Friday, January 29, 2010

iPad looks like a bust for porn

I'm off to Miami today for a short mini-vacation that actually has nothing to do with books (other than I'll be reading them), so just a quick post today. I had a couple of people ask me yesterday how Apple's iPad will affect porn, or vice-versa. I don't think it'll have any effect whatsoever either way, an assessment the folks over at Fleshbot, a porn blog that you probably don't want to open at work, agree with (thanks to the lovely Dan Howe for the pointer).

As Fleshbot puts it, the iPad - which Apple is trying to position as a device in between a laptop and a smartphone - is actually "the worst of both worlds." Not only is Apple absolutely dictating what you can put on it by forcing you to buy content from iTunes, where porn is not allowed, it also doesn't have a DVD drive so you can't watch your smut that way. Worse still, as I mentioned yesterday, the iPad doesn't handle Flash, which is the format most web video, including lots of porn, is done in.

Fleshbot also points out another reason why the iPad is a poor choice for porn - it's too big. No one will believe you if you claim you're taking it to the bathroom for some "reading," and there's also no way you'll be able to... uh... hold it with one hand.

Some of this may sound silly but there's a very serious point to be made here: it's not a good sign if the porn industry doesn't like your technology.

Of course, that didn't stop some porn companies from hopping on the Apple bandwagon. Just as soon as Apple announced the iPad on Wednesday, my inbox starting filling up with press releases from companies of all stripes claiming their content is optimized for the device. One of the culprits was Digital Playground (the same folks with whom I dined in Las Vegas), who claimed:

As a member of the Apple Developer program for the last decade and specifically the iPhone developer program since its inception, all Digital Playground iproperties automatically sense whether or not the user is using an iPhone, iTouch, or iPad and customize the experience on the fly. Digital Playground users who purchase an iPad will note the seamless integration between the desktop, laptop, iPhone and iPad.

There's actually a couple of problems with that. I suspect Digital Playground is exaggerating (something that never happens in the porn industry, oh no) its involvement with Apple's developer program. If the above is to be believed, where is DP's iPhone app? As Leon Phelps said in , "I would pick you up in my car except that it, uh, does not exist."

Secondly, I'm not sure that anyone but Apple's highly valued partners - like the New York Times, Major League Baseball and book publishers named in its press conference - can claim to know how the iPad works, and how their content will display on it, at this point. I suspect porn companies are pretty low on Apple's food chain, so there's no real way to know how their content will display on the device until it's released in March. Connoisseurs should beware claims to the contrary.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

iPad doesn't look like a friend to authors

Thank the stars it's Thursday because that means the iPad frenzy is over. My quick thoughts on Apple's latest gadget: I'm thoroughly underwhelmed. Yes it's snazzy and yes it does a lot of things well, but there's a bunch of things it doesn't do - or that other things already do admirably - that really have me questioning how the iPad can be useful.

The iPhone already does just about everything the iPad does. The iPad has a bigger screen, which makes watching movies and looking at photos and websites even better, but that's about where the advantages end. It has no camera and, like the iPhone, it apparently can't handle Flash, the format that many websites and videos use. This isn't such a big deal on the iPhone, but on a bigger screen you expect websites to have full functionality.

Also like the iPhone, the iPad uses a virtual touch-screen keyboard. While it's nice to have one that's bigger than the iPhone's, I imagine typing anything more than a few lines on the iPad will be just as painful. Don't believe me? Try typing for a while without resting your palms on the keyboard and you'll see what I mean. Apple will be rolling out iWork apps (Pages and Numbers, etc.) with the iPad, but this software - especially Pages - will be hampered by the virtual keyboard. Steve Jobs did promise a physical keyboard attachment, but if you need a portable device that you can type on, a netbook is a much better - and cheaper - way to go.

Don't even get me started on how useful or desirable the full 3G-enabled iPad will be here in Canada. Once we start talking about data rates here, all bets are off.

There's going to be tons of disagreement out there between the Apple faithful and the regular Joes (I'd say PC supporters, but are there any of you left?) over whether this is a hit product, or a miss. I have a Mac and an iPhone and love both dearly, but the iPad at this point looks inferior to just about any netbook I've tried. Netbooks also look like they're going to improve significantly later this year, when Google's Chrome operating system become available.

Mind you, the very first iPhone had a serious flaw - no 3G connectivity - that was quickly corrected. The rest, as they say, is history. Of course, the iPad could equally end up being a quickly forgotten Apple product... Apple TV, anyone?

And before we forget that this is a blog devoted to books in general, and a certain book in specific, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the iPad's book capability. Jobs also announced a service called iBooks, which is basically a repackaging of the e-books already being sold over iTunes. Yes, the e-books look pretty good on the iPad and yes, they are in the open e-book format - which will read on any device - and yes, it will give single-purpose devices such as Amazon's Kindle a run for their money. But, unlike Amazon, Apple doesn't appear to be encouraging any sort of self-publishing ventures.

