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Archive for November, 2009

Does the Living Room Computer Have to do Everything?

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

As mentioned in my previous post “My Game System is My New Cable Box,” the newest system update for the XBox 360 now includes a number of social networking and Internet applications, including Facebook, twitter,, and Zune (Microsoft’s attempt to compete with the iTunes store).  For me, the integration of these services feels like a kind of weird collision of different neighborhoods and cultures.

Facebook on XBox Live

The neighborhoods metaphor is apt, in part because of the debate earlier this year about the socioeconomic and race connotations of different social networking sites.  Danah Boyd notably described a “white flight” from MySpace to Facebook (here’s a nice overview article of her point).  Facebook, she argues, has been portrayed as a higher-class, safer place by media coverage.

Eszter Hargittai also published a revealing demographic analysis comparing SNSs two years ago in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, titled “Whose Space?“.  She found a number of interesting differentiations among these sites: “different populations select into the use of different services.”  For instance, Asian-Americans are less likely to use MySpace.

So our Internet applications are like demographically distinct neighborhoods of a city.  Of course we know that all kinds of things are differentiated demographically (see: Stuff White People Like).  But the XBox360 merge combines the XBox’s own social networking system (based on Gamertags) with others systems like Twitter and Facebook and this is a different kind of mixing.  Yes these sites can reach different audiences but that they are used by the same audiences for different purposes in different contexts with different interfaces.  It’s not just that different people live in different neighborhoods (MySpace vs. Facebook demographics), but that when I personally visit different neighborhoods I expect them to look different (many people use multiple SNSs).

Everything is suddenly all mixed into the XBox interface. Having some of this stuff on my TV is actually pretty weird.  Adding Zune to the XBox makes a lot of sense — that’s a store to sell a/v products and I want to buy TV shows to watch on my TV.  But the other services are jarring — they echo Don Norman’s point from ten years ago in The Invisible Computer that single-purpose devices are often preferable to multi-purpose ones (here’s an old interview when he makes this point).

No one seems to be listening to him.  The interface is so much more difficult to get right on a multipurpose device.  Rather than a generic menu system that must fit everything, with a specialized device you can have a streamlined interface that helps you do what you are trying to do.  It makes so much sense to just keep each single-purpose device in the place where you want to do that task.


For instance instead of a smartphone to do everything, you might want a dedicated e-mail device like the Peek (pictured above).  A friend of mine keeps both a Palm TX for the calendaring and an iPhone for mobile web surfing (and occastionally, telephoning).  I think this kind of thing is actually quite widespread.  The specialized devices are often so much better at a particular thing while a generalized device is bad at everything (or mediocre at everything).

So now the XBox is kind of a mishmash of Twitter, Facebook, Netflix, gamertags, etc.  Maybe it will grow on me but I doubt it.  For instance, Zune and Netflix now have to share the awkward XBox menuing system and are only differentiated by the fact that their backgrounds are different colors (Netflix is red, Zune is black).  To continue the neighborhoods metaphor, in their wisdom the XBox Live designers have taken all of the neighborhoods you like to visit in Manhattan and relocated their shops to a bland suburban street grid that stretches to infinity in every direction.

In my earlier post I praised the idea of the game console as the new basic entertainment computer in the living room that could handle a variety of video and gaming functions.  Let’s me temper my enthusiasm.  A game console is a good idea for things a gaming console connected to a TV can be good at!  If we try to cram everything else in there too I don’t think the results will be pretty.

Illinois Students Strike for Tuition Security

Monday, November 16th, 2009

geoThe IFT/AFT Local 6300 AFL-CIO is on strike as of 8:00 a.m.  Picket lines run 8-5 today.  The union voted 92% yes for a strike.  Visit a strike coordinator in the University YMCA to find out where to go.

The Campus Faculty Association stands in support of the GEO.  The CFA has asked faculty to cancel classes and not to cross picket lines.  Faculty “We Support the GEO” picket signs are available at the picket lines.

Catherine Predergast (Professor of English) has this to say about the situation:

As it stands, TAs in many departments here are already drastically underpaid compared with what other schools in the CIC offer.  For example, one course in freshman composition is calculated to consume 17 hours of a TAs time per week at the University of Wisconsin. At the University of Illinois, that same course, which I direct, is only calculated to consume 13 hours. The real losers here are our undergraduate students. Why should they accept four hours less per week of instructional time than they would get at Wisconsin? If the University were to tinker with tuition waivers, whether in-state, or out-of-state, thus even further down-grading its support to graduate students, you might as well rename this  East Central University of Illinois, so shattering would be the consequence to the UofI’s R1 status. I think the GEO’s version of the language on tuition waivers is by far clearer than what the university has proposed, and should be accepted.   Please invest in this university:  Approve the GEO contract.

