Friday, July 30, 2010

Why do travel agents still exist?

I must admit to a certain level of glee in watching the accelerating death spiral of Blockbuster Video. Those ridiculously high rental fees and the iron-fisted inflexibility on forgiving late charges are finally coming back to bite the company, which was too slow to adapt to the digital revolution, in the backside. It won't be long till Blockbuster is just a distant, painful memory.

That's also the case with travel agents. It seems like an eon ago, but I used to book all my travel through a nice Polish lady who ran a small agency with a few friends. Such shops are few and far between these days, killed off by the same internet forces as Blockbuster. The Polish lady and her friends long ago went on to different careers.

I travel a lot, both for fun and for business reasons. I flew a ton of places while working on Sex, Bombs and Burgers, and for its promotion - something I'll be continuing to do for the next year. I haven't used a travel agent in ages; I've found that booking online is easy and almost always cheaper.

A few friends and I decided we wanted to have a guys' weekend in Las Vegas this fall, so I set to pricing the trip out. For kicks, and because there's five of us involved, I thought I'd check with an agent at the
Flight Centre to see whether he could come up with anything I couldn't. The result: not really. The prices he quoted were pretty much exactly the same as what I found, and in at least one case, they were higher. Still, I figured he'd done the work and booking with Flight Centre would mean a small savings in hassle for me, even though there was the downside of having to pay for our flights and hotel up front (if we'd booked independently, we wouldn't have had to pay for the hotel until we checked out of it).

The trip was booked and paid for and we all thought we'd be on our way, when all of a sudden the travel agent dropped a nice little surprise in my lap: there's going to be an extra "resort fee," payable to the hotel once we get there. Uh, okay then...

I write about cellphone companies all the time, so I'm well versed in hidden bullshit fees. The "resort fee," which ostensibly pays for the newspapers and bathrobes you enjoy at the hotel, is about as bullshit as they come. It's an extra tax, plain and simple, that should be included in the cost of the room.

That's not what bugged me about the situation, though, nor was it the amount ($15 per day per room). What really got my goat is the fact that I wasn't told about it before I booked. When I brought this up with the agent, he predictably claimed (backed up by his manager) that he did mention it. But like I said, I'm unfortunately a hawk for such charges and I most definitely would have remembered it had he actually brought it up. The correct course of action, as far as I'm concerned, should have been an apology for the oversight and a reimbursement in the amount of the resort fee. After all, isn't the customer always supposed to be right?

The situation leaves me asking: what exactly is a travel agent good for? If it's not to make the booking any easier or cheaper, and if it's not for looking out for things such as hidden fees on behalf of the customer, exactly what do they bring to the table?

Strangely, although many of the independent travel agents have gone the way of the dinosaurs, the Flight Centre seems to be doing okay. My suspicion is that the majority of the chain's business comes from booking corporate travel, something that still isn't that easy to do online. But that's going to improve and travel agents are going to have an even tougher go of it as it does.

The Flight Centre would do well to learn from Blockbuster's fate. Not looking out for the customer and then ultimately telling them they're wrong just doesn't cut it. As for me, so endeth a short-lived stray from booking my own travel online.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

It seems like everyone is using social media, particularly Twitter, to promote something or other these days. See the recent, hilarious Old Spice Man phenomenon. Fast food restaurants are no different. A number of them are using Twitter not just to inform their customers about their food, but to bring their food to them.

The trend was started by Kogi Korean BBQ, a small company in Los Angeles. With its business consisting of a handful of mobile trucks, Kogi decided to to let customers know where they'd be. Now, they've got more than 68,000 followers and a website that displays the trucks' schedules and locations.

Not to be outdone, Taco Bell is doing the same thing. The chain has been fielding big purple trucks since the '90s, provides a new way of communicating just where the vehicles are going to be. The truck looks to be on its way to Dallas, where there is a shortage of street food.

Closer to home, here in Toronto we have Smoke's Poutinerie, purveyor of fine fries + gravy + cheese. Like Taco Bell, Smoke's aims for big events such as the recent Honda Indy, and to announce its presence.

I imagine it'll only be a matter of time before one of these chains incorporates GPS into a smartphone app that will let customers track them wherever they are, any time of day. Because when you need your tacos or poutine, you really need to know where it's at.

I, for one, am glad that technology is making this kind of stuff more accessible. I remember when I was a kid, I used to hope that the ice cream truck would come by after school. Some days he did, some days he didn't. It should would have saved me some childhood stress if I had known exactly where the hell the ice cream man was.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

iPhone jailbreak means porn is on the way

It didn't take long for someone to suggest what the real effect of the new rule that allows "jailbreaking" of iPhones in the U.S. will be: it's going to lead to an upturn in mobile porn. And as anyone who's been following the situation knows, that must really have Apple CEO Steve Jobs' panties in a twist.

If you missed the news, the U.S. Library of Congress, which oversees the Copyright Office, on Monday enacted a number of exceptions to the Digital Copyright Millennium Act, or the law that governs how Americans are allowed to make copies of electronic content as well as the level of access and power they have over the gadgets they own. Two of the big new exceptions to the DMCA include the right for consumers to unlock their cellphones so that they can be used on different carriers, and the right to put whatever software they want onto their devices.

Apple maintains a tight grip on the iPhone and only lets users put apps it has approved onto it. Naturally, the company fought against these exceptions and is none too pleased they got passed. The ruling will allow people to "jailbreak" the phone and load on whatever software they want.

As NetworkWorld touched on, we can expect an influx of porn apps for the iPhone since they have now effectively been declared legal. They won't come through Apple and iTunes, of course, but from third parties. A couple of analysts have speculated that a "red light app store" is likely to arise.

The downside of the Library of Congress's exception is that the iPhone has been considerably opened up to hacking and malicious attacks. You can bet a number of rogue software developers will create virus- and malware-laden apps that unsuspecting users will inevitably load onto their iPhones. Apple wasted no time in saying that jailbreaking the iPhone will void its warranty, which is a completely understandable and warranted position for the company to take. After all, if you want to mess around with your device and do whatever you want with it, you should have that right, but you should also do so at your own risk.

On the plus side, respected companies that have had their apps blocked by Apple are now free to go to town. I can't imagine it'll be too long before Google launches its calling service, an app that was prohibited on the iPhone because it threatens cellphone carrier revenue.

The same holds true for the larger or "respected" adult companies - the likes of Playboy, Digital Playground and Pink Visual, among others. It's probably only a matter of time - possibly even days - before one of them announces an app for jailbroken iPhones. And because these are established and credible brands, users can be reasonably confident that the apps will be safe to install.

Again, Steve Jobs must be apoplectic by this turn of events. This is the man who recently declared the iPhone "free from porn," even though users could still access adult content through the device's web browser. Keeping his app store porn-free, though, seemed to be a source of pride.

An analyst in the NetworkWorld story estimated that only 4% of iPhone users had a jailbroken handset, so the new DMCA exception probably won't have much of an impact. Given the historical trends regarding porn and technology (detailed at length in Sex, Bombs and Burgers!), I'd disagree and say the new rules will have a big effect.

Before the exceptions, there really weren't that many reasons to jailbreak your iPhone. There are few industries that face as much demand as the adult business, and now that porn apps are officially allowed onto the iPhone, producers will move to fill the supply side. Porn apps are therefore likely to spur more jailbreaking, especially if Pink Visual and the gang manage to come up with some innovative and intriguing apps that actually make it worth the risk of voiding Apple's warranty.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

KFC's Double Down a flop

I'm playing a bit of catch-up today, but I know there are many readers of this blog out there who will find this news important: if you're waiting for KFC's legendary Double Down "sandwich" to expand its way out of the United States, don't hold your breath. That's because, despite some serious media attention a few months ago when it launched, the bunless chicken monstrosity isn't selling very well.

