|24-12-08, 09:22 AM||#1|
Join Date: May 2001
Location: New England
Peer-To-Peer News - The Week In Review - December 27th, '08
"Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is." – James Surowiecki
"We need to come up with sustainable models. What's happening is [that the labels are saying], 'Give us a bunch of money; we don't care if you're around in six months.'" – Ted Cohen
"Australia’s draconian Internet content filter trials have now been postponed until mid-January 2009. Here’s an idea – delay to trial all right – but to mid-Jan, 2099!" – Alex Zaharov-Reutt
"There's no filtering. We are simply passing along a notice of detection and the ISPs will forward a notice to the subscriber." – Cara Duckworth, RIAA
December 27th, 2008
uTorrent Grows to 28 Million Monthly Users
uTorrent - the client of choice for most BitTorrent users - has gathered a steady userbase since it was first released three years ago, one which continues to expand. Last year the number of uTorrent users had doubled, and in 2008 it continued to grow, up to 28 million monthly users.
uTorrent saw its first public release in September 2005. A year later this popular lightweight client was acquired by BitTorrent Inc. who continued to develop the application, recently introducing a Mac version.
Despite its popularity, up until now little has been known about the number of regular users the client has. Based on data from PC Pitstop, we reported in April that uTorrent was installed on 11.6% of all PCs in Europe, compared to 5.1% in the United States. However, the number of installs says little about the actual use of the application.
Trying to discover more about the number of regular users of uTorrent, we decided to ask Simon Morris, BitTorrent’s VP of Product Management, and he was willing to share some data with us. Morris told us that every month, 28 million unique clients are actively used. “Client check-ins have continued to grow steadily in the course of 2008,” he said, adding “Clearly the ongoing demand for our freeware seems to be quite strong.”
In comparison, Morris said that the Mainline client - the second most popular BitTorrent client according to PC Pitstop - has 7 million active users a month. More interestingly perhaps, is that the usage statistics of uTorrent gives us more insight into the number of BitTorrent users overall. If we know what the market share of uTorrent is, we could made a fairly accurate estimate of the number of active BitTorrent users a month.
Based on tracker reports, an estimated market share for uTorrent of between 40% and 60% seems fair, which would mean that there are between 50 and 70 million BitTorrent users active each month. If we assume that 70 million active BitTorrent users is an accurate estimate, this means that close to 5% of all people on the Internet are using BitTorrent monthly, which is quite impressive.
One ISP Says RIAA Must Pay for Piracy Protection
Jerry Scroggin, owner-operator of Bayou Internet and Communications, wants the music and film industries to know that he's not a cop and he doesn't work for free.
Scroggin, who sells Internet access to between 10,000 and 12,000 customers in Louisiana, heard the news on Friday that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has opted out of suing individuals for pirating music. Instead, the group representing the four largest music labels is forging partnerships with Internet service providers and asking them to crack down on suspected file sharers.
According to Scroggin, if RIAA representatives ask the help of his ISP, they had better bring their checkbook--and leave the legal threats at home. (CNET News obtained a copy of the RIAA's new notice to ISPs here). Scroggin said that he receives several notices each month with requests that he remove suspected file sharers from his network. Each time, he gets such a notice from an entertainment company, he sends the same reply.
"I ask for their billing address," Scroggin said. "Usually, I never hear back."
Scroggin has provided some of the e-mail he's received from copyright owners and included in them is an example of his typical response.
Scroggin's case underscores a potential obstacle for the RIAA's plan to enlist the help of ISPs. Small companies like his are innocent bystanders in the music industry's war on copyright infringement. Nonetheless, they are asked to help enforce copyright law free of charge. Many of them can't afford it, he said. Significant resources must be devoted to chasing down suspected file sharers and there's a real cost to that. After talking to Scroggin, it sounds as if the entertainment sector might also have taken a heavy-handed approach to dealing with ISPs in the past and there might be some bad blood built up.
"They have the right to protect their songs or music or pictures," Scroggin said. "But they don't have the right to tell me I have to be the one protecting it. I don't want anyone doing anything illegal on my network, but we don't work for free."
Reached late Sunday night, an RIAA spokesman declined to comment.
Scroggin wants to be reasonable. He tells me he doesn't want to come across as a "hard ass." He just wants someone in big media to understand his position as the operator of a small business.
Incorporated in 1995, Bayou Internet and Communications, based in Monroe, La., typically sells Internet access to small businesses, residences, and municipal services. His customers include parish court houses, homeowners, district attorneys, and rural hospitals. The company is probably similar to lots of small ISPs around the country that operate on tight budgets and must compete against much larger players, such as Comcast or AT&T.
Scroggin is no radical. He respects the law and said he has a long history of cooperating with authorities to protect people from harm.
"If it was life threatening, I'm the first to jump," he said. "We've been contacted by police over Denial of Service and bot attacks. We'll have Secret Service and FBI conversations. We help if police are on perv watch."
But protecting against copyright violations just doesn't have the same urgency, not enough that that ISPs should be asked to work without compensation, Scroggin said. Here are the realities of being "HBO's free police," he said.
First, when a media company demands he kick a customer off the network, there is very little in the way of proof offered that the person in question has committed a crime, according to Scroggin. Yet, entertainment companies want Scroggin to simply wave goodbye to a customer who might have signed up for a three-year plan. At $40 per month, that customer is potentially worth $1,440 to Scroggin over the life of the plan. That, says the ISP owner, is unreasonable.
Next, it's expensive and time consuming to ask highly paid technicians to chase down IP logs and customer IDs, Scroggin said, noting that it's especially difficult nowadays because it's extremely easy to spoof IP addresses.
And then there are the letters Scroggin receives from Hollywood that demand he act or else.
"I'm not doing anything to damage their business," Scroggin said. "But somehow this 99-cent song is my fault."
Scroggin warns that the film and music industries must try a new tack if they want cooperation from ISPs. They can start by helping to cover some of the costs for helping to enforce copyright.
"There's got to be a better way than HBO sending me threatening e-mail," he said. "What I'm saying is, let's sit at the table and come up with a way that works for everyone, including the customers."
Internet Filtering Plan May Extend to Peer-To-Peer Traffic, Says Stephen Conroy
THE Federal Government's controversial internet censorship scheme may extend to filter more online traffic than was first thought, Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy revealed today.
In a post on his department's blog, Senator Conroy today said technology that could filter data sent directly between computers would be tested as part of the upcoming live filtering trial.
"Technology that filters peer-to-peer and BitTorrent traffic does exist and it is anticipated that the effectiveness of this will be tested in the live pilot trial," Senator Conroy said.
Peer-to-peer file-sharing technology is the most common way for computer users to share video, picture and music files over the internet.
It was previously thought the Government's filtering plan would be restricted to traffic on the "world wide web" – the channel through which users view websites like news.com.au.
Senator Conroy revealed the plan to trial peer-to-peer filtering technology in a reply to critical comments made on the Digital Economy Future Directions blog launched earlier this month.
Senator Conroy addressed the level of critical feedback in his post and said he had been following discussion of the plan on social networking websites such as Twitter.
"I'm aware that this proposal has attracted significant debate and criticism – on this blog and at other places in the blogosphere," Senator Conroy said.
"I'm following the debate at sites like Whirlpool and GetUp and on Twitter at #nocleanfeed."
The filtering scheme has made headlines around the world in the The New York Times and British newspapers and was the target of protests held in major cities across the country earlier this month.
Live pilot trial
A live trial of filtering technology is scheduled to begin this week, but internet service providers have so far been kept in the dark over the details.
Less than a week before the trial was due to begin, participating ISPs Optus and iiNet said they had not been told if their applications had been accepted.
An Optus spokesperson today said the company had still not been notified of the status of its application.
"We still have not received notification about whether or not our proposal has been accepted, however our proposal does not include peer-to-peer filtering," the spokesperson said.
Comment is being sought from iiNet.
'Not like China'
Despite announcing the live pilot trial would likely include filtering peer-to-peer traffic, Senator Conroy rejected accusations that the scheme was similar to internet censorship in countries such as China.
"Freedom of speech is fundamentally important in a democratic society and there was never any suggestion that the Australian Government would seek to block political content," Senator Conroy said.
"In this context, claims that the Government's policy is analogous to the approach taken by countries such as Iran, China and Saudi Arabia are not justified."
Senator Conroy said the internet filter would be in-step with existing methods to censor books, films and video games.
"Australian society has always accepted that there is some material which is not acceptable, particularly for children," he said.
"That is why we have the National Classification Scheme for classifying films, computer games, publications and online content."
"Australian ISPs are already subject to regulation that prohibits the hosting of certain material based upon the Scheme.
"All the Government is now seeking to do is to examine how technology can assist in filtering internationally-hosted content."
Internet Filter Trials Delayed
Although due to begin on or before the 24th of December 2008, Australia’s draconian Internet content filter trials have now been postponed until mid-January 2009, with peer-to-peer and BitTorrent traffic filtering also set to be performed. Here’s an idea – delay to trial all right – but to mid-Jan, 2099!
Australia’s Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, has been running a blog at his departmental website over the past couple of weeks.
It wasn’t until the second-last day (Dec 22) of the blogging process that the topic of “Internet filtering” was actually raised, something that annoyed a great many public commenters (Australians) who took the time to offer their views to the Minister.
There was also much consternation that the time period for public comments at the blog would end at 3pm on December 23, giving Australians less than 48 hours to publicly comment on the Internet filtering topic as raised on the 22nd.
In that 22nd of December blog posting, a question was asked. That question was “How we can all work together to inspire online confidence?”.
Well, Minister. A good way to inspire confidence in the online world is not to filter and censor it out of existence. A good way is not to pretend that Australia’s filtering regime is nothing like that in China, Iran or Saudi Arabia. A good way is not to pretend that nothing else will ever be filtered, ever, besides child porn.
After all, censorship is an erosion of freedom. We already have laws against child pornography, we already have a dedicated police force doing its utmost to fight the threat, with wonderful success in recent times. We even have free Internet filters provided by NetAlert for any parent or school to install whenever they wish.
Another good way to inspire confidence online is not to “spring” the previously unannounced filtering of P2P (peer-to-peer) and BitTorrent traffic onto the public, as was done in the answer to the question “Internet filtering won’t stop peer to peer and bittorrent traffic so why bother”, where Senator Conroy noted that: “Technology that filters peer-to-peer and BitTorrent traffic does exist and it is anticipated that the effectiveness of this will be tested in the live pilot trial.”
Given the many legitimate and illegitimate uses of these two technologies, we can only hope that if this nightmarish filtration plan ever gets of the ground and onto the Australian world wide web, false positives are zero, or the “digital economy” may as well have the digital taken off the front of it.
At least we know Senator Stephen Conroy reads iTWire, as noted in the December 23 blog posting called “Thanks and so long...” where the Minister quoted iTWire journalist Stephen Withers, who said of the Minister's blog that: “the rules 'seem designed to keep the signal-to-noise ratio as high as possible, and that should encourage the maximum participation by real people (as opposed to link spammers and trolls, both of which are all too common in unmoderated spaces)'.”
After all, this blog has called Senator Stephen Conroy the “Minister for Censorship”.
It has noted that Whirlpoolers have derided Senator Conroy as “Senator Conjob”.
It has remarked upon how we might as well rename Australia the “Soviet Socialist Republic of the South”, and how the “Great Firewall of Australia” and the “Great Barrier Firewall Reef” is set to be imposed on Australians.
This blog has also utterly dismissed any notion that the Rudd Labor Government isn’t taking us down the path of China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, or that just because people are against filtering, it must mean that opponents are all supporters of child pornography.
Australians have watched in horror as the National Broadband Network (NBN) has been delayed time and again, with the 5-year timeframe for construction guaranteeing that whatever is built will be out of date by the time it is finished, given how fast technology moves.
There isn’t even any guarantee the current Government will still be in power by the time the NBN is complete.
Australians have also reacted in horror that the lucky, clever country could soon become the censored country. Australia ceased being a land of convicts long ago, enforcing filtration makes suspects out of every single Australian.
Why is Internet filtration the priority in a country still beset by the “tyranny of distance”, by high broadband prices, slow fraudband and a digital economy that still sees a brain drain of our best and brightest e-workers to Silicon Valley and other parts of the world?
Instead of opening Australia up to the world, we’re shutting it down. Censoring it off. Introducing uncertainty, slower speeds, false positives and bad political karma.
With apologies to Ronald Reagan... “Senator Stephen Conroy, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for Australia, if you seek liberalisation: Come here to this Internet gateway you propose! Mr. Conroy, open this gateway! Mr. Conroy, tear down this wall of proposed Internet filtering and censorship!”
None of us ever just want to be another brick in the wall, but bright, young and free Australians that will ensure the labels of the lucky, clever country stick throughout the 21st century and beyond.
The imposition of an Internet filter on Australia will transform our digital economy into a digital eCONomy.
Senator Conroy, is that what you truly want? Is that how you want to be remembered? Will this be your legacy?
Reboot the FCC
We'll stifle the Skypes and YouTubes of the future if we don't demolish the regulators that oversee our digital pipelines.
Economic growth requires innovation. Trouble is, Washington is practically designed to resist it. Built into the DNA of the most important agencies created to protect innovation, is an almost irresistible urge to protect the most powerful instead.
The FCC is a perfect example. Born in the 1930s, at a time when the utmost importance was put on stability, the agency has become the focal point for almost every important innovation in technology. It is the presumptive protector of the Internet, and the continued regulator of radio, TV and satellite communications. In the next decades, it could well become the default regulator for every new communications technology, including, and especially, fantastic new ways to use wireless technologies, which today carry television, radio, internet, and cellular phone signals through the air, and which may soon provide high-speed internet access on-the-go, something that Google cofounder Larry Page calls "wifi on steroids."
If history is our guide, these new technologies are at risk, and with them, everything they make possible. With so much in its reach, the FCC has become the target of enormous campaigns for influence. Its commissioners are meant to be "expert" and "independent," but they've never really been expert, and are now openly embracing the political role they play. Commissioners issue press releases touting their own personal policies. And lobbyists spend years getting close to members of this junior varsity Congress. Think about the storm around former FCC Chairman Michael Powell's decision to relax media ownership rules, giving a green light to the concentration of newspapers and television stations into fewer and fewer hands. This is policy by committee, influenced by money and power, and with no one, not even the President, responsible for its failures.
The solution here is not tinkering. You can't fix DNA. You have to bury it. President Obama should get Congress to shut down the FCC and similar vestigial regulators, which put stability and special interests above the public good. In their place, Congress should create something we could call the Innovation Environment Protection Agency (iEPA), charged with a simple founding mission: "minimal intervention to maximize innovation." The iEPA's core purpose would be to protect innovation from its two historical enemies—excessive government favors, and excessive private monopoly power.
Since the birth of the Republic, the U.S. government has been in the business of handing out "exclusive rights" (a.k.a., monopolies) in order to "promote progress" or enable new markets of communication. Patents and copyrights accomplish the first goal; giving away slices of the airwaves serves the second. No one doubts that these monopolies are sometimes necessary to stimulate innovation. Hollywood could not survive without a copyright system; privately funded drug development won't happen without patents. But if history has taught us anything, it is that special interests—the Disneys and Pfizers of the world—have become very good at clambering for more and more monopoly rights. Copyrights last almost a century now, and patents regulate "anything under the sun that is made by man," as the Supreme Court has put it. This is the story of endless bloat, with each round of new monopolies met with a gluttonous demand for more.
The problem is that the government has never given a thought to when these monopolies help, and when they're merely handouts to companies with high-powered lobbyists. The iEPA's first task would thus be to reverse the unrestrained growth of these monopolies. For example, much of the wireless spectrum has been auctioned off to telecom monopolies, on the assumption that only by granting a monopoly could companies be encouraged to undertake the expensive task of building a network of cell towers or broadcasting stations. The iEPA would test this assumption, and essentially ask the question: do these monopolies do more harm than good? With a strong agency head, and a staff absolutely barred from industry ties, the iEPA could avoid the culture of favoritism that's come to define the FCC. And if it became credible in its monopoly-checking role, the agency could eventually apply this expertise to the area of patents and copyrights, guiding Congress's policymaking in these special-interest hornet nests.
The iEPA's second task should be to assure that the nation's basic communications infrastructure spectrum— the wires, cables and cellular towers that serve as the highways of the information economy—remain open to new innovation, no matter who owns them. For example, "network neutrality" rules, when done right, aim simply to keep companies like Comcast and Verizon from skewing the rules in favor of or against certain types of content and services that run over their networks. The investors behind the next Skype or Amazon need to be sure that their hard work won't be thwarted by an arbitrary decision on the part of one of the gatekeepers of the Net. Such regulation need not, in my view, go as far as some Democrats have demanded. It need not put extreme limits on what the Verizons of the world can do with their network—they did, after all, build it in the first place—but no doubt a minimal set of rules is necessary to make sure that the Net continues to be a crucial platform for economic growth.
Beyond these two tasks, what's most needed from the iEPA is benign neglect. Certainly, it should keep competition information flowing smoothly and limit destructive regulation at the state level, and it might encourage the government to spend more on public communications infrastructure, for example in the rural areas which private companies often ignore. But beyond these limited tasks, whole phone-books worth of regulation could simply be erased. And with it, we would remove many of the levers that lobbyists use to win favors to protect today's monopolists.
America's economic future depends upon restarting an engine of innovation and technological growth. A first step is to remove the government from the mix as much as possible. This is the biggest problem with communication innovation around the world, as too many nations who should know better continue to preference legacy communication monopolies. It is a growing problem in our own country as well, as corporate America has come to believe that investments in influencing Washington pay more than investments in building a better mousetrap. That will only change when regulation is crafted as narrowly as possible. Only then can regulators serve the public good, instead of private protection. We need to kill a philosophy of regulation born with the 20th century, if we're to make possible a world of innovation in the 21st.
Universal Broadband Plan Calls for $44 Billion in Spending
China Passes US in total broadband subscribers, US broadband penetration grows to 92.4% among active internet users
President-elect Obama is calling for a massive $850 billion or more economic stimulus package to jump start the US economy and rebuild neglected infrastructure. As part of this plan the Obama administration has pledged to deploy next-generation broadband to every community in America. What the new administration has not offered is more specifics on their plan to achieve broadband for all. The Free Press has put forth a $44 billion plan to achieve universal broadband availability for the United States.
According to change.gov, the Obama administration pledges to:
"Deploy next-generation broadband: Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe we can get broadband to every community in America through a combination of reform of the Universal Service Fund, better use of the nation's wireless spectrum, promotion of next-generation facilities, technologies and applications, and new tax and loan incentives."
The Free Press Broadband Deployment Plan
Using a series of coordinated tax credits, incentives, grants, and appropriations the Free Press plan urges the new administration to "future proof" the new broadband infrastructure. They cite 5 Mbps as a bare minimum speed to deploy video and 100Mbps speeds to future-proof the network for next-generation applications. Some of the programs that the Free Press recommends include:
• Bonds for broadband
• Every child online
• E-rate@home program
• Lifeline/Linkup Broadband Pilot Program
• Broadband Data Improvement Act
• Rural Development Community Connect Grant Program
• Health Care and Public Service Digital Modernization Program
The spread of high-speed broadband could be a major factor in the economic salvation of the US. A 2007 study by the Brookings Institute and MIT found that for every one-digit increase in the U.S. per-capita broadband penetration rate an additional 300,000 American jobs would be created. A modest 10 point boost in US broadband penetration would mean 3 million additional jobs.
Future-Proof with Fiber
To future-proof our network we'll need to radically change the makeup of our broadband infrastructure. The only current technology that will support symmetric 100 Mbps speeds is fiber. The US is well behind leading countries in fiber penetration, which reduces our average download speed. The median download speed of the United States is from 2.3 Mbps to 8.9Mbps, compared to that of Japan at 63 Mbps to 93.7 Mbps, some 10 to 27 times faster. Estimates range from as low as 3% of all broadband connections in the US are on fiber to as high as 4% on fiber. In contrast, leading countries have from 23.1% to 45% of broadband subscribers due to fiber. Japan (45%), Korea (39%), and China (23.1%) have the largest share of broadband subscribers on fiber, some 5 to 15 times more fiber subscribers per population than the US. The Free Press study found China with 23.1% of broadband connections due to fiber, nearly 6 times the US rate of 4%.
China Passes US in Total Broadband Subscribers
While China, Japan, and Korea have faster broadband speeds than the US, in the last quarter China has passed the US in the number of broadband users. The total number of Chinese broadband subscribers is growing at a rate of 6.8% per quarter, some 2.8 times greater than the US at 2.4% over the last quarter.
Significantly, 23.1% of Chinese broadband households use fiber while 4% of the US are on fiber. The US relies on cable to provide more than half of their broadband subscribers (42 million or 55.7% of all subscribers) with 40.3% on DSL and 4% on fiber. By contrast, China has 76.6% of broadband subscribers on DSL, while 23.1% are on fiber and only a small percentage (0.16%) are on cable.
This "fiber deficit" is limiting the maximum speeds that US broadband subscribers can realize. In order to improve the average speed of US broadband, the US needs to deploy higher speed technologies such as fiber, rather than make cable or DSL more universally available. China, Japan, and Korea have a speed advantage of from 10 to nearly 30 times over the US due mainly to our reliance on cable broadband connections.
US Falls to 20th in Broadband Penetration By Population
Once again, Monaco leads all countries surveyed in broadband penetration with 43.8% on broadband. Denmark (37.3%), the Netherlands (35%), Switzerland (34.4%), and Norway (34.3%) follow. The UK came in 13th overall in broadband penetration at 28.6%. Canada followed at 14th with 28.4% of the population on broadband. The US dropped to 20th at 26.4% penetration, behind tiny Estonia. The US has fallen from 19th to 20th place in broadband penetration since the second quarter of 2008.
Home Connectivity in the US
US broadband penetration grew to 92.42% in November 2008. Dial-up users connecting at 56Kbps or less now make up 7.58% of active Internet users, down 0.34 percentage points from 7.92% in October 2008.
In November 2008, broadband penetration among active Internet users in US homes grew by 0.34 percentage points to 92.42%, up from 92.08% in September. This increase of 0.34 points is less than the average increase in broadband of 0.47 points per month over the last six months. Broadband growth appears to be slowing down in the past few months as penetration reaches saturation, at least among active Internet users.
As of November 2008, 96.54% of US workers connected to the Internet with broadband, up 0.12 percentage points from the 96.42% share in October. At work, 3.46% connect at 56Kbps or less.
Californian Latest To File Potential Class-Action Set-Top Suit
Suit challenges Comcast's equipment rental arrangement
A Stockton, Calif., woman is the latest to file a potential class action to challenge the cable operator practice of demanding consumers rent cable descramblers rather than allowing subscribers to buy them outright in order to view premium services such as HBO.
The suit was filed in late November in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, Sacramento Division. The action, on behalf of Comcast Corp. customer Cheryl Corralejo, alleges that the set-top rental practice represents an "unlawful tying arrangement resulting in an impermissible restraint of trade." In addition to violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the suit alleges the practice violates business and professions codes. The suit has been filed on behalf of all California Comcast customers who buy premium services.
If the verbiage of the suit sounds familiar, it's because the claim is nearly identical to one filed on behalf of Missouri consumer Matthew Meeds in August. That pending potential class action suit targets Time Warner Cable, however. In fact, one of the attorneys in the California case also filed the Meeds case.
The suits note that premium video and the set-top descramblers are two distinct products, yet the cable providers require that the hardware be rented from cable companies, rather than permitting consumers to purchase the set-top hardware in the open market.
Owing to such tying arrangements, "In a matter of months, the rental fees that the class is supposed to pay for the cable boxes ... greatly exceeds their worth," according to the California suit. The charges add up quickly if a consumer has multiple sets in the home hooked up to premium services, the suit notes.
The lawsuit also duns Comcast for touting the rental of cable boxes over the use of the CableCARD, the latter of which is to take the place of set-top hardware. Even is a consumer decides to get a CableCARD to plug into a digital set, that hardware must be rented from Comcast, too, according to the suit.
The plaintiff is asking for compensatory and other damages, attorney fees, court costs and interest, according to the filings.
Comcast attorneys asked for more time to answer the allegations, a request that was granted on Dec. 17. The company has until Jan. 30 to file its response to the claims.
No ISP Filtering Under New RIAA Copyright Strategy
The Recording Industry Association of America on Friday announced a new strategy in its quest to curtail online copyright infringement — a plan that for now requires no filtering from internet service providers.
"There's no filtering," said RIAA spokeswoman Cara Duckworth. "We are simply passing along a notice of detection and the ISPs will forward a notice to the subscriber."
Many feared the next stage in the record labels' war on file sharing would include demands that internet service providers filter out copyrighted material sailing through peer-to-peer protocols — regardless of fair use. U.S. internet service providers and the content industry have openly embraced filtering, and the Federal Communications Commission this summer all but invited the ISPs to practice it.
But the RIAA said Friday that, for the time being, it was not pushing real-time censorship as the replacement for its aggressive litigation campaign against file sharers, which it now intends to wind down.
That five-year long legal effort has seen the RIAA sue 30,000 individuals, most of whom have settled copyright lawsuits out of court for a few thousand dollars.
Under its new proposal, instead of filing lawsuits against a sampling of individuals caught sharing music, the RIAA will send notices to ISPs pointing out the offending parties' IP addresses. The ISPs, in turn, will notify the alleged offender by snail-mail or e-mail of the alleged violations.
Violators could lose internet access after three or more alleged violations, said the RIAA's Duckworth. The details are still being hashed out, but Duckworth said a procedure would be put in place for accused users to administratively challenge violations.
The Motion Picture Association of America is also in discussion with ISPs to adopt the same strategy. It has sued hundreds of individuals for online copyright infringement of motion pictures.
"We are not trying to impose a filtering solution at this time on ISPs," said John Malcolm, the MPAA's piracy chief.
He suggested the MPAA's new approach could also render filtering unnecessary, although the group has lobbied the incoming Obama administration to embrace filtering as a possible alternative.
"There is no one-size-fits-all solution," Malcolm said. "Filtering may very well become unnecessary."
The RIAA's Duckworth said New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo facilitated the deal between the RIAA and the ISPs. "We were certainly willing and open to changing our current course," Duckworth said.
Duckworth said the number of letters sent to individuals would far outweigh the number of lawsuits filed.
"People might realize that they are not anonymous. We think they might stop after receiving one notice," Duckworth added.
While peer-to-peer filtering is not part of the latest plan, it could come to the forefront if the RIAA's new tactics fail, industry executives said privately.
Steven Cohen, Cuomo's chief of staff, applauded the RIAA's new direction. "We wanted to end this litigation," he said.
All of the pending RIAA cases, including the infamous Jammie Thomas case, will continue, Duckworth said. It was not immediately known how many outstanding lawsuits were out there. She said the RIAA has not instituted a new lawsuit for months, a claim disputed by Ray Beckerman of Recording Industry vs. The People.
Duckworth said the RIAA reserves the right to sue repeat offenders and it will continue its lawsuit against LimeWire, which is accused of facilitating file sharing.
Public Knowledge, the Washington-based rights group that convinced the FCC to fine Comcast for throttling BitTorrent traffic, was cautiously optimistic about the RIAA's announcement.
Gigi Sohn, the group's executive director, said, "We want to make certain that customers are not cut off from their internet service or have their service altered solely on the basis of a claim by a copyright holder that file sharing is taking place."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has similar concerns.
Sohn added that "we want to make clear that any arrangements between RIAA and the ISPs should not involve the invasion of customer privacy through the filtering of internet content."
The RIAA's announcement came five years after it expanded its litigation campaign from the Napsers and Groksters of the world to individuals its sleuths detect file sharing on the internet.
After 30,000 lawsuits, the legal landscape involving file sharing remains undecided. Judges across the nation have disagreed on whether simply having an open share folder of copyrighted music on a peer-to-peer network constituted an unlawful distribution, or copyright infringement. Neither the federal appeals courts nor the U.S. Supreme Court has decided the issue.
While most of the lawsuits have settled for a few thousand dollars, the only one that went to trial resulted in a $222,000 judgment against Thomas of Minnesota for sharing 24 songs. Months ago, the judge in the case reversed the judgment, saying he erred when he told jurors they could find copyright infringement if Thomas had an open share folder of copyrighted music.
Analysis: RIAA Strategy Shift Mired in Murky Legal Waters
The Recording Industry Association of America's new enforcement strategy is based on a questionable interpretation of what constitutes copyright infringement. And its copyright-detection services remain under a cloud at the center of a class action legal challenge.
The RIAA, the record labels' legal and lobbying arm, announced Friday it would begin phasing out its five-year campaign of suing individuals — 30,000 in all — on allegations of copyright infringement. Instead, the group said it would notify internet service providers that RIAA snoops have detected copyright infringement and, in turn, the ISP would inform account holders of the allegations. Three infractions could result in the termination of an account holder's internet access.
