From Hot Air to Second Wind (Part 1)

I hear it all the time: “How did you get into writing these crazy columns, anyway?”

Truth be told, I used to hear it only once in a great while when I started my own weekly commentaries in 1998, emailed essays that through creative accretion morphed into my webzine, What Next?, cyberheir to my 1987-1990 print magazine, Pedantic Monthly: The Journal of Contentious Persiflage. Let’s just leave that all aside for a moment, shall we?

writers write

Writers write, right?

Okay, then, so I started hearing it a bit more when a few of the larger, louder web journals began carrying some of my flammable and inflammatory musings to a larger, louder audience; and then, having reached a crescendo with a regular “Culture Shock” feature at a big-time slam-bang web event known as The American Partisan, I heard it all the time. “Where do you get this stuff? How did your brain come to work like this?” And they still weren’t called blogs.

Like most writers, I’ve been writing since, well, since I could write. And I was raised in let’s-call-it a patriotic household, where Flag Day meant something (or other) and July 4th really meant something or other. So, from an early age, I was both writing and thinking right in lockstep. Something turned me from that conformist path, back to my (everyone’s) exclusive and eclectic one, took me out of the Silicon Valley biz world right when everything was turning to gold, and set me back on my proper journey—artist, not merchant. And I’m good with that.

Okay, then. Take a deep breath. (Not you. The guy in Schenectady.)

By the early 1980s, after thrashing about in a few different careers—insurance agent, financial planner, struggling musician, permanent student, part-time deadbeat—I found myself working for a Silicon Valley computer supplies distributor while recording original jazz in my basement on the “latest” four-track cassette multitrack recorders. On the Day Job, the company branch I worked at was supposedly the flagship of a $100 million fleet, which led me to conclude that the other tubs were probably not even seaworthy.

The general manager was a balding yuppie adulterer with the absolute worst taste in co-defendants, who never convinced anyone to respect him, though he tried long and hard. He was a shallow snot-nose punk kid pushing 40 begging for a fat lip. I figured he’d read a Tom Peters book or some other in-search-of-superlatives management manifesto that succeeded only in making him even more insufferable than he was born.

Bill was my first management role model.

During one holiday stretch, I became a “team captain” charged with exhorting my cross-departmental squad to more phone orders, cash collections, same-day shipping, etc. I tried to get into the spirit of the event. I followed my starchy boss’s directives, and played it fairly straight the first few weeks, until I realized that the contest itself was insignificant compared to what I was discovering about myself and my relations with others.

What I was learning about human beings I had either missed or ignored before. I discovered that exhortation was not motivation; that pride and enthusiasm are instilled, not inserted, into people; that all the one-minute maxims in the world don’t make a manager, mentor, or leader; and that the stress of competition must be relieved by a little fun.

People are bundles of balancing acts, emotional and rational, ephemeral and material. I learned this, as I learned all my lessons about how to lead and motivate, the way any effective learning is done: by making mistakes. My initial mistake was following someone who didn’t know where he was going; in doing so, I committed a second grievous error, which was taking on someone else’s demeanor. I had removed from my team captain persona the gregariousness and joy that make me who I am, as if those traits were inappropriate in leadership.

I was becoming one guy on the job, another guy everywhere else. After about a month of looking at meeting rooms full of unhappy harried faces, I stumbled upon a realization that would make me a congruent person for the home stretch of the contest: I recognized that I had better relationships off the job, when I was uniquely, solely “me,” than on the job, when I was a group member, one of “us.” I seized on this revelation like a stick shift and slammed it into overdrive.

Come back soon for Part 2 of ‘From Hot Air to Second Wind.’

Porn Drove Tech Boom, Part 3 of 3

Here is Part 1, and Part 2, and Part 3 is down there.

“The means of distribution are transforming,” Graham Travis of Elegant Angel said presciently in 2010, “and potential customers are less and less likely to part with their hard-earned money due to the sheer extent of free porn online.” This meant, clearly, that successful porn companies had to push the envelope again, and harder, to develop products and services that answer the age-old query, “How do we compete with ‘free’?”

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The 21st Century: Brought to you by people like Larry Flynt, John Holmes, and, you know, all those Kardashian people. Same difference! Like, whoa!

IPTV is growing quickly, offering a multitude of alternatives. “Freely surfing the Internet through [any] TV set is just a matter of time,” Travis predicted then. Of course, visionary porn firms did not wait to get started with content, which they began to make download-ready for everything with a screen. Joshua, CEO and director at skinworXXX, was also certain early on (2009) that “digital downloads will become more and more prevalent for movies, and products such as Apple TV will become more and more prevalent” in the future.

“iPorn” sounded about right

Joshua began preparing for the future years ago. “We have already prepared HD digital downloads of [our movies] and will do so,” he announced in late 2009, “with each and every movie we shoot [starting in 2010].” Among the largest growth areas anticipated was the mobile market for—well, everything.

With iPhones, WiFi iPods, Chromebooks and netbooks, Android phones, and tablet PCs, people began taking their adult entertainment on the road as well as downloading it during the journey. The high-tech umbilical cord had arrived, in all its invisible wireless and broadband glory, and one of the best, fastest growing entertainment providers on the web at the dawn of this enlightened era was… the Apple App Store.

It can be costly to make (softcore) iPhone apps for every porn performer in a company’s filmography. Adam & Eve took a thoughtful, measured approach to this particular technology. “We reserve the iPhone apps for our contract stars,” says Katy Zvolerin. Apps named “Adam & Eve’s Bree Olson” and “Adam & Eve’s Kayden Kross” were the debut titles in late 2009, and scores of other “starlet apps” represent both classic and current Adam & Eve starlets.

“The apps include some great images, of course, along with bios and news” about the stars, Zvolerin adds. Users, who pay less than two dollars for an app, can use the images as wallpaper, create custom slideshows, and email favorite pics to friends. The trend toward social networking goes hand-in-hand with the use of apps facilitating “sharable content,” which dovetails nicely into porn companies’ viral, social, and experiential marketing plans, too.

And what about Blu-ray?

Zvolerin had decided by 2010 that Adam & Eve would limit its Blu-ray releases to “top productions and stars,” another smart move given the cost. Joshua from skinworXXX agreed even then, opining that “Blu-ray, as great as it is, is cost-prohibitive for both adult and mainstream,” and did not see it as a big growth area, much less a money-maker. On the other hand, as many salespeople will tell you, there are still plenty of consumers who want to hold a physical product in their hands, and Blu-ray gives them the best viewing experience, bar none (so far).

Andrew Blake, who should need no introduction to film critics or fans, told this writer several years ago that he likes “the physical object as part of my appreciation, whatever the art form. I like to sit down with a physical object, sit comfortably to read a book, watch a movie.” He speaks for many porn consumers, too, when he reiterates his belief “in the physical object, not the virtual one. I want to get my hands on it as well as put my head into it.”

Elegant Angel’s Travis played it smart, realizing that there would always be “a significant market for hard products,” and his firm has maintained a strong, focused presence on the BR-DVD lists. Blu-ray players (not recorders) have dropped to less than $50, and when they hit the commodity-price level of $29 sometime this coming year, tech and porn observers may need to revisit the topic. Perhaps BR will catch on, and maybe it won’t. In Joshua’s original estimation, still as accurate three years on, it “just doesn’t have a strong enough foothold in the business to last.”

Bottom lines

Today’s porn business reflects a very consolidated marketplace with far fewer production studios than just three years ago, and is in the midst of all manner of realignments, including a geographical one. Porn is being made in the Sunbelt, the South, and particularly Florida, now that California has become downright inhospitable to business and L.A. now has sicced the condom cops on the porn studios.

It was the desire for titillation and sex play that drove the development and proliferation of digital video and other technologies, and as the economy recovers, so will the creative energies of inventors and innovators. They know there is a constant demand for quality fare. When skinworXXX’s Joshua talks about making high-quality films, he means to push the envelope of technology “and sex, as well.” This is the attitude that made porn the world-changer that it can still be.

Advocates of “slowed-down science”—more accurately, a moratorium on scientific progress, famously (or notoriously, depending on your perspective) promoted by Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy—may wish to reflect that the true price of their proposal is a joyless, dour, pornless, parochial, paranoid police state. Halting progress to clean up the Internet and “stop war” is a much faster and more dependable way to bring about The End Of Life As We Know It than any possible Frankenfood, irradiated children, or computer war games gone bad.

Porn Drove Tech Boom, Part 2 of 3

If you missed Part 1, read it first, because that’s why I made it the first part.

The first haptics-based sex simulator with a 21st-century pedigree, Real Touch, was a product of Internet video technology leader AEBN, one of the pioneers of Video on Demand (VoD). The device itself is a cross between a football and a rocket model, somehow appropriate as it was developed and tested by a former NASA scientist. Its array of heating elements, moving parts, belts, and assorted gadgets work together to mimic authentic sexual acts—fellatio, vaginal and anal intercourse, manual stimulation, and more.

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The device can be used as a standalone sex toy, albeit a costly one at $199 retail. Its signature purpose, however, is to synchronize over a USB cable with online, streaming media that is available exclusively at a Real Touch web page. As users watch the screen, signals are sent from the site to the Real Touch unit, putting the viewer literally in the middle (or top or bottom) of the action.

Just in time for “twerking”

At 2008’s 30th Exotic Erotic Ball in San Francisco, ScottCoffman, CEO of AEBN, was already lamenting that “people could only experience movies through two senses, sight and sound.”Coffman’s answer was to have his firm “bring the sense of touch, arguably the most important element to human intimacy, into the equation.” Within two years it was on the market.

Studios and independent content producers continue to work with Real Touch to expand the list of available titles, both “retrofitting” existing titles and encoding new productions for the device. It is still not a Vulcan mind-meld, or “holographic” virtual sex, but it is another step closer. Holographic images, of course, may get a real tryout within a few years—beyond the resurrection of dead rappers on stage—but the first such monitors will be very expensive.

Bring it on home

The proliferation of streaming media to the full range of consumer devices (phone, computer, TV), and the continuing convergence of the television with the PC (PCTV? IPTV? TVIPPC?), will make for a very interesting near future. “This is a transitional period for porn,” Graham Travis of Elegant Angel said when haptics first hit the headlines, “and I don’t think it’s possible to know exactly where we’re heading.” Echoing the view of several other industry veterans, Travis believes that a return to “quality adult brands” and an emphasis on excellence are required no matter where the technology leads.

At the same time, of course, there are real business challenges to confront. Travis thinks there are a few Internet maneuvers that can make the next few years ones of “opportunity”for the industry. From online media that is “free at the point of use” but incorporates in-player advertising, to “live adult chat”and other interactive technologies, he sees nothing but ongoing change—some proactive, some reactive.

Watch for Part 3, the conclusion of this magical mystery tour through puritanical culture!

Porn Drove Tech Boom, Part 1 of 3

According to a New York Times article in October 2000, still in the World Wide Web’s first decade, some 20 percent of AT&T broadband customers were paying considerable amounts of money to watch real, live, red-blooded, all-American sex online. With speeds now considered glacially slow, cable and DSL service cost upwards of $60, and viewing a short video clip could set you back $10.

By 2003, a study by Nielsen/NetRatings was reporting that pornography and music/film piracy were the most influential factors driving broadband penetration. In other words, what everyone in the porn business knew intuitively, and could discuss anecdotally, finally got its scientific imprimatur. By 2010, another decade in the Web’s adolescence, this was all common knowledge, though it was quite distasteful for some of the Religious Right to admit.

Necessity, the mother of invention

Because of a huge audience willing to spend hard-earned cash on personal, media-centric sexual entertainment, innovators and entrepreneurs coalesced to create the content and the tools that consumers needed. Porn-driven advances include modern means of credit card clearing; methodologies for discovering and plugging browser security holes; as well as traffic optimization, mobile services, promotion of the open source movement, and encryption technologies.

Today, one of the biggest areas of development in the porn industry is adding the sense of touch to technology, called haptics. Even with the advent of live chat, the porn experience was insensate and two-dimensional, at best. Certainly, porn consumers wanted to be on the receiving end, but the first use of haptics headed the other direction.

Shrinking Violet? No way

“Teledildonics” is the term author and sex educator Violet Blue, proprietress of the NSFW (Not Safe For Work) site Tiny Nibbles, gave to the first generation of tech-enabled peer-to-peer sex work. Adding a remote-controlled sex toy to a live webcam session was a natural progression, with Blue telling PC World magazine that it may herald “the death of the pimp.”

Although that hasn’t happened, Blue assures interested parties that “it remains in lucrative commercial use.” In coming years, though, you can expect a two-lane highway, thanks to another frontier in haptics.

Next time in Part 2: Interactivity, innovation, introspection…

Cogitation 101: Science and Technology

You don’t have to go “full tilt Foucault” to believe that words have great power, and when wrought and wielded in certain ways can utterly fail in their assigned tasks to explain and enlighten. We face that situation today with the words “science” and “technology”—two words often used quite interchangeably, even in places where people should take some care (colleges, laboratories, the media).

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So what is the difference? Is Apple’s MacBook Pro a scientific breakthrough or a technological construction? Both? Neither? Something else entirely? Since it actually does matter, and will provide a foundation for further (real) understanding, let’s take about 500 words and a few minutes to go over some things.

Basic definitions = clear distinctions

Science is a systematized, evolving body (or “base”) of knowledge. Within a particular field, one can trust that following a series of steps will result in the outcome predicted. As evidence accumulates, an initial “hypothesis” or testable proposition becomes a “theory” of explanatory and predictive power.

The various pursuits of knowledge employing this methodology are what we know as “the sciences”—physics, biology, geography, chemistry, physics, and so on. Some 44 years’ worth of advances in computer science, for example, are represented by today’s basic, entry-level computer that’s incalculably more powerful than the primitive contraption that took Americans to the moon in 1969.

Technology is another thing altogether, the application of knowledge (or science) to problem-solving and service provision, primarily via manmade tools and devices. If we allow that science is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, for the evolving knowledge base, then technology is the practical application of that knowledge to meet people’s needs and solve their problems. Advancing solar energy science would lead to such technologies as more-efficient solar panels, for instance.

Science explains, technology performs

Science has analysis in mind, following which come generalizations, then the crafting of theories. Experiments are a way of controlling and defining discoveries, so excellence in science requires creativity, logical thinking, and the usual “x factor” that eludes definition, like Steve Jobs’ star quality and that of his game-changing iMac that revolutionized (modern) computing.

And technology? It brings design to the mix, as well as invention, production, process, construction, testing and measurement, quality control, and synthesis—thus possibly beginning the cycle again with new ideas, even new science, leading to ever-newer technology, and on and on.

To summarize:

Science studies specific subjects, technology applies what is learned.

Science analyzes the data, technology synthesizes a design.

Science is theory, technology is process.

It’s really quite practical and sensible, this “science and technology” lesson, as they both conspire to do us good at every turn even when we misuse them for ill. When the human imagination conjures up positive new ideas to replace the old, great things happen in science. When allowed to fly, creativity always takes wing.

That creative energy is amplified many times over as motivated parties all over the world turn sterile science into useful, productive, empowering, and, yes, fun technology. There’s the occasional nuclear bomb, sure, but it’s only slightly more dangerous than the testosterone that fueled the Manhattan Project, truth be told. Keep the latter in check, and we’ll likely have fewer of the former.

That Was Then, This Is Now

With all the talk about how prices on this, that, and the other thing are always going up, let’s stop a moment and bow, or at least give a polite nod, toward Silicon Valley, Poughkeepsie, and Boston’s Route 128. A rather more reverent appreciation is due entrepreneurialism, capitalism, and the pursuit of happiness. Over the past 40 years, the tech titans of the FPCE (Founding PC Era) have given us the greatest ongoing upgrade at the biggest continuing discount ever. The saga of the personal computer is as fantastic a tale as any sci-fi story ever.

Progress through self-seeking

In fact, truth isn’t just stranger than fiction—it’s often got more magic and miracles in it, too. And, I hasten to add, the progress whose techie little handiwork you enjoy daily is brought to you by a whole parade of people, groups, companies, and cabals all pursuing their own ends, competing more often than cooperating, looking to make a buck, and generally proving Adam Smith right.

PC - Going Back in Time

The longer you’ve been using computers—and some of us had the original Apple, Tandy (Radio Shack), and Timex Sinclair models in the 1970s—the more you can appreciate the astonishing speed of progress. This is a tale that everyone working with computers really should know, and uses terms that everyone really should understand. If you don’t understand a kilo-this from a mega-that, you will never get the full impact of this amazing tale. So read on—you’ll be glad you did.

You can visit PC.net or one of the other great online tech glossaries when you see a new term, but I’ve written such a way that you should understand much of it in context. Some of you, of course, are true experts, so if I’ve erred in any way, by commission or omission, let me know. I’m going to demonstrate just how much technological progress has been made in “personal computing.” It really is an awe-inspiring tale.

Basic computers in 1981

IBM introduced its first consumer-level personal computer in August of 1981, running on an Intel 8088 CPU with a clock speed of 4.77MHz, or 4.77 million cycles per second. It came with either 16 or 64kB of RAM, expandable to a whopping 256kB. It connected to a TV or a monitor, and gave you storage options that included one or two 5¼-inch floppy drives, an optional 10MB external hard drive, or your own cassette recorder. The software bundle? It came with an operating system. Nothing else.

With a monitor and a single floppy drive (giving you 180kB storage per single sided disk) it cost $3005 in 1981 dollars. Depending on how you figure it—Consumer Price Index (CPI) is one common method—today it would take about $2.57 to buy what a dollar bought in 1981. Translation: That IBM-PC computer would cost $7,722.85 (in today’s dollars). Now let’s see what type of desktop computer you can get today.

High-end computers of today

Entry-level computers today are thousands of times faster and more productive than the IBM-PC. The H-P xw8400 was a high-end model in 2006, but it’s still a decent workhorse today and, arguably, is better than many newer models as an entry-level workstation. It features dual 2.66GHz quad-core Xeon processors, meaning eight separate CPUs. A single one runs almost 600 times faster than the IBM CPU, so we’re talking almost 5,000 times as fast with a rough clock speed comparison.

The xw8400’s 160GB hard drive, one-sixth the size of most desktop internal drives these days, holds close to million (932,000) times as much data as that single floppy. There are now hard drives 2TB in size selling for $80—that’s 250MB for a penny, versus the floppy’s 250MB for $7,500 ($30 per MB). That’s 750,000 times less expensive.

For the monitor, the comparison is between today’s 16 million crisp clear colors, precisely displayed by about 2.3 million pixels, with about 9,700 pixels per square inch—and a black-and-white TV with 480 wiggly lines for the entire screen. Today a 20-to-24-inch flat-panel display, bargain basement variety (which are darn good), would set you back as little as $100.

In 1985, when you could get a color MacII for $3,898 without a hard drive, or $5,498 with an internal 40 MB hard drive, you still had to buy a video card and a monitor. That would come to an additional five grand or so. Color system with 40MB hard drive: Over $10,000. Today?

How about we just say, “Infinitely more for infinitely less” and leave it at that?

Bottom line

Today, you can store a million times as much, crunch numbers thousands of times faster, and watch videos in beautiful, high-definition color. For a few hundred bucks you can buy a pocket-sized tablet incalculably more powerful than the room-sized, air-conditioned behemoth that helped send Apollo 11 to the moon—and you don’t have to be a programmer to use it, either.

Out Porn’s Revolving Door

For the performers, the adult entertainment industry has – is? – a huge revolving door. Thousands of people enter every month, most for a few low-rent photo or video shoots, a few for some kind of career.

They leave in similar numbers. A few might hit the mass culture radar and show up on VH-1’s Where Are They Now? but the question remains: Where, exactly, do all these folks go?

They aren’t aliens, so they go where other humans go: back to school; to Indiana; to Hollywood for a shot at “regular” acting gigs.

And they start health clinics for their former colleagues.

Former starlet Sharon Mitchell, according to a Washington Post story in 2004, “was so alarmed by HIV rates” in adult entertainment that she lobbied for a California law to require monthly testing. She ran the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation and, according to its website at the time, went by “Dr. Sharon Mitchell, PhD in Human Sexuality.” Mitchell didn’t merely make a career change; she went from passion to compassion to crusader.

Others leave the whole thing behind.

Trinity James made over 200 adult films, and claimed to have worked in a Las Vegas brothel. In 2006 she decided to go to cosmetology school in Indiana. James, 24, decided to quit porn after meeting Craig Gross, co-founder of Los Angeles-based XXXchurch, a ministry that “targets those in the pornography trade” and helps them “get out of the industry,” according to the December 2005 Christian Examiner. Gross started the Trinity Project, whose first fundraising goal was $14,000 to send James and her 5-year-old son to the new life she had decided to start in the Midwest.

A very few adult performers have parlayed adult film stardom into any kind of mainstream success. Besides Ron Jeremy in a few indie roles, it’s mostly the ladies who get a shot.

Traci Lords turned infamy into a brief acting career (Married … with Children, Serial Mom), and Ashyln Gere, according to urban legends website Tafkac.org, proved in some X-Files to be “one of the few porn stars who can actually act.” Ginger Lynn, Charlie Sheen’s “girlfriend” when the Heidi Fleiss scandal broke, made the movie Whore and some episodes of NYPD Blue.

After a porn career, these people go back to doing what everyone else does. They go back to school. They go to Iraq. They go to work every day.

Just like everybody else.

And, just like everybody else, they die: Linda Lovelace in an accident, director Alex deRenzy by stroke, John Holmes of AIDS. For a sobering reminder of the all-too-human nature of “porn stars,” visit the “Dead Porn Star” page. Scrolling through the long list of deaths by accident, murder, overdose and AIDS is a humbling exercise, stark testimony to the frail human condition.

Anyone who wants to leave this business can; anyone who wants to enter can do that, too. They all deserve our compassion and respect as fellow humans, doing their best to get along in a sometimes joyful, often tragic, world.