What is Viacom thinking?

So last week saw media giant Viacom launch a lawsuit against YouTube and Google. If anyone didn’t know that then you must be living on Mars, because it’s been everywhere. Viacom wants $1 billion (cue Dr. Evil impression) in damages, saying that YouTube – and it’s owners Google – should be responsible for its content; Viacom claims it found 150,000 copyrighted clips which had been viewed 1.5 billion times and says that YouTube should do more to police what’s being uploaded to their site.

I suppose they have a point, but I must say, I don’t understand what Viacom is doing here. Are they trying to put YouTube out of business, like the music industry tried with Napster? Because that’s not going to happen. Google might try to settle on YouTube’s behalf, perhaps, but those damages wouldn’t hurt Google much; and it’s quite likely that Google will fight it.

In the end I think understanding what’s going on here comes down to what you think YouTube actually is. Is YouTube a webhost, in that it stores content that users upload to their site; or is YouTube really an ISP, offering a service and making money off that service? For mine I think YouTube is a webhost. Yes, they make money off their service, but so do many companies online; if Box.net stores a plagiarised copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, does that make them an ISP? The simple fact is that there are so many clips being uploaded to YouTube – thousands and thousands a day – that there’s no way YouTube can go through them all; all they can do is to provide a way for companies like Viacom to alert them to copyrighted material so they can take it down, which they do.

What I find strange here, though, is Viacom’s reluctance to accept YouTube as a new form of media, a form they can use to their advantage. A lot of what is up on YouTube equates to short adverts for shows; clips and pieces people found funny. What happens is that when people watch those clips, they’re more likely to go and watch the show on TV; shows like Saturday Night Live in the US have had a definite increase in viewer numbers since their clips started to appear on YouTube. What Viacom could do, as some other companies have done, is to continue to notify YouTube of copyrighted material, but to let YouTube stay much the same as it is. I mean, isn’t it in Viacom’s interest for YouTube to have continued success?

And that’s why I don’t understand the lawsuit. If YouTube is actually making Viacom money, why attack them and try to disrupt their services? It only hurts Viacom in the long run. The only thing that makes sense to me is that Viacom doesn’t want to shut down YouTube; rather, they’re trying to force YouTube into a deal that would be profitable for them, perhaps a share of YouTube’s revenue.

And if that is the case then I doubt Google will settle, because they have too much to lose. Over the next few years mobiles with video capture are going to explode as the prices drop. And where will everyone go to post their videos? YouTube. If you think the amount of uploads to YouTube is huge now, just wait until the new mobiles are widespread. YouTube will make a killing and they won’t want to enter into a deal with Viacom – or any company – which might endanger that. So I think this might well go to the courts.

The ironic thing is that there are worse things on YouTube than the copyrighted material, things which should be brought to the public attention just as much; these school fights which are being posted to YouTube are brutal and they’ve already spread from the US to Australia. But the lawsuit’s knocked them right out of the media’s consciousness. So we’ll just have to see what happens. I’m a YouTube fan for the way it’s brought control of content back to the consumer, but I know the dangers of disrespecting copyright, so maybe it would be best if Google and Viacom could reach a compromise. But I won’t hold my breath.

Swordbird

Read about this book in The Sun-Herald last week. I’ll have to check it out. Nancy Yi Fan was inspired by some great books – Gone with the Wind, Johnny Tremain -, and she’s used those ideas in interesting ways; more of a fantasy epic. What’s amazing is that she’s only 13, a real literary prodigy. She reminds me a bit of Christopher Paolini, of the Eragon series; definitely an author to keep an eye on.

The only thing that annoys me is how she was published; I don’t mean Yi Fan, but HarperCollins. Yi Fan emailed Swordbird to important people at several publishing companies and caught the attention of the CEO at HarperCollins. The problem I have is that publishers are always saying to follow their submission guidelines, but then they’re happy to break their own rules! But on the other hand, Yi Fan wouldn’t have got attention through the normal route, so good on her for thinking outside the box.

She’s definitely got talent, so I’ll have to check out Swordbird. A lot of writers are getting published younger now, in their teens and 20s, so maybe this is a new wave we’re seeing; writers inspired by all media – books, movies, the web -, writing more visual stories. I don’t always like visual writing, but for fantasy it’s not a bad thing, so this’ll be interesting to read. And she’s only 13… suddenly I feel old!

Happy Birthday: Sydney Harbour Bridge turns 75!


Photo from Yahoo! News

A belated Happy Birthday to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which turned 75 last Sunday! Incredible to think it’s been around that long. It opened on March 19th, 1932 after six years of construction. 16 workers died during the construction, but it’s amazing that more didn’t die when you think about how difficult it was to build.

Reports have 250,000 people walking across the bridge on Sunday to celebrate, which was a great scene; a wash of colour and faces. It was just nice to have something real to celebrate for once, rather than the endless excuses for parties we have each year. I’ll be 47 when the Coathanger turns 100… that’ll be a celebration to see too, I bet.

What is it with Anthony Mundine?

