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January 29, 2010

Game night

Why can't computer games get any serious love? The maverick Labour MP Tom Watson convened a meeting this week to ask just that. (Watson is also pushing for the creation of an advocacy group, Gamers' Voice (Facebook).) From the dates, the meeting is not in response to claims that playing computer games causes rickets.

Pause to go, "Huh?"

We all know what causes rickets in the UK. Winter at these crazy high latitudes causes rickets in the UK. Given the amount of atmosphere and cloud it has to get through in the darker months, sunlight can't muster enough oomph to make Vitamin D on the skins of the pasty, blue-white people they mostly have here. The real point of the clinical review paper that kicked off this round of media nonsense, Watson rants, is that half of all UK adults are deficient in Vitamin D in the winter and spring. Well, duh. Wearing sunscreen has made it worse. So do clothes. And this: to my vast astonishment on arrival here they don't put Vitamin D in the milk. But, hey, let's blame computer games!

And yet: games are taking over. In December Chart-Track market researchfound that the UK games industry is now larger than its film industry. Yesterday's game-playing kids are today's game-playing parents. One day we'll all be gamers on this bus. Criminals pay more for stolen World of Warcraft accounts than for credit card accounts (according to Richard Bartle), and the real-money market for virtual game world props is worth billions (PDF). But the industry gets no government support. Hence Watson's meeting.

At this point, I must admit that net.wars, too, has been deficient: I hardly ever cover games. As a freelance, I can't afford to be hooked on them, so I don't play them, so I don't know enough to write about them. In the early-to-mid 1990s I did sink hours into Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Minesweeper, Commander Keen, Lemmings, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Doom 2, and some of Duke Nukem. At some point, I decided it was a bad road. When I waste time unproductively I need to feel that I'm about to do something useful. I switched the mouse to the left hand, mostly for ergonomic reasons, and my slightly lower competence with it was sufficient to deter further exploration. The other factor: Quake made it obvious that I'd reached my theoretical limit.

I know games are different now. I've watched a 20-something friend play World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto; I've even traded deaths with him in one of those multiplayer games where your real-life best friends are your mortal enemies. Watching him play The Sims as a recalcitrant teenager (is there any other kind?) was the most fun. It seemed like Cosmic Justice to see him shriek in frustration at the computer because the adults in his co-op household were *refusing to wash the dishes*. Ha!

For people who have jobs, games are a (sometimes shameful) hobby; for people who are self-employed they are a dangerous menace. Games are amateur sports without the fresh air. And they are today's demon medium, replacing TV, comic books (my parents believed these rotted the brain), and printed multi-volume novels. All of that contributes to why games get relatively little coverage outside of specialist titles and writers such as Aleks Krotoski and are studied by rare academics like Douglas Thomas and Richard Bartle.

Except: it's arguable that the structure of games and the kind of thinking they require - logical, problem-solving, exploratory, experimental - does in fact inspire a kind of mental fitness that is a useful background skill for our computer-dominated world. There are, as Tom Chatfield, one of the evening's three panelists and an editor at Prospect, says in his new book Fun, Inc, many valuable things people can and do learn from games. (I once watched an inveterate game-playing teen extract himself from the maze at Hampton Court in 15 seconds flat.)

And in fact, that's the thought with which the seminal game cum virtual world was started: in writing MUD, Bartle wanted to give people the means to explore their identities by creating different ones.

It's also fun. And an escape from drab reality. And a challenge. And active, rather than passive, entertainment. The critic Sam Leith (who has compared World of Warcraft to Chartres Cathedral) pointed out that the violent shoot-'em-up games that get the media attention are a small, stereotyped sector of the market that deliberately insert shocking violence recursively to get media attention and increase sales. Limiting the conversation to one stereotypical theme is the problem, not games themselves.

Philip Oliver, founder and CEO of the UK's large independent games developer, Blitz Games, listed some cases in point: in their first 12 weeks of release his company sold 500,000 copies of its The Biggest Loser TV and 3.8 million copies of its Burger King advertising game. And what about that wildly successful Wii Fit?

If you say, "That's different", there is the problem.

