Category Archives: Media

You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover

That phrase was a mantra to me growing up. It was trumpeted by every third children’s book, my school’s curriculum, and even a few He-man and GI Joe PSAs. I understand now that it was an subtle attempt by all these institutions to instill ideas of racial and sexual equality into my fragile little mind. For the most part, it worked. We don’t judge people or things by their appearance today. Unfortunately, we’ve gone so far as to think that appearance doesn’t matter at all.

You might say this is our society evolving. I say it’s willful ignorance. Why? Appearances are a part of our decision making process. You wouldn’t trust a personal trainer with a beer gut, and you wouldn’t step into a house that was swaying in the wind. How can we critically think if we don’t account for information we take in through our own eyes?

This goes beyond using appearances to keep our personal safety. The forces of aesthetics influence our culture to this very day. If we pretend they don’t exist, we can’t understand how our society works and we’ll ultimately lose control of our culture entirely.

Facebook and the Tragedy of Free Software

The technology community is making much ado about the personal information land-grab that Facebook orchestrated recently. Basically, information that was formerly protected by your account’s privacy settings was now linked to public pages. This would make it easier for marketers to target users and possibly allow Mark Zuckerberg to finally make a profit. Those who were attracted to Facebook for its privacy features had been officially stabbed in the back.

Is anybody surprised by this development? Facebook has rallied almost half a billion users under service that charged absolutely nothing. Consider to time and money it takes to manage a user base of that size. The interface complaints alone could fill an entire rack server. Clearly, something had to give. Facebook needed money to survive, and that user info was the only way to get it. This leaves us with a question: Can free web software be trusted?

It’s the same trap that foiled many internet start-ups in the 90′s. Computers made the transit and storage of information literally too cheap to meter. It doesn’t make sense charging for a service that you put no effort into providing. Your competitors will just undercut you. However, just because one aspect of your business is plentiful enough to be free, that doesn’t mean the whole thing should be. Websites still need hardware and active management to provide any services at all. Free web software should only be a platform for other paid services that can support the free stuff.

Facebook’s example underlines the need for day-one monetization, if not profitability of any web service. Google, CraigslistFlickr and Livejournal all have paid components which support stellar free services. There will always be free open source alternatives for the Facebooks of the world, but the time it takes to have software that is easy to use and Just Works™ will always require some kind of cash. So if you have website and you put a price tag on some of its features, don’t think of it as selling out to the man. That money is a symbol of trust and reliance on your expertise. If you can fulfill the promise of that symbol, then the world will beat a path to your door.

Today We Are Rails Developers! Pt. 2: Choosing Your Project

So you’ve got joined a ruby club, installed the software,  signed up for github and Heroku, and finished some tutorials. Where do you go from there, Rails Developer? It is now time for you to choose a project to work on.

Projects are best way to learn a programming language because it forces you to apply your knowledge. Memorizing the API is all fine and good, but it’s not going to matter much if you can’t orchestrate it into something tangible. As I said, it’ll become your resume when you want to use Ruby on Rails professionally. Furthermore, the market for subscription-based web software is exploding right now. Your project has the potential to make you rich. Even with a small customer base of, say, 200 customers paying $20 a month, you are bringing in 6 figures of revenue with almost no marginal cost for more customers. Watch this presentation by DHH if you need more convincing.

The project I’m working on (for the purposes of this blog series, at least) is called Dramathea. It’s a website where community theater companies can promote their shows online. I plan to monetize it by selling preferred access to the front page and taking online ticket sales. It started out a few years ago as a PHP project, but now that I’ve discovered Rails, I think it would be a great way to learn the framework. Here are some tips that will help you choose your own project to work on.

1. Keep it Simple

37signals is making millions right now with this philosophy. Your project shouldn’t be complex, even if you are planning to monetize it right out of the gate. No one is going to use your software if it has the learning curve of a Boeing 747. This is probably the hardest guideline to follow because any application can turn into an over-bloated mess within a 10-minute requirements meeting. Have a core function, like listing plays in a certain city. If your users demand more features, by all means, add them, but make sure your site still does that one thing it was supposed to do.

