but frequently, you get undesired consequences we call “side effects.”

Let’s look at the Cortex first.  Schizophrenia, a disease characterized by delusions, hallucinations and disorganized speech or hearing, is thought to be caused by misfiring neurons in the Cortex that release dopamine.  Therefore, if your cortical neurons are releasing too much dopamine, for any reason, you can end up with hallucinations and delusions, etc.  Interestingly, you can induce schizophrenic-like symptoms in an individual if you give them amphetamine or cocaine, both of which also increase the release of dopamine, though on a wider scale throughout the body.  For those with Schizophrenia, you typically prescribe an antipsychotic, a drug that inhibits dopamine release or reception.

The trick with drugs like antipsychotics, however, is that you want to inhibit dopamine release in the cortex, yet you want to limit that drug’s effect on other areas of the body where you still need dopamine release, or other neurotransmitters like norepinephrine that are responsible for completely different things (hence, side effects).  For example, if you were to design a drug to limit release of dopamine, you could fix their symptoms of Schizophrenia, but you could also affect mobility, as dopamine is responsible for voluntary control of movement.

This is how we arrived at “typical” and “atypical” antipsychotics.  The “typical” drugs were the first-generation antipsychotics that did a reasonable job at limiting schizophrenic symptoms, but also affected other dopaminergic neurons in your body (i.e. your movement).  People on these drugs for decades frequently came down with a movement disorder called Tardive Dyskinesia.  The second generation “atypical” antipsychotics were more specific to the Cortex, and limited schizophrenic symptoms while mostly leaving other dopaminergic signaling pathways alone, thus alleviating dyskinesias.

As another example, Depression is a mood disorder that makes you feel sadness, anxiety, and general hopelessness.  This disease is thought to involve the limbic regions of your brain, which includes the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.  Depression, however, is opposite of Schizophrenia in that it represents a lack of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.  The drugs of choice used to be TCAs (tricyclic antipsychotics), a drug that blocked the reentry of serotonin and norepinephrine into neurons, thus prolonging the activity of these neurotransmitters.  In short, it made your serotonin work longer than it usually does, thus alleviating the need for production of more.  As with Schizophrenia, this earlier drug class generated a large number of side-effects because it affected norepinephrine and serotonin throughout the body.  Because TCAs worked on norepinephrine, that also meant that its action would increase in your body, for example, affecting your blood pressure through action on your blood vessels and causing arrhythmias due to action on the heart.  Once SSRIs were developed, they rapidly replaced the TCA drug class because they were more specific toward only serotonin and not norepinephrine.

Both Schizophrenia and Depression are examples of psychological disorders that can be treated effectively with some kind of pharmacological intervention.  Frequently, a given patient will end up trying multiple different drugs over the course of their treatment, and sometimes in various combinations.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a single “silver bullet” for taking care of a given psychological disease, as most people manifest the disorders in different ways, with different drugs being more effective at treating different symptoms.  While an SSRI may prove useful in the short-term, it’s possible a doctor will prescribe a TCA later on after the SSRIs lose their effectiveness.  Antipsychotics act similarly.  And more research is being done on new classes and new modifications to old drugs in order to make them more effective, and especially more selective toward their specific target(s).

The larger point to all of this is that the study of psychopharmacology is an effort to control one’s emotions and behaviors while not affecting the other aspects of their day-to-day life (i.e. side effects).  These drugs typically manipulate neurotransmission to some degree, and hopefully have some kind of selectivity toward specific aspects of a given disease rather than affecting all transmission of that particular compound.  This can be difficult, and can take decades to fully investigate, but it is certainly possible.  As researchers develop more complex maps of the brain, with more detailed pharmacological profiles, new drug classes can be produced that are more specific to a given individual’s needs.

As this is more than long enough, and I still have more to say on the subject, stay tuned until next month when I hit up Part II.

