What’s missing in Saturn coverage

A few months back, when General Motors could no longer escape its own incompetence, Saturn was put on the chopping block. It got an unexpected reprieve when Penske, an auto-parts maker, offered to buy it. The reprieve ran out today, when Penske backed out of the deal. So, now the press bids good riddance to Saturn in a number of eulogy-like stories.

All of these journalists seem to be missing a huge part of the story, though, with the kind of “don’t bother looking under the surface” reporting I can’t stand.

The AP story says:

Although GM and Penske reached a tentative agreement to sell the brand in June, the deal collapsed Wednesday after Penske was told by an unidentified manufacturer that its board had rejected a deal to make cars for the new Saturn.

And then… that’s it. Nothing. No information about who this “unidentified manufacturer” might have been, or why they didn’t want to deal. This is unfortunate on two counts: 1) it’s where the real story is and 2) it isn’t that difficult to figure out.

If you get your news from something other than traditional sources, you might have noticed a story still playing out around another tattered remnant of GM: Opel. In a probably increasingly common union of Canadian and Russian companies, Opel is about to be sold to Canadian car parts maker Magna and Russian bank Sberbank.

So what? Well, many people (including, evidently, all journalists) don’t realize that most of Saturn’s recent product line are just relabeled Opel models. This makes it extremely likely that the “unidentified manufacturer” who wouldn’t sell cars to Penske is Magna.

Given that they are both in the auto parts business, it might make sense at first glance why Magna wouldn’t want to help competitor Penske. But it gets more complicated as you think on it more. Why would Magna, who is just getting into the car business, pass up a huge (and highly loyal) built-in market for their new product by refusing to work with Saturn-under-Penske? I can only think of five possibilities:

  1. They are idiots. They have let hatred for a competitor blind them to a good opportunity. Maybe I’m optimistic, but I’d like to think that this isn’t the reason.
  2. They fear a long term merger. It seems to me the inevitable result of cooperation between Magna and Penske in Saturn would eventually result in a merger, hostile or otherwise. Magna may figure that they would be worse off for such a thing. I’m less sure of this reason, but it still smells wrong.
  3. They don’t care about the American market. As Opel is mostly a European brand, it may be that they have enough to handle without adding in the American market as well. This seems implausible, given that Penske would be doing all the work in America in this scenario, and also that Magna is a Canadian company.
  4. They consider the Saturn brand a liability. Read any of the previously linked eulogies of Saturn and most of them mention Saturns as being mediocre cars. It could be that Magna has convinced itself that pitching the Opel directly to America would work better for them. They could be right, but turning your back on millions of already loyal customers seems a might risky.
  5. They want Saturn for themselves. It could be that Magna was betting on exactly what happened: that if they didn’t deal, Penske would walk, leaving Saturn ripe for picking. Even if they only bought pieces of it (branding, customer databases, some dealerships), they would have a huge head start on penetrating the American market.

Of all these, the last seems more likely to me. Which means the current reports of Saturn’s death may be exaggerated.

Behold…

The BBC World Service aired a 20 minute documentary recently called “Selling cheese to the Chinese”. The title makes it sound a bit like a puff piece, and it even starts a bit like one, but it isn’t. Bits of it have been rattling around in my head for the past few days. If you really want see the power if cheese or, more importantly, predict the future of China and the West, you should give this piece a serious listen to the end.

These five things stand out to me:

  1. Around five minutes in, a woman says “Even though we are in an economic crisis, we see an increase every single of week of Europeans landing here with their suitcases and a dream, and they want to make it.” Has the American dream moved to China already?
  2. “One seemingly innocuous comment surprises me… ‘Only very old people know about Chinese culture’, says one girl.” China has one of the longest lasting cultures on Earth, but the Communists more or less obliterated it from living memory. So the young now have no grounding in in the old ways. This is good and bad for the West, it seems to me. On the one hand, it means that making cultural in-roads into China will meet much less resistance from the youth of China, particularly the rising middle class. On the other hand, it also may mean that China’s historical insularity, which sometimes worked to its detriment on the world stage (and the West’s benefit), may be over. I suspect that the end result will be a much more intellectually agile China, and that will almost certainly mean a much more dominant China over the next century than I have been expecting.
  3. Around 15 minutes in: “The rise of McDonald’s in post-reform China was predicated on the demise of nation wide food rationing, but the consumption of cheese and wine will be more than that.” Instead, it will be the emergence of consumer choice driving a market, largely outside of government influence. In short: capitalism. Which means either Communism doesn’t have much longer in China or it will have to get even nastier.
  4. “People at my age spend all of their salary every month. People from my mom’s generation save as much as they could.” Not sure what to make of that. What do you think?
  5. “‘We trust foreign companies more than we trust local companies, because we have suffered a lot.’ It was a penny drop moment. Curious Jessie may have experimented with pricey Belgian chocolate, but the only European product this family buy regularly is a breakfast cereal…which they trust to be free from chemical additives.” This is probably a short term advantage for the West, but to compete against it, Chinese products will have to get safer, which will make them more expensive. It will also probably increase the standard of living in China, which will probably increase the cost of labor there. That is probably good for everyone, but will dampen China’s ascent slightly.

Skynet

Poker faceAfter digesting James Devlin’s articulate (and still ongoing) series on building a poker bot, an obvious near-term prediction can be made: prepare for a future of bot on bot action. That is, as more knowledge of building software that can play on-line poker masquerading as humans spreads, inevitably the ratio of bots to humans will increase. Far from causing the on-line poker industry to collapse, it will thrive under such conditions, gaining more and more “players”, even as the proportion of actual humans in a virtual seat shrinks. An average of humans-per-table may never hit zero, but it could become vanishingly small. Once it gets lower than 1.0, most on-line poker games will be bots vs. other bots.

A good number of these bots, possibly large subsets of them, will be colluding. Since this requires communication between them in some way, what you will have here are distributed expert systems, programmed for conflict. In short, you’re halfway to Skynet. This, I think, would be a much better story for the Terminator franchise: where Skynet arises out of an intense escalation of poker-bot conflict, and the extermination of the human race is merely the side effect of Skynet’s (successful, though misguided) obliteration of all opposing poker bots.

Devlin’s articles also paint a picture of how disturbingly easy it is to hijack software on the Windows platform. There’s some Skynet potential there as well. For example, it is easy to see how a zombie network could easily become a poker playing powerhouse. Chances are one or more of them already is.

Image from a lego model by robbed.

Roleplaying industry predictions

If you follow gaming at all, you know that the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons has been released. As I suspected, the rules are, essentially, the rules that govern a video game captured in book form. As I did not suspect, the result is actually pretty good. It’s still very crunchy (i.e. rules-heavy), but it is pretty well designed crunch, with a lot of design focus given to keeping what is fun and ditching what is not.

page imagesThe effort is helped quite a bit by some interesting layout choices. In particular, their use of white comes as welcome change from their 3E design and somehow looks modern and slick. After years of role-playing products designed with ink on most of the page, usually with some kind of pale or gray image as the background, the open style used in 4E might change the way a lot of books get designed. I remember noticing the use of white in the gorgeous Ptolus and wondering why more RPG books didn’t use it. Fourth Edition’s color and font choices (mostly a family called Mentor) are also an interesting break from their past and, I think, well selected.

A few days ago, Wizards of the Coast finally unveiled their new Gaming System License (GSL). Not so good. It’s many shortcomings are being debated in forums all over now, but a thread on ENWorld is particularly notable, as it includes several publishers of 3E supplements using the Open Gaming License (OGL). Posts from a user named Orcus are worth reading, in particular, because he is a lawyer as well as a game publisher (Clark Peterson from Necromancer Games). Even though Necromancer’s page currently claims certain products will be ported to 4E, this forum indicates that at least some of the books mentioned (something called the Tome of Horrors, in particular) will not be, now that the details of the license have been unveiled.

One of the main issues is what some are calling the “poison pill” clauses (even though it isn’t really a classical poison pill). Essentially, it makes converting a “product line” (whatever that means) from the OGL to the new GSL a one-way process, and contains language that essentially would put a publisher’s future into the hands of Wizards of the Coast. I’m not a lawyer, but from how I read the GSL (PDF here), it seems to me that publishers would be fools to sign it as it is presently written, particularly if they already have created OGL content. It also pretty much shuts down any fan-based computer tools, like character trackers, reference tools and the like (though there will supposedly be a “fansite” related policy released later).

So, unless the license is changed, you can bet that not many publishers are going to fully embrace it, though many will probably make a few books for it. I’m guessing that most of the following will occur:

  • Well established product lines (that is, those who could claim a measure of brand recognition and loyalty) will continue to publish these lines under the OGL. They will eventually be forced to remove the d20 logo from them, but it will probably not matter.
  • Well established companies, if they publish for 4E at all, will do so with entirely new product lines. They will be able to leverage their name, but not their brands.
  • A few new companies will arise that make only 4E products, but will focus more on adventures than anything else. At least one of these companies will, in fact, be owned by another established company that is still publishing OGL-only material.
  • After realizing that the GSL won’t let it follow its current plans for 4E integration, Pathfinder will remain 3.5, and will become something of a flagship product for those still using the OGL, mutating into the semi-official mechanism by which the 3.5 rule set evolves.
  • Because of this, friction will be created between Wizards and Paizo, Pathfinder‘s publisher. Since Paizo has a very close relationship with Wizards, the result will be that Pathfinder will be sold before the year is over.
  • More than half of newly created companies that enter into the D&D related publishing business will publish under 3E rules using the OGL.
  • The amount of shelf space given to 4E products in gaming stores will not exceed that given to 3E products. Ever. In Borders and other large book stores, however, you won’t be able to find 3E products at all.
  • Numerous fan sites will emerge that convert third party OGL content into 4E. They will be constantly under threat from Wizards of the Coast, who will pay a lot of legal fees to continually fight them as they shift around.
  • Wizards will become more vocal about copyright infringement on p2p networks.

I’d love to see some other open source game take off in the wake of GSL backlash. Unfortunately, if this happens, it is likely to be Pathfinder, rather than a better system, such as FATE (also available under the OGL license) or Wushu Open (released under the Creative Commons). Even more unfortunately, there aren’t that many other viable alternatives. There are certainly a number of free RPGs out there, but few of them are open source.

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.

I’ll alter the bait

Seeing samaBlog tackle an office pool of 2008 predictions from the New York Times, I thought I’d do the same. The only thing is, I think many of the choices suck. So I’m going to answer free-form. Also, I’ll not repeat the questions or choices, so you’ll need to follow along in one of the links above:

  1. The SEC does not allow me to answer this question.
  2. No Country for Old Men
  3. Portions of either the DCMA or the Patriot Act are un-Constitutional. Preferably both.
  4. Tree of Smoke.
  5. The World Without Us.
  6. …services offering media without access control financially crush those that require DRM, and find that “old media” sales (CDs, DVDs) for such “open” titles actually increase as well.
  7. …the 50 trillion dollar shortfall that will fiscally destroy America pretty soon will continue to be unmentioned.
  8. Pervez Musharraf.
  9. Cuba.
  10. …hell freezes over.
  11. …whichever of them happens last. I might even care by then.
  12. …slightly higher than it is now. Also, October and November will be bloody, as the insurgency attempts to influence the U.S. Presidential election.
  13. …roughly equivalent to shuffling deck chairs on the Titantic, as it will be something other than the only one that actually matters (see answer #7).
  14. …something very loud but, ultimately, not important that skews the results of one or more party’s nominations. In the actual election, the standard advantages of height, hair and the “beer factor” will turn out to not play a role.
  15. Hillary Clinton-Robert “Bob” Kerrey
  16. …almost certainly a pair for whom I will not vote.
  17. “Anyone but Bush”. This theme will likely be just as disastrous as the soccer-mom “I just think it’s time for a change” theme that brought Bush to power was. Alternately, the winning theme may be the real lesson learned in the 2000 election: “I can rig election results better than you”.
  18. …something other than the only thing that actually matters (see answer #7).
  19. …the consequences of a 50 trillion dollar shortfall that no one has done anything to fix.

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.