Archive for the ‘Media & Reviews’ Category

A Reasonable Alternative

July 27th, 2011 1 comment

Many have said it (including myself), and it is true: offer a reasonable plan for accessing media, and people won’t pirate so much.

Too bad by-mail or online media services in Japan are not even close to being like Netflix. I looked into them recently, and only found limited, overpriced by-mail services–essentially charging more than video rental shops for a set number of videos (usually something like four or eight) per month.

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Blu-ray Rentals

August 26th, 2010 Comments off

Japan, strangely, seems a bit behind in the HDTV game. For a country where it seems you can’t get anything but HDTVs at electronics shops, not as many people seem to have them as you would think.

Worse, Blu-rays are a tad too sparse here. Of course, this being Japan, they are all over-priced, even more than standard DVDs. $42 is a usual price for a new release. But I can stock up back in the U.S., especially since Japan and America are now in the same region–but then, the videos won’t have Japanese subtitles for Sachi. Damn.

No, the real problem is video rental shops. They have wide floors with dozens and dozens of racks filled with DVDs. However, only recently did they expand their Blu-ray sections to two racks from the lonesome single one they had previously. It’s pathetic, really–take Avatar, for example. Huge hit, new movie and all. I go to the local video rental shop, the closest one to us, a place called GEO. You know how many Blu-ray copies they have? Four. All rented out all the time, of course (I’ve stopped by this place several times before). So I go to the north side of the next train line over, quite a distance away (I’m looking for exercise these days, and I had the time for it then), and find the next-closest rental shop–again, a GEO store. How many copies of this recent blockbuster do they have, in Blu-ray, the logical viewing choice for a movie of that type? Two. Again, rented out. The DVD version they have dozens of, practically a rack full of them, most not rented out. But they have two Blu-ray copies.


I asked the guy at the counter, even though I knew what the answer would be. It was the same last year at Tsutaya in Ikebukuro: “Not enough people have Blu-ray players.” Bull. First of all, if nobody has the players, then why are so many of the Blu-rays always rented out? You have to be lucky to grab a recent release in these places. Sure, Blu-ray adoption is not strong yet, but it’s way stronger than their supply of titles merits. Second, probably a big reason people don’t get them is because they know the rental shops don’t have squat in their Blu-ray sections.


So I move on, knowing there’s a Tsutaya a little further down the road. Fortunately, although they also still have just a 2-rack Blu-ray section, they at least have caught on to the recent-releases idea, and when you check the regular DVD racks, the recent hits all have multiple Blu-rays tacked on at one end. So Sachi and I got movies to watch this week.

Still, it’s annoying that Blu-ray somehow is getting passed over. Of course, if the discs cost half of what they do and you could find a decent selection at rental shops, then maybe people would find reason to start using them more. Just saying.

I’ve been meaning to try out the local version of Netflix, Tsutaya has this thing called DISCAS. Before now, I have always been stopped cold by their indecipherable home page, very badly designed, which even their shop people could not figure out for me. But now I just went back to it, and it seems much more user-friendly. And their Blu-ray section seems pretty well-stocked (over 700 titles, not bad), certainly much more so than the brick-and-mortar shops. ¥980 ($12) a month to have four discs out at any–oohhhh, no. Four discs rented out per month. You don’t get to see all you want so long as you return them quickly enough. You just get a set limit. Hmm. They also have an 8-disc plan for about twice that cost.

Found another service called Posuren (“Postal Rental”?), but it seems to be the same deal as Discas, as are DMM and GEO–they all seem to be following the Discas model. There’s Rakuten Rentals, ¥100 a pop, but they have a ¥300 delivery fee; it gets mitigated by renting many at a time, but there’s a 10-day limit on keeping them.

Anyone know a better service? Something more Netflix-like? So far, I’m not impressed–they seem to have little advantage over going to the actual store, some have prohibitive delivery costs, and the potential hassle factor (contracts, late fees, etc.) could mitigate that further. If there’s nothing better than this, I’ll probably opt for going to the store….

Good News, Everyone!

June 25th, 2010 2 comments

Hooray for Zoidberg!

Futurama, is back! Again! This time on Comedy Central, in its original half-hour format. Let’s hope that it stays on for a good long stretch this time!

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eBooks Article

April 25th, 2010 Comments off
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Paying Twice for the Same Item

April 12th, 2010 4 comments

Randy Cohen, ethicist for the New York Times, has an interesting spin on a reader’s question about pirating a book which he already bought. In short: it’s illegal, but not unethical. The reader in question already paid full price for the hardcover, so Cohen feels that there is no bad juju involved in downloading the same work for an ebook reader:

Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform. Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag the technology. Thus you’ve violated the publishing company’s legal right to control the distribution of its intellectual property, but you’ve done no harm or so little as to meet my threshold of acceptability.

Cohen notes immediately after that, however, that publishers disagree:

Unsurprisingly, many in the book business take a harder line. My friend Jamie Raab, the publisher of Grand Central Publishing and an executive vice president of the Hachette Book Group, says: “Anyone who downloads a pirated e-book has, in effect, stolen the intellectual property of an author and publisher. To condone this is to condone theft.”

