Grails

•31 December 2017 • Leave a Comment
Advertisements

פיגוע

•11 December 2017 • Leave a Comment

Another pigua in NYC.

I made a post to Reddit:

As a New Yorker who was real close to the explosion site, of course I’m rattled. And pissed the fuck off.

I also remember what my grandmother used to tell me: in the 1920s and 30s, every time there was a newspaper story about a criminal, her father would check if the criminal was Jewish and thank God if he wasn’t. Because they were fresh-off-the-boat Jewish immigrants and they felt like they lived on top of a big tinderbox and one little spark could set it off.

I remember that every time there’s a terrorist attack. My first thought is always, “I wonder if the terrorist was Muslim?” My second thought, right behind the first, is “I hope he wasn’t Muslim, because that’s all my Muslim friends need right now.” I really do, it’s just where my mind goes. But I always remember my grandmother’s story and I force myself to think: “Even if the murderous shithead asshole was a Muslim, that doesn’t matter for other Muslims. It doesn’t matter.” Because I’m not going to be one of the people that my grandmother grew up afraid of. I’m just fucking not.

Anyway, I think about that on days like today. Everyone stay strong, stay vigilant, and חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ

Someone responded:

Honest question: was there a major worldwide movement of violent Jews in the 20’s and 30’s? I’m just wondering if we’re comparing apples to apples here.

I replied:

Yeah, there were quite a few Jewish terrorists at that time. They kidnapped, robbed banks, and used bombs to target civilians, both in the US and Europe. They were mostly part of a loose network of terrorist groups allied around a common ideology that wanted to destroy countries as we know them and set up a single worldwide government that imposed absolute ideological purity. They called themselves Communists, or Anarchists, or Social Revolutionaries, but in many ways they were the ISIS of their day. And lots of people at the time called them a “major worldwide movement of violent Jews.”

Calling them that wasn’t entirely incorrect, but still it wasn’t right. Radical anarchism and communism were major worldwide movements, they had violent factions or tendencies, and a lot of their members were Jews. But they weren’t Jewish movements. They had nothing at all to do with mainstream Judaism. These terrorists represented less than one percent of one percent of the millions of Jews in the world. Most of whom were just regular people, like my great-grandfather who worked in a clothing factory, or his daughter – my grandmother – who was just a little kid.

It would be like if I said the Lord’s Resistance Army, or the Posse Comitatus, or the CSA, are movements of violent Christians. They are movements, they are violent, they are Christian, and given half a shot they’d be happy to be worldwide. But they’ve got nothing to do with the vaaaast majority of Christians. It’s an important distinction – and one that lots of Christians are still forced to draw (cough China cough).

The Muslim terrorists of today are the same. There are lots of terrorists in the world. Many are Muslim – in America and Western Europe, it’s possible that most terrorists are Muslim. They are violent. They are (or aspire to be) a worldwide movement. BUT. But they are a tiny fraction of the billion Muslims in the world, most of whom are just regular people who go to work and who want their daughters to grow up to be grandmothers one day. They are as Muslim as the Bolsheviks were Jewish, or as the Falangists or Provos are Christian, or as the 969 are Buddhist, or as Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants are Quebecois.

I am a Jew but I don’t stand with Lehi or the Irgun. I am a white American but I don’t stand with Tom Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry. My friend Mohammed who cleans my clock at poker every week doesn’t stand with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. We are comparing apples to apples, and one bad apple says NOTHING about the bunch.

Homo Solvens

•9 December 2017 • 2 Comments

I have a little pile of essays – half-complete, or little more than topics – and since I am overburned with free time I thought I should turn my attentions to them.

One of these was a blog post from two years ago, saved in my draft folder, containing nothing more than the title: “Microtransactions in Games.” Well, as they say – there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

For those of you blessed creatures who don’t know about this, here’s the skinny:

Some games – computer, console, tablet or smartphone – you pay for. You buy the DVD, or the cartridge, or you just pay to download them. Some games cost more, some cost less.

Some games are free. These are mostly games that you download or play in a browser. Either they were meant to be free, or they sold so poorly that they’re now being given away, or they are so old that it seems quite silly to charge for them.

Of the games that were meant to be free, some were just made by someone for fun and are released as such. Some are meant to showcase the creator’s talent, in the hopes that this will lead to other opportunities for them – one man’s free game is another’s free advertising. Some are so bad that nobody would ever ever charge for them.

And then there are some which are only mostly free. Games like World of Warcraft, which costs $0 to install but requires that you pay a monthly fee to play – the free game is like a free needle and spoon, but the smack they’re selling will still cost you. (I would draw a comparison to why Amazon’s ereaders are always on sale; even if they lose money on the sale of each Kindle, they make money on the ebooks that they are then able to sell through the Kindle Store.)

There are variations on the mostly-free model. There are games where the single player is free, but to play with strangers you have to pay a little extra, either as a one-time or as a monthly cost. Or there are games where the initial game is free, but the expansion packs cost money – which seems perfectly reasonable until you realize that there are also many games where the purchase of the base game entitles you to all future expansions and updates for free.

Then we get to the microtransactions, which I would define as “any opportunity to purchase, not a game or the ability to play it, but something within the game and the ability to play with it.”

The oldest example, I would argue, is the 900-number help line. Got stuck playing King’s Quest IV? You call a number and some kindly operator tell you how to get unstuck. You pay $.99/minute for the privilege.

