What’s the point of blogging?

STFUNo, it’s not a rhetorical question. What is the point of blogging? If you’re a blogger, why do you do it (assuming you have a cogent reason)? If you’re a blog reader, why do you read the blogs that you do?

Here’s a secondhand quote on the matter that I found on one of the blogs I read:

In many ways the core of blogging is a willingness to apply what you know to every problem you encounter, and see how good a job you can do of it in a more or less integrated fashion.

That gem, which I had to read five or six times to understand, but the more I read it the more I agree, was written by Tyler Cohen on another blog I (less often) read.

Thinking about the blogs I read most, the authors have a clear purpose; the blogs have a clear theme. The authors are experts (or at least well-versed) in the subject matter they’re writing about, and the blogs become a commentary on the events of the day (within the author’s realm), bringing to the reader’s attention items of interest that they may have otherwise missed, and supplementing the link with a tidbit (or more) of relevant discussion.

So then, assuming that the success of a blog in achieving this goal is an end in itself, the point of blogging is to act as a niche news service with commentary, or perhaps more accurately as a trusted adviser — that “in-the-know” friend (though you probably don’t know the blog author personally) who knows what you’re interested in and keeps you on top of the latest and greatest.

It’s fascinating to think of the power blogs have in this way. But it also reinforces the importance of the trust I mentioned in the last paragraph. A blogger’s stock in trade is their trustworthiness. Readers need to know that the blogger actually knows what they’re talking about, and perhaps even more importantly, that they’re not being misleading — whether deliberately (for unknown nefarious purposes), accidentally (because they goofed), or due to the invisible hand of an outside influence (money from sponsors, potential to achieve a position of power and authority).

It’s easy to say that this is a reason not to trust blogs, and why blogs will always be — or at least are for now — inferior to “legitimate” journalism. But given numerous recent examples (all of which in my mind right now involve Glenn Beck in some capacity) of the failures of traditional media for many of these same reasons, I think blogging deserves more serious consideration.

Movie review: Star Trek

Star TrekTo say that I was excited to see the new Star Trek movie is an understatement. I first mentioned it here back in November.

So it should be no surprise that I went to see it on opening night, and I was not disappointed. The reviews are consistently superlative, and I agree. As someone who’s been a lifelong fan, albeit a somewhat tepid one, one who has approached the films in the series (my God, is this really the eleventh one?) with a degree of caution and/or passive disinterest (I’m not even sure I’ve seen all of the later ones), I know the characters well. I know the clichés and conventions (though I’ve never been to a convention — that’s not what I’m talking about). I know the difference between “Trekkie” and “Trekker” though I would not describe myself as either.

And then there’s the director, J.J. Abrams. I’ve heard good things about him, but believe it or not I’ve never watched a single episode of one of his TV shows, nor have I seen any of his movies. I’m not even sure what movies he’s done. Cloverfield, right? Anything else? (Yes, I know I could just check IMDb, but I’m trying to make a point.)

In short, while by all outward appearances I should be a hardcore fanboy for this, I’m not so much, really. And with that said, I can tell you I thoroughly enjoyed this movie (well, except maybe for the last few minutes), and that I think it will be equally appealing to both the serious Star Trek fan (Trekker, if you please) and to the summer blockbuster action-adventure watcher looking for a little over two hours of genuine quality entertainment. Perhaps the only people this movie will not appeal to are hardcore sci-fi aficionados who do not already like Star Trek. Though set in the future, and drenched in stunning futuristic visual effects, the movie is fairly light on the “sci.”

What it’s not light on, though, is intense action, an engaging story, great acting, and a near-perfect balance of plot, adventure and humor. It manages to be simultaneously reverent and irreverent towards the original series, in a way that reminds us that Gene Roddenberry’s ’60s version was both smart and silly, clever and clichéd, boldly original and drinking-game-worthy predictable.

Minor spoiler alert: if you want to be totally surprised when you see it, stop reading here.

The casting is first-rate. The actors have managed to evoke their original counterparts while simultaneously fully inhabiting the characters and making them their own. Chris Pine, in particular, is excellent as James T. Kirk. He’s probably doomed never to be as memorable or iconic as William Shatner, but he’s a lot more believable as the brash, reckless, brilliant, defiant soon-to-be captain of the USS Enterprise. I was less impressed with Zachary Quinto’s take on Spock, but that’s perhaps a bit unfair: in the context of this story, Spock is supposed to be somewhat abrasive and unlikable. The scene stealers, though, are definitely Karl Urban as McCoy and Simon Pegg as Scotty. I am hoping for some sequels if for no other reason than to see more of these two.

I could go on for pages about the details of the story, but I’ll let you see it for yourself. Suffice to say, time travel and alternate realities are involved, and I think that particular plot device was handled in a completely novel way. All of the requisite Star Trek tropes are here: Bones saying “Dammit, I’m a doctor not a…”; Scotty saying “I’m givin’ ‘er all she can take!”; Chekov’s ridiculously over-the-top accent; and of course, the two most essential elements of Star Trek: Kirk making out with a green-skinned woman, and an anonymous “red shirt” dying on an away mission.

A true Trekker wouldn’t have it any other way.

