Friday, February 24, 2006

In Dubai

I'm in Dubai right now, so blogging in general will be light.

However, since Dubai is currently big news in the US because of the decision to award the Dubai Ports World control of various American ports, I thought I would write something about how the issue is being portrayed here.

Firstly, DPW is front page news every day. This is rare because usually local news is not published in the paper very much at all. This is partly because the UAE is a small country, and the english dailies are read by expatriates. It is partly because local press coverage is extremely controlled, so you can't print anything interesting and local on the front page.

Secondly, every story written about this condemns America for essentially "racial profiling" and wanting to ban the ports because of a general distrust towards Muslims. The argument is that if a German was involved in a terrorist act in the US, then the US would not ban BMWs.

Thirdly, there is no acknowledgement that 9/11 happened, that it was a combination of a terror ideology with state support in the Arab world (particularly Saudi, Iran, and Palestine), that it represents an extremist wing of Islam which is ascendent, that it is connected with dictatorships (of which the UAE is one, albeit a compentent and broadly beneficent example), and that we're talking about *ports*, not cars or soda or biscuits, and the security concerns are real. Some supermarkets here are banning Danish goods, so clearly boycotts, bans, and racial profiling is not something Arabs oppose per se, it's just that in this case they are on the wrong end of things.

If there is an element of paranoia in the US reaction to 9/11, there is an element of denial in the Arab world's.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Camino 1.0

For those of you who use Mac OS X, I recommend trying Camino as your browser. It renders faster than Safari, and the new 1.0 version is very snappy indeed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Good games

Yesterday, I wrote about how Nintendo thought games had gotten so complicated that they were no longer fun for anyone buy hardcore gamers.

A larger concern is the idea that games have to be complicated to be fun.

My friend (and boss, I guess) Mark Hurst compiles a list of online games that he thinks are simple and fun. Note that he includes the duration of the game to help you pick which one to play -- something you want something quick, and sometimes you want something that can take a little more time.

Also note that the duration is in useful quantities like "fast", "varies", and "long". Simple details like this improve experiences. Personally, I would have used the term "quick" instead of "fast", since "fast" may mean that the game itself has things moving around rapidly, wheras (to me) quick is less ambigious -- it just means that the game does not take long to play.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Console Game industry's dilemma

Clayton M. Christensen made himself very famous and rich by writing a book called "The Innovator's Dilemma". In it, he points out that established companies can continue innovating by focusing on the needs of their very best customers, but are vulnerable to upstarts who make something worse, cheaper, but good enough for everyone else. At this point, if the market cannot absorb new technology as fast as the incumbent can produce it, it does not matter how great the incumbent is at making new stuff, they will see more and more of their business go to the "good enough" and cheaper competitor.

Nintendo has clearly been reading this book. I think they've concluded that their entire industry has been "captured" by the hardcore gamer, and that the general games playing audience cannot absorb more polygons and harder levels as fast as the console makers and pumping them out. Certainly game designers have not been able to use these more powerful consoles to make games that are dramatically better than those produced 10 years ago.

This article makes the case well:
Our games grew so complex they became intimidating, further polarizing players and non-players. Market revenues have sagged in the U.S. for the last two years, and in Japan for six of the last seven. The industry just endured a disappointing holiday season and studies show that non-hard-core gamers are playing less frequently.

Our player pipeline is also shrinking. U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that currently the number of 5-to-9 year old boys in America is 8% smaller than their 10-to-14 year old big brothers. Despite dramatic gains in graphical realism in four generations of console platforms, we haven't grown our penetration rate beyond about a third of all American homes. Yes, more people meant more sales, but in relative terms, we haven't succeeded in becoming more popular.

Nintendo's counterpunch is disruption. We've determined that the videogame market is ripe for revival—and we're looking to make it happen by reaching out to the millions of players still on the sidelines, including those over the age of 35.

Early moves have been promising. Nintendogs, a game that allows people to train virtual puppies, has doubled the typical percentage of female purchasers, selling 1.5 million copies in about four months. Not bad, given that Nintendo DS hardware is in 4 million hands. In Japan, a pair of games designed to refresh and renew brain activity won over millions of people who previously associated videogames only with their grandkids.
Duh. The article itself mentions Christensen in third paragraph. Oh well.


Blogger seems to be up and running again.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Riots in Pakistan

Belmont Club reveals that many of the Danish cartoons were actually published in an Egyptian newspaper during Ramadan (2005). No riots then.

Some Korans were allegedly found in a gutter in Pakistan, leading to riots. Given that there are essentially no non-Muslims in Pakistan, one wonders who put the books there. I suspect the riot leaders.

There was an NPR interview yesterday where the host went on-and-on about how much he personally apologized for the offense the cartoons had caused (his guest was some guy from Pakistan). I would have prefered he discussed why Muslim Imams had made worse cartoons themselves, and how the cartoons were published in Egypt months ago and caused no outrage then.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Culture Jamming

While organizations like Adbusters toy at subversion and revolution through culture jamming, it's bracing to see real culture jammers do their thing.