Supporters of the paid help line noted that it let people solve puzzles that they couldn’t solve on their own – things that would otherwise prevent them from finishing the game. Detractors noted that you were basically paying for a game, and then paying more for the privilege of not playing it. Sierra’s directors were content to note that they were making more money from the help line than from sales of the game itself.

This was, essentially, paid cheating. This concept was advanced, particularly in free-to-play browser games, with the idea of purchasing treasure chests. Sure you could play the game, all the way through, and all for free… but if you wanted a little boost, a little shortcut, you could pay for it. Say it’d take you a week to earn a thousand gold. Instead, pay a dollar, and: presto! For some people, the exchange of real money for fake saved them time, aggravation, or both. It was a rational use of their money. Not the smartest, perhaps, but rational.

Then someone somewhere came up with the bright idea of making things in the game available only if you paid for them.

The first of these microtransactions were purely cosmetic – ‘aesthetic microtransactions’ – or, colloquially, ‘hats.’ The idea being: hey, you’re going to spends hours (if not hundreds) (if not thousands) playing a multiplayer game. People will see your avatar. They will see it every day. Is it worth it to you to spend a dollar to customize your avatar? Quite possibly. If it’s worth thousands of hours of your life, it’s worth a dollar, right? Some people spend a hundred dollars on a shirt that they won’t wear for a thousand hours. Some people spend a thousand dollars on a dress they’ll wear once. Sure this is just a pile of 0s and 1s, inherently nonscarce: but someone had to take the time to design the thing, implement the code, make sure it works in the game. And beside, this isn’t a thousand dollars. It’s just a buck. You can afford a buck. Right?

But there are some things that are more than hats. Some items or powers within a game make you better at the game. Ask any one who’s ever played a roleplaying game, digital or tabletop: Items Matter. Sure you could spend hours and hours camping a rare drop. Or you could spend a dollar and use all those freed hours to go outside and get fresh air and cure diseases and sleep with attractive people. That’s totally what you did, right? Right?

These weren’t cosmetic hats – these were ‘unlocks’. They actually let you be better at the game. They were cheating – they were cheat codes where you swiped a credit card instead of typing a phrase. “This big gun isn’t necessary to kill people, but it sure does make it easier” – as true in video games as it is real life.

And then we came to the final act: unlocks that were necessary to advance the game. A weapon that you needed to win, and to get it you needed to pay. “To open this door you must buy the Red Key!” – this is common, right now, in games. And not just in free games, either: to add insult to insult to insult, there are ‘necessary unlocks’ incorporated into AAA games which cost $69.99 to purchase. Making the purchase price of the game reflective of only a fraction of the necessary expenditure required to complete the game: meaning that the price you pay in the store is actually just a fraction of the true MSRP.

This is not only unnecessary, and unscrupulous, but it is also underhanded. You may well not know that the game you’re buying is only half the game until you’ve already bought it, gotten home, and maybe even played dozens of hours. This is absolutely no different from buying a new car, driving it for 10,000 miles, and then learning that you’ll need to pay half the purchase price to keep driving. And then, in ten thousand miles, half the purchase price again. Until you… get bored with driving?

There is one further egregiousness that must be mentioned: loot crates. You don’t pay for the thing you want; you pay for a crate which has a (say) 1 in 3 chance of containing the ‘hat’ or ‘unlock’. Or 1 in 10. Or 1 in Whatever They Say. This is artificial scarcity three layers deep. This is gambling, pure and simple.

Personally, I would never spend one thin dime on any of these things. But I’m not a good person to ask, since I haven’t paid for a game – or any other piece of software – probably in my entire life, come to think of it. And yet, if I paid full price for a game from the store, and found that it wanted more money from me, I would be very skeptical. If it wanted more money before I could complete the game, I would consider this highway robbery. I would be angry. I would demand my money back.

Enter EA.

This matter has recently come to a head in the case of Star Wars Battlefront II, made by Electronic Arts. This game contains pretty much all the elements listed above, from the fact that you can’t play as most actual Star Wars characters until you’ve paid preposterous amounts of money, to the fact that loot crates turns the whole adventure into Las Vegas unregulated by the Gaming Commission.

When asked about this, an EA employee gave the following response:

“The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment[…]”

This is what games are supposed to offer – but by the playing of them, not by the pissing away of money.

It is thus not surprising that the comment quotes above is the single most downvoted comment in Reddit history; or that EA has lost (by all accounts) millions of dollars in cancelled preorders and promised boycotts; or that ‘loot crates’ are being investigated by some EU nations as a form of illegal gambling; or the fact that maybe, just maybe, people are beginning to wise up, and will voluntarily refrain from so poorly disposing of their money.

 

And yet, I could not call myself a business consultant without asking: is there such a thing as a good microtransaction?

After some skull-sweat, I have come up with the following types of microtransactions that I might consider to be worth the money:

-Undeveloped content. You like the game? Pay us more and we’ll make more of it! This is simply paid DLC in a nutshell.

Purely aesthetic content (‘hats’). They do not affect gameplay, nor do they unlock new elements of gameplay. They are cosmetic, and nothing more.

-Directed development. In a nutshell, this is the Kickstarter model grown within a game. Want to pay for the DLC? That’s fine. Knock yourself out. Want to determine what is in the DLC? If you pay for the privilege of choosing spaceship over submarine, or having a character named after your childhood iguana: throw us a few bucks and we shall make it so. These changes might be more than cosmetic; the differences are that, A) nobody would have to pay for them; B) they would, in the end, give everyone the same gameplay experience – no special treatment, no cheating, nothing unfair.

