Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Economics of Charity Exhaustion

As faithful readers of this blog might note, there have been more posts lately than usual. I've been going through all of the unfinished posts, some of which had a few paragraphs written, some with a sentence or two, and some nearly finished. This one only had a title, based on some thought that I had about a year ago.

The basic economic case for charity is hard to make. Economics presumes that people are rational, and make rational choices. When we give something away to someone, we don't usually do so with the expectation of getting a return on it; charity is not an investment. The reward for our behavior must then be something else - social or psychological causes are the first refuge of economics in these cases. The easier answer would be that people are not wholly rational, and sometimes do things just because, but that is not a very useful assumption on which to base a science.

The psychological reason for charity is that it makes people feel good. The social reason is that it makes people feel less bad, and can be used as leverage (bragging rights). In this model, charity is a service. Giving food, money, coats, or time is a way of paying a person or organization in order to alter your mood. Of course, many people involved in charity don't see this as a good comparison, because that means that charity is no better (on a personal level) than spending money on personal things, like videogames, movies, beer, etc. The only real difference is that there's social pressure which can only be relieved by giving.

In a small scale economy, charity can in fact act as a form of investment. If we lived in a village of 150 people, my act of charity might enable another person to become a more productive member of our village, which in turn improves the lives of everyone. It could also improve the giver's life more than the amount it cost him to give. This is why I'm usually more than ready to help out my friends - the return on investment within a social circle is pretty good. The thing is, in a large scale economy, where you're unlikely to see a stranger more than once, the personal material reward for charity is pretty much nothing.

From the point of view of the society, charitable giving is usually pretty worthwhile, because the collective needs to be maintained. The need for collective giving is so strong, in fact, that it's not even voluntary anymore - it's why we have taxes. From this, a cynical person might respond to any request for charity with, "Isn't that what we pay taxes for?" but it should be understood that this makes that cynical person look like an asshole. This was one of the big problems with Katrina - a lot of the charitable giving had people wondering "Isn't this what FEMA is supposed to be doing?"

So charity goes above and beyond the "mandatory charity" which is provided by our taxes. The reason for giving beyond that amount is either psychological or social. But as a consequence of this, the distribution of charity does not have a real basis in rationality. When we give (if we give), we only do so until the point where a subsequent dollar spent doesn't give us a psychological or social benefit equal to a dollar. Because social or psychological pressure mounts over time, this is why people are more likely to give several small donations instead of one large one. This is also the reason for donations to be spread among a number of charities instead of just going to a single one. On top of that, this means that there is a limited amount of charity in the world per year, which can only be increased by the application of social or psychological pressure.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Industrial Society and its Future, pt. 3

First part, second part.

3) Is technology making us less human?

I've put off writing this part for a long time, because this question has another underlying question to it, which is "What does it mean to be human?". There's another reason too - this is probably the strongest argument against the proliferation of technology.

We are far divorced from our ancestors. We neither hunt nor gather. Sex is decoupled from reproduction. Culture takes place on an unimaginable scale. World population was, ten thousand years ago, around one million. We lived in tribes back then. And now ...

Let me quote Kaczynski:
47. Among the abnormal conditions present in modern industrial society are excessive density of population, isolation of man from nature, excessive rapidity of social change and the break-down of natural small-scale communities such as the extended family, the village or the tribe.
This is true, for a given value of normal. Most of human evolution geared us for pack (tribal) behavior under a dramatically different set of circumstances that one might call normal. Building cities, driving cars, and reading newspapers might then be considered inhuman. But that definition would only be embraced by people who want us to go back to basics and give up the technologies that we need to live our lives. The definition of humanity is sort of a transformational target - we adjust what it means to be human based on what our goals are.

But we're also working against some of our base desires. We now have the technology to alter those base desires in a number of different ways, and that ability only increases with time. If our base desires define us as human, then altering them probably pushes us away from our humanity. We also work against our base instincts all the time, but this is somehow considered more human than alterations at the chemical or genetic level.

I don't think that the loss of humanity is such a great tragedy, so long as it does not come with a loss of morality. It will be possible to make people, or intelligences, without any immoral desires. It will also be possible to make intelligences without the physical needs of humans. To me, the loss of humanity is a price that must be paid for rising to a more abstract and ideal form of intelligence and rational thought.

Instituting Total Surveillance

The biggest problem with a police state is getting it up and running without people complaining. Here is the solution.

Imagine the work involved in setting up a surveillance system in a small city. You would have to install cameras on the street corners, and run cable into the grid so that they could communicate home and be powered. You would have to worry about people vandalizing them, especially if you didn't have enough cameras so that the cameras could watch each other (and even then, disguising yourself from a camera is not hard). Sure, in the coming decades resolution-per-unit-per-cost will continue to drop, which makes the whole enterprise cheaper, and mass production invokes economy of scale anyway, but we're looking at pretty serious costs here.

Now think about the potential surveillance at your local retail store. The tills are computerized, which means that all transactions are recorded. If you pay with a credit or debit card, your transactions are associated with your name, and which means that you are also being associated with a specific place and time. You are also being watched by security cameras.

Government intrusion into personal space is not generally accepted, but corporate intrusion usually is. The reason for this is that people are voluntarily putting themselves under surveillance when they go shopping (or go on the internet, or use their phones, etc.). The obvious solution is for the government to co-opt the businesses. But they can't do this through strongarm tactics - they need to do it with the carrot instead of the stick.

Modern surveillance equipment needs software to run. This software costs money. If the government gave the software away to companies with the caveat that it would phone home to the government database every once and awhile. The businesses win, because they save money. The government wins, because they get better national security. The only loser here is people who don't want the government knowing what they're shopping for.

You could also do similar things with cell phones, credit cards, and the internet. The government cuts a deal with a company, who makes that deal part of customer relations. Because this is an opt in sort of program, nobody can complain. Of course, because operating costs are lower for those who opt in, those businesses who don't will have to make up for the lost profit with either higher prices or by catering to those who don't want to be watched. What it also means is that those businesses eventually won't be able to operate on economies of scale, which pushes the price for privacy even higher.

So now we're at the point where the government has huge databases, and maintains an automated file on everyone in the country. Automation is the key here, because most people are too boring to watch, and because it keeps the cost of watching people down. And here's where we run into the two biggest arguments against doing this; the government is evil and stupid. I don't believe either of those things, but if they were evil and stupid, then letting them have files on everyone would be a very bad idea.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Threats to the Nation

We were talking in class today about the threat that artificial intelligence might pose to the world, and I'm pretty firmly of the opinion that it absolutely doesn't matter.

