When non-technologists write about technology

They’re so CUTE!

The Economist puts random words in random order:

Technology in 2008… Three fearless predictions…

1. Surfing will slow

Peering into [our] crystal ball, the one thing we can predict with at least some certainty is that 2008 will be the year we stop taking access to the internet for granted. The internet is not about to grind to a halt, but as more and more users clamber aboard to download music, video clips and games while communicating incessantly by e-mail, chat and instant messaging, the information superhighway sometimes crawls with bumper-to-bumper traffic.

First, 1994 is calling and wants its metaphors back.

Second, got any data to support that?

The biggest road-hog remains spam (unsolicited e-mail), which accounts for 90% of traffic on the internet.

OK, that’s simply not true.

For a start, millions of gadgets are joining the human hordes. Any gizmo worth its silicon these days has its own internet connection—so it can update itself automatically, communicate autonomously with other digital species, and anticipate its user’s every whim.

Soon, portable media-players, personal navigators, digital cameras, DVD players, flat-panel TV sets, and even mobile phones won’t be able to function properly without access to the internet. Expect even digital picture frames to have a WiFi connection so they can grab the latest photos from Flickr.

And you expect this activity, in 2008, to add how much incremental traffic to the Internet?

Oh, you have no data?

[Blather about user-generated content and peer-to-peer removed.]

The result is a gridlock. That the telephone companies are running out of bandwidth can be seen from their equipment orders.

Oh, sounds like you have some data!

Cisco, the leading supplier of core routers used to direct traffic over the internet’s backbone, has just had another bumper quarter, with net income up 37% over the same period a year ago. Juniper Networks, another information-technology firm, did even better. Both companies credit the proliferation of social networks, the craze for internet searching, multimedia downloading, and the widespread adoption of P2P sharing for the surge in new business.

Interesting! The only (correct) data you have is that carriers are rapidly upgrading their backbones. Isn’t that an indicator that they’re expanding the amount of available bandwidth to prevent your scenario from happening?

While major internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast all plan to upgrade their backbones, it will be a year or two before improvements begin to show. By then, internet television will be in full bloom, spammers will have multiplied ten-fold, WiFi will be embedded in every moving object, and users will be screaming for yet more capacity.

In the meantime, accept that surfing the web is going to be more like travelling the highways at holiday time. You’ll get there, eventually, but the going won’t be great.

We’ll check back in with the Economist in 365 days and see how that prediction turns out.

On to prediction #2, which is much easier to analyze:

2. Surfing will detach

Earlier this month, Google bid for the most desirable chunk (known as C-block) of the 700-megahertz wireless spectrum being auctioned off by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in late January 2008.

OK, first, that’s not true. Google hasn’t bid yet — they have just applied to bid. We don’t yet know whether or not they’ll bid.

Having established their credibility on the topic in the first sentence, the Economist continues:

The 700-megahertz frequencies used by channels 52 to 69 of analog television are being freed up by the switch to all-digital broadcasting in February 2009.

The frequencies concerned are among the world’s most valuable. They were used for broadcasting UHF television because they suffered little atmospheric absorption, could be beamed for miles, and could then penetrate all the nooks and crannies in buildings. Their relatively short wavelength makes the transmission equipment compact and the antennas small.

Mobile phone companies lust after the 700 megahertz frequencies because of their long range and broadband capabilities. They see lots of lucrative things like mobile television and other broadband services to offer customers…

[Android, iPhone, Open Handset Alliance, mobile searches, blah blah blah.]

The winner of the C-block of frequencies, whoever that may be (and Verizon is the odds-on favourite), will have to open the network to any device that meets the basic specification. And the devices themselves will have to be open to other suppliers’ software and services…

OK. There is no way that the winner of the upcoming 700-megahertz auction — Google or anyone else — will be able to have the network itself up and operational in 2008. So this prediction can have no relevance for 2008.

Actually, taking them at their word, it appears that the Economist really believes that you can bring up a new nationwide high-speed wireless network from scratch a lot faster than you can upgrade a switch in an existing carrier network… hm.

I have a prediction for 2008, but I don’t think the Economist will want to hear it…

Why did Albert Einstein hate freedom?

