Radio, Radio

I appeared twice this week on KUOW. On Monday, I answered technology questions (and was hardly stumped) during The Power of Voice; on Tuesday, I talked (pre-taped) about bargain shopping on the Internet on The Works. I was just interviewed by an Amherst, Mass., radio station on wireless broadband and I'll post that link when the story runs.

Speaking of radio, tomorrow's New York Times Circuits section has my story on digital AM/FM radio, better known as HD Radio. I don't even want to tell my faithful blog readers how many interviews I conducted, how many technical documents and FCC reports I read, nor how long it took to put this together. It was worth it: there's a lot to write about HD Radio, and this is really just the first article out what I believe will be many that I write about the technology, the market, and the hardware.

It might seem that HD Radio, podcasting, Internet radio, and satellite radio are all different phenomena competing for the same earballs--um, ears. But they're all complementary. I expect that by the end of 2006, we'll see audio appliances that can do all four and that the notion of what you can listen to will be an opportunistic issue: what kind of network is available? Not one of specific limited choice.

How's Ben?

Img 4795-1I hear from my loyal blog readers that you want more Ben news. Of course. I have to restrain myself.

He's not walking, but he's very adept at pulling himself up and balancing. He is very good about carefully lowering himself down. Very few thuds. We can tell when it's nap time, because his coordination fails. Walking is not far off, we're told by parents of older children.

He eats a lot of solid food. Four times a day. Not petite quantities. Entire half-pint (joke intended) glasses of organic millet and broccoli, for instance. Yes, we change a lot of diapers.

He's still very happy. The teething gets him (and us) down, and he has two enormous molars that still haven't broken through after what we think is about two months. But he has seven teeth that are pretty glorious. He's generally charming.

He figured out how to put smaller cups inside larger cups in a stacking set a day or so ago. This seems freaky to me: do 11 month olds do that? I'm not asking for a prodigy, but it just seems somewhat...complicated for such a young feller.

His most reliable work is "down," but we hear some others coming. He goes through fads. He says, "babybabybabybaby," but it's not in reaction to anything. He does one sign language sign: milk. And milk is for everything: more, food, book, happy, wave, etc. At some point he might differentiate between all those, but it's clear he knows the sign does something.

C'mon Back, C'mon Back, C'mon Back

In Thursday's New York Times, I write about how to back up data. I've become a big proponent of using hard drives for backup for at least a year when the price dipped against other media. I've used DAT, DLT, and AIT tape drives, and I hated them all. They were a necessary evil. Tapes are ugly, hard to use, and weird. They don't work like any other media you deal with. They're not, by design, random access but linear access. John Cleese can tell you more about that.

Indispensible New Book: Darknet

Darknet-1Darknet tells the story of how private, encrypted, social networks have changed the face of and future of digital entertainment, mostly music, movies, and games. Darknets are unlike the peer-to-peer networks that have been featured in the news and a recent Supreme Court decision in which the content is available to all participants.

Rather, darknets are clandestine, more like speakeasies of yesteryear, and often involve more street cred than piracy. The groups that distribute a million copies of Batman Begins in China the day before the movie comes out are only tangentially related to darknet operators and hierarchies.

J.D. Lasica tells the story in Darknet of the net that has increasingly tightened around the display and use of media in digital form as Hollywood, record labels, and other creative industries have attempted to legislate and criminalize what either perfectly legitimate uses of media or perfectly innocent uses. The body of law that bought-and-paid-for legislators have implemented on behalf comes from a very small number of industries that don't actually drive the economy but do drive campaign contributions.

Darknet brings together lots of themes and strands into one clear narrative that makes for good reading and is a thorough introduction. It tied together many pieces for me that I didn't understand from reading many different articles about darknets--no Bush jokes, please, it's a singular concept and a plural set of networks--and the array of copy protection and legal protection in use.

My disclosure: I was part of an EFF-driven lawsuit against 29 media companies who were trying to prevent ReplayTV from allowing commercial skipping and program sharing (among one's own machines or household). Lasica's book reveals what I didn't know, that the media companies were trying to prevent SonicBlue from allowing programs to be stored indefinitely and other micromanagement of perfectly legitimate personal uses.

Lasica hits the point over and over again that there is a large group of people, largely young folks, who given the opportunity to pay a reasonable market rate for content in a form they can use would gladly do so. This doesn't excuse piracy and copyright violation, but it does excuse the desire for legitimate use of material that all of the new and Hollywood-driven protections prevent.

All in all, Lasica finds reasonable experts and industry folks across a wide spectrum who are seeing already a huge explosion of creativity when new tools are put in people's hands to tell their own story and stories of other people. If the law winds up being too onerous and the ultimate example--a digital camcorder shuts down when you're recording a toddler's first steps because a Disney show is playing remotely in the background--comes true, then you'll either see a deadening of culture or a rejection of mass media.

Happy 10th Amazon: The First Used Book Sold Story

I worked at Amazon.com from late 96 to early 97 (about 7 months total). I was recruited by Jeff Bezos, who I had known for a while through mutual business acquaintances. (One of his rainmakers was a client of mine.) He suggested I think about joining the company. I wanted a change from my Web development company. I sold the company, and joined as catalog manager, learned a lot about how book information works (and doesn't), suffered through the growing pains as employee 104 or so, and then left when I thought the company was going off its rails. I thought there was a good chance Amazon.com would have been out of business by fall 1997 based on trends I saw.

It didn't, and I'm still not unhappy that I left: I couldn't take the pace and I had just met the woman I am now married to. (My baby boy should be happy I left Amazon, too, or he wouldn't exist!)

The Seattle Times and New York Times both recount Amazon.com's history on its 10th anniversary, and bring up themes that I know from working there and hearing reports from people inside ever since. Jeff Bezos is an incredible manager and terrible delegator. He is so good to work for and so frustrating, too--because he's often totally right when he gets involved in micromanaging decisions. (If he was often wrong, it would be unbearable.) I remember spending days tweaking the language used on book pages to describe availability until he agreed with what we'd come up with. That's why used books were often called "hard to find" books to buy us more time.

The last big project I did at Amazon I screwed up. I was in charge of the OOP project, the out-of-print book project. We had 1.1 million titles in our database (really more like 1.5, but we underestimated to have room to grow. I bought a chunk of data to supplement our catalog information, and by combining in print and out of print, we could top 2.5 million.

But we had no used-book fulfillment arm or methodology. We took a gamble. We'd integrate the data and say it might take 4 to 6 months to acquire books. That gave us several months to work out what people wanted and build an organization. Unfortunately, everyone from employees 1 and 3 down to individual managers was opposed or recalcitrant with much bigger problems of growth to worry about. I couldn't make it happen. Things slipped. The project was handed off to a friend of employee 3 who was a terrific guy and he ran with it and made it happen somehow.

My future at the company was pretty dim. I wasn't going to be fired, but I was never going to rise above my level. I was a "senior" manager reporting to a VP and who worked regularly with all the VPs and chiefs of the company. But there was a balloon growing in "senior" management in which there would be folks at the top of that balloon doing crazy, interesting, new things, and at the bottom, like myself, who would be doing boring and frustrating but necessary work. Seeing my dull future, I bailed, and focused on my new love and getting more sleep. (Seven months later, I was diagnosed with cancer, which I beat.)

Which brings me to the point of this story: I placed the order for and received the first-ever used book from Amazon.com. The attempt was to make sure the system could record the order, its fulfillment, and delivery. The book was one Tara, my housemate at the time, loved: Fisher's Hornpipe. It was published in 1983, and was already long out of print in 1997 and rather difficult to track down.

We placed the order, and the elves running the OOP (more normally called OP in the book business, but Amazon didn't have anybody much from the book business in those days) found it and delivered. I read it: A fantastic and underrated book with an ending that leaves a lot to be desired (Baltimore City Paper agreed about it being underrated back in 1999).

A few weeks after that, I quit Amazon.com. A few days after I quit, Tara was killed in a motorocycle accident caused by a new boyfriend driving under the influence; he was convicted and jailed for a while for her death much later.

A few months after Tara died, I found I had cancer. A year later, I was healthy again. A few years after that, I married my sweetheart. And now it's eight years later, and I have a baby and Amazon is 10.

Researching Cancer Online

I talked last night on KUOW's The Works about how to research and evaluate information about cancer online. There's cancer all around my wife and I at the moment (excluding us), and we've never made more use of the Net's incredible large collection of authoritative information.

(The Works podcasts now, and you can download Apple's iTunes 4.9 for free to subscribe.)