Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Private eyes are watching you: The year in tech

Published in the Portland Phoenix; co-written with Nicholas Schroeder

This year saw some tech wins (public information), some losses (privacy), and many more questions for the future of an increasingly wired world. (Example: Is anything secret anymore?) And there was the appearance of yet another grassroots David, and, as if a warning to future Davids, the epic collapse of a bloated Goliath.

Rise of Kickstarter
The arts just don't pay like they used to. What to do, then, when the ideas keep coming? In 2010, the people turned to Kickstarter, a user-friendly, low-risk database of not-for-profit projects seeking financial backing. The trick is simple: grant-hungry innovators provide a clear mission statement, project outline, and timeline for their projects. Like a virtual gallery of ideas, Kickstarter organizes projects and tallies pledges, freeing the project organizer to promote the fundraising effort.
Locally, it's been a minor revelation. In 2010, private pledgers funded Didn't Die Young Yet, a book of fiction by Jacob Cholak (who wrote one short story for each $1-and-up pledge received), the mastering of Theodore Treehouse's much-lauded debut album, and a $1500 steamroller rental for public printmaking demonstration by local art collective Pickwick Independent Press during September's Block Party.

Death of MySpace
Where Kickstarter represented the virtual vox populi, the web still produced its share of audible groans. Once a teeming online metropolis, Rupert Murdoch's MySpace is now a truly disgusting city, reduced to a collection of flashy billboards pasted onto blocks of empty housing units. 2010 witnessed a public resignation (some say firing) of Owen Van Natta, the company's CEO, and by July, operating losses for the year had passed $575 million. MySpace is still most convenient way to sample low-quality selections of fledgling rock bands, but individual accounts — the lungs of a social network — are inert.
Say what you will about Facebook, but they did get one thing right. Like the majority of humans (and most primates), it can differentiate between a person and a thing. According to Facebook's logic, both have presence, but only people have agency. Things — and this includes Malaysian sexbots — do not.

WikiLeaks
A free press, and the associated power of the Internet, to disrupt governments and expose secrets is trumpeted by the US in its policy toward China. Not so in its ongoing investigation — and threatened prosecution — of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. In addition to its April release of classified video footage of a US Army helicopter crew shooting and killing a group of men (including two journalists) in Baghdad in 2007, WikiLeaks struck fear into the hearts of American policymakers when it began releasing as many as 250,000 State Department documents in November. The real significance, however, was the populist rise of the computer-hacking community to defend Assange by attacking sites that caved to government pressure and ended business dealings with WikiLeaks (Amazon, Visa, Mastercard, PayPal). This response showed that there are many more people willing to defy the US government than officials would like — and that the feds can't catch them.

Privacy kickback
While studies show that younger people are less worried about loss of online privacy (in part because they're better at self-editing and using privacy tools that are available), Facebook and Google both spent big chunks of time under government microscopes this year. Facebook drew negative press and congressional concern for its ever-changing privacy policy and continued tweaks to both refine self-protection ability and encourage people to release just — a — little — more to those advertisers who keep FB in the black. Google faces increasing inquiries worldwide, particularly for its Google Street View service, which often ends up showing private citizens going about their daily lives — it shows a baby being born on a German street, for example — and has also been found to have collected data on private wi-fi networks in the areas its cars have mapped, leading to concerns about not just one-time privacy violation, but ongoing e-surveillance.

E-readers
The Kindle, the Nook, the Sony Reader — books really began to go mobile in 2010. The biggest boost, though, was from Apple's iPad, the small tablet computer that is effectively a large, powerful iPhone, without the ability to make calls or send texts. While many of the commercial e-book readers can access data in several e-book formats, only the iPad's system allows a private company complete control over software and the content that software delivers. If the iPad proves as dominant in its niche as the iPhone in its, this could give Apple a serious stranglehold on the marketplace of ideas.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Press Releases: Pay what?

Published in the Portland Phoenix


How much would you pay to watch TV programs you can already get for free?

This month, WMTW (the Hearst-owned ABC affiliate on Channel 8) and WGME (the Sinclair-owned CBS affiliate on Channel 13) are asking you, their viewers, to call your pay-TV provider and declare your willingness to do just that.

Both stations pay big bucks to the federal government for permission to broadcast over the public airwaves, using the new digital-TV signals that can be detected by up-to-date televisions and antennas. The stations are also carried on several pay-TV networks, including TimeWarner Cable and DirecTV. Most TVs these days can handle doing both — it's really easy to switch between your cable box, your DVD player, and your video-game console.

