Saturday, June 24, 2017

Don't subscribe now!

In two previous posts, I tried to summarize the advice in Danny Newman’s excellent and seminal arts marketing book Subscribe Now!  I’m a big believer in his approach because I’ve personally seen it work incredibly well at the Altarena Playhouse, which grew its subscriber base from about 300 (in 2005, the low to which it had shrunk from about 600 several years earlier) to over 1000 by 2012, with most of that growth in the first few seasons after we started taking subscription marketing seriously.

But Newman’s book was originally written in the 1970s and updated in the 1980s, and there is sentiment among other arts marketing specialists that subscriptions are increasingly a poor fit for modern audiences. This argument is made in the latter chapters of Joanne Scheff Bernstein’s book Arts Marketing Insights. The major points of the argument are these, most of them supported by one or more studies (though whether the theaters and audiences studied were representative of your theater and audience may vary), accompanied by my own reactions:

  1. Up-front subscription is a cost to the patron with limited benefits. In particular, most subscribers state that the guarantee of good seats is the most important reason they continue to renew, while the effective discount on the ticket price is among the least important reasons.
    My reaction: Depending on your price point and the audience you are trying to reach, this may or may not be a consideration. In the Bay Area, where I live, the cost of a subscription to a solid community theater is about the cost of two dinners out. And one decision made at Altarena was that subscribers would also be allowed to cancel and change both their subscriber reservations and their additional single-ticket purchases with no penalty (up to a grace period of, say, 24 hours before curtain), so there are some other benefits.
  2. Younger audiences in particular are accustomed to planning at the last minute and instant gratification, and are unlikely to make plans in advance. The advance commitment required by subscriptions doesn’t fit this lifestyle.
    My reaction: Your subscription doesn’t necessarily have to ask patrons to set all their show dates in advance (though obviously you can’t guarantee specific seats unless they do this). Altarena’s subscribers can choose to either specify dates at the time they subscribe or reserve for each production later on. The Audience1st ticketing system they use makes it easy to generate a list of all subscribers who have not yet reserved for a particular production, so they can get a friendly email or phone call reminder to do so.
  3. The downside of a loyal subscriber audience is that they come to expect a certain kind of programming, and may go away if you change the mix. That is, your programming becomes beholden to keeping your subscribers happy.
    My reaction: If you are following Newman’s advice and using your subscription as a way to develop your audience as well as attract them—and this includes constantly refreshing your audience with new blood—this shouldn’t be a problem. Yes, Altarena started introducing shows into its subscriptions that weren’t favorites among some older subscribers. But they had attracted enough younger subscribers to more than make up the difference, and producing those shows broadened the theater’s appeal by putting it on the map for even more younger patrons, some of whom eventually became subscribers too.
  4. Given that most people who aren’t hardcore theatergoers don’t attend live theater that much to begin with, they may be reluctant to allocate all those nights to a single theater.
    My reaction: If the theater is convenient to where you live, makes you feel at home because you know the staff and repeatedly bump into other patrons there and develop a friendship with them, and you enjoy their programming and production values, why wouldn’t you go there several nights a year, especially if they go out of their way to treat subscribers particularly well and give them extra perks? Also, many community theaters only produce four to six shows a year anyway, and attending one live performance every two to three months doesn’t seem like a huge commitment to me.
Bernstein suggests that while theaters shouldn’t abandon the subscription model, they should be prepared to rely more on nonsubscribers to fill seats. She suggests strategies for “mini” or “flex” subscriptions that don’t represent as much of a commitment as a full series, or that allow patrons to “create their own” series (although I’ve argued against this for community theaters that do just a few productions per year and are actively trying to develop their audiences). She also suggests the concept of “membership,” that is, paying an annual fee that doesn’t by itself translate to seats but gives you the right to buy tickets at a discount during the season. This seems strange since a few pages earlier she says that the discount price is an unimportant reason subscribers say they renew, but she argues that “membership” gives the patron a “sense of belonging” that may translate to greater loyalty or affinity or goodwill for the theater. (Though having read Putnam’s brilliant but bleak Bowling Alone, I’m skeptical.)

I’m not ready to make that jump. Although I haven’t run the numbers myself for theaters I’ve been directly involved with, I’m confident that the marketing cost (dollars spent per seat filled) is significantly higher for single ticket sales than subscribers. And that’s not even counting the fact that when subscribers bring their friends, even if their friends never upsell, you got free word-of-mouth advertising that turned into a sale. The dollar amounts we’re talking about for buying subscriptions are not cripplingly high as they are for, e.g., opera or symphony subscriptions, so for most people in our target audience, it’s not as if we are asking them to make a major financial decision.


I read both Bernstein’s and Newman’s books, plus the weighty tome Standing Room Only, when I first joined Altarena’s board and we set the goal of making our patron base more robust. I came to the conclusion that we should double down on Newman’s approach and focus on subscriptions.

We put a great deal of effort into working with an excellent graphic designer to create an appealing brochure. Although we did several back-and-forth revisions to get the right balance of clarity, elegance, and call-to-action, the work has been repaid manyfold since we were able to re-use essentially the same design every year, and it became part of the brand. The trick was to make the brochure so good that we were proud, even eager, to hand them out wherever possible. I carried a handful with me to work every day. We distributed them to other theaters, local businesses, libraries, senior centers, civic groups, churches. We budgeted for multiple mailings, including one that put the brochure in an envelope with a letter personally signed by the Artistic Director and a followup (if needed) of the “bare” brochure (we designed it to be a tri-fold self-mailer that could be mailed with the theater’s existing nonprofit bulk mail permit).

We went door-to-door aggressively signing up local restaurants to offer subscribers a dinner discount on show nights. Most restaurants were very receptive to the idea of mutual support between local businesses, and one of them, C’era Una Volta, even started featuring an “Altarena Special” on their printed menu—“a delicious combination served quickly to get you to the theater on time.” Brilliant.

A married couple who were longtime patrons and supporters had also recently gotten into the winemaking business. We worked out a mutually beneficial relationship with them wherein they became the exclusive wine suppliers to the theater (for at least a couple of seasons), therefore getting quite prominent visibility at the concessions stand, and they agreed to give subscribers a discount on case or half-case purchases. A booze discount—now there was a subscription perk I could get behind.

In addition to subscription campaign planning along the lines Newman suggests, we had many other discussions leading to policies that would make life especially pleasant for our subscribers. Although Altarena is general seating, subscribers get to enter the theater first, so they get first choice of seats. They can change or cancel up to 8 hours before curtain at no cost, and that includes additional revenue tickets that they’ve bought for friends or purchased for shows not included in the subscription. When they do buy tickets for friends, they get a 10-15% discount on those. They get a warm shout-out during every curtain speech.

