Monday, February 23, 2009

Information Wants to be Free... But not Cheap

L. Gordon Crovitz recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, that "Information Wants to Be Expensive." It's good to see that at least some people remember the rest of the original "Information wants to be free" quote.
He correctly points out that newspapers and other news outlets are struggling with lower ad revenue, and that the dot-coms who mocked subscription-based news sites are now gone.

But I completely disagree with his conclusion the solution is to start charging subscriptions.
You local paper is not the Wall Street Journal. It would be foolish to think they play by the same rules.

I agree that advertising won't save publishers this time. Print ads are paying nothing and online ads are worse.
But he's missing the the point. WHY are news organizations bleeding cash, and why won't advertisers pay?

  • Classified Ads are gone. This cash cow of the local papers died in the 90's and the bloated corpse is still stinking up the business plans. Craig's List owns this business now - deal with it.
  • Commercial advertising is way down on both print and online fronts.
  • Paid circulation is down across the board.

  • Reporters. Bodies cost money. Good reporters cost good money.
  • Printing. Hard goods = hard costs.
  • Delivery. Costs money to deliver the goods.
  • Management. The local papers I've encountered were family operations who were, frankly, lazy managers. The newspaper gig was too easy and they didn't have to work for it.


Mr. Crovitz correctly asses the bulk of local content as "not worth paying for in any medium."
  • The Democratic National Convention credentialed over 15,000 reporters. How does this make sense? The cost must have been incredible. How many original stories can the system afford to produce?
  • Extended new coverage just results in journalists or commentators interviewing other "journalists."
  • Many news organizations have cut senior staff in order keep costs down. The young-and-hungry reporters often fall short.
  • "Fluff" news has to compete with bloggers and enthusiasts who will write for free.

So we're left with a huge glut of low-quality content.
Who would want to sponsor that?
Of course ad revenue is down!

So, my conclusion is the News Industry as a whole is simply too big. They no longer have 2000 "local" news outlets living in isolation. They have one outlet: the interconnected networked feed. People are creating their own "outlets." News organizations are just content producers and they need to realize they are competing with each other and the "citizen journalists" for readers.

Subscriptions aren't the answer. NY Times learned that lesson: Editors hidden behind a subscription wall become less relevant than their freely accessed counterparts.
Very few (maybe no) general news organizations have enough brand loyalty to demand a subscription for online content. (Wall Street Journal and other publications with specific content niches, can, of course, make a case for subscriptions.)

Micropayments won't help either: You won't know you want the content unless you've seen it.

Advertising and sponsorship
are potentially viable, but not with the current number of competing outlets.

So how can local new outlets get paid?
They can't. As long as they think of themselves as outlets.

Flip the model. Make the local reporters all stringers or "bureaus" for consolidated news sources.
Why should they be out trying to sell ads when they could concentrate on reporting and journalism?

OK. That's actually quite depressing.
The days of the town crier are gone.
It appears the age of the "local news outlet" is coming to a close.
Looks like very small, independent, journalism teams are the likely next stage.

Don't get me started on the implications for national news and wire services...

Stewart Brand's Information Wants to Be Free comment:
"Information wants to be free (because of the new ease of copying and reshaping and casual distribution), AND information wants to be expensive (it's the prime economic event in an information age)... and technology is constantly making the tension worse. If you cling blindly to the expensive part of the paradox, you miss all the action going on in the free part. The pressure of the paradox forces information to explore incessantly. Smart marketers and inventors quietly follow-and I might add, so do smart computer security people."

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Joss Whedon's Dollhouse

Last Friday brought us the debut of Joss Whedon's latest TV project: Dollhouse.

My Own Worst Enemy got the jump on the whole double-life thing, and Dollhouse is debuting in the death zone of Friday night. Not a good situation.
The ratings reflect this. But the fans came out and put the show to #1 on iTunes.
Fox is getting some of this online stuff right: You can watch the show on and they've set up an official fan site.

But, sadly, I found the debut surprisingly week.

The premise is good. The stories look compelling.
You've got Joss and the usual suspects writing and producing.
Eliza Dushku! Amy Acker! More fabulous babes!

The dress.... THE DRESS! Dang... no official online images of that dangerously-short dress.

The Dollhouse set is clean and creative.

So what's not to like?
I think they just tried to do too much in a one-hour episode.

The brief touch with Caroline (who becomes Echo) was completely wasted. It just barely hints as to her motivations and history. Tell us more of Echo's back story after we get to know her.

The first engagement was good. It shows a shallow and crass use of the Dollhouse. And let's us see Echo get her groove on. Introduces the handler and the mechanics of the Dollhouse.

FBI guy on the trail of the Dollhouse? Who cares? Kick-boxing sequence to show his stubbornness? Yawn. Show us when his story overlaps.

The second engagement was terrific. Good dialog. Interesting twists. You care about the characters.

Alpha? I can understand introducing him in the debut, but I think it was a mistake to introduce both Alpha and the FBI guy. Just touch on one and leave something for later.

These extra plot lines will surely be important as the show develops, but it felt to me like the production team was unwilling to fully to commit to each engagement and let those stand on their own as mini-episodes.

I watched it again to see if I was just missing something...
It's missing the hallmark Whedon humor, and this particular episode feels a bit "forced."

But at the end, I found I just didn't care about Echo.
I'm intellectually curious, sure.
But I don't feel any emotional attachment to any of the characters except the handler, Boyd.

I hear the show starts to come together after a few episodes.
Still better than most of the crap on TV. But then again, I quit watching most TV just because it's so bad.

I hope this debut episode is just a bump on the road to what promises be a clever and intriguing show.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

DTV On Your Mac

The TV has left the apartment, but I would still like to watch the occasional television show.
I spent a couple days putting some of the options through their paces.
All of the options play great-looking full-screen video.
Some of solutions work better for files stored on you local drive, some are optimized for network use.

I would like to use my old "wind tunnel" Mac to download RSS subscriptions (web and bittorrent), manage those files, and play them without needing a keyboard.
iTunes with the iPhone Remote app gets me most of the way there, but won't grab torrent files.

Let's look at the options:

Front Row
This is Apple's built-in media browser and player.
It is very slick. Fast. Fully integrated with iTunes and iPhoto.
Works with Apple's Remote.
On the down side, it only works with media you have in your iTunes repository or the DVD drive.
This makes it less attractive for use with media you didn't get from the iTunes Store.

You can expand its capabilities with Sapphire and some additional QuickTime codecs.
Understudy allows you to browse and view Hulu.
But this tinkering goes against the simplicity of Front Row in my opinion.
In my case, the Mac I want to use didn't come with Front Row, so it's not an option anyway.

Miro gives you a media player that supports popular file-sharing formats as well as a built-in client to subscribe to podcasts and bittorrent RSS feeds.
It comes preloaded with some very nice HD podcast channels.
It's very easy to add bittorrent RSS feeds.
Media management is straightforward directory and list browsing. Would be nice to have other ways to view your library.
Works best with a keyboard & mouse.

This project was originally the XBox Media Center. A terrific project to convert old XBoxes into useful media players that are appropriate for the living room. The current XBMC is available for many hardware platforms.

The XBMC interface is designed to be controlled with a game controller or remote.

There are many "skins" and plugins for customizing your XBMC installation.
You can also include Python scripts to just about anything.

XBMC really shines when playing media stored on another machine. Either a networked file store or a streaming server. It does a terrific job buffering and caching for stutter-free playback.
Plex and Boxee are based on the XBMC code.
Hulu support is available with an addon.

Formerly OSXBMC, Plex is a Mac-only version of XBMC.
Like XBMC, it is reskinnable and customizable. (Many XBMC plugins will work unaltered.)
It shares the XBMC engine so has terrific network playback.
It doesn't keep "live" video running while perusing menus like current XBMC builds.
It has RSS clients for podcasts and bittorrents built-in.
Good integration with iTunes. Good library managment/browsing tools.
Current builds don't really support, but that is promised by the developers in the next build.

Another project based on the XBMC source.
Boxee simplifies the menus and adds social networking features.
My first exposure to Boxee was pretty negative since I couldn't just download and test.
You have to create an account at before you can use the software.
In fact, you set up your RSS feeds at the web site. This was actually a slick solution, but I could see people being nervous about this if they are using less-than-legal bittorrent feeds.

Boxee's big claim to fame right now is the ability to play Hulu content.
This actually works quite well, and puts it ahead of the other XBMC-based products for people wanting to watch Hulu.* (See Updates)

I personally found the menu system confusing.
It's attractive, but not very customizable, and the some of the secondary navigation is unintuitive.
Adding your existing files to the library is confusing.

The program has been unstable for me. Crashing in nearly every viewing sesssion. I spoke with two other Mac users who are testing it and they reported similar issues.

VLC VideoLAN Client
I've used VLC for many years. It's my video viewer of choice for local files.
It can view or serve many streaming protocols.
As a TV, though, it has some shortcomings:
  • Works best with a mouse. It's really clumsy to try use with just a keyboard/remote.
  • No advanced caching for networked files. So playback can stutter when playing from a file server.

Feature Comparison

Miro XBMCPLEXVLCBoxeeFront Row
Local File PlaybackExcellent. Played all tested formats except Real Media and protected Windows MediaPlayed all tested formats except
Real Media and protected Windows Media.
Played all tested formats except
Real Media and protected Windows Media.
Played all tested formats except
Real Media and protected Windows Media.
Played all tested formats except
Real Media and protected Windows Media.
Played all formats supported by
To play other popular file-sharing formats, intall Sapphire and some
QuickTime codecs.
Network File Playback
No special caching for networked
file playback.
Excellent job of playing files
from networked file server.
Built-in SMB client.
Built-in UPnP Client.
Excellent job of playing files
from networked file server. Built-in SMB client.
Built-in UPnP Client.
No caching for networked file
Excellent job of playing files
from networked file server.
Only from iTunes shares
Streaming Video PlaybackNA
UPnP (untested)UPnP (untested)Supports many streaming
UPnP (untested)
RSS (Podcast) supportBuilt-in. Worked Flawlessly.Slightly complicated to set up,
but worked fine.
complicated to set up, but worked fine.NAPreset menus of podcasts. New
feeds are added using the web site.
Use iTunes podcast feature to
subscribe to shows.
Bit Torrent ClientSupports regular torrents and
RSS feeds. Very simple to add a feed.
Not built-in.
Torrent-x script combined with Azures seems to be a popular solution.
Not built in.
NAPreset menus of "Public
New feeds are added using the web site.
Remote ControlRequires third-party support.
Try Remote
iPhone apps and other Apple
Remote supported.
Apple Remote.
For iPhone try Snatch.
Requires third-party support. Try Remote Buddy.Apple Remote supported.
Boxee iPhone App. (Approved Feb 6, 2009. Not visible on store as of
this writing.)
Apple Remote fully supported.
Third-party iPhone apps available.
System RequirementsMac OS X 10.4
Mac OS X 10.5
Intel Processor
Mac OS X 10.5
Intel Processor
Mac OS X 10.4
Platform-specific builds available.
Mac OS X 10.5
Intel Processor
Comes pre-installed
Video ServerUPnP AV server built-inUPnP AV server built-inUPnP AV server built-inLarge number of streaming server options built-in.UPnP AV server built-in iTunes
Hulu SupportNoWith scriptScheduled for next release
Built-inWith Understudy.

Plex would be fill my needs well, except that it require Mac OS/X 10.5 and an Intel Processor. So I'm running Miro and keeping a keyboard and mouse handy. I'll probably end up repurposing one of my Ubuntu boxes and run XBMC.

* UPDATE 2/17/2009 *
Added info about Understudy.

* UPDATE 2/24/2009 *
Turns out the Plex doesn't have a built-in torrent client. It appears that most users are integrating with uTorrent. I'll discuss uTorrent in an upcoming article.
Hulu has disabled their streaming feeds. This means that Boxee and other streaming viewers can no longer show Hulu content.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Touchless Tricks for Your iPhone (and iPod Touch)

Button Names:
Sleep/Wake Button is the rectangular button on the top-right of the iPhone.
Home Button is the round button below the screen.
Mic Button is the in-line microphone on the iPhone headset.
I accidentally discovered a number of iPhone features that don't require using the touch screen.
Turns out there's a manual! You should probably get it...

Most people know you can "really" shut down the iPhone by pressing and holding the Sleep/Wake Button until the red slider appears.
To restart the iPhone, click and hold the Sleep/Wake button until the Apple logo appears.

You can take a screen shot by clicking the Sleep/Wake button while holding down the Home button. The picture will be added to your built-in Photo library and can be managed just like pictures you take with the camera.

You can access the iPod controls without unlocking ("slide to unlock") by double-clicking the Home button. You can also do this while running other applications. Here, I've brought up the iPod controls while browsing in Safari.

Here's an example showing the iPod controls while music was playing. The iPhone was locked, but double-clicking the Home button brought up the controls and showed the currently playing selection.

You can change this behavior if you want to use double-clicking the Home button for something else. Go to Settings:General:Home Button to change it. Changing this setting only changes the behavior when you're running applications. Double-clicking when the phone is locked will still bring up the iPod controls.

If you click (well, squeeze actually) the Mic button while the iPhone is locked, it will resume playback of the current iPod selection.
Double-clicking will jump to the next selection.
Triple-clicking will go back to start of this selection. If you're already at the start of a track, triple-clicking will go to the previous track.

Like most cell phones, you can silence an incoming call by pressing one of the volume buttons.

To decline a call and send it straight to voice mail, click and hold the Mic button for a couple seconds then let go. You'll hear two beeps letting you know the call was declined.
If you're not using the headset, you can decline a call by double-clicking the Sleep/Wake button on the top of the phone.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Beginning Japanese Talking Word & Phrase" iPhone App

I'm feeling much more prepared for class tonight!

I found a terrific little iPhone app with Japanese flash cards and quizzes.
There's a free version which nicely covers the sort of things you'd see in a first class on Japanese.
The paid version is only $3.99 and has over 800 phrases.

Besides the straight vocabulary drills, the app includes cultural notes and some articles on language basics.

I was unfamiliar with before, but I have found this app very useful.

The voice recording is clear and understandable, and the flash card interface is very simple and easy-to-use. You can use the arrow buttons in the upper-right to page through the cards or you can "flick" the cards backward and forward.

The only issue I found was in the quizzes. In one case, the application gave me duplicate options on the multiple-choice answers and counted my response as wrong.

When reviewing your quiz results, it presents a list of the phrases you incorrectly selected from the answers. I think it would make a bit more sense to show the list of phrases that were the correct answers to the questions you got wrong.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Intellectual Challenge

I'm taking a night class in Japanese.
I wanted a challenge, and I've certainly found it.

Usually, learning new things comes very easily to me.
I have an extremely large and diverse knowledge base that provides me with a context for pretty much any new thing I want to learn.
Romance languages? No problem. A bit of Latin will get you a long way.
Computer languages? After the first dozen or so, they come pretty easily.
A new musical instrument? Show me the mechanics and I'm good to go.

I've rarely had to actually spend time studying for classes. Since new information has a context, it's easily retained.

But I find myself really working hard to keep up in this class.

A few Kanji characters, and some phrases from Sasuke is all I walked in with.
So it's back to kindergarten to learn my alphabet. (Or, in the case of Japanese, two alphabets and a logography.)

I now have a visceral experience of what it's like to struggle with a subject.
It's a novel an unpleasant experience.
Hopefully this will make me more understanding of people who have difficulty with subjects I find easy.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

18 cents

One of the huge downsides of being an independent producer/consultant is that when there's no work, there's no pay.
People with traditional jobs get a paycheck whether or not they had constructive work on a given day. The independent worker, however, does not.

It seems like everyone is holding their breath right now and unwilling to fund new projects until they feel like this economic climate has reached its low point. Bad news for someone in-between projects.

I'm waiting to hear back on a bunch of RFPs today, but no billable work.
In the meantime, AdSense revenue from my sites brought in 18 cents today!
Who needs a job?

Now if only I can get my rent down to 11 cents day...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Digital Television Transition Delayed until June

On Wed, Feb 4, Congress voted (H.R. 681) to delay the mandatory cessation of analog television broadcasts that was schedule for February 17th.

Why put it off?
Nielsen reports that 6.5 million home aren't ready for the transition right now.
I suspect that many of these people are aware of the transition, but just putting off the hassle of hooking up a converter box until they have to.

Advertisers and consumer groups argued in favor of the delay, since these households would have lost their television signal on Feb 17.

The federal program to provide coupons for digital television converters ran out of funds, and it's hoped that by delaying the switch, and putting more funds into the coupon program, many of these households can be prepared for when the transition occurs.
But as of this writing, 2/3 of the coupons sent out have not been used. These coupons expire 90 days after being issued, and it expected that most will, indeed, expire.
The value of an expired coupon goes back into the pool so the government can issue new coupons.

But what does the delay cost?
For starters, we have the simple cost of operating the old analog transmitters. At over $10,000/month, many stations simply can't afford that overhead in today's economic climate. In addition, the stations are concerned about the cost of running the addition public service announcements.

Some of the bandwidth being freed up by shutting down the analog transmitters will be used for a new emergency services band. So delaying the digital transition delays this network.

Other parts of the bandwidth have already been auctioned off to private industry.
Qualcomm claims the delay of its new mobile television offering will cost tens of millions of dollars.

I've updated the count-down at, but I noticed the official government site hasn't updated their count-down timer yet.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Will Twitter Go Mainstream?

Seems everyone (well, everyone on Twitter) thinks Twitter will bust out into the mainstream in 2009.
I'll go on record as being in the skeptical camp.
Mr. Tweet points out that CNN and other mainstream media outlets mention Twitter all the time. But remember, these lemmings also created Second Life bureaus. Twitter is a terrific micro-blogging platform. And perfect for news distribution. Almost as perfect as RSS...

Another factor people point out is the explosive growth of Twitter.
Let's put this in perspective. Twitter JUST passed the World of Warcraft fan site, wowhead in January. Popular, but hardly "mainstream."

Twitter is a cool infrastructure. I'm personally working on a number of projects built on it. But I don't see it breaking out in its current form.

Twitter is organized around individuals, not topics. This allows for the IM-style conversations that go on, but it makes it really hard to find information.

Twitter's "killer app" at the moment is link-sharing. I think there's a model focusing on this where they can by very successful.

Last I checked, your Grandma wasn't twittering on her smart phone. Unless you're web browsing on your phone (and that's painful on anything besides an iPhone), you don't need the link sharing.

Instant Messaging? Plenty of good solutions already.

Oh, and service stability...
Um... Yeah.

As mentioned in a previous article, I just don't see Twitter's future in its current form.

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