Escapism

I have not been bored since I learned to read. I would read anything and everything; and what with the public libraries and my family’s collection, I didn’t often run out of material. Unless there was a planning failure. If I forgot to stick a book in my pocket. Did you know other houses don’t have as many books? Did you know some have none?

Ours was a household of readers. We didn’t have a television until after I was the fourth grade, and that was a small black-and-white set kept in the spare room. Later, someone in the congregation gave us a cast-off color TV just before we moved back to Virginia. (My own sons are now that age. Time moved so slowly for me then.) I have few childhood memories of television shows; most are of books and places and playing. My grandparents’ houses were defined by smells and their libraries: brick, boxwood, and Classics Illustrated on Mom’s side; apples, bread, mathematics, photographs, and genealogy on Dad’s.

I would sit for hours and read, so deep in concentration that I couldn’t hear the world outside. Reading filled all the gaps in the day: walking down the street, sitting on the toilet, riding in the car, between classes. Still now when I finish a book I immediately look around for something else.

I’ve noticed that I have a habit of doing something similar with other entertainments–grasping for the next movie, the next update, the next web page–until there are too many things all at once, pulling in a multitude of directions, and I feel torn limb from limb. I stay up late restless, unsleeping, unthinking.

What am I not doing?

The Browser History Fell Through a Memory Hole in my Pocket

If not careful, the brogrammers responsible for the attention deficit economy and big data collection will find their work has gone the way of interactive television. People use tools because they are — wait for it — useful.

You’re not the customer; you’re the product.

A web browser keeps, or kept, a history of where the user has browsed, what sites he’s visited, pages he’s read, where he’s been. It uses this information in the back button, but it’s also exposed as a list. The user can, more generally, retrace his steps. Additional windows and tabs in the browser interface led to discontinuities in the history, so while browsers still send referrers, they are, for the most part, lost to the user.

As my habits have shifted from a desktop to a pocket computer, I’ve noticed a key missing feature. Where has view source gone? And with my time being spent in specialized “apps” that are really just handicapped web browsers, an annoying behavior of iPhone memory management has me poking around Medium‘s and The Guardian‘s apps for something that should be there but isn’t: my reading history.

iOS has made what I consider odd design decisions, some of which have bled over to MacOS. (And speaking of questionable design decisions, that lowercase m I just didn’t use.) It assumes a well-connected network, values currency, and behaves as though local memory, storage, and power are tightly constrained. (The latter is a hoot considering how many years location services — and valuing currency — have been draining batteries.) In practice this means that if you leave an app for a minutes or seconds, say to check an incoming text, the app throws away its state and you lose your place.

Started that long think-piece on Medium on something dreadfully pressing, but it’s time to make dinner so you’ll get back to it later, where later is tomorrow or next week because life is like that? In the middle of cooking a new dish and scrolling along through a recipe as you add ingredients, then your mother calls, the page reloads, and now you’re confronted with adding another tablespoon of ghost pepper or none at all? That YouTube video you were meaning to finish watching later? Yeah, it’s disappeared. But, well, at least you can look for it in the vast store of clicks that Google has on you: you can see what was captured.

Safari will reveal your history. But Medium doesn’t. Facebook doesn’t. Twitter doesn’t. Other apps don’t. They haven’t been that considerate. It’s pretty obvious all these folks know exactly what I’m reading and watching and listening to, when, and for how long. They use that data to serve up recommended fodder, advertisements for my attention. But there’s no courtesy of a reach-around. No trail of breadcrumbs for me to follow back out of this dungeon to what led me here in the first place.

If you want to continue the data harvest, it’s necessary to feed the cattle.

The Customer Perspective

There’s too much wrong with the FCC — in all its various political, technical, and regulatory aspects — to get into arguments on the line. However, I’d like to point out one small piece of anecdata from Number Two Daughter’s iPhone 6. From the customer’s perspective, Internet access providers are common carriers.

Number Two Daughter (15) has service with Cricket (a subsidiary of AT&T) and pays $30/mo. for cellular service with a 2GB/mo. soft cap on data usage. It’s a soft cap because after using 2GB, the transfer rate is throttled. A hard cap prevents usage.

She primarily uses the phone to chat with friends, watch movies, and keep up to the minute with BTS. Most of that activity happens here at home, so in the best of all possible worlds she’d be using our domestic Internet connection provided by Frontier Communications rather than the LTE connection provided by AT&T. However, there’s a mechanical difficulty with either the antenna or the wifi chip in her phone, so she doesn’t connect to the 802.11n network.

YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video, nor even BTS, are not the top consumers of bandwidth; they are slightly more than bumps on the long tail. Apple Music and Spotify and Pandora don’t even register. iMessages and SMS chats are miniscule pinpricks. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are so 5th grade; only toddlers use those.

Snapchat was. And the month isn’t over yet.

The internet is NOT television. And no one wants “content.” They never have. They want a connection with other people.

Reach out, and touch someone.

Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?

Netflix noticed something strange and unexpected among users of their video streaming service: they would watch all of the available episodes of a series before starting a new show, and they would watch for hours on end. They called this consumption pattern binge-watching. What explained this novel behavior? What did it mean, not only for Netflix’s business, but for everyone in theater?

But this behavior is not novel, and should have been expected, if the industry had not confused the limits of their production and scheduling processes with customer preferences. Any librarian or bookseller worth her salt could predict this. What do their clients ask for when they find a good book? More of the same. Even Hollywood moguls know this. Applying this knowledge is what they, still, have trouble with. Streaming video services, the medium formerly known as television, should remember to take this customer preference for more into account. Attempting to stretch a product over time through artificial limits such as the gradual release of episodes may inadvertently lead to lost viewership and reduced profitability.