But the bulk carriers don't want you to do that — they want to keep you locked in to their systems. So they pay the local stations (or their corporate parents, at least) for the privilege of providing local shows to viewers in the station's geographic coverage area. The bulk carriers, naturally, pass on those costs to their audiences — charging viewers for the privilege of watching TV they could have at no cost, if only they were willing to press a button on their remotes.

WMTW's deal with DirecTV and WGME's with TimeWarner both expire December 31, and both stations have issued notices to viewers saying their bulk-carrier channels may go dark if the behemoths don't pony up, often to the tune of millions of dollars.

For example, executives at WGME parent Sinclair minimize their rate increase by describing it as "less than a penny a day per subscriber." But do the math: both WGME and TimeWarner estimate that 250,000 to 300,000 TimeWarner subscribers could be affected in Maine alone — that's right around a million dollars of increase (neither party will disclose the present payment amount). Of course, this is really one behemoth pushing another to get money from you: the Sinclair deal covers 32 other TV stations around the country, and whatever TimeWarner ends up paying will ultimately be covered by TimeWarner customers in their monthly cable bills.

And let's put that extra "penny a day per subscriber" into individual terms. Sinclair is asking TimeWarner to approve charging you an extra $3.65 a year to get access to TV signals Sinclair already distributes at no charge over the airwaves.

Is that a big boost to Sinclair? Yep. Does TimeWarner skim off a percentage for its own coffers? Bet on it. And what do you get? Nothing more or less than what is already being broadcast to your home. (Satellite, cable, and over-the-air providers bicker about relative "reliability" during thunderstorms and the like, but you're generally more likely to lose TV access because of a power outage than anything specifically related to how video gets to your home.)

Of course the other thing it gets for the local TV station is a whole pile of additional prospective viewers, which boosts advertising prices. WMTW president and general manager David Abel says 20 percent of his station's audience watch using DirecTV. Losing access to those viewers would require him to slash his advertising rates, which are higher for stations reaching more people.

Throwing that into the mix makes this financial equation even more fascinating: WMTW and WGME want you to pay DirecTV and TimeWarner more, to allow those carriers to pay the stations more, to give the stations more viewers, for which they can then charge advertisers more, a cost covered by the advertisers raising their own prices. You're paying for the privilege of watching television ads that make everything in your life more expensive. How does that feel?

Fighting censorship: SPACE to screen video banned from Smithsonian

Published in the Portland Phoenix

A video banned from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery last week in the wake of threats from conservative politicians will be on view in the front window of SPACE Gallery (538 Congress St., Portland) this week and next, as part of a nationwide show of solidarity between art galleries and the organizers of the Smithsonian's show.

The show, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," includes works by a large number of renowned American artists, including photographers Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Annie Leibovitz; and painters Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley (a Mainer of whom a photographic portrait by George Platt Lynes is also included).

On November 28, nearly a month after the exhibit's October 30 opening date, the conservative Web site CNSNews.com reported that it had asked incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner (an Ohio Republican) and incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (a Virginia Republican) to comment on one element of the show, an excerpt from David Wojnarowicz's A Fire In My Belly (A Work In Progress), which includes a scene of ants crawling on a crucifix.

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith told CNSNews.com, "While the amount of money involved may be small, it's symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions involving Americans' hard-earned money at a time when one in every 10 Americans is out of work and our children's future is being threatened by debt."

Cantor, who is Jewish, denounced the exhibit as "an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season," according to CNSnews.com. "When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency. The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time," he said.

Both politicians seem unclear on how federal funds are used by the Smithsonian. The organization reports that public funds do not pay for specific exhibits, which are instead funded by private donations. Federal funds cover the costs of building maintenance, care of the artworks in the museums' custody, and staff, including exhibit curators.

Nevertheless, the Smithsonian removed the video from its exhibit, without consulting the show's curator, Jonathan Katz. (Katz registered a powerful objection, decrying the decision as a capitulation to bullying: "appeasing tyranny has never worked and can never work, for tyranny wants only obedience, and blind obedience is antithetical to what this nation stands for; we were, as a people, born in protest to tyranny," he wrote in a formal statement.)

"When a work of art is censored because of a minority opinion about the work, it's cause for alarm," says Nat May, executive director of SPACE Gallery. The ants, according to the artist's own statement of purpose, are his metaphor for society, particularly during the AIDS crisis, which claimed Wojnarowicz's own life in 1992.

May's own opinion of the video is that "it's pretty harmless. I think we see more challenging and much more disturbing work every day on TV."

When he learned that other galleries around the country were showing the video as a sign of support for the censored artwork, May called the gallery representing Wojnarowicz's estate to ask if SPACE could show the film as well. "They got back to me immediately — within minutes" asking for his address and saying they would send the DVD.

The video will show in the front window of SPACE, along with printouts of various opinions about the work, including several objecting to it.

"I'd really like this to be an opportunity to discuss censorship," May says. "The biggest concern is that you have a couple of loud voices critical of something and before a conversation happens, the piece is removed. That's not how the rest of the world works. Because it's art and because it's in a public place" the standards should not change, he says, though apparently they do.

The SPACE exhibit will include the full statement by Katz, which ends with a quote from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself:" "Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!/Whoever degrades another degrades me,/And whatever is done or said returns at last to me. . . . Through me forbidden voices,/Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil'd and I remove the veil,/Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur'd."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Maker's Mark: Portland nerdcrafters turn old ideas into new items

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Galen Richmond may work in the best tradition of Maine craft artisans, forging functional creations out of everyday materials most might consider junk, but there the comparison stops. Richmond is very much a craftsman for the 21st century, perhaps something of a refugee from one of those far, far away galaxies that populate the Star Wars saga.
He creates new musical instruments out of old electronics, such as a Casio SK-1 synthesizer keyboard that looks quite normal until your gaze expands to encompass the matrix of toggle switches attached to its right end and the Atari joystick (complete with button) on the left. The switches and joystick are so seamlessly integrated, so tightly put together, that for a moment it becomes hard to envision the keyboard without those add-ons, all wired into the keyboard's internal circuitry, allowing the instrument to produce music far beyond what its manufacturers intended. Sure, the keys and pre-recorded drum rhythms are still there, but flipping switches and playing with the joystick morph the sound into new realms, warping standard keyboard tones into warbles, groans, creaks, and screeches. (If you still haven't gotten the picture, go check out the setup — and its music — at one of Richmond's numerous local club gigs; he performs as Computer At Sea.)

The term "nerd-crafting" has emerged in the popular culture to apply to work like Richmond's, which goes beyond traditional crafting (think the knit hats and handmade jewelry that are also so popular in Portland) into something related to geek- or nerd-dom, like electronics, comics, or video games. Richmond says his work is part of "the increasingly visible maker culture." It's more than traditional crafting (think knit hats and handmade jewelry), also popular in Portland.

Another of his devices is an OmniChord, an '80s-era electronic instrument with a touch-sensitive strip of metal a player can use to "strum" it. Not satisfied with that capability in a machine made a couple decades ago, Richmond pierced the case with several dozen furniture tacks and then opened it up and wired each tack to a different area of the internal sound-creation or -modification electronics. Now, pretty much wherever you touch the device, the sound it is making changes. (Richmond does wire those and other instruments into an un-modified MPC 2000 drum-machine/sampler/sequencer, in an effort to create music from these sounds, rather than simply making different noises.)

He started this sort of work, called circuit-bending, in 2007, modifying existing — often obsolete — electronic devices to create new sounds. Inspired by a circuit-bent Speak & Spell he spotted on eBay but could not afford (it was selling for hundreds of dollars), he decided to figure out how to make his own and discover what he calls "unheard sounds in the universe."

 
"The idea is that there's these other sounds just lurking in the hardware that weren't designed by anyone and weren't made to be heard," he says. As recently as a few years ago, it was possible to discover entirely new sounds. As more people have gotten involved — and as an online community has gathered to share techniques and recordings — it's rarer to make a new discovery totally outside an existing "family" of sounds (made from similar modifications to particular devices).
But it's still tantalizing, Richmond says: "There's always the chance that you could uncover a totally never-before-heard sound."

The craft comes not only in the workmanship of his customized devices (which also include an oversized circuit-board on display at the Children's Museum of Maine, and old books hollowed out and reconfigured with knobs and audio jacks to modify whatever sound signals are sent through it), but in the artistic repurposing of concepts, characters, items — saving them from the literal and figurative dustbin. Richmond puts it more humbly: "Salvaging this sort of useless-to-everyone-else technology and making something compelling out of it."

Finding niches
There's definitely an element of play in this kind of pursuit. Christian Matzke of Brunswick likes the idea of "taking something extremely adult in material and making a child's toy out of it." It helps him — and others — to hang on (or perhaps rediscover) the childlike wonder and fantastical ideas of youth, which adults so easily lose as they grow up.

For example, he has built a "NosferatView," a vampire-spotting device that is based on established techniques for spotting vampires (perhaps it's not such a toy: "you have it on the shelf in case someone comes to your house who is pal and has sharp teeth," Matzke says). And he created a life-size time machine, complete with valves, dials, tubes, gauges, and everything else you might imagine such equipment requires.

But while those appeal to the growing number of vampire/steampunk aficionados, he has also begun developing another small niche based, perhaps, more on nostalgia for the simplicity of childhood: making Lego scenes for bands. It started with a model he made of Laibach, a Slovenian band, of the band on stage (he customized the Lego figures' faces based on famous incidents, like the time the band's singer was hit in the face by a bottle thrown onstage, and bled while singing the rest of the show). "The band is buying it from me," Matzke says with surprise and pride.
Now he's at work on Lego dioramas of other bands, including Romanian electronic group NSK. While he prefers to create his own work and not derive it from others, Matzke admits that having a "built-in audience" can be an advantage when it comes to finding people who appreciate the effort.

It helps, too, when trying to make some money. Tristan Gallagher runs Fun Box Monster Emporium on Congress Street, selling action figures, games, accessories, and all sorts of nerdish ephemera, selling to those who share these types of interests. "It's about referencing stuff that you love," Gallagher says. He also makes T-shirts based on the Star Wars series, Nintendo videogames, and the occasional comic-book character (though he is careful to stay away from DC Comics characters, for fear of incurring the wrath of the phalanx of lawyers employed by DC parent Warner Bros.).

"Lucasfilm is very cool about making T-shirts, making artwork," he says. In fact, they almost use fans like Gallagher as product research. "If they like it, they'll take it," Gallagher laughs, describing how Lucasfilm will find a design and, rather than sending an attorney's nastygram, the company's staff do the design themselves and start selling it directly.

For fun or profit?Uniqueness, it turns out, is crucial to this kind of work. Ben Bishop, a local creator of custom action figures, bases his decision on whether to make a custom toy in part on whether he thinks the companies that actually own the characters he builds would issue their own versions. If something is already on the market, or is about to be, Bishop will skip it. For him, it's not just the creative process — "I guess I just wanted toys that didn't exist," he says with a grin.

He bought lots of toys, mixed and matched the parts, sculpted headgear and accessories, and meticulously repainted each part to create, for example, Lion-O from Thundercats out of a Skeletor figure from He-Man.
He even goes so far as to make box labels and design the packaging — reusing other action figures' plastic boxes — "to make them look like they're from the store."

Now, after roughly a year, he has finally settled on a kind of paint that both looks right and sticks to the plastic figures, and is getting requests for specific characters from fans around the world.

Bishop sells some of his custom-made figures to help fund his hobby; he recently took an order for 100 Sgt. Slaughter figures, combining the GI Joe figure with aspects of the '80s-era professional wrestler by the same name. (A tip for others who might be interested in starting this kind of work: "People are dying for Thundercats," Bishop says.)

Often Bishop comes up with ideas of what figures to make and then sorts out how to do it, with what parts from what original figures. But sometimes new techniques or even new toys open other opportunities, as recently happened with a Jack Knight Modern Starman figure, which has pants on and makes it much easier to create other figures that have pants (as opposed to shorts or bare legs).

Bishop has a love-hate relationship of sorts with this hobby. It takes a lot of time and creative energy from other work, like comics (yes, he made an action figure of Nathan the Caveman, the star of his graphic novel). But then again, "this is really fun."

Which is why he and Ben Asselin, a friend and fellow character-builder (who does more sculpting than repurposing existing toy parts), are considering partnering with a couple of other friends to form a concept-art business capable of designing and prototyping characters and figures, laying out storyboards, handling Web comics, cartoons, and even packaging materials. "We're all sort of doing all the stuff that would be required," Bishop says.

But then the conversation shifts back to fun. Bishop and Asselin are planning on making a fa├žade of Castle Grayskull scaled to fit the 3.75-inch-high action figures. And Asselin, a huge GI Joe fan, is busy creating all the characters from a specific scene in the 1987 animated film GI Joe: The Movie — which means getting or making the more generic figures of each character and then adding clothing and accessories to match the movie.

Bishop says a lot of the appeal for him is "having something that you've created — and something that no one else has." He laughs: "I want to be able to stop doing it, but it's too fun."

Where can I find it?
COMPUTER AT SEA will be releasing an album in early 2011, downloadable online (myspace.com/computeratseamusic) or you can buy the 12-inch white-vinyl record.
BEN BISHOP's work can be seen at bishart.net. BEN ASSELIN's work can be seen at benasselin.blogspot.com. They will have a joint display at Fun Box Monster Emporium (656 Congress Street, Portland) during a First Friday Art Walk in early 2011.
CHRISTIAN MATZKE's work is harder to find, but is sometimes featured in short films shown around the area.