What’s new is old again

There was a fantastic sort of retrospective of the LA Time’s coverage of the Watts Riot.

The writer of the retrospective feels certain that the mistakes made by the Times in 1965 couldn’t be in 2015. Well… despite living in LA, I’m not at all sure I know how they’re covering Ferguson. And yet:

And so. I’m coming to the conclusion that riots (other than the Tulsa style race riot that used to be the most common type of American Riot) can’t happen against a population that could ever see it coming, could ever understand why.

There was a phrase in that 1965 reporting “Negro residents”. I think that’s a key idea to interrogate, and it’s the basic idea against which the citizens of Ferguson are rioting. If the people being described by that phrase were instead seen and described as “citizens”- with any other qualifier someone wants to add- the whole situation might have turned out differently. The difference between a resident and a citizen is the difference between someone who just lives in a place and someone towards whom safety and security are owed. I’d go so far as to say that the entire civil rights movement- all of the civil rights movements- have been an attempt to gain de facto citizenship for various peoples who are entitled citizenship, but not given any of the rights owed.

As an example of this:
Many municipalities do and have made it very difficult or impossible for African Americans to vote. Voting is political power. In 1959 George Wallace did not run as a segregationist, and the winner of that Gubernatorial contest _did_. Wallace thus vowed to never lose on that issue again. So in 1963, he ran as a segregationist, and politicians keep their campaign promises something like 75% of the time. Try to imagine a fully vote-eligible African American citizenship letting the anti-segregation candidate _lose_ in 1959.

That’s the difference between Citizenship and Residency.

Ferguson is even uglier. It is a city that was created by kicking all the black people out of the greater Saint Louis area, and giving them Ferguson to live in. The city does not have the tax base to provide it’s residents the services citizens would be entitled to, and 3/4 residents of that town have outstanding arrest warrants for things like unpaid parking tickets. Those laws are more often enforced against African American residents than against the very few white citizens of the city. The police are literally an enforcement arm of a government that acts to loot the wealth of it’s black population. And, of course, in most states if you have been convicted of a felony you are deprived of your right to vote. Forever. Because someone busted for possession of pot should not be trusted to vote on pot deregulation, or something.

Citizens. Residents. And when the government- as represented by the police- decides it can start killing residents with impunity, the whole facade comes crumbling down. The threat of imprisonment is replaced by the threat of murdering the children of the residents. It brings home exactly how powerless the population is, exactly how much difference there is between the rights they should have as legal citizens, and the rights they do have as de facto residents.

And that’s how Watts started. And that’s how Ferguson started.

And when I see the picture of the 19 year old white child offering her life to protect that of the armed and rioting cops…. I am left with a sort of weird admiration for her principles, but disgust that our society would let her think she needs to protect the perpetrators of crimes against the population of Ferguson.


About VR

Dear Warren Spector

I read your recent blog post about VR, tried to leave a comment, and my phone ate it. So I’m posting it on my own blog.

You may well be right. I want to start there, because I’m going to look at a different direction for how VR could succeed.

Lets start by agreeing that the PC is the preeminent gaming platform, and that other gaming platforms are interesting derivatives of the PC platform. (Phone games are a slightly different use case that seem to follow a similar trajectory to PC games.)

I think a short look at the history of PC gaming is in order. You probably know all this already, but in presenting it, I can make a slightly different case than what you are saying.

People bought desktop PCs to do work. They had them in offices. Then they bought them for home, to do work at home, and for various educational things.

When the PC went into people’s homes, they said “well… I can use this for other things, right? Like maybe games?”

Later, the desktop GUI was popularized because it’s a much simpler to use a desktop OS with a spacial metaphor than a written one. That brought with it the large-scale adoption of the mouse. Once the Mouse and Keyboard could be assumed, games began being developed with mice in mind. I can’t even imagine the RTS or Adventure puzzle game without a mouse!

Similarly: CD ROM drives gained widespread adoption because parents wanted to bring entire encyclopedias to their kids- for cheap. Not to mention being able to listen to your music while working. And then games started shipping on CDs.

Music has been a huge driver for PC innovation. I’m going to guess that Comcast won’t admit to how much of their cable internet business was built on Napster usage. It wasn’t small. And once we had broadband, all kinds of new online games could be played.

Yeah, MUDs were some of the first games. And yes, Doom got internet PVP before it got mouselook. But people bought broadband for music, movies, and news (ok, and porn). Gaming came as an afterthought.

