Tuesday, August 31, 2010

But wait...

I heard a couple things lately that made me think, "But wait!" And it occurred to me a few days ago that they were related, and that I should blog them, and am finally getting around to that now. Ahem.

While I was back in Wyoming for a couple days Jess and I talked with Laura and she said that “lifestyle politics” were fruitless (paraphrased a lot), that only systemic change would ultimately work. Being the self-absorbed lifestyle politician that I am, my first thought was to vegetarianism. But wait! Surely us vegetarians make a difference (the conversation wasn't about vegetarianism but that was the first thing that came to my mind)! I didn't say anything at the time; I was thinking through my thoughts and by the time I had anything worth saying the conversation had moved on.

Then I was reading Penny Arcade and saw Gabe and Tycho talk about used-game sales. Day 1, Day 2, and comic. I think the really critical statement is Tycho's from day 2: “What I have said is that the end result of that purchase from a developer perspective must be indistinguishable. Isn't it? That is the question I couldn't answer. I still can't answer it. And because I couldn't, I had to change the way I invested my leisure dollar.” But wait! Surely Tycho's stand against used game purchases can't possibly be effective against the power of free exchange, can't possibly change the market dynamics.

Well, I know a little bit about the power of consumers to change markets. Literally, a little bit, not a lot. I used to work for a market research firm that, unrelated to my own work for them, studied restaurant menus. One thing I heard about the office is that most restaurants have at least two vegetarian entrees on their menus. In my experience, this sounds about right, and I'll add that many of them point out their vegetarian items specifically. That's mostly on the shoulder of us lifestyle politicians, but what does it mean? Not much. Honestly, most restaurant chefs seem to be trained in an anti-vegetarian culture. Their token vegetarian entrees, on the whole, aren't all that appetizing and certainly aren't very nourishing. And, more to the point, conditions for animals to be eaten still suck, and we aren't eating less meat than ever as a society.

A stance to eat vegetarian, or a stance to not buy used games (not considering the merits of the causes), can only matter to a very limited degree. It's an appeal to people to act against their self interests. So Laura is right on this, and Tycho is wrong. It's systemic change that matters. Specifically regarding conditions of production for foreign-made goods, ensuring baseline labor standards as a prerequisite for trade could make a difference; boycotts can't do much. Regarding meat (I've said this before), holding the agriculture industry accountable for environmental damage, banning inhumane practices, and removing grazers from Federal lands in the West (there's a very large book in the SPL book spiral about this, it's around the 300s, can't miss it) would cause a far greater reduction in meat consumption than vegetarianism and veganism among consumers. Regarding video games (and software generally) the industry's move away from physical distribution has a far bigger effect on the used market than any action of consumers against their self-interest could.

As for the merits of the causes, I happen to think there's a clear difference. I happen to think Tycho is mistaken in his thinking about the value of the used game market. Markets for used durable goods are great for people without much money to spend. And, as the value of the right to sell or lend is typically encoded in the value of a new good, producers ultimately are compensated somewhat for the existence of a used market. Think: most people wouldn't be willing to pay as much for a new car if they had to junk it instead of trading it in when they were done with it, and most people would buy new ones less often as well. If game producers want to sell something that can't be resold effectively that's their business. They're surely aware that consumers will value it less, but not by much. The existence of a used market in most commodities, including games, benefits consumers greatly (especially low-income consumers) and hurts producers a little bit. It's probably a net benefit overall. But ultimately there's no ethical dilemma here, just a balance of power between producers and consumers, each of whom have plenty of good options in the marketplace.

Tycho has sympathy for developers and creative people in the games industry, and sees the difficult conditions they face whether working for large or small companies. For those working at large companies, they have to work against the large supply of people willing to do their jobs and their own refusal (as a group) to unionize (unionization would likely improve conditions for programmers with jobs at the expense of those without and their employers); without these conditions changing they'll always face tough conditions. And market conditions are tough for small software companies, especially those that want to innovate, but tilting the balance of power generally toward industry by eliminating the used game market doesn't really help them much — the big studios will always find ways to leverage their advantages of scale. So for the one part of the whole ecosystem that Tycho chooses to focus on, used games can't really change the situation much. It seems that at best, a refusal to buy used games might have a neutral effect overall.

Meanwhile the plight of animals and the environment in the agriculture industry is a question of externalization. The major losers are never involved in the transaction, cannot be players in the market. I don't think there's much question of the total direction of the industry. A refusal to participate in it, and publicizing the cause of its boycott, thus clearly is a positive thing, though small compared to the potential of systemic change. It's also a small step that's practical for almost anyone (especially because using animal products isn't all that much in most people's self-interest these days, if at all).

But the merits of the causes are really peripheral to the point. I just felt like arguing on the Internet there. With myself (I respond to Gabe and Tycho's ideas because I respect them, but they're rather unlikely to read and respond to me).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

S-to-S Word Association

The Spokane to Sandpoint Relay's website isn't quite as brilliant as that of the Headwaters Relay' or the Meeteetse-Absaroka Challenge (note the page title, sporting the name of a different race), but it gets the job done nonetheless.

Sally in Spokane. I think she said her name was Sally, but I don't remember; I'm not very good with names. She talked to a lot of us in the lobby of our hotel in Spokane Valley. She got around in a motorized wheelchair, loved talking to strangers, and had stayed up all night for fear of missing her 7:30 AM wakeup call to catch a ride to a doctor's appointment. In some pretty obvious ways she wasn't quite “normal”. It's easy to notice and dwell on that. She used to ride her motorcycle from Spokane to Sandpoint and knew there were some beautiful corridors along the way. She participates in Spokane's annual Bloomsday race every year. And she works in some capacity to facilitate the creation and availability of stylish clothing and accessories for wheelchair-bound people, so they don't have to look like hospital patients all the time. The personality traits that cause her to stay up all night to catch a ride and talk to everyone she sees in the lobby might be some of the same ones that help her overcome the many difficulties she faces and do work that improves people's lives. She does things that are hard and sometimes awkward, because that's what she has to do to get out of her home, to contribute to and live in her community. Go Sally (if that's indeed your name)!

While Spokane Valley is loosely based on Big Island from Mario 3, Spokane Airport is surrounded by the actual set of the empty castle in World 7.

Some of Joe's LEDs and batteries wound up in my car. Per Wikipedia and Wikipedia I'm guessing the multi-color ones are low-current LEDs that draw about 2mA and will discharge the batteries in about 110 hours, which will be some time Wednesday morning.

On the way back to Seattle we hit some nasty traffic delays as a result of the Meat Loaf concert at Snoqualmie. Specifically, the back-ups were all in back of Snoqualmie, and thus probably caused by backwards-propagating waves of slowdown due to lots of people entering the freeway to get away from Snoqualmie, back to Seattle, before the start of the concert... that ran dead-on into the entire population of Spokane driving into Snoqualmie to see Meat Loaf. I blame Rhea for the whole thing, as a car carrying her both drove from Spokane to Snoqualmie to drop her at the Meat Loaf concert and then immediately entered the freeway to escape to the disdainful, hipsterly safety of Seattle.

In Van 2 we saw a few shooting stars, mostly while Lauren and Neil were running their night legs.

Many people love runnnig night legs at relays, and we mostly run them really fast, but they always make me nervous. My favorite time to run relays is at dawn, even though dawn legs are typically last legs and quite painful. I should start running at dawn again in Seattle.

Randomly there were some people putting up Christian yard signs at exchange 6 that had that spirit of neener, neener, neener, we've got the real god, you've got the fake one, or maybe you don't got one, either way we're awesome. I love that stuff. Anyway I'm pretty sure I'm awesome too, real god or not.

For everyone that missed it (all of Van 1 and whoever was running at the time in Van 2), we saw someone that from behind looked like he was motoring along, but when we passed him we realized he was turning over quickly but with short strides. And I went on ripping on his short, shuffling stride for about 30 seconds. And am thus going to runner hell (unless he was from Eriksaurus Rex, but I don't think he was).

The team seems mostly in agreement about some of this at least, and we'll probably send a letter to the race organizers about it, but my personal opinion on course safety at S-to-S probably belongs here. On a road with no pedestrian facilities, especially on a road without much of a shoulder, runners and walkers should use the left side, espcially at night. People on foot can more easily get out of the way of oncoming traffic than traffic from behind. On a bike you usually want to use the right side; getting off the road is very hard to do without crashing, and cyclists travel fast enough that riding with traffic gives overtaking cars significantly more time to adjust. Cyclists and pedestrians have very different capabilities and limitations, and therefore I don't think it makes sense to allow cyclists to pace runners at night, as the S-to-S race does. I also think the organizers need to give clear direction on what side of the road to run on in road sections, that it should almost always be the left, and that therefore directional arrows should usually be on the left side of the road. I saw lots of runners at using headphones at the race, and I think that's always a bad idea running outdoors, and should never be allowed on a race course that's open to traffic (I don't like the idea of headphones in any race, but the danger is not nearly so grave when there aren't cars on the course... greater experts than me have both allowed and disallowed them in their races, and I'll certainly grant that there are many runners that get a lot more out of listening to music while running than I would).

There were a couple of accidents at the race this year. Neither would have been prevented by such rule changes (yes, one was a cyclist that wouldn't have been allowed on the course, but the driver went far enough off course to injure the runner as well, so I see that accident as similarly possible without the cyclist there), and I'm not trying to react to the accidents. I'm reacting to the general difficulty presented by runners and cyclists using both sides of the pavement, and riding double-wide, forcing cars to go very far to get around. One or both of the accidents may have been prevented by closer coordination with local police departments. I don't know enough about what this race did in this regard, nor what other races do, to do more than speculate on this subject, so I won't get any more into it here.

Overall, for an experienced runner taking the proper precautions, I don't think S-to-S is any more dangerous than any other race, or even than going out on a typical run. But there are inexperienced runners that don't know much about running in traffic. There are runners that impatiently take risks while racing. And there are those that don't prepare themselves (while briefly lost in Coeur D'Alene during my second leg I crossed paths with a runner that said, I didn't even look at the directions for this leg, I'm just trusting the signs to be right. He thought we were on the right road at the time and, as I suspected and later confirmed, we weren't). I don't at all mind events where runners are expected to take responsibility for their own preparation and safety (if I did I'd have missed some great races), and I usually try to do this in any race. Unfortunately lots of people don't.

On a lighter note, we really had a good team that worked well together, from the email threads before some of us even met through van clean-up at the end. From Captain Danielle through the relay vets (Joe, Shaun, Lauren, myself), relay n00bs (John, Scott, Maria, Neil, Maureen, Rhea) and Judy, picked up at the last minute.

And this is the glorious George Washington rap. It was made by Brad Neely, and thus it is NSFW, juvenile in a very sophisticated way, and has tons of rhythm.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Blackberry for fun?

I'll admit, I'm about as far from "the loop" as one can be on the subject of smartphones... so...

What's up with this new Blackberry BBM stuff? Do people actually do social networking on their Blackberries? Could they? Or is RIM just trying to sell bobos a business tool by showing it off as a social tool (and telling them they're the hipsters they desperately want to be)? I mean, my dad sent pictures from the Tetons on his Blackberry, but he got made fun of (by me, of course, but also by Mom).

I do find it somewhat ironic that Apple's marketing focuses more on the utility of its devices than RIM's. Probably both companies are fueling the self-delusion of their target market to some degree.

FOR THE RECORD: I now carry a cell phone but it's not mine, it's work-issued because we don't have desk phones at EB; also, I still don't know how to text and if you text me I'll probably call you back and leave a really long voicemail. So there.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Regulations!

Today a credit card offer came in the mail for one of my roommates. It was addressed from South Dakota, so if she applied for and received a credit card, then had a dispute with the company she'd have to settle it in a South Dakota court. South Dakota, as I understand it, has a legal system that's pretty friendly to the credit card industry — that's why so many such companies set up shop there.

From time to time there's a debate about how various state and Federal laws here in the US should affect companies offering services across state lines. In many cases a consumer is expected to settle any dispute in a court where the company is located. In other cases, like health insurance, companies aren't allowed to operate across state lines. Politicians (for example, Obama in one of his debates with McCain a few years back) say that if health insurers could operate across state lines there would be a race to the bottom for consumer protections.

And, staring at the credit card offer, I had this thought. Why not just have companies offering services across state lines settle disputes in the courts where the offer was accepted? A business-owner might complain about being bound by lots of different legal systems. But today consumers have to worry about the same thing. If I have a problem with some tech-industry product I probably have to go through courts somewhere near San José (if you read EULAs and warranties they usually list the specific venue for disputes), but it might be Austin or Boston or Redmond or Rochester. If it's with a credit card provider I might be looking at Sioux Falls... but it could be New York or Omaha.

Anyway, there are a lot more of us than them. Why not concentrate the complexity of dealing with regional regulations in big companies with lawyers on retainer instead of spreading it around to people that really have no idea how to deal with it?

I wonder how far I could go avoiding businesses that make me agree to resolve disputes in out-of-state courts. Seattle is well-situated for it; Amazon and Microsoft are in-county, even. I don't know enough about how credit cards work; I know lots of direct-mail offers come from Sioux Falls, but banks have to be incorporated in each state they operate in. So if I apply for a credit card at a local bank branch, I don't know if they would technically issue it from Washington or South Dakota.