Archive for May, 2009

Branson’s Virgin buying Playboy?

May 29, 2009 Comments off

The Daily Mail in London reports that Virgin Group chairman and “rebel billionaire” Richard Branson is going to buy Playboy for more than $300 million US. Playboy, which has been helping young boys through puberty since 1953, is getting pummeled by all of the competition on the internet. There are supposedly a few groups interested in buying the magazine and all the other parts of the business, but the Daily Mail also says Hugh Hefner - who still controls 70% of the company - would rather die than sell out.

Actually, if there is one person in the world that could carry the Playboy image as well as Hefner, it’s Branson. I’ve interviewed him a few times on the topic of cellphones (this is before he recently sold out his Virgin Mobile Canada to Bell), and each time he’s made several wink-wink, “sly dog” comments, i.e.:

Q: What is your cellphone lacking that you wish it could do?
A: Well, if I was single I could think of lots of things but since I’m married — remember that Richard — let me see … I’d like to be able to see the person I was talking to down on the other end of the phone.

If you want to read that full interview, it’s here. Otherwise, I think Branson and Playboy would make a good pair. Playboy, by the way, through its position as elder statesman of the porn industry, has been responsible for a good deal of technological innovation. The company was one of the first magazines to have a website and it was the first to develop digital watermarking technology to protect its photos online. Playboy also successfully sued content pirates well before anyone had heard of Napster, YouTube or Pirate Bay. All of this stuff is in my book, of course!

UPDATE: Well wouldn’t you know it, Branson has denied wanting to buy Playboy. As we all know though, just because there’s a denial doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

India, Afghanistan cracking down on porn

May 28, 2009 Comments off

Think North America is prudish when it comes to sex and porn? Try these two reports on for size. The first comes out of India where a recently passed law could land you in jail for five years or a fine of 1 million rupees (about $20,000 US) for downloading pornographic pictures or videos. The Information Technology (Amendment) Bill passed in December without debate in India’s Parliament and was signed into Act in February, which means there was broad consent on the country’s attitude toward porn. Yikes.

By the way, a second violation could put you in jail for up to seven years. I believe there are murderers in the U.S. who have served less time. The law has one last hurdle to clear, which is explained here - or not. I can’t make hide nor hair of the author’s explanation. Nevertheless, the Indian government said the law was expected to have been enacted by early May, so it’s overdue. Hopefully for internet users in India, there’s a hiccup in the process - and not just for the sake of looking at porn online. The overall law sounds ridiculously restrictive and is likely to result in major problems for Indian surfers.

The second report comes from Afghanistan, where a new fibre-optic broadband internet infrastructure is expected to come online within weeks. Some web content will be blocked - starting with porn. “We will mainly set limitations on pornography because it does not fit our Islamic values,” a spokesman for the country’s communications ministry said. Afghanistan will also block a host of other website types, including those used by terrorists to recruit and spread propaganda. Afghanistan has about 600,000 internet subscribers, which is not bad for a country that is largely illiterate. The costs of those connections are astronomically high though - one gigabyte of usage will currently run you about $4,000. That sounds almost like a Canadian cellphone plan!

The news out of Afghanistan isn’t that surprising since porn is largely banned in many Muslim countries. However, as my friend Graeme Smith - who just won a pair of National Newspaper Awards for his work in Afghanistan - recently told me, porn DVDs are available under-the-counter at bazaars. They’re stacked right next to videos of terrorists beheading prisoners. Seriously.

Regardless, it’s interesting that anyone is trying to ban porn because that only makes the purveyors that much more innovative. As one of the guys who runs Twistys recently explained to me, one way to get porn into China - where it is also banned - is to tunnel in through an encrypted virtual private network based in Taiwan. In other words, the same sort of IP address anonymizer - like Hotspot Shield - that used to let Canadians access Hulu (until Hulu got wise to it a few weeks ago and messed it all up) lets Chinese internet surfers access porn. The same sort of thing is bound to take off in places like India and Afghanistan, which will kick off yet another round of technological escalation. In the meantime, I’m waiting for the Hotspot Shield folks to figure out a way around Hulu’s new blocks. If anyone out there finds a way, please let me know!

