Friday, December 31, 2010

Goodbye to 2010, it was a blast

It's often tough when things are going full tilt to sit back and take stock of everything that's going on, which is why I always look forward to the Christmas-New Year's period. With the world generally shutting down for a week or two, it's a good time to catch one's breath, reflect on the year that was and plan for the year that will be.

There's no doubt that 2010 was a great year for me - it was simply chock full of highlights. Obviously the two biggest were finally achieving my life-long goal of publishing a book and . There were so many other things too: visiting New Zealand again, being interviewed on and CNN, doing talks with and TEDx, getting to the point of career independence, finally landing a good deal on a cellphone.

There were, of course, some low lights - like being part of Australia's worst PR disaster of the year - but those were hugely outweighed by all the positives.

The coming year looks to be promising too, with Sex, Bombs and Burgers finally hitting the U.S. I'll also be spending a good portion of the year working on my top-secret book #2. I'm definitely looking forward to 2011.

I heard a joke the other day on the radio from comedian Louis CK, where he mocked people who complain about airplane delays. He pointed out that it's pretty clear we've forgotten about the miracle of human flight: "You're sitting on a chair in the sky!" Why are we complaining?

Exactly. I know I sometimes complain too much (especially about airplanes), so I'm grateful for these chances to put things in perspective. The challenge will be to try and remember just how good things are once the speed of life ramps up again.

I hope everyone had a great 2010 and here's hoping that 2011 turns out to be fulfilling, happy and fun!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top posts of 2010: less porn, more filling

It's that time of year again: the top 10 posts of the year. I loves me my Google Analytics, as I can go back and see exactly which posts were viewed by how many people, where they were when they looked at them, and even which web browser they used. Indeed, I'm still trying to figure out how to get Analytics to work on my new WordPress site,, which is the only reason that over on Blogger is still active.

In any event, here are the ten most viewed post of the past year, with some thoughts following.


I obviously had a lot of posts about porn over the past year, so the fact that this one made the top 10 is somewhat surprising. It was about advertising firm M&C Saatchi winning the account for ICM Registry, the company that will run the .XXX domain name.


Oh look, another porn post. Shocker! This one came out of a Globe and Mail article for which I was interviewed, and the headline is pretty self-explanatory.


Another porn post. Is there a pattern here? This was about Google's victory over Viacom in the YouTube lawsuit.


The first non-porn post in the top ten. My book hit BitTorrent sites in June (or at least that's when I became aware that it had) and overall, I don't really mind.


One of two food-related posts on the list, and strangely it's from 2009. Proof that things live forever on the internet.


Who knew that bitching about cellphone prices in Canada would attract so much attention? Will I be doing more of this in 2011? Does a bear take an ARPU in the woods? (That's an in-joke in industry parlance.)


Getting back to porn, my interview with the adult starlet (pictured) got quite a few views.


I can actually explain the traffic on this post - it got mentioned on Fark. Which is funny because I originally saw it on the National Post website and simply rehashed it.


When Google announced free phone calls in Gmail, I surmised the company was looking to compile a huge database of voice samples to improve search results. Google denied it, but not before the post was mentioned on Techmeme and syndicated by Gizmodo.


This is the one that shocks me because not only is it from 2009, it was also my top post last year. It was mentioned on some Palm user forum, which is the only reason it keeps getting traffic. I think it's very bizarre that people still care about the Palm Pre. I can’t complain, though, because more people have probably become aware of my book through their interest in mobile porn than any other topic.

Speaking of last year, there's been a noticeable change in the overall results. In 2009, 8 of my 10 were porn related. I'm pleased to say that's down to 5 this year. I don't think that's because I've talked about porn any less, but it probably does have something to do with expanding the topics I blog about, which is something that will continue in 2011.

Thanks very much to everyone for reading! I find it amazing that an ever-growing number of people keep tuning in to my silly ramblings, which is more than enough reason to keep going.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On the eve of a book revolution

I was recently invited to give a talk at the Toronto Reference Libary to staffers from around the city, with a fairly wide mandate of what topics I could cover. In an effort to discuss something that would be relevant to them, I thought I'd share my experience of going through the book-publishing process and where I thought the industry is headed. I was pretty nervous in talking about the subject because, while I do have some experience in the field, I certainly don't deal with books on an every-day basis like many in the audience did. I felt sort of like a Johnny-come-lately trying to tell them about stuff they knew intimately, and better than I did.

After giving the talk, I wondered if attendees thought I was crazy because I spoke of revolution and how everything about how books are made is going to change dramatically in the next few years. I'm fairly sure some people in the audience agreed with me, and I'm equally sure that some thought I was full of it.

My thoughts on the subject are probably familiar to anyone who reads this blog regularly. In a nutshell, the book industry hasn't seen as much impact from the digital revolution as the music and video businesses have as of yet, largely because reading electronic books hasn't really been that easy. E-books have been around for ages, but reading them on a computer screen has just been too painful to even consider.

With the advent of e-ink and the Amazon Kindle three years ago, the game changed. Indeed, the Kindle is revolutionizing the book business in the same way the iPhone did the phone business (ironically, they were released in the same year). Just as 2010 saw real competition finally arise for the iPhone in the form of Android, so too did the Kindle finally get good rivals with the likes of Kobo and others. But the devices are only half the story - they're also attached to new distribution systems. Amazon's is easily the best as the Kindle's "WhisperNet" feature lets you buy books via cellular connection wherever you may be, but there are also a handful of other good, big competitors with their own e-book stores, including Kobo, Sony, Apple and Google.

So, the revolution in how books are read and sold is already well underway, and e-book sales are skyrocketing as a result. The other revolution - the more interesting one that I talked about at the library - is in how books are written and created, and this part is only just now beginning. All of the online bookstores also offer authors - established and budding - the opportunity to self-publish their work. I've gone into the merits of this before, where self-publishing is potentially more lucrative for an author than having their book sold by a big-name publisher, so I won't rehash it here.

The Los Angeles Times, however, has an excellent story that covers off almost everything I talked about at the library, which makes me feel considerably less crazy. The reporter talked to a number of authors who said they plan to self-publish all of their work going forward because it's simply a better deal. The traditional publishing system holds very little appeal for them. "If an author has the choice of two distribution models, one that costs nothing and has no gatekeeper and the other has lots of gatekeepers and costs a lot of money, a lot of people will go with the free one," said Seth Godin, a best-selling author who has become something of a self-publishing guru.

I've talked about - to get a book published and ultimately sold, a writer has to go through a network of agents, editors, bookstore buyers and finally the media. Self-publishing largely removes all of those, which is why the Times story concludes with the thought that the only gatekeepers left will be the readers. I couldn't agree more.

Crime novelist Joe Conrath takes it further in the story: "If a traditional publisher offered me a quarter of a million dollars for a novel, I'd consider it. But anything less than that, I'm sure I can do better on my own."

That's exactly my plan for my second book. Not that I'm going to hold out for a cool quarter-million, but if I don't get offers that I like - or any offers at all, for that matter - I'll be perfectly happy to give it a go myself on Amazon and the others. There are many downsides to self-publishing - you have to get your own editors, designers and publicists - but ultimately it comes down to only one thing: brand versus brand. If an author has a strong enough name recognition, as many established writers do, there's actually very little they need a traditional publisher for. The rest can be done for a fraction of the price that publishers currently charge.

The challenge is for those of us who are not household names, and who are not yet trusted "brands" comparable to Random House or HarperCollins. But just as today's bands and film makers also have to be entrepreneurial to get their work noticed, so too will writers have to become more enterprising. There are plenty who will be happy to stick with the old system of gatekeepers, but there are also many of us - as evidenced by the Times story - that are just dying to do it for ourselves. Sooner or later, the traditional book industry is going to have to take notice of that fact and implement dramatic changes to how it does business with its most important customers: authors.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Adult firms get smart with CES press

I've been watching the recent weather woes, first in London and now in the eastern United States, with great interest, given that a week from now I'll (hopefully) be on a plane to Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show. I'm pretty nervous about my flight given that I have a stop-over in Chicago, which isn't exactly renowned for its good weather.

I will, however, stop right there because I learned my lesson about trying to forecast my flying experiences. Let's just say I'm working on plans B and C to get to Las Vegas in time for the show, just in case.

I'm actually very much looking forward to CES this year, largely because I won't be on a deadline to cover the big headline stuff. This year, I'm going to be combing the floor for the stuff that isn't likely to get as much attention, and perhaps looking for tech that's going to be big in the near future, not necessarily right now. Aside from that, I'll also be looking at the main stories from a bit of a different perspective. CES thus looks to be a very different - and potentially fun - experience for me this year.

For the last couple of years, I've also dipped my toes into that other show, the Adult Entertainment Expo - for professional purposes, of course. One thing I've wanted to do in previous years out of pure curiosity but haven't is check out the big Adult Video News awards, also known as the Oscars of porn. This year, I'm finally going as part of a story I'm writing for I may never go to the real Oscars, so this is going to be the next best thing. I'll have full reports here, of course.

One interesting trend I'm already seeing is how adult companies are ramping up efforts to court reporters covering CES, although not in the ways you'd expect. We all know that a porn expo isn't exactly a hard sell to the nerds who cover technology, but this year porn companies are getting practical. One of the typical problems with CES are the facilities set up for media to get their stories out - there often aren't enough computers or internet connections for laptops in the press rooms, and the wi-fi is crappy at best.

To that end, I've seen invitations from at least two AEE exhibitors - Pink Visual and sex toy maker Fleshlight - offering up their facilities to journalists looking for a hook-up. (An internet hook-up, that is.) If the CES press room is full, these companies are telling reporters to come on over and use the connections at their booths.

That's actually very smart. If you can't lure the nerds with porn, why not give 'em what they really want: internet access.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Top tech stories of 2010

I hope everybody had a nice and restful Christmas (even those people who don't celebrate it). I know I did. It was a welcome break from the madness of the past few months.

Speaking of which, were I still working at the CBC, I'd likely have my hands full right now putting together my top story list of 2010, just like everyone else in the media. I don't like to feel left out, so I thought I'd compile my own list and present it here. So, with no further ado, here are what I considered to be the 10 most important technology-related stories of the past year.

10. Privacy, privacy, privacy

It seems like every web business got nailed for some sort of privacy violation this year, especially here in Canada where we have a bulldog for a privacy watchdog. Whether it was Facebook and the it has for sharing people's information, or Google accidentally gathering such data with its Street View cars, internet companies really skirted the line of what is considered public and private in 2010. Personally, this isn't an issue I really cared about that much because I've long believed that if you put a piece of information on the internet, you should expect it to be public - and permanent. My feeling is that society's general view of privacy is changing to reflect this reality and we'll probably stop caring so much about websites are doing and more about what we're actually giving them. But there'll be more on that in my 2011 predictions, coming soon.

9. Antennagate

The media loves to build things up and tear them down, and Apple got a good taste of it this year when it released the iPhone 4 in June. While the device formerly known as the "Jesus Phone" could previously do no wrong, suddenly it was having
connection problems thanks to a redesigned antenna. Again, it's another situation that I found dramatically overblown, but it did ultimately help open the door for competing smartphones - particuarly Android - which is probably a good thing.

8. Video games escape the ghetto

Games have typically been the domain of teen and adult males, but this year they really exploded to a much larger audience. The move actually started in earnest four years ago with the release of the Nintendo Wii, which brought many women and young children into the equation, but 2010 saw both Microsoft and Sony get into the action with the Kinect and Move motion systems, respectively. The duo have only been out a short time but it's clear the video game market is much bigger than those males, and all the big hardware makers are now going after them. Social games also exploded, with Facebook recently saying that nearly half of its 500 million members log on to the site specifically to play games such as Farmville. Video games have never been bigger and there's no end in sight to their growth.

7. 3D TV flops - or does it?

Recent suggest 3D TV, launched with great fanfare at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, have been a big flop, with sales in the low single percentages. That may be true, and the reasons for it are many: people have either recently bought new HD TVs, there's little 3D content available for them, and people hate wearing the glasses. But, two things are happening: glasses-free technology is improving and all of it is getting cheaper every day. Like I said in January, 3D is likely to soon become a standard feature of all TVs - like the "gaming mode" they all currently have - and will not incur any premium. The media has a habit of pronouncing many technologies dead, but the reality is they often seep into everyday life without our even noticing. Such will be the case with 3D.

6. Ebooks (and tablets) explode

I wrote a little while back about how ebooks were and 2010 was really the year things caught fire. I can't wait to see what the final numbers will be for the year - I wouldn't be surprised if ebooks account for as much as 25% of all books sold. The iPad is fuelling at least part of that, and things are really going to get crazy next year once you've got a flood of competitors for the device. I'm told there will be up to 80 new tablet computers introduced at CES next week. Ebooks are a key app for these tablets, so sales of them are going to skyrocket even faster next year.

5. Google, Verizon and net neutrality

Google drew a lot of heat in the summer for becoming a "" on net neutrality by proposing a set of rules in conjunction with telecom company Verizon. Those rules were pretty much adopted to the letter by U.S. regulators last week, and it's certain we haven't heard the last of it as the proposal must now go through government, where Republicans have vowed to kill it. What was most noteworthy about U.S. efforts to protect free speech and innovation on the innovation is how bogged down and watered down they became once the lobbyists were set loose.

4. Broadband becomes a right

On a related note, a few countries - notably Finland - enshrined access to high-speed internet as
a legal right for their citizens while other countries such as Australia moved to build their own publicly-owned access networks. The past year saw some pretty clear ideological lines drawn between those that believe in government having the best interests of the country at heart, and those that think businesses do. As far as broadband and innovation goes, we'll see in a few years who turns out to be right (I suspect it'll be the former).

3. The fight for copyright

After a long consultation process across the country, the Canadian government in the summer introduced Bill C-32, the copyright modernization act. Pretty much nobody was happy with it. Entertainment industry lobbyists didn't like that the bill created a lot of rights for Canadians to copy material and artists didn't like that there were no new compensation schemes suggested. What really riled most every-day people, though, was a clause that prevents the picking of digital locks placed on devices and content. That means if a record label decides it doesn't want you to copy your CD onto your iPod, tough noogies. Internationally, the U.S. pushed ahead on getting consensus on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which has been characterized as just as restrictive as C-32. One possibility under ACTA is that border guards would be able to search your iPod for pirated music. Yikes. Obviously, both efforts were hugely controversial in 2010. It'll be interesting to see how they play out in 2011. C-32, at least, has the possibility of dying if an election is called in Canada.

