Being missed

Judging by the number of advertisements I see that are obviously not targeted at me and the number of products I really enjoy that I discover by mechanisms other than advertisements, I clearly don’t fit into the current advertising demographic system very well. I am, in short, being missed, in spite of being a 18-34 year old male with a decent disposable income.

Until recently, I assumed this was caused by a skewed sense of taste, called “eclectic” by some (others have called it “strange”, “whacked”, “bizarre” and “crazy”). After all, I reasoned, most people don’t have Citizen Kane, Akira, Bubba Ho-tep, Monsters Inc., Wings of Desire and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death in their DVD collection. This, however, is wrong. A significant collection of people (probably much larger than you think it is) find nothing at all unusual about that collection. This group is certainly much larger than advertisers think it is.

Recommendations often come my way to watch movies or TV shows I’ve never heard of with the caveat “I think you would love it”. These recommendations almost always involve something that didn’t do very well or got canceled. The last such recommendation was for a science fiction series, a TV show called Firefly. I’d never even heard of it (evidently I’m in the “wrong demographic”), but based on this recommendation, I bought the complete season on DVD. My wife and I intended to watch one episode every few days or so. Within about 10 minutes into the first show, this plan went out the window and we watched the entire series back to back over the course of a weekend, forgoing much needed sleep to do so. It was, quite simply, the best sci-fi I’ve ever seen grace television. I’ve never seen a show with writing, production and characterization that tight so early in its run. Even compared to all other genres, from any time period, I’d place it well into the top 10. It was canceled by Fox after half a season, citing low ratings.

Two years later, Serenity, a movie version of Firefly, is in post-production. Tellingly, this film is being distributed by Universal, not Fox. Somehow, a “low ratings” TV show has enough fans to warrant spending $35 million to make a film version. You can read a lot into this, but it suggests to me that either the TV ratings systems or Fox management (or both) are seriously flawed. The vocal, young, money-spending fans of this show were, in short, being missed.

Firefly was produced by Ben Edlund, creator of another brilliant show canceled by Fox: the animated version of the Tick. While this show was on the air, a large proportion of the people I knew at the time watched and loved it. To my knowledge, this show has never been officially released on DVD, but if it ever is, it’s sales will stun the company that releases it (as many bootleggers are discovering). You could go on about any number of shows that were markedly better than anything else on television at the time (Twin Peaks, Farscape, Get A Life, etc.) It’s fans were, and still are, being missed.

So, how can this “lost demographic” make itself known? A couple of half baked solutions:

Solution One: Stop using TiVo

It occurs to me is that common theme in a lot of these shows is that they catered to an audience that was significantly smarter (or, perhaps, more curious) than the people who canceled them. I don’t mean that in a bitter, ironic way. I’m suggesting that it is literally true. Unfortunately, this audience is the kind of smart that has figured out that watching advertisements is a completely avoidable downside of the television experience. Furthermore, most of them do not watch shows when they air, but at a time more convenient to them. Both of these habits are made possible by TiVo and other DVRs.

By being smart enough to avoid seeing ads, this audience has made itself completely inconsequential to advertisers. They have no incentive to give money to a show to place an ad they know will not be watched. Shows that appeal to such an audience, therefore, are not as profitable to a broadcast network. Additionally, TiVo viewing may not register in ratings (though I may be wrong on this one). Ultimately, the already small number of shows that would speak to this audience will dwindle to nothing.

The economics suggest a more broad approach as well…

Solution Two: Convince Advertisers Directly

When shows get canceled, the fan base tends to hurl their outrage on the network. This energy could be better spent convincing advertisers to buy time in a show. Convince them there is a hidden demographic that wants to know about their products and they’ll buy ad time. The networks will be baffled, but they’ll be happy.

Solution Three: Pay

It may be that the economics of broadcast television simply select against smart audiences. It is no coincidence that some of the better shows on television right now are on a network that doesn’t follow the broadcast model: HBO. They make money through subscriptions, so they have an incentive to make shows that are good, not shows that have mass appeal to certain types of people. I’m not saying they don’t care about demographics, but anyone who pays a subscription is just as good to them as any other. This is not the view that advertisers have of viewers.

So do we start our own subscription network? Do we pitch shows to HBO? I’m not sure. Certainly Stargate SG-1 had success with Showtime. The recent campaign to get fans to pay for an additional season of Enterprise could have interesting fallout (though, in my opinion, the show doesn’t seem worth the effort).

Solution Four: Hack the ratings systems

I don’t know enough about how the ratings systems work to figure out how a group of dedicated viewers might be able to adjust their representation in such a system, but it seems like the root problem is that we are invisible to these systems, so the obvious solution is to change this.

Solution Five: Assimilation

One reason this demographic is lost is that it stealths into genres it is not expected. For example, a decent-sized portion of this demographic loves professional wrestling. Well, “loves” might be a strong word. “Appreciates” might be better. Most, however, are far removed from the average WWF fan. This is difficult to articulate, but it’s as if we like the idea of professional wrestling more than the execution, digging the sort of crass social manipulation it uses to entertain, the sheer will and cojones it takes to parley a talent for getting hit in the face with a metal chair into your own cult of personality. Anyone who views the Undertaker and his wraith-like manager as geniuses of self-marketing knows what I mean.

As difficult as it is for me to describe this love of low-brow entertainment for reasons only tangentially related to the entertainment itself, it appears even more difficult for Madison Avenue to understand it. Marketing is defined by putting people into boxes, and we don’t fit very well into any of them. A cure for this may be to become one with the advertising industry. My pity goes out to those that volunteer for this assignment.

On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing that advertisers don’t see us. Maybe we can use that to our advantage somehow. I’ll have to think about that.

Concept for Mac mini A/V dock

The interest given to articles about modifications to the Mac mini, such as moving it into a micro ATX case with some large IDE drives or overclocking it, suggests that there may be a market for a “docking station” of sorts that has the same dimensions as a typical audio/video component. The mini could be plugged into this station, then added into the rack of a typical home theater with ease, to act as a media center. It would have the added benefit of allowing the mini to be easily removed from the rack for more portable uses from time to time.

Let me stress that this product does not actually exist. I have the idea, but neither the time nor talent to see it to fruition. I present it here so that others might. It might look something like this:

Dock concept

I would only buy such a thing if it contained the following:

  • Few or no external controls. All features should be controllable by software in the mini. Perhaps a power button (which would also power the mini), but that’s all.
  • Port replication, as usually found in a docking station. This would include power (allowing you to ditch the power brick that came with the mini).
  • In addition to replication of the DVI connector, the station would wire the mini to built-in adaptors for VGA, S-Video, composite video and (most importantly) component video (Y/Pb/Pr), with ports for each arrayed on the back of the dock. If it didn’t have the component video, I wouldn’t buy it. Ideally, it would send signal to all of these at once, but being able to pick one at a time with a software control panel would be acceptible.
  • Video input of some kind wired into the firewire bus, smilar to a built-in EyeTV 500.
  • Two (or more) large, fast harddrives would be built into the dock, wired to the firewire port. It should not be rocket science for the user to replace these drives. Possibly the dock would supply just the drive bays, and the user would supply their own drives. These drives should be on the quiet side. The addition of a quiet fan to cool the drives would be acceptible.
  • One or both of the USB ports would not be direct pass-through ports, but connected to an internal hub. This hub would offer four connections on the back of the dock, two in the front, and several internal. It would also be hooked up internally to a number of other components built into the dock. I will describe these in reference to other, existing products, but in actuality, they’d be built into the dock hardware, not just third party products shoved into the case. The features of these additions would be:
    • Something like an iMic, with the RCA and other i/o connections coming out of the back of the machine.
    • Something like the Transit, which supplies DTS, with several optical audio ports in the back to allow recording and playback of digital audio to/from multiple sources.
    • Some sort of general purpose IR receiver, perhaps like the Keyspan Express Remote.
    • Some kind of combination flash memory reader.
  • A front panel display, showing:
    • Temperature of drive bay
    • State of firewire ports
    • State of USB ports
    • State of card reader
    • If the audio modes (RCA vs. optical) need to be switchable/one-at-a-time, their current state
    • If the video modes (DVI vs. component) need to be switchable/one-at-a-time, their current state
  • Possibly some additional cooling for the mini. Maybe this would be additional airflow around the bottom and sides. Not sure how/if this would work.
  • Size similar to a home theater DVD component: 17″ wide, somewhere between 9-13″ deep and just slightly taller than the mini’s 2″.

