Tag Archives: Television

Fail, Seinfeld and Tina Fey: A Zeitgeist

I use Google Insights quite a bit—I find it a very useful way to measure interest in topics. Here’s one I keyed in just for the hell of it. Red is the word success and blue is the word fail. The chart covers from 2004 to today:

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What seems to have happened is a surge of interest in the word fail relative to the word success.

To the point where, in the past week or two, it’s become a more popular word to include in search terms than the word success, for the first time in four years.

Just to magnify that last bit:

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What does this mean? Probably not very much. But I found it intriguing. Are we now more interested in failure than success, or is it just this ridiculous new fascination with the word FAIL?

I think these Google searches reveal a lot more than we’re really giving them credit for. If nothing else, I believe they offer a pretty good idea of a celebrity’s career trajectory.

Take these clowns, for example. Here’s the gradually declining interest in Bill Gates (red) and Seinfeld (blue), revived, briefly, by the Microsoft ads:

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(The blips in 2006 and 2007 for Seinfeld, by the way, are ‘Kramer’s’ racial slurs and Seinfeld’s aptly titled The Bee Movie, by the way.)

Here are the two comediennes, Sarah Palin and Tina Fey, their careers apparently forever intertwined. Palin is of course red:

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A close-up reveals that Palin might be on the decline, whereas Tina is on the up:

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Because all these things are relative, put Seinfeld and Tina Fey (red) in the same room and you get an idea of how big a shot she has become this year:

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Just to stress that last spike:

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Seinfeld was right when he said he was a has-been. Still a funny guy though.

And I can’t resist taking a look at how Techcrunch and Scoble (blue) face up:

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Ouch. Seems Scoble started losing ground in in 2006. But hey, who knows? With this new dotcom crunch, maybe he’ll have the last laugh. Gotta admire someone who’s kept his own for 4+ years.

Talking of not leaving the party after it’s over, how does Vista shape up against XP? The chart is surprisingly revealing. Vista (red) enjoys a spike in early 2007 on its launch, but never seems to be able to shake off the XP shadow:

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That’s one FAIL, I reckon.

Who says graphs are boring?

Offended By Spit

The truth about writing, especially comic writing, is that you’re always going to offend somebody. The trick is not to do it deliberately, but also, not to care when you do. Seinfeld’s The Boyfriend episode is a classic of the genre, mocking JFK assassination buffs (Stone’s JFK had just come out) with the spitting sequence. It caused such laughter in the studio audience they had to edit some of the laughter out, but still some folk were offended, and remain so. Like this commenter from a Seinfeld fan site I recently came across: 

There were lots of great elements in this show, but I found the JFK spoof material incredibly offensive. It’s one I always skip when I see it in syndication. It just seems like incredibly bad taste (way beyond Seinfeld bad taste) to be mocking the killing of an American president, especially one less than 40 years ago. I never, ever understood what was funny about those scenes.

I’m not saying such people are stupid to be offended, or too tightly coiled for Seinfeld. It’s just you always will offend people, whatever you write, but it shouldn’t stop you or alter your course. Fortunately for us, it didn’t stop Seinfeld.

Seinfeld: The Boyfriend – TV Squad

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Gaming Idol With Dialers

If you’re wondering why Sanjaya Malakar has done surprisingly well in American Idol, here’s one possible answer: dialers.

Dialers are pieces of software usually stealthily installed on a victim’s computer to automatically dial expensive premium telephone numbers. The victim only finds out when they receive their phone bill. In this case, the dialer, openly available on a reputable download site, is a voluntary install designed to automate the voting process in Idol:

Sanjaya War Dialer uses your computers modem to automatically dial the American Idol voting number over and over and over again until you tell it to stop. Automatically cast hundreds or even thousands of votes for Sanjaya with the click of a button. Make Sanjaya win and help us ruin American Idol.

The Sanjaya War Dialer has its own MySpace page where users report on their votes — 600 a hour, for some. The show’s producers are aware of this, and have been lopping off blocks of votes if they seem to be coming from power dialers, as they call them, for several weeks.

Gaming the system by voting for inferior contestants is not new. Vote for the Worst claims to have been around since 2004. And DialIdol.com offers dialers for other shows, including Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, Canadian Idol and Celebrity Duets. DialIdol isn’t so much about gaming the system as predicting who will be voted off by seeing which hotlines are busiest.

Should we be surprised by this? No. It’s not easy to tell how many people are using these dialers, and it would need to be a lot to make it work. But we shouldn’t underestimate the number of people willing to do this, either for fun or because they have money riding on it. And of course they may not need to vote – they only need to stop other people from voting for other contestants. Do we believe American Idol when it talks of 35 million votes? That’s a lot of phone lines.

I would say this: Any kind of voting technology that isn’t transparent and clear is likely to be manipulated, either by smart hackers with something to gain, or by those arranging the voting.

(My colleague Carl Bialik talks about voting and power dialers in his blog a couple of days back. Thanks to Handoko for the Twitter tip.)

Dancing Queen and the End of Popular Music

The other night, as I lay sweating in my mum’s flat in boiling England in the early hours, a crowd of 20 somethings spilled out of a nearby club. The usual hubbub of indistinct chatter ensued as they prepared to disperse. Then the females (I assume; I couldn’t actually see anything) started singing something together, and, gradually the song they were singing emerged: “Dancing Queen”, by Abba, released as a single in 1976. The lassies, who can’t have been born when it first came out, all knew the words (no big surprise, perhaps, given it’s been covered by 20 other artists and was rereleased by Abba in the early 1990s) and sang it long after I felt the moment had passed and they should all go home.

Apart from keeping me awake, I realised something more important: I was listening to the last hurrah of popular music. And today marks, at least in the UK, the death of this era. That’s because today is the last edition of BBC’s Top Of The Pops, the long-running television show that broadcast (usually mimed) performances of the top selling single artists of the week. Everyone here in the UK is waxing nostalgic about the show, which first went out in 1964, and has been running pretty much every week ever since. But perhaps its greatest significance will be in its demise, as it reflects the end of popular music as a unifying force.

Ironic, really, given that folk like me weren’t allowed to watch ToTP as kids, at least with the sound on. Even as a late teenager my dad would make a point of walking in to the lounge when I was watching it, to mess about with the grate, or the wine cupboard (necessitating a move of the TV) and would make some sarcastic remark about whoever was on — and his entry always seemed to coincide with a particularly outrageous display by Roy Wizzard or Noddy Holder or Gary Glitter (turns out he was right about him, come to think of it). ToTP was a divisive force in our household, but nationally, culturally, it united. In an era when pop music remained fringe — only a couple of radio stations played it, one of them pirate, and there was scant pop music on TV outside ToTP — the program was a Mecca for anyone who wanted to know what was what. We really cared about who was number one; seeing bands and artists play on ToTP was sometimes the only chance we got to put a face to the voice we heard on the radio. And then there were Pan’s People, the dancers who “interpreted” songs to help fill up the show. They, dancing to the Chi-Lites’ “Homely Girl”, were my first glimpse of sensual womanhood and for that alone I’m hugely grateful.

The point about ToTP was that it gave everyone a cultural reference point. Watch ToTP and we knew all we needed to know to bond with friends, chat up those we wanted to chat up and to sing along at parties. We all knew who The Rubettes were, and while we may have hated ‘Sugar Baby Love’ we all knew it was number one, and hearing it on radios as we went on holidays or tried to steal a French kiss or two at a party, provided a cultural anchor that would forever make that the soundtrack of the summer of 1974 (or was it 1975.) The point? ‘Sugar Baby Love’ meant different things to different people, but it meant something. Listen to it now and I am transported back to the smell of hay (yes, those kinds of parties), feel the excitement of flashing lights and the electrifying presence of females through the gloom.

Of course, a lot of people will see the demise of ToTP as a good thing, the victory of the Long Tail of pop music (or whatever we have to call it now, given it’s not really popular any more.) They’ll say that the Big Head of mass commercialisation of popular music, where a few acts get disproportionate air play, promotion and media interest to the detriment of others, was never what people really wanted, and that now, with the Internet fostering better distribution and an increasingly sophisticated medium of recommendation, we can now listen to what we really want to, rather than what big business wants us to.

That’s true. But when are we going to be able to stand in car parks at three o’clock in the morning all drunkenly singing “young and sweet and only 17” because we all know the words? Or commenting on the silly hats that the Rubettes wore, or complaining about the number of appearances of Status Quo? And it’s not just about the Water Cooler culture — where we all stand around discussing last night’s TV, where we all saw the same thing because there was only one thing to watch — but of something else: cultural reference points that provide a shared soundtrack to our lives. Not a reason to keep Top of the Pops, necessarily, but perhaps food for thought about the world we are entering without it.

Citizen Pundits

Forget citizen journalism. How about citizen punditry? An unnamed taxi driver IT specialist appeared on the BBC’s news 24 after being mistaken for his fare, technology pundit Guy Kewney. Despite the BBC’s apparent efforts to suppress the moment, the Daily Mail has recovered it, according to Guy himself, who is rightly highly amused that his face, and ethnicity, are not particularly well known to BBC staff. You can download the clip here.

As Guy says, “you can watch the classic moment, where the cab driver realises that he is on air, and being mistaken for someone else, here. It’s beyond classic: it’s priceless. Watch his incredible recovery, and his determination to show that this may be a complete surprise to him, but that he can out-Kewney any darned NewsWireless Editor if he has to.”

The Times reports that “it is not the first time that the BBC has been embarrassed by a case of mistaken identity. Last year Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister of Wales, was mistaken for a cast member of Doctor Who when he was due to appear on the BBC Wales political show Dragon’s Eye.

Unfortunately the identity of the cabbie in question has not yet been established. He deserves a medal for his performance and to have his own show. I’m all in favour of this kind of thing. If only more television networks would take a broader, more inclusive view of what it means to be an “expert” we might all benefit.

[Update (thanks, Juha, for pointing out): The cabbie has been found, and he’s not a cabbie, but a data cleansing expert. Not such a good story as the original, but nice to get it right.]

The U.S.’ Next Big Thing: SMS-TV

No question that the U.S. is ahead on lots of cool stuff, but it has yet to be subjected to the world of SMS-TV. SMS-TV is when TV programmes let viewers vote, or submit competition entries, by text message, usually via a premium number. I have to admit I’ve never done this, but a lot of TV programs have it now, both in Asia and Europe, and it’s clearly a big revenue earner.

Says Idan Miller, SVP at zone4play, an SMS-TV supplier: “While SMS-TV isn’t yet a household product in the U.S., throughout Europe it is huge, and the U.S. is next. For [reality show] ‘Big Brother’ in the U.K., they charged $.25 per SMS and got about 100 million SMS messages throughout the season. For many mobile carriers in the U.S., it can be a major growth area in income.” Earning $25 million for audience interaction? Not bad.

It’s not just about money. “Big TV networks can also benefit as they crave ways to get their viewers to talk back and stay engaged with content brands. The loyalty engendered may be even more valuable to a TV industry that is suffering declining network viewership and fragmented attention spans,” says Miller.

More On Fingerprint Readers

This week’s WSJ.com/AWSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid) is about biometric fingerprint readers. Microsoft’s new offering seems to have reinjected some vigour into an otherwise obscure corner of the market.

As I say in the column, I’m not convinced that fingerprint scanners are the way to go, not least because of tested methods of fooling them, not least with Gummi Bears.

Anyway, beyond the products reviewed in the column, I’ve found a couple more:

  • The USB Fingerprint Reader from Taiwan’s Billionton, which seems to do what the others do, at around the same price (I saw on in Singapore’s Sim Lim Square for S$98, or about $60);
  • The Targus DEFCON Authenticator which includes OmniPass software, the same interface that is used by the APC model mentioned in the column. This I saw selling for about S$80, or about $50; integrated with the reader is a two-port USB hub which is a nice tweak.

I’ve found the one I’m using most is the Sony Micro Vault USM-C, which does a pretty good job of keeping nosey folk out of my computer, but can also store important files, encrypted and accessible only to people with my fingers, and/or Gummi Bears.

Smelly Emails

From the Really Silly Ideas That May Catch On So I Better Not Be Too Rude About It Dept, here’s word of a device that will deliver you scented emails. Sort of.

The BBC (via the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review) reports that British Internet provider Telewest Broadband is testing an air freshener that is designed to spray the smell linked to a email message. So you plug the “scent dome” (no, really) which will contain 20 basic smells that can combine to give 60 scents (no, really) and hey presto! the email will trigger the odor. 

Chad Raube, director of Internet services at Telewest Broadband, said the obvious, according to the Beeb: “This could bring an extra whiff of realism to the Internet.”

Actually, this is whiff of realism: Telewest reckons the dome will cost around £250 ($474 U.S.) and will only work with a high-speed, broadband connection. 

Daftness aside, this could be a good idea. Wouldn’t it be great to market smells you really miss? Your mom’s baking, new-mown hay, marzipan, your old roommate’s socks? Or to be able to send a smell to your doctor to gauge the gangrenous state of a festering wound without having to arrange a visit to the clinic? Or the bouquet of a wine you’re thinking of ordering over the Internet?

News: Shredded Stasi Documents To Be Pieced Back Together

 The kind of story I love: technology used to bring the oppressor to book. The Register reports that documents of the East German State Security Service (Stasi), torn into shreds and stored in 16,000 brown sacks, may soon be pieced together by a software program developed by the Fraunhofer Institute.
 
On Monday, the Institute said it would take five years to solve the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle electronically. If done by hand, the operation would take several hundred years.