July 18, 2014

The Price (and Cost) of Cheeseburgers

The average cheeseburger price in the US is $4.49, but what is the cost of one? Mark Bittman explains the difference between the two and the implications in this interesting New York Times column: (via Khoi Vinh)

Almost everything produced has externalities. Wind turbines, for example, kill birds, make noise and may spin off ice. But cheeseburgers are the coal of the food world, with externalities in spades; in fact it’s unlikely that producers of cheeseburgers bear the full cost of any aspect of making them. If we acknowledge how much burgers really cost us we might either consume fewer, or force producers to pick up more of the charges or — ideally — both.

Our calculation of the external costs of burgers ranges from 68 cents to $2.90 per burger, including only costs that are relatively easy to calculate.

Related archive item: “The American Grocery Bill” — notice the inverse correlation in the chart I’ve put together in that piece. It was partly inspired from a show I had watched on the Discovery channel: The change in food expenses and that in healthcare spending were plotted on the same graph, which resulted in an almost perfect “X” shape — one down, the other up.

July 18, 2014

“Explore Your Creativity” Promotion in the Mac App Store

Some good apps running at 50% off right now in the Mac App Store. Among them is Pixelmator, which I own and think is a real steal at $16 if you need a good photo editing app. I’ve also got the trial version of the acclaimed text-editor Ulysses (currently $21.99), and while Byword does the job just fine for me, I’m tempted to pull the trigger.

Here are the other participating apps:

I’ve read many praises of Scrivener and Slugline, too.

July 17, 2014

Google Launches Official Analytics App for iOS

I’ve tried many Google Analytics apps over the years, and all of them, including the paid ones, came with one or more deal breakers: Lack of elementary features, bugs and crashes due to poor maintenance, or/and horrible usability. I’ve only been playing with it for an hour so, but Google’s just-released app looks very promising.

July 16, 2014

‘All Art to Me Is About Problem Solving’

A great Esquire interview with director Steven Soderbergh:

I think about art a lot only in two contexts. One is narrative. That we’re a species that’s wired to tell stories. We need stories. It’s how we make sense of things. It’s how we learn. When we look at what’s going on in the world and we see the immense level of conflict that seems to always be happening — you can always trace it back to competing narratives.

July 14, 2014

Lessons on Meditation

Ian Welsh has been meditating intensely for the last two months. Intensely as in five hours a day on average, and as much as ten (!) hours on some days. I’ve had a lot of colleagues and friends invite me to try meditation over the years, but Welsh’s remarks make it sound attractive (and scary) for the first time:

Meditation has a “woo” reputation, an idea that it’s peaceful and serene and lovely. Now maybe that’s where you’re aiming to get, but meditation is a tool, a process, and it is hard bloody work and often unpleasant.

Meditation gives you a good hard look at your mental habit and fixations, and you probably won’t like what you see.

I Am the Cheat

According to a recent Business Insider survey, 86% of iPhone owners use a case, with almost 60% of them citing damage protection. Of those who don’t, 50% say “cases are too bulky”. Nick Heer explains why he’s among the minority in a short post titled “I Am the 14%”:

Avoiding bulkiness isn’t an aesthetic decision, it’s a practical one. I don’t wear super skinny jeans by any means, but adding thickness and weight is unwelcome.

Here’s a true story about technology, and idiocy: Sometime in 2012, my childhood friend “Ed” started working as a marketing agent for a company named Wrapsol1. They claimed to sell “the world’s strongest, easiest and fastest-to-apply drop and scratch protection system for the iPhone”.

Back then I had a cheap silicon case laying in my car that I’d only use rarely. Like Nick, I thought the premium for the insurance that cases provided was too high — aesthetic, comfort, and weight-wise. I refused to trade these off.

Ed had a very effective marketing technique: With the almost unnoticeable sticker-set applied to his iPhone, he’d approach pretty much anyone with the same device, and ask them what they think would happen if he dropped — or worse, threw — his own iPhone intentionally. Regardless of the answer, he’d then proceed to do just that, from about a head’s height, with a haughty smile on his face.