Tough Choice

There have been various announcements over the past few months that got me excited about both options.  They both have some great benefits and the implementations are very functional, if not even downright awesome.  To some degree, it isn’t really a “tough choice” at all, as I already know which option I’m going to go with.

Of course, I’m talking about Google Music vs Amazon Cloud Player.

To be fair, as of this writing, I haven’t actually tried the Google Music Beta, though I signed up for an invite as soon as I found out that this thing exists at all.  I’ve been using the Amazon Cloud Player, though, and like it quite a bit.

I guess I should describe the pros and cons.  The Amazon Cloud Player was launched in late March, providing users with 5 GB of free storage space for their files.  MP3s, documents, pictures, videos, etc.  Any MP3s stored on this virtual drive, however, can be streamed over the internet through your web browser or smart phone (i.e. Android and iOS),  through what they call the Cloud Player.  If you buy any digital album from Amazon MP3, then your 5 GB of storage is increased to 20 GB – you can purchase additional space thereafter.  The service has worked well, from my perspective, and it’s nice to be able to pull up any of my albums and play them from practically anywhere, especially as I’m not carrying my laptop around with me 24/7 like I used to.

Amazon kinda shocked the world when they released this, however.  It was long expected that Apple or Google would go there first, but they were dealing with the legal rights to stream music over the internet.  The question, from a legal standpoint, is whether it is legal to purchase music, upload it to a different location, and then stream it like a radio station.  Does that violate the license that you agree to when you purchase an MP3?  No clear answer was given, so Google and Apple were trying to get things finalized before going ahead with their respective plans.

Amazon basically just said “oh well” and did it anyway.  And so far, to my knowledge, no one has sued them.

Therefore, it was expected that Google would make an announcement during their now annual I/O developer’s conference.  And as expected, Google announced their long-awaited solution: Google Music.  Since Amazon took the lead, they had to come forward with something to show their burgeoning community.  And show they did.

The Google Music Beta, rolling out piecemeal by invitation only (much like Gmail did), allows you to upload 20,000 songs to their cloud service, and then you can stream it to your Android devices or the web.  In that way, it’s very similar to the Amazon Cloud Player.  The catch is that Google Music should be capable of providing better sound quality, even over a relatively slow 3G wireless connection.  Right now, however, you cannot actually purchase music through the Google Music interface like you can from the Amazon system.  Therefore, for digital music, you still need Amazon MP3 or iTunes.

The kicker for me, however, is offline play.

With Google Music, you can “pin” a song, album, or playlist that will synchronize that music on your various devices.  It will automatically synchronize your “recently played” music, as well.  So, for example, if I want to “pin” Under The Table And Dreaming (and I will…), Google Music will download the album to my phone, allowing me to play that music even when my phone isn’t on an internet connection.  And this is extremely important for people like us that don’t have unlimited data plans, or that tend to drive long distances through areas that don’t have the best cellular coverage.  I can rely on streaming, but I don’t have to.

With a single, software-based approach, Google provided me with a good reason to abandon my iPod Nano.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my iPod.  The thing is light, gets good battery life, and is tiny.  Or “nano,” if you will.  But, I have to physically connect it to my laptop to transfer podcasts and music.  This isn’t that huge of a deal breaker for me, to tell you the truth, but I’ve got its cute little 8 GB hard drive maxed out, so I’m constantly selecting which podcasts need to go on the hard drive and when.  And sometimes, new editions of my podcasts are released while I’m at work, preventing me from being able to actually add them to my iPod, because my iPod is only linked with my laptop.

Now, using my phone, I can stream all of my music (~15 GB?) over the internet, and save the ones I want on my phone’s mini-SD card.  Moreover, as my phone has WiFi on it and a wealth of apps, I can access most if not all of those podcasts without having to download them to whatever device I’m using.

