What is the Internet?

November 17th, 2011

“The Internet is a series of tubes invented by Al Gore.”

If you get the joke references in that answer, then you probably understand all the issues I will try to raise in this post.  But even if you use the Internet on a daily basis through e-mail or your favorite Facebook games, you may be hearing some of the following for the first time.

The Internet is a technological marvel that, as with most marvels, evolved. Now, the timeframe is so compressed that it may resemble intelligent design more than evolution, but let’s just assume that the incremental improvements happened quickly and that there were more than a few innovators involved.  Most people think of the Internet and the World Wide Web as one and the same.  That’s fine for most purposes these days.

What’s more interesting though, as the recent debates about censorship to battle copyright infringement have shown, is that the Internet is actually a belief system.  The way it grew up was around trust and sharing.  It has been abused by spammers and scam artists, but mostly it thrives because of the goodness and fairness of the majority of people.

I strongly believe that people should be compensated for the work they do.  I see the “Occupy” movement’s difficulty with the richest 1% getting richer off the backs of the 99%.  I also see a strong parallel between that argument and the corporations that are the “content industry” getting rich off the backs of artists.  Copyright lasts so long now that it has nothing to do with ensuring that an artist is fairly compensated for their contributions to culture.  It is really a way for people who can afford to control distribution channels to make money off the artist’s work (70 or more years after the artist is dead).  The Queen Anne Statute (when copyright was first introduced) allowed for the artists to get a temporary monopoly on their artistic expressions (not ideas, by the way, only expressions of ideas) so they could make some money and at the same time contribute to culture.  After 14 years, when the artist has made a chunk of money from his or her creation, the art would fall into the public domain.  There it would be enjoyed by all and (most importantly) re-mixed and improved upon by the next generation of artists.

The Internet brought along the potential for an amazing resurgence of creative talent.  Cheap production and even cheaper distribution could have allowed for artists to create amazing high quality stuff, get it out there, monetize it quickly, and then the next generation would take over.  Instead we have big corporations doing their utmost to lock down all creative output for multiple generations.  The examples that really freak me out are the Walt Disney movies like Cinderella and Snow White which were stories in the public domain that Disney used to build an incredibly successful business; now any attempt by someone to put out content based on those same public domain stories are challenged by the Disney lawyers.  If things worked the way they were originally supposed to, Disney’s own versions would be in the public domain by now.  Remember, since corporations are considered people under the law, the copyright will now last until 70 or more years after the Disney corporation dies.

To stop online copyright infringement, the US government is considering legislation that will allow companies like Disney the ability to cut off funding and “erase from the Internet” any site found to be “facilitating infringement”.  There’s enough ambiguity in the law that Google or flickr could easily be categorized as a “rogue” site. The way they will accomplish the “erasing” is to muck around with the Domain Name System (DNS), the technical backbone of the Internet that converts the Web site name you type or paste into your browser into the IP addresses (numbers) that computers can understand.  The legislation breaks the Internet technically and shatters the underlying belief system.  No trust.  No sharing.

It should be interesting to see how we answer this question in a few years: “What is the Internet?”  If the companies pushing this legislation have their way, the answer may be: “A broadcast medium used by big corporations to deliver content to a paying audience.”  Surely this would be a better answer: “A communications medium that continues to allow each member of the public an equal voice, making it the greatest enabler of democracy and artistic expression the world has ever known.”

Current TV Dramas

October 7th, 2011

Here is my take on currently airing dramas, using a simple five-star rating system.  This sometimes indicates only my preference, not the quality of the show (for example, Parenthood is an excellent show but I found it too deep and real for my taste; conversely, the new shows Terra Nova and Person of Interest have my attention but could easily lose it again once the novelty wears off).

