Monday, June 25, 2007

Uh, ok - Now I have an 11th Sign...

...jeez - that was quick. I thought I'd get at least 4 full weeks before I got torqued enough to come up with an additional "sign" to add to my "10 Signs that the US Needs Legislators that Understand Tech" - but I didn't even really make it to 3 weeks.

So - remember when we all had block parties and "high fived" each other on the street when Rumsfeld "resigned" back in November? And then remember when we held our breath when Bush started the second film in the "Defense Department Creature Double Feature" by installing Robert Gates as the new head defense dude? Well - how bad could it be, right? I mean at least Gates had reasonable credentials -- he was already the Secretary of Defense once before (under Regan), and has been in six presidential administrations, all totaled.

After (uh, after?) Gates was "installed" in office, people starting digging around his public speeches when he was president of Texas A&M, and found this little gem: "Robert Gates: 'cyberterrorism' is the worst WMD out there." Well - ok. I'd still take a denial of service attack on Amazon.com over, say, a gigantic syphilis bomb exploding over southern california, or a Dalek attack on London...but, I get his point...sorta. We should be concerned over the "Goldeneye" scenario: a coordinated attack on key internet and public network sites that could potentially cripple parts of the world economy. Bad shit. Plausable. I get it.

Hey - cool. Maybe all of those years as head CIA guy paid off. Someone in charge of the nation's defense who understands that attacks on our country are not limited to suicide bombers and physical targets.

Then, uh, this surfaced: It happened. 1500 Pentagon computers were brought offline by a hacker attack. Ok, the machines that were brought offline were unimportant, really - just "dirty net" email servers and the like...but, it did show how a plausable attempt to bring key government systems offline could succeed. So, you can imagine how my illusions about a tech savvy Head Defense dude were shattered like so many dreams of the Easter Bunny when Gates responded to the question of whether his email was effected by the attack with the comment 'I don't do e-mail. I'm a very low-tech person.'

What? I'm sorry. What?

Sure enough - it's true. He doesn't use email. Or computers. At all. Email that is sent to Gates is presented to him on paper, which he then marks up and his administration assistant types into an email client. Bwahahahahaha.

Robert Gates: Sign #11 that the US Needs More Legislators Who Understand Tech. (Robert, I was going to Amazon.com you an award, but I figured you'd be confused when the UPS guy showed up at your office...so just take my word for it, you have spot number #11.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Vision Quest: To Quote Roy Batty...

"...oh, if you could only see what I have seen with your eyes."

A lot of folks (yes, I said "folks") out there are pretty damn curious about this. I've gotten more email about this operation than from all the other posts combined (I apologize for not writing more about this in the wrap up with the video, but I've been busy looking at stuff with my new eyes! Very novel - I like it.)

So, let's see if I can answer all of the questions from the emails in one shot....

What did I experience before/during/after?

