Goodbye to AOL Instant Messenger

aol instant messengerTwenty years ago, the Internet changed to become more modern when America Online introduced AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM, as it came to be known.

At that time, there was no social media in the modern sense, and the only way to communicate with people on the Internet was by email.

AOL Instant Messenger changed that, by allowing people to have an always-on communications application running on their computer.  You could chat with multiple people at once, and they could see when you were or were not online.

At the time of its introduction, AIM was influential largely because America Online was the largest Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the country.  Back then, everyone had to connect to the Internet via modem and in many small towns, AOL (via a long distance phone call!) was the only way to connect to the Internet at all.

AOL had a very aggressive marketing team, and the company used to send out compact discs with the company’s installation software by the millions, each containing a free trial version of the software.

But it was the Instant Messenger app (which wasn’t called an “app” back then) that allowed people to get their first taste of online social interaction.  While adults used it intermittently, teenagers quickly adopted it and made use of its many (for the time) features.

AIM’s current owner, a company called Oath, was created via the merger of AOL and Yahoo! and Oath has decided to retire the messaging system.

compuservePart of the problem has to do with the fact that AIM was always a desktop application, and it never wavered from that.  There were not versions of the software developed for tablets or smartphones, and as people gravitated away from the desktop PC to those types of devices, they left AIM behind.

The surprise isn’t that AIM is going away; 20 years, after all, is a long time for any application in this fast-paced world to live.  What’s surprising is that there were still a million or so people who continued to use it.

Among the people who used the software over the years were Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, as well as the founders of Twitter.  Some of the features of AIM have now been incorporated into those platforms.

While the demise of AOL Instant Messenger has been receiving a lot of press, a less publicized loss is that the same company is also shutting down the Compuserve Forums this week.  Compuserve was another of the early entries among companies designed to help people connect to the Internet but over time, usage of the service dwindled to almost nothing.

There’s no shortage of forums online today where people can share ideas, but Compuserve was one of the first and there are a few diehard fans who will certainly miss it.

Tastes and technologies change, and when that happens, people change how they use things and the devices they use them on.  If the software fails to keep up, it eventually goes away.

AIM was fun.  It will be missed.


Where is Martin Shkreli’s Wu Tang Clan Album?

once upon a time in shaolinWhere is Once Upon a Time in Shaolin?

That is the name of an album by the Wu Tang Clan.  Recorded over a period of six years, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was pressed as a double compact disc in a limited edition of one copy.

In 2015, it was sold at auction, and the high bidder paid some $2 million for it.  That high bidder was Martin Shkreli.  He was the head of a pharmaceutical company that became famous for increasing the price of a particular drug from $13.50 per dose to $750 per dose.

That did not go over well with the public, nor with the people who require that medication to live.

In one of those “karma is going to come back to get you” moments, Martin Shkreli now finds himself awaiting sentencing after being convicted a few months ago of securities fraud.  He’s likely to be spending the next few years working on behalf of the state while wearing stripes or perhaps an orange jumpsuit.

The Feds are interested in having Shkreli hand over some $7 million in assets in order to cover court-assigned fines and fees.  Shkreli owns a number of rare items, including a World War II codebreaking “enigma” machine and a Picasso painting.

He also owns the only copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.  The government wants it.

Ordinarily, that would be a simple task.  He has it.  They get it.  They sell it or whatever.  The end.

The problem, at least from the perspective of an observer, is that he might not actually have it.  Last September, Shkreli listed the album for sale on eBay.  The album drew some 343 bids, and the final price was $1,025,100.

wu tang clan albumOf course, there’s no way of knowing if that transaction actually took place.  Items like this pop up from time to time, and plenty of bogus bidders usually jump into the auction just to make trouble.

Sometimes, sellers attempt to verify who the bidders are before they’ll accept their bids, but people who don’t regularly sell on eBay may not know to do this.  At the end of the day, the final bid may, or may not have been legitimate, and the buyer may or may not have actually paid Shkreli for it.

So he might have the money.  He might still have the compact discs.  Or not.

According to the original terms of sale, the buyer (Shkreli) is forbidden from commercially releasing the material on the discs before the year 2103, so it’s unlikely that anyone will get to hear it anytime soon.

