Monday, May 17, 2010

On Pirates

As you might expect, I think a fair amount about piracy. This comes up more in my life than in many people's life, because I'm touching on many different kinds of piracy due to my diverse (IE, random) interests.

Most geeks just think about software, music, and movie piracy, but there's a lot of other kinds of piracy that don't usually get mentioned because this crowd doesn't really encounter them much. For example, if you're an artist with a web presence, you've probably had your artwork pirated. Sometimes this is just by someone who wants a cool-looking picture for their homepage, but sometimes it's by a corporation who puts it on shirts or mugs or whatever.

This kind of piracy feels a lot more "bad", because these people are copying something directly owned by a particular creator. But I'm not sure that it is bad. Or, rather, I think that this is a lumpy situation where we've put dozens of different things in with the same label, just to make things as mind-bogglingly inconvenient as possible.

Here's another example: there are now no less than two web sites actively republishing this blog. I post, they clone the post and put it on their site. With ads and, in one case, malware. Not an RSS feed: a full republication. Since one of my cloners has a higher Google rank than me, you may even be reading this on their system: if it's not on my ProjectPerko stationary, you're reading an illegal copy.

My blog isn't very popular, so I can only imagine that bigger names have a lot more cloners.

It seems to me we have several different kinds of things going on, and that it's not just law that hasn't caught up: it's us. We haven't caught up. Our language is not keeping up.

Someone who clones all your content instantly and uses it to make money/spread malware for their own benefit is one kind of thing. Someone who uses something you made for personal use - such as on their personal web page or for their chat avatar - is another kind of thing. And someone who copies content with the intention to enjoy it without paying you what you requested is a third category entirely. There are probably other categories, but these are the three I can see.

They exist for three different reasons. I call these three things "resale", "use", and "blockade" piracy. I keep using the word piracy because I like the word piracy, but some things covered in fair use are so close to these that they are almost identical. Only the vagaries of law and corporate meddling have made us view some of these as piracy and others as legal. For example, reselling video games is not legal by EULA and clearly fits as "resale piracy", but it's legal.

Resale piracy is, in my mind, the worst. These are people using your content to make a profit and they never negotiated with you to cut you in on it. These people are outright thieves: they are literally taking something of value away from you, unlike most "piracy", which is just copying data that they wouldn't have bought anyway. Resale piracy is complex, and we need to think about it some more: once someone has obtained your product, what are their rights? Can they resell it to someone for a profit? Can they clone it and sell the clones? Can they display it publicly? Can they use it to increase traffic to their site? These questions are hard because the types of uses we normally accept vary so widely by type of medium.

On the other hand, use piracy is probably the most forgivable kind of piracy, to the point where when I see someone getting upset about it, I dismiss them as a control freak. If someone uses your art in a music video, or as a chat avatar, or whatever, I have a hard time getting upset about it. They aren't making any money out of it, they aren't stealing any money from you, at worst they do nothing, at best you get some people interested in your art. A lot of these people either do not give credit to the original artist, or actively claim that they are the original artist. This is kind of an asshole thing to do, but I still don't see it as much of a problem. If they do give credit, I have a very hard time taking your offense seriously. There are some situations where this might be bad - for example, if someone co-opts your art, adds a swastika, and makes it their neo-Nazi homepage. But, in general, that's vanishingly rare.

The most common kind of piracy, at least as far as I can tell, is "blockade piracy". This is when you've attempted to gate your content, to control its spread, and people decide they'd prefer to have it without the interference. This brings us to the touchiest part of the situation.

I think most people would agree that resale piracy is bad and use piracy is not very bad. But very few people think that blockade piracy is halfway between them: I think most people either view blockade piracy as bad, or as not very bad.

That's another article on its own. I just wanted to post about how we keep lumping different things together under the mantle of "piracy".

Monday, May 10, 2010


A few days ago I looked at my opinions on modern software. I've found myself absolutely hating most of the software that comes out these days. I thought, "well, am I just getting old?"

But, no, I like lots of new software... I just don't like the brand name new software. Why is that? How could I possibly hate every brand name product?

After examining the software and my priorities, I have come to the conclusion that I am not wrong. All new brand name software sucks. Lemme explain.

The thing that really gets under my skin is the lock-in. Modern, brand name software is all about locking in the user, making the leash as tight as they can make it. They will actually cripple their software just to make the leash tighter.

An obvious example is Apple. Apple's products should be a joy to use, but whenever I sit down to use an iPhone or an iPad, I feel a great weight. It's as if somebody is sitting on my shoulders, wheezing and trying to cover my eyes. And every generation of Apple product, that guy gets fatter, wheezier, and sicker.

