28 April 2007

The real digital divide

The “digital divide” is supposedly a socio-economic division that is propelling young, rich and middle class kids into a wonderful, new, technology-based economy, while leaving behind lower classes—especially those growing up in the developing world. Earnest crusaders are bridging this gap by setting up computer labs in schools and community centers for disadvantaged youths, and even building $100 laptops for kids in the 3rd world. This is admirable, and I appreciate anyone giving their time and money to help disadvantaged kids, however I wonder: what is this really helping? Now these kids can create their own Facebook page and copy and paste from Wikipedia for their school projects like their more affluent peers—is this really a step in the right direction? By virtue of the fact you are sitting here reading my ramblings (and I have spent time writing them for this forum) we know that the Internet is more often just a time waster. The cynic in me (and I am probably not alone) looks at the picture below, and braces for an onslaught of even more 419-style email spam.

No, the real digital divide is a generational divide; its victims are often otherwise successful and affluent professionals, business leaders, “old-economy” corporations, and even entire sectors that just don’t get it. The most obvious example is the music and film industries; as entertainment is increasingly being distributed and delivered digitally, traditional distributors and retailers of these goods are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Instead of finding sensible ways of delivering this content to consumers (meaning cheaper and more convenient,) they have balked—either by ignoring the reality of how music is being “consumed,” or by proposing ridiculous schemes whereby consumers are locked into a particular technology, yet given no significant discount for buying this crippled product. Let’s face it, it is technologically impossible to create a format that can be played on a variety of players from different manufactures and—at the same time—be hacker-proof.

Therefore, I predict that the traditional distribution channels for music will shrivel up and eventually die, as the industry continues to push for more onerous restrictions (namely Digital Rights Management [DRM] schemes, constraints on the types and number of playback devices an individual can use, and limitations on sharing music among friends,) all of which will drive consumers to “pirating.” What will eventually replace the current “music labels,” will be an E-bay like marketplace where consumers buy music directly from the musicians—cutting out the middle man—at a fraction of the current retail price. Musicians will gladly allow consumers to freely share their music with friends, as this will grow their audience.

Likewise, the sale of movies will have to radically change as the general population will have access to ever increasing bandwidth, meaning high-resolution movies will be able to be delivered via the Internet. Certainly movie theaters/cinema will continue thrive as they have through the advent of TV, VCR, and DVD. But if the movie studios think they can retail movies for the same prices as they do DVDs—which is what they are trying to do now—then they are kidding themselves. A downloaded movie has to priced at least half of what a DVD costs since you are providing your own storage, and no longer have access to a real, physical backup copy of the movie. [2016 Update: It looks like I didn't see the streaming revolution coming.]

I’ve actually gone out on a tangent with this rant on the entertainment industry. What I really wanted to say is that I have had the experience of helping people with their websites both at home and abroad, and I’ve noticed that otherwise successful business people of a certain age want their websites to look like a slick brochure. The result is a lot of websites with text in graphics, 100% Adobe Flash sites, and other obvious self-sabotage. On the Internet, content almost always trumps presentation: just look at the minimalist design of ultra-successful sites like Google and Craig's List.

Furthermore, what is more important nowadays is to be part of the Internet community rather than an “island” website unconnected to the rest of the net. In fact, it turns out that many individuals and small organizations simply don’t need their own website. An individual or artist/band will find that a MySpace profile is more useful and easier to create & maintain. Likewise, a professional will find LinkedIn to be more useful for networking, and even small net-based retailers would find Cafe Press, Yahoo! Store, or even Ebay to be a more efficient way to list and sell their merchandise. Hmm, Joel.Froese.com is up for renewal in May; I wonder if I really want to renew it now. [2016 Update: Indeed, I couldn't justify the $35/year price, and have let my original website expire.]

04 April 2007

Petroleum: your all-natural, organic choice in energy

With trouble in the Middle East and gas prices approaching $3 per gallon, everyone is concerned about fuel prices. However, it seems most Americans have not changed their driving habits or dumped their gas-guzzling SUVs. Instead we are looking for salvation in biofuels (ethanol and bio-diesel) and hydrogen/fuel cell technology. What is conveniently forgotten is the cost of these technologies—both economic and environmental. The process of making biofuels generally consumes more than half of the energy that it produces, and is only feasible because of government subsidies. Worst of all, using agricultural resources for fuel instead of food means our grocery bills will increase—most adversely affecting the poor. Agricultural land, although plentiful, is a finite resource, as are the nutrients in that soil—which ironically, are usually supplemented by petroleum-based fertilizers. One insightful farmer noted “The ethanol craze means that we're going to burn up the Midwest's last six inches of topsoil in our gas-tanks.”