2. Facebook as a social phenomenon

Okay, personally, I still think Facebook will ultimately prove to be fad. Yes, the website makes lots of money and has tons of users, but I just don't see the real value proposition. Maybe I'm just not among the target users. Regardless, I also can't remember movies made about Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, much less good ones that will likely garner a few Oscar nominations. While watching , one thought kept recurring to me: I can't believe that a website (and web coding) is the central focus of a movie. Regardless of anything else Facebook is or isn't, it has propelled technology to the forefront of pop culture like few other things have, and that's a pretty big accomplishment. More amazing is that people actually went in droves to see a movie that was mostly about coding and litigation.

1. Cell Wars: A New (Wireless) Hope

Like several hundred thousand Canadians, I almost wept when I kissed my old cellphone provider (Rogers-owned Fido) goodbye and said hello to my new one (Mobilicity). I officially shaved $12 off my bill, but more importantly I added a whole ton of value with unlimited data, texting and calling - including North American long distance. Mobilicity is just one of several new independent wireless carriers that have sprung up over the past year - with Wind Mobile, Public Mobile and Videotron being the others. In their short existence, they have done wonders in breaking the stranglehold the big three - Bell, Rogers and Telus - have had on Canadians and brought prices down significantly to where they're almost comparable to what users enjoy in much of the rest of the world. Even the big guys have flinched and are starting to lower their prices or change their terms, so the arrival of real competition is finally having an effect. I want to end my top-10 list on a good note, but I do have to bring up the long-smouldering issue of foreign ownership restrictions, which was one of the biggest bad-news stories of 2010. With the government continuing to waffle on lifting these onerous restrictions, there's already talk that some of the new entrants - particularly Public Mobile - are in financial trouble. If the ownership rules don't change quickly, one or more of those new carriers surely won't be around this time next year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A very Slayer Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope everyone has a happy and restful holiday. I'm taking a day off tomorrow and will be back on Monday with updates as usual. In the meantime, whether you like heavy metal or not, you need to check out the video below if you haven't already seen it. It's a video of a guy who timed his home Christmas light show to Slayer's Reign in Blood. Awesome stuff:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why I don't care about net neutrality

Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit in my headline. Of course I care about net neutrality, but not in the same way that many supporters of it do. Net neutrality, of course, is in the news today because of rules endorsed by U.S. regulators yesterday.

Net neutrality, in a nutshell, generally boils down to preserving the internet as a medium for free and open expression and innovation. This openness is under a growing threat from the companies who own the networks on which the internet exists, who would like to see certain uses that compete with their own products limited and ultimately blocked.

A couple of good examples include Skype, which allows people to make free phone calls, and Netflix, which allows for unlimited movie watching online for a small monthly fee. Phone and cable companies, respectively, in their heart of hearts would like to see these services shut down because they're eating their lunches. The only reason such services, and other internet businesses including Google, Amazon and eBay, have arisen is because there has generally been an unspoken neutrality - despite occasional issues - in providing internet services so far. The phone and cable companies have also needed these internet businesses in order to sell internet access; after all, nobody would buy a monthly subscription if there was nothing to do online.

Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission issued its proposed rules for how to ensure that net neutrality can be maintained in the United States, and just every side in the debate found something to complain about. Whether the proposals ever make it into law is a good question, as is whether they will actually prevent the sorts of abuses advocates are expecting. A good round-up of reaction can be found here.

I was very involved in reporting on net neutrality in Canada and ultimately I came to the conclusion that, on both sides of the border, it's pretty much a lost cause, simply because the telecom companies' lobbyists are just too powerful. Not only do they exert incredible influence on government officials and regulators, they have also shown themselves capable of convincing even their staunchest opponents to see things their way. You'd think Skype would have an awful lot to lose by not having net neutrality rules apply to the wireless internet, yet even they sounded somewhat supportive of yesterday's proposals. That's about as non-sensical as African-Americans voting for Republicans.

But, believe it or not, the whole situation isn't really that dire. As anyone with even a passing interest in technology can attest to, there is a strong and demonstrated need for net neutrality - or the need for what the forefathers of the internet call "innovation without permission." If that's not something that's going to be provided and protected on the existing internet, well then we'll just go and create our own damn internet, thank you very much.

It's something that piracy proponents touched on a few weeks ago when mainstream businesses started pulling their support for WikiLeaks, with the suggestion of a "." Indeed, I've been expecting for some time that some sort of "Internet 2" will arise in light of net neutrality violations and other access abuse (like high prices) by service providers.

I'm not bonkers - others believe this is going to happen too, and there are several ways in which it could. Bill St. Arnaud, a green IT consultant in Ottawa who used to be part of the CANARIE research network, in his tech predictions for 2011 says universities may build a competing internet, just like they built the first one: "Given the sordid abuses of the incumbents, and their historical role in the creation of the Internet, [research and education] networks will play a greater role in defining and protecting an internet for the rest of us."

The other likelihood is that more forward-thinking countries will force their governments to build networks, like what is happening in Australia with the National Broadband Network. Such networks - although intended to be connected to the main internet - could be cordoned off into their own self-contained ecosystems and kept free from abuse.

In both cases, the networks wouldn't be owned by phone and cable companies and, if they were built with the public good in mind, corporations could in fact be kept off of them entirely. The sort of innovation that would create the next Google or Skype would thereby be free to continue. Indeed, it's entirely possible that the main internet will evolve into AOL, an uninteresting over-corporatized wasteland that nobody wants to go to, while the alternative networks is where people like you and me will hang out.

The bottom line is, if the telecom lobbyists want to stagnate the internet so badly, let them. Rather than trying to fight an insurmountable battle against them, let's instead concentrate our efforts on setting up our own networks. Then we keep those who would harm them the hell away.

(Image courtesy Art Dept Chronicles)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Porn not relevant to 3D TV adoption

One of the topics that came up during discussion yesterday while I was part of the taping for the BBC's Digital Planet (which I believe will air Jan. 4) was what sort of effect the porn industry will have on 3D television sales. I'm obviously a believer in adult entertainment having a big influence on the adoption and development of new innovations, but as I said during the talk, I don't think it'll have much of an impact on this particular technology.

That's fairly counter-intuitive given the industry's reputation for driving new technologies, but the thing to keep in mind is that porn companies only get behind new innovations that will somehow expand or improve their business. Many major new technologies in the past have done exactly that. The VCR, for example, was a huge step forward - for the first time it allowed the consumer to easily enjoy smutty video in the comfort of his or her own home (mostly his), rather than the alternative, which was watching it in some slimy peep show booth in a shady part of town. The internet and smartphones further personalized that capability, so naturally all three technologies were seized upon by porn very quickly.

DVD was a similar story; not that it made the content necessarily more personal, but it was a large improvement in quality. High-definition was more of the same, although its arrival was perhaps not as welcomed by some members of the industry.

3D television is different. It doesn't offer a heightened level of personalization nor is it a stunning leap forward in quality. If 3D has anything going for it, it's the gee-whiz factor. When done well, it certainly is cool, but it's not something viewers can't live without.

There have been some reports out of Japan that 3D porn is doing well there and that it's helping to fuel sales of enabled televisions. Perhaps, but the most reliable reports seem to indicate that 3D sets are selling poorly overall. In writing about them over the past year and seeing readers' reactions, it's pretty clear there are several reasons for this: nobody wants to wear the glasses, many people recently just bought expensive new HDTVs, and there's a serious lack of 3D content out there.

As luck would have it, I also interviewed Steven Hirsch yesterday, the head of Vivid Entertainment, one of the largest adult entertainment companies around. We talked about a bunch of stuff for a story I'm working on, but I did ask him what he thought about 3D TV. Here's what he said:

Traditionally people like to take their glasses off when they watch an adult film rather than put them on. Until we get to the point where we have 3D without glasses you're not going to see the industry really get behind 3D. That's part of the problem. I think that's coming within the next several years, the technology is really moving quickly. Once that happens, ultimately I expect all movies to be shot in 3D.

I'll be heading to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas again this January, where I'm expecting to see some advancements in these sorts of glasses-free 3D TVs. I've heard that some manufacturers have managed to get them up in size to around 20 inches. That means we might only be a year or two away from proper-sized sets that don't require glasses. As it stands though, it sure doesn't look like porn is doing much to help this technology along.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Porn comes to Kinect, already

It was only a matter of time before someone hacked Microsoft's new motion-sensing video system Kinect for porn purposes. And, as it turns out, it didn't take very long at all - only two months.

As CNET reports, a porn company named ThriXXX has created the first working sex game using the system hooked up to a computer using Windows 7. Such uses are obviously not likely to be officially sanctioned by Microsoft, but as we've seen with countless other examples of new technology, I wouldn't be surprised if the company quietly tolerates it during Kinect's early days. It's not like there's a plethora of good, official games available for it.

Here's the video of the game in action. While there's no nudity, it's not entirely safe to view at work. (Click here if the embedded video below doesn't work.)

(Thanks to Jason for the initial heads up!)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Why video games rule

On Monday, I'm going to be a guest on BBC's Digital Planet program and one of the topics of conversation will be whether the video game industry can be considered a big innovator. The answer, of course, is yes. When you get right down to it, it's for the same reasons that the military, porn and food industries are innovators.

At its core, Sex, Bombs and Burgers is about how our basic instincts are responsible for technological innovation. Huge industries have sprouted up to cater to our "shameful trinity" of needs - the need to fight, feast and fornicate - and when there is a lot of money to be made, it usually results in a highly competitive market. Competition, meanwhile, is perhaps the biggest driver of innovation; the best way to outsell the other guy is to come up with something newer, better, faster or cooler.

We see this all the time in war, sex and food. It's why soldiers no longer fight in trenches with muskets, but rather with remote-controlled aerial drones, or why people are creating sex robots, or why, if you really want to, you can now get individually wrapped slices of Spam.

Video games come from a similar need, although one that is considerably less shameful - the need to play. Curiously though, this is one instinct that has grown over time in virtual lockstep with our technological prowess. As technology has solved one pressing problem after another, it's given us more time for leisure. That may not seem to be the case when you're answering work emails on the BlackBerry late at night, but consider that not so long ago, the average work day consisted of 12 back-breaking hours in a hot and sweaty factory. Overall, we've got it pretty good today, and things are continuing to improve. You may have to answer those emails, but you can be fishing at the cottage while doing so.

As such, we're playing more today than we ever have, and our games are starting to reflect that. Only a few short years ago, most video games were played by young males sitting alone in their bedrooms, living rooms and basements. Over the past few years, those solitary individuals have been linked up online and they've been joined by non-traditional gamers. With things like the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect, and the rise of social and mobile platforms, video games are now being enjoyed by everyone.

The reason I like writing about games almost as much as I like playing them is because it's probably the most openly competitive industry there is (or the diametric opposite to the telecom industry, which I've spent a good portion of this week ). Aside from putting ratings on their stuff to ensure that kids aren't exposed to some of the more mature content out there, the video game industry is largely free from regulation and government interference, leaving companies free to try out new stuff. There are also a huge number of competitors - Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are duking it out for the hardware, but there are literally zillions of software developers both big and small fighting it out for a piece of the growing pie.

That's fertile ground for innovation and it's why we're seeing so many advancements, especially recently, with things like touch-screen games for the iPad or movement-based stuff for Kinect. The best part is that it's all about fun. With all of that considered, how can you not like video games?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Double Down numbers don't add up

I promised about KFC's Double Down anymore, but I came across an intriguing fact the other day while I was updating past blog entries (I'll be switching this blog over to just very soon, with redirecting there).

You may recall that KFC Canada pulled the Double Down - the infamous chicken sandwich with no bun - in November after its promised month-long limited-time offer. The company said the sandwich was a huge seller, with more than a million Double Downs gobbled up in a month. At the time, I mused about why the chain would pull such a hot item, and that it was obviously a marketing ploy so that it would again receive a heap of media coverage when it inevitably relaunches.

But hold on just a second. If we look back at the reported numbers for the U.S., things look a little fishy... er, chickeny. KFC launched the sandwich in the U.S. in April and after three months sold 10 million, which sounds like a lot to us Canadians but in reality is very little because it breaks down to about 3.3 million per month. In a country with ten times the population and arguably ten times the appetite for fast food, the U.S. should have posted much higher numbers. Indeed, the company labelled the Double Down a flop, with sales being "immaterial."

So what gives? The Double Down received about the same amount of media attention in the U.S. as it did here. Why was the poor-selling sandwich permanently added to U.S. menus but the hot-selling Canadian counterpart pulled?

Are Canadians really that into bunless chicken sandwiches, or has somebody been fudging the numbers?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

War? There's an app for that

USA Today had an interesting story yesterday, reprinted from the Army Times, about how the U.S. military is looking to adopt smartphones for soldiers to use. According to the story, the Army is looking to "issue these smartphones just like any other piece of equipment a soldier receives."

In February, some soldiers will get an iPhone, Android device or other smartphone to keep up to date with information and communications. The smartphones will allow soldiers to keep in touch and track each other with video from unmanned aerial vehicles overhead. The plan is to give them a monthly stipend to spend on minutes and apps, with the military also looking at how it can incorporate devices like Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook e-readers.

This is the latest in the commercialization-of-the-military trend, where soldiers are making increased use of off-the-shelf technology. There are already military , and the armed forces with building supercomputer clusters comprised of PlayStation 3 consoles, and using iPhones to calculate bullet trajectories.

One of the best examples - which I talk about in Sex, Bombs and Burgers - is the incorporation of game console controllers into robot systems. Some land-based military robots today, like iRobot's Packbot, are driven with PlayStation and Xbox controllers.

The reason for the military's increasing shift to off-the-shelf technology is simple: it's getting amazingly easy to use, and it's getting amazingly cheaper by the day. Custom-built stuff from military contractors, on the other hand, can often be complex and expensive. The result is that the ties between consumer electronics makers and the military are growing ever stronger.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The worst of both telecom worlds

A quick follow-up today to on the lack of competition in broadband internet services in North America. Catherine Middleton, the Canada Research Chair in Communications Technology in the Information Society at Ryerson University, added a comment to that post yesterday wherein she linked to a pair of studies she'd done on broadband in Canada. Her studies came to many of the same conclusions - that there is a distinctive lack of broadband competition in Canada, and that will continue to be the case unless something changes with the government's or regulator's demeanour.

There was a quote in one of her reports that I found especially poignant, which she herself repeated from another, separate study. The previous 2008 report was titled "Right to Communication" and it stated that, “Canadians continue to face a market oligopoly comprised of a very limited number of powerful incumbents. As a result, they live in the worst of both worlds, enjoying neither the benefits of real competition nor the benefits of an industry regulated to serve the public interest.”

I've been saying this for some time: in Canada, we currently live in the worst of both worlds (or the diametric opposite of that great Van Halen song, ). When the Conservative government came into power in 2006 it directed our regulator, the CRTC, to basically take it easy - to stop proactively regulating and only get involved when a problem had become obvious. And so the process began in earnest of deregulating telecommunications services.

But there's one very important regulation still up and running: . In a nutshell, foreign companies need not apply to Canada to set up any sort of internet, phone or wireless businesses because they can't have any sort of meaningful ownership of them.

As the report succinctly puts it, this has created the worst of all possible scenarios. Our government has created an unregulated market for telecom and cable companies, but with no actual market forces to keep them honest. There is no threat of a large, well-funded foreign rival coming in to compete with them, nor are there any rules domestically to make sure they behave. There certainly isn't any possibility of a serious competitor starting up domestically because telecom is an expensive business and small companies generally can't get that kind of money. Especially not to go up against the likes of Bell and Rogers.

It's an overused cliche, but the inmates really have been given the keys to the asylum.

Hello government: is this enough of a problem for you yet?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Broadband: availability does not equal affordability

I remember way back in the 11th grade, my history teacher Mr. Ellenberger uttered some awesome words that stuck with me. He said that statistics were like a bikini: they reveal a lot, but they also hide what's most important.

These days he'd probably have harassment complaints filed against him for using what could be construed as a sexist metaphor, or some such, but the fact remains that it's clearly the one lesson from high school that I remember best. The point being, of course, that statistics can be used to show just about anything you want but they can't be relied on to tell the whole story. It's only when you marry numbers with experience that you start to get closer to the truth.

Such is the case with broadband internet, and more importantly, its relevance to a country's economic competitiveness. I've been paying close attention to broadband statistics for about five years, with my interest starting when I moved to New Zealand. It didn't take long for me to figure out how horrible the country's "high-speed" broadband internet was - the connection I signed up for at home was incredibly slow and expensive compared to what the service cost.

In that case, the numbers bore out the experience. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Paris-based group devoted to promoting and advancement the economies of developed countries, ranked New Zealand quite poorly against its peer nations when it came to broadband. The country was actually near the bottom of the 30-country organization in terms of how many people subscribed to broadband at home. This was important because the OECD rankings were a snapshot of how well positioned member nations were with the infrastructure of the future. How many people felt broadband was good enough and cheap enough to actually pay for was a good indicator of the country's future prospects.

New Zealand's government eventually stepped in and took action against the main culprit behind the poor showing, Telecom New Zealand, the phone and internet monopoly. It's funny because while I lived there and covered the situation, I looked on at Canada and its top-ten ranking in envy.

When I moved home, though, things changed. With a better understanding and appreciation of how important cutting-edge broadband connectivity is, it didn't take long to come to the conclusion that Canada was headed in the wrong direction. While the New Zealand government was taking steps to improve its position by getting serious about broadband, Canada has seen its former world leadership - we were at the top of the rankings a decade ago - evaporate and squandered. The latest OECD rankings show we've fallen out of the top 10.

People who understand how important broadband is, like our recently appointed Governor General, have lamented this slippage and have urged the government to do something about it. So far, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

In both Canada and the United States, the telecom companies and their lobbyists have tried to muddy the waters by arguing there's no problem despite the fact that a good portion of the population doesn't have broadband. When they haven't been trying to point out flaws with measurement methodology, they've actually been trying to turn the argument around by suggesting that high-speed internet is available to almost everyone, but for whatever reason people aren't going for it. The obvious answer, they say, is there's something wrong with the people - they must be suffering from digital illiteracy, where they don't have broadband because they don't understand it, or computers for that matter.

There's probably some truth to that rationale, but it also seems the companies and their lobbyists are missing the obvious - that broadband is simply too expensive. To put it another way: just because broadband is available to everyone doesn't mean that everyone feels it's affordable.

Case in point: most Canadians complain that their cellphone bills are too high. This is because many of us grew up with home phones, which generally ran between $20 and $30 a month for unlimited local calling. With the advent of Skype and internet calling, the cost of a phone call went down to zero, yet a cellphone bill could still easily amount to closer than $100. Over the past year, we've had several new providers start up in many of our big cities and they have brought bills down dramatically, which means the complaints about cellphone bills will soon start dying down. For my part, I recently switched to Mobilicity and now pay $40 for unlimited calls, texts and data. You'll never hear another peep out of me that my cellphone bill is too high because that amount just feels right.

The average person, whether they can vocalize it or not, know when they are paying a fair price for a good or service. They instinctively know the value of what they're getting and that the company selling them is making a fair profit. Similarly, people know when they're being gouged. After writing about broadband for years, I'd say this is a far more likelier reason for why there are still so many holdouts in North America. Broadband may be available, but the price just isn't right.

The proof isn't very hard to find. Canadian cable companies offer some of the most cutting-edge broadband speeds available in the world. In the West, Shaw offers 100-megabit speeds while in Quebec, Videotron has 120 megabits, which is among the fastest I've seen anywhere. But let's look at the prices - each of those services cost $150 a month. Does that feel right? Of course it doesn't, especially when compared to what's available elsewhere. Virgin Media in the UK is selling 100-megabit broadband for less than half the price while in Japan, a 160-megabit connection can be had for about $60.

Why is there this huge price discrepancy? There are actually a few reasons. In the case of the UK, regulators stepped in years ago to create an open-access system that encourages strong competition between providers. Market participants therefore have a huge incentive to offer better and better speeds at affordable prices. And guess what? They generally make a tidy profit too. As for Japan, the New York Times had a nice explanatory piece a few years back. In a nutshell: Japanese companies (and government) are generally more willing to invest in long-term profits over the quick-term fix, which is unfortunately what North American companies and their shareholders are addicted to.

There's another reason for the big difference in price, and that is Canadian internet companies don't really want anyone to subscribe to those higher-speed plans - they're simply being offered as PR moves. With experts such as the Governor General finding our internet services wanting, the heat is starting to come on phone and cable companies. The government and regulators are aware of the situation and there's always the threat of intervention. By offering faster speeds, phone and cable companies are trying to make themselves look better in at least some measures, thereby taking some of that heat off.

But, going back to the bikini analogy, things get transparent quickly when you look beyond the headline figures. Bell Canada's recently launched "super-fast" wireless internet stick is the perfect example. The company advertises the stick having a top-speed of 42 megabits per second, which would be very fast indeed for a wireless device. Too bad Bell's own fine print acknowledges that speeds closer to 7 or 14 megabits are more likely. Pricing-wise, using 1 gigabyte per month will run you $40 while 5 GB is $85. Thus, for a good chunk of change each month, you can get a wireless service that is inferior to a wired service that is unlikely to ever live up to its advertised speed.

Why is Bell even bothering selling such a service? Well, the timing seems pretty obvious. Our regulator, the CRTC, recently ordered phone companies to roll out broadband services to rural Canadians using money that had been saved for years in something called deferral accounts. Bell, wanting to take the cheap way out, argued that it could most effectively do so with wireless services. The CRTC correctly rejected that argument by saying that wireless internet will never be as good as a wired connection, so that's the technology Bell must use. Lo and behold, shortly thereafter the company debuts its "super high-speed" wireless internet device. If that's not a PR move, then I don't know what is.

So, despite what the companies and lobbyists say, the reason many people in North America aren't subscribing to broadband isn't a demand problem, it's a supply problem. There simply isn't enough meaningful competition - and that means competition on providing people actual value on the dollar rather than advertised speeds - to attract the holdouts. And just as with wireless here in Canada, that competition isn't likely to materialize without government or regulatory intervention.

UPDATE: I must have missed the CRTC actually reversing its decision on not allowing Bell to use wireless technology for rural customers. Bell appealed and got the reversal in late October, arguing that it wasn't up to the regulator to dictate which technology to use. The CRTC went along with Bell's argument, which really is too bad for people in rural areas. I'm not sure in which way the speed and pricing on that "super-fast" wireless stick is equal or superior to what we get in cities, so it looks like the regulator has taken an initially good decision and made it bad.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Double your porn reading

It's not often that you run into your long-lost twin, but such was the case for me last night. I was at a PR/media party and bumped into a fellow by the name of Patchen Barss, who is the director of communications at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research by day and fellow author of a book about porn by night.

Patchen's book is The Erotic Engine: How Pornography has Powered Mass Communication, from Gutenberg to Google, released by Doubleday Canada and the University of Queensland Press in Australia in September. From the Amazon page:

Pornography: The force for change that has been written out of the history of world culture. From cave painting to photography to the internet, pornography has always been at the cutting edge in adopting and exploiting new developments in mass communication. And in so doing, it has helped to promote and propel those developments in ways that are rarely acknowledged. Without pornography, the internet would not have grown so quickly. The e-commerce payment systems that are now commonplace would be at a far more primitive stage security and usability. Without video streaming software developed for pornography sites, CNN would be struggling to deliver news clips. Without advertising from sex sites, Google could not have afforded YouTube. This smart, witty and well-researched history shows how a vast secret trade has bankrolled and shaped mainstream culture and its machines.

For the last few years, Patchen and I had both known of each other's existence, and of our somewhat-competing books, and we've swapped the occasional friendly email. I think we were both thrilled to finally meet - accidently - because we quickly launched into war stories. Indeed, we share a great deal in common... frighteningly so, actually.

We've both worked at the National Post and the CBC, we were both at the same Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas doing research, we were both in Europe around the same time interviewing people, we even handed in our manuscripts around the same time. We've also had the same experiences since our books were published and, alas, we both have the rather dubious distinctions of being experts on porn.

Naturally, I read his book as soon as it came out (I bought it as an e-book - yeah right, like I'm going to be seen reading an actual book about porn on the subway!) and enjoyed it thoroughly. We seemed to have come to many of the same conclusions and in many cases, I could see exactly where he was going with something because I'd been there too.

Truth be told, I was a little jealous of his book because Patchen allowed himself to focus solely on porn and its evolution, which therefore meant he got to go much deeper into the subject matter (no pun intended). The most challenging part of writing Sex, Bombs and Burgers was weaving porn into a narrative that also included food and war. Ultimately, although we dealt with some of the same subject matter, the result is what I consider to be two very different books - two very good books, ahem (wink, wink).

We parted ways agreeing to meet up for some further conversation soon. I know I'm looking forward to it as there are some things only a fellow "porn expert" can understand.

In any event, if you're looking for a good Christmas present, check out The Erotic Engine... but not before Sex, Bombs and Burgers, of course!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Poutine is coming for you

I can proudly report that I've accomplished two missions in the past few days. One, I did have lunch with New York Fries founder Jay Gould. Two, I did try one of his chain's latest creations, the Braised Beef Poutine. Both happened separately, although our lunch - at a South Street Burger Co. restaurant - did include a side of fries.

I'll have more on our lunch soon as I think there's a good story in what we talked about. In the meantime, let's talk about the Braised Beef Poutine. It was... interesting tasting. As I mentioned , it's one of two new poutines being served up by New York Fries in additional to the traditional kind, which is fries, cheese curds and gravy. The Braised Beef Poutine features some tasty Angus beef that's been marinated in a red wine sauce, along with some carrots, onions and mushrooms. I haven't yet tried the other new one, Butter Chicken Poutine, but will of course report back when I do.

The beef version was good but a little too wine-y tasting for me. I'm a big fan of poutine and do occasionally eat New York Fries' traditional serving, so I'm already partial to how they do it. But I'm not sure if I'd have the Braised Beef again.

I've had similar reactions to many of the different kinds served up at Smoke's Poutinerie, which is a fast-growing new chain in Ontario. I've tried a number of different versions there, from the Peppercorn Chicken Poutine to the Nacho Grande Poutine, yet I always find myself going back to the basic kind. The only exception to that is the Pulled Pork Poutine, which I only recently tried. It's freaking amazing!

Now I know that many non-Canadians are probably reading this and thinking, "What the hell is he blabbering on about?" But make no mistake - poutine is coming for you! A Canadian recently opened up M Poutinerie in Munich, which is apparently the first poutine shop in Europe.

As for the U.S., it's only a matter of time. This is, after all, one of the unhealthiest foods around, which would seem to be tailor made for American appetites!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wikileaks and the inevitable shadow internet

Well, the whole Wikileaks fiasco has made for some interesting reading over the past week, hasn't it? So far, it's been a nice mix of sex and bombs - what with Julian Assange's arrest for possible sex charges in Sweden, and the cables' juicy military details.

There's been lots written about what the leaked cables and Wikileaks in general might mean to the future of the press and freedom of speech. Perhaps the most interesting thing I've come across is from New Scientist magazine, which is among the publications I'm going to be writing for.

According to a blog post the other day, some online activists are rallying to try and create something called the shadow internet, or one that is free from interference from governments and corporations. Perhaps the most interesting part is that the charge is being led by Peter Sunde, one of the founders of Pirate Bay. If you don't know, Pirate Bay is the king of file-sharing websites where you can get links to free downloads of all sorts of movies, music and TV shows.

The idea is to create a system that uses peer-to-peer file-sharing technology to host websites that can't be pulled down by internet service providers, who are either nervous about hosting them or have been bullied to take them down, as is happening with Wikileaks.

It's not surprising that a Pirate Bay founder is coming to the aid of Wikileaks; they share a similar "down with The Man" philosophy.

What I found most intriguing about the idea is that it jibes with something I've been thinking about for some time now. A few years ago, like many others, I couldn't help but notice how corporatized both the web and the internet had become. Individual websites have, over the course of time, naturally been snowed under by big companies, while on the access side customers generally have their cajones in a vice since there's very little competition between ISPs.

I wondered if this might lead to a backlash, a sort of Internet 2 - a new network that was built solely for the use of people, that was truly neutral and that would allow unfettered innovation and communication. Building such a network would ironically require big bucks, which meant one of two things: either people would have to demand that their government get involved, or some benevolent company would have to do it.

A few years ago, it looked like Google might be that benefactor. The company and some of its top people were waging a pretty against telecommunications companies, wired internet connectivity and wireless cellphones, and it was also making money hand over fist. It was a poorly kept secret that Google was buying up tons of unused fibre, and were crawling that the company was preparing for the day when it might have to launch its own network.

The company has engaged in some network building
, but it has largely ratcheted down its anti-telco rhetoric as it has gotten cozier with wireless carriers over its Android smartphone software. These days, it doesn't look like Google could be that benevolent saviour that some people were hoping for. Perhaps it was naive for anyone to have expected it in the first place.

That doesn't change the fact that there is clearly tremendous demand for a truly open, democratic and, yes, even a potentially damaging internet. Net neutrality advocates have fought very vocally to keep the existing internet free and open, but even if they fail, this demand is a very real force of nature that cannot be denied.

Call me an optimist, but something like the shadow internet - or something that goes much further than what is suggested by Peter Sunde - seems to be an inevitability.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Is the Singularity near? Yes, it is

The very last person I interviewed as a full-time staffer at CBC was a good one. The average person may not have heard of Ray Kurzweil, but in nerd circles, he's pretty much a guru. Literally. People have referred to him as the "high priest of the Singularity."

Kurzweil is an American inventor, author and "futurist," which means he's famous for making predictions about the future. Not too much unlike the sort of thing a science-fiction author might do.

In our interview, which is up on CBC, we talked about one of his latest projects - Blio, which is an e-reading application that you can download for your computer (and Apple & Android devices soon) that preserves the formatting of the original book. That means all those really nice graphical books, like cookbooks, travel books etc., will look the same on your electronic device as they do on paper.

The meat of our conversation, however, centred on the stuff Kurzweil is more known for - namely, his predictions of the Singularity and a coming future that will almost literally blow our minds.

The Singularity isn't exactly easy to explain, but it essentially refers to a point in the near future where computer intelligence meets and surpasses the level of human intelligence. The two will merge, Kurzweil predicts, to form a super-intelligence that will make us capable of things we can only dream of right now. This will include making many science-fiction ideas real, like immortality and deep-space travel. A big part of this super-intelligence will come from reverse engineering the human brain, including figuring out how emotions work, which he predicts will happen by 2029. Here's a video of him explaining it:

Not surprisingly, Kurzweil has his share of critics, who believe he's smoking the crack. Some brain scientists, especially, say he knows nothing about how the brain works and that we will probably never understand it fully. Predictions about being able to replicate our entire personality into a computer file, which could then live on in a robot or virtual world (hello Battlestar Galactica and !) are way off base, they say.

The thing I like about how Kurzweil approaches his predictions is that he bases them on something he calls the "law of accelerating returns," which quantifies the exponential growth of technology over time. I think anyone who covers technology eventually comes to this conclusion on his or her own - I certainly did - that the speed at which new technology becomes available is increasing. This is because if someone over here invents Technology A and someone over there invents Technology B, those are both pretty neat inventions. But when you put them together, you obviously get Technology C, and perhaps D and E and F, and so on.

Technology therefore stacks upon itself, which is why it seems like there are more and more new discoveries and gadgets unveiled every day. It's not an illusion or an accident - there are more and more every day.

Kurzweil brought up an excellent example in our interview. When the Human Genome Project was started in 1990, people weren't very optimistic that it would ever get done because so little was known. Lo and behold, the project ultimately took only 10 years to complete, surprising everyone. As Kurzweil explains:

People thought [the Human Genome Project] was crazy in 1990 because only 1/10,000 of the genome had been sequenced by that time. But it kept doubling every year. Half way through the project only one per cent had been collected so the skeptics were going strong, but that was actually right on schedule. One per cent is only seven doublings from 100 per cent.

The other observation I've come to is that scientists, while often incredibly intelligent (far more so than me), are generally quite myopic and conservative in their views. They're afraid of or unwilling to make predictions about where their work can lead, which is pretty much why science-fiction authors exists. Someone's got to do that job, after all.

It's also one of the ways in which Kurzweil counters his critics: "A scientist may be sophisticated in his own field but he may not have studied technology progression and he may just apply his linear intuition to his own work."

Ultimately, those two facts - the exponential growth of technology and the often narrow view of scientists - is why I tend to agree with Kurzweil's predictions. I recommend reading the interview and if you really want to have your mind blown, check out his latest book The Singularity is Near.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Beware the Wi-Fi boogeyman

I've been going on a lot lately about some of the bad information out there in the media regarding technology and its effects on people and/or society. I guess it's a bit of a hangover from my TEDx talk, where that was basically the topic.

One of the current situations that I didn't mention in my talk, but wanted to, was the whole to-do we have here in Ontario regarding the use of Wi-Fi in schools. A couple of concerned parents up in Simcoe country have become convinced that wireless internet access in schools is giving their kids headaches. Apparently, when the kids are at home, they're fine.

Health Canada has thus far ruled that there's no risk from Wi-Fi, or cellphones for that matter. The general common-sense consensus, meanwhile, seems to point the finger at the kids themselves - as in, gee, I sort of remember school giving me a headache too, and making up any excuses not to go. Oh, how I wish we'd had Wi-Fi in those days. What a nice boogeyman it would have been. (A word of advice to kids: don't scapegoat Wi-Fi because by that logic, your parents probably won't let you have a cellphone. Unless, of course, they're really stupid.)

When the parents complained this past summer, the issue got absolutely tons of media attention, so much so that the government launched an inquiry.

Well guess what? A government committee reported back last week after looking into the issue, and they found nothing wrong. The Standing Committee on Public Health says "we would like to reiterate that, to date, there has been no credible science linking exposure to electromagnetic radiation emitting devices and adverse health effects.” The committee also recommended setting up a system where people can report potential side effects of Wi-Fi usage for further study, which sounds like the vaguest possible appeasement to the complaining parents. You can check out the full report by clicking here.

So how much media coverage did this report get? Well, a Google search of "Health Canada Wi-Fi" turned up only , only one of which was from a major mainstream outlet (my old colleagues at CBC, actually).

As I said at TEDx, there is loads and loads of reporting out there, but very little journalism. Going back to the original story and reporting the other side qualifies as a type of journalism. Like anyone, I enjoy being right, but this just happens something I hate being right about.

The scariest part of the report, though, is an addendum from the New Democratic Party (which represents Canada's left). The NDP naturally disagrees with the findings and says, "children should not be forced to be exposed to this technology in their schools until it is actually proven safe, not just theoretical acceptable."

That's a really astounding position to take because there are very few technologies that have actually been "proven" to be safe. We can't even say that of the oldest technology: fire.

My question for the NDP, then, is pretty simple: please list five technologies that have ever actually been proven safe, and then we'll talk about Wi-Fi.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Original Tron way ahead of its time

When I got my latest issue of Wired in the mail and saw the cover story was on the upcoming movie, I dismissed it as just a typical magazine link to whatever is hot in pop culture at the time. The story, largely about how the original movie came to be, wasn't entirely riveting.

Then I got the new video game, which is out in stores this upcoming Tuesday, in the mail and I embarked on some research. Since the new movie, which hits theatres on Dec. 17, is a sequel to the original - and the game is a prequel to Legacy - I decided it would be prudent to go back to the beginning.

I vaguely remember seeing the original Tron movie when I was a kid. It came out in 1982, when I was only eight, so all I could really remember were a bunch of dudes running around in glowing costumes. The movie didn't perform overly well, making $33 million on its $17 million budget. What did do well and what I do remember vividly were the various Tron video games, which grossed more than the movie. I remember being thoroughly addicted to the original Tron game, which made you ride light cycles and fight cyber-spiders. Here's that original game in all its primitive glory:

So I sat down yesterday and watched the original 1982 movie, and boy was my mind blown. I was struck by how amazingly imaginative it was and by the sophistication of the computer graphics, which were in their infancy at the time. Tron is considered by many to be the first real CGI movie, which is probably an accurate description given that most of the movie is computer generated.

We take this for granted today given those many movies, like Avatar, are now almost entirely CGI. But if you're a fan of history or anything retro, the original movie is definitely something to check out. The story involves a pair of software engineers (Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner) who come into conflict with the boss of a company named Encom. The boss is in league with the Master Control Program, a piece of software that is becoming increasingly intelligent - and ambitious - my enslaving other software programs.

The two protagonists meet up in a cyberworld of sorts to take on MCP and its various minions; Bridges is accidentally scanned in by a laser while Boxleitner is represented by a security program he created called Tron (hence the title). What I liked about the plot is that this introduced us to the idea of avatars well before the term became commonly accepted today. In the movie, the "programs" represent the "users."

Here's the original trailer:

The plot was a little techie and probably quite hard for people of the time, who were not used to such jargon, to follow so ultimately I'm not surprised it didn't do too well. Nevertheless, as far as movie making and imagining the future go - and there's quite a bit that turned out accurately - Tron was truly ground-breaking. I can understand why Wired chose to spotlight it.

I'm looking forward to the new movie, even if some are predicting it could also turn out to be a financial flop - it apparently doesn't have much to appeal to females. The film may actually turn out to be something of a loss leader for Disney, which is promoting it big time. It's pretty clear the studio is hoping the movie helps launch Tron as a big-name franchise. That shouldn't come as a surprise because the concept is tailor made for everything from video games to books to television, especially now that the technology - and people's comfort level with it - has caught up to the original idea.

And oh yes, my review of the game will be up on CBC on Tuesday.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

New York Fries is utterly Canadian

The things I learn thanks to my strange and semi-professionally-based fascination with fast food. I was in a mall in suburban Toronto yesterday wolfing down some grub at the food court when I glanced up to see a New York Fries outlet. It wasn't just a normal New York Fries though - it was a New York Fries "poutinerie." On the menu, along with the regular fries, regular poutine and The Works, were two new kinds of poutine: braised beef and butter chicken.

Wha?!?! Why had I not heard of this? And what was this all about? I already had some Chinese food, but otherwise I most certainly would have tried one of the new creations, since poutine is one of my true loves. I did take it upon myself to get to the bottom of the situation.

It turns out the chain started testing the "poutinerie" concept in the summer and it's now in the process of rolling it out across all outlets. The braised beef poutine, by the way, sounds awesome. As the press release describes it, it's "slow-cooked Angus beef, carrots, onions and mushrooms in a red wine sauce." Mmmm... cheese, beef and gravy...

But that wasn't the interesting part. One of my first thoughts was, "I wonder if they're rolling this out in the U.S.?" After all, poutine is a pretty Canadian thing. By and large, it's not something that Americans really understand (and love yet). That's okay, give them time. It took them a while with donuts but they got there.

So I called the company's media folks here in Canada and they dropped a shocker on me: there is no New York Fries in the United States. Nope. It is in fact, an all-Canadian company. There are outlets in every province and a few in other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and Hong Kong, but none in the U.S. That seemed really counter-intuitive. After all, I asked, what's with the name?

The story is that founder Jay Gould and his brother Hal, both from Brantford, Ont. (birthplace of Wayne Gretzky), took a trip down down to the South Street Seaport in New York City after hearing that the best fries around were found at a little stand there. They liked the fries and bought the stand, and the business was born. New York Fries has, of course, been very successful is seemingly everywhere, with more than 200 locations. The company has also recently started expanding by starting up South Street Burger Co., its own burger chain subsidiary.

I find this kind of amazing because when you combine New York Fries with Harvey's, Swiss Chalet and Tim Hortons, a larger picture emerges: Canadians do very well in fast food. Anyone who thinks Canadians can't compete with Americans only needs to look at this sector to be proven wrong.

There are still some interesting questions to be answered about all of this and I'm hoping to have lunch with Jay soon (I imagine we'll have fries). More on this soon.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

GM apple's side effects include induced stupidity

One of the topics I spent some time on during my TEDx talk this past weekend was genetically modified foods, and the fear and ignorance surrounding them. It was almost an early Christmas present when, just two days later, news broke of a company in British Columbia seeking regulatory approval for an apple that has been genetically modified not to turn brown after being sliced.

The response online was predictably stupid. The most-recommended comment on the CBC story: "We should ban outright any and all GM foods. If you don't want your apple slices to brown then use lemon juice." Yes, how utterly smart and scientific.

For kicks, I thought I'd throw the topic out for discussion on Twitter. Hey, I'm a freelancer now so I don't see people as much. I'll take conversation any way I can get it.

So I said: "I wonder whether all the people opposed to genetically modified apples that don't turn brown can name a single thing wrong with them."

One fellow took the bait and pithily said: "Other than being un-natural?"

Woo-eee, did that ever kick off a heated argument. I pressed him to explain what he meant by "unnatural," and like all opponents of GMOs, he kept dodging the question and moving systematically to every criticism lobbed at such foods - and thoroughly disproved - for over a decade. To run down the checklist:
  • GMOs are unnatural: If you're going to make that claim, you're going to have to draw some pretty fine lines about how technology is used in food production. If manipulating an apple's genes is unnatural, then isn't using ethylene gas to ripen it or spraying it with wax to make it shiny also unnatural? Moreover, how about using specialized storage bins to preserve apples for months at a time? Bottom line: if Canadians want to eat apples in the winter, they're going to have to resort to some level of "unnaturalness" being applied. I didn't even get to asking him whether he thought taking Tylenol was unnatural, but you can probably get my drift as to where that line of thinking leads.
  • The long-term effects of GMOs are not known: Untrue. About two-thirds of the foods found in grocery stores are GMOs or have been created using them, and we've been eating them for more than a decade with no ill effects. More to that point, as I said during the TEDx talk: they're just genes, we eat millions of them every day! I'm no scientist, but why would inserting genes from one organism to another be any more dangerous than eating those two organisms together? Put another way: would inserting a potato gene into a cow be any more harmful than eating a steak-and-potato dinner? In the case of the non-browning apple, there aren't even any new genes that have been added. It's a simple case of the "brown" gene being reversed. Logically, how can that be harmful?
  • If they're not harmful, why don't we label GMO foods? There are two reasons, actually. One is that environmentalists have been fear-mongering about GMOs for well over a decade, so the damage to perception is done. The public simply won't buy such foods if they're labelled despite there being nothing wrong with them, or despite them actually being better for the environment. This is the ultimate fallback position of GMO opponents, and it's essentially unfair because they've created the conditions for such foods to fail. This won't always be the case and the perception is changing, but there is still widespread fear, if the CBC comments are any indicator. Two: there is that issue of fairness. Non-GMO foods that have been created through selective breeding, like hybrid wheats, aren't labelled as such yet we've been eating them safely for decades. Why should we label one kind of food and thereby imply it's not safe and thereby give the advantage to other kinds of foods?
Ultimately, I suspect someone is going to voluntarily label a GMO product as such. It will probably be something that offers significant benefit, like maybe a fruit that fights diabetes (I just made that up), so the GMO label will be used as part of its marketing. The non-browning apple will actually be a good case study, if approved, because it would come with a de-facto labelling: we'll know it's GMO because it doesn't turn brown.

It's funny though, because by defending genetically modified foods, my Twitter "buddy" automatically labelled me as sounding like a lobbyist. Anybody who knows my thoughts on lobbyists knows that's about the worst way to insult me. I like to think of myself as someone who has done considerable research into GMOs and talked to people on all sides of the issue, and I've come to my own conclusions that just happen to come down on the pro side. A lobbyist, of course, is someone who is paid to have an opinion. If that's the case, then I'm still waiting on my cheque, Monsanto.

As it turns out, anti-GMO activists are losing the wind in their sails, and many are recognizing their errors. Stewart Brand, an American activist and former editor of Whole Earth Catalog, recently said in regards to GMOs: "Environmentalists did harm by being ignorant and ideological and unwilling to change their mind based on actual evidence. As a result we have done harm and I regret it." Dr. Jason Clay, vice-president of the World Wildlife Fund, also said the organization has reversed its views on GMOs and that "We need to use less to produce more ... to restore the planet."

The only thing unnatural about this whole situation is how irrational and illogical some people are about it.
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