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It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Filed in: consumerism, culture, design, tech, Wed, Jan 5 2011 21:05 PT

…by which I mean CES, of course.

Granted, half of the things presented this week will never see the light of day, and the other half will be three to six months later than they announced. But still, today alone was just staggering. Motorola gave an Apple-grade presentation (if you can look past its comically bad audio). Olympus finally announced a Micro Four Thirds camera I’m willing to take the plunge on. Even Microsoft may be at risk of becoming relevant again.

I think what can be said about this batch of announcements is that this is the year everything is good enough. What I mean to say is that, of all the devices I’ve seen in the last couple of days, nearly all of them are capable of convincing someone to give up the PC as their primary computer device. These aren’t just rehashed netbooks–relatively few, in fact, even have an Atom CPU–but devices everywhere from 3 inches on up that have enough juice to browse the web, handle email, play games, watch movies, find yourself on a map, and generally do what 90% of the market does with their PCs.

I’ve seen a lot of CES presentations in my time, but this is the first year that I’ve seen the writing on the wall for PCs as we know them. Now, okay, if you’re reading this, you’re one of two kinds of people: the ones who will be using your phone or tablet as your primary computing device by the end of the year, if you’re not already; or the ones who will still be lugging a 5-lb. clamshell device with a keyboard to your neighborhood Starbucks. Either way, in my opinion, you’re an outlier. You may need to type so frequently that a keyboard is always in your plans. Or you may be editing 4k video, or compiling an operating system. And that’s fine. PCs will still exist for those cases. But you’re still going to be affected by the trends in the industry.

What I want you to think about as you contemplate the death of the PC (or, say, Wintel, or the WIMP model, or what have you) is someone you know who’s not at all a geek. Maybe your mom, or the partner who stares glassy-eyed at you when you come home complaining about the latency of your DNS at work. Now, think: what do these people do with their computers all day? They browse the web. And by “the web”, I mean web-based email, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Netflix, their bank accounts, their stocks. Name me one thing 90% of these users need a Core i7 CPU for. Games? Only if they’re hardcore. Editing images or videos? Probably not worth the investment.

In the overall cost-to-benefit calculation, there’s going to be a lot more value given to size and battery life than to raw horsepower. And raw horsepower per dollar is really the only remaining benefit of the PC. They’re complicated, bulky, virus-prone, and get slower over time. I looked at my in-laws’ mid-tower Windows machine like it was a record player: it’s big, loud, sucks down a lot of juice… and most importantly, it was asleep most of the time I was there, since they got my hand-me-down netbook for a present.

Meanwhile, you can walk into any mobile phone store in the US today and pick up a 1GHz computer with a half-decent browser for anywhere from $200 to nothing. Then you can shove it in your pocket. That’s powerful. And what we’re seeing this week shows us that the gap between the desktop and the pocket is not only narrowing, but it’s morphing in all kinds of ways. If Motorola is to be believed, the tablet battle will be joined by the Android Honeycomb-powered Xoom this spring; there will be at least one 960×540 phone in the near future; and Windows 8 is aiming for low-power CPUs as well. Consumer electronics companies aren’t tailoring their offerings for power users: they’re aiming squarely at the non-geek in the house. (Don’t feel threatened. It’s for the best.)

This week, we’re seeing what the non-Apple players in the market are seeing as the future of computing. This looks to be the first time Apple has to look at the competition seriously.

Olympics on the web, live, worldwide: when?

Filed in: culture, media, sports, Wed, Aug 6 2008 13:48 PT

On the eve of the first Olympics in which live and on-demand content will be available on the web in most countries, I have to wonder how long it will be until the IOC recognizes that they should no longer bother to embargo content to match the prime-time schedules of viewers around the world.

This time, broadcast licensees in many countries will be running their own Olympics video sites (and 77 more will have a YouTube channel, restricted to their countries by geolocation). This builds on the 2004 coverage, which was spectacular in the UK, thanks to the BBC, but generally pretty poor everywhere else. It served as a good proof of concept, at least. I do think, though, that the feedback this time around will be that users will be confused, or frustrated about content not being where they expect it to be, since the networks will hold on to it until it’s been broadcast.

Hardcore Olympics fans don’t care when it’s prime time. And they get impatient when they know the event is finished, but still, they don’t see the results. On top of that, we have time-shifting technology, which evens out the playing field for everyone. So when will the IOC finally realize what’s good for them, and require broadcasters to show events online, in real time?

My guess is no later than 2016. Beijing is the largest experiment yet in web video, and they’ll have enough time to learn in time for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver/Whistler. The Winter Games are much smaller, in terms of events, participants and viewers, so this could be a great dry run. London hosts in 2012, and their infrastructure is probably much better suited to a widescale video deployment. My only question is whether there are too many signed agreements already, which would preclude a full, real-time Games.

After London, it’s hazy. The Winter Games in 2014 are in Sochi, Russia, and even six years out, I don’t have high hopes for them to take the lead in Internet distribution. That leaves the 2016 Games, which are down to Madrid, Chicago, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro. All but Rio could pull it off easily, and maybe with 8 years of preparation, Rio would be ready too.

Any longer than that, and I think people the world over will start to wonder when the Olympics, an event created to sponsor international unity, will live up to its billing and put the athletes in the spotlight, even when that spotlight falls at 3am Eastern, or Central European, or Japan Standard Time.

Locating the problem

Filed in: culture, design, quotes, Wed, Jan 10 2007 08:30 PT

“I think there’s almost a belligerence—people are frustrated with their manufactured environment. We tend to assume the problem is with us, and not with the products we’re trying to use.”

Jonathan Ive, chief designer at Apple, in an article in Time magazine, 9 Jan 2007

Buy Something Day

Filed in: consumerism, culture, Fri, Nov 25 2005 18:07 PT

Today, according to the Adbusters set, is Buy Nothing Day. To most of America, on the other hand, it’s known as Black Friday, the first day of the Christmas shopping season, brought on by an unspoken holiday usually granted after Thanksgiving.

I bought something today. A few somethings, actually. Lots of people did that today, in fact, as Black Friday is consistently one of the top five retail days of the year (the Saturday before Christmas being #1). Which gets to the heart of why Buy Nothing Day doesn’t make much sense: the worst time to show yourself in numbers to make a point is when you know your opposition, which already dwarfs you in size, is going to turn out in three times higher volume than usual. It’s about as noticeable as taking a gallon of water out of a pool that’s being filled on the other end by a supertanker.

The act of not consuming isn’t a vote, it’s an abstention. In fact, a lot of the time, it’s just an absentee vote for the other side. What does it say to the people you’re trying to engage if you’re free to hop onto the deal-hunting gravy train at midnight on Saturday? Not a very powerful message. Perhaps it’s even counterproductive, in that it gives the happy capitalists a tangible bogeyman right when it’s most convenient for them to engage in demagoguery.

No, what one needs to do is to change how people feel about the holiday season. Instead of being confrontational, it’s possible to be subtle, even friendly, while at the same time communicating your point more effectively. Here are two campaigns I can think of that would be much more interesting to me.

Give Something Day
Yes, technically, most people think of this as being Christmas, but all the better to catch the opposition off-guard. Think of something people can use, that they pay too much for, that can be made cheaply, with little waste, and given away. No slogans or logos or globalization guilt. Just a tacit message that giving, not consuming, is the spirit of the holiday season.
Do Something Day
Black Friday is a day about stuff. Buy Nothing Day attempts to frame the argument on this point. But if that’s the case, then why not make it about reconnecting with family and friends? This is especially important after the Thanksgiving feast, which is usually meant to get these people together, but usually ends up being a stress-fest with cooks sweating over a turkey and guys drinking beer in front of some shitty Detroit Lions game. If you can engage those close to you enough in an event you can all enjoy, maybe the bond with consumption can be overcome.

