New improved placebo effect!

http://www.sciencealert.com/the-placebo-effect-is-somehow-getting-even-better-at-fooling-patients-study-finds

Doncha just love the medical research community’s hate-hate relationship with the placebo effect? There’s a rich vein here, but I’ll limit myself to two observations:

1. According to the URL the placebo effect is getting better at fooling patients. Not getting better at treating patients. Which it is also doing, of course. Pretty obvious which aspect we’re really interested in.

2. Then there’s this paragraph:

“In any case, it’s something the medical industry will want to get on top of, as the move to conducting longer and larger drug trails – ostensibly for the purposes of testing efficacy – seems to be backfiring when it comes to getting new therapeutic solutions onto the market.”

In other words – conducting larger trials is not serving the goal, which is to get therapeutic solutions onto the market whether they are actually more effective than placebo or not.

And on and on it goes – all the usual terminology contrasting real drugs with imaginary cures etc etc. Why are we not researching how to generate and enhance the placebo effect?

Tech press bias

Will Windows 10 Win Developers Back To Microsoft?

This is a relatively balanced article on the issues facing Microsoft in growing developer mindshare, containing many balanced points. But I’m going to use it as a bit of a punching bag because I’m frustrated with the poor reporting and almost unbelievable levels of bias in the tech media. Sorry PW – there are way worse articles out there, you’re just in the firing line today.

There’s a bit of confusion in this article between iOS and MacOS. Yes, Apple sells a ton of iDevices. No, there aren’t “so many people on Mac”. In the article, we see the supposedly disastrous Windows phone market share numbers (2.7% vs 18% for iPhone). Then we hear from a former .NET desktop developer bemoaning the flight of his audience to MacOS. I’m sorry, but MacOS marketshare in the desktop space is not even as high as that of Windows in the tablet space – and, despite tech-press rhetoric, desktops are still ahead of tablets in raw numbers (just), eyeball hours (by a bit more), and value as enablers (no contest).

This is the old switcheroo we’ve seen so many times in the last ten years. Apple (and now Google) has sold a bunch of phones to upgrade-happy consumers, and somehow that means Microsoft is in trouble. Except it’s not, we have to admit, when we really look at the numbers. But it could be. Soon. Maybe. Or maybe a bit later. Or maybe not. Anyway, that’s gotta be worth an article, right?

The work of the world today overwhelmingly takes place on desktop computers. And if Microsoft has “failed” in the mobile space (a thesis with which I disagree), then Apple, after 35 years of trying, has surely “failed” in the desktop space. Anyone beating up Google for lack of market share for ChromeOS? No, didn’t think so.

But mass market plays aren’t the only ones that matter. The last 30 years of desktop computing would have been vastly poorer without Apple. Today, in the tablet space, the boot is on the other foot – Apple is the marketing success story, Google has taken cheap and cheerful to the limit, and Microsoft occupies the quality niche. And with its strengths in productivity, Microsoft has a lot to bring to the mobile table. Each vendor gets appropriate credit for their respective role, right?

Wrong. The bias is almost laughable. When Apple was a niche purveyor to the graphics and music industries, design quality was what mattered. Then when Apple had a mass market success with the iPad and then iPhone, market share was what mattered. Then the iPhone got knocked off by Android, and now high-end market share is what matters. Guys, if I want to read Apple sales brochures I know where to find them.

So why do I care? I can just ignore the tech press after all. But the scary thing is this: investors don’t. Year after year of relentless bad press is going to take its toll. It won’t be poor engineering quality, or inappropriate pricing, or the old red herring of “app ecosystem”, or lack of developer mindshare, or lack of market share that kills off mobile Windows. All those things are either furphies or eminently fixable. It’ll be plain old bad reporting. And that’s a shame. Like the Mac in the 80’s and 90’s, Microsoft’s mobile offerings have a lot to teach the major players.

What’s wrong with photo slideshow apps?

I’ve been dissatisfied with the photo slideshow applications I’ve been using. Like most people, I take a lot of photos, especially when I’m travelling. Unlike most people, I use a high-res camera with good lenses, not a camera phone. That means my photos have a lot of detail, and are worth looking at for a while (for me, anyway). And because there are a lot of them, I often find myself wondering exactly where and when an image was taken. So, here’s my feature wish list for a slideshow program:

  1. Recursive directory searching. I don’t have time to put together special collections. Even if I did, 10,000 files is too many for one folder. I just want to point the slideshow at a large folder tree and have it find everything.
  2. Configurable delay. I like to look at a photo for a while, focussing on different details. I took one photo of Dunedin Harbour with an entire penguin colony in one corner, that I didn’t see until I’d looked at it for several minutes.
  3. Metadata display. I don’t have time to caption every photo, but I tag pretty much everything with at least the occasion (e.g. “Christmas 2005”) and the place (e.g. “Dunedin”). So when I see a ten-year-old photo pop up on my screen saver, I’d like to see that metadata so I have some clue as to what I’m looking at.
  4. Forward and back controls. How often do you catch a great photo out of the corner of your eye and think “Wow, what’s that?” just as the slideshow transitions to the next photo. If you’re on shuffle in a collection of tens of thousands of files, I guarantee you’ll never find that photo again. Wouldn’t it be nice to just hit a key and get it back? Or, conversely, if you’ve got a nice long delay time so you can savour every detail, you’ll occasionally spend two minutes staring at a photo of a lens cap that you forgot to delete. Unless you can just hit a key and skip to the next photo.
  5. No fussy transitions. In fact, I really want to be able to turn transitions off. I pay a fair bit of attention to framing, so having my photos sliding and zooming around the place isn’t my cup of tea. I can live with a fade-in fade-out, but I really don’t need to see Grandma spinning off into space on the side of a cube. Slideshows that recrop 4:3 photos to 16:9 are a no-no as well.

Now, I have by no means done an exhaustive search of all slideshow applications. However, it’s not a crowded category. I suspect it’s one of those software categories where the tools bundled with the operating system, while inadequate, are still functional enough to take all the oxygen out of the market. For example, the Windows 8 lock screen slideshow is a pretty nice looking slideshow, but it doesn’t include a single one of my wishlist features. Still, given that it’s there, how many people have even gone looking for something better? I have, and I can tell you that the Windows Photo Gallery slideshow changes photos way too fast (non-configurable), Photo Slideshow has no forward/back and no metadata display, some other app I forget only lets you have one non-recursive photo folder – etc, etc.

So – what else? – I wrote my own. Here it is. Fair warning, though, it’s nothing like production quality code, and it’s a java program so you’ll need to have java installed. Check out the readme for more details, and stay tuned for a future post on the technical nitty gritty.

The app-pocalypse ourobouros

The New York Times reports on Google et al.’s crusade to save us from app fragmentation.

Lol.

The writer of the NY Times piece (and/or his sub-editors) has achieved the superhuman feat of not drawing any conclusions from this evocative material, but the signposts are all there:

“It is not just a matter of consumer convenience. For Google and Facebook, and any company that has built its business on the web, it is a matter of controlling the next entryway to the Internet — the mobile device.”

“But as people spend more time on their mobile devices and in their apps, their Internet has taken a step backward, becoming more isolated, more disorganized and ultimately harder to use — more like the web before search engines.

“How remarkable it is that we are back in 1997!” said Roger McNamee, co-founder of Elevation Partners, an investment firm in Menlo Park, Calif.”

“Take Google, which makes money helping people search the web. When people search in apps, it is mostly left out. And while the company has a fast-growing business selling apps through devices that use its Android operating system, that pales in comparison to its business selling search advertising.”

““Once we’re all using the same plumbing, everyone can go and build businesses and interesting experiences on top of that,” said Eddie O’Neil, a Facebook product manager working on the company’s program, App Links.”

The ironies are many, exquisite, and multi-layered. The complete and transparent prioritization of commercial value over social value is, well, honest. Let’s make some noise, then sell earplugs. One company’s sub-standard product is another company’s value-add opportunity. Well, actually, it’s the same company’s value-add opportunity. That what makes it so fun, amirite?

One of the more remarkable ironies is this: Apple, having created the app-pocalypse and crippled web interoperability with the whole Flash fiasco, remains “cool”; Google, having enthusiastically out-app-ed Apple and upped the ante by turning their web browser, of all things, into an app platform, remains “good” (or at least “not evil”); and Microsoft, having produced the most web-capable platform of the three (as I have remarked before), and been vilified by the tech press for its efforts, remains “evil”.

Whither the app-pocalypse?

I had a good laugh reading Jeff Atwood’s humorous but spot-on post about the profusion of web sites that decide you need to be using their app instead the browser. Of course I immediately reflected on my own mobile browsing experience, which is quite different. Why? Because I have neither an iDevice nor a ‘droid. OK, if you have to know, I have a Surface RT.

It’s often stated as a drawback and a sign of a failing platform that there aren’t many apps for the RT. In fact I never miss them. There are two critical differences between the RT and iDevices: Flash, and a pointing device*. With those two little additions, all of a sudden the web becomes usable again, and the app store becomes an amusing distraction rather than a necessity.

Did Apple deliberately cripple the web browsing experience on the iThings so as to drive people to the app store? I suspect not, but it certainly has worked out nicely for them, hasn’t it?

The other nice thing about the RT is that most web sites don’t even recognize it as a mobile device. That means I’m spared the bizarre sub-functional obfuscations that constitute the majority of mobile-specific web sites. Quite happy to pinch-zoom when necessary, thank you very much. Drop-down menus? Meet my trackpad.

