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Giving Scroll a Shot

Scroll is the latest attempt to monetize news sites without advertising. It’s another variation on a theme, as there is demand for a better model and there is some amount of reader money sitting idle, and there are very annoying ads to not be served.

Their model is $5 monthly and they say they give a cut to the sites based on how much you read. So their model is really about like cable television: if they can match enough readers with enough sites, it works. You won’t read every site, and so it’s a numbers game of hitting the right mixtures to attract enough readers.

My preferred model would still include a per-article split, plus some way to influence the split if you really enjoyed a particular article on a particular site. But it’s worth a shot.

There are a few things I hope will eventually happen, regardless of this iteration of pay-news’ success. First, some kind of standards for advertising is obviously needed. Readers should be able to set what kind of ads they find acceptable, whether that’s text-only, no-animation, no-video, no-sound.

Sites should be prohibited from replacing ads after the page has loaded. The Washington Post has been bad about that for some time, and Ars Technica does it, too.

Sites should not shift text while loading ads or while you scroll. It is a mortal sin to pull text out from under the reader’s eyes. Anyone in the business of putting words in front of readers should know better.

The other thing would be a better relationship between readers and news sites. There’s a kind of hostility by the sites (I don’t interact with the readers, so maybe there’s hostility there, too), where using an ad-blocker or trying to read a one-off article is met with a kind of creepy store clerk hovering on you as you browse. “What, you don’t want to see our obnoxious (potentially malicious) ads?” “You know, you can’t come in the store again if you don’t buy something.”


Probably the big problem will be—for now—lack of selection and lack of easily knowing which sites are which. I tend to read articles on sites I’m more familiar with, because I know what to expect ad-wise. Will a random site be a clusterfuck? Happens often enough. So I’ll actually search for an alternative site with a similar article, if I think it’s less trouble than clicking through to a mess of a site.

Which is the other thing I eventually hope to see: standards of content display that go beyond advertising standards. Most dead-tree newspapers had pretty similar formats. They were built for reading, and they did it with minimal nonsense and minimal stylization. But the web, every site has to be overdesigned. That’s one of the reasons I’ve mostly given up on customizing styles on this site—hopefully it makes things a bit more standard, a bit less of a bother to whoever the heck reads this.

Anyway, for now I’m giving it a try. I don’t actually read most of the sites in Scroll’s list, but some of them were excluded because of their paywalls. So maybe now I’ll read them some more and see what’s what.

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What Does Wall Street Fear in Warren?

The word is that Wall Street doesn’t want to buy what Elizabeth Warren is selling. There are doommongers claiming large drops in stock prices, corporate earnings, plus wealth fleeing the country, should the Massachusetts senator be elected president.

The problem is simple enough. They fear broad changes to our system. They fear tax hikes (including a likely-unworkable wealth tax) and regulations. They don’t want those things for themselves, and they see them as harmful to the economy and to America.

They don’t have, apparently, anything to say about the problems of this country as they exist today (nor those on the horizon). It is only the future problems that Warren might cause, assuming a zombified Congress that passes everything she campaigns on, that have their starched collars falling limp with sweat.

What gives?

It’s a pattern they should be familiar with, after all. A firm grows plump and lazy, lets its problems build up, and then someone like Warren comes in and chops it up and sells off the parts. Wall Street is the fattened Thanksgiving turkey, ripe for a Warren slaughter, no?

Once again we visit two favorite issues: healthcare and climate.

On healthcare, Medicare-for-All is attractive to some because it provides not just coverage, but security in coverage. People are tired of worrying what the next premium hike will be, whether the Republicans will repeal their care altogether, whether the drug that is keeping them alive will see its price spike, or whether it will disappear entirely when it’s no longer profitable to keep them alive.

Warren backs Medicare-for-All for the security it establishes in a vital sector of our economy, precisely because there has been no security offered by the commercial interests. The invisible hand hasn’t healed itself of the basic problems of scarcity in the face of necessity. If it could, maybe Wall Street could avoid a big structural change. But they haven’t made any calls-to-action on that front.

The market signal is as loud as the church bells of old, calling all to attention. Yet it is only used to signal how dysfunctional the system has become. It doesn’t seek to improve the systems, only to exploit them. Go figure that a lot of people see that and wonder what’s the point of having a big, fancy society if it fails on basic tasks. And that’s not even getting into the national security implications of an inadequate healthcare system.

On climate, we face similar challenges and, like healthcare, climate seeps into the whole economy because every good or service needs energy and that means it needs to be included in ensuring we aren’t setting up our future to be throttled by nature’s own big structural change. Yet the Wall Street crowd is drooling over buying into an IPO of Saudi Arabia’s oil. They obviously don’t get it. Again, no calls-to-action, no lobbying for an across-the-board regulation, like a carbon tax, so that no one sector is singled out. Just a wait-and-see, let’s-not-get-ahead-of-ourselves, maybe-we-can-make-a-lot-of-money-off-of-our-childrens’-miseries approach. Good-luck-with-that.

When a firm is failing to keep itself up, the private equity firms step in. They are the slaughterhouses of commerce, experts at identifying the prime cuts, slicing them off, selling them, and then leaving the carcass behind. And any state-of-nature ecosystem needs predation to cull the weaklings and keep the herd strong. But right now Wall Street is looking like that weakling that is holding back growth, slowing things up, blocking migration to greener fields. If they have the ability to change their ways, so be it. If not, they have to expect nature to take its course.


On the political side of things, Warren is locked-in on Medicare-for-All. Which is what it is. Campaigns need bright-line ideas to appeal to voters, but there are a lot of opportunities outside of that plan to improve healthcare and the larger society at the same time. In all cases, they prospect better economic outcomes and larger GDP as a result (which is one of the many reasons one must question the capacity of Wall Street in these matters).

Once the party nominee is chosen, though, whether Warren or someone else, their healthcare plan will be compared to Donald John Trump’s… his, uhm… What I’m apparently reading is that the president’s campaign doesn’t actually have any plan at all for healthcare (or any other major issue). He’s not fit to govern, and Wall Street should literally be begging (they might have to take a few classes to get down the basics) for a coherent leader like Warren, even if they disagree, because they can work on compatible solutions with her, where with Trump, you can’t compromise with chaos.

For clarity, those who are proposing things that approach the scale of the problem are those pushing for things like Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal. Those aren’t the best solutions, but they at least get the magnitude right. Those who are proposing less-than-correct options are those pushing for public options or electric vehicle credits. Those who aren’t proposing anything: the GOP and Wall Street.

Other big-idea ideas (or parts thereof) do suck. Take the free-college stuff. They don’t propose building more colleges, which is a big flashing-red light. Increasing demand without increasing supply is bonkers. Wealth taxes miss the mark, not because of their inherent problems (though they do suffer from those), but because they are much easier to enact through alternative means such as luxury taxes, VATs, and real estate taxes (particularly alternative-use taxes that recognize, e.g., a big estate in a place that could use low-income housing is an inherent inefficiency that should be taxed as such). But those are a stories for another time.

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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.

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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.

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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.