Still, if game players are all going to be stereotyped as violent players shooting things...I'm not sure who pointed out that the Houses of Parliament are a fabulous gothic castle in which to set a shoot-'em-up, but it's a great idea. Now, that would really be government support!

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on , or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

January 22, 2010

Music night

Most corporate annual reports seek to paint a glowing picture of the business's doings for the previous year. By law they have to disclose anything really unfortunate - financial losses, management malfeasance, a change in the regulatory landscape. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry was caught in a bind writing its Digital Music Report 2010 (PDF) (or see the press release). Paint too glowing a picture of the music business, and politicians might conclude no further legislation is needed to bolster the sector. Paint too gloomy a picture, and ministers might conclude theirs is a lost cause, and better to let dying business models die.

So IFPI's annual report veers between complaining about "competing in a rigged market" (by which they mean a market in which file-sharing exists) and stressing the popularity of music and the burgeoning success of legally sanctioned services. Yay, Spotify! Yay, Sky Songs! Yay, iTunes! You would have to be the most curmudgeonly of commentators to point out that none of these are services begun by music companies; they are services begun by others that music companies have been grudgingly persuaded to make deals with. (I say grudgingly; naturally, I was not present at contract negotiations. Perhaps the music companies were hopping up and down like Easter bunnies in their eagerness to have their product included. If they were, I'd argue that the existence of free file-sharing drove them to it. Without file-sharing there would very likely be no paid subscription services now; the music industry would still be selling everyone CDs and insisting that this was the consumer's choice.)

The basic numbers showed that song downloads increased by 10 percent - but total revenue including CDs fell by 12 percent in the first half of 2009. The top song download: Lady Gaga's "Poker Face".

All this is fair enough - an industry's gotta eat! - and it's just possible to read it without becoming unreasonable. And then you hit this gem:

Illegal file-sharing has also had a very significant, and sometimes disastrous, impact on investment in artists and local repertoire. With their revenues eroded by piracy, music companies have far less to plough back into local artist development. Much has been made of the idea that growing live music revenues can compensate for the fall-off in recorded music sales, but this is, in reality, a myth. Live performance earnings are generally more to the benefit of veteran, established acts, while it is the younger developing acts, without lucrative careers, who do not have the chance to develop their reputation through recorded music sales.
So: digital music is ramping up (mostly through the efforts of non-music industry companies and investors). Investment in local acts and new musicians is down. And overall sales are down. And we're blaming file-sharing? How about blaming at least the last year or so of declining revenues on the recession? How about blaming bean counters at record companies who see a higher profit margin in selling yet more copies of back catalogue tried-and-tested, pure-profit standards like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley than in taking risks on new music? At some point, won't everyone have all the copies of the Beatles albums they can possibly use? Er, excuse me, "consume". (The report has a disturbing tendency to talk about "consuming" music; I don't think people have the same relationship with music that they do with food. I'd also question IFPI's whine about live music revenues: all young artists start by playing live gigs, that's how they learn; *radio play* gets audiences in; live gigs *and radio play* sell albums, which help sell live gigs in a virtuous circle, but that's a topic for another day.)

It is a truth rarely acknowledged that all new artists - and all old artists producing new work - are competing with the accumulated back catalogue of the past decades and centuries.

IFPI of course also warns that TV, book publishing, and all other media are about to suffer the same fate as music. The not-so-subtle underlying message: this is why we must implement ferocious anti-file-sharing measures in the Digital Economy Bill, amendments to which, I'm sure coincidentally, were discussed in committee this week, with more to come next Tuesday, January 26.

But this isn't true, or not exactly. As a Dutch report on file-sharing (original in Dutch) pointed out last year, file-sharing, which it noted goes hand-in-hand with buying, does not have the same impact on all sectors. People listen to music over and over again; they watch TV shows fewer but still multiple times; if they don't reread books they do at least often refer back to them; they see most movies only once. If you want to say that file-sharing displaces sales, which is debatable, then clearly music is the least under threat. If you want to say that file-sharing displaces traditional radio listening, well, I'm with you there. But IFPI does not make that argument.

Still, some progress has been made. Look what IFPI says here, on page 4 in the executive summary right up front: "Recent innovations in the à-la-carte sector include...the rollout of DRM-free downloads internationally." Wha-hey! That's what we told them people wanted five years ago. Maybe five years from now they'll be writing how file-sharing helps promote artists who, otherwise, would never find an audience because no one would ever hear their work.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

January 15, 2010

The once and future late-night king

On the face of it, the unexpected renewal of the late-night TV wars is a pretty trivial matter. As The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien itself points out, there is a lot of real news that's a lot more important - health care, Haiti, Google versus China, network neutrality, and discussions of the Digital Economy bill (my list, not theirs). O'Brien wrote in an open letter a couple of days ago that he has been "absurdly lucky". Even so.

But Conan-versus-Leno is personalization; at heart this story is about the future of broadcasting and its money. Given today's time-shifting choices, few things lure viewers to a particular TV channel at a precise time. Two are live sports and breaking news. A third is the run of talk-variety shows that start in most parts of the US at 11:35pm (10:35 Central) and run until around 2am.

The kingpin of all of these is The Tonight Show, broadcast on NBC every night following the 11 o'clock news for nearly 60 years. For 30 of those years it was presented by a single host, Johnny Carson, probably the biggest star television has ever had - and quite possibly the biggest television ever will have. They make talent like Carson's very infrequently; they don't make broadcasting like that any more. According to Bill Carter in his book The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night, many years Carson's apparently effortless comedy and guest interviews generated 15 to 20 percent of the network's profits.

Every one of today's late-night hosts grew up watching Carson, and probably all of them dreamed of one day having his job. Carson's job, on The Tonight Show on NBC, not a similar job on a similar show at the same time on another network.

The roots of today's mess go back to 1991, when Carson announced he would retire in May 1992. At the time, David Letterman was hosting NBC's 12:30 show, while Jay Leno was Carson's regular substitute host. In a move that seemed to surprise everyone, NBC appointed Leno Carson's successor, fatally assuming that Letterman wouldn't mind. He did mind. The net result was months of uncertainty, politics, and legal wrangling, not least because Leno's early months in the job were unpromising. By 1993, Letterman had begun a competing show at CBS and every other network had tried putting up an 11:30 talk-variety show, most of them dreadful and quickly canned. Since then, Leno has usually won the ratings - but Letterman the awards. Arguably the biggest beneficiary was O'Brien, who landed Letterman's old 12:30 job with barely any performing experience. After following Leno for 16 years, late last year, as per an agreement announced in 2005 and intended to avoid a repeat of 1992, O'Brien got The Tonight Show.

Now, NBC is doing to O'Brien almost exactly what it did to Letterman, apparently filled with panic over declining revenues and shrinking ratings and completely self-destructing (just as Comcast is trying to buy it from GE). As Kansas City critic Aaron Barnhart writes, late-night is about the long haul. In restoring Leno, NBC is hanging onto its past and at best a couple of years of present at the expense of its future. All hosts - almost all entertainers - eventually find their audience is aging along with them. Even Carson seemed old-fashioned to younger viewers by the time he retired at 66: my parents watched Carson; I watch Letterman and Conan; my 20-something friends watch Conan and Jon Stewart.

In his letter, O'Brien says holding The Tonight Show to 11:35 is vital. He is almost certainly right: people go to bed, watch the news and the opening monologue, and progressively drift off to sleep during the guests. By midnight, half of the Tonight Show's viewers are gone; the latest shows are seen by insomniacs and people without kids and early-morning commutes.

Most likely NBC will shortly find out there is no way back to Leno's ratings of 2008. Diehard Leno fans will stick with him but Conan fans will tune out in protest; if they watch anyone it will be Letterman or Stewart. The younger people the network needs for the future watch online.

You may think none of this matters very much outside the US. The shows themselves have never traveled very well, though the format has been widely copied throughout the world. But of all the businesses having to cope with the digital revolution, in television it may be the broadcast networks who are most under threat. Those who copy and share TV shows buy DVDs; they do not return to watch the broadcast versions or consume advertising. Shows have fans; networks don't. The focus on file-sharing ignores the wide variety of streams copied live from broadcasters all over the world that are readily accessible if you know where to look. It is far cheaper to subscribe directly to the tennis tours than to pay Sky Sports or Eurosport, for example - and often free to pick up a stream.

When the history of the digital revolution is written, historians may pinpoint the day Carson announced his retirement as the broadcasting equivalent of Peak Oil.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

January 9, 2010

Car talk

The most interesting thing I've heard all week was a snippet on CNBC in which a commentator talked about cars going out of style. The story was that in 2009 the US fleet of cars shrank by four million. That is, four million cars were scrapped without being replaced.

The commentator and the original story have a number of reasons: increasing urbanization, uncertainty about oil prices, frustration about climate change, and so on. But the really interesting trend is a declining interest in cars on the part of young people. (Presumably these are the same young people who don't watch enough TV.)

A pause to reminisce. In 1967, when I was 13, my father bought a grey Mercedes 230SL with a red interior. It should tell you something when I say that I don't like sports cars, have always owned Datsuns/Nissans (including a pickup truck and two Prairies), and am not really interested in cars that aren't mine but I still remember the make and model number of this car from 42 years ago. I remember hoping he wouldn't trade it in before I turned 16 and was old enough to drive. (He did. Nerts.)

When, at 21, I eventually did get my own first car (a medium blue Nissan 710 station wagon with a white leather-like interior), it felt like I had finally achieved independence. Having a car meant that I could leave my parents' house any time I wanted. The power of that was shocking; it utterly changed how I felt about being in their home.

In London, I hardly drive. The public transportation is too good and the traffic too dense. There are exceptions, of course, but the fact is that it would be cheaper for me to book a taxi every time I needed a car than it is to own one. And yet, the image of being behind the wheel on the open road, going nowhere and everywhere retains its power.

People think of the US as inextricably linked to car culture, but the fact is that our national love affair with the car is quite recent and was imposed on us. The 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? had it right: at one time even Los Angeles had a terrific public transportation system. But starting in 1922, General Motors, acting in concert with a number of oil companies, most notably Chevron, deliberately set out to buy up and close down thousands of municipal streetcar systems. The scheme was not popular: people did not want to have to buy cars.

CNBC's suggestion was that today's young people find their independence differently: through their cell phones and the Internet. He has a point. As children, many baby boomers shared bedrooms with siblings. Use of the family phone was often restricted. The home was most emphatically not a place where a young adult could expect any privacy.

Today, kids go out less, first because their parents worry about their safety, later because their friends and social lives are on tap from the individual bedrooms they now tend to have. And even if they have to share the family computer and use it in a well-trafficked location, they can carve themselves out a private space inside their phones, by text if not by voice.

The Internet's potential to destroy or remake whole industries is much discussed: see also newspapers, magazines, long-distance telecommunications, music, film, and television. The "Google decade" so many commentators say is ending is, according to Slate, just the beginning of how Google, all by itself, will threaten industries: search portals, ad agencies, media companies, book publishers, telephone companies, Mapquest, soon smart phone manufacturers, and then the big man on campus, Microsoft.

But if there's one thing we know, it's that technology companies are bad bets because they can be and are challenged when the next wave comes along. Who thought ten years ago that Microsoft wouldn't kill everyone else in its field? Twenty years ago, IBM was the unbeatable gorilla.

The happening wave is mobile phones, and it isn't at all clear that Google will dominate, any more than Microsoft has succeeded in dominating the Internet. But the interesting thing is what mobile phones will kill. So far, it's made a dent in the watchmaking industry (because a lot of people carrying phones don't see why they need a watch, too). Similarly, smart phones have subsumed MP3 players, pocket televisions. Now, cars. And, if I had to guess, smart phones will be the most popular vehicles for ebooks, too, and for news. Tim O'Reilly, for example, says that ebooks really began to take off with the iPhone. Literary agents and editors may love the Kindle, but consumers reading while waiting for trains are more likely to choose their phones. Ray Kurzweil is very likely right on track with his cross-platform ereader software, Blio.

All this seems to me to validate the questions we pose whenever we're asked to subsidize the entertainment industry in its struggle to find its feet in this new world. Is it the right business model? Is it the right industry? Is it the right time?

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

January 1, 2010

Privacy victims

Frightened people often don't make very good decisions. If I were in charge of aviation security, I'd have been pretty freaked out by the Christmas Day crotch bomber - failure or no failure. Even so, like all of us Boxing Day quarterbacks, I'd like to believe I'd have had more sense than to demand that airline passengers stay seated and unmoving for an hour, laps empty.

But the locking-the-barn elements of the TSA's post-crotch rules are too significant to ignore: the hastily implemented rules were very specifically drafted to block exactly the attack that had just been attempted. Which, I suppose, makes sense if your threat model is a series of planned identical, coordinated attacks and copycats. But as a method of improving airport security it's so ineffective and irrelevant that even the normally rather staid Economist accused the TSA of going insane and Bruce Schneier called the new rulesmagical thinking.

Consider what actually happened on Christmas Day:

- Intelligence failed. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was on the watch list (though not, apparently, the no-fly list), and his own father had warned the US embassy.

- Airport screening failed. He got through with his chunk of explosive attached to his underpants and the stuff he needed to set it off. (As the flyer boards have noted, anyone flying this week should be damned grateful he didn't stuff it in a condom and stick it up his ass.)

- And yet, the plan failed. He did not blow up the plane; there were practically no injuries, and no fatalities.

That, of course, was because a heroic passenger was paying attention instead of snoozing and leaped over seats to block the attempt.

The logical response, therefore, ought to be to ask passengers to be vigilant and to encourage them to disrupt dangerous activities, not to make us sit like naughty schoolchildren being disciplined. We didn't do anything wrong. Why are we the ones who are being punished?

I have no doubt that being on the plane while the incident was taking place was terrifying. But the answer isn't to embark upon an arms race with the terrorists. Just as there are well-funded research labs churning out new computer viruses and probing new software for vulnerabilities, there are doubtless research facilities where terrorist organizations test what scanners can detect and in what quantity.

Matt Blaze has a nice analysis of why this approach won't work to deter terrorists: success (plane blown up) and failure (terrorist caught) are, he argues, equally good outcomes for the terrorist, whose goal is to sow terror and disruption. All unpredictable screening does is drive passengers nuts and, in some cases, put their health at risk. Passengers work to the rules. If there are no blankets, we wear warmer clothes; if there is no bathroom access, we drink less; if there is no in-flight entertainment, we rearrange the hours we sleep.

As Blaze says, what's needed is a correct understanding of the threat model - and as Schneier has often said, the most effective changes since 9/11 have been reinforcing the cockpit doors and the fact that passengers now know to resist hijackers.

Since the incident, much of the talk has been about whole-body scanners - "nudie scanners" Dutch privacy advocates have dubbed them - as if these will secure airplanes for once and for all. I think if people think that whole-body scanners are the answer they have misunderstood the problem.

Or problems, because there is more than one. First: how can we make air travel secure from terrorists? Second: how can we make air travelers feel secure? Third: how can we accomplish those things while still allowing travelers to be comfortable, a specification which includes respecting their right to privacy and civil liberties? If your reaction to that last is to say that you don't care whose rights are violated, all that matters is perfect security I'm going to guess that: 1) you fly very infrequently; 2) you would be happy to do so chained to your seat naked with a light coating of Saran wrap; and 3) that your image of the people who are threats is almost completely unlike your own.

It is particularly infuriating to read that we are privacy victims: that the opposition of privacy advocates to invasive practices such as whole-body scanners are the reason this clown got as close as he did. Such comments are as wrong-headed as Jack Straw claiming after 9/11 that opponents of key escrow were naïve.

The most rational response, it seems to me, is for TSA and airlines alike to solicit volunteers among their most loyal and committed passengers. Elite flyers know the rhythms of flights; they know when something is amiss. Train us to help in emergencies and to spot and deter mishaps.

Because the thing we should have learned from this incident is that we are never going to have perfect security: terrorists are a moving target. We need fallbacks, for when our best efforts fail.

The more airport security becomes intrusive, annoying, and visibly stupid, the more motive passengers will have to find workarounds and the less respect they will have for these authorities. That process is already visible. Do you feel safer now?

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.