So in the end, I think I’ll be using the Google Music offering.  At least, once I get an invite.  For the time-being, I’ll settle for the Amazon Cloud Player.  It’ll be interesting to see what Amazon does to compete here, as Apple will be announcing their own “iCloud” service sometime in the relatively near future, and if Amazon wants to compete, they’ll have to do some drastic things.  iCloud will be built into every iOS device, and Google Music will be built into every Android device.  And the legal drama certainly isn’t over, as the record labels are unhappy with Google’s plan, and likely won’t be all that happy with Apple’s, either.

Where does Amazon go?

Roddenberrian Economics

Ayn Rand is someone I’ve heard of in the past, but up until now, haven’t really paid much attention to.  I “got into it” with someone over Facebook a few weeks ago regarding “Randian disciples” and learned a bit more about her in the process.  Then, at the end of April, NPR’s On Point had a discussion about her, specifically with reference to the Tea Party.  The architect of the Republican Congress’ budget plan, Paul Ryan, has referenced her on multiple occasions.  There is also a movie out, “Atlas Shrugged: Part I,” which was released in a partial attempt to capitalize on her resurgence, though Rotten Tomatoes currently has the film sitting at around 9% positive ratings.

Rand grew up in Russia and moved to the United States in 1926.  She was a philosopher and writer, and is perhaps best known for her books, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” both products of the mid-20th Century.  Due in part to her upbringing and the general climate in the post-World War II world, she embraced the concepts of Objectivism and was very much a rational individualist.  She opposed in Collectivism, an idea that contributes to Socialism and Communism.  Because of her beliefs, and the stories she told in her books, fiscal Conservatives, and especially Libertarians, have embraced her and in some ways treat her as a figurehead for their ideas.  Alan Greenspan was one of the founding members of Rand’s ironically named “Collective,” a group of close confidants and proponents of Objectivism.

The key idea behind her overall philosophy, as I understand it, is that it is wrong to take what is one person’s and give it to someone else.  That the purpose of one’s life is to pursue your own personal happiness and your own self-interest.  One could call this whole idea “Randian Economics.”  Or, as she puts it:

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

– Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Any of you that know me, however, would have another quote come to mind.  Something completely different, and the antithesis of this philosophy, in my view:

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

– Spock

“Or the one.”

– James T. Kirk

Which brings me to Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek (pictured atop the camera in the image above).  I won’t go into the history behind all of it, but let’s just say that if I were going to choose a side between one philosopher from the mid-20th Century and another, I’ll go with Roddenberry.  His vision of the future is one that I’d like to live in.  One where money is not the driving force for all we do.  Where the desires to serve humanity and all others surpass the desire to serve yourself.  Where humans recognize that they are only able to be more than themselves when they are together with others.  Where no one human is above anyone else, at least in terms of rights and respect.

Bear in mind that these ideas weren’t necessarily revolutionary in the 1960s, but they weren’t made publicly available on television often, either.  At the time, it was highly irregular to have a Japanese American man, an African American woman, and a guy playing a young Russian on the same bridge, serving together, working together, helping each other.  Roddenberry infused his fictional universe with hope for the future through Collectivism, where we all share what we have and work together toward a common good.

And so, I wish to coin the term “Roddenberrian Economics.”  I think we’d all be better off if we took some pointers from the man.

Heck, I’d even argue that Gene Roddenberry has more followers than Ayn Rand does.

A View From The Top

While I was sitting at my parents house over Easter talking with my Dad, it suddenly dawned on me that Linux had finally gained supremacy over Windows and Apple, something that I never thought I’d see.  However, it wasn’t able to pull off the feat using a traditional PC: instead, it used mobile devices via Android OS.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a new idea.  The thought has been broadcast across the interwebs over the past few years, though only recently did Android actually surpass iOS in adoption across the phone and tablet markets.  Seeing the range of new products coming out on the horizon, this trend will only continue upwards as multiple companies release products using the Android OS as the backbone for their software.

