Twenty Five

As I sit here writing this, I'm only a few hours from my 25th birthday.  That really blows my mind. Not because I'm 25, but because I don't know where the last year went.  2011 was a year that I won't soon forget, and not just for good things.  It has been a wild 12 months, and the fact that I'm turning 25 only amplifies that.

2011 brought some great opportunities for me.  I got to go back to downtown Toronto for a few days, the first time I've actually stayed there, and it was a blast. I saw my first Major League Baseball game in Toronto, a wonderful AL East matchup between the Jays and the Red Sox, and the Jays actually won. I also got to see the Niagara falls for the first time.  The falls are simply breathtaking.  There really aren't words to describe how big they are.  It is something everyone should see once.  I went back to the Oakanogan valley for the second year in a row. My family went there every year for many years when I was a kid, and I'm loving the return of that tradition.  I attended Fragapalooza for the 5th time.  I was able to go to the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle in August.  PAX is an amazing experience and one I won't forget.  I'm really hoping to go back again this year.  I also got to see another baseball game in Seattle and the beautiful Safeco Field where the Mariners, a pretty terrible team also won, beating the Angels.

Even with all of those great things I did last year, it was still a difficult year.  A couple things changed with my family in the past year.  While those closest to me will know what I'm talking about, I haven't, and won't, talk much about it in a public forum.  My family was presented with a new challenge this year, one that we will have to face for a long time.  It is what it is, and the learning curve has been steep, but life does continue on.  The year was difficult, and while nothing has changed, a lot has been learned and my hope is that while things might not necessarily get better, we are a bit better equipped to deal with what comes our way, and managing things will be better, if not easier.

Turning 25 has made me think a lot in the last couple weeks, both about the past and the future.  The last two years have been years of change for me.  I've developed a lot of new friendships, many of them thanks to things like Twitter, and have seen some old ones fade away.  I know that it is normal for that to happen, but it still makes me pause sometimes.  I think about how I'm 25, and have already been working full time for 5 years.  While I don't regret it, sometimes I wonder what might have been had I not done that so early, how different things would be.  But what's done is done. I have a good full time job with a good company. While I am not going to say that I'm working my dream job, mostly because I'm still not 100% sure what that even is yet, it's not a job that I hate, and right now that is good enough for me.

But, one thing I want to stop doing is looking back.  As I said the last 2 years have been years of change for me.  I don't' see this year being any different, but this year I want to have a different attitude.  My goal for this year is to think less about the "what if".  Too many "what if's" have led to too many missed opportunities, too much uncertainty.  I want to stop worrying about what might happen and just see what actually does happen.  I have some decisions to make this year, and some of them might include letting go of the past a bit.  I think I have made great strides in the last year especially, and it is time to continue that.

So, 25, I'm coming for you.  I'm looking forward to you, and I can't wait to see what you have to bring.  I know you aren't always going to be kind to me, but the feeling will be mutual.  What matters is that I'm heading into it full steam ahead. Lets see what happens.

The Twitter redesign - it's about the people

Yes, the Twitter redesign is different. No, there are parts of it I don't like either. But yes, it is better for Twitter.  Too much is being made of how it's changing too much and it's not the same way it was 5 years ago.  People say the same thing about Facebook, and last time I checked, they're doing pretty well.

Twitter is not the same service it was even 2 years ago.  Twitter has changed from what was essentially a combination of a text messaging replacement and a group messaging system to a communication platform.  It has evolved far beyond what anyone, myself included, thought it could.  The recent changes to Twitter make that more evident than ever.  Twitter has become more about connecting people and discovering information.  It should be no surprise that "connect" and "discover" are two words that feature prominently in the new Twitter design, but more on that later.

As simple of a concept as Twitter is, it actually hit a point where it did become very complicated to use, especially for newer users.  The first time you see "RT @wunderbar this #coke commercial is so #winning:" (note that is not a real link), how are you supposed to make sense of that?  RT, what does that even mean?  What is the email sign doing there? why are we putting pound signs in front of random words, and what is this thing?  It may seem trivial to those of us who have been using Twitter for years, and in some cases literally invented some of those things.  (@replies, hashtags, and retweeting were all originally things users did to try to overcome shortcomings of the service that Twitter eventually embraced and built into the service.)  Twitter, in all of the simplicity, was becoming complicated.  The new design is there specifically to tty to make it simple and more accessible again.

