June 2010 Archives

Many bookstores, particularly the big chains like Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-a-Million, design the physical stores like quiet grocers. Quiet as in library quiet, with aisle after aisle of shelves, organized by subject or type of book -- instead of cereals, we've got history; instead of produce, we've got self-help; instead of meat and poultry we've got fiction. Now, to be fair, I should mention that many bookstores learned, at some point twenty or so years ago, that they ought to be, could be, should be, so-called "third places" (the first two being home and work/school) rather than quiet grocers. That meant making them comfortable, inviting customers in to sit, maybe have a cup of Starbucks, and hang out for a while. So yes, that is a difference from being just plain "book grocers." But at the end of the day, what the storekeeper -- whether it's Barnes & Noble or Safeway -- is hoping you'll do is come to the counter with a pile of stuff to buy, and leave the store with heavy bags and a long receipt.

Okay, so you head off to the local third place, say, your local Barnes & Noble. You know what book you want, but you also want to see what other things might be available in the same subject, say, history. You find the aisle of history shelves. The aisle is narrow. There's a pair of customers sitting on the floor in the middle of the aisle. Beside each of them are pile of books. They're completely immersed in reading. The shelf with the books you want to browse is blocked because, Murphy's Law being what it is, they're right in front of shelf or shelves you want to get to. How many times has this happened to you? If they're courteous, they'll move, but only so far, and the whole browsing idea suddenly becomes not such a fun idea.

Contrast the experience at an Apple store.

  • You go in, the place is noisy and buzzing with people like a bustling bazaar.
  • Store employees, every single one of them familiar with every product in the store, are everywhere. (Makes me wonder: you know how the best schools have the highest teacher-to-student ratios? Well, perhaps Apple has learned that having high employee-to-customer ratios pays off well too.)
  • They're easy to find: they easily stand out in their trademark black shirts.
  • When you find the stuff you want, you get the attention of any of the nearby Apple employees, and presto, the place you are standing in inside the store becomes the instant point-of-sale: no checkout cashiers at the front of the store, none of that. No, instead, the Apple person is standing where you are, and proceeds to whip out their tricked-out iPhone cash register from their pocket, you hand them your credit card, they scan it right into the side of this special retail iPhone, presto, sale done, your receipt gets emailed to you instantly, and you walk out of the store with your newly bought stuff.
  • Have trouble with your previous purchase? Bring it in to the Genius Bar and they take care of it very efficiently, often being able to diagnose the problem right on the spot with some amazing little gadgets they have.

What if this were the way bookstores worked? Think about it:

  • A high employee-to-customer ratio
  • Store employees out and among the customers at all times
  • The store employees might not have read the top 100 bestselling books in fiction and nonfiction, but they know what they are and can give you a synopsis readily.
  • A noisy, bustling, exciting place where customers are talking with employees and with each other
  • Customers buy books on the spot, the employee just scans the barcode in, slides your credit card, presto, transaction complete, receipt emailed to you or printed out whatever you wish.
  • Don't know what the name of the book is? Go to the book equivalent of the Genius Bar. Get help. Maybe there's an Espresso book machine (or ten of them) behind the counter. Book not in stock? No problem. They'll print it right in front of your eyes. Done.

Okay but what about e-books? Don't the online iTunes/AppStore/Kindle type of stores eliminate the need for a physical bookstore altogether? Maybe yes if you're thinking old-school type stores. But I think there are tons of things you could to do to make physical bookstores viable in this crazy digital age. (If nothing else, not everybody is gaga over e-books. There will be markets for physical books for years to come.) I think it's time to utterly reinvent the physical bookstore. Reinvent the entire concept of what a bricks-and-mortar bookstore is, starting in 2010 and onwards.

Idea: merchandise lots of eBooks in a physical store. Customers bring their ebook readers in, buy the books via wifi in the store. Only way to get special deals that aren't available online. Gotta be in the store. Make the store have value.

Idea: how about Woot-ifying the store: every day, there is a huge sale on ONE specific book. Every day it's different. You have to be there to get it. Maybe it's 50%, 60% off. And they have a limited quantity. Once they're all gone, they're gone. Or maybe not. (That Espresso machine again.) Or maybe not just ONE book, but a small number of books. Or maybe ONE book but a different one in the morning and a different one in the afternoon. Experiment. Figure out what works. But try something new.

