MAY 2007 IN

10 Updates

Updates on 10 previous essays.

October 2006: Uses for a Faster Computer

I wrote that there were still reasons for a computer user to get the fastest computer available, though they wouldn’t apply to most computer users.

A few weeks I got the fastest desktop computer I could get at the time (there are faster systems available now). It was not terribly expensive — an extra $2,000 compared to a base model that’s about half as fast. In financial terms, that is easily worth it if the extra speed makes my work go 2 percent faster, and it appears that it will.

I plan to scan most of my paper files — they should all fit on one DVD — and convert my remaining LP collection (about 300) to digital. Before the year is over, I am sure I will be editing some more video, and all of these things should go at least 5 times as fast as they would on my old circa 2002 computer. That could save me over 2,000 hours (a full year’s worth of work) this year alone.

Eliminating LPs and paper files will save me a small amount of space theoretically worth about $300 in real estate terms. It will also save me a bit of trouble the next time I move. These savings cover a significant part of the cost of the faster computer.

September 2003: Wanted: Music Videos That Don’t Look Like Commercials; and June 2005: A Future for Broadcasting?

I predicted that the growing tendency for music videos to look just like commercials would drive viewers away from music video programming on television. The reason, I said, was that the flood of advertising of all forms, but especially in e-mail, was creating in consumers a reflex to turn off or delete anything that looks like another advertisement. I saw little hope for resolving this because music videos were, for the most part, made by directors who were less interested in the money they would make on the music video than in using the video to showcase their commercial-making skills so they could make some real money making television commercials. Two years later, I speculated about the possible disappearance of broadcast television and most radio stations.

At the time, music video was a vital part of cable television. MTV2 was still promoted as “24 more hours of music TV.” But that was before MTV shot itself in the foot with a series of ill-conceived experiments and lost half its viewers, before losing still more to web sites such as MySpace and YouTube. Music videos have improved a bit — perhaps just because cameras now cost less — but it hasn’t helped. Music video has become little more than a curiosity on the cable dial, MTV2 now runs little more than MTV reruns, and MTV is at risk of turning into Nickelodeon’s boring older brother.

VH1 and Country Music Television are holding their own, though, and the one bright spot for music on television is VH1 Classic. I don’t remember what this channel was before, but strangely enough, it has become the go-to place for music on television.

VH1 Classic has done this by copying the strategy of MTV’s first two years: playing a wide variety of music videos without regard for chronology, and playing them from beginning to end. To see this is an eye-opener. VH1 Classic does not look like a string of commercials.

Just playing a video from beginning to end, the way the director put it together, makes a big difference. The 2- and 4-minute edits of videos that turn up on other channels don’t always make much sense, and that’s part of the reason you might mistake them for commercials. The same videos make perfect sense when you see the whole thing. Of course, it takes some patience to sit through the set-up scenes that directors put at the beginning of some videos, but the result is a more meaningful, entertaining viewing experience.

What is more, when you see the videos that are on VH1 Classic, you realize that MTV is largely responsible for the poor quality of the videos they select to play. When you see the videos that did not see the light of day on MTV — many for songs that were just as popular as the ones MTV was playing — you can only conclude that, for at least 10 years, MTV was intentionally choosing commercial-style videos over videos that emphasized music, meaning, and entertainment value.

Perhaps MTV was doing the same thing music radio stations have done, offering content as irritating as they could get away with in the hope that viewers would sit through the increasingly lengthy commercial interruptions. If so, it did not work any better for MTV than it did for commercial music radio.

To their credit, commercial music radio has taken drastic steps to win back their audience. Some channels have reduced commercial time from 18 minutes an hour to just 4 minutes in most hours. But it is not helping. The lost listeners have moved on. They are not interested in what is happening with their favorite radio stations of three years ago. One friend whose car radio broke did not even bother to replace it. People do not like the idea of radio very much anymore, and it hard to imagine what radio can do to get their attention, which would be the first step toward bringing them back. It does not help that many of the top radio personalities have quit or been fired in the past few years as radio networks and stations cut their budgets.

A recent buyout saved the largest broadcaster, Clear Channel, from certain bankruptcy, but it had to sell off half its radio stations to make it happen, and the reprieve could be only temporary. The stations are still losing money, and the financial picture is getting worse. Energy prices are driving costs up while the Internet continues to take advertising revenue and listeners away.

2004: The Commercial-Free Mind

In a 12-part series, I explored the long reach of the advertising message and the lengths a person would have to go to to avoid the influence of advertising.

The series included the most popular essay in the history of Rick Aster’s World, which looks at fast-food french fries and the advertising messages that persuaded the public that these synthetic grease sticks were a vegetable. Things have improved slightly in recent months, as several restaurant chains have introduced plans to eliminate trans fats, which means eliminating the synthetic grease that was the primary component of fast-food french fries. The recipe is not changing, however, and although some of the health risks are reduced, the nutritional value of the new natural grease sticks is not dramatically better than that of synthetic grease sticks. And the “trans fat free” fast-food french fries still contain trans fats that are created by the way the restaurants fry them (deep fat frying in oil that is not completely fresh will always create trans fats, no matter what ingredients you select).

I turned off my cable for one month to see how it would go. I have since turned it off permanently. Cable television is more expensive now than it was then, and I decided it costs too much for what it has to offer. I still watch shows on cable, but at other people’s houses, and rarely for more than half an hour in a day. I download snippets of shows from web sites, especially the Comedy Central web site. But I do not watch anything close to the 10 hours a week of television that I once watched, and it is hard to imagine how I ever had so much time for it.

August 2003: Lease Expiration

The auto-leasing fad of the 1990s came to a stop when the leases expired around 2003. People had learned how much of a hassle leases were, and in most cases, they bought new cars when the leases ran out.

We can see now that this trend has helped to keep U.S. automakers alive. The lease expiration bump is running out now, though, just as U.S. gasoline prices are edging up above $3 a gallon, high enough to irritate consumers and make them feel uncertain about buying another car. Consumers are also driving less, which means their current cars will last longer before they look for a replacement. Demand for cars in the United States is likely to fall dramatically from current levels. Cost-cutting, however, may yet save the big U.S. auto makers, although it may not keep General Motors out of bankruptcy.

October 2002: Light Gets Lighter

I wrote about the trend toward LED lighting. As LEDs become more efficient, they are starting to replace other forms of lighting.

LEDs have become the standard in traffic lights and automobile brake lights and turn signals. Where I live, the town of Downingtown is halfway through replacing all its traffic lights with LEDs. The switch may pay for itself in reduced electric costs in about six years, or faster if electric rates go up. The trend toward LED lights in automobiles will accelerate as auto makers look for every way to extend battery life in the electric cars that begin shipping in volume later this year. Some experts believe we will start to see LED headlights on automobiles in large numbers this year.

Colored LED accent lights are readily available at Ikea now. These use only 2–4 watts of power and aren’t very bright, but they provide light of unusual clarity that lets you see more than you would expect for the brightness. The blue LEDs would be bright enough to provide atmospheric stage light for the moody songs in a rock show, if they were reconfigured for that application. LEDs have largely taken over the flashlight market because of the better battery life they provide. We are still waiting for cost-effective white LED desk lamps and room lighting.

The transition to LED may be hastened by legislative initiatives in Australia, California, Canada, and elsewhere to mandate high-efficiency room lighting. Legislators are trying to force people to switch to fluorescent lighting, but consumers concerned about the health effects of fluorescent lights may switch directly to LED lighting.

June 2002: New Optical Disk Formats

Manufacturers and experts said that new optical disk formats, including a mini-CD and a high-definition DVD, were on the way. Five years have gone by and it seems the world has forgotten.

There has been much hype in the press about two competing super-DVD disk formats, but very little interest from the public, even as the new disks and players begin to ship. The situation is similar to the original introduction of DVD-Video. Players cost around $1,000, movies cost extra in the new format, and most viewers cannot see an advantage in the new theoretically higher resolution. Perhaps the prices will fall and then consumers will start to take notice.

Part of what is happening is that the effective resolution of DVD releases has increased. This has happened in two ways. The compression algorithms that create the video pictures for on DVD-Video have improved, so that fast-moving pictures no longer look blocky. They are actually using the nominal resolution of the DVD format now. At the same time, the world has backed away from the original 3 1/2 hour idea of a DVD. Most DVD-Video releases now have under 2 hours on them, or under 4 hours on 2 disks, and this allows a significantly sharper picture.

There is no sign of a new smaller CD format. And with record stores rapidly shutting down as music sales move to the network, perhaps there is no longer much need for it.

August 2000: The Decline of Content

Newspapers and the major record labels seemed to be falling apart because of their failure to recruit and pay the talent who would create the content they sell, while the momentum of the web was stalling for similar reasons.

Six years of high unemployment and stagnant wages have allowed the newspapers to continue to employ writers at starvation wages, but the number of full-time staff writers working for newspapers has fallen by almost half during that period. The large newspaper companies may reprint the same local news stories in a dozen newspapers. Naturally, newspaper circulation has continued to fall, and now there are rumblings about possible bankruptcies within the year for some of the largest U.S. newspapers, including the New York Times. These rumors are surely exaggerated, but newspaper readers clearly are not happy with newspapers’ increased focus on advertising at the expense of news, and a shakeout in the newspaper business has to come sooner or later, and it may come as soon as the economy improves and newspaper staffers depart for jobs that pay a living wage.

One measure of how much newspaper circulation has fallen is the dramatic shift of newspapers to the conservative end of the political spectrum. Newspapers are following their readership as they make this shift. There are no longer a great number of regular newspaper readers younger than 55.

The decline in content coming from the major record labels hit Nashville the hardest, as fans tired of hearing the same old thing. All in all, the sales of the major record labels has fallen every year since 2000, while other record sales have held steady. The majors now account for less than half of U.S. record sales, down from a claimed 90 percent at their peak.

Content is king on the web now, as people flock to content-based sites such as YouTube and CNet and largely ignore design-oriented sites such as Coca-Cola and WebMD. On today’s web, if you don’t have something to say, don’t bother posting your page.

December 2005: The Copy-Protected Robot

I wrote a parable about the limitations of copy protection. In the story, a robot named Nosy was too zealous in his efforts to keep people around him from copying him, and he was eventually recalled.

Shortly after I wrote the story, Sony was forced to recall millions of music CDs on which it had illegally placed spyware. The spyware apparently damaged millions of computers, and in a settlement, Sony agreed to pay a token compensation to those whose computers were damaged by its music CDs. Over the following year, music CD sales fell dramatically and several large record store chains closed, a trend that seems to be continuing.

Record companies claim to be pursuing new strategies for copy-protecting music CDs, but it appears they have all but given up on the idea.

Record companies have also made various experiments in unprotected music downloads. Three months ago, Apple CEO Steve Jobs released a letter calling for the elimination of copy protection on songs sold through Apple’s online store. Many thought he was kidding, but the first unprotected content is set to be sold on the iTunes store starting this month.

July 2005: Propping Up Software Prices

Software companies had decided to throw in lots of extras, unrelated applications offered as freebies, to try to justify their inflated prices for top software products.

This trend may have reached its limit. Computer system managers have coined the term “crapware” for this unwanted software, and many companies have gone to considerable trouble to erase all of it from all new computers they purchase. Apple last month started to advertise that its computers don’t come loaded with unwanted software, and other computer makers are experimenting with options that let customers get computers without all the crap.

Meanwhile, adding as many features as possible may no longer be a way for commercial software companies to compete with open-source software, at least in some categories. With its new release last month, easily surpassed Microsoft Office in the number of useful features it can claim — and that was a minor release of competing with a major new release of Microsoft Office that came out a little earlier.

Software makers are still reluctant to cut prices. Instead, there are more package deals, special discounts, and upgrade paths than ever. Eventually, though, I believe the regular retail prices will have to fall.

May 2005: Sailing to the North Pole

I wrote that the Arctic ice cap was effectively gone already and predicted that it will eventually be possible to go to the North Pole in a sailing ship.

Since I wrote this, the idea of sailing to the North Pole has turned up in the headlines in major newspapers and in the conversation of climate scientists.

Scientists are still reluctant to admit or recognize the changes that are taking place. The term “ice cap” has been redefined to mean sea ice so that they can claim that there is still an Arctic ice cap. That, of course, is not what “ice cap” meant when I was a boy. Greenland in summer has a river the size of the Amazon, yet there are still scientists who say it could take over 1,000 years for the Greenland ice sheet to completely melt.

Al Gore had a spectacularly successful movie on climate change, yet An Inconvenient Truth found the Arctic ice cap a little too inconvenient to cover. It is too late to save the snows of Kilimanjaro or the glaciers of Glacier National Park, but Gore seems to imply that we can save the Arctic ice cap if we act now. Obviously, this is not going to happen. I think Gore is minimizing the situation so people will feel more hopeful. Climate change has progressed a little farther than Gore wants to tell us.

Climate scientists have outlined a scenario of extreme climate change: The increasing acidity of the oceans kill off all the fish and most marine life. The rain turns acid. Cloud cover increases. Temperatures increase as less heat radiates into space at night. Rainfall stops reaching the ground, and the whole planet turns into a desert. The forests burn up. The oceans evaporate, and Earth turns into a slightly cooler version of Venus.

In 2006 the oceans turned acid enough to kill off half the coral reefs. How close are we to a tipping point where the acid-climate trend becomes unstoppable? It would seem that that point would be over 200 years away, based on current trends, but no one is sure.

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