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.

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.

Set-top Competition is the Medicine Cable Needs

The FCC has been trying, after last decades attempts fell flat, to open the set-top box market to competition. Cable companies make a lot of money off of forcing subscribers to rent boxes, which are often underperforming and ill-equipped to serve the modern video consumption habit.

Cable is in a bad position as streaming continues to expand, with advertising and subscriber revenues expected to continue falling. The one thing that could help the market transition smoothly, the advent of the all-comer hardware device, is being actively resisted by the industry that needs it the most.

The proposal was already corrupted in a switch from an API-based model where access comes to the companies to an App-based model where the companies go to the devices. Now it is stalled completely.

The cable company is protecting its box rental revenue and its subscriber revenue at a time when it has enough of both to take a hit and resettle its place in the content delivery field. Instead, as entrenched industries are wont to do, it is fighting against the inevitable. It will see its revenues dwindle anyway, and its corpses (or at least the cable-related appendages; the ISP parts may survive) will then be swallowed by the new generation of media companies.

It is the same sort of short-sighted behavior that threatens our planet when major energy conglomerates don’t buy into the next generation of renewable energy. We may not see the pattern repeated with the auto industry, but that will likely depend on how fast they can merge as fleets of autotaxis become the norm.

What is clear is that the Republican seats on the FCC are actively blocking competition, which is antithetical to the Republican charge that free markets rule. The anti-regulation strain of so-called conservativism is stronger than the free market strain, when the two principles find themselves in opposition.

The lack of easy, integrated media devices will continue to drive consumers away from cable, as most streaming services are available through a single device. Media consumption is largely a social behavior, with people watching content those around them also watch. A generation is growing up without caring about traditional content delivery, and cable is basically ignoring that and fighting against a shift that’s already happening.

The best choice for cable would be to embrace the FCC’s original plan, lobby for the door to be two-way (allowing them to support streaming content on their own hardware offerings), and fight to make the best interface they can at the best price they can. They could even try to strike some subscription deals with streaming services, offering their subscribers the ability to add streaming packages in exchange for a finder’s fee.

Unfortunately, the bigwigs in the cable companies think that this is a very different year, where they can afford to weather the storm. They are betting that the unfathomable will come to pass and their ship will magically right itself. They are foolish for thinking this.

Thoughts on Steam Trade Holds (Escrow)

Valve’s Steam service is set to roll out an escrow on non-two-factor-authorized trades. They are calling this a “Trade Hold.”

Alice wants Bob’s hat and Bob wants Alice’s key. They agree to trade.

Alice has Steam Guard Mobile Authenticator (SGMA), Bob does not. After the trade, they wait three days to get their items.

At this point, it’s unknown whether Alice could know at the point of trade whether she was risking the trade hold. It seems likely she will, and thus she could avoid it.

Problems with the system include:

  1. People without Android or iOS devices being unable to use SGMA.
  2. Automated trades via bots being unable to deal with escrow without major changes.
  3. People feeling that, generally, they are being disadvantaged due to a minority of users who fall for scams or install malware.

Valve has a scam/malware problem masquerading as a customer service problem. They have looked at improving customer service, but correctly realize that will not really solve the problem. They do need better customer service, but they also need to do more to address the problem of fraudulent trading. The escrow is supposed to be a pressure valve, to relieve some stress by limiting the damage that fraud traders can mete out.

Education of users is important, but simultaneously unrealistic short of Valve creating a trading simulator game that people want to play and it teaching them the hard-learned lessons of what to avoid. Users that would be helped by education either already educate themselves or will be a minority. Forcing education (e.g., through testing prior to granting trade privileges) would deter users from trading altogether.

Previously, Valve has used e-mail confirmations. This failed for hijacked accounts, because the users would simply have their e-mail accounts compromised in the hijacking. SGMA differs in that the likelihood of also compromising a mobile device is much lower.

If machine learning is mature enough, Valve may be able to leverage it to identify fraudulent trading patterns in a bulk of cases, in a manner similar to the credit card industry. It isn’t clear if it is up to this task, nor is it clear how easily Valve could implement such a filter. It seems reasonable to expect that will be a large part of their eventual strategy in fraud prevention.

What does not seem likely is Valve Customer Service becoming a peudo-law-enforcement agency. Investigating claims of fraud and trying to uncover the realities of events after the fact is just not in the cards for a video game services company. They will undoubtedly continue to seek to prevent the fraud.

It seems reasonable to say nobody wants to wait three days for a trade to go through, including Valve who will have to keep track of the trades. But Valve also does not want to have the volume of scammed items and problems sustain their current rates or grow. So they have to keep trying stuff, even if the community feels burdened.

Some minority of users may circumvent the protections of SGMA via emulators and desktop applications implementing the HMAC technology that SGMA uses. It’s a risk, and there doesn’t seem to be a easy way to avoid it, but that user count will likely stay small, sustaining the general integrity of SGMA/trade holds.

Reading the TPP

Probably not much use, but I skimmed the TTP and noted some things along the way.

  1. Rules of origin decide whether and how much of a product came from a country. Important because stuff gets made over many steps and things like tariff classification may depend on it. Often companies try to cheat on this, so that they can avoid tariffs. The cheating, in some circumstances, is referred to as a spaghetti bowl effect, due to the criss-crossing and subterfuge involved.
  2. The obvious remark that legal documents themselves often suffer from the spaghetti bowl effect, insofar as they (see annex IV.3 of subchapter 0x0b9) are half-constructed of references to other sections, documents, etc. Reading any legal document (law, treaty, or otherwise) often requires reading every other legal document in existence (in triplicate).
    I do wonder whether there are any formal studies done of this, and whether there is some sort of mathematical law describing the length of a document to the length of a document’s references/incorporations.
  3. The amount of effort involved in tracking the origin of goods would seem to suggest that the system is ripe for augmentation with information such as the wage-of-creation-to-poverty-level information that could result in economic pressure for better wages across the globe.
  4. Emergency measures for a variety of causes including large swings in volume of import/export of food and other goods in cases of famine, ability to protect in cases of health, safety, civil war, etc.
  5. “For Peru, all distilled spirits with less than 10% alc/vol must have a date of minimum durability.” That’s a footnote which seems to contradict the language it’s noted on (that “[n]o Party may require… a date of minimum durability… except… on account of their packaging… or the addition of perishable ingredients…”). Shrug.
  6. Can’t require a producer of commercial software to give up their private key as a condition of sale (unless it’s being sold to a government). But: doesn’t stop law enforcement from requiring they decrypt, either.
  7. Can’t require sale or financial data on pharmaceuticals (and should “endeavor not to require pricing data”) when determining whether drugs can be sold.
  8. British English: “programme” keeps coming up, which I always read as an invitation to brainwash the writer.
  9. Some anti-spam stuff (among other consumer protection measures), but we’ll see how much it helps.
  10. Can’t require source code for importation, except for critical infrastructure.
  11. “The Parties recognise the importance of a rich and accessible public domain.” And yet, they do nothing to strengthen it. They even use the cliche “fallen into the public domain” instead of something more appropriate like, “lofted up into the public domain, now unfettered by the mortal whims of the fools that created it.”
  12. Chapter 20, “Environment,” mentions the ozone layer, but nothing about climate change.

Well, that was fun.