So my hypothesis is that the app-pocalypse is largely driven by a broken web browsing experience, and Microsoft have shown (if it wasn’t obvious) that it never had to be broken in the first place.

* I would bet that vanishingly few Surfaces are sold without one of the two “covers”, both of which have a pointing device built in. And unlike most of the iPad cover+keyboard solutions, which double or triple the weight and bulk of the device, once you have a Surface cover attached there’s really no reason not to have it attached all the time. But Microsoft really should have bundled the cover with the device in the first place.

Sibelius Scorch plugin for IE11

TL;DR – the browser detection on the Sibelius Scorch plugin download page is borked. If you visit that page from IE 11, you’ll get the “netscape” version of the plugin installer, which will fail silently. You’ll need to put IE into IE9 emulation mode (see this article if you don’t know how to do that) and reload the initial download page, the one where you enter your email address. You’ll know you’re on the right track if you see “ActiveX only” in the plugin description.

Longer rant/notes:
With truly exquisite irony, if you search the Sibelius knowledgebase the first thing you’ll find is an article exhorting you to make sure you have the very latest version of your browser. Lol.

Apart from the silliness of a) having a broken detection script and b) evidently not testing properly, Sibelius/Avid are likely to remain unaware of this because there is no way to contact them. You can sign up for their support forums (why would I bother doing that? I don’t need support, I want to offer it), or you can call their support phone number (but have your service contract ready – srsly?). So unless the Scorch devs are devoted followers of this blog, I don’t expect there’ll be a fix anytime soon.

But who cares, I have it on good authority that IE users are “lazy” and “ignorant” so we don’t need to worry about *them*, right? Personally, I only use IE because my customers do and I want to know what their experience is. What a crazy idea that is.

The good news is that the plugin works just fine.

BTW, when I say the “netscape” (that is, Chrome, Safari and Firefox) installer fails silently, I mean it declares that it has completed but it actually does nothing useful for the IE user. It may well work just fine as far as installing the plugins for those browsers. Maybe it even works when launched from IE, which would be a nice (but still useless) trick.

VMWare Workstation graphics performance with Ubuntu guests

This post documents some troubleshooting I did on performance issues with Ubuntu guests under VMware Workstation. I’m running Workstation 10 at home, and Workstation 9 at work, both on Windows 7 hosts.

The symptom was slow and stuttering performance, particularly in Eclipse. Important clues were:

  • High CPU usage from the Xorg process in the guest
  • The problem appeared after upgrading to Workstation 10 at home
  • After upgrading the hardware compatibility on the VM from 6/7 to 9 (I’ve been running this VM for a while), things improved dramatically on my home machine but not on my much beastlier work machine.

Without boring you with the troubleshooting process, here’s the fix:

  • Upgrade the hardware compatibility on the VM to “Workstation 9.0” (as noted above)
  • Enable 3D acceleration in the VM settings
  • Downgrade the VMware tools installed in the guest to the latest Workstation 9 tools

With this setup things are better on Workstation 9, and much better on Workstation 10.

The key lessons learned are:

  • The hardware compatibility level does matter, especially for areas that are rapidly improving like the 3D acceleration
  • VMware tools should be up to date but not too up to date. Running the v10 tools on the v9 host produced no error but did not work. Obviously it would be better to have version consistency everywhere, but one of the key advantages for me of using VMs is portability, where version synchronization isn’t always feasible.
  • The “3D acceleration setting” might be lying – i.e. when the box is ticked you may not actually have acceleration. `glxinfo | grep rendering` on the guest tells the truth.
  • The internet, as usual, is chock full of less than helpful advice, like upgrading graphics drivers, rolling back graphics drivers, recompiling X, moving to a different host OS. Etc etc.
  • It’s been so long since I’ve seen any application CPU-bound on graphics operations that I spent too long chasing disk and memory bottlenecks. So note to self: look at the obvious performance counters, and then at least consider the possibility that they are telling the truth.

Hope this helps!

Flash updater bloatware spam officially not a bug

I got so sick of removing Google Toolbar from friend’s computers every couple of months, that I raised a bug with Adobe: https://bugbase.adobe.com/index.cfm?event=bug&id=3541523. You can read about it there, but the basic premise is that bundling bloatware with security updates represents a bug in the security process, in that it promotes suboptimal behavior.

Anyway, today I got auto-notified that the bug is “withdrawn”. No reason given, no indication of who did it. So I guess that’s official then – it’s not a bug. Installing third-party add-ons with security updates is now industry best practice.

You know, I was pretty peeved when Apple painted a target on Flash’s back a few years back. Web interoperability went to hell in a handbasket almost overnight, and Apple did it to us all for no reason other than self-interest. However, since then, Adobe has been competing with Oracle to undermine trust in the technologies underlying that interoperability. Apple might have done the right thing even if for the wrong reasons. I can only hope that the winner out of all this is W3C, not the App Store.

Surface RT

A year after joining the smart phone revolution, I’m taking it to the next level with the purchase of my first tablet. Through a not particularly scientific process, I chose a Microsoft Surface RT. Here’s why.

Firstly, I’ll talk about what I’m not expecting from a tablet.

I’m not expecting a mobile workstation. My mobile workstation is a Sandy Bridge laptop with 16GB of RAM and 2TB of storage, running half a dozen virtual machines under VMWare. We’re a long way out from having tablets that can replace that.

I’m not really expecting a mobile comms hub either. I already have all the communications I need on my phone. Because it’s a Windows Phone, I can at least read (if not easily write) Word, Excel and Powerpoint files on it.

I don’t need a mobile entertainment hub. Tiny movies aren’t my thing (yes, I still class tablet screens as tiny for movie purposes) and my phone, again, handles all my music and podcasts. As for games – seriously, the games on PC are so much better.

Finally, I don’t need a gazillion apps. I’ve spend the last few years watching friends and colleagues lovingly show off their latest app downloads on their i-devices, and frankly I haven’t seen anything that’s as exciting as email+web (and let’s face it, for anyone who has a life email+web are only exciting up to a point).

So what do I want?

I want to be able to type on the plane. I want to be able to read on the plane, things that are too bulky to carry or too dull to waste paper on (like technical journals). I want Word, Powerpoint and Excel, because those are important for my job. I want a quick web browser for when my PC is off and it’s not worth booting it up. Oh, and I want battery life. Anything less than a full day isn’t going to cut it (so hyperbooks and Surface Pro need not apply).

So, to the Surface RT. I by no means did an exhaustive comparison, but here’s what I thought I was getting in the surface. Solid hardware design and implementation, an excellent keyboard, good battery life. Excellent UI – better IMHO than anything Apple has done in years. The right mix of software. Good price.

So far the Surface ticks all these boxes.

As for the FUD about desktop mode – frankly, I love desktop mode. 90% of the time I’m in Metro (or whatever it’s called now) mode, like any other tablet but better. For Office apps I’m in keyboard-centric (but still touch-friendly) mode. Plus I have access to a command prompt, I can map network drives, use standard RDP – all stuff that makes my geek self feel right at home and yet doesn’t impinge at all on the tablet UI. And no, I don’t care that only Microsoft can write for desktop mode – see comment about mobile workstations above.

Vale The Old Reader, and whither hosted RSS?

The Old Reader has closed its doors to the public, not long after Google threw the gigantic corpse of Google Reader overboard and created the wave that nearly sank TOR. I wish TOR all the best in it’s new life as a more restricted service. It seems timely to ponder the fate of hosted RSS readers as a service class.

Let’s review the data:

  1. Google has decided Reader isn’t worth the effort
  2. TOR not only closed up shop, but more tellingly, couldn’t find a buyer. I don’t know if they tried very hard, but still – the time is not long past when buyers would have trampled each other to get their hands on 420,000 subscribers.
  3. Feedly is fee-free. Maybe there’ll be a paid service “later”. Otherwise, the sum total of what Feedly has to say about their business model is this: “Q: How are you guys funded. A: We are a self-funded company”.
  4. InoReader is fee-free. Even more directly, the founder says: “About the business, honestly I still don’t have business plan”.
  5. People associated with running each of these services have made a point of commenting on how resource-hungry they are
  6. Every one of these services has users who are asking to be allowed to pay so as to assure the future of the service

What are we to make of this rather strange picture? Reading the tea leaves from a long way off, I’d say there’s a yawning gulf between the expense of running this kind of service and the subscription fees that could realistically be charged. I’m not sure what might be the issue with advertising for this class of service – after all, Google pays for just about every other service through ad revenue. I suppose either they think this particular user base won’t tolerate it, or the advertisers won’t pay for it. Let me know if you have any insight into this.

This is also an object lesson in the problems that giant monopolies create. Google is now so big that a user base of close to a million people is not enough to justify its continued involvement. At the same time, that user base is so big that it has swamped or severely stressed the next tier of providers. This is a market segment that has become severely unbalanced, and is suffering as a consequence. Note to self: remember to support the mid-range providers, they might save my business some time.

Anyway, the next few months will be interesting. The wave of ex-Google users has already swept over Feedly to some extent, and they’re about to get another one from TOR. I suspect the InoReader guy is about to go through some version of what the TOR people went through – in fact, if I was him I’d be heading over to The Old Reader’s latest blog post and reading every word carefully, including the comments. Especially the comments.

For myself: I might sign up with one or another of the remaining services, but I’m not going to get attached. Maybe something will shake out over the next year and we can all relax. In the meantime, life is a little less convenient.