Would you like a P.O. Box with that frappuccino?

(Archival photo, circa 2013.)

THE FUTURE – Has it been only 30 years since the U.S. Postal Service, bowing to a hostile Congress, sought to stay alive by ending Saturday delivery of first-class mail — and setting in motion one of the most remarkable and rapid cultural and infrastructure revolutions in history?

To mark the anniversary of the post-Post Office epoch, let’s relive its history. The announcement in February 2013 that regular Saturday mail delivery would be ending became a touchstone moment. The Economist reported that America was doomed. Liberals decried the “decimation” of an institution they insisted bound us together as a nation. Conservatives, who had applauded a Republican-led Congress’s insistence on forcing the Post Office to make enormous pension plan pre-payments, reveled in the prospect they’d transformed the institution.

The fight was never far from the surface. When it became a 2016 presidential campaign issue, it ensured that the next president would have to do … something. But no candidate committed to anything more than “reform.”

When President Hillary Clinton was elected, progressives were relieved — but even they had no idea how audacious she would be.

In her first inaugural address, Clinton seized the moment to advance what she called “Manifest Digital Destiny” — a.k.a. the Hillary Doctrine. That would be: The Internet is a birthright of American citizens. In creating a right to the Internet, she would have an almost Lincolnian impact on the nation for generations to come: Affordable, ubiquitous broadband would set us all free. To hasten the transition, she provided a bit of incentive: The Post Office, hobbling for years, was to be shuttered within her first term. The new broadband network would take its place. 

Another blog post that won’t make any money

It’s been a strange and daunting decade for print journalism — it’s now an even stranger time for web journalism. We’ve become accustomed to reading headlines like BuzzFeed’s recent $19 million fund raising, followed by news of buyouts for veterans at the New York Times. This kind of zero sum flow of media resources from print old guard to the young online folks has started to feel inevitable — it’s not even clear that media reporters still care about the NYT.

All of this would be more comforting if the media business were headed to some cushy new world. Evangelists have long held up the web as the savior of the news business, the future of TV and the ideal for the self-expression business. They could be right. But all that digital triumphalism ignores web media’s basic economic dilemma: we’re simply producing far too much of it than is economically justified.

The dirty secret about the web media business is that there’s a massive oversupply problem. Everyday, content creators are producing more journalism, more think-pieces, more interactive graphics, more photo galleries, more tweets, more slideshows, more videos, more GIFs, and more deviously socially-optimized Corgi listicles. All of that is being distributed via more channels on more devices. This creates more supply for display ads, web media’s favorite and still growing revenue generator. All that supply, however, drags down ad prices.

Mental Floss, a magazine that also sells products, expands

One of the hottest T-shirt designers on the market is a magazine.

Mental Floss, the 160,000 circulation magazine owned by publishing magnet Felix Dennis, derives one-third of its revenue from e-commerce, one-third from subscriptions and newsstand sales, and one-third from advertising.

Its T-shirt business represents about 40 percent of its e-commerce revenue.
On Tuesday, it unveiled its latest effort, T-shirt Tuesdays, where every week Mental Floss will reveal a new design to capitalize on one of its best selling products. Last year, Mental Floss sold about 40,000 T-shirts for $24.99 a pop.

Indeed, as the media industry struggles with a severe decline in advertising publications like Conde Nast’s Lucky and Gawker are delving further into the business of e-commerce. The idea is to tap into loyal audiences and subscribers and turn them into a ready-made market.

Google’s silvery Samsung Chromebook could be gold

You won’t mistake the new Samsung Chromebook for Apple’s rockstar MacBooks or any other full-powered laptop.  But, it’s far more useful than your average netbook, and, at its $249 price, it might be the best value out there. So while it may not be the only computer you own, depending on your needs, it certainly could be the only one you carry.

Even though there are two current Samsung models, plus one from Acer, all Chromebooks are really a physical platform for Google’s cloud ecosystem. They are designed to enable Gmail, Drive, Play, YouTube, Calendar, Maps, Google+, etc, to all work together seamlessly and interactively.

The look of my test Samsung Chromebook — the midrange model — very intentionally mimics the Apple design ethic. It has a plasticky brushed silver case. The bottom of the case tapers slightly, though not nearly as dramatically as the MacBook Air. It is 5 mm thicker than a MacBook Air’s thinnest point, about two inches narrower and an inch shorter than the 13-inch equivalent, and, at 2.43 pounds, is ½ pound lighter.

Back in Blackberry

With a brand-new smartphone – and a new brand – BlackBerry (neé Research in Motion) has embarked on a critical reboot aimed at restoring the fortunes of the company that sparked the mobile revolution.

RIM has been left for dead. For years it hasn’t been able to shake off the stink of irrelevance as the iPhone proved that apps were more important than a physical keyboard, and that mobile “push” e-mail wasn’t rocket science. It endured brand-damaging outages to its private network while competitors crowed that their reliance on a public network was far more stable.