To me, it seems strange that ethanol and bio-diesel are considered a renewable, “green” energy source. I’m not an environmentalist; I just like pointing out the intellectual dishonesty of championing biofuels as a preferable alternative to petroleum. In terms carbon output, the only difference for biofuels is that the cultivation of inputs (corn, sugar, or switchgrass) supposedly offsets the burning of the resulting fuel later; however, in most cases, the land used to cultivate these crops would have some kind of carbon-sequestering plant life on it in any case. Furthermore, ground-level pollution from biofuel use and manufacture shows few advantages over petroleum. The fact of the matter is that biofuels are manufactured in a factory, whereas petroleum is naturally produced by the earth over millions of years from basically the same inputs. Granted, crude oil must be refined before it can be used (as gasoline, diesel, and other petrochemicals) but this processing is minimal compared to the manufacture of biofuels; in other words, switching from petroleum to biofuels requires expanding the capacity and/or number of already unpopular fuel plants (be they refineries or ethanol plants.)

The other alternatives for mobile/portable fuel are batteries, fuel cells, and hydrogen. These zero-emission energy sources sound great until you look at the source of the energy required to charge the system or extract hydrogen from water or other compounds (often petroleum.) Certainly real, renewable energy sources like wind, water, and solar power would be great, but realistically these sources contribute only a small percentage to the total electricity used in the US, and—for practical reasons—this will remain so for a long time; electrical power will likely continue to be produced mainly from the dirtiest source of energy: coal.

Therefore, I propose that the most sensible course of action is to continue to use this perfect, natural source of energy for as long as we still have it. By virtue of the fact that oil is becoming scarcer, the market will automatically reward makers of more efficient vehicles, engines, and other processes that use petroleum. Eventually, even more expensive alternatives energy sources will become economically feasible to develop—and without artificial incentives!

Of course I am all for conservation of all our natural resources; I am particularly irritated by the thoughtless waste that is characteristic of American society. Particularly when it comes to petroleum, this waste is directly responsible for making us dependent on some of the most reprehensible governments in the world, simply because they have the majority of the worlds crude oil reserves. I say let’s tap the ANWR and other verboten reserves within our territory; there is no reason to let this perfectly good resource go to waste. Our current policy regarding these reserves are as if you were to go down to your wine cellar, (assuming you have such a thing) notice that racks are starting to look a little empty, and then swear off your finest, well-aged wines forever in favor of cheap domestic beer.

01 April 2007

Cooper River Bridge Run

On Saturday, the 30th Annual Cooper River Bridge Run—a 10 km foot race—took place in Charleston, South Carolina. I had heard about this event for many years, but never considered it because I am not a runner. This year, my father decided to participate. He instructed his daughter-in-law to register him for the event, but then registered himself on the website as well. This meant that there were two runner’s packets available, and I felt had no choice but to participate despite having not trained at all—outside a few Hash House Harrier runs every other week.

We left Columbia at 5:00am in order to arrive in Charleston with plenty of time to get prepared—which was a good thing, because getting the runner’s packets from the friend who picked them up turned out to be quite challenging. Despite this hitch, we were ready an hour before the start time, and made our way to the start line in Mount Pleasant to join over 40,000 other runners and walkers who were lining up for the event. Understandably, I was anxious knowing that, despite the legitimate option of walking the course, I would get caught up in the spirit and competition of the event and run 6.2 miles with absolutely no training—and suffer the consequences afterwards (which I am, as I write this on Sunday.)

The magnitude of this event is difficult to fully convey; with 40,000+ competitors, there seems to be an endless line of people ahead and behind you. When the official start time came, and the clock began ticking away, I was not able to get over the start line for another three and a half minutes. Throughout most of the event, competitors spanned all 4 lanes of the road—we were racing 20+ wide!

I felt amazingly good for the first 3 miles; I ran 10-minute miles up to this halfway point (which also coincided with the peak of the namesake Cooper River Bridge.) However, on coming down the bridge into Charleston, my knees started hurting, and I was forced to walk. Despite the pain, I couldn’t stand watch hundreds of people go by me, so I would alternately run and walk for the rest of the race.

Some people take this 10K less serious than others; I saw all kinds of whimsical costumes. The following all participated in this event: some girls in hoop skirts, a group of people in banana costumes and in bowling pin costumes. I saw two brides, one of which actually was wearing a short wedding gown and carrying a bouquet; her husband (or fiancĂ©) was running beside her in a tuxedo t-shirt. At least two marines in BDUs, combat boots, and carrying 55 lbs of weight in a backpack. However, my favorite was a group of guys dressed as bulls followed by a group of girls in white (al la “running of the bulls” in Pamplona, Spain—expect they should have been in front of the bulls.)

I crossed the finish line at 1:08:38, making me the 12,540th finisher (out of 28,641.) My father (middle) was 13.5 minutes faster, and placed 14th in his age group. My niece (right) was 25 seconds faster than him with an official time of 54:38.
Joel, Arno, and Dana Lee
We had lunch in the beautiful, historic district of Charleston, and then spent the afternoon on Folly Beach. The water was a bit too cold, but the weather felt almost summer-like. All in all, it turned out to be a wonderful day; even the pain is a “good hurt”; I know this makes me stronger!