Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Facebook takes on email - good luck with that!

Good article here (Facebook's Platform Coup D'Etat of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo) about Facebook's new messaging. Interesting that it says Gmail is only 15% of online email, with Hotmail at 30% and Yahoo at 45% - the latter two effectively being Microsoft. So it's not so much a blow at Google as at Microsoft/Yahoo's 75% share, it seems.

But is it a blow? I'm not sure that the convenience of integrated email in Facebook would outweigh privacy concerns. Facebook already has rights to all the pictures of my kids I post there. That's why I post most pics to Picasa, which then notifies Facebook. They'd have rights to my email contents too? And even if they don't have rights, they know who I've been emailing with, both inside and outside Facebook. Fundamentally, their business model is predicated on users' online promiscuity.

While teenage communication behaviour is often used as a predictor of future communication culture, you have to balance that with life phases. Most teenagers (certainly those with time to burn on Facebook) don't have a professional life. Their life is all about social networking, online and offline. I'm not convinced they'll carry those same traits into their professional lives.

Will Facebook become more than a 'keep in touch with friends' tool in mainstream adult culture? I'm not convinced. Facebook taking on email is a good, sensible progression - I have several friends & family whose email I don't know because I just contact them via Facebook. But as anything more than a convenience?

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Fackin' students

What is all the fuss? Record high grades at GCSE and A level would imply that the country's youth are getting smarter. Are they really? Or are standards slipping? Moot point, but the net result is that there are more people than ever in the UK trying to get a higher education. On the face of it this seems a good thing, but only if what they are studying will enhance their ability to contribute to society.

My year was one of the first to pay student loans. We still got grants for tuition fees (if eligible), but they wouldn't cover full tuition and certainly not living expenses. The interest was about 1.2%, and I paid mine off in about 3 years. Some of my peers with less vocational qualifications (my degree was Computing Systems) took longer to pay theirs off. IT seems to suffer a perennial 'skills crisis' in the UK, so I had every confidence I could pay my loan off. I was also a member of the National Youth Theatre, which opened many doors to drama schools. I chose not to take them. Because I met successful and unsuccessful actors, and not only did the latter far outweigh the former, but often the only difference in talent between them was a lucky break. The difference in income and lifestyle was tragic: kings and clowns. My MBA was self-funded and done in parallel with a full-time job.

Most private sector loans have eligibility criteria that factor in the ability of the person to pay back the loan and the risk of default. Why not include those here? How about tiered payments based on usefulness of the degree you're taking? Useful = grant supported; Underwater basket-weaving = pay for it yourself. Base it on a list published by Dept of Industry (or whatever it's called these days) every summer. Not only would this encourage students to take more useful degrees and acknowledge the risk of studying less useful ones, it would also encourage UK industry to be much more specific about the skills it needs.

Sure, it's biased against some of the more traditional, less directly vocational subjects (eg. classical greek or latin), but I suspect there's a strong case that so are the aspirations of the bulk of student applicants these days. Many just want a degree in whatever they think they can get. There's nothing to stop a smart kid wanting to study ancient greek at Oxford; they'll just have to pay more, presumably smug in the knowledge that an Oxford MA is a good enough meal ticket to pay off the bigger loan, even if it means a couple of years working in the city to pay it off before tootling back to get the PhD and become the next Classics professor. And if you're a good artist or actor there are plenty of other ways to get sponsorship from people who appreciate your talents (some of them are even televised, for your nation's enjoyment!).

It's good to see students marching again. Student activism is the most vibrant, wholesome, cathartic part of a democratic society. But I think the social contract between student body and government just needs tweaking: less swingeing cuts and more clinical cuts. But cuts nonetheless.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Tron 2 preview - wow

Looks very slick... "lickable", as Steve Jobs would have said 10 years ago. And in 3D it looks to be spectacular...

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Stat of the day

From the Economist:
In Brazil, Russia, India, China and Indonesia (the so-called BRICI countries), there are 610m regular internet users but a staggering 1.8 billion mobile-phone connections, according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

So THAT'S why Apple, Google and now Microsoft are getting all jumpy over mobile data. There are a billion people out there with a capability in their hands that they are not using yet. Cha-ching!

Nothing grey about this economist's outlook

Tim Jackson's economic reality check (Video on TED.com) is a fascinating reflection on what it is to be a member of society today. It's about as zeitgeisty as it gets in a lecture hall, especially from an economist. The principle is, well, the title of his book, really: Prosperity without growth. Historically, the two have always been tied together: companies grow profits, increase market share/value; countries increase GDP; I buy a bigger house/car. His argument is that this is not sustainable, so we need to review this assumption at both personal and societal levels.

It made me think about a lot of things, not only concerning my life, but the world my kids are emerging into, and the issues they are going to face. All in a very upbeat and sensible way - no fear-mongering, moralistic ranting here.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Players of Games

I saw this article in the Economist, which led to this article, about professional computer games players. At first sight the idea of computer gaming as professional sport may seem absurd, but, as the first article points out, snooker's early professionals were probably similarly derided.

The top players in this sport can earn over $200,000 a year, making it as viable a career option as many other sports. But is it as wholesome, as skillful, as spectacular as other sports? Perhaps not physically, but, having watched a couple of bouts of Starcraft 2 on the biggest gamer channel's biggest tournament, I think it might be a goer.

Each bout (or 'set') is about 45 minutes, which is well within sports watchers' attention spans. I'm no big gamer, although I have played similar games, so I'm vaguely familiar with the format, controls and complexity of such realtime strategy games. While the action was at times difficult to follow, it was no less accessible than, say, cricket. All it would need is better explanatory commentary. The commentators covered the highlights well, explaining the skills and tactics on show, but it was quite hard to grasp what you were seeing. Packaging, in other words: there's little wrong with the product, from an entertainment perspective, it just needs better presentation. The screen is a bit cluttered with arguably unnecessary detail. I believe Starcraft 2 is one of the first games designed with spectators in mind, and there's clearly more scope for evolution here. But with over 250,000 viewers for some matches, there's definitely an audience, so plenty of justification for such an evolution.

While it's never going to replace more tangible sports, I think there's sufficient complexity and excitement within the games, and beyond-amateur prowess on show that, coupled with the inherent low cost global distribution model, there could be serious money in such sports in future.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

'Like' button elections - the future?

Some strange quotes swarmed into my consciousness today, starting with...
The means of communication the electorate can use and enjoy are becoming more and more inaccessible while the fantasies of those who seek to influence us become more and more powerful.
from AL Kennedy in the Guardian.
Which got me thinking about influence and where people in this day & age ascribe credit. Is it that society is simply addicted to the trivialities of 'reality' TV, instead of wholesome political discourse, like junk food vs a healthy diet? Maybe the problem with politics and economics is not content but presentation. Opinions about reality TV are social & frivolous. They are sport: accessible, fast-evolving interactions, with 'like' buttons, blogs and discussion threads. Whereas politics and economics are weighed down with gravitas, and as such find it necessary to spurn lightweight interactions.

Perhaps the true electoral reform would simply be a Facebook Election page, with 'like' buttons next to the candidates. Referenda could be conducted the same way. When you think about it, opinion polls are simply models to compensate for a lack of capability: historically, it was impossible to get everyone's opinion about a topic, at least in a time frame that was reasonable for research purposes. Now, with the internet, and social networks weaving their way through it like ivy up a tree, there is a capability to rapidly grab and even validate votes online.

Obviously, in practice, the validation mechanisms would need to be more robust than Facebook (I think there are 6 other Neil Taggarts in the UK on there, and any one of those could be an alter-ego for an enterprising immigrant), but the principle is sound. Let the fast-flowing opinions pour forth. Sure, the crowd is fickle, but as any Pericles fan will tell you (shortly after explaining that, no, he's not on Facebook) that just means the oratory must be better. More immediate. More intimate. Shorter feedback loops. For politics to be more active, it must become more interactive.