What some forget, however, is that the core of Android is, in fact, the Linux kernel.  My HTC Inspire 4G, running Android 2.2.1, is using Linux kernel 2.6.32.  My Linux box at home runs Linux kernel 2.6.35, a slightly newer version.  I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of differences in kernels (nor do I care…), but let’s just say that there has been some disagreement between Google and the maintainers of the Linux kernel as to whether Android OS technically counts as “Linux,” though I believe most would say that it absolutely does.

I guess I just find it fascinating that this “Little Operating System That Could” finally found an audience and most people don’t even know it.  Dad introduced me to computers when DOS and Windows 3.1 were king.  However, once our family started having multiple computers, he toyed with other operating systems, including OS/2 Warp and Red Hat Linux 5.2.  While he purchased a copy of OS/2, he frequently picked up copies of Linux from the Public Library, installing different flavors of Linux for free on his system(s).  As I was curious about these different systems, I learned more about it and once I went to college, grabbed an old Gateway 2000 computer and put Red Hat 6.1 on it, followed by various other iterations of Linux.  Over the past decade, it’s been my desktop operating system of choice, always getting better and better.

But few people know how good Linux has gotten.  It’s an excellent operating system, as it has been for years.  Sure, it still doesn’t run Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, or a multitude of Windows- or Mac-only video games, but it does do one thing remarkably well:


And if you want to make a device that is constantly connected to the internet, and don’t want to pay high development costs or licensing fees to Microsoft or Apple, which operating system makes the most sense for you to use?


As we all move further toward cloud-based computing, and companies like Google keep focusing on Linux as their technology of choice (as it’s behind Android OS and Chrome OS, which will power netbooks and tablets beginning this year), further adoption of Linux will take place in populations that never thought they’d ever use it.  Part of this is because the Linux kernel has always had a remarkable “efficiency” to it that Windows has never been able to re-create.  You always needed newer hardware to run the most modern Windows systems, while you could run a modern Linux system on practically nothing.  Mobile phones, especially, use relatively slow processors when compared to the quad-core monstrosities powering many desktops today.  Heck, it was just revealed that an early version of Windows 8 will be the first one to run on an ARM processor, the technology powering practically every mobile phone sold today.  Up until now, Windows hasn’t even been capable of running on anything like that, unless it’s the feature-poor Windows CE.  Windows will ultimately make it to tablets, but not before Android and iOS have a massive foot-hold on the market, as they already do on phones.

It’s just fascinating to consider how far Linux has come and what ended up actually pushing it “over the top.”  We all thought Dell offering Linux on laptops would do it, or the multitude of governments, schools and companies across the world that switched from Windows (or Unix) to Linux would do it.

It was the telephone all along.

F2P – Part II

In “F2P – Part I,” I discussed the two primary forms of making money on media in today’s day and age: advertising and microtransactions.  In “Part II,” I look more into how this all applies to other media and where I see things going.  Of course, as I am no expert in any of this, you should take anything I say with a grain of salt.

Where’s It Going

Long-story-short?  Who knows.  The beauty of the internet is that everyone’s trying different things.  I think there are interesting trends, however, that are worth considering.

The New York Times, for example, instituted their “pay wall” recently.  According to them, most people only look at maybe 20 articles on the site in a given month, so they are preserving that service for those people.  For everyone else (that doesn’t have a subscription to their newspaper), they will make you pay for the service after you have hit your 20 article limit.  The idea is very similar to the microtransaction: the relative few that use the service the most are subsidizing those that use the service the least.  There are other newspapers looking at doing something similar – my hometown newspaper, the Columbia Daily Tribune, has already implemented similar plans.

I think television media is the more difficult anomaly.  Hulu, for example, pulls quite a bit of its content from NBC and FOX, and has a good deal of “back catalog” viewing.  In some cases, you will get commercials that show up during the breaks, typically either one or two.  Sometimes, you’ll get a choice at the beginning of an “extended commercial” that may be 2 min long, and then you won’t get any more commercials for the rest of the show.