Sometimes the examples are more subtle. Microsoft's use of a ribbon is a brilliant and subtle way to raise a barrier, preventing people from switching to a competitor that's using classic menus. This is why Microsoft is happy to give away Office 2007 to many people, to get them used to ribbons. Office 2010 is also being given away - for example, a public school I'm familiar with is upgrading from Office 2007 to Office 2010, presumably for free, even though there is no reason to do so. Once the people at the school are comfortable with 2010, it will be almost impossible to convince them that another product is as good. People, in this case, also includes children.

Every brand name product has this kind of sleazy lock-in. Whenever I read about a new product by a big company, such as "the Amazon Cloud", I can feel a fat, wheezy guy getting into position behind me and starting to sweat with the excitement of a potential new user.

It's a desperate attempt to stay in business, you see. It's inevitable. This is not railroads, this is not farming, this is not oil drilling. Small software companies are faster and more dangerous than big software companies. Five guys and five hundred guys competing to make a social networking site? I'll bet on the team of five any day of the week.

The big companies cannot keep their customers without using brutal amounts of leverage.

I pity them, but I also pity roundworms and politicians.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Social Play and Superheroes

I was thinking about a way of creating adaptable social play in games - the sort of thing where the NPCs are social algorithmically, rather than in a scripted manner. This is not the same as a plot or drama engine, but it's still a hard problem.

Classically, the real problem is not that the social aspect is hard. Plots and real drama are hard, but just general social activity isn't. In fact, the problem is the opposite: it's far too cut and dry. When implemented, it ends up being painfully simplistic. This is because the basic idea of "he likes you, she doesn't like you" is a very simple one. Switching from one to the other is very basic. You can hide the simple nature of the switching behind complicated minigames or weird requirements. You can hide the simple nature of the like/dislike axis by adding lots of things that can happen when they like or dislike you. But, fundamentally, it's a very simple axis that moves in very simple ways. This makes it too basic to really use.

A few years back I ran a LARP-y board game where the players were psychics. They each had unique psychic powers which could only be recharged when they were in specific situations.

Some of these situations were social. For example, one person might recharge one of their powers if someone nearby laughed. Another might recharge if they agreed to help someone. Other situations weren't overtly social, but ended up shaping the social landscape. For example, in order to recharge his power, this person has to end the turn alone (out of sight of the others). Another charges her power if he takes a point of damage, while another charges his power by healing someone.

It occurs to me now that that might be a suitable way to get social interactions out of NPCs. Each character in the board game had four powers and four ways to charge, which seemed to be plenty. Imagine if you had a superhero game with the same basic philosophy: every superhero has four powers, and any one gains an experience point if you fulfill the situation related to it.

This is a way to give characters "personality", because they want to cause the situation. Our Wolverine analog might gain XP by being alone, being injured, going berserk, and being stealthy. Our Spider-Man analog might gain XP by quipping, seeing happy citizens, hanging out with friends, and rescuing people. These two heroes would have fundamentally different personalities, and would play the game completely differently (whether an NPC or a PC).

When a hero gets a good response out of a person, mission type, or situation, they'll prefer to hang out with them, go on those missions, get into those situations. So if Spider-Man and Wolverine go on a stealth mission to rescue people, Spider-Man will gain XP due to the rescuing and Wolverine due to the stealth. Spider-Man's actual powers are very good at stealth, so Wolverine will probably gain quite a few stealth-mission points, which will actually make him likely to hang out with Spider-Man in the future, which will in turn give Spider-Man his "hang out with friends" XP, and they'd end up hitting it off pretty well.

It's not an empty "we're buddies" status, though, because Spider-Man is continually quipping to get his quip-XP, and Wolverine has no love of quips. So there's going to be a "why does Wolverine put up with him?" vibe. The answer is "because missions with Spider-Man are likely to be stealthy and let me go berserk and get injured."

Villains are simply the same sort of thing, except that the way they earn their XP is less positive. Spider-Man is unlikely to end up as a villain because of his "smiling citizen" XP gain, but, then, the Joker has the same thing. Wolverine would seem to be primed for villainy, but it's all about who he teams up with, who he falls in with.

Anyway, I think it's an interesting idea. I wonder if it would work.

Monday, May 03, 2010


I've been thinking about the internet. And things that aren't the internet.

Specifically, I've been thinking about safety nets.

In the past, humans have innovated many kinds of safety nets to make sure that they can survive a temporary misfortune. For example, brotherhoods, fraternities, and "secret societies" such as Freemasons largely served the purpose of binding working men together such that they could ride out any personal storms with the support of the group. Many such societies explicitly spelled out the support they would offer, while others (such as the Freemasons) didn't. But either way, you could expect some support if you broke your leg and couldn't work for a few weeks.

Religions serve this purpose as well, although their membership tends to be more diverse so their social support structure is also more diverse. It's no coincidence that both religion and fraternities do better when the economy is faltering: that's when people need stability and support.

There are loads of other structures to help the "in" group. It can be argued that in societies with extensive family structures (such as a stereotypical Italian or Greek family), those family structures serve much of the same role as a fraternity would, in terms of supporting the members that need it and kicking the lazy ones when they need it.

