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.

Best If Argued By: Socialism Edition

Socialism is the reason that Venezuela is a hellbasket? Capitalism caused the 2008 recession? Maybe if the groundhog saw it shadow, it’s sixty more years of arguing about Socialism/Communism/Capitalism, and if the groundhog did a Fortnite dance, moving on to something useful is just around the corner.

Socialism versus Capitalism was best-if-argued-by 1969, at the latest.

Some people never grow out of the phase of thought that dictates that “my -ism is better than your -ism,” failing to recognize the inherent framework-as-map-is-not-the-territory-reality of the thing.

If you’re socialist, but you think that people aren’t going to want a medium of exchange and therefore some level of commerce, shame on you. If you’re a wallet-toting capitalist, but you believe that victims should pay jails to hold their assailants, I nod and smile and look for the nearest exit.

Socialism, writ-large, is a non-starter for the USA. That’s not the point. Unfettered capitalism is also a non-starter. But cries of “Socialism!” are worthless. They avoid the policy discussion.


We keep having the same silly arguments that have no impact on anything. They are often stand-ins for the real arguments we should be having (anybody whose interacted with humans should recognize that phenomena). Arguments about tax rates, improving regulation while lowering regulatory burdens, about different structures that hold corporations accountable through insurance requirements rather than per-se regulation.

Of course, the anti-tax folks don’t want to have a reasoned argument about tax rates. They want to kill the discussion with a cliche reference to socialism. But the rest of the world doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring reality in favor of a soundbite. The same goes for climate issues, where the GOP has no policy, hasn’t begun to formulate a policy, and rejects the very existence of climate policy.

The pattern is there, of one party either adopting a wholly inadequate solution or simply ignoring the problem. Immigration is the same thing. Until there’s a spaceship-style airlock on the southern border, passing immigration reform is impossible for the GOP. Good luck with that.


And that’s the problem with American politics. The conservatives still think we’re having an argument about these things. The liberals know we’re past that, and we’re on to finding the right policy to address the issues. Climate, healthcare, taxes, paid family leave, take your pick. Society has recognized the need, but one party is still back at the starting line arguing about whether the go-shot has been fired.

Sure, you can bait a liberal into arguing about capitalism versus socialism, but if you ask them about an actual policy position, they won’t start with, “Socialism dictates the correct choice is …” They aren’t dyed-in-the-wool about it. They want a better society, not one that adheres to some fantasy government league regime. They aren’t beholden to the meta-game. They just want sick people to get better, poor people to have a fair shake, and for the oceans not to engulf all of Florida.

The 2020 Election, First Thoughts

Anybody knows we need a better choice in 2020, and not some billionaire who thinks he alone can fix it. The question is how to get there.

What I’ll be looking for is two-fold:

  1. Serious policy—Do they have proposals for the major challenges we face? Healthcare? Climate change? Poverty? Infrastructure?
  2. Seriousness about policy—Do they have alternatives? How will they get the legislators on board?

Horse racing is not something worth visiting. If any candidate waves their hands at a serious problem, they aren’t a serious candidate. If any candidate can’t talk about the heavy lifting, or says our challenges are insurmountable or would require something scary like socialism, and so we can’t fix the thing, they aren’t serious candidates.

Medicare for All is still just one way to achieve universal, affordable healthcare. But the achievement is necessary for our society. If it takes socialism, in that small part, just as defense does, then we’ll do more socialism. If you don’t like it, propose something better or lobby for an opt-out for yourself on grounds that you’re a billionaire who is afraid of people having access to healthcare.

We’re past the point of no-return, we have to do the things our society needs to thrive in the coming centuries. Those who want to pretend it’s 1952 can find the nearest time machine and run against Eisenhower and Stevenson.

In 2020, and beyond, we can remain flexible about how things work, but not in the need for them to work. Any serious candidate knows that, welcomes tough compromise that will result in putting the choices we face in starker terms, that will propel better future compromises. Government is expensive, but the costs are minimal compared to what our world would be without government. Those who want that world can also find a time machine and go for it.

And remember, the president only signs the bills into law and appoints the people that implement them. It all still has to go through a fairly conservative legislature. Medicare for All will be a heavy lift, but having leadership willing to step up to that stone and to try to pull the stone from it is something better than one who will say, “If it’s broken, why fix it?”

How High Should Taxes Be?

70% on the ten-million-and-first dollar? A wealth tax? How high should we tax the wealthy?

First, why do we tax at all? The theory of taxation is that, contrary to those who call it theft, taxation is payment of debt. By virtue of the services rendered, the tax is how the services are paid for. Larger earners, conducting more commercial activity, using more of the legal system, shipping inspection, and so forth, are to pay a higher percentage due to their higher rewards and higher use.

Economists get into the effects of tax more than the reasons for it, or the fairness of it. Things like the Laffer Curve are drawn up, to theorize that taxation matters a lot and that government revenue can be equal at very different places along the curve, while private spending and overall economy can be very different. Politically-embedded economists thus focus on an apolitical, theoretical system to make a political argument.

But the woman waiting for a bus to take her to her minimum-wage job isn’t rewarded by such abstractions. She knows that the nominal rate and the effective rate are about the same for her, while they are a Grand Canyon apart for those who can afford a team of accountants. She knows that she could pay 100% of her whole life’s wages and never pay as much as some of the wealthiest should in a single year.

None of which answers the question of how high taxes should be. The ultimate answer to that query is that nobody knows, and unfortunately, we’re not planning to find out. The answer to how high taxes should be is that we should adjust them continuously, and find out based on the experimentation. That we have the knowledge and ability to do so, we lack only the political will.

For example, we could start with the current tax rates, and make half-point adjustments to all brackets, or add new brackets and adjust those too. As long as the timing is regular and the adjustments are gradual, we can account for a lot of the noise. As long as we are willing to tweak the rates based on current conditions, lowering taxes in recessionary times, raising them in times of health, the slow and methodical march of the tax rates could yield us with something better than arguing will.

The interest rate already works this way. Is it not time for the tax rate to join it?

Steamworks’ Announced Changes for 2019

Steam: Steamworks Development: 14 January 2019: “2018 Year in Review” announced some expected changes in 2019, including:

  • Steam Library Update—A refresh of the Steam client akin to the refresh of the Steam Chat that occurred in 2018.
  • New Events System—A way for games (and groups?) to announce non-release events to their followers.
  • Steam Chat for Mobile—Apparently a separate app that includes the upgrades to Steam Chat on the client.
  • Steam Trust—A provider-side reputation system that helps games moderate their players better.

Valve-time being a thing, we’ll see if these rollout this year (there were others, but these were the ones that interested me).

Library update

The Library refresh has been pending for several years and is long-expected and desired (though undoubtedly subject to backlash by a vocal minority). Games have changed a lot over the years, but the Steam Library view has stayed the same, so it will be interesting to see what this ends up looking like. It will also be interesting to see if there’s any visual-crossover between the refresh of the Library and Big Picture Mode.

At least some of the facilities mentioned in my recent post about instrumenting games for streaming could be useful for a future version of the Steam Library. For example, logging capabilities in games could easily populate the game-view in the library with details from your last game session.

Events system update

The events system is primarily an opportunity to let developers remind players about their game over time, in ways they largely already do on Twitter, but where many players may not see them. It’s not clear if the event system will apply to groups as well. Groups have been able to announce events for awhile, but if they’re granted the same abilities under the new system, it could be a shot in the arm for social-on-Steam, particularly when many gamers are far more reliant on Discord.

A full-featured event system could even let non-group events happen in the vein of “bowling night” among friends. If a group of friends likes to play together at a set time every week, Steam could enable that without them needing to create a full-on group. If game makers wanted to encourage that among players, they could also be empowered to do so.

Steam chat for mobile

The advent of a separate app for chat seems unwise (the language in the announcement is: “We’re going to ship a new Steam Chat mobile app…”). Hopefully they mean that they’ll ship a new version of the Steam app that includes chat upgrades. If not, oy. There’s a new contender to replace the old law that all applications expand to encompass e-mail: all providers expand to release a mobile chat application.

Steam Trust as a service

And Steam Trust will be welcome to the extent it helps reduce griefing and cheating in multiplayer games.


The Steam Client Beta for Linux added a force-Proton option on 17 January 2019, which is great news and shows that Valve is hitting the ground running this year. The option allows Linux gamers to choose to run the Windows version even when a Linux version exists, which may help in some circumstances:

  1. Bad ports—Not all Linux ports of games are up to snuff.
  2. Upstream bugs—Whether in the game’s engine or a video driver, sometimes bugs in other places break the native version, but not the Proton version.
  3. Missing features—Some ports are great, but for whatever reason miss a feature or two. Being able to use the native version for just those cases is a great option to have.

There are arguments about whether Proton diminishes the desire of developers to write Linux-native games or to invest in ports to Linux, but Valve’s strategy is two-fold:

  1. Get people playing on Linux, especially those who already love Linux but feel bound to Windows for a few games.
  2. Invest in Vulkan and other technologies that lower the cost of writing cross-platform games.

The latter is especially important, as games that aren’t written for Windows-specific APIs are much easier to port to Linux. It’s a longer-term strategy, but it should pay off both in better game performance generally and in portability.