Under the new strategy, the RIAA is adopting a definition of copyright infringement that the U.S. court system could never agree upon during the RIAA's five-year litigation campaign against individual file sharers. What's more, the RIAA uncovers what it claims is unlawful infringement by employing unlicensed private investigators, the subject of a federal lawsuit in Oregon seeking class action status to represent the 30,000 individuals who have been targeted by an RIAA lawsuit.
"Quitting their lawsuits is one thing. They're actually not renouncing any of the legal arguments they were making," said Fred von Lohmann, an Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney. "Apparently, they are also not stopping the investigation techniques that have been so controversial in a number of states."
Michigan and Massachusetts have recently ordered MediaSentry, the RIAA's investigative wing, to stop performing unlicensed investigations. South Carolina, Texas, Florida and New York were mulling similar action.
"Their investigation remains illegal and, at most, can only identify an internet protocol address which has a peer-to-peer file sharing program running without disabling the file sharing function," said Lory Lybeck, an attorney suing in Oregon federal court on behalf of the 30,000 individuals he says have been targeted illegally by the RIAA's unlicensed investigators.
The infringement letters the RIAA and the nation's leading ISPs have agreed to send to alleged copyright scofflaws includes language saying, "We believe a user on your network is offering an infringing sound recording for download through a peer-to-peer application. We have a good-faith belief that this activity is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent or the law."
In short, the RIAA is glomming on to the so-called "making available" theory. The theory stands for the proposition that merely having an open share folder of copyrighted music on a peer-to-peer network constitutes unauthorized distribution and is therefore copyright infringement — regardless of whether actual distribution of the musical works has been shown.
The point is not to be taken lightly and was at the center of the legal issues surrounding the RIAA's file sharing litigation.
The federal judge who presided over the nation's only file sharing case to go to trial declared a mistrial after concluding that "making available" was not copyright infringement.
That decision involved the Jammie Thomas case, in which U.S. District Judge Michael Davis of Minnesota set aside a $222,000 jury verdict against Thomas and said the RIAA must prove "actual distribution."
Plenty of judges have ruled contrary to Judge Davis and some have ruled with him. But neither the federal appellate courts nor the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly decided the "making available" issue.
During the Thomas trial in 2007, Judge Davis instructed jurors that no actual distribution of the music industry's copyrighted works must be shown for Thomas to be found liable. The RIAA supported that position because it's basically impossible for RIAA investigators to detect whether somebody is downloading songs from an open share folder on a peer-to-peer network.
The RIAA has asked Judge Davis to allow it to appeal his mistrial decision. A retrial is tentatively set for March.
Cara Duckworth, an RIAA spokeswoman, did not immediately return messages on Monday. On Friday, she said the RIAA would continue pursuing the Thomas case and the countless others still pending.
RIAA's Request For Appeal Denied In Thomas Case
The RIAA's request for permission to appeal from the decision setting aside its $222,000 jury verdict has been denied by District Court Judge Michael J. Davis. In a brief, 6-page decision the Judge dismissed the RIAA's arguments that there is a "substantial ground for a difference of opinion" on the question of law presented, whether the Judge had erred in accepting the RIAA's proposed jury instruction that merely "making files available" could constitute an infringement of the plaintiffs' distribution rights. He likewise dismissed their argument that granting permission for the appeal would "materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation," since (a) depending on the outcome of the trial, plaintiffs might not wish to appeal from the judgment, and (b) no matter how the appeals court rules on the "making available" issue, the case will still have to continue in the lower court, since even if the RIAA wins on the "making available" issue, the Court will still have to address the constitutionality of the large jury verdict, which may result in a new trial.
RIAA Case May Be Televised On Internet
In SONY BMG Music Entertainment v. Tenenbaum, the Boston case in which the defendant is represented by Prof. Charles Nesson and his CyberLaw class at Harvard Law School, the defendant has requested that audio-visual coverage of the court proceedings be made available to the public via the internet. Taking the RIAA at its word — that the reason for its litigation program is to "educate the public" — the defendant's motion queries why the RIAA would oppose public access: "Net access to this litigation will allow an interested and growingly sophisticated public to understand the RIAA's education campaign. Surely education is the purpose of the Digital Deterrence Act of 1999, the constitutionality of which we are challenging. How can RIAA object? Yet they do, fear of sunlight shone upon them."
35 Days Against DRM
Day 11: iTunes
You may have heard this week, that iTunes was going DRM-free. Of course, it didn't happen. Apple's iTunes, under Steve Jobs, is still stubbornly the only major distributor of DRM-encumbered music at a time when Amazon, Rhapsody, Napster, eMusic, Magnatune, 7 Digital and more are all selling music without restriction.
But let's not forget that DRM on music is only one part of the iTunes picture. Remember all of the other things that iTunes does to restrict its users:
• TV shows and movies have DRM
• Software applications have DRM
• Games have DRM
• Audiobooks have DRM
This holiday season, we're asking you, the consumers and DRM-activists, to make the desire for the end of all DRM on iTunes a reality. By including iTunes gift cards and purchases in your boycott of all Apple products, you can help drive change.
Pirate Party Gets Massive Support in Sweden
Things are looking really good for the Swedish Pirate Party. Running up to the 2009 European Parliament elections more than half of all Swedish men under 30 are considering voting for them. Thanks to the Internet, its membership has grown 50% during the last quarter, surpassing that of the well established Green Party.
When the Swedish Pirate Party was launched three years ago, the majority of the mainstream press viewed them with skepticism, with some simply laughing them away. Times have changed though. As the government works to introduce harsher copyright laws and others that threaten the privacy of Sweden’s citizens, the party is growing stronger and stronger.
In a recent poll, 21 percent of all Swedes indicated that they would consider voting for the Pirate Party in the upcoming European Parliament elections. Among men in the 18-29 age group, this number goes up to a massive 55% - an unprecedented statistic.
Aside from the support in this poll, more people have joined the party recently. During the last quarter the membership count increased by 50% - from 6000 to 9000 - which makes the party larger than the Green Party which currently holds 19 seats in the Swedish parliament.
Swedish Pirate Party Leader Rick Falkvinge told TorrentFreak that the Internet played a big part in the recent successes of the party. “We couldn’t have done this without the dialog infrastructure that the Net provides. Oldmedia has lost control of the discourse,” he said. With all the controversy surrounding the new anti-piracy and wiretapping legislation, the Pirate Party was often mentioned on blogs, since they are the most outspoken opponent.
For the upcoming European election, the Pirate Party requires 100,000 Swedish votes to get a seat, a goal that is within reach in the current political climate. Falkvinge is optimistic too, and said “We need to grow by another 50%, counting from the Swedish election two years ago, to get seats in the EU parliament and shake the political copyright world at its core. It’s hard, it’s supposed to be hard, but the numbers show we can do it. We can do this, and the charts are going stratospheric.”
The Internet will probably play a big role in this election for the Pirate Party, and recent history has shown that this is not only true for parties that carry “pirate” in their name. Elections to the European Parliament will be held in June 2009, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how the Pirate Party fares.
Alexandra Becomes Fastest-Selling Female Solo Artist
Alexandra Burke's recording of the Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah has set a new record by becoming the fastest-selling single by a female solo artist.
The X Factor winner claimed the Christmas number one spot with her version of the song, selling 576,000 CDs and downloads.
A 1994 version by Jeff Buckley, who drowned in Memphis in May 1997 aged 30, finished at number two as a result of download sales, boosted by a high-profile internet campaign by fans of his recording.
The Official Charts Company said it was the first time the same song is at number one and number two in the charts this week for the first time in 51 years.
Two cover versions of the Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah are the first and second best-selling singles in Britain – a situation not seen since January 1957 when Tommy Steele and Guy Mitchell held the top two places with Singin' The Blues.
However, it is thought two versions of You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling occupied the top two positions in February 1965, with the The Righteous Brothers at number one and Cilla Black number two.
In a further twist, Cohen's original version, written 20 years ago, made it into the top 40 with a new entry at number 36.
Hallelujah has been recorded more than 170 times since it was written more than 20 years ago. It took Cohen more than one year to write and originally contained 80 verses whose often dark and sometimes sexual lyrics have prompted intense debate among fans as to the true meaning of the song.
Miss Burke, 20, won a £1 million recording contract when she was crowned X Factor winner just over a week ago.
A spoof reality show singer called Geraldine, created by comedian Peter Kay, also entered the top 10 with Once Upon A Christmas Song.
In the album charts, comeback kings Take That claimed Christmas number one with The Circus, which became the fastest-selling album in Britain since 2000.
Gennaro Castaldo, a spokesman for music store HMV, said: "It is unprecedented to have two versions of the same song at number one and two in the Christmas charts, and it's ironic that it's taken the X Factor to get a lot more of us to appreciate the music of Leonard Cohen and the talent of Jeff Buckley."
Official Charts Company managing director Martin Talbot said: "December truly has been a record-breaking month for sales of downloads and CDs, and this week in particular has seen some unprecedented sales for both singles and albums - especially Take That and newcomer Alexandra Burke.
"It is a particularly amazing week for Alexandra Burke who has broken a string of records to announce her arrival in spectacular style. And, chart placings at 1, 2 and 36 are remarkable for a 25-year-old song which has never previously reached the top 40."
Leona Lewis Single Becomes Fastest-Selling Digital Release
The new single from Leona Lewis has become the fastest-selling digital release, according to the singer's representative.
Some 69,244 people downloaded the cover of Snow Patrol's Run in the first two days since it became available.
The success of the track has eclipsed the previous record of 51,857 downloads sold in a week, set by 'American Boy' by Estelle and Kanye West – itself beating a previous Leona Lewis record for her single, A Moment Like This.
The singer, from London, sang the song on BBC Radio 1 and recently performed it on The X Factor.
The track is already heading to the top of the single sale charts, outselling its nearest rival – Take That's Greatest Day – by three to one.
William Hill has her at 10-1 to become Christmas Number One but the favourite for that honour remains whoever wins X Factor winner singing a version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.
Lewis' label Sony BMG initially refused to release 'Run' as a single, instead making it available on a reissue of her 2007 debut album, 'Spirit'.
The song had been introduced by presenter Dermot O'Leary as "her next single" when she performed it on X Factor and fans lobbied the company to change its mind.
A source at the record company said managers were "stunned by the reaction" of the public. "They've seen sense and bowed to pressure," the source said.
Vast Majority of Online Music Tracks Fail to Sell
More than 10 million of the 13 million music tracks available on the internet failed to sell a single copy last year, a study has found.
It showed that for the online singles market 80 per cent of all revenue came from around 52,000 tracks.
Of the 1.23 million albums available, only 173,000 were bought, meaning 85 per cent did not sell at all.
The study, by Will Page, chief economist of the MCPS-PRS Alliance, a not-for-profit royalty collection society, challenges the idea that niche markets were the key to the future for internet sellers.
Chris Anderson's 2006 book The Long Tail, used data from an American online music retailer to predict the internet economy would shift from a relatively small number of "hits" toward a "huge number of niches in the tail".
Anderson challenged the widely accepted "80/20 rule" which suggests selling the most popular 20 per cent of products is the way to make a profit as they will account for 80 per cent of sales.
Mr Page, who carried out the economic modelling for Radiohead's In Rainbows album, which was released free on the internet, said: "The relative size of the dormant 'zero sellers' tail was truly jaw-dropping. Rather than continue to believe the selective claims of 'here's another great example of the long tail at work', we wanted to find out how long-tail markets should be analysed, plotted and interpreted."
He continued: "There is an eerie similarity between a digital and high-street retailer in terms of what constitutes an efficient inventory and the shape of their respective demand shape of their respective demand curves. I think there's something more going on there: a case of new schools meets old rules."
Mr Page's co-researcher Andrew Bud said: "I think people believed in a fat, fertile long tail because they wanted it to be true.
"The statistical theories used to justify that theory were intelligent and plausible. But they turned out to be wrong. The data tells a quite different story. For the first time we know what the true demand for digital music looks like".
Mr Anderson accepted the researchers had found a dataset in which the "long tail" principle did not apply but said further conclusions could not be drawn until the data and its sources were published.
New George Michael Track Survives on The Pirate Bay
Back in 2004, George Michael announced that he was turning his back on the music industry, vowing that he would never make another album for sale in record shops. Instead, in future he would give his music away for free online. On Christmas Day he gave away a brand new track, but how many people noticed?
George Michael is possibly one of the greatest stars the music business has ever seen, so when he announced in 2004 that he intended to turn his back on the music industry, it came as quite a shock. The 100 million album-selling artist would no longer sell future albums in shops, but instead release his music on the Internet for free. In return he hoped that fans would donate money to charity.
A few weeks ago there were a handful of news articles reporting that George would release a new track in December but there has hardly been a NIN or Radiohead media surge, although maybe that’s understandable since it’s just one track.
However, as promised, on Christmas Day “December Song” quietly appeared on GeorgeMichael.com as a completely free download.
In recent years George Michael has had little problem bursting the capacity of every venue he’s appeared at, with tickets to his last tour changing hands on eBay for $2000+. That said, I think I expected quite a bit more hype to go with this song, but maybe George isn’t that interested in the ‘game’ anymore. Maybe the song hasn’t been well received? I expected to see the song on his Wikipedia page, but as of now there is no mention.
Those wishing to listen at this stage may have a problem. It may exist officially elsewhere, but a day after release and “December Song” has disappeared from Michael’s website. However, fans who haven’t heard the track don’t have to be disappointed. A torrent for the track is alive and kicking on The Pirate Bay, which brings me to the point of this post.
Many file-sharers like to promote a donation model so, if you can afford it, don’t forget George Michael’s message. No threats of being sued, just a simple request that people consider donating a little to charity if they download the track. He lists several charities on his site, including Breast Cancer Campaign, Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, but I expect he wouldn’t mind if your chosen charity got the money instead.
Legal Downloads Growing Faster Than Piracy
The recession is not driving music lovers to piracy. Just away from their CD players.
The volume of legal music downloaded in Q3 increased 29% over the same period a year ago. That beats the growth in illegal music downloads over peer-to-peer networks, which rose 23% y/y.
Overall demand for music declined 2% in the third quarter, research group NPD reports. More of their numbers:
• Fifteen percent of Internet users purchased music from online music stores, such as iTunes and AmazonMP3, which is an increase of 2 percentage points over last year and equates to approximately 2.8 million additional music-download customers.
• The volume of CDs purchased declined by 19 percent in Q3 compared to last year.
• Year-over-year consumer demand for music among Internet users in the U.S. fell 2 percent in the third quarter (Q3) of 2008.
• CD sales volume were among teens (down 34 percent) and among adults age 26 to 35 (down 36 percent). CD purchases by adults age 36 and older showed a more moderate decline of 10 percent.
MySpace Puts The Hammer Down On Project Playlist
MySpace is getting back into the business of blocking third party widgets, it seems - today they’ve banned embedded music widgets from the fast growing Project Playlist. But unlike previous 2006 and 2007 blocks of iMeem, Photobucket and many others, this time MySpace is doing it under threat of litigation from the major labels.
We first got word from MySpace users that their Playlist widgets are simply vanishing from their MySpace profiles earlier today. When we contacted MySpace they confirmed the ban, noting that they have received infringement notices from “major music companies”:
Apparently this isn’t the first time the two companies have come to blows. MySpace also blocked Project Playlist earlier this year in March, but the company was able to evade the block with some success.
An industry source also confirms that Facebook has been served with the same notice of infringement. As of now, Playlist is still live on that site.
Project Playlist recently hired former Facebook exec Owen Van Natta as CEO and raised an undisclosed round of financing.
The Pirate Bay Launches Free Mobile Video Converter
The Pirate Bay has established itself as the largest BitTorrent tracker, and helps to distribute millions of files a day. Today, the Pirate Bay team adds yet another service to its arsenal, a free video converter that allows users to put their favorite movies and TV shows on almost every mobile device.
With the wide range of video formats out there, it can be quite a challenge to find a tool that can easily convert these to a format that is supported by your mobile device. The Pirate Bay, one of the greatest video libraries online, now has an application that does just this.
The ViO converter reduces AVI, MPEG, MP4, WMV and others videos to 20% of its original size without any reduction in image quality, and claims to do it faster than any other converter. The tool is completely free and comes with pre-configured settings for the most wisely used mobile devices, including the iPod, iPhone and BlackBerry.
The converter can be downloaded for free, but strangely enough a .torrent is not available. The ViO website is currently accessible at a subdomain of The Pirate Bay, complete with a nifty marketing pitch claiming that “ViO proprietary compression delivers better video quality, higher resolution and smaller file sizes, than anything else on the market today.”
When ViO is installed there is an optional toolbar that can be installed with it. The application itself is easy to use, and does indeed a good (and fast) job at converting different video files we’ve tried. If this takes off, it might even reduce the number of pirated downloads of some of the commercial alternatives.
Update: Some readers noted that ViO violates the GPL for at least 2 projects (1 and 2), The Pirate Bay will put the source online to resolve this issue.
Turning On, Tuning In and Painting the Results
The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in Chelsea will close at the end of this month. That may not mean much to most of the art world’s hipper denizens, but it will to visionary and psychedelic-art fans for whom the chapel has been a mecca since it opened in 2004.
Founded by the psychedelic painter Alex Grey, and his wife, the painter Allyson Grey, the chapel is a curious, over-the-top combination of art gallery, New Age temple and Coney Island sideshow. The main attraction is an installation of allegorical neo-Surrealist paintings by Mr. Grey that, in the context of a carefully orchestrated theatrical environment, is designed to transport paying visitors into states of ecstatic reverence for life, love and universal interconnectedness. (Parts of the chapel, at 542 West 27th Street, are also decorated in Ms. Grey’s rainbow-hued, grid-patterned wallpaper.)
Mr. Grey is an illustrator in the best and, frequently, lesser sense of the word. (The nonprofit chapel derives much of its income from the sale of posters and books reproducing his paintings.) In his signature imagery he depicts people with transparent skin revealing underlying muscle, bone, organs and circulatory systems; they are surrounded and penetrated by fields of cosmic energy represented by glowing linear patterns.
One of his most striking pictures shows a life-size semitransparent couple making love as incandescent wave patterns swirl around and through them. It is at once sexy, repulsive and hair-raising.
The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors proper is a long hall with red walls hung with a series of 20 life-size paintings of standing human figures that Mr. Grey made in the early ’80s. (They were exhibited at the New Museum in 1986.) They include pictures of naked racial types; images of people with skin peeled off to reveal underlying anatomical structures; and figures that have almost completely dissolved into patterns of circulating light.
At one end of the hall, a radiant Jesus hangs next to a glowing Sophia, the wisdom deity, whose ample body is covered by hundreds of staring eyes.
Each painting has a faux-bronze frame carved with small symbols representing different stages of enlightenment and punctuated at the top by a round, electrically illuminated stained-glass image of an eye in the tip of a pyramid. Five golden arches in the hall are anchored by 10 “archangels”: gold-painted, cast-resin figures resembling ancient Assyrian sculptures, each with three faces, a convex mirror in its chest and wings wrapped around its columnar body.
“The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors is a womb for the gestation of the awakening human spirit,” notes a guidebook available in the book and gift shop. And a core element of the chapel’s consciousness-expanding mission is belief in the power of certain ingestible substances — or, as aficionados prefer to call them, entheogens — to foster a mystically transformative experience. Mr. Grey’s 2006 portrait of the discoverer of LSD, Albert Hofmann, is displayed on an easel in the middle of one of the chapel’s other rooms. It’s called “St. Albert and the LSD Revelation Revolution.”
The guidebook describes a small painting titled “Seraphic Transport Docking on the Third Eye” thus: “In 2004, while journeying on Ayahuasca” (a hallucinogenic brew used by South American Indians), “Alex saw multicolored angelic beings, and alternated between witnessing the visionary realms in his head and painting them. During this series of visionary experiences, he received instructions about the appearance of and statements on the soon to-be-built walls of the Chapel.”
A well-kept secret of the mainstream art world is the role that psychedelic drugs have played in shaping and altering the course of art since the 1960s.
Visionary art is not new — see Bosch, Blake, Redon and others — but in Western society before the 1960s, it was the province of isolated individuals. Then LSD became widely available, and anyone could have mystic revelations for the small price of a little pill.
Two recent, disappointingly flawed exhibitions inadequately addressed the subject: “Summer of Love” at the Whitney Museum of American Art last year, and “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005. For the most part, mainstream discourse about art goes on as if the psychedelic revolution were just a minor, tangential distraction.
Yet evidence of psychedelic experience is everywhere in art these days, from the paintings of Takashi Murakami, Steve DiBenedetto and Philip Taaffe to the perceptually confounding sculptures of Charles Ray and the baroque films, sculptures and performances of Matthew Barney. The rapturous video installation by Pipilotti Rist now on view at the Museum of Modern Art is nothing if not psychedelic. The story of contemporary art and the psychedelic revolution remains to be told.
What’s unusual about the Greys’ project is not only that they openly acknowledge their pharmacological sources of inspiration but that they are also dedicating their psychedelic vision to the service of a kind of neo-pagan church. A sweetly charismatic couple in their mid-50s who could be mistaken for ministers of a Unitarian church, they have hosted full-moon gatherings every month where they and others sermonize, tell stories, sing and play music, recite poetry and otherwise try to promote spiritual enlightenment.
And hundreds have attended their regularly sponsored Entheocentric Salon, an all-night party involving, according to the guidebook, “live painting, video projections, local and international DJs and musicians, live performances, lectures and visionary conversations.”
A natural anxiety about all this is that it might turn into an electric Kool-Aid-drinking, snake-oil-selling cult. The Greys said in an interview that they want to promote only the most responsible and carefully structured use of entheogens in contexts that promote psychological and spiritual well-being and positive illumination for individuals and communities. Equally important, they added, are other techniques of “accessing the divine,” like meditation and yoga.
While the chapel in Chelsea will close with a New Year’s Eve party, the Greys’ project will not come to an end. Through the chapel’s corporation and with help from donors, they have bought a 40-acre plot of land in the upstate town of Wappinger, where they plan to rebuild the chapel and develop an interfaith retreat center. There, eventually, they intend to construct a great four-story, domed temple to house the Sacred Mirror paintings and provide a place for rites of cosmic consciousness.
Art world sophisticates may call the Greys’ project goofy, but in this scary time of economic implosion, their investment in spiritual expansion might just be the smartest of all.
Eartha Kitt, a Seducer of Audiences, Dies at 81
Eartha Kitt, who purred and pounced her way across Broadway stages, recording studios and movie and television screens in a show-business career that lasted more than six decades, died on Thursday. She was 81 and lived in Connecticut.
The cause was colon cancer, said her longtime publicist, Andrew E. Freedman.
Ms. Kitt, who began performing in the late ’40s as a dancer in New York, went on to achieve success and acclaim in a variety of mediums long before other entertainment multitaskers like Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler.
With her curvaceous frame and unabashed vocal come-ons, she was also, along with Lena Horne, among the first widely known African-American sex symbols. Orson Welles famously proclaimed her “the most exciting woman alive” in the early ’50s, apparently just after that excitement prompted him to bite her onstage during a performance of “Time Runs,” an adaptation of “Faust” in which Ms. Kitt played Helen of Troy.
Ms. Kitt’s career-long persona, that of the seen-it-all sybarite, was set when she performed in Paris cabarets in her early 20s, singing songs that became her signatures, like “C’est Si Bon” and “Love for Sale.”
Returning to New York, she was cast on Broadway in “New Faces of 1952” and added another jewel to her vocal crown, “Monotonous” (“Traffic has been known to stop for me/Prices even rise and drop for me/Harry S. Truman plays bop for me/Monotonous, monotone-ous”). Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times in May 1952, “Eartha Kitt not only looks incendiary, but she can make a song burst into flame.”
Shortly after that run, Ms. Kitt had her first best-selling albums and recorded her biggest hit, “Santa Baby,” whose precise, come-hither diction and vaguely foreign inflections (Ms. Kitt, a native of South Carolina, spoke four languages and sang in seven) proved that a vocal sizzle could be just as powerful as a bonfire. Though her record sales fell after the rise of rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll in the mid- and late ’50s, her singing style would later be the template for other singers with pillow-talky voices like Diana Ross (who has said she patterned her Supremes sound and look largely after Ms. Kitt), Janet Jackson and Madonna (who recorded a cover version of “Santa Baby” in 1987).
Ms. Kitt would later call herself “the original material girl,” a reference not only to her stage creation and to Madonna but also to her string of romances with rich or famous men, including Welles, the cosmetics magnate Charles Revson and the banking heir John Barry Ryan 3rd. She was married to her one husband, Bill McDonald, a real-estate developer, from 1960 to 1965; their daughter, Kitt Shapiro, survives her, as do two grandchildren.
From practically the beginning of her career, as critics gushed over Ms. Kitt, they also began to describe her in every feline term imaginable: her voice “purred” or “was like catnip”; she was a “sex kitten” who “slinked” or was “on the prowl” across the stage, sometimes “flashing her claws.” Her career has often been said to have had “nine lives.” Appropriately, she was tapped to play Catwoman in the 1960s TV series “Batman,” taking over the role from the leggier, lynxlike Julie Newmar and bringing to it a more feral, compact energy.
Yet for all the camp appeal and sexually charged hauteur of Ms. Kitt’s cabaret act, she also played serious roles, appearing in the films “The Mark of the Hawk” with Sidney Poitier (1957) and “Anna Lucasta” (1959) with Sammy Davis Jr. She made numerous television appearances, including a guest spot on “I Spy” in 1965, which brought her her first Emmy nomination.
For these performances Ms. Kitt likely drew on the hardship of her early life. She was born Eartha Mae Keith in North, S.C., on Jan. 17, 1927, a date she did not know until about 10 years ago, when she challenged students at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., to find her birth certificate, and they did. She was the illegitimate child of a black Cherokee sharecropper mother and a white man about whom Ms. Kitt knew little. She worked in cotton fields and lived with a black family who, she said, abused her because she looked too white. “They called me yella gal,” Ms. Kitt said.
At 8 she was sent to live in Harlem with an aunt, Marnie Kitt, who Ms. Kitt came to believe was really her biological mother. Though she was given piano and dance lessons, a pattern of abuse developed there as well: Ms. Kitt would be beaten, she would run away and then she would return. By her early teenage years she was working in a factory and sleeping in subways and on the roofs of unlocked buildings. (She would later become an advocate, through Unicef, on behalf of homeless children.)
Her show-business break came on a lark, when a friend dared her to audition for the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. She passed the audition and permanently escaped the cycle of poverty and abuse that defined her life till then.
But she took the steeliness with her, in a willful, outspoken manner that mostly served her career, except once. In 1968 she was invited to a White House luncheon and was asked by Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War. She replied: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” The remark reportedly caused Mrs. Johnson to burst into tears and led to a derailment in Ms. Kitt’s career.
As bookings dried up, she was exiled in Europe for almost a decade. But President Jimmy Carter invited her back to the White House in 1978, and that year she earned her first Tony nomination for her work in “Timbuktu!,” an all-black remake of “Kismet.”
By now a diva and legend, Ms. Kitt did what many other divas and legends — Shirley Bassey and Ethel Merman among them — did: she dabbled in dance music, scoring her biggest hit in 30 years with “Where Is My Man” in 1984, the same year she was roundly criticized for touring South Africa. Ms. Kitt was typically unapologetic; the tour, she said, played to integrated audiences and helped build schools for black children.
The third of her three autobiographies, “I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten,” was published in 1989, and she earned a Grammy nomination for “Back in Business,” a collection of cabaret songs released in 1994.
As Ms. Kitt began the sixth decade of her career, she was still active. In 2000 she received her second Tony nomination, for best featured actress in a musical in “The Wild Party.” Branching out into children’s programming, she won two Daytime Emmy Awards, this year and in 2007, as outstanding performer in an animated program for her role as the scheming empress-wannabe Yzma in “The Emperor’s New School.”
All the while she remained a fixture on the cabaret circuit, having maintained her voice and shapely figure through a vigorous fitness regimen that included daily running and weight lifting. Even after discovering in 2006 that she had colon cancer, she triumphantly opened the newly renovated Café Carlyle in New York in September 2007. Stephen Holden, writing in The Times, said that Ms. Kitt’s voice was “in full growl.”
But though Ms. Kitt still seemed to have men of all ages wrapped around her finger (she would often toy with younger worshipers at her shows by suggesting they introduce her to their fathers), the years had given her perspective. “I’m a dirt person,” she told Ebony magazine in 1993. “I trust the dirt. I don’t trust diamonds and gold.”
Satellite Radio Still Reaches for the Payday
DID you hear what Howard Stern said the other day? Neither did we. But we read about it on a blog.
Mr. Stern, the ribald radio jock who once commanded attention with each off-color utterance and obscene joke, mused recently on the air that he was thinking of retiring when his contract expires in two years. “This is my swan song,” he said.
