Friday, November 11, 2011

Shame, Rediscovered?

In that Burger King, Andy Boyle thought he was listening to the disintegration of a couple's marriage. He was really hearing the crumbling of his own ethics and self-restraint. We can't stand by and let an alliance between technology and poor judgement disintegrate all decency, and turn every human exchange into another tawdry and destructive episode on a never-ending social media highlight reel.
- Dave Pell, Gizmodo, "The Day Privacy Died"

Those who are accustomed to reading through this blog are aware that I'm not a great fan of Gizmodo. Articles like the one quoted above are one reason why.

Quick recap: the article describes a situation where a couple started arguing in a public place -- a Boston area Burger King restaurant, to be precise. What made this argument different is that someone else in the restaurant decided that the argument would make interesting fodder for his Twitter feed. He posted snippets of the argument, pictures of the couple, and even short bursts of video taken from his smartphone. And as will sometimes happen in this age of immediate gratification, the tweets went viral and the video of the argument was eventually broadcast on ABC News.

Mr. Pell is horrified at the injustice perpetrated here -- not by the arguing couple, mind you, who decided to impose their argument on everyone else in the restaurant, but by Andy Boyle, the guy who tweeted the argument. Why? Well, Mr. Pell has this odd idea that an argument between two people in a public place is, nevertheless, just between the two people arguing.

That's pretty spectacularly wrong, but Mr. Pell goes one better -- in trying to explain the distinction between 'celebrities', who Mr. Pell seems to believe ask for this kind of thing simply by virtue of being celebrities, and 'non-celebrities', Mr. Pell uses the example of Anthony Bourdain, who had a nude picture stolen from a hacked device and decided to 'get in front' of the issue by posting the picture to his own Twitter account. How does Mr. Pell equate the two?

The whole incident doesn't paint a pretty picture of the state of our often obsessive culture. But I'm sure it didn't surprise Bourdain. He's a celebrity. He chooses to be in the public eye. He expects to occasionally have to deal with a violation like this because he knows the rules of being a celebrity.

But if Andy Boyle's actions are an indication of a broader trend, we are entering the age of the unintended celebrity, where the new rules state that we all run the risks associated with fame without necessarily enjoying any of its benefits.

Get it? If Scarlett Johannsson's phone gets hacked and naked pictures of her start showing up on the Internet, well, that's just the rules of being a celebrity, and a fair price to pay for all those celebrity benefits. But when the police do things in public that would be embarrassing to be revealed to a wider audience, it's valid to invoke the laws of privacy to prevent that revelation from happening.

This is, of course, exactly the opposite of the way things should be. If your phone is hacked, whether you're a celebrity or not, that's wrong, and doing anything with the information you get is equally wrong. On the other hand, if you do something in public, you should be prepared for the 'public' that can be made aware of your action to be much more than just those folks within immediate earshot.

If anything, this episode awakens some small bit of hope for me that, perhaps, etiquette is not entirely dead yet.

Etiquette can be best described as a set of social expectations by which society agrees to abide. There is no formal punishment for violating the rules of etiquette, but the informal punishment is always to make the violation known and thus causing embarrassment and shame for the violator. Of course, 21st century America seemed to be 'the land shame forgot', which made etiquette and social politeness all but impossible to enforce. Without even this informal enforcement mechanism, there's no real drawback to being impolite or boorish...

...Unless your boorishness might get posted to the Internet. Perhaps the picture of your scrunched-up face will be the target of folks writing LOLcat captions for a week, or maybe your rant against Hispanic people who don't seem to want to learn English will become the new hot ringtone.

Is that a good enough reason to mind your manners? Perhaps instead of the day privacy died, this will be remembered as the day good manners were reborn.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Let's Talk Percentages

I am a college senior about to graduate completely debt free.
I pay for all of my living expences by working 30+ hours a week making barely above minimum wage.
I chose a moderately priced, in-state public university.
I started saving $ for school at age 17.
I got decent grades in high school & received 2 scholarships which cover 90% of my tuition.
I currently have a 3.8 GPA.
I live comfortably in a cheap apt, knowing I can't have everything I want.
I don't eat out every day, or even once a month.
I have no credit card, new car, iPad, or smart phone -- and I"m perfectly OK with that.
If I did have debt, I would not blame Wall St. or the government for my own bad decisions.
I live below my means to continue saving for the future.
I expect nothing to be handed to me, and will continue to work my @$$ off for everything I have.
That's how it's supposed to work.
I am NOT the 99%, and whether or not you are is YOUR decision.
- An anonymous image posted to Facebook

If the master's house caught on fire, the house negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would.
- Malcolm X

About a month ago, a group of people started camping out in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street in New York City. Within days, others had joined them, and by the end of the first week, word had gotten out, mostly through social media, that this was the start of a civil protest: one that has come to be known as 'Occupy Wall Street'. The people there, and the people in similar 'occupy' movements that have sprung up around the U.S. and the world, identify with what they call 'the 99%', which is their way of dividing the world between those who work on Wall Street and make exorbitant amounts of money, and those who are basically having their money taken away by this '1%'.

You may think that's a deliberately provocative comment there, at the end of that last paragraph. It's not. I can back it up. But first, a bit more about the occupiers.

If nothing else, the occupiers have accomplished one amazing thing: they've shifted the tone of conversation in this country about the role of government in the national economy. Since 1980, the national conversation about the role of government has slowly shifted from how government can support those who need economic help, to about how government can get out of the business of providing help to anybody, but can help protect the money that extremely wealthy people already have. Case in point: in 2007, the government moved quickly to approve $700 billion in aid to beleaguered banks, with few strings attached and no effective oversight, and it turned out that many banks didn't actually need the money they were given, as evidenced by how quickly many of them paid the money back when it became politically unsatisfying for them to have it. Less than two years later, the House and Senate argued for months as to whether or not $40 billion was too much money to provide to extend unemployment benefits during a time of vast and increasing unemployment.

Now, well, the protesters have amazing public sympathy and support; according to one poll, New Yorkers are overwhelmingly supportive of the protest and the protesters right to assemble -- including a majority of self-identified Republicans.

A lot of people are fretting that the protests don't seem to have a point; the protesters need to make specific demands, they say, or at least get a logo. These people are missing the point.

Fundamentally, the protests channel two sources of moral power: the concept of civil disobedience, enunciated by Thoreau and glossed with non-violence by Gandhi, and the power of the Constitution, specifically the First Amendment and its promise that "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" should not be prohibited. Even more to the point, the occupiers are making a point simply by being where they are -- that government, originally constituted for the people and by the people, no longer truly serves the people, despite frequently engaging in rhetoric that suggests it still does. That's why government agencies are so loath to move against the occupiers, except when they break out of their civil disobedience zone and do something that can be, even in part, a justification for a crackdown. If, say, the New York Police Department moves in en masse and evicts the Occupy Wall Street crowd from Zuccotti Park, they're admitting that they're not protecting the right of the people to peaceably assemble -- they're protecting the privilege of those who work on Wall Street to not have to look out their windows and wonder what these teeming masses are 'really' up to.

In the process, a lot of interesting points get raised. For instance, more people have been arrested for Occupy Wall Street related activities, which harm nobody outside Zuccotti Park, than have been arrested for tanking the U.S. economy via fraud and misrepresentation.

Okay, second would-be provocative statement. Time to back this up.

Steve Eisman. John Paulson. Michael Burry. Jamie Mai and Charlie Ledley. These are the names of people who made a crap-ton of money during the run-up to the financial crisis of 2008 for a good reason: they all figured out that the exotic investments being cooked up by mortgage brokers were basically crap and bet heavily against them. Their story is told in "The Big Short," by Michael Lewis, a writer who probably expected a much bigger to-do to be made of this book than was made about "Moneyball", a book which was basically about using investment ideas in baseball. The point is, when the big banks lamented that nobody could have foreseen how the collateralized debt obligations and other alphabet soup investments they created were ultimately worthless, they're wrong -- very few outside the banks themselves knew, and even they didn't figure out the true extent of the problem until the big banks basically, as one, stopped letting them bet against the securities they'd been betting against.

The supreme irony of the anonymous Facebooker's image is that, despite her own assertion that working her ass off, not expecting handouts, and not blaming other people for her own bad decisions as 'how it should be', when the big banks realized they'd made bad decisions, they went straight to the government for a handout and blamed subprime mortgage holders for not realizing they were being sold magic beans and throwing them out the window. That's why I think of her, and others like her who are finding it cathartic to assert so-called 'traditional' values in the guise of not siding with 'the 99%' as house negroes -- they're taking up blankets and fighting the fire because, if the house burns down, they don't have anywhere to live. They like the system, because they see themselves as being able to participate in it, perhaps even one day rise above it. They believe in what used to be called The American Dream.

So here's my last point -- the difference between these house negroes and the actual 1%.

Most people believe that, if you've earned money -- by labor, by investment, by whatever legal means -- that money belongs to you.

The 1% believe that, if you have money and they can get it away from you -- by raiding your pension fund, by charging you exorbitant fees to get access to your own money in a bank or investment fund -- then it belongs to them. And they believe they can get all the money. And the 1% aren't just looking at the 99%s money; they're looking at all the money. Every member of the 1% wants every dollar that exists, and will stop at nothing to get it. If you still don't believe me, check out David Cay Johnston's book "Perfectly Legal", on how the super-rich game the tax system so that they pay less in taxes than you likely do.

That's why, even if you don't 'agree' with the 99%, you're in the 99%. Unless you're a selfish asshole.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Come On, Irene

Because the group is defined only by minimum standards, it places Herman in a group with players who are vastly superior to him, while eliminating those who are only a little bit behind him.

- Bill James, "Whatever Happened To The Hall of Fame?"

What’s easier to evaluate is how much coverage Hurricane Irene received in comparison with other hurricanes. By that standard, the coverage was quite proportionate to the amount of death and destruction that the storm caused.

- Nate Silver,

Hurricane Irene has come and gone, but the battle to determine if Irene was 'overhyped' is raging just fine, thank you. The battle has produced some unexpected soldiers on either side, perhaps none more surprising than's Nate Silver, who apparently felt the need to defend himself from 'overhyping' the storm (in an essay entitled "A New York Hurricane Could Be a Multibillion-Dollar Catastrophe") by writing an essay explaining "How Irene Lived Up to the Hype". Unfortunately, Silver's methodology doesn't live up to his rhetoric -- for a former baseball sabermetrician, Silver's analysis is stunningly shoddy and arguably supports the exact opposite of the argument he's making. Where does Silver go wrong?

1. The main metric for comparing 'hype' is largely irrelevant to the argument.

Silver correctly points out that, when comparing 'hype', one should compare apples to apples by comparing news coverage of Irene to that of other tropical storms. Unfortunately, he commits a rookie sabermetrician's mistake by finding a source of data for his comparison (, and then crafting his model to match his data. is a searchable database of newspaper articles, with some magazine articles and television broadcast transcripts thrown in for good measure. It seems highly reputable. The problem, though, is that the main argument in favor of Irene being overhyped has nothing to do with how many times it was referenced in The Orlando Sentinel or Newsweek; it's the number of times someone glanced at a computer or smartphone and noticed that a story about Irene was the top news item on Yahoo!, or on Google Reader; and the number of times someone logged into Facebook to see a link in their News Feed to a story about Irene; and the number of times they checked Twitter to see #HurricaneIrene trending, often with links to the same news stories.

By ignoring blogs and other online sources of news, Silver missed a lot of chatter about Irene in his 'News Unit' metric ( doesn't reference Silver's own article, which appears only in the NY Times online blogs). By ignoring social media, Silver ignores the 'force multiplier' that Facebook and Twitter served to the stories that did exist, some in traditional media sources, and others online. And, given the nature of Google rankings and people's interest in passing along links, the stories that were visible were largely stories that were apocalyptic or frightening. (How many Facebook statuses did you see that read, "This guy doesn't think Irene will be all that dangerous, but I'm praying for the folks on the East Coast anyway!")

A counterargument that Silver could make would be that incorporating social media into the analysis would unfairly penalize Irene for occurring during a time of relative social media maturity; Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, two very damaging storms from 2008, came along when social media was still in its infancy, so to speak, while Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, two of the most damaging storms in US history, occurred just over a year after Facebook was launched and before Twitter even existed.

The counter to the counterargument, of course, is that this is precisely the point -- social media were a huge part of what made Irene so ubiquitous, and particularly stories about how apocalyptic Irene's approach to New York could or would be. Silver's 'News Units' deliberately underestimate the degree to which Irene was being 'talked about' based on its appearance in news sources.

If that's not enough, Silver's measure also makes Irene look less hyped than other storms in another dimension as well -- since the primary source for stories in's database come from newspapers and magazines, and newspapers and magazines have been in decline throughout the entire period of Silver's analysis, there are fewer newspapers to carry stories about Irene than there were to carry stories about 1992s devastating Hurricane Andrew.

If one takes into account the fewer number of sources in Silver's source data from 2011 versus other periods, then compensates for the recent rise of social media, Irene's placement on Silver's list of 'most covered' hurricanes would clearly be higher than 10, possibly much, much higher. Keep that in mind; it'll become even more significant in the next point.

2. Silver commits a fallacy of comparison by putting Irene 'in a group' with more devastating storms, rather than comparing it to other storms of similar intensity.

This is where the James quote at the top of the essay comes in -- James is writing about a baseball player being considred for the Hall of Fame based on being compared to players who are much better than he is while other, similar players are left out of the comparison. Silver does something similar in his essay.

Though Silver provides a list of 20 hurricanes with 'most media coverage', he compares Irene only to the others in the top 10, of which Irene is #10. Silver freely admits that every other storm in the top 10 was more powerful than Irene (Category 3) at their strongest, and that only Hurricane Gilbert was weaker than Irene (Category 1) when it made its US landfall (though Gilbert had already done massive damage as a Category 5 hurricane in the Carribean). However, this analysis leaves off the storms below Irene on the list of media coverage. The next five:

- #15 Hurricane Fran

Was at its peak strength of Category 3 when it made landfall in North Carolina in 1996. Resulted in 27 deaths (22 direct) and over $3 billion in damage.

- #14 Hurricane Katrina

No introduction needed here - easily the most deadly and damaging tropical storm to hit the US. It was a Category 5 hurricane while just off the coast of Florida, and was Category 3 when it finally made landfall in Louisiana.

- #13 Hurricane Wilma

Another Category 5 hurricane in 2005, Wilma came after Katrina and surpassed it on the scale of hurricane intensity, becoming the most intense tropical storm ever recorded in the Atlantic basin. Wilma remained extremely powerful while tracking through the Atlantic Ocean, remaining a Category 3 hurricane while moving northward, but the only US land Wilma crossed was the Florida peninsula, limiting the damage it did in the US. (The Yucatan peninsula, however, was another matter.)

- #12 Hurricane Isabel

Another storm that reached Category 5 status, Isabel was the costliest and deadliest hurricane of 2003, making landfall in Virginia as a Category 2 hurricane. 16 deaths were directly attributable to the storm (another 35 were indirectly attributed), and it did about $3.6 billion in damage.

- #11 Hurricane Ike

A Category 4 hurricane that made landfall in Galveston, Texas as a Category 2 storm; with 103 direct deaths and nearly $30 billion of damage just in the United States.

For comparison, Irene is currently slated as having caused or contributed to 40 deaths and about $13 billion in damage. Keeping in mind, however, that both of these totals are provisional, and that the initial prediction in this case is likely to be exaggerated (Silver's own essay pegs Irene at $14 billion, but also points out that it's a provisional figure), given the propensity of those in the media to want to justify their reportage. (Compare the 9/11 attacks, which were originally estimated to have caused over 6700 deaths, but which have since been revised to fewer than 3000.)

So, given the likelihood of reducing the death and economic damage tolls from the hurricane, Irene (2.25 Silver News Units) belongs 'in a group' with Isabel (1.88 Silver News Units) and Fran (1.47 Silver News Units), not with Rita (3.13 Silver News Units) and Andrew (3.68 Silver News Units). Remembering that both Irene and Fran pre-date the social media era makes the comparison even more stark -- clearly Irene received far more 'news' coverage than was warranted by its size and damaging capability.

There's one more complaint I have about Silver's essay, but it's a bit nit-picky; Silver produces a list of 'normalized' U.S. economic damage figures for hurricanes by Category, then claims that, because Irene's current estimate exceeds Silver's 'normalized' Category 3 value of $12.7 billion, that Irene did damage "tantamount to a Category 3 hurricane". Silver, a practiced statistician, should be aware of the biases in his statement, given that Katrina was a Category 3 hurricane and its near $100 billion in damage provided a powerful 'long tail' to drive up the averages of all other Category 3 hurricanes in his study. That Irene did more damage than a typical Category 1 hurricane is due to its landfall -- most Category 1 hurricanes land in parts of the US that are accustomed to hurricanes and engineer appropriately. New Jersey, which saw just one Category 1 hurricane from 1900-1996, has much more property likely to become damaged, as they don't take such engineering specifics into account (and probably shouldn't, given the rarity of hurricane events there).

All told, Irene was a dangerous storm that received much more attention than an event of its strength and rarity warranted.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Drysdale Test

In particular, I thought that since one has to argue, in my opinion, that Drysdale had a strong positive influence on pennant races, we should look carefully at Drysdale's performance in two categories:

1. Down the stretch (August 10 to the end of the season) in those years when the Dodgers had a chance to win, and

2. Against the one team the Dodgers most needed to beat in those same seasons.

That sound reasonable?

- Bill James, "Whatever Happened To the Hall of Fame?"

First off, fair warning to any of you who come here and don't care for baseball stuff. I'm about to write some baseball stuff.

The penultimate chapter of Bill James's book, "Whatever Happened To the Hall of Fame?" is entitled, simply, "Don Drysdale". The chapter opens with a section called The Case For Don Drysdale, and after reading it, if you have any interest in baseball at all, you're convinced that Don Drysdale belongs in the Hall of Fame. The next section is called The Case Against Don Drysdale, and after reading it, even if you've already read the first section, you are convinced that Don Drysdale doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. James then breaks down the factual arguments of both sides, identifying which points have merit and which are just talking points, and still doesn't come to a conclusion.

He finally comes to a conclusion after going through the study noted in the quote at the top of this essay -- the idea being that, if Drysdale truly was a 'big game' pitcher who helped his team win pennants, then that would push the weight of the argument over to the side where Drysdale belongs in the Hall.

The closest comparison to Don Drysdale in today's Hall of Fame debates is starting pitcher Jack Morris. Morris has many advocates for the Hall who note that he was a famous, ace pitcher, known for his endurance and his performance in big games, specifically Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Morris also has detractors who point out that the overall weight of Morris's career statistics, his ERA, his won-loss record, etcetera, simply don't carry the weight of a Hall of Fame career. Hall of Very Good? Absolutely. Just not one of the all-time greats.

It finally struck me that, since one of the arguments used by Morris's supporters was that he was a big-game pitcher who helped his teams to championships, that we could give Morris the Drysdale Test and see just how much of an impact he had on pennant races in his career.

For starters, it might surprise you to learn that in only eight of Morris's 18 seasons as a big-league pitcher did he pitch for a team that needed his help in making the post-season -- the 1984 Tigers won going away, and the other half of his career was spent pitching for clubs (mostly Tiger clubs) that didn't even make the playoffs. However, in the eight seasons where Morris's performance might have had an impact on the pennant chances of his club, here's how he did 'down the stretch' (from August 10 until the end of the season):

63 starts, 23 CG, 37-26, 2.95 ERA

That's pretty good, actually significantly better than his overall career rates. So you could argue that Morris did 'turn it up' down the stretch of a pennant race.

In games he pitched against the key opponent of his team's chase:

18 starts, 7 CG, 5-7, 3.48 ERA

The won-loss record isn't quite so good, but the ERA is still better than his career total. Note that I'm leaving out Morris's abysmal numbers in 1994 against the Chicago White Sox when it was pretty clear that he was done as a pitcher (Morris was 1-2 in 4 starts against Chicago with an ERA of exactly 9.00, giving up 23 ER in 23 innings) and didn't pitch after August 10 anyway.

Combining these two factors gives us what James calls the "purest of the pure"; the biggest games Jack Morris ever pitched, not counting the World Series. Because there were few of these games, I've expanded James's definition of 'key opponent' to any opponent with a chance to win the race. How did he do?

Sept 21, 1983 -

Morris started the first game of a doubleheader at home versus the Orioles with the Tigers trailing by 6.5 games. Though the pennant race odds weren't great, the Tigers and Orioles would face each other six times before the end of the season, including the doubleheader, so if the Tigers could sweep the table or at least win 5 of 6, they'd give Joe Altobelli's Orioles a run.

Morris gave up three in the top of the second in classic Earl Weaver style -- a leadoff homer by Eddie Murray, then a single sandwiched between three walks, the last forcing in a run. The Tiger offense wouldn't help out any against Mike Boddicker as Detroit would be shut out 6-0 en route to an Oriole sweep of the doubleheader.

Morris would get his 20th win of the season a week later in Baltimore, beating Scott McGregor 9-2, but by then the Orioles had already clinched at least a one-game playoff over both the Tigers and Yankees.

Morris 0-1, team 0-1

Oct 3, 1987 -

Morris took the mound on the second-to-last day of the season with the Tigers and Blue Jays tied in the divisional race. Morris pitched well, allowing just two runs in nine innings, but Mike Flanagan also pitched well for the Jays, matching Morris's mark through nine and even continuing through the eleventh inning. Sparky Anderson went with his closer, Mike Henneman, in the tenth and watched him pitch a no-hit three innings. Jimy Williams, however, went with Jeff Musselman in the twelfth rather than closer Tom Henke, and Musselman allowed two singles and a walk to load the bases with one out. Williams still didn’t turn to his closer, choosing to go with Mark Eichhorn, who gave up the game-winning hit.

Morris certainly didn’t lose the game for Detroit, though his was one of a number of factors leading to the 12th inning Detroit win.

Morris 0-1, team 1-1

August 27, 1988

Morris entered the game and pitched an excellent 7 innings as his Tigers built up a 5-1 lead. Then in the eighth, Morris seemed to lose it – two walks, two wild pitches, and two singles led to two Brewer runs and Morris was pulled in favor of Willie Hernandez with two out to end the inning. Morris wouldn’t get the win, though, as Mike Henneman would blow the save in the 9th by allowing the Brewers to tie the score. The Brew Crew would eventually win in the bottom of the 12th on a Rob Deer home run.

The Tiger bullpen pitched very poorly in support of Morris, but even so, had Hernandez come in at the top of the 8th rather than after Morris had already allowed two runs, it’s possible the Tigers could still have won the game.

Morris 0-1, team 1-2

September 5, 1988

Toronto was surging, having won four straight coming in, and Detroit was staggering, having lost four straight. If a ‘stopper’ was ever needed to save the pennant race, it was here.

Morris, however was flat, giving up three in the second en route to an 8-inning, 11-hit, 5-walk performance that his offense bailed him out of by tying the score in the bottom of the 6th. Willie Hernandez would pitch the 9th and 10th, and give up the game-winner on an Ernie Whitt solo homer.

Morris 0-1, team 1-3

Morris would not face Boston, Detroit’s key opponent, during the 1988 stretch run.

By 1991, Morris had gone to the Twins as a free agent. In 1991, the only game Morris pitched against the White Sox was the first game of a doubleheader on October 3, after the Twins had already clinched the division. Morris was pulled by manager Tom Kelly after 5 innings, probably to protect his availability for the playoffs. The Twins lost the game when closer Rick Aguilera blew the save opportunity in the 10th inning, yet another extra-inning loss in a Morris start.

This one doesn't really count.

August 27, 1992

Signed by the Blue Jays in the off-season, Morris’s Toronto club was just four games ahead of the Brewers when Morris faced off against Jamie Navarro. Morris pitched an outstanding 7 innings, while Navarro made a mistake to Toronto DH Dave Winfield resulting in a 3-run shot that proved to be more than the margin of victory.

This would be the first and only game Morris would win in this situation in his career, and just the second that his team would win.

Morris 1-1, team 2-3.

Morris did not face the Yankees down the stretch run in 1993, and did not pitch at all during the stretch run in 1994, so this sum indicates Morris’s pennant ‘clutchiness’. While Morris himself had some good outings and some bad outings, Morris’s teams went 2-3 in these five starts, and Morris himself was 1-1 with three no-decisions.

Hardly the kind of performance I'd expect from someone supposedly worthy of the Hall of Fame based on his performance in big games.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Fortified Garden

It is from their foes, not their friends, that cities learn the lesson of building high walls.
- Aristophanes (from the "Masonry" entry in Civilization IV)

Back around the time when Apple began forcibly establishing control over its iPhone ecosystem (it wasn't yet called iOS at that point), critics of the move referred to the resulting environment as a 'walled garden', one where users were 'trapped' to only use Apple's technology in ways approved by Apple. Apple then extended their control to monitoring what tools developers were using to provide apps to that ecosystem -- only Apple-provided application programming interfaces and libraries could be used, or the app couldn't be carried in Apple's App Store.

Critics of Apple's position liked to argue that Apple's walled garden wasn't sustainable -- that developers would chafe under the restrictions and bolt for the greener, more open pastures of Android, and that users, following the developers, would do likewise. Frequently, the rhetoric of 'freedom' is used, as if those criticizing Apple are all in favor of openness and transparency.

There have been a few folks who've defended the walled garden, mainly from a user perspective and mainly because of security. Hardly anyone, though, had bothered to point out to developers why a walled garden might be superior for them.

Turns out the right analogy isn't a walled garden, but a fortified one. That's what Apple has built, and it's exactly what small, independent developers need.

Just over a month ago, a company called Lodsys LLC filed a lawsuit in an East Texas court against seven small-to-tiny iOS developers over a patent it holds regarding a method of processing purchase transactions within an application. Lodsys didn't invent the patent -- it purchased it from its inventor as part of a 'portfolio' of intellectual property, and is now trying to make that investment pay by pursuing what it believes are infringements of those patents. At the time, the expectation was that Lodsys might use those developers' communications with Apple as a way of incorporating Apple into the lawsuit, adding the bigger company's deep pockets to their potential payout. Some expected that Apple would help with the developers' legal battle or even pursue other actions sympathetic to the developers' position, but would likely stay out of the suit itself.

That's...not quite what happened. (Note: most of the links in the next few paragraphs regarding the legal situation come from the excellent Free and Open Source Software Patents blog.)

First off, Lodsys, as if trying to ward off any Apple involvement in the suit, affirmed that Apple had purchased a valid license covering the patent in question and that as such Apple was not a target of the suit.

Apple then responded with a strong cease-and-desist letter directing Lodsys to withdraw its complaints against its app developers, asserting that the rights it has as a license holder allow it to provide the licensed technology to its developers.

Lodsys published a letter disagreeing with Apple's position and carried on with their lawsuit, which was unsurprising.

Then, Apple did something that pretty much nobody expected -- they filed a claim in the same East Texas court asking to intervene and be added to the lawsuit as a defendant. They're not just sending 'assistance' -- Apple will actually have a legal team in the courtroom assisting with the defense of their app developers.

Apple's defense against Lodsys's claims is that, since Apple has a license to Lodsys's technology (which Lodsys has already asserted to be true on their own website), and since the developers aren't creating their own code for transactions, but using Apple's provided APIs that contain that technology, and since the transactions all occur on Apple's own App Store, and since they're used to send apps to devices that Apple has manufactured and sold expressly for the purpose, that Lodsys has already been paid -- by Apple -- for the use of their patents, and that Lodsys can no more go to the developers and ask for more money than a farmer can come to your house and demand 50 cents an ear for the sweet corn you bought at the grocery store.

That defense brings up two very interesting points:

1. Is this the real reason Apple was so adamant about not allowing third-party APIs in iOS?

The timing of Apple's announcement about changes to their developer agreement prohibiting 'third-party APIs' for iOS development made many believe their motivation for doing so was to screw Adobe, who was just about to come out with a set of third-party APIs to do just that. But what if Adobe's announcement simply reminded Apple Legal that allowing third-party APIs (which might or might not have purchased valid licenses for the Lodsys transaction patent) would weaken Apple's legal defense against attacks against their developers?

2. Do Google's Android developers have the same kind of protection?

This isn't just an academic question -- Lodsys is also filing lawsuits against Android developers for violating the same patents Apple is defending their devs against. Given that Google rejected an offer from Sun to license Java for use in their Android OS (scroll down to "Google's Rejection of Sun's Licensing Offer"), how likely do you think it is that Google decided to send cash to a small IP holding company, just in case that company tried suing their developers?

Google's independent Android app developers might feel a bit safer if they had walls to protect them like Apple's developers do.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Blast from the Past: Game WISH Necromancy

With the return of the 20x20 Room, I thought it would be a good thing to revisit another post from the old Simulation16 gaming blog:

* * *

I wasn't around when the Game WISHes were first going up. Their spirit lives on in the Lunchtime Poll and other game memes, but I don't see anything particularly wrong with casting a little animate dead on some of those old WISHes from time to time. Today I'll be focusing on WISHes #7 and #8:

List three or more maxims/proverbs/bits of conventional wisdom/etc. that you’ve learned in your gaming career, and explain what they mean and how you’ve seen them apply in your gaming experience.


Pick three gaming maxims that other people wrote about and discuss how you think they have applied, or not, in your experience as a gamer. Do they make sense? Are they true or false? Maxims that simply never occurred to you are also eligible for discussion.

I'll just use three maxims, two of which are my own (as far as I can tell), and one of which I cribbed from another respondant.

1. The coolest track on the album never gets played on the radio.

Given the number of gamers who also seem to be musicophiles, this experience can't be all that uncommon. Just among the CDs I have with me right now I can point to a handful of examples:

Album: "Jagged Little Pill", Alanis Morissette
Radio tracks: "You Oughta Know", "Hand In My Pocket", "Forgiven", "You Learn", "Head Over Feet", "Ironic"
Coolest track: "Not the Doctor"

Album: "Tonight And The Rest Of My Life", Nina Gordon
Radio tracks: "Tonight And The Rest Of My Life"
Coolest track: "Now I Can Die"

Album: "Everything You Want", Vertical Horizon
Radio tracks: "Everything You Want", "You're A God"
Coolest track: "Shackled"

I could go on, but you get the idea. (Not that you necessarily agree with my particular picks, but you still get the idea, I'm sure.)

Favorite characters are similar, in my view. Unless your character is merely a list of attributes and items that sits in a folder until you're ready to play him in the next game session, you probably end up thinking about the character, his motivations, your goals for him as a character and such between sessions. As such, you almost certainly come up with 'scenes' or 'bits' or something you think of as incredibly cool. And, nine times out of ten, that incredibly cool thing you thought of will never actually come up in the game. Maybe the circumstances simply never come up, or maybe you get to just the right moment and you suddenly realize that there are other players at the table who want their share of the action rather than sitting back and watching your solo adventure. However it happens, and it doesn't have to be anybody's fault, there are going to be things about your character you never get to express in-game.

Personal example: (Long-winded character story alert!) One of my favorite characters was an AD&D thief named Pseudolus. He had a Dex of 11 and an Int of 15 (back when having those stats made no sense for a rogue-type character) and his name was inspired by the Zero Mostel character in "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum". He was a con-man who made his living as a 'soothsayer', and he attached himself to the party by doing a 'reading' for another character (the Grandmaster's character, actually), then refusing to leave the group until he was paid. He had a secret agenda - he was one of a number of throwaway minions of a minor evil in the campaign, and the character Pseudolus had done the 'reading' for had secretly been paid to assassinate another party member for the minor evil, then decided to renege on the deal and keep the money he'd been paid. Pseudolus was ordered to 'keep an eye' on this character in preparation for an appropriate moment's revenge. When the party managed to defeat a beholder, then left it in the wild while returning to town to find a way to cart the carcass somewhere where it could be sold for magical components, Pseudolus slipped away from the party and managed to get the thing back to his 'master'. The disappearance of both Pseudolus and the beholder corpse was simply too convenient, so I took up a new character.

Later, when the minor evil had succeeded in preparing for the final part of his Grand Plan, Heatmiser let me bring Pseudolus back - but rather than an ineffectual wanna-be soothsayer, he'd tricked the boy out in full Bad-Ass Lieutenant mode. The kicker was that Pseudolus wasn't really evil - even though the entire party was convinced that he was; he'd simply been an example of neutral-lazy, bordering on evil but never being really committed enough to go all the way. With Pseudolus's return coinciding with the disappearance of an NPC that the Grandmaster's character had married, the party immediately split into two camps - one, led by the Grandmaster's character, who wanted to simply destroy Pseudolus outright and sift the solution to the evil plot from his scattered remains; the other, led by the Self-Focusing Spotlight's character, who wanted to redeem him.

After the session in which we spend our last night in civilization before setting off on the last leg of the quest to rescue the Grandmaster's character's wife, I wrote up a scene for Heatmiser in which Pseudolus decides to indulge his long-standing infatuation with the SFS's character by ditching the party, bar-hopping through the seedy part of town until he found a barmaid with a sufficient resemblance to the SFS's character, getting her alone, then forcing her to do the things he'd long hoped to do consensually with the SFS's character. But when the moment arrived and Pseudolus was about to release all his frustrations in an (ahem) orgy of self-indulgence, he found he couldn't go through with it - the SFS's character had actually touched a core of decency that even Pseudolus hadn't realized he had. Pseudolus let the barmaid go, suddenly aware that this was merely the first act in an unavoidable train of events that would end with him betraying his master and dying horribly, and possibly pointlessly, as a result.

Heatmiser was good enough to let that story become part of the album, part of the campaign history, but it never got any airtime. We never played it out or even acknowledged the scene at the table.

2. Never joke about goodbye unless you mean it.

Like many gamers, I am a huge fan of Knights of the Dinner Table. For quite a while, I collected both KoDT and KoDT Illustrated. Then, in a recent issue of K:Ill, the Brothers Fraim used what I imagine is an infrequent but not unknown gimmick in comicdom - the 'oh, look, I guess we killed off all the characters and the story is over, bye!' joke, where you turn the page and realize that the story isn't over. The expected reaction, I suspect, is a heart-into-your-throat 'oh no, say it ain't so!', then a 'thank God' when you turn the page and find out the story isn't over after all.

My gut reaction was "Thank God." And that was before I turned the page.

Turns out I'd been buying and reading K:Ill more out of loyalty and inertia than out of any real enjoyment I was getting out of the thing. Once I realized that, and that the world wasn't going to come to an end if I stopped buying K:Ill, I stopped buying K:Ill. The Brothers Fraim gave me a perfect 'out', and I took it.

I've played in and run games that have used similar 'tricks' - ending a session with the defeat of the party and suggesting that the campaign is therefore over. The next session invariably ends up only attracting half of the regular players - the rest, having been given the 'out' by the DM, realized that they weren't really enjoying themselves and were only attending out of habit and decided to take the 'out'. Almost invariably, those campaigns die out shortly after this happens.

For the record, I'm not predicting the end of K:Ill. I would be curious, though, to find out if the comic ends up suffering a drop in subscription renewals and over-the-counter sales as a result of that simple joke.

(Follow-up: K:Ill actually ended its run within a number of issues of pulling that joke.)

3. When you stop trusting the GM, stop playing.

This was one of the original maxims in Game WISH #7, and I only wish I could keep it in mind more often than I do. When I see this maxim, the Duke of Dorkness always comes immediately to mind.

I complimented the Duke of Dorkness in an earlier post regarding the handling of absent players. What I didn't say then is that these side-adventures are often more enjoyable than his main plots. Nearly every one of the Duke's main plots can be boiled down to the following formula:

  1. Alert the PCs, usually through a warning from an NPC, that 'something big' is about to go down.
  2. Let the PCs spin their wheels in investigative or preparatory actions for as long as they wish until the appropriate amount of time has passed for the plot to begin. Make any conflict that happens during this time inconclusive, unless it can be used to hinder the PCs.
  3. Begin the plot, ignoring anything the PCs have done in advance, finding rationalizations where necessary to explain why preparations were ineffectual. Allow the PCs to arrive too late to actually prevent the plot from coming to fruition.
  4. Conclude the plot, usually by bringing in an NPC to 'fix' the problem.

An example seems called for here.

The Duke had been running a slightly modified version of a published Champions adventure, where Black Harlequin decides to turn an amusement park into a series of deathtraps. The North Force: River City Division (NF:RCD) had received word that someone (not specifically Black Harlequin) was planning to disrupt the opening of Omega-World, a super-heroic theme park based on a prime-time-soap-like TV series surrounding the adventures of a group of heroes. NF:RCD reacts by incorporating Omega-World into the patrol routes of all active heroes, ensuring that regular overhead surveillance is made. In addition, the local super-investigator begins looking into the situation, trying to identify any threats to the cast of the TV show, as well as looking to see if any villains had tried this sort of trick in the past. Finally, NF:RCD asks for and receives permission to accompany safety inspectors on their final tour of the park before it opens; no problems are identified.

Opening day arrives. Within a couple of hours it becomes obvious that every significant ride has been extensively modified to turn it into a deathtrap, despite none of these modifications being visible on the previous day's safety inspection and some (particularly the roller-coaster mods) being so extensive that it becomes difficult to imagine how the changes could have been accomplished without being noticed by our overhead patrols. My own character is allowed to 'push' his teleportation abilities to save a group of normals on a 'gravity drop' ride from being turned into human paste, at the cost of suffering BODY damage that cannot be healed by a teammate's Aid power, and with the result that everyone on the ride still ends up in the hospital, most of them in the ICU from their injuries. NF:RCD finally tracks Black Harlequin to his makeshift HQ on the Omega-World site, only to discover that five members of the writing and production crew are being held hostage, despite no one mentioning they were missing when the park opened. After defeating him, NF:RCD learns that Black Harlequin had a long-standing fixation on one of the recurring villains on the show, though again none of this information was available prior to the beginning of the adventure proper.

Another, easier to describe example: North Force (this is prior to the RCD period) learns from a mystical heroine, Aura, that a particular villain is seeking a number of artifacts from museums around the world to complete a summoning ritual intended to bring an immensely powerful spirit into the world. NF travels to each location as directed by Aura, arriving just in time to see one villain take the artifact in question and teleport away while the rest of the villains battle with us, are defeated, and are then teleported away themselves by an unseen and unstoppable force. Once all the artifacts are in the villain's hands, Aura directs us to the ritual site, where we are prevented from interfering in the ritual itself thanks to the presence of an unbreakable Force Wall, and where the summoning itself is successful, except that one of our teammates, previously captured and intended to be the 'sacrifice' to the spirit, manages to live long enough through Aura's intervention to allow her to Mind Control him into speaking the lines the spirit needs to hear to realize that he's being manipulated and to head off on his own to ponder the nature and purpose of his existence (how she does all this through the still-present Force Wall remains a mystery).

In addition, the Duke tends toward unilateral character re-writes whenever he feels that a particular build is becoming 'abusive'. He tends to over-build his villains to the point where the entire group prefers to fight the agents in an agent-villain combo group because the agents can actually be taken one-on-one. Nevertheless, as much of a liability as he is to enjoying his own game, the camaraderie among the players is enough to keep me coming back most of the time, despite knowing that most of the players in the game would happily play in a different game if run by a more trustworthy GM.

Knowing what to do isn't the same thing as doing it - not by a longshot.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Blinded By Cruelty

There's a thing I've noticed where sometimes people are more interested in "displaying" their character than they are in "experiencing" their character.
- Simon C, from this thread on

There's an argument that says when one is surrounded by cruelty, one becomes inured to it, and it ceases to have any cathartic or empathic effect. I believe this argument, at least with respect to role-playing games, especially when it comes to introducing new characters to an existing party.

The group I've gamed with for over 20 years even has a trope name for the process: bear grease. The name comes from the natural escalation of the 'you rescue this new party member from the clutches of the bad guys' from locked-in-a-cell, to locked-in-a-cell-tied-up, to locked-in-a-cell-naked-and-tied-up, to locked-in-a-call-naked-and-tied-up-with-an-open-jar-of-bear-grease-nearby. Cruel, right?

The crazy thing is, that despite these horrific introductions, the experience never seems to have much impact on the player's portrayal of the character -- thus the quote that leads this essay.

I decided to turn this trope on its head with a newer group that pulled a similar trick.

I was joining an established group playing the AD&D 4th Edition adventure patch 'Scales of War', with a slight twist by the DM; instead of simply being an adventure featuring the War of Dragons between Bahamut and Tiamat, our DM introduced a concept called 'the All', the physical and psychological manifestation of reality itself, and posited that the ultimate threat of the adventure path is nothing less than nihilism -- the annihilation of all that is.

However, to introduce my character, the DM had the All effectively kidnap the character from his home dimension, deposit him in the hands of monstrous humanoids that then imprisoned him for an indeterminate time (best guess = months) in a dungeon. The state of my character when the party finally found him suggested that the time spent was no picnic: he was chained to the wall in such a way that he couldn't even move his fingers much less his limbs, and a metal helmet over his head contained a long depressor that went into the character's mouth, preventing him from speaking. (He's a wizard, so the precautions seemed needed to prevent magical escape.)

I think I can honestly say that if anyone you knew were subjected to such horrifying treatment, it would scar them for life. I didn't even go quite that far -- I simply made the obvious leap of logic on behalf of my character (who, again, as a wizard is far smarter than me): if the All is capable of delivering people into prolonged torture to satisfy its own ends, then it is not to be trusted.

Oddly, the rest of the party and even the DM at times seem mystified as to why my character seems so untrusting of the 'obvious' goodness of the All and need to defend/protect it from destruction. They seem to presume that I already had an idea of the character I wanted to play, and that the intro trope would be treated, as it usually is, as just a way of justifying the introduction of the new character without forcing me to wait for a break in the adventure or warping the narrative too much. (For an example of the latter, see "The Gamers", where the party is re-introduced to their new wizard.)

They seem unprepared for the idea that I'd take what is basically a long-standing character introduction trope and use it as my character's fundamental motivation, though if I myself went through a similar experience, not a one of them would be shocked if it changed me.

It's weird, and a bit distressing, to consider the implications of this.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

SIWIK@16: Loneliness

Hey, it's me, your older, more experienced self, sending advice back through the years. It's actually been a while since I wrote that last note -- over four months by my calendar -- but knowing that you're going to read all of these between the summer of 1983 and the late spring of 1984 makes it hard to feel a sense of urgency with these things. Sorry about that.

You may remember me writing this in that previous note:

Next up, the bad news. These hot chicks are not all desperately looking to have sex, and they're certainly not all looking to have sex with you.

I'd intended this as a friendly reminder that having sex isn't the be-all and end-all of every friendship or relationship you're going to have with a woman, especially if she's attractive. However, I now realize that there's something I should have mentioned in the context of 'not every hot chick is going to want to have sex with you'.

'Not every', in this context, means 'none'. And it's mainly your own fault. There are three things specifically working against you:

1. You're heavy. Well, 'heavy' is putting it lightly. You're huge.

This is a problem, because you're living in a society that considers obesity to be unattractive. It's a bigger problem, because, despite how much you may decry the 'shallowness' of women who can't look past your weight, you feel exactly the same way -- not one of the women you're going to end up pining for over the next 25 years of your life is remotely as huge as you are. Why should you be surprised that the women you're attracted to don't find your weight attractive when a big part of the reason you find them attractive is that they're shaped like normal people?

And yes, I know you have a ready-made reason for why you don't want to lose the weight "just to get a girlfriend" -- that you'd eventually gain the weight back and lose the girlfriend because you weren't the guy she fell in love with, despite that being the guy you are. Very admirable of you, but it's not going to make you any more attractive.

2. You occasionally give off unpleasant odors.

Yes, I know it's not always easy for a huge guy to daintily clean every part of himself. And yes, I know that sometimes the food you eat comes back to haunt you in embarrassingly smelly ways. But remember that girl in gym class you thought was attractive, until you noticed the distinct odor of feces every time you spent more than a few minutes around her? That was pretty off-putting, don't you think?

You're going to go through long stretches of time like this, and your friends aren't going to be of any help, because you don't smell like this all the time, and they'll think it's impolite to point it out when you do. And you're not going to notice it yourself most of the time, because it's amazing what you can get used to when you're around it all the time.

I'm not just talking about poo, either. You're actually going to be kicked out of a dentist's office at some point in the future because your breath is so bad that she can't stomach working over the cesspit of your open mouth. So there's that.

But both of these are really just symptoms of the bigger point...

3. You don't care to take care of yourself.

You know how your mom nags you all the time to clean your room? You know how you feel that, once you're out on your own, you're finally going to get away from that damned nagging?

Trust me, she actually means well.

You're not going to want to bring anyone over to any of your living spaces, because they're disaster areas. Sure, you'll tell yourself that they could be worse, that you at least don't have rotting food lying around, but that's just because of your odd childhood being friends with someone living in a house that, the moment his family moved out, was condemned as a health hazard. That's not the benchmark you're trying to beat here.

Of course, though you realize you're embarrassed to bring anyone over to your place, you're not embarrassed enough to actually keep it in order, any more than you'll keep yourself in any more order than strictly required.

And that's going to make you a very lonely person.

You'll have friends, plenty of them, and good ones too. It's just that, after you've lived with them, they won't quite be as excited about your friendship as they were.

It's also not going to be surprising when you get out of town and finally find yourself having girlfriends, because when you're away from this 'comfort zone', you'll find yourself making more of an effort, knowing that you have to work a bit harder to 'fit in'. I'm not sure how to get you out of that 'comfort zone' on a regular basis, but if you can find a way, your adulthood is going to be a lot less lonely.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Snuggie and the Web Calendar

Long ago, there was a county where people lived and grew food.

The wealthiest family in the county grew apples, and they were acclaimed to be the best apples available at any price. Other families grew other crops, like corn or beans, and they weren't as wealthy as the family that grew apples, but that was OK because everyone had enough.

Then, one winter, as some of the poorer families were meeting to drink and pass the time, the eldest son of one of those families observed, "You know, apples are a very profitable crop. I don't see why we can't all grow apples, and then we'll all be wealthy!" The others nodded in agreement, and went home to tell their families, and word spread like wildfire.

That spring, all the other families in the county plowed under their fields and threw out their seed, planting apple trees instead. At harvest-time, the square was filled with families selling their newly-grown apples.

Two months after the harvest, everyone was dead. From apple poisoning, most likely.

The story doesn't begin with Jonathan Coulton, but he's the guy you're most likely to recognize, so we lead with him. Earlier today, Coulton posted an essay to his weblog; a rambling, largely thoughtful musing on a couple of 'money guys' who seemed to think that Coulton was largely a fluke and that his success as a musician -- enough to earn a living doing nothing but his chosen trade -- probably wasn't a 'viable business model'.

On the one hand, I think the so-called money guys had at least one reasonable point: if you're planning to go into business for yourself, and your business model is "I'm going to be Jonathan Coulton," then you're probably not going to make it. After all, there's already someone in the market with much more expertise and experience at being Jonathan Coulton that you have, so you can't help but fail to measure up.

On the other hand, Coulton pretty much makes the same point in writing, "'Writing a song that gets discovered on Slashdot' is not a business model, any more than 'putting sleeves on a blanket' is a business model." Which pretty much seems like it should be common sense, but apparently requires some re-iteration. (More on this later.)

It's what Coulton wrote next that got me thinking:

I make songs that are good and then I sell them (and concert tickets, and Tshirts) to the people who want them – that’s my business model, and it’s patently obvious that it’s replicable because I stole it from every other recording artist in the world.

The first thing that struck me was that Coulton's making a value judgment that's not really necessary, in the sense that he's saying that his songs sell because they're 'good'. I'm not here to argue with Coulton; he's entitled to his belief, and I'm sure he puts a lot of work into his music, and his fans would almost certainly share his opinion. No, my point is just that something doesn't necessarily have to be 'good' to be salable. (If you don't believe me, feel free to browse whatever week on the Billboard charts you'd like for the past few decades. I'm sure you can find something to criticize.)

The point is not that Coulton's songs are (or are not) good; people like them. Considering how much music Coulton has given away, I'd argue that people liking his songs isn't really the point, either, since what he seems to be selling most is entrance into a lifestyle decision -- one where being a nerd is awesome and flying one's freak-flag is celebrated. Consider, Coulton is also currently organizing his second cruise -- this is a guy who can sell out cruise ships, which arguably isn't totally about the music (though in his essay Coulton says he rarely tours or does concerts any more), but about being able to say that one was on a cruise ship with Jonathan Coulton.

Coulton has found an audience that identifies with him and is willing to pay for the privilege of showing their sense of identification. Before we go on, let me say that there's absolutely nothing wrong with this whatsoever; Coulton has every right to make a living based on people wanting to identify with him. But we should make it clear that, insofar as there's any 'business model' here, that's the real business model.

Coulton drops a lot of names that are arguably as famous or more famous than his, but the trick works for people less famous, too. My best example: Lojo Russo, who started out playing for "hippies at ren faires" (to borrow Coulton's phrase), and whose closest brush with fame is probably being turned down for the Minneapolis Lilith Fair in 2010 despite winning the fan vote.

You don't even have to restrict yourself to music: there are any number of authors, both of fiction and non-fiction, who've cultivated small yet devoted fan-bases and seem to be able to earn a living catering to those fan-bases. Supernatural teen romance is the hot topic of the day, but it works in sports as well, where Rob Neyer turned a gig as Bill James's research assistant into book deals and a long-running engagement as one of ESPN's best commentors. Heck, for that matter we could even mention my personal nemesis, Aaron Gleeman.

So the business model works even if it doesn't make you internet-famous. Or, well, it works for some.

The thing this reminded me of, and the main reason it got me thinking, was an internet argument from a couple of months back. Coulton himself is saying that the business model works, but he's not advocating that everybody go ahead and try it. The argument started when somebody did.

Justin Vincent, a self-described 'solopreneur', posted an essay on his own blog called "Entreporn, The Fallacy That Wastes Your Life". He's reacting to a venture capitalist referring to so-called 'lifestyle' businesses as "dipshit companies", which is to say, the venture capitalist is uninterested in investing in such businesses. However, in reacting to the unnamed VC's derision, Vincent swings too far into hyperbole:

The absolute truth is that each and every one of us can build a business that can support us. We don’t need to build a million dollar business to survive. We just need a regular paycheck. Just like the paycheck that we already get working for someone else, except it’s a paycheck we pay ourselves.

If you build a micro business it means you’re your own boss, you make your own rules, you live life on your own terms.

If you genuinely have the spirit of an entrepreneur inside of you, it’s perfectly possible to build a $10k/month webapp business that can set you free.

But even better, once you have the knowledge that comes along with building a succesful (sic) $10k/month business, you also possess the exact same knowledge that it takes to build a $100k/month business.

Somebody decided to call bullshit on this idea:

As pg points out, the ideas that led to the businesses that have formed the infrastructure that enables web lifestyle businesses could not have, themselves, been lifestyle businesses. Someone has to think big, take risks, and deploy significant capital in the interest of a dramatically better world. If you don't want to be that person, great, but don't tell the risk-takers that they're "wasting their lives". Would you say the same to scientists who take big risks? Artists?

Boil it down, and the message is simply this: no, not everybody can succeed doing what you're talking about.

The specific avenue of attack chosen was to point out that somebody has to run a 'non-lifestyle' business to allow the folks who want to run 'lifestyle' business to have things like phone service and commercial-class internet connectivity. He could just as easily made a different point, in defense of the inevitable attack against his argument by someone who develops a web calendaring/time-tracking app, by pointing out that there are plenty of other online time-tracking tools out there. Plus there are plenty of OS-specific or hybrid-OS/web time-tracking and project management software packages out there.

One web calendaring app or geeky folk-rock musician is interesting, two is even more interesting, and three can make a suite or a super-concert. Twenty, though? Fifty? Two hundred? At some point you're going to find the population self-organizing on a bell curve, and there's no guarantee that you're not going to find yourself either in the bulgy middle or at the stinky tail end.

But most cringingly, though, is that guys like Vincent and other 'bootstrappers' seem to believe that you can not only make this a working business model, but do so in a small timespan, along the lines of a three-to-five year business plan.

At first glance, looking at Coulton's career, you might actually buy into this, since it's been just over five years since that famous Slashdotting (of Coulton's song "Code Monkey"). Then consider that Coulton's first studio album actually came out in 2003, and that Coulton himself likely honed his craft in any number of unknown, anonymous exhibitions between that date and his Yale college days in the early 1990s.

There are almost certainly still fields where a dedicated practitioner, after years of seasoning, can stumble across a moment of greatness and ride it to, if not fame and fortune, then enough of each to live on. But I wouldn't bet on being able to follow in Jonathan Coulton's footsteps.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


In many role-playing games in which character creation is done on a point-buy system (Champions, GURPS, etc.), the games contain concepts called limitations and disadvantages (or something similar).

A limitation is generally applied to a character power or ability, and specifies a situation or condition in which the power isn't as effective as it usually is. (doesn't affect wooden items, damage reduced by range, etc.) A limitation can instead specify a drawback that occurs when the power or ability is used. (character takes damage equal to damage inflicted with power, etc.)

A disadvantage is generally applied to the character as a whole, and can run the gamut from the character taking extra damage from a particular attack form, being harmed by environments or substances that are normally harmless, having particular psychological quirks, having special physical requirements (a special diet, for instance), or even some genre-specific disadvantages, such as a secret identity in a superhero game.

The reason to take these game elements is that they provide cost-breaks or even free building points to add to your character. Having a power ring that doesn't affect the color yellow costs fewer character points than having one that isn't limited like that.

In every point-buy RPG I've ever played, there has been a rule that generally boils down to this: A limitation that isn't limiting, or a disadvantage that doesn't disadvantage the character, isn't worth any points. The best example I've seen is a character with a 'cosmic awareness' power that allows her to know pretty much everything about whatever she's concentrating on, and then tries to get building points back by taking the disadvantage 'Blind' -- if her cosmic awareness provides all the information that her sight would normally provide, then being blind really isn't limiting to the character, since she can just use cosmic awareness to get the information she'd normally get from her eyes.

However, there are some situations where a disadvantage or limitation seems limiting, but really isn't, based on the full suite of other abilities or powers the character has purchased. These kinds of situations can provoke arguments between players and GMs based on whether the character's limitation meets the criteria for the 'not limiting thus no points' rule.

To avoid these arguments, I've come up with a concept I call CITS (Character Individuality Too Severe); if a character has a disadvantage, but always seems to be able to use a power or ability to avoid the effects of the disadvantage whenever it's presented, I'll declare CITS on the character, reducing the point value of the disadvantage to zero, and consuming experience points (or whatever in-game currency is used for character improvement) until the amount of points gained from the disadvantage is 'paid off'. To avoid this ruling, the player must describe some situation or set of situations in which his powers and abilities would not be able to avoid the effects of his disadvantage. (In other words, the player has to explain to me, the GM, exactly how to trigger his disadvantage.)

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Steve Trevor Paradox

Stories about time travel frequently mention, and are sometimes focused on, the most famous of all time-travel paradoxes, the Grandfather Paradox:

Say you were able to go back in time, and in doing so, caused your grandfather to die before meeting your grandmother and giving birth to one of your parents. You create a paradox in which, since one of your parents isn't born, you can't exist to go back in time to kill your grandfather, but if you don't exist to kill your grandfather, nothing stops him from meeting your grandmother and giving birth to your parent which means you do exist to go back into time...

Pretty mind-bendy, eh? Well, after watching the animated Justice League season one ending episode, The Savage Time, I've found a different, somewhat less mind-bendy paradox.

I should start by saying that the DC Animated continuity of the Justice League and its characters is fairly different than the continuity of all other appearances of the DC Comics characters depicted. In both the original Wonder Woman comic book as well as the 1970's television series, Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor worked together against their mutual enemies. In the Justice League animated series, however, the princess Diana of Themiscyra takes up the Wonder Woman regalia and departs for 'man's world' in the initial episode, Secret Origins. The Wonder Woman of this story universe doesn't meet Steve Trevor until traveling back in time to attempt to undo a change that allows the Nazis to win World War II. (No superhero team's story arc is complete until they've visited Nazi World, after all.)

So the Justice League goes back in time, helps defeat the Nazis, and returns to the present. The episode (and the first season) ends with Diana going to a veterans' home to see Steve Trevor.

How does Steve Trevor respond? That's the crux of the paradox.

To Wonder Woman, almost no time has passed since meeting Steve Trevor as a dashing ex-spy in the past and seeing him again in the veterans' home in the present. To Trevor, however, decades have gone by, most of which didn't include a Wonder Woman at all. Here would appear to be the options:

a) Either Trevor remembers Wonder Woman enough to recognize her when she first appears as part of the events of Secret Origins and helps found the Justice League, in which case he might legitimately wonder why she didn't visit sooner, or

b) Trevor doesn't remember Wonder Woman ever existing until the moment she returns from the past, in which case it makes perfect sense.

The former isn't such a big problem. The latter, however, is. If Wonder Woman's changing of the past back to its original shape erases her existence prior to her return from the past, then the world she's returning to isn't the same as the one she left -- for starters, where does she come from now, since no one on Themiscyra will remember her?

What about previous Justice League episodes, where the League was only successful because of her presence (as in Secret Origins)? Or other episodes where the League only learns what's going on because of Wonder Woman's actions (as in Paradise Lost)?

Of course, it's not a paradox if version a of events above is true. But in that case, why is Trevor so happy to see Diana?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thoughts on Japan

First thought -- wow. Seriously humbling. I spend time thinking about how advanced humanity seems to be; how we're the most 'advanced' species on the planet in the sense that we mold and shape our environment to suit us, then something like this happens and reminds you how little power or control we all have in the larger picture.

How can someone look at the footage from Japan in the aftermath of these quakes and think that global warming will be something simple or easy to fix? It boggles.

Second thought -- let's give the engineers their propers, but let's also not go too far.

The previous candidate for the worst earthquake ever recorded was in Chile in 1960. Accounts of the number who perished in the Chile quakes vary, but every estimate is smaller than the current estimated 7000 dead in Japan.

Yes, it's true that Chile of 1960 had less population density overall than 2011 Japan, and it's also true that Chile, even today, likely has less 'advanced' infrastructure that would be vulnerable to earthquakes (skyscrapers, elevated concrete roads, etc.). It's also true that, while the epicenter of the Japanese quakes was some distance off-shore, the Chilean quakes were centered below land -- very near the populated town of Cañete, which today is as large as a typical U.S. suburb.

Let's wait a bit before canonizing the architect's of Japan's buildings and building codes, shall we?

Third thought -- can we please stop with the nuke gawking?

I do get why we're doing it. On a philosophical level, we're a generation still looking for our identity, so when our parents talk about Vietnam and their parents about World War II and their parents about the Great Depression, we want to feel like we have our own 'thing' to point to. Thus far, that 'thing' looks to be natural disasters -- hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards. If that's our thing, we should be at least knowledgeable about it.

The bigger driving factor, I think, is the novelty. Not only does this have the potential to be the worst nuclear disaster in history, but it's happening during what may end up being a unique time in history -- a time when media is both fast but largely unsupervised. The story from Three Mile Island took years to completely get out to the public. And while Chernobyl was known to be a disaster while it was happening, the idea of getting a live feed from people standing outside the containment building would have been unthinkable in the 1980s.

My problem is that, because we have the ability to share so much information so quickly, we're in danger of getting a bunch of really bad information into the pipeline that'll take a long time, if ever, to 'flush out' -- the chances of nuclear power making a comeback in the U.S., which looked promising given the recent oil shocks, now might be as dead as the Vikings stadium chances.

Some folks get this -- Rachel Maddow is doing an excellent job of trying to be precise when describing what's going on with the nuclear reactors in Japan. But even Maddow is oversimplifying or otherwise being imprecise in certain areas -- for instance, she describes 'the radiation' moving around Japan, as if the neutrons, photons, and other particles were leaping directly out of the reactor and cruising around Japan looking for people to irradiate. The key (as Maddow's guest Arnold Gundersson tried to explain) is that particles -- not just fuel particles, but even dust, rust, or other normally non-hazardous particles made hazardously radioactive by its exposure to neutron flux -- can get onto people and end up serving as a very local, very potent source of radiation.

In other words, the real issue is fallout -- a term that we're far more accustomed to hearing with respect to nuclear weapons, but that applies here as a matter of public safety and thus should be called by its name. Of course, now that I say that, I have to admit that I wouldn't trust Fox News anywhere within three time zones of the word 'fallout'.

Friday, January 21, 2011

SIWIK@16: Hot Chicks

There's a book out, called Dear Me: A Letter To My Sixteen Year Old Self, in which celebrities write short letters to themselves at the age of sixteen. It's an interesting idea, and one I support, though the more I think about it, the more I realize that I'd want to send a lot more than one simple note back through time to my own pubescent avatar.

Thus, Sh...tuff I Wish I Knew @ 16. Part the first:

* * *


Congratulations. Now that you're becoming a high-school senior and discovering that the world isn't just classrooms and grade-point-averages, I thought I'd send along a little...well, older-self advice. Yes, you're coming out of your shell, spreading your wings, whatever you want to call it. And yes, you're a pretty bright kid for all that. But trust me, by the time you get to where I'm sitting, there's going to be a lot of stuff you're gonna wish you knew back where you're standing right now. If you're reading this, and you believe it, maybe you'll be lucky enough to learn some of it.

First, you've noticed that there are these creatures around you who seem to be able to command your attention whenever they like. While your standards (not just because of your age, but because it's the danged '80's) are a bit different than mine, we'll split the difference and refer to them as 'hot chicks'. Pretty amazing stuff, eh?

Want to know how you can spend more time around them? Thought so.

First step -- take a deep breath. They're not goddesses, they're people, with interests and curiosities and opinions all their own, just like other people. You don't have to prove yourself worthy to hang around with them. Heck, keep on the path you're on (trying new things, stretching your wings, showing your talents), and they're going to be just as interested in you as you are in them.

Well, OK, not 'just' as interested. We'll get to that in a bit.

But first things first -- there is literally nothing preventing you from being friends with every hot chick you meet, from here until middle age at least, except your own preconceptions. That's what we're here to work on.

Next up, the bad news. These hot chicks are not all desperately looking to have sex, and they're certainly not all looking to have sex with you. You may find this disappointing, but actually, it's an advantage -- once you get that idea out of your head, that if you don't end up screwing one of these girls you're wasting your time, you're going to end up with a much happier late adolescence and early adulthood, trust me. Because the advantages? Oh, ho, man.

Y'know how other guys assume that any guy who hangs around with hot chicks and isn't trying to screw them must be gay? Those people are jealous. Making them jealous is a good thing.

Next, you know that warm fuzzy feeling in your stomach you get just looking at a hot chick? You're going to get that a lot. And, even better, the even more amazing feeling when one smiles at you, laughs at or even with you, and gives you a hug in front of six other guys. Oh, and there's this absolutely incredible feeling you get when you walk into a room with a hot chick dressed to the nines on your arm, and every other guy in the room stops to look. Trust me, it's awesome.

OK, now that the vain part of you is satisfied, let me talk to the smart part.

You know that feeling you get that nobody understands you? That nobody can really relate to what goes on inside your head, because they can't see the world through your eyes? Even that feeling you get sometimes that other people assume they wouldn't understand what's going on with you, so they just don't try? Guess what? Hot chicks get it.

I'm not saying they get you, necessarily, but the truth is that most are assumed to be a lot happier than they are, most see life from a perspective that other people don't get, and especially, most are sick and tired of being thought of as just 'pretty faces' and dismissed.

You are going to be the best damned friend these women ever had, and it's going to be awesome. But again, not like you think right now.

No, no, I get it; I'm you, remember? You don't have to explain to me that you're looking for something more than just physical stimulation. I know. Here's the problem, though: the one thing you're not ready for yet is that people, not just hot chicks, but people in general, don't fall the way you do. This isn't yet the time to explore that, so let me just explain how that affects you here:

You don't have to try to explain to every single one of these women how much you care about them.

For starters, they'll see it for themselves in your friendship. And trust me, the hot chicks you'll be attracted to have brains enough to figure that out for themselves.

More importantly, though, if you dump your feelings over some poor girl's head, you're going to be hitting exactly the same button that the clueless guy who just wants a quick lay is hitting, and you're not even going to realize it. Trust me, it's not a sex/love/romance/commitment thing. It's just that you're going to be pushing her toward something she's not sure she wants to give. It's a combination of trust, plus putting demands on someone as a price for your friendship. It may seem more noble that you're asking for her heart instead of her underpants, but it's the same basic conflict.

And yes, I realize that saying that is the easy part. I'm writing to you from nearly 30 years in your future, and I'm still not sure how to keep the part of me that wants to pledge undying love quiet. But here's the thing -- if you don't think you can get past that, if you feel as though you're going to want to constantly remind this woman how much she means to you, then do both of you a favor. Don't. Start. If you go for it anyway and can't keep yourself in check, god knows it'll be painful for you, and believe it or not, it's not going to leave her unaffected, either.

If you can work your way around that, then you're going to have some of the best times of your life ahead of you, believe me.

No. No. Stop. Don't give me that 'what if she...' business. Like I said, the hot chicks you're going to be attracted to have the brains to figure it out for themselves, and if by some chance one does decide that she wants to take you up on those feelings, trust me, she will find a way to let you know.

Good luck, kid.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Five Weekend Myth, Debunked

This year, July has 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays, and 5 Sundays. This happens once every 823 years...
- Too many Facebook statuses to count

If you want to believe that people are stupid, have really short memories, and really suck at math, here's your chance. There's a meme going around that July 2011 will have 5 full weekends, and it'll be the first time this has happened in centuries.

It won't be. In fact, the last time this happened was in October of 2010 (yes, not even three months before this post), and the same meme went around the web then.

If you're thinking, "Omigod! This thing only happens once every few centuries and it's happened twice in less than 12 months! Awesome!" Well, I have bad news for you: this happens all the freaking time. Rather than just pull out a calendar and show you how often this happens*, I'll try to explain using math.

* - SPOILER ALERT: By the end of this post, I'll be pulling out a calendar to show you how often this happens. Yes, I'm a hypocrite.

Let's begin with something easy. Any month that starts on a Friday will have five Fridays: the 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd, and 29th. If that month happens to have 31 days, then it will also have five full weekends, since Saturday will be the 30th and Sunday the 31st. (It is true that, because of this, only a month with 31 days can have five full weekends -- so if someone tries to claim that a shorter month will also have five full weekends, you can debunk that really easily.)

So, how often do months with 31 days roll around?

Thirty days hath September
April, June, and November
All the rest have thirty-one
Excepting February alone

The old rhyme is right on, and by a process of elimination we can easily see that there are seven months each year with 31 days (January, March, May, July, August, October, and December). So you start with seven chances every year to see a month with five full weekends.

Next, note that just about every month contains a number of days that doesn't work out to an even number of weeks -- only February (in non-leap years) has exactly 28 days. So, since the number of days in each month is causing the start of each month to shift around the week, chances get even better that you'll see some month in any given year start on a Friday. This is not to say that every year gets a month with five full weekends (in fact, 2012 has no such month), but here's the thing:

If a given year doesn't have a month that starts on a Friday, the next year is more likely to.

Why? Because the number of days in the year also don't divide evenly into weeks. If they did, then years would start on the same day every year, and the progression of weeks would be eminently predictable -- July might always start on a Sunday, for instance, as it will in 2012. But because the normal year has 365 days, while an even 52 weeks contains just 364 days, each year progresses by a day on the weekly calendar. So in 2012, January will start on a Sunday, not a Saturday like it did this year.

So if you have a year where all the 31-day months start on some day other than a Friday (like 2012), the shifting of all those starting days by one (or two, in the case of leap years like 2012) means that you get seven new shots at the apple, so to speak.

And lo and behold! The next 'money month' that only happens once every 823 years will actually March of 2013.

"Okay, okay," I hear you thinking, "so it's not as rare as all that. It's still gotta be pretty rare, though, right? I mean, three times in less than three years has to be a fluke?"

No, my good person, it doesn't. If you understand enough math to build a calendar, you can build what's called a perpetual calendar, in which any combination of day, month, year, and day of the week can be determined. And since the math required to calculate calendars has been around for many centuries, the ability to produce perpetual calendars has also been around for centuries -- see that Wikipedia page linked above, which contains an image of a Swedish perpetual calendar used to calculate which day Easter falls on...from 1140 through 1671.

But for our purposes, this perpetual calendar works best. The provider of the calendar gives you a handy guide for using it as intended, but we can also use it to find out how often five-full-weekend months come around:

  • Start at the '1' in the 'days of the month' box in the lower right of the calendar,
  • Go to the right until you reach the 'Friday' on the same row.
  • Go up.

Each month you see, in each year in the same row -- both to the left and right of the month names -- starts on Friday the 1st. And thus each such month with 31 days will have five full weekends. The particular calendar I've linked to covers 1775 to 2025, a span of 250 years. And during that 250 year span, it's easy to see that there are a lot of five-full-weekend months**; heck, there are years that have more than one month with five full weekends, such as 2010, for example. Yes, the very year in which people started sharing online about how rare it was to see a month with five full weekends was a year that had two such months!

**If you don't feel like doing the comparison yourself, the total is 227 five-full-weekend months during this 250 year period, or nearly one every year.

In truth, a year like 2012 that won't have a five-full-weekend month in it is actually somewhat more noteworthy, even if it's not particularly rare, either. According to the same calendar, 36 of the 250 years on the calendar won't see a five-full-weekend month.

And OMG! Every one of those years has June as the month that starts on a Friday! That has to be when the aliens will come!

Or not.