Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Can quantity make up for quality?

There’s an old Bill Hicks joke:

“It’s hard to have a relationship in this business…it’s gonna take a very special woman…or a bunch of average ones.”

I was reminded of this while I was reading through a book on ebook publishing. The book made the claim that even if the market was flooded with free ebooks, excellent ebooks would always sell because quality will always sell. Ten mediocre books do not equal a great book.

Is this true? It seems to make sense. Certainly I would like it to be true. But I also have a nagging sense that when I occasionally do hear about an exceptional product for, say 10 bucks, there’s a little voice that says, “eh, you’ve got plenty to read/listen to/eat etc. that’s free.” It’s not that uncommon, especially when you’re broke, to trade in the proverbial special woman for a bunch of average ones.

Cut and Paste art

Lately I’ve been getting back into drawing comic book style art. (I made my own mini comics as a kid.) It’s a lot of fun and I feel my skill is improving. But as I look at how art is produced in this modern age I find myself struck by a few concerns.

At one point after I started drawing again I looked into whether there was some cheap software that could render backgrounds such as room interiors or a rows of buildings. Such images are largely made up of basic shapes, I theorized, and shapes are basically a series of coordinates which a computer should have no problem rendering. I never really found an affordable program and ultimately decided I should learn to draw such images myself.

Nonetheless, a lot of computer art and animation is produced via that process: an artist defines a shape, often of great complexity, and the computer renders it. If one wants to change the color or texture of the shape, that’s easy enough. This process is far less laborious than the process of drawing or painting the shape.

And there are pluses to this process. It’s allowed for an explosion of 3d art and allowed people with limited conventional artistic skill to produce wonders. But here’s a point that nags at me: I could sit down and draw 10 red boxes. If I’m a decent enough artist, they’ll look pretty similar. But they will have differences. The pen strokes I use on any one box won’t match the strokes on any others. The boxes won’t match perfectly in size, even if I use a ruler. However, I can create 10 identical boxes in Photoshop or some similar program. It’s as easy as copy and paste. The uniqueness of the hand-drawn boxes is lost.

People make similar complaints in the world of music. I can sit down to a mic’d piano and play 10 instances of a C minor chord. None of them will sound exactly like the other because the pressure I use to play the piano keys will vary, the air in the room will settle in different ways causing the sound vibrations to be affected, and a number of other factors. On the other hand, I could sit down and play 10 chords on a midi synthesizer piano and they might end up sounding very similar. The piano sound on a synthesizer is a sample —-essentially a recording of a piano that took place in the past (when whoever was building the library sounds created it) and can’t really change. This is why people complain about the staticity of synthesized sounds. (In fact, sound engineers are making quite a lot of progress in getting variation in sound samples but it’s still not on par with the real thing.)

Having said all that, I’m quite glad sound libraries exist. I’ve recorded fairly complex works using synthesized symphonic instruments that I would never have been able to attempted in the analog (non-digital) days. (Because the world’s symphonies are not clamoring to play my work—the fools!)

But there’s something disturbing about the advent of so much art being exact duplicates of other pieces of art. The ease of use offered by computers is great for the art of neophytes (and in the realm of drawing that is what I consider myself) but it cheapens the work of pros. “Oh, that awesome looking hand you spent 10 hours painting? Look, I can generate something just as cool in 20 seconds on the computer!”

Of course we’ve seen this before. It used to be the only way to get a chair was to have a craftsman make one by hand. Now IKEA pumps them out by the millions. Such is progress. (Note how I spit that last word out.)

The death of the cd?

One thing you notice about the Macbook Pro, like the one I am typing this on, is that there’s no CD player. I’ve found this to be a minor hassle since I have several cd playing devices around. But the removal of the cd player from the PC seems a curious decision on Apple’s part. It struck me, and I’m sure it has many of the conspiracy minded, that Apple may have done this to push their iTunes revenues. Users may find themselves in a situation where they want to play their favorite Tom Waits cds, but lo and behold they have no way to. So they say, “Fuck it, I’ll just buy an mp3 version from iTunes.”

Does this trend point to the death of the cd? It’s interesting to contemplate. I still burn cds of my music to give to people. How will I force them to enjoy my music when that option is gone? People have theorized the idea of “beaming” music to various devices for a while but I don’t see much progress there.

It’s worth noting, the death of the cd has been predicted before and it’s still around. But doubtless someday the silver disk will fall. And what will a world without cds looks like? Will it be a joyous utopia where people pluck music wirelessly out of the air for their enjoyment? Or will it be a savage realm where men are dragged from their houses and sexually violated before their families? I fear the latter…

Caught on tape

Readers may recall my piece on Michelle Shocked a while back. Shocked, at the time, had just been recorded making controversial comments about gays during a performance in San Francisco. The audio of her comments went viral and denunciation was swift. Her career, if not ruined, was certainly wounded. (Resurrection, of course, is not uncommon in the music biz.)

I was reminded of this when the Donald Serling scandal popped up. He too was recorded, though this time while on what he presumed to be a private phone call. His racist comments have now been heard by millions and he lives in infamy.

Slightly related to this: Rapper Jay Z being caught on tape being attacked by his sister in law. Or Mitt Romney’s caught-on-tape comments about the 47 percent.

In all this cases there was not necessarily the assumption of privacy but I don’t think any of the victims thought their words or deeds would be observed by millions.

The L.A. Times has an interesting article on the topic. In closing, the author observes that we can spy on our fellows easily now. And we are facing the death of privacy.

You can be a flaneur now without leaving the house. Without your shoes on! Voyeurism is clickable. Our curiosity and digital technology have come together to produce a beast.

The beast is nimble, able to leap duplex walls or suspend itself, like the hero of an action movie, above the heads of famous people in elevators.

The beast is everywhere. The invasion of privacy has been democratized. Governments do it. Google and Facebook do it. V. Stiviano and hotel security cameras do it.

For most of us average joes, the threat of being constantly on tape doesn’t matter all that much. If someone recorded Wil Forbis making racist statements, I doubt they’d be able to find a media outlet to air the tape. But I think we may be entering an era where something we say—at a party for example—is recorded without our knowledge and then shared with our boss, our significant other, or posted to our facebook page for all our friends to hear. Basically the Serling situation on a smaller scale. And at that point we have to ask ourselves whether everything we say in confidence is sterile enough to avoid the judgment of our peers.

In my case, the answer is absolutely a big, fat, fucking no.

The death of individuality

I’m working on my next article for acid logic and it’s essentially a list of modern day fears that I think could be exploited by horror movies creators. One fear is fairly esoteric: a fear of the loss of identity brought about by the hyper-connectedness of the age. In essence, we are so hooked in to each other that when a subject comes up we immediately know what everyone else thinks about it and tailor our opinions and ideas to match the group we want to associate with. (Political tribes are an obvious example of these groups.)

The fear is not so much about this process but the crisis of self it could bring about. If you wake up one day and find that your opinions totally match some subset of the masses, would you start to wonder whether you really exist on a meaningful level? Would you conceive of yourself as merely a vessel for popular opinion?

Robo-sales

It seems like all I ever do around here is comment on the increased use of robots and A.I. software in the workforce. (But I sure look good doing it!) I’ll try and keep it in check. Nonetheless, this little tidbit caught my eye. It’s from an article in the April 3, 2014 New York Times Book Review called “The Programmed Prospect Before Us.”

Recently, Michael Scherer, a Time magazine bureau chief, received a call from a young lady, Samatha West, asking him if he wanted a deal on health insurance. After she responded to a number of his queries in what sounded like a prerecorded fashion, he asked her point blank whether she was a robot, to which he got the reply, “I am human.” When he repeated the question, the connection was cut off. Samantha West turned out to be a system of recorded messages that were part of a computer program created by the brokers of health insurance.

If this is true, this is such a clumsy application of computer intelligence that it makes me think we have nothing to worry about. Nobody likes talking to robo-software, much less robo-software that claims to be human. It seems these sorts of efforts are designed simply to annoy people. (Note: Read update below for more details on Samantha West.)

Of course, maybe there a kind of spam-mindset going on. “We annoy 100,000 people with bullshit robo-calls but 10 of them actually buy the insurance and we clear our margins.”

The article continues.

The point is not that humans were not involved, but that experts had worked out that far fewer of them needed to be involved to sell a given quantity of health insurance. Orthodox economics tells us that automating such transactions, by lowering the cost of health insurance, will enable many more policies to be sold, or release money for other kinds of spending, thus replacing the jobs lost. But orthodox economics never had to deal with competition between humans and machines.

I’m not sure that final sentence is exactly correct, as a rumination on the tale of John Henry should illustrate, but I get the gist and it’s thought provoking.

Update!
I was intrigued by Samatha West to look up details. It turns out they are a little cloudier than stated above though the concerns raised are legitimate.

Robot-denying telemarketing robot may not actually be a robot.

As Time is now reporting, the telemarketing robot is actually a computer program used by telemarketers outside the United States. According to John Rasman of U.S.-based Premier Health, the system allows English speaking telemarketers with thick non-American accents to sort through leads to find real prospective buyers before passing them off to agents back in the United States. “We’re just contacting people in a way they’re not familiar with,” said Rasman. The human agents who trigger Samantha West’s responses act as brokers for health insurance companies inside the U.S.

So it’s not robots stealing our jobs, it’s those damn foreigners!

Robo-milking

I frequently talk about the robotization of the workforce. Today’s NY Times has an article that caught my eye. “With Farm Robotics, the Cows Decide When It’s Milking Time.

In essence, robotic devices are now available to milk cows. It frees humans from a disagreeable task and…

The cows seem to like it, too.

Robots allow the cows to set their own hours, lining up for automated milking five or six times a day — turning the predawn and late-afternoon sessions around which dairy farmers long built their lives into a thing of the past.

With transponders around their necks, the cows get individualized service. Lasers scan and map their underbellies, and a computer charts each animal’s “milking speed,” a critical factor in a 24-hour-a-day operation.

For some reason I’m reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon my dad often recollects. A farmer is milking a cow and the cow looks back at him and says, “Gently, please. It’s Mother’s Day.”

The rise of goop

An interesting idea dawned on me recently. Many people have commented that the advent of 3D printing means that it is really the design of objects, rather than the objects themselves, that has value. The day may arrive when if you need a new thing—say, a coffee cup—you just use the design to print one off.

Of course, it’s not merely the design of the object that has value there; the raw materials used to make the thing—likely plastics and metals—have value. Maybe we’ll all have a pile of goop that we use to make new things. And if we run out of goop we’ll simply melt down some existing objects back to their goop form. “We’re out of scissors? Melt down the old television and use that!”

The movie industry bloodbath has begun

I’m often rather loudly complaining around here about the devaluation of entertainment products brought about by the internet. This is partly because the internet engenders piracy, but also because piracy itself engenders creators to offer their work for free (because it’s probably going to end up available for free anyway.) The result is the destructions of big chunks of the entertainment industry.

We’ve primarily seen this in the music business. But it stands to reason that as movies become more downloadable, the same thing could happen there. According to this excerpt from a book by screenwriter Lynda Obst, it is.

I leaned back a little on Peter’s comfortable couch, and he sat forward to say, “People will look back and say that probably, from a financial point of view, 1995 through 2005 was the golden age of this generation of the movie business. You had big growth internationally, and you had big growth with DVDs.” He paused to allow a gallows laugh. “That golden age appears to be over.”

“The DVD business represented fifty percent of their profits,” he went on. “Fifty percent. The decline of that business means their entire profit could come down between forty and fifty percent for new movies.”

For those of you like me who are not good at math, let me make Peter’s statement even simpler. If a studio’s margin of profit was only 10 percent in the Old Abnormal, now with the collapsing DVD market that profit margin was hovering around 6 percent. The loss of profit on those little silver discs had nearly halved our profit margin.

This was, literally, a Great Contraction. Something drastic had happened to our industry, and this was it. Surely there were other factors: Young males were disappearing into video games; there were hundreds of home entertainment choices available for nesting families; the Net. But slicing a huge chunk of reliable profits right out of the bottom line forever?

There it was. Technology had destroyed the DVD. When Peter referred to the “transition of the DVD market,” and technology destroying the DVD, he was talking about the implications of the fact that our movies were now proliferating for free—not just on the streets of Beijing and Hong Kong and Rio. And even legitimate users, as Peter pointed out, who would never pirate, were going for $3 or $4 video-on-demand (VOD) rentals instead of $15 DVD purchases.

Frankly, I never understood why people paid 15 bucks to own a DVD movie but I guess they’ve come to their senses on that one. Netflix is probably a big reason for that as you can essentially buy a huge streaming dvd collection for 7 bucks a month.

So what does this collapse mean in terms of movie quality? I think Obst’s article ties into an article I wrote a while back about the noticeable decline in the quality of current film’s stories. I used the blockbuster “WWZ” as an example.

On top of that, “World War Z” was just poorly written. There’s was no sense of ratcheting tension, no sense of real danger. The hallmark of the great horror films is that some of the characters—sometimes characters you really love—get killed. (Even “Shaun of the Dead,” which was something of a horror satire, got this.) Nobody you like in “WWZ” dies. (This is partly because you don’t like any of the characters but that’s another complaint.) And unlike the book, the movie “WWZ” is devoid of clever plot twists. The main conceit of the film—the means by which Pitt formulates a way of stopping the zombies—barely generates a “meh.”

“World War Z” had the sense of being written by committee. When a story is written this way, any interesting proposed plot twist (say, killing a key character, or having a likeable character betray the group) is bound to upset someone in the room. If everyone working on the story is granted veto power, all life gets sucked of a tale.

To quote Obst:

[The studios are] frozen, so the gut is frozen, the heart is frozen, and even the bottom-line spreadsheet is frozen. It was like a cold shower in hard numbers. There was none of the extra cash that fueled competitive commerce, gut calls, or real movies, the extra spec script purchase, the pitch culture, the grease that fueled the Old Abnormal: the way things had always been done. We were running on empty, searching for sources of new revenue. The only reliable entry on the P&L was international. That’s where the moolah was coming from, so that’s what decisions would be based on.

Gut calls are part of what lead to interesting, innovative movies. And deference to the international market means you have to dumb content down for non-English speakers and those who may not get the nuances of certain kinds of storytelling.

As I mention in my article, I think cheap horror flicks are still willing to take risks, as they always have. But I’m curious as to whether they are making any money.

Sharing stuff

Author Jeremy Rifkin has an interesting op-ed in the LA Times titled “The Sharing Economy.” It discusses the rise of companies like AirBnB (the online service that allows people to rent bedrooms in other’s houses, bypassing hotels.)

Nestled in the article is this point:

Hundreds of millions of people are already transferring parts of their economic lives to this new business model. They are making and sharing their own information, entertainment, green energy and 3D-printed products at near zero marginal cost.

This is a point I made not long ago. If we can share 3d printer schematics then we can share a lot physical objects. And this seriously affects the marketplace for stuff leading to a loss of jobs related to making a transporting stuff. To quote myself:

And what about piracy? When we are printing objects, it’s no longer the objects themselves that have value, it’s the designs of the objects. With 3D printers, the design is held in a downloadable computer file. If mp3s and digital movies can be pirated, there’s little reason to think schematic files will not. I suspect that when it becomes easy and free to download and print stuff, we can expect profound ramifications for the economy. (Ignoring the issue of piracy, it also seems likely that schematics for many useful and entertaining objects will simply be offered for free by charitable or anarchistic designers.)