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Archive for May, 2010

paywalls can work if marketed right

One bit of news that’s been causing quite a bit of debate lately has been the announcement by Rupert Murdoch’s news company that Times and Sunday times are going to start charging for access to their websites in June. Now there are plenty of doom-sayers out there who predict that the new scheme is bound to fail miserably; within weeks of the pay wall going up people will just switch to other free on line sources like the BBC and before you know it the Times and Sunday Times, i.e. their online versions, will sink to the bottom of obscurity.

However, I think the pay wall just might work, it all depends on how they market it. They’re already talking about ‘quality journalism’ as opposed to the junk spewed out by the blogosphere.  And it has to be said that there are still plenty of people who respond to the appeal of exclusivity and glamor.  For the time being, while both the Times and Sunday Times can be read by anyone online, you can go, look at their content and compare the actual quality of their journalism to that found elsewhere.  Let me say, I’m no expert on what constitutes quality journalism. To me if it’s just news reporting then it’s pretty much the same everywhere, news is news, where things begin to be different is in the take on the same news, which, essentially, is another word for opinion. And opinions are just that, they’re a dime a dozen, whether they come from a revered Pulitzer prize laureate or some kid in Wisconsin.

But that’s not really the point, while the sites are still open you can take a look at a couple of articles in their opinion column and then surf right on over to some blog by some unknown individual, compare them and decide which is better. I dare say they’re not really that much different, if anything, some blog posts are more interestingly written than the columns in the Times, but now imagine a situation (which in just a few months you won’t have to imagine) where the Times is behind a pay wall, you can just find an article on their site on a subject you’re interested in, you don’t actually see their content until/unless you’ve paid for it. All you know about their content now is that it is ‘exclusive’ and ‘premium’ and that it’s ‘quality journalism’. Those are all just catch words, but they actually work, after a while you start fantasizing about this ‘quality journalism’ hiding behind their paywall and finally you realise you simply must take a look at it, so you cough up a few pounds.

Now, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn principle kicks in, you’ve seen a naked man painted to look like a giraffe doing an obscene dance, but since you’ve paid to see this performance (and remember before you parted with your hard earned cash, you were promised something unearthly and infinitely beautiful) in all probability you’re not going to admit it totally sucks ass, even to yourself, even if on some level you will know you’ve been had. So all of a sudden, the very same content that has been more or less standard news and journalism becomes ‘premium’ and ‘quality journalism’ not because something changes about the content itself, but because Rupert Murdoch tells you so and makes you pay to access it. And before you know it you’ve already become a paid subscriber and are spreading the gospel of ‘quality journalism’ like those poor suckers in Huckleberry Finn who went out and praised the show to their friends because they didn’t want to be the only suckers in town.
Anyway it looks like Rupert Murdoch and Co are placing a wager on human psychology and despite all the scorn poured on them over the last few months by staunch proponents of all free all the time, his little scheme just might work.

Categories: Random thoughts

News from Nepal

This week saw the finales of two TV dramas I’ve been following, the British Ashes to Ashes and ABC’s Lost. First was Ashes to Ashes, I think the last episode actually came out on Sunday or even late last week but I only watched on-line early this week. To cut a long story short, for those of you who’ve never seen either the original British Life on Mars or Ashes to Ashes; the alternate reality the protagonist DI Drake found herself in after being shot in the head turned out to be a cop purgatory, where dead cops who can’t let go of their life on earth linger on until the truth is revealed to them and they choose to move on.

It’s no wonder then that when I was watching the final ten minutes of Lost later in the week I was overcome by a sense of dejavu,  and it wasn’t just because of Ashes to Ashes. There are also two stories  I’ve read whose plots develop along the same lines. I don’t know which one of the stories was written first, one is by Stephen King and it’s about a woman who’s trying to reconcile with her husband and they’ve decided to go down to Florida, so now they’re driving in a rented car in talking only there keep popping up various weird things along the way, people, things, buildings, eventually we learned the woman and her husband were in a plane crash, they never landed. And then there’s a short story by Victor Pelevin called News from Nepal. Again we have an ordinary woman going through her ordinary day, this time it’s an office worker at a Russian/soviet factory, we start with her getting off the trolley bus   and going into work. During lunch break she unwraps a candy as she stands in line to buy her meal,  the wrapping paper has a little trivia story on it, it’s about an obscure Nepalese sect, a group of monks living in the mountains in Nepal in this particular monastery, whose main objective in life is to see the truth. Those of them who manage to see the truth start yelling like mad and never stop until they die. In the end there is a meeting at the factory at which the radio tells everybody they’re all dead and in purgatory now and that according to an old tradition the first few days in purgatory are spent in a familiar environment. Then the poor woman’s day starts all over again.

I kind of felt cheated though, both by these short stories and to a greater extent by the two TV dramas.  While the stories were rather straightforward, the TV shows, especially Lost, were far more complicated. With Lost I was probably looking forward to some sort of convergence of the two alternative time lines, which I was led to believe at the beginning of the season, were caused by the nuclear explosion at the end of season 5. But no such luck, you’re dead Jack and that’s it. It reminded me in a way of the last book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Mostly Harmless in which Douglas Adams, who by the time the book came out had grown rather tired of the franchise, simply killed off all the main characters to wrap up the series. However, with Lost I felt even more let down, for a whole season I’ve been watching this alternate time-line and then turned out it was basically all a lie, ‘You know you don’t have a son, Jack’ Bummer, and his son was such a nice kid, a pianist and all.  It also reminded me of my old childhood fantasies, when I thought about what it would be like to be dead and that perhaps I was already dead just remembering my life over and over again while my body decayed in the grave.

And it’s also a bit sad that these days stories no longer end with the main characters living happily ever after, but rather with the main characters ‘moving on’. Nobody specifies where they’re moving on to. Which, incidentally, reminds me another ‘post-mortem’ story by Victor Pelevin, in which a group of people who’ve all died and travelled through the proverbial tunnel towards the light at the end of it are now sitting in a circle around a mysterious being whom they all can only see from the back. This being jokes with them and tells them about this new machine that can give a person ultimate pleasure and not just any kind of pleasure but the exact sort of euphoria they’ve been craving all their lives. The only drawback is that as they one by one approach this machine, get plugged in and vanish in a bright flash it becomes apparent to the last of them that the machine essentially annihilates them, so this last remaining person asks the mysterious being what’s going to happen afterwards, ‘Afterwards?’ asks the ‘god’,’And what would you need an afterwards for? If you get the ultimate euphoria now, whatever comes afterwards can only be worse?’ In the end this last guy is forced to connect up to the machine and go out in a flash of bright light. That’s moving on for you. In the final scene in Lost, the Losties too all walk into a bright light.

Categories: TV shows

Cross platform vs platform specific

In the recent and probably still on-going struggle between Apple and Adobe, Steve Jobs made an argument that some may find a bit iconoclastic, essentially he claimed that Flash was inherently inferior to platform specific applications written natively in Objective C. And that kind of puts a dent in the established dogma of the past two decades that ‘write-once-run-anywhere’ is good.

Now the write-once-run-anywhere approach has been around for quite a long time, ever since the first implementation of Smalltalk-80 was released which ran on top of a virtual machine and the vendors could then write ports of the virtual machine for various platforms and distribute the same Smalltalk image. Probably the idea will have occurred to developers even before that. Smalltalk didn’t exactly catch on at the time, most implementations were slow and had a large memory footprint, yes it was nice to be able to write an app and then deploy it across a variety of platforms but what good was it if it worked in slow motion. So generally languages that compiled directly into the machine code such as C++ tended to be preferred as they were able to deliver the required performance under the memory, space and processor speed constraints programmers had to take into account at the time.

Then in the mid 1990’s Sun took the virtual machine +byte codes approach pioneered by Smalltalk and ran with it, launching a huge promotional campaign for their new Java language. The technology wasn’t anything new but the situation was different, hardware had advanced by leaps and bounds and now byte codes running on top of a virtual machine presented a viable alternative to natively compiled apps, for most intents and purposes the difference in performance was negligible. The early versions of Java were slow though, slower than the contemporary implementations of Smalltalk and far slower than natively compiled C++ apps, but Java offered applets, it was free and Sun seemingly stopped at nothing to promote it and a key element in this PR campaign behind Java was the fact that it was cross-platform.

Now, is cross-platform a good thing or a bad thing. Obviously Steve Jobs believes it’s not such a great thing and that cross-platform apps running on top of some intermediary layers (flash plug-in, Java VM etc) will always suck in comparison to natively compiled apps written in the Kosher languages (C, Objective C or C++).

However, I believe that it’s a rather lame argument. As the complexity of software increases, creating platform specific versions of every application becomes untenable. It’s easier and more practical to develop platform specific ‘intermediary layers’, virtual machines and interpreters and then deploy business solutions on top of them. In fact it’s the very direction the software industry has been moving in over the past two decades, what with Java and MS’s .NEt and CLI (which essentially provide extra layers between the programming language and the OS) and now Steve Jobs totally out of the blue decides to scrap that and force  his developers to go back to writing platform specific applications.

I’m no prophet, it’s a bold move on the part of Steve Jobs but what will eventually come of it, imho in the end it will all come down to market share and the availability of porting solutions. If Apple continues to insist that its apps must be written in specific flavours of C, then, provided that their market share in mobile devices and slate PC’s (iPad) continues to expand, some developers might choose to develop their apps on Macs and then port them to other platforms. However, if Apple’s competitors band together to support cross platform technologies on their devices and provided that their combined market share is greater than that of Apple, Steve Jobs and co may eventually find themselves in a tight spot, after all a device is only as good as the applications that run on it. And in that case they may eventually be forced to drop the C, Objective C, C++ clause from their license agreement.

Only the future will tell how it will all end.

Categories: IT

Defying Science

I started watching the Defying Gravity TV drama a few days ago. I didn’t know it had already been cancelled at the time, still the point is that originally the premise seemed rather intriguing and on the whole I can’t say it’s the worst show I’ve ever seen, but I do have one issue with it.

By the look of it, Defying Gravity had a pretty handsome budget, they built all those decorations for the interior of their spaceship, then there were all those undoubtedly computer aided animations but it appears that the producers did not bring a single science consultant on  board. For one there’s the real time communications systems that the control centre uses to communicate with the spacecraft and by real time I mean there are no delays, the people in the control centre on earth talk to the people on board the spacecraft millions of kilometres away as if they were in the next room. My question is didn’t the authors of the show go to school, don’t they know that light takes 8 minutes to get from the Sun to Earth and that the speed of light is finite so if the Antares (the spaceship) is closing in on Venus, then the closest it can be to earth is 38 million kilometres, light travels at 300,000 kilometres per second in vacuum, radio waves travel at the speed of light so if I say something into a radio on the Antares it will be two minutes before the signal is received on Earth. In Defying Gravity there is no such problem, one only has to wonder what technology their comm system is based on, because they provide no explanation for it.

Yesterday I got to the episode where the astronauts discover Beta on their ship, and there they are standing in front of this weird thing, looking at it and then one of them says, ‘It’s organic but the materials it’s made up of is unknown to human science’ Now, if something’s made up of materials unknown to human science it simply can’t be organic by definition because organic chemistry studies carbon compounds and carbon is known to our science.

And it goes on like that. I’m not expert on nano-technology, I bet there’s plenty of goofs in that department as well.

There used to be a genre called Science Fiction, the authors of Defying Science seem to have created a new genre; Science Defying Fiction.

Categories: TV shows, Uncategorized