Monday, December 28, 2009

Piracy and the Secondary Market

The idea behind a free market is that each participant fights for their own interests, and a good allocation of resources is discovered. While the battles tend to be minor adjustments in staffing, pricing and offerings, there are occasionally much larger shifts in the battlefront. Major companies go under, industries experience consolidation or pop into existence, and occasionally the rules of the game are changed.

In theory the market should generally be close to an equilibrium state, so there shouldn't be many opportunities to drastically alter the market. But it does happen. A company can make a particularly poor strategic decision. Or technology can change the field of play. And one of the best examples of that effect is the Internet.

While you can find examples all through society, I'm going to focus now on the pivot of piracy. Unauthorized distribution has existed as long as media has, but the Internet makes it easier, cheaper and more private. Yet contrary to claims by the entertainment industry, it isn't clear that its having any negative impact on revenue. The movie industry is having a record breaking year. Software revenue continues to explode. The music industry is the counterpoint, but given its many tactical blunders, its hard to pin the blame on piracy, particularly when the pirates also buy the most music.

Some effort is of course necessary to keep piracy from growing to the point it does harm profits. But given the lack of evidence piracy is doing much damage, why the intense focus on it by the entertainment industries? While you aren't likely to get the average Chinese citizen to spend two months gross income on Photoshop even if you do stamp out piracy, the point is that the battles against piracy are also shifting power away from consumers who do buy your product. Organized media corporations act as middlemen between consumers and artists. While some of that role is important, a lot of industry profit comes from acting as a gatekeeper, controlling what people can purchase. With the Internet replacing traditional gatekeepers, publishers need leverage.

And then there's the secondary market. The first sale doctrine is a legal concept in America that guarantees you the right to sell what you've purchased when you're done with it. Car companies could make a lot more money if you weren't allowed to buy used cars, but the government won't let them enforce such a rule. Free markets are only efficient in theory, but the more participants in a market, the closer that market will tend to be to efficiency. The secondary market is an important way to keep markets sufficiently large. Using the car example again, if you couldn't buy used cars, new cars might cost more, as car makers wouldn't be competing with cheap alternatives.

Most anti-piracy actions also encroach on your first sale rights. If Microsoft catches you pirating software, your XBox loses much of its functionality. This means that buying a used XBox is more risky than it should be: if the old owner was a pirate, you've bought a lemon (thus reducing the value of even legal XBoxes). Similiarly, EA came under fire with the DRM on its hit game Spore: Each key could only be used for a set number of installs, so too many resales(or going through too many computers in the course of your life) would prevent you from accessing the content. On the occasions I do buy a game, I tend to buy something a few years out of date for cheap, rather than a brand new $60 product. Without resales, those cheap old games would no longer be a competitor to the newest lineup.

And really, this is so important to digital industries because bits don't degrade. In fifty years my car will be scrap and my books all yellowed. You expect to pay less at a yard-sale because the products are used, and thus hold a lower value. But if I'm careful, I could sell a song I bought off ITunes in sixty years, and it'll be indistinguishable from a new copy. This is tough competition, and the fairness of it is open to debate. Maybe there do need to be controls on reselling digital media. But that's a harder argument for the entertainment industries to win then the debate over piracy. And returning to the opening concept of market dynamics, I expect there will be more than one signficant shift of power before a new equilibrium between consumers, artists and publishers is found.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What would you rather be doing?

What would you do if didn't have to work? Survival, whether accomplished by hunting or earning your meal as a stock broker, has always been a major part of the human experience. It may always remain this way, but with continual progress in automation it doesn't have to. When robots farm better than us, hem seams and design airplanes better then us, what will we do with our new leisure time?

It's an important question, because without a good answer society breaks down. Today, "What do you do?" is one of the perennial icebreakers, work a standard conversation gambit. If we lose that, will we lose something crucial to our identities? After endless years of television will we grow sick of our uselessness and reclaim our plows? Or are there other, better goals we could turn our attention towards?

What would you do if the concept of a job faded away? What sort of things do you wish you could accomplish, but lack the time? Add a comment with your thoughts...

Friday, November 27, 2009

What's black and white and read by old people?

Plenty has been written on the imminent demise of newspapers. Rather than reiterate the basic points, I'll just point you at the two best articles I've read on the topic (props to this blog for originally pointing me to these). If you've got others, post them in the comments, I'd love to read them.

The New Republic has an article explaining the dangers of world without newspapers, specifically arguing that deep investigative journalism is crucial for preventing corruption, but isn't being replaced.

Clay Shriky
writes the best general overview of the issue I've read. In particular, he contextualizes with the last big communications shift, the invention of the printing press.

I don't believe its all of for-pay content that's at risk. The latter article in particular is of a quality that could survive behind a pay wall. It's a well-researched, well-written deep examination of a complex issue. Were I to summarize or rewrite the content, something would be lost. It's not just the facts we're looking for in a high quality article, but the way they can provoke our thoughts.

Unfortunately, that's not the norm in newspaper content. Rather, most articles are read for the facts of a current event. We want to know the results on a healthcare reform vote, what outrageous thing Kanye did, who won the game last night. When publishing was expensive, you could derive value from facts. But unfortunately, most facts ultimately hold little value in a rich communication medium.

Once a news source states some fact they've uncovered, the readers can pass the facts along. In the hundreds of thousands of blog filling the internet people are taking in news and spitting it back out, with their own commentary. The abusive case of just reprinting AP articles and putting ads around it is easy enough to deal with. But copyright only applies to the text you write, not the facts in it. One of your readers can rewrite your stories, and then the world will flock to the free source over yours.

The alternative of giving newspapers ownership over the news stories they break is a scary one. Imagine if fox news uncovers a scandal around Obama. Even if we gave them only a day's worth of ownership over presenting the facts of the case, that means that for a full 24 hours the only voice informing the world of what's happening, the only voice setting the tone of the debate going forward, is Fox News. For society to function, everybody needs to be able to discuss what's happening in the world. For that to happen, you can't wall off facts. And if that's true, there's little incentive to pay for facts when you can get them for free immediately afterwards. Of course, that returns us to the core issue of who will discover these facts for us then. It's a tricky issue, but I don't think for-pay news sources are going to remain the solution for long, unless they can start adding something over and above the straight facts.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Did the Uncanny Valley kill the Neanderthal?

I read an article on Seed Magazine's website today about why the Uncanny Valley exists. The term refers to almost humanlike robots and CGI. When they're very cartoony they're cute, when they're extremely realistic we react to them like other humans, but in between they repulse us. The article explains some theories on what is driving our subconscious to dislike these creations (we think they're dead bodies, we really don't want to mate with them, they confuse our understanding of what man is). I'd like to propose an alternative theory.

Imagine you're a rabbit who has suddenly evolved a poisonous bite. What would you do? You could hunt down all the wolves and dogs in the area, and save rabbit-kind from constant harassment. At first, all the other bunnies would treat you as a savior. Without predators, the bunny society would grow and flourish. And then suddenly, all the plants have been eaten and everybunny starves. If the bunny population doesn't die off, it'll do so by evolving to better regulate their population. And if predators return, then suddenly they won't be able to have babies fast enough.

Part of evolution is adapting to your environment. Part of evolution is being able to adapt when that environment changes. Mammals exist because they could deal with a new threat the dinosaurs couldn't. But part of evolution is avoiding having to adapt to a new environment. If you're well suited for the world around you, its in your best interest not to mess with that world.

Thus even if an herbivore could kill all the predators around it, it probably shouldn't. Similiarly, dogs don't eat plants, but if they kill plants they'll be indirectly killing their food supplies as well. An environment is filled with many niches, and animals who leave other niches alone are generally going to have a better shot at survival.

But leaving other niche's alone says nothing about your own niche. When predators outperform prey, the prey dwindle, the predators starve, and suddenly the prey are safe to grow again. There's a feedback loop that seeks equilibrium. If a new herbivore enters the scene, the situation is different for the rabbits. If they're better at eating the mutual food source, there will be less for the rabbits, and the rabbits will die. If they overeat, the new creatures will die off, but so will the rabbits. Thus competition within a niche will tend to have equilibrium points where one of the two species die off.

If an animal looks very different from you, it probably fills a different niche. If it looks exactly like you, you can mate with it. Even if it outcompetes you, it's got enough genes in common with you that your species is still succeeding evolutionarily. But in between, you've got a competitor. Thus there's incentive to help those like you, ignore those different from you, and kill the middle ground. Humans were not always the only hairless ape. If we're so well equipped for survival that we now occupy every corner of the globe, why didn't any other survive? Some evidence suggests humans may have actively killed off neanderthals, not just by outcompeting it for food but by stabbing it with spears.

Returning to the uncanny valley, this would mean that we're bothered when CGI doesn't quite look human because unconciously we think we're looking at a new creature that could somebody replace us. And interestingly, in evaluating a robot, that's a not altogether irrational opinion to hold.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Imagine you're a lake.

Imagine a lake. Peaceful, calm, beautiful. There are trees, acting all tall. The sun's shining down. In the distance mountains chill out. Then suddenly, Splash! Something hits the water. Is a child hiding and throwing rocks? Was that a meteor?

Now picture yourself in the ripples that were created. Now picture yourself as those ripples. Imagine that if you zoom in really really close to one little ripple you see a little droplet of water rising out above the rest. That's my analogy for the sun. There's an even smaller droplet of water beside it, and that represents the Earth. And if you zoom in even closer there are a couple molecules of water. Those represent you.

This tiny aquatic world is different then our own, of course. It's two dimensional. The water itself takes up three dimensions, but most of its just solid. The interesting part, the surface between the water and the air, is two dimensional. If you walk far enough in one direction, you really would fall off the water Earth.

Now imagine little water you looking into a little water telescope. You see all the little water stars extending out as far as you can see. And as you watch one, you notice its getting farther away. Intrigued, you look at another star. Its moving away. Another star? Leaving you! Another star? Same deal! Pretty soon, you're positive all the stars are moving away. This ripple is traveling towards the shore, and as it does so, its radius is getting bigger.

So you take out your water calculator and start thinking. You figure out how fast the other water stars are moving away. You figure out how far away they are now. And from that, you realize that all these stars must have been at the same place some long time ago. You do the math and see, wow, that was 34 seconds ago!

Now you've got an idea of when this watery universe started. The very first moments wouldn't be clear: Everything would sort of converge to a ring of a certain size. If you could study the stars enough, you might figure out the contours of that ring. Maybe its smooth with a few ridges, like a baseball. Maybe its more irregular, like a rock. What was it that caused the universe?

Maybe water you would theorize that perhaps there's a third dimension, and something collided with your two dimensional universe. But ultimately, you could never know what that thing was. It's deep under water now. With all the information in the surface of the lake, you'd only be able to construct a 2d cross section of the object. It was three dimensional and left, and you're only 2d. And even if you could guess at the shape of the thing, it wouldn't tell you about what set it in motion. Did it fall of its own volition? Did somebody toss it?

Now stop imagining, and return to our world. What caused the big bang? What existed before it? If there are more dimensions than 3, can we explore them? Will we ever know these answers?

Saturday, November 14, 2009


It's generally misleading to think about things as they are at a single point in time. The defining characteristic of our universe is change. From the laws of physics through the history of man, from cake batter in the oven to religion is there anything that doesn't change?

I think this idea can be particularly important in dealing with people, especially at the level of societies. Anti-racketeering laws intended originally to give the feds a legal weapon against the mafia have since been used to fight illegal immigration. The Expos even tried to use racketeering laws against Major League Baseball. The zeitgeist of a society is important for the people living in it at that moment, but the repercussions can echo deep into the future. The excesses of consumption in the last few generations may become a folk story used to teach children centuries hence.

Thus its important to understand how a society can change. In America, we have well defined rules built into our government for enacting change. Those tools are only available, however, to our legislatures and governors. Society as a whole has blunter tools to enact change in the government, election mostly, but has a great deal of freedom in defining civil society in an ad-hoc and emergent fashion.

Thus each individual has a set of options available to them to enact change, and differing motivations to do so. At one extreme, armed overthrow of the government has always been available as an option, should it grow dangerously oppressive. But such an action would require an extremely motivated core, a generally sympathetic populace, a popular opinion that does not condemn such actions. History has shown a preference for subtler evolution, but not universally.

Which all leads to my main point: changes at one point in time alter the possible changes at a future point in time. Consider Britain, with its increasing levels of surveillance. Detailed understanding of the actions of each individual in a nation can be used to stifle the emergence of dissent. Individuals really only influence the world by influencing enough other people. If a government could identify those seeking to change it, whether by legal or extralegal methods, they could imprison or otherwise isolate those individuals. Change is still universal, and spontaneous uprising is possible, but the growth of government often either directly or as a side effect limits individuals ability to influence the world. If the government at that time is a positive force, and the limitations on influence are presented as limitations on villain's ability to destroy, people can be willing to accept the restrictions.

Change is like a rug that doesn't fit in its room, though. You can push down the power to change the world in one place, and it grows elsewhere. By restricting the ability of the general population to change society, the resistance to changes enacted by the unrestricted party is reduced. And even if the people with all the power are good now, remember the universality of change. Thus, sooner or later, we can expect those with power to use it for their own ends. The less power society has been left with to resist, the more those in power can exploit.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

When are the robots coming?

Where are the robots? I've heard they're more common in Japan, but at least in America you don't see many robots. When a building is going up, I see humans swinging hammers. When a truck's being unloaded, men are carrying the cases. Are we uninterested in replacing workers with more machines? Is the technology not ready yet?

I'm inclined to feel that the latter is a big part of the problem. Vision is a difficult problem. Humans have remarkable dexterity using their hands. And the current generation of robots are extremely specialized. There was a wave of automation in the 80's and 90's on factory floors and warehouses. After installing multi-million dollars, the warehouses found that any minor change in layout of the factory floor could break the system. Businesses unable to change rarely thrive.

In every direction, you see obstacles to successful robots. Vision, speech, planning, object manipulation, adaption: none of these problems have been mastered yet. But despite this, I think we're very close to a robotics boom.

The key is that these problems are being solved in parallel. We don't have perfect image recognition yet, but as we get closer, any robot can benefit. Researchers are closing the gaps on each problem, and in a very short span of time we may go from all these problems being insurmountable to none of them being so. And once the researchers have solved the problems, the engineers and designers will put the pieces together and make the technology accessible; and countless entrepreneurs will start replacing everyone. Expect to start seeing robots frequently by 2020.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Greek Gods Make More Sense Now

So, I was just playing scattegories with Caroline when the letter T came up for Greek Gods. Can you think of any??? I bent the category a little bit and wrote Titans, but then wanted to check to make sure they were Gods. I was pretty sure Zeus was related to them, so they'd have to be by family, but I wasn't sure.

Turns out Zeus is the son of Titans, so I count him. Wikipedia also informed me "Their role as Elder Gods was overthrown by a race of younger gods, the Olympians, which effected a mythological paradigm shift that the Greeks may have borrowed from the Ancient Near East." Greek Mythology make so much more sense to me.

The Greek Gods weren't the Gods as we understand them in an eternal, all-powerful being sense. They were child Gods who'd overthrown their parents. Seeing them as teenagers suddenly explained the endless drama and Zeus trying to have sex with everybody. They were just filled with God-hormones.

On a side note, I like the idea that Gods can just be replaced and the laws of space time can be changed. The big bang was just the ending of a phase under a God who really liked compact things.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Solar Panels....IN SPACE

This blog post is called "The Future According to Paul", so without further ado I present:

Solar Panels...IN SPACE

I believe this is going to be a major source of energy in the future. If you keep an eye on any scientific news source, you'll see the occasional article on the topic: there are companies in America and Japan with contracts to beam energy down from space already. And if this technology sees some success it could help drive down the costs of space travel, making it an increasingly viable option.

The idea is fairly simple: you rocket some solar panels and a microwave generator into space. You aim the microwave at the Earth (think of like a space-based death ray), but instead of reducing the countryside into irradiated wasteland, you catch the microwaves in a receiver, which converts the energy into electricity. And then you turn on a light, or fill up your electric car or something. Hurrah!

Why is beaming microwaves down from space better then catching light here on Earth? First, we've got night and clouds to contend with. A satellite can spend more time in the sun then any point on Earth. Then there's all that atmosphere hugging our planet. If you didn't know, visible light is just a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. To one side you've got things like X-Rays, to the other you've got radio waves. Weird as it seems, its all the same stuff, the distance between peaks of the waves just differs. For some reason (magic? science?) depending on these distance between the waves, different molecules will either absorb the light or let them pass. If you've got a red shirt, it's because the molecules in it absorb green and blue, and bounce back red. Glass doesn't really absorb any red, green or blue light waves so you can see through it. The atmosphere absorbs a lot of the energy the sun beams down at us. It doesn't absorb microwaves very well though.

So the short of it is that if you take the energy from the sun and turn it into microwaves, you can shoot it through the atmosphere without losing so much of the energy. Hence space based Solar panels. If you can get the panel up into space without using too much energy, you'll get much better results then if you leave the panels on Earth. If we build factories on the moon, we can get the panels into space for even less.

Anyways, you can expect to start purchasing space electricity from your local electric company (you do live in California, right?) as early as 2016. Look for the percentage of space energy to only increase from there.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I Believe in the Universe

For a long time nothing on Earth believed in God. This is because bacteria aren't capable of holding complex beliefs. But then humans came onto the scene, and the number of assumed Gods made a huge jump. We don't have cultural evidence for pre-civilized man, but the earliest religions we know about tend to be animist. Early man believed something supernatural resided in everything, from cats to thunder. Threads of this belief system persist today, but in general the number has been in decline ever since.

Take ancient Egypt and Greece as examples. In both cases the spirits in individual stones and animals were winnowed down into the major forces. Gods created the world and dealt with the dead. Gods were or navigated the sun. Gods designed animals. Gods put the kick into wine. Things that were overly commonplace, individual blades of grass, lost their mystical nature.

Polytheistic religions are more common today then animist ones, but the dominant belief system is monotheism. In one way, its a move full circle: an omnipresent God is in each blade of grass. But instead of everything having a unique spirit, everything shares one.

The Sun being pulled across the sky in a chariot seems a little silly now. We believe in gravity, and feel it explains the phenomenon much better. But despite a lack of sophistication in the vessel, the Greeks did understand what the sun was. They understood there was relative motion going on between it and us. They understood that it was very hot and that we really didn't want to be any closer or farther away. There were no words in Greek for plasma, nuclear fusion or gravity. Without those concepts, a God made the most sense. In a way, Helios on a chariot was a stand in, a black box to be filled in with better explanations later on.

Thus there's this pattern through history of observing a phenomenon, attributing it to the Gods, and eventually evicting the Gods in preference to science. Demonic possession made way for modern psychology. Bacchus has been reduced to ethanol. As the natural phenomena were demoted from mythology we were left with deeper questions: What created all this? What happens when we die? And these have been wrapped together into a single, almighty power.

I've been struck by all the parallels between the monotheistic (specifically Christian) God and the Universe. God is described as omnipresent, as the universe is by definition. God knows all, and if the Universe is deterministic it holds the keys to all that was and all that has been. We are created out of the cloth of the Universe, and return to it at the end of days (not that we ever really leave it). The scope of the Universe defines the beginning, and ending, of everything. And just as God is described as unknowable, as beyond the possibility of pure comprehension, so appears the Universe. If the speed limit of light holds, then we can only ever see and know a tiny bit of the Universe. It looks to expand far past what we could ever possibly experience, its own rules nullifying the possibility of comprehension.

Thus, I believe God is ultimately our struggles to comprehend the Universe we find ourselves in. And rather than God, I believe in that Universe. I don't think its a poor trade. I believe in a Universe far richer then the one we fathom. My faith tends to the idea that we're a tiny point on a ripple through an unimaginably huge, many-dimensional cloth. I believe that just as our world of ideas and society is uncomprehensible at the level of atoms, we're part of some other structure with its own elegant logic, but which is unlike anything we experience. Looking at the mundaneness of everyday life, I can see where people feel a life without God is lacking a crucical spark. But if we peer past the realm of the everyday, I really believe that the Universe provides all of the mystery, truth and beauty of any God figure.

An afterlife has always struck me as wish fulfilment. The use of God to explain the start of the Universe just pushes the question of original cause back another step. The bible reads much like other mythologies humanity has put aside. As you strip God of human desires and needs, he just seems to blend back into that Universe I believe he represents. This breaking of the dichotomy of Universe and God back into a single concept is where my faith lies.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Asymmetric Narrative

Engineering computers to perform creative acts is a concepts known as procedural generation. The field is most active in the realm of computer games, but there are also examples in music composition and art. In the video game realm, Spore creates and animates unique creatures based on human input, and Left 4 Dead (a zombie survival game) had an AI director who controlled the pace and difficulty of the game for the players.

This is a topic I'm hugely interested in. The intersection of creativity and computers is a rich and intriguing ones. The strategies for approaching the problem, and the social implications are worthy of many more blog posts. Basically, though, I think the coolest thing about procedural generation is the potential for personalized entertainment. We each have unique preferences in movies. Over time, a procedural generation system could tailor its creations to maximize your enjoyment. Imagine if every movie you watched was well made, if the forms of humor you find cringe-worthy never occurred, if the length was always exactly what you had time for. And in video games, the player is suddenly advanced to the role of an active participant. Instead of following a pre-laid track of levels, you can suddenly make meaningful decisions that completely change the narrative.

The thought that prompted this post, though, is a limitation of procedural generation. I recently caught up on the series Lost. I've noticed that its one of the shows where fans are eager to discuss the events together. We'll compare opinions on plot arcs and deceased characters. We'll speculate on the mysteries of the show and exchange theories. Besides being an entertaining show, its a social experience. The same is true of music, where a commonly liked band can be a bridge into conversation. But if each person were enjoying a personalized story, that sense of belonging with the world would be severed.

Or would it (and here's where the title comes in)? A personalized narrative doesn't need to be independent of other tales. Its not a prerequisite, but imagine if your personal video game has access to your facebook network. Now the same story arc you're experiencing can be shared with your friends. One person might be experiencing it as a tragedy, another as a crime-scene drama. The key is that its still a tale you've both shared. You can discuss the characters and events, even if you've seen it differently. And as a bonus, each tale would necessarily focus on different aspects. By discussing you'd be learning little details that had been hidden from you. Instead of locking us into introverted worlds, procedural generation could encourage us to share our entertainment experiences with friends.

The point, ultimately, is that this would be a different form of narrative then what we've seen. Its interactive, either directly with the software or in the context of our social groups. And I think that's why I'm so enamored with the idea. Its not that regular human created content isn't wonderful, its that with a computer behind the design, you can try things you never could have before. And that's the part of technology I love, the exploratory rush of moving the impossible into the actual.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

It's been a couple weeks since the last post. Vacation happened, and since then its been full steam moving into a new house. There just haven't been enough hours in the day (or previously, enough computers in Northwest Maine) to get a post in edgewise. Caroline's been writing about the trip if you're interested.

Time. There's never enough of it, is there? And even when there has been, I always find a way to procrastinate it away. I've got all sorts of projects I'd love to start: video games and books, robots and companies. But you've got to prioritize, and a paying job and enjoying life keep winning out over hobbies for me.

The future is a lot larger now then it will be when we get there. There's these great big bubbles of potential, both personal and global. From the apocalyptic to the Utopian, from the romantic to the entrepreneurial there are all sort of feasible occurrences. If you believe in free will, any of them might happen. If you believe in the many world's theory of quantum mechanics, they all will. There's this great winnowing process where Paul the scientist comes into existence through the death of Paul the poet and Paul the chef.

I think that's part of the reason the future holds such an allure for me. Before its actualized, its a much broader topic then anything else. You can see these conflicting outcomes: robotic war and global peace, and in a sense they're both valid. Understanding the past is a search for One Truth, but understanding the future requires you to search out all the possible truths. The past is analogous to Newtonian physics, following a prescribed set of rules, and the future quantum physics: these interesting interference patterns of possibility.

The Future According to Paul: it might not come true, but I hope to at least capture a thread fate discarded in stringing out time.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

As farming goes, so goes the world

The bureau of labor statistics says that 0.7% of the population worked in farming/fishing/forestry in 2006. That's already a tiny pecentage, and advances in robotics are likely to drive it even lower. From the same site, construction and extraction employee 5.5%, maintenance and repair 4%, production 7% and transportation 7%. To me, that seems like a pretty exhaustive list of the basic requirements for survival: shelter, food, and even all the mass produced products we fill our homes with, and the time to distribute everything. And don't forget that our houses are bigger then ever, we eat more then ever, and we consume more products then ever. So what if we somehow shared these tasks? What would your day be like?

Monday through Friday, you'd arrive at work at 9. Until 9:03 you'd work in the garden. 9:03 - 9:30 you'd help a neighbor build his house. That done, you'd spend until 10:04 producing goods for your home: chairs, electronics, boots. 10:04 - 10:23 you'd keep the machines giving you this amazing productivity maintained and working, then you'd drive around until 10:47 dropping off the food and products you'd produced earlier. You could now wipe your brow, and call it a day. Less then two hours, and you've produced everything you need.

On the one hand, this is an over simplification: you haven't spent your 2 minutes preaching the word of God, or your 5 minutes teaching elementary school children. At the same time, a slight reduction in consumption and a slight increase in efficiency could account for all the remaining positions.

So it appears we could get by working an hour a day, or one day a week. Technology is driving these requirements down as well: how long before the 24 minutes spent driving around can be taken over by a robot? What do we do with the other 4 days of work we do? And why can so few people spend their days writing music or painting art?

We have a day's worth of really critical work each, and its falling. Its like musical chairs: everyone's trying to find their full employment, but there's just not enough. So we've got a massive legal system, and billions spent on advertising, convincing people they want more then they need. Why? What if employment was optional? Give rewards to those who do it anyways, especially those who do jobs that nobody else wants to or can. Sure, people would choose not to work who otherwise would, but couldn't we muster a couple hours a day? What would life be like then?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Who owns what

There's an interesting debate occurring around the concept of imaginary property. Physical goods lend themselves to an easy understanding of ownership, primarily because transferring an object from one person to another necessitates the first person losing possession of it. With media, however, that situation changes.

Emailing you a song in no way degrades my own copy. Similarly, ITunes can sell thousands of copies of a song with essentially no marginal costs. Is the song still property? Companies think so, and consumers seem to as well, albeit in different guises. The entertainment industry wants to be able to restrict you from redistributing the content they've “licensed” you. The consumers are a less homogeneous group, but there does seem to be a desire to be able to keep a product they've paid for, and sell it when they're done.

As a society we're riding out the inherent discrepancy between what technology allows and what a seller wants. Reselling a traditional product undercuts the original producer, but marginally, as each consumer can only perform the act once per product. Even if a company wants to stop resales, there's a pragmatic difficulty to it: they aren't involved in that transaction. Traditional crimes, like theft, murder and rape, have a victim actively involved in the crime. Copyright infringment is like anti-sodomy and drug laws, in that a third-party demands a transaction between two other people stop.

I've noticed in articles pointing out a problem with DRM (technology that prevents you from using electronic products in a way the producer doesn't like) a lot of musicians have started positing comments. They'll argue that this is their job, and that they need DRM so people will buy their product.The example that sparked this post included the comment that I was a stranger, so he didn't trust me, so that's why he needed to put DRM around music he produced.

I realized that that was fair, but that I didn't trust him either. And its not him, specifically, its the record company who's representing him. Microsoft and Walmart (among others) have both sold people music and promptly decided they didn't want to support the servers necessary to ever change computers or upgrade your OS without losing every song you bought. Amazon's Kindle had the technology to read aloud to the blind which an Author's group made them disable. Amazon retains the rights to delete books you've purchased through them. And if you fall outside of the rules on content you could face a $1.92 million fine or potentially 10 years in prision.

Those are really just a small sample of cases where DRM or the DMCA have been used to cause real harm. Shady companies, generally large ones, have been using them as tools to harm consumers. There's finally some degree of consumer backlash brewing, and it will probably harm independent musicians who just want to make a sale. But unfortunately, the alternative of accepting a contract where the product I just purchased can be taken away tomorrow is just poor business sense on my part. I refuse to buy any products a company can remotely disable. If a company would just guarantee lifelong access and access to a secondary market, I would be happy to embrace that DRM, and we could move forward against piracy. But as far as can tell, that's not what the entertainment industry wants.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Introductions All Around

Welcome one and all! This is “The Future according to Paul”, my first ever blog. I'm excited to finally be starting one. Growing up in the 21st century, particularly being involved with computers as a major, I've watched the blogosphere grow from a quirky niche in a nascent technology to a whole new form of media. At its onset I never believed I'd contribute to a blog: what did the world care about what I have to say? Popular perception in the early days of blogging was a bit like the current perception of twitter: that it's just a growing mass of the meaningless minutiae of other people's lives.

What's changed? Partially, I'm a slightly more confident individual then my pubescent self. My sphere of interests has expanded past the myopia of middle school to topics generally interesting. I've also started to appreciate the archival nature of the Internet. It's young and exciting, so we lose track of the novelty that easy storage of our thoughts presents. Being able to look back at my thoughts forty years in the future, organized by topic, seems if not valuable at least interesting. Thus was born a new blog into this global web.

With the barrage of text the Internet uses to overwhelm our attention, I thought it important to label this latest volley with the topics I expect to be discussing. As the title suggests, my interests point forward in time. My cares about popular culture is already starting to atrophy. I don't go on adventures, or work in a public facing position I can accumulate anecdotes from. Rather, my thoughts tend to dwell on some slightly obtuse topics: quantum physics and procedurally generated content, the social impact of cheap recording devices and the necessities of work in an automated age. In short, the future. I hope you'll enjoy what I've got to say, and that you'll share your own insights here.