Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Is This Awesome or Terrible

In earlier posts I've talked about how people use different mechanisms to discover the quality of goods before they buy them.

At the moment I am in an altogether different bind.

These two albums
Spider-Man : From Beyond the Grave - A Rockomic
Spider-Man - Rock Reflections of a Superhero

Are these the most awful, of the most awesome albums I have ever heard.

The former opens with a wonderful theme, pulsating with bubblegum pseudo-funk pop about the "one lady sex machine" Spider-Man. He is a creature of contrasts.
"Walks like a spider/loves like a man"
"Crawls like a spider/grooves like a man"
"Moves like a spider/tired like a man".

I dare not describe the album any further for fears of collapsing in paroxysms of hatred/joy.

The latter, a collection of every terrible musical cliché of the 70s; funk blaxploitation (Luke Cage us credited with Bass), bad folk (if Donovan was the poor man's Cat Stevens, this is the poor man's Donovan), the embryonic cries of synthesized music and an incongruent doo-wop piece.

Best of all is our treatment of a semi black gospel style song led by that renowned black supervillian....Doctor Octopus. He tells his congregation that he will turn them all into Go-Go dancers.

A fiendish plot preacher.

All in all, is this terrible or awesome. In all honesty, I have no idea.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Obsolete Jobs

We're all familiar with jobs that disappear because of technological advance, where mechanisation on farms replaces labour, or now where the internet may make many real estate agents and travel agents redundant.
And, subsequently, the world changes and workers move from agriculture to industry to services.

But I'm wondering about the jobs that have disappeared without any apparent technological change. Once all lifts had operators, yet I have never seen an operator in my life. There is no mechanical button pusher though. Through films and novels written before my time I know of petrol pump operators, who would refuel your car for you, but I have only see this once (in the affluent suburb of Rose Bay).

I'm sure there are many other examples. In these two cases, we merely do ourselves, as the customer, what the worker previously did. It seems reasonable that as wages have risen across the board, the cost benefits of employing workers like this changed enough to entice employers not to hire them anymore.
But it's difficult for me to think of a time where the relative benefits would ever outweigh the costs of wages. Maybe in the very early days people would have been scared of the technology, and this was the only way it could be utilised, but I can only imagine this fear lasting a matter of a year or two. Why did it take so long to realise that people were perfectly capable of putting a nozzle in a tank, or even more simply, pressing a button on their own. The minor inconvenience this represents would be costed less than the higher prices required by paying these workers by most people, even with 1950s wages.

So really, the question may not be why they disappeared, but why they lasted any time at all.

Friday, November 24, 2006

A Tragedy of Riches

If I was a developing country, and this is a plausible entity to be as an individual, there is a steadfast rule that I would live by.

Avoid having natural resources.

At the beginning of the century, there were many poor countries in the world, but by the end, a large number had living standards on par with the trailblazers of Europe and North America.

Some of these countries include Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Ireland and Iceland.

They share something in common. They're all islands (South Korea's only land border is closed), but more importantly, they have next to no mineral wealth.

By contrast, Papua New Guinea, Iraq, the best part of South America, the Congo and many more have an embarrassment of oil, diamonds, bauxite and other raw materials.

This is not counterintuitive.

To look at another case of two societies, both English speaking and only partially free. The South of the US and early colonial NSW. In both cases, the economies were reliant on institutions of forced labour. Forced labour is inefficient in aggregate (although profitable for those on top), and as argued by early Republicans, retards the development of the economy at large. A minority can retain a privileged position at the expense of the many.

In the southern US, the institutions were slavery, plantations and, most importantly, cotton. Cotton was a resource in need by the industrial heartlands in Manchester and Leeds, and there was always a buyer. The society could survive despite being suboptimal.

In NSW, there was a different prospect. The institutions were free settlers and convicts, but it was still agrarianism based on forced labour. Here, however, the land was dry, their crops were unsuitable, and exports would perish on the way back to the mother country.
Moreover, it could not support itself and was costing the crown a considerable amount. Macquarie was sent to the colony with a task to make it self sufficient. This required optimal, efficient institutions. Efficiency or death.
This required the exploitation of the human resources available, and as he famously discovered, some of the most able men in the colony were convicts. Thus began the emancipations of men like Greenaway, an architect, and others who took up positions in the public service. Commerce rather than slavery took hold and the colony began to prosper. The Exclusionist free settlers eventually rid themselves of Macquarie, but by that time it was too late. The barrier of the blue mountains was breached and the colony's first genuine export, wool, was exploited by free men. Transportation was diminished in importance and eventually ground to a halt as its status as punishment came under doubt.

Nearly two centuries later, NSW remains prosperous. Alabama, by contrast, conjures up notions of first world poverty. The rolling plains of dixie proved her downfall, the sunburnt country of NSW proved her blessing.

In a country with oil, or diamond mines, life on top is easy. The powers that be, drip fed by oil revenues and mining royalties, have no reason to attempt any other action. The Emir, the oligarch, they have their pudding and proceed to eat it. The rest of the society can remain in squalor.

But what are those powers in resource poor countries, like Japan or Singapore to do? The only resource is labour, and activities like manufacturing (and later services) take hold. When labour is utilized, in a post slavery world, it must be paid. Paid workers not only work better, which profits those on top, they spend what they are paid, on goods that are made by their peers in businesses by the powers that be.

The powers have lost relative position, but the society is better for the lack of natural resources.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Institutional Failure....and just plain stupidity

The other day I posted about Sony, especially as a reason to talk about institutional failure.

There, the material was essentially about organisations failing as a result of individuals within them targeting different aims. The individuals might be doing what's best for them in the short term, and it is only the aggregate that seems stupid.

Which brings me to the events of NSW parliament, and more specifically the actions of Peter Debnam.

I can't explain this.

It defies explanation.

It is simply stupidity writ large. It can make sense on no possible level. When one only has to sit still to win, he has found a way to fail.

Previous stupidity on the parts of oppositions, both at state and federally, do make sense as individual factions chase their own goals. It is unfortunate, but explicable failure. The assassination of John Brogden is a previous example from the NSW opposition.

But this?

There is no game theoretic basis for sheer, bloody stupidity.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

How do you keep an Irishman sober

Have a look at this graph I took from the BBC article here.
I absolutely adore how the excise rate is directly correlated to their reputation for drunkenness. Whether these reputations are justified or not, it's always fun to have stereotypes supported by data.
The question is, of course, are the governments of these countries taxing vices they wish their countrymen to cut down on, or are they merely exploiting the price inelasticities?

Friday, November 17, 2006

The past as now.

Yesterday I was thinking about Arthurian legends, chivalric tales and various other knightly stories. Arthur was a soldier of the dark ages, yet his later chroniclers, in Morte d'Arthur and others, and subsequently in later Romantic and modern works, have always portrayed him in armour, with a stone castle and other relics of the 15th or so century.

And why shouldn't they? In Malory's time technical (and social) change was slower, so it may have seemed reasonable to assume that the past was much the same as the present, except in regard to specific kings or the distant glory of the Roman empire.

But following the industrial revolution, knowledge of such processes has given us both science fiction for the future and a pretense of historical accuracy for the past.

Which brings me to a point. I wonder what our historical tales would be like if we had just assumed the past was much like the present. We are adept of doing this in a post modern way, or by way of recontextualisation, but I would like to see it done through pure naivety and ignorance of change. To an extent this happens in our portrayal of Cinderella, with high heels and a Prince in modern imperial garb, but I can only imagine a Raj with cars, pirates with steel hulls and the Bastille being stormed with Molotov cocktails.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Is it wrong to wish death just to see the autopsy?

I want to see Sony collapse.

Not just go broke, or fade away. I mean collapse dramatically. Go Enron, OneTel, crash and burn, create corporate catastrophe.

I bear no grudge against Sony. I have no emotional attachments to any electronics company, and I am not a zealot of a rival, although I do note the hate that some people seem to hold towards the company.

It's just that a collapse of dramatic proportions would give both the motive and the means for journalists, regulators and authors to peer over its corpse and work out what was happening within it.

Because, truth be told, I want to know how Sony can be so damn dumb.

It's interesting to study historic actions of stupidity. Invasions are a great place to start. There are millions of words written on why actions like Pearl Harbour or Operation Barbarossa were undertaken. In the coming decades millions of words will be written asking how it was thought the Iraq war was a good idea.
Why was the Watergate break in undertaken, and why was the more damaging coverup undertaken so stupidly?
Who thought New Coke would work? Who kept giving money to Battlefield Earth, to Waterworld, to Heaven's Gate? Why did dot com shell companies attract so much venture capital?

All these actions of stupidity weren't undertaken by individuals, but by organisations. Each one was beholden to a vile stew of competing incentives, from internal politics, to the personal self interest of constituent individuals and random miscommunication.
And whilst each functional organisation is alike, all disfunctional ones are different, a new tragic operetta and dance of destruction.
Foolish military actions are often attributed to the pressures of military industrial complexes or political weakness at home (a good example being the Argentine junta and the Falklands). In a bubble you have to go along with the crowd even if they're obviously wrong lest you be fired, just ask Jeffrey Vinik. If you're a CEO, you have to look proactive and paradigm shifting, and miscellaneous other buzzwords, to justify your salary and ensure reelection. If that comes at the expense of your real job description, like running the company properly, who's to complain....I mean, besides everyone else.

So what kind of internal politics has led Sony to release exploding batteries, or better yet a hideously late, overpriced, under manufactured, faulty and loss inducing console?
I understand the concept of loss leading on a product to profit on the complimentary goods, but this looks faulty when your competition is underselling you considerably, and you still make a loss. Additionally, when the loss you lead with won't be covered for four years (ready for you to lose on a whole new generation), it looks a tad shaky.
Of course, they're getting Bluray players into homes, and Sony has a track record of getting it's own standards to be the market standards. Look at the success of BetaMax, and MiniDisc, and their DVD encoding, and UMD and...oh dear...

I can only assume there is some kind of zaibatsu pride going on. A company that values its achievements (internally that is, shareholders might feel different) by dominance rather that traditional business ideals like making money. This would certainly explain trophy buys like Columbia studios, which still aren't making any money (the occasional Spider-Man film merely offsets losses).
And part of this is a desperate need to control a medium. But in electronics (with the exception of MS Windows and perhaps Google) there are few examples of a company holding control for long. In fact, the most popular standards, whether it be email, html or the world wide web, are explicitly out of the hands of commercial control. Yet Sony still wants the prestige, as if they are like a railway track, one that can be built and then milked for profits and prestige indefinitely.
Microsoft also seems have the same need for dominance, Internet Explorer was made free and scored a Pyhrric victory over Netscape, and the Xbox and the Zune are further examples that may yet succeed, but these actions, no matter how loss inducing, don't seem as befuddled and incompetent as Sony's.

So I want to see Sony die, so I can peer through its ribcage to the twisted systems within. Maybe there is a perpetual need to pay back Nintendo for a slight nearly two decades old? Maybe market penetration is a substitute for other forms of penetration? If it crashed, Sony's corpse could be the most fascinating since that of the Third Reich, with hyperbole of course.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Language With Balls.

Last night in bed (and that is the best way to start a post) I was thinking about standards.

Which I often bed.

In any case I was thinking about how standards, standard measurements, standard protocols etc. came about, and how they spread.
In some cases it can be seemingly obvious. The government enforces a standard, which they may have created (such as the metric system) and the people follow. Right?
Well, sure a government can adopt a standard, but its ability to enforce it is another matter. If uncommon norms (such as prohibition) cannot take root, why should an uncommon standard do so. After all, the French revolutionary government may have had success with the metric system and civil law, but the revolutionary calendar and metric time are intriguing footnotes to the guillotine (itself a government mandated standard).
Moreover, some of the most important standards I can think of aren't enforced as such by government. I'm sure there aren't laws in most countries that require internet traffic to be run through email, the worldwide web or other familiar protocols. They are simply dominant because its in people's interests to use a single standard. That's why MS Office's alternative OpenOffice.Org necessarily has to include Office file formats. Likewise, there is no law that favoured VHS over Betamax, or will differentiate between HD-DVD and BluRay.
Now many of these standards have survived because of inherent benefits, metric measurements are more practical than the unwieldy imperial measurements, and VHS got a foot in the door with longer play times and more content.
But of course, there are always those that claim the standard reached suboptimal, such as DVORAK zealots, and more importantly many different standards have no apparent differences in quality between them. I'm not an electrician, but are any of these myriad electrical sockets inherently superior to any of the others?
There is one standard that every society must form, and most societies have formed seperately, and that is the most fundamental of all standards.
Most linguists hold that no language is inherently superior to another. Yet languages have coalesced into less forms as human movement and communication have increased.
Yet once upon a time one village could be considered unintelligible to another, and people considered themselves to speak simply as their locality spoke, rather than speaking a larger entity in the way I understand that I speak the same language as those in London.
Languages were initially natural standards amongst people in spoken language. But when these standards came to government, we gain standardised (especially in written form) languages, from Latin to Received Enunciation to New Norwegian. It is also why what we call Malay and Indonesian are mutually intelligible despite different names and different official forms, because "A language is a dialect with a navy".

But this language reminds me of another set of standards, that arose naturally from village to village before they became official.
And other sport of course.
Once upon a time, rules varied from town to town and from game to game as two teams would have to agree on the rules to play, a negotiation that continues in schoolyards to this day. But as leagues were formed and play expanded and increased, codification became necessary, and a variety of official standards bloomed, which is why many football codes are named for the organisation which codified them, Association Football (the name is also the basis of the term "soccer"), Rugby Union and Rugby League. Others of course are named solely for their place of origin. Many other variants died, with the exception of some living dinosaurs such as Harrow Football.
But there is not necessarily innate superiority to any one of these codes, despite jingoistic affection such as that which would make one claim their language was also superior. Yet some are flourishing multinational codes, some flourish within a single country (such as American and Australian football), and others have died or linger in a tiny corner of the globe.
Like....language. The same historical forces that propelled English to global status and Cornish to extinction are the same variety that have sent Association Football around the world, and kept Gaelic Football within Ireland.
Maybe cricket was the language of the British empire, and perhaps football will be the first global language of humanity

Monday, November 13, 2006

You don't look.

I'm going to segue off a bit just to record something for prosperity, insofar that a blog gives such a blessing

A few weeks ago the missus and I were at an A-League encounter between the Newcastle Jets and Adelaide United.
For many years at football matches I had the pleasure of sitting in front of a knowledgeable Yorkshireman who gave good commentary in possibly the greatest accent ever bequeathed upon man. To this day I habitually cheer in my ersatz version of said accent.
Unfortunately this time that was not the case. The people behind us were stupid. Moronic. Inane. Idiotic. I could exhaust the thesaurus and not do them justice, and I shall not subject you to much of their conversation (which in accordance with the laws of the universe was as loud as it was brainless), just the best bit.

At one point, their conversation somehow turned to the sexualisation of preteens. An issue of obvious concern to many people throughout society, including, it seems, men of such dubious intellectual prowess as those behind us.
One snippet went:

"I think it's fucking disgusting the way you see tits on 10 year olds now"
"You know I have a 10 year old don't you mate?"
"well....yeah....but you know, you take a look..."
"no you don't"
"no.... I mean, you look...."
"No don't look. You don't look".

It may lose something in the transcription, particularly the grim, humourless sincerity of the second speaker, but I found it hilarious.

You. Don't. Look.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Descent into a cultural ghetto.

The other day I was thinking about comic book stores and the absence of comics in newsagents. A medium which once thrived in the English speaking world from being a pulpy, an easily accessed and an inexpensive art form, is now restricted to a small, devoted clique which was both shrinking and off putting to outsiders.
Then I thought about the price. If anything, surely it was exorbitant prices that were creating a huge barrier to entry for prospective new readers. Further research produced this SHOCKING GRAPH.
I created a rough index of the price of a normal 22 page comic book (tracking price changes from the cover price of The Amazing Spider-Man and earlier timely comics productions, excluding specials and hologram covers etc.) and graphed it against the US Consumer Price index, from 1948 to 1997. For thirty years or so, until the early 80s, the trends were roughly equal, which is to be expected. But then the price of a comic book began to shoot above inflation, getting genuinely more expensive, and completely took off in the early 90s.
Of course, direct sales (comic book stores) began to expand in the 1980s, and the early 90s saw the comic book boom. Both events helped sideline comics into a niche market, and took comics from a popular, mass medium, to a small powerless elite.
From 1948 to 1997 prices increased 7 fold, but comic books increased by 3 times that. If I had continued to data to the current day (I only had CPI data til 1997) they would have shown a 30 fold increase.
If a kid was to get into comics today, he would have to enter a dispiriting den called a comic book store (whose denizens may deserve the disrepute they entertain amongst outsiders) where they're not allowed to touch anything. They'd then need to fork over their parent's mortgage repayment for the month to get a single issue of a 6 part story which requires wikipedia character histories to understand anyway. The price means the 30 million colours in high resolution printing on the splash pages is there, and the continuity affirms the elitism of the traditional readers, but this doesn't matter to the kid.
Moreover he or she will get confronted with this: they don't start reading.
I cannot think of another medium that has (in English speaking culture) drawn itself into such a cultural ghetto. However, Science Fiction in all forms as a genre was once the same, and to some extent it has extricated itself. Perhaps comics as a medium can do the same.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Compulsory voting fights global warming.

The Freakonomics blog today speaks about voter turnout, and refers to this Slate article, which brings up many of the questions I have about compulsory voting here in Australia.

Presumably, compulsory voting works on the principle that people would rather vote than pay a fine, so that the cost of not voting is greater than the costs involved with taking 10 minutes to go to the local primary school on a Saturday.

But the fine is negligible, and I have a friend who has not voted in 20 years, yet has never been fined (He may go to live in China, where there are no such expectations). I am very sure that most people know the chance of getting caught is negligible, particularly as the truly apathetic won't even register to vote.

So it's hard to say that the fine is a true incentive on voter's behavior.

Meanwhile, there are media reports that people are prepared to pay carbon taxes. If they have a preference for being environmentally friendly, they could simply not drive as much, but it seems people want enforcement to keep their behavior in check, particularly when it impacts on others. This could also lead to fat taxes, and may be behind pushes to ban vice on the fear that one may use it. I am sure we all know "social smokers", who will blame the presence of other smokers for their own relapses.

Obviously community enforcement matters, and the law is apparently a codified version of community values. Afterall, the unquestioned laws (murder, theft) are values that predate government, and those without public support (prohibition, denial of women's suffrage) fade away, albeit with a lag.

The case of compulsory voting seems to imply the mere symbolism of a popular, yet unenforced law, is enough to change voter behavior. Does this mean symbolic laws can fight other externalities? A symbolic law against short car journeys? Against leaving the air conditioner on when you leave the house? I don't know the extent of enforcement of Sydney's recent water restrictions, but I know they are widely obeyed when they must be easy to evade, and they are if not "popular" laws, laws whose necessity is widely recognised.

The costs of giving up some car journeys may be higher than the costs of 15 minutes on a Saturday once or so a year, but it's an interesting question to ask, "just how much can popular symbolic laws fight externalities".

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

An inauspicious beginning

I want to write a world history of pants.

That is to say, trousers.

Trousers to the Romans were the dress of the barbarians, the attire of Celts or Germanic Hordes. To China they seem to have come from Mongols, or other northern types. To Japan they may well have first come upon the black ships of the unwashed Perry.

And just look what those barbarians did. Pants are the Galactus of ancient civilizations, great white cities of togas quailed before them.

Or do they simply sweep away decadence? They came to prominence in Europe in the middle of the last Millenium, a spark for the reformation, the Enlightenment, and for a Western Europe that conquered the world. Japan emerged from the stagnation of the Edo period and rapidly rose on the world stage, casting off the kimono of a feudal backwater for the pants of a bright young power.

Then, in the 20th century, societies began to realise the potential of their populations by allowing the female half to take their place in work, science and art, a right taken by millions of women, women in pants.

Pants, the most powerful garment in human existence.