Monday, June 06, 2005

Hell's Kitchen

I've long considered so-called "reality" shows to be a blight upon contemporary media entertainment. Shows like Futurama, Firefly, and semi-entertaining shows like Point Pleasant are cancelled, while Survivor enters it's what, ninth season? Tenth? Reality shows are misleading, blase, and irritating.

But Hell's Kitchen's got me.

I've watched other reality shows, but in my humble opinion this show's just got that extra kick to actually make it watchable. Who cares about the arbitrary and ultimately useless challenges in Survivor or The Amazing Race? Hell's Kitchen is about making food and making it well. Now, if you know me, you know that I love food, and since I've actually worked as a cook for a summer, the content of the show certainly has appeal to me.

The ads made it seem as if Chef Ramsey were going to be a complete and total jerk, but he's actually nicer than some of the bosses I've had in the past. He expects perfection, and in terms of cooking, I think this is actually possible. I'd never want to be on the show or in his kitchen, but my sweet goodness, is it ever enjoyable to watch! So I'm biting the bullet, eating some crow, and saying that not all reality shows are horrible. Shudder.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Let's Make A Deal!

I'm going on vacation in a couple of days. If I can get at least one comment to this "story," I'll keep on posting stories while I'm away. Otherwise, see you in a few weeks!

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Library makes the move from print to digital

Typical. A few days after I get rid of my electronic subscription from the NYT, a story like this gets published. Of course, I had a Monday-Friday subscription, so I wouldn't have read it.


My headline might be a bit alarmist; the University of Texas isn't completely ditching their books, but they've emptied an entire library in favour of computers and desk space. When I started my undergraduate degree at the U of Regina, they had four or five computers on the main floor of the library, with prominent signs that said "Do not use these computers to check your email!" When I graduated, the entire floor was covered in computers, and the few books that remained on the level were pushed back to the edges of the floor. And what do students do with this virtual cornucopia of computers? Solitare, solitare, IM, email, solitare, somebody looking for a book, and *maybe* (if you're lucky) somebody using Word, but probably only to write a poem about solitare.

The importance of computers when it comes to research cannot be understated. The writer of this article criticises students who start a research project with Google, but really, what should they start with? Every project needs to start somewhere, and where better than the most widely used search engine of all time? The Internet is also invaluable for finding scholarly articles that our humble library never seemed to have, but that's the point: fill the library with books on the most common subjects your patrons will want to read, and fill your networks with everything else.

But honestly, an entire "library" devoted to computers and meeting space seems like overkill. Nearly every student has a computer today, especially given the fact that a top-of-the-line computer that I paid $2000 for five years ago can now be purchased for less than $100 today. So why buy computers instead of books? Well, since I'm at a loss, why don't you tell me. That's it for today.

Friday, May 13, 2005

A New Kind of Distributed Television

A recent post in a forum that I participate in led me to ponder a new distribution method for television shows. The following is in response to a question about downloading shows from the UK:

"how about TV shows that don't even air in your country? i know some friends that watch shows from the UK that the don't even air in North America, let alone Canada."

If we're talking about strict legality, unless you can legally receive the program, you can't "legally" download it (if we're going with the assumption that downloading TV shows are allowed through timeshifting). This is how I see it: say I don't get cable, so I'm limited to global, ctv, and cbc. Law and Order comes on tonight, but I miss it. Now, no matter how many people are actually watching the show, advertisers on CTV will make a certain amount of money while Law & Order is being played. Of course, these advertisers expect that those watching the show will also watch the commercials, but I usually change the channel or do something else.

Anyway, whether I decide to watch it on TV or download it the next day because I missed it, the advertisers are making their money, the producers of the show & actors are obviously making their money, and CTV is making a cut as well. So no matter how I actually watch it, everybody wins.

The question is, what happens when a significant portion of people move from watching a show on TV to downloadng it off of the net? If a large chunk of people are no longer watching those advertisements, then advertising drops off, which starts a chain reaction that I don't think I need to get into. What are the solutions? For starters, I think a net-based distribution model should be implemented, preferably using bittorrent. Here's how I can see it working:

1) Local cable company decides to offer a downloads package so that customers can download their programs at their leisure. Dunno how this would work monetarily; perhaps payment by episode, perhaps payment by season for any given show (i.e. sign up for Law & Order season 14), perhaps flat rate for all you can download. Prices would have to be *low* - for example, latest season of Law & Order on DVD is $60, which is about $2.50 per episode. I wouldn't pay this much just to watch the show if I could wait a few months and get it permanently, but I might pay $1 per show if it meant that I wouldn't have to pay for cable. If I regularly watched 7 shows a week (first tier, not including reruns of simpsons and whatnot), that would work out to $30 per month. That's not too bad, I think.

2) Distribution costs are going to be critical, so perhaps you could provide two options. First, direct download from a main server; perhaps there would be a main Law & Order server that serves all of North America, perhaps there could be distributed servers on West & East coast, or whatnot. Maybe 1 Canadian server and several US servers; I really have no clue how it would work best. Full price for direct download. Second option would be a torrent download. Now, the key for torrents is to both download *and* upload, so perhaps companies could provide a discount (10%? 15%?) for customers who have an upload/download ratio of 2:1 (upload 2 copies for 1 copy downloaded). Trackers could provide this information easily. This way, you could let your users help with the bandwidth a bit (we're not talking 10:1 here, as this bandwidth comes out of *our* pockets) which would help keep costs down.

3) Absolutely no way you could cut out advertising. What would be a problem would be making advertising regionally applicable. But, since we're talking about a digital format here, which makes it extremely easy to fast-forward ads (or even strip them altogether), maybe it would make sense to have banner ads on top/bottom of the show at all times. Yes, it would be annoying, but without advertising I don't see how this model would work.

4) The dreaded DRM. I don't see how DRM can be avoided. Yes, it would be cracked, but at least advertisers would be content knowing that their content can't easily be stripped out of the data stream. I used to subscribe to the electronic edition of the New York Times which used a proprietary viewer that was almost identical to PDF, which didn't bother me at all as I could copy the data files on my hard drive as much as I wanted to (re-downloading cost me more money, though).

Right now, even with a half-decent DSL connexion, it takes about a half hour to download an hour-length TV show (that's at 200kb/s, assuming 300mb file). It's not exactly convenient, and you'd have to plan ahead if you wanted to watch your show, *and* unless you had an HTPC setup you'd have to watch it on your computer, but right now my comp setup is as good, if not better, than my home stereo setup, so I don't see this as a problem for *everybody*.

To get back to your point, xb0xb0y: imagine if we had this hypothetical model in place. It would be ridiclously easy to buy a subscription to a British show and thereby avoid the problem of international copyright infringement because said show doesn't play locally. Might be a tad expensive, given the exchange rate from the UK to Canada, but it would be a legal option, anyway.

If there are any cable executives out there reading this, feel free to implement this. Please?

Saturday, May 07, 2005

News In Brief: Profs use computers to grade papers?

Prepare yourself for one of the dumbest ideas ever conceived: apparently some profs hate their job so much that they're using a program to mark their students' papers for them. I think the linked story says it all; I'm still digesting the ramifications, so I might post about this later this week. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Kingdom of "Heaven"?

I'm sure you've seen advertisements for this movie all over the place: swords and crosses flashing, men in armour riding horses into battle, castles and battlements overlooking an epic battle between good and evil. I've greatly enjoyed Ridley Scott's previous films (Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, and of course Blade Runner, to name a few), but I'm extremely hesitant about this latest foray into historical "fiction." The film is set during the First Crusade, an incredibly violent and bloody excursion from Europe into the "Holy Land" to reclaim it from the Muslim "infidels." In fact, there are numerous historical sources to attest to such atrocities as pogroms before the crusaders entered Jerusalem; these Knights of God would enter a town, round up all the Jews, and burn them, much to the delight of the villagers and knights alike.

When these crusaders entered Jerusalem, they didn't just capture it, but looted, raped, and pillaged their way through the city. There are accounts of Muslims and Jews being slaughtered in their own temples and mosques wholesale, including women and children. This was not just a war, but a brutal invasion by conquerors who misguidedly massacred in the name of God. Understandably, Islamicists feel the same shudder when the crusades are mentioned as Jews are when the Holocaust is brought up.

Now, Gladiator had its violent bits, to be sure, and Black Hawk Down didn't exactly portray the real historical situation with perfect accuracy, but to make a film about the "good" Europeans against the "evil" Muslims and Jews, no matter how Scott handles the film, is simply beyond the pale. If this turns out to be another formulaic film (good guy is at a low point, good guy gets inspired, good guy meets girl, good guy kills bad guy, good guy gets girl) that glosses over historical accuracy in order to simply sell tickets, Hollywood will have fallen to a new low. The Crusades are a bloody stain upon the histories of Europe and Christianity; Adorno talks about the paradox about entertainment after Auschwitz, but we could very well talk about the barbarism of writing poetry after the Crusades.

Will I see it? Perhaps, if only to rail against it (should Scott pander to the mainstream), but before going, I would recommend reading a brief history of the Crusades (two that come to mind are Madden's The New Concise History of the Crusades and Riley-Smith's The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades) if only to be able to separate fact from fiction.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The demise of cyberpunk, one decade later

The Internet killed cyberpunk. It's as simple as that. What began with such great minds as William Gibson, John Shirley, and Lewis Shiner (not to mention that ubiquous know-it-all Bruce Sterling - you know I love you, man) ultimately ended with a quiet flatline, speaker turned off.

She was born in 1980, a tiny baby with mirrorshades and an angst to rock & hack. Shirley's City Come A Walkin' might not have the "traditional" elements we ascribe to cyberpunk, but it's got it all: a proto-computer network, punks, the battle to control mass media, and above all, the conflict between high tech and low life.

The genre hit its stride with Gibson's Neuromancer, the canonical text of cyberpunk. If you haven't heard of this book, Amazon.[whatever] is open 24 hours a day, and will gladly take your money.

Shortly after, the definitive (and extremely weird) cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades was released by Sterling. More important than the stories within is the introduction to the book written by the theorist himself who delineates the movement and talks about its early influences.

Cadigan, Shiner, Williams, Stephenson... the hits just kept on coming. What made these novels interesting was the concept of cyberspace, a "consentual hallucination" shared by the entire world that is, in our 21st century mindset, the Internet with virtual reality goggles.

But that's just the thing, the difference between cyberpunk as sf and cyberpunk as a futurist movement: the imagination of these great writers just couldn't be realised by the mere advancement of technology. When Mosaic, the first commercial web browser, hit the global scene in 1994, the disappointment was almost palpable. Hell, *I* was reduced at the time to browsing with Lynx, which was all text and maybe some colours if I was lucky. The world through which Case and Bobby Newmark flew, where loas and magical formulae doubled for AIs and code, where a lone kid with a cyberspace deck could take down a megacorp, well, this world simply didn't exist. After this, I think that writers such as Sterling and Shiner were just too disappointed to keep on doing cyberpunk. Of course, hacks have since tried to make it work (yours truly included), but ultimately 1994 was the year of the Crash, the real-world zero interrupt.

Why the history lesson? Well, with films such as the Matrix, Appleseed, and Equilibrium being monumental smash hits for our generation, I think that people need to take a second and realise where exactly these ideas came from. But I won't spoil it for you; all the great cyberpunk books are still in print. Go. Read. Enjoy.