Categories: afghanistan, internet, online, sex

Could Google build a Cylon?

May 27, 2009 Comments off

This past weekend’s Washington Post had an interesting article on the future of translation featuring Google and everybody’s favorite U.S. defense technology lab, DARPA. The article took a look at some of the iPod-sized translation devices that DARPA is testing in Iraq, as well as the phenomenon of Google Translate which, if you haven’t tried, you really should because it’s pretty damn good.

The article was a good introduction to the topic but it really only glossed over the issue and pretty much entirely missed the translation link between Google and DARPA, which is good because that’s something I go into in-depth in my book. In a nutshell, researchers have been trying to get computers to do automatic translation since the fifties, with little success. That’s because they typically programmed computers to interpret a language’s grammatical rules, which was not only excruciatingly time-consuming but also generally resulted in laughable results because people rarely speak in proper grammar.

After a while, a small number of smarty-pants researchers decided there must be a better way, so a concept known as “statistical machine translation” was born. It’s got a boring-sounding name, but wait - it’s really cool! The idea was, rather than a computer working off a predetermined set of grammatical rules, why not let it make its own decisions based on how language is really used? The computer learns how that language works by digesting actual documents, which it scans for patterns. The more documents it has, the more accurate its prediction of the language. In other words, if you give the computer a handful of documents in say, Arabic and English, its translation won’t be very good. But if you give it thousands or millions, it can statistically analyze the language and translate it into another with a fairly high degree of accuracy.

DARPA liked this approach and, just like its robot car races, held some contests starting in 2002 to try and spur interest and advances. One of the contest winners was a German fellow named Franz Josef Och, who used zillions and zillions of United Nations documents - which are all human-translated into the UN’s six official languages - to create his own model. Soon after winning the DARPA prize, Och found himself poached by Google. When I interviewed him out at the Googleplex in Mountain View back in January, Och explained that the company and DARPA have a similar-yet-reverse interest in translation: the military wants to be able to translate languages such as Arabic and Chinese into English, while Google wants to be able to translate the English-dominant web into other languages so it can expand its advertising business. How’s that for a nifty military-commercial link?

So statistical machine translation holds a world of promise for finally bridging the world’s language barriers, as the Washington Post story details. But there’s a far more amazing possibility. What if you apply statistical machine translation not just to languages, but to something like a personality? What if you could feed a computer with enough raw digital data about a person - their e-mails, text messages, banking records, financial transactions, photos, purchases, video game scores and so on - to then have it create a reasonable estimation of what that person is really like? If you’ve seen Caprica, the prequel to the most awesome show ever, Battlestar Galactica, this is exactly how the first Cylon artificial intelligence was created (I am really jazzed for the new series, which begins in January). People are already becoming wary of Google’s size and power, but what if the company ends up becoming the one to finally create a fully functional artificial intelligence? How cool and/or scary would that be?

As luck would have it, I’m talking to Och again later today. I’ll run this somewhat far-out idea by him and post his response.

UPDATE: So I spoke to Franz-Josef Och the other day and brought up the question of whether Google could use this sort of machine translation to in fact create a Cylon. While he was iffy on actual killer robots, he essentially endorsed the idea. “The technology we’re using in machine translation I could very well imagine would be useful in areas where we need to learn about the meaning of words and the meaning of things and in general where we need to correlate a lot of events that might or might not be related to each other,” he said. “Many people see different things in the term ‘artificial intelligence,’ but it will definitely lead to more intelligent software.’” For more on this concept, and how Google sees intelligent software evolving, check out a blog post from the company from last year. Fascinating stuff.

Want a free Big Mac? With pubes, it’s easy!