I’m definitely with Cohen on this, although he’s a bit wrong on what lags behind what (see the next paragraph). What the publishers want, of course, is the ability to re-sell the same product to the same consumer over and over again, and call them “separate” purchases. I liked my purchase of the Star Trek Blu-ray because it contained a digital copy which I could use on my computers and my iPhone. Including a DVD-compatible version would be even better. The point is, you should never be forced to pay twice for the exact same thing. Publishers, of course, want as much of your money any way they can get it, so they fight for the paradigm of device-centric purchases.

Partly to blame here is the mindset that came into play with business purchases of software. Because businesses would use the same software on hundreds or thousands of machines, instead of having to wastefully purchase that many physical copies of the software, they would buy just one copy. That copy would come with an EULA (End User License Agreement) that would spell out exactly how the software could be used–how many machines or users, in what environments, etc.

Soon enough, the EULA was popping up everywhere, including personal purchases of software. If you buy a copy of a program for personal use only, you may have to pay several times–one each for every computer you use it on. Sure, if there are different versions for different devices, like for Windows, OS X, and the iPhone OS–that represents separate products which the author must work to produce. But for the exact same product on two machines using the same OS? How is that really fair, when there’s only one user? Depends on how you see it, of course–and of course, sellers will want to see it in the way that makes them the most money.

Most users see it differently: I am one person using this content, I should not have to pay to use it in two different places. Some extend that not just to themselves, but to family–after all, if I buy a book, I don’t have to pay for my family members to read it; within the home, there is a “community property” sense at work. While the same could be said about lending to friends, most people would agree that the ethical line ends pretty sharply at the borders to your house, and some will say it ends around the individual user. Publishers insist that it ends around the individual device. Often times a compromise is met which reflects these sensibilities; for example, your iTunes account can be extended to five devices, enough for most families. Some software comes in heavily discounted “family” packs.

However, the EULA was seen as an opportunity for content publishers in the digital world, who applied it to music, video, and all other forms of media. Publishers realized that they could use the EULA to keep that cash register ringing: sell a movie on DVD, then on Blu-ray, then for the computer, then again for the mobile device. As the number of devices which can play media multiplied, publishers saw the number of sales opportunities similarly multiply, and so have since aggressively pushed the idea that any copying, in any form is illegal and shameful. That includes ripping your CDs to iTunes. You’re a criminal, they insist; instead, if you want to use your iPod to listen to the music which you already bought on CD, you must go to the iTunes Store and purchase it again digitally, like a good little consumer. Naturally, most consumers call bullshit on that and rip away.

What it comes down to is perception and control. Are you buying a thing, or the rights to use a thing in a very specific way in a very specific place? Once you buy something, do you own it for personal use, or does the publisher maintain both ownership and control, with you simply having the privilege of looking at it in the way the publisher approves of? It could be argued both ways, with publishers claiming that the idea of copyright in itself asserts eternal control by the owner over intellectual property. But publishers try to go beyond that, not just controlling the rights to the intellectual property, but also controlling a consumer’s personal use of that property. If John Grisham writes a book and I buy a copy, he still owns the story, but he does not control the specific book I bought, nor can he dictate to me how I read it. Publishers are trying to change that, at least in the digital world (though you know they would do the same in the physical world if they thought they could get away with it).

As I laid out a little more than fours years ago, once you apply the digital model to a physical purchase, the “eternal control” concept and most EULA terms come across as ludicrous. If you purchase a paperback book, it does not come with an agreement that you will only read it at home, and that reading it in a cafe, at the park, or at work would require additional payment. They can’t charge you extra for reading the book in bed, or using a book-light with it. In purchasing the book, there is no legal way for the publisher to prohibit you from later selling that book to another person. Nor will they try to–people would seriously balk at that, the idea being contemptible.

And yet this is precisely the kind of control and re-purchasing which the publishers are trying to foist on people with the transition to the digital medium. If you buy digital music, digital movies, or ebooks, you will not be allowed to re-sell these things, even if you paid more for them than you would have for a physical copy. And many will forbid you to transfer the work to another location, or else severely limit it. Technically, I am violating my purchase agreement when I rip a DVD I bought so I can view it on my computer or iPhone, unless they specifically say I can.

Screw them. I say the traditional model holds. Cohen is right: if you pay full price for a book, you paid for the book content to be at your disposal. Downloading the digital version of the book is no crime, as the publisher and author have already made their money off of you. In my book, forcing a consumer to pay again for something they already bought is, if not illegal, then certainly unethical. Now, if the electronic edition is different, if it contains extra content like audio, video, or even changes one would expect in a subsequent edition, that’s not kosher to download for free; it represents added work. Sure, you can grouse that the 47th re-re-release of the “Star Wars” soundtrack only adds two tracks that the other five versions you bought don’t have, and George Lucas is being a schmuck for trying to make you pay for the same music over and over again just to get the new snippets–but there’s new content, and so you can’t say you already paid for it.

Publishers instead insist that it’s all in the agreement, and will refuse to sell to you unless you agree to their terms. The law, over time, has sided with the traditional model (remember the whole debate over recording video at home?), but more and more I fear that the content cartels will get more and more restrictive laws passed, like the DMCA, and eventually consumers will be forced by a government bought and sold to work against them to toe the publishers’ line.

A Little Perspective Here

March 27th, 2010 1 comment

Some people fear the idea of Apple exercising editorial control over content which will appear on their iPad:

That’s why the issue of Apple picking and choosing what we can and can’t read is so disturbing. If they’re forcing magazines to edit their contents in order to get distribution, then whatever Apple’s then-current (and thus far completely arbitrary) rules would determine what you get to read.

I believe that this is exactly what editors and publishers have done on a daily basis ever since the invention of publishing. Deciding what content should or should not appear in branded media is the norm, not a scary new age of oppression. If you want to read something else, then go read something else. Apple will not control all media in the world, won’t stop you from reading whatever the hell you like. Nor, as the writers of the scare piece quoted above suggest, will Apple start forcing content providers to follow any particular “political, religious, or ideological slant” just because they won’t allow porn or boobie apps on the iPhone. To go from Apple not approving some fart apps to the idea that Apple might one day start telling Time Magazine what political slant they should take, or what religious views the Christian Science Monitor is allowed to print, is the slippery slope at its worst. Nor can they make the argument that Apple is different because it is a distributor of other media publishers; Amazon does not allow certain content to be sold on their store, bookstores similarly choose what books appear on their shelves, and so on. Nothing new here.

Fact is, outside of the web, all book, magazine, newspaper, radio, television, and motion picture content is already edited by a small group of people who decide what will or will not be published, and many already impose a “political, religious, or ideological slant”–always have, always will. And much of what is on the web is similarly controlled. (Come to think of it, the writers of that very article were working under the exact same level of editorial control, which could explode into terrifying abuse at any moment!) Look at Fox News; you think they don’t control the political slant on their media outlet? The authors of this piece are going for the shock value of a nonsensical potential state of affairs which (a) we have no reason to expect will happen on Apple media and (b) happens most everywhere else already.


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Not Thinking the Sentence Through

March 23rd, 2010 1 comment

What’s wrong with this sentence? Aside from the typo in the compound verb in the ending dependent clause:

Mobile device manufacturer Palm has announced that it is putting its popular Pre and Pixi models on a production halt until it can sell of its current inventory.

I’d hate to see the sales figures for their unpopular models.

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Irresponsible Reporting

March 1st, 2010 Comments off

This time it involves Apple. The British publication Telegraph printed what appears to be a damning exposé on Apple’s bad business practices. From reading it, for the most part, it sounds like Apple was caught misbehaving, an impression bolstered by tangential reminders of past abuses.

Apple admits using child labour

At least eleven 15-year-old children were discovered to be working last year in three factories which supply Apple. … Apple has been repeatedly criticised for using factories that abuse workers and where conditions are poor. … Apple admitted that at least 55 of the 102 factories that produce its goods were ignoring Apple’s rule that staff cannot work more than 60 hours a week. … Apple has not stopped using the factories.

First off, to say that Apple “admitted” anything sounds like it confessed, that it was caught red-handed; that’s not the case, nor is it that Apple used child labor–its contractor did. Despite the article’s insinuation that Apple was being investigated by some outside source, this was a case of Apple investigating its contractors. Instead of turning a blind eye or even being complicit, Apple actually made rigorous checks of the business practices of the contractors, and instead of keeping any violations secret or covering up, it published its findings publicly, with assurances that it is taking steps to end these practices. What the Telegraph article also fails to state is that Apple is perhaps the only tech company which does these checks. Other companies simply ignore the abuses. Many in the comments section, despite the multiple criticisms of bias, state that they now see Apple in a bad light and will stop buying its products–something which might have been the reverse had the article reported the facts correctly and without the harsh anti-Apple slant. As for the past abuses: the workers exposed to the toxic gases, the worker who committed suicide, the reporter who was roughed up–none of these were Apple, they were all contractors, and Apple seems to be trying harder than anyone else in the industry to stop the abuses. Would I prefer that Apple changes suppliers? Sure, but then it’ll have to deal with the next supplier just the same. Maybe Apple could be doing more or better–but at least it’s doing something.

But I guess it makes better copy to falsely intimate that Apple is the bad guy here. Now, I have a pro-Apple bias–I’m a shareholder and fan–but at least I don’t hide it, and try to stick to the facts. Bad form, Telegraph.

The British Jon Stewart

February 6th, 2010 Comments off

Favorite news headline:

“World gasps as nerd unveils most expensive rectangle in history!”

— Charlie Brooker, Newswipe

Only seen a few episodes, but it’s quickly becoming my favorite show. Brooker makes just as sharp critiques of the MSM than Jon Stewart himself, except with a British accent. His humor is more hit and miss, but when he hits, it’s hilarious. And I love the Doctor Who references.

