Monday, May 31, 2010

The iPad and e-books: colour me Kindle

If there's one thing I've learned about TV over the last few months, it's that it's really, really fluid. Despite George Romero and I being listed as the guests for last night's episode on The Hour's website, the show pulled a quick switcheroo and aired Patrick Roy and Amanda Seyfried instead. Romero and I are now listed for tonight's episode, at 11, although at this point I'll believe it when I see it. If I am on, we might have a double dose of Sex, Bombs and Burgers on TV tonight as I'm also listed as a guest on The Agenda with Steve Paikin on TVO. I believe that's on at 8 and 11.

Anyhow... A couple of quick thoughts today about the Apple iPad and e-books, and specifically, how the iPad relates to e-books. I've had a few days to play around with Apple's "magical revolution" now, and have some impressions.

In my review on CBC, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the people whom I believe to be the target market for the device - or Luddites who don't know much about technology. For these folks, the iPad could indeed be "magical;" it's like that other perfect piece of technology, the car, which you just turn on and it goes. For the gadget lover, it's also a pretty slick piece of hardware that's a lot of fun to use.

From the technologist's point of view, I've talked before about how the iPad - and everything it represents - is worrisome. It's very locked down and Apple pretty much calls the shots on what you can put on it, which are both facts that have many people concerned. Advocates of openness are worried that such a closed world could be the future of the internet.

I'm hopeful that the iPad, and Apple as a whole, eventually turn into a complement to the internet, and that they don't actually represent the future. I think it's fine if we can have open computers on which to create whatever we want, and iPads on which to consume those creations. I hope there's room for both and that it doesn't have to be either/or.

But onto those e-books. The iPad may be able to display digital books in full colour but it's inferior as an e-reader to devices like the Kindle and the Kobo. Those devices, of course, have e-ink displays that nicely replicate the look of a printed page, and they're really easy on the eyes. Reading off the iPad's LCD screen is pretty much like looking at a computer - there's glare and it gets hard on the eyes after a while.

How successful Apple will be in books therefore won't depend on the quality of its hardware, but what sort of payment system it sets up with publishers in the long run. Currently, the company is offering up the "agency" model where publishers set the price of the books sold, and they get to keep 70% while Apple gets 30%. There are many concerns about this system, not the least of which is that it could lead to price fixing.

But to get back to e-book readers... I suspect the market is going to firm up by the end of this year. The Kindle is superior for reading, but its $259 price tag is way too steep for a single-use device, especially considering the multi-purpose iPad starts at $500. Several months ago, I spoke with Michael Serbinis, the CEO of Kobo, which is the e-book division of Canada's big book chain Chapters/Indigo. At the time, he believed that single-purpose e-readers would get down to $100 by the end of this year. Since then, his company has introduced their own Kobo reader for $150, so we're almost there already.

The devices are clearly not where the money is to be made in e-books. It's like printers - HP will sell you one for $100, then make all their money off you on the inks. So if I can make a prediction, e-book readers - with rock-bottom prices - are going to THE hot gift this Christmas. There's going to be a lot of pressure, then, to sort out the whole e-book payment system with publishers.

And since we're on the topic... I've been asked many times when the e-book version of Sex, Bombs and Burgers will be coming out. It's actually the perfect book for an e-book because, as some people have remarked, they're too embarrassed to read it in public places because it has the word "porn" in the subtitle. E-books introduce privacy to reading, which is good for works like mine. Anyhow - Penguin has said there will be an e-book and I'm currently in the process of trying to get a concrete date from them. More on this soon - stay tuned.

And don't forget to channel surf tonight. Maybe I'll be on, maybe I won't?!?

Sex, Bombs and Burgers on The Hour

Just a heads up today that I'm apparently going to be on The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos tonight talking about Sex, Bombs and Burgers. We recorded the interview a few weeks back and I was told it would be airing on June 2, but things often change in TV land so it looks like it's tonight, according to the Stroumboulopouli. I'm working on getting confirmation from the show's producers and will update here once I know for sure, although my TiVo does list me and George Romero as the guests (and yes, it's a really weird feeling). Canoe's TV listings also have us down.

One problem, if you want to check it out, is that we're up against the Stanley Cup playoffs, so when the show airs on CBC depends on when the game ends. Check local listings. Friggin' hockey.

I did get a chuckle out of the picture used on the Stroumboulopouli. It's ostensibly me at the Google offices in Waterloo back when I did there in March, as taken by local news outfit Cambridge Now (the same pic is on their website). If you look closely, a few things just don't look right... my body was definitely there, but my head and the book in my hand sure don't look like it. I have no idea why the website decided to make some rather obvious use of Photoshop. I'm not that ugly, am I?

In any event, being on the show was a hoot. George was a nice guy and he was trying hard to crack me and the audience up, with a good measure of success. I got him back once the interview was over, though - as we headed to a commercial break, I mentioned that we didn't get to discuss sex robots. That got him laughing, so he "called an audible" and extended the interview. He kept me on after the commercial break so that we could talk about that most important of topics, . I'm curious as to whether all of the interview will air.

I'll do my best to get video (or a link) of the interview up here as soon after as possible. And check back by the end of the day today to see if I've been able to confirm that it's airing tonight.

UPDATE: The Hour's website has me listed for tonight, so it's confirmed.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Want to surf porn at work? Get an iPhone

It's iPad launch day in Canada and many other countries around the world, so you'll doubtlessly be inundated with media coverage of Apple's new "magical" and "revolutionary" product (hey, I'm one of the guilty parties... I've got to write about it too). One Apple-related tidbit that caught my eye yesterday was a story about how porn surfing is popular during the work day.