May 26, 2009 2 comments

In my ongoing quest to have teenage fast-food employees replaced by robots, I present another video that makes the case. In this video, a pair of guys pull off a bit of “social engineering” - essentially a scam based on a lie - to get some free food from McDonald’s. They simply go through a drive-through and completely make up a story about how the restaurant screwed up their dad’s order. Check out the video:

As I’ve ranted about before, using low-paid workers is becoming an increasingly bad idea for fast-food chains. The workers, usually minimum-wage-earning teenagers, care very little about their menial, repetitive jobs and therefore do some crazy stuff, like take baths in the restaurants’ sinks or stick boogers in the food, thus doing major image damage to their employer. In this case, it wasn’t the workers themselves doing anything patently wrong, but they allowed themselves to be fooled by a simple scam, which ultimately costs the chain in lost product and revenue.

I’m pleased to report that when I was in high school, my friends and I used to routinely scam McDonald’s with a similar, albeit somewhat gross trick. We would order our food inside the restaurant as usual and then, just before we were finished eating it, one of us would reach down our pants and pluck out a pube, then stick it in the burger or fries. We’d then take the offending food back up to the counter and, with a look of disgust on our face, complain to the counter help that there was hair in our food. It worked like a charm - we’d get a new, free burger or whatever every time!

Needless to say, such tricks wouldn’t work with robot employees. People would have to think of new tricks, like bringing motor oil with them to put in the burgers.

Porn stars reinforce stereotypes on Twitter

May 25, 2009 Comments off

Let’s face it: porn stars aren’t generally regarded as the sharpest knives in the drawer. Even more so than mainstream celebrities, many people see them as vapid Barbie dolls whose fake bodies, endlessly modified with silicon, collagen and peroxide, are meant to distract from the fact that there’s supposedly little going on between the ears.

Having interviewed and met a number of porn stars through the course of researching my book, I can generally say that this view is not necessarily fair. The porn stars I’ve talked to each came from different backgrounds, had interesting upbringings and had intriguing views on a variety of topics, from technology and sexuality to economics and politics. (I was most impressed with industry newcomer Stoya, who’s very sharp.) As the cliche goes, we’re all intelligent in own ways, and porn stars are no different.

It’s a shame, then, that so many are perpetrating the stereotype on Twitter, the social media du jour. There’s a bunch of ‘em on there, including Sasha Grey, Jessica Drake, Jenna Haze, Belladonna, Joanna Angel (who stood me up for an interview in Las Vegas, by the way) and a whole bunch more. I’ve been following a number of them for several months now in the hopes of gleaning something interesting that I can include in my book, but so far that’s been a bust (no pun intended). Without revealing the culprits, here are a few examples of recent porn star Tweets:

“About to go walk off this 7 layer chocolate cake”
“Answering emails and getting some work done….had an awesome steak dinner last night!!”
“Packing my suitcase for work”
“Flip flops and sand don’t mix, especially when your legs are wet. Funny to watch though.”

Don’t get me wrong - everyone who uses Twitter is bound to put out the occasional boring or uninteresting message. Lord knows I’ve used it as an outlet to vent my frustrations with the continuing lapses in logic on 24. But when it comes to putting out useless information, which is the primary criticism of Twitter, porn stars take the cake. All most of them ever seem to talk about is what they’re eating, what they’re doing or where they’re going.

There’s no right or wrong way to use Twitter, but porn stars are missing out on a golden opportunity. Much has been made about how Twitter is a chance for celebrities to “cut out the middle man” and interact directly with fans. But in order for there to be any value for those fans, the celebrity has to provide them with something worthwhile. Porn stars could be using Twitter to let fans get to know them, their personalities, their beliefs and opinions, rather than what they had for lunch. Perhaps more of them could put out the occasional link to a news story they found interesting, or follow somebody besides each other (Sasha Grey is particularly bad, following only eight people), or respond to fans’ messages (some, like Stoya, actually do). In an era when their business is so much under threat from all the free porn out there, they could be using Twitter to build some “brand loyalty” by showing off their off-camera personalities online, thus perhaps persuading some fans to continue to pay to see their work. They’re not going to do that by telling us about the ham sandwich they had for lunch.