Thursday, February 22, 2007

Culture Shock 02.22.07: Big media is watching your iPod

If you think you really own the songs you purchase and download from digital retailers like iTunes, think again.

The same goes for movies and episodes of your favorite television shows.

When you buy a compact disc or DVD, you can take it with you wherever you go, let friends borrow it and play it on any CD or DVD player. But you can't necessarily do that with the digital music and movies you buy online. The reason for that is something called Digital Rights Management.

DRM encoding embedded into songs you buy from iTunes, for example, prevents you from playing the songs on anything other than Apple's iPod or iTunes computer software.

When you buy a CD or DVD, a store clerk doesn't follow you home to see that you use it properly. But, in effect, that's what happens when you purchase digital media online. DRM is like Big Brother, always looking over your shoulder to make sure you don't use the product — for which you paid good money — in some way that the big music publishers and movie studios don't like.

DRM restrictions on TV shows are even worse. With some playback devices, downloaded episodes are automatically deleted or rendered unplayable after a few days whether you've watched them or not.

Not that DRM actually works, mind you. Hackers are always finding ways around it, in spite of legislation that makes doing so illegal. And even the most unsophisticated computer user can burn iTunes songs onto a CD and then copy them right back onto his computer as plain old MP3 files free of DRM. But DRM is an inconvenience, and it is an insult to consumers, who are treated like criminals.

The U.S. Congress, prodded by the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, criminalizing the production and distribution of technology designed to circumvent DRM. As science-fiction author and blogger Cory Doctorow has written, the main effect of the law hasn't been to protect copyrighted material but to stifle new media technologies.

"DRM isn't protection from piracy. DRM is protection from competition," Doctorow has written. He likens it the MPAA's initial opposition to VCRs — before, of course, the movie industry started making more money from home video than in theaters.

If the entertainment industry had gotten its way, VCRs would have been illegal. Now, it is getting its way, and digital technology is suffering for it.

But the battle lines against DRM are finally being drawn, spurred, in part, by an anti-DRM broadside from an unlikely source — Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Earlier this month, Jobs wrote an open letter encouraging the largest music publishers to abandon DRM.

"Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM ... ?" Jobs wrote. "The simplest answer is because DRMs have never worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy."

Jobs may have an ulterior motive. European regulators want to force Apple to license its DRM technology to other companies, which would lead to consumers being able to play iTunes music on players other than Apple's market-leading iPod. For Jobs, mutual disarmament is a far better prospect that the unilateral disarmament Europe could force upon him.

But whatever his motivation, Jobs has reopened a debate that the big media empires had hoped to end in 1998. Consumers have little more to lose and their consumer sovereignty to regain.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Culture Shock 02.15.07: Death is Anna Nicole Smith's greatest legacy

Even with her death, the saga of Anna Nicole Smith marches on — part tragedy, part comedy and all soap opera.

Alive, Smith was fodder for the tabloids. Dead, she has graduated to the front pages of respectable newspapers. Alive, she was the star of a short-lived "reality" series on the E! cable channel. Dead, she is the subject of endless speculation and analysis on CNN and Fox News Channel. She's given Larry King and Geraldo Rivera material that will last weeks, if not months.

The legal proceedings surrounding the paternity of Smith's baby daughter and the millions left in limbo after the death of her 90-year-old husband, J. Howard Marshall, will probably keep Court TV hosts breathless for years.

Full disclosure: Marshall owned a minority stake in Koch Industries of Wichita, Kan., the largest privately owned company in the U.S. In 1993, Koch financed my summer internship in Washington, D.C. As far as I know, however, I am not the father of Smith's child.

But I am available for interviews.

It's easy to make too much of the similarities between Smith and her idol, Marilyn Monroe. Both were bleach-blond bombshells who suffered from low self-esteem. Both died tragically young, and as a result, both will be remembered in their primes. Both were poor girls from rural America who went to Hollywood, changed their names and made it big. Both "married up" — Monroe to a baseball legend and, later, a respected playwright, Smith to a billionaire old enough to be her grandfather. Also, both apparently struggled with drug abuse. But Monroe did so during an era when powerful movie executives could keep most of the sordid details quiet. Smith did it on live television.

But Monroe was a legitimate movie star, although she never really gained what she most wanted — respect as a legitimate actress. Smith's career high points were the achievements that made her a name in the first place — becoming Playboy's Playmate of the Year and her stint as a Guess Jeans model.

Smith's acting career, such as it was, consisted of bit parts and a pair of lead roles in two straight-to-cable action flicks where the plot served only to move her from one nude scene to the next. Trust me, "To the Limit" and "Skyscraper" aren't exactly inspired cinema even by Cinemax After Dark standards.

Unlike Monroe, whose death only added to her legend, Smith will be defined by her death and its aftermath.

Almost lost in all this is the fact that Smith, in her prime, was a welcome change from the rail-thin models who appear on most high-class fashion magazine covers — literal poster children for eating disorders. For a brief time, before she lapsed into self-parody, she made the most of the talents she had. Unfortunately, that obviously wasn't enough.

For Smith, it's a sad ending for a woman who wanted to be the next Marilyn Monroe and who achieved just enough fame for her failure to reach iconic status, at least in life, to be especially painful. Perhaps too painful for her to endure.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Culture Shock 02.08.07: 'Aqua Teen Hunger Force' attacks; Boston not amused

There is no avoiding the conclusion that the city of Boston has gone insane.

Last week, emergency teams there shut down major highways and rail traffic in response to "suspicious devices" found throughout the city. For a time, Boston was paralyzed — with fear.

As it turned out, the "devices" were advertisements, part of a marketing campaign for "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," a popular animated series airing on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network's late-night program schedule. The small, magnetic, flashing signs depicted Ignignokt, a character on the show.

For the uninitiated, Ignignokt is a Mooninite — a rude, two-dimensional creature from the moon, where he and the other Mooninites spank nerds with moon rocks.

A Boston Globe editorial the next day equated the promotional stunt with "terrorism hoaxes," as if Turner Broadcasting, Cartoon Network's parent company, were responsible for the overreaction of law enforcement and other officials. The editorial admitted that "public safety personnel might have overreacted," but mostly it lambasted Turner Broadcasting, claiming that "anyone over 8 or 9 should be able to understand the dangers of staging such a stunt in the post-Sept. 11 world."

What the editorial did not say is that any public safety official over the age of 8 or 9 should be able to tell the difference between an explosive device and a small, battery-powered sign resembling a Lite-Brite.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick chimed in with "It's a hoax — and it's not funny."

A "hoax"? Get real. Turner was out to promote a TV show, not cause a panic.

Interestingly, similar signs had been on display for two to three weeks in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, without triggering any states of emergency.

Clearly, only Boston is sensitive to the Mooninite menace.

The indignation coming out of Beantown is expected, if not justified. All over the Internet, Boston's officials are laughingstocks, and rightly so.

But one part of this is no laughing matter.

Within hours of Boston's bout of temporary insanity, police there had arrested two men in connection with the ads.

Sean Stevens, 28, and Peter Berdovsky, 27, the two who placed the signs around town, were working for Interference Inc., the company contracted by Turner Broadcasting to carry out the ad campaign. Stevens and Berdovsky pleaded not guilty to charges of "placing hoax devices" and disorderly conduct. They face up to five years in prison.

Presiding Judge Paul K. Leary noted, however, that a person must intend to create panic to be charged with placing hoax devices, the Globe reported.

Instructed not to speak to reporters, and probably sensing the weakness of the state's case, Stevens and Berdovsky gave an irreverent press conference last week, during which they refused to answer any questions not about 1970s hairstyles.

It was their absurdist response to an absurd situation.

By Monday, Turner and Interference had apologized and agreed to pay $2 million to make the whole thing go away. Half will cover the cost of the resources that city, state and other agencies wasted. The other half is "goodwill funds," which the involved agencies can waste on their next panic attack.

Of course, it's hard to put a dollar amount on Boston's other losses. How much are a city's pride and sanity worth?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Culture Shock 02.01.07: 'Psychic' Sylvia Browne blows big prediction

Shawn Hornbeck's parents received the best possible news when their son was found alive more than four years after his abduction.

For self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne, however, the news was not so good.

In February 2003 on "The Montel Williams Show," Browne told the Hornbecks that their son was dead. She described his killer and even said where his body could be found.


Yes, as it turned out, Shawn Hornbeck wasn't dead, his abductor looked nothing like the man Browne described, and Shawn's body, obviously, wasn't buried anywhere. That's three strikes right there.

Of course, Browne's standard disclaimer is that she isn't perfect and only God is right 100 percent of the time. But you would at least expect a person with true psychic powers to be able to predict the future with greater accuracy than you'd get by pure chance.

For years, James Randi, a professional magician and debunker of paranormal claims, has offered a $1 million prize to anyone who can demonstrate psychic abilities under scientific, controlled circumstances. So far, he's had no takers. Browne once agreed to take Randi's test but later backed out, he says.

Browne's response is to attack the scientific method. In a message posted on her official Web site, Browne writes, "The very nature of (Randi's) work is negative; i.e. one that tries to disprove the very nature of spirituality. Can God be 'proven' by scientific methods?"

But in her book "Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You," Browne claims an accuracy rate of near 90 percent. So, why the fuss about someone else testing her rate?

Perhaps it's because others who have kept track of Browne's public predictions give her far from a passing score. You'd be better off flipping a coin. Maybe that quarter in your pocket is psychic?

Give credit to CNN's Anderson Cooper for being willing to take on Browne, and for apparently forcing the issue with his colleague Larry King, who too often has given Browne an unchallenged platform for her predictions.

Of course, the Hornbeck case isn't Browne's first high-profile miss. In 1999 on "Montel," she told the grandmother of Opal Jo Jennings that her granddaughter had been abducted by a white slavery ring and taken to Japan. Opal's remains eventually were found not far from where she disappeared, and an autopsy determined she had been killed soon after her abduction.

Browne, of course, is just one of many self-proclaimed psychics claiming the ability to see the future and talk to the spirits of the dead. But there is no evidence any of them, from John Edward to James Van Praagh, is doing anything more than cold readings, an old carnival trick any halfway competent magician can perform.

The trick is to throw out pieces of information and slowly draw more information from the person being "read," allowing the cold reader to make educated guesses based on the information he has learned.

With practice, you can learn cold reading, too. But being a good cold reader doesn't mean you have paranormal powers. In fact, it probably means you don't.

Only Browne knows if she really believes she is psychic. But if she does, she shouldn't object to having her abilities submitted to a scientific test. Hopefully, there won't have to be another Hornbeck case before TV personalities like Montel Williams decide to stop giving people like Browne a free ride.