Monday, October 20, 2008

Week of 10/20/2008

The Dead-End List
– by David Matthews 2

Did you ever go down a dead-end and not know it?

Maybe you didn’t see the sign. Maybe you weren’t paying attention. Maybe you made the wrong turn somewhere and now you’re driving down a cul-de-sac.

Sort of frustrating, isn’t it? Now you have to turn around and figure out where you screwed up and then try to get back on the right path.

Even more frustrating is when you KNOW that you’re on a dead-end path, and there’s no way to change it.

You see this with apocalyptic movies. There’s that climactic moment where you know the world is going to end and you just wish that there would be something to step in put a halt to it… but you know that it’s just inevitable that things will end in tragedy.

Some people see small towns as dead-ends. People know that they reach a certain peak in life, they make that winning touchdown in high school, they marry their prom date, they find a house and pop out some kids, and they know that this is all that they have; that there are no other challenges before them. That cul-de-sac with the sign saying “dead end” isn’t just for lost travelers. It also serves as the subtle reminder that the best days of their lives are long since over with. (By the way, that probably also explains the whole “starter wife” mentality some folks have.)

Technology certainly has its share of dead-end items. How many of you remember the 8-track cassette? Laserdisc? Betamax? Digital Audio Tape?

How many of you have floppy drives? Back in the 1980’s, those floppies were true to their word… five-inch floppy wafers in flimsy cardboard envelopes. Then they got replaced with three-inch wafers in harder plastic containers. Now you’re lucky if you can find a computer with a floppy drive built in. Everything can be stored on CD, DVD, or on flash drives no bigger than your thumb. The three-inch floppy drive is on a one-way trip to join its five-inch and nine-inch predecessors and the reel-to-reel and data cartridges in obsolescence.

The sad part about dead-enders is when they have no idea that their obsolescence is coming. They go on thinking that things will never change, and really don’t because they are on a one-way course to nowhere.

With that in mind, here are a few other things that pretty much are dead-enders.

Copyright Management – As much as attorneys would want it to be different, the world of copyright management is something that really is a dead-end path.

I’m not saying this because I have something to gain from it. Quite the contrary… I have plenty of works that would be affected by this. I have over ten years worth of columns and several years of audio rants, not to mention two songs of my own creation at stake. I certainly would like to have them protected from someone else coming in and profiting off my work.

But at the same time, copyright management itself has been the victim of way too many slick attorneys and lobbying groups that have come across like a gang of mob bosses, attacking people mercilessly under the arrogant presumption that might makes right. And because they also represent deep financial pockets, they have managed to keep Congress on their side, crafting laws that would supposedly keep exclusive control over their works going in perpetuity forever.

Unfortunately for them, their tactics are not winning any supporters. Copyright piracy is still going strong, partly because the major players operate overseas. So rather than go after those big players, groups like the RIAA and the MPAA are instead going after grandmothers and little kids for having file-sharing programs like Kazaaa. They’re hassling Internet providers and colleges, forcing them to do their own dirty work, and treat people as guilty until they are forced by the courts to admit to be innocent.

And even if the strong-arm attorneys could be corralled, they often write some of the most clueless rules imaginable.

For instance, several subscription websites that I’ve visited in the past all pretty much had the same boilerplate copyright script that said that I am allowed ONE and ONLY ONE download of each image to my computer. But there’s a technical problem with that. Simply by viewing the image in question, you’re actually DOWNLOADING it to your computer. It’s saved in the cache. So if you were to save the image to your hard drive, you’re actually violating the copyright rules because you now have TWO copies. And if you were to visit the website again and the cache on your computer was cleared out (and some folks to that frequently), then simply by viewing it again you’re violating the copyright rules spelled out by that clueless attorney.

All of this could be better managed… if the courts and the legislative bodies were on the side of the people instead of the corporations. Unfortunately, money talks and the thugs walk.

Sadly for them, their actions are pushing for a different trend. “Open Source” is becoming more and more popular, especially with operating systems like Linux and for browsers like Mozilla’s Firefox. Companies are starting to realize not only in the value of “fair use” but also in the value of letting others assist in improving their product.

Copyright management will not be dying with a bang, but with a whimper. The more they push the more they will be pushed back, until eventually they will have to accept that their way is outdated.

