science continues to ruin everything

I’ve been meaning to write about the Breaking Bad season premiere all week; now with the next episode about to air, my window for having anyone care about the viability of last week’s (spoiler alert!) magnet caper is rapidly closing. Nevertheless!

I was curious to know whether the episode’s scheme — which centers around the use of a salvage yard electromagnet to erase a laptop drive from outside a police station’s walls — was at all plausible. I imagine the Mythbusters will tackle this in highly entertaining fashion a year or so from now, but I wanted quicker answers. Conveniently enough, my friend M works at a related job, figuring out the chemistry that allows hard drive platters to be coated with various metals. So I wrote her and asked if she knew anything about whether this was plausible. Not specifically, she said. But! Her all-around science talent and experience provided some promising leads:

I’m not sure how feasible this is. You would need to generate a strong enough field, get the field close enough, and also sustain the field long enough. I think that article mentioned that the power from the batteries were an issue and I think that is the biggest obstacle for a “portable” system. Not sure if the car batteries could sustain the juice long enough for the hard drive to get completely erased. Also distance is an issue. I think the field drops off exponentially away from the source, and other materials in the way (like the building wall) can dissipate the field depending on its dielectric properties. I don’t know how well computer hard drives are shielded or what strength field you’d need to erase one, but it could be possible. Do you know what you would need for that in terms of strength and time? Seconds? Minutes?

We never erased a computer when I was in grad school, but we always kept metal and electronics outside the 5Gauss line when working near magnets. In the fringe field of a couple Gauss outside this, it was strong enough to erase subway tickets but not credit cards and definitely not a computer. To get a feel for lengthscales, a magnet of ~90,000G had dissipated to 5G by about 7-9ft away from the magnet. Metal would not get pulled from our hands toward the magnet unless we were within ~3 feet away.

I would be curious to find out how strong a field you need to lift a car though. I thought those junkyard magnets you have to be really close to the surface before it actually sticks?

This led me to some productive Googling — well, productive in a certain sense — that turned up a few more interesting details. The following has been written by a guy who never even took enough physics to get through Maxwell’s equations. Still, I think it’s not too hard to reach a plausible conclusion through some back-of-the-envelopery.

There are basically two considerations that M is pointing to: field strength and how easy it is to erase a given type of magnetic media.

On the field strength side, the news is not good for Walt and Jesse. Unlike most emissive sources (light bulbs; radioactive materials), magnetic field strength declines with the cube of distance rather than the square. Exactly why has something to do with the nonexistence of magnetic monopoles (outside of Star Control 2 anyway) and seems to be one of those mind-bending situations where reality knuckles under to some particularly inescapable math. But the upshot is that magnetic fields get weaker very, very quickly as your distance from them increases — faster than your experience with other radiative sources might make you think.

But how strong would the field be at its source, anyway? Here it’s tough to say: salvage magnets seem to be specced by how much scrap iron they can lift, not the precise attributes of the fields they generate. But MRI machines top out around 30,000 Gauss. Is a salvage magnet more powerful? M subsequently warned me about reading too much into the fancy cryogenic cooling of an MRI’s superconducting magnet versus the air-cooled conventional tech in the salvage magnet. They’re different machines built for different things, with very different field shapes, she stressed. All this is true. Still, to me it seems at least unlikely that a salvage magnet could outpace an MRI machine. And judging by the example distances and field strengths in M’s email, it would clearly need to.

Then there’s the question of how much of a field it takes to erase a hard drive. I know a little bit about the considerations here, having looked into magstripe reader technology back when I was fooling around with Metro’s farecards. The ease with which a magnetic medium can be altered is called its coercivity, and as M hints, there are high- and low-coercivity magstripe standards (for any that care, WMATA’s farecards are low-coercivity, and I think not even digital; based on my abortive experiments with them, I believe that they use an acoustic encoding scheme, though I’m not positive).

Anyway! How hard is it to flip a bit on a hard drive platter? Things get tricky here — coercivity is measured in Oersted rather than Gauss, and concerns the B component of a magnetic field rather than the H component (actually, neither are measured in those pre-SI units any more, but “Gauss” and “Oersted” sound a lot cooler than “amp-meter”). (H and B are linearly related based on some constants specific to each material (the fields are functionally identical outside the domain of a given magnetic medium), so all the above business about field strength still applies). Quantifying the coercivity of a typical hard drive — to say nothing of the magnetic shielding effect of the case and other junk around it — is not something I’ve been able to do.

