Help Fight a Patent Troll

A patent troll has been going around sending threatening letters and demanding money from podcasters for violating his patent. This patent troll wants to use the legal system to force podcasters (potentially all podcasters) to make him rich while he does nothing. This is galling on several levels: it harms creators and it makes lazy patent trolls rich. These patent trolls are little more than parasites.

Admittedly, this problem is just a symptom of a larger problem with the US patent laws: the ability to patent vague processes which are obvious and high-tech versions of existing technology.

From Slashdot:

“Patent troll Personal Audio has sued top podcasters including Adam Carolla and HowStuffWorks, claiming that they own the patent for delivery of episodic content over the Internet. Adam Carolla is fighting back and has started a Fund Anything campaign to cover legal fees. From the Fund Anything campaign page: ‘If Adam Carolla loses this battle, then every other Podcast will be quickly shut down. Why? Because Patent Trolls like Personal Audio would use a victory over Carolla as leverage to extort money from every other Podcast.. As you probably know, Podcasts are inherently small, owner-operated businesses that do not have the financial resources to fight off this type of an assault. Therefore, Podcasts as we know them today would cease to exist.’ James Logan of Personal Audio answered Slashdotters’ questions in June 2013. Links to the patent in question can be found on Personal Audio’s website. The EFF filed a challenge against Personal Audio’s podcasting patent in October 2013.”

I gave money to this. So should you.

For more information, This American Life has two podcast episodes on this:
This American Life: When Patents Attack
This American Life: When Patents Attack, Part 2

SMBC Sisyphus [Webcomic]

This comic by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal pretty much nails Facebook games. It reminds me of Cow Clicker – which was designed to be a parody of shallow Facebook games, but ended up becoming inexplicably popular.

To be fair to Facebook games, one of the reasons I never got into MMOs is because they seemed like complex versions of this same story: “What does a higher level get me? Better weapons and tougher baddies.”

Keloid and Artificial Intelligence [Video]

I do enjoy gritty sci-fi and AI. I love the trailer for this movie.

It seems like the real-world is starting to look more and more like this. Here’s a Boston Dynamics Video:

I have to admit, even as a software developer, that there are some things that worry me about the advances in artificial intelligence. The Terminator movies provide an example of machines becoming intelligent and turning on humans, but a more important danger is the fact that machines obey their master. With computer viruses and coups, there’s the danger of shutting down an entire army or someone taking control of a mechanized army. At least with humans, there was a person who would decide whether or not to open-fire on civilians. Soldiers could decide for themselves whether or not to support a coup.

On a related note, I’ve been working on the AI of Empires of Steel lately.

Pageview Journalism

I recently read “Trust Me, I’m Lying”, where Ryan Holiday talks about how he would trick the media into covering stories about products he’s trying to sell. It generally took the form of “exclusives”, “leaked” documents, and attempts to manufacture outrage. By manufacturing outrage, people would talk about the product, which made it visible to people who wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. For example, he worked with Tucker Max (author of “I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell”). He’d pay for billboards advertising the movie, then vandalize the billboards, take a picture of the vandalized billboard and pass it on (anonymously) to bloggers who’d write about it. He’d show up to feminist groups on college campuses, tell them about what a terrible misogynist Tucker Max was, and get them to organize a protest – which would only draw attention to the Tucker Max book and movie. He currently works as marketing director for American Apparel (what? you thought all the bad publicity American Apparel gets is unintentional?).

In one section of the book, he talks about pageview journalism. This is a form of journalism that is directed by pageviews (i.e. as many readers as possible). Pageviews, in turn, result in getting ad-revenue because the more readers you can get on your website, the more money you can make from advertisements. In short: more readers = more money. On the flipside, the websites employ bloggers to produce stories and have even started paying them based on the pageviews of those stories. These bloggers often get very little money, but they can increase their income if they can pull readers.
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Slashdot, Websites, and Ad-blocker

Last month, the gaming-website Destructoid posted a story about their discovery that half of their users are using Ad-Blocker. The editor of Destructoid wrote about it (quite nicely, by the way) and displayed a message to users to arrived at the site using Ad-Blocker. From there, the story hit Slashdot. I’ll say upfront that I have a hard time feeling entirely compassionate towards a lot of the Slashdot comments. I think it has to do with the fact that I’ve run a business, whereas Slashdot commenters are largely consuming (but not producing) so they don’t have much sympathy for businesses or financials.

It seems to me that there are three possible reactions to ads on a website:
(1) Put up with the ads, keep visiting the site.
(2) Use ad-blocker, keep visiting the site.
(3) Stop visiting the site (you don’t get the content, you don’t get the ads).
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I Don’t Like Tumblr

At the risk of sounding old and out of touch, I’m going to admit that I don’t like Tumblr.

Why not? Their commenting system is essentially non-existent. On Tumblr, whenever someone posts something that’s wrong or should be clarified, it’s easy for other people to repost it, but hard to correct it or clarify it or comment on it.

As far as I can tell, the only way to leave a comment is to create your own account, repost the original post and then write a comment on your own post. But the problem with this is that reposting it means it shows up on your own tumblr account. If other people are following your tumblr, they see it come up as a full-post on your own blog. Sometimes you don’t want your comments to show up as a full post (not because you’re embarrassed about your comment, but simply because it isn’t significant enough to repost for your own blog-followers). This especially becomes a problem if you have a lot of followers. Imagine if you have a thousand followers and you want to leave a small comment on some tiny blog about something they posted. Now you’ve got a full post on your own blog. It’s a terrible system. Great for reposting, bad for adding new information to an existing post.

Here’s an example I ran across today. It’s not hugely flawed. It’s not some post about gun-control or politics or religion or homeopathy – something that would make people want to leave a comment. It’s just a post about the movie “Airplane”.

“And as I was passing time watching the classic film, Airplane, which came out in 1980 (and is very funny), I noted some small differences in flying in 1980 versus today:

actual silverware
actual tableware (plates and glasses)
options for meals
leg room
people dressed up to fly
smoking on airplanes (there really used to be smoking sections on planes, people)
It was by no means a golden age, but planes weren’t quite yet the busses that fly that they are today.”

I first impulse was to link to an NPR story I had heard a while back. The story talked about how, back in the ‘glory days’ of Airlines, the US government regulated prices. This meant that prices were high and airlines competed by offering extras – full meals, first-class service, etc. When government regulation of airlines ended, the airlines ended up competing more on price than quality of service (because everyone kept jumping at the lowest-price fare). The result is what we have today: lower prices and lower service. Airlines might’ve had better service, but you were going to pay more for it.

Before 1978, life for the legacy airlines was pretty sweet. The government set ticket prices. If regulators didn’t think airlines were making enough money, ticket prices would be allowed to rise. Instead of competing to offer the lowest ticket prices, the airlines offered more and more amenities things like bigger seats. Some 747s even had piano bars.

NPR: Why Airlines Keep Going Bankrupt

Heck, some airlines even had a piano bar.

Alas, tumblr only allows me to leave this comment if I have a tumblr blog and repost it with my comment. Even then, it can quickly be overlooked because tumblr doesn’t treat comments like they are important. If I repost and write a long comment, only the first 200 characters or so will show up on the original post. So, the repost-and-comment method means that I can only leave a truncated comment. People can only read my full comment if they click on the link (so make sure those 200 characters are awesome enough to make people want to click). It’s almost like tumblr thought the whole “Web 2.0” thing of leaving comments on blogs was a mistake; that two-way communication instead of unidirectional, TV-like communication was a error made in the early, naive years of the Internet.

Podcast: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty

I was listening to a recent Point Of Inquiry podcast titled The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, where Dan Ariely explained some of the research he’s done into honesty and dishonesty.

For example, in one test, he asked people to complete a math test. Then, they were to grade their own test, put the paper into a paper shredder, and tell the researcher how many questions they got right. They would be paid one dollar for each correct answer. What he didn’t tell them was that the paper shredder was fake – they could retrieve the test and check how many questions were actually correct. What Ariely found was that the average number reported on the test was “6 correct”, but the average number of actual right answers was 4. This discrepancy wasn’t due to a small number of big cheaters. Instead, it was due to a large number of small cheaters. More specifically, out of the 30,000 people involved in his study, 12 people were big cheaters, 18,000 people (or 60%) were small cheaters, and the remaining 12,000 (40%) didn’t cheat.

One theory for the why people cheated only a little bit was that people have two opposing forces in their heads: they want to see themselves as good people and, on the other hand, they have a selfish desire to work for their own interests. So, people cheat in small ways – cheating to get an advantage, but cheating only a little bit so that they can maintain an idea of themselves as “good people”.
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Used Games and Rights

A new article says that a US court has ruled that software publishers can prevent reselling software (i.e. used software). The ruling (if upheard) could allow publishers to kill the used games business. The whole “used games” and “used software” sales market has been opposed by a few companies. Some companies see used sales as undermining new sales, and while I don’t agree with their attempts to eliminate used-sales, I can understand why they would be irritated by the fact that GameStop makes a lot of money from used-game sales. Nearly half of GameStop’s profit comes from used-game sales. Because of their markups, GameStop earns 85% more money on the sale of a used game than a new one. At the same time, the publisher gets paid when a new game is sold, but not a used one.

Autodesk* has also tried for years to shut-down used sales of its software – including blocking eBay sales. The typical method for doing this in the software world is to give users a “licence”. When software is counted as a “licence” rather than a “sale”, it opens up more options for publishers to restrict what a user can do with that software. For example, they can sell the user a non-transferable licence (i.e. no software resales). On the other hand, if software is “sold”, then it falls into the legal structure of the “first sale doctrine” which means users can do things like resell their software. The first sale doctrine was originally setup a hundred years ago, and applied to things like books. Book publishers tried to shut-down used bookstores (for fear that used book sales were undermining new book sales), but courts handed down the “first sale doctrine” that said people can resell them. The main way that software “licences” are being challenged is by arguing that publishers are using “licence” as a legal ploy to restrict what users can do, when, in fact, it’s really a “sale” masquerading under the “licence” term.

I think there’s a certain logic to preventing used-game sales, I just don’t think it’s strong enough logic to convince me that users should not be allowed to resell their software or buy used software. I also think the act of shutting down used-sales creates a degree of dissatisfaction among users, and creates the idea that companies have too much control in their lives what they can do with their software. This unhappiness among users has to be weighed against the monetary benefit of eliminating used sales. While eliminating used sales might increase revenue in the short term, it might create longer-lasting resentment, as well. As we all know, CEOs of companies can be ridiculously short-sighted – either because everything is measured and rewarded on a short-term basis, or because they lack foresight. Based on that, I have very little faith in business leaders making the right long-term choice.

On a more positive note, it’s rumored that Steam will begin allowing users to sell their games back to Steam (at a reduced price, of course). Presumably, their logic is that players who can sell back bad games will be more willing to buy new ones (i.e. there is less risk involved since they can get back some of their money if they don’t like the game). Even if it doesn’t immediately result in more sales, it makes their customers happier which keeps them coming back. Funny how companies seem to be moving in opposite directions. Also, I don’t really expect used-game/software sales to disappear anytime soon. GameStop is bringing in $1 billion per year from used-game sales, so they’ll spend millions to block any disruption of the used-games market.

* Footnote: I have to admit that I’m not really a fan of Autodesk. They have a tendency to buy up their competitors (e.g. Maya and SoftImage), in an apparent attempt to prevent meaningful competition in the 3D Modeling world. This allows them to charge higher prices.

Famous: It’s a job now

A while back, I was thinking about the fact that Ashton Kutcher has almost 6 million followers on Twitter. With that kind of fame, he’s in a position that most people aren’t: he can do things like write a book (even a fictional book) and it’s almost certain to be a success. He’s now in a much better position to have all his work be successful than the average person. But, it’s not even about having that many twitter followers (which acts as free advertizing for whatever he wants to promote), but it’s also about the fame. A few weeks ago, it was reveiled that “The Situation” from Jersey Shore was on track to earn 5 million dollars this year. (Just to be clear: this is more money than you or I will earn in our entire lives.) All of the Jersey Shore cast can earn “appearance fees” — i.e. clubs will give them thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to show up someplace, just because it stirs up a lot of talk and interest in the place.

In effect, their fame makes everything they touch golden.

It may seem naive, but for a long time my philosophy was simply “work hard + make good stuff = success”. I think the “fame” component that would be enormously helpful in making my game a success.

Related: The Rising Price of Snooki: A Comparative Analysis of Jersey Shore Appearance Fees (Gawker)