Saturday, July 18, 2009

Red Letter Day

Can't say much, but today's a big day. After a year of writing and months of pre-production planning, I finally get to direct the pilot webisode for my TV series about the end of the world. We've already lined up the next episode and have two more slotted after that. All different directors, different writers, and different characters. I know the idea is highly scalable because everyone I speak to about it gets excited about their own take on the concept. When we get enough episodes in the can and launch our web site, I'll lay it all out. Until then, I'll be posting production pics from the set on this blog, on Facebook and via Twitter.

Crossing my fingers that all goes well today, especially the air conditioning. Nothing's more miserable than working on a film without functional AC between takes...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Free is about price. AND availability. AND service...

This is the best article I've ever read about the enigma of free content on the internet. I wish I could email it to all filmmakers, musicians, software developers, movie studios, and record labels.

You think 'Free' is Only About Price? It's not.
by Stan Schroeder

Time and time again I see the discussion about free content, free services, free products, and how they’re going to liberate/destroy/change the current economy, especially when it comes to the Internet. Often, one important point is neglected. When it comes to free, it’s not the price that’s crucial.

It defies logic: after all, if you offer someone a free donut, he/she is going to take it because the price is zero, right? Well, not exactly. In the online world, there’s another equally important currency: availability. It can be defined by the number of steps it takes to do something or download some content. The bigger the number of steps, the bigger the cost of the product/service.

Free Donuts, But With a Catch

Let’s go back to the donut analogy. Many opponents of the economy of free say: if you give donuts for free, and the guy next to you tries to sell them at any price, he will inevitably lose because no one will buy them. But this criticism doesn’t take into account the number of steps required to retrieve the donut (which is a very important part of every online experience.) So, the real analogy would be this: if you offer donuts for free, but anyone who wants them has to run three circles around the nearby building to get one, many people will simply pay, for example, $1 for the donut if it means they can just take it immediately.

Recently, we’ve written about research which shows that kids in the UK pirate music less due to the rise of music streaming services. This is because music streaming is so easy, that it makes it cheaper (time is money, remember) than to search for a song on a torrent site, although the price of both services is zero.

Competing With Free

So, how do you compete with free? Let’s say that your product is a music album, which can be digitally duplicated at zero cost, and therefore it’s all over torrent sites, P2P networks and blogs. Sounds like a disaster, but it’s actually not that hard to compete with that. You can create a fantastic web site which offers all of the albums of that particular band, as well as many other albums, neatly organized and easy to search. Then, you can offer additional perks to people who download the album (I’m not talking about buying it yet, I’ll get to that bit later), such as free concert tickets, merch, access to rarities, singles, unreleased materials, live recordings, bootlegs, lyrics, guitar tabs, etc. Then, there’s the technical side: you can offer very fast downloads. You can have ads that are less annoying than those on torrent sites. In short, you can create a great user experience. I’ve covered this part of the story in an earlier article on piracy and the reasons why it works.

But I’ll take it a step forward. Here’s a bold theory: free will not last forever. No one has to be afraid of free, because it’s just a transitional phase in the history of the Internet. The current trend, where everything seems to lose value, and the price of all digital content seems to inevitably spiral towards zero, will reverse – at least for some types of content.

The Price is Not Only Money; It’s Also the Time it Takes to Pay

And here’s the reason: currently, paying for something online is, in most cases, too complicated. How hard can it be to just punch in your credit card number, one might ask? It’s very hard. It’s unbelievably hard in an environment where people are used to getting everything with a couple of mouse clicks. You have to own a credit card; if you do, you have to find it; you have to punch in a long number, then you have to punch in another, and a date. And on many sites, if you haven’t shopped there before, you have to register first, which adds to the annoyance.

If you think that telling people that getting the same content for free, with a couple of clicks, is evil, will make them go through this process, then you do not understand how the Internet has changed our collective mind. One click – one single click – can make the difference between yes, please, and no, thank you. Any blog owner who has added a RSS subscription button knows that it works infinitely better if it only takes one click. Add just another click – a landing page where you explain what RSS is, for example – and you’ll get a lot less subscribers.

An example that defies the notion that all digital content is going to be valued at zero dollars is Steam. You know why? You pay once, subscribe once, and then you just download games (*Update: this bit requires some explanation. When I say “pay once, subscribe once” I mean set up your payment details once, and they’re remembered between sessions; games are automatically updated; plus, Steam (Steam) lets you purchase multiple games at once. But most importantly, the entire process is so easy, and the Steam content distribution system offers so many perks, that it beats downloading games illegally. For more about Steam, go here). For a lot of people, that fact that it actually costs money is overshadowed by the simplicity of the experience. Many gamers have told me: look, I used to pirate games and spend days looking for cracks and serials, but now I just use Steam. It’s so much better.