As I mentioned the other day, the thing I like about what Amazon is doing is that it's letting any would-be author publish via the Kindle. Apple's iBooks service is being done in conjunction with major publishers, including Penguin and HarperCollins et al. Apple has also amassed quite the reputation for being very strict and closed about its iPhone app approval process. Put those two together and it doesn't look like the iPad will be any sort of friend to authors looking to publish independently, which is unfortunate given the expectations that this device would change the game in many ways.

The iPhone or the iPod, this is not.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sex, Bomb and Burgers goes global

With this blog almost a year old, I thought it might be fun to take a look at some stats. More specifically, I'm curious as to where exactly in the world are people coming from to read my daily musings/inane rantings? Well, the top five countries aren't terribly surprising, as just about all of them represent the world's most populous English-speaking nations:

1. United States
2. Canada
3. United Kingdom
4. India
5. Germany

I'm not really sure why Germany beats out Australia, which ranks seventh (after Turkey). Maybe it's because Germans are really into porn? That is, after all, how most people end up here when using search engines.

Speaking of Google, it's thanks to the company's fantastic Analytics tool that bloggers can look at all at these stats. What I find most interesting is the map that displays where traffic is coming from. I'm pleased to report that at least one person in almost every country in the world has viewed this blog over the past 11 months.

The exceptions are: Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Bolivia, Paraguay, Honduras, Cuba, Haiti, Greenland, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, North Korea, Burma, Laos and a bunch of African countries. None of those, with the possible exception of Serbia, should be any surprise. Most either have very little computer and internet infrastructure, are incredibly oppressive regimes or have nobody living there.

I think that's pretty cool. A handful of people in Iraq have read this website and even one lone soul has checked it out from Afghanistan. I wonder if it was Osama Bin Laden? Behold the power of the internet!

You'll have to excuse this post as my mind is thinking internationally. I recently got some further good news regarding Sex, Bombs and Burgers and international distribution. The i's haven't been dotted yet and the t's haven't been crossed, so I can't share any further details yet, but stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Timmy's vs. McD's: The war for breakfast

The breakfast war: it's on. Oh yes, it's on. Yesterday, Tim Hortons fired the latest salvo with its new Egg McMuffin... er... English Muffin sandwich. As you can see from the picture, it's the spitting image of McDonald's famous breakfast sandwich. I can't comment on how it tastes because I personally find the Egg McMuffin disgusting. I suspect Timmy's version, which I hope to never have to try, will be pretty similar.

Tim Hortons, which is about as Canadian as tundra, began selling its version of the McMuffin on Monday for $1.99. As the Financial Post reports, Timmy's is leading the breakfast sandwich pack with about 51 per cent of the market, all of which comes from its biscuit and bagel options.

The muffin sandwich, however, is the healthiest of all the choices. By way of comparison, the muffin sandwich with egg, cheese and sausage packs 410 calories, 23 grams of salt and 890 milligrams of sodium. The same sandwich on a biscuit has 520 calories, 33 grams of fat and 950 milligrams of sodium.

The ball is now in McDonald's court. Maybe now we can figure out why the company is charging nearly $3 for the exact same sandwich. That amount, by the way, is nearly double what Americans pay for a Sausage McMuffin.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: McDonald's Canada is almost as bad as the cellphone industry in terms of hosing its customers. For those who actually like these sandwiches, let's hope this war gets a lot more heated.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Self-publishing no longer a dirty word

All eyes will be on Apple this week as the company is set to unveil its latest gadget, which pretty much everyone expects will be a touchscreen tablet computer of some sort. For months now, the iSlate or iPad, or whatever it's going to be called, has been the subject of intense speculation by technology reporters and bloggers. Every last detail, from its technical specifications to price tag, has been guessed at. It's gotten to the point of ridiculousness, where even normally quality media have joined in on the guessing game. PC World, for example, ran an article over the weekend with the headline "Apple Tablet an Ideal Business Tool." That's a pretty bold statement to make about a product that doesn't exist yet.

Much of the hype arises from Apple's track record. The company did, after all, revolutionize music with the iPod and wireless internet with the iPhone. It also stems from the company's utter secrecy when it comes to new products; by remaining absolutely quiet about them until they launch, Apple has created an entire ecosystem of hype that is fed by everyone from financial analysts to bloggers. As a result, the company barely has to promote its own products since these people do it for them.

Nevertheless, one of the other reasons why the Apple tablet is creating such a buzz is that some people are hoping it can do for publishing what the iPod did for music - that is, reinvent the market and haul it into the digital age.

The movement is already well underway. has so far been the leader in the so-called e-reader market with the Kindle, a nifty device that simulates the look and feel of a book with its "e-ink" technology. Amazon touted the Kindle as its hottest-selling item during the Christmas holidays, while the forecasts continue to pour in on how electronic book sales are supposed to skyrocket. E-readers were understandably all the rage at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with a number of companies promising their own models. Apple, of course, could clobber them all with its announcement on Wednesday.

But are e-books ready for prime time? It's something I've been thinking about for some time now, from the perspective of both a writer and a reader, and I must admit to mixed feelings about the issue.

