Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why physical stores are better than online

I don't like online stores, but I love them. Until recently, I couldn't figure out why this was. I love the convenience and I feel like I get a better deal online than I do in a store, but for some reason I have this very low-level desire to go to a store to shop instead of loading up Amazon, eBay, Google Music or what-have-you. Why is that?

The other day, it finally occurred to me, and when I saw Tim O'Reilly's recent post about publisher ecosystems and the closing of Borders I thought I should post my thoughts on the topic. I suspect that many people love physical stores for the same reason, but can't quite put their finger on why.

Ok, so short answer: physical stores have a greater selection.

Yes, I understand that that's absurd, but it's actually true in a sense. The online stores that I use tend to have vastly larger selections. In fact, the smaller and more specialized they are, the larger their selections are within those niches. The Paizo store, for example, has the broadest supply of Paizo Publishing products that I know of (kind of obviously). So, why would I go to a store to look for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook? Well, I wouldn't, but when I want to browse, that's another story.

Browsing online is fun, in that I can navigate through items quickly without having to stoop over and look at the bottom shelf or otherwise contort myself to find cool things, but there's a shift in the power dynamic. In a physical store, the vendor puts everything they want to sell out on the shelves. Sometimes they might put out dummy items (like empty DVD cases), but in terms of browsing, I have everything right there to look at, and I can look at whatever I want, regardless of what the vendor wants me to buy (e.g. what has the highest margin, or what wholesale vendor they're trying to bump up to a larger order size). Sure, they can strategically place items in end-caps and on eye-level shelves, but ultimately I'm going to look where I want for what I want.

In an online store, the vendor decides what I'll see unless I do extremely specific searches. There might be items that they have for sale that, due to a desire to steer customers elsewhere or oversight, I'll never see. In fact, I can't know what all the books for sale on Amazon are at any given time. There's no master list that I know of, and certainly no wall of titles that I can just glance over and let whatever grabs my eye do so.

It's this subtle shift in the power dynamic where the online retailer isn't required to show me everything that's "on the showroom floor" that I instinctively dislike about online shopping. Maybe the last book on the end of the bottom shelf was just the one I was looking for, but would never have remembered the title or author.

Of course, when it comes to books, I can pick up a book in a bookstore and glance through the entire thing. Online, vendors simply can't get publishers to agree to such a thing (heck, they never would have agreed to it in physical stores if customers were willing to buy sealed books... but they're not).

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hugo: When 3D goes wrong

I was invited out by a friend to see Hugo. He chose the time, and I didn't think to question it. Only when we got there, did I realize it was the 3D showing. I despise 3D in live-action films. It's not always a travesty, but it's never as good as either 2D live-action. 3D animation, on the other hand, can work well. How To Train Your Dragon was, in my opinion, the best case to date for 3D in film. It actually added depth to the film, and not just to the scenery, but that's something I've never seen in live-action, and have serious doubts I ever will. If I do, it will likely be in Steve Jackson's The Hobbit, but I'm not holding my breath.

Anyway, we went in to Hugo and I settled in to watch not 1, not 2, but 3 trailers for 2D-to-3D conversion films: Star Wars, Titanic and Beauty and the Beast! This bodes ill for 2012... Then Mr. Scorsese's film began. Let me first say that the movie is wonderful. I love the story, the tour of early film history that the story revolves around, and I even loved a little bit of the 3D work when it came to flashback sequences around the makeshift movie studio. I didn't care for the security guard character. He was meant to be comic relief, but he came off as a misplaced character from another film whose sole job in Hugo was to keep the kids awake through an otherwise leisurely paced film. Ben Kingsley... what can I say? He's profound as Georges Méliès. When he breaks down and cries, he manages to pull me in and make me want to weep like no other actor I can think of.

But there was the damned 3D. It's not terrible for the full length of the film (other than the annoyance of wearing sunglasses to watch an already dark film). But there are some shots that recur over and over again that feel terribly gimmicky. The pendulum for the main clock in the train station is not as interesting, I submit, as Mr. Scorsese seems to think it is. Also, snow, dust and other motes floating right in front of my face aren't interesting. They simply make me want to look away.

Overall, I'd say Hugo is worth seeing, but not in 3D.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Golden Age is over, long live The Golden Age

Recently, on Google+, David Brin said simply:
"Stop mythologizing the past. The golden age we dream of is only in the future--and only achievable by moving forward."
While I agreed with his general sentiment, I disagreed with the generalization, and said so. This sparked some debate with other followers that I thought I'd try to capture and clarify, here.

In my reply, I pointed out that some areas, such as personal electronics, seem to be on an escalating trajectory of improvement that is bringing increased quality of life to vast numbers of people. However, at the same time we have substantial changes to established areas which are profoundly negative. For example, food and music are two art forms that used to be taught pervasively and are now taught to a shrinking minority of enthusiasts. As the public becomes less educated about these art forms, the pinnacles of experimentation and exploration in these arts will diminish. It's not that there won't be great musicians and cooks, but overall we'll produce fewer of them, making fewer advances to the state of their respective arts.