I should point out that there is limitless potential within these three areas. The only real problem is, it places the game designers and developers at the mercy of the players. However, if you consider this a problem, I would beg that you refrain from working in the gamespace – go out to pasture with John Romero and never program again.

Nonscarce content.

This, I think, is the most interesting idea. This would give people the opportunity to pay for things which are objectively worth paying for, insofar as they are of limited quantity and require actual cost to produce.

These things are traditionally known as ‘feelies’. These are the things that come in a game box, alongside the manual and the disc. These might include a booklet, with higher production values than a simple manual; a map of the game world; a little plastic such-and-such to keep on your desk; in short, any little tchatchke which an avid gamer might wish to purchase and keep; in short, a feelie is just a hat irl.

Most of these items are crap. But some are not – and there is no need for them to be. For everyone who has spent a thousand dollars on a hand-made copy of a sword from the Lord Of The Rings, there is no reason why that could not be associated with the Lord Of The Rings video game that they also assuredly play. Or a sword from Skyrim. Or a sword from WoW. Or a sword from whatever game you’ve just made. Life imitates art… or at least, something real is modeled after something that the game developer has already modeled.

Yet these are all examples of a real-world item being based on the game developer’s choice. The true potential, here, lies in the real-world item being based on the player’s choice.

The earliest example of this that I can think of are the photo stickers from Pokemon Snap. The game was about taking pictures. You chose your favorite, went to Blockbuster, and had them printed out.

This was recently aped by Firewatch, a stunning indie video game that is one part murder mystery and one part hiking simulator. The aesthetic seeks to answer the question “What if a 1940s National Parks poster were three-dimensional and you could walk in it?” I think the game is simply beautiful. And like Pokemon Snap, the game includes a built-in camera system: you bring the camera to your eye, you focus, you take the shot, and you even then spin the little wheel to advance the film. After you beat the game, you can print out any of the pictures you want – at a high definition, and for a reasonable fee.

But this, I say, is just the tip of the iceberg. There is no reason that it need be limited to something so passive as appreciating the scenery. Let’s say there’s a game where you can customize your character’s facial appearance. No reason you couldn’t order a printout of your character’s face – or a computer-assisted oil painting – or a hand oil painting – or one of a hundred types of 3D models, to scale, full-size, from hot out of the MakerBot to chiseled from Catarra marble to… well, I’m not going to suggest ‘inflatable,’ but I expect that such an option would be as profitable as a loot crate. If not more so.

Anything that you can make within a game, could be available outside of the game. The more customization allowed by the game, the more fun it will be, and the more profit potential exists. A Lego set for your Fallout 4 settlement? A blacksmithing mini-game that yields an actual sword? The sky is the limit – and if you’re not careful, you won’t have just improved upon the microtransaction; you’ll have trained a bunch of people to use AutoCAD, and they will have had fun doing it.

Outline for the Invisible Hand (II)

•9 December 2017 • Leave a Comment

Making this for organizational purposes.

 

COMPLETED:

Arbitrage (1600 words): https://warspite.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/arbitrage/

Appraisal (2300): https://warspite.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/appraisal/

Authentic (7500): https://warspite.wordpress.com/2011/07/12/authentic/

Acquisition (6500): https://warspite.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/acquisition/

Advantage (2900): https://warspite.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/advantage/

Attain (4800): https://warspite.wordpress.com/2016/01/01/attain/

Avoidance (4500): https://warspite.wordpress.com/2016/11/20/avoidance/

SUBTOTAL: 30,000

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

arrest (2500): https://warspite.wordpress.com/2015/12/06/arrest/

arrest (2100): https://warspite.wordpress.com/2016/03/11/arraignment-in-black-and-gold/

arrest (2100): https://warspite.wordpress.com/2017/10/02/arrest-2/

arrest (1300): https://warspite.wordpress.com/2017/10/02/arrest-3/

arrest (1700): https://warspite.wordpress.com/2017/10/02/arrest-4/

arrest (1200): https://warspite.wordpress.com/2017/10/04/arrest-5/

SUBTOTAL: 11,000

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

IN PROGRESS

 

Abandon (estimated: 5000)

Appearance (estimated: 1500)

Adventures (12 in total; will probably average 1000 words each)

A short epilogue

…which will put the total collection at around 60,000

 

 

 

A Land Without OUIs

•9 December 2017 • Leave a Comment

Cars are starting to drive themselves.

Don’t believe me? Go to YouTube. See a car drive itself down the highway. See it take left turns and right turns through a small town. See it navigate a busy parking lot, find a parking space, slide itself in – then see it pull out and drive over to pick you up at the touch of a button.

Some people have said that this will only work in the cities of California, that it’s impractical for bad weather or for rough country roads. This already isn’t true. Self-driving cars don’t follow a planned route; they use multiple cameras and millimeter-wave radar to plot and replot their context and their path. In a nutshell, they use digital eyes and ears to do what your eyes and ears do. The difference is, they do it better. So if you can drive on it, or through it, then so can they –  and all while you’re having a beer in the back seat.

How long will it be before you can go to the dealership (or click a button on Amazon) and get a self-driving car? How long before you can’t get any other kind? All I know is, the next car that I buy will not need me to drive it. I’m not sure if it will even have a steering wheel – and if it does, I doubt I’ll ever use it.