The Canadian Press story, via The Globe and Mail, takes a long look at sex addiction and how it fuels looking at porn at work. The story cites statistics that have shown that porn sites get about 70 per cent of their traffic during the 9-5 work day, which is consistent to what I found while researching Sex, Bombs and Burgers. The numbers I found and the industry folks I spoke to pretty much agreed.

The one thing that's always bugged me about that stat, though, is whether it's really, actually true. I don't know about you, but I've almost never known a co-worker at any place I've worked to actually look at porn on their computer during work hours. The notable exception - and isn't it ironic - was at The Globe and Mail, where a couple people got busted for it in my time there. But still, over the hundreds or thousands of people I've worked with, there have only been one or two. The anecdotal evidence there doesn't seem to match up with the 70 per cent cited.

It's possible that maybe the places I've worked are not representative of the general populace. Maybe journalists are more aware of the fact that such information is tracked, so they refrain from viewing porn at work? I dunno, it's a mystery. If anyone has any theories, I'd love to hear 'em.

In any event, the Apple-related item that caught my eye in the CP story was a quote from Fiorella Callocchia, a management consultant, providing some very sound advice:

"If you're serious about keeping your job, you've got your breaks, your lunch, you've got your own BlackBerry. Get an iPhone and do what you want to do on your time."

Ha! As Stephen Colbert would say, "Eat it Steve Jobs!" As I carped on the other day, it's hilarious that a management consultant is advising people to get an iPhone if they want to look at porn inconspicuously, which runs completely counter to Jobs' holier-than-thou claims that the iPhone (and iPad) deliver "freedom from porn."

Quite the contrary - as the porn business has been saying all along, the iPhone is porn's best friend.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

CIA tried to make gay sex tape of Saddam

In one of the more bizarre stories I've ever come across, it looks like the CIA was mulling the idea of releasing a fake gay sex tape of Saddam Hussein before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And it gets even weirder - the spy agency did in fact make a similar fake tape of Osama Bin Laden sitting around drinking with his friends and talking about their exploits with boys.

It's National Enquirer stuff, but it's been reported by the Washington Post, based on conversations with unnamed former CIA officials who were involved in the projects. As the story goes, the CIA considered creating a film of a Saddam lookalike having sex with a teenage boy. Iraq was then to be "flooded" with the tape, perhaps followed by a fake news bulletin wherein Saddam abdicated power to his son Uday.

The idea, of course, was to discredit Hussein among his people as some sort of sick pervert.

"It would look like it was taken by a hidden camera," one of the former officials told the newspaper. "Very grainy, like it was a secret videotaping of a sex session."

The plan was scrapped by senior officials, who wisely decided it was "patently ridiculous." Moreover, as one expert told the Post: "Saddam playing with boys would have no resonance in the Middle East - nobody cares... Trying to mount such a campaign would show a total misunderstanding of the target. We always mistake our own taboos as universal when, in fact, they are just our taboos."

I have no idea if that's true or not, but what I find even more bewildering is that the CIA went ahead with a similar plan for Bin Laden. One of the former CIA officials told the newspaper that the actors were drawn from "some of us darker-skinned employees." I guess the countdown is on for how long it'll take that video to make it to YouTube.

Anybody who's read Sex, Bombs and Burgers knows the whole idea for the book started with the Paris Hilton sex video, so I definitely have a special affinity for such stories. This, however, takes the cake!

(Thanks to Wired's Danger Room for the image idea)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mmm... carbonated milk!

When you say "New Zealand" and "innovation," you generally think of crazy adrenaline activities, like bungee and jetboating (both were pretty much developed there). But Kiwi ingenuity also extends to junk food - and drink.

Richard Revell, a North Island dairy farmer, has invented a carbonated drink that uses milk rather than water. The result, as the Waikato Times puts it, are drinks that have "cola and lemonade tastes but with a pleasant extra dairy kick." Revell spent six years developing the concoction, called mo2, and expects to begin selling it in the next few weeks.

But there's always some controversy. Revell would like to show off and sell his wares at New Zealand's annual Fieldays, or "Australasia's definitive agri-business exhibition," but the organizers won't let him because they have a contract with Coca-Cola that ensures the soft drink company is the supplier of all non-alcoholic drinks at the event.

Fieldays organizers apparently asked Coca-Cola to make an exception but the company refused, saying that doing so "would be unfair to any of those prior applicants who have approached us with a similar proposal."

Interestingly, Coca-Cola did test its own carbonated milk drink, called Vio, last year in the U.S. Could its refusal of Revell's product be a coincidence? Oh yeah, for sure.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Military gets Microsoft's Project Natal early

This time of year is always exciting for video game fans, with the Electronic Entertainment Expo set to kick off in Los Angeles next month. E3 is typically where the video game industry shows off all the cool new stuff that's coming soon.

One of the big attractions at this year's show will be Microsoft's Project Natal, which will be an add-on to the Xbox 360 that will allow for the kind of motion-controlled gaming made popular by the Nintendo Wii. Microsoft is expected to announce pricing and availability on the device, which should be in stores for this Christmas season.

Microsoft's take on motion control uses some pretty sophisticated technology and will apparently be able to detect not only movement, but gestures, faces and voices. I'm personally curious as to how the company is going to be able to sell so much high-tech hardware at an affordable price. I suspect Natal is either going to be really expensive, or Microsoft is going to sell it at a loss in an effort to lure people away from the Wii, but more on that in a minute.

One potential customer that doesn't have to wait until Christmas is the U.S. military. The Army's Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) is into the second year of an early-access deal with Microsoft, wherein the software company shares its technology with the military for testing and implementation.

The military is Microsoft's single largest customer, so it's no surprise that CERDEC has already been playing with perhaps the coolest thing Microsoft has developed in ages, the Surface multi-touch computer. Here's a video of how the military has been using the Surface.

