Praising the Good: OmniSync

Mar 202012

I’ve used GTD-style task tracking software OmniFocus for some years now. (Sorry, PC users: it’s Mac-only.) Although I have a few features that I’d like to see added, I love the program.

Recently, the company (The Omni Group) announced that their sync service has been taken out of beta. (That’s what syncs my OmniFocus database between my desktop, laptop, iPad, and iPhone… which is critical for me!)

Given that the service is free — and works so well — I thought that I should write them a quick note about how much I appreciate it:


I’ve been a devoted OmniFocus user for many years, and I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your sync service. Before switching to it about six months ago, I was trying to sync my OmniFocus data between four devices using SwissDisk and then MobileMe. Neither worked reliably: SwissDisk was fine, until it suddenly stopped working. MobileMe would hang routinely, requiring me to restart OmniFocus multiple times per day. OmniSync has worked flawlessly, however… beta or not.

Of course, I hugely appreciate that it’s free, and I thought that the least that I could do is write to tell you that I’m grateful that you offer such a great service at such a great price.

So… Thank you!

The virtue of just is not merely about condemning evil: it’s also about praising the good… particularly the good that people offer you for free! I know how much I appreciate when people write to thank me for work that I’ve done for free… and I like to give as I get!

Illusion in Social Media

Feb 232012

Earlier this week, Trey Givens, Paul, and I discussed the questions of the upcoming webcast over dinner. (Trey was visiting us, which was super-lots-of-fun!) In our discussion of the differences between online and in-person relationships, Trey told us about a horrifying case in which an unfriending on Facebook led to a double homicide.

Obviously, that particular case wasn’t really about Facebook: something like that only happens because some people involved are unstable and depraved. However, this general observation on social media in the article struck me as quite insightful:

Facebook crystallizes the dynamics of our friendships and social interactions — bringing them a clarity that can be measured by clicks, visits, and comments. Having our social interactions brought into that level of focus means that a relationship that might have once ebbed over time naturally through avoidance and ignored phone calls can instead be cut off in a dramatic and confrontational way. Perhaps laying bare the end of a relationship in such a deliberate way means an intensified emotional reaction for those involved, or a sense of finality that one wouldn’t usually get. (When I blocked an ex-boyfriend on Facebook years ago, he was angrier about that than at any other point in our breaking up.)

I’ve certainly found that to be the case, and I think that’s why social media has the potential to cause so much disruption in online communities. (I’ve got a question on that topic in the webcast queue that needs your votes!)

Social media like Facebook and Twitter enable people to easily connect with others with similar interests — more easily than ever. That capacity to find the kinds of people I like is one reason why I’ve been active on e-mail lists for nearly two decades, why I’ve maintained a personal web site for almost as long as the web has existed, and why I’ve blogged for almost a decade. I use those venues as a filtering mechanism, so that I can find the kinds of minds and souls that I enjoy knowing. However, those older internet venues tend to be more one-way than social media: it’s too easy to be seen but not to see others. I like social media because people are more apt to speak out in large and small ways that reveal their personality, character, and values. That enables me to see others, and them to see me. So I can come to understand acquaintances better, as well as find likely potential friends.

However, that transparency comes at a price, as the article indicates. That price is not that people see the stupid, ignorant, annoying, and/or mean facets of distant acquaintances. Often, it’s a bonus to see that from afar because then people know to keep their distance! Rather, the price is that that online interactions make people within a far-flung community seem closer than they really are. Then, when people in those communities conflict, as they inevitably will do, people often fail to recognize the true distance and insignificance of the relationships involved. As a result, minor annoyances and disagreements between people who barely know each other turn into nasty public conflicts. That level of social drama used to be saved for bitter divorces, not people who’ve never even met.

