Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Biofuel Mess

Biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, have been a hot topic recently in political circles as a tool for combating climate change. They could create tons of agricultural/processing jobs while also doing a good thing for the environment...what's wrong with that?

Well, lots. First comes this article here, from the Financial Times, showing the ridiculous subsidies for biofuel production. Including as much as $1/litre in Europe for ethanol. The most fascinating chart, however, shows how much subsidized biofuel production has pushed the growth of corn consumption:

Theoretically, this focus on biofuel production has other effects, distorting food markets and driving up prices. Well...that world is a reality now. To the point that the UN independent food rights expert called for a 5-year freeze on biofuel production.
“It is a crime against humanity to convert agricultural productive soil into soil which produces food stuff that will be burned into biofuel.”

Even The Economist has weighed in, with an article on higher food prices. They too note the effect of biofuels, but also note the contribution of continued market liberalization, combined with an inordinate number of floods and droughts. It remains to be seen what will happen next, but reducing the distorting effect of biofuel subsidies would go a long way to helping everyone.

Friday, November 2, 2007

More on TV and the internet

Since my last post on this, much more has come to pass.

NBC and FOX launched their own video streaming site called Hulu, which is still in beta.
And in general the issue of TV and the internet has been much talked about. Well, as always, The Economist does the best wrap-up and summary of the complex issue here.
The penny has finally dropped. Broadcasters have realised they can earn more
from selling advertising slots in shows given away on the internet, than they
can from selling episodes for downloading online.
Better still, rather than
erode their viewing figures still further, letting people watch episodes of
popular TV shows on laptops or other devices seems to increase audiences for the
broadcasters’ conventional programming. Offering free access apparently
reinforces the broadcaster’s brand and boosts viewer loyalty—one of the first
pieces of good news the networks have had in ages.

Well, duh! Meanwhile The Economist also needled the wireless companies for their inane 20th-Century style monopolistic utility model.
But what about watching TV on a mobile phone? The phone companies would prefer
you didn’t know about free internet television. They want to make you pay a
hefty sum for receiving television shows on your phone via their proprietary
cellular networks, rather than from the internet for free.

Oh how wonderful they are! Google and Yahoo don't think like that! Nintendo doesnt think like that! This is old-style AT&T 'damn the consumers...full-speed ahead!'.
All it takes is one competitor...please let it be google. The wireless industry is due for a massive upheaval, and complete retooling of the standards of competition. Everyone hates their wireless company....but it doesnt have to be that way! Anyway, maybe people will vote with their feet (as they have with iPhones, supposedly 250K have been unlocked, and last week Apple limited iphone purchases to 2 per person, and only with a credit card).
Will subscribers tune in? That all depends on what price the wireless
carriers charge, and how much control the television networks are prepared to
surrender. The way both parties have been behaving of late does not bode
With Apple having upped the ante by including a WiFi connection in its
iPhone, sooner or later all mobile phones will have to do the same. That will
allow users to connect direct to the free and open internet as well as to their
carrier’s pricey and closed proprietary network. That means free phone calls
from the likes of Skype whenever the phone is used in WiFi hotspot. It also
means free access to internet TV.
The betting is that mobile viewers won’t
limit their video fare to just “walled gardens” like Hulu that broadcasters are
erecting. By insisting on controlling the content, how long it is made available
and what users can add to it, Hulu and its ilk will almost certainly drive
potential viewers to the open country of YouTube and MySpace, or even to the
bootleg haven of BitTorrent.
What the mobile generation of 18 to 34 year-olds
finds so attractive about social networks like YouTube and MySpace is that it is
they, the users, who are in charge. They not only assemble the content, but they
also curate it. And in so doing, they create a seductive sense of community.
That’s what makes such sites so successful.

Friday, October 26, 2007

TV going the way of music?

How do people want to consume music? The answer, it is increasingly clear, is that people want SONGS, not albums. As Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics notes:

It strikes me as ironic that a new technology (digital music) may have accidentally forced record labels to abandon the status quo (releasing albums) and return to the past (selling singles). I sometimes think that the biggest mistake the record industry ever made was abandoning the pop single in the first place. Customers were forced to buy albums to get the one or two songs they loved; how many albums can you say that you truly love, or love even 50% of the songs — 10? 20? But now the people have spoken: they want one song at a time, digitally please, maybe even free.

How do people want to consume television? The rise of TV and DVR has increasingly shown tv execs that people, as always, want to consume shows on their own time, at their own pace, in their own way (TV, ipod, computer, etc.; without ads, in a row, 10-minutes at a time etc.). This is why NBC's decision to begin putting their shows for free online is genius....except the shows are only available to US IP addresses, which kind of misses the point (since the rest of the world is more wired than the US anyway; see this article about the US ranking 15th in internet connectedness).

Well, my favorite free tv website online, the late TV links, was shut down last week. In a move reminiscent of napster and its fight with the record industry, the site was shut down by the FACT (Federation against copywright theft) group. See this UK article: "One of the world's most-used pirate film websites has been closed after providing links to illegal versions of major Hollywood hits and TV shows."

HAH. Once again, they've missed the whole point, which is that online file-sharing and the essentially unlimited consumption freedom it confers is the future of entertainment, all entertainment (moreover, as this link notes: "On the facts that we know so far, it is difficult to see how the providing of links to infringing copies of TV shows gives rise to a civil or criminal liability under UK law").

Well, the article that got me all started on this is here, and is worth a full read. My favorite section is this:

It’s just stunning to see that the TV and film world haven’t sorted themselves out by making their programmes available for people to watch online - in the time between then and now. The end result? People are bypassing the owners of the content and going to any source where they can find the programmes. Hence the rise of sites like TV-Link and AllUC. Again we’ll see large media organisations shouting “FOUL!” and insisting that “Something must be done about this.” If they hadn’t spent so much time worrying about trying to get DRM working - treating their customers a thieves - and more time getting the content ready to be available to their customers, they might not have been in this position.

I would add that it is not only stunning, but frankly inexplicable. While music in the digital age requires a fundamentally different business model, it is not difficult for TV content providers (HBO through NBC, ABC, CBS etc.) to provide streaming video of all their programming. This can be done with advertising (even with embedded commercial breaks). The TV business, unlike the music business, is built like the internet!

Record labels have to change the way they sell music, but since most TV (with obvious exceptions) is provided free-of-charge, or at a nominal cost, with revenue earned through advertising, how does TV not jive with the internet? Free content, with revenue from advertising.....where have I heard that before? sounds familiar.......

Oh yeah! This is how GOOGLE is run, the kingpin of the internet! The internet is constructed on this model, where is internet TV!!!!!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More New York Times mediocrity

So some of you may know that I no longer read the NY Times, after years of diligently plowing through the A section every single weekday (it was free in college). I remember being vaguely perturbed by the breathlessly credulous way in which the Times supported the Iraq war (I feel like I plagiarized that phrase from someone; apologies if i did), and most recently the papers' shameful portrayal of the Duke Lacrosse Case was even more directly sobering (see the AP's Aaron Beard for some real reporting).

Well, the NY Times has never been well-known for its sports coverage, but this gem from August is thigh-slappingly hilarious (from Slate):
"Charlie Weis has returned Notre Dame to relevancy. Just two years ago, as Notre Dame spiraled toward mediocrity under Ty Willingham, a shot at a national
title seemed improbable. But the schemes and the discipline Weis has installed have
revived past glories. The only question on the Irish offense comes on the line.
But considering the way Weis turned castoff linemen into solid starters with the
New England Patriots, that should not be a huge concern."— New York Times, Aug.
27, 2006
Two months after writing those immortal lines, Notre Dame is now 1-7, spectacularly bad. Nice prediction.

Cali Fires

Maybe I'm a closet pyro, but I am fascinated by wildfires and wilderness firefighting of late. Check out this awesome google mashup by the San Diego Union-Trib.