Wednesday, December 30, 2009

May Fox and Time Warner Usher in a New Era

If you haven't been following the news, you might not be aware that News Corporation, owner of Fox, and Time Warner Cable have been in a rather ugly shouting match that will likely result in Fox pulling its programming and channels from TWC on New Year's Day.

Let me explain: In the beginning, TV broadcasters put their programming out for free to viewers. If you had a TV and an antenna, you could tune in to NBC. Networks paid locally-owned TV stations to become network affiliates. Advertisers paid networks (and local affiliates) to support free delivery of TV. This was great, unless you lived in some remote area or in a deep mountain valley and couldn't pick up a signal. Thus, the invention of community antenna TV (aka "cable").

All was well. This was a pastoral era where man loved his fellow man, the Russians were the predictable-style bad guys. Life made sense.

Then, it all went to hell. Quickly.

See, cable was something you had to pay for. And that meant you could also subscribe to new "pay channels" like HBO. HBO would charge cable companies a few cents per subscriber to make money since they sold no ads.

As you know, there are upsides to this. If you require subscribers, you can show whatever you want: swearing, commercial-free sports, bare breasts (!) and the like. You can even produce your own shows that don't have to fill a traditional broadcast season... your goal isn't ratings to justify ad dollars. Your goal is to gain subscribers who get you more money.

Like anything else, cable channels realized they could charge a few cents more per subscriber as time went on. Thus began a new tradition of pay channels increasing their rates and having cable companies pass it right on to the consumer.

Today, we have almost 1,000 options for programming on a given cable channel. That's 1,000 channels asking your cable or satellite provider for money to carry programming. Add it up and you know why your bill is so high.

So... News Corp wants to charge TWC a fee to carry Fox programming that TWC thinks is exorbitant. It should be noted, News Corporation owns DirecTV, so Fox has a motive of getting people to ditch TWC for DirecTV.

I predict Fox will, at least temporarily, pull its programming. But what I'm interested in is the larger ramifications... and those might actually benefit us, the TV watchers.

Consider that you most likely already pay for your "free" TV channels. If you have cable or satellite, you pay a flat fee for a basic tier of programming, always including your local channels. So... what if networks and local affiliates, already running in the red because of fallen ad revenue, decide they're no longer free? They'd now ask for a fee, too. That sounds bad on the surface, but let's come back to the fee in a second.

Freed from obligation to advertisers, TV networks could still sell sponsorships, but they wouldn't have to build programming to fit it in. I'm talking a bout commercial-free sports, sponsored by Budweiser with on-screen graphics. I'm talking about your favorite Prime Time shows not needing to force out 22 episodes a year, of which only 12 are good. Writers could act like they do on HBO... write a good story, tell it in as many episodes as you need and be done for the year.

Now, about that fee...

Right now, I have DirecTV and I have hundreds of channels I never watch. Yet, I pay for them out of my flat fee.

What if, with every channel a pay channel, I could sit down and choose my own package... I'd only pick the channels I want and I would pay the price for them. Sure, there could still be package deals. But imagine that. And to go another step... with my personalized list of programming, and digital delivery, I can conceivably be targeted with some new form of advertising specifically tailored to my interests. The prospects are tantalizing.

And... done correctly, everyone can make money in the process of sending me my programming.

So, I'm rooting for Fox to stick it to TWC this weekend. Not because I wish ill on TWC (though, as a former customer of theirs, I can't say they don't deserve it a bit). I'm for hastening the shift from one model of TV entertainment delivery to another.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why Airport Security Fails

First off, believe it or not, I have a lot to discuss. So, be on the lookout for more entries in coming days. Now, onto the matter at hand...

I think this whole business about the state of airline security in the aftermath of a terrorist trying to blow up Delta/Northwest 253 on Christmas Day over Michigan... is stupid.

I don't understand why there's an uproar because it's simple: airport security sucks. I don't mean the TSA people who perform the job. From what I can tell, they're doing fine. The system they have to operate under is what sucks.

My surprise is that we haven't had this happen more often.

The issue is not a failure of intelligence (I highly recommend you read Malcolm Gladwell's 2003 piece on this topic here). The issue is related to the problem Gladwell points out though.

