I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

If there ever was a piece of software that was like a good cup of coffee it would be Instapaper.

Shawn Blanc, paying me the highest compliment possible. (via Ben Brooks)

Google’s decreasingly useful, spam-filled web search

Jeff Atwood, in Trouble In the House of Google:

People whose opinions I respect have all been echoing the same sentiment — Google, the once essential tool, is somehow losing its edge. The spammers, scrapers, and SEO’ed-to-the-hilt content farms are winning.

(via Anil Dash’s nice roundup on the issue)

I’ve been frustrated as well by Google’s apparent defeat by spam. It’s not a sudden issue — it’s been gradually worsening for a few years.

When I ask Google for something, it’s usually from these types of queries:

Over the years, the impact of spam — mostly affiliate marketing and auto-generated splogs — has decimated the usefulness of the “product research” category. It’s impossible to do any meaningful product research with Google.

But recently, spam has taken over the “guide” query results, and even many “reference” queries. It wouldn’t surprise me if spam even started defeating the “address bar” queries — Google’s ranking algorithms recently have had a lot of trouble detecting the canonical source of duplicated content.

In other words, it’s now nearly impossible to find good results for many commonly asked types of queries.

Part of what exacerbates this is the apparent explosion recently of cheap-“content” sites that try to answer every search query ever asked. Like affiliate-marketing spam, much of it seems to be generated by humans (technically — I wouldn’t classify them as such), but it’s functionally useless: sites like, eHow, and countless clones with .info domain names that promise to address every niche question and informational topic, but whose content lacks all quality and substance.

Google was designed to play the role of a passive observer of the internet: web content was created for people, not specific Google queries, and Google would look around, take inventory of what was available, and give it to people who asked. Google’s general, big-picture algorithms probably haven’t changed much since the days when this was relatively accurate.

But that’s no longer what web content looks like. Now, massive amounts of technically-not-spam sites are generated by penny-hungry affiliate marketers and sleazy web “content” startups to target long-tail Google queries en masse, scraping content from others or paying low-wage workers to churn out formulaic, minimally nutritious pages to answer them.

Searching Google is now like asking a question in a crowded flea market of hungry, desperate, sleazy salesmen who all claim to have the answer to every question you ask.

“Hey, anyone know how to wire an outlet?”

“Did you say ‘how to wire an outlet’?”
“I can help you with how to wire an outlet!”
“Here is info on how to wire an outlet!”
“Bargain prices on how to wire an outlet!”
“Guide to wiring outlets in New York, right here!”

And none of them actually know a damn thing about what you’re asking, of course — they’re just offering meaningless, valueless words that seem to form sentences until you actually try to make use of them.

They call this “content”. But it’s not, really — it’s filler. And by a more common-sense definition, it’s spam. But Google either doesn’t think so, or is so overwhelmed by its volume that it has seemingly stopped trying to keep it under control. (I’m betting on the former.)

One solution may be for Google to radically change their algorithms and policies for web search to de-emphasize phrase-matching and more strongly prioritize inbound links and credibility. And, in what’s probably a huge departure for them, have human employees use their opinions of site quality to manually adjust the relevance of domains.

But I doubt we’ll see real progress. Instead, I expect Google’s unwillingness to address this issue to create a critical-mass demand — and hopefully, then, a supply — of good content, reference information, and product recommendations.

Much of this will be (or currently is) solved the old-fashioned way: personal recommendations and trusted authorities. But these can’t cover the breadth of available information that web searchers need. I don’t know what will, or when, but it’s desperately needed.

It is facile and mistaken to attribute this particular madman’s act directly to Republicans or Tea Party members. But it is legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats, setting the nation on edge. Many on the right have exploited the arguments of division, reaping political power by demonizing immigrants, or welfare recipients, or bureaucrats. They seem to have persuaded many Americans that the government is not just misguided, but the enemy of the people.

The New York Times

In fact, aside from the fact that Blu-Ray’s high definition picture is so ridiculously gorgeous, the whole format is demonstrably worse than what came before it.

Khoi Vinh

Agreed. I’ve only used Blu-Ray on a PS3, which is probably better than most standalone players, but all of the consumer-hostile “features” of DVDs — unskippable logos, previews, warnings, and disclaimers, long animation delays before menu activation, custom-themed interfaces that make everything more difficult — has advanced to new levels of hassles, delays, restrictions, and annoyances.

