April 30, 2013 By Wayne Hanson
My 92-year-old mother was unhappy that she couldn't see and talk to her kids and grandchildren scattered around the country. So my tech-savvy daughter bought her an iPad, hooked up a Wi-Fi router to her cable service and showed her how to use it. Mom was fascinated, but some of the instructions stuck and some didn't.
Now, sometimes when I'm working, Skype will pop up on my screen, and there's Mom on video, apologizing for disturbing me at work, saying "I just pressed this doohickey."
That iPad is a long way from the hand-cranked phone hanging on the wall of our house in 1950. We lived in a logging camp and when Mom cranked the handle, somebody in the timekeeper's shack answered and connected her to another camp resident, or the outside world. The outside world was anything futher than three miles away and long distance charges came out of Dad's paycheck. Later on, we moved to town and got a black rotary dial telephone on a party line. You could call the operator and reach relatives in Portland if you didn't mind the neighbors listening in.
One thing is certain, telephones have evolved. Back in 2007, Government Technology invited New York Times technology columnist David Pogue to speak in Sacramento, and he basically said that in the future, voice over Internet (VoIP) telephony -- such as Skype -- would change the way phone calls would be made.
That same year, Bill Gates said that applying the magic of software to phone calls would transform communications and lead to the death of the Public Branch Exchange or PBX. "Once you get software in the mix," he said in a Network World article, "the capabilities go way beyond what anybody thinks of today when they think of phone calls."
Now, nearly everyone has a smart phone. Land lines and pay phones are disappearing, and nearly every kind of communication can run in one pipe -- the Internet -- or wirelessly over a cellular network. In fact voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) has evolved with lots of embedded capabilities. And those digital capabilities are compatible with cell phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers.
As cities and counties replace old PBX switches and begin to upgrade their systems, a huge array of options await that incorporate voice, video, text, instant messaging, email, social networking, mobility, Web browsing and more. We talked to five different jurisdictions about what options they chose and why, and what results they obtained. The story -- about "unified communications" as the subject is now called -- will appear in the June issue of Government Technology.
January 18, 2013 By Wayne Hanson
Today, television shows seem more ad than show. A two-hour movie may occupy a three-hour time slot -- one hour of ads, two of movie. Of course networks need to make money, and so ads go with the territory. Some ads are very clever, even funny, a very few rising to the status of art. But most are obnoxious, maddening, repetitive and are swamping broadcast, cable and satellite TV programming.
Recently, ads have begun intruding directly on programs, running on the bottom of the screen. And if advertisers are scarce, the same ad is likely to play over and over again. At the start of a movie, ads are few, but as the film nears its climax, ads proliferate, until they are nearly continuous with only a few breaks for the most exciting part of the drama.
And in a ploy to defeat channel hopping at commercial breaks, many channels appear to synchronize their ads to start and stop about the same time so one can't flip from Men in Black to Rush Hour and back to avoid the commercials. Flipping between Spongebob and Lethal Weapon often works, but not many viewers are likely to do that for obvious reasons.
Ad content has left behind any pretext of good taste, hawking pills for erectile dysfunction, adult diapers, sexual lubricants and other pelvic products such as those advertised with no apparent shame by former NFL coach and sportscaster Jimmy Johnson. Who wants to hear about how well it works for him? Even worse, muting the ad brings up the subtitles. There's no escape.
According to one source, commercials for prime-time shows expanded from 13 percent of the available air time in 1952, to 31 percent in 2011. The European Union, in its usual micromanaging way, mandated a maximum 12 minutes of ads for each hour of television program -- about what the U.S. had in 1952. And some European programs, such as the comedies and dramas produced by the BBC, are paid for by British taxpayers whether they watch them or not. But the BBC produces some wonderful programs.
As I was just about to pull the plug on my flat screen, this Christmas my daughter and her boyfriend bought my wife and me a subscription to Netflix and a gadget called a Roku that hooks the TV to our wifi and thus to the Internet. Immediately we were watching some of the best programs around with no ads. Many of those great British shows are available in sequence season by season, including Dr. Who, Downton Abbey, Doc Martin, MI5, Top Gear and others. In addition, we watch favorite shows like Futurama, Nikita, and others, as well as of course, movies. Lots of movies. And no ads. Absolutely none.
For my news fix, I discovered iPhone apps for Public Radio, Fox News, Al Jazeera English, Deutsche Welle, the BBC, the local NBC News affiliate, and ESPN. I've got more news than I can use.
I did notice something very interesting when I switched from the Roku/Netflix offerings back to standard television: How crass much of the programming seems in comparison. Americans have lots of viewing choices and that's good, but as noted in the recent hearings on gun violence, kids see thousands of murders on TV shows, and while there is no demonstrated connection between violent shows and violent acts by viewers, it certainly doesn't contribute much to the improvement of our culture.
In December the CALM Act, which stands for "Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act" went into effect in the U.S., mandating that television ads must be the same general loudness as the programs they accompany. That's a good start, but if commercial television is going to compete with Internet media it is going to have to evolve beyond H. L. Mencken's observation: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public."
Hopefully market forces will shape up commercial television and the FCC won't have to meddle with ad time limits as the EU has done. If the market is working well, changes could include fewer ads, and a better selection of individual cable channels rather than bundled offerings with channels in a language one doesn't speak, infomercial channels and so on. Let channels compete for viewers, and if Honey Boo Boo wins, well so be it -- maybe Mencken was right after all.
January 9, 2013 By Wayne Hanson
On Monday, Nov. 26, 2012, New York City did not record one murder, stabbing or shooting -- the first time that has happened in memory, according to Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne, in a CNN news item. The FBI also reported recently that violent crime is in a five-year decline.
Boring. That isn't news. It will generate practically no Web traffic, sell no newspapers, attract no advertisers and will be ignored by millions. It's has no conflict, no big names, no sex, death, or horror or emotional upheaval. It is the most benign kind of happening. It will most likely go unnoticed and unheralded in the following days and weeks of normal violence. Except perhaps as a novelty item.
It may concern tightly budgeted police departments who worry about layoffs, even though a cessation of crime is their purpose, their mission. "Mission accomplished, here's your walking papers." Many dismissed the day without murder as a fluke, a statistical hiccup that essentially means nothing. Some media used it as a novelty, a contrast to the usual horrific rate of homicides in many large cities, or the latest murders. The cynical might opine that the criminals had one blockbuster of a weekend party and slept in till Tuesday.
The only interest the media might have in a "no-death-day," is the mystery of why it happened. When violent crime goes down, as it has in the last few years, the dwindling exceptions receive intense coverage. At best a few ideas are thrown around as to what might have caused the drop: A CNN story last fall cited "a more settled crack cocaine market, an increase in incarcerations, an aging population, data-driven policing, and changes in technology that include a big increase in surveillance cameras."
And then when the crime rate starts to increase again, that goes away and we go back to rather apathetic "educated guesses" at why it's going up: "Not enough social programs," "high unemployment," "violent video games," and the like.
But a day without murder is more than a cosmic joke. It is the ideal, the way things should be. Thousands of smaller cities and towns around the nation and the world go years without a murder. To the media they are boring places. Without crime and death and conflict to report, many local newspapers have dried up and closed. In a day of upside down mortgages, we have upside-down expectations -- we expect crime and read all about it.
Some futurists say that one day we will all live in megacities and thus they would condemn us to immersion in all the problems that plague mega-populations, including crime, conflict, and life in tiny boxes that share walls with five neighbors. Here's to small towns and villages with space to breathe and where murder is a stranger.
August 20, 2012 By Wayne Hanson
I just finished reading a blog on digital publishing by Ulf Wolf. I always enjoy his blogs, but I disagree with the idea in this one that gatekeepers produce good literature. Manuscript editors yes. Gatekeepers -- in the sense of acquisitions editors and publishers -- not so much. Manuscript editors add an incredible amount of clarity and value to most any written work. But in the past, "experts" decided what was good, and then forwarded those few selections up the ladder -- through the many hoops described by Ulf -- to the public. Publishers had to incur upfront production costs and were not very good at anticipating what would sell and what wouldn't, as demonstrated by the full remainders tables in most bookstores.
That made publishers very cautious about using new writers, who had a difficult time breaking into the club. Established writers were the ticket to success for any publisher, especially those established writers with a series of well-received books. So book publishing was a sort of insider's club, a republic of unelected literary representatives. And self-publishing -- the so-called "vanity press" -- was denigrated as self-serving tripe dished up by the well-heeled.
Now, anybody can write and publish a book and let the market of readers and book buyers vote with their plastic. With publish-on-demand systems, only those books that are purchased are put to paper or sent to an ereader. Authors have no real upfront costs, but they receive no advances from publishers, and get no editing or marketing help. And publishers, those "gateways to good taste and fine writing" are being bypassed by millions of people with something to say -- from undiscovered geniuses to those who pass their books out to relatives and friends and don't really expect to make the New York Times bestseller list.
True, the number of books to wade through is daunting, but members of social networks regularly forward videos, etc. and the interesting, lurid, grotesque, literary, etc., selections rise to the top and are viewed by millions of like-minded people.
Book publishing is now a cottage industry, a democracy of ideas, producing works that range from incomprehensible to profound. And as in any democratic town-hall meeting, one might encounter the ramblings of nuts as well as reasoned debate. Digital publishing is a vibrant new field of do-it-yourself communication that devalues the experts and gatekeepers. In a decade or so, I expect an explosion of new authors -- unburdened by gatekeepers -- with new ideas and new ways of expressing them. They will still need editors to brighten their manuscripts, but they won't need permission to publish them.
June 29, 2012 By Wayne Hanson
The September issue of Government Technology magazine will look at smart buildings, so I started thinking about the future of houses. There are nearly as many ideas of what the home of the future will look like as there are architects, or even people. There are big houses, like the Palace of Versailles, which began as a hunting lodge. An addition here, a wing there, and voila, it turned into something pretty splashy with a lot of upkeep.
There are small houses, mostly engineered by the Japanese who seem to like humble abodes that fit into one parking space or a capsule hotel that is even smaller -- about the same size as a morgue drawer but with better lighting and a TV.
Most of us live in something between Versailles and a capsule. It can be a New York City apartment, a ranch house in New Mexico, a loft in Portland , a narrow wooden two story in San Francisco, a brick cottage in Montana, or a liveaboard off the Florida coast.
The green movement and the recession have begun tilting homes toward smaller more efficient designs, made of sustainable materials, with heavy insulation and smaller heating and cooling requirements. Solar systems for heating water and home interiors are becoming more common, with geothermal systems on the horizon.
While Los Angeles is a poster child for “ugly spread-out terrible place to live,” the green lexicon for “sprawl” is pejorative, meaning anything with space around it. How much space does one family need anyway? Greens publish recycling nightmares like “There are these shipping containers lying around, let’s use them for houses.” So they design homes around those, cut holes in the sides for a few windows, and voila, a family-sized iron coffin.
The big home developers have their own abominations, building castles out of particleboard and staples, plastic plumbing and faux-wooden decks. Move right into a neighborhood where castles sit cheek to jowl. Reach out and touch someone looking down into your front room, sit back and listen to your neighbors’ arguments or an engine revving at 3 a.m. in a four-car garage.
Most ideas about the future are wrong. Just look at all the laughable world’s fair images of tomorrow. Their function, perhaps, is to break us out of the reality of now, and begin a search for something better. But the something better or newer never seems to be the same as the world fair vision.
The New York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in 1853, for example, featured the Crystal Palace, made entirely of steel and glass. It may have spurred the search for Windex and Rustoleum. Then a few years later, it burned down in matter of minutes, perhaps sparking the search for automatic sprinklers.
And how about those Jetsons? Robot maids, flying cars, etc. in a high-rise high-density city, with a 1950s traditional family. Compare that to The Fifth Element’s grubby flying cabs, three-dimensional traffic anarchy and pod living. Now that’s the future, baby!
Some people love New York City’s congestion, honking horns, smoking sewers, and rattling subways. Others prefer a sunny hillside cabin in the country, with a small flower patch, a few goats and a long gravel road to town. Some people might love a computer-assisted cooking program with a database of 10,000 recipes, automatic ingredient ordering and a voice-activated guide like Suri. Others might prefer a cookie recipe hand-written by great grandmother on a 3X5 card.
The best thing about the future is choices. It has more of them.
Wayne Hanson is editorial director of Digital Communities. His interest is in the future of communities and the elements necessary to create those places in which we would most want to live and work. What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?
This Digital Communities white paper highlights discussions with IT officials in four counties that have adopted shared services models. Our aim was to learn about the obstacles these governments have faced when it comes to shared services and what it takes to overcome those roadblocks. We also spoke with several members of the IT industry who have thought long and hard about these issues. The paper offers some best practices for shared government-to-government services, but also points out challenges that government and industry still must overcome before this model gains widespread adoption.