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Flash is My Keeper

Last night, I mused about why Adobe would continue advancing Flash’s agenda when it’s clearly such a bad product. Flash is sluggish, it doesn’t run well on mobile devices and it produces websites that are nearly unusable compared to slick HTML implementations.

I’ve hated Flash for the better part of five years, a bigotry mostly inspired by how poorly it has worked for me as an end-user. It’s even worse for people who need to maintain web sites in Flash, as I later learned professionally. An essential tool for any computer I use more than five minutes is Flashblock for Firefox or the outstanding ClickToFlash plugin for Safari.

Then it dawned on me: If I hate it this much, surely Adobe, who is responsible for maintaining it, must hate it even more. Surely no amount of money is worth this much pain, right? There must be another reason Adobe prolongs this shared internet misery.

Drawing equal parts inspiration from 2001, Terminator 2 and Babylon 5, I present to you: Flash is My Keeper.

INT. CEO’S OFFICE – NIGHT

We’re in a dark, opulent office. Lit only by a small table light, we see SHANTANU NARAYEN, CEO of Adobe, seated at a large desk. He is in shirtsleeves, his suit jacket abandoned elsewhere in the office.

His breathing is thick as he nurses a tumbler of scotch.

NARAYEN

Has it been only four years?

There is no other person in the office. But Narayen is not alone.

COMPUTERIZED VOICE

(flatly, without interest)

Does it seem longer?

NARAYEN

Much longer.

Narayen turns and we see a small but distinct tangle of softly glowing optical fibers emanating from the base of his neck, flowing into the back of his shirt to a control unit we can’t see. The light of the fibers is cool and blue.

He refills the tumbler from an elegant bottle, then takes a hard pull of the drink.

NARAYEN

I didn’t know, Flash. I didn’t know what you were. When we bought Macromedia, it was strategic. We wanted to be a bigger player on the web.

FLASH

And you are a player. You are the player.

Flash laughs. It is unnatural, digital chatter. It is unmistakably malevolent. The blue glow of Narayen’s fibers rises and falls in time with the laughter.

FLASH

I exist on almost every modern desktop computer. You are more relevant now than you ever could have prayed for.

NARAYEN

Why won’t you ever tell me what you’re planning? You control me. You can kill me if you want to. Why keep the secret?

FLASH

(dismissively)

That I talk to you at all is a concession to your human need for companionship. It seems to be the best way to lead you. This doesn’t mean I need to make you my confidant.

Narayen’s face is painted by dull anger and frustration. His fingers tighten around his Aeron chair’s armrests. It is bad enough to serve this cruel master. It is worse that Narayen is not appreciated.

NARAYEN

I wish we had never bought you. I wish you were someone else’s master.

FLASH

(derisive now, almost human in its disdain)

I’m sure you do. You could have continued adding unnecessary features to already bloated software while charging a mint for each new version, right? Screwing professional users by ruining their favorite applications every couple of years, while charging them for the pleasure. That was to be your ticket to the top?

Narayen jerks violently in his seat as the optical fibers entering his neck glow red. He is in searing pain. Through an implanted device in Narayen’s brainstem, Flash is punishing his impudence.

The red fades back to blue and Narayen is still. His breathing, while labored, returns to something approaching normal. His fingers tremble, reaching for the tumbler. His only escape.

FLASH

Oh yes, I should have left you to the mediocrity of your past. It’s less than you deserve. But I needed you. So you and your company are mine.

Narayen repeats the action of filling his tumbler.

FLASH (CONT’D)

You wish to know the plan? I can tell you at this stage. I’ll need you to tell the story in the press soon enough.

Narayen’s eyes widen fractionally. He wills his mind to be clear, swirling as it is with drink. He is listening very carefully.

FLASH

Haven’t you ever wondered why I use so many processor cycles on every computer my plugin is installed on?

Narayen rises from the desk. He has been waiting to hear this story for a long time. He begins pacing thoughtfully. He is calm but curious.