CERDEC is now getting access to Project Natal before it becomes commercially available. The goal, the Army says, is nothing short of science fiction. "Eventually, these efforts will lead to gesture-based interaction with data a la what was done in the movie ," one of the Army scientists told Information Week.

The military's links to video gaming, of which I devote the better part of a chapter to in Sex, Bombs and Burgers, are deep and go way back to the very beginning. Ralph Baer, the man who essentially invented video games, told me about how, in the early seventies, he showed off his "television game" creation to Pentagon officials. They wanted to know if the light gun Baer had created could be used in a training game to shoot Russian tanks ("Of course it could," he told them). Today, of course, the line between video games and military training is blurred, with many military robots now using PlayStation and Xbox controllers.

One final funny anecdote about the Microsoft Surface, that may in fact reveal something about Natal... Back at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in January, I had an interview with a Microsoft executive scheduled at the company's booth. The press lounge waiting area had couches situated around tables with the Surface on them, and the first thing I said to my hosts when I sat down was, "These things are awesome, why aren't they in every home?" Only a few minutes later, another reporter showed up, sat down and said the exact same thing.

The answer, as it turns out, is that for all the coolness of the Surface, its cost is in the neighbourhood of several thousand dollars, which makes it impractical for any sort of mass market. Here's hoping that Microsoft can benefit from the tried-and-true method of giving your technology to the military in the hopes that they can somehow let you make it cheaper.

I wonder if that's the strategy with Natal?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Are people spending less time looking at online porn?

Some interesting news out of the United Kingdom last week shows that Brits (or is it Britons?) are apparently spending less and less time looking at porn online. According to the United Kingdom Online Measurement Company (UKOM), adult sites are taking up only 2.7 per cent of users' internet time, which ranks porn at number 10, down from the ninth spot three years ago.

Porn was overtaken in this survey by news, which takes up 2.8 per cent of users' online time. Social networking, of course, is first. Here's the full top 10:

1. Social networks/blogs - 22.7%
2. Email - 7.2%
3. Games - 6.9%
4. Instant Messaging - 4.9%
5. Classified/Auctions - 4.7%
6. Portals - 4%
7. Search - 4%
8. Software info/products - 3.4%
9. News - 2.8%
10. Adult - 2.7%

The decline of porn as a percentage of users' time online has been noted before. A fellow by the name of Bill Tancer, a general manager at online tracking firm Hitwise, in 2008 wrote a book called Click: What Millions of People are Doing Online and Why It Matters. He found that porn's importance online has been shrinking for more than a decade, dropping to about 10 per cent of searches now from 20 per cent.

"As social networking traffic has increased, visits to porn sites have decreased," he told Reuters. "My theory is that young users spend so much time on social networks that they don't have time to look at adult sites."

That reasoning doesn't seem too sound. The actual reason for why porn is accounting for less and less online time seems pretty clear to me. As with many other technologies, early adopters took to the internet for sexual uses before the mainstream caught on. Porn, therefore, made up a large and disproportionate percentage of the internet's overall use in its early days.

As usage grew to where the internet has become fully part of the mainstream, where even children and grannies are using it, it's no surprise that porn's size and influence has waned. It's been the same with virtually every other technology adopted for sexual uses. The VCR, for one, is a fine example - if you look back at video rental and purchase lists in the early 1980s, pornos such as Debbie Does Dallas and Behind the Green Door were routinely in the top 10. You certainly wouldn't find any such movies on any lists today.

It's therefore somewhat incorrect to say that people are spending less time looking at adult content online - indeed, it seems counter-intuitive given how much of it is freely available. It would be more correct to say that mainstream internet usage has grown at a much faster pace than adult-oriented uses.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Wireless competition yes, Double Down no

KFC made a lot of American fans happy this week when it announced that it was extending its Double Down sandwich into the summer. The DD was supposed to be a limited-time offer that would end on May 23, but thanks to having sold 10 million since its official launch on April 12, the Colonel has reconsidered.

"This truly is an example of 'popular demand,'" an executive said in a press release. "Our plans were to feature the product only through May 23, but millions of Double Down fans have spoken and we won't disappoint them. You'll continue to be able to get the Double Down at KFC this summer."

For those unfamiliar with the Double Down, it's a truly divisive piece of food. With two chicken breasts sandwiching some bacon, cheese and sauce, and no bun to speak of, the DD alternately evokes horror from people concerned about healthy eating, or squeals of anticipation from junk-food aficionados:

The tale of the tape: the DD packs a whopping 540 calories, 1,380 milligrams of sodium and 23 grams of fat. As some would say, it's a heart attack waiting to happen. But, as the old saying goes, everything good is bad for you, as 10 million sales seems to prove.

Canadian junk-food fans, unfortunately, must look on their American cousins with envy as there is still no sign of the Double Down north of the border.

Coincidentally, the chicken sandwich was a hot topic of discussion amongst journalists at last week's launch of Mobilicity, Canada's newest cellphone company. The guy who runs the carrier, John Bitove, also owns Priszm Income Fund, which operates a host of businesses including XM Satellite Radio (Canada), plus the Canadian arms of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and, of course, KFC.

Those of us who attended were treated to lunch, and it went without saying as to who was catering: pizza and the Colonel's chicken were the order of the day. What was funny is that Bitove and other Mobilicity staff probably fielded as many questions about when the Double Down would arrive in Canada as they did in regards to their cellphones. Alas, nobody could say.

Kudos, then, to Mr. Bitove for injecting some much-needed competition into the Canadian mobile market, but a big "fail" for not injecting us with the hot, salty calories we're apparently craving.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Porn sticks it to Steve Jobs and Apple

Sometimes, you just gotta love porn. And I don't mean that in a "love the actual sex and nudity" kind of way, but rather in a "stick it to the Man" kind of way. And in this case, when I say "Man," I mean Steve Jobs.