Back in the day when Mr. Stern was on free radio and had an audience of 12 million, that remark would have cascaded through the media universe. But by switching to satellite radio three years ago, Mr. Stern swapped cultural cachet for big money.
Then — poof! — Mr. Stern all but disappeared. Even Jay Leno, during a recent interview with The New York Times about his decision to stay at NBC to host a prime-time show, cited Mr. Stern as an example of the dangers of obscurity.
“On radio, Howard to me was a populist. The truck driver, the average guy would listen in the cafe, the truck, the old car that’s 50 years old and still has an AM radio,” said Mr. Leno in the interview. “But I don’t hear him quoted anymore. People don’t say: ‘Hey, did you hear what Howard said today?’ ”
Yet Mr. Stern’s retirement chatter did get one group talking: investors fretting over the fate of Sirius XM Radio, the satellite radio company that has been Mr. Stern’s home for the past three years.
Today, five months after regulators approved a merger of Sirius and XM, satellite radio’s pioneers and former rivals, in a deal that was supposed to deliver their industry to the promised land of profits and permanence, the company faces an uncertain future.
Although Mr. Stern brought listeners and prominence to Sirius, the move had a steep cost. His blockbuster, $500 million, five-year deal fueled a high-stakes competition between the two services that contributed to Sirius XM’s current bind.
Unlike free radio, which depends on advertising, satellite radio offers nearly commercial-free music and talk for a subscription fee. It’s akin to the difference between broadcast TV and premium cable, between NBC and HBO.
Even though Sirius XM is one of the very few media companies whose revenue and number of subscribers are growing these days, a dime and a nickel will get you a share of the company’s stock (with some change left over).
Its balance sheet is larded with nearly $1 billion of debt that matures in 2009 and must be refinanced — but try finding a sympathetic banker in our current hard-luck environment. Sirius XM has nearly 20 million paying customers, many of them evangelists for the service, but what does that matter if you can’t pay your debts?
The company has never turned a profit and cannot predict when it ever will. Cap that with the struggles of Detroit — the bulk of new satellite radio subscribers come from partnerships with automakers — and you have a set of obstacles that Sirius XM has to overcome at the very moment the recession seems to be deepening.
The satellite radio industry is relatively young — when Mr. Stern announced that he was joining Sirius in 2004, the company had less than a million subscribers. But it is facing a media environment that is shifting toward cheaply distributed content over the Internet.
It’s also a conundrum that all traditional media face: Who needs satellites — or, for that matter, printing presses and delivery trucks — when the world is wired for broadband and Wi-Fi?
All of these obstacles have Sirius XM’s investors and subscribers worried that they may even be beyond the significant talents of Mel Karmazin, the combative, longtime radio man who is the company’s chief executive.
“I met Mel through my coverage of radio back when radio was something,” said Bishop Cheen, an analyst at Wachovia Capital Markets in Charlotte, N.C. “He’s an amazing guy. It’s never paid to short Mel. But this is his toughest challenge. It’s something that seems even beyond his legend.”
ON a recent morning that would include more meetings with lenders, and three days before Sirius XM’s annual shareholder meeting — which would be a feisty affair — Mr. Karmazin bounds into a glass-walled conference room at the company’s headquarters and sits for an interview.
He says he would prefer lesser surroundings in someplace like Astoria, Queens, but the company has a long-term lease — negotiated, Mr. Karmazin is careful to note, before his tenure as C.E.O. — in fancy, Midtown Manhattan quarters near Rockefeller Center
Mr. Karmazin has a helmet of white hair and is thinner than when he was president of Viacom and in perpetual conflict with Sumner M. Redstone, then his boss. On his left lapel is a pin shaped like a jigsaw puzzle that is the emblem of Autism Speaks, a charity in which Mr. Karmazin is deeply involved because he has a grandson with autism.
He begins off-topic, musing about which friends of his may have lost money in the debacle involving Bernard L. Madoff, whom Mr. Karmazin himself had never heard of until the news erupted about two weeks ago. (Mr. Karmazin says all of his money is in Treasury bills and Sirius XM stock.)
“Some of the stories are just horrific,” he says. But given Sirius XM’s current woes, Mr. Karmazin may soon be facing horrors of his own.
He, of course, has been in financial pinches before during his long career. In the early 1980s, he once had to lend money to Infinity Broadcasting, the radio company he helped found, to meet its payroll.
“I don’t think that the performance of the stock is related to the performance of the company,” he says. “It’s related to the balance sheet of the company and the need for the company to refinance.”
Ironically, one rationale for the merger was the expectation that the combined company could borrow money more cheaply. “The bankers who covered the deal believed that one of the synergies of the merger was the ability to refinance at a lower level,” says Mr. Karmazin.
What he didn’t count on was the year and a half it took the Federal Communications Commission to approve the deal.
The most pressing problem for Sirius XM is refinancing its debt, which includes three batches worth almost $1 billion that come due in 2009, beginning with $193.5 million in February. It’s a rough task right now, given the frozen credit markets.
Consider this: five years ago, Sirius, with 300,000 subscribers and no hint that Mr. Stern would be gracing its channel lineup, borrowed money at 2.5 percent interest. Those days are long gone.
“Warren Buffett managed to get a 10 percent coupon from G.E. and Goldman Sachs,” says Mr. Karmazin, speaking of the interest rate that Mr. Buffett, the Omaha investing legend, was promised for his recent investments in both companies. “So if you are Sirius XM, what should the coupon be?”
Sirius XM simply isn’t a blue-chip stock like General Electric, so the interest the company would have to pay to raise funds is likely to be exorbitant. Mr. Karmazin said many lenders are willing to refinance, “but they are interested in it at very unattractive terms.”
He takes solace in the fact that Sirius XM has growing revenue and is adding subscribers: in the company’s fiscal third quarter, which it reported on Nov. 10, revenue grew 16 percent, to $613 million, and the number of subscribers rose 17 percent, to about 19 million.
“If you take a look around at all of the media space — I’m not trying to paint the rosy picture because we have challenges connected to our liquidity and certainly our stock price is dreadful,” Mr. Karmazin says. “But, you know, our revenues are growing double digits. We’re growing subscribers. We’re not losing subscribers.
“So if would be unfair to compare us to a newspaper business that’s losing circulation and losing revenue, traditional television, traditional radio,” he adds. “They have fundamental company flaws or industry flaws.”
But Sirius XM does have a serious flaw in its capital structure. Its costs, which include servicing its pile of debt, appear to be too high to make the business viable.
Mr. Cheen, the analyst, agrees with Mr. Karmazin that satellite radio is a delightful product and gives him credit for showing revenue growth amid the economic downturn. “But you don’t have any unlevered, free cash flow, dude,” he says of Mr. Karmazin and his company. “In this environment, how do you walk on water?
“This is the drama of it all,” Mr. Cheen continues. “No one is suggesting this media is not a viable media. It’s just poorly capitalized.”
Mr. Karmazin’s corner office on the 37th floor is a flight of stairs up from Mr. Stern’s studio. He and Mr. Stern have known each other since 1985, when Mr. Karmazin hired the shock jock at Infinity. But he is not responsible for Mr. Stern’s jump to Sirius, having joined the company after that deal.
“Would I like to have seen Howard get less money?” Mr. Karmazin asks. “Yes. But I think any company that deals with content would say the same thing.”
Mr. Karmazin, when asked if he thinks Mr. Stern has lost his place in the culture, says: “I think the size of the audience is less today. And I think one of the things Howard was looking forward to with the merger is that we’ll have twice as many subscribers potentially available to listen to him.”
Mr. Stern declined to be interviewed for this article, but his travails are emblematic of satellite radio and Sirius XM’s own shrinking horizons.
It seems that if Mr. Stern were to stay beyond his current contract, which expires at the end of 2010, he would have to accept less money, given the finances of the company and the fact that there are no longer two satellite radio companies battling each other.
“I really can’t speak for what Howard would do,” Mr. Karmazin says. “You know, heavy expectations believe that he would stay. Because why wouldn’t he stay? He’s having a good time. He’s enjoying himself. He’s paid fairly for it.”
But some Stern watchers think otherwise. “I’m starting to think that he might actually retire,” says Mark Mercer, who since the mid-1990s has written a daily blog about the Stern show, which has become a nearly minute-by-minute account of each program.
“I love the show, and I’ve got nothing better to do,” says Mr. Mercer, 40, who lives in Califon, N.J. Even Mr. Mercer, as diehard a Stern fan as there is, acknowledges that Mr. Stern’s gig doesn’t have the same influence it once did.
“Once you get used to hearing it on Sirius, it’s not as shocking as it was when you heard him on terrestrial radio and they’d be bleeping him out,” he says.
SIRIUS XM’s annual meeting on Dec. 18, held in a basement auditorium of a skyscraper elsewhere in Midtown, featured a crew of shareholders holding forth at two microphones in the aisles; a gray-haired man in a brown suede blazer indignant over the loss of his favorite folk music channel; a self-professed inventor who said he developed a computerized golf cart and had an idea about interactive advertising; and a burly, goateed man who claimed to have lost $1 million on Sirius XM stock and stood in the lobby saying, “It’s time for Mel to go, in my opinion.”
With pursed lips and admirable restraint, Mr. Karmazin addresses every question, from the germane to the ridiculous. His famous temper never goes beyond the quip, “I think it would be helpful if we dealt with facts.”
He stays on message, even though the dynamics of his company — continued revenue and subscription growth, but nothing left in the bank at the end of the day — cannot continue forever.
Mr. Karmazin doesn’t duck responsibility by laying his corporate problems on the economy. He tells shareholders at the annual meeting to consider him the company’s Joe Torre and blame him for any and all problems.
“There’s no question, this company needs to make money,” he tells shareholders. “This company has a lot going for it, but it has never made a dime.”
Shareholders approved two measures that analysts consider to be last-ditch possibilities. One, a reverse stock split, would be a way to avoid a delisting from the Nasdaq; if it weren’t for the recent suspension of rules that threaten the pink sheets for stocks that fall below $1 for more than 30 days, Sirius XM would already be facing banishment.
Another measure, to raise money by selling more stock, would be an extreme preventive measure against bankruptcy. A stock sale is seen as unlikely because it would be dilutive to existing shareholders, but executives want this option in their arsenal in case they cannot refinance the debt.
MR. KARMAZIN is one of the few executives who can say his business really is rocket science. Next year Sirius XM will send another satellite into orbit, at a cost of $250 million to $300 million.
Three rocket scientists report to Mr. Karmazin. Whenever he receives e-mail from the person in charge of the satellite — even if it’s just a birthday wish or a thank-you note — the first words of the message have to be “the satellites are fine.”
“If something’s wrong with the satellites, I’m going to panic,” he says.
Mr. Karmazin likes to say that the company competes against technology — things like digital music players and Internet radio that can be streamed through an iPhone and played in the car — rather than other companies.
Dave Zatz, who lives in Rockville, Md., and writes a blog about digital media, was an XM subscriber but dropped the service after his favorite channel, Chrome — “which is sort of a disco station,” he says — was dropped. Now, he says, he streams Pandora, a popular Internet radio service, through his iPhone while driving.
“The price is right and you can get whatever music you like,” he says.
But those competitive threats remain secondary to the urgency of Sirius XM finding a way to extract itself from the financial vise visited upon it by its heavy debt. Mr. Cheen, the debt analyst at Wachovia, has this stark assessment: “The bare economics of it cannot appropriately service the capital load.”
During the shareholder meeting, Mr. Karmazin acknowledges that bankruptcy is a possibility if the company cannot reach agreement with lenders, but he says it is unlikely.
“You have to play the hand you’re dealt,” he says in the interview. “Right now, I don’t like my hand. But we’ll play it.”
Bill Carter contributed reporting.
The Year of the Simpler Gadget
THE National Bureau of Economic Research hardly stunned the nation this month when it announced that the United States had been in recession since December 2007.
And, as it turns out, the buyers of consumer electronics could very well have been a leading economic indicator. Over the last year, they chose to buy two inexpensive and simple products, the Wii and the Flip, over competing gadgets bristling with more features.
Nintendo has sold more than 30 million Wii game consoles since they were introduced two years ago. The machine is still luring shoppers: lines of buyers still form on Sunday mornings outside electronics stores. Best Buy put the Wii, not big-screen high-definition TVs, on the cover page of its Sunday circular last week, in its bid to get resistant holiday shoppers into the store.
The machine is dimwittedly simple. The console itself is hardly bigger than a DVD. It lacks the deep rich graphics, the rumbling sound and many of the violent games of the Microsoft Xbox 360. But at $250, it is outselling the more expensive Xbox 360 and the Sony PlayStation 3 combined by almost 2 to 1.
The $130 Flip camcorder is also simple, and two to three times cheaper than camcorders made by Sony or JVC that have optical zoom, an optical viewfinder and special effects. The original Flip didn’t even have a headphone jack. Revenue at Pure Digital Technologies, its manufacturer, grew 44,667 percent, the highest rate of any company in Silicon Valley, over the last five years, according to Deloitte, the business services firm. Pure Digital Technologies says it has sold more than 1.5 million Flips since it unveiled the product line in 2007.
This shift in consumer preference to the cheaper electronic device could well be a reaction to the recession. But it isn’t the same as the consumer suddenly, and consciously, reaching for the house brand of creamed corn instead of the one with the Jolly Green Giant on the label. It is not just the economics of a shopping-fatigued nation at work here. Consumers found the simple devices, which don’t need instruction manuals to set up and use, more appealing.
That shift in consumer preference could be ominous. As the United States enters a deflationary period, all kinds of companies will have to grapple with the consequences of falling prices. This is nothing new for electronics makers. Every year, competition and the effects of Moore’s Law forced prices down.
The one defense that seemed to work was to offer a new product at the same price as the old one — but with more features. The laptops got better graphics, the hard drives spun faster, the cameras picked up more detail, the memory cards held more.
Feature-itis was a disease, but it was better than the affliction known as consumer boredom.
Even the Flip is experiencing some feature creep. It has a popular model that shoots high-definition video. It’s still the smallest HD camcorder, but it has U.S.B. port rechargers and power adapters, fast forward and rewind and four times as much memory as the original. Wii is still aimed at the market that Microsoft and Sony neglected: young children, older people and others who never played video games. But it is selling add-ons like the Wii Fit, a souped-up bathroom scale that allows a person to play skiing games, balance contests and musical play-alongs.
Apple, innovator of business models as much as it is an innovator of electronic geegaws, may have found a solution to the problem of simple products becoming more complex. The Apple iPhone is one of the easiest-to-use devices ever created. At $300, plus a two-year contract that quickly pushes the real price to $1,800, it is hardly in the thrift class with the Wii and the Flip. But it is one of the most popular consumer electronics devices of 2008. Apple is expected to sell more than 14 million of them this year, and it is already the best-selling handset in the United States, according to the market researchers at the NPD Group.
AS much as it is part of the distinct trend toward the simple, the iPhone is also part of a trend to make a device versatile. It is a pretty thing, with a sleek touchscreen that does away with a keyboard. But it is also a hand-held game machine and a musical instrument that plays cowbells or imitates an ocarina. It’s clearly an entertainment device, one that can identify the song playing in a movie or find friends on a map.
While it is not clear that mainstream electronics manufacturers have caught on, some scrappy start-ups have noticed its utility. One of them, Sonos, has turned the iPhone into a pretty nifty remote control for managing music on Sonos’s whole-house entertainment system. (The application can be downloaded free from the Apple AppStore.) The iPhone taps into a home’s wireless network to control the wireless entertainment system in multiple rooms.
John MacFarlane, the Sonos chief executive, says creation of the software that makes the iPhone a Sonos controller lifted the company’s sales by 20 percent in November. “In this economy,” he noted.
The company gave up some revenue — a regular Sonos controller is about $300 — but the new device exposed the entertainment system to a new audience and thus expanded the market.
Sonos isn’t interested in anything other than music, but a versatile little device that you never let out of your reach could also manage burglar alarms and heating and cooling systems. “I think that is the universal remote control of the future,” Mr. MacFarland said. “And that’s the direction we are headed.”
Right along with stingier consu- mers.
Need a Ride? Check Your iPhone
SOON you may no longer need to stick out your thumb to catch a ride. Instead, you may get one by tapping your fingers on your iPhone.
Avego, based in Kinsale, Ireland (www.avego.com), is demonstrating an iPhone application intended to let drivers and prospective passengers connect and share rides.
When the program is available, drivers who want to offer rides will first download the app, then record their preferred route, said Sean O’Sullivan, managing director of Avego and executive chairman of Mapflow, Avego’s parent company, based in Dublin.
“You put the iPhone on the dashboard, and it records the entire trip and sends the route to our network,” he said. The system stores the route, adding it to its menu of paths and pick-up points and offering them automatically to interested riders.
Drivers must have an iPhone in order to use the service, but if passengers don’t, they will be able to look for a ride on the Avego Web site or call or send a text message, Mr. O’Sullivan said. Drivers and riders can identify one another by photographs displayed on their iPhones, as well as by PINs that verify identities and authorize the transaction.
Avego will charge 30 cents a mile, he said, with 85 percent going to the driver to recover some of the commuting costs and 15 percent to the company. All payments will be handled by automated online accounting.
It will take a while to establish a critical mass of drivers and passengers, Mr. O’Sullivan acknowledged. But he hopes that the chance to defray expenses will change the entrenched habits of many drivers who treasure their solitude. “It will require behavior changes on the part of drivers and riders,” he said.
Although there is anecdotal data that carpooling rose during the recent spike in gasoline prices, American drivers have historically preferred solo trips. About three-quarters of workers in the United States drive alone, said Dr. Mark Mather, associate vice president for domestic programs at the Population Reference Bureau, a research organization in Washington.
From 1980 to 2007, workers were carpooling in decreasing numbers, he added. About 20 percent of workers carpooled in 1980, versus just 10 percent last year. “Trip chaining — running errands on the way to and from work,” was part of the reason, he said. “You can’t do that if you are with five other people.” Dr. Mather’s figures are based on the 2007 American Community Survey of the Census Bureau.
But systems like Avego’s might work for people who don’t want to commit to a daily carpool, yet at the last moment decide that they are willing to share on a particular day, said Susan Heinrich, the 511 ride-share and bicycling coordinator at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland, Calif. (The service, which uses the 511 phone listing, offers transportation information and ride-sharing resources for nine counties in the San Francisco Bay Area.)
Ms. Heinrich particularly likes Avego’s combination of text messages and colorful mapping. “I also like it that passengers do not need to have an iPhone to use this system,” she said. “I would love to incorporate this technology somehow within our services in the Bay Area.”
At University College Cork in Ireland, Stephan Koch, commuter plan manager, is giving Avego a trial early next year. The university has about 17,000 students and 2,600 staff members, he said; about 70 percent of the staff members use a car to get to the campus, as do about 36 percent of the students. “But the road capacity simply isn’t there,” he said of the often clogged, tortuous commute.
Mr. Koch hopes that Avego’s system, which he calls “computer-driven hitchhiking,” will help, in conjunction with bicycling facilities, improved public transportation and other initiatives.
“This is another option for staff and students other than a single-occupancy car on their daily commute,” he said. “The second person won’t need to bring a car, and there’s one less car in the carpark and on the road.”
A FREE ride-sharing application for the iPhone, Carticipate (www.carticipate.com), was released in October, and already has had more than 10,000 downloads, said Steffen Frost, chief executive of Carticipate in San Francisco.
After you register with Carticipate and set up a profile, he said, “other people with iPhones that have the application can search for you and find you.”
A prospective passenger will see, for instance, that someone is going to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., he said, and read the profile. “If they are comfortable with that and want a ride, they can organize from there,” he said. “We are a matching service.”
Hendrik J. Hilbolling, who lives in The Hague in the Netherlands, uses Carticipate regularly. “My lover lives in France and I go there frequently,” he said. Through Carticipate, he shared one of his recent trips to Paris, as well as the expenses for the journey, with a teacher and a film director.
“Trains are expensive,” he said. “This is a nice ride, we can talk, and this way is much cheaper.”
News You Can Lose
When the Tribune Company announced that it was filing for bankruptcy, last Monday, Sam Zell, the man who bought the company a year ago, for $8.2 billion, said that its problems were the result of a “perfect storm.” You take readers and advertisers who were already migrating away from print, and add a steep recession, and you’ve got serious trouble. What Zell failed to mention was that his acquisition of the company had buried it beneath such a heavy pile of debt that any storm at all would likely have sunk it. But although Zell was making excuses for his own mismanagement, the perfect storm is real enough, and it is threatening to destroy newspapers as we know them. Layoffs and buyouts have become routine. The Miami Herald and the San Diego Union-Tribune are reportedly on the selling block, while lawmakers in Connecticut are trying to keep two newspapers there afloat. Even the New York Times Company has slashed its dividend and announced that it would borrow against its headquarters to avoid cash-flow problems.
There’s no mystery as to the source of all the trouble: advertising revenue has dried up. In the third quarter alone, it dropped eighteen per cent, or almost two billion dollars, from last year. For most of the past decade, newspaper companies had profit margins that were the envy of other industries. This year, they have been happy just to stay in the black. Many traditional advertisers, like big department stores, are struggling, and the bursting of the housing bubble has devastated real-estate advertising. Even online ads, which were supposed to rescue the business, have declined lately, and they are, in any case, nowhere near as lucrative as their print counterparts. Papers’ attempts to deal with the new environment by cutting costs haven’t helped: trimming staff and reducing coverage make newspapers less appealing to readers and advertisers. It may be no coincidence that papers that have avoided the steepest cutbacks, like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, have done a better job of holding onto readers.
Newspaper readership has been slowly dropping for decades—as a percentage of the population, newspapers have about half as many subscribers as they did four decades ago—but the Internet helped turn that slow puncture into a blowout. Papers now seem to be the equivalent of the railroads at the start of the twentieth century—a once-great business eclipsed by a new technology. In a famous 1960 article called “Marketing Myopia,” Theodore Levitt held up the railroads as a quintessential example of companies’ inability to adapt to changing circumstances. Levitt argued that a focus on products rather than on customers led the companies to misunderstand their core business. Had the bosses realized that they were in the transportation business, rather than the railroad business, they could have moved into trucking and air transport, rather than letting other companies dominate. By extension, many argue that if newspapers had understood they were in the information business, rather than the print business, they would have adapted more quickly and more successfully to the Net.
There’s some truth to this. Local papers could have been more aggressive in leveraging their brand names to dominate the market for online classifieds, instead of letting Craigslist usurp that market. And while the flood of online information has made the job of aggregation and filtering tremendously valuable, none of the important aggregation sites, to say nothing of Google News, are run by a paper. Even now, papers often display a “not invented here” mentality, treating their sites as walled gardens, devoid of links to other news outlets. From a print perspective, that’s understandable: why would you advertise good work that’s being done elsewhere? But it’s an approach that makes no sense on the Web.
These mistakes have been undeniably costly, but they’re not the whole story. The peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular. The blogosphere, much of which piggybacks on traditional journalism’s content, has magnified the reach of newspapers, and although papers now face far more scrutiny, this is a kind of backhanded compliment to their continued relevance. Usually, when an industry runs into the kind of trouble that Levitt was talking about, it’s because people are abandoning its products. But people don’t use the Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.
Does that mean newspapers are doomed? Not necessarily. There are many possible futures one can imagine for them, from becoming foundation-run nonprofits to relying on reader donations to that old standby the deep-pocketed patron. It’s even possible that a few papers will be able to earn enough money online to make the traditional ad-supported strategy work. But it would not be shocking if, sometime soon, there were big American cities that had no local newspaper; more important, we’re almost sure to see a sharp decline in the volume and variety of content that newspapers collectively produce. For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.
Print News is Fading, But the Content Lives On
It's been about 20 years since Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web on the back of the Internet. For more than a billion people on the planet, the Web today is an alternate, digital universe that is gradually overtaking the analog, physical world as a source of information and connections.
Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press conducted a survey that rendered two obvious conclusions: the Internet has overtaken newspapers as a source of national and international news, and television, led by CNN, continues to serve as the main source.
(Credit: Pew Research Center)
According to the Pew survey, 40 percent of respondents (versus 24 percent in 2007) said the Internet is their primary source for national and international news. That compares with 35 percent (versus 34 percent 2007) who rely on newspapers and 70 percent (versus 74 percent in 2007) who use television as their main source. Given the historic presidential campaign and economic woes this year, the large percentage increase year-over-year for the Internet is not surprising.
Among Americans under 30, 59 percent (versus 34 percent in 2007) said they get most of their national and international news from the Internet. Television tied with the Internet at 59 percent for that group, but that was a decline from 68 percent in 2007. (The figures add up to more 100 percent, by the way, because people could offer multiple answers.)
Television and printed newspapers are clearly stressed by financial pressures, which have been amplified by the ailing economy. While some of the newspapers have leading Web sites, their financial staple--classifieds and job and real estate listings--has been dominated by independent Internet services such as Craigslist, Monster.com, and Redfin. Mainstream television is competing with the likes of YouTube for eyeballs and is still trying to figure out how to swim with the Internet fishes and generate revenue, which at this point is a rounding error.
Most newspapers have figured out that you create content for the Web first and that the print edition is a byproduct of that output. Television programming can be viewed on a TV, PC, smartphone, or digital billboard. But as NBC's Jeff Zucker said recently, "People had been counting on digital exposure. I had been trying to talk about the fact that even as it grew, it was not necessarily the big growth engine for legacy media companies that were trading those analog dollars for digital dimes. We're now up to dimes. That's an improvement. It's still not a dollar for a dime kind of business that I would like to be in."
While the Internet is growing as the place where people go for news, the revenue simply isn't catching up fast enough. The less obvious part of the Internet overtaking newspapers as the main source for national and international news is that much of the seed content--the original reporting that breaks national and international news and is subsequently refactored by legions of bloggers--comes from the reporters and editors working at the financially strapped newspapers and national and local television outlets.
New publishing entities, such as Politico, the nonprofit ProPublica, the Huffington Post, and numerous blogs are making original contributions to national and international news, and some are trying to make money while they're at it.
As the financial pressures mount--the outlook for 2009 is dismal--and the cost cutting continues, we can only hope that the original news reporting by top-flight journalists is not a major casualty.
The Comics Are Feeling the Pain of Print
IN many ways, Stephan Pastis is living his dream. In 2002, after years of frustration, he quit his job as a lawyer to pursue cartooning. Today his daily strip, “Pearls Before Swine,” appears in more than 500 newspapers. He says he answers his fan mail “in groups of 100.”
Nevertheless, he can’t help worrying.
“Newspapers are declining,” he says. “For a syndicated cartoonist, that’s like finally making it to the major leagues and being told the stadiums are all closing, so there’s no place to play.”
Lisa Wilson, senior vice president of syndication for United Media, which distributes “Pearls Before Swine” through its United Feature Syndicate, says simply: “The newspapers’ economic challenges become ours.”
What do you do when the distribution method you have relied on for more than a century begins to falter? In the last two months, two syndicates have revealed their hands.
In November, United Feature Syndicate, which distributes 50 comics, including “Peanuts,” “Dilbert” and “Get Fuzzy,” made its full archives and portfolio available free on its Comics.com Web site. The company also added social networking features for tagging and rating comics. Visitors can have comics sent to them via e-mail or RSS feed.
The point is to attract more and, ideally, younger readers to the syndicate’s comics.
In the past, Comics.com displayed the current day’s strips and a 30-day archive free. Anyone wishing to see older comics or receive comics via e-mail had to pay a subscription fee of less than $20 a year, according to Ms. Wilson.
The syndicate decided that the subscription model “was limiting the audience for comics,” she says. It appears to have been right. After the change, traffic to the site increased 48 percent, to 571,000 unique visitors in the United States in November, according to comScore Media Metrix.
Today, Comics.com serves more as a marketing tool than a significant source of revenue. Ms. Wilson says the site does bring in money from advertisers, which include cellphone companies and Netflix. But its primary function is to build a fan base — and to provide links to sites where fans can buy books, calendars and other items featuring characters from the comics. No one expects Comics.com to fully compensate for what Ms. Wilson calls “declines on the print side.” The site, she says, is “a platform for what comes next.”
Douglas Edwards thinks he knows what comes next: comics on mobile devices. Mr. Edwards is chief executive of Uclick, the digital arm of the media company Andrews McMeel Universal. Another division of the company is Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes “Garfield,” “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Doonesbury,” among others.
In the last two months, Uclick has placed several bets on the iPhone, which Mr. Edwards says is a good platform for comics because it has a relatively large screen that makes text easier to read. Uclick sells comics-themed wallpaper and animations for cellphones. In November, the company began selling graphic novels on iTunes.
Last week, Andrews McMeel Universal introduced a new version of its free GoComics Web site, optimized for the iPhone. GoComics has many of the same features as Comics.com, as well as a pay-to-post area for emerging cartoonists called Comics Sherpa. Mr. Edwards says GoComics is profitable but declines to give specific figures.
