Amazon Prime is only $72 – crazy deal

I’m a heavy user of Amazon Prime – just the savings on shipping alone makes it worth it. The original price used to be $75 but Amazon recently raised the price to $99/year – except for today, where it’s discounted to $72. In my opinion, Prime is as essential as Netflix or a cell phone – the Prime subscription includes all the following for free:

Am
Subscribe to Amazon Prime for $72
  • Two-Day Shipping on stuff you buy from Amazon
  • Unlimited streaming on music
  • Instant streaming of thousands of movies and TV shows (Prime Instant Video)
  • Unlimited photo storage (Amazon Cloud Drive)
  • Selected Kindle books each month (Kindle First and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library)

All of tyhis is frankly worth $99/year to me, which is why I renew my subscription every year. If you’re an existing Prime member like me, this deal doesn’t apply – but for anyone interested in trying Prime out, this is the time. Pull the trigger and try it for yourself.

upgraded to ASUS RT-AC56U router – speed tests

As per my router troubles earlier, I have finally upgraded to the Asus RT-AC56U. I’ve been using an old Linksys WRT54GL as an access point for legacy 802.11g connections, so here is the baseline for comparison, using a desktop machine located two feet away, using built-in wifi antennas:

Linksys WRT54GL, 802.11g, 2.4 Ghz

here’s the result from using the new router:

ASUS RT-AC56U, 802.11n, 2.4 Ghz

here’s the result from using the new router on my main workstation PC in the basement, using a PCI wifi adapter:

Linksys WRT54GL, 802.11g, 2.4 Ghz

and using the new router, with a USB AC-1200 wifi adapter (ASUS USB-AC56):

ASUS RT-AC56U, 802.11ac, 5.0 Ghz

Using Fargo for publishing to WordPress: a great start, some rough edges

I decided to use Fargo.io to write the previous post, since it was a long and complex piece with a lot of hierarchical structure. Lots of lists, etc. Let me preface by saying this is wonderful functionality and I am very excited about it, not least because it provides inherent backup of blog posts to dropbox.

That said, there are various issues that need refining. Here are some of my observations:

Fargo only selects the current heading and subheadings for the post. It will use the current heading as title and subheadings as the post content. This is not optimal; by default, Fargo should use the title of the entire outline as the post title and the entire outline body as the post body. I had to create a redundant heading and demote the entire rest of the outline underneath it to get it to work properly.

Headings and subheadings correctly use LI tags, but they force the CSS attribute “list-style-type” to “none”. In a blog post, you want the natural LI icons to appear and not be suppressed.

When exporting from Fargo to WordPress, adding paragraph tags is redundant, as WordPress renders the post content with them automatically. P tags should be stripped out when publishing to WP.

Likewise, there is no need for any additional class names (liConcord, pConcord, liLevel3, etc). All style is handled by WordPress themes and this CSS clutters the post content. We should not have any default styles added by the composer – clean HTML only, no CSS.

Numbered lists are not recognized by Fargo – I used a 1. 2. prefix but this does not create OL list type at the HTML end. Auto-detection of numbered lists is a must-have feature.

Entering new headings above the current one should be possible by placing the cursor at the start of a heading and pressing Enter. Currently, this opens a new heading below, not above.

Images are not supported. In fact if you add an image via the wordpress interface and then later edit the post again with Fargo, you will lose your images (it will overwrite the edits.)

Finally, it is not possible to copy and paste multiple headings and subheading content from the outliner. You can only select one heading at a time. There should be a plaintext export feature at the very least (with whitespace tabs for the indentation levels).

I don’t want to discourage Dave and the fine folks at Small Picture or seem overly picky. These are however important issues that affect a wordpress blogger’s workflow – I loved composing the post in Fargo but now I will have to re-edit the post after I publish to add images, strip out the CSS, etc. Due to that drawback, there isn’t a net value-add to using Fargo for WP blogging, yet. But there is so much potential here that I am very hopeful.

UPDATE: Dave responded to this post on Twitter:

I am uncertain if Dave understood my critique – I was not asking for changes to Fargo’s user interface, but rather the formatting that is generated when exporting from Fargo to wordpress. I am happy to embrace the Outliner Way when composing, but Fargo imposes metadata on WordPress above and beyond outline structure. That metadata is not central to the user experience of Fargo si Iam baffled by Dave’s insistence that there’s no reason for change.

At any rate, I will certainly keep using Fargo for other purposes, but if the wordpress functionality is frozen at the current state then I cannot recommend Fargo as a WordPress authoring tool. I am still optimistic for Dave’s promise of Evernote support.

monetizing is the new thing

Regardless of whether or not you agree with his politics, Andrew Sullivan’s decision to monetize the Daily Dish is an admirable one, which I envy. I’m hardly a blip compared to him, even if you aggregate all my various blogs. Still, I often think about blogging in a meta-sense and the issue of monetization is one that no blogger can avoid for very long. Simply put, blogging costs money and time. There are hosting costs, domain costs, and software costs, as well as the time needed to ensure that you suppress spam, silence trolls, and above all encourage sincere commentors by engaging them in conversation. You *can* run a freeblog on wordpress or blogspot, of course, but you’re limited in your growth.

Here at haibane I started this blog because I was genuinely frustrated with political blogging. Haibane was my refuge, where I write what i want about what I like, and it’s amassed enough of a following that I think it’s been a success. That success largely covers the cost issues; what meager earnings the ads bring in, mostly covers the hosting costs, with just a small deficit. The bigger issue is time, though. Writing for myself and my audience is fun, but not a priority compared to other ways to use my time that bring greater rewards in family time, work, and money. So, ultimately, blogging is a hobby that must be actively accomodated even without the cost issues. And of course, time is money.

The ironic thing is, if I were to increase the income I make from the blog, that would probably be a great motivator to blog more. More revenue would raise the priority of blogging vs other activities to spend my time on. And of course that is a positive feedback loop, because more posts = more traffic = more revenue. Most blogs like mine are in a static phase where traffic and revenue are flat; we have our usual coterie of readers and blog community, but no growth, because the barriers to growth are time and money. There is a point well above where this blog and others like it are, where those barriers get reduced.

I think of those barriers as “cost overhead” to blogging. How does a medium blog reduce that cost overhead? One way is to recruit more bloggers. Here at Haibane I’ve had occasional guest posters on, but recruitment is also a large time investment. A regular blog partner or partners is more reliable and less effort, and allows shared overhead of time.

Another way is to simply monetize. I do have ads, but as the Sullivan example shows there are more direct ways – and for a blog with 100 unique visitors a day, if I could extract $5 from 10% of them a month, then that would triple the revenue for a year. There are more subtle ways of doing this, for example something like what Brooks Review does.

If you monetize of course then you become responsible to the audience. That’s not a bad thing, especially if it increases and motivates more output, on the topics of interest to that audience. (The question is always, what audience do you pursue). I’d certainly be willing to blog more and be responsive to what my readers wanted, if they were paying for it.

rethinking the structure of discussions online

So, here’s a developing conversation by several heavyweights on the social media and technology spheres: Anil Dash argues that the new generation of social discussion tools like Branch, Svbtle and Medium are exclusive, Fred Wilson chimes in with a paean to inclusivity, and Josh Miller says openness is a spectrum. Dave Winer then says the real problem is a lack of innovation in creating systems for Discussion, a problem that Branch, Medium etc are trying to solve but they are constrained by the problem of access and signal to noise that Dash and Miller are taking issue with.

Maybe what we need to do is to throw out the old paradigm of discussion as “post-comment” and instead try to merge those categories. The entire conversation should be more folksonomic (disclosure, folksonomy is one of my Pet Issues, see my manifesto/rant on folksonomy here)

One great example is the P2 theme from WordPress. It upends the blog format by putting a post-entry box at the top of the theme (no more Dashboard, that talismanic secret niche from which only the Initiated may create content). Comments appear on the front page indented to the main post in real time, instead of being hidden under a link and requiring a page refresh. As is usual with WordPress, only registered users may post, but now the comment field is more transparent and included on the main page at the same stature as the parent post itself. This serves to demote a post and promote the comments. We used this format for amazing discussions at Talk Islam for years (until the site waned due to lack of participation and other priorities).

I’ve also argued that structurally, posts-comments on blogs represent a single “node” in exactly the same way that a forum thread represents a single node. In fact, forums map precisely onto blogs; no one has yet created a WordPress theme that represents posts as threads, but it could easily be done (I was disappointed with BBpress for its failure to recognize this duality).

P2 is a great start but it needs to go further. Blog systems allow the public to comment on a post, but they don’t fully embrace folksonomy (allowing the public to tag a post or add meta data), and they certainly don’t allow the public to make posts. Of course, spam is always a concern, but here is an area ripe for innovation rather than relying on captchas and user roles. For example, what about using social media to weed out spammers from real users? I am user azizhp on almost all social media profiles, for example; a smart spam detection system could cross-ref my email address and username across those systems to establish my bona fides transparently. Also note that existing anti-spam services like Akismet inherently assume the post-comment model exists; Akismet doesn’t scan your posts to see if they are spam. Imagine if it could! With that capability, WordPress could immediately take the concept of P2 even further by allowing unregistered users to post to a blog.

Ultimately, Discussions online aren’t as complicated as Branch, Medium, etc make it out to be. Someone says something; others respond. The only question is, Who? Who speaks first? Who speaks next? Who gets to categorize/tag the debate? Who can add value? Right now, there’s no way to answer all of these questions with, “anyone, that’s who”. Instead of reiterating the old post-comment model we need to turn to folksonomy as an alternative and then start trying to craft technological solutions to the inevitable new set of problems that will involve. I think those problems can be solved, and we have most of those tools already, though there’s lots of room for innovation. And the result will be something both open and inclusive, far more so than anything we have right now.

new TLDs could balkanize the Internet

Dave Winer has some cogent critiques of the idea that companies can register their trademarks as new Top Level Domains (TLDs), from an intellectual property perspective. However I think the danger is more pernicious than that – allowing deep-pocketed corporations to create new TLDs at will risks the destruction of the Internet. In a nutshell, why would Google or Microsoft even bother with www.google.com or www.microsoft.com when they can simply use http://home.google or http://home.microsoft? Ultimately you will see entire ecosystems vanish behind these TLD-walled gardens. Forget about gmail.com; now you get redirected to http://mail.google. Take this further: these companies make browsers (Chrome, IE). So now if you’re locked into the walled garden of Gmail anyway and Google says “use Chrome, you don’t have to type http:// anymore” and IE users accessing Gmail see a moderately-degraded experience, then there will be forced migrations to ecosystems that don’t exist right now. Facebook is the worst offender already; imagine if they got into the same game with Opera or even worse allied with Microsoft/IE.

It can get worse. There are numerous limitations and flaws in the HTTP protocol since we have shoehorned all sorts of functionality onto what was originally just a hypertext linking platform. And support for HTTP starts at the browser. Today it’s already hard enough to write webpages for all browsers, and designers can’t code for the latest and greatest CSS/HTML spec and be confident it will Just Work. Imagine if Chrome decides to create a new protocol, g://? shorter, saves you characters on Twitter, built-in URL shortening, and much faster handling of video and pictures. Built right into Chrome! Interoperability between browsers itself is at risk here if the fundamental communication protocol itself starts to fragment; we’ve seen it happen already with HTML and CSS and browsers, but with custom TLDs the incentive to do worse will be irresistible.

The key is the ecosystem. Apps have shown us how companies move away from open protocols like RSS towards custom and closed APIs. TLDs will just accelerate and worsen the trend. Eventually your browser will run heavily customized and feature-extended HTML, with an optimized variant of HTTP that works best with the ecosystem it was designed for (be it Chrome/Android/Google or Facebook/Microsoft/Ie or Apple/Safari/iOS). Try to do anything outside that ecosystem and you’re forced back onto the “old” tools that will be slower and more unpleasant; sure, Hotmail will work on Chrome, but if you use IE it will be so much easier… switch! (to quote the Oracle of Pythia, “All this has happened before. All this will happen again.”)

Remember the old days when if you were on Prodigy or Compuserve, you couldn’t email someone on AOL without a complex extra header? We could be looking at the same thing, with the Internet. We will have to call it the InterIntranet.

Twitter doesn’t innovate

Twitter may be at the peak of it’s innovation. They haven’t really made any substantial improvements in user interface or functionality in a while; hiding replies on user profiles is basically a minor hack. What would be far more useful is marking a user (or hashtag) as “read” temporarily hiding their tweets from your stream (analogous to marking emails as read in your inbox).

But fundamentally, there really isn’t much more Twitter really CAN innovate on. It’s a micro-messaging service. They missed the boat on becoming an identity service; Facebook Connect beat them to it. They seem to have de-emphasized SMS as an interface (at least for the US market) – imagine if they had aimed at taking on BBM and WhatsApp? And they still insist on the 140-char limit, though they could easily allow for a “read more” type extra text (the way it’s done in blog software) or take other simple measures to alleviate the crunch, such as not counting http:// towards the char limit in links, or even allowing links to be metadata the way that photos and video are (the link would still be displayed in-line). You can’t even do simple markup like bold or italic. If links were meta like photos, you could even have a “Recent links” sidebar the way they do for your photos on your profile, but nope.

Twitter has no built-in emoticons, has no elegant way to show a conversation between more than two people, and when you click on the new “view conversation” link, doesn’t show it to you in the original chronological order. Twitter is deprecating RSS which means most bloggers use a plugin to embed tweetstreams; lists are usually not supported.

And of course, as Dave Winer has been saying all along, Twitter isn’t open. You can’t export your data and you can’t really even access older tweets (and did I mention that search is broken?).

It’s also worth pointing out that Twitter’s advantage of the network effect isn’t permanent. Look at what happened to MySpace and FriendFeed. Users will leave if they have a better option; you just need to woo the early adopters like Scoble and make a big splash at SXSW. Plus media attention will be lavish upon any company that has the balls to actually say, “we are out to eat Twitter’s lunch”.

Twitter doesn’t need to be beaten, it just needs to be threatened so it gets out of its comfort zone. Right now it’s chasing after NASCAR and trying to give users tailored content; that’s a fool’s game. Users will never warm to an algorithm’s suggestions – just ask Netflix (or better yet, ask a user).

And Twitter isn’t thinking big at all. What could they achieve if they wanted to? How about aiming for the moon – like becoming a defacto replacement for email?