Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Caprica star talks robots

If you're a regular here, you know that I'm a big Battlestar Galactica fan, and that that fandom extends to its prequel series Caprica, which tells the story of how the killer Cylon robots came to be.

I've blogged a few times about how I became an instant fan of Caprica after watching the pilot about a year ago. I had just spoken to Franz Och, head of Google Translate, for my book and saw some amazing similarities between his work and how the artificial intelligence of the Caprica/Battlestar Galactica robots is put together. Both use a form of pattern recognition to make predictions - Google for language translation, and BSG robots for personalities.

So naturally, when I got an invitation to interview one of the stars of Caprica at last week's Comic Con fan convention here in Toronto, I jumped at the opportunity. As an extra bonus, it turns out that Magda Apanowicz - who plays Lacy Rand on the show - is a fellow Polack Canadian.

A quick rundown of Caprica for the uninitiated. The show is set on the world of the same name, a planet that is very similar to Earth. Just like our world, it's a fast-paced consumerist society where people love their gizmos and gadgets. One of the big gadget trends is the Holoband, a visor that lets users enter virtual or "V" worlds. The popular V worlds are either sex-fueled night clubs or violent action games.

The main character is a teenager named Zoe, who dies in the first episode in a terrorist attack on a train. Zoe happened to have been a computer whiz, though, and she created an artificially intelligent avatar of herself using the above Google-ish method, and it lives on in the V world. Zoe's father Daniel is an ethically questionable industrialist who has built a fearsome robot. The machine shows no real promise on its own, but once Zoe's AI gets into it, it suddenly comes alive - in more ways than one.

Only Lacy knows that Zoe's AI is inside the robot, and it's her job to help her escape - machine body and all - from Daniel's lab. Here's a trimmed down version of my interview with Magda, wherein she talks about a whole slew of topics, from some of the technological themes in Caprica, to robots and BSG, to the show's ratings and future.

I also wrote up the interview for the CBC, so you can read that story and a little bit about why it's a strong show here. I can't help but like Caprica because it deals with sex, war and technology, and is generally bang on when it does so. Like Magda, I hope it's given a proper chance to explore those themes, and others.

Speaking of robots, don't forget to check out Day 3 of The Globe and Mail's 5-day excerpt series. Today, we get to the issue of sex robots...

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pizza Hut Japan is just ridiculous

Don't forget: today is day two of The Globe and Mail's five-part excerpt series of Sex, Bombs and Burgers. They're running Chapter 9: Fully Functional Robots in its entirety, so check it out. Also, I did an interview with Radio New Zealand's Nine to Noon program, which you can listen to here.

Today's quick post takes us to Japan, and the latest fast-food monstrosity there. You may remember last month I talked about the new Cheesy Bites pizza from Pizza Hut, which featured a pizza with what were effectively built-in mozzarella sticks ringing it. Holy heartburn Batman!

Well, leave it to the Japanese to outdo us Westerners. Just as they did with the seven-patty Whopper, the Japanese have taken this particular fast-food concept to an HNL (hole 'nother level). As you can tell from the picture, it's the same concept as the Cheesy Bites pizza, except the attached mozzarella sticks are instead pigs in a blanket (otherwise known as miniature hot dogs). And if that wasn't bad enough, there are actually miniature hamburger patties on the pizza itself. Wow.

The news comes from one of my new favourite blogs, aptly called "WTF Japan, Seriously?" According to those folks (thanks for the tip, Andrew!), each slice packs a whopping 646 calories - or nearly a third of your recommended daily allowance. In other words, this is about as close to a heart attack on a platter that you can probably legally get.

Not that that makes me want to try it any less...

Monday, March 29, 2010

Top marks for McDonald's McMinis

A couple of housekeeping matters today before we get down to business. Firstly, The Globe and Mail kicks off a five-day excerpt series of Sex, Bombs and Burgers today. The newspaper's technology website is running Chapter 9: Fully Functional Robots in its entirety this week, so head on over and check it out (if you haven't read the book yet, that is). I particularly like that chapter because it deals with all three of the industries focused on in the book. Most of the other chapters drill into one or two, so this one is a nice overview of them all.

Also, I'm pleased to say that Sex, Bombs and Burgers is enjoying its second week on Maclean's best-seller list (non-fiction), holding steady at number six. I am, however, ruing telling Citizens of London by Lynne Olson at my launch party to "eat it" because that book is now at number four, no longer eating SB&B's dust. (It is worth noting, however, that Lynne Olson has been on The Daily Show and has a book blurb from Tom Brokaw... just sayin').

Anyhow, last week was pretty quiet, which was a nice rest after the craziness of launch week. Things are ramping up again this week with a bunch of interviews scheduled. More info on all that stuff soon. I'm also starting to get jazzed for Australia and New Zealand. I leave on Saturday and can't wait to enjoy some warmer weather.

On to today's business - the McMini. If you haven't seen these yet, they're the new tiny chicken sandwiches rolled out by McDonald's here in Canada last week. Basically, it's a chicken finger (either crispy or grilled) in a miniature baguette with one of two sauces slapped onto it - either pesto or sweet Thai. Here's the commercial:

Ah McDonald's, you make the Sex and Burgers connections so easy. Using a hot blonde in short shorts to sell fast food... it almost seems timeless, doesn't it?

Anyhow, having a responsibility to my readers, I of course took the McMinis out for a test drive this weekend and I can report that they're fantastic - especially the Thai flavour! I was particularly surprised at the quality of the chicken - sometimes McDonald's chicken looks like some kind of weird chicken paste, or something like that, but the McMinis seem to have some decent quality white meat.

With that in mind, I asked the counter staff for nutrition information, which they kindly printed off for me. The grilled versions are obviously healthier, accounting for 260 calories, 14% of daily fat and 31% of daily sodium (Thai), or 280 calories, 20% of daily fat and 28% of daily sodium (pesto). The crispy versions have 310 calories, 22% daily fat and 31% daily sodium (Thai), or 350 calories, 29% of daily fat and 28% daily sodium (pesto).

