Death of a Business Model

Historically, almost every significant economic crash has been due to one factor of the human psyche, the inability to conceive of change. Not adapt to change; we’re pretty damn good at figuring things out after the fact. Beforehand? Not so much. Entire industries collapse because of the assumption that the fourth quarter will be exactly like the first, only more so. This is true even when those assumptions are based on patent absurdities.

One incredibly obvious absurdity that infects everyone from a two person tech startup to the federal government; prosperity requires indefinite growth. It’s ingrained in our psyche. But think about it. Economics is not divorced from the physical world, and in the end economics is still the organized distribution of resources. Things will always run out. Labor, energy, capital, customers, people’s attention spans, bandwidth, tax base— everything is finite. Therefore, at some point, growth must stop. The problem, of course, is because of the assumption prosperity requires growth, we’ve done everything to insure that when it does stop it becomes a massive disaster because all the systems we’ve constructed to assume growth don’t really work when growth stops. (Case in point, the design of the Social Security system, which requires a constant permanent growth in the working population in order to work.)

Now, Microsoft’s existence is based on a similar absurdity, the permanent upgrade path. The idea that software is in a continual state of improvement, and that it is a valid assumption that the end user will continue to buy the new version of an application every few years or so. Both are at odds with reality. Every technology has an endpoint, there comes a time when a system is so mature that it does what it does well enough that any future meddling actually makes things worse. I write for a living, and deal with several flavors of MS Word every day. I can say that, for my purposes, there is absolutely no functional difference in any version of Word released since 2000. It’s a damn word processor. You’re not making it any better. The OS is facing the same problem. Intel has said there’s no compelling reason for them to upgrade their 80,000 PCs to Vista. The only reason the public’s buying the OS is because it comes on new machines— a substantial number of which are being downgraded to XP. The fact that XP is “good enough” is going to become a big problem for Microsoft. They’ll continue to push new OS’s onto new PCs, but fewer people are going to bother “upgrading,” meaning that developers are going to serve a Windows market that’s more and more fractured, and therefore they will not be as likely to utilize new “features” in the OS, (if half the computers there are running XP, you’re losing half the market when you develop something that only works for Vista or Windows 7). With less software requiring the new OS, it becomes even less attractive to upgrade. And as more and more of the stuff people do with computers moves to the internet, the OS on the machine becomes irrelevant. If your browser does all of what you need, why do you need Vista?

In fact, Intel’s decision should give itself pause, because it’s based on a similar model. What happens to the tech industry when people don’t buy a new PC every three years? What happens when the five-year old PC works just fine?

This Saturday @ the Mayfield Public Library

For those interested and in the area, I will be appearing with fellow Hamster Geoff Landis this Saturday, June 28th at the Mayfield Public Library (6080 Wilson Mills Rd, Mayfield, OH) from 2:30 to 4:30. Limited space, but it’s free and you can find registration info here. For those of you looking on my shiny new WordPress blog, this is what that calendar in the upper right is all about, go ahead, click on the red date, I dare you.

Dealing with the Origin Story

I just finished an advance copy of a neat book, (I’ll blog about it later— it’s due Feb 09 from Tor, so I have time.) and it got me thinking of a common narrative problem in speculative fiction. It is perhaps most obvious in superhero movies (I alluded to it in my Iron Man review) but it’s true for a broad class of speculative fiction, and for lack of a better term I’ll call it the “Origin Story Problem.” The problem is simple, the story itself concerns some ordinary person— at least “ordinary” in the fact that the character’s original status quo doesn’t include any paranormal/speculative elements— who through some means or other comes to grips with some kind of extraordinary knowledge/powers/abilities. This is a staple of superhero movies and comics, but it’s also recognizable across the broad swath of SF/Fantasy— normal guy becomes werewolf/vampire, stumbles on alternate universe, invents a zero-point power source, goes back in time, develops telekinesis.