Eh. Maybe not. But there has to be something better than buying nothing on which to build a movement.

Update: (11/26/05) Kevin Gamble has another idea: Buy Something Meaningful Day.

The One-Show Guide to Fall TV

Filed in: culture, media, Wed, Sep 21 2005 07:04 PT

I was watching the Daily Show last night, and noticed that Too Late with Adam Carolla had been pushed back from 11:30pm to midnight. This was a good move in itself for Comedy Central, since Carolla’s attempt to keep up with ex-Man Show co-host Jimmy Kimmel is the most unfunny television program ever. I’ve had surgery that was more entertaining.

So, okay, we’re back to today’s and yesterday’s Daily Show from 11 to midnight. But tonight, I saw something glorious — coming October 17th at 11:30: The Colbert Report.

Oh, hell yes!

I’m sure that Comedy Central knew where their bread was buttered: the Daily Show already runs five times a day. Soon, I have an hour of must-see TV, four nights a week. Which should roughly double my viewing.

Graffiti, a critical review

Filed in: culture, design, Sat, Aug 27 2005 14:49 PT

I live on Capitol Hill in Seattle, where several a number go around putting their names on everything that is nailed down. I’ve been seeing their work whenever I leave the house, and it’s causing me to think more about exactly what graffiti is, and how to articulate my personal problems with it.

I don’t quite get vandalism, myself. It’s one thing to post handbills, or even to create something thought-provoking that may turn some heads. There’s something about the first time you see “It’s the LAW” turned into “It’s the CLAW”. (Those of you who live in Seattle know what I’m talking about.) But then there’s something about seeing it done the hundredth time that suggests enough is enough, and two particular entities have reached that point with me.

Recently, in this part of the hill, we’ve seen dozens of taggings by MCM. (No, it’s not me, though those are my initials.) This is just a garden-variety tagger, which I consider to be the lowest form of vandal. MCM has hit seemingly every other building for a two-block radius, along with the occasional unfortunate automobile hood. MCM is distasteful to me because there’s no work involved. No art. It’s just a lazy way to destroy something.

Then there’s coldk. coldk isn’t just a tagger: he’s a multimedia criminal. His vandalism ranges from the insane (the back of a sign on I-5) to the irreparable (etched in the center of each window at Broadway Video). He must have gotten bored with drawing ghosts, because most of what I see here is a form of damage that you can’t just paint over: it’s scored into air conditioners and spray-painted onto cloth awnings.

Artistically, MCM has nothing on coldk. But what coldk does is more than just temporary defacement: it’s outright property damage. While I hope that they catch MCM and stick him (presumably it’s a he) with lots of community service scrubbing down our fair city, I have a feeling the cops are much more interested in shutting down coldk.

I hadn’t put my finger on exactly what it is about graffiti that holds that strange attraction for me. I don’t like noise, auditory or visual, in my everyday life. I also don’t condone property damage. Still, there are the occasions where I see something that’s particularly thoughtful or well-done piece of vandalism, and while I am loath to praise it, it will stick with me. Surely many of us have had been discomfited at being attracted to something that just seems wrong. But I do recognize art when I see it, wherever it may be. I may not want to see it on the side of my building, but as long as it’s just one incident (art) and not a mishmash of tagging (noise), something about it pleases me.

I do have to say that the most interesting work I’ve seen on the Hill is the Bald Guy. It’s everywhere: on street signs, street lights, pasted to walls. The thing I like about it is that it’s pervasive, but artistic — and temporary by design.

As I read this, I have discovered graffiti.org, where this very debate of art vs. crime is laid out. I’m also reminded of the Broken Window Theory, which suggests that civic pride and lawfulness recede when vandalism is allowed to remain. This could well be summed up as one of a whole big bag of social mores that doesn’t have, and may never have, a simple answer.

A moment of silence

Filed in: consumerism, culture, media, rights, Mon, Jun 27 2005 07:33 PT

We lost Grokster, 9-0.

A moment of silence, please, for the death of market conversations.

The Broken Wiki Theory

Filed in: culture, Web, Fri, Jun 24 2005 15:55 PT

The LA Times editorial-wiki experiment was a bold one. And, of course, that’s why it failed so quickly. Jeff Jarvis holds out hope for its return, and so do I. I think that what happened is an example of a pattern put forth over 20 years ago.

The Broken Windows Theory, made popular in a 1982 article in Atlantic magazine, is instructive here. In that article, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling suggested that broken windows in a neighborhood, left unrepaired, embolden bad actors to break more windows. It’s a snowball effect which attracts criminal elements and destroys the value inherent in any given community.

It’s the same with wikis, only easier, and with robotic window-breakers. Public wikis with broad appeal need to be aware of the value their space presents. I think that deep down, we all knew it was going to be hacked. The Times made a big splash with that announcement, and in doing so, they made themselves a much more valuable short-term target. Doubtless, lots of people started breaking windows, which were repaired quickly and silently by the administrators. But then, someone broke a window, and nobody fixed it. That’s when it snowballed.

Jarvis is right that they should have gotten some experienced guardians from Wikipedia. The Times has suspended the wiki indefinitely, but I want them to know that it’s not going to be as much of a liability as they would surmise from the first three days of activity. They got all manner of link cannons pointed in their direction at once. In time, that is destined to die down, as the bad actors move on to the next easy target.

What is left is to find more robust defenses for wiki spam and other attacks. the LA Times experiment says the technology isn’t ready to be self-cleaning, but it could eventually be simple enough that an administrator could watch over several high-profile wikis, protecting against attacks that an automated system misses. A few human guardians and some (existing) technological wizardry would do great things for projects like those attempted by the LA Times.

Creative Commons Buzz

Filed in: consumerism, culture, marketing, rights, Tue, May 3 2005 08:30 PT

The Creative Commons/BzzAgent agreement has caused a storm among CC’s advocates. It started with Suw Charman, who objected to advocates being compensated for astroturfing what is a noble cause in and of itself. She goes so far as to call it a “betrayal” of genuine CC activists. The thread spiraled outward from there, and you can follow the Trackbacks, but BzzAgent’s CEO has asked Lessig for guidance, and Lessig has asked his readers for comment.

I’m not scared or disappointed by this experiment. CC has to have reach beyond Web geeks in order to be effective. Anyone who has read Wired over the last two years at least knows something about CC, but that’s only a half million people. Not a lot, in the grand scheme. I’ve talked myself blue in the face to just about everyone I know about CC, but one person I’m never going to reach is the non-techie conspicuous consumer. I know that they would probably understand and agree with the CC model if someone they identified with would explain it to them. That’s a conversation that CC could be having. But they need a broader set of advocates, and this gives them that.
The burden in this form of communication is borne by two actors: in this case, the BzzAgents and Creative Commons. Anyone who wants to be a BzzAgent and still have friends has to have a story that’s genuine. If their story isn’t honest and relevant, the audience will know something is up, and that impacts the agent’s personal reputation. Anyone can trade away their whuffie for a little cash, but they’ll learn it’s way easier to spend than it is to earn. When’s the last time you invited an Amway salesman to your house after they tried to pitch laundry detergent or financial independence to you?

It will also be up to CC to explain itself well to the non-technical. Let’s not mince words here: the stereotypical CC advocate (myself included) is some combination of a lawyer, a geek, an intellectual property activist, and a performer. We’re not going to reach everybody. We need constant pressure from all sorts of people in order to achieve the cultural breakthrough that we want. What is most important is that our new advocates are well-enough informed to convey the urgency of the situation. It will come out soft and irrelevant if, to paraphrase Mark Resch, they’re just listening to the free speech to get the free beer.

As for the people who actually engage in this form of persuasion, I have to think that a lot of them do it because they believe they’re beating the system. And maybe they have: at least they have marketers talking with them, and are getting some form of compensation for helping them. It’s not like HBO is giving out mugs for the water-cooler chat they create. If that’s what it takes to get more people to play ball, and someone is willing to sponsor the reward program to enable that, I’m finding it a little hard to be upset about it. But I guess there’s a fine line between influential and insidious.

Panel: remix culture

Filed in: culture, rights, SXSW2005, Wed, Mar 16 2005 12:19 PT

Eric Steuer of Wired moderated a panel on the rise of remix culture. Mashup artist DJ Reset started off by talking about the work he’s been doing, and the kind of feedback he’s received from the original creators. Most have been very positive, including Lynyrd Skynyrd. He’s also working with U2. But it’s not all wine and roses: AC/DC has shut down one of his mashups.

Glenn Otis Brown of Creative Commons talks about some of the legal history. One decision stated, essentially, “unless you have a license, do not sample.” Another case, in which the Beastie Boys’ “Pass the Mic” was the subject of a lawsuit by the publisher, over three notes that had already been cleared by the label. That one went the other way. Still, labels are “gunshy” over samples, and some won’t touch them at all. DJ Reset says that the first thing out of a label’s mouth is, “is there a sample on (the track)?” And if so, they often try to get an artist to take it out.

Interlude: a mashup of Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, where both the music and his choreography are remixed.

What are the prospects for this genre? Reset says it depends on the music. If it’s good quality music, people will keep it going. If it’s marginal, this could be a flash in the pan.

Reset mentions a “poor me, somebody likes my music” attitude among artists who see a mix of their music made available, and see only the imaginary dollars they lost.

Another mashup: “This Place Sucks“, where the Superfriends act out scenes from Office Space.

Brown mentions the merger of the real and imaginary, documentary and narrative, etc. He mentions the real and acted-out Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as an example. Then he discusses the Creative Commons Sampling license which was the basis for the Wired CD It allows sharing, remixing, etc., for the tracks. They worked with Negativland, who insisted that advertising be excluded from the new license. Eric Steuer describes the process of the CD as being anywhere from no response at all, like it was a concept so foreign that it wasn’t worth a response, to some serious questions, to some real collaboration. Bands like Le Tigre, Dan the Automator and Cornelius, who already work with samples, got it right away.

CC Mixter was mentioned, along with the Fine Art of Sampling contest. The remix album is now available (and featured in Staccato 13).

Question: A documentary filmmaker wants to open-source his interviews. He wanted to first release all of the transcripts, then when the DVD is released, also release the audio and video. Wants to know how to collect micropayments for the interviews. Brown says that it’s good to provide some direction for consumers. He mentions “Outfoxed”, a film which did release its source material. And also Magnatune, the netlabel that offers clear commercial licensing terms.

Reset says EMI and Apple Records put a premium on the brand over the content. Bands, however, often aren’t opposed to the concept. He has one freely-available track featuring Paul McCartney (with permission). But sometimes, the music is just something the artists don’t like, and they don’t want to be associated with it.

Question: Someone puts a Sampling Plus-licensed track in a movie, and wants to use that song in the ad for the movie. Is that a problem? Brown says that appears to be a hole in the license. But it probably wouldn’t be a problem to remedy.

Question: What if I wanted to remix various sorts of text from political views? Brown says that’s essentially what syndication software does. If you’re still linking back to the original source, that should be fine. But how would it be to reprint something from Wired in another magazine? That would certainly be problematic, says Steuer. Brown adds that it will get harder and harder as time goes on to find out what is the original source of certain items. William Gibson says in Pattern Recognition that it will take archaeologists in the future to find the actual origin of some given work.

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