Speaking of the curtain speech, I’m amazed how many theaters underutilize it. During at least the last production of the current season and the first production of the upcoming season, a main goal of the curtain speech is to plug subscriptions. The house manager always reminds the patrons that next time they could be the ones getting first pick of seats, as well as getting dinner discounts at nearby restaurants, etc. In other words, she makes them want to be one the cool kids. (By the way, this should make it clear that the curtain speech is a performance, even if only a 2-minute one. Choose carefully who gives it.) All throughout the first production of the new season, we offer single-ticket buyers the chance to “upgrade” to a subscription by simply paying the difference. We have forms ready in the lobby at intermission where they can fill in their credit card number or leave cash or a check; a box office agent processes them during Act II and by the end of the evening we can hand them their subscriber fulfillment package.

The bottom line is that the battle for subscriptions is never over—we were always on the lookout for new perks we could offer. If we got a limited-engagement performer to do a cabaret or one-man show, subscribers would get dibs. If we had a sellout show, we’d hold back some seats from online sale to release to subscribers only, or we’d let subscribers make their reservations before opening up general sales. If we added a production or workshop not in the regular season, subscribers got a discount. Even with these efforts, the dollar yield of subscribers remains much higher, and they gave Altarena a solid base from which to solicit donations and, later, show sponsorships and capital campaigns.

I’m still with Danny Newman. Subscribe Now!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Day trips from the Bay Area

Visiting us in SF? If you have a car, here are some day and 2-day trips not far afield.

Wine country: Napa is closest (~1 hr), but Sonoma/Mendocino are more chill (1.5-2 hours). It’s getting hard to find mom-and-pop wineries there—everything is very commercialized and most places charge for tastings. That said, Mumm has interesting champagne cellars you can tour and a lovely outdoor tasting deck. Avoid weekends at all costs; it’s mobbed. We have maps of the region showing various wineries.

Santa Cruz Mountain wineries: The Santa Cruz/Monterey growing region produces lovely chardonnays and pinots (vs. the zins, merlots and cabs for which Napa/Sonoma/Mendocino are more known). And there are many more mom-and-pop operations that are more intimate and casual. Allow about 1.5 hours drive along the fast route (I-280 to CA-17 or CA-84) or 2 hours along the scenic route (CA-1 or CA-35 along the ridge). We have maps of the region showing various wineries.

Santa Cruz: Hippie/surfer town, amusement pier, and great fish restaurants. Can be a lunch stop on the way to Monterey if you drive that route. Right next door to achingly cute Capitola.

Monterey/Carmel: Its Cannery Row/Fishermans Wharf are no doubt touristy, but still lovely for oceanside dining when weather permits. The Aquarium is world class and includes indoor and outdoor exhibits emphasizing local fauna but with a good selection of exotics too. Expensive to stay here. 2 hour drive by the fast route, 2.5 to 3 by the scenic (coastal) route. Carmel is another ~30 minutes beyond that, and equally cute, though there is less to do; but plenty of good dinner options.

Big Sur: A challenge to get to right now due to the bridge and road washout; extremely remote by any standard. San Simeon/Hearst Castle is nearby but I personally find it less compelling than the crazy scenery. Allow at least 2.5 hours driving each way, plus sightseeing time.

Sausalito: No car required! Take the ferry there from the Ferry Building or Pier 39 (ask us for maps/timetables), or if adventurous, rent bicycles next to the Ferry Building, bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, and take the ferry back with your bike. A nice lunch/brunch stop, and if you have time, visit the fascinating SF Bay Model, constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate whether landfilling the entire Bay would be a good idea (no). ~20 minute ferry ride from downtown SF.

Golden Gate Bridge: The car parking plazas can be a pain, but the true experience of the bridge is obtained by walking or biking across it, which means you either park at one end or bike there (or you can Uber, or take the Golden Gate Transit bus; ask us for directions).

Yosemite: A bit ambitious for a day trip; 4.5 hours each way to the valley. Ask us for recommendations of where to stay outside the park (it can be tricky to get campground space inside the park in high season; there’s a couple of lodges including the beautiful and expensive California-Arts-and-Crafts Ahwahnee, on which Disney’s Grand Californian hotel is based, but they also fill up fast.)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Subscribe Now! (part 2)

If you have now drunk the Kool-Aid, and have Mission-From-God fervor to build up your subscriber base, I helpfully recap some of the main points (but by no means all of them; you should read it yourself) from Danny Newman’s classic book Subscribe Now.  (If you haven’t yet drunk the Kool-Aid, read Part 1 first.)

Making the case

Your best subscriber candidates are already emotionally invested in the theater. They just need a little goading, and a little overt acknowledgment of their devotion. What are some things you can do for subscribers that cost you little but reinforce the message that they are special?
  • Free cancellations and exchanges (nonsubscribers pay a fee, or aren’t allowed to cancel/exchange). However, don’t allow them to exchange into a different production. See “Many ways to package the product” below for why.
  • Free concessions at intermission (cookies, etc.)
  • Priority access to special events/limited engagements, before tickets are made available to the general public
  • Discounts if they bring friends to the show with them
  • If you’re general admission, early entry into the house to select the best seats, or access to a roped-off “subscriber priority” section of premium seats
  • If you’re reserved seating: Far-in-advance choice of the best seats
  • Reach out to local businesses—those likely to be patronized before or after a show by theatergoers—and suggest cross-promotion. For example, Altarena Playhouse subscribers get 10% off dinner on show nights at participating local restaurants; the restaurants get subsidized ad space in the show program and on the website, and the theater gets another perk it can offer to subscribers.
Note that many of the above rely on your ticketing system being able to implement them. Audience1st supports most of these scenarios.

Exercise: visit the websites of theaters with strong subscriber bases and see what they’re offering, and how prominently the “Subscribe Now” (or “Subscribe Now & Save”) messaging is featured on their sites.

Lastly, just as with donation drives, present subscriptions as an opportunity and not as begging. “We will go under without your subscription support” is an invitation to throw good money after bad. “Get front-row access and other perks at a discount price, while supporting professional quality theater in Your Town USA” sends a very different message.

Invest in the presentation and outreach: patrons aren’t acquired for free

The subscriber brochure is worth investing in: for many prospective subscribers it’s the first and only collateral piece they’ll see, and they’ll judge the theater by it. It should be concise, attractively presented, and have a clear message: Subscribe Now!  It should come with an attractive cover letter printed on a high-quality laser printer using the theater’s (color) letterhead. This is not the place to cut corners on presentation. (Nonprofits can save some money by getting a bulk mail permit.) You can also create a “tri-fold” self-mailer on standard letter size paper, but then you can’t enclose that letter from the AD—perhaps a short note with the AD’s photo and scanned signature inside the brochure can suffice.

