22 07 2008

I decided to apply to become a “game master” for Superstruct, a multiplayer game designed to create forecasts – in other words, to predict the future.   I had a good time answering their essay question about the year 2019.  I found myself posing scenarios about the economic exploitation of the Gulf Coast as a local ‘Third World’ employment market, and about the implications of a new technological leap that should be possible but I don’t think anyone has contemplated:  What if people connect themselves to one another with bioenhancements -and then apply for recognition as new kind of entity?

Either might make the foundation for a decent short story.


Who Fights for the Music? Who Speaks for the Songs?

19 06 2008


At an insurance conference last week, I saw a 10-foot video screen in one of the exhibitors’ booths. It showed one of those video games where you can pretend to be a musician even if you can’t play.

A famous legal brief in the 1970s called “Should Trees Have Standing?” argued that living things should have legal representation. It pointed out that other nonhuman entities, especially corporations, already had that right, and suggested it be extended to the voiceless creations of the environment.

Why shouldn’t songs have “standing,” too?  Why shouldn’t we be able to fight for great records – especially the records of the future – because they have a right to exist? There are groups to represent record companies, artists, and composers – but who speaks for the music?

We need to rebuild a conducive environment for creating great pop music, if we can. That means doing all sorts of things: Lobbying, researching, promoting, dreaming, envisioning, wishing, hoping, praying … Great records don’t necessarily have the same needs as record companies or even recording artists. Who’ll speak for them?

I know, I know. This is a watershed election, a turning point in political history. The fate of nations and of the planet itself is at stake. But I can’t stop myself from worrying about … pop music. It’s not looking good out there, people.

Great pop records don’t just happen. They’re the products of outside conditions: society, history, culture, and an economic structure that provides the right incentives. Those conditions are disappearing.

Three young broker or consultant types – two guys and a woman – were gyrating with toy guitars and hammering at drum kits as “rock god” versions of themselves danced on the big screen.

Now people can act like “rock stars” without even learning an instrument. I’m a pretty high-tech cat, if I say so myself – but virtual reality doesn’t lead to real virtue, and Second Life doesn’t beat Get a Life.

We were all just morons trying to look cool back then, but we had to pick up instruments to do it. A talented few broke away from the rest of us and made great pop music. That pop Darwinism may die out in the ecology of video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

The RIAA speaks for record companies. This isn’t an anti-RIAA rant, although I think they should’ve been more than a lobbying group. They should’ve pioneered online distribution and prevented this catastrophe – but what’s done is done.

That said, they didn’t show much foresight by hiring GOP operative Mitch Bainwol to run the place after Hillary Rosen left in ’03. When you need vision, you don’t necessarily hire Bill Frist’s former chief of staff. I’m sure Mitch is a nice guy. But his Republican connections are decreasing in value, and he won’t help the industry unless he retools his organization into a think tank.

I hope he does.  That would be good for the music, too.

My fiftysomething suit-and-tie self concealed a past life gigging in rock and roll clubs and country/western dives. People couldn’t always play well back then, but the songs were everything.

Then there’s the Recording Artists’ Coalition led by Don Henley.   It’s a good idea.  Artists haven’t had a seat at the table.  I hope they bring in some new thinking.

The fans, especially free file-sharing advocates, are highly active and very vocal. They’re well-represented on the Internet. And BMI and ASCAP work for composers, but they haven’t taken a leadership role in music’s future. They collect royalties as sales shrink.

In other words:  They’re chasing “mechanicals” in a digital universe.

But who’ll build the next Brill Building? Who’ll create the next Atlantic Records? Who’ll make the great two minute pop records of tomorrow?

Sure, there have been a few great pop songs in recent years, the kind that bring groups of people together in a sort of “cultural commons”: “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. “Alcohol” by Brad Paisley. But they used to be common, and now they’re getting more and more rare. That’s not an accident.

Hey, pop music helped bring down Communism!  I know … I was there.  Pop music is a national security issue!

Gary Hart writes about America’s now-battered “Fourth Power” – the international power of our principles. Let’s make pop music the “Fifth Power.” Then we can divert some of that Halliburton loot toward making great records again.

I couldn’t resist saying  – with a smile – “Thanks for providing irrefutable evidence that rock and roll is dead.”

The woman at the “drums” tugged at her navy blazer and laughed. But the clean-cut guy with the plastic guitar – it had buttons instead of strings – said, “No way, dude! We’re bringing it back!

Somebody’s going to tell me how many new acts are out there on MySpace writing and recording great tunes. Could be, although I’ve missed most of them. But great tunes don’t become great pop records unless they occupy that cultural commons.  And Auto-Tune?  Don’t ask.

Am I missing something? Probably. That’s the great thing about the Internet, though. Somebody will tell me what it is, and we’ll all hopefully be smarter as a result.

Of myself, I am nothing.  The Hive Mind doeth the works.

We’re bringing it back … What can you say?

“Good luck with that.”

Why did I divide these paragraphs up with lines? So that it wouldn’t take more than 2 minutes and fifty seconds to read each one, even for slower readers.

2:50 is the optimum length for a great pop record.

paper airplane to be launched from space

17 01 2008


The hardest part will be plotting the flight path so that it eventually hits a teacher.

Writer’s Strike: The Studios Are Record Companies and It’s 1998

15 11 2007


Dear film and television studios: This is your wakeup call. It’s 1998 and you’re the record companies. Your battle with writers over digital content is misguided. You’re trying to withhold a share of money that you haven’t even figured out how to collect. Instead, why not collaborate with your creative workforce on ways to profit from new technologies?

Songwriting is a dying art, thanks to the lack of foresight shown by record companies in the 1990’s. The only acts that make money are ones that write their own songs, gig constantly, and give their recordings away as loss leaders for tickets and merchandise. There’s a real danger that screen and television writing could go the same route.

Here’s why: In the near future, every piece of work the studios produce – or have ever produced – will be available online. If the studios don’t make it happen – efficiently and cheaply – P2Ps will. This is the inevitable result of demand, technology, and economics.

Every TV will be widescreen, hi-def, and networked to the Web. Do you think audiences will miss the shared experience of a theater? No problem. They’ll probably use chat rooms, vid cameras, and the Internet to watch content “with” your friends. Somebody will think of that and write the necessary software, if they haven’t already.

Railing against piracy won’t stop the future. Resistance is futile. The only way to avoid the sad fate of the music business is to do what it did not: Package the content better, make it fun and stimulating to access, and don’t charge too much for it.

Here’s the unspoken compact a studio, or for that matter any employer, has with the people it hires: You create the output. We figure out how to sell it at a profit. And we compensate you fairly for your work. Instead, as Jane Hamsher and others have observed, the studios are resisting the compensation piece of that unspoken compact.

My point is this: It’s equally important that studios recognize the other side of that compact, if only out of self-interest. Sure, industry execs have boasted about all the money they’re making – or expect to make – from digital content. That undercuts their primary argument in the strike. But where others see damning evidence, I see something different. I see industry leaders whistling past the graveyard.

Viacom is suing Google for $1 billion. Why? Viacom has no idea how to make a billion dollars from the Internet. As Muddy Waters once astutely observed, “you can’t lose what you never had.”

Making that billion won’t just take content. It will take new ways of packaging content – games, challenges, quizzes, communities – as well as new ways of paying for it (like subscription fees and microcharging technology). And it will take strategies for competing with all those people out there willing to put content on the Internet for free.

Studios are driving writers away from a carcass that’s already dead and stripped. They shouldn’t leave those writers on the picket line. They should cut a deal with them on a percentage basis, so that the writers’ incentives are aligned with their employers’. Then they should bring them inside and put their creativity to work – for a fair price – brainstorming with finance and tech types about new models for the future. The lights should burn all night long as they design the entertainment industry of the future – together.

If they don’t, none of this will matter in ten years anyway. Everybody – studios, agents, writers – will be in another line of business.

(image licensed via Creative Commons) 

Health Privacy Creates Policy and Technology Challenges

14 11 2007


Last summer the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about inaccurate data on medical records, which is a common problem. That led WSJ blogger Jacob Goldstein to observe that, when it comes to obtaining health coverage, medical records are the new “credit score.”

He’s absolutely right – although you can argue that, as reporters say, he “buried the lede.” Most people don’t even realize that insurance companies ever see their personal medical records. That’s a significant story. In fact, most people have no idea who sees their medical information or where it goes. I’m not aware of any comprehensive study on the collection and distribution of medical information.

I do recall seeing a research paper on insurance information in the 1980’s that said that the typical medical bill is handled by 25 different people before it is paid or denied. (No citation available, though I’ve tried to track it down – so consider it apocryphal if you must.)

Policy Need #1: Public awareness, debate, and accountability for the sharing of medical information by administrators.

The digitization of medical information is the new “bipartisan” issue of the 21st Century, uniting politicians from Hillary Clinton and John Edwards to Newt Gingrich. And there are compelling reasons for it, whatever shape health care reform eventually takes. But there are risks.

There have been many security breaches of health data involving hundreds of thousands of patients and their medical records, as we’ve discussed before. (The total number of people involved in any type of data breach over a three-year period? 159 million.)

Technology Need #1: A health security coding system for providers and payers that really works. A number of people are working on it, and there’s a university study group tackling the issue, but nobody’s cracked the code yet in a way that these various markets can embrace.

Then there’s the growing area of health data mining. This can be a very good thing, encouraging both research and better services for individuals. Yet the political state of the art lags behind the technology, which keeps developing. Esther Dyson has an attractive solution: informed consent. Answer those online questionnaires and search for medical information all night if you like, she suggests, but insist that your digital content providers allow you to control what is and isn’t shared.

Policy Need #2: Extend informed consent to health technologies of the future, too, such as telemedicine. It’s an elegant, simple solution to a growing problem – a solution that arose in the private sector. But it doesn’t cover all possibilities. That’s why the American Medical Informatics Association offered some suggested guidelines for the secondary uses of medical data that includes public debate and consensus; a health data taxonomy; and a redirection of the debate away from the ownership of data and toward the the topics of access, use, and control.

We’ll have even bigger problems in the future, including the collection and use of genome data. Dyson understands the implications of genomic information on the insurance industry better than the Economist does, but neither addresses the possibility of genomic data being used for, say, pre-employment examinations.

Would Abraham Lincoln ever have become President if the country knew in advance that he had a tendency toward severe depression? And if he hadn’t been, would the country have been better off?

Technology Need #2: A genomic “reader” that is sophisticated enough to categorize an individual’s enhanced abilities as well as their vulnerability to disease.

Policy Need #3: A national debate on the proper uses of genomic data.

So, when do we begin the public discussion of health data and privacy? And who’s going to meet those tech challenges and reap the economic rewards that will follow?

(Image of secure public health data center licensed under Creative Commons from HMS, Inc.)

So why save for retirement?

12 09 2007


According to New Scientist, you – and the entire universe – may be mangled and destroyed at any moment, thanks to quantum physics and multiverses:

“It could be there’s a moment of pain before the end,” (theorist Robin) Hanson says. “But you could be comforted by the fact that versions of you will go on, even if you don’t.”

Thanks a lot.

There’s more comfort to be found in the fact that many physicists think Hanson’s ideas are “preliminary and probably flawed.”

The Iconography of Cops on the Beat – Real and Virtual

12 09 2007


Don’t know what to make of this story:

BEIJING (AP) — Police in China’s capital said Tuesday they will start patrolling the Web using animated beat officers that pop up on a user’s browser and walk, bike or drive across the screen warning them to stay away from illegal Internet content.

Maybe that should read “police in China said they will start placing icons on users’ screens to remind them that they are being watched,” since these cutesy police images don’t do any actual ‘patrolling.’

The Chinese Web is fundamentally unfree, in stark contrast to our own … right? Without net neutrality, gatekeepers will have as much power as the Chinese government.

Or do they already? Look what AT&T did with Eddie Vedder, after all.

That wasn’t very good timing on their part, given the debate currently underway about “controlling the pipes.” But, at least they don’t use icons.

Speaking of police and icons, here’s an interesting social experiment:

It is the pink armband of shame for wayward police officers, as cute as can be with a Hello Kitty face and a pair of linked hearts.

No matter how many ribbons for valor a Thai officer may wear, if he parks in the wrong place, or shows up late for work, or is seen dropping a bit of litter on the sidewalk, he can be ordered to wear the insignia.