Their Hulu Plus service, however, is a crazy hybrid that was released in 2010.  The licensing behind these television shows is set such that you can watch them on a computer, or you can watch them on your television through your cable provider (or your antenna), but legally setting up a system so you can watch these shows over the internet and then display them on your television is much more murky.  They invented Hulu Plus as a way around this, where you have a subscription service that then allows you to watch some Hulu content on your television, including some current-run shows (i.e. you can watch all of this season’s “30 Rock” over the service).  However, there are other shows on Hulu that you can’t watch through your television, including practically all USA Network shows and SyFy shows, to name a few.  That means you not only don’t get access to their current-run shows, but you also don’t get access to the same shows that are running on Hulu through your computer.

Let alone the fact that you are paying the $8/mo to get this content on your television, yet you still get commercials to help subsidize the licensing.

Needless to say, the New York Times and Hulu are two separate examples of different ways media are trying to figure out how to get viewers and users over the internet, and make money doing so.  In my opinion, the New York Times has a much better strategy for it than Hulu does, yet Hulu is constrained by the “Old Media” way of licensing their content, written when there was no such thing as an “Internet.”

Now For Some Speculation

As I said before, no clue, but it still fascinates me, especially as companies try to find new ways to make money using the internet.  I think they all see the writing on the wall and they are doing their best to stave it off as long as they can.

In a relatively short amount of time, there will be no phone lines or cable lines: it will all be fiber optic (or wireless) and we will not only communicate through it like a telephone, but we will also get information and entertainment from it like a television.  Your news content will no longer come on paper to your doorstep unless you pay a lot for it.  The Internet represents a complete merge of all “Old Media” into something new, and it’s been happening very slowly for the past 15 years.  Very soon, however, new houses won’t be built with copper lines or coaxial cables: they will have a single fiber optic line that serves the purpose of both.  And old houses will be retrofitted with the same technology.  The house we currently live in has that fiber optic line running right up to it, and we live in the middle of nowhere in Iowa.  There’s a good chance your houses are next.

And while all that is happening, the companies that make the content will have to merge along with it, and deal with the other companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft that have been in the game and have figured out how to make money on the Internet.  Google made a great search engine, but they made their money on advertising.  Advertising, I might add, that you barely notice as you browse their various web sites.  To the point where they can afford to provide you with web-based office software, Google Earth, Picasa image editing software, Chrome web browser, and even whole operating systems in the form of Android and Chrome OS – for free.  They figured out what they needed to do to get you to use their search technology, and they did it with advertising and made a lot of money doing it.

Effectively, whether they like it or not, cable companies aren’t going to have cable going into houses much longer.  They need to get their content on the internet, and soon.  Personally, I’d rather see this happen along the lines of the New York Times: allow a certain amount of programming for free per month over your web browser or an internet-ready TV, and then charge individuals on a per-channel basis.  This should have been done years ago (a so-called a la carte plan) by the cable companies, but they chose to create larger and larger cable packages instead.  Now it’s coming back to bite them.


How the “Old Media” guard will end up surviving, only time will tell.  But there are plenty of companies out there providing free content, subsidized by a fraction of their users.  Zynga and Turbine are developers making high-class games and making millions doing it.  And they do it using a model that provides services for free to the masses, making money on volume.

Once the “Old Media” groups figure out that they can’t continue doing what they’ve been doing for the last few decades and survive on the Internet, they’ll be better off.  Until then, they will continue to lose customers and money.

And the rest of us will simply move on.

F2P – Part I

I’ve been toying with thoughts on the “Free 2 Play” movement (“F2P”) for a few weeks now, as I find the whole thing to be fascinating.

In short, F2P is exactly as it sounds: you get a game, a program, or a web-based service for free, and then your free use of it is subsidized in some way.  In some cases, it can be through advertisements.  In other cases, it’s in the form of “micro-transactions.”  I’ll hit both of those separately, as I think they both contribute in different ways to how the internet is changing, or has already changed, e-commerce.

