Friday, December 30, 2005

Real-Life Frogger

Speaking of technology-induced carnage, I was running errands this morning and was stopped at a red light. For entertainment, a teen-age girl was crossing the street while talking on a cellphone. It really was a miracle she made it, as she was completely oblivious to everything around her (traffic, lights, the pick-up truck she walked in front of, the car making the left-hand turn that I thought was surely going to do her in, etc.). You could have filmed the scene and come up with a really taut suspense thriller, or at the very least a bad video game. At least she wasn't driving--but I could easily envision someone driving while phoning taking her out. Yet another reason why leaving the house these days is just a bad idea.

This isn't the first time I've seen this (and try walking down a sidewalk in NYC; the sheer number of braindead cellphoners one can ricochet off of is like some twisted version of pinball). And I don't think the IQ scale goes low enough to measure the lack of brainpower behind the guy who was talking on a cellphone while riding a bike a few months ago--he almost ended up flying through my windshield. No doubt it was a vitally important call.


This is just wrong:
A new study released this month at the Frankfurt Motor Show demonstrates that Internet access -- and other high-end digital applications -- will soon drive consumer purchases of automobiles. A copy of the study by Boston-based Strategy Analytics entitled "Frankfurt Motor Show 2005 Introduces Entertainment Choice" was provided to TechNewsWorld.

The study showed that car manufacturers are responding to the shift in consumer demand for entertainment choices in their vehicles. These car makers have been slow to react to shifts in consumer entertainment preferences in the past. But, the study said, the cars and SUVs on display at the Frankfurt Motor Show 2005 show in Germany indicate that manufacturers are "beginning to understand the need for flexibility in entertainment offerings," said the study.
Y'know, I don't need Web access in my car. And I think the more "entertainment options" (i.e., distractions) drivers have, the greater the carnage (as it were) is going to be. Heck, people are idiots behind the wheel as it is.

Text Patterns

Sez TechNewsWorld:
A new survey from America Online's Tegic Communications division shows that a "surprising number of people in America and Europe are sending Christmas and Hanukkah greetings by text messaging this year, rather than through conventional, paper cards via the mail.
Wait--people send Hanukkah greetings? So when companies and individuals say "Happy Holidays" they may actually be extending good wishes to people who celebrate a holiday other than Christmas? Wow, that's shocking. But I digress...
The survey is based on data from the U.S. and five countries in Europe, AOL told the E-Commerce Times. When asked whether they have or would send a "Merry Christmas" text message, the following percentages in an array of countries said yes, including:

The U.S., 39 percent
The U.K., 56 percent
France, 66 percent
Germany, 79 percent
Spain, 88 percent
Italy, 91 percent
In addition, when mobile users were asked whether they have or would send a "Happy New Year" text message, the figures were rougly equivalent:

U.S., 35 percent
France, 85 percent
Germany, 88 percent
Spain, 90 percent
Italy, 92 percent


Sounds like a scene from Scrooged:

This from Gizmodo:
If you got a Video iPod for the holidays this year, you should be thanking your lucky stars it didn’t come from the Hawaiian Keeaumoku Wal-Wart. Rachel Cambra, a mom and an employee of that Wal-Mart store, gave her son a Christmas gift which she believed to be a Video iPod she had put on layaway. But when the big moment arrived on Christmas morning and the present was ripped open, there was no iPod to be found. Just a wrapped-up piece of meat.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Walking Tall

As I contemplate my impending dotage (which should be along any moment now), the idea of a tech-heavy walker is a highly disturbing prospect:
It’s got GPS and sensors onboard that help guide the user around the house. It will attempt to avoid stairs and other obstacles in order to give the user a more comfortable, carefree walk. It also makes you look like a cyborg, which is probably the only reason why you would want to try it out, anyway.
The sheer number of ways it can malfunction, and the resulting carnage, is truly daunting.

Must Everything Be Digital?

A digital faucet? Oh, I don't know:
Why deal with that nasty old shower head that came with the place when you could be showering in luxury with the Visentin Klino Digitech shower system. From Italy with love, this baby’s got an integrated water temperature display and gorgeous silver finish. And I think I can safely say its the faucet of champions. Along with this gadget, you can also get yourself a Klino basin single level mixer, Thermo-digitech thermostatic shower mixer with integrated temperature digital display and Glazed Soap Dispenser and Klino Digitech water inlet with integrated temperature digital display + Fly 3 spray shower.
I admit, I do need to get a new showerhead (the one that came with the place is not unlike showering in needles), but I think an old-fashioned "analog" showerhead will do fine.

More E-Paper News

Via Gizmodo:
We’ve known that iRex Technologies, a spinoff of Philips, would be releasing a nice ePaper device sometime in 2006. The company has finally revealed details of its first product, the ER 0100 (codenamed Iliad), a 8.1-inch ePaper reader with 1024 x 768 resolution and 160dpi fidelity. That’s just a hair under the Sony LibriĆ©’s 170dpi, but with greater resolution.

Inside, the specs are modest but seemingly ample, with a 400MHz Xscale, 64MB of RAM, and 224MB of flash storage (not to mention USB, CF, or SD card storage). It has a touchscreen for input and built-in Wi-Fi for connectivity.

But here’s the part you should have been wondering about: Yes, the iRex ER 0100 supports plain text, XHTML, and PDF out of the box—no DRM muss. At least that’s the current spec—we better hold them to it, because otherwise what’s the point?

We’ve been waiting for a solid eBook device for ages. Hopefully the ER 0100, when it’s released in April for an as-yet-unannnounced price, will be the one.
I was in Manhattan the other day meeting with Time Inc.'s director of alternative media* and got to see the Sony Librie e-paper-based e-book reader live and in person. Very cool, even if all the buttons were in Japanese. (Arrows are the new lingua franca, it would appear!) I always had problems with the e-book solutions that had thus far been devised; I never liked reading books on a PDA or a computer screen. But I was impressed with how the Librie (thanks to its reflective display) was "just like paper." And it was lighter than the 700-page Vernor Vinge novel I took with me on the train.

*Funny; "alternative media" now means "non-print." I remember when "alternative media" meant something else entirely!

Ad Nauseam

And the migration continues:
JMP Securities on Tuesday raised its global advertising forecast for not only this year but for next year and beyond. The firm now expects the global online ad market to grow at a 25 percent clip annually for the next five years, up from a previous forecast in the low 20 percent range.

In the next year the Wall Street firm expects the online ad market to grow to $26.4 billion worldwide and to $33.2 billion in 2007.

Forrester Research, meanwhile, said that those who have the Internet are spending more than 30 percent of their media time nowadays online, a metric that prompted JMP to increase its market share expectations for Internet advertising in the U.S.

JMP now expects online advertising at $13.2 billion in the United States this year, or 4.7 percent of total advertising revenue, to soar to $35.9 billion in 2010, when the Internet will command 11.1 percent of all ad dollars spent.

"We expect large-budget advertisers to continue shifting an increasing percentage of their traditional ad budgets to the Internet," JMP analyst William Morrison said.

Misty Watercolored Memories

Oh, the more that things change, the more they stay the same:
As more people find themselves spending much of the day within arm's reach — or even pocket's reach — of something that can tap into the Internet, search engine Google quickly is taking the place of not only a trip to the library, but also a call home to Mom, a recipe box, the phone book and neighborly advice.

In fact, it has become the key to a huge repository of trivia, the kind that once rattled around in the back of our minds. Call it our auxiliary brain.

Kristin Beltramini, a recent college graduate, can't imagine keeping things like the capital of Turkey or how to get red wine out of the carpet in her long-term memory.
So the search engine is eroding our ability (or desire) to remembner things, eh? Funny, that's exactly the effect that the invention of printing had on European culture 500 years ago. Before print (and the literacy that it brought), we were a primarily oral culture and everything was stored in people's heads. Only after print made literacy widespread did everyone think to write things down.

And it wasn't just printing:
Do these experiences mean that Google is fundamentally changing our notion of memory? Plato wrote: "For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it; they will not exercise their memories." He wasn't talking about Google; he was talking about writing.

Not bothering to commit trivia to memory isn't a character flaw; it's part of a long-ongoing process, academics say. "Memorizing is not something that people typically have done since the invention of writing," says Fernando Pereira, chairman of the computer and information science department at the University of Pennsylvania.

And despite Plato's complaints, even writing didn't change the process of memory, just what we chose to remember, says Pam Frese, a professor of anthropology at The College of Wooster in Ohio.

In pre-literate societies, what was worth remembering might be complex information about who can marry whom, or the history of long-term trading relationships, she says. Today, "the emphasis on what kinds of knowledge need to be remembered has shifted."


