Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Objects in Space

Further to my series on Extinction Level Events—specifically, Comets & The Oort Cloud—I found this amazing video today:

If you want to get the full effect, go here and click on "Watch in HD" in the lower right side beneath the video.

Frankly, I can think of nothing more terrifying than knowing about, and living through, something of this magnitude.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

iPhones storm the market

When the first iPhones were released in July 2007, I was not a fan. However, I've had a change of heart since then because I see the iPhone in a different light now.

As a mere cell phone, an iPhone is extremely expensive, but if you see the iPhone for what it really is—a telecommunications mini-computer seamlessly synchronized with your desktop/laptop—then the iPhone is just about the best thing ever invented. Planning your trip? Get directions and check out traffic on the fly. Buying a book or DVD? Check out reviews online—or even buy it online—while you're still in the store. Listen to podcasts or music while you workout. Play a game while you're waiting in the dentist's office. Read the U.S. Constitution or Declaration of Independence. Tune your guitar. Take photos. Read wikis. Keep your grocery list. Check news from AP. Read email. Text. Oh, and it also works as a telephone.

Since the iPhone was introduced in July 2007, it's rocketed from 4% market share to 23% market share. Most of that seems to be from dissatisfied Palm users, which feels accurate: I used to own a Palm, but I've since moved all my address management to my iPhone. Although Blackberry's market share is pretty much holding steady, iPhones are slowly chipping that lead as well. Link.

My prediction: in 6 months, iPhones will overtake the Blackberry'market share and in a year, Blackberry's market share will dip below 30%.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Now the AG says it's Unconstitutional

California's Attorney General Jerry Brown once said he would defend Prop 8 against those who support gay marriage... but now he's changed his mind, saying it's unconstitutional. Whoa, really? Why?

"[U]pon further reflection and a deeper probing into all the aspects of our Constitution," Brown said during an interview, "[i]t became evident that the Article 1 provision guaranteeing basic liberty, which includes the right to marry, took precedence over the initiative.... Based on my duty to defend the law and the entire Constitution, I concluded the court should protect the right to marry even in the face of the 52 percent vote."

A popular vote is not the best way to guarantee equal rights because the majority is always going to win a popular vote. Had a popular vote been taken in the 1950s, racial segregation would probably have passed. Had a popular vote been taken about woman's suffrage, it also would have passed... because women couldn't even vote. Laws are created to protect minority groups—by "minority", I mean any group not in the popular majority, not necessarily racial minorities—and if 52% of voters think gays don't have an equal right to marry doesn't mean that isn't also unconstitutional.

I'm relieved a prominent lawyer has finally come forward to say something which I feel is so glaringly obvious. What's more is that he personally voted for Prop 8 and has since said he would defend Prop 8 in his role as Attorney General. Whenever a person absorbs new information, applies thoughtful reasoning and arrives at a conclusion contradicting their previous beliefs, changing one's mind isn't "wishy-washy" or being a "flip-flop"—it's called being enlightened. I admire those with the courage to stand by their convictions, especially when their reasoning is insightful and argued well, but I abhor those who remain opinionated in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary.

You've got to hand it to Jerry Brown. Not only did he arrive at a different conclusion, but a conclusion which completely contradicted his personal beliefs. Not only should this lend further credence to Brown legal argument, but it speaks to his integrity as a public servant. Brown might personally still object to gay marriage but, as a lawyer, he can't deny that it's unfair discrimination violating equal rights guaranteed in the constitution.

Full article below:
Jerry Brown urges court to void Prop. 8
Associated Press Writer
Published: Friday, Dec. 19, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO -- California Attorney General Jerry Brown changed course on the state's new same-sex marriage ban Friday and urged the state Supreme Court to void Proposition 8.

In a dramatic reversal, Brown filed a legal brief saying the measure that amended the California Constitution to limit marriage to a man and a woman is itself unconstitutional because it deprives a minority group of a fundamental right. Earlier, Brown had said he would defend the ballot measure against legal challenges from gay marriage supporters.

But Brown said he reached a different conclusion "upon further reflection and a deeper probing into all the aspects of our Constitution."

"It became evident that the Article 1 provision guaranteeing basic liberty, which includes the right to marry, took precedence over the initiative," he said in an interview Friday night. "Based on my duty to defend the law and the entire Constitution, I concluded the court should protect the right to marry even in the face of the 52 percent vote."

Brown, who served as governor from 1975 to 1983, is considering seeking the office again in 2010. After California voters passed Proposition 8 on Nov. 4, Brown said he personally voted against it but would fight to uphold it as the state's top lawyer.

The litigation over Proposition 8 is shaping up, Brown said, as a high-stakes conflict between the electorate's right to direct democracy and rights of minorities to equal treatment.

Brown submitted his brief in one of the three legal challenges to Proposition 8 brought by same-sex marriage supporters. The measure, a constitutional amendment that passed with 52 percent of the vote, overruled the Supreme Court decision last spring that briefly legalized gay marriage in the nation's most populous state.

Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, called the attorney general's change of strategy "a major development."

"The fact that after looking at this he shifted his position and is really bucking convention by not defending Prop. 8 signals very clearly that this proposition can not be defended," Minter said.

The sponsors of Proposition 8 on Friday argued for the first time that the court should undo the marriages of the estimated 18,000 same-sex couples who exchanged vows before voters banned gay marriage at the ballot box last month.

The Yes on 8 campaign filed a brief telling the court that because the new law holds that only marriages between a man and a woman are recognized or valid in California, the state can no longer recognize the existing same-sex unions.

"Proposition 8's brevity is matched by its clarity. There are no conditional clauses, exceptions, exemptions or exclusions," reads the brief co-written by Kenneth Starr, dean of Pepperdine University's law school and the former independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton.

Both Brown and gay rights groups maintain that the gay marriage ban may not be applied retroactively.

The Supreme Court could hear arguments in the litigation as soon as March. The measure's backers announced Friday that Starr, a former federal judge and U.S. solicitor general, had signed on as their lead counsel and would argue the cases.

The new brief provides a preview of how Proposition 8's supporters plan to defend the measure. It asserts that the Supreme Court lacks the authority or historical precedent to throw out Proposition 8.

"For this court to rule otherwise would be to tear asunder a lavish body of jurisprudence," the court papers state. "That body of decisional law commands judges - as servants of the people - to bow to the will of those whom they serve - even if the substantive result of what people have wrought in constitution-amending is deemed unenlightened."

Starr declined comment Friday, but co-counsel Andrew Pugno said the brief was filed in response to a question the court's seven justices posed to lawyers on both sides, not as an attack on the gay married couples. "The people passed Prop. 8," he said. "We are defending that."

Pugno called Brown's decision to challenge the voter-approved measure, as well as the argument advanced by the attorney general, "totally unprecedented."

"His legal duty as attorney general of the state is to defend initiatives passed by the voters," he said. "Oftentimes, attorneys general have defended measures they personally opposed."

Jesse Choper, a constitutional law professor at the University of California, Berkeley Boalt School of Law, said Brown has to show that there is a right to marry or to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation that cannot be taken away by a constitutional amendment. "It is not an easy argument, but that doesn't mean it's not going to win," Choper said.

The cases are Strauss v. Horton, S168047; City and County of San Francisco v. Horton, S168078; and Tyler v. State of California, S168066. Link.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Perils of Introspection

Heard a fascinating interview of Malcolm Galdwell on NPR this weekend. He mentioned a couple of different psychological tests which question the foundations of our understanding about free will.

The first test was called the Poster Test, which Gladwell explains here:

[A]sking people to think about what they want causes them to change their opinion of what they want, in fact it screws up their ability to understand and recognize what they want. This problem in psychology is called the Perils of Introspection Problem, and a lot of research has been done by a guy named Tim Wilson at U.V.A. and he once did this very simple experiment called the Poster Test.

And the Poster Test is you got a bunch of posters in a room, you bring in some college students in, and you say ‘pick any poster you want, take it home’. And they do that. Second group is brought in and you say, ‘pick any poster you want, tell me why you want it, and then go home’. Couple of months passes, and he calls up all the students, and he asks, “That poster you got a couple of months back, do you like it?’ and the kids, who in the first group didn’t have to explain their choice, all liked their poster. And the kids in the second group who did have to explain, now they hate their poster. And not only that, the kids who had to explain their poster picked a very different kind of poster then the kids who didn’t have to explain their poster. So making people explain what they want changes their preference and changes their preference in a negative way, it causes them to gravitate toward something they actually weren’t interested in in the first place.

Now, there’s a wonderful little detail in this—that there were two kinds of posters in the room, there where Impressionist prints and then there were these photos of, you know, kitten hanging by bars that said, ‘Hang in there baby’. And the students who were asked to explain their preference overwhelmingly chose the kitten. And the ones who weren’t asked to explain overwhelmingly chose the Impressionist poster. And they were happy with their choice obviously, who could be happy with a kitten on their wall after 3 months? Now, why is that?

Why when you ask someone to explain their preference do they gravitate toward the least sophisticated of the offerings? Cause it’s a language problem. You’re someone, you know in your heart that you prefer the Impressionists but now you have to come up with a reason for your choice, and you really don’t have the language to say why you like the Impressionist photo. What you do have the language for is to say, ‘Well, I like the kitten cause I had a kitten when I was growing up,’ and you know … so forcing you to explain something when you don’t necessarily have the vocabulary and the tools to explain your preference automatically shifts you toward the most conservative and the least sophisticated choice. Now you see this time and time again in for example, market research.

That the act of getting someone in a room and asking them to explain their preference causes them to move away from the more sophisticated, more daring, more radical ideas. The classic example is All in the Family. When the first pilot was made back in the 70s, it was taken to ABC and ABC had a big room full of people, as many people as this, and they showed them the test and they asked them to rate the pilot, asked them to rate it on a scale of 1 to 100. You need 70 to get on the air basically. This All in the Family pilot got 40. An unbelievably low score. And the comments were, ‘well, the real problem is Archie Bunker, he needs to be a little softer, more nurturing, more of a caring father.’ That was people’s response. So what did ABC do? They passed on it. Guys went to CBS, CBS tested it, did really poorly, but some guy at the top of CBS really liked it, and said, well why not, let’s just play it, they put it on the air and it was one of the most lucrative sitcom franchises in the history of television. So what does this mean?

Does this mean we can’t trust people at all? Maybe. What is really means, though, is that there is a class of products that are difficult for people to interpret. Some things really are ugly and when we say that they’re ugly they really are ugly and we’re always gonna think their ugly. They’re never going to be beautiful. But there’s another class of products which we see and we don’t really know what we think, they challenge us, we don’t know how to describe them, and we end up, if we’re forced to explain ourselves, in calling them ugly because we can’t think of a better was to describe our feelings. And the real problem with asking people what they think about something is that we don’t have a good way to distinguish between these two states. We don’t have a good way of distinguishing between the thing that really is ugly and the thing that is radical and challenging and simply new and unusual.

And so often when we use the evidence of what people say, to determine what we ought to do, what we ought to go forward [with], we end up throwing out not just the things that ought to be thrown out, but the very things that are most meaningful, and have the potential to be most revolutionary.

There are, I think, two important lessons in that; the first is the one I dwell on in my book, which is simply that because of this fact people who come up with new ideas and new products or radical new things need to be very careful in how they interpret the evidence of consumers, the people that they ask about, random people whose opinions they seek. That we need to be very skeptical of ‘no’ and very skeptical of ‘ugly’ and very skeptical of ‘I don’t like that’. Particularly when we’re dealing with something that is radical and in some way challenging and difficult for someone to completely explain their feelings about. That’s one implication.

But the second implication, which is really one that’s more relevant to this discussion here, is that we’ve gotten really really good in recent years at describing all kinds of things about the way that human beings work and the way the mind operates. We understand genetics, we understand physiology, we have a whole vast array of knowledge now about why we do the things we do. But there is one area, perhaps the most important area of all, where we remain really really bad, and that is interpreting the contents of our own hearts, and as we go forward and learn more and more about human beings, I think we need to remember this fact, and to be humbled, because I’m not sure this is a mystery that we’re gonna solve.

The second experiment was simple. Take a person off the street and ask them to look at a picture of an average guy and ask them, "This is Joe. Do you like Joe or not?" They are also asked to hold a cup of coffee, although they are not let to believe that the coffee is part of the test. By outward appearances, everyone is given the same test, with no variation. However, there is one subtle variation: one group is given hot coffee and the other is given cold coffee. Few people believe the results, but time and again, people given the hot coffee say they like Joe and the people given cold coffee say they don't like Joe. (The inference here being that we subconsciously associate Joe the person with Joe, the nickname for coffee.)

Gladwell points out that we are vulnerable to racial bias when using the colors white and black to describe race. Though Gladwell is half-black, he was shocked to learn he himself has a negative bias against blacks. (Though Gladwell's book Blink deals with this in part, he added that Daniel Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will deals with the issue of racial bias more completely.)

The implications of these simple tests are staggering. How much of our decision making are we really in control of? How many of our choices are sculpted by mere circumstance? More concretely, how much of our entertainment is greenlit, or cancelled, based on poorly interpreted focus groups?

Finally, one has to wonder how John Stuart Mill and all the other 19th century philosophers who obsessed about the question of free will would respond when presented with these 21st century test results...

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Here I go supporting independent film again. This feature is from Jamin Winans's Double Edge Films which I blogged about back in March 2006 for making a very clever short film, Spin, with shooting costs under $500.

Here's the trailer for his new feature, Ink:

Oh, and here's Spin:

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hatched wins 7C's Film Festival People's Choice Award

Apart from offering some editing notes very late in post-production, I really had nothing to do with Hatched... nevertheless, I can't help but feel a small gulp of pride hearing that Hatched won the 7Cs Film Festival in Roseville last week. One of my business partners directed Hatched, so I like to give credit when it's due. Hatched had serious competition from Team Room, a film so good that at first I thought it had been made in Hollywood.

Well done, Josh!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bad news for the Yes on 8 voters

I had another epiphany a few days ago about gay marriage, and it's extremely bad news for anyone against gay marriage in America...

A gay marriage ban is inherently discriminatory and—because the American constitution is based on total equality—gay marriage bans will eventually be ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. It's just a question of when.

Maybe it won't happen with the current Supreme Court, but it will happen. It has to.

So, bad news for everyone who voted "Yes" on Prop 8 this year: like all the male chauvinists who lost when women were granted suffrage, and like all the racists who lost when blacks were granted civil rights, you're also going to lose on this issue. Why? Because you can't stop progress. Some traditions become extinct because they ought to become extinct, and this is one tradition which deserves to die.

What drives me crazy about the Yes on 8 crowd is their oft-heralded refrain, the so-called "activist" judges. I have no tolerance for that nonsense—judges are lawyers who've been through law school, who preside over countless cases to rule fairly, and are best prepared to interpret what equality and fairness means in our constitution. If a judge deems a practice unfair, and an appeals judge agrees with him, it's time to STFU and move on.

On a side note, I continue to be amazed how some Christians, normally a group promoting equality and goodness towards all, are on the wrong side of history about this issue. Then again, Christians did start the crusades, among other perversions of the Christian teachings. I wonder if a Christian sect ever rationalized slavery due to the rules set up for it in the Bible (Exodus 21:7)?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Zombie Apocalypse is Nigh!

If you like first person shooters, zombie, co-op play, and a fast lane to a new pacemaker, you've got to check out Left 4 Dead on Steam:

Saturday, October 25, 2008

True, true

The original:

And eight years later:

Friday, October 24, 2008

LECTURE: Redefining Digital Content Distribution

Below is the complete text of the lecture I presented at The Conversation in Berkeley on October 18th.

Redefining Digital Content Distribution, or
Why Apple is About To Get Its Ass Kicked

by Ross L. Pruden

I’m a filmmaker myself, and I’ve spent a long time studying movie distribution so I’m excited to share my predictions here at The Conversation. By the way, I should add that I’m a two decade Mac user so I share no joy at the prospect of Apple’s possible demise.

I’m currently writing a business plan for my own film company, yet when I get to the Marketing & Sales section for my plan, all I see is a US-Letter Sized question mark. Movie piracy is more pervasive than ever before—not necessarily a bad thing—and newer distribution models are still competing for dominance. How is this all going to end?

On my blog, I discuss how digital content is being distributed, and a recent post called iTunes’ Death Knell describes how iTunes in its current incarnation faces some potentially fatal challenges from its competitors.

Our dominant model for digital content distribution of music, movies, and software has been historically rooted in physical ownership, i.e., movies are sold on DVDs, games come on CDs, and music comes on a CD or on MP3s. As broadband becomes more pervasive, we see that dominant model shift from a physical product-based ownership to a virtual license-based ownership.

Let’s say I buy a new movie at a store for $25. I buy it on DVD, take it home, and get ready to play it. Then my precocious daughter smears her cheese snack all over my new DVD. I’m out $25. Or maybe I buy a CD for $15. Or a new PC game or application for $50-$300. And then my house burns down. Once the physical product is destroyed, you have to repurchase it. In a digital age, where copies can be made instantly and without degradation, this is unacceptable.

And we already see a slow exodus to the online world. More people are using online applications like Google's Docs & Spreadsheets instead of Microsoft's Word & Excel. Netflix offers an online movie service called Watch Instantly. Users even create their own radio stations on Last.fm, Pandora. The trend is slowly moving towards constantly accessible streamed content.

