Archive for May, 2009

Sat 30 May 2009 3:06 pm   //   Posted in: Music, No right to be good

In defense of schmaltz and tourist attractions

Two items for the no-right-to-be-good file:

  • Brad Paisley. I’m not supposed to like country music. I’m not the target demo. In fact, I’m programmed to hate it. Pre-fab corporate schmaltz wrapped in the American flag hits all my cynicism buttons. But for some reason, I enjoy putting a country channel on when I’m cooking or driving, and lately I’ve grown fond of Brad Paisley songs. The other day I nearly teared up when “Letter to Me” came on. Now at this point in the blog, I should get analytical, right? I should be doing research on whatever Nashville machine manufactured it, or parsing what my fondness for this music says about me. But I’m not. I’m just going to say I enjoy it, because it’s good.
  • South Street Seaport. Yes, the shopping mall in Lower Manhattan. The one where dozens of coach buses unload hundreds of tourists every day. The one with a Pizzaria Uno and a kiosk where you can have your name etched on a grain of rice. In other words, the most un-New York place in New York, if not the worst place in the whole universe. However, the Seaport happens to be built on a pier over the East River. And in a stroke of genius, there’s a deck on the far side of the complex with what might be the best view in the whole city (easily in the top five). Few things are as relaxing on a summer evening as buying a Coke in the Seaport food court, claiming a chaise lounge on the deck, and gazing out at Brooklyn while boats go by.

Fri 29 May 2009 8:24 am   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

The gatekeepers (part II)

This is the second part of a two-part blog post. Read Part I.

Google killed the gatekeepers, now it is the gatekeeper. Its influence on culture and business is downright scary. Online, its supremacy is unquestioned. Publishers kiss its feet and digital developers torture their creations to accommodate the whims of the Google search algorithm.

But empires fall, and the forces that gave Google its power could also destroy it. Google is a great business and no serious person expects it to fail any time soon. But conceptually, Google is a contradiction.

Most people think of Google as a search engine and a set of free Internet services, but it’s actually an advertising business. Google is a public company with essentially one way to make money: text-based search ads. (Last year 97 percent of the company’s $21.7 billion in revenue was from advertising, and most of that came from AdWords.)

Google can make so much money in advertising because it sits at the biggest point of friction in the Internet. Google is the middleman between billions of people and the information they want to find.

In some respects, we’re lucky this is so. Google’s services are good and free.

But the more trust society places in Google, the greater the risk that something could go wrong. An unlikely scenario would be Google turning to the dark side: Levying some kind of Internet tax, using its gate-keeping powers to shut down smaller voices that can’t pay. A more likely scenario would be the collapse of the AdWords business. If AdWords fails, Google will have to find some other way to underwrite its search engine, G-Mail, YouTube, Google Maps, and so on. Any distruption could have serious consequences for commerce, free expression, and even wayfinding. (How many people do you know who would be lost without the map on their iPhones?)

Is AdWords in any real danger? I think so. The problem is AdWords depends on friction (advertisers lack a good way to identify potential customers), secrecy (ads are sold in a blind auction) and the authority of a single entity (Google’s search engine). Conceptually, these are obstacles that the Internet has proven adept at getting around. It’s inevitable that some replacement for Google AdWords will appear. And based on the history of the Internet, it will be cheaper, better and not controlled by Google.

For now, Google is thriving on the money that used to go to telephone directories and classified ads. Creative destruction took care of those businesses. How long until it dispatches Google too? And when it does, who will be the next gatekeeper?

Thu 28 May 2009 8:00 am   //   Posted in: New York is different, Photos

Is that supposed to be a building or what?

One of the most interesting new buildings I’ve seen recently is the new Cooper Union building in the East Village.

Wed 27 May 2009 8:44 am   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

The gatekeepers (part I)

This is the first part of a two-part blog post. Read Part II.

I recently heard somebody refer to magazine editors as “gatekeepers,” a term that would boost my ego were it still true.

In the old world (up to, say, 2000), the media were controlled by powerful gatekeepers. That’s because there were many points of friction, where power concentrates. In the analog world, physics imposed severe limits on communication. Books, newspapers and magazines need ink and paper. The broadcast spectrum is limited. The expense of film and tape restricted the sharing of recorded information among consumers. People wanted to share way more information than was physically possible.

As a result, for any communication to take place, someone first had to allocate resources for it. That could be as simple as somebody writing a letter and affixing a stamp to an envelope. Or it could be as complex as a national TV network deciding what to air in prime time. Enter the gatekeepers. Not inherently good or evil, gatekeepers decide what should be seen and heard, and what shouldn’t. Media company owners hire managers, who hire editors, producers and ad sales forces. Each of these people has some gatekeeper function. To take newspapers as an example, editors are assigned to ensure only stories of interest to readers get published, and salespeople ensure only people with money get to advertise.

Then along came the Internet, which had the effect of an oil can applying lubricant to all those areas of friction. The result? Gatekeepers have less power and influence, while individuals have more. The trend is for there to be more gatekeepers, each with less influence. Soon, there may be no gatekeepers at all. Billions of people will each have a tiny amount of influence over communication. Editorial selections will be based on democratic rule, advertising will be sold at auction. Everything that reaches a large audience will do so with math backing it up. Stories will become popular because they are popular. This coming era of mob rule will open a whole new box of problems, but it is the inevitable end of this trend line.

This post is about media, but you can look at many other fields to see how computer networks have caused a disruptive reduction in friction: travel agencies, retail, financial services, academic research. The disruptive changes caused by computer networks are just getting started. Having torn apart media, information technology is poised to do the same for high-friction industries like real estate, health care, cars, you name it.

We need to watch where the new concentrations of power are forming. The Internet might destroy the old gatekeepers, but does the Internet have its own gatekeepers?

It does. They keep changing. The Internet itself might go away and be replaced with a whole other information system. But right now, in 2009, there is only one gatekeeper that matters: Google.

Read Part II.

Mon 25 May 2009 7:57 pm   //   Posted in: Photos, Transit

Northeast Corridor photos

This weekend I rode the Amtrak from New York to Baltimore and back, as I’ve done many times. This time I took some snapshots of some of the beautiful/ugly urban decay visible through the windows of the train.


Sat 23 May 2009 7:21 am   //   Posted in: Movies, Review

Review of “Star Trek”: Half of Four Stars

Last night we went to see “Star Trek” at the Regal Battery Park Stadium 11. We like this cinema because it’s in a bad location and nobody goes there. As always, we got great seats.

I’m not a Trekkie, but I’ve always enjoyed Star Trek films, and I was excited about this revitalization of the franchise. The previews started rolling at 7:20, and the movie started soon after. At about 8:30, the whole screen went dark. A few minutes passed and the movie sputtered to life again, only to cut out again after a few seconds. A woman from the theater, presumably the manager, entered and apologized. She said they were working on the problem in the projector booth. She gave us an update every few minutes until finally it emerged that the projector was totally broken—no power—and we would all get free passes to a future movie. (Credit to this manager for handling this disappointing situation exactly right.)

Since we only saw about half the movie, here’s half a review of it.

I really like what director J.J. Abrams has done with “Star Trek.” Expecially the beginning—five minutes of breathless action in which a man dies and a boy is born and two gigantic spacecraft are destroyed. THIS is how to start a movie! THIS is what we’re paying to see! The movie stays strong from then on, following the life of James T. Kirk on his way to Starfleet Academy and, ultimately, as a crew member aboard the Starship Enterprise. When the Enterprise is sent to answer a mysterious distress call from Vulcan,

– End –

Thu 21 May 2009 8:00 am   //   Posted in: Photos


Tue 19 May 2009 9:11 pm   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

Twitter kills Patrick Swayze. Will it kill again?

At 11:24 a.m. today, this Twitter message went out on an account with over 410,000 followers:

Image of Twitter post about Patrick Swayze

Patrick Swayze was alive, but the false report of his death was “retweeted” by thousands of users until, 50 minutes later, @BreakingNews knocked down its own report:

“JUST IN — A representative for Patrick Swayze tells People Magazine that the actor is still alive.”

This mistake was as predictable as it is unacceptable. As I wrote last month in a post about swine flu: “There’s the risk that an URGENT story that’s totally false could gain a lot of traction very quickly on Twitter.” And I singled out @BreakingNews as the “worst offender.” I hope they learn from this debacle and get better at simple reporting.

The death of an actor isn’t something that could cause a panic, but this was a 100% false news report of significance, and it spread very fast. Watch for more of this!

Tue 19 May 2009 7:13 am   //   Posted in: Food & drink, New York is different

Does food taste better from a truck?

It’s Mister Softee season, but old-school ice cream trucks risk being driven out of town by a new wave of gourmet food trucks now overrunning New York. Of course there’s the Mud Truck (pictured in a Holga photo from March 2008), actually a fleet of trucks that have been pouring strong black coffee for years. But now there are more. Unlike conventional ice cream trucks, these new gourmet food carts don’t blast computerized music while cruising slowly up your block. They show up somewhere and park for the day. CNet had a story yesterday about food trucks using Twitter to tell people where they are.

In Union Square, a new truck offers pizza, which is incredible given the amount of heat required to make pizza. (The entire back of this truck is an industrial oven. It must weigh ten tons.) A Belgian waffle truck makes regular weekend appearances in Park Slope, and presumably elsewhere. I spotted a gourmet ice cream truck parked at Union and 5th in the Slope last week, painted with pastel colors and descriptive copy about all-natural ingredients. Imagine that: An ice cream truck!

If you were to start a food truck, what would you sell?

Also, where would you use the bathroom and wash your hands?

Mon 18 May 2009 8:20 am   //   Posted in: It's a trap!

Permission granted to ignore your customers

If I sauntered into a Sears and shouted, “If you don’t lower your prices on housewares, I’m leaving!,” would Sears lower its prices? No.

If I came back with 30 friends and staged a protest inside the Sears, would we be arrested? Probably.

Why, then, should listen to customers who whine about the high cost of books for the Kindle? The individual customer doesn’t set the price, the market does.

You might think the Internet is breeding this great new wave of consumer rights, where customers have a dialogue with companies, and everyone is better for it. The problem is the feedback loops on the Internet tend to ignore complex problems, and amplify simple whining.

Facebook keeps making changes in response to customer complains from mass mobs of customers who barely know what they’re talking about. And Facebook is a free service—a gift! When all you have to do is click “yes” to protest something, it’s easy to transform a bunch of ambivalent users into a scary, angry mob a million strong. Flickr users figured out how absurd this is a few years ago, and set up jokey groups demanding that Flickr hand out free donuts.

Where is the example of an online mob identifying and solving a real problem? (Food safety and factory working conditions are real problems; the design of a juice carton or the tastefulness of some company’s advertising are not.) I can’t think of one.

The dialogues between customers and companies must get more sophisticated. Otherwise everybody is going to waste time fighting unwinnable battles.