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.

Manufacturing enemies

According the the old maxim, those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Assuming that’s true, a quick look at US foreign policy over the last forty years or so suggests at least one lesson we can learn. In that period, the US government often gave backing to questionable men as “lesser evil” allies of convenience, only to be bitten later by these men when the political climate suddenly changed. Noriega worked for the CIA. The Reagan administration gave financial, intelligence and military support to Saddam Hussein against Iran. The CIA funded and trained the people who became the Taliban to fight the Soviets. Since the current administration contains many of the same people who adopted and executed these policies, it’s a good bet that the future thorn in the side of the US is someone we’re currently cuddling up to while (supposedly) holding our nose.

From where might such a thorn grow and who might he be? Looking at numbers for total aid or even just official military aid may help, but past “backfires” were usually done in secret, so it is tough to say for certain who the US is really aiding at the moment. Still much of this is either reported or widely suspected, so some possibilities, in no particular order:

Middle East

The Middle East seems like an obvious place for the thorn (or thorns) to arise, especially since it is the site of the more recent such troublemakers. On the other hand, the US already has so many enemies there, we’re running out of candidates for turncoats. There are a few, though, especially since the US is losing the propaganda war there so badly that it doesn’t even know it is fighting one. (Hint: start with food.) The most obvious candidate for the US being betrayed in the future by those they are backing now is one of their more recent partners:

Sunni dissidents are now being armed by the US to fight against al-Qaida in Iraq. While on the surface, this seems like a boneheaded repetition of the mistakes made with the Taliban, there are a few differences (which may make it a better move, or even worse). One is that Sunni also may be receiving arms from Iran. Since Iran’s regime is Shi’a, this seems a bit odd, but perhaps they assume that anyone willing to resist the US in Iraq is worth befriending (i.e. they are making the same mistake in arming potential turncoats as the US). If this is true, the US effort to arm the Sunni may be more of a “better they get guns from us than them” move, attempting to point them at other targets. (Is that better? Worse?) Another difference is that authority to negotiate arms deals has been given to officers on the ground, not secret CIA operatives. (Better? Worse?) In any case, I can’t find any references to situations where dumping a lot of guns into an area experiencing heated religious strife and wrath against a foreign occupier ever helped much, so this seems like a good candidate for some future backlash. Photo by Xinhua/AFP Photo

The House of Saud presents a much different set of possible “backfire” threats. It is clear that Saudi Arabia has received official aid from the US and the House of Saud has ties with the Bush family, suggesting that unofficial aid is not out of the question as well. Three types of backlash seem possible. First, given the number of Saudi Arabian citizens involved in the 9-11 attack, it’s not clear how loyal the House of Saud is already. At the very least, a perception against them now exists, which may snowball into an official souring against them from the US, which would really give the House no choice but to turn against America. A second threat is that the House of Saud is very large, which makes it unlikely that all members share the same opinions of the US and provides lots of opportunities for infighting and coup. A “wrong” king seizing power could change everything quickly. Thirdly, should the House fall, the US would be confronted with a situation somewhat like that of Iran in the 1970’s, when the Shah fell. While the House of Saud is nowhere near as propped up by the US as the Shah was, the US has more to loose in Saudi Arabia than they did in 1970’s Iran. Photo by BBC Television

Pervez Musharraf, dictator of Pakistan, most closely fits the historical “type” of leader that ultimately turns on his US backers. Clearly a key ally in current US involvement in the Middle East, it is not so clear how loyal an ally Pakistan actually is. Pakistan is repeatedly accused of harboring terrorists, and signed a truce with the Taliban. Islamists in Pakistan are becoming more vocal and it appears that Musharraf may be starting to loose political standing. That’s a dangerous situation for a leader that might turn against the US to be in, as he may think he could boost his following by reversing course. Taking the danger to a whole new level, he controls nuclear weapons. Photo by Reuters

