Government Technology
By Ulf Wolf: Citizen engagement and responsibility in the digital age.

Cable versus Online Streaming

September 4, 2012 By Ulf Wolf

I find to be a great source for up-to-date (if not up-to-the-minute) discussions of all things digital, and this morning did not disappoint.

And the topic is something I’ve run into head-on in the past.

The conclusion I draw from today’s article is that the cable industry we know and love (or not) might well be in for a not so smooth ride when their current contracts with content providers expire.

I think it is a true statement that today’s cable operators continue to thrive (as the article puts it) “largely because they operate as natural monopolies — the upfront capital costs of laying new cable keep potential competitors at bay. The satellite services don’t fare much better in terms of consumer love, and they too enjoy similar barriers to entry (satellites!).”

“But get ready for a sea change.” The article continues. “Even if you’re tied to a subscription television service today, there’s a great chance you’ll become a cord-cutter in short order.

“Every wall crumbles given enough time. And that’s what’s happening right now.”


There is really only one sport that I follow: football. And by football, I mean European football, i.e., soccer (which, by the way, is an abbreviation of “Association Football” as it was originally know when it was brought to our shores—it went from Association Football to Assoc Football to Soccer).

The two networks that cover soccer these days are ESPN and Fox Sports.

Up until two years ago, ESPN had the exclusive US rights to the European Champions League, arguably the best and most competitive soccer tournament on the planet—well, consider this: the best players in the world play in Europe (because that’s where the ridiculous amounts of money are); and these teams play together every day of every week, and so fuse as a brilliant football machine (in contrast to national teams that only practice together sporadically—meaning that, say Barcelona will easily beat the Brazilian or any national team, most likely even with a man down).

When it gets to the final couple of months of the Champions League (April, May) you (if you’re a soccer fan) simply cannot miss the matches.

Okay, back to cable: up until last year, ESPN would broadcast these matches on ESPN or ESPN2, and—for those who had cable subscriptions that included the ESPN Extra package—it was also streamed online on ESPN3 or its forerunners.

Now, I subscribed to Time-Warner’s Road Runner Internet service, premium package, but since I did not have a television, and I did not subscribe to cable channels (ESPN included) I could not view the games online, although I could access the site, of course. Any attempt to watch a match, though, and I was told “Your cable subscription does not incluce ESPN.”

I called everyone I could think of to somehow let me pay for the matches if it came that, just let me watch them. No such luck. Even if I did not have a television, I would have to buy the basic cable package with premium sport in order to watch two games a week—close to $100 a month.

Truly ridiculous.

I proposed that Time-Warner bundle their high-speed Internet with ESPN3 access, but I no such luck. It was all or nothing.

I actually felt that I was talking to something glacial, very slow-moving and very hard to budge. There was just no way, I was told. I needed a cable subscription to access the stream.

I gave up.

The following year Fox Sports picked up the Champions League, and they actually offered online access without cable subscription, so sign up I did, and watch that year’s finals I did. Happily.

All or Nothing

But it’s the principle of “all or nothing” that really gets to me. The cable companies have you cornered. If you want three channels, or even just three programs, you have to buy a hundred (or two hundred or three hundred or a thousand).

Say you want to watch HBO original programming online: only if you have cable (or satellite) and subscribe to HBO.

Now, according to the article, HBO is trying a new model in Europe, where they will allow you to subscribe to HBO Online only; and if that model works out well for them, I wonder what they will do when contracts with the cable companies are up for re-negotiation.

Writing and Wall

If I were a cable company I’d see the writing on the wall. Programming is—perhaps not this year, or next, but in the next five-ten years, surely—going to become an a la carte affair and it’s going to be delivered online rather than through cable.

How I would interpret that writing, were I a cable company, is to focus all of my efforts on Internet delivery, improved, enhanced, 100 MB perhaps, to all of their current customers, and so reap the rewards for having a good delivery network in place now that programming is switching from cable to online.


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Second-Rate Digital Works

August 27, 2012 By Ulf Wolf

I don’t think I’ve kept it much of a secret: I read a lot.

A lot.

A few years back I had a personal library of well over 1,000 books (yes, of the paper variety) spread over six or so sizeable bookshelves.

Today I have perhaps 200 paper books, if that, the rest I’ve mainly donated to libraries.

Why? you ask.

Well, mainly, it’s hard to move around (and I seem to do that a lot) with 1,000 books. Also, I realized that I had collected a lot of these books just to “own” them, not to read them.

So, off they went to deserving libraries, while I instead began to build up my Kindle library—so much easier to cart around; and here I only buy what I in fact intend to, and do, read—for what ego-stroking purpose can a few bits and bytes on a Kindle chip serve? Nicely bound and somewhat rare paper books, yes, they can be both touched and admired. Not so the silicon.

Some of the traditional books I’ve kept, I love so much I’ve purchased digital back-up copies; or for when I’d rather read them on the Kindle (which, with its easy page-turning; and built-in dictionary is definitely the platform of choice for that last read before going to sleep—also, when out and about, of course).

These books include some of Mark Helprin’s—Winter’s Tale, primarily. Other writers include John Crowley, Ursula K. Le Guin, Proust, Faulkner, Lessing, Hustvedt and her husband Auster, Atwood (of course) and many others.

Which—the long way ‘round—leads me to what I mean to say here.

Being able to purchase a writer’s back-catalog, as it turns out, is both a blessing and a curse.

The blessing, naturally, is that you can purchase it. Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” has just been made available on Kindle. The curse? The publishers do not seem to do even elementary proofreading of the digital product.

At about eighty percent through “Winter’s Tale” I had documented well over one hundred gregarious typos, the kinds that leap up from the page and literally (pun intended) bite you. The kind that a high school, minimum wage, volunteer would spot even at a cursory reading.

No such luck here. The digital version of “Winter’s Tale” — one of the loveliest books ever written, never even made it to the “to be proofread” pile, much less into someone’s hands. The word that comes to my mind is, in fact, egregious.

Perhaps the analogy is too strong, but the one that leaps to my mind is that some idiot just urinated on the Mona Lisa, or perpetrated some other act of utter and complete disrespect on some other unsuspecting work of art.

The mass of typos and missing words in the digital “Winter’s Tale” in the end got so bad, and got so far and thoroughly under my skin that I refused to finish the book this time around. Instead, I told Amazon about it and demanded my money back.

To their credit, there wasn’t even a discussion. My credit card was credited (a lot of “credits” here) within 24 hours.


I guess what I’m really saying here is that publishers have to show their back catalog some respect. They cannot hand their authors over to some conversion program that then feeds some verification program that then feeds some validation program that among them still miss well over a hundred terrible mistakes.

The conversion programs are far from perfect. The verification programs are far from perfect. The validation programs to validate the verifications are far from perfect.

The publishers now rushing their back catalogs to Kindle must be (or be made) aware of this, and must don the common decency to show their writers enough respect to actually proofread their digital editions.

As it stands right now, the notion that digitizing literature is harmful to literal health is all but confirmed by this shoddy rush to digital market.



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Editors An Endangered Species?

August 20, 2012 By Ulf Wolf

The Internet has often been hailed as the most democratic phenomenon on the planet today. I believe that there is a lot of truth to that, and that is all to the good.

However, one prominent feature of this Digital Democracy is that, these days, anyone with a love (or perhaps just a liking) for words and stories, and with even a modicum of digital savvy, can be published (as in self-published, as in Kindle, etc.).

This is not necessarily all to the good.

For perhaps the most critical feature in the old—analog—publishing world was (or is, in the few conscientious publishing houses still standing—and that have not entirely fallen prey to the bean-counters of their parent companies) the editor.

Large publishers have many, each of whom manage their own stable of writers, and who now and then, after a thorough reading and much consideration, may take on a new talent.

This, by the way, often occurs by way of committee. Each of, say, six editors bring the product of three proposed new writers to the table, prepared to argue for their particular choices. Of the eighteen total proposals, only six will be published.

Many Tests

This particular bottom line is that in order to be taken on by an established house, a new writer has to pass several tests: the intern who scans new manuscripts and discards 95% of them; the junior editor who reads the 5% that pass intern muster and in turn discards 95% of these; the fiction editor (in case of fiction) who reads, and quite thoroughly, the 5% passed on to him or her by the junior editor, and who discards better than half of those; and finally the committee that then weeds out two-thirds of the proposals that actually make it to committee.

In other words, the new writer is deemed (and most likely is) very readable.

This cannot be said for the vast—and I mean vast—majority of the self-published fare hitting the Kindle store in the thousands and thousands every day.

The editorial body of the analog publisher was/is a gatekeeper, keeping garbage out and good writing in. With this body now on the endangered species list, will good literature soon make them company?

I’m afraid that it probably will.


Quite a few have expressed the opinion that, these days, literary fiction is only for antiquated English professors and literary snobs. Perhaps there is some truth to that, but in my heart I disagree.

Excellent writing—whether fiction or non-fiction—is still a craft that few truly master. And I’m talking about writing so good that you almost brim with pleasure just reading a paragraph. John Banville and Margaret Atwood come to mind, as well as Arundhati Roy, whose “The God of Small Things” remains, for me, a masterpiece of this or any other century.

And these writers take their time to craft their work. They love language, and it shows. Their editors also love language and read their manuscripts with such a fine-toothed comb that nary a typo will ever slip through: and so casting these daunting writers in an almost perfect light.

That is how professional writers and their editors keep the language—and its many fine points—alive. My prayer is that the editor will never truly disappear.

I don’t think that love for good language is a snobbish trait, and I believe that standing up for and defending literary fiction to be an honorable and worthwhile pursuit.


In the analog world we knew that if we saw a book in a store it was most likely worth a read. The entire vetting chain said so.

In the digital bookstore, if the fare is not published by an established house, you have literally no idea what kind of quality you’ll encounter. Perhaps you’re in luck; perhaps you will find a jewel of a book among the millions now available.

But more likely than not, you’ll cringe by page two and wonder about what is happening to English education these days.

The analog gatekeeper had as his or her main product recommended reading.

We will never see the equivalent function in the digital world. The economics are simply not there. Rather, my guess is that the reading public will lower and lower their standards as to what passes for good language to a point where anything goes.

Though, let’s hope I’m utterly wrong about that.


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The Global Divide

August 13, 2012 By Ulf Wolf

Gloria Parker, President and CEO Parker Group Consulting, recently posted an interesting Korea Times Article which nicely summarized the current state of the Global Digital Divide. I highly recommend that you look it up, it’s an excellent overview.

She uses the term global digital divide to describe the disparities in opportunity for access to the internet, information and educational/business opportunities derived from this access between developed and developing countries. Unlike the traditional notion of the “digital divide” between social classes (or, as here in the United States, between the urban and rural communities, which is also geographical), the “global digital divide” is essentially only a geographical division.

According to her article, views vary as to the state of this global digital divide.

Some argue that because computers and other digital access equipment, such as tablets, and phones, are—comparatively speaking—costing less and less, and are more and more available, the digital divide must be shrinking.

Others argue that the digital divide is in essence a meaningless concept to those who lack the basic essentials of life, such as food, safe drinking water, and rudimentary health care and sanitary conditions.

Yet others that, even under these conditions, the digital divide does indeed exist. They hold that barriers such as poverty and illiteracy hold people back from having access to computers and the internet.

I agree with those who hold that the digital divide is meaningless if they do not have enough to eat. It would also be meaningless for a people or culture that could, really, care less.

The great film “The Gods Must Be Crazy” comes to mind, as I envision the Kalahari bushman, who even today lives quite contentedly the way his people have lived for centuries and more.

I believe that those who claim that a great evil is being perpetrated on these people by the existence and continuation of the digital divide make one grave error: they apply their own (Western) definition of and their own commercial criteria for happiness.

“They don’t have computers and cannot access Facebook, so of course they are unhappy” simply does not hold water with me. True, they cannot apply for jobs online, nor are they very hirable by the Silicon Valley tech giants, but I’m not sure they could care less.

While technology is (mostly) a wonderful thing, we cannot apply our Developed (Digital) Nations’ yardstick to determine what is “good” for an “undeveloped” country. We should worry about, and do what we can to ensure that they do not perish for lack of life’s basic necessities, but once the rudimentary questions of food and water is solved, I believe it is up to the culture itself to determine whither next. Perhaps they don’t want to be digitized, or televised, or commercialized.

Such a choice, of course, does not play into the hands of the manufactures who are always eyeing new markets, and according to them it just would not be cricket if a whole nation, ancient culture and all, opted out of the digital rat race.

Gloria Parker opines that in this scenario, the population has “essentially satisfied their basic living needs and are now looking to improve their lives via the use of technology. Thus, the digital divide is real in some instances where technology can be used to improve the standard of living of some people.”

But technology is not always the answer. It seems to be the Western answer to just about anything, but really, if we step back and survey this digital rat race for a while, are we happier?

It strikes me—and I’ve read a lot of supporting opinions and studies—that we are not. It’s more like we’re kept too busy with our increasing digital burden to note that we are not particularly happy.

“The Gods Must Be Crazy” made the wonderful point that the bushman was indeed quite happy, very happy in fact. It was the intrusion of the Western culture (in this case in the guise of a Coca Cola bottle) that caused the discord.

Perhaps our assumed world-wide Internet need in many cases makes a similar intrusion.


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How Much is Too Much?

August 6, 2012 By Ulf Wolf

According to a Reuters Report, Google Fiber—a new division of the search giant—will begin rolling out 1 Gigabit Broadband service in Kansas City, Missouri as early as September of this year.

According to the report, Google’s Chief Financial Officer Patrick Pichette said that “Access is the next frontier that needs to be opened. We're going to do it profitably. That is our plan.”

He then—and quite accurately—noted that broadband Internet speeds leveled out around the year 2000, and added, “We are at a crossroad. We at Google believe there is no need to wait.”

To wait for what? Presumably, there is no need to wait for the rest of the world to realize that 5 Megabits per second (which is the average U.S. broadband access speed) is considered slow these days, especially in countries like South Korea where 50 Megabits per second connections is the rule rather than the exception; and also in many Swedish cities.

Although Google will offer an Internet Only plan at $70 per month (for fiber to the desktop and 1 Gigabit download speeds), they are more focused on bundling this sizeable bandwidth offer with a LOT of content.

According to the article, Google Fiber's ultra-high-speed connections and television offerings are aimed at surpassing those of current providers, allowing users to search live channels, Netflix, YouTube, recorded shows and tens of thousands of hours of on-demand programming, all to include more than 100 networks and for a cost of $120 a month for a package of TV, 1 gigabyte per second Internet speeds and 1 terabyte of cloud storage.

The package will include popular networks such as owned by major media companies such as Comcast Corp's NBC Universal, Discovery Communications and Viacom Inc. Premium movie networks are available from Liberty Media's Starz for an extra fee.

However—although negotiations are underway—as it stands, the offer will excludes several major TV names, such as News Corp's Fox cable channels; Time Warner networks like CNN, TNT and TBS, as well as Walt Disney Co cable channels like ESPN and Disney children networks.

This is where Ben Schachter, an analyst with Macquarie Research weighs in on the offer: “They need to be able to offer something that is everything people have now and more. People are going to have high expectations for this. The worst thing they can do is come out and disappoint.”

More is Beauty

George Orwell’s 1984 wreaks havoc with the English language, with slogans such as “War is Peace,” “Hate is Love,” et cetera.

Whereas, in my opinion, and most of the time, less is indeed more, the new 1984-style mantra seems to be that “More is Beauty.” The more the better. More, more, more.

Is more really better?

The Google Fiber offering will include such features as the ability to record eight TV shows at a time and store up to 500 hours of high definition programming in the cloud. User can then choose to use a tablet or smartphone as a voice-activated remote control. Google will also offer Nexus 7 tablet with the Google TV app to early users of the service.

Looking around me I notice a curious trend: the need to own. People seem to think that the path to cooking better—to cite one example—is to buy, and own lots of cookbooks. Not, mind you, to own and study and apply these cookbooks. To own them. To pay money for them and then store them (prominently displayed) on a nice kitchen shelf.

The same seems to be true of movies: We love to own hundreds and hundreds of DVDs that we never will have time to watch. But the owning seems to satisfy some fulfillment need within.

So what if I can record and cloud-store eight TV shows simultaneously, none of which I’ll never have time to watch, being far too busy deciding on the next eight TV shows to record and store (read: own).

What on earth am I going to do with all this more?

I think it’s a fair question, and one which I have no real answer for.

At this stage in my life my mantra is actually: less, less, less. The letting go of the need to own, own, own.

I do realize, however, that such a direction does not necessarily play into the hands of Google’s business plan, whose biggest possible crime (according to the expert quoted) would seem to be to not offer enough more.

Sad really.

That said, yes, I’d go for 1 Gigabit Internet, especially at $70 a month (which is what I’m paying for 10 Megabits right now). That one hundred lane Infobahn would certainly ensure that Skype runs flawlessly, and that I’ll always have High Definition Video available for my Netflix indulgence.

Then again, do I really need it? No, not really.

The Future

Whether or not consumers will embrace the new offerings remains to be seen. But Google officials said they are confident Kansas City will be a showcase of success for a larger rollout.

Says Kevin Lo, General Manager of Google Access, “Google is a very different company. And this is not a short-term project.”

Should this pan out, and should Google Access (which seems to be the name for the new fiber service) succeed, I would not want to be in cable company shoes (nor in phone company DSL shoes), for they may very well find themselves on the endangered species list.

Perhaps the future is fiber to every desk, carrying all the digital we’ll ever need: Internet, television, telephone, tele-you-fill-in-the-blank. And perhaps that future will be known as Google Access.

Google seems to be pretty good at what they decide to achieve.


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Digital Citizen Pulse

Digital Citizen Engagement - or how Government-IT empowers Citizen Participation and Input - is an important aspect of 21st century life given all the challenges communities face. This is a subject very dear to my heart and one I like to keep a constant finger on. This blog shares my findings and impressions with those interested.