But we have some circumstantial evidence. For one thing, any dedicated nerd will tell you that a broken hard drive is a great source for extremely powerful neodymium magnets. These have nothing to do with flipping the bits on the disk (they’re in place for the voice coil that positions the read/write head over the platter). But it does seem safe to say that having a very powerful magnet — powerful enough that, given a pair of ‘em, you’ll have a hell of a time separating them with just your hands — mere centimeters away from a hard drive platter is not enough to influence the data on the disk one bit, even as it whirls through the magnet’s field at several thousand RPM. It therefore also seems pretty safe to say that you would need a noticeably strong magnetic field outside the device before data loss became an issue. In the show, of course, stuff flies all over the place, so in this respect, at least, Breaking Bad’s verisimilitude isn’t in question.

Finally, I am a little more optimistic about the viability of a battery power source than M is. This kind of project is a great way to wind up with a bunch of burning, half-melted plastic tubs of acid and lead (a horrifying clean-up problem, but I suppose Walt’s seen worse), but an array of lead-acid batteries really can deliver an impressive amount of juice (turning over an engine takes quite a lot of it). Judging from the afore-linked salvage magnet vendor’s site it looks like the show’s creators settled on a realistic voltage; and indeed, Vince Gilligan has said that this was something the writers wasted a bunch of time worrying about.

All in all, though, I think Walter and Jesse probably should’ve stayed in the chemistry lab rather than wandering over to the physics department: for all of Mike’s talk about the evidence room’s impregnability, it sure looked like it was just a cinderblock wall. I suspect some explosives and incendiaries would’ve done a better job of killing the data on that hard drive than an electromagnet could. After all, there’s a reason why geeks tend to talk about degaussing wands for sanitizing videotape, and thermite for securing old hard drives:

two cheers for egalitarianism

ONE: The beginning of the end of the Registered Traveler program. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea behind this program — allowing the rich a means of escape from a vexing and arguably arbitrary set of collectively-self-imposed strictures has something of a history, and it’s not a noble one. Props to TSA, though, if the WSJ writeup really can be believed: the article cites the agency’s unwillingness to relax security standards as one of the things that made CLEAR/Registered Traveler not worth the price of admission for many would-be line skippers.

TWO: Via Caralyn, Christopher Weingarten on the present and future fortunes of the music critic. Points for his entirely appropriate level of occupational hopelessness; deductions for failing to make much of a case for the professional music critic’s necessity. With modern publishing and search technologies, the too-many-voices argument becomes a difficult one to make, and, I think, a basically incoherent one when talking about something as inessential and universally accessible as pop music.

This isn’t something I’m happy about. I have friends who are great music critics, and I’d love for them to be able to support themselves by writing record reviews. But this is sort of like saying that I’d love to see the market compensate my friends for playing Halo with me. It’s clear that the costs associated with producing music criticism have fallen to the point where it’s essentially a leisure activity. In a perfect world, this would be great: the resources expended to produce music criticism could be reallocated to more productive ends, and we could still be assured a steady stream of deep thinking about music (now with less market distortion!). In practice, those resources are likely to wind up allocated less efficiently — say, put toward debt service on a loan that financed the unnecessary sale of an alt-weekly to a clueless owner who will preside over its demise. (Woo markets!)

But we’ll still have plenty of music criticism, and plenty of other good writing. I won’t say something pretentious about writers writing because of some irresistible artistic compulsion. But writers will keep writing because they think writing is fun, so they’ll do it when they can. And that’ll be enough for the rest of us, because these days much of the writing they do will inevitably be free, our supply unrestricted. Just look at The Awl, a site run by people who perfected the blogosphere, then watched it blossom, pullulate, and choke itself to death. Now they’re doing it all over again, because hell, it was pretty fun for a while there, wasn’t it?

talk like a pirate day is insufferable, but for entirely different reasons

Rob Pegoraro, the Post’s technology columnist, is looking for alternative names for software theft that aren’t associated with, ahem, maritime terrorism:

The NYT’s always-interesting Freakonomics blog raised that question yesterday. Stephen J. Dubner wrote that “as real-life pirate attacks have gained in intensity, violence, and geopolitical meaning, talking about digital thieves as pirates has come to seem clever to a fault, and inaccurate too.”

