The Success of Novelty

A newcomer makes a new thing and people like the new thing. Then people copy the new thing. But they don’t generally get the same attention and acclaim.

There’s a tendency to ignore novelty, per se, in understanding successes. All these rambunctious Republican real estate criminals going out trying to have affairs with porn stars in preparation to run for the 2020 GOP nomination are evidence of that.

Other times, the copycats do succeed. They find a new angle or do the repeat with more skilled hands, and people enjoy it.

There are several factors at play. One is the tendency for novelty to be a good in itself. The first time you try a fizzy drink, and the carbon dioxide bubbles tickle your tongue.

Another is the opportunity that novelty has to fix attention. The brain works a little harder to understand the activity when it is novel, so the experience is heightened.

There are social factors at work, as well. Spreading novelty has social status. “Jones turned Smith on to these new-fangled talkies that everyone’s now talking about, so Jones is a cool cat.”

Part of that reaction is borne out of the fact that being the first people at a watering hole or hunting ground meant lots of the resource, where being late-comers meant crumbs at best. “Early bird gets the worm,” and the like.

Of course, the legal system has patents, which bestows special rights upon inventors, which can be lucrative. Firsts are celebrated. The first man on the moon, the first steps a baby takes, first spoken word, bronzed baby shoes, all that.

The success of novelty versus of immitators often comes down to the fertility of the ground in the public imagination. If the public sees the new thing as limited, it doesn’t want another. If it sees it as breaking new ground, it wants to see what else is around that area.

How to Medicare for All

The question of whether Medicare for All is the best way forward is being lost in the non-conversation about healthcare. The conservative viewpoint isn’t to do a fair evaluation of alternatives, but to deny problems exist, and so proposals like Medicare for All are attacked relentlessly as impossibilities while any sort of balanced approach is neglected. Sad.

But let’s say you want to Medicare for All, anyway. You have several different transitional problems to deal with.

Transitioning Jobs

Jobs are one of the problems. Lots of people working in for-profit roles in healthcare administration. They do things like formulate the most lucrative way to bill (basically reverse-accountants) insurers and the government. But they also do other things like process claims. Some of those jobs will vanish, while others will be reallocated through a government contracting system.

How many vanish depends on the flavor of the new system. If it keeps fee-for-service, it will be more expensive and retain more jobs. If it moves to billing by condition (instead of separate billing events for a cast, x-ray, etc., you bill for a “broken arm” treatment) or patient, that’s fewer jobs, but lower cost.

So you have a policy tradeoff of choosing cheap and dealing with more job loss and more retraining, or you choose more expensive and deal with higher taxes. Some of the expenses will be paid for by expanding other parts of the medical sphere to provide coverage to unserved and underserved communities and individuals. There will also be some increase in productivity as societal health improves and therefore workers are more productive (they are also more productive when they don’t have to expend a lot of time and effort understanding and navigating a mess of an insurance system). But it’s still a transitional choice to be made.

Transitioning Off Employer-Provided Insurance

This is a big one. The best way to handle it is to set aside a basic Medicare for All structure that will partially replace the employer’s insurance at the next renewal date. The employer can continue to provide a lower-cost supplement on top of that for some period of time (say a decade), which will allow the winding-down of both the firm’s employee-insurance responsibility and the private insurer’s market.

Think of it like any other natural transition. You have a car and drive everywhere. Then alternatives come up and you use them part of the time, where they make the most sense. As those alternatives improve in coverage and cost, you use your car less until you abandon it on the side of the freeway. . . .

The beauty of such a plan is that it lets insurers keep their most profitable business alive (bells and whistles) while they give up the most expensive part (core insurance, including catastrophic stuff). As long as such a plan’s guns are stuck to, it lets them wind down responsibly and with as little pain as possible.

Also, the fact that different employers will have different renewal periods means that the business should wind down in a fairly steady manner.

Age-Based Transitioning

There’s long been talk of expanding Medicare down to younger groups. Pre-retirees, usually. That can still be done in the transition, and it again should benefit private insurers during their twilight years, as older workers are more prone to health events.

The Tax-and-Cost Problem

How do you pay for it? Is there a pot of gold we can get and it’ll solve everything and we’ll eat our free lunch?

No. Good, old-fashioned taxes. Something like the existing work-credit system where you pay in will be part of it. General income taxes another part. A third part might be a periodic discounted credit-purchasing period. This would be equivalent of a sale. Everyone loves a sale, but the government never puts things on sale. If you let people buy up extra Medicare credits from time to time, they’ll help to top-off the trust fund. There are other things of this nature the government could do that make a lot of sense.

Point is, there are a lot of opportunities to do smart transitioning. It’s not that hard to see the path forward on something like Medicare for All. I’m not convinced it’s the only way forward, but I am convinced it is a way forward, and absent alternatives, none of which the Republicans have shown any desire to entertain anyway, we might as well take it.

On Obsessive Recommendations

One of the challenges facing video platforms today is how to recommend content to users. As mentioned previously, my household recently switched to streaming in lieu of cable TV. On one of the services I watched a film in Spanish and the next time they were recommending me a bunch of Spanish-language films.

There have been a bunch of problems from YouTube creating rabbit holes of content where the recommendation engine over-recommends specific content.

Consider for a moment what it would be like to be transplanted to a world where everybody is obsessed with powdered wigs. You would constantly be hearing about wig powder, wigs, methods for upkeep. . . It’s tiresome just thinking about it. But instead we live in a world where only the wigfolk are obsessed with wigs. And they are obsessed. They go on video sites and watch nothing but wig videos all the time. The recommendation systems learn they want wigs, wigs, wigs. And the wig-lovers community is big enough that when someone new comes along who loves wigs, the system quickly recommends them a bunch of wig videos and they watch them all.

So your friend is reading about ancient times and happens to have a question about wigs. They go on the video site and find a video that answers the question. But now the friend is getting tons of video recommendations about wigs! Oh no!

Oh, yes. If we train the computers to be obsessed with obsession, they will try to find our obsessions. They will bombard us with every topic someone obsessed over and see if they can obsess us.

One wonders whether David Foster Wallace was right about Infinite Jest, but it will one day be an errant piece of video content that happens to find the nexus of everyone’s obsessions and the video recommendation systems will recommend it over and over so that it’s the only thing anyone can watch. But that’s not the point.

The point is that recommending content is fine, but it should not be obsessive. There has to be a better way.

The other side of the coin is when the obsession is what the user wants. If you have an account dedicated to video game news, you want it to be obsessed with that topic. You don’t want to see anything else when you use that account. That may be where some of the errant training arose in some of the recommendation systems.

The logical tweak to the recommendation systems would be to try to detect the type of account. Assume it’s a non-obsessive account, and only once the user has done enough to signal otherwise should the system switch over to obsessive mode. One would guess this would fix things for a lot of recommendation systems.

To go back to my Spanish film example, it’s likely that people who watch a single Spanish language film will want to watch a bunch of them. But maybe not, if they’re like me and only have a functional grasp on the language. So the second fix would be to bucket recommendations. Have a new grouping that says, “Spanish-language Films” and then let the user make the choice. After they show the preference for that bucket, the system can assume it was correct.

It reminds me of the old joke about a blind food test that got mixed up with a blind toothpaste test, and. . . you guessed it: four out of five dentists recommend Spot’s Dog Food (also, dogs hate toothpaste). Or, to put it the other way, if you put dog food up against bacon and steak, you’ll find out what dogs really want to eat. If the recommendation system only offers the user one type of content, there’s no guarantee that the recommendation system is worth a damn. It’s only when the user can choose the obsession over the myriad alternatives that you know (which, of course, is why faux capitalists always want to limit the competition—if your choice is dog food or more dog food, you’ll choose dog food).

The Steam Trade-off as a Linux User

With the excitement around Epic launching their own store and the advent of fresh competition for Valve’s Steam, here are some thoughts from a Linux gamer perspective.

First, what is the meaning of Steam or any storefront? They are a middleman, providing a marketplace for games to be bought and sold. But they are also a steward of that market, providing a common tissue for the delivery of the games, for the discussion and discovery, and all these other features. Some have more popular off-platform competitors. Others are too ingrained in the platform to be competed on without an alternative platform.