Focus the message on why the patron wants to subscribe. Resist the temptation to make the brochure about you; it’s about getting them in the door. (Just like precious restaurant websites that focus on “telling the history of the restaurant”, most patrons visiting the restaurant website want to know “What's on the menu, when can I dine there, and what does it cost?”) Sometimes a theater or its designer will get hung up on principles such as “great art sells itself,” or may be more invested in the “image” of the theater and the integrity of getting that image on every subscription collateral. Fuck that. You are here to sell subscriptions, so the call to action should be unambiguous and obstacle-free: Subscribe Now and Save! Patrons should be free to subscribe online with a credit card, tear off a panel of the brochure to mail with a check, or call a clearly-indicated number and get help from the box office. It shouldn’t take more than one unfolding or page turn to get to the order form, which should have a small number of unambiguously clear choices for what subscription package to order and how to pay.

Patrons aren’t acquired for free. In volume, it costs about a dollar to print and mail a brochure (exclusive of design expenses, but hopefully you can get a friend of the theater who’s good at graphic design to give you a break on that). Emails by themselves don’t work, but an email pitch that comes after the brochure mailing can work as a reminder of that brochure they stuck to the fridge with a magnet while they think about whether to subscribe.

Even a beautiful brochure won’t be read the first time by most people. Plan on doing waves of mailings—maybe once a month or once every 3 weeks during pre-season—and plan on sending more than 1 copy of the brochure per household. (As subscriptions come in, you can generate custom reports that omit people who’ve already subscribed.) A rule of thumb in marketing is that people need to hear a message seven times before they act on it. If you’re doing a combination of email and US mail, carefully schedule and time these to alternate presentations and hit each prospect multiple times.

Remember that even if you mail 4 separate paper copies and intervening emails to a patron to hook them, and maybe even call them as a followup, you’ve still spent less than $5 to acquire that customer (much less if the household buys more than 1 subscription). This is your foundation and your base, and not the time to nickel-and-dime marketing expenses. You have to spend money to make money.

The fulfillment mailing should be beautiful. Even if you’re a 100% will-call house, put something in the package that serves as a tangible token of the subscription. Include a letter signed personally by the artistic director; 1000 letters can be hand-signed in under an hour, and if given an hour and a half, each can include a one-line comment to the customer if the AD knows them personally. The letter should  first congratulate the patron on their excellent artistic taste in choosing to sign up so they can get in on the ground floor of what is sure to be a great season, and then thank them for their support, acknowledging that they’re now part of a special “inside circle” on whom the theater is so reliant, that is, they’re now part of the bedrock of the enterprise. If there are credentials that grant preferential access to seating, or serve as an identifier for discounts at local businesses, make sure you include them.

Include a copy of the brochure. Yes, they got one as part of the signup/renewal drive, but you can’t miss an opportunity to remind them what great shows are coming up this season.

Ask your current subscribers what they like, and find a way to recognize them if they refer new subscribers.

Find out who didn’t re-up from last year. Send them a personal email or letter (not form letter) and ask why. If it seems you can get them back, make them an offer they can’t refuse. The net future value of a subscriber is worth it even if you feel you’re taking a bath on the special offer.

Never give subscriptions away for free as a prize or thank-you. The iPod is one of the best-selling personal electronic devices ever, yet Apple has never given any away. Giving something away sends the message that it has low or no value. Instead, give away single tickets, and then offer the lucky winners the chance to upgrade to a subscription (perhaps at a discount price) by paying the difference from the face value of the ticket they got for free. But the subscription itself is valuable, so it’s never free, even to your big donors.

Set targets and track them

How many new subscribers do you want to sign up? What percent of existing subscribers do you want to renew? Does your ticketing system make it easy to check how close you are to meeting those goals? Chapter 5 of Newman’s book has a comprehensive example table summarizing possible goals of a campaign. Here’s an adapted summary of some of the possible campaign items, though not all items will be appropriate for all theaters. Importantly, each item has a target sales figure, so at the end of the campaign you can determine which ones were most effective.

Total subscriptions available to sell: 1000 (an aggressive value for this number would be the number of subscriptions needed to fill 80% of your seats for the season.)

ComponentDescriptionGoal
RenewalRenew 70% of current subscribers. Consider offering “early bird” discount if renew before “official” subscription campaign begins. (According to Joanne Scheff Bernstein’s Arts Marketing Insights, historically 50% of first-time subscribers renew, 80% of two-year subscribers renew, and 90% of longer-term subscribers renew, so 70% is not a bad balanced average.)560
Convert single-ticket buyersIdentify top 5% of single-ticket buyers from previous season(s) and upsell them to 2 subscriptions each. (Assuming ~250 single-ticket buyers last season) “We noticed you attended 3 of our shows last year. Did you know that for the same price, you could be a subscriber this season and attend all 5 shows, plus get a bunch of other benefits?”25
Renew lapsed subscribersFind top 25 people who had previously subscribed but didn’t renew last season. Re-enroll them, with personal outreach/special offer if necessary25
Referral by existing subscribersRecruit top 20 current subscribers (some of whom may also be Board  members, producers, sponsors, etc) to sell 4 subscriptions each, by pressing the flesh in any way necessary; find an appropriate incentive (VIP event, "gold" subscriber privileges at shows, etc)80
Cocktail partiesHost a “friendraiser” event and invite your best nonsubscriber patrons20
Block salesSell a block of subscriptions at a discounted rate to neighborhood organizations, civic groups, etc.20
Board referralGet 5 Board members to write personal letters to 100 friends each; expect 5% return on subscription sales25
CommissionOffer neighborhood/civic/church groups, student groups, service organizations, etc. the opportunity to sell subscriptions on commission. E.g. allow seller to keep 15-20% of subscription price. 100
Student discountAdvertise through music/theater teachers in local high schools and colleges to sell deeply discounted student subscriptions. (Be sure to state that ID will be checked, to prevent misuse of this by the unscrupulous few.)20
Direct mail phase 1Email to entire patron list (assume 2000 names, 0.5% yield)10
Direct mail phase 2Season brochures mailed to direct mailing list (2000 names, 2% yield)40
Direct mail phase 3Email reminder followup to everyone who hasn’t responded in phases 1 or 2 (1% yield)20
Single ticket upsellDuring curtain speech of first production of season, offer single ticket buyers the option to upgrade to a subscription by paying the difference—have forms ready to fill out with space for credit card info or allow payment at box office. 50

Many ways to package the product

Initially it may be important to offer a “subscriber product” (something that makes you part of the “subscriber family”) at various price points. For example, you could offer subscriptions valid only during previews or only at matinees, etc. These folks still get the same benefits subscribers get, but can only attend certain performances. (But keep it simple; experience suggests patrons can be overwhelmed by too many choices.)

However, don’t provide “subscriptions” that are so flexible they allow all the subscription vouchers to be used for one production. That’s not a subscription; that’s a discount. A subscription also develops the patron’s taste and knowledge of theater, provides a solid base of sold seats even for more daring productions, and gives both the patron and the theater a sense of continuity as they see each other regularly several times each season. A “flex subscription” that allows using all of the vouchers for one show does none of these.

Note that many of these campaign strategies require support from your customer relationship management software. For example, identifying your “best prospects” from among current nonsubscribers means you have to be able to mine the data to find repeat visitors; emailing or generating mailing labels for your entire patron list can either be a 1-click operation or a nightmare; and so on. Use software that helps you develop the audience base.