Obviously, these little buggers pack a lot of crap into a small frame, but that seems to be the case with anything that tastes good. The stats above are also roughly the same as McDonald's chicken snack wraps, which are kind of the same but come in a tortilla and generally have cheese and other fillings. Oh, the McMinis are also $2 each, which is a good price for a snack.

The McMini brought me back to a thought I had nearly a year ago, when I was "researching" the book. I had just gone through a McDonald's drive-thru and was eating a McChicken with one hand while driving with the other (I know, I'm dangerous - that's just how I roll). Fast-food chains get a good portion of their sales from drive-thrus - some getting as much as 70% - so in many cases, their food is specially formulated so that you can eat it with one hand. In the case of McDonald's, virtually the entire menu qualifies (I sometimes have problems eating a Big Mac while driving... I usually steer with my knees in such cases). The McMinis, of course, are a perfect addition to that food-selling strategy.

Also, is it just me or is McDonald's pumping out new small snacks by the truckload? Why yes indeed - as Business Week reports, it's part of a strategy to expand into between-meals food, a plan that is paying off for McDonald's.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Adult industry group no fan of .xxx

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that the issue of the .xxx web domain name was back on the table with the people who govern such issues, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, dusting it off for another go around. Ultimately, ICANN decided to hold off on making a decision until June.

To summarize: a company called ICM Registry wants to establish .xxx as a top level domain (similar to .com or .net) that adult sites could then use. The main benefit, ICM argues, would be placing porn sites into one category that could then be blocked from children, which would make life easier online for everyone concerned: adults, governments, regulators and the porn companies themselves.

At the time, I mentioned that porn companies were not necessarily in favour of this proposal because it would effectively place them in an online ghetto that could then be easily persecuted. Well, indeed, the industry's lobby group - the Free Speech Coalition - has come out swinging against the proposal.

In a recent letter to ICANN, the FSC's executive director Diane Duke outlined the group's concerns with such a plan, with special emphasis put on who is trying to push it through:

A proposal for a 'sponsored' top-level domain by a company that is not of the industry, with the added intent to 'regulate' an industry it knows nothing about, is untenable... I highly encourage the board to settle the issue once and for all by going to the actual community to test the application's true level of support... Our resolute position is that no self-respecting industry would ever agree to have a minority voice on a board tasked with setting critical policies for its members.

In other words: "Hey ICM, get your stinking nose out of our business."

I, for one, would love to see the issue put to a vote with the porn community. I've wondered before about what might be best for their business - it could be in their better interests to go for the sort of ghetto-ization that ICM is suggesting, as making porn harder to get would certainly counter the downturn that the internet and its crazy free-ness has brought about.

On the other hand, going along with the .xxx plan could counter decades of fighting by the industry to earn porn companies free-speech rights and freedoms. The question thus becomes: do they try to turn the clock back and potentially regain some of the business they've lost, thereby sacrificing some of their freedoms, or do they continue to fight for their rights, which inevitably means having to forge forward and figure out this whole internet thing, just like every other media industry?

The porn world has shown the way online in many ways, so it's definitely worth watching how this whole .xxx thing plays out because it could have repercussions on the larger media world.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Porn stars are people too

We've all heard various stories about how people (especially celebrities) have used social media to bring attention to poor customer service by companies. There were, of course, a pair of very high-profile cases recently involving airlines. Canadian musician Dave Carroll wrote a song, which became a huge YouTube hit, about United Airlines smashing up his guitar in transit. The video brought so much negative publicity to the airline that its stock price actually took a dive.

Similarly, Southwest Airlines took a big public image hit after film director Kevin Smith took to badmouthing the company. Smith got kicked off the plane for being too fat, then let 'er loose on Twitter, kicking up a big fuss for the airline. And it's not just celebs - here in Toronto, a public transit driver was suspended after a rider captured him taking a seven-minute bathroom break in the middle of his route.

Well, porn stars are people too - and they want to be treated equally. They're also using social media to the same effect as others. Jesse Jane, star of such award-winning adult fare as Pirates and Pirates II - and a pleasant gal who I interviewed while working on my book - went to war with the Six Flags amusement park chain on Twitter yesterday after apparently being mistreated. Here's her initial tweet:

"I've never been treated so bad in my life they wouldn't look up my season pass this lady was rude to me then kicked me out of the park saying I would be trouble."

In subsequent posts, the story became a little more clear. Apparently Jesse was making an inquiry with staff at the Six Flags Magic Mountain park in Valencia, north of Los Angeles, but the woman she was dealing with didn't like the looks of her and refused to deal with her. Jesse charged this was because of her ample boobs (talk about Magic Mountains!), clad in a tanktop as they were, which apparently marked her as "trouble." She has a season's pass to the park, but was kicked out nonetheless.

Many of her 26,000+ followers were aghast and threatened retaliation in the form of phone calls and emails to the park. No word yet as to what effect this might have had, or what the park's side of the story is. Just for kicks, I dashed off an email to Six Flags (being the intrepid porn reporter that I am?!?) but haven't yet received a response. I suspect something will come of this - after all, if the Six Flags park near Los Angeles is going to discriminate against people with breast implants, they won't have many customers left!

On a more serious note... it still surprises me how many people underestimate the power of so-called social media, and the internet in general. I remarked on Twitter yesterday how a story we had on the CBC website regarding television rates had amassed more than 1,000 reader comments overnight. That's not unusual for very contentious stories - usually politics and the like - but pretty much unheard of for a tech/telecom/regulatory story. The issue, where Canadians are facing continually increasing TV prices with the now-overt approval of the regulator that is supposed to protect them from such things, has got people - online readers, anyway - steaming mad.

As we've seen on several occasions, this online anger has translated into strong real-world results. In late 2007, then-Industry Minister Jim Prentice had to retreat on his proposed copyright reform legislation after tens of thousands joined a Facebook protest group, then showed up at his Calgary office to demonstrate. Prentice was soon thereafter shuffled off to a different cabinet job (environment), a position where he wasn't so obviously out of touch.

Similarly, in 2008, Rogers Wireless was forced to rethink its iPhone service plans after protests broke out on online. Shortly after introducing its initial plans, the company revamped them, made them cheaper and said it had heard the protests loud and clear.

