eHealthspace interview

June 15, 2011

My interview with eHealthspace newsletter about the television distribution technologies, the digital divide and rural and rural and remote Australia has just been published.

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Moving beyond the red state blue state to a sensible analysis of American regions – a patchwork nation

June 13, 2011

Finally, we can move beyond the “red state, blue state” simplified categorisation of American conservative/liberal states to a truly sensible analysis of American regions.  In their September 2010 book Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth About the “Real” America, Dante Chinni and James Gimpel move beyond the simplistic mid-first-decade-of-the-twenty-first century American split between “red” states and “blue” states to presenting a far more complex analysis of American regions.

They give twelve “”statistically distinct ‘types of place'”:  monied burbs, evangelical epicenters, minority central, tractor country, military bastions, campus and careers, immigration nation, industrial metropolises, boom towns, service worker centers, emptying nests and Mormon outposts.  There is a great sophistication to this analysis, which is in fact based on a great deal of research and data crunching undertaken at the “Patchwork Nation” project, which is part of the non-profit and non-partisan Jefferson Institute, based in Washington DC.

In fact, if there is a problem with the “patchwork nation” concept, it may be that it is both TOO sophisticated (it is not possible to remember all 12 “types” easily) and simultaneously not quite “granular”  enough.  This was written up in the April 2011 Atlantic magazine, and the Atlantic website has a neat interactive website that enables you to see the various types at a glance.  A far cooler version of this map – with an almost unlimited amount of data – appears on the patchwork nation website home page.  But again, the diversity and size of the USA starts to defeat the utility of these maps.  What exactly does it mean at the “county” level, particularly when some counties (think Alameda CA with both some poor parts of Oakland and some wealthy parts of Berkeley and the Oakland Hills – or San Francisco, for that matter, with its mixture of high and low income neighbourhoods – or Manhattan or Brooklyn or Queens; or how about my home county of Middlesex in New Jersey with some pretty poor folks in New Brunswick but some reasonably wealthy folks in parts of Highland Park, Edison, North Brunswick, East Brunswick, etc).

But enough quibbling.  The point is this:  the USA is a vastly diverse country and simple “binary” definitions simply do not work, and this attempt to understand and detail what is happening economically and socially in the USA over the last ten years is thought-provoking.

I w0uld love to see similar analyses applied to Australia.  We do not face the same regional economic challenges as the USA does – for instance we are likely never to have the sort of “dying cities” popularised by Newsweek in January 2011.  For the record, the cities identified by Newsweek are (from worst): (1) New Orleans; (2) Vallejo CA; (3) Hialeah, Florida; (4) Rochester, New York; (5) Cleveland; (6) Pittsburgh; (7) Detroit; (8) South Bend, Indiana; (9) Flint, Michigan; and (10) Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Australia’s rural and remote areas face different issues, and not necessarily easily solvable ones, even by a country which has (on the surface at least) seemed to have skipped recent economic recessions.  Australia’s supposed “two speed economy” causes great public policy challenges for all.  In fact, in October 2010, the Australian Prime Minister (Julian Gillard) moved away from that idea and started referring to the country’s “patchwork economy”This was reinforced by the Australian Treasurer (Wayne Swan) in his “Economic Note” on 1st May 2011.  Hmmm, a “patchwork” … sound familiar, anyone?


The death of DVD comes one step closer to Australia

June 13, 2011

The death of the DVD – and the physical reality of holding a film in your hand – has come one step closer.

Wheeler Winston Dixon has just published his “Flow” article entitled “Some Notes on Streaming”, in which he writes that:

After killing off all the brick and mortar stores for DVDs, CDs and books, Amazon and Netflix seem poised to do away with all vestiges of the real, and enter the digital-only domain.

He expressed particular concern that:

Those of us who love the medium of film, it’s rather alarming to realize that, in effect, vast sections of film history will now simply cease to exist for the viewer. Adventurous and difficult films will now find it that much harder to find an audience, and mainstream product will dominate the marketplace that much more.

By contrast, Cynthia Meyers, in her comment writes in response to his article that:

You might want to read Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” or check out Mike Masnick at the Techdirt blog for alternative perspectives on the effects of digital networking on access to cultural goods. I’m surprised that in 2011 the sky is still falling for some folks (e.g., classic films will “cease to exist”). Once an artifact is digitized, the costs of distributing by networking are lower than putting it on a plastic disc and sending it through the mail. Streaming costs are diving. Netflix (and Amazon) have been pursuing the long tail strategy for years–that is the opposite of “top ten” or blockbuster strategy. The long tail is about exploiting the value of niche goods–goods that small audiences are interested in. Classic films have just as much a chance to find audiences today, if not more so. Their licensing costs are far lower, by the way, than more recent Hollywood fare.

What Wheeler is (in part) responding to is the November 2010 announcement by Netflix that it had introduced its first “streaming only” plan and had raised the price of its DVD plans.

Big debates, but all accept that the DVD is a struggling medium.  Australia has not gone online to nearly the same extent as the USA in terms of streaming films – as most of the American streaming is not available in Australia, and our market is simply too small to produce too many of its own.

Screen Australia reports (from data compiled by GfK Retail and Technology Australia) that 2009 was the first year in Australia that the sale of DVDs actually went down since the format was first introduced in that (this) country in 1999.  The drop from 2008 to 2009 was 4% (70.6 million to 67.7 million, as well as a $ value drop of 2%).  The only thing that kept “video” unit sales slightly increasing was the sale of Blu-Ray disks: .7 milli0n to 1.7 million units and a $ increase from 2008 to 2009 of $26.0 million to $59.3 million.

The same conclusion can be drawn from a more up to date and different set of figures, provided by the Australian Home Entertainment Distributors Association: the $ amount of “all formats combined” (DVD, BLU RAY, HD, UMD & VHS) dropped 6% – from $1,377,211,497 in 2009 to $1,288,432,622 in 2010.  The “net units” dropped even more – 13% – from 87,765,882 units in 2009 to 76,148,013 units in 2010.

Okay, the DVD is not dead yet (that’s a whole lot of units still), but it sure is fading (a declining market is not exactly what the sellers want to see).  How soon until we are all online and how big will our hard disks be to absorb all of this – or how big will our “pipes” be to carry of all this?  National Broadband Network, anyone?


Knocked Up film review

June 12, 2011

(In honour of the new Apatow film Bridesmaids, here is my film review of Knocked Up, originally published in the Australian Jewish News onJuly 5th 2007.)

Directed and written by Judd Apatow

Starring Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Leslie Mann & Paul Rudd

Some forty years ago, the film “Gentleman’s Agreement” – in which Gregory Peck’s character pretends that he is Jewish in order to write about antisemitism – resulted in the famous line (sometimes attributed to screenwriter Ring Lardner) that the moral of the story was that “You always need to be nice to Jewish people because they might turn out to be Gentiles”.  Well, the new romantic comedy “Knocked Up” also has a most unusual Jewish moral, which goes something like this:  Overweight, lazy and under-achieving Jewish men – you too can get the beautiful and accomplished blond shiksa; all you need to do is to get her pregnant (“knocked up”, in the American vernacular).

“Knocked Up” truly has one of the weirdest and most improbable storylines I have come across, a testament to the skills of Jewish writer/director Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) that it is almost believable and works so well.  Ben Stone (played Canadian Jewish actor Seth Rogen, also a veteran of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) is an aimless, pudgy in a “manboobs” kind of way, late twentysomething slacker type living with four friends in Los Angeles.  They devote their lives to getting high and avidly watching movies in order to catalogue all of the naked shots, part of their vague plan to set up a pornographic website.

In contrast to Ben is Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), who is a floor manager for an entertainment television network – providing lots of neat opportunities for sly comments on the nature of American popular culture and celebrity.  Alison is blonde, very attractive and is being given her breakthrough chance of an on-camera reporting job.  She lives with her older sister Debbie (Leslie Mann), Debbie’s husband Pete (played by Jewish actor Paul Rudd, no relation to Kevin) and their two adorable young daughters.

These two improbable partners meet in a nightclub when Alison is celebrating her promotion.  In her alcohol-fuelled state, Alison interprets Ben’s gruff charm as being much more than it really is, leading to a sexual adventure – and eventually, of course – to her pregnancy.  And then the fun starts.

Alison decides against an abortion (although all characters hilariously go out of their way to avoid saying the word) and tracks down Ben in order to establish a relationship with the father of her child.  After initial incredulity, Ben enthusiastically participates in all of the administrativia around having a baby – the choice of the gynecologist, the cradle shopping, and more.  In fits and starts they attempt to establish some sort of real relationship – even a romantic one.   This is where my believability meter started to sink; the Ben Stone character is simply not sufficiently good-looking, accomplished, witty or interesting to attract the articulate, talented and energetic Alison.

By contrast, the most interesting and nuanced relationship in the film is that of Alison’s sister Debbie (Mann) and her husband Pete (Rudd), a rock promoter.  They are very wealthy, both handsome with two lovely kids, but the underlying current of tension between them is strong with Pete feeling trapped by responsibility.  The knowledge that Leslie Mann is married to Apatow in real life, with two daughters, gives this a particular significance, and the willingness to insert some real poignant relationship strain in a full-on comedy works beautifully.  There is also a delightful cameo by the perfectly cast Harold Ramis (“Ghostbusters”) as Seth Rogen’s father trying to give advice to his son.  There are also short and wonderful appearances by singer Loudon Wainwright (who also provides background music) and Ken Jeong (who is a doctor in real life) as Alison’s doctors, and Steve Carrell playing himself.

On one level, “Knocked Up” can be seen as “revenge of the Jewish nerds” against the blond WASP women of the world, a post-modern take on “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally”, both of which are admitted influences on Apatow.  Virtually every major male character in “Knocked Up” is Jewish and played by Jewish actors, including most of Ben’s friends – who have animated and amusing discussions about the film “Munich” and their “Jew-fro” hairstyles.  Does being Jewish matter here?  Apatow’s characters all follow the Woody Allen, Billy Crystal and Ben Stiller models of assimilated Jewishness as a vague religious ethnicity and little more.  As for Jewish women, there are none to be seen.

The mainstream audience of 18 to 30 year-olds to whom this film is pitched won’t care much about who is and is not Jewish, and will eagerly enjoy this thoroughly modern comedy about mating rituals in the twenty-first century.  The plot may not be perfect, but with its clever writing and engaging characters “Knocked Up” has the makings of one of the most popular films of the year, a “must see” for the Saturday night date crowd.


Notes on the film Bridesmaids

June 12, 2011

Judd Apatow is best-known for his male-centred comedies like 40 Year Old Virgin, Superbad and Knocked Up.  So it is particularly interesting to watch his first truly female-oriented film, Bridesmaids (opening in Australia on 16 June 2011; opened in North America 13 May 2011).  Bridesmaids (directed by Paul Feig, co-produced by Apatow) is, I suspect, one of those films which some film critics and cineastes will disparage (Sandra Hall of the Sydney Morning Herald notably gave it 1.5 stars out of 5, calling it “humour for masochists”), but audiences will love.  The small audience I saw it with on a rainy Sydney preview totally loved it, and laughed at all the jokes.

Bridesmaids is full of hilarious set pieces, which probably will be analysed (and imitated) for a long time to come.  The film is powered by its female character-driven comedy (move over guys, the women are now in town), with men playing distinct supporting roles.  But the film may end up being most notable for one thing for one character background and one theme, on which almost no-one seems to comment.   The film’s true underlying theme is female friendship (so far, so good), but the real driving force is actually female competition – not competition for men but for the friendship of other women.  The best friend of Annie Walker (Kristen Wiig, also a co-writer of the film) is Lillian (Maya Rudolph), and the biggest tension in the film is Annie’s vying with Helen (Australian actress Rose Byrne) for her friendship.

In the film, Lillian has an African-American father and a white mother, pretty much like Maya Rudolph in real life (the daughter of Jewish composer Richard Rudolph and African-American soul singer Minnie Riperton).  That’s cool, and the most fascinating thing is: there is not one mention of her background in the film.  This “colour-blind” casting – and the decision by the writers/director/producers not to mention her racial background – is very Obama post-modern (as it should be), but certainly is a relatively recent phenomenon:  didn’t they used to make films about inter-racial relationships (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner anyone?).