Digital Satellite Radio – Once upon a time there was an invention called digital satellite radio. Much like digital satellite television, digital radio was broadcast from satellites in low-orbit over the planet, providing subscribers with crystal-clear service everywhere they go. And they would have plenty of channels to choose from. Channels that would NOT be subject to FCC limitations like terrestrial radio is forced to work with.

At first there were only TWO providers to this new medium. XM and Sirius each provided plenty of channels for subscribers to go through. Controversial shock jocks like Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony were brought over. Playboy Magazine hosted their own Playboy-themed channel. Things were looking good.

Then, sadly, the two providers stopped competing and fell in love with each other. They merged into one company. Now Sirius owns everything.

And that’s the tragedy of this medium… because now that there is no more competition, the push will be to find a replacement. And that replacement will be coming in the form of mobile Internet access. Yes, if you can surf the web, you will have access to an unlimited number of online radio stations for you to listen to at your leisure.

That, of course, terrifies Sirius and all of the various groups and companies that have invested heavily into this new government-endorsed monopoly. It terrifies them so much that they have conspired to use the government to try to destroy Internet radio. But sadly, in the long run, it won’t work. Advances in wireless networking will make Internet-based radio services as prevalent as Sirius is today.

It won’t happen overnight, but that expensive Sirius receiver you have will eventually go the way of the 8-track.

Record Albums – Once upon a time you could buy a music single at any music store. They used to be on little 45rpm records or cassettes, or even CDs. They used to be released before any album as a way to whet the appetite of the listeners. Usually you would have the A-list pop hit and then the B-list ordinary song from the album. Unfortunately what happened was that recording studios discovered that people were buying the singles and not the albums. So they started sending out the single releases only to the radio stations and then forcing people to buy the albums at the music stores and other retailers.

Then along came the Internet…

Now thanks to programs such as Apple’s iTunes, you can pick-and-choose what kind of songs you want. You can still buy the whole album, or you can buy just the songs you want to keep from that album.

You can probably guess what this means, don’t you? Thanks to iTunes and your computer, you can create your own albums comprised of your own favorites. You can buy just the songs you want, arrange them in the order that you want, design your own cover, name your own album, and save it to your MP3 player or even burn it on a CD that will have the same look and sound as anything the big studios churn out.

This is something that the recording studios and the artists themselves are deathly afraid over. That’s why they tried to KILL the release of the MP3 player just like they managed to KILL the Digital Audio Tape format. Unfortunately for them, they lost, and now they have to come to the realization that the album will eventually go the way of the dodo.

Music stores are already learning to adapt as they start filling their shelves with movie DVDs and with special music DVDs and musical instruments and plenty of gift cards for MP3 service like iTunes. At some point, they will stop calling themselves “music stores” unless they have actual musical instruments to sell.

DVD Movies – This one will take a little longer to disappear, but it eventually will, and I will certainly mourn its passing.

It’s hard to imagine this, but it was just a little more than one generation ago that the only ways that you could watch movies were either on television, heavily edited for content and commercial breaks, or in the theatres. Cable was just starting to come into being, and it was a government-sponsored monopoly at that. Laserdiscs were seen as a novelty item. It was actually the release of the Video Cassette Recorder that brought Hollywood into our homes. Digital Video Discs (or Digital Versatile Discs – could be interpreted either way) are just the next generation of this medium, allowing people to view movies in better quality and with a lot of additional features that couldn’t be put in a linear medium like a VCR.

Sadly, though, this too is an eventual dead-ender, and again you can thank the Internet for that, although you can also thank your local cable provider.

Cable television is moving into the digital signal business, providing crystal-clear high definition video and theater-quality audio. And now you can order movies “on demand” and watch them anytime you want to, not just when the schedule says you have to. Working in association with Digital Video Recorders (DVR), you can order the latest blockbuster for less money than your typical DVD release, have it recorded on your personal DVR, and then you can watch it over and over again, including pausing and rewinding and fast-forwarding to your best scenes.

The next step will be to have the WHOLE package available for you to download.

It’ll work like this: you’ll shop for your movies online. When you find the movie that you want, you’ll be able to custom-design the features that you’ll want to see. Deleted scenes, director’s edition, trailers, behind-the-scenes features, everything will be available for you to pick and choose. You only buy the features you want, and then that package, along with a disc source code, will be downloaded to your DVR. You will then be able to view the whole release just as if you were watching a DVD. And you would then be able to burn that release to your own DVD, or keep it on your hard drive.

What that means is that the movie studios will no longer have to waste money coming up with fifteen different releases of the same movie and worry about whether or not people will buy them. I mean, seriously, how many versions of “Blade Runner” do we REALLY need to have?

Playboy Enterprises has already taken the step of terminating its DVD services because of the cost involved with releases. They will instead focus more with videos that would be available online, which means that fans would then have to become their own DVD creators.

Smaller studios are already doing this. The people behind fan-based sequels to Star Trek, such as “Star Trek Phase II” are putting their whole works online along with covers and labels for you to download and put together on your end.

Eventually you will see this with major studio releases. Theatres will probably last a little longer than DVD releases themselves, mostly because of the socialization aspects, but DVD releases themselves will go from physical to digital.

Net Bias – One of the most moronic, bone-headed, greedy, manipulative, mercenary tactics of Internet Service Providers has been their attempts at destroying the concept of net neutrality.

It goes like this: cable companies offer Internet access and tout its fast download speeds as a way for you to sign up for their services. You sign up and you start enjoying those lighting-fast speeds by downloading movies to your computer. Then the cable companies hit you with a letter telling you that you’re taking up “too much bandwidth”, only they don’t really say how or what is “enough”. They start disconnecting that service that they suckered you into getting until you “change your ways”, or until they can force you to subscribe at a more expensive “business” rate.

Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s called BAIT-AND-SWITCH, and it’s an otherwise prosecutable form of FRAUD!

Unfortunately for us, since we are dealing with rich and powerful corporations with a government-sponsored monopoly, the chances of them being prosecuted for this tactic are somewhere between “who the hell are you kidding” and “fuggetaboutit”.

Unfortunately for THEM, though, they are biting the hand that will eventually feed them, because all of the changes going on will require them to move everything online. TV programs, movies, music… and with more and more services going to the Internet, the providers will end up LOSING customers if they continue to pull their bait-and-switch game. Eventually the race will be not to provide the FASTEST service, but the most AFFORDABLE; and unless the cable providers change their ways, they WILL be the ones that will lose that race.

Hmm… there seems to be a lot of things going the way of the dodo thanks to the Internet, huh?

Don’t worry; the last two are totally offline.

Gas-powered Vehicles – Yes the high price of gasoline, and getting most of it from unstable sources, have been hurting Americans for thirty years now. Thirty years of aggravation and frustration and financial turmoil all because we have become socially addicted to having a car for your personal transportation and needing gas for it to run.

Well I have said this before and I will say it again… THERE IS NO FUTURE WITH OIL!

As long as we continue to require gasoline to power our vehicles, we will need to get that gas from oil coming from foreign sources… sources that hate America’s guts and will do anything to destroy it. And everyone knows this. The automakers know this. The oil companies know this. And our politicians especially know this. $700 billion is currently spent to validate this fact, and that number gets higher and higher with every year that passes.

Just think… we could have bailed out Wall Street under the original estimated cost of the Paulson Plan with the money we’re sending over to foreign countries like Iran and Venezuela!

This whole situation has been one abysmal, unacceptable, bureaucratic fuster-cluck after another. We haven’t had new refineries built in over two decades. We’re sending oil through pipelines that are over thirty years old. We’re requiring “boutique blends” that are custom-made for the various geographic regions of the country, so that if there’s a refinery outage like the ones we’ve experienced in 2005 and 2008 those areas go without oil for weeks. The companies aren’t drilling in the lands they are leasing and they want the lands that they’ve been barred from accessing. And the oil coming from Alaska? Those are going into tankers bound for the Pacific Rim! They’re not going to the “lower forty-eight” as was originally promised in the 1980’s.

The automakers aren’t any better! They wasted billions and bet the bank on gas-chugging urban assault vehicles and pickup trucks. Thanks to the gross incompetence of the federal government under President George W. Bush, fuel efficiency standards will only go up and additional 5MPGs by the year 2020! And the automakers are screaming bloody murder over THAT!

Until we get a firm grip on this problem and take definitive steps to correct it, America is headed for a “Mad Max” style DEAD END! And there cannot be enough of an emphasis on those last two words: DEAD END!

Let me be as clear as possible about this: there is no future with oil, and there is no future for any country that relies on oil for their vehicles. The market is just too damned unstable and it has been done so deliberately to gain maximum dependency and make maximum profit, and it will DESTROY AMERICA unless we do something about it!

