Rapidly downhill

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The what-if game, round 1

A good deal is one where everyone involved is happy, some say. I just thought of one. This may sound outlandish, but bear with me.
Hugo Chavez may not be the most popular guy in the world, but I just thought of a way to fix that. I have no problem with him myself, but others clearly have.
Whatever his faults are, the man has cash on hand to make deals. Here's my proposal for a deal;

Stage one: Send a delegation to Afghanistan and buy the opium crops. Pay twice what the drug barons are offering - they only pay penuts anyway (especially compared to what they make in the end), and if necessary leave some support for the farmers so they don't get assaulted for selling out when you leave.
Benefits; No opium to the drug cartels. Money to the farmers. No need for the US to bomb or spray the fields, so they could cut back on that and make both governments happy. No drugs to the US. Great stride forward in the War on Terror and enormous longjump in War on Drugs.

Stage two
: Bring the opium back to Venezuela and use local labs to turn it into painkillers instead of heroin. Morphine is desperately needed in developing countries, but it is expensive and supplies are scarce. A double-punch of cuban medical workers and low-cost venezuelan medication would make a lot of difference to a lot of poor people.
Benefits; Obvious benefits for poor people in developing countries. Venezuela becomes goodwill ambassador to plenty of new allies, with a chance to spread the word on the "Bolivarian whatever". Less strain on NGO:s trying to help, so medical aid can spread further. Medical benefits have domino effect on other areas of life, could be a way in for yet other NGO:s to build for example schools etc.

Stage three: See if there are other sources of raw material for projects like this. Colombia comes to mind. Perhaps the Colombian government could sign a cooperation deal allowing the Venezuelan military to make training exercizes in the countryside, buying up crops while keeping the cartels down with whatever it takes, and ridding Colombia from some of the drug factories.
Benefits; Less cash for various drug-funded paramilitaries, less drugs to the US, less stress on the Colombian government. Big stride forward in US War on Drugs. More raw material for medicine in Venezuelan medical aid programme. Chavez popularity soars internationally. Farmers no longer bombed every tuesday. US govt kan save some much needed money for Wars on Other Things. Farmers can be convinced to grow other useable medical crops, since anything can grow in Colombia.

So, what are the gripes?

"Chavez is not a good guy!" Well, if he starts helping the developing world this way it would make him a pretty decent guy in my book. Someone else will have to solve his other problems.
"Growing opium is flat out wrong and they should grow cucumbers instead!" Nah, if the opium actually goes to a good end use there is nothing wrong with growing it, and who knows what religious problems may be associated with cucumbers? Face it - Afghanistan looks like classic desert and I suspect nothing but poppies will grow there unless a lot of infrastructure is put in place. So grow poppies but use them well.
"Dumping the price of medicine will hurt Big Pharma." Big Pharma is not doing business with these needy people since they have no money. This will make no difference at all to them financially, since they do not bother to exploit this market anyway. Also, I could care less about Big Pharma if I really made an effort, but the strain might kill me.
"The US will collapse if the drug supply is cut off like that!" In that case maybe the War on Drugs should have been abandoned instead of increased every year? I don't think it will be a problem, local labs can always make synthetic drugs instead. Which, incidentally, doesn't ruin anything for anyone in another country.

This simple solution would improve world health and increase world happiness. It would make Chavez popular wherever his medic-aides go and it would help the US drop the habit. By the time Jeb Bush wins the US election for the republicrats next year, this could all be in place and running smoothly. He could move Venezuela from the "Topple immediately" to the "Good ole folks to cooperate with"-list. I would love to see this. A lot of land mine victims currently without painkillers would love it too. To calm Big Pharma, the Venezuelan drug labs could stamp Chavez' likeness on every pill, making it tough to sell them in the west to slash inflated medicine prices here (all westerners find him hard to swallow, eh?).
All this takes is for the Afghan government to trust Chavez, and in stage three the Colombian government to do the same. What do they have to lose?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Fair and balanced

The swedish government is planning to lock horns with the dangerous terrorists called "file sharers" once and for all. Of course they are terrorists, ever heard of "sharia" law? See? These are the same solid underpinnings used to go to war in Iraq (ie the "q" in Iraq is written exactly like the "q" in al-qaeda).
The proud political thinkers have noticed that something like 70% of the population is in some way involved in this heinous terror activity and thus it might be hard to actually jail such a large part of the people. On the other hand, the organizations fighting the "war on piracy" are providing much needed business lunches and cash bonuses for the starving and poor politicians, so the special interests cannot be ignored either. A problem indeed.
The swedish government is going to solve this by holding hearings on the status of file sharing, and only inviting the copyright associations. NO opponents or neutral thinkers are invited. This will insure a fair and balanced debate, probably followed by a traditional witch-burning and then a set of legal amendments based on the current opinions of the finest political minds that money can buy.
The alternative is unthinkable. Imagine that someone did invite a representative for the people, or the Pirate Party, or some other free thinker, and this person pointed out that the Revolting Industry Association of America is actually standing there naked, wearing the emperors new clothes and clutching the doctored financial ledgers for the past three decades. This would not do. This would be an international crisis. Much better then to threaten to jail two thirds of the population for stealing immaterial goods.

It's a wonderful world. The theme music you may hear playing in the back of your minds is "the Liberty bell", used to great effect in the Monty Python's Flying Circus series.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

If the telecoms were media companies...

Ever think about the strange behaviour of media companies? They are really used to making their own rules, and politicians and other lawmakers are really used to letting them behave like five-year-olds who simply say "GIMME!" and take things from other people.
If the telecoms behaved like the record companies, things would look like this;
Having a Sk*pe or chat client installed would make you a thief and give them the right to kick in your door and go through your private life to see how much money they could shake you down for. If they found chat logs, they would calculate how long you have been online chatting, assuming you type six words a minute. They would then take this time and estimate a net loss, based on the tariff that you were calling the Galapagos Islands at nine bucks a minute, and sue you in court for a few hundred thousand bucks using a dozen high-powered lawyers that could flatten your legal defense regardless of what it was.
Every time you picked up the regular phone you would have to sit through a five-minute "motivational speech" where someone calls you a thief and a pirate and warns you that you cannot hide, sooner or later they WILL nail you and drag you to court. You would have to pay full usage charges for these five minutes of abuse, of course.
Every now and then the voltage in the phone lines would change, frying or just disabling your old phone equipment. This would be the countermeasure to keep you from attaching a computer to the phone line to chat or make voip calls. When customers complain to the telco they (and the press) would be met by an arrogant manager saying "customers don't know how the equipment works, why should they worry about these things?" and then ignoring them for the time being.
The press would, for the most part, agree with the telcos and write lots of articles about the net losses by phone companies and how Al, the cable guy, is now laid off because these chat bastards have stolen his income. The phone companies still make billions, of course, but they present nice diagrams showing a drop in income of sixteen billion dollars per week due to piracy and since modern journalists are trained to write instead of question, they write.
The phone companies would pressure the IP providers to tell them which clients show a "chat like usage pattern" and to block certain ports used for chat and VOIP (or else). This would make the postal service sit up and take notice, and contemplate demanding a two dollar tax on every e-mail. Unfortunately the mail services do not pay quite the amount of ...contributions... to the lawmakers that the other Market Forces do, so the mail tax falls by the wayside. Instead the politicians add a tax of a hundred bucks onto every handset designed for Sk*pe, since they are quite obviously designed for lawbreaking activities from the start. (If you think this one sounds weird, check sweden out. A swedish company was an early starter in the portable mp3 player field and had a design that was really superior compared to other clunky things available at the time. The swedish govt did their damndest to shut them down, including trying to add a huge fee onto the pricetag to compensate for piracy and demanding that some features be disabled, like the built-in fm transmitter used to local-broadcast to stereo receivers. The company never had a chance, and were later stomped by the iPod. If they hadn't been crippled by the remote-controlled lawmakers they could have been contenders. So much for trying to make innovations in sweden.)
The phone companies would offer their own version of VOIP or chat, of course. It would be slightly different from the free services. First of all, you would pay per minute just like you would on a regular phone call. You would only be able to call other numbers supplied by the same telco. You would only be able to make VOIP calls from your own home - using someone elses phone while you're at their house would be prosecutable. It would be illegal for anyone else in the room to listen in on your end of the conversation. The software purchased to use this legal chat system would require frequent updates as fifteen year old hackers poke holes in the badly written code and use it for whatever they feel like on a daily basis.
You would have no guarantee that you can connect to anything, anywhere, using this new "legal"
software since the telcos change their standards so often to curb the aforementioned hackers that even minor revisions of the software cannot talk to each other. You still have to pay for
every update, though.
Through all this the companies would gripe about thieving customers every time they get five seconds in the media spotlight. Their lobbyists would haul out examples of starving telco bosses being forced to sell their mansions and moving into smaller (40-room) houses and with tears in their eyes sell off limos, race horses and cigarrette boats (but keeping the heli and the learjet, of course). They would demand special tax breaks, and get them. They would demand special taxes for YOU, and get them. And they would all sit there praying that no-one would point out that the emperor has no clothes.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Houston, we have a negative on that assumption.