Essentially, we treat every person going through security like they could be a terrorist. But... we do it in a way that is designed to cause no undue delay for we, the travelers. Heaven help us if we are delayed at security! You might start thinking the TSA is interested in keeping flights safe if that happened.

Instead, think about it: if everyone walking through could be a terrorist, how would you screen the millions of people walking through the metal detectors every day? Would you stop every person every time the x-ray machine showed something puzzling?

If you said yes, let me ask you: how? Where are you going to do these searches? In the crowded areas right around security? Let's remember most airports had to quickly adjust screening areas in the week after 9/11. They didn't build new terminals. Security is happening in areas far too small to do any kind of large-scale, meaningful searching.

And how many people is this going to take? If you really don't want to stand in line for two hours, we're going to have to hire hundreds - if not thousands - of new TSA screeners. But that... I'll let you do the math on salaries. I know how you conservatives feel about spending government money... even though many of your compadres are railing on and on and on all day about how we need better security.

What I'm saying is, if you want to screen everyone thoroughly, then it has to be done thoroughly. Otherwise, TSA agents have to make on-the-spot judgment calls about who is a threat and who is not. I remember dating and trying to pick out in a crowd which girls were nice and which ones weren't. This was a topic I had a lot of schooling on. I did not, alas, have a 100% success rate.

It's my belief that TSA screening is extremely impractical and, honestly, does little to keep us safe. The first time I flew commercially was in about 1983. Back then, I still walked through a metal detector. I still had my bags x-rayed (A person at the Pittsburgh airport back then even let me go behind the screen as they fed through a test box that I could see had a gun inside! So cool!). How is that different from now, exactly?

And how about this: From 1980-2001, 34 major flights were hijacked. TWO were on USA-based airlines (and both of those were in the mid-1980s and neither occurred on or over US soil).

On one day in 2001, four American jets were hijacked. We haven't had any since. I am compelled to argue it wasn't airport security measures that have led to zero since then. I think, instead, it was mandating that cockpit doors lock from the inside instead of the outside. Think back and remember watching the flight attendant shut the cockpit door... and lock it. From the outside...

Since 9/11, though, the tightened security has helped build a better terrorist. When you couldn't check bombs in bags anymore, they put a bomb in a guy's shoe. Once everyone had to start having their shoes screened, they planned on having people assemble liquid-based bombs smuggled on in water bottles. Now that we cannot carry through liquids that do not fit in a quart-sized bag, they apparently have guys wearing explosive underwear. I can only assume that if we had to fly naked, they'd surgically insert a bomb into someone's body.

Our security would be effective if the terrorists weren't bat-shit insane. These are people who are willing to die. They have crashed planes into buildings, something no one rational ever thought of until about 9 a.m. on 9/11. Our little security measures? I have a feeling they're not so upset about the new rules. Especially if they're going to board planes in places like Nigeria, where - I know this is hard to believe - the US Government has no jurisdiction. I know. Crazy.

So, I propose we go back to the old way. Let people pack whatever the hell they want. Right now, we've got honest people trying to find ways to smuggle aboard items they simply don't want to check. Many succeed. So, open the floodgates. There is no statistical proof that I can locate showing that "increased security" has done anything other than spend a lot of money and piss a lot of people off. I'm still waiting for the big "TSA arrests five with weapons at O'Hare security checkpoint" headline.

And really, in 2005 nearly 43,000 Americans died in car crashes. None related to terrorism that I can find. In 2005, 1,454 people died in plane crashes worldwide! In 2008, again worldwide, total fatalities in air crashes were... 876 (in 147 incidents).

Maybe we should be asking about freeway security.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

My Year in Travel

As much as I talk about travel on here, I might as well look back at the year that was in that sense...

First, let's look at the raw numbers of miles flown and flights:

  • US Airways - 58,872 (55 flights)*
  • Delta - 3,444 (6 flights)
  • AirTran - About 700 (2 flights)
  • Continental - 406 (2 flights)
  • Southwest About 500 (1 flight)
The star goes next to US Air because by the end of this month, I'll have been on 62 flights and well over 60,000 miles. And the crazy thing... more than 30,000 of them will have been since October 1, which means (if my math is right), due to US Air's fourth quarter promotion, I will vault from Gold status on US Air, to Chairman's. Which, frequent fliers will hear me here, is bad-ass.

