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Mon 29
Dec
2008

Dear Warner Bros.

What Max Reckons You remember me. You bought the film rights to my novel Jennifer Government, for Steve Soderbergh and George Clooney. Didn’t work out, but that’s not your fault. These things happen. I hope we can work again some day. That’s not why I’m writing.

I’m writing because yesterday I rented The Dark Knight, and I couldn’t watch it. I tried. But when I popped that DVD into my home theater PC and snuggled up on the sofa with my wife, it wouldn’t play.

At first I thought the disc must be damaged. I tried it in my laptop: no dice there, either. So I took it back to the video store and swapped it for a new one. They were very apologetic, by the way, Warners. I guess they understand that physically traveling to a bricks-and-mortar store is kind of a pain, and when you’re in business against digital downloads, you don’t want to make your transactions more difficult than they already are.

Home with my fresh DVD, I tried again. But still: didn’t work. A little Googling later, I discovered the disc was indeed damaged, and by who: you.

You’ve installed some new anti-piracy protection onto The Dark Knight DVDs, which prevents the disc from playing in my PC. Well, “prevents:” it took me an hour of messing around to figure out how to rip it. I didn’t want to rip it, Warners. I only wanted to watch it. I think it may actually be illegal to rip copy-protected DVDs where I live. But you engineered your disc so that it wouldn’t play in my DVD player: this was the only way I could access the content I’d paid for.

Now, I understand that home theater PCs are kind of new-fangled, Warners, and not everyone wants to watch their DVD on a computer or laptop. But some of us do, more every day. I think you need to get over the idea that PCs are just for pirates.

Please, help me out here: who does your protection scheme target? It can’t be the real pirates; they are barely slowed by such things, and you surely know this. If I’d wanted to download The Dark Knight illegally, it would have been quick and easy; there’s no shortage of places to find it, and the copies are high-quality. Unlike your DVD, they are also ad-free, play without a hitch, and would have spared me three trips to the video store.

I think your target must be the average consumer: someone with a PC and a legitimate copy of your DVD, but limited technical knowledge. This person will be defeated by your anti-piracy protection, at least for the moment. But what does this gain you? I’m honestly stumped. These are not the people who are distributing copies over the internet. They are, at worst, time-shifting a rental, or handing out a copy to their friends. A copy of a store-purchased DVD, that is. They are that tiny, precious slice of the population who has decided to give you their money: your customers.

When you optioned my book, Warners, I noticed the contract provided for a cut of the film’s eventual revenue to the MPAA. I felt a little uneasy at this, because even back then I wasn’t comfortable with the shenanigans that organization was up to. The unskippable copyright notices at the start of movies, for example: that’s half the reason I swapped to a home theater PC in the first place. There is something wrong, in my opinion, when a machine I purchased, playing a DVD I purchased, tells me I’m not allowed to use the fast-forward button.

I understand piracy is a serious problem for you. I really do. You’ll get no argument from me that wholesale downloading of copyright material easily available from legitimate channels is morally indefensible. If we can sensibly fix that, I’m right there with you. But you seem to be hell-bent on converting your entire customer base into pirates. You are facing competition that offers your product at zero cost and maximum ease of use, and you respond by breaking your own DVDs.

So, next film deal, I’m striking that clause out. No more MPAA funding from my material. And Warners, it’s not because I’m angry. It’s not because I want that hour back I spent trying to get your busted DVD to play. It’s because you need to stop this. Really, it’s for your own good.

Sun 30
Nov
2008

The War on He

What Max Reckons HerI was reasonably confident we had this whole gender inequality thing licked, until I fathered a girl. I mean, I was aware things were not perfect. I worked in corporate-land; women were clearly held to different standards than men. But still: close enough, I thought. In the grand scheme, there were bigger problems.

Now I realize the smallest hint of sex discrimination is A GLOBAL CONSPIRACY TARGETING MY DAUGHTER. And it’s everywhere. Why is every animal assumed to be male? Why is “he” used interchangeably with “it” in a great swathe of children’s picture books? I’ll tell you why: because male is the default setting for everything, unless it’s soft and pink. Or a cat. I’m not sure why cats are the exception. But everything else is “he.”

I realized this was a problem when Fin began naming her teddies. I don’t mind her having boy teddies. Boy teddies are fine, in limited quantities. But she thought almost all of them were all boy teddies. That didn’t seem right. I realized I was doing that thing: using “he” as default. I had imprinted her.

So I switched defaults. It’s a simple rule: you assume that everything is female unless there’s clear evidence to the contrary. Animals, teddies, unseen car drivers: all girls. It proved surprisingly difficult. I’ve been doing it about a year and I still sometimes slip up.

I also began converting Fin’s teddies. Now, possibly I’m teaching her that boys sometimes spontaneously turn into girls. But I had to do something about that men’s club. She’s picked up on it: many of them now waver between male and female, according to Fin, and a few I think I’ve turned completely.

Just the other day we saw a dog in the street and Fin asked if it was a boy or a girl. I asked what she thought. “I think it’s a girl,” she said. That was new.

That’s why all my examples now are going to be “she.” I used to try to mix it up: a “he” example here, a “she” example there. To, you know, be balanced. But now I realize the world is full of “he.” I don’t need to add any more.

Next I plan to father an illegitimate child with a Kenyan and discover we still haven’t solved racism.

P.S. Last day of Movember! I’m so happy; I finally get to shave off this monstrosity. Look at me! I’m a broken man.

Sun 07
Sep
2008

The Ad About Nothing

What Max Reckons Microsoft has a new ad! And experts are divided over whether the quirky, banter-heavy, no-need-to-mention-a-product spot is 90 seconds of pure Seinfeldian genius, or a sad demonstration of what you get when you try to advertise something that has no selling points.

Well, when I say “divided:” Microsoft thinks it’s pretty neat, and everybody else seems underwhelmed. In the face of this howling gale of criticism, Microsoft has responded: That’s just what we wanted! The ad is just a “teaser,” they say, meant to “get the conversation going.”

The Associated Press picked up this idea, ending its article with:

Even if the reaction was mostly negative, Microsoft’s ad has clearly succeeded in getting people talking.

And it popped up in lots of other places, too:

“It was a very odd commercial but it has the effect that people are talking about it now… so didn’t they get their money’s worth?” wrote ‘Amanda.’

I wonder when we can kill the idea that even colossal marketing blunders are secretly brilliant, since they at least got people’s attention. Because it sounds like I’m being asked to believe Microsoft deliberately blew $300 million as a strategic move to get everybody talking about what a waste of money that was. That must have been some pitch meeting. “Here’s our idea: a series of pointless, meandering ad spots that don’t actually promote your product, but spark worldwide debate about what the hell you thought you were trying to accomplish. Everyone will be talking about it!”

Presumably this firm would go on to promote Presidential candidates by having them drown puppies on live TV. You can’t beat that kind of exposure.

Personally, I don’t mind this ad. It’s the introduction of a long campaign; they’re just warming up. I’m prepared to believe it will be effective and entertaining. But if it sucks, that won’t mean it’s genius in disguise. It’ll just mean it sucks.

Wed 27
Aug
2008

Making Sense of Babel

What Max Reckons Atheism seems to be on the rise lately. I say this as someone who has examined no studies nor historical data, but who reads a lot of web sites. I see more people more comfortable with declaring their atheism than ever before. I think it’s at least partly because of the internet, which provides a meeting-place for sharing and reinforcing ideologies: that’s something new for atheists, whereas people of various faiths have always had churches, plus, in many places, pervasive support from their community.

And the internet is not only good at uniting geographically dispersed but like-minded people: it’s also disproportionately popular amongst people with technical and scientific backgrounds, who in turn are disproportionately atheist. So, on balance, the web seems to me to be a net negative for major religion.

Which got me thinking of the Tower of Babel*. According to the Bible, a great tower was built long ago in the city of Babylon; the builders of said tower were a little too pleased with themselves and their achievement, at least for God’s liking. There’s a whiff of the Titanic about this story: arrogance so great that it practically begs for comeuppance.

Which God delivers, of course. It didn’t take much to set God off in the Old Testament; he’d smite you for a backward look. But here, he reacts in a way that at first seems a little odd: no smiting, no plagues; he doesn’t even—stop me if I have this wrong—destroy the tower:

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

God is not concerned about the tower itself, or even the arrogance of its builders. That makes sense to me: you can be arrogant in any language, just look at France. God’s issue is with the ease of global communications.

So, as a story about the internet’s role in the decline of organized religion, the Tower of Babel makes perfect sense. I think that’s nifty.

(* Note: Religion is one of those touchy subjects you can’t write about without people looking for hidden agendas. Which is a shame, because religions are crammed full of stories that are interesting and meaningful regardless of how true you consider them to be. In the interests of full disclosure, I personally don’t believe the Bible to be a non-fiction work, but I hope that doesn’t bother you too much, and we can still be friends.)

Wed 04
Jun
2008

Scraping the Barrel

What Max Reckons I decided to stop doing those blog posts where I pontificate about how the world should be. Because reading those back, they even annoy me. And the ones that annoy me the most are when I start yapping about politics. I mean, please, like the world needs another shrill, ignorant opinion on that.

Well, maybe just one more. Don’t you think it’s strange how often people vote for somebody they don’t like? Elections should be simple, shouldn’t they? We vote for whoever we want to win, and the popular choice prevails. But in practice, you often have an incentive to vote “tactically.” For example, if you’re electing the US Democratic nominee, there’s no point voting for your favorite candidate if he or she has no chance of defeating the Republican nominee in the General Election. You should only vote for someone who can ultimately win. So now your vote has to not simply express your own preference, but be modified by what you believe everybody else prefers, too.

Anywhere there’s plurality voting, you can’t safely vote for your favorite candidate unless you’re confident enough other people will too. Otherwise, you’re smarter to vote for your least-hated candidate with a practical chance of victory. (Or vote swap.)

Now, in my experience, any time someone expresses an opinion they don’t personally have, but think others do, it’s a terrible opinion. For example, I’ve seen it produce some pretty ugly book covers. And I’ll ignore it in any reader feedback I get on my story drafts. People who try to guess what other people want end up settling on the dullest, most conservative, and uninspiring choice available, even if none of them personally prefer it.*

I get that there’s no such thing as a perfect voting system. Some are more warped than others, but, okay, it’s surprisingly difficult to create a fair, practical voting system. Still. How disturbing is it that on top of every other form of corruption inherent in the political process, it can be completely reasonable for you to walk into a ballot room and vote for someone other than who you want to win?

(* That’s one of the reasons Hillary got so close to Barack. There, I said it.)

Wed 30
Apr
2008

Advertising Next

What Max Reckons Surely advertising is the world’s most inefficient industry. Here are people who will plaster a bus with a ten-foot-high pop-out poster of a giant on the off chance it will encourage you to have your carpets cleaned.

Let’s walk through this process. For the ad to work, you must (a) notice it, (b) pay sufficient attention to absorb its message, (c) attach sufficient credibility to not immediately dismiss it, (d) retain that message until you enter a purchasing situation relevant to that product, and (e) find the message so persuasive that it alters the purchasing decision you would otherwise have made.

The chances of this are infinitesimal. And so advertising spams. It makes five hundred uninterested TV viewers sit through a 30-second spot in case one of them is in the market for a new SUV. The amazing part is that this is actually cost-effective. Advertising is a half-trillion-dollar industry that makes commercial sense even though most of its output is wasted.

Far more sensible would be if advertisers could restrict their ads to people likely to respond to them. They’d save bucketloads of money; we wouldn’t have to sit through ads for products we wouldn’t buy in a million years.

This yawning gap between the present state of the advertising industry and one that isn’t completely freaking insane means there will be change. Market segmentation has always been a big deal in marketing, but it’s getting huge. Marketers are ravenous for information about you, and they’re building immense data stores. These will enable them to tailor their messages to you—or, at least, to your market segment. In the short-term, it’ll mean more relevant ads, Google-style. Next, I think, comes more persuasive ads. That’s when they change not the product being advertised, but the message: playing up its green credentials if you’re environmentally conscious, its patriotism if you’re nationally minded, and so on.

Lately I’ve been thinking about my ideal state of advertising. And I don’t think it’s no ads at all. I would prefer no ads to the tidal wave of irrelevant ads I get currently, but in a perfect world, I do want information about products. Specifically, I want unbiased recommendations from people I respect and admire. That basically means friends and select celebrities. I want this to be “pull” information: I don’t want anyone randomly coming up and yakking about their amazing new phone. But if I’m thinking about a new phone, I’d like to be able to see what people with whom I identify think. I would like to browse through a list and see that Wild Pete has a Nokia but it sucks, Wil is wedded to his Motorola, and Stephen King knows where you can get a good deal on an iPhone.

The closest thing I’ve seen is Facebook. It’s all push—I get recommendations and links thrown at me whether they’re relevant or not, and almost entirely they’re not. But still, it’s socially-based purchasing advice. I think if Facebook had been smarter—if they’d remembered their success comes from giving people complete control over their own information, and hadn’t tried to wrest it back—they could have built the most effective, highly-targeted advertising platform in the world. Maybe they still will.

Until then, I’m skipping TV ads on my PVR, blocking them on the web with my browser, and listening to commercial-free internet radio.