It should be noted that most people would look at “F2P” as applying solely to the realm of online video games, yet I think its trends extend into other media and have for a long time.


The ad-supported model is probably the oldest form of these changes, as we’ve all been exposed to it for generations now.  Very few of us could pay for all the programming on any given television channel, yet the advertisements and marketing that go into each program help subsidize it to make each program cost practically nothing to us.  In the early days of the internet, when web sites like Yahoo! and AOL were trying to figure out how to make money from consumers and not rely as much on investors, we started getting ads displayed on pages.  They started out being banner ads at the top of the screen, and were mostly un-obtrusive.  Then, our good friends Adobe established Flash as the go-to web media platform, allowing for moving advertisements.  Combined with other web-based technologies like Javascript, the dreaded “Pop-Up” ad gained popularity.

Most large web sites will tell you that their advertisements don’t make a large enough dent in their revenues to fully cover their services.  We have come to understand this primarily in the “old media” sense, including magazines, television networks, and newspapers (more on the latter in a few days).  In the case of television networks, while Hulu still displays ads during commercial breaks on their programming, the revenue they make from those advertisements barely puts a dent in the costs of production and marketing of a TV show.  Quite a few people use the service, but it isn’t exactly paying for new shows.

Enough people got annoyed with pop-up ads (and installed pop-up blocking software in their browsers…) that their development has slowed down, however advertisements still subsidize quite a few web sites, and now, mobile phone applications.  You can buy Angry Birds for $1, or you can download a version for free that has small ads on the bottom.  Amazon recently announced that they’ll knock off $25 from your purchase of a Kindle e-reader if you get an ad-supported version that displays advertisements on the home screen and screen saver (thankfully, not between pages of your book).


This is the new way of making money.  And it makes quite a bit of money.  Mostly, microtransactions have shown up in “the game space,” including free-to-play MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online or Free Realms, and free-to-play games on Facebook, including FarmVille.  In general, these games are all free, so you can usually play the majority of the content of the game simply by downloading it, or loading it up in your web browser.  However, there are some portions of the game that you can pay a small amount for.

In Lord of the Rings Online, for example, you can “die” and resurrect yourself where you died once per session – after that, you can only resurrect at the nearest town, requiring you to run back to where you were, potentially taking from a few minutes up to an hour.  Or, you can pay a small amount, like $0.50, to resurrect yourself again in that location.  To many players, that $0.50 is well worth the cost to not have to spend the extra time running back to that location.

In FarmVille, you are growing your crops and getting your friends to do things for you.  You need to water your crops in order to earn in-game currency, and this must be done within specific time restrictions.  Having your friends visit your farm for you, however, can help take some of the load off your tasks.  Of course, you can also visit your friend’s farms and carry out tasks for them, as well.  If you don’t want to wait for your friends to do things for your farm, you can pay a small amount to have it done sooner so you don’t have to wait.

This is the idea of the microtransaction.  You spend very small amounts of money, or you don’t spend any at all.  Statistically, this ends up working quite well for the company.  Zynga is the company that makes FarmVille, and more recently, CityVille.  The latter had 61 million monthly users last December, helping contribute to the company’s $850 million revenue in 2010.  For Lord of the Rings Online, their developer, Turbine, released statements saying that their revenues tripled since going free-to-play.  Where players were once spending $15/mo to use the service, they increased the number of people playing the game and actually made more money, having the users spend less.

Effectively, this is the idea of “selling on volume:” get more people to use the product by making it free, and you actually make more money doing it.  When interviewed, Turbine will tell you that almost 50% of the users for Lord of the Rings Online pay absolutely nothing, with only a small subset paying a little…and a smaller minority paying a lot.  The extreme minority ends up paying for the extreme majority’s fun.

Stay tuned for F2P – Part II, appearing on Friday.  I’ll try to apply these two models to media in general, including newspapers, television, and so on.  Then again, I’m no expert in these matters, so…take it as you will…