Right now, iTunes lets me buy a complete season of 24, but at half a gigabyte per episode, I need 12 gigabytes to store an entire season. Storing three seasons on my laptop starts to become unmanageable. Or maybe I have my entire music library on my desktop, but my laptop only carries a fraction of that. As a user, I want to have access, anywhere, to all the content I’ve ever purchased—forever. The only way to accomplish that is to sell content licenses to stream content whenever users want it.

The Valve Corporation, responsible for the famous Half Life games on PC, maintains a gaming network called Steam. Steam is a license-based platform offering over 250 games and boasting 15 million users. If you visit someone’s house, all you have to do is log into your Steam account and you can download and play any game you own that you’ve purchased through Steam. If you need hard drive space, you can delete games from your hard drive and download them again later. If your house burns down, there's no scrambling with customer service to prove you bought your content—you only your Steam account username and password to have access to any of your games.

For the consumer, license-based distribution also makes upgrading very attractive: for example, if I bought a $20 DVD and later on I want to buy a $35 Blu-Ray DVD, I can “upgrade” my DVD license with that $15 difference and then download the newer hi-def version. Customers would never need to worry about being gouged for purchasing a newer version reissued every few years.

Although iTunes is popular now, it only sells product, not product licenses. You buy MP3s and if your hard drive crashes, those MP3s are gone. Worse, each company's proprietary DRM means MP3s purchased on other platforms like Zune cannot be played on your iPod.

DECE—which stands for Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem—is a new license-based platform for movie content. Its financial investors are Warner Bros., Fox Entertainment, NBC Universal, Sony, Paramount, Comcast, Best Buy, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Philips, Toshiba and Verisign. Disney and Apple are not on this list.

DECE will allow:
  1. a TV episode to be just as easily accessed on Microsoft's Zune as it would a Philips broadband-enabled TV set;
  2. an unlimited number of copies of a video to be created or burned onto a disc;
  3. the consumer does not even need to store a copy at all, but stream it from a server-based "rights locker" that can be tapped from any location.

Okay, so how will it end? What might license-based distribution actually look like in the real world? It would probably interact seamlessly with the internet and use corporate sponsorship for those unwilling to pay a monthly subscription. One such scenario could go like this:
You're over at a friend's house and you're talking about a movie you just rented online through a web site. You want your friend to watch it, too, so you sign on to that web site and the film starts to download immediately.

While you're online, another friend—in a different location—sees you're about to watch a movie and sends you a text or video message, via the web site: do you want to all watch it at the same time? You send him a virtual invite or "guest pass"—which would be limited to only 5 or 6 per movie—and now your remote friend has joined your virtual “audience”.

After the film is over, one of your friends is so impressed with the film (which he’s essentially seen for free) that he decides to buy it himself. Another of your friends recommends the movie to his friends. The remote friend might be by himself and perhaps he likes to surf the web while watching films, and so he clicks on some of the sponsored links related to the film's topic matter, e.g., clothing choices, charities the movie's actors have started, other movies the director or producers have made, other movies you're recently watched and rated, etc. Or, if the remote friend is watching your rented movie, he could pay—at any time—to watch the rental himself so as to remove all the embedded advertising links and overlays.

We’ve only spoken about music, movies, and software, but how about books? Wouldn’t it useful to remotely access the contents of any book you've ever bought? No reason why children need to lug around heavy book bags if they can instantly view or print any chapter they want to read.

Two things are clear about the current state of digital content distribution for movies:
  1. iTunes has the dominant model for physical product-based distribution—you buy a movie or TV show through iTunes and you can be watching it within minutes.
  2. iTunes no longer has the competitive edge on providing the distribution model consumers will ulimately want and if iTunes doesn’t work out an arrangement soon with the founders of DECE to sell movies through iTunes with DECE’s “rights locker” features... well, Apple is about to get their ass kicked.

Thank you very much. Please come find me on Facebook or visit my blog!


UPDATE: Since the writing of this lecture, news has been reported of a new music streaming web site Lala.com. Lala.com lets users listen to any song without limitation, for free, in the hope that some users decide to buy the songs. Much like Steam has done for games, Lala.com allows iTunes users to upload their library and listen to their music from any location.

MORE UPDATES: Apple acquires Lala.com. Just keeps getting better, doesn't it?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Republicans. Terrorists.*

I once worked for a political advertising company doing campaigns for Democrats across the nation. We had this one East Coast Senator running on a platform promoting The Ten Commandments being posted in public schools within their state. I have pretty strong feelings about the separation of Church and State and was quite relieved nobody asked me to do any graphic design on her campaign because it might have gotten me fired. We all have lines in the sand and that's mine.

Advertising is about using images to evoke feelings, and those feelings can sway elections. If you crop a photo with enough space around a person's portrait, that person appears friendly, but if you crop the photo with no space at all, that same photo appears claustrophobic and makes the person appear threatening.

Given how powerful a single image can be, you can even cram a political mailer with dummy text and know that even a single unflattering image of your opponent can be enough to leave a lasting impression on undecided voters. Consider this last RNC mailer doing the rounds. Here's the front cover:

The use of the large word "TERRORISTS" in collage cut-out letters subconsciously paints a picture of kidnappers ransoming our children, and the image of planes in the background reminds us of 9/11. But who is this mailer for or against? Here's the inside:

Ah, well this mailer isn't calling Obama a terrorist, not really. But if you looked at this mailer across the room, you can't help but see a connection between Obama's picture and the word "TERRORIST". To understand the full context of the mailer, you have to read the mailer's finer print (the truth and accuracy of its statements are fodder for someone else's blog, I'm sure), but its tacit intent is self-evident: Obama is a terrorist. Governor Palin's speeches of late call Obama "palling around with terrorists". Her statements also do not explicitly claim Obama is a terrorist, but if you say "Obama" and "terrorist" enough times in the same sentence, the two ideas merge into an informal epithet: Obama the terrorist. Does that phrase sound like any other terrorist you know?

Obama's image in this mailer is also strikingly similar to another infamous black man hailed as a terrorist. And he was muslim. What a coincidence.

* The two are completely unrelated.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Lala, lala, I can't hear you...

Too bad I didn't post my lecture I gave at The Conversation this weekend about license-based distribution, because the article below about Lala.com only reinforces it.

Lala.com is now offering licence-based ownership of music... a model that directly competes with the iTunes. In fact, if you own an Mp3 on iTunes, you can upload your library to Lala.com and stream it from their site if you log into Lala from any computer. That model blows iTunes out of the water where you own Mp3s locally and can't stream anything. Hell, even I'm tempted to use Lala.

This is probably related in some way to the new DECE (Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem) that the big movie studios recently rolled out, but Lala.com distributes music, not movies. Apple's dominant iTunes model is severely in jeopardy if they don't act fast to sell all their MP3s without any DRM, and offer users the option to stream their music from anywhere. Unfortunately, Apple is only a content distributor and not a content producer like Sony, so Apple still needs permission from content producers to offer non-DRM Mp3s (Apple used to offer non-DRM Mp3s for $1.29, but caved in April 2007 when they realized consumers would rather purchase a CDs to snag those non-DRM Mp3s. Now Lala.com is offering non-DRM Mp3s, too.)... and the producers have realized they can cut the distributor out of the equation and sell straight to the consumer.

Lala.com Gives Digital Music Another Try
Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008

(LOS ANGELES) — First a CD-trading site, then a free Web-based music browser, lala.com is being born again. The site is relaunching Tuesday as a hybrid, offering the digital download functionality of iTunes and the free music streaming of MySpace Music without the ads.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based private company, backed by $35 million in venture capital from Bain Capital LLC, Ignition Partners and Warner Music Group Corp., first launched in July 2006.

Its first version lacked scale and the second was met by numerous me-too players from MySpace and iMeem to Last.FM, said co-founder Bill Nguyen.

This time around, listening to any of the 6 million tracks at lala.com will be free. It will cost 10 cents to put a song in a Web locker for unending access on any computer where the user logs in.

Another 79 or 89 cents allows the user to download an MP3 track, with no digital rights management coding.

Because the site is ad-free, the business relies on selling Web tracks and MP3s.

"Where we get into trouble is if we do a lot of streaming and we don't sell music," Nguyen said.

Users of lala.com's test site — who number nearly 300,000 — are buying enough music to put the site on the path to profitability.

In the testing period, for every 1,000 free streams, the site sold about 60 Web songs and 60 MP3s. It needs to sell 15 to 20 of each per thousand free streams to be profitable, said spokesman John Kuch.

Users can upload their own music from CDs and iTunes into their digital locker for free. This gives lala.com enough knowledge of an individual's tastes to be able to market similar songs to him or her, a technique that boosts the sell-through rate about fivefold, Nguyen said.