2. Tempt Failure

The rush of gambling doesn’t come from winning alone. Losing a grand at blackjack and then doubling down is the experience that practically built Las Vegas. I don’t know if Dramathea is going to make any money. Community theater people are known for being cheap, so why would they spend money on my site when they could advertise on facebook for free? Then again, what other website is completely dedicated to community theater? What if my site is the easiest to use? I don’t know what’ll happen when I ship this site, and that’s all part of the fun.

3. Solve Your Own Problem

Many web app success stories come from people solving their own problems. My problem is finding live theater in the Fraser Valley. What’s yours?

3. Follow the Stress

If you can’t think of your own problem to solve, look around you. Listen.  It could be in conversations with your friends and family. It could be on threads in Reddit. Keep an eye out on fmylife.com. Wherever you find stress, headaches, and inefficiency, you will find your project.

5. Don’t Worry About People Stealing Your “Idea”

Industrial progress is being held back by myths like the Coca-cola formula and KFC’s 11 secret herbs and spices. You can’t really own an idea any more than you can own the equation, “2+2=4″. What you can own is the work that makes the idea a reality. You have to maintain the data, manage hosting, market to your initial user base, and yes, code the thing in the first place! Anyone who says you can make money from your ideas alone is probably selling you something.

6. Ship

As you can see from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s l337 coding skills in 2001, it doesn’t matter where you start on the programming totem pole. You’ll be known by your time spent with the framework and the code you post on the internet. Those faltering first steps will only serve to inspire the developers yet to come.

Feel free to post links to your projects in the comments.

Here is the address for Dramathea: http://www.dramathea.com

Here is the github repository: http://github.com/jstrocel/Dramathea

Good for Rupert Murdoch

The controversial chairman of News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch, has made plans to announce a pay subscription model for his publications to be viewed on the iPad and other such devices. The plan is expected to include the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and the New York Times and will expand into News Corp.’s entertainment properties.

All I have to say is: Good for Rupert Murdoch. News Corp lost 5 billion dollars last year. You could say he’s only doing this because he’s old and the pay subscription model is the only thing he understands, but really it’s either this or shutter the newspapers entirely. That move would certainly cause more shareholders to flee, further reducing News Corp.’s share price, causing him to shut down more divisions, and on it goes until the company implodes. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation.

It’s going to be interesting to see if this works. Subscription based services have failed in the past, but that was at a time before you had online payment methods like paypal and 1-click. Today, millions are being made through subscription-based web software, a situation unthinkable in the last decade. It’ll also be a true test of where political opinion lies in the world today.  There was a time when companies like News Corp. could hide their inviability through cheap debt. Now thanks to the recession, we are actually going to see if people are willing to pay money to keep the conservative echo chamber alive.

The Tragedy of Vicky Harrison

When people hear the story of Vicky Harrison, they are quick to comfort themselves with all kinds of qualifiers. They leave comments like, she left school, she had mental issues that weren’t reported on or she took the easy way out. None of them seem to address why this had to happen. Vicky had been looking for a job for almost 2 years after leaving college. After over 200 rejections, her self-worth was so low that she took her own life.

I’m not asking why she died. I want to know why she had to send out 200 applications in the first place. Does this system of finding a job produce better workers?

Vicky’s plight is not unique. While the article was from the UK, here in BC the unemployment rate for 18-24 year olds is 15.9 percent, almost twice the provincial average of 8.1 percent. Her suicide is probably just a symptom of thousands, possibly millions of young people who might be suffering debilitating mental issues because they can’t find jobs.

It doesn’t make sense. A generation ago, people that age were getting married and having kids on top of starting careers with things like pensions and a mandatory retirement age. In all likelihood, they were less educated than the current crop of young adults. It’s like we’ve gone from a culture that worshipped youth to one that completely abhors it.

It’s tempting to blame the demographically larger baby boomers for this, but this has been going on ever since Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X” was published 20 years ago. I think it has more to do with the fact that we live in the most policy-choked, paternalistic, and gentrified labor system ever produced by human civilization. There are so many rules and regulations in private companies that they end up killing all initiative and decision making. No one wants to bear the cost of training new and unproven workers in that kind of situation.

I don’t know how we’re going fix this system, but we can start by admitting that it’s broken. Most young workers are going to have to find their fortunes outside of official channels like resumes and reference letters. It’s cruel and dangerous to tell them otherwise. Change will come, but it’s not going to be found in the company handbook.