Most recently, there was the Facebook group that protested the Prime Minister's proroguing of Parliament that turned into a nation-wide demonstration, much to Stephen Harper's surprise - and chagrin.

Still, none of this stopped at least one commentator from shrugging off my tweet about the 1,000+ comments (most of which could be classified as "outrage") on the TV story, as irrelevant. Clearly, there are still people out there who do not take online anger seriously. Indeed, virtually every story, blog post, video, tweet, etc. that gets published on the web will have its share of cranks, trolls and lurkers. But when those supposed cranks, trolls and lurkers turn out in mass numbers, it is folly to ignore them.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Asian food, Cajun food: what's the diff?

I was out for drinks with my friend the other day when the conversation somehow turned to a strange topic: the Bourbon Street Grill. You've probably seen these "Cajun food" outlets in your neighbourhood mall. If you've eaten there, you certainly won't forget it - and I don't mean that in a good way.

It turned out that neither of us really knew anything about the Bourbon Street Grill: what was it really, and who ran it? So we both whipped out our iPhones and started learnin'. Aside from discovering there has been virtually nothing written about this fast-food chain, we also found that it is the product of a company called Innovated Restaurant Group. That's right, I said "Innovated" not "Innovative." That even tripped up Google, if we meant to look up "innovative."

The name of the company pretty much gives away what we suspected - it's Asian, and most likely Chinese. The company's website says it runs 40 Canadian outlets from an office in north Toronto and 76 in the United States from Tampa, but if "Innovated Research Group" doesn't sound like a Chinglish translation to you, then you may not be paying attention.

That's not the funny part. What is, is the other restaurant chains run by IRG. First, there's Ruby Thai Kitchen, which serves Thai food. Then there's Stir Fry 88, which does Chinese food. There's also Nori Japan, which serves - you guessed it - Japanese food. And then, finally, there's the Bourbon Street Grill, which supposedly dishes out Cajun and Caribbean food.

Hmm. Which of these things is not like the other?

We originally got onto the topic by discussing our mutual experiences when growing up of eating one culture's foods, as prepared by mothers from another culture - often with very poor results. In my case, it was my Polish mom - who makes great Polish food - coming up with nasty-tasting attempts at things like lasagna or chili. Kenny's experience in his Chinese family was similar. We started asking questions about the Bourbon Street Grill when we both noticed that the only people we'd ever seen working at the chain's outlets were Asian. Moreover, the supposedly southern food also tasted distinctly Chinese.

Somewhere in this is an interesting story to be told about the demographics of fast-food franchising - i.e. how much does it cost to license a McDonald's franchise versus a Bourbon Street Grill, and what sort of franchisees do they attract respectively, both in terms of income level and ethnicity. There are some basic stats out there but I haven't seen anything that goes in depth, so it looks like it's another possible story to add to the long list of things I'd like to some day look into.

In the mean time, I certainly don't ever plan to eat at the Bourbon Street Grill again. I did it once or twice and found it to be some of the most god-awful "Cajun" food I've ever had, and about as far away from New Orleans and its famous street as Shanghai is.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

One really, really expensive jet

What does $113 million (U.S.) get you? One really cool plane, that's what.

If you've followed the saga of the Joint Strike Fighter at all, you've just got to laugh. The JSF, or the F-35 Lightning II, is a story of comical proportions - a tale of big military contractor spending run amok, to the point of ridiculousness.

In the first instance, there's the length of time that the plane is taking to develop. The F-35 is intended to be the U.S. military's next-generation jet, which combines the abilities of a fighter and a bomber into one. On paper, that's a pretty good - and efficient - idea, but in reality, it has been anything but. The Pentagon signed the development contract for the plane way back in 1996, then awarded the contract to Lockheed Martin in 2001. The Marines, Air Force and Navy aren't expected to get their planes until 2012 at the earliest. If all goes according to plan - and I've got swampland in Florida to sell you if you think it will - that will mean the F-35 will take a whopping 16 years to go from plan to implementation. Yikes. The guys at Lockheed must be unionized or something.

Then there's the cost. The price tag on each F-35 has mushroomed in the past 10 years. In 2001, the estimated cost of each fighter was about $50 million. It's now $113 million, or well more than double. Holy cow.

Of course, you may also be wondering: what are these planes for? Doesn't the U.S. military already have air superiority over any other country, probably about a hundred times over? Why yes indeed, they do! Which is why Secretary of Defense last year tried to reorient military spending toward the sort of "irregular warfare" (aka guerrilla war) that troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are mired in. I guess that as far as the F-35 goes, old habits are indeed hard to break.

Nevertheless, you can't help but look at the results of this all of this uber-spending without thinking "cool." Here's a video of the Joint Strike Fighter doing a vertical, Harrier-like landing test:

As the folks at ZDNet said: "It's way behind schedule, it's wildly expensive at $113 million per craft, and I don’t care. Something this cool must be built."

To take it a step further, there should be some upsides from this project. The JSF is packed with all sorts of new technology, from sensors to telecommunications to stealth capabilities. As should be obvious to anyone who's read my book or this blog, this sort of stuff is bound to make its way into the consumer world and thereby repay some of that mammoth investment.

Maybe it'll make vertical take-off and landing safer and/or cheaper for consumer airlines? Maybe it'll finally lead to hover cars?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fast food encroaching on the kitchen

The New York Times had an excellent report last week from the International Home and Housewares show in Chicago that I've been meaning to share. As the headline on the story reads, "kitchen gadgets take the fast-food mentality into the home," which of course is a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective.

The hot thing at the show this year, the newspaper reports, are "one-button appliances," which let you cook a variety of foods with the touch of a finger. Think of the popcorn button on your microwave - well now they're installing such buttons on ovens for everything from pizza to chicken nuggets. Just like the fry cookers at McDonald's, all you have to do is insert your food, press the button and come back when it beeps.

The Times cites an interesting figure from market research firm NPD Group that pretty much tells the story: sales of such "small kitchen electrics" were up 9 per cent from 2008 to 2009, while housewares - which includes knives, pots and pans - were down 11.5 per cent. In other words, people want to spend less time preparing their meals. Indeed, the fast-food mentality is further encroaching on their home.