series network time slot my rating
BOARDWALK EMPIRE HBO sundays (9:00 PM) *****
DEXTER SHOWTIME sundays (9:00 PM) *****
FRINGE FOX fridays (9:00 PM) *****
BLUE BLOODS CBS fridays (10:00 PM) ****
CRIMINAL MINDS CBS wednesdays (9:00 PM) ****
A GIFTED MAN CBS fridays (8:00 PM) ****
THE GOOD WIFE CBS sundays (9:00 PM) ****
NIKITA CW fridays (8:00 PM) ****
PERSON OF INTEREST CBS thursdays (9:00 PM) ****
TERRA NOVA FOX mondays (8:00 PM) ****
BODY OF PROOF ABC tuesdays (10:00 PM) ***
HARRY’S LAW NBC wednesdays (9:00 PM) ***
HART OF DIXIE CW mondays (9:00 PM) ***
HAWAII FIVE-0 CBS mondays (10:00 PM) ***
THE MENTALIST CBS thursdays (10:00 PM) ***
PRIME SUSPECT NBC thursdays (10:00 PM) ***
REVENGE ABC wednesdays (10:00 PM) ***
SUPERNATURAL CW fridays (9:00 PM) ***
UNFORGETTABLE CBS tuesdays (10:00 PM) ***
THE VAMPIRE DIARIES CW thursdays (8:00 PM) ***
CASTLE ABC mondays (10:00 PM) **
CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION CBS wednesdays (10:00 PM) **
CSI: NEW YORK CBS fridays (9:00 PM) **
LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT NBC wednesdays (10:00 PM) **
RINGER CW tuesdays (9:00 PM) **
THE SECRET CIRCLE CW thursdays (9:00 PM) **
STRIKE BACK CINEMAX fridays (10:00 PM) **
CSI: MIAMI CBS sundays (10:00 PM) *
DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES ABC sundays (9:00 PM) *
GLEE FOX tuesdays (8:00 PM) *
GREY’S ANATOMY ABC thursdays (9:00 PM) *
HOUSE FOX mondays (9:00 PM) *
NCIS CBS tuesdays (8:00 PM) *
PAN AM ABC sundays (10:00 PM) *
PARENTHOOD NBC tuesdays (10:00 PM) *
CHARLIE’S ANGELS ABC thursdays (8:00 PM) 0
90210 CW tuesdays (8:00 PM) unseen
AGAINST THE WALL LIFETIME sundays (10:00 PM) unseen
AMERICAN HORROR STORY FX wednesdays (10:00 PM) unseen
BEDLAM BBC AMERICA saturdays (9:00 PM) unseen
BREAKING BAD AMC sundays (10:00 PM) unseen
GOSSIP GIRL CW mondays (8:00 PM) unseen
HOMELAND SHOWTIME sundays (10:00 PM) unseen
LAW & ORDER: UK BBC AMERICA wednesdays (9:00 PM) unseen
LUTHER BBC AMERICA wednesdays (10:00 PM) unseen
THE LYING GAME ABC FAMILY mondays (8:00 PM) unseen
NCIS: LOS ANGELES CBS tuesdays (9:00 PM) unseen
PRIVATE PRACTICE ABC thursdays (10:00 PM) unseen
SONS OF ANARCHY FX tuesdays (10:00 PM) unseen

Creative Accounting

September 21st, 2011

David Prowse, who played Darth Vader (as the body not the voice), has a deal with Lucasfilm to share in the profits of The Return of the Jedi.  The 15th-highest grossing film of all time has apparently not yet turned a profit.  Thus, David Prowse has not yet received any of the cut he quite reasonably thought he might be getting by now.

Now, there are above-line (gross) and below-line (net) royalties.  The A-list stars will get deals that take their cut from the revenues (gross profit) and those cuts will actually be considered an expense by the studio.  In fact, everything under the sun is charged against the revenue so that very few movies ever show a net profit.

I find this rather alarming, but apparently it is common in both the movie and music recording industries.

Purple

July 24th, 2011

 

Here’s more Photoshop experimentation.  Remember those art projects where you drew intersecting lines and then colored the resulting spaces like a checkerboard?  This started out as one of those.

Customer Service Nightmares

July 21st, 2011

I had a teacher in high school who was very unorthodox but he had many anecdotes that prepared me for adult life. Gerry Cadman, may he rest in peace, was definitely an influence on me and taught me that good customer service is far too rare.

One memorable Cadman schtick was his impersonation of a post office worker preparing a package for delivery.  He would use his glasses as a prop, illustrating how the worker would struggle to read labels, wandering from one place to another in the depot, checking shelves and filling out forms.  He exaggerated the effort to accomplish what should be a relatively simple task: getting box X from point A to point B.