This post has been referenced by some other sites. From the comments here and on those sights, some extra commentary seems appropriate:

  • Size: I guess I didn’t spell out the idea that this is meant to integrate (i.e. be the same size as) with standard audio/video components in a home theater rack, as many posters wondered why it was so large. Like many a/v components, it is likely that this one would contain a lot of empty space. People who don’t care about integration with a rack system may be interested in a sweet looking, more stack-like system mentioned in one of the comments on engadget.
  • Non-stackability: Some mentioned that you cannot stack another component on top of this one, limiting its use in a rack. This is true, but intentional for reasons I didn’t mention. It turns out that items on top of a Mac mini interrupt the airport and bluetooth signals. I suspect they may also cause heat problems, but don’t know that for sure. Speaking of which…
  • Heat: I mentioned heat breifly, but some commenters correctly point out that some serious thought would need to be put into heat management. This would need to include some path from the vent in the the back of the mini into the body of the dock.
  • Cost: I didn’t think at all about cost, but if you add up the cost of buying similar components, it adds up pretty quickly. I guess the measure of affordability is if the dock costs less than it would to buy the similar components individually (which, right now, anyone who wants a Mac mini home theatre needs to do).

Roman numeral promotion

In 1996 or so, my friend KD realized that since the roman numeral for the then approaching millennium was “MM”, there would be a natural promotional tie in for M & M’s candy come y2k. Naturally, Mars Inc. couldn’t pass such a thing up, naming M&M’s “the official spokescandies of the new millennium” in early 1998. This promotion was probably effective for Mars, but I don’t remember it making that big of a splash (a few hoaxes aside) or ever becoming that irritating.

This will not be the case, however, with the next Roman-numeral related promotion that we will undoubtedly need to endure come next winter: SuperBowl XL. You can just hear the announcers gushing over lines like “the biggest SuperBowl ever”, “one size bigger” or some other bad “extra-large” reference.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

From the glory of the olive

The pope is sick again. Sooner or later (sooner, I suspect) he will be succeeded, no doubt with intrigue, ceremony and media frenzy. When the white smoke comes out of the chimney, it will be interesting to see how much attention is paid to one of my favorite wacky distractions, the Prophecies of St. Malachy.

According to the story, the man who would be called St. Malachy visited Rome in 1139, where he saw a vision regarding all of the future popes. He supposedly wrote down this vision and gave it to Innocent II, who stashed it in the archives until it was discovered in the early 1590’s by a monk named Arnold Wion. It was published soon afterwards, with many suspecting at the time (and even more so now) that it had actually been written in the 1590’s and really had nothing to do with Malachy at all.

I’ve never looked to such things for much predictive power. What I find interesting about this prophesy is that, unlike most others, it offers predictions on events that are guaranteed to happen. If you read a prediction from Nostradamus that doesn’t seem to match any event, you can say “well, it must not have happened yet”. You can’t do that with this prophesy, because the succession of popes since 1139 (or 1590) is a known quantity. This allows more interesting analysis, as you can score how well (or badly) each pope was “predicted”.

In 2000, John Hogue wrote The Last Pope, which provides such scoring. I’m not sure what the rest of his books are like, but he seems to approach this prophesy with a “this is probably bull, but maybe it isn’t” approach which is distinctly lacking in most prophesy “analysis”. It’s also pretty clear that Hogue has little love for the papacy or the Catholic Church in general.

The prophesy gives each pope a motto in Latin. Naturally, some of these are so generic as to be basically useless, but others fare a bit better. Hogue compares each motto to a number of categories in the actual pope’s life (things like church titles, heraldry, name, birthplace, family, nationality, geography, deeds, etc.). For each pope, he gives each category a hit or a miss. He finds that “clearly the skeptics are right” in that scores from the popes before 1590 are significantly higher than scores from after. On the other hand, he rates some of the post-1590 mottos as “remarkably accurate predictions that go beyond chance”.

When looking at this kind of thing, the main criticism is to say “oh, that motto could be applied to anyone else just as well”. So, do it. For each motto, can you fit it to, say, another pope, or some other religious leader, or even yourself better than it fits to the pope it is supposedly predicting. Sometimes this is not difficult. Other times, it is harder. For example, take John Paul II’s motto: de labore solis (“from the sun’s labor”). This motto hits in three of Hogue’s categories, primarily because in medieval Latin poetry, a “laboring sun” was one darkened by an eclipse and John Paul II was born during a total solar eclipse. Some others suggest that it may be a reference to the fact that this pope travelled far more than any other pope in history, often to tropical countries. Maybe its a reference John Paul II’s link to Poland’s Solidarity labor movement. I dunno. Does it fit you better?

The other thing about this prophesy that fascinates me is that it is almost over. There are only two more mottos on the list. The next pope is de gloria olivæ (“from the glory of the olive”). You can view the odds on who this might be. Symbolically, the olive could be a reference to any (or none) of the following:

  • the Jewish race (for which the olive branch is an ancient symbol)
  • Jesus’ prophecy on the Mount of Olives
  • Peace-making
  • Dark skin
  • Italy, Greece and/or Spain

My money is on Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, but not because of the prophesy. I think the Vatican will aim for a Hispanic pope, as that’s where Catholic growth is coming from at the moment. It will be interesting to see, whoever is chosen, if this prophesy makes headlines. I often wonder about how knowing a prophesy affects its fulfillment.

