Talking About a (Radio) Revolution

Vehicle audio is something I’ve been investing a lot of thought into lately, so I want to zoom out of Apple’s recent announcement of CarPlay and talk about the general landscape.

Video killed the radio star. There is one reason that it hasn’t totally annihilated him, though: Traffic.

When you think about it, hardly anyone listens to the radio purposefully anymore. How many people do you know that turn on the radio at the same time or day to listen to a specific program? Radio-listening is no longer a habit — it’s mostly an accidental byproduct of the amount of time we spend in cars.

So as the last remaining fortress of the radio star, it’s interesting to observe the ways the in-car audio system is changing.

Before the “seek” function became widespread in the 1950s, drivers had to use a scrolling wheel to land at (or close to) the AM/FM frequency that the desired station transmitted at. Later, the introduction of push buttons and presets provided more liberty and freedom of choice.

Today, of course, these restrictive interfaces are a distant memory. Radio is just one part of the car’s dashboard. And while listeners are still invited to “tune in,” the term is only symbolic, a holdover from ancient times. When I turn the key in my car’s ignition, its media center automatically scans for radio stations within reach and displays their names. I don’t need to remember what frequency they’re on, in fact I don’t even know it. What frequency the radio waves oscillate at has become a technical detail that only the computer behind the scenes needs to know. So whereas my father might have had to scan through five stations on his way from station A to Station B, I can do so directly, instantaneously, and with (relatively) minimal risk to life.

Looking forward, I wonder what the implications of voice control will be. When this technology becomes better (more accurate), I think we’ll have pretty much solved the interface aspect of vehicle audio.

But that’s all interface. The technology that powers vehicle audio has seen very little progress, and is still generally confined to the AM/FM spectrum. What happens when digital radio becomes universal? What if we bypass the primitive infrastructure completely, with something like built-in LTE? (Some car manufacturers are already doing this).

Sure, audio cables, short-range FM transmitting accessories, and even Bluetooth connectivity in newer models have been allowing drivers to consume music, podcasts, and internet radio for years, but the need for these extras is exactly what’s holding things back. Not until these intermediaries are eliminated from the process — or at least made invisible to the consumer — will the big shift manifest itself.

The day when our favorite podcasts are presented on the same list as our favorite radio stations may not be here yet, but it will arrive imminently. And when technological advances allow the interface to blur the lines between the radio and podcast, when all components of the system streamline consumer choice, this will further fragment the already dwindling market share of mainstream broadcasters.

On the web, the drift towards content-personalization in journalism has already led figures like Jessica Lessin, Nate Silver, and Ezra Klein to branch out on their own. In the past few months alone, Lessin left The Wall Street Journal to found The Information, a subscription-based publication catering for tech executives and know-hows; Silver launched FiveThirtyEight in cooperation with ESPN, having left the New York Times; and Klein parted ways with his employer — The Washington Post — to launch Vox.com.

And if you care to notice, all three ventures by these mainstream alumni follow the model I talk about in my piece about the future of journalism: Dedicated crowd; expertise; small team. I mention this because I see the same happening to radio once consumers are no longer confined to a spectrum. When the medium gets (merely) as personal as the web is today, knwoledgeables1 are going to capture their respective dedicated crowds.

My media colleagues seem to believe that broadcast radio as we know it today is safe at least until driverless cars become a reality. Maybe they’re right. I believe other changes will profoundly affect vehicle audio (and subsequently the radio industry) much sooner than they anticipate.

Who wins or loses on the producing end matters very little, though; the biggest winner from the next radio revolution will ultimately and undoubtedly be the consumer.


  1. Specifically here: podcasters. 
April 8, 2014

Hola

Hola is the kind of tool you instantly want to share with those you know upon discovery, but then you think “it’s so good, everyone must already know about it”. I’ll take the plunge.

Probably more useful to those of you who are outside the US like me or those who travel a lot, Hola is a free, light browser plugin that acts as a VPN. Once installed, you simply click the smiling fireball and choose where you want to access a website “from”. Most importantly: It works like a charm.

Available on mobile, too. Use in accordance to the law and restrictions in your country.