Twitter's new design is focused on 4 things.  Home, connect, discover, and Me.  Home is pretty self explanatory, that is where your twitter feed is, and where you will spend most of your time.  Connect, or @connect as it is branded, combines things like suggested followers, replies, and retweets.  this is very akin to the "activity" feed that twitter launched a few months ago.  I didn't like the concept of the activity feed before, but after looking at it for a few days now, I can see the value.  It is a good tool to see everything that is happening related to you, including who has started following you.  the "Me" part is also very simple, that is your profile page. In an unfortunate UI choice that is also where Direct Messages are now found.  I *really* dislike that, and hope that they move DM's to somewhere more obvious soon.  Having them in the profile page is stupid at best.

Discover, or #discover, is the most interesting part of the redesign.  One of the most powerful features of Twitter has always been the ability to search twitter to find out what people are talking about, right now.  The power of being able to see what thousands or millions of people are saying at the same time about the same thing cannot be under-estimated.  Whether it be during the Egyptian revolution in the spring of 2011, current news events, sporting events, or elections, the ability to do this is something that we have simply never had before.  Twitter has been trying to harness this power for a long time.  Summize was the first way to search Twitter, and it was so good that Twitter bought it way back in 2008.  From there, Twitter introduced Trending Topics, which aimed to show what the most talked about things were on Twitter as they were happening.  #Discover is the evolution of that.  Discover takes trending topics and evolves them.  No longer about providing just the topic itself, but to provide some context.  Beside the trending topics will be news stories about them, integrated into the page.  It is an interesting new use, and one that I do think will put the idea of the hashtag, trending topics, and search into the forefront of how people use Twitter, as it is much more streamlined.

Twitter also overhauled their apps.  Twitter for iPhone, Twitter for Android, and Tweetdeck all received significant updates.  Twitter for iPhone and Android have nearly identical UI, and integrate the new features.  Now, I've never been a big Twitter for Android user, but I have been forcing myself to use it for the last few days.  I can say that I don't hate it, but that I wish it performed faster.  It is faster than it was before, but I think I still prefer Tweetdeck for Android.  I'm going to keep using Twitter for a while, but I see myself going back to Tweetdeck shortly.

Tweetdeck is another matter.  Tweetdeck has always been known as the power users' Twitter.  It was powerful and could do more than 95% of users would ever need, and had more customization options than I even knew what to do with.  Tweetdeck, like Twitter, was overly complicated, and too complicated for most users to even understand.  Twitter bought Tweetdeck recently, and released Tweetdeck 1.0.  This has been very controversial, because Tweetdeck has taken some of that power away.  Gone are some of the customization options.  Gone is some of the features such as Foursquare account support, and most of the Facebook support has been cut.  The UI, while similar, has been completely overhauled.  Things are now displayed inline instead of in another column or as a focus stealing picture frame, which is consistent with the rest of the Twitter UI.  Searching is now easier, and the information is displayed in a way that is easier to see.

That doesn't mean that it is all good.  There are many changes to the UI which I frankly hate.  How columns are handled now is frankly terrible.  instead of a simple horizontal slider to move between columns, especially when you have a number of them, has been replaced with large buttons at either side of the end columns, switching between 2-3 at a time.  It is a very unfortunate UI choice which takes away many of the great advantages the column layout has.

some of the options taken away will be missed, and power users will complain that getting to others takes an extra mouse click or two compared to previous versions.  Some will dislike that the colour scheme cannot be customized, and some will dislike how it has been "dumbed down" somewhat.  Personally, i'm going to miss some of it too, but the changes to Tweetdeck and Twitter are much more positive than they are negative.

When thinking about the changes to Twitter, I've tried to look at it through someone else's eyes.  One thing that is easy to forget, especially for power users, is that Twitter is not being made just for us anymore.  It is being made so anyone can jump into it and not feel overwhelmed.  Twitter is a platform, and a platform has to appeal to everyone.  That means making it more accessible, which is what it is now.  While it has lost some of the "power" that it had before, I would argue that Twitter now has even more power, because there will be even more people using it, and the real power of Twitter is in the people.  If 100 million new people join Twitter after this re-design, which is possible, and even likely, that means that there are 100 million more people to search.  I said at the beginning that the real power of twitter is in the ability to find out what people are talking about right now.  The more people there are talking about things, the better a metric it is.  That is what Twitter wants.

Now, let's not kid ourselves.  Twitter is a business, and the real reason for this redesign is advertising.  Twitter has been experimenting with promoted items for a long time and this only makes it easier.  Brands and companies are easier to promote now, the #Discover page really begs for advertisers to attach their news stories to trending topics, and the @connect page will make it even easier for Twitter to suggest new people and brands for a person to follow.  This is a brilliant move by Twitter simply because it will make advertising on the service much more valuable without compromising much of the user experience.

I don't mind the dumbing down of the Twitter service, I don't even mind the prospect of more advertising, as long as the result brings me a better service than it was before.  While the changes last week have been very jarring, and change the service more than some people like, overall Twitter is a better service today than it was two weeks ago.  The power of Twitter is in the people, and that is evident now more than ever.

The Rapidly Changing Internet - Online Advertising

The internet.  Probably the greatest invention of the information age.  It is revolutionizing how we do everything.  From communication, to shopping, to consuming information, to advertising, to working, and much more.  Unfortunately the internet is advancing and changing so much that it can be hard to adapt to.  Unfortunately this is leading to some pretty severe growing pains as Governments and agencies, as well as businesses and individuals are all trying to adapt, with varying degrees of success.  The biggest problem is the fear that comes with new technologies.  Those who do not understand or know how new tools and technologies work are more likely to be wary of them, and those people can hold us back.  There are many parts of this that I'm going to touch on, but I want to start with online advertising and how more specifically targeted ads can be the most valuable advertising that there is, and why we should embrace that, not be afraid of it.

I've chosen to talk about advertising first not because it is the obvious first choice, but because it is topical.  Canada's privacy commissioner recently ruled that some types of targeted advertising on the internet violate Canada's privacy laws, and needs to change.  This to me show just how out of touch our privacy commissioner and privacy laws are with the future of communication and media.

Let me start by talking about old media, or traditional, advertising.  I'll mostly be talking about TV advertising, but this still generally applies to other mediums like news print and radio as well.

Traditional advertising has a very simple model.  Companies sell a block of advertising, and all viewers watching at that time will see it.  That may sound like a great method, but it is actually pretty inefficient.  Advertising usually targets only a subset of those people that are watching.  For example, an advertisement for Gillette razors may be very relevant to someone like me, a mid 20's male.  But a 12 year old girl could be watching at the same time, and that commercial has zero value to her.  That means that out of the two of us, the advertisement is only reaching 50% of the audience with the targeted effect.

Now, ratings and demographics play a huge role in traditional advertising.  Higher rated TV shows will have more expensive ad spots because there are more people watching them.  A show like desperate housewives will have more advertisements targeted towards women, because more women than men watch that show.  During Saturday morning cartoons I'm more likely to see ads for toys than I am for R-rated movies.  Traditional media depends heavily on ratings and demographic information, because it can try to target the most appropriate ads at the shows that would have the appropriate audience.  That's why the male 18-34 and female 18-34 are such sought after viewers among networks.  But even with all of the data that they can get, there is still a large part of the audience that will watch an advertisement where it is simply not relevant to them.

Now, lets look at some of the various online advertising models.  Google, which makes the vast majority of their money each year through advertising, has the simplest, but easiest to understand model.  a company can buy a keyword on Google.  When a user does a search that includes that word, that company's advertisement appears in the search results.  So if I search for "coke" and the coca-cola company has purchased that keyword, I'll see an ad for coca-cola in my search results.  simple, but yet very effective.  It means that only people who are searching for something will see that ad.  If I don't' search for coke, I'll never see a coca-cola ad.  Simple as that.  Google uses keyword advertisements in almost all of its products.  in Gmail, if an email has a phrase relating to coke, a coke ad will appear on the right hand side of the page.  Simple, effective, and un-obtrusive.

Now, our activities can also influence advertisements we receive.  I'm going to use Facebook as the example here, as it is again, the most relevant.  All of the information a person puts into Facebook, whether it is their relationship status, hometown, interests, favourite movies, etc, allow advertisements to be targeted at them.  All of those "like" buttons you see all over the internet now, Facebook collects data on those too.  The goal is to provide you with the most targeted and relevant advertisements possible.  Did you just change your relationship status to engaged?  Well then Facebook will start giving you ads about wedding services.  IF you just got engaged and are female, then you are likely to get an ad for wedding dresses.  If you seem to "like" a lot of news stories relating to the Ford Motor Company, you will see a Ford ad. Like the Edmonton Oilers, you might see an ad for Oilers merchandise.

These types of ads are hugely valuable to companies, because it allows them to provide ads *only* to people that they would be relevant to.  If you are not getting married, there will be no ads for wedding services.  If you don't like coke, no coke ads.  It allow each ad to be so specifically targeted that it does not have to appeal to anyone except the target demographic.  This makes each advertisement more valuable for the both the company selling the ads, as well as the one buying them.

Now, as a consumer, someone looking at ads, I know that I would much rather see an ad that is for something that would actually matter to me.  Don't' get me wrong, if I never saw another advertisement again it would be great.  But since advertising is part of our lives, I really want to see something that matters.  I'd much rather see an ad for razor blades than makeup, for example.  And why would a company want to direct a makeup advertisement towards me?  It makes no sense for them, just as it makes no sense for me.