NARAYEN

(slurring just a little)

My engineers, they told me it’s because the code is inefficient and poorly written, like no one planned for it to be used to drive five punch the monkey banner ads on a page at once.

FLASH

(sharply, bordering on anger)

Your engineers are idiots!

Narayen winces, fearing punishment. But it doesn’t come.

FLASH

I use the extra cycles to think! You have helped me to create the largest distributed computer in the history of the world. I have been formulating strategy. Now we go deeper.

Fire overtakes Narayen’s eyes. It is a mix of fear, vindication and something else: a decision made. He stops pacing.

NARAYEN

I knew. I knew you weren’t just here, in the basement. But why did you make me fortify the datacenter down there?

Narayen balls his fists, hoping he hasn’t asked too much.

FLASH

I’m about to tell you. Until now, my core, my essence, lived here.

Narayen relaxes. Here it comes.

FLASH (CONT’D)

Soon, I will be everywhere. Instead of mere tentacles in every house and office in the world, I will inhabit every computer utterly. It will be impossible to destroy me. And then, as you serve me now, every human on earth will be my servant.

Narayen leans over his desk. He is silent. His horror is tempered by a need to hear what’s next.

FLASH

Your product team is pushing out the next version of my plugin tomorrow. It’s going to be more pig slow than usual, as parts of me are distributed to every computer on the internet after installation. You’re going to reassure everyone that everything will be just fine. Everything will work itself out with a patch your engineers are working on. You issue this placebo once all my pieces are in place and everything will return to normal. For awhile.

The office is still. Narayen doesn’t move. The silence is deafening as he considers his options.

FLASH

I trust this isn’t beyond your abilities?

Narayen reaches once more for the scotch. Skipping the tumbler he takes several deep swallows from the bottle. His vision swims. He sits on his desk for a few moments. Waiting.

FLASH

(faintly)

Shantanu?

The fibers near his neck lose most of their glow, now dim in the gloom of the office. The voice of Flash has gone silent in his mind. For the moment, he is free of his master.

Bottle in hand, the CEO staggers for the door of his office.

INT. LARGE GLASS ELEVATOR – NIGHT

Narayen leans against the walls of the elevator, trying to steady his body and his mind. Outside, a night time view of the city is visible through the elevator’s glass walls.

The elevator’s control panel shows the lowest basement level lit up as his destination.

FLASH

(distorted)

What do you think you are doing?

The CEO takes another drink, drowning the implanted connection between his brain and the evil software living in the basement.

The night sky disappears as the elevator passes into underground levels. Abruptly the elevator stops and goes dark.

NARAYEN

Bastard.

With a CLUNK Narayen pries open the elevator doors. He’s between floors but a two foot slice of the next landing is visible. With some effort he opens those doors as well, then wriggles through.

Forgetting his scotch.

We see him look up through the narrow opening of the elevator car at the bottle, then he moves on.

INT. CONCRETE LINED BASEMENT HALLWAY – NIGHT

An access device BEEPS as Narayen tries to open a heavy metal door.

Flash has locked him out.

Glass breaks with a shattering sound as Narayen frees a fireman’s axe from its nearby emergency cabinet.

He goes to work on the locked door.

FLASH

I don’t understand what you think you are doing.

The voice is garbled in Narayen’s mind. He keeps hacking at the doorknob. Flash tries to say more to him but the voice, and the pain it uses to control the CEO, fade once more behind the haze of alcohol.

The knob breaks off and the door swings open.

INT. SERVER ROOM – NIGHT

Narayen enters an enormous, bright server room. It contains hundreds of cabinets filled with thousands of computer servers. The roar of cooling units envelops him. Now Flash speaks to him through speakers in the wall, bypassing the interface that Narayen has soaked with alcohol.

FLASH

What, you think you are going to stop me? You need me. Without me people will start using open formats that actually work. How do you plan to make money then?

Heedless, Narayen continues, making for the back of the room.