Now the company is reinventing itself in a last-ditch effort to survive. In a press conference yesterday, it announced that it had changed its corporate name to “BlackBerry” to better identify with its iconic product. Meanwhile, it has dramatically upgraded that product after a two-year effort that resulted in new phones designed from scratch and powered by what would be a major mobile operating system: QNX.

Final Cut: The gems and stars left off the Oscars list

If I could remove any word from Oscar conversations, it would be “snubbed.” It’s catchy and makes good headline fodder, but it implies that a cabal of Academy members sat in a room and consciously decided to ostracize this actor or that moviemaker. These ballots are filled out by 6,000 to 7,000 voters, ranging from visual effects experts to screenwriters to studio chiefs. I can’t envision secret meetings to decide the fate of each candidate.

Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained) and veteran French star Jean-Louis Trintignant were both considered serious contenders for a Best Actor nomination; neither made the final cut, even though Trintignant’s co-star in Amour, Emmanuelle Riva, was nominated for Best Actress. At one point, the gifted John Hawkes was touted as a shoo-in for his brilliant performance in The Sessions. But I’ve learned never to use the word “shoo-in” where the Oscars are concerned.

There were fewer surprises in the Best Actress category, although some pundits had predicted Helen Mirren for Hitchcock, Marion Cotillard for the French import Rust and Bone and Rachel Weisz, who won the New York Film Critics’ award, for (The Deep Blue Sea). As it happens, they took a collective backseat to the youngest female ever nominated in this category, 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and the oldest, 82-year-old Riva.

OpenTable will pay $10 million for Foodspotting app

The next time you are on Broadway and craving dim sum, OpenTable Inc’s newest app will show you what your lunch might look like at the Golden Unicorn versus Joe’s Shanghai.

The online restaurant reservation company said it will pay $10 million to buy Foodspotting, an application for finding and sharing photographs of dishes at restaurants.

The acquisition underscores OpenTable’s push into mobile, which it expects to spur its next round of growth. In October, the company introduced a free service that would make it easy for restaurants to optimize their websites for mobile devices.

Touchfire: All keyed up and ready to go

Go Bag LogoApple’s iPad could be the perfect device for a road warrior, but it has one glaring shortcoming — the lack of the perfect keyboard. The built-in onscreen keyboard is workable, but no tactile feedback means that you look at your fingers as you type, instead of the words on the screen. That makes typing on a tablet slower than on a laptop, and that means you avoid your iPad for typing-intensive tasks, even though in every other respect it might be the perfect choice for communicating on the road.

Touchfire solves this problem in a novel way: It’s an extremely thin, clear plastic overlay with raised keys that rests on top of the onboard keyboard, mapping to each onscreen key. Unlike other aftermarket keyboards, it doesn’t add weight, bulkiness, or require batteries to recharge. This little piece of plastic doesn’t look like it would make much of a difference, but it does. (more…)

All hail the Kim (Dotcom)

Piracy means never having to say you’re sorry.

That might as well be the mantra of Kim Schmitz, better known as Kim Dotcom, the most flamboyant internet character this side of John McAfee.

For those who’ve missed this story so far, until about a year ago Kim Dotcom ran a wildly popular site called Megaupload from his New Zealand mansion. Megaupload allowed people to upload massive files – you know, like movies and TV shows the uploaders don’t own and don’t have the right to share. Which probably explains both the site’s wild popularity, and the Justice Department’s prosecutorial zeal.

Things were going great until local authorities raided the joint, arrested him and shut down the site on behalf of the United States, which has charged him with 13 criminal counts of conspiracy, infringement and wire fraud. The upshot of the indictment is that those uploads amounted to piracy, and Megaupload was enabling it.

After Aaron Swartz

Brilliant young hackers, striving to build tools to change the world, are killing themselves. Just last week: Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit and fierce open access activist, took his life at 26. There have been other high-profile suicides in the tech world in recent years: Ilya Zhitomirskiy, co-founder of the distributed social network Diaspora, dead at 22. Len Sassaman, a highly-regarded cypherpunk who believed in cryptography and privacy as tools of freedom, dead at 31. Dan Haubert, co-founder of the Y-Combinator funded startup Ticketstumbler, dead at 25. If these young men were like the 100 people who kill themselves in this country every day, the biggest factor contributing to their deaths was likely under-treated depression.

We can readily come up with hypotheses as to why depression is a problem in the tech world. It’s a culture defined by ruthless pressure, high stakes, and risky gambles. Often hiding behind pseudo-anonymity, lightning fast criticisms are released online with bullet speed. Then there’s the “thrashing duck” syndrome: to survive in the startup ecosystem you have to puff up your chest and show only how smoothly you’re gliding through the water; you don’t show how furiously your legs are kicking and struggling underneath. There’s also the hero archetype of the lone hacker: he’s coding through the night, living on red bulls, sleeping on a couch at AOL to save money, not thinking about short-term wealth, and surely not thinking about health, be it physical or mental.

As a clinical psychologist married to a hacker, I do not find this to be okay. On a human level, there is widespread pain and suffering lying silent and unaddressed. On a societal level, we are losing brilliant young minds, activists and role models with so much left to contribute to the world.