Saturday, June 03, 2023

The Short Tail

Way back in 2004, Chris Anderson, who was then editor in chief of WIRED magazine, wrote an article, and later a book, about "The Long Tail". The idea is that technology and economics have made it possible for companies to provide some kinds of products for which each individual item might have low demand, but the number of items would be so large, that it would be profitable. The classic example of this was Netflix, from which you could rent a DVD of an obscure movie from decades ago; that DVD might not even exist until it rose to the top of your Netflix wish list, at which point it could be manufactured onto a physical DVD from a digital archive, and then shipped to you. Another example is Amazon.com, which provides an enormous variety of physical items, leveraging warehousing and logistics to keep costs low on low volume items. (The title comes from the shape of the graph where you plotted the demand for each item against the number of items; the head of the graph was high, representing the big hits, but the tail, although low, trailed off almost to infinity, containing all the niche products.)

Great idea. But those days are over.

Netflix, as everyone now knows, is dropping its DVD rental service in favor of internet streaming. Wow. Great. Except the number of movies it provides via streaming is a tiny fraction of what was available before on DVD. This orphans our long Netflix wish list, which was full of old classic movies that I hadn't seen, but wanted to.

Just a couple of days ago, the Spousal Unit had other plans, and I sat down with the TiVo remote control and laboriously searched for The Ipcress File, a 1965 spy thriller with a young Michael Caine, and Paint Your Wagon, a 1969 musical western with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. No luck on either movie, on either Netflix or with Amazon Prime, the latter of which I thought might work even if I had to pay a few bucks for either movie.

So much for the idea that internet bandwidth, and digital storage, being so cheap that virtually any digital media would be easily and almost instantly available. This is not the future I was promised in lieu of flying cars.

Today I read that Disney is dropping a pile of shows and movies from its streaming service. Why? Money, of course. This will - somehow - allow it to write-off US$1.5B dollars. This is existing content, which costs almost nothing to store and deliver technically, but may of course incur licensing fees to its creators. Including some of the very same writers that are currently on strike to protest in part terrible labor practices by production companies and giant media conglomerates.

I'm a capitalist at heart - I have to be, my income depends on it - but this is some kind of late-stage capitalism market failure.

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Not Quite the Bootstrap Paradox

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Submitted for your approval are two 3.5" floppy diskettes.

I found the diskette on the left underneath our rear deck, when it was demolished to be replaced with a concrete patio this past fall. That was in 2022, just to be clear. It had clearly been under the deck for a long time, covered in dirt, and weathered enough that the label is mostly illegible.

The floppy disk was originally included with the hardback book Secrets of Software Quality: 40 Innovations from IBM. The book was written by Craig Kaplan, Ralph Clark, and Victor Tang, and published by McGraw-Hill. The first edition came out in 1995. 

I had never owned this book before, nor seen it, nor was even aware of its existence. Not until I found this floppy under our demo'ed deck, and decided to buy a new copy of the book. (It wasn't cheap.)

On the right is the diskette from that new copy. The date on the new disk is 1995. Careful inspection of the damaged diskette suggests that at least the last digit of the otherwise unreadable date looks like a "5". What fragments are barely visible of the part number on the weathered diskette seem to match the new diskette.

Our house was built in 1979. I don't know when the rear deck was built, but it was there when we bought the house in 1989.

So clearly the weathered diskette somehow came to be under our rear deck since we bought the house, since it did not exist until about six years after we moved in. It didn't come from any book in my library. We've had people over to the house, of course; computer people, even. But even if one of them had - for some reason - brought this diskette with them, the spacing of the boards on the deck would have made it very difficult - but not impossible - for them to have dropped the diskette and for it to have just happened to fit between two adjacent boards just perfectly so that it ended up where I found it. And what are the chances they would have dropped the diskette, seen it slip through the deck, and not have said anything to me?

The other possibility is that some critter brought it from somewhere else and left it under our deck. We've had several generations of rabbits living under our deck, and at least once I saw a skunk run out from under the deck and race across the yard. What use did a critter think it would have for a floppy diskette? Your guess is a good as mine.

Over the years we've had various folks work on the deck, in the adjacent yard, or around the outside of the house. I would like to think it's possible that one of those laborers was pursuing a course of study in information technology and maybe lost the floppy out of a pocket while, perhaps staining the deck as a summer job.

If it were not for the fact that we replaced the wooden deck with a concrete patio, it would have seemed inevitable that I would have some strange excuse to carry the new diskette across the deck, accidentally drop it, and watch it almost miraculously slip between the floor boards, where it falls through some kind of time portal, resulting in a causal loop. "And thus the prophecy was fulfilled."

And, besides, they weren't bootstrap diskettes.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Bob Greene Road

It will probably come as no surprise that I'm all about Google Maps: the maps, its Satellite View, its Street View, all that stuff. If I see a street address in something that interests me, pretty much for any reason, I'll look it up on Google Maps, check out the Satellite View, drop into Street View and look at the 360┬║ image.

Growing up I used to spend my summers living in the old Greene family home, the house my mom grew up in, in eastern Kentucky, not far west of the West Virginia line (Bruin, Kentucky, along State Route 7; Elliott County, county seat Sandy Hook; nearest sizable town Grayson, near Grayson Lake State Park).

So it was only natural when Google Maps became a thing, I'd bring up Google Maps and revisit my old childhood haunts from time to time. I found that old house, which had electricity (on good days), but no heating (other than a fireplace), and no running water (other than what I ran out to the well and got). The toilet was an outhouse, which was a fair trek out the back door and beyond the old chicken coop (but not as far as the barn) on a cold night. I also found the homes of my cousin Bob Greene and some other relatives in the neighborhood, which were just on the hillside on the other side of the hollow ("holler") to the north of our house.

Until one day, I couldn't find it. I could find other landmarks, like Route 7, the tributary of Grayson Lake that was in the neighborhood, and the old Horton Flat Road, but I couldn't recognize anything where I thought the old house should be, nor any of the homes I knew to have been near it.

I was mystified for months, until some judicious Googling led me to a page of the Kentucky Department of Transportation that explained that the short section of Route 7 on which the house sat had been completely rerouted, the road straightened out, and widened, and it now ran west of the old house, behind the hill on which the house had been built, instead of in front of it. And the original narrow, winding, sometimes treacherous section of Route 7, on which the gravel driveway up the hill to the old house was, was now an unnamed road off the shiny new Route 7.

A couple of days ago I revisited my old stomping grounds again, the very place where I learned to shoot a gun, first rode a motorcycle, read Frank Herbert's novel Dune on the front porch, and lots of other stuff, only to find that the old former Route 7 segment was now officially named "Bob Greene Road". 

Which made me really happy.

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