The movies look great. But at such a high practicality cost, many people won’t (and shouldn’t) bother.

If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you’re gonna get selfish, ignorant leaders. So maybe it’s not the politicians who suck. Maybe something else sucks around here. Like… the public.

George Carlin, our era’s most perceptive political commentator, disguised as a comedian.

Too much hardware choice

From my Verizon iPhone post:

Even the gadget blogs have a hard time feigning enthusiasm for this week’s hot Android phone because they still haven’t taken the shrinkwrap off of last week’s.

Not enough Nick’s response:

Wait, the stream of high-quality, constantly improving hardware with options to fit different desires is a problem for Android?

Yes, it is, for a few major reasons.

Most people don’t read gadget blogs or even know what Android is. They generally hear about individual phones, without distinguishing much based on operating system. (They don’t know what those are, either.)

The highest-profile Android launch that seemed to meaningfully reach the masses was the Motorola Droid, primarily because it was boosted by a massive Verizon television and in-store ad campaign.

But since then, very few non-geeks know about individual Android handsets. They change so frequently, and are so numerous, that there’s never much of an opportunity for a meaningful buzz to generate around any of them. Nobody’s lining up to buy them. CNN’s not covering their launches. Consumer Reports isn’t vigorously testing their antennas. The Daily Show isn’t making jokes about them. So the mass market doesn’t really respond to individual devices. Even if Uncle Joe brings his fancy Android Something to Thanksgiving and your mother is impressed by it and wants to buy one, by the time her contract expires in two months and she goes to the Verizon store, it’s gone.

The incessant glut of Android phones creates other problems in practice, too:

The entire Android device market seems to be made specifically for gadget blogs and early adopters.

But for the mass market, the constant flood of Android devices is indeed a problem.

Not just Android

This effect isn’t limited to Android. One of the main reasons why Windows Phone 7 had a relatively underwhelming launch is that there was no single “Windows phone” to gather buzz, press, extensive reviews, and customer affinity.

Instead, we were greeted with a bevy of hardware choices that we neither asked for nor wanted. Rather than committing to one device — taking a stand and saying, “This is what we think is best, and we’ll support it for the next two years” — Microsoft punted, leaving the manufacturers to give us too many fragmented choices that will likely face many of the same issues we see in the Android market.

And the “tablet market” will face the same issue.

How to use your own router with FiOS

New FiOS installations come with an all-in-one Actiontec router (mine’s the very common MI424WR model) that you can bypass if you want to use your own router or directly connect a computer to the raw connection. In my case, I wanted to connect Apple’s Airport Extreme router.

A quick primer on the connection:

The ONT has an Ethernet port that’s disabled in installations using coax. Usually, the installer won’t even ask you whether you’d rather have Ethernet run to the router instead — they’ll just use coax. But you may want to use it and connect your own router directly, like I did. Hey, we’re all geeks here. I understand.

Do this at your own risk. I accept no liability if you damage yourself, your house, your internet connection, your router, connected equipment, Verizon’s property, or anything else. (Lawyers.)

If you have FiOS TV service:

It’s more complicated, but it’s still possible to use your own router. You need to keep the Actiontec router alive and connected because it feeds the show-guide data to the TV boxes.

These instructions worked for me to kick the router into bridge mode, but I switched to the direct setup below.

I don’t have the TV service, so my relevant knowledge for you ends here, and the rest of this post won’t apply to you. Sorry.

If you do NOT have FiOS TV service: (regardless of phone service)

Run an Ethernet cable safely to the Ethernet port on the bottom of the ONT. How you do this is up to you.1 If you’re buying new cable or having it professionally done, run Cat6 cable — it doesn’t cost much more than Cat5 or 5e and is more future-proof for higher speeds.

If you can’t or don’t want to run an Ethernet cable to the ONT, you can keep using the coax arrangement, follow the bridge instructions above, and stop here.

OK, so now you have a cable connecting the ONT’s Ethernet port to your router.

Call FiOS support: 888-553-1555. Navigate the menus to technical support. Enjoy their on-hold music, which has been carefully engineered to be slightly pleasant yet non-offensive to the widest target demographic possible.