Marginal Revolution, an economics blog I like a lot, has some holiday--oops, Christmas gift-giving advice:
Do not buy gifts for nieces, nephews or grandchildren. Send money if you must, but other gifts will be spectacularly incompetent. Using questionnaires, the Joel Waldfogel famously revealed (in an article entitled ‘The Deadweight Loss of Christmas’ - JSTOR) that the typical $50 gift is valued at between $35 and $43 by the ungrateful recipient, but that gifts from grandparents, aunts and uncles were even less welcome. If you are content to spend $50 to provide $35 worth of pleasure to your distant relatives, then next time please use me as your middleman.

It’s the thought that counts. His detractors rarely admit this, but Professor Waldfogel explicitly asked his subjects not to consider sentimental value. Sentimental value might indeed outweigh the waste of a poorly-chosen tie, but the cheaper the tie the more likely that is to happen. A $50 tie valued at $40 by the recipient is still a good gift if it also creates $15 worth of warm fuzzy feelings. But think how much better it would be to give a $5 tie valued at $4, which still created the same $15 of fuzzy feelings: this is a much more efficient way to produce a smile.

Actually, maybe it’s better if you don’t give anything at all. Steven Landsburg reminds us that one of Christmas's greatest philanthropists was Scrooge. His miserly refusal to eat a Christmas turkey, year after year, meant one more turkey that someone else could afford. His capacious bank account meant that money was available to lend out to entrepreneurs and kept interest rates low. There’s nothing wrong with spending money if you’re going to enjoy it, but if it’s going to be frittered away on chintz then you couldn’t ask for a better role-model than Scrooge.
Scrooge as a philanthropist? You bet:
In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser—the man who could deplete the world's resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide.

If you build a house and refuse to buy a house, the rest of the world is one house richer. If you earn a dollar and refuse to spend a dollar, the rest of the world is one dollar richer—because you produced a dollar's worth of goods and didn't consume them.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Parental Discretion

Brad DeLong has a father-and-son talk about the Words and the bees:


Can you help me with the computer?

What's wrong?... Oh, spinning beachball of death I see.... What are you trying to do?


Print a document from Microsoft Word?


Did you save it before you tried to print?

I'm not sure.

What's the first rule of using Microsoft Word?

That it does not like me. That it is not my friend?

And so before doing anything major to your document, you?


Before you print?


Before you print preview?


Before you globally change margins?


Before you reformat all the paragraphs?


Before you save?

Save--there's something wrong there, Dad.

OK. I'm going to have to kill Word. Let's hope you saved your document...

Danger: USB

We've all used those little USB "thumbdrives" but I had no idea they came with a wide variety of (admittedly silly) attachments. My favorite--the headless Barbie USB drive:

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I, Roomba

The robots are coming!

I can't think of anything humanity needs more than a robot that is able to ride a camel.
Every week seems to bring a new report of a robot taking up a human task: cleaning floors, riding camels, babysitting the kids, firing machine guns. There are contests in which robots play soccer or wreak mayhem on one another. Aibo and Roomba are becoming household names. Business plans related to robots are the order of the day.

From lovable pets for children to monster killing machines, robots are on the march.
Still, it all seems so very far from the promise long held out--that, for better or worse, more than just doing chores, robots would be our companions, even our doppelgangers. Is it just a matter of time, or are the technical questions really that daunting?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Laying Cable

OK, fine:
Under pressure from the government, the nation's two largest cable companies and several others announced Monday a plan to offer packages of family friendly channels to give parents another option to shield children from sex, rough language and violence.
But it's funny how everyone is all in favor of free markets, except in the case of television. Everyone rabbits on about how much sex and violence there is on TV, and yet all the sexy, violent programming is what people watch. Obviously, if people really hated this stuff, they wouldn't watch it, and thus the ratings would tank in favor of less sexy, less violent fare, and thus Hollywood would acquiesce in this new direction. Isn't that why we have all the crap on TV to begin with, because people watch it?
Personally, I don't care either way, but it seems a tad inconsistent to me.

And what's this about?
Most cable executives have wholly dismissed the idea of a la carte, saying it would drive up costs and lead to the demise of channels that can't attract enough advertising dollars.
Well, yeah. I mean, all my favorite shows have been cancelled because they couldn't pull in advertising dollars. Suddenly everyone is in favor of protecting that which can't attract advertising?

Ho Ho--No!

I've avoided posting on this "war on Christmas" thing because, well, it's silly, but I wonder how to resolve all the brouhaha about big retailers not using the word "Christmas" in their adverts with this:
Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday that Christmas festivities have been polluted by consumerism.
"In today's consumer society, this time (of the year) is unfortunately subjected to a sort of commercial 'pollution' that is in danger of altering its true spirit, which is characterized by meditation, sobriety and by a joy that is not exterior but intimate," the pope said in his traditional Sunday blessing.
So it seems to me that the faithful would want to divorce the religious aspect of the holiday with the secular consumerism of it.

Bad News Bearers

Jeepers, I guess today is "Bad News for Newspapers" day, this time via the L.A. Times:
When Jeffrey Zalles needed a new cashier for his coin laundry in the South of Market district, his help-wanted ad in the San Francisco Chronicle brought just four responses.

So Zalles posted a notice on Craigslist, a San Francisco-based network of websites that specialize in classified advertising. His cyber-ad drew 400 applicants.

Zalles found his cashier and hasn't relied on the Chronicle since, advertising instead on the Internet and the city's array of free papers.

The venerable Chronicle is struggling, and defections by Zalles and other advertisers are a big reason. Classified ads are a big source of income for the Chronicle and the newspaper business as a whole, making up 27% of the industry's revenue, with 53% from other ads and 20% from people buying the paper.
What's more, the Chronicle's circulation is plunging. The paper reported last month that sales fell 16% during the six-month period ended in September — by far the biggest drop among the nation's 20 largest newspapers. Chronicle executives said much of the decline was caused by their decision to stop offering steep subscription discounts.

The Chronicle's woes are being closely watched around the country as the newspaper finds itself on the front lines of the battle between old and new media. As more consumers get their news from electronic sources and advertising follows them, analysts warn that newspapers elsewhere — already losing an average of more than 2% of their subscribers yearly — might join the Chronicle in a steepening fall.
Comments economist Mark Thoma:
It's hard to argue that delivering a freshly printed newspaper to the homes of subscribers, which requires a small army of delivery staff, a massive daily printing operation, and so on, is more efficient than sending stories electronically by posting them on websites. And once you start writing with hyperlinks and other enhancements available only electronically, you miss them when writing on paper. I'm sure everyone is aware of the advantages available with online news stories, and some disadvantages as well such as sometimes posting stories before they are fully vetted in the race to go online first.

Still, there's something about a newspaper and I will miss the local paper once it's gone. Finding a business model that works for online news sites has been a challenge, so perhaps there's some life left in newspapers, but it's hard to imagine them surviving long-term:
It's interesting how almost every defense of the printed newspaper I've read is almost entirely due to sentiment. It's my suspicion that sentiment may go a long way toward keeping printed newspapers around, but as more and more people come of age who do not have that attachment to printed papers, they will become less and less viable.


The migration of new technologies and media into schools continues inexorably. Last summer I linked to an Arizona high school that ditched its textbooks in favor of Internet-enabled iBooks. Now, grade schoolers in Oregon (and elsewhere) are using handheld devices in the classroom and on field trips:
As school districts scout ways to engage students already accustomed to instant messaging and interactive video games, they're buying up the kind of tech tools once reserved for jet-setting corporate executives.

Educational sales of personal digital assistants, laptop computers and handheld remote controls called "clickers" are ballooning nationwide. Last year, a survey by Quality Education Data Inc. found that 28 percent of U.S. school districts offered handhelds for student and teacher use. One of every four computers purchased by schools was a laptop.

One of the frontrunners was Yankton High School in South Dakota, which adopted Palm handhelds in 2001 and found they improved students' grades.

Electronic learning has become so popular that one school in Arizona went textbook-free this year, instead equipping its students with laptops. Seventeen schools outside Eugene, Ore., now use handhelds on most science field trips.

A Modest Proposal?

The hardcore cynical could say "newspapers are non-profit organizations" but Editor & Publisher presents a legitimate case for newspaper publishers to become non-profits:
Let's dream for a moment about newspapering freed from the profit motive. Purists may argue that newspapers, like any other enterprise, should have to earn their way in the marketplace, and if they fail the market test, so be it.

But in fact newspapers, as important to the civic health of our society as public transportation, have a claim on public allegiance that goes beyond financial measure. Does anyone believe that our society is better, our civic virtue enhanced, by the failure of the Washington Star and the New York Herald Tribune and the Chicago Daily News and all the other fine dailies that have perished for purely financial reasons?

To be sure, if advertisers continue to pare their commitment to newspapers, they may become less interesting to read and less useful. But if their professional staffs can be preserved, perhaps even augmented as their companies capitalize better on the Internet, newspapers' freedom and opportunity to report the news, especially the sensitive, prickly news, can only be enhanced, freed of any concern about offending advertisers.