To some people, this is very bad. By speeding up the process of eating, we're eroding the social aspect of meals. Rather than spending time preparing and cooking something tasty and healthy, and then enjoying it together as a family at the dinner table, we're zapping it in record time and then wolfing it down in front of the TV, or running out the door with it.

To others, this is the utmost in progress. Food is, on its very basic level, fuel for humans. We don't make a big ceremony out of gassing up our car, so why should eating be any different? Get'er in ya, and get'er done, as the saying goes (where that saying me actually be said, I don't know).

I suspect most people are somewhere in the middle. It's great to have the luxury of making something quick (like Pizza Pops... mmm... ) when you're either tired, lazy or just don't have time. It's also good to be able to spend some time making your food when you're so inclined.

I generally come down on the side of never having enough time to do all the things I want or have to do, so I'm a fan of such developments. I happen to make the best perogies in the world, if I do say so myself (learned from my mama), but I rarely have the two hours or so that it takes to make them. As inferior as the frozen ones from the grocery store are, the 10 minutes they take is far preferable. And don't even get me started on doing dishes... there isn't a worse chore (one of these days I'll get a dish washer).

Getting back to the Times article, it finishes off with what I think is a funny quote from a ConAgra official. According to the food giant, you shouldn't just push the button on your appliance and walk off, because it's never that simple. "The popcorn bag is not one-size-fits-all. You need to stand there and listen," she said. "Every bag is going to be a little different. They are popcorn kernels. They are from nature."

That sounds like the company is either trying to remind people that food isn't completely technology, or an admission that ConAgra has failed to make it so despite its best efforts.

Oh, and on an unrelated note - here's the Globe and Mail's (mostly positive) review of Sex, Bombs and Burgers I mentioned last week.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Food technology cures the hangover

Thanks to everyone who came out to the launch party last night. I had a blast and I hope everyone else did too. Lots of beer, lots of fun and lots of books sold (I believe we cleaned Ben McNally Books out). I'll hopefully post some photos here and on Facebook next week. Stay tuned.

This is perhaps a good opportunity to unveil the results of an important scientific experiment I've been working on for the past few months. I am pleased to announce that I have discovered something that has eluded mankind for centuries: a cure for hangovers. Actually, it's more correctly a preventative measure, rather than a cure. And the secret is: Pizza Pops!

It's true - I have successfully proven that those tasty little bundles of chemical goodness prevent a hangover nine times out of 10, if eaten after massive drinking and just before going to bed. I was well prepared last night and had a pair of Pops ready to go when I got home from the party. Today, I am quite tired but relatively operational, which I have no right to be given the amount of beer I drank.

Unfortunately, I can't submit this experiment for peer review because I have no idea if it will work for anyone else, nor do I have any real scientific reason for why it works. Nevertheless, I invite you to try it. Oh, and be warned - the rival Pizza Pockets don't work nearly as well (plus, they're gross).

On a more serious note, I'm very pleased to announce that Sex, Bombs and Burgers has cracked Maclean's (non-fiction) at #6. That's awesome! As I said last night: eat it Citizens of London by Lynne Olson (that's #7 on the list, and no I don't actually have anything against Lynne).

The book is also continuing to get some good media coverage. Eye Weekly has a mostly positive review in this week's edition. Cambridge Now, a community news site, also has a feature up (they had a reporter out at the Google talk in Waterloo last week). I also talked to the guys at the Enthusiasticast, a cool podcast that talks about books, pop culture and all sorts of stuff. We talked about Sex, Bombs and Burgers, but they also asked me to recommend a book, which I was only too happy to do: Wired For War by P.W. Singer. There's more on the way... I hear The Globe and Mail may be running a review this weekend. I'll link to it here if so (unless, of course, they trash the book).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A comical signing - this weekend!

A final reminder that the Canadian launch party for Sex, Bombs and Burgers takes place tonight at the Cadillac Lounge here in Toronto. Full details are a few posts down, or if you're too lazy to scroll, you can always click.

If you are in the Toronto area but can't make it out tonight, you're more than welcome to come out to a signing I'll be doing at the new 3rd Quadrant/Hairy Tarantula comic book store in North York. As I mentioned before, the new store (it opened in November) is a co-production between the owners of two stores who used to support a nerdy science-fiction magazine called Realms that I published many years ago.

Their website is scanty, but you can check it out here, while 3rd Quadrant is also on . The new store is at 6979 Yonge St. at Steeles, located below the EB Games across from Centrepoint Mall. Here's the map:

As for Sex, Bombs and Burgers' science-fiction and comic book connections... there are plenty. As famed science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." To take it a step further, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from yesterday's science-fiction, which means that any book about technology - Sex, Bombs and Burgers included - is also in many ways about science-fiction.

A couple of the things mentioned in the book, and here previously, make direct connections to comic books. The robotic exoskeleton currently being tested by Raytheon has been referred to as "Iron Man," while Lockheed's competitor cyborg suit has been affectionately dubbed the Human Universal Load Carrier, or HULC.

There are also the experiments by DARPA and other agencies into boosting human capabilities into superhuman capabilities. As a Wired article on the topic details, this attempt to get soldiers to "be more than you can be" smacks heavily of comic book characters such as Captain America. And with all of the genetic research going on, such as therapeutic cloning, how far away are we from developing "homo superior," or the mutants found in various X-Men comics?

Inspiration, when it comes to technology, is often a two-way street. For a really good example, check out the documentary where a number of inventors talk about how Star Trek drove them to create new gadgets, and vice-versa.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My apologies for being a straight dude

Before we get to today's topic - gay porn! - a quick note that if you're near public transit in Toronto today, check out Metro News for a feature on Sex, Bombs and Burgers. The story will be online today as well, so I'll put up a link once I find it (UPDATE: it's in Metro papers across the country, but here's a link to the Toronto online version). Also, my book was reviewed on Radio New Zealand's Nine to Noon program this week. You can check it out here.

A few quick words on reviews, if I may. I've been warned by a few people not to take reviews too seriously as they are, of course, purely subjective. One criticism of reviewers I've heard from folks in the book business is that they tend to judge a work not necessarily on its merits, but based on how they themselves would have written it. It's also pretty much a no-brainer that few reviewers are going to utterly gush about any book for fear of losing their street cred, so there's bound to be some negative in any critique.

I've certainly seen this pop up in the few reviews I've received so far, and that's cool. I know my book isn't perfect and I'm aware of some of its flaws, which I hope to avoid if I do another. The reviews I've seen or heard have also said some very nice things, which I'm quite pleased about. In the end, it's better to be talked about than not, so it's all good.

Speaking of reviews, I got a very interesting one at the end of my talk last week (the video of that is coming soon). With those talks scheduled for the better part of an hour, I figured I had to come up with something for the audience to look at other than my ugly mug. With that in mind, I put together a little slideshow in Apple Keynote - I've actually never used it or PowerPoint before, so let me just say that Keynote is fantastically easy-to-use and fun software (and no, I'm not being paid by Apple to say that).

Anyhow... of course, I had some photos in the presentation to illustrate my points and, at the end of the presentation, I got an earful from Karen Schulman Dupuis, one of the audience members (her blog is here and her Twitter page is ). Karen raised a surprising, yet very good point - that all the images I used to illustrate my porn points were of women. "Where were the men?" and "Am I sexist?" and "What about gay porn?" she asked.

Well, I certainly don't consider myself sexist, nor do I have any issues with gay men (or women), but her questions kind of took me off guard. I apologized and told her she was right - I definitely could have used some male porn pictures in my presentation, and that I would ponder her points further, and possibly address them here.

I guess my reasons for using pictures of women (and by the way, the photos in question were all PG-rated with no nudity - I'll save the hard-core stuff for if I ever do a presentation to Hustler employees) are pretty simple: I'm a straight male, and I don't usually think of looking at photos of naked dudes. So yes indeed, I do have an innate bias toward the sort of porn that the typical straight guy looks at, which is probably something I'll have to adjust when talking about this stuff publicly since there are all kinds out there.

That said, I also dug up some of the numbers I researched a while back on the demographics of porn. While a large number of women do look at and enjoy porn - they account for an estimated one-third of the audience in the United States - it still is primarily a male-dominated leisure activity.

I thought it might be interesting to get an idea what percentage of porn is of the gay variety, but that has proven harder than I expected. Estimates peg the number of gay, lesbian or bisexual people in the United States at between 5% and 10% of the population, so one would think the percentage of porn would be commensurate.

I haven't been able to find any stats, so I'm purely guessing here, but I would think that gay porn as a percentage of overall porn would be somewhat higher. The only reason I base that on is the thought that there are many repressed homosexual people out there, and porn is their only outlet, which could mean there's a special market to cater to.

I'm curious enough to check this out with some of the porn people I know - I'll report back once I hear what they have to say. I hope you're happy Karen - you've got me chasing down gay porn producers!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Backstage with Steel Panther

As promised, here's my interview with Steel Panther before last Thursday's show at the Sound Academy here in Toronto. It was perhaps the most bizarre "interview" I've done in that it ended up being more of a comedy routine than Q&A.

I was warned in advance by Universal, the band's label, that they never break character, so I planned accordingly. I figured that if it was going to be a "joke" interview, I'd ask them "joke" questions. So I sat down with a couple of friends and came up with such gems as "Why are you so awesome?" (cribbed shamelessly from Stephen Colbert's famous interview with Rush) and "What inspires you most to make music: sex or drugs?"

Of course, within 30 seconds of entering the dressing room, it was clear that I wasn't going to be in the driver's seat, and that even those joke questions were pointless. Indeed, it was apparent that they were going off into their own schtick and that I was just there for the ride. Fortunately, the guys in Steel Panther are amazing at what they do - their act is finely tuned and they are really, really, really into it, which means it's almost believable and completely fun to watch.

It could be said that much of their humour is of the low-brow toilet variety, but it's the genuineness with which they deliver that really makes it funny. Check out the interview, with (from left to right) lead singer Michael Starr, lead drummer Stix Zadinia, bassist Lexxi Foxx and guitarist Satchel (but don't watch it if you're easily offended):

And no, this video has absolutely zero to do with Sex, Bombs and Burgers, other than I'm fairly sure the band loves at least two of those three things. It would have been great to have them play the launch party this Thursday, but I couldn't come up with enough cocaine and hookers to get them interested.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Don't miss the launch party!

Just a reminder that the Sex, Bombs and Burgers Canadian launch party is this Thursday in Toronto. Come on out for drinks, food, entertainment, more drinks, and of course, books. If you plan to buy a book, I'm told the seller will be accepting cash and credit cards (no debit). If you need details on the party again, check them out in this handsome e-vite:

The party kicks off at 6:30 at the Cadillac Lounge, 1296 Queen Street West (just west of Dufferin). I'll say a few words around 9-ish, and plan to be there until the last person goes home, whenever that is. Here's a map to the bar:

In other news, I've added a "Media Coverage" section to the column on the right, where I'll list interviews, reviews and other assorted stuff that comes through the pipe. Over the weekend, the National Post ran an excerpt of the book - a section from the final chapter about the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons research is turning into life-saving technologies. Ironically, with the recently signed deal between the National Post and the CBC, the excerpt is also available on the CBC website.

In Australia, ABC National Radio's Breakfast program also aired an interview, which can be found online.

If you're in Halifax, be sure to check out today's Metro - there's a story on Sex, Bombs and Burgers in there. The story will be running in other editions of Metro, including in Toronto, later this week. More to come.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A whirlwind week!

Man, the term TGIF has never been more appropriate. It was a whirlwind week capped off with a crazy concert (and requisite beer drinking), so I'm very pleased the weekend is upon us. The whir of activity this week also explains why I'm so late in getting this post up today!

I did a flurry of interviews for Sex, Bombs and Burgers this week, some of which I'll post links to somewhere on this site next week. There was also the big talk yesterday - I'll write more about that experience next week, hopefully to coincide with the video going up on YouTube (the Google folks say it'll probably be a few days).

The concert last night was, of course, the legendary Steel Panther. I "interviewed" the band backstage before they went on, although "inadvertently took part in their comedy routine" is probably a more apt description of the event. I'll be writing up a story for CBC Arts next week and I'll post the full, hilarious interview here as well. At left is an iPhone-snapped photo of me and singer Michael Starr, drummer Stix Zadinia and guitarist Satchel.

The last thing I'll mention today is to keep your eyes on the National Post tomorrow. Saturday's paper will have an excerpt of Sex, Bombs and Burgers - I believe they're putting it online too, along with a podcast interview, so I'll be sure to link to that.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

To .xxx or not .xxx, that is the question

An issue that's been percolating on the internet for some time is whether or not porn sites should all effectively be put in one place by giving them their own domain name - a .xxx suffix instead of .com or .net, or whatever.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the international body that governs such issues, says the idea of a .xxx is now back on the table after turning it down several times. The Associated Press has a that explains this thorny and complicated issue.

In a nutshell, a company called ICM Registry is arguing that the .xxx domain name suffix, when adopted by porn sites, would make it easier for parents to block their kids from accessing such content online. The plan would be beneficial for porn companies too, ICM said, because it would allow them to continue to do business but take the heat off them in regards to making sure minors don't access their stuff.

But there are all sorts of problems. Firstly, and perhaps most foolishly, moral and religious groups have argued that creating a special domain name for porn would legitimize the industry. That's pretty ridiculous given that there are at least half a dozen pornography companies, such as Playboy, that operate as publicly traded companies. Newsflash: porn was legitimized by stock markets a long time ago.

More importantly, as the AP story reports, the .xxx domain probably wouldn't accomplish its intended goal because an internet address can actually be typed in two ways: with letters or its numerical IP address. You could set web browsers to block a particular domain, such as .xxx or even .com, but blocking those numerical addresses would be much more difficult. Kids could simply navigate to the sites by learning the IP addresses.

Then there's also the issue of whether porn companies would want the .xxx suffix. Some feel it would ghetto-ize them and potentially make them easier for governments or regulators to attack. Many would probably like to have a .xxx domain as well as their existing .com address too, which some critics argue could actually raise the amount of porn traffic on the internet (I'm not sure I follow that argument).

I don't think the .xxx is necessarily a bad idea. Certainly there are some technical hurdles to overcome, but something has to be done to limit minors' access to online porn. The industry may want to try to make this solution work, otherwise governments are going to start coming up with potentially more drastic measures. Then again, as I mentioned recently, maybe that's what they secretly want to happen.

(Side note: while looking for a picture to illustrate this post, I did a Google image search on .xxx - give it a try and you'll see what I mean about this stuff needing to be cleaned up. You may not want to try this at work, though.)

UPDATE: AP now reports that ICANN has held off on making a decision about .xxx until June.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Penn & Teller on food hippies

Just a quick post today, given the craziness of the week. A heads up that I'll be on Toronto's CFRB radio (Newstalk 1010), live tonight at 6 p.m. EST, talking about Sex, Bombs and Burgers with host John Tory. If you're driving home, tune in for some chuckles. And if you're not driving but do have access to a computer, you can listen in live online. (UPDATE: I'll also be on ABC Radio National's Breakfast program at 8:40 a.m. in Australia today.)

On an unrelated note... one thing that's come up in the conversations I've had with journalists so far is how emotional people get about food. As it happens, in preparing I'll be giving at Google Waterloo on Thursday, I was reminded of Norman Borlaug and the issue of genetically modified foods. Borlaug, you may recall, passed away last year with relatively little fanfare in the media, which is puzzling because he was certainly the greatest humanitarian who ever lived.

Borlaug was the father of the Green Revolution, a movement in food technology that saved hundreds of millions of people in developing countries (some estimates peg the number of lives saved at a billion - a BILLION!). In his latter years, he was also a staunch defender of genetically modified foods, which are crops that have drawn protests from the likes of Prince Charles and Greenpeace.

I won't rehash the whole Borlaug-GMO situation here, especially after finding a video that encapsulates the whole issue perfectly. I came across this clip last night, from a 2007 episode of the Penn & Teller: Bullshit show, about Borlaug and GMOs. It's 10 minutes, so a little long, but if you care at all about food and food technology, you should watch it. Especially Penn's final, if somewhat vulgar, message to critics. Check it out:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Down Under dates confirmed

I mentioned back in January that I was heading to Australia and New Zealand to do some publicity for Sex, Bombs and Burgers. Well, I've finally got those dates confirmed. I'll be landing in Sydney on Easter Monday (April 5) and staying there till the evening of the 8th. From there, I'll be in Auckland until the 13th, then traipsing across the paradise that is the Land of the Long White Cloud for the rest of the month.

In that previous post, I referenced just about every Australian cliche I could think of, so today, it's New Zealand's turn. I'm going to spend the next couple of weeks practicing my (that's me in the photo on the left, in the back doing said Haka), my skills and my strange phrases, i.e. "good on ya," "how long is a piece of string," and "shiver that goose down" (okay, I made that last one up). I also have to remember not to confuse Dave Dobbin, the head of new Canadian wireless provider Moblicity, with Kiwi folk hero .

During that week-or-so in Sydney and Auckland, I'll be talking with various media about the book. I'm particularly looking forward to speaking with my old mates at the New Zealand Herald, and with Radio Wammo on Kiwi FM, which looks like it'll be a hoot. Check out a recent episode with my old colleague , who used to edit Computerworld NZ but these days works for Vodafone New Zealand (a much better cellphone company than we in Canada could ever hope for):

Speaking of media, The Mark News - a really cool web news magazine here in Canada - has a preview of our interview up. In this snippet, we talk about the future of porn and the internet (my section is around the 25-minute mark). The full interview will be up later this week, I'm told.

But getting back to New Zealand... aside from seeing old friends, I'm very excited about finally taking a vacation. Claudette and I managed to finagle two spots on the world-famous Milford Track, a four-day hike through the most beautiful part of the country. I never did get to do this hike during my time in NZ, so I'll be fulfilling another dream.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Geeks, Googlers and Panthers

It's shaping up to be a crazy week with a bunch of stuff on the go. But before I get to all that, check out this weekend's episode of CBC Radio's Spark. Host Nora Young (who wrote an awesome blurb for the back of my book) and I talk about Sex, Bombs and Burgers. It's a neat interview as the producers spliced in some old radio archive audio about microwave cooking from the fifties. Very retro! (The interview starts around the 38:20 mark - you can also download the podcast from iTunes here).

If you're wondering who the handsome young lad is in the photo at left, that's my nephew Nick picking up a copy of my book at Chapters. There's nothing obscene or vulgar in the book, but it's probably best his parents don't let him read it just yet. It might be a little too difficult to explain the Real Touch to a 10-year-old.

Aside from doing a number of media interviews this week, I'm also taking part in a few speaking engagements. On Wednesday, I'll be at the Ontario Science Centre for GeekFest, where I'll be on a panel talking about the future of the media. We'll be trying to answer the question: is print dead? (Short answer: no.) Fellow panelists include Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente and , pop culture critic and co-author of Wikibrands: How to Build a Brand in a Customer-Controlled Marketplace. GeekFest is also holding a nifty Dragon's Den-style contest where inventors will present their concoctions to a panel of judges.

On Thursday, I'm heading to talk Sex, Bombs and Burgers at Google's offices. The search company runs a regular program called , where book writers come in and give presentations on their work to staffers. Past participants have included Salman Rushdie and Barack Obama, so it's a very significant honour to be able to take part. Google posts the talks on YouTube, and I'll be sure to embed that here once it's done.

And to cap off the week in grand fashion, I'm heading out to the Steel Panther concert on Thursday night! I'm teed up to interview them for the CBC's Arts section - apparently they never break character, which should be a hoot. I'll try to get some video of that interview up as well. Can't wait to feel the steel!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What's behind the rise in China's defense spending?

China announced yesterday it is increasing defense spending this year by 7.5 per cent, bringing its military budget to $77.9 billion U.S. China is already the world's second biggest spender on the military (three guesses as to who's first?), ahead of France, Britain and Russia. I don't know about anyone else, but I get a particular kick out of analyzing these facts.

The Associated Press has a that looks at the questions that usually arise in regards to China's spending statements, such as: can the numbers be believed, and what's it all for? First up, I got a kick out of how the Chinese government spun the increase - officials said it's the smallest boost to the defense budget in 20 years. That may be so, but an increase is still an increase.

As with any official statements by the Chinese government, some analysts doubt that the numbers being presented are straight up. Some believe the country's military spending is actually twice or more what they say.

Then there are the reasons for the smaller increase this year. Some observers believe it's the effects of the recession, which is forcing the government to tighten spending. More intriguingly, there's also the issue that perhaps China is worried about how it's starting to look, which goes to the other main question: what's all this spending for?

Most people assume that China is amassing new jet fighters and submarines for an eventual reclamation of Taiwan, the little island that declared independence in 1949, following the communist revolution on the mainland. Taiwan's independence is backed by the United States, which sells the island their own weapons.

I'm no geo-political expert, but I'm not sure I buy that theory. Chinese officials say the spending is for defensive purposes, and in this case I'm inclined to believe them. Unless the U.S. can be convinced to cut Taiwan loose - something that looks very doubtful, given that the island is a successful capitalist democracy - a Chinese invasion is highly unlikely. China and the United States have had some terse words lately, especially over the whole Google hacking business, but I wouldn't expect any sort of armed conflict, direct or indirect, to erupt between the two. The two countries' economies are so intertwined at this point that any disruption of trade would send both spiraling into depression, taking the entire world with them. (If you're interested in this theory, check out Thomas Friedman's .)

I think it's far more likely that China is looking to get the same benefits from military spending that the United States did - scientific and technological research that transforms itself into mainstream consumer innovations. You know, the sort of stuff that Sex, Bombs and Burgers is based on! Indeed, China is no dummy - officials are very aware that military research translates directly into intellectual property, which is a major focus for the country.

China is in the midst of a serious effort to transform itself from the world's dumb manufacturing hub to one of its science and innovation leaders. The government has identified four areas - reproductive biology (i.e. cloning), nanotechnology, protein science and quantum research - that is it treating as mini-Manhattan Projects, with billions of dollars going to them. China also wants a top-five global ranking in the number of patents issued by 2050.

Perhaps I'm too much of an optimist, but I believe the nature of war has changed permanently, and probably for the better. With the world's economies being as globalized as they are, it's hard to imagine any developed country going to war against another - there's just too much to lose now. There are still the issues of developed countries taking on break-away republics, which China certainly is at risk of, but the nature of war seems to have shifted from nation versus nation to guerilla war (i.e. the U.S. versus Al Qaeda). The Pentagon last year gave up on "Cold War thinking," where zillions of dollars need to be spent on big-ticket items such as super-jets, nuclear subs and aircraft carriers, in favour of this new reality, which it calls "irregular warfare."

China's continued spending on "Cold War thinking" seems to indicate it's more interested in catching up and reaping the benefits of all that R&D spending than it is in actual war. That's sort of good news, albeit in a weird and backwards way.

Ebert gives online porn two thumbs up

On occasion, I still come across the occasional person who doubts that porn has indeed played a massive role in technological advancement and development. "It's a myth," or "it's overblown," I hear. (Of course, none of these doubting Thomases has read my book, otherwise they'd be fully convinced otherwise, wink wink.)

In a similar vein, I occasionally come across an irrefutable nugget that proves such people don't really know what they're talking about. The latest such example comes from the world's most renowned and respected film critic: Roger Ebert.

Ebert, long-time reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times and the man who - along with his deceased partner Gene Siskel - made famous the "two thumbs up" method of review, has started a new online venture called The Ebert Club. Full details but briefly, for $5 a year members get all of Ebert's movie reviews as well as a whole bunch of extras, like access to exclusive pages and an invitation to a meet-and-greet with the critic at his annual film festival.

Ebert's rationale: "Most web sites generate less income than they cost to maintain. Mine is no exception. Because I want to preserve free access to the site, I've come up with an idea I'd like to run by you. I'm announcing The Ebert Club, which will offer a group of additional attractions and conveniences for members."

What's interesting, though, is how he got the idea. In a blog post explaining the club, Ebert gives credit to a chance meeting 13 years ago with Bert Manzari, a senior vice-president of the Landmark theatre chain. Ebert and some friends were talking about how no one had figured out how to make money on the web when Manzari chimed in: "My wife has." It turns out his wife was the famous Danni Ashe, of Danni's Hard Drive, a porn website that made money hands over fist in the nineties.

Ebert ended up having dinner with Danni, who turned him onto a book called Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte, which explained the idea of micropayments. As the concept goes, micropayments involve internet users paying a couple of pennies to view certain web pages - like movie reviews. The end result is a small cost to the user, but with enough volume the content producer can earn a tidy living. It's an idea that is being tested in various forms by various producers, including the New York Times. The Ebert Club, as its creator explains, is itself a variation on the concept.

As the title of Ebert's post indicates, he has no idea if the plan will work. But there you have it: the best-known movie critic around is taking cues from the porn world. While it's true that porn companies don't spend billions developing new technologies, they are certainly the first ones to try out new advances and often the first to figure out how to monetize them, which influences people in the mainstream. There's quite a few examples of this in my book, so eat it, doubters!

That said, Ebert's got one hell of a porn pedigree. He got his start writing screenplays for Russ Meyer with films such as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. If you don't know Meyer (who's covered in my book), he's essentially the godfather of porno films. His 1959 film The Immoral Mr. Teas, about a door-to-door salesman who has a knack for running into naked women, revolutionized what sort of nudity and sexual content was allowed in mainstream film. While they were fairly soft-core by today's measures, Meyer's films kickstarted the whole sexploitation trend, which led to more and more hard-core on-screen action.

(Thanks to CBC colleague and film dude for alerting me to Ebert's endeavour.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pentagon goes whole hog into social media

Back in June, I mentioned that the U.S. military was looking at ways of using social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the whole shebang. Last week, the Pentagon issued an official "open door" policy in regards to soldiers' usage of such tools, which means that troops are free to use Facebook and Twitter, etc., within limits.

Price Floyd, the fellow put in charge of social media by the Pentagon, announced the new policy via his own . Essentially, soldiers are allowed to share their stories and experiences, and communicate with family and friends, via social media. The idea stems from the belief that the U.S. is losing the propaganda war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The military hopes that letting troops talk about their experiences and show off photos will humanize their experiences for people back home, who will be able to see some of the good they're accomplishing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's an admirable plan, but the whole concept seems to have more holes than Swiss cheese. I believe there's a pool going on how long it'll be before someone posts something they shouldn't have - whether it's sensitive information on an operation or some sort of embarrassing Abu Ghraib-like photos. Indeed, the Pentagon is half expecting something to go wrong and has given commanding officers wide-ranging powers to limit troops' internet access in order to "preserve operations security or to address bandwidth constraints," as Wired's Danger Room reports.

The idea seems even more bizarre when you consider that many businesses and public service offices block their employees from using Facebook and the like. "Not pertinent to business" or "giant time wasters" is usually the reason given. It's weird that the military is proving to be more liberal than a typical company.

However, just like most businesses, the military is soldiers from accessing the sites they probably want to get to most: porn. Come on, let's cut our troops a little slack!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Twitter giveaway winner

I held a mini-contest on Twitter yesterday (I'm , by the way, if you care to follow me), and I'm happy to announce the winner here today. The prize is an Australian copy of Sex, Bombs and Burgers, which I thought would make a pretty nifty and rare gift for one of my primarily Canadian followers.

The challenge was to pick which was better - food or sex - and explain why with maximum humour, keeping within Twitter's 140-character limit. I got some pretty funny responses and "food" was the unanimous winner. Here are a couple of the funnier ones:

food. Your wife won't suddenly decide she isn't interested in food after a few years.

Food. Your parents will still speak to you if they accidentally walk into a room where you're eating 3 large sausages.
they're identical - both make you sleepy afterwards and both have a "pre" phase to get you in the mood.

The winner, though, is this one from

"Food. I've never yet had a sandwich yell its ex-boyfriends name while eating."

Congrats to Matt and thanks to all who entered. Not to worry - I'll be doing some more giveaways here, on Twitter and on Facebook.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Book launch day is nigh!

It's March 1, which means Sex, Bombs and Burgers hits stores tomorrow! (Or today, if you live in the future a.k.a. Australia and New Zealand.) I wonder if the media will cover all the people camping out in front of bookstores tonight, dressed up as their favourite soldier, fast-food chain employee or porn star?

But seriously... a few friends have pointed out that books pre-ordered in Canada through Amazon or Chapters started arriving late last week, so you can also get them that way. I'm told that not all physical "bricks-and-mortar" bookstores will have copies immediately on release day, as it sometimes takes a few days for shipments to get out. In any event, if you're coming to the launch party in Toronto on March 18, you can always buy one there.

And remember - if you want to check out a sample, you can download chapter one, "Weapons of Mass Consumption," from the Penguin website here. My friend and former colleague Peter Griffin (no relation to the Family Guy) in New Zealand has the distinction of being the first person to write about Sex, Bombs and Burgers, with his thoughts on that chapter on Sciblogs.

March 2 will also mark the official one-year anniversary of this blog. I started the blog as a way to build awareness for the book (back when it was called Bombs, Boobs and Burgers), and it has worked nicely. While I only saw a few hundred visits that first month, I'm now getting several thousand.

I listed the top ten most-viewed posts back on New Year's Eve, and with two more months in the tank, not much has changed. I am pleased to report, however, that only seven of the top ten posts of the year were porn related - down from eight at the 10-month mark. Strangely, the Bourbon Whopper from Burger King proved to be very popular, placing as the year's third-most-read post, while Universal Soldier 3 also snuck into the top 10. How did that happen?

Thanks to everyone for reading the blog. It looks like I'll be continuing it until at least the fall, when Sex, Bombs and Burgers launches in the United Kingdom and South Korea (plus hopefully more countries). I may at some point turn this thing into a proper website, but more details on that later.

I hope you enjoy the book and look forward to hearing your feedback!
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