For all the wrong reasons

I just left a comment on samaBlog kvetching about the tenacity of the stupid Imperial measurement system that continues to thrive in the U.S., as well as the U.K., Liberia and Myanmar. (Measurement is completely arbitrary; you might as well choose a system that at least makes some sense internally. How many inches in a furlong again?) Shortly after, I noticed that (in addition to running out of fours for their signs) some gas stations are now selling gas by the half gallon.

This is, apparently, being done because their pumps don’t support prices higher than $3.999, rather than the psychological reasons you might expect. It would be hilarious, however, if this kind of thing conspires with the price of oil to convert American gas pumps to charge by the liter, essentially using greed, bad hardware programming and laziness to force us kicking and screaming into a new metric dawn.

I also fully recommend that any hydrogen stations that open should use liters, as the price will then look ridiculously low compared to gasoline.

The black horse

Now that idiot thugs are refusing disaster relief and rice shortage prophesies are being self-fulfilled, it won’t be long until famine starts to rear its head. While many people are busy dying, those that aren’t will be spreading blame around. Blame will fall on bad weather, bad crops, bad luck, even on Al Gore. But the truth will be none of these. While starvation is (obviously) caused by a lack of food, famine—that is, widespread starvation over a large area—is the result of bad government.

As far as food goes, governments fail their people in two ways: by failing to plan for bad times and by bungling (or, all to often, profiting from) crises when some external event triggers a food problem. Usually, famine involves both. In its 2002 coverage of Ethiopia entitled “Bad weather, and bad government”, the Economist said:

Bad weather is rarely enough, on its own, to kill large numbers of people. Famine usually requires bad government, too…. In Ethiopia, the food crisis has been aggravated by the legacy of a senseless border war with neighboring Eritrea between 1998 and 2000. It killed tens of thousands, forced 350,000 to flee their homes, blasted both countries’ infrastructure and prompted foreign donors to freeze a lot of aid. In all, it cost Ethiopia an estimated $2.9 billion—almost a whole year’s output for every farmer in a country where 80 per cent of the population lives on farms. Such a monumental man-made disaster has made it harder for the country to cope with a natural one.

The millions of Chinese that starved from 1958 to 1961 also owe their deaths more to their government’s response to natural disaster than to the disasters themselves, even by that governments own admission. Research into other famines by Amartya Sen reached similar conclusions. Even black swan events, such as fungus unexpectedly killing potatoes needs bad government to become the Irish Potato Famine.

Our modern reaction to famine in other countries is to send relief aid and “keep them in our prayers”. This probably saves a few lives (at least in countries where the government isn’t stealing the aid), but treats the symptom, not the disease. You will continue to see famine in country after country until we change this “we sympathize” tune we sing into an accusation of incompetence against the government causing the problem, even our own (especially our own). Some, for example, are taking the World Bank to task, claiming it created policies that encourage governments to create famine. This is a step in the right direction, but a better step would be to also blame the governments themselves.

Art “Four Horsemen: Famine” by Greyskin666.

Open letter to White Wolf

To: White Wolf

The advantage of electronic books is that they are easier to store, searchable and, until now, cheaper.

As you know, electronic versions of your two recent releases (Yu-Shan and Scroll of Kings) are listed for $18, nearly $5 more than books with equivalent page counts released just months ago. That’s a price increase of almost 50% and marks the first time I can remember the electronic version of one of your books costs more than the print version. While retail for the print version is $25, Amazon sells it for $17. (They also continue to sell the “books with equivalent page counts” mentioned above for $17.)

As someone who has legally purchased electronic copies of nearly all of your First and Second Edition Exalted titles, I find this, of course, extremely irritating. But, more to the point, if this price change is here to stay (which I hope it doesn’t), then I will now be much more demanding of features in these electronic books that, until now, I’ve been giving you a pass on not providing. In particular, for the additional $5 for a bunch of electrons, I now expect and demand…

  • …reduced security. At the very least, I should be permitted to edit and save my own bookmarks and have the ability to add margin notes and save them. At best, eliminate it entirely. (Yes, I do know how to strip it off, but I’d prefer not to have to.)
  • …free updated versions of all affected files whenever you make corrections or errata to existing books. (Other companies, much smaller than you, do this already, by the way.)
  • …the person producing the PDF to spend time to make sure the file size is small and the page render times fast. Many of your books (particularly the White and Black Treatises) have exceedingly long draw times. (A good test here is to keep clicking on the “next page” button. If you do this quickly and the majority of the pages barely render before you click the next one, it’s to slow.)

Or, you could, you know, put your prices back down to a reasonable level.

I learned a while ago that I follow the following pattern when buying gaming books, even if I can’t explain exactly why: if the PDF costs around a third of the cost of the printed version, I buy both the printed version and the PDF. If the PDF costs around half the cost of the printed version, I buy the PDF only. If the PDF costs more than half of the printed version, I buy neither.

Update: I thought posted this a while ago, but it looks like I didn’t. In the interim, White Wolf released a new “fatsplat” book for the same price as other flatsplats when they were first offered. Older flatsplats are now $16, so it looks like White Wolf might be pricing at a premium when the book is initially released, then reducing prices later. I think this practice really, really sucks, and has made me take another big step toward abandoning Exalted entirely. In a much better move, they also, for the first time, reissued a title with corrections as a free upgrade. While I welcome this development, I must note that it is much less compelling when the bookmarks in the new version are much, much worse than those in the original. Given how easy it is to automatically generate bookmarks in programs like InDesign, this is disgusting.

The knife

The death of an 18-year old girl from voluntary breast surgery explains the timing of this post, but is only tangentially related to its point. In the coming days, there will likely be a huge fuss about plastic surgery in the media, with people screaming on all sides in what passes for debate in that venue. Some, like this article, will make mention of an American Society of Plastic Surgeons report (pdf) claiming that the number of breast augmentations in 2007 increased 64% over the number in 2000. Some will claim this as a sign of the decline of Western Civilization. They may be right, but not in the way that they think.

In the past five years, health insurance providers have gained more and more control over the business of health in the United States. This has made them very profitable, as this comparison of four large, publicly held health insurers—Humana (HUM), CIGNA Corporation (CI), United Health Group Inc. (UNH) and Aetna Inc. (AET)—with the S&P 500 index from 2003 to 2007 shows (for the color blind, the S&P line is the one on the bottom):

Stock comparison
Image and data from Google Finance

In the process, they have essentially gained control of the pricing of nearly every procedure that they cover. They, not the doctor, set how much the doctor charges. I will have more to say about this later but, briefly, the result of this has been to cause a toxic environment with at least two major consequences: 1) in most cases, neither the person consuming health care nor the person providing it have any input or influence on what the care costs (this basically turns the invisible hand into a middle finger) and 2) doctors are now, essentially, indentured servants to insurance companies.

As a direct result of the latter development, doctors in private practice are now forced to make one of three choices: either close their practice down now, continue practicing until forced to close by bankruptcy, or find some way of making money that doesn’t involve dealing with insurance companies. A great many doctors have been choosing the third path by exploiting a loophole of sorts: insurance companies usually don’t cover voluntary surgery. Voluntary surgery, like breast augmentation.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that plastic surgery is on the rise. There are now huge numbers of doctors motivated to get people to pay for it, so that the doctors themselves can, you know, house themselves and eat. This makes it cheaper, easier to get, and gives plastic surgery the perception that it is now routine (which, sadly, it is becoming). Ever heard of labial plastic surgery, where women have their genital “lips” reduced? You will, as millions of OB/GYNs discover they can’t actually survive by doing things like delivering children into the world.

As I said, I will have more to say on this later. For now, keep in mind when watching all these idiots on television that the rise in plastic surgery has real economic causes.

Merry economic war

You don’t have to look very far to find dire warnings about Chinese goods these days. For several months, the focus has been on toys with lead paint in them. Before that, however, there were beads containing GHB, toothpaste containing diethylene glycol, and poisonous petfood. If you think back to this same time last year, I don’t remember any such thing being so prevalently in the news, even though it is difficult to imagine that these goods went from being perfectly safe to the deadly poisons the news harps about in twelve months. It’s possible that these stories have reached the mass consciousness organically, feeding on each other to dominate mind space. Maybe they are sort of a fad, where the U.S. media (ever hungry for stories to scare the crap out of you) finds they consistently sell better when China is trying to kill everyone. Yet, when you think about the fairly rapid rise of these stories, the broad range of their repetition, and the staying power they seem to have, I wonder if there isn’t something a bit more to it. I’m wondering if it’s an American attack in an economic war between China and the United States.

Honestly, I hope it is. It should be. In the first place, there is some reason to believe that China has been conducting large scale industrial espionage against the U.S. for some time. More troubling, China has been accumulating a vast reserve of U.S. dollars for years. The quantity of this horde seems far in excess of Chinas needs, and opens the possibility of China using this reserve to intentionally manipulate American economic policy for its own benefit, largely through a kind of economic blackmail. In August, coincidentally close to when the poison goods stories kicked into high gear, a number of Chinese officials began hinting they they would do exactly that if negotiations didn’t go their way. As early as 2002, China was also the second largest holder of U.S. bonds, which likewise frightened people, although some called China a scapegoat (Communism was just a Red herring).

This year saw another new development as well. Long content to let others come to it, China began seriously reaching out into the world. They recently bought a large chunk of Morgan Stanley, have a large and growing influence in Africa, and will be hosting the Olympic Games in less than a year. A few months ago, an author being interviewed on NPR (I can’t remember who, sorry) made the observation that, when you look at most of written history, the economic dominance of China has been the “natural state of the world”, with recent centuries being the fluke.

In October, both Japan and China started selling U.S. bonds for the first time. This is troubling because it can have cascading effects, since, in economics, perception of reality often causes a belief in that reality, which can easily cause that reality to occur. Laurence Kotlikoff, in his book The Coming Generational Storm, warns that the logical conclusion of present US economic policy is an inevitable collapse which, most likely, will be forced on us by just such an event, where the collective market suddenly stops believing in U.S. creditworthiness.

So, many punches come at America, but few were going the other direction, at least until the “China is trying to kill us” furor began. As a weapon, I’m not sure how effective it is, though. There have been some costly recalls, but these tend to hurt American companies as well (just ask Mattel). Other than an object lesson to companies to (unrealisticly) seek other partners, that doesn’t seem to do much good. As propaganda designed to rouse “don’t buy China” sentiment, catered to mess with Christmas sales as much as possible, it succeeds a bit better, but to what end? As a negotiation ploy? If that’s the plan, it doesn’t seem to be working.

Talks with China recently failed to accomplish much. According to that story, chief negotiator Henry Paulson thinks that:

The biggest issue we have with China right now is economic nationalism, the problem of its domestic industries welcoming competition. In China, what you find is that you’ve got an increasingly powerful domestic industry that is a strong lobby.

Trying to penetrate the Chinese market is an extremely old tale. So far, there seems to be little the U.S. can do to accomplish it. Here’s hoping we’re actually trying.

Update: not surprising.

The impending return of “beleaguered”

Through the last half of the 1990’s it was nearly impossible to find a news article that mentioned Apple in its opening paragraph without the word “beleaguered” appearing nearby. This trend continued long after the “beleaguered” epithet ceased to be truly applicable. In spite of positive financials and an innovative product line, pundits continued to preach the imminent collapse of Apple. Even the introduction of the iPod didn’t impress anyone (as Slashdot’s now famous assesment of “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.” best illustrates). Eventually Apple managed to turn perception around, to the point where media coverage turned into fawning hero worship in many cases.

Just as this was a series of overreactions, so to will be the backlash against Apple that is starting now. I predict that by this time next year, it will again be trendy to refer to Apple as “beleaguered”, though such a charge will be even less true than it was at the start of the decade.

Certainly, Apple has been doing a lot of unnecessary damage to its image. This is likely to get worse. At the same time, it now faces serious competition on the downloadable music front.

What strikes me about most about their latest stumbles, however, is an underlying cause of troubled interaction with other companies. It seems, in particular, that many of their recent choices have been driven more with an eye toward entanglements of deals they have made than a desire to make good products. This switch is taking them away from what their loyal fans loved about them, and is likely to do more damage than Apple expects.

In the famous dual interview with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, the two were asked the following: “What did you learn about running your own business that you wished you had thought of sooner or thought of first by watching the other guy?” To me, this seemed to be the most illuminating of the questions they were asked. Gates said this:

Well, I’d give a lot to have Steve’s taste. [laughter] He has natural—it’s not a joke at all. I think in terms of intuitive taste, both for people and products, you know, we sat in Mac product reviews where there were questions about software choices, how things would be done that I viewed as an engineering question, you know, and that’s just how my mind works. And I’d see Steve make the decision based on a sense of people and product that, you know, is even hard for me to explain. The way he does things is just different and, you know, I think it’s magical. And in that case, wow.

Jobs thought a little while before answering. He ultimately said this:

You know, because Woz and I started the company based on doing the whole banana, we weren’t so good at partnering with people. And, you know, actually, the funny thing is, Microsoft’s one of the few companies we were able to partner with that actually worked for both companies. And we weren’t so good at that, where Bill and Microsoft were really good at it because they didn’t make the whole thing in the early days and they learned how to partner with people really well.

And I think if Apple could have had a little more of that in its DNA, it would have served it extremely well. And I don’t think Apple learned that until, you know, a few decades later.

If Apple’s interaction with NBC is any indication, they still have quite a ways to go in partnering. It very much seems as if Apple’s attempt to get more deal making into its DNA has caused it to forget the focus on product, style and people that Gates and others (including myself) so admire.

Doubly problematic is that Apple’s new style of dealmaking may actually wind up hurting them. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if media executives who have been dealing with Apple try to extract some payback against Apple, now that they have Amazon to go to. On the other hand, if this is what it takes for media execs to get their heads out of their asses enough to offer DRM-free music (like they could have done ten years ago), it might end up being good for consumers, if not necessarily Apple. Keep an eye on the differences between new music deals record companies sign with Apple and Amazon.

As a related, but more “long shot”, prediction, it could be that, after creating the first real innovation in cell phones in years, Apple gets so fed up with all the compromises needed to get deals done in the mobile space that they just abandon the idea.

At present, a Google search for “beleaguered Apple” returns around 292,000 results. Over the next year, Apple will sell tons of iPods, release funky products and make tons of money, but that won’t stop the result count on that particular search from increasing dramatically.

The dump part

Over two years ago, I suggested a way to destroy a modern record company, using their “pump and dump” strategy against them. The prime example of the strategy at the time was the handling of Britney Spears. Unfortunately, no one has implemented my advice, but evidently with a recent performance, Ms. Spears seems to have entered the “dump” part of the pump and dump strategy, with one reviewer claiming “it’s clear no one is telling singer how to fix career”. I didn’t see the performance, so have no idea if that is actually true or just the media being the media, but if it is true, it extends the case study of the pump and dump strategy. In my previous post, I quoted a prediction from Chris Johnson’s analysis suggesting there is “considerable evidence to suggest that when Britney stops being pushed on the market by her record company, sales will fall off a cliff.” Chances are this will happen fairly soon.

On the other hand, if the performance really was that bad, it actually kind of contaminates the experiment, because it might mean that fans are leaving because of taste (i.e. the bad performance turned them off to the star) rather than because the hype train stopped. Then again, you might see a double whammy effect, where both taste and the lack of hype contribute to a sales disaster of epic proportions.

Update: No mercy, though it sounds like they weren’t really “representing” her before the performance either.