Regarding student subscriptions: Newman strongly recommends these over “student rush” lotteries (and I agree) bceause subscriptions make students first-class customers, and gets them accustomed to paying to support the arts. “Rush” is a cattle call that pits them against each other to compete for a limited number of cheap seats. The messaging is very different. If you message to students through local arts teachers, send the message that you want to include them as first-class citizens in your theatrical community, rather than the message that you are throwing them a bone because they have less disposable income than adults.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Subscribe Now! (part 1)

Subscribe now!

Several years ago when Altarena Playhouse was looking to shore up the theater’s operations and rejuvenate its subscriber base, I read Danny Newman’s classic book Subscribe Now! Mr. Newman is on a mission from God to get more theaters to be able to rely more heavily on their subscribers for both revenue and seat-filling/word-of-mouth. A few aspects of the book are dated (first edition was 1977) but I’ve tried to summarize the most valuable bits of advice here so you don’t have to read the whole thing (though its writing style is fun to read).
A number of years ago when the reconstituted board of

The premise is simple: there are two kinds of theater patrons—subscribers and everyone else.

  • Subscribers have shown their faith in the theater by paying in advance for shows they may not even have heard of. They like to feel like they made the right choice by supporting you.
  • They give you a cash injection that helps finance your season. 
  • They will be guaranteed to fill a certain percentage of seats, and will often bring friends.
  • Because they’ve prepaid to attend every production (not just cherry-pick the ones they’ve heard of), they will over time become more appreciative and discriminating theatergoers, and will feel even more invested as “inner circle” patrons.
  • As they spend more time at the theater they will also become familiar with your economic situation, and will be ready to cultivate as donors.

In short, subscribers are angels, and single-ticket buyers are fickle and faithless. You must do everything you can to upsell the latter to the former.

Mythbusting subscription campaigns


  • Myth: You shouldn’t sell too many subscriptions—you’ll anger single-ticket buyers when they can’t get tickets.
    Reality: In 2017, SHN SF sold a ton of subscriptions by making clear that Hamilton tickets would be given to subscribers first. It worked.
  • Myth: Subscribers cost us money because the amount they’re paying per show is much less than face value of a single ticket.
    Reality: Many nonsubscriber seats go unsold, giving you zero revenue. The real number you care about is revenue per seat after the season is over, because once the curtain goes up, any empty seats have zero value. A good rule of thumb is “If you don’t sell it on subscription, you probably won’t sell it at all.”
  • Myth: If single-ticket buyers can’t get seats because subscribers have them all, they’ll eventually stop trying to even come to your shows.
    Reality: This only matters when a blockbuster show draws out people who wouldn’t usually come, and sometimes not even then; and if it does happen then, see above re Hamilton.
  • Myth: Subscribers won’t sign up if they don’t know every show in the season, and/or we’re beholden to them to do particular kinds of programming.
    Reality: Subscribers don’t think in terms of hits and flops but rather good and bad seasons. If the season overall was good, they’ll forgive one or two shows whose material they didn’t like. And remember most people already don’t like your work.
  • Myth: If we have lots of publicity/visibility, we don’t need to rely as heavily on subscribers.
    Reality: No amount of bumper stickers on cars with the theater's logo, or placement/advertising at public events, translates directly to butts in seats. Subscriptions do. Publicity is only useful if accompanied by aggressive follow-up. The message and visibility on its own will not cause tickets to be sold.
  • Myth: There’s too much competition for the same eyeballs because there’s so many theaters close to ours.
    Reality: SF Playhouse sells a staggering number of subscriptions each year and it is smack in the middle of San Francisco’s theater district, within footsteps of the nationally-ranked American Conservatory Theater and a stone’s throw from large houses that stage touring Broadway productions. But they offer a different product than those other theaters.
  • Myth: Even if we don’t have enough subscribers we can always fill seats by offering discounts if the house isn’t well sold.
    Reality: this is a path to becoming overly reliant on discount-ticketing channels, and in addition, many studies have found that this strategy attracts people who want things for cheap, rather than people who are interested in theater and likely to be repeat customers. I’ve written some other thoughts about avoiding discount channels that target the wrong audience.
Convinced? In the next post I summarize some of Newman’s time-tested concrete strategies for executing a good campaign.

Friday, April 21, 2017

"Damaged" by BASIC

At a recent conference I attended where a main theme of many papers was intelligent tutors to help novice programmers, an audience Q&A after one of the talks turned to the affordances available to novice programmers in computing’s early days, including the BASIC programming language, which was developed expressly to introduce nontechnical students to computing.

It didn’t take long for one of the discussants to mention that during Edsger Dijkstra’s storied career, he ranted against many things in computer science that he thought were “considered harmful,” including the BASIC language. Specifically, Dijkstra wrote: “It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.” (COBOL and FORTRAN were the target of similarly withering remarks.)

Now, with all due respect, to some of us them’s fightin’ words. A number of us in the room were of the generation that cut their teeth on BASIC, and hey, we turned out OK. So as the session moderator, I abused the moderator’s privilege and told the audience that anyone who felt indignant at Dijkstra’s smackdown of BASIC might find some comfort in reading my essay In Praise of BASIC: The Cultural Impact of the World’s Most Maligned Programming Language. Until I figure out whether any journal or other publication might want this screed, you can read it at bit.ly/damagedbybasic. Enjoy.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Learn programming by gamifying? How about by reading?

On impulse I spent a couple of dollars on Amazon Marketplace to buy the out-of-print book Micro Adventure No. 1: Space Attack.  It's a "second person thinker" adventure novella: like old-school interactive fiction (i.e. text adventures),  it's written in the second person, as in "Although you'd like to rest for a few minutes, Captain Garrety insists that you get to your feet…"

In this short story aimed at pre-teens—the first in a series of at least 10, dating from the early 1980s—you must defend a space station from alien attack. But the interesting bit is that eight BASIC programs are embedded into the text of the story, as the page scan below shows.

The initial program just has to be typed in and run in order to reveal the "secret message" that will describe your mission to you. But as the book progresses, the programs require you to debug, analyze, or otherwise modify them as part of the story line. Some programs have bugs you must fix; in other cases you're asked to write a short program that automates a simple task, such as showing mappings between text characters and their ASCII codes (this is pre-Unicode, remember), in order to help "decode" intercepted enemy messages.


Of course, failing to do the puzzles can't block your progress in the story, because nothing stops you from just turning the page to keep reading. But this strikes me as an interesting way to get kids to learn how simple programs work. (I don't know how effective it was.) There is a "reference manual" at the end of the book explaining how the programs work, giving hints on solving the puzzles, and, of course, indicating which modifications must be made to allow the programs to run on different microcomputers. (Whereas code in a modern scripting language like Python will behave the same on all platforms, BASIC "dialects" differed enough across different computers that almost any non-toy program required changes to work with other computers' BASIC interpreters.)