The Vinyl Frontier

Says the former editor of the Financial Times:
“Working in print, pure and simple, is the 21st century equivalent of running a record company specializing in vinyl.”
He adds:
[N]ot only are eyeballs shifting to the Web but consumers are learning how to aggregate their own content -- think RSS or DVRs -- making TV stations, newspapers and the like increasingly irrelevant.

He did say that at the rate ad dollars are migrating to the Web some sites will soon be able to support existing content-creation infrastructures. I’m not convinced. A decade of sharp CPM increases wouldn’t be enough for most newspaper sites to match revenue from their print editions
Tell us something we don't already know. But the vinyl record analogy is more apt than perhaps he thought. There remains today a small, niche market for vinyl records, and some cultishly popular alternative bands (such as Guided By Voices) routinely release special editions of their albums on vinyl. So, too, will there remain a niche market for print newspapers--especially considering the fact that the newspaper industry isn't actively hastening along the shift away from print, as the record industry did with the transition from vinyl to CDs in the 1980s.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

eDing eDong

Says Alex at Marginal Revolution:
I'm sitting at home working on my computer when I get an email saying that UPS just delivered a package to my door. So I get up, walk 10ft, open the door and sure enough there is my package. We live in a magical world.
I'm not sure "magical" is the word I'd use...

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Getting Carded

An economist mulls over burning the Christmas card list. Tim Harford:
Christmas cards are given and received in a parody of a market - one that involves interpersonal exchange but no prices. That matters because it means our cards are sent out into an informational void. Is it appropriate to send a card to one’s teacher? To one’s boss? To close colleagues? Distant ones? We can look at the cards we receive and try to extrapolate, but this only goes so far. A student does not know what cards a teacher receives because she is not a teacher; but she knows she doesn’t want to be the only student who didn’t bother.

We receive too little feedback and it arrives too late. In a conversation with a friend we quickly and continuously read each other’s moods - but was last year’s card from your former neighbours a genuine attempt to keep in touch, or a dutiful reciprocation of your card from the year before? (Always assuming you have your list from two years ago to check.) Or did it simply reflect the fact that they had sent you cards for years and were concerned that breaking off the correspondence would send an unwelcome message, even though the correspondence itself sends no message at all? One thing is certain: they will not send you a clarifying cover note.
Mutual suffering is not enough to end the process. Two families may end up locked together in a grim ritual, each sending a card because they know the other will send one, each knowing that this is the only reason the cards are sent. Both would prefer to stop, but neither is going to be the first to do so. “Exchange” is not the right word here. “Vendetta” is more accurate.

The whole result is so clumsy that a Nobel laureate in economics, Thomas Schelling, once described these symptoms in detail before advocating bankruptcy proceedings in which all Christmas card lists should be burned.

Why does the “market” for Christmas cards work so badly? Simply because there is no reason that it should work well.
In my life, I've found the politics of holiday card/gift-giving (what I refer to as "holitics") really compounds the stress and discomfort I experience at this time of year. I've always found Christmas to be a time when one's bumbling awkwardness is brought into sharp relief. There is much to recommend the Seinfeldian idea of "Festivus." Or, indeed, in the Seussian idea of the Grinch.
Uh oh. I think I hear Jacob Marley's ghost at the door....Oh, whew! It's only Bob Marley's ghost. Bah, mon!

Tis the Season...

Yes, 'tis the season for Christmas specials. I mean holiday specials, No, I mean Christmas specials. No, I mean--

I'll start again.

Whatever it is you're celebrating, there will be TV specials. National Lampoon helpfully provides a rundown of some of the least successful Chhorliidsatymas specials. My favorites:
An Algonquin Round Table Christmas (1927)

Alexander Woolcott, Franklin Pierce Adams, George Kaufman, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker were the stars of this 1927 NBC Red radio network special, one of the earliest Christmas specials ever performed. Unfortunately the principals, lured to the table for an unusual evening gathering by the promise of free drinks and pirogies, appeared unaware they were live and on the air, avoiding witty seasonal banter to concentrate on trashing absent Round Tabler Edna Ferber's latest novel, Mother Knows Best, and complaining, in progressively drunken fashion, about their lack of sex lives.

Seasonal material of a sort finally appears in the 23rd minute when Dorothy Parker, already on her fifth drink, can be heard to remark, "one more of these and I'll be sliding down Santa's chimney." The feed was cut shortly thereafter. NBC Red's 1928 holiday special "Christmas with the Fitzgeralds" was similarly unsuccessful.

Ayn Rand's A Selfish Christmas (1951)

In this hour-long radio drama, Santa struggles with the increasing demands of providing gifts for millions of spoiled, ungrateful brats across the world, until a single elf, in the engineering department of his workshop, convinces Santa to go on strike. The special ends with the entropic collapse of the civilization of takers and the spectacle of children trudging across the bitterly cold, dark tundra to offer Santa cash for his services, acknowledging at last that his genius makes the gifts — and therefore Christmas — possible.

Prior to broadcast, Mutual Broadcast System executives raised objections to the radio play, noting that 56 minutes of the hour-long broadcast went to a philosophical manifesto by the elf and of the four remaining minutes, three went to a love scene between Santa and the cold, practical Mrs. Claus that was rendered into radio through the use of grunts and the shattering of several dozen whiskey tumblers. In later letters, Rand sneeringly described these executives as "anti-life."

The Lost Star Trek Christmas Episode: "A Most Illogical Holiday" (1968)

Mr. Spock, with his pointy ears, is hailed as a messiah on a wintry world where elves toil for a mysterious master, revealed to be Santa just prior to the first commercial break. Santa, enraged, kills Ensign Jones and attacks the Enterprise in his sleigh. As Scotty works to keep the power flowing to the shields, Kirk and Bones infiltrate Santa's headquarters.

With the help of the comely and lonely Mrs. Claus, Kirk is led to the heart of the workshop, where he learns the truth: Santa is himself a pawn to a master computer, whose initial program is based on an ancient book of children's Christmas tales. Kirk engages the master computer in a battle of wits, demanding the computer explain how it is physically possible for Santa to deliver gifts to all the children in the universe in a single night. The master computer, confronted with this computational anomaly, self-destructs; Santa, freed from mental enslavement, releases the elves and begins a new, democratic society. Back on the ship, Bones and Spock bicker about the meaning of Christmas, an argument which ends when Scotty appears on the bridge with egg nog made with Romulan Ale.

Filmed during the series' run, this episode was never shown on network television and was offered in syndication only once, in 1975. Star Trek fans hint the episode was later personally destroyed by Gene Roddenberry. Rumor suggests Harlan Ellison may have written the original script; asked about the episode at 1978's IgunaCon II science fiction convention, however, Ellison described the episode as "a quiescently glistening cherem of pus."
And let's not forget: A Muppet Christmas with Zbigniew Brzezinski (1978), A Canadian Christmas with David Cronenberg (1986), and The Mercury Theater of the Air Presents
The Assassination of Saint Nicholas (1939).

Help Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi...

A publishing company employee sends out the Batsignal. From MacInTouch:
I work for a large publishing company that puts on weekly shoppers, daily newspapers and weekly entertainment papers. The production and editorial department of this company has been all Mac for years now. Recently the company has revamped it's [sic] Tech/IT department with a new manager and this department is now keen to switch everything to PC. When I say everything, I mean everything.

The reasons given for this is that PCs are cheaper, the software we're upgrading to (InDesign creative suite from QuarkXPress) is cheaper for PCs, the ability for the PC Techs to remotely access and fix the PCs (this company is spread out over the nation, from coast to coast), supporting one platform is easier, Macs are expensive (we'd get more technology from less money with the PC)

What are arguments that I can use to counter this decision? The virus/spam problem won't be quite the usual PC problem as mail will be running though company filters. Can tech support on Mac OS X "dial" in to other computers and fix problems from afar? Can Mac users easily interact with Exchange mail servers? The IT department swears that the newspaper industry is moving all PC anyway, that LA Times made this switch, so I'm curious if anyone has info/evidence of these claims. Furthermore can anyone point to successful Mac to PC switches?
It's funny; back in 1997, there was a prepress service bureau in Los Angeles we had profiled for Micro Publishing News called The PC Bureau (I think that was their name). At the time, they were the only service bureau we knew of that willingly handled Windows graphics files (everyone else was steadfastly Mac-based)--and that was the key to their success, since at the time doing desktop publishing on Windows was still kind of a nightmare, mostly for font reasons. (I rarely credit my father for witty lines, but my favorite was when, during the development off the TrueType font format, they asked him what they should call it, and he said "You should call it off.") But even in 1997, DTP on Windows was still easier than it was in 1992.

As much as I like the Mac (I've used it since Day One in 1985), when looked at objectively, the fact is that it is now just as easy to do desktop publishing on Windows. In fact, I have a Windows machine, and I run Photoshop and InDesign on it and the files I create are nearly 100% compatible with those same applications on my Mac, and vice versa. You can't fault companies for going with cheaper hardware, especially given the economic realities in newspapers these days.