The “Origin Story Problem” comes from the fact that it is very easy to obsess too much about the discovery phase of the neat idea, whatever it is. It becomes tempting to spend half a book exploring all the ramifications about the black box, before realizing “hey, there needs to be a conflict here.” Then, suddenly out of nowhere, we get a whole series of new characters and plot developments to threaten our hero. The pattern is a staple of bad TV pilots.

To address the “Origin Story Problem,” and make the story seem a cohesive whole, the main conflict of the story needs to become an integral part of all the story. i.e. The vampire hunters that are threatening to stake our newly-undead heroine need to be present before page 300. Or, more broadly, the story problems resolved in the climax need to be at least implicit in the beginning of the story.

There are several ways to do this convincingly:

  1. Start the main conflict before the “gosh-neato” stuff shows up. In Iron Man, Tony Stark develops the suit as an attempt to solve the problems that begin the movie.
  2. The main conflict is inherent in the “origin” itself. See Stephen Kings’ Firestarter for a primer on every shadowy government experiment gone awry. See the Bourne Identity for a more low-key variation on the theme.
  3. The “gosh-neato” bits directly, and quickly, cause the source of the conflict. See most one-way time-travel stories from Lest Darkness Fall to 1632.
  4. The “gosh-neato” bit is actually the real status quo, dropping the protagonist into some larger over-arching conflict; learning about the cool stuff is really part of surviving in a different world. The first volume of Zelazny’s Amber series is a good example. See also Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade.

What you don’t want to happen is have a story that spends half its time with the protagonist learning and experimenting with some new toy. Readers will say, “that’s cool” for a chapter or two. Then they’ll start wondering when something is actually going to happen.

Done, really, I mean it this time

I turned in the editorial revisions for Prophets today, which means that I am officially done with it. It got a bit longer which is why all the counters moved around. Next task, is a second round of editorial edits on Lilly’s Song, which are relatively minor and should only take a couple of days. Then I need to do a revision of Valentine’s Night before I give it to Eleanor to shop around.

Then I’ll be writing new stuff. . .

Associated Press and MediaDefender, taking IP way way way too far.

This was a week where I discovered two little tidbits that really set my blood boiling over the state of IP law in this country. In both cases we have companies using the excuse of copyright to act like Uncle Vinnie the Mob Enforcer, but without the pinky ring or sense of style.

First up, the Associated Press, in what seems to be a belated panic about news distribution over the internet, has decided to get all RIAA over the web (and, of course, the recording industry can tell you all how well that’s going) and try to sue anyone who dares quote from their stories without paying license fees protection money. Apparently the threshold for AP calling out the lawyers is 79 words. Fair use anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Is this the new way to monetize the news business? Print stories and then obsessively Google phrases hoping for a Cassie Edwards with deep pockets? So what if I embed a Google news feed into my blog, am I liable for the AP stories that come up in it? Have these asswits thought any of this through? Do they know how stupid they look? Have they ever seen a web browser? I’m waiting for some blogger to sue the AP for quoting 75 words of their content without permission. Wonder how far that will go?

Second group of thuggish IP imperialists going over the line, really went over the line. As in criminal. As in, if they did this to a fortune 500 company they might be up on terrorist charges. Quick synopsis somewhat de-geeked: You have BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file-sharing system that, like all file sharing methods, can be used for good or ill. It is best to distribute large files such as Linux distributions, or HD movies. Enter MediaDefender, a company that uses an arsenal of techniques suited to Russian virus authors and Viagra spam merchants, whose mission statement is to prevent piracy of their clients’ media. One favored technique is to flood the internet with bogus copies of pirate files. The way they do this is posing links to said fakes on torrent indexing sites. Now enter Revision3, a small internet TV station that produces video for users to download— via BitTorrent. (dun-dun-dunnn.)

Now, of course, Revision3 would offer a indexing site for their torrents, right? Sure. Now, these indexing sites can be open or closed, and for a time because of technical issues, Revision3’s index was open. That meant anyone could post the location of a torrent there. It should have been closed down so the index only responded to requests for Revision3’s own shows. The response of MediaDefender was not to call up the Revision3 IT staff and say, “Hey, you got an open torrent index here, you sure you want that?” No, their reaction was exactly the same as a pirate’s reaction, “Hey, this index is open. I can post my own (bogus) torrents, Yea!”