The summer of 1981, I bought Lord Foul’s Bane at The Little Professor Book Center in Montgomery, Ohio. I remember this because it was the first book I bought on my own. I picked it out from the shelf. I smelled the fresh ink. I ruffled the pages. I complained about sales tax. After I read it, I went right back out — at my parents’ convenience — and bought The Illearth War and The Power That Preserves. But The Wounded Land was only available in hardcover, so I read that at the library. And that’s when I discovered that The One Tree would not be available for another year!

image of the first edition U. S. paperback covers of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

One year?!

Well, by the time it arrived, I had forgotten a bit of the earlier book. I read The One Tree — one must finish a series, y’know — but without the enthusiasm I’d pursued the previous volumes. I eventually read White Gold Wielder. I think. I’m not quite sure.

Storytellers have quite a few tricks, “narrative techniques,” to capture the attention of their audience. Cliffhangers, for instance, are quite effective. But their enemy is time. Will the audience come back after intermission?

You’re Dead. Stop Kicking Me.

Interactive Television has always failed, and will always fail.

A lesson from the early days of telephony is significant. Early on it was thought that telephony would provide a subscriber with a way to listen to opera in the convenience of his own living room. And while that was sold for a while, it turns out that humans are social animals, and that the profit lies in enabling communication, not in delivering content. We want to talk to each other.

The ONLY reason that television has been around so long is that the cost of communicating with video was beyond the reach of all of us.

That is no longer the case.

Television as we’ve known it is dead. But like a chicken with its head cut off, it’s still running around.

Hasta la Vista, Baby

We’re cancelling DirecTV service.

It’s been about a year since purchasing the HDTV and the associated DirecTV package. Meanwhile, our viewing of “normal” television fare has been steadily declining. We hardly ever watch anything live: we have other things to do with our time. And more often than not, the children are selecting shows from Netflix, YouTube, or the producer themselves, instead of from the previously recorded episodes of Sesame Street, Jake and the (cute little) Never Land Pirates, Little Bear, Wizards of Waverly Place, or whatnot.

In the interest of completeness, I’ve compiled a list of what we normally watch with any regularity, and where it can be found now that we’ve cut the downlink. The challenge now will be getting some of them off the Internet and on the big screen. Apple TV, perhaps? Boxee?

Did I mention it’s cheaper when you’re not paying for the umpteen channels of shit on the TV you don’t watch? People don’t care about “channels.” They care about shows.

DirecTiVo, your return can not be too soon

Our DirecTiVo was dying. Every now and again, frequently at times, it stopped, hung. Maybe it waiting on a bad block on disk. Maybe it was just the heat. But the only option offered by DirecTV was a replacement with their dreaded DVR.

My first impression was positive. The guide responded quickly. The on-screen display is unobtrusive.

But on closer inspection, this was designed by a committee of retarded monkeys with no sense for how the ability to control the television changes how we use it.

The remote is cluttered. Do I really need three power buttons?

Why are you starting from sleep at the Game Lobby? I have never willingly selected that, so don’t even bother showing it to me.

Speaking of sleep, what’s the deal with the screen saver? Trying to keep my cathode ray tube from burning in the Game Lobby?

But now that I have a chance to sit down and completely reprogram all of the shows I’ve chosen to record over the past eight years when there is absolutely no reason why I should have to do that, I wonder WHY THE FUCK DirecTV can’t make a searchable version of the TV guide so that I can find the shows I want to record you fucking incompetent pieces of shit.

How about making one that displays the show that’s actually playing on my TV?

This is why all efforts at interactive television have failed miserably.

Navel Gazing

For one of her classes last year, D. wrote a paper which analyzes an effect of the self-absorption of the media, in response to one of the unfounded assertions in the class’s text, that the rise of the Internet and “thousands” of cable channels had fragmented society. She asked, “Do Our Unlimited Choices Limit Our Shared Experiences?” Her expectation was that the text would be correct. It wasn’t. We’ve been led to believe that everybody watched the popular shows, and really only a small fraction of the population did.

I find this topic fascinating, and eagerly assisted with research and editing. My experience of “pop culture” was somewhat isolated, by choice and by my parents, so I felt out of place in the Big World at college. I wonder how many people there were familiar with all of the things they’d said they were, and how many were poseurs.

(Meanwhile, I’m seriously considering stopping our DirecTV subscription and removing the television, but do not yet have the support of other members of the household. Maybe we can compromise and keep Netflix.)

Counterdisintermediation, in an attempt to remain relevant

A famous character once opined, Never underestimate the power of human stupidity. The executives at ABC are determined to prove that axiom by launching a video-on-demand product that does not include the ability to skip the commercials.

But those of us who think that we, the viewers, are ABC’s customers are sadly mistaken. We are not. The advertisers are. Our interests and those of the advertisers conflict, or appear to. We want to watch a 20 minute show in 20 minutes, not 30. The advertisers want us to buy their products. The broadcasters want us to watch the commercials, since that’s time they sold to the advertisers. The means which ABC, and other broadcasters, tend to take to resolve this ostensible conflict demonstrate that they are entirely concerned with the desires of their advertising customers — and not with those of the audience.

They have not realized that there is no conflict between our desires and those of the advertisers, merely that the broadcast product being sold to the advertisers is no longer as valuable.

Not the TiVo!

DirecTV is effectively removing the impediment to my changing video providers.

“We’ll support our existing TiVo customers,” a spokesman for DirecTV, the largest U.S. satellite TV operator said. “But our core initiatives and new customer acquisition will focus on our new DVR.”

I mentioned this before, but I’m a TiVo customer now, even though a second-class one. I don’t care who feeds my Idiot Box, but I love my TiVo.