For authors, e-books present an incredible opportunity, and there is indeed major change coming in how books are published. Under the old system, a prospective author would pitch his or her book to editors at various publishing houses in the hopes that someone would go for it. If the author was lucky, he or she would score a deal and the publisher would sell printed copies of the book through bookstores or online through Amazon, Chapters and the like. The author would earn an upfront advance and then a small percentage - usually something like 10 or 15 per cent - from the sale of each copy. The publisher and the seller would split the remaining 85 to 90 per cent. Overall, while the author could still earn a handsome amount if the book sold well, he or she got comparatively little of the overall pie.

The new system that is emerging is giving authors considerably more power - and more potential reward. Now, pretty much anyone who can string two words together can sell an e-book through Amazon, for delivery to the company's Kindle e-reader. If you've got that great unpublished novel sitting around on your hard drive, now's your chance - Amazon's can deliver your book to a growing audience of Kindle-equipped readers.

And it's getting better. Just last week, in preparation for Apple's tablet, Amazon revised the terms of how people can do this and boosted the earnings they can get up to 70 per cent of the retail price, which the author gets to set. Not only does this system empower every would-be author out there - and there must be thousands if not millions of unpublished books in just the English-speaking world - it also gives them the potential to earn some serious money. I've done the math; if I self-published my e-book on Amazon for just $5, I would earn more money per copy than under my current publishing deals.

But who will buy these e-books? After all, the New York Times reports that many of the Kindle's best-sellers are those books that are given away for free. Well, that's true - nothing sells quite like free. But this is again where the system is changing. Under the old regime, book publishers used their hefty portion of the cover price to promote the book. They had contacts with people in the old media - television, radio, newspapers - who they could rely on for promotion. They could also send authors on tour to do book signings, readings, lectures and so forth. All of this would translate into awareness of the book, and therefore hopefully into sales.

The new system puts the onus of promotion squarely on the author, which opens up a world of possibilities. A couple of buzzwords (which I am growing increasingly loathsome of) come into play here: social media and crowdsourcing. You don't have to be a marketing wizard to spread the word about your self-published e-book using social media tools such as a blog (like this one), and . Aside from interacting with people on those sites and spreading the word personally, if you're willing to spend a few bucks, Google and Facebook have made it ridiculously easy to run ads on their respective services (I'm running ads for Sex, Bombs and Burgers on both right now).

Word of mouth - or word of email/text - is also quite powerful online. There have been countless examples of things that have gone viral on the internet and there is always the possibility that it can happen to your book. One good example that comes to mind is Chicago band OK Go. They'd been around for a while but only hit it big in 2006 after uploading a video to YouTube for Here It Goes Again, which featured the band in an elaborate dance routine on treadmills. The video became a huge hit on the site and the band's popularity exploded. The same is going to be possible for books, especially after websites devoted exclusively to self-published books (YouRead?) inevitably take off.

So where does this leave old-guard publishers? Well, if you add up all of the above, it doesn't sound good for them. If the internet, Amazon and e-readers all conspire to cut them out of the equation, the future doesn't look too bright for publishers, does it? Perhaps - but that's where the reader experience comes into play.

I've had a chance to play around with both Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader, and I've read full books on both. To be honest, it's not an experience I'm fully sold on yet. The e-ink displays are nice, but they still give off glare in brightly lit areas. And, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, plain old books never run out of batteries (both readers died on me at key times). I'm also somewhat old school in that I like collecting shelves of books; when I glance at them, they take me back to a certain time and place. Digital books, for all their portability and convenience, offer no such nostalgia.

Mind you, the same could be said about CDs. I used to like looking at them on my racks - each album reminded me of a certain feeling or experience. But now, they're just a pain to move and keep free from dust. I get just about all of my music digitally now, with CD purchases reserved only for those very special bands whose packaging I must have (cough cough).

I'm not sure about how the mass market will react to e-books, but I think I'm going to treat them the same way I do music. For the really good stuff, I'm still going to buy the physical printed version. For the time-wasting, beach-reading fluff (cough Dan Brown cough), I'll buy the cheaper e-book. That way, if the book sucks, I won't have to be reminded of the time I wasted reading it whenever I look at my shelf.

I suspect there's a lot of old-school readers out there who will want to stick with printed books for the same reasons. Just like the internet hasn't (yet) killed off newspapers and magazines, I suspect there'll still be room for the printed page for years to come. The other problem is that with the flood of self-published e-books that will surely come, it's going to become much more difficult to get your particular book noticed, which is where the old guard's promotional system still holds some appeal.

One thing is for sure, though: book publishers are going to have to adjust to the new reality and are going to have to do more for authors - especially the established ones - to keep them from going the potentially more-lucrative self-publishing route.

UPDATE: Damian Kulash of OK Go recently posted an open letter about how YouTube and his record label, EMI, were not allowing the band to put videos up on the site that can be embedded. The problem is that YouTube's software doesn't allow ads to play over the video when it is embedded on non-YouTube sites. This is super-ironic given how the band rose to prominence.

Friday, January 22, 2010

To Serve Man: The Astronaut's Cookbook

UniverseToday, a space-oriented blog, has an interesting review of The Astronaut's Cookbook up. The book, written by NASA food experts Charles Bourland and Gregory Vogt, is all about space food - its history, the science behind it, and of course, the recipes to make it.