Even the mobile gaming phenomenon happened as a secondary effect of people buying new _phones_. The killer app of the smartphone was… A bunch of things. GPS, for one. But gaming is not the reason people buy a Nexus device, it’s just a nice thing they can do with it.

Bringing it back to VR. I don’t think that the games that I’ve seen with VR today will spawn widespread adoption. They look _awesome_, and the people who get a VR device to play those games will probably be extremely happy. But I don’t think the games themselves will cause self perpetuating momentum for VR devices and games.

Instead, I think it’s those other things. I can see someone sitting in a cubicle strapping on a VR headset and suddenly feeling that they are not _trapped_ at a cubicle. If that makes them more productive, it will drive adoption. I could see a sort of virtual tourism industry, where people can experience the San Diego Zoo- without a plane ticket. And the idea of VR for construction projects… Oh dang. That will be as revolutionary as AutoCAD.

Assuming those things happen, and get cheap enough, and good enough, we many of us will end up with some sort of VR device just by happenstance. And once that happens, games will follow.


Go read some Steven Brust


In any conversion about books, I’ll eventually get around to mentioning +Steven Brust. He’s good. Very good. Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of Roger Zelazny*:

“Watch Steven Brust. He’s good. He moves fast. He surprises you. Watching him untangle the diverse threads of intrigue, honor, character and mayhem from amid the gears of a world as intricately constructed as a Swiss watch is a rare pleasure.”

That was written at least 20, maybe 25 years ago, and since then Brust has only gotten better.

Brust has written a few different series, but is probably best known for his “Dragaera” universe- and there are a couple different series set there, also. Ok, this all sounds fairly standard sci-fi/Fantasy. What makes Brust different?

The Dragaera series takes place in a society ruled by Dragaerans- elves. The Elves are a fully realized race of people who have many and diverse ideas and politics and etc. But by and large they tend to agree that “easterners”- humans- are an under species. Um. They use “whiskers” in the way that White Americans would use “n-g-er”.

The main character- a guy named Vlad Taltos- is a human. His dad becomes rich enough to buy their way into one of the “noble” families of elves… the House of Jhereg. The Jhereg are basically the mafia.

Vlad starts off as a mob enforcer, becomes an assassin, and eventually becomes a mob boss. Please understand that this background is covered in book 1, as a few pages of backstory. We meet Vlad at roughly the height of his power as a mobster and assassin. From there, it gets stranger.

Each book in the series is named after one of the 17 noble houses (and an extra book called “Taltos”), and explores what it means to be a member of that house. The book “Orca”, for instance, is about what it is to be a pirate/Capitalist. This book was published in 1996, and explained exactly what the financial crisis of 2008 would look like. Does that sound boring? It’s not. It’s really, really not.

Vlad is being trained by a Goddess for a job. Each (relatively short) book is as self contained as a Lego kit, but- like the Lego kit- having more of them creates a richer, fuller experience for all of them.

I am going to quote from memory a summary of the Taltos books:
“It’s a reverse detective novel. Vlad has to figure out who needs to die, and how he needs to do it”

Did I mention the “thing”? Probably not. Each book uses some sort of literary device. A new one in each book. Sometimes the book will be told out of order. Sometimes it will be told from the POV of a character who has no idea what’s going on. In one memorable instance, each chapter starts with the description of a course of a meal eaten in the beginning of the novel. and each chapter… you know what? Skip it. Just read it.

That’s the Taltos books. The other Dragerean novels take place several generations previously, and are written in the voice of a rather pretentious historian who doesn’t realize that he’s writing historical fiction. It started off as a 3 Musketeers nod and then became awesome and weird.

Did I mention that the series are Epic Fantasy? They are. The series as a whole is every bit as epic as anything George R R Martin is working on. But the books… the books are decidedly not epic fantasy. They’re fantasy (Magic, elves, Dwarfs, etc), but each individual book is very much concerned with the “ground level” of a society. It’s a neat trick.

One last thing, on the subject of neat tricks: Steven Brust pulls off the interest feat of telling good, old fashioned, swashbuckling pulpy adventure stories, while also being written with the sort of high themes and literary devices that would make academics swoon if the books weren’t about Elves, Dwarfs etc.

The bad news is is that- owing to rights issues and the longevity of the series- the first half of the Taltos series don’t seem to be legally available as ebooks. I would highly recommend finding the older books as physical books (gotta make sure the author eats!) and then loan them to all your friends as you tear through the rest of the series on digital copies.

*Oh for fuck’s sake. Please tell me you’ve read Zelazny. And, while we’re at it, Alfred Bester.

Why are you still reading this? Go! Get the books!

(Originally posted, by me, on Google Plus.)


Warhammering Formalism

I recently got around to playing Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. The title is pretty much a warning label and ingredient list all at once: descriptive, bland, and exciting if you’re predisposed to be excited by those exact combination of words. 7/10. Game of the Year. For days, I’ve been struggling to say something about Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. It’s a perfectly good game, that had moments of pure fun, and some interesting

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ideas. Steam says I played it for an hour. I can’t quite work up the will to go back to this perfectly fine, inoffensive game. Austin Walker has a great article about game design and critisism. On what basis do we judge a game. Where is the line between Super Meat Boy and Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948? What, exactly, is the difference between watching Football on TV, and playing Madden Football on your TV? Walker does not, in fact, answer this question. Instead, he tells us that the processes of talking about the question is interesting and worthwhile. A decade ago, Kieron Gillen told video game writers to be a bit more interesting. It’s been a decade, and the throat clearing at the begining of the piece is a bit dated. Yet the tension between games writing as technical review, and games writing as travelogue remains. I won’t claim objectivity in the matter, and neither should the technical review folks. Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine seems designed for the technical review crowd. The physics are amazing. The graphics are quite good. Weapons have appropriate heft. The controls very responsive. In every technical aspect I can think of, this game excels. Yet I don’t want to go back to it. The in-universe Space Marines are towering deities. One Space Marine can stand athwart any number of Orks and yell “stop!” The game is very good at delivering this experience. Yet I found myself bored. The hand of the designers of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is omnipresent. There is exactly one path through any level, exactly one set of sights to see. The experience I actually had was of constant frustration that I was unable to just use my superhuman, augmented strength to climb on top of the trenches, or lift a rock aside, and get off the rails and do something interesting. By constraining me inside the rails, I felt less like a powerful Space Marine, and more like a misfiring bit of game design. The developers were trying to program me to be another bit of game scenery, with every death I was reminded that still had a bit of moulding to do. The consumer review model of game criticism doesn’t let me express anything meaningful about Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. A travelogue gives me the freedom to express my actual time with the game, how it made me feel, and what worked. If I do it properly, someone with a different set of tastes will find that they crave the experience I found bland. By thinking about what makes it a game, I can better understand my own feelings on it. 10/10. Would think again.


Je Suis Colorado Springs

There was a scandal in France in 1914- a public official had gotten married in a Church. In France, you see, (at least at that time, probably still to this day), marriage is a purely civic affair, properly done by the government. Church not wanted. America has a rather different experience with the boundaries between Church and State.

Which is not to say that France is an entirely secularized nation! Quite the contrary, roughly four out of five French people are at least nominally Catholic. The history of France and the Catholic Church is one that can and does fill entire libraries. I simply won’t even attempt to give a thumbnail sketch of it here.

Another key difference: “It’s considered acceptable on both the French right and the left to question whether French Muslims, even those who have been there for generations, are really French.” – (Vox Explainer) There are many in America who would like this to be true of America, but the American tradition is for a constantly expanding definition of who “us” is*.

That Otherized context is the one in which I read things like “[Charlie Hebdo] made fun of prominent politicians, religion, and pop culture, but it lampooned Islam and Islamic extremists with particular zeal.” (Ibid) Now, making fun of zealots is always fun, but making fun of the zealotry of Others is tricky at best. Attacking the extremists in an Other group is often a stealth attack on the entire group. Many of us saw this same dynamic played out in America when Ferguson police claimed that riots over a police officer’s murder of a Ferguson citizen retroactively justified that murder.**

So here is an easy test for Charlie Hedbo. If they really are, as they claim, against the pretenses of zealotry, rather than against Muslims in general, how often have they gone against the Catholic church? Remember that previous to 2013, the Catholic Church was lead by someone who had been a Hitler Youth. But perhaps Charlie Hedbo forgave the Pope for such a youthful indiscretion. Well, before being Pope, he had been the head of the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”, which is the Politically Correct way of saying “The Inquisition”. While Bishop, this man helped cover up several cases of priestly pedophilia. Naturally when he became Pope, he called himself “Benedict”, or “the good”. I mean, obviously!

So: Charlie Hedbo. When this man was busy overseeing an institution beloved by 8/10 of the French population, did you satirize him? Did you show his crimes? Did you ever show Pope Ratz bent over naked? Or did you spend most of your energy taunting the zealots of the 1/10 French people who have an emotional connection an Other religious figure?

I actually don’t know the answer to these questions. I hope that my suspicious are wrong. I hope they actually did spend more time attacking the excesses of the Catholic church than they did the excesses of Islamist militants. I hope that the comments here will show me dozens of examples of Charlie Hedbo being critical of the Catholic Church’s many institutional failings.

I devoutly want Charlie Hedbo to not be participants in the grand human tradition of creating and enforcing boundaries between groups of humans. After all, they’re from France. And France is a nation seeped in the teachings of a man who said:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

*This is of course a broad oversimplification, and discounts the entire African American experience. I’m not going to spend a lot of time in this post talking about it, but I do want to acknowledge the contradiction.

**Left unsaid is that the police themselves started the riots by attacking the protesters. Source: I watched it happen live, while it was happening.


Dishonoring political violence.

I was looking for my daughter in a brothel. Not for prurient- nor prudish reasons- but because she had been kidnapped. Since she was also the rightful heir to the Empire of the Isles, I have even more reasons to get her back. Naturally, the first room I stumble into was the bedroom of a prostitute waiting for her next client. I quickly teleported behind her and rendered her unconscious before she could cry for help.

“Are you just going to leave her on the floor” My wife asked? “She’s safe from the plague rats if I shut the door, it’ll be ok.” “No”, my wife replied, “you can at least put her in her bed.” Dishonored, from Arkane Studios is that kind of game.

Dunwall- the city in which the game takes place- has enough verisimilitude to underline the reality of the people who inhabit the world, while also underscoring how alien the world is to our own. Books are commonly found in bathrooms, guards will whistle a tune as they patrol, people fall in love, and plaster ads on billboards. The fact that these are recognizably human things to do makes it much easier for the player to treat the non player characters in this world as people.

Dishonored gives players tools for murder- a sword, a crossbow, a set of magical powers- and a mission of vengeance. The opening of the game has your character, Corvo Attano, (the Royal Protector) fail to save the life of the Empress he loves. Having given the player these tools and this mission, the game creates some very straightforward paths to murder. At the end of every mission, the game counts up the number of enemies you killed (including those that you merely placed in the path of mortal danger), the number of times you were spotted by enemies, and the number of times an alarm was run. That’s where things get more complicated, and more interesting.

Based on these factors, the game gives you a “chaos” score. The more people you kill, the more the alarms sounded across the city, the more general chaos there is. The more chaos there is, the worse the plague gets. The worse the plague gets, the more swarming rats there are, the more “weepers” (a sort of zombie) there are, On top of that, later missions will feature more guards for the player to deal with, and more the more of Corvo’s friends will die. Perhaps worst of all, Emily- your daughter- becomes an Empress who rules with an iron fist over a court of terrible cruelty.

Alternately, if the player goes through the game- if Corvo restores the monarchy- in such a way that few or no people die, the “low chaos” setting is achieved. On this low chaos mode, there missions will feature more civilians (instead of plague victims), fewer guards, more friendly non-player-characters will survive the final mission. The epilogue shows the plague being cured shortly after the game ends, and that Emily’s eventual reign is remembered as a golden era.

Which raises the question: why? The city of Dunwall has a population somewhere between half and one million. The city is undergoing a plague that is so bad the government is literally having to dump bodies into the sea. Compared to that, the upwards-of-200 people that Corvo can kill in a “maximum carnage” run simply can’t add meaningfully to that number.

All but two of the missions in the game gives Corvo a target for assassination. Along the way, the player can learn of a way to deal with a given target without killing them. It is, therefore, possible to play the game with “clean hands”- without killing anyone.

Interestingly, the chaos mechanic itself makes no real distinction between killing your intended targets and killing a plague-infected, zombie-like “weeper”. Given that your targets in each mission are chosen for political reasons, for the sake of creating regime change, it’s worth noting that the designers of the game itself value each human life the same. By contrast, non human life- such as dogs, rats, and the like- can be killed without raising the chaos level.

That’s a significant clue to why Corvo’s killings should lead to such massive destabilization. Human life matters. Human choices matter. Corvo can choose to let Emily ascend to the throne- in the game’s words- “over a mountain of corpses”. In so doing, they perpetuate a political system that legitimizes violence. The message this sends to Emily and anyone else with a pretense to power is that naked force is the only factor that maters. Emily learns to be violent, and learns to deal with all threats around her violently. People in the system- starting with the loyalist conspirators who Corvo works with, and who ultimately betray him- see the breakdown of social norms and begin to give into their own worse impulses. By visiting violence against them, Corvo does not differentiate himself from them ideologically, but rather makes the claim that his will to power is greater than they can hope to overcome.

In a High Chaos run, violence- from the point of view of bystanders- becomes random. But because random violence is used as a tool of the State, it creates a breakdown in the social fabric. The State may only legitimately use violence to protect the citizenry from greater harm. That’s why it is generally ok for the government to create quarantine zones, and to enforce those zones with deadly force. The citizens of Dunwall seem terrified by the plague, but do recognize that this is something the State ought to be permitted to do.

When the player uses violence sparingly, Corvo upholds the social norm against political violence. He chooses not to place his own interests as the arbiter of murder. In doing so, he allows Dunwall to stand down from the cycle of coup, counter coup, and revolution. Freed from both the example of continual of murder, and having to be constantly on guard from a subject population that has learned violence as their only recourse, she is able to turn her attention to other things- and to create a golden age.

We can certainly argue about the plausibility of one person’s example being that overpowering. Was Corvo always the fulcrum of an age, whatever that age might have been, or was it greater historical forces at work? It is certainly easy to give into the temptation of history to become about the “great man”. Those are certainly interesting conversations to have! We do also need to recognize that as individuals we have choices. Sometimes they are large, and sometimes they are small. We will always see the world reflected back to us that we have helped create.


Add New Post.

I really did not want to talk about GamerGate here. The whole thing is so deeply stupid that I don’t like dignifying it with words. Yet I am going to stipulate that by being pro-GamerGate, Fine Young Capitalists have- at least- internalized certain patriarchal assumptions that make them emblematic of the problem. That’s worth a look.

The two contrary impulses in Video Game writing are between “games as cultural artifacts” (also called “New Games Journalism”), and “games as consumer items”. Leigh Alexander does a pretty good job here summing up which side she’s on, and what the sides are. “GamerGate”, roughly speaking, is an attempt by people who prefer to think of games as something to consume to silence the voices of those who want to take a deeper look at games. They’ve had at least a small measure of unfortunate success.

The truly weird thing is the GamerGate perception that Feminism is a defining feature of New Games Journalism. It isn’t. The perception that it is, however, isn’t surprising, given our patriarchal assumptions. When the default assumption is a male voice, we notice the female voice far more than it actually happens:

Another study reported that a male science teacher who managed to create an atmosphere in which girls and boys contributed more equally to discussion felt that he was devoting 90 per cent of his attention to the girls. And so did his male pupils. They complained vociferously that the girls were getting too much talking time.

“Fine Young Capitalists”. The name invites comparison between capitalism and cannibalism. I can’t help but enjoy that. Then you see that they’re in favor of “GamerGate” and they believe that gamers need “kingmakers”.

So: they don’t realize they’re being silly. But usefully silly! They are silly in a way that illustrates a deeper problem. They are so deeply committed to games being consumer items that they can only think to write about games journalism to the extent that it is consumer education. Kingmaker. Singular. They see gates crumbling and are decrying the lack of gatekeepers. They are, ultimately, upset that they are being shut out of the kingmaking process.

Steam is slowly opening its’ gates to allow more games on the system. In the coming years, Steam will be transitioning to an open gate policy, or for their system to be seen as a platform for any game designer to host their game. This has the potential to cause another indie game crash as the market gets flooded and consumer’s can’t find the quality among the crap.

Fine Young Capitalists want to be Kingmakers, they want to be Gatekeepers. They think that without these things, Indie games will die, and AAA games might also go down. That’s…. that’s pretty much patriarchal thinking in a nutshell. The fact that they want to solve the “problem” of the crumbling of gatekeeping by appointing themselves the new gatekeepers is just a logical extension of the idea.

And then another approach:

To me, signal boosting is the most important thing you can do to spread work that doesn’t get to be shared on a regular basis.
This isn’t meant to be read as a grand political movement, but just to show appreciation to devs and critics who like to experiment with unique tools and concepts. People have been making alternative games for a very long time now, and I just wanted to create a bot that collected and curated them.

That’s a totally different mindset. It attacks the same sort of problem, but from a non-patriarchal place. It does not replicate the structures that don’t work for the problem she wants to attack, but instead approaches the problem of obscurity from a different direction.

The key, what makes it non-patriarchal, is that it isn’t exclusionary. It does not set up a “king of the hill” system that allows only a single winner. It allows for differences in tastes and opinions, or even moods.

It’s almost grown up that way.


I am a Camera

Humor: lets talk about “punching down” and “punching up”. Someone (not the bar owner or employees) made this sign. They thought it would be funny. They were wrong.

They were wrong, because it trivialized a dead kid. A kid who is dead because a cop felt dissed. The kid was shot 4 times in the arms, and twice in the top of the head. His last words were “Hands up, don’t shoot”. You can make a joke about those circumstances, but you can’t do so in such a way that it is about the victim being a victim. The joke needs to underline the horror of the situation.

If the joke fails to underline the horror of a nightmare, we call that “punching down”. Sometimes people screw up and hit a target they’re not aiming for. I’d like to think the person who wrote this sign (again, not the owner of this bar) simply screwed up. The name “Mike Brown” is all over the news out of Ferguson MO, and so is present in our minds.

But there weer two people involved in that murder. The victim- Mike Brown, and the murderer- Darren Wilson. As of 22 August 2014, Wilson is still at large, being aided and abetted by his fellow gang-members. police officers.

So how do we rewrite that sign to punch up? How do we use humor to point out the monster?

Start by calling it the “Darren Wilson special” Let’s name the bad guy. I kinda like calling it the “6 shot dine and dash”, but I don’t want to encourage people to not pay their bills. Or “6 shots, because YOLO”, but again, dead kid.

Maybe “Darren Wilson Special: 6 shots and you will respect my authority”.

It’s not great, but it’s the best I have so far.

(Image and story from Buzzfeed)



First things first: the name had to go. Wait. Let me back up.

By now, nearly anyone on Earth who has the leisure time to be entertained, or is working on something more technologically advanced than agriculture, is doing so using a screen as an intermediary. Humans who are off Earth, of course, are literally living and dying based on the performance of their screens.

Within living memory, live entertainment was primarily enjoyed by people close enough to the actors/singers/athletes to feel the actual heat from their bodies. And then the movie theater. The television. The Computer. The e-book reader. The smartphone. These screens did not merely displace physically being at a live event; they created even more space in which that live event could exist in a very real way. People cheering for Team Mexico in any bar in the world are doing so simultaneously with the people at the stadium cheering for Team Mexico in person.

It isn’t merely the watching of live events that have been revolutionized by screens. Work, as well, has been forever changed. I am writing this on a device that is only usable because it has a screen. I work at a restaurant–one that is wholly at the mercy of screen uptime. Photoshop and GIMP have even turned most forms of pictorial art (certainly its commercial cousin) into screen-based activities. Accounting? No more need to cramp our hands and stain them with graphite or ink. Since the invention of the calculator, accounting has been given over to the screen. The screen-based spreadsheet is a dream come true for a work obsessed numbers nerd. Etcetera. So forth. Even farming. Unless you are so far down the farm chain that you are literally picking crops by hand, you are using a screen to design, buy, sell, ship, or account for those crops. Or using a screen to track the labor of people who are.

Screens are incredibly important. The companies that want to own the world need to figure out how to own the screens. Inexplicably, Microsoft has failed to even compete. Yes. Microsoft. That’s the point of this post.

A few years ago they very nearly had all the pieces in place to make your home life a bit better, a bit smoother, and a bit more interesting. Their efforts over the past few years have shown that they don’t quite understand (or their corporate culture refuses to let them meaningfully cooperate to enact) how various screens can work together to form a stronger whole.

In 2014, in the homes of most Americans, there are roughly 4 screens that get used on a regular basis. The 3-5 inch screen in your pocket (the phone), the 7 or 10 inch screen (the tablet) that has no specific home, but is an auxiliary screen for a whole lot of various tasks. Then there’s the 11-24 inch screen (computer, either lap- or desk- top), which is generally used for business and games. Its other functions taken over by newer form factors. And then finally the 36 inch and bigger television.

These are the broad categories. There is a lot of overlap. Tellingly, each of these screens is attached to a rather powerful computer. But the computer itself is not the important part. The computer does not really dictate the function to which people put the screen. Nor does the power of the computer dictate the size of the screen. This next bit is really important, so it will get its own paragraph.

The size of the screen is decided based on the place in which the screen will be used, and the interface for that screen is decided based on the size of the screen.

I am willing to concede a lot of quibbling around the edges. There are, for instance, a lot of 8 inch tablets. I do know that it takes more processing power to run a 5 inch screen than it does a 4 inch screen. And so a specific designer might well decide which size screen to give their phone based on how much power they can cram onto a chip. Nor does it matter whether a TV can be given the same processing power of a modern desktop PC tricked out for gaming. There are a whole lot of edge cases, but let us not get cut on them.

The important point is that we first decide on the function, then we figure out how much “oomph” that function will require, and how much it will cost to create that “oomph”.

Another important general point to remember: there is a sort of normal (bell) curve where we can put “ease of content creation” on one axis and “size of screen” on the other. As an example, try visualizing writing an entire novel on your 4 inch phone. Now try visualizing writing that same novel on a 60 inch TV. These things are possible, but… no. Just no. I don’t mean to imply that there is a perfect screen size, but there are definitely ones more suited for purpose.

So: if I wanted to be the software/hardware company that “owned” the inside of people’s houses, what would I do?

First, I’d make sure that I had a device for each of the screens. I’d make sure that any component of those devices that could be broken out into a separate app would be broken out into a separate app. For instance, the thing I use to play music on my phone should be something I can download onto phones not mine. And also onto TVs that have someone else’s software running them. Etc and so forth.

Secondly, I’d make it very easy for people to import stuff from outside my garden as possible. Notice that I’m taking it for granted that there will be a store, and that this store will help me make money from my devices. Additionally, I’d make it easy for people to leave my garden, if they want. My garden might have walls, but those walls will be adorable and attractive hedgerows People are significantly more likely to attend a party when they know they won’t be taken hostage.

Thirdly, I’d make sure that I had a user interface that was as similar as possible across as many of these screens as possible. I would want to make doing things on my devices as familiar as possible, and that means having people doing the same sorts of things over and over again. If I touch the screen on my phone, tablet, computer, or TV in the same way, I should get the same result. How do you touch the screen on your TV? Glad you asked. More on that later.

Fourthly, any bit of software that an end-user brings into my garden should be usable on any screen an end-user wants to use. I said earlier that my mind recoils at the idea of writing a novel on a 60 inch TV. When talking with a friend, I said that “writing on a wall is how movies demonstrate madness”. But hey! If a mad-person wants to process words on their giant TV, that’s their prerogative. But more on that in a bit.

So how does this work in practice? I wake up and grab my phone to scan headlines/read twitter/whatever. Something grabs my interest for further reading, and I send it to my tablet- reading things in a relaxed manner is the killer app of tablets. The article is about a book, so I buy a copy and it sends to all of my devices. I’ve got a bit of time before work, so I finish up a presentation while on my desktop computer. On the drive to my train station, I start listening to the book on my phone (which I can plug into my car’s audio system). On the train, I am able to start reading the book from where I left off the audio portion. I get to work and have to put the book away in my pocket. Best believe I’ll be reading it whenever I need to use the restroom. Now it’s time for work, though. I’ve got a presentation to give!

I log onto the screen in the conference room using the limited-rights “work” setting- the setting that lets me have full rights, but lets my employer and coworkers have some ability to see some of the things I’m doing. My presentation seamlessly appears on the screen in front of me, and I spent some time biting my nails before people file in. During the event I am able to use gesture controls as I talk, showing people the slides I’ve prepared. At the end, a question emerges which causes me to dig into my original data. I am able to do this using the same basic UI as I would on a tablet, the gesture controls on the TV simulating a touch UI on a smaller device.

Do I need to go on? The idea is that the same sorts of data can be used in different ways based on the screen size available. It may not always make sense for me to play a game on both a PC and a tablet- but if I buy the next Batman game, there’s no reason I can’t play it on both my TV and my desk. I understand why a book is a separate thing from an audio book, but if I buy both, they really should interact. And so on.

The important idea here is that the software industry has decided that we are not buying “good”, but rather buying “a licence for a service”. Additionally, every industry that can get away with the transition has decided that they, too, are selling licenses for services. If that’s the case, than my license should work wherever the user ends up. Smart companies are the ones which understand that. The winning companies will be the ones that make it work.

Etc and