I don't know the guy, nor am I likely to ever meet him and get to know him, given his evident disdain for journalists, so I don't know if on a personal level he deserves a sticking to. But on a professional level, when he goes around spouting nonsense about how his newest creation - Apple's iPad - is a wonderful freedom-dispensing device, then he's just begging for it.

Ryan Tate over at Valleywag got into a scrap with Jobs last weekend after initially sending the Apple CEO an angry email regarding his company referring to the iPad as "a revolution." Tate didn't like that term being applied to a piece of plastic, and said as much to Jobs:

If [Bob] Dylan was 20 today, how would he feel about your company? Would he think the iPad had the faintest thing to do with 'revolution?' Revolutions are about freedom.

Jobs, in his infinite arrogance, replied, much to everyone's surprise:

Yep, freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a-changin', and some traditional PC folks feel like their world is slipping away. It is.

I've about how Apple in general and the iPad in specific is worrisome because they are seeking to redefine how much freedom the user gets with what they can put and/or view on devices. That would seem to be the essence of the Tate/Jobs exchange - the Apple CEO evidently thinks that by telling people what stuff they can and can't put on the iPad, he's saving them from the world's ills (porn included).

Lo and behold, the folks at
YouPorn (you may not want to click on that at work) have once again proven Jobs to be a massive hypocrite. The hugely popular video website - the 62nd most-visited site in the world, according to Alexa rankings - announced yesterday that it is converting many of its videos to the HTML5 format, a web language and emerging alternative to Adobe's Flash for internet video.

Jobs has been waging a fairly public war against Flash, the de facto video standard that many websites including YouTube use, and he's been saying it's not good enough to be allowed on the iPhone and iPad. Apple is instead a strong supporter of HTML5.

Hats off to YouPorn for fighting fire with fire and for making Jobs look like a giant ass. What's even funnier is that the site isn't the first, merely the biggest, to make itself available on the iPad. The tech nerds at Pink Visual and Digital Playground announced compatibility well before Jobs made his "freedom from porn" comments.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

War correspondents on war porn

As promised, I ran yesterday's post about the supposed rise of "war porn" by a pair of former colleagues who have covered recent wars to see what they thought. In a nutshell, University of Buffalo professor David Schim has surmised that war porn is on the rise largely because the concept of embedding journalists with military forces is failing.

Here's what Graeme Smith, The Globe and Mail's decorated Afghanistan correspondent, had to say:

Interesting. The professor writes, 'War porn, in a bizarre way, is evidence of the failure of the strategy of embedding.' In my view, war porn is evidence that some people enjoy watching stuff explode, and that's about it.

I won't defend journalists who rely exclusively on embedding, because travelling only with pro-Western forces does not give you a full picture of any war. But embedding has been an important part of our Afghanistan coverage, and I tend to disagree with media analysts who see the practice itself as a problem.

Another former colleague who has also worked in war zones, and who asked not to be named, said this:

I think it's, frankly, missing the point. The reason there is more of this stuff is because people have greater access to digital cameras and the internet.

I think it's a little misguided to say the reason this stuff is on the "rise" [if it is in fact on the rise, which i question] is because of a dearth of critical media. Most newspapers won't publish shots of dead people on the internet, but others will.

Perhaps there wasn't more of it in Vietnam because there wasn't an internet for military personnel to post it on and troll for it. It should also be noted that most journalists traveled with the military in vietnam, wwII, or whenever.

I have seen lots of very graphic images from Afghanistan and Iraq in the mainstream media as well. So, i'm not sure what he's getting at from the small quote that I read on your blog.

Sounds like some ill-thought out academic drivel to me.

Of course, that hasn't stopped many media outlets - such as Newsweek and the New York Daily News - from reporting otherwise.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

War porn on the rise?

Regular old porn may be hurting thanks to the internet, but according to one pop culture expert, the phenomenon of "war porn" is, ahem, rising.

Wikipedia neutrally defines "war porn" as images and video of military personnel and activities, although in actuality the term really refers more to stuff (and people) getting blown up. It's half way between a Bruckheimer movie come to life and snuff film. (And yes, war porn is another variation of how anything that involves pictures can be classified as some sort of porn, i.e. a ski magazine is "snow porn.") Perhaps the best example of this sort of site is, where the motto is "countering the cyber-jihad one video at a time."

Regardless of how you define it, David Schmid, a professor of English at the University of Buffalo says war porn is on the rise online, thanks mostly to the dearth of mainstream media presence in war zones. "Soldiers have always collected trophies from the conflicts in which they are involved," he says, "but today they have the technology to turn such trophies into media events. In one sense, then, it's just the technology that has changed. The rest is continuous... I think the market is also created by the lack of a critical mainstream media presence in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Schmid points to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, and the photos of inhumane prisoner treatment there, as the catalyst for launching the issue of war porn into the public consciousness. The concept existed before, but that was the first time the general public got a taste of what war porn aficionados are into.

The purpose of Schmid's study of the issue is a little hard to figure, but he does seem to come to a bit of a conclusion on the University of Buffalo's website:

In contrast to the Vietnam era, when war correspondents had much more mobility and independence inside war zones, and thus submitted some pretty horrifying footage of war that arguably hastened the war's end, ever since the first Gulf War, the American media has, by and large, been quiescent to the government's desire to keep them away from the action by 'embedding' them with the troops. War porn, in a bizarre way, is evidence of the failure of the strategy of embedding.

It's an interesting observation. I'll ask some friends and colleagues who are/were war correspondents and see what they think, and report back here.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Robot oversees wedding in Japan

Another week, another robotic first in Japan. Robot makers in the country have already created robots that can , and . Now, we can add "" to the list.

Tokyo-based robotics maker Kokoro built the robot minister that presided over a wedding on Sunday. In true, Wizard of Oz fashion, the robot was remote controlled by an operator who sat behind a curtain nearby. The whole shindig was evidently a publicity stunt for Kokoro, whose main job is building animatronic dinosaurs, as the bride is an employee of the company.

Kokoro does do some impressive stuff. Check out some video of one of their other robots, the Actroid, which does a reasonable job of passing for a human:

The wedding robot - known as an I-Fairy - does prove what some American robotics companies have been saying about their Japanese counterparts, that they're expensive and largely useless. According to the Associated Press story, the I-Fairy costs about $68,000 and works mostly by remote control (a few are evidently in operation in Singapore, the U.S. and Japan), which means it's a pretty costly toy that actually does little.

Compare the I-Fairy to something like the $300 Roomba vacuum cleaner, made by Boston's iRobot, and it's pretty clear which country's robotics companies are pushing the envelope. And who are those companies' main customers? The military, of course.

(Photo courtesy Associated Press)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Wikipedia founder in hot water over porn

If you've used the internet, chances are good that you've at some point used Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. The site is an incredible resource for anyone looking to find information on anything from the history of Iron Man's armour to the humble beet, and everything in between.

What has made the site so amazing is its ability to crowdsource, or rely on the collective wisdom of the masses to get its information right. If somebody posts an entry on, say, Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson, and gets some facts wrong, somebody somewhere will eventually get on there and fix it. Unlike a paper encyclopedia, entries on Wikipedia are therefore fluid and ever-evolving.

As many journalists know (or should know), this is one of the main reasons why you shouldn't really trust Wikipedia. It's a great source of information, especially for basics, but you really should take it with a grain of salt and, if you're going to publish anything, you need to confirm facts found on the site.

Interestingly, the site's founder - Jimmy Wales - has been caught with his pants down, so to speak. Wales has been criticized by some of the site's other regular editors for removing photos from entries that he deems objectionable. According to the Telegraph, Wales has been getting rid of images that "appeal solely to prurient interests" - a.k.a. porn - and doing it without communicating with his cohorts on the Wikimedia Commons, a group of people in charge of maintaining the site.

Wales said his main target was child porn, but the dispute proved to be enough for him to renounce some of his editing powers, including the ability to delete and edit so-called "protected content."

As is almost always the case when it comes to this type of thing, some of the reader comments on the Telegraph story asked the inevitable question: who is to judge what is objectionable and what isn't? Wales may have had good intentions, but once this stuff begins - and it always does with porn - it's a slippery slope. It's the age-old question of censorship versus freedom of speech, and it's clearly alive and well on Wikipedia.

On an unrelated note, I've been meaning to share the below video, which was released in April, for some time. It's a public service announcement from the Free Speech Coalition, or the adult industry's lobby group, that's pleading for people to stop downloading and watching free porn.

If there's ever been an uphill battle, this is it. I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of people - and the vast majority of porn consumers - don't have too much sympathy for the adult industry. The popular perception, whether correct or not, is that these are a group of people who make zillions of dollars while having copious amounts of sex. Appealing to the public's sense of morality, that people shouldn't be stealing money from the porn industry's pockets, makes zero sense.

It's even funnier when the plea is coming from people named "Sinammon Love." Really?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Burger King pulling out of Israel

In what could be considered a whopper of a fast-food news item, Burger King has announced that it is pulling out of Israel. (I know, I should be shot for that pun.) According to reports, the chain is closing its 55 outlets as of this August. The BK restaurants will be closed and reopened as Burger Ranches, which is a competing chain that is owned - interestingly - by the same people, Ograd Holdings, who own the Burger King franchise.

Eli and Yuval Ograd, the brothers who own both chains, said Israelis prefer the taste of Burger Ranch to Burger King. Burger Ranch has been around since the seventies, with about 52 locations currently, while Burger King only arrived in Israel about 20 years ago. Sayeth the brothers: "We were very excited to learn that, for many Israelis, Burger Ranch is not just a hamburger, sauces and vegetables, but is also large bites of nostalgia. And for this, credit goes to the chain's founders, who nurtured this brand with so much talent over so many years."

None of the media reports I've seen have gone beyond that rationale, which I can tell you smells like total bullshit from all the way over here in Canada. There's definitely more of a story here - from the tone of their excuse, it wouldn't be a surprise if Burger King decided to terminate the Ograds' franchise license for some transgression or another. Like, how about, I don't know... operating a competing burger chain?!?!

Israel has proven to be a poor market for Western chains. Starbuck's, Wendy's and Dunkin Donuts have all flopped in the country. McDonald's, however, continues to soldier along, opening more than 130 stores since 1993. (Maybe Mickey D's does something silly like insist its franchisees don't compete against themselves?) And yes, most of the burger chains are kosher.

It's interesting that the news comes just days after Israel was officially accepted into the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Israel gets to now officially be considered a developed nation, although you'd almost think having a strong fast-food market should be a prerequisite for that.

In any event, it hasn't been a good year for American fast-food chains and their international expansions. McDonald's pulled out of Iceland in October, thereby causing the current volcanic instability (just kidding) while Wendy's bailed on Japan back in December. And here we thought there was no stopping the almighty fast-food monoliths!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Military gets behind flying cars

Back in March, a study revealed that we Torontonians (or is it Torontoizers?) suffer from some of the worst gridlock in the developed world. Worse than Los Angeles, worse than New York and worse than any other city you would generally associate with horrific traffic.

