Technology

The price of a logo

I had a few logos made for projects over the past four years. Fortunately, I’ve been able to work with friends on many of them. However, I continue to encounter the misconceptions that logos should be cheap, say a couple hundred bucks, or involve a lot of constant feedback from the client to the designer on all possible designs. Here’s why neither is true.

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Don’t update your iPhone’s Instapaper to version 2.1

As many of you know, one of my favorite iPhone applications is Instapaper. I use it to read pretty much anything I don’t want to read when I find it on my computer—generally long essays from the New Yorker, Atlantic, and New York Review of Books. Unfortunately, the latest version of Instapaper Free is simply a downgrade masquerading as an upgrade. This version removes the ability to save your place if you quit the application while in the middle of reading a saved article. However, it has two other qualities that are far worse: it shows ads and it only allows you to keep your ten most recently saved articles on the iPhone. I’m still running the old version of Instapaper, and will continue to do so because it’s allowed me to save over 100 articles from the web to my phone. Whenever I need something to read, I just go to Instapaper. Some articles are months old, but I frequently dig into my archive for reading material, especially if it’s a long essay or short story from the New Yorker. I really like the old Instapaper and hope that I’ll be able to continue using it. If not, I guess I’ll go back to paper—that is the kind that comes from trees.

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The NewsHour on the future of publishing

Yesterday on the NewsHour Ray Suarez discussed the future of the book publishing business and its handling of e-books with Jonathan Karp of Hachette’s Twelve, one of my favorite imprints. Karp likens the publishing business to gambling, but what business isn’t like gambling? I found his analogy between the Kindle and the Walkman to be a little misleading, however. Sony, though it had a music library when the Walkman came out, didn’t have the same retail relationship with customers. The comparison would be more apt if Karp’s employer, Hachette, was the one behind the Kindle and not Amazon.

Suarez prefaces the conversation with a brief segment about the book business as a whole, including a story about layoffs at Tattered Cover in Denver and a customer’s book buying binge of a response. More →

How to read large PDFs—books, articles, etc.—on your iPhone

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In the past, I’ve tried emailing large PDFs to myself to read using the iPhone’s native PDF viewer. Unfortunately, it’s extremely slow with any sort of large file, so reading books is out of the question. I also tried importing PDFs of books into Stanza. However, the files tend to lose all formatting and line breaks, giving you large continuous paragraphs of text with page numbers and headers embedded in the text of the work itself. One of the reasons why I would like a Kindle DX is to read PDFs of books and journal/magazine articles. However, there are also several reasons why I don’t want a Kindle. More →

Habitats – For a Writer, a Home With a Hideout – NYTimes.com

Today’s New York Times profiles novelist Roxana Robinson. I can’t agree more about the need to have times and spaces where you know you won’t be interrupted.

Ms. Robinson, whose works include an acclaimed biography of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and most recently the novel “Cost,” realizes that in choosing the unprepossessing small room over the more generously decorated bigger one, she has rejected a space most writers would kill for.

She can explain.

“I did everything but write in that room,” Ms. Robinson said. “I paid bills. I printed things out. I sent faxes. I was connected to the Internet.

“The assumption is that writers can write wherever they can sit down,” she added. “But the main thing you need as a writer is a sense of certainty that you won’t be interrupted.”

Distance from the Internet is part of the issue, but so is having a space that offers minimal distraction. For a writer living in New York, distraction can be the unwelcome flip side of inspiration.

How to make your own ringtones for the iPhone

One odd limitation of the iPhone is that you can’t use songs from your iTunes library as ringtones. However, there’s an easy way around this restriction. Just create AAC files of 30 seconds or less that you want to use as ringtones and change their extensions from .m4a to .m4r and import them into iTunes. A full step-by-step guide is available here. What’s my ringtone, you may ask? Currently, I’m using the opening 30 seconds from Radiohead’s song “Fog.” Here’s a live version for those of you not familiar with the song.

My favorite iPhone and iPod Touch apps

I’ve been playing around with these devices for most of the year and have come to some conclusions about my favorite applications. Because Apple’s App Store is a bit of a mess, I’ve picked up most of my recommendations from other blogs and forums. So, here’s the list of apps that I wish I hadn’t had to spend time discovering because my iPod is better with them than without them, in no particular order:

  • The New York Times – I previously posted about this application and how I would be willing to pay a fair amount for it. The only things I can fault this application for are that it’s not always clear when it’s finished downloading the day’s paper and it runs sluggishly on the iPhone 2g. Otherwise, the ability to save and email articles is great, and the interface makes browsing the paper easy. This is probably my favorite app, in part because it downloads the paper for offline reading and because I love the New York Times.
  • MLB At Bat 2009 – This app costs $9.99, but it’s awesome. You can watch two live games a day and listen to any broadcast of any game live. I remember when I was a kid, I could barely get reception on the AM radio at night to listen to Vin Scully call the LA Dodgers games. Now I can listen to the Dodgers and the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Giants whenever I want. This app also features in-game video highlights from almost all games, which are nice, but the key feature is being able to listen to live broadcasts. More →

How to get AppleCare cheap? The answer is eBay.

Like many but not enough people, I understand that extended warranties are, statistically, a rip-off. The odds are that I’ll pay extra for the warranty and then never use it. Best Buy, among others, makes a killing from selling its customers on extended warranties. However, I have one weak spot when it comes to extended warranties—well, two actually when you count that for car warranties—AppleCare. Ever since my PowerBook G3’s motherboard failed and left me high and dry back in the fall of 2001, I’ve consistently bought AppleCare for my subsequent Mac laptops. Sometimes I’ve needed it, and sometimes I haven’t.

And despite that mixed record, I just purchased AppleCare for my MacBook Pro, whose standard one-year warranty expires in a couple weeks. (Apple gives you one year from the original date of purchase to add AppleCare to its products.) AppleCare for the MacBook Pro and formerly the PowerBook is most expensive extended warranty that Apple sells at $349 for an additional two years of coverage. However, no one should pay full price for any Apple Care package. But how do you avoid paying full price? Well, that’s easy: buy AppleCare on eBay. I just got AppleCare for my MacBook Pro for $127. If you are patient and willing to following the auctions for a couple weeks, you should be able to find a similar deal. If you’re not, most Buy It Now prices for the package hover around $160-$170. That’s still a savings of over 50% off the normal retail price. How is this possible? The answer I’ve heard is that Apple requires its resellers to meet quotas for AppleCare sales and many of them end up dumping the warranties at low prices to meet those quotas. You can even find AppleCare for the iPhone, which normally sells for $69, for around $40 on eBay. So, if you feel compelled to buy an extended warranty for your Apple product, eBay is certainly the way to go.

*Update* Consumer Reports has found that buying AppleCare actually is worth its cost. Nonetheless, why pay full price when you don’t have to?

The Kindle DX is great, except that it’s a rip-off

Amazon Kindle DX

I eagerly read the news this morning about Amazon’s new, larger Kindle DX. The larger screen and the PDF capability seem to make it an ideal reader for not only newspapers and magazines, but also for books and and Word files and, well, nearly everything. The thought of 200-page books becoming 500-page books on the Kindle 2 never sat well with me, but it looks like the Kindle DX could preserve the original page dimensions for most books, which is great news. 

However, the problem I have with the Kindle is that it simply doesn’t make economic sense as a replacement for the publications I read. I subscribe to two magazines that are available on the Kindle—the New Yorker and the Atlantic—and sometimes subscribe to several others that aren’t, including the New York Review of Books, Elysian Fields Quarterly, the Believer, McSweeney’s, n+1, the Paris Review, I.D., and Open City. I also read the New York Times on a daily basis and am often a print subscriber. 

So, let’s see how switching to reading my subscriptions on the Kindle DX would work out. The initial cost of the Kindle is $489. I would also probably purchase the extended two-year warranty for an additional $109 because I’m a sucker for those things. I would probably purchase some sort of case for the device, but won’t include that cost here. Throw in sales tax of 8.25%, and you have an initial Kindle cost of $647.33. That’s a lot of money for a reader, but is it worth it? 

Well, let’s see. Subscribing to the New Yorker on the Kindle costs $2.99/month, the Atlantic $1.25/month, and the New York Times $13.99/month. I currently pay $29.99/year for the New Yorker, so I’ll just assume that there’s no cost savings at all for that magazine. I pay $24.90/year for the Atlantic, which works out to a savings of $0.79/month. Now, I’m aware that it’s not entirely fair to compare cash flows for a yearly magazine subscription paid all at once and the monthly Kindle costs, but it doesn’t make much difference in this example. Finally, let’s assume a print subscription cost of $30/month for the New York Times. Given the Times’ frequent promotional offers and my tendency to alternate between seven-day, Sunday-only, and weekend-only subscriptions, I think that value is fair enough for these purposes. Switching to the Kindle edition of the Times produces a monthly savings of $16.

Now, let’s assume an annual discount rate of 6% in better economic times. With a monthly savings of $16.79, it would take nearly four years before you broke even on the original cost of the Kindle. Four years from now, your extended warranty will be expired and your battery shot. It doesn’t seem like a very good deal.

Let’s include books in the mix and say that I purchase one new Kindle book each month, saving $6/book over Amazon’s existing hardcover prices. Even then it’ll take me two years to break even on the purchase price, by which time my Kindle DX will be obsolete. So, the Kindle never really generates any sort of sustained savings over its traditional media equivalents, at least for me. 

I’m aware that I’m not considering the value that users might put on the Kindle’s convenience and other features. Likewise, I’m not considering the premium that readers might put on traditional books—and the ownership rights, longevity, portability, and tangibility that come with them—either. Are any of those enough to make up for the shortfall? Or do they only swing the pendulum further against the Kindle? 

I have no problem with paying for digital content and the convenience that comes with it. In fact, I would probably prefer a less expensive device and more expensive content. At its current price-point, the Kindle DX is only going to attract early adopters and is far from becoming a product for the masses.

Neuroenhancers and the key to productivity

Margaret Talbot published an excellent piece about neuroenhancers in last week’s New Yorker. One of the drugs that Talbot cites and whose use has spread this decade is Modafinil, which I wrote about back in 2002. I said, “The existence of a wonder drug that could abolish a person’s need for sleep … should be just as impossible as it sounds.” As I feared, off-label use of the drug has only increased since I wrote that. And even neuroethicists have moved towards endorsing cognitive enhancement.

Talbot writes:

Every era, it seems, has its own defining drug. Neuroenhancers are perfectly suited for the anxiety of white-collar competition in a floundering economy. And they have a synergistic relationship with our multiplying digital technologies: the more gadgets we own, the more distracted we become, and the more we need help in order to focus. The experience that neuroenhancement offers is not, for the most part, about opening the doors of perception, or about breaking the bonds of the self, or about experiencing a surge of genius. It’s about squeezing out an extra few hours to finish those sales figures when you’d really rather collapse into bed; getting a B instead of a B-minus on the final exam in a lecture class where you spent half your time texting; cramming for the G.R.E.s at night, because the information-industry job you got after college turned out to be deadening. Neuroenhancers don’t offer freedom. Rather, they facilitate a pinched, unromantic, grindingly efficient form of productivity.

There’s a much cheaper way to achieve productivity that we inexplicably gave up in the name of progress. It may be painful, but it’s worth a shot: Turn off your cell phone, unplug your wireless router—I know it feels strange, but vaguely familiar like how things used to be—sit down at your desk, and get to work.

Zadie Smith: The Internet is an absolute disaster for writers

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I first met Zadie Smith in the summer of 2001 at a book signing in San Francisco. I waited in line with a friend for her to sign my first (American) edition of White Teeth. After she did, my friend, who didn’t have a book, approached her, and she signed his right arm. She also drew a dotted line around it and wrote “Cut Here.” I love her work for that very sensibility and humor.

Last night Jonathan Safran Foer interviewed Smith at NYU. (She has a collection of essays, Changing My Mind, coming out later this year.) I’ve read several polemical essays and books written in opposition to Internet culture. And I read them because I have the sense that life used to be different ten years ago, and, in many ways, it was better. Even four years ago, I was better able to concentrate on long projects than I am able to now; in short, the current iteration of the Internet has killed productivity—productivity at the things that actually matter. I think Malcolm Gladwell was right, in many ways, when he called Google “the answer to a problem we didn’t have.” But I don’t think I’ve heard anyone convey the problem as powerfully as Smith does in the snippet of last night’s interview that you can watch above. She calls the Internet “an absolute disaster for writers” because she spends too much time on Facebook and Google, and she imagines a generation of children who won’t know how to concentrate because they grew up with this Internet. And what will you get when everyone grows up with the web? Rebels who reject it! It’s powerful because Smith critiques with a seriousness that is funny rather than earnest, engaging rather than alienating. “Cut here,” she seems to say, “I dare you.”

Using Streampad to add a music playlist to your website

Inspired by Fred Wilson’s FredWilson.fm, I decided to see if I could add a playlist to my website using Streampad. As you can see, I now have Streampad’s player running at the bottom of this page. Here are the steps you’ll need to take to add it to your own site:

  1. Set up a Tumblr blog and start posting music to your blog in MP3 format. Tumblr allows you to upload one MP3 file a day or you could link to MP3s hosted elsewhere. This will become your playlist for Streampad.
  2. Insert Streampad’s code in your page template’s header between the <head> and </head> tags.
  3. Here’s the code to insert. Make sure that you change the Tumblr URL to your own URL: <script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://static.streampad.com/streampad-tumblr.js?api=YOURNAME.tumblr.com&autoplay=true”></script>
  4. You can delete the autoplay parameter if you don’t want Streampad to start playing automatically when a user loads your page. There are several other parameters you can add to the JS URL to alter the appearance of the player.

Who’s reading your blog in Google Reader?

Someone once said that weblogs contain a gold mine of information about your users, and it’s true. Between your logs and software like Google Analytics, you can find out where your users IP addresses are located, what keywords they searched for to find your site, how they arrived on it, how long they stayed, how many pages they viewed, what kind of browser they used, and much more. However, these are all characteristics of your users. When it comes to finding out exactly who your users are, you’re generally out of luck. 

But if a user is coming to your site by clicking on a link in Google Reader, it’s quite possible that you can find out who they are—sort of. I don’t often look at my own weblogs, but in doing so for the first time in months, I found something curious about visits coming from Google Reader. If you look at referring URLs from Google Reader, they should look similar to this: http://www.google.com/reader/view/user/05899714176177792238/ That number in there is a user id of the person from whose Google Reader account the visit originated. Take that number and put it into this URL and you’ll get that person’s shared items page, if they have one: http://www.google.com/reader/shared/05899714176177792238 (I intentionally made those numbers non-functioning in my examples.) Now, you’ll have a little more information: whatever public name the person has given herself and her shared items. Note that the number in these URLs is, apparently, different than the one use for public profile pages on Google. You people say you value privacy on the Internet, after all.

Visualize President Obama’s State of the Union address

State of the Union

Perhaps, you’re watching President Obama’s address on CNN.com with Facebook Live or reading it faster than Obama can speak. Well, I dumped the text into Wordle, played with the colors and styles a bit, and produced the above word cloud. If Obama left any doubt about the themes of his speech, this visualization reinforces them, though “energy” seems a bit small. Click the above image for the full-size version.

The missing slide from Amazon’s Kindle 2 launch: longevity comparison

Amazon Kindle Longevity Comparison

I’ll buy a Kindle once Amazon’s device can win in a longevity comparison with a traditional book. As you can see from the PowerPoint slide above, it still has a long way to go, as the Kindle lasts about 14 months, while the 1766 edition of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet has lasted 243 years and counting. In the meantime, you can pre-order the new Kindle 2; just don’t expect it to last more that two years.

I would pay $100 for the NYTimes iPhone app

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I recently received an iPod Touch and have been playing around with some of the applications available through the iTunes app store. I think the platform and device are excellent, and I’ll post a list of my favorite apps soon. The one that I use the most use is the New York Times app. I think every publication should have something like this available. It works by downloading the entire day’s paper on my iPod, which takes about three minutes or so over Wi-Fi. I can then read full-length stories wherever I am on the Touch. The interface is easy to navigate, and, in some ways, it’s even easier to swipe through the paperon screen  than to flip through the paper edition. Supposedly, the app will save the previous seven days of news on your iPhone or Touch, but I’ve only been able to get it to save the current day’s news, despite enabling more days of saved stories through the Settings menu. 

What troubles me about this application is that it’s free. Every day I get the entire paper delivered to my iPod Touch for free. And there’s just a little NYTimes.com banner ad at the bottom of each article. This seems wildly unsustainable when I consider the state the newspaper industry is in and how much I used to pay for the convenience that this application gives me. 

I started reading the Times on a regular basis when I was a freshman in college. I bought the paper almost every day for $1 and on Sunday for even more. (I think the Sunday price was $4 or $4.50 then.) I found the NYTimes.com website acceptable, but relatively inefficient to navigate, especially if you wanted to see all the headlines and all the stories of the day. When, during my sophomore year of college, I lived in France, I even paid much more to get the Times Sunday print edition because I found it so much more accessible than the website. 

I’ve subscribed to the Times on a daily basis for months at a time since then, but usually ended up canceling because I wasn’t reading enough of the paper to justify the cost to myself or because I lived in apartments where someone would steal my paper 50% of the time before I could get to it in the morning. Each time I subscribed, I usually paid $20-$40 or so per month to receive delivery of the paper, depending on how many days a week I got it and what sort of deal I received. 

Now, I get all the same content for free on the Times website or via the iPhone app. There’s something wrong here. Sure, the cost of publishing online is cheaper than that of printing a physical paper, but there’s still a huge gap. I’m not paying for something that I used to pay for, and advertising certainly isn’t paying for it either. If you’re going to move a readership online from print, someone is going to have to foot the bill. Unfortunately, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that online content is somehow simultaneously valuable and worthless at the same time. We consume it like crazy, spending hours a day reading websites, blogs, RSS feeds, etc. And yet we pay nothing for it except our isolation and attention deficit. 

So, I come to the headline of this post. I don’t know what other people’s willingness to pay for the iPhone app is, but mine is probably around $100. That’s with a few feature additions to the current app: 

  • Allow users to save stories permanently on their devices and export them to their computers in PDF or text format. For longer stories, I want a way to get them back on paper before I read them. 
  • Allow users to email stories to others. This feature should be in the current version. It seems like a no-brainer if the Times wants to increase readership. 
  • Let users read more than just the current day’s news. I know this is supposedly in the current version, but it still doesn’t work for me. 
  • Include a way for users to annotate, highlight and save snippets from articles they read. 

I don’t like subscriptions, so I would much prefer to pay some initial fee to purchase the application and have it available to me for the foreseeable future, a future that will only exist if the Times stops giving away its content for free.

Launching the iPhone version of RickyOpaterny.com

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Point your iPhone to RickyOpaterny.com, and you’ll automatically be redirected to our iPhone compatible version. It’s much easier to navigate, than the site’s full version, though, of course, lacks any Flash-based elements that I include in my posts. Setting this mobile version up took me about five minutes using the excellent WPtouch plug-in for WordPress along with the iPhoney application for OS X to simulate the iPhone browser on my Mac (for previewing purposes). If you use WordPress, WPtouch seems like a no-brainer.