David Novak, CEO of KFC owner Yum Brands (no relation to me, as I'm sure someone would ask), reported a couple of weeks ago that, despite being a "big eat," its sales have been "immaterial." KFC sold about 10 million units of the Double Down, which features bacon, cheese and sauce sandwiched between two chicken breasts, since its U.S. launch in April.

The company didn't spell out what percentage of sales the Double Down amounted to, but at least one analyst figured it accounted to about 5%. For a new product to be considered a hit, sales had to be above 10%, he said.

The Double Down got a ton of attention when it was launched, but it now looks like it was the wrong kind of attention. The kind of "oh my god that's disgusting" attention that generally doesn't bode well financially. In retrospect, the company tried to spin it as a positive story - KFC was only supposed to sell it till May but extended its offer through the summer because of "popular demand." Obviously, Yum was trying to cover up the fact that the sandwich was selling poorly.

Folks connected to John Bitove, the entrepreneur who owns KFC restaurants here in Canada, had said he was watching to see how the Double Down performed in the U.S. before bringing it north. Sadly, for fans of really nasty fast food, its performance there doesn't bode well for a Canadian debut.

Ah Double Down... we never even knew ya.

Monday, July 26, 2010

China lifts porn ban, Indonesia clamps down

A bunch of news outfits got fairly excited by the news last week that China has apparently stopped blocking porn sites. The folks over at Gawker even trumpeted it as a huge win for freedom, and likened it to the fall of the Berlin Wall or D-Day.

Hyperbole aside, the Associated Press story suggested a number for this change, which has apparently resulted in many porn sites - including Western ones such as YouPorn and PornHub - being accessible to the general public for the past eight weeks. One of the possibilities is that the government is running out of resources to keep sites blocked, so they're reorienting man- and computer-power to block the really sensitive political stuff. Another theory is that the government is trying to distract people from worrying about the actually important stuff, such as human rights, by "keeping the population's hands and minds distracted," as Gawker put it. It's not a bad theory - it sure has worked here in North America.

One thing is for sure, and that's that the government hasn't officially announced a different position when it comes to pornography. Keep in mind that non-pornographic websites and services in China are intermittently blocked and accessible, so what the state does as far as internet regulation is really all just a big guessing game.

The recent decision to renew Google's license to operate in China is a perfect example. The search giant, finally sick of censoring its own results to keep in line with Chinese law, decided it wasn't going to play ball anymore and earlier this year started directing all users to an unfiltered site based in Hong Kong. The government wasn't too happy with that. As a compromise, Google instead directed users back to its main, censored search site based in China, but that site has a link to the unfiltered page in Hong Kong, which anyone can access with a simple click. How the Chinese government finds that to be acceptable is beyond me.

The bottom line is, I wouldn't get too excited about this apparent easing of restrictions on pornography in China. My money is on this being either a temporary shortage of resources, or an experiment wherein censors are testing some sort of new blocking system without anyone knowing it.

Ironically, just as China is unblocking adult sites, the clamps are coming down in Indonesia. The country is looking to block porn sites before Ramadan begins on Aug. 10 as an effort to carry out a law passed in 2008. The government says it is being very careful not to evoke the sorts of web censorship fears found in China and Iran, since Indonesia has humans rights and press freedom laws, but it is duty bound to protect the population from the ill effects of pornography.

What's funny is that the government isn't quite sure how they're going to block such sites, whether it's with keywords or some sort of other larger method. One thing they don't want to get into is accidentally blocking non-pornography sites. Even the Communications and IT Minister seems to know this is a "good luck with that" kind of situation, summing up the plan with this nice quote: "If some of [the websites] remain accessible, we can at least say we tried."

Friday, July 23, 2010

The sexy side of McDonald's

A survey put out by McDonald's Canada got a good deal of media attention yesterday. The Windsor Star chose to go with a story that inverted the news, reporting that 5% of respondents to the survey said they'd rather go for a late-night Big Mac than sex. That doesn't seem that surprising - sometimes when you've got a craving, you've got a craving - so it seems odd that the writer went with that hook. The obvious news there is that 95% would rather take the sex.

The fact I found more interesting is the one McDonald's touted on its - that 64% of adult Canadians would go on a second date with someone if that person took them to McDonald's for the first date.

For the most part, I find that hard to believe. It's no secret that McDonald's is working very hard to boost its public image but the fact remains, the majority of adults still still see it as a source of cheap, fast food, possibly even a food of last resort. The suggestion that McDonald's is a highly thought-of destination, especially for a first date, is largely absurd. Perhaps I run in elitist circles, but I know almost zero women that would be impressed by a suggestion to go to McDonald's EVER, much less for an important event like a first date.

However - I imagine it would be fairly the opposite with men. We know that, statistically, men eat more meat than women, and it can generally be said that we like burgers more. A woman asking a man to go to McDonald's is therefore much more likely to meet with agreement.

If I were to give that 64% result the benefit of the doubt and try to explain it, I'd say it's because the suggestion of dinner at McDonald's shows that your date has a sense of humour. It could also indicate they are a child at heart, because many of us have fond memories of eating at McDonald's when we were young. I remember I used to get rewarded for A's on my report card with a trip to McD's. My reward for B's, though, was a beating, which probably simultaneously explains my natural competitiveness and my love for McDonald's.

Anyhow, since McDonald's brought up Big Macs and dating, I thought I'd usher out another week with a fun list. Feel free to use these at the next party you go to:

Ten McDonald's Themed Pick-Up Lines
By Peter Nowak

10. Do you prefer Italian Pesto or Spicy Thai?
9. Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce... me?
8. Want to see my Quarter Pounder? Er... I mean my Big Mac?
7. Your daddy must have been the Hamburglar because he stole the stars and put them in your eyes!
6. I'm just like a milkshake baby: You'll dig me so much I'll make you sick!
5. I like your double arches.
4. Your legs are just like the fries: they're long, thin and bad for me!
3. I'd love to reconstitute your onions.
2. How about some cadmium in your cup?
1. Would you like me to supersize that for you?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sex, Bombs and Burgers in the U.S.!

I'm pleased to announce that Sex, Bombs and Burgers is heading to U.S. bookstores in the fall of 2011, courtesy of Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. It'll be out as a hardcover and ebook simultaneously, with a paperback to follow a year after that.

The U.S. is the sixth country in which Sex, Bombs and Burgers will be (or has been) published in, joining Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom (fall 2010) and South Korea (ditto, in Korean), and it's obviously a key part of any book's world domination plan. There will soon be a seventh country joining the list, with more details coming soon.

The U.S. is a particularly important country for any Canadian author to be in, given our shared culture and media. Any media exposure there is likely to be picked up here, so a U.S. deal can also be very good for Canadian sales.

The deal with Lyons came quite literally at the eleventh hour. As regular readers of this blog know, I was just about ready to push the button on a self-published ebook through Amazon, Apple and the others. Like many Canadian authors who have pitched their wares southward, I had received a pile of rejections from U.S. publishers. I wasn't disheartened by the situation too much because, as I've written about before, the publishing world is changing quickly and dramatically. While self-publishing has traditionally been something of a dirty word, I really do believe that the ebook world being ushered in by the likes of Amazon will elevate it to a level of respectability.

Here's how the old publishing world works. Writers pitch their work to publishers. Publishers accept books they think are good, then go about trying to sell those to the public via getting coverage through the traditional media (print, TV and radio). The media covers books they think are good.

Here's how the new publishing world is likely to work. Writers publish their work through Amazon, then go about trying to sell it to the public via social media (Twitter, YouTube, etc.). The public then decides if the book is good and sales happen accordingly. Obviously there are a lot of middle men cut out of the equation, which has benefits and detriments.

We're at a pivotal time right now where that new world is just starting to take off. I was actually quite excited to throw my hat into the ring, to experiment and see what would happen. To some extent, I believe that authors who can get in now might be getting in on the ground floor of something amazing, sort of like the guys who invented eBay or YouTube.

It's still pretty risky though, and it's definitely going to be a lot of hard work for anyone trying it. It wasn't an easy decision for me, but it ultimately came down to whether I wanted to work on selling my book myself. Under the old system, having a so-called cultural aggregator behind you actually does half the work for you - despite self-publishing's improving image and the potential of social media for promotional purposes, the fact is it'll still be years before the traditional media accepts such books. There are still several layers of cultural aggregation any book must go through to become a big success. As exciting as the potential of a self-published ebook is, I haven't seen too many such authors pop up on The Colbert Report. Yet.

I'm as big a fan as anyone of the democratizing power of technology, and I too long for the day when the system is more fair and open to all. I suspect it won't take too long to get there, and my hope is that I have a little bit of a name built up for when we do arrive because it'll make the work that much easier if I choose to go that route.

In the meantime, I imagine I'll be just as giddy when I get my first U.S. hardcover as I was when I got my copies from Penguin Canada and Allen & Unwin. A few things will be different for the U.S. edition - it looks like the subtitle is going to change slightly to something like "How War, Pornography and Fast Food Shaped Modern Technology." There is also the possibility that we'll have yet a third cover - I had one designed and ready to go for the ebook, and will be talking to Pequot about whether they want to use it. And given that it's not coming out till the fall of 2011, I'll hopefully have a chance to update it, possibly with some extra content.

One last thing: in light of the anti-Canadian rant I went on the other day, I'm proud to say that every success Sex, Bombs and Burgers has enjoyed so far has come without a lick of help from the Canadian government or our regulators!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Don't fear the ebook bogeyman

Last week I wrote about how I thought DRM (digital rights management, or copy protection) concerns on ebooks were overblown after having a discussion on Twitter with , a web developer in B.C. and fellow author. Kevin posted his own well thought-out disagreement on his blog, and I promised I'd continue the dialog. So here we go:

The issue is - does it really matter whether copy protection is put on ebooks? My position was: no it doesn't, because on one hand sellers such as Amazon are already making the ebook you buy available across multiple devices, so copying isn't actually required, and on the other hand, competition will generally correct problems that do arise. If I could boil down Kevin's position - he's worried about what happens when the ebook market shakes out into a few dominant players who can then call the shots, which is what happens in just about every market. Won't they wield considerably more power than they do now, and can't they then shaft consumers?

It's a legitimate concern, but I'd reiterate my two points. Firstly, when you buy an ebook through Amazon today, you can either read it on the company's own Kindle ereader device, or you can read it through its Kindle app on Apple's iPhone/iPad/iPod on a BlackBerry, Android devices or PC. It's a variation of "cloud" storage, where you buy something and it may not actually reside on any actual device you own, but rather on the seller's servers, similar to how your Hotmail or Gmail sits on Microsoft and Google servers. Many people chafe at this idea because they think that if the item they bought isn't actually in their possession, they don't really own it.

I maintain that the idea of ownership is changing when it comes to electronic goods, and we need to get used to it. The above example of email is a good one - we all used to use Microsoft Outlook or AOL or whatever and download email to our desktops. But then Hotmail and Yahoo and Gmail came along and convinced us of the benefits of storing it "in the cloud." The benefits were obvious - we let Microsoft, Yahoo and Google worry about keeping our email safe and secure, and we could access it from anywhere. Some people still refuse to use such services because they're worried about what could happen to their email if something were to happen to these companies or their servers. That's perhaps a legitimate concern, but consider that if Google, say, were to accidentally and irrevocably lose all of its users' emails, that would pretty much be curtains for the company. Needless to say, their entire business is vested in making sure such things don't happen.

This cloud trend is clearly happening with digital entertainment. Amazon's Kindle ebooks, available on a plethora of devices, is one example. The announcement yesterday of UltraViolet, a new attempt by Hollywood studios to come up with a single, compatible format for digital movies that will make them playable across a variety of devices, is another. The benefits here are the same as with email. I don't know about you, but I've got shelves and shelves full of CDs, DVDs and books at home. Most of them I'll never play/watch/read again, and they become a giant pain in the ass whenever I move, plus I have to dust them on occasion. To be honest, I'm not sure I'll ever buy another CD or DVD again when I can just access them digitally, pretty much any time I want (I'm not quite there with books, but that change is probably coming).

I, for one, would rather have all of my media stored electronically - and putting it on the cloud where it can be accessed from anywhere is the next logical step from having it on a hard drive.

The argument then seems to morph into whether we are actually being sold ownership of media, or whether we're just buying access to it. It seems pretty clear that we are indeed moving toward an access model, and that's not necessarily a bad thing for the reasons outlined above. One very legitimate concern I've heard about this move is: what happens when the company who sold you all your digital stuff goes bust? What would happen to all that access you bought and paid for? That's absolutely a legit concern and some legal assurances need to be built into the model. Perhaps such a business that wants to close down should somehow be obligated to provide its customers with a DRM-free copy of everything they bought? I suspect such protections won't happen until a major seller does go bust and a large number of customers get the shaft. Someone on Twitter recently suggested that this has already happened, but if it did, I certainly didn't hear about it. At some point, Darwinism again comes into play - if you're going to buy music from some smaller site that could go under tomorrow and which won't let you play it without some sort of DRM access code, well then maybe you deserve to lose your purchases. For the love of god, go buy a CD instead.

That's where the second part of my argument comes in - that competition will take care of things. What I actually mean is "market forces," but I'm avoiding using that term for fear of sounding like certain politicians. For the most part, market forces do actually work (when they are allowed to, which is often not the case in Canada). Apple is a great example - as fear continues to build over how much power the company wields through a gateway such as iTunes, so too does the business case for alternatives. If Apple gets too brash for its own good, other businesses (Netflix, Amazon, Xbox Live, etc.) will correspondingly benefit as suspicious customers look elsewhere. If Apple gets really brash, they'll get a visit from anti-trust authorities (which is already happening).

My point is, when it comes to DRM on ebooks, there isn't really that much need to worry. No one - not Amazon, not Apple, not the publishers - are coming at ebooks from an overwhelming position of power, which means there will be much competition and much wheeling and dealing done over the next few years. And in that same time frame, the technology is likely to change again from downloaded ebooks to ebooks residing in the cloud. There's just no sense in getting too worked up about it. You can generally trust anyone selling you an ebook today to make it available to you tomorrow because if they don't, they won't see your repeat business. And if someone sells you a DRM-restricted cloud ebook and goes under, then refuses to honour it if they go under, well there'll be a class-action lawsuit that you can take part in too.

One of the most overused words in technology circles is "solution," and there's a reason why companies call their products that - because they generally consider them to be "solutions" to existing problems. I do indeed believe that technology solves problems. Combine it with competition and there isn't an issue that can't be solved.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The secret to Canada's mediocrity

There are a lot of benefits to living in Canada. It's clean, it's safe and we have relatively good health care. It's also a good place to watch hockey, if you're into that sort of thing. But there is one thing about our home and native land that really, really sucks: our unending, soul-sucking mediocrity.

After many years of trying to figure it out, I think I've finally put the finger on who is responsible for our general ho-hum-ness, or our companies' collective inability to compete and succeed on a global level. And the award goes to: our national telecommunications and broadcasting regulator, the CRTC. How is the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to blame? Well, to get there, let's first examine Canada's relative lack of commercial success in the rest of the world.

Few, if any, Canadian companies have been able to succeed internationally for very long. There was, of course, Nortel, the telecom equipment maker that rose spectacularly and then failed just as awesomely. Today, we have Nortel's second coming: Waterloo, Ont.-based BlackBerry maker Research in Motion. RIM did very well when its only competition in smartphones was Nokia, which hails from Finland, a country that has produced even fewer notable success stories than Canada, if you can believe it (trust me, I checked). Now that RIM is competing with the likes of Apple and Google, well, not surprisingly its outlook is getting more grim by the day.

We've had a few other international successes outside of the technology world, but their fortunes generally can't be attributed to merit. Our natural resource companies have fared well, but hey, they just happen to be sitting on land that is rich in rare, high-demand materials such as oil and natural gas. You'd have to try really hard to screw that up. Bombardier, our aerospace/train manufacturer, is also well known around the world - which probably wouldn't be the case without a whole raft of government subsidies. Cirque de Soleil is also pretty cool, but we can't really count them as there really isn't a "circus industry" for them to compete in (or is there?). Manulife is a successful financial services firm, and to be honest, I know zilch about the field, so let's just chalk them up as a Canadian company that has perhaps truly succeeded internationally. Are there others? Possibly, but these are the ones that come to mind.

Stepping down a level, we have had some companies make it to a certain medium level, then sell out before they got to competing with the big boys. This happens fairly frequently in the technology world: graphics chip maker ATI (bought by AMD), software maker Cognos (bought by IBM), video game designer Bioware (bought by Electronic Arts). The reasons why have been speculated about ad nauseum, and the general consensus usually comes down to Canadian companies lacking access to the sort of capital they need to compete against the world.

I'm sure part of that is true, but I'm also convinced there's more to it. I think it's because, deep down, Canadians don't want to compete with the best, or we don't know how. We don't have the same killer instinct that Americans do and, for the most part, we're proud of that because it differentiates us. It's a double-edged sword because it's part of why Canadians are generally liked in the rest of the world, while Americans are greeted differently depending on who is currently president.

But on the downside, that's where the CRTC comes in. This attitude of accepted mediocrity - where we accept our fair share and avoid reaching for the brass ring - is cultural. And since the regulator is our appointed cultural guardian, the buck must stop there. For as long as I can remember, the CRTC has been responsible for enforcing rules that ensure we have enough Canadian-ness going on in Canada, a tough task given that we live next to the world's biggest cultural exporter. If it wasn't for the CRTC and its cultural protectionism, then 100% of the music we listen to would be American, and 100% of the movies we watch would be American, and 100% of the books we read would be American, and so the argument goes.

Canadian content rules dictate that a certain percentage of our programming must be Canadian produced, and it's here that mediocrity begins. Thanks to CanCon, millions of Canadians believe The Tragically Hip to be a great band, rather than a really low-rent Pearl Jam. For me to suggest that is tantamount to heresy, although the almighty "market forces" seem to back me up on this one: the Hip couldn't sell out a flea market outside of Canada, and indeed they haven't.

Don't get me wrong - we have many, many artists who have succeeded internationally (alas, Celine Dion and Nickelback are among them), but they have all left Canada and done so largely without the aid of CanCon rules. The only thing the rules do is prop up otherwise mediocre talent within Canada. That actually has an effect on the general, non-artist population - it sends a message to Canadians that yes, you can get by with only marginal ability because the state will be there to help you out regardless.

The CRTC also coddles Canadians in other ways too, although this is usually the result of outdated or just-plain-dumb laws that it is stuck enforcing. In both broadcasting and telecommunications, foreigners aren't allowed to have any meaningful ownership stakes in the companies that supply the pipes over which our culture is beamed out. Somehow, preventing a foreigner from owning the fiber cable in the ground is supposed to protect Canadian culture. The rules are even stupider when it comes to bookstores. Yup, no foreign ownership there either. In fact, for the longest time a foreign website that sells books (Amazon) couldn't even locate servers or warehouses on Canadian soil. Figure that one out.

This all came up because of yesterday's announcement that Netflix, the popular video-streaming and DVD-by-mail service, is finally coming north from the United States this fall. It's funny that more Canadians know about Netflix than our own domestic alternative,, which has been around for years. The difference between the two companies, though, is that Zip - for whatever reason - has resisted getting into offering people a download service on which they can get movies and television episodes on demand. Netflix's download service, meanwhile, is available on just about every piece of hardware you can connect to your TV, including video game consoles and Blu-ray players.

Despite Zip's supposed plan to offer a download service this fall, you'd best believe this is a company that is dead in the water now that Netflix is on the way. They had years of opportunity to duplicate Netflix's business here and they didn't. As a result, corporate Darwinism is about to take effect.

Netflix and Zip are just one example of just how globalized the world is, and just how ridiculous - and potentially dangerous - cultural protectionism is. Canada became an economic power in an era where countries were considerably more isolated. That's not the way the world works anymore, and continuing to instill a culture of mediocrity is likely to have a significant effect on whether we can maintain that standing.

It's about time we rid ourselves of these rules that were designed to isolate us. If Canadian culture really is so fragile, where we can't even buy books from Americans for fear of losing our identity, then perhaps it deserves to be crushed. Somehow, I think it's a little stronger than that.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Qantas tries to make good

With my trip to Australia and New Zealand seeming like an eternity ago, the memory of the horror show that was the trip over has faded considerably. You may recall that my already lengthy 22-hour trip became a nightmarish 48 hours thanks to an almost unfathomable string of ineptitudes from Qantas. My rant about that back in April was my single most-read blog post ever (I'm still trying to figure out why - do that many people hate Qantas?). Reading it over now, I'm reminded of the new heights in anger that this particular airline introduced me to.

It was that anger - and my gradual decline into cranky old man-ness - that prompted me to write a letter of complaint to Qantas when I got back from the trip. I made all the usual demands, i.e. my money back, an apology, a pony ride, etc., and sent it off. I suspect that most people who write such letters don't really do so because we actually want our demands met. It's really more of a therapy; the act of venting onto a piece of paper or email just makes us feel better. I did actually feel better, and slowly forgot about the whole affair.

You can imagine my surprise when, months later, I actually got a response. A customer service agent wrote me back to tell me that they were sending me a $400 voucher, good on Qantas or any of its partners (including American Airlines and British Airways). It's funny because my first thought was remembering going to complain at Qantas's head office in Sydney. The woman there told me to write to customer service and that they would get back to me because "we're not like those American airlines." It should be noted that I also wrote a complaint to American Airlines, since I had actually bought my Qantas flight through them, and I still have yet to even get an acknowledgement of my email in response.

So does $400 make up for that Easter weekend debacle? Definitely not. There's just no excusing 26 hours of delay. As a strong believer in our capitalist system, I think the consumer should always be guaranteed the goods or services he or she paid for in a timely and reasonable manner. I fly a lot and delays are an inevitable part of the gig, but more than doubling your travel time is not reasonable by any stretch of the imagination. I remember once flying on Iberia in Spain - the flight was only an hour, but it was delayed by 30 minutes; they gave out coupons for free flights as a result. All of the passengers went from somewhat grumpy to very happy. That's how the customer should be treated!

But, I must give Qantas kudos for making the effort. Even though the voucher amounts to only about 25 per cent of the total flight cost, at least it's a relatively meaningful gesture. I should at least be able to use it to fly to the U.S., or even most of the way to the U.K. this fall for the launch of Sex, Bombs and Burgers there. I'll stop short of singing the airline's praises, but it would be wrong to not recognize that they're at least trying to do right by their customers. And that's worth something.

Speaking of which... hey American, I'm still waiting for my reply!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Thought-controlled bionics coming soon

Lost an arm recently? Or are you just looking to upgrade? In either case, military scientists will soon have you covered.

Scientists working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's mad-science department, are getting ready to start human testing on a bionic arm that is controlled by thoughts, Wired's Danger Room reports. The arm - which has 22 degrees of motion, has haptic feedback that replicates the sense of touch and weighs about the same as the real thing - will be controlled by a neural interface implanted directly into the user's brain. Scientists at John Hopkins plan to test it with five patients over the next two years.

