Thursday, September 30, 2010

Smut driving e-book sales on Amazon

Hey, check it out - a story that combines two of my most discussed topics here: e-books and porn. Slate has discovered that some of the hottest selling (or downloaded) e-books on Amazon are erotica, and even downright pornographic, including titles such as Office Slave and Compromising Positions. As the story puts it:

There's no point in dancing around it: Amazon is distributing men's erotic fiction, and its bargain-basement Kindle pricing — in many cases, this material, too, is given away for free — means that some of it shows up on "best-seller" lists...
...Every time a major new content platform — print, film, cable, VHS, DVD, the Internet, mobile phones — has experienced massive growth, it has either been driven by a porn boom or at least brought the porn industry along for the ride. (The biggest exception is probably radio.)

Of course, this stuff isn't the least bit surprising - not only is much of the technological side of it covered in Sex, Bombs and Burgers, but my book also actually rubs up against some of what it motivating these e-book sales. I've mentioned before how one reason why people don't buy SB&B is because it has the word "porn" in its subtitle. Some people would, understandably, rather not be seen reading such a book in public places for fear of what it allegedly says about them ("Eww! That loser is reading a book about porn. He must be a pervert!"). 

The e-book version therefore, read on an e-reader, obviates that problem for both "clean" books like mine that just happen to mention something "nasty" on their covers and for the "nasty" books themselves. An e-reader is the digital equivalent of the nondescript brown paper cover that some stores used to sell porn magazines in, and e-books allow you to read whatever you want in public without fear of scorn. 

Combine all that with the self-publishing ability that Amazon and other e-bookstores provide and there's very obviously going to be a huge boom in pornographic e-books, as Slate is finding.

The trend is really a textbook technology case. It's still relatively early days for both e-books and Amazon's foray into them, and the company is only too happy to let porn provide the content that mainstream publishers are still somewhat reluctant to part with. After all, if Amazon wants to sell Kindles, it has to give people something to read on them. But, as the Slate article suggests, it's likely only a matter of time before Amazon comes under pressure from the usual suspects, and is perhaps forced to clamp down.

What the article didn't touch on is that this is exactly what gives other e-reader makers a competitive advantage. Kobo, the Sony Reader and many others use the open ePub format, which means that anyone who wants to write and distribute a porn e-book will be able to have their work readable on those devices (Amazon's Kindle does not easily support ePub). Even if Amazon does crack down, writers of such works will be able to make them available for download through their own websites.

Eventually, when the e-book market grows and matures, many of those erotica/porn releases will be replaced on bestseller lists by mainstream titles and the prevalence of smutty content will be marginalized. The Slate story is thus an important piece of historical reporting - it's documenting how this particular market is getting started.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pizza for nerds

Everybody knows nerds love pizza, so it's a little surprising that this took so long: presenting, the Star Trek pizza cutter. As you can see from the picture below, it's a pizza cutter in the shape of the U.S.S. Starship Enterprise:

This particular gem comes from the folks at, purveyors of all sorts of nerdly novelty items (i.e. the Tauntaun sleeping bag and the Ladies of Star Wars playing cards). It's only $24.99 and will make a nice counterpart to that Klingon cork screw you've got.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mainstream media needs to chill out on tech

I came across two tidbits of news yesterday that seemingly covered different areas, yet I couldn't help but put them together in light of stuff I've been thinking about lately.

The first was a story about the controversy surrounding AquaBounty Technologies, the Massachusetts-based company I wrote about a while back that has genetically engineered a super-salmon. The company's fish, which grows faster than regular salmon, is on the verge of being approved for human consumption in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration.

There are many people protesting this, of course, for all sorts of expected reasons: the fish are untested, they could contaminate wild salmon stocks, they're a travesty against nature, etc. As the Mother Jones article says, the latest concern is that the salmon - because they have genes from other fish - could be more allergenic.

The second story that piqued my interest was a report by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, which studied how the media covers technology news. There's a ton to digest in the report, but here are the parts that really got my attention:

The biggest single event or storyline during the year involved the perils of technology: the hazardous yet compulsive practice of texting while driving. Nearly one-in-ten technology stories were about this subject, more than five times the coverage of either the U.S. plan for broadband access and six times the coverage devoted to the debate over net neutrality... 

...The findings suggest that in the mainstream media, particularly on front pages and general interest programs, the press reflects exuberance about gadgets and a wonder about the corporations behind them, but wariness about effects on our lives, our behavior and the sociology of the digital age.

The first story seems to support the second and indeed, it's a topic I'm well acquainted with. In the realm of our little science and technology section on, we can write about whatever we want, however we want, whether it's positive or negative. But the only time the so-called front-pagers - the media covered by the report - come calling on us for stories or commentary, it's either to cover the launch of some new gadget or the perils of the latest technology. In other words, if it's not Apple launching a new iPhone or Facebook's latest brush with privacy watchdogs, the mainstream isn't interested in technology.

Oh how true it is. The media obviously shapes public opinion on issues and the underlying result that the Pew study is getting at, particularly with that second finding, is that technology is mistrusted by the shapers of mainstream values. To me, that's very sad because the world is clearly, unequivocally better because of technology. If you don't believe that, you may want to think twice the next time you take an aspirin for your headache or eat a banana in the winter.

The stories that extol technology's virtues are few and far between in the mainstream, and those that do exist are usually overwhelmed by ignorant reader comments that have been shaped by that mainstream negativity. A good example is a story that recently appeared on CBC (I didn't write it) about how scientists believe new food technology is imperative to feed the world's growing population - a central theme of Sex, Bombs and Burgers. Here's just one sample reader comment, that pretty much sums up some of that negative sentiment: "I've heard a lot of lies. This one ranks at somewhere at the top. What is needed is less technology, and more of the old ways of doing business!"