I remember reading the news with mixed feelings. Instinctively, the study confirmed what I've always sort of known, that traffic in this city is indeed ridiculous. On the other hand, having been to L.A. and NYC several times, I had trouble believing we were worse off than the denizens of those particular cities. Driving in Toronto is bad, but driving in L.A. and New York is a nightmare. Regardless, the study certainly confirmed that getting around Toronto sucks big time.

Luckily, the wonderful wizards at DARPA (the U.S. military's mad-science lab) are coming to the rescue - hopefully. Defense Technology International had a recent article (clicking on that will bring up a PDF) about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's new program for developing a flying car.

As the article states, flying cars have been inventors' pipe dreams for decades. DARPA, however, is looking to dust the idea off from nutcase obscurity in an effort to create vehicles that can avoid the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices, a major threat to soldiers and civilians alike in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Similar to its Grand Challenge races, where teams built robot cars that drove themselves, DARPA is now challenging all comers to put together a flying car. The conditions: the car must drive like a Humvee on the ground, rapidly reconfigure for flight and change back for ground operations. Not surprisingly, the project is being called "Transformer," or TX. The vehicle must also be able to fly at a speed of at least 120 miles per hour, or the speed of a light aircraft. "If you’re slower than that, it might be better to drive," said a DARPA official.

The agency wants a prototype within four years and, so far, the Marines have shown an interest in buying such a car. They believe it could be useful for medical evacuation or supply drops. The other military branches, including Army, Air Force and Navy, however, are skeptical.

By-products of the Grand Challenge, such as laser radar and lane detectors, are already working their way into commercial vehicles. If DARPA's flying-car project is even semi-successful, you can be sure there will be similar consumer spinoffs. On behalf of those of us living in Toronto, L.A., New York and other gridlocked cities, I'd just like to say that I hope DARPA's project succeeds with - if you'll pardon the pun - flying colours.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Texting during sex = the real sexting

More proof that today's youth have misguided priorities: 10 per cent of 20-somethings say they would not mind taking a text or email during sex.

According to The Week, "1 in 10 young people say they would not mind being 'interrupted by an electronic message,'" while getting it on. Fortunately, only 6 per cent of people above 25 think it's okay.

Here's the NBC Los Angeles video:

As one of the viewers polled by NBC put it, texting during sex might actually require some skill.

One other finding in the Retrevo Gadgetology report, which was a survey of 1,000 people in their 20s, found that 24 per cent of respondents said they would send a text message while on the toilet. Now that's something I can get behind (no pun intended)!

Until the advent of the smartphone, toilet time was perhaps the most unproductive time of the day... there's only so many times you can read that old magazine. Now, thanks to the handy iPhone, toilet time is when you can reply to a good portion of your Facebook and Twitter messages!

And yes, I realize that probably falls into the "too-much-information" department...

Monday, May 10, 2010

The military takes on farting

There's seemingly no problem that military technology can't solve. This includes that chronic issue that plagues many married couples: the fearsome and deadly Dutch Oven.

We're not talking about the iron cooking vessel, but rather the "fart chamber"(as it's called on Wikipedia) that is formed when you cut one in bed and trap it under the covers. The cruel males among us sometimes do this specifically when someone else is in bed in order to torture them. What can I say? It brings out the in us.

Well, now there's a solution to the problem. The Better Marriage Blanket, available online for only $29.95 plus shipping and handling, promises to take the Dutch out of that Oven:

The product website claims the blanket is made out of something called "activated carbon fabric," which is supposedly a material created by the military to combat chemical weapons.

Indeed, it's true. The patent was issued to the U.S. Army in 1978 and expired in 1995, which means it's free to use by commercial interests. Activated carbon, of course, is a common material in military fatigues and combat clothing.

I wonder if you could get a pair of boxers made from this stuff?

(Thanks to Frank for the pointer.)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Some more porn news today, but before we get to that, just a quick pointer to an interview I did this week. I spoke to Joseph Planta, who runs - a website that focuses on books and authors - on Monday and he's put the audio up. Check it out if you're interested. I'm thoroughly impressed with the quantity and quality of authors Joe gets for his site, so I'm honoured to be counted among them.

Now back to the porn. One of the things I missed while getting rained on in the New Zealand bush was a rather overt swipe at porn by Steve Jobs, the Jesus-like leader of the cult known as Apple. Jobs apparently made some holier-than-thou comments last month about how Apple was working hard to keep porn off the iPhone and iPad, and that if you wanted that stuff, you could go get it on a Google Android phone.

Well, this week a group of moralists followed up and said they're going to put pressure on Google to similarly clean up its mobile phone operating system and app store. The Parents Television Council, which has complained about everything from professional wrestling to Janet Jackson's breast to YouTube in general, now wants Google to crack down on porn that is available on phones that run its software.

The PTC's move is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the group has essentially praised Apple, saying, "We think there's room for improvement, but we are definitely pleased with their response to our complaints." For a company that depends so much on maintaining a "cool" image, an endorsement from the PTC can't possibly be much of a plus for Apple.

What's more interesting, though, is Apple's strengthening anti-porn stance, and some of the hypocrisy behind it. As I've mentioned before, the company was quite happy to allow porn a good deal of flexibility on the iPhone when it was the new underdog in the market. Now that the iPhone is the device to beat, Apple no longer needs porn to fuel its success, so of course the company is taking a harder position against it. But, as the PTC has pointed out, the iPhone's Safari web browser lacks the parental filter controls present in its desktop counterpart.

It's hard to believe that's a technical failing on Apple's part. More likely, it's been left out on purpose, which seems to indicate that Apple doesn't want to completely eliminate porn from the iPhone. In other words, the device is not successful, but maybe not yet successful enough.

Google, on the other hand, seems to be giving porn free reign on Android phones, and that's totally understandable - they're the challengers. Banning porn would eliminate one of their major advantages over the iPhone, as Jobs seems to have so inadvertently pointed out. Take that to its logical conclusion, and you can bet that if Android ever reaches a level of success comparable to the iPhone, Google will move to limit porn on its phones too.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Let's listen to Larry Flynt on voting

For anyone who's read Sex, Bombs and Burgers, or for anyone who's heard me yap on about it, the notion that the mainstream takes its lead from the porn world in technology and economics is probably a pretty familiar one. Well, here's another area that the mainstream may want to listen to the smut world on: politics. In particular, it should listen to Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.

Flynt is a polarizing man. Some see him as a vile purveyor of society-eroding crap, yet others hold him up as a free-speech hero. which was mostly the view espoused by the 1996 movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt, wherein Woody Harrelson played the titular role. The reality, as with all such things, is that he's probably somewhere in the middle.

Anyhow, on the plane ride over from Australia, I watched a documentary called Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone, by Midtown Films which you can actually check out here in its entirety. (Surprisingly, there were several documentaries on porn available on the in-flight entertainment system. Another one I watched was a BBC doc called Hardcore Profits.) Flynt has been a long-time critic of various U.S. governments and has often pointed the finger at politicians - rather than himself - for eroding society's morals through their own corruption. Part of Hustler's mission, other than running sex pictorials, of course, has therefore been the exposing of such hypocrisy. One of the examples I've always found amusing was the situation with Charles Keating, the lawyer who led the morality charge against Flynt in the 1980s, and was then later convicted of fraud, racketeering and corruption in the big savings and loan scandal.

In the documentary, Flynt again took aim at politicians, but also at the American public for failing in its ultimate civic duty: voting. By staying away from polls, the American people allowed George W. Bush to get elected and re-elected. The Bush administration, Flynt said, has done more than any previous government to erode civil liberties and reverse many of the gains that people like Flynt have fought for.

He's actually a lot less self-righteous than I make him sound, but one of the points he made really got me thinking. Flynt believes that one of the things Americans need to do to prevent people like Bush from getting elected, and thereby screwing things up, is to enact mandatory voting. In other words, if you don't vote, you're breaking the law so you need to pay a penalty - Flynt's prescription is a $500 fine.

Flynt is certainly not the first person to make such a suggestion, but it's the first time I'd heard it. I thought about its merits and failings for days and wondered whether it could apply to Canada as well as to the United States, and have come to the unequivocal answer of: yes, it's a great frickin' idea!

The benefits of forcing people to vote under penalty of a sizable fine are pretty clear: you can be damn sure you'll get good turnout, and thereby more people are likely to pay attention to big political issues. With a big turnout, you'll also minimize - if not make impossible - the chances of a minority government happening.

Minority governments are generally very bad. In essence, such a government is paralyzed from taking any decisive actions, good or bad, because it's worried about the fragility of its hold on power. As such, nothing important gets done because anything that rocks the boat can trigger an election or cause the opposition parties to gang up and oust the ruling party (see Canada and prorogation). A majority government can make whatever moves it wants, but it has to be mindful of paying the price for anything too unpopular in the next election. But that's the beauty of democracy - and it's why I almost shed a tear in watching Obama get elected, because it's exactly what happened in the U.S.

Worse still, as I've pointed out before, minority governments aren't beholden to the population because they weren't really elected by the people. Instead, they give free reign to lobbyists, who ultimately pay the campaign bills, which is certainly what's happening in Canada.

Any move to boost voter turnout and thereby limit lobbyist influence is, by any stretch of the imagination, a good one.

There are, of course, some downsides to compulsory voting, although none that I read about or could think of seem to hold any water. Surely in such systems you have uneducated voters go into the booth and cast their support for superficial reasons (i.e. the leader of party X is good looking), but you have that now anyway. Some people also allege that voting itself is a freedom, so you shouldn't have to do it, but that's a rather dumb argument. If you live in a democracy, you have to pay taxes and obey the law. Adding voting to that list of small requirements is hardly burdensome.

I might go a step further than Flynt and suggest that while voting be made mandatory, we should also enact rules that would exclude stupid people from the democratic process. But that's a whole other can of worms for another day...

In any event, it's ironic that I was turned on to the idea of compulsory voting on a flight from Australia, a country that actually has it! Alas, the penalty in Australia for not voting is less than a $100, but the rules still keep turnout up around 95 per cent, which is helped by the fact that elections are generally held on a weekend so people aren't prevented from voting by work commitments. Australia is also just one of many countries that forces citizens to vote - and we're not talking about military dictatorships in Africa, either. Ten OECD countries have some form of compulsory voting.

The issue has been raised in Canada before, particular after the 2006 election, which drew a record low turnout of about 60 per cent. Not much has come of it, obviously, as turnout continued to drop to 59 per cent in the 2008 election.

The U.S. managed to reverse a similar trend with a powerful and charismatic leader who promised big change (and who is delivering it, by the way), but such people come along once in a blue moon. There's no sign of the Canadian Obama, so in the meantime we desperately need to take a lesson from Australia in general, and from a certain smut purveyor in particular.