I had somehow missed this until it just popped up on Reddit

From BBC News in 2002:

A new book reveals the 22-year effort by FBI director J Edgar Hoover to get Albert Einstein arrested as a political subversive or even a Soviet spy.

Uncovered FBI files are revealed in a book by Fred Jerome who says it was a clash of cultures – Einstein’s challenge and change with Hoover’s order and obedience.

From the time Einstein arrived in the US in 1933 to the time of his death, in 1955, the FBI files reveal that his phone was tapped, his mail was opened and even his trash searched.

Einstein became world famous in 1906 for his Special Theory of Relativity that deals with light.

His General Theory of Relativity, published in 1919, deals with gravity and has been called mankind’s greatest intellectual accomplishment.

The Einstein File begins with a request by J Edgar Hoover in 1950: “Please furnish a report as to the nature of any derogatory information contained in any file your bureau may have on the following person.”

That person was Albert Einstein, and the request intensified a secret campaign to discredit him.

Hoover was worried about Einstein’s liberal intellectualism and his dabbling in politics, something that has been forgotten today. It has been overtaken by Einstein’s absent-minded professor image.

But Einstein was outspoken against social injustice and violations of civil rights.

The fledgling state of Israel once offered Einstein its presidency. Einstein declined.

The broad outline of this story has been known since 1983, when Richard Alan Schwartz, a professor of English at Florida International University in Miami, obtained a censored version of Einstein’s 1,427-page FBI file.

But Jerome uncovers new material.

He sued the US Government with the help of the Public Citizen Litigation Group to obtain all the documents in the Einstein file.

The new material shows how the bureau spied on Einstein.

“It is like the agents got up in the morning, brushed their teeth, opened other people’s mail and tapped some phones,” he told the BBC.

After he left Germany, appalled by the barbarism of the Nazis, Einstein lent his name to a variety of organisations dedicated to peace and disarmament.

Because of this, the Woman Patriot Corp wrote a 16-page letter to the State Department, the first item in Einstein’s file, in 1932, arguing that Einstein should not be allowed into the United States.

“Not even Stalin himself” was affiliated with so many anarchic-communist groups, the letter said.

Fred Jerome reveals that the 1,800-page document prepared about Einstein by the FBI shows that the agency even bugged his secretary’s nephew’s house.

The files reveal that for five years J Edgar Hoover tried, and failed, to link Einstein to a Soviet espionage ring.

Good news, bad news

Via the New York Times, a newly declassified 1950 proposal — 12 days after the start of the Korean War — from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to Sidney Souers, then special national security assistant to President Truman:

For some months representatives of the FBI and of the Department of Justice have been formulating a plan of action for an emergency situation wherein it would be necessary to apprehend and detain persons who are potentially dangerous to the internal security of the country…

[I]n order to immediately protect the country against treason, espionage and sabotage the Attorney General [would be] instructed to apprehend all individuals potentially dangerous to the internal security…

[We would suspend] the Writ of Habeas Corpus [the right of US citizens to seek judicial relief for illegal detention, a cornerstone of the US Constitution and Western law for seven centuries] for apprehensions made pursuant to it…

[A] list of names of individuals which names have previously been furnished from time to time to the Attorney General by the FBI as being individuals who are potentially dangerous to the internal security…

It should be pointed out that the plan does not distinguish between aliens and citizens and both are included in its purview…

For a long period of time the FBI has been accumulating the names, identities and activities of individuals found to be potentially dangerous to the internal security through investigation. These names have been compiled in an index which index has been kept up to date. The names in this index are the ones that have been furnished to the Department of Justice and will be attached to the master warrant referred to above. This master warrant will, therefore, serve as legal authority for the FBI to cause the apprehension and detention of the individuals maintained in this index.

The index now contains approximately 12,000 [!!!] individuals, of which approximately ninety-seven per cent are citizens of the United States [!!!]…

The permanent [!!!] detention of these individuals will take place in regularly established Federal detention facilities… [and] military facilities…

The plan calls for a statement of charges to be served on each detainee and a hearing be afforded the individual within a specified period. The Hearing Board will consist of three members to be appointed by the Attorney General composed of one Judge of the United States or State Court and two citizens. The hearing procedure will give the detainee an opportunity to know why he is being detained and permit him to introduce material in the nature of evidence in his own behalf. The hearing procedure will not [!!!] be bound by the rules of evidence.