He also had some infamous quotes: “That company services their customers like the bull services the cow.”  And his vulgar variation on making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear: “You can’t shine sh*t.”

Today, all those pearls came back to me as I dealt with a wide variety of companies to get my address changed and generally deal with the details of moving.

None of the experiences were pleasant, although some were better than others.

Here’s my general conclusion: even if a customer service rep is trying to deliver excellent service, they are seriously hampered by corporate policies and bizarre automated systems.  I could blame the IT departments, but since I come from an IT background, I know it isn’t their fault either.  Really the problem is the “organic” nature of bureaucracies.  Once a bureaucracy is in place, it is self-sustaining and puts down roots throughout the company, growing and festering of its own accord.

Rogers: The people moving into our house next month did what you would expect: they arranged for cable TV and Internet service to be activated after they move in.  A typo resulted in the switchover being done a month early.  It’s an easy mistake to make; let’s see how easy it is to unmake.  They are told it would take at least 48 hours to reactivate their service.  On my end, my account has been cancelled with no clear indication that it can be re-established at all (although thankfully the actual Internet connection itself continues to work for now). I seriously doubt that the silver lining will be a month of free service.

Bell: My satellite TV provider (although they don’t tell you this at the beginning) must have 30 days notice to deactivate the service.  I said that we’d be moving during the intervening time, and could they send out the pre-paid shipping box to return my rental HDTV receiver right away.  No problem, sir.  I got the confirmation email: the box would be shipped two days AFTER the deactivation 30 days hence.  When I called to correct that, I was told that they always send out the box after the deactivation.  So if you’re moving, how do you get the box?  Well apparently there is an exception process but it took quite a while to go through. I am crossing my fingers that this is resolved, since the system provides no way to send out another email confirmation.

The Personal: My insurance company may have been the easiest to deal with, but a mild oversight by the clerk (which he immediately noticed and called to correct) has resulted in four envelopes hitting the mail all at the same time.  I naively asked if there was some way for them to cancel the extraneous mailings since the mistake was discovered right away.  No way, I am told.  I also asked how I would easily know which of the four was the correct one.  Apparently it is up to me to read all four and find the one with the correct information.  That’s exciting (like a treasure hunt)!

All in all I have spent hours on the phone today with Rogers, Bell, Enbridge, Powerstream, the Town of Aurora, the Bank of Montreal, and The Personal.  Most of that time I was on hold, listening to some really exceptional light favorites from yesteryear.  The rest of the time I was treated to a series of employees all trying their best to struggle through archaic and nonsensical systems and rules.  Not one clerk was rude or abusive.  But I expected them to turn on me at any moment, especially after I explained that this was hoop #964 that I had to jump through today.  The last thing a beleaguered phone attendant needs is a disgruntled hoop-counter like me.

Meanwhile, the ghost of Gerry Cadman was over my shoulder, laughing his head off.

Ghost in the Trees

June 29th, 2011

Here’s something fun I just did in Photoshop.  Some day I will learn to use it properly, but experimenting and fiddling around sometimes produces relatively pleasing results.  This is like an update to all the pictures I drew when I was five: big sun, trees, and a stick person or two.

More evidence that journalism is far from dead

June 17th, 2011

A week ago, Raju Narisetti waxed on about the cost of “free” in news media.  The title of his post is misleading.  The natural expectation, after we’ve been disappointed so often by narrow thinking, was that the post would turn into another defense of paywalls.  In fact, he explores some great ideas about what must be done — and done quickly.

There have been a number of shifts in the newspaper business in recent years.  Not all of them are obvious either: certain niche content producers are making more money and addressing their revenue challenges by charging subscribers directly (Consumer Reports and the Wall Street Journal are notable in this group).  Community weeklies are actually a growing segment of the newspaper industry.  Of course the general trend is a decline and by most accounts it is a precipitous one.

