Redesigning the Television–Will Apple Revolutionize the TV Next?

Before Steve Jobs died he told his biographer that he wanted to create a television set that was completely easy to use.  Can you imagine a TV that’s as revolutionary as the iPhone or iPad?  Well, I think it would be fun to guess its features.

World TV

Right now there are different technical broadcast systems all over the world so I would think the first area of simplification would come from jettison outdated technical standards.  Why not design one TV that will work with all 7,000,000,000 citizens of the Earth.  I can’t imagine Jobs would want to design a TV that had to work with set-top boxes from other companies selling content.  Nor could I imagine he’d want to design something that used over-the-air channel reception.  Because the Internet is universal across the world, why not just design the future TV to be an Internet TV?

Picture a TV with one power plug and built-in wireless networking.  Now that would be a simple and elegant design.  It would essentially be a computer with a 24”-62” screen using 1080p, that could work anywhere in the world with a different power cord.

The TV antenna will go the way of the buggy whip, and so will set-top boxes and DVD-Blu-ray players.

Physical Design

Now we need to imagine the design of the device itself.  Currently I have 5 remotes and a keyboard with trackpad to use with my 52” TV entertainment system I built myself.  If our new future TV used something like Siri, we could get rid of all remotes and keyboards.  The only external control that Siri couldn’t handle is a game controller, and with a Kineck type sensor even that might be eliminated.

Having to connect a receiver and surround sound speakers to HD TVs is a pain.  Our perfect TV should have a sound bar built-in with great surround sound.  And it should play music fantastically too.  No more Hi-Fi component, speakers and wires cluttering up the living room.

My new LG computer monitor has no physical buttons on it, but light sensors, even for the on/off switch.  I think our perfect TV wouldn’t have mechanical buttons either.  It should be voice activated only, but if it did require a manual power switch it should be light activated.

This TV will be more futuristic than anything on the Jetsons.

jetsons_l

Content

Now I can’t imagine Jobs thinking he could design this TV and just throw iOS 5 on it.  The TV opening screen and menu system is the hardest feature to imagine.  This is why Apple is the success it is, and why other companies copy its design.  Our prefect TV needs to show:

  • Internet broadcasts – live TV
  • Recorded shows from the past
  • Movies
  • Personal videos
  • Photographs
  • Internet
  • Games
  • Music
  • Telephone
  • Teleconferencing
  • Online courses
  • Presentations
  • Business and education software

For Internet TV to work we need TV networks to switch to streaming their content, but there’s needs to be a paradigm change first.  How many shows need to be live?  Think about that.  The news, sports, reality shows, special live concerts and performances.  We actually don’t need live TV all that much.  Most of what’s on TV is recorded.  Because of DVRs and services like Hulu, how many people even watch new TV shows that premiere each week live?  Cable/satellite services provide hundreds of channels because of their technical limitations, not because we need hundreds of live TV channels.

Content from networks like TCM, National Geography, Discover, History, etc. can be served just as well from a web page, they don’t need to be live.

Recorded TV shows and movies can come from services like Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Prime.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s we had 3 television channels.  There were no DVDs or DVRs to catch a show later.  You either watched the show when it aired, or maybe had another chance the following summer during rerun season, and that was it.  Each fall we were presented with a new line-up of shows and they would generally run a whole season – shows were seldom canceled mid-season.  Once you learned the lineup on shows in September you pretty much knew what was going to be on television until next summer.  Special shows were indeed special and rare.  That was simplicity then.

Back then watching TV was as easy as basic arithmetic.  Today with cable, satellite, iPads, smartphones and internet television channels, along with DVDs, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Blockbuster, Redbox and DVRs deciding what to watch on television is more like advanced calculus.  We now live in a TV age of painful complexity.

Watching TV fifty years ago meant three channels of choice.   Today we’re getting closer and closer to being able to watch anything that’s ever been on television at any moment.  The choices aren’t infinite, but when someone asks “What’s on TV?” it might be safe to say, “There’s a million things on TV tonight.”  And that’s painful to deal with.

Our perfect TV needs to have an operating system that allows the viewer to find what they want to watch as quickly as possible.  It needs to be as simple to use as an iPad for a two-year-old.   When the set is turned on it needs an opening screen – the top menu, and the basic functions can be simplified to these:

  • TV
  • Library
  • Telephone
  • Games
  • Music
  • Computer

This makes six tiles – is Microsoft on to something?  TV would be live TV, Library would be recorded shows, either TV, movies, personal videos, photographs, or other content.  Telephone could be two way video or conferencing.  Games and music are obvious.  Computer would be anything from online courses, business presentations, science simulations, word processing, blogging, etc.  I think we’ll be surprised what we’ll want to do from the family TV in the den.

Think what a game changer such a television would be.  It would be the Holy Grail of integration between TVs and Computers, but also phones, stereos and game units.  Is it any wonder that Steve Jobs wanted to tackle such an exciting project?  Sadly, think how many companies it will put out of business.  We won’t need Blu-ray players or discs, or Google TV or Roku, or music CDs, or movies and TV shows on DVD.

How To Get From the Complexity We Have Now To A New Simplicity?

If you have cable with hundreds of channels how do you even know what to watch?  And what great shows are you missing?

Live

The first thing we need to do is separate live content from recorded content.  We need to bring back the demand and understanding of live TV and we need to reduce the number of channels offered.  Because our system works with the world, live TV could be from anywhere on the planet.  We want our TV user to select any channel they want, but we need to simplify the TV menu system.  I like how Roku does things.  It offers hundreds of channels but you only add in the ones you regularly use to you main menu.  I’ve done the same thing with my over-the-air TV, reducing about two dozen local channels down to five.  It makes life easier.

When the user says “Live TV” to our new set they should see a small listing of favorite live channels.  They could be numbered on the screen so the user could say “Number 4” or just “PBS.”  Or they could say “Add channel” and then go into a menu of all possible live channels to add.  They might say, “Japan” and see live TV channels from Japan.  Or they could say “American football” or “British reality shows.”

This system would allow for simplicity from an unlimited offering.

Also, the Live function could connect to web cams around the world.  TV doesn’t have to be produced.

Library

The selection of recorded shows could run to the millions.  Any movie, any TV show, any documentary, any home video, etc.  We’d need a system to help people find good content.  The basic search engine could find things if user already knew the name of the show, or certain related details, but for discovering new shows they would need help.

What we need is the wisdom of crowds – hit lists of all kinds to let people find what other people are watching and rating.

The default Library screen could have pull down menus on the left and a list of shows on the right. The pull down menus will let you pick for Year, Genre (and Subgenre), Audience, Now/Then, Rating, and maybe others. The default might be Current to see the most popular shows people are watching right now. But under Time you can change it to a listing by year or decade. Under genre you’ll see a detail list of genres and from Audience you can pick age group.

This way you could put in 1950s, Science Fiction, 60-65, Now – and you’d see a list of 1950s science fiction shows and movies that people 60-65 are currently watching the most. You can also switch to Then and see what the people back in the 1950s watched the most.

So if you want your daughter to learn about astronomy you could request the most popular documentaries on astronomy that are viewed by 10-20 year old girls that are rated 8-10 stars.

We’d need supplemental features that used the techniques of Amazon customer reviews, Netflix, Wikipedia, Rotten Tomatoes, MetaCritic etc. to help people find shows.

The system could have an encyclopedia of TV shows and you could find any TV series that’s ever been made and start watching them from the first episode to the last.  Such a TV system will kill off DVDs.

Finally, our Library feature could also integrate with your local libraries, to their special collections, or to libraries around the world.  There’s more to our culture than old movies and TV shows.

Telephone

Wouldn’t it be cool for one family on Christmas to see and talk with other family members who can’t make it home that year?  The possibilities are endless. Science fiction has been predicting for the wall screen telecommunication device for decades.  It’s time to get around to making one.

Games

It’s pretty obvious games need to be integrated into this system.  Essentially our TV will be a computer, whether it runs Mac OS X or Windows 8 or Linux, it will be competing with console gaming.  It could signal the end to console games.  But won’t Angry Birds be cool on a 62” screen at 1080p?  Or future versions of World of Warcraft?

Music

Apple wants you to buy music from iTunes – that’s such ancient 20th century thinking.  I’m surprised that Steve Jobs didn’t recognize the simple beauty of streaming music libraries like Rhapsody, Rdio, MOG, Spotify, Zune and others.  Why mess with owning music and having to worry about backing it up and protecting it for the rest of your life.  Streaming music rental libraries is just too damn easy to use.

Like the “Live” TV function, the “Music” screen should allow users to add subscription services to the default screen.  Probably only one, but they should get to pick which one.  I’m sure the future TV from Apple will show iTunes, but unless iTunes starts its own streaming music service, this will keep the Apple model of future TV tied to the past.  Right now I subscribe to Rhapsody and Rdio, and use the free version of Spotify.

Computer

Lot’s of people want to predict the death of the desktop computer but you just don’t want to do everything you can do on a computer from a 4” screen, or even a 10” screen.  Online education is going to be big.  Doing business presentations is already huge and getting bigger.  Everyone will learn to create content, whether you’re an artist, teacher, musician or mathematician.  Imagine letting kids paint on a 62” canvas?  Or studying math from a library of the best teaching programs from around the world.  For many families the desktop might go away, or it might become the family TV.  Or the bedroom TV.  Pretty soon a TV will be a computer and a computer a TV.

Summary

It’s like Dylan said, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  Many young people have already abandoned the family TV to get all their content from smartphones and tablets.  The shift to Internet TV has been going on for years, so it doesn’t take much imagination to predict a perfect TV.  I wished Jobs would have lived into his 90s to see everything he could have revolutionized.  Actually it would be fun to see if he ran out of things to reinvent. 

At some point things have got to settle down.  If you contemplate this TV I’ve imagined here, it integrated a lot of technologies into one simple device.  I’d expect one screen in every room.  And then everyone would have a 4” smartphone and a 10” tablet and maybe a 12-16” laptop if they needed one.  After the war of gadgets we’ve been seen in the last decade will we see a gadget peace for a time?  Reading Engadget makes that hard to believe.  But the Flip video camera was killed off because of video cameras in smartphones.  What will the iPhone 4s do to the digital still and video camera market?  What’s happening to portable DVD players and handheld game units?  Does anyone buy handheld GPSs anymore?

Just when Microsoft was getting into touch, Apple comes out with a voice interface.  Schools are giving up teaching cursive handwriting.  When will typing disappear?  Always remember, the evolution of machines is away from moving parts.  Now that consumers have access to 3 terabyte hard drives do they really need them when everything is moving to the cloud?  How much does the iMac look like the future of computers and TV?  Evolution appears to be moving toward intelligent flat screens.  The smartphone suggests that everyone will have a personal 4” screen they take everywhere.  Some people will also need 10” screens (tablets).  At what point does voice controlled touch screens invalidate the need for 12-16” laptop computers?  And when does the 24” computer monitor in the bedroom merge with the TV?  And can one OS handle all screen sizes?  Will it still be Microsoft v. Apple v. Linux?

My recommendation if you are buying a new TV now is to pick one with the most Internet features built in.  But expect Apple to come out with something in 2012.  Will it be as revolutionary as the iPhone?  I don’t know.  Too much depends on TV networks, cable channel systems and content providers.  But I can’t help believe that cable TV will go the way of the floppy disc.  Expect CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs to disappear quickly too.  Cable TV and Satellite companies will put up a big fight for years, but the Internet will allow content produces to do an end run around them.

How quickly will all this happen?  Well, how quickly are ebooks taking over printed books?

JWH – 10/30/11

The Information: A History, A Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

If you read only one science book in a decade The Information by James Gleick should be it.  I’m not saying The Information is the best science book in a decade, but if you don’t read much about science then this book is for you.  It’s not an easy read, but if you’ve ever felt information overload this book will help explain how and why it’s happening.

We live in accelerating times that are hard to comprehend – the flow of information is like a category 5 hurricane that has stationed itself permanently over our lives, never leaving, and only intensifying.  Unless you have a fairly good education it’s doubtful you’ll truly comprehend this book, but there’s plenty of easy to understand history for the non-scientific minded to get the gist of things. 

Here’s one anecdote from the book that might help.  When the telegraph was first developed, people would go to the telegraph office and write down a message and give it to the operator who would key it in and then act finished.  Many people expected to see their message to go off, leave the building.  They couldn’t comprehend how information could be translated from words on the paper, to electrical pulses of dots and dashes that would travel along a wire.  Now this is hard for us to comprehend because we’re used to the world wide web, but the history of our species is a history of conceptual breakthroughs dealing with information.  But more than that, our minds, bodies and reality are information.

When my mother and father were children growing up in the 1920s all they had for news was the radio and newspaper.  My mother grew up in the country and didn’t even have the radio right away.  My father grew up in Miami, so he was closer to the cutting edge of communication technology.  My mother’s mother, born in 1881, and grew up in rural Mississippi probably didn’t even see a newspaper that often.  Most of the information in her world came from the Bible, static news that has been lingering around for 2,000-3,000 years.

James Gleick hooks us into his story by starting with African talking drums.  European explorers were blown away by African tribes communicating across great distances with drums, and sending rather complex messages.  The best the Europeans could do were things like signal lights, one if by land, two if by sea, or blow the bugle for retreat.  It’s very hard for us modern people to understand how talking drums worked because we no longer live in an oral culture.  Before writing people memorized everything, and often would know very long poems or songs they would memorize and pass on.  Drum talking is based on knowing the sound patterns of common phrases, with the drums having enough pitch to “talk” or mimic the phrase.  Basically the African drummers would imitate a line of a song and the receiver would interpret the phrase.  What would you think to do if you were in a sticky situation and your buddy started humming “Born to Run?” Gleick gives this example:

Make your feet come back the way they went,

Make your legs come back the way they went,

plant your feet and your legs below,

in the village which belongs to us.

If the African drummer created a pattern that sounded like that song, people were supposed to interpret as, “Come back home.”  It’s a rather neat trick when you think about it.

When humans lived like animals, communication and information was very immediate – “I found some grapes.”  But as we organized and formed permanent tribes, information became more complex and abstract, for example, the ten commandments.  Before the invention of writing there was a limit to how much and how far humans could communicate.

Writing was a real breakthrough because it conquered space and time.  A message could be copied and sent in many directions at once, and it would last as long as the medium it was written on.  There was a time when writing was even mistrusted.  Socrates felt writing was bad for memory.  He was right, but writing became a new form of memory. 

Early writing was still limited.  It was very hard to copy, few people could write and few could read.  From Bart Ehrman’s Forged, I learned something very interesting.  In ancient times reading and writing didn’t always go together.  Some people could read but not write, others would write by not read.  It took centuries to get from writing to printing, but after Guttenberg literacy took off, changing our world.  Computers have again transformed how we process information, but it’s a quantum leap over the printing press.  Quantum leaps were also made by the telegraph, the photograph, the radio and the television.

Each time, people protested.  Not long after the invention of the printing press people started complaining there were too many books – meaning there was too much to know.  Here is a quote I love from 1621, given in the final chapter of The Information.  It reminds me how I feel watching the NBC Nightly News every evening.  It is from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, &c., daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies and sea-fights; peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears. New books every day, pamphlets, corantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, &c. Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions, now comical, then tragical matters. Today we hear of new lords and officers created, tomorrow of some great men deposed, and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh: he thrives, his neighbour turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps, &c. This I daily hear, and such like, both private and public news, amidst the gallantry and misery of the world; jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy; subtlety, knavery, candour and integrity, mutually mixed and offering themselves; I rub on privus privatus; as I have still lived, so I now continue, statu quo prius, left to a solitary life, and mine own domestic discontents: saving that sometimes, ne quid mentiar, as Diogenes went into the city, and Democritus to the haven to see fashions, I did for my recreation now and then walk abroad, look into the world, and could not choose but make some little observation, non tam sagax observator ac simplex recitator, [45] not as they did, to scoff or laugh at all, but with a mixed passion.

I’m jumping to the end of The Information, the part about the information flood because I think that’s how most people will relate to this book.  The subtitle, “a history, a theory, a flood” is very apt.  For about half the book Gleick gives us a history of how we got here, reading, printing, computing – inventing the telegraph, radio, television, internet, etc.  Then he gets into Claude Shannon and information theory, and finally ends up with information overload.  That’s a very quick summary that does the book a disservice, but I’m trying to get you to read it, and if I started talking about Norbert Weiner and Cybernetics I’d probably scare you off.  (By the way, this book is very popular at my online book club, impressing a variety of different reading tastes.)

James Gleick covers a lot of fascinating history, like that of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace developing computer programming in the 19th century, or how Morse code was developed, which created a 19th century form of geek culture that inspired developments in cryptography and information compression.  Did you know that Edgar Allan Poe was obsessed with cryptography?  I find the 19th century tremendously exciting, and Gleick spends a lot of time there.  But it’s when Gleick gets to the 20th century that book becomes important.  Most people’s knowledge of 20th century science is of the flashy stuff, like Einstein’s theory of relativity, or NASA’s explorations, or the dazzling development of medical science.  Some people are familiar with Crick and Watson’s DNA and maybe even gene sequencing.  Particle physics is often written about, and all kids love dinosaurs and a bit of astronomy.  But few people want to go deeper.

Gleick gives us a geekier history of 20th century science, almost a secret history not because it was hidden, but because it’s closer to math than pure science like physics, chemistry and biology.  This scares away the average pop science reader, but don’t let it.  Gleick wants to tell us how we are information, our minds, our bodies, our society, our reality, and it requires understanding some mathematical concepts.  But we live in a digital age and really need to understand communication theory.  Why?  That’s harder to explain, but I shall try.

Remember recently when Michele Bachmann was in the news with the story about her comment on the HPV Vaccine and it causing mental retardation?  This incident demonstrated many dimensions of her ignorance which gets into all kinds of ways we communicate and process information.  First off, notice that her information came to her verbally, in person.  She proudly cited it as such.  Before the scientific era, the eye witness was the highest forms of information validation.  We now know that first person accounts are among the least valid, but back then it was considered the gold standard of proof.  If someone claimed to have seen a mermaid then they existed.  Bachmann was merely acting like a 17th century person, or even a 4th century BCE person.  Not only did she collect her facts in a poor manner, she spread them by 21st century technology, and thus became a dangerous carrier of misinformation.  She may have created a meme and become a viral vector spreading unhealthy information.  Here reaction was based on previous memes.

But it is much more complicated than that.  How do we know if the HPV Vaccine is good or bad, or even how it works?  Your answer will place you along a history of information understanding time line.  Sadly, most conservative people are going to place somewhere before the 19th century.  But even well educated liberals might only peg in at early 20th century.  The Information, and many books like it that have come out in the last few years are trying to catch people up with things we’ve learned from the 1940s on.  There is an exciting synergy going on among the sciences and it’s a tragedy that most of the people living in these early 21st century times are missing it.

It’s very hard to explain this.  Physics was the first science to explain reality.  Then chemistry.  For a long time biology and botany was divorced from pure science of physics.  But in our lifetimes biology has reached the level of chemistry and physics, moving ever closer to the quantum level of reality, and this brings us to communication theory and mathematics.  19th century evolution is being validated by 20th century discoveries in genetics and DNA, which are now being connected to the subatomic world, which leads us to the world of probability and pure information.  It’s all coming together.  The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick is your introduction.

Normally, this is where I would stop my book reviewing process, but this book makes me want to write more.  I listened to The Information, but I now plan to read and study it carefully.  This book is a gold mine of learning, and I’ve just barely taken away some quick riches, but there are billions to be learned in it still.  While researching this review I discovered that several other books essentially covering the same topic, or extensions of it.  I’m going to have to buy and study them too.  Read the reviews and comments on them here:

But returning to The Information, I’d also like to outline the essential topics that Gleick covers.  I want to list them to help people decide about reading the book, and to make a handy-dandy reference for myself to the subjects I want to further study.  Wikipedia covers these topics wonderfully, probably because if you’re geeky enough to work on Wikipedia you are also probably interested in these topics.  Plus Wikipedia was an important topic in The Information.  Furthermore, many of these Wikipedia articles cover the topics in more detail than Gleick does in book.

Other Reviews

 

JWH – 9/24/11

Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

Wake by Robert J. Sawyer is the first novel of a trilogy, it came out in 2009, Watch, the second book, came out this year, and Wonder will come out in 2011.  Sawyer calls them the WWW Trilogy, and it has a rather slick web site, with the best production values I’ve ever seen promoting a SF novel.  Personally, I found Wake as exciting as when I first discovered science fiction back in the 1960s, when I was a kid.  And it’s up for the Hugo this year, so I figure Penguin knows it has a great story and its hitting warp ten to promote it.

wake-for-blog

Wake is not marketed as a YA novel, but it could have been.  The main character is Caitlin Decter, a fifteen year old blind girl, who is a math wiz, computer geek, engaging blog writer, and extremely precocious.  This reminds me tremendously of the Heinlein juveniles from the 1950s, and in particular Holly from “The Menace From Earth.”  Like the Heinlein juveniles, Wake is chock full of educational tidbits.  And Wake is the kind of novel you don’t want to put down. 

Classic SF Theme:  Intelligent Computers

It’s getting harder and harder for science fiction writers to come up with completely new science fictional ideas, so what we often see is a writer taking on a classic theme and having a go at evolving past ideas.  Wake follows in the tradition of many fictional computers, but in particular ones about a computer becoming conscious in front of one person.  These are the just the ones I’ve read, there are many others.

  • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1972 – When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One by David Gerrold
  • 1995 – Galatea 2.2 – Richard Powers
  • 2009 – Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

Sawyer goes further then earlier writers in trying to imagine how an artificial mind would evolve and what it would perceive as it came into being.  Sawyer weaves blindness and Helen Keller, autism, apes that do sign language, Julian Jaynes’ the bicameral mind, and other explorers of consciousness into the story in a very effective way. 

One reason why I love this novel so much is because I’ve been writing a novel in my head about this subject for years.  It’s not likely I’ll ever become a real novelist, but if I do, I’ll have to take the concept further than Sawyer, and that’s a good challenge.

Go read Wake.  End of review.

Spoiler Alert

Now I want to discuss what Sawyer is really writing about.  Sawyer supposes that the Internet could evolve into a self-aware mind.  That idea isn’t new, but what Sawyer does with Wake is make his case for it with series of suppositions that are wrapped in a page turning novel.  In other words, he has a bunch of wild theories that he gets readers to think about one at a time. 

What I’d like to do is discuss these ideas but hopefully without hurting anyone’s enjoyment of the story, but I recommend you not read beyond this point if you haven’t read Wake yet and want to get the full impact of its excitement. 

Sawyer’s first theory is the emerging web mind will go through a stage much like what Helen Keller went through before she discovered language.  Sawyer indirectly explores this stage in a number of ways, including quotes and references to Helen Keller, a subplot about signing apes, and references to the book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, a book I found very exciting when it came out back in 1976.

But I think Sawyer is missing a piece of the puzzle, one I got from On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins.  Hawkins thinks our consciousness emerged out of a pattern recognition processor that we call the neocortex.  Sawyer uses cellular automata as his theoretical model, but I’m not sure that will work.  Cellular automata create patterns, but do they recognize them?  I’m not sure the Internet can generate a consciousness in its current design.  Oh, the Internet will make a fine nervous system for such a web being, or beings, but I think another type of device will need to be built first, and that’s a multilayer pattern recognizer that’s as good or better than our neocortex.

So far, all the writers exploring this theme have assume that when computers reach a critical mass a consciousness will spontaneously arise out of the complexity.  I doubt that completely.  I think at least three components are needed for self-aware consciousness: pattern recognition, mind and language.  I don’t think any of these exist in the internet, or supercomputers.   I think mind evolves out of pattern recognition, and self-awareness evolves out of mind, with the development of language.

Atoms and molecules have early stages of pattern recognition, but as life arises out of non-life, sense organs develop that seek out patterns in reality.  Most organisms are so highly adapted to specific patterns that they will die off if they can’t find them.  Evolutionary adaptation is the ability of organisms to explore and take advantage of new patterns.  I believe the mind grows out of this process, and there are different kinds of minds.  A dog, cat, dolphin and chimp all have minds.  We aren’t sure how much they perceive, or if they have much self-awareness, but they do have minds.  Language studies in dolphins and chimps hint that maybe these animals are self-aware and have identities, maybe far more than our egos want to believe, but I think their consciousnesses are limited by the state of their language abilities.  I think signing will add consciousness to apes.

For an AI computer to develop a mind, I think it needs to have a focus on reality that is processed through a pattern recognition device, and then a language needs to be linked to the patterns.  At first, I thought Sawyer was going to have the web mind see out of Caitlin’s artificial eye, so as the device taught her mind to see, the web mind would also learn to see, and with another fictional piece of technology, learn a language.  Instead Sawyer imagines an inner world where the web is visible.  I don’t buy that at all.  It’s leftover fluff from cyberpunk novels.  Why invent a new reality to observe, when the internet mind has millions of eyes on our reality?

Now this brings up some interesting questions about AI minds.  If a web mind has millions of web cameras at its disposal, will it think think like it has millions of eyes?  Or will it’s  consciousness move from camera to camera and peer out at single points of reality?  Omniscient life would be tough, don’t you think?  I tend to believe, and I only have limited knowledge to think otherwise, that an AI mind will emerge from a limited environment.  Some scientist will raise up an AI mind by teaching it to see and hear while learning a language.

But what will a hive AI mind be like?  Let’s say anyone in the future can go down to Radio Shack and buy an artificial neocortex to add to their computer system and bring up an AI child.  If all of these AI minds are connected by the Internet it will be like a race of telepathic beings.  Now, wouldn’t that be a far out science fiction story?  I still haven’t read Watch, so who knows what will happen.

JWH – 5/13/10 

Will Internet TV Make Cable and Satellite TV Extinct?

There are two kinds of TV, live and recorded.  Internet TV sites like Hulu have already proven how well they can handle recorded TV shows.  Internet TV even does away with the need for a digital video recorder (DVR).  Think of a show, find it, watch it.  Internet TV like Hulu is even better than broadcast, cable or satellite for sponsors because viewers are required to watch the commercials.  And as long as they have such limited commercials as they do now, I don’t mind watching them.  Otherwise I’ll pay for streaming services like Netflix to be commercial free.

Where Internet TV is weak is for live broadcasts, like for sports and 24/7 news.  The infrastructure of cable and satellite systems have far more bandwidth for handling live television.  That won’t always be so, because I’m sure some kind of broadcast Internet technology will emerge to solve that problem and people will be watching live TV on their iPhones, iPads, netbooks, notebooks, desktops, HTPCs and Internet TV sets.

Digital technology ate the music industry, and is about to eat the book, newspaper, magazine and television industries.  I gave up cable TV months ago and for recorded shows I’m in hog heaven by using the Internet TV, which includes streaming Netflix.  I also supplement by viewing diet with snail-mail Netflix discs, but I see where that habit could be phased out too.  The only reason to get a disc now is for the picture quality of Bluray.  Future bandwidth will wipe out that technology too.

Owning music CDs and video DVDs seem so pointless now.  I wonder how that’s going to impact the economy and effect the entertainment business.  It also makes me wonder about my efforts of building an easy to use HTPC.  I’m struggling to get perfect Bluray playback through my HTPC computer, wondering if I should spend $80 for better software, knowing full well in the not too distance future I’ll phase out Bluray too.  The HTPC has phased out the LG BD390 Bluray player I bought just last year, and an Internet TV set could phase out my HTPC.

biggerthanlife

Last night my friend Janis had us watch Bigger Than Life on Bluray because NPR had praised this old James Mason movie so highly.  The flick wasn’t very entertaining, but it was fascinating.  The Bluray presentation of this 1956 CinemaScope production was stunning in 1080p high definition, showing intricate shadows and vivid colors.  Internet TV and streaming Netflix can’t provide that kind of resolution right now, but I imagine it will before 2015.

Technology is moving so fast that we buy devices we want to throw away in a year or two.  Growing up my folks wanted appliances and TVs that would last 15 years.  I remember Ma Bell phones lasting over twenty years.  I’ve had my 52” inch high definition TV for only three years and I’m already lusting for a new set.  Will technology ever settle down again so we can buy something that will last a generation?  I think it might.  Of course it will be terrible for the economy, but I can imagine TV technology that would satisfy me and take the ants out of my pants to have something better.

My perfect TV will still be a 1080p HDTV like we have today.  I’m pretty sure we can go decades without changing the broadcast standards again.  It will have a digital tuner to handle over-the-air broadcasts (in case the net goes down) and an Ethernet jack and WiFi for Internet TV.  It will have two removable bays.  One for a computer brain that can be upgraded, and another for a SSD hard drive.  As Internet TV is perfected the need for a local DVR will be diminished.  That will also be true for an upgradable CPU.  There will be no cable or satellite TV.  Everything will come to us by TCP/IP.  Broadcast will remain for the poor and for when the Internet fails.  Cable and satellite TV will go the way of the record store.  I also assume all Internet access will be wireless, but it will take 5-10 years to phase out wires.  Now that doesn’t mean cable and satellite companies will go under.  I expect them to buy into the Internet TV revolution.  I do get my internet access from Comcast.

Most people will think I’m crazy by predicting the extinction of cable and satellite TV.  They can’t picture living without all that choice.  That’s because of the channel switching mindset.  We have always thought of what’s on TV by flipping through the channels, even though very little TV is live.  Most of TV is recorded, and we fake immediate diversity by offering 200 concurrent channels to watch.  Eventually the only channels to watch will be live, because other technology makes it easier to find recorded shows ourselves.

Live TV will go through a renaissance.  Cable and satellite TV systems are still the best technology for live TV, and they will hang on to their audiences for another ten or twenty years as Internet broadcast TV is perfected.  However, guerrilla TV is emerging on the net, and micro audiences are evolving.  For the big networks, how many Today like morning shows will we need for live TV?  How many channels to promote sports?  How many to 24/7 talking head news and reality shows do we need?  How many live PBS networks will we need?  Will audience gather around central networks or seek out specialized Internet broadcasters catering to their personal interests?

Ultimately, how much TV really needs to be live?  Even 24/7 news shows spend a lot of time repeating themselves.  Live TV is leisurely.   The hours of the Today show are filled with just minutes of quality content, most of the time is fluff and commercials.  And if an opera is filmed live for PBS does it really need to be seen live?  Survivor and Amazing Race would be tedious if live.

When the flipping the channels metaphor dies out, and library checkout metaphor gains popularity, TV viewing will change.  People love football, war and car chases live, but will even that change too?  If you were sitting with you iPad killing some time, will you think, “Hey let’s watch the game in Miami,” or will you want to play a game or watch something recorded?   I can easily imagine sites of “WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW!” start showing up, listing thousands of events going on around the world.  TCP/IP technology will work better to provide that kind of service than cable or satellite.

Until you play with Internet TV you won’t understand what I’m saying.  You’ve got to sleep with the pods or drink the Kool-Aid to buy in.  Start with streaming Netflix and Hulu.

And if people love cell phones, Facebook and Twitter to stay in constant contact won’t they love live TV from their friends.  Instead of watching the crew of the Today show have fun, why not video link all your friends and create your own morning show?  And the emergence of spy networks will also change viewing habits.  If every daycare and classroom had web cams, wouldn’t parents spend more time watching them?  Won’t all the web cams in the world grabbing eyeballs destroy the audiences of the 200 channels of national networks?

We can’t predict the future.  Growing up in the 1960s I never imagined anything like the Internet.  All I can predict is change and more of it.  But I’m also going to predict that once the Internet and digital upheaval is over, we might settle down to a slower pace of change.  Well, until artificial intelligence arrives or we make SETI contact with distant civilizations.

Recommended Reading:

JWH – 4/10/10

Living in the Hive Mind

Our minds are created out of billions of interconnected brain cells.  And we’re billions of people living in an interconnected world of television and computer networks.  Is our world becoming the science fictional hive mind?  Personal computers have gone to parallel processing with ever growing number of CPU cores.  Is something like Wikipedia the result of thousands of human minds working in parallel?

For most of Earth’s biological history, individual life forms competed with others for survival.  Eventually organizations like social insects and herd animals developed, but what can we call the Internet in relation to biological cooperation?  Is it a hive mind?

How much of my thinking dwells on my immediate life of breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping and earning dollars to make my living, and how much is spent on data from the gigantic sensory network of the Internet?  And wasn’t books really just an earlier form of networking?  And then newspapers, radio and television more advanced forms?

I just finished reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence which most people think is about sex, but it’s also about the transformation of society by industrialization.  Last night I watched Bright Star, about John Keats and Fanny Brawne in England 1818-1821, about one hundred years before Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  I’m also reading Darwin’s Origin of the Species by Janet Browne, about how Charles Darwin came to write his famous book.  All three of these stories illustrate the transformation of society over the past two hundred years.  I think the romantic poets might have been canaries in the mine.

In Bright Star, people lived in houses with no electricity, and light and heat came from fire.  Their only connection with the world beyond their vision was through letters and books.  People led lives very close to other people, as nearly all work and play involved direct social involvement.  Much of our time is spent communicating with people indirectly though computers and television screens.  We spend far more of our time connected with the world beyond our vision.  Facebook is considered socializing by many people.

The gamekeeper of Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover, Oliver Mellors knows what it’s like to be an individual and understands how industrialization was destroying individuality.  One of the reasons the novel is so much about sex is because Lawrence believes the physical contact between individuals is more important than intellectual communication.  Was Lawrence right?  Is the hive mind bad?

Could we ever go back?  What if we turned off the hive mind?  It would involve shutting down the computer and television networks.  What would society be like if the fastest form of communication was books and letters?  I’d be out of a profession, since most of my life has been working with computers.  When I was young I worked in libraries, so I could go back to that.  Oliver Mellors couldn’t stop industrialization so he and Lady Chatterley had to retreat from the world to a farm.  During the 1960s the final path of hippies was back to the land too.  In fact, for thousands of years, all revolts against socialization has been back to nature movements.

Through the Internet I am in communication with people from all over the world.  Could I return to a life of working in my yard and hanging out with a few people I know physically?  For most people it’s not an either or consideration, they blend in both worlds, but if you look at the young they are spending more and more time in the hive mind.  The mobile phone will probably become the closest thing we’ll ever have to telepathy.

I spend a lot of my time being lonely for physical interaction with other people.  And even though I find great intellectual satisfaction from the Internet it never eases that physical loneliness.

Farmville, the Facebook game, has over 82 million active players, and represents over 1% of the world’s population.  What does that say?  Is it a virtual return to the land, or is it a new hive mind form of socializing, or is it a sad escape from physical loneliness?  I say that as I write this for my hive mind friends to read while my wife is out in the den tending to her virtual farm.

JWH – 3/27/10

Unique Perspectives

We love people who can think outside of the box.  We love people who can see the world from a unique perspective.  We love people who can spot the trends before anyone else.  Well two of my friends have turned me onto a couple of people that have left me stunned with admiration, so I thought I’d pass them on to you.

The first is from Professor Jesse Schell and his take on where Facebook is leading us.  It’s in three parts:

 

If you watch these videos and don’t have a clue to what he’s talking about, well then I think you need to worry about being out of touch with pop culture, or else accept that the future has rushed past you.  Farmville has over 80 million users worldwide, and if you can’t understand what a weird fraking fact that is, then you might want to study these videos.  I’m not sure rock and roll in its heyday had those kinds of numbers.  Evidently it’s more addictive than meth, crack and heroin combined.  I know from experience since I’m a Farmville widower.

Next up is Christian Lander and his Stuff White People Like, a blog of brilliant social commentary with over 63 million hits.  The way to start reading this site is to visit the Full List of Stuff White People Like and pick a topic dear to your heart and get ready to be undressed.  Even more fun is to get together with a bunch of other white people and read these posts aloud.  Even when Lander isn’t skewering me, I’m learning so much about the people around me that is both hilarious and incredibly insightful.  Damn, I wish I had his people watching skills.

JWH – 3/2/10

What I Want To Be When I Get Old

I’ve picked twelve areas of knowledge to pursue in the last third of life.  It’s a conscious effort to organize my thoughts and actions.  Twelve specialties sounds like too many, but I’ve selected them like building blocks to work together as a whole.  Essentially what I have done is analyze what I’ve been doing for years unconsciously and state them here publicly to make them clear to me.  The pains of aging remind me of my limited time left on Earth and inspire me to change.  What I’m really doing is deciding what I want to be when I get old.  

Areas of knowledge might sound too lofty.  I could say I have twelve self-improvement topics I want to study, or even call them twelve goals for going the distance.  We do not have the language to express ideas of self-programming.  I’ve always loved John Lily’s book title Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, but sadly the book is about a great scientist going off the deep end with hallucinatory drugs and sensory deprivation.  But I digress.  Self-improvement is a vast topic for the publishing industry but has a poor connotation, but that phrase might come closest to my task.

I am a fat, lazy, late middle-aged man who has tumbled through life like big rolling weed acquiring random knowledge and wisdom through undisciplined osmosis.  Since I’m a programmer and work with computers, I think with cyber concepts, so picture an old PC that’s been running Windows XP for years.  This dusty old machine takes forever to boot up, and runs  slower and slower each day.  It’s time for a tune-up!  I want to delete all the clutter and crapware, cleanse the registry, run malware utilities, uninstall all the programs I don’t use, and decide on which programs are the most productive to keep.  I’m realistic.  I don’t expect to suddenly become a new Intel i7 machine running Windows 7, but I can make the old hardware run much more efficiently.

When we are young we have great ambitions about growing up.  We want to be somebody special and find the perfect mate.  During our middle years we expand our ambitions, seeking security, wealth and success.  But for the last third of life our goal is retirement, where we reduce our workloads and seek simple pleasures.  I say bullshit to that.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t find the success I wanted in youth and middle age that I hold out hope for an ambitious last third of life.

I’m not worried about the outward appearance of aging, the wrinkles, baldness, age spots or hobbled gait, what I’ve discovered that’s hard to see as a young person, is getting old is a state of mind that deals with wearing out mentally.  Avoiding pain, illness and injury becomes a relentless occupation.  My daily pains are minor compared to what I’ve seen in others, but the decline in health I’ve experience so far is wonderfully educational.  So for my first study goal is pretty obvious, and probably universal.

1. Maximize Health

I don’t need to become an authority or expert on this subject, but I do require major studying and practice.  Hell, I know the basics, eat right and exercise. Where I need to specialize is in the discipline of of mind over matter, or more precisely, mind over body.  I could greatly improve both the quality and quantity of my sunset years if I could lose weight.  I’ve been slowly gaining weight since my late twenties, and the only time I was actually able to lose poundage was due to illness, not a practical long term solution.  Of course, the secret to weight loss is knowledge many have sought and few have found.  I need to study books about the mind, and maybe even woo-woo subjects like yoga, meditation and will power.  This is one subject I wished I had mastered in childhood and practiced lifelong.

2. Enlightened Citizenship

I wanted to become an expert in green living, but I’ve decided that focus is too narrow.  I am deeply disturbed by partisan politics and our lack of will to make tough decisions about all our problems.  I believe in social democracy; we vote daily on countless issues with our every decision.  I am reading The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong and I’m reminded of her description of how the ancient Chinese practiced their religion.  Instead of being concerned with invisible gods and abstract concepts of the sacred, these people sought perfection by improving the simple acts of everyday life.  In other words, how you clean your house is more spiritual than religious rituals you embrace. 

3. XHTML/CSS/PHP/JavaScript/JQuery/CodeIgniter

After thirteen years of programming in classic ASP  I need to learn a whole new suite of programming languages and tools.  This is putting me way out of my comfort zone, but it’s my chance to prove that an old dog can learn new tricks.

4. Internet Living

I’ve been living on the net since the mid-80s with BBSes, Genie, CompuServe and Prodigy.  I’ve embraced digital life.  I’m fascinated by it’s potential.  I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet, so I want to explore all the emerging possibilities and even write about what will happen in the future.

5.  Clear Writing

I want to be a much better writer.  I love blogging, but I want to go beyond dumping out my thoughts.  I’m a wordy bastard that can’t structure an essay, much less a book.  I need to remove the clutter from my sentences and learn to assemble  paragraphs into larger structures that build coherent ideas.  I’m best at 500-1,000 words, but I want to write larger essays and even a book.

6.  Techniques of Fiction

I’ve been trying to write fiction since a high school creative writing class.  Like my failure at dieting, I can’t break through the writing discipline barrier either.  I’ve taken many writing courses and workshops.  At best, I can crank out words, but except for one time in endless tries, I can’t reach the critical mass of fictional fusion.   I need to master the language of fiction in the same way I write a computer program, so the story works without major bugs.

7.  Robot Novel

I’m struggling to write the great American robot novel.  After space travel, time travel, and alien encounters, robots are about the most over-written topic in science fiction.  Yet, I believe I have a fresh idea if I can crank out 100,000 readable words of fiction.  Notice how specializations 5-10 relate?  I’m not going off in twelve different directions, but hope I’m pursuing twelve skills I can integrated into a synergy of effort.

8.  Evolution of Mind

To say anything fictional about robots will require understanding artificial intelligence, and AI has always depended on studies of the mind.  I find my library is full of books on robots, AI, mind and evolution.  I bought all those books because they were individually interesting, but now I’m going to read them as fuel for my novel.  If we are the pinnacle of intelligent life on Earth now, what will occupy that position in a million years?  Or a billion?

9.  Sense of Wonder

I’ve been a reader and scholar of science fiction my whole life.  People who adore science fiction claim its because it generates sense of wonder.  Sense of wonder has been around far longer than science fiction so it can’t claim exclusive rights, but I do believe that science provides a special kind of sense of wonder.  For too long now science fiction has been living off past glories.  It’s time to find new concepts that push our sense of wonder button.

10.  Cosmological Perspective

Our perceived position in the universe has always been very philosophical.  It is very hard to grasp our location in relationship to the rest of reality.  Even the shape of the universe is impossible to fathom.  If we are God’s supreme creation, why are we so small?  And can any religion or philosophy be valid that doesn’t fully incorporate our knowledge of cosmology?

11.  Learning in Old Age

What are the limits of acquiring new knowledge in an old brain?  Could I learn something in my last third years that I wasn’t able to learn in my first third years?  Could I go back and finish Calculus II, or learn to play the guitar?  There is a discipline barrier that I’ve never been able to crash through.  I find my wisdom grows as my body declines, but will I ever be wise enough to overcome the limitations of my body?

12.  Our Existential Relationship with Fiction

We can’t understand reality so we make up stories.  It is impossible to predict the future yet we constantly create fiction to envision what will come.  And I don’t mean science fiction.  These twelve areas of knowledge I am pursing are a fiction.  The odds are I’ll just get older, fatter, suffer more, watch even more television while waiting to die.  I invent fictions about how I will change myself and fight the inevitable.   But that’s my point about programming and metaprogramming in the human biocomputer.  Is life no more than meta-fiction?

* * *

These twelve topics of specialization are ambitious, but I don’t think impossible to achieve.  It will make me a Renaissance (old) man.  And success can be measured across a range of achievement levels.  No one gets out of here alive, so death can’t be considered a failure of life.  I am reminded of the many books I’ve read about Eastern religions where the last third of life is set aside for spiritual pursuits.  At the end of the rat race, wisdom is the only possession worth pursuing.  But I grew up with a Western world mindset.  Reality is a savage land meant to be conquered, not accepted like our friends, the Eastern gurus teach.

Christians love the concept of the eternal soul.  As an atheist I’m not sure souls exist, at least not in the past.  That doesn’t mean we don’t want to fashion our own souls.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t evolving towards creating souls.  Through discipline we program our identities.  Through metaprogramming we program our programming.

JWH – 2/27/10 

LibraryThing, Goodreads, Shelfari, Google Books, Anobii, WeRead

I’ve been a bookworm my whole life, and for as long as I can remember I’ve wished I had a list of all the books I own.  I’d also love to have a list of all the books I’ve read.  I think it would be impossible to create the second list, but the first list would only be a matter of typing.  And now with the Internet and the ISBN book number, it’s even less typing than before.  I could even buy a barcode reader that looks up information automatically online without typing at all.  My first consideration was to buy a standalone computer program like Book Collector from Collectorz.com, or even design my own database or spreadsheet with Access and Excel, but I decided the fun solution is to use a Web 2.0 online book cataloging site. 

The Internet has added an extra twist to this list making activity, called  social cataloging.   By entering your books into an online database it allows social network programs to compare your list to lists created by millions of other bookworms.  The synergy of doing this offers endless social networking possibilities.  The obvious one is to find other readers who have similar reading tastes to yours that will help you find great books to read that you’ve missed.  For people trying to build big personal libraries, it’s fascinating to know the size of other collector’s collections.  The largest on LibraryThing is 43,061 books.  Also on LibraryThing, the most reviewed book is Twilight (1,386 reviews), the most owned book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (47,598 people out of 1,035,403 members), or that my favorite science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein has 72,427 books in those collections, as compared to my second favorite science fiction writer Philip K. Dick who has 46,991 books in LibraryThing user’s homes.  That’s out of 48,365,418 total books catalogued.

The trouble is there are many wonderful book cataloging sites to choose from, each with their own plus and minuses.  Luckily, all are free except LibraryThing, and it’s free for your first 200 books, so you can try them all.  The sites I’ve found so far are (there may be more):

Each of the sites try to make it easy to enter books, but they all do it differently.  They each have millions of books already catalogued, so the quickest way to add a book to your list is to find it first on their list by searching on the ISBN and then hitting the add button.  This can be made even faster with a barcode reader, but I don’t have one.  I’d say it’s taken me a couple hours to enter in 58 books at LibraryThing.  This is slow because I like selecting the right cover photo to match the cover of the book I own, and I started with a shelf of old books without ISBN numbers.  That means searching by author or title, or even entering in all the book info myself.  I could probably do 60 books in 20 minutes if they were all recent and I only needed to use ISBN.  Usually when you get a book with ISBN, the cover and all the other information is already there.

LibraryThing

I’ve taken to LibraryThing, but when I finished building my list I could export my library to another site to see if I like their social networking features better.  Or I’ve thought about using one site for listing books I own, and another for books I can remember reading.  Or use another site for just my non-fiction science and history books to see if I can find readers with my exact interests.  The different cataloging sites have discussion groups for books, or linking systems to Facebook and blogging sites, so if you like to discuss and review books, these systems connect you to other people who are looking to read reviews or talk about books too.

On one blog I read a post by a woman who said her family paid for three separate $25 lifetime subscriptions to LibraryThing, for herself, her husband and her kid, so I’m assuming there’s long term rewards for doing the work of entering a book collection into the system.  I won’t know for awhile.  I’ve got 18 more shelves of books to enter, and then I’ve got to try all the different features, but I’ll get back to you with more info.

I’ve added books with all of these systems and I find it easiest to add books to LibraryThing, especially when dealing with manual adds.  LibraryThing was the only site to have any books by Lady Dorothy Mills, an author I collect.  Her books are very rare, and they only had 3 of 15 I own.  These systems are far from perfect, and the quality of the data is imperfect.  It would be great if everyone catalog the precise edition they owned, but that doesn’t happen.

Anobii, Shelfari and WeRead are probably best for people with newer books and people looking for more social interaction since they have the largest number of members.  They are slicker sites with more glitz than LibraryThing.  GoodReads is in the middle.  Google Books merely lets you tag books without any reporting features or social networking.  It is good for links to the web, and if you’re a complete Google user in general.

One of the fun things about adding books to LibraryThing is it tells me how many other members own the book when I add it to my collection.  For books by Lady Dorothy Mills, out of over a million users, I’m the only one that has any of her books.  I really like it when I find just a few people who also own the same book, like the 2 other people that own In Search of Paradise a biography of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, the guys who co-wrote Mutiny on the Bounty.  Are those two people much like me?

JWH – 2/7/10

I finished my data entry and my library can be seen here.   To me, the fun way to view is by cover art.  Open your browser to fill the screen and then click the Covers button.  I have 706 books.  I learned a lot by creating this catalog.  For one thing, I have too many books, and I plan to thin my collection when I get a chance.  The largest portion of this collection is unread by me.  My bookstore roaming eyes are far bigger than my reading stomach.  I really wish I had more time to read.

JWH 2/16/10

Readability

Most people hate reading on a computer screen, but many of those people also spend hours reading online, so what’s the solution?  Try Readability.  I was reading an interview with John Joseph Adams, an editor for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a guy who has to do A LOT of reading, and he mentioned he liked to read submissions on his Mac with a utility called Tofu.  I immediately jumped over to the Tofu site to discover there wasn’t a Windows version.  Bummer!  I even jumped over to the Apple Store to price a Mac, but quickly abandoned that bright idea when I was slapped hard by sticker shock.  Necessity being the mother of Googling, I made several attempts to find the right search phrase until I found Readability.  [Note to Tofu people – naming your product with the same name as common food is a poor marketing decision.]

I have no idea how Readability works, but it’s magic.  Go to their site, play around with the controls to find a reading style you like, and then right-click the Readability button and select add to Favorites.  (I’m using IE, so it will be slightly different for other browsers.)  Then go to a web page you want to read that’s not very eye friendly readable, select Readability from your Favorites, and Presto-Chango the page is Harry Potterly reformatted for easy reading.