You want to know where the future is in? It’s in alternative fuels. It’s in the automakers that mass-produce and mass-market personal vehicles that will run on ANYTHING except gasoline! Biofuels, used vegetable oil, water, garbage, electricity… it could be solar-powered for that matter. If they can produce it, and it’s affordable for the consumers, we’ll take it. There’s your new gold rush! There’s your new space race. You want to bring American jobs back? There’s your way in.

And last but certainly not least… the one that I REALLY WISH could never be on this list of dead-enders.

Private Property – I wish this wasn’t on the dead-end list. I really wish that it wasn’t. But sadly, it has to be.

Let’s get brutally honest here… the very concept of private property, from the land we own and the home we live in to the very items we carry on our bodies, is something that has become a dead-end matter, thanks in no small part to our government and especially to our court system.

It first started with zoning laws. Our courts were quick to side with local governments when it came to controlling what would be put on private property. They didn’t want subdivisions being put up next to factories and warehouses. They didn’t want industrial mixing with commercial mixing with residential. That was the rationality. But eventually people discovered that they could use those same zoning laws for more nefarious purposes. They could use those same laws to tell businesses what sort of business they can engage in. They could use those zoning laws to tell homeowners what kind of homes to build and how to build them. And instead of the courts stepping in when they should have, they endorsed it all.

Then it became a matter of “fighting crime”. Asset forfeiture; hurting the “evil criminals” by taking anything that police SUSPECT were used or COULD be used for crime. You show up at the airport with any amount of money and the police will seize that money outright. And then YOU have to go to court to prove that it’s innocent! If you commit a crime and you have a nice enough house, then you are charged with “racketeering” so they can STEAL your house right out from under you. You have a nice car? They’ll take that as well.

The rationality they use is simple… PEOPLE have rights, PROPERTY doesn’t! PEOPLE have due process. PROPERTY has no process. PEOPLE are considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. PROPERTY is guilty until proven innocent by the prosecutor, even if the court says otherwise!

Again, the courts SHOULD have stepped in, but they didn’t. They accepted and endorsed the rationality.

Even if you comply with zoning laws, your home isn’t really yours anymore. Your home is subject to being declared “blighted” by the local government and sold right out from under you to some developer who wants it. It’s called “eminent domain”, and, yes, once again our court system FAILED to step in and put a stop to this sort of abuse. Instead, they accepted and endorsed the rationality used by the local governments to say that it’s all for “tax revenue”.

And then, even if your home isn’t coveted by a rich developer, it can still be subject to the whims of your local neighborhood dictator if you live in a “covenant neighborhood” or an area covered by a “Neighborhood Homeowner’s Association”. THEY get to determine how you run your house, how you maintain it, how to decorate it, and even in some instances what goes on INSIDE your home!

Once again, the courts NEEDED to step in and put a stop to this, and they didn’t. They again accepted and endorsed this abuse.

And now we have “national security”. I’ll see your Fourth Amendment and raise you with one PATRIOT Act and one Department of Homeland Security. We have BAD GUYS hell-bent on destroying America (if the oil companies and the automakers don’t do it first) and we need to know if you’re working with them! BAD GUYS don’t care about the Fourth Amendment, and neither should our government… or so says our illustrious President George W. Bush and his legions of acolytes and myrmidons and soothsayers.

So do you REALLY think that our court system will step in at this point when they have a proven track record of gross ineptitude and malicious constitutional neglect? I didn’t think so!

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with absolutely no property rights at all. We have no say over the land that we own and pay taxes on. We have no say over the home or business that we build on that land. We have no say over the things we put in that home or business. All of these things can be taken away from us on a whim by governments large and small, and once gone it is next-to-impossible to get them back.

Of all of the things that are a dead-end, though, this is one that can be corrected. There CAN be an exit built into this avenue, but to do so will require two things. It will require that we as a people to STAND UP, and it also requires that our court system STEP UP and actually DO what the system was supposed to do in the first place.

And if we don’t, then there is really not too much left before those same government officials start declaring US as PROPERTY.

Most dead-end situations don’t have to be such. Much like the climactic moments of those apocalyptic films, you do hope that there can be a way out of the mess, that it doesn’t have to be THE END. But in order to do that, something has to give.

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