In fact, I think it's safe to say that the golden age of food was either the 19th or 20th centuries, depending on the part of the world you are looking at, and it's likely that the 21st century won't make the same inroads except in less developed nations where the majority of the population still prepare most of their own meals in the home, and thus continue to share and teach their techniques as a cultural heritage.

For music, I think that the problem is not as uniquely tied to the developing world, but the real source of experimentation will certainly stem from cultural blending the way it always has, especially in the folding of Asian, Middle Eastern, African and South American music into the global culture (a process which began in earnest in the mid-1960s and continues to this day).

So, there are still good times ahead, but when you over-generalize about a "golden age" I think you're always likely to be wrong at some level (probably many).

Cheap DVDs this week

Keep an eye out on Amazon this week for cheap DVDs. For example, the Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection which contains movies 1-6 is down to $40 while The Lord of the Rings: Trilogy (Extended Editions) is $50! Nice for gifts or just picking these up for yourself.

Also, don't forget to peruse my list of top indie films that are available for streaming as well as on DVD...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"What's hot" considered harmful

If you log into Google Plus and click on the "hot" link on the left hand side, you'll see a stream of articles that have received a large number of +1s from users. But is this useful? I contend it's actually harmful, here's why:

Back in the day, we used to expect news to come in large batches, once per day, either in the evening news or a newspaper. As information distribution became easier, we've increased that to a nearly constant stream of data in the form of 24-hour news channels and various Web-based feeds. The problem is that there's no more going on in the world, and so we have to turn up the gain on what "hot" means. For example, right now in my Google Plus "what's hot" feed, I see:

Now, none of these are useless articles (well, perhaps some) but there's no real sense of what "hot" means, here. In the long run, the harm comes from the overload that we all get trying to keep up with what's actually interesting in the world. Why do these fluff pieces float to the top? Because there's no sense of what "+1" means. I might "+1" an article about a cat jumping really high and a gas explosion in my home town, but those two don't have equal meaning.

Google is a company that knows how to manage information, so you would think that between Reader and Plus, they would find a way to analyze and digest for you, not just articles that others or you would find interesting, but articles that actually have a deeper connection to the real world and events taking place. For example, news of the evictions in New York of the Occupy Wall Street folks or the death of a world leader are not just "hot" but "important."

Perhaps there should be a "what's hot" like feed that doesn't try to stay full all the time, but rather attenuates the flow of noise down to just those few updates. Tailoring it to interests is fine. It's entirely possible that there are folks out there who find the release of a new iPhone far more compelling a current event than the fall of a fascist dictator, and that should be reflected, but it's the desire to "keep the pipe full" that's causing problems, not the weighting of topics.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Immortals: A bad movie in a bad theater

A friend that I saw Immortals with argues that whatever my impression of the film, it's probably a slightly better movie than I give it credit for. His reasoning, which has some merit, is that we saw it in the Revere, MA theater, which is apparently run by people who don't know how to work a light switch. After requesting that they turn off the lights twice, we gave up. Between the lights and the 3D sunglasses, the movie looked very dark, and that really ruined ... well, not much. There really isn't much to this movie.

Here's the short version of the review: don't bother.

The long version after the break...

Monday, November 7, 2011

Why do we argue about text editors?

Google for "emacs vs. vi" and you'll see a torrent of pages that claim that one text editor is superior to another. Supporters of vi will claim that emacs is huge and bloated with unnecessary garbage that's unrelated to editing. Supporters of emacs will claim that vi is just a toy, capable only of the most basic text editing, and falling short whenever a complex task appears.

The waters have gotten muddy, of course. Nowadays, emacs is a fairly small application compared to behemoths like a browser or an IDE like Eclipse. Similarly, there are newer, beefier versions of vi such as vim that provide many of the features that emacs users claimed were essential to emacs's superiority over vi.

So, why do we argue about which is best? Wouldn't it make sense to learn all of the editors out there and then make an informed choice as to which to use in any given environment? Well... yes, but we don't argue about editors for rational reasons, and therefore (much like religion) we can't easily come to rational choices about their use.

I think the problem becomes much clearer if you compare a text editor to a spoken language. Speakers of American English will tell you that "colour" is spelled wrong, but this was a gradual change that occurred over the course of the 18th century, splitting the American and British spellings. Clearly, what we're dealing with is a spelling error that occurred in the United States and then became entrenched. So, why hold onto this error? Why not just normalize the language now, across both regions? Because language isn't used just to communicate. In fact, probably just as important is its use to help distinguish those who are from other subcultures, and thus not immediately trusted as "us".

The same is true for editors. We argue about them because they are the tools we use to communicate our thoughts. The parts of our brains that discern "us" from "them" on the basis of language aren't aware of the idea that we're using our editor to communicate with a non-sentient machine. Those parts of our brain just experience the routine process of turning thoughts into communication. So, when we consider another editor, we immediately recoil because, to part of our brains, that feels an awful lot like becoming a traitor to our people; abandoning the marker that shows which social group we belong to and picking up a new, alien language.

It doesn't matter that none of this actually applies, it's just a quirk of the way we think about communication.

So, the next time you run into someone who tells you that, "emacs sucks, vi rules!" or visa versa, just tell them that they need to spell that "emaucs"...