Friday, May 31, 2013

Neat new - and not new - netcasts

Some years back, I published some suggested netcasts (podcasts for most people, but I'm the anti-Apple guy so please excuse the generic term). It's a fantastic way to keep informed, and entertained, while your hands are free and you're walking your happy beagle in the morning. Or doing the dishes. Or driving somewhere while desperately avoiding the inanity that is commercial radio.

The world has changed, and it's time for a refresh on my recommendations. Some new, some old, and some have sadly gone away. The biggest change is how easy it is to listen to all this great, free content in 2013. Back in 2009, I had to download content to a computer, and sync it to an MP3 player, remembering to charge that device and having no end of problems keeping at the right place in each of my netcasts. Now I have a Galaxy Nexus phone running Doggcatcher. The phone and the app do all the work, I just get to listen and enjoy.

A word of caution: there is an amazing amount of great content out there. Be careful how often you click subscribe. I've just had to slim my list down because I was downloading great stuff and just deleting it as a higher priority producer had my attention. Sorry, super cool producers out there, but there are only so many hours in the day.

  1. Tech News Today. Can't miss this one.  Listen to it every day before everything else. Great use of a shorter form, really informed team. Thanks, TNT crew, you rock.
  2. This Week in Google. The longest netcast I currently listen to, it's worth the time because the mix of Leo Laporte, Gina Trapani and Jeff Jarvis is such a great use of the weekly format. Different opinions and specializations, and not just focused on Google. Great info about new cloud services, social web, and much, much more. 
  3. Planet Money. This was on my first list as a "they are just getting started" and have come a long way since then. Very informative, great take on economics for those of us not formally trained, but who like smart people who say smart things.
  4. Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me. Yes, it is a stupid quiz show with celebrities.  Yes, I laugh out loud.
  5. It's a Thing. Tom Merritt and Molly Wood on the same show? Yes, please. Short, fun, and great conversation about very unimportant things that seem to be ... things.
  6. Freakonomics. Mostly short bits, but now and then a longer program about the hidden side of everything. Where Planet Money does more reporting, this favors the unexpected side of markets and incentives.
  7. This American Life. Still the best in terms of production value, and often needing more concentration and time for thought. A slice of what makes us people in whatever way that happens to come about that week. Amazing work.
  8. All About Android. True geeks, geeking out about the worlds best mobile operating system. Segments on hardware, apps, news and more.
  9. Radiolab. OK, so remember when I said This American Life was the best produced show? Maybe I should think it over. Production value, science, thought, live shows and more. Really worth your time.
Now and then life is so busy I have to declare netcast bankruptcy and just delete old episodes so I can listen to the current stuff (except for TNT, as noted in number 1 above). Mostly, it's great stuff for minds tired of being insulted. Traditional commercial broadcasts - I can't say as I miss ya.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Temporary tech to take me to tomorrow

I have said it before and I will say it again: I love living in the future.  I recounted a story for my daughter the other day, telling her about my college days when my old roommate would spin science fiction stories of what our lives would some day be like.  He would tell of days to come when we could get music and video on demand in our homes, through the then-emerging internet.  People would travel with computers, he'd say.  Distribution would be disrupted.

And here we are.

The future has not come to all players and parties at the same time in the same way, however.  The automobile industry is my most recent example of an economic sector clawing at the last strands of the 20th century.  The fat profits from fat cars are too hard to give up, and being the first mover into the 21st century hasn't quite worked yet for the Volt or the Leaf.  There is no bellwether to show new ideas will provide new big profits, and so the capital-heavy industries lumber behind with the oil companies and cable television.

The future is coming, of course.  Time may stretch out patiently while I tap my metaphorical foot demanding the Great Leap Forward.  The change I want may be later, and so I need to bridge the gap to the future that will someday arrive.  My wife and I had a choice when the time came this year to replace our old minivan with a new vehicle.  We could plan to finance and keep a car for seven or eight years, as we did with the last one, or we could just look on this as a short-term solution to a long-term problem - because a longer term solution is not that far away.

I did the research and the test drives, and settled on the Prius, not because it is the most beautiful car in the world, but because it reaches some short-term goals with a substantial resale value so the depreciation hit won't kill us when we sell the car in about three years.  I normally like to use my tech to death (and slightly beyond death), so this is out of character for me.  Technology solutions must sometimes be hard realizations that the thing we really need is coming soon, so let's just MacGyver something for now that keeps costs down, does the job, and where we won't feel the short-term investment is really just a loss.

Ford and some others are getting ready to give us what we expected from the future.  I just need to use the old tech a little while longer, keep my expectation of investments in line, and keep tapping my foot.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mixed messages in marketing mayhem

I remember the book The Lorax from my own childhood, when I had taped environmental posters to my bedroom wall and took out a youth membership in the World Wildlife Fund with my allowance.

Yes, I was that kind of rockin' eleven-year-old.

The book paints a pretty dark picture of what happens when our rampant consumerism  - our thneeds, if you will - gets the better of us.  None of us is without blame, and all of us can do better to restrain our desire for stuff, and let the earth get a breath now and then.  The best part of the message from the book was that no matter how bad things got, if one person cared enough, it could get a little bit better over time.  And maybe, just maybe, the Lorax would come back.

There are some areas where we have made some progress.  Water quality in many areas is better, and air pollution in some cities has improved.  So we have a ways to go, but we seek change over time and not an instant turn around.  Stewart Brand's groundbreaking book, Clock Of The Long Now, preaches patience in our world view, and I believe him when he says the planet will recover just fine given enough time, whether we humans are here to see it or not.  I also believe that if we want humans on the planet to witness the recovery, we perhaps should make some changes.

The Lorax was created to speak for the trees.  Trees don't have particularly aggressive public relations strategies, and are notoriously bad at updating their Twitter feeds.  Usurping that vision to speak for seventy product tie-ins is the worst example of ignoring a brand and an audience I can think of since Susan G. Komen paired up with KFC.  So what is my response as a consumer when I see a product brand I have purchased in the past now splattered with a "Endorsed by the Lorax" banner?

I switch brands.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Grading and Gating Gadget Guilt

I've had a long moral struggle about where and how my gadgets are manufactured.  A couple of recent stories from This American Life and the New York Times has shifted the focus to Apple, largely because it coincides with Apple earnings announcement that they've made over $13 billion in profit, in one quarter, and after taxes.  This is on gross sales of about $46.3 billion.  Which is to say, after taxes and every other expense, Apple's profit margin is about 28%.

If that margin worked equally on all products, the after-tax profit on the cheapest iPad available would be about $140.

Molly Wood issued a call for Apple to take the lead in improving working conditions at Foxconn, Apple's primary manufacturer in China.  It appears, after all, that they can afford it to spend a little.  They charge more for their products than competitors, and clearly this hasn't hurt them in the market.  Apple can hardly say competitive forces are to blame for their decisions to force overtime and other difficult working conditions in China.  They are currently the most valued, publicly-traded company in the United States, worth more than even the oil giants.

Let's unpack that last thought.

Oil, which is really to say gasoline for most Americans, is something we buy at least once a month, very often once a week, and often for more than one car.  One 2011 study put the average family investment in gasoline at $368 per month, or roughly $4,400 per year.  How many people do you know that spend this much per family each year on phones and tablets?  Nevertheless, Apple is far more profitable - and hence more valuable - than the leading oil producer.

So there is no economic argument for Apple not do better by its contracted labor.  Heck, with profit that high, they could perhaps even afford to pay Americans and still eke out a little for stockholders.  But they don't.  And people still buy their products.

I don't personally own any Apple products (though there are some in my household).  This wasn't a principled stand against using Chinese labor, as the Asus computer I am using to write this was manufactured  in China.   I own a Samsung phone from Korea, and a Kindle Fire tablet that was "assembled" in China (presumably from some imported parts).  One of the reasons I own each of these devices is because they are considerably cheaper than owning Apple counterparts, and I am price conscious just like most consumers.

The primary reason I don't own Apple products is I don't like being locked in to their controlled world.  I want to be able to do ugly hacks and break things on the machines I own, and Apple doesn't make that easy so I just avoid their stuff.  I have both Linux and Windows boots on my laptop, and both my phone and my tablet are rooted Android devices that I regularly mess up because I find that fun.

So, Apple is the most highly-valued company on the exchange because they produce a controlled, pretty experience that many people will pay a premium to use.

I admit a great deal of mixed emotions in this debate.  I'd perhaps consider buying American-made gadgets (I've always bought American-made, union-made cars, for example) but that means there needs to be some in the market that are at least competitive.  There aren't, so I own cheap electronics from places which likely have poor working conditions.  In the cases of my tablet and laptop, at well under half what I would have had to pay for Apple products.

Does this make me less culpable?  Maybe not.  Does it make Apple more culpable when they have huge profit margins and still support conditions that would be illegal in their home country?

Yes.  I think it does.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cutting the Cord: Costs Curtailed

The great adventure began as wife and I were talking 2012 budget, and I once again suggested that we could lose cable television.  We've had this conversation before, but this year she wanted to save some more and I put my favorite sacrifice on the altar for her consideration.  This time, she said yes.

I made arrangements (more on this below) and when the time was right, I disconnected our two converter boxes and drove down to Comcast to surrender the rented equipment and terminate my service.  I must admit I was in love with this idea, because despite my hopes that cable companies would some day allow us more a' la carte options, they clearly have no intention of letting me get the Sci Fi channel without paying for ESPN 1-92 (or whatever numbers are really on the service).  The whole industry has no interest or ability to meet consumers where they are, so I'm happily jumping off the wagon and letting them ride the way of the buggy-whip manufacturers.

My kids - all teenagers - haven't skipped a beat in losing cable.  They'd really abandoned the concept a long time ago, in favor of internet options.  My wife and I, however, still want some TV on our TV.  So, here's how we broke it down:
  1. TiVo.  We got a box from Amazon (much cheaper than buying from TiVo) and an adapter from MicroCenter to allow us to use our wireless internet service instead of Ethernet for getting TiVo information.  We ordered digital antennas for both television sets.  Total hardware costs of about $140, or about 1.5 months of cable costs.  Now we have a DVR, or I should say, my wife has a DVR because I still don't use the thing, really.
  2. Roku/Netflix/Hulu/Amazon VOD.  We already had a Roku box (which has been my primary video entertainment since we got it about two years ago).  We already had a Netflix subscription.  We already had Amazon VOD (some free, some pay-per-view) as Prime members.  We've added Hulu, only to find the paid version of Hulu has fewer choices than the web-only free service.  As a result, we'll probably stop paying for Hulu.  Netflix is really the best deal all around, with more content than I will ever get to in my lifetime, and for cheap.
  3. Decided to clean up one more extra cord, and cut the landline phone service.  I called our new phone company, Century Link (which used to be Qwest, which used to be US West, which used to be Northwestern Bell....) and told them I was moving our home phone number to an extra mobile line ($5/month versus $35 for landline).  They were polite and respectful, asked if we could review the DSL service I was going to keep, and then offered me a deal to slightly reduce my costs and greatly increase my speed.  Ummmm... yes.  Yes, I'll take that.  Bonus points to Century Link.
  4. Total cost changes:  We used to pay about $200/month for these services (internet, cable, phone, Netflix, etc...) and we've brought the total down to about $70 (including the monthly TiVo service - which we may choose to replace with a lifetime service and eliminate the monthly fee).
Do we make some sacrifices?  Sure.  My wife can't see What Not to Wear anymore. We'll have to pay Amazon for a season pass to Mad Men next year.  I'm going to wait on Walking Dead until Netflix gets the new season, so I'm a little behind in that. Now, however, we're only paying for content we want and not someone else's college football needs.   We have a long way to go in this transition, but as more producers allow us to just pay for their content directly, we're going to end up with better stuff at less cost.

I love living in the future.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Amazon: Aquire a Queue Anon!

I love living in the future.  Most days I have at least one type of computer on me at all times, and my phone-computer can generate a wi-fi hotspot nearly anywhere I want to go (recent trips to the north shore of Lake Superior notwithstanding).  I have podcosts-a-plently procured, and of course, access to huge stores of video entertainment.

The world is my technological oyster.  And yet...

I've been a huge Netflix fan for the last few years, since we got our Roku box and I can enjoy the great streaming selection from on my television with my remote control.  I love the Netflix Queue, the great way to mark a movie you want to watch later.  Back when I had DVD and Instant Queues, I could mark a movie not yet available for streaming in the DVD queue, and if it became available in streaming in just showed up there for me.  A happy present; a nice surprise.

Netflix since split the services and I can no longer put movies in queue that aren't currently available, so now I have to keep a separate list of movies that I want to see that *may* someday show up for streaming (p.s., thanks, IMDB, for letting me create a comprehensive watch list).  Not a good solution.  A real first world problem, for sure, but just the sort of imperfection that wrecks my dream of living twenty minutes in the future.  It is just enough of an irritant, as long as I have to make queue of movies I want to watch elsewhere, maybe I can just move the whole kit and caboodle?

Right around this time comes the announcement of the Kindle Fire, and the promise of tight integration to Amazon Video on Demand/Prime Streaming.  I have also been a huge fan of Amazon since it became my primary way to get new episodes of Dr. Who.  A fair amount of the content I've been seeking is available in Amazon as well as we Netflix, so if I could get a Wish-List like function and enter all my movies to watch once, then I could ...

Ah, rats.  Nevermind.

Amazon doesn't have any kind of queue, let alone what I need.  If the Fire and Amazon Video on Demand are going to be a success, they need - and they need fast - to:

1.  Allow me to create and manage discrete watch lists.  One for me, one for my wife, one for the both of us when we want to watch things together.  MultiQs does this for Netflix, and better than Netflix.  I can be done.
2.  Give me a Wish List for videos not yet available, so I can add them once to Amazon and they appear in my watch list when Amazon gets the license.
3.  Negotiate new content based on Wish List demand.  Not just what studios think we want, let us tell you what we really want.
4.  Let us manage the lists from the web, from the Fire, and from our TVs via Roku and other streaming boxes.

We love you Amazon.  We're rooting for you.  Let's get going on this, let's communicate that it is coming, and let's move the future twenty minutes back to the present.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

“Limited” lacks legal legitimacy

I recently completed my Master of Nonprofit Management degree from Hamline University.  It was a great experience, certainly worthy of well-written wrangle.  Another time, perhaps.  I’ve been thinking more about the work I did in the final phases of that degree; a capstone project on how nonprofits talk about value of intellectual property (copyright, patents and the like).

I was privileged to present some of these thoughts at TEDx1000Lakes, an event sponsored by the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids.  My talk was entitled Freeing the Value of Ideas, and focused on how we might create a new means for valuing open-source decisions.  I think the idea is worth spreading and hope you do, too. A key concept in my talk is the length of copyright protection.  The definition of "limited" in this context deserves a little more thought.

The Congress is empowered to create laws around intellectual property protection by Article 1, Section 8 of the constitution.  The specific language reads:

To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors, the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.

The idea here is creators (artists, authors, inventors and other muse-inspired people) are only going to make things of value if they have the ability to get people to pay for them, and people are only going to pay for them if they can’t just get it for free.  I think Kickstarter may have some things to say about that, but let's take that for rote right now.  The flip side of this pretty, pretty coin is the public domain.  The Congress has been empowered to makes laws which protect exclusive rights for “limited” times. The definition of limited in the copyright realm has changed quite a bit.
  • 1790 – 14 years plus a possible 14 year extension
  • 1909 – 28 years plus a possible 28 year extension
  • 1976 – Life of the author plus 50 years
  • 1998 – Life of the author plus 75 years, or 120 years for works for hire

So just what is a “limited” time?  When do we in the public domain get our crack at your great idea?  We are killing the ability to riff – to build on another idea and make a new one.  We are suffocating our collective story in favor of silos of individual stories with no connection.  In short, we’re asking the golden-egg goose to get in the gallows.  It is short-sighted and petty, and we need to knock it off.

We can fight for a fair definition of exclusive use and a fair balance of public domain.  We can do it by going back to the constitution.  No reasonable person is going to say that 120 years is a “limited time” to secure a work.  Technically, yes, that is a limit.  So is one billion.  It is very clearly not the intention to use such a high limit –and an ever expanding limit – to keep works out of the public realm indefinitely.  Intellectual property protection is broken in many ways, but redefining limited is a place to begin.  I'll suggest 28 years is plenty, roughly seven times longer than the average length of employment at any one job in the 21st century.  I'm willing to negotiate the time, but let's make it something that includes the public.  A practical definition of limited - as in limited to the foreseeable future - is a great start.