This is mostly because of what I know about nuclear weapons escalation. The Russians and the Americans kept building bigger and more destructive bombs. The end of that was pretty much when the Russians built Tsar Bomba, which had a mushroom cloud six time higher than Mt. Rushmore. The fireball was five kilometers in diameter, with blast damage 1000km away. Even more than that, the bomb that they tested was at half of the yield it was capable of, because the fallout from the 100MT test would have been too much, and there was no bomber on the planet that could drop it and get far enough away from the blast. So after that, the governments decided to move to more strategic capability for bombs. The governments have had the power to destroy the world for a long time now, and they haven't done it.

The other threat from nukes is that some rouge nation or group will get a hold of one and detonate it in the middle of some city. A dedicated group of individuals can do some pretty awful things, and it becomes easier for them to do it with every passing year. You can buy a gene sequencer online for about $5000 dollars and create the next smallpox. You can hijack a plane and fly it into some buildings for much cheaper. And when/if nanotechnology comes to fruition, that'll prove a much bigger problem for security because it'll be so much harder to stop.

The cost barrier for AI means that the first ones will come from academia, corporations, or a government. To say that the people who are smart enough to build something that can think will be stupid enough to give it unfettered access to the outside world is illogical. On top of that, making an AI that wants to kill everyone will surely have to be a mistake. So the odds of it ever being a threat is minimal, especially since once the first AI are around they can defend against new ones.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

In Defense of Nuclear Weapons

The only way to win a nuclear war is to not start one.

Now, it is my basic belief that the world leaders know this. In the history of nuclear weaponry, only two have been used in an offensive capacity. Those two were obviously "Little Boy" and "Fat Man", used at the end of WWII against the Japanese. Think about this in perspective; it has been sixty years since a nuclear weapon has been used. With every passing year, the threat of total annihilation becomes less and less plausible.

And not only has M.A.D. (mutually assured destruction for those of you too young to remember the Cold War) ensured that there hasn't been a nuclear war between nuclear capable nations, it has also ensured that there hasn't been any war between nuclear capable nations. I am convinced that one of the primary reasons that the Cold War never resulted in an actual land invasion was the threat of nuclear weapons.

On top of that, no one has used nuclear weapons in wars against non-nuclear nations. We could have glassed pretty much all of Vietnam, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq and still had enough arsenal left over to destroy everything else. Afghanistan went to war with both the United States and the U.S.S.R. and didn't get bombed!

To summarize:
1) No one uses nuclear weapons
2) Nuclear weapons help deter non-nuclear war

What's not to love?

(If someone who doesn't care about their own existence or feels that the destruction of their enemies is more important than their own survival gets a hold of nuclear weaponry, that could be bad, because M.A.D. does not apply. Luckily, nuclear weapons take a lot of science and funding to build.)

Understanding workforce

One hundred years ago 60% of the American workforce worked on a farm.  Today, it's .6%.  One hundred years ago, there were scientists who openly questioned the existence of the atom.  Forty years later it was weaponized, and ten years after that started being used as a source of power.  The last hundred years have seen the rise of interchangable parts, assembly lines, division of labor, just-in-time manufacturing, and reasearch and development.  They have also seen the invention of the automobile, airplane, telephone, television, plastics, computers, and pretty much everything upon which this country now depends.

The corollary to the expression, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it" is this; "Those who do not look to the future will end up stuck in the present".  The reason that there are so few jobs in agriculture today as compared to a hundred years ago is that a number of devices were invented to automate the process of planting, tending, and harvesting crops.  The same thing happened in manufacturing; devices and processes were invented that made a single person much more productive.  It also served to reduce the education required to create a complex thing like a car.  Before Henry Ford came along, it took someone with years of training a long period of time to make any single complex item, whether that was a car, shoe, or desk.  By dividing production into a series of unique steps, all but a few of the artisans could be cut out of the equation.  What few artisans were employed were the ones who helped to set up the system that made the cars, shoes, desks, etc.  In a free market society, prices drop as efficiency increases.

One of the best ways to increase efficiency is through automation.  Machines are, in general, cheaper than people.  The biggest tradeoff is usually in start-up costs.  For simple (usually minimum wage) jobs, the start-up cost for a worker meaning training, which is not terribly expensive.  For a machine, that start-up cost is usually the expense of purchase and installation, if not also the expense of R&D.  The trade-off in price comes over extended periods of time; workers require a constant influx of cash, while machines usually do not (maintenence is usually very cheap compared to wages).  This obviously means that people are more flexible than machines.  If you're talking about something like making a hundred thousand of anything, flexibility does not count for a whole lot.  This is why we use machines.

Of course, machines can replace more than just physical labor.  The term "computer" used to be used just like the term "driver"; it meant "one who computes".  During WWII, we had whole rooms full of people whose job it was to crunch numbers.  You needed to be good with math in any job that even remotely required numbers, because it would be grossly ineffecient to have cashiers and the like spending five or ten minutes puzzling over the price of everything that you had bought.  With the invention of the calculator, the baseline for education in a number of jobs fell, just like it had with the invention of the assembly line.  The same is also happening now with the written word; handwriting has little relevance to any job, nor does spelling (which almost any computer will correct for you).

I've often been asked the question, "So once machines can do everything, what will happen to all of the people who were working at those jobs?"  Kurzweil would say that those people will find new jobs that are created by this automation.  I'm not sure that I agree with that.  What historically happened was that those who worked on the farms got pushed into the factories, and later on those who worked in the factories got pushed in the service industry.  Neither of these require much in the way of education.  Let's say that there's an invention that obsoletes a large section of the service industry; the natural consequence of that is that unskilled labor (being in greater supply) would drop in price.  The problem with that is that minimum wage is fixed, because of the cost of being a person is fixed (or at least has a minimum).  If we have a large supply of people looking for work, employers will choose workers as far to the left of the bell curve as possible.  What would happen to the uneducated masses whose labor is too expensive?

There are two options.  The first is that they'll become wards of the state, in which case the employers and workers will be indirectly paying their wages anyway.  The other option is that the uneducated masses are eliminated.  I'm not talking about eugenics; I'm talking about aggressive education.