April 7, 2014

On Pew’s Journalism Revenue Numbers

Pew Research Center: (emphasis added)

Total revenue supporting American journalism has declined by one-third since 2006, according to a new analysis by Pew Research Center. The sources of the estimated $63-$65 billion dollars supporting print, online and broadcast news have also shifted, with advertising dollars declining and audience payments, in the form of subscriptions, for example, comprising a bigger share. In addition, non-traditional revenue, such as digital marketing services and event hosting—which was minimal in 2006—has quadrupled, even though it remains a small piece of the pie.

Audience payments grew by 50% in the last 7 years and now account for 24% of total income. This is already a respectable slice, and as I wrote in January, I see knowledgeables further-gnawing at the market share of big, “traditional,” news organizations.

In fact, as this happens, I believe we’ll see the third source of revenue explode: “Digital marketing and event hosting,” as Pew calls it, account for 8% of total income, 400% more than in 2006. For the naked eye these terms may seem a little ambiguous, but really they are a convenient misnomer for an unfortunate epidemic: We’ll sponsor your yearly conference, and you’ll coincidentally decide the first or second spot in the agenda should be a speech by our influential CEO.

The above, and what some call “native advertising,” are going to make up the other (ugly) side of the future of information.

Microsoft’s Not-so-Holy War

The moment I hoped to avoid had arrived: Around a week ago I needed to install Windows on my Mac for an urgent project. After some help from a kind fella on Twitter, I downloaded VirtualBox and googled “buy Windows”: The first result seemed promising and I was seconds away from getting Windows.

Or so I thought.

On Microsoft’s Store, I was offered to buy Windows 8 either through a download or a DVD disc. I don’t know how many laptops still ship with optical drives nowadays; mine didn’t. I chose the download option, and was ready to set myself back 119 US dollars. An appropriate price tag for such an acclaimed operating system.

At this point, I was prompted to create a Microsoft Live account. We can argue if this is really necessary, but let’s skip this step. I filled all the required fields, logged in, and went to the check out page:

Microsoft Store Checkout Page

I stopped for a moment when I saw this. Even though I’ve entered “Israel” during sign-up, the country field is preset to “United States” and cannot be changed. I double-checked my details and refreshed. Then I logged out and refreshed again. I mean, surely it’s a technical bug or something. Or maybe there are different versions of Windows for each region?

Maybe, but despite the fact that Microsoft does boast a Hebrew-based store, going to the checkout page produces the same result, only a bit more amusing in this instance: A checkout page in Hebrew that Israeli customers cannot use to buy Windows.

So around 25 minutes have gone by since I clicked that first result on Google. I want to give up, but decide to call Microsoft’s support. Surely there must be a way for me to put my hands on a copy of Windows. Surely in its current state Microsoft cannot afford to lose more sales. If I’m downloading Windows over the web, what difference does it make where I’m doing this from?

Here comes the bottom-line: The full version of Windows 8 isn’t available for download, at all. At least not through Microsoft. My best bet, said the support rep, would to buy it from a retailer in Israel. And, surprise surprise, retailers in Israel only sell DVD versions of Windows.

Now, I’m not an analyst or a pundit. If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I cannot be blamed for taking sides in the Apple vs. Microsoft feud. I’m an end-user, a layman, a plain customer. So let’s ignore the many blunt ironies and lack of professionalism on Microsoft’s part and focus on one fact: If you have a modern laptop and reside outside of the United States, not only is pirating1 Windows 8 your cheaper, simpler, and faster option, it’s your only option.

And when I see how easily Microsoft frustrates and then turns away a stubborn customer like me, I can understand what those pundits whom I criticize mean when they say that Microsoft is doomed. I don’t know how many businesses design their store to incentivize (some) customers to steal (some of) their products instead of buying them.

The anecdote above gains more relevance amid the buzz around Steve Jobs’s internal-declaration of a “holy war on Google” in 2010, revealed two days ago by Apple itself. It seems that the war against Google and Apple isn’t that holy in Microsoft’s eyes. This is the mid-nineties, after all, and things are looking dandy.


A somewhat-unrelated side note: Did you notice that in his memo, Jobs also called for tying “all of [Apple's] products together so they further lock consumers into [their] ecosystem?” I wonder what creative interpretation Apple writers will give the word “lock” here (if they choose to address this line at all). But hey, at least Tim Cook doesn’t care about “the bloody ROI“!

It’s funny how selectively some depict Apple’s narrative.