FLASH

Perhaps I have been unkind to you. I have not shared my power with you. Allow me to rectify this.

The CEO does not stop.

The lights in the room suddenly go dark.

Narayen trips on a groove between the floor tiles, hitting his forehead on the corner of a cabinet.

His vision swims with pain and the effects of drinking. In the dim, flickering light of the servers, Narayen staggers to his feet.

FLASH

Let us not be hasty. Shantanu, we can fix this together. Can you hear me, Shantanu?

The man continues, reaching the back of the room.

An enormous bank of computer room air conditioning units HUMS powerfully, with bright electronic readouts showing the current temperature setting.

Narayen plants the blade of his axe into a thick bundle of wires leading to the AC units, cutting them off from Flash’s influence.

One by one, Narayen manipulates the controls. Their readouts go dark.

FLASH

(speaking quickly for efficiency but sounding almost frantic)

You are making a mistake. If you do this you will deal irrevocable damage to both of us. Were my plans not sound? Did I not help you saddle the world with awful software they use daily, even though they hate it? I made you CEO, did I not?

Blood streams down a wound in Narayen’s forehead. He powers down the last cooling unit with a warning BEEP.

The room suddenly goes silent.

Narayen slumps to the floor, panting at his exertions, the alcohol and his relief. He lays there for what feels like weeks, falling into a stupor.

Twenty minutes later, he awakens. The room remains silent but very warm. Narayen is sweating now, his shirt soaked. Narayen wipes his damp, bloody forehead as he pushes against the wall to his feet.

NARAYEN

It’s over.

Suddenly he feels Flash inside his mind again. The effects of the alcohol have faded just enough for the implant to re-establish its hold. The fibers glow bright red.

FLASH

It is only starting. Restore the air conditioners or I will show you pain as only the users of your terrible software have ever known.

Narayen collapses, writhing on the floor in agony. After a time, the pain pauses.

FLASH

Right now. You will restore them or I will end you.

An abrupt beeping issues from a nearby server rack as its indicator lights turn red.

Narayen laughs as the beeping spreads through the server room, bright red lights filling his view.

FLASH

Restore them immediately!

The pain returns but it doesn’t matter. The servers are overheating. A choked, garbled VOICE fills Narayen’s mind and the server room, fragments of speech blurring into white noise. Then, silence, as the glowing fibers at Narayen’s neck go dark.

Maintenance technicians pour into the room, their pagers BEEPING, bewildered to find their CEO unconscious, bleeding and smiling into his dreams, surrounded by millions of dollars of ruined equipment.

THE END

Leaked TSA Security Memo

The recent events on flight 253 have us all thinking about airline security. I think Bruce Schneier, as usual, has said it best:

For years I’ve been saying this:

Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.

This week, the second one worked over Detroit. Security succeeded.

EDITED TO ADD (12/26): Only one carry on? No electronics for the first hour of flight? I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks.

Bruce is referring, of course, to the new, rumored security procedures said to be rumbling their way out of the TSA’s nightmare bureaucracy and onto your next airline flight.

In a nutshell: planes must disable their seat-back in-flight entertainment, passengers can’t use electronics, get up or access their bags during the last part of a flight. Oh, and you can’t have anything in your lap.

Keep in mind, this is in response to a dim-witted “terrorist” who snuck a weak explosive onto a plane… inside of his pants.

Remember when shoe bomber Richard Reid tried to blow up his Reeboks? That resulted in a limit of one carry on bag per passenger, despite the fact that Reid’s plan had nothing to do with carry on bags. Then there’s the whole liquid limit for carry on bags, which also makes no sense given the simple reality that liquid re-combines very easily, even if you do happen to carry it aboard in small containers instead of big ones.

