Google Product == Cross Your Fingers?

Google and other companies now abuse the term "beta" by leaving it on their products for as long as possible (up to five years, according to this story).  One reason for this is surely to cover themselves if something goes wrong.  We lost all your email?  Oops, can’t help you — it’s just a beta version!

In a BusinessWeek commentary, Sarah Lacy points out how this situation makes no sense for critical applications like e-mail:

But somewhere amid all this Google-loving enthusiasm we all forgot one thing: Gmail is a beta project. A painful lesson, as it turned out. Yesterday, my husband went to get some important contact information out of his account and he got a quintessentially quirky message saying there was a server problem. Something like: “Cross your fingers and try again in a few seconds,” the screen read. For more than 24 hours he kept trying back and got the same message. Quirky quickly became loathsome.

Livid, he spent five straight hours trying to find somewhere to even report the problem. One obvious problem: You have to email them from your Gmail account. So I invited him again, he opened a new one. Still no progress. While trying to find any ray of hope, he came across a treasure trove of angry chat rooms on this very issue. People whose Gmail accounts had been down for weeks without a word back from customer support, resulting in missed appointments, missed job offers, and missing connections with friends. To read a few, just Google "Gmail" and the irksome line "Cross your fingers.” Well at least Google search helped him feel less alone, even if the company made no other attempt at solving the problem.

On several of these message boards someone had written a snotty note to the affect of, “It’s a beta, what do you expect?” But the truth is there is no such thing as beta testing email. It’s not an application like Froogle or Google Maps that you can run sometimes, not others. You either use it, or you don’t. And when you use it, you need it.

The maddening thing about covering Google as a reporter is they throw out all these betas and you never know what they are serious about, but until yesterday I didn’t realize how maddening that could be as a consumer. We’re seriously considering whether we should close our Gmail accounts altogether—at least until the company makes a greater commitment to supporting, improving, and maintaining it or at the very least provides some customer support. After all, it has been a “beta” for well over a year now. People rely on email. My message to Google? Get in or get out.

Link: When Betas Go Bad (BusinessWeek Online)

More commentary at Techdirt (including typically inane reader responses): Is It Still Beta Once People Rely On It.

I agree with Sarah Lacy’s comments.  I also think you shouldn’t be allowed to label something "beta" (as in "beta testing") when you’re not actually soliciting feedback from users.  If Google wants to be taken seriously as a software developer it should finish and support its projects properly.

Nissan/Microsoft Video Game Concept Car

Nissan and Microsoft have partnered to design a concept car that doubles as a video game console.  Drive it in the real world or the virtual world.  Gosh, I can’t think of any safety problems that might create.  Great idea, guys.

From The Register:

"Conceived by Nissan Design America Inc. (NDA) and equipped with the Xbox 360 next-generation video game and entertainment system from Microsoft, the Nissan URGE concept car allows drivers (while parked) to play ‘Project Gotham Racing 3’ using the car’s own steering wheel, gas pedal and brake pedal while viewing the game on a flip-down seven-inch LCD screen," Nissan and Microsoft said in a statement.

Link: Nissan and MS team on ‘URGE to sit on your rear’ concept car | The Register.

Amusing Ourselves To Death, 20 Years Later

Postman

Penguin has just come out with a 20th Anniversary Edition of Neil Postman’s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death.  It has an excellent new introduction by his son, Andrew Postman.

I didn’t read the original book until 5 or 6 years ago, and I was struck then by how fresh and relevant the arguments are to our present day, Internet-obsessed society.  Here’s hoping this new edition attracts many more readers.

Our Creepiest Genetic Invention, the Dog (Slate)

William Saletan counters the giddy press coverage of the recent news that dog DNA has been decoded.  Excerpt:

Have you heard the latest news? We’ve decoded the DNA of dogs. Here’s how the media-approved version of the story goes: We’re showing our love for "man’s best friend" by discovering and treating the genetic causes of his ailments. In return, we’ll learn to treat the same ailments in ourselves.

It’s a heartwarming story, but it’s a fraud. The reason we targeted the dog genome for decoding is that it’s useful for genetic research. The reason it’s useful for genetic research is that dogs are neatly divided into breeds, each of which is plagued by specific diseases. And the reason dogs are divided into diseased breeds is that we made them that way. Dogs are the world’s longest self-serving, ecologically reckless genetic experiment, perpetrated by the world’s first genetically engineering species: us.

Link: Slate: FrankenFido – Our creepiest genetic invention, the dog. By William Saletan.

Wikipedia Weaselling

Andrew Orlowski has a good article at The Register summing up the whole Wikipedia/Seigenthaler libel fiasco.  Excerpt:

Two great cries have rung around the internet since the Seigenthaler scandal broke.

One is that Seigenthaler should have corrected the entry himself,
and the other is that no source of authority can be trusted
"definitively". That’s a deliciously weaselly phrase we’ll examine in a moment.

But both excuses seek, in the classic tradition of bad engineers
blaming users for their own shoddy handiwork, to pass the
responsibility onto Wikipedia’s users.

[and even non-users!]

The blame goes here, the blame goes there – the blame goes anywhere,
except Wikipedia itself. If there’s a problem – well, the user must be
stupid!

[…]

The first, and the most immediately absurd of these two defenses, is that since nothing at all
can be trusted, er, "definitively", then Wikipedia can’t be trusted
either. This is curious, to say the least, as it points everyone’s
expectations firmly downwards.

If you recall the utopian rhetoric that accompanied the advent of
the public "internet" ten years ago, we were promised that unlimited
access to the world’s greatest "knowledge" was just around the corner.
This hasn’t happened, for reasons cited above, but now the public is
now being exhorted to assume the posture of a citizen in an air raid,
where every moving object might be a dangerous missile.

 
 
Click Here

Everything you read is suspect! You’d better duck!

Only a paranoiac, or a mad person, can sustain this level of defensiveness for any length of time however, and to hear a putative "encyclopedia" making such a statement is odd, to say the least.

Link: There’s no Wikipedia entry for ‘moral responsibility’ | The Register.

Update: For more fun, you can read about this on the ever-earnest Wikinews!  "Author of Wikipedia character assassination takes responsibility".  The poor guy who did it is now marked forever as the "Wikipedia Hoaxer" (or at least until he deletes it, which I would do if I were him).  I find the Wikipedia "biographies" of everyday people a little creepy.

Previously: The First Wikitorial, Wikipedia: Just the facts!, Pretend News, WikiIrony.

Our Gizmo Future

In an editorial in today’s New York Times, Cory Doctorow enthuses about our grand new age of do-it-yourself digital electronics:

Plastic created the age of whimsical forms. Suddenly a radio could
look like a moo cow. A chair could look like an egg. Toy ray guns could
bulge and swoop. The exuberant designers of the golden age of plastic
explored all the wacky, nonfunctional, decorative shapes that household
objects could take.

Now that same plasticity is coming
to microcontrollers, the computer chips that act as brains for the
chirping, dancing, listening and seeing devices that line our
knickknack shelves and dashboards and fill our pockets. The
proliferation of cheap and cheerful programmable chips promises a new
age of "whimsical logic," chips that power devices whose functions are
as delightfully impractical as their forms, the sort of thing you find
in a stocking but keep on your desk forever. […]

Application-specific chips
could do just one thing. New programmable chips, called field
programmable gate arrays, can do anything you dream up. What’s more,
programmable arrays can be whipped up in tiny batches for just a few
dollars.

Link: Flights of Fancy on Flexible Chips (NYT)
via Boing Boing: Cory’s programmable logic editorial in today’s NYT.

Um, Cory, FPGA’s have been around for decades (or at least I remember using them when I was an undergrad 15 years go).

Okay, maybe there is some interesting work going on in this area (Neil Gershenfeld’s work in particular), but shouldn’t this kind of cheerleading/fluff piece be reserved for Wired?

Slowing Down

Book2The latest book added at the left is In Praise of Slowness : Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore.  I was surprised and delighted at how enjoyable this book was.  It’s a fun tour of the various "Slow" movements that are catching on all over the world.

There’s a website for the book, which has many interesting links, e.g., Slow Cities, Slow Food, SlowDownNow.org.

And on this note…

This blog will be quiet for a while as I gear up for a move across the country.  Things may or may not start up again in a few months.