A while ago I read an article in The Ec*nomist about mobile phones. What has happened, what is happening, what's next? In the middle of this article is some speculation from the "futurists" in the business about future features. A projector instead of a display, turning any flat reflective surface into a large screen. One futurist commented that in the future, all music ever recorded might be on-chip in solid state form. You take the phone in to the shop periodically to get the chip refreshed with the latest additions. As you pay for them, the tracks are unlocked and you can access them.
From a storage viewpoint this makes sense; as storage gets closer and closer to free it is reasonable to put everything on there and let the customer pick out the good bits, instead of customizing each chip and thus create more overhead and hassle for the maker.
The question is; does this make any kind of sense for the customer?
The actual situation, viewed with clear eyes, is this: duplication of non-corporeal goods is becoming cheaper and cheaper by the minute. Taking the techno-buddhist "make me one with everything" approach hails from this insight - It costs more to have people in production removing songs than to simply give everyone the whole bundle. Still, we are expected to treat what is an essentially free copy (in manufacturing terms) as an expensive original and pay for it. I think there will be widespread resistance to this. I think people will say "all of this is already on chip, and you expect me to still pay a premium price?!?" and flat out refuse. The phones will sell like hotcakes, but every single hacker in the world will be busy looking for unlock codes.
Perhaps it is finally time for the music biz to enter the new century along with the rest of us. The financial model used so far is bogus, since the cost of copying and distributing copies is nil. When you are in the business of selling material goods, such as a 78 RPM recording for instance, you are handling something that is fragile, hard to copy and has a value of its own. When you are in the business of selling files on a chip your costs for copying is zero. Nothing can be really damaged in transit, so there is no fragility aspect and a file has very little value on its own. Looking at a small icon with the words "Norwegian wood" next to it is not in any way comparable to holding an album with artwork, looking at the lyrics of Norwegian wood and reading the liner notes. The song is part of a package in the old version. Both copies require a special player to make the music audible, but the electronic copy can be copied to a hundred friends with the tap of a finger while the album takes training, expensive equipment and talent to duplicate even once.
Also, let us take an example not rooted in music. Peoples minds lock up when music is the topic, since the music industry has poured millions into the project of muddying the waters regarding copyright, licencing etc and the results are showing.
Let us instead consider "knowledge". Putting an encyclopedia in a phone is no problem as prices plummet and capacity soars. Imagine this; the HQ corporation releases its latest VerySmartPhone that has a complete Encyclopedia Brittannica on chip, along with a thesaurus or three and about five shelves full of schoolbooks. A nice dollop of knowledge. The HQ corp then says "The phone is $100, and you'll have to pay another $100 for the books or we'll seal them so you can't read them". In other words - pay us or we'll take knowledge away from you.
I don't know about the rest of you, but to me that is an act of aggression. Selling me something and then keeping me from using it to its fullest potential is stupid, arrogant and mean.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Souls for sale

A post on the Unofficial Apple Weblog tells us that the R*AA wants to lower artist royalties. Apparently the artists themselves should not get such a huge cut, and the poor Music Publishers are losing out. The logic behind this appears to be "downloading means lower costs for us since we do not have do distribute records, so we should natch'rally get a bigger cut".
Well, what were people thinking? Actually paying the ARTISTS instead of the suited pimps and scumbags who do NOT create music? Unheard of. Naturally the government will fold like a cheap camping table, since these Music Publishers have plenty of cash to use for... shall we say "lobbying"... to make the politicians jump through hoops. Naturally the US govt will then pressure all other governments to follow suit. And they will, as they always do.
By now, all who have not been living in caves since the fifties know the moral fiber of these Associations who claim they are protecting the livelihood of the starving artists. The artists are starving, all right, but who is responsible?
What really blows the mind is the fact that plenty of musicians still stand up for these Associations and call their fans thieves for listening to MP3:s. Wonderful. Now, assuming that Darwin was right, are these artists who work hard at alienating their fans in order to suck up to people who want to lower their wages really people who we, the listeners, should support? Shouldn't the gene police order them out of the pool to ensure the well-being of the species?

A final thought: The R*AA IS the music business. If you want to get airtime, you have to go through them and sign contracts where you sell your rights to your works. You then get paid a pittance, IF they decide to pay you. Even platinum sellers have to fight to get the money they have a right to. I am sure there is some kind of difference between organized crime and these Associations, but I can't put my finger on it right now.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


Ah, technology. After being unable to log in for two months, suddenly someone changes something somewhere, and I can write again. The mysteries of using free services on the web.

However, more serious things are afoot and require our attention. Hollywood is about to make a horrible mistake again, and it is time for us, the people, to say no.
No, this time it's not a stupid DRM fiasco, or a call for mandatory execution for copying movies or any other of the current MP*A-projects, but a movie project that simply should not be allowed to happen.
There is a great writer, author, penman, narrator, call it what you will, named Alan Moore. This man did things to the concept of visual storytelling back in the eighties that some of us are still recovering from. There are about half a dozen authors in his particular medium that I have serious respect for, people who as far as I have seen have never written anything bad, they include in no particular order Mr Gaiman, Mr Ellis, Mr Ennis and Mr Miller and a few others who we shall return to at a later time.
Mr Moore and Mr Gaiman in particular have a way of layering information in their works. There is simply so much stuff to take in that you can read and reread their works not just one or five times, but fifteen, and still find new angles and concepts. Every object mentioned or portrayed adds meaning to the whole. An image of a person standing in a gallery of paintings has to be examined carefully as everything in the paintings can be relied upon to affect the story being told. This is genius, as opposed to the general drooling of lesser artists.
Now, Hollywood (not known for its genius content) has decided to once again try to adapt one of Mr Moores works into a film, and this time it is the magnum opus "Watchmen". This will fail.
It will fail in part because it is impossible to make a live action film that actually captures the feeling and essence of a graphic novel, and especially that graphic novel. I have never seen an attempt that works even to a limited degree. The only one I can think of that might come close, and I have not seen that movie myself, is "Sin C*ty" based on a work by Mr Miller. That one may work, as the original presentation is very movie-like, and Mr Miller was deeply involved in the making of that particular movie and the movie as a whole was made outside the normal Hollywood system. I simply love the original, though, which means I will not see the movie. I will not take the risk of having my enjoyment of the stories permanently soiled by lesser visual storytelling.
The other hurdle for "Watchmen" is that Mr Moore writes his stories in a highly non-cinematic way and loads them with details that no movie could possibly convey. It simply cannot be done. The latest attempt to film one of Mr Moores scripts resulted in the movie version of "V for vendetta", where a storyline that would easily have filled four normal written novels (of three hundred pages each) was watered down to its bare essence and then beautifully transferred to film.
To understand the level of watering-down I will now condense the first, fourth, Star W*rs movie to Hollywood specs;
This farmer guy goes into a bar, and wham - zap his friend cuts a guys arm off. Then they pick up a real nice girl, and go into space and shoot at some other guys. A big fella in black is chasing them, and in the end they blow up the empire. There are a couple of shiny robots walking about, and a bear with a gun. The end.
Recognize it? That is roughly how much Hollywood leaves of the original concept when they take a book or a graphic novel and turns it into a movie. That is what happened to "Do androids dream of electric sheep", that is what happened to "I Robot", and that is what happened to all other great books I have read and then tried to watch as movies. Hollywood is REALLY bad at doing these conversions. This has never stopped them from trying, though, and it is thus we get abominations like D*sneys version of "the Hunchback of Notre Dame", where a great tragedy is turned into light banter with singing and tapdancing gargoyles.
The really sad thing is that when the screenwriters start with a clean slate they can make absolutely fantastic movies. It's just a fact that any writer creates his story for the medium at hand. A person writing a book expects the story to be read that way. A person writing a graphic novel has another set of limitations on what can and should be done and how the story should play out. A screenwriter knows that the medium is visual, and tells the story accordingly.
The bottom line is that only we, the viewers, can make Hollywood stop butchering good stories by reducing them to the movie format. Refuse these watered-down products just like you'd refuse watered-down beer in a bar. Demand quality, demand that the screenwriters get to tell their own stories instead of messing up others. I believe that writers like Mr Moore should have a right not to have their creations gutted.
Just say NO when Hollywood tries to sell you their latest conversion, and buy a copy of the original work instead.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Best before...

Sweden is a monarchy, ruled by an all-powerful "statsminister" (PM henceforth) with near-godlike powers. After an election the votes are counted, and then the Social Democrat party claims to have won and rules supported by one or two other parties that give them the critical mass of seats in the national assembly.
Social Democrat PM:s tend to stay in power for one to five decades and are replaced only after death, just like the old soviet bosses. They share some other traits as well - a tendency to avoid listening to the people, a habit of giving themselves bigger raises and higher wages than Joe Average could dream about, and a measure of arrogance that is quite staggering.
Swedish political parties are set up to keep the great unwashed from ever climbing the ladder to the higher reaches, while power positions are inherited or otherwise distributed by strange and secretive means. Mostly, the PM simply places all his homies on whatever positions he thinks they may be able to cope with, regardless of suitability to task. No swedish minister is ever a specialist in his field, they are like LEGO blocks and can be swapped and interchanged without incident, since all real power resides with the PM anyway. Thus, a tax minister may find himself an agricultural minister when he returns from a two-month vacation. If he has made some kind of really heinous mistake he may be put in charge of Education, which is the swedish equivalent of Siberia.
This way of governing does not let new blood in, and it keeps the MP:s heads in the thin, rarefied air of high altitudes. Lack of oxygen apparently clouds judgement, as we can see when these political cronies stumble over their own feet and lie about their everyday activities to the press.

I hereby present a humble suggestion: give all politicians elected to any non-local position a tattoo with a sell-by-date. Make sure that they can only stay in parliament a maximum of three four-year terms (or as a minister two terms). If you can't process your agenda in 12 years, chances are you will never get it done. Also, if the politician in question is the son or daughter of a previous MP, the final term is voided regardless of position.
There are plenty of benefits to be had from this. The removal of "old families" would bring in new talent, fresh views (from people less than sixty years old) and above all contemporary values. It would give people with non-broiler backgrounds a chance to shape the politics, since politician would no longer be a life-time occupation. It should NEVER have been allowed to become a lifetime occupation in the first place, and the sooner we stop it the better.
An old argument against rules like these is "politicians with a sell-by-date are easier to bribe than lifers", to which I respond "Horsepucky!". I don't know if the current politicians are on the take, some evidence suggests it, but I know for a fact that they do NOT represent the opinion of the people in a lot of questions.
Also, there should be a basic "sanity and ethics" test, checking things like "is it OK to give yourself a 12% raise and double your staff in a recession?" or "if a foreign head of state says 'give me my political opponent who is seeking asylum, and I almost promise not to throw him to my crocodiles this weekend', should you agree?". A test with a dozen questions like that would exclude more current MP:s than you think. No joke.
We need change, and we need it soon.