The Computer Course: An Introduction

This summer, my 11-year-old son is starting an informal internship here at Room 34 Creative Services, where I will be giving him some hands-on experience building websites, and also giving a series of — hopefully interesting — lectures on the basics of various aspects of computing.

Last Friday was his first day, and also the first lecture. Entitled “Bits”, it was an introduction to the most basic elements of computing — binary switches, or bits — and following through the mathematical implications of binary numbers to the specific applications of hex code colors in HTML/CSS and 32-bit IP addresses — along with a supplementary discussion of domain names and how they relate to IPs. (That supplementary discussion being the original intended topic of the whole lecture, but I digressed… or, I guess, regressed.)

I have decided to begin a companion series of blog posts, grouped under the new category The Computer Course, not replicating word for word the lectures themselves (since the lectures are mostly off the cuff), but using the same basic outlines as the lectures, and adapting the content in a way that suits the medium.

The Outside Scoop: Thoughts on Android Wear and a possible iWatch

The big news in tech today is Google’s announcement of Android Wear, a version of their Android OS specifically optimized for “wearables” like watches.

The tech media is erupting with ridiculously titled blog posts that refer to this as Google’s “answer” to the iWatch, a product that Apple has not announced, nor even acknowledged working on.

Surprisingly, for the first time I actually found one of these wearables mildly interesting, the Moto 360. But I am still skeptical of wearables in general, smart watches in particular, and especially the idea that Apple is working on one. But I’ve learned from my past mistakes, when I was convinced Apple was neither working on a smartphone in late 2006 nor a tablet in late 2009. So, in my world at least, my adamant belief that Apple is not developing a watch should probably be my biggest clue that they are.

So where is Apple’s “iWatch”? Aren’t all of these competitors eating Apple’s lunch (before it’s even cooked)? Perhaps. But consider this:

Remember the original iPod. It came into a market that already existed (but sucked), and delivered a radically superior user experience, and was a huge hit. Remember the iPhone. Once again, it came into a market that already existed (but sucked) and totally revolutionized it.

The thing is… a smart watch market doesn’t really exist (or didn’t when rumors of an “iWatch” first started to circulate). It almost seems like Apple got the wheels of the rumor mill turning deliberately, to goad their competition into creating the market, thinking they were beating Apple to the punch but in fact creating the exact environment of suck Apple needs to release a product into.

What’s that close paren doing after my video embed in WordPress?

Working on a new client site that has a lot of YouTube video embeds, I was alarmed this morning to find a stray close paren ) character in all of the posts right after the videos.

Knowing I had recently been tampering with the embed_handler_html and embed_oembed_html filters in the site theme, I figured it was something I had created. So I set about debugging my code but couldn’t get anywhere.

I decided to see if it was in fact a new problem in WordPress itself, by setting up a test post on this site with a YouTube video embed (this, of course). Sure enough, even on my unadulterated theme, the stray close paren appears.

Look at it!!!I mean, just look at it!!!

Anyway, I hope/assume this will get fixed in the WordPress core soon, but in the meantime if you are running into this problem and want a quick fix, and you’re not afraid of editing the functions.php file in your theme, have a go at this little addition that will strip out the offending punctuation:

function embed_fix_stray_parens($content) {
    return str_replace('</iframe>)','</iframe>',$content);
}
add_filter('the_content','embed_fix_stray_parens');

Update #1: I went to submit a bug report to the WordPress development team and found my report was a duplicate of this one. If I understand correctly, the close paren is actually being delivered by YouTube itself, not WordPress, via the oEmbed request. Isn’t the Internet fun?

Update #2: This really is YouTube’s problem… it even shows up in the embed code you get on their own site:

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.00.12 AM

This issue is also showing up on StackOverflow now, including a more efficient temporary workaround for WordPress sites than my own hasty solution.

Last, This, Next

As I was folding a week’s subset of my embarrassingly large collection of printed t-shirts, I reflected momentarily on the history of my pixelated Minnesota t-shirt. I bought that t-shirt last summer and wore it each time I went to the Minnesota State Fair last year, as my symbol of “Minnesota pride”.

Then I started thinking about sharing this story, and about referring to the Minnesota State Fair that took place in 2013 as the “last” Minnesota State Fair, and how the one that will take place “this” year, in 2014, is “this” State Fair, and so on.

Frequently conversations between SLP and me have resulted in confusion based on the different possible interpretations of “last”, “this” and “next” when referring to days, weeks, months, years or events. I tend to use “this” when I’m referring to any unit of time that occurs within the same larger unit of time, whether before or after the current one, although I may be likely to omit “this”.

For example, today is Thursday. The Super Bowl (or, if you prefer, the Suberb Owl) is happening in 3 days. It’s happening “this Sunday”. But what if today was (or is it “were”? I never get that right, either) already “Superb Owl Sunday” and I was (“were”?) talking about the 5K race I’m running in 7 days later? “This” Saturday seems a bit far off in that case. But “next” Saturday doesn’t feel right to me either. Or does it? Is it better for “next” Saturday to refer to a day that’s 6 days away, or 13?

As for my confusion with SLP, the fact that she lived her life on the September-to-June academic calendar for much longer than I did only exacerbated the situation. I’ve always been a stickler (to the point of ridiculousness) for precision in dates. The first day out of school isn’t the beginning of summer; the solstice is. The first day back in school isn’t the beginning of fall; the equinox is. And the first day back in school in late August or early September most definitely is not the beginning of the new year. (Although yes, Rosh Hashanah usually does occur in September so depending on the calendar you use, there’s an argument to be made.)