Ironically, I find font handling in Mac OS X to be a colossal pain in the butt, since there are no fewer than three locations that fonts can be stored and fonts always seem to randomly appear and disappear. (Quark users have also reported horrific font problems under OS X, although I donlt know if that's strictly a Quark thing or a Mac thing.)

And after all, it could be worse: they could be switching Microsoft Office for publishing!

Those Fingers Were Made for Walking

At a meeting with some colleagues earlier this week, the topic of the Yellow Pages came up (yes, when you're with a group of printing industry analysts, that kind of thing happens...). Once upon a time, there used to be only one phone book, and the publisher of it used to even advertise it on TV; remember the old "let your fingers do the walking" ads from the 70s? A later, to my mind less effective Yellow Pages campaign featured a variety of people getting ripped a new one for calling Directory Assistance for numbers they could easily have looked up in the book.

Back in 2000-2001, when I still had a landline, I used to get three phone books: one mega-book for the entire Capital District (what bugged me was that they had sold ad space on the spine to a bankruptcy lawyer and it said "Bankruptcy" in big letters--and whenever anyone came over they would see it on my bookshelf and ask me with concern why I had a book on bankruptcy--I finally had to black it out with magic marker), one slightly smaller one for Saratoga Springs and surrounding towns, and one very thin one for just Saratoga.

However, three years ago, when I got rid of my landline in favor of a cellphone, I stopped getting any phone books. After all, as far as I know, there is no directory anywhere of cellphone numbers. I could probably order a phone book from...someone (I recall you used to be able to do that). However, I'm cheap and lazy and can just as easily look things up online.

I mention this, because it occurred to me that as more and more people ditch landlines in favor of cellphones (and, thinking forward, as more people turn to VoIP), will anyone be getting phone books? At the same time, online search is becoming more and more popular. And what happens to companies that rely on Yellow Pages advertising? I expect they will need to move online, if they haven't done so already.

I also mention this because Verizon is looking to shed its directory publishing business, and this article in Business Week talks about the exaggerated rumors of the death of the Yellow Pages:
The announcement that Verizon Communications (VZ) put its directories business up for sale touched off the usual barrage of speculation over possible buyers and a sale price. The upshot: Expect a bidding war that could fetch anywhere from $13 billion to $17 billion (see BW Online, 12/6/05, "Yellow Fever, Courtesy of Verizon"). Indeed, Carlyle Group, a large private-equity firm that recently sold directory Dex Media to R.H. Donnelley for $9.5 billion, is taking a look at the Verizon unit, say sources close to the deal.
But as competition from rivals such as Google (GOOG) for local advertising intensifies, the value of traditional yellow pages businesses is a matter of debate. "The long-term future of this business is suspect," says Michael Price, senior managing director of Evercore Partners, a New York-based investment bank.

Phone companies have long dominated the yellow pages business, thanks to their widely recognized brands, databases of local phone numbers, and relationships with local merchants. Over the last few years, however, independent yellow pages publishers such as Yellow Book USA, a unit of Britain-based Yell Group, have been taking share by charging about half as much for ads as the phone companies.

FIVE MORE YEARS? More recently, Web giants such as Google and Yahoo! (YHOO) have leaped into the local ad market. And down the road, wireless operators are expected to compete more aggressively for local ads as consumers ping their cell phones for restaurants and bar locations on the fly. So as the market crowds and ads shift to the Web, how long can the business of selling ad space in fat yellow books stay profitable? And which players will ultimately win?

The short answer is that the traditional yellow pages business is expected to remain profitable for at least five more years. Although they seem like relics, the paper-bound tomes are still an effective advertising tool. In a sense, yellow pages were an early iteration of search engines. Like with Web searches, when consumers use the yellow pages, they're already looking to buy or find something.
Yellow Pages Assn. President Neg Norton says advertisers pull in revenues that average 13 times the price of each ad. In addition, he insists that yellow pages are not anachronisms in the Digital Age. According to his figures, 18- to 24-year-olds use the print books 30% more often than older adults as they establish households and get married. "There's still tremendous value in the print business," says Dennis Payne, CEO and president of AT&T Yellow Pages. "It's got more content than any other resource out there, electronic or print."

FIGHTING BACK. Over time, though, analysts expect more local searching to move online. Researchers at Kelsey Group, a Princeton (N.J.) consulting firm, predict that by 2009, one-third of the $15.5 billion yellow pages market will be on the Internet. Google and Yahoo are building up their local search operations, and Time Warner's (TWX) America Online unit and IAC InterActiveCorp (IACI) are trying to switch local advertisers to properties such as AOL's DigitalCities and IAC's CitySearch sites.

Yellow pages publishers are fighting back by setting up their own sites. Verizon has, while AT&T (T) and BellSouth (BLS) last month relaunched Still, about 66% of searches for local businesses begin at search engines rather than yellow pages sites, according to a Nov. 29 report from Deutsche Bank.

In the end, the battle for dominance of local advertising will hinge on which medium can deliver the most customers at the right price. Yellow pages publishers have the relationships and all the data on local merchants. But Internet companies dominate the online audience, wield more expertise in Web technology, and offer a more transparent pricing engine for advertisers -- you only pay when users click on your ad.

Whined and Dined

Here's an interesting and peculiarly effective strategy publishers could try to boost print advertising: whining. Sez Business Week:
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. placed full-page advertisements in 336 Midwestern newspapers after publishers nationally complained they are ignored by the world's largest retailer.
The ads, which ran in smaller papers in Missouri and Oklahoma between Nov. 30 and Dec. 6, were a test for a possible change in newspaper advertising policy at Wal-Mart, which publishers say has ignored their dailies and weeklies for years.
Retail and grocery store ads together account for anywhere from 60 percent to 80 percent of revenues for community newspapers, said Brian Steffens, the executive director of the National Newspaper Association.

Grocery stores purchase the bulk of those that advertising, with local grocers often placing full-page ads several times a week. Wal-Mart has grown in recent years to be the nation's largest seller of groceries with the expansion of its supercenter store format, but it generally has not taken out weekly ads to showcase its grocery prices in local newspapers.

"If one local grocery store goes out, a community newspaper loses at a minimum one or two full-page ads or inserts a week," Steffens said.
In the spring, the NNA surveyed its members on their relations with Wal-Mart.

Of those that responded, 81 percent said they had a Wal-Mart store in their circulation area. And, of those, 62 percent said Wal-Mart had a negative impact on the community, 25 percent said neutral and 13 percent said it was a positive effect.

The results were similar when asked how Wal-Mart affected the newspapers, with 67 percent saying negative and 4 percent answering positive.

Nearly 60 percent said Wal-Mart never advertised in their papers, but about 80 percent said Wal-Mart sometimes or often asked for publicity, such as pictures in the paper of Wal-Mart presenting a charity check. The NNA did not list its methodology for poll.

Neither the NNA nor Wal-Mart were willing to discuss how much the ads cost.

As a rule, ads printed in the paper make more money for the publisher than inserts, which Wal-Mart has tended to use in the past on the few occasions it did advertise. Inserts require more labor to put into a paper and are usually printed elsewhere, rather than on the newspaper's own presses, so the paper cannot charge for its printing costs.

The Cheese Stands Alone

Oh, I don't know. I've never had any interest in drugs, but I could understand this if it was really good cheese:
Woman Allegedly Hires Hit Man for Cheese
MEMPHIS, Tenn. - In an unusual case of mistaken identity, a woman who thought a block of white cheese was cocaine is charged with trying to hire a hit man to rob and kill four men. The woman also was mistaken about the hit man. He turned out to be an undercover police officer.

Jessica Sandy Booth, 18, was arrested over the weekend and remains in jail with bond set at $1 million on four charges of attempted murder and four counts of soliciting a murder.

According to police, Booth was in the Memphis home of the four intended victims last week when she mistook a block of queso fresco cheese for cocaine — inspiring the idea to hire someone to break into the home, take the drugs, and kill the men.

An informant described the plot to police, who arranged a meeting between Booth and the undercover officer.

The undercover officer gave Booth some nonfunctioning handguns, bought ammunition for her because she was too young, and the two proceeded to the home under police surveillance.

Booth told the officer that any children inside the house old enough to testify would have to be killed, police said.

A search of the home with the permission of the occupants revealed no drugs — only the white, crumbly cheese common in Mexican cuisine.

"Four men were going to lose their lives over some cheese," said Lt. Jeff Clark, who heads Project Safe Neighborhoods.

iPod Therefore I Am

I guess I've always been behind the times. I find myself more and more interested in wide-screen TVs, while the trend is now to watch programming on teeny tiny screens. or is it a trend? I confess, I'm dubious; but, who knows, sillier things have become popular. Although I find the idea of TV programming on cell phones to be a really really really bad idea, on so many levels. If the sociopathic clowns who talk on them while driving start watching TV on them while driving, I'm never leaving the house again.

