Archive for January, 2011

Opening the TV borders

A few months ago I touched on the matter of what to do in order to save TV. Today, I’d like to expand on point #3 of that article.

I had no plans to write a new article about it, but today the biggest Greek TV channel, MEGA Channel, enforced IP-based blocking on its otherwise free episodes of their hit series “The Island”. This is the only Greek TV show worth seeing in the 45 years that Greek television exists. The rest are trash. The online streaming of the show on MEGA’s own web site was the only way for the Greeks abroad to watch the show legally. Yes, the show has been sold in some other countries too, but chances are that most Greeks abroad won’t be able to get a hold of it, or if they do, it will be many months/years later. And Netflix doesn’t carry Greek titles either.

What these TV channels don’t realize is that IP-based blocking is bad for business. When TV network “A” sells the rights of a show to another, TV channel “B”, they should not sign the contract if there is a prerequisite to block the free streaming to all other countries. The assumption here is that if people of country “B” watch the show online for free, they won’t watch it when they will broadcast it on that country a few months down the road. So TV channel “A” fears that their show won’t get picked up in international syndication, or that its value will drop, so they block the IP addresses of all other countries — including those who are not interested in licensing the show in the first place.

And that’s the crucial point: this assumption is wrong.

The viewers who watch a show online, are the ones who don’t watch regular TV. They either DVR/TiVO shows, or they watch Hulu/Netflix, or they simply, pirate them on Bittorrent. This group of people will try to do anything to get its hands on the show they want to watch. Waiting 3, 6, 12 months for a show to get shown on their countries via the traditional method is not acceptable. In the age of the Internet, things are expected to be instant. Hence, pirating is skyrocketing. I don’t believe that most of these viewers want to pirate, but they are offered no alternative.

The other kinds of viewers, the older demographic who watches TV before they go to bed, these viewers will still watch a certain show on a traditional TV, no matter if everyone and their dog in the same neighborhood have already watched the same show 6 months ago online. Essentially, TV Channel “B” doesn’t lose money. The amount of viewers they would have had, they will still have no matter the free international stream or not.

If other countries don’t want to pay for such content, that’s their problem. They should produce their own content instead anyway. THEN they will get off their butt and produce good shows, instead of utter trash. Competition is good.

And why is it that there should be an international market for TV shows? I don’t think there should be one — at least not for countries where almost everyone has internet. For developed countries, there’s absolutely no reason why US should sell their content to them, when they could stream it to viewers directly, and have 100 million viewers per episode worldwide, rather than 10 million in the US only.

Of course, not all shows are suited for such large streaming exposure. Shows like “The Mentalist” that have million of viewers per episode, but only in the aging population, are better suited in the old model of syndication. But shows like “LOST” are pirated to death because no one wants to wait not even a second after they broadcast in the US!

So why aren’t they do all this, you ask. The missing piece, and the part that’s lagging behind in the whole story, is the advertisement industry. This is what is holding us back. Today, there is no international ad agency that is able to deliver targeted video ads, at least not for viewers outside the big US cities. Therefore, ad revenue from online ads remains way smaller than that of live TV.

In the text/banner market, there is such an international ad agency that has a good record. It’s called Google.

But on the video side, there’s nothing yet. Even Hulu, offers us some nice-looking 480p video, and then it cuts on irrelevant commercials that are served to us in QVGA 4:3 format, with horrible pixelation. Not only I’m not going to buy the advertised product, but I want to throw up on my screen when I see these commercials. It’s like no one at Hulu knows anything about video to ask these people to export their ads properly from their video editor?!?

So until this problem is fixed, with ad agencies growing up and seeing the big picture (and learn how to use a video editor), I think we will be prisoners of our own IP addresses.

New toys and a new attitude

Updated below

A GorillaPod and a Tiffen 37mm 0.9 ND filter arrived today in the mail. They were both on a big sale on Amazon, so I thought I buy them for my small digicams — which are the main kinds of cameras I use nowdays. The 5D MkII is mostly used by my husband these days. Instead, I’m in a kind of a crusade to prove that good video can also be shot with small, cheap digicams, if the right skills are in place. I don’t believe that all video enthusiasts should buy expensive dSLRs and camcorders, for some of them, an HD digicam is more than enough, if used correctly.