As a secular humanist, I worry about secular support structures. Religion isn't secular. Secret societies are rarely secular, and don't fit into current culture. Familial support structures are fine, but we aren't a familial nation, so they also do not fit into our culture. There are secular groups you can join, but they're more like hobby groups or political activist groups.

What I want is something that can let me help people out when I'm flush, and rely on people like me when I'm not. Charities don't fit the bill for a wide variety of reasons, not least of which is that they aren't a support network, they're a charity. More importantly, I'm talking about helping specific people, not some vague assurance that I'm helping "people", somewhere.

Well, I was funding yet another Kickstarter program when it occurred to me that I was looking at the new support framework.

I do spend a fair amount of money on line, and I spend it on people. Sure, I normally get stuff for my money, but it's more about promoting the growth of these people. As an example, I recently bought a $5 pre-order of a game which will theoretically be $30+ when released. This did not make me happy. I wasn't after a deal: I would have been happier paying $30.

Does this make me unique?

I don't think so. I think it's the fundamental difference between interacting with people and interacting with corporations.

Kickstarter and other similar things are about interacting with people, not companies.

What if something like Kickstarter was crossed with something like Facebook? A place that wasn't simply a social network, but a "this is what I'm working on now, look!" site. I call it "Wickerwork".

Describing Wickerwork won't work if you're not familiar with Kickstarter, or underestimate how much money flows through Kickstarter. Wickerwork is fundamentally Kickstarter, but instead of being project-centric, it's person-centric.

Every few days (or faster), you would update your status. This is the state of the art project we're working on, thanks for funding us. The next project is this one here, get on it if you want us to do it. Etc, etc.

If you break a leg and can't work any more, you can post about that - "oh, no, I broke my leg and can't work the farm! Help!" People will donate, or come down to help, or maybe even create a special offer of their stuff with the proceeds going to you.

The problem with this approach normally is that I don't know you and don't care about you. There's very little interest in helping a random stranger. I have to be aware of you. I don't have to be your buddy, but I have to know you.

Right now we propagate help messages through Twitter or Facebook or whatever, and they're crap at it. I don't know you, your Facebook page is pointless, etc, etc.

Something like Kickstarter is a unique opportunity to know people because you have a historical record of how they work. This lady is a local grower who has had three funded projects, she makes these cute videos about her gardens, she provides local food and seems nice... and she's not just begging for money, she's offering an optional "high-price" version of her normal service, asking for extra hands, has a friend who is selling stuff to help her (as well as accepting donations if you just want to give, of course). In this situation, even if I don't know this lady, I can know her. In just a few minutes, she can establish herself as a person very clearly.

This is a unique advantage of Kickstarter (or, I guess, any project-themed system). Projects are a powerful way to get to know someone. Their favorite music, their profile pic, their thoughts on things like social networking, that's not going to be important to me until they've established themselves as someone who actually exists. And that's easiest done by saying, "I'm the guy who made this documentary" or "I'm the lady with this farm".

It also offers an additional resource in that you can offer further project-related rewards instead of simply begging for money. "Emergency sale of documentary DVDs to pay for my kid's hospital bill!"

Also, because it keeps a record, it will be clear how often you need this kind of help. One problem with simply giving aide is that the incentives are bad, and you can theoretically start to rely on the aide rather than using the aide to get back on your feet. Either way, you could see it quite clearly in their project history.

Now, the problem with Wickerwork is that in order to be involved, you have to be doing Kickstarter-style projects with fair regularity. Saying, "I'm the girl who used to do that local farm thing, but now I work at Dairy Queen full time", that's not going to have the same draw.

This is a huge drawback. Most people don't do Kickstarter-style projects.

Well, the more I think about it, the more I think that maybe they should.

Maybe it would be a much more interesting place if people spent some of their hobby time doing a small escrow-funded project. Think about your hobbies. Could any be adapted to a small, funded project?

Most of them would probably benefit from becoming a small, funded project. The pressure would be just enough to actually finish the things you start.

For example, if you've got a musical hobby, you've probably dreamed of releasing a single, or an album. But chances are you've done neither, or if you have done one, they sank without a blip. Imagine if it had been a "I need $100 to fund recording my single! Maybe it's no good, maybe it's awesome, let's find out!"

Once you released the single, you would have a guaranteed audience, because they spent money on you already. No vanishing without a blip. And you would be driven to finish it, because otherwise you would have to return the $100 plus an extra $10 due to Amazon's fees.

That's what Wickerwork would be about. A continuous boil of small transactions and projects to knit people together quietly and closely.

Some people might be thinking "Nobody would fund that project, this guy's hopelessly optimistic!"

That's the same sort of thought that thinks Wikipedia cannot possibly work. Well, Wikipedia works, and surfing to Kickstarter clearly shows people will fund those sorts of projects.

What do you think?