The greatest rejection letter ever

This is possibly the best rejection letter I’ve ever seen (not mine). It’s much better than the two page Stanford undergraduate rejection letter which proclaimed that my rejection had nothing to do with my accomplishments, grades, test scores, athletics, extracurricular activities, econo-social status, or the name I gave my puppy (it must have been the pigeon I kicked by accident in 2nd grade!). I hope every rejection letter writer will learn from this example. The crooked thing even adds character too.



Transfer my files!

While upgrading to a new computer could be exciting (depending on the kind of person you are), there are a lot of annoyances involved in transferring the old files to the new computer. This is no problem for the tech savvy folks, who will most likely set up file sharing over a network or burn DVDs, but it could be a huge impetus for casual home users. Since most US households have computers and the market have saturated, the game (if you are HP or Dell) is now about how you can get people to upgrade their computers more frequently. The file transfer program would be perfect for those hesitant to upgrade because of the uncertainties surrounding moving data.

This would be easy for laptops since it could be sent in or brought to the store easily, but tougher for desktops. For Dell or HP, the best plan probably would be to partner with the Geeksquad (not that I think they are any good) or other home support service that already have the infrastructure to get to customers homes. They could even help set up the computer and collect the old machine for recycling.

I’m not sure if the business model for this service makes sense (might be too expensive), but it is a really attractive feature that could be bundled with new computers. Of course I would never use it, and in an ideal world, everyone would have a friend who could help them instead.

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The New Music Experience. Going beyond the RIAA.

The RIAA sucks, and if you’ve been following the recent lawsuits, political meddling, and fear tactics carried out by the RIAA, you’d agree too. If you’re well informed on the matter, you might want to skip to my idea section, “What can we do?” If not, here is a brief overview:

In a perfect world...

You would be able to purchase music from any of the many online music stores and play it on your computer, mp3 player, car stereo system, etc. You should be able to send that music to your friends so that they can listen to it and enjoy it. If your friends like it, they should buy it, but if they don’t, no problem. If you didn’t send them the songs, they weren’t going to discover the songs and buy them anyway, so it’s no loss to the record labels or the artists. Sounds perfectly reasonable right? This is how people enjoyed music with LPs, 8-tracks, Cassette Tapes, and CDs. Well, thanks to DRM, with more than 90% of the songs sold online, you can’t do this.


Consider yourself lucky if you never had to deal with Digital Right Management. To put simply, DRM is the technology embedded in audio files that prohibit them from being playing on certain devices. If you ever bought a song off iTunes, you know that those songs will only play on your iPod or on computers which you certify as yours. Why are such arbitrary restrictions put on your music that you buy? Because the RIAA is scared of losing their business model and revenue, even if that means more inconveniences for an entire generation of music listeners.

If you want to find out more about DRM, Wikipedia has a relatively unbiased article (but also technical), while Defective By Design is waging a full scale war against DRM.

Note: DRM covers much more than music including DVDs and other forms of media. Also, DRM doesn’t prevent piracy or sharing as every DRM introduced to this date has been cracked and rendered useless for protection purposes. It really just makes media ownership much more difficult for the consumers.


RIAA (Wikipedia) is a trade group that represents the recording industry in the US. In layman’s terms, RIAA is a public relations organization that is funded by the major record labels. Their official goal is to “foster a business and legal climate that supports and promotes our members' creative and financial vitality” which really means they try to sway law makers into passing resolutions that allow them to make more money. The RIAA is composed of many record labels, but mostly controlled by the Big Four, which are EMI, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group. The Big Four accounts for 70% of the music distributed world wide, and 80% of the music distributed in the US

As you may know, record labels sign exclusivity agreements with musicians and produce, promote, manufacture, and distribute their music while receiving a large cut of their sales and recouping some of the production costs, which the labels consider to be “loans.” Record labels are the middlemen between the consumer and the musician, who typically don’t have the resources to distribute their music. In that sense, they have two customers, the audience and the artists, and that is an important point to keep in mind.

So what’s wrong with the RIAA?

It used to be that they were the only way for musicians to distribute their music. If you wanted to become famous, you had to sign with a label so that your music could be distributed in thousands of CDs across the world. However, with the internet, that is not the case anymore. Musicians can record their music at a studio (or their garage) and put them on the internet, selling and/or promoting themselves at the same time. The music labels are losing their business model to the internet. They would rather be selling CDs, which has a much higher profit margin than digital downloads. Instead of embracing this new technology that allows for better distribution of music and new paradigms of sales, they decided to hinder it as much as they can: DRM.

Concurrently with pushing DRM, RIAA started a massive legal push against pirates of music by indiscriminately bringing lawsuits against individuals under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which they lobbied to pass in the first place. While some of the lawsuits were legit, they’ve taken a shot gun approach and managed to sue a paralyzed stroke victim, dead person, twelve year-old girl, computer-less family, and the list just continues. What makes this even more atrocious is that the settlement money never reaches the artists, whose copyright was infringed in the first place. If you’re curious on this matter, there is a great article on how the RIAA goes about suing people (and in extension, why the US legal system is broken).

More recently, they set up an online website where college students can settle their lawsuits with a credit card with the same ease as online shopping. Again, with the same shotgun approach, they’re sending out hundreds of pre-litigation settlement letters, in hopes that some students will confess and pay up.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the RIAA is trying to change the face of the internet by trying to hold Wi-Fi owners responsible for their internet connection. Can you imagine what would happen if this gets written into the law? Every coffee shop that offers free Wi-Fi will have to take them down for the fear that someone might download illegal music on it. No more Wi-Fi at airports. No more municipal Wi-Fi. It’s one thing for the RIAA to dictate how we listen to music; it’s another thing for them to dictate how we use our internet. Do you hate the RIAA now? I hope so.

What can we do?

Gizmodo is running an RIAA Boycott for the month of March and their Manifesto is extremely informative and well thought out. There are other boycotts out there and I respect their intentions, but I wonder how much effect it will have. First and foremost, only the well connected consumers are getting this information, and there are many more people buying music than that. Second, these companies are filthy rich (from their virtual oligopoly status) and a month of active bloggers boycotting might not put a dent in their wallets. I’m not suggesting we don’t boycott; every little bit helps. However, I think we need to look into the other side of the equation.

Earlier on, I mentioned that the record labels have two customers: the consumers and musicians. So far all the anti-RIAA movements I’ve seen have focused on the consumer side, and not the artist side. From what I can tell, the record labels screw over the musicians even more than the consumers. Courtney Love's speech to the Digital Hollywood online entertainment conference in 2000 highlights a great deal of atrocities committed by the RIAA. To mention a few: in 1999, the music companies successfully lobbied to own the copyrights to any of their artists forever (it used to be 35 years). Numerous artists, including TLC and Toni Braxton, have declared bankruptcy in the past to free themselves from awful contracts. Of course, in our society, we’re conditioned to view this as irresponsible artists blowing their money on drugs and lavish parties, but that’s not always the case (the RIAA must love the bias). Renowned independent producer, Steve Albini also points out how skewed the system is in favor for the big companies and compares the contract signing process to swimming across a pool of shit. MC Lars, on the other hand, makes his points via YouTube through his own song.

Like many things in Capitalism, the label-artist dynamic works on a demand and supply principle, and since there are much more aspiring musicians than the companies can support, they have the upper hand in negotiating. Having dabbled in the fine art field for a bit, I can understand the temptation of signing something to get a “start,” even if that meant selling your soul. If some gallery offered to put my photos up while keeping 90% of the profits, I would have signed in a heartbeat (although the fine art field is different in that galleries will never own your work). In the old days, signing with the label was almost the only way to get noticed. However, with the internet putting everyone closer together, this isn’t the case anymore. Artists don’t need to sign with big labels in order to be noticed and to distribute their music.

I spent fifteen minutes today pretending to be a musician (which I am far from) and googled for advice on getting a record deal. I found a good amount of information on how to sign with record labels, but little on the atrocities of the RIAA, and virtually nothing in terms of alternative. In order to end this terror of the RIAA, we need artists to boycott the RIAA. How do we do that?

For starters, there needs to be more obvious information on the drawbacks of signing a record deal along with success stories such as Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records. Artists need to realize that they need to spend an ounce of their creativity into distributing their music so that they don’t sign into indentured servitude for the rest of their lives. Many of the Boycott RIAA movements offer plenty of alternate options for consumers (DRM-less eMusic), but I haven’t seen them offer any alternatives for the musicians. If all our favorite musicians keep signing record deals with the RIAA, it’s going to be very hard to keep boycotting the RIAA. I keep talking about alternatives, but besides starting your own label or finding a benevolent independent label, is there anything out there?

Let’s skip the labels all together

Imagine a music service where musicians can upload their music and sell it on site, or link it to their website. They can choose to have people preview it for 30 seconds or listen to the song unrestricted (but still have to buy to use in your iTunes or iPod), and like YouTube, they can embed the music easily into their own websites. Of course, no DRM. The service would work great in conjunction with Pandora or, internet radio that focuses on music discovery. Think cafepress for music.

I’m sure this service will face a fair share of lawsuits, from copyright infringement (which gets very tricky when bands cover or remix music), like Viacom vs Google, to malicious RIAA fear tactics. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t good for music, and since we have the enabling technology, why don’t we have this already?

Update: I found some alternatives

Thanks to the loyal commenters on Gizmodo for these finds.

SellaBand - It takes some time to understand the whole system, but in short:

1. You buy parts (like stock) in a band you like on their website.
2. If a band reaches 5000 parts, $50,000, SellaBand will help the band record their music professionally and release a CD.
3. The music will then be available on their website for free, and the ad revenue will be split amongst the band and the fans who bought parts.
4. The CD will also be available for sale, and the profits again will be split amongst the band and the fans who bought parts.
5. No long term contract. No DRM.

Interesting concept. It’s definitely an system that puts the fans closer to the artists, and that’s a good thing. However, browsing through the website, I think there is something missing: discovery. Right now, in order to sample the music, you have to search for a band (filter by country or genre if you want), and then go to their page to listen to the music. There is no way of sampling multiple bands at the same time. They really could use a radio on their website, ideally with some rudimentary filters such as genre and language. I don’t want to make music listening a full time activity; I just want something in the background while I write. If something interests me, I’ll look over, and see who it is, and then maybe find out more.

Magnatune - Magnatune is easier to understand; they are the record label for the internet era. Unlike other labels, they give 50% of the income to the artists, which is unheard of. Even cooler, they let the buyer decide how much they pay for the music download. While this seems like it could be abused very badly, apparently the average album sale price is $8.93. They also have a radio which you can filter by genre; I’m trying it out right now. If you want to find out more about it, USA Today has a good article from 2004. Like SellaBand, it seems like Magnature also relies on word-of-mouth and the fans to advertise their bands. I’m not sure if they have already, but I hope this label signs with Pandora.

These websites need to be better known. If you have any friends that are aspiring musicians, be sure to tell them about it.

So what am I doing?

I’m writing this on my blog in the tiny corner of the internet in hopes that someone with more visibility and resources will run across it and get inspired to do something. I’m still boycotting RIAA, but that’s more because I’m content with Pandora and don’t need to buy any music. I’m sure that sooner or later, the paradigm shift will occur and the music industry will become consumer-centric again. The RIAA will change or die, and we’ll be able to take full advantage of the internet and other technologies that have risen recently, but they’re wreaking major havoc on their way down. I hope that when the New Music Experience does arrive, enough fans are left to enjoy it.

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Reuters Second Life RSS Feed Hacked?

This isn’t what this blog is about, but since none of the SLI editors seem to be in world, I’ll write about it myself.

Browsing through my Google Reader feeds today, I noticed that one of the links sent me to the Wikipedia entry on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. At first, I didn’t realize what sent me there, but looking carefully at the Reuters/Second Life feed, many of the article titles were linked to the Wikipedia page rather than the article themselves.

Since “Print Screen” gets rid of my cursor icon, I highlighted the ones that send me to Wikipedia. The same thing happens using Google Reader Widget.

However, looking at the original feed file, the links are correctly directed to the relevant articles.

So what happened? Did someone manage to hack the Reuters feed to mislead people to an extremely politically charged page? And if so, why only the Second Life feed (the other Reuters feeds seem completely intact)?

My friend (who is digging this article) verified on his Google Reader too, but neither of us has tested any other readers. Anyone else get the same results?

Update: Tateru Nino from SLI tested it on Sharpreader and Sage and noticed no errors. She then noticed the same results on Google Reader but investigated further and discovered something interesting. The articles that link to the Wikipedia article are duplicates of earlier articles that link to the correct pages.