Many graduate students receive free tuition (called a tuition waiver) as part of their compensation.  This strike comes about after the administration failed to guarantee the security of these waivers in the future.  TAs rightfully have the jitters on that topic: rumors have been circulating about an impending overhaul in the tuition waiver system.  Undergraduate TAs in Chemistry recently had their teaching waivers revoked as a cost saving measure.  (One of them is our babysitter.)


EO facebook page:

You can help!  Phone numbers and script for calls for support:

Longer blog post summarizing the situation and the strike: (This post also points out that the last time Grad Students were on strike the results were disastrous for adjunct faculty on our campus.)

My Television is a Computer

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

I really appreciated Nicholas Carr’s article “The Price of Free” in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, mostly because it makes many of the same points as my last blog post.  I see from Web searching that the original title was possibly “The Price of Free (Television).”  As Carr and I both wrote, the Comcast merger is about the threatening decline of the cable TV business.  It is Comcast’s attempt to get into the content business and the Internet business before they are left out of business.  Luckily the conference paper that my post was based on was first published in 2000 so we can win any disputes about priority… because Carr is a much better writer than I am.

carr-article-graphicHe makes a nice comparison to the failed AOL/TimeWarner merger‘s attempt to join Internet pipes and content producers, and he describes some of the antitrust problems with a Comcast/NBC-Uni deal in more detail.  He even includes a primer on network neutrality.  Excellent.

However, I don’t understand two of the turns he takes in the article.  FIRST: He comments on the fact that “the smartest, most creative TV shows” are also the most expensive to produce, and he suggests that an Internet video platform will fail to fund these shows because they will “stanch the flow of money back to studios” so that “producing those kinds of programs may no longer be possible.”   But there’s nothing in the current moment to suggest that people don’t like watching television (or at least, video) or that they aren’t willing to pay for it with their attention or their cash.  What’s on the table is how much we should pay Comcast to get to NBC, not that we aren’t interested in NBC, or aren’t interested in paying.  An advertisement-based Internet television would simply be a return to the funding model for over-the-air television. I’m not a big fan of the advertising-only funding model for a number of reasons that will be saved for another post, but for now suffice to say that it doesn’t sound like the end of quality television if we don’t pay comcast and instead we watch ads on Hulu.

(I’m also not sure that the best shows are the most expensive, but let’s just cede the point that people do like expensive shows.)*

So I’m not sure why the “free” parts are in there, or why “free” is in the title.  I blame Chris Anderson.

SECOND: I also really liked his brief discussion of TV as a communal activity (see the nifty graphic, right, from the article).  But… oops: I’m not sure I see how using the Internet as the transport for my TV shows changes their communal nature in any way, especially if I use an Internet-enabled device in my living room to watch TV via the Internet (Carr uses his Blu-Ray player).  And sharing a televised experience while alone has defined the form since the cultural critics started writing about it.  So it’s a nifty graphic but both frames of it should look like the bottom one.

It is an empirical question as to whether new Internet video distribution is driving a new trend of watching television alone.  I’d bet against it probably because I think we’re already watching television alone.

Unlike the graphic, the difference between the coming Internet TV platform and current TV will be largely invisible.  People soon can easily switch conduits to their existing sets, while TV and computer interfaces increasingly resemble each other.  My last post was subtitled “My Game System is My New Cable Box” but another point to remember is that my television is a computer.

* …because the big studios use high production values to train us to differentiate their work from that of other, smaller producers.

UPDATE (5:20 p.m.):

The watching alone/together thing in the article irritated me enough that I looked it up.  My hunch was right.  The Internet can’t be making us solitary television watchers because we are already solitary television watchers. The most recent study I can find says that TV is most likely to be watched alone.  While we do tend to watch television together in larger households with families and at certain times of day (prime time), this is dwarfed by the overall amount of time we watch television, an activity we mostly do alone.  (This is from the Ball State / CRE Video Consumer Mapping Study [funded by Neilsen], July 7, 2009.  See esp. Section 6 from the Technical Appendix [“Solitary vs. Social TV Viewing”].)

Comcast is after me… and Internet video

Friday, November 13th, 2009

(or: “My Game System is My New Cable Box“)

Comcast is the largest cable operator in the US and it was my cable service in Illinois until I cancelled cable earlier this year.  Here’s when I snapped:  Our cable bill was up to $123.80 per month (internet + digital cable) and we were not getting premium channels or using pay-per-view.  Cable operators are notorious for leveraging their legal monopoly — they like to charge high prices for terrible service.  My Comcast cable regularly had service problems even though I live in the center of town.

In one of my memorable service calls a technician somehow smashed one of the windows of my house.  I know it was an accident (and they paid to replace it) but I think that this poignantly symbolizes Comcast’s attitude toward their customers.

As another example, they sent me a gift certificate for a free pay-per-view movie as an apology for one of several recent outages, but to redeem it I had to call them on the phone.  Since calls to Comcast customer service are actually more unpleasant than some kinds of dental work, that wasn’t much of a reward.  They have allegedly-voice-recognizing computers that do not understand my voice and customer support people who can never help me with whatever I called about… no thanks.

I’m not alone with my rising cable rates.  According to the FCC’s most recent cable report, cable rates have increased about 122% since 1995 — that’s about 3 x as much as the consumer price index rose over that period.  While cable likes to boast that they’ve added many more channels in that time, subscribers don’t appear to watch many more channels — they divide a relatively constant amount of video viewing time (an average of about five hours per day in the US) over a small number of channels chosen from whatever they are offered.  So we are paying a lot more but not watching a lot more.  And how are they delivering more extra channels?  I turned on my cable TV before I cancelled and saw something like this:


Click to zoom in and look around the buildings.  The dots in the sky aren’t supposed to be there: that’s MPEG noise… quality loss induced by using too much compression.  Sometimes this is called “Mosquito Noise.” (Compression artifact example from  My Comcast digital cable movies were suddenly filled with these dots.

Just in time to match everyone’s purchase of high-resolution televisions, Comcast decided in 2008 to compress their already compressed MPEG streams so that it could add more channels without adding more capacity on some systems (see this thread on the AV science forum for some nice comparison shots).  So to recap, my digital cable images look like they’ve been growing mold when they work at all and they cost more every year.  Comcast’s customer service strategy is to violently attack my house.  Time to switch!

US consumers are often stuck with cable service they hate because the FCC’s focus on platform (or “inter-modal”) competition. Instead of multiple competing cable or landline phone services we have to switch modes and buy a new box (cable modem, DSL modem, satellite TV receiver, etc.).  Search for the word “inter-modal” in Yochai Benkler’s summary for more explanation of that.  So the customer usually has to be really pissed off before we bother with it, but I reached that point when I figured out that I could buy this package and convert my XBox into a kind of cable box:

XBox Live Gold: $6.46/mo.
Netflix (1 DVD + unlimited streaming): $8.99/mo.
AT&T Elite DSL: $35.99/mo. watched on TV: free

…and get substantially the same thing that I was getting with Comcast at less than 50% of the price.  If you want you can add in free over-the-air digital TV (we don’t).  Note: this partly works well as a substitute because we watch a lot of movies and few shows.  Your mileage may vary.

Now that the upcoming XBox Live update adds Zune pay-per-view video,, and other goodies (like Facebook), my strategy looks even better.  Since the PlayStation network recently added Netflix streaming that would work as well.  My game system is my new cable box.  I described this kind of move in 2008 with a paper co-authored with François Bar titled “US Communication Policy After Convergence” in Media, Culture, and Society.  This article was actually written in 2000 so it’s nice to see that François’s nine years of foresight worked out.

But Comcast, my old window-smashing nemesis, hasn’t been sitting still.  It’s announced plans to acquire a majority share of NBC Universal — a video content production powerhouse (The Office, Law & Order, Saturday Night Live, the Olympic Games, Inglorious Basterds, Coraline, …).  Bernstein Research (quoted by Post Tech) evocatively noted that if this merger goes through “Comcast would be calling the shots for one out of five viewing hours in the United States.”  I don’t think they planned this merger just to go after me, but I don’t rule it out.

Commentators on media mergers like to say that “big = bad.”  Ben Bagdikian compared media mergers to George Orwell’s 1984 — “Big Brother” was the ultimate media monopolist.  But the most interesting thing about this proposal are the implications for Internet video distribution.  NBC Universal is behind Hulu, sometimes called an Interent-based “television catch-up service,” but as far as I can tell the Hulu viewers like me don’t plan on going back to cable or the public airwaves for their shows.  My students often report that they watch Hulu and YouTube exclusively, not to “catch-up” with anything else.

Comcast has created its own hulu-like Internet service (called fancast) that will be restricted to Comcast subscribers only.  They’ve got to do something, as this nice anonymous analysis on ReadWriteWeb puts it: “cable-based television will not survive the next decade.”  The pressing question for people who like video entertainment (and EVERYONE watches video) is: what will the next video platform look like?  That is the crux of the Comcast/NBC-Uni merger.  Either competing with hulu via fancast or buying into hulu (by buying NBC) is an attempt to be sure that they get to decide.  Even minor differences in the shape of such a system would have major consequences if the platform became dominant.

Aside from the many antitrust issues (the previously-cited Post Tech article summarizes them), the big question I’m asking about the proposal is: What will this do to Internet video? We have a brief opening when some tech-savvy consumers can get away from their cable lock-in via alternative technologies but the carriers are trying to figure out how to close that loophole.  We need to figure out how to keep the future of video as open as possible.  None of the catch-up sites (hulu) or online video services (YouTube) really looks good in that regard but they both look better than Comcast from where I sit.

Five things I like about Cambridge, Massachusetts

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

(Potentially a continuing series…)

  1. Clover Food Lab
  2. This giant snake (click to enlarge slightly):

    Cambridge House Snake

  3. Petsi Pies
  4. The MIT Press Bookstore
  5. The smell.  (Maybe it’s the sea air?  It smells fresh.)

I’ll post more if I like more things.

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