I had the rare privilege of eating astronaut food during my visit to NASA last year, so far be it from me to disparage it - it was actually way better than I expected, and quite tasty. Still, I can't really understand why someone would want to make it at home? I also don't think too many people have the capability to sterilize their food by irradiating or dehydrating it.

Okay, enough of me knocking a book I haven't actually seen. I'll try and get a copy of it and give it a proper review afterward. I do, however, have a whole chapter devoted to space food in Sex, Bombs and Burgers.

One of the most illuminating conversations I had in putting that chapter together was with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams, who went up into orbit twice - once with the space shuttle Columbia in 1998 and again on the shuttle Endeavour in 2007, where he spent some time on the International Space Station. Dave had some great insights on the differences between NASA's space food, and that of the Russian space program's.

The big difference, he said, is that NASA specially formulates its foods to be lightweight and long-lasting. One of the main ways this is done is through dehydration - taking the moisture out of the food makes it lighter, and every single ounce counts when launching spacecraft into orbit. Once up there, the food can be rehydrated with recycled water and enjoyed as normal. Like I said, this doesn't sound appetizing but the results are surprisingly good.

The Russian space program (and Soviets before them), on the other hand, have historically not gone in for the technologically formulated foods. Instead, they've just launched up the heavier off-the-shelf canned stuff, which hasn't been a big deal because Russian rockets have typically been bigger and more powerful.

Which approach has been smarter? I think it's pretty obvious that it's the NASA approach. The space agency's research and development efforts into food have paid off in spades, which are benefits the Soviets/Russians just haven't seen (all of this is in the book).

Williams, however, very much liked a lot of the Russian canned foods he ate up on the ISS. A lot of the foods were spicy and sealed in real juices, which was heavenly to the astronauts eating a steady stream of reconstituted meals, as decent as they may be. "I was impressed with the juices they had," he said. "Instead of being a crystal that gets water added to it, these were real fruit juices. It was remarkable to get to have those."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Coming soon: augmented and 3D porn

Today, we've got another clip from the Adult Entertainment Expo, that "other convention" in Las Vegas that runs concurrently to the Consumer Electronics Show. I stopped by the Pink Visual booth/lounge outside the show to say hi to Kim Kysar, one of their executives who I'd spoken to a number of times during the course of my research (she recently hooked me up with an awesome photo that perfectly links sex and bombs - you'll have to buy the book to see it).

Regardless of what anyone thinks of the content the company produces, I've come to admire the Pink Visual folks as very hip and with-it people. They know their technology and they have very progressive views, both on tech and its role in society. Of course, they make smut - but they also tend to have a sense of humour about it. When porn king Vivid recently offered Nadya Suleman, better known as "Octomom" - the woman who had eight babies - a million dollars to do an adult film with them, Pink Visual countered by offering her a year's worth of diapers NOT to do porn. Funny stuff.

In this video, Pink Visual producer Matt Morningwood - and there's no way I believe that's his real name, although that's what his business card says (and my apologies to Matt if it really is his name... must have been a rough childhood) - talks about two new tech trends: augmented reality and 3D TV. Check it out:

Augmented reality is one of those emerging, difficult-to-explain technologies because it really encompasses a lot of things. As Wikipedia puts it, the basics revolve around merging the real world with computer-generated imagery. One simple example is using a specially-equipped cellphone to project a numerical keypad onto a table surface, where you can actually dial the numbers by pushing the projected numbers. It's neat stuff with all sorts of possibilities, ranging all the way up to a full-blown holodeck. Needless to say, it's very interesting (although not surprising) that at least one porn company is experimenting with it.

Equally as interesting are Matt's thoughts on the hype regarding 3D TV, which was the big news out of this year's CES. In an unusual twist, porn companies are actually trailing the mainstream on this technology because, as he says, the costs have simply been too high for them to get in early.

There are many questions about whether people really want 3D TV - I think there's a very interesting link here. Five years from now, when we should know whether 3D TV caught on or not, it'll be interesting to look back at the role porn played - or didn't play - in its history. If it doesn't catch on, I suspect the porn industry's late adoption will almost certainly be looked at as a factor.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I'm going to a land down under

It looks like I'm going to have start brushing up on my rugby statistics and Kylie Minogue , as I'm officially heading to Australia and New Zealand for some book publicity in April.

Specific details are still to be worked out, but I'm arriving in Sydney on Easter Monday (April 5) and doing some promotion in Australia for a few days before heading out to my old stomping grounds in Auckland to do the same. After that, it's a vacation in paradise.

I'm super-excited for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I'm jazzed by the chance to promote my book, which I'll also be doing throughout March here in Canada. I've done a fair share of TV and radio interviews as part of my job, but that's usually been to comment on some sort of technology event or product. I've never talked about anything personal, and certainly nothing as intensely personal as a project that I've poured my BS&T (blood, sweat & tears) into for over two years. It's going to be fun to see how the shoe fits when it's on the other foot. I suspect I'll learn something completely new about my profession through all of this.

Moreover, I'm really hyped about being in New Zealand again. I met some really fantastic people, made some good friends and have some awesome memories after my year-and-a-half of living there. I'm very much looking forward to seeing all those folks again, not to mention travelling around what is easily the most beautiful country in the world.