In the meantime, Shkreli is behind bars, waiting to see how much more time he’ll have to spend there.  One cannot help but wonder if he has an mp3 player with him, and whether or not Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is on his playlist.

I guess we’ll find out soon enough.  In the meantime, you might want to keep an eye on eBay.  It may yet turn up again, especially if the previous sale fell through.  The government itself may sell the item off.

Is Blockchain the Future of Music Sales?

blockchain technologyThe music industry has had trouble adapting to the new 21st century model of downloading music, rather than selling it on physical media, as had been done for a century.

That’s not to say that people do not buy records or compact discs; they do.  But most people who buy music now either buy downloadable files or they subscribe to streaming services, such as Spotify of Pandora.

Artists are not too happy with the current arrangement, as they earn far less in royalties via streaming services than they do via sales of physical media.

There are several different plans at work to correct this, and they make use of so-called “blockchain” technology to facilitate the sales of downloadable music.  Blockchain technology is the one that makes Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies work, and people in the music industry believe that if you can tie the sale of a particular song or album to a transaction via cryptocurrency, then several things can happen.

Perhaps the artists would get paid more.  By only agreeing to sell their music via a technology that required payment and ensured that they’d get paid, artists might have a more reliable source of income.

Cryptography could attach a file to the buyer, making it impossible for them to share it with anyone else.

It’s possible that this technology could work, but part of the problem with cryptocurrency in general is that there are so many of them.  The success of Bitcoin spawned a number of different but similar currencies, and they’re all fighting for second place in a market that will eventually allow for relatively little competition.

blockchain technologyOthers think the entire thing is a waste of time and there may be some merit to that argument, as well.  Consumers aren’t interested in anything that makes acquiring music difficult.  Over the years, music technology has grown and developed, and one common thread among all platforms is that over time, music became easier to access and acquire.

You used to have to go to the store, buy a reel to reel tape, bring it home, thread it through your player and play the tape, only to have to rewind it when you were done.  No you just turn on your phone, call up Spotify and listen to music.

If it’s that easy now, why are people going to want to be bothered in acquiring some kind of cryptocurrency to use to buy their music?  What if the industry can’t agree on a standard?  Then what?

This likely won’t help prevent piracy, either.  Remember -people want simplicity.  If you can play the music, whether its encrypted or not, then it can be recorded, by microphones, if necessary.  Rest assured, if anything happens in the industry to make it harder for people to buy or listen to music, then other people will find ways to work around that technology.

That means, at the end of the day, that more people will likely be stealing their music to get it for free, rather than to pay for it.


Pop Culture in an Electrical Outlet

Electrical outlets are boring.  There’s no getting around that.  We need them, of course, because not everything we own can be plugged into a USB port.  There are some things that just have to be plugged into the wall.

That’s fine, but the standard-issue electrical outlets that we have in the United States are not very interesting.  They’re usually white or off-white, and they’re full of holes, and they take up space and ruin whatever sense of style you had going on with your wall.

There’s that big plastic plate, a screw in the center, and a bunch of holes.  Not very appealing.

Sure, you can paint your sockets or buy colored wall plates, but at the end of the day, you’re still just looking at the same old things.

That’s what makes it interesting that Zachary Dodds, a designer living in the Pacific Northwest, has come up with a great way to make your electrical outlets look better.  In fact, he’s done better than that.  He’s made electrical outlets downright cool.

Dodds has created an Etsy page called the ElectricStickerCo, and there he sells stickers that you can apply to your electrical outlets to make them far more interesting.

The stickers are all designed to take advantage of the three holes that make up a standard electrical socket, and to turn them into faces.  Not just any faces, mind you – faces of interesting, fascinating and clever pop culture references.

Instead of just plugging into a wall outlet, you can now plug into Breaking Bads’s Walter White, complete with hat.  Or Batman.  Or Wonder Woman.

So far, Dodds has introduced roughly a dozen of these stickers, which sell for roughly $3.50-$6.00 at the craft site.  There were more, but thanks to a bit of press from sites like this one, he’s sold out of a number of his creations already.  The original (and now sold out) stickers included Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo, David Bowie, and Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

While many of the designs are of pop culture faves, there are also a few basic ones, such as a lumberjack, a deer and a cat.  Dodds has an apology on the Website and says that he’s working to replenish stocks as soon as he can manage it.