Idea: combine Eventful Demand with a bookstore experience and with e-books. Want to meet an author? Demand they come to a physical store. If you're a store employee, ask your customers what authors they would love to meet and get signed copies of books from. When the customers tell you who they like, whip out your little iPhone cash registers, take down their email addresses, and register them for the demands right on the spot. You now have a connection with that customer that you didn't have before. And the customer does too. And the author does too. Everyone wins.

Idea: think about post-2010 bookstores as curation shops, to meet the needs and interests of the browsing customer, the one who's not yet sure what they want to buy. Go wild on curation, the way Amoeba does with music. Each employee becomes an expert, a mini-celebrity in their town: you start following them on twitter, listening to their recommendations, buying things because of what they have found to be great.

There is a future for physical bookstores, but it is a very different future than what we have today. The world is not over because of Amazon. Amazon is not perfect. I still buy books at physical local stores. I buy lots of books from Amazon. I would buy more from physical local stores if prices were better, availability were better -- but especially if the experience were better. So let's make it better!

Best Beatles cover I've heard maybe ever. The Fab Faux playing the side 2 Abbey Road suite.

The Fab Faux - Abbey Road Side 2 (mostly) from The Fab Faux on Vimeo.

Call them obsessive. Call them perfectionists. Call them pathetic, your typical group of midlife crisis guys who can't get out of the past and have too much time on their hands, wasting their obvious talents on someone else's works. But you know what? That's what classical orchestras do. And face it, The Beatles are classical music.

And another thing: at least it's not a mashup, one of those clever contraptions that are intoxicatingly alluring and yes, sometimes revealing new insights into pieces of music that have never been so juxtaposed, exposing something previously unknown about each composition. I like mashups but I hate them too. Turn a DJ loose with two turntables and a Propellerheads sequencer, scrambling existing recordings together that wind up getting admired by the BoingBoing set. Fine, but as Bruce Sterling would say, favela chic. Creative work has always been about stealing from previous works and presenting it in new ways. But the damn digital age means we have so many more ways of doing it than ever before. Sometimes I wonder if we are condemned to a future, where every recorded action, performance, work of art, can be reconstructed, re-enacted, re-interpreted, re-animated, re-written over and over again in a million different ways. Is this what art has always been or is this what art is going forward, the endless mashing and remixing of what's already been done?

The Fab Faux performance really struck a nerve. Not a mashup: not a DJ's clever concoction. No, this is live, this is real people playing real physical instruments in a physical space, living their passion, singing their hearts out. There is a palpable euphoria to this performance that chills me to the bone. When I've played in bands and we've just nailed it and the sound is just there and you look around at each other and you know everyone in the band is thinking the same thing and we all smile and can't believe life can be this good, well, that is what this performance conjures up for me. It does not get better than this. Except when playing on a stage, in front of a live audience, and nailing it there. That's even better, but this, this ain't bad. And I suspect achieving this sheer joy is what makes the Fab Faux do what they do. Good for them.

UPDATE Want the Fab Faux to play live in your town? Demand 'em! Click the Demand It! button below and you can specify what town you want them to play in.

In addition to writing a book, that is.

What was I doing? Organizing a conference. It turned out to be a huge amount of work. A lot more than I'd hoped (which is unfortunately always the way it works out). Lots of money had to be raised. Sponsors signed up. Speakers and moderators signed up. Tables and chairs had to be rented. All sorts of negotiations. A 24-page booklet had to be written, illustrated, layed out, and printed. Frequent travel and conference calls with the co-producers of the event, the Computer History Museum. But the result was a very successful event called PLATO@50, held on June 2-3, 2010 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

One of the things I pushed hard for was HD video capture of all of the sessions. Very expensive, it turned out. But Microsoft came through with additional financial support to pay for a director, producer, three cameramen, and a variety of A/V support folks, and the results are awesome. Today all of the videos went live on YouTube. You can see a collection of all of them at my PLATO History site on the Videos page.

And now back to working on the book.

Remember the 1994 tech thriller Disclosure, starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore? Filmed at the old Aldus offices in Seattle? (Remember Aldus?) Of course you do.

One the things I liked about the film was its depiction of virtual reality. And within one of the VR action sequences late in the film, where the Douglas character is frantically rifling through archive files of Digicom video chats between the evil Demo Moore character and a Digicom manager at its Malaysian factory, we get to see an interesting depiction of a simple interface, reminiscent of, say, present-day iPhoto, that lets the user select from a theoretically vast array of video chat archives, and then play the call back, with both parties' video and audio feeds going at the same time.

Disclosure VR Sequence for Videophone Call Archive Retrieval and Playback

Well, this is what the iPhone 4 needs. At the recent Steve Jobs WWDC keynote, right near the end during the event's "One More Thing...." segment, Jobs introduced FaceTime, Apple's new video call capability built into iPhone 4. Very cool, yes, right, whatever. But what immediately struck me was that there ought to be a way to record your calls, like had been shown in Disclosure 16 long years ago (416 web years by my reckoning).

Jobs made no mention of such a feature, nor does the Apple site, but geez, it sure would be handy. Of course, in some jurisdictions, perhaps all, it would be illegal, unless perhaps there were a warning at the beginning of the call that all parties making the call had to read and click an "I Agree" button for, indicating whether they agreed to the call being logged (in the cloud, for a fee, no doubt). If all parties agreed, presto, the cloud's tapes, as it were, would start rolling. Such a feature might make MobileMe worth signing up for. Are you listening, Apple?

Emily Litella ...I suspect she would be complaining about Facebook's privacy beaches.

La Jolla Weather

Forget it Jake, it's June in La Jolla.


Google jumps the shark

The Bingification of Google is now complete.

It's fun and sometimes funny to watch Google struggle to transcribe, through automated means, the spoken audio on a YouTube video.

I watched this video of Jeff Daniels reciting the Gettysburg Address and found that Google did okay, perhaps 90% right. But 90% right is still enough to get you in big trouble.

Here is the exact transcript, compared to the actual speech. I've added periods to the end of sentences and capitalized the first letter of the first word of the following sentence but otherwise, it's as is:

Google Transcription Actual Text
Forestall or in seven years ago Four score and seven years ago
our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation
conceived in liberty conceived in liberty
and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created. and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war Now we are engaged in a great civil war
testing whether that nation testing whether that nation
or any nation so conceived and so dedicated or any nation so conceived and so dedicated
can lock on the door. can long endure.
We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.
We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place
for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live.
It is altogether fitting and proper It is altogether fitting and proper
the we should do this. that we should do this.
But in a larger sense But in a larger sense
we cannot dedicate we cannot dedicate
we cannot concentrate we cannot consecrate
we cannot hal all this ground. we cannot hallow this ground.
The brave man The brave men
living and dad who struggled here living and dead who struggled here
have consecrated it have consecrated it
far above our poor power to add or detract. far above our poor power to add or detract.
Both will little note nor long remember what we say here The world will little note nor long remember what we say here
but it can never forget what they did here. but it can never forget what they did here.
it is for us the living It is for us the living
rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work
which they who fought here have thus which they who fought here have thus
far so nobly advanced far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here It is rather for us to be here
dedicated to the great task remaining before us dedicated to the great task remaining before us
that from these honored dead that from these honored dead
we take increased devotion to that cause for we take increased devotion to that cause for
which they gave the last full measure of devotion. which they gave the last full measure of devotion.
That we hear highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain
that this nation under God that this nation under God
still have a new birth of freedom shall have a new birth of freedom
and that government of the people and that government of the people
by the people by the people
four help people for the people
John nor perish shall not perish
from the air. from this Earth.

Not bad, but not quite there yet.

Somewhere Drive meets Where Else Lane

A real intersection in Milkwaukie, Oregon just south of Portland, where SE Somewhere Drive meets Where Else Lane.

So Twitter introduces T.co. Well, if it still requires the "http://" then it's still too long for me.

What would be more interesting would be to introduce a new protocol, perhaps called "url"?


url:// -- identifies the protocol

urlcode -- identifies the code of the url to look up

calling url:// would return results similar to the way http works.
A 200 code might return the full expanded URL.
Other codes would return error values or other info.

So, instead of http://t.co/xxxxxxx you would have url://xxxxxx. Half the characters.

Recently Steve Gillmor invited me on his Gillmor Gang show, ostensibly to promote the PLATO@50 conference which is now concluded. But then I discover I'm supposed to chime in and opine on subjects like Facebook, privacy, and such, like a regular tech pundit. I called in, so no live video feed for me unlike some of the other participants. Anyways, it was an interesting experience.

Took a while for the video to become available but here it is




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Me Elsewhere

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The Friendly Orange Glow: The Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, by Brian Dear
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