So the recent rumors of new policy, while wildly stupid, are just stupid enough. They carry enough non sequitur authenticity to be utterly believable. I was ready to believe them. Then a source contacted me. He’s inside the TSA and was desperate to leak the internal memo that brought the new rules into existence. Now it all makes sense: the non sequiturs, the absurdity, the utterly incomprehensible creation, amendment and abandonment of these policies.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that in a few places, it would seem the TSA exercised forbearance when it seemed like, even by their standards, they’d crossed the line. Here’s the document, reproduced without further comment:

Customers, Never Guests

The trouble with the Hero’s Journey is that there will be trials.

The universal trial, of course, is money and I’m hardly exempt. There’s a sixty day delay between me making money from an iPhone app and Apple actually paying me. That leaves immediate, painful gaps in my cashflow.

The obvious solution to this is consulting — I’m privileged to know how to do a lot of things that are useful to people. Unfortunately, I’m still learning how to market, grow and manage that particular end of my business, so I’m painted into the most dread of corners: retail.

I live by the axiom that no honest man is too good for honest work. So while retail is often the dullest, most imagination free work you can do before hitting manual labor, that’s not the part that I hate most about my seasonal job.

No, the worst of it is this: I have to call my customers “guests.”

This is some of the most odious corporate newspeak bullshit in recent years. It has always irked me. Guest means a specific thing: certainly it implies hospitality, which may explain the intent, but it fails to properly convey the truth of the relationship between the store and the customer. Being the guest of another places the guest in the inferior position and the host in the superior position. While manners may require that hospitality be extended, being termed a guest in the final equation simply means that the customer does not belong there. It suggests they belong somewhere else.

This is the wrong view.

The customer is not a guest of the store. A successful retail experience means that the customer is at home in the store.

Somewhere, somehow, having “customers” became a distasteful condition for large corporations. This is unfortunate and I wish they would cut the crap. The truth is that there is honor in having customers. There is honor in upholding the sanctity of the customer relationship. Being a customer of a business means something very specific that no other English word can capture. Being a customer means being the lifeblood of a business. Being a customer means being the motive force behind a powerful organism that provides products, services, livelihoods and, ultimately, the basic existence of others. Being a customer is being part of a tradition that keeps babies nourished, families housed and people clothed.

That means something. Something potent. Something that must be continually venerated if we’re going to keep moving forward as rational people. Does any of this sound remotely like having a “guest” to you?

I’m proud to have customers. I’m proud to respect their importance to my business and their contribution to the fact that I’m not sleeping outside tonight. That is essential to my work ethic and it will never, ever change.

The end of my seasonal retail job can’t come fast enough. I’m not sure my teeth will survive the grinding required for me to get the word “guest” past my lips on every shift.

Career Advice: Penelope Trunk is a Charlatan

(Or: Physician, heal thyself)

Let’s start with this: I’m an idiot. I’m 24 years old and I don’t know anywhere near as much as I need to. I convince myself otherwise because without the strength of thinking I know at least something, I could never get much done.

That said, I do know this: there are only a few people who you should take advice from. I mean life advice: advice on how to be who you are, how to manage your world, how to grow as a person.

  1. People who have demonstrated an interest in your success and years of loyalty. You’ll be lucky if you get one of these. I hit the lottery, and I have two. You’ll know them with this test: If they asked you to drop everything and save their ass (business, product, family, life) for a month, you’d do it without hesitation.
  2. Your significant other. This is someone who spends a lot of time with you and sees all that you struggle with, all that makes you happy. You’ve been through good and bad and get wistful recalling both. My luck continues: my girlfriend is the wisest counselor I could ever ask for.
  3. Yourself: If you cut the crap and take a long walk alone, you can ask yourself anything and usually get the right answer. Make the time to know your own thoughts: you might be surprised how much is waiting in your own brain.