While the stickers are definitely cool, be aware that you probably shouldn’t install them anywhere that children might be around.  The last thing you want is to have a child get hurt because they’re trying to poke Han Solo in the eye.

You should also be careful when installing them, as there is house current running through those sockets, and anytime you’re putting fingers near sources of house current, bad things can happen.

Still, this is a great idea and perhaps the best idea I’ve seen when it comes to trying to make a basic home component look a bit more interesting.  Painted sockets are OK, but why go that route when you can have superheroes such as Batman or Wonder Woman looking at you?



Pop Culture and Halloween

fake newsHalloween came and went a week ago, and we really should have been on top of this, but sometimes, other things get in the way.  Halloween is a particularly popular day in the United States, when children go out to trick-or-treat dressed in costume.

Most children dress in “classic” costumes, such as that of a witch or a ghost or a hobo, and many like to buy pre-made costumes depicting their favorite characters from a movie, book, or television program.  We had someone at our door this year who was dressed as Nala from The Lion King, for example.

For children, popular culture, at least in the form of entertainment, seems to drive their interest in Halloween costumes, and the costume industry is undoubtedly grateful, as those children (or their parents) spend millions of dollars every year to dress up their children like Harry Potter or Wonder Woman.

Adults like to dress in costume, as well.  They tend not to go trick-or-treating, but they do like to attend Halloween parties, and many like to show up for those parties in costume.

You’re not likely to see adults showing up for parties dressed as Don Draper or Homer Simpson, though.  Adults, at least the clever ones, do embrace popular culture when it comes time to dress up for Halloween.  But they’re more likely to take their cues from what’s appearing on the news, rather than what’s appearing on their favorite television programs or showing at the local movie theater.

Here are a few examples of some popular-culture-driven Halloween costumes for adults that we saw, heard about, or read about this year:

Fake news – Fake news has been, well, in the news a lot during the past year.  First, it came out that many people who had voted in the 2016 Presidential elections might have had their opinions swayed by news stories that weren’t actually news, but were fabricated stories that were intended to give the impression that they were real.  Then, the real President began using the term “fake news” to refer to any news story that he felt portrayed him in a negative light.  Regardless, you can, if you like, dress as fake news by wearing a fake news dress.

bunnyPregnant Kylie Jenner – Not everyone follows the adventures of the Jenner clan, but if you do, you’ll know that Kylie Jenner recently announced that she is expecting.  For some people, this is a Really Big Deal, and if you’re one of those, you can buy this costume and pretend that you’re Ms. Jenner herself.

Playboy Bunny – With the recent passing of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, lots of women took the opportunity to dress up as a Playboy Bunny for Halloween.  Sexy costumes have been in vogue for decades, and this iconic look has long been a popular one.  All you’d need to go as Hef himself, of course, would be a smoking jacket and a pipe…and a bunny to keep you company, of course.

All of this will seem obsolete by the time next Halloween comes around.  By then, we’ll have a new set of memes to wear.



Long Lines Form for iPhone X

iphone xIf you failed to order your iPhone X online and were hoping to grab one in stores this week, you may be out of luck.  A surprising number of people had exactly that idea, and reportedly, lines at Apple stores around the world are the longest they’ve been for a new iPhone introduction in at least three years.

At Apple’s store on Fifth Avenune in New York, there were reportedly more than 800 people in line waiting to buy the new iPhone X, which offers advanced facial recognition technology as well as a bigger screen that extends to the edge of the phone.

While a few reviewers had quibbles with the rounded edges, which can interfere with viewing when watching a widescreen movie, and the “notch” in the screen for the camera, the reviews for the iPhone X have mostly been positive.

That of course, comes from the people who actually have one.  The iPhone X was announced some two months ago along with the iPhone 8.  The iPhone 8 became available virtually immediately, but the release of the iPhone X was scheduled for November.  A lot of buyers who were eager to upgrade their phones have opted to wait for the iPhone X despite the high price tag of $1000.

In New York, that 800 person line was said to be moving slowly, as fire marshals were restricting the number of people who could enter the store at one time.  Reports from Apple stores around the world were suggesting that the phones were in relatively short supply and that nearly all stores would sell out their supplies today.