Does this sound too science-fiction-y? Oh no. Check out this two-year old video where similar experiments were done with monkeys. You can clearly see the arms are working as they're supposed to:

Here's what the arm actually . Amazing stuff, huh? It's probably one of the best examples there is of positive military spending. The bionic arms and other prosthetics are of obvious value to soldiers who lose limbs, and the spin-offs for the non-military world are obvious.

There's a whole chapter in Sex, Bombs and Burgers about how military research often results in toys - the Mindflex is a great example. This simple game from Mattel reads brainwaves through a headband worn by the user. The goal of the game is to guide a small ball, kept aloft by a series of fans, through obstacles on a board. The harder the user concentrates, the harder the fans blow and the higher the ball floats. Less concentration lowers the ball, and so on.

Mindflex uses a simple variation of electroencephalography (EEG) technology, which is not even close to the neural implants we're talking about with the arm. Neural implants open up a whole new world of possibilities, from thought-controlled all the way to an internet connection directly in your brain.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

An unexpected problem with ebooks

Okay, a super-short post today, but only because it's more of a question that I'm hoping somebody out there might have the answer to.

I'm just about to buy Ray Kurzweil's book The Singularity is Near, partly out of pure curiosity and partly because it may be relevant to something I'm thinking about for book #2. So I was pondering whether I should buy the printed version or the ebook, when I got stumped by the following dilemma:

If I were to buy the ebook and then want to cite passages from it in something I subsequently write, how would I do so? Ebooks, of course, don't really have page numbers. The number of pages in your ebook basically depends on what size font you choose for your ereader - if the type is bigger, you'll have more pages; if it's smaller, there'll be less.

So how the heck does one quote from an ebook? I feel it's important to properly cite your sources, both to give proper credit to the originator of the information or thought and to shore up your own credibility. But an ebook seems to make that hard, if not impossible to do because you can't just cite the document as a whole, you have to be specific. Or is this specificity going to be an unfortunate casualty of the ebook movement?

Citing from a website isn't a problem because you just include the URL, but does anyone have any ideas as to how a writer might get around this particular issue? I'd love to hear them, if so.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The airborne Terminator is coming

It's a short post today as I spent last night rocking out with the greatest Canadian band of all time - Rush. It was a great show and my arms are a little tired from all the air drumming I did. What can I say, !

My pal Kelvin over in the UK has a story in The Globe and Mail that would fit very nicely into Sex, Bombs and Burgers. Military scientists and engineers - sometimes referred to as "boffins" over there, which I love - are working on something called the Taranis, an armed, artificially intelligent UAV named after the Celtic god of thunder. As you can see from the photo, it also looks like something out of Battlestar Galactica. How cool is that?

According to Kelvin's article:

Taranis could be programmed to fly itself between continents to reach enemy territory. 'It could then carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activity. … It's a combat aircraft with weapons so it could strike with precision weapons,' said Squadron Leader Bruno Wood, the Ministry of Defence spokesman for the Taranis project.

Wood also added that, despite the Taranis being able to pilot itself - unlike other armed UAVs such as the Reaper and Predator, which are remotely controlled - humans would always be involved in any decision to use its weapons. I'm not sure if "always" will really be the case because once you involve a human in any part of the vehicle's operation, you defeat the purpose of making it automated in the first place. You might as well send up a human pilot in a plane. One expert in the story acknowledges as much and says allowing machines to decide on shooting by themselves may be a decade or so away.

It'll be interesting to see what sorts of consumer benefits will spin out of this project. BAE, the contractor, has on many occasions put expertise gained from military work toward the larger consumer world, with electric hybrid propulsion systems as just one example.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

DRM concerns on ebooks are overblown

I had a lively debate with a fellow author on Twitter yesterday after I linked to a story about ebook payments on The Guardian's website. The story was about how the UK Society of Authors is seeking either an increase on their ebook royalties, or a limitation on the length of such deals. The debate, though, went in many directions.

In a nutshell, authors are typically getting 25% of ebook sales from their publishers. That's considerably better than the six to 15% we get on printed books, but as the society says in the Guardian story, the ebook rate should be higher still because there are virtually no costs for the publisher. There are, after all, no warehousing or distribution costs associated with selling an ebook.

The authors group therefore either wants 50% of sales, or they want ebook contracts limited to two years, whereupon writers would be free to renegotiate terms. The real foundation of their argument is that if authors don't get more return from their work, the big names will soon find it preferable to go into business for themselves, which will be bad for everyone - something I've been saying for a while. As the society's chair says:

It's a danger publishers need to recognise and a danger for writers as well. If JK Rowling controls her own ebook rights [then] there's less money for her publisher to invest in new authors. We could face a situation of very big-name authors pulling the ladder up after them [and] we have a stake in seeing a healthy publishing industry.

I couldn't agree more, and that's without the story even addressing the elephants in the room: Amazon and Apple. Both companies are offering authors royalties of 70% to self-publish through them. I've gone on and on before about how appealing that is to both established and newbie authors.

But , a web developer in B.C. and author of - a book aimed at software developers - didn't agree. He pointed out that there were tons of people involved in helping him put his book together, from editors to designers and so on, and that they deserved their cut.

True enough. Certainly there were agents, editors, designers, artists, publicists and even truck drivers involved not just in the improvement of Sex, Bombs and Burgers, but also in making it possible at all. Surely they all deserve a piece. The question then becomes (and I'm far from the only creator to have asked this): how much of a piece should they get?

The answer depends on how you value each role in the project. How much weight should each be given? I'm of the obviously biased mind that the creator should get the majority of the weight, since without him/her there is no pie to divide up. There's also the issue of how much time and effort each role contributed. It took me two years to research and write my book, the editors a few weeks to edit, the artist a few hours to design a cover for, and the truck driver a few minutes to load and unload.

By that measure, the author should clearly be getting the lion's share of the cut. But, as with every other creative industry, somehow books evolved into completely the opposite set-up. The creator, despite doing most of the work, gets a relatively small portion of the take. Somehow the distribution of the work has been deemed more valuable than the work itself.

This is why the self-publishing options on Amazon and Apple are so appealing to so many; they finally nudge the work-to-reward ratio in the right direction. Much of this is made possible by the elimination of a whole bunch of physical obstacles, such as the need to pay for shipping or retail space.

There are obviously many challenges to self-publishing and it is certainly not for everyone. Authors who choose to self-publish will likely have to find and pay someone to edit their book, to design their cover, and/or to publicize the whole thing, all of which will eat into that 70% royalty. But the benefit of what Apple, Amazon et al bring to the table is that they give authors the option to earn more if they're willing to do more. Ultimately, there is room for both models and I'm excited about being able to take advantage of both.

My debate with Kevin didn't end there, though, as it veered onto a topic that all such conversations between tech nerds inevitably come to: copyright. Kevin took a position that was rather opposed to the likes of Amazon and Apple and their designs on the book market. In a nutshell, there are many people who are worried about the future of books as they dive further into the digital world, and that companies such as Amazon and Apple are exerting too much control through copy-prevention technologies known as digital rights management, or DRM.

In light of that conversation, I thought I'd try to address some of the concerns regarding DRM and ebooks, many of which I think are unfounded. I'm no fan of DRM, but when it comes to ebooks, I think the issue is a bit of an overblown boogeyman.

I don't want to buy ebooks from Amazon because they come with DRM and won't work on other e-reader devices.
This is a common criticism that stems from a belief that Amazon wants to dominate the e-reader market with its own Kindle device. Mark my words: if Amazon is smart (and I believe it is), the Kindle device will soon be discontinued. The market Amazon wants to dominate is book-selling, not hardware-selling. The Kindle reader was just an attempt to jumpstart that market. Now that real electronics companies such as Sony and Apple are making readers, it would be really, really stupid for Amazon to go head to head with them. Continuing development on the Kindle hardware would be a major financial drag on a company that otherwise does all its business digitally. That said, it makes every kind of sense for Amazon to be on as many devices as possible.

But Amazon still sells books with DRM?
So what? Amazon has released the Kindle app for Apple's products (iPad, iPhone, iPod), Android phones, BlackBerry phones and the PC. Anything you buy through the app on any one of those devices is instantly accessible on any of the others. There are even nifty little bonuses, like the ability to bookmark your page on one device and pick up where you left off on another. You may not be able to technically copy your book from one device to the other, but if you have universal access to it, does it really matter? I suspect the companies that will succeed in the ebook market are those that try to address the widest possible market by going for as many devices as possible. Those that try to keep things proprietary are not likely to do well because they'll be limiting their market.

But doesn't this put Amazon in charge of the books you bought and paid for?
Sort of, but that's only bad if you're a paranoid anti-corporate type. Competition will keep Amazon from doing anything bad to your stuff - if they mess up, you'll take your business elsewhere and lawsuits (probably class actions) will follow. Pissing off your customers is just bad business that's usually reserved for telecommunications companies.

What about Apple? They also sell books with DRM.
Yes, Apple's iBooks store does sell some books that will only work on Apple products. Apple has, however, adopted the ePub open standard which, in theory, means its ebooks should be readable on most other devices. In practice, Apple is up against a number of tough competitors (including Amazon). Apple will have to make its ebooks readable on other devices, similar to how it made iTunes work on PCs, if it wants to have a hope in hell of competing against them. Same goes for anyone else selling ebooks.

I can't resell an ebook, especially one with DRM.
That's probably true, but if the ebook is priced correctly (read: considerably lower than the printed version), that shouldn't be an issue unless you're really, really cheap. You also generally can't resell the albums you buy on iTunes, even though you could resell CDs, but nobody seems to be complaining about that.

I can't loan an ebook to a friend, especially if it's got DRM.
True, but if you really want to loan someone an ebook, you have two options: lend them your e-reader with the book on it, or download a pirated copy.

Isn't that illegal?
Possibly, but what's the real difference between sending your friend a pirated PDF of a book and giving them your printed copy?

Isn't the Canadian government's proposed copyright reform legislation, Bill C-32, and its clause that would make it illegal to break DRM placed on an ebook, bullshit?
I realize that some of what I've said here makes me sound like Heritage Minister James Moore, who has argued that "market forces" will alleviate all concerns with DRM. To some extent, I agree with him - the ebook market is still very nascent but it's got a lot of people salivating over it. I do think it's going to be a no-holds-barred fight to grab commanding positions (there's already evidence of this - new feature announcements have been coming fast and furious from various players recently), so I suspect "market forces" really will result in favourable outcomes for consumers/readers. Where I come into total agreement with fellow Canadian author Cory Doctorow and call "bullshit" on C-32 is in how the bill is supposedly all about protecting creators' rights. Doctorow and Moore had an awesome back and forth on Twitter about this issue a little while back, but to summarize the creators' position: if C-32 was all about protecting our rights, why are distributors such as publishers and technology companies such as Apple and Amazon being given legal protections for locks they choose to put on the works that we own? In other words, the copyright to Sex, Bombs and Burgers belongs to me - why should anyone but me have the right to lock it down? Amen on that one. Let's be honest - the copyright act, whatever its flaws or merits, isn't about protecting creators' rights, but rather about preserving business models.

All of this said, DRM on ebooks is already an issue that's being addressed by those supposedly almighty "market forces." I suspect it's going to get even better for buyers. Could things get worse in the long term once the market shakes out into winners and losers? Of course, but we should probably cross that bridge if and when we ever come to it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Gaydar app coming to straight iPhones

Looking for some hot, casual sex? There's an app for that!

Well, to be more correct - if you're gay, there's an app for that and if you're straight, it's on the way. The app is called Grindr, available for the iPhone and BlackBerry, and it's all the rage among gay men. The straight version is coming this year, The Guardian reports.

Grindr is basically the next evolution of dating websites. Users create a profile and post a picture, but rather than sit around and hope somebody messages them, it's tied to the GPS on their smartphone. That way, if the user is out and about and in the mood to pick somebody up, they whip out their phone and see who's available and nearby. Messages can be exchanged and hook-ups can be arranged.

Gay men have turned Grindr into, quite literally, the mythical gaydar, and they're using it to have copious amounts of sex. As one user told The Guardian: "I've probably had as much [sex] in the past eight months of Grinding as I have over the 20 years since I came out."

The app's success is now prompting creator Joel Simkhai to put together a straight version. Simkhai believes it'll be just as successful, based on what he says are numerous requests from women for it. "I do think it will be relevant for women. We'll redesign it; we'll call it something different, market it differently," he said.

I'd be surprised if the straight version actually does well because it brings up a number of questions on the different dynamics between the straight and gay social worlds. Matthew Todd, editor of the gay lifestyle magazine Attitude, seems to suggest as much in the Guardian story when he says the gay world is very sexualized, and therefore more open to such an app.

Taken another way, his point calls into question just how the typical male-female sexual hook-up happens, and how the two genders go about looking for it. As anyone who's ever been on the singles scene can probably attest to, women generally don't go around broadcasting the fact that they are looking for sex, even if in fact they are. Men, of course, are the exact opposite. They even sometimes wear T-shirts stating as much.

That leads me to believe the majority of straight people who use the app will be male, turning it into one big sausage party which, by the Urban Dictionary definition, is "a f%$#& boring party."

A similar thing happened recently to Chatroulette, which for a while was the hottest thing going on the web. The website became popular by letting users randomly meet other users through video, simply by clicking the "next" button. The problem is, it became heavily populated by single males with a propensity for flashing their genitals. As the Salon story about the website's quick fall from grace correctly opines, "you can't build an empire on dicks."

Friday, July 9, 2010

The lowdown on tacos, chicken and pizza

And on a lighter note, let's round off the week with some fast-food news, starting off with an item that I know many of you out there have been waiting to hear: Taco Bell is finally rolling out its breakfast menu (although we Canadians can't get too excited - at this point it looks like the U.S. only for now).

The chain has tested breakfast before, but it's now poised to add morning items to its 5,600 U.S. restaurants in either 2011 or 2012, according to Meat Trade News Daily, a fine publication I subscribe to (not really). As one fast-food industry analyst opined, the breakfast racket ain't easy but "the long-term opportunity for Taco Bell is so large, and Taco Bell’s differentiated brand positioning [is] such a potential help, that over the long run we believe that Taco Bell will get it right, creating value for shareholders in the process."

And what will Taco Bell be serving for breakfast? The Double Ham and Cheddar Melt for $1.79, and the Sausage Skillet or Sausage Skillet Burrito for $2.79; the Potato & Cheese Rollup for 79 cents, three varieties of Breakfast Burritos for 89 cents, and Hash Browns for 99 cents; and products from partner brands such as Cinnabon Delights for $1.49, a Morning Wrap and Morning Biscuit with Jimmy Dean sausages for $1.79, and Seattle’s Best Coffee.

Moving on to news from Taco Bell's partner in crime KFC (they're owned by the same company, Yum Brands), the Colonel has caused quite the ruckus in Swaziland by announcing that its meat is halal. Some Christian customers in the Southern African country were concerned by the news because of a misinterpretation of what halal is.

Once again, according to the fine folks at Meat Trade News, the customers believed that KFC's halal chicken was dedicated to Islam, and the Bible prohibits the eating of "anything dedicated to idols."

The chain's franchisees were forced to clear up the situation and explain that in this case, halal only meant that the meat was clean and okay for Muslims and Christians alike to eat. It had always been so, one said, but the official proclamation was necessary for Muslims. I think the franchisee himself best summed up my thoughts on the matter: "KFC is just meat and has nothing to do with religion."

Speaking of religion, we can't talk about Taco Bell and KFC without also talking about the last third of Yum's holy (or unholy) trinity, Pizza Hut. According to the Financial Express, food prices are soaring in India, which is affecting fast-food chains such as Pizza Hut.

The annual cost of food has risen about 13 per cent from last year, which means that Pizza Hut is having to increase its prices by about 4 to 5 per cent. An executive for the chain in India said Pizza Hut has managed to keep prices down for 18 months despite rising food costs, but it now has no choice.

Okay, consider yourself all caught up on fast-food news. Enjoy your pizza, tacos and chicken over the weekend!

(By the way, still no Double Down in Canada. John Bitove, if you're reading this... I'm just sayin')

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Authors, newspapers & soldiers lament G20

It's been nearly two weeks since the G20 summit, and if you've been reading this blog, you probably know that yup, I'm still pissed off. That's because this simply isn't one of those things that passes, it's something that will get worse unless we do something about it.

Don't just take my word for it. I'm just a lowly tech writer and public servant. Fortunately, no less than Canada's pre-eminent author, Margaret Atwood, agrees with me. She penned an op-ed in The Globe and Mail on Tuesday that was in complete agreement with what I said the other day:

People are still poring through the fallout from that Toronto protest. Who did what, when, to whom and why? Why – knowing of the dangers of holding the G20 in a fenced-off, emptied-out downtown Toronto – did Prime Minister Stephen Harper not respond to Toronto’s pleas and change the venue? Why were legitimate NGOs blocked from access to the press, within the security-protected playpen? What accounts for the Ontario government’s confused instructions about security laws? Why the beat-up journalists? Why the nonchalance about the Black Bloc rampage? Why the wholesale roundups of bystanders?...

...It was our image of ourselves that was attacked. The well-meaning knitter and jolly world-improver image got a boot in the face. But that image could save us yet. Clap your hands if you believe in it – better still, vote for it – and maybe it will come to life again.

Then there was yesterday's Toronto Star editorial, which asked many of the right questions, and which said that a simple inquiry is not enough:

A full inquiry could ask what [Prime Minister] Harper was thinking when he decided to locate the summit in the downtown convention centre rather than (as Mayor David Miller had suggested) the Exhibition Grounds, why [Ontario Premier] McGuinty chose to give police additional powers without telling the public, and why the police appeared first to under-react and then to over-react to events, with the result that constitutional rights were trampled upon... We’re still waiting for the real public inquiry.

Lastly, there was a commenter on The Torontoist's website who identified himself as a soldier who served in Afghanistan. His identity is unverified but there doesn't seem to be any real reason to doubt that he is what he says he is. And what he is is disgusted:

I don't care if Osama Bin Laden himself is hiding on Queen Street like Waldo... you don't just drop an airstrike on the village... I support our law enforcement as i support our troops. But my support is not a blank cheque to be held cheaply against the values and rights you trample as surely as you stepped on our flag. You will find me a tenacious opponent and one now who wants to know just how that cheque i did write you was used... and i think after saturdays impotence and sundays ignorance someone has to pay the piper...

The unknown soldier's full comment (which I encourage you to read) pretty much puts things in context. I hope this is something that Canadians - not just the people who live in Toronto, but all Canadians - don't let slide. At the very least, when election time comes around, whether it's municipal, provincial and federal, remember how our rights - the rights that our soldiers die for - were abused and make your displeasure known.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Breeding revenge in Afghanistan and Toronto

Wired's Danger Room blog had an interesting post yesterday on a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found "strong evidence for a revenge effect" when civilians are killed by military forces in Afghanistan. The findings, in my opinion, can also apply to Toronto and the recent G20. I'll explain in a minute.

First up, the bureau examined the effects of more than 4,000 civilian deaths in Afghanistan over a 14-month period and found that, yes, such events do trigger revenge attacks. U.S. forces and their allies can expect an:

Additional 0.03 attacks per 1,000 population in the next 6-week period. In a district of 83,000 people, then, the average of two civilian casualties killed in ISAF-initiated military action leads to six additional insurgent attacks in the following six weeks.

Wired filed this in the "no, duh!" category, and it was certainly borne out in my research of Sex, Bombs and Burgers. One of the main motivators in developing new military technology, several experts told me, was to limit civilian casualties. An iRobot executive told me it was in the U.S. military's best interests to limit civilian damage because "today's enemies are tomorrow's allies."

Indeed, there is probably no better way to prolong a war than to kill civilians, thereby inspiring hatred, anger and feelings of revenge in the survivors. Conversely, if you can avoid that, you are likely to actually shorten the conflict.

Where does the G20 come in? Well, I don't want to equate protests in major cities - even violent ones - with the carnage and casualties found in places such as Afghanistan, but there is a similar factor at work in both situations. I, for one, never gave much thought to G20 protests and the chaos they always bring with them until, of course, they showed up in my backyard. Well, it was actually a little before that, as I've mentioned here before.

The billion-dollar security bill and the downtown detention camp, both unveiled before the actual summit began, did a good enough job of turning me against the G20. The civil rights violations that took place during the actual summit pretty much cemented it.

If there's even a whiff of another G20 summit coming to town, you can bet I'll be out there on the front lines protesting it. I suspect I am far from alone in feeling that way. I wouldn't go far as Black Bloc-ing it, but I'm willing to bet that movement will grow too.

In that sense, I suspect G20 summits tend to inspire their own brand of revenge-bent survivors. Just like Afghanistan, it's a beast that seems to feed itself. The National Bureau of Economic Research should do a similar study on the effects of these summits.

UPDATE: What I forgot to mention is that, ironically, technology can also play a big role in ameliorating the effects of the G20. As a number of people commented on Twitter during the summit: why didn't the leaders just use video-conferencing? I wrote that up as a story, with the pros and the cons, last week.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

No female Viagra yet

Bad news for all the frustrated boyfriends and husbands out there - the female version of Viagra isn't going to happen any time soon. You're going to have to deal with "not tonight dear, I have a headache" for at least a while longer.

Scientists for pharmaceutical companies have been searching for the little pink pill to complement the little blue pill since Viagra hit the market in 1998. Viagra, which cures erectile dysfunction, has been a smash hit, so obviously every pharma company under the sun is looking to cash in on the female equivalent. Germany's Boehringer has been leading the way with its pill, known chemically as flibanserin.

But, as Reuters recently reported, U.S. drug authorities are not likely to give the pill clearance. An expert panel that reports to the Food and Drug Administration has given a thumbs down to Boehringer's pill, saying that its efficacy is limited compared to the side effects. Those downsides: depression, fainting and fatigue, among others. On the bright side, the FDA advisers did tell the company to keep trying, as low female sex drive is a big problem.

"Indeed this is a significant need for women, and finding a medicine that will benefit women is critical," said panel chairwoman Dr. Julia Johnson, who is also head of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The Reuters story, however, doesn't really point out the big difference between Viagra and what Boehringer is working toward. Viagra works primarily by increasing the blood flow to the penis, thereby allowing the user to get and maintain an erection. The pill thus fixes a physical issue.

In many cases of low female libido, the issue is usually not physical, but rather mental. Boehringer's pill is therefore an effort to stimulate actual sex drive, making it something of an aphrodisiac. In other words, it's a fancy Spanish Fly.

I'm no chemist (if I was, I'd surely be cooking crystal meth, like Walter White), but I have to believe that if a pharmaceutical company could pull off a drug that boosts female sex drive, it could surely do the same for males as well.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Big Mac = lonely in Japan

In what has to be some of the saddest news I've heard in a while, fast-food consumption is on the rise in Japan. In and of itself, that's not actually the sad part. It's the reason why it's growing that's a little disheartening.

Fast-food joints such as McDonald's are the only restaurants that accept single diners, Bloomberg News reports. And, according to consumer trends research firm NPD Group, single-person households are on the rise. “The only restaurants available to single parties are fast food,” an NPD analyst told Bloomberg. “McDonald’s has a counter where single diners can go and hook up their PCs and just browse on the web.”

Put those two facts together and the fortunes of fast-food chains look good. Fast food is the only restaurant category to improve in Japan last year. The chains, such as McDonald's and those owned by local company Zensho, are seeing their stocks appreciate as a result.

Perhaps one of the other reasons McDonald's is doing well in Japan is its well-trained crew. If you missed the news back in March, the chain has partnered with Nintendo to train its staff on the video game maker's DSi portable console. The fast-food chain is spending more than $2 million on the devices and custom-built games, which train crew how to make burgers, clean restaurants and so on.

It's yet another way in which fast-food companies are similar to the military. You may remember reading the news here about how the U.S. military is using Microsoft's Project Natal system - now known officially as "Kinect" - for research and training purposes.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Franken-salmon will open genetic floodgates

Here's some news that is bound to freak some people out: food authorities in the United States are on the verge of approving genetically engineered animals for consumption.

Our friend, the humble salmon, is likely to get Food and Drug Administration approval in the next few months, according to the New York Times. The company behind the fish, AquaBounty Technologies, expects the fish will be in stores in the next two to three years.

AquaBounty has taken a regular Atlantic salmon and inserted into it a gene from the Chinook salmon and one from the ocean pout, a distant relative of the salmon. Regular salmon do not produce growth hormone during cold weather, the Times reports, but the genetically engineered version - known as the AquAdvantage Fish - can develop year-round.

The benefit of being able to grow all year is that the salmon only takes 16 to 18 months to get to an eatable size, whereas a normal fish takes about three years. AquaBounty, which plans to grow the Franken-salmon in fish farms, says they won't be any bigger, but they will be ready much faster, which will help meet rising food demand.

The interesting twist, according to the article, is how the FDA examines applications for genetically modified foods. As of 2008, such organisms are classified as drugs, which means the data submitted by applicants doesn't have to be shared publicly. The Union of Concerned Scientists is understandably concerned because there's been no peer review of AquaBounty's info, which means there's no way to tell if the science is sound or not.

If the salmon gets approved - and there will apparently be a public meeting as early as this fall to discuss the issue - it will likely open the floodgates to new genetically modified animals. As the Times article notes, scientists at the University of Guelph here in Canada have already developed the "Enviropig," or a line of Yorkshire pigs that produce less phosphorous pollution in their poo. The result is bacon and pork that tastes the same, yet is actually better for the environment.

I'll do some digging over the weekend and see if I can't come up with a list of bio-engineered animals that are nearly ready to go, and post that - as well as some thoughts about genetically modified animals - next week. In the meantime, fire up the barbecue and enjoy your genetically pure (although chemically polluted) animal products while you can!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A bittersweet Canada Day

It's Canada Day here in the Great White North! That means a day of no work, beer drinking and fireworks. Americans can think of it as July the 4th, except it's early because of the exchange rate.

I figured it would be appropriate to honour our country's birthday today, but I was torn on what to write about - the depressing state Canada currently finds itself in, or ice cream. Not being able to decide, I went with both. Let's start with the depressing stuff.

I've spent much of the past week or so lamenting the erosion of our freedoms, thanks to the G20 summit. First, before the conference even began, there was the outrageous security bill, the walls and the omnipresent police officers, who made a normally safe city feel cold and alien. Then, when the summit actually happened, there was the violence, civil rights violations and abuse of power. I was starting to get over some of it, but then I watched the video below of Naomi Klein, journalist and author of several great books including her latest, The Shock Doctrine, speaking at a rally on Monday in front of Toronto police headquarters.

The protest itself was amazing - around 1,000 people gathered to protest not the G20, but the police's behaviour over the weekend. Check out the video:

If that doesn't make you mad, I don't know what will. Klein is absolutely right: with $1 billion spent on security - 10 times more than what has ever been spent on a G20 before - it is inconceivable that even a single store window was allowed to be broken, much less several police cruisers allowed to burn. That either means conspiracy, where the summit organizers used the event as their "personal ATM machine," or gross incompetency. In either case, heads must roll.

As expected, there are calls for various inquiries. I say bollocks to that idea - it's not democratic and, forgive me for being cynical, it'll only result in more bullshit. Maybe we'll need to have a further inquiry to sort out that bullshit.

Hell no. This whole fiasco calls for a reaffirmation of democracy, and the best way to do that is to have an election. Or a whole bunch of them. There's evidence of complicity on every level. The federal government made the idiot move of having an event that always turns out to be a clusterf&^%$ in the middle of the country's largest city. The provincial government passed and/or changed laws in secret to facilitate it (our media is still trying to figure out exactly what happened). The municipal government sided with the cops and tried to pass the buck to the feds by claiming their pleas to hold the summit in a different location went unheard - a bullshit excuse if I've ever heard one. Like holding the summit a few blocks west of downtown would have stopped the protestors.

Fortunately, we're going to have a municipal election later this year. I suspect the fallout from the G20 will stick around long enough on a municipal level to have a big impact on that election. The provincial government is a little luckier - the Liberals have a majority and are set to rule until next year. Federally, though, things are shakier with a minority Conservative government running things. Anger over the G20, depending on how far up the chain it goes, could make things very interesting in Ottawa.

The Conservatives have maintained a minority government for four years so far, a veritable miracle when compared to the track record of minority governments (I believe the average is 1.5 years). That they've been able to do so is a pretty big condemnation of the opposition - it goes to show just how bad the Liberals are. Someone mentioned to me the other day that even if we wanted an election right now, there just isn't anyone better to vote for.

That's true, but what people forget is that in a democracy, you don't always vote for the better person, you sometimes vote to punish the other person. If enough Canadians expressed their anger over the G20 fiasco and demanded an election, the Liberals would certainly seize on that. They'd take votes any way they could get them. And a newly elected Liberal government, unless its members were completely brain dead (which could be up for debate), would be cognizant of how they came to power. Namely: if you abuse the public trust, you get yourself booted. Barack Obama's 2008 victory is a good example - his landslide was fueled not just by the strength of his character, but also by the public's desire to punish the Republicans.

Another friend also commented that while we Torontonians may be angry, the Conservatives don't really give a damn because they never fare well with voters here anyway. That's also true, as this map of the 2008 election shows. There's also the thinking that the rest of Canada looks on at us Torontonians as a bunch of cry-babies.

If anyone outside of Toronto does hold that view, that's pretty sad. If lamenting the beating of journalists, the unwarranted imprisoning of innocent citizens and the arresting of a guy who was simply heading to his fantasy role-playing game are only Toronto-centric issues, then I'm not really sure what it means to be Canadian. These are offences that shouldn't be acceptable in any part of this country, so I would hope non-Torontonians would put aside their normal disdain for us (some of which I'm sure is warranted) and join us in calling for an affirmation of democracy. As the old saying goes, if you sit silently by and let it happen to someone else, there may not be anyone left to object when it happens to you.

Okay, with that said, I did promise that it wouldn't be all frowns and bitching today. The other day I ran into an old friend at the checkout counter of the grocery store, and she had an item that blew my mind: it was a package of ice cream that had a Canadian flag pattern worked into it (see photo above). Call me a nerd, but I couldn't help but wonder at this wondrous display of food technology (even if ironically, it may not be made in Canada).

So there you have it: why not enjoy a blob of Canadian-flagged ice cream this Canada Day? The sweetness may distract somewhat from the bad taste left in our mouths by the G20.
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