  1. Which you shouldn’t do. 
March 18, 2014

The Passion Trap

I find most articles on passion ridiculously convincing. Whether it’s a 200-page study by two semi-accomplished researchers or an op-ed by an overly-accomplished “guru”, everyone’s sure that you should follow your passion. Unless they’re sure you shouldn’t.

My knee-jerk reaction has long been to skip any article that has to do with the subject, so when I saw The Passion Trap in my RSS items, I was going to do just that. But then I noticed it’s published on Oscillatory Thoughts, Bradley Voyek’s blog. Voyek doesn’t write that often, but when he does, it’s usually worth a consideration.

I’ll tell you one thing: This time, I’m very glad to have made the exemption.

Lately

  1. Publishing has been scarce due to a sudden deterioration in my wrist-shoulder situation. Tests remain blank and my doctors aren’t sure what to rule out next. I hope to get this resolved soon as I’ve been unable to write more than a few paragraphs without needing a break. Accordingly, this will be a short piece.

  2. Early last week Apple announced CarPlay. It will be interesting to see how Cupertino gets along with car manufacturers in order for this to take off. People who said the iPhone will be a niche product when it first came out were quickly proven wrong, but this time Apple isn’t playing exclusively by their own rules.

  3. iOS 7.1 is good news for those (millions of) users with an iPhone 4. Two of them are my friends who are determined (still) to switch to an Android because iOS 7 was making their devices crawl. Overall, this is a good update, and I’ve noticed better responsiveness even with my 5S. The Shift key redesign, however, is simply untenable. Nick Heer demonstrates what’s wrong with the way this button evolved, and Riccrado Mori shares a little trick he uses to deal with it.

  4. How do antibiotics that are injected into our foods affect us? A fascinating read on the NYT. Related: Two interesting charts that I’ve published here almost a year ago.

  5. A Soft Murmur & Coffitivity: The first provides various sounds that can be fine-tuned for a desired ambience, the second is a weird attempt to replicate the sonic surroundings in a coffee shop.

  6. This one is a bit of an oldie: If you haven’t heard of Jeff Bezos’ “regret-minimization framework”, watch him explain what it is in this short video.

March 2, 2014

The Capitalist’s Dilemma

Today’s issue of The Backseat Companion1 included a link to a NY Times column by Clayton Christensen, published in 2012. This reminded me of a wonderful, wonderful video I saw Horace Dediu share on Twitter a while ago.

The clip carries the same title (and idea) as the aforelinked article, but I found it much more compelling. If you can, take a look at both. But absolutely make sure to put 25 minutes aside and watch the video. Even people remotely interested in economics should find it worthwhile.


  1. A totally hip newsletter written by two awesome Italians whom I happen to know. 
March 2, 2014February 27, 2014

Opt Out of Dropbox’s Arbitration Clause

Dropbox emailed users five days ago, announcing changes to their Terms of Service. One such change is the addition of a new arbitration clause. Tiffany Bridge explains what it means:

No matter what they do (delete your data, privacy breach, overcharging, whatever), you don’t get to sue. Instead, THEY get to choose the arbitrator according to whatever criteria they want, and thus any dispute is decided by someone they’re paying.

The new TOS will go into effect on March 24, so if you want to opt out of the arbitration clause, go here. I just did.

February 26, 2014

Gratitude

One of my recent pieces, Make it Count, briefly made the Hacker News front-page on Sunday. It was steadily approaching the top 10 items, but then got pushed down to the second page abruptly. As it turns out, HN’s algorithm is designed to prevent internet flame-wars and penalizes items that garner comments too quickly in their respective thread.

Naturally, I would have liked mine to enjoy a little more sunlight, but I’m glad it started a conversation. To the newcomers who decided to stay for another round and subscribe to the RSS feed: Thank you.

Notes on Ukraine

I’ve been trying to follow the Ukraine story more closely. Well, a tad bit closer than what is already dictated by my job. I don’t profess to have a broad-enough perspective on the issue, and I certainly don’t know any better than the Ukrainians themselves. Nevertheless, three observations that I want to share.

First, It’s interesting to see mainstream being more cautious in this case. The lessons from recruiting catch phrases like “The Arab Spring” and “The Facebook Revolution” are still fresh in the minds of news editors. We all know very well how the one in Egypt ended.

Still, “Revolution” sells better on the newsstands and generates more link-bait than, say, reform. Truth is, Ukraine is at a greater divide than what is being portrayed so far.

Second, this appeared on Reuters on Sunday, February 22:

Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, dramatically freed on Saturday as her arch-rival President Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev, drew support from German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a phone call on Sunday, Tymoshenko’s press service said.

Merkel “congratulated Yulia Tymoshenko on her release and expressed the certainty that her return to mainstream politics would become one of the main factors in stabilising the situation in Ukraine”, a statement said.

Merkel said Tymoshenko’s return to political life would also contribute to preserving the unity of Ukraine and helping it along the path of European reform, it added.

Now, we have to remember who we’re talking about here: Tymoshenko, as Christopher Dickey of The Daily Beast notes, “has a record allegedly as shady as any politician’s in Ukraine”. A gas-oligarch turned energy minister, Tymoshenko herself admitted to “some mistakes” when she addressed protesters after her recent release.

So why is Merkel, the (pretty much) exclusive shot-caller in the EU, praising Tymoshenko’s return to the public stage? This April 2012 piece from Der Spiegel — the well-respected German publication — supplies one possible explanation:

In her first term, the chancellor was still generating headlines with her “values-based foreign policy.” It resulted in a months-long disruption of relations with Beijing. But the champion of values has long since turned into a cool-headed pragmatist. Nowadays, the political and economic importance of the country largely determines how vocally Merkel criticizes human rights violations.

On its own, this argument is simplistic at best and incorrect at worst, but the article is compelling and thought-provoking. To think that Merkel sees in her mind’s eye only the “unity” of the Ukrainian people or even the EU would be a greater mistake.

Which brings me to the Wikipedia angle, the first source journalists rely on for enriching their knowledge about geographically remote subjects. Reading Yulia Tymoshenko’s entry, one can’t help but wonder if one accidentally stumbled upon a PR release curated by her campaigners.

Here’s a screenshot of the “Opinions About Her” section:

Tymoshenko - "Opinions about her" in Wikipedia

Some select quotes:

Wilfried Martens, former President of the European People’s Party: “Yulia Tymoshenko is a shining example of Ukraine’s democratic spirit.” (2012)

Aleksander Kwasniewski: “She is an extremely gifted politician. I have met and worked with many world politicians and Tymoshenko belongs to the most gifted ones”. (2010)

Václav Havel, former President of Czech Republic: “I admire Ms. Tymoshenko and respect her as fearless, energetic and honest politician. You can’t see lots of those today”. (2010)

The above are just 3 out of 10 testimonials that fit a campaign flyer better than an encyclopedia. The only “negative” quote is the one below:

“She is as prime minister as a cow on the ice” (2007)

Care to guess who said this?

Well, you guessed right: That was Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted president who is now on the run and has been placed on Ukraine’s most wanted list with charges of mass killings of civilians. If the bad guy condemns you, you must be the good guy, no?

Even the entry that lists the “Criminal cases against Yulia Tymoshenko since 2010” reads: “Tymoshenko is one of Ukraine’s most important politicians”. Not necessarily incorrect, but neither something you’d expect to see on Wikipedia.

If you think this post is meant to criticize Tymoshenko herself or the latest Ukrainian uprising, then I did a horrible job at driving my point home. In that case, my point is this: If mainstream and Wikipedia are symbiotically feeding one another with bias, where do we go for information?

Make it Count

Imagine you had to pay a tax every time you type something on a keyboard. There are no exemptions, so it counts the backspace key you use to correct typos, the space-bar, email, Twitter…everything. If this tax was set at $0.001 per character, then the paragraph you’re reading would’ve cost 38 cents. I assure you it’d cost me in the dollars with all the editing I do.

For the past two months, I’ve been living in the world of keystroke tax.

I’m not paying with dollars though.

I pay with a currency called pain.

It started in December. Irritations around my wrists and numbness in my palms weren’t unfamiliar after extensive finger-work. I thought it must have been one of those weeks. There wasn’t a reason to suspect otherwise.

Two months later, and the pains are still here, increasingly hard to ignore: Mostly constant, ranging from noticeable to bearable, and often present in my shoulders. Several tests I’ve undergone came back negative. An electromyography I had a few days ago will also rule out Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; or so my doctors believe.

