Tuesday, August 31, 2010

M. Night: It's Over, Mon

Being a film buff, I see a lot of movies. It was with great interest, then, that I sat in a theater recently and watched a trailer for a new horror thriller that takes place largely in an elevator. An interesting concept, I thought, as did most of the audience... until a set of words popped up onto the screen that inspired howls of laughter: "From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan."

Seriously. The audience broke out in laughter as soon as the director/writer's name appeared. What's even funnier is that I've now seen before a couple of movies, and every time it's been the same reaction: steady interest until his name appeared, then laughter.

You don't need to be a film critic to know that's not good. It seems pretty clear that Shyamalan, who first burst onto the scene in 1999 with The Sixth Sense - a movie about a kid who sees dead people - has by now lost all credibility. The abominable Last Airbender, which got an astonishing 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a whopping average critic score of 20 out of a 100 on Metacritic, looks to have been the final nail in his dwindling career.

Up until now! Oh yes, as if Shyamalan doesn't have enough trouble being taken seriously, he's gone and done a spoof of the upcoming elevator movie that he wrote - unimaginatively called Devil, by the way - with MTV's Josh Horowitz and Penthouse Pet Ryan Keely (her inclusion thereby tangentially qualifying the movie for discussion on this blog). Here's the spoof, equally imaginatively named Escalation:

As you can see, the only thing worse than a man who isn't being taken seriously spoofing himself, is a man spoofing himself in something that isn't even funny. Yikes.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The humble can: 200 years of awesomeness

I received an email the other day from Tom Megginson, a creative director with Ottawa-based marketing firm Acart Communications who wanted to let me know that he had mentioned me on his blog. After giving it a read, I simply had to point to it here - not because I'm in it, but because his posting is hilarious.

In what can only be described as an "ode to a can," Tom pays homage to the humble tin can. Yup - that piece of metal that over the past two centuries has housed everything from soup to Spam to beer. We rarely think about the can, but as Tom humorously sums up in his post, it's been an incredibly important piece of hardware.

As I delve into in Sex, Bombs and Burgers, the can was the first and most important step in food processing - it was the first technological breakthrough that made long-term storage and transportation of food possible. Not only did that enable further exploration and study of the world, it also aided military forces by providing durable food for troops far away from home.

But, as Tom observes, the trusty and reliable can is now under threat from something called the retort pouch, or lighter and better packaging developed - ironically - by the military. I won't spoil the rest of his post, but I recommend you give it a read.

One thing I'm left wondering, though, is whether the beer pictured at the bottom of his post will ever come in a retort pouch. That would be weird.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Yesterday's post about why Google is offering people free voice calls generated quite a bit of discussion. The folks over at Gizmodo contacted me and asked if they could syndicate the post, and I said sure - there were quite a few good reader comments that took my theory a bit further, and at least one observer who thought I was .

I also checked in with Google to see what they thought of the theory - that the company is giving away free calls in exchange for audio samples that can be harvested and used to build better voice search - and they sent me this quasi-denial:

"Actually, it is about free calls. We're not using call phones in Gmail to improve our voice search features. The revenue from international calling will cover the costs of free calls, and we'd encourage you to give your friends overseas a ring."

I'm not fully sold on that denial, not because I don't trust the company's communications people, but because I have a high degree of respect for its engineers, and I would almost think it foolish of them to ignore such a valuable cache of information. Interestingly, some privacy advocates in Australia seem to agree.

Google's response also doesn't make a ton of sense, for several other reasons.

In the first case, despite what it seems like, Google doesn't give anything away for free - not search, not Gmail, not Maps. All of these free services have a price, and it usually involves showing the user some ads. Phone calls, as cheap as they are, actually cost Google money, so it's hard to believe the company would just give them away for nothing.

As per the company's reasoning, where the costs will be recouped through charges for overseas calls, that may turn out to be the case, but I suspect in the early going the vast majority of calls will be made in the United States, the only country where Gmail calling is officially available so far (we Canadians can get it too for some reason, as can Australians evidently).

Then there's the fact that Google admits to storing calls made to its GOOG-411 information service. It's right there in the : "We also collect and store a copy of the voice commands you make to the service, so we can audit, evaluate, and improve the voice recognition capabilities of the service. We do not directly link the stored copy of your voice commands with your caller id. Your voice commands are anonymized after six months." Why then, would its other voice services be different?

There is one potential reason, and if there's a flaw in my theory, this is it: Google's recording and storing of calls could be illegal. In Canada - and I'm fairly sure the law is the same in the United States - a phone call can be recorded if at least one party to the conversation is aware that it's being recorded. I'm no lawyer, but this type of service from Google - with a pretty vague privacy policy - is murky at best, since Google would represent a third party. It could be argued that by the user accepting the , which states that "Google maintains and processes your Google Voice account and its contents to provide the Google Voice service to you and to improve our services," they acknowledge and accept the third-party recording.

There's also the inevitable concern that Google mining phone calls would be a violation of the user's privacy, but I'm not too excited about that one. We went through the same concerns when Google first started combing through people's emails to deliver them ads, and in the end that didn't amount to much. I don't see how Google going through phone calls would be any different, even if it's to a different end than parsing people's email.

Maybe, maybe not. But as one Gizmodo reader pointed out: "At the very least Google Voice gets to look at your voicemails, or voicemails to you, and work on translating those into text. So if they don't have direct access to your calls they do get to see your messages." So even if Google isn't mining the larger sample of voice calls, which it says it isn't, it could use voice mails as its database of audio samples. I'll see if the company denies that and report back.

Lastly, some people seemed to think there was some negativity behind my theory yesterday - that perhaps I thought Google giving away phone calls as a way to evolve its search engines was a bad thing. Far from it. Like I said above, I think Google's engineers are some of the smartest people around, and the calling service is great - I plan on using it quite a bit. I only hope that Google extends the free North American calling beyond just this year.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gmail Voice about future search, not free calls

Yesterday's most exciting news was Google's introduction of to Gmail. In a nutshell, if you have a Gmail account, you can now make free calls from your computer to real landlines and cellphones in North America. You can also call the rest of the world for peanuts, with many countries costing only 2 cents a minute.

The announcement is significant for a number of reasons. For one, it's direct competition for Skype, which was already pretty direct competition to landline and cellphone companies. Skype has made calling virtually free - I currently pay about $35 a year for unlimited calls within North America through its SkypeOut service, which is obviously a fraction of what phone companies charge.

In the U.S., the computer-based Gmail service works nicely with , which is another free calling service that lets smartphone owners use their data plan rather than their voice plan to make calls. In other words, you don't actually need a voice plan to make phone calls with Google Voice; just the data connection will do. And while the Gmail service is currently shackled to the computer, there's no realistic reason why it'll stay that way.