Cartoonists are not waiting for the syndicates to develop new business models. They are posting to free sites like Comic Genesis and Webcomics Nation. Some Web comics, like “The Argyle Sweater” by Scott Hilburn, have been picked up for syndication, but that is unusual. Even more rarely, a Web comic might attract a large following at a stand-alone site; such is the case with “Penny Arcade,” a video gaming strip.
Cartoonists are also experimenting with color, animation, sound and novel distribution methods.
Garfield.com allows fans of Jim Davis’s strip to send cards via e-mail, play online games and download screen savers. Visitors to Dilbert.com can download widgets for their Web pages or replace the punch lines of the strip’s creator, Scott Adams, with their own. The site also features 30-second animated strips produced by RingTales, based in Santa Monica, Calif., which animates and distributes New Yorker cartoons. “Peanuts” motion comics — essentially, short cartoons based on comic strips — are available on iTunes.
The creators of the comic strip “Zits,” which is syndicated by King Features, are working with Jantze Studios in San Anselmo, Calif. , to develop “audio comics,” in which a camera pans over a strip while actors read the text.
Mr. Pastis, who recently created a Facebook page for “Pearls Before Swine” and is in talks about animating the strip, says it is challenging to appear simultaneously in newspaper comics pages, which have what he calls a “1950s sensibility,” and in a media universe where the younger readers he wants to attract can download episodes of “South Park” to their iPods.
Mr. Pastis says he must embrace the balancing act. “Being known now means being known in a number of different formats,” he says, adding that one has to go where the readers are.
But Brian Walker, a member of the creative team behind the comics “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois” — both syndicated by King Features and created by Mr. Walker’s father, Mort Walker — warns that too much exposure “can take away from the strip itself.” If a comic’s characters are everywhere, he asks, why bother reading the newspaper strip?
And Mr. Walker, who is also a comics historian, believes that comics are best appreciated on paper. He likens reading a comic on a screen to watching a movie on an iPod: the general idea comes through, but some of the essential artistry is lost.
In print, the comics are as much a part of many people’s morning routines as a cup of coffee. The question now is whether daily comics can make a jump to mass electronic distribution and a younger readership — or whether they will be tossed aside like yesterday’s news.
New York Times Co November Ad Revenue Falls 20 Pct
The New York Times Co's (NYT.N) November advertising revenue fell 20 percent, the company said on Wednesday, illustrating how the financial crisis is aggravating dizzying revenue declines at U.S. newspapers.
Ad revenue at the publisher's New York Times Media Group, which includes the Times newspaper, fell 21.2 percent from a year earlier because of a drop in real estate and jobs classified advertising.
Studio entertainment, automotive, book and financial services ads also were weak, the Times said in a statement.
The New England unit, which includes The Boston Globe newspaper, as well as the group representing its other U.S. papers, also fell.
Total company revenue fell 13.9 percent.
Most publicly traded newspaper publishers release monthly numbers because Wall Street scrutinizes them for sometimes minute changes, and their stocks often can rise or fall by significant amounts as a result.
For the Times, the numbers are important because it is trying to meet its 2009 debt obligations and reduce borrowing. At the same time, it is trying to save money as the newspaper business worsens.
Privately held Tribune Co earlier this month filed for bankruptcy and Journal Register Co (JRCO.PK) has filed a forbearance agreement with its lenders as it restructures. AH Belo Corp (AHC.N) and McClatchy Co (MNI.N) have amended their debt terms with lenders to avoid edging closer to violating their agreements.
The Times is considering selling some of its properties, but has not yet said which ones.
Internet ad revenue, long a source of hope among newspaper publishers battered by falling print ad sales and circulation, dropped 4 percent in the news media group. That reflects a decline in online jobs and real estate ads.
For the first 11 months of the year, Internet ad revenue in the news media group is up 10.9 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.
At About.com, the online encyclopedia that the Times owns, ad revenue fell 3.5 percent. So far this year, ad revenue is up 12.9 percent compared with last year.
New York Times shares fell 34 cents, or 5.37 percent, to $5.99 on the New York Stock Exchange. (Reporting by Robert MacMillan; Editing by Derek Caney)
U.S. Not Ready for Cyber Attack
The United States is unprepared for a major hostile attack against vital computer networks, government and industry officials said on Thursday after participating in a two-day "cyberwar" simulation.
The game involved 230 representatives of government defense and security agencies, private companies and civil groups. It revealed flaws in leadership, planning, communications and other issues, participants said.
The exercise comes almost a year after President George W. Bush launched a cybersecurity initiative which officials said has helped shore up U.S. computer defenses but still falls short.
"There isn't a response or a game plan," said senior vice president Mark Gerencser of the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting service, which ran the simulation. "There isn't really anybody in charge," he told reporters afterward.
Democratic U.S. Rep. James Langevin of Rhode Island, who chairs the homeland security subcommittee on cybersecurity, said: "We're way behind where we need to be now."
Dire consequences of a successful attack could include failure of banking or national electrical systems, he said.
"This is equivalent in my mind to before September 11 ... we were awakened to the threat on the morning after September 11."
Officials cited attacks by Russia sympathizers on Estonia and Georgia as examples of modern cyberwarfare, and said U.S. businesses and government offices have faced intrusions and attacks.
Billions of dollars must be spent by both government and industry to improve security, said U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the Democratic chairman of the intelligence subcommittee on technical intelligence.
The war game simulated a dramatic surge in computer attacks at a time of economic vulnerability, and required participants to find ways to mitigate the attacks -- using real-life knowledge of tactics and procedures where they work.
It was the broadest such exercise in terms of representation across government agencies and industrial sectors, officials said.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, addressing the participants at the end of the exercise, predicted cyberattacks will become a routine warfare tactic to degrade command systems before a traditional attack. That is in addition to threats posed by criminal or terrorist attackers.
International law and military doctrines need to be updated to deal with computer attacks, Chertoff said.
"We know that if someone shoots missiles at us, they're going to get a certain kind of response. What happens if it comes over the Internet?," he said.
Chertoff and Gerencser expressed caution over suggestions earlier this month calling for the appointment of a White House "cybersecurity czar" to oversee efforts. But Ruppersberger disagreed. One person was needed to take charge of efforts and to secure the president's ear, he said.
Ruppersberger said people close to president-elect Barack Obama's transition team have convinced him that Obama understands the importance of bolstering cybersecurity.
(Reporting by Randall Mikkelsen, editing by Anthony Boadle)
Into a New Year, Slowly Pounding the Gates
The distributed but clearly coordinated bruteforcers are still at it. How long until they reach the end of the alphabet? And why are they staying away from my OpenBSD machines? Are we seeing the contours of a controlling intelligence?
As large parts of the Western world prepares for the holidays, the swarm of little robots that started trying to pry open the doors to my machines some weeks back are still at it. As far as we can tell, the coordinated attempts started some time in early November or perhaps late October (we don't keep logs around for long enough to be sure), with an alphabetic progression that has now progressed to somewere into the os. The complete listing from the time I started noticing up to the time I started writing this column can be found here.
I've written about this before, and in fact one of those columns was slashdotted, a pleasant surprise to me and a cause of some excitement among my colleagues at FreeCode.
After writing that article, I did some further research and found out that a precursor to what we are seeing now was observed as early as May 2008, as described in an Ars Technica article published at the time. That article also reveals, via Linuxtoday, that yours truly was among the many who failed to understand the problem, at least for a while. Then again, maybe actual log excerpts would have helped.
The problem, such as it is, seems to be that a somebody who herds a botnet has decided that the laws of big numbers favors those who keep trying for long enough. User names and passwords are far generally far enough from random that if you are allowed to go on for long enough, you will sooner or later manage to guess a correct combination of username and password and get access to a machine somewhere.
Sysadmins have been seeing bruteforce attacks for years. The traditional brute force attack would be a rapid succession of login attempts from one host, and usable countermeasures were devised in short order. My favorite of course involves PF, and the description of how to thwart traditional bruteforcers is one of the more popular pages in my PF tutorial.
The distributed, slow bruteforcers are different. For one, the login attempts from each host out in the cloud are spaced far enough apart in time that intrusion attmpt detectors will not trigger. Next, it takes a keen eye to spot the common thread in the attempts spaced up to a number of minutes apart: a monotonously alphabetic progression of user names, with attempts coming in from different hosts. Some number of attemtps at a specific user name, before the cloud moves on the next one, in alphabetic order.
During the period we have been observing the slow brute activity, a total of 695 hosts have been involved. A total of 665 hosts made unsuccessful attempts at authenticating at the hosts we are observing during November, while the number for December so far is 346. The typical number of attempts per user name has decreased, too, from a typical ten do fifteen during the early days down to between one and four during the last couple of weeks.
I thought at first that the decrease in activity was just an indicator that compromised hosts were getting cleaned up, but my colleague Egil Möller was the first to suggest that since we know the attempts are coordinated, it is not too far fetched to assume that the controlling system measures the rates of success for each of the chosen targets and allocates resources accordingly.
If Egil's assumption is right, we are seeing the bad guys adapting. My systems do not run any services they do not need to, and apparently all attempts at gaining access have been futile so far. So, the controlling system shifts resources to elsewhere, even if the access attempts do not stop entirely. Come to think of it, I'm not seeing any attempts at all on my OpenBSD systems, so it is possible to speculate that whoever is behind this phenomenon has decided that OpenBSD systems are hardened enough to begin with and usually run by compentent paranoids as to be useless as targets. That would be a comforting thought at the end of a long and sometimes trying year.
Speaking of the new year, look for exciting announcements coming from FreeCode. We're working on some cool things. And with a bit of luck, I might run into you at one conference or the other during the coming year.
Happy holidays to everyone.
Local Teens Claim Pranks on County's Speed Cams
As a prank, students from local high schools have been taking advantage of the county's Speed Camera Program in order to exact revenge on people who they believe have wronged them in the past, including other students and even teachers.
Students from Richard Montgomery High School dubbed the prank the Speed Camera "Pimping" game, according to a parent of a student enrolled at one of the high schools.
Originating from Wootton High School, the parent said, students duplicate the license plates by printing plate numbers on glossy photo paper, using fonts from certain websites that "mimic" those on Maryland license plates. They tape the duplicate plate over the existing plate on the back of their car and purposefully speed through a speed camera, the parent said. The victim then receives a citation in the mail days later.
Students are even obtaining vehicles from their friends that are similar or identical to the make and model of the car owned by the targeted victim, according to the parent.
"This game is very disturbing," the parent said. "Especially since unsuspecting parents will also be victimized through receipt of unwarranted photo speed tickets.
The parent said that "our civil rights are exploited," and the entire premise behind the Speed Camera Program is called into question as a result of the growing this fad among students.
The Speed Camera Program was implemented in March of this year and used for the purpose of reducing traffic and pedestrian collisions in the county. Cameras are located in residential areas and school zones where the posted speed limit is 35 miles per hour or lower. A $40 citation is mailed to the owner of the car for violating the speed limit in these areas.
The Montgomery County Police said they have not seen or heard of this prank occurring but said they will keep an eye out for people committing the crime.
"I hope the public at large will complain loudly enough that local Montgomery County government officials will change their policy of using these cameras for monetary gain," the parent said. "The practice of sending speeding tickets to faceless recipients without any type of verification is unwarranted and an exploitation of our rights."
Edward Owusu, Assistant Principal at Wootton High School, said that he heard of local students pulling the prank when the school received a call from a parent informing them of its occurrence. "I have not heard of this happening among students at Wootton," Osuwu said. "It is unfortunate that kids have a lot of time on their hands that they can think of doing such a thing."
Montgomery County Council President Phil Andrews said that the issue is troubling in several respects. "I am concerned that someone could get hurt, first of all, because they are speeding in areas where they know speeding is a problem," he said.
Andrews also said that this could hurt the integrity of the Speed Camera Program. "It will cause potential problems for the Speed Camera Program in terms of the confidence in it," he said.
He said he is glad someone caught it before it becomes more widespread and he said he hopes that the word get out to the people participating in this that there will be consequences.
"Smart" Surveillance System May Tag Suspicious or Lost People
Engineers here are developing a computerized surveillance system that, when completed, will attempt to recognize whether a person on the street is acting suspiciously or appears to be lost.
Intelligent video cameras, large video screens, and geo-referencing software are among the technologies that will soon be available to law enforcement and security agencies.
In the recent Proceedings of the 2008 IEEE Conference on Advanced Video and Signal Based Surveillance, James W. Davis and doctoral student Karthik Sankaranarayanan report that they've completed the first three phases of the project: they have one software algorithm that creates a wide-angle video panorama of a street scene, another that maps the panorama onto a high-resolution aerial image of the scene, and a method for actively tracking a selected target.
The ultimate goal is a networked system of “smart” video cameras that will let surveillance officers observe a wide area quickly and efficiently. Computers will carry much of the workload.
"In my lab, we've always tried to develop technologies that would improve officers' situational awareness, and now we want to give that same kind of awareness to computers," said Davis, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at Ohio State University.
The research isn't meant to gather specific information about individuals, he explained.
"In our research, we care what you do, not who you are. We aim to analyze and model the behavior patterns of people and vehicles moving through the scene, rather than attempting to determine the identity of people. We are trying to automatically learn what typical activity patterns exist in the monitored area, and then have the system look for atypical patterns that may signal a person of interest -- perhaps someone engaging in nefarious behavior or a person in need of help."
The first piece of software expands the small field of view that traditional pan-tilt-zoom security cameras offer.
When surveillance operators look through one of these video cameras, they get only a tiny image -- what some refer to as a "soda straw" view of the world. As they move the camera around, they can easily lose a sense of where they are looking within a larger context.
The Ohio State software takes a series of snapshots from every direction within a camera's field of view, and combines them into a seamless panorama.
Commercially available software can turn overlapping photographs into a flat panorama, Davis explained. But this new software creates a 360-degree high-resolution view of a camera's whole viewspace, as if someone were looking at the entire scene at once. The view resembles that of a large fish-eye lens.
The fish-eye view isn't a live video image; it takes a few minutes to produce. But once it's displayed on a computer screen, operators can click a mouse anywhere within it, and the camera will pan and tilt to that location for a live shot.
Or, they could draw a line on the screen, and the camera will orient along that particular route -- down a certain street, for instance. Davis and his team are also looking to add touch-screen capability to the system.
A second piece of software maps locations within the fish-eye view onto an aerial map of the scene, such as a detailed Google map. A computer can use this information to calculate where the viewspaces of all the security cameras in an area overlap. Then it can determine the geo-referenced coordinates -- latitude and longitude -- of each ground pixel in the panorama image.
In the third software component, the combination map/panorama is used for tracking. As a person walks across a scene, the computer can calculate exactly where the person is on the panorama and aerial map. That information can then be used to instruct a camera to follow him or her automatically using the camera’s pan-and-tilt control. With this system, it will be possible for the computer to “hand-off” the tracking task between cameras as the person moves in and out of view of different cameras.
"That's the advantage of linking all the cameras together in one system -- you could follow a person's trajectory seamlessly," Davis said.
His team is now working on the next step in the research: determining who should be followed.
The system won't rely on traditional profiling methods, he said. A person's race or sex or general appearance won't matter. What will matter is where the person goes, and what they do.
"If you're doing something strange, we want to be able to detect that, and figure out what's going on," he said.
To first determine what constitutes normal behavior, they plan to follow the paths of many people who walk through a particular scene over a long period of time. A line tracing each person's trajectory will be saved to a database.
"You can imagine that over a few months, you're going to start to pick up where people tend to go at certain times of day -- trends," he said.
People who stop in an unusual spot or leave behind an object like a package or book bag might be considered suspicious by law enforcement.
But Davis has always wanted to see if this technology could find lost or confused people. He suspects that it can, since he can easily pick out lost people himself, while he watches video footage from the experimental camera system that surrounds his building at Ohio State.
It never fails -- during the first week of fall quarter, as most students hurry directly to class, some will circle the space between buildings. They'll stop, maybe look around, and turn back and forth a lot.
"Humans can pick out a lost person really well," he said. "I believe you could build an algorithm that would also be able to do it."
He's now looking into the possibility of deploying a large test system around the state of Ohio using their research. Here law enforcement could link video cameras around the major cities, map video panoramas to publicly available aerial maps (such as those maintained by the Ohio Geographically Referenced Information Program), and use their software to provide a higher level of “location awareness” for surveillance.
Three Ohio State students are currently working on this project. Doctoral student Karthik Sankaranarayanan is funded by the National Science Foundation. And two undergraduate students -- Matthew Nedrich and Karl Salva -- are funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory.
State Files Claim Against Texas Firm
Company should repay money spent to fix machines, Md. says
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler filed a claim against Premier Election Solutions to recover $8.5 million spent by the state to fix problems with the company's touch-screen voting machines.
The claim against Texas-based Premier, formerly Diebold, alleges that state elections officials were forced to spend millions of dollars to address a host of security flaws in the machines from 2003 through the November election.
Many of the problems could have compromised the integrity of the election had they not been fixed, officials said. Now the state wants its money back.
"The Board of Elections took the position that they should fix the system first and worry about the payments later," said Austin Schlick, the attorney general's chief of litigation. "In Maryland, we did things over and above what any other state has done" to ensure a smooth election, he said.
Maryland plans to withhold payment of approximately $3.5 million it owes Premier for preparations for the 2008 election until the matter is resolved, Schlick said.
Premier is disputing the allegation, saying the company is "puzzled by the timing and vagueness" of the action and calling it "inaccurate and unfounded."
"Maryland just completed one of the smoothest elections in the state's history," Premier President Dave Byrd said in a statement. The claim "is based on events that occurred five or more years ago," he said.
The Maryland Board of Contract Appeals, an independent entity that resolves disputes between vendors and state agencies, will consider the claim.
The dispute comes as Maryland and Virginia prepare to scrap the electronic voting systems they bought after the 2000 presidential election. The machines, which have cost Maryland $65 million, were a state-of-the-art answer to the paper ballots that were seen as unreliable in Florida in 2000. Now, paper ballots read by optical scan machines are considered more reliable than the touch-screen ones, which officials and lawmakers have concluded could crash or be hacked into.
Several states, including Ohio and California, are in legal disputes with Premier over security issues. Maryland contracted with Diebold in 2001. But a few years later, the claim alleges, security problems surfaced and the state paid to fix them based on the advice of independent experts.
For example, the machines lacked a seal to prevent someone from tampering with the voting software, and the Board of Elections spent $1 million on equipment and staff to make sure that software fixes made by the company were done properly, Schlick said.
Last.fm Talks With DailyTech About Operations, Future
Tom Corelis chats with last.fm's Richard Jones
(The following article is the result of joint collaboration between DailyTech, Last.fm, and Sun Microsystems.)
What’s it like to run what is perhaps the largest repository of information on the music people listen to? DailyTech recently had the opportunity to sit down with Last.fm cofounder Richard Jones to talk about operations, Last.fm’s future plans, and the challenges of cleaning up millions of misspelled artist names.
Last.fm is a music portal with impressively large repository of information on music, musicians, and the habits of those that listen to them. It originally started out as two projects: Audioscrobbler, which allowed users to chart their music-listening habits through a media-player plugin, and Last.fm, an internet radio station and music community site.
After working together closely for some time, Audioscrobbler and Last.fm joined forced and moved into the same East London, UK-based office. In 2007 CBS purchased Last.fm for £140 million, keeping current management in place and allowing the site to continue with its own identity.
Sitting atop a Mountain of Data
Last.fm users’ listening data, the size of which numbers into the hundreds of terabytes, is Last.fm’s “greatest asset,” says Jones – and playing with that data is one of the most fun things about working at the company.
“There’s so much knowledge and so many things that you can extract from that database,” he says. “We’re always looking at it in different ways and always sort of thinking, ‘What happened if we tried this, or what happened if we tried that?’, and we can actually go back to the raw data and runs some numbers and come up with some other ideas.”
As information from the Audioscrobbler plugin reports song names and artists as they’re entered in users’ music tags, dealing with all the different variations and spellings for a single artist or song is one of Last.fm’s “biggest challenges”. Staying on top of the so-called cleanliness problem proves is an important, but ultimately never-ending battle: “For everything we fix, another 10,000 people scrobble the song with the wrong spelling,” says Jones.
To that end, Last.fm says it recently added music fingerprinting to the data that Audioscrobbler submits: in addition to the text names of music, the scrobbler now reports an audio fingerprint which has, according to Jones, provided immense assistance in helping to clean up user-submitted data.
“It is a huge challenge; the common numbers are something like 300 million different tracks that we’ve recorded (that’s in tons of different spellings), and about 20 million different artists – but obviously not all of those are valid,” says Jones. “That’s the challenge: we still haven’t quite answered the question of how many unique artists there really are – there’s obviously much less than what we actually have because of all the misspellings. It’s an ongoing problem and it will never be solved, because there’s always new music being released as well and so you have to constantly keep updating the system.”
Power-Sipping Servers to Run it All
Powering the site’s massive number-crunching and storage requirements is a server farm of roughly 350 to 400 machines, consisting mostly of off-the-shelf Intel and AMD hardware. Finding adequate amounts of electricity to power the site’s growth is increasingly difficult, says Jones, and to that end he’s switched from local suppliers for his server hardware to a more power-efficient blade architecture form Sun Microsystems.
“We just got some new low-power blades that we’ve put in to do web serving, and our main database – with which we use PostgreSQL – is also on Sun hardware,” says Jones. “Sun seems to make a good range of servers that are quite conscious on the power requirements.”
Last.fm’s controversial “Recently listened tracks” feature
One of Last.fm’s more controversial features is its ability to display music that a user is listening to nearly real-time: songs appear in a profile’s “recently listened tracks” list seconds after they’re submitted. There are a number of privacy concerns over such a feature: bosses checking up on employees, ex boy/girlfriends stalking former partners, or people just checking to see if someone’s at their computer.
The feature’s been with Audioscrobbler since the very beginning, says Jones, and despite privacy concerns the “recently listened tracks” is still one of the site’s “most popular features that people actually talk about.”
“Some people are a bit concerned about it, but part of our service is to broadcast your music tastes to the world. So it’s [a big part] part of what we do: [users are] actually saying to the world, ‘this is what I am listening to right now,’ and Last.fm wouldn’t be the same without it.”
That being said, Last.fm this year rolled out the ability to hide all real-time data on a user’s profile – so those with privacy concerns can time-delay the world’s view of their listening habits.
One particularly interesting side-effect of the service is in the case of stolen laptops: “We get emails once or twice a month saying, ‘my laptop was stolen, and I can see the person who stole it is playing music on my iTunes right now,’ and then we have actually helped the police track down people’s laptops … from the scrobbling feed on their account.”
“We don’t make a point of logging the IP address,” he says, “but when [thefts have] happened we put a watch on the account, allowing us to collect the IP address the next time it’s used.”
While it’s not really the intended use of the service, says Jones, thieves listening to music on an Audioscrobbler-powered media player have helped police in the U.S., UK, and other countries track down users’ stolen laptops.
To Be Continued…
A full transcript of the interview, which includes hints at Last.fm’s future plans, insight into how it aggregates user submissions, and some behind-the-scenes thoughts on its controversial July redesign, will appear within the next few days. Stay tuned…
Thanks for the Memory: the Story of Storage
The history of computer storage is littered with bizarre ideas
In an age when RAM is measured in gigabytes and disk space is measured in terabytes, it's hard to imagine a time when storage had to be built by hand and every bit was sacred.
But the history of computers is also the story of our ability to store data in myriad forms.
It's arguable that the rapid development from early RAM and permanent storage devices accelerated the development of computer technology as much as the introduction of the transistor did for CPU speeds.
Initially, however, computers didn't have memories as we would recognise them.
When the iconic Manchester Baby computer first ran in 1948, it was revolutionary because it stored its programs in the form of RAM. It sounds obvious now, but if you wanted to run a fresh program on a computer at the time, weeks of rewiring were usually required to make it possible. Baby changed all that. Now you could enter and run new programs in a matter of hours.
Baby's amazing ability was down to an ingenious storage device called the Williams Tube. The memory worked on the principle that when a beam of electrons was fired down a vacuum tube and hit a phosphorescent coating at the other end, small static charges built up at the points where the beam hit the phosphor.
A set of pickup plates in front of the coating then detected the charges. However, because the charges faded quickly, a refresh circuit needed to read which bits were set and use the electron beam to refresh them every few milliseconds. Williams Tubes could store around 1Kb and, although they sound cumbersome, have a modern parallel in today's DRAM chips. These work by storing tiny electrical charges in microscopic capacitors that are topped up every few microseconds.
During the post-war years, the Americans also used phosphor dots to store data. Encouraged by the Institute for Advanced Study's computing pioneer John von Neumann, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) began work on its Selectron tube in 1946.
This space age device was about the size of a child's forearm and, with a cathode running up the middle, was packed with electronics. Different models could store from 256 to 4,096 bits of data on individual phosphor dots. The 256-bit Selectron was projected to cost about $500 to build, and it was both faster and more reliable than the Williams Tube.
However, the Selectron was complex to make and expensive to produce, so engineers began to develop other weird and wonderful forms of memory. Delay lines – the invention of computer pioneer J Presper Eckert – must rank among the strangest.
The idea was to convert individual bits into mechanical vibrations and send these one by one through a dense medium – such as a tank of mercury – so that they travelled relatively slowly. When each vibration reached the other end, a piezoelectric crystal picked it up, converted it back into an electrical impulse and sent it back to the start again. Delay-line memory was a refreshable memory, and as opposed to modern RAM, it was serial access.
To access a certain bit in a delay-line memory, the computer had to wait a few milliseconds until the relevant vibration reached the end of the tank. Delayline memory also required complex equipment to focus the vibrations so that they didn't reflect off the inside walls of the tank and cause interference. Because of this, delay-line memory was too bulky and limited to survive.
Both the Selectron and the Williams Tube were superseded in the market by a far more convenient and cost-effective form of main memory that was about to take the world of computing by storm.
From its introduction in the early 1950s, so-called 'core' memory quickly became the dominant form of technology. Non-volatile and cheap to make, it survived well into the late '70s – even beyond the introduction of DRAM chips.
In a core memory, ferromagnetic rings just a few millimetres across are threaded onto wires running vertically, horizontally and diagonally to form a large mesh. The horizontal and vertical wires are called X and Y respectively, and are used to address individual bits for both reading and writing. The diagonal wires are called 'sense wires'. A current representing the present state of individual bits is induced in these sense wires when the X and Y wires are active.
Magnetising requires a certain amount of electricity, and by supplying only half that power to a single pair of X and Y wires, those surrounding the bit to be read remain unchanged. The problem is that the core being addressed is also overwritten when its bit is read. After reading the bit's value in such a system, it must be restored by a refresh circuit that repeats the addressing procedure and returns the core to its original magnetic state.
Despite this complicated method of storing and retrieving data, early core memory had a read/write cycle time of just six microseconds. A Java applet hosted by the US National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Florida enables you to see the magnetic core memory process in motion: head over to www.tinyurl.com/5w4dcj to take a look at it.
By the time it was finally usurped as the prime RAM technology, core memory access speeds were down to nearly a single microsecond – just 1.2ms. However, the time of core memory was very nearly up. A team at Bell Labs had been developing a revolutionary technology – the transistor – since 1948. 20 years later, that technology would change the face of computing almost overnight.
The first RAM chip
The first commercial transistors were small, cheap and above all, reliable. Transistors soon took over from bulky and unreliable glass valves as the main component of the logic gates and registers in the CPUs of the early 1950s.
They could switch at far higher frequencies than valves – which made for CPUs that could go faster – but took a fraction of the power. However, partly because of the amount of work required to create large memories from umpteen identical transistor-based circuits, it wasn't until 1970 that core memory saw its position as the dominant form of RAM seriously threatened.
It was then that Intel released the first general-purpose commercial DRAM chip: the model 1103. It held just 1,024 bits, but its physical size (about 25mm in length), low-power consumption and reliability changed computing as much as core memory had done in the 1950s. With each bit formed from just one microscopic transistor and capacitor prefabricated into a silicon chip containing thousands of identical component pairings, the 1103 was as simple to make as a microprocessor.
By 1974, the combination of increasingly voluminous DRAM chips and low-cost microprocessors made possible the first mass-produced home computers. Yet again, storage had led the way to increasing global computing power.
The development of main memory is paralleled by the need to store programs, data and results permanently for easy access. Even by the late 1940s, entering all of this data by hand was becoming a serious bottleneck, limiting the amount of work that each new computer could do – even when working 24 hours a day.
As scientists and industrialists began to realise what computers could do for them, problems ranging from calculating an entire payroll on time with 100 per cent accuracy to the fiendishly complex calculations required to make hydrogen weapons all found solutions – but too slowly. After all, computers were growing up during the height of the Cold War.
A technological lag by the West could spell doomsday. Punched cards and paper tape were the most obvious low-tech solutions for data and program input, and they were universally successful. In fact, the original Colossus machines at Bletchley Park used paper tape input to prevent synchronisation problems.
As mainstream computer use exploded, lowly data entry clerks would transfer information from written forms; punching holes into cards and paper tape ready for loading into the computer. The cheapness of this method meant that paper-based storage survived well into the late 1970s. In fact, my first experience of computing at secondary school was punching cards for my O-level Computer Studies assignments and sending them to Manchester University to be loaded into one of its computers.
Punched cards had a unique drawback: each 80-column card corresponded to a single statement, so your finished program was a stack of punched cards. Problems occurred if you dropped or knocked over the stack, which then needed to be put back in order before it could be loaded into the computer's card reader.
Magnetic tape came into use from the early 1950s as a general data-storage medium. Though it was fast, could store far more data than paper tape and was rewriteable, it was still only capable of serial access. This meant that if you wanted to insert a record into the data stored on a tape, you generally read the data on one tape drive and wrote it to a tape mounted on another.
At the appropriate point, you inserted the new record into the data stream. Though a large tape library gave computers access to huge amounts of backing storage, what was also required was a form of storage that didn't waste time waiting for an operator to fetch it from the library, and which was also truly random access.
The first solution was magnetic drum storage, which became available from the mid-1950s. Inside the unit, each drum – which was coated with iron oxide – rotated several thousand times per minute. A row of read-write heads traversed the drum – one for each track – and read or wrote information quickly and at will.
Magnetic drums quickly led to the development of the virtual memory that we still see in use in today's operating systems. Computer manufacturers realised that when a program runs, it doesn't need all of its code or working data in RAM all of the time. Because access to data stored on a drum was fast, RAM could be freed up by copying blocks of memory out onto the drum until the operating system required them. Suddenly, computers could have huge 'virtual' memories and run programs larger than the physical RAM would normally allow.
Into the light
The physical properties of materials have been a fertile ground for computer scientists looking to increase both storage density and speed of data access. Now scientists are beginning to investigate the possibilities of using light as a storage medium in the not-too-distant future.
The data density offered by optical storage dwarfed PC hard disks when the Compact Disc was introduced in 1982. At a time when hard disks still held around 20MB, the first CD-ROMs could store 650MB. Though magnetic disks have since regained the storage crown, optical disks could eclipse them once again. As scientists learn more about how to exploit light's properties, the possibilities for not only storage and communications but also computing itself are becoming increasingly apparent.
Upcoming light-based storage methods easily outstrip the capacity of current hard disks. Holographic techniques, for example, promise optical disks that are able to hold 3.9TB. With research into light-based microprocessors advancing every year, we may finally witness the "white heat of technology" talked of in the 1960s. Back then, no one could have predicted where the story of storage has already led us – and who knows where we'll be in 2050.
SSD Advancements the Final Nail in HDD's Coffin?
Noisy, sluggish HDDs to become a thing of the past
The WD Velociraptor was the fastest drive in PC Format magazine's real-world tests
Accepting change is hard.
It's the same reason old people are disgusted by young people talking loudly on mobile phones and why middle-aged people listen only to Paul Weller records and complain that modern music is 'just banging sounds'.
It's also why the idea of replacing our gaming PCs' hard drives with solid state drives seems like madness. The idea of a glorified memory card being better than several decades of established, reliable mechanical technology? Nonsense?
Unfortunately, the jig is up. The future is coming on quick and the venerable hard drive may not be able to stand against it. Over the last year, solid state storage has quietly established itself as a reliable mainstay in both netbooks like the Eee PC and in high-end laptops. The capacity may still be rock-bottom, but the Windows load times are frighteningly fast.
What's been slower is the crossover to desktops, as it's hard to take a full-size PC with less than 500GB of storage seriously. Now that the technology's a couple of generations along, the sort of speeds an SSD offers are frankly astonishing.
32GB, 64GB or even 128GB may seem like a miserably small amount of space, but bear in mind that Vista and its pagefile only needs about 20GB. That leaves room enough for your most played couple of games plus Office and Photoshop, all of which will enjoy dramatically quicker load times.
The rest of your stuff can lurk on a cheapie half-terabyte secondary hard drive. Soon enough, SSDs themselves will hit that half-terabyte mark, and noisy, sluggish HDDs will be a thing of the past.
That said, two factors keep SSDs from assuming immediate dominance.
First is price – a decent SSD, even a low capacity one, goes for the same amount of money as a mid-range or even high-end graphics card. The sort of component that could revolutionise your PC in other words, while even the best SSD will, realistically speaking, only offer some extra convenience.
That said, if your main system is a laptop and you genuinely use it on the move a lot, a good SSD – especially Intel's wonderful X25 – will dramatically change that system. There'll be far less of a load-up time and the lack of moving parts in a SSD means less battery drain and more sturdiness in your storage medium. The sooner all lappies tote a SSD, the better.
For desktops, though, we're still a few years off SSDs being a necessity. Fortunately, all the SSDs here will slot into either a laptop or a desktop, so long as you've got SATA rather than PATA drive connections.
The second thing to bear in mind is that the technology's still new, so performance can be all over the place. There are a lot of differences between drives, and nothing resembling price standardisation as yet. It's only with the most recent generation that these things have really found their feet, so shop carefully.
While the average speeds the Patriot Warp V.2 and OCZ Core Series demonstrate are spectacular, the exhaustive graphs behind those numbers show an awful lot of fluctuation: random latency spikes and read/write slowdowns meaning sustained, day-to-day performance won't be quite the revelation the numbers suggest.
The laughably expensive Intel X25, by contrast, is a whole lot more constant, generally keeping that incredible 220MB/s read speed sustained rather than wobbling all over the place. It's for precisely that reason that the X25 is so expensive, as Intel's gone to a lot of efforts with the firmware and controller to make it a cut above the rest.
Additionally, while the read times are incredible, generally SSDs write a bit slower than hard drives do, which is worth bearing in mind if you need something for regular large file copying – making system backups, for instance. There are also lifespan problems with many models, especially the more affordable ones.
It's not like hard drives aren't prone to failure after a harrowingly short time, but the price tag on SSDs makes it a bit scarier. Intel's X25 makes a lot of strides on the longevity front and should trade blows with any mechanical hard drive, but be prepared for cheaper SSDs to wear out in a few years.
We're still in the earliest flushes of this tech, so chances are you'll want to upgrade to a faster, higher capacity unit in a year or two anyway.
The hard way
Meanwhile, back in platterland, matters ain't exactly simple, either. For all the cosmetic similarities between drives, a spade is not a spade here. While it's true that the degree of variance in hard drives over the last few years has been nowhere near that of, say, processors and graphics cards, careful shopping is still required.
Capacity – the go-to stat for a great many folk – is only half the story. Space is easy. Space is space, and you can always just add another drive if you need more (so long as your power supply's up to it, anyway). For docs, MP3s and movies, any old drive will do. For games and big apps though, speed matters more than space.
So, if you're shopping for a new hard drive and those are beyond your means, ensure the drive you choose is SATA-II not SATA-I, and has at least a 16MB cache – less than that and you'll be hanging around for a while. WD's Raptor and Velociraptor drives, incidentally, achieve their extra nippiness primarily through their increased rotational speed – 10,000 revolutions per minute (RPM) compared to the standard 7,200RPM.
Many laptops still go even lower than this, opting for 5,400RPM to keep the power consumption down; if you're after a portable gaming machine, a faster HDD is one upgrade well worth making.
And so we come back to change, and the inevitability thereof. SSDs will only get faster as the years roll on, which means the future's not looking bright for the geriatric platter-based drive.
Playing games off the SSDs was a joy, especially when we were trying to join chums already on a TF2 server and every second we weren't yet in the game meant points lost. Going back to playing from a hard drive felt like swapping lightbulbs for candles.
Unfortunately, only those most flush with cash will be able to break out of the dark ages into the enlightened SSD age. For now, olde worlde hard drives, unquestionably, remain the smarter buy, as looking to the bigger-picture, more space is more important to a desktop system than the speed gains SSDs currently offer.
The price of 500GB + SATA II drives are incredibly low these days, and between that and the unbelievably low prices of RAM, upgrading an existing PC is more bargainous than it's ever been.
As soon as the price of SSDs drops, however, they're going to become an essential upgrade. Aside from the ludicrous £400 price tag, the Intel X25 is particularly the most desirable hard drive of all time, though, of course, its slim capacity means it's still only really worthy as a boot drive in its current form.
If it can drop down to around the £150 to £200 mark soon enough it's possible we'll start seeing Intel dominating the storage market, in the same way as it does the processor market. That's a terrifying future monopoly-wise, so hopefully the wealth of competition (mainly from manufacturers best known for RAM, now branching out looking for more revenue streams as memory margins are sliced) will both drive the prices down further and ensure a much wider, healthier range of purchasing options.
Today though, the olden-tech Velociraptor may hit the sweet spot on the price/performance/capacity Venn diagram, but tomorrow SSDs will unquestionably reign supreme.
Study: Female MMO Gamers Five Times More Likely to be Bisexual
If you're a male gamer who has been looking for love in all the wrong places, it might be because you're spending too much time playing MMOs. Or, depending on your fantasy woman, maybe that's exactly what you should be doing. You see, not only is nearly half of the Everquest II gaming population female, but they're apparently much more likely to be bisexual than non-EQ II players, online surveys suggest.
According to no less than 2,400 completed web-based surveys, females account for 40 percent of the EQ II gaming community. The surveys also found that female EQ II players display "an unusually high level of bisexuality," more than five times that of the "general population."
"These are not people who are following strict gender stereotypes," said lead researcher Scott Caplan. "I think what you would find in this population are going to be people who are in other ways less traditional than the majority population."
The respondents received an in-game item in exchange for completing a web-based questionnaire about their gaming habits and lifestyles, which has led some to question to the validy of the results.
Apple Failed To Copyright Mac OS X, Psystar Claims
The charge is the latest in a series of allegations in the ongoing legal spat between the clone maker and Apple.
Mac clone manufacturer Psystar said that Apple's copyright suit against it should be dismissed because Apple has never filed for copyright protection for its Mac OS X operating system with the U.S. Copyright Office, according to court papers.
Apple "is prohibited from bringing action against Psystar for the alleged infringement of one or more of the plaintiff's copyrights for failure to register said copyrights with the copyright office as required" by law, Psystar claims.
The stunning claim, if true, could undermine Apple's ability to restrict third parties, such as Psystar, from selling clones that run the Mac OS on generic PC hardware. InformationWeek was not immediately able to verify the claim.
Psystar made the allegation in documents filed last week in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, as part of its response to Apple's latest charges of copyright infringement.
Psystar also claimed that Apple's Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" operating system contains undocumented code designed to render inoperable personal computers that aren't running on Apple-approved hardware.
Psystar claims Apple uses so-called stealthware to protect what Psystar claims is an illegal monopoly in the Mac computing market. Specifically, Psystar contends that OS X runs a startup routine that checks whether the host computer is running on a particular line of Intel dual-core processors that are included in genuine Macs.
Psystar sells unauthorized Mac clones from a nondescript warehouse in a Miami industrial park. Apple sued the company earlier this year for copyright violation. Psystar countersued in response, claiming that Apple's control of the Mac market violates antitrust laws.
Last month, a judge rejected Psystar's counterclaim -- leading Psystar to file revised claims. Psystar is now asking the judge overseeing the case to declare Apple's Mac OS copyrights invalid.
In court filings, Apple has said it believes Psystar is backed by a silent third party that's presumably seeking to enter the Mac market.
Future Shock: Horror Film Is Adding Another Dimension to Fear
Goodbye, torture porn; hello, 3-D?
Horror movies have been one of Hollywood’s most enduring genres, with filmmakers and studio executives regularly coming up with new ways to scare audiences. It was the occult in the 1970s (“The Exorcist”) and psychotic slashers in the 1980s (“Friday the 13th”). More recently, sickening torture (“Hostel”) dominated.
Now, in a shift to make fans of highbrow horror cheer, studios are starting to concede that torture as entertainment has run its course. “Saw,” the franchise built around a killer named Jigsaw, is still going strong, but a glut of torture-themed movies, many of them cheap copycats, has left horror audiences with been-there, seen-that syndrome. The tiring has been visible for over a year in the form of red ink gushing from poorly performing releases like “I Know Who Killed Me,” but studios have been reluctant to move on.
Lionsgate, a studio that has plowed the torture terrain more than anyone, thinks it has come up with a way to breathe life into the struggling horror genre. It involves an old trick. On Jan. 16 the studio will release "My Bloody Valentine 3-D," an extensive remake of the 1981 Canadian cult hit about a bloodthirsty coal miner with a pickax fetish. Lionsgate believes it will be the first three-dimensional horror film to be released theatrically in the United States in more than 20 years.
If “My Bloody Valentine 3D” is a success — and with a modest budget of about $20 million, success is easily within reach — the next big thing in horror could be at hand, said Joe Drake, the co-chief operating officer of Lionsgate and the president of the studio's motion picture group. “We see 3-D horror as financially lucrative and creatively exciting,” he said. “We want to break some new ground here in R-rated fare.”
When 3-D first entered the mass movie market in the 1950s, horror was one of its first stops. “House of Wax” and “Creature From the Black Lagoon” rode the technology to success, but audiences grew weary of those headache-inducing glasses, and studios balked at the high costs and technical challenges. Movies in 3-D became a quirky cinema footnote.
Advances in digital technology and more comfortable glasses — not to mention a young adult audience that doesn’t remember the 3-D horror movies of the past — have studios jumping back on the 3-D bandwagon. Family entertainment is leading the charge, with DreamWorks Animation and the Walt Disney Company set to unleash a blizzard of 3-D pictures over the next year. But the broader market is following fast.
“If there was ever a moment when horror needed to be reinvented, this is it,” said Jeanine Basinger, chairwoman of film studies at Wesleyan University. “You can only work one side of the horror street for so long before you have to cross to the other side and explore something new.”
For studios like Lionsgate that focus almost exclusively on young moviegoers, the rush to 3-D technology is an attempt to adapt to the demands of the texting-while-driving-while-eating crowd. Teenagers and young adults, crucial to the health of movie exhibition, are increasingly unaccustomed to sitting still for two hours in a theater, studio executives say.
“I was excited to pursue the 3-D element because it feels really fresh and unique,” Patrick Lussier, who directed the “My Bloody Valentine” remake, said. “It’s visually stunning and a new way for this audience to experience a film but isn’t painful in the way some of the old 3-D films were, where they just rammed stuff in the audience’s face.”
Mr. Lussier and Lionsgate insist that they aren’t using 3-D as a gimmick. Instead, they say the technology is a way to enhance the story and provide visual depth. That doesn’t mean audience members won’t have to dodge a few pickaxes, however. (Hold the popcorn carefully.)
Working with 3-D poses unusual challenges for the horror genre. First, the filming process requires a lot of light, which is not especially conducive to creating spooky basements and lurking shadows.
Marketing is also a challenge. The 3-D films that have been released in theaters over the last six months have all been geared to families — like the critically acclaimed “Bolt” — so Lionsgate has had limited opportunities to show the “Bloody Valentine 3D” trailer.
Like all studios experimenting with 3-D, Lionsgate is struggling with a shortage of theaters equipped to project the work. By the release date for “My Bloody Valentine 3D,” Lionsgate will have only 900 3-D screens available, so it will show a 2-D version of the movie on about 1,600 screens.
“My Bloody Valentine 3D” is set in a blue-collar mining town called Harmony, 10 years after a miner brutally murdered 22 people with a pickax before being killed. Another coal miner inadvertently responsible for the killings (Jensen Ackles from television’s “Supernatural”) returns to make amends. He runs into an old flame (Jaime King of “Sin City”) married to the town sheriff (Kerr Smith), as well as a new spate of pickax murders. Mr. Lussier describes the killer as “half Norman Bates, half Darth Vader.”
The picture was primarily shot inside an abandoned Pittsburgh-area mine, a location that Mr. Lussier described as well suited to 3-D. “A tunnel is perfect because you can really use 3-D to convey the feeling of it bending and snaking forward,” he said.
Although Mr. Lussier said he didn’t know exactly how he would use 3-D when he started the film — the script and effects were tweaked as filming progressed — he knew one element that he definitely wanted to avoid.
“We didn’t to make want a film that wallows in torture,” he said. “Enough.”
In the Big Picture, Big-Screen Hopes
“YOU can’t make everyone happy,” a woman says in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Mike Leigh’s film about an irrepressible young teacher named Poppy, played with infectious good will and gurgling laughter by Sally Hawkins. “There’s no harm in trying, is there?” Poppy replies, with a smile as bright and warming as the sun. It is hard to argue with the sun when it beats down on you as relentlessly as Poppy.
And so, dear (and hostile) reader, it is in the admittedly alien spirit of optimism that I offer you my 10 favorite films, and some thoughts about the year in film. Optimism, I should add, perhaps needlessly, does not come naturally to me. Hope is for suckers (or so I believed!) and those who think Carrie really will find her happily-ever-after by marrying Mr. Big. I tend to embrace my inner Caden Cotard, the theater director played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” a grievously underloved film about life and death and every agonized and beautiful thing in between, including art and the scratch-scratch of those who are trying to leave their marks on the world.
Like Caden, I generally don’t see the proverbial glass half empty; I tend to see it drained to the last drop, chewed up and swallowed, jagged shard by shard. For a lot of people both in the movie world and in journalism, this has been the year of eating glass, which is even worse when you know those who have lost their jobs. Not long ago I went to a press screening expecting to be greeted by the publicist handling the film. She never showed because she had been told to stick around the office to wait for the official confirmation that her company had gone belly up. That news, by the way, was delivered by e-mail.
The next day she and I exchanged goodbye e-mail messages, and she thanked me for a review of another movie that she had been representing. “I just wish,” she added, “a good review meant something these days.” I understand what she means, but she was talking as a publicist, as someone for whom the value of a review comes down to whether it can help sell a movie in a fearsomely overcrowded market. But selling movies isn’t the job of the reviewer, which is something I wish some of my colleagues would remember whenever they start moaning about how critics don’t have power anymore. As if making (or breaking) movies were part of the gig. It isn’t, and never should have been.
That doesn’t mean critics don’t advocate and try to nudge (or push) you into theaters. And I do wish more of you had checked out the likes of “Alexandra,” a spooky, ethereally beautiful meditation on war and national identity from the Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, which ushers you into an extraordinary, vivid world unlike any that materialized at the local multiplex. Or “Flight of the Red Balloon,” a tenderly expressive film about childhood and its end from the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, an artist whose camera soars even as his worldview remains grounded in real life. Or “Silent Light,” a rapturous love story set in a northern Mexican Mennonite community from Carlos Reygadas. Or “Paranoid Park,” the one great film from Gus Van Sant to come out this year.
Mr. Van Sant’s other film, of course, is “Milk,” a touching if aesthetically unremarkable biography of Harvey Milk, the assassinated gay rights pioneer. I like “Milk,” which has a strong, showy, often moving performance from Sean Penn as Milk and one gorgeously directed and choreographed sequence — shot by the great cinematographer Harris Savides — in which Josh Brolin, oiled in flop sweat and hair grease as Milk’s killer, Dan White, walks alone through a series of grim institutional corridors that put the killer’s existential isolation and desperate journey into bold visual terms. “Milk” is undeniably moving, but it earns most of its power from its historical resonance and because it holds up a mirror to another charismatic community organizer who rose from the streets on a message of hope.
I wish “Milk” well, because I want Mr. Van Sant, usually one of the most aesthetically venturesome American directors working today, to keep making movies. I’m also rooting for “Milk,” which was made by Focus Features, a specialty division of Universal Studios, because it represents the kind of serious, midsize production that seems most in peril these days. The big studios like being in the big movie business, but it’s rare that art enters the equation as forcefully as it does in “The Dark Knight,” the Christopher Nolan film that earned critical love on its release but is now being shunned by critics’ groups that seem to think complexity, self-conscious contradictions and beauty are exclusive to the art house.
“The Dark Knight” was one of the few good things to come out of Warner Brothers this year. In the spring the studio shut down two of its specialty divisions, Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse, and gutted another of its companies, New Line Cinema. This is bad news for those who lost their jobs and for mainstream American movies of a certain size and provenance. Warner Independent and Picturehouse released some unfortunate titles, but sometimes they were also responsible for the only decent movies to come off the Warner lot, including George Clooney’s intelligent gloss on the showdown between Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy, “Good Night, and Good Luck”; Guillermo del Toro’s eerie wartime fairy tale, “Pan’s Labyrinth”; and Fernando Eimbcke’s low-key, low-budget charmer “Duck Season.”
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that more specialty divisions keep afloat. Without them it’s hard to see how a modern masterwork like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” which was released last year by Paramount Vantage — whose ranks were radically thinned this year — will be made. Over the past few decades the studios siphoned talent from the independent sector, including filmmakers like Mr. Anderson and Mr. Nolan, and went into the art-house business. I have deeply ambivalent feelings about how this incursion affected the independent world (it turned the Sundance Film Festival into a frenzied meat market, among other unfortunate developments), but there’s no question that American mainstream movies have been better for it.
The tough times have been even tougher on nonstudio companies, including the British outfit Tartan Films, which shut down entirely, and ThinkFilm, which teetered on the edge this year and saw the departure of one of its founders, Mark Urman, who headed to a new venture. Despite its woes, ThinkFilm released some solid films this year, including another of my favorites, “Encounters at the End of the World,” in which Werner Herzog goes deep and way down south to the Antarctic only to surface with an elegiac meditation on life and death among creatures great and microscopic. Mr. Herzog dedicated this digitally shot wonderment to his longtime friend, the critic Roger Ebert, who, despite losing his voice to illness, has continued to express his movie love with admirable vigor.
There are glimmers. While independent distributors have taken plenty of hits, veteran outfits like New Yorker Films, which released another of my favorites, Jia Zhang-ke’s “Still Life,” and newcomers like Oscilloscope Pictures, which put out my last (though not least) favorite of the year, Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy,” are keeping the faith. The Week in Review is edited and published by Jack Spratts. When I was in college, I once helped program an entire semester’s worth of attractions just by cherry-picking titles from the New Yorker Films back catalog. The company’s longevity seems something of a miracle, as does the consistent quality of its releases. If nothing else, companies like these offer stubborn proof that there remains a serious audience for the kinds of serious movies that Ms. Reichardt, Mr. Herzog and others keep making against often daunting odds.
At the risk of sounding stoned on hope, I offer the following heresy: The movies are fine. Sometimes they’re great; occasionally they’re magnificent. The movie and news businesses are hurting, true, but any year that brings films like “Still Life” into American theaters — along with “Momma’s Man,” “Reprise,” “Ballast,” “The Class,” “Boarding Gate,” “A Christmas Tale,” “The Duchess of Langeais,” “Gran Torino,” “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29,” “My Winnipeg,” “The Last Mistress,” “The Order of Myths,” “Trouble the Water,” “Frownland,” “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” “Mad Detective,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Che” and “Wall-E,” or rather its first superb 15 minutes (which bear remarkable resemblance to the first 15 minutes of “There Will Be Blood,” though that’s another story) — cannot be deemed a washout.
There is, of course, perverse pleasure in ending the year with an angry rant, as I have proven in the past, if only to myself. But given the clanging of so much bad news, I thought I would try a change of pace. I’m not sure if optimism becomes me, but it sure feels nice. Every year filmmakers from around the world offer us stories filled with grief and tragedy that either feed our souls or rip out another little piece. I tend to fall for movies like these, but I also swoon for those filled with grace and generous sentiments, like “Happy-Go-Lucky,” that suggest that one way to face hard times (and raging driving instructors) is with an open heart and smile. Quickly now: give it a try!
First Feature Film Created Via The Web
Massify, the online collaboration site for film makers, recently reached its goal of creating the first ever fan-created film with the completion of Perkin's 14, a horror flick scheduled to premier January 9 - 15 during Horrorfest III.
Most exciting is the process; from selecting the story to post production and launch, the Massify community was involved in making decisions every step of the way.
Massify, a young startup out of New York, was conceived by Kenneth Woo and Brett Icahn [yes, the son of Carl Icahn] as a network for filmmakers to connect and collaborate.
Earlier this year, Icahn told the New York Times: "Online networks should apply a democratic process to the creation of content, not just the distribution of it."
Similar to MeDeploy, a company we've written about before, Massify provides tools for indie filmmakers. The biggest difference is in the level of community participation. Massify offers members a platform to share ideas with like minded folk with a goal of creating films that the community wants to see. By way of online competitions and community voting, ideas turn into films that Massify and its partner's fund. Perkins' 14 is their first group effort.
Perkins' 14: The First Fan Created Horror Flick
Earlier this year after partnering with After Dark Films, Massify held a competition to find the first film to produce. Three months and 400 pitches later, Massify member Jeremy Donaldson, an aspiring filmmaker from South Carolina and his film Perkins' 14 were declared winners.
The second competition for this film involved asking actors to upload audition videos and members to vote for the semifinalists who would be flown to Los Angeles for screen tests. By June, the casting contest was over, and the actors had been selected:Katherine Pawlak, Josh Davidson, Shayla Beesley, and Trey Farley. The final competition saw Justin Osbourn win the design competition for the official poster for Perkins' 14.
While the premier is still a few weeks away, you can take a look at behind-the-scenes footage and read up on the making of the movie on the new Perkins' 14 Web site. And if you're a filmmaker that wants to avoid jumping through the traditional hoops of the filmmaking business, why not take a look at Massify.
Whether the Massify dream of democratizing filmmaking is successful or not remains to be seen, but, the idea of power flowing in the opposite direction to what Hollywood is used to is just the beginning of this exciting time in media. The Internet generation has arrived and it is clearly a welcome departure from the other forms of traditional media we have become accustomed to.
We've embedded the short trailer below for you to take a look if you're not squeamish, and as always, we'd love to know what you think.
New DVDs: ‘Death Proof’
Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” first appeared in 2007 as a component of “Grindhouse,” an elaborate conceptual project that was meant to evoke a double feature at a decaying downtown movie palace, around 1978. “Grindhouse” flopped, perhaps because the concept was too arcane, too elaborate and too drawn out for the impatient movie audiences of the 21st century. When the film was released to home video, it was broken into its parts: “Planet Terror,” Robert Rodriguez’s enthusiastic but unfocused homage to the grisly horror films of the ’70s, and “Death Proof,” Mr. Tarantino’s take on another, less codified genre of the same period, the car chase movie.
“Death Proof” has now been rereleased in an “extended and unrated” version in the high-definition Blu-ray format. (It remains available in a standard definition too.) Without “Planet Terror,” the movie plays much better, comfortably settling into its unhurried 113-minute running time, the first sign that “Death Proof” has something more on its mind than pastiche. Most of Mr. Tarantino’s genre models have topped out at around 80 minutes; at almost two hours, “Death Proof” looks positively Proustian by comparison, and would certainly have been cut to the bone by any actual distributor of exploitation films in the 1970s.
Mr. Tarantino may be most celebrated for his imaginative explosions of violence, but his greater talent lies in structuring long periods of inaction, in the leisurely construction of dramatic contexts, in sketching large casts of characters and getting them to interact with one another through dialogue that generally has no direct bearing on the plot.
At heart, he’s a restless experimenter with narrative form: his first feature, “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), is a heist picture that leaves out the heist, concentrating instead on two large movements in which the gang comes together and then comes apart. “Pulp Fiction” (1994) splices four separate stories into a narrative Möbius strip without a beginning or end. And the two-part “Kill Bill” (2003-4) is an epic built on endless digressions, as Mr. Tarantino keeps stepping back to add a little more background to an otherwise linear tale of transgression and revenge.
“Death Proof” breaks down into two sections of about equal length, in which nearly the same things happen: young women in a group (on a bar crawl through Austin, Tex., in the first half; driving through the Tennessee countryside in the second) have an extravagantly good time in one another’s company, while a threatening male figure watches them from the sidelines. He’s Stuntman Mike (a crafty, layered performance by Kurt Russell), a pompadoured refugee from the ’70s who claims to have performed stunt work on several television series. (Their titles mean nothing to the young people he meets.)
Mike now tools around in a steel-reinforced crash car — it’s “death proof,” he claims — painted in dusty black primer with a skull stenciled on its hood. “It’s my mom’s car,” he says.
Mike is a self-described representative of the “all or nothing days” before digital effects, when stunts were real (supposedly) and lives were on the line, and at first Mr. Tarantino seems to be treating him as a heroic figure from a more authentic past. (Mike does a mean John Wayne impression.) But Mike turns out to be an adrenaline-addicted sex killer who uses his car as a weapon, first to terrorize his victims and then to consummate his desire by driving his car into theirs, head-on.
He gets what he wants with the first group of women, but 14 months later, with the second group, things don’t go as planned. Something new has been added in the broad-shouldered figure of a stuntwoman (Zoë Bell, the New Zealand-born Amazon who doubled for Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill”). She not only shares Mike’s adrenaline addiction, but also does him one better.