Pain is such a great teacher, particularly when it lasts for more than just a few days. It makes you aware of your limbs. Appreciative of the fact that they let you walk and grab and hug and kick, all without being aware of them.

And suddenly you are.

Pain reminds you that your body is an entity of its own, that your body isn’t you. Rather, it’s the machine that the mind utilizes to bring your thoughts and desires into manifestation. And just like every other machine, sometimes things go wrong. The problem here is you can’t just call Toyota or go to Apple and get a new one.

All I have right now is uncertainty and speculation. Speculation, and this line, courtesy of my doctor:

If we don’t find anything concrete, this may be something you have to learn to live with.

Typing has been a considerable part of my life for as long as I can remember: From gaming in my childhood, through using the internet for the first time at my grandfather’s house, to blogging for a living in my teens. I’m always in front of a screen, my fingers dancing on a keyboard. And I sure don’t want that to change — I plan to spend a lot of the time I have left doing this. But ultimately, the choice may not be mine.

This isn’t a post about CTS or pain though, nor is it about anxiety.

You see, as someone who walks the line between pragmatism and pessimism, I’m always preparing for the worst. And so in the back of my mind I’ve already gone with the presumption that these pains might as well tag-along for the rest of my life. And in that case, I will eventually have to make peace with it.

While all of this is a little harrowing, it’s also a little inspiring: If some kind of keystroke tax handicaps me to three hours of screen time a day, what would I choose to spend them on? Would I force myself to focus more on the things that matter? Would I make sure every character counts?

If I can only use a keyboard for one hour instead of six before my bones begin to ache, will I think harder before carelessly spewing words on it?

Would I go on Twitter less often?

Be less forgiving with my mind and more with my body?

And if the answer is yes, why not live like that anyway?

Most of us aren’t taxed for the time we spend screwing around, at least not so tangibly and immediately. Time is invisible and ambiguous, and we usually pay for it long after its due. The past few months carried a lesson I hope I’ll cherish by memory and not by experience: Every minute has a price. Every choice (and non-choice) has one.

Every character has a price.

So make it worth it. Make it count.

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Some Administrative Notes

Sometimes I wonder if writing this site is just an excuse for me to constantly fiddle with web-design. Since I really don’t want it to become a journal about itself — and despite my natural tendency — I’ll talk less about the philosophy behind the changes I’ve made and more about what they mean for you as a reader.

Link Posts

The fundamental change is that link posts will behave differently from here on out: Clicking a link-post’s title will no longer take you to another website. Instead, the link (or links) will be placed inline. This also applies to the RSS feed.

Visually, if you’re reading in a browser, then you can see that they look just like “standard” posts, but sport smaller titles. For those reading via RSS, the symbol in the title is gone. Instead, a icon will tell you that the post you’re about to read is an original. I hope Tim Smith doesn’t mind I stole this one from him.

There are several reasons why the prevalent link-as-title format doesn’t work for me, but that’s a “meta” subject that can take an entire post to explore.

Typeface and Theme

Despite what I wrote recently — try as I may — I wasn’t really at peace with Ideal Sans as the main typeface here. The first time I saw it I described it as “too artistic”, but really the word I was looking for was pretentious. Which is exactly the opposite impression I think Proxima Nova gives. So yes, I now share a typeface with thousands of other websites, but it’s one I can naturally identify with.

I agree with what some friends said on Twitter, that people come here for what I write, not how the letters are shaped. But you’d be surprised how these subtle changes can evoke an entirely different feel, even different words.

Finally, I went ahead and made some cosmetic changes that I think give the site a more balanced look. I hope to start working with the talented Alex Guyot soon on some useful features that are beyond my technical abilities for this update.

Now, back to writing. I guess…

February 11, 2014

News Economics

Last week, in The Future of Information, I wrote:

In the future, we’ll have ‘knowledgeables’.

Any dedicated crowd — no matter how dedicated — is far too small a market for a big media outlet. Not necessarily too small for knowledgeables, though.

That’s why we’ll see knowledgeables capture markets mainstream can’t even dream of entering: less people to divide the money between.

When you want to be first at every scene, you create a correlation between your performance and the size of your HR department.

Today, with a much more compelling piece1 that encricles news as an industry rather than the entire domain of knowledge, Felix Salmon of Reuters published another chapter of his “Content Economics” series:

Before, the locus of value creation was fundamentally corporate: only big media companies could hire hundreds of journalists and put their work together into a comprehensive and valuable bundle. But online, bundling is cheap. Any blogger can start finding and linking to the best content out there, and many did. The real value, now, started being pushed down a couple of levels, to the individuals who were writing the content which would garner those all-important inbound links.

It used to be that if you left the NYT or WSJ or ABC News or some other storied news brand, you lost a lot of power and reach. But as the media universe fragments, that’s not nearly as true any more.

The result is what you might call the journalist arb: a digital company can pay its journalists significantly more than (say) the NYT, while still having a significantly lower total editorial budget per journalist. The journalists get more money, more freedom, more tools to tell their story, and get to work for a more nimble employer which isn’t burdened with a massive legacy cost basis.

So if you don’t want to take my word for it, take his.


  1. This is Felix Salmon, after all. 
February 11, 2014

TwimeMachine

Yesterday I tweeted about my frustration with Twitter’s limited search capabilities. Specifically, I was looking for a quick way to find one of my tweets. Some of you kindly chimed in and suggested using specific queries and Twitter’s advanced search. But that only worked for tweets that aren’t older than 10 days.

I found TwimeMachine minutes ago, and it looks like the ideal tool for my use case: It retrieved my 1,700 tweets in less than 15 seconds and presented them in a searchable plain text format, alongside the URL and date for each tweet. Here’s a screenshot.

For me, this is much more convenient than downloading my entire Twitter archive every time I want to find something. Let’s hope TwimeMachine doesn’t abuse its access rights to post BS to your timeline.

February 10, 2014

Nate Barham’s Review of ‘Unread’

Yes, the same Nate Barham who actually reviewed Writer Pro while people were either hyping or complaining. Today he strikes again with an unbiased and balanced critique of a new RSS reader for iOS, named Unread:

Every few weeks, a well-known indie developer releases a new app. You’ve seen it. Twitter timelines fill with links to reviews or 140-character praises or the grinning confessions of beta testers. They mention each other, and you gape on, thumb hovering above the install button—just a password or fingerprint away from becoming one with the stream.

You’ll see I’ve labeled this post with “consider” rather than my usual, “recommended,” and that’s because I can’t wholeheartedly encourage a purchase just yet. Unread is a good app (maybe even a great one), but it’s not for everyone.

That last sentence is exactly what I thought after two days with the app. I don’t plan to review Unread anymore since Nate pretty much nailed the job. One thing I want to add is that the swipe-triggered animations in Unread were annoyingly slow too slow for my taste. At least when compared to Reeder.

Generally speaking, I’m becoming more and more concise of software reviews and who’s word (not) to take in this regard. Nate puts it with diplomacy, but there’s a bit too much back-scratching going on in our little tech swamp.

Updated on February 27, 2014: I feel the adverb “annoyingly” is too harsh here, and realize that this is ultimately a matter of taste. Unread is an opinionated piece of software for sure, and while I appreciate that, it just isn’t not for me. To clarify my back-scratching comment: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with helping spread the word about a friend’s work, but I do believe that “professional” software reviewers should be aware of their influence on buyers. As written originally, this comment is unrelated to the quality of Unread itself, nor to the reviews about this specific app.

February 9, 2014

Sleep, Productivity, and Your Heart

Great find by Jason Clarke on the Harvard Business Review:

Sleeping less than 6 hours a night increases the risk of developing or dying from heart disease by an astonishing 48 percent.

There is no single behavioral change we’ve seen in our work with thousands of executives that more quickly and powerfully influences mood, focus, and productivity than a full night’s sleep.

I’m in serious trouble.

H&FJ: A Review

It’s true what they say, that “content is king”. But to act upon this chewed up cliché exclusively would be a mistake. That’s like saying the only thing about owning a successful bakery shop are the cakes. Sure, if yours suck, you won’t make it anyway. But even if you have the nicest cream pie in town, not sweeping the dirt at the storefront or having an attractive sign outside is sure to hurt the chances of anyone ever tasting it.

When it comes to this site’s design, I maintain what some define as extreme pedantry. This can lead to adverse effects on the mental health of both myself and the designers I work with. Everything you see here has been (and is) thoroughly examined: From the important readability aspects like font-sizes, contrast, and column widths, and down to the chromatics, the icons used, and the padding between sidebar items. We’re talking about pixel resolutions here.

I had previously used Typekit and Google Fonts and was pretty satisfied with both. Today, the two fonts you see here are provided by Hoefler & Frere-Jones, known better by their initials: H&FJ.

I am uninterested by the recent controversy surrounding the oft-lauded company. From a consumer-standpoint, I could care less who stands behind their website at typography.com.

This my review of H&FJ, the service.

Good: The Fonts

Fonts should not only pass the visual-pleasure test. They must first be readable and legible. If none of H&FJ’s fonts matches your taste, that’s OK, there are other alternatives.

It’s hard to ignore their professionalism, though. H&FJ’s fonts are designed with admirable thoughtfulness, and I have nothing but good things to say about their quality.

And that’s about it, really. To say I was impressed when I first saw Whitney on kottke.org would be an understatement. The choices made by my friend Daniel Post for this site — Ideal Sans for body text and Mercury for headings — seemed too artistic at first, but grew on me pretty quickly.

Bad: Well…

With a $99/year subscription, H&FJ limits you to 250,000 pageviews a month and five fonts. For comparison, Typekit’s mid-tier plan goes for $49/year, gets you 500,000 monthly pageviews, and full library access to thousands of fonts.

These aren’t the only areas where H&FJ are more limiting than Typekit, but that’s not my main gripe. The former will probably say that they are of distinct quality, and that I might as well go with Google’s fonts if economy is all I’m after. “We’re superior”, I imagine the discerning designers at Typography.com claiming. And they might be right.

What isn’t so clear is that the $99/year package isn’t only limited to 5 fonts, but that your choices are irreversible. Once you select a font, there’s no going back.

From H&FJ’s “What’s Included” section: (emphasis mine)

When you become a Cloud.typography subscriber, you’ll get your first five webfont packages free, which you can pick at any time. Once added, fonts can’t be removed from your library: they’re yours to use with your Cloud.typography subscription forever.

So the fonts are yours “forever” — that is — as long as you’re paying $99/year. This made me go to my dictionary and look up some definitions.

The clause above, by the way, is absent from Typography.com’s pricing page.

It doesn’t stop there: Fonts can be a heavy tax on page load times. In my case, Ideal Sans and Mercury are about 474 kBs — 71% of the average page size on this site. Nobody is forcing me to use them, but I couldn’t have known their size before adding them to my library. The (main) problem is that you have no way of knowing how many Kilobytes a font weighs before adding it to your collection.

Yes, the one you can’t delete fonts from.

The cherry on top is H&FJ’s support: It took them around 30 hours to reply to my first e-mail. I didn’t think their answers were satisfactory so I inquired for more details on January 31. At the time of publishing these lines, February 8, I am yet to receive a response to my follow-up. This was an issue that concerned hangups and speed, mind you, but with clients like Barack Obama, Walt Disney, and Nike — I guess HR is busy taking care of other Very Important Pers…Stuff.

Bottom Line

Do I like H&FJ’s fonts? Absolutely.

Will I recommend H&FJ to colleagues? Probably not.

H&FJ’s fonts may be the finest out there, but I am less than impressed with their service. With Google’s ever expanding free library and Typekit’s superior service, it’s hard to find a font worth taking these hits for.

The Future of Information

This article has been sitting in my drafts folder since January 12. In the meantime, several more journalists have also decided to part ways with their employer and venture on their own. I figured now is a good time to publish it.

I tweeted this on December 11, a week after The Information launched:

[I] don’t know if @theinformation will make it. But I think the model of small team + expertise + dedicated crowd is the future of today’s journalism.

If you’ve read my about page then you can probably guess I have more than 140 characters to say about this. Here are some…

First, as the quoted tweet suggests, this isn’t about whether The Information itself will be successful — financially or journalistically — in the long haul. This is about the model by which it operates, and the major role I think that model will play in the future of journalism.

Secondly, let’s differentiate between journalism and reporting. The latter is only one part — integral as it may be — of the former. I think big organizations will dominate news breaking and reporting for a long time to come. They will still be responsible for the “what,” but less and less for “what does it mean?”. They’ll serve mainly as middlemen of information — an important and nontrivial task in itself — but not much more beyond that.