BE POLITE. I cannot stress this enough. Don’t be a dick — they don’t need to do this for you. You’re asking them to do you a favor to satisfy your own geeky preferences or edge-case needs, and there’s a big risk that you’re going to cause them more work if you screw with stuff too much. Most of these techs know what they’re doing, and you don’t need to aggressively prove your geek abilities to them.

Tell the tech that you’d like to change your ONT’s connection to the router from coax to Ethernet.2 If they hesitate to do it remotely or say it requires a service call, tell them nicely that you already have the Ethernet wire run and connected and you’d just like them to switch it remotely. A second-level tech might be needed to do it.

Then ask them nicely to break the router’s DHCP lease so you can plug in your own router. When they say it’s done, connect your router’s WAN port to the ONT’s Ethernet port. Your router should see the connection immediately and get a real IP address.

That’s it. You’re done. Thank the tech profusely and tell them to have a nice day.

  1. I did a quick workaround for now, which I’ll undo when I can get real wiring run: I just plugged in an Airport Express in my garage, right next to the ONT, and am having it relay its connection wirelessly to my main Airport Extreme in the office. ↩︎

  2. Pronounciations: Oh-En-Tee, COH-axe, EETH-er-net. ↩︎

I’ll go further and say that the repeated compulsion to resolve and resolve and resolve is actually a terrific marker that you’re not really ready to change anything in a grownup and sustainable way. You probably just want another magic wand.

Otherwise you’d already be doing the things you’ve resolved to do. You’d already be living those changes. And, you’d already be seeing actual improvements rather than repeatedly making lists of all the ways you hope your annual hajj to the self-improvement genie will fix you.

Merlin Mann on New Year’s resolutions

The majority of support emails and reviews have been from nice people who genuinely want to help, but they are overshadowed by 10-20% that aren’t. The anger, the sense of entitlement, and the overriding theme that I owe them something for daring to take up any of their time is sickening. It makes me angry at the world.

David Frampton, author of Chopper 2, an excellent and challenging game that I, and many other family members, enjoyed on the iPad and iPhone.

David suggests that higher price points will escape these emails. He’s partially right — I don’t get nearly as many of them with Instapaper at $4.99, but I still get a handful, and they still bother me.

Apple’s been here before. Jobs missed most of 2009, and when he returned, it was a while before he got back to full time. The product cycle continued. Existing products were improved. New products were released. Future products progressed in development. Was it the same without him? No, of course not. Did the company function just fine? Yes.

John Gruber on Steve Jobs’ medical leave

Lightroom or Aperture?

I often get asked whether I prefer Lightroom or Aperture. Having used Lightroom 2 (some), Lightroom 3 (a lot), Aperture 2 (a lot), and Aperture 3 (a little), I can semi-confidently share these anecdotal opinions:

Aperture usually has slightly nicer features than Lightroom, and I prefer much about Aperture’s interface, but it’s buggier and has more performance problems, even on very high-end hardware.

Aperture is always “improving” but never becomes great. I often felt that I was fighting it to get my work done.

Lightroom is consistently good and very stable. I’ve never felt that I was fighting it.

Your mileage may vary — but these were my experiences.

Blast from the Past Link Day

Shawn Blanc’s Blast from the Past Link Day is a great idea. Here are some of my favorite past posts that I’ve written:

Some quick picks from others:

And for professional journalism and editorial content, check out Give Me Something To Read’s Greatest Hits.

Happy birthday, Tiff!

My awesome wife turned 28 today. Happy birthday, Tiff!

She probably only expects me to say this on Twitter, but I don’t want my blog to become so limited that I’d ever feel uncomfortable wishing my wife a happy birthday on it.

Speculation on the next MacBook Pro

Given how awesome the new MacBook Air is, I’m interested to see what Apple does with the other laptops in the lineup.

I’ve had three 13” laptops (including the first-generation and current-generation Airs) and two 15” laptops, and I’ve previously been torn between these two sizes: the 15” always felt too bulky, and the 13” always felt like too little screen space.

But the new Air changed the game. The original was extremely slow and limited, but the new generation is much faster and more versatile. Most importantly, the 13” Air now has the screen resolution of the previous-generation 15” MacBook Pro. These improvements made the 13” good enough for a lot of former 15” buyers — and many former 13” buyers are now in love with the new 11” Air for maximum portability.