Let's say that with advances in technology we can squeeze agriculture down to .1% and manufacturing down to 5%.  This is not unreasonable.  That means that the rest of the nation's workforce would be allocated into management, service, sales, transportation, construction, administration, "defense", advertising, science, and various others.  Some of these require extensive training (administration, advertising, management, science) while others do not ("defense", sales, service, transportation).  The maxim that I'm working by is "the human can be replaced".  By looking at those things that humans are better at than machines, we can chart a general course for workforce outlook in the next twenty years.

The big question, in my mind, is "What the hell are we going to do with all of that labor?".  When you make a process more effecient, the waste usually just goes away; if product A initially takes x of product B to make, then reducing that to x-1 means that the price for both product A and product B falls.  It also makes the price fall on any product derived from product A falls.  If we were in a simple system where demand for product A is constant and there's no outside demand for product B, then this might mean that production of product B drops off.  But this doesn't work with people, for the simple reason that labor is always there to be used, and it has a definite floor price.  Also, unlike other markets, it is incapable of responding to supply and demand.  People won't start (stop) breeding because there are (no) jobs for their children, and even if they did it would take about 18 years for the workforce to feel the effects of that.  People do sometimes die because they don't have jobs, but that's pretty rare considering the support systems we have set up.

So where does this excess of labor go?  We could likely feed, clothe, and house the entire population with only 20% of the workforce.  We can put the other 80% to work doing useless stuff, or creating entertainment, or squeezing even more effeciency out of everything else.  This is essentially what we're doing now.  More on this later.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Industrial Society and its Future, pt. 2

Continued from this post.

2) Prosperity: Does technology make us more prosperous? Is this prosperity evenly distributed among people, or does it make some of us richer while making others poorer?

First, I think I need to debunk a claim that I hear a lot.  It goes like this; while the standard of living has risen as compared decades & centuries ago, it doesn't matter whether things get better because people adapt to anything no matter how good or bad it is.  Since it's all relative, the progress that technology brings is sort of like running on a treadmill (if not worse, because of the loss of humanity/freedom/purpose etc).  Okay, so why is that bullshit?

The essence of why I dislike this philosophy is that it equates the position of the king to that of the slave, and not just in a metaphorical sense.  That is literally what these people are saying.  Part of the appeal of that argument is that it is counter-intuitive, and that it justifies a lot of Very Bad Things by virtue of the idea that people will simply adjust.  It's idiotic to think that people suffering from a lack of sanitation, or malnutrition, or disease, and people who live in the suburbs, feel similarly about their lives.  I won't deny that there are problems associated with the middle and upper class, but these are problems on the order of "I'm bored" or "What am I doing with my life?" instead of "I just shat out some blood" or "My mother died of AIDS".

So with that out of the way, I think that I can safely say that people today are (per capita) better off today than they were x years ago, where x is an abstract number of years.  Diseases are more easily diagnosed and cured, labor is less intensive, etc.

"But Ben!" you might cry, "We still have vast percentages of the population without access to water!  Two billion people live on two dollars a day! Every year 10 million children die before age five!"  I get it.  "Modern" society sort of left a lot of the world behind.  In fact, things are worse, because our huge companies came in and built huge factories where they pay slave wages, while at the same time our giant combines are harvesting so much food that local farmers can't make a living, forcing them into those same factories.  There's pollution, and the raping of the planet.  I get that.  For that I have two responses; the first is to say that this is more of a social failing than a technological failing; if we really wanted to, we could fix almost all of the big problems.  We really want that though, because there's nothing in it for us, and it would require a lot of sacrifice.  The second is to say that technology will find solutions to all the problems that it creates.  We can scrub the air of carbon, clean up the planet, and perfect robotic assembly to the point where sweatshops will become cost-ineffecient.

The distribution of goods is uneven.  Baring a perfect implementation of communism, it will always be that way.  The problem seems to be that the richest 1% of the world controls x% of everything, where x is some huge number that keeps getting higher.  This deals a little bit with the earlier issue of freedom, but when so few people control so much it makes it harder for someone to ascend, and if the rich control everything then there's no one to stop them from taking away our freedom.  The part of checks and balances is being played by the government, which stumbles through its lines and stammers like this were a high school production.  But again, I would say that the root cause is societal rather than technological.  One could argue that technology has made it harder to overthrow a government, as modern surveillance has made it difficult to plot assassinations, but then we would get into some tangent about what the problem means for revolution are.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Narrative Structures in Games: With Pictures!

Alright, this is part of the below post, but with handy-dandy pictures for explanation:

To the left is a picture of a linear narrative in a game. The circles represent plot points, and the lines show the flow from one plot point to the other. Depending on the game, a plot point might be any number of things - in this case, its usually a level. The player plays through a level, gets some exposition, set-up, or something similar, and then plays another level. This continues until the end of the game. Nothing the player does can actually effect the outcome of the game - if he fails to do something necessary to the plot, the game will either tell him that he loses, or fail to progress. Its usually better for the player to outright lose if its not possible for the game to progress, because otherwise the player will wander around trying to figure out what went wrong.

Games that use this structure: the Halo series, the Half-life series, the Sonic the Hedgehog series, the Mario series, and generally speaking, the majority of games which rely on gameplay to entertain rather than narrative.

Results: This style of gameplay requires moral thought on the part of the player, is cheap to produce compared to other methods, and makes games more modular. It can be unsatisfying to players who want their choices to matter, and it offers low replay value.

Single linear games are closely related to "hub world" style narratives, where there are things A, B, and C to do before thing D can happen. A, B, and C can be done in any order, and the order they're done in does not effect the narrative. D is inevitable. In this way, "hub world" narratives offer the same level of interactivity as a strictly linear game, but with even less narrative.

To the left is a picture of a branching narrative. You can see that the gameplay offers different possibilities, some of which are mutually exclusive. Something that the player does effects what happens next. You might see that some of the branches lead into other branches - this is beneficial to players who have reconsidered the choices they have made. It's not fun for a player to be stuck on one track for the rest of the game because of a choice they made at the beginning. Some games combine linear and branching so that while choice A and B might lead somewhere else, they both eventually converge at E (with no way to avoid it). This reduces the costs of production.

Games that use this structure: the Elder Scrolls series, the Final Fantasy series, the Neverwinter Nights series, and the Baulder's Gate series.

Consequences: This type of game is expensive to produce, because each branch needs to have its own artwork, dialog, etc. Furthermore, branching is exponential unless the branches lead to inevitable things (like in linear stories). If this narrative "tree" can be automated, much of the work can be taken away from the designers and put into the hands of algorithms. This often produces repetitive narrative though.

There's another type of narrative that's closely related to branching, and which has come up as a cheap way of simulating moral choices. It's what I call the "duality" model. Essentially, the player is given two choices for each plot point. Both choices have different outcomes, but they both lead into the same plot point. The game usually keeps track of these choices on a continuum - usually good and evil. So a player can play through the game "good" by only choosing the "good choices", or a player can play through the game "evil" by only choosing the "evil" choices. The player can also mix and match for neutral choices. This requires far less work than real branching, because you only really need to prepare branching plot points for thresholds instead of choices. Game that use this style include Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Bioshock, and Fable.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Problems in Gaming Narratives

I had a meeting today with the English department at my college. We talked about narratives in games (which wasn't the focus of the meeting, but that's fine), and my blog is obviously a place for me to be eloquent after the fact, so here goes.

Take the example of the narrative story in chess: it doesn't exist. The pieces do have a framing image to them, which is of two kingdoms at war. The names of the pieces bear the brunt of the work here - knight, king, queen, pawn, bishop, and rook (roughly translates to "chariot"). The mechanics are only somewhat appropriate to their pieces:

  • The pawn is small and weak, and can only move one square at a time. They usually represent infantry.
  • The queen rules over the land, being the most powerful.
  • The king is powerful, but must be protected at all costs - he is not allowed to ride out into battle.
  • Why does the bishop move diagonal and the rook move vertical/horizontal? Is there a flavor reason for this to be the case? Why does the knight have his L-maneuver?
The point here is that most of the rules assignments are arbitrary, and furthermore, don't matter to the enjoyment of the game. Some of them hold different names in different languages (the bishop is called the "fool" in French), but this doesn't change the game. Why does the game take place on a grid? There isn't a logical narrative reason for this.

So we can say from these observations that chess is both "abstract" in its ruleset, and that the ruleset is "narrative independent". Basically, the ruleset doesn't map onto reality, and the game doesn't require a narrative - the flavor is only there to give people something more natural to call them other than Piece 1, Piece 2, etc.

Compare this to a game like Call of Duty (a first person shooter, for those not familiar). The game takes place in World War 2, following a campaign across Europe. The basic mechanics of the game are shooting, moving, and avoiding being shot at. Some of it contains what we call "emergent gameplay" (which chess also has) - mechanics that arise out of the interaction of other mechanics and parts of the rules.

The rules in Call of Duty map closely to reality ... unless it would make the game less fun. When a player gets shot, they aren't taken out of the action immediately, and the bullet doesn't cause location specific injuries which affect gameplay. Getting shot doesn't really affect gameplay at all, unless your health drops below zero. There are a number of reasons for this - it would make getting shot frustrating for the player, it would make recklessness, a less viable option, and it would overall make the game less fun. The soldiers also don't have to worry about supply lines, eating, fresh water, infection, sleep, or any of the other major considerations of staging a war, because they would all make the game less fun.

So using the same criteria we applied to chess, we would say that Call of Duty is mostly "concrete" in its ruleset, and that its ruleset maps heavily onto its narrative. Though we could reskin Call of Duty with science fiction / fantasty, it best mapping is the one that the game is designed around. One thing we've seen though is that a certain level of abstraction and cheating reality is needed for a fun game. This is one of the problems with narrative in games.

The other big ones are a lack of sophistication in artificial intelligence (AI) and the branching problem.

The AI problem is that computers are still fairly dumb, even when they're smart. A single instance of AI doing something idiotic can shatter suspension of disbelief. The branching problem is that when they player is given high levels of interactivity, they expect to be able to do unexpected things. These problems are related.

In games like Call of Duty, the player's character (PC) might have one of four modes of speech.
  1. The PC says nothing, and is merely talked to. This option is used because players don't like having words put in their mouth, especially when they're otherwise in control of the PC.
  2. The PC says completely prescripted things. This option is used when a story needs to be told that involves the PCs discussion - not ideal for the above reason.
  3. The PC says something chosen from a list provided to the player. It gives interaction, but can sometimes feel restricting. It also allows the player to make a variety of moral choices.
  4. The PC directly uses the players voice. This option isn't used because there's no AI on the planet that can respond to the variety of things a player might say. Yet.
These four modes also show how our interactive story might work.
  1. One inevitable thing happens. Then another inevitable thing happens. This continues until the game is over.
  2. Same as above.
  3. One things happens. Then the player makes a choice of two or three other things to happen. Then the player makes another choice of two of three things to happen. This continues until the game is over.
  4. The player does things until he meets his goal (if there is one) by any means he chooses. Usually not possible.
Option 4 is usually impossible because the game can't be ready for anything the player can do. At best, it can be ready for all of the things it was designed around. That means that in Call of Duty I can't lay down my gun, find a typewriter, and write my war memoirs. I can't learn German and convince the Nazis to give up. I can't steal civilian clothes and practice guerrilla warfare. I can't booby trap anything - unless the game is scripted to let me do so.

This is one of the other reasons for abstracting the rules - programming all those things would not only make the game less fun, it would also be incredibly difficult and not offer a good return on programming dollar investment. There are very few people who would like to write letters to their sweetheart back home in a war game, so programming it in would be a waste of time. The only way to allow things like that is to make the game engine generalizable - which costs less money per fringe case, but still takes a lot of money and runtime computing power to do.

Because only a few options are available to players, games usually don't have much of a narrative. The narrative serves only as flavor, and to give instructions. The real value of most games is in the gameplay, not in the story behind the game.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Industrial Society and its Future

The opening words of the Unabomer manifesto are these:

"The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race."

In by moments of techno-pessimism, I wonder how true this is. There are a couple of things to consider when looking at the veracity of this statement, and most of them are nebulous and difficult to define. The three factors that I use are 1) freedom, 2) prosperity, and 3) humanity.

1) Freedom: Does technology make us more free? In a nutshell, this is the argument against: technology makes us more dependent on other people. A computer is not something that I can make on my own. Even when I can make things on my own, it's grossly inefficient to do so compared with what can be done by mass manufacturing. Additionally, technology is like an adaptation. The person who owns a cell phone is better able to communicate with the world than the person who doesn't own one. Technology also brings social pressure with it - the pressure to own a television, an iPod, a computer, and various other items whose purposes are mostly cultural. On top of that, technology shapes the societies it touches. Even if I don't drive a car, I have to obey pedestrian laws which are put in place to protect me from cars - laws which wouldn't exist if not for cars.

Counterargument: Though technology does come at the cost of ever-increasing reliance on "the system", reliance on the system is not incompatible with freedom. We need to give up certain freedoms to gain access to certain others. The freedoms that we gain far outweigh the freedoms which we lose. For example, I give up the right to walk freely in the streets in return for the right to travel quickly from one place to another via car. In the distant future, all children might be genetically engineered to be optimal - in that case, we would be giving up the freedom to have natural children in return for the right to have children who don't get sick, who don't grow old, etc. This might not be the best example, because some people might consider that horrific.

The other claim - that those who don't use technology are less adapted to the world, and thus are forced to change or be marginalized - is not actually a criticism of technology. It's a criticism of the free market economy. Since the free market economy is simply "survival of the fittest" applied to economic choices, the criticism is really about how the world works. It might be nice if the fittest didn't always have the upper hand, if things were equal between people so that one man could always evenly match another. It would lead to less violence, fewer wars, etc. We could all get along. But this is a world, a universe, of finite resources, and acquiring them is a struggle. To deny the struggle is to impose even more restrictions on the basic freedoms of men.

Points 2) and 3) to be addressed later.

Friday, April 4, 2008

An Open Letter to Andrew Keen

Mr. Keen, I was recently reading your book The Cult of the Amateur when I came across this passage:

"Kelly argues that in the future, instead of making money on the sale of books, authors can 'sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, sponsorship, periodic subscriptions - in short, all the many values that cannot be copied.' It's the old razor blade business model. The book is but a giveaway, and the writer will supposedly make money from consulting gigs, book signings, and public lectures.

But books aren't razors, and reading has nothing in common with shaving."

Having finished your book, I can say with authority that it's a load of sensationalist drivel not fit to see print. However, the above quote seems to be the most egregious misuse of rhetoric among the many that you've committed. You see, when we say that something follows the razors and blades business model, we mean that their business model shares something in common with it. In literary terms, this is called a simile. It's razors and blades, by the way - the whole idea is that those two things were sold separately and at different levels of profit. In business terms, this is called cross-subsidy. You give no compelling reason why this should not apply to books. I'll help you out; use the same tactic that people have used to argue against cross-subsidies when large companies do it. The cross-subsidy is an internalized cost which can only be used by large players in a given market, producing an unfair advantage for established competitors. That, at least, is an argument that has some ground.

Even then, you offer no solution to the dilemma of the artist. You say that an artist shouldn't give their work away, but you also say that rampant piracy makes it impossible for an artist to make any money. Kelly is offering a way for piracy to become irrelevant to the artist - for the free spread of art to be a good thing. What you offer is resistance to change. Since you'll never encourage enough people to stay off the net, the only option is government interference.

Government interference is not a solution to the extensive copyright problems faced in this country. If there were a massive database against which you could check copyright claims ... maybe you could make it work. The people wouldn't like it, but you might be able to make it work. No database like that exists though, and it never will, because that isn't how copyright works. Copyright doesn't require that a person register or even inform the government. The instant that I write something, it's covered by copyright law. Secondly, there's such a thing as "fair use doctrine", which means that sometimes when I use copyrighted work it's okay (parody, education, criticism, commentary, etc.). That's why I won't get in trouble for quoting from your book. So not only would this database have to constantly update and search through copyrighted works, but it would also have to make judgments on what is and isn't fair use. I don't think I need to tell you what a gross loss of freedom that sort of system would impose.

If you're going to write idiotic garbage like that, at least propose a solution - so that I can ridicule that too.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The accomplishments of small-scale societies

Let's say you have a village of 150 people (Dunbar's number). What sorts of technologies would they have? The basic human needs are shelter, food, and water. Shelter means houses, food means hunting/agriculture/domestication, and water means either a way to catch and hold rainwater or settling close to a river or stream. So the starting point of our hypothetical village is one near a river with some hand planted crops. At the start of our simulation (powered by the imagination), our people live in the crudest form of houses. They know nothing of agriculture, only that if they throw their left over food at a certain spot that more of it will grow.

For the sake of argument, we'll say that these people are as smart as we are. This wouldn't actually be the case, because nutrition is highly correlated with intelligence, but making this simulation more complex than it needs to be isn't really the point. We'll also suppose that they have no cultural inhibitions about experimentation; if a member of the village decides that he wants to put a few of the seeds under the ground instead of just dropping them in the dirt, no one will stop him. The only caveat is that no one will do anything which risks destroying the village. Their reproduction will hit almost exactly replacement numbers (though pregnancy will be common, because infant mortality will be horrifically high). Finally, we'll suppose that there are no other villages, and that none of the villagers are predisposed to defecting and forming a new village anytime soon.

Initially, there are a limited number of jobs that a person can hold in the village. The plants grow without interference, so there are no farmers. Since this method of agriculture doesn't provide much food, the men hunt. Their weapons are crude; nothing more than sharp sticks and heavy stones. The women stay in the village and care for the children. Meat is eaten raw, supplemented with fruits and vegetables that have been grown or foraged.

When there are storms, lightning occasionally strikes, and when the villagers go to investigate - in this manner, fire becomes known to them. Since there is a lot of free time, especially at night, a few of the men set out to see if they can make fire. For all they know, fire might only be a product of lightning, but they've seen that fire can be made from fire, and they're naturally inquisitive, so they try. Eventually someone manages to make fire by rubbing two sticks together, and from there fire is cultivated until nearly anyone in the village with enough patience can produce it. Fire keeps them warm, makes them able to work in the night, and they find that putting the meat over the fire makes it taste better - with the added effect of making them less prone to sickness.

At the same time, agriculture is forming. An enterprising villager puts the seeds below the ground and finds that they grow much more readily than when they're left on the surface. He also finds that the plants thrive on constant water, so on days when it doesn't rain, he scoops up handfuls of water and runs them over to the plants. Since this is a laborious task, the villager looks for some way to carry water more efficiently - a number of other people need containers too, for excess food and so they don't have to go down to the river for water. This possibly means the creation of pottery, which at its most basic is simply some mud formed into something and left to dry.

So by now the villagers have figured out that they can make their lives better through research and development. Enough experimentation eventually leads to the scientific method, though most of these primitive technologies can also be reached through chance. At any rate, our enterprising farmer has made crop production into something that's no longer passive, and since this is a more productive method of food gathering than foraging, we now have excess labor. Some of this goes to the fledgling production of pottery, some goes to art, or possibly religion, and some is simply wasted on having fun.