The Business Software Alliance, a trade group devoted to stopping people from using commercial software without paying for it first, does not agree. Also yesterday, the CNet tech-news site reported that a BSA publicist sent an e-mail explicitly comparing thugs hijacking supertankers to software thieves: “Piracy takes many forms, some more violent than others.”

(Writer Gordon Haff called that e-mail “one of the most tone-deaf and cynically opportunistic PR pitches I’ve seen for quite some time.”)


Blogger John Gruber suggests the term “bootlegging,” but I’m not sure about that noun either. To me (a one-time concert reviewer for the Post), it evokes homemade recordings from concerts, an activity that demands individual initiative and, when done right, creativity. Installing a copy of a program on two computers doesn’t require much of those qualities.

“Software theft” itself suffers the problem that theft, by definition, involves the victims losing the stolen property […] That doesn’t happen with digital media, where somebody installing a not-paid-for copy of Office doesn’t stop your copy, mine or Steve Ballmer’s from working. Rather, the key concept here is that somebody has short-circuited a normal business transaction through deceit or trickery. And for that, the most apt definition appears to be “fraud”

Fraud is not a good term for this, as the software consumer is not misrepresenting his or herself, and in fact generally has no interaction at all with the software vendor. “Fraud” implies that the victimized party has been manipulated into surrendering something of value under false pretenses. That doesn’t really apply to these cases.

Gruber’s suggestion of “bootleggers” is better than “fraud”, but it’s unfortunately normative in that most people now consider Prohibition (which is what most people think of when they hear “bootlegging”) to have been an unreasonable imposition by the government — as a result, in this case the terminology would imply that software appropriation is legitimate.

A better description would be “freeloaders”, as users of unlicensed proprietary software are extracting value from a system without supporting it themselves. It also has a pun in it, since they’re “loading” the software on their machines! Obviously this should count as a major strike against it.

Even though I couldn’t resist leaving in an irrelevant quote beating up on them, in the end I have to side with the BSA. Not because “piracy” is a great term for software theft — it’s manipulative and inaccurate — but because that’s what we have been and will continue to call it.

I don’t mean to just rail against the evolution of language in a reflexive, let’s-bitch-about-political-correctness sort of way. But the fact that some people are suddenly feeling guilty for previously having a whimsical attitude toward all things piratical strikes me as pretty silly. Surprise: there are a lot of idioms with horrific literal meanings that we regularly deploy lightheartedly — “highway robbery”, “scared to death”, “thrown under the bus” — these would all be unpleasant things to experience! Tragedy + time = comedy and all that. Enjoying the amusing caricature of piracy that we’ve developed over the last several decades is not the same thing as dismissing the horrors of real-life piracy.

Now: who wants to play some Halo 3 tonight? I promise to feel at least little bad when I use the sniper rifle.


Becks is right: this FML phenomenon is intolerable. I don’t really agree with her complaint about its negativity being the problem, though. The problem is that it isn’t negative enough. The people participating in this meme are doing it wrong.

The phrase “fuck my life” is a setup for comedy about hopelessness, but it’s being adopted by people who don’t understand either of those things. Most of the entries on FML are about minor inconveniences or embarrassments. #whoops! would be a more apt hashtag.

There are occasional outliers that begin to get at the point of the exercise (this is on the right track, though the execution is clunky). But it’s clear that most of the entries are from fresh-faced twenty year-olds who rarely, if ever, find themselves using the phrase “alone in an uncaring universe”. For these jokes to work their implications need to stretch further into the future than next week. Otherwise the natural response is, “That’s too bad, but I’m sure things will pick up soon.”

UPDATE: I was remiss in not linking to Jake‘s effort to highlight the worst FMLs. And it reminds me to mention my other objection to this whole business: how transparently fake most of the entries are. Really, some slight effort toward plausibility is not too much to ask.

like the commenter said: fonally!

Last week Julian got laid off, part of a bloodbath at Ars that resulted from the Conde Nast powers-that-be deciding that having excellent, industry-leading online properties didn’t fit with their long-term business strategy of making it to retirement without being bothered.