The original posts in green links to the correct pages. So this means it’s actually Google Reader that got hacked? Either way, who ever planned this must be grinning, now that it’s been discovered.

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Call your friend during a date

One of my friends is out on a first date with this girl he met on eHarmony, and I just called him 40 minutes into dinner. Why?

1. If he is having a shitty time and needs a way out, he would pick up the phone, and I would ask him if he wants to get out. If he says yes, I’ll fake a conversation like his mother just had a stroke (or something a little less serious but equally time critical).
2. If he doesn’t pick up, he would still (most likely) look at the phone to see who it is and not answer. 90% of people (note: unsubstantiated) would see this and think “Ah, he has friends,” (especially important with internet dating) or “he’s having a good time because he didn’t answer.” 10% would probably think, “Asshole screens his phone calls.” Odds are in your favor.

Of course, this is far from my specialty, so I should stop writing about it now.

PS Don’t call on movie dates. You’ll make him the “jackass that forgot to turn off his cell phone.”



Taking the future for granted

Every generation accomplishes some impressive feat that changes the way we live lives which then becomes taken for granted. Often, these are technologies that enable new experiences. For our generation, the most obvious example is the internet which allows us to search and find vast quantities of information without leaving your seat. It was so significant that we named this current period of time as the information age. Because the internet has become so ubiquitous, it's sometimes hard to appreciate what it has enabled us to do. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to find out who won the Oscar in 1957, you'd most likely have to go to the library or call up that movie-loving friend, who likely used a reference book himself. Now, you can literally three click your way into IMDB or other numerous movie websites and extract that information.

The less obvious, but just as important is mobile telephony, or simply put, cell phones. Can you imagine how difficult multiple car road trips were in 1985?

Looking more into the past, there were things like:

The invention of radio: This was the first time you didn't have to bring content home in order to enjoy it.
The advent of automobile and the national highway system: You could travel at your own schedule at speeds well beyond horses.
Air travel becoming affordable: People can travel from any part of the world to another with in 24 hours.
The disappearance of infant mortality: During the early 20th century, scientists and doctors fought many of the leading child killing disease. It was the first time in history where people stopped expecting kids to die from simple sicknesses.

And of course I haven’t forgotten the other recent major technological inventions such as the TV, telephone, fax, and electricity.

All this brings out another way of looking into the future: what will we take for granted next?

In the near future, WiMAX and other high speed WAN technologies will make mobile internet the norm. People will come to expect information anywhere anytime and use this technology to settle bar bets on the spot.

However, beyond that, what can you imagine taking for granted?

Will personal robotics continue on this current trend and automate every remedial task at home? Will we some day come to expect all chores around the house to be done by servos and gears? Will one robot per household become a norm? (In 1990, did you think that most households in the US would have computers by 2007?)

Will AI take a discontinuous jump in competence so that computers can have meaningful conversation with humans? Can you imagine taking for granted having an AI agent that searches and answers such questions as: "Who won the Oscars in 1957?"

Will neural interfacing take off making typing on keyboards a thing of the past? Will future generations take for granted the ability to send and receive information straight from the brain?

Personally, I want to see teleportation during my life time so that we can cut all dependencies on planes, trains, and automobiles. However, can you imagine the political and cultural ramifications that would result today if people could go anywhere?

So, what will you take for granted next?



The $100 Car

Recent (troubles) disasters to my Mazda made me wonder if there is more of a hassle/worry free way of owning car. While I haven’t crunched the numbers to see if this is feasible at all, could you possibly have an all-you-can-drive car for $100/month?

I’m not referring to a regular car you rent at Enterprise (which I happen to have right now) but a car specifically designed and manufactured to be rented for $100/month.

How would this work?

- You pay a $100/month, no contracts (unlike leases).
- If the car breaks down, you bring it to the dealer, and they give you another identical car, so that you can keep driving.
- Insurance is included in that $100, so if you damage/total your car, you pay at most the $500 deductible (liability might have to be charged separately according to driving records).
- You exchange your car at the dealership every 10,000 mile or 6 months so that they can service it (you don’t really need to change the oil every 3000 mile).

What does this mean for you?

- You completely minimize your risk of owning a car: the maximum you would ever have to pay would be the $500 deductible for any damage you cause to the car (necessary so that people won’t drive too recklessly).
- $100/month is really cheap for owning a car (especially if insurance is included). In seven years, when most cars depreciate entirely, you’ll be spending $7400.
- In exchange for the low cost, you completely give up any ability to customize the car (with factory or after-market options). You’ll also be driving the same model car as many other people on the road. If you are the kind of person that like to distinguish yourself with the car you drive, this is not for you.

What does this mean for the car company?

- Since the car is going to be returned every 10,000 mile or so, you can design with regular maintenance in place. This means using less reliable but easily replaceable parts.
- Since only one car model is going to be offered, it eliminates the complexity in development.
- The radical uniqueness of this business is enough for everyone to find out about it through word-of-mouth (very little marketing required).
- Very steady income stream with a subscription model.

If this idea catches on, several different models could be offered at different price points to cover different market needs. However, caution should be taken against excessive market segmentation and offering too many options (defeating the competitive advantage of this system). Simplicity is the key to this operation.

What would the car include?

- Basic features with no frills (to keep cost down).
- Small “cute” design rather than a sporty look.
- Comes in basic colors. Nothing too disagreeable as the user may not have his/her choice when he/she switches the car.
- No visible odometer. This is important since it never feels good to step out of a 20k car and get onto an 80k one. All it needs is a trip meter that keeps track of when the next maintenance is (obviously a hidden odometer is necessary for maintenance reasons).
- Possibly a two-seater (if that’s what it takes to keep cost down).
- Customizable options dock. This actually may become a lucrative business model. Basically, in the car, your radio is a detachable option that you can either rent with the car, or purchase yourself (for expanded features such as Bluetooth and iPod connectivity). Once people buy their radio units, they would feel compelled to stay with the program since their radio is useless on other cars.

Of course all of this is hypothetical and of questionable feasibility at $100. There is some price point where the model works, but that may be too high to make it attractive at all. Furthermore, you can’t start this on a small scale, making it an extremely risky venture to start. Nevertheless, I think it’s an interesting alternative to the high marketing high cost method of selling over engineered cars of today.

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The Dilbert Blog

The other day, I had the joy of discovering Scott Adams’s Dilbert Blog via the meeblog. If you’re looking for some daily source of inspiration and procrastination, I highly suggest you RSS it (or bookmark it, but that’s soo Web 1.0).

While most of his posts are random banter inspired from small daily events, he did post an interesting idea that is well beyond the norm of conventional thought, like the ones on this blog. Apparently it costs $25,000 to house an inmate for a year in prison. That’s well above the rent of my apartment for three people for the year, and I live in one of the most expensive parts of the US. Scott Adam’s idea is to start a home based business that allows the average Joe to house inmates and cash in on the $25,000 spent by the government. He calls it the Best Roommate Ever.

Yes, it’s a crazy idea. No, it will never happen. But the idea of having the inefficient government outsource to efficient civilian companies is an idea that’s been around for a while and it is a good idea… or is it?

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Redesigning the tombstone

The tombstone is one of those things that have gone unchanged for centuries due to the static underlying religious principles. However, with technology advancing as fast as it is, someone was bound to redesign the tombstone, and who better than the Russian mafia? The above image is a laser etched tombstone from a graveyard in Yekaterinburg city, a mafia hotbed in the 90s.

I like it. While I’m not sure if I would want a picture of myself on the stone, when I die, I would want something more than my name and a few descriptive words. It could provide so much more insight into one’s life than what is displayed now, and going to cemeteries would actually be interesting.

It looks like there are companies in the US that provide this service too. Maybe I should start designing my memorial now.

(via English Russia via Boing Boing)

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ZA is a blog about ideas: cool ideas, existent ideas, pointless ideas, crazy ideas, my ideas, your ideas, interesting ideas, funny ideas, product ideas, meaningless ideas, great ideas, shrimp ideas, etc. It’s here for people to rant, rave, share, and satisfy. Any idea here (if original) is free for you to use (I take no responsibility) as long as you credit the originator of the idea (be honest). Feel free to send me any ideas, but a blog is considered to be public disclosure so you will lose all rights to patent it. Enjoy.


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