You remember me. You bought the film rights to my novel
for Steve Soderbergh and George Clooney. Didn’t work out, but
that’s not your fault. These things happen. I hope we can work again some day.
That’s not why I’m writing.
I’m writing because yesterday I rented
The Dark Knight, and I couldn’t watch it. I tried. But when I popped that
DVD into my home theater PC and snuggled up on the sofa with my wife, it wouldn’t
At first I thought the disc must be damaged. I tried it in my laptop: no dice there, either.
So I took it back to the video store and swapped it for a new one.
They were very apologetic, by the way, Warners. I guess they understand
that physically traveling to a bricks-and-mortar store is kind of a pain, and when
you’re in business against digital downloads, you don’t want to make your transactions more difficult
than they already are.
Home with my fresh DVD, I tried again. But still: didn’t work.
A little Googling later, I discovered the disc was indeed damaged, and by who: you.
You’ve installed some new
protection onto The Dark Knight DVDs,
which prevents the disc from playing in my PC. Well, “prevents:” it
took me an hour of messing around to figure out how to rip it. I didn’t want
to rip it, Warners. I only wanted to watch it. I think it may actually be
illegal to rip copy-protected DVDs where I live. But you engineered
your disc so that it wouldn’t play in my DVD player: this was the only
way I could access the content I’d paid for.
Now, I understand that home theater PCs are kind of new-fangled, Warners, and not
everyone wants to watch their DVD on a computer or laptop. But some of us
do, more every day. I think you need to get over the idea that PCs are just
Please, help me out here: who does your protection scheme target? It
can’t be the real pirates; they are barely slowed by such things, and you surely
If I’d wanted to download The Dark Knight illegally, it would have
been quick and easy; there’s no shortage of places to find it, and the copies are
high-quality. Unlike your DVD, they are also ad-free, play without a hitch, and would
have spared me three trips to the video store.
I think your target must be the average consumer: someone with a PC and a legitimate
copy of your DVD, but limited technical knowledge. This person will be defeated by
your anti-piracy protection, at least for the moment. But what does this gain you?
I’m honestly stumped. These are not the people who are distributing copies over the internet.
They are, at worst, time-shifting a rental, or handing out a copy to their friends. A
copy of a store-purchased DVD, that is. They are that tiny, precious slice of the population
who has decided to give you their money: your customers.
When you optioned my book, Warners, I noticed the contract provided for a cut of
the film’s eventual revenue to the MPAA. I felt a little uneasy at this, because even back
then I wasn’t comfortable with the shenanigans that organization was up to. The
unskippable copyright notices at the start of movies, for example: that’s half the
reason I swapped to a home theater PC in the first place. There is something wrong, in
my opinion, when a machine I purchased, playing a DVD I purchased, tells me I’m not allowed
to use the fast-forward button.
I understand piracy is a serious problem for you. I really do. You’ll get no argument from
me that wholesale downloading of copyright material easily available from legitimate channels
is morally indefensible. If we can sensibly fix that, I’m right there with you. But you seem
to be hell-bent on
converting your entire customer base into pirates. You are facing competition that offers
your product at zero cost and maximum ease of use, and you respond by breaking
your own DVDs.
So, next film deal, I’m striking that clause out. No more MPAA funding from my
material. And Warners, it’s not because I’m angry. It’s not because I want that hour back
I spent trying to get your busted DVD to play. It’s because you need to
stop this. Really, it’s for your own good.
was reasonably confident we had this whole gender inequality thing licked,
until I fathered a girl. I mean, I was aware things were
not perfect. I worked in corporate-land; women were clearly held to different
standards than men. But still: close enough, I thought. In the grand scheme,
there were bigger problems.
Now I realize the smallest hint of sex discrimination is A GLOBAL CONSPIRACY
TARGETING MY DAUGHTER. And it’s everywhere. Why is every animal
assumed to be male? Why is “he” used interchangeably with “it” in a great
swathe of children’s picture books? I’ll tell you why: because male is the
default setting for everything, unless it’s soft and pink. Or a cat. I’m not
sure why cats are the exception. But everything else is “he.”
I realized this was a problem when Fin began naming her teddies. I
don’t mind her having boy teddies. Boy teddies are fine, in limited quantities.
But she thought almost all of them were all boy teddies. That didn’t
I realized I was doing that thing: using “he” as default.
I had imprinted her.
So I switched defaults. It’s a simple rule: you assume that everything is female
unless there’s clear evidence to the contrary. Animals, teddies, unseen car drivers:
all girls. It proved surprisingly difficult. I’ve been doing it about a year
and I still sometimes slip up.
I also began converting Fin’s teddies. Now, possibly I’m teaching her that
boys sometimes spontaneously turn into girls. But I had to do
something about that men’s club. She’s picked up on it: many of them
now waver between male and female, according to Fin, and a few I think
I’ve turned completely.
Just the other day we saw a dog in the street and Fin asked if it was a boy or a girl.
I asked what she thought. “I think it’s a girl,” she said. That was new.
That’s why all my examples now are going to be “she.” I used to try to
mix it up: a “he” example here, a “she” example there. To, you know, be balanced.
But now I realize the world is full of “he.” I don’t need to add any more.
Next I plan to father an illegitimate child with a Kenyan and discover we
still haven’t solved racism.
P.S. Last day of Movember! I’m so happy; I finally get to shave off this monstrosity.
Look at me! I’m a broken man.
has a new ad! And
experts are divided
over whether the quirky,
banter-heavy, no-need-to-mention-a-product spot is 90 seconds of
pure Seinfeldian genius, or a sad demonstration of what you get when
you try to advertise something that has no selling points.
Well, when I say “divided:” Microsoft thinks it’s pretty neat, and everybody
else seems underwhelmed. In the face of this howling gale of
criticism, Microsoft has responded: That’s just what we wanted! The ad is just a
“teaser,” they say, meant to “get the conversation going.”
Press picked up this idea, ending its article with:
Even if the reaction was mostly negative, Microsoft’s ad has clearly succeeded
in getting people talking.
And it popped up in lots of other places, too:
“It was a very odd commercial but it has the effect that people are talking about it now…
so didn’t they get their money’s worth?” wrote ‘Amanda.’
I wonder when we can kill the idea that even colossal marketing blunders
are secretly brilliant, since they at least got people’s attention. Because it
sounds like I’m being asked to believe Microsoft deliberately blew $300
million as a strategic move to get everybody talking about what a waste
of money that was. That must have been some pitch meeting.
“Here’s our idea: a series of pointless, meandering ad spots that
don’t actually promote your product, but spark worldwide debate
about what the hell you thought you were trying to accomplish. Everyone
will be talking about it!”
Presumably this firm would go on to promote Presidential candidates by
having them drown puppies on live TV. You can’t beat that kind of
Personally, I don’t mind this ad. It’s the introduction of a long campaign;
they’re just warming up. I’m prepared to believe it will be effective and entertaining.
But if it sucks, that won’t mean it’s genius in disguise. It’ll just mean it sucks.
Atheism seems to be on the rise lately. I say this as someone who has examined no studies
nor historical data, but who reads a lot of web sites. I see more people more comfortable with declaring their atheism than ever before.
I think it’s at least partly because of the internet, which provides a
meeting-place for sharing and reinforcing ideologies:
that’s something new for atheists, whereas people of various faiths have always had churches, plus, in many places, pervasive support from their community.
And the internet is not only good at uniting geographically dispersed but like-minded
people: it’s also disproportionately popular amongst people with technical and scientific backgrounds, who in turn are disproportionately atheist. So, on balance, the web seems to me to be a net negative for major religion.
Which got me thinking of the Tower of Babel*. According to the Bible, a great tower was built long ago in the city of Babylon; the builders of said tower were a little too pleased with themselves and their achievement, at least for God’s liking. There’s a whiff of the Titanic about this story: arrogance so great that it practically begs for comeuppance.
Which God delivers, of course. It didn’t take much to set God off in the Old Testament; he’d smite you for a backward look.
But here, he reacts in a way that at first seems a little odd: no smiting, no plagues; he doesn’t even—stop me if I have this wrong—destroy the tower:
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
God is not concerned about the tower itself, or even the arrogance of its builders. That makes sense to me: you can be arrogant in any language, just look at France. God’s
issue is with the ease of global communications.
So, as a story about the internet’s role in the decline of organized religion, the Tower of Babel makes perfect sense. I think that’s nifty.
(* Note: Religion is one of those touchy subjects you can’t write about without people
looking for hidden agendas.
Which is a shame, because religions are crammed full of stories that are
interesting and meaningful regardless of how true you consider them to be.
In the interests of full disclosure, I personally don’t believe the Bible
to be a non-fiction work, but I hope that doesn’t bother you too much, and we can
still be friends.)
I decided to stop doing those blog posts where I pontificate about
how the world should be. Because reading those back, they even annoy me.
And the ones that annoy me the most are when I start yapping about
politics. I mean, please, like the world needs another shrill, ignorant
opinion on that.
Well, maybe just one more. Don’t you think it’s strange how
often people vote for somebody
they don’t like? Elections should be simple, shouldn’t they? We
vote for whoever we want to win, and the popular choice prevails.
But in practice, you often have an incentive to vote “tactically.” For
example, if you’re electing the US Democratic nominee, there’s no
point voting for your favorite candidate if he or she has no chance of defeating
the Republican nominee in the General Election. You should only vote for
someone who can ultimately win. So now your vote has
to not simply express your own preference, but be modified by
what you believe everybody else prefers, too.
Anywhere there’s plurality voting, you can’t safely vote for your favorite
candidate unless you’re confident enough other people will too.
Otherwise, you’re smarter to vote for your least-hated candidate
with a practical chance of victory. (Or
Now, in my experience, any time someone expresses an opinion they don’t
personally have, but think others do, it’s a terrible opinion. For example, I’ve seen it
produce some pretty ugly book covers. And I’ll ignore it
in any reader feedback I get on my story drafts. People who try to
guess what other people want end up settling on the dullest,
most conservative, and uninspiring choice available, even if none
of them personally prefer it.*
I get that there’s no such thing as a perfect voting system.
are more warped than
but, okay, it’s
difficult to create a fair, practical voting system.
Still. How disturbing is it that on top of every other form of corruption
inherent in the political process, it can be completely reasonable for
you to walk into a ballot room and vote for someone other than who you
want to win?
(* That’s one of the reasons Hillary got so close to Barack. There, I said it.)
Surely advertising is the world’s most inefficient industry. Here are people
who will plaster a bus with a
ten-foot-high pop-out poster of a giant on the off chance it will encourage
you to have your carpets cleaned.
Let’s walk through this process. For the ad to work, you must (a) notice it,
(b) pay sufficient attention to absorb its message, (c) attach sufficient credibility
to not immediately dismiss it, (d) retain that message until you enter a purchasing situation
relevant to that product, and (e) find the message so persuasive that it alters
the purchasing decision you would otherwise have made.
The chances of this are infinitesimal. And so advertising spams. It makes five hundred
uninterested TV viewers sit through a 30-second spot in case one of them is in the market
for a new SUV. The amazing part is that this is actually cost-effective. Advertising is a
half-trillion-dollar industry that makes commercial sense even though most of its
output is wasted.
Far more sensible would be if advertisers could restrict their ads to people likely to
respond to them. They’d save bucketloads of money; we wouldn’t have to sit through ads
for products we wouldn’t buy in a million years.
This yawning gap between the present state of the advertising industry and one
that isn’t completely freaking insane means there will be change.
Market segmentation has always been a big deal in marketing, but it’s getting huge.
Marketers are ravenous for information about you, and they’re building
immense data stores. These will enable them to tailor their messages to you—or,
at least, to your market segment. In the short-term, it’ll mean more relevant ads,
Google-style. Next, I think, comes more persuasive ads. That’s when they change
not the product being advertised, but the message: playing up its green credentials
if you’re environmentally conscious, its patriotism if you’re nationally minded,
and so on.
Lately I’ve been thinking about my ideal state of advertising. And I don’t think it’s no
ads at all. I would prefer no ads to the tidal wave of irrelevant ads I get currently,
but in a perfect world, I do want information about products. Specifically, I want
unbiased recommendations from people I respect and admire. That basically means
friends and select celebrities. I want this to be “pull” information: I don’t want
anyone randomly coming up and yakking about their amazing new phone. But
if I’m thinking about a new phone, I’d like to be able to see what people with whom I identify
think. I would like to browse through a list and see that Wild Pete has a
Nokia but it sucks, Wil is wedded to his Motorola, and Stephen King knows
where you can get a good deal on an iPhone.
The closest thing I’ve seen is Facebook. It’s all push—I get recommendations and links
thrown at me whether they’re relevant or not, and almost entirely they’re not. But
still, it’s socially-based purchasing advice. I think if Facebook had been smarter—if
they’d remembered their success comes from giving people complete control over their own
information, and hadn’t
to wrest it back—they could have built the most effective, highly-targeted advertising
platform in the world. Maybe they still will.
Until then, I’m skipping TV ads on my PVR, blocking them on the web with my browser,
and listening to commercial-free internet radio.