This is a Twilight Zone kind of coincidence — or perhaps the subtle work of crafty writer. It turns out that the address Marvel Comics picked as the home of Spiderman is actually occupied by the Parker family. No one named Peter lives there, though, so knock off the junk mail.
From The New York Times: U.S., in a Shift, Tells Justices Citizens Have a Right to Guns. The Justice Department told the Supreme Court for the first time late Monday that the Constitution “broadly protects the rights of individuals” to own firearms.
The law is a living thing. It isn’t just what Legislatures enact (thank God). It’s the sum total of legislative action, judicial ruling, and executive action. That’s why it’s so hard to get a straight answer out of a lawyer. It’s also why it’s so important to have Attorneys General who don’t have ideological agendas — or who are willing to put them aside.
The question came up in force during confirmation hearings for John Ashcroft, a conservative Republican from Missouri who is quite frank about his Pentacostal faith. From Ashcroft’s confirmation testimony before the Judiciary Committee:
But, as I have explained this afternoon, I well understand that the role of the Attorney General is to enforce the law as it is, not as I would have it.
The late Charles Black (paid link), professor of Constitutional Law at The Yale Law School, taught many of the nation’s political leaders. My wife, who fondly remembers taking Black’s class, says that he would sometimes drawl — mostly in jest — “I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Just read the Constituton and do what it says.”
There’s an excellent profile of Ashcroft in the April 15, 2002 issue of The New Yorker (not available online). The article talks at some length about Ashcroft’s ties to the National Rifle Association. Yet since The Depression, the Supreme Court and the Justice Department has read the Second Amendment as requiring a militia. This has been settled law through the administrations of Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton.
Now comes Ashcroft, enforcing the law “as it is,” telling the Court that:
“The current position of the United States, however, is that the Second Amendment more broadly protects the rights of individuals, including persons who are not members of any militia or engaged in active military service or training, to possess and bear their own firearms, subject to reasonable restrictions designed to prevent possession by unfit persons or to restrict the possession of types of firearms that are particularly suited to criminal misuse.”
What’s next? This, too, is from Ashcroft’s confirmation:
As is well known, consistent with Republican United States Attorneys General before me, I believe Roe v. Wade, as an original matter, was wrongly decided. I am personally opposed to abortion. But, as I have explained this afternoon, I well understand that the role of the Attorney General is to enforce the law as it is, not as I would have it…. If confirmed as Attorney General, I will follow the law in this area as in all other areas. The Supreme Court’s decisions on this have been multiple, recent, and emphatic.
As opposed to the 1939 Miller decision, I suppose, which was neither multiple nor recent.
I can’t help but wonder what Ashcroft has next on his list.
“I’m always grateful for whatever help I can get from the press, or a bunch of business-school students, whatever,” Mr. Parsons said dismissively.
Those words yesterday from Dick Parsons, who is about to become CEO of AOL Time Warner. Thanks for asking, Dick. Here’s some more of what you said:
“We’re the No. 1 movie company, the No. 1 online company, the No. 1 premium cable network company, the No. 1 cable network company, No. 2 cable company, No. 2 music company. What am I missing? All of these businesses are roaring, with one exception, no question. What we’ve got to do is answer some serious questions around AOL. What is the future of narrowband? Is this a medium that has a long-term advertising future and if so, at what rate can we expect growth and how will it migrate to broadband?”
Here’s the thing. People go broadband to consume information. From all reports, Napster drove broadband traffic. Record companies squealed like stuck pigs, but note a new report from Jupiter Research. Again, from the New York Times:
Disputing the position held by the major record companies, a report issued on Friday found that people who use file-sharing networks to obtain music at no charge over the Internet are more likely [italics mine] to have increased their spending on music than are average online music fans. The report … also found that people who use high-speed Internet access and CD burners to make homemade compact discs ÷ a practice that has been criticized by the record industry as abetting piracy ÷ are as likely to increase their spending on music as to decrease it.
Wait — it gets even better. Another Jupiter report finds considerable pent up demand for broadband service:
[W]hile only 16 percent of U.S. online households subscribe to broadband, more than 24 percent of dial-up consumers are considering signing up for a broadband service within the next 12 months.
[F]or the first time in years, the top motivator of dial-up users planning to switch to broadband is a persistent “always on” connection (59 percent). Less important are entertainment-related features such as the ability to view quality video (26 percent) and listen to audio (15 percent).
It’s true: an always-on connection is lovely, though I have a not very sneaking suspicion that an always-on 56kbps connection would soon get old. And those 26 percent and 15 percent figures feel anecdotally low. I could probably find you a ton of research that says that no one plays games or surfs porno — and I could probably find server logs that demonstrate the exact opposite. As a friend of mine says, no one has ever traded for a slower connection.
So what does all this mean for Parsons’ dilemma? I think it means that AOLTW should embrace broadband like a California tree-hugger embraces a redwood. Push the bandwidth, and push the content that drives demand. CNN? The Atlantic Records archive? Raw satellite feeds? The Wizard of Oz? Put it online. All of it. You want to put up a tollgate? I could get behind that; servers and server-side bandwidth are expensive.
But the cheaper you provide the broadband content, the more people will want broadband access, and the more people have access, the more they’ll want content. I have no idea where the demand cycle tops off, but you know what? Neither does anyone else. And of all companies, only AOLTW has the power on both ends of the pump to find out.
Piracy? Well, what about it? You think people aren’t already burning your records, your DVDs? Remember that study — downloads drive demand, they don’t satisfy it.
Get out of the narrowband business. All those modems that old management bought five years ago? Trash ’em. Get on cable systems, get on DSL lines. Jump on bandwidth, and show people how much they need it.
“Grateful,” you said? Happy to help.
Trust me on this. I have lots of equipment that isn’t turning me into George Martin. Or Alan Parsons.
Jerry Garcia’s guitars up for auction. After a long strange trip, two guitars once owned by the late Grateful Dead lead singer are put up for auction.
A propos my filing of 5/3, below, AdAge has a story today about Personal Video Recorders like TiVO and Replay, in which it reports that
- there aren’t nearly as many of these boxes around as analysts thought there’d be, and
- owners aren’t skipping ads as much as the networks feared.
Three years ago, Forrester Research projected 50 million PVRs in homes by 2005. The Yankee Group says 350,000 were sold last year, with 1 million in homes today and 20 million — mostly in set-top boxes — by 2005. (As an alumnus of The Yankee Group, I always take their numbers with a large grain of salt; I know how they used to be developed. In the intervening 15-plus years, I hope their methodology is improved. One inside baseball note: George Colony left Yankee in 1983 to found Forrester Research.)
The nut grafs from AdAge:
The latest annual PVR Monitor, produced by independent research firm NextResearch, provides evidence that viewers are not automatically using PVRs to zap ads and suggests a kind of creative Darwinism is emerging, where marketers who produce ads that resonate may be able to bypass PVR hurdles. For example, the study, which surveyed 358 people who used the services, shows 92% of respondents said they watch ads that are entertaining and 69% watch for products they are interested in.
The study also showed that viewers’ likelihood of watching commercials when viewing programs with PVRs vs. live TV is nearly the same. Only 1% said they always watch the ads when using a PVR or watching live TV, while 60% said they occasionally watch them with PVRs and 62% with live TV.
In other words, people will pay attention to content that interests them, and skip over stuff that doesn’t. No wonder the networks are upset. And notice that the same proportion of people skip ads whether they’re watching live TV or on a PVR.
Someone tell the judge, OK?
OK, so Newsweek has a story in its current (May 13) edition about how Afghan military intelligence thinks Osama bin Laden is alive and living in Pakistan. This is in the next to last graf:
… bin Laden is likely to prove harder to catch. “He’s kind of like Elvis,” says Col. Wayland Parker, the U.S. military’s liaison between coalition forces and the British-led international security force in Kabul. “He’s here, he’s dead, he’s there, he’s alive. The last time we felt sure about where, he was in Tora Bora. After that, he drops off the radar screen.”
Second of all, I’ve gotta think that someone who can be called “Col. Parker” shouldn’t be making Elvis metaphors….
The TV industry has been lobbying against consumer freedom since the first VCR made its way into the first home. To its credit, the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that people were perfectly within their rights to tape programs off the air and watch them whenever they wanted to. (The music industry hasn’t quite heard the news yet, but that’s a rant for another day.)
In the last few years, the tape in some VCRs has been replaced with a hard drive, giving rise to the TiVO and Replay products. The improvements are essentially three-fold. The new DVRs (digital video recorders) let you pause live TV, provide an enhanced program guide, and can automatically recommend and record programs based on your viewing habits. Like a VCR, you can zip forward and back through a program, skipping whatever part you might want to skip. Like opening credits. Like commercials.
As does anyone who makes his living in the media, I am perfectly aware that my salary is paid by commercials. I even like commercials, because they are (sometimes) entertaining and (sometimes) provide interesting information that I would not ordinarily know. In a magazine, I can turn the page when I want. In the TV business, that prospect makes networks and broadcasters nuts.
According to the San Jose Mercury News, a federal magistrage in Los Angeles has ordered SonicBlue, which makes Replay, to write software that will track the every click of every user’s remote control. Why? Because Replay is getting sued. There’s a button on the Replay remote that lets its customers instantly jump over commercials (it’s a little harder to do this with TiVO), and the networks and broadcasters say that’s costing them money. They’ve persuaded the good judge that the way people use Replay products is germane, and the only way to track that is to invade the privacy of Replay’s customers.
(I would say that Replay’s hands are not entirely clean here. The Replay 4000 includes an Ethernet port that lets users transmit programming to other people over the Net. This strikes me as just begging for trouble.)
There’s a federal law that says video store rental records must be kept confidential. The law was passed after the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who had some interesting viewing habits. Anyone know if Mr. Justice Thomas is a Replay customer?
The French company Vivendi Universal is one of the Big Six global entertainment companies. It’s been having some trouble of late; among other things, the firing of the CEO of Canal Plus sparked demonstrations and protests, and shareholders have had their doubts about the French company buying the U.S.-based Universal Studios and its associated record labels.
Well, Vivendi held its annual meeting last week, and not everything went as planned. Two management proposals, including a lucrative stock option plan for management, were unexpectedly defeated.
Wait — we’re just getting to the techie part.
Management says that surely was a mistake of science fiction proportions, and has a science fiction reason: the company is blaming hackers for breaking into its wireless voting system and making mischief. Other experts are not so sure.
In any event, a French court today bought the excuse, and is allowing the company to re-run the annual meeting. All except the dividend vote; the dividend will be paid as agreed at the meeting, hackers or no hackers.
The National Research Council has released a study about protecting children from online pornography. As a congressionally chartered organization, one might expect the usual flaming about the evils of the Internet. Happily, one apparently would be wrong.
The nut grafs:
“Though some might wish otherwise, no single approach — technical, legal, economic, or educational — will be sufficient,” wrote the authors of the report, “Youth, Pornography and the Internet,” which was released Thursday by the National Research Council. “Rather, an effective framework for protecting our children from inappropriate materials and experiences on the Internet will require a balanced composite of all of these elements, and real progress will require forward movement on all of these fronts.”
What might seem to a rather bland conclusion to a massive effort of research and discussions with policymakers, educators, librarians, parents and children and others in visits to schools and libraries around the nation is actually a surprising stand, said Alan Davidson, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a high-tech policy organization in Washington.
“The report dares to be un-sexy,” he said. “It does not call for legislation to solve this problem,” despite a strong push in Congress to pass laws requring such technology tools as pornography filters in schools and libraries. One such law, the Children’s Internet Protection Act, is currently being challenged in federal court by a coalition of librarians and civil liberties groups; a decision in that case is expected this month.
Recommending a broad approach “is not nearly as satisfying as passing a law or pointing to a technology,” Mr. Davidson said, “but it is probably, in the long run, the most effective way to protect children online.”
In other words, filters won’t do the trick. Congress should take note.
There’s some good news and not-so-good news today from Ziff Davis.
Ziff is the publisher of — among other things — PC Magazine, Yahoo Internet Life, and a bunch of gaming titles. I used to work there twice. I don’t anymore. A lot of friends still do. It was a financial pawn for a few years during the boom, and it again (or maybe still) in deep financial trouble. In plain English, it’s borrowed so much money — $250 million at 12 percent — and business is so bad that it doesn’t have the cash to both make its payments and run the business. (Just to put the 12 percent in perspective, you probably are carrying credit cards that have a lower interest rate, though your credit line is probably less than $250 million. If it isn’t, please call me ASAP to discuss some business dealings.)
The company made a fairly big deal yesterday out of saying that the holders of 60 percent of that $250 million in notes have agreed to a deal. Willis Stein, the investment bank that Ziff’s majority owner, is kicking in another $80 million in cash to Ziff. Of that, $30 million will go to bondholders. The bondholders are also being offered $95 million in what amounts to stock in the company. The theory, I guess, is that $95 million in equity is better than $250 million in debt that wouldn’t be paid if the company goes belly-up.
All this moving around of deck chairs will free up $30 million a year in money that otherwise would have been interest payments.
There are a few rubs. First, the deal requires that 95 percent of the bondholders agree. Sixty percent is nice, but not nearly enough. And second, the company’s banks have to agree to this scheme, and Ziff is already in default to them.
The stakes are high. In Ziff’s SEC filing yesterday, PriceWaterhouseCoopers said that the company may not be able to continue as a going concern unless the finances are straightened out. And even after that $250 million goes away, Ziff still owes another $175 million-plus.