  • When I was planning this procedure, I scoped out the doctors and found who I wanted to do it very early - last fall, as a matter of fact. I went in for the pre-op check in November of '06 to see if I qualified (I did, obviously). I subsequently went through a scheduled-canceled-scheduled cycle a few times, until I wound up at last week (June '07.) This was mostly due to work commitments...they were very flexible about rescheduling.
  • I didn't actually get nervous (I am not a nervous or squeamish person by nature - and operations of any sort tend to interest me on a technical level) until just after the pre-op procedure (called the "C2") just a few days before the operation. That night I didn't really sleep as I had visions of losing my eyes in a freak lasik accident. (A friend of mine said "the problem is you know too much" about how it all goes down. Probably right.)
  • During the C2, they took the final measurements of my eye (the cornea, the lens, the vitreous humour density - and then the surgeon ran the algorithms required for the LASIK machine to autoshape my lens to approach 20/20 vision. After a few decades of work in the software industry, I briefly wondered how much it would suck if - after I was underneath the laser - someone's else's file was loaded in by mistake...but, uh, I assumed they must have had some safeguards in place. (He did, actually - apparently, the level of safeguard was so intense, that if they put the machine over the right eye when it was programmed for the left eye, the machine wouldn't work. Cool.)
  • The morning of the operation, I was sorta ridiculously calm. I was driven in, had the pre-op conversation, signed the little form that acknowledged the risks of this, listened patiently (haha..get it?) as they, once again, explained the problems that could results, took a Xanax, and went into the room.
  • If you check out the video I posted on the previous article, you will see exactly what I experienced. From "my end of the eyeball" it was a very strange experience. Because the surgeon knew that I understood the optics and the tech involved, he described exactly what he was doing at every step of the operation. (I heard one of the nurses ask if that was a good idea - and he said "He requested that I tell him what I am doing." So, that was good...)
  • When the first corneal flap was removed (all together now: EW!), I saw my vision completely cloud over - I just let it happen and trusted the doctor and the tech, I had no choice. This was done by the first "intralasik" laser - it made no noise at all.
  • I saw a blinking, red alignment light. You need to try to keep that light in your central field of vision at all times.
  • I saw the doctor swab my lens with a cotton swab. That was bizarre - I felt nothing.
  • I saw a field of red pixels - which I assumed was the laser alignment grid - and then I heard the tat-tat-tat of the shaping laser come on. (Every time the beam fired, it made a loud TAT noise - the effect would have been disturbing if it wasn't for the Xanax.)
  • If you are squeamish, don't read this bullet: I could smell the burned lens tissue as the laser turned it to plasma.
  • The laser stopped, and he swabbed my lens again.
  • He manually positioned the corneal flap back into place, and swabbed it down. (I immediately could see a poster that they had taped to the ceiling. Not completely clearly, but clearer than I would have with contacts or glasses.
  • The procedure was repeated for the second eye. Total time for both eyes was about 20-25 minutes.
  • When done, they sat me in a dark room and let me put on my iPod. They would check in on me to make sure I was awake, and as I sat there in the dim light, I could see an eye chart on the far wall. At some point during that few hours in the dim light, I became aware that I could read the chart - I had no idea when that happened.
  • I was brought home - I expected to be convalescing that whole night - in fact, I set my weekend up in a way where I didn't have to do anything, but by 6 or 7pm, I was watching a movie on my television.
  • The next morning, I woke up with 20/25 vision. I drove myself back to the doctor's office for a post-op exam. Despite the dire warnings, the operation had gone better than everyone expected:
    • The reading glasses I used when I had contacts were no longer necessary, despite hearing that I still would need that after the operation.
    • My distance vision was not as sharp as with contacts, but was visibly getting sharper by the hour. (I am told by the doctor that it will continue to improve as the weeks go on - and it seems to be true.)
    • My night vision is just as good as it was with contacts.
    • What about the "prism" effects people complain about? I have put my night vision to the test several times over the last week - and small points of light appear as, well, small points of light. I do see the prism effect, but very faintly - and only on sodium arc lamps. (The low-power, orange hued overhead street lamps that are common on city streets and major highways.) The prism shows up only when I look directly at the lamp, and then only faintly. The prism pattern occurs as a straight line "rainbow" at the 0, 90, 180, 270 degree marks at a distance of about 22 degrees from the light source. For the curious - the prisming is caused by the pixel banding patterns that the laser cuts into your lens to shape it - essentially, the laser turns your lens into a Fresnel lens, just like the kind that used to make the baby Jesus disappear and reappear in those freaky catholic handout things. The distance between the banding is obvious very small (measured in angstroms), and my speculation about why I only see these sometimes is that the distance between the bands must be close to the frequency of the sodium lights.

Ok, so here's the deal for a successful LASIK:
  • Do your homework. There are a lot of quacks out their that you can get involved with that will do a sloppy or bad job on your eyes. (You don't want to wind up dictating a blog entry on LasikDisaster.com, do you?) I came away with the metric: if the doctor has done less than 5,000 successful ops in a row, I wouldn't use him/her. Also, nothing is better than finding a reliable reference.
  • Do not bargain hunt. Dicker your heart out when you are negotiating a price for a car or jacket or something, not on your freakin eyes, dude.
  • Do what they tell you - both pre- and post-op, not just during the operation. If they want you to wear the goofy goggles for 2 weeks, even if your eyes feel fine, do it. Take the meds, the drops, the vitamin C, the whole deal.
  • Bring your iPod (or iRiver, or whatever) for post-op recovery. The hardest part about this whole procedure was staying awake in a darkened room for 3 hours while zoned out on Xanax. (If you fall asleep: rapid eye movement kicks in...uh, you don't want that...but you do want the Xanax, trust me.)
  • Get someone to drive you - I almost stupidly took a cab to/from the place-o-cutting....not a good idea, you will be VERY zoned out at the end of the day when you have to go home.
Throughout the whole process, there was no pain and no panic. I have been asked over and over if I would do it again - the answer is unequivocally yes, without any hesitation. My vision became impaired when I was a kid - I had mumps when I was 6 years old, and my vision deteriorated rapidly after that. (That was one of the effects of that virus - it moves from the saliva glands into other soft tissue fairly easily. Be glad that it has been virtually wiped out, kids.) So, for 4 decades I have donned spectacles or placed little pieces of vinyl on my corneas every morning - so, after the LASIK was the first time in my adult life that I have seen unaided.

So, yes. Absolutely. Without any hestitation I would do this again. Science wins this round.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Vision Quest Completion: My LASIK Day Yesterday

So, the idea was to have been that my LASIK surgeon would give me a copy of the video of my surgery, and I would post it up here while I described my time under the beam, but... the doctor was switching from analog video equipment to digital video equipment, so nothing was recorded. Sigh.

Luckily, a quick YouTube search produced this gem from "jackdakota" and his LASIK. It's amazingly well done, and perfectly describes my day yesterday.

For the record - within 3 hours I was walking the dogs, by the next morning I drove myself back to the doctors to get the "morning after" report: corneal flap sealed perfectly, my vision is now 20/25 in both eyes. The distance vision is not as crisp as with contacts, but is predicted to increase dramatically over the next few weeks. Oddly, I no longer need reading glasses, which they didn't think would happen.

So...sit back, and enjoy my day yesterday through "jackdakota's" eye.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Vision Quest, Part 2

...ok, under the laser scalpel I go. If I can see the keyboard, I'll give folks a full report tomorrow. If I can't see the keyboard, nice knowing you.