An entire generation of programmers was first introduced to computing via the BASIC language. I've been looking for an example of an old geometry or physics textbook containing "Try it in BASIC" examples (we didn't use any of those at my middle school), but this seems a lot more fun. While I'm pretty convinced today's kids don't read books anymore, perhaps this approach could be adapted into an interactive format in which you actually play an adventure game but have to solve programming-related puzzles to make actual game progress. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Book summary: America in the Seventies

Beth Bailey and David R. Farber. America in the Seventies (Culture America series). University Press of Kansas, 2004.

The premise of this book, as with similar books of observations of the American 70s by other writers, could be summed up as "the 70s is when the 60s were implemented." While the seeds of civil rights, gender equality, labor solidarity, etc. may have been sown in the 60s, the actual policies that put these ideas in practice happened during the 70s. At the same time, the US confronted a series of setbacks: Vietnam was not only a military embarrassment with enormous human costs, but a war that polarized the nation on moral grounds, with none of the moral clarity or national purpose of WW II; expanded government programs and higher-paid labor to meet the social demands of the 60s, combined with the replacement of American heavy industry with imported goods and the movement of labor-intensive production overseas, resulted in "stagflation" (inflation combined with economic stagnation); the Arab oil shocks painfully emphasized America's utter dependence on the whim of a small group of nations whose culture in some ways could not be further from our own. Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal made the public cynical that the government was not only incapable of resolving these economic woes, but lacked integrity and was not invested in the well being of the middle class. Social structures were challenged by movements involving gender roles, racial identity, and sexual identity, destabilizing social norms that were perceived to have anchored the country for decades and leaving many people casting about for their personal identity and purpose as well as confidence in their country. This toxic combination led to a nationwide anomie and alienation as expressed in gritty (and now-iconic) 70s movies like Taxi Driver, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Midnight Cowboy, and Saturday Night Fever.

One very significant result of this existential crisis was the emergence of the New Right with the Reagan election of 1980. By latching on to the common denominators of dissatisfaction with government incompetence and corruption and the alienation bred by changing social roles, the New Right assembled a constituency of anti-tax activists, critics of "big government", and the religious right. Reagan and his successors used this mandate to gut the government altogether, following an existing conservative agenda that just needed dusting off after losing its social luster during the 60s.

The book is a collection of well chosen independent essays, each treating one of these social or economic upheavals in detail. As an academic myself, I approached it with some trepidation since academic writing can be ponderous and needlessly self-indulgent, but these are vigorously written and eminently readable by a non-expert like me. I commend the editors on their choices, though I would have enjoyed some connective material to introduce each essay or place it in the context of the larger themes, as is common in "edited by" collections. Notwithstanding, this is a highly readable and informative account of how the "me decade" of the 70s, in trying to in implement the social reforms of the 60s, ironically enabled the rise of the New Right and "greed is good" in the 80s.

Book summary: The Next America

Paul Taylor. The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown. PublicAffairs, 2016.

To paraphrase a famous scientist, the nice thing about data is that it doesn't matter whether you believe it or not. This book contains a tremendous amount of (summarized) data about the current and future demographics of the United States, gathered from both public sources (eg statistics published by the Bureau of the Census, the IRS, and other Federal agencies) and from one of the world's best-known nonpartisan survey-based research foundations (Pew).

I'd summarize the biggest takeaways as follows:

Generational attitude shift. The combination of immigration, intermarriage, and changing social morĂ©s among younger generations (the author identifies today's primary generational groups from oldest to youngest as Silent, Boomers, GenX, and Millennials) mean that the social attitudes of current and future voters lean overwhelmingly towards what most people would associate with "progressive values" or with the Democratic Party. In particular, as the Republican Party has tacked farther and farther to the right, the segment of the electorate receptive to their messages is shrinking and in fact dying. On the other hand, these younger-but-growing segments of the electorate have a much poorer voter-turnout record than their older and more conservative counterparts. This combination of elements has profound consequences for future elections.

Socioeconomic consequences of an aging population. The biggest coming "showdown" (to which the subtitle alludes) is the aging of the world's population. Japan, China, and some European nations will get there ahead of the US, in part because although birth rates are falling everywhere throughout the developed world, in the US that effect is partially offset by immigration, especially economically (since most immigrants arrive ready to work rather than newborn). But all these countries are rapidly approaching a point where fewer and fewer working people are supporting more and more seniors. (In Japan the ratio will approach 1:1 by about 2040 if current trends continue.) There is an unfortunate positive feedback loop in countries like the US where most legislation is made democratically: the older generations constitute a large and growing voter bloc to whom politicians must cater, and that bloc has been using its influence to appropriate a growing share of government wealth redistribution. In the US, Social Security and Medicare are basically on the ropes. At some level most of us know this, but the statistics and trends presented to quantify the situation are stark.

In other words: not only will the older and younger generations find themselves at odds economically on how to redistribute wealth, but their positions will be even farther apart because their social contexts are so different. As the author states in the introduction, "either transformation by itself would be the dominant demographic story of its era."

The book does a nice job of including enough charts and graphs inline when necessary to illustrate or back up a point, but relegating vastly more charts and tables to an Appendix you can browse at leisure or for more detail.

There is also a fascinating and well written appendix describing in high level terms the survey methodologies used by Pew and other professional research organizations, for those who think surveys are just a matter of asking some questions and tabulating answers. The appendix covers random sampling; a lay-person explanation of sampling error and reweighting; various biases including recency, confirmation, and self-selection; running meta-surveys to test the effect of different phrasings or presentations of the same questions; and much more. Indeed, this appendix is useful reading for anyone involved in doing rigorous surveys, whether they are interested in the rest of the book's content or not.


Whether it cheers you up, depresses you, or just causes you to raise an eyebrow may depend on where you fall on the political spectrum, but regardless of where you do, this is essential and well-reported information.

Book summary: The Wealth of Humans

Ryan Avent. The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century. St. Martin’s Press, 2016.

What follows is my summary of the book's main argument. There's a number of useful reviews on Amazon, including some written by very informed people who disagree with key points of the author's argument. The main objection seems to be that the author overstates the extent to which income inequality is an inevitable by-product of technological change (section 1 of my summary below), and understates the extent to which it is affected by politics/institutional decisions, e.g. infrastructure spending programs that can locally increase labor demand and social conventions to boost wages. 

Executive summary

In most economically free societies, the two mechanisms of wealth-sharing are work (employers shift wealth to employees by paying them) and redistribution (taxes pay for goods and services that may not be redistributed in proportion to how much you paid), and the society has a definition of who is "in" (eligible to participate in both mechanisms). This book asks: What happens to these mechanisms when increasing automation is squeezing the first, and those controlling the wealth are opposed to expanding the reach of the second?