Meanwhile, our hunters keep bringing back animals, and our villagers eventually learn which parts are good to eat, which parts are not, and which can be used for other things. Splintered bones can be used for weapons, or for shaping pottery, and some of the inedible stuff can be used for fertilizer. The animal fur, once the flesh has been removed, can keep a person warm at night. Because these villagers are about as smart as us, they figure out that animals must reproduce in roughly the same way as humans do - they learn this from watching the animals, and form extrapolation. One particular hunter, who is getting older and not as fit, realizes that they might be able to capture some animals and slaughter them when the meat was needed, instead of going through the hunt and possibly bringing them close to starvation if they have an unlucky streak. It is later figured out that these animals can simply be raised by the village instead of hunting them. This frees up more labor.

Now we have to make some assumptions about the resources available to these people. For the sake of the simulation, they will have access to pretty much any metal they want, as well as stone and trees. We also have to make some assumptions about how they spend their excess labor; some of it has to be going to improving their condition instead of leisure.

They find copper, shining in their river. They first use it for art, but upon realizing that it can be banged into any shape by using a stone, and that it is lighter and just as sharp as their bone weapons, they start using it to hunt. If they can get enough of it, they start finding other uses, like in farming. One day someone drops some copper into the fire, and they find that this makes it more malleable. If they can get it hot enough, it melts, unlike their stones. They find that they are able to do this with some other metals that they find in the river, and from there are able to understand the elemental nature of the world.

Meanwhile, someone has discovered that fire is better for making pottery than the sun is, and with some experimentation they discover the right temperatures to bake things at for the best hardness/brittleness ratio. They also work on developing a kiln, which comes out of their attempts to make a very hot fire by building walls around a normal fire. It is also in this way that they discover fire needs air, and they make the first bellows, which is nothing more than a fan in push air into the fire.

The villagers look around them, and see what they've made. They have fairly advanced farming, with crop rotation, fertilizers, pest control, and irrigation. They have a number of domesticated animals, whose jobs range from food to pack animal to ratter to hunter. They have the pottery wheel and the kiln. They have a doctor, who is not very good because of the limited experience that a population of their size offers. Hunting is done much less now, but they have nets, spears, and various other instruments to kill animals. Their huts are much cleaner and more structurally sound than they were before, and are reinforced with wood.

There are a number of things that these people will never invent, simply because they have no need for them. They will never invent a building more than two stories tall. They will never invent internal combustion. They will never invent the computer. They will never invent the lightbulb. They will never perfect medicine, because most of the more rare diseases will occur only once, if that, in a doctor's lifetime. Because all knowledge is passed down from master to apprentice, and because all communication is done within the village, they will never invent writing.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Doughnuts and Capitalism

I work night shift on the weekends at my neighborhood gas station. Night shifts mean lots of drunk people coming in mixed with lots of down time. As one of my night shift duties, I have to throw away the old doughnuts from the day before and put the fresh ones out. As I was doing this last weekend a drunk college chick started yelling at me.

"You are NOT going to throw those away."
"Uh ... yes I am."
"Did you know - did you know there are starving children in Africa?"
"Did you know the cost of transporting stale doughnuts across the Atlantic is astronomical compared to the cost of simply sending money?"
"Well give them to some homeless people! Don't just throw them out!"
"It's my job to throw them out. I've been specifically instructed not to give them away. Besides that, there's no economic incentive for this company to give doughnuts away. There's actually a disincentive, because that would make people less likely to buy the doughnuts for their full price, as well as costing us for the labor and support systems needed to give them away - which are non-zero."
"People like you are the reason that other countries hate us." She swayed a little as she said this.
"Right ... but that's the mostly capitalist way. Your recourse as a citizen is to either start a boycott until we change our practices, or write to your local government and get a law passed. Either of those would make it more advantageous to give the doughnuts away. Or you could come up with a better system of government. But for now, all you're doing is making us both upset."
"You're a dick."

Monday, February 18, 2008

Why Sci-Fi Fails

I'll get right to it. There are two things that tend to be the genesis for future oriented science fiction*; an extrapolation of current trends, or an exploration of a possible future technology. The problem comes from the fact that trends and technologies don't develop in a vacuum. While someone is hard at work making artificial intelligence happen, someone else is hard at work making biotechnology push new boundaries, and a third person is ensuring that nanotechnologies** will do something more practical than making things slippery.

So if a science fiction story tells us that there are flying cars, the author better have extrapolated out the how and why of it to everything else in the world. Flying cars mean that there's a propulsion system that can lift relatively heavy things and move them with relatively high precision. It would have to be at levels of efficiency that rival wheel based transportation. This means that it can't just be a new fuel system, because a car with wheels will always be more efficient than one that flies. So either the fuel requirements are reduced to the level that people just don't care about the increased costs, or some technology is developed that brings flying car costs down to the level of cars with wheels while not reducing the cost of cars with wheels.

So in a world with flying cars, do we see desks that float in mid-air? If someone moves a hospital bed, it shouldn't be on wheels either. In fact, there should be flying buildings that utilize the same technology as a way to stay disaster proof and increase mobility. And since this technology presumably runs on some sort of anti-gravity technology (one of the only ways to make it worthwhile without dirt cheap energy), we should see weapons based on it, as well as space travel. And if dirt cheap energy is the reason we have flying cars, then we should see vast changes in the social and cultural landscape.

The problem is, people (authors) just don't think things out enough. A lot of science fiction has things added in that aren't explained just because it looks cool. While that's a fine endeavor, I'm much more concerned with the future and what it holds.

I would guess that the reason I notice this so much is that I read a lot of old science fiction. Asimov and Heinlein are particularly bad about this. Even as the technology progressed in the real world, Asimov's worlds never real progressed past the state of the art of the 50's. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land had robocabs but no speech-to-text. The mail is physical, coming in envelopes. I firmly believe that someone writing in the 60's could have predicted the internet and everything it came with. Pretty much the only thing the internet did was make communication free. With that came a few silent economic and social revolutions.

Good sci-fi is based off of good science. Making a believable world is as easy as looking at the modern one and figuring out how everything will progress in the coming years.

* This as opposed to present oriented sci-fi, in which aliens or the like decide to visit Earth.
** Ten years from now, blogger won't highlight nanotechnology as an incorrect spelling.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Practical Applications of Virtual Overlays

If you haven't read the last two posts, do that first before you read this one.

While new avenues of media and enhanced interface possibilities for virtual goods sounds nice, there's a whole other realm of applications for this kind of technology. If the technology develops, these are sort of a given.

Physical items are limited by physical space. Normally, as much information as possible is packed onto a product, especially if the product and its packaging are intractable. The example I'll be using here is a can of pop; the packaging contains the UPC, nutritional information, recycling information, customer service information, expiration date, storage instructions, identifying information, and on top of all that it needs to look good so that consumers will buy it. And on top of that, it needs to keep the product pressurized and easily chilled. It's a miracle that a simple can of pop can convey all that information.

But there's a trick here, because it really doesn't. It relies on context. Nutritional information is rife with abbreviations, recycling information is usually limited to about 15 characters including spaces, and the UPC is worthless without a whole lot of information stored on computers. Here's another observation; my can of pop gives me far more information than I need. If I'm drinking a can of Mountain Dew, I generally don't need any information about it other than knowing the brand. And when I buy it, the only thing that the cashier needs to know is the UPC. So couldn't we increase efficiency by having two people see a different thing?

But having the consumer see one thing and the cashier see another is just the tip of the iceberg. In the virtual world, information doesn't take up space. We can fill the can with as much information as we want, having only some of it being visible at any given time. Not only can you include detailed nutritional information beyond the space available, but you can include customer testimonials, related products, special promotions, and a plethora of other things.

How would this work in the real world? I would walk into a store and see all of these products as they are now, but possibly with some mild animations on them. When RFIDs are cheap enough to print, they'll be on everything, meaning that the products will be communicating directly with my computer so that the proper effects can be presented. If I pick something up and look at it, this action will register with my computer and a floating web of options will be presented to me based on either my past choices (if my computer sees that I check the detailed nutritional information of everything, it might just pull that up automatically) or on most common actions at that store. The RFID chip printed on the product doesn't have to contain any information except a web address - once the computer has gotten that, it can link up to a computer that actually stores that information.

"But wait!" you say, "That sounds really annoying! I already hate flashing banner ads on my internet, and now I'll have them in real life?" Well ... that all depends. Just like banner ads can be cut out with the right add-ons, product information could be cut out too. It really depends on who has majority control over what does and does not get shown through virtual overlay. If it's the companies, then "dynamic marketing" is something you might have to put up with. If it's the people, then you should be able to walk down the aisles with nothing being displayed but gray bags and cans that don't entice in any way (overriding legacy information).

And with lenses you can do other things too. Drive-in movies can be arranged at arbitrary locations and with minimal cost, because there's no mechanical apparatus required. Posters wouldn't need to be put up, because you can just stick a chip to a wall that tells people's computers what to see. Better yet, you can just set it up to be completely virtual, so that the on-board computer accesses information about what should be where and gets it without needing to use RFID. Or if you're lost, you can simply call up directions from the net; with GPS, it would be possible to have the lenses project out a red line for you to follow*. Or if I'm shopping, my cart can bring up a virtual display that keeps a running total of what I'm buying. All of this requires no hardware investment beyond the cost of a computer, wireless internet, and lenses.

Scenery changes also mean that I can replace the view outside my windows with something more soothing; a lush jungle, a sunny beach, or silent woods. Replacing the view is still thinking a little too low level though; instead, I could make new windows, with the added benefit that they wouldn't leech heat.

Can you tell that I want it to be the future?

*This technology will be available on cars within the year, though it projects the line onto the windshield instead of your retinas.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Magic of Wearable Computing

Here's virtual reality technologies as they will look in ten to fifteen years:

Instead of glasses, you'll be wearing contact lenses. They will either contain a small camera, or you'll be wearing one around your head. They'll be connected to a computer that's small enough to be worn all the time, with power life hopefully being more than a day so that it can be worn continuously and charge while you sleep. The camera will allow whatever program you use to tell where your head is at any given time, track where you are in the physical world, and track various real world objects. The contact lenses will ideally be able to track where you're eyes are looking at any given moment so that various optical effects can be recreated.

The most obvious (and to my mind, most boring) application of these lenses will be full immersion virtual reality. You still won't be able to touch or smell anything, as those technologies come later, but you would be able to put yourself inside a movie, or given enough physical space, put yourself inside a game with virtual things to shoot at. This is probably the first direction for the technology to go, because it means that very few objects need to be real world tracked, if any.

The less obvious application is overlaying virtual things onto physical things. If you pick up a blank book, the lenses can project words onto your retinas so that to you the book looks like Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, or whatever else you feel like reading. Your physical bookshelf would just need one book, while your virtual bookshelf would be able to hold every book ever printed.

Similarly, you could replace your television with a virtual television. It would be projected onto your eyes by the contacts in such a way so that it would seem like the screen was being projected onto a wall in your house. The obvious advantages (besides cost) are being able to move it wherever you want to, having it be invisible to people who don't want to watch it, and even muting it if you have the sound coming in through micro-headphones instead of installed.

Another example; you could replace your computer with a virtual computer. As you'd be running this all on a lightweight computer anyway (with a power about 100-fold of what we have today), it makes a lot of sense to take the typical user interface of monitor+mouse+keyboard and remove it from the computer entirely. What this means is that you would have your lenses project a keyboard onto any flat surface and a monitor projected into the air above it. Most of this, like on today's desktops, would be done without you really knowing how it happens - to you, it would just look like you had given substance to a computer by sitting down at a table. Input could be done in a number of ways; either you would wear a ring on each finger so that they could feed information back to the computer, or you could coordinate with the camera (which would mean you have to keep your fingers in at least peripheral vision when you type). To use the "mouse" you would just slide a finger or two across the table.

But this brings up an interesting point - if I could have a computer interface be represented by almost anything, with cost not being an issue because it's all virtual, why would I choose it to be represented by a keyboard and monitor? Why wouldn't I choose to view virtual files in some novel way, like having my e-mails stacked on top of my desk, or having my photos exist in some virtual photo album, or having a virtual phonograph that played all my music? All these virtual items would be available to you at any time you wanted them, because your computer would travel with you wherever you went.

The virtual television would be a fine solution for viewing legacy media, but once the technology to do a virtual overlay exists, full immersion would likely merge with the movies. At the most basic level, you could do something like the old movies of the '50s with red and blue glasses. It would be more realistic of course, because it would have more information, and because it wouldn't be bound by the screen. The advances in videogame technology would likewise be immense, but the same problem that's happening now will still be happening then; the quality of media can't match the advances in technology.

Next time - practical applications of the virtual overlay in advertising, marketing, and informatics.

Why We Don't Have VR Headsets

VR headsets are one of those hardware applications that seems like it holds such promise and wonder, but has never got off the ground. In that way it's like the flying car. Both of these technologies are perfectly capable of being produced today, and the demand for them would certainly be too, but they both have obstacles which would need to be overcome.

The problems with the flying car being mass-produced are many-fold. The most obvious issue is that the fuel needed to put a car in the air and move it around is much greater than the cost of moving something with wheels. The benefits of having a flying car aren't that substantial compared to that of a normal car: you wouldn't have to follow the roads and you would be able to avoid most other traffic. That isn't to say that other traffic wouldn't be there, but with three dimensions of travel instead of just two it would be a lot easier to avoid anyone else. But this brings us to the final problem of the flying car; moving in three dimensions is much more difficult and dangerous than moving in two. Consider the differences between getting a driver's license and a pilot's license and you can see why it would take considerable cultural and technological changes for the flying car to become a reality.

The VR headset has problems of a different sort. The first problem is software. If I buy a VR headset today, the games on it won't work on any other VR headset, and since no large software companies support them, the games are most likely made by the same company that made the headset, and for that reason probably not very good.

No software means that few people will buy headsets; a lack of hardware penetration means that it isn't profitable to make software. This is something that the videogame industry has made quite clear. Have you ever thought about why there are only three competitors? It's because they're the ones who spend millions of dollars on putting the hardware into homes, advertising it, and developing the technologies. Neither Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo could offer that level of support without other companies making the software. The amount of capital investment needed to enter the market is massive, and it's not a business that you can dip a toe in.

So right now, since no big company has invested in making the VR headset a reality, the technology is lagging behind in relative terms. The current generation looks a little like bulky sunglasses. The image is stereo (meaning that you see a different image with each eye) to mimic your natural eyesight and give the illusion of real sight. The glasses can go transparent so that you can see the real world. The glasses track your head movements, so that when you turn your head to the left you're seeing whatever is to your left in the virtual world, again mimicing the real world.

Up next; what the technology will look like in ten to fifteen years, and what it will mean for knowledge based industries.

Friday, January 11, 2008

An Actual Conversation

I was waiting in line at the grocery store last night, buying myself a frozen pizza after work. It was BBQ chicken, which turned out to be one of the best ideas for a pizza ever. Pizza has always felt like one of those foods that could effortlessly assimilate any other food into it. That's something that I really admire in foods. The other great culinary assimilator is the sandwich, which is basically what you call it when you stick other foods between two slices of bread.

Standing behind me in line were two scruffy looking men. They had that unshaved look to them, with shirts that mismatched their pants. If I had seen them on the street, I might have guessed that they were homeless, though since they were in the store and buying things I suppose they must just have been that sort of person. I've been wondering a lot lately why people stay in uncomfortable or unpleasant situations, and what I've come up with is this; there's never a good cutting off point. Things creep up on you. So the guys standing behind me probably didn't start out as people with limited social skill and personal grooming - it just happened little by little, until they were walking around with a stained shirts and bloodshot eyes, thinking that this is how life had always been.

One of them was the dominant one, because he kept talking. This is something people do to feel less lonely. It's also something that I've picked up on when telemarketing. Old people especially, as all the people they used to know have moved out of their lives and left them alone. It's a sad truth that a disproportionate number of the sales we get are old people who just need someone to talk to. That's yet another reason for me to get out of telemarketing.

The talkative scruffy guy was talking loudly, like he wanted as many people to hear him as possible. That's a symptom of lonely people who have lost their social skills.

"How can they charge two bucks for that little can of Red Bull? What's in there that makes that so expensive? Do they put gold in it?" He picks up a bottle of Pepsi Free. "You know this stuff doesn't have any caffeine or sugar? What are you paying for?" And of course, I felt obligated to respond.

"The cheapest part of the product is the syrup and carbonated water, followed by the packaging. Ingredients are maybe three cents per bottle, packaging is about ten cents.* The rest of the cost comes from transportation, marketing, profit for the manufacturer, and profit for the seller. Profit isn't that big for any mass market good, because it doesn't have to be, and because they're competing with other large companies that can increase their overall profit by lowering their individual profit per item. But you also have to keep in mind that a lot of that "profit" is from a business sense indistinguishable from "recouping investments". If Pepsi buys a new plant they have to sell a lot of bottles before they're in the black again. From cost standpoint through, the biggest cost associated with soft drinks is the marketing. And from a consumer standpoint, that's what actually matters - it's the reason that people tend not to buy off-brand products; the name sells. So when you drink a Pepsi, what you're paying for is the brand, not so much the contents, and that's one of the reasons this is called the information age; the information about the brand is more important than the physical product itself." Imagine me saying that really fast.

He just stared, and I bought my things and left.

*That's roughly correct, but not by any means exact.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Untold Joys of Telemarketing

Being incredibly broke, and not being able to find work at any other place in the great city of Duluth, I've taken up a job telemarketing. The company has one of those wonderfully generic names; Teleresources Inc. I've always been leery of any company that just mashes their description together to make their name, but the siren song of financial security is apparently enough to overcome that instinct. I don't think that I would ever go work for SYSCO though, whose name is an acronym of Systems and Services Company. It seems to me that someone must have intentionally made that name as bland and unhelpful as possible.

This isn't the first time that I've done the telemarketing thing. When I was in high school I worked for a company in my hometown called Inteleserve, which did essentially the same thing. There the campaigns were almost exclusively mortgage based. I would like to think that in some small way, I'm responsible for the current difficulties of the housing market. My job was to call people and ask them about how high or low their mortgages were, and whether they would consider refinancing through us. I was not in any way involved with getting them a new mortgage; my job was simply to get the information, which would be fed through the system to see whether we could get them one. If we could, I would hand them off to a banker.

Inteleserve had us on what's called "predictive dialing". This is where the computer calls for you, and waits until it hits an answering machine, a certain number of rings, or someone picks up the phone and says something. When there's a person there, the call gets routed to a telemarketer (in their parlance, Telephone Sales Representative). The process is efficient, but there's a lag from when the computer detects a person to when the telemarketer gets the call. By the time I heard a small click, the other person had already picked up the phone and said hello. That's one of the reasons that we stumble over last names.

I'm relearning this hatred of names. Only rarely does the computer call up someone with a name like John Smith. Instead, I get names with too many silent letters, or names that might be pronounced in multiple different ways. Alfred Moky - is this "moo-key", "mock-e", or "mo-key"? Or none of the above? It's worse when I'm not on predictive dialing, because then I have a few rings to try and puzzle out how the name is supposed to sound, only to be inevitably disappointed when I get it wrong.