But one of the thing that Valve is doing with Steam, which it seems unlikely that Epic or any of the newcomers will do, is to spend resources in the interest of Linux-based gaming. They have supported Linux for several years now, including for their own games. They are doubling-down on this support with the SteamPlay/Proton integration that allows for Windows games to be run on Linux through an implementation of the Windows APIs.

Part of what you pay for when you pay the “Steam tax” (or the “Epic tax” or any other share of a sale that goes to an intermediary) is for the other activities a platform or marketplace delivers. Whether that’s Linux support or community forums or ARGs, the business decides what to deliver and thereby justify their fee.

The option of going to Epic’s store, or to other stores, is weaker for Linux due to lack of support. Steam deciding to make Proton such a first-class offering only makes that proposition weaker. For Linux gaming at the moment, Steam is the most attractive option, and there are no signs of that changing soon.

Steam currently supports gaming for Linux, but if they didn’t, Linux gamers would keep using WINE directly, as we did before 2013. As long as Valve is investing in Linux, though, their tax seems like a fair deal for Linux users, when the alternative is Epic’s lower tax but nothing for Linux.

Thoughts on Cord Cutting

My household recently stopped subscribing to traditional cable television in favor of contract-free streaming alternatives. Here are some thoughts.

Back in late 2007 I bought a Hauppauge TV capture card and used MythTV to capture and record television on a Linux-based computer. For a time the programming data was free, but eventually that community transitioned to a paid version as the free data was no longer available.

But TV circa 2008 was still the best TV has been for me, in terms of experience. Unfortunately, with the advent of HD, HDMI, and copy protection, that experience was no longer available. It’s a damned shame, and it has only strengthened my belief that the competition and copyright law have failed consumers. But now there are some bright spots with the advent of non-cable offerings.

We went with Roku to get the videos on the TVs. Roku seems to be the big name in third-party hardware. If the FCC hadn’t decided to can the rule changes to allow third-party cable boxes, who knows how much that market could have expanded (probably encompassing streaming video and providing a useful bridge for the market), but for now Roku seems like the best option. It’s not a company with outside focuses like hardware or retail, so, like Tivo, they should have an incentive to deliver a good, focused product without encumberments. But one hopes that more vendors and options will crop up to compete in this space.

The hardware itself works well. One caveat that wasn’t clear when we were setting up: you should consider making multiple Roku accounts for multiple devices. If you do not, they “mirror” each other so that apps installed on one Roku are available on the others. If you want customization on each one, you need separate accounts. (This is dumb, of course; Roku can and should let the users decide on account separation and device separation… separately.)

In terms of content-parity, we aren’t missing much, and what’s missing is owed to the tradeoff in price and usability rather than a market deficiency. Some of the cable channels want to continue to bundle and to charge higher prices, and some of the streaming services are looking to keep prices down. On the other hand, there’s still a bunch of sports and other content that we don’t care about but are still included. A la carte it is not, but given how long it took the market to get to this point, it’s one step at a time.

We’re saving a lot of money, too. That was the prime driver of our switch: the rates kept going up year-to-year, and we didn’t care to throw a tantrum just to see the price drop a little. The cable provider loses a dependable chunk of income because they couldn’t manage their pricing properly. The cable industry is regulated at the federal, state, and local level, and yet they regularly manage to rip people off. Talk about underregulation! Can I get an amen, my conservative brethren?!

In terms of user-interface, I wouldn’t say that the Roku is better. The apps on it are developed by the respective media companies or their contractors. They have their bright and dark spots. The cable box interface was always pretty bad, and none of them can touch MythTV circa 2008 in terms of utility, but they’re all more or less usable.

There’s an overemphasis on showing you posters rather than text, of arranging things in grids that don’t typewriter-cycle (i.e., don’t go from the top right item to the bottom left if you continue to go right past the end of the row). Some of the services have weird rules about watching things “live” (at broadcast time) rather than waiting a half-hour, or rules about fast-forwarding if you watch a “recording” after a certain period of time (because they want you to watch commercials?).

It’s all very absurdist, but cable television was, too.

The main benefit is price and the promise of increased competition that comes from the lack of a contract with any of the services. If the price starts rising on our current selections, we can change or drop them as needed. But choice is a factor, too. We may yet try some of the alternatives that have their own original content. For now we’re sticking with a pretty minimal option. There’s always something to watch, and there isn’t a lot of pressure to watch the next big thing.