This was pretty disappointing to see, both as a friend and as someone who enjoys reading quality journalism about tech policy. However! Just because he’s no longer being paid to cover, say, government wiretapping, doesn’t mean that he isn’t making contributions to our cultural discourse. I can only assume this is what inspired Yglesias to write this.

(Lest anyone think I’m teasing Julian, let me remind you that I’m the same guy who once meticulously converted the Dharma Initiative logo into a vector graphics format — I’m not a fan of Fringe, but being the first to crack its code is pretty cool.)

Live! Nude! Post-humans!

I haven’t seen Watchmen yet — Emily and I were traveling last night, bound for a quick vacation in Texas. Just about the time everyone else was suffering through “Citizen Solder” I was tucking into an enormous plate of delicious blue corn tortillas. So I say this based on the comic, not the film.

But of course Phoebe’s right that there’s a double standard when it comes to female and male nudity in films, and our discomfort at either is a bit silly. Watchmen seems like an odd time to make that case, though, because here the nudity is used precisely because we’re uncomfortable with it. Dr. Manhattan wanders around naked, and that seems odd to us. But it doesn’t seem odd to him because he’s a superbeing that’s almost completely alienated from humanity. To him a body is a construct, and it’s impossible to understand the social conventions surrounding it or anything else. If the audience was similarly blasé about Dr. M striding about in his deathday suit there wouldn’t be any point to showing him doing so.

ads’ intents and obsolescence

Having spent the last week or so attending to less demanding electronic devices — the Xbox, the DS and the iPhone chief among them — I’m now hopelessly late with this post. But I still find the intersection of technology and advertising to be very interesting, and hope you’ll bear with me even if the holidays have played havoc with the bloggy news cycle.

As soon as I read myself described as “always-interesting” I had a feeling that Tim might not wholeheartedly agree with my predictions about the fate of the advertising industry. That’s perfectly understandable: I am, at heart, a crackpot — one who’s taken the institution of advertising as a personal affront since he was sixteen or so. I’ve mellowed a bit since then, but it’s fair to say that my perspective on the matter is abnormal. I still feel motivated to explain it, though, so let me take a crack at it.

Before that, there’s Jeff‘s in-comments query to respond to. I think that answering it may provide some useful context:

Could you maybe elaborate on your claim that “It’s easy to forget how quickly advertising has evolved…”, because I just don’t see it. TV ads today are pretty similar to TV ads 50 years ago, and print ads look a lot like they did 100 years ago. The technology has improved, but the fundamentals seem pretty similar. Aside from a few horrible attempts at viral advertising in recent years and college bowl sponsorship, what’s really changed?

I should clarify: the old forms aren’t wholly supplanted by the new. You’re less likely to see a 100-word black and white full-page testimonial for a product in Life magazine than in days past, of course. But in general the old techniques persist in one way or another: the billboard; the artless car commercial; the couple yammering on the radio about something or other. Variants of these have and seem likely to continue to remain with us.

But novelty goes a long way toward making an impression, because it’s interesting and can conceal the mercenary underpinnings of the message. Jeff mentions viral marketing as a relatively recent innovation, and I think it’s a great example. There are plenty of others, though: product placement in sitcoms. Infomercials. Scientific papers paid for with industry grants. Some types of service journalism. Exclusivity agreements between college sports teams and apparel manufacturers. There have, and will continue to be, innovations in the field of product-selling, even if they aren’t always self-evident.

But novelty necessarily comes with an expiration date, so it’s an endless battle. We have continually-evolving defenses that let us tune these distractions out. A decade ago I might not have noticed the subtly-placed Aquafina bottle in the medical examiner’s office in The Spirit; now, trained by decades of carefully turned-toward-the-camera product labels on network sitcoms, I couldn’t help but see it. Although I’m sure that its presence still made some small, brand-reinforcing impression, it’s a minute one compared to the success that this technique must have first enjoyed. And, in this case, it was coupled with a healthy dose of resentment at Aquafina for its commercial intrusion into entertainment I’d already paid for.

