Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday: bargain basement species

Black Friday, that annual bargain hunting shopping spree has come around again. Shoppers queue for hours to save a couple of hundred bucks on a super-whammo-larger-than-large HD television or snap up a BluRay player for next to nothing. Others wait impatiently at their computer keyboards, mouse at the ready for the moment the online bargains become available.

Retailers both dread and welcome this end of year sale. They dread it because people can get a bit unruly when they spot a bargain, as was proved two years ago when a shop assistant was trampled to death by stampeding bargain hunters. On the other hand, it is the biggest selling time of the year. Thanksgiving seamlessly flowing into Christmas, means that people are in a non-stop present buying mode.

The thought of this makes me sick. How degenerate a species have we become that we are willing to kill one of our own to buy a non-essential piece of junk. How ill is this species which is willing to queue for hours for a TV they don't need while other members of the species, probably around the corner from Walmart, are living on the street and can't even afford the basic essentials of life like food and water.

Black Friday, the Christmas rush, all this "I want, I want," makes me sick to the stomach and thoroughly cynical of the human race. Instead of busying himself with condoms the pope might want to speak out on the values of these Christian holidays and bring back a bit of perspective. Maybe some people might actually listen. Although I doubt it, Jesus had to tear down an entire temple (allegedly) to make people listen and I don't see the the pope doing that. Pity, he might make himself useful for once.

Go on, fight for your HD TV's, trample fellow human beings to death for your bargains, catch pneumonia waiting in line for that 40% off deal. But never, ever try to tell me that humans are a superior species because I will laugh so hard that I might explode.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

And Neelie spoke

Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital agenda, shook the world of Brein and Buma (the Dutch equivalents of the MPAA and RIAA) last week: we can do without you, she indicated. At the very least the role of organisations like Brein en Buma have to be seriously curtailed. "We must ensure that copyright serves as a building block, not a stumbling block," according to Neelie Kroes. Amen to that!

Digital distribution of films, T.V.-series and music is common in many countries. Not in the Netherlands. Other than music there is no media available on digital distribution platforms. There are some obscure websites that offer B- and C-movies with a smattering of just-A-movie thrown in. These sites often charge far too much for their services and their provenance is sketchy. They do not form a secure basis to build your viewing pleasure on.

In the U.S. it has become quite normal to view films and episodes of your favourite T.V.-series with the help of a small box coupled to your T.V. This could be a Google-TV, an AppleTV, a Boxee box or any other device offering Internet connection. These boxes can use services like Hulu or Netflix to obtain the chosen material. Legal and convenient. Especially when your DVD or BluRay collection is threatening to swamp you.

Here in the Netherlands this is not possible because Brein and Buma are in the way. Instead of convenience and service I get a long, patronising video at the start of every legally bought DVD warning me against piracy and the dangers of stealing movies. I bloody well bought this DVD! I'm not the one you should be warning! Stop bothering honest people, Brein, and let me watch my movie. You know what, never mind. I'll go on the Internet and download the movie. That gets rid of all your stupid moralising BS. And no, Brein, that is not illegal: in the Netherlands it is legal to obtain and own a copy of legally bought media by any means, including downloading. And if I can prevent watching your stupid warning videos by doing so, I will. And there you have the counterproductive principle demonstrated.

As we have seen in the music industry, making films available through digital distribution is the way to reduce piracy. It turns out that most people are willing to pay for their media consumption but the price needs to be reasonable and the threshold to procurement must be low.

Of course illegal downloading will not disappear completely when you start offering films through legal networks. But the question then rises how much this remainder of illegal downloading hurts the industry.  The answer to that question can only be given when some other questions are resolved first: Would people who download films illegally have bought the film if it were not available on illegal networks? How many of these illegally downloaded films are actually watched and keep a bum out of the cinema seat? How can the rising number of cinema visitors be explained if illegal downloads are that harmful? Could it be that downloading films might be the best promotional tool the film industry has ever had?

Brein and Buma fight a battle on bureaucratic grounds. Rules are rules and rules have to be implemented no matter how the world is changing. There is no thought on the how and why of the rules. How does the process work and change? What real effect does illegal downloading have? The law is there to protect a process not to blindly implement when the process changes.

Neelie Kroes seems to have understood this. At least I hope that thought is behind her speech. She seems to understand that the world is changing and that there are now technological opportunities that give the old laws long grey beards. It is time to air out the old copyright laws, give them a bit of an overhaul. It is time for media distribution 21st century style!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Only tulips and wooden shoes for tourists, no more weed

We Dutch! We are so quirky. We speak funny, especially when we try to speak another language. We walk on wooden shoes when picking the tulips from our neatly kept front gardens and we smoke dope all day. Our claims to fame in a nutshell.

And we like to keep it all to ourselves, the weed that is. The tulips and wooden shoes we export like crazy. But the weed is for our own private use: the government will not make an exception for Amsterdam in its plans to introduce passes for the use of coffee shops. Coffee shops are the shops where weed is sold, besides coffee. These passes are introduced to keep tourists from stocking up on weed just before the trip home.

I suspect the main reason for this is that every time any one of our dignitaries visit a foreign country, fellow dignitaries bombard them with recriminations for the laxness of our drug laws. They are accused of perverting the brains of all those foreign innocents falling victim to the easy availability of weed in our country.

So I imagine an uncomfortable silence falls when our new prime minister, visiting the Palais de l' Elysées in Paris, is asked over an after dinner cognac, to curb the amount of weed flowing into France through Maastricht. The uncomfortable silence may of course also have to do with the fact that a French dinner is invariably fortified by a few bottles of magnificent, yet innocent claret. If we had a real strong willed and brave prime minister he might retort with a subtle pointer at the amount of brains that are fried by French wine all over the world. But alas, we have lacked such a prime minister for quite some time now.

No, instead our government decides you have to prove you're Dutch to be able to buy weed at a coffee shop. Weed is for the Dutch, tulips and wooden shoes are for tourists, wine is for everyone. Cheers!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Beatles on iTunes finally; not everyone is amused

The Beatles are on iTunes. I for one am glad of that. I won't succumb to the hype and buy their entire collection immediately but it is good to know that one of the most influential and iconic bands in the history of pop music has finally arrived in what is arguably the most popular music store on the planet.

But not everyone is amused. Mark Mulligan, an analyst at research firm Forrester, wrote in his blog that it wasn't that big a deal. "The fact that securing the content of a band old enough to be most young music fans' grandfathers is a sad reflection of the state of the digital music market," he wrote. "The digital music market needs new music products, not yesteryear's hits repackaged," he clarified. I disagree. It is a sad reflection on the state of license holders and their narrow views that it took this long in the first place.

A couple of years ago I went to a Paul McCartney concert. It was a birthday present from my sister and I looked forward to it. I have never been a Beatles fan, being just a few years too young to have first hand experience of the hype and just old enough to have seen it all falling apart in less brilliant solo careers, or so my hard rock and post-punk self thought. The Beatles are a band who I came to appreciate much later in life. Also recognising then the achievements of some of the solo work of Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

What struck me about the Paul McCartney concert was the generation spanning audience. Literally every age group from toddler to geriatric was there and pretty evenly spread, percentage wise. And more importantly: they were all enjoying themselves. Mark Mulligan should think again. What he says means that old things are not to be regarded as worth anything. So let us burn all Rembrandts, Van Goghs and lets replace the Mona Lisa with a digital art installation by an art school student. No more Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart, in digital form on digital distribution platforms. Let's not make e-books of Shakespeare, Dickens, George, Austen. They're all old hat and according to Mark Mulligan's argument they should be replaced by bright young stars. Whose work of course is all of it brilliant and worth looking at, listening to or reading. I know, let's replace the Beatles with Susan Boyle.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Robot on stage: the end of the line for actors?

A life like robot has taken to the stage in Japan, the BBC reports. The android actress' name is Geminoid F. Not a name that portrays well on a theatre poster I guess. The robot plays the part of an android caretaker to a woman who is terminally ill. Geminoid F recites poetry in the play and she never leaves her chair. Her movement and speech are directed by an actress back stage. So no autonomy yet.

So why is this news? Although this may be a first in the hallowed halls of theatre, robots controlled by humans have been part of the film making industry for donkey's years. This particular robot does look quite human but only at a glance. The resemblance fades away as soon as the robot moves any of its parts. It looks wooden and lacks a lot of je ne sais quoi. If anything it shows up the intricacies of the human face. A smile is more than just the curling upwards of the lips. The whole face, the eyes smile as well. This trick the robot has not mastered.

So Geminoid F does not pose a threat to human actors yet. And I am guessing the price for such a robot is not going to make it an economical extra or stunt person either. Although you never know in Hollywood. Imagine: instead of launching clothes filled with sandbags from the core of one of its many explosions the next Michael Bay movie may launch animated robots. A bit of a waste of money in my view, but most Michael Bay movies are that anyway so no great change there.

(A bit more on this story here: SkyNews.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Teens who text a lot live unsafe lives, a study claims

A study done by the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland shows that teens who text a lot (more than 120 messages per school day) and who spend a lot of time on social networks (more than three hours a school day), are more likely to lead unsafe lives. Unsafe, in the eyes of the researchers means they drink alcohol, use drugs and OMG, have sex! The calamity! High school students who drink, smoke weed and fool around with each other. This must be the end of the world.

At first my reaction was to laugh. I looked at the calendar, no it was not April fools day. So was this research real? What got my goat most was the blatant reversal the researchers allowed themselves. They warned parents that excessive - in their eyes - texting and social networking caused all these debaucheries. Which of course is total poppycock to put it mildly.

I remember my high school days, although they are some time ago. We did not have social network sites and mobile phones. They were not even a gleam in the eyes of their unborn inventors. Yet I do remember the socially more active specimens of my age group being a tad more precocious than some. They smoked, drank and screwed around at 16. Others did not. Live and let live. Had a study been done in those days they would have shown much the same results percentage wise. You see, there's one line in the report that gave the game away: "Many of the 19.8 percent of teens who reported hyper-texting were female, minority, from lower socioeconomic status and had no father at home". I went to two schools that had a large percentage of students that would fit the above classification and you know what? They would also fit the reports findings to a tee. And yet, as stated, no texting, no social network sites. Might there be another cause for the findings of the report?

Teens are teens. They explore the boundaries of what is possible. They experiment. That's what teens do, even have to do. That's their purpose in life. Let teens be teens. True, as a parent there has to be a certain measure of control and awareness but there also has to be a certain allowance of freedom. In the end most of them will turn out to become well adjusted members of society if they are given the chance. If there is no or little parental control teens may fly off the hook. It happened in ancient Greece, it happened in medieval England, it happens now. This report in my view grossly over-hypes the blame social technologies have in what is the normal behaviour of certain groups of high school kids.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Move over old-skool gamers, it's the final level for you

(created with the South Park Avatar creator)
(With the launch of the Microsoft Kinect, all three major gaming platforms now have a controller that is motion oriented. In other words: the gamer needs to get off the couch and put his or her hind quarters into gear. The success of the Nintendo Wii is well known but it seems that both the Playstation Move and Microsoft's Kinect are overnight successes as well.

I am an old-skool gamer. I don't have much time to game anymore but when I do I like to sit or lie on the couch and immerse myself with near religious passivity into a fantasy world of choice. So this development of control schemes that require more physical activity than moving my thumbs and index fingers is worrying to me. Soon video games will cause loss of weight, lowered blood pressure and development of musculature reminiscent of an Olympic athlete. That's not going to do a geek's image any good.

It's the last days of Rome for the old-skool gamer. The grossly overweight, snacks and soda popping gamer is a dying breed. A cultural exponent of the twentieth century is on its last legs in this first decade of the twenty-first century. All that will be left is a small niche of humanity that perseveres as the stereotype old-skool gamer, mainly found among those that play their games on PC's. Most probably roaming the World of Warcraft.

But as all geeks know: one just can't stop progress. It's only a matter of time before a motion based system is developed  for PC's and then even the last vestiges of old-skool gamers will have fallen. Once the drivers have been downloaded, the patches installed and autoexec.bat's and config.sys's been edited, there will be no stopping the onslaught of health for the PC gamers.

It is sad. I gain some solace from the existence of that one South Park episode that stands as a proud monument to a lost culture. The culture of the old-skool gamer.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

E-paper E-readers not up to snuff yet

Yesterday I had the chance to have a quick look at a couple of E-readers. They were the Oyo e-reader, the Samsung E60 eReader and a couple of BeBook E-readers (Neo, One and Mini). Also yesterday I had a go at an iPad in an Apple store. In my humble opinion E-readers are not up to snuff yet.

The first thing that struck me was the antiquated user interface of all the e-book readers I looked at. Punching number keys to navigate through menu's felt like warping back to the 90's. Or if a touch screen was available I had the greatest difficulty in getting the device to respond to my at first ginger and later more insistent pawing of the menu items. The loading of books, even short ones took ages. Granted, once a book is loaded it is ready for you at start-up but as more and more of these devices are becoming multifunctional, chances are you will be switching tasks quite often.

Then there was the turning of pages. It was like adding special effects to the book. A white screen flashed, went dark, waited a couple of seconds and there was the new page. And the pages contained too little text to be able to put off turning the page for long. So this dramatic effect would be a often repeated. If I wanted a book written by Michael Bay this might work but to have these effects crop up in "Pride and Prejudice" is nothing less than disastrous.

The ergonomics of many of the devices was also less than ideal. True, they are light and compact but this also means less text per page. I do not want to turn the page too often, it breaks the flow of reading, especially taking the afore mentioned special effects into account. Some of the buttons lacked positive response and all but the Samsung felt cheap. More toy like than serious reading tool.

I own an old iPhone (3g) and I played with the iPad yesterday. I am not going to say that these are the ultimate E-readers. But I am going to say that they are the yard stick to which the also rans are going to be measured in terms of usability. And the also rans fall short. Way short! Granted they are a lot cheaper than the Apple products but that is beside the point if they do not provide enough of the function they were intended for in the first place. What use is a car that's cheap that has square wheels?

Sadly I can not compare these E-readers or the iPad to the Amazon Kindle simply because it is not available in our country so there is no where to test it. I also have not tested the Sony ones yet although they are available over here. The experience may be slightly better. But boy does it need to be a lot better to win me over!

I remain a fervent proponent of E-books and E-reading in general. I do believe it is the future of publishing and reading. But the developers of the technology behind it need to shore up their breeches, grease their elbows and get to work. There's a lot to be done before it all becomes comfortable enough to compete with books or the iPad/iPhone on a long term basis. Once the fad has worn off I mean.