June 28, 2005
Monopoly Breeds Barriers, Barriers Breed Piracy
Historically, piracy tended to happen as a way of breaking monopolies -- in the 1500s, English ships raided Spanish treasures from the Carribean and Indies precisely when they weren't allowed to trade for them. Fast forward to the 21st century, and the only thing that's changed is the stuff that's pirated: it's still all about breaking past monopolies.
Kevin Drum asks why it's unreasonable for Hollywood film companies to ask to be paid for the work they sponsor. After all, films are expensive, and a world where everyone's a pirate is a world where no one can afford to make a good film. Piracy, in other words, gets in the way of filmmakers getting paid for their work.
What Kevin misses is that sometimes it's film companies themselves who get in the way of filmmakers getting paid for their work. Piracy gets its spur because of the accurate intuition that consumers are getting screwed over by the media companies' market power, in ways that no musician or artist or director benefits from.
The big players in the film industry act as a monopoly cartel, and like all monopolies they're lazy, and Hollywood's laziness shows up, among other things, in us viewers not being able to legally buy the films we want. Sometimes that just means inconvenience: you have to go to a video store to rent a DVD instead of downloading it. Sometimes that means you can't get the movie at all: there's a lot of Japanese anime that's never been legally translated, and so if I want to watch it with English subtitles, I can't pay for it legally -- it's download or nothing. Sometimes it's a matter of price: there are some films I'd pay full price to watch, and others I'd pay quarter-price -- but right now there is no "quarter-price" option. I miss out on those "deep discount" movies -- but the moviemakers, too, miss out on the money they could have got me to pay for them.
Movies, like all information goods, ideally should be available to everyone on customized terms. Ideally you'd have full price and lots of selection for the fans, cut-rate offers of a few things to tempt people who wouldn't normally watch "that sort of thing," and everywhere in between. You can convince yourself that the movie-matinee-DVD-rental system of today clumsily fits that description. But you could make TV and film a lot easier and more convenient (and more tailored, and bigger-selling) with online distribution. But flexible online distribution calls for more innovative nimbleness than the big film industry companies have. So instead of finding ways to make it easier for us to pay for and watch more of what we like -- the iPod approach -- the big companies spend their time making it harder for anyone to get their movies in any but the most traditional ways -- the iLock approach.
If we really had to choose between two worlds, one of infinite piracy and one of zero piracy, then of course zero piracy is what it would have to be. But that's ignoring the reason piracy is so popular in the first place: Hollywood's habitual pose of seeing new technology as a threat to old marketing, instead of as a new opportunity to sell more people more stuff than ever before.
The future we should be aiming for is one in which watching TV or movies is as personal and easy as buying songs off iTunes or Rhapsody. The future we should be aiming for is one in which any musician or filmmaker can put out their work for sale all over the world, with no more up-front cost or commitment beyond what it took to record the song or film in the first place. That future doesn't look the same as a world of pirated downloads. But it's a lot closer to today's pirated-media world than it is to today's Hollywood models.
The 21st century could be a golden age for content creators. It should be a golden age for content creators. Piracy is part of the problem. But so is Hollywood. If you want me to be sympathetic to the film industry on the piracy subject, show me some companies thinking more about iPod, and less about iLock.
June 11, 2005
Latest Anime Recommendations
Dan Nexon reminds me that our master plan for world domination needs to include converting that other Daniel to the cause of anime. The rest of you should probably watch more anime, too. So...
First, if you've never watched any anime (Japanese animation), go buy or rent the first disc of Cowboy Bebop, a brilliant noir series about bounty hunters getting up to hijinks in a sci-fi universe. It'll blow away any ideas you have about cartoons being only for boredom and children.
My own favorites in anime remain the three series that have given me perfect blends of action, setting, character and drama: The Vision of Escaflowne, Angelic Layer and Full Metal Alchemist. But new stuff I've enjoyed recently includes:
- Scrapped Princess -- fantasy-yet-scifi about a girl destined to destroy the world; very good storytelling.
- Samurai Champloo -- a stylish yet silly sendup of / homage to samurai action stories.
- Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex -- cyberpunk future stories with a mix of action, intrigue, and, occasionally, neat little touches of philosophy.
- Last Exile -- a one-of-a-kind science fiction saga about an airplane-flying message courier in a steam-age world at war.
If you like really pretty images of really nasty sex and violence, you should check out Speed Grapher, a Japanese mob-plus-voodoo story. And Den Beste, who got me to try the marvelous Angelic Layer, thinks the world of circus-girl series Kaleido Star. That's next on my list.
May 13, 2005
Just for those who missed it the first time...
Because the only thing better than foreign culture is American culture out of foreign culture out of American culture... or something like that, right?
April 16, 2005
Links You Need To Click
Joy to the libraries, the Greeks have come! Yes, infrared-assisted text restoration methods have finally enabled scholars to recover vast numbers of previously unknown ancient Greek texts from a mess of 400,000 papyrus fragments originally found in a 19th-century Egyptian trash heap.
The scholars expect to increase their stock of lost works by the Greek "masters" (Sophocles, Hesiod, etc.) by about 20% when they're done decoding this trash-heaped treasure trove. More importantly, it looks like we're going to double our supply of scripts from Greek popular light entertainment, pulp fiction and situation comedy.
I always wanted to see the ancient Greeks' idea of a trashy romance novel. Didn't you?
In other news, a whole zoo's worth of animals found hidden in the London Underground -- including a bald eagle, an elephant, a penguin...
Speaking of animals, the Italians have given a whole new meaning to "thoroughbred": they've cloned a champion gelding racehorse. He won races but was never able to breed: now he has a clone to breed for him. Lucky champion! Yet somehow I don't think that being told "Don't worry, your clone will breed for you" would make me comfortable having myself gelded. I must be looking at this the wrong way. Maybe if I were a triathlete? Do you suppose gelded triathletes will be the next big sport?
In China, proof that Shanghai has entered the 21st century: a deadly clash over the sale of a precious Dragon Saber for a mere $750. No, really, he sold a Dragon Saber.
And, to wrap up the passions of sex, death and ancient legend: to the great relief of I dare not guess how many happy, lustful, religious couples, Israeli rabbis have specified rules by which Jewish men can use Viagra without violating the rules of Passover.
Welcome to the 21st century!
Proof That Being Intelligent Is Just Like Being Blonde, Only Less Useful
Via Marginal Revolution I find this lovely article on dogs, wolves and foxes communicating with humans, in which among other things it turns out that wild foxes can be fairly easily selectively bred for the same skill at understanding humans that we take for granted in dogs.
Now, "social intelligence" is arguably a more complicated set of traits in the brain than simple abstract "develop new skill" intelligence. Yet breeding pulled social intelligence pretty easily out of foxes. Gene therapy on living humans is still just a set of experimental efforts. But once we know enough about gene-tinkering to let parents custom-design their kids' hair color, I get the feeling it may only take another few years to let parents "max out" their kids' intelligence.
What's it going to be like when every kid can be as tall as a baskeball star and as intelligent as Einstein? If the less-developed countries can't afford the technology, what will the world be like when the old racists' dreams come true, and the next generations of Americans and Europeans really are much smarter, stronger and healthier than most people in Africa or Asia?
One thing is certain: in a world where all that differentiates peoples' genes is voluntary fashion, everyone at school will take your being intelligent for granted -- but they'll still compliment you if you naturally have the 'right' hair color.
April 06, 2005
In Other News, Eating Ice Cream Makes You Smarter
Now, if we can just get a study proving that playing computer games makes you more productive... oh, wait, we did!
I love the 21st century.
March 30, 2005
Autism and Google versus Math, or A Little Research Is A Dangerous Thing
Tyler Cowen at the economist blog Marginal Revolution complains that the rise of autism diagnoses in America from 1 in 2500 to 1 in 166 seems like an urban legend: he can't find any reputable citations for the "1 in 166" figure on Google.
There's some kind of point here about unspoken knowledge: when I, with an excessive math background, see "1 in 166", I immediately recognize that as a rewriting of "6 in 1000". But Tyler didn't, despite his smarts and despite being an economist (which is plenty mathematical). So what in my past let me clue in to the secret mathematical origin of the 1-in-166 figure?
The other point is the one we all know: never confuse "what I find on Google" with "everything there is to learn". Not this decade, anyway.
March 29, 2005
Traditionally, They Kill Japanese Storytellers Just As They're About to Write the End
I have a happy weakness for sci-fi television, and the best science fiction television series these days are all Japanese anime shows. (Thank heavens for Netflix.) Japanese anime series tell some pretty fine stories... with just one problem. They don't have endings.
I exaggerate. A few of my favorites, like The Vision of Escaflowne and Angelic Layer and Full Metal Alchemist, have pretty darn dramatic and well-thought-out endings. But I just came to the end of Martian Successor Nadesico, and there was no end there.
Nadesico tells the story of a battleship in a war between Earth and Jupiter, where the main character has mysterious ties to an ancient Martian culture, and also can't make up his mind which of his crewmates he's in love with. (There's a subgenre of anime called "harem" shows, featuring one clueless male and a bunch of women who may or may not be romantically interested... but I digress.) You might expect Nadesico would end with, say, the end of the Earth-Jupiter war, or the secret of the Martian culture, or the hero maturing enough that his love life would actually make sense to an outside observer...
He kisses one of the girls. I have no idea why, except they were childhood friends. The war goes on. The Martians remain unexplained. And that's... it.
In fairness, Nadesico is a comedy. But lately I've run into a whole bunch of series where you watch the end and you really feel the writers made up the ending at the second-to-last episode, or had a big ending idea that exceeded their talents and came out as twenty minutes of viewer confusion. (Rahxephon... Berserk...)
Frankly, it all reminds me too much of what I don't like about Neal Stephenson. But I watch them anyway, for the same reason I watch Stephenson: the ending may be a train wreck, but the middle is often a heck of a good ride.
Anime as the supreme guilty pleasure -- that's for another post.