Strangely, I also can't wait to become sick of this song all over again:

I'm not exaggerating when I say I heard that song every frickin' day I lived in New Zealand. You'd think with the good-natured rivalry between the Kiwis and Aussies, this song would be banned in New Zealand. Nope. It's almost as if they've claimed it for their own.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Look up - "They" are looking back at you

I haven't done a war-related post in a while, so let me try and play some catch up. Over the past week, the earthquake in Haiti has of course dominated the news. The disaster has been covered (and continues to be covered) from just about every angle imaginable, but one that caught my eye was the use of military drones in surveying the damage.

KCRA, a television station in Sacramento, Calif., has a news report on how the Global Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle built by military contractor Northrop Grumman, is being used to take aerial imagery of Haiti. I'd embed the video here, but alas, the option is not available - check out the short report by clicking here.

This isn't that unusual, given that military technology often gets recruited to help in disasters since it's usually durable, portable and designed to work in similar conditions. (War and disaster, after all, aren't that dissimilar.) Satellite phones and internet access, for one, are both technologies first used by the military that are now common in disaster relief.

I came across a more surprising use of these sorts of UAVs over the weekend, when - ironically enough - I was watching the season premiere of 24. In the first episode, counter-terrorist agents used a UAV drone to track movements of a suspected terrorist moving around New York City. That got me wondering: is the U.S. government actually monitoring its own citizens with technology originally designed to find Taliban and Al Qaeda agents hiding in caves?

The answer is yes. As an ABC New York affiliate reports, Homeland Security has been using Predator drones to monitor the U.S.-Canadian border since at least the summer. The aircraft is apparently the same as that used in the Middle East, except it has a lower-power engine - and no weapons. So, if UAVs are being used to monitor borders, there's little reason to believe they aren't monitoring cities as well, particularly ones as attractive to terrorists as New York. KPRC News in Houston, meanwhile, recently filmed a secret UAV experiment by that city's police department. Check it out:

The advantage UAVs have over satellite surveillance is clear: there's no delay in their communications, their reconnaissance directions can finely controlled and they can stay up in the air for long periods of time (some current builds can stay aloft for 15 hours, while DARPA is working on a solar-powered creation that could amazingly stay up for five years). That means it's only a matter of time before our skies are full of robotic Big-Brother-esque eyes-in-the-sky. Whether that's good or bad depends on your particular level of paranoia.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A tale of two covers

If you're a regular reader, you saw the Canadian cover of Sex, Bombs and Burgers here last week. It is, of course, considerably different from the cover that will be used in Australia and New Zealand, which I first put up here in early December.

So which one is better? Well, from what I've heard from friends and colleagues, it seems like there's a slight preference for the Australian one. Most of the people I've heard from seem to like the direct approach that it takes. Some people, however, really didn't like the robot.

I like both covers - for different reasons. Let's start with the Australian cover, designed by my publisher there, Allen & Unwin. For as long as I've been working on this book, this is the sort of cover I've always pictured in my brain. It's pretty simple: there's a gal on it with a bomb and a burger. That pretty much sums it up. But it gets a little cleverer (if that's a word). The girl is a robot, which implies the technology theme of the book, and it avoids being exploitative, which a girl in a bikini could have been.

The text, meanwhile, is large, stark and noticeable. I also like the feminine touch of pink - which is the colour of the entire back cover. Overall, I think it's a book that will get noticed amid a sea of other books on the shelves, which is the whole point of a cover.

Which is why I also like the Canadian cover, designed by Penguin. It's considerably more minimalistic, and it doesn't really depict anything in relation to sex or burgers (although someone noticed that the bomb is the same shape as both - holy Freud, Batman!). But it certainly is vibrant and will definitely stand out. Again, that's kind of the whole point of a cover.

Whichever your preference, ultimately it comes down to the same issue we had with the title. While I, and just about everyone I know, liked Bombs, Boobs and Burgers better than Sex, Bombs and Burgers, we did of course have the benefit of knowing the original title. The general book-buying public will be oblivious to the original, so Sex, Bombs and Burgers may be the most awesome-sounding book they've ever heard of. Same goes for the cover - most Canadians who buy this book will never see the Australian version and vice versa (unless they come to this blog), so whether one is better than the other doesn't really matter.

Oh, one other thing that I've been asked a lot - do I have any say over the cover? Well, contractually the publishers can do whatever they want with the design of the book, but naturally they don't want to alienate their author with a cover that he or she loathes. Ultimately, it comes down to coming up with a compromise that everyone can live with.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Raven Alexis on porn and tech

My book may be done but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in talking to people involved in its themes. With that in mind, I sat down for interviews with a couple people from Digital Playground, one of the bigger and more media-friendly porn companies, at last week's Adult Entertainment Expo.

Today, we've got a video interview with Raven Alexis (that link is not safe for work), the company's newest contract star (a contract star is someone who works exclusively for one company - they generally work less, perform fewer scenes, and get heavily promoted in exchange for "working for the man"). In the video, she talks about porn and its use of and influence on technology. Check it out:

What I found more interesting than what Raven said is what she is - she's a strange hybrid of the porn stars of the past and the porn stars of the future. One area that's covered off pretty exhaustively in my book, and which I've touched on here several times, is how the business of porn is changing. The internet has made porn plentiful, cheap and easily accessible, and it therefore has many people in the business worried about whether their paychecks are going to keep coming. On the other hand, the internet has also empowered many individuals to start up their own porn businesses.

Raven comes down firmly in the middle. She's earning her keep from Digital Playground under the old star-based, DVD-sales system. At the same time, as she says in the video, she's fully proficient with the tools of the internet and is running her own operation. She's obviously a smart cookie, and pretty much the epitome of the next-generation porn star.

The question arises, though: if individual porn entrepreneurs are the future of the business and the big, deep-pocketed companies are on their way out, will adult entertainment still drive technology? Put another way, will individuals be able to fund the same kind of large-scale investment into new technologies the way the industry has for much of the past century?

You could argue that they won't, but you could also say that individuals may be even more flexible and willing to take risks on new technology than even the big, rich companies. More on this next week.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Canadian cover unleashed!

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here is the long-awaited Canadian cover of Sex, Bombs and Burgers:

For comparison purposes, here's the Australian (and New Zealand) version:

I'll reserve my thoughts until Monday, so until then, have at it in the comments section below.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Early praise for Sex, Bombs and Burgers

My book is going to print today so it's basically done, praise the lord! Now comes the part where the publishers and I try to make everyone on Earth aware of the book in hopes that a few people will buy it. Believe you me: it's an awesome book and well worth your money! Canadians can pre-order at Amazon or Chapters.

Don't just take my word for it! We've gathered up blurbs, which are going on the back cover of the Canadian edition, from some excellent people. Here's what they said:

"Moving effortlessly from the Slinky to space-age Kimchee, this book is packed with fun, fascinating facts. But don't be fooled: Exploring the myriad ways the industrial-military complex has radically transformed human life is serious business. Peter Nowak has given us an impressive contribution to the study of how technology creates, and fulfills, age-old appetites."
—, author of The Peep Diaries

"Peter Nowak marshals an impressive arsenal of humor and insight to reveal the surprising history behind some of our best known and most loved technologies and toys. Who knew that sex, fast food and fighting formed such a powerful, shameful trinity?"
—, author of

"Nowak weaves a compelling and surprising tale of the profit, drive, and sheer accident that have created much of the technological world around us. From the Internet to Silly Putty, Nowak shows how deeply cultural technology really is. If you think of innovation as an objective process of rational invention, Nowak’s look at the links amongst technology, war, sex, and the food industry, will blow your mind."
—, host of CBC Radio's Spark

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sex robot not ready for prime time

A few weeks ago, I got a press release that caught my eye. It said "the world's first sex robot" will make its debut at this year's Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. What a stroke of luck, I thought - not only will I be in Las Vegas at that time, sex robots are also a major theme in my book.

I got in touch with Douglas Hines, the creator, and we had a long chat. Hines, a former engineer for Bell Labs, told me all about "Roxxxy" the robot and how it not only has all the necessary, uh, body parts, but it also has varying personalities. It doesn't just perform the actions one would want of a sex robot, it can also act as a companion, hence his company's name,
True Companion.

So, along with many other mainstream journalists covering the Consumer Electronics Show, I ventured into AEE - "that other show" - to check out Hines' press conference, and to see what Roxxxy was made of. Here's the press conference, in just about its entirety:

My initial impressions, as well as those of several reporters I talked to, weren't good. First up, and you'll pardon my crass-ness, Roxxxy isn't exactly a looker. In robotics, there's the concept of "uncanny valley," which is where the robot's close-to-human-appearance-but-not-quite-all-the-way there causes revulsion in the onlooker. Roxxxy? Oh yeah. That may not be quite the desired effect when you're trying to create something that people want to have sex with.

Secondly, Roxxxy is more of a talking sex doll than a proper robot. In order to be considered a robot, a machine must be able to perform three tasks: analyze its environment, process the data and then somehow affect the environment. My biggest disappointment with the True Companion was that it didn't move at all; rather it just sat there on a couch. It may be able to verbally respond if you touch it in certain areas, but that doesn't qualify it as a robot.

Hines stressed during his press conference that the current model of Roxxxy focuses more on artificial intelligence than motion, but it's really puzzling then that he chose to debut it at a porn convention. It's pretty safe to say that attendees there were far more interested in motion than intelligence.

Hines' reasons for creating Roxxxy are also pretty weird. He says he was spurred to the idea by his friend's unfortunate death in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that he wanted to create a robot to replicate his personality, so that his children could still interact with their father. This is right out of Caprica, the Battlestar Galactica prequel series that starts on Jan. 22 - in the show, a father loses his daughter and then implants her personality into a robot body.

When I spoke to him a few weeks ago, Hines told me he had read quite a bit of this blog and agreed with my thesis that the sex/porn industry is often an early adopter of technology. On the one hand, it seems very odd that he would want to honour his friend by building a sex robot, but on the other I can understand that perhaps he's hoping someone in the porn industry will invest in his creation so he can further develop it to the point where his friend's children can indeed have a replica of their father.