Last week, rumors started circulating that existing stock of 13” and 15” MacBook Pros was dwindling, which usually indicates an imminent update. So what should we expect?

I don’t foresee major changes to the 17” MacBook Pro. It’s an aircraft carrier made for maximum performance, maximum capacity, and rarely-used hardware features (like the ExpressCard slot) to sell to people who actually need them, such as people operating portable recording setups. When Apple wants to remove features from the rest of the lineup, they can usually appease most of the “We’re still using that!” crowd by keeping it in the 17” for a few more generations.

And that’s where I think Apple’s going to shove the optical drive: the 17”, and the $999 plastic MacBook. That’s it.

Furthermore, the removal of optical drives and the awesomeness and low price of the 13” Air will leave little reason to buy the 13” MacBook Pro, so I’m guessing it will be eliminated from the lineup.

And I’m guessing that the 15” will undergo its most significant change in a very long time: it will adopt the wedge shape of the Air, losing its thick, uncomfortably sharp front edge. Removing the optical drive will free up a lot of space inside, leaving room for a rearrangement that can enable the wedge shape without giving up a significant amount of battery volume.

Ideally, this would come with two other major changes:

I’m predicting the next 15” to be, effectively, the halfway point between the current one and what you’d expect a 15” Air to be.

I have little doubt that this is the future of the 15”, but I do think it’s risky to predict it now. Apple always kills off old technology and moves forward a little too soon for some people’s comfort (which usually works out very well), but this is a major change, and it might be too much at once.

I see two major problems with this direction, if it’s taken: the hard-drive-or-SSD question from above, and what to do about the big ports. It would be very difficult to fit Ethernet and Firewire ports into the sides of a wedge-shaped case. Apple could conceivably ditch both for the 15” and keep them in the 17”, but that’s also a very ballsy move that would anger a lot of pro buyers. I don’t think Apple would make proprietary tiny ports with dongles for Ethernet or Firewire, and neither can be operated well through USB2, so to adopt the wedge, they’d probably need to drop both.

The wedge requires a lot of tradeoffs to get thinness, a more comfortable front edge, and a likely-significant weight reduction.3 The result would be an incredibly compelling laptop for most buyers wanting more screen space and performance than the 13” Air, but its omissions would push a lot of power users to the 17” to get the ports and capacities that they need (which they wouldn’t appreciate at all).

Or they could keep approximately the same shape, thickness, and weight of the current 15”. But then there’s so much free space inside that they could easily keep the optical drive and 2.5” hard-drive bay as well, so they might as well just keep the exact same design and just update the boring core components unceremoniously. And this might be a good enough stopgap to kill some time until most people stop needing wired Ethernet and Firewire, and SSDs are big and cheap enough to give most people enough space at reasonable prices. I’d argue that those have already happened, but just barely.

So the new laptop lineup might look like this:

Or it might look almost exactly like the current lineup4, which would be disappointing but justifiable.

  1. “Where are my files? Where do I save this? Why does this say my hard drive is full when I have 500 gigs free? Why were none of my photos backed up?”

    As much as I’d love a hybrid solution to get lots of cheap space and a small, fast drive where it counts, the OS and applications just aren’t ready to make this easy enough for most people. I have the dual-drive setup myself on my Mac Pro and it’s irritating even to me. ↩︎

  2. Apple sells a $29 USB Ethernet adapter for the MacBook Air (although it works with all Macs and probably even Windows PCs), but because of USB limitations and overhead, it maxes out at 10/100 and can never do Gigabit. Gigabit transfer speeds are one of the biggest reasons why people would still want wired Ethernet today in a pro laptop. ↩︎

  3. The current glass 15” MacBook Pro is about 5.6 lbs. I’d estimate that replacing the glass with glossy plastic and dropping the optical drive, keeping the battery size relatively unchanged, could bring it down to around 4.8. That may not seem like a big difference, but the 13” MacBook Pro is 4.5, and that feels like a significant reduction. ↩︎

  4. Except new CPUs, but who cares? CPUs are the least exciting (and usually least relevant) upgrades in modern mass-market personal computers. ↩︎