Fatah, being an arm of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), would seem an odd horse for the US to back; however, they fight Hamas, who wants to wipe Israel off the map. It is unlikely, however, that Fatah will emerge as the next big “turncoat” enemy. They are being trounced by Hamas, so probably will not survive long enough to betray American backers. It is likely, however, that the US will continue to back any anti-Hamas groups it can find, and some of those may eventually succeed in eliminating Hamas, only to rise against the hand that fed them. Even Fatah itself, should it survive, can be counted on for betrayal. Already, as Michael Oren says in the Wall Street Journal (see previous link), “a distinct correlation exists between the amount of support that Fatah receives from the West and its need to prove its ‘Palestinianess’ through terror.” Photo by AFP

Former Soviet states

A number of ex-Soviet (usually ex-KGB) types managed to gain power in the former Soviet states after the collapse of the USSR. Fortunately, the citizens of most of these countries seem to have more sense than the US, as they’ve been overthrowing these Cold-War relics with surprising ease, and almost no blood. Some possibilities, however, remain:

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, at first glance, isn’t much of a candidate for this scenario, because the US doesn’t seem to have done much for or with Turkmenistan, the country who recently “elected” him. One would like to think the US has stayed away from the country because it’s former leader was so odious, but the truth is more likely that they are more fixated on other nations in the region at the moment. Still, even if Berdymukhammedov’s regime turns out to be as hard as his name is to spell, Turkmenistan’s natural-gas wealth nearly guarantees outsiders will try to make deals with him. Photo by ?

Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, the current leader of the false democracy of Kazakhstan, provides a good example of the “dictator masquerading as democrat” that seems trendy these days. The current US administration seems intent on cozying up to him, in spite of typical post-Soviet thuggery. On the other hand, he evidently gave up huge numbers of nukes voluntarily (back to Russia) and seems more interested in playing nice with all sides. If Kazakhstan is a future thorn, it will probably be under a different leader. His son-in-law was making a bid for power in 2012, but Nazarbayev fired him and issued a warrant for his arrest. He also recently changed laws to allow himself to remain in power indefinitely. Photo by Associated Press

Islam Karimov, leads Uzbekistan similarly, but even more overtly dictatorially. The US government liked him, since he was trying to squash an Islamist rebellion in his country, but that’s changed since his troops gunned down a peaceful protest. (Given the fact that this action made the Bush administration say “woah! too brutal for us! see ya!”, you can assume it was pretty bad.) At this point, it seems the US already burned the bridge with Uzbekistan’s regime, which is now purging itself of pro-American members and cozying up to China and Russia. It’s possible Karimov might become a thorn, but it’s probably more likely that the brewing insurrection will succeed, making yet another Islamist state that hates America. Another possibility is that the growing rift over which country will dominate the region will grow worse, creating yet another opportunity for the US to pick the wrong side. Photo by Associated Press

Africa

Like much of the first world, the historically US has done its share of meddling in Africa, although to a much lesser extent than, say, France or England. Recently though, it’s joined the world in ignoring much of it. While the US has been throwing money at fighting AIDS promoting abstinence in Africa, it doesn’t appear to be exercising much political will there lately. Uganda appears to be on the rise, but it’s not clear it owes much of that to America. The US concern in Africa now seems not to be famine, genocide or mineral wealth, but terrorism. Which leads us to…

Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, has joined the US war on terror by launching an offensive against anti-American targets in Somalia and becoming much more involved in the rest of Africa. Zenawi’s regime has a history mixed messages. It leads Africa in the percentage of GDP spent on programs for the poor, but has little to show for it and a horrible human rights record. It opens its airwaves but stifles freedom of the press. Ethiopia is also surrounded by Muslim countries, with a growing Muslim population of its own (from 30%-50% of the country, depending on which source you check). The threat here seems to be that, as Ethiopia is slowly dragging its way to become more genuinely democratic, it’s demographics may be shifting. This could portend an ousting (legitimately or otherwise) of Zenawi, leaving an American equipped army in the hands of the ousters. Alternatively, Zenawi may develop visions of granduer from his military outings and turn feral. Another possibility is that tensions between Egypt and Ethopia over the water rights of the Nile could turn ugly, which would put the US in a tight spot. Photo by Ethiopian embassy

Hosni Mubarak, President of Egypt, served as a high ranking officer in several wars against Israel before attaining his current office. During the first Gulf War, he allied his country strongly with the coalition, Egyptian soldiers being some of the first to fight in Kuwait. Presently, he is not as enthusiastic about the Iraq war, but still receives nearly five times more military aid from America than does all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. It seems unlikely that Mubarak would rabidly turn on the US, but if it happens, it will almost certainly be over Israel. As in Ethiopia, another possibility is that increased democracy could actually oust him in favor of a more Islamist ruler. Photo by Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty

Other locations

No doubt a number of other people and areas are missing from this list. Thailand? Indonesia? Mexico? What do you think?

Slaying the dragon

A little part of my childhood was killed last week. The first magazine to which I subscribed, Dragon, will no longer be published as a magazine. It, along with Dungeon, rely on a license from Wizards of the Coast (WotC), which Wizards is evidently eliminating. My fond memories of pawing through the issues I got in the mail each month (from around #70 to #125) already took one blow, when I gave the issues to a fellow gamer during a move, content in the knowledge that I had PDF versions of them. Even though I haven’t read the magazine for years, its cancellation now makes me irrationally sad.

It is also the latest in a line of such cancellations, as Wizards appears to be attempting to pull all intellectual property rights back to itself. It chose not to renew the Dragonlance license to Weis & Hickman a couple of days ago as well. White Wolf reverted its license to Ravenloft last August. Even Code Monkey Publishing, who writes d20-related software, was refused an extension to their license last November. According to them, Wizards said this was “because of future product considerations”.

What this means is not clear. Comments from the soon-to-be-former publisher of Dragon indicate that both magazines will continue to be released electronically on the WotC site. It’s possible that Wizards is just trying to be the lone nexus of all D&D related information, much in the way that Steve Jackson Games is for their own games.

Reading the tea leaves more closely, however, suggests that Wizards, after opening the content of some of their Dungeons & Dragons product with the hugely popular Open Gaming License (OGL) and the d20 System, may be looking to close it again with their next edition. The d20 System radically altered the economic landscape of role-playing games, for better and worse, and serves as an interesting case study of open licensing in a real economy. I’m not much of a fan of the d20 system, but very much like the idea of open gaming. One interesting facet of this is that, while the OGL is not revocable, the d20 license is, which may be bad news for a lot of gaming publishers. Add to that the fact that much gaming content might not even be copyrightable, and it looks like the RPG economy is going to be shaken again in the near future.

While all this is happening, Shadowrun‘s license has been sold again. The new company is (ironically, if you know the game) based in Seattle, which puts them close to FASA Interactive, a Microsoft owned company that owns the electronic rights to the game, which they are using to make a multiplayer shooter video game to be released Real Soon Now. I’m not sure the proximity will be relevant, but could be interesting. It also implies that SR will probably have a Fifth Edition before too long, even though it is the same staff as it was under WizKids.

Regardless of what games you play though, dice will likely be getting more expensive. At I-CON, I talked with one of the guys at Chessex, one of the largest dice vendors around. All of their product is made in Germany (often using machines that no one builds anymore), so they are getting nailed by the Euro-dollar exchange rate. As of this writing, buying 100€ worth of goods costs about 136USD. At the start of 2006, this same 100€ worth of goods cost only 120USD. The Chessex guy claimed they’d been resisting passing this onto the customer, but couldn’t continue doing so. This will probably make feeding my dice addiction at least 13% more painful.

So, taking all this in, I suspect role-playing, economically anyway, will get worse before it gets better, and a lot of gaming companies (and probably retailers as well) are going to get nuked. At the same time, however, companies like Drive-Thru RPG, which sells watermarked (but non-DRM) versions of role-playing products in PDF format, seem to be gaining steam and micro publishers based around electronic publishing seem to be springing up all over. Many products from these authors are extremely innovative, either thematically, mechanically, or both. I suspect that, within three years, most current paper RPG publishers will have either folded or been bought out, regressing us back to WotC, White Wolf, probably Steve Jackson Games, and maybe a half-dozen smaller players. At the same time, the electronically published RPG market will heat up a lot. It will also be where the cool stuff is happening, as the talented authors become more inclined to innovate once outside of the d20 realm. We might see one or two print-on-demand attempts, which will likely fail. In this environment, I expect open licenses to fade to nothing in the printed world, but catch on a little in the electronic micro-publisher world. Someone coming up with a good, open system, might be able to capitalize on the closing of d20 to build a big community of authors, if they time it right. I wish I had such as system, or a better oracle. Anyone know of good candidates?

Confession

I have a confession to make: I don’t care about the JonBenet Ramsey case. I didn’t care when it happened, and I don’t care now. I will admit to being morally outraged about the “dress up five year olds like Texan whores” thing…ok, no I wasn’t. That part was a bit creepy, but I didn’t care much about that either.

I am therefore supremely qualified to make a prediction about the case. From the handful of three-second snippets I’ve heard on it, I predict the following:

  1. The guy that confessed didn’t actually kill JonBenet.
  2. The guy is, however, a pedophile. (White guy in Bangkok == pedophile)
  3. The guy has done bad things to kids, including murder (just not of JonBenet).
  4. He feels remorse over his actions.
  5. His remorse (and wanting to be famous) has led him to confess so that he can be punished.

You heard it here first. Or, hell, maybe someone else has already made this prediction. I wouldn’t know.

My career as a fortune-teller is not off to a very good start, since I’m making a prediction that will be completely unambiguous if it comes true or not. I should have put it in a quatrain about “one with a receding hairline” or something to be more cryptic.

Not that ambiguity would really matter, since people seem to fill in the blanks even when there are none. Take this comparison of a drawing a psychic made in 1998 predicting the appearance of JonBenet’s killer with the guy that confessed:

While upwards of 20 whole seconds of Googling couldn’t find a public version of this picture posted prior to three days ago, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt on that for now, since it is not particularly relevant to my point here. Which is: many people are freaking out over the similarity of the pictures. But…what similarity?

If you think these two look the same, what about these pictures suggests that? They both show a thin white guy? Check. With a receding hairline? Check. With similar eye shape? Maybe a little. With a combover? Uh… no. With a similar nose? No. With a remotely similar jaw line or head shape? No. With ears in the same position? No. With similar lip structure? No. With similar eyebrow bushiness? No. I, too, could have drawn a skinny white guy and been just as “accurate”.

I’d like to believe in mental powers beyond those of mortals as much as anyone, but real evidence of this is…limited. Psychics continue to succeed because humans are experts at finding patterns where there are none and see things that are not there, like “similarity” in these pictures.

Even a broken watch is right twice a day

Gaming guru Richard Garriott (a.k.a. Lord British) gave an interview about his new on-line game recently, and one quote leapt at me:

Even though we chow on lots of bandwidth…the cost of bandwidth has come down so low. Now the biggest expense to us is electricity. On one server set we pay more money on electricity than on bandwidth. Bandwidth is really no longer the dominant factor to push value to our customers.

Back while Wired was jumping the shark (a process unquestionably completed by issue 5.03 and started much earlier), it published an article by George Gilder predicting essentially this, that an era would come where people would “waste bandwidth and save watts.”

My instinct usually led me to distrust Gilder, a feeling that was confirmed by his later founding of the Discovery Institute; however, in spite of using the word “paradigm” far to often (i.e. more than zero times), at the time I thought this Wired article prediction was correct. I remember getting into an argument about it not long after the article was published with a gamer buddy of mine. I felt that companies who built technology assuming they had infinite bandwidth would eventually crush those who invested energies into technology that assumed bandwidth was scarce. My buddy disagreed. The argument petered out when we realized that we were thinking about very different time scales. My buddy was thinking about the next five years. I was thinking about the next 50. Looks like I only needed to wait 10.

Actually, I was probably wrong back then, because I ignored the other half of Gilder’s point: that electricity would become scarce. While most of the first world is worried about terrorism, immigration, global environmental problems and which celebrities are breeding, power generation is more likely than all of them combined to bring down the first world. Imagine that you knew that world electricity consumption (around 12.8 TW now) was going to more than double by 2050 (to 28-35 TW) and were given the task to figure out where this power would come from. To get this power, would you:

  1. Burn every plant, even food, growing over the entire agricultural landmass of the planet.
  2. Build one new nuclear fission (or, conceivably, fusion) reactor every three days, starting now, until 2050.
  3. Saturate every spot of land traversed by winds strong enough to produce electricity with windmills.
  4. Dam every remaining undammed river on earth.
  5. Continue to suck every possible source of petroleum for all it’s worth, and find as much more as you can.
  6. Improve efficiency in existing power generation
  7. Somehow harness the power of the sun

It turns out that even if you did all of the first four, none of which are actually practical, you’d only barely be able to meet your target. Option 5 is the likely reality and, while opinions vary on exactly how much petroleum-based fuel remains, all agree that whatever the quantity is, it is both finite and non-renewable. It’s also fairly certain that the geopolitics surrounding oil that have been such a source of joy over the last few decades will only get more ugly. Eventually, this will probably get bad enough that option six will become economical. Chances are, this will improve things; however, it is most likely that any efficiencies will be in the area of petroleum-based power and, since this is non-renewable, such a solution ultimately becomes useless.

One thing we have a lot of, however, is sunlight and water. We can build fuel cells that combine hydrogen with air to produce water and energy. If sunlight could be harnessed to convert water to hydrogen, very large quantities of power could be generated in a renewable way. Barring something like antimatter reactors, only the sun contains the energy potential we’re likely to need. Unfortunately, we don’t actually know enough fundamental chemistry to solve this problem yet. One of my rules is to suggest solutions, and to this problem, I have none. I know of those who are working on one, though.

The Nocera Lab at MIT (the source I’ve used for the numbers and information above) is working on this exact problem. I’d trust their ability to hit on a solution over mine. An interesting prediction of the leader of this lab (mentioned in a lecture at a private company) is that every key advance in chemistry in the next few decades is likely to have something to do with power.

Another potential solution comes from the much less prestigious (bordering on flaky) Living Universe Foundation. While this group has grand plans for space colonization, the early stage of their plan is more grounded, involving building platform “cities” on the oceans. Whether of not these will be true cities, these platforms would be built around a large Stirling engine that would use the temperature differential between the surface and several dozen feet under water to generate electricity, which would then be used to extract hydrogen from water. Essentially, the power input into these systems is also the sun, as it is what heats the surface water.

Whatever occurs, if Gilder’s contention that “every economic era is based on a key abundance and a key scarcity” is true, the scarcity over my lifetime is likely to be electricity until someone ushers in the hydrogen age. Whether the “key abundance” will turn out to be bandwidth or not remains to be seen, but it’s as good a guess as any.

When horses fight

I don’t usually make sports predictions, but this one seems clear to me. I predict that the Denver Broncos will stun NFL fans at some point during the playoffs by absolutely dominating the Indianapolis Colts for three and a half quarters. They will then completely screw up the finish, and lose in the last 15 seconds. You heard it here first.

Another more thing

Everyone and their mother is sounding off on Apple’s announcements yesterday. Who am I to buck a trend? I won’t bore you with the details of the announcements, as these have been covered elsewhere. I’m only going to mention the two things that struck me about the announcement that I haven’t seen mentioned much.

First, big media is apparently even more afraid of Apple than I thought. Apple is looking to change video distribution, but the best content providers will allow is music videos and some TV shows, and even that only using one-quarter the pixels of standard TV resolution. You can bet Apple was looking to score deals for more impressive content, this being the year of high definition and all, but couldn’t convince anyone to play. Interestingly, this makes Apple weaker on the music front in some respects, giving media companies more leverage for better iTunes music deals. I suspect this is going to get a bit ugly, and this might be why Wall Street was in a selling mood after the announcement, in spite of a monster quarter for Apple. The fact Pixar and Disney are parting ways won’t help, either.

Secondly, there were signals before, but the introduction of Front Row is the first crystal clear sign that Apple is looking to enter the media center market. Their incremental entry strategy is a bit puzzling. I think the reason for it, and the reason they didn’t use yesterday’s announcement to introduce media center hardware, is that their media center box will be based on an Intel CPU. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was the first Apple box to do so. It may turn out that this box is just a rev of the Mini, if Apple is only interested in playback and not DVR (which seems likely, given my first point). I’ve been eagerly waiting to put a Mac under my TV, so I’ll probably be first in line to get such a box. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see the inevitable clamor of people trying to get the new Apple remote to work with older boxes.