The good news: they didn’t do it.

The bad news: Hoover remained Director of the FBI for the next 22 years.

As a side note, next time we discover that one or another military or intelligence or law enforcement agency is accumulating lists of otherwise law-abiding citizens, and talking heads go on TV and say that’s a totally innocuous thing to do, that nothing bad could happen — well, the talking heads will either be stupid or lying.

Look at how far we’ve come!

Journal of Real Estate Portfolio Management, 2000:

Over the past quarter century, banks, borrowers, legislators, researchers and community groups have debated whether bank lending is based solely on economically rational credit considerations, or whether loan decisions are influenced by the race of the loan applicant, Though racial discrimination in bank lending may have existed in the past and may have even been encouraged by governmental underwriting guidelines that reflected the conventional wisdom of the time, several laws have been enacted to eliminate this practice. These include the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA). Despite the legislation, there is a widespread belief that racial discrimination in bank lending decisions persists…

Originally, redlining was not a racial issue. Complaints about redlining surfaced in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly in older, primarily in the white, ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago, Baltimore and other large cities. Community groups charged that lenders were unwilling to make conventional mortgage loans in these neighborhoods which led to a decline in housing values in subject neighborhoods (see Moore, 1987; and Hasbrouck, 1991). Declining prices led, in turn, to lender reluctance, thus precipitating a vicious cycle of community decline.

The allegations led to calls for federal legislation to improve the availability of conventional mortgages. Congress considered this problem for much of the 1970s. However, whether redlining actually existed was not clear. Nor was it clear that redlining, if it existed, was an imprudent policy. After all, the typical conventional mortgage loan was made on a long-term basis on the collateral value of the property. If the value of that property was expected to decline, such a loan involved a risk that might be inappropriate for a bank or thrift institution…

Paul Krugman, 2007:

[T]he explosion of “innovative” home lending that took place in the middle years of this decade was an unmitigated disaster…

[D]uring the bubble years, the mortgage industry lured millions of people into borrowing more than they could afford…

[Former Fed Chairman Greenspan] brushed off warnings about deceptive lending practices, including those of Edward M. Gramlich, a member of the Federal Reserve board. In Mr. Greenspan’s world, predatory lending — like attempts to sell consumers poison toys and tainted seafood — just doesn’t happen…

Given the role of conservative ideology in the mortgage disaster, it’s puzzling that Democrats haven’t been more aggressive about making the disaster an issue for the 2008 election. They should be: It’s hard to imagine a more graphic demonstration of what’s wrong with their opponents’ economic beliefs.

I sure am glad I’m not in the mortgage business. If I don’t lend to lower-income people, I’m redlining; if I do, I’m being predatory…

One scenario for the great Hollywood strike(s) of 2007-2008

Hollywood superlawyer Kevin Morris and Glenn Altschuler of Cornell writing in theLos Angeles Times:

Hollywood guilds [unions] resemble a camel assembled by a committee. They’re heterogeneous, with lots of moving parts. Their members have different interests and agendas. A few members get millions for each gig. Most of the rank and file won’t make a million if they live to be, well, 100.

Insiders have wondered for years when centrifugal force will pull them apart. With the collapse of the talks between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, we can start to see the outlines of the demise of the system.

Here’s how the grim screenplay might read: The WGA and AMPTP break off negotiations on Friday, Dec. 7, 2007, a day that will live in infamy. The AMPTP reaches an agreement with the much less militant Directors Guild of America in January 2008. [In fact, the DGA has already begun negotiations with the AMPTP.]

Responding to the deal with the DGA, the WGA and the equally activist Screen Actors Guild band together and declare all-out war against the studios in February. The two guilds plan a massive unified labor action to bring Hollywood to its knees on June 30, 2008, the day the SAG contract expires.

Pressure mounts on WGA members to abandon their militant leaders. Major agents begin quietly telling their clients that WGA leaders are the problem. Writers, they advise, should go “financial core” so that false prophets don’t squander all hope of future profits. Financial core means you remain in the union but go back to work, forsaking your right to vote on, or participate in, union leadership, but still paying dues for nonpolitical activities and still receiving the benefits of your guild’s collective bargaining agreement. (Some soap opera writers have reportedly begun to make this move already.)

Defections occur among screenwriters, who support the strike less fervently than television writers, and among television show-runners, whose decisions to go financial core are said to have ended the last strike in 1988.

Meanwhile, the joint strike of the WGA and SAG commences on July 1, 2008. The business, already slowed to a crawl, shuts down completely. Picketing writers get 100,000 reinforcements from SAG. The studios, backstopped by the resources of GE and other conglomerates, are prepared to shrug it off.

After an initial period of “solidarity” with their fellow SAG members, movie stars and other celebrities feel pressure to peel off. They too go financial core. Self-interest trumps affection, affinity and affiliation between individuals from vastly different classes and groups.

By August 2008, the schism within the guilds is complete. The rank and file have gone to the mats in what they believe is a fundamental struggle for justice, equity and their fair share of Internet revenues. The well-known and the well-heeled are back at work, making movies and television shows.

The coalition of stars and artisans — which has been both a tradition and increasingly a myth for decades — evaporates. The vast majority of writers and actors remain locked in a labor movement, while directors, stars, screenwriters and show-runners function as the freelance independent contractors they truly are. The guild system goes the way of the studio system.

Some will say it’s the invisible hand of the market at work, with organizations collapsing and then realigning in more homogeneous groupings — a “creative destruction” that has been a long time coming. Others will cry conspiracy, with the studios dividing and conquering. But after a while, as always happens, everyone will say: Wasn’t it inevitable, and isn’t it rational?

And it can happen here.

The other thing to be aware of is that the studios are already exercising the “force majeure” clauses in many of their contracts. Such clauses are present in many studio contracts and give a studio a free out in the event of an “act of God” — such as a strike. Quite a few people argue that the studios are not sad to see the writer’s strike at all because it’s allowing the studios to cancel contracts that they signed at one point but now would rather be without.


From Paul Zollo’s book Hollywood Remembered, an oral history of the movie industry:

A 2001 interview with A. C. Lyles, a producer at Paramount who was born in 1918 in Jacksonville, Florida and worked at Paramount for over 60 years.

When I was 10 [in 1928] I wanted to make movies…

I had seen a picture called Wings — the first and only silent picture to win the Academy Award — with Clara Bow… and a new fella named Gary Cooper [who subsequently became a huge star]. I went and just fell in love with that picture. It was a Paramount picture playing at the Paramount Theater [at the time, the studios owned the theaters] in Jacksonville. I had seen that it said Adolph Zukor Presents, so I was in awe of Adolph Zukor [the founder and CEO of Paramount]. I spoke to the manager of the theater that day [to see] if he would give me a job. And he gave me a job handing out leaflets…

After four years in the job [he was then 14] I eventually met Adolph Zukor… when he came to Jacksonville. I asked him to let me come to Hollywood to work for him. He said, “Well, you’re just a kid, but you’ve been working for Paramount now for four years at the theater. So you finish high school, keep in touch, and I’ll hire you when you get out of high school.”

Now that was extremely kind of him… when he said to keep in touch and finish high school, my main objective then was to finish high school. But the most important thing was writing him a letter every Sunday. He didn’t tell me to write him every Sunday, he just told me to keep in touch. So I wrote him every Sunday for four years.

He didn’t write back — I didn’t hear from him but it didn’t matter. I never lost confidence or lost courage. I just knew he was looking forward to my letter each week as much as I was looking forward to writing him.

One day Gary Cooper came to my hometown. I was writing movie news for the hometown paper. I saw Mr. Cooper and I told him I would be out here in Hollywood to work at Paramount as soon as I got out of high school. And there again, for some reason, he took a quick liking to me. I told him about my letters to Zukor every Sunday and he asked me what I would be writing about this week, and I said, “Oh, about meeting you, Mr. Cooper.”

So he said, “Give me a piece of paper.” So he… wrote a note to Adolph Zukor saying, “I’m looking forward to seeing this kid on the lot.” So I wrote to Mr. Zukor telling him I had met Gary Cooper and enclosed the note to him.

Then I heard from Mr. Zukor indirectly. A woman named Sidney Brecker, who was his secretary, wrote to me and said, “Mr. Zukor has been receiving your letters. But he feels that you don’t have to write every week. If you wrote once every three or four or five months, that would be enough.”

Well, that didn’t discourage me at all. I continued to write to Mr. Zukor every Sunday. But I also had a new pigeon, Sidney Brecker, his secretary. So I wrote her every Sunday too. My whole main objective all week was what I was going to write to Mr. Zukor. Then I had to write another original letter to Sidney Brecker…

I wrote [Zukor] a letter every Sunday for four years, keeping in touch. The day I got out of high school [in 1936, in the heart of the Great Depression], I was in a day coach headed for Hollywood, where you sit up — probably four days and four nights. I had $48 in cash that I had saved up, and two loaves of bread, and two jars of peanut butter and a sack of apples, and I headed for Hollywood. Got off the train downtown, took the streetcar straight to Paramount, and told them at the gate to tell Mr. Zukor I was here.

And I’ve been here ever since.

From the I Clearly Did Not Have Enough Fun In College Department

Meet the Princeton University Anscombe Society:

The Anscombe Society is a student organization dedicated to affirming the importance of the family, marriage, and a proper understanding for the role of sex and sexuality.

We aim to promote an environment that values the crucial role the intact, stable family plays in sustaining society; the definition of marriage as the exclusive, monogamous union of a man and a woman; its role as an institution which is necessary for the healthy family, and thus for a healthy society; a conception of feminism that encourages motherhood; and a chaste lifestyle which respects and appreciates human sexuality, relationships, and dignity.

Therefore, we celebrate sex as unifying, beautiful, and joyful when shared in its proper context: that of marriage between a man and woman.

In summary: chastity until marriage; marriage only between a man and a woman; the woman to be primarily barefoot and pregnant.

By the way, yes, that means that gay people should never have sex:

We cannot support homosexual relations which fall outside the goals of chastity, nor the proposition for same sex marriage, which challenges the fundamental definition of marriage.

Meet Anscombe Society officer and Princeton junior Francisco Nava:

This week at Princeton’s annual health fair “Cirque de Sante,” students found a colorful bazaar of low-fat foods, posture and dental screenings, Frisbees and lines of nurses administering the year’s coveted flu shot. One undergraduate summed it up simply: “There’s nothing here but good medicine in good supply.”

If only that were true.

Something else was in good supply this week that might not be the best medicine for today’s college students: condoms.

Movie music: duh duh DUM.

Yes, buckets of them. Like candy, placed side-by-side with piles of Hershey’s chocolate, latex condoms were there for the taking.

Movie music, one key lower: duh duh DUM.

The plot thickens:

Four officers of the Anscombe Society and a prominent conservative politics professor [who advises the Anscombe Society] received threatening emails Wednesday evening from off-campus email addresses.

The five individuals received identical messages telling them they would “suffer,” ordering them to “shut the fuck up” and declaring that “you are not welcome here.” “We will destroy you,” the message said.

Though the message did not explicitly mention the Anscombe Society, the four students who received emails were Anscombe vice president Jonathan Hwang, president Kevin Staley-Joyce, former president Sherif Girgis and administrative committee chair Francisco Nava. Politics professor Robert George — who has publicly supported conservative causes, including the Anscombe Society’s goal of promoting chastity — also received the message.

“It would be safe to say that the Anscombe Society is a common factor linking all of us,” Hwang said. “It is the most intense reaction to the Anscombe Society that I’ve ever received.”

Nava said he has received several threats in the last two months, which began soon after he became more active in Anscombe. Two were sent to his Frist Campus Center mailbox, and he found another slipped under the door of his dorm room one day upon returning home from church…

Nava said there was an important difference this time: The sender switched from the singular to the plural, saying “we are watching you.” Nava wondered aloud how many people this was meant to be. “It’s a little more disconcerting,” he said.

“If the email is from off-campus, I feel a little better because it’s some wacko or something, but if it’s on campus then you start to wonder,” he said. “It could be your neighbor, a peer, your professor, someone you brush elbows with in the dining hall.”

And then, the pro-sex forces attack!

Francisco Nava was physically attacked by two men in Princeton Township Friday evening, reportedly sustaining a concussion but no other serious injuries.

The assault comes on the heels of several threatening messages recently sent to Nava, apparently in connection with his involvement with the socially conservative Anscombe Society…

Nava said in an interview Friday evening that he was walking from a borrowed car to the house of a boy he is mentoring when he was stopped by a man dressed in black and wearing a ski cap. According to Nava, the man said that someone was hurt and asked for his help. A second assailant, who was waiting around the corner, grabbed Nava from behind. Together, the two men checked him against a wall and repeatedly hit his head against the bricks.

“Eventually I just blacked out,” Nava said. “I don’t remember what happened; I just saw a bunch of white.” When he came to, he said, the two men were still hitting him.

Nava said the two men told him to “shut the fuck up” as they left him lying on the ground. Though he was carrying a wallet, credit cards and a cell phone, the assailants did not take any of Nava’s belongings…

Nava said he was sure the assailants “at least had something to do with” threats he has been receiving since mid-October. He pointed out that his assailants’ parting words — “shut the fuck up” — concluded the most recent threat letter he received, an email that arrived Wednesday afternoon.

Nava said the first assailant — the one who lured him around the corner — was blue-eyed, athletic and a little over six feet tall. He said he didn’t get a good look at the second one, but that he was also athletic, about four to five inches shorter than the other and wearing Adidas sneakers. Both men were white, and dressed from head to toe in black, he said.

“They were dressed in young people’s clothing,” he said. “I don’t think they were residents of that place.”

Nava said that the attack has left him undeterred. “I’m still committed to having the beliefs that I do, and I hope that Princeton will show these two characters that intimidation doesn’t work,” he said.

Reaction from conservatives was swift and furious:

The rare incidence of violence within the Ivy League prompted an outcry from conservative students and faculty who said they felt singled out by the Princeton administration and the majority of the student body, who remained silent in the face of what looked to many like a politically charged attack…

“There would rightly be outrage had the student been part of some other minority on campus,” said a 2006 Princeton graduate who works at a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., Michael Fragoso. “I have yet to see that right now, and that’s rather disappointing.”…

A senior at Princeton, Stephen Hsia, wrote in a column for the student newspaper that more upsetting than a late reaction from the administration was the lack of student reaction. “The reaction of the student body has been noticeably silent,” Mr. Hsia wrote…

The president of Princeton’s senior class, Thomas Haine, yesterday called the university’s reaction to the initial death threats received by Mr. Nava “unacceptable.”…

“An assault on those who express their opinion hurts all of us who might want to express their views. If you have a problem with what I say, then come and get me,” a sophomore who is a member of the Princeton College Republicans, Wyatt Yankus, wrote…

A conservative professor at Harvard, Harvey Mansfield, said he is outraged. “I hope Princeton comes down on them like a ton of bricks, and by Princeton I mean either the university or the township or both,” Mr. Mansfield said. “It should be easy for liberals to identify a case of intolerance; they’re good at that.”

There’s only one problem: you guessed it…

Francisco Nava has admitted to fabricating an alleged assault on him that he said occurred Friday evening and to sending threatening emails to himself, other members of the Anscombe Society and prominent conservative politics professor Robert George.

He admitted the falsification today while being questioned by Princeton Township Police.

In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Nava expressed remorse for his actions’ effects on the recipients of the threatening emails, other Anscombe members and the general Princeton community. “I accept full responsibility for my actions and agree to face criminal and/or disciplinary proceedings from the University,” Nava said. He declined to answer any other questions, however, including how he managed to inflict the injuries on himself…

Turns out he’s a liar and a wuss:

Detective Sgt. Ernie Silagyi said Township Police became suspicious after “there were some things that didn’t add up” in Nava’s story. “We interviewed him this morning, we confronted him with the inconsistencies, and he admitted to fabricating the assault and the threatening emails,” Silagyi said, adding that Nava told Township Police that his injuries were self-inflicted.

Wondering if there were any warning signs in Nava’s background? Well…

When he was a student at Groton School in Groton, Mass., Nava said, he had fabricated a threat against himself and his roommate, writing “Die Fags!” outside their door and reporting the message to school officials.

Luckily Princeton still has high admissions standards:

[Princeton] University had made [Nava] defer his admission for a year after reading Groton’s report of the incident to “get therapy and counseling” but still allowed him to matriculate at the University.

[Story links courtesy of Talking Points Memo.]


From the Los Angeles Times:

Dozens of striking film and TV writers are negotiating with venture capitalists to set up companies that would bypass the Hollywood studio system and reach consumers with video entertainment on the Web.

At least seven groups, composed of members of the striking Writers Guild of America, are planning to form Internet-based businesses that, if successful, could create an alternative economic model to the one at the heart of the walkout, now in its seventh week.

Three of the groups are working on ventures that would function much like United Artists, the production company created 80 years ago by Charlie Chaplin and other top stars who wanted to break free from the studios…

Silicon Valley investors historically have been averse to backing entertainment start-ups, believing that such efforts were less likely to generate huge paydays than technology companies. But they began considering a broader range of entertainment investments after observing the enormous sums paid for popular Web video companies, including the $1.65 billion that Google Inc. plunked down last year for YouTube, a site where users post their own clips.

They also have been emboldened by major advertisers, which prefer supporting professionally created Web entertainment to backing user-generated content on sites such as MySpace that can be in poor taste.

“I’m 100% confident that you will see some companies get formed,” said Todd Dagres, a Boston-based venture capitalist who has been flying to L.A. and meeting with top writers for weeks. “People have made up their minds.”…

Already this year, a handful of sites have received venture backing, including FunnyorDie.com, co-founded by comedic actor Will Ferrell, and MyDamnChannel.com, launched by former MTV executive Rob Barnett…

Most writers who have been talking with venture capitalists declined to discuss their plans on the record, saying it was too early to provide details. Yet an array of strategies have emerged from interviews with writers, investors and others involved in the process.

The groups modeled after United Artists (which eventually was bought by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. and recently was revived with the help of Tom Cruise) envision creating and distributing programming for the Web and recouping their investments by selling rights to the most successful properties to TV networks or movie companies…

Some high-profile writers and technologists are trying to create a collaborative studio they hope would be officially sanctioned by the Writers Guild. They want to build on the popularity of strike-related videos on the guild-inspired blog UnitedHollywood, YouTube and elsewhere.

“We are uniquely positioned to take our case and new business model directly to consumers,” said a leader of that effort, the primary writer on a TV show that was a blockbuster a decade ago. “This will be the officially sanctioned Hollywood union portal.”

Others seek to create a privately owned studio that would develop episodic series for the Web. The studio could turn a profit even without cutting movie or TV deals if it developed an audience coveted by advertisers…

At least two additional groups plan to create companies that would distribute material on Facebook or other online gathering places where they might quickly become popular.

Facebook director Jim Breyer, a partner at Silicon Valley venture firm Accel Partners, said he was weighing deals that would rely on Facebook’s platform. “It is likely we will make investments in Los Angeles screenwriter/content-oriented companies in 2008,” he said.

Accel and Dagres’ Spark Capital are among four venture firms that have been meeting with writers since the strike began. Hedge funds are also interested in investing, writers who have met with them said…

Some of the writers who are drafting business plans said that if the strike had lasted only a week, they would have just gone back to work. But now they’ve had time to plot strategy — and to realize that a prolonged strike with reruns and reality shows filling the airwaves might allow them to grab a wandering audience.

“The companies are pushing us into the embrace of people that are going to cut them out of the loop,” marveled one show runner who is tracking the start-up trend but not participating.

“We are one Connecticut hedge-fund checkbook, one Silicon Valley server farm and two creators away from having channels on YouTube, where the studios don’t own anything.”