The site has the participation of all four major record labels — Universal, Sony, Warner and EMI — and 170,000 independents.

Thomas Hesse, president of global digital business for Sony Music Entertainment Inc., said a key reason for licensing music to lala.com and other sites like it was the ability to sell music downloads.

"We do streaming deals that also have an upsell opportunity," Hesse said. "To us, that is an important side-by-side concept."

Sony's digital music sales represent more than a third of its U.S. revenue and are on pace to exceed revenue from physical CDs "fairly soon," Hesse said.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Thanks to Ken Eklund, whom I met at The Conversation, for telling me about this. Ken's a fascinating guy to talk to, and the inventor of the popular Alternative Reality Game, A World Without Oil.

Unicloq is a Japanese clothing company that wanted more brand recognition. So they got some creatives to design a brilliant viral marketing campaign: a clock with four Japanese girls (wearing Uniqlo's clothing, presumably) dancing in an unknown location for 5 seconds, and then pausing to return to the clock. With catchy music. Oh, at midnight Japanese time, the four girls sleep for an hour.

I cannot explain why—perhaps it is because these four girls inhabit an ethereal world untethered to anything specific in space or time—but this is positively riveting. It's like a real-life incarnation of Gibson's Pattern Recognition.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Redefining Digital Content Distribution

This Saturday, I'll be giving a brief presentation between 1:30 & 3:00 at The Conversation's Open Forum in Berkley. The topic is Redefining Digital Content Distribution, or Why Apple is About to Get Its Ass Kicked.

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

October 15, 2008 6:58PM

While watching the third and final presidential debates tonight, I had a premonition at 6:58PM—beyond any doubt—that Barack Obama would be voted the next President of the United States. Two minutes later, I felt I saw the future unfolding.

McCain said he'd like to hear what kind of "fine" that "Joe the Plumber" would get under Obama's health plan and Obama responded "Zero", explaining that small businesses get an exemption under his plan.

Now look at McCain's face:

For most of the presidential debates, McCain has smiled or he's had his mouth closed. Instead, here he looks at Obama, nearly incredulously, as Obama flatly rebukes him, and then explains—with the usual Obama eloquence—the details of his health plan. It's hard to see on this clip, but in the video, McCain's face looked ashen, almost angry. All I could picture in my mind was McCain's spin doctors pulling out their hair, screaming at their TV sets for McCain to "reset" back to his pleasant happy face. Small moments like that leave a small subconscious impression which gently tips undecided voters towards the more affable candidate.

I guess a month from now it'll be easy to say how sure everyone must have been that Obama had it all sewn up so early, especially when you look at this election map where Obama is close to clinching more than the magic 270 electoral votes (thanks to NPR's interactive map):

However, there are several things which make this race uniquely advantageous for Obama to convert my strong hunch to certainty. Firstly, the candidate himself: he exudes confidence, charm, vitality, eloquence, hope, and he's remarkably intelligent. Secondly, he's running his campaign with virtual tools like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter, and even sponsoring ads in video games. Thirdly, he's built a massive pro-active grass roots campaign (through those aforementioned virtual tools) from which he's consistently asking for donations. Fourthly, he's using those donations to force McCain to hemorrhage money to retain states he'd once taken for granted, and Obama's fiercely stumping in tossup states like Florida and Ohio. As of this writing, Obama is ahead in the Florida polls by almost 5 points. Since the margin of victory in Florida was so slim in 2004, there's a strong possibility Obama's fevered drive to register 500,000 new voters will flip Florida from red to blue. And everyone knows Florida is iconic in tipping the election.

I now hear that Obama has purchased a national half hour TV spot right days before the election... Obama beat the "unbeatable" Clinton simply by staying in the race long enough to let the voters get to know him. Given Obama's track record of political victories, one has to wonder if McCain ever really stood a chance at all.

So I'll bet money on it now—come January 20th, we'll have a President Obama in the West Wing.

Yes we will!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Joining The Conversation

I heard about The Conversation this summer and immediately bought a ticket:
[P]ioneers at the forefront of change in cinema, video, games, media and technology are coming together to share ideas, insights, and innovations. Our focus is on new tools, new distribution channels, and new rules.... The format of the gathering will be experimental: rather than a traditional conference, short talks and demos, "fireside chats," and roundtables will spark a dynamic series of overlapping conversations.

Their guest list is enough to make any independent filmmaker salivate—Peter Broderick, for instance. His recent article in Indiewire about the New World of Distribution for indie filmmakers is germane to how (I think) digital entertainment will be distributed. Hunter Weeks is another gem on the list—he's one of the co-creators of 10 MPH, a documentary about two guys crossing the United States on a segway. Week's movie home page is an exquisite example of how to use the internet to market your own movies. Other notable invitees hail from Netflix, Createspace, Filmbaby, JibJab, Lucasfilm, ILM, The Webby Awards, and YouTube. See the complete list of speakers at the bottom.

One really appealing part of The Conversation—you can throw out your own ideas. I thought about it for awhile and this forum seems ideal to mention some of my own predictions on the future of digital entertainment. Frankly, in one form or another, I've been observing, discussing, and molling over the movie industry for three years and have a pretty well-informed opinion about it. So I decided to make a presentation of my own about license-based entertainment which will be a riff on a recent article I wrote about iTunes' Death Knell. My ardent hope is that my presentation isn't eclipsed by someone else's brilliant 90 minute lecture. I do hate redundancy.

The Conversation takes place all day this Friday and Saturday. Tickets are still on sale, but a little steep now at $150. But if you have nothing to do, come be my own peanut gallery!

  • Alex Afterman, Founder, Heretic Films
  • Alex Lindsay, Founder, Pixel Corps
  • Arin Crumley, Director, As the Dust Settles and Four Eyed Monsters
  • Barbara Robertson, Journalist, CGSociety, Computer Graphics World, Digital Production
  • Chris Thilk, Director of Marketing, Spout LLC
  • Cliff Plumer, Chief Technology Officer, Digital Domain
  • Dan Gregoire, Founder, Halon Entertainment
  • Dana LoPiccolo-Giles, Co-founder, CreateSpace (formerly CustomFlix)
  • Danae Ringelmann, Co-Founder, IndieGoGo
  • Dean Valentine, CEO, Comedy.com and Founder, Symbolic Action; former CEO of UPN and President of Walt Disney Television
  • Diana Barrett, Founder, The Fledgling Fund
  • Evan Spiridellis, Head Art Guy, JibJab Media
  • George Strompolos, Content Partnerships Manager, YouTube
  • Graham Leggat, Executive Director, San Francisco Film Society (Moderator)
  • Gregg Spiridellis, CEO Guy, JibJab Media
  • Hunter Weeks, Director, 10 Yards and 10 MPH
  • James LeBrecht, Berkeley Sound Artists
  • Jason Harris, President, Mekanism
  • Jeremiah Birnbaum, CEO, SF School of Digital Filmmaking
  • Jesse Keane, Chief Technology Officer, CinemaNow
  • Jim Sommers, Senior Vice President, ITVS
  • John Batter, Co-President of Production, DreamWorks Animation SKG; former Group Studio General Manager, Electronic Arts
  • John Gaeta, Visual Effects Designer, Speed Racer and the Matrix trilogy
  • John Knoll, Visual Effects Supervisor, Industrial Light & Magic
  • Jonathan Marlow, Executive Director, San Francisco Cinematheque; formerly at Vudu and GreenCine
  • Josh Wiggins, Senior Director of Global Strategic Sales, Ascent Media
  • KC Blake, Anywhere/Anytime Content Lab, Entertainment Technology Center@USC
  • Ken Eklund, Writer & Creative Director, "World Without Oil"
  • Ken Goldberg, Director, Berkeley Center for New Media
  • Lance Weiler, Filmmaker & Editor, The Workbook Project
  • Michael Ferris Gibson, Director, 24 Hours on Craigslist & Producer, Truth in Numbers: The Wikipedia Story
  • Michealene Cristini Risley, Independent filmmaker, Tapestries of Hope
  • Mike Curtis, HD for Indies
  • Mike Shiley, Director, Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories & Dark Water Rising
  • Nick Braccia, Creative Director, Deep Focus
  • Peggy Weil, Artist & Game Developer, "Gone Gitmo" and "The Redistricting Game"
  • Pete Ludé, SVP, Sony Electronics
  • Peter Broderick, President, Paradigm Consulting
  • Phil Tippett, Founder, Tippett Studio
  • Reed Hastings, CEO & Founder, Netflix
  • Rich Bradway, Associate Dir. of E-Commerce & New Media, Boston Symphony Orchestra
  • Richard Kerris, Chief Technology Officer, Lucasfilm Ltd.
  • Scilla Andreen, CEO, IndieFlix
  • Scott Kirsner, Editor, CinemaTech
  • Ted Hope, Co-Founder, This is That
  • Tiffany Shlain, Filmmaker & Founder, The Webby Awards
  • Tim Napoleon, Chief Strategist for Digital Media, Akamai
  • Wendy Levy, Director of Creative Programming, Bay Area Video Coalition
  • Woody Benson, Managing Partner, Prism VentureWorks

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Pruden's Law

As I was watching the debates last night, I had to laugh when McCain invoked Ronald Reagan. Mine was neither a scoff nor derisive chuckle, merely an amused reflection. At the Republican debates, I remember how almost every candidate cited Reagan, much in the same way that Democrats cite Kennedy.