I can’t wait to try to convince my kids that we used to let pretty much anybody strap into multi-ton steel monstrosities, step on a gas pedal (a pedal!), and then hurtle down the roads and across the world at break-neck speeds. I can’t wait to show them a picture of Boston traffic and say, yeah, we used to expect each and every person to be able to negotiate through that, generally twice a day every day for their entire adult lives. I’ll tell them that there were tens of thousands of auto fatalities every year and that most of them were a person’s fault, and yet we kept giving out key after key. Then I’ll explain what a key is and they’ll fall out of their chairs laughing.

Every new technological innovation has indirect consequences. Economists call them ‘externals.’ Investors call them ‘opportunities.’ Business consultants, like myself, call them ‘a chance to be clever.’ So: what happens when cars drive themselves, safely and easily?

-There will be far fewer accidents.

-There will be far, far fewer accidents with a person at fault.

-Auto insurance premiums will aim right for the bottom.

-There will be almost no moving violations – and hence, no traffic tickets.

-The roadside motel will become somewhat archaic when you can stretch out and sleep in a moving car.

-Likewise drive-in movies when you can watch a movie while driving on.

-The quantity of street signage could be quite reduced. Hell, traffic lights might one day become a thing of the past.

-“X while you wait for your oil change!” won’t mean much when you car goes for its oil change without you.

-There will be no more DUIs – and no more drunk driving deaths. Zero.

It’s this latter that I’m particularly interested in exploring.

Let’s be clear about what it is: aside from the glory that I will be able to drink and drive (or more accurately – and even better! – drink and be driven), the number of drunk driving fatalities in this country will got from over 10,000 to 0. The number of OUIs – many of which are accident-related – will go from over 300,000 to 0. And the number of OUI related incarcerations, fines, and license suspensions, will zero out.

The introduction of self-driving cars will be one of the greatest revolutions in public health since the fucking Polio vaccine. But this leads to one external that, while I will not bemoan it, I do think that it is important to consider: without OUIs, a lot of lawyers are going to starve.

The profession of rural attorney is often based in very large part around OUI defense. I am an attorney, and I studied at a rural-state law school. Many small-town attorneys have expressed to me that a significant amount of their income derives from OUI defense. It is, to quote one northern Maine attorney, their “bread and butter” – to quote another, it’s “how they stay afloat.”

When self-driving cars become ubiquitous, the practice of law in rural America – already struggling – will become generally untenable.

Again, even as a lawyer, the idea that something would put a bunch of lawyers out of business does not exactly make me sit and weep. But there is a problem here. People need lawyers. From criminal defense to property transfers, to helping you get divorced or write a will, there are some things where it’s really good to be able to go to a professional. Just being able to drop by your local lawyer’s office and get advice can be invaluable in small towns – not the least because that lawyer might represent some big city know-how which otherwise that town just not have.

If the OUI faucet is turned off, many rural lawyers – probably most rural lawyers – are going to have to take down their shingle and close up shop. This means that most small towns in America will go from having one lawyer to none.Self-driving cars will create a law desert.

It’s good that they’ll make it easier, and safer, to drive forty miles – because that’s how far a lot of people are going to have to go in order to meet with an attorney.

And this presupposes that people have access to a car, which isn’t always true in rural America. In this way, self-driving cars might prove a reward to those who have cars, but a further punishment to those who don’t – advancing the haves but at the expense of the have-nots – serving, in short, to widen rural inequality.

There is a possible solution to this, in the form of distance lawyering. Your small town doesn’t have an attorney? You’ve got a telephone, right? You’ve got Skype? You don’t really need to have an in-person with a lawyer to get their opinion about the law. Just pick up the phone. Problem solved.

But there are some tough externals here too. First of all, I’m not sure that FaceTime really is the same as being face-to-face. Lawyering is about words and relationships. One might as well say that classrooms don’t need teachers, or camgirls are just as good as whores – they’re not unreasonable positions, but I am unconvinced. This also presupposes an access to telecommunications that a lot of people – poor, rural, old, off-the-grid, or any of the combinations thereof that are found out in Smalltown USA – just do not have.

Right now, if you lose your license or get your power turned off, you can walk to the lawyer’s office and get it sorted out. In this world you’re much less likely to lose your license. But if they shut off your power – or your cell phone – or your internet, you might be left stranded. A small town’s access to distributed goods and services can make it better – but its reliance on those external goods and services makes it extremely vulnerable. If they are removed, the small town isn’t hurt; it ceases being a town at all, and suddenly is just a few people out in the woods.

So this model of distributed lawyers could only work if there were some significant buttresses to rural access to telecommunications. This might mean guaranteeing rural internet access as a right; or at the very least, passing laws that some modicum of connection must be guaranteed, even during periods of nonpayment, while those payments are actively sought by the service provide. Or it might mean the guaranteeing – by direct or indirect state action – of public spaces in small towns where attorney/client conversations can occur. This might mean that smalltown libraries would each have “lawyer rooms,” equipped with computers and internet on the public dime, where people can call up their attorney at her office in god-knows-where and sort out their problems best they can.

But this implies a requirement of physical space – and, most likely, staffing – in each small town. This would not provide any new services to the people of these towns; it would simply replace the physical space that is currently occupied by the lawyer’s office, and the lawyer and the lawyer’s staff which occupy it. Moreover, it would transfer the cost of owning, operating, and staffing this physical space from a private entity to the town as a whole.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Requiring that the community as a whole chip in so that its least fortunate members may have access to justice is not an ethical difficulty for me. However, it asks the question: what would be more economical? To let the local attorney be driven out of town, necessitating public expenditures in order to assure continued local access to a no longer local attorney – or instead to pay that money directly to the attorney, offering them a baseline which will allow them to stay, to keep open their office, and to continue to provide their necessary service to their town?

I expect that there are a number of ways which this “rural retainer” could be structured. Perhaps it could subsidize incomes only as they are required (based on audits of monthly or yearly receipts). Perhaps it could pay for the attorney to take more pro bono work – maybe offering them a pro bono minimum, rather as Maine’s lawyers-of-the-day are currently assigned. Perhaps it could simply be a structured as a tax incentive, much as they are offered to corporations or money-making (filmmaking) activities. Or maybe the town will not bare the burden, but rather the state – in the interest of promoting rural access to justice – will have to step in and cover the cost.

Or, as with any other discussion of the problems of rural America, we could always get together and declare that we are content to watch our small towns wither and die. This is what is occurring now, and it will happen that much faster when each and every small town loses its local lawyer. Perhaps this is the right answer. Perhaps this is just the way of capitalism in the modern economy, in the modern world. But we should know the problem. We should discuss what we want to do or not do. For if we close our eyes, the problem won’t go away – rural America will. We can save it, we can help it transition to a new life somewhere else, or we can just help it die with dignitity. By ignoring the problem, oh, it will die – but it will be long, slow, and horrible, and full of crime, and drugs, and crimes against children, and children with no chance in life, and so much suffering.

Consider the (Synthetic) Lobster

•8 December 2017 • 1 Comment

CONSIDER THE (SYNTHETIC) LOBSTER

What will it mean for the Maine lobsterman when there’s an alternative source for lobster meat?

 

“Meat grown in a lab.” It shows up in science fiction as often as the spaceship or the sarcastic computer. And like both those things, it’s fast becoming a reality.

There are restaurants today where you can get a meal made of chicken, beef, or pork that did not come from a chicken, a cow, or a pig. And you couldn’t tell the difference – because there isn’t one.

Synthetic meat – also called ‘lab-grown meat,’ ‘cultured meat,’ ‘in vitro meat,’ or ‘vat-grown meat’ (in descending order of deliciousness) – is real meat. Look under a microscope and it’s no different from chicken or steak. It’s grown in a lab, but it’s no different from what’s grown inside a pig or a cow. Or a duck. Or a tuna. Or, one day, a lobster.

When synth meat hits the shelves, it will significantly disrupt America’s meat industry. A lot of ranchers and animal farmers are going to be out of a job. The Maine lobsterman will be in the same boat. Synthetic lobster meat might be great for the consumer, but it will be devastating to the lobstering industry – and to the Maine towns that rely on it.

 

SYNTH MEAT TODAY

The synth meat industry is making incredible progress – and it’s just getting started.

In 2003, researchers grew a tiny piece of steak. It was a scientific triumph. Then they cooked it and ate it.

The first synthetic hamburger was served in 2013. It is reported to have cost one million dollars (funded in large part by Google’s Sergey Brin). Now there are multiple startups making discoveries every day, backed by billions of dollars from investors like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and hedge funds and venture capitalists across the country.

The problem isn’t edibility. It isn’t even flavor. It’s cost. Synth meat is here, it’s just expensive. Right now synth-meat startup Memphis Meats estimates the cost of production for synthetic steak at $2,000 a pound – which is ludicrous of course, but so is a new product whose production cost goes from $1,000,000 to $2,000 in just four years. It is only a matter of time before synth meat is as cheap as traditional meat – and most experts agree it will get cheaper. Much cheaper.

Lower prices at the meat (or seafood) counter is only one of the benefits. For example: vegetarians can eat it. This is meat – real meat – that is as cruelty-free as a veggie burger. When synth meat becomes widely available, there might be a whole lot fewer vegans – and a whole lot fewer slaughterhouses too.

Environmentalists note that this could dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of American farming. Cows produce unbelievable amounts of greenhouse gases – unbelievable unless you’ve ever smelled a cattle yard. And where there’s cowpats there’s cattle feed, and you can’t grow millions of tons of silage without millions of tons of oil. It then takes yet more oil to transport the cattle from ranches and slaughterhouses to the population centers where it will be consumed. Whereas synth meat can be grown in a lab on the same block as the supermarket that will sell it. It gives a whole new meaning to local meat.

Dietitians note that lab-grown meat could be free of the antibiotics and other chemicals that are such a turn-off to many would-be carnivores. They also note that lab-grown meat would more closely resemble grass-fed beef, which is generally thought to be lower in harmful fats and cholesterol. Public health experts note that this would pretty much eliminate the threat of mad cow disease, while dramatically reducing the threat of animal-born illnesses – even those illnesses which don’t affect people. That means that the animals on small farms, even backyard chickens or pet pot-bellied pigs, would be both safer to live and safer to eat.

Synth meat won’t replace traditional meat. But it could offer it stiff competition. ‘Animal-grown’ steak might become a luxury item, similar to the way prime aged or grass-fed beef commands a premium over the shrink-wrapped stuff in the market cooler. And in doing so it will disrupt the American economy.

It’s hard to predict how disruptive it will be. But think of it this way. There’s a new product that will be hitting shelves soon that is almost identical to the old product, except it’s cheaper, fresher, more ethical, and better for you. That product is going to be pretty disruptive. In the same way that the car was disruptive to the horse and buggy.

Right now there are around one million cattle operations in the United States. And most of those employ more than one person. And there are lots of adjuncts who make their living from this business, from the farmers who grow cattle feed, to the railways that bring cows to the slaughterhouses, to the other people in cattle country whose livelihoods depend on the money that beef brings into their towns. How many of these people will lose their jobs? It’s hard to say? Half of them? Most of them? All of them? A lot of people think the answer is closer to the latter.

Synthetic meat will make food cheaper to the American consumer, but those profits will be going to Silicon Valley startups, not farmers, and not anyone else who currently profits from the animal meat supply chain. The money won’t be going to China, but it won’t be going to China, Maine either. It will create jobs, but they’ll be for people in cities wearing white lab coats – and it will certainly destroy the jobs of farmers and ranchers across the country. It will remove one of the primary sources of rural employment – one of the last remaining economic reasons for there to be a rural America. And it seems likely that the value of farmhouses and ranch land, so tied to the economic viability of raising animals, will disappear all but overnight.

This will affect Mainers. It will affect Maine ranchers, pig farmers, and poultry farmers, and beyond – earlier this year Memphis Meats made a duck breast, and venison and even moose-meat is just a matter of time. But as inevitably as the tide, one day some bright scientist is going to turn her attentions to synthetic seafood. Soon we’ll have lab-grown shellfish. Soon we will be able to buy synthetic lobster, and that will have profound effects on Maine.

 

THE TRAP

The lobster industry is unusual in the modern world. There are very few industries left which are based on the harvesting of wild animals. One by one, creatures and crops have been domesticated. Farmed salmon is only the most recent subjugation of nature. A lobsterman less resembles a rancher or a farmer than he does a hunter or a whaler. To harvest lobsters on the scale we do, as sustainably as we do, is a truly incredible accomplishment; is based on deep understanding, anticipation, and respect, one part science and one part art – and ten parts tradition – and a hundred parts hard work.

As with so many other industries in American and human history, this leaves the industry extremely vulnerable – to changing circumstances, to changing tastes and needs, and to competition from domestication, alternatives, or other sources of production. Synthetic lobster meat will provide all three of those forms of competition.

It’s hard to say how much this competition will affect the lobstering industry. But the answer is probably “enough” – to undercut the market for lobster, to make the profession of lobsterman unprofitable, and to devastate the small towns of Downeast Maine.

It all comes down to prices. If a pound of ground beef costs four dollars, to compete with that you’re gonna have to charge three. If a pound of lobster meat costs twenty dollars, you’ve only got to charge nineteen. The lobster market has a lower barrier of entry for competition.

The reason that lobster is more expensive than hamburger is that the beef industry is scaleable. It can basically produce as much meat as people want. Whereas lobster is – notoriously – limited. You can’t catch more bugs than Mother Nature provides (or science and regulation allow). But that is about to change. Synthetic lobster will be infinitely scaleable. The lobster supply will go from limited to limitless. Lobster prices will no longer be inflated due to scarcity. Lobster will become just like hamburger. A pound of lobster meat won’t cost nineteen dollars – it will cost three.

That price won’t be seasonal, or subject to the quality of the harvest or any other external factors. It will be permanent. The price of synth lobster meat won’t be the floor; it will be the ceiling. Losbtermen will not be able to get more for their catch. Period.

Even worse, it’s not an even playing field. The synth meat industry, by its very nature, cuts out middlemen. They grow the meat, wrap it up, and deliver it to the restaurant or grocery store (if not right to your front door) – and they do so from much closer to their customers than Thomaston or Machias or Castine. With synth lobster, the price paid by the consumer will be close to the price realized by the producer.

Whereas any lobsterman will tell you that the price they get for their catch is a mere fraction of what the consumer pays – a difference which widens the farther one gets from the source. A person in Boston – Los Angeles – or Paris or Cape Town or Beijing – will pay triple or more for a lobster what a person will pay on the docks in Harpswell or Camden or Beals Island.

To be competitive, the producer of synth lobster doesn’t have to match prices with the producer of lobsters – lobstermen. They only have to match prices with the retailers. As a result, the price of synth lobster could be four times the dock price of live lobster, and this would still significantly impact the Maine lobstering industry. Well before the synth price gets down to the dock price, the lobstermen of Maine will be unable to make a living. So will the other people whose jobs and livelihoods rely on them. So will all the Maine towns that were built on lobstering.

 

THE COST

Everyone knows that Maine is synonymous with lobster. But a lot of Mainers don’t appreciate how big a part they play in our economy. There are six thousand licensed lobstermen and women in Maine. That’s almost one percent of the entire Maine labor force. Last year they produced three hundred and eighty-two million dollars in gross exports, accounting for over thirteen percent of Maine’s entire export market – to say nothing of millions of dollars in domestic sales, licensure fees, and sales and income taxes. And that’s not counting sales by those further down the distribution chain – such as restaurants, markets, lobster pounds, and the lobster roll food truck at Portland Head Light.

And the people licensed as lobstermen represent only a part of the lobstering industry. Those six thousand people don’t include those who repair traps, who repair boats, who sell boats, who make boats, who sell diesel fuel, who drive delivery trucks large and small, people involved in fisheries science, state inspectors and regulators.

And while some lobstering towns are economically diversified, many are not – and the farther Downeast one goes, the more the towns become as single-industry as any mill town. That means that the livelihood of everyone in that town is closely tied to the success of the lobstering industry. A bad year on the boats means a bad year on the docks, a bad year in the stores, and, most likely, a rough year for school budgets and town expenditures. But we’re not talking about a bad year. We’re talking about catastrophe.

Of those six thousand lobstermen, how many will be able to keep working? Fewer than six thousand. Fewer than six hundred? For each lobstermen, each boat, each set of traps, how many other Mainers derive some or all of their livelihood from the needs of the lobstering industry and the profits that it generates? How many of them will be able to keep their jobs or their businesses? How many of them will want to remain in their towns – how many will be able to?

We can imagine what this will look like for our Downeast towns. They will follow the archetype of the single-industry town when that single industry disappears. Jonesport will look like Dexter when it stopped making shoes. Machias will look like Millinockett when it stopped making paper. Downeast Maine, already suffering from unacceptable poverty, will follow the path of Detroit when it stopped making cars and West Virginia as it stops mining coal. It will be devastating. Maine will be devastated.

 

THE FUTURE

Perhaps scientists will never be able to synthesize lobster meat. I wouldn’t bet on it. I would bet that they will be able to do it within half a decade, and that it will have driven traditional lobster meat off the shelves within ten years’ time. Just about the same time that cars start driving themselves and packages get delivered by drone – two things that, as we speak, have already begun.

Perhaps scientists will never be able to synthesize lobster meat efficiently enough to get the price down, thus that it will never be able to compete with live lobsters brought in from the sea. Again, all I can say is: I wouldn’t bet on it. Not my money. Not the future of my state and of thousands and thousands of my fellow Mainers.

Perhaps people will prefer live lobsters, even to the point where they are willing to pay considerably more for them. Perhaps they’ll do it out of charity to Maine. Perhaps people will pay three times the price for the joy of dealing with that red lobster shell. But this won’t be like people paying a premium for local grass-fed dry-aged steak instead of Wal-Mart beef. Synth lobster and off-the-dock lobster will be identical. This will be like people paying more for wild venison instead of farmed venison: most people won’t, and the premium they’ll be willing to pay will be small. It will not be enough to support lobster prices at their current levels. I would not wager on it being enough to support more than a handful of full-time lobstermen, let alone the industry as we know it.

Perhaps there will be jobs in the ‘new lobstering industry’ for those currently working as lobstermen. I do not think that this is likely. The skills necessary to captain a boat or set a trap are not skills that translate well into the modern workplace. There will be other people, with science backgrounds and lab experience, waiting to take these jobs. Nor do I expect that most lobstermen, as they stand on their boats or on the docks that their great-great-grandfathers built, dream with longing about doing 9 to 5 at a workbench in a laboratory – no more than a fourth-generation auto worker dreams about becoming an Uber driver.

And even if they were willing to go from the life of a lobsterman to the life of a lab tech – from owner to employee – from captain to cog – it’s unlikely they’d be able to stay in Downeast Maine to do it. When synth lobster hits the shelves, the ‘new lobstermen’ of Maine won’t be in Lincolnville; they’ll be in Lewiston. And there won’t be nearly as many lobstermen in Maine as there will be in other places. The new ‘lobster industry’ will be situated based solely on its proximity to consumer populations. Maine will no longer be a place people come for lobster, it will just be another small regional market for a widely-available, locally-produced commodity. There will be more ‘lobstermen’ in Chicago than in Cutler.

The port towns of Downeast Maine will have to fight hard not to become ghost towns. They will either have to develop telecommuting industries, or center their economies around seasonal tourism. In the former case they will be in the same position that vast majority of small American towns are already in. In the latter case they will have to be like Venice – and worse, they will be competing with it. They will be like Millinockett, forced to balance their pride with their desire to survive. I don’t envy them the decision – not the least because they won’t have Katahdin, and the beaches of southern Maine are closer to the summer folk.

I don’t know how long it will be before synthetic lobster-meat arrives, and begins to displace harvested Maine lobster in the market. But it’s coming. All I can say is, I hope that this article prepares the lobstermen and women of Maine – and the people and the communities which rely on them – for what is to come, that they can begin to prepare for the coming disruption.

 

David Axel Kurtz is a lawyer and management consultant with a background in economics and biology. A native of Kennebunkport, he now lives in NYC.

Post-Cyberpunk

•7 December 2017 • Leave a Comment

Rip and edit of something I wrote in 2011, when I first got a smartphone. -daK

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I once heard someone define science fiction as ‘the transposition of the problems of today into tomorrow.’ Plenty of scifi falls into that category. Plenty does not. I can think of some great scifi that tries to honestly and accurately confront the problems of tomorrow, and even provide solutions… and even look at the problems created by those solutions. Such writers don’t follow in the footsteps of Isaac Asimov: they follow in the footsteps of Hari Seldon.

Speculative fiction, I submit, is the genre of change: speculative fantasy suggests changes that are not likely to occur (vampires, little green men, “Blimey Harry! You’re a wizard!”), whereas speculative scifi is just a bit more probable (longer life, lives less lived, the creation of a post-scarcity world, fights over commodities that do not yet exist to be scarce). Neither are inherently less practicable to the world: the former simply in metaphor, the latter without passing darkly through a scanner.

Some of the earliest science fiction flowed from the pen of Mary Shelley (exalted is She!). She wrote of medical science, our war on our own mortality, the terrors of isolation. These were upper-class fears. The average Londoner didn’t have time for existentialism; it took all their time just to try to exist another day. The main reason that Frankenstein and The Last Man resonate so well with modern audiences is that the average person in America is closer to the aristocracy of Mary Shelley’s day than they are to the peasantry. We have more to fear, and we have the time to fear it.

With every step of progress, there are more people who have the time, the education, and the reason to consider the future. Harnessing the atom brought untold wealth and power, and the possibility of unimaginable destruction. The end of the world went from the pages of the Bible to the pages of a newspaper. Radiation – fallout – was a new Black Death for a new world. People had every right to be anxious about the future. There was a need to identify the threats, the challenges, the possibilities, and to work through their implications. Speculation was strategically and psychologically necessary; speculative fiction was the natural result.

Much of the scifi of the Golden Age does, alas, not hold up very well. Everything is Good or Evil, everything is to the scale of the Titans, and every male lead has a chin strong enough to chisel titanium. In large part this is just a reflection of the culture of the times. But I think it goes deeper than that. After WWII, the average person went, not only from isolation to being part of a global community, but from daily safety to the imminent threat of thermonuclear apocalypse. What Stephenson called “the radical pre-hokiness era” did not have time for subtlety; it was too busy being scared out of its mind.

As people became used to living under constant threat of fiery extinction, and technological advances became more and more assimilated into the life both of the nation and the individual, science fiction became less apocalyptic to suit. Big anxieties faded; little anxities came to the fore. The science fiction of the 1960s began to deal with Sexuality, Gender, Race, Politics, Religion, Freedom of Speech, Revisionism in History, Ethics of Science… and that’s just in Book II of Stranger in a Strange Land.

As technology expanded and refined, so too did the speculation. Books were written out of a fear of Mind Control (The Manchurian Candidate), Anti-Intellectualism (Farenheit 451), The Enforced Carnival (Logan’s Run), and really just Everything (Philip K. Dick). And science was joined by the sociocultural: the depression of the inner cities, the first of the post-war economic downturns, drugs and addiction, violence that the white middle classes did not understand. By the early 1980s the stories which grew out of these fears came to share enough between them for them to be thought of as a single genre: cyberpunk.

These stories reflected the fears of their time. This was a time when new things were, not large, but small. This was the time of the computer cable, of the mainframe computer, of tape and terror, of just lots of metal stuff. These pieces of technology began to seem like one great mass, coating the world like a biofilm, ever expanding, taking over. There was a sense that progress implied drowning: in our own waste, in each other, and in wires. The cyber aspect was the new things in the world; the punks were the individuals trying to remain individuals as they moved within it all.

Then, again, things changed. By the beginning of the glorious 90s, the computer had gone from a giant mainframe to a box that you kept by your bed. People had less and less to be afraid of. And that was before Steve Jobs came back to Apple and suddenly your computer looked like an anime cat.

You rarely fear what you understand and you never fear what you can control. The simplified, user-friendly interfaces gave people the illusion of control. The people said: technology scares us! So a company produced technology that was as comforting as strawberry shortcake. Demand was satisfied. And people were happy.

This change was directly reflected in the contemporary science fiction. Things became, for lack of a better phrase, less scary. Urban hellscapes became almost suburban. Dirt and grime were replaced by port and polish. Evil megalithic corporations became publicly-traded corporations. A bundle of thick cables became a single ethernet cord. Anxiety ebbed. Confidence flowed. Thus was Post-Cyberpunk.

One might go so far as to say that, in the world of computers at least, we have entered the realm of post-post-cyberpunk. Mainframes were scary; laptops less so; the iPhone is many things but it is not an object of apprehension. This is the progression of every technology: from immature and frightening, to clunky and disseminate, to mature and user-friendly. Cyperpunk was a genre of coax cable, postcyberpunk of ethernet cord. We are the wireless generation. There is nothing to fear but fear itself.

We are seeing a similar pattern in various other forms of science fiction. Biopunk is a particular example. The primary works of the genre are at best Dickensian (The Windup Girl, BioShock) and at worst as apocalyptic as Shelley (Oryx & Crake). They are many of them works of extremes to the point of abstraction, whereby Science is more of a frame for philosophical exploration than it is the result of the study of textbooks. Either genetic modification has run amok, leaving everyone with super-tuberculosis working in a super-workhouse… or else everybody’s dead of a nanovirus, and it’s up for The Last Man to… well, something. Usually involving a whole lot of whining.

This is reflective of changing attitudes towards genetics, and particularly the human manipulation and control thereof. As with computers, such things are now outside of the life and grasp of the average person; they are Big and Unknown; they are occult; the average person does not understand them; does not feel in control of them; does not feel in control of those who are; feels under the control of those who are; is anticipating the worst, which is persistent cough followed by Armageddon. As with computers, I expect that these fears will be assuaged: increased education, increased exposure to the fruits of genetic experiment in a person’s daily life, and more opportunities for individual people to practice genetic manipulation, will cause these anxieties to disappear.

Will there be a bio-chicken in every pot? Most likely. I could argue there already is. Will there one day be in every home a terminal for selecting the traits that you desire from your houseplants? Baby’s First Gene Gun? An iPharm, in either 4 or 8 petabyte (and six different pastel colors?) I expect there will be. I speculate that it is so. And is this happens, biopunk will become post-biopunk just as surely as did its digital partner-in-genre.

It is up to the speculative fiction writers of the world to return to their roots: identify the problems of the world; think of how they could be solved; and wonder at the implications of these solutions. Is the safety of the iPhone an illusion? Bring that to the fore! Are there threats that people have not considered? Bring ’em on, that we may deal with them sooner rather than later.

Surely we have not yet reached utopia. Surely there are obstacles which stand in our way, many that we have yet even to see. But surely too we have the tools and the talent to reach them, and overcome them. This is not a post-scarcity society, but it is nearer than Mary Shelley or even HG Wells could have envisioned. Perhaps it is the next great challenge of humanity, to discover what it shall do when no other challenges present themselves. But – Lord knows – we ain’t there yet.

 
%d bloggers like this: