Monday, May 5, 2003

A Year of Fighting Boredom

We've been battling boredom for a year now.

And in that year we've gotten some great feedback from our readers. We've been told that "this is a great e-zine! Very simple, great writing. Good job!!" and that it "is first class. Absolutely excellent."

We certainly like to think so. Thanks!

We even had a reader (who obviously didn't have enough to do) run our articles from the 2002.10 issue through a grade level proficiency system (something we try to avoid at all costs). The results? See for yourself:

CRITIQUE. A New Rosetta Stone 10.8 grade level
OPINION. Democracy in Action 9.3 grade level
REVIEW. Crack TV 7.9 grade level

In all fairness, our critic ran his own email through the system: 5.9 grade level.

And we've had some feedback from the subjects of our articles as well. IDEO responded to us about their book review and Virginia Velleca of the Defoor Centre contacted us in regards to our 2002.07 review: "This site is really beautiful and your review of us most complimentary and appreciated ... I'd like to mention it and include it when we are talking to other people about what we are trying to do here. Thank you very much for your kind words and exceptional images."

Readership grew steadily though the first year of Fight.Boredom as people found the site (most of them, through Google) and added themselves to our monthly announcement mailing list. To date, our most viewed issue was 2003.02 with almost 9,500 hits and our most linked to article, "A Brand Battle Smack Down".

Some of our most read articles were those involving video media ("The Perfect Fusion of Audio and Video" and "Volkswagen & Mr. Blue Sky") while our most lauded articles dealt with real world issues and the critical design issues surrounding them ("What The..." and "Visual Communication of Grief"). We also had a number of very confused readers respond to our April Fool's Day homepage...

And, last but not least, a few new Cloudjammer clients have found their way to us through Fight.Boredom or juxtaposed the e-zine against our portfolio. We're glad they liked what they saw.

But this first year of Fight.Boredom hasn't been without its problems. Despite best efforts, monthly publication dates have varied wildly across the calendar (for instance, the August and September 2002 issues were published only a week apart). 2003 brought a commitment to publication in the first week of each month...this issue exempted, apparently.

And we've had a few articles that drew less favorable comments. While everyone we've heard feedback from agreed with our opinion in the article "Two (More) Reasons to Hate Verisign", several readers have asked us about personal anger management and legal representation in regards to the Internet security giant.

But it has been a great year...and a lot of fun for both the writers and the readers (if their feedback is to be believed). Hopefully another year of the battle against boredom will be just as successful and even more widely read.

'Till then...keep fighting! fb

The Future of Online Music

There have been few times that a single industry fought change as hard as the music industry has. With the height of Napster they should have seen the writing on the wall – and maybe they did – but still they fought to keep their music out of the virtual world. Instead of embracing this digital trend they have revolted against it, throwing around lawsuits and demands; screaming of the problem without offering an answer.

Apple, however, may have found the answer. Where the music industry lacked initiative, Apple has taken up the slack and developed a new online music store. This is not the first attempt at this, by far, but it is the most successful. They are using their own AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) developed by Dolby Labs to both improve the sound quality of digital music files and protect record companies by inserting user information into each song purchased. This technology allows for only a few file transfers to other computers while still permitting users to burn CD’s or transfer songs to their iPods. This keeps the music industry happy and brings everyone one step closer to the solution.

The problem has been around as far back as I can remember – you had your duel tape player/recorder and made copies of your favorite tapes. Then came CDs. They took a little longer to figure out – since they required a little bit of technical sense to really get a handle on it – but soon we were burning CDs and that was that. Then a little something happened that we like to call the Internet revolution and, in no time, you could just download your favorite songs online. This was the beginning to Napster and the many other file swapping services that followed in its wake. Now that Napster has fallen to the wayside, those services that remain have their own problems. The Recording Industry and the government are beginning to crack down on individual file-sharing users and recording artists are beginning to saturate the file-swapping systems with bogus music tracks of only static.

I guess I miss the good old days when pirating was safe and easy with my trusty dual tape player/recorder.

Liquid Audio and Musicnet are two contenders with Apple that have had a lot of press. Liquid Audio’s owners are selling it off piecemeal and Musicnet has been the host of much criticism. They both follow the same payment plan, where you pay a subscription fee and gain access to more and more songs the longer you pay. The problem is that when you stop paying they close your access to the music you were listening to off of their servers.

This is where Apple steps in and is different: they charge you for each individual song, 99 cents to be exact. Then the song is yours to do with as you please, as long as you don’t transfer it to more then 3 different computers (but who is counting, really). In order to make this work Apple has brought in the big 5 record companies BMG, EMI, Sony Music Entertainment, Universal, and Warner. They have brought over 200,000 songs to the digital table and continue to add more. My only hope is that they continue to add in the smaller labels to fill more then a few holes that appear in the online selection. Many new popular bands, such as the White Stripes, and even some old pillars of the industry, like Madonna, are absent from the roster. Even with a few set backs it will be interesting to see where Apple takes this and what will happen in the future of online music. fb

Branding Post-Saddam Iraq

Iraq, while a modern nation, is the inheritor of an ancient civilization. A succession of historical and cultural giants – from ancient Babylon and Persia to Saladin and the Ottoman Empire – have ruled over its fertile crescent. It is unfortunate that recent events have burned a distasteful image of Iraq in the minds of the West – the image of a nation defined by tyranny, war, and cruelty.

For good or for ill, the much-despised regime of Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath party has finally come to an end. A nation, diverse in history, ethnicity, and religion, now has a chance to reinvent itself. In commercial terms, now is the opportunity for the Iraqi people to rebrand their nation to the international community.

The most visible fixtures of national branding are the flag and emblem – The Union Jack, the Rising Sun, the Roman eagle, the Nazi swastika , and the hammer and sickle are some of the most lasting and successful national symbols. Just look to Old Glory, the Star Spangled Banner, or the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia if you need American perspective.

The Iraqi flag, too, is a successful and critical symbol. But while it bears resemblance to a national flag used before Saddam's violent rise to power, the contemporary banner does bear his unique signature – literally.

Indeed, the flag we are most familiar with was adopted by Iraq on January 13, 1991 – the eve of the Gulf War. In what most of his Arab contemporaries felt was a crass attempt to evoke muslim solidarity, Saddam Hussein added, in his own handwriting, the takbir to the existing flag. Written in green Arabic script among the flag's three stars, the takbir reads, right to left, Allahu Akbar (God is great).

In the days following the fall of Saddam, the older Iraqi flag, identical except for the omission of the takbir, was oft seen in the streets of Baghdad. This pre-Saddam banner is the inheritor of the flag of the Kingdom of the Hejaz, a monarchy which ruled over Iraq for ten years following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Designed by Sir Mark Sykes of the British Foreign Office for the Arab forces under the Sherif Hussein, the Hejaz flag was used by both of Sherif Hussein's monarch sons: 'Abdulla, emir of the Transjordan, and Faisal, the king of Iraq. The Hejaz flag used colors significant to Arab culture – black, white, green, and red — to symbolize the past glory of Moslem Arab empires and the future promised under the new Hejaz regimes.

Indeed, the colors used in the the modern Iraqi flag (the same as those used in the Hejaz banner) carry critical significance in the muslim world:

The color of several ancient islamic factions, including the Khawarij, the first republican party in the early days of Islam, and the Arab conquerors of North Africa and Andalusia. In modern times, red has served to symbolize the Hejaz, rulers of Transjordan and Iraq, and the Hashemites, descendants of the Prophet.

The color of the medieval Fatimid Dynasty of North Africa. This color is often used to symbolize Islam in general or, specifically, to symbolize Ali, the Prophet's cousin, who was once wrapped in the green coverlet of the Prophet in order to thwart an assassination attempt.

The color of the ancient islamic Umayyad Dynasty (661-750). White, also a color of muslim mourning, is used to symbolize the Prophet's first battle at Badr.

The color of the Prophet Mohammad and the ancient Abbasid Dynasty of Baghdad. Black is often used as a symbol of mourning for the assassination of relatives of the Prophet and in remembrance of the Battle of Karbala. In addition, in pre-islamic times times, the black flag was a sign of revenge and a black headdress would have been worn when leading troops into battle.

Black and White

In the seventh century, with the rise of Islam and subsequent liberation of Mecca, two flags – one white, one black – were carried by the armies of Islam. On the white flag was written, "There is no god but God (Allah) and Mohammad is the Prophet of God." Both black and white flags were placed in the mosque during Friday prayers.

It seems likely, then, that any superceding Iraqi standard would feature these same significant colors. If any color were to become more prominent, the tendency of Iraqis on the street shows favoritism to green, as demonstrated in the predominance of the all-green flag of Islam.

For a country 97% muslim – composed of shiite and sunni religious factions – and otherwise divided by Arab and Kurdish ethnicity, it is likely that the greatest future hope for Iraqi branding will be bound up with the muslim tradition and the historical legacy of former national regimes. Perhaps, in keeping with the secular establishment US and British reconstruction authorities are trying to build in post-war Iraq, the takbir could be replaced by a significant secular or cultural symbol. Such a symbol might be the Eagle of Saladin, already prominent on the Egyptian flag, and symbolic of the muslim world's greatest historical hero – an ethnic Kurd who united the Arab peoples and led them to victory against the Christian crusaders.

In the event of the ascension of a shia regime, however, we would likely see religious text remain on the flag. Whether that text remained Allah Akbar (God is great), as is also used on the Iranian flag, or was changed to the shahada, the muslim profession of faith ("There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet"), as is used on the Saudi Arabian flag, would likely be as much a political decision as a religious one.

But with optimism for the democratic mission in Iraq, we can expect to see a flag not far removed from the pre-Gulf War standard. With emphasis on religion and ethnic diversity, the revised Iraqi brand will need to be accommodating to the native population but also sensitive to the change in political environment. It will need to define an Iraq free from tryanny, war, and death. fb