Its overall responses are: (1) while it's true that policy everywhere has tipped to favor wealth concentration, the essential problem is structural; (2) As a result of this fundamental structural problem, most efforts to "create jobs" will run into problems that ultimately doom them; (3) therefore, for better or worse, some form of non-labor-based redistribution will become necessary (eg universal basic income).

1. Productivity-enhancing technology thwarts a balanced labor market 

Henry Ford's innovation was to de-skill individual roles to vastly decrease the cost and increase the per-employee productivity of making cars; precisely because the de-skilled jobs were tedious, he raised wages and coddled his employees to attract labor and reduce turnover, something he could afford to do because of their high productivity. But this scenario comes with 3 problems.

First, the high productivity makes it affordable to pay higher wages, but workers in low-productivity industries such as education and healthcare that suffer from Baumol's "cost disease" (it costs about the same to educate 1 student or care for 1 patient as it ever has) are in the same labor market, so their wages must rise *despite* stagnant productivity, thereby increasing the cost to the consumer of purchasing those goods or services. That is, wealthy companies can afford to pay employees more because of the employees' much higher productivity, so that most income inequality is due to wage gaps *between* firms/sectors rather than within them.

Second, productivity-enhancing de-skilling paves the way for complete automation of those jobs, so the benefit to low-skill workers is short-lived.

Third, since higher productivity leads to a labor glut even before automation takes over, it pushes wages down. This is bad because while the effective price of some goods also falls due to that productivity (cars, cell phones), the effective price of others doesn't, either because supply is scarce (housing) or because they suffer from Baumol's cost disease of stagnant productivity (education, healthcare).

This is an example of how "job creation" systems can end up working against themselves. Future employment opportunities will likely satisfy at most 2 of the following 3 conditions ("employment trilemma"): (1) high productivity and wages, (2) resistant to automation, (3) potential to absorb large amounts of labor. To see the dynamic, consider the solar-panel industry. Increased productivity in manufacturing solar panels has caused them to drop in cost, creating a large market for solar panel installers, a job resistant to automation (meets criteria 2 and 3). But that same increased productivity means most of the cost of acquiring solar is the installation labor, limiting wage growth for installers (fails criterion 1). As another example, consider healthcare. As technology increases the productivity of (or automates) other aspects of care delivery, healthcare jobs will concentrate in non-automatable services requiring few skills besides bedside manner and the willingness to do basic and often unpleasant caregiver tasks. As a third, consider artisanally-produced goods, whose low productivity is part of their appeal (meets 1 and 2). But the market for them is limited to the small subset of people who can afford to buy them (fails 3).

Can education help? Higher educational attainment is still key to high wages, but not to high wage *growth*. The level of education required for that has been climbing higher and higher, putting it beyond the economic (and possibly intellectual) reach of most people, yet those are precisely the credentials needed to participate in the most lucrative parts of the economy. The displaced workers "trickle down" the skill-level chain and depress wages even higher in the wage hierarchy. So improving education, while a good idea, won't help people in poor countries as much as simply moving them into a rich country to work in that economy.

2. Hence, social capital is increasingly key to successful companies…

Since WW2, developed-nation economies have increasingly "dematerialized" to where most of the value in goods being produced was in knowledge-worker contributions, rather than physical manufacturing or the labor therein. (iPhones and cars are built overseas, yet most of their value is in design and software, which aren't outsourced.) Increasingly, the "wealth" of a company is not in its capitalization or even the material output of its employees, but its "culture" -- its way of absorbing, refactoring, and acting on information in a value-added way that is difficult to replicate and produces a product customers want to buy.

(This is also why cities are resurgent -- they permit a dense social/living fabric that promotes evolution of social capital, and the larger/denser the city, the more productive it becomes because of this effect, supporting high levels of specialization and social networks that facilitate labor mobility. The demand results in high housing costs, but NIMBYs oppose building more housing because even though the benefits would be spread over the whole city, the costs would be concentrated in their neighborhood.)

By definition, culture is a group phenomenon, not a set of rules handed down by a boss. Social capital cannot be exported like material goods; all you can do is try to create (or impose) conditions under which it can develop by allowing the free flow of ideas and labor (ie, the people in whose heads social capital lives), as the EU is trying to do within Europe. This is troubling for developing economies whose societies lack social capital.

Hence, China, having spent a fortune to create physical infrastructure to improve worker productivity, has reached diminishing returns: further productivity improvements must now come from "deepening" the workers' social capital, which has been wrecked by decades of cultural mismanagement by a totalitarian regime. Similarly, India's outsourcing boom and China's hyper-rapid industrialization occurred because technology allowed them to temporarily bypass the difficult step of building social capital, by "biting off" chunks of activity taking place in richer economies: India hosting outsourced call centers, or China jumping into a global supply chain established by rich economies and uniquely facilitated by the digital economy, in both cases offering labor at lower cost. But this era is ending: other countries can play the same trick (eg Indonesia as the new China, depressing Chinese wages), automation is coming, and the relative advantage to outsourcing decreases as products become more information-centric. (Though note that while "reshoring" is happening, it's not creating more jobs: Tesla would rather pay a few highly skilled engineers to oversee an automated assembly plant than pay lots of low-skilled factory workers to build something manually and less reliably elsewhere.)

It used to be thought that poor countries were poor because they lacked financial capital, but it's now clear that they can build factories without resulting in good social capital (India, China). Indeed, highly-educated workers in poor countries become more productive when they move to rich countries, suggesting it's the country's social capital that is lacking.

3.   …yet the benefits of social capital don’t accrue to those who create and embody it 

Yet as important as social capital is, when a worker leaves a company, his knowledge of that company's "culture" is generally not useful at a new firm, so he has little leverage (though this is somewhat counterbalanced by the pressure to not have *most* workers quit, which would destroy the culture). Conversely, a chief executive is harder and costlier to replace, so has more leverage as an individual. Herein lies the problem: "social capital" is in the collective heads of individual workers, but its benefits flow disproportionately to the owners of financial capital. A corollary is that the efficiency gains achieved by fluid (ie non-unionized) labor markets haven't been redistributed to the workers whose bargaining power was sacrificed to achieve those efficiencies. Marx predicted that that dynamic was unsustainable, and the society would collapse because either the workers would revolt and upend the government and the social norms it curates, hence destroying the wealth for everyone, or that the wealth-owners would asymptotically reach a point where no further wealth could be generated and harvested so they'd start fighting each other over the fixed amount of wealth, again destroying the society. Piketty notes that the 2 world wars did a lot to disrupt this downward slide because wars, taxation, inflation, and depression destroyed many of the superconcentrated fortunes made in the industrial age, but as noted above, the change was temporary.