Ironically, it was only after SLP stopped organizing her life around the academic year that I embraced calling any of the days in early-to-mid June when our kids are out of school (but which are still technically in spring) “summer”, but I will never give up the idea that “this year” refers to the 4-digit number starting with a “2″ that comes at the end of the current date. “This year,” to me, means January 1 to December 31. Period.

But what do I mean when I say “this winter”? Sure, winter technically only starts about 10 days before the new year, so it’s almost entirely in 2014. But let’s be honest. In Minnesota, “winter” usually starts in early December, or sometimes as early as October. By my logic, “winter” in Minnesota begins on whatever day snow falls and doesn’t melt away. We had a few light snows in November, but “this winter” began on December 2, 2013.

My point is: language is fuzzy. Assigning vague labels like “last”, “this” and “next” to our days and events relies on a great deal of tacit agreement between ourselves over meaning. This particular quirk of our language has been causing me trouble since I was a kid. Back then I had a lot of time, sitting around bored in school (which I didn’t even realize was the case until much later in life), to ponder and obsess over and get annoyed by things like this. I was trying to create in my mind a world of precision and clarity that didn’t, and couldn’t, exist. Our minds don’t work that way, the world doesn’t work that way, and language, a product of our minds used to help us understand and communicate with each other about the world, necessarily can’t work that way.

I didn’t understand that then, and I only barely do now. Each of us carries around an entire universe in our mind. It’s built on a foundation laid by our genes and constructed around our experiences — and our interpretations of those experiences. Our language can only achieve an approximation of a fraction of that universe, and we have to rely on the assumption that our own version of the language we use is a close enough approximation of the same things in our own mental universe as the language, and the mental universe it represents, of the others around us.

It’s a wonder we can communicate at all.

A few thoughts on the holiday/winter ads by Apple and Samsung

I’ve been tweeting a bit today about Apple’s iPhone ad that is getting some attention this holiday season, along with a new one from Samsung. But I have some comments that are a bit more than 140 characters long, that I’d like to share here.

I first heard about the Samsung ad via Daring Fireball‘s link to it on YouTube. Check it out below.

I’ll admit to finding the hapless iPhone owner on the chairlift a bit funny. I’m a sucker for cheap laughs like a guy dropping his expensive phone (and later his skis too) from a chairlift. But almost immediately the “Geared up” Samsung owner is creepy. Stalker creepy. He’s supposed to come off like he’s got “the moves” or something (which is creepy enough anyway), but he doesn’t seem suave so much as dripping with white privilege. He can just make the woman next to him on the chairlift give him her phone number because… why not?

The next scene is what really bothers me: he takes a bunch of photos and video of her on the ski slope, without her permission or knowledge. Because… why not? And when he goes up to her at the bottom of the hill to show off his efforts, she’s not creeped out (or is she… maybe… just a little?) because… he’s a handsome white dude who’s all “Geared up” so of course it’s OK.

Of course it’s really not OK. In so many ways, it’s not OK. If this guy were a real person, I’d have plenty more to say about him, but he’s not. He’s an actor, playing a role, attempting to sell a product made by Samsung. So let’s talk about Samsung’s advertising efforts and how sexist they are. Fortunately for me Anjin Anhut already did (in more general terms, but this Samsung ad certainly fits the bill) in a great blog post on Saturday that I encourage you to read.

Let’s contrast the Samsung ad with Apple’s ad, entitled “Misunderstood”:

I have seen this ad at least 5 times now and every time I tear up. Do I feel that my emotions have been manipulated? Of course. This is a commercial. That a commercial would make me tear up… of course my emotions are being manipulated. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing.

Apple’s ad connects on an emotional level, because that’s where we are with this technology today. Both Apple’s and Samsung’s devices can do so many of the same things, and fill the same needs and desires in their users’ lives, that it’s really down to how we as the users of these products connect with them on an emotional level. That’s really what Samsung’s ad is trying to do, I think. It shows off more specific technologies than Apple’s ad does, but ultimately it’s connecting with its audience on an emotional level as well. But the audience, and the emotions, couldn’t be more different.

There is nothing sexist or creepy about Apple’s ad. It delivers an image we’re all used to seeing these days: the tech-loving teenager, apparently tuning out the people around them and the meaningful experiences they should be engaging in. But the teenager is misunderstood—he’s not tuning out. He’s capturing fleeting, magical moments in his family’s life and he’s creating… putting those moments together into an artifact the family members will be able to connect with long after the holidays end. It’s a commercial that can resonate with just about anyone. It surprises and delights, and it shows us how using an Apple product can help enrich the experiences that matter to us. (It is an ad, after all.)

The Samsung ad? Well, first of all, the ad is targeted at a very specific demographic. It’s an ad for dudes. Want to impress and seduce that hottie next to you on the chairlift? Samsung has just the tech to help you make that happen. Frankly I’m surprised they didn’t license Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” just to underscore the message.

On one hand I find it kind of surprising that any company would think they could get away with running an ad like this today, but the fact is, it’s not surprising at all. This kind of advertising obviously works. It may alienate a huge potential audience but as Anjin Anhut’s blog post describes, it has identified a target audience and is more effective within that audience.

The problem with that strategy though is that the more you target an audience, the smaller it becomes. It may be a subset of the population that is far more likely to buy your product than the average, but you become increasingly confined to that narrow slice of the pie. Unless of course you run different and contradictory campaigns simultaneously (which happens all the time). But still, ultimately, you’re eventually going to reach a saturation point with that target market. Then what? You can retreat to a broader message, but how much damage have you done (not just to your business, but to the community) by that point? And was it really necessary in the first place?

Say what you will about Apple’s advertising, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything sexist, racist, or otherwise exclusionary—except of Windows users.