Technology

Madden ’92 Ambulance

Madden ’92 for Sega Genesis has to be one of my favorite games of all time. The best part, of course, comes when a player is injured and the ambulance comes on the field to retrieve them, running over all other players in its way.

Xbox Live upgrade and upgrading your hard drive

I just downloaded the new Xbox Live update, and it brings some significant updates. Most important for me are the ability to stream Netflix on demand movies through the Xbox 360 to a TV and the ability to copy games to the hard drive for faster loading times. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there’s a way to browse and add movies from Netflix on the console. You need to add movies to your watch instantly queue using your Netflix account on a computer.

As for playing games from the hard drive, a limiting factor is that my hard drive is only large enough to hold one game. Therefore, I’m looking into ways to upgrade. If you have a desktop PC that supports SATA hard drives, it looks to be a pretty easy job. Full instructions are available at PC World.

The iPhone is the new radar detector

The Times technology blog has a story about a couple new iPhone apps that help you beat police speed traps by having users report their locations. Of course, the success of such an application depends on network externalities, i.e. having enough people reporting speed traps to increase the number of users who. . . etc. Nonetheless, this seems like a very cool use for the phone for those of you who drive.

McCain’s leaker is a hoax

The McCain aide who leaked the line about Sarah Palin thinking Africa was a country is not a McCain aide and he’s not really anything that he claimed to be. I think this is awesome. The guys who created this character should definitely get some more work. Read the full story at NYTimes.com.

iTunes and Netflix are like books

As Tuesday’s publication of 2666 nears, New York Magazine has a piece about the continued importance of big, Pynchonian books, comparing their flexibility to that of current digital media. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but still…

It bears remembering that a book, no matter how long and complicated, doesn’t require you to read it all in one go, nor does it force you to watch commercials. In this respect, other media are becoming more booklike, not the other way around. TiVo, Netflix, and iTunes enable you to consume what you want, when you want it, in or out of sequence. Take a break if you like — but only if you like. Watch a whole season of Lost in a weekend — or every morning on the subway. A longer, more intense experience — whether it’s a ten-show Mad Men block or a 100-song iPod playlist — at least gives you the option to stretch. And nothing does it better than a big, multifaceted novel. Take a year to read it, or one stormy weekend (well, several — we’re hoping for a long, cold winter).

Or just adapt your existing habits and read it every Sunday evening for an hour: Mad Men’s over and Entourage sucks, anyway.

Shorty is TinyURL for your own domain

Many people use TinyURL to shorten long URLs for sending in emails or posting online. I recently discovered Shorty, which provides a tinyURL-like service on your own domain. So, you could have URLs like yourdomain.com/s/keyword redirect to any URL on the web. It’s fairly easy to set up and you can even track how many times each of your short URLs has been used. Instructions for setting up Shorty are available here.

Gears of War 2, the New Yorker, and Nathan Englander is a gamer

In what must be the smartest profile I’ve ever read about the video game business, Tom Bissell profiles Epic Games designer Cliff Blesinski in this week’s The New Yorker. Blesinski designed the uber-successful game Gears of War, which I received once as a gift. Although I’ve never been a fan of shooters, there was definitely something different about this game. Bissell’s essay puts the game on the level of art and calls in Nathan Englander to help him make his case: 

The novelist Nathan Englander, a fan of the game, cites its third-person viewpoint, in which the player looks over the shoulder of the character being controlled, as a key to its success. “In literary terms,” Englander told me, “it’s a close-second-person shooter. It’s Jay McInerney and Lorrie Moore territory. You’re both totally involved and totally watching.” As for the collapsed architecture and blown-open spaces of the Gears world, Englander said, “There’s the hospital from ‘Blindness’ and the house from ‘The Ghost Writer,’ and I know that beautiful, ruined world of Gears as well as either of those.”