Censorship fail

I’m reluctant to use the word “fail” as a noun, just like I don’t like using “ramp” as a verb, or “Democrat” as an adjective. But I do appreciate the sensibilities of the likes of FAIL Blog (even though I’m not generally a fan of the ad-overloaded family of the “lol” sites it belongs to), and I’ve just come upon a great “fail” of my own, in the iTunes Store (or, as Apple would have it, “on” the iTunes Store):

Censorship fail.

Seriously, UPS… you had to TRY to do that much damage, right?

The other day I ordered a RAM upgrade for my new MacBook. I had contemplated buying it at Best Buy, but I balked at their price of $199. I went down to the Apple Store (no Internet on the Macs on display at Best Buy, and apparently they have the store wrapped in RF shielding, as I wasn’t even able to get a signal on my iPhone there, either), not expecting them to sell RAM upgrades, but at least knowing I could spend a few seconds on a display MacBook checking RAM prices at Ramjet. $69. So I ordered it as soon as I got home.

The package arrived today. Or at least what was left of it. Fortunately the RAM appears to be intact, no thanks to the best efforts of UPS to destroy it. The question of whether such a tiny product really needed to be shipped in such a huge box is another matter, but at least the RAM was shrouded in bubble wrap.

Here’s what I found at the front door:

ups_ram_7

And here’s the prize inside:

ups_ram_9

More photos after the jump…

And now I’m going to shut down my computer and install this RAM!

The iPhone version of Amazon.com is better than the regular version of Amazon.com

Amazon.com (as if you don’t have it bookmarked) is (probably, still) the undisputed king of the mountain of e-commerce. Even though many of Amazon’s former brick-and-mortar partners, like Target, have since gone off and launched their own (usually better) individual e-commerce sites, Amazon is still at the heart of it all and is the go-to choice for buying… well… just about anything online. These days, as I’ve noted before, I use it mostly to buy MP3 downloads, which despite my usual criticism of Amazon in general (wait for it!), offers a great selection, better prices, and higher quality than iTunes… and no DRM.

But that’s not my point today. My point today is to address that one usual criticism I have of Amazon: their design sucks. And I am talking about both the surface-level graphic design and layout of their pages, and also much of their application flow as well. There are two main ways in which I think their design fails: there’s too much of everything, everywhere, all the time on their site, and (consequently, perhaps) many options that I think should be prominent and visible are instead hidden in microscopic type at the bottom of the page.

Case in point, from the Amazon MP3 realm: as a web developer, I’m constantly tinkering with web pages in ways ordinary users do not, and as a result I am frequently clearing my cache and my cookies. Now I could be careful and just delete the cookies from the sites I’m working on, but I’m usually in the middle of something and therefore in too much of a hurry, so I just delete them all. (And, yes, waste a lot more time in the long run retyping all of my usernames and passwords for the sites I visit… but at least that helps me remember my passwords!) As a result, I lose the cookie that tells Amazon that yes, dammit, I did already download and install your MP3 Downloader app so I don’t need to download it again! The first couple of times this happened, I was dumbfounded, and frustrated, and I re-downloaded and reinstalled the application, even though I knew I already had it. Finally I scrolled down and discovered a sentence in 8-point type telling me that if I already have the downloader app, I should “click here” to activate it in this browser.

Yeah, thanks.

Which brings me finally to my point. Today I finally took the plunge (what with it being Black Friday and all), and bought myself an XBOX 360. Later in the day I was sitting inside a Caribou Coffee (which itself was inside a Lunds grocery store), enjoying a Cinnamon Wild (though not as much as I would have enjoyed a Gingerbread Latte), and I decided to check the IGN Reviews app on my iPhone to see what good games were coming out for the 360, the better to fill up my Amazon wish list (one of the primary reasons Amazon is still so central to the e-commerce universe).

Once I had picked a couple of games I felt that, yes, I wish for, I decided to go right to Amazon on my iPhone and add them to my wish list.

Many websites have decided to leverage the popularity of the iPhone and also to adapt themselves to its cramped 480×320 screen real estate, by developing iPhone-aware versions of their sites. They detect the browser is an iPhone, and so direct the user to a streamlined, stripped-down version of their site that will be more manageable on the iPhone’s screen.

And you know what? A lot of times, but perhaps none more so than is the case with Amazon, this streamlined, stripped-down version is in fact better than the usual bloated, overstuffed standard version of the site. If they want you to actually be able to go about your business with their sites on the iPhone, they have to stay focused and not waste a single pixel with distractions and clutter.

Sometimes the sites have predictable, distinct URLs for their iPhone versions. It’s common these days to preface the URL for a mobile (read: regular cell phone) version of a site with “m.” and occasionally then the iPhone version with “iphone.” But sadly Amazon’s URLs are as cluttered and inscrutable as many of their pages are, so an iPhone-specific Amazon URL was not immediately apparent to me, and beyond that it seems that their site is handling the iPhone version as a more integrated feature rather than a separate standalone version of their site.

Too bad, really, because if I could I think I would use the iPhone version of Amazon.com all the time.

(For what it’s worth, I am aware that Amazon’s iPhone version has existed for over a year; it’s just that I had never bothered to use it before today, and besides, most of the attention it received upon its debut focused negatively on the fact that it was un-iPhone-like, without also recognizing, positively, that it was un-Amazon-like.)