A silver lining. Sort of.

January 3rd, 2009 — Wordman

Since hearing a lecture by Laurence Kotlikoff, author of The Coming Generational Storm, it’s been pretty clear to me that:

  1. The political future of the United States is going to be colored significantly by generational conflict, with the needs of the various generations pulling the country in very different directions.
  2. My generation, Generation X, is basically totally screwed in such a conflict because, among other things, we are flanked by generations that are much larger than us.

One battle in this generational war is almost certain to involve social security and other entitlements. In the coming years, the Baby Boomers will do what they have proven over and over again that they do best: look out for themselves. Amid anti-aging treatments and doses of viagra, a good number of them will scream like hell at any attempt to reform the current entitlement system to their detriment and support any change that helps them, regardless of the long term cost. In spite of the fact that any such reform would have needed to start years ago to really be effective, their massive voting clout will ensure that it doesn’t happen at all, even when entitlements start unraveling.

And unravel they will, all over Generation X. By the time the Boomers die off, Gen X will be ready to reap the rewards of the giant Ponzi scheme that is social security, right when it starts to collapse. They will try the same tricks that the Boomers did to get what they were told was coming, but it won’t matter: not only will the money be gone, but Generation Y will massively outvote Gen X, and see to it that whatever comes out of the wreckage will benefit themselves, at the expense of Gen X. (To add insult to injury, a lot of the “moral justification” for this will probably involve a sort of “guilt by association” with the selfishness of the Baby Boomers.)

So, what chance does Gen X really have? Well, its best bet is to engineer (or at least hope for) some situation that radically reduces the voting power of the Baby Boomers. One sure thing that would do this is a massive reduction in their population. Since the Boomers have repeatedly shown a willingness to do nearly anything to avoid unpleasantness, or even inconvenience, it might be possible to manipulate them into extinction. With the right ad campaign and marketing, we could probably make offing yourself for the benefit of the following generations “dying with dignity” cool enough that many would volunteer. An opening strike would be a campaign to eliminate laws against assisted suicide. If done right, we might even get some kind of trial Logan’s Run mandatory death law, that expires shortly after most of the Boomers.

None of this will happen, of course. So, if the Boomers themselves cannot be eliminated, the next best thing would be to severely reduce their spending power. They would still have the bodies to vote, but without a lot of cash, it may be possible to outspend them for political influence, even if their candidates get elected.

To do this, we’d need to generate some kind of economic situation where the Boomers are convinced to invest and save their earnings in certain ways and then, right when they retire, pull the rug out from under the markets to erode their investments. This is something of a “scorched earth” policy, as it would hurt everyone else as well, but Gen X would still have time to replenish their funds, while the Boomers’ sources of income would have dried up.

Engineering this would be a massive undertaking, but fortunately, it’s happening already. The silver lining of this whole economic downturn is that the massive market losses are eroding the wealth of the Boomers as we speak, right as they are starting to retire. This is especially true since many Boomers couldn’t afford to retire, even before the current downturn.

Gen X couldn’t have planned this better. And, to think; they called us slackers.

Virtual film analysis

September 8th, 2008 — Wordman

Having recently completed Awake in the Dark, I was glad to see Roger Ebert’s article on how to read a movie. I immediately started thinking along the lines that some of the commentators did: could this be reasonably done in an on-line way?

I think it could. It wouldn’t be exactly the same as Ebert describes, of course, for some obvious reasons: the crowd would be much larger, the pace would be necessarily slower, the shots to be examined would have to be selected in some way other than yelling “stop”, typing is not the same as speaking, and so on. Even so, it still might be useful. And fun.

I’m tempted to do this myself. Maybe I will if no one else picks up the gauntlet. One way it could work would be like this:

  • Get a domain like cinema-interruptus.org.
  • Install the latest version of phpBB.
  • Create one forum per film.
  • Use one thread per shot.
  • For each film, one registered user acts as the “host”.
  • Lock down permissions in a forum so that only the “host” can create new threads (i.e. shots) in that forum.
  • The host initiates a shot by creating a new thread containing the shot to be examined, with a number in the subject. The initial post would contain things like the time index and so on.
  • Anyone can then post to the thread.
  • Once some criterion has been reached, a new shot is posted. This could be done in a few ways:
    • Some sort of time limit, say, an hour or two. This forces the experience to work in a “live” way, however, which isn’t what the internet is best at.
    • Some sort of “post count” limit is hit. For example, after 50 or 100 (or whatever) posts to the thread, the next shot starts. This has the advantage that the pace of the process is dictated by interest, moving through shots quickly when a lot of people are posting (i.e. at “peak hours”) and more slowly when fewer are paying attention. Disadvantage is that the cutoff is arbitrary. There will surely be cases where it either cuts off to soon or stalls.
    • Allow the host to move on when he feels the time is right. Would probably be the best choice, but would entirely depend on a good host.
    • Some other method.
  • It might be useful, when moving to a new shot, to lock the previous shot/thread. I can see where this would be helpful. I can also see how it would be a hindrance. Probably a choice left up to the host.
  • It might be interesting if the choice of frames was deterministic (e.g. take one frame exactly every 30 seconds), rather than having the host (or, perhaps, requests from earlier shots) pick out “interesting” frames. On the one hand, this downplays the human element and forces focus onto a place it might not go naturally. On the other hand, this downplays the human element and forces focus onto a place it might not go naturally.
  • Using one film per forum, run several different movies at once.
  • Close down the site after being sued by the MPAA for copyright violations.

It would take quite a while to get through a film. It would also be a project with many built-in “intermissions” from the point of view of the reader. That is, they’d see a few shots, then go on with their day, then see a few more, and so on. This would be a much different concept than sitting in a dark room for several hours at a stretch. I’m guessing it might make the analysis better, but perhaps not.

Who’s up for it? Would you participate in such a thing?

The real point of damming the Mediterranean

June 9th, 2008 — Wordman

In what it calls “the craziest, most megalomaniacal scheme from the 20th century you never heard of”, Strange Maps reports on Atlantropa, a scheme in the 1920s to dam the various entries to the Mediterranean Sea. The idea, brainchild of Herman Sörgel, was to lower the elevation of the sea by as much as 200 meters, and then use the elevation difference to generate hydroelectric power. Oh, and do a bunch of Eurocentric rubbish to Africa (get in line).

One of the obvious issues with the plan is the havoc it would cause on the existing coastline. Venice is no longer really Venice when it’s 200 meters above sea level, for example. Also, the increased water salinity would probably kill what’s currently living in the water. These reasons, among others, are cited as example of why “Sörgel’s plan would be considered outdated today”. I, however, think now might be just the right time for damming the Mediterranean.

If global warming doomsday predictions are to be believed, global sea levels will rise by some non-trivial amount in the next century. You can find maps showing the effects of 100m rises, for example.* That being the case, if the Atlantropa plan could be recast as a way to keep the levels of the Mediterranean as they are now it might be more palatable.

The idea would be to build the dams assuming the ocean’s level will rise. As that happens outside the dam, make adjustments to keep level on the inside the same. Thus, the coastline of the Mediterranean is preserved, while the rest of the world drowns.

Alternately, using the same dam system, you could actually turn the Mediterranean into an elevated bowl, instead. By pumping water from outside the dam to fill up the bowl, you turn the Mediterranean into a large store of water, protecting the rest of the world from the rising sea level instead. This would come at the cost of drowning most of the cradle of Western Civilization, but it’s not like anyone would really miss, say, Greece. Later (much later), when the world starts cooling again and the ice caps start reclaiming water, you could gradually release the stored Mediterranean water and keep world sea level constant still.

* More realistic projections for the next century, however, are only in the range of tens of centimeters, making the plan I propose here less fun.

Wasting money

June 23rd, 2005 — Wordman

With shockingly little consideration, I just spent an indefensible amount of money (over $100) on a single role-playing game supplement. I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I’m now the proud owner of the world’s largest dungeon. Let me see if I can convey the size of this thing: there is a map measuring 17″ x 22″ with 114 rooms. This map is described by 45 pages of very small text. This is “part A”. The dungeon goes to “part O”, each with a similarly sized map and usually larger text section, all bound into an 840 page hardback book.

Initially, I was interested in the gimmick of it, kind of a “just to say I have it” sort of a purchase. Surprisingly, though, the whole thing is bound together by a fairly decent story. It’s also pretty well organized and is thought out to run a party from low to high levels. It’s good enough to make me want to run it (or, at least, in it), but at the rate I play, it would take a really long time. I could never, I thought to myself, “do it right”.

Then I got to thinking about what “doing it right” might entail. Since I was in an extravagant mood, why not really go for broke? I think I could do it right if I could throw away no more than $250,000.

The basic idea would be to rent a house for a month to six weeks somewhere remote, but still cool, like Turks and Caicos. A group of five to seven players and a DM would live in the house and game starting at noon every weekday, usually until late in the evening. This group would probably be recruited somehow, possibly over the net, then weeded down to an interview and so on. Players would be given:

  • Travel to and from the location
  • Lodging and food
  • $2500/week salary
  • A 12″ PowerBook to keep

The DM would receive a similar package, but would be paid $3500/week and given a 17″ PowerBook. A minivan or similar vehicle would be made available for the duration for the group.

The computers are crucial for two reasons. First, in exchange for the salary, the players and DM would each be expected to blog about the experience each day. They could do this in their own voice or in character. For best effect, the members of the group would not be permitted to see each other’s blogs (probably just by using the honor system but perhaps through firewall rules, though these can be dodged).

More importantly, all the machines would be networked to a LAN while playing. Some of this might require some custom software, but the basic idea would be that nearly all of the events of the game (like die rolls, awarding and spending experience, etc.) would be done with the laptops (rather than pen, paper and dice) and it would all be logged automatically. In particular:

  • All dice rolling would be handled by software. (If necessary, cheating could be avoided by hosting a dice server on the DMs machine.)
  • Players could send secret messages to the DM or other players.
  • Players could track all aspects of their characters (including expendable equipment like torches, which is more important in this dungeon than others).
  • The DM could get a summary view of all the characters and make changes to them that cascade to the player’s machines (things like reducing hit points or increasing experience).
  • The DM could send images to individual players or the whole group.

Audio of the sessions would be recorded (either by the DM’s machine or by another on site machine). Video might be taken, though it would probably need to be more of the “one image every few seconds” kind. Everything (including the logs) would be made available online, so anyone crazy enough could reconstruct it if they wanted. The group would be incommunicado with the internet (and vice versa) while in session.

Now I just need someone to fund it. Maybe I could pitch it to the Sci-Fi Network as a reality show.

How to destroy a modern record company

June 13th, 2005 — Wordman

One of the reasons mainstream music has become significantly less interesting in the past decade has been the major label’s embrace of the superstar marketing model. In previous decades, studios expended effort in building “career artists”, bands that would build a fan base who would buy record after record. This has given way to a “pump and dump” strategy, where debut albums are marketed aggressively and milked for a brief period, then the artist is abandoned. Superstar marketing is the pinnacle of this business model, where a single star is massively marketed in every way possible, almost to exclusion of the label’s other acts.

This sells a lot of the superstar’s albums and makes tons of money for the label. For the superstar, there isn’t much evidence that this will lead to strong career. In an analysis of long term successful albums Chris Johnson observes that, in spite of making millions, there is…:

…considerable evidence to suggest that when Britney [Spears] stops being pushed on the market by her record company, sales will fall off a cliff.…There are very few acts post-1990 that can boast platinum certifications more than a year after release.…The promoters will just as happily push Hanson as Bob Dylan, Spice Girls as Aretha Franklin: they are completely agnostic on the quality front.…In effect, the record labels cannot afford to build artist careers anymore. They can only afford to milk the current promotional mechanism.

I think this is fantastic because it suggests a way to hasten the demise of such record companies, which have become relics clinging to outdated methods instead of offering me the products that I want. The strategy to do so lies in the answer to the following question: If, hypothetically, Britney Spears were to vanish in some way (sudden retirement, injury, plane crash, etc.) what would that do to the financials of her label and the company that owns it. If such an event were unexpected, it’s fair to say that Jive Records would need to scramble to survive and would have a fair chance of collapsing. Sony would, unfortunately, fair better, being more diversified, but would take a financial hit as well.

By putting their eggs in one basket, record labels leave themselves open to attacks aimed at destroying the basket that don’t cost very much. All a dedicated group of people would need to is target the major superstars of a label all at once and bring them down with smear campaigns and/or industrial espionage (e.g. stealing and destroying master tracks before they can be published, injecting random signals into a CD production, etc.). Since the media largely no longer check facts, they would be useful accomplices. A clever group could probably do the whole thing without even breaking the law.

Concept for Mac mini A/V dock

February 12th, 2005 — Wordman

The interest given to articles about modifications to the Mac mini, such as moving it into a micro ATX case with some large IDE drives or overclocking it, suggests that there may be a market for a “docking station” of sorts that has the same dimensions as a typical audio/video component. The mini could be plugged into this station, then added into the rack of a typical home theater with ease, to act as a media center. It would have the added benefit of allowing the mini to be easily removed from the rack for more portable uses from time to time.

Let me stress that this product does not actually exist. I have the idea, but neither the time nor talent to see it to fruition. I present it here so that others might. It might look something like this:

Dock concept

I would only buy such a thing if it contained the following:

  • Few or no external controls. All features should be controllable by software in the mini. Perhaps a power button (which would also power the mini), but that’s all.
  • Port replication, as usually found in a docking station. This would include power (allowing you to ditch the power brick that came with the mini).
  • In addition to replication of the DVI connector, the station would wire the mini to built-in adaptors for VGA, S-Video, composite video and (most importantly) component video (Y/Pb/Pr), with ports for each arrayed on the back of the dock. If it didn’t have the component video, I wouldn’t buy it. Ideally, it would send signal to all of these at once, but being able to pick one at a time with a software control panel would be acceptible.
  • Video input of some kind wired into the firewire bus, smilar to a built-in EyeTV 500.
  • Two (or more) large, fast harddrives would be built into the dock, wired to the firewire port. It should not be rocket science for the user to replace these drives. Possibly the dock would supply just the drive bays, and the user would supply their own drives. These drives should be on the quiet side. The addition of a quiet fan to cool the drives would be acceptible.
  • One or both of the USB ports would not be direct pass-through ports, but connected to an internal hub. This hub would offer four connections on the back of the dock, two in the front, and several internal. It would also be hooked up internally to a number of other components built into the dock. I will describe these in reference to other, existing products, but in actuality, they’d be built into the dock hardware, not just third party products shoved into the case. The features of these additions would be:
    • Something like an iMic, with the RCA and other i/o connections coming out of the back of the machine.
    • Something like the Transit, which supplies DTS, with several optical audio ports in the back to allow recording and playback of digital audio to/from multiple sources.
    • Some sort of general purpose IR receiver, perhaps like the Keyspan Express Remote.
    • Some kind of combination flash memory reader.
  • A front panel display, showing:
    • Temperature of drive bay
    • State of firewire ports
    • State of USB ports
    • State of card reader
    • If the audio modes (RCA vs. optical) need to be switchable/one-at-a-time, their current state
    • If the video modes (DVI vs. component) need to be switchable/one-at-a-time, their current state
  • Possibly some additional cooling for the mini. Maybe this would be additional airflow around the bottom and sides. Not sure how/if this would work.
  • Size similar to a home theater DVD component: 17″ wide, somewhere between 9-13″ deep and just slightly taller than the mini’s 2″.

This post has been referenced by some other sites. From the comments here and on those sights, some extra commentary seems appropriate:

  • Size: I guess I didn’t spell out the idea that this is meant to integrate (i.e. be the same size as) with standard audio/video components in a home theater rack, as many posters wondered why it was so large. Like many a/v components, it is likely that this one would contain a lot of empty space. People who don’t care about integration with a rack system may be interested in a sweet looking, more stack-like system mentioned in one of the comments on engadget.
  • Non-stackability: Some mentioned that you cannot stack another component on top of this one, limiting its use in a rack. This is true, but intentional for reasons I didn’t mention. It turns out that items on top of a Mac mini interrupt the airport and bluetooth signals. I suspect they may also cause heat problems, but don’t know that for sure. Speaking of which…
  • Heat: I mentioned heat breifly, but some commenters correctly point out that some serious thought would need to be put into heat management. This would need to include some path from the vent in the the back of the mini into the body of the dock.
  • Cost: I didn’t think at all about cost, but if you add up the cost of buying similar components, it adds up pretty quickly. I guess the measure of affordability is if the dock costs less than it would to buy the similar components individually (which, right now, anyone who wants a Mac mini home theatre needs to do).

Another Empire

January 14th, 2005 — Wordman

America’s detractors have called it “imperialist” for some time. Recently, the American government has embraced this label, invading several countries. While it is doubtful America is really trying to build a classical empire, I think it could actually do so in a way that would avoid some of the problems usually experienced in empire building and actually help the people of the world a little in the process.

Imperial US

America should announce that any government that actively pursues or obviously condones genocide has forfeit its right to rule and will be eliminated, with the nation it presently governs invaded and made part of the American Empire.

Since it appears that defeating foreign armies (particularly from the types of countries likely to practice genocide) is significantly less of a challenge for America compared to “winning the peace”, this strategy should provide a fairly large group of natives (though certainly a minority) who would back their new American overlords, namely the people previously being slaughtered by their own government.

After taking over a few of these countries, the likely furor of neighboring countries make it almost certain that Imperial America would be faced with the necessity of (or at least the pretext for) conquering Lybia. I figure that about half of Africa would be part of the Empire by the end of the decade. And not just the crummy bits either, but some serious mineral wealth. You might think ruling such a place would be a disaster waiting to happen. Of course it would be, but America couldn’t do much worse ruling this part of the world than its done for itself. At the very least, a lot fewer women would be raped and people getting their hands cut off would be the occasional accident instead of an hourly event.

It would also supply America with what it appears to need most: a labor pool that doesn’t mind being paid very little to make Nikes. For many in Africa, making pennies a day beats lining up to get your limbs severed, hands down (as it were).

Another thing going for this policy is that it embodies America’s second founding principle: hypocrisy (freedom being the first founding principle), given that the “let’s get our citizens to destroy their food supply” strategy employed against Native Americans would fit the “obviously condones genocide” requirement.