Comcast "Customer Security Assistance:" ComTastic!


Comcast to me: "No More Broadband For YOU!"

So, two days ago my home internet service stopped. Not unusual in this day and age, I suppose. I go to the Home Nerve Center - uh, the shelf with crap on it next to my furnace in the basement - and I take a look at the modem lights: the send and receive lights were blinking in a monotonous, 1-blink-per-second pattern. Hmmmm. No service.

Being the whip-smart, CTO type that I am, I pull out my portable communications equipment - uh, my cell phone - and put in call to Comcast customer support. I go through the usual voice mail maze until I reach a charming human being named Kimberly. She asks for my phone number (important plot point here) and calls up my account...then comes the bone-chilling silence, followed by "Sir, there is a note here that your account has been flagged by CSA!"

"What, " I ask, "is CSA?"

...the silence is deafening, and I think I hear the Darth Vader theme in the background as poor Kimberly finally croaks out:

"Sir, CSA is....Customer Security Assurance!"

Thinking that I don't really need to be assured about the state of my security, I respond: "Nope, never heard of them." In a voice usually reserved for old italian women kneeling at a catholic alter, Kimberly responds:

"Sir, you have to call over to the CSA. There is nothing more I can do here..." (I can almost feel her tiptoe away from the phone as she forwards my call.)

As I am waiting for the new, cheery person at CSA to pick up the phone, I log into Google (hahah - of COURSE I have more than one way of accessing the internet. Jeez) and type in "Comcast Customer Security Assurance." You know what I get? Almost nothing. Yup. Try it yourself, its a fun experiment. They have no web presence, and very little presence at all out side the company. Just this one oblique reference on Broadband Forums about an email to a user saying they were unceremoniously shutting his email accounts down. Hmm. Not good.

Click.

Me: "Hi. I was told to call here by your customer support group. They said that..."

... I was cut off by a voice that was more alien than human.

AlienVoice: "What is your phone number?"
Me: (give them my phone number)
...pause...
AlienVoice: "I have nothing under that number."
Me: "Well, that's my number."
...pause...
AV: "Nothing."
Me: "Well, that's the number I just gave customer support, and they found my account."
AV: "That is not possible." (I swear I am not making this up. Not even for dramatic effect. Honest.)
Me: "Uh....does CSA have a direct phone number?"
AV: "No. You reach us through customer support." (Really, I am not making this up.)
Me: "Um, you see the problem here, don't you?"
AV: "You gave them a different number."
Me: "I only have one."
AV: (Clearly irritated having to speak to the human) "Name?"
Me: (I give my name as the alien instructed)
...pause...
AV: "Ah, here you are. You did not give me your correct number."
Me: "What?"
AV: "You are in our Global Database as ... " and she gives me a number from 5 years ago. (Really, she really called it their Global Database.)
Me: "That's an old phone number."
AV: "It is your responsibility to inform us of your change in number."
Me: "I did. You have it."
AV: "You are in our Global Database under the number I gave you."
Me: "Customer service found me using my current number."
AV: "That is not possible. We access the same Global Database." (Please, honestly. I am not making this up.)
Me: "That's not my problem."
AV: "OF COURSE IT IS YOUR PROBLEM! WE COULD NOT REACH YOU BECAUSE YOU DID NOT PROVIDE US WITH THE CORRECT NUMBER!" (Really. In caps. She spoke in caps.)

...ok, this wasn't getting anywhere...

Me: "Ok, why did you terminate my service."
AV: (Reading from a written statement) "Your high bandwidth consumption was flagged for violation of the Comcast Terms of Service, and your service was suspended. Upon acknowledge of this statement, your service will get restated. However, continued violations will result in a 12 month suspension of service. Do you understand and acknowledge this statement?" (Yes, I wrote it down.)
Me: "What violation? How much bandwidth was I using?"
AV: "Your high bandwidth consumption was flagged for violation of the Comcast Terms of Service, and your service was suspended. Upon acknowledge of this statement, your service will get restated. However, continued violations will result in a 12 month suspension of service. Do you understand and acknowledge this statement?"
Me: (Sighing) "Yes."
AV: "Your service will be available before the end of the day."

...while this was going on, I was looking up the Comcast terms of service. This, I believe, was the offending paragraph:

You further agree to comply with all Comcast network, bandwidth, and data storage and usage limitations. You shall ensure that your bandwidth consumption using the Service does not exceed the limitations that are now in effect or may be established in the future. If your use of the Service results in the consumption of bandwidth in excess of the applicable limitations, that is a violation of this Policy. In such cases, Comcast may, in its sole discretion, terminate or suspend your Service account or request that you subscribe to a version of the Service with higher bandwidth usage limitations if you wish to continue to use the Service at higher bandwidth consumption levels.

Me: "What was my bandwidth violation?"
AV: "We recorded 880Gig in May."

...Hmmmm...that was a lot..about 28 Gigs a day. I download quite a bit, but that didn't sound right.

Me: "That does sound like a lot."
AV: (Ah, the human understands!) "Yes! Yes, it is! It places you in the top 1% of all Comcast users."
Me: "I've never been in the top 1% of stuff before!"
AV: Silence
Me: "That was a joke."
AV: Silence
Me: "Can you tell me what the consumption was?"
AV: "No, we do not monitor activity." (Uh huh.)
Me: "Well, you should have alerted me earlier."
AV: "Your phone number..."
Me: "...was not in the Global Database, yes yes."
AV: "That is correct."
Me: "Which was your fault."
AV: Silence
Me: "Any ideas?"
AV: "Do you use an application called TV Tonic?" (Pretty good guess for a company that is not monitoring activity.)
Me: "Why yes I do - it fetches my video podcasts."
AV: "There is a bug in the recent release: if TV Tonic fails the download of a podcast, it retries the unfailed section over and over until it can complete. If it never does, it never stops." (Pretty good "guess" on her part.)
Me: "Ok, easily fixable. Did you notify TV Tonic of this bug?"
AV: "That is not our policy."

...now it gets interesting. I jump into CTO mode and put on my "Scary Voice." (tm)

Me: "What is your name?"
AV: "We are not required to give out our names."
Me: "I'd like to speak to your supervisor."
AV: "Our supervisors do not take calls for issues such as these." (wtf?)
Me: "I'll find out who they are and contact them myself."
AV: "Good luck."(Seriously, she said "Good luck.")

...during this little exchange, I looked up the Comcast terms of service.

Me: "So, the violation. 880 Gigs/Month in May, you say?"
AV: "Yes. That's a lot."
Me: "Yes, it is. What does the terms of service say?"
AV: "Excuse me?" (It's the first crack in her voice I have heard during this exchange.)
Me: "What terms did I violate?"
AV: (She reads the policy paragraph I quoted above.)
Me: "Yes, but - what is the actual threshold I crossed?"
AV: "There is no hard and fast number. We compute a useage number daily and look for violators in the top 1%." ("Violators?")
Me: "So its an auto-computed number - a sliding window calculated every day?"
AV: "That is correct."
Me: "And you turn off the top 1% of the 'violators' every month?"
AV: "First we try to contact them, as we did with you but..."
Me: "...yes, I remember."
AV: "But we do read them the warning I read to you, and if it happens again, we terminate their service for 12 months."
Me: "I see, so you either warn or terminate 1% of your customers ever month?"
AV: "Only if they violate the terms of service."
Me: "Your terms of service is capricious and arbitrary. It actually makes no statement that a user can act upon to avoid violation. It simply gives you license to terminate a customer based on an arbitrary set of requirements that you invent behind closed doors." (Really. I said that.)
...long pause....
.....very very long pause....
AV: "We do read them the warning I read to you, and if it happens again, we terminate their service for 12 months."
Me: "Do you give the user a way of policing themselves?"
AV: "Excuse me?"
Me: "Do you provide software, or point a user towards software, that allows them to meter their bandwidth usage to prevent overages?"
AV: "No. We do not provide third party support."
Me: "How much bandwidth am I paying for?"
...pause...with clicking....
AV: "You are on the 6M down plan."
Me: "According to my bandwidth meter, I have never achieved more than 4.8M down."
AV: "The 6Meg is a maximum. We do not guarantee that number."
Me: "Debatable."
AV: "Excuse me?"
Me: "It is debatable that you do not guarantee that number, but that's beside the point. How much of the 4.8M down am I entitled to?"
AV: (Uncertain where I am going with this.) "All of it, of course."
....quick calculator action...
Me: "Ok, so - I should be able to have complete, unfettered access to about 1.2TB a month, if I use all of the bandwidth and I did the math right."
...long pause....
AV: "Sir, you violated your terms of service."
Me: "Which actually says nothing about total numbers, or even percentage usage. In fact, I would never know if I was violating your terms of sevice unless I was contacted by you directly, which you couldn't do because you couldn't find my phone number in your Global Database."
...pause..
AV: "That is correct."
Me: "You don't see a flaw in any of that?"
AV: "No sir."
...this time, I paused....
Me: "You restored my service."
AV: "Yes."
Me: "So, that's it then?"
AV: "Yes. Have a good day."
Me: "Yup."

...and, that was it. The unfettered script. No exaggerations.

After the call, of course, my service was, in fact, restored. Which let me back on the high speed network long enough to look up the terms of service for Speakeasy. It's more expensive, but 6M down, 768K up - same as Comcast, but because its point-to-point, that is a guaranteed number. In addition, there are no upper limits on usage. (I called to confirm.)

If Verizon FIOS was available in my area, I would have gone with that - but, Speakeasy will do just fine. Hell, I use their speed test anyway.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ads as Convenience, not Nuisance

Excellent post here from another m-Qube alum, Mike T on his "MikeTrap" blog.

"...at it’s best, advertising elevates and connects us to something fundamentally human..."

Yeah, I get that - and, at its worst - its a polluting blight on the landscape. The Dove "Evolution" ad in Mike's post I've seen before - its good stuff, and it makes a very powerful statement that Dove should be very proud of articulating.

The company I just came out of was first in the door in the mobile advertising space - as such, it experimented a lot with how to get effective, relevant ads to the consumer in a business model that helps support cell phone usage.

Advertising on mobile is not like any other animal due to several factors - First, there is the ownership of a cell phone - it is a more personal device than even your laptop. Your cell phone is uniquely you. You don't let your spouse or girlfriend or kids use it, typically. That makes it feel proprietary to you - you don't want advertises tromping all over it, and you certainly don't want to be pestered by advertising on it.

Secondly, the usage model is different than anything else - television, print ads, computers, etc. It has to do with immediacy - everything you use a cell phone for (phone calls, directions, SMS chats, etc) you want to happen right this very second. When you are doing 80 down I-90 looking for directions to your friend's house, you do not want to wade through a banner ad or sound bite to get what you want.

Thirdly, its a small thing. Tiny screen - iPhone not withstanding. There just isn't physical room for a display ad plus the information the user was really trying to get to see in the first place.

Finally, there are - alas - the carriers. (It always comes back to this, right?) The carriers are overly concerned about privacy perception (as opposed to actual privacy) by their subscribers - so they are being very cautious about mobile advertising, how it gets targeted and how it is displayed...and, they are getting involved in the content as well. (At least in the US.)

So, what's the answer? It really a collection of answers:
  • Mobile ad content needs to be useful to the consumer.
    The ads can't just be dumb banner ads, they need to have some relevance, or even assist, the consumer in getting the information that they were originally searching for...without getting in the way of retrieving that information
  • Mobile ad content needs to be entertaining/interesting.
    The Dove ad in Mike's blog is an excellent example - a small video preroll like that one, prior to watching an actual video requested by the consumer, will be more fascinating/entertaining than annoying. As Mike said, thats what connects us to being fundamentally human. This leads us to...
  • Mobile ad content needs to have "a path to viral distribution"
    What do I mean by this? Whatever application is displaying/distributing an ad (especially a video ad) on a mobile phone needs a mechanism for distribution to my friends - in a very YouTubish way. (If I find something interesting/entertaining, so will my friends.) This means the ad needs to know where it is being sent, and have a method for being allowed to "expire," otherwise you risk having an ad float around the ether for years on end.
Now, where the hell did I put my phone...?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

VisionQuest, Day 1

Today was "C2" day - the final pre-op preparations where they numb your eyeballs and perform all sorts of unholy measurements on them. (Lots of laser beams and little eye cups that look disturbingly like egg cups...and, of course, pupil dilation! Fun! Joy! The worse thing in the world to me.... but my sunglasses-cum-weldersglasses helped me get through.

Then they shoved a bunch of prescriptions into my hand (nothing fun, folks, just antibiotics and eye sterilizers), and sent me on my way. ("Good luck! Have fun storming the castle!")

I'll be back Friday for the big enchilada - mental note: do NOT watch that scene in "Minority Report" again! 4 times is enough.

Can't write anymore today - the pixels are starting to swim...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Tales of a BodyHacker...

...ok, so this week is BodyHacking week for me. In a never ending quest to replace or augment all of my parts with synthetic equivalents, this week I am focusing on vision alteration. I've been a glasses wearer since age 6, and a contact lens wearer since age 18. It's a pain in the ass - all of it. So, time to change....

I go in on Friday for two LASEK sessions....one of each eye, of course. I'll keep a log after my C2 session tomorrow, through the week. I was supposed to have this done in December, then I panicked, and rescheduled for January - and couldn't do it then because of travel. So, here we are in June.

Oh - if you are going to have either LASEK or LASIK done, here is an excellent site for you to avoid....

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Bravo for Bravo - They Get It

Bold Statement Alert: The best television show for the Web 2.0 generation returns on Wednesday, June 13th to the best broadcast network for the Web 2.0 generation: "Top Chef" returns for Season 3 on Bravo TV.

Now, ok - I get it. Food is back in a big way - its sexy to be a chef, and the numbers for the Food Network continue to climb. Yet, there is more to this show than the topic -- and it has to do with the interaction between the producers of "Top Chef," the Bravo Network, and the fans of the show.

Let's back up - as I wrote in one of my other postings (Cntl-Alt-Lost?), traditional US network broadcast television is in crisis. With the creation of the time shifting DVR, the rise of video podcasting and devices to display those podcasts on large screen televisions instead of your desk in your office, and the proliferation of "long tail" (sorry) broadcast cable networks (Discovery Channel, National Geographic, HGTV, Bravo, etc.) - traditional network television (ABC, NBC, CBS, The CW and Fox) is finding its market share, and the control of the American mindset, dwindling in a way that it has never experienced before.

The Video Bucket Bargain Bin

The video entertainment experience can be expressed a series of four "buckets:"

  • Bucket #1: Traditional Network Television
    • Pros:
      • High production values
      • Big stars, big writers, big producers
      • Heavy marketing and rotation ensures consumer awareness
      • Mainstream america still thinks of this as "television"
      • Over-the-air (OTA) broadcast -- no/low cost to consumer
    • Cons:
      • High price tag
      • Dwindling viewership
      • Few choices, options and diversity
      • FTC Censorship rules inhibit creativity and risk taking (a $350,000 fine for saying "fuck" on the air? Are you effing kidding me?)
      • Audience numbers notoriously difficult to measure because of the nature of broadcast television. Need to rely on statistical sampling from companies such as AC Nielsen. (Who recently neglected to take DVR penetration - 11% - into account when issuing its scary warning the other week about falling viewership numbers. Jeez. Buy a copy of SAS, Nielsen, would ya?)
    • Examples
      • NBC, CBS, ABC, The CW, Fox
    • First Entrant:
      • National Broadcasting Company, 1939
  • Bucket #2: Subscription Television
    • Pros
      • very high production values
      • big stars, big writers, big producers - typically attracts feature film writers, producers, stars
      • large critical groundswell
      • freedom from censorship encourages creativity
      • No advertising breaks during presentation
      • Rapid adoption of new technology for video (5.1 Digital Audio, High Definition, etc.)
      • Heavy marketing ensures consumer awareness
      • Audience numbers easy and accurate to measure through direct subscriber numbers
    • Cons:
      • Very high entrance fee: cable or satellite charges plus subscription fee for specific station
    • Examples:
      • HBO, Showtime, Pay-Per-View movies and events
    • First Entrant:
      • Home Box Office, 1972
  • Bucket #3: Broadcast cable networks
    • Pros:
      • Low cost productions enable low entrance fees for producers
      • Excellent proving ground for new talent (actors, writers, etc)
      • Huge variety - genre's are split into the networks themselves (HGTV is about your home, Discovery is science and nature, etc.)
      • Cross marketing (NGC marketing on Bravo, for instance) ensures a wider reach than the numbers on each network would seem to suggest
    • Cons:
      • Need a cable subscription - higher consumer cost
      • Lower production cost can also mean lower production value - and often does
      • The vast array of stations almost guarantees fleets of "me too!" shows
      • Audience numbers: Same issue as bucket #1
    • Examples:
      • Bravo TV, National Geographic Channel, SciFi Network, USA Network, PBS, etc.
    • First Entrant:
      • Arguably, Public Broadcast System -- started in the early 60's as a loose conglomeration of small local broadcasters sharing local content.
  • Bucket #4: Video Podcasts and Internet Video
    • Pros:
      • Very low production entrance fee - often just a few thousand dollars - reduces barrier to entry to almost 0
      • Easy, low-cost distribution channels
      • Portable by nature - plays on iPods, PSP, Laptops or Plasma Screens easily
      • Huge variety of topics and materials
      • New podcast "networks" are starting to coalesce. (Revision 3, TWiT TV, etc.)
      • Like Bucket #2, audience numbers are easy and accurate to collect
    • Cons:
      • 95% of these are crap - almost unwatchable ego productions
      • Difficult to locate - no distribution channel means no centralized clearing house. Some aggregators exist (iTunes, MyPodcast, etc.) but not enough
      • Difficult for most people to set up automatic fetching new material
      • Almost zero marketing other than banner ads and placements on websites
    • Examples:
      • Cntl-Alt-Chicken, MoBuzzTV, Martin Sargent - Web Drifter, YouTube, etc.
    • First Entrant:
      • Oh, who the hell knows? It depends on who you talk to, but Video Podcasts started appearing in 2005

Meanwhile, back at Bravo...


So, the reign of network television with its censorship enforcements, restricted content, and 1950's business model thinking is rapidly drawing to a close. That's fine - the few gems on these networks (Lost, Heroes, 30Rock, etc.) will shine for a while, but eventually this type of talent and production will migrate to buckets 2 or 3 within the next 10 years.

To succeed with audience mindshare, and to gain numbers that cannot be directly measured by subscription costs thereby moving up the value chain, bucket #3 (Broadcast cable networks) needs to...well, do something different. Cross marketing between Bucket #3 stations is really just preaching to the choir, isn't it? You can't gain market share by showing ads to people who watch your shows anyway. This brings us full circle back to Bravo TV, who - whether through careful planning, or coincidently through "hey, let's just try this" mentality - may have just figured it out.

Think about "Top Chef"'s recipe (uh, sorry about the pun) for a minute:
  • Current Sexy Topic du jour (cooking)
  • Current Buckets #1 & #3 success topic (reality TV)
  • Current youth culture trends (sexy young hetro- and homosexual participants of both sexes who actually - and this is the shocker here - have actual talent for a change)
  • Current - and this is the key - Web 2.0 participation (fully integrated Web 2.0 site at http://www.bravotv.com/topchef/)
  • Current mobile web experience (text-to-vote, receive cooking tips on phone, etc)
  • Intelligent product placement throughout the broadcast is a way that is relevant, non-intrusive, entertaining and - the kicker: DVR-proof
As this show is running, a user can participate in any one of a number of ways:
  • Sit back and enjoy the episode
  • Live chat with other viewers
  • Read blogs from the chefs
  • Comment on the blogs and give feedback directly to the chefs and producers
  • SMS votes in for your favorite chef or recipe
  • Watch video outtakes
  • Download all the recipes shown on a specific episode, cook the food and then comment back on the blogs as to how the recipe went over at home
  • Apply to be a contestant for the next season
Some combination of this has been tried before to various degrees of success - but in the case of Top Chef, and the flawless execution by Bravo TV- this time the whole things works as a big, fun, holistic experience. (Can't believe I just used the term "holistic," btw.) The show is wildly entertaining, useful, relevant and a runaway breakout hit for the Bravo network.

Whether this recipe is reproducible is up for grabs. Bravo tried again very recently with "Top Designer," a similarly formatted show featuring home interior designers, and it was a disturbing, messy failure. So this may be a one trick pony that works only with something as elemental as food - but that hasn't stopped the other bucket #3 players from trying something similar. The SciFi Network, for instance, has given full Web 2.0 support to its "Battlestar Galactica," providing video downloads, voting for plot points, out-takes, cutting troom floor extra footage and a very DVD-ish producers/writer voiceover podcast that you can play as an alternative audio track to the show. Being a drama and not a reality TV contest, the effect is not quite the same, but it is clear that the Web 2.0 tie-ins to BG, combined with being a critical darling, has helped the show improve its reach over the past four years.

ATTENTION: THE REVOLUTION WILL NO LONGER BE TELEVISED - IT WILL BE DOWNLOADED, BLOGGED, TIME SHIFTED, PLACE SHIFTED and SOCIALIZED

Will Bucket #2 players ever have this extensive a social network tie-in? No, but they don't have to -- they get their money directly from the consumer. It's a great model - if they fail, no one subscribes and the lights go out.

What about Bucket #4? Sure, absolutely. The very nature of a video podcast means that social networking tie-ins are part of its DNA. All that's missing for them to execute is a budget -- but as more and more people take notice, and ad sponsored revenue comes to the rescue - they will have the money to make these tie-ins to the web more professional and seamless. (In fact, Revision 3 shows - most notably "Diggnation" - does this effectively already.)

...and wither Bucket #1? Yup, they're effed. The network broadcast television machine is too mired in old-world business models and Hollywood "it's not what you do, it's who you know" thinking. Without a complete overhaul of mindset, Bucket #1 is just Dead Man Walking. Want proof? UPN and The WB - two fledgling television networks - struggled for relevancy for 10 years and last year decided to merge...and it was gonna be new! Different! A Steve Jobsian "Death To Conventional Thinking" moment in history! And, after 6 months the new network "The CW" was unveiled!! YAY! ..and...uh, it was exactly the same. Want more proof? Network television "seasons" still start in September - the traditional date of the television season that was created 40 years ago to coincide with ad dollars generated from the new American football season. Want still more proof? Focus groups, studio audiences, "sweeps" week...effing Donald Trump and Paris Hilton, for god's sake.

So, enjoy the last few seasons of "Lost," folks - Bucket #1 is about to become the piss bucket...which, coincidently, you can't say on NBC.

Friday, June 8, 2007

...a Bedtime Story.

Ok, when "2001: A Space Odyssey" showed up in 1969, it had amazing predictions for the future - most of which happened right when the movie predicted they would happen. (See the homicidal robot story, right below this one.) But remember those cool rolled up display screens that Dave Bowman was carrying around? He'd just unroll it on a table and read the newspaper or watch a video broadcast while he ate his pasty-nasty spaceman food. Well, that thing was cool - its 2007, so were the eff is it??

It's here...almost. Late last year, Sony released the "eReader" - one of a couple of products in the market that uses a technology called "digital paper." (Sony, Phillips and E-Ink each brought similar technology to market around the same time.) Unlike LCD screens, digital paper technology uses reflected light (light from, say, a lamp) to show its pixels - in other words, a digital paper screen does not need to consume power for you to read it. In fact, the eReader only uses power when you move to a new page - the power is used to rearrange tiny charged beads suspended in a liquid crystal solution. The beads fall into a pit which represents a pixel, and stays there until ordered to move by a new flow of current. This, my friends, is an electronic etch-a-sketch.

The benefit of digital paper, aside from low power consumption (the eReader can go 7500 "page turns" between charges, and stay "on" indefinitely) is eye strain...or, rather, the lack of eye strain. Before digital paper, electronic books were displayed on computer screens, PDAs, cell phones and other glowing display devices. You basically were required to stare into a light bulb while you were trying to read the latest Grissom novel. In the case of digital paper, since it requires reflected light, the eye strain is the same you would receive while reading a book.

In fact, looking at a page on the eReader is eerily like reading a sheet of paper. Its an illusion that is hard to escape, even after hours of reading.

Books are loaded into this thing a number of ways - the eReader understands PDF files (big deal), plain text files, and Sony's proprietary format (any surprise there?). The Sony format files are available through Sony's Connect store. The list of books there is in the 1000's, and Sony is rapidly adding more and more publishers. (There is also talks of Sony working with other online digital publishers to expand their format.) Buying from Sony Connect is exactly the same experience as purchasing music from iTunes. Search for a book, read an excerpt, purchase the book (most books are 50%-70% the cost of the print edition), and download it to the eReader.

In a clever, un-Sony move, the eReader also understands the open source format supported by endeavors like Project Guttenberg, a 20,000 book "library" of literature that is no longer covered by copyrights. (My beloved "Moby Dick" is nicely loaded on my eReader.)

I've lived with the eReader now for 6 months - I have been leery of eBooks for awhile now, because of bad experiences in the past. (I read Bill Clinton's 1B word biography, "My Life," on a PDA screen. Kill me.) So, my initial toe-dips into the eReader involved me starting a book in the physical world (specifically, "Thunderstruck") and then finishing it on the eReader. But after that, I was hooked.

Only a fraction (I'm guessing here, but it feels like 10%) of new book releases are available on the eReader, but when faced with a choice - I now put the title on the eReader. It's a hell of a lot easier to carry this thing when traveling around the country than its physical equivalents. Since December, I have read the following titles on this thing:

  • The Foundation Trilogy (yes, again) - Isaac Asimov
  • The Iraq Study Group Report - James Baker, et al
  • The Years of Rice and Salt - Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Blink - Malcolm Gladwell
  • Next - Michael Crichton
  • The Audacity of Hope - Barack Obama
  • House of Bush, House of Saud - Craig Unger
  • Thunderstruck - Erik Larson
  • Vanguard - David Mack
Ok, it doesn't roll up and slip into Dave Bowman's pocket, and it isn't in color and it doesn't play video...but, fear not, that's coming soon. The homicidal computer thing, though? That can stay in the movies only, please.


Thursday, June 7, 2007

Uh...Can We Destroy Skynet Now?

Here's a tale of two robots - one really, really bad; one really, really good.

A few weeks ago a Danish man was killed by a robot lawn mower. Oh, this isn't one of those cute little things that you have moving across your lawn and scaring your dog - this in a GIANT YELLOW INDUSTRIAL KILLER GRASS MOWING ROBOT...like the robot that chased Steve Austin in the 70's!!! (Look it up.) And, uh, this thing is a called the "Dvorak Spider 01," by the way. (John? If we spend more time on your blog, would that appease you?)

Compare and contrast against the "SawStop," a robotic gizmo that goes to great lengths to follow the First Law of Robotics. Check this thing out in this video as it encounters a "finger" touching a saw blade.

How long will it be before they start demanding a right to vote, hm?

Why Facebook is TIBCO. No. Seriously...

Good lord in heaven, what has become of me?

After years of avoiding social-networking-for-the-sake-of-social-masturbation sites such as Friendster and MySpace, I've bowed to peer pressure and set up a Facebook profile. I've done this, not out of social pressure - believe me - but out of curiosity for the future of aimless social connections.

Nevermind that Zuckerberg turned down a $1B buyout option from Yahoo last year - a move that belies his idealism and age, and I suspect he may come to regret even more than his employees in the next few years.

Nevermind that Zuckerberg recently declared that Facebook will become the "social networking operating system" - one of the benefits of being 900 years old is that I can remember when other companies (Netscape and Sun Microsystems, to name two) laid claims to being the something-or-other-operating-system...and we know how well those stories worked out.

Nevemind that Facebook's market share recently took a seriously large trend to the positive and seems to be ontrack to outpacing MySpace - the social networking masturbatory community is a fickle bunch: Friendster was deserted for MySpace, MySpace seems to be poised to be left in the dust for Facebook, something else will dethrone Facebook in a year or two. (On a side not, I believe this phenomenon has a lot to do with the "power of cool." It seems that on pure social networking sites, some sort of "social maximum" gets reached and people jump ship for the next available thing. I believe this "social maximum" is the gianormous internet equivalent of high school cliques: when too many people join the clique, it stops being cool and the members scatter looking for new cliques.)

So, why did I join then? Although Zuckerberg chooses to use the goofy "social networking operating system" phrase, what the company has done that is unique and interesting is to open up its web services APIs to the outside world - just at a time when MySpace has shut its APIs off. Pushing the concept even further, Facebook held a developer's conference here in San Francisco (where I am currently perched) to help spread the Gospel According to Mark to 800 developers. You can question if Facebook anticipated the reaction this would receive - but the timing could not have been better. Within days of the announcement, new Facebook widgets started showing up on other Web 2.0 sites.

Where will this lead? Will it keep Facebook shining in the limelight and push it to a bazillion dollar titan of the "death-to-conventional-thinking" industry and make Zuckerberg the Valleywag Wunderkind of the decade? Possibly - but the weight of history is against that happening.

However, what this will accomplish is to transform Facebook into (I can almost hear Mark's face crinkling at the sound of this) a social networking version of TIBCO, as its role as a service oriented architecture (SOA) expands, and its user interface portal to the stars takes on more of a lesser role. There is a real need for a "web services hub," of sorts, that provides a middleware infrastructure complete with defined API specifications with which all Web 2.0 sites and technologies need to comply. With Facebook assuming this role - which is probably what Zuckerberg means when he refers to Facebook as an operating system - it providing a much needed structure for the Yelps, OpenTables, and personal blogs out there.

...and, finally, social networking will have a hook to hang its fiduciary hat on that companies can use to monetize the 150Millon eyeballs currently engaged in looking at who Debbie was at the bar with on Monday night.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Rocket In Transit

...sitting here at JFK - the Jet Blue "Terminal" (or, as it would be called in Northern Minnesota, the metal shack where Uncle Mickey lives) - on my way out to San Francisco. Doing a VC and startup tour out there to look into a few things and also catch up with some old friends.