Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Everybody’s a Moviemaker Now

I rarely miss my self-imposed deadline of Monday morning for posting this blog, but this weekend I had an excuse.  I was at a two-day workshop Saturday and Sunday to learn Final Cut Pro, Apple’s medium-level video editing software.  It was pretty intense, and Sunday evening felt more like Friday evening, only I had to get up and go to work the next day.  So the blog got lost in the shuffle.  But the workshop gave me some food for thought about how things have changed over the decades with regard to making and distributing motion pictures.

First there was celluloid.  I was charmed to learn that at the Austin School of Film where I took the workshop, they still teach people how to shoot, develop, and cut (literally) black-and-white Super-8 movie film.  Until the late 1950s, film was the only way to store moving pictures.  Until that time, television was an instantaneous medium with no convenient way to store the images, unless you shot a movie (called a kinescope) from a TV screen.  The quality of kinescopes left a lot to be desired, and because film had to be developed, instant replays weren’t possible.

Then Ampex came out with the videotape recorder:  first the giant two-inch-reel professional version, followed a couple of decades later by the consumer-grade VHS format.  For the first time, the movie medium was cheap enough so that people could actually buy movies and watch them at home whenever they wanted to.  And though it was expensive, you could now own your own video-making equipment.  Once upon a time in the mid-1970s I was involved in an amateur video production using equipment borrowed from the media department at Caltech.  The camera was about the size of a loaf of bread and I had to lug the twenty-pound recorder around on a strap around my neck.  And when we got back to the dorm to view the product, something bad had happened to the audio and it wasn’t recoverable.  All black-and-white, by the way.

Fast-forward to Samsung’s latest cellphone, the Galaxy SIII, which is predicted to sell 10 million units next month.  Not only does it shoot HD video, it allows you to share photos with anybody nearby who has another SIII, and recognizes when you’re looking at it by eye-recognition software.  If you just hold two SIIIs close together, you can transfer a 1-gigabyte video file in only three minutes.  The technology to do all this even twenty years ago would have taken up most of a good-sized room, but it’s all squeezed into a box the size of a large postcard.

Like most technological developments, the fact that anybody with an SIII can now shoot video of a quality and length that only professional production companies could manage formerly, has both good and bad aspects to it.  I think one of the best things that video for the people has led to is the filming of nefarious activities of all kinds, from incidents of brutality to mass uprisings against dictatorial regimes.  Like any documentation, videos can be subject to a variety of interpretations and misused, but in general, it’s better to have a video of a situation in addition to eyewitness reports, because the video doesn’t forget or change its tune over time.

But there are downsides too.  “Sexting”—the incidence of teenage girls sending suggestive photos and videos of themselves—has become so technologically easy that the child-pornography laws are being rewritten so as to avoid sending millions of otherwise law-abiding thirteen-year-olds into lifelong sexual-predator watch programs.  It’s a shame that kids are foolish enough to do this sort of thing in the first place, but it’s clearly in a different category from the hard-core child pornographer, and the law is belatedly recognizing that fact.

Add to the mix YouTube and the lottery-like attraction it exerts on would-be viral filmmakers, and you get indefinite millions of cat videos and the equivalent of a British Museum on your computer to wander around in, wasting time.  Only some reasonably intelligent people have selected what goes into the British Museum, while anybody who can push a few buttons can upload their cute cat’s latest to YouTube.

I’ve got nothing against cats personally, but the ready availability of abundant, novel ways to waste time is just one more temptation that people have to deal with these days.  I have lost the reference to a saying I came across the other day, but it was to the effect that while watching cat videos for an hour doesn’t actively hurt anybody, it is nevertheless a social ill whose effects are widespread but not easily quantified or even identified.  For those who believe in the devil, it represents a success on his part if the person in question is a believer.  This situation was captured well by C. S. Lewis in 1941 in The Screwtape Letters, when he described the state of mind that even then, well before the Internet, was a temptation to avoid:  “. . . a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that [one] is only half aware of them. . . .”  That is an excellent description of the condition that watching random YouTube videos can lull one into.  And it wouldn’t be possible unless millions of people were easily able to shoot and post their videos online.

The same thing happened with photography when George Eastman invented the Kodak in 1888.  From an expensive, tedious activity of professionals, photography spread to the masses, leading to oceans of snapshots you can still find by the handful in antique stores.  Most snapshots result from friends and relatives shooting pictures of each other, and in that sense have no higher goals or ambitions.  And many videos posted online are similarly intended for no higher purpose than to be shared among a few friends, and that is a good thing, as far as it goes.

Why was I taking a video editing class in the first place, you ask?  In contradiction to the tell-all atmosphere so common on the Internet, I choose to withhold that information until such time that I have made something worth drawing my readers’ attention to.  In the meantime, you can just wonder.