Here's why Google will beat Skype and every other phone company: to those other companies, it's still about phone calls and figuring out how to make money from them. But, because the actual cost of making a call over the internet is almost zero, Google can afford to swallow this rather incidental cost as a future investment toward its real business: search.

In Sex, Bombs and Burgers, I talk to , the man behind Google Translate. The company's award-winning and pretty accurate service uses statistical machine translation, an algorithm that studies patterns in different written languages and then predicts the results in another language. The system's accuracy is predicated entirely on the number of documents it has to work with; the larger the comparison database, the more accurate the translation.

In 2007, the search company launched
Google 411, a service that you could call and ask questions, such as the address of a business. The service would send you the requested information back in a text message. The purpose of 411 wasn't so much for Google to provide you with a rather convoluted information delivery system, but more for the company to gather voice samples to use in building a better voice search system, in the same way that documents were used to build Translate's database.

Och, in building his original translation system, used United Nations documents because there were millions of them, and they were all already translated into the U.N.'s six official languages. It was a treasure trove of information. Google 411 was a similar early attempt at building a database and the effort bore fruit with the launch of on the iPhone in 2008, but it wasn't exactly the same jackpot as the U.N. documents largely because it wasn't that useful to consumers.

Google Voice, including Gmail calling, is the next step in that process. Google will use the zillions of calls that go over its Voice service to build up its database, which will allow it to improve the accuracy of its voice search. As the Google Voice states:

Google's computers process the information in your messages for various purposes, including formatting and displaying the information to you, playing you your messages, backing up your messages, and other purposes relating to offering you Google Voice.

That "various purposes" clause is pretty nebulous and can certainly include research and development of search algorithms.

In other words, free phone calls are the jackpot that Google has been looking for. While Skype and phone companies continue to try and find a way to squeeze pennies out of phone calls, for Google it's extremely valuable to give them away for nothing because it will help the company develop the next generation of search. After all, typing our searches into a web browser is far from the most efficient way of finding information. Saying what we want is much better, and it's how we'll primarily be searching in the not-so-distant future.

UPDATE: This post has been picked up by Gizmodo, and some reader comments there have provided some additional clarity on how Google Voice works. The calls made on Google Voice using a smartphone actually go over the cellphone carrier's voice network, not its data network, as I mentioned above. That's a little different from Skype on a smartphone, which as far as I know, uses only the data connection. Google Voice could theoretically use the data network, and I'm not really sure why it's not doing so. In any event, how the service is conveyed doesn't really make much of a difference in my search theory.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wireless "tabs" don't really deliver deals

In a bit of a departure today, I thought I'd write a bit about one of my favourite topics: cellphones. As every wireless customer in Canada knows, we've been shelling out pretty nicely here for years to our big three wireless carriers, Bell, Rogers and Telus. Things are looking up though, with several smaller new players - such as Wind, Mobilicity and Public Mobile - shaking things up and helping prices come down. The situation has also been helped by Bell and Telus recently moving to the same network technology as Rogers, which means that in theory at least, customers will be able to use their phones on all three networks, which will spur competition. Apple's iPhone is a good example - all three carriers offer the hot device, and deals are starting to emerge to entice customers to a particular service provider.

The other day, though, Virgin Mobile put out a press release introducing its new "Super Tab," which is supposedly a way to get cool phones without signing a long-term contract or paying the full price of the device up front. It's essentially a knock-off of Koodo's Tab. Virgin and Koodo, if you didn't know, are respectively owned by Bell and Telus.

Here's how Virgin's Super Tab works: pick a phone, then bank up to $500 of the cost on the Super Tab, and pay the rest - if any - up front. Then, 10% of your monthly bill will be deducted from the amount you owe on the phone. Ultimately, you'll have the phone paid off, or so the idea goes. If you cancel your service at any point, you have to pay off whatever is left on your Super Tab. Koodo's Tab is similar, except the amount you can start off owing is set at a maximum of $150.

The whole tab concept, while marketed as beneficial to consumers, is unfortunately another attempt to snow customers because they can actually cost you more money than if you bought the phone up front, or if you signed on to a long-term contract. Take Virgin's highest-end phone as an example: the iPhone 4 32 GB, which costs $769 up front. If you bought this phone, you'd have to pay $269 up front and bank $500 on your Super Tab. If your monthly bill was, say $50, you'd earn $5 a month - which means your new iPhone would be paid off in about, oh, eight years and three months. If you're a power user and your monthly bill was $100, you'd have it paid off in half that time - just four years, or one year longer than a three-year contract (which, incidentally, is the longest contract you'll find anywhere in the world).

Let's do some math. If you were indeed that $100 power user and cancelled your service after three years you'd still owe $140 on that phone which, when you add the initial $269 up-front payment, would bring the total amount you shelled out to $409 (the $50 user would still owe $320, for a total cost of $589). But if you bought the same phone from parent Bell on a three-year contract today, you'd pay $159, which means if you have no intention of canceling your service over the next three years, there's absolutely no reason to go with the Super Tab. In real terms, it would cost the $50-a-month user $430 more to use the Super Tab, and the $100-a-month customer $250 more.

But what if you cancelled your service after one year? On the Virgin Super Tab, the $100 customer would still owe $380, bringing the total cost to $649, while the $50 customer would still owe $440 for a total cost of $709. How much would the Bell customer owe? Who knows? The maximum early termination fee used to be $400, which would bring the total iPhone cost after one year to $569 - not a bad deal given the $769 price tag - but that doesn't seem to be the case any more. Any mention of wireless cancellation charges have recently vanished from Bell's website which, if you care about such things, is a violation of the wireless industry's self-adopted code of conduct. What you might owe Bell after canceling your iPhone one year into a contract is anybody's guess at this point. (Telus is more transparent with its early termination fees - canceling an iPhone after one year would run you $480.)

Speaking of Telus... currently, the most expensive phone offered through Koodo is the BlackBerry Curve 8530 for $250. Let's bank $150 on the Tab. Again, a $50-a-month customer would have that paid off in two-and-a-half years while a $100 customer would take just over a year. That's not nearly as bad as the Virgin example above, but it's clear that the more expensive the phone, the worse this whole tab idea looks.

Again, if you want a high-end smartphone, you're better off signing a contract or, better yet, buying the thing outright and unlocking it. That won't necessarily net you any service deals yet, but that is likely to change if Wind, Mobilicity and the rest start to have any real impact.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More Taliban in games might be good for us

Following up on Friday's post, Britain's defense secretary Liam Fox has called on a ban of the upcoming Medal of Honor because the video game lets players control Taliban fighters.

"At the hands of the Taliban, children have lost fathers and wives have lost husbands. It's shocking that someone would think it acceptable to recreate the acts of the Taliban against British soldiers," Fox said in a statement. "It's hard to believe any citizen of our country would wish to buy such a thoroughly un-British game. I would urge retailers to show their support for our armed forces and ban this tasteless product."

On Friday, I talked about how the media has typically come at this issue, but I neglected to get at the core issue: do the criticisms from folks such as Fox have any merits?

As an avid gamer, and a realist, the answer to me is an emphatic "no." Firstly, unless Fox and the woman who raised a similar ruckus about Medal of Honor in the U.S. last week have some special preview privileges, it's pretty safe to say they don't know what they're talking about as they have yet to actually see or play the game. Their worries are most likely way overblown, and it looks like they're in dire need of having someone explain to them exactly how video games work.

I'm a hard-core addict of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, the game that Medal of Honor - by all appearances - is trying very hard to emulate. I've also been thoroughly addicted to every previous Call of Duty game that's come out, so I think I can speak with some greater authority about what the role of the Taliban likely will be in Medal of Honor.

For people who don't know much about them, such first-person shooters generally have two game modes: a single-player campaign that sees players follow along through a predetermined storyline, and a multiplayer mode that lets them play a variety of unscripted timed matches online with friends and/or strangers.

Modern Warfare II took a lot of heat last year for putting players in control of a character who takes part in the massacre of civilians during the single-player storyline. The character, in order to infiltrate a terrorist organization, had to participate in the carnage to gain their trust.

What the game didn't get a lot of attention for was its multiplayer mode, which cast players in a variety of factions, such as U.S. Army Rangers or Russian Spetsnaz, but also something called OpFor, which was essentially a group of Arab terrorists. (What's that? Children being asked to play as terrorists? Hold the phone! Somebody better get the media on the horn!)

But this particular aspect of the game didn't get much attention because a) OpFor is fictional, and more importantly, b) it's completely incidental and irrelevant to the game. In Modern Warfare II multiplayer, players get the same weapons and gadgets regardless of which team they happen to end up on (the game's servers assign the factions automatically and randomly). The team assignment, whether it's Army Rangers or OpFor, is purely cosmetic - the on-screen characters wear different clothing and shout different battle cries, but that's about the extent of their differences.

For all intents and purposes, it looks like Medal of Honor is going down the same path - it doesn't appear that players will be put in control of Taliban fighters during the more meaty single-player story-line, but rather they will only have the largely meaningless appellation assigned to them in multiplayer.

In its defense of Medal of Honor last week, Electronic Arts suggested that this was just a case of cops-and-robbers - in a game that involves multiple players, somebody has to play the good guy and somebody has to play the bad guy. Such is the case with a game set in modern-day Afghanistan: unless you want to forbid games from emulating reality, you simply can't expect this not to happen.

If the game's single-player campaign were to put players in the shoes of the Taliban, where they have to kill American or British soldiers, there might be something worth complaining about. I suspect that's not the case, however, and that this whole outcry is over a silly cosmetic fact.

The deeper issue here goes down to the increasing realism being portrayed in games. There wouldn't be a peep over Medal of Honor if the game had American troops killing British troops, and vice versa, because that's just too silly to be realistic (not so a few centuries ago). The problem is that it's really happening, right now, and that it's not just voyeuristic entertainment - it's actually interactive. After all, as the fears go, putting gamers (which to critics inevitably and erroneously equates to children) in the shoes of the Taliban means they'll develop sympathies to their causes.

Part of that is actually true, but that's a good thing. Video games do contain a certain subversive ability to shine insight where the rest of entertainment fears to go. The Hurt Locker won best picture earlier this year for its portrayal of the trials and tribulations of American troops in Iraq, but where is the other side of the story?

I'll tell you where: it's in video games. Perhaps the best piece of writing I've ever read about video games was from Clive Thompson in Wired a few years ago about his experience in trying to play Halo 3 online. To summarize: Clive jumped into the crazy world that is multiplayer gaming with Halo 3, only to get his ass whupped by the 10-year-olds and shut-ins that typically spend all their time mastering the game. After countless defeats, desperation set in and he began "suicide-bombing" these highly advanced players, just to spite them and screw up their points. The exercise, he said, gave him unprecedented insight into how the mind of a suicide bomber must work:

The fact remains that something quite interesting happened to me because of Halo. Even though I've read scores of articles, white papers and books on the psychology of terrorists in recent years, and even though I have (I think) a strong intellectual grasp of the roots of suicide terrorism, something about playing the game gave me an "aha" moment that I'd never had before: an ability to feel, in whatever tiny fashion, the strategic logic and emotional calculus behind the act.

The criticisms of Medal of Honor, as baseless as they likely are, may actually be backwards as well. Perhaps video games should put players in more control of opposing forces. Done well, such games - because of their interactive and emotional-engaging capabilities - could provide insights that we just aren't getting from other forms of entertainment. And how can better understanding of our enemies ever be a bad thing?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Apple app store head a fan of porn?

Ha! That's all I had to say when I read the news over the weekend about how Phillip Shoemaker, the head of Apple's app store, was busted by bloggers over at Valleywag for following a whole ton of porn stars and escorts on Twitter.

I've posted before about Apple's hypocritical position when it comes to pornography. CEO Steve Jobs, of course, has declared that his products give you "freedom from porn" by not allowing "adult" or "sexy" apps into Apple's app store. Of course, we know that's bull-cocky because if anything, Apple's products have allowed porn to spread like few other gadgets have.

It's very ironic, as Valleywag , that Shoemaker was following so many porn stars and escorts on Twitter's microblogging service. It's pretty funny that the guy in charge of keeping iPhones and iPads "free from porn" seems to be such a big fan of it. The article does suggest he may have had his account set up to automatically follow back anyone who followed him, but it went on to add that this was unlikely given that he had a long run - or a "spree" - of adding escorts, indicating that he followed them manually... er, voluntarily.

Could he have been following them for "research" purposes? Perhaps - after all, I follow a number of porn stars, although I can say factually that it is for research. But if that were the case, why did he delete his Twitter account shortly after Wired magazine started asking him questions about it? Seems very fishy.

And what's with the names of Apple executives anyway? First there was Mark Papermaster, who recently
left his job as vice-president of devices hardware engineering, and now there's Phillip Shoemaker. I guess if I ever want a job at Apple, I'm going to have to change my name to something like Peter Pencilemperor or Peter Pumpkineater.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Controversy in video games... yawn

I'm not sure if it's the dog days of summer or whether it's some sort of deeper simmering discontent, but I've been very weary of the media lately (that includes my role in it). I'm becoming more and more aware that much of what we see and read is simply there to fill space, and to attract us to that particular space, as opposed to it actually being important.

Such was my reaction when I came across a tidbit this week about the upcoming Medal of Honor video game, which allows players to control Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Fox News, that bastion of important journalism, interviewed a woman who is taking exception to the game because her son recently died in Afghanistan.

Yes, it's a tragic loss, but really? Do we really need more of these by-the-numbers sorts of stories? Let's connect the dots, shall we: 1. Piece of entertainment comes out that includes something remotely controversial. 2. Find someone who might think it's offensive. 3. Confront them and broadcast it.

Owen Good over at Jezebel actually gives Fox kudos for its "fair and balanced" treatment of this issue, especially given how the network has been god-awful in its previous portrayals of video games (Mass Effect anyone?). Here's the video report:

I'm not willing to be as charitable on the fair-and-balanced front because, like I said, it's the same old, same old. Perhaps Fox was more reasonable in its on-screen discussion of this particular game, but the fact that the story aired at all shows the network is still sticking to the same old "let's make a controversy" formula, especially when it comes to video games.

We heard the same schtick last fall when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 came out. In it, players were put in control of a terrorist whose cell kills innocent civilians in a mall. That drew howls of outrage, even though the themes in the game were no worse than what's found on television almost every night, and Fox has now simply gone back to that same well, albeit in a slightly different and more stealthy way.

If there's anything positive to come of this, it's that the new, more measured approach might actually mean news outlets such as Fox have learned from their earlier overblown reactions, and that perhaps their viewers let them know it. I have to believe that fewer and fewer people care about the latest "controversy" in video games every year, so hopefully we'll get to a fall games season without having to see a single story like this one.

By the way, since we're on the topic, I had the good fortune of spending some of my birthday the other day at Microsoft's annual holiday games preview, and I got my hands on several upcoming games. That included the awesome Call of Duty: Black Ops, which comes out in November. Check out my report. And speaking as a guy who's addicted to Call of Duty, judging by the footage in that Fox report, it sure looks like Medal of Honor is ripping off its main rival.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Zagat's top fast food ratings

Yesterday was my birthday so I thought I'd treat myself to a rare day off from blogging today. Fear not, though, I won't let you leave here empty-handed. Check out the new survey from Zagat, raters of fine food, as they look at the best fast food available in the United States. Here are a couple of highlights:

Best burger
1. Five Guys
2. In-N-Out Burger
3. Wendy's
4. Burger King
5. McDonald's

Best fries
1. McDonald's
2. Five Guys
3. In-N-Out Burger
4. Wendy's
5. Burger King

Best value menu
1. McDonald's
2. Wendy's
3. Taco Bell
4. Burger King
5. Arby's

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

3D porn in Imax? Not bloody likely

People compete for the strangest things: there's an awful lot of chest thumping going on right now between smut producers over who can rightfully claim to have filmed the first 3D porn movie.

Last week, a group of Hong Kong film makers on track to do so with their production, 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, which will apparently be released in May. Some reporters, including those with wire service AFP, fell for it and reported it as the first.

However, we learned back in May that European porn makers had gotten there first with Kama-Sutra, a movie that was filmed in honest-to-goodness 3D, as opposed to post-processed to include the effect (it's therefore more like Avatar than Alice in Wonderland or Clash of the Titans).

Not to be outdone, the Hong Kong producers are beating the drum again and claiming that their production will not only be 3D, it will also be the first 3D porn film done in Imax. I have trouble believing this, given the higher expense of filming in the bigger format. Consider that the only directors who can afford to film in Imax are the likes of Christopher Nolan, who can pretty much offset the higher costs through the massive returns the non-Imax version of their films are guaranteed to bring in.

A porn film in Imax, on the other hand, would be shown on very few Imax screens - if any at all - which is why I'm inclined to think this news is of the poppycock variety.

In any event, any claims of creating the world's first 3D porn movie by filmmakers today is wrong. Not only have producers such as Pink Visual been creating stereoscopic porn since last year, there were also plenty of films produced in the seventies during the previous wave of 3D movies.

Perhaps the most disturbing news to come out of the 3D porn camp, however, is word that director Tinto Brass is doing a 3D remake of his 1979 film Caligula. Great Caesar's ghost, as if that movie wasn't horrific enough!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Are net neutrality boosters ignoring Vint Cerf?

Last week, I chimed in on the whole Google/Verizon net neutrality proposal and tried to suggest that people should step back and think about the whole thing rationally. The problem was, just about everyone with an opinion about the internet was busy huffing and puffing about how "Google had sold out" and how "Google had gone evil."

Perhaps the most melodramatic responses came from the Free Press, a U.S. consumer group that said the proposal was even , that it would lead to a two-tiered internet and that essentially the sky was falling. The tech press was no better, with headlines ranging from harsh to over-the-top. Taking the cake was Wired, a "carrier-humping, net neutrality surrender monkey."

I mentioned
that Google needed to call on Vint Cerf, its vice-president and "chief internet evangelist," to comment on the Verizon proposal. Cerf, often referred to as the "father of the internet" for his pioneering role in building the network in the 1970s, is a staunch advocate of net neutrality and, therefore, a very well-respected voice on the matter. His support or opposition of the proposal was therefore quite important for a measured judgement of it.

For kicks, I emailed Cerf and asked if he wanted to talk about it. I didn't expect him to get back to me - I suspect he knows the weight he carries in the net neutrality debate, and if he was going to voice his thoughts, I thought he'd do so in the largest possible forum, perhaps the New York Times, but probably not through a Canadian journalist. Let's face facts: although we Canadians are very interested in net neutrality, this issue is proving to be an American problem for now.

A few days later, though, Cerf did respond, saying that he did want to talk about the Verizon proposal, which surprised me. Either he considered me a sympathetic ear, or he has simply enjoyed our previous talks. I don't know.

We chatted on Friday and I posted
, along with full audio, on CBC. In a nutshell, Cerf approached the Google/Verizon proposal as I expected him to: with logic and a level head. He doesn't fully like it, but he thinks it's a worthwhile attempt at finding common ground on what is proving to be an impossible problem to solve.

Some hard-line net neutrality purists expected a staunch advocate such as Cerf to resign because there was no way the proposal could be supported. No dice on that one, Cerf said, because firstly it's only a proposal, and secondly it has no actual weight of its own. Congress will ultimately call the shots, and as Cerf said, he could resign from his country over something Congress did, but not necessarily Google for something the company suggested.

Here's where I get to the complaining. The story was posted on a Friday afternoon in August - granted, probably the worst possible time that you can publish a story and hope to get it read. But still, here we are three days later and almost no one - especially in the U.S. - has linked to it. Seven days ago, ZDNet's Tom Foremski mused
as to why Vint Cerf was "silent on the net neutrality issue?" yet no one so far has thought to follow up on that question? A simple Google search would show that Cerf has indeed broken his silence.

It's not like CBC tech stories are invisible to Americans. Stories I've written have appeared on Slashdot and Techmeme, two popular aggregation sites, so they do show up in RSS feeds and other news alerts (most recently, a story about Canada getting unlocked iPhones featured prominently on Techmeme). I find it difficult to believe, then, that not a single U.S. tech news website picked up the Cerf story, which raises my suspicions. At the risk of sounding paranoid, I think one of two things may be at work here.

Journalists can be petty. In the newspaper world, it's common for one paper to ignore a story if another paper broke it, and vice versa. In the online world, it's a little better because everyone is usually desperate to fill the never-ending news hole. It's possible, though, that the U.S. tech press is ignoring the Cerf interview because they didn't get it. Worse still, not only did they not get it, but a filthy Canadian did. I'm not casting too many stones here, because I understand this attitude and must confess to practicing it on occasion too (the bit about missing the story, not the part about filthy Canadians).

The other, more disturbing possibility is that the U.S. tech press has seen it (I know for a fact some have), yet they're pretending it doesn't exist because Cerf has shown them up to be, as I said last week, unthinking reactionaries. Yup, I'm suggesting some potential bias here, but let's face it - any publication that would trumpet Google as a "surrender monkey" seems to be pretty keenly advocating one specific line of thought on this issue (to be fair, Wired is far from alone). It's pretty unseemly to have a well-respected voice on this issue call you out as "not constructive."

Even here in Canada, where CBC stories have considerably more visibility, the silence has been deafening. Net neutrality absolutists, who devour every bit of information that comes out on the topic, have been pretty quiet in their blogs. SaveOurNet.ca, a site devoted to net neutrality, has a number of recent posts on the U.S. situation, but nothing about what one of the leading advocates in the field thinks. Suspicious indeed.

That leaves me asking: What gives? Has Vint Cerf cowed the unthinking reactionaries and absolutists into silence? Was his level-headed response not the emotional ammunition they were hoping for? Or will his opinions get swept under the carpet so that the heated and more exciting "surrender monkey" debate can continue?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Burgers of the future may mean more spam

What do you get when you blend fast food and social media? You get a restaurant such as 4Food, a burger joint opening in New York in September that packs in about as much technology as it possibly can to make customers' dining experience a good one.

But it's a different kind of technology than that employed by the likes of McDonald's. Rather than use a high-tech system to produce and transport its goods, 4Food will use social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as well as iPads, to streamline the ordering experience. The food, management says, will be all locally sourced and/or organic. They're on a mission to "de-junk" fast food.

Aside from having waiters walking around taking orders on iPads, the thing I find most interesting is 4Food's marketing strategy, which was explained in a profile by CNET over the weekend. You can log on to the company's website and create your own burger, which you can of course order and have ready for you when you come in. But you can also save your burger and promote it on Twitter, Facebook and the like, and if someone else actually logs on to the website and orders your burger, you get a 25-cent kickback from the restaurant. Get enough people ordering your creation and you eat free.

I've how some fast-food restaurants are using Twitter to notify customers of things like the locations of their mobile trucks, but this is new. It's a nifty plan, but there's obviously a pretty big downside to it: it's going to lead to even more social media spam.

If you're a Twitter or Facebook user, you know what I'm talking about: the status updates that are so thoroughly useless that they can essentially be equated with spam. Don't get me wrong - seeing the occasional post on what someone had for lunch can actually be quite illuminating. Globe and Mail columnist Ivor Tossell had
on that very topic recently.

What I'm talking about are the lamest of the lame updates: the information that somebody has unlocked the "I'm on a boat" badge on
FourSquare, and such. While hearing that somebody had a ham sandwich for lunch may actually tell me something about them, hearing that they've unlocked some sort of fictional badge or they're the "mayor" of something or other really just pollutes the Twitter stream.

If 4Food's marketing plan does take off or, heaven forbid, it actually proves so wildly successful that others start copying it, things will only get worse. By making your customers your sales agents, Twitter won't just get more crowded with people telling us what they had for lunch, they'll also be trying to shove it down our throats.

(Photo courtesy CNET)

Friday, August 13, 2010

The internet rather than sex? Of course

It's an interesting headline, but one that ultimately makes no sense: "One-third of Canadians would forfeit sex rather than the internet." That's the headline ITbusiness.ca ran for a short item about a survey done by Yahoo on what people would rather give up.

The survey, conducted by Yahoo to commemorate 15 years of operating in Canada, asked people what they would be willing to give up for a year before doing without internet access. Many respondents said they'd rather forfeit chocolates, coffee, alcohol and gadgets.

About 37% of women, though, said they'd rather give up sex, while 30% of men said the same.

The Toronto Sun had a more detailed story, including a criticism of the survey by certified sex educator Cory Silverberg:

It’s ridiculous because life is never an all or nothing proposition... It’s either give up sex for a year or the internet for a year. You can’t compare sex and the internet, although we often do. The internet is for sex, sure, but it also means family, friends, eating, shopping and learning.

It's a good point. I can hardly remember life before the internet. My very first job included a short stint at the Toronto Star in 1997, and there was only one computer in the newsroom that had internet access on it. Being the new kid, I wasn't given much in the way of work in those days, so I was left to amuse myself.

Now imagine having to sit at a desk for eight hours with nothing to do, and no internet access. Exactly. You'd be bored silly, as I was in those days. I think that now, I'd rather take internet access over food and water!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

You deserve a freak-out today

I've said it before and I'll say it again: sometimes you just gotta have your McD's. Melodi Dushane, a 25-year-old Ohio woman, however, has taken that motto to an HNL ('hole 'nother level).

Police have released video of an incident that took place on New Year's Day where Dushane pulled up to a McDonald's drive-thru and tried to order McNuggets. The drive-thru clerk, however, told her they were only serving the breakfast menu, which caused the woman to go - pardon my French - totally freaking apeshit.

Check out the video, courtesy of SmarTrend news:

One of the other things I've said before is that fast-food chains really should get into replacing their employees with robot workers. That's not to say this incident could have been avoided if a robot had been taking the order, but there certainly wouldn't have been a woman getting socked in the face.

Perhaps drive-thru robots could also be equipped with tasers or some other non-lethal weapons to discourage these kinds of freak shows? Maybe those heat beams from Afghanistan could be repurposed for drive-thrus?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hot tax on tax action

How can you make international tax law interesting? It's a question academics have struggled with for time immemorial. Queen's university law professor Art Cockfield, however, has stumbled on the very simple answer: sex and violence.

As the university's website puts it:

His book Manager's Guide to International Tax contains a murder-mystery novella involving a corporate power struggle set in a Napa Valley winery. Student Edition of the Income Tax Act has a senior partner in an accounting office take her junior associate hostage and threatens to kill him unless he can answer questions about some shady business dealings.

Cockfield freely admits to using trashy topics to get students more interested and says he's an academic version of Jackie Collins, "without the fame or the wealth."

If international-tax-law-meets-hot-sexy-violence is your thing, you can get his novella by clicking here.

Incidentally, the fellow that does public relations for Queen's, Mike Onesi, is an old friend of mine from university days, and he's just released his first book. Four Word Film Reviews, based on the website of the same name, is now available in Canadian and U.S. bookstores (, of course). I haven't seen the book yet but if it's anything like the website, I'm sure it's a blast.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I wasn't planning on writing about the Google/Verizon proposal for net neutrality rules, but given the level of hysteria people whipped themselves into yesterday, I felt I had to.

The news : after months of talks, Google and U.S. telecom giant Verizon have proposed a set of rules designed to enshrine net neutrality, which has many different meanings but generally comes down to internet service providers not being allowed to discriminate between different kinds of traffic. The fears generally boil down to a cable TV/internet company slowing down competing video services because those services eat its own lunch, or a phone company slowing down something like Skype for similar reasons, and so on.

Google and Verizon proposed that would prevent this sort of stuff from happening, and they're generally decent, balanced rules. There were two, however, that twisted everybody's panties into a knot and prompted proclamations that Google - a long-time advocate (and beneficiary) of net neutrality - had sold out, betrayed its users and basically "gone evil."

The first "bad" proposal has to do with the five good proposals not applying to wireless services, only wired, such as cable, DSL and fiber. The second "bad" rule seems to be a weird one that expressly permits internet providers to build their own private internet, where they can do all sorts of internet un-neutral things, like block certain services, slow others, charge company A to run its content faster than company B, and so on.

The problem with both rules,
, is that they will encourage phone and cable companies to invest in the new, non-neutral Internet 2.0 and eventually shift all their customers on to it.

There are so many problems with all of these
, it's hard to know where to start. How about with Google's apparent betrayal? The two "bad" proposals seem very much like well-played compromises on Google's part, rather than the proverbial knife in the back. The reason given for not applying net neutrality rules to wireless was to not discourage network builders from investing in what is still a relatively new technology. The rule suggestion, however, carries with it an important clause that would let authorities check in periodically to determine if wireless should continue to be exempt.

Here in Canada, net neutrality rules
were created by our regulator, the CRTC, last October. The CRTC used the same logic in exempting wireless at the time, yet changed its mind less than nine months later, in July. Google knows this - it lobbied for net neutrality rules in Canada. The company must therefore also know that there isn't a very solid logical foundation that can keep wireless free from net neutrality rules for long if they also happen to apply to the wired internet. So on this front, I'd score Google some points in how it negotiated with Verizon - the wireless company's win is a temporary one at best.

In terms of the concession on letting internet providers create a parallel internet, well that's no concession at all - phone and cable companies can do that today if they want. The reason they haven't done so should be readily apparent: such private internets would fail spectacularly. In some ways, they already have - AOL built itself a nice walled private internet, and the company barely exists today. Facebook has done something similar and it's a fairly smart bet that its approach won't last for long.

Critics need to step back and think for a minute. In the first instance, cable and phone companies have again and again proven themselves incapable of doing anything but running cable and phone services. Remember when you used to buy your cellphone music, ringtones and screen savers from the wireless companies? Remember how horrible it was until Apple and others who actually knew what they were doing stepped in? Remember when phone companies used to sell you internet security and anti-virus packages? How well did those do? Take one look around today at some of the online on-demand video sites being run by cable companies, and then compare them to services such as Netflix, YouTube and Hulu and tell me honestly that a private internet run by these people will be remotely as compelling as the public one.

In the second instance, why would established internet companies such as Amazon, Skype, eBay and the rest move to a private internet where the rules are set by cable and phone companies? Most importantly, why would Google, which depends on an open internet to make almost all of its money (through ads), choose to set up shop on a closed system? The illogic of it is baffling.

That second "bad" proposal contained the caveat that there also would be rules in place to ensure phone and cable companies don't invest more in their private internet than they do in the public version. If anything, this proposal is again the result of some shrewd negotiation on the part of Google. The company is essentially saying, "Hey, if the cable and phone guys want to go and build their own internet, let them. As long as they don't short shrift the regular internet, that's fine." Google has faith that the internet providers will remain true to form and create networks that nobody will want to use, yet if they want to throw good money after bad, they should have that option. Critics would do well to share some of that faith.

Speaking of which... on a personal note, I find it funny how so many internet pundits - many of whom have never spoken to a Google executive - were so quick to jump on the "Google is evil" bandwagon. I've probably met, spoke with and interviewed more Google execs than perhaps any other company, and without exception, they've all understood and had net neutrality principles close to their hearts. Their company and fortunes, after all, were built on them.

Google's most strident supporter of net neutrality is Vint Cerf, a vice-president and "chief internet evangelist." He's also often referred to as the "father of the internet" for his role in writing the protocols in the 70s on which the network is based. I've written before about how much I like speaking with Vint because he is a very sincere and smart man that seems devoid of any ulterior agenda. I imagine his reaction to this whole situation must be quite visceral: if the critics are right and I'm wrong, I can't imagine his resignation from Google will be too long in coming. But if what I suspect is right - that once again, unthinking reactionaries and the media have blown this completely out of proportion - then I imagine he's got to be very disappointed.

The best thing for Google to do now, if indeed this is the situation, might be to roll Vint out and do damage control. His credibility on net neutrality is unassailable, and some reassurance from him would go a long way to correcting some of the opinions out there. There are precious few people out there who are thinking this thing through. One such sober fellow, fortunately, is Tim Wu - yet another staunch net neutrality advocate (and Toronto native). He had in Slate yesterday, albeit written before Google and Verizon announced their proposal, that looked at this issue in considerably more sane terms. Hopefully folks like Wu don't get drowned out by people who don't know what they're talking about.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned above that I do believe the FCC and ultimately Congress should be in charge of writing the rules, not corporations. On the other hand, given that regulators and politicians (in Canada and the U.S.) have proven themselves to be thoroughly lobbyable, perhaps this is the more honest approach because at least we know where the rules are really coming from.

The other thing I should have addressed is the fallacies of net neutrality absolutists, and why they need to be ignored. Throughout the debates in Canada and the U.S., there has been a faction of people that believe "bits are bits" and that all data on the internet should be treated equally. I've never believed that because it's totally wrong - the internet simply wouldn't work properly if internet providers didn't manage and treat different forms of traffic differently.

The fact that Skype, Hulu or online gaming actually work is the result of traffic discrimination: service providers give those more time-sensitive applications more attention, while applications that don't require immediacy - such as email - get a little bit less. The problems have arisen with peer-to-peer applications such as BitTorrent, which have been blocked or slowed by some service providers. While there have been legitimate uses of BitTorrent, in all honesty the vast majority of people who use it do so to download pirated movies, TV shows, music (and my book). Free stuff is of course competition for the stuff that phone and cable companies often sell, so the question has become: why do the internet providers get to decide which applications get special treatment and which don't?

That's exactly the question that the net neutrality rules we have in Canada, and those proposed in the U.S., seek to answer. Such rules create a complaint framework that will allow aggrieved parties to make their case. If peer-to-peer applications can be shown to be time sensitive, then they'll be protected under net neutrality rules and internet providers will be forced to give them better priority. It's worth noting that Skype is based on peer-to-peer technology, yet internet providers generally degrade it at their peril. What absolutists refuse to accept is that if they're going to download, say, the entire Led Zeppelin catalog for free, well they may just have to wait a little while to get it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The challenges of finding ethical porn

To say I was surprised when a Globe and Mail columnist contacted me a little while ago to discuss ethical porn would be an understatement. After two years of being knee-deep in porn while working on Sex, Bombs and Burgers, so to speak, it hadn't occurred to me that anyone looking for it would actually be interested in doing so ethically. After all, when someone is actively looking for porn, they generally only have one thing on their mind.

In any event, the search for ethics in adult entertainment was the topic of Micah Toub's column last week. I'm quoted in it pointing to the HIV scare that rocked the industry in Los Angeles a few years ago, and how a push for actors to wear condoms arose from it.

As several porn experts - alas, I guess I'm considered one now - point out in the column, there are essentially two ways in which consumers can support ethical adult entertainment. The first, of course, is to educate themselves as to how the performers are treated. That doesn't just include the actors wearing condoms to prevent the spread of disease, it also involves an issue that has existed for almost as long as pornography itself: the exploitation of performers, particularly women.

The condom issue is easy to determine: either the actors are wearing them on screen or they aren't. The exploitation issue is much, much more thorny because there's really no way to tell whether the actors are being fairly compensated for their work. There's also the question of what exactly is fair compensation? Many men would tell you they'd do porn for free, while some women working in the business believe they're being fairly paid but are actually earning a pittance compared to what their movies are making. Should porn actresses make as much as mainstream actresses, or should they get a percentage of the film's revenue? The question of fair compensation is tough because there are no real hard-and-fast rules for how people are paid.

As I told Micah, finding out this sort of information is really, really difficult because the companies are almost all privately-owned and therefore less than transparent. We generally only have their word that everything is on the up-and-up and that performers are treated fairly, but such claims need to be taken with a huge grain of salt because, as one industry expert told me, "everybody lies."

The second and perhaps more currently pressing way in which people can ethically consume porn is to actually pay for it. It's a fact that goes back to the first point - the more that people go to free, pirated porn such as that found on YouPorn and RedTube, the less the performers will be paid, which ultimately means they get treated less fairly. Of course, it goes without saying that the vast majority of porn consumers would rather get their goods for free, so this is almost a moot point.

In the words of a Toronto sex shop owner quoted in the Globe and Mail column, if you want to find ethical porn, “You'd have to be a very conscientious shopper.” My guess is there are too few people out there concerned with this sort of thing to actually make a difference. It's like the adult industry's attempt a few months ago to guilt people into paying for porn through a public service video: ultimately, it's going to be a losing battle so it's almost not worth the effort to try and convince people otherwise.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Sex, Bombs and Burgers: new low price!

Hot off yesterday's news about Sex, Bombs and Burgers finally being available as an ebook is the fact that Canadians can now get the actual hardcover for the new, lower price of $20.06 or $21.12 through, respectively, Amazon.ca and Chapters.

I normally prefer to buy my own books with Amazon, but in this case I have to recommend Chapters and its slightly higher price for two reasons: 1) Amazon seems to have trouble keeping my book in stock, while Chapters generally always has it, and 2) check out that $21.12 price - is that awesome or what?!

So why the price drop? I wish I could explain it but it appears that no one on Earth outside Amazon and Chapters - and maybe even inside the companies themselves - actually knows the answer to that question. The websites lower and raise prices on their own inexplicable whims; sometimes it's because a book has sold a lot, sometimes it's because it hasn't sold enough, sometimes it's because someone lost a bet. Who really knows? I'm told that I get the same royalty and the publisher gets their same chunk no matter what the book is sold for, so if anybody's taking a cut here it's Amazon and Chapters.

The good news is, if you've been holding off on buying the hardcover because of its $32 price tag, well now you have no excuse. Get on those sites and buy, buy, buy! Sex, Bombs and Burgers makes an excellent back-to-school gift. (I can't really back that up, but it sounded good.) And for those of you who bought the book at full price, I feel for you. I know that "sucker's feeling" when you buy something only to see it drop in price a couple of days later. The only consolation is the knowledge that if you always waited for things to drop in price, you'd probably be living in a cave without even a shirt on your back.

Now those of you with long memories, or the ability to scroll down to the blog post below this one, might be thinking: "Hey, wait a minute - isn't the book now priced the same as the eBook on Kobo?" Well, yes it is! Fortunately, that's one that I can explain somewhat.

I'm told by people in the know that publishers do have some control over ebook prices, at least on Kobo, and they are so far resistant to undercutting print book prices. Print still makes up for more than 90% of publishers' revenue, so the desire to not make ebooks too desirable is understandable.

Authors like me of course want lower prices on their ebooks because of the traditional argument that a lower price = more sales. That maxim is generally true, but it doesn't always happen. In other words, what happens if you price your book low yet it still fails to sell? That means less money overall.

I'm not sure I fully agree with that logic, even if I do see the argument. While the ebook and the printed book contain the same valuable information and work, there is no denying that the costs are considerably lower for the electronic version. There's no paper and printing involved, nor are there any transportation or storage costs. Some of those savings should be passed on to the consumer, but it appears that's not happening as of yet.

As such, I can't really blame anyone for not buying my ebook, or for getting themselves a pirated copy. I understand and sympathize with piracy being more of an F*U to The Man than it is to the creator, so it doesn't offend me terribly when it happens. I can, however, blame you now for not buying the lower-priced hardcover - so step on it!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sex, Bombs and Burgers: now an ebook!

Okay, first, the good news: a colleague of mine pointed out to me yesterday that Sex, Bombs and Burgers is officially available as an ebook in Canada. Kobo Books, the ebook division of Canadian chain Indigo/Chapters, has it available for download. It's in ePub format, which means you can download it onto your computer, mobile phone or e-reader.

Kobo, like Amazon, is smartly not tying itself to just its own branded e-reader device. If you've got a smartphone or just about any e-reader that's not the Amazon Kindle, you should be able to install the Kobo app and download books from its store (Amazon's Kindle, so far, doesn't read the ePub format).

I'm not actually sure how long Sex, Bombs and Burgers has been available over Kobo, but I'm pleased it's there and available for people who want the e-book version. I've certainly heard numerous requests for it from people who prefer to get their goods digitally. I've also heard people say that they'd like to read Sex, Bombs and Burgers, but they'd be somewhat ashamed to whip out any book with the word "porn" on its cover on the subway. The discrete nature of ebooks and e-readers obviously negates that concern.

So what's the Sex, Bombs and Burgers ebook look like? Well, after paying for it and browsing it on an iPad and iPhone - yup, I had to pay for my own book... how crazy is that? - I can say it's not bad. Kobo doesn't yet have all the fancy functionality that Amazon and Apple have, like cross-transferring your bookmarked spots from one device to the next (say, from your iPad to your iPhone), but its ebooks are functional and do the job. The formatting of my ebook could use some improvement and I'm hopeful that'll be fixed soon. But if it's simply an electronic version of the book you're looking for, the Kobo ebook does the trick.

I've been told that an Amazon ebook for Canadians is also on the way, but sadly, if you're in the U.S., you'll have to wait till the fall of next year to (legally) get the ebook. Kobo is available to Americans, but as far as I can tell, the sale of my ebook is geoblocked. I'm looking into what the situation is in Australia, New Zealand the United Kingdom and will hopefully have something to report soon.

Now for the bad news: Kobo's ebook is $22.09 (Canadian). That's $9.91 cheaper than the hardcover, but I'll be damned if I could find a more expensive ebook on Kobo. Seriously - I spent five minutes browsing and couldn't find anything steeper (I'm sure there's something, but nothing turned up in a peremptory look).

I obviously have no control over pricing on either printed or ebook editions, and truth be told, I have little knowledge of how publishers price their goods. Naturally, I think $22 is way too high a price for my ebook - my rule of thumb is the ebook should be at least half the cost of the printed version to encourage volume sales. The price should be even lower on new, largely unknown authors because buyers simply won't take a chance on them otherwise.

Interestingly, the top-selling book on Kobo yesterday was Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger (from Random House's Crown Publishing). Its price? 89 cents.

Hmmm. Hypothetical situation. I've just received a new e-reader for my birthday (which is coming up later this month, by the way, wink wink). Do I take a chance and spend 89 cents on a book by an author I've never heard of, or do I spend $22? Or do I split the difference and spend $7.99 on Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?

Yup, it's a no brainer. Like I said - I'm happy there's an ebook available, but I'll be asking my publisher about the pricing.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Want to kill people? There's an app for that

Regular readers know that one of my favourite topics in these parts is Apple and its iron-fisted - and often hypocritical - over its iPhone/iPad/iPod app store. Generally, the conversation has centred around the company's holier-than-thou attitude toward porn and the belief that officially preventing such apps somehow makes its products more wholesome.

Well now there's a whole different can of worms to discuss: military apps.

The BBC reports that U.S. military contractor Raytheon (the same company that invented the microwave oven - see Sex, Bombs and Burgers the book for the full story!) has created an iPhone app that trains soldiers in how to use its Patriot missile system. "Patriot Drill Crew" is a multiple-choice app that refreshes troops' knowledge of the missile systems. As the Beeb says, "the soldier is presented with a scenario, with three multiple-choice questions to answer. Successfully answer the question and the app moves onto the next step; fail and they get a dressing down from the 'virtual' Staff Sergeant."

Patriot Drill Crew is apparently the first of such apps, with Raytheon planning a whole bunch more.

What's interesting about the app, and the others that will come, is that it's not available to the general public over Apple's app store - it can be installed on an iPhone by invitation only. One must assume Raytheon and the military are doing this with Apple's blessing, which raises even more questions about how the iPhone maker approves apps. What other side deals is the company cutting with companies, militaries and intelligence agencies?

Apple's stance against the recent U.S. copyright ruling, which makes it legal to "jailbreak" your iPhone and put whatever apps you want on it, was already pretty strongly anti-consumer. The Raytheon app further exposes Apple's self-interest - not only does the company not want you to have certain apps (i.e. porn), it also wants to be able to make money from side deals for other certain apps (i.e. military).

Ultimately, though, this whole situation is very American: Apple freaks out about letting people view boobs on its phones, but the company has no problem with its devices being used to teach soldiers how to blow people up. God bless America!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

U.S. heat ray too hot to handle

It's been an extraordinarily hot summer here in Toronto (and much of Southern Ontario) this year, so much so that the well-worn cliche - "it's not the heat, it's the humidity" - has been getting a lot of play. Then again, it's been hot all over the world so we can't really complain too much.

Appropriately, the U.S. military is now debating using heat as a weapon. No, they're not using satellites to alter the planet's temperature (although that would be cool), they're toying with new non-lethal weapons technology that uses heat waves to render enemies totally uncomfortable.

The Active Denial System, which looks like a big satellite dish that sits on the back of a truck, was officially rolled out in Afghanistan last month, but wasn't used. The system uses "a focused invisible beam that causes an 'intolerable heating sensation,' but only penetrates the skin to the equivalent of three sheets of paper," according to the BBC. Victims of the heat beam invariably back away and often end up screaming in pain, but their actual chance of injury is only 0.1%, the military says.

Here's a CBS reporter demonstrating the effects of the beam:

The "pain ray" has been in development as a non-lethal weapon for years, but it's evoked controversy every time it's been close to roll-out. Critics have said it's inhumane because it essentially tries to fry people. As Wired's Danger Room put it, "ray-gun advocates better think long and hard about the Taliban’s propaganda bonanza when news leaks of the Americans zapping Afghans until they feel roasted alive."

Not surprisingly, the U.S. military officially recalled the devices a few days ago without explanation. My guess: either the Pentagon realized that the public relations problems just weren't worth the trouble, or the Taliban has developed portable swimming pools that negate the effects of the heat ray.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Gone fishin'

It's the Civic Holiday here in Canada so I'm taking a rare day off. Until tomorrow, check out this gem of a rap about McDonald's:

Newer Posts Older Posts Home