By the time he’d pick the iPhone back up — totally unharmed — little to no marketing would be needed, and the awed spectator was ready to shell an amount equivalent to 60 American dollars. I’d also be in awe.

I mean, I’d also be in awe hadn’t I watched Ed do this dozens and dozens of times already. On every. Possible. Occasion.

I guess I had a bit too much to drink that night at a wedding party we both attended. After I heard his phone drop for what seemed like the 57th time, I went up to Ed and thought I’d play a joke between two good friends:

“You know it has got nothing to do with those silly stickers right? I’m gonna prove it to you now. Here.”

When I picked up my caseless iPhone, the screen was shattered to pieces. Little and small.

I’ve purchased and (unintentionally!) dropped a few iPhones since then. The first thing I do upon receiving one is go to Ed to get a new sticker-set. It adds little to no weight, is almost invisible to the naked eye, and provides better protection than many bulkier solutions. It almost feels like cheating.

But isn’t that what good technology always does?


  1. There’s a clear disclosure policy on the about page, but just to be sure: I have no affiliation with Wrapsol. 
July 10, 2014

Pinboard Turns Five

I’m not a Pinboard user. I find the RSS-Pocket-Evernote trio that I set up in January to work just fine. But reading Maciej Cegłowski’s fifth-anniversary post has left me wanting to* has made me become a paid user just for the sake of it. Cegłowski shares numbers and stats transparently, something I always look for, but this time I dig the writing as much as the numbers:

Avoiding burnout is difficult to write about, because the basic premise is obnoxious. Burnout is a rich man’s game. Rice farmers don’t get burned out and spend long afternoons thinking about whether to switch to sorghum. Most people don’t have the luxury of thinking about their lives in those terms. But at the rarefied socioeconomic heights of computerland, it’s true that if you run a popular project by yourself for a long time, there’s a high risk that it will wear you out.

More than anything though, I like Cegłowski’s levelheaded attitude towards entrepreneurship: He’s building a business in the age of startups. A useful service in the age of sexy, meaningless apps. He’s going for revenue in a time when everyone seems to be after snap acquisitions and fantastic exits. He has clients, not users.

It’s a little ironic, but in many ways, Pinboard (as a web enterprise) is an oddity. And an exhilarating one at that, if I may.

*I’ve purchased a Pinboard account hours after publishing this piece.

July 9, 2014

Risk and Uncertainty

Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, is on its way to join my all-time favorites, alongside both of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short and Liar’s Poker.

I’ve been experimenting with the application of expected value in different fields of life, and the distinction between risk and uncertainty — often used interchangeably — is definitely important in this context:

Risk, as first articulated by the economist Frank H. Knight in 1921 is something that you can put a price on. Say that you’ll win a poker hand unless your opponent draws to an inside straight: the chances of that happening are exactly 1 chance in 11. This is risk. It is not pleasant when you take a “bad beat” in poker, but at least you know the odds of it and can account for it ahead of time. In the long run, you’ll make a profit from your opponents making desperate draws with insufficient odds.

Uncertainty, on the other hand, is risk that is hard to measure. You might have some vague awareness of the demons lurking out there. You might even be acutely concerned about them. But you have no real idea how many of them there are or when they might strike. Your back-of-the-envelope estimate might be off by a factor of 100 or by a factor of 1,000; there is no good way to know.

Regarding the latest financial recession, Silver concludes:

The alchemy that the ratings agencies performed was to spin uncertainty into what looked and felt like risk. They took highly novel securities, subject to an enormous amount of systemic uncertainty, and claimed the ability to quantify just how risky they were. Not only that, but of all possible conclusions, they came to the astounding one that these investments were almost risk-free.

Chromefree

Coming to OS X after many years as a PC power user, Chrome was the first application on my prearranged hotlist. On Windows, it had long displaced Firefox, which before it, had long displaced Internet Explorer. The only reason I even bothered with Safari when my machine arrived last December, was my curiosity as to how a Mac works out of the box; before I overcrowd it with apps. It wasn’t supposed to be a real chance.

But Safari was lightweight, surprisingly fast for browsing, easy on the battery, and slick in design. When I went back to Chrome, it felt bulky and lacked the UI cohesiveness that its Apple counterpart exhibited. That’s something I could live with, and I might have been OK with the fact that Chrome doesn’t support multi-touch gestures.

What I couldn’t tolerate was Chrome’s dramatic effect on battery life. I didn’t measure it scientifically at the time, but I didn’t need to: The difference in battery drain between Chrome and Safari was glaring. And it wasn’t within the range of a few minutes or percentages.

A few Google searches were enough to realize that I wasn’t alone: It seems that many OS X users, mainly owners of Retina MacBooks, were experiencing the same battery drain problems (to varying degrees) with Chrome. I had tried almost every suggestion in every thread that I found, but to no avail. I made the switch to Safari, which as explained, I liked better anyway.

I wasn’t going to install Flash on my system, and that was the only reason to keep Chrome around: It comes with Flash preinstalled. Sandboxed, restricted, confined Flash — the way it should be. Whenever I stumbled across a video that my Flash-less Safari couldn’t play, I’d use Federico Viticci’s macro to quickly launch its URL in Chrome.

But while Chrome’s overall battery consumption was unusual, Chrome’s battery and CPU consumption with Flash active was just crrrazy.

Update July 11, 2014: Safari started sandboxing Flash with the release of OS X Mavericks, as correctly noted by Jonas Lopes on Twitter. One key difference to keep in mind is that with Safari the player has to be downloaded and maintained regularly by the user.

All this only started to concern me two days ago, as I was streaming a World Cup match. I observed the battery life meter and it was dropping at an astonishing rate of 1% per minute. Not only that, the machine was getting really warm and the fans wouldn’t settle down. This was no longer an inconvenience, but a real concern for the longevity of my battery.

Inspecting OS X’s Activity Monitor and Chrome’s task manager, it became clear that the combination of Chrome and Flash is even more battery hungry than expected. Streaming from the same source interchangeably, Chrome’s energy impact was more than twice that of Safari’s.

Giving up videos wasn’t an option, of course, but neither was exposing my system to security flaws by installing Flash just to use it in Safari.

Relative to how fantastic the solution I found is, the search took quite some time. This isn’t the case with most obvious solutions — they tend to spread and capture the first or second spot in search results rather quickly.

This solution is an open-source, highly customizable Safari extension called ClickToPlugin, spun from Jonathan Rentzsch’s original ClickToFlash, and well-maintained and developed by Marc Hoyois.

The layman’s explanation to what it does with browser video players is that it attempts to load them in HTML5, a format which Safari supports. Battery consumption is (obviously) higher than with web browsing, but nowhere near the power hog that Chrome and Flash were.

I tested ClickToPlugin with several websites, including YouTube, several streaming services, and even custom players that you might see on websites like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. It takes a tad bit longer to load, but has worked flawlessly so far.

Appendix 1: A Provincial Rant That You May Skip

I’m especially concerned with my MacBook’s lastingness since Apple products and their respective accessories and parts cost hundreds of percents more in Israel than they do in the US, thanks to a reseller monopoly. Said monopoly wants to punish consumers who — like me — choose to buy their Apple machines abroad, either due to price or availability. Here’s the answer I got today from this company’s representative when I called to ask about a battery replacement: “I can’t give you a price for a new battery until you bring it to our labs, but I can only tell you that the hourly rate at our lab is 449 NIS” (around $131).

Based on some digging I did on the web, I conservatively guesstimate that two years from now, a battery replacement for a 2013 13” Retina MacBook Pro would cost around 1,300 NIS (~$380). That’s conservative, trust me.

Appendix 2: Where Chrome Still Triumphs

I no longer need Chrome installed on my MacBook, but there are still, in my opinion, three aspects where Chrome remains superior to Safari:

  • Tab and window management (see update): You can reopen multiple closed tabs, drag a separate Chrome window into another window to turn it to a tab within it, or vice versa — drag a tab out of a certain window and turn it into an independent window. This is especially convenient when you accidentally click on “Open in New Window” instead of “Open in New Tab”.

    Update July 8 & 12, 2014: My pal Riccardo Mori informs me on Twitter that it is possible to drag tabs out of their windows in Safari (click, hold, drag). Later, Jordan Rose and Jared Cash explained (within seconds of each other!) that “tabbing” a separate window into another is also possible, but first, one has to choose View Tab Bar in the View pane. Thanks all!

  • Web inspector: I’ve found Chrome’s web inspector (developer console) to be far superior to Safari’s — it’s faster, better at targeting certain elements, and allows you to export your changes (such as CSS changes) in a separate file.

  • Extensions: For example, although I’m sure alternatives could be found in other extensions or through AppleScripts, I do miss CoLT — a markdown compatible plugin that allows for smarter copying of links.

Hopefully Safari will catch up with these in Yosemite.

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The Bear Case for Paid News

Nowadays, it seems, a report on the state of journalism pops out every other week. The latest I examined, by The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, surveyed 18,000 people from 10 countries on the issue of digital news. As a news-anchor, I was especially interested in this one.

The survey presents data in nifty interactive charts, and covers areas like social media, mobiles and tablets, disruptive vs. traditional, and paying for news. The latest should be of special significance in light of Pew’s recent study, which showed a decline in advertising dollars, and a sharp fall of 33% in total revenue in the last 7 years (based on US data).

Data Highlights

  • Momentum: There has been very little change in the number of people who pay for online news. In most countries the figure dances around the 10% mark.

  • Upside potential: Of those who aren’t currently paying, 15% say they are likely to pay in the future.

  • Reach: In most countries print still accounts for more readers than online, and newspaper groups have kept their substantial reach and influence.

  • Social media: 57% of Facebook’s and 50% of Twitter’s users say they use them to find, share, or discuss a news story in a given week.

  • Mobiles and tablets: Tablet owners are twice as likely to pay for online news. A stronger correlation was found among Apple tablet owners, but no significant correlation towards any manufacturers or operating systems was found in the case of smartphones.

So, the days of print may not be as few as initially predicted, but the upward trend in digital subscriptions, caused by the introduction of many online-paywalls, is flattening. It seems like news organizations are struggling in the arena where the battles are headed.

More from the report:

Our findings are consistent with the recent Pew research report in the United States which suggests that industry activity does not necessarily mean more individuals are paying for news but rather that ‘more revenue is being squeezed out of a smaller, or at least flat, number of paying consumers’.

Time will tell, but I don’t see paywalls being a sustainable long-term model for mainstream. Not with the kind of journalism it produces today.

The definition of journalism at Wikipedia reads like so:

Journalism is a method of inquiry and literary style that aims to provide a service to the public by the dissemination and analysis of news and other information.

And the twentieth century journalist was indeed tasked with both the delivery (dissemination) and the interpretation (analysis) of information. But can the twentieth century news company still do both in the twenty-first century?

As I’ve written before, I believe not. Not profitably anyway:

I think big organizations will dominate news breaking and reporting for a long time to come. They will still be responsible for the “what,” but less and less for “what does it mean?”. They’ll serve mainly as middlemen of information — an important and nontrivial task in itself — but not much more beyond that.

With their current business model, big syndicates operate horizontally and therefore cannot satisfy dedicated crowds. They can’t go in-depth with the subjects that matter to some of us all of the time, only those that matter to all of us some of the time.

The only comparative advantage legacy organizations still have today is in pure news reporting — the kind that relies on precedence, accuracy, and speed. But this kind of information quickly becomes abundant (through social media) and/or irrelevant, which effectively drives its value to zero. The only way to monetize this content — meant to be consumed by many but not valuable to most — is through wide-reach and advertising.

June 21, 2014

The Four Motives for Writing According to Orwell

Four years before his death, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century explores what had led him to become one:

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

  • Sheer egoism
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm
  • Historical impulse
  • Political purpose

Orwell expands on each of these four motives in this essay, titled “Why I Write”. Fantastic.