View the trailer for Bridesmaids below:


Eugene Levy as Dr Allan Pearl in Waiting for Guffman

June 9, 2011

When you have an unusual surname like mine – Perlgut – it is a bit of thrill to find it reflected in popular culture.  And here is the only feature film I have found it so far:  Dr. Allan Pearl, a Jewish dentist played by Eugene Levy in the film Waiting for Guffman (directed by Christopher Guest, 1996) refers to his “grandfather Chaim Perlgut”, and shows a photo.  My guess is that Levy, who is originally from Chicago, is a probably Perlgut relative – from the Chicago branch of the family.  View the clip below:


The Digital Divide returns to Australia with implications for health

June 6, 2011

My blog on “Croakey” – the health blog of crikey.com.au – on the digital divide and how it will impact health, has just been published today, and has been extensively tweeted.  The title is “The digital divide: A profound public health issue that needs work”, and identifies the fact that there will be at least 3.4 million Australians who will have a major difficulty participating in the online world.  All of this will have profound public health ramifications, not to mention social and economic disadvantages.  The full post is also re-produced below:

Now that the much-discussed National Broadband Network (NBN) is underway, many people assume that it is just a matter of time before we are all fully connected. Except that we will soon start hearing a phrase that was in common usage some ten years ago: the digital divide.

This concept has slipped from the public radar in recent years under the onslaught of smart phones, i-Pads, other “tablets” and the bewildering and growing collection of digital devices that will operate under the law of “if it can be connected, it probably will”.

The recent Sydney launch (at the annual CeBIT technology conference) by Senator Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, of the new National Digital Economy Strategy is very welcome, and it is particularly good to see the attention now being paid to those in danger of being left behind in the latest online revolution.

The NBN website clearly states the problem:

Thirty-seven per cent of people aged 55-64 did not use the internet in 2008-09, compared with 69 per cent of people aged 65 or more. Similarly, 34 per cent of people earning less than $40,000 a year did not use the internet in 2008-09 and nor did 34 per cent of people living in outer regional and remote areas. People with a profound or severe disability requiring assistance with core activities have significantly lower access to the internet and broadband than other Australians. For example, about 28 per cent of people with a disability requiring assistance with core activities have broadband access in comparison to about 48 per cent of people who do not need assistance with core activities.

In other words, if you are poor, Indigenous, old or disabled and live in outer regional/remote areas of Australia, your chances of being “online ready” are pretty low.

And who are the people who will most need the chronic disease monitoring systems the Government is starting to put in place? The poor, the elderly, the disabled and the residents of outer regional and remote Australia.

The July 2010 Access Economics tele-health report (PDF) concluded that “Tele-health offers the potential for significant gains to Australia’s population, especially for people who are elderly or who live in rural or remote communities.”

That’s good news, but a key complication of the NBN is that just because you build it, they may not come – to paraphrase the famous tag-line from the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989). Internet access does and will cost money, and it will take some level of technical expertise and digital literacy to gain and maintain that access.

This issue was brought into sharp relief at CeBIT’s e-Gov conference, with presentations by Martha Lane Fox and Graham Walker of Office of the UK Digital Champion. They presented some interesting facts: 8.7 million adults in the UK never use technology, and people who are “offline” over-estimate the costs of being online by a factor of three.

The “addressable market” (by business) in the UK is estimated to be 80% of the population: they will find their own way online. It’s the final 15 to 20% that really need the help.

We have no reason to assume that the situation is different here in Australia, and our vast distances to outer regional and remote locations will only exacerbate the problems.

The Government has clearly recognised this, in Minister Conroy’s announcement of $23.8 million over three years for a “Digital Communities Initiative”, which will establish “‘Digital Hubs’ in each of the 40 communities that will first benefit from the NBN” in order “to improve their digital literacy skills”. A related program provides $10.4 million over four years to continue the “Broadband for Seniors” program.

It’s a great start. But with more than 22,600,000 Australians, even a conservative estimate of 15% digitally deprived residents means that almost 3.4 million Australians will fall on the other side of that divide. That’s a lot more than 40 digital hubs can address.

This is not just an information access issue; it is a profound public health, social welfare and economic challenge.

Without full participation in the online world, we are in danger of relegating substantial parts of our population to generations of compounded disadvantage of health, education and employment.

The Government’s current efforts can only be a start. What we need is concerted action by local and state government, community and business to connect all Australians.

Debates over NBN funding only obscure what will cost tens of billions of dollars down the track if we do not start to plan for these challenges now.