Even so, it makes me think of Godwin's Law:

As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

I'm not comparing anyone to Hitler, so don't even. But it does make me laugh how frequently Republicans invoke Reagan as, supposedly, a tactic to remind the Old Guard of the Jellybean Days. Meaning, "Vote for me... because I'm like Reagan!"

The intent of naming something is not simply to call attention to it, but to take away its power. At the beginning of any historical/political discussion, if someone were to say, "Okay, so we're going to defy Godwin's Law, riiiiiight?", then nobody wants to run the supertanker onto the beach.

If we were to do the same for Reagan, I'd call it Pruden's Law and define it thusly:
As a debate among conservative political candidates grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Ronald Reagan approaches one.

If any of you decide to add this to Wiki, call it Pruden's Law! Because you heard it here first.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

In Dutch in Lake Tahoe

Wednesday was a small milestone for me. In Dutch, a film I directed last year for Meaghan Sinclair, was shown to a group of strangers in Lake Tahoe. I've premiered films I've written myself, but when you work on a film which isn't your own passion project, it's natural to feel a little differently about it. Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't get a thrill when I saw a In Dutch's onesheet magically appear on the Valhalla At Tahoe web site. (You can read all my posts about In Dutch here.)

Tahoe's gorgeous and I loved the drive in this time. I snapped this pic from my iPhone as soon as Tahoe appeared around the bend:

The Valhalla Boathouse is located right on Lake Tahoe (maybe you caught the bit about it being a boathouse?) and reminiscent of a smaller version of Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel:

The inside has a nice cozy feel, too:

Because it was a last minute thing, the Producers really didn't have a chance to do much publicity for it. We had a small gathering, but I was thankful. Had there been 100+ people, I think I might have been in the back vomiting uncontrollably. A small crowd feels less like a festival screening and more like a party. Rob and Meaghan and I had a lot of fun introducing the film and doing a Q&A afterwards.

The reactions were favorable. One can never be absolutely certain how an audience feels about a movie, but any unsolicited praise goes a long way to show at least one person enjoyed themselves. One older gentleman commented how great the sound was, which was extremely gratifying—I had lobbied hard to hire the Emmy award-winning Dave Losko as our Sound Mixer. Another audience member lauded the acting, which I also worked extra hard to achieve. Of course, there's no way I could take credit for the acting itself, but the coaching I gave the actors—in fact, they're the first ones to say this—had a substantial difference on their final performance. For me, acting and sound are usually the two weakest links in the chain for any short film, so I chalked up the evening as Mission: Accomplished.

Regrettably, due to scheduling and geographic constraints during post-production (I had a newborn at home last year, and lived 50 miles away from the editor), this cut of the film was not my edit. So I was delighted the producers offered me a chance to recut In Dutch into a version we'd all be happy with. Though the current cut is already quite good, the sound design still needs a little tweaking and some insert shots weren't done because we ran out of time on the day of the shoot. Realistically, I'd estimate the final cut needs another 20-40 hours of work to really make it shine. Why is it always the last 5% the bit which takes 90% of the effort?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

iTunes' Death Knell

In 1999, around the time Napster had the music industry up in arms for allowing anyone to "sample" an entire song for free—without anyone's permission—I had a heated discussion with my friend Dave. My argument was that Napster's service was, in essence, theft... meaning its users, then, were thieves. "A musician standing on a street corner is asking potential customers to sample their music, for free," I said (I later learned the term for this—'busking'), "but when users listen to music for free without the musician's permission, or the record label's permission, it's theft." Over the years, Dave's retort has never wavered—even if my argument were true, even if you call illicit music sampling theft, record sales have not diminished as a result and, to the contrary, users can now discover music in ways they've never been able to before. For instance, in the 1950s, you could go down to a record store and listen to a record for free to see if you liked it. What was so different about Napster?

Unfortunately, Napster was quite different. People weren't merely sampling—they were looting the entire store and not overtly leaving any tips. There was no established method to make money off of this radically new model. And like all new technologies that threaten the status quo, the Powers That Be freaked out. They acted fast and shut Napster down.

My discussion with Dave continued over the months and our banter eventually concluded with what I thought was the ideal business model to appease both disparate groups: customers wanted to freely sample music and not feel gouged by having to buy an entire album to get only a couple of songs; producers wanted to be paid for providing content. I remember sitting in Dave's computer room and saying, "Someone needs to create a system where anyone can listen to any song for just 30 seconds, for free, and buy only one song if they want—not necessarily the entire album—for only one dollar."

Later that year, Steve Jobs announced iTunes. Customers could listen to 30 seconds of any song and buy individual songs for only 99¢. iTunes has sold over 1 billions songs to date.


Whatever happens in the music industry eventually hits the movie industry. Music execs were worried about pirated MP3s until Apple found out how to make money with iTunes. As bandwidths increased, more data could be streamed and now movie executives faced the same problem the music industry faced in 1999—how do you make money when more people pirating your DVDs or streaming your content online?

I struggled with this question for a long time. I've always felt Napster enabled music piracy, but I could see Dave's point, too—sampling isn't inherently bad if it allows more customers to see your product. If it takes seven touches to a sale, you'd actually want to promote your product as much as you can and piracy is astonishingly efficient at that. Simply from "word of mouth", piracy adds more value to the product. Eventually, Steve Jobs also reached that conclusion, which is why Apple has positioned itself to dominate the market for distributing digital entertainment.

Here's what most people don't get: Apple isn't selling music or movies. It's selling convenience. When it becomes easier and safer and more legal to download music or movies from a legitimate source, 99¢ is a small price to pay to save yourself all the anguish of searching for and downloading a song and relabeling its tags, etc. For many years, there wasn't any alternative like iTunes, but people just wanted to listen to music. So when everyone suddenly broke into the store, there was no believable legal threat to make them stop. Apple offered up a much cleaner solution... and the market responded.

Unfortunately, the iTunes model is still imperfect. Let's say I want to buy a music album, but then my hard drive crashes. Unless I've backed up my data, I've now lost my music forever. Yet the technology exists to let me re-download my album (if I want to go to the trouble to prove I lost my data). And that's where we're at: property-based digital ownership. I can buy a DVD, but if it gets scratched, I'm hosed. I can download an entire season of 24, but if I delete episodes off my hard drive to save hard drive space, those episodes are gone forever. Perhaps the worst problem is all the proprietary restrictions: if I buy a song or movie for my iPod, I can't play that same song or movie on another MP3 player (what if my iPod doesn't work in my car so I want to burn my MP3s onto a CD for my car? Nyet.)

About four years ago, Dave introduced me to Steam. If you play any kind of games on a PC, you're bound to hear about Steam at some point. Steam is an online gaming platform which takes an innovative approach to software ownership. If you buy a game on the Steam platform, you don't own a physical copy, but a license of that game. This means you can download the game, play it, delete it, then download it again whenever you want. Forever. In fact, you can download the game from anyone else's computer and play it there. Because the software will only work when you sign in under your own account, the game is uniquely tied to you. Forever. Unsurprisingly, Valve, the creators of Steam, are branching out into offering music and movies through Steam.

It didn't take long for me to connect the dots: the way of the future is license-based ownership. In the future, we'll buy a license for music, movies, software... even books. Wherever we go, we'll be able to watch or listen to or read whatever we want whenever we want—we won't need to lug around DVDs or CDs or books. Even better, because computers will be everywhere, we'll just sign in with our unique username and password and access everything we own.

From that viewpoint, iTunes' model is still archaic. So imagine my surprise when Josh told me about movie studios joining together to create a new "rights locker" called DECE. Consider these forward-thinking features:
  • Participating devices and services will be interoperable regardless of differing brands or corporate provenance. A TV episode, for instance, could be just as easily accessed on Microsoft's Zune as it would a Philips broadband-enabled TV set.
  • DECE would allow an unlimited number of copies of a video to be created or burned onto a disc.
  • The consumer would even have the option of not storing the copy at all, but rather streaming it from a server-based "rights locker" that can be tapped from any location.
  • DECE would create open standards whereby any company that chose to create contents or services can do so to available specifications.