Canon SD780 IS with the Zeikos filter addon, the ND 0.9 filter, and a GorillaPod
Canon SD780 IS with the Zeikos filter addon, Tiffen ND 0.9 filter, and GorillaPod

I might get the new Canon A1200, the one that shoots in 24p and costs just $110. I believe it’s possible to shoot close to 180 degree shutter, even without full manual control. If you set the camera to P mode, and half-press the shutter button, you will get the information about the shutter speed. Adjust the lights/scene or ND filter(s) until you get 1/50th or 1/48th shutter speed. Switch to video mode, lock exposure, start shooting. As long as the video mode uses the same exposure algorithm as the P mode, we’re in business.

BTW, the other day I found the manual for the A1200 (PDF), and it has all the video features I expected it to have (manual white balance, manual color control, exposure compensation+lock, focus lock), plus one that I didn’t: a miniature mode, like the one found on the S95.

UPDATE: With and without an ND filter, and some stabilization. With the ND filter there is some actual motion blur, since the shutter speed is more natural.

GoogleTV: Nightmare on a Remote Street

I never had anything good to say about GoogleTV 1.0. The UI sucks, the content is lacking, and it’s throughout inconsistent. But I think that my biggest peeve of all is its various remote control incarnations. I mean, look at this mess: 1, 2, 3, 4. They’re over the top, with many more buttons that I would personally like shoved in 5 remotes, let alone 1.

My biggest problem in these remotes is the TWO d-pads. They let you move with the one or the other, but they also allow you to confirm with them, only that it won’t carry through your action, because the focusing of that d-pad was at different position in the screen than the other d-pad, resulting in clicking the WRONG thing. Sure, sure, Google TV is still a 1.0 product. But THIS specific UI problem should have been fixed with a firmware update within the first few weeks. All it requires is to synchronize the two d-pad positions on the screen, so they focus on the same widget when one or the other is moved. Maybe there are some edge cases where the current behavior is needed in Chrome/Flash, but for everything else, this creates a major usability issue — especially for users who are accustomed to gaming controls (where you move your character with the left thumb, but you confirm/fire with the right). This is the No1 reason why I don’t even turn ON our GoogleTV anymore: I keep pressing the wrong controls!

What I need instead is a simple, elegant design. I do hope that GoogleTV redesigns their whole UI, but along with it creates a new Bluetooth remote like in my mockup below:

Until then, I will continue using the Roku, although I would certainly move to my Apple TV (which we currently use only for music), if Apple was to allow content providers to create their own “channels”, like Roku does. Preferably with the same UI for every channel, for consistency. But so far, the Roku, despite its simpler and dumber software, delivers a better overall experience than Google’s or Apple’s TV devices.

Vimeo for example, has a real, full-featured application on the Roku, while the web-based versions of Vimeo CouchMode/Youtube Leanback on GoogleTV suck goats because of the unnatural usability created by the web browser that’s used to deliver them (instead of having a binary app to fit perfectly in the usability of your device’s overall UI and remote control) — while AppleTV does not even allow third party apps/channels. For example, when I hit the “Menu” button, I want to see the menu for Vimeo or Youtube, not Chrome’s menu. Jeez. I guess you can say that I absolutely hate web apps on my TV. Every web app I’ve seen so far on GoogleTV (MSNBC, HBO, Blip, etc etc), is terrible UI-wise, does not fit with the overall UI and remote control buttons, does not correspond to its own “menu”, they’re all inconsistent with each other, and some are very difficult to use (parts of the HBO web app are almost impossible to use without a *real* mouse).

Cord Cutting: A matter of laziness

We cut off cable TV from our home 1.5 months ago, and as you may know, we’re very happy that we have done so. We get all the programming we need via on-demand services, and occasionally we get our regular programming via an interior TV antenna.

