The Laboratorium
December 2004

P2P and Music Sales: Who Knows?

I don’t really pay too much attention to the various studies finding that the p2p nets either help or hurt CD sales. While it would be very interesting to know if there’s a correlation, and whether it’s positive or negative, you can spin either result any way you like. For example, if p2p boosts CD sales, why then it proves that the record companies are a bunch of whiners who should sit back and collect their windfall like Hollywood did with the VCR. But if p2p hurts CD sales, it proves that the record companies are a bunch of whiners clinging to an obsolete business model who should just shut up and die. If you dislike p2p, reverse the arguments as appropriate.

All the same, two things did occur to me recently on this subject. First, to the extent that new business models depend on slashing production costs and giving every band the equivalent of a production studio on a home computer, there is one way in which slashing those costs hurts musicians. I’m thinking of session musicians, who make their money playing as hired guns in recording sessions. Their income shows up on the pie chart of an album as an above-the-line production expense. Not every dollar of production expense is a waste, in terms of compensating artists, is all I’m saying. (Indeed, album producers are artists, too, and extremely talented ones: think of the contributions Dr. Dre and George Martin.)

Second, to the extent that I think the current situation is not stable, my music purchasing is way down. In particular, my probability estimate of a possible impending price collapse for CDs in the medium future is high enough that I’m deferring buying music. The $9.99 online album is gaining traction; I think it’s not an unrealistic prospect that that price point may fail to hold, too.

Many things could happen. If the record companies disapper and artists start selling music directly and cheaply, then I’d feel like a sucker if I paid $9.99 for an album from which a lucky artist sees $1 when I could have waited and paid $3 for an album from which the artist sees $2. If the entire fight against the p2p nets fails so completely that the current copyright regime fails with it, and everything ever made is out there for unrestricted use under some kind of compulsory license, I’d feel damn stupid for having paid sticker price for an album whose marginal cost to me has become $0 (but for which I have to shell out in the form of a bandwidth and storage tax).

Much the same goes for the day when all-you-can-eat subscription services reach the level of interface sophistication and comprehensive catalog I demand—why pay now for something whose marginal cost is headed to $0? Even if the world settles on a “perfect” DRM standard, I doubt that the cost-per-listen involved is really going to be higher than the cost of buying music in fee simple is right now. All in all, I think the sensible thing to do when it comes to music is to delay. And that’s not good news for the music companies, not at all.

How to Cure Your Children of Anything

The Times has an article today about a growing movement of autistics upset at attempts to ‘cure’ them. The parallels to the deaf-rights movement, are striking. I have to admit that, although I can see both sides of this debate, especially after reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, my sympathies are more with the movement than with its critics. I think that reporter Amy Harmon’s are, too; how else to explain such quotes as:

Ms. Weintraub’s son, Nicholas, has benefited greatly from A.B.A., she said, and she is unapologetic about wanting to remove his remaining quirks, like his stilted manner of speaking and his wanting to be Mickey Mouse for Halloween when other 8-year-olds want to be Frodo from “The Lord of the Rings.”

“I worry about when he gets into high school, somebody doesn’t want to date him or be his friend,” she said. “It’s no fun being different.”

As if to confirm my sense that America’s parents in many cases have only a tenuous grasp of what is best for their children, the Times is also running an article on this season’s hot new toy: the Time Tracker: “a device whose purpose is to help children improve their performances on the standardized tests that have become unavoidable in education.” Yes, that’s right, it’s a digital proctor!

By using the tracker during playtime, homework or any other activity, children are supposed to develop a sense of passing time - 20 minutes, half an hour, an hour - that translates into better management during tests. Siren sounds indicate when a certain period has gone by, and the lights switch from green to yellow to red to demonstrate how close the child is to the end of the allotted time.

It strikes me that the only group of children likely to enjoy playing with the Time Tracker for its own sake might be those autistics who respond well to its mechanical predictability.

Probabilities of Problems

AP’s Ted Bridis writes of a particularly boneheaded anti-terror idea from George III’s Privy Council: shutting off GPS to keep the bad guys from using it:

President Bush has ordered plans for temporarily disabling the U.S. network of global positioning satellites during a national crisis to prevent terrorists from using the navigational technology, the White House said Wednesday.

Over on Dave Farber’s mailing list, Ross Stapleton-Grey does a fine number on the idea’s shortcomings. Most notably, GPS has become so important to so much of our infastructure that it’s hard to imagine a situation in which turning it off does more good than harm. Indeed, turning off GPS is the kind of thing they would love to do to us, not vice versa.

Court Packing

From the latest Willamette same-day summary of Supreme Court opinions:

The United States Supreme Court held 7-3 (opinion by Rehnquist; concurrence by Thomas; dissent by Ginsburg) that lawyers do not have third party standing to bring claims of possible future unascertained indigent clients who plead guilty or nolo contendre and thus are subsequently denied appellate counsel.

Someone Explain the Physics to Me

WASHINGTON (AP) — Terrorists may seek to down aircraft by shining powerful lasers into cockpits to blind pilots during landing approaches, U.S. officials warned in a bulletin distributed nationwide.


Uh-huh. Shining a laser into the cockpit of a moving plane precisely enough to not just one target less than the size of a quarter, but four (two pilots, times two retinas apiece). Is it just me, or does this sound just a wee bit implausible?

… the Boston Globe supplies a few more details, including some skepticism other grounds: wouldn’t the cockpit glass refract the beam? I’m actually counter-skeptical: I would have thought that a cockpit window, like most normal windows, would be designed not to cause significant refraction in the visible spectrum. (As for invisible wavelengths, good luck aiming, right?)

The story also has a few more details about reported incidents: it seems as though all the data here comes from pilot reports followed by subsequent medical diagnoses. These are the people, let us remember, who insisted on banning the use of electronic devices during takeoff and landing because they had a hunch those devices were interfering with planes’ controls.

Finally, there is some speculation about laser light shows. Again, I am baffled. The geometic sense that tells me it’s hard to hold a beam on the right part of a moving plane at distance tells me you’re even less likely to point the beam in the pilot’s eyes for long enough by pure accident. I suppose that factor could be compensated for, however, if there were an epidemic of laser light shows randomly shooting up at small angles to the horizon (anything less than about 45 degrees will hit the plane’s nose, rather than cockpit glass, I’d hazard). But the odds would still seem to call for an awful lot of laser lights shows to generate two cases in a few months.

… I then took this question to Nexis. I found a 1995 Times of London story that pilots had forced Las Vegas light shows to stop using lasers because 51 pilotsclaimed to have been blinded by a “bright flash” on approach to McCarran. There was also a more recent small story contemporaneously documenting one of the two incidents to which the Boston Globe referred. I’m guessing that the Globe reporter did exactly what I did and sourced that part of his story to the previous one.

… Holy shit, I know the Globe reporter! Time to fire off an email.

Stephen points out that the laser-in-pilot’s-eyes thing is a plot point in a Tom Clancy novel. I wonder whether the DHS has mixed up its factual terrorists with its fictional ones.

… The reporter put essentially everything he had into the article.

… But here’s a laser safety FAQ and a Metafilter post with some helpful numbers. Long story short, I think my skepticism about power output was at least partly ill-founded. Per the FAQ, a 1 mW laser, from a mile away, may have a beam that’s 4 feet in diameter, with a power level of 35 nW — about the brightness of a 100 wat bulb seen from 88 feet away. But 1 mW is a laser pointer; serious lasers come much much brighter: 500 mW and above. With those numbers, I’m more willing to believe that there’s a genuine danger. Also, did you know that a division of the FDA regulates lasers?

The Accountability Story

In a just world, a man whose previous posting was training the Baghdad police force would not be allowed to become Director of Homeland Security.

Poetic justice is not cosmic justice, but it is still something.

Follow that Quote!

The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.

— William Gibson

But wait! Did he really say this? If so, where? And what were his exact words? Sometimes blog comments are worth reading. I also like one of the alternate formulations because it captures my sense that ours is an age that is more than usually conscious of living in a future that is already starting to turn into the past:

We�ve lost our sense of the future as something up ahead up past the windscreen. The future is already here and it is very unevenly distributed and it arrives in bits and pieces constantly. Most readers must realise to some extent today that we’re not likely to get to a point where it simply is the future. that�s why it�s impossible to write science fiction in the old sense. There is no arrival point.

Lights That Cannot Come On Again

These are lights that cannot come on again; and we may never be sure of the answers to many individual questions. I shall be content if it is agreed that the questions arise, and therefore that the world cannot have been quite as we have supposed.

— S.F.C. Milsom, The Legal Framework of English Feudalism

I Did NOT Just See That

I saw a sign on the back of a bus today that said “We Want Your Body.”

It was an ad for a funeral home.