Roxxxy, however, is nowhere near ready for prime time - some of the patents involved in the creation haven't even been granted yet. I'm not really sure why Hines rushed its introduction this year when it certainly could have benefited from some more time in the shop, so to speak.

In the end, sex robots are an inevitability. There is tremendous interest in them, if the mainstream coverage of Roxxxy and other related robots - like Toronto's Le Trung and his Aiko robot - is any indication. The True Companion is certainly an early step in the process, and it's only going to accelerate as more interest and investment builds.

Monday, January 11, 2010

All hail Steel Panther!

I'm in transit back to Toronto today after a long and tiring week of covering the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. I'll be getting back to regular blogging here tomorrow, with lots of goodies - including video of the sex robot press conference - to come. In the meantime, I thought I'd share the highlight of my visit to Vegas, and my new favourite band: Steel Panther.

I'd sort of heard of Steel Panther, a spoof of '80s-era hair bands, a little while ago from a friend. I watched one of their YouTube videos, laughed, then forgot about them in the way that only people with very short attention spans can. But the other day, I was flipping through a magazine and saw that they play the House of Blues in Vegas every Saturday. I made a point of going to see them and managed to convince a couple of PR folks I know to come with me.

Well, the four of us were dumbfounded. Steel Panther is simply awesome. They've mastered the genre and parody it perfectly, from their ridiculous names (bassist Lexxie Foxxx and guitarist Satchel) to the spandex and unnecessary umlauts. They're also a really good band, playing covers like Bon Jovi's You Give Love a Bad Name and the Scorpions' Rock You Like a Hurricane, plus their own hilarious classics, like Asian Hooker and Community Property (a ballad).

But their schtick is way more than just a concert - it's actually more of a comedy show. There's the between-song banter, mostly juvenile stuff about "banging chicks," but on more than one occasion they ventured into territory that even I found (nearly) offensive. Let's just say it was racial humour that could make Chris Rock blush. Then there was the 10-minute bit they did about how every band, past or present, is ripping off Whitesnake's . At the risk of overanalyzing something that is probably meant to just be fun, Steel Panther's humour is so genius it's almost subversive.

Don't just take my word for it. Here's a VH1 Behind the Music documentary on the band:

I'm going to try and nail these guys down for an interview - they actually have a pretty strong technology angle, as they've managed to amass a pretty decent cult following in Las Vegas and Los Angeles by using social media. Wouldn't it be great to see them in Canada?

In the meantime, check out to one of their big "hits," Death to All But Metal. Not for the easily offended.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Learning with the (porn) stars

I'm finally feeling like a human again after spending the last few days in a zombie-like state. It's amazing what eight hours sleep can do for you. It's a problem all of us Toronto folk have experienced here in Las Vegas - our bodies thought they were still on Eastern time, so they wouldn't let us sleep past a certain time. It's this rare phenomenon known as "jet lag." ; )

In any event, I'm cogent again so perhaps this is a good time to elucidate on the dinner with porn stars from the other night (wow, my brain must be working again - I used "cogent" and "elucidate" in the same sentence).

I found this year's dinner with the executives and stars of Digital Playground to be pretty similar to last year's. While fun, the problem with dinners is you sit everyone at a table, and that's pretty much where they're rooted for the night. Last year, by virtue of where I was sitting, I chatted a bit with Stoya, but mostly with Chris, one of the company's PR guys, and the owner's wife.

This year, I talked to some of the guys from G4TV (other media who were there), but mostly with Katsuni. So in general, these "dinners with porn stars" are more accurately "dinner with porn star" (as in the singular). I suppose there are many men out there who would kill for the chance, so I do consider myself lucky, especially because it's a good opportunity to get some very different insights and perspectives on a bunch of things, which Katsuni supplied in good doses.

Katsuni is half-French and half-Vietnamese and lives in Paris, spending about four months of the year working in the U.S. One of the things we talked about was the difference in French and American views on sexuality, and some of what she said surprised me. While I assumed the French were more liberal when it comes to things like nudity and sex, they're actually far more conservative when it comes to porn, she said. American porn producers, being considerably more entrepreneurial, don't shy away from stuff that's more hard-core as they know there's money to be made there. French porn producers, meanwhile, think that stuff is freakish so they mostly stay away from it. I'm not making any value judgement on this as what's right for some isn't right for others, but nevertheless it's something I never would have considered.

Katsuni also served up an interesting observation on the state of porn and its acceptance by the mainstream. In my book, I talk about how the Paris Hilton sex video years ago not only inspired me to write Sex, Bombs and Burgers, it was also a landmark in do-it-yourself, internet-distributed amateur porn. As we know, that trend is taking a pretty big chunk out of the industry's profits. While censors and morality groups have fought the spread of porn for decades, and the industry has desperately tried to get mainstream acceptance, we may finally be reaching that tipping point, which, Katsuni said, is not necessarily a good thing. When porn is accepted by the mainstream, it loses much of its appeal because it's no longer rare, she said.