I should note here this wasn't all for business, though the vast bulk was. That said, a few vacation flights in there for sure.

So, where was Jay? Here were some of my travel destinations:

  • Atlanta
  • New York
  • Seattle
  • Portland, OR
  • San Francisco/Oakland
  • Southern California
  • Phoenix
  • Philadelphia
  • New Haven
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Baltimore
  • Chattanooga
  • London, UK
  • Tampa
  • Orlando
  • Ft. Lauderdale/Miami
  • Jacksonville
  • Portland, ME
  • Las Vegas
  • New Jersey
  • Boston
  • Austin
  • Durango, Colorado
And those are just places that I got on airplane to. Belle Glade, FL; Aztec, NM; Sacramento, CA... all kinds of places that I drove to once on the ground.

In fact, I made it to five new states this year, bringing my total state count to 31.

Now, remarkably, I managed to not once get stranded anywhere (that has only happened once and that was in 2008). Plus, I got a lot of flight upgrades. Generally, my travel hasn't been all that bad.

But it hasn't been all rainbows and butterflies either. Aside from things like missing my wife, jet-lag and other stuff, here are some strictly travel-related items that made travel a bit harder than it might have been:

  • Philadelphia International Airport - It really says something about how bad an airport you've got when I will schedule business trips to end in Delaware or New Jersey so I can use BWI or Newark, respectively instead of this trapped-in-1977 atrocity of an airport. And the crazy thing is that there is such a case of NIMBYism in some Philly suburbs that the chance of turning Willow Grove NAS or Trenton-Mercer Airport into a desperately-needed overflow airport are nil.
  • People that think overhead compartments are for their purses/laptop bags. Those, see, go under the seat. I had a guy tell me if he put his laptop under the seat in front of him he wouldn't have any legroom. I am usually very cordial, but I must have been having a bad day. Because I handed him his laptop bag and said "If you wanted leg room, you shouldn't have boarded a plane."
  • Clouds - I'm a little kid on a plane. When I finish work on my laptop, I want to be able to look out the window. Clouds mess this up. Go be cloudy some other day. Or after I land. :-)
And then, there are the things that travel has taught me:

  • Being nice helps, more often than not - I am only a frequent flier on one airline, but man, even being nice to the check in people at other airlines can get you stuff. The people who work behind a counter at an airport - and flight attendants - are used to people just yelling at them non-stop. I have no idea how they handle it. But being nice to them, or at least letting them know that you understand that it is not their personal fault that it is raining and therefore you will miss your connection, can go a long way. In January, I was flying to Austin to visit a friend and the flight was terribly delayed. Mechanical problem. And people were generally calm, but some were freaking out. I got on the plane and the flight attendant was doing his mandated apology as every passenger got on. I simply said something to the effect of "eh, nothing a free beer can't forgive." A guy sitting across from me gave the guy some lip. We each got a beer on the flight. Guess whose beer was free.
  • Look at your rental car. Carefully. - Last month, I got a notice from Avis saying I owed them $400 for unspecified damage to a car. I was fortunate to have enough evidence to show that any damage was not incurred under my watch. Still... if the light so much as hits the car funny in a spot, report it.
  • Be careful of closing doors on the London Tube - If you don't, you might leave your jet-lagged wife behind at Victoria Station and have to hope you can reconnect at the next stop. Not that, uh, this happened to, you know, me and Sarah...
  • Mix business with pleasure - On a trip to Portland Oregon, I was in my hotel room, post-dinner, caught up on work and ironing... at 7:30 p.m. I could've stayed in my room all night. Or... I could've scalped a ticket to see Modest Mouse. I did the latter. Similarly, after a long trip to Colorado and California, I could've ordered room service in my Oakland hotel room. Instead, I hopped the BART to go into San Fran's Mission District. Seriously, if you are fortunate enough to be traveling to cool places, do something cool. I have a trip to LA in January that involves an 11:45 a.m. flight home. I could hang out in the Westin all morning. Or, I could wake up early, drive up to the Valley to have a very early appointment for work, but then... when it's done at 8:30, drive through Topanga Canyon and down the Pacific Coast Highway to LAX (which, at that hour, will be faster than 405). So, instead of a sterile morning in a hotel room, I can put forth a bit of early morning effort and be rewarded with one of the best drives in the country. Like anything else, travel is what you make of it.
Still, though, the best part of all my travels has been coming home to Sarah, who has been amazingly understanding, tolerant and patient with all my running around. The truth is, I'm at home more than I am away. But some weeks, it doesn't feel that way. She has been an amazing support to me all year. And she's the best travel companion I could ask for when she gets to tag along or we go together. :-)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Top 10 Albums of 2009

Well, here we are... another year of music to look at. Truth be told, it was a pretty weak year. I hate saying that, but I think it's true. The standout albums were easy to spot and the ones that came close had some serious flaws. We've been spoiled the last few years and this was the year the karma cycle paid us back. Still, the top 10 I have are excellent. And it was an excellent year for "electronic" music.

As always, my top 10 has a "second opinion" so you know I'm not nuts (or at least someone is as nuts as me). First, a few notable albums that, in my mind were good, but not quite the top 10:

U2 - No Line on the Horizon - This was easily U2's best entry since Pop. I know that a lot of U2 "fans" would dispute this, but these people seem to eschew creativity in favor of pedestrian arena rock. U2, for the first time in more than a decade took risks. And while it's not their best work ever, it's an album that shows that U2 remains relevant, even if their best work still seems to befuddle many of their listeners.

Franz Ferdinand - Tonight: Franz Ferdinand - A solid, if not entirely amazing effort from one of the best Scottish exports of the aughts. Franz plays around with their sound a bit on this disc... it's more hit than miss, but one gets the idea this is the album where the band is stretching its wings, figuring out what will connect on a later effort.

Moby - Wait For Me - Moby confounds a lot of people both with his music and his ultra-left righteousness. But this album shows he's still able to put together a cohesive disc of tracks that bottle up all manner of emotion into, now and then, breathtaking short works.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz! - This was very nearly in the top 10. It's a really solid entry. When you consider that this is a band that made it's name on affected post-punk, to hear what starts as a dance album is something. That they pull it off is something entirely more. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs establish themselves as one of the more versatile bands in rock right now and give us a reason to look forward to more.

And now...

10) Matthew Good - Vancouver
Second opinion: Chart

I don't mind saying this... Matt Good is easily the best artist that has been ignored by the bulk of American listeners over the past 10 years. Some of this is not his fault. Most of his material is not available in the United States. If it weren't for the magic of the iTunes store, I wouldn't even have this. But, once again, Good crafts the kind of rock songs that few bands make any more. Relying on his talent and his knack for writing fine rock songs, Good eschews all derivative and creates a concept album about his Vancouver neighborhood that sounds fresh, yet recalls the anthematic work of his past. Good is proving that years after breaking with Underdogs, any album he makes is noteworthy out of the box.

9) Discovery - LP
Second opinion: NME

I like Ra Ra Riot. I like Vampire Weekend. As a sort of fusion, one would think it's automatic that I would like Discovery. The truth is, though, I really liked this album, especially sitting beachside this past summer. Yes, its 30-minute brevity begs questions of just how far this can go. In this case, let's leave it at the band made as much of an album as they had to make... much like a BBC TV series. Songs like "Carby" and "Slang Tang" make it a fun ride, but even "Can You Discover" - a reworking of sterling Ra Ra Riot track "Can You Tell" - show a whole other side of these "preppy" bands. I hope I can expect a Discovery album between each entry from the original bands.

8) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

Brooklyn indie is very trying. These guys make it easy. Flat out indie pop that despite constant references to shoegaze, is as catchy and heartfelt as the band's name implies. Few bands have been this accessible and, while Belle and Sebastian references don't hurt ("Come Saturday"), songs like "Stay Alive" and the evocative campus tryst of "The Tenure Itch" make this album an easy listen.

7) Dan Deacon - Bromst
Second Opinion: AV Club

I very nearly made this album of the year. Nothing sounds like it and nothing offers the same payoff. Why not, then? Accessibility. I bet 50% of the people I could play this for, or more, would hear it and go "huh?" And accessibility has to count for something. That said, if you can get into this, you will be rewarded at a level unthought of for this kind of music. If anything, Deacon is playing with a new form of classical music. Themes play off counterthemes, songs are more arranged than played... it's startling. "Red F" shows Deacon's ability to toss it all together into a frenetic mix that, despite a lack of real lyrics makes me want to stand up and sing. But other songs like "Snookered" show the depth of ability here. Deacon has said he wants to work with orchestras. After hearing Bromst, I hope they line up.