Now, there is an argument to be made about privacy.  That's a topic I'm going to talk about more later, but my belief is that how these ads are targeted towards me are in ways that are a natural extension of what has been done in the past.  Do you honestly thing that if 20 years ago that if companies could have targeted their advertising in this specific manner they wouldn't have?  the only reason they didn't was because there was no way of knowing.  Now, I'm sure this is true for most people, but I'm not one to hide many of my likes and interests.  It is by no means a secret that I like Coke more than Pepsi.  I will tell people that without a problem, so why should I care if an advertising company knows that.  Sure, that information should be used appropriately, but this is true for any and all information.  All the data is used for is to give me a better experience, which is what I want.

What the privacy commissioner has said is that information about how targeted ads work should be clear and visible to users.  I have no problem with that, as it is something that should be disclosed.  After that, it gets, well, stupid.  The privacy commissioner wants websites to stop using tools that users are "unaware of."  Honestly, that is shortsighted.  There is an argument to be made that if a person "likes" soothing on Facebook that it does actually constitute something that a user actively interacts with, and Facebook has disclosed this.  Things like changing a relationship status in Facebook are less obvious, but I would still argue that Facebook does disclose this as well, and a user has to actively put this information into Facebook.  IF they do not want that, they don't' have to.  When thinking about Google, the privacy commissioner's argument is even more wrong, because it only displays ads directly related to something a user does.

Online tracking of Children is another thing that the privacy commissioner wants stopped. Now, while I can see the argument that a child can't be reasonably expected to understand how all of this works, but what is being asked for is nearly impossible.  Using google as an example, if a 12 year old uses Goole to help with school homework, Google has no way at all of knowing who is making the search, just what the search is for.  The search could be made by a 12 year old, or a 70 year old, and Google would not know the difference.  For other services there are methods to combat at least part of this.  For almost all online services users must be 13 years of age to sign up, and have parents permission.  Now, admittedly this is probably one of the most broken "rules" in existence, but at least it is there.  In an age where companies have very little control over who actually uses their service, it would be impossible to keep one demographic out.

I really do believe that the type of targeted advertising we see on the internet today is the best kind of advertising ever seen.  It may seem a little off putting at first to think about an advertisement directed solely at an individual instead of a group of people, but this allows for a much better experience.  Just because it is new, does not make it bad for us.  I would argue that Google and Facebook have revolutionized advertising in ways that the TV networks could have only dreamed of 20 years ago.  Just as technology enables us as users to do more today than ever before, it allows the same thing to companies.  They should not be punished for using the tools at their disposal to create the best possible experience for a user simply because our laws are outdated and cannot keep up with said technologies.  That type of fear will only hold us back, not move us forward.  It doesn't mean that there is no privacy; There are things I choose not to share on the internet.  But if I'm willing share it, I want it to be used to give me a better experience.  That is why it is there. The future of advertising is here now.  In fact, it has been here for a few years.  The companies that embrace it, like Google, are doing immensely well.  Last time I checked Google was making more money than I can really comprehend through advertising sales.  This is not going away, and those that fight it and try to stop it like the Privacy Commissioner's office has will be exposed as outdated as they are, and will be left behind.

[Read] - Privacy Commissioner sets new guidelines for online ads

Shaw puzzles by increasing speed on extreme

On April 20th, Shaw increased the bandwidth speed on their high speed extreme from 15Mbps to 25Mbps.  They have done this after a lengthy customer consultation spanning the month of February over the concept of Usage Based Billing. I’ve been thinking about this off and on since I heard about the increase, and even though I’m all for an upgrade in service to users; I quite frankly have no idea what to think, or what to say.  This does not make sense at all.  I don’t’ know where to begin, so hopefully I’ll get this off without too much ramble.

During the customer consultation session I attended, and reading from the notes of other consultations, Shaw’s message seemed clear.  Shaw wanted to put usage based billing into place because the company claimed that during peak hours there was too much congestion on the network, and the hope was that usage based billing would serve to lower the usage of heavy users, as well as help offset the costs of doing node splits, which increase the capacity and reduce the congestion on the network.

I, along with many other people, have explained almost to nauseam that this Usage Based Billing does not solve Shaw’s real problem.  You can find more info here, but to put it simply, amount of data and rate of speed are two completely different things.  And charging for the amount of data does not fix the problems related to rate of speed.  Shaw’s capacity is related to the rate of speed they can provide to its users, not how much data goes through.  The cost of 1 gigabyte of data is roughly the same, no matter how fast a user gets it.  The real cost, and where the capacity issues are, is in how quickly Shaw can provide the user with that gigabyte of data.

This is why I quite frankly don’t understand this move by Shaw.  If there is that much congestion on the network, why would they do something that would only increase the congestion?  During the consultation session we were told that most new customers choose the Shaw high speed extreme package, and that that package makes up a good portion of users at this time.  If there is this much congestion, why would Shaw take a move that would only make it worse?

Now, I do have a couple of theories on this. I will only share the one that I feel is most likely, for reasons that I will share at the end of this article.

What I think is most likely is that Shaw is trying to match Telus’ offerings in the Internet space, at least on paper. Telus Optik High Speed Turbo Internet, which is currently the company’s fastest offering, tops out at the same 25 Mbps. This puts each offering from the company at roughly the same price, within $1-2/month. Perhaps Shaw simply saw that Telus offered a similar product at a better price, and needed to move to match it.

If this is the case, this is likely a worst case scenario for Shaw.  If they are truly facing the congestion issues they say they are, increasing the congestion to match the competition is likely something they did not want to do.  Shaw is already struggling to meet advertised speeds during peak hours in dense urban areas, and increasing the cap will only make that worse.  My fear is that this will drive Shaw to re-introduce a Usage Based Billing model to recover the costs of more node splits to try to handle the increased congestion.  Perhaps Shaw is increasing the speed for that purpose exactly.  If congestion becomes more evident, it becomes easier for Shaw to take measures it says will help decrease that congestion.

As I began writing this article, I mused that it was difficult to write when I really had little information.  A Shaw representative reached out to me, and provided the following statement:  “We are always looking for ways to improve the Shaw Internet experience for our customers.  The Shaw extreme upgrades are the first step, and we look forward to sharing more details late May/Early June.”  The representative did also say that more information will be coming next week.  Based on that, I think I am going to reserve any more speculation or judgment to what I have already said, and wait for more news to come.

I still truly have no idea what’s coming from Shaw.  I have guesses that I’m going to keep quiet, because I don’t want to wildly speculate. I can only assume that this is the first step after the consultation sessions, it just seems to myself, and many other observers I have talked to, to be exactly the opposite of what they were trying to accomplish.  It will be very interesting to see what happens next.


-15 Never Felt So Good!

Winter hit with a vengeance here about a week ago. First, the snow came, about 25 centimeters(11 inches) in about 30 hours. That's actually quite a bit in one day for Edmonton, and the city was nearly crippled because it was so slippery, and so much snow, the side roads were barely drivable while the crews kept the bridges and river valley hills in as good a shape as possible so people didn't slide into the North Saskatchewan River. That alone kept almost all of the city's sanding crews busy, allow precious few pieces of equipment to cover the rest of the very large, spread out city that Edmonton is. I had to go to work for 5am last saturday, and while I didn't get stuck, I barely made it out of the residential area that I live in. The city did a fantastic job with the resources that they had. Dealing with that much snow, in such a large city, is hard. Most people have no idea how difficult it really is in our city. With our steep river valley hills, numerous bridges, and sheer size of our city that is too spread out for the population, it is nearly impossible to get the roads sanded and plowed in real time. And besides, with the high winds we experienced, plowing was useless anyway, as all the snow just blew back onto the roads anyway.

After the snow, came the cold. And wow, is it ever cold. In the city center we hit around -28, and it got down to -37 at the airport. And for any americans reading this, -28 and -37 in Celsius are -22 and -35 on your whacky Fahrenheit scale. going from about 5C(41F) at the end of November to almost -30C a week later was quite the shock to the system. I know we get cold, but -30 is very cold, even for us, especially this early in December. It really felt like everything has been moving at half speed outside this week, something that has reflected in the fact that it's taking me nearly twice as long to get to work. There are accidents all over, and it's just a mess outside.

Today, however, is a very balmy -15(+5F) outside. I went outside to start my car today, and it actually felt warm! That's when you know that you're used to winter, when -15 actually starts to feel warm. It's part of living in a winter city, and now that I'm used to it, it makes the winter months that much more bearable. However, that won't last long, as we're expected to get down to about -33 this weekend again, possibly only getting up to -30 as a high for Sunday. That, once again, is really cold, and I'm glad that I don't have much to do this weekend. I like winter, but when it's that cold, I don't like going out unless I have to. The one thing about this weather, is that it's really starting to feel a lot more like Christmas, which, in many ways, is actually a good thing.

Be safe out there. Enjoy the weather. We live in a winter city, so if you can't enjoy the weather, it makes for a *very* long winter. And really, it wouldn't be Christmas without some snow on the ground, would it?