The consequence of this structural problem is that some form of non-labor-based redistribution is likely to be the only nonviolent way forward. This path has at least two challenges. One is that the act of doing work has other benefits -- agency, dignity, reinforcement of socially-useful values -- that would be lost; although surveys show that people saddled with extra free time due to weak job markets tend to spend it sleeping or watching TV, ie, at leisure. A second challenge is that such "highly redistributive" societies tend to emerge in ethnically/nationally coherent political units, and motivate the society to draw a tight boundary around itself. E.g. Scandinavian countries have generous welfare states that make them desirable to immigrate into, but as a result the load on the welfare system generated by lots of immigration is tearing at the seams of their welfare economies. That is, we can't expect rich liberal countries to throw open their borders heedlessly when the potential pool of immigrants dwarfs those working to generate the wealth that is redistributed.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Book summary: From Betamax to Blockbuster



Joshua M. Greenberg, From Betamax to Blockbuster: Video Stores and the Invention of Movies on Video. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016.

Summary: Although the VCR was originally positioned as a device for time-shifting TV, its dominant use quickly became the viewing of pre-recorded content. The book tells the story of that evolution, and how it affected both the medium and the content: how the mismatches between the technology of the VCR/TV vs. theaters affected movie viewing, the social and commercial constructs such as video rental stores that sprang up around the experience, and the cultural shift in the perception of what, exactly, a "movie" was and what the experience of "watching a movie" came to mean. Video rental stores, which provided the intermediary that brought these mismatched perspectives together, did such a good job that they ultimately rendered themselves obsolete.

Technological prehistory. In 1969 Sony invented the U-Matic, the first cassette-based color videotape recorder and ancestor of the Betamax, which could record up to an hour of video in the NTSC (American analog TV) format. Up to then, reel-to-reels with low-density tape had been used for "kinescoping" a TV broadcast: a show would be shot on the East Coast, a kinescope pointed at a monitor to record the playback, and then the film would be developed and rebroadcast around the country. Selling the U-matic was hard since there was no "software"; initial attempts focused on getting educational companies to convert their materials to the format for in-school use; in practice, adult video arcades probably did more to launch the industry, replacing "film loops" with cassettes.

Sony positioned the 1975 Betamax (price: $1,295) as a device for "time-shifting TV", hence underestimated consumer demand for blank cassettes. In addition, Betamax tapes could only record 1 hour of video. For the first 2 years of Betamax's existence, the only prerecorded tapes users could legally buy were public domain films or pornography. Japanese competitor JVC (Japan Victor Corporation) came up with its own incompatible format called VHS, which could record two full hours albeit with slightly lower quality than Betamax. JVC also triggered a price war by licensing the rights to manufacture VHS equipment to any manufacturer, whereas Sony was the exclusive manufacturer of Betamax equipment. One VHS manufacturer, Matsushita (Panasonic), struck a deal with RCA to manufacture a unit that would allow 4 hours of recording on VHS tape at substantially lower quality, allowing sports events to be captured in their entirety. Sony (and most experts) insisted that Betamax's recording quality was superior, but that seemed less important to consumers than longer recording time and lower-priced equipment. Sony eventually responded to these technical and business challenges with improvements to Betamax, but by then VHS had basically won the format war with consumers.

Late 1970s: early adopters lead to the birth of a consumer-facing business. Early videophiles (usually white males, 21-39) would record and archive entire TV miniseries (or better, movies) and even edit out commercials to make the experience closer to viewing a movie. They would copy and trade tapes, by mail or in person at informal gatherings; they formed nationwide networks supported by amateur magazines, phone numbers, and mailinglists used to distribute photocopies of TV Guide listings from other regions.

A pilot test of a third format called Cartrivision, which could hold 2 hours of video and was used to distribute "classic" movies, failed due to poor implementation: technical problems made the tapes disintegrate prematurely and damage the players; the tapes could not be rewound except by a dealer, to ensure that renting only allowed a single viewing, which angered users (a necessary concession to movie studios, who refused to license movies unless they could closely control the viewing experience); and the tapes were delivered by mail, taking days to arrive. Indeed, when Sony released the Betamax in 1975, chairman Akio Morita had tried to strike a deal with Paramount to distribute movies, but again failed because the studio feared losing control of the user's viewing experience. In essence, attempts to create a movie-distribution market were hobbled by tying the studio-imposed constraints of distribution to the technology used. VHS sidestepped most of that and became the dominant format, so it was effectively poised to become the vehicle for distributing movies to consumers; but the studios were still resistant, seeing it as a threat that would cannibalize their existing business model of distributing movies to theaters.

Nonetheless, some entrepreneurs saw a market for media in the home, and started making inroads:
  • Noel Gimbel, owner of the Chicago electronics store Sound Unlimited, thought he could stimulate VCR sales by selling public-domain movies on tapes. Later, he would convince Paramount that that studio's ill-fated exclusive with Fotomat for distributing movies was failing, as video store owners were simply distributing bootlegged copies.
  • Don Rosenberg, who worked for a record distributor, had the idea of going door-to-door convincing music retailers to expand into video, which was tricky because the distribution model for video was based on the model for the appliances with which blank tapes were sold—retailers paid for stock and sold it. In contrast, music was like books—dealers got paid only when customers bought something, and had 90 days to return unsold goods. 
  • Entrepreneur Andre Blay is credited with kickstarting the media-in-the-home industry by making successful deals with 20th Century Fox to establish a rental membership plan for movies. His company Magnetic Video did video duplication and distribution for studios, and he had seen that studios licensed 20-minute "digests" of movies for distribution on 8mm tape; why couldn't they make even more by licensing full-length movies? Fox ultimately acquired Magnetic Video as Fox Home Entertainment, and other studios followed suit and set up their own Home Entertainment divisions. This forced the hand of distributors and retailers in the music industry, and the home entertainment retail industry became a hybrid of the previous music model and the new video rental model.
  • Because of the questionable moral standing of pornographic video, the societal stigma of going into a porno theater, and in some cases its ties to organized crime, pornographers were more willing to embrace risky distribution strategies. Porno was instrumental in launching the home media industry. (Porno theaters showing bootlegged tapes were paid a visit by organized crime.)
Slowly the material nature of the cassette began to give way to the abstract nature of "buying entertainment", as video stores started stocking shelves with empty boxes or box covers while keeping the tapes stored elsewhere (usually for security reasons), and the VCR itself, originally intended as the focus of consumer attention for time-shifting TV, became an incidental artifact used to play back movies. Early video stores were often staffed by movie buffs with no retail experience who just enjoyed being around movies and offering personalized advice to customers, and customers offering advice to each other while browsing the shelves; "going to the video store" became a social ritual as much as watching the movie itself. Local stores hence became social spaces "like bars without alcohol" (consumption junctions, in the language of media theory).

The maturation of the rental industry: franchisization and disintermediation. By the early 1980s, the nature of the rental industry changed as video rental took off. Early video-rental stores took advantage of the "first purchase" rule that applies to books, wherein the original purchaser can do whatever they want with their copy of a video, including rent it an unlimited number of times with no royalty payments to the studio; in retaliation studios began licensing "rental-only" copies at much higher cost, and uneasy truces were eventually reached as a result of retailers and distributors forming advocacy organizations that could negotiate licensing and royalty terms with the studios. Still, with rapidly growing consumer demand for renting movies, self-styled entrepreneurs with no retail experience wanted to open video stores; some successful video chain owners even had a side business providing consulting or "turnkey setup" of your own new video-rental business, most of which were no longer staffed by movie buffs as in the early days. The transformation was complete when entrepreneur Wayne Huizenga saw the first Blockbuster Video store in Florida: clean and bright, family-friendly (no adult-video room in back), prominently displayed children's programming section, and the accoutrements of the movies (popcorn, candy, etc.)—something a few independents had started to do, but became a formula with Blockbuster. The chain reached such efficiency that it could load an 18-wheeler with everything necessary (furniture, tapes, electronic equipment) to turn an empty storefront into an operating retail location within 24 hours.

What is a movie? The spread of VCRs challenged the Platonic ideal of "the movie". Previously the movie as artifact had been wedded to both the technology of the theater (albeit widely varying) and its cultural setting. TV had a different commercial milieu (embedded advertising; FCC constraints and scheduling constraints that led to often heavy "editing for TV"), a different cultural one (sitting in the dark with strangers vs. sitting in living room with family/friends; pausing to go to the bathrrom), and a different technological one (1.33 aspect ratio vs. 2.35 widescreen; mono or stereo vs. surround audio). The introduction of "letterbox" VHS tapes was bumpy because for some consumers watching movies on TV was framed as watching TV, which was supposed to fill the screen, whereas for others it was framed as watching movies, in which case it was a more "movielike" experience. (Ironically, the 1.33 aspect ratio of TVs was chosen to imitate the early movie industry; 2.35 was adopted later when the movie industry perceived itself as under threat from TV and in need of differentiation.) Similarly colorization: some actors, notably Cary Grant, evaluated it in terms of its matching the physical sets on which filming had occurred, whereas some directors and many critics blasted it because it distorted their only experience of the movie, which had been watching it in B&W.

Finally, the lack of social stigma around "being unable to program my VCR" (unlike, say, admitting you were unable to operate a phone) suggested that the act of programming it (i.e. time-shifting TV programs) was no longer central to the VCR's technological frame.

Conclusion. Video stores were the "mediators" between two cultures in many different ways. Studios weren't used to distributing movies on tape, or comfortable with a rental market; but that's what consumers wanted. The commercial models around distribution and retail didn't match consumers' expectations. TV technology didn't match theater technology as a way to view a movie, but along with consumers' evolving perception of what "watching a movie" meant, at once embracing "theater accoutrements" like candy and popcorn in video stores and confounding them by changing the social interactions around movie-watching, video stores were there to mediate the transition and bring consumers and producers together. Ironically, they were so successful at doing so that they have been disintermediated:
  • Technologically, VCRs gave way to DVDs. Although DVDs provide higher picture quality, they did not initially enable the amateur market (direct-to-video indie films, home movies, etc.) in the ways the VCR did, which was critical to the cultural rise of video stores. (Today indie filmmakers can shoot direct to digital and distribute via YouTube, but that wasn't true when DVDs arrived in the early 2000s, and was barely true in 2006 when DVD movie sales first outsold VHS movie sales.) In addition, DVDs "demystify" movies by bundling making-of, interviews, etc. with the feature itself, something completely alien to the theater experience, suggesting that the transformation of consumers' perception of "watching a movie" is complete.
  • independent video stores gave way to chains (Blockbuster, Hollywood Video), which themselves went out of business as direct-from-distributor services like Netflix arose.
The overall lesson may be: without intermediation, new cultural phenomena such as the video-movie revolution could not happen; but once underway, the intermediaries themselves become redundant. (I wonder if a similar argument could be made for retail computer sales—independent stores gave way to national chains like Computerland, then to computers being sold directly in office-supply stores like Office Depot as the computer became mainstream, then eliminated in favor of direct-from-distributor online ordering.)

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The CRT is dead, long live the CRT

I am a child of the 80s (and a little bit the 70s), and as a youngster I spent many, many quarters in arcade video games. (Tempest was among my favorites that I was good at.) It might be hard for today’s young adults to imagine the appeal of paying-per-game to play a game that lasted only a few minutes, had to be played standing up (usually), and was located in a pizzeria, bar, movie theater, or video arcade. But the first highly successful home gaming console (the Atari 2600, which sold over 40 million units during its 14-year lifetime) didn’t arrive until 1977, and while arcade games started rapidly improving after the release of Taito’s Space Invaders (1980), home games’ graphics and sound lagged far behind arcade hardware well into the late 1980s, even though Atari and others aggressively licensed the rights to produce home versions of popular arcade games. A typical arcade cabinet game might retail for $4,000, vs. around $200 for a home console. (Not to mention that going to the arcade was a social event. You know, that's the kind of event where you get together with real people to have real pizzas and real interactions, rather than "interacting" with them online.)

Today arcade cabinet games have an ardent following among retrocomputists (e.g. me), collectors, and nostalgists. But perhaps not for long: outside of this niche market, there’s virtually no demand for manufacturing CRT displays anymore, and they are surprisingly labor-intensive to manufacture, as this 5-minute video shows. In particular, few 29-inch “arcade grade” CRTs remain in the world, and the capacity to make or repair them is basically gone.

Without arguing whether new display technologies (plasma, LCD, LED) are better or worse than analog CRTs, it is certainly true that authors of older games had to work around (or more creatively, work with) the color-mixing and display constraints of analog CRTs, which are quite different from those of true discrete-pixel displays. This was especially true when designing games for home game consoles designed to connect to TV sets: these had the additional constraint that the video signal fed to the TV had to follow the somewhat quirky NTSC standard for analog color video. Famously, the Apple II video circuitry exploits idiosyncrasies of NTSC to produce high-resolution (at the time) graphics for a low (at the time) cost, at the expense of being very tricky to program. The fascinating book Racing the Beam recounts how both the console designers and game designers for the Atari 2600 leveraged the physical and electrical properties of NTSC color to create appealing games on exceedingly low-cost (for its time) hardware, even creating a custom chip to deal with some of the quirks of NTSC (the TIA or Television Interface Adapter, code-named “Stella”). And indeed, while Atari 2600 emulators are still popular and original 2600 hardware can be connected to modern LCD and plasma screens, the color effect is subjectively different from viewing it on old-school analog sets. In contrast (get it? <groan/>), although arcade video games also used large (29”) CRT displays, they weren’t bound by the signal limitations of NTSC, so they could produce graphics far superior to what home gamers could view even on comparably sized TV sets.

June 12, 2009, was the last day for all US broadcast television stations to switch from analog (NTSC-encoded) broadcasting to digital broadcasting. On that day, NTSC effectively became a dead standard. Now, the hardware that was so ubiquitously associated with it—CRTs—is on a path to meet the same fate. Before it’s gone, get yourself to a “classic games” arcade and take a step back to when the best gaming graphics and sound were found in pizzerias, bars, and candy stores.