Readability doesn’t work with every web page, nor does it retain all the page features you may want to see – it will filter out videos, but it gets the feature photos while somehow filtering out the ad graphics.  So if you visit a web page that looks like a hood of a racing car covered with ads, this little gem of a utility will clean up your view.

Readability works best on pages with long articles and not pages with lots of reading snippets.  Readability makes most web pages into large print book reading.  Most web designers must be 19 year old kids with better than 20-20 vision who work on giant Macintosh monitors who never imagine people will come to their web pages wanting to read that bland annoying text stuff that clutters up their beautiful graphical layouts.

Often when reading web essays with tiny text, where the layout locks out my browser’s ability to enlarge the font, I’ll cut and paste the text into Word just so I could read it.  Readability automatically does that now.  Readability is like having a Kindle for blog pages where you can easily set up your default reading style so everything you buy to read is formatted for your personal reading pleasure.

Web browser programmers should program this concept into every browser, rather than replying on the Text size feature, which is often disappointing to use.

Very cool.  So cool I added Readability to my Favorites Bar in IE.  Now when I’m on a web page which I want to spend some time reading, I click the Readability button and Shazam, the page becomes easy to read.  Unfortunately, Readability doesn’t work like Tofu with computer documents, so I still want to find an app for Windows that does that.  If you know of one, let me know.

JWH – 12/5/9

Saving Money on Cable TV and Internet

We pay $163 for cable TV and high speed internet service.  That bothers me, because, for every month we pay $163 now, it means one month we won’t have $163 after we retire.  When my wife and I get too old to work and only have a fixed income, we will probably wish for all those frivolous dollars we once spent.

I know quite a number of young people earning little and older people, either retired, or near retirement age, earning little, that have given up cable and/or Internet access.  I’ve also read it’s one of the first bills to cut when families are downsizing because of the economy.  A lot of young people I know never seemed to develop the cable addition that folks my age have acquired.  So they will spend big dollars on cell phones and Internet, but scrimp on TV.  I also know a number of people now that have no cable TV at all.  Others have given up house phones and Internet too.

If you combine the house phone bill, cell phones bills, Internet access and the cable/satellite TV bill, telecommunication becomes a huge piece of the monthly budget pie.  In our household, it’s bigger than the utility bill or car notes we had in the past, second only to the mortgage.  Last night I watch ABC World News, three episodes of Weeds from a Netflix disc, and recorded an old black and white movie off of TCM.   We pay $4 a day for our cable.  Much of what I watch could be had from over-the-air TV or Netflix.

Free TV

I have helped a number of women in their fifties set up digital TV boxes so they could watch free TV.  This is the absolute cheapest way to have TV, but you only get a handful of channels.  Depending on signal, indoor antennas can be easy to use or annoying.  So far I haven’t met anyone wanting to spend the money on an outdoor antenna.  If you’re lucky, you can get ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, FOX and several other digital stations in HD.  This free option does make life much simpler.  And when the antenna works well, I’m very impressed with the quality of the picture.

Free TV + Netflix

Upping the budget to $8.99 a month, you can get a Netflix subscription and see nearly all movies and a good selection of premium cable shows like Big Love, Mad Men and True Blood, but just delayed by several months.  Most cable TV shows now come out on DVD, so if can wait for your favorite shows, you can watch them in order and without commercials.  This offers the best selection for the least money.

Free TV + Netflix + Internet

If you’re willing to budget another $25-50 for DSL or cable Internet, you can expand your options even more.  If you must have the Internet, then this option is a no-brainer.  Trying to find low-cost Internet access is hard.  There are $10 monthly modem services, but they require a house phone, and many people have ditched landlines to save dough.  I have heard it’s possible to get low-cost DSL without local phone service but it’s a difficult option to arrange since AT&T and Baby Bells push bundled services.  And if you crave the Internet, then you usually crave fast Internet, and that’s about $50 a month.

Now, if you have fast Internet, and you’re willing to be a Do-It-Yourselfer, you can buy or build a Home Theater PC.  This gives you a DVR plus access to streaming TV and downloadable video, including high definition videos.  Think of this as free, on-demand, Internet TV.  Hundreds of thousands of people are experimenting with this now, and cable companies are getting worried.  Internet video quality is constantly improving, with HD becoming common.

With free services like Boxee, Miro and Vuze and a HDMI or DVI cable from your laptop or computer to your HD TV, you can develop your own free on-demand TV library or select from a large lineup of streaming network shows. 

Video is quickly becoming the new medium for communicating over the web.  People have been watching video on their computer screens for years, but now people are finding ways to make their computers into set-top boxes connected to their TVs and controlled by remotes, so they can watch TV as God intended, from the comforts of their La-Z-Boy.  

Cable and satellite TV providers are worried that the Internet will soon provide people with all the TV they want and they will be out of business.  You’d think they’d want to offer a better service for less money to compete.  Follow this link to a Google search for many articles about living without cable TV.  A lot of people are doing it.  I like the concept of cable TV, so I won’t be abandoning it just yet, at least not until season 2 of True Blood is finished.  I just want to find ways to bring down the cost of cable, but if I can’t, I’ll consider abandoning it completely.

Cable/Satellite TV “a la carte”

People often wonder why they can’t lower their cable bill by just buying the channels they love to watch.  Most people watch a handful of favorite channels but have to wade through hundreds of TV and other cable services they just don’t want.  I get 200+ channels but probably watch less than 12.

There’s two obstacles to this problem.  One, if people bought only what they wanted, many cable networks would go out of business, so cable providers fight this option.  Second, as long as cable companies must provide analog channels, those stations you get when you plug your cable wire directly into your cable-ready TV and scan the channels, then they can’t sell channels separately.   When cable companies go to 100% digital, a la carte buying will be technically possible.

Right now, a la carte channel buying is not possible, so it’s only a dream option to save money.

My Dream TV and Cable Internet Service

I don’t mind paying for what I want.  I think my current $163 cable/internet bill is too high!  It should be closer to $75.  What I would love is a perfect convergence of TV and Internet.  I want to buy a la carte just the exact TV networks I want, and I want to own my own equipment so I can customize it.  I’d like a Home Theater PC that played and burned DVDs/Blu-Ray discs, was a DVR recorder for 2 terabytes of shows, played all my own digital media, including MP3 songs, JPG photographs and any collected videos I made or bought, plus streamed music and videos from the Internet.  That means my entertainment system would consist of a TV, home theater PC and speakers, all controlled by one remote.  That would simplify my setup greatly, and save electricity.  Right now I have:

  • HDTV, with remote
  • DVR/cable box with remote
  • Receiver with remote
  • Media player with remote
  • Blu-ray player with remote
  • CD/SACD player with remote

My wife bought me a very nice Logitech programmable universal remote, but I never liked it.  Life was so much easier back when I was growing up.  We had one TV, three channels and no remotes.  Life has gotten too complicated.  I dream of living with one remote and no more than 12 fantastic high-definition TV channels with no damn commercials.  Infinite variety could come from Internet TV.  With fewer TV networks, the quality of TV production should go up.  I would get better shows for my time and money.

JWH – 8/14/9

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