Archive for November, 2010

Google puts Android porn out to pasture

November 30, 2010 4 comments

New Scientist, a well-respected science and technology magazine based in London, has given Sex, Bombs and Burgers a pretty good review in its Culture Lab section. Says features editor Richard Fisher: “These chapters are hugely entertaining. Nowak - an experienced journalist - confidently treads where other historians of technology might avoid.”

Like all good reviews, though, Fisher points out what he saw as a flaw - that my thesis sometimes falters when talking about pornographers as driving forces behind innovation. Truth be told, that’s not the first time I’ve heard this pointed out, both in regards to my book specifically and to the idea in general, so I don’t necessarily take it as offence. I do think that perhaps the role - and importance - of early adopters is not well known or entirely understood, and perhaps it’s my fault for not explaining it well enough in the book.

There’s little doubt that the military and food industries are big innovators; they’re absolutely huge and fiercely competitive industries that spend billions on research and development every year. They literally have scientists in white coats working in labs coming up with the newest bombs and burgers.

The pornography industry, while big, is nowhere near the same size and there certainly aren’t many scientists working on breakthroughs specifically for sexual purposes - “that we know of,” according to George Stroumboulopoulos. But, as I argue in the book, I believe the industry is just as important because it is often the early adopter that gets a technology off the ground so that it can be developed to the point where it’s ready for a mainstream audience.

Historically, the VCR is a great example. It’s well known that Hollywood tried to sue VCRs out of existence in the early 1980s because they thought the devices would facilitate piracy of movies (sound familiar?). While mainstream studios were gingerly releasing movie tapes in the technology’s early days, porn companies were cranking them out. And they were charging an arm and a leg for them, which aficionados were willing to pay. As a result, top ten rental and purchase lists in the early 80s were full of porn titles such as Debbie Does Dallas and Behind the Green Door.

If there were no brisk-selling, expensive porno tapes to feed the VCRs, their makers would likely have given up on them in light of Hollywood’s reticence. New technologies are invented every day but the majority of them never continue because nobody buys into them. So while porn companies didn’t invent the VCR, their willingness to jump onto the new, unproven devices saved the technology. The manufacturers made enough to keep the VCR afloat until the mainstream studios could be convinced to come along for the ride. In the case of the VCR, I think porn keeping it alive was just as important as its actual invention.

We’ve seen this time and again, with the latest example happening - ironically - yesterday.

Word has come down that Google is cracking down on porn apps in its Android smartphone marketplace. According to Google, “Apps that include suggestive or sexual references should be rated ‘Teen’ or above. Apps that focus on such content should be rated ‘Mature.’ Pornography is not allowed in Android Market.”

The timing on this announcement should come as no surprise. Google released Android two years ago and had essentially allowed its app store to become something of a Wild West. Even the prudish Steve Jobs mocked the company when he said earlier this year: “Folks who want porn can buy and [sic] Android phone.”

Lo and behold - two years later and Android has become the number one smartphone operating system, at least in the U.S., and guess what? See you later, porn. Google no longer needs it, so it’s tossed to the wayside. It’s not surprising to me; I expected this would happen a year ago.

That’s not to say that porn apps are responsible for Android’s success; it’s a nice operating system that’s a good alternative to the iPhone. However, one big part of Android’s success - at least in Google’s marketing of it - has been its supposed “openness.” Google has correspondingly mocked Apple for being so closed with its operating system and app store.

Any way you slice it, porn has played a role - whether directly or indirectly - in Android’s rise. And as usual, once its job is done, it’s officially put out to pasture. As they say: it’s not who you come to the dance with, it’s who you go home with. Alas, when it comes to technology, we often tend to only remember that second part.

Categories: Google, sex

Why North Korea has nothing on Canada

November 29, 2010 Comments off

It was a busy weekend, what with the TEDx conference at Ryerson on Saturday and all. The day was quite fun with a lot of good talks. My favourite was the one given by David Brame, who aside from being an assistant professor of fashion at the university is also a comic book artist. His speech, about how to unleash your inner six-year-old, resonated with me because it was basically all about comic books and how they inspired him to get to where he is today. After his talk, I told him we were pretty much the same person.

My talk went fairly well, I think. I didn’t freeze up and there were a few chuckles, so I couldn’t really ask for much more. The team at Ryerson did an excellent job at organizing the whole event and they’re busily editing the video of all the talks. They’ll have them up soon and I’ll point to them when they do.

One of the things that came up during my talk was how technology, and particularly the internet, has changed the shape of war over the past century. There are reasons to oppose globalization, but one of the big facts in favour of it is how interconnected the economies of the world have become. While this may cause us problems whenever some part of the world goes into recession, the upside is that one major nation going to war against another is pretty much suicidal for all involved, and therefore highly improbable. As I said in the speech, if the United States were to go to war with China, as some people think will eventually happen, the flow of goods would stop dead and Americans wouldn’t even have clean underwear to fight in.

Afterward, I got to thinking about this whole situation with North Korea. As you probably know, the North has been agitating again by shelling one of the South’s island, thereby killing two sailors. Tensions flared up again over the weekend and various military forces mobilized.

North Korea worries pundits for two reasons. One, the country may have some nukes and Kim Jong Il may just be crazy enough to use them. Two, nobody’s really sure where China sits on the whole issue. If the U.S. were to become involved on South Korea’s behalf, China might decide to side with North Korea, or so the thinking goes.

I’m thinking neither scenario is likely. As the WikiLeaks documents revealed over the weekend, the U.S. has been cutting all sorts of deals with China over North Korea. A betting man would be smart to believe the U.S. has a whole lot more to offer China than the electricity-challenged North Korea does, and vice-versa (like clean underwear). If it came down to war between North and South (sponsored by the U.S.), China would make some noise but probably largely stay out of it.

Said war would be really, really quick. Let’s compare the two. According to CIA numbers, North Korea has the world’s 20th most powerful military force compared to the U.S., which is of course rated first. North Korea also has 1% of the military budget of the U.S. I think that’s about the only number we need to look at. South Korea is no slouch either - the country is ranked 12th and has five times the budget of the North. A U.S.-South Korean takeover would be so swift, the North wouldn’t have time to use nukes, if it even has them.

And even if Kim Jong Il has nukes, is crazy enough to use them and had time to do so, his country would then be wiped off the face of the planet after all the other nations of world piled on him for going so nutso.

I’m not one to advocate for war, but it may just be time to solve the whole North Korea problem. While it has been labelled a “rogue nation” for possibly developing nukes against the will of the international community, it’s more of a rogue for refusing to enter into the world economy - the same interconnected network that keeps the rest of us safe. The best way to ensure lasting peace between nations is to make them dependent on each other, so that hurting one is akin to hurting oneself. North Korea needs to be brought into that fold.

That said, there is one thing I’ve always found funny about North Korea (other than the portrayal of King Jong Il in Team America). Did you know that the sole cellphone company in this defiant and isolated rogue state is the same one that is challenging the big three providers here in Canada? It’s true. Egypt’s Orascom operates cellphone service in North Korea - it’s likely that only military and government personnel are allowed to have a mobile - and is the chief backer of Wind Mobile here in Canada.

The funny part? Orascom had an easier time setting up service in North Korea than it did in Canada. It’s pretty obvious that as far as telecommunications goes, Canada is the rogue state.

Categories: korea, telecommunications, war

Countdown to TEDx tomorrow

November 26, 2010 Comments off

I’ve spent much of the past week learning the speech I’ll be giving tomorrow at the TEDx conference here in Toronto. I’m a terrible memorizer so it’s taken me a good deal of effort to get my 18-minute spiel down. It was tough and I won’t be able to do it without cue cards, but I think I’m pretty well good to go.

TED stands for “technology, entertainment and design” and centres around the motto of “Ideas worth spreading.” TEDx conferences are organized independently, with the main non-profit organization’s blessing. It’s quite the honour to be part of one as TED is well regarded and has featured major luminaries in the past, from Bill Gates to Richard Branson to, of course, Bono. It’s especially exciting to be doing this talk in particular because it’s at Ryerson, my old university. I wonder if any of my old profs will be in the audience?

Here’s The Eyeopener, Ryerson’s student newspaper (and where I learned the journalism ropes), and its take on the event.

The theme of my talk will be “Technology good, media bad,” or, more specifically, how we’ve been conditioned over the past few decades to doubt and be cynical about new technology, despite the fact that it has brought us out of the dark ages. We’re in fact barreling towards utopia, not that you’d believe it if you open a newspaper or turn on the TV.

I’ll be speaking during the afternoon session, between 1:30 and 2:00, I think, and the entire event will be streamed online on the TEDx website. The day officially kicks off at 10 and there are tons of great speakers, so I encourage everyone to check it out. It should be a fun day. I imagine they’ll post videos after the event, so I’ll be sure to link to them when they’re up.

Categories: TED

My new love: Dangerous Dan’s burgers

November 25, 2010 Comments off

My praise of the Heart Attack Grill the other day for its unorthodox and anti-food-fascist marketing strategy drew a friend to point out to me that we don’t have to go all the way to Arizona for that sort of thing. We have our very own devil-may-care burger joint right here in Toronto, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s about three blocks from where I live.

I’ve been meaning to eat at Dangerous Dan’s, at the corner of Queen Street East and Broadview for some time. I always found something enticing about the restaurant’s relatively simple, no-frills signage every time I drove past it, and I remember a friend mentioning a while back that they had huge burgers. But I’d always put it off.

I had no idea it was something of a local sensation. A little research turned up a few articles, including a recent one in the Globe and Mail about Dan’s recent un-PC ad campaign, which is similar to the Heart Attack Grill’s.

How could I resist?

I ventured over on Tuesday to see what all the fuss was about. It was late afternoon and the place was deserted, but that’s okay because it meant I had the staff’s full attention. I looked at the menu and chuckled. It was full of the stuff I expected: the Big Kevorkian burger, with a fried onion, an onion ring, fried mushrooms, 2 slices of bacon, a deep-fried pickle, garlic dressing and mayo; the Elvis burger, with bacon, peanut butter and a fried banana; and of course, the Quadruple C, or the Colossal Colon Clogger Combo, which is a burger with two 8-ounce patties, four slices of bacon, two slices of cheddar and a fried egg on top, plus poutine and a large shake.

There’s also the dessert menu, which includes deep-fried Mars bars and the South Park-inspired Chef’s Salty Chocolate Balls.

Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Maybe, but the restaurant’s brochure proudly displays a review it got from CityTV: “Probably the most unhealthy restaurant in Canada.” Posters around the restaurant read: “22% of Ontarions are obese. We can do better.”

I was attracted to the Big Easy burger, which is an 8-ounce patty with spicy marinated peppers, cajun spice, hot peppers and hot sauce. I asked the guy at the counter how spicy it was, and he said, “It’s white-man spicy, not Sri Lankan spicy.” Har. I love this place already.

Here’s my burger. It was quite impressed with the size:

So how was it? I can honestly say it was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. It was at the limit’s of this white man’s spice threshold, but otherwise it was very tasty. What’s more is that I felt really good after eating it. Usually I feel pretty bogged down and heavy after a burger, especially one that size, but the Big Easy left me feeling quite energized. The only downside is that I think I missed some of the burger’s true taste because of the spice. Next time I’ll get something a little less ass-kicking.

What makes Dangerous Dan’s even funnier is that it’s right across the street from Jilly’s, a strip club. If only there were an army surplus store on one of the other corners - then it would be the ultimate Sex, Bombs and Burgers intersection!

Categories: burgers, food

Video games aren’t too real for soldiers

November 24, 2010 2 comments

After a day of reading and writing at my job (and yes, freelancing is a job!), the last thing I want to do in my leisure time is more of the same. There were several months when I was working on Sex, Bombs and Burgers where I’d spend all day writing stories at the CBC, then come home and continue writing the book. It was draining, and on some days, my brain turned to mush. Even now, after about seven hours or so, the sight of a keyboard often disgusts me.

That’s why I enjoy video games so much - they’re a great escape from reality. They’re about as unrelated to writing as you can get, and they let me exercise different parts of my grey matter.

My favourite games for the past few years have been from the Call of Duty series; they’re first-person shooters set either during World War II or the near-future real world. While the single-player modes are always great, it’s the online multiplayer that usually sucks me in. It’s tons of fun to go in and shoot ‘em up, provided you mute the other players, of course (playing online can otherwise be hazardous to one’s intelligence).

I haven’t actually had much time to play the latest, Call of Duty: Black Ops, which is set during the Cold War, but I’m really looking forward to getting into it when things finally settle down.

It’s somewhat surprising, then, that real-life soldiers also dig playing war games in their spare time. As the Canadian Press reports, a big shipment of video games is headed to Canadian troops stationed in Afghanistan. Leading the pack are Gears of War with 93 copies and two versions of Call of Duty, with 82 copies. There are also other, non-war games on the way, such as Rock Band, Guitar Hero and Tiger Woods Golf, but the shooters are clearly the ones in demand.

That speaks volumes, I think. Time and again we’ve heard complaints from people who generally know nothing about video games about how violent they are, and how they’re a bad influence on children. Critics have become uncomfortable with how supposedly realistic some of the war games are, so much so that you can’t even cosmetically mention the Taliban in them.

But the soldiers’ order seems to be a pretty good endorsement of these games. If the games were so realistic and so scarring on the psyche, would the troops really want to play them in their off time? If shooting and dying is what they see all day, wouldn’t they want to do something completely different when they get back to base? How about a true reversal of roles, where soldiers try writing?

Of course that’s not the case, because soldiers are regular people who enjoy the escapism of video games too. They understand video games for what they are: a fun source of entertainment. Perhaps the critics would do well to remember this the next time they try to suggest one is too violent or real.

Categories: afghanistan, army, video games