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.

Monday, October 22, 2007

On the danger of factions

Great little observation here about single-issue, high-powered ethno-religious lobby groups. Namely Armenian-Americans, Cuban-Americans, and the famous/infamous Israeli lobby. Fallows pulls a great quote from the Federalist papers, about 'Factions'

"By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a
majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common
impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or
to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

Sound familiar?

NASA withholding vital survey safety data...for no good reason

Recently, I have been very impressed with the Associated Press. They continually break new stories, provide truly balanced, unbiased fact-based reporting. Good stuff. Unlike the NY Times...

Anyway, the AP has been trying for 14 months to get access to a 4-year NASA survey of airline pilots that the agency repressed the report "fearful it would upset air travelers and hurt airline profits".


As an economist and fan of free markets, I am hardly knee-jerk anti-corporate, but the thought that a public agency run by the government, payed by taxpayers money, and tasked with public service goals could possibly cite instigating panic and protecting corporate profits is unconscionable. In fact, I can't think of a single, defensible reason to ever suppress this kind of data. In the final letter from NASA to the AP denying their FOIA request, a NASA administrator actually wrote (and should be fired for it):
Release of the requested data, which are sensitive and safety-related, could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of, the air carriers and general aviation companies whose pilots participated in the survey
......(blink).....(go slack-jawed)......(start feeling overwhelming blood-boiling rage).....(serenity now).

Luckily the AP then decided that if they couldn't get the actual results, they could definitely find some disgruntled employees who could summarize them off the record. Go AP! Check out the link for full detail.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Generics not the same? Oh dear me..

Any sort of even minor groundswell against generics could lead to a catastrophic disintegration of the global healthcare system. Generics are cheaper, not just a little, but A LOT cheaper, like 90% or more than the branded versions, and their existence lies at the very core of the modern capitalist-patent innovation system.

We (society) agree not to copy a pharmaceutical company's innovations for a specified period of time (the length of a patent), as long as the details of said invention are published and made openly available after the end of the patent. In the meantime, the innovator enjoys a monopoly on his/her invention and can therefore price and market it at will, thus enabling the innovator to recoup their capital, and society to enjoy the innovation's benefits during the length of the patent. Obviously a key element of generics, once the expiry of the patent, is to exactly copy the original drug. Specifications are of course provided in the original patent, in addition to the fact that most small-molecule drugs can rather easily be reverse-engineered.

Well, this smoothly running deal between society and innovators that underpins the entire innovation paradigm of modern healthcare, while providing the obvious answer to future concerns over skyrocketing drug costs, is being called into question. Apparently, generic versions of GSK's Wellbutrin (bupropion, see label here) have been called into question.

New test findings by that were released to showed that one of a few generic versions of Wellbutrin XL 300 mg, sold as Budeprion XL 300 mg, didn't perform the same as the brand-name pill in the lab...

...For the testing, purchased both the original Wellbutrin XL
300 mg sold by GlaxoSmithKline and the generic version sold by Teva, the same
one that Douglas took and that many other readers complained about, and had six
samples of each drug analyzed. While both drugs contained the stated amount of
the active ingredient, bupropion, "dissolution testing" showed that the generic
drug, which has a different time-release mechanism, released the active
ingredient into a solution at a quicker rate. "The Teva product released
nearly half of its ingredients in the first four hours," says Cooperman. "The
original Wellbutrin released 25 percent." Within the first two hours, 8
percent of the original Wellbutrin had dissolved, compared with 34 percent of
the Teva product, according to Cooperman. By 16 hours, both drugs had released
all the medicine.

WOW. A few quick-hit thoughts:

1. Teva isn't just some fly-by-night sketchy generics operator, it's one of the world's premier generics manufacturers (in fact, it even has one or two of its own branded drugs, like the oral MS drug Copaxone).

2. The MSNBC article, and none of the other articles I've seen, make any mention of the potentially enormous economic and social ramifications of loss of patient faith in generic drugs.

3. While the article notes it briefly, the test done by is highly suspect, in that it was an in vitro test ('in glass' i.e. in a test tube) and thus is not as rigorous as FDA testing. The FDA tests 'bioequivalence' which measures the actual drug biology in healthy volunteers, and is thus far more realistic than some test tube. Nonetheless, the words of this pharmacist stick in my head:
"the combination of anecdotal evidence and the conclusions of the in vitro study
would lead one to believe that patients might receive a different therapeutic
outcome from the two medications."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Alcohol as a therapeutic?

From Australia (where else?) comes this gem of a story about alcohol being used therapeutically:

DOCTORS used a case of vodka to help save an Italian tourist being treated for poisoning in a Queensland hospital. And hospital authorities later proved very understanding about the booze bill. The 24-year-old man was brought to Mackay Base Hospital, in north Queensland, two months ago after he had ingested a large amount of the poisonous substance ethylene glycol, found in antifreeze, which can cause renal failure and is often fatal.

Well I got curious, of course, as to how exactly it was possible for alcohol to be GOOD for you (asides from red wine, but then its not the booze in red wine that's helping you, but some of the other stuff). I also got curious, however, because this story directly relates to the Chinese Poison Toothpaste Fiasco that has been leading headlines this year (you may recall, ethylene glycol is similar to glycerine and was substituted in toothpastes made in China).

Luckily, the beauty of the modern 'radiated library' known as the internet has merged with the 1980s/90s 'evidence-based medicine' movement to let average Joes like me access lots of free medical information. Here, you can find "Methanol and ethylene glycol poisoning: a case study and review of the literature" which neatly summarizes (in fairly penetratable medspeak) exactly what happens with ethylene glycol poisoning.

Essentially, ethylene glycol and alcohol go through the same metabolic pathways in the body, and thus are broken down by the same compounds. Ethylene glycol itself is not poisonous, it is its after-molecules that cause trouble. Oxalate acid in particular has a tendancy to build up in certain bodily tissues, especially the kidneys. This 'oxalate crystal deposition' is a primary mechanism of ethylene glycol's toxicity, and leads to kidney failure (and potentially death). This is ethylene glycol's metabolic pathway:

Treating ethylene glycol poisoning is really easy, you first have to block the molecule's metabolic pathways, to prevent further harm. This is usually accomplished with IV ethanol (alcohol) or fomepizole, and seeks to block the action of ADH in metabolizing the compound. Fomepizole simply inhibits the ability of ADH to do its work, while ethanol 'competes' with ethylene glycol for ADH floating around in your system. It turns out that booze is 100 TIMES more able to soak up ADH than ethylene glycol, so putting just a little bit of alcohol into your system quickly takes up all the available ADH, simply preventing ethylene glycol from breaking down while you are drunk. In the meantime, while ADH is being blocked, ethylene glycol is simply floating around, not dangerous, but not going away. Simple hemodialysis (filtering of the blood through an external machine) can accomplish the task of scrubbing your blood of the ethylene glycol.

This is why the docs gave the guy 3 drinks an hour for 3 days, because they essentially needed to keep him long-term buzzed , to prevent his kidneys from failing, while they scrubbed his blood. I guess he took so much, that it took them a while. HAH.

Also check out wikipedia.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

More cool architecture

I've been seeing some pretty cool buildings lately, in a sort of 21st century modernism based on glass, steel, aluminum and totally unconventional vertical aesthetics. It's funny how much our impression of buildings is rooted in our deep reliance on the functionality of buildings, as solid structures whose stability protects us from the element. It seems that we therefore prize solid, secure aesthetics, namely the importance of 90 degree angles. Even the Bilbao Guggenheim ascribes to this innate need for secure stability. Despite its titanium sides and smoothly fluid lines, it is fundamentally squatly anchored in the ground.

Newer 21st century architecturs even seem to challenges this, I have been noticing. This new architecture seems to revel in illusions of instability through leaning, slumping, and surging at angles neither paralell, nor perpindicular to the horizon. Three examples:

Stata Center, MIT

The new crystal addition to the Royal Ontario Museum:

And my personal favorite, the new Central Chinese Television Tower (CCTV), being built, in Beijing:

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Prophetic futurists from the past

Check this out:

Here, the workspace is no longer cluttered with any books. In their place, a screen and a telephone within reach. Over there, in an immense edifice, are all the books and information. From there, the page to be read, in order to know the answer to the question asked by telephone, is made to appear on the screen. The screen could be divided in half, by four, or even ten if multiple texts and documents had to be consulted simultaneously. There would be a loudspeaker if the image had to be complemented by oral data and this improvement could continue to the automating the call for onscreen data. Cinema, phonographs, radio, television: these instruments, taken as substitutes for the book, will in fact become the new book, the most powerful works for the diffusion of human thought. This will be the radiated library and the televised book.

Sounds kinda like computers and the internet right? Well that was one hell of a prophetic dude, from back in 1934 (check it out). Ridiculous.

What crazy idea have you heard of recently that will actually become the future?

Why I love the View

I think Barbara Walters is secretly a genius. Let's review.

Star Jones. 'nuff said.
Rosie's Trump feuds and loud radical lesbo-feminist crassness.
Barry Manilow hating Elisabeth Haselbeck (yup, he's definitely gay)
Whoopi Goldberg saying Michael Vick should be excused because black culture doesn't care about dogs.
And now, Barbara Walters has finished the latest version of the view cast.....Sherri Shepherd.

It inspires speechlessness.

And then she tries to make me feel bad for daring to think such airy thoughts as 'why does the sun rise in the east but set in the west' while she slaves away providing for her children? That's rich.

Freedom for the Burmese

I have been following with great interest and hope the ongoing events in Burma, and I still don't know what to make of it. Generally speaking, revolutions require a uniting of disparate lesser power sources with the common people. This generally involves something like radicals and moderates finding common cause (see French, Russian, or Iranian revolutions), or previously neutral parties joining in (Turkish or maybe Burmese with the monks?). There is an important distinction, however, from many overthrows of corrupt tottering regimes and superpower client states like the revolving door of Pakistani/Bangladeshi governments, the Afghanistan cold war saga, or even the Indonesian 1998 revolutions.

This is a totalitarian state. Burma isn't some carefully sown together balance of power between conflicting factions like ethnic groups (see Lebanon), sectarian parties (see Iraq), ancient political families (see Bangladesh/Indonesia), or any of the other traditional pedestrian power centers that must be carefully managed in many traditional governments. This is hard-core, orthodox totalitarianism. Kickin'-it Stalin style, if you will. Belarus and the old N Korea are close competitors for truly worst places on earth. In a vacuum, they would simply not exist, but would collapse under the weight of their own oppression. They only exist as client states of major powers-ironically more useful the more oppressive they are-because they are more annoying to the open democratic societies of the world.

In this kind of state, revolutions aren't quite simply a matter of aligning domestic power interests, but removing the external sources of power. Without Russia, Belarus would not exist the way it does today, without China, their would only be one Korea and no Myanmar-Burma. Pressure on China is the key, but where can this come from? Considering how important image is to China these days, maybe simply public pressure from its customers (us) can bring the pressure? Sign this petition.

Harmonious societies

China's current domestic social policy is oriented towards the construction of a 'harmonious society', very nice buzzwords of which even Karl Rove would likely approve ('surge' anyone?). Check out this delicious anecdote:
My neighbor Feng, a postal worker with a lazy eye and unerring sense of
humor, had consumed an inharmonious amount of baijiu, the official firebrew of
China. Late into the evening he stood up and announced: "The Beijing government
is always talking about building a harmonious society, but we already have a
harmonious society right here in this courtyard!" The assembled guests roared
their approval. A few minutes later Feng puked in the corner, and our
celebration of harmony was over for the night.


This is one of my favorite pieces of architecture that I've seen in a while.
Feels to me like the silver parts of the building are slumping up against the brick, like an idle laborer smoking a cigarette, or someone waiting on the streetcorner to meet a friend. Nice. From a nice Slate slideshow.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Apple Evilness

So I was wondering what exactly was going on with Apple of late...what with the iPhone tanking, and then this weird pricing thing. favorite sports columnist (who isn't a sports columnist, but an academic who writes one for fun) has hit the nail on the head: the New Apple is becoming the Old Microsoft:
Last week, many owners of the iPhone, whose value is falling faster than
American housing -- "iPhones now on sale for 20 cents," a mall announcer said in
the background of the latest "Simpsons" episode -- were dismayed to realize that
downloading the latest software update from Apple permanently disabled their
phones. Apple planned it that way! It seems iPhone buyers had been using patches
and switch resetting to circumvent the electronic lock intended to prevent the
phone from working with any carrier other than AT&T. This people-oriented
approach seems like exactly what the Old Apple would have encouraged. But the
New Apple seems to want to become the Old Microsoft, so the company decided to
punish its own customers. When Apple offered a software update for the iPhone,
buried in the disclaimer was a warning that if you had unlocked your iPhone to
dial in a service other than AT&T, the software update would permanently
ruin the phone. No one would ever click "I Accept" if aware that clicking "I
Accept" would destroy his or her property! Apparently, Apple not only assumed
that no one ever actually reads corporate disclaimers but was hoping no one
would actually read the disclaimer.