a feminist technology blog

Month: January 2006 (Page 2 of 3)

Watching Obsolescence

Today I got a Bulova watch that I won off eBay in the mail.

[Note: I think the phrase “won off eBay” does a lot to cement eBay’s reputation as something positive and fun. You don’t say “I went to the mall and won a Tech Vest from Old Navy,” because that doesn’t make sense. But “winning” has universally fun, exciting connotations, so even if you overpay the seller or get something half-crappy, the “winning” part sort of makes up for it. Thoughts?]

Anyway, it’s a very cute 1940’s silver watch that has to be wound every day. My first watch when I was about six or seven was a gift from my grandparents. They taught me how to wind it and I did, every day. Now, of course, this is a completely obselete technology. I’m sure I have plenty of friends, not to mention students, who wouldn’t have a clue what “winding a watch” is and would think of it as something horrifically old-fashioned. But digital watches, and analog watches that don’t have to be wound, are relatively recent inventions. (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy makes several early 80’s referents to “digital watches as a pretty neat idea”.) Now we think it’s “neat” if our devices update themselves for daylight savings time automatically; I get frustrated that my battered CVS alarm clock isn’t as smart as my cellphone. Our expectations for technology change very, very quickly.

My mother was telling me that she has a co-worker who was shocked to find out that my mother grew up (in 1950’s postwar England) in a house with outdoor plumbing. We universalize our experiences, and not just our experiences but our current experiences, and then we have a hard time imagining the world that we used to live in. I expect that many of my 19 year old students would find it hard to believe that I, only 10 years older than them, grew up in a house without a microwave, VCR, call-waiting, or cable television, that I didn’t get a CD player until my senior year of high school, and that I spent several years post-college socializing before cellphones became popular. (I did, however, have access to a personal computer growing up, and I had email starting in 1988. My parents weren’t Luddites, just picky about the technologies they allowed into their home. I grew up with a single 12″ television in the house, for example.) Technologies become necessities very, very quickly.

I’m happy with my charming old watch, although I probably will forget to wind it. Just like in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Publishing and Blogs

I was studying at a coffee shop in Williamsburg this weekend. It’s a really small place where you usually end up sharing a table (and an outlet) with a stranger. I was puzzling over several hundred pages of printed PDF’s and my table-mate asked me if I was an editor. Turned out that he’s a novelist.

We got into a long discussion about how much more difficult it is to get published today than it was even ten years ago. Big box retail and media consolidation has made it extremely rare that a publishing company takes a chance on a completely unknown author. They want to publish a novel that they know will sell. So my friend’s agent told him to start a blog to get an audience. If he can get ten thousand readers, it’ll be a clear message to the publishing industry that he has a built-in audience.

Wired today has an article on the same process with regards to rock bands. The Arctic Monkeys, a band I’ve seen hyped all over indie blogs and private torrent trackers, is launching its new album today with only indie-label backing rather than the marketing power of the major label machine.

The current goal, according to Wired, is to use the internet to attract attention to get a major-label deal, but I’m not convinced that the marketing machinations of the majors are needed. It’s hardly new for an indie band to break out without the industry muscle behind it.

But with publishing this gets tricky because there isn’t a similar infrastructure where someone can self-publish and get their book to book publishers. I had the extreme privilege of meeting Cory Doctorow on Thursday when he lectured to Siva’s undergraduates, and he maintains that within the next decade, there will be some sort of technological development that makes e-books as pleasurable to read as physical books. And I’m not talking about early-adopter stuff like reading your book on a Treo or an iPod; I’m talking Diamond Age-style digital paper.

Once that happens, and people start buying ebooks online, there will no longer be the physical advantage of having your book stocked in the display tables at Barnes and Noble. So it makes sense for authors to try to find out how that alternative model works now, so that they can take advantage of it later. This is why Cory publishes all his books under a Creative Commons license and provides them for free in digital formats.

My new friend maintains that fiction is going the way of poetry, composition or playwriting: a niche market that is no longer economically sustainable as a career. Very few authors make Stephen King money to begin with, but it would be a shame to think that so few people were reading fiction that it became a micro-market that appeals only to New Yorker elites.

The current model allows for a handful of authors to get hyped beyond hype – my neighborhood is covered in wheatpasted posters for the new Paul Auster book, The Brooklyn Follies (although I do live in Brooklyn). The future model would see many, many authors self-publishing ebooks, with some of them selling a few thousand copies, some of them making it big, but most of them just providing pin money for their authors. The ones who are best hooked into their fan base may work on a patronage model (raise PayPal donations to finish a book or write a sequel), get asked to write op-eds or keynote conferences, or create for themselves a livable income through other means than just selling books.

I can’t see fiction itself dying out; it’s too popular for that. And there have always been huge, sweeping bestsellers that dwarfed better works. But it’s the role of blogs, self-promotion, and building one’s own fan base that is interesting to me about this go-around. It’s the “Brand is You” strategy. Good authors don’t necessarily make good marketers, but good marketers can make good sales. And it really does seem that being good at marketing yourself is the numero uno value in these type of marketplaces.

links for 2006-01-22

links for 2006-01-22

links for 2006-01-20

Theater owners to Steven Soderbergh: Drop Dead (not really)

Steven Soderbergh (director and tiara favorite) is releasing his next movie in theatres, on DVD and on TV simultaneously. “Bubble”, which was shot on high-definition film, cost only 1.6 million and is about “a murderous love triangle at a small-town doll factory. “In Wired, he pointed out that movies are already pirated the day they come out (think of “zero day” releases on .torrent networks) and that he wants to take control of the process. He also maintains that the audience that will go see a movie on the big screen will do that no matter what, and won’t compete with the DVD market. Considering that film companies make more money off DVD sales than they do theatrical releases, it doesn’t really matter anyway.

Except to theater owners, who aren’t happy with this at al. They are threatening not to show the film if he continues with this strategy.

My friend’s boyfriend is a filmmaker who maintains that the current studio system is on its way out. The decrease in big-budget moviegoing (which the studios have been lamenting about ad infinitum), combined with the increase in ease of self-distribution, will lead to a 70’s esque system in which almost all pictures are independent releases. At least, that’s his theory. He explained to me that the cost of distributing physical film reels to theaters is so great that once movies switch to digital distribution, it will greatly facilitate self-distribution, as well as decreasing movie budgets in general. With Netflix and torrents, most of us have access to a far greater array of films than we did five years ago, when you were pretty much stuck with whatever was at your local video store (and we all know about Blockbuster’s charming practices of censoring films and not stocking, say, gay-interest flicks). Soderbergh is very smart and forward thinking to be at the forefront of this change, and I’m not surprised that theater owners are balking.

Once more with feeling: The public is not responsible for propping up a failing business model. Adapt or die out.

Woman of the Day: Britney Gallivan

Meet Britney Gallivan.

(img c/o Pomona Historical Society)

Ms. Gallivan was a high school student in Pomona, California, when she was given an extra-credit math diassignment to fold a piece of paper in half more than 8 times. Conventional wisdom has generally held that a piece of paper can’t be folded in half more than 7 or 8 times, and even that’s very difficult.

First, Britney managed to fold a piece of gold foil 12 times, breaking the record. Then, contemplating folding non-foil paper, she derived “the folding limit equation”:

(img c/o wikipedia)

This is for single-direction folding. L = minimum length of the material, t = material thickness, and n = number of folds possible in one direction. (L and t need to be expressed using the same units.) Britney wrote a number of strict rules and definitions for the folding process, and then derived an equation for alternate direction folding as well.

I’m a big fan of the (mostly apocryphal) “kid solves unsolvable extra-credit problem” genre and I’m always happy to see young women involved in math, science, and technology. A++ to Britney.

links for 2006-01-12

Internet holiday

It’s been so refreshing only being online to check email and my must-read blogs (pink is the new blog and boingboing – I’m a recovering gossip addict). I actually started realizing how much of online life is self-referential and self-replicating; if you step outside of it, the actual effect on your life isn’t much.

Take LiveJournal for example. I’m a hardcore LJ addict, and I’ve journalled virtually daily for about four years. Many of my RL (real-life) friends I either met through LJ or got LJ’s because we were friends (if that makes sense) so, especially when I lived in Seattle, many of my offline social events were organized through LJ. But my friends in Seattle are close enough that I’d generally find out about stuff via text message, phone, or email if I didn’t get a chance to check my 250+ friends list that day. In NYC most of my social life is organized through email or phone, so the impetus to check LJ isn’t as extreme as it was.

Anyway, my point is that there are tons and tons of people who don’t use the internet recreationally. A friend of mine was horrified to discover that a fellow computer scientist had never heard of Flickr. “How can he never have heard of it?” he asked incredulously. And you would think that someone in the field would have at least tangentially come into contact with some photo set of friends, a party, a relative, something or other. But no, no Flickr contact at all.

We are incredulous when we hear such a thing because we spend so much of our lives online that it seems impossible to imagine a life lived primarily online. It’s like people who watch TV all day and people who brag about not owning a TV. Somehow the media becomes an enormous part of our lives and we have a personal stake in it.

I enjoyed being offline for such a long time and I think it did me a great deal of good. Using the internet to zone out can be sort of a destructive mechanism. I spent most of today applying for summer jobs, and I realized how hard it is for me to work linearly online: even if I turn on the computer with the goal of Googling something or looking up a reference, before I know it it’s been two hours and I’m only halfway through whatever I set out to do. The nonlinear aspect of the internet is very seductive but it’s also a timekiller.

I’m goaling myself (horrible MS jargon there- sorry) on using the internet less for mindless clicktrancing and more for specific needs. I haven’t even read half of my del.icio.us bookmarks, for example. And I’m going to keep in mind that the internet is an optional activity, and it doesn’t have to take up so much of my time unless I want it to.

links for 2006-01-11

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