What really got me about the piece isn’t just the convergence of video games and literature, but rather Bissell’s location in the game of something—some emotion—that is very mournful and mature and sad that he traces through its advertising campaign:  

The advertising campaign for the first Gears was centered on a strangely affecting sixty-second spot in which Fenix twice flees from enemies, only to be cornered by a Corpser, a monstrous arachnoid creature, on which he opens fire. But it was the soundtrack—Gary Jules’s spare, mournful cover of the 1982 Tears for Fears song “Mad World”—that gave the spot its harsh-tender dissonance. This helped signal that Fenix was something that few video-game characters had yet managed to be: disappointedly adult.

Bissell continues later in the piece: 

Gears also contains what Bleszinski calls a “going home” narrative: “There’s a sublevel to Gears that so many people missed out on because it’s such a big testosterone-filled chainsaw-fest. Marcus Fenix goes back to his childhood home in the game. I dream about my house in Boston, basically every other night. It was up on a hill.” In Gears of War, the fatherless Fenix’s manse is on a hill, too, and getting to its front door involves some of the most harried and ridiculously frantic fighting in the game. When I told Bleszinski that Fenix’s homecoming was one of my favorite levels in Gears, he asked if I knew where its title, “Imaginary Place,” had come from. I thought for a moment. Earlier, he had made a nicely observed reference to the novelist Cormac McCarthy, and I was attuned to the possibility of an altogether unexpected window into his imagination. Was it from Auden? No. It was a reference to a line from Zach Braff’s film “Garden State,” in which “family” is defined as “a group of people who miss the same imaginary place.” When you start to peel back the layers of the Gears world, Bleszinski told me, “there’s a lot of sadness there.”

Bissell’s accomplishments in this piece are many, but the two most obvious are

  1. He takes the level of discourse around video games to a whole new elevation.
  2. He makes me want to play Gears of War. 

That second point, I think, is the the height of non-fiction writing about any subject—whether it’s art or sports or technology or business: the writing drives the reader towards its subject.

The New Yorker digital edition is already a disappointment

I spent two hours yesterday waiting in line, unsuccessfully, for tickets to the New Yorker Festival event with Haruki Murakami. The tickets sold out, though they lasted longer than I had anticipated. A walking tour with Calvin Trillin and an event with Stephen Colbert were the first to sell out. You can even see me standing in line on the New Yorker’s current homepage above.

Today I stood in the line in the same place for about 50 minutes to get books signed by Murakami, whose wife stamped them after he signed them. Of interest was a kiosk set up to preview the New Yorker’s digital edition, which the magazine expects to launch in one month. They’re currently offering four free issues and a free digital subscription for print subscribers through the end of their current subscription term. It sounded like they still haven’t settled on a pricing model for the digital edition. Or, if they have, the reps at the Festival headquarters weren’t aware of it. The magazine plans to make each week’s issue available digitally at 12:01 am on Monday morning and to provide digital access to their archive.

Digital issues don’t appear to be downloadable, though the New Yorker rep said that users would be able to print from the magazine using the digital edition. The magazine is forcing users to use an online, web-based viewer from Realview Technologies. Unfortunately, that means no PDFs and no offline access. Moreover, the printing functionality seems to be severely limited and only lets users print one page at a time. It would be nice if I could just print the entire magazine on Monday morning, but it would seem essential that users would be able to at least print out an article or two for later reading.

One of the great advantages of the magazine is that it’s portable. Once I get my copy of the New Yorker in the mail, I can read it in class, I can read it in bed, I can read it in a cab or on a plane. I can even read it in the subway when I have no reception on my BlackBerry. I don’t even need my computer or an Internet connection to read it. Yes, I also happen to hate reading on computer screens and even print out op-ed articles from the Times out of my preference for paper over pixels. By restricting both printing and offline access, the digital edition becomes far less useful than the print magazine or its website. Given a chance to expand its reader base and further engage existing readers of the New Yorker, it appears the magazine has failed with its digital edition to do any more than create a niche product with infinitesimal appeal. I really wanted to like the digital edition, but I don’t see how it, in any way, improves on the magazine.

I suppose that’s no surprise, though, given the New Yorker’s previous experience with digital content. Its website was absolutely anemic for years and years, and it prevented all but the savviest users from copying the New Yorker Archive DVDs to their hard drives, which created a slow product. Because the New Yorker has such great content, such a great product, I feel it has a responsibility to put user experience above its fears of digitization. Its digital edition offers another chance to get that right. Let’s hope it does so before next month’s launch.

On another New Yorker note, their Festival blog is excellent.

Update: I’ve now had a chance to try the launched digital edition. 

The new n+1

n_1_5_cover_small.jpg

A few months ago, I wrote a magazine article about the experience of spending a day without any digital devices—no cell phone, no Internet, no computer. Unfortunately, the piece was edited to express almost none of my ambivalence about the state we technology users currently find ourselves in—assaulted all day long by emails, unable to resist using our cell phones, content to set our iPods to shuffle. The article I wish I had written appears in the current issue of n+1’s opening department, “The Intellectual Situation.”

In it, the editors address cell phones, email, and the blogosphere. On email: “. . . it has lately become clear that nothing burdens a life like an email account. It’s the old story: the new efficient technology ends up costing far more time than it ever saves, because it breeds new expectations of what a person can possibly do. . . . The true mood of the form is spontaneity, alacrity—the right time to reply to a message is right away. But do that and your life is gone.”

On the cell phone: “The two effects, for the individual, of the cell phone’s contribution to the decivilizing process are ceasing to be able to be alone, and yet refusing solitude without entering into company. This leads to the loss of one of the great comforts of modern urban life…the fraternity of solitude. Sometimes you eat dinner alone; sometimes you do your grocery shopping alone; often you’ll ride the bus alone. At such times, in a city, there are always other people who are dining alone, shopping alone, sitting in their bus seats alone, in exactly the same situation. The fraternity of solitaries is always there for you to join. . . . Go into a restaurant now, sit near a fellow single diner, and you will see him dial his cell phone during the appetizer and talk through to dessert. The only choices you have are to pull out your own phone or listen in.”

Their point about how cell phones prevent you from being able to be alone, to seek real solitude, combined with the barrier they provide to real connection is dead on. How many times have you been hanging out with someone when their cell phone rings or they decide they have to call someone? It doesn’t even have to happen, but the idea that it can, that it could, prevents us from ever fully being able to focus on individuals for any length of time in our daily lives.

For some reason, I feel like Jonathan Franzen once used the phrase “fraternity of solitude,” but no matter. I’ve been reading n+1 ever since it debuted, and it may now, after its previous issue’s survey of American writing and the 10 pages I’ve read of the new issue, be my favorite magazine. Period.

Steve Jobs on DRM

Steve Jobs posted his “Thoughts on Music” on Apple’s website, calling for the music industry to end its insistence on DRM. As many have noted, the statement is aptly timed to address growing pressure on Apple to open the iTunes music store to other digital music players. I’ve never quite understood what the music industry is so scared of, anyway. Though I love my iPod, I’ve only bought 2 songs from iTunes because I couldn’t find them on CDs elsewhere. I still fail to understand why so many people are willing to pay for such inferior copies of songs. Seriously, play an AAC file from iTunes and a real CD; you’ll hear the difference.

Anyhow, Jobs writes:

In 2006, under 2 billion DRM-protected songs were sold worldwide by online stores, while over 20 billion songs were sold completely DRM-free  and unprotected on CDs by the music companies themselves. The music companies sell the vast majority of their music DRM-free, and show no signs of changing this behavior, since the overwhelming majority of their revenues depend on selling CDs which must play in CD players that support no DRM system.

So if the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system? There appear to be none. If anything, the technical expertise and overhead required to create, operate and update a DRM system has limited the number of participants selling DRM protected music. If such requirements were removed, the music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players. This can only be seen as a positive by the music companies.

Much of the concern over DRM systems has arisen in European countries.  Perhaps those unhappy with the current situation should redirect their energies towards persuading the music companies to sell their music DRM-free.

Weekly reading

  • Jeffrey Toobin has an article on Google Book Search in the New Yorker.
  • The Chicago Fire made an attempt to sign Zinédine Zidane only to be told, like other MLS clubs, that the French midfielder is not coming out of retirement.
  • Wired has a short feature on Zidane: Un Portraît du 21ème Siècle, which was recently shown at the Sundance film festival. The magazine says: “. . . Zidane provides some sublime pleasures. At moments, the filmmakers give us near silence, suggesting Zidane’s isolation, or sound effects that sound like a herd of stampeding wildebeest that connect his physicality with survival, wildness and nature.”
  • I read an article in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology by Jason Hobbs about designing the web for users in Africa, which didn’t say much except that we need to pay attention to their specific needs: “The real challenge is not low bandwidth, small user bases and budgets for building but our notions of what constitutes a user and how we can design for them and their contexts of use. The opportunity is to design within the limitations that exist to increase trust in the channel (as a meaningful alternative) and thus increase use of the channel.”
  • It’s listening not reading, but still worth checking out is Dave Eggers’s appearance on KCRW’s Bookworm this week. You can listen to the show here. Bookworm, for the uninitiated, is the best show about books in the country.

Piper Jaffray on Apple’s iPhone

I’ve been planning a post on Apple’s iPhone for a while now, and I still plan to write something, but until then, check out Piper Jaffray’s evaluation of the iPhone.

Cingular benefits from the added subscribers and press surrounding the device, while Apple benefits from the largest U.S. carrier as an initial market for the device. We believe the Cingular will be aggressively attracting new subscribers during the launch of the iPhone by reducing service fees and announcing discounts to iPhone customers. Of note also is the fact that by partnering with Cingular, Apple does not need to be involved with any billing or subscriptions for wireless users. Cingular has confirmed that there is no revenue sharing plan in place from added iTunes Store users because of the iPhone. Cingular has also confirmed that there will be no Cingular branding on the iPhone, other than the wireless provider’s name in the corner of the screen where the signal strength is displayed. The key takeaway for Cingular in the relationship is the addition of customers who will likely be significant users of margin-enhancing value-added services for the operator.

Microfinance, Zidane, and Adam Gopnik

Connie Bruck’s article in the October 30th New Yorker describes the current conflict in the microfinance industry between the old guard of microfinance lenders–typified by the Nobel Prize-winning founder of the Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus–whose goal is to lift people out of poverty and a new generation that is focused on making money (and economic empowerment of the poor). Bruck cites eBay founder Pierre Omidyar as the embodiment of this class. Omidyar recently gave $100 million to his alma mater, Tufts University, on the condition that they invest it in microfinance.

“For us, it’s not just about alleviating poverty; it’s about economic self-empowerment.” Omidyar told me that in the two years or so since he became involved in microfinance he had not visited a microfinance institution or met a borrower. Just the opposite of Yunus’s entry into microfinance: Yunus left theory behind to listen to the poor, and Omidyar seems to rely largely on theory. Omidyar sees himself as an agent of global change—in this case, the commercialization of the microfinance sector. Hence his insistence that his hundred-million-dollar gift to Tufts be invested in ways that will promote that commercialization.

Bruck goes on to describe the rift in the microfinance industry in similar terms after recounting the suicides of women borrowers in India’s Andhra Pradesh. (It’s suspected that their inability to repay their loans caused them to commit suicide. Institutions in Andhra Pradesh have since lowered their interest rates from around 30% to as low as 11%.)

Opposing sides in the commercialization debate drew different lessons from the episode. For Yunus’s allies, it demonstrates how the emphasis on profit can blind lenders to social values; the other side worries that rates lowered for political rather than economic reasons probably aren’t sustainable. What nearly everyone can agree on, though, is that it is a reminder of the dangers facing this immature and rapidly growing field.

Speaking of Muhammad Yunus, he recently invited Zinedine Zidane to Bangladesh for the opening of the Grameen Danone Food Factory in Bogra on November 6-7. The factory is a joint venture between the Grameen Bank and France’s Danone. Zidane has long endorsed Danone’s products, and it was rumored this past summer that he will join the company’s board.

Meanwhile, Zidane: Un Portrait du 21ème Siècle has been receiving more attention, including this profile of filmmaker Douglas Gordon in the Times of London. Today, I heard the soundtrack to the film by Lanarkshire’s Mogwai for the first time. I had never listened to Mogwai before, but their work on this soundtrack reminds me strangely of Japancakes. Scotsman has an interesting interview with the band’s Stuart Braithwaite and Gordon, in which the latter compares Zidane’s red card and ejection at the end of the film to a Shakespearean tragedy.

If you know what is going to happen, you can see them [the Villarreal players] niggling; there are a couple of wee instants where you can see the fuse has been lit. When you know what the ending is, not to sound pretentious, it’s like Shakespearean drama. It’s like Macbeth at the end – you can start to pick up his descent into madness. I think he is a bit of a Macbeth figure, actually.

After Italy beat France in the World Cup Final this summer, Adam Gopnik wrote a Talk of the Town Piece about Zidane for the New Yorker. In it, he locates the fascination with Zidane in his ultimate unpredictability and inscrutability. He closes with a description of his son, Luke,

“An eleven-year-old New Yorker, a passionate supporter of Les Bleus, had been playing each of the French World Cup games over and over on his Nintendo Gamecube FIFA game and—with spooky accuracy—had been using the aggregate scores to predict the outcomes of games not yet played. But nothing in the video game could have led one pixel-constructed figure to turn around, succumb to an irrational animal urge, and bash another pixel-constructed figure in the chest. “It just never happened in the Gamecube,” he said afterward, bewildered. An inexplicable human act was the one thing you couldn’t program.That reminder may have been, in its way, the saving grace of this curious fall.

I had lunch with Gopnik last Thursday at Google, and in addition to being a really, really smart, cool, personable guy, he too is a big fan of EA Sports’ FIFA Soccer series. I’m anxiously looking forward to Tuesday’s Halloween release of FIFA ’07 for Xbox 360, which just looks amazing.

Gopnik read as part of the Authors@Google series I work on, and I’ll post a link to the video of his talk once we get it online. He wrote about the experience of speaking at Google for an online Q&A on NewYorker.com.

I got to go to the Google campus, outside San Francisco, and speak to the Google-ites. Google headquarters turns out to be enormous, far bigger than I could have imagined, and looks a bit like a cross between the school in “High School Musical” and that spooky village from the old “Prisoner” television series. An amazing monitor in the reception area displays current searches from all over the world, and I went in some slight fear that they would deliver to the visiting speaker, as a well-meaning but terrifying prize, a list of his last two years of searches. (“ ‘Swedish models’? Oh, yeah, so I did. . . . Well, I was searching for, you know, certain Ikea appliances. For my wife.”) But my hosts were serious and extremely literary. Over a talk, and then lunch from a fine (and free) cafeteria, where I piled my plate with vegetarian specialties, I had a chance to talk with the hyper-brilliant, hyper-earnest, amazingly young, and—significantly, for a field that has long skewed so awkwardly male—female hosts. To my surprise, they defended the notion of the continuing necessity of the book far more eloquently than I could, and insisted, to a degree that almost convinced an author who sees his children starving as everything goes on the Web, that the online reading audience will only feed the appetite for the bookstore book, as snacks encourage meals. And all of them so student-like! To adapt Lincoln Steffens: I have seen the future, and it is school.

I’ll post more on Gopnik’s new book soon.

*Update*
Here are a number of pictures of Zidane playing in an exhibition game between a pair of under-16 teams in Dhaka during his visit to Bangladesh.

Here is a low quality video of the game:

The BBC also has a story about Zidane’s visit, whcih can be found here.

Zidane in Bangladesh

ITVN launches Setanta Sports On Demand

For the past couple months I have been watching soccer matches–primarily the Champions League and Euro 2008 qualifying matches–on Setanta Sports, which I get over my broadband connection using ITVN. The quality is not perfect, but it’s good enough for me. And now, ITVN has just launched Setanta On Demand, which allows you to watch anything from the past 24 hours on Setanta. Right now, I’m watching Marseille play Lyon in match that originally aired on Sunday afternoon.

NYT coverage of internet privacy

The Times has some interesting articles in today’s paper beginning with an article on the increasing use of privacy software and internet anonymizers:

A few reasons exist for the surge, which is hard to measure – it is nearly impossible to track how many people have made themselves invisible online. People who want to continue to swap music via the Internet but fear lawsuits brought by the recording industry want to hide their identity. Some people wish to describe personal experiences that could land them in jail. And some Web authors share their thoughts about repressive regimes and face government reprisal if they are caught.

Additionally, Kate Hafner has an analysis of the government’s subpoenas of search engine companies and how internet users have been responding. She writes:

The government has been more aggressive recently in its efforts to obtain data on Internet activity, invoking the fight against terrorism and the prosecution of online crime. A surveillance program in which the National Security Agency intercepted certain international phone calls and e-mail in the United States without court-approved warrants prompted an outcry among civil libertarians. And under the antiterrorism USA Patriot Act, the Justice Department has demanded records on library patrons’ Internet use.

Those actions have put some Internet users on edge, as they confront the complications and contradictions of online life.

Adam Liptak writes that the subpoena really has nothing to do with the privacy of Google’s users:

the case itself, according to people involved in it and scholars who are following it, has almost nothing to do with privacy. It will turn, instead, on serious but relatively routine questions about trade secrets and civil procedure.

Google, who has thus far resisted the government’s subpoena and request for information, is launching a Chinese version of its web services at Google.cn.

Google is citing a number of reasons for resisting the government’s subpoena, including concern about trade secrets and the burden of compliance. While it does not directly assert that surrendering the data would expose personal information, it has told the government that “one can envision scenarios where queries alone could reveal identifying information about a specific Google user, which is another outcome that Google cannot accept.”
….
Google’s new Chinese platform, which will not allow users to create personal links with Google e-mail or blog sites, will comply with Chinese law and censor information deemed inappropriate or illegal by the Chinese authorities. This approach might help the company navigate the legal thickets that competitors have encountered in China.

Foreign companies say they must abide by Chinese laws and pass personal information about users on to the Chinese government. In one case two years ago, Yahoo provided information that helped the government convict a Chinese journalist, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison, on charges of leaking state secrets to a foreign Web site.

Meanwhile, the Chinese economy has grown to the fourth largest in the world.

So: is Google a good thing?

John Lanchester asks, “Is Google a good thing?” in the London Review of Books and concludes:

The best historical analogy for where Google is today probably comes from the time when the railroads were being built. Everyone knew that trains and railways would change the world, but no one predicted the invention of suburbs. Google, and the increased flow of information on which it rides and from which it benefits, is the railway. I don’t think we’ve yet seen the first suburbs.

The Griffin radioShark

Griffin Technology has released a new product called the radioShark. It’s like TiVo for the radio, for your computer. You can record radio broadcasts directly to your computer for later listening. I’ve been looking for something like this for a while because I would like to record NPR programming—Fresh Air, City Arts and Lectures, All Things Considered—to listen to on my iPod while I’m driving. Moreover, I can record KZSU’s broadcast of the Stanford game, if I’m going to miss it. Until now, my only option has been Audio Hijack, which is glitchy and requires more maintenance. With the radioShark, you can program it to record any station at any time while you’re gone. Is this not awesome? The downside, of course, is that it works only for FM/AM radio broadcasts, while Audio Hijack remains the best option for recording internet streams or anything else that plays on your computer.