That said, I do like the idea of downloadable programming, but only in the context of being able to watch it on a computer monitor or a networked TV set up. But my suspicion is the quality (because of the compression needed) will not be all that hot when viewed on a very large display, like a widescreen TV.

Still, there appears to be an orgy of deals and agreements taking place:
Whether via the iPod, PSP, or your mobile phone, there's more and more video hitting mobile handheld device these days and with the content coming both from industry giants and individuals around the world throug podcasting, "shows-to-go" are just getting started

Industry analysts have credited experimentation by large content holders resulting in legal mobile video, and the popularity of portable media players for the increased supply of mobile format video. Still, they indicated the killer mobile video app has yet to materialize, despite the different efforts and investment that is increasing.

"There are going to be a lot of different models," Jupiter Research Vice President Michael Gartenberg told MacNewsWorld, referring to subscriptions, rentals and downloads of video. "They're in search of something that will work as well as 99-cent downloads did for music."

Real Demand

In addition to announcements for mobile video from the likes of ABC, NBC, TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO) and others, consumer research shows signs of strong interest in mobile video content, according to Gartenberg.

He said inhibitors such as lack of legal content and the complexity of moving media from one format or device to another were being addressed. Perhaps more importantly, existing video content heavyweights were producing their video to make it more mobile friendly from the get-go, the analyst added.

Tipping the Light Fantastic

Says ClickZ:
The "tipping point" for offline ad dollars moving online may be here in the second half of 2006, according to a report by Piper Jaffray analyst Safa Rashtchy.

The speed of online advertising's growth, its benefits to offline campaigns, and recent online ad spending increases from major marketers all seem to be converging, according to Safa Rashtchy, senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray.

"We believe online media now receives about 5 percent of total marketing spending, up from 3 percent two years ago. However, online is on its way to a 10 percent share much faster then we anticipated, and we believe we are now approaching an inflection point when spending growth could accelerate," Rashtchy wrote in a newly-released report. "This point is likely to be in the second half of 2006, as the full impact of some of the recent allocation increases from major marketers becomes evident and creates a momentum that will attract more spending by advertisers who are on the sidelines now."

Rashtchy's "conservative" estimate is that online advertising will exceed $55 billion globally by 2010, a 27 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over 2005. He points to large advertisers like Absolut Vodka, GM and Ford, all of which plan to spend 20 percent of their marketing budgets online next year, he said.
The big winners in the shift of ad dollars online will be Google and Yahoo!, he said, but additional spending will be made with networks and smaller vertical sites, such as ValueClick and 24/7 Real Media. Rashtchy also predicts that agencies and intermediaries like aQuantive, Marchex and Digitas will see growing demand for their services, because of the growing complexity of search campaigns and the increasing reliance on technology in buying online advertising.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

What About the Naughty Bits?

Here'a a unique application for print:
Need a skin graft? A new trachea? A heart patch? Turn on your printer, and let it spit one out.

A group of researchers hope printers' whirs and buzzes will soon be saving lives.

Led by University of Missouri-Columbia biological physics professor Gabor Forgacs and aided by a $5 million National Science Foundation grant, researchers at three universities have developed bio-ink and bio-paper that could make so-called organ printing a reality.
A customized milling machine prints a small sheet of bio-paper. This "paper" is a variable gel composed of modified gelatin and hyaluronan, a sugar-rich material. Bio-ink blots -- each a little ball of cellular material a few hundred microns in diameter -- are then printed onto the paper. The process is repeated as many times as needed, the sheets stacked on top of each other.

Once the stack is the right size -- maybe two centimeters' worth of sheets, each containing a ring of blots, for a tube resembling a blood vessel -- printing stops. The stack is incubated in a bioreactor, where cells fuse with their neighbors in all directions. The bio-paper works as a scaffold to support and nurture cells, and should be eaten away by them or naturally degrade, researchers said.

Though it can take less than two minutes to print a sheet of bio-paper with bio-ink, it can take about a week for such a tube to fuse, Forgacs said.

It's currently feasible to print tubes, Prestwich explained, because the printers output bio-paper in a sort of ever-ascending spiral, like a Slinky.
With my luck I'd run out of ink halfway through. And do we really want the "Printer not found" error message to be a matter of life-and-death? Talk about a "fatal error"!

Wiki Cool

Well, this is a step in the right direction:
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that allows anyone to contribute articles, is tightening its rules for submitting entries following the disclosure that it ran a piece falsely implicating a man in the Kennedy assassinations. Wikipedia will now require users to register before they can create articles, Jimmy Wales, founder of the St. Petersburg, Florida-based website, said Monday.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Faulty Tower

I suppose they have a point, geologically speaking, but isn't this the kind of theory you would expect from a Batman villain?
The weight of the world's tallest skyscraper -- specially built to withstand Taiwan's frequent earthquakes -- could be causing a rise in the number of tremors beneath it.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Treadmill to Oblivion

A treadmill mounted on a bicycle!? Add a stairclimbing machine and I'll be interested.

The Dark Side of Youth Culture

A teenage driver accused of text messaging behind the wheel and hitting a cyclist was charged with a misdemeanor, authorities said.

These Kids...Crap, They're Not Kids Anymore

Wanna know what it's like to be 21 years old these days? No, I didn't either. But Business Week tells us:
Right now, Jessi has seven friends on Facebook. I have 205, which is a low number compared to many of my classmates. (But through friends, I'm connected to 4,855 other people.) Now, not all 205 will call me Friday night to hang out. For the most part, they're friends from classes and friends of friends.
Jessi isn't even 10 years older than me, yet our methods of social interaction are vastly different. For Jessi, networks such as Facebook are innovative. In the mornings, she reaches for her cell phone and jumps on AIM, and she's "plugged in."

But online networking is just part of everyday life for my friends and me, so we tend not to really notice it. We turn on our computers -- if we ever really turned them off -- the automatic sign-in puts up our AIM Buddy List on the right side of our screen, the Internet opens, and we are instantly connected to a global network of acquaintances through online groups and e-mail. Our Sidekicks or cell phones beep with text messages so that, even away from our computers, we won't miss anything.
Sounds really annoying, doesn't it? (And how many of you, like me, had to look up "Facebook," "Sidekicks," or "social interaction"?)

I cite these stories about these wacky young people not out of some mid-life crisis or the straafing run I'll be making at 40 in a year or two, but rather because those of us whose business it is to identify media trends need to know what is lurking around the corner. The error us old farts make when we envision the future of technology or media or culture, is that we transport ourselves and our attitudes and our media usage trends into the future. This is the fallacy of future forcasting (or FFF, a term which I just invented, and which I pronounce just the way it's spelled). Those who come after us will be defining how media and content are disseminated--and how social and business interactions will take place. So consider yourselves warned.

Again, I can't help but think about just how irriating the future is going to be. But I suppose that's just me--and that's the point. It is just me.

Grape Expectations

Don't know who-all (if anyone) reads this blog, but if anyone is in the Orange County, CA, area, be sure to check out Vineyard Express. Ken Spears, former publisher of Micro Publishing News and CrossMedia magazines (for which I used to work in varying capacities) and all-around great guy, has wisely decided to get out of publishing and into retail wine sales. His store, the aforementoned Vineyard Express, opens in December. The address is 28940 Golden Lantern, Suite E, in Laguna Niguel, CA. I wish Ken and his wife/partner Kim the best of success with this venture.

Lettuce Pray

Hah! So much for vegetables being oh-so-healthy for you:
Health officials on Thursday identified lettuce as the likely source for a hepatitis A outbreak in Los Angeles County and urged residents to thoroughly wash the vegetable before eating it.

At least 60 people have fallen ill from the virus in Los Angeles County over the last three months. Officials are concerned because the outbreak comes after years of declining hepatitis A cases, but they have been unable to link the outbreak to a particular farm or type of lettuce.
I avoid eating vegetables, but it's not for health reasons. Rather, it's because I am an impassioned supporter of vegetable rights. Who will hear the cry of a carrot as it's ruthlessly ripped out of the ground, flayed alive, and chopped into thin strips? Or corn--the Van Gogh of the vegetable kingdom, ears torn off. It's barbaric, I tell you!

Sticky Wiki

CNet weighs in with a follow-up commentary on the Wikipedia/John Seigenthaler story I blogged about yesterday. Somehow, I doubt that what Plato and Aristotle had in mind in their musings about the "nature of truth" was printing incorrect (or libelous) information in an encyclopedia. But then, maybe that's how the Wikipedia describes their work.

Love Me Doom

Here's a nicely ironic headline:
Doomsday Magazine Turns 60

People Just Aren't Wearing Enough Hats

I somehow ended up with a subscription to the print edition of Adweek (not that I'm complaining). There was one interesting story (online here, but requires paid subscription--which I do not have) in the November 28 issue about how "traditional" (i.e., print-based or broadcast TV-based) ad agency creatives are jumping ship and joining interactive agencies. However, there is the perception that "older" creatives (i.e., those who have not grown up immersed in new media) just don't "get it" when it comes to developing rich/interactive media. Creatives who eschew the Web and newer media do so at their own peril. The money quote:
George Tannenbaum, named ecd at Digitas...added that traditional creatives who do not learn interactive risk becoming "the 21st century equivalent of a hat salesman in a department store."

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Totally Nuts

These aren't a far cry from the squirrels I've had to contend with:
Russian squirrel pack 'kills dog'

Local people suggest hunger is driving squirrels to extremes.
Squirrels have bitten to death a stray dog which was barking at them in a Russian park.
I'm sure it's a horrifying thing to actually watch, but just imagining it is kind of funny.

If only these squirrels had been available when I lived in Torrance next door to the canine Sleep Deprivation Unit.


You have got to be kidding me:
chessboxing, alternating rounds of four minutes of chess followed by two minutes of boxing. Victory is claimed in a number of ways, some of them tedious, but the most thrilling are by checkmate and knockout.
Bobby Fischer'd be a natural.

Don't Look At It, Marion!

For some reason this story was in Yahoo! News' "Most Popular" section today. I can guarantee that there is no way on god's green Earth that I'm going to click on this headline:
Man Pleads Guilty in Horse-Sex Case
It may turn out to be perfectly innocent, but there are some things I really don't want to know about.

What's in a Name?

I get a ton of spam every day, like most people do. Yes, it's annoying, and some are just disgusting, but one thing that amuses me about some of them are the "from" names they use. Here are just a few of the "people" who have sent me messages in the past two weeks:
Forgave K. Convertible
Niggard P. Thessalonian
Gos A. Unorganized
Statistician I. Imbicilities
What program do these spammers use to come up with thse names? It's highly entertaining, whatever it is.

And the subject lines! These are real subject lines of spam messages I've received recently (uncorrected):
Also tropospheric i'd sepal purgatory
I psychic may shun suggestible
Hello irreverent that alma ambient
It's bigelow why angelfish affirmation
Hi dualism i'd baseplate sowbelly
and my favorite:
I'd fruit that midwinter leprosy
Who comes up with these things and, more importantly, who replies to them?

The Wiki Witch of the West

I admit, I use the Wikipedia--the free, online encyclopedia--rather a lot. However, one thing about it has kind of bugged me, which is its basis as a "wiki" information source, meaning that its entries are created and updated by whoever wants to create and update them. The authors are usually anonymous. I've had issues with the Wikipedia in the past, wherein it turned out that information contained within it was not always accurate. As a result, I use it cautiously, just for basic background material and I don't quote from it directly without getting confirmation elsewhere. After all, the people who write Wikipedia entries need not have any particular expertise or knowledge in what it is they're writing. That limits its usefulness to me.

However, I just read this USA Today editorial that casts a far more diabolical light on at least one of the Wikipedia's anonymous contributors:
"John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven."
— Wikipedia

This is a highly personal story about Internet character assassination. It could be your story.

I have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious "biography" that appeared under my name for 132 days on Wikipedia, the popular, online, free encyclopedia whose authors are unknown and virtually untraceable. There was more...
The Internet is a great free information resource that is extremely fast, free, convenient, and free. However, the price we pay for that speed, convenience, and economy, is often accuracy. Yes, I'm shocked, shocked, to discover that there is bad information circulating on the Internet, but I think that sites like Wikipedia legitimize that bad information. The metaphor that seems most appropriate is that the Internet is like the people you usually encounter in bars (epitomized by Cliff on Cheers, perhaps) who spout out all kinds of "information," the veracity of which is often in question and should be verified via a reliable source before repeating it in a serious setting. Unfortunately, on the Internet, those "reliable sources" are often confused with the "drunk" sources.

Yes, in theory the "wiki" concept is a self-correcting one, but I still think that, for definitive sources of knowledge, you need some kind of overseeing authority. Or, at the very least, a name and credentials associated with the information.

The End of the World As We Know It

Do you want to destroy the Earth? Sure, we all do. So, to that end, LiveScience has compiled its top 10 ways to destroy the Earth. Sadly, it's a lot more difficult that you would think. Some of the potentially effective methods involve black holes of varying sizes, millions of tons of antimatter*, von Neumann machines, or, the number one way of destroying the earth:
Hurl the Earth into the Sun. Sending Earth on a collision course with the Sun is not as easy as one might think; even though you don't actually have to literally hit the Sun (send the Earth near enough to the Sun (within the Roche limit), and tidal forces will tear it apart), it's surprisingly easy to end up with Earth in a loopy elliptical orbit which merely roasts it for four months in every eight. But careful planning can avoid this.
*It has been said that combining matter with an identical quantity of antimatter will destroy the universe. This is not true. Nor is going to an Italian restaurant and combining pasta with antipasto.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Gag Me

Once again, The Onion is on top of things:
RIAA Bans Telling Friends About Songs

LOS ANGELES—The Recording Industry Association of America announced Tuesday that it will be taking legal action against anyone discovered telling friends, acquaintances, or associates about new songs, artists, or albums. "We are merely exercising our right to defend our intellectual properties from unauthorized peer-to-peer notification of the existence of copyrighted material," a press release signed by RIAA anti-piracy director Brad Buckles read. "We will aggressively prosecute those individuals who attempt to pirate our property by generating 'buzz' about any proprietary music, movies, or software, or enjoy same in the company of anyone other than themselves." RIAA attorneys said they were also looking into the legality of word-of-mouth "favorites-sharing" sites, such as coffee shops, universities, and living rooms.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Since I no longer live within walking distance of a video store (or anything, really) and given how much I hate driving--and how psychotic and intensely unpleasant other drivers are quickly becoming--I have started experimenting with NetFlix (they have a free two-week trial). I resisted them for a while because I rent so few movies that a flat monthly rate didn't seem to be cost effective. And yet, now that I prefer to watch TV shows as DVDs, it does make sense to rent multi-disc sets. Current movies look pretty unwatchable, but they have an immense collection of classics and obscure foreign films. At $9.95 a month (unlimited rentals per month, but you can only rent one at a time, which is fine--there are other plans that let you rent more at a time), that's not bad. And I can get a movie delivered the day after I order it. So far it's working well.

Now if only an Internet grocer would deliver here...

No! Go Away!

Just weeks after Apple proved the viability of its iPod video player, Walt Disney Studios and media giant Clear Channel announced plans to begin advertising movies and other content over video-enabled portable devices.
Yet another reason I'll avoid the Video iPod.

Since the advent of the iPod, I had felt that a video version was inevitable, even though I really can't say that I have any great desire for one. I mean, an audio iPod is one thing; it replaced my Walkman and five boxes of cassette tapes. But as enamored as I was with my Walkman back in the day (especially when commuting on the NYC subway), I never wanted a Sony Watchman (remember that?). Why? Maybe it's my lousy eyesight, but I don't really want to watch TV or movies on a teeny tiny screen. I'd much sooner get a widescreen TV than a Video iPod.

Just Say No

Inevitable, I suppose:
Despite aggressive law enforcement efforts, however, experts say cybercrime is growing at a rampant pace; a pace that rivals drug trafficking.

Cybercrime includes such illegal activities as child pornography, stock manipulation, software piracy, and extortion -- and security experts expect those activities to multiply as technology becomes more pervasive in developing countries.

"Last year was the first year that proceeds from cyber crime were greater than proceeds from the sale of illegal drugs, and that was, I believe, over US$105 billion," Valerie McNiven, who advises the U.S. Treasury on cybercrime, told Reuters recently. "Cybercrime is moving at such a high speed that law enforcement cannot catch up with it."

The Old College Try

This I found interesting:
Even as the commercial press is hammered by shrinking profits, layoffs and falling circulation, college newspapers are thriving. Today's premier college dailies—big, colorful and aggressive—are often indistinguishable from professional broadsheets, and the resemblance goes beyond the front page. The UCLA Daily Bruin's offices, with more than 100 top-of-the-line Apple workstations, rival those of a medium-size professional paper. The Indiana Daily Student has an annual payroll of $380,000. The Harvard Crimson recently spent $400,000 on color presses and design consultants.
While professional papers are losing readers, an estimated 95 percent of college students still read the campus paper.
I suspect the success of college papers has to do with the fact that college papers are usually free (at least they were when I was in college) and are something to stare at while waiting for class to start. They also tended to have coupons for pizza.


Finally, an approach to cable TV I've dreamt about for years:
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is expected to suggest that cable companies could best serve their customers by allowing them to subscribe to individual channels instead of packages of several stations, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.
There are maybe five channels I watch (to the extent that I watch any of them for any length of time) and the rest are utterly useless to me. The Golf Channel? Home Shopping Network? The Style Channel? Fox News? I'd be happy to make them go away.

Of course, if cable networks persist with the vile habit of obscuring programs I'm watching with giant, animated graphics promoting shows I wouldn't watch in a million years (I hate watching poker even more than I do playing it, for example), I may just skip all cable channels entirely.

Death By Snippet

I've been saying for a couple years now that the printed book won't be killed by any specific type of electronic device, but rather by ever-shorter attention spans that will make book-length material unpalatable to an ever-increasing percentage of the population. And it appears the L.A. Times is with me.
One memorable freshman sagely informed me that people shouldn't be reading entire volumes these days anyway. He had learned from a high school teacher that book authors (presumably fiction excepted) pad their core ideas to make money and that anything worth writing could be expressed in an article of 20 or 30 pages, tops.

Has written culture recently taken a nose drive? These are the students who grew up on Spark Notes, the popular study guides. Many of this generation are aliterate — they know how to read but don't choose to. And abridgment of texts is now taken to extremes, with episodes from micro-novels being sent as text messages on cell phones.

To be fair, my own era had CliffsNotes, not to mention Reader's Digest Condensed Books. We also relied on introductions and secondary sources when we were too busy (or too lazy) to work through primary texts.

But today's college crowd has a tool we did not: the search engine. Want to learn tap dancing in Austin? Lessons are just a few clicks away. So are the words spoken by the White Rabbit in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" or every reference to dogs in "The Canterbury Tales." Between Microsoft Word's "find" function, Project Gutenberg, Amazon's "Search Inside" feature and Google Print, seeking out precise fragments of information has become child's play.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

One Singular Sensation

There has been much talk--someplace, I'm sure--about what has been called the "Singularity." Ray Kurzweil's latest--The Singularity Is Near, for example, discusses it, and it is becoming the big topic in contemporary science-fiction. What is the "Singularity"? It's supposedly a real thing, referring to the point at which technological advance happens so fast that even the near future cannot be predicted with any accuracy. (This is actually a great relief to those of us who write forcasts of our various industries and worry about being wrong.) More specifically, it can be defined as:
A future event in which technological progress and societal change accelerate due to the advent of superhuman intelligence, changing our environment beyond the ability of pre-Singularity humans to comprehend or reliably predict. This event is named by analogy with the breakdown of modern physics knowledge near the gravitational singularity of a black hole.
Basically, once we develop thinking machines that can replicate themselves, that's the ballgame. Many experts (to the extent that there can be any) feel that the Singularity will arive sometime in the 2030s. So watch out.

There are many SF authors writing about post-Singularity life, and reading Charles Stross's Singularity Sky makes "traditional" SF (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, even Philip K. Dick, my favorite) seem downright quaint. It makes one almost nostalgic for the future of the past. Or, as Yogi Berra once said, "The future ain't what it used to be."

I came across an interesting year-old article in Popular Science about the convergence (there's that word again!) between SF and reality.

New TV Format

Once again, The Onion has its finger on the pulse on American culture, and envisions the evolution of television:
The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-1 Monday to require electronics manufacturers to make all television sets ADHD-compatible within two years.

To adhere to the guidelines, every program, with the exception of The Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi Show, will have to be sped up to meet the new standard frame rate of 120 frames per second.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin characterized the move as "a natural, forward-thinking response to the changing needs of the average American viewer."

"In the media-saturated climate of the modern age, few have the time and energy to sit still for an entire episode of King Of Queens," Martin said. "Although the FCC will leave it up to the television networks to make the necessary programming changes, we are recommending, in accordance with the ADHDTV standard, that all shows be no more than six minutes in length, and that they contain jarring and unpredictable camera cuts to shiny props and detailed background sets."

"We're also advising that intra-episode recaps occur every 45 seconds," he added.

The ruling represents a growing shift toward ADHDTV, a television format designed to meet the needs of an increasingly inattentive and hyperactive audience. The tuner includes a built-in device that automatically changes channels after three minutes of uninterrupted single-station viewing, as well as a picture-in-picture-in-picture-in-picture option.

According to Sony, the leading manufacturer of the ADHD-compatible sets, the new technology will allow viewers to play up to three simultaneous video games while watching television.

Toast is the Most

Via Dr. Joe, here is the silliest thing I've seen in a while (at least since seeing the refrigerator with a built-in TV): a toaster with a built-in FM radio. Granted, it would be perfect when an oldies station does a "best of Bread" marathon, but really. What would have made this the quintessential artifact of utter contemporary silliness would have been either a built-in cellphone and/or Wi-Fi compatibility.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Instant Tunes

Apple Computer's iTunes music store now sells more music than Tower Records or Borders, according to analyst firm the NPD Group.


I've been relying heavily on Skype for Internet telephony, but Dr. Joe introduced me to a new VoIP service called The Gizmo Project. Like Skype, calls are free to other Gizmo users, and there is also a call out and call in service. Per-call costs are about one cent or so cheaper than Skype. The only drawback to Gizmo's call-in service is that they do not have any available 518 areas codes yet. Not that that should make even the slightest bit of difference, but some of us are territorial when it comes to our area codes. (In L.A., area codes are status symbols, which is colossally silly.)

I also like Gizmo's ability to record calls, which is useful when conducting interviews. There is also a link to Google Maps so you can automatically map the two parties on the line (which alternates between kind of creepy and kind of helpful when setting up meetings). Also, when someone leaves you a voicemail, an e-mail is sent that has a link to the audio file.

As always, the weak link is my crappy Logitech USB headset, but I think I'll ditch that in favor of my standard Mac external microphone and iPod earphones, which seem more reliable.

The Little Silver Screen

Coming to a desktop near you:
Movielink, a joint venture of five Hollywood studios to offer movies over the Internet, has signed a deal with Twentieth Century Fox, allowing it to offer movies from all major studios for the first time.
Official site is here. Ah, the drawback:
Movielink® System Requirements
.High-speed Internet access
.Windows 2000 or XP
.Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher
.Available only in the U.S.
I.e., no Mac version.

The Thin Boo Line

What kind of marketing is cheered and which is jeered? Or, in other words, what is deemed "acceptable" and what isn't? eMarketer tells us:
A recent survey fielded by Harris Interactive and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), found that general consumers, business executives and congressional staffers are more likely to trust traditional marketing methods over non-traditional or newer techniques.

A majority of respondents within each group felt traditional marketing methods — such as paid advertising, corporate sponsorships and paid spokespeople — were acceptable practices. Newer marketing practices, such as paying private citizens to promote products, Internet pop-up and ads in text messages, were viewed as less acceptable.
I fully expect this to change in the coming years.

Speaking of "boo," slightly off-topic, but related, is that sports sponsorhsip has gotten completely out of control. Many years ago, I thought it silly when companies started sponsoring football kickoffs (what--if they couldn't get a sponsor there wouldn't be one?) but now there is seemingly no aspect of professional or even collegiate sports that is not sponsored by someone.

To wit: I made the mistake of watching the Notre Dame-Syracuse game on Saturday (don't even ask, but if you were going to sponsor that game, Prozac would have been the obvious choice) and Silly Thing #1 was that some company (I think one of the beer companies but I don't remember) sponsored that yellow first down line they superimpose on the field. Silly Thing #2 was that Charles Schwab sponsored a conversation between the two announcers. Yes, it was called the "Charles Schwab Conversation." I am not making that up. Goofy idea, but there is the kernel of a good idea there. If I had the money to sponsor some aspect of a football or basketball game, I'd pay to have the announcers stop talking. I'd call it the "Romano Blissful Silence."

The Truth Is Out There

Here's something interesting (or so I say): the thesis that the Internet killed off UFO mania.
[I]n recent years, interest in the UFO phenomenon has withered. Oh, the websites are still up, the odd UFO picture is still taken, and the usual hardcore UFO advocates make the same tired arguments about the same tired cases, but the thrill is gone. What happened? Why did the saucers crash?

The Internet showed this particular emperor to be lacking in clothes. If UFOs and alien visitations were genuine, tangible, objective realities, the Internet would be an unstoppable force for detecting them. How long could the vast government conspiracy last, when intrepid UFO investigators could post their prized pictures on the Internet seconds after taking them? How could the Men in Black shut down every website devoted to scans of secret government UFO documents? How could marauding alien kidnappers remain hidden in a nation with millions of webcams?

Just as our technology for finding and understanding UFOs improved dramatically, the manifestations of UFOs dwindled away. Despite forty-plus years of alleged alien abductions, not one scrap of physical evidence supports the claim that mysterious visitors are conducting unholy experiments on hapless victims. The technology for sophisticated photograph analysis can be found in every PC in America, and yet, oddly, recent UFO pictures are rare. Cell phones and instant messaging could summon throngs of people to witness a paranormal event, and yet such paranormal events don't seem to happen very often these days. For an allegedly real phenomenon, UFOs sure do a good job of acting like the imaginary friend of the true believers. How strange, that they should disappear just as we develop the ability to see them clearly. Or perhaps it isn't so strange.
The same fate may await the "ghost"phenomenon. There is no shortage of "ghost" shows on TV--everytime I turn on the Travel Channel there is another show about haunted hotels. (Word of advice: never use TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries or The World's Most Haunted Restaurants as a dining guide. As we've found out, usually the only scary thing about them is the food.) So obviously, interest in ghosts must be very high. And yet, with camera phones, video recorders, instant and text messaging, etc., so widespread, we have yet to see an actual, compelling "ghost" captured live. Even those shows where people spend nights in purportedly haunted houses never actually reveal anything beyond a few creaks and some ominous shadows (and that woman on that one show who always has to have her language bleeped). Funny--as with UFOs, there were much "better" ghost pictures taken before portable imaging and photography were so widespread. Funny, that.

Goin' Mobile

I must be the kiss of death for any media (or even commercial) endeavor. Every TV show I like gets cancelled. Every movie I like is a flop. Every consumer product I like is discontinued. It's a good thing I'm not an architecture buff--every building I like would probably collapse.

Now my favorite technology magazine--Mobile--has ceased publication. It's a shame; it was a great magazine, written by extremely tech-savvy people who had a great sense of humor. It was one of those few publications that was highly educational yet fun to read. It was the kind of magazine I would have liked to work for (and in fact what--back in the day--I had wanted Digital Imaging to have become before Satan and his minions intervened). They had changed their name from Mobile PC a year ago and always seemed to be noodling with departments and "focus", which was probably a sign that something was wrong. It's a very crowded field--both in print and on the Web--and I had read all its competitors and I thought it was the best. Shows you what I know. I shall miss it.

No Reply At All

Sez today's Ad Age daily e-letter:
Despite pouring records amounts of money into direct mail campaigns over the last three years, the financial services industry has been experiencing steadily declining response rates from that effort, according to a report by the Direct Marketing Association.
The response rate for some recent lead-generating direct mail campaigns monitored by the DMA was just 1.43%, according to the association’s 2005 Response Rate Report conducted earlier this year, down from 2.09% last year and 2.48% in 2003. For direct-order mail --which solicits or closes a sale -- the response rate was even lower, 0.69% in 2005. That compares to 3.5% in 2004 and 1.15% in 2003.

Direct mail represents nearly 20% of financial services companies’ direct marketing spending, according to the DMA.

The yearly comparisons aren’t exact -- for example, the DMA only this year started lumping insurance companies with other financial services marketers, and sampling groups change -- but the downward decline is directionally accurate, said Ann Zeller, VP-information and special projects for the DMA. The trade group surveyed 23 lead-generating campaigns and 18 direct-order campaigns.

Consider, for example, credit cards. Marketers shipped out 5.23 billion credit-card offers in 2004, up nearly 1 billion from 2003, according to researcher Synovate -- and saw the response rate drop to 0.4% from 0.6% in 2003. As recently as 1998, the response rate was as high as 1.2%.

Yet credit-card marketers sent out a record 1.4 billion offers in the first quarter -- only to get a record low response rate of 0.4%, according to Synovate.
I don't think this is much of a surprise. The explanation given is "clutter"--we get so many credit card solicitations (I get about three or four a week, on average and they go right into the shredder) that we're just sick of them. And since most people have a credit card already, there is little point to switch to another one, unless there is a decent offer, such as, say, accruing airline mileage or those hotel points.

The industry thinks that better targeting is the solution (hear that, variable-data printing buffs) and that may be part of it. But one has to remember that all the targeted marketing in the world won't help unless there is a compelling offer. Plus, identity theft fears may be making people a leery of these things. I'd be curious to see data that track the sales of paper shredders with credit card direct mail volumes.

Lost in Translation

I confess I've never seen the TV show Lost (I may have to rent the first season DVD some day) but there is an interesting "horizontal marketing" strategy associated with it:
THIS SEASON, the TV drama "Lost" will make pop culture history when it becomes the first show ever to have a character write a book in the real world. Hyperion (a division of Disney, which owns ABC, which airs "Lost") plans to release "Bad Twin," a mystery novel credited to one Gary Troup, who, the publisher informs us, was a passenger on "Oceanic Flight 815, which was lost in flight from Sydney, Australia, to Los Angeles in September 2004."

Although that air disaster is the genesis point of "Lost," the event from which the entire series unfolds, Troup is hardly a central figure in the action — in fact, he's not a living presence at all. He died in the plane crash, leaving behind the manuscript of his private-eye story, which will be found in the wreckage during an episode this spring. The discovery of this manuscript will magically overlap with the novel's release date.
The LA Times book editor, overdosing on tweed and indignation perhaps, is not amused:
This is how a show like "Lost" wants to operate — framing its viewers as a community and itself as the centerpiece of a shared point of view. There's nothing inherently wrong with that; in fact, it illustrates the nature of fanhood, the way our affinities help us find purchase, a sense of identity in the world. At the same time, there's something creepy about the nudge-nudge, wink-wink insistence that "Bad Twin" was found instead of manufactured, and it goes beyond the idea of writing as a commodity, a gimmick, a ploy.

In fact, the marketing of the novel suggests something far more insidious — that we, the audience, exist not only to be manipulated but to participate in our manipulation by seeing it as cool. This is the kind of thing that literature has traditionally stood against.
Oh, come now. Sure, it's probably going to be a bad book, but it sounds like some harmless fun for fans of the show. Will a fictional author get a fictional royalty check? (As someone who has his share of things like Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise stashed away among the relics of my youth, how can I complain?) And, hey, if it gets people to buy a book, how can that be a bad thing?

Writing and literature have always been about marketing and making a buck (sometimes that's literally true!) from one's writing, and any writer who tells you otherwise is either lying or is a fool. Dickens wrote for money, as did Shakespeare (i.e., by writing and staging successful plays) and every other "classic" author. I find nothing wrong with this; I think that being able to make a living doing what you are good at and like doing is probably the best thing there is. Not that this "fictionally authored novel" is going to rank up there with Dickens and Shakespeare, but the principle is the same. The real trick is not to shun marketing and the unusual idea of actually selling one's work, but how to be financially successful and good simultaneously. What we should be getting indignant about is that really good books are rarely successful and thus book publishers seldom publish them--or worse, rarely market them when they do.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

That Sinking Feeling

Shucks, I thought everything in the movies was true. Next you're going to tell me that giant, irradiated lizards can't destroy Tokyo.
IT IS a staple scene of B-movies and Westerns: the cowboy stumbles into a patch of quicksand and is sucked under until only his stetson remains on top, or sinks up to his neck until hauled out by his sidekick.

Both scenarios have now been proved to fly in the face of physics. Research has shown that it is impossible for people to sink into quicksand much beyond the waist — but it is equally impossible to pull someone out once they are stuck.

Any attempt to drag a person out with a horse or truck would put them in much greater danger than leaving them be: the forces involved would tear them apart. To pull a person’s foot out would require as much force as it takes to lift a family car, and the body would give way before the sand relinquished its grip.

I Think We're In Kansas

What--did they move the Patent Office to Kansas:
The U.S. patent office has reportedly granted a patent for an anti-gravity device -- breaking its rule to reject inventions that defy the laws of physics.

The journal Nature said patent 6,960,975 was granted Nov. 1 to Boris Volfson of Huntington, Ind., for a space vehicle propelled by a superconducting shield that alters the curvature of space-time outside the craft in a way that counteracts gravity.

One of the main theoretical arguments against anti-gravity is that it implies the availability of unlimited energy.

"If you design an anti-gravity machine, you've got a perpetual-motion machine," Robert Park of the American Physical Society told Nature.

Park said the action shows patent examiners are being duped by false science.

Don't Tip a Cow, Man

Growing up in Cow Hampshire, I was familiar with the idea of cow tipping, but never knew anyone who actually did it. And now I know why: it's not physically possible:
Margo Lillie, a doctor of zoology at the University of British Columbia, and her student Tracy Boechler have conducted a study on the physics of cow-tipping.

Ms Boechler, now a trainee forensics analyst for the Royal Canadian Mounted Corps, concluded in her initial report that a cow standing with its legs straight would require five people to exert the required force to bowl it over.

A cow of 1.45 metres in height pushed at an angle of 23.4 degrees relative to the ground would require 2,910 Newtons of force, equivalent to 4.43 people, she wrote.

Dr Lillie, Ms Boechler’s supervisor, revised the calculations so that two people could exert the required amount of force to tip a static cow, but only if it did not react.

“The static physics of the issue say . . . two people might be able to tip a cow,” she said. “But the cow would have to be tipped quickly — the cow’s centre of mass would have to be pushed over its hoof before the cow could react.”

Newton’s second law of motion, force equals mass multiplied by acceleration, shows that the high acceleration necessary to tip the cow would require a higher force. “Biology also complicates the issue here because the faster the [human] muscles have to contract, the lower the force they can produce. But I suspect that even if a dynamic physics model suggests cow tipping is possible, the biology ultimately gets in the way: a cow is simply not a rigid, unresponding body.”

Another problem is that cows, unlike horses, do not sleep on their feet — they doze. Ms Boechler said that cows are easily disturbed. “I have personally heard of people trying but failing because they are either using too few people or being too loud."