That relates directly back to the protests surrounding the AquaBounty fish. While new technologies certainly should run a gamut of tests before being unleashed on the public, there does come a time when we need to chill out and let things happen. New technologies do bring unintended consequences, but the defining characteristic of the human species is our ability to adapt to such events. If the genetically engineered salmon really do provoke more allergies, scientists will either fix that with other technology or we'll figure out a way to deal with it. If we - and the media - continually worry about what might happen, nothing ever will happen.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Milking the golden cow that is porn

When it comes to the pornography industry, it's notoriously hard to get straight answers - a fact that's especially true when it comes down to money. Estimates as to how much the industry takes in vary greatly and in most cases, it depends on who you talk to you. Anti-porn groups often like to under-value the industry in an effort to make it seem smaller than it is, while the producers themselves exaggerate for exactly the opposite reasons.

The other thing that makes it really hard to get good numbers is the fact that there is no dividing line between adult companies and their mainstream counterparts. Mainstream businesses, from cable and internet providers to hotel chains and electronics makers all have their fingers in the pie, so to speak.

Case in point: the news last week that ad agency M&C Saatchi has won the global account for ICM Registry, the U.S. internet registrar that is going to run the .XXX domain name. For the uninitiated, internet registrars are the companies that websites buy their addresses from. They, in turn, are governed by the non-profit ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICM has been trying to get the .XXX domain established for ages, and ICANN is on the verge of doing so.

Porn companies, however, have been up in arms over the move, saying that the creation of a specialized website won't prevent what it is intended to do, which is to make it harder for minors to access adult content. The companies are also hopping mad that they're going to have to answer to a new cop - and one that is not affiliated with them at all. According to the industry's lobby group, the Free Speech Coaltion, ".XXX would end up costing webmasters millions in unnecessary fees, if passed, and also make it easier for the wrong people to target adult material online."

Given that ICANN and ICM have drafted a contract, it sure looks like the domain is going to go through despite the porn industry's protests, which probably means the company is going to get rich, and Saatchi is going to benefit as well. According to The Guardian, the agency will "focus on developing a campaign, set to launch on both sides of the Atlantic from January, to increase responsibility with the adult entertainment industry. A consumer campaign will roll out later next year."

Flowery statements of intent aside, you can add M&C Saatchi to the list of big mainstream companies that will be profiting from porn (if it isn't doing so already).

Friday, September 24, 2010

Chapters/Indigo employees have good taste

As gung-ho as I am about the encroachment of e-books, one thing I'm not looking forward to is the inevitable decline of bookstores. Just as CDs seem to be the last thing HMV sells these days, I imagine it'll be a similar situation with books in the not-too-distant future, given that the sales trajectory of e-books is growing much faster than digital music did.

I say this because I love bookstores. I love going to them and walking around aimlessly, open to whatever will catch my attention. I do this at least once a week at the huge Chapters store near the CBC building.

I was there yesterday and, what do you know, there's Sex, Bombs and Burgers under the staff picks section:

That's two Chapters/Indigo stores to pick my book in a week. If you haven't bought it yet, do you need any more enticement? Come on - two Chapters employees can't be wrong!

But seriously - thanks to Kern at this particular store for picking SB&B. There are of course digital equivalents to this sort of "staff pick," but in this particular area you'll have to forgive me if I'm somewhat opposed to future trends.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Netflix blows its big Canadian launch

Well, yesterday was a fun day. If you follow tech news, you probably heard that Netflix had its big Canadian launch yesterday. I covered the news for CBC here and here, but a wacky side-show quickly became the more interesting story.

A section of John Street here in Toronto was closed down for the event, with Netflix erecting a small set and a beverage tent. When I arrived for the press conference, there were a few people milling about checking things out. Inside an adjacent building, CEO Reed Hastings gave his spiel and answered some questions from the press. When he was done, he encouraged reporters to go outside and talk to some of the people hanging around. Some did, while I rushed back to the CBC to write up the story.

Shortly thereafter, I got a call from the PR people telling me that my interview with Hastings had been moved up, so I hurried back to the scene. While I was waiting on John Street, I overheard an interesting conversation between a journalist and a PR person. The journalist was complaining that he had interviewed some of the "innocent bystanders" on camera, only to learn that they were actors who were paid to be there. The PR person said it was all a misunderstanding, that the actors were actually part of a corporate video that Netflix was shooting.

I chatted with the journalist, who told me all the details. He interviewed a few people who he thought were regular Joes and asked them the usual stuff: had they heard about Netflix, were they planning on subscribing, etc. When their answers were a little too effusive and practiced-sounding, he asked if they were being paid by Netflix. One gent admitted to being an actor who was told by his agent to be there, while another woman said "I don't know how to answer that."

A few other journalists and camera folks were listening in, and we all had a bit of a chuckle.

After my interview, I related what had happened to a colleague back at the office. We weighed the idea of doing a story on it, but I decided it was a little too "inside baseball," so instead I told the tale on Twitter. From there, it snowballed to the point where I was among the top-trending Toronto topics (what an honour!), and even The Globe and Mail chipped in with "10 signs you're interviewing a paid Netflix actor."

The PR folks wasted no time in addressing the situation. I got an email that said: "We were filming a corporate shoot - that's how we were able to close the street down. The actors were there to interact with the service in the house/set as part of the corporate video. They should not have been interviewed."

By this point, others had started to ask questions. The Canadian Press got the dirt and found that actors had indeed been hired and handed scripts that directed them to "play types, for example, mothers, film buffs, tech geeks, couch potatoes etc. Extras are to behave as members of the public, out and about enjoying their day-to-day life, who happen upon a street event for Netflix and stop by to check it out... Extras are to look really excited, particularly if asked by media to do any interviews about the prospect of Netflix in Canada."

Spokespeople for the company said they were unaware that a script had been handed out, and that "some people got carried away and it's embarrassing to Netflix." Given the urging of reporters to go out and talk to these every day people, though, it sure looks like this was a pretty calculated affair. A poorly calculated affair, but calculated nonetheless.

As an addendum, I talked to a few friends and colleagues in PR and they agreed that combining a press conference with a corporate video shoot would pretty much be a first for the industry, or highly unlikely in other words.

Some journalists I know were really angered by all of this, and I can see where they're coming from. As if we don't have enough to concern ourselves with, we now have to worry about whether the person we talk to on the street is a paid shill. It also makes you wonder just how stupid some companies think journalists are.

I wasn't too non-plussed by the situation, mainly because I've already been jaded beyond any level of cynicism that I'm comfortable admitting to. I eat heaving bowls of bullshit almost daily - it's an unfortunate side effect of covering telecommunications - so this sort of thing doesn't really surprise me. If anything, it's almost the journalist's fault for not being cynical enough. Real people could have been found simply by walking over to the next street, and it's somewhat foolish to trust that which is put in front of you.

Still, that's no excuse. It's exactly this sort of thing that turns honest reporters into crusty old farts who contemplate alternative careers, like helicopter piloting (I'm told I'd have to get laser eye surgery).

The whole thing was a pretty big cluster$^#% for Netflix. The company has enough challenges in operating in Canada, with a pretty limited selection so far and some lean internet download limits (courtesy of the aforementioned telecommunications companies) to work with. Coming into the country on a deceptive note does not a good launch make, which is too bad because a lot of people - myself included - would like to see Netflix succeed and become a good alternative to expensive cable television. Messing with journalists' minds - and trust - was just completely unnecessary.

UPDATE: Netflix's VP of corporate communications Steve Swasey has posted an apology on the Netflix blog, saying that "we blew it." He says the company didn't intend to mislead the media or the public, and that he's sorry if they gave Canadians any reasons to doubt Netflix's authenticity or sincerity.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

KFC's Double Down: 'almost health food'

Dammit! In my hurry to get to the In-N-Out Burger in Las Vegas, I completely forgot my other fast-food mission: to try the legendary KFC Double Down! The good news is, I'm heading back down to the U.S. this weekend - this time to ride the roller coasters at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio (if you haven't been, you haven't yet been on a proper coaster). Must... remember... to eat... Double Down...

Speaking of which - since the Double Down is one of my favourite topics here, I make it a point of pride to not miss any news on this king of chicken sandwiches. And for once, some good news: the Double Down is nowhere near the worst thing you can eat!

The Washington Post ran a story yesterday (it's behind a subscriber wall, so here's the accessible version) detailing some of the unhealthiest meals available at American restaurants. The Double Down, with its 540 calories, is "almost health food," the newspaper reported.

By pure calories and fat content alone, The Cheesecake Factory's pasta carbonara is the worst thing on the Post's list. It has 2,500 calories (or 500 above the entire daily recommended amount) and a killer 85 grams of saturated fat (versus the 20 recommended). As one expert puts it, "Four adult men would have to share this entree in order to each stay within a day’s worth of saturated fat."

One thing to keep in mind with this particular list, though, is that it's not really comparing apples to apples. Most of the food items on the list are found at restaurant chains, like The Cheesecake Factory, that aren't really fast food. My loose definition of fast food is a place that doesn't require you to sit down and where your food takes less than five minutes to arrive. Most of the places on the list, with the exception of Quizno's, Domino's and Chipotle, therefore don't qualify as fast food.

Interestingly, these chain restaurants are obviously held to a different standard, which the Post story illustrates nicely. While KFC got tons of press, mostly bad, for its Double Down abomination, nobody really notices just how unhealthy many of these so-called family restaurants are. I'm all for freedom of choice and if people want to eat these kinds of caloric monsters, by all means we should let them, but the media really should treat them the same even though they're essentially different.

And to bring this back to In-N-Out Burger, a reader posted a comment the other day that was absolutely illuminating. "Rimas" pointed out that the chain actually has a secret menu beyond the four simple options advertised, including the "animal style" burger that is cooked in mustard with extra toppings, and the Flying Dutchman, which is a double burger that comes with no bun. And then there's the king, the 20/20!

There are also biblical passages on the insides of wrappers, something I didn't notice in my visit, owing to the owners' strong religious beliefs. The chain is still privately held by the Snyder family and apparently treats (and pays) its employees better than usual. Then there's also the weird thing about how the palm trees outside restaurants are always crossed...

All of this adds up to one really interesting business. I wish I had known all this before setting out. As it stands, I can't wait to get back to the west coast and eat at In-N-Out again.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Paper books going the way of the dodo?

I had a great chat last week with Michael Serbinis, the CEO of Kobo, or the ebook store and device maker. Kobo, which is owned by a consortium of companies around the world including U.S. book chain Borders and led by Canada's Indigo Books, is aiming to compete with Amazon and its Kindle, as well as Apple and its fledgling ebook operation.

Earlier this year, when the Kobo e-reader launched, I wasn't sure how it would fare against such behemoths as Amazon and Apple, but at this point, the company seems to be doing okay simply because it appears to be doing everything right.

Amazon has been criticized for the copy protection it puts on its ebooks and for not allowing customers to move them between devices. The company has mitigated this somewhat by making Kindle apps that work on a variety of smartphones and devices, including Apple's iPad. I've blogged before about how this largely gets around the problem of copy protection. But still, Amazon's biggest fault is that its ebooks won't really work on other e-ink readers, such as Kobo, the Sony Reader or the Barnes & Noble Nook.

Apple, so far, is even more limited. Although you can move the books you buy from Apple's iBooks store around on your devices, the company doesn't look to be too well positioned as of yet to do much beyond its own little ecosystem. You can't get the iBooks app on anything but an Apple device, and the iPad - as a recent Kindle commercial - is not exactly the ideal choice for reading ebooks (especially in direct sunlight). Apple's reach is also limited; you can't buy its ebooks here in Canada, for example.

Kobo, on the other hand, is doing it all. Not only do its readers support the common ePub format, which means you can move ebooks around and read them on other e-ink readers, the Kobo app is also available on just about every device. Kobo is thus on its way to becoming ubiquitous, a claim that none of its other competitors can make.

The last time I spoke with Kobo's CEO was early this year, and I've grown increasingly impressed with him as many of his predictions have come true. One of those, which I've mentioned quite a few times, is how he believed that e-book readers would get down to $100 by the end of this year. Kobo's own reader is down to $129 in the U.S., so we're almost there.

At this rate, some of the A-list devices may actually go for less than $100 by Christmas. And at those kinds of prices, I share Serbinis's belief that the single-use e-ink reader will remain relevant in the face of multi-use tablet devices such as the iPad.

The whole interview is up on CBC, but the part that interested me the most was where we talked about the future of publishing. Serbinis suggested that publishers may soon opt to publish books in digital format first, then only print them if they sell well:

Will we see more people self-publish? Absolutely. Will we see publishers go to digital first instead of print first? Absolutely. There's nothing more disappointing than spending a million bucks on an author, then having 50 per cent of the books returned from retailers because they didn't sell. Is it better to put out a digital run first to test it and see if it gets any pickup, then do a print run? Yeah, for some authors it does.

That seems like a really good idea to me, for many reasons. As he said, it cuts the cost of producing the book dramatically. Certain books - like those about technology, for example - also probably lend themselves well to the format; in other words, the people who would be inclined to read them are probably the ones who would rather do so digitally.

I imagine this will start to happen a lot once ebooks start nearing the threshold where they make up the majority of total book sales. As mentioned in that previous post linked to above, it took digital music about 10 years to cross that 50-per-cent threshold, but it's happening much faster in ebooks. While ebooks have been around for about as long as digital music, it's probably more realistic to call the 2007 launch of the Kindle as their real coming-out party. So we've gone from zero to 10 per cent in about two and a half years.

As Serbinis said in our interview, ebooks could account for up to 15 per cent of total book sales by the end of the year so the 50-per-cent mark is going to come very quickly, which means this idea of publishing a good portion of books digitally first could also happen sooner rather than later.

Monday, September 20, 2010

In-N-Out a pleasant surprise

Okay, I'm back from Las Vegas and really, really tired. It's tough to get any decent sleep on such a short trip, largely because of the time adjustment (I guess it's the reverse of jet lag?), and a weekend full of hi-jinks certainly didn't help. Oh, and cap it all off with an overnight flight... you can probably see why my posting today is so late.

In any event, one of the things I really wanted to do while in Vegas was eat at In-N-Out Burger. I knew very little about this chain until recently - I'd seen one of the restaurants across the interstate from the main Vegas strip a number of times, but I'd always written it off as some cheap, greasy spoon burger joint.

However, as I learned a month ago, In-N-Out tends to score very well on ratings from Zagat. The influential restaurant survey, which is more known for fine dining, also ranks fast-food joints, and In-N-Out had the second-best burger and third-best fries in the most recent results. That got me intrigued.

So my friends and I took the unusual step of taking a cab to a burger joint (if you've been to Vegas, you know it's just too far to walk anywhere). I ordered the straight up cheeseburger combo:

Overall, I can't disagree with the Zagat results. The burger, although somewhat small, was surprisingly good. The secret, I think, is in the bun, which was lovingly toasted to just the right crispness. The lettuce and tomato were also fresh and the sauce gave it a special zing. The fries were okay too, although I'm finding that I'm becoming a fry snob as I get older. I also had a pink lemonade and the entire meal was under $5. All in all, In-N-Out was a nifty little surprise to my Canadian taste buds - where have you Americans been hiding these guys?

In that vein, I found it hilarious that the restaurant also sells a burger with two patties and two slices of cheese and calls it the "Double Double." That is, of course, something very different here in Canada.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Las Vegas greatest hits

With any luck, by the time you read this I'll be in the midst of a boys' weekend in Las Vegas, a la . It's actually my sixth trip to Vegas in the past four years, so the city is starting to feel like a second home.

The first time I made the trip, in January 2007 to cover the Consumer Electronics Show for the National Post, I actually hated Las Vegas. I couldn't believe the waste - the huge buffets that threw out mountains of food, the ridiculous amounts of energy being used to light everything, and so on. There were also a whole bunch of negatives to contend with - transportation is atrocious, ATM fees are sick (some casinos charge as much as $10 just to take out money) and the whole place is just one big sensory overload.

But I went back for CES the following year and, after taking the stick from out my rear, I was able to have fun and see the place for all its positives. It's got amazing restaurants and shopping, some incredible examples of architecture (even if the casinos are essentially temporary, waiting to get torn down for something new at the drop of a hat), and a whole lot of sunshine. That's certainly a welcome event to any Canadian in January.

Over the past couple of years while I was working on Sex, Bombs and Burgers, Vegas also became synonymous to me with porn. The Adult Entertainment Expo, of course, runs simultaneously with CES, so my annual journey also provided me with the opportunity to meet with and interview people in the industry.

In that vein, I thought I'd take this blog all the way back to the beginning, to its very first day. Traffic to this blog has grown considerably since that first day, so I'm guessing very few people were actually around on day one, when I ran an interview with porn star (and legend in the making) Jesse Jane, which I conducted in Las Vegas. If anything, the video below - which is an audio interview set to a slide show - illustrates just how far technology has come in such a short time. When I did the interview almost two years ago, cheap and decent video cameras still weren't really all that common. Now, most new smartphones can shoot HD video.

Part two of that interview . While we're at it, here are a few more "greatest hits" videos and interviews with porn people from Las Vegas over the past few years:

Pink Visual's Matt Morningwood talks about and 3D TV.
Digital Playground's Raven Alexis talks .
Inventor Douglas Hines debuts his .

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The iArm frees up a hand for other stuff

One of the side effects of writing a book that deals with porn is that you end up getting press releases from people in the industry. I'm not complaining - they're often far more entertaining than the majority of releases I get, and I don't mean that in a dirty way... they're usually pretty funny, and much more interesting than reading about the latest advance in customer relations management software.

I got a release the other day for a product that isn't necessarily porn-related, but it was sent by a fellow I know in the business who clearly has a great sense of humour. So with no further ado, presenting :

As the release says:

The iArm is the world’s ultimate forearm mount that gives you, well, an extra arm. It attaches to tablet PCs, eReaders, cell phones, dinnerware and more. Just 4.5 lbs. and fully adjustable, the iArm lets you take your favorite gadget with you, and with the optional 'multi-mount,' you can secure up to three items at once.

Alas, the iArm isn't a real product - it's only a joke box intended to mess with the minds of people you want to give gifts to. The idea is, you buy a real gift and put it inside the box. When your giftee unwraps their present and sees the box, they immediately think "WTF," before getting to their real gift. Hilarity ensues throughout.

It should surprise no one that the box is produced by 30 Watt, a company started by former staff members of The Onion. But why did someone in the porn industry send me the release? Well, you may remember that some porn folks didn't think Apple's iPad would be successful among adult entertainment aficionados because it needs to be held with two hands. The iArm, naturally, frees up at least one of those hands for... other purposes. Like, uh, talking on the phone or stirring some pasta.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mobilicity offers a different Double Down

From the "didn't see that coming" department comes today's news that new Canadian cellphone company Mobilicity is advertising its offers in KFC flyers, which obviously redefines the idea of a meal deal.

When I say that we didn't see that coming, I'm of course being totally sarcastic. Mobilicity and KFC (as well as Taco Bell and Pizza Hut) are owned by the same guy, John Bitove, in Canada, so those of us who follow wireless news have expected something like this for a while.

Alas, as noted by Mobile Syrup - which first picked up this tidbit - there doesn't appear to be any direct crossover between the two companies besides the shared ad, so unfortunately you can't yet get a free bucket of chicken when you sign up for cellphone service. Most of us bet it's only a matter of time, though.

On a related note, I've lamented the lack of KFC's now-legendary Double Down sandwich in these here parts a few times. When last we left the story, the Double Down wasn't selling too well in the U.S. and was therefore unlikely to get exported. But, as the Chicago Tribune reports, the sandwich is now a regular part of KFC's menu in the U.S. Perhaps there is still hope for it to migrate north?

I got a big chuckle out of reading this story, though, about a new product supposedly being tested by KFC: the "Skinwich." It's essentially the opposite of the Double Down in that it has a bun, but rather than chicken in the middle, it's just piles of the Colonel's famous skin. Really, you have to see the pictures to believe it.

KFC has denied it as a hoax, but I'm sure there are many people out there who would love to sink their teeth into one of those babies.

And on a totally unrelated note, don't forget to check out the Pushing Buttons video game series on CBC again today. I don't have any stories going up today, where the focus is on the social aspect of video games, but there are some cool additions being made. My picks are a piece on gay gaming, or "gayming" as I like to call it, and a story about anonymity in game forums and what it might mean to the larger internet. Check 'em out.

(Photo is from Mobile Syrup)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Front and centre at Indigo

A friend of mine told me he saw my book in the "staff picks" section of an Indigo bookstore the other day, so I had to go check it out to see if he was pulling my leg. Lo and behold, there it was at the Yonge and Eglinton Indigo, front and centre no less. I don't know who the "Brian" that picked it is, but I'm glad he liked it. Thanks Brian!

Only about a month and a half till Sex, Bombs and Burgers is available in the U.K, although you can pre-order it on Amazon. Alas, it's still another year before the U.S. launch but fret not Americans - I'll make it worth your while (cough, extra content, cough).

And since I'm doing shameless plugs, the Pushing Buttons series continues over on My contribution today takes a look at how video game studios transform the communities they spring up in. Interestingly, I was at the Ubisoft Toronto grand opening party the other night and noticed that right across the street from the brand new studio - which, let's face it, is in a pretty crappy part of town - is the future site of a high-end condo development. If you read the story, you'll know what I'm talking about.

The Pushing Button series has tons of good stuff in it - it's a lot to take in, and I'm only just getting through it myself. One other story I'd point out is one by Richard Poplak, who's a fellow Penguin author - his latest book, , is fantastic and I highly recommend it (it's about American pop culture in the Middle East). In his story, Richard writes about how teens in the Middle East are just as addicted to video games as we North Americans.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Video games in the spotlight

If you follow this blog on a regular basis, you know that I often get uppity when the mainstream media decides to report on video games. As is too often the case, video games often get singled out because they may contain sex or violence. It happens due to a combination of video games still being a relatively young medium (the industry is really only about 30 years old), but more so because many still mistakenly perceive video games to be the playthings of children.

