November 16, 2006

“What Is Reality?” [7:09 pm]

And does it matter anymore? Dell to Sell PCs on Second Life

Dell held a press conference in the virtual world Second Life on Tuesday, announcing that the company has opened an in-world island with a retail store where customers can actually order PCs to be delivered to their home.

“Second Life allows us to connect with customers in a rich and robust way,” said Ro Parra, senior vice president and general manager for Dell’s Home and Small Business Group. “It will tell us what we’re doing right and will tell us what we’re going to improve. So we asked ourselves how to extend this relationship with the customer to create a different experience. We want to be where people are gathered and they’re gathering on the Web in growing numbers.”

Visitors to the Dell Island will be able to examine Dell products in an interactive, 3D way. They can rotate, change colors, and look at the inner components of a Dell PC. The Second Life stores are also linked in real-time to the Dell.com e-commerce system.

[...] Dell is not the first one to sell computer products in Second Life but it is certainly the first major manufacturer to have such a large commercial presence there. The island will be fully staffed with people in red jackets who visitors can ask questions to and have conversations with. Dell also plans to use their in-world conference rooms for retail focus groups.

Given the unobtrusive yet wholly immersive nature of the retail/marketing/market research experience, I can well imagine what Dell means when they speak of connecting in “a rich and robust way.” Talk about a controlled environment for marketing experimentation!

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Playing Games [6:44 pm]

An interesting bit of fallout to the US foolishness around trying to “sort of” ban Internet gambling: Rolling the dice

In the wee hours of an early Saturday morning several weeks ago, about half an hour before Congress left for its pre-election recess, it passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. The act tries to bar credit-card payments to Internet gambling sites, and there has been much speculation about its wisdom and likely efficacy. What has been less noted, though, is that through this bill and a handful of similar missteps, the government has put itself in a position to be taught a sharp lesson about the nature of power in a globalized marketplace. Unless Congress and the Bush administration begin to pay a little more attention to how they handle Internet gambling, they could well end up creating an entirely avoidable headache for some very powerful constituents—holders of U.S. copyrights and patents—by punching a hole in the international web of agreements that protects them. Taken as a whole, these efforts offer a veritable master class in how not to regulate a 21st-century economy.

[...] Antigua’s basic theory in its WTO complaint was simply that, if the United States allows any Internet gambling at all, it couldn’t, in light of its WTO obligations, impose barriers to foreign companies seeking access to its market. It was a pretty straightforward free-trade argument. In response, the United States tried to take advantage of a “morals” defense in WTO proceedings that says, reasonably enough, that if you don’t make a product in your country due to moral objections, you needn’t open your market to foreign providers of that product.

[...] The WTO gave the United States a year to comply with its ruling by either changing its laws to fully ban online gambling or by allowing foreign access to the online-gambling market. That year ended last April, but rather than do anything to comply, the United States simply issued a statement to the effect that it had spent the year reviewing the matter and decided that it has been in compliance all along. Antigua is, unsurprisingly, challenging this response. A final decision from the WTO is expected early next year.

It was in this context—a context to which Congress seems to have been largely oblivious—that Congress enacted its recent legislation. The legislation causes new problems, because it seems to clarify beyond any doubt that the United States does not, in fact, prohibit all forms of Internet gambling. [...]

[...] The obvious question is what Antigua can do with a victory at the WTO. Retaliatory tariffs plainly aren’t particularly appealing for small country like Antigua, because they would certainly hurt more than they would help. But the plucky little island paradise does have some creative options at its disposal. If the United States remains recalcitrant, under the WTO rules, Antigua would potentially have the right to suspend its own compliance with the treaty that obligates it to respect the United States’ intellectual-property laws. That, one can well imagine, might get Washington’s attention.

Want a cheap copy of Microsoft’s latest software or a nice medical device that, annoyingly, is protected by a U.S. patent? Come to Antigua. In such a scenario, Antigua couldn’t simply be ostracized as a rogue state. It would have every right under WTO rules to pursue such a course. [...]

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You Knew That Strict Construction In © Would Lead To This [4:51 pm]

Why folks have been getting so worked up about runaway copyright application and enforcement in the digital realm — looking at the Bridgeport case, showing where it takes us: The shady one-man corporation thats destroying hip-hop

Last week, a mysterious company, Bridgeport Music Inc., sued hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, accusing him of breaking the law when he recorded his 2003 single “Justify My Thug.” The song is an obvious nod to Madonna’s “Justify My Love,” but she is not the plaintiff. Instead, Bridgeport is suing because Jay-Z did something that is normal in hip-hop: sampling. He took a few notes, looped them in the background, and produced the tune. Bridgeport claims to own those notes, and is demanding a fortune in damages and a permanent ban on the distribution of the song.

Bridgeport is an unwelcome addition to the music world: the “sample troll.” Similar to its cousins the patent trolls, Bridgeport and companies like it hold portfolios of old rights (sometimes accumulated in dubious fashion) and use lawsuits to extort money from successful music artists for routine sampling, no matter how minimal or unnoticeable.

[...] In the end, it’s probably wrong to suggest the sample trolls are evil or hate rap music. The trolls simply look for profit, like any business, and are rational and predictable, like the mold that grows on rotten meat. None of these problems would be quite so severe if artists actually controlled their own copyrights. George Clinton’s copyrights end up blocking sampling, when he himself favors sampling. “When hip-hop came out,” said Clinton in this interview with Rick Karr, “I was glad to hear it, especially when it was our songs—it was a way to get back on the radio.”

Copyright is supposed to be the servant of artists, but today that is all too often just a pretense. The vast majority of the nation’s valuable copyrights are owned not by creators, but by stockpilers of one kind or another, and Bridgeport is just a particularly pernicious example. We need better devices to keep the control of the most valuable of artist’s rights with artists. For, to paraphrase Judge Learned Hand, copyright was born to protect and liberate musicians, but it all too often ends up enslaving them.

Earlier Furdlog postings on Bridgeport

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David Berlind Looks At The Amazon Server Services Business [2:01 pm]

» Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: Honey, I just shrunk the server hosting business

For 10 cents per hour that you’d be running an “EC2-based server,” Amazon offers the equivalent of a 1.7Ghz x86 processor-based system, 1.75GB of RAM, 160GB of local disk, and 250Mb/s of network bandwidth. Word has it that Amazon is using Xen under the hood to offer these virtual servers to EC2 customers. But more importantly, the 10 cents per hour thing is worth plugging into a spreadsheet for just about any business — Mass Events Labs included — that thinks it already has a pretty decent hosting arrangement. So, let’s do a little math.

There are 365 days in the year and 24 hours per day which means that there’s a total of 8760 hours per year. Assuming that your server has to run all 8760 hours per year, the total cost per EC2 server per year is $876. A real analysis of EC2 versus other hosting options isn’t quite that simple. If you read Amazon’s fine print, you’ll may end up incurring some storage and bandwidth charges as well (the fees are similarly nominal) and you may have to spend time with someone from Amazon to understand the extent to which EC2 server instances, once the program is out of beta, will be fault tolerant.

EC2 leverages the same infrastructure that Amazon.com has built for itself. It involves multiple datacenters, network and power redundancy — all the stuff you’d expect from a commercial grade hosting outfit. Depending on my comfort level with EC2’s reliability (I haven’t even figured that out yet), we may not even need a failover server as we have now (or, in EC2’s case, that would be a failover “x86 instance”). But just assuming we were comparing apples to apples (as best we can) and we assumed that Mass Events Labs (or your business) needs two servers, the total annual cost is $1752. Today, our annual cost for two servers is $8400.

And Mass Events Labs is a small business. What about you bigger ones out there? [...]

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A Day For Calling It Like It Is [1:50 pm]

I know *I* have no immediate intention of getting into another standards battle — this article suggests a distribution-based argument: Why HD-DVD and Blu-ray are dead on arrival. - By Sean Cooper

The movie studios and electronics manufacturers think—wrongly—these new high-def formats will extend the market for home-entertainment media indefinitely. Both formats will fail, not because consumers are wary of a format war in which they could back the losing team, a la Betamax. Universal players that support both flavors of HD should appear early next year. No, the new formats are doomed because shiny little discs will soon be history. Here are four reasons why.

[...] Make no mistake: Buying movies online isn’t there yet. Titles in standard-def are few, in hi-def fewer still. With five times the visual information of a standard-def flick, an HD download of The Matrix, were it even available, could take all day over the average broadband connection. And a simple, consumer-friendly system for storing, backing up, and accessing a large movie library is probably a year or more off. As for cable on-demand services, they are clumsy to use, lack a deep back catalog, and lag behind DVD release schedules. (Meanwhile, DVDs fit nicely on a shelf, rarely fail, and don’t require annoying download periods or sophisticated gear to get them to play on your TV.)

All of that will change—and fast. It will change because consumers want it to change. Music buyers used their modems to force the major labels into the fear zone and Tower Records into bankruptcy. The same will happen to the movie studios and DVD retailers unless they curb their disc addiction.

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OT: The Sophistries of Villians [11:37 am]

I’m sorry, but to see this information the week before Thanksgiving is yet another terribly disheartening insight into the state of our government’s ability and willingness to deal with the very problems that we pay them for. This kind of language-smithing under the guide of “science” is even more unspeakable: Some Americans Lack Food, but USDA Wont Call Them Hungry - washingtonpost.com

Every year, the Agriculture Department issues a report that measures Americans’ access to food, and it has consistently used the word “hunger” to describe those who can least afford to put food on the table. But not this year.

Mark Nord, the lead author of the report, said “hungry” is “not a scientifically accurate term for the specific phenomenon being measured in the food security survey.” Nord, a USDA sociologist, said, “We don’t have a measure of that condition.”

The USDA said that 12 percent of Americans — 35 million people — could not put food on the table at least part of last year. Eleven million of them reported going hungry at times. Beginning this year, the USDA has determined “very low food security” to be a more scientifically palatable description for that group.

[...] In assembling its report, the USDA divides Americans into groups with “food security” and those with “food insecurity,” who cannot always afford to keep food on the table. Under the old lexicon, that group — 11 percent of American households last year — was categorized into “food insecurity without hunger,” meaning people who ate, though sometimes not well, and “food insecurity with hunger,” for those who sometimes had no food.

That last group now forms the category “very low food security,” described as experiencing “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.” Slightly better-off people who aren’t always sure where their next meal is coming from are labeled “low food security.”

That 35 million people in this wealthy nation feel insecure about their next meal can be hard to believe, even in the highest circles. In 1999, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, then running for president, said he thought the annual USDA report — which consistently finds his home state one of the hungriest in the nation — was fabricated.

“Scientifically palatable” — the Post reporter is really sticking it to the USDA here.

Later, the NYTimes has an editorial: Brother, Can You Spare a Word?

The government insists that no Orwellian plot is in the works to mask a national blight. The goal has been to cut what we’ll call the hungry households to no more than 6 percent of the population. But hungry people persist at nearly twice that rate, despite the slight drop last year. To the extent that more public empathy is needed to prod a stronger attack on low food security, we opt for “hunger” as a most stirring word.

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OT: An Excellent OpEd In Today’s Times [10:09 am]

Putting Faith Before Politics — the closing line says it all:

C. S. Lewis once warned that any Christian who uses his faith as a means to a political end would corrupt both his faith and the faith writ large. A lot of Christians are reading C. S. Lewis these days.

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OT: Gratuitous Lawsuits In Entertainment [10:00 am]

Is it really possible that, in the era of “reality TV” and other institutionalized (and distressingly popular) forms of degradation-as-entertainment (what I would refer to as “pornography”), these kids think they have a prayer? Humiliated frat boys sue ‘Borat’ - pdf

I mean, seriously. Whatever you may think of Borat, it at least has an arguably redeeming message, as opposed to, say, offering people the mere chance that they might get paid in exchange for eating worms on camera in “Fear Factor.”

See also Suing Borat.

Later — maybe not so off-topic: the Smoking Gun points out that at least one plaintiff has done plenty to undermine his own case with his MySpace page - Bamboozled By Borat?

Even later —- more of the same, although told in a more heart-rending fashion: Villages to sue ‘Borat’ - pdf

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Emergent Applications of Democratizing Technologies [9:45 am]

Or, increasing access through low cost distribution channels, particularly when the dominant cost otherwise *is* distribution: YouTube’s Greatest Hits

Until recently I had assumed that the “you” in YouTube referred to anybody but me, maybe everybody but me. Like who? College kids with a compulsive need to procrastinate. Media-obsessives anxious to keep track of the hot new joke or political gaffe. Exhibitionists and their friends. Lovers of humiliation comedy. People with an excessive fondness for the cute antics of their pets.

Certainly, this freakish and freakishly large video archive offers plenty of material to sate the appetites of those constituencies. But it also offers a dizzying array of material for addicts of what, for lack of more egalitarian term, I’ll call high culture. Or high-ish culture: I’m talking not just about opera and dance, but also that often derided but enduring enterprise called the Broadway musical.

Thanks to its ease of operation, YouTube allows pretty much anyone with a mild curiosity about opera or musical theater to expand his frame of reference without spending a dime, thanks to the compulsive generosity of members with a desire to exhibit their curatorial prowess. It also offers the rabidly enthusiastic a chance to display the colorful plumage of their passions. Spend an hour or two trolling through YouTube looking for high art, following a path forged with the help of the Web site’s own built-in (and eccentric) electronic trailblazer, and you come away amazed at the volume (and sometimes the quality) of material available for instant viewing.

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Stating the Obvious [9:41 am]

Marking the release of Zune with a discussion of the gorilla in the room, although only indirectly and only, of all things, in a section heading: So Much Music, So Few Choices

The many conflicting approaches to rights management can also limit choices. Apple, for instance, does not license its rights-management technology, FairPlay, to other companies. So customers with songs from the iTunes store have to stick with the iPod. The same applies to the Zune player and Zune Marketplace.

[...] In comparison to the tight copy controls on many downloads, the most common source of music, the CD, has no restrictions. And music-management programs like iTunes can create MP3 files from a CD in a process called ripping — thereby turning any recorded music into a format that plays on any digital device.

[...] Is Music Forever?

[...] If a subscription service goes out of business, customers haven’t lost much because they never owned the music in the first place. And perhaps most music — whether rented or purchased — does not have to last forever. As Ross Rubin, an analyst with the NPD Group, said, “Do you really care about having access to the latest Britney Spears track 40 years from now?”

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