6) Pearl Jam - Backspacer
Second Opinion: Rolling Stone

Another one where, seemingly, just by being released, it is notable. PJ continues to chug along, turning out outstanding rock time after time. Selections like "Got Some" provide quick power rock that, despite imitators, they can only put out. But after Eddie Vedder's solo effort for Into the Wild, a song like "Just Breathe" shows a side of PJ that fans always knew was there but reinforces why we're likely to be hearing form this band for years to come.

5) Lily Allen - It's Not Me, It's You
Second Opinion: Spin

Can we make all pop stars like Lily? Intelligent. Catchy. Brash. Wonderful. You cannot help but fall for this disc. While other poppers find one-and-done pop anthems, Lily Allen is pretty determined, it would appear, to use the format to actually be an artist. This means she occasionally mis-steps, but considering how few throwaways there are on this disc, she's clearly doing well. And it is, in many ways, showing the dark side of pop stardom. The jadedness ("The Fear"), tabloid attention ("22") and parental conflict ("I Could Say") are all here, in frank detail. But brilliantly executed.

4) Dave Matthews Band - Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King
Second Opinion: Rolling Stone

Death was very good to Sublime, but it meant that that band was done with making music. You hate to say this, but the too-early death of LeRoi Moore seems to have, yikes... energized Dave Matthews Band. This is a ridiculously good album. And while songs like "Shake Me Like a Monkey" bring the kind of old-school DMB energy, it's other songs that put Matthews at a level we haven't heard on an album since Before These Crowded Streets. It's a track like "Time Bomb" that sets this album apart from other albums this year and some of DMB's previous work. The death of a bandmember - and friend - brings issues to the forefront that may be painful to deal with, but make startlingly good music in capable hands. And Matthews undoubtedly possesses those.

3) Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

Another album that was perfect for summer but astoundingly diverse... and executed masterfully well. Find another album that manages to include a track like "Stillness is the Move" to something as "indie" as "Temecula Sunrise." Possibly the most complete album of the year in terms of continuity, Bitte Orca is about as accessible an indie album as you can find. And the truth is, I normally expound upon an album this high, but this is a case where the music really does speak for itself.

2) Fever Ray - Fever Ray
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

Dear lord this is bleak. And beautiful. The Knife put out a masterpiece with Silent Shout a few years back and one half of that outfit, Karin Dreijer Andersson, puts out a solo album that might even up the ante on The Knife. This is absolutely challenging music and it will not appeal to everyone. And while accessibility may mean something, this is one where I say if you cannot acquire the taste for the music, you are missing out. And big time. It sounds minimal... but that belies a depth both of lyrical content and sound. And there, we have perhaps the biggest brilliance of the album. Dreijer Andersson puts more into less than you might possibly expect. "If I Had a Heart" provides the creepy factor, but it is offset by songs like "Seven" that project a more reflective tone. Give me all the dark Swedish music you can if it's all this good.

1) The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You
Second Opinion: Paste

I hate to say it... in the end, it wasn't even close. I may be the only Charlottean to have yet to see this band live, but maybe that even helps make this album all the more remarkable. I think this band has had trouble with some reviews because they cannot be completely assigned to "folk" or "country" or "rock" or "bluegrass." They do take the Appalachian influence and do the most with it... but the most is far and above the best thing I have heard this year. And, again, it was immediate. After two or three listens, there was no doubt this was something beyond the other music of the year. And while it was a weak year, this album would be near the top in any year I've done a list like this. From the opening title track, the Avetts showcase a virtuosity paired with a keen ear for good songwriting that was missing in just about every other release this year. End to end, there are few weak moments. And the high points are insanely high, most notably, in my mind, a song like "Ten Thousand Words" where the Avetts have nothing to rely on other than their songwriting ability. And, as more and more people in areas have started to ask about that band from near Charlotte, this album captures a band on the cusp... and, excitingly, potentially not at its peak. Still, if this is as good as the Avetts get, we've been given a classic.