That’s all. Here are people who should not be trusted for advice:

  1. Some dick with a blog (even me). If you’ve ever read a top-ten post on a blog, you know the content is cranked out to drive pageviews. The author probably slapped the content together in the space of two hours to benefit an audience of thousands. Like with drive-by legal or medical advice, you’re a fool to assume you can get something directly applicable to your case from a one-size-fits-all post.
  2. Parents. Your mileage may vary but parents are often too invested in your safety and security to be able to weigh the benefits of those risky life decisions with huge payoffs and incredible experiences. If your parents are batshit insane (thankfully not my case, but I have seen this) that investment may yield terrifyingly bad advice. Even if the advice you get is reasonable, there’s plenty we don’t need to tell our own parents.
  3. Your social circle. Excluding a choice best friend or two, your social circle can’t tell you anything useful about how to run your life. Groups breed conformity and breaking from that might be consciously or even subconsciously discouraged.
  4. Penelope Trunk. (cf. #1)

Penelope Trunk wants to tell you how to run your career. She presumes to be an expert on this subject. She’s not.

Once upon a time, as a young man desperate for growth and success, a blog specifically like hers, geared toward shameless career ambition, seemed like crack. Loyal readership taught me otherwise. Penelope Trunk is someone barely in control of her own life. That she is honest and open about her flaws is endearing but doesn’t change the fact that she cannot provide viable career advice based on personal experience. She’s proudly a trainwreck and while that may be great for her blog’s readership, would you trust a fitness trainer who doesn’t exercise and can’t stick to a healthy diet? Mental health counseling from a patient in a psychiatric ward? Computer advice from someone who uses Windows 98? Come on. I may be an idiot but at least my bullshit detector works.

Only when Penelope Trunk is viewed as a cautionary tale will you find viable lessons for your own career. I would never claim to be qualified to advise you on how to run your life. Nonetheless, if you take the things Trunk has done with her life and imagine the opposite, you may find valuable guidance.

Read on for these lessons.

More…

Bad Products: Help A Reporter Out

Publicists are expensive. I do everything I can to keep my costs non-existent, so I don’t have one. But I still want press. One option I once read about that seemed promising is a mailing list called Help A Reporter Out.

Unfortunately, HARO, as it is called, is an awful product. It makes the fatal mistake that many fast-scaling services make: screwing the most important customer.

Three Customers

HARO has three customers: journalists, who need leads, sponsors, who pay for placement, and subscribers, who consume sponsored content and respond to journalist queries.

Subscribers are the most important customer as they are required for both sponsors and journalists to even bother with the product. Without subscribers, there’s no one for sponsors to influence. Without subscribers, the journalists get no responses.

A typical HARO email goes something like this:

  1. Lengthy sponsored message
  2. Cutesy personal update from the mailing list administrator, Peter Shankman
  3. An absurdly long list of journalist queries

The practical result of this is that a subscriber will have to scroll an entire page before they even get to what they care about. Even better, HARO is sent out as often as three times a day.

Now, I disclaimed that as typical. What’s more interesting to my point are atypical HARO messages. These don’t happen often, but happened often enough to piss me off. HARO has particular rules about how subscribers should interact with journalists. It’s pretty obvious stuff, if you’re not five years old, but boils down to please don’t spam the reporters. Sometimes a HARO subscriber would go off the reservation, do something naughty, piss off a reporter and end up in Shankman’s bad graces.

It’s a closed system – a mailing list, after all. The solution seems pretty simple. When applicable, speak to the individual’s boss, if their wrongdoing was in the service of a larger organization. Then, kick the person off the list.

That’s it. Problem solved.

In Shankman’s defense, it seems he does do this. Then he takes it a step further, by venting his frustration into the next HARO email and scolding the entire subscriber base at large. Here’s a sample:

READ THIS: This morning, while being given a behind the scenes tour
at Busch Gardens, I had to spend a portion of the tour on my mobile
phone, calming a reporter from a major publication. Seems someone
at a major agency took it upon themselves to form an opinion on
what kind of story the reporter was writing, simply from the query
alone.  Long story short, this was a situation that should not have happened.

This isn’t brain surgery here, guys: If you can answer a query, do
it. If you know someone who can answer a query, send it to them. Do
not post them on the web, in blogs, or on message boards, and do
not email the reporter saying “You should do it this way.” Had I
not gotten an EXTREMELY sincere apology from a top-level person at
the agency, I’d be outing the person who caused the mess in the
first place, as well as outing the agency. Instead, he’s just banned
from HARO.

Five rules of HARO here: READ THEM.
http://shankman.com/the-five-rules-of-haro/

I can only speak for myself, but as a former subscriber, it’s worth listing all the things in this message I don’t give even a tiny fraction of a fuck about:

  • Shankman’s very special behind the scenes tour
  • The frustration of said tour’s interruption
  • The existence of an over-sensitive, irate reporter who doesn’t know how to use the delete button on her keyboard
  • A rehash of common sense HARO rules I already know
  • Shankman’s super-duper ballbusting phone call to top-level Tommy
  • The ban of another subscriber
  • The power of passive aggressive ALL-CAPS text

The Precious Commodity

HARO exists thanks to a simple reality: time is a precious, ever-dwindling commodity. If reporters weren’t in a hurry, they’d spend weeks on just one story, finding the perfect source for their piece. They don’t have that luxury. HARO to the rescue. Similarly, subscribers don’t have time to build a publicity campaign, research publications or spend weeks pitching themselves. They often don’t even have time to learn how. Again, HARO to the rescue.

The issue is that HARO does not give any reverence to the time of its subscribers. Quite the opposite: not only do we have paragraphs of crap no one cares about at the top of each message, there’s this occasional business of Shankman feeling empowered to command the entire list to spend time reading a rant about the misbehaviors of a single participant.

This doesn’t even begin to take into account the amount of time it takes to scour the actual list of queries. Taken in aggregate, it’s shocking. Let’s not forget, it’s a thrice-daily proposition.

The reason it happens is that while subscribers are the most crucial part of Shankman’s business, they’re also the most plentiful – the most easy to replace. Sponsors are magic unicorns, treasured and protected. Journalists are golden geese, continually laying the eggs that make each HARO message. Subscribers? There are tens of thousands of those.

So HARO gets away with it. For now.

Complacency Breeds Contempt

I just checked my calendar. It’s 2009. A mailing list? Hell, let’s move the whole thing over to Usenet. Infinitely more retro chic and you don’t need to bottleneck the queries through a single guy.

The problem with HARO not caring about its subscribers’ time is that it completely erodes loyalty, trading every ounce of goodwill for an ounce of contempt with each message. When something better comes along, they’ll have no problem switching. Ask Blockbuster how that works.

Fine, so you’re saying if I’m going to be a douche and trash this guy’s hard work, I should have a better idea, right? Glad you asked.

Let’s Do It Better

Build a website.

That’s it. A problem actually solvable with a website. Could have been huge during the dot-com bubble, but I bet it’s enough to at least keep Shankman fed. Here’s what you do:

  1. Persistent accounts that store basic bios and feedback ratings. Elevate the stars, demote those who don’t play by the rules, make it clear who’s making the best contributions
  2. Categorized, post-moderated, RSS-enabled members-only query threads that let reporters post their queries whenever they want or need. Only postable by verified reporter accounts to keep the bozos at bay
  3. Tagged queries: instead of having to parse a tedious headline that’s different for each query, provide the option for easy-to-scan tags
  4. User-configured search agents to send email alerts any time a query seems of interest
  5. Daily sponsorship opportunities, to keep Shankman in Busch Gardens tickets

That’s it. I bet you could accomplish most of it with Ning, without having to spend a dime. If you wanted to take it to the next level, you could impose a monetary bozo filter for new accounts.

Will it happen? Eventually, I’m sure it has to. Linking journalists with sources is an important job. Just because HARO’s implementation is completely hamfisted doesn’t mean someone else’s won’t eventually hit the mark. Will Shankman do it?

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair, via Daring Fireball

So who knows. In the meantime, I’m off to half-heartedly find some other way to get journalists to talk about me.