The last motto, by the way, is Petrus Romanus (Peter of Rome), and it is followed by an inscription:

In persecutione extrema Sacræ Romanæ Ecclesiæ sedebit Petrus Romanus qui pascet oves in multis tribultionibus; quibus transactis, civitas septicollis dirvetur; et Judex tremendus judicabit populum.

Which means:

During the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there shall sit Peter of Rome, who shall feed the sheep amidst many tribulations, and when these have passed, the City of the Seven Hills shall be utterly destroyed, and the awful Judge will judge the people.

There are hordes of people who will happily inform you that this means the end of the world, and that they can’t wait. What it means to me is that people my age will likely be able to see yet another doomsday prediction fail to come true. We just have to outlive two more popes.

Drool worthy

I’ve been waiting for a machine like the Mac Mini for quite a while. Not because of the cost, but because of the size. Apple has not come out and said it, but it’s pretty clear to me that the primary intent of this machine is to be hooked to your high definition television, which is exactly why I want it. It would not surprise me at all to see Apple release some kind of PVR software built with the Mac Mini in mind sometime this year. While recording standard TV on your Mac is fairly easy and recording HDTV is possible, it can be pretty painful and not as full-featured as you might like. In the meantime, these guys are trying to fill in the gap.

That said, I’m not buying a Mini just yet. By summer, Apple will have released Tiger. I would pay the requested $129 for it. It has also released iLife ’05, for which I also would pay ($99). When Tiger comes out, however, it is likely the Mini will ship with both of these titles included. This would, at least, pay for the bluetooth trackball keyboard I would need for it. Plus the hardware by then will have had the kinks worked out of it. And, perhaps, Apple will have provided a real PVR solution by then as well.

Another Empire

America’s detractors have called it “imperialist” for some time. Recently, the American government has embraced this label, invading several countries. While it is doubtful America is really trying to build a classical empire, I think it could actually do so in a way that would avoid some of the problems usually experienced in empire building and actually help the people of the world a little in the process.

Imperial US

America should announce that any government that actively pursues or obviously condones genocide has forfeit its right to rule and will be eliminated, with the nation it presently governs invaded and made part of the American Empire.

Since it appears that defeating foreign armies (particularly from the types of countries likely to practice genocide) is significantly less of a challenge for America compared to “winning the peace”, this strategy should provide a fairly large group of natives (though certainly a minority) who would back their new American overlords, namely the people previously being slaughtered by their own government.

After taking over a few of these countries, the likely furor of neighboring countries make it almost certain that Imperial America would be faced with the necessity of (or at least the pretext for) conquering Lybia. I figure that about half of Africa would be part of the Empire by the end of the decade. And not just the crummy bits either, but some serious mineral wealth. You might think ruling such a place would be a disaster waiting to happen. Of course it would be, but America couldn’t do much worse ruling this part of the world than its done for itself. At the very least, a lot fewer women would be raped and people getting their hands cut off would be the occasional accident instead of an hourly event.

It would also supply America with what it appears to need most: a labor pool that doesn’t mind being paid very little to make Nikes. For many in Africa, making pennies a day beats lining up to get your limbs severed, hands down (as it were).

Another thing going for this policy is that it embodies America’s second founding principle: hypocrisy (freedom being the first founding principle), given that the “let’s get our citizens to destroy their food supply” strategy employed against Native Americans would fit the “obviously condones genocide” requirement.

Lesson of Christmas

When Robert L. May wrote the verse “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1939 for a Montgomery Ward promotional children’s book, he created something of a phenomenon, particularly when his brother-in-law Johnny Marks turned it into a song in 1949, recorded by Gene Autry. Since then, Rudolph, has become one of the many plagues of Christmas, spawning everything from toys to TV specials to inane debates.

Many say that the point of the Rudolph story is that flaws can be turned into assets; however, in one of many holiday shopping moments spent being brutalized by musical Christmas glee, the following lyrics struck me:

Then one foggy Christmas Eve,
Santa came to say,
“Rudolph with your nose so bright,
Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”
Then how the reindeer loved him

The point of the song, therefore, seems to be “people who are different will be ridiculed until someone popular says they’re OK.” Or, perhaps, “you are nothing until you prove useful to the elite.”

Merry Christmas.