Thursday, March 19, 2009


People are very upset about bonuses handed out to AIG execs. Granted, it is rather shameless for AIG to be continuing down the same seemingly greed driven path they have been on, but let's keep two things in mind. First, we don't know why the bonuses were given. There is a slight chance that these execs made some kind of herculean effort that minimized AIG's loses. Maybe without these people things would be a whole lot worse. I'm just saying it's possible. Second, it's only $165 million. That is just peanuts in the greater scheme of things. No, actually it's less then that, it's peanut shells.

Yes, it sickens me that a bunch of greedy bastards who screwed up royally are getting even more compensation for their irredeemable behavior, but this huge uproar over it is simply a side show we don't have time for. We and out leaders should be focusing on fixing the larger economic problems at hand. Spending this much time over how $165 was used is just stupid.

And, it's not AIG's fault, it was written into law. There was an amendment added that allowed any bonus stipulated before February 11, 2009 to be paid out. So can we really blame AIG for handing them out? Well, of course we can, but the bigger issue here is were did that amendment come from. There is a lot of finger pointing, but no one is fessing up.

This amendment is the much, much bigger breach of ethics then the bonuses themselves, because it is a grotesque use of political power. We need to stop talking about the bonuses and simply have the Senate setup an investigation into who added the amendment. It does not have to be a big show, put just enough people on it to get it sorted out. Once we know who did it, we know who will be resigning. Or, if they are too stupid and cowardly, who will be expelled from the Senate.

It is a bit ironic, but if the White House and Congress would spend even one percent of the time they have spent on this circus on each and every $165 million they spend, we wouldn't be in this mess to begin with.

Friday, March 13, 2009

AdSense Interest-Based Advertising

Over the coming months, Google will be rolling out a new feature to their AdSense system called "Interest-Based Advertising". If you are not familiar with AdSense, scroll down a little and a look in the right hand column. See the light blue box that says at the top, "Ads by Google"? That is AdSense. Ads in that box are automatically placed there by Google. Google scans the content of my site and figures out which ads match that content. I write about photography a lot, so most of the ads are photography related. I get a couple of pennies every time those ads are clicked.

With this new "Interest-Based Advertising" system, Google will change the way it determines which ads will appear. Ad selection will now be, at least in part, determined by a visitor's profile that has been built up over time. What that means is that Google will track your movements on the Internet and determine what you are interested in. Don't get paranoid, it can only track you on Google properties and sites with AdSense. Google requires all participating sites to disclose this in their Privacy Policy. If you look at a lot of photography related sites, Google will think you are a photographer and show you photography related ads. It will not matter too much which site you are on, if the site has AdSense, Google will populate that site with photography ads.

This is the logical path for Google to follow, but I'm not crazy about it and think that, to some extent, it is a bad idea. It too easily pigeon-holes a person into being one type of shopper, in essence, one type of person. Sure, I look at a lot of photography equipment, but what if I decide I want to start scuba diving? If I go to a scuba blog, will I still see ads for photography? Now, it's reasonable to assume that Google will eventually realize I am now a photographer and a scuba diver, but how long does that take?

This may water down the effectiveness of AdSense as there will always be a lag between what Google thinks my interests are and what my interest is at that moment. For instance, if I go to a blog about baby cribs to read up on those for the first time, AdSense may show me ads for photography, because that is what Google has determined my interest to be. Well, I'm not shopping for photo gear, I'm shopping for cribs. Eventually, Google will figure that out, but that is of no use to that first web site I went to. That web site owner won't get any of my clicks because they are not relevant to what I want right now. This, ironically, may hurt the most relevant web sites that show up at the very top of Google search results as you will look at those sites before Google has a chance to figure out that you are now looking for cribs.

Can I turn "Interest-Based Advertising" off?

Yes, Interest-Based Advertising can be turned off. Both as a web site owner and a surfer.

If you are a web site owner, you can go into your AdSense account and opt out of this new system in which case, ads will be served to your site they way they have been. Here is how you turn off Interest-Based Advertising. Though, Google is implying that you may not have access to the same pool of ads because some advertisers may opt to only put ads on sites that are using Interest-Based Advertising.

If you are browsing the Internet and you don't want Google to track your activity for use with this system, you can opt out of the tracking cookie here. If you want to take advantage of this new system, but want more control, you can set your preferences here.

So far, I have only talked about the potential doom and gloom of this new system, but it can be a good thing too. It will allow advertisers to target their audience much more precisely, and most importantly, on an ongoing basis. An advertiser could setup their ads to remember how you have interacted with them in the past. For instance, say I click on an AdSense ad for camera equipment on Amazon has the power now to remember the information for the next AdSense delivered ad I see from them. Maybe I clicked on an add for a specific camera and bought it. Amazon has the ability to then tailor the next ad I see from them to maybe some lens or other accessory for that camera which they currently have on sale. The interaction possibilities are almost endless and may give the consumer more timely and relevant ads. That can be good for the consumer and the web site owner because it means I will be clicking on more of their ads and they get more of Google's pennies.

And, this being Google, they are smarter then I so it is likely that they are at least aware of these pitfalls and are working to minimize them, or make them go away entirely.

I've turned off the Interest-Based Advertising on this site for now, I don't want to be part of the 'beta' project. But I will be keeping an eye on the system and experimenting with it in the coming years to see if it becomes more of a helpful or harmful service.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Buttons = Good

The 2nd generation iPod Shuffle was one of the most beautifully designed mass manufactured products ever (IMHO). Granted, it had the dreaded click wheel, but its size, shape, and the fact that it was basically a clip with a music player built in made it one masterfully designed object. It bordered on being too small to be practical, but it was still large enough so that it was possible to find after you put it down.

Ever the optimist, I thought Apple would improve the Shuffle by keeping the shape, but replacing the click wheel with discrete buttons that would be easier to find and distinguish by touch. And maybe add a little screen?

Sadly, this was not to be, the new iPod shuffle eschews buttons to the point of sacrificing usability. It is also too small and nondescript. Put it down and I dare you to find it again.

The controls are on the headphones which ties the player to the headphones. Don't like the included headphones? Tough, get used to it. It's Apple's way or the highway.

Why even bother having the headphones plug in? you can not change them, so a more fully thought out design would simply integrate them with the player. There is simply no need to have them as a detachable part. It's an odd oversight for a company known for its design prowess.

Granted, most people will probably still be able to pick it up and just start using it, but there are several features that will be opaque to those who don't read the manual. But, for such a simple product, should there even be a manual?

These hidden features are all based on audio feedback feature of the new shuffle, it now talks to you. I hate the idea of my audio device talking to me, but no one will know they are there, so I guess that it's a wash.

But why build features into a product that people won't use, that people can't use because they don't know they are there.

The hardcore Apple consumers, not the fanboys, but the ones that buy a new iPod every year because they break, or loose, or just want to replace their old iPod don't read the manual. They just want to pick it up and use it, taking the cues on how to use the player from the player itself.

It's just bad design to obfuscate the functions of a product.

Edit: Almost as soon as I published this post, I realized that there are plenty of good reasons to obfuscate functions of a product, especially software. Many products (like Microsoft Word) have huge features sets that only a handful of people use. So obfusscating those features clear up the interface for the average user, but leave them there for the power user.
Now, the iPod Touch is incredible. And now that it works with the Kindle Bookstore, it's even more incredible. I had a chance to have a look at a the Kindle App for the iPhone and, though it was a little small, found it to be a cool and usable eBook reader. Granted, I'm still young enough to set the type to its smallest setting, that does make a big difference. If you can not read it at the smallest text size, it becomes very tedious to flip the page every two seconds. I wonder too if it will also cause excessive eye strain having to constantly go from line to line as you are forced to with such short lines of text.

Talk, Not Torture Wins the Day

"Similarly, it was a relationship-building approach that we used to persuade a detainee to give us information on the whereabouts of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia — information that led to his being located and killed in 2006."

I wonder why no one at the Bush White House thought this was worth mentioning...

From, "Try a Little Tenderness".