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Pivoting to the Gumball Machine

Well, it’s the end of the month again, and I’m out of free articles from all the major newspapers. This happens toward the end of just about every month: I see an article in one of the papers linked by an aggregator, I go there through the link, and am told that I have used all my free articles and can now either subscribe to the paper or go away. I go away. This does not bode well for the newspaper in question, nor for newspapers generally.

The problem is dirt-simple: I do not want the whole damned Washington Post.

I might want five or six articles per month. I do not want the comics, the ads, the local news and gossip (unless something really important is going on there locally) nor the constant obsessive eyes-rolled-back-in-the-head drumbeating against Trump. I hate politics. I want ideas and analysis of interesting things, people, and phenomena, from a neutral point of view. And I am willing to pay for them.

Individually.

People who have been following me for a long time may remember an idea piece I did in this space way back in 2005, with a followup in 2014. I called it a “digital content gumball machine” because that’s what it was: A storefront with an easy payment system that downloads a digital file to your hard drive. In 2005, these really hadn’t been perfected, but Amazon came along and did it, followed by other firms like Audible. As with my 1994 prediction of Wikipedia, the details turned out a little different, but for music and ebooks, my vision was fulfilled. When I hear a piece of music I like, I go to Amazon, search for it, click a couple of things, and clunk-clatter! An MP3 appears in my Downloads folder. Ditto for ebooks. Yes, discovery is still a challenge, but it’s a separate challenge that I’ll take up another time.

Having pivoted to video without success, Big Media seems on track pivoting to dust, as Robby Soave said on Twitter and Megan McArdle quoted in a WaPo article I can’t even link to now that January’s freebies are gone. (If you subscribe or have freebies left, read it.)

One of the reasons that the print news media giants (as well as print magazines like The Atlantic) are pivoting to dust is that unlike music, ebooks, and audiobooks, they don’t have gumball machines. You can’t buy a gumball. You need to buy the entire jar. So my suggestion to them is the following: Create a consortium to finance the construction of a periodical media gumball machine.

It would work someting like this: The gumball machine is a payment processor back end to which publishers can connect under contract. Publishers add small scripts to each one of their articles, which display the title and first 500 characters of the article in a window with a message like “Continue reading this article for 50c.” Another button might offer a downloadable copy for $1. When the consumer clicks a button, he or she is charged the appropriate amount and the window poofs, revealing the full article or download link.

Consumers would create an account not with any individual publication but with the gumball machine itself, providing a charge card or coin wallet or some other means of payment. Readers could then seamlessly flit from The Washington Post to The Chicago Tribune to The Atlantic, picking up an article gumball here and an editorial gumball there. The back end would keep the the accounting straight, and would wire money to all publishers using the system on a weekly or monthly basis, keeping some pre-agreed margin for its own expenses. Publishers would leave some freebies on their sites to keep people from forgetting about them, or perhaps have articles age-out to free status after some set period of time.

Publishers would have razor-sharp data on what writers and what topics are their biggest draws. They could adjust prices to find price points that maximize their income. They wouldn’t have to abandon ads altogether, but would no longer be at the mercy of advertisers. They could stop pivoting from one damfool technofad to another, and just do what readers expect them to do: provide interesting reading at competitive prices…and do it by the piece.

After all, get enough people to pay you fifty cents for an article, and sooner or later you’re talking real money.

That’s the whole gumball machine concept for periodical publications. I know enough of the required tech to be quite sure it’s doable. In truth, it’s not even rocket science. So would it work?

Alas, no. There’s way too much ego on the table. Consider the pompous-ass motto WaPo puts on its masthead: “Democracy dies in darkness.” Uhhh, no. Democracy dies in tribalism…with you idiots leading the charge off that particular cliff. Newspapers have talked themselves into believing that they are the sole protectors of our freedom, and that we all gaze upon them with sighs of thankful reverence. They may have fulfilled that role to some extent decades ago, when investigative reporting was actually done, and done to standards held by all genuine journalists. Now, the big papers have abandoned careful investigative reporting for clickbait and partisan advocacy, which in fact is the opposite of journalism.

Anyway. I’ve thrown the idea out there and would be curious to get your reactions. As always, no partisan arguing in the comments. That’s what Twitter is for, heh.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • I had some fairly sophisticated oral microsurgery about ten days ago, and it kind of took the wind out of me. That’s why you’re getting two Odd Lots in a row. I have things to write about long-form but have only recently found the energy to write at all. Promise to get a couple of things out in the next week.
  • Some researchers at UW Madison are suggesting that sleep may exist to help us forget; that is, to trim unnecessary neural connections in order to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in the brain. Fair enough. What I really want to know (and am currently researching) is why the hell we dream. I doubt the answer to that is quite so simple.
  • Ultibo is a fork of FreePascal/Lazarus that creates custom kernel.img files for the Raspberry Pi, allowing direct boot into an embedded application without requiring an underlying OS. I haven’t tried it yet (still waiting on delivery of a few parts for a new RPi 3 setup) but it sounds terrific. Bare metal Pascal? Whoda thunkit?
  • Humana just announced that it is leaving the ACA exchanges after 2017. As I understand it, that will leave a fair number of counties (and some major cities) with no health insurance carriers at all. Zip. Zero. Obamacare, it seems, is in the process of repealing itself.
  • NaNoWriMo has gone all political and shat itself bigtime. You know my opinions of such things: Politics is filth. A number of us are talking about an alternate event held on a different month. November is a horrible month for writing 50,000 words, because Thanksgiving. I’m pushing March, which is good for almost nothing other than containing St. Patrick’s Day. (Thanks to Tom Knighton for the link.)
  • Paris has been gripped by rioting since February 2…and the US media simply refuses to cover it, most likely fearing that it will distract people from the Flynn resignation. Forget fake news. We have fake media.
  • I heard from a DC resident that there was also a smallish riot in Washington DC today, and so far have seen no media coverage on it at all.
  • Cold weather in Italy and Spain have caused vegetable shortages in the UK. Millions of small children who would supposedly never know what snow looked like may now never know what kale looks like. Sounds like a good trade to me.
  • Trader Joe’s now sells a $5 zinfandel in its house Coastal brand, and it’s actually pretty decent. Good nose, strong fruit. Seems a touch thin somehow, but still well worth the price.
  • I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Gahan Wilson’s cartoons in Playboy and National Lampoon, but Pete Albrecht sent me a link to an interview with Wilson that explains why he did certain things the way he did, like his brilliant series called “Nuts” about how the world looks and feels to small children.

Was 2016 Really That Deadly?

John Glenn. Carrie Fisher. Debbie Reynolds. Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gene Wilder. Lots, lots more. OMG! Worst year evah!

I wonder. And because I wonder, I doubt it.

It’s certainly true that a lot of famous people died in 2016. However, we didn’t have any plagues or natural disasters that would raise the death rate significantly, so we have to assume that these deaths are unrelated to one another, and that we can’t finger any single cause or groups of causes. First, some short notes on mortality itself:

  • Plenty of ordinary people died too. We had one death in our extended family. Several of my friends lost parents this year. A quick look back shows such deaths happening every three or four years. There was a peak circa 2000-2010 when extended family in the Greatest Generation were dying. Those individuals were in their 80s, mostly, which is when a great many people die.
  • There are a lot of Baby Boomers, and Baby Boomers are hitting a knee in the mortality curve. The oldest Boomers are crossing 70 now, and the curve goes up sharply after that.
  • Basically, there are lots more old people now than in the past, and old people die more frequently.

All that is pretty obvious, and I list it here as a reminder. Humanity is aging. That’s not a bad thing, if living longer is better than dying young. In truth, I thought Zsa Zsa Gabor died years if not decades ago. She lived to 99, so she stood out in my mind, as does anyone who lives well into their 90s.

Which brings us to the issue of fame. There are different kinds of fame. Three types come to mind:

  • Horizontal fame falls to people who are very famous and generally known to the population at large.
  • Vertical fame falls to people who are well-known within narrower populations.
  • Age cohort fame is vertical fame along a time axis: It falls to people who are generally known but by people in a narrower age cohort, like Boomers or Millennials.

John Glenn had horizontal fame. Zsa Zsa Gabor had age-cohort fame: She had been out of the public eye for quite some time, so while Boomers mostly knew who she was, I’ll bet plenty of Millennials did not. Vertical fame is interesting, and I have a very good example: David Bunnell was a tech journalist, so as a tech journalist I knew him (personally, in fact, if not well) and know that he was well-known in tech journalism and very much missed. The fact that another well-known and much-loved tech journalist, Bill Machrone, died only two weeks later, gave us the impression that tech journalism had a target on its forehead this year. The fact that both men were 69 at the times of their deaths just made the whole thing stand out as “weird” and memorable in a grim way.

Most people have a passion (or several) not shared by all others. We can’t pay attention to everything, but all of us have a few things we pay attention to very closely. I’m not a medical person, so when Donald Henderson (the man who wiped out smallpox) died, I had to look him up. Those in science and healthcare probably recognized his name more quickly than people who focus on music or NASCAR. The point here is that almost everyone falls into some vertical interest bracket, and notices when a person famous within their bracket (but otherwise obscure) dies. This multiplies the perception of many famous people dying in any given year.

The proliferation of vertical brackets contributes to another fame issue: We are making more famous people every year. Vertical brackets are only part of it. With a larger population, there is more attention to be focused on the famous among us, allowing more people to cross the admittedly fuzzy boundary between obscurity and fame.

The key here is mass media, which creates fame and to some extent dictates who gets it. The mainstream media may be suffering but it’s still potent, and the more cable channels there are, the more broadly fame can be distributed. I doubt we’re producing as many movies as we used to, but the movies that happen are seen and discussed very broadly. I confess I don’t understand the cult of celebrity and find it distasteful. Still, celebrity and gossip are baked into our genes. (This is related to tribalism, which I’ll return to at some point. I’m starting to run long today and need to focus.)

Over the past ten years, of course, social media has appeared, and allows news to travel fast, even news catering to a relatively narrow audience. Social media amplifies the impact of celebrity deaths. I doubt I would have known that Zsa Zsa had died if I hadn’t seen somebody’s Twitter post. I didn’t much care, but I saw it.

There is another issue that many people may not appreciate: More people were paying attention to news generally in 2016. Why? The election. The profound weirdness and boggling viciousness of this year’s races had a great many people spending a lot more time online or in front of the TV, trying to figure out what the hell was actually happening, and why. I think this made the celebrity deaths that did happen a lot more visible than they might have been in a non-election year.

Finally, averages are average. There are always peaks and troughs. In fact, a year in which celebrity death rates were simply average would be slightly anomalous in itself, though no one but statisticians would likely notice. I’m guessing that we had a peak year this year. Next year might be kinder to celebrities. We won’t know until we get there.

To sum up: This past year, for various reasons, more people were paying attention, and there were more ways to pay attention. These trend lines will continue to rise, and I have a sneaking suspicion that next year may also be seen as deadly, as will the year after that, until the curves flatten out and we enter into some sort of new normal.

Grim, sure, but not mysterious. There may well be reasons to consider 2016 a terrible year, but thinking rationally, the number of celebrity deaths is not among them.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • When I was a (much) younger man, I wanted a ’59 Chevy. Having seen this, I guess it’s just as well that I didn’t get one. (Thanks to Todd Johnson for the link.)
  • Micropayments may not allow small creators (like me) to make money. They may not allow big huge monstrous media outlets make money either. They may not allow anybody to make much money at all. Bummer. I did have hopes…
  • Oh, and the Long Tail may not be as long as we thought. Double bummer.
  • Has anyone reading this ever played with the Alice language/GUI system for teaching programming? (Alas, no Linux version. Triple bummer. ) Any opinions? I have nieces who are growing up so fast…
  • From Pete Albrecht comes word that Chicago’s Kiddieland is closing. My father took me there in 1955 while my mom was working. We had pizza and I went on all kinds of rides. That night I puked my guts out, and my mom thought I was coming down with polio. (They don’t call it the Scrambler for nothing.)
  • Here’s another thing I thought I might have imagined: World Of Giants , a b/w TV show from 1959 that went into syndication and used to run just before the 4:00 PM monster movie on Channel 7 in Chicago, circa 1965. At least two people must have watched this, and the other one must have been Irwin Allen. (And the guy who created the show must have read Richard Matheson.)
  • Although the sun’s face has been devoid of sunspots for 18 days running (and 212 days this year) there is a major sunspot on the other side of the Sun, which may rotate into view sometime tonight. I boggle a little to think that we can image a sunspot on the far side of the Sun. How this is done is interesting, and has little or nothing to do with light. Flying cars or no, we are living in the future!
  • From the Not Too Clear on the Concept Dept: I just nuked a spam message pitching “herbal testosterone.” Right.