Things I learned at MacWorld

I managed to make it to the final day of MacWorld in San Francisco and after a day of walking around and looking at all the exhibits, if I never see the new iPod mini ad again, it will be too soon. I mean, they only released it a few days ago, but somehow all of San Francisco is plastered with the ads. And the whole time I was at MacWorld, I never actually managed to see the stupid thing. (I personally think it’s a rip off– for $50 more and a negligibly larger footprint, you can get more than three times the storage capacity.)

But I did learn a few things after wandering around the exhibit halls of Moscone Center:

Apple Locks. If Apple is going to continue to target the education market, this is important. Higher education institutions (colleges and universities) face the unique predicament of providing public, but still secure computer clusters and because of Apple’s big love affair with educational institutions, many of these clusters are stocked with Macs. At Stanford, personal computer theft is extremely low (it usually only occurs when somebody leaves a computer out in the open with an invisible bow and sign saying “Take Me”), but public computer theft is a frequent problem. Universities all over the country have been hacking together solutions, from a combination of padlocks and bike chains to actual custom computer locks, but they often either A) don’t work that well and/or B) require damaging the equipment’s casing to attach them (by fusing metal plates onto the casing) and/or C) don’t secure peripherals. Stolen mice and keyboards are probably our biggest problem at Stanford, but there are plenty of cases where somebody puts in the sizable amount of time and effort to pry off metal plates and cut cables. These little Apple Locks are custom built for the Mac towers, securing each computer and the peripherals without damaging the case, and are relatively inexpensive as well.

Continuity of design. I usually believe that it shouldn’t matter what vendor/company you buy a particular gadget from– you should simply buy the best gadget for you and your price range. But, I have to admit that if you were so inclined and ended up buying all of your gadgets from Apple, while you’re home or office might look like it’s out of Space Odyssey 2001, you would have continuity of design. On top of the gadgets, you could also get come Mac-compatible furniture (when did furniture become platform specific?), like this desk for the new iMac.

Apple is still a little confused. They have so little of the market share in most of their product lines, but the people at Apple are still trying to make products for a thousand different markets– consumer electronics (iPod), personal computers (iMac), commercial servers (XServ), and more. I get that they’re trying to create this whole “iLife” concept (and can I just mention how much I am annoyed by things that are named after the medium through which they are delivered– “i” or “e” anything), but the whole conflicted hype around Mac OS X reflects their confusion. Macs have historically been appealing to the computer novice, the not-so-technically savvy, because they were, theoretically, supposed to be easier to use, easier to maintain, more secure (kind of), etc. With OS X, the people at Apple have basically thrown on a shiny new interface to Unix to make it accessible to everyone. While cool initially, people who appreciate and/or know how to use Unix end up opening up a terminal window or X session most of the time anyway and people who don’t know how to use Unix never end up using any of the useful Unix features and end up having to re-learn how to use a Mac anyway.

In any case, at the end of the day, I guess it’s nice to see that despite having less than ten percent of the market share, Mac users are still just so excited to be Mac users. Part of me believes that a lot of that enthusiasm is really just about rooting for the underdog. Nevetheless, even in the face of all that Mac-frenzy, I proudly broke out my Dell laptop in the middle of the MacWorld Internet cafe to check my email and surf the Web.

Trying before buying

The music industry really needs to realize that if they don’t start letting people try before they buy, give a little to get a lot back, people are just going to start taking. Case in point, everyone’s favorite topic: file-sharing. Now, some companies have tried to appease the file-sharing masses somewhat by offering music through services like iTunes, but that model relies on the idea that a) customers want to buy songs one at a time or b) customers want to buy albums, but without having to buy the physical media.

However, as much of a technocrat as I might be, I do see the value in physical media. With physical media, you get liner notes, album cover art, and preservation of presentation– the artist usually chooses a particular order in which songs appear on the album and there’s a reason for that. It will be a long time before all of these things become useless to the public (perhaps never) AND it will be a long time before the entire music buying public jumps onto the digital music bandwagon. The music industry needs to embrace digital music, file-sharing and everything they have to offer, but it also needs to come up with a workable hybrid model that marries the benefits of both the digital music world and the hard media world.

I’m not so arrogant to believe that I’m the only one who ever came up with this very general, non-constructive suggestion, but I was once again reminded of this challenge as I was listening to music in my car via my trusty iPod. To be honest, I only buy CDs when I KNOW I am going to like almost all of the songs on an album AND I have some type of long-term interest in the artist. So, even if I liked all the songs on the newest pop star’s album, I wouldn’t buy it unless I believed that the artist looked like s/he would a) make it past the latest episode of MTV’s TRL and b) I would keep listening and enjoying his/her music when s/he does. Unfortunately, this leaves me with owning and buying CDs by a very small number of artists that I started listening to before the digital music explosion and that luckily, I was able to discover, try out and come to love. It also leaves me with a few random CDs from artists that never made it past their first or second album or that I couldn’t stand to listen to after their first or second album.

Today, I add artists to that privileged list for which I actually buy CDs by trying before buying. Unfortunately, online music stores rarely offer more than very short clips of a few songs on a particular CD and I don’t have the time to sit there in the brick-and-mortar music store and listen to the whole CD (if I were lucky enough for the CD I want to buy to be in the listening kiosk). In fact, even if I did have the time, listening to just one CD isn’t enough, which is why I have random CDs lying around in my collection (which I will refrain from naming here). I want to listen to many CDs, listen to a “Best of” type compilation of a particular artist before I decide whether I’m going to sign on as a member of his fan club and start doling out my hard-earned money on some music, digital or otherwise.

Realistically, given today’s music sales model, the only way to really do this (without spending money) is a) listen to your friend’s CDs or b) download some digital music. The music industry needs to admit that trying before buying, not free music for everyone, is the model they are being pushed towards and the sooner they realize that and stop trying to punish their customers for pushing them, the sooner everyone will stop villifying them. The music industry should take a tip from drug dealers. If the music industry would just come through on the trying part, the public will come through on the buying part, but not before then.

Addendum: all of the above also holds true for the television industry. If I wanted to start watching a television show that had already been on for several seasons, I would want to catch up with all the previous seasons’ episodes. Considering the painfully slow speed with which television shows are, if ever, released on DVD or video, downloading them online is an increasingly popular option. However, if I’m not allowed to download them online (perhaps because of anti-copying locks on television broadcasts), I frankly will be less likely to start watching a show other than from the beginning. The television industry needs to come up with a new ad/commercial model to make television-on-demand a viable option because at it’s core, it’s a try before you buy model.

Exit row guilt

What you feel when you’re sitting in your roomy exit row seat and you watch the other passengers tiredly waiting in the aisle to get back to their cramped, not-so-roomy regular seats. This is only magnified by the fact that I am a small person that doesn’t really need that much leg room. I just wanted to tell all those people looking at me, “This is just the luck of the draw! And I had to sit in a middle seat in the back on the way to Newark from San Francisco! I have suffered too!”

On the road

I loved the movie The American President, so I don’t know quite why it took me so long to start watching The West Wing. But I’ve started and am catching up on all four seasons before this current one. And I’ve got to say, I love it. I can’t get enough. It’s one of the few shows, if not the only one that I can watch countless episodes back to back and never get tired of it. That’s the case for a lot of reasons, including a great cast, intelligent and witty dialogue, and compelling storylines. Yet, as I find myself three-quarters through the second season, I realize that one of the greatest reasons for enjoying the show is that the ideals the Bartlett administration works for resonate with me and it makes me feel good to see people, particularly politicians working to achieve those ideals. And of course, it’s a television show, a sugar-coated, dramatized version of how things really work, how things really happen, but I can’t help feeling like I wish I could be part of something like that.

And then I realize I guess I am. Despite all my frustration with work these past few months, with RPC hell and interdepartmental bureaucracy, working at a university and specifically at Stanford is extremely rewarding. In the beginning, I took the job with Residential Computing because in the face of a rapidly failing economy and tough job market, the university was offering a relatively interesting software development job with good pay and benefits. Then, after holding the position for a while, I was rewarded with the feeling of accomplishment and independence– I run my own software development program with relative autonomy and I got a lot done in my first year. But as I got the hang of the software development part, I became more involved in the staff part– being part of a staff that serves almost all students at the university and thanks to the people who work with me, serve them not only as a computing resource, but as advocates.

Technology pervades our lives more and more each day and today, it is what tests our social, political, economic and moral values. Today, and into the future, technology is deeply political and brings to the surface much deeper, much more essential issues. It’s similar to the AIDS epidemic– when we look at the problem of HIV and AIDS, we’re not just dealing with a medical problem. We’re dealing with a social problem, a political problem and an economic problem. There’s a reason why people of color, women, poor people– the same people often fall into these three categories– are suffering the most from the AIDS epidemic. When we look at the problem of AIDS, we would be remiss not to look at the problems of poverty, discrimination, and education. In the same way, talking about technology, working in technology is not just about building faster computers or getting everybody onto the Internet. It’s about looking at how technology can not only help our lives, but how it shapes our lives and ideals and what the way we use a technology or what technologies we pursue says about us as people.

My job isn’t just about writing code or building tools to help run the network better. It’s about building tools to faciliate and shape the educational process. It’s about being part of a staff that helps shape important policies regarding not just technology use, but student rights. The undergraduate experience at Stanford, partially thanks to the Residential Education model, is a truly engrossing experience and aims to provide learning opportunities not just in the classroom, but during your entire time at school and in all areas of your life while at school. And because technology is such an integral part of young people’s lives today, helping them learn how to use it more effectively, providing them with all the technology tools possible, and helping to influence University policy to ensure students are free to thrive in an open and encouraging environment is an extremely important and rewarding job. My college years are not so far in the past and being naturally inquisitive and having a thirst for learning as most Stanford students are and do, I remember how good it felt like, still feels like to be at a place like Stanford that is open and filled with rich resources of both technology and people to help me explore and learn.

Sometimes it’s frustrating and sometimes it feels like, as my friend put it, that I’m trying to drive a Jaguar on a go-cart track, but at least I’m on the road.

Holiday Giving 2003

Instead of accepting gifts this season, I thought I would encourage people to use that money to give to charity– specifically, organizations related to HIV/AIDS. Yes, yes, I hardly expected that everyone or anyone was going to get me a present in the first place, but it’s just a starting point. Anybody and everybody should give! For more information, visit:

Holiday Giving 2003

If this is successful (hopefully), I’ll pick a new “cause” (I hate calling it that) every year.

Koreans, Koreans everywhere, everywhere the Koreans

There’s been a lot of talk about and mention of Koreans and the Koreas lately. This week’s episode of Kid Notorious will feature an over-the-top caricature of Kim Jong Il. The last few episodes of Reno 911 had a Korean national security expert as well as Officer Wiegel yelling at those Korean kids messing with her cat on Halloween night. Kimchee was featured on the Produce Pete segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The West Wing devoted an entire episode to a North Korean pianist’s attempt to defect and the concept of han. There hasn’t been this much attention on us since the Korean War. Ahem, sorry, “conflict.” But unfortunately, the threat of war is what once again brings the spotlight on that little peninsula on the other side of the world.

While the war in Iraq continues, North Korea rears its ugly head again and reminds us of a conflict that we had decidedly tried to ignore. The truth is that we should have paid this issue the proper attention months ago when they were kicking out UN officials, taking out fuel rods, testing missiles and tailing American spy planes. Time and time again, smart people around the world have been saying that this is the most unpredictable and unstable regime in the world. In fact, North Korea’s highest ranking defector has said this and confirmed what we were all fearing: Kim Jong Il is not just using nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip. If necessary, if pushed into a corner, he will use them.

But what bothers me the most about all of this is that all of the progress we seemed to have made during the Clinton administration has been undone by the current one. By not giving the crisis in North Korea the necessary attention and by taking an overly strict stance, the Bush administration has brought us back ten years, only this time, the North Koreans have had time to truly develop their nuclear weapons program. Gone are the inspirational days when families were reuniting for the first time after fifty years of separation, where brother could see brother once again, even if for a few moments under heavy guard. Gone are the days when North and South walked under one flag, even if only at the Olympics. Gone are the days when North Korea seemed to be willing to open up to South Korea so that Koreans could be united for one brief moment and perhaps, the world could see it as a sign that one day, outsiders would be allowed into the isolated country and bring compassion, democracy and change.

As a Korean American, I hold no allegiance to North Korea. If anything, I am among the most adamant about ending its dictatorial regime. Instead, I hold allegiance to America and Americans, to human beings both inside and outside of North Korea and the Korean peninsula, hoping that we will not be victims of nuclear war, of famine, of the unpredictable insanity of a dictator. And I hold allegiance to the Korean people, whether we are in North Korea, South Korea, the US or anywhere else, that we might be able to see families reunited, our people united once again. That we will no longer see our brothers and sisters living in hunger, in fear, in a quiet desperation under the control of a dictator.

Cartoon taken from NBC 10’s News Today.

Why trilogies don’t work

My big accomplishment for the second day of my vacation is seeing The Matrix: Revolutions. It wasn’t horrible, despite some negative reviews. But I think the big disadvantage The Matrix Trilogy is battling against is the general challenge trilogies and their makers face: overly high expectations.

Usually, movies that seem worthy of ending up as the first part of a trilogy are often groundbreaking or special in some way. For example, “The Matrix” was particularly innovative because of its groundbreaking special effects. It truly took advantage of how far computers had come and what the whole concept of special effects can really bring to the big screen– the ability to create a world completely unlike our own. Instead of trying to make the real world more “special,” such as making explosions bigger and louder, the special effects in “The Matrix” helped create this new world, what it was like to be in this concept of “the matrix,” and rendered an aural and visual experience impossible otherwise. Another example of this kind of special effects use would be in the Quidditch scene in Harry Potter.

In addition to special effects use, “The Matrix” was innovative because of its storyline. To most, it was particularly unique and posed very interesting questions by asserting that our entire human existence was just a simulated computer experience. (Although, I and others argue that this storyline was very similar to the 1998 movie Dark City.) Moviegoers were blown away by this fantastical premise and were drawn into watching Neo discovering the matrix– we learned right along with him.

However, with the second movie, the special effects were no longer as novel and glamourous as in the first, although technically they were quite impressive (especially the many Agent Smiths). And the storyline wasn’t so earth-shattering anymore– we already know about this world set up in the first movie– and everyone is just waiting to find out what happens next, some type of resolution and since we all know there’s a third movie coming out, we’re not really drawn into the second movie in the series. So, in the end, you end up writing off the second movie as simply a stepping stone, a set up for the finale– how most middle movies in trilogies are written off.

Then why is the third movie considered such a disappointment? Because with the first movie, we are blown away by the premise, with the second movie, we are just waiting to see what’s next and with the third movie, we finally do see what happens. And it never lives up to what we expected. After we’ve identified with a concept, characters and a storyline, while waiting for the next release, we consciously or subconsciously develop an idea of what we think would or should happen, an idea of what we might want to happen. And even if never truly realize those ideas, verbalize them and make them real to ourselves, we build up a subconscious expectation of something that’s probably impossible in the end and find ourselves wondering why the final movie in a trilogy is never as good as we thought it was going to be. It’s like getting hyped up for a party and then, it’s rarely ever quite as fun as you thought it was going to be.

Trilogies that are often considered in this category:

How do you work around this problem? One option is to make a trilogy out of movies with storylines that don’t really have anything to with each other, but have the same characters that exist in the same overarching universe. This holds true for any series or sequels. Some people don’t feel that these movies deserve to be called “trilogies,” but nevertheless, they often are. Trilogies that fall into this category:

Of course, the problem with this option is that you can always break the three movie rule and continually make additional sequels (as is the case for both of the above trilogies), usually of far lower quality than the first three movies. Examples of this pitfall:

The other better option is to only make a trilogy (or any other series of sequels) out of a story that is truly epic enough to warrant multiple movies. Don’t just make a bunch of sequels because with special effects and whatever else, you can stretch a storyline for three movies. All three movies should follow an overarching story arc, but in the end, each movie should be chock full o’goodness and can usually stand as a great movie on its own (even if you might follow the story better after seeing what comes before and/or after). Trilogies that fall into this category:

Of course, with sequels being so popular, I’m sure bad sequels and even worse, bad trilogies will continue to be made, released, and disappoint.

Vacation: Day 1

Things I did today:

  1. Slept in. Although I did have a dream about work.
  2. Caught up with my TiVo.
  3. Cleaned my house.
  4. Agonized over my yet unshipped eBay purchase.
  5. Got my nails done. (Current nail color: Cognac by Essie.)
  6. Gave in to my temptation to check my work email. 91 messages. Scary.
  7. Bought and installed a new 160 GB hard drive, although the partitions are all messed up because of the 137 GB confusion.
  8. Picked up some shampoo finally.
  9. Had some milk tea and Q-Pop chicken. Yum.

The last two done while dodging a strange drunk guy in downtown (and being mistaken for being with him/his friend). All in all, a surprisingly productive day for a vacation day. On the agenda for tomorrow: sleep.