I think advertising serves basically two functions, which I will, in a grossly unfair act of framing, refer to as its informative and manipulative aspects. First, there’s the informational side: educating consumers about products and services that they might be interested in purchasing, but about which they might remain ignorant if intervention isn’t pursued. That’s pretty straightforward, I think. Not every worthwhile commercial service is interesting enough to prompt unsubsidized media coverage, so informing interested parties of these services’ availability is a useful function that advertising can provide. A listing for a plumber in the yellow pages fits this description pretty well.

On the other hand, there are the manipulative aspects of advertising. These aren’t necessarily bad — they may compel behavior that’s desirable from one standpoint or another — but they’re essentially cynical attempts to affect consumers’ decisions on the basis of criteria other than the fundamental value of the good or service being purchased and its utility to the consumer (in the absence of the commercial message). Coca-cola’s Santa ads are a decent example: they really have nothing to do with the soda’s quality, and are therefore basically an attempt to distort the market for it by using unrelated appeals.

Most ads reflect both of these aspects to some extent, of course. And I don’t mean to imply that this is the only way to classify advertising. But I think it’s a useful way to approach it, so bear with me for a moment.

This brings us to Tim’s response to my assertion that the advertising industry is likely to shrink:

Digital media allows advertisers to be a lot more specific about the users they want to target and to collect a lot more data about their effectiveness. Tom suggests that this is a bad thing because once companies discover their ads aren’t working well, they’ll stop spending money on them. But the flip side is that advertisers can measure when a particular ad is working, and that ad inventory becomes correspondingly more valuable. Even better, better measurement means that the average ad should improve over time. Ads that don’t work can get dropped more quickly, and the ones that perform well can be put on heavy rotation, emulated by other advertisers, and so forth. That can only be good for ad revenues.

Tom also suggests that advertising is doomed because the Internet makes it a lot easier to avoid it. But peoples’ hatred for advertising isn’t inevitable. It’s a consequence of the limitations of 20th century media technologies that required advertisers to adopt “scattershot” approaches to advertising. There was no way to target car ads at the 5 percent of the population that’s in the market for a car at any given time, so the other 95 percent of us had to sit through endless car commercials. But online there are lots of ways to more narrowly target ads at people who are likely to be interested in them. In the long run, as we’ve said before, advertisers are going to have to realize that content is advertising. If you can make ads relevant, interesting, or entertaining, people aren’t going to try as hard to avoid them. Search engines do this by only showing ads relevant to the particular keyword a user entered. Other advertisers have figured out that if they make their commercials fun to watch, people will be more willing to watch them. Of course, it’s hard to predict whether the total amount of advertising revenue will go up or down over the next decade. But as long as people buy stuff, companies will be willing to spend significant amounts of money to influence their decisions.

I think Tim is seriously overstating advertisers’ enthusiasm for being non-annoying — it’s not as if they’ve only now figured out that people don’t like being intruded upon in irritating ways, and are resolving to turn over a new leaf. My understanding is that the efficacy and reported consumer enjoyment of an ad are inversely correlated. Much better to make an infuriating jingle that will force the consumer to mentally recite the word “Garmin” ad infinitum than to, say, cast Tina Fey in a funny credit card commercial for… uh… Amex? Or was it Mastercard? Anyway the ending with the fire extinguisher was funny.

But I agree with Tim, too: I think that the localization functionality he refers to will indeed continue to evolve, and I’m sure it will be a boon. But it’s hard for me to believe that it will really be the savior of the ad industry. Anecdotally, it seems like online ads already target me pretty well, yet almost never earn my clicks. More generally, the role Tim is describing is entirely within the benevolent, information-providing aspect of advertising that I outlined above. But this is also the most straightforwardly-doomed aspect of the industry. It’s now much easier to get more and better information about products and services than it used to be; from Yelp to Amazon reviews to the simple act of searching Google, the utility of deliberately-placed informational advertisements has been seriously diminished. We should consequently expect that aspect of the industry to shrink. If people want information about a product, they can get it. That pretty much leaves the narrow case wherein the consumer has a material need, yet doesn’t know what they want before being told how to get it. But it seems to me that the industry is pinning a huge amount of hope on this relatively minor class of purchases.

To me, this whole argument sounds eerily similar to the one that maintained that the MP3 revolution would ultimately benefit the recording industry because of all the promotional power provided by giving people free access to music. There’s something to this, but the positive effects will almost certainly not be enough to reverse the contraction of a now-unnecessary industry. In a very broad sense, information has gotten much cheaper, and all information vendors should therefore expect the size of their markets to shrink. That includes advertisers hoping to “educate” the public about the availability of their clients’ products.