Rather than whine about it here whenever it happens, I thought I'd try and do something constructive so I chatted with some of my bosses at the CBC about the possibility of doing something special on video games - something that would take a mature and intelligent look at them. They agreed that it was past time somebody did something like that, so we started work on a big series, the efforts of which roll out today.

Pushing Buttons (a cool title thought up by our Arts editor Andre Mayer) launches today over on The week-long series will take a look at video games from all sorts of aspects, from their history in Canada to their cultural, social and economic impacts. It'll also look at how they're being used in health and education, and delve into what the future may hold.

A host of CBC's online reporters, producers and designers spent a couple months working on Pushing Buttons, and a bunch of television and radio folks will be chipping in over the coming week as well. If it changes just a few peoples' minds about video games, I think it'll be worth it.

I contributed a whole whack of stuff to the series, with a few of the opening-day pieces including a thorough chronicle of how Canada came to be the third-biggest video game power in the world (next to Japan and the United States), a top-ten countdown of the best Canadian-created games, and this video on how games are made:

There's lots more stuff coming this week - I'll be sure to plug it here. If video games interest you, be sure to check back each day this week for additional stories and content. Even if you're not into them, you may want to check out some of these stories to learn about what is quickly becoming one of Canada's most important industries.

And before I forget - there is a very strong link to all this stuff and Sex, Bombs and Burgers. A whole half-chapter in the book is devoted to video games and their military origins. Not only did they come from the military, video games have also come full circle and are helping to train soldiers (whether they know it or not).

Friday, September 10, 2010

Human head burgers? Mmm...

Whew, what a week. I've been knee deep in a special project for CBC... which I'll be touting here on Monday. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, there's nothing like finishing off the week with a good laugh, courtesy of The Onion. Usually, the headlines say it all, and this one's no exception: "Wendy's to phase out unpopular hamburger sandwich."

Perhaps even funnier, though, is the related video: "Human head found in hamburger."

Human Head Found In Hamburger

Enjoy your weekend!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

In search of monster food

I've been watching some Man vs. Food on the Outdoor Life Network (Travel Channel in the U.S.) lately. I don't know what it is, but there's something that simultaneously intrigues and repulses me about a guy visiting restaurants that are known for serving ginormous portions of food. As nasty as trying to eat a 12-egg omelette or 5-pound burger sounds, I kind of want to visit some of the places found on the show.

Until then, I'll have to resort to finding my own mega-food joints locally. One place I've frequented on the odd occasion since way back in high school is King Slice, which has the biggest pizza slices I've ever seen. Get a load of this monstrosity, which I had for dinner yesterday:

It's so big it needs two freakin' plates!

The bright side of eating such a big pizza slice is that you don't really need to eat anything else: it's pretty much your dinner. And for $4.25, it's pretty much the cheapest dinner you'll find.

If you're ever in the Bloor West Village area in Toronto, I highly recommend King Slice. Not only is the pizza big, it's also pretty tasty.

Anyone else got any recommendations on where monster portions of food can be found? Photos, please!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Musical training at Wendy's

Evidently, I'm on a bit of a fast-food kick in these here parts lately. I'm not quite sure what that says about me, but what can I say? I've been finding some funny, funny stuff lately.

The latest is a set of Wendy's training videos from the early 1990s that you just have to see. I was turned onto these by the National Post, which in turn found them via comedian Joe Mande. Here's a video about how to serve chili, cookies and milk:

You can see a bunch more on the National Post , or on Mande's blog.

The thing I find funniest about these videos is not that Wendy's employees had to sit through them, but rather that some musicians somewhere actually made a pay check from them.

That's one good reason why I'll never be a musician (aside from a total lack of musical ability): I would never, ever want to be responsible for putting phrases like "Before you put the chili in the bowl or cup, use a figure-eight motion from the bottom to the top - to really get it stirred up" to music. Really, your career can't fall any further once you've done that.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cable firms should have learned from porn

A post from technology blog TechVibes yesterday about Apple, Netflix and porn caught my eye and got me thinking. In the blog's analysis, the launch of the new Apple TV device, which features downloadable TV shows and movies from Netflix, might not have much effect on cable TV services, mainly because the online services don't offer porn.

If you missed it, Apple last week announced a revamped version of its Apple TV set-top box, which is a tiny little device that fits into the palm of your hand, and which enables video downloads that you can then watch on your TV. Unlike the previous version, the new Apple TV has no storage, which means you can't buy content and save it, you just rent it. The new device also connects to Netflix, the popular service that provides access to video content for a monthly subscription.

As TechVibes points out, this is direct competition for the on-demand services offered by cable companies (in Canada, that means the likes of Shaw and Rogers). But, given Apple's firm anti-porn stance and Netflix's general aversion to porn, the cable guys might not have much to worry about, the blog says.

That's probably not the case, though. While porn used to be a major driving force behind pay-per-view and digital on-demand television (it's covered in Sex, Bombs and Burgers), it is becoming decidedly less so as more and more people get their smut on the internet - and for free. At least one estimate suggests people are getting up to 80% to 90% of their porn from the internet for free.

That's an astonishing amount and it's probably a bit high, but it does illustrate the point that the internet is a very strong alternative to pay-per-view porn on cable. Cable companies have been notoriously averse to admitting how much of their revenue actually comes from porn, but given the rise of free and the decline in every other part of the business, it's a safe bet that it's accounting for less every year. That's why I can't imagine that access to adult content is a good reason for anyone to hang on to their cable subscription.

The reason why the average, non-porn-obsessed person should care about this is the same reason why the same said person should buy my book (shameless plug, I know): porn is always at the technological and economic vanguard because it is the one piece of content that people really want, so it is a good indicator of things that will eventually come to the mainstream.

If the above estimate is correct and porn consumers are getting 80% to 90% of their content for free, it will only be a short while before that's the case with the mainstream. BitTorrent, YouTube and Hulu are all contributing. Anecdotally, I know many, many people who have in recent years cancelled their cable and satellite subscriptions and are getting all of their entertainment from a mix of legal and illegal sources.

Strangely, cable companies are fighting this encroachment of free in exactly the wrong way: they're raising prices, which is exactly the way to spur people toward that 80% threshold even faster.

Clearly, the cable industry has learned nothing from porn. It's been a while since I've had cable so I don't know the exact prices, but I seem to remember that porn flick rentals were considerably more expensive than regular movies. These high prices are exactly what drove people to getting their smut for free online.

Now, the same thing is happening with regular television shows. The last straw for me came a year ago with yet another price hike. I called my satellite provider to complain and the service agent told me that I wouldn't get a cheaper price from the rival cable company. The agent seemed pretty taken aback when I told him that cable was no longer their main competitor; the internet was!

The terminal velocity is building and cable providers are getting dangerously close to seeing mass cancellations. The New York Times recently tried to pour cold water on this "cord-cutting" trend but the newspaper's own survey found that young people are strongly considering getting rid of their traditional TV subscription. Why? As one industry analyst puts it: "The idea that $80 a month is OK for basic cable is dangerous."

Monday, September 6, 2010

Burgers: weapons of division?

The BBC ran a provocative story over the weekend about how Quick, the number two burger chain in France behind McDonalds, is serving halal burgers to cater to the country's growing Muslim population. The chain announced this week that its 22 restaurants will serve halal meat only which, according to the BBC, is prompting concerns about segregation.

"What we want to avoid in France is any attempt to impose the customs of any particular community," one observer told the Beeb. "It's dangerous to have separate restaurants where you eat halal, kosher or pork. They should offer a choice for everyone, because this kind of separation between communities sets people against each other."

Halal essentially revolves around how the animal is slaughtered; according to the rules, its neck must be cut to minimize the pain the animal feels and its blood must be drained out. As the story notes, there are significant concerns that people who are selling halal meat in France may be cutting some corners on this practice, particularly the bigger food companies.

The segregation aspect is more interesting though, given the fears around rising Muslim populations in France especially, but Europe in general. As a recent Telegraph story pointed out, some Europeans are worried about the fabric of European culture being transformed, while others are concerned that xenophobic and extremist political parties could arise as a result of the increasing number of immigrants.

The issue of food is key whenever you talk about cultural conflict, since it's the one thing we all can't do without, but I'm not sure I agree with the BBC's take on the situation. So-called "segregated" restaurants exist everywhere - they are, in fact, one of the best things about living in Toronto; we have halal restaurants, koshers restaurants, vegan restaurants, etc. It seems somewhat foolish to want restaurants to cater to everyone. Perhaps it's an overly Canadian view, but I have to believe that more diversity makes people more accepting of others.

And besides, as some Muslims pointed out in the story, France has had kosher-only restaurants for ages without any sort of controversy.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Drive-thru ditties

Alas, today is the last official day of summer, which is about as depressing a thought as I can imagine. I don't know about you, but it's going to pretty damn hard to get motivated to do anything today.

With that in mind, here's some stuff to goof off with. As I was looking around yesterday for something silly to blog about, I came across an interesting trend on YouTube: singing drive-thrus.

As if to prove that YouTube is a repository for people who have way too much time on their hands, there are tons of videos on there of people singing - or rapping - their orders to unsuspecting fast-food employees. Here's the one that really started it all about three years ago:

Not to be outdone, Taco Bell jumped on the popularity of that video and actually turned it into a commercial:

There's tons of these amateur attempts on YouTube, mostly lame, such as at Wendy's, at Starbuck's (they have drive-thrus?!?), and even at Taco Bell.

Perhaps the funniest video, however, is this one about the teens getting arrested last year for trying it:

Enjoy the last official weekend of summer!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Getting to the meat of market forces

Over the past few months, I've found myself taking a step back from the day-to-day goings on in technology and thinking about the bigger picture. Not just about technology, but how technology fits into the grand scheme of things, like the rise and fall of nations.

Recently, the term "market forces" has become a bit of a dirty word up here in Canada (and I'm sure the case is similar in other developed nations). The term is rooted in economics and generally means that a free and open market can solve all problems that may crop up. For example, if Company A comes out with a really good product and ends up monopolizing the market for that product, Company B can come up with a different product that offers some alternative or advantage and thereby possibly unseat Company A.

Eventually, problems occur in just about every market, and authorities have to step in to put market forces back on track. There are many examples in just the technology world. A good one is IBM, which in the early twentieth century created the first real computers - in the form of punch-card machines - that automated many calculation tasks. The company's machines were so fantastic that they eventually dominated the market, which gave IBM a considerable amount of power.

And you know what they say about power: it went straight to IBM's figurative head. The company refused to sell its machines to businesses, and instead forced them to lease them at, shall we say, rather usurious rates. Even worse, the company forced its customers to buy only IBM punch cards, rather than cheaper alternatives from third-party makers.

Eventually, governments and regulators realized this was a problem that was inhibiting innovation and economic growth and broke up IBM's monopoly with new regulations, thereby correcting the course of the market. It's a pattern that's been replicated a number of times throughout the past century of technology, most notably with Microsoft and its abuse of dominant position with its Windows operating system, and it'll probably happen again - possibly to Apple if it's not careful with things like iTunes.

The concept of "market forces" is great, but it has become icky in technology circles up here in Canada because we don't really have them. We have a strange bastardization, particularly when it comes to telecommunications, or the pipes that enable innovation to happen.

Ever since the Conservative government took office in 2006, telecom regulations have been dropping like flies, with one important exception: the wall that keeps foreign companies out of Canada is still standing. According to the Telecommunications Act, foreign companies are not allowed to own the majority of any Canadian telecom company that actually owns any infrastructure on Canadian soil.

It's an anachronistic rule that's out of touch with much of the rest of the world - the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has called it a "backwards" law.

Canadians have therefore been caught in the worst of all situations: domestic companies are getting fewer and fewer rules to play by, but new, foreign companies aren't allowed to come in and compete with them. It doesn't take an economist to forecast that this is a disaster in the making.

Fortunately, our government isn't stupid - certain ministers have recognized this is happening, and they're trying to do something about it. Industry Minister Tony Clement, recognizing that Canada is royally screwed as far as cellphone services and prices are concerned, last year effectively bent the laws by letting Wind Mobile, largely backed by Egyptian financiers, to start up. Canada's desperate need for more wireless competition proved to be stronger than the law itself, and the government is now wisely seeking to change those rules.

Similarly, there is much concern today in the U.S. and Canada over broadband internet access, and net neutrality. There have been numerous reports that have found both countries are falling behind in rolling out the next generation of super-fast internet infrastructure, which means we will ultimately lose our economic and innovation edge to more advanced broadband countries such as Japan and South Korea. Many have urged both governments to take more proactive action in expanding broadband, either through building networks themselves (like Australia is doing) or by forcing phone and cable companies to spend more or compete more.

On the net neutrality front, there is also the worry that if our governments allow phone and cable companies to pick and choose which sorts of traffic get priority, then innovation - and the economy - will indubitably suffer. As such, net neutrality advocates have been pushing for stronger rules to prevent exactly this sort of thing from happening.

The problem is, here in North America, a different kind of thinking has settled in. To put it in regulatory terms, our governments and regulators have become "ex-post" thinkers rather than "ex-ante" thinker. In other words, they prefer to deal with a problem only once it has occurred, rather than trying to prevent it in the first place. In Canada, this is in fact how our regulator, the CRTC, has been ordered to think by the government.

That's probably a good approach, and the news the other day about Canadians getting refunds from phone companies is perhaps the best example of why. In 2002, when the CRTC was still thinking "ex-ante," it came up with the brilliant plan of allowing telephone companies to overcharge customers in order to give cable companies a fighting chance with their new phone services. The idea was to prevent a price war, which seems to be the ultimate reversal of what competition is supposed to bring about: i.e. lower prices.

The idea seems really bone-headed now, especially considering that phone companies, consumer groups, the CRTC and the Supreme Court spent the past four years arguing about how to refund some of the money that was overcharged.

To put it in context: imagine you wanted to make and sell a new kind of shoe, and then you could get rules instituted that prevented other shoe makers from matching your prices. The concept seems as far away from capitalism and market forces as possible, and more akin to something that would happen in Soviet-era Russia.

There has been a lot written about how falling behind in broadband negatively affects a country economically, but perhaps less proof of how a lack of strong net neutrality rules can cause the same. I have no doubt that both issues do affect economic growth and innovation, and I'm certain that both Canada and the U.S. will eventually suffer because of our lack of attention on both fronts.

However, it's clear that we live in a "let the chips fall where they may" society. Our motto in Canada and the United States isn't so much "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," but more like "let's fix it when it's clear it's broke."

While "market forces" have generally been used to describe a national situation, in today's world they also apply globally. Just as the problems with IBM and Microsoft had to become glaringly apparent before something was done about them, so too will the U.S. and Canadian inattention to next-generation broadband and net neutrality have to result in serious issues before they are properly dealt with. Things are just going to have to get a lot worse before they can get better.

In that sense, market forces are just going to have to be allowed to take their course.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ebook sales are going exponential

More fascinating news on the ebook front: yesterday, Borders announced it was cutting the price on the Kobo and Aluratek e-readers to $129 and $99, respectively. I've posted before about how Kobo CEO Michael Serbinis predicted a while back that e-readers would come down to $100 by the end of this year, and he was obviously right. His own device is getting very close to that price point and will in all likelihood be there by Christmas.

I mention this because I had an interesting conversation with my agent the other day about ebooks and where they're currently at. It's no secret how enthusiastic I am about them, but he suggested that maybe I'm being a bit too rah-rah - after all, ebooks make up only about 8% of current sales. Publishers are understandably far more concerned about the 92% of sales that their actual printed books bring in.

However, we also talked about another (top secret) subject where I use the term "exponential growth" quite a bit, and I started wondering how that technological truism applies to ebooks, especially in light of this increasingly fierce competition in devices.

Here's how I see the numbers. Amazon debuted the Kindle almost three years ago; ebook sales at the time were too small to really register. According to the Book Industry Study Group, ebooks made up only 1.5% of the total U.S. market in 2009, but jumped to 5% during the first quarter of 2010, a number that has further risen since to the 8% quoted above. In the words of BISG, ebook sales are growing "exponentially."

In two years, ebooks went from zero to 5% with basically one device to read them on. In three months, they went from 5% to 8% with a few new competitors to the Kindle on board. That has a lot of people thinking that sales are going exponential. Indeed, with this sort of growth rate, the majority of books sold will be ebooks in only a few short years.

Looking at music sales is particularly instructive. Similarly, sales of digital music were essentially nil before Apple opened the iTunes store in 2003. Digital music revenue, however, is projected to surpass physical revenue this year in the United States and worldwide in 2016.

To go from zero to 50% in just seven years is astonishing, and exponential. Not surprisingly, the music industry has been reeling for much of this time because things have moved extremely quickly.

If the numbers of the past three years are anything to go by, it looks like the transformation in books is going to happen even faster. The question is, are publishers ready for it?
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