January 2012


I recently got into a conversation with a work colleague regarding piracy. Specifically, the basic assumption that I came to is that internet piracy of media is that we do not value the artist’s effort in production, nor do we comprehend the inherent monetary value of art (I positioned it as a symptom of post-modernism, that art is for art’s sake, and art-for-monetary’s sake is blasphemous.) He stated that the cost of media is just too high, and he also opposes (much like a lot of things) certain studios so refuses to give them his money, but still wants to enjoy the media produced under their umbrella. My question is, knowing that you have written on this before: What are your initial thoughts on the MegaUpload extradition? And what are your thoughts pertaining to the idea of media piracy— why do we do it? Ultimately, I’m not trying to understand why the government is wrong in trying to push SOPA and PIPA through, nor am I trying to figure out which one of us was right, if any, just your opinions on the subject.

—Nikolai

As a content creator myself, I think people should pay for their art.  (Except sometimes; see below.)

But in general, I think ‘piracy’ is a sign of market failure, and disappears when providers make it easy to get content in whatever form is desired.  My best argument for this is the enormous success of Steam.  Steam is at root a DRM system, but it’s so packed with features for the gamer that it’s actually a pleasure to use, and I don’t buy games any other way now.  You can buy your games there, see what games your friends are playing, chat with them, use games on multiple computers and platforms.  There are frequent sales, so those $60 games will soon be available for half that— or wait a year and get them for under $10.  You can review games or get links to other reviews before you buy.  You automatically get updates and patches.  I recall an interview with Gabe Newell where he said people thought Steam was crazy to get into Russia, which is notorious for piracy, but they’ve done very well there.

The music industry earned a lot of hatred for attempting to continue its lucrative old model— selling physical CDs for $20 a pop— well into the electronic age.  Their business model had very little to do with helping artists; they wanted the profits of the manufacturer / distributor… precisely those costs that go away with electronic distribution.  I don’t know the figures, but I’d guess that most people are pretty happy buying single songs from iTunes for a buck.

The next battleground is movies.  Why haven’t the studios come up with a Steam-like service where all movies are available on all platforms, at reasonable prices?  Instead of tracking down pirates and alienating customers, they should be figuring out a feature-packed, cheap distribution system of their own.

During the SOPA fight many people pointed out the absurdity of the jobs claims made by the industry, which were based on the idea that any pirated viewing represents a full theater admission lost.  Of course it doesn’t.  If someone wasn’t able to pirate the movie, he would probably have skipped it, or waited till it was free on TV or at the library.  Or maybe he’d pay $1 for a used DVD, or $2.50 for an iPad version.

Many businesses have discovered the joys of variable pricing— Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist goes into detail on this.  Econ 101 tells you that there’s a single price— let’s say $17.95— where the supply curve and demand curve intersect, and which maximizes sales and profits.  Econ 101 is wrong!  All those consumers who’d happily pay $10, or $5, or $1, don’t get what they want, so their sales are lost.  And those consumers who’d pay $50 or $100 aren’t being milked for enough simoleons!

It’s not easy to work up a pricing scheme where everyone pays the maximum they’re willing to… but plenty of markets do their damnedest to try.  Airlines are very good at this— it’s almost the case that no two flyers get the same price.  Books are a good example: you can get a hardcover for $25, a trade paperback for $15, a mass market paperback for $9, a Kindle for $5, a used book for $3, a library book for free.  Steam approximates this for video games, the chief variables being willingness to wait, and assiduousness in checking sales.  (Game companies have even figured out how to get the really motivated customers to spend more, largely with premium editions and DLC.)

And note, there’s a role in this model for free.  I don’t mind if you lend your copy of the LCK to a friend, or donate it to the local library!  A certain amount of free distribution builds recognition and good will, and in the long run increases sales.  (Neil Gaiman has experimented with giving books away for a limited time; it always increases actual sales as well.)

Plus, art needs art as a source of ideas and inspirations— it would be a bad thing if the heirs of Shakespeare controlled performance of his plays.  It’s right there in the Constitution: copyright is a balance between the interest of creators and consumers.  The sign that the balance has gone too far toward the consumers would be that artists are starving and not producing any art— and they’re not!  We’re awash in art!

If I read anti-industry people too much, I start to sympathize with the conglomerates.  People make all sorts of rationalization for what sounds like entitlement and miserliness.  But really such things are a reaction to the obvious greed and stupidity of the distributors (who aren’t even the creators).  If your friend doesn’t want to pay $17.95, that doesn’t justify him in paying $0, but if they were smart the distributors would find a way to get him to pay $5, or whatever.

I also think we’re going through a slow transition from a system dominated by middlemen, to one where artists handle their own production and distribution, and of course the middlemen are squawking.  But it’s their own fault for not adapting.  Books and music, and even indie movies, could easily be produced by their creators.  Maybe not blockbuster movies, but somehow I don’t think we’ll ever have too few of those.

 

 

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OK, m’man Stross has written an intelligent, reasonable post on predicting the future, concentrating on the degree of weirdness (what he calls unknown unknowns).  And he convinces himself that we really can’t predict anything more than forty years out.  He concludes:

And by 2052, the unknown unknowns will have driven the world to be a very different place from anything I can predict today.

Really, Charlie?   A little more than one generation?   I think he’s wrong, and I think the best way to show this is to look backwards instead, to a hypothetical sf writer of forty years ago– 1972.  And let’s say that this writer is kind of conservative in her predictions.  In fact, let’s say she predicts that the year 2012 will be exactly like 1972.

How far off would she be?  Well, let’s look at some of her successful predictions.

  • The richest and most powerful nation in the world will be the US.  The most important language for world communication will be English.
  • The richest regions will be North America, Europe, and Japan.
  • The US will be a republic whose politics is dominated by two parties: the Republicans who largely favor the rich and prefer small government, and the Democrats who prefer liberalism (that is, a middle class society with a strong safety net).  On many issues the young will be much more liberal than the elderly.  A minority will despise the Democrats for being lamely centrist.
  • The president will be seeking another term despite a recent recession and plenty of voters who see him as the embodiment of evil; the other party will be divided and widely accused of radicalism.  Republicans will campaign against social spending, abortion, and the media; there will be the threat of a populist third party run.
  • There will be much tacit acceptance of pot, but it won’t be legal.  Other recreational drugs will be more actively repressed.
  • The US will be involved in wars with nations much smaller than itself, largely facing guerrilla opponents, and will be unable to convince the rest of the world that the war is worth it.
  • Oil reserves will give disproportionate importance to the Middle East.  The long conflict between Israel and its neighbors will continue to brew.  India will be a democracy; Russia will be run by an authoritarian regime with a backwards economy propped up by oil revenues.
  • Fidel Castro will still be defying the US from Havana.  North Korea will still be a bizarre communist holdout.
  • Liberals will worry about how industrial civilization is greatly harming the ecosphere; conservatives will largely dismiss the notion.
  • Major corporations will include General Motors, AT&T, Du Pont, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, United Aircraft, and Exxon.  [Not gonna penalize our predictor for a couple of mergers and name changes.]
  • The economy of the richer nations will be capitalist (with a fairly big government largely devoted to defense and the social safety net), the most important sectors being manufacturing and services.  Ships, planes, and trucks will distribute goods; people will get around mostly by cars and planes.  Computers will be increasingly important in business and science.  People will communicate often by phone. 
  • Most Americans, at least, will live in the cities and suburbs, in their own house if they can afford one, as a nuclear family.  The work week will be about forty hours; domestic appliances will ensure that the family has plenty of leisure.
  • The chief entertainment sources will be movies, television, and recorded music.  One might cynically add that another source of entertainment is gossip about entertainers’ lives.  Popular music genres will include rock and country.
  • There will be exciting but (unfortunately for sf fans) marginal exploration of space.  However, movies about much more advanced space exploration will be popular.
  • The vast majority of people will aspire to marriage, though some people will be happy to just live together as couples.  Women will be an important component of the labor force, but on average they won’t be paid as well as men.  Birth control will allow a high degree of sexual freedom and experimentation; this will be opposed by some, who will somehow blame women more for it.  Gays and lesbians will be creating their own subculture and organizing for more recognition. 

Not a bad job really… much better than the efforts of actual sf writers!

So what are the major things she got wrong?

  • The fall of communism
  • The rise of China as a capitalist manufacturing powerhouse
  • The personal computer
  • The Internet
  • The smart phone
  • The microwave oven
  • The defection of the South to the Republican Party
  • Gay marriage
  • The election of a black president
  • Rap as the dominant pop music

I’m not going to try to balance the lists, because it’s too subjective.  Some of the items on the second list are pretty significant.  On the other hand, again, my hypothetical writer was making no actual attempt at prediction.  It wasn’t that hard to predict the fall of communism– I did it myself though I got the date way wrong.  The Southern Strategy had already been mooted by Nixon; Stonewall had already happened; nobody quite got the transformation of economic life by electronics but many came close– hell, bits of it were predicted in Looking Backward in 1887.

I freely admit that I cooked the list a bit, partly for the amusement value.  On the other hand, I could have extended it quite a bit.  The point is, despite how fast things seem to change, our everyday lives really have not been revolutionized that much in forty years, and our political and economic system is barely different.  Many of the major changes of modern life, especially the accompanying changes in values and mores, happened earlier. 

Stross is too smart to be pinned down to specifics.  But I’ll still wager him that he’s wrong: 2052 will be more like than unlike 2012, and most of its politics, economics, and everyday life will be entirely recognizable if we could see them right now.  Of course there will be interesting changes, but the really radical civilization-changing ones will be much farther off.

 

 

 

 

You may recall I absolutely hated my first two hours in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  I’m a couple missions in now, and I’m doing much better.  Chalk it up to a truly awful and unrepresentative tutorial.

I didn’t understand what I was doing (and yes, I blame this on the tutorial, that’s what they’re for).  To start with, cover differs from crouching.  It felt like I was aiming with mouse2 and firing with mouse1– like arrows in Skyrim and gadgets in Arkham City.  In fact I was entering cover with mouse2 and then firing without looking with mouse1.  Why there is a fire without looking mode I don’t know.  You have to hit a WASD key to peek out of cover.  Anyway, all this is easier when you make cover a toggle– now you can shoot with two UI gestures instead of three.

"Fire blindly" mode. Yes, this is a thing.

I was having terrible trouble sneaking through a room, and Cortex gave me a very useful bit of advice: just waste ’em.  Well, he said position yourself for a takedown, then shoot a dude and do the takedown, a neat trick for handling two dudes at once which I haven’t mastered yet.  But the general idea of not worrying so much about stealth was helpful.

So naturally, the mission I just did, taking down O’Malley, involved stealth.  But this also is easier than it seemed during the first mission.  I thought you could only do one takedown from behind.  But your aug juice replenishes pretty quickly, often while you’re hiding the first guy.  So effectively you can take down as many dudes as you want, so long as they helpfully turn their back to you.

The thugs are also, well, really dumb.  They get excited and search for you if they see you, but they give up easily.  (Memo to NPC thugs: it wasn’t your nerves, it was a dude, and he’s still there.  Also this is why your buddies keep disappearing.)  At least Arkham City thugs know how to keep patrolling.

The basic story involves (and is probably aimed for) people who find this sort of thing really sexy:

What, no boob enhancer?

That is, it’s about augmented people vs. what Charlie Stross would call orthohumans.  I realize that many people, chiefly those who used to draw the covers for Heavy Metal, find nothing cooler than human-shaped plastic or metal; but it looks awkward and ugly to me.  I like skin; I like the warmth and flexibility of flesh.  True, it doesn’t stand up well to bullets, but you know, neither does your computer.

(Not that I’m picking the ‘orthohuman’ side; in my sf future it would be as baffling to reject all augmentations as it would be to reject all medicine.  The orthohuman-only movement lost when people invented spectacles.)

Also, David Sarif is pretty much an asshole.  He obviously isn’t too bothered by a division of the world into have-augs and have-augs-not.  He talks like an asshole.  He called me up to whine when I didn’t buy an augmentation with the measly 5000 credits he advanced me (I’m still deciding, OK?).  I just know he’s building a secret aug-only city underneath the sea.

Also, most bizarre futuro-wackazoid idea ever: The Future is based in Detroit.  The Singularity, OK, maybe, but Detroit reviving in the next 15 years? 

I still find a lot of clumsiness in the game’s execution.  Sometimes enemies are annoyingly alarmable, sometimes unrealistically unresponsive.  (O’Malley himself stood stupidly at his desk when I arrested him… does corruption make you less able to notice big dudes in black trench coats crawling around your knees?)  I had to buy Jump for two frigging praxis points to get through the O’Malley mission, and still had trouble getting over a fence.  I did get over, yes, but the feedback is terrible… I didn’t even know for sure if the augment was kicking in.  People in dialogs are strangely fidgety.

Oh well, at least I’m advancing now.  I have to go break into the police station for my asshole boss now.  (He has a skyscraper office and apparently just one minion.)

 

Jacob Weisberg must be a little annoyed: he wrote right after Iowa that the race was over, and Romney had won.

Anything could happen, of course, but it won’t. In the end, the GOP is overwhelmingly likely to nominate Romney because he is the most electable candidate available and at this point, no one else can beat him.

Haha!  40% of South Carolina had something to say about that, choosing Gingrich instead.  Gingrich tore Romney up in the debates, and his fire-breathing if incoherent attacks on pretty much everything resonated with the base.

Some pundits marveled that Gingrich wasn’t harmed by his multiple wives and adulteries— after leading an impeachment of Clinton for adultery, he even had the hubris to attack the media for focusing on his own.  But Bob Altemeyer explained this years ago.  Authoritarians, though fiercely critical of moral failings, will forgive their own leaders almost anything.  Gingrich has obviously moved into Our Leader mode, to be defended against the unbelieving hordes no matter what he’s done.

Exit polls, by the way, gave us the answer to whether Evangelicals could support Romney.  Not really.  Quite a few are bothered by Romney’s Mormonism; all they wanted was an alternative that didn’t feel like it was throwing their vote away.

Santorum did well enough at 17% to stay in the race, and he was stoked by the belated news that he won Iowa after all.  It’s hard to see him going anywhere now— so ultimately his support can be added to Gingrich’s.

Gingrich is pretty much a horrible person and probably a horrible choice, but he’ll certainly keep things interesting.

In 1989 the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto published a remarkable book, The Other Path, a detailed exploration of the extralegal economy, mostly based on his research in Peru.  He pointed out that the informales controlled 60% of the Peruvian economy, and his group painstakingly documented the barriers to full legality.  To open a tiny garment factory, for instance, took nearly a year as well as fees totalling five times the monthly minimum wage.  (And none of this red tape had any actual social utility: not a single bureaucrat actually asked to see the factory.)

In 2000 he published a follow-up, The Mystery of Capital, which presents research in more countries (Egypt, Haiti, the Philippines, and Mexico) and makes a bolder thesis: that extralegality is itself an oppressive situation that results in the underdevelopment of the Third World.  In the Philippines, for instance, he estimates that extralegal property alone is worth $132 billion– four times the value of all the firms on the country’s stock market.

As he documents, the informals have their own property arrangements among themselves for recognizing ownership.  So why is legalization important?  Mostly because titles allow mortgages.  He points out that 70% of new businesses in the US raise capital by mortgaging property.   There are other benefits as well, from the use of the court system to access to insurance to better relations with law enforcement.  Informal companies can do a lot but they can’t expand into major companies or take advantage of economies of scale.

Just recording titles isn’t enough, and he criticizes governments who think high-tech computer mapping is all they need.  People will only use systems that seem fair to them, and that means recognizing and regularizing the informal systems they’ve developed themselves.  To make it all work requires work by politicians, lawyers, banks, and the residents themselves.

Intriguingly, he shows that the same problems hit the US, Europe, and Japan.  In the US, for instance, in theory the government managed the westward expansion, selling land to settlers.  In practice much of the settlement was started by squatters.  There were big fights in the 1800s over this, and a slow turn from fighting the squatters to recognizing them as valuable agents who were creating national wealth.

De Soto has been highly praised on the right, though I have a sense his friends haven’t read him very carefully.  He’s taken as praising capitalism, supporting property rights, and lauding small businessmen… stuff the right thinks it’s doing.  But he’s actually a severe critic of capitalism, and warns that globalization and capitalism are largely failures in the Third World, because nothing has been done to address the systems that exclude the poor.  “Capitalism” in the Third World all too often is limited to little bubbles in the capital where First World rules apply, and the elites aren’t even aware of the obstacles that prevent the bubbles from expanding to serve the whole nation.

On the left I think he’s largely ignored, or else assumed to be an apologist for the elites or for globalizing capitalism, which he certainly is not.  His main point is that the poor have enormous energy and want to be part of the system, and the system should make reforms to let them in.  Third World legal systems largely assume that the legal sector is a tiny, urban phenomenon; it did not anticipate and can’t handle the flood of millions of people who prefer the opportunities of urban life.

If you’ve never read him, I recommend either book– I really don’t think development in the Third World can be understood without confronting his ideas.  They’re not a program for utopia– we have property rights here and that doesn’t prevent us from being pretty messed up.  But much of the world would love to advance to our organizational level.  It’s just absurd to maintain the levels of corruption and red tape that he describes; they are certainly real obstacles to people building prosperous economies and should be fixed pronto.

On the whole, I think the first book was stronger.  The second adds more cases, plus some salutary lessons from US history, but it’s often repetitive and relies a little too much on exhortation and cutesy metaphors.  He’s been involved with actual legalization programs, and I wish there were more details on how those have gone and what lessons have been learned.

(The last ten years have maybe not been kind to the idea of building wealth through mortgaging.  So his estimations of the value of informal property may be exaggerated.  But again, his basic point about the informals being excluded from the financial and legal sector is hard to refute.)

I’ve been playing a lot of video games lately.  So as a break, I read a book about video games: Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.

I hope the subtitle wasn’t Tom’s idea, because he doesn’t even address it.  It’s a set of ruminations on what makes video games compelling, with special focus on Fallout 3, Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead, Gears of War, Braid, Mass Effect, Far Cry 2, Grand Theft Auto, and Fable II. 

Bissell is some kinda literary author, and the overall theme of the book is how a very intelligent and arts-oriented guy ends up playing hundreds of hours of video games and tries to figure out why.  His somewhat baffled enjoyment is the book’s strength and weakness.  He thinks a lot of aspects of games are stupid and cheesy, and sometimes he lays this on a little thick.  But it makes him go deeper into what works for him in games, and it’s fun to see what he thinks about games I’ve played (and the ones I haven’t, he makes a good case for trying). 

Writing about games, people seem to focus on one of three things: the gorgeousness of the game, the gameplay mechanics, or the story.  Some linear combinations of these things work, some make for a great game, and no one knows the formula.

As an artistic guy, Bissell keeps coming back to story, but he recognizes that the dialog and cutscenes of games are often their weakest element.  The model of “movies intercut with long stretches where the player goes from point A to point B usually shooting dudes” is terribly clumsy and anything that gets away from it even slightly tends to excite the critics. 

Bissell tells a great story about Left 4 Dead… a story about a particular Versus game.  Playing against a very competent team of zombies, Tom’s team was nearly decimated– three of them were down, and Tom bolted for the saferoom.  His teammates abused him to the point where he decided to see what he could do to save them; only of course the murderous zombies had respawned.  He burst out of the saferoom and took down three specials in a few seconds.  Managed to revive a teammate who killed the fourth.  They revived one of the others and made it to the saferoom.

It was an epic end to the round and definitely a tale to retell, and as Bissell recognizes, it’s not a story told by the developers.  It emerged from the game and the actions and capabilities of eight human players.  And really, it has all the elements of the best art: terror, a pragmatic selfishness, shame, redemption, catharsis.  The emotions were real, and perfectly in sync with the game situation.  And none of this could be done in any other medium.

Is that the future of games?  I don’t know, but the lesson I take is that criticizing games’ explicit story elements is a bit misguided.  Some deconstructionists take the meaning of a book to live entirely in the reader’s journey– the author doesn’t matter.  I think this goes way too far when it comes to novels, but it’s much more true of video games.  Maybe it’s significant that player was once a word for an actor and now refers to the consumer of the video game.  Audience is way too passive a word for what that person does.

Bissell has acesss to game insiders, and some of these sections of the book are revealing.  80% of the production of a game, for instance, is building the physics and rendering engines, the character models, the textures, the combat mechanics, and so on.  The ‘story’ elements are often added last, by people who’ve moved up or over from programming.  So in some ways it’s remarkable that we get some compelling stories at all.

The ZBB is back.

This is probably not a permanent solution— it’s a trick!  I’m pointing from a new clean phpBB to the old database.  Somewhat to my surprise, this works.

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