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Dobbs Leaving CNN

November 12th, 2009 1 comment

Lou Dobbs claims that he is leaving CNN “because he wants a freer platform to state his opinion.” Over time, Dobbs’ statements have been becoming more and more controversial, and less and less based on fact or reason. For example, he claimed that illegal immigrants were bringing eradicated diseases back into the US, citing 7,000 cases of leprosy in three years; when it was proved that the number of leprosy cases over that time totaled 398 and had been falling for more than a decade, Dobbs stood by his “facts.” Dobbs has long railed against illegal immigrants, his claims tinted with racism, and upheld the Birther claim that Obama was not born in the U.S.

Hmm… an addled right-wing CNN personality leaving the network…. The announcement that he will get a show on Fox News coming in three… two…

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October 31st, 2009 6 comments

One thing I know I’ll be getting when I go back to the U.S.: The Ultimate Matrix Blu-Ray set. Not just because I like the films, but because they are part of a new trend, one which I hope becomes the norm.

For a long time, Americans living in Japan have been in movie purgatory. We wait months for a movie to be released here, if it ever gets here at all. Movie ticket prices are high–$14 at discount price–and DVDs can be even more expensive. With classic DVD’s, you could buy them in the U.S.–but since there is region encoding, you have to make sure that you have a region-free player. If you wish to watch the film with Japanese people, however, forget it–Japanese subtitles are not included.

Blu-Ray discs have one nice benefit in this context: they have region encoding, but this time, Japan and the U.S. are in the same region, which means no more having to buy a special region-free player. But the problem of subtitles still remains–or at least, so I thought. As it turns out, many titles released actually do have Japanese subtitles included–though many are not listed as having them.

The Ultimate Matrix Blu-Ray set is an interesting example: it will have Japanese-language options only if your player’s menu is set to Japanese–they won’t show up otherwise. Contact does not list Japanese, but it apparently has the subtitles. The same with the Harry Potter movies, the new Batman movies, and several others.

This web site (in Japanese) lists Blu-Ray versions of movies with Japanese language options, and where they are sold internationally. This forum thread seems to keep a good running list in English. A few great guides if this is the kind of thing you’re looking for.

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The 13-Show Killing Zone

October 25th, 2009 4 comments

All too often some really good shows get sacrificed before the altar of the imperfect ratings system before they even get a chance. The original Star Trek is an excellent example of this; even under a more forgiving system 40 years ago, it was canceled after just two seasons; it went for a third season only because of a massive fan protest. When the show closed, a ratings expert told the executives that they had just canceled their best-rated show–back then, they did not pay enough attention to demographics, and did not understand the show’s power with the strongest of purchasing groups. Trek went on to create a television and movie franchise that is still reaping dividends.

But now, shows aren’t allowed to go for even two seasons before they are allowed to survive; we are now in the age of 13-episode semi-seasons–and if a show doesn’t do well right away, it can get axed even before all of those episodes can get on the air. And so, even with demographics, the networks and studios are still making rash, impulsive, even panicked decisions, axing superior shows because the “numbers” told them to. The same old system persists: dreck goes on forever if it can draw a flash crowd, but quality with potential staying power gets trashed because it isn’t given a chance.

Network television today has a severe case of attention deficit disorder. Imagine someone who leaves the theater if they’re not sufficiently entertained in the first ten minutes of a movie; that’s what’s controlling television today.

Dollhouse is an interesting case, partly because of the history preceding it. Joss Whedon had previously debuted in network TV with a show called Firefly. Fox aired the show, although “aired” is a generous term here; it was a half-hearted thing at best. Firefly was one of the best shows many had seen in a long time, and given time (and proper respect by the network), would almost certainly have developed the same success that Trek eventually did. Unfortunately, because it was botched by Fox, it did not find footing in the first few weeks it was on, and so got canceled. It was later given a chance to tie things up with the feature film Serenity, though it was more of an abortive last gasp than anything else.

Whedon continued with Fox to create Dollhouse, which is traveling in a similar direction in some ways: a very good, high-quality show, it did not find a mass audience in its first dozen episodes, and so was slated for cancelation… until Fox apparently found its senses just long enough to allow the show to hang on by its fingernails. It is undoubtedly because this is Whedon, a producer with a string of success in his past, and they realized what a huge mistake they had made with Firefly. But even then, it was a close thing–and may yet fall into the scrap heap.

Look at Pushing Daisies–a fantastic show, funny, well-made, full of promise. Dead. That seemed to be a no-brainer to keep for the long term, but no. It’s as if shows aren’t allowed to gain momentum, and save for the one exception with Dollhouse, no major network has the guts to look at a show, see its potential, and subsidize it long enough to really see what it can do.

One recent show you may not have even heard of was an ABC series called Defying Gravity. Canceled after just 8 shows (the 13th and final episode just aired), it was a straight-up sci-fi show about a future interplanetary space mission. Not very well-publicized, it was further sabotaged by a horrible description–it was characterized as a space mission where the crew was subjected to reality-show-like treatment. The thing is, that was nowhere near the actual plot of the show. Using Lost-style past-and-present synchronized storylines, the show was about the crew training for the mission, and 5 years later going on that mission, taking them to five planets of the solar system, supposedly for exploration and science purposes. As was slowly revealed throughout the season, their purpose was in fact very different–and although a good deal of progress was made in advancing the story, now we’ll never find out what the writers intended, as the show has been axed. But it had good writing, acting, and production quality, and promised to be an excellent show. But ratings weren’t good enough in the first two months for ABC, so screw it.

Four years ago, there were three SF shows that failed in their first year: Threshold, Surface, and Invasion. Invasion kind of deserved to die, but the other two showed tremendous promise. Threshold was sharp, funny, and edgy, and a bit like Fringe is today (thank goodness that one seems to be going OK), and absolutely deserved to keep going. Surface was a bit more goofy, but had a very interesting mythology. What I really liked about the show, however, is that it went where few shows go: taking a story that begins in the present day and the world we know, and then shaking things up. TV shows love to be coy, love to have beneath-the-surface worlds that never get revealed publicly, presumably to allow viewers to imagine that “it could actually be happening.” Me, I love a show that completely changes the game, and shows how the world could change. Surface did that, but was canceled just as the game-changer happened.

It seems that the only place where a potentially good show can make it beyond 13 episodes nowadays is on cable. Some shows there far outlive their potential (Stargate: Atlantis really wasn’t as good as shows like Pushing Daisies, and though it’s not even close to being as good as Defying Gravity, Warehouse 13 is going for a second season), but some shows have much-deserved runs which never would have been possible on network TV. Take, for example, Battlestar Galactica; that’s a definite canceled-in-13-episodes network fiasco, but instead it got a 5-year run and was fantastically popular. One can bet that the SciFi channel made a bundle off of that show.

Babylon 5 is another example, one of the earliest in fact, of a show that lasted on cable way beyond its network survivability; it not only lasted four seasons in its original form, but even got a fifth year on a different network (TNT picked it up). Admittedly, it should have died at the end of year 4, but it was brilliant right up until then. One could even trace this phenomenon back to Star Trek: The Next Generation, which used syndication to survive–a good idea, as the networks would undoubtedly have axed it after its first year.

Maybe another change will come, but in the meantime, be prepared to continue the network ritual of seeing quality come, getting attached to it, and then seeing it stupidly and mercilessly torn down. It’s like reading a really good book and wanting to finish it, but having the publisher snatch it out of your hands after the first five chapters.

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October 14th, 2009 Comments off

This Daily Show segment was hilarious–and spot-on. An excellent showcase on how the TV “news” networks have completely given up on calling out any political lies at all, simply giving open mics to politicians and letting lay every stupid thing they say. They could fact-check, but no–that would mean politicians would be unwilling to appear on their shows. So instead, they only fact-check stuff like… well, watch it. If you haven’t seen this already, you probably wouldn’t believe me anyway.

We’ll have to leave it there.

Whining Crybabies

September 21st, 2009 Comments off

Poor widdle Fox News… dey got snubbed by big bad brezident Obama! Waaaahhhhh!!!!!!!

Obama went on a media campaign blitz around the Sunday-morning news show circuit today to push health care reform, visiting Face the Nation, Meet the Press (NBC), State of the Union (CNN), This Week (ABC), and Al Punto (Univision), in addition to 60 Minutes and David Letterman, and a few other appearances.

Fox News got left out. And now they’re going into full-force whining mode, with Chris Wallace appearing on O’Reilly’s show, complaining that the Obama administration is “the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington.”

Oh, please. First of all, Chris, you’re the one who’s being a crybaby; the definition of that term is someone who complains like a child because they feel they’ve been wronged. The administration’s not being a crybaby–they didn’t whine when you snubbed them by not airing the president’s speeches (never did that with Bush, did you?), and now they’re just deciding not to visit your show. The only one whining is you. And this is not the first time, either–you guys do this every single time it looks like Fox News might not get treated like the news organization they’re not. When Democrats say they’re not going to let the propaganda arm of their political opponents run their debates, you whine about how they’re “afraid” of you and how they’re destroying journalism.

Face up to it, you schmucks: you chose to be the propaganda arm of the Republican Party, you take every chance you get to smear and attack and lie and fearmonger, you call the president a fascist and a Nazi and worse, you organize political events where the president’s life is threatened and crazies sport signs with racial epithets, you refuse to carry the president’s speeches and addresses while all the other networks run them… and guess what? Sometimes the president won’t appear on your talk shows so you can snub him in person. Surprise!

When Bush was president and you did nothing but carry water for him, you guys got the lion’s share of exclusives. That’s the deal you made. Live with it and stop acting like infants.

On Pirating

August 12th, 2009 Comments off

Is pirating media (books, music, video, software) illegal? Is it even “bad”? It’s easy enough to say it’s all illegal, or that “my position is right because those people are nothing more than petty crooks,” but the real situation is somewhat more complex than any of that. We have to realize that the world of “intellectual property” is literally what we make of it; it is defined by what we decide it to be, and is based not upon laws of physics but upon assumptions and assertions which are not necessarily set in stone–and may even have to change.

A great deal of the problem has to do with the pre-standing paradigm of entertainment content: for most of the past century, a lot of content has either been ‘free’ or available in a form that seems free. People do not equate commercials with cash payment, so generations have become used to getting music ‘for free’ over the radio, or video for free on the TV. Even printed material (books, magazines, etc.) are available for free via the public library. There are cash-paid versions of all of these media types, but more people experience them for free and expect that outlet. Then there was lending and borrowing, where one person would buy a book or a CD and would lend it to family and friends–not seen as criminal, but we would get content for free that way as well.

Then copying technology slowly emerged, and the “lending” paradigm transferred into that. People started copying music on cassette tapes, videotaping TV shows, even copying videotapes and so forth. The industry threw up objections, but for the most part, not much happened–for a few generations, we were copying music and video and there were no common penalties paid, and no great social stigma about it.

In comes the Internet, where even more content is free–you can get content from magazines and newspapers for free, where you used to have to pay for that. This, along with the new ability to digitally copy media, only intensified what had been going on in other forms for decades. Nothing new, only easier.

So we have a cultural paradigm that has been building over a very long period of time in which copyrighted media, intellectual property, has been regarded as free information in assumption if not in legal fact. Slowly but forcefully, the content owners have been pushing the counter-idea that this media is not free and that not paying for it is stealing, but they’re working against both a now-deeply-ingrained cultural sense of entitlement as well as the selfish disposition of people to defend something they enjoy doing with arguments that they should know are not fully justifiable. Like the cigarette smoker who uses data from ‘studies’ they know were funded by the tobacco industry to claim that smoking isn’t so bad.

Yes, the music industry *is* a collection of greedy corporate parasites who create nothing and use their powerful position to shake down the artists as much as possible and overcharge the customer while imposing unreasonable terms. But that does not change the fact that this is, I believe at least, legal (if more than a little unethical).

Yes, pirating may not actually have much of an impact on sales, profits, and incomes of artists, as emerging studies seem to suggest. It may even be that pirating has a positive effect on music sales; it may be that downward business trends are due only to a slow economy and poor decision-making at the industry level. It may be that artists lose money not from pirates but from the greedy SOB execs who use pirating as an excuse to shake down the artists. But none of that changes the fact that if media is copyrighted and privately owned, and if you acquire that media to possess (as opposed to borrowing as in a library loan or a friend lends you a CD which you listen to and return) without paying for it, then you have stolen it. It may not fulfill your sense of how things *should* be, but it is the way things *are*.

At the same time, we also have to face the fact that copying media is not considered a big deal. People may be initially shy with new acquaintances to reveal that they pirate music, software, or videos, but generally will not think badly of those who admit they do. It’s kind of like admitting that you go 10 mph over the speed limit–it’s technically illegal, but most people do it and few will really give you any guff about it at all. Those who do object may even be looked down upon as “goody two-shoes.”

All that said, we do have to understand that we are now living in an age where media is no longer what it used to be. The legal standards we apply today are based on a system in which copying was not even close to being as easy as it is today. We also have to remember that ownership, especially of intellectual property, is what we define it to be; it is not some magical absolute or law of nature. We can try to hold the ocean back with a broom, but unless the nature of pirating and policing changes radically towards a controlled environment, then either the current state of the ‘honor system’ (which not too many in fact follow) will persist, or a new legal structure must be hammered out.

In the meantime, suffice it to say that there is some grey in the issue.

(The bulk of this post was a comment I left on a post in Gizmodo.)

Categories: Law, Media & Reviews Tags:

Hachiko: A Dog’s Tale

August 12th, 2009 12 comments

Hachiko StatueToday was a big day in a small respect: Sachi and I went to see the movie Hachiko: A Dog’s Tale. Sachi is a huge Shiba Inu fan, and has made me more than just a passing fan as well–we look forward to moving into a place in the near future that allows dogs. While Hachi is an Akita, the Akita is close enough to a Shiba to make us happy, and besides, in the film, Hachi the puppy is played by a Shiba–and any Shiba puppy on film is a must-see for Sachi. (A book Sachi got on the movie claims that Shibas were used for the puppy scenes because the producers considered them easier to train.)

In Japan, most people know about Hachiko, especially in Tokyo; his statue is a popular meeting place in the Shibuya shopping area. The story of Hachiko is just as well known here in Japan. In this review, I assume that you know the basic story outline. Still, if you wish to avoid what you may consider a spoiler concerning a turning point in the story, then avoid reading after this paragraph, as I discuss a central plot point–but not one which really gives too much away, any more than it spoils the movie “Titanic” to know that at some point, they hit an iceberg. Still, I wanted to warn you just in case–someone who never heard of the Titanic before might enjoy the whole iceberg twist.

Hachiko GereThe story: a faithful dog comes to meet his master at the train station every evening upon his return home, and when the master, a college professor, dies at his school and does not return, Hachiko persists in coming to the station every day for nine years to wait for his master’s return. The very thought of such a loyal, sweet animal being so, well, doggedly committed to finding his master is bound to bring tears to most people’s eyes–and it didn’t fail here, with there being a considerable amount of sniffling and eye-dabbing in the theater. “Not a dry eye in the house” comes to mind. If you like schmaltzy tearjerkers and cute fuzzy dogs, then this is your kind of movie.

The basic story remains the same as the actual one, but builds up a new human drama around the dog story–which succeeds in not detracting from the central story at the same time. You never stray far from the dog, it’s clear that Hachi is the protagonist and we never spend more than two or three minutes away from him at any one time. Nevertheless, the characters are fairly well developed for what they are–supporting roles. Joan Allen does a good job as the wife reluctant to allow another dog in the family after the last one left them. Jason Alexander has a bit of fun as the self-centered station manager, and recognizable character actor Erick Avari does an excellent job as a hot dog and coffee vendor outside the station. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa did surprisingly well as the Japanese expert at the college. But the dog is the star, and does a good job of keeping our attention.

I contrast this with a movie from last year in Japan, “The Tale of Mari & 3 Puppies,” about a Shiba Inu dog owned by a family in Niigata when a large earthquake hits the region. The movie, billed primarily as a dog movie, mostly focused on the family, featured more than a little over-acting from the supporting cast, and failed to show us the cute doggies so much. In “Hachi,” it’s the reverse–you get lots of dog time, but also a nicely-rounded drama with good acting all around.

A few things were overdone, but not to bad effect. At the movie’s outset, we see Hachi as having been sent, unattended in a bamboo cage, all the way from Japan–not just Japan, but from a Buddhist temple in Japan–only to be lost on the last leg of his journey when he falls off of a handcart at Gere’s train station. That (a) the person pulling the cart could be so careless and (b) that whatever local person paid so much money to have the dog shipped and then never inquire as to what happened to him, well, is kind of pushing it. It feels as if Gere wanted to put in a nice Buddhist reference and have Hachiko’s tale be a bit more dramatic. You kind of roll your eyes at all this, but it doesn’t get in the way of the story too much. None of the overdone bits go so far as to really distract from the movie, and they do work well at the emotional level. In the end, what you have is a fun little drama about an adorable, faithful dog with a tearful ending; the movie does very well being what it is supposed to be.

The original story of Hachiko is not completely without controversy. There are some who claim that the story was deliberately popularized in fascist pre-war Japan as a means of inculcating loyalty to the emperor and to the state–the idea being that Hachiko’s utter faithfulness up to the bitter end was a model that the government wanted the people to follow in supporting the state. Of course, Gere’s film does not come close to this; there is even a specific reference to loyalty as pertaining to those one loves. One would hardly expect Gere, a strong Tibet supporter, to allow the story to be about loyalty to oppressive governments. Other Hachiko-doubters contend that Hachiko was not being faithful to his owner, but was just a stray dog that came to Shibuya Station for the food scraps fed to him by the merchants, and that Hachiko’s story was built up as more of a publicity device to attract customers to the area.

Whatever the case, the story persists, and as a story, it’s a good one. If you watch Hachi, be prepared with a good supply of hankies.

The actual Hachiko.

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Adventures in Editing

August 3rd, 2009 1 comment

How about this headline:

Saving Fish is Possible, Unless They’re Past the Tipping Point

Am I wrong, or can that headline be boiled down to, “Saving Fish is Possible, Unless It’s Not”?

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Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs

May 26th, 2008 Comments off

Hey, I don’t name ’em, I just love ’em.

Here’s a preview of sorts; it’s kind of like an animatic (a video storyboard), black & white, used to storyboard the animation. It’s with the sound and voices of the actors, and has some good lines in it.

To be released June 24th (darn, too late for my birthday). Here’s the cover art to the DVD box; like the homage, not sure about the boot-less Leela.


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This Week Fighting for Hillary with George Stephanopoulos

May 26th, 2008 Comments off

I just listened to the podcast for This Week while exercising, and I have to say, it was pretty disgusting. I think that Stephanopoulos really ought to preface his broadcast with a disclaimer saying that he worked for the Clintons–his bias is certainly so evident that it’s not even funny. A lot of it showed with the ABC “debate” debacle where Stephanopoulos and Gibson essentially spent the first half of the debate ripping Obama with trivialities. But it was just as evident today.

Stephanopoulos opened with the “fallout” of Hillary’s RFK gaffe, but his focus was on Hillary’s defense, on how Hillary “called out those who took my comments entirely out of context.” He then invited on David Axelrod from the Obama campaign and tore into him, accusing the campaign of “deliberately misinterpreting” Clinton’s remarks.

Then Stephanopoulos made the bizarre accusation that the Obama campaign has been sending out emails with Keith Olbermann’s special commentary on Clinton’s remarks. I have not seen any evidence of this email–Stephanopoulos does not link to any of this on the show’s web site, there is no indication of who sent these (a low-level unpaid staffer? the head of the campaign?) or whom it was sent to (a thousand people? three? friends & family? the press corps?) or in what context–what else was said, how it was presented, etc. etc.

Obviously Axelrod had never heard of this email, and Stephanopoulos probably knew that and hoped to fluster him. But Stephanopoulos obviously wasn’t trying to discuss the issue, he was trying to vilify the Obama campaign and make Clinton out to somehow be a victim.