More will come, of course, and Apple has ramped up production in response to larger than expected demand.  When the iPhone X first became available for order online, supplies sold out in just 30 minutes.

The increased production appears to be working, as people who ordered online and were initially told that they would not receive their phones until December are now receiving notices saying that they will likely receive their package sometime later this month.

iphone xOf course, not everyone who was waiting in line was waiting to purchase a phone for themselves.  It has become a common practice in recent years for people who want the new phones but don’t want to wait in like to pay other people to wait for them.  They get the phone, but then they have to pay the person who was waiting for them, effectively raising the price of the phone to well over its already-high price.

Buyers don’t seem to care.

If you really, really want an iPhone X and you don’t want to wait in line and you didn’t order one over the Internet, you can always buy one from resellers.   A quick check on eBay shows that the iPhone X is readily available there, and there are currently several thousand of them for sale.

You won’t necessarily get a bargain, however.  The least expensive model we saw for sale there was $1200, and one confident seller was asking $25,000 for theirs.

They were, however, offering free shipping, so there’s that.


Music from Your Watch…at Last

apple watchSmartwatches were supposed to be the latest “must-have” gadget, but people quickly found out that they had some serious limitations.  Sure, they looked like something Dick Tracy would use to call his crime-fighting associates, but it didn’t quite work that way.  After all, when Dick Tracy used his wrist radio, he didn’t have to have a smartphone in his pocket in order for it to work.

The newest Apple Watch 3 was supposed to fix some of the limitations of the earlier versions of the watch by incorporating LTE services into the watch. You’d be able to make and receive phone calls without having to have a smartphone handy.  That was great for people who were working out, for example, as one of the many features of the Apple Watch is the ability to track your fitness stats.  If you’re jogging and a call came in that you just had to take, you could do that.

Of course, people who work out often like to listen to music, and you’d think that if a smartwatch could make phone calls that it could also stream music so you could have something to listen to while working out without having to haul your phone around, too.

Apple promised that with the Apple Watch 3 and then the watch was released to the market…without the streaming feature.  Hmm.

A month later, and certainly later than promised, Apple has delivered a software update for the Apple Watch 3 that now allows you to engage in music streaming on the watch without having your phone handy.

Of course, there are some bugs and qualifications – it will stream music from iTunes, for example, but it’s not going to stream music from Spotify or Pandora.  And why would it?  Apple has always been pretty Apple-centric with its products, and the Apple Watch is no exception.

There are some other drawbacks to streaming music on the Apple watch, as well.  You’ll likely need to use Siri for your music requests due to the relative lack of a suitable user interface on the watch.  If you’re OK with verbally requesting your music, you’ll be OK.  There are also reportedly some interoperability problems with the streaming music feature and the built-in Radio feature that may require a bit of a learning curve to work around.  You’ll also have to pay to use the streaming service using the Music feature, but you new that, right?

Small steps.  They’ll fix these problems in time.  In the meantime, the ability to stream music is there.  They’ve also added a few other fixes to existing problems, including the ability to manually disconnect from a wi-fi network, as some users were having problems with the watch switching over from Bluetooth to LTE to wi-fi, and so on.

They have also fixed an issue that prevented some Apple Watch 1 users from charging their watch, which would definitely be an inconvenience.  If there’s one thing that’s a universal problem with smartwatches of all kinds, its the fact that they are power hungry.  If you can’t recharge, you’ll have some problems.


New Weinstein Film Grosses a Whopping $742 in Theaters

amityville: the awakeningOctober hasn’t been a good month for the Weinstein Company.  The big story, of course, were the allegations against co-founder Harvey Weinstein about sexual impropriety with dozens of women.  While these stories have been dominating the news, the company has ostensibly been continuing to produce motion pictures.

The first film to be released post-scandal was Amityville: The Awakening, a thriller starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bella Thorne.  This was the tenth film in the “Amityville” series, which began in 1979 with The Amityville Horror, starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder.

Amityville: The Awakening was going to be a reboot, a meta-film, and a found-footage (a la The Blair Witch Project) film all at once.  While the tenth film in the series, it was going to more or less ignore everything that had gone on in the nine previous films and just start over.

Such reboots are becoming quite common among franchises that have had lots of sequels, as they tend to clean up issues of franchise canon and continuity.  The film was first announced in 2011 with the intention of being released in January, 2012.

As things sometime go in Hollywood, Amityville: The Awakening was stuck in development hell and wasn’t even filmed until 2014.  At that point, it was going to be released in early 2015, but in late 2014, the studio removed the film from their upcoming release schedule.

bella thorne
Actress Bella Thorne

The following year, the studio announced an April, 2016 release date and then further problems popped up when the film was shown to test audiences that apparently hated it.  Following the usual tweaks, the release of Amityville: The Awakening was scheduled for several different dates in 2017.

Finally, a release date was set for October 28, 2017.  In the meantime, the film was released for free on Google Play, where it was available for several weeks for anyone who wanted to see it.

At last, the film opened in the United States in a total of ten theaters with zero money spent to promote it.  In all likelihood, the film was released to theaters only because somebody involved in the project had a contract stipulating that the film would see theatrical release.

The total gross for the weekend in those 10 theaters was $742, an average of $74 per theater.  If you consider four screenings per day over the three days of the weekend, that means that the film would have been shown 120 times, and for that, they received an average of about $6 per showing, suggesting that no more than one person was in the theater at any given time.

Not a good showing.

What a lot of stories about Amityville: The Awakening are not saying, however, is that the film did open in the Philippines and in Ukraine earlier this year and in those showings, grossed the better part of a million dollars.

That’s not a lot of money, and it certainly won’t recoup the cost of production, but it’s a lot more than the seven hundred dollars the film grossed in the United States.

The film will be released on Blu-Ray and DVD in November 2017.

Rare Beatles Clothing Up for Sale

gorge ringo suitIt’s hard to believe that more than 50 years since they first became famous, the Beatles are still amazingly popular with the public.  They continue to sell millions of albums every year, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr still sell out concerts when they play live, and collectors still have a lot of interest in rare items related to the 1960s band.

One would think that with the two surviving bandmembers now in their mid-70s, that most collectors would have either died off or lost interest by now, but sales of anything related to the Fab Four remain strong.

We will soon see how strong those sales are in an upcoming auction to be held by Heritage Auctions, an auction company based in Dallas, Texas.

Heritage sells all manner of collectible items, from real estate to jewelry, to entertainment memorabilia to fine art.

And next month, on November 11, they will be selling some items of clothing that belonged to three of the four members of the Beatles.

The most noteworthy of the items is probably a blue sweater that was worn by Paul McCartney during some 1973 performances in the UK.  The blue sweater features a wings logo to represent the band he had at the time.  It’s very much a piece of its era, and not likely something that a prospective buyer would want to wear today.  Still, were it to be framed, it would be quite obvious what it was and what it represents.

On the downside, it represents an era of McCartney’s career that came after the dissolution of the band, which broke up in early 1970.  The opening bid for this item is $8000.

beatles autographsAlso for sale is a “suit,” though it’s a mixed one, consisting of a suit jacket that belonged to George Harrison and a pair of trousers that belonged to the band’s drummer, Ringo Starr.  They’re being offered together as a lot, and perhaps that is fitting, as the two band members wore those items during their second American tour in 1965.

The jacket has a custom label that says “George Beatle” inside, and Ringo’s pants have a custom label, as well.  Minimum bid on this odd pairing of jacket and pants is $50,000.  No word on where Ringo’s jacket or George’s trousers might be today, though they’d make an equally odd pairing at auction should the two of them ever turn up.

Personal items that belong to the former Beatles tend to sell for sometimes surprising amounts of money.  Many of their records also sell for huge sums, but the records are far more common than otherwise one-of-a-kind items such as jewelry, handwritten music lyrics, or items of clothing.  Handwritten lyrics to their songs have sold for as much as $1 million at auction.

The auction on November 11 will also feature some rare records by the Beatles and other artists, a photo autographed by all four band members, as well as posters and other rock and roll-related memorabilia.  If you are interested in these items, or if you just cannot live without owning George/Ringo’s suit, then you can find more details at the Heritage Auctions Website.

Just in case you have forgotten, here is a video of the Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964: