Elder Scrolls Online: The subscription fallacy

In the run up to the release of Elder Scrolls Online, I've heard a lot of people say,

This game isn't worth a subscription. Maybe if it was free-to-play...

My question for these people is the: what game, in your opinion, would be worth a subscription model? Because if you answer, 'None; no game is worth a subscription model,' that completely changes the meaning of what you're saying.

If no game is worth a subscription model, then a statement about this game not being worth a subscription is not a statement about the characteristics of this game, but a general principle. And that's fine, you're perfectly free to hold that principle. But if you do, it precludes you from expressing an opinion on this game.

The only way a statement about this game being worth (or not worth) a subscription can have any merit is if you can see some game being worth a subscription. Then you can evaluate this game on its own terms: compare it to the kind of game which would be worth a subscription, and decide, on the basis of that comparison rather than on the basis of a principle, whether this game is worth a subscription.

It's the same with murder. If you maintain that all murder is wrong, then a particular case of murder will always be wrong, regardless of any specific circumstances. There's actually no point discussing the details of the case, because murder is always wrong. On the other hand, if there is some case in which murder might not be (so) wrong - and this is where people usually bring up the idea of going back in time and killing Hitler - then we can have a discussion of the individual characteristics of this case and evaluate whether it was, perhaps, in fact not (so) wrong.

Abortion is similar case. If you think that abortion is always wrong, then there is no way that you will think that abortion could be right in a specific case. If you think that abortion can sometimes be the right choice, then we can have a discussion of whether it is the right choice in this case.

And exactly the same is true of subscription models in games, or anything else which can take the form of a principle of belief. You may well be entitled to hold that belief, but doing so precludes you from evaluating any specific case.

In short, you can either hold a principle, or you can compare and evaluate. You can't do both.

Be clear about which it is you're doing.
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Why the GEZ is evil

Okay, since I'm ranting today, I'm going to explain why the German television license, the GEZ, is evil.

Until recently it was much like the BBC license in Britain; that is, you had to pay a license fee to support the state-run broadcasting networks. And similarly, if you didn't have a TV or radio which could receive those broadcasts, you basically didn't have to pay.

Since the start of the year, however, the rules have changed: now, anyone with a TV, radio, or internet connection, has to pay the license fee of about €20 a month. The actual fee for a TV owner is slightly lower than before, so many people are perfectly fine with the change, and haven't even noticed.

But the problem is the 'internet connection' part of the new rules. If you don't even have a computer, but have a smart phone - hell, if you even have a standard phone with a clunky, slow browser that loads at a snail's pace - you have to pay.

Why? Because you can access the websites of the state-sponsored broadcasters on the internet.

Let's get this straight: because you could visit the German ARD website, you have to pay a license fee.

And that's evil, because of the principle it establishes.

If you could visit the site, you have to pay, regardless of whether you actually do so or not.

I could also visit a porn site: does that mean that I have to pay for it even if I don't? Hmm, I could send a bill to everyone in the world asking to be paid for writing this post, because they might read it.

I could visit all sorts of sites on the internet, because, you know, the internet is a big place. Do I have to pay for all of the sites I don't visit, as well as those that I do?

Ah, you're pushing it too far, you respond. But I'm not. Because even if the German government does not intend that this model should be extended to the rest of the internet, then it must think that only it - or perhaps it and other governments - has the right to apply this model.

Either this model - paying for potential rather than actual use - can be applied to all websites, or it can only be applied to those websites which the government decides it can be applied to. In other words, while companies can't charge you money for something which you can only potentially use, a government can. On this model, the government can make the public pay for anything it wants, so long as it posts a website which anyone in Germany could visit.

While the GEZ is now basically an internet tax in everything but name, it sets up one of two principles. Either any company on the internet can charge you for its content, or governments can force the public to pay for whatever they want. Both are extremely dangerous.

Kant's first definition of the categorical imperative, which forms the basis of his system of morality, is this:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.

On the basis of that definition, the current GEZ is immoral.

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Amazon.de Instant Video Bullshit

Okay, so Amazon.de recently announced that the Prime account includes Prime Instant Video, a video streaming service which has been a part of Amazon.com for some while.

So I'm going to cancel my Prime account.

Why?

Previously, Amazon Prime cost €29 a year. Starting in August, it will cost €49. Ah, you might say, but for that extra €20, you get to stream all the videos you want. That's got to be worth €20 a year, right?

But what do I get for that? A bunch of American TV shows and movies, for the most part. That's fine. I like American movies and TV shows. From where I'm sitting, I can on my shelf several volumes of Scrubs, House, 30 Rock, Community, Castle, Psych, The Mentalist, and The West Wing. Hell, I've imported a bunch of anime releases from the States, and have my blu-ray player set up to play both region 1 and 2 discs.

Now, most of the series I mentioned are on Amazon Instant Video, but they aren't up-to-date or complete. Psych is missing Season 1, House is missing Seasons 3, 5 and 7, Community only goes up to Season 3, The Mentalist and Castle only to Season 4, which is the only season that 30 Rock does have. Scrubs has only Season 8, and The West Wing is missing completely.

It also doesn't have any Futurama and it doesn't have any South Park. Of the Simpsons, it has Seasons 1-3 and 20-25. Also, Amazon Instant Video in Germany has about 10 anime movies and series: you can watch the first Eden of the East movie, but not the series that comes before it or the movie which comes after.

So the selection is patchy to say the least. If you actually like the shows, and actually want to watch them all, you're out of luck.

But did you notice what I did there? I talked about Amazon Instant Video, not Prime Instant Video. See, Prime Instant Video contains the 'free' shows and movies that you can watch when you have an Amazon Prime subscription. Amazon Instant Video, on the other hand, is a pay-to-watch service: you can buy the season as a whole, or individual episodes for about €3 a pop. As a quick comparison, Season 4 of The Mentalist will cost you €34.99 on Amazon Instant Video; Amazon is also selling the DVD of the complete season for €9.99. Not all series are so much cheaper on DVD, admittedly, but all seasons of The Mentalist cost 50% less.

And guess what? NONE of the shows I mentioned above are on Prime Instant Video. They're only on Amazon Instant Video.

That is to say, even if you do have an Amazon Prime account, you're still be paying €3 extra an episode to watch those shows.

Awesome.

And you know what I also like? American TV shows and movies IN ENGLISH.

But with Amazon Instant Video in Germany, you can only watch in German.

Of the supposedly 12,000 titles on Amazon Instant Video in German, only 154 have the [OV] tag, indicating that they are in the original language.

I mean, seriously? Have you heard German dubbing? The German dub of Columbo turned him into a supercop badass and completely missed the whole point. Most shows are not quite as bad as that, but with any given comedy, half of the jokes will be missing.

Awesome.

Incidentally, if you are a German who doesn't speak English and is, for some unfathomable reason, interested in Prime Instant Video, then a) you're probably not reading this post, and b) make sure you buy the full Prime account for €49 a year rather than falling for the subscription model of €7.99 a month for Prime Instant Video on its own. At nearly twice as much (€95.88 a year) you actually get less service.

To recap, for a €20 price hike, I get a service which has an extremely reduced selection of videos compared to Amazon Instant Video - to the point where it has hardly any series I might actually want to watch on it. Amazon Instant Video itself is expensive, also has a limited and patchy selection, and only allows me to watch in German.

Amazon Instant Video is basically a weak selection of videos and a rip-off. But you know what? I wouldn't care if it wasn't for the Prime Instant Video component. The service Amazon Instant Video offers is essentially no different to the movie and video part of the iTunes Music Store, and I've never purchased a video there, either. But what Prime Instant Video does, and iTunes doesn't do, is take a service I like (Amazon Prime) and force me to pay extra for a service I don't want and will never use. Amazon Instant Video, and the iTunes Music Store, I can chose to ignore; but with Prime Instant Video, it's like being forced to buy a loss-leader. It's not quite as despicable as the GEZ, mind, you, but the principle is similar.

Bye, Amazon Prime. It was nice knowing you when you didn't, um, suck.

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Blowing my own trumpet

Last night some of my students were disappointed when they found out there there wouldn't be another course next semester.

This morning I received a $20 donation for my Skyrim mod, Khajiit Speak.

I must be doing something right :-)

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'Bild' and the Intention Economy

Yesterday morning, I went to collect my post and discovered a copy of Bild sticking out of my letterbox. So I threw it in the trash with all the other unsolicited junk mail.

Bild, for those who don't know, is a German tabloid which is not even allowed to call itself a newspaper. Although that's an urban legend, the very fact that so many people believe it tells you how the German public feel about Bild. Since 1998, its circulation has fallen from 4.56 million to 2.84 million (in 2011). And in March this year, it decided to remove the daily nude from the front cover (my incredulous emphasis). But my point today is not (only) to criticise Bild, but to discuss how it ended up in my letterbox.

Today, 24 June, is the 60th anniversary of the newspaper's launch, and in order to celebrate Bild sent itself to 41 million households in Germany (the Sunday edition of Bild is a separate publication and a couple of years younger, so that's why we received the anniversary issue a day earlier). In doing so it apparently set a world record for "the largest circulation for the free special edition of a newspaper." Except, of course, nobody asked for a free Bild to be shoved into their letterbox, which makes this achievement sound rather hollow. And let's not forget that the sheer expense of the event: the printing, logistics and waste generated could hardly be anything other than significant.

Unsurprisingly, when Bild announced its plan to effectively spam every household in the country, many people were upset—upset enough to launch a counter campaign which resulted in a legally-binding right to refuse. In the first twelve days of the campaign, some 200,000 people completed an application to not receive a copy of Bild. Naturally enough, Bild is claiming some kind of victory here as well, since only 0.6% of German households did not want to receive the free issue—surely, the reasoning goes, 99.4% were happy to join Bild in celebrating its 60th birthday.

No. The reason that only 200,000 dissented was because the whole approach was opt-out rather than opt-in. After reading about the plan months ago, my girlfriend and I considered joining the counter campaign, but decided against it since opting-out actually entailed sending our personal information to Bild. And opting out would still not stop Bild from feeding our letterbox with rubbish: instead, we'd receive an envelope containing a letter which said, more-or-less, 'Thank you for not taking part in Bild's 60th anniversary celebrations...' Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

So after that I forgot about the whole thing, and only remembered yesterday when I was confronted by the offending article in my mail. And my response was the same as with any other junk: remove from letterbox and fling in the large cardboard box which stands behind the front door, specifically designed for collecting such trash. I probably didn't even break my step as I continued on the way to collect bread rolls from the bakery.

Actually going through the opt-out process seems to have met with mixed results: some people still received Bild (perhaps because they didn't click on the confirmation email they were sent), and some people received both a red envelope and Bild (perhaps because the postman/woman were not sufficiently instructed about what they were supposed to do). The counter campaign is now collecting evidence before deciding how to proceed.

Bild decided that the German public would all take part. Sure, we were able to refuse, but doing so required considerably more effort than just forgetting and using the trash when the day came. We were, without solicitation, opted into a campaign, with the choice to opt out if we could be bothered. Most people couldn't, and didn't. But what if the choice had been the other way around, if we'd had to ask to receive a free copy of Bild, rather than getting it automatically? Obviously, the entire event would have been a massive failure.

* * *

Serendipitously, a short while later the post delivered my copy of The Intention Economy, by Doc Searls. Now, I'm a slow(ish) reader, so I have barely started the book, but what I have read (and seen in his interview with Leo Laporte on this week's Triangulation) got me thinking about the Bild I'd thrown away.

In essence, the Intention Economy stands in sharp contrast to the Attention Economy, which Searls argues "has shaped marketing and sales since the dawn of advertising." In the Attention Economy, companies seek to deal with an over-abundance of information (or competition) by winning the attention of a customer. All traditional advertising is attention-seeking: even the modern, supposedly individualised online advertisements still do this by hoping to appear relevant. The first step of the AIDA principle of marketing (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action), attention is a crucial part in achieving "a customer who is ready to buy," in Peter Drucker's words:

The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself. Ideally, marketing should result in a customer who is ready to buy.
The problem with this is that it treats the customer as a subject to be studied, or a source of data to be collected. What it fails to do, and what modern technology could and should enable, is actually listen to the wishes of the customer. Instead of desperately collecting as much information about their customers as possible, in order to find the best way of attracting their attention, companies would be better off—in the long run—asking customers what they want, and finding effective ways of listening to them. Marketing typically places the customer at the centre of the operations of a company; but what it has not done is ascribe the customer agency or intention. Marketing has researched the customer rather than communicated with them.

This, I take it, is what The Intention Economy and Searls' ProjectVRM is attempting to address. And now, back to Bild.

* * *

The 60th anniversary 'celebration' of Bild is clear example of attention-seeking. Having seen its circulation fall by roughly a third over the last decade, the newspaper decided to force its way into the German consciousness like a petulant child shrieking 'Look at me! Look at me! Pay attention, damn you!' Bild did not in the slightest care what we wanted, and made it more difficult for us to object than to just let it have its little public tantrum.

Perhaps I exaggerate after the fact. But then again, perhaps we should not underestimate Bild's aggressive, cynical, opt-out-only attempt to increase its circulation. It is a particularly visible example of the Attention Economy at its worst. Bear in mind that the whole of modern advertising is based on similar principles; as are, necessarily, the advertising-supported internet and social networks. Do not forget that Facebook, with nearly a billion users, derives its (disappointing) market value from advertising and that it very much operates on a 'choose to opt-out rather than choose to opt-in' basis. Bild is far from being alone.

Yet neither are we. At the risk of sounding too inflammatory, I'll end by saying this: if we do not tell companies what we want, and what we do not want, they will never listen to us. Bild, Facebook and others like them are based on a model which, on the one hand, encourages consumer passivity, and on the other rewards whoever can make themselves heard over the attention-seeking masses, either by sheer volume, or by being the most intrusive and obnoxious. If that is not what we want, we need to find a way to gain their attention, and inform them of our intention.
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Digital Vertigo, by Andrew Keen

Without a doubt, @ajkeen is a fine writer. The only word I can think of to describe the introductory chapter to his latest book, Digital Vertigo, is 'intoxicating'. He led me through the rainy streets of London to the corpse of Jeremy Bentham and expressed his inner turmoil over the posting of a neo-Cartesian tweet with such skill that, when I paused to reflect at the chapter's end, I wondered if there hadn't been some literary slight of hand involved, if the quality of the writing was blinding me to some sophistry. But no, it is simply that Keen is a fine writer.

The style settles down somewhat after that, but the method does not. Keen sees connections everywhere, and the result is a heady concoction of philosophy, history, cinema, art, hippy culture and technological commentary. I will not attempt to summarise the argument in any detail: it twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. Perhaps it goes too far sometimes—I was never entirely convinced by the relevance of Hitchcock's Vertigo (from which the book draws its name), although that may be in part due to my unfamiliarity with the film, which Keen would undoubtedly be horrified by. But there is a great deal that can be said about the modern sharing, public, digital world by taking a step back and looking at it from a wider historical / philosophical perspective, and I greatly appreciate Keen's efforts in drawing attention to such parallels.

One of the central arguments of Digital Vertigo is that the major proponents of the social web are those who stand to gain the most from it. It may ostensively be 'free' to join Facebook, but the consequence is that you are not actually a customer, in the traditional sense, of Facebook, but rather a product. And, as a product, the more you share, and the more social you are, the more valuable you become to the company. As such, it is no wonder that such the entrepreneurs behind such companies believe that privacy is dead, or that the future is social, or that humans are, by their very nature, social animals. It is no wonder because these technological gurus have a vested interest in encouraging you to be as social as possible.

Keen wishes to go further than that, however, arguing that we risk losing the essence of what makes us human when we succumb to the pressure of becoming hyper-social. Referring to Mill, he says that

our uniqueness as a species lies in our ability to stand apart from the crowd, to disentangle ourselves from society, to be let alone and to be able to think and act for ourselves.
Or to put it another way, the digital narcissism implicit in today's social networks is dangerously dehumanising.

Keen is no Luddite, which is why it's a cheap shot to criticise him for inviting people to follow him on twitter (as the book cover playfully illustrates). If anything, he's interested in informed consent; people should be aware of what they're getting into, of the dangers of excess, and free to choose not to. And naturally enough, the default setting of the social network should be privacy: we should choose to be public, not choose to be private.

If I have concerns about Digital Vertigo, it's with the occasionally disingenuous argumentation. Needless to say, Jeff Jarvis and his recent Public Parts comes in for a fair amount of criticism, but Jarvis is generally more sophisticated than Keen's treatment suggests (that being said, Jarvis' unquestioning idolisation of Mark Zuckerberg began his book with a sour taste that I could never quite dismiss). But there are other points where the polemical narrative seems to take over: for example, in describing Josh Harris, the subject of We Live In Public, Keen suggests that Harris is now more-or-less living in isolation and disgrace in Ethiopia. Not so, according to Jarvis, who spends several pages describing 'The Wired City', a next-generation reality show planned by Harris (admittedly a kickstarter project which failed). Another example: Eric Schmidt's rather ridiculous comment that young people should be able to automatically change their names on reaching adulthood, which, as Jarvis points out, was intended as a joke. Keen is well aware of this, as I've seen him acknowledge in an interview, but it's not mentioned in the book, presumably because it would have weakened, or distracted from, the point he was trying to make. Also, I've always considered novelists less than reliable sources for philosophical arguments (because what they are writing is, by its nature, fiction), but Keen is more than happy to cite authors, novels, and films to illustrate his argument that we're heading in the wrong direction.

These points may well be pedantic, and I do, in principle, agree with where Keen is trying to go with the book; there were just times when I was sceptical about how he was getting there. And that is true of pretty much every mention of The Social Network, a (semi)fictionalised account of the birth of Facebook which Zuckerberg refused to be interviewed for. The film may have been Oscar-nominated, but that hardly grants it any credibility; and suggesting, as Keen does at the end of Digital Vertigo, that we should watch it in order to help make the choice "between being human and being an elephant or a sheep" is almost farcical. At best, this is preaching to the converted, because none of the 'proponents' of the social network will have any time for the film (think: hatchet job). At worst, it's a cynical deception: trust a Hollywood, old media, fictionalised cinematic account rather than seeking the truth. I don't actually think that Keen is being so manipulative; but if Jarvis' hero-worship of Zuckerberg is the sour taste in Public Parts, Keen's praise for The Social Network is the bum note in Digital Vertigo.

All in all, though, I enjoyed my time with Digital Vertigo, and my copy is enthusiastically dog-eared. It's a well-written, insightful account of the potential dangers of the social web we find ourselves increasingly caught up in. And if, at times, Keen gets a little too wrapped up in the point he's trying to make, it doesn't stop that point being any less vital or timely.

[Keen's recent opinion piece on CNN is worth a read to get the gist of what the book is about...]
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Kamasutra (o.s.t.), by Can / Irmin Schmidt (2009)

The Inner Space - KamasutraAccording to The Can Book, the band did not hit upon their name until December 1968; and music included in this soundtrack was recorded a month before that. And so Kamasutra is credited to Irmin Schmidt & Inner Space Production. Indeed, none of the musicians involved in the recording are mentioned in the sleeve notes, which instead summarise the contents of the obscure German film. Only Malcolm Mooney, and one Margarete Juvan, receive any credit, and only because they sing on one track each.

And in a way, that's fair enough. This is, after all, proto-Can, Can before they found their groove and identity. In some ways, the music here resembles some of the entries in their occasional Ethnic Forgery Series, but that's not quite fair, as the most of the EFS pieces which have been released are decidedly tongue-in-cheek—they're 'forgeries', after all—while the ethnic elements appropriated here are played more conventionally. Both the ethnic elements and the rock elements sound fairly typical of the sound of the late 60's, and so unrepresentative of Can themselves. That's not to say the album is of no interest to a Can fan; it's just a recording of the band in their earliest stages of development. And at several points I thought I heard references to later pieces, riffs or rhythms which would soon make their way onto record in a different form.

It's also interesting to hear David Johnson's flute playing here; if I remember correctly, there were only a couple of points on Unlimited Edition where we've heard it before. To be sure, that flute is what part of what makes the album not quite sound like Can; but this was apparently the only time when the six musicians of Inner Space played together, and it's a fascinating insight into the band's development.
__________

Verdict: Much as I appreciate this release, it's hard to rate the album higher than Decent. Dedicated Can fans may consider this to be an essential part of their collection, but anyone else is not likely to be impressed.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic]
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