The film’s two parts face each other like the panels of a diptych. On one side is a historical vision of macho Mike triumphant, rendered in period style. (The image has been distressed with added speckles and scratches, to suggest a damaged print, and the color is thin and brackish, to suggest the hasty lab work of a low-budget release.) The opposing panel, by contrast, is blemish-free, with deeply saturated colors, suggesting a scene very much of the present, with a fearless new breed of women at its center. (I’m not sure what to make of a brief passage when the image, for no apparent reason, shifts into pristine black and white.)
But Mr. Tarantino resists easy ideological readings, confounding politics with visual pleasure (how beautiful these high-speed chases and slow-motion collisions are) and confounding pleasure with revulsion (and how appalling the consequences, particularly when enhanced, as they are in the unrated version, by some horribly graphic special effects). Zoë — the name of the character as well as of the performer — may represent an ideal of female empowerment, but she’s also a domineering figure of male fantasy, right out of a Russ Meyer movie (the 1965 “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!,” to be exact).
Further context for Mr. Tarantino’s appropriations is provided by the newly released fourth volume of Synapse Films’ “42nd Street Forever” series, a compilation of 48 trailers for exploitation films of the ’70s and ’80s. Proudly and appropriately unrestored, these battered and faded previews suggest the wide range of product that slipped in and out of the theaters and drive-ins of the period, largely unnoticed by the critical establishment.
Three minutes may be about all you need to see of a film like Antonio Margheriti’s hallucinatory Italian import “Yor, the Hunter From the Future” or Ulli Lommel’s klutzy-campy slasher film “The Boogeyman.” But the collection also offers teasing glimpses of genuine accomplishments, like Jonathan Demme’s socially conscious revenge film “Fighting Mad,” John Hancock’s inventive supernatural thriller “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death,” and Joseph Ruben’s elegantly filmed high school drama “Our Winning Season.” As Mr. Tarantino continually reminds us, what’s trash for one filmmaker can be gold for another.
(“Death Proof: Extended and Unrated,” Genius Products, Blu-ray, $29.95; standard-definition, $14.95; not rated. “42nd Street Forever: Volume 4,” Synapse Films, $19.95, not rated.)
In Move to Digital TV, Confusion Is in the Air
Eric A. Taub
The Federal Communications Commission sponsored a Nascar race car as part of its effort to inform Americans that on Feb. 18, television signals transmitted over the air will be transmitted solely in digital format. Old TV sets will no longer work.
It paid $350,000 to emblazon “The Digital TV Transition” and other phrases on a Ford driven by David Gilliland.
So how’s that going? In November, the car crashed during a Nascar race in Phoenix. It was the second crash in as many months.
And how is the digital TV transition going? According to critics, about as well, despite a major marketing campaign that includes nightly ads on TV.
According to surveys conducted by the Consumers Union, a consumer advocacy group that also publishes Consumer Reports magazine, while 90 percent of the nation is aware of the transition, 25 percent mistakenly believe that one must subscribe to cable or satellite after February, and 41 percent think that every TV in a house must have a new converter box, even those that are already connected to cable or satellite.
“We need boots on the ground,” said Joel Kelsey, a Consumers Union policy analyst. Mr. Kelsey advocated armies of people, from firefighters to television industry personnel, going into homes and setting up converter boxes for consumers.
A number of people involved in the switch to digital think the Feb. 17 deadline will leave millions of Americans bewildered when their TVs stop working.
More than 20 million households receive their TV shows using only an antenna, while about 15 million households have at least one TV not connected to cable or satellite, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.
Anyone who gets their TV signal over the air — whether through a rabbit ear antenna on top of the set or an antenna on the roof — will need to buy a digital-to-analog converter box in order to continue getting a signal. Some people may also need a new antenna.
A person can also subscribe to a cable or satellite service or buy a new digital TV. The fear is that those Americans least likely to understand or afford the transition — such as the poor, the elderly and the non-English speaking — will be most affected.
To help reduce the expense of acquiring the converter boxes, which cost about $50 for basic models, consumers can get two government rebate vouchers worth $40 a box. (Available at www.dtv2009.gov or 888-388-2009.)
About 40 million coupons have been requested, but to date 16 million have been redeemed, compared with an estimated 35 million televisions that will lose a signal. Adding to the problem: people who obtained coupons early this year, but never redeemed them, have discovered that they expire after 90 days. They are not allowed to reapply for vouchers (though they could use someone else’s coupon).
“This transition is possibly one of the worst understood consumer education programs in modern times,” said Richard Doherty, an analyst with the Envisioneering Group.
While the government and industry have invested large sums to get the message out, the problem is that the effort is too little and way too late.
“On Feb. 18, there will be a tremendous amount of finger-pointing,” Mr. Doherty said.
With time running short, the government is now urging Americans to request a coupon by the end of the year, assuming that it will take about six weeks to receive the coupon, buy a box and reconfigure the antenna to find the digital signals.
The National Association of Broadcasters has sent two educational outreach trucks across the United States, visiting areas with high over-the-air viewership. The organization has held more than 6,000 educational events to date, said Shermaze Ingram, its senior director of media relations.
Local stations regularly show commercials alerting people to the digital transition. Some stations run the alerts in crawls at the bottom of the screen. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund received a $1.65 million grant, and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging was given $2.7 million to instruct people at community centers and other sites about the need to get a converter box and how to set it up.
The National Association of Broadcasters, which estimated that $1 billion in ads and other marketing efforts have addressed the subject, has volunteered to create a phone bank to handle an estimated one million calls from confused consumers on Feb. 18, and another million in the following days.
Congress has allowed analog stations to stay on the air an additional 30 days to broadcast educational messages about the transition. And the cable TV industry has agreed not to switch some of its channels to a digital tier until March 1, to avoid further confusing consumers about the broadcast switch.
There were problems from the start. Consumers complained on the Consumer Reports Web site that boxes were not available locally before their coupons expired. “Why can’t you reapply for a voucher?” said Mr. Kelsey of Consumers Union. “This is a transition mismanaged from the get-go.”
Mandated by Congress, the expiration feature puts the unused money allocated to the program back into the system to help finance other consumers’ purchases, said Meredith Baker, the deputy assistant secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The program now has enough money to finance the issuance of 56 million coupons.
Those who have their converter boxes have discovered the “cliff effect.” If the over-the-air signal is not strong, the viewer does not receive a fuzzy picture as he might get with a weak analog signal; the viewer gets no picture at all because digital reception is all or nothing. In addition, depending on area, the rabbit ears intended to receive only VHF broadcast channels may need to be replaced with new digital units.
Most portable TVs, the type used by sports fans at the beach and ballpark, will not work after the digital transition.
And on the day of the conversion, consumers will also need to direct their converter box to scan for channels. (If they want an up-to-date electronic program guide, they will need to have the box rescan the channels regularly.)
To make matters worse, the transition date occurs when the weather in most of the country is at its coldest and iciest.
“We’re asking the elderly to go out in the snow to buy a converter box?” Mr. Kelsey said. “All we need on Feb. 18 is to have someone slip off their roof and get injured as they try to set up a new digital antenna.”
For Conservative Radio, It’s a New Dawn, Too
Amid all the pressures on the radio industry, news-talk stations see an opportunity — and his name is Barack Obama.
After eight years of playing defense for President Bush, the conservatives who dominate talk radio are back on offense.
Hours after Mr. Obama’s election, the country’s most popular radio host, Rush Limbaugh, was talking about the “rebirth of principled opposition.”
Sean Hannity, the second highest-rated host, quickly cast his afternoon show as the home of “conservatism in exile.”
It is a lively time to be behind the microphone. One television talker, Joe Scarborough, is starting a radio show. Another, Bill O’Reilly, is ending his.
Several of the supporting actors in this year’s Republican primary are showing interest in the medium, too. Fred Thompson, the “Law & Order” star turned presidential candidate, will begin hosting a two-hour show in March, as the syndicator Westwood One is expected to announce this week. Mr. Thompson’s show would take the place of Mr. O’Reilly’s.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City and a Republican presidential candidate, had been in negotiations with Westwood One for Mr. O’Reilly’s time slot, according to two people with knowledge of the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity because a deal was not struck.
Mike Huckabee, the former Republican presidential candidate who now has a weekend program on the Fox News Channel, is trying radio as well, hosting short segments for ABC Radio beginning Jan. 5. While there are plenty of topics to talk about — and plenty of hosts willing to do the talking — nagging questions about the business remain. A sharp advertising downturn is limiting revenue for stations. And some hosts are worrying about the relevance of talk radio in a digital age.
But radio, at least for now, still acts as a national megaphone for influential voices. This year, news talk ranked as the most popular radio format in the United States, surpassing country music for the first time ever. Forty stations have added news talk in the last year, for a total of 2,064 that use the format, up from about 1,500 a decade ago, according to the trade publication M Street.
That means 2,064 stations need 24 hours of programming every day. Stations with tight budgets increasingly rely on programs from Premiere Radio Networks, ABC Radio Networks and other syndication companies.
Five of the most popular syndicated names in news-talk radio — Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and Laura Ingraham — signed new contracts in the last 12 months, all but guaranteeing that they will be rallying listeners for the duration of Mr. Obama’s four-year term. Mr. Limbaugh’s landmark contract, announced in July, promised a total of $400 million through 2016.
With a Democrat in the White House, “the conservative hosts will have more fun. There’s no doubt about that,” said Gary Schonfeld, the president of network programming for Westwood One.
But will listeners stay tuned? Talk radio usually “becomes a little less popular the year after an election,” said Maja Mijatovic, the vice president and director of national radio for the media buying agency Horizon Media.
However, next year promises to be a unique one, with grim forecasts about the economy and renewed interest in the presidency. Advertisers and syndicators are expecting a busy year because of the incoming administration. “I think people are going to tune in more than ever,” Ms. Mijatovic said.
Premiere Radio, a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications, is projecting a consistent audience from 2008 to 2009 as it signs on advertisers. “There’s more to talk about than there has been in a hundred years,” Charlie Rahilly, the president of Premiere, said. “There is something almost historical in nature in the news every single day.”
Mr. Limbaugh, who is syndicated by Premiere, continues to command a much larger audience than any other radio host. According to Arbitron’s spring 2008 ratings report, he reached 3.58 million listeners during an average quarter-hour, while the No. 2 host, Mr. Hannity, averaged 1.65 million.
A middle tier of radio hosts helps fill the schedules of AM and FM stations. “Because you don’t have a commodity like music to rely upon, it is all up to the host,” said Carl Anderson, the senior vice president for programming and distribution at ABC Radio Networks. “They are on stage by themselves.”
The talk-radio formula that Mr. Limbaugh pioneered two decades ago remains evident on the air today. Syndicators look for hosts who are entertaining, have a point of view and, as Mr. Anderson put it, show an ability to “connect with an audience.”
Ask different syndicators and you will hear different claims about the “fastest-growing hosts” on talk radio. Westwood One cites its “Dennis Miller Show,” which is syndicated in 200 markets and has a comedic bent. ABC Radio cites the rapid rise of its two-year-old “Mark Levin Show,” which now counts 175 affiliates. The shows are a less expensive alternative to the Limbaughs and Hannitys of the industry.
With more stations converting to news-talk formats — perhaps with the hope that live talk cannot be displaced by an iPod the way music can be — the middle tier is where most of the movement is. The conservative commentator Monica Crowley is entering weekday syndication through the Talk Radio Network. The CNN anchor Lou Dobbs is signing new affiliates for a three-hour afternoon show. And Mr. Scarborough, the host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” is hosting a radio version on WABC in New York. ABC Radio plans to syndicate it next year, beginning in Los Angeles at KABC.
Mr. Scarborough, the former Republican congressman, did not enjoy his brief stint with Westwood One in 2005. But his MSNBC morning program, which replaced the TV simulcast of “Imus in the Morning” when Don Imus was fired for using racially charged language in 2007, resembles a radio show and attracted interest from radio networks earlier in the year. Mr. Scarborough expects his program to provide more political balance than some others.
“We have been in an era where you’ve had Rush Limbaugh, followed by a lot of conservative talk show hosts that lacked his talent and sense of humor,” Mr. Scarborough said. “They decided that if they just read Republican talking points, they’d get a big audience. I think that world is coming to an end. You’re going to have to be entertaining like Limbaugh, but also allow people of all political stripes on the show.”
Time will tell whether Mr. Scarborough and his co-host, Mika Brzezinski, can cross over to radio. “So far, I don’t think we’ve seen any TV personalities have success” on radio stations, Ms. Mijatovic said, “only the vice versa.” Indeed, two of the newest stars of TV talk, Mr. Beck, who left CNN for Fox News, and the MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, emerged after years on the radio.
And then there are the politicians who would be radio hosts. Mr. Thompson will start on March 2, replacing Mr. O’Reilly, who has said that he needed to spend more time working on his top-rated Fox News program. (Mr. O’Reilly will continue to record daily “talking points“ segments for Westwood One affiliates.)
The syndicators hope that boldface names will help retain listeners in a fragmented world of media. As Mr. O’Reilly said in an interview with The Daily News, the Internet turns listeners into producers, creating new competition. “So I have to be compelling enough to pull someone away from his own show — which means I have to give him something he can’t get on his own,” he said.
Through the first three quarters of the year, network radio ad spending declined 3.5 percent from the same time in 2007, according to Nielsen. The radio industry, while still a $20 billion business, has been on a downward trajectory for years as consumers have spent less time listening. But talk still has an edge over other formats, Ms. Mijatovic said, because the listeners are engaged with the hosts “and don’t tune out.”
The presidential election provoked talk about the relevance of talk radio, especially given John McCain’s ascendance to the top of the Republican ticket despite adamant opposition from conservative hosts. At the same time, left-wing blogs are acting as a powerful counterweight to the right-wing radio opposition that flourished during the 1990s.
In an opinion piece for USA Today this month, the radio host Michael Medved said he cherished the notion “that the last time a young Democrat took over the White House with gauzy visions of change, it produced a ‘Golden Age’ for right-wing talk,” referring to the presidency of Bill Clinton and the ascent of Rush Limbaugh, among others. But he expressed concern that talk shows have cultivated a “niche audience rather than the Republican mainstream.”
Shows like Mr. Scarborough’s certainly are not seeking a niche audience, though. And longtime hosts like Mr. Limbaugh know that the incoming Democratic administration represents an opportunity to reassert talk radio’s relevance.
The afternoon of Nov. 5, he was already nodding to it. In sports analogies, he told listeners: “I’m not ready to take the field for another game. I’m on the field. We have taken the field, and we’re getting ready. The game is begun.”
Notebook Sales Outpace Desktop Sales
As notebook sales surpass desktop sales for the first time in history, many small-business owners may be tempted to jump to an Acer, Dell or even Apple portable. But security issues and accessory costs should make the average small-business owner think twice.
Today’s notebooks are sleek, stylish and eminently portable. They allow your small business to take the company on the road in the space of a carry-on bag. Now, for the first time ever, notebook (laptop) sales have surpassed desktop sales, according to research firm iSuppli.
In the third quarter of 2008, notebook PC shipments rose almost 40 percent compared with the same period of 2007 to reach 38.6 million units. Conversely, desktop PC shipments declined by 1.3 percent for the same period to 38.5 million units.
“Momentum has been building in the notebook market for some time, so it’s not a complete surprise that shipments have surpassed those of desktops,” said iSuppli principal analyst for compute platforms Matthew Wilkins. “However, this marks a major event in the PC market because it marks the start of the age of the notebook.”
While Hewlett-Packard held onto its lead position in the third quarter of 2008, with shipments of 14.9 million units and a market share of 18.8 percent, Taiwan-based Acer was the big winner of the third quarter, which grew its unit shipment market share by 45 percent, and by 79 percent on a year-over-year basis.
“Acer shipped almost 3 million more notebooks in the third quarter than it did in the preceding quarter, with the majority of those 3 million being the company's netbook products,” Wilkins noted. “Clearly, the company's netbook strategy is paying dividends, with Acer now trailing Dell by less than 2 percentage points of market share for all PCs.”
Is the Desktop Dead for SMBs?
While the report certainly suggests the dawn of the ubiquitous notebook is upon us, small to midsize business owners should carefully consider moving from a desktop- to notebook-based business. Notebooks offer portability and come with much longer battery life and more features and power than ever before.
However, when notebooks aren’t being toted around through airports and conferences, they often require peripherals like a full keyboard, larger monitor and a mouse for use in the office. On the road, additional components like Wi-Fi cards (although most laptops have built-in Wi-Fi these days, many do not include wide-area access, like broadband cards for AT&T or Verizon) and an extra battery can also add to your costs.
Another issue to keep in mind before purchasing a slew of notebooks is that they are frequently lost and can be easily damaged. Anyone who ever had their notebook ripped out from under their fingers by the harried Starbucks customer/stubborn power cord combo knows this.
The FBI's National Crime Information Center reported that the number of reported laptop thefts increased almost 48 percent over the last two years, to nearly 109,000 from 73,700. The Ponemon Institute recently released data estimating that 12,000 laptops are lost or stolen in U.S. airports every week. More alarmingly, the study indicated that after a data breach, almost one-third of the customers notified terminated their relationship with the company.
While losing the hardware is unfortunate, the Ponemon report suggests company information contained inside the notebook could cost your business much more. That’s why Dell and Lenovo offer tracking and lock-down features on their notebook families. Starting in 2009, Lenovo ThinkPad notebook users can use an SMS text message to shut down a laptop that has been stolen or has been lost.
VHS Era is Winding Down
The last big supplier of the tapes is ditching the format, ending the long fade-out of a product that ushered in the home theater.
Pop culture is finally hitting the eject button on the VHS tape, the once-ubiquitous home-video format that will finish this month as a creaky ghost of Christmas past.
After three decades of steady if unspectacular service, the spinning wheels of the home-entertainment stalwart are slowing to a halt at retail outlets. On a crisp Friday morning in October, the final truckload of VHS tapes rolled out of a Palm Harbor, Fla., warehouse run by Ryan J. Kugler, the last major supplier of the tapes.
"It's dead, this is it, this is the last Christmas, without a doubt," said Kugler, 34, a Burbank businessman. "I was the last one buying VHS and the last one selling it, and I'm done. Anything left in warehouse we'll just give away or throw away."
Dumped in a humid Florida landfill? It's an ignominious end for the innovative product that redefined film-watching in America and spawned an entire sector led by new household names like Blockbuster and West Coast Video. Those chains gave up on VHS a few years ago but not Kugler, who casually describes himself as "a bottom feeder" with a specialization in "distressed inventory."
Kugler is president and co-owner of Distribution Video Audio Inc., a company that pulls in annual revenue of $20 million with a proud nickel-and-dime approach to fading and faded pop culture. Whether it's unwanted "Speed Racer" ball caps, unsold Danielle Steel novels or unappreciated David Hasselhoff albums, Kugler's company pays pennies and sells for dimes. If the firm had a motto, it would be "Buy low, sell low."
"It's true, one man's trash is another man's gold," Kugler said. "But we are not the graveyard. I'm like a heart surgeon -- we keep things alive longer. Or maybe we're more like the convalescence home right before the graveyard."
The last major Hollywood movie to be released on VHS was "A History of Violence" in 2006. By that point major retailers such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart were already well on their way to evicting all the VHS tapes from their shelves so the valuable real estate could go to the sleeker and smaller DVDs and, in more recent seasons, the latest upstart, Blu-ray discs. Kugler ended up buying back as much VHS inventory as he could from retailers, distributors and studios; he then sold more than 4 million VHS videotapes over the last two years.
Those tapes went to bargain-basement chains such as Dollar Tree, Dollar General and Family Dollar, and Kugler's network of mom-and-pop clients and regional outlets, such as the Gabriel Bros. Stores in West Virginia or the Five Below chain in Pennsylvania. If you bought a Clint Eastwood movie at the Flying J Truck Stop in Saginaw, Mich., or a "Care Bears" tape at one of the H.E. Butts Grocery stores in Texas, Kugler's company probably put it there. He also sells to public libraries, military bases and cruise ships, although those clients now all pretty much want DVDs.
Kugler estimates that 2 million tapes are still sitting on shelves of his clients' stores across the country, but they are the last analog soldiers in the lost battle against the digital invasion. "I'm not sure a lot of people are going to miss VHS," he said, "but it's been good to us."
If you rewind back to the 1980s, VHS represented a remarkable turning point for the American consumer. For the first time, Hollywood's classics and its recent hits could be rented and watched at home.
"It was a sea change," says Leonard Maltin, the film critic and author who has written stacks of books to meet the consumer need for video recommendations. "Hollywood thought it would hurt movie ticket sales, but it didn't deter people from going to movies; in fact, it only increased their appetite for entertainment. Hollywood also thought it would just be a rental market, but then when someone had the idea of lowering the prices, the people wanted to own movies. They wanted libraries at home, and suddenly VHS was a huge part of our lives."
The format was easy to use (although fast-forwarding and rewinding to any particular spot was the worst new-tech irritant since the telephone busy signal) and, of course, the videocassette recorder and blank VHS tapes made it possible to catch up on any missed must-see TV, whether it was "Days of Our Lives" or "Monday Night Football." Hollywood found that movies also enjoyed a second opening weekend, as viewers throughout the country made Friday night trips to the rental store for new releases.
"I think in some ways it even pulled families together, if that doesn't sound too corny, because renting movies became such a part of the weekend," says Jim Henderson, one of the owners of Amoeba Music, the 45,000-square-foot merchant in Hollywood that sells pop culture in just about every format imaginable, including VHS. "It was also a great thing for film fans. You could educate yourself and go back to the well again and again. We're used to choice now, but that was the first time fans could watch what they wanted when they wanted."
Amoeba no longer buys VHS from distributors such as Distribution Video Audio. But customers bring in tapes every day to trade and sell. "We actually sell maybe 200 a day, almost all of them between $1 to $3," Henderson said. "Almost the same amount comes in as goes out."
A lot of those are the classic or foreign films that are not available on DVD, such as "The Magnificent Ambersons" or Gregory Nava's "El Norte," or vintage music videos by punk bands or new wave pioneers such as Black Flag or Siouxsie and the Banshees. Some older customers simply don't want to switch to DVD, others just like the bargain-basement price of the tapes.
But, Henderson said, unlike with vinyl records, no one seems to cling to VHS for romantic reasons.
"DVDs replaced VHS really fast compared to other format changes through the years," Henderson said. "VHS took too long to rewind, they were boxy and cumbersome, the picture was kind of flawed. The tape inside was delicate and just didn't hold up. DVD just blew it away."
It's true, the VHS tape never really had a chance once the DVD arrived in the late 1990s with all its shiny allure -- higher quality image, nimble navigation and all that extra content. After a robust run at the center of pop culture, VHS rentals were eclipsed by DVD in 2003. By the end of 2005, DVD sales were more than $22 billion and VHS was slumping badly but still viable enough to pull in $1.5 billion. Next year, that won't be the case.
Just before Halloween, JVC, the company that introduced the Video Home System format in 1977 in the United States, announced that it would no longer make stand-alone videocassette recorders. The electronic manufacturer still produces hybrid VHS-DVD players, but it's not clear how long that will last.
For a format that made Hollywood so much money, VHS leaves behind a shallow footprint in the movies themselves. There was "The Ring," a 2002 horror movie and its 2005 sequel, about a mysterious VHS tape that brings death to whoever watches it, but that's a sad valentine. This year Jack Black and Mos Def starred in "Be Kind Rewind," a loopy comedy that finds its center at a VHS rental store that is holding out against the DVD era, but the rebellion didn't go beyond the script -- the movie is available for rent or purchase on DVD and Blu-ray, but it was never released on VHS.
The format was also name-checked in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," the 2005 hit film that stars an unloved salesman at an electronics store; and even he has no room in his heart for the underdog format. "It's a dead technology," he explains to a customer. "It's like buying an eight-track player."
Kugler is one of the rare people who can stir up some nostalgia for the black, boxy tapes. His father bought Distribution Video Audio in 1988 and carved out a niche as an inventory supplier for the video rental stores that were popping up everywhere. His young son was interested in a different end of the entertainment business; the younger Kugler spent many afternoons in his teen years sneaking onto the Paramount Pictures studio lot and soaking it all in. While watching the cast at work on "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," he decided he wanted to become a filmmaker; soon, the kid who was always underfoot on the "Cheers" set even coaxed Ted Danson to appear in a two-minute film he made.
But life took Kugler on a less glamorous path. He started working at Distribution Video Audio in 1991 and in short order took the company to new heights by negotiating directly with studios to buy their overrun inventory.
The approach led the company beyond VHS, and soon Kugler's warehouses were filling up with CDs, books and merchandise like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" wristwatches and "America's Next Top Model" T-shirts.
A casual observer might wonder how much shelf life those sorts of products could possibly have, but Kugler has moved hard to the Internet and says the "scavenger culture" mentality and sites such as Half.com, Amazon Marketplace and EBay have made it easier than ever to match narrow-niche and oddball customers with the products they want -- especially when it's priced to go at $2 or $3.
With some things, though, even Kugler the great salvager can't find a buyer no matter how low he goes. He took a loss on 50,000 copies of "Yo-Yo Man," a Smothers Brothers instructional video for the stringed toy. ("I'm not sure what I was thinking on that one," Kugler said.) And then there is that stash of VHS tapes that couldn't even earn a spot on the last shipment out of his warehouse: a few thousand copies of "The Man With the Screaming Brain," a 2005 horror movie about a mad scientist, a Bulgarian tycoon, a cab driver and some cranial misadventures. ("That one," Kugler said, "will be buried with us.")
The majority of his firm's business today is with big box retailers including Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Sears, where the company sets up displays of its discounted DVDs, such as "Superman Returns" and "Proof of Life," which are often priced at $10 or less. Plenty of customers see that price as an invitation to build up their DVD collections.
But Kugler, with a sly smile, offered a warning to consumers thinking of putting up shelving to handle their burgeoning libraries.
"The DVD will be obsolete in three or four years, no doubt about it. Everything will be Blu-ray," Kugler said, anticipating the next resident at his pop culture retirement home. "The days of the DVD are numbered. And that is good news for me."
Online Shopping and the Harry Potter Effect
AS YOU tear into the wrapping paper this festive season, you might be thinking of those long weekends your loved ones spent trudging through the crowds to find that elusive perfect expression of their affection. Quaint thought, but according to UK sales figures, if last year's festive season is anything to go by, it is likely that at least 1 in 5 of your friends and family shopped online, probably with a nice glass of wine in hand rather than a shopping bag digging into their palm. Elsewhere in the developed world, the picture is much the same.
This seismic shift in shopping habits is down to more than the mere convenience of shopping in your slippers. A new school of thought in business has emerged that claims it is all about choice. On the net, you can buy just about anything you can think of, and a lot of things you never have. Amazon alone lists millions of products, including everything from the latest New Scientist book to maternity bras, plasma TVs and a vibrating ladybird-shaped massager.
The message is simple: no matter what your taste, you will find something to satisfy it online. Gone are the days when shoppers had a limited selection of blockbusters to choose from. The internet is changing not only how we shop, but what we buy.
And yet the big sellers have never been bigger. Take the latest Harry Potter book, which on launch in 2007 sold 11 million copies in its first day, exceeding the record for the fastest-selling book - set consecutively by the previous three Potter tomes. So what's the real deal? Is the internet really broadening our horizons? Or is it all marketing fluff masking the fact that best-sellers still rule?
The idea that the internet is transforming our buying habits was first popularised in an article written by Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of the technology magazine Wired, in October 2004. The article, titled "The long tail", became a blog, a best-selling book and a marketing mantra.
Anderson's premise was simple. Before the internet, even the largest retailer had physical constraints on the variety of stuff like books, CDs and DVDs it could profitably sell. Savvy store owners had to tailor their stock to maximise returns from limited shelf space, and consumers had to make do with what was on offer.
In cyberspace, by contrast, shelf space is practically unlimited and other overheads at rock bottom. Online retailers can take advantage of that to sell vast catalogues of obscure products at little or no extra cost.
Anderson postulated that this new breadth of choice was leading to a metamorphosis of the classic demand curve. Instead of a steep peak representing comparatively few big-selling items, a gentler curve spread over far more products was emerging - creating the eponymous long tail (see graph).
To Anderson, this migration to the long tail is a journey of self-discovery for all of us. "As a teenager in the 1970s, I listened to one of the 10 radio stations on offer, but I'm not sure I really knew what my taste was." Now, he says, we are all finding out - and discovering that we like quite different things. His conclusion is summarised in the subtitle of his book: "The future of business is selling less of more".