This works for all content. Lately, we hear newspaper owners huff and puff about their demise, blaming it on anyone but themselves. I feel for them; it’s a complicated issue, but they have to figure the best way to resolve it. If I click a link on the Wall Street Journal and I get the notice “sorry, this is for subscribers only,” I’m just gonna go away. If I were to click the same link, and someone, somewhere, took 20 cents from me, without the need for my intervention, I’d be OK with it. But if what you offer behind that link is already available on 20 other free sites, then I won’t be OK with it. If I’m a stock broker and need to have that news the second it’s out, then I’ll be willing to pay even more. Are there enough stock brokers out there to justify a pay wall which annoys all other readers? It’s up to WSJ to find out.
The Wrong Way

Unfortunately, there’s a problem here that goes beyond the survival of an industry and threatens to change the way we use and perceive the Internet, as well as our online privacy and freedom. The entertainment industry and the media industry know that getting people to pull out their wallet is the hardest thing, so they’re trying to shove it down our throats. They think that they can charge their content in the same way a country collects tax from the people. It’ll never work. First of all, not all content can be charged for. Some content – news is a good example – will always have a tendency to be free. Video games, music and movies may not be worth more than zero if we’re talking about a digital file on your hard disk, but if you add the user experience and the extra value you can tie to them, there will always be a business model for selling them.

So instead of putting pressure on governments to adopt stupid laws and on ISPs to act like policemen, judge and jury, the industries mentioned should work to figure out which model works best for them. Some companies will fail, and go bankrupt. That’s OK: when the car came, not all horse carriage manufacturers successfully transitioned to a new business model. Some will have a hard time. Some will do as well as they did before, and some will do better than they did before.

But all of them need to understand that the key issue is not the price. It’s one piece of the puzzle; but there is also ease of use, the quality of the user experience, availability, the time it takes to do something. In the end, free is price like any other; every day I get free newspapers, handed to me by a boy on the corner. Obviously, it pays off to do that, otherwise that company wouldn’t give them for free. I don’t get cars for free, though: the fact that I drive a Ford, and thus advertise it to the world, is not valuable enough to Ford to give me the car for free. But if I were a very popular actor, they’d be very glad to give me the car for free. How did these companies learn what works and what doesn’t? They experimented, they tried different things, and those who were good at predicting what works, survived. I don’t see why, when it comes to digital content, this should be any different. Link.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

+5.2 (∆ -0.2)

Last night was game night, by which I mean Counter-Strike. I was first introduced to Counter-Strike in 2000 and have been playing every Wednesday with the same group ever since. We used to meet up and play after business hours but now we've evolved to play remotely via Steam.

One staple of CS night is beer. I usually imbibe at least one hops before the night is through and, on rare occasions, have even gone through five or six Newcastles if I'm at a friend's house during game night. (Bizarrely, the best game night I ever had was after five beers. Go figure.)

Anyway, last night I chose not to have any brewski, not because I didn't want to, or even that I was sick (I think I'm still a little sick from this flu I got last week), but because I didn't want to consume the calories. Wow. That's a major departure from the guy I used to be who'd binge with no care for tomorrow.

It's worth adding that I still drink beer, and that I sill enjoy myself with more than one... but until I lose these last five pounds, I've informally chosen to go off the wagon. Don't worry—I'm still kind of looking at myself and going, "Who are you?"

Monday, July 13, 2009

+5.4 (∆ -1)

It hit me sometime when I was putting on my climbing harness at Pipeworks—I had already been at my own gym earlier in the day. And now I was at another gym? Seriously? Who am I?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

+6.4 (∆ -0.8)

Tough month for me, I'll admit. These last few pounds have been challenging... I think I'll have to measure every calorie I ingest to whittle away to the finish line. If the minimum daily calorie intake for men is 1800, then I'll have to count everything which goes into my body. Due to visitors in town, and the flu that hit our house pretty badly, it's been impossible to get to the gym to do any workouts for about two weeks—right now, the only possibility to lose weight is to eat less.

Along those lines, I read a fascinating article on NPR about how a common measurement for weight—the Body Mass Index—is categorically obsolete. Since I've been using BMI as a central tool to gauge my progress (+0 is my weight calculated from a normal BMI), of course I was very interested in reading the article.

It usually takes a lot for me to make a sweeping dismissal of anything already in the status quo; in a modern age where sensible people avoid superstitious nonsense like praying to a deity for rain, my gut feeling suggests that if something has made it into the status quo, there's probably a good reason for it to be there. Of course, everything is subject to common sense... I'm just saying that the status quo is not to be dismantled willy nilly without some sensible logic. NPR isn't a conspiracy-theory organization, so I'm always open to hearing their reasonable analysis; if it makes sense to me, I'm willing to go along with it as well. While still an interesting and somewhat useful measurement of healthy body weight, BMI is not the panacea to me that it once was. Body fat percentage seems a more accurate marker of healthy body weight.

Top 10 Reasons Why The BMI Is Bogus
by Keith Devlin
The BMI Formula
BMI = weight in pounds/(height in inches x height in inches) x 703

The 703 is to convert the index from the original metric version of the formula.