This piece by David Warren summarizes the details behind the Danish Cartoons/Islamic Riots story. Key points:
- The cartoons were ignored when they first came out
- Ahmed Abu-Laban, the Saudi-supported Imam of Copenhagen, created a dossier that was then sent systematically through the Muslim world -- to mosques, madrassas etc., starting in Egypt
- This dossier created the original 12 cartoons, and about 24 others that had been fabricated for Muslim consumption.
- The fabricated images were much more insulting than the originals. For instance, a photo of a man dressed as a pig, over the caption, “This is the real Mohammad.”
- The dossier also a cover letter which, says David, contained "outrageous lies about events in Denmark"

So the reactions in the Muslim world are not about the cartoons, they are about the dossier which was created, and spread, to spark exactly these riots. But when I turn on NPR I don't hear anything about the dossier, I hear about the cartoons.

Perfect, and chilling, culture jamming in both the East and West. It is remarkable how these individuals play so accurately into the blindnesses of both sides.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Reduce healthcare spending by stopping research

Chicago's Richard Posner recognizes that health care costs rise because people want to spend money on their health, and we (as a society) feel that people should spend other people's money on their own health. As new treatments appear, people have more ways to spend other people's money on their own health, and so costs to other people (also knows as taxes) rise.

The solution to control costs is to reduce the production of new, expensive treatments, particularly anything that keeps old people alive for longer. Posner is an old person himself, so reaching this position must have required an additional burst of clearheadedness and alturism on this part. But his basic insight is correct:
I don't think the problem of the free-riding patient is a very serious one, however, because people who don't have insurance don't get the best (and most expensive) treatment and because most people don't demand medical care unless they have a serious need for it; many people have a horror of doctors and hospitals. The basic reason why so much money is spent on medical care in the United States is that people attach a very high value to their health. The frequent complaint that 15 percent of GDP is "too much" to spend on health care is superficial. When 80 percent of the average family's budget was spent on food, no one thought that this signified a "market failure" in the food industry....
Finally, an efficiency measure worth considering would be to reallocate federal funding of R&D from diseases that afflict mainly elderly people, such as most cancers, and from diseases avoidable by behavioral modification, such as AIDS, cirrhosis of the liver, and most Type II diabetes, to diseases that are not avoidable by changing behavior and that afflict mainly children and young adults. Such a reallocation would reduce net medical expenditures and also increase productivity.
Not that it's ever going to happen, but I get the point.

Creative Destruction at work

Given that Serenity has been stuck at "very long wait" on my Netflix queue for about 4 months now, I went to try and find it at my local neighborhood video store (not a blockbuster). I seem to have caught it on its last day in business -- it was having a liquidation sale, DVDs were $12.99 or less.

Non-Blockbuster video stores had a difficult time competing in the Blockbuster world, particularly if they focused on the standard big budget Hollywood releases (which this one did). Once Netflix came along, I simply stopped going, and I suppose enough other people did to push it over the edge and out of business.

Sad, but maybe it will be replaced by a store I actually use (more likely it will be replaced by a pet laundry). I half expect to see ads in the local paper about politicians demanding that legislation be passed to protect the video rental store.

Video stores are not the only business having problems -- music retailers are struggling too.

Curse blogger

People claim that the "instant update" feature of web applications is great -- but what do you do when they make an update and it breaks the app? Blogger has not worked right on Safari/OS X for weeks.


Friday, February 03, 2006

Censorship, China, and Google

I recently posted how Google is being critisized for putting up a crippled version of their search engine for China. Of course, other technology companies have done likewise, but Google is high profile and has the motto "don't be evil". Part of me feels that all companies should have "do evil" as their explicit corporate objective, simply to quiet critics.

"But what you're doing is eeeevillll!!"

"Yes. That's been our explicit aim since our inception."


Whatever. Chinese politicians have been impoverishing Chinese people for hundreds of years, and in the great scale of things a crippled search engine is so much more benign than, say, the Great Leap Forward, or any other Marxist economic policy, that I just cannot get too worked up. Google has a reasonable explanation of their decision here.

But while crippled search is wrong in China (censorship!), political cartoons about Islam in Europe are even wronger (censorship!) It seems that some paper in Holland published cartoons that were offensive to Islam. Islamists reacted by brandishing firearms, threatening murder etc. Humor is not big in the Muslim world, and they certainly do not have the "turn the other cheek" approach towards blasphemy that Christians have now, so I'll be interested to see how angry muslims in Egypt can control the presses in Europe.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

China and Google

The Chinese government requires Google to censor certain search results if Google is to operate in their country. Google acquieses.

People have critisized Google for giving in like this -- especially as it seems to go against their motto of "don't be evil". Google could have foregone ad revenue etc. and refused to run a crippled version of their service in China. This article does a good job of detailing how Google.china is different from Google.normal.

Web 2.0 mistakes

I know that tags are cool, and that tag clouds are now something of a web 2.0 convention. Nevertheless, all conventions are not good, and I find tag clouds useless.

Here is a very fine site, Instructables, that lets people share DIY projects. Cool. Now, suppose you are looking for a fun DIY project -- are you helped by this tag cloud? I'm not.