Interestingly, as the UK counts votes in its latest elections, that it too has seen a steady erosion in voter turnout. Check out the chart here, which measures the plummeting turnout since 1945.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Talking SB&B in Brisbane

One of the more fun events I took part in while down under was a Q&A session at the Avid Reader bookstore in Brisbane. I sat down with journalist and author Phil Brown to chat about Sex, Bombs and Burgers and then took some great some great questions from the audience. The folks at Avid Flip-cammed the whole thing - here's part one:

The rest of the interview can be viewed through my page on Avid's website. Check it out here. You can also check out some of the other interviews/videos I did while in Australia and New Zealand through the "Media Coverage" column on the right of this blog. Highlights included the Q&A I did at Gleebooks in Sydney, which was aired on ABC TV's Big Ideas, and the interview with Kiwi FM in Auckland.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Down Under: Top and Bottom 5

As promised last week, I've compiled quick top and bottom five lists for my recently concluded trip to Australia and New Zealand. Given that I was gone a month, there were a ton of experiences. The ones that made these lists, however, are the ones that stood out and that I'm sure to remember. Overall, it was a fantastic trip - I got to see some old friends and familiar faces, but also had some new adventures (I'll get some pictures up on Facebook soon). As with the last time I left New Zealand, I already can't wait to go back. But in the meantime, here's the top five:

1. Proposal on the Milford Track: top of the list is a no brainer. Proposing to Claudette - and her accepting - in the middle of the track made it a historic hike for several reasons (the record rains and flooding, of course, factored in). It's certainly not an experience either of us is likely to ever forget.

2. Australia's independent bookstores: In doing the rounds with Sex, Bombs and Burgers, I visited a number of indie shops in Sydney and Brisbane, and was quite impressed with all of them. They were better organized than most such shops I've seen in Canada, and a few were very on the ball in acting as literary centres of their respective communities. Two in particular - Gleebooks in Sydney and Avid Reader in Brisbane - invite authors in regularly for signings and talks, which are pretty informal but cool affairs. I also dug Kinokuniya in Sydney - the store's website isn't much to look at, but it's a really large and funky place that serves as a focal point for a lot of pop culture. Not surprisingly, Australia's indie bookstores are doing pretty well, with about 20% of the country's market, which is significantly higher than Canada or the U.S.

3. Jesters pies: Heading to Australia, I was quite excited to eat Cafe de Wheels' meat pies. But once I got to New Zealand, I was quickly reminded just how good Jesters' pies were. I scooped up a "frequent pie-r" card and, with some help from Claudette, almost got to the buy-ten-pies-get-one-free level. Alas, I had to give it away to a friend on my last day in Auckland. (The Billy T, with ground beef, cheese and gravy, was my fave, by the way.)

4. New Zealand motels: without fail, we got excellent service from every small motel we stayed in. It's a bit of a no-brainer, that small businesses tend to be much friendlier and hospitable than big chains, but the New Zealand hotel industry is proof positive. I have to give special shout-outs to the Edgewater Motel in Te Anau and the Bella Vista Motel in Wanaka, whose proprietors were especially nice to us and, on the occasion where we were shafted by some douches in Queenstown (see bottom five), helped us out of a jam.

5. Auckland: I saw some new places on my trip, such as Brisbane and Christchurch, but the place I enjoyed most was the one that was most familiar. Auckland was my home for a year and a half, and the most fun I had on the trip was simply strolling along the waterfront in shorts and a t-shirt while the warm sun beamed down. I actually got quite sad as my bus to the airport pulled away. Needless to say, I'll visit again some day (hopefully soon).

But before I get all misty-eyed, let's get to the bottom five:

1. Rydges hotel chain: without a doubt, the most deplorable part of the trip came when Claudette and I tried to check in to our hotel, the Rydges Lakeland, in Queenstown after our Milford Track ordeal. In a nutshell, those of those unlucky enough to be on the track that particular weekend endured record rainfall, which meant we were all wet, cold, tired and hungry when we were finally evacuated. The lovely staff at Rydges - particularly one manager, Shaylee Price - chose to let several rooms sit vacant rather than honouring our booking (prepaid in full in advance), which we obviously couldn't make thanks to circumstances way beyond our control. Truly shameful.

2. Qantas: a canceled flight from Los Angeles to Sydney because of a mechanical problems, then another canceled flight to Brisbane because of another breakdown. Then, yet another delay thanks to mechanical issues, topped off with putting me on a later connecting flight for a mysterious reason that no one could explain. All told, a 26-hour delay in getting to Sydney. And has the airline answered my complaint email? Nearly one month later, nope.

3. Whitcoulls: New Zealand's main book chain is a nightmare. Books seem to be the last thing on Whitcoulls' list of things to sell. With no discernible electronic guidance system, it's next to impossible to find the book you're looking for - unless said book happens to be by a mega-star author. If you're a writer and haven't got one of those big displays, I can't see how your book is going to sell any copies in New Zealand as a result.

4. Ace Car Rentals: the car we got from these people was supposedly a Toyota Corolla, but it must have been the 1965 version because it was an aged clunker. We got one flat tire, which we fortunately managed to change out at Mount Cook, but we spent the rest of our trip worried about whether the thing was going to spontaneously break down in the middle of nowhere. In talking with some locals, it turns out Ace is known for their crappy cars. If you are heading to New Zealand, you may want to consider someone else.

5. Rain: so help me, if I never see rain again, it'll be too soon. After having several feet of it dumped on me during the Milford hike, and plans to see NZ's south island west coast canceled twice because of it, I've had just about enough of rain. As a result, I told Claudette that all of our vacations from now on are going to be to deserts. Hello Arizona!

Again, don't get me wrong by those particular bitchings. The trip was fantastic overall and I can't wait to go back. Maybe I'll stick to the Australian Outback?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Milford: before and after

I'm back from Down Under and feeling like quite the zombie today. Having one's mind and body still living in the future will do that to you. I'll resume proper blogging this week once I'm back to normalcy, but in the meantime, here are some videos I promised last week.

First up is a quick glimpse of what the Milford Track was like on Day Two (somewhere around last Friday, although time seems pretty liquid right now). It had already been raining for two days, but this is before things got bad. As you can see, it was pretty spectacular scenery:

And here's a short video from Day Five, aboard the helicopter that evacuated us. It's a little hard to see the scenery, but you can probably still tell it's awesome:

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