It is an attractive hypothesis that rapidly acquired an evangelical following. But then dissenting voices emerged. The first shot across the bows came in July this year, when Anita Elberse of Harvard Business School published an analysis of music downloads and DVD-by-mail rentals in the Harvard Business Review. Her findings suggest that the long tail is far from the revolution Anderson claimed. The tail is indeed getting longer, but isn't, as Anderson thought, growing fat with choice. Instead it is getting both flatter and thinner, filled with ever more products that sell few or no copies.
Low overheads or no overheads, that kind of long tail is not a rich man's world, least of all for producers. Suppliers are always going to be better off concentrating on the mass-market money-spinners, says Elberse.
Her ideas have recently been backed up by another study. Will Page and Gary Eggleton at the MCPS-PRS Alliance - a UK body that collects royalties for musicians when their songs are played on air or downloaded - and Andrew Bud from the cellphone software company mBlox have analysed a year's worth of downloads from a well-known internet music store. They found that of the 13 million tracks available, 52,000 - just 0.4 per cent - accounted for 80 per cent of downloads.
Of the 13 million tracks available, 0.4% of them account for over three-quarters of downloads
The overall pattern of demand showed nothing like the shift towards a long, fat tail postulated by Anderson. In fact, it showed the reverse: it followed what is known as a log-normal curve, characterised by a sharp spike of best-selling blockbusters that rapidly tailed off into nothing. There was an added irony to Page's findings. If an average album holds 12 tracks, 52,000 songs equate to about 4300 CDs - according to Anderson's Long Tail book, about the number of titles stocked by Wal-Mart, the largest bricks-and-mortar retailer in the US.
In other words, says Page, the extra choice available online is of little economic worth to the retailer. "Scarcity in conventional retailers might be a constraint," he says. "But it could also be a discipline, representing an economically optimal inventory."
Results from a study by anthropologist Alex Bentley and economist Paul Ormerod of Durham University, UK, together with anthropologist Mark Madsen of the University of Washington in Seattle, agree with Page and his colleagues' findings (www.arxiv.org/abs/0808.1655). The researchers found that in a fashion-led market, where consumer preferences are fickle and fast-changing, the inventory size that maximises profits is actually very small - equivalent to the 10 to 20 titles often stocked in an airport bookstore.
Even for an online retailer such as Amazon, where the profit-to-overhead ratio per item is very large, the optimum inventory is likely to be considerably smaller than the millions of titles actually offered, says Ormerod. He counsels caution: "It's a good marketing strategy to say you sell everything," he says, "but it is unlikely to be profitable on its own." Elberse agrees: "The long tail was a great idea," she says, "but as a business model it was too optimistic." The greatest attraction for shoppers, she suggests, is probably the aggressive discounts Amazon offers on its blockbuster products.
Anderson concedes that, for producers, the economics of the long tail might be shaky, but defends his central thesis: that the choices internet retailers offer open our eyes to a rich new world of possibilities - and that canny retailers can profit from that. "For most people, there's no money in the long tail," he says. "But then, most books don't make money. Most films don't make money." Nevertheless, a market like this will benefit retailers like Amazon, and more importantly us consumers. We might still subsist on a staple diet of blockbusters, but we can enrich that with other titbits from the tail in a way we could not before.
So why, with the cornucopia of goodies now available to us, are blockbusters not just still here, but getting bigger? On the face of it, Anderson's idea of a divergence of tastes in the digital era is logical. But if the long tail effect does not exist, or is not as pronounced as was thought, what is really going on?
Elberse says it's a bit like the influence of multichannel television on the economics of sport. In the old days, if you wanted to watch soccer, you went to watch your local team in the flesh. Now, she says, in the UK you are more likely to decide to stay at home and watch Chelsea play Arsenal. This change of allegiance cuts the cash flowing into the ticket office of your local club while boosting advertising revenues for TV, which accrue disproportionately in favour of the already wealthy top clubs.
It is a phenomenon known to economists as the Matthew effect, after a quotation from the gospel of that name: "For unto every one that hath shall be given." Just as for the long tail effect, there is a plausible explanation of why it should be happening in the modern media environment: easy digital replication and efficient communication through cellphones, email and social networking sites encourage fast-moving, fast-changing fads. The result is a homogenisation of tastes that boosts the chances of popular things becoming blockbusters, making the already successful even more successful.
The winner takes it all
Duncan Watts, a sociologist at Columbia University, New York, has found evidence of just such an effect. Together with his colleagues Matthew Salganik and Peter Dodds, he tested the effect of communication and peer approval on the musical tastes of 14,000 teenage volunteers recruited online (Science, vol 311, p 854). A set of 48 songs was made available to all the volunteers, who could download whichever songs they wanted. The researchers split the volunteers into eight groups; in some, group members could see what their peers were downloading, but in others they had no such knowledge. In the socially connected groups, the winner took all: popular songs became more popular, unpopular songs more unpopular. This effect was much less pronounced in the socially isolated groups.
What's more, there was a sting in the tail for anyone trying to predict blockbusters: in different groups, different songs tended to become the biggest hits. It is a classic butterfly effect: a small preference for a particular object can, in a highly connected community, rapidly amplify and spread its appeal. Increased social connectedness creates bigger blockbusters but makes predicting what they will be all the more difficult.
Which leads to a curious puzzle: why, when we have so much information at our fingertips, are we so concerned with what our peers like? Don't we trust our own judgement? Watts thinks it is partly a cognitive problem. Far from liberating us, the proliferation of choice that modern technology has brought is overwhelming us - making us even more reliant on outside cues to determine what we like (see "I know what you'll buy next summer"). "Google can deliver 100 million songs to you - but your brain hasn't got any faster," he says.
Why, when we have so much information at our fingertips, do we care what our peers like?
Watts thinks there is a fundamental problem with ideas like the long tail: they reduce our likes and dislikes to a set of isolated, stable preferences. "There is a naive assumption that people are making decisions independently, scouring all possible choices and then optimising," he says. "But people aren't rational in that weird economists' sense."
Quite apart from the cognitive overload aspect, Watts thinks that the films we watch or the music we listen to is not entirely, or even mostly, about the thing being consumed. It is about the social context in which we consume it. "If you're dating a girl who likes AC/DC, you might start listening to AC/DC. With another girlfriend, you might be listening to Aerosmith," he says.
Ultimately, he thinks, our love of the blockbuster might just reflect that we humans are constantly looking out for a place to go - one where others are too. "A culture is a set of people who share beliefs, ideas and artefacts," says Watts. "Blockbusters are part of that - they make us feel we belong to something."
Anderson agrees, and says he has never said any different. "Blockbusters are always going to exist - they're a combination of what's genuinely awesome and banalities that appeal to the lowest common denominator. What the long tail does is break the tyranny of the blockbuster." By making it easier for all of us to access the choice available - and also with blogs, self-publishing, YouTube and the like, to produce it ourselves - the internet puts us in a better position than ever to determine ourselves what our shared tastes are.
Anderson sees the web as a gene pool from which worthy blockbusters can emerge by a process akin to natural selection. "The bluefin tuna lays maybe 3 million eggs, and three hatch. But up until now, it has been too expensive to waste life like that in media production," he says. Now, however, there is the chance that a truly commercial blockbuster can arise organically, by public acclaim, from the long tail.
The organic blockbuster? Surely that has got to taste better than the mass-produced, force-fed Christmas turkeys scheduled on TV for the next few days.
Turning Page, E-Books Start To Take Hold
Brad Stone and Motoko Rich
Could book lovers finally be willing to switch from paper to pixels?
For a decade, consumers mostly ignored electronic book devices, which were often hard to use and offered few popular items to read. But this year, in part because of the popularity of Amazon.com’s wireless Kindle device, the e-book has started to take hold.
The $359 Kindle, which is slim, white and about the size of a trade paperback, was introduced a year ago. Although Amazon will not disclose sales figures, the Kindle has at least lived up to its name by creating broad interest in electronic books. Now it is out of stock and unavailable until February. Analysts credit Oprah Winfrey, who praised the Kindle on her show in October, and blame Amazon for poor holiday planning.
The shortage is providing an opening for Sony, which embarked on an intense publicity campaign for its Reader device during the gift-buying season. The stepped-up competition may represent a coming of age for the entire idea of reading longer texts on a portable digital device.
“The perception is that e-books have been around for 10 years and haven’t done anything,” said Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading division. “But it’s happening now. This is really starting to take off.”
Sony’s efforts have been overshadowed by Amazon’s. But this month it began a promotional blitz in airports, train stations and bookstores, with the ambitious goal of personally demonstrating the Reader to two million people by the end of the year.
The company’s latest model, the Reader 700, is a $400 device with a reading light and a touch screen that allows users to annotate what they are reading. Mr. Haber said Sony’s sales had tripled this holiday season over last, in part because the device is now available in the Target, Borders and Sam’s Club chains. He said Sony had sold more than 300,000 devices since the debut of the original Reader in 2006.
It is difficult to quantify the success of the Kindle, since Amazon will not disclose how many it has sold and analysts’ estimates vary widely. Peter Hildick-Smith, president of the Codex Group, a book market research company, said he believed Amazon had sold as many as 260,000 units through the beginning of October, before Ms. Winfrey’s endorsement. Others say the number could be as high as a million.
Many Kindle buyers appear to be outside the usual gadget-hound demographic. Almost as many women as men are buying it, Mr. Hildick-Smith said, and the device is most popular among 55- to 64-year-olds.
So far, publishers like HarperCollins, Random House and Simon & Schuster say that sales of e-books for any device — including simple laptop downloads — constitute less than 1 percent of total book sales. But there are signs of momentum. The publishers say sales of e-books have tripled or quadrupled in the last year.
Amazon’s Kindle version of “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle ” by David Wroblewski, a best seller recommended by Ms. Winfrey’s book club, now represents 20 percent of total Amazon sales of the book, according to Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide.
The Kindle version of the book, which can be downloaded by the device itself through its wireless modem, costs $9.99 in the Amazon Kindle store. The Reader version costs $11.99 from Sony’s e-book library, accessible from an Internet-connected computer.
Even authors who were once wary of selling their work in bits and bytes are coming around. After some initial hesitation, authors like Danielle Steel and John Grisham are soon expected to add their titles to the e-book catalog, their agents say.
“E-books will become the go-to-first format for an ever-expanding group of readers who are newly discovering how much they enjoy reading books on a screen,” said Markus Dohle, chief executive of Random House, the world’s largest publisher of consumer books.
Nobody knows how much consumer habits will shift. Some of the most committed bibliophiles maintain an almost fetishistic devotion to the physical book. But the technology may have more appeal for particular kinds of people, like those who are the heaviest readers.
At Harlequin Enterprises, the Toronto-based publisher of bodice-ripping romances, Malle Vallik, director for digital content and interactivity, said she expected sales of digital versions of the company’s books someday to match or potentially outstrip sales in print.
Harlequin, which publishes 120 books a month, makes all of its new titles available digitally, and has even started publishing digital-only short stories that it sells for $2.99 each, including an erotica collection called Spice Briefs.
Perhaps the most overlooked boost to e-books this year — and a challenge to some of the standard thinking about them — came from Apple’s do-it-all gadget, the iPhone.
Several e-book-reading programs have been created for the device, and at least two of them, Stanza from LexCycle and the eReader from Fictionwise, have been downloaded more than 600,000 times. Another company, Scroll Motion, announced this week that it would begin selling e-books for the iPhone from major publishers like Simon & Schuster, Random House and Penguin.
All of these companies say they are now tailoring their software for other kinds of smartphones, including BlackBerrys.
Publishers say these iPhone applications are already starting to generate nearly as many digital book sales as the Sony Reader, though they still trail sales of books in the Kindle format.
Meanwhile, the quest to build the perfect e-book reader continues. Amazon and Sony are expected to introduce new versions of their readers in 2009. Adherents expect the new Kindle will have a sleeker design and a better microprocessor, allowing snappier page-turning.
Mr. Haber of Sony said future versions of the Reader will have wireless capability, a feature that has helped make the Kindle so appealing. This means that the device does not have to be plugged into a computer to download books, newspapers and magazines.
Other competitors are on the way. Investors have put more than $200 million into Plastic Logic, a company in Mountain View, Calif. The company says that next year it will begin testing a flexible 8.5-by-11-inch reading device that is thinner and lighter than existing ones. Plastic Logic plans to begin selling it in 2010.
Along the same lines, Polymer Vision, based in the Netherlands, demonstrated a device the size of a BlackBerry that has a five-inch rolled-up screen that can be unfurled for reading. There are also less ambitious but cheaper readers on the market or expected soon, including the eSlick Reader from Foxit Software, arriving next month at an introductory price of $230.
E Ink, the company in Cambridge, Mass., that has developed the screen technology for many of these companies, says it is testing color screens and hopes to introduce them by 2010.
Many book lovers are quite happy with today’s devices. MaryAnn van Hengel, 51, a graphic designer in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., once railed against e-readers at a meeting of her book club. But she embraced the Kindle her husband gave her this fall shortly after Ms. Winfrey endorsed it.
Ms. Van Hengel now has several books on the device, including a Nora Roberts novel and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” She said the Kindle had spurred her to buy more books than she normally would in print.
“I may be shy bringing the Kindle to the book club because so many of the women were so against the technology, and I said I was too,” Ms. Van Hengel said. “And here I am in love with it.”
EU's New Digital Library Operational Again
The European Union's first large-scale digital library, Europeana (www.europeana.eu), was online again Tuesday, a month after it crashed after being overwhelmed by readers' interest.
"Europeana works again ... after we have quadrupled server capacity," European Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr told a daily news briefing.
Europeana gives multilingual access to two million digitized books and other items of cultural and historical significance held in more than 1,000 institutions in the 27 EU states.
Soon after its launch on November 20 the website froze, with servers overwhelmed by a volume of 10 million hits an hour.
Young Muslims Build a Subculture on an Underground Book
Five years ago, young Muslims across the United States began reading and passing along a blurry, photocopied novel called “The Taqwacores,” about imaginary punk rock Muslims in Buffalo.
“This book helped me create my identity,” said Naina Syed, 14, a high school freshman in Coventry, Conn.
A Muslim born in Pakistan, Naina said she spent hours on the phone listening to her older sister read the novel to her. “When I finally read the book for myself,” she said, “it was an amazing experience.”
The novel is “The Catcher in the Rye” for young Muslims, said Carl W. Ernst, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Springing from the imagination of Michael Muhammad Knight, it inspired disaffected young Muslims in the United States to form real Muslim punk bands and build their own subculture.
Now the underground success of Muslim punk has resulted in a low-budget independent film based on the book.
A group of punk artists living in a communal house in Cleveland called the Tower of Treason offered the house as the set for the movie. The crumbling streets and boarded-up storefronts of their neighborhood resemble parts of Buffalo. Filming took place in October, and the movie will be released next year, said Eyad Zahra, the director.
“To see these characters that used to live only inside my head out here walking around, and to think of all these kids living out parts of the book, it’s totally surreal,” Mr. Muhammad Knight, 31, said as he roamed the movie set.
As part of the set, a Muslim punk rock musician, Marwan Kamel, 23, painted “Osama McDonald,” a figure with Osama bin Laden’s face atop Ronald McDonald’s body. Mr. Kamel said the painting was a protest against imperialism by American corporations and against Wahhabism, the strictest form of Islam.
Noureen DeWulf, 24, an actress who plays a rocker in the movie, defended the film’s message.
“I’m a Muslim and I’m 100-percent American,” Ms. DeWulf said, “so I can criticize my faith and my country. Rebellion? Punk? This is totally American.”
The novel’s title combines “taqwa,” the Arabic word for “piety,” with “hardcore,” used to describe many genres of angry Western music.
For many young American Muslims, stigmatized by their peers after the Sept. 11 attacks but repelled by both the Bush administration’s reaction to the attacks and the rigid conservatism of many Muslim leaders, the novel became a blueprint for their lives.
“Reading the book was totally liberating for me,” said Areej Zufari, 34, a Muslim and a humanities professor at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Fla.
Ms. Zufari said she had listened to punk music growing up in Arkansas and found “The Taqwacores” four years ago.
“Here was someone as frustrated with Islam as me,” she said, “and he expressed it using bands I love, like the Dead Kennedys. It all came together.”
The novel’s Muslim characters include Rabeya, a riot girl who plays guitar onstage wearing a burqa and leads a group of men and women in prayer. There is also Fasiq, a pot-smoking skater, and Jehangir, a drunk.
Such acts — playing Western music, women leading prayer, men and women praying together, drinking, smoking — are considered haram, or forbidden, by millions of Muslims.
Mr. Muhammad Knight was born an Irish Catholic in upstate New York and converted to Islam as a teenager. He studied at a mosque in Pakistan but became disillusioned with Islam after learning about the sectarian battles after the death of Muhammad.
He said he wrote “The Taqwacores” to mend the rift between his being an observant Muslim and an angry American youth. He found validation in the life of Muhammad, who instructed people to ignore their leaders, destroy their petty deities and follow only Allah.
After reading the novel, many Muslims e-mailed Mr. Muhammad Knight, asking for directions to the next Muslim punk show. Told that no such bands existed, some of them created their own, with names like Vote Hezbollah and Secret Trial Five.
One band, the Kominas, wrote a song called “Suicide Bomb the Gap,” which became Muslim punk rock’s first anthem.
“As Muslims, we’re not being honest if we criticize the United States without first criticizing ourselves,” said Mr. Kamel, 23, who grew up in a Syrian family in Chicago. He is lead singer of the band al-Thawra, “the Revolution” in Arabic.
For many young American Muslims, the merger of Islam and rebellion resonated.
Hanan Arzay, 15, is a daughter of Muslim immigrants from Morocco who lives in East Islip, N.Y. In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, pedestrians threw eggs and coffee cups at the van that transported her to a Muslim school, she said, and one person threw a wine bottle, shattering the van’s window.
At school, her Koran teacher threw chalk at her for requesting literal translations of the holy book, Ms. Arzay said. After she was expelled from two Muslim schools, her uncle gave her “The Taqwacores.”
“This book is my lifeline,” Ms. Arzay said. “It saved my faith.”
Hanukkah Receives Kosher Pop Welcome
Matisyahu deployed what may be the only large, mirrored, rotating dreidel in show business — a Jewish answer to a disco ball — at Webster Hall on Sunday night, the first night of Hanukkah. It was also the first of eight New York City shows for Matisyahu in his third annual Festival of Lights series, bringing different opening acts and guests each night. A large menorah was set up for a mid-concert lighting ceremony, with the blessings declaimed in Hebrew by an audience volunteer.
Matisyahu, who was born Matthew Miller, sings explicitly devotional songs about God, Moshiach (the Messiah) and Orthodox Jewish identity. By setting them to reggae, rock and hip-hop beats, and after working his way up the jam-band circuit, he also reaches listeners with their minds on more secular pursuits, like dancing and drugs. Simcha Levenberg, the M.C. who introduced him, drew big laughs with jokes about marijuana and LSD, although Matisyahu’s song “King Without a Crown” insisted, “If you’re trying to stay high, then you’re bound to be low.”
Matisyahu has built a career on analogies between Rastafarian roots reggae and Hasidic songs. Both are concerned with faith and survival struggles and have lyrics phrased in Biblical allusions; both draw on modal scales and melismatic vocal lines that can sound Middle Eastern. Near the end of the concert Matisyahu sang long, cantorial phrases while rocking back and forth, as if davening, or praying. Yet if his lyrics weren’t so clear about their references to Jewish history and the majesty of God, most of the time Matisyahu would simply be one more reggae-loving rocker.
In “Jerusalem,” which drew heartfelt singalongs, he worries about assimilation, singing, “Cut off the roots of your family tree/Don’t you know that’s not the way to be.” But the roots of his music are Afro-Caribbean and African-American. He uses Jamaican reggae and dancehall toasting, sometimes delivered with a Jamaican accent; he also uses hip-hop cadences and showed off his vocal beatboxing.
His band also segues into rock, for chiming marches that borrow their idealistic sound from U2. Matisyahu is less concerned with a musical heritage than with a religious one.
Album by album Matisyahu has expanded his music. Along with basic roots reggae he now uses faster, tongue-twisting dancehall toasting and the electronic beats and brooding chords of hip-hop. And he’s looking farther: Matisyahu joined Crystal Method, the thumping, rock-tinged electronica duo that opened the show, to sing and rap on a song from their next album, due in March.
Matisyahu rarely improves on his sources. His voice is thin and sometimes nasal, closer to Jack Johnson than to Bob Marley or Sting; his rhymes can be as awkward as they are earnest. But his band — which was augmented, for a few songs, by an Israeli oud player — carries simple vamps through multiple transformations, from meditations to shredding guitar solos. It’s music for believers, with a groove for everyone else.
Matisyahu is at Webster Hall, 125 East 11th Street, East Village, Tuesday and Thursday , and at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 North Sixth Street, at Wythe Avenue, Saturday through Dec. 30. Tickets: (212) 307-7171 or ticketmaster.com.
Fatal Flaws in Website Censorship Plan, Says Report
TRIALS of mandatory internet censorship will begin within days despite a secret high-level report to the Rudd Government that found the technology simply does not work, will significantly slow internet speeds and will block access to legitimate websites.
The report, commissioned by the Howard government and prepared by the Internet Industry Association, concluded that schemes to block inappropriate content such as child pornography are fundamentally flawed.
If the trials are deemed a success, the Government has earmarked $44 million to impose a compulsory "clean feed" on all internet subscribers in Australia as soon as late next year.
But the report says the filters would slow the internet - as much as 87 per cent by some measures - be easily bypassed and would not come close to capturing all of the nasty content available online. They would also struggle to distinguish between wanted and unwanted content, leading to legitimate sites being blocked. Entire user-generated content sites, such as YouTube and Wikipedia, could be censored over a single suspect posting.
This raises serious freedom of speech questions, such as who will be held accountable for blocked sites and whether the Government will be pressured to expand the blacklist to cover lawful content including pornography, gambling sites and euthanasia material.
The report, based on comprehensive interviews with many parties with a stake in the internet, was written by several independent technical experts including a University of Sydney associate professor, Bjorn Landfeldt. It was handed to the Government in February but has been kept secret.
"I definitely think that what the Government is showing publicly is such a small part of what they need to do in order to get this right," Professor Landfeldt told the Herald.
He said he believed the Government had not released his report because its conclusions were too damaging.
"It's definitely not going to be workable to get a very significant reduction in access to this [unwanted] content that is available out there - it's fundamentally just not viable."
The Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy - despite his promises before Labor was elected that people would be able to opt out of any internet filters - has said the first tier of the Government's censorship policy will be compulsory for all. This would block all "illegal" and "inappropriate" material, as determined in part by a secret blacklist administered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
A second tier would filter out content deemed harmful for children, such as pornography, but this would be optional for internet users.
Senator Conroy refused to comment directly on why the report has not been released or why the trials are going ahead given its findings.
The proposed censorship is more restrictive than in any liberal democracy, the online users lobby group, Electronic Frontiers Australia, says. It says the changes would put Australia on a par with oppressive regimes such as Iran and China.
But Senator Conroy said: "The Government intends to take an evidence-based approach to implementing its cyber-safety policy and has invited industry to participate in that process.
"This live pilot trial will provide evidence on the real-world impacts of ISP [internet service provider] content filtering, including for providers and internet users. It will provide an invaluable opportunity for ISPs to inform the Government's approach."
Professor Landfeldt, one of Australia's leading telecommunications experts, says some of the fundamental flaws of the scheme raised in his report include:
• All filtering systems will be easily circumvented using readily available software.
• Censors maintaining the blacklist will never be able to keep up with the amount of new content published on the web every second.
• Filters using real-time analysis of sites to determine whether content is inappropriate are not effective, capture wanted content, are easy to bypass and slow network speeds exponentially as accuracy increases.
• Entire user-generated content sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia could be blocked over a single video or article.
• Filters would be costly and difficult to implement for ISPs and put many smaller ISPs out of business.
• While the communciations authority's blacklist would be withheld from internet users, all 700 ISPs would have access to it, so it could easily be leaked.
• The filters would not censor content on peer-to-peer file sharing networks such as LimeWire, chat rooms, email and instant messaging;
• ISPs and the Government could be legally liable for the scheme's failures, particularly as content providers have no right to appeal against being blocked unnecessarily.
The Government is refusing to reveal details about its trials, even the names of the ISPs which have volunteered to be involved. Some will begin their six-week trials this week. All the trials will be completed by the middle of next year.
Australia's largest ISP, Telstra, and Internode have said they will not take part in the trials. The second-largest ISP, Optus, will run a scaled-back trial of just the first tier, while iiNet, the third-biggest provider, has said it will participate simply to show the Government that its scheme will not work.
The policy has attracted opposition from online consumers, lobby groups, ISPs, network administrators, some children's welfare groups, the Opposition, the Greens, NSW Young Labor and even the conservative Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, who famously tried to censor the chef Gordon Ramsay's swearing on television.
Professor Landfeldt says the censorship plan assumes websites will remain static, but as soon as the filtering system is in place many porn and other "unwanted" sites will change their designs to get around the filters, just as spammers can bypass email filters.
He said the filtering plan was "completely politicised".
The Greens Senator Scott Ludlam urged the Government to drop its "completely unhinged" policy which was "a waste of taxpayers funds". The Liberal Party's communications spokesman, Nick Minchin, said the Opposition would try to obtain the report under freedom of information laws.
Denmark: 3863 Sites on Censorship List
For immediate release.
"Denmark: 3863 sites on secret censorship list"
Wikileaks has released the secret Internet censorship list for Denmark. The list contains 3863 sites blocked by Danish ISPs participating in Denmark's censorship scheme as of February 2008. Danish ISPs "volunteer" to censor their users rather than face legislation and the top three ISPs are particpants.
The system can be used to censor anything, but is meant to be for child pornography sites found by the Danish police and the Danish "Save the Children" group.
The list is generated without judicial or public oversight and is kept secret by the ISPs using it. Unaccountability is intrinsic to such a secret censorship system.
Most sites on the list are still censored (i.e must be on the current list), even though many have clearly changed owners or were possibly even wrongly placed on the list.
The list has been leaked because cases such as Thailand and Finland demonstrate that once a secret censorship system is established for pornographic content the same system can rapidly expand to cover other material, including political material, at the worst possible moment -- when government needs reform.
Two days ago Wikileaks released the secret Internet censorship list for Thailand. Of the 1,203 sites censored this year, all have the internally noted reason of "lese majeste" -- criticizing the Royal family. Like Denmark, the Thai censorship system was originally promoted as a mechanism to prevent the flow of child pornography.
The Danish filter is maintained by the National High Tech Crime Center of the Danish National Police and Save the Children Denmark. The police department is led by Peter Carpentier, and can be reached by phone: +45 33 14 88 88. The Save the Children-project is led by Kuno Soerensen, +45 25 14 00 69.
The list can be independently tested by any customer of a participating Danish ISP by visiting the URLs of the sites listed. If the customer is presented with a "STOP!" page, the site is still listed in the filter.
See below for a hyperlinked list of the sites.
Vietnam Regulator Bans Subversive Blogging
Vietnam's Ministry of Information and Communication, which regulates the Internet in the country, has banned blogs that are subversive or reveal state, security or economic secrets, a newspaper reported on Wednesday.
Blogs should facilitate connectivity and information sharing, follow the traditions and laws of Vietnam, and be written in "clean and wholesome" Vietnamese, the newspaper Hanoi Moi quoted a ministry circular issued on Tuesday as saying.
Internet use has exploded in Vietnam in recent years, and blogging has become wildly popular.
Some 21 million people use the Internet in the country now -- or about a quarter of the population, according to the ministry's Vietnam Internet Center. Last year, Vietnam had 17.7 million Internet users, and in 2006 the figure was 14.7 million.
Internet service providers would be held responsible for the content on blogs they host, the circular said.
It did not say what would happen in the case of blogs on overseas hosts, like the highly popular Yahoo!360.
The ministry planned to contact Yahoo and Google to seek their cooperation in "creating the best and healthiest environment for bloggers" the newspaper Thanh Nien Daily reported earlier this month.
Vietnam issued a decree on the management, provision and use of the Internet and e-information in August.
Unlike its Communist brother to the north, where the so-called "Great Firewall of China" actively filters and blocks a huge range of Web sites and Internet communications, the Vietnamese government's Web monitoring has been more haphazard. (Reporting by John Ruwitch; Editing by David Fox)
Internet Sites Could be Given 'Cinema-Style Age Ratings', Culture Secretary Says
Internet sites could be given cinema-style age ratings as part of a Government crackdown on offensive and harmful online activity to be launched in the New Year.
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Andy Burnham says he believes that new standards of decency need to be applied to the web. He is planning to negotiate with Barack Obama’s incoming American administration to draw up new international rules for English language websites.
The Cabinet minister describes the internet as “quite a dangerous place” and says he wants internet-service providers (ISPs) to offer parents “child-safe” web services.
Giving film-style ratings to individual websites is one of the options being considered, he confirms. When asked directly whether age ratings could be introduced, Mr Burnham replies: “Yes, that would be an option. This is an area that is really now coming into full focus.”
ISPs, such as BT, Tiscali, AOL or Sky could also be forced to offer internet services where the only websites accessible are those deemed suitable for children.
Mr Burnham also uses the interview to indicate that he will allocate money raised from the BBC’s commercial activities to fund other public-service broadcasting such as Channel Four. He effectively rules out sharing the BBC licence fee between broadcasters as others have recommended.
His plans to rein in the internet, and censor some websites, are likely to trigger a major row with online advocates who ferociously guard the freedom of the world wide web.
However, Mr Burnham said: “If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn’t reach. I think we are having to revisit that stuff seriously now. It’s true across the board in terms of content, harmful content, and copyright. Libel is [also] an emerging issue.
“There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it; it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people. We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it.”
Mr Burnham reveals that he is currently considering a range of new safeguards. Initially, as with copyright violations, these could be policed by internet providers. However, new laws may be threatened if the initial approach is not successful.
“I think there is definitely a case for clearer standards online,” he said. “More ability for parents to understand if their child is on a site, what standards it is operating to. What are the protections that are in place?”
He points to the success of the 9pm television watershed at protecting children. The minister also backs a new age classification system on video games to stop children buying certain products.
Mr Burnham, himself a parent of three young children, says his goal is for internet providers to offer “child-safe” web services.
“It worries me - like anybody with children,” he says. “Leaving your child for two hours completely unregulated on the internet is not something you can do. This isn’t about turning the clock back. The internet has been empowering and democratising in many ways but we haven’t yet got the stakes in the ground to help people navigate their way safely around…what can be a very, very complex and quite dangerous world.”
Mr Burnham also wants new industry-wide “take down times”. This means that if websites such as YouTube or Facebook are alerted to offensive or harmful content they will have to remove it within a specified time once it is brought to their attention.
He also says that the Government is considering changing libel laws to give people access to cheap low-cost legal recourse if they are defamed online. The legal proposals are being drawn up by the Ministry of Justice.
Mr Burnham admits that his plans may be interpreted by some as “heavy-handed” but says the new standards drive is “utterly crucial”. Mr Burnham also believes that the inauguration of Barack Obama, the President-Elect, presents an opportunity to implement the major changes necessary for the web.
“The change of administration is a big moment. We have got a real opportunity to make common cause,” he says. “The more we seek international solutions to this stuff – the UK and the US working together – the more that an international norm will set an industry norm.”
The Culture Secretary is spending the Christmas holidays at his constituency in Lancashire but is planning to take major decisions on the future of public-service broadcasting in the New Year. Channel Four is facing a £150m shortfall in its finances and is calling for extra Government help. ITV is also growing increasingly alarmed about the financial implications of meeting the public-service commitments of its licenses.
Mr Burnham says that he is prepared to offer further public assistance to broadcasters other than the BBC. However, he indicates that he does not favour “top-slicing” the licence fee. Instead, he may share the profits of the BBC Worldwide, which sells the rights to programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing to foreign broadcasters.
“I feel it is important to sustain quality content beyond the BBC,” he said. “The real priorities I have got in my mind are regional news, quality children’s content and original British children’s content, current affairs documentaries – that’s important. The thing now is to be absolutely clear on what the public wants to see beyond the BBC.
“Top-slicing the licence fee is an option that is going to have to remain on the table. I have to say it is not the option that I instinctively reach for first. I think there are other avenues to be explored.”
If You Sell An Unlimited Plan, Why Are You Telling Me It Will Be Limited?
After plenty of complaints (and whispers about potential legal troubles) a lot of US wireless carriers have backed off from calling very, very limited data plans "unlimited." Apparently, the discount wireless provider Cricket wasn't informed that when you say unlimited, you actually are supposed to mean unlimited. lavi d writes in to point us to Cricket's highly publicized "Unlimited" data plan. You see, right there at the top, it even highlights in orange that it's UNLIMITED. It's only after you go through all the fine print and get almost to the bottom that you see this:
Today in History-Dec. 25
Today is Thursday, Dec. 25, the 360th day of 2008. There are six days left in the year. This is Christmas Day.
Today's Highlight in History:
On Dec. 25, 1818, ''Silent Night,'' written by Franz Gruber and Father Joseph Mohr, was performed for the first time, at the Church of St. Nikolaus in Oberndorf, Austria.
On this date:
In A.D. 336, the first recorded celebration of Christmas on Dec. 25 took place in Rome.
In 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned king of England.
In 1776, Gen. George Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware River for a surprise attack against Hessian forces at Trenton, N.J.
In 1926, Hirohito became emperor of Japan, succeeding his father, Emperor Yoshihito. (Hirohito was formally enthroned almost two years later.)
In 1941, during World War II, Japan announced the surrender of the British-Canadian garrison at Hong Kong.
In 1946, comedian W.C. Fields died in Pasadena, Calif., at age 66.
In 1977, comedian Sir Charles Chaplin died in Switzerland at age 88.
In 1989, ousted Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed following a popular uprising.
In 1991, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev went on television to announce his resignation as the eighth and final leader of a communist superpower that had already gone out of existence.
In 2006, James Brown, the ''Godfather of Soul,'' died of heart failure in Atlanta at age 73.
Ten years ago: British mogul Richard Branson, American millionaire Steve Fossett and Per Lindstrand of Sweden gave up their attempt to make the first non-stop, round-the-world balloon flight seven days into their journey, ditching off Hawaii.
Five years ago: Sixteen people were killed by mudslides that swept over campgrounds in California's San Bernardino Valley. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf survived a second assassination bid in 11 days, but 16 other people, including three suicide bombers, were killed. A plane crashed after taking off from Benin, killing at least 130 of the 161 people aboard. Europe's tiny Mars lander, the Beagle 2, was supposed to go into orbit around the Red Planet, but the craft was lost.
One year ago: A tiger at the San Francisco Zoo escaped her enclosure and killed a park visitor; two brothers also were mauled, but survived. Russia's military successfully test-fired a new intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. A ruptured gasoline pipeline exploded near Nigeria's main city of Lagos, killing at least 40 people.
Today's Birthdays: Singer Tony Martin is 95. Actor Dick Miller is 80. Actress Hanna Schygulla is 65. Rhythm-and-blues singer John Edwards (The Spinners) is 64. Actor Gary Sandy is 63. Singer Jimmy Buffett is 62. Football Hall-of-Famer Larry Csonka is 62. Country singer Barbara Mandrell is 60. Actress Sissy Spacek is 59. Actress CCH Pounder is 56. Singer Annie Lennox is 54. Reggae singer-musician Robin Campbell (UB40) is 54. Country singer Steve Wariner is 54. Singer Shane MacGowan (The Popes) is 51. Baseball player Rickey Henderson is 50. Actress Klea Scott is 40. Rock musician Noel Hogan (The Cranberries) is 37. Singer Dido is 37. Rock singer Mac Powell (Third Day) is 36. Country singer Alecia Elliott is 26.
Thought for Today: ''My idea of Christmas, whether old-fashioned or modern, is very simple: loving others. Come to think of it, why do we have to wait for Christmas to do that?'' -- Bob Hope, American comedian (1903-2003).
"Can I Resell My MP3s?": the Post-Sale Life of Digital Goods
Second time's a charm
"The Castaway" is not a very good book. Published in 1908, Hallie Ermine Rives' novel opens with these deeply unpromising sentences:
"A cool breeze slipped ahead of the dawn. It blew dim the calm Greek stars, stirred the intricate branches of olive trees inlaid in the rose-pearl facade of sky, bowed the tall, coral-lipped oleanders lining the rivulets, and crisped the soft wash of the gulf-tide. It lifted the strong bronze curls on the brow of a sleeping man who lay on the sea-beach covered with a goatskin."
A goatskin? Crisped the soft wash? The masochists among us can read more thanks to the magic of Google Books, but Rives' story isn't notable for its prose as much as for its legacy.
The original publisher printed a notice in one edition demanding that the book not be sold or resold for less than one dollar, ever, by anyone. The publisher ended up in court over this restriction, and the trial helped to produce the "first sale" doctrine that buyers have broad rights to do what they want (subject to other laws, of course) with something they have purchased. Without that trial, you might not have the right to resell that old video game you have lying around, and you might have trouble hawking your used CDs. Publishers don't tend to like secondary markets, as they usually get no cut of the revenues.
But the first sale doctrine, (relatively) straightforward in the physical world, has been complicated by the easy copyability of digital works, the rise of EULAs, and the use of DRM and activation systems. Did the Castaway decision also pave the way for you to sell your MP3s? And if not, what's the legal status of all that digital media the young people spend so much money on at iTunes and Amazon? Do they own it? Can they sell it? What about those Steam games? Can you resell that unopened copy of AutoCAD even though the EULA forbids it?
Welcome to the murky "post-sale" world in the digital age.
Hullabaloo over Bopaboo
This month saw some controversy over Bopaboo, a site that allows people to sell their MP3s online. First sale doctrine would seem to allow the sale of digital goods, but the Bopaboo business model requires people to upload their music to the site before it can be sold—in other words, to make a copy.
As Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out to Ars, first sale law does not provide anyone with the right to make additional copies. The new company would appear to be treading on ice of remarkable thinness here; although it has some technology in place to forbid people from selling multiple copies of the same song, it knows nothing about the origin of those songs (P2P? iTunes?) or whether they have been deleted after uploading.
This has been an issue for years—used book stores don't know if sellers have a photocopy of the entire text stashed away at home—but digital products make the copying so much simpler as to seem like almost another class of works. If Bopaboo has no mechanism for verifying deletions after an upload, it may find itself in the music industry's legal crosshairs.
Except for one thing: Bopaboo has gone to the music labels and is currently seeking licenses for what it's doing, with the goal of putting some kind of revenue sharing deal in place. In other words, it's seeking to give creators something they have long wished for: a piece of the secondary market.
Making money the second time around
It may seem axiomatic to consumers that a business or artisan makes its money only on the initial sale. The carpenter who built your dining table doesn't get a cut when you eventually hawk it on Craiglist, and Best Buy makes no money when you resell one of its computers to a friend. This may seem like the natural order of things, but the content industries generally hate it. The music and book businesses, in particular, have been vocal over the years about their displeasure with used record shops and secondhand book stores.
Rich Bengloff is the president of the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) and he also sits on the board of the royalty-collection entity SoundExchange. He tells Ars that the industry isn't thrilled about used sales because they don't compensate creators and investors. When I ask how this differs from every other sale of used goods, Bengloff makes the point that, in other industries, there is often some money still to be made on used goods. Car dealers continue to earn revenue through service and maintenance, while carpenters may need to repair the table or restain it. With music, there's no maintenance or service or even degradation of the product, no chance at all to earn anything in the future from it.
Bengloff says that the music industry has come to grips with used CD stores, though grudgingly. "It exists and we have to be pragmatists," he says, which is made easier by the fact that used CD are still "used." Jewel cases may be scratched, CDs may have scuffs, and booklets may be bent or missing. Even if the industry can't share in the revenues, such stores aren't directly competing with new CD sellers, at least.
But digital resale shops would pose new challenges. Put simply, the product they offer is simply too good. "Used" versions of songs aren't actually "used" at all; they're perfect copies, as good as the day they traveled through the tubes and onto a user's machine the first time. So, if used copies of digital goods are sold at a lower price, consumers have no reason at all to use higher-priced services like iTunes or Amazon. If used copies are sold at the same price, the store doing the selling is now in direct competition with those other stores, even though it doesn't have to split any profit with labels or creators.
At the same time, digital resale shops may also offer some benefit to the industry. Because the business model of stores like Bopaboo ("great name," says Bengloff) may be dodgier than stores trafficking in physical goods, the labels have an opportunity to get a piece of the market in exchange for legal security. Bopaboo's decision to seek licenses for its behavior is (pun intended) music to the ears of the music industry.
What sayeth the law?
For some in the music business, the entire issue of selling MP3s has the whiff of betrayal about it. The music labels eventually released their music in formats without DRM, after all, trying to please the music-buying public, and what do they get for their trouble? The possibility of a secondary market where they might not profit at all.
Businesses have many strategies for mitigating the secondary market for their goods. One of the most common is the End User License Agreement (EULA), which in many software packages forbids the resale of the product. How is this possible? Because of the "L" in EULA, which indicates that the software package isn't sold, merely licensed. The developer, in fact, retains control over the licensed software, and it can dictate the terms of that license at will.
Such arrangements have been attacked in court on various grounds. One of the most common has concerned used software sales. The well-known Vernor v. Autodesk case in 2007 came about after Tim Vernor's eBay account was disabled after repeated complaints from Autodesk over Vernor's reselling of its software. Vernor pointed out that he had never agreed to the EULA in question, since he bought and resold his copies without ever opening, installing, or running the software (all points at which the EULA might appear). The court ruled in Vernor's favor, as it also did in the Softman case a few years earlier.
But these cases don't address the EULA issue head-on; they simply bypass it altogether. The question of EULA validity remains an open one. Von Lohmann of the EFF argues that the position of software companies is simply untenable here. Microsoft might swear on a stack of Bill Gates biographies that it has never, ever sold a piece of software in its corporate life, but functionally, it's hard to see the difference. Most software is sold once, can generally run forever, can be put to any use the customer wants; how is that not a sale?
These arguments lay behind the recent Augusto case, where Universal music claimed that its early release promotional CDs were licensed, not gifted or sold, and that therefore Universal could ban any resale of the discs. (Most promo CDs have such a warning against resale prominently stamped on the packaging and the disc.) Any denizen of used CD shops knows that promo CDs are resold on a regular basis with little that the label can do about it, but when eBay made the practice both national and widespread, companies like Universal tried to crack down.
In June 2008, the court affirmed Augusto's right to sell the discs after pointing out that the discs arrived unsolicited through the mail and were therefore "gifts" under federal law. Once more, the key issue of the "license" was not fully explored, though, since the receiver had never signed or viewed such a license before receiving the discs.
In some cases, courts do go along with the license idea. The Wall Data case in the Ninth Circuit was one such decision. The Los Angeles Sheriff had licensed 3,633 copies of a software package from Wall Data, then went ahead and installed it onto 6,007 computers. the Sheriff's Department used a login system to monitor the numbers of copies actually being used at the same time, and the system would not allow more than 3,633 copies to run simultaneously.
Wall Data sued, claiming that this violated the terms of the license. The Sheriff's Department asserted that it was an "owner" of the software, since ownership grants additional rights under the law. The court disagreed, saying that the Sheriff was certainly a licensee.
"Generally," wrote the court, "if the copyright owner makes it clear that she or he is granting only a license to the copy of software and imposes significant restrictions on the purchaser's ability to redistribute or transfer that copy, the purchaser is considered a licensee, not an owner, of the software." Wall Data won.
It's these sorts of mixed decisions that led von Lohmann to say that we don't "have anything approaching complete clarity" on these post-sale and licensing issues in the digital world.
Code trumps law
But all such issues involving licenses and secondary markets can simply be bypassed by a more recent technique: using DRM or various activation schemes to make the sale of used goods difficult. Using this approach, software companies can admit to "selling" software and can admit that the first sale doctrine applies, yet they can functionally limit the doctrine's utility. Code trumps law.
First sale has nothing to say about these kinds of limits; so long as the item in question can be resold by the purchaser, the law does nothing to require that the resold copy be usable. Spore's user account system and DRM proved controversial for just this reason.
Most companies are reticent to lock down the software too much for fear of a backlash. Many follow the model of Microsoft, which uses activation but is generally quite lenient to anyone that makes the effort to call in and obtain a new activation code after a certain number of hardware changes. But, legally, there's nothing that requires this.
It's one of the side "benefits" of using DRM. While DRM has never done much to keep movies, music, or games out of the hands of warez sites and torrent search engines, it can work surprisingly well to limit the secondary market for products. Once a product has been ripped, camcorded, or cracked, pirates can swap it easily and millions of times. With users who try to stay legal and sell only used copies of games, music, and movies that they have purchased, the DRM scheme needs to be bypassed in each case, by each user. It also makes criminals of those who do break the DRM in order to sell their files.
Not that licensing, DRM, and central control are always bad. Anyone who has used Steam or Xbox Live or Netflix's on-demand movie service knows that not fully owning or controlling products doesn't have to be a terrible thing. When licenses and content exist in the cloud, users can often access their files from anywhere, using any machine, and have full access to their accounts.
But try selling that game you bought on Steam.
Who deserves a cut?
Whether the secondary market is good or bad depends on where you're seated. To Bengloff, it looks like a way for two, five, ten, twenty, or a hundred people to enjoy the same content, even though creators only profit once. To von Lohmann, who takes a consumer perspective, a secondary market is wonderful.
In this view, a secondary market always limits the monopoly power of someone's exclusive rights. A book publisher has the exclusive right to control copies of a new title, for instance, and no one can get that book from any other source. Sure, people can shop around at various bookstores, but all those stores have to ultimately buy the book from the publisher at whatever price the publisher sets. The existence of used book stores means that publishers can't raise prices for hot titles arbitrarily high. That's great for consumers.
But for creators, it can look a little scary, especially as used products have become simple to find on eBay, Amazon, Bookfinder, and other such sites. Bengloff worries that labels, especially indies, settle for less of a return on their investment because "it's art" they're dealing in, and they love the material. But they still need to make money. With talk now of opening more secondary markets for digital goods like MP3s, the industry senses a threat.
When intellectual property is being resold at the same quality as new material, that doesn't sound like a "used" business to Bengloff.
And until courts begin to weigh in on these issues with consistency, "used" digital goods will continue to be controversial.
Hard Day’s Night for Beatles Reissues
If you still believe in Santa Claus, you might also have expected to wake up on Christmas morning and find an iPod stocked with the long-promised reissues of all the Beatles albums. But if you know the shocking truth about Santa, you probably know that the vaunted Beatles reissues don’t exist either, outside the vaults of EMI, the group’s record label, and Apple, the company the band set up in 1967 to oversee its interests.
Other long-anticipated Apple projects, like DVD versions of the Beatles’ Shea Stadium concert and the “Let It Be” film, failed to turn up for the holidays as well. And if you put any faith in Paul McCartney’s passing mention, in November, that the 1967 avant-garde track “Carnival of Light” might be released, don’t hold your breath: this track has been dangled before (about a decade ago, when Mr. McCartney used it as the soundtrack of an unreleased “photofilm,” made from photographs of the Beatles taken by his first wife, Linda).
Indeed, whenever Mr. McCartney releases a new album (as he did the week “Carnival of Light” was mentioned), reports of “long-lost” Beatles tracks that “might be released” suddenly surface, but the recordings themselves do not.
Even the most believable of reports, floated by EMI insiders, proved fruitless this year. During the summer EMI was said to be preparing a deluxe remastered edition of the “The Beatles” (popularly known as “The White Album”) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its release. The anniversary came and went, with no sign of the reissue.
Instead, Apple sent e-mail messages to fans directing them to beatles.com, the official Web site, where they could celebrate the anniversary by buying a $395 “White Album” fountain pen. Also on offer were a “White Album” hoodie and T-shirts. Presumably, the wizards at Apple think people will want these things in time for the Beatles edition of Rock Band, the computer game to which the group agreed, this fall, to lend its name and music.
What’s wrong with this picture?
It is not for lack of interest at either end of the food chain that the Beatles can’t manage to get upgraded versions of their classic recordings onto the market, except by way of a video game or a site-specific show (Cirque du Soleil’s “Love,” in Las Vegas).
EMI, which owns the group’s recordings, remastered them at least two years ago. According to a 1989 agreement that ended 20 years of lawsuits between the Beatles and EMI, the label can do nothing without an O.K. from Apple. But Apple is supposedly keen: early in 2007 it hired Jeff Jones, a record executive whose last job was overseeing historical reissues for the superb Sony Legacy series.
There would have been no reason to hire someone with that background if archival reissues were not in the company’s plans, and since Apple acts only with the unanimous consent of its four shareholders — Mr. McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison — presumably all four have agreed to a release program, at least in principle.
And how many record labels, just now, are facing an army of consumers who are saying, in effect: “We’ve bought this music several times already — on mono and stereo LPs, on picture discs and audiophile vinyl, perhaps on cassette and most recently on CD — but please, we beg you, sell it to us again.”
So what’s the holdup? No one is willing to say, but Mr. McCartney recently asserted that EMI was demanding an unspecified concession that the Beatles were unwilling to make.
Frankly, the reasons hardly matter at this point: to collectors awaiting these releases, either on physical CDs (improved sound being the main point of remastering) or as digital downloads (where convenience trumps audiophile considerations), the inability of Apple and EMI to get this music onto the market is a symbol of how pathetic the record business has become, and how dysfunctional Apple continues to be. On Beatles chat boards and Web sites, the $395 pen, in particular, was greeted with derision.
This must be intensely frustrating for Mr. Jones; in fact, people close to EMI and Apple say he has a significant list of projects that he would love to release. But in the nearly two years he’s been at Apple, he has presided over the video game agreement and a DVD documentary about the making of the “Love” show (which, in truth, includes a few revealing moments, showing the difficulties of dealing with Apple’s shareholders, from Cirque du Soleil’s point of view).
While EMI and Apple have been squabbling, collectors have taken matters into their own hands, pooling unreleased tracks and compiling anthologies that are far more ambitious than anything EMI is likely to release. Usually, these unauthorized desktop bootleg projects (which are of course illegal) have attractive cover art and copious annotations, and these days money rarely changes hands for them: the people who compile them distribute them freely (and encourage others to do so) either on home-burned CDs and DVDs or, increasingly, on the Internet.
Some are curatorial masterpieces. A label called Purple Chick has assembled deluxe editions of each commercially released album, offering the original discs in their mono and stereo mixes, along with the singles (also in mono and stereo) released at the time, as well as every known demo, studio outtake and alternative mix.
Drawing mostly on an earlier generation of less obsessively organized bootlegs and adding otherwise unbootlegged rarities when they turn up, Purple Chick has generally chosen the best-sounding and most complete takes (editing together fragments where necessary) and has done some speed correction and other sonic tweaking.
It offers upgrades, as well: when copies of the unmixed, unedited four-track masters of four songs from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” began circulating at the end of last year, Purple Chick revised its “Sgt. Pepper” compilation to accommodate them.
So if you wanted to celebrate the anniversary of “The White Album,” you could turn to Purple Chick’s “Beatles Deluxe,” which covers 10 CDs. And if you want to begin the new year by commemorating the 40th anniversary of the “Let It Be” sessions, which ran from Jan. 2 to 31, 1969, you still have a few days to find Purple Chick’s “A/B Road,” which offers nearly 96 hours of those sessions on 83 CDs.
It can be a slog — songs are rehearsed endlessly — but its best moments are magical. Along with discussions, fights and jam sessions, you hear classic tracks coming together, from the first time one of the Beatles walks the others through its chord progression, straight through to the finished arrangement, with lyrics taking shape along the way.
Purple Chick has also compiled the group’s BBC radio performances on 10 CDs and a CD-ROM (compared with EMI’s two-CD official release), and is currently working its way through all the available concert recordings.
Another label, Lazy Tortoise, is compiling chronologically all the Beatles’ television and radio interviews. And on DVD, the FAB label is doing the same with the group’s film and television appearances, from 1962 to the present.
Nobody who collects these things would hesitate to buy officially released archival projects, if only Apple and EMI would release them. Perhaps by the time the 40th anniversary of the “Abbey Road” album rolls around, on Sept. 26, Apple and EMI will have gotten it together.
Recording Labels and Websites in a Music Video Tussle
A scrap between Warner and YouTube points up the music industry's growing dependence on online revenue.
Dawn C. Chmielewski
The removal of Warner Music Group's videos from YouTube over the weekend highlights the growing tension between music labels and websites over what is becoming an important source of revenue for the beleaguered recorded-music industry: advertising and licensing fees from music videos, the foundation that built MTV but which has now largely migrated to the Internet.
The impasse comes at a time when all four major labels -- Warner, Universal Music Group, Sony BMG Music Entertainment and EMI Music -- are renegotiating their licensing deals with YouTube, the largest video site.
YouTube and social networks such as Last.FM pay for the rights to stream music videos. Typical licensing agreements pay either a minimum fee based on the number of times a video is viewed or, if the sum is greater, a share of the ad revenue, helping to make music videos a small but fast-growing source of revenue for the labels. One label executive estimates that music videos will generate about $300 million for the industry this year.
Record labels are eager to explore ancillary revenue to help offset free-falling CD sales. This year's album sales are down 45% from 2000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. A recent Forrester Research report projects that disc sales will continue to decline by an annual rate of about 9% over the next five years, as retailers reduce the shelf space allotted to CDs and music fans shift their purchases online.
As a result, music executives are increasingly pressing for what the industry calls 360 deals, in which the labels grab a share of revenue once reserved for the artist, such as concert ticket sales and proceeds from the sale of T-shirts and other merchandise.
"The idea of getting as many revenue streams [as possible], licensing as broadly as possible, and making those digital pennies add up to dimes and hopefully add up to dollars is clearly the game everybody's playing right now," said David Card, research director at Forrester.
Music videos are just one of myriad ways in which the music companies slice and dice a music single, from 99-cent downloads on iTunes to mobile-phone ring tones.
"Video is not the largest category, but it's a significant category, to the tune of 5% or 10% of the total," said Thomas Hesse, president of global digital business for Sony BMG Music Entertainment. "It's a significant and growing number."
No one considered music videos to be anything other than telegenic billboards when MTV launched its 24-hour-a-day music channel in 1981. Those were the days when labels spent lavishly on cinematic-quality productions such as Michael Jackson's 14-minute "Thriller" music video, directed by Hollywood filmmaker John Landis, which cost $1 million.
"The irony is, back in the day when the production budgets were more in the seven-figure-plus range, we weren't monetizing them at all," said Jeff Dodes, senior vice president of marketing and digital media for Zomba Label Group, whose artists include such pop acts as Jordan Sparks, Justin Timberlake and Pink. "It was a time when the media landscape wasn't as fractured as it is now."
Those days -- like MTV's dominance as the one place to watch music videos -- are a memory.
The major labels quickly recognized the business potential of the polished, short-form content, which Internet users consumed like digital candy. Music videos allowed sites to build an audience, and Universal Music was among the first to enter into licensing arrangements with America Online, Yahoo Music and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN to request payment for the videos offered free to Internet users.
YouTube's launch, in December 2005, remade the digital video landscape. The site grew quickly in the U.S. and now attracts 100 million monthly visitors, thanks to quirky homemade videos and the mini-celebrities who emerged. Universal Music's own research shows that YouTube is the leading source of music discovery for teens, who increasingly turn to their computer screens, instead of radio and television, to find new tracks.
Universal Music, the world's largest label, expects revenue from online streaming of music videos to approach $100 million this year -- up from zero in 2004. Though that amount doesn't reach the level of consumer spending on song downloads, cellphone ring tones or CD sales, executives nonetheless anticipate that the advertising revenue that flows from the music videos will increase. Revenue for the label from videos is up 80% from last year.
"It's definitely on a significant growth trajectory," said Rio Caraeff, executive vice president of Universal Music's ELaboratory, a division responsible for the label's new technology business initiatives. "As Madison Avenue and advertisers in general learn to start embracing video advertising as a viable medium, there is no content that's more popular on the Internet, more well suited, than music videos as the ultimate snack-size programming."
Brands such as Coogi, a clothing maker, are so eager to be associated with music videos that paid product placement underwrote the entire $1-million production cost for the Universal Motown music video of Akon's "I'm So Paid." In the opening of the video, a helicopter deposits the urban artist on the deck of a 40-foot yacht, where he disembarks and saunters past two Coogi bikini-clad women perched on the edge of a hot tub.
Paid product placements are "the smarter way to do it," said Aliaune Thiam, who performs under the stage name Akon.
The popularity of the music video as its own form of entertainment has emboldened the labels to restructure deals and demand bigger payments from their digital distributors -- setting the stage for the stand-off between YouTube and Warner Music, the third-largest label and home to such acts as Madonna, rapper T.I., Red Hot Chili Peppers and Linkin Park.
"We want to offer the most complete array of music possible, but we need to do that in a way that makes economic sense," said Chris Maxcy, YouTube's director of content partnerships. "Some labels are clinging to a model that makes no sense economically. We'll be sad to see that content go, if it gets to the point where we can't agree on terms."
The licensing issue is so sensitive that some smaller social music networks, such as iMeem and iLike, declined to discuss it for this story.
At least one of the major labels is seeking a mandatory minimum licensing fee of $20,000 a month, said Ted Cohen, an industry veteran who now heads digital consulting firm TAG Strategic. Though it's understandable that music companies are looking for alternative revenue streams, he said, such sizable payments threaten to drain budding ventures of the cash they need to remain in business.
"We need to come up with sustainable models," Cohen said. "What's happening is [that the labels are saying], 'Give us a bunch of money; we don't care if you're around in six months.' "
Until next week,
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