Monthly Archives: April 2007

History appliances. What a great idea. Or maybe not

First there was William Turkel:

Imagine wandering into your living room after a day of work. You sit down in your chair and turn a dial to 1973. The stereo adjusts automatically, streaming Bob Marley, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Jim Croce. LCD panels hanging on the wall switch to display Roberto Matta’s Jazz Bande and Elizabeth Murray’s Wave Painting. If you check your TV listings, you’ll find Mean Streets, Paper Moon, American Graffiti, The Sting, Last Tango in Paris … even Are You Being Served? In your newspaper you find stories about the cease-fire in Vietnam, about Watergate, about Skylab, about worldwide recession and OPEC and hostilities in the Middle East. If you want to read a novel instead, you might try Gravity’s Rainbow or Breakfast of Champions.

I love that idea. What a wonderful way to absorb and understand other eras. But Rob MacDougall finds the rub:

Imagine wandering into your living room after a day of work. You sit down in your chair and turn a dial to 1973. Nothing happens. You get up and fish around the couch for your remote controls. Once you find the nine individual remotes for your TV, PVR, set-top cable box, cable modem, stereo, LCD wall panels, Turkelectronics “history hub,” and the two “universal” remotes that maintain a shaky peace among the other seven, you are eventually able to press their nine power buttons in the one correct sequence that will activate all of your interlinked appliances. Of course, none of these devices are ever actually “off”–just in “standby” mode, generating a soothing blanket of white noise and drawing 1,000 kilowatt hours per year.

Once the television finishes booting, you scroll through several menu screens in order to set the date to 1973. The television gives you a 1-800 number you may call to order an upgrade. You forgot: everything before 1977 is bundled in the Platinum Package. So be it: you set the date to 1986. You are asked for your credit card number in order to prevent assure you and your family “a worry-free histo-tainment experience.” You provide it. Kenny Loggins begins streaming on the stereo.

You try to download a Keith Haring mural for your walls; you can get a lo-res version to appear on the LCD panels in your kitchen, but not in your living room. The DRM controls embedded in the image files don’t permit you to transfer visual images from room to room, and the micropayments for living room art can really add up. After all, you might invite more than six guests into that room, and according to the newly revised Digital Millenium Copyright Act, letting nonsubscribers view those images would be stealing. Your friend Bill says he knows where you can download pirated visual art, but you don’t want Disney to sue you like they did that kindergarten on your block, and besides, ABC News is reporting that copyright-infringing visuals can trigger massive seisures.

In your news reader, you find headlines about the Space Shuttle Challenger, National Hugging Day, and Geraldo’s plan to open Al Capone’s vault. Some of those don’t sound very significant, historically speaking, but your histo-content provider has an exclusive arrangement with USA Today. Seven hundred miles away, a consumer data index logs your activities and puts your address on the mailing list, twice, for a glossy 200-page catalog from Abercrombie and Fitch. You and your heirs receive eight such catalogs every year hereafter until the final extinction of Earth’s forests.

But that lies in the future, and your mind is on the past. Doing your best to ignore Kenny Loggins, you settle in to enjoy that episode of The A-Team where Boy George played himself. In accordance with current Canadian content legislation, one-third of the screen is obscured by a red maple leaf. For all of these services you pay a billion-dollar corporation $138 a month.

Tax aversion

Felix Salmon accurately deciphers some comments by Carlyle Group’s David Rubenstein’s at the Milken Institute conference: “I don’t want to pay higher taxes.”

A far more circuitous statement of the same is in today’s New York Times. In an article explaining how Singapore is becoming the Switzerland of east Asia for private banking and private wealth, there’s a lovely quote from former Californian Robert Chandran who moved his family and business to Singapore and exchanged US citizenship for Singaporean:

Mr. Chandran said that he was lured by Singapore’s blend of Western conveniences with Asian values and by the government’s zeal for keeping Singapore competitive. “They don’t have global taxation,” he said, which means that his capital gains and interest income are not taxed here.

I may be unfair to Chandran, but I suspect Asian values and competitiveness were secondary considerations. In other words, “I don’t want to pay higher taxes.”

Truth versus accuracy

Nicholas Carr on the overhyping of Wikipedia: “They have taken the encyclopedia out of the high school library, where it belongs, and turned it into some kind of totem of ‘human knowledge.’ Who the hell goes to an encyclopedia looking for ‘truth,’ anyway? You go to an encyclopedia when you can’t remember whether it was Cortez or Balboa who killed Montezuma or when you want to find out which countries border Turkey. What normal people want from an encyclopedia is not truth but accuracy.”

A light bulb went off

incandescent light bulb Compact fluorescent light bulb

I spend most of my working hours these days helping organizations understand and improve their ability to innovate. A small niggling problem has arisen. For years, the standard image for the creation of ideas (I hate jargon like ideation) has been the incandescent light bulb. But now it’s also a symbol of inefficiency and wasted energy. The compact fluorescent has taken over my house, and it should take over many others.

Now I read that this may just be a blip. We should all move to LEDs. I have to read Brilliant: Shuji Nakamura and the Revolution in Lighting Technology to figure this one out.

Remember February 1985

I needed the Wall Street Journal to refresh my memory on this, but in February 22 years ago, the British pound reached its all-time low of $1.0395. Today sterling is over $2 and I’m smiling. We’re selling our house in London so for the next few weeks I hope sterling goes up and up and up.

Conde Nast and business magazines: the forgotten history

The media world is atwitter about the launch of Portfolio, the new business magazine from Conde Nast. Vast sums are being lavished on the magazine and (to my mind) an unprecedented two years has been spent gearing up to the launch issue. Even with that lead time, readers are going to have to wait until August for the second issue.

None of the coverage I’ve read, however, has remarked that Conde Nast has been down this road before, and it all ended in tears. In the mid-80s, Conde Nast launched Business, a handsome, groundbreaking business magazine. Never heard of it? Ah, that’s because it was a British business magazine, destined in the minds of its creators to create a whole new category of publication in Britain.

I’m acutely aware of the history because not long after Business launched in 1987, I was recruited from a small design magazine to take on the editorship of Britain’s leading business magazine, Management Today. For years Management Today had existed in a cosy duopoly with Director. Both were decent, serious magazine, and profitable for their owners. Neither, however, treated business with the personality and exuberance long common in the big US publications like Fortune and Forbes. Business set out to right that omission.

The time, after all, seemed ripe for such a move. Since becoming prime minister in 1979, Margaret Thatcher had dramatically transformed the business climate in the UK. Sleepy nationalized industries were privatized, cosy financial cabals dominated by old school ties were being overwhelmed by US, Japanese, German and Swiss competitors, and business looked, in an odd way, sexy.

Because the publishing mandarins at Vogue House, Conde Nast’s UK headquarters, knew little about business and had zero credibility, Business was published in a joint venture with the Financial Times. These days, the FT is filled with modern, well-tailored folk, but back in the ’80s, it was a den of ink-stained scribes, published from an overcrowded, eccentric building next door to St Paul’s Cathedral. In theory the joint venture made perfect sense: magazine smarts combined with business credibility.

The resulting magazine seemed to bear that out. Business, designed by Pentagram’s David Hillman, looked beautiful and the gaggle of experienced journalists, many from The Sunday Times, produced a stream of well-written, compelling articles. As the editor of the main rival, this was largely good news. We redesigned and reinvigorated Management Today, which some folks had previously dubbed Management Toady (rightly, to my mind). In the way economics would suggest, the entrant of a well-funded rival also had the effect of expanding the market, certainly in terms of advertising. Big corporate advertisers and a smattering of luxury goods advertisers now saw business magazines as an appropriate place for their campaigns.

But there was a rub. Business never really gained the kind of circulation it needed to be sustaining (Management Today and Director both had large, guaranteed circulations through institutional memberships). It was just too hard to convince enough people that business features were really compelling. And the ferocious newspaper competition in Britain, which has no equivalent in the US, meant that many potential readers felt that their business reading needs were more than adequately covered.

Running the competition, I was hardly an insider to the decision making at Business. But as the project ran further and further into the red, the cultural gap of the joint venture was badly exposed. Privately owned Conde Nast, so I was led to believe, wanted to persist. It believed the market could be created, but patience was needed. The FT folk, on the other hand, as part of a big, public conglomerate, had little tolerance for the red ink. And they found little in common with the fashionable crowd at Vogue House. Exacerbating the problem was that the FT had its own need to capture a greater business readership in the UK (which is still a problem). So the FT side of the venture wanted to pull the plug.

Even a cursory reading of business history will tell you that joint ventures are just about the most ill-fated of corporate arrangements. And so it proved with Business. The parties were irreconcilable and a very good magazine vanished only a few years after it launched.

I have no idea whether Portfolio will thrive or thrash. But its owners will certainly be more steadfast than that ill-fated UK JV. Conde Nast chairman SI Newhouse, asked about the reported $100 million commitment over five years, told The New York Times it was “something of a myth”: “We’re going to stay with Portfolio.”

Who are Sakamoto Ryoma and Oda Nobunaga?

Via Marginal Revolution, I’ve just read the list of history’s 100 most influential people, according to a program by Japan’s NTV. I’m ashamed to say I only recognized three of the top 10. I followed the link to an earlier list, of the favorite historical figures of the Japanese. Another three out of the top ten for me, I’m afraid.

I had to find out who Sakamoto Ryoma and Oda Nobunaga, who figured in the top three of both lists. Clearly I need to read a good history of Japan. I’m curious what the results would be from other countries.

When the BBC did a similar exercise to identify Great Britons, Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Princess Diana finished 1, 2, 3. When the Discovery Channel did the same thing with Americans, the honors were taken by Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. A bunch of other national editions have also been completed, which are well chronicled by Wikipedia. I haven’t, however, found similar global-spanning surveys like the ones in Japan.

A terrible idea

My god, the idea of a blogging code of conduct is a terrible idea. Jeff Jarvis explains why in technicolor prose, far better than I could.

I try to be a model of civility, both in my writing and in person. I’m sure I don’t always succeed. But I’m glad I live in a society where others are free to write and speak as they please, subject of course to long-established laws on libel, slander, incitement to violence, etc. Part of the wisdom of the US system is that these laws are post priori.

I lived in Britain for many years, most of them working as a journalist. I weathered a number of libel actions, which are both more frequent and bear greater financial penalties than in most other countries. I never had to face a preliminary injunction halting publication. It can happen in a wide variety of circumstances, although in practice its use is pretty restrained. In the US, except on the grounds of national security, that could never happen. Phew.