Apple is not yet included with DECE and that's a big problem for Apple. They're currently the dominant provider of digital content but the market will change if other providers allow better features than iTunes.

I suppose one could still argue piracy is theft. Technically speaking, of course, it is. Nevertheless, piracy has forced the market to (finally!) start offering content the way users have always wanted it—content bought in one format never has to be re-bought in another format. Consumers will get content how they want it and producers will have a way to get paid for it. With results like that, piracy may still be called theft, but is there anyone left who really cares anymore?

Full article follows:
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Hollywood is challenging the hegemony of Apple in digital distribution. A consortium of major studios -- excluding key Apple ally Walt Disney Co. -- is teaming up with leading retailers and consumer-electronics firms to essentially transform the paid download into an experience akin to buying a DVD. The goal is letting video purchased at any outlet be played on any device worldwide.

Known as the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), the consortium brings together Warner Bros. Entertainment, Fox Entertainment Group, NBC Universal, Sony, Paramount Pictures and Comcast Corp. with retailer Best Buy along with tech giants Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Philips, Toshiba and Verisign. Each company has an invested an unspecified sum in the endeavor.

"When we start to bundle these digital rights together, we believe we can actually develop and deliver a product to the consumer that's better than free," said Mitch Singer, chief technology officer at Sony Pictures and the lead architect of DECE.

All together, they are mounting what may be the most radical redefinition yet of digital rights management. In its current form, DRM largely confines content to a limited number of devices depending on the source of that content. For instance, a song purchased on Apple's iTunes can be accessed on no more than five different computers and can't be legally played on a portable device beyond the iPod.

If DECE takes hold, it would institute several precedent-setting principles:

-- Participating devices and services will be interoperable regardless of differing brands or corporate provenance. A TV episode, for instance, could be just as easily accessed on Microsoft's Zune as it would a Philips broadband-enabled TV set.

-- DECE would allow an unlimited number of copies of a video to be created or burned onto a disc.

-- The consumer would even have the option of not storing the copy at all, but rather streaming it from a server-based "rights locker" that can be tapped from any location.

-- DECE would create open standards whereby any company that chose to create contents or services can do so to available specifications.

Freeing up digital content would also offer a marked distinction from the rights offered by market leader Apple under its Fairplay system. Apple's dominance of the digital marketplace also affords it considerable leverage in licensing negotiations over many of the studios involved in DECE.

"While we haven't yet had conversations with them about joining, we'd love to have them," said Singer, who added that DECE has reached out to Disney. "We're going in a slightly different direction than Apple by offering more choice in terms of storefront and device."

Other prominent companies not named to DECE: CBS Corp., Amazon, Walmart and leading telcos such as AT&T and Verizon. While not every company that hasn't joined has even been approached yet, those that have aren't necessarily opposed to DECE, according to Singer.

"If I had to characterize it, it's more of a wait-and-see mode than something they don't want to be involved in," he said.

But DECE is aimed just as much at providing an alternative to piracy as it is competing with Apple. Rampant illegal downloading has long been seen as an outgrowth of today's fragmented digital marketplace, which stymies consumers by requiring content providers to tailor their product for each distributor.

DECE represents yet another ambitious attempt by Hollywood to avoid the fate of the music industry, which has largely dropped DRM altogether. The consortium aims to give digital distribution a shot in the arm. For all the success of iTunes, XBox and Amazon, their collective sales haven't matched the growth curve experienced by DVD.

DECE plans to announce a brand name and logo, as well as a more detailed plan, at the upcoming Consumers Electronics Show in January. It also expects to name more companies to the consortium in the coming months.

Singer said he has began developing DECE inside Sony Pictures six years ago, constantly changing the formulation to meet the latest technologies. Outreach to other companies started in 2006. Link.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Um, no.

I really love it when people leave comments on my blog—it's a form of respect, of engagement, and it pleases me to know someone has taken time out of their day to react to something I've written. Even passionate disagreement is welcome because conflicting points of view are the best way to unearth the deeper truths. Bring it.

However, what I don't love is when people use anonymity as carte blanche to be snide, condescending, judgmental, self-righteous, spiteful, disrespectful, or just plain rude. If you've got strong feelings about something—enough to ignore a basic level of human decency and leave a comment which involves one or more of the above flavors of ill will—you're invited to start your own fucking blog. It's a complete mystery to me why anyone would expect me to publish comments that dis me on my own blog. Besides, not only are ad hominem attacks a typical sign of a weak argument, but they're also generally uncool. Snootiness is like an overpowering body odor—nobody wants to stand next to you.

I might be persuaded to publish rude or bombastic comments if their authors had balls big enough to affix their name and signature to their inciting comment, but unfortunately, all that can be too easily faked. I can save the Flamers out there a lot of time by simply saying:

"Um, no."

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Matter of Spore

From innovative game designer Will Wright, the maker of all the SimCity games, his next new game Spore was heralded as the next great step forward for open-ended gaming. It's cartoony, and not scientifically accurate on many levels, but its goal was to make it fun to grow a creature from a unicellular organism to a space-faring civilization. Lofty ambition!

The game looks great. The problem is, it has a stinkalicious 1 star rating on Amazon. I normally don't pay much attention to reviews if there are only 20 or 30. Even 100 reviews isn't large enough of a sampling. And reviews can often be faked, too, so being a Doubting Thomas is always prudent. Still, though, it got a 1 star rating out of more than 2000 reviews. That put me off from buying Spore.

Then I got curious... 2000 reviews? Seriously? As I skimmed over the 1 star reviews, they all seemed to rant about the DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management. DRM is intended to prevent software piracy, and it's a hot topic now, especially in the gaming community. [UPDATE: This section has been clarified thanks to Dave's comment below.] For movies on DVD, DRM works seamlessly, unless you try to play a DVD made in Europe on a US Region 1 DVD player. DRM also works seamlessly for music on CD—you can play a CD made anywhere on any other CD player. However, when we move over to computers, things get a little more complicated, e.g. it's impossible to play an iTunes-purchased MP3 on any other MP3 player. Since DRM is almost always proprietary, users run into problems when they buy music or movies from a company that suddenly stops supporting any purchased content, as has already happened with Microsoft. [Interesting bit from the DRM wiki: Apple's Steve Jobs has called on the music industry to eliminate DRM... and in March 2007, Musicload.de, one of Europe's largest online music retailers, announced their position strongly against DRM. In an open letter, Musicload stated that three out of every four calls to their customer support phone service are as a result of consumer frustration with DRM."]

For computer games, DRM manifests itself as the authorization code you have to type in when you install a game for the first time. Different software developers treat DRM in their own way, but Spore has the most aggressive DRM yet: three single install authorizations. This means that if you have a desktop and laptop and you install Spore on them, and your laptop's hard drive dies, you have to call up Maxis and prove to them that you aren't a pirate in order to get back one of your authorizations.

Doesn't sound so bad, right? The problem is that it's a relatively large hassle factor compared to what existed before. For instance, when do you want to play games? After business hours. And when is Maxis EA open to take your call? During business hours. By comparison, games like Galactic Civilizations II have an explicitly relaxed DRM and the gaming community has reacted favorably to it.

Fortunately for me, I happen to have friends in the know—I was tipped off that the wave of 1 star reviews were part of an organized protest by some disgruntled gaming communities. The problem is, many people won't know that... and thus won't buy Spore after glancing at its Amazon page. This virtual protest is certain to affect Spore's bottom line.

But will it force Maxis EA to change their DRM?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

But you can keep the Google Ads

Today Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling won a lawsuit against Steven Vander Ark for violation of copyright law. This is a very unique case because it involves the attempted book publication of a web site's content—content which the original author had explicitly endorsed. Vander Ark compiled an exhaustive lexicon of the Harry Potter universe, put it online at hplex.org and—because there's not yet an official lexicon anywhere—Rowling herself had expressed gratitude: "This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an internet café while out writing and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter (which is embarrassing)."

Now watch carefully. Rowling's explicitly acknowledges the usefulness of Vander Ark's site, yet when Vander Ark attempts to publish the contents of his web site, Rowling sues him... and wins. Rowling's intent was to prevent Vander Ark from making money from her work in book form, but Vander Ark already makes money from Rowling's work through the Google Ads on his web site. Why is it okay for Rowling to laud Vander Ark's work on one platform, but sue him when he moves that content to another platform?

The answer is pretty clear—compared to the web, published books are still considered a lucrative business. I don't think anyone knows how much Vander Ark has received from Google Ads, but it's probably not as much as he would have received from a book deal. However, as the web continues to dominate the marketplace, traditional profits are likely to shift away from published books and shift towards the internet. Authors will then face an interesting dilemma: either hire lawyers to sue the gajillion fan sites out there making money off their work, or accept that fan sites are likely to bring more value to their work... and thus, more money.

Would Vander Ark's lexicon have brought added value to Rowling's works? Undoubtedly. Would Rowling's books have made more money because of Vander Ark's published lexicon? Obviously. So if you were Rowling, often touted as more wealthy than the Queen of England and thus not someone hurting from a missed paycheck, is it really in your best interests to sue your greatest fan and run the risk of souring your reputation to your other fans? A better option might have been for Rowling to join forces with Vander Ark... or publish her own lexicon with her own (priceless) commentary. After all, how could Vander Ark's book ever really compete with Rowling's own lexicon?

Had this lawsuit happened a year ago, I'd have squarely sided with Rowling: "It's obviously some dude trying to make a buck off of her years of hard work." Now, after seeing how piracy can actually help content gain a broader viewership, I take a much different tack: "If Vander Ark's derivative work adds more value to Rowling's years of hard work, let him make as many lexicons as he sees fit. But if his lexicons take value away from her work, she should aggressively shut him down."

Either way, Vander Ark had foresight: he told his book publisher he'd only publish his web site on one condition: the publisher would have to cover his legal fees should Rowling ever sue him.

Friday, September 05, 2008

An Open Letter to Shawn Colvin

Dear Shawn,

It feels odd to write a letter to you knowing that there's a good chance you may actually read it. I've thought of writing many times before, but shrugged it off as an improbable long shot, a waste of time. But with your forum, and with your Myspace account, I have faith that the virtual note in the bottle will eventually find its way to you.

Your music has threaded its way in and out of my life many times throughout the years. I keep coming back to it, the allure as perennial as it was the first time I saw you on TV in 1995.

I'm a New Yorker by birth, but I had married a French woman and we had settled in London where her sister lived. I remember as if it were only weeks ago... the BBC had a program called Words and Music, and James Taylor had just finished explaining and playing Sweet Baby James. You came on next and played Polaroids, and I was hooked.

I slowly began collecting your albums, especially Fat City which I bought on cassette and played a lot. In 1996, I bought Sunny Came Home and, again, loved it. The internet was just taking off and I learned from someone's fan site that you were coming to tour in London. I made special plans to attend that concert—no small feat on my modest income. Around the same time, my mother called to say my father had injured himself while mounting some kitchen shelving and had ended up in the hospital. I spoke to him and he seemed fine. I even asked him if I should fly back and said it wasn't that serious. So I continued on with my regular life, including my plans to see you in concert. Within two days of that call, my father died at the hospital.

My life was thrown into turmoil. The only man with whom I had felt a solid bond was gone forever. This wonderful man who taught me gentleness, and love, and joy... gone. Having grown up in the South during the 30s, my father had come from a fairly sexist generation, but he rose above that and taught me it was fine to do "feminine" chores like dishes and cooking in the kitchen. He littered the house with countless clever "jerry-rigs" that always somehow worked. He was a great father, he was my father, and he was gone.

On that night—November 7, 1997—with my wife out of town, and separated by friends and family by an entire ocean, I found myself totally alone. I collapsed on my bed and felt a sear of immeasurable anguish. My cat, perhaps sensing something was awry, let me snug my index finger inside the palm of her paw. This simple cat, the only being to share my limitless grief, gave her single paw to me, and that tiny paw was enough bodily warmth to ease my pain. She purred, I wept.

My father had smoked almost his whole life, so it came as no surprise that there was more to the story than a mere kitchen shelving accident. It was obviously lung cancer. Of course, if anyone had told me it was that serious, I would have been on the next plane, but everyone assured me it wasn't serious. I was young and hadn't fully learned how suspicious the context of the events were: my father's age, he was a smoker, he was in the hospital. Oblivious, I had continued to look happily forward to a musician's concert.

From that point forward, your music was forever bittersweet, married to an utterly random and tragic event. This never diminished my love for your music, but only deepened it, as if I could play one of your songs I'd heard years before and be transported to a world where my father were still alive somewhere, creating some bizarre fix-it around the house. Although you had no say in it, your music and picture have turned into a touchstone for my father's memory.

After my father died, I felt a dam of emotion had been torn open. I found it easier to tap into my melancholy when listening to evocative music... in 1996, I remember being entranced by If These Old Walls Could Speak and sobbing to its haunting refrain. Not long thereafter, the BBC broadcast your live show at Shepherd's Bush and my fondness for your music grew even further.

Your music is special. It touches me.

Not simply because it reminds me of my father now, but because your ethereal voice and steel guitar fuse melody and harmony flawlessly. It was true the first time I saw you sing Polaroids or I wouldn't be writing this now.

I hope, then, to have offered you something greater than the money you would get from a concert ticket or an album, or even the prestige of a Grammy Award. I hope I've offered you a sincere appreciation of your art, a recognition of your accolades in reaching out with your music to affect listeners.

And while you didn't even know my father, I thank you for your music which lets me remember him once more.

Yours Most Sincerely,

Ross Pruden

Photography is your PAL

Today, I checked out InkTip's "produced films" page and found this disheartening snippet:

Juan Frausto of Vendetta Pictures has commenced principle photography on the horror feature ‘RoadKill,’ which was written by InkTip scribe David Zagorski...

Even in the film business, I see everyone confuse "principle" for "principal", almost as often as confusing "it's" for "its", but not often enough that I'm sure which version is the correct usage. Google searches inevitably lead me to Paul Brians' amazing grammar cornucopia, Common Errors in English. Indeed:
Generations of teachers have tried to drill this one into students’ heads by reminding them, “The principal is your pal.” Many don’t seem convinced. “Principal” is a noun and adjective referring to someone or something which is highest in rank or importance. (In a loan, the principal is the more substantial part of the money, the interest is—or should be—the lesser.) “Principle” is only a noun, and has to do with law or doctrine: “The workers fought hard for the principle of collective bargaining.” Link.

However, I did hear someone on NPR yesterday say "heart-rending", so I'm not worried about the decline of Western civilization just yet.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The True Maverick

As you've no doubt heard, the Republican convention this year is using "maverick" to describe Presidential nominee John McCain.

Oh, no no no.

The term "maverick", is defined by Merriam-Webster's as "an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party". My computer's dictionary also defines it as, "an unorthodox or free-thinking person".

We all know why they're trying to tape this label on McCain—it's to hoodwink independent voters leaning towards voting for Obama.

Although Joe Lieberman is a close second, the only real "maverick" in this year's election—strictly according to the definition—is Ron Paul. I mean, his supporters held their own bloody rally! That's about as Maverick as you get. Just take a look at his voting record... he seems to vote fearlessly for either side of the aisle.

I'm not going to comment on his politics, but I will say this: although it's cool to be a maverick, acting like a maverick usually means you're on the outside looking in, and what good can you really do if you're out in the cold? A real maverick, in spirit, may tow the party line but stages a quiet revolution from the inside. Sure, Ron Paul has a certain allure for being an independent voice, but a little too independent for large swaths of Americans to throw their precious votes at him.

Still, nice try, Ron!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Back to chastity belts

I hope I'm not being an nobhead about this, but I can't help but wonder:

If Sarah Palin, the Republicans' nominee for Vice President, is a proponent of abstinence-only sex education...

...and her own 17 year old daughter is 5 months pregnant...

...what does that say about the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education?

And can Palin say, with a straight face, that she isn't quietly questioning her approach to sex ed?

I respect those who stand up for their values, but you cross a line when you apply your values at the expense of real world facts. Sure, you can claim to be "right" by saying abstinence works, or you can prevent teen pregnancies by accepting that teenagers have sex as they've always done... and you can promote condom use.

Do you want to be right, or do you want your 17 year old daughter to accidentally get pregnant? Yes, the choices are really that simple.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Know Thy Headshot

The film business serves up some harsh lessons from time to time. One of the harshest lessons is for actors. As Richard Walter once said, if a script has flaws, the writers can tear up that script and start completely from scratch, while an actor can never change into something they're not. If a director wants a particular look, and you don't got it, hit the skids, kiddo and don't forget to leave your sides with the lady by the door.

A worse lesson than that is the deep self-knowledge which fosters a niggling doubt that you don't have something special. For example, a long time ago, I could see my own career in acting would be fruitless because I had a Come to Jesus moment with myself: I can read sides cold and make the words come alive, and I can carry that intuitive reading into a performance. However, I don't have an especially attractive look, my voice isn't that enthralling, and I could never live with that frustrating emotional roller coaster ride of 1,000 failed auditions to (maybe) get my big break. The odds were simply too small to make it all worth the effort.

Not that I won't act if someone hands me a script. I love to act, but I'm simply unwilling to tread an arbitrary masochistic path to get past the gatekeepers. That's not a judgment -- I have immeasurable respect for actors thick-skinned enough to go that route. For me, though, it was never a good fit.

This hit home for me on two occasions. The first was in 1988 when I went to NYU film school. Our NYU teachers told us to go down to SAG to dig through the SAG headshots for actors who might be willing to act in a short student film, kind of like a $5.99 DVD Wall Mart bin, but for actors. So I'm sitting there with one of the other students and we come across a headshot... a headshot which hit me like a bucket of cold water -- it was my headshot! The photo had been taken years before, when I was only 16, and it was painfully out of date. I could run down a large inventory of feelings I experienced about that headshot but my most lasting thought was, "Wow, that whole acting thing was such a waste of my time." Of course, it wasn't -- all my acting experience has helped me view film from an actor's perspective and that's something you never forget as a director, but still... finding and hiring a photographer, hiring and pestering an agent, running around on auditions hoping you nailed an audition but never really knowing for days thereafter... it got old. At some point, I must have racked it all up to a sunk cost and moved on.

Years later, in 2000, I was looking at resumes for a three minute short I was directing. All the actors who replied to my Craigslist ad were already well vetted; they knew they'd be working for no pay on a short film. And still the headshots came flooding in. Jena, my confidante in crime, really helped me winnow the stack down because, at times, I'm embarrassed to say I was totally log jammed. There were so many actors and it was difficult to say no to any of them, especially when many had spent so much time and money making their headshots, and even had notable experience on their CV. Jena pulled me back down to Earth.

She held up a headshot. It was one of my Undecideds. "I'll make this easy for you," she said. "Would you want to watch this guy for three minutes of screen time?" That was a harsh question to ask, but the right one because the answer was no. The actor in question wasn't terribly attractive and I couldn't see myself honestly wanting to watch this dude for half a minute, much less three minutes. The headshots were easy to narrow down after that.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. There will always be a Steve Buscemi out there, but decisions like mine are made every day by casting directors in the entertainment industry. Sometimes actors got "it", but almost all the time, they don't. The best advice I heard about being a professional actor came from the actress I ended up casting in my short film (unsurprisingly, she later moved to L.A. to pursue acting): "Audition like crazy. Do as many auditions as you can and always do your best in them. When the audition is over, forget all about it. The chances are you didn't get the part, so why worry about it? Instead, use your auditions to perfect your acting. And try to get a flexible day job that pays well. I'm a mobile notary."

When Matt Damon was asked about what he'd tell people getting into acting, he said, "Don't. You get too much rejection." Interesting that his response was a rejection... was he surreptitiously trying to discourage thin-skinned newbie actors to save them years of tuition in the School of Hard Knocks?

Acting's a tough gig. Deal with it. But above all else, be honest with yourself about your headshot, your experience, your shtick. If you're not yielding any results from your auditions, is it really because you haven't knocked on enough doors, or is it because you really don't got it? Finally, if you'll never have what any casting director is looking for, at what point is it time to move on?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Facebook wall notes

There's no birthday quite like receiving text messages all day long via Facebook, each ending in "...wrote on your wall." Thanks, everyone!!! You all made it über-special. :)

(An added thanks to Andrew Blumin and Ana Feliciano, too, who sent me private messages.)

Sonnet II

Since my teens, when I first read MacBeth, I got the Shakespeare bug and never looked back. Today, because it's my birthday, this sonnet holds a unique significance for me:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter'd weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv'd thy beauty's use,
If thou couldst answer 'This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,'
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Class of 2012

I remember the first of these lists in 1998, and they never cease to amaze and amuse me. Perhaps the most unsettling news is how this generation has always experienced privacy as being under threat... it makes films like Minority Report, where personal freedoms can be infringed at the government's whim, tragically plausible.

I find this list always helps to remind me how the world looks to the youngest of generations, who will one take take the reins. As the Indian adage goes, "We are not inheriting the world from our parents, we borrowing it from our children."

This month, almost 2 million first-year students will head off to college campuses around the country. Most of them will be about 18 years old, born in 1990 when headlines sounded oddly familiar to those of today: Rising fuel costs were causing airlines to cut staff and flight schedules; Big Three car companies were facing declining sales and profits; and a president named Bush was increasing the number of troops in the Middle East in the hopes of securing peace. However, the mindset of this new generation of college students is quite different from that of the faculty about to prepare them to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Each August for the past 11 years, Beloit College in Beloit, Wis., has released the Beloit College Mindset List. It provides a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college. It is the creation of Beloit’s Keefer Professor of the Humanities Tom McBride and Public Affairs Director Ron Nief. The List is shared with faculty and with thousands who request it each year as the school year begins, as a reminder of the rapidly changing frame of reference for this new generation.

The class of 2012 has grown up in an era where computers and rapid communication are the norm, and colleges no longer trumpet the fact that residence halls are “wired” and equipped with the latest hardware. These students will hardly recognize the availability of telephones in their rooms since they have seldom utilized landlines during their adolescence. They will continue to live on their cell phones and communicate via texting. Roommates, few of whom have ever shared a bedroom, have already checked out each other on Facebook where they have shared their most personal thoughts with the whole world.

It is a multicultural, politically correct and “green” generation that has hardly noticed the threats to their privacy and has never feared the Russians and the Warsaw Pact.

Students entering college for the first time this fall were generally born in 1990.

For these students, Sammy Davis Jr., Jim Henson, Ryan White, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Freddy Krueger have always been dead.
  1. Harry Potter could be a classmate, playing on their Quidditch team.
  2. Since they were in diapers, karaoke machines have been annoying people at parties.
  3. They have always been looking for Carmen Sandiego.
  4. GPS satellite navigation systems have always been available.
  5. Coke and Pepsi have always used recycled plastic bottles.
  6. Shampoo and conditioner have always been available in the same bottle.
  7. Gas stations have never fixed flats, but most serve cappuccino.
  8. Their parents may have dropped them in shock when they heard George Bush announce “tax revenue increases.”
  9. Electronic filing of tax returns has always been an option.
  10. Girls in head scarves have always been part of the school fashion scene.
  11. All have had a relative--or known about a friend's relative--who died comfortably at home with Hospice.
  12. As a precursor to “whatever,” they have recognized that some people “just don’t get it.”
  13. Universal Studios has always offered an alternative to Mickey in Orlando.
  14. Grandma has always had wheels on her walker.
  15. Martha Stewart Living has always been setting the style.
  16. Haagen-Dazs ice cream has always come in quarts.
  17. Club Med resorts have always been places to take the whole family.
  18. WWW has never stood for World Wide Wrestling.
  19. Films have never been X rated, only NC-17.
  20. The Warsaw Pact is as hazy for them as the League of Nations was for their parents.
  21. Students have always been "Rocking the Vote.”
  22. Clarence Thomas has always sat on the Supreme Court.
  23. Schools have always been concerned about multiculturalism.
  24. We have always known that “All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”
  25. There have always been gay rabbis.
  26. Wayne Newton has never had a mustache.
  27. College grads have always been able to Teach for America.
  28. IBM has never made typewriters.
  29. Roseanne Barr has never been invited to sing the National Anthem again.
  30. McDonald’s and Burger King have always used vegetable oil for cooking french fries.
  31. They have never been able to color a tree using a raw umber Crayola.
  32. There has always been Pearl Jam.
  33. The Tonight Show has always been hosted by Jay Leno and started at 11:35 EST.
  34. Pee-Wee has never been in his playhouse during the day.
  35. They never tasted Benefit Cereal with psyllium.
  36. They may have been given a Nintendo Game Boy to play with in the crib.
  37. Authorities have always been building a wall across the Mexican border.
  38. Lenin’s name has never been on a major city in Russia.
  39. Employers have always been able to do credit checks on employees.
  40. Balsamic vinegar has always been available in the U.S.
  41. Macaulay Culkin has always been Home Alone.
  42. Their parents may have watched The American Gladiators on TV the day they were born.
  43. Personal privacy has always been threatened.
  44. Caller ID has always been available on phones.
  45. Living wills have always been asked for at hospital check-ins.
  46. The Green Bay Packers (almost) always had the same starting quarterback.
  47. They never heard an attendant ask “Want me to check under the hood?”
  48. Iced tea has always come in cans and bottles.
  49. Soft drink refills have always been free.
  50. They have never known life without Seinfeld references from a show about “nothing.”
  51. Windows 3.0 operating system made IBM PCs user-friendly the year they were born.
  52. Muscovites have always been able to buy Big Macs.
  53. The Royal New Zealand Navy has never been permitted a daily ration of rum.
  54. The Hubble Space Telescope has always been eavesdropping on the heavens.
  55. 98.6 F or otherwise has always been confirmed in the ear.
  56. Michael Milken has always been a philanthropist promoting prostate cancer research.
  57. Off-shore oil drilling in the United States has always been prohibited.
  58. Radio stations have never been required to present both sides of public issues.
  59. There have always been charter schools.
  60. Students always had Goosebumps.