Monday, July 25, 2005

Delicious Dessert!

On Saturday Lori's friend Lee invited us to her family's home in Manchester by the Sea for a weekend party near the beach. After Lori and I returned from a trip to the beach (swimming in the 50 degree water) and a kayak trip in the harbor, we went to the local food store to purchase some food and drink to bring to the cookout at Lee's house. When we entered the store we noticed a man handing out samples of a desert that turned out to be Gaga's Original Lemon SherBetter. It turns out that the name really does say it all because this stuff really is better! The SherBetter is like lemon sherbet, but has a creamy taste that is similar to ice cream. It is really the prefect refreshment for a warm summer day. We wound up purchasing four pints to take back to the party. Just about everyone loved it. I now have a new favorite summer desert!

Miller Water Sports Camp

I spent last Friday with my friend Rob Miller at his parents' lake house in beautiful Lake George NY. The Millers were happy to host the first ever Miller Water Sports Camp, which was an intensive introduction to a variety of water sports including: water skiing, skurfing, skurfing, and tubing. This was only the second time that I have had a chance to water ski, which is unfortunate because it is a blast. The picture to the right shows my first ride on a single ski. The second picture show Rob, Kelli, and me all water skiing at the same time. Somehow we all managed to get up on the first try. It was really fun for all three of us to ride at the same time. Thanks again to the Millers for hosting.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Digital Television Industry

A few weeks back, I wrote about how technology looks likely to revolutionize the music industry by weakening the record companies who control distribution. The winners are likely to be the artists themselves who are able keep a larger percentage of the sales of their work and consumers who will have a much wider selection of artists available to them. I think that something similar will happen to the television industry as the distribution of content passes out of control of the broadcast networks and even the cable networks.

Clearly the average American, who subscribes to cable, has a much greater selection of programming available to him than twenty or even ten years ago. In addition digital video recording devices (like TiVo) allow viewers to watch programs at a more convenient time or even store those programs indefinitely. In the process consumers who use DVRs typically skip most of the commercial messages from the companies who paid to subsidize the program. The economics of the model are beginning to break down and the industry needs to create a new business model to survive.

Today, television programs are created by studios who are either a part of television networks or contract with television networks to air their programs. Studios pay all of the actors, writers, producers, and crew associated with the program. Television networks choose the shows they want to air at a particular time based on which programs they think will draw the most viewers. The reason that the networks want to draw the most viewers is so that they can sell commercial air time to advertisers at a higher price. Advertisers use the commercial air time to send a message to consumers about their products and services - usually to raise awareness of a product/service and to convince a customer to make a purchase. So fundamentally businesses fund television programming and networks in order to send a message to their customers and potential customers.

The current advertising environment is one of increasing audience fragmentation, which increases the complexity of identifying the programs that a target audience plans to watch. Then even if advertisers can identify the most desirable programs many members of the target audience may just skip the commercials with a DVR, which defeats the purpose of funding the program.

Technology is clearly changing the dynamics of the television industry, but the changes are not necessarily negative. In fact the technology that has thrown the profitability of the industry into question also creates new opportunities to create value. Advertisers still want to send a message with their customers - so much so that they are willing to pay dearly to do it. Consumers still want to watch television programs for entertainment and are even somewhat interested in learning about new products and services. All the television studios, actors, producers and other staff still enjoy making television programs and being paid to do it. All that is really needed is a new model to transfer value between all of these players, which will likely be driven by the firms that control the access to viewers and have relationships with studios and advertisers.

I can see two ways for this to play out. The first is for viewers simply to pay their service providers (cable companies or Bells in the future) for the programs that they want to watch. Many cable companies currently offer commercial free video on demand for certain programs so many consumers are already doing this. This model cuts out advertisers and likely results in a suboptimal solution i.e less value is created for everyone - specifically advertisers.

A superior solution would combine the benefits of video on demand with a targeted approach to advertising. The mechanism to offer video on demand is that a customer requests that their service provider send a particular program to their television. The service provider then sends that program. By definition, the service provider knows which viewer plans to watch the program. Assuming that they know something about that particular viewer, they will be in the perfect position to target specific advertisements that the viewer may be particularly interested in seeing.

The benefits for both the consumer and the advertiser are enormous. Advertisers spend countless resources trying to determine what kind of people are most likely to purchase their product and how they can find them to raise awareness. Instead of playing averages, they can just send their message directly to the type of people that they want. Instead of sponsoring a particular program, the advertiser can send a message to a particular person.

Two examples illustrate this point. Producers of feminine hygiene products waste huge sums of money buying air time for their commercials that are ultimately viewed by men. Although in many cases men and women watch television together, there are certainly plenty men watching television alone who will never purchase these products. The air time would be better spent advertising anything else, but since their target market is so large, fertile women, the companies do not mind paying extra money to reach them. The second example deals with the problem of a target market being too small for television. There are countless examples, but ski and snowboard equipment is a good one. There are essentially no commercials for ski equipment on television, although there are plenty of commercials for other products that feature skiing. The reason is that too few people purchase ski equipment to make it worthwhile for the companies to purchase commercial air time. They cannot have any assurance that they will be able to reach a large percentage of their target market regardless of which programs they sponsor.

The likely solution to both of these problems is for consumers to indicate not only who they are but which products and services they would like to learn more about. Then service providers and advertisers can target commercial messages directly at individuals instead of at groups. In fact if an advertiser can know that they are talking to a current customer, they may have a different message than if they are talking to a potential customer or a competitors customers. The ability to target an audience down to the individual level coupled with data mining and feedback from the viewers will make the investments that advertisers are making yield above average returns. Service providers will become an even more integral partner in business/consumer communications. Programming will improve to fit viewers tastes based on the actual decisions of consumers about what to watch. Technology posses significant challenges to this important industry, but it also allows the possibility to enhance value for all players involved.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Catholic Church and Evolution

Last week, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, archbishop of Vienna, submitted this opinion piece to the New York Times. The news department of the New York Times followed up two days later with this piece, which raises questions about how the Catholic Church views evolution. Both the original opinion piece and the news article, which it spawned, strike me as unhelpful in the search for truth.

Cardinal Schonborn, like many other religious leaders, has waded into the murky waters at the intersection of religion and science. Both religion and science profess to search for truth in our world, so both should be described as a process rather than a conclusion. Tellingly, both religion and science fall into error the later relationship is reversed.

My position as a Catholic and as a scientist (OK engineer) is that religion and science cannot ever be in fundamental conflict. I believe that there is a God who created the world, set the physical laws of our universe, and continues to operate in our world in accordance with those laws (many of which we do not yet understand). Science is a quest to better understand the physical laws which govern our universe, so because those laws were created by God, it is a quest to understand God.

The biblical story of creation is as much about the beginning of free will as about the creation of the world. In a sense, the creation of free will motivates the entire reason for creating a universe. God created mankind to enable a loving relationship between Himself and each individual. God loves each of us unconditionally and calls us to love Himself in return through grace. Due to humanity's inability to enter fully into this relationship, the Father send Jesus into the world to serve as the prefect example of love and to provide an easier path to God through the resurrection.

The current understanding of evolution is that all species have a genetic variation with respect to their physical form and capabilities. Certain of these variations allow individuals or groups to prosper within their given environment more than individuals that have different variations. Over the course of generations, the effects of positive variations allow will allow a species to prosper in its environment and the original variation becomes a trait of the species. Given this process and assuming subgroups of a species are unable inter-breed, the two subgroups are likely to diverge (different environments) and ultimately not be able to produce viable offspring. Thus creating to separate species.

Where is the conflict with the story of creation and the current theories of evolution and natural selection? If God's objective is to create a being who posed free will and had the ability to love and be loved by God, why is evolution not an appropriate mechanism?

Is there chance or randomness involved? Perhaps there is from our perspective, but we do not currently possess enough information to know for sure. With perfect information, it may be that a being with free will will inevitably result every time life forms. There may be some chance about the form end result, but it is entirely possible that a being with intelligence and free will would be very well adapted to its environment and at over 6 billion strong, the human species' experience supports this.

Cardinal Schonborn quotes Pope Benedict as stating that, "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary." To this I say, "Yes!" That is God's purpose. God wants us to exist and to love him. Unfortunately earlier in his essay, Cardinal Schonborn states:

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

Why is it not true that an "unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection" cannot be the mechanism by which God created man. It is not the system that seeks to deny God a place in the universe. Atheists do that. That they use a scientific theory to assail God does not mean that the proper response by intellectual Christians is to attach science. The Cardinal should redirect his rhetoric against the people who would use science against religion. Attacking science with religion is destined to be counter productive and worse confusing to the faithful who choose not to enter into the minutiae of the debate.

A few years back I notice a Darwin Fish on the back of a car. The person who put it there was likely and atheist and likely intended it as a jab at a framiliar Christian symbol. I liked it because I think that it expresses a truth about the relationship between religion and science: they are one in that they both search for truth and they are one in that symbol.

Janice Rogers Brown

Travis compiles a great list of quotes from recently confirmed DC Circuit Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown. With the political showdown over Supreme Court vacancy imminent, this type of research will help inform the debate. It is much harder to paint someone as an extremist when his or her record is on display for all to see. Does anyone know if a similar list of quotations is available for some of the other people supposedly on the short list?

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

A Creed for a Country

Two days ago we celebrated the 4th of July, when we remember the foundations on which our country rests. In this essay, Andrew Sullivan recalls the ancient principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to offer a succinct interpretation for the proper role of government in human society. America, he says like many before him, offers the best hope to achieve human fulfillment.

Tragedy in the Ocean

CNN reports on a tragic end to a Fourth of July vacation for two men in Hampton, NH. The two men entered a rip current, along with about ten others, to attempt to rescue a child caught in the current. Instead of saving the child, they became victims themselves. Although the Hampton Lifeguards were off duty at the time, they responded and were able to rescue everyone except for the child's father and another man, who were pulled unconscious from the water. From the CNN account, it appears that the guards did a great job once they returned to the scene.

Unfortunately, this type of incident occurs far too frequently on beaches around the world. The general public simply does not appreciate the power of the ocean. People regularly swim in un-guarded surf and do not know how to recognize and escape from rip currents. What makes this incident particularly appalling is that the guards had been keeping people out of that rip current all day, but as soon as they went off duty, these people jumped right in. The message to the public should be to always swim near a lifeguard and not to enter a rip current unless a person is very experienced in the surf.

Also of note in the article is the misuse of the words rip tide and undertow. A rip current killed those two men. A rip current is formed along a beach or next to a rock jetty when water uses a break in a sandbar to return out to sea after being pushed to shore by a wave. A rip tide is associated with the tides when a inland body of water (river or bay) meets an ocean. When the tide is falling, water will flow from the inland body of water into the ocean. When the tide is rising water will flow from the ocean into the inland body of water. Rip tides regularly change direction with the rising and falling tides, while rip currents always pull away from shore. There were likely not tidal effects in the two drowning. Undertow does not exist. Many people commonly refer to rip currents as undertow because they can feel the pull of a rip current more strongly on their feet than on their upper body. However, rip currents do not pull people under the water, they pull people away from shore. It is only as the swimmers become exhausted or begin to panic that they drown.

I hope to take a trip up to Hampton in the next couple of weeks to check out the beach and hopefully talk to a few of the guards.