I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the fascination with Anthony Mundine. I don’t have a problem with Mundine, but something about him rubs me the wrong way. A lot of people say that, but then many people like him as well and consider him a good representative for Aboriginal and Islamic society. Now there’s been talk of Mundine going into politics in a few years, and that’s what I’m uncertain about; if that happens, it could prove very divisive.

Mundine is obviously a talented sportsman. You don’t make a successful jump from league to boxing without a lot of skill, and probably a heap of determination and focus to go with it. But it’s his language I’m getting tired of. There’s no trace of humility in anything he says and it’s like public opinion has no weight with him. Just the other week, after beating Soliman, he seemed to disregard the spectators who’d paid to watch him by saying “I’m a two-time world champion – you all can’t say shit.” (The Sun Herald, March 11)

He’s cocky and that’s the persona we expect, but it’s only a minor example. There have also been the occasions when Mundine has said that the United States brought on itself the 9/11 attacks; when he’s called league selectors racist, and called John Howard a coward. He’s said that Aborigines suffered a Holocaust and that Australia should learn from how Germany re-established itself after the Holocaust. And that’s not even mentioning his refusal to wear the Australian flag, or the burning of the Union Jack and photos of PM Howard for his music video for Platinum Ryder. Plus his lyrics, which are just as inflammatory.

His language is obnoxious and attention-seeking, catering to the lowest denominator. Mundine shocks, causing outrage to elicit a reaction: it’s the language of the mob. What’s dangerous is that, like with any mob, he can’t always control the reaction.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion; the problem is that these are important issues Mundine is talking about and he comes across (to me at least) as sounding ignorant. From someone who might enter politics in the future, that’s not a good combination. Even if your views differ from the mainstream, it’s important to be able to express those views intelligently so people can consider your viewpoint. I’m not sure that’s a quality Mundine possesses.

And yet, I do respect Anthony Mundine. Whatever he says, he backs up. Much of his boxing rhetoric is pure showmanship, sure, but he still wins, so it’s hard to disprove. He brings in thousands of people to watch his fights. But more importantly he’s a big donor to various charities, sets a good example for children by neither drinking or smoking. He genuinely cares. He’s one of the few people who lives by what he says, and in these times that’s a rare thing.

So what should we make of Anthony Mundine? He’s become such a polarising figure in the public, should we just ignore his rhetoric? My feeling is no, because he does represent a portion of society which feels the same way – it’s important to be aware of their point of view. That doesn’t mean we should take Mundine too seriously, though, either; rather it’s part of his persona and should be taken that way. If he does run for politics later, that’ll be different; but for now I think it’s all part of the show.

5 reasons to love Google

A new Fives list for you. This week: 5 reasons to love Google!

5) Searchmash
Google‘s newest search engine, outfitted with ajax. Very smooth and easy to use.

4) Picasa
A simple, easy to use picture editor and organizer; allows you to order prints easily or post to a blog. More powerful than the software that came with your printer and it’s free!

3) Blogger
Still one of the most popular and simple blogging platforms on the web, with a new version out of Beta. Some (like WordPress) have more features and a smoother interface but if you use Google‘s services, Blogger is very convenient.

2) Gmail
The best free email service on the web. Easy to use and integrate with email clients; great spam filters and massive storage – you’ll never delete a message again.

1) Google Docs & Spreadsheets
Google Docs is a free WYSIWYG document editor. For the average user its functionality is similar to Word, although not quite as detailed for advanced users; what makes it great, though, is its collaborative feature. You can work on a document with other people in real-time. Google Spreadsheets is the same; for the average user a solid free substitute for Excel, with real-time collaboration.

Chaos at Target

Surviving the Stella wars

I’m sure lots of people have a similar experience, but something I remember very clearly from when I was younger was going to K-Mart for the midnight release of the Star Wars Episode 1 merchandise. Hard to believe that was eight years ago now, but it’s something I won’t forgot. I remember how busy it was, but everyone was orderly and by the end of the night most of the merchandise had sold.

So that’s why I can’t understand what happened at Target. What I saw on the news was crazy. If a bunch of Star Wars fans could get their purchases in an orderly manner, why couldn’t people stop themselves going crazy for Stella McCartney’s collection? Sure, her clothes were selling for $200, but is that a reason to lose all control? People were clambering all over each other, lining up for hours before racing through the store… it looked chaotic.

Overall the big winner in this is Ebay, because now there’s a rush to put the clothes up for auction. I wonder how many people actually bought clothes for themselves? And it’s certainly a success as far as Target is concerned too; Target’s first collection with a real designer and it sold out in a day. But all this talk of Target being a “budget” retailer: since when? So not everyone wants to pay $300 for a shirt – when did that make us cheap?

Oh well… when they do Sportscraft or Ralph Loren or something, let me know.

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

demolished.jpgI’d heard a lot about Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, but I’d never had a chance to read it before now. It’s a classic of science fiction, the winner of the first Hugo Award and the novel that inspired a generation of young writers into science fiction. But it’s been 50 years since TDM was first published; does it still hold up today? I found that it both does and doesn’t, for different reasons.

At its heart The Demolished Man is a science fiction mystery – only it isn’t a mystery in any conventional sense. The reader knows the identity of the murderer from the beginning; the twist is that Ben Reich lives in a society which has made murder virtually impossible due to powerful telepaths. So when Reich decides to murder business rival D’Courtney, the mystery is more how he can perform the murder and why he would want to. When Reich finally commits the murder, police prefect Lincoln Powell begins to investigate. If Reich gets away with murder, it will irreversibly change their society, and perhaps the universe itself…

I must admit, I had a strange reaction reading TDM. The novel itself I didn’t like much. Maybe a part of that was because I hadn’t read it previously and now it feels dated, but the concept of the novel seemed flawed to me. Reich has obvious motive, the most to benefit from killing his rival, and he was in the same place as D’Courtney when he was killed; the idea of him having this supposed anonymity for the crime just isn’t believable. And his later distractions for the police (opening charities, launching competitions, sending people offworld), likewise seem juvenile. But one thing which really troubled me was Bester’s depiction of women in TDM. The women are caricatures, depictions of male feminine ideals; socialites, clairvoyants, prostitutes, timid girls. I’d always thought TDM was an advanced novel, but in its attitude towards women, at least, it didn’t feel that way.

Perhaps I’m looking at TDM too much from a 21st century perspective, but I just didn’t find the story convincing. Nor could I grasp its Freudian undertones. Bester suggests that their society is unhealthy because they’ve stamped out the killer instinct, something they should learn from; but if you take this idea at face value, then how can you completely ignore that Powell is in love with Barbara as a perverse father/daughter relationship? He’s a man in love with a child, not a woman; but it’s never mentioned. In many ways TDM is a reverse morality play, but anything meaningful it says is overshadowed by the tone of the novel.

What I did find interesting, though, was seeing how much TDM has been used as a template for other works. I can see how at the time it was written that The Demolished Man would have influenced many writers with its blend of pulp fiction and ideas; its combination of low-life characters and run-down locations undoubtedly played a part in inspiring cyberpunk, and Bester’s use of italics and his structuring of psychic conversation (“basket weave”, etc.) was one of the earliest uses of graphologic layouts in science fiction. Bester’s influence is apparent in writers as diverse as John Brunner, Robert Silverberg and John C. Wright, due to the thematic diversity of his work, and it was that sense of experimentation that I found interesting in TDM; its blend of styles, Bester’s obvious love of language. That’s why I had a strange reaction; while not enjoying the novel, I appreciated the impact it had had and found following that more interesting than the story itself.

Overall, The Demolished Man is a mixed read. I don’t think it holds up as well as other novels from its time (Earth Abides, Childhood’s End, The Man in the High Castle), but the impact it’s had on the genre is unparalleled. If you’ve never read The Demolished Man before, maybe now is a good time to check it out; or if you have read it, maybe it’s time to revisit TDM and see for yourself how it stands up today.

Here we go again

As if The DaVinci Code and the industry it has spawned weren’t enough, now there is this Lost Tomb of Jesus documentary. I’m the first to say I’m not religious but I must admit, I don’t understand why people are taking such an interest in attacking Christianity at the moment. Is it because people think Bush is dangerous, so anything that undermines him and his faith is good?

Because they must know that people believe because they want to believe; something like this documentary or The DaVinci Code will never change anyone’s mind, because faith resides at a different level – it’s something you feel and doesn’t need to be justified. Personally I have no problem with what anyone believes, as long as it’s not forced on me; this new brand of atheism, with its dedication to science and disdain of religion, seems more righteous and dogmatic than any religion to me.

It’s a pity the controversy has overshadowed Lost Tomb because it sounds interesting from an intellectual point of view. I don’t necessarily agree with the premise – there’s a lot of conjecture and it seems to treat supposition as fact – but it sounds like it offers an interesting glimpse at our past. Whether it was Christ’s tomb or not, it was someone’s tomb, after all.

That’s why I find some of the criticism troubling. The documentary hasn’t even aired yet; can’t we give the filmmakers a chance to state their case before ripping them apart? And if we do criticise it, can’t we criticise it on academic merit rather than theology? Because that’s the only criticism that will hold up on close inspection. If it is just a publicity exercise, engaging on an emotional level will only fuel the controversy.

What I think people are missing is that this isn’t truly a faith issue. Whether the analysis has been selective or not, the documentary takes more of an historical viewpoint – Christ the historical figure, not the biblical. Its claims then are more to be disputed by historians than religious leaders. The kneejerk reaction that the documentary is purely meant to attack Christianity doesn’t discredit it, it just adds to the controversy.

My point is that any clear-thinking person should see it for themselves and make up their own minds; if someone’s faith can’t withstand a different view, it’s not the documentary that’s the problem. Right now everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, either for or against, and we’re not getting a meaningful discussion. I thought we were more mature than that and could look at these issues objectively. I guess I was wrong.