Who did Stephanopoulos have on as his second guest? Karl Rove. I kid you not. While some are praising Stephanopoulos for pointing out that he’s an informal advisor to McCain, Stephanopoulos proceeded to toss Rove softballs about the campaign against Obama–how can McCain be constructive, what does he have to do to win–Stephanopoulos stayed congenial until it came to general Republican vs. Democratic issues, after which he became adversarial again.

Stephanopoulos ought to be ashamed of himself. If he wants to be a Hillary advocate, then he should say so and work under those pretenses. But take an issue where Hillary had clearly made a damaging gaffe and then spend the first half hour of his show attacking Obama over it and then giving Karl Rove a free podium to attack the Obama campaign? I have to wonder if Stephanopoulos even pretends to be objectively non-partisan.

Categories: Election 2008, Media & Reviews Tags:

They Just Don’t Get It

March 2nd, 2008 Comments off

Here’s the latest genius masterstroke from the networks:

Looking to strike a blow against the proliferation of digital video recorders, the ABC network, its affiliated broadcast stations, and Cox Communications’ cable systems are establishing an on-demand video service that would allow viewers to watch ABC shows like “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” any time they choose.

The catch: It uses a new technology that disables the viewers’ ability to fast-forward through commercials. …

ABC and Cox executives said that consumer response to the test had been positive. Several executives involved in the project, which ABC plans to offer to other cable systems around the country, said the move was an overt attempt to staunch the use of DVRs like TiVo, which viewers often use to avoid commercials. That activity is increasingly seen as threat to broadcast television, which depends on ad revenue to pay for programs.

“This does counter the DVR,” said Anne Sweeney, the president of the Disney-ABC television group. “You don’t need TiVo if you have fast-forward-disabled video on demand. It gives you the same opportunity to catch up to your favorite shows.”

So, to quote Maxwell Smart’s various and sundry opponents, exactly what kind of idiots do they think we are? “Hmm, I have this DVR sitting right here and can record the TV show in high-def and can blow through all the commercials… or I can wait a few days, and then slowly download a lower-res, DRM-studded version of the show that I have to watch on my PC with the fast-forward disabled, forcing me to watch commercials.”

Easy choice! Since I’m a complete and utter moron, I’ll watch the downloadable version!

They just don’t get it, do they? The networks, I mean. They seem to think that these various schemes they keep on coming up with will somehow just destroy people’s ability to think rationally and decide to do what is in their best interests. Now, if they were Republicans, maybe they’d be a lot more skilled at it. Unfortunately, studio and network executives aren’t running the GOP, otherwise Bush would have certainly lost four years ago. Instead, their stupidity is wasted on these Quixotic, worthless attempts to bypass the far more appealing alternatives that average viewers can clearly see are better for them.

I have said it before: there is only one way this can work out to the content providers’ benefit: narrowcasting.

What they have to do is give up the old-school thinking of doing things in broadcast mode and switch to delivering personalized content. The pay-as-you-go method of making people pay $2 to watch a TV show they’re used to getting for free just ain’t gonna cut it with 95% of the audience. And people are now too used to being able to cut through commercials or otherwise getting past the dreck that is advertising. 97% of the audience isn’t expected to watch or be interested in commercials anyway–it’s just getting that 3% who happen to be interested in the commercial being shown at the moment which is key. And there is only one solution that is really going to work in a big way.

Here’s the condensed version: make all video content available online–all old movies and TV shows, as well as new television series episodes as they are produced. Make it so people can browse an iTunes-like interface and easily choose which programming they’d like. Then stream it to them, or download in higher definition, whatever works best.

But here’s the key: personalize the commercials. Don’t broadcast, narrowcast. You’ll have to find out what people want to see, so instead of charging money, you have people answer some questions once a month. They have to say what kind of commercials they like to see, want to see. What will they be buying in the next month? What subjects are they interested in?

One thing we all have in common is that there are commercials we like to see. For me, if all my commercials were movie previews, computer commercials, and commercials for stuff I plan to buy in the near future (local wedding chapels is one, in my case, or ideas for what to buy Sachi for her birthday)–then I would want to watch the commercial breaks.

Knowing that I would have to watch commercials, I would be OK so long as the commercials were ones I wanted to see. And I would be glad to give up that info to get access to all the programming I’d like to watch. Privacy, schmivacy–most people give up that data in exchange for a member’s card at their local supermarket and a two-dollar discount on three refrigerator packs of Diet Coke.

This would be golden for the advertisers: instead of reaching only 3% of the audience, they’d be reaching over 90% in all likelihood–30 times the value. The studios could even eliminate the middleman in the form of local stations, and make off like bandits. The advertisers would be happy, the viewers would be happy, and the studios would get rich.

It’ll take bigger investment in broadband, which is overdue anyway, and details would have to be worked out to salvage DVD sales. Maybe offer the downloadable stuff in 480i old-fashioned TV quality, and then sell DVDs of the shows in Blu-ray with the extra features and commentary–they’ve probably already mined out most of the 480i DVD sales anyway.

However they figure that out, the narrowcasting option is the only viable option that I can see. Frankly, whenever I see one of these stupid, lame attempts by the networks to “do away with” DVRs or pirate downloads or whatever, I just laugh. They are all pathetic and doomed, and clearly so.

When are they going to learn?

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