Now, so far it’s morally questionable, but not criminal. However, when Revision3 discovers the configuration error on their server (with no help from MediaDefender, which, as you remember, is supposed to stop this sort of thing themselves) their response is to close the index.

One would think that MediaDefender would be happy that the conduit for pirated content was shut down. Apparently they weren’t happy. In fact, their servers were pissed. After being shut out of Revision3’s torrent index, they promptly launched a denial of service attack on Revision3 that took the site down for Memorial Day weekend.

Let that sink in.

They launched a cyber-attack on a legitimate business because the legitimate business stopped linking to pirated torrents. This requires a Doctorate in Stupidity.

I think the AP should hire MediaDefender to protect their copyrighted content. The combined weight of arrogance, cluelessness and stupidity might just shatter the whole structure of IP law as we know it— which I am beginning to think is not a bad thing.

Metallica = Asshat

UPDATE: At least according to the band, their managers are the clueless asshats. I think they need better management.

I haven’t nominated an asshat for awhile, then I came across this little tidbit. And no, this doesn’t involve some sort of draconian fan-stomping over who should pay for what. In fact, it has nothing to do with pathologic reactionary grasping onto old business models past the point of obsolescence. That’s old news. No, this time we are talking stupidity that can only be described as epic fail.

Shall I posit the following scenario: you’re a moderately newsworthy band producing a new album. You invite a number of internet music bloggers to a private party to listen to some rough tracks off the album. No non-disclosure agreements involved. . . What do you think would happen?

Apparently it never occurred to the band in question that said bloggers might actually, you know, blog about it. I mean, who could have seen that coming? They were shocked, shocked I say! Their management responded in a restrained and level-headed manner, blanketing said bloggers with takedown notices and threats of legal action.

Dear Metallica: PR, You’re doin it wrong.

Future Americas is out.

I just got my contributor copy of Future Americas, the latest anthology by John Helfers and Martin H. Greenberg. My story within, “Family Photos,” which I mentioned before, is probably one of the darkest things I’ve ever written in any genre. Dark enough that I still half believe that I scared away most of my writer’s workshop when I ran it through the Hamsters.

Shattastic

Occasionally you discover that the time is just right for something. Things just bubble up in the common consciousness, suddenly bombarding you with some concept or image that pervades the ether and suddenly you’ve discovered that collective humanity has crossed some cultural Rubicon and it becomes literally impossible to imagine what life was like before. For your consideration, the following two videos, #1 from my brother-in-law, #2 from SF Signal.

Sex and the City: Why the hate?

Disclaimer #1: I liked the Movie.
Disclaimer #2: I am not gay.

Now, I’m not going to claim that Sex and the City is some high water mark of American filmmaking. It is unabashedly what it is, a piece of escapist fantasy— the relationship equivalent of an action movie with sex replacing the cars blowing up and shopping montages instead of chase scenes. It hit exactly the mark it was aiming for, and I can’t imagine that anyone who really enjoyed the series wouldn’t enjoy the movie. I can certainly think of other TV shows that transitioned less gracefully to the big screen.

But I am seeing a lot of hate for the film, and a good portion of it seems to be because it isn’t more than what it is:

From Rick Groen:

This is a pricey handbag of a movie, uncontaminated by anything so crass as substance, filled only with the perfumed air of a culture at rest – concept blissfully free of content.

And you were expecting what, exactly?

Oh yeah, about those counters

No I didn’t forget about them, it’s just this little old thing called revision. See, when I finish a novel and turn it into an editor, it isn’t really finished. Since you all saw those counters grind to a halt I’ve been stuck revising Lilly’s Song for Bantam, and I’m currenly revising Prophets for DAW. I will also be spending the rest of this month revising Valentine’s Night before I finally hand it off to Eleanor. Then I’ll be doing new stuff, working on the second Apotheosis book.