That’s what is so refreshing about Narisetti’s analysis: he calls for a radical shift in thinking.  If you are falling off a cliff, quick deployment of a parachute is needed, not a slight change of direction.  Digital delivery of news is paramount.  So the first notion that newspapers must dump is that their print side is the dominant side and is the future of their business (even thought it currently makes more money than the web).  Next, the way the web version of most newspapers is delivered is sub-optimal and must improve.  This is not surprising given the first notion (the web is an afterthought and is based on the print version of the paper).  Here are some of my observations, inspired by what Narisetti says:

  • Web sites are organized by section (like the paper).  The reader “browses” section by section.
  • The sites have an opening screen of content that scrolls and anything that does not appear on the first screen is called “below the fold” (like the paper).
  • Many sites simply load up in reverse chronological order, which is a tradition borrowed not from paper but from web logs (blogs), encouraging even more scrolling.
  • Search, while enabled on most news sites, is notoriously bad.

Even when the experience is “improved” on new platforms there is not much improvement going on. Most iPad apps for consuming news are electronic replicas of a page-turning paper-based experience.

So Narisetti highlights all of these problems, although not in detail, and then goes on to his clarion call: make digital the first priority and innovate more.

The innovation is already on the way.  It won’t be easy.  Apart from the obvious inertia in traditional media preventing the shift that’s needed, there are huge technical challenges.  My background in content management at IBM helps me understand and agree with what Dan Conover is talking about in his essay called Standards-based journalism in a semantic economy and its accompanying FAQ.  RDF and other semantic technologies could the cornerstone of innovations in contextual, targeted content.

The future looks something like this: instead of browsing and scrolling (or even searching) to find what you want, it is delivered to you intelligently.  You are a known entity.  You have interests and as you read more, those interests become locked in and refined by the system.  You can always travel off on tangents, but the context with which you consume news is known by this future system.  Here’s a lame example: You read every car accident story.  The system learns this, so stories about local car accidents will be front and center when you read the digital news.  Links close by allow you to see stats and followup about other car accidents.  You intuitively and organically consume the who, what, where, when, and why of any news story.  And that’s possible because a news story is not just stored as narrative, but as data.  Conover provides better examples on his site.

We’re really talking about what news media has always done: providing context, reporting and analyzing what is going on around us.  Technology and innovation will merely improve the way this is done.  All the businesses that are “killing” traditional media companies (Google et al) are really just providing the innovations that the media companies should have provided long ago.

My Rules for Crisis Management

May 1st, 2011

I am a student and booster of both traditional and new media.  I love watching entrepreneurs grow companies from nothing into huge empires. I have enjoyed the nuances of the English language for most of my life.  And, I hate to admit, I am just as likely to watch a train wreck as anyone else.

It both saddens and mesmerizes me, therefore, when I see companies grow to be successful and then shoot themselves in the foot with a poor media strategy or downright awful communication.

There have been several examples lately.  Amazon’s brush with inconsistent and hypocritical censorship decisions and cloud outage; Sony’s series of gaffes, sparked by removing a beloved feature (swappable operating systems) and culminating in a targeted and catastrophic attack on the Playstation Network; and Apple’s iPhone 4 reception issues.

There are some very basic rules about great crisis management.  First of all: get on top of the situation FAST and be excruciatingly HONEST.  It may not come naturally to the politically-minded folks who rise to the top of a corporation.  Playing their cards close to the vest has been a strategy that served them well through their career.  Mulling over decisions through committee is often used as a way to deflect or at least defer responsibility.  Little exaggerations or casting bad situations in the best possible light is also second nature.

Next: EXCEED customer expectations in your reaction.  You’ve already responded quickly and been honest.  Now you need to act to resolve the problem.  This is where communication with words is not enough.  You need to communicate by setting a stellar example.  Johnson & Johnson’s management of the Tylenol tampering incident in the early 1980s is an example of doing things right.

I hope to see fewer screwups by companies that recognize the power of social media.  We all know how fast news travels these days.  Bad reactions from companies travel just as fast and, more importantly, are forever remembered.

What is my house worth?

April 24th, 2011

My wife and I occasionally try to come up with a price for our house.  At one time this was an endeavor borne out of curiosity.  Now, with our lives changing in different ways, we are looking at it a little more seriously.

With training as a respiratory therapist, my wife found it very difficult to remain dispassionate and professional when our child had trouble breathing.  As a real estate sales representative, I have the training and insight to do market evaluations.  But I suppose I face a similar challenge to remain dispassionate while evaluating our own home.

If you have poured money into a place, you want to recoup that investment.  Unfortunately, renovations rarely get back all the money they cost (although kitchens, bathrooms, and general repainting are the best investments when viewed from this perspective).  If your neighbor’s house sold for some astronomical sum, you want to get that much for your home too.  If you have debt, you want to be able to at least retire the debt on the home, and hopefully pay off all your other debt too.  You may have a “profit” target or a retirement nest egg amount you want to achieve.

So most people have a number in mind when they put their house on the market.  There’s really nothing wrong with that.  Sure, every real estate professional has a story or two about the “unreasonable” homeowner who wanted to get more than their house was worth.  But everyone has their own motivations for selling their homes and for moving.  Choosing to demand a particular price and accepting that you might not get that is perfectly fine.  In fact, in a negotiation, that’s a pretty strong position to take: “If you’re not willing to pay what I want, then we have nothing to talk about.”  If you really mean it, and actually are willing to walk away — that’s fine.  But you have to realize that your house may not sell at all.

The sad situations arise when someone must sell their home by a deadline but truly believes that the market should bear their chosen price.  They see lots of evidence to the contrary, but continue to lay blame on other factors rather than reducing the asking price.  The house goes unsold and they end up actually losing far more money in the long run.

This is a trap that anyone (REALTORS® included) can fall into.

Dangers of overpricing

from the Ontario Real Estate Association

  • Qualified buyers who might otherwise have purchased the property do not seriously consider the home, as it is beyond their price range.
  • The property may become stale as motivated buyers pass on the property. Showings which do occur are usually for comparative shopping (that is, to demonstrate attractive pricing of other listings).
  • Staleness (a high number of days on the market) can lead to buyers thinking that something is possibly wrong with the property (over and above the unrealistic listing price).
  • The seller may have to reduce the price below fair market value to revive interest in the property.
  • If the price is reduced, bargain hunters are attracted hoping the seller is under pressure to sell.
  • The property may sit on the market for a long time and not attract any offers. If the seller has committed himself/herself to another property, he/she may feel pressured into accepting the first offer that appears even if it is below market value.

The Do Not Call List

April 19th, 2011

Telemarketers in Canada have been theoretically “handcuffed” by the Do Not Call registry.

There are some bizarre ways that the registry is run: in most cases the complete list of telephone numbers with names and addresses is available, but the people who don’t want to be called are highlighted.  Telemarketers have to pay for this annotated list.  This is problematic for a number of reasons.  Unscrupulous marketers have the complete list without the Do Not Call notations.  Or they have the annotated list and ignore it.  But even honest but overworked telemarketers can inadvertently call one of the Do Not Call names if they are calling hundreds of people in a day.  In some reports, it seems that since this annotated list is sold by the CRTC to companies who are supposed to heed the annotations, people noticed that the unsolicited calls actually increased once they registered.  It would be better to drop the names and numbers off the calling list wouldn’t it?

The next problem is the exempt businesses.  Registered charities are still allowed to call for donations, and certain other organizations—such as companies conducting polls or surveys, political parties, and newspapers looking for subscriptions—can also continue to contact you. As well, if you’ve done business with a company in the past 18 months, they can call you.  After 18 months they need written permission from you to keep calling.  The one exemption that really freaks me out is the newspapers looking for subscriptions. How did they get an exemption?  Is it because they are a dying business that needs to be propped up by the government?  I find it somewhat depressing to get incessant calls from powerful media businesses that refuse to adapt.

Another issue: there are Canadian companies that set up a branch office in the US and call into Canada from there, essentially exempting themselves from the list.

As a real estate salesperson, I frequently make unsolicited telephone calls.  My brokerage provides a list that has the Do Not Call notations.  I find that most people who answer the phone are very friendly and open, but they are the people who did not put themselves on the Do Not Call registry.  In that way, the list actually makes my job easier.

Mostly though, the way the list has been implemented has not really reduced the level of phone solicitations we receive here at our house.  Polling companies, political parties, and newspapers have filled any void that may have initially been created.