Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New Scientist, a well-respected science and technology magazine based in London, has given Sex, Bombs and Burgers a pretty good review in its Culture Lab section. Says features editor Richard Fisher: "These chapters are hugely entertaining. Nowak - an experienced journalist - confidently treads where other historians of technology might avoid."

Like all good reviews, though, Fisher points out what he saw as a flaw - that my thesis sometimes falters when talking about pornographers as driving forces behind innovation. Truth be told, that's not the first time I've heard this pointed out, both in regards to my book specifically and to the idea in general, so I don't necessarily take it as offence. I do think that perhaps the role - and importance - of early adopters is not well known or entirely understood, and perhaps it's my fault for not explaining it well enough in the book.

There's little doubt that the military and food industries are big innovators; they're absolutely huge and fiercely competitive industries that spend billions on research and development every year. They literally have scientists in white coats working in labs coming up with the newest bombs and burgers.

The pornography industry, while big, is nowhere near the same size and there certainly aren't many scientists working on breakthroughs specifically for sexual purposes - "that we know of," George Stroumboulopoulos. But, as I argue in the book, I believe the industry is just as important because it is often the early adopter that gets a technology off the ground so that it can be developed to the point where it's ready for a mainstream audience.

Historically, the VCR is a great example. It's well known that Hollywood tried to sue VCRs out of existence in the early 1980s because they thought the devices would facilitate piracy of movies (sound familiar?). While mainstream studios were gingerly releasing movie tapes in the technology's early days, porn companies were cranking them out. And they were charging an arm and a leg for them, which aficionados were willing to pay. As a result, top ten rental and purchase lists in the early 80s were full of porn titles such as Debbie Does Dallas and Behind the Green Door.

If there were no brisk-selling, expensive porno tapes to feed the VCRs, their makers would likely have given up on them in light of Hollywood's reticence. New technologies are invented every day but the majority of them never continue because nobody buys into them. So while porn companies didn't invent the VCR, their willingness to jump onto the new, unproven devices saved the technology. The manufacturers made enough to keep the VCR afloat until the mainstream studios could be convinced to come along for the ride. In the case of the VCR, I think porn keeping it alive was just as important as its actual invention.

We've seen this time and again, with the latest example happening - ironically - yesterday.

Word has come down that Google is cracking down on porn apps in its Android smartphone marketplace. According to Google, "Apps that include suggestive or sexual references should be rated 'Teen' or above. Apps that focus on such content should be rated 'Mature.' Pornography is not allowed in Android Market."

The timing on this announcement should come as no surprise. Google released Android two years ago and had essentially allowed its app store to become something of a Wild West. Even the prudish Steve Jobs mocked the company when he said earlier this year: "Folks who want porn can buy and [sic] Android phone."

Lo and behold - two years later and Android has become the number one smartphone operating system, at least in the U.S., and guess what? See you later, porn. Google no longer needs it, so it's tossed to the wayside. It's not surprising to me; I expected a year ago.

That's not to say that porn apps are responsible for Android's success; it's a nice operating system that's a good alternative to the iPhone. However, one big part of Android's success - at least in Google's marketing of it - has been its supposed "openness." Google has correspondingly mocked Apple for being so closed with its operating system and app store.

Any way you slice it, porn has played a role - whether directly or indirectly - in Android's rise. And as usual, once its job is done, it's officially put out to pasture. As they say: it's not who you come to the dance with, it's who you go home with. Alas, when it comes to technology, we often tend to only remember that second part.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Why North Korea has nothing on Canada

It was a busy weekend, what with the TEDx conference at Ryerson on Saturday and all. The day was quite fun with a lot of good talks. My favourite was the one given by David Brame, who aside from being an assistant professor of fashion at the university is also a comic book artist. His speech, about how to unleash your inner six-year-old, resonated with me because it was basically all about comic books and how they inspired him to get to where he is today. After his talk, I told him we were pretty much the same person.

My talk went fairly well, I think. I didn't freeze up and there were a few chuckles, so I couldn't really ask for much more. The team at Ryerson did an excellent job at organizing the whole event and they're busily editing the video of all the talks. They'll have them up soon and I'll point to them when they do.

One of the things that came up during my talk was how technology, and particularly the internet, has changed the shape of war over the past century. There are reasons to oppose globalization, but one of the big facts in favour of it is how interconnected the economies of the world have become. While this may cause us problems whenever some part of the world goes into recession, the upside is that one major nation going to war against another is pretty much suicidal for all involved, and therefore highly improbable. As I said in the speech, if the United States were to go to war with China, as some people think will eventually happen, the flow of goods would stop dead and Americans wouldn't even have clean underwear to fight in.

Afterward, I got to thinking about this whole situation with North Korea. As you probably know, the North has been agitating again by shelling one of the South's island, thereby killing two sailors. Tensions flared up again over the weekend and various military forces mobilized.

North Korea worries pundits for two reasons. One, the country may have some nukes and Kim Jong Il may just be crazy enough to use them. Two, nobody's really sure where China sits on the whole issue. If the U.S. were to become involved on South Korea's behalf, China might decide to side with North Korea, or so the thinking goes.

I'm thinking neither scenario is likely. As the WikiLeaks documents revealed over the weekend, the U.S. has been cutting all sorts of deals with China over North Korea. A betting man would be smart to believe the U.S. has a whole lot more to offer China than the electricity-challenged North Korea does, and vice-versa (like clean underwear). If it came down to war between North and South (sponsored by the U.S.), China would make some noise but probably largely stay out of it.

Said war would be really, really quick. Let's compare the two. According to CIA numbers, North Korea has the world's 20th most powerful military force compared to the U.S., which is of course rated first. North Korea also has 1% of the military budget of the U.S. I think that's about the only number we need to look at. South Korea is no slouch either - the country is ranked 12th and has five times the budget of the North. A U.S.-South Korean takeover would be so swift, the North wouldn't have time to use nukes, if it even has them.

And even if Kim Jong Il has nukes, is crazy enough to use them and had time to do so, his country would then be wiped off the face of the planet after all the other nations of world piled on him for going so nutso.

I'm not one to advocate for war, but it may just be time to solve the whole North Korea problem. While it has been labelled a "rogue nation" for possibly developing nukes against the will of the international community, it's more of a rogue for refusing to enter into the world economy - the same interconnected network that keeps the rest of us safe. The best way to ensure lasting peace between nations is to make them dependent on each other, so that hurting one is akin to hurting oneself. North Korea needs to be brought into that fold.

That said, there is one thing I've always found funny about North Korea (other than the portrayal of King Jong Il in Team America). Did you know that the sole cellphone company in this defiant and isolated rogue state is the same one that is challenging the big three providers here in Canada? It's true. Egypt's Orascom operates cellphone service in North Korea - it's likely that only military and government personnel are allowed to have a mobile - and is the chief backer of Wind Mobile here in Canada.

The funny part? Orascom had an easier time setting up service in North Korea than it did in Canada. It's pretty obvious that as far as telecommunications goes, Canada is the rogue state.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Countdown to TEDx tomorrow

I've spent much of the past week learning the speech I'll be giving tomorrow at the TEDx conference here in Toronto. I'm a terrible memorizer so it's taken me a good deal of effort to get my 18-minute spiel down. It was tough and I won't be able to do it without cue cards, but I think I'm pretty well good to go.

TED stands for "technology, entertainment and design" and centres around the motto of "Ideas worth spreading." TEDx conferences are organized independently, with the main non-profit organization's blessing. It's quite the honour to be part of one as TED is well regarded and has featured major luminaries in the past, from Bill Gates to Richard Branson to, of course, Bono. It's especially exciting to be doing this talk in particular because it's at Ryerson, my old university. I wonder if any of my old profs will be in the audience?

Here's The Eyeopener, Ryerson's student paper (and where I learned the journalism ropes), and its take on the event.

The theme of my talk will be "Technology good, media bad," or, more specifically, how we've been conditioned over the past few decades to doubt and be cynical about new technology, despite the fact that it has brought us out of the dark ages. We're in fact barreling towards utopia, not that you'd believe it if you open a newspaper or turn on the TV.

I'll be speaking during the afternoon session, between 1:30 and 2:00, I think, and the entire event will be streamed online on the TEDx website. The day officially kicks off at 10 and there are tons of great speakers, so I encourage everyone to check it out. It should be a fun day. I imagine they'll post videos after the event, so I'll be sure to link to them when they're up.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

My new love: Dangerous Dan's burgers

My praise of the Heart Attack Grill for its unorthodox and anti-food-fascist marketing strategy drew a friend to point out to me that we don't have to go all the way to Arizona for that sort of thing. We have our very own devil-may-care burger joint right here in Toronto, and wouldn't you know it, it's about three blocks from where I live.

I've been meaning to eat at Dangerous Dan's, at the corner of Queen Street East and Broadview for some time. I always found something enticing about the restaurant's relatively simple, no-frills signage every time I drove past it, and I remember a friend mentioning a while back that they had huge burgers. But I'd always put it off.

I had no idea it was something of a local sensation. A little research turned up a few articles, including a recent one in the Globe and Mail about Dan's recent un-PC ad campaign, which is similar to the Heart Attack Grill's.

How could I resist?

I ventured over on Tuesday to see what all the fuss was about. It was late afternoon and the place was deserted, but that's okay because it meant I had the staff's full attention. I looked at the menu and chuckled. It was full of the stuff I expected: the Big Kevorkian burger, with a fried onion, an onion ring, fried mushrooms, 2 slices of bacon, a deep-fried pickle, garlic dressing and mayo; the Elvis burger, with bacon, peanut butter and a fried banana; and of course, the Quadruple C, or the Colossal Colon Clogger Combo, which is a burger with two 8-ounce patties, four slices of bacon, two slices of cheddar and a fried egg on top, plus poutine and a large shake.

There's also the dessert menu, which includes deep-fried Mars bars and the South Park-inspired Chef's Salty Chocolate Balls.

Sounds horrible, doesn't it? Maybe, but the restaurant's brochure proudly displays a review it got from CityTV: "Probably the most unhealthy restaurant in Canada." Posters around the restaurant read: "22% of Ontarions are obese. We can do better."

I was attracted to the Big Easy burger, which is an 8-ounce patty with spicy marinated peppers, cajun spice, hot peppers and hot sauce. I asked the guy at the counter how spicy it was, and he said, "It's white-man spicy, not Sri Lankan spicy." Har. I love this place already.

Here's my burger. It was quite impressed with the size:

So how was it? I can honestly say it was one of the best burgers I've ever had. It was at the limit's of this white man's spice threshold, but otherwise it was very tasty. What's more is that I felt really good after eating it. Usually I feel pretty bogged down and heavy after a burger, especially one that size, but the Big Easy left me feeling quite energized. The only downside is that I think I missed some of the burger's true taste because of the spice. Next time I'll get something a little less ass-kicking.

What makes Dangerous Dan's even funnier is that it's right across the street from Jilly's, a strip club. If only there were an army surplus store on one of the other corners - then it would be the ultimate Sex, Bombs and Burgers intersection!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Video games aren't too real for soldiers

After a day of reading and writing at my job (and yes, freelancing is a job!), the last thing I want to do in my leisure time is more of the same. There were several months when I was working on Sex, Bombs and Burgers where I'd spend all day writing stories at the CBC, then come home and continue writing the book. It was draining, and on some days, my brain turned to mush. Even now, after about seven hours or so, the sight of a keyboard often disgusts me.

That's why I enjoy video games so much - they're a great escape from reality. They're about as unrelated to writing as you can get, and they let me exercise different parts of my grey matter.

My favourite games for the past few years have been from the Call of Duty series; they're first-person shooters set either during World War II or the near-future real world. While the single-player modes are always great, it's the online multiplayer that usually sucks me in. It's tons of fun to go in and shoot 'em up, provided you mute the other players, of course (playing online can otherwise be hazardous to one's intelligence).

I haven't actually had much time to play the latest, Call of Duty: Black Ops, which is set during the Cold War, but I'm really looking forward to getting into it when things finally settle down.

It's somewhat surprising, then, that real-life soldiers also dig playing war games in their spare time. As the Canadian Press reports, a big shipment of video games is headed to Canadian troops stationed in Afghanistan. Leading the pack are Gears of War with 93 copies and two versions of Call of Duty, with 82 copies. There are also other, non-war games on the way, such as Rock Band, Guitar Hero and Tiger Woods Golf, but the shooters are clearly the ones in demand.

That speaks volumes, I think. Time and again we've heard complaints from people who generally know nothing about video games about how violent they are, and how they're a bad influence on children. Critics have become uncomfortable with how supposedly realistic some of the war games are, so much so that you can't even cosmetically mention the Taliban in them.

But the soldiers' order seems to be a pretty good endorsement of these games. If the games were so realistic and so scarring on the psyche, would the troops really want to play them in their off time? If shooting and dying is what they see all day, wouldn't they want to do something completely different when they get back to base? How about a true reversal of roles, where soldiers try writing?

Of course that's not the case, because soldiers are regular people who enjoy the escapism of video games too. They understand video games for what they are: a fun source of entertainment. Perhaps the critics would do well to remember this the next time they try to suggest one is too violent or real.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Government fails Canada on telecom (again)

If you follow telecommunications news, yesterday saw Canadians take a pretty hard double whammy. In the first instance, the federal government announced firmly that it, in fact, has no balls whatsoever. In the second instance, the rest of the world told us that this lack of balls is costing us dearly.

Let's start with the lack of balls. Industry Minister Tony Clement yesterday said that despite the government making all sorts of noise about loosening foreign ownership restrictions for telecommunications companies, it's actually not going to do anything for a year, maybe two. In a nutshell, foreign companies are only allowed to own 46.7% of a Canadian telecommunications carrier, which has been enough to keep many away.

It's a dated rule from a bygone protectionist era when people believed that the pipes over which phone calls run were somehow a strategic national asset. Virtually every developed country in the world has long done away with such rules, and developing countries such as India have seen big investment materialize by doing the same.

I've talked about the downside of these restrictions many times, including . By putting walls up around Canada, we have made it cozy for the likes of Bell, Rogers and Telus, who charge whatever they want and treat customers like garbage on their way to astounding profits. Because they can do so, they've had zero incentive to expand outside of Canada. We shouldn't expect anything more, because protectionist laws inevitably breed crappy companies.

The government had put four options on the table: do nothing, raise the limits to 49%, eliminate the limits for companies with less than 10% market share, or throw the doors open completely. Clement held consultations over the summer, but yesterday - despite option #3 being the most logical and workable - he instead opted for option #1. Also known as the option with no balls. Now, a decision on what to do about those darn restrictions is going to come closer to our next auction of wireless airwaves, in late 2012.

The general feeling is that he did this because of the opposition recently to selling mining company Potash to an Australian buyer. The government stepped in and essentially blocked the deal because it feared the sale of a "provincial icon" would mean Conservatives losing seats in Saskatchewan.

As far as telecom goes, Clement "couldn’t say whether he thought Canadians want more foreigners in the business of providing them with mobile phones, handhelds and telecom services," according to the Globe and Mail. "I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t have polling in my back pocket,” he said. “My gut tells me that Canadians are … less concerned about the means to an end than the end in itself.”

It seems like he answered his own question. His gut is in fact right. Most Canadians are indeed fed up with their wireless, internet and television providers. They may not like the idea of selling out Canadian companies to foreigners, but ultimately they know the bottom line: more companies means more competition, which means better prices and service. Canadians also know they can do no worse under foreigners. Despite opposition politicians inevitably stirring up national sentiment about "the hollowing out of Canada," ultimately most Canadians know they're being screwed and could care less if AT&T buys Bell Canada or Comcast buys Rogers.

The decision to do nothing means the clock is ticking on the likes of our new wireless companies, Wind Mobile, Mobilicity and Public Mobile. As I've said before, these guys just don't have the money to wage a long-term war against Bell, Rogers and Telus, and because of the ownership rules, they probably can't get the money. The only question remaining is, will any of them go belly up before the government finally finds the balls to do what's necessary? Wind Mobile is already practically begging for the restrictions to be loosened... that smells like hurting to me.

Clement says there "other ways" to get to better prices and services without opening up foreign investment. I'd sure as hell like to see them. The way I see it, there are two "other ways." Either Clement keeps flouting the existing laws, like he did by allowing foreign-backed Wind to start up, or the government gives up its zealous commitment to "market forces" and starts re-regulating. But there's a higher probability of Clement being the guest of honour at a statisticians' convention than that happening.

It's ironic then, that on the same day as Clement's chickening out, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released its latest Information Technology Outlook (you can download the PDF by clicking here). Now, government ministers probably don't have the time to read through the 300 pages of reports like this one, so allow me to summarize: we're screwed. Indeed, the report sums up Canada's technological position in the developed world nicely.

While there are some things to be proud of, the overall picture it paints is that we are a net importer of technology. In other words, we take in a lot of stuff from elsewhere, but we put precious little out to the rest of the world. And if it wasn't for the BlackBerry, designed by Research In Motion in Waterloo, our situation would actually be dire.

More specifically, as it relates to telecommunications, our broadband situation continues to deteriorate. The OECD has been tracking Canada's decline over the past decade from leading the world in high-speed internet adoption to the periphery of the top ten. Along the way, the telecom companies and their lobbyists have tried to shoot the messenger, claiming the OECD's methodology is flawed, and that it shouldn't be counting individual broadband subscriptions but rather household connections, since those are more accurate.

The OECD made that switch and the decline was still evident. With the release of yesterday's report, Canada has finally slipped out of the top ten - we're now eleventh in the OECD.

So what's a simple ranking like that mean? To put it in basic terms, it means there are ten other countries that are better equipped with the infrastructure of the new economy than we are. Each country that passes us by means that the odds of the next Google or Amazon starting up in Canada grow slimmer.

This should not be news to Clement or anyone else in the government. Not only are they working on their own "digital economy strategy" - a plan that I suspect may never see the light of day, and which will doubtlessly be vastly disappointing if it does happen - but they also have a boss who very clearly "gets" it. Newly installed Governor General David Johnston, the former president of the University of Waterloo (RIM's stomping grounds), understand technology and its key role in economic prosperity very well. I've interviewed him a few times and he has always come across as very in touch with all of the problems I've mentioned here. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like any of his wisdom has rubbed off on the government so far.

So, to boil all this down: we're screwed. Things are deteriorating and the government is too chicken-shit to do anything about it.

Here's the part that's most galling. If the government fears the opposition raising a stink about selling out Canada if it tried to lift foreign ownership restrictions, they could always wheel out this 2006 report that was originally commissioned by the previous Liberal government. The Telecommunications Policy Review Panel found that:

Among OECD countries, Canada has maintained one of the most restrictive and inflexible set of rules limiting foreign investment in the telecommunications sector. However, the Panel notes that countries that have removed, or significantly liberalized, their foreign investment restrictions in their telecommunications sectors have generally not relinquished all capacity to respond to public interest considerations related to foreign investment in their telecommunications markets. Other OECD countries have in place explicit or implicit safeguards to ensure that foreign investment in their telecommunications markets serves and does not prejudice their national public interest.

What did the panel suggest? The same options #3 and #4 that Clement proposed earlier this year: first, the removal of restrictions on companies with less than 10% market share, followed years later by the easing of all restrictions. It sure looks like the Liberals would actually be in agreement about lifting foreign ownership limits.

Doesn't this just make you want to cry?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Media fails to see KFC's Double Down plan

It's funny the things you take for granted. Me? I didn't even notice that KFC's Double Down - the chicken monstrosity I've dedicated an of time to on this here blog - officially disappeared from Canadian restaurants last week. While the sandwich, which features two chicken breasts in place of a bun, was initially presented as a limited-time offer here in Canada, I figured the huge sales of the thing would ensure its permanency.

Lo and behold, though, KFC stuck to its word and pulled the sandwich on Nov. 14.

What's more surprising, though, is how gullible - and perhaps lazy - the media is. Our major newspapers had stories on the end of the Double Down, but none that I saw actually stopped to ask one simple question: if KFC Canada was in fact "stunned" by the "staggering" sales, as it said it was in a press release, why is the sandwich being discontinued?

Hmm, maybe it's because journalists don't realize they're part of the marketing plan.

Take two facts into account. One: the Double Down received huge amounts of media coverage upon its launch in Canada. And two: it makes no logical sense to take a hot-selling and well-publicized product off your menu.

It seems pretty clear that KFC's plan is to pull the sandwich for a short time, then reintroduce it citing "popular demand," thereby getting another wave of publicity.

Honestly, I've been writing about the Double Down mainly as a lark. I think the thing is funny, especially since it's become a touchstone for food fascists who want to limit people's ability to eat whatever they want. But I don't think I'll be writing about it anymore, largely because I don't want to be part of this rather obvious marketing strategy any longer.

Now then, which fast-food chain is going to come out with an even more outrageous menu item?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fast food as subversive social commentary

There are times when I really love America. Yesterday, when I came across the Heart Attack Grill, was one of those times.

What is the Heart Attack Grill? It's exactly what it sounds like - a fast-food restaurant in Chandler, Arizona that specializes in horribly, horribly unhealthy food. Its menu consists of seven items: the Single, Double, Triple and Quadruple Bypass burger (add a patty for each), Flatliner Fries, no-filter Lucky Strike cigarettes and Jolt Cola. The Quadruple Bypass burger weighs in at an awesome 8,000 calories!

The restaurant, which uses a medical motif - its chefs are "doctors" and customers are "patients" - has rolled out a new promotion where people over 350 pounds eat free. Here's the promo video, which you just have to watch. Apparently, a Heart Attack Grill can lead to a variety of health problems, including "mild death:"

What I love about this is that it's so over the top and in your face - just like America. While the bleeding hearts there and in Canada how unhealthy KFC's Double Down is, the Heart Attack Grill is basically spitting in their faces. The whole tongue-in-cheek motif is almost subversive - who knew that a fast-food joint could provide subtle social commentary?

Of course, there are some tree-hugging, fish-kissing sticks-in-the-mud that just don't get any of it. The folks at Change.org have started a petition protesting the restaurant and its gimmicky marketing campaign. It's another typically American thing to do, although one that I don't love nearly quite as much.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Adult firms committing suicide by lawsuit

When some heavyweights of porn, including Hustler, got together last month to try and hammer out a plan to stop illegal file-sharing of adult content, a lot of people in the mainstream were watching. Some of those involved in the meeting, such as Pink Visual president Allison Vivas, promised that the so-called "content protection retreat" wasn't just a talk-fest, but that concrete actions had been agreed on and were imminent. Indeed, the group plans to "effectively drive those who engage in adult content piracy completely underground by January 2012."

It looks like the results of the meeting are taking shape in the form of lawsuits against people who are file-sharing porn over Bittorrent. According to ZDNet, about 30,000 people have been named in various lawsuits in the past few months, which is more than the U.S. music industry sued over the course of a few years.

While the film and music industries gave up on suing individual users, the adult industry - or at least those companies involved in the retreat - believe they have a secret weapon that will let them win where others have failed: shame. Aside from suing individuals who have downloaded their movies, the porn companies intend to publicly name these people and what they stole. So, other than a potential legal penalty, downloaders may also have to deal with the social repercussions of everyone knowing that they were guilty of watching Super Horny She-Males 7 (I made that up, although it probably does exist).

The producers are using a number of clearing-house-type legal companies, such as the Adult Copyright Company and the Copyright Enforcement Group, to file lawsuits on their behalf. The porn companies are finding this setup quite appealing because they don't pay the lawsuit chasers a penny unless they get results. As for the downloaders who risk being exposed, they have a convenient option: they can log on to a website and settle out of court to avoid being shamed, with at least one of the lawsuit companies setting $1,500 as the correct amount.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group that watches out for people's rights online, has significant problems with this approach, largely stemming from privacy issues and whether the lawsuit companies really know what they're talking about when it comes to intellectual property. The EFF also thinks this could lead to online scams arising, where people pay settlements to fake websites. The ZDNet story sums up the EFF's issues quite well, even if it is full of every wink-wink double entendre and cliche you'd expect in a mainstream news story about porn.

I too have serious problems with this approach, basically because the punishment does not fit the crime and because it's a potentially suicidal move for the adult companies involved. In the first instance, if someone downloads a porno and then shares it over Bittorrent, yes, they're costing the producer money. That could probably be quantified in court, and the offender made to pay it back if found guilty.

However, the shame/blackmail aspect is simply abhorrent. On the one hand, the pornography industry has for ages argued that what people do in their homes is their own business, and it has profited immensely - both financially and legally - from that stance. Now, they want to turn that argument against their own former-and-potentially-future customers. It's the worst kind of hypocrisy. Yes, porn companies are mad about people stealing their product, but resorting to blackmail to fight back? So much for the supposed moral high ground they've spent decades building.

Worse still, by exposing what people have watched in the privacy of their own homes, the porn companies could also ruin their lives - and in some cases jeopardize them (as ZDNet points out, there could be serious problems for someone in the military who is found out to be watching gay porn). We all know what that will lead to: more lawsuits. And those ones will be big and, certainly in some cases, entirely justified.

The film and music businesses gave up on trying to sue their customers because they smartly figured out that the monetary return they'd get by doing so simply wasn't worth the damage to their own brands. Just ask Metallica, a band that no one takes seriously anymore. As I said, the mainstream was watching to see what came of this content protection retreat - they must be laughing now.

What I find especially galling about the whole situation is how adult companies time and time again try to stress how technologically innovative they are. There's nothing innovative about lawsuits, especially when they've been proven not to work - at least not without blackmailing potential customers. We should all know by now that the internet is killing old business models left and right, and using courts to try and keep them alive just isn't the way to go.

How this is likely to shake out is that Old Porn - the likes of Hustler et al - are going to die off, to be replaced by smaller adult companies that are indeed more tech savvy, and who know that innovation is the real secret to success in the industry (the slow death of Playboy is a perfect case study). Suing customers certainly isn't the way to survive.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Are dumb customers helping Domino's?

I was flipping through a recent edition of Canadian Business magazine yesterday when I came across an interesting tidbit. Apparently, Domino's has completely reformulated its pizza. It happened way back in January and I vaguely remember it, but it obviously didn't register. I try to stay on top of fast-food news, so naturally I'm ashamed of myself for initially missing it.

There are a couple of fascinating tidbits about this situation that make it more than just your typical "new and improved" story. First off, here's the long-form commercial posing as documentary from Domino's that explained the change:

What's obviously striking about the switch is that Domino's broke a cardinal rule of advertising: in quoting customers saying its pizza tasted "like cardboard," the chain admitted its product was below average. Not surprisingly, the unconventional ad campaign got a lot of media attention when it was rolled out, which perhaps counts as a success for Domino's. Indeed, according to the Canadian Business tidbit, the chain saw first-quarter U.S. sales go up 12%.

What's even more interesting, though, is that the new-and-improved pizza was U.S. only, and from what I can tell, it remains that way. Domino's in Canada, for example, has different ownership and its outlets are therefore not required to use U.S. recipes, according to the Vancouver Sun. Either the media has simply failed to report the international expansion of the new U.S. recipe, which is doubtful, or the rest of us are still eating the old cardboard stuff.

I can understand trying to make waves with an unorthodox advertising strategy, but isn't this a little overboard for the company? Is Domino's hoping that people in other countries don't realize it has acknowledged its original product to be crap? And if that's the case, why do people outside the U.S. still eat Domino's pizza? Would we still drive cars if the makers told us they were junk, or would we buy a pair of shoes if the retailer said they were shoddy?

Ultimately, I'm not sure who's more to blame for the illogic of the situation - Domino's or its non-U.S. customers.

UPDATE: I got a tweet from Domino's in the UK - they say they've always used a different recipe than the U.S. I've never had Domino's in the UK, so I can't say whether that's a good or bad thing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A lament for Caprica

Yesterday was an unusual day in that I got to co-host a TV show. I've done television before, usually as a guest, but this was the first time I was in a co-hosting role, as it were. The show is Inner Space, on tonight on the Space Channel (11 pm Eastern time, I believe) following Caprica. Check it out, it's going to be a blast!

The format of the show usually has regular hosts Ajay Fry and Teddy Wilson talking about whatever the preceding program was, followed by a roundup of news from the sci-fi world. Teddy is on an ultra-secret project in an exotic location, so I got the call from producer Mark Askwith to fill in. I've known Mark - who I like to think of as the godfather of Canadian science-fiction because of his encyclopedic knowledge and vast contact base - for years, since my days running the short-lived Realms magazine. He helped us out quite a bit in those days, and he's one excellent dude in general.

We've been trying to get something together in relation to Caprica ever since Sex, Bombs and Burgers came out back in March. In the book, I talk about how the themes of Caprica and its precursor, Battlestar Galactica, are actually rooted in reality - particularly military and porn technology - so it seemed like a good fit with the show. I'm pleased we finally managed to make it work.

Alas, I was saddened to hear that the axe has fallen - for now - on Caprica. SyFy, the network that produces the show, announced a few weeks ago that it was not being renewed. Mark and company reminded me yesterday that that's not the same as being cancelled and there are petitions going around to save Caprica, so ultimately, you never know. Perhaps like some of the characters on the show, it too will be resurrected. (Interestingly, while Space is airing the final three episodes, SyFy hasn't yet committed to showing them. Translation: there's a whole lot of Americans Bittorrenting our Canadian-aired episodes.)

If you're not a fan of either BSG or Caprica, here's a quick synopsis. In BSG, the human race has created a race of subservient robots called the Cylons. Naturally, the Cylons rebel and nearly exterminate the humans, the remainder of whom flee into space aboard ships. The show was utterly gripping for a number of reasons: it had great drama, suspense and action and it was also a fantastic example of high-concept science-fiction, the kind that looks at modern-day issues through the detachment of a futuristic lens. BSG garnered all sorts of praise - Time magazine even named it the best show on television in 2005 - largely because it asked all the right questions about technology, religion, the nature of humanity, and even terrorism. Yes indeed, it was one of the best shows of all time, if you ask me.

Caprica was/is the prequel series, intended to tell the story of how the Cylons came to be. I fell in love with the pilot episode where Zoe, the main teenage protagonist, explains to her father how she had managed to create a perfect replica of herself in cyberspace using all of the electronic data - email, photos, bank records, shopping receipts, etc. - she had accumulated in her life. I saw this pilot at exactly the right time, just after I'd had some Google executives explain to me how their translation algorithms work, and I saw the correlation that what was going on in Caprica was actually happening in the real world.

Indeed, we are in the early stages of learning how the brain and personalities work and I'm confident that we'll figure them out, and I'm willing to bet it'll happen sooner rather than later. Once we get there, we'll be able to replicate and thereby inject them into the sorts of virtual worlds and robot bodies found on Caprica. And, as the show has been building to, once we can recreate and copy our brains/personalities, immortality will be achieved - we'll be able to live forever, either in a Matrix-like virtual reality or in a robot body.

I talked about some of this with Magda Apanowicz, the Canadian actress who plays Lacy Rand on the show, when she was in town earlier this year. Here's the video:

I found Caprica to be at its best when it dealt with these near-future issues. Unfortunately, the show was also tremendously inconsistent, with characters seeming to switch allegiances and/or motivations almost episode-to-episode. Unlike BSG, there also weren't really any characters who the viewer could like or associate with. There was also almost no humour (unlike on BSG, whose self-preservation-at-all-costs was often hilarious, usually tragic), and it was hard to tell in general where the show was going, which is strange for any sort of a prequel because the end destination is ultimately always known.

Nevertheless, I'm hopeful that some sort of miracle happens and that Caprica is saved from death. The show deserves another shot, if only because like BSG, it was asking all the right questions about the trajectory modern-day technology is taking.

In any event, be sure to check out Inner Space. I'm not sure if I'll be able to get video of it, but if I do I'll be sure to post it here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

UK wireless versus Canada

One of the first things I did when I arrived in the UK about two weeks ago was get myself some cellphone service. I friend of mine there lent me a SIM card from provider 3, which I popped into an unlocked Motorola Milestone smartphone I have. As soon as it was active, I got the following text message from 3:

"Get even more value with your next top-up. Top-up 10 pounds & convert it to All in One 10 for 100 mins, 3000 texts & 500 MB internet."

I actually ended up paying 15 pounds, or about $25 Canadian, for 500 megabytes of data usage and pretty much all the voice minutes and text messages I needed for my short time there. I ended up coming back home with lots of minutes, messages and data to spare.

Now, here's my typical monthly bill breakdown from Fido here in Canada (owned by Rogers):
  • iPhone Plan 60.00 
  • Credit: Monthly credit $10 -10.00 
  • Credit: Monthly credit of $10 -10.00 
  • Credit: Monthly credit of $5 -5.00 
  • 200 anytime minutes 10.00 
  • Call Display w/Name Display 7.00 
  • Minute Tracker 0.00 
  • 250 Weekday Minutes 0.00 
  • iPhone Data Access 500 MB 0.00 
  • Fido/Rogers Hotspot Access 0.00 
  • Unlimited Evenings/Weekends 0.00 
  • Unl. text messages 0.00 
  • Visual Voicemail 0.00 
  • Total before taxes: $52.00
For those who don't have the requisite PhD to read phone bills, what all of this means is that I have roughly the same service from Fido for more than double what it costs in the UK. Moreover, you'll notice all those ridiculous credits totaling $25, which are the result of me haggling for months. Without them, my bill would be triple its UK equivalent.

Not surprisingly, this manifests itself in the bottom lines of the wireless carriers. For the record, Canadian cellphone companies pull in an average of around $55 (US) per user per month, compared to about $32 (US) for UK carriers. This contributes to big-time profits for Canadian cellphone carriers - the highest in the developed world. Canadian cellphone carriers actually make about double the profit per capita of their UK counterparts (all these numbers come from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Wireless Matrix, considered the bible of the industry).

I always found it really funny when our local oligopoly - Bell, Rogers and Telus - tried to convince people (and government ministers especially) that their rates weren't high. All it takes is a short trip outside of Canada to realize just how badly they lie.

So why do Canadian wireless carriers gouge their customers so outrageously? It's simple - it's because they're Canadian wireless carriers. In the UK, the major cellphone providers are Vodafone (British-owned), T-Mobile (German-owned), O2 (Spanish-owned) and 3 (Hong Kong-owned). Obviously, there's a common denominator there - three of the four are foreign-owned.

The Canadian government is currently mulling whether or not to liberalize our restrictive foreign ownership restrictions, which pretty much make impossible the sort of competitive situation the UK currently enjoys. Anybody with half a brain knows it's well past time to drop these restrictions since telecommunications is a global business, and when you keep it from being so, you get the ridiculous prices we have here in Canada.

What difference would allowing foreign cellphone companies into Canada make? Well, for one thing, it's worth noting that all four of the UK's big providers are primarily cellphone companies while the big three in Canada all also sell home phone service. Canadian companies have had no incentive to get people to ditch their home phones and go cellphone-only. Despite that fact, it's still happening - although it would be doing so at a much quicker rate had Canada historically had some wireless-only companies pushing for it.

A number of wireless-only companies have started up in the past year, beginning with Wind, but these are small firms that have had to claw together the money, skirt the rules and lobby our government hard in order to compete with the big boys. It doesn't take a math degree to figure out that these small, poorly funded providers aren't going to be able to stick it out against Bell, Rogers and Telus in the long run.

If the foreign-ownership rules aren't dropped, our new providers will inevitably go belly up. And we'll continue paying double to triple what other developed nations do.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A cracking good Festival of Ideas

I'm back from a fun and rewarding trip to the UK and thought I would wrap up the week with a quick look back at my time there, before kicking off my new "life of leisure" era on Monday.

The highlight was certainly the Festival of Ideas in Bristol this past Monday. I arrived in town in the morning and did a quick walk through town - Bristol's a nice place, certainly more laid back than London, and I would liked to have spent more time there. I was in desperate need of some down time, though, so I checked out a movie (Due Date... it was terrible!) before heading over to the Festival.

The format was basically a Q&A interview. Festival director Andrew Kelly quizzed me on Sex, Bombs and Burgers and what it says about us, and technology's role in society. Andrew was very well prepared and we had a great discussion. What boggled the mind is that we had a sell-out crowd of 120 people show up and actually pay a few pounds apiece to listen in. The fact that most attendees were young was not lost on anyone, so whenever somebody says that young people don't read, I'm not inclined to believe them.

The audience Q&A that followed was lively and good fun, and I had a blast talking to a few people afterward about everything from Battlestar Galactica to nanotechnology (more on BSG early next week). I understand that futurist Ray Kurzweil will be doing some similar talks over in the UK soon, which is funny because he's the very last person I interviewed while working for CBC a few weeks ago. Ray, who I find to be a mind-blowing guy, came up a few times - I'll be posting that interview somewhere very soon.

In any event, thanks very much to everyone who came out and I hope you had as good a time as I did!

Alas, there's no online video of the Festival talk (they sometimes post audio, which I'm looking into), otherwise I'd post it here. Interestingly, this seems to be par for the course with the UK. My UK media coverage section looks a little , largely because many of the interviews I've done and reviews I've received haven't been posted online. I do have scans of a few, including a short BBC Focus review and an awesome one from the Saturday Times that suggests my book should have been called Eat, Slay, Love. Ha!

There are a few more pieces of coverage coming up, including some stuff on arts blog Ran$om Note and the BBC's Outriders podcast. I'll post links to those when they become available.

One last piece of housekeeping - please remember to adjust your bookmarks to my new blog site, . I'm still running SexBombsBurgers.com concurrently with the new site, which is a bit of a pain, so I'll be redirecting the old to the new relatively soon. That shouldn't cause any disruptions, but I wouldn't want anyone to be surprised. Have a good weekend!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

At long last: McOnion Rings!

I'm headed back to Canada from the UK today a wiser man because I've had one of my age-old questions answered: why doesn't McDonalds have onion rings?

Onion rings are, after all, a traditional part of the burger-and-milkshake triumvirate, with fries, of course. So why no oniony love at the Golden Arches? The chain's arch-enemy (no pun intended) Burger King has them, as do most burger franchises.

A lot of people have wondered the same thing, and some have  online. My theory? Well, if you consider that McDonalds' McNuggets were originally supposed to be bits of battered onions rather than chicken (the full story is in Sex, Bombs and Burgers), perhaps there's always been a bitter taste in the mouths of McExecutives for the rings. Pun not entirely intended.

In any event, rather than find out why the chain doesn't have onion rings, I discovered the exact opposite here in the UK: it actually does have them!

Lo and behold: onion rings at McDonald's! A side order costs about 1.5 pounds, or about $2.40. You get six rings with a sweet chili dipping sauce.

Now, I know what you're thinking: how did they taste? Well, just because I've always wondered why McDonalds didn't have doesn't mean I've always wanted to try them. Blech. I hate onion rings.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

British bookstores a bit of a mess

I'm pretty sure that bookstore tourism isn't a real subset of actual tourism, but I'm doing my best to establish it as such. When I visited Australia and New Zealand earlier this year, I couldn't help but wander into each bookstore I came across just to see if they had my book, and where they had it placed.

The same urge has come rather naturally here during my time in the UK. Alas, as far as being a book tourist goes, it hasn't been all that great. Just as in, I've found the big book chains here to be disorganized at best and a dog's breakfast at worst.

I've gone into about half a dozen Waterstones in London in search of Sex, Bombs and Burgers and, despite the book officially being released a week ago, no one seemed to have it in stock. A number of stores said they had it on order, and at least one said there were problems with the supplier.

Nevertheless, the Waterstones stores I went into seem to do a good job at hiding their new books, making it difficult to find them intuitively. In Canada and Australia, the chain stores have computer terminals scattered throughout stores that let you look up the book you're looking for, and where in the store it's located. Not so in the UK and New Zealand.

Worse still is W.H. Smith, the other big chain here. Walking into those stores feels somewhat like going to a party supply headquarters. There's stationary and lots of other colourful stuff all nicely displayed, but the books - largely celebrity biographies - seem to be afterthoughts tucked away at the back of the store.
I'd been told repeatedly before that the UK book market is a big mess right now, and after seeing the state of stores, I believe it. I'm not sure how one is supposed to sell a book when the big chains make them so hard to find.

There are some bright sides, though. Sex, Bombs and Burgers is readily available through Amazon, and I did find it at Foyles, a well-known - and fantastic - independent book store in London. I'm told the indies do a much better job at selling books because, well, they still care about books. (Interestingly, Foyles has my book under its "History of Science" section, which is a new one. Other stores have had it under "Cultural Studies," "Technology," and/or "Pop Culture.")

Being a bookstore tourist is making me wonder about Canada. We have laws that essentially keep foreign book chains out of the country, a "cultural protection" rule I've always found to be rather stupid. However, given that our big mega-chain Indigo/Chapters does a pretty good at organizing and selling books, I'm starting to wonder if perhaps there are unseen benefits to this law. Something to ponder when I get home...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The real reason McBurgers don't rot

You just have to love the internet. For all the empowerment it has provided to so many people around the world, it has also allowed dumbness to spread with astounding speed and breadth.

Rarely does this dumbness rear its head so boldly as when it comes to food. A little while ago, there was a photo going around the internet of a nasty-looking pink paste. The stuff was "mechanically separated meat" that apparently comprises all of the fast-food chicken we eat. Many people were revolted and swore off eating chicken, which prompted some actual investigation. It  the mechanically separated stuff has not actually been used for quite some time, and it is in fact illegal - so people were seriously over-reacting.

Another one of these false panics has been going around for the past few weeks, inspired by artist Sally Davies. She decided to physically document the decay of a McDonald's hamburger in a stunt similar to one performed by Morgan Spurlock on the DVD version of Super Size Me. As her photos show, the McBurger simply refuses to rot.

Fast food haters took this to mean one thing: McDonald's burgers are so full of chemicals and preservatives that they are not actually real food and therefore immune to natural decomposition. Ick, eww, gross... McDonald's is disgusting, right?

Nope, and actual science has the real answer. The folks over at Serious Eats performed their own experiments and they found that "there's nothing that strange about a McDonald's hamburger not rotting. Any burger of the same shape will act the same way."

Indeed, the experimenters came at the situation with proper scientific method and introduced controls. The most telling one was that they created their own burger with 100% real ground beef, with no additives. That burger, like it's McDonald's equivalent, didn't rot at all either.

The reason? Because both burgers are small, they lose their moisture quickly. Moisture, of course, is the chief instigator of mold. Ergo, if they burger doesn't have moisture, it won't rot.

They also performed similar experiments on the larger Quarter Pounder and found that it actually does rot. The larger burger means it keeps moisture longer, which means that mold gets a chance to grow. This happened with the McDonald's Quarter Pounder and the home-made one.

Strangely, none of the fast-food haters out there thought to perform a similar experiment or to apply actual science to any of this. And, I suspect, the actual results are not likely to result in the same sort of viral internet phenomenon as the artist's initial "experiment."

Monday, November 8, 2010

One week in the UK

Last week was a bit of a whirlwind, travelling to London and then to Wales. I spent the week visiting friends in London and seeing the sites that I hadn't yet taken in.

I've had a bit of a weird fascination with Jack the Ripper ever since I read From Hell a few years back, so I went on another walking tour that visits the sites of the murders. Jack walks are apparently quite popular as there were at least three other tours going on at the same time. I wouldn't recommend ours though - the guide was dry and humourless.

I spent the weekend in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. It was a cool time to be in town as Wales was taking on the Wallabies, Australia's national rugby team, in World Cup qualifying action. UK countries are of course mental for rugby, so Saturday was akin to a national holiday. Wales lost - not that they ever stood a chance - but that didn't stop the mega party that followed.

My friend and I managed to avoid the worst idiocy by heading to a heavy metal bar, where we rocked out to the likes of Slayer, Megadeth and Pantera. (Tip: to avoid drunken sports morons, go to a bar that charges cover… that's anathema to them.) It was good fun, given that the only place in Canada where you can hear such music publicly is Montreal.

This week, it's down to business. I've got the Bristol Festival of Ideas tonight, where I'll be doing a Q&A on Sex, Bombs and Burgers. If you're nearby, come on down and check it out - it should be fun. On Tuesday, I'm back in London where I'll be chatting with some journalists and doing some radio interviews, before packing it up to head home on Thursday.

I'm actually looking forward to getting back, to get rolling on my new life of leisure!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Fast food freak-outs

It never fails to amuse how much some people freak out over food. In Canada, the latest brouhaha was the launch of KFC's Double Down, which saw Ontario's Health Promotion Minister actually suggest she might review the sandwich. She quickly reneged, followed by an official statement from the provincial premier that no such review would be forthcoming.

The idea that government would get involved because a particular item of food has a lot of salt in it seems ridiculous. As long as the nutritional information is freely available and truthful, we should be able to eat anything we want, even it contains enough sodium to last us a month.

There was a similar situation in the UK four years ago when McDonald's launched the "Bigger Big Mac" as a limited-time promotion in conjunction with the 2006 World Cup. As the name implied, it was... uh... bigger. About 40% bigger than a standard Big Mac, actually.

British politicians went way further than their Canadian counterparts, with an actual petition started in Parliament to ban the burger. Liberal Democrat health spokesman Steve Webb said "there is no need for a bigger Big Mac." Of course, he's right - but then again, there's no need for theSnuggie, but I have one anyway.

As far as I can tell, McDonald's stuck with the limited-time nature of the Bigger Big Mac and it's no longer available in the UK (don't worry - I'll check). The same thing is, apparently, still available in Alaska, where it's known as the McKinley Mac (named for the mountain). The bigger burger is based on the same principle as the Big Mac, but it uses quarter-pound patties rather than the regular hamburger patties. That sounds deelish!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Nudity on the iPad

Another week, another jab at Steve Jobs' hypocrisy. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, yes indeed, I've happened across yet another example of how the Apple CEO is full of it when he claims the company's mobile products are "free from porn."

A number of media reported back in June that UK tabloid The Sun was able to sneak "porn" into Apple's app store, simply because it's a "legitimate" business. I particularly liked the Wall Street Journal's headline - "How to get your porn app into iTunes: Wrap a newspaper around it."

The Sun is, of course, well known for its topless page three girl, and its app essentially replicates each day's paper - nudity and all. While a topless woman could hardly be considered "porn" by most people's definition, the point is valid nevertheless. Apple is rejecting apps from smaller developers for much less, like girls in bikinis, but when it comes to a major newspaper - which means lots of dollars for Jobs & Co. - a little nudity is just fine.

I was wondering, given the stink kicked up by the media when word of this situation got out, whether Apple had somehow moved to rectify it, so I shelled out for the $7.99 app to see for myself. Nope - months later, the bare boobs are present in all their glory.

Oh, but you do get a warning before you download the app that it contains some adult content. As you long as you press the button vowing that you're over 17, you're good to go.

That seems to be the worst part of it. The laughable age verification only compounds the hypocrisy - why not apply the same rules to all developers, big or small? The answer, in this case actually comes down to branding, which is what makes Apple's supposed moral stance against porn all the more galling.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Let's eat to the beat

In the course of doing research, you sometimes come across things that are better left undiscovered. In prepping for my UK trip, this is one of those things: the Fast Food Rockers, a British pop group that seems to borrow the worst elements of S Club 7, the Spice Girls and the Venga Boys. Check out the video below, and then wonder at the fact that this somehow reached #2 on the UK singles chart in 2003:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Invisibility and the power of metamaterials

Although the past century has pretty much been an American one as far as technological innovation goes - remember: the U.S. spends more than half of all the world's R&D dollars - we can't forget that the rest of the world does its fair share too. Scientists, companies and government in the UK have contributed their fair share and continue to do so - UK companies are currently fifth in the world in terms of total R&D spending, following the U.S., Japan, Germany and France (Canada's standing is pathetic, ranking near the bottom, below Denmark).

Some UK contributions are detailed in Sex, Bombs and Burgers. One of its most important inventions, the magnetron - which became radar and ultimately the microwave oven - is detailed at length in the book. You can actually get that chapter here for free.

One other current area where British scientists have made significant contributions is in the research of invisibility. Sir John Pendry, a theoretical physicist at Imperial College in London, blazed some trails in this field earlier this decade with some funding help from DARPA, the Pentagon's advanced science department. I spoke with Pendry in London about how invisibility works while I was working on the book. Here's the video of his explanation:

A number of American researchers have taken Pendry's theories and put them into practice, building experimental invisibility cloaks a few years ago. Given that working models were successful two years ago, we're probably very close to some sort of major announcement regarding the technology.

What's even more fascinating than invisibility, however, is the actual technology behind it. At the root are something called metamaterials, which are artificially created materials that can have somewhat unnatural properties. Bending light is just one of their seemingly super-powered uses. DARPA is naturally very interested in metamaterials and has at least one program under way that is looking to essentially create force fields.

Monday, November 1, 2010

War, porn and fast food in the UK

Sex, Bombs and Burgers is officially out in the United Kingdom today, and I'm off to talk it up. I'm arriving in London tomorrow, spending some time with friends and venturing outside of London to do some sight-seeing. I'll be posting as usual, so check back as always. Here's a short but mostly positive review of my book in The Guardian and remember, if you're in the Bristol area, you can come see me talk about the book at the Festival of Ideas on Nov. 8.

I thought it might be interesting to crunch some numbers in advance of my UK trip, insofar as they relate to war, porn and fast food. First up, let's look at its military. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UK is the world's fourth biggest military spender, accounting for about 3.8% of the $1.5 trillion spent globally in 2009 (the U.S. dwarfs all others with 46.5% of the total).

The UK has 62 million people, or less than 1% of the world's population. Does that mean its military spending is disproportionate? Not exactly, and part of the reason why is actually a main theme of my book. Developed nations that consider themselves to be innovators and technologically advanced tend to spend more on their militaries because of all the non-war-related benefits that come from doing so. Even still, the UK's spending - 2.5% of gross domestic product - is actually below the world average of 2.7%. (The world's biggest military spender per capita appears to be Eritrea, which blew more than 20% of its 2008 GDP on war.)

Let's turn to porn. Obviously, the numbers here are not quite as concrete, but the best estimates place the UK as the sixth biggest porn revenue generator, with $1.9 billion made in 2006. That's behind leader China (where porn is technically banned) at $27 billion, South Korea at $25 billion, Japan at $19 billion, U.S. at $13 billion and Australia at $2 billion. Per capita, though, the UK does better - that spending works out to $31.84 per person per year, which is well below the $526 average in South Korea (they love their porn!). The UK average is similar to Canada's, $30.21, and a decent amount below the U.S. average of $44.67.

Finally, there's fast food. The numbers are a little dated but this area is perhaps the least likely of the three to see big fluctuations over a short period of time, so we can assume they're still a good snapshot. The UK spent about $12.1 billion on fast food in 2004, accounting for 5.3% of the world's total. (Nobody came even remotely close to the U.S., which spent $148.6 billion or almost 65% of the global total.) On a per capita basis, the UK's spending places it fourth overall, averaging about $199 per person per year.

So there you have it - there are various ways to measure it, but you wouldn't be too wrong by saying the UK is the world's fourth biggest spender on war and fast food, and the sixth biggest on porn. Perhaps its position in porn would be higher if it wasn't for all those topless girls in the daily newspaper?
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