CDC Recommendations:

Below 18.5 = Underweight
18.5 to 24.9 = Ideal
25.0 to 29.9 = Overweight
30.0 and above = Obese

Weekend Edition Saturday, July 4, 2009 • Americans keep putting on the pounds — at least according to a report released this week from the Trust for America's Health. The study found that nearly two-thirds of states now have adult obesity rates above 25 percent.

But you may want to take those findings — and your next meal — with a grain of salt, because they're based on a calculation called the body mass index, or BMI.

As the Weekend Edition math guy, I spoke to Scott Simon and told him the body mass index fails on 10 grounds:

1. The person who dreamed up the BMI said explicitly that it could not and should not be used to indicate the level of fatness in an individual.

The BMI was introduced in the early 19th century by a Belgian named Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet. He was a mathematician, not a physician. He produced the formula to give a quick and easy way to measure the degree of obesity of the general population to assist the government in allocating resources. In other words, it is a 200-year-old hack.

2. It is scientifically nonsensical.

There is no physiological reason to square a person's height (Quetelet had to square the height to get a formula that matched the overall data. If you can't fix the data, rig the formula!). Moreover, it ignores waist size, which is a clear indicator of obesity level.

3. It is physiologically wrong.

It makes no allowance for the relative proportions of bone, muscle and fat in the body. But bone is denser than muscle and twice as dense as fat, so a person with strong bones, good muscle tone and low fat will have a high BMI. Thus, athletes and fit, health-conscious movie stars who work out a lot tend to find themselves classified as overweight or even obese.

4. It gets the logic wrong.

The CDC says on its Web site that "the BMI is a reliable indicator of body fatness for people." This is a fundamental error of logic. For example, if I tell you my birthday present is a bicycle, you can conclude that my present has wheels. That's correct logic. But it does not work the other way round. If I tell you my birthday present has wheels, you cannot conclude I got a bicycle. I could have received a car. Because of how Quetelet came up with it, if a person is fat or obese, he or she will have a high BMI. But as with my birthday present, it doesn't work the other way round. A high BMI does not mean an individual is even overweight, let alone obese. It could mean the person is fit and healthy, with very little fat.

5. It's bad statistics.

Because the majority of people today (and in Quetelet's time) lead fairly sedentary lives and are not particularly active, the formula tacitly assumes low muscle mass and high relative fat content. It applies moderately well when applied to such people because it was formulated by focusing on them. But it gives exactly the wrong answer for a large and significant section of the population, namely the lean, fit and healthy. Quetelet is also the person who came up with the idea of "the average man." That's a useful concept, but if you try to apply it to any one person, you come up with the absurdity of a person with 2.4 children. Averages measure entire populations and often don't apply to individuals.

6. It is lying by scientific authority.

Because the BMI is a single number between 1 and 100 (like a percentage) that comes from a mathematical formula, it carries an air of scientific authority. But it is mathematical snake oil.

7. It suggests there are distinct categories of underweight, ideal, overweight and obese, with sharp boundaries that hinge on a decimal place.

That's total nonsense.

8. It makes the more cynical members of society suspect that the medical insurance industry lobbies for the continued use of the BMI to keep their profits high.

Insurance companies sometimes charge higher premiums for people with a high BMI. Among such people are all those fit individuals with good bone and muscle and little fat, who will live long, healthy lives during which they will have to pay those greater premiums.

9. Continued reliance on the BMI means doctors don't feel the need to use one of the more scientifically sound methods that are available to measure obesity levels.

Those alternatives cost a little bit more, but they give far more reliable results.

10. It embarrasses the U.S.

It is embarrassing for one of the most scientifically, technologically and medicinally advanced nations in the world to base advice on how to prevent one of the leading causes of poor health and premature death (obesity) on a 200-year-old numerical hack developed by a mathematician who was not even an expert in what little was known about the human body back then. Link.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


I see this odd little error from time to time and never really understand it—"R.I.P". If we follow the logic that the first two periods mean that "R" and "I" stand for other words, then the resulting translation is "Rest in P", not "Rest in Peace". And you thought punctuation was unimportant.

I see this error crop up in many iterations... U.S.A, A.K.A, M.I.A, etc. I see it so often that I even coined a word for it way back when sniglets were all the rage—punctinilification.

Sure, there are greater problems in the world than worrying about forgotten typographic characters, but I also feel that how carefully we deal with small details like punctinilification hints at how carefully we'll deal with the greater problems in the world. Put another way, if we can't take an extra split second to add a simple period at the end of an acronym, what hope do we have in solving world poverty?

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani took a similar approach to tackling crime when he became mayor. His idea wasn't to go after the serious crimes as a sole priority, but to also focus on "incivilities", the minor crimes like vandalism, loitering, etc. The theory was that minor crimes are the tip of the iceberg that lead to major crimes later on... the result was a completely different city greatly removed of its former criminal strife.

It always sounds so... petty to snipe at missteps in grammar or spelling but I often wonder: if we forced each other to be more precise about our use of language, doesn't it follow that our thoughts would be more precise as well? George Orwell certainly thought so.