However, according to this documentary, where a few families were tasked to spend a week with one of these little geek media devices (Boxee, AppleTV, Roku, GoogleTV etc), cord cutting was not as easy for them as it was for us.

The problems they encountered mainly were, in order:
1. No live TV.
2. Most reality/kids/news/talk/etc programs aren’t available on-demand.
3. Confusing user interfaces.
4. Long buffering times.
5. Hardware setup & configuration issues.

These are legitimate issues. None of these devices has live TV, they don’t even feature the “free” network channels. None of these devices shows live news, or has non-primetime shows on demand. Except the AppleTV, it’s true that the rest of the user interfaces suck. And most of the US has slow DSL internet, making HD content too hot to handle.

Now, if you go point by point, you will always find ways to rebut these issues (e.g. get an antenna, Hulu Plus, etc.), but in reality, yours and my solutions won’t matter to these families. What these people ultimately want is easy, passive TV. They don’t want to think for themselves. They don’t want to watch something only if it’s truly good. They just want to turn ON the TV, and just watch almost whatever is on it at the time. As long as the program is easily digested, no one would change the channel. Viewers just don’t want to have to choose, they want one less thing to decide and research about.

Of course, there are ways for Apple/Roku/Google to bring a true TV revolution, but their offerings must look and feel more like traditional TV. Currently, they feel more like a computer, wearing fake clothes to look more like a TV product. But in reality, these products are still designed too much like a computer. I explained this here before.

To be honest, I don’t quite expect older people to like active TV, since they are used to this lazy kind of TV-watching in all their years. But I was infuriated when I saw the teenage kid saying that he would just watch whatever movie the cable channels would currently show. I indeed expected more critical thinking from a youngster. You see, eventually, apathetic behavior by some, comes back and bites all the rest of us in the ass — at many levels in our lives.

But hey, as long as we can watch “Sister Wives”, “Kate Plus 8”, or Snooki, all is cool.

Beyond Black Mesa

Beyond Black Mesa is a short fan film inspired by the Half-Life video game. It was shot with a Canon HV20 camcorder, and it’s set to become one of the most-viewed short films shot with this beloved camera. As much as it looks impresive, it’s not the best HVx0 film, in my opinion. Still, great for a $1200 budget.

Another short film that’s making the rounds today is “Lazy Teenage Superheroes“, shot with a Panasonic HVX200 (according to its cinematographer who emailed me with the details). This one cost $300.

Top-10 Sci-Fi Movies of All time

In my opinion, of course.

10. Avatar
9. The Terminator
8. X-Men
7. Equilibrium
6. Blade Runner
5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
4. Inception
3. District 9
2. Star Wars: A New Hope
1. The Matrix

Runner ups: “Contact, “Iron Man”, “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”, “Serenity”, and “Star Trek: First Contact”. Biggest disappointments: The Matrix 2 & 3.

The interesting about this movie list was that I had a real big problem trying to figure out my top-10. There were at least 30 movies that were competing in almost equal grounds. The twist here is that when I put together my sci-fi TV show top-10 list last night, I had trouble filling it up. After the initial top-5, I just couldn’t easily find enough good shows to make it on that list. Which means one thing and one thing only: that for the science fiction genre on TV, there is a lot of latitude on making it better. Easily.

Top-10 Sci-Fi TV Shows of All time

In my opinion, of course.

Originally, I thought I should rate shows based on what they represented when they were first broadcasted. This way, shows like the original Star Trek would have made the list below. But then, I thought that there are shows that are old but still remain timeless, both in spirit and regarding their filmmaking, so I decided to not give these older shows the benefit of the doubt, and instead judge all of them on the same grounds. So here’s my list:

10. The 4400 (mostly the 1st season)
9. Fringe (just few parts of it)
8. Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (some parts of it)

The 3 above are not really that much of favorites for me, it’s just that I can’t find anything better. My truly favorite shows are the following:

7. Babylon 5 (seasons 2-4 only)
6. X-Files (alien mytharc only)
5. Stargate: Universe (most of it)
4. BattleStar Galactica (Re-imagined series, seasons 1-2 mostly)
3. Firefly (all of it, inc. the movie)
2. LOST (seasons 1-2, most of 3-4-5, I hated season 6)
1. Star Trek: The Next Generation (seasons 3-6, hated seasons 1-2, blah season 7)

Here’s why I regard ST:TNG to be the best show ever. LOST would have been #1 if it hadn’t f’ed up in the last couple of seasons.

“V”: A show ABC should be ashamed of

“V” and “No ordinary family” must be among the most cliche scifi shows on TV right now. On V I can’t go passed through the over-explanations of the situation. Which is unfortunately unexplainable, since the plot is illogical. And then they try to explore human emotions and what is the human soul. Subjects that have been discussed 20 years ago on Star Trek, and as far as soul goes, it’s a subject that doesn’t attract most modern scifi viewers. Eventually, we then get an “alien mother” who says that the human soul is somewhere on… her cleavage (as io9 correctly noted).

Sorry, I know, I don’t make much sense right now. But if you’ve actually watched “V”, you know what I’m talking about. This is one show in disarray. It’s uninteresting, stupid, over the top, cliche, old style, you name it. It’s like it has no direction at all.

Of course it’s not going to see a third season, and we should all be happy for that. Unfortunately, everything else also sucks on TV right now, a lot of boring, unimaginative shit. At least we ditched cable, so we don’t have to pay for these terrible shows we’re getting served. It’s funny how only 5-6 really good shows end up happening every decade.

And don’t get me started about “The Cape” on NBC.

Update: EXCELLENT analysis of the situation.

The Art of Steal

I watched this documentary on Netflix tonight, “The Art of Steal”. It’s a documentary describing the history of Dr Barnes‘ post-impressionist art collection, and the eventual demise of the Barnes Foundation, with the city of Philadelphia taking control of that art (that is now estimated at over $25 billion). The documentary is trying to convince us of the travesty of the art ending up on a museum in the central Philadelphia, while Barnes’ will was for it to stay at its original building forever (in a residential neighborhood), be closed to the public, never be loaned, and only be opened to students. The documentary is pretty one-sided, and it mostly shows the opinions of members of the “Friends of Barnes” organization, that want to continue Dr Barnes’ wishes, and avoid the financial exploitation of his art.

After watching the documentary, I felt completely appalled by the various speakers, who I can only call “elitists”. They genuinely think that the right thing to do is to continue Dr Barnes’ wishes. That this was Barnes’ art. Well, I don’t hold the same opinion, and I’m in fact glad that the City of Philadelphia got hold of the art, even if it might have been via not so clean legal methods.

Art belongs to the people. End of story. According to Wikipedia: “Among its collection are 181 works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 69 by Paul C├ęzanne, 59 by Henri Matisse, 46 by Pablo Picasso, 21 by Chaim Soutine, 18 by Henri Rousseau, 16 by Amedeo Modigliani, 11 by Edgar Degas, 7 by Vincent Van Gogh, 6 by Georges Seurat, as well as numerous other masters, including Giorgio de Chirico, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Paul Gauguin, El Greco, Francisco Goya, Edouard Manet, Jean Hugo, Claude Monet, Maurice Utrillo, William Glackens, Charles Demuth, Maurice Prendergast, and a variety of African artworks, ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art, and American and European decorative arts and metalwork.” Under no circumstances this major inheritance of human culture should be kept away from the public. Doing so, it’s a crime against the very fabric of humanity. It’s elitism. It’s censorship even.

According to the documentary, the reason why Dr Barnes didn’t want his art shown to the public was because he had thin skin. At the beginning of his collection hobby, he loaned it to the Philly Art Museum for an exhibition, and art critics said that it sucked. He did get really bad reviews in the newspapers of 1922. So he got pissed off, and since then he didn’t want to do anything with the commercial art establishment. He kept his paintings behind closed doors, and only showed them to students. Just because the people at large did not realize YET these painters as great artists.

But, but… isn’t the same for any new art? Every time a new kind of art emerged, in any artistic field, it has always been met with skepticism, even hatred. But people “get it” sooner or later, and eventually that art becomes classic. As it did a few short years after the incident. But Mr Barnes was still pissed off, and nothing would cool him off. And even today, 60 years after his death, his disciples would still speak about Barnes’ wishes. Who the fuck cares about Barnes’ wishes? The guy owned the art, then he died, then this art MUST become public domain. As ALL art should after a period of time. Art is human history in the making, and belongs to no one. Artists and collectors should benefit from them for a time, so they can sustain themselves financially, but after a while, art must be given back to the world. That’s why I’m also advocating that copyright shouldn’t last more than 20-25 years either. And if the copyright holder dies, the art becomes immediately free. Any children of the artist/collector should create their own legacy and not piggyback and live off their parents’ money and fame. At least not when it comes to art, literature etc.

Another point discussed in the film was about the disagreement on moving the museum from the original Barnes building to downtown Philly. Again, I’m with the city here, because the downtown will allow more people to see the art. The Foundation needed permission to build a parking lot in the area, they didn’t get it because the neighbors fought it in court (remember that the building is in a residential area), and it was for 52 cars only anyway. 52 cars is simply not enough to hold large crowds, and the building itself is very small.

Now, regarding the money-grabbing politics behind the scenes between the various foundations and politicians, it might very well be a good point that the art was “stolen” by these foundations. But honestly, this is besides the point. As long as the art is not sold back to private collectors, and instead is remained on museums (even on tour), I’d be happy with that. The more people see the art, the better it is. I’m pretty sure the artists themselves would rather see their art enjoyed by the masses, rather than by a few collectors who feel that they’re above all, and they don’t want to share with anyone else. It’s like someone has the answer to renewable clean energy but not sharing the invention with the world, just because “New Scientist” said the claimed technology is science fiction. Keeping such a grudge is a bad thing.

The Guardian: Rock’n’Roll is Dead

The Guardian has an informative article on the state of rock as a popular music genre. Basically, they say that it’s dead, with the lowest number of songs in the top-100 in the last 50 years. And the artists that still sell well, are 50 year old classic rock musicians who are about to retire soon.

I do agree with the article, it seems that popular genres usually last about 60 years, it was the same for Jazz, and even Baroque, Classical, and Early and Late Romantic. Which probably means that Hip-Hop has another ~25 years to live on too…

I feel that the future of popular music will use even more electronic influences and instruments, and it will split into two categories: one that has a super-distinct beat, like the crap that The Black Eyed Peas do, and one that’s more fluid and ethereal, like Washed Out.

But enough with the futurology. I believe that the reason Rock is dead, is two fold:

One, as mentioned above, its time has come. It’s a genre that has been studied, and explored to its fullest. Musically-speaking, there is nothing more to see there. Even when we listen to “alternative” rock music these days, even that sounds “old”. I found it very telling myself when 2 years ago iTunes moved all “adult alternative rock” bands (e.g. The Killers, Red Hot Chili Peppers etc) from the Alternative genre to Rock (as in, classic rock). As for the best new rock bands, like Wavves, Tame Impala, Surfer Blood, Deerhunter, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, and Best Coast, their sound is just a rehash of old ’60s and ’70s styles.

The second reason is more important though: Rock is dead because no one has anything useful to say. When the musicians and the listeners don’t talk about socio-political problems anymore, that’s the real death of rock, a genre that goes hand in hand with rebellion, and fight for a better future. These past few years have been pretty tremulous, with wars, and civil liberties that have been slashed away, and yet, most rock bands prefer to sing about love, and the suburbs, instead. Technology has raised a lot of new issues too, but so far, no genre is tackling them. Hip-Hop does a poor job talking for anything apart race issues, and how to get rich.

So no wonder rock is dead. There is no market to sell true rock, as the Western countries are full of citizens who don’t care about fighting for their rights anymore, as long as they have a plate of food, and a TV in front of them. Much like the Romans, who lost their republic into an empire after their stomach was full of free, government-provided bread, and the Colosseum was open for business.