TechDirt is right in theory on Net Neutrality

I read TechDirt religiously. I love how they have no patience for spin and bs, and argue with reason, snark, and relentlessness against shortsighted business practices. On Net Neutrality, though, I think they’re being naive.
They’re right in theory. Of course the main issue isn’t net neutrality, it’s excessive market concentration and lack of competition. In recent years, the US government has gone back on the policy to break up Ma Bell, has removed obligations to wholesale their networks, and approved merger after merger. The unsurprising result — the neomonopolist AT&T is bragging that it’s about to exert its power by using its monopoly on the wire to control the market for content and services.
Sure, the right policy is to break up the monopoly again, one way or another. Legally split network from services. Encourage government-supported fiber, wholesaled to allow free-market competition for connectivity and content. But those things aren’t going to happen with today’s Republicans (no Teddy Roosevelts these days), and it would take a pretty serious populist revolution to pry the Democrats back from incumbent industry tool.
Sure, Net Neutrality is second best, but if that’s what we can get while building back policies that favor competition and oppose monopoly, we should take it. Hopefully the TechDirt guys aren’t dissuating techies from calling and writing their Senators to support Net Neutrality, If we don’t get this partial victory now, there will be a smaller and less powerful community to fight for the real win later.

Designing Interfaces

Jennifer Tidwell’s new O’Reilly book, Designing Interfaces, is a superb complement to Steve Krug’s web usabilty classic Don’t Make Me Think Focused on the design of websites for large constituencies, Krug emphasizes the relentless pursuite of simplicity for users who probably aren’t giving your website their full attention. Tidwell’s book addresses the continuum from mobile phones and streetside kiosks, requiring no little familiarity and partial attention, to scientific and technical analytics tools that assume expert knowledge and full attention.
Tidwell’s day job is the design of user interfaces for MatLab, a mathematics software tool for researchers, engineers and statisticians . Some of the most intriguing chapters deal with techniques for analyzing and exploring data sets. A benefit of the recent publishing date is that the book covers desktop, mobile, and web examples, with some interesting insights on how web design practices have affected conventions of desktop application design.
The book uses “pattern language” format effectively, starting with high-level patterns such as safe exploration and incremental construction, continuing to medium-levels of navigation abstraction such as the hub and spoke and pyramid matterns, and finishing with granular detail such as the choice of widgets and visual design effects. The pattern format makes the book helpful for teams searching for shared words for design effects. Another strength of the pattern language format is its focus on describing the context in which each design solution can be used to good effect. Instead of posing glib magazine cover-style cure-alls — the 50 mistakes to avoid, the 21 secrets to design success, the pattern format presumes that readers are creative pros who can work with their user base to make good decisions in context.
Tidwell’s background as a practicing ui designer gives the book a pleasing practicality and humility. She cites academic work in relevant places, such as so and so’s work on x, and such and such on why. But the citations are used to explain design practices, instead of arguing for or against a theoretical position. As an in-house designer, Tidwell is missing the arrogance of consulting gurus such as Alan Cooper and Don Norman, whose writing is designed to convey the necessity of hiring high-priced consultants in order to access the secret wisdom and power of ui design.
For Peter Merholz: the book has enough periodic insights to be appealing to experts, while helping to build shared language among teams with different vocabularies. I enjoyed it and recommend it.

Fry’s Austin has been holding my computer hostage

Fry’s in Austin still has my laptop computer. I bought the Fujitsu touchpad in Austin before I moved to California. When I was in Austin two weeks ago, the computer stopped charging. I’d had problems with the internal part of the power connector on Fujitsu laptops before, so I figured that’s what it was, and took it into Fry’s. The friendly service person said they would look into it. If they were done by Monday afternoon while I was leaving town, they’d let me know and I’d pick it up. Otherwise they’d send it to me in Austin.
A week goes by. No computer. I called them last weekend. They had diagnosed the problem on Thursday. It was the power adapter failing, not the inside part. They were waiting for me to pay an $89 diagnostic fee. They hadn’t called to tell me that’s why they waiting.
The service person said that they might have the part in stock, and that she’d be willing to go check. At that point, I made the mistake of asking her to look for the power adapter, but to ship without the power adapter if it was not in stock.
A week later I call Fry’s again. Turns out the power adapter was not in stock. So, Fry’s kept the computer, did not ship it, and didn’t notify me. The service person I talked to this weekend promised she is going to ship the computer, although Fry’s has a policy not to ship computers (now they tell me??). The service person told me they are not charging me for the shipping, not because they want to waive the fee to apologize for bad service, but because they forgot to put the shipping charges on e.arlier. The service rep was not apologetic at all. She sounded quite annoyed that I had the nerve to want my computer back, and pleased with the level of incompetence they had managed to achieve so far.

Whole Foods responds to Michael Pollan

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey blogs an extended blog defenseto Michael Pollan’s critique of Whole Foods “industrial organic” model. The response is partly satisfying; it’s a good example of a business using blogging to participate in a public conversation about it’s business; and Whole Foods could go much further to use blog openness to be better corporate citizen.
The strongest part of John Mackey’s post is his explanation of Whole Foods support for local agriculture. With statistics about support for local farms, information about the decentralized purchashing practices of local and regional stores, and a history of Whole Foods’ role in reviving local farming with organic agriculture, Mackey makes a strong case against the accusation that Whole Foods is too big these days to support small local farms. The statistics about the declining use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers in some regions were particularly inspiring.
The defense of animal raising practices is less strong. Mackey cites one big organic dairy that Whole Foods doesn’t buy from because of it’s factory farming, and another big organic dairy that has improved it’s practices; but he doesn’t name names, and therefore doesn’t do a good job of rebutting Pollan’s specific critiques of the practices of brands found the Whole Foods shelves.
Mackey justifies shipping organic produce half way around the world because customers demand the products. This is a fine explanation for Whole Foods shareholders, but a non-answer for constituences who want agriculture to be sustainable. On the other hand, Whole Foods marks the origin of its produce, so US customers who don’t want to buy products from Chile and New Zealand con’t have to. This puts Whole Foods on a continuum of ethical choices; do you want to buy more local when you can, or do you want to avoid businesses that have anything to do with global transport of food.
It’s a fine thing that Mackey and his executives used the blog podium to publicly explain Whole Foods practices. The post was open to comments, and the conversation around the post was discoverable with Technorati or other blog search tools. Michael Pollan responded to Mackey’s post in a NY Times column republished on his blog, and moderated his tone in response to Mackey’s letter, encouraging Whole Foods to do what’s in it’s power to live up to its stated philosophy instead of using the philosophy as an empty marketing slogan.
Whole Foods could do even better to communicate its day-to-day efforts on behalf of local and sustainable food by blogging more; by having divisional and regional managers blog about what they’re doing. More information about Whole Foods day-to-day execution of their practices would help build their reputation where they deserve it, and make it harder to obfuscate in areas like energy use and animal farming.
One good thing about following the blog debate was finding some interesting blogs about local food, including Small Farms and Saute Wednesday, the blog by the editor of a newspaper about sustainable food in the San Francisco bay area.

Saudi oil production is down — what does it mean?

Economist James Hamilton and commentors examines the possibilitie. Is it high inventory, like the Saudi’s say? Hamilton doesn’t buy it. Are the Saudi’s trying to keep prices high? Is there a distribution bottleneck? Or Saudi Arabia closer to the bottom of the barrell — is the quality of newly pumped oil so low these days that refineries can’t handle it? Can they just not pump any more?
If it’s the latter, then this story is the equivalent of the assassination of the archduke of Sarajevo for our time. Here’s hoping that’s not the case.