As an example, she brought up strip clubs. They're not very popular in France, and why should they be when you can go to any beach and see naked women? In porn, if you give people too much of something, they start to take it for granted and no longer feel the need to pay for it, which is of course bad for people like Katsuni and Digital Playground. (Interestingly, the states with the highest porn consumption are the most religiously repressive ones, like Utah.)

Some of that is covered off in my book, but I hadn't heard it put quite that way. Over the course of the dinner, I learned a few things. And I had some tasty chicken. In the end, a pretty satisfying night.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dinner with the porn stars

After a crushingly exhaustive day covering the latest gadgets at the Consumer Electronics Show, it was nice to get off my feet, have some food and down a few beers. It was extra cool to do it with the stars and executives of Digital Playground, one of the more popular porn studios around. I'll have details of the dinner later, as it's late and I'm beat, but here's a photo of me and Katsuni in the meantime. She's a really rad gal (half-French, half-Vietnamese) who is starting her own lingerie company. She laughed when I told her not to get too close or Claudette would kick her ass:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Google phone: a good reason to merge Canada and U.S.

Alas, it's been a crazy couple of days getting ready for the Consumer Electronics Show. I spent yesterday getting up early to get to Las Vegas, getting registered and acclimated and all that jazz, and thereby ran out of time to blog. So's I got nothing for ya today.

I can promise I'll have some great stuff in the days ahead - some of which may have to be posted after CES is over, but it'll be worth the wait. In the meantime, if there's one early observation I can make, it's this: while the pace of technological change is exponentially accelerating every year, it sure seems like we're getting less and less of it in Canada. The latest example is the Nexus One, the "superphone" announced by Google yesterday. People in Hong Kong and Singapore are getting it, but not Canada, where we supposedly have four of the world's most advanced cellphone networks.

Google told the Montreal Gazette they want to get their billing systems sorted out before expanding to Canada. Uh huh. Sure. Because everyone knows that if you want to test your billing system for bugs, you should try it in Chinese.

Anyhow, that got me thinking: with the Canadian government approaching farcical proportions and our dollar near par with the American greenback, what exactly would Canada lose by finally agreeing to become the 51st state? At least we'd get the latest technologies in a timely fashion.

Okay, I'm really exhausted...

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Heading to Las Vegas for a techno-circus

I'm off to Las Vegas today to cover the annual Consumer Electronics Show, or the Super Bowl of technology. It's my fourth time covering the show but it'll be a little different this year, as I'll be seeing it fully through "sex, bombs & burgers" tinted glasses, so to speak.

I'll be posting my adventures and observations here, and of course providing exhaustive (or should I say exhausting) coverage over on CBC over the next week or so. Here's our preview story and here's our CES page.

I'll also be hanging out with some porn stars and checking out the Adult Entertainment Expo, which not-coincidentally runs concurrently to CES, when I get some spare time. Check back for photos, interviews and maybe even a video or two.

In the meantime, check out a story I wrote from CES two years ago about the robot car designed by Carnegie Mellon engineers and General Motors. The car, named "the Boss," is one of the best examples of military-consumer technology there's been. It was designed for a contest sponsored by DARPA, but GM is already incorporating certain aspects of it into their consumer vehicles.

One of my most amazing experiences as a journalist was going for a ride in the thing. Sitting in the passenger seat while the steering wheel turned itself was just unreal, very reminiscent of Knight Rider:

Fingers crossed that I'll get to experience something equally mind-blowing this year.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Sex with celebrities almost a reality

Isn't it always the way that just as soon as you think you've finished a job, something happens to make you have to go back to it? Alas... I was all happy on Friday to be finished tinkering with Sex, Bombs and Burgers, and then - the porn star who insists on lower-casing her name - goes and announces on Twitter that there's now a sex doll made in her likeness, which will be unveiled at this week's Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas.

As she wrote on her Twitter account:

guess what? I can finally tell you some exciting news... the WICKED girls are coming to you! we teamed up with REAL DOLL to clone us! my doll, along with alektra's doll will be unveiled at the AEE show next week in the Wicked booth. I'm sure they're already making out. ; ) they're EXACTLY like us- we were computer scanned from head to toe, and down to the dimples right above my ass... it's all me!

The Real Doll (link is not safe for work), if you don't know, is a life-sized sex doll made by California's Abyss Creations. They're frighteningly lifelike, sell for around $6,000 U.S. and have all the, ahem, necessary parts. They've got their share of fans, including Howard Stern. Here's .

There's a section in my book that deals with sex robots (more on that later this week) and how the Real Doll is a big step toward them. I surmised that for porn stars and even potentially mainstream actors, licensing one's image to sex robots/dolls was a potentially lucrative source of income for them. Well, now I've got to go in and fix that as it's obviously already happening. Jessice Drake (sorry, I mean jessica drake) and Alektra Blue are two contract performers for Wicked Pictures, one of the bigger adult companies in L.A.

Some folks are already clamouring for licensed mainstream sex dolls. This blogger would like to see one based on Megan Fox, and suggests that washed up celebrities could easily get in on the game. For my money, I'd say this is pretty much a certainty. There are scores of men out there who have fantasized about having sex with Angelina Jolie or Jessica Alba (or women, for that matter, with Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp). Well, you might not get the real McCoy, but the next best thing is almost here.
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