That leaves the burden of making money to the manipulative aspect of advertising. And I admit, this is more open to debate. But I really do think that when you and I tell ourselves we can filter out commercial appeals, it’s not entirely self-flattery. Sure, we’re subtly affected by that billboard or radio spot or iPod commercial. But we’re less affected than we were the first time, and far less affected than would be someone who hadn’t grown up in an ad-saturated environment. Sure, ads can still warp our opinions. But we’re being constantly trained to ignore them. And I stand by my basic contention that advertising’s set of novel permutations is limited in a way that will ultimately let the consumer gain ground on the manipulations leveled against her. To return to the last post‘s metaphor, we consumers are like increasingly antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Perhaps the ad industry will develop a miraculous new class of techniques. If not, I think that the importance of that sort of artificial intervention into our natural — and by and large perfectly-adequate — system will continue to decline.

So yeah, I still think that ads will continue to get less effective. The informational function they serve is vastly less relevant in the internet age; the opinion-manipulating function of the industry is a never-ending struggle, but one that, with each passing season, has fewer novel weapons at its disposal. In the face of those facts, how can the industry do anything but contract?

news you can lose

For the last week or so, I’ve had this post of Matt’s flagged in my RSS reader, waiting for a response. In it, he castigates the advertising market for failing to competently embrace the web. Today the conversation continues: Ezra responds to Clay Shirky, and says that, contrary to what Shirky implies, the newspaper’s death became inevitable the instant digital technology was invented. Matt responds, noting, among other things, that newspaper brands will survive (which seems right — if Nuprin can do it, so can the New York Times), and that the papers’ failure to hang on to their classifieds business was a major mistake. I think that brings us up to date (whew!).

I’m with Ezra on this one, and apologize for the amount of overlap that this post will likely have with his own. But I think Matt is seriously understating the crisis facing the advertising industry. Narrowly, there’s the question of Craigslist. It’s a weird one, in that its creators have quite obviously avoided implementing features that would maximize revenue, or even just reported user satisfaction. They could have a slick-looking site, and a huge staff, and a big office in the Mission with polished concrete floors and free snacks in the break room. But they’ve decided not to, and that’s their genius: they realized that classifieds were going to be a race to the bottom, so they decided to get to the bottom first. This is a crucial realization — one that a lot of people involved in similar races just can’t accept.

I don’t think Matt’s right that this could have been stopped, but it probably could have been slowed. Competing on the basis of having fewer features rarely works, and it probably wouldn’t have for Craigslist, either, had the newspapers rolled out competent online options quickly. CL was allowed to build marketshare in an unusual and, in hindsight, inexcusable way. Also, we haven’t collectively reached that proverbial bottom, making CL’s success seem that much stranger. But we’ll get there; if the papers had responded quickly, we just would’ve gotten there at a more languid pace.

But classifieds aren’t the only doomed form of advertising. I think there are reasons to doubt advertising’s viability in a broader sense, too. More of it will inevitably have to be done online as people continue to spend more of their time on the net, but so far that hasn’t been working out very well. For one thing, there are technological ways to avoid online advertising. For another, although various form factors have been tried, the online medium still hasn’t been figured out how to capture viewers’ attention in the way that print and broadcast have — personally, I think the media may simply be innately immune to commoditization, thanks to the aforementioned ability of computers to avoid displaying unwanted information. Third, and probably most troublingly for the industry, online advertisers seem to have made a serious mistake when they offered concrete metrics to their customers. This action was perfectly understandable — the web makes it simple to collect objective data, and it’s easy to see why an advertising client might find the prospect of better stats alluring. The problem is that doing this reveals that advertising just doesn’t work very well.

In retrospect, it should be obvious: to whatever extent the advertising industry is capable of shaping the public’s sense of how to gauge value, naturally they will apply that talent to their own products first. The other advertising media smartly developed captive metrics agencies like Nielsen and Arbitron. But online advertising charlatanism is still in its infancy, and continues to be dominated by primitively objective concepts like “page views”, “click throughs” and “purchases”.