Sources:  The Jakarta Globe carried an Associated Press story reporting the projected sales figures of the SIII at http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/tech/samsung-galaxy-s-iii-sales-to-hit-10-million-in-july/526831.  Samsung’s own promotional material describing features of their new phone can be found at http://www.samsung.com/us/article/galaxy-s-iii-designed-to-make-life-easier.  And the quotation from C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is from Chapter XII, p. 56 of the 1961 Macmillan paperback edition.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Acxiom Has A File On You

If you are one of 190 million U. S. adults studied by an obscure company in Little Rock, Arkansas called Acxiom, they have the digital equivalent of what used to be known in spy circles as a dossier on you.  In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, secret police maintained files on millions of ordinary citizens, consisting of allegations (many by friends and neighbors) of suspicious or subversive activities.  Acxiom is a firm that collects and sells information about consumers to companies wanting to sell products to them.  The motivations couldn’t be different, but in a weird way, some of the outcomes are the same.

In a recent profile of Acxiom, a New York Times reporter reveals the depth and detail of information that Acxiom can provide.  In contrast to the totalitarian state, Acxiom uses only publicly available information, or at least information that consumers voluntarily provide in forms and online interactions.  But just like the totalitarian state, Acxiom operates out of the public eye.  I had never heard of the outfit before I read the report in the Times, and it is likely that few of my readers have either.   And while no one is likely to be hauled off to a prison camp because of information gathered by Acxiom, some strange things are likely to happen to you nonetheless.

Firms like Acxiom are responsible for the creepy phenomenon I have noted in this blog before.  After investigating a purchase online one day, I was doing something completely different the next day, and suddenly I found that the ads next to the webpage I was reading were full of products that I was researching online the day before.  The feeling this engenders is hard to describe.  It isn’t betrayal, exactly, or like someone was reading my mail (although in a sense they were), but more like the sense you might get if you were walking alone in a big city late at night, and started hearing footsteps behind you that kept pace with your walking.  Nothing bad has happened yet; it might be a coincidence; but you sense that somebody out there knows something about you and is acting on that knowledge.  And you don’t know who it is, or what they plan to do.

I guess it’s the anonymity of the thing that is the creepiest aspect.  There is no single person doing this sort of profiling and product placement: it is the outcome of a huge system of cooperation between outfits like Acxiom and large corporations trying to sell things.  But anonymous dealings are a common part of life today, so what is the big deal ethically about it?

Several critics that the Times reporter spoke to cited the fact that Acxiom sorts its files into categories that have discriminatory overtones.  This categorizing system, termed “PersonicX” (I would really like to speak with the person who thinks up these ugly words), classifies you into one of seventy bins of consumer types, but only if you are not one of those poor or cheapskate customers that insiders term “waste”:  folks who steadfastly refuse to buy the nice things that the customized software applications repeatedly offer to them.  (I may well be in such a category, which would be fine by me.)  And don’t even ask about Acxiom’s databases sorted according to racial types:  Caucasians, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians.   You can buy information on any of these categories of consumers, and target your pitches in a way that takes race into account.

After thinking about this a while, I confess that although I find the eerily personal ads annoying, I can find no principled moral objection to the business Acxiom is in.  The fictional character Sherlock Holmes used to amaze his clients by extrapolating all sorts of facts from the slimmest of physical clues: he’d note a bit of cigar ash here, a shiny spot on a glove there, and like magic he would tell the client his profession, his age, what school he went to, and which side of his face had the best light while he was shaving each morning.

It seems to me that Acxiom is simply doing the same sort of thing Holmes did, except on a large, computerized, and more efficient scale.  And like private detectives, Acxiom offers its services to companies indifferently, and takes no particular responsibility for what its customers do with the information they buy.  I hope that if an anti-Semite organization wanted some details on the names and addresses of wealthy Jews with children in private schools, for instance, Acxiom would smell a rat and refuse to cooperate.  But fortunately, such outfits are not well-heeled enough to afford the kinds of services Acxiom provides. .

I think we are experiencing a long-term transition in the definition of privacy, and Acxiom’s activities are just another step along the way.  It’s possible that the first printed city directory, probably arising in the 1700s or so, was attended with more than a little concern on the part of people who would prefer not to be found, but that was because they were doing things that profited by anonymity.  Anyone who takes economic action of any kind (which means everyone except the very young, the very old, and the institutionalized) has to deal with the fact that information about you is collected by countless organizations, public and private, and resurfaces and recycles through databases indefinitely.  As long as the people who have the data are only trying to make a legitimate buck, I see no great harm in their work, and maybe some good if firms that would otherwise turn to blanket spam email target their ads instead on the much smaller number of people who are actually interested in buying what they have to sell.

Just as the only guaranteed way to avoid getting anything stolen is not to own anything, the only way to avoid getting your information collated and refined and sold by outfits such as Acxiom, is not to buy anything—ever.  And that’s pretty hard.  So we might as well get used to the idea, and hope that the motives of companies that use Acxiom’s data remain as relatively benign as they appear to be now.

Sources:  The New York Times article on Acxiom appeared online on June 16, 2012 at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/technology/acxiom-the-quiet-giant-of-consumer-database-marketing.html.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ethics and the Wisdom of Proverbs

During the time I taught an engineering ethics module, I tried to help students realize that they didn’t have to come up with a basis for ethical decisions all on their own.  Here in central Texas, most students have at least some familial connection with one of the religions of the Book:  Christianity, Islam, or Judaism.  And while religious observance is not one of the most prominent aspects of undergraduate life, I encouraged students who had any sort of religious faith to explore what that faith said about right and wrong conduct.  One of the most accessible places to explore is the Book of Proverbs found in the Hebrew Bible, which of course is part of the Christian Old Testament.

Most of Proverbs is just that:  short proverbs or aphorisms that say things about a wide range of human experience, from the importance of honest weights and measures to the dangers of adultery, and everything in between.  A good many of these aphorisms draw a contrast between characteristics of a good person (usually termed “wise” or “righteous”) and those of a bad person (usually termed “a fool” or “wicked”).  The Hebrew word translated “fool” means more than just one who is silly or what we would nowadays call foolish.  It carries a connotation of moral deficiency, and combines the notion of someone who does wrong with the idea that wrongdoing usually brings its own reward with it.

This notion is captured well by Prov. 18:7 (chapter 18, verse 7), which reads “A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to himself.”  If you have ever said something that got you into trouble, you have experienced this proverb in action, and at the time you were acting foolishly, in the sense of Proverbs.  The image in this proverb, which comes up repeatedly elsewhere in the book, is of a man who lays a trap and then falls into it himself.

Rather like a pointillist painting that seems to be just a collection of random dots up close but turns into a detailed image when viewed from a distance, the proverbs in Proverbs each focus on one aspect of foolishness and wisdom.  But when taken as a whole, a more complex picture emerges.

If you seek algorithmic rules like “When situation A occurs, always do X” you won’t find many in Proverbs, other than the oft-repeated advice to stay away from loose women.  The author (or authors—opinions differ as to how much of the book should be attributed to its traditional author, King Solomon) rarely engages in direct commands.  Rather, he poetically describes the ways that wisdom differs from foolishness, and lets the reader look for himself or herself in the pages of description.

Despite this elliptical way of proceeding, we can garner some definite characteristics of both the foolish and the wise from Proverbs.  The wise or righteous person “heed[s] commandments” (10:8), “lay[s] up knowledge” (10:14), has a “diligent hand” that “makes rich” (10:4), and “has regard for the life of his beast” (12:10).  Whereas the fool or wicked person will “come to ruin” (10:8) and “the babbling of a fool brings ruin near” (10:14).  The fool has a “slack hand” that “causes poverty” (10:4), and even “the mercy of the wicked is cruel” (12:10).

Besides these bipolar contrasts, there are sayings or truisms that earthily, and even humorously, show how human nature apparently hasn’t changed in the two or three millennia since the book was written.  Take this little gem, which encapsulates the whole history of a transaction and its aftermath in two lines:  “ ‘It is bad, it is bad,’ says the buyer; but when he goes away, then he boasts” (20:14).  Or “If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked” (29:12).  And anyone who thinks there’s no humor in the Bible should read Prov. 23:29-35.  Warning against the excesses of alcohol, it describes in extravagant metaphors what it feels like to go on a binge, and winds up with a quotation from the now-sober inebriate:  “ ‘They struck me,’ you will say, ‘but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it.  When shall I awake?  I will seek another drink.”

The way Proverbs approaches ethics is very different from the way it is taught in most professional contexts today.  It is more like having a chat with a trusted advisor who can tell you war stories about his experiences and life lessons he learned from them.  In today’s mass-produced educational systems, the chance to sit down and talk with mentors this way is rare, and even once you are in the workplace you may not have such an opportunity that often.  So if you haven’t done so before, look up Proverbs on the web and take a few minutes to see if you can find yourself, or people you know, in its pages.  And here’s hoping you’ll recognize yourself in the pictures of the wise and righteous, and not those of the foolish or wicked.

Sources:  I referred to the Wikipedia article on “Book of Proverbs.”  The quotations from the book are all from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. 

Sunday, June 03, 2012

AT&T Considers Data-Only Billing

What if you had to buy gasoline for your car in the same the way you have to buy cell-phone service nowadays?

First, you’d have to pick a gas company.  You’d go in, fill out a form or answer a bunch of questions, and then you’d have to sign an agreement to stick with that gas company for a year, say, or else pay a $200 broken-contract fee.  Once you agreed to that condition, you’d have to pick your gas plan.  Do you want gas just locally, or for long driving trips?  Gas for a sports car, a pickup, a minivan, or a lawn mower?  Want extra quarts of oil every 2,000 miles?  You have to make all these choices in advance, and then you’ll get billed a fixed fee, more or less, every month, at least as long as you don’t use more than your maximum number of gallons—plus eight or ten dollars’ worth of taxes, air-pollution recovery charges, and other government nitnoise that nobody but the lawyers can figure out.  If you go beyond your plan’s maximum amount of gas, though, you’ll end up paying big, maybe six bucks a gallon, for every gallon you go over.  And by the way, you have to buy your car from the gas company too—it won’t run on gas from any other company.

Sound pretty silly?  Yet if you substitute “phone company” for “gas company” it’s a fairly accurate description of how cell phone and related wireless-network services are sold today.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am no longer a fan of AT&T.  My childhood regard for that firm bordered on adulation, bolstered by their support of the legendary Bell Laboratories and reinforced by a positive experience in high school with an Explorer Scout group run by a bunch of telephone engineers.  I stuck with AT&T through the Ma Bell breakup in the 1970s, but parted ways with the firm after going on an extended trip in the summer of 2000 and committing the unforgivable sin of using my cell phone to call home a lot.  Because of this sin, I paid through the nose, several hundred dollars at least, and switched to Sprint as fast as I could after I got home.

Now that AT&T has more or less reassembled itself out of the sundry pieces that the courts chopped it into, its clout in the market makes it worthwhile to pay attention when its CEO, Randall Stephenson, speculates about future pricing structures.  On June 1, Stephenson said that “in the next 24 months” we may see phone companies selling phone, data, text, and other services on a “data-only” basis.  While he wasn’t too specific about the technical details, this probably means something like charges based on the number of bits transferred, rather than on other arbitrary things like number of text messages sent or number of minutes talked.

The arcane and ridiculous way that companies currently charge for phone and wireless services came about through a combination of historical circumstances, marketing ploys, and government regulation.  Back when there was nothing but POTS (plain old telephone service, on landlines), the big expense to the phone companies was their long-distance networks, once they had installed local plant and equipment.  So the custom of a flat rate for local calls plus per-connection fees for long distance arose, and at the time it made sense.

Then came multiple revolutions in telecommunications technology:  fiber-optic cables and digital transmission (which vastly lowered the unit cost of long-distance calls) and wireless, which increased the volume of data sent and added new varieties such as text and images to the mix.

Technically speaking, it is more challenging to carry the data representing a two-way phone conversation than it is a one-way text message.  The allowable network delay can’t be more than a fraction of a second, and there are difficulties with sidetone (hearing your own voice), echoes, and other things that increase the cost compared to simply sending some bits from one point to another.  Yet my current cell phone plan lets me talk as much as I like locally, but charges me 20 cents for every text message I send, even if it’s simply “OK.”  If you send “OK” via ASCII, a seven-bit-per-character code, that’s a total of 14 bits, or more than a penny a bit.  If I paid that much for a typical phone call, it would run into thousands of dollars.

A sensible billing system from a technical point of view would charge nearly nothing for actions that use nearly no bits, namely, things like texting and email.  Two-way voice would come next, then still pictures, then movies.  The network companies have to structure their pricing so that customers use enough bandwidth to keep them in business, but not so much that their network bottlenecks (e. g. cell-phone tower equipment) gets clogged and spoils the party for everybody.

As things stand, I suspect it’s kind of like a cartel.  Everybody is getting away with the inverted structure of charging more for texts (which use few bits) than for phone calls (which use more and are inconvenient network-wise).  But as soon as some upstart outfit gets out there with a data-only billing plan, the whole house of cards collapses and the consumer wins, in my view.  My guess is that the AT&T head’s announcement is a way of telling the market that they are prepared for the deluge if it comes, though how they are going to deal with it is not yet clear.

All the same, I look forward to the day when cell-phone pricing is a little more rational.  I don’t think it will ever be as simple as filling your gas tank, but the way things stand now, it’s like medical-insurance billing and tax forms:  it takes an expert to catch another expert who’s cheating, and the average citizen doesn’t stand a chance against a company that decides to bend the rules, or to create Byzantine price structures that are legal but so complex nobody can really know if they are getting a good deal or not.  Let’s hope Mr. Stephenson’s prophecy comes true, and maybe I’ll even consider going back to AT&T.

Sources:  The Austin American-Statesman print edition carried an AP article by Peter Svensson with the headline “Data-only plans may be near, exec says” on Saturday June 2, 2012.