FIFA, Data, Rebecca

  1. I stopped watching football (premeditatedly) around seven years ago. Still unsure whether it was a general loss of interest, or because the national team I cheer for is Denmark. Don’t ask.
  2. I did, however, get to watch some of yesterday’s World Cup opening game between the Brazilian hosts and Croatia, including the pathetic penalty call that changed the dynamics completely. My instinctive reaction was something along the lines of “WAT!”, but then I remembered having watched this excellent fact-compiliation by comedian John Oliver, about the monopoly that governs the most popular sport in the world. It’s only natural then, that after having fed the Brazilians with so much crap, FIFA is inclined to give back a bit.
  3. The World Cup of Everything Else: Which of the 32 coutnries would win if they competed in unmarried women, Nobel prizes per capita, or most internet users?
  4. If you’ve somehow missed KPCB’s 2014 internet trend report, it’s 164 slides of data worth exploring. Michael Lopp has some interesting highlights.
  5. How the NYT prepares obituaries in the age of instant: 1,700 are prewritten, and a dedicated “obituary editor” manages the operation.
  6. Links in this post are set in purple1, Rebecca’s favorite color: I’ve never met Rebecca Meyer and haven’t heard of her until a few days ago, but her story left me struggling not to choke. Rebecca died of cancer five days ago, at the age of six.

  1. See #663399Becca on Twitter. 
June 8, 2014

Ace Hotel, London

Yes, I mostly geek over digital stuff, but believe it or not, I do posses the ability to appreciate elements that reside outside of a box and aren’t made of pixels. With London being my favorite city in the world, the website for the newly established Ace Hotel there is a prime example of excellent attention to detail. Especially in the tourism industry, a resort’s website is rarely both flattering and functional. This one is an exception.

June 6, 2014

OS X Yosemite: First Impressions

Min Ming Lo takes a nice first look at Yosemite from a designer’s standpoint:

Apple revealed a sneak peek into Mac OS X Yosemite earlier this week. Not surprisingly, Apple updated its desktop OS to match iOS 7′s design language. The new OS X now embodies a brighter and flatter styling, coupled with icon updates, font changes, and translucent materials. Here’s a quick look at the visual design changes in Yosemite and my impressions of them.

I tell you, those screenshots have me waiting even more impatiently for this fall to arrive.

One thing that does raise some concerns — though it’s really too early to tell — is the legibility of Helvetica Neue as a system-font. My pal Riccardo Mori explained in-depth why he thinks it’s a bad idea, but after WWDC took place he examined the screenshots and began wondering: Is it Helvetica, after all?

The Unknown Known

I’m not big on art, I’m not a movie buff, and my musical spectrum is mostly confined to a few bands. Don’t even try talking to me about genres because I can’t tell them apart. So much for being a radio broadcaster.

With most films, I can’t tell you who directed the one I just watched, nor can I name its producer. It doesn’t matter to a layman like me most of the time. And so — even though I enjoy watching movies — it takes a special kind of ingenuity for me to really appreciate one. Not because I’m a discerning artist, no. Quite to the contrary: For naked eyes like mine, subtle artistic clues usually go under the radar.

And it is exactly for the reasons above that I’m delegating myself to the task of writing about Errol Morris’s documentary, The Unknown Known. Yes, I did pay attention this time because I wanted to know who made this film.

You could argue that the task of dismantling someone like Donald Rumsfeld isn’t such a hard one these days, but to reduce The Unknown Known to its journalistic-ingredients would be a sin to the art of moviemaking. *gulps*

First off, Morris’s own-invented interview technique captures the interviewees’ facial expressions and body language in a very unique way. It’s a distinction you can’t quite describe until you get to watch it. Morris explains his invention, the “Interrotron”: (via Wikipedia)

Teleprompters are used to project an image on a two-way mirror. Politicians and newscasters use them so that they can read text and look into the lens of the camera at the same time. What interest me is that nobody thought of using them for anything other than to display text: read a speech or read the news and look into the lens of the camera. I changed that. I put my face on the Teleprompter or, strictly speaking, my live video image. For the first time, I could be talking to someone, and they could be talking to me and at the same time looking directly into the lens of the camera. Now, there was no looking off slightly to the side. No more faux first person. This was the true first person.

One more thing: Take this quote — for example — courtesy of Rumsfeld:

You wonder why they didn’t respond to all the efforts that were made to avoid that war. How could they be that mixed-up in what the inevitable next steps would be? Why they wouldn’t sit down and have an agonizing reappraisal and come to some logical conclusion.

The former Secretary of Defense is talking about the Iraqis, of course. But all the while, the footage shown on the screen is that of the United States Capitol. In a black and white time-lapse video that captures it just from the right angle, the sun rises on Capitol Hill as Rumsfeld shares another gem of wisdom.

The Unknown Known screen captureIt’s subtle. But subtle brilliance does not escape even an uneducated observer like me. It made me smile. So I thought I’d share it with you.

May 28, 2014

On Amazon vs. Hachette

Of the writers I follow, Ben Thompson has the most sober take on the recent clash between Amazon and Hachette:

I’ve worked with publishers, and here’s the thing: Amazon is right. It’s not that publishers don’t add value, but rather that their economics are wholly incompatible with the reality of the Internet.

I know this site’s readers are intelligent people that will read Thompson’s article before coming to the conclusion that he (or I) justify Amazon’s actions from a moral standpoint. And actually, that’s what I appreciate the most about Ben’s work: Unlike some notable tech writers that you and I read, he does not refute to attributing humane characteristics (like “evil” or “caring”) to the companies he writes about. That’s all too easy.

Instead, Ben actually does the due diligence needed to understand these companies, which starts with accepting the axiom that all for-profit companies are exactly that: Profit-seeking. It’s only after we accept this fact that we are able to recognize the interests at stake, the complexities and the conflicts, and (attempt to) analyze the parties involved.

May 27, 2014

Home Sweet Home?

Time Magazine:

A new study out from the Council on Contemporary Families suggests that contrary to most surveys, people are actually more stressed at home than at work. Three Penn State researchers measured people’s cortisol, which is a stress marker, while they were at work and while they were at home and found it higher at what is supposed to be a place of refuge.

Means to an End

Members of the Information Security community at Stack Exchange chip in with some (doubtfully applicable) suggestions for someone who’s been on the web for a while and who now wants to anonymize themselves and go offline:

The problem is heuristics. All mentioned tools are built on heuristics and the only way to avoid them is to change how you live completely. You can be fingerprinted by the modules installed in your browser. By the programs you use and the frequency you use them.

These days you’re going further than just online behavior. Shops know what you buy in what amounts, because nobody buys all the same brands you are getting fingerprinted constantly. This is used for targetted advertising, but it can also theoretically be used to track you.

I think I went online for the first time at age eight, sometime in 1997. Dial-up was the only way for private consumers to access the internet, and my folks paid by the minute for a maximum speed of 56 KB/s. Google was still a research project in Stanford’s labs.

Then came ISDN, then DSL, and then…we’re here. We’ve come a long way, and some people are already asking whether we’ve gone too far. Who knows where we’re going to be in the next few years?

I’m excited about the web that my unborn children and I will get to use together, but I’m also scared by the thought of them introduced to it as early as I did. This is not about trust or openness: This is about how the developments in the last two decades that made the web so powerful and empowering and inciting and open, are also the same ones that make it so potentially…hazardous.

Maybe by the time I have kids our education system would have finally awakened from that coma it slid into back in the fifties. Maybe by then, web education will be an integral part of our children’s curriculums.

Wishful thinking.

But when contemplating all this — and this is something that bothers me in the rising discussions about technology’s effects on employment and the human kind in general — we need not forget that technology is indifferent: It does not desire or covet. It does not strive for better or worse. It never wants and never fears. Never aims or avoids.

Technology is neither good nor bad.

We are.

May 20, 2014

The Missing Shortcut

It’s a little ironic that this site starts to ramp up attention from some tech-notables at the same time when my professional career seems to enjoy an even stronger momentum that requires my attention and a writing hiatus.

(Yes, I have a talent for always finding a way to complain.)

Anyway, this Mac keyboard shortcuts article by Matt Gemmell has already been linked to death so the place I do want to send you to is its Hacker News thread. There I found this useful shortcut (and several more) which I think many OS X users — even veterans — aren’t aware of:

Normally, when you cycle open apps with Command+Tab, if you land on an application that has minimized windows, nothing happens. The way to remedy that is as follows: Hold Command and tab to the app you want to un-minimize. Without letting go of Command, press down Option, then while holding down Option, let go of Command.

Bonus tip: When landing on an application icon with Tab, continue holding Command and use Tilde (~) to cycle through windows of the same App. I use that one a lot too.

Shortcuts can be a little hard to memorize or confusing at first, but the investment pays for itself once you know enough of them to eliminate the need for a mouse or trackpad.

Talking About a (Radio) Revolution

Vehicle audio is something I’ve been investing a lot of thought into lately, so I want to zoom out of Apple’s recent announcement of CarPlay and talk about the general landscape.

Video killed the radio star. There is one reason that it hasn’t totally annihilated him, though: Traffic.

When you think about it, hardly anyone listens to the radio purposefully anymore. How many people do you know that turn on the radio at the same time or day to listen to a specific program? Radio-listening is no longer a habit — it’s mostly an accidental byproduct of the amount of time we spend in cars.

So as the last remaining fortress of the radio star, it’s interesting to observe the ways the in-car audio system is changing.

Before the “seek” function became widespread in the 1950s, drivers had to use a scrolling wheel to land at (or close to) the AM/FM frequency that the desired station transmitted at. Later, the introduction of push buttons and presets provided more liberty and freedom of choice.

Today, of course, these restrictive interfaces are a distant memory. Radio is just one part of the car’s dashboard. And while listeners are still invited to “tune in,” the term is only symbolic, a holdover from ancient times. When I turn the key in my car’s ignition, its media center automatically scans for radio stations within reach and displays their names. I don’t need to remember what frequency they’re on, in fact I don’t even know it. What frequency the radio waves oscillate at has become a technical detail that only the computer behind the scenes needs to know. So whereas my father might have had to scan through five stations on his way from station A to Station B, I can do so directly, instantaneously, and with (relatively) minimal risk to life.

Looking forward, I wonder what the implications of voice control will be. When this technology becomes better (more accurate), I think we’ll have pretty much solved the interface aspect of vehicle audio.

But that’s all interface. The technology that powers vehicle audio has seen very little progress, and is still generally confined to the AM/FM spectrum. What happens when digital radio becomes universal? What if we bypass the primitive infrastructure completely, with something like built-in LTE? (Some car manufacturers are already doing this).

Sure, audio cables, short-range FM transmitting accessories, and even Bluetooth connectivity in newer models have been allowing drivers to consume music, podcasts, and internet radio for years, but the need for these extras is exactly what’s holding things back. Not until these intermediaries are eliminated from the process — or at least made invisible to the consumer — will the big shift manifest itself.

The day when our favorite podcasts are presented on the same list as our favorite radio stations may not be here yet, but it will arrive imminently. And when technological advances allow the interface to blur the lines between the radio and podcast, when all components of the system streamline consumer choice, this will further fragment the already dwindling market share of mainstream broadcasters.

On the web, the drift towards content-personalization in journalism has already led figures like Jessica Lessin, Nate Silver, and Ezra Klein to branch out on their own. In the past few months alone, Lessin left The Wall Street Journal to found The Information, a subscription-based publication catering for tech executives and know-hows; Silver launched FiveThirtyEight in cooperation with ESPN, having left the New York Times; and Klein parted ways with his employer — The Washington Post — to launch Vox.com.

And if you care to notice, all three ventures by these mainstream alumni follow the model I talk about in my piece about the future of journalism: Dedicated crowd; expertise; small team. I mention this because I see the same happening to radio once consumers are no longer confined to a spectrum. When the medium gets (merely) as personal as the web is today, knwoledgeables1 are going to capture their respective dedicated crowds.

My media colleagues seem to believe that broadcast radio as we know it today is safe at least until driverless cars become a reality. Maybe they’re right. I believe other changes will profoundly affect vehicle audio (and subsequently the radio industry) much sooner than they anticipate.

Who wins or loses on the producing end matters very little, though; the biggest winner from the next radio revolution will ultimately and undoubtedly be the consumer.


  1. Specifically here: podcasters.