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Jun. 28 2010 — 3:32 pm | 49 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Kindle books add audio, video andzzzzzzz

Amazon and its Kindle e-book platform are fighting back against the iPad challenge on Apple’s own turf–the iPad and iPhone themselves…. This according to the media newsletter MINonline. Maybe so, but the handful of audio and video-enhanced titles introduced this weekend for the Kindle platform aren’t going to convince anybody that the future is all the way here.

The initial baker’s dozen includes five travel guides by Rick Steves, Knitting For Dummies, a cake cookbook, a guide to bird songs and an off-brand history of the FDR administration. It’s a little like wandering through one of those cavernous, eerily quiet chain stores that sell nothing but remainders: They’re books, yes, but not the ones you want. You might pick one up and page through it in a desultory fashion, maybe even buy it because it looks vaguely good for you — Come on, it’s Best of the Beatles For Acoustic Guitar! — but you’ll regret it before you’re back in your car. And the audio-video content… well, it doesn’t exactly thrill. Steves offers slightly paraphrased versions of the text in the chipper, We’re gonna have fun! tones of the guys who used to host afternoon cartoon shows on local TV; Rose Levy Bernbaum fumbles through some earnest cooking demos (“Butter is another very important ingredient used for making cakes…”) in a way that will practically force you to remember the old “Delicious Dish” sketches on Saturday Night Live. None of the enhanced content adds much to the text. It all has the feel of the corporate web sites you used to see in the Gold Rush days of the late ’90s, when everybody took it as an article of faith that a business had to be on the Web but nobody really knew why, or how it could be used to do something useful like differentiate a brand. It’s just sort of… there. (And the fact that it’s just sort of there on competing devices — iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch — doesn’t exactly speak volumes for Amazon’s own Kindle reader, which better get a color touchscreen real quick.)

“This is just the beginning,” Amazon’s Dorothy Nicholls tells MINonline. That’s for sure. There’s certainly better, livelier and richer multimedia content to come in the ebook market. Just not yet.

Jun. 23 2010 — 1:15 pm | 82 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

How Rolling Stone blew the McChrystal story

TPM has the story of how “Rolling Stone won the news cycle and lost the story,” detailing RS’s inexplicable decision to hold the biggest political story of the week (month? year?) for print even as TV and the Internet exploded with it. It isn’t like RS didn’t know what they had, and it isn’t like they didn’t shop it: Politico had a version of the print story and stepped into the vacuum with it. Good for Politico; bad for Rolling Stone. It vanished yesterday morning, shortly before RS itself finally posted the piece on its own web site. For the record, selections from its profile of Lady Gaga were available all day Monday, because if there’s anything the public is hungry for it’s more giblets of information about Lady Gaga.

Rolling Stone’s been getting some credit this week for demonstrating the value of longform print journalism in an increasingly shortform world, based not just on its McChrystal piece but its big, meaty takeout on the Obama administration’s response to the Deepwater Horizon spill. But with its baffling handling of this big, big story, it’s demonstrating something else: Even a publication that was born along with a new culture can utterly fail to grasp the exigencies of  our new media world.

Jun. 22 2010 — 2:19 pm | 14 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Scarfing content, the longform/Instapaper way

This piece in the New York Observer reminds me that I’ve wanted to acknowledge the good work done by Max Linsky and Aaron Lammer at their site longform.org, but um, hey: I’ve been too busy! Reading! Reading longform journalism! Yeah, that’s it! Anyway, longform.org is a site that curates and aggregates great longform journalism from around the Web. It’s a deliberate attempt to combat the fractionalized attention from which we all seem to suffer these days, and the picks cover a wide range of topics, from crime to sports. The curators have a lively and eclectic sensibility, and have been smart enough to pair their site with Marco Arment’s fantastic Instapaper for dead simple one-click saving of selected stories. The risk is that you go nuts, as I’ve done, and save more fistfuls of content to your Instapaper account than you can plausibly read in a year. But if you’re going to binge on something, it might as well be good for you.

Jun. 18 2010 — 2:24 pm | 123 views | 0 recommendations | 10 comments


A car crash on Jagtvej in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Have a nice day.

I once tried to quantify the odds that my safety was being endangered by every idiot I could see driving around Los Angeles while thumbing out a text message on a cell phone. Let me stipulate for the record that this is a LOT of idiots. I eventually gave up trying to dope out the exact quotient by which my risk of fiery death was being raised, and decided for argument’s sake: Let’s say it’s minimal. Let’s say it’s as low as one percent. Well, guess what, genius, I thought, switching into the second person as I tend to do when enraged. I don’t consent to have my safety lowered by even one percent because you’re too self-absorbed or just plain dumbass ignorant to think you can operate a motor vehicle, a complex task involving visual acuity and motor skills, while you’re also pecking out DOOD I BLASTED ABS AT GYM THIS AM or OMG LOL DID U C THE KITTY ON THE PIANO SOOOOO CUTE!!!!

Which brings me to a study released today by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Here are some highlights, and say, join right in with me as they make my blood pressure rise to intolerable levels!

Nearly half of adults who text say they have sent or received text messages while driving. Extrapolating this figure to the population at large, this means 27% of all adult Americans have sent or received texts while driving.

A slightly smaller number of adults (44%) say they have been in a car while the driver used a cell phone in a way that put themselves or others in danger.

Do you feel unsafe yet? How about now:

17% of cell-owning adults — that’s one in six — “say they have physically bumped into another person or an object because they were distracted by talking or texting on their phone. That amounts to 14% of all American adults who have been so engrossed in talking, texting or otherwise using their cell phones that they bumped into something or someone.”

So here’s my question: How many Americans need to have personal experience of some knucklehead, and that knucklehead may or may not be himself, endangering somebody because they really couldn’t wait to share the news that HAHA U SHLD C THIS JERK NXT 2 ME HIS FACE IS ALL RED AND HES YLNG @ ME? And yes, this omits the undoubtedly larger number of jerks who thoughtlessly drive while clutching cells to their ears in direct violation of state headset laws like the one California has. And yes, the guy in the next car is me.

Jun. 14 2010 — 2:39 pm | 1,145 views | 1 recommendations | 4 comments

Jobs v. Porn: Is the boss making Apple culturally irrelevant?

Like Michael Corleone, who explained his management philosophy this way…

I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies, that’s all.

…Steve Jobs has been exercising one of the perquisites of ultimate power. He may not be able to police the world, or want to to; but he sure can sweep up his corner of it any damn way he sees fit.

Take the now-famous promise to deliver “freedom from porn” in the tightly-controlled universe of the App Store. Jobs made the declaration in an flurry of emails with blogger Ryan Tate last month. It was a pretty freewheeling exchange. Tate kicked it off by asking if the iPad, a device designed to be closed to most user tweaking, really constituted a “revolution,” because “revolutions are about freedom.” Jobs replied:

Yep, freedom from programs that steal your private data.  Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn.

In saying this he was expanding on earlier remarks, delivered to a developers’ conference in April:

You know, there’s a porn store for [competing phone platform] Android. You can download nothing but porn. You can download porn, your kids can download porn. That’s a place we don’t want to go – so we’re not going to go there.

Apple-as-hall monitor actually goes back a bit further than this. Back in February the company purged many sexually-tinged apps, which one  analyst estimated might have made up as much as five percent of the 140,000 apps then available, from its App Store. It’s a stretch to call these programs “pornographic” — “dumb” and “depressing” might be more accurate — but according to Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller, “It came to the point where we were getting customer complaints from women who found the content getting too degrading and objectionable, as well as parents who were upset with what their kids were able to see.”

Apple is only the latest entity to discover what a slippery slope this is. Where do you draw the line? There are, as of today, apps based on Playboy and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue still available in the App Store — is the argument that they’re somehow less sexually-charged because they’re more polished? Or better branded? And how do you keep from overdrawing the line? Just this morning the company had to reverse a widely-ridiculed decision to pull an e-comic based on James Joyce’s “Ulysses” because it included several panels featuring images of nudity. “They basically apologized,” a spokesman for the publisher said. This is the danger you court when you start policing content, and not just the fleshy kind. Back in April Apple had to rescind an earlier ban on the work of animator Steve Fiore when he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. Fiore had been bounced on the grounds that he violated Apple terms of service on “ridiculing public figures.”

Let’s be fair here. Both these bad calls, and others, were probably the work of low-level cubicle drones running on autopilot. And Apple did the right thing in manning up and reversing them, even if they only seem to do it once the catcalls start rolling in. But Jobs is the public face of the company; in fact, to a degree greater than any other CEO, he is the company. And while he deserves credit for engaging with guys like Tate on cultural grounds, he’s starting behind the eight-ball a little bit. Because no matter how many beautiful TV ads you run to tout the revolutionary magicalness of your hardware, culture isn’t about hardware. It’s about content. And when you create an atmosphere where your employees figure the safest course is to torpedo any content that looks like it might stir up dust, and when you yourself identify a whole class of apps with a hot-button word like “porn,” you run the risk of looking like a bluenose, and unplugged to the point of irrelevance. That’s the cost of entering the cultural debate on terms this narrow and self-interested.

Not that Jobs seems to mind. Apple is on a roll, the iPad is a hit, and his personal legacy as an innovator seems secure. What’s cultural relevance compared to that?

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    About Me

    I'm a writer in Santa Monica, CA. I spent some years at Newsweek and some more writing for TV. My freelance journalism has appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Slate, The Boston Globe, Fast Company, Fortune Small Business, Washington Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, American Heritage and TV Guide, and on PBS.

    I've been writing about popular culture for more than 20 years, and about technology for almost that long. I've been fascinated the last few years with the way the two have started to intertwine, so that's what I'll be looking at here: Technology, pop culture and the places where they meet. I'll also be poking around in the world of blogging, microblogging, nanoblogging, micronanoblogging and whatever comes next.

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