These problem will sort itself out with time, I think, as people come to a better understanding of the nature and limits of these new social mediums. Certainly, I’ve made mistakes myself, most notably in fostering some unhealthy acrimony in the debates about the 2006 election. My attitude toward that is “Yippee Mistakes!” I’m not indifferent to my mistakes, not by a long shot. However, since Paul has yet to build me a time machine, I can’t undo those mistakes. I can apologize and make amends as needed, but mostly, I can use those mistakes as prime opportunities for discovering how to do better in the future. I can’t control what others do, but I hope they adopt the same approach.

Mostly though, I’d like to see a warning sticker on social media — something like the warning on passenger-side mirrors on cars: “People on your screen are further than they appear.” Taking that to heart could do a whole lot of good for online communities.

The Age of Ships

Feb 152012

The August 2011 City Journal featured a fascinating article entitled, “The Age of Ships, subtitled, “A time before passenger jets, when ocean liners were ‘the greatest of the works of man’”.

Author Michael Anton covered the history and technology behind the luxury ocean liners in the era after Titanic, before airplanes displaced ships as the dominant means of passenger travel across the Atlantic Ocean. The competition between commercial lines was fierce, especially to be able to cite the fastest Trans-Atlantic crossing times.

There are lots of interesting tidbits, but I especially liked the story Vladimir Yourkevitch, who fled Russia after the Communist takeover and had to take a job in France as a riveter in the Renault factory. The image of an immigrant factory worker trying to persuade the chairman of a major French shipyard that his revolutionary new ship hull design would work is something straight out of fiction. But it did indeed work, and that ship would later set one of the speed records.

(Read the full text of “The Age of Ships“.)

HP Calculators in 2025, As Predicated in 1978

Feb 142012

In 1978, the HP Calculator Journal published a cute short story by science fiction writer Gordon Dickson entitled, “Thank You, Beep!

It described a day in the life of a business traveler in the year 2025, armed with his trusty “HP XX-2050″ handheld computer (which he nicknames “Beep”), capable of storing personal data, functioning as an “auto secretary” to make appointments, and interfacing with other machines through various “computer nets”.

In retrospect, the predicted 1 GB of memory seems small by modern standards but was of course enormous by the standards of 1978.

The related article, “Smartphone futures — Thank You, Beep…!” does a nice job comparing some of Dickson’s other fictional predictions with current day reality.

The fictional HP XX-2050 is a bit chunkier than current smartphones:

But overall, Dickson did a pretty good job for someone writing in 1978.

I remember reading “Thank You, Beep!” when it was originally published, thinking how cool it would be to see something like that in real-life. Today’s smartphones aren’t quite there yet, but they’re astonishingly close. And if current progress continues, they may well exceed Dickson’s predictions by the time 2025 rolls around.

(Crossposted from GeekPress.)

Beware Insulting Government Officials on Facebook/Twitter

Nov 292011

Thailand’s government has warned Facebook users they could face criminal prosecution “if they press ‘share’ or ‘like’ on images or articles considered unflattering to the Thai monarchy.”

Even more alarming, this was used against a Thai-born US citizen who wrote a book about the Thai monarchy while living in the US, then was arrested when he visited Thailand for medical reasons. (Via /.)

A few related stories from the NYT:

American Arrested for Insulting Thai King“, 27 May 2011
A High-Tech War Against Slights to a Centuries-Old Monarchy“, 2 Oct 2011
20-Year Sentence for Text Messages Against Thai King“, 23 Nov 2011

The closest I’ve found here in the United States is this story in Forbes: “High School Student Punished For Joking Tweet About Governor Brownback“.

She insulted Kansas governor Brownback saying, “Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked”.

In the Kansas case, the punishment would administered by the school in response to a complaint from Brownback’s office. According to the Forbes piece, she has considered submitting to the school punishment “because she didn’t want a disciplinary action on her transcripts and have it affect her ability to go to college. But she is rightfully unapologetic in real life.”

Update: Kansas governor Brownback has apologized on behalf of his staff: “My staff overreacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize… Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.” The student likely won’t have to submit to the proposed school punishment.

Bonus from Diana, because, as Justin said on Facebook, “the Thai king is a dickhead”:

Oh, Those Wacky YouTube Translations

Oct 192011

What happens when you put a simple conversation through YouTube’s closed-caption translation feature… twice? Pure comedy gold, baby!

Caption Fail 1:

Caption Fail 2:

Open Letter to Apple: My iPad and My Hip Fracture

Sep 072011

Dear Apple:

I’ve been a happy iPad2 owner since March 2011, but I never fully appreciated its value until I recently broke my hip in a bad fall and required subsequent hospitalization.

I am a physician, so I had already been using my iPad for my work, reading PDFs of medical articles, communicating with my colleagues via e-mail, etc. But when I broke my hip in an accident a few days ago, the iPad became my lifeline to the outside world:

Because I had my iPad with me at the time of the accident, I was able to immediately notify my friends and family of what had happened once I arrived in the ER.

In the ER, the iPad also helped keep my spirits up as I checked e-mail, followed my friends on Twitter and Facebook, and followed the regular world news. When my orthopedic surgeon presented my treatment options to me, he also e-mailed me some relevant medical literature in the form of PDF files which I could digest at my own pace on the iPad. And of course, I was also able to perform Google searches on my various surgery options, the complication rates, postoperative care requirements, etc.

Because of the specific nature of my fracture, I had to choose between two treatment options, each with its own pros and cons. I found it enormously helpful to be able to gather the relevant medical information literally “at my fingertips”. Because of the iPad, I was able to more quickly make an informed treatment decision that I was comfortable with.

I did briefly leave my iPad with my wife during the surgery itself, but she gave it back to me immediately after the surgery. Other than that, it did not leave my side while in the hospital.

While in the hospital after my surgery, I used the iPad to read eBooks, check my e-mail, surf the internet, and keep up my regular blogging. It was a real morale booster to be able to continue as much of my regular online routine as possible, despite my impaired physical condition.

My wife also had her own iPad with her while I was hospitalized, which allowed her to update our friends and family in real time on my condition, as well as keep her occupied while I was asleep or in surgery.

And now that I’m at home recovering, my iPad is still at my side!

For someone such as myself with limited physical mobility, the iPad2 with its light weight and long battery life was perfect. A laptop computer simply would not have worked while in the hospital. The iPad was literally an emotional, medical, and physical lifeline for me during a difficult time in my life.

I know Apple has been in the news lately because of Steve Jobs’ decision to step down as CEO. I just wanted to take this opportunity to publicly thank Mr. Jobs and Apple for creating such a wonderful, life-enhancing product.

In your advertisements, Apple has touted the iPad as “magical” and “revolutionary”. To that, I would add the term “life-saver”.

– Paul Hsieh, MD

[Crossposted from GeekPress.]

Hsieh in AT: Thank You, Steve Jobs

Aug 252011

The 8/25/2011 American Thinker published my short piece: “Thank You, Steve Jobs“.

He became wealthy offering value for value. In the end, we and his customers (and his employees and the people who wrote iPad apps, etc.) all won. This is why free market capitalism is a wonderful, moral system.

On a related note, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit has a nice interview with former BB&T CEO John Allison on how the government caused the financial crisis and why capitalism is the only moral economic system:

The Bizarro Online Market for Stolen Credit Card Numbers

Jul 262011

The NPR show Planet Money recently aired a fascinating story about the underground online market for stolen credit card numbers. (Click on the link to listen to the audio file.)

Basically, this underground market has many features of legitimate online sales websites (such as eBay or Amazon), but with some curious inversions.

For instance, you can’t get an account unless two other current members (who are also criminals) can “vouch” for you as also being a fellow criminal.

However, to do any kind of “business” they still have to rely on some of the same mechanisms that honest marketplaces use. For instance, there are rating systems for buyers to give feedback on sellers of these stolen credit cards. Getting a good A+ rating as a seller is critical to this sort of “commercial” success. Many sellers also have FAQ’s (“Do you offer discounts for bulk purchases?”, etc.) that mirror the sorts of FAQs one sees on eBay.

Of course, the transactions are conducted not via credit card (heh), but through other forms of secure digital currency.

Other funny/bizarre tidbits:

  • The site moderator warns users not to use ALL CAPS in their posts, otherwise, they’ll be banned.

  • To get in, you also have to click on a “Terms of Use” box that states you’re not a journalist nor a law enforcement officer. In other words, they are relying on the “honesty” of the bad guys. (Of course, the story was aired by an NPR journalist working with an FBI agent who quite appropriately “agreed” to those terms without any moral qualms.)

    (Update: SteveD points out that the Terms of Use are relying on the honest of the good guys, not the bad guys. Yes — quite right!)

  • Many of the big operations end up functioning like real businesses, hiring employees, etc. In other words, they “successful” bad guys have to work hard for their ill-gotten gains — which makes one wonder why they don’t just get honest jobs.

As I listened to the story, it really struck me how the bad guys were in so many ways parasitical upon methods and practices of genuine honest producers.

The full story lasts about 30 minutes and I highly recommend listening to the whole thing! (Download the audio file.)

Crowdsourcing Benefits of Personal Genetic Testing

Jul 192011

At FuturePundit, Randall Parker described how “Crowd Sourcing Identifies 2 Parkinsons Disease Genes“.

Here’s an extended excerpt from his post:

The folks at personal genetic testing company recruited Parkinson’s Disease (PD) patients from mailing lists and other means and compared their genetic variants with a group of 23andMe customers who also got their genetic variants tested by 23andMe.

They used the resulting data to discover 2 more genetic variants associated with Parkinson’s Disease. The results demonstrate the speed, low cost, and power of web-based recruiting to do genetic research outside the traditional academic framework.

We conducted a large genome-wide association study (GWAS) of Parkinson’s disease (PD) with over 3,400 cases and 29,000 controls (the largest single PD GWAS cohort to date). We report two novel genetic associations and replicate a total of twenty previously described associations, showing that there are now many solid genetic factors underlying PD. We also estimate that genetic factors explain at least one-fourth of the variation in PD liability, of which currently discovered factors only explain a small fraction (6%–7%). Together, these results expand the set of genetic factors discovered to date and imply that many more associations remain to be found.

Unlike traditional studies, participation in this study took place completely online, using a collection of cases recruited primarily via PD mailing lists and controls derived from the customer base of the personal genetics company 23andMe.

Our study thus illustrates the ability of web-based methods for enrollment and data collection to yield new scientific insights into the etiology of disease, and it demonstrates the power and reliability of self-reported data for studying the genetics of Parkinson’s disease.

You can read the whole open access Plos Genetics research report at that link.

What’s cool about this: Using a web site and cheap genetic testing services people can volunteer themselves as research subjects on a scale that historically has taken far more effort to organize. This approach can scale into the hundreds of thousands, and even hundreds of millions of people. There’s a big network effect where the more people who get tested the more useful genetic testing becomes.

Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) genetic testing is what made the study above possible. Whether we will be able to continue to get our DNA tested without paying for a doctor’s visit and additional testing mark-ups remains to be seen. In the United States the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking a dim view of DTC genetic testing.

(Read the rest of Parker’s post: “Crowd Sourcing Identifies 2 Parkinsons Disease Genes“.)

Here’s the full PLOS Genetics paper: “Web-Based Genome-Wide Association Study Identifies Two Novel Loci and a Substantial Genetic Component for Parkinson’s Disease“.

I completely agree with Parker. Proposed FDA controls over the growing consumer genetic testing market not only deprive individuals of the right to learn the content of their DNA, but could also stifle the growth of new discoveries (and downstream therapies) made possible only by this sort of innovative free-market “crowdsourcing”.

The FDA has no business stopping people from voluntarily sharing their genetic information with others in hopes that they might reap life-saving benefits.

(See also my July 2010 PajamasMedia piece, “Should You Be Allowed To Know What’s In Your DNA?“)

Note from Diana: I got my 23andMe genetic test results back last week… with some useful but worrisome results. I’ll blog about that soon-ish.

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