Archive for March, 2010

Caprica star talks robots

March 31, 2010 Comments off

If you’re a regular here, you know that I’m a big Battlestar Galactica fan, and that that fandom extends to its prequel series Caprica, which tells the story of how the killer Cylon robots came to be.

I’ve blogged a few times about how I became an instant fan of Caprica after watching the pilot about a year ago. I had just spoken to Franz Och, head of Google Translate, for my book and saw some amazing similarities between his work and how the artificial intelligence of the Caprica/Battlestar Galactica robots is put together. Both use a form of pattern recognition to make predictions - Google for language translation, and BSG robots for personalities.

So naturally, when I got an invitation to interview one of the stars of Caprica at last week’s Comic Con fan convention here in Toronto, I jumped at the opportunity. As an extra bonus, it turns out that Magda Apanowicz - who plays Lacy Rand on the show - is a fellow Polack Canadian.

A quick rundown of Caprica for the uninitiated. The show is set on the world of the same name, a planet that is very similar to Earth. Just like our world, it’s a fast-paced consumerist society where people love their gizmos and gadgets. One of the big gadget trends is the Holoband, a visor that lets users enter virtual or “V” worlds. The popular V worlds are either sex-fueled night clubs or violent action games.

The main character is a teenager named Zoe, who dies in the first episode in a terrorist attack on a train. Zoe happened to have been a computer whiz, though, and she created an artificially intelligent avatar of herself using the above Google-ish method, and it lives on in the V world. Zoe’s father Daniel is an ethically questionable industrialist who has built a fearsome robot. The machine shows no real promise on its own, but once Zoe’s AI gets into it, it suddenly comes alive - in more ways than one.

Only Lacy knows that Zoe’s AI is inside the robot, and it’s her job to help her escape - machine body and all - from Daniel’s lab. Here’s a trimmed down version of my interview with Magda, wherein she talks about a whole slew of topics, from some of the technological themes in Caprica, to robots and BSG, to the show’s ratings and future.

I also wrote up the interview for the CBC, so you can read that story and a little bit about why it’s a strong show here. I can’t help but like Caprica because it deals with sex, war and technology, and is generally bang on when it does so. Like Magda, I hope it’s given a proper chance to explore those themes, and others.

Speaking of robots, don’t forget to check out Day 3 of The Globe and Mail‘s 5-day excerpt series. Today, we get to the issue of sex robots…

Categories: bsg, Google, robots, terrorism, war

Pizza Hut Japan is just ridiculous

March 30, 2010 Comments off

Don’t forget: today is day two of The Globe and Mail’s five-part excerpt series of Sex, Bombs and Burgers. They’re running Chapter 9: Fully Functional Robots in its entirety, so check it out. Also, I did an interview with Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon program, which you can listen to here.

Today’s quick post takes us to Japan, and the latest fast-food monstrosity there. You may remember last month I talked about the new Cheesy Bites pizza from Pizza Hut, which featured a pizza with what were effectively built-in mozzarella sticks ringing it. Holy heartburn Batman!

Well, leave it to the Japanese to outdo us Westerners. Just as they did with the seven-patty Whopper, the Japanese have taken this particular fast-food concept to an HNL (hole ‘nother level). As you can tell from the picture, it’s the same concept as the Cheesy Bites pizza, except the attached mozzarella sticks are instead pigs in a blanket (otherwise known as miniature hot dogs). And if that wasn’t bad enough, there are actually miniature hamburger patties on the pizza itself. Wow.

The news comes from one of my new favourite blogs, aptly called “WTF Japan, Seriously?” According to those folks (thanks for the tip, Andrew!), each slice packs a whopping 646 calories - or nearly a third of your recommended daily allowance. In other words, this is about as close to a heart attack on a platter that you can probably legally get.

Not that that makes me want to try it any less…

Categories: food, japan, pizza

Top marks for McDonald’s McMinis

March 29, 2010 Comments off

A couple of housekeeping matters today before we get down to business. Firstly, The Globe and Mail kicks off a five-day excerpt series of Sex, Bombs and Burgers today. The newspaper’s technology website is running Chapter 9: Fully Functional Robots in its entirety this week, so head on over and check it out (if you haven’t read the book yet, that is). I particularly like that chapter because it deals with all three of the industries focused on in the book. Most of the other chapters drill into one or two, so this one is a nice overview of them all.

Also, I’m pleased to say that Sex, Bombs and Burgers is enjoying its second week on Maclean’s best-seller list (non-fiction), holding steady at number six. I am, however, ruing telling Citizens of London by Lynne Olson at my launch party to “eat it” because that book is now at number four, no longer eating SB&B‘s dust. (It is worth noting, however, that Lynne Olson has been on The Daily Show and has a book blurb from Tom Brokaw… just sayin’).

Anyhow, last week was pretty quiet, which was a nice rest after the craziness of launch week. Things are ramping up again this week with a bunch of interviews scheduled. More info on all that stuff soon. I’m also starting to get jazzed for Australia and New Zealand. I leave on Saturday and can’t wait to enjoy some warmer weather.

On to today’s business - the McMini. If you haven’t seen these yet, they’re the new tiny chicken sandwiches rolled out by McDonald’s here in Canada last week. Basically, it’s a chicken finger (either crispy or grilled) in a miniature baguette with one of two sauces slapped onto it - either pesto or sweet Thai. Here’s the commercial:

Ah McDonald’s, you make the Sex and Burgers connections so easy. Using a hot blonde in short shorts to sell fast food… it almost seems timeless, doesn’t it?

Anyhow, having a responsibility to my readers, I of course took the McMinis out for a test drive this weekend and I can report that they’re fantastic - especially the Thai flavour! I was particularly surprised at the quality of the chicken - sometimes McDonald’s chicken looks like some kind of weird chicken paste, or something like that, but the McMinis seem to have some decent quality white meat.

With that in mind, I asked the counter staff for nutrition information, which they kindly printed off for me. The grilled versions are obviously healthier, accounting for 260 calories, 14% of daily fat and 31% of daily sodium (Thai), or 280 calories, 20% of daily fat and 28% of daily sodium (pesto). The crispy versions have 310 calories, 22% daily fat and 31% daily sodium (Thai), or 350 calories, 29% of daily fat and 28% daily sodium (pesto).

Obviously, these little buggers pack a lot of crap into a small frame, but that seems to be the case with anything that tastes good. The stats above are also roughly the same as McDonald’s chicken snack wraps, which are kind of the same but come in a tortilla and generally have cheese and other fillings. Oh, the McMinis are also $2 each, which is a good price for a snack.

The McMini brought me back to a thought I had nearly a year ago, when I was “researching” the book. I had just gone through a McDonald’s drive-thru and was eating a McChicken with one hand while driving with the other (I know, I’m dangerous - that’s just how I roll). Fast-food chains get a good portion of their sales from drive-thrus - some getting as much as 70% - so in many cases, their food is specially formulated so that you can eat it with one hand. In the case of McDonald’s, virtually the entire menu qualifies (I sometimes have problems eating a Big Mac while driving… I usually steer with my knees in such cases). The McMinis, of course, are a perfect addition to that food-selling strategy.

Also, is it just me or is McDonald’s pumping out new small snacks by the truckload? Why yes indeed - as Business Week reports, it’s part of a strategy to expand into between-meals food, a plan that is paying off for McDonald’s.

Categories: food, mcdonald's

Adult industry group no fan of .xxx

March 26, 2010 Comments off

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that the issue of the .xxx web domain name was back on the table with the people who govern such issues, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, dusting it off for another go around. Ultimately, ICANN decided to hold off on making a decision until June.

To summarize: a company called ICM Registry wants to establish .xxx as a top level domain (similar to .com or .net) that adult sites could then use. The main benefit, ICM argues, would be placing porn sites into one category that could then be blocked from children, which would make life easier online for everyone concerned: adults, governments, regulators and the porn companies themselves.

At the time, I mentioned that porn companies were not necessarily in favour of this proposal because it would effectively place them in an online ghetto that could then be easily persecuted. Well, indeed, the industry’s lobby group - the Free Speech Coalition - has come out swinging against the proposal.

In a recent letter to ICANN, the FSC’s executive director Diane Duke outlined the group’s concerns with such a plan, with special emphasis put on who is trying to push it through:

A proposal for a ‘sponsored’ top-level domain by a company that is not of the industry, with the added intent to ‘regulate’ an industry it knows nothing about, is untenable… I highly encourage the board to settle the issue once and for all by going to the actual community to test the application’s true level of support… Our resolute position is that no self-respecting industry would ever agree to have a minority voice on a board tasked with setting critical policies for its members. 

In other words: “Hey ICM, get your stinking nose out of our business.”

I, for one, would love to see the issue put to a vote with the porn community. I’ve wondered before about what might be best for their business - it could be in their better interests to go for the sort of ghetto-ization that ICM is suggesting, as making porn harder to get would certainly counter the downturn that the internet and its crazy free-ness has brought about.

On the other hand, going along with the .xxx plan could counter decades of fighting by the industry to earn porn companies free-speech rights and freedoms. The question thus becomes: do they try to turn the clock back and potentially regain some of the business they’ve lost, thereby sacrificing some of their freedoms, or do they continue to fight for their rights, which inevitably means having to forge forward and figure out this whole internet thing, just like every other media industry?

The porn world has shown the way online in many ways, so it’s definitely worth watching how this whole .xxx thing plays out because it could have repercussions on the larger media world.

Categories: internet, sex

Porn stars are people too

March 25, 2010 Comments off

We’ve all heard various stories about how people (especially celebrities) have used social media to bring attention to poor customer service by companies. There were, of course, a pair of very high-profile cases recently involving airlines. Canadian musician Dave Carroll wrote a song, which became a huge YouTube hit, about United Airlines smashing up his guitar in transit. The video brought so much negative publicity to the airline that its stock price actually took a dive.

Similarly, Southwest Airlines took a big public image hit after film director Kevin Smith took to badmouthing the company. Smith got kicked off the plane for being too fat, then let ‘er loose on Twitter, kicking up a big fuss for the airline. And it’s not just celebs - here in Toronto, a public transit driver was suspended after a rider captured him taking a seven-minute bathroom break in the middle of his route.

Well, porn stars are people too - and they want to be treated equally. They’re also using social media to the same effect as others. Jesse Jane, star of such award-winning adult fare as Pirates and Pirates II - and a pleasant gal who I interviewed while working on my book - went to war with the Six Flags amusement park chain on Twitter yesterday after apparently being mistreated. Here’s her initial tweet:

“I’ve never been treated so bad in my life they wouldn’t look up my season pass this lady was rude to me then kicked me out of the park saying I would be trouble.”

In subsequent posts, the story became a little more clear. Apparently Jesse was making an inquiry with staff at the Six Flags Magic Mountain park in Valencia, north of Los Angeles, but the woman she was dealing with didn’t like the looks of her and refused to deal with her. Jesse charged this was because of her ample boobs (talk about Magic Mountains!), clad in a tanktop as they were, which apparently marked her as “trouble.” She has a season’s pass to the park, but was kicked out nonetheless.

Many of her 26,000+ followers were aghast and threatened retaliation in the form of phone calls and emails to the park. No word yet as to what effect this might have had, or what the park’s side of the story is. Just for kicks, I dashed off an email to Six Flags (being the intrepid porn reporter that I am?!?) but haven’t yet received a response. I suspect something will come of this - after all, if the Six Flags park near Los Angeles is going to discriminate against people with breast implants, they won’t have many customers left!

On a more serious note… it still surprises me how many people underestimate the power of so-called social media, and the internet in general. I remarked on Twitter yesterday how a story we had on the CBC website regarding television rates had amassed more than 1,000 reader comments overnight. That’s not unusual for very contentious stories - usually politics and the like - but pretty much unheard of for a tech/telecom/regulatory story. The issue, where Canadians are facing continually increasing TV prices with the now-overt approval of the regulator that is supposed to protect them from such things, has got people - online readers, anyway - steaming mad.

As we’ve seen on several occasions, this online anger has translated into strong real-world results. In late 2007, then-Industry Minister Jim Prentice had to retreat on his proposed copyright reform legislation after tens of thousands joined a Facebook protest group, then showed up at his Calgary office to demonstrate. Prentice was soon thereafter shuffled off to a different cabinet job (environment), a position where he wasn’t so obviously out of touch.

Similarly, in 2008, Rogers Wireless was forced to rethink its iPhone service plans after protests broke out on online. Shortly after introducing its initial plans, the company revamped them, made them cheaper and said it had heard the protests loud and clear.

Most recently, there was the Facebook group that protested the Prime Minister’s proroguing of Parliament that turned into a nation-wide demonstration, much to Stephen Harper’s surprise - and chagrin.

Still, none of this stopped at least one commentator from shrugging off my tweet about the 1,000+ comments (most of which could be classified as “outrage”) on the TV story, as irrelevant. Clearly, there are still people out there who do not take online anger seriously. Indeed, virtually every story, blog post, video, tweet, etc. that gets published on the web will have its share of cranks, trolls and lurkers. But when those supposed cranks, trolls and lurkers turn out in mass numbers, it is folly to ignore them.