Right now the practitioners of online advertising have not yet succeeded in artificially inflating the perceived value of their product in the way that advertisers working in other media have. Perhaps this will change. I think it might not. It’s easy to forget how quickly advertising has evolved, and how quickly the public has evolved along with it. Although I admit that it’s probably an overly antagonistic framing, I tend to think of the relationship between the public and advertising as being analogous to the one that exists between humans and bacterial pathogens. In both cases the pace of evolution is staggering, but I’m left optimistic that humanity will come out on top.

For one thing, we’re awfully plucky. For another, there are fewer constraints on us. As viewers of advertising, we’re subject to various hindrances that seem to be biologically determined — among others, we’re susceptible to the concept of brands, and we’re keen to see sexy dames, and plenty of em (so to speak). But we’re free to come up with whatever compensatory intellectual constructs we need to help us maintain our senses of iconoclasm and connoisseurship, and our ability to maximize the value we receive for our money. Advertisers face many more restrictions: time, space, cost, reproducibility, risk aversion, various regulations, and, last but by no means least, the simple necessity of crafting messages that are both interesting and at least somewhat coherent from a commercial perspective.

I admit it: I’ve always been an advertising millenarianist. But I still feel a bit bad for them. None of this is to say that advertising will ever go away, but as the pool of novel advertising techniques shrinks and purchasers become more aware of its limited utility, the industry will naturally contract. And that brings us back to newspapers.

Ezra lays it out pretty well; let me do the same with a tedious half-analogy. Once upon a time the cost of distributing information was high. Then technology improved, and if you were able to make a big up-front investment, economies of scale allowed you to drastically lower the cost of getting data out. If you sold information-distribution services at a price in between the old one and your own, newly-discovered cost, you could make a lot of money. Firms flourished, and added premium features to differentiate themselves from their competitors, just like those little sticks of gum that come with baseball cards. The paid information distribution business continued to be lucrative — to get more lucrative, even! — to the point where the quality of the gum could be drastically upgraded. Sometimes even non-gum ingredients were bought up and converted into gum (it just seemed like the most efficient way to distribute them, frankly — look how much gum people were buying!).

But technology kept getting better, and that up-front investment kept getting smaller, and although by now everyone had pretty well fooled themselves into thinking it was the high-quality gum that moved units, that wasn’t actually the case. In fact, a lot of that gum was downright revolting1.

These days distributing information costs very little, and there’s no minimum order. And people still chew gum, but not nearly so much of it. Hopefully the quality of gum available to them is better than it was, but I think the jury’s still out on that one.

ALSO: I hadn’t read Tim’s post before I wrote this, but he makes a number of excellent points. One thing that’s maybe worth adding: when he says “…the only way to avoid this grim fate is to spin off an independent subsidiary that can pursue new markets without worrying about fat profit margins or cannibalization of existing product lines… I’m not aware of any high-profile newspaper firms that attempted this”, I think the Washington Post may be a counterexample — the Post and their online operations are entirely distinct, and separated by a river. Typically they’re castigated for this decision, and to be fair I’m not sure to what extent the decision (which is now being undone) was made with Christensen’s principles in mind versus more immediate concerns (there wasn’t any more space in their downtown building). Either way, I don’t think was sufficiently independent to really embody Christensen’s model (as I understand it based on Tim’s account — I haven’t read the man’s work), but it’s the closest noteworthy example I’m aware of. Doubtless there were other, truly-independent ventures backed by major news organizations, which are now lost to memory thanks to “making money on the internet” being a very tough proposition in general.

1 Bazooka Joe Scarborough (discarded gag for alternate metaphor: Kristol Pepsi)

treating stupidity with the seriousness it deserves

The Onion AV Club on The Wrestler:

WWE devotees now have their own Passion Of The Christ

To which I say: it’s about time. Hell, make it in Aramaic for all I care. I’ll just be glad to see the industry exposed to a larger audience.

My throwaway holiday entertainment will be The Spirit, but there is no movie that I’m more excited about than Darren Aronofsky’s take on those who live their lives in and around the squared circle. The combination of idiotic childhood nostalgia and its underpinning layers of genuine, lately-discovered pathos is incredibly heady. Go ahead, look me in the eye and try to tell me that you wouldn’t want to read a novel about Optimus Prime’s painful divorce.

At any rate, here’s some related media to tide you over: