7/11/11

Google+

Today's inbox had my first invitation to join Google+, something I'm sure will happen more frequently in the coming months. The friend who sent it to me expressed something about frustration with Facebook, and encouraged me to make the switch.

We've been hearing about Google's increasing mastery of our digital world for years now. The behemoth has done everything it could to work on its mission statement ("Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful"), and everyone seems to be reaping the rewards. We blog, YouTube, create documents and work on them together thanks to cloud computing, share our calendars, and store lots and LOTS of data. Recently Google has helped us get our voicemail translated into text and delivers it to our inboxes. The new Nexus phone promises to be amazing.

So why social networking? Let's assume for the moment that Google's mission is benign, as they have yet to prove otherwise. Unlike Microsoft, which has a history of anti-trust cases levied against it, and Facebook, which struts around like an asshole and tells users how they're going to deal with their privacy (sorry, they don't even tell their users, they just log in one day and realize they have no more privacy), Google has brought nothing but good to us. The search engine is cutting edge, its different services such as maps, e-mail, and documents integrate seamlessly. It's brought us Chrome, perhaps the most intuitive browser on the market (I count seven buttons up top... who needs more?) and has done all of this without vying for dominance on one platform or the other. So Google hasn't shown itself to be fundamentally evil, but does that really naturally lead to meddling in our social networking?

It might. Google's chat function is pretty ubiquitous, and far better than what Facebook has to offer. It certainly knocks the socks off Microsoft's offerings. MSN messenger hasn't really been the forerunner of anything for at least five years, and sits somewhere back there with AIM and Yahoo Messenger. Nonetheless, some 330 million people still log in to MSN messenger each month, meaning that Microsoft is still serious about instant messenging. Then there was Skype, something people used to make those cheap calls, but increasingly found that they could use as an IM client. Although only about 130 million people use Skype each month, the interface is just generally nicer and more polished than the Microsoft offering, especially the way VoIP was integrated.

When Facebook got in on the act, we got our first peek at how socializing is going to develop online, and Microsoft looked at it greedily. Earlier this year, Microsoft shelled out a fat wad of cash to buy into the unholy alliance. Wired looked at the deal and couldn't quite figure out why Microsoft put so much money into Skype, quoting a figure of about $1,000 per Skype user. Unlike Wired, the reason for this purchase is pretty clear to me: cooperation with Facebook.

Facebook's tendency to do things without telling its users aside, it wants to get into every nook and cranny of your life. It wants you to check in to locations so your friends know where you are, allows you to connect your Twitter to it so your friends keep up to date on every brain fart you have, it automatically looks for your face and your friends' faces in photographs, and keeps up to date with who you interact with how often and in what way. It just doesn't know who you call and when. Skype was their foot in the door into this world.

Thank goodness the integration of Facebook in Skype is still imperfect and optional. I've been a happy client of Skype since just after its 2003 launch, and found myself using it more and more in the past couple of years. I have friends around the world, and it really is a great thing to be able to call them. Creating a Skype out number to make cheap long distance calls from my cell phone is absolutely wonderful. I use it for real socializing with my real friends, not the flippant stuff I do on Facebook with my Facebook friends. To me melding telephony and social networking cheapens the experience of interacting with my friends, further blurring the boundary between real friends and "friends," but I can understand the business sense. Imagine the ad revenue! Patterns of behavior will be established.

If you're Microsoft, you really want to make your ad revenue start to work for you, and an MSN-Skype-Facebook clusterfuck would be just the way to do it. Imagine Facebook whoring out all of your private information to Bing!, and then bothering you with advertisements in the middle of your Skype calls? It's the wave of the future.

Google, on the other hand, has been developing a different approach. For Gmail users, none of the developments have come with pain or suffering, and have been mostly pleasant. It started out with a really big, simple e-mail inbox. Then came chat. Then one day you could add voice to your chat, then a bit of video. Last year they even rolled out free telephony to everyone in the USA and Canada. For me, that was the biggest blow to my Skype usage. My options were cheap (Skype) versus free (Google). I still keep the Skype on my computer for the few people I know who either aren't on Facebook or Gmail, but if I had a choice, I'd do it all with Google. Integrating my address book into my e-mail, telephone calls, and IM chats is something unmistakably easier than switching between different programs and providers. You can do this with MS Outlook combined with MSN Messenger (or Skype) I guess, but Google's cloud computing has Microsoft beat on every count. Nothing to install. Nothing to download. Your information is accessible everywhere, and the simple interface just works.

Basically what we see with Microsoft, Skype, and Facebook is the three of them rummaging around trying to take their disparate visions and join them together to create something good. But you know it won't be. Facebook has their privacy issues, Microsoft has its greed issues (and bugs), and integrating Skype into the Microsoft corporate culture could change the entire program. Google, on the other hand, has taken steps to build the next thing on the previous thing. This is the secret to making it work together. People already socialize through Google products, and in ways much more complex than Skype, Facebook, or Microsoft are used to handling individually. Google's expertise in dealing with peoples' information gives them the killer advantage.

Still. I already have Facebook. Like it or not, my friends (and Facebook friends) are all on there. If Facebook is the crowded, concrete cell with no privacy or breathing room, G+ will be the sleekly-designed space with one strangely shaped couch and a glass table, but it will be empty. I want to make a switch. The last thing I want is to manage two social networks. I look forward to weaning myself from Skype--the less software on my computer, the better--and I've managed to stay out of the way of Bing!, but will Facebook be the habit I really can't kick?

Let's find out. I just clicked the link in the e-mail.
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7/9/11

How 'bout a nice cup of... What?



It's getting harder to buy plain things these days, I quipped to the girl at the Starbucks this afternoon. She herself had no idea what had happened to the plain bagels. All she could offer was a hawaiian bagel or a cheesy-something bagel with a name far too obscure to be worth remembering. As I'm not even a fan of Hawaiian pizza (every pizza should come with pepperoni and 9mm bullets), I settled on the savory option. Toasted. With cream cheese.

There are still good bagel places around, and even though about the difficulty of finding a good shop outside New York city, there are a few. Here in Seattle Eltana is probably the best. They're not like your average deli, though. It being Seattle, there would have to be some sort of hipster ethos and leftist overtones, but I would disagree with anyone that says it's to the detriment of the joint. This is mostly because you can still order a damn good bagel. And it can be plain. You can eat it while following them on twitter @EltanaBagel while you're doing the crossword puzzle on the wall.

Seattle is a terrible place for any type of normalcy. Every body wears the hipster mix-and-match uniform of scarves, clever hats, skinny jeans, flannel shirts, ironic silkscreens, glasses and facial hair to be as different as possible (But from what? They all do it the same way.). You thought Portlandia was bad? Well, they may congregate there, but they come to Seattle to breed. It was from this Axis of Indie that the leviathan Starbucks emerged. A franchising, globalized chain that stamps "different" on everything inside its walls.

Some think of this town as America's Capital of Coffee, and they may be right to some extent, at least as far as major local business is concerned. Starbucks played a major role in teaching Americans to drink coffee. For generations, you'd order a cup of Joe, and you might get to choose milk and sugar. For the rest, coffee was coffee. Dripped or percolated, there was none of that limp-wristed Italian spiel where you could make a career out of running hot water over burned, crushed beans. In a diner it'd be much the same as elsewhere.

The way we used to drink coffee probably comes from a long tradition of looking at the bean in a utilitarian way. Soldiers in the Civil War used to be issued coffee as they were issued corn, both of which they'd stick in sacks and smash against rocks with their rifle butts. Cowboys weren't looking for much in the way of refinement either, and to this day Cowboy Coffee is still known as something strong and black that wakes you up. I guess we could say the same thing about John Henry letting his hammer ring, but that's something for another time. What we should be asking ourselves here is how John Wayne would take his coffee.

The point is that coffee's place in American society was prominent and uncomplicated. "I'll have a coffee" used to mean more or less what it said, allowing a little leeway for milk and sugar if you really wanted to go wild. Walk into a Starbucks today and give that one a try. It feels like throwing a fastball straight down the middle and watching them miss it like you're chucking sliders and submarines.
What I propose is not political action or revolt. Nor do I think the option to buy a hundred different coffees a hundred different ways is terrible. Quite the opposite. I laud the ability Starbucks has to offer ready-made formulas to give consumers the illusion of choice and comfort in consumption. My only gripe is the difficulty in ordering something so simple. When I order a coffee, I expect a deep, dark, hot cup of Java. No questions asked.

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7/7/11

A new medium

Part of this venture to the United States was to take a dip in the consumption pool you only get dribbles of in Europe and elsewhere. Moving home base is somewhat of a re boot, and a learning experience. Since Caramel Covered Kennedy was elected and became Comrade Obama, lots has happened, and I tried not to miss a thing.

Nonetheless, it could appear as such. During my tenure in Belgium, I was sequestered to what amounted to a concrete bunker without reliable Internet access. The result was getting out of the swing of posts, and anything thereafter was incidental. Belgium steeled my resolve to move Stateside. Seeing first-hand the potential negative results of ungoverned socialism in the rampant, professionalized unemployed ranks of Brussels locals, it was absolutely crucial I put the economy to work for me.

I moved back above the rivers from 20% unemployment rates in Brussels to the more comfortable 5% of Amsterdam. Much as I enjoyed the fine food and drink of the Rich Roman life in the South, the austere Protestant work ethic was what was going to put me on a plane over the Atlantic.

Needless to say, my planning has panned out, and I'm here a world away, battling the job slump with the rest of the countries. Admittedly, I did end up on the Left Coast in what might be the most Liberal place outside San Francisco, but it remains America. People may not plaster yellow ribbons on their trucks here, but at least they drive Silverados and F150s.

With the change in scene came a change in medium. Earlier in the year, Charlie Sheen reminded everyone how amazingly useless Twitter was, and I was hooked. One of my first purchases Stateside was a burner, letting me tweet to my heart's content about how I consumed my way to the American Dream.

Well folks, recently I took another big consumptive step. For the same monthly fee as the burner I had, I got my hands on a BlackBerry Torch. Now I get up to date news on job openings and I can apply on the go. While I listen to my pod casts, of course.

And don't forget the amazing ability to conspicuously consume with this thing. Not only do those around me get to see me with a Shiny New in my hand, but I can take pictures of things and spread them on the Internets immediately. I no longer have to lug around a laptop in order to periodically hit up a Starbucks and upload pictures to my @consumergods twitter. Check the feed on the right there and you'll see what I mean.

So now I've come back to the blog. While the twittering will remain mostly about consumption, now that I'm once again wired--albeit wirelessly this time--I should be able to keep pace with the speed of things here while still providing a few choice words about the goings-on in the Land of the Free. After all, election season is starting, and the Republicans are fielding the most amazing candidates. Comrade Obama is making no secret of his secret drone wars. A new season of Sons of Guns is starting on the Discovery Channel. Oh, and Captain America hits theaters July 22. I am bound to need more than 140 characters at a time to wax philosophical about a few of those things.
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4/27/11

Flying Solo & The Long Arm of the DHS

There are a few hours of down time in every trip, and mine happen to be in the Copenhagen airport. I should be on a flight to Washington, D.C., and I should have spent part of the morning touring the city. Instead, I'm still in transit, and several compensation vouchers further.

This isn't a travel blog, and if you want to read bitching and moaning about airlines and their services, go to a comedy barn. The real reason I'm sitting here with a beer and a high fiber chicken sandwich is global terrorism and the omnipotence of American foreign policy. The Department of Homeland Se
curity knows how to worm its way into your life from oceans away.

My flight is with SAS, stopping through their hub in Copenhagen. The first aircraft broke, so they bumped a Chinaman off the next flight to get me through--theoretically allowing me to catch my connecting flight to DC. Once wheels hit the tarmac in Denmark, I was ready to foot it. Racers, Gun Your Engines, or something of the sort. Still remember to be polite and help that old woman in front of you get twenty pieces of hand luggage out of the overhead compartment. Chivalrously let that nice young lady haul her hundred-pound carry-on slowly down the aisle. And when you get to the door of the aircraft, grunt at the pilot and bolt for gate C33 at the other end of the airport.

Travel is happening pretty light this time. I put the typewriter in the belly of the plane, so all I have is a small backpack and a duty free bag of booze. I'm nimble enough to move along at a pretty good clip, and the airport in Copenhagen isn't too large. Still, compared to Schiphol, there are no moving walkways to help speed things along, and though I made good time, I got to the departure gate (and I'm not kidding--it's actually on the furthest point at the opposite side of the airport) just in time to see them loading my luggage into the plane. Should be A-OK, right?

Thanks to the deplorable actions of a few Islamic fundamentalist fanatics nearly a decade ago, passenger manifests need to be completed and sent 10 minutes before departure time. Any modification to the list after that time results in a massive fine to the airline and the inconvenience of a thorough security check of all passengers at the point of entry in the US. All of that physical exertion getting my buns from one plane to the next gate wasn't enough. I was there a mere five minutes before departure.

I tip my hat to you, Al-Qaeda. It is because of you that I now get to fly to Chicago before Washington, D.C. It is also because of you that I get to fly one of your chosen airlines, United,
part of the infamous Star Alliance (or was that just in a book I read? No, that was United Alliance, but close enough).

This whole spiel is going to wreak havoc on my plans of going fishing tomorrow, stacking three nights of little sleep on top of jet lag. Whatever hideous creature slouches its way to Maryland's Eastern Shore tomorrow is the sole result of missed connections. Who knows if I'll catch anything, but whatever happens had better be good.

Boarding time is nigh, and the pay-to-surf is running out too. Sandwich is long gone, and so are the other two beers I got with the rest of my voucher whilst writing this post. I leave here with a feeling of being shafted by the US government, but strangely satisfied, something like the prom queen getting date raped by the captain of the football team. It's something she wanted and probably even asked for--kind of--but certainly not how she wanted it.

Big up to my people still stuck in the cesspools and bastions of socialist Europe. Your governments may use lube when they shaft you, but mine can do it way better than yours. God Bless the USA. I'm sorry you can't come with me. My beer is done, and the flight is boarding. Onwards to Chicago, I guess.
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10/2/10

Yes, we did it. We finally pretty much have a new government in the Netherlands. We beat the Belgians to it, but that's no real surprise. We only have two things to contend with now: the Dutch turning against themselves and the fact that we have an anti-constitutional extremist in the cabinet.

Geert Wilders wants to change our lives
There are a number of things Wilders is bringing to the table in this new cabinet. Law and order is something many are not unhappy with. His support increases the number of cops on the street and officers available for any number of tasks. For some unknown reason, there is also a planned increase in the bodies available for the animal cruelty division. Go figure.

The burka ban. Much like in France, Wilders wants one here too. The Frogs have been trembling ever since it happened, and along with the other shameful things they have been up to (unceremoniously sending Gypsies to Romania is kind of like sending Jews to Israel--they're not all actually from there), the impression we get of the French as self-centered, out of touch, snobbish, and hard-headed has only been exacerbated. The burka ban for the Netherlands will be just as explicit. Wilders wants it gone for its religious symbolism, and is not even making an effort to disguise it as anything else.

Those in a government function who are already forbidden to wear yarmulkes and crucifixes should also not be wearing burkas or any other kind of religious signboard. However, banning it on the street is another thing. the first thing we have to take into account is the incredibly small number of people who wear them. It seems like we're making a big deal about just a few dozen people out of 17 million. The second thing is that there are better ways of getting them off the street: personal safety concerns.

No, I'm not advocating an idea that all burka-wearers are terrorists. What I am saying is that for the same reason you don't want people wearing masks of any sort in public, burkas could conceivably be limited too. You can't see well, and therefore cannot drive a car. Your face cannot be seen, and it is therefore an impediment to police when looking for a person on a video feed, in a crowd, or anywhere else. It is not an invasion of privacy for someone to look you in the face, and it is important for the police that they can do so. There you have it: a public decree against face covering for both social and safety reasons. We don't need anti-religious diatribe.

Geert Wilders wants to take our identities
There is a proposal being floated that would enable the government to bluntly take away Dutch citizenship from a specific group of people, i.e. those with two passports. Having two passports is something special, and contributes to a diverse, multicultural identity both enriching the individual and the community. Think of how Polish-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and many more all celebrate their cultural difference and American-ness at the same time. The Wilders part of the cabinet wants to give the government the power to revoke Dutch citizenship from any dual-citizen who commits a crime.

So... is committing a crime somehow un-Dutch now? Does that mean criminality is so far away from Dutchness that the commission of it is such an affront to the rest of society that it should be excised like cancer? The reason Wilders wants this done is so that criminals can be deported easier, but this is only based on the assumption that criminality is an aspect of something foreign, not Dutch, and (as he tried to do with his film Fitna) inhuman.

This completely overlooks the fact that most people with two passports have actually grown up in or at least have lived in the Netherlands and are Dutch. Come on, guys.

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