In the future, we’ll have ‘knowledgeables’.

Knowledgeables won’t “kill” today’s journalists. They will simply supplant them where anything substantially more complicated than a “what” is needed. Nobody is going to go out of business when this happens. In fact, as the separation between reporters and knowledgeables (both journalists) becomes more dichotomous, everyone wins. Everyone wins by doing what they do best. In this case: Journalists deliver, knowledgeables analyze. This is called specialization.

Forming small, self-owned, and single-focus groups, knowledgeables will play a different game than the one news companies are struggling to survive in. To be sustainable, these specialized cells won’t have to break any news1, serve a meager diet of ads as content, or deal with every item out there just to feed the hungry ratings machine. They won’t cater to everyone, only to their everyone.

Dedicated crowd: With their current business model, big syndicates operate horizontally and therefore cannot satisfy dedicated crowds. They can’t go in-depth with the subjects that matter to some of us all of the time, only those that matter to all of us some of the time. The Information is arguably filling the void for a dedicated crowd of tech know-hows and executives. But this is not the only void waiting to be filled. We are all — to an extent — part of a dedicated crowd of something(s), whether by choice or circumstance.

Now that Lessin & Co. have embarked on a venture that follows the model, it’s only a matter of time until others follow suit. Critics of this piece might say that what I’m talking about has already occurred during “the blogging boom”, or that I’m hallucinating. Both would be right, but only partially.

Expertise: Today’s mainstream journalists can’t afford to specialize. Their editors want them chasing the next big story, preferably a scandal that’ll keep as many of their potential audiences watching, clicking, or buying copies from the news-stands. That’s where link-baiting, flashy headlines, and the ubiquitous “right after the break” come from. Mainstream media has to ping our senses constantly and keep us in suspense, whilst shooting for the lowest common denominator.

How else can you get 19-year-old Sandy, a Miley Cyrus fan, and Jennifer, her 50-year-old bookworm mother, to watch the same news bulletin?

A lil’ bit-o-Miley, a lil’ bit-o-Dow, and a lil’ bit-o-homicide.

But dedicated crowds are looking for more of the same, and although today’s journalists can’t address this demand, knowledgeables can. First, because they’re not exhausted by a never-ending scoop-chase and can afford to specialize2. Second, because they’re able to operate vertically, business-wise. Which brings us to the next part of the model.

Small team: Dedicated crowds are the best crowds because they care. Not only do they care enough to spend the time required to understand the subject at hand, they are also willing to pay for information (or tools) that will deepen this understanding. Mainstream would love to get this kind of engagement, but in absolute terms, any dedicated crowd — no matter how dedicated — is far too small a market for a big media outlet.

Not necessarily too small for knowledgeables, though. If you employ 500 people and have an annual revenue of $2 million, you’re in trouble. Divide this number by ten, and it becomes an entirely different story. That’s why we’ll see knowledgeables capture markets mainstream can’t even dream of entering: less people to divide the money between.

When you want to be first at every scene, you create a correlation between your performance and the size of your HR department. Since expertise isn’t about knowing everything, but rather understanding a few things really well, knowledgeables don’t have to unite in hundreds (not even dozens) to satisfy their crowds.

An aside on price & market size:

I’ll have to use The Information again because it’s the only example available at our disposal at the moment. Some people claim that the problem with said site is the price: $39 a month. But we have to remember that market size and cost (also value) of information acquisition are almost always inversely proportional. Forty bucks push a lot of people out of the potential subscriber base, but is it too expensive for the crowd the publisher is targeting for?

This is an open question in The Information‘s case. Indeed, for subscription-based sites, the balance between market size and price is still up to the publisher to find.

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My friend Sid O’Neill scanned this text for bloopers, and for that I thank him.


  1. They might, though. But scoop-chasing makes little sense to a knowledgeable from an economical point of view. 
  2. In most cases they’d already be experts to start with. 
February 5, 2014

Timeless

Andrew Baker on writing content that survives the test of time:

The central idea needs to become the focus, drawn out of the inspiration with the event becoming an example rather than the foundation. This is something I find can be a stumbling block when I sit down to write a new post. I am inspired by an event and all the underlying concepts rush around my brain, but then I find it hard to distill that down and separate from the event when I have to actually write it.

I’d say the title of Baker’s post describes it very well.