Archive for May, 2008

What Friends are For

By , 30 May, 2008, 1 Comment

Just when I think I’ve seen it all, the U.S. government does something so mind-bogglingly stupid I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s real. That’s what happened today when I learned that the State Department has cancelled the Fulbright grants for seven students from Gaza.

Israel’s current policy vs. Hamas is to close off the Gaza strip until tough living conditions force Palestinians to rise up against their government. That means no one can go in or out of Gaza for work, food, or travel.

I’m not a fan of the culture war rhetoric that dominates discussions of Middle East politics, but if there is a culture war, then our best hope is to empower the brightest young Palestinians with education and job prospects, and let them build civil society from within. It’s Kafka-esque of Israel to insist upon a strong Palestinian civil society as a precondition for any negotiations, and then deny Palestinians access to the resources to build that society.

What outrages me, as an American, is that we let them get away with it. Technically, yes, Israel has a ban on Palestinian travel, but as one of the seven students said in an interview with the NYTimes, it’s hard to believe that American influence couldn’t have wrangled an exception for seven individuals selected by the State Department. Breaking cultural barriers is precisely the reason the State Department funds Fulbrights to begin with.

Public anger about the decision today is putting pressure on Israel and the US Government to make a visa exception for the seven students, but it doesn’t solve the fact that the Fulbright organizers have already cancelled the scholarships and given the money to other applicants. Now the question is whether they can russle up new funds for the original seven.

As Israel’s strongest and staunchest ally, it’s our responsibility not only to support them in tough times, but to give honest advice, to say “no” when they make a wrong turn. THAT’s what friends are for.

The Sun Never Sets

By , 28 May, 2008, No Comment

Some people have too much time on their hands. Like this kid at Trinity College, Dublin, who calculated the number of links it takes to get from any article to any other article on Wikipedia. But thanks to his procrastination project, I can confirm that the British Empire is alive and well.

See in today’s world, connectivity is power. There might be more Google searches for “food” or “sex” or “Barack Obama” than there are users signing online to learn about the United Kingdom. But the Wiki entry on the UK has more links to other articles, is more centrally located in the Wiki universe than any of its flashier competitors.

In its 19th century peak, the British Empire worked because England acted as a hub, a barely visible hand for protectorates and principalities that perceived themselves autonomous. London made out well not so much because people wanted to go there, but because they–and their resources–passed through London on the way to everywhere else.

Plus ça change, it seems, plus c’est la même chose.

Up Close and Political

By , 27 May, 2008, 3 Comments

So Gordon Brown’s Labour got a pretty severe walloping in elections earlier this month. Pundits are predicting a similar defeat for Brown himself in the next general election vs. David Cameron and the Conservatives.

Cameron has been making waves for some time for bringing youthfulness to Mrs. Thatcher’s Tories, complete with a hot pink website. How could Gordon Brown, curmudgeonly and old-school compete?

This week, Brown launched his counterattack: a Web 2.0 version of Prime Minister’s question time. “Ask the PM” is a new feature on YouTube!’s 10 Downing St. channel, where Britons can submit 30 second questions and vote on the questions of their peers. Brown will periodically sign on to give video responses to the most popular spots.

The Guardian, whose editorial line is pro-Brown to begin with, gave the project a rave review. Brown certainly gets points for taking Labour in the right direction, and he’s already got tons of videos from (mostly) young voters.

But can “Ask the PM” become a voter mobilization device? Or, like so many politician-goes-techie ventures before it, is it just a gimmick?

Insurgent Media

By , 21 May, 2008, No Comment

There’s a fascinating cycle of media coverage coming out this week after Hillary Clinton’s bloggers-only conference call over the weekend.

In the call, she made her usual arguments about the need to seat Michigan and Florida at the Convention, and her electability in the fall. The tagline that most bloggers took away was “it’s the map, not the math,” meaning that Clinton is winning in states that will be important battlegrounds in the general election. She went on to specifically thank bloggers who have supported her and continued to cover her campaign as the mainstream media has pretty much accepted Obama as the Democratic nominee.

Disclaimer: A Clinton supporter at heart, I’ve recently come to terms with the inevitability of her defeat.

What’s interesting though, is that the mainstream media devoted ample coverage to the call itself. The New York Times ran a piece on it, and then argued that it reflects Ms. Clinton’s fall from frontrunner grace that she is resorting to the “megaphone of insurgents.” If the blogosphere is so counter-cultural, why does the Times–”megaphone” of the liberal establishment–use it as a source? And if Clinton and McCain are supposed to be the old fogies in this race against young, hip Obama, how come he’s the only candidate who hasn’t reached out to the political blogs this way?

I’m hardly making the case that Clinton and McCain are young hipsters, but rather that the line between the blogs and the so-called “mainstream” is a lot fuzzier than the NY Times makes it seem.

“Apocalypse” the sequel

By , 16 May, 2008, 1 Comment

In a post last week, I argued that the Washington Post’s new deal with TechCrunch was the sign of the future of media, where big media companies will acquire and aggregate the expertise of niche bloggers while maintaining the credibility of their brand.

Today brings a sequel: Conde Nast, the magazine giant that already owns tech magazine Wired, has acquired the blog arstechnica.com. In case you’re skeptical of how big this is, they paid about as much for arstechnica as they did for the whole Wired business back in 2006.

I know it takes three examples to make a trend, but these two buys back to back seem pretty striking to me. Thoughts?

1, 2, skip a few…

By , 12 May, 2008, No Comment

…99, 100.

That’s how I used to count to 100 when I was a kid and trying to be cheeky. In real life, you can rarely skip steps that easily, but sometimes, it works.

Last night I went to see the most charming movie about elderly folks who sing covers of classic and not-so-classic rock songs. It’s called Young@Heart and it reminded me a bit of Buena Vista Social Club set in Massachusetts. Both are movies worth seeing, and calling one’s grandparents immediately afterwards. A little cheesy, yes, but the music is pretty awesome and even a jaded Gen Yer like me can be inspired from time to time.

In one scene that really struck me, one of the singers, Bob Salvini, died of cardiac arrest just before a concert. He was meant to sing a duet of Coldplay’s Fix You with another very ill man, Fred Knittle. Suddenly, Fred has to sing the whole thing alone and doesn’t know Bob’s part.

All throughout the film, there are jokes about how the singers’ own musical tastes turn to opera or classical, except when they’re singing at Young@Heart. When the conductor gives them CDs of Sonic Youth or the Talking Heads, they can’t figure out which side goes up in the CD player.

But when Fred has to learn Fix You, he sits down at his Dell computer and pulls up this video from YouTube! to sing along to.

The result is heartbreakingly beautiful:

Web 2.0 technologies are reaching people for whom the big step is not from analog to digital, Ethernet to wireless, but from ink on paper to pixels on a screen. My grandmother, for example, cannot use a DVD player but she knows that “Google” is a verb and has an email account.

1, 2, skip a few…

The Friendly Face of the Newspaper Apocalypse

By , 8 May, 2008, 3 Comments

Pundits have been predicting the downfall of the newspaper for a long time. And while I agree that the news market is changing rapidly, I’m not convinced that the printed press is a thing of a past. Instead, an announcement by the Washington Post today suggests the direction other news media outlets might take.

The Post has essentially outsourced a chunk of its technology reporting to the bloggers at TechCrunch. All the blog posts from TechCrunch.com will appear on the Post’s technology page and according to TechCrunch, the next step is a comment feature that will allow reader discussion to take place simultaneously on both websites.

Imagine, for a moment, that the Post were to turn over all its breaking tech news to TechCrunch, all its breaking political tidbits to Politico, and all its entertainment research to the folks at PerezHilton. Each section of their website would become a mini-blog, which is effectively what the New York Times has done. Except the Times model requires a full staff of bloggers for every subject; for most print newspapers, the key now is to streamline staff and save cash.

The genius of the Post deal is that it gives readers the insider news of the experts at TechCrunch with the brand credibility of the Washington Post. For the Post, it’s a way to get around the fact that little guys in the blogosphere often know more about their small niches than big news outlet reporters. For TechCrunch, it’s a way to monetize and attract ad dollars, something internet news sites still struggle with.

See, the brand of The Washington Post still means a lot, even if according to some pessimists, the daily paper is a goner. Instead, I predict more deals like this, where blog-style news aggregates under the name of a big media brand. Meanwhile, I think a lot of readers still like getting things in print, but will be more likely to pay for print magazines, feature stories and in-depth pieces than daily breaking news. With more blog deals like this, the Post could devote a small in-house staff to the investigative and longer pieces, and put out a bi-weekly print edition, or a weekend ‘zine.

I’m not alone, in seems, in voicing this theory: Businessweek’s media guru Jon Fine was predicting last year that a big paper like the San Francisco Chronicle would do well to go all-online. This week, he writes that daily papers should downsize to publishing 3 times a week. The New York Times already offers a weekend-only subscription. What do you guys think?

Because it’s Cinco de Mayo…

By , 5 May, 2008, 1 Comment

…this post is just for fun.

Over drinks last weekend, some friends and I tried to write a palindrome story. We got a title “Project Racecar” and a few useful phrases — “he man Madam racecar madam name h-” — but nothing that made narrative sense. So I submit this for the wisdom of the cyber-crowds.

We’ll start with the word “racecar”

What letters, words, phrases can you add to either side to make a story that works backwords and forwards?

Capitalism 2.0: If you really want to beat them, join them

By , 4 May, 2008, 2 Comments

I’m pretty skeptical of free culture political theory. The Free Culture radicals (people like Larry Lessig, McKenzie Wark and Richard Stallman) argue that the collaborative/non-proprietary ethos of online software production, and the YouTube!-Wikipedia-Napster world it’s unleashed, necessarily contribute to a communitarian model of society: that Web 2.0 technologies represent a shift away from classical economics.

Even after taking a media studies class in college where the professor, Mark Tribe, was something of an open source evangelist, I have my doubts about this technological determinism. But I can sometimes see where the radical theory comes from.

A recent move by Google is a case-in-point. Among the keys to the company’s success is their model for online advertising–using search technologies and consumer behavior online to target ads, and selling that capability to others. One of the very Web 2.0-esque features of that model is the fact that a small-time company has a decent chance to compete with the big shots, since it’s popularity with users (not corporate ad dollars paid in advance) that sends an advert to the top of Google’s lists. That’s one point for the radicals.

This week, Google decided to extend this model to television with Adwords TV. Anybody can make a video spot online (Google has tools to help you do it yourself), and use their crowd-sourcing model to pick a target audience/time slot to air it. You make all the decisions online, pay by credit card and Google does the leg work of getting your ad on TV. The DIY approach fits the collaborative utopia Lessig and Stallman envisage.

Today’s entrepreneurs sometimes argue that Web 2.0 technologies are “additive” not “competitive,” meaning that one new tech feature isn’t out to replace another. You can have a profile on MySpace AND Facebook. Where video may have killed the radio star, Google’ s new ad scheme suggests that Web 2.0 can coexist with the old-school small screen.

Warm and fuzzy as that sounds, however, it seems to me that Google’s philosophy is as old-school as TV itself. Recognizing that people still prefer watching the the Super Bowl on the couch with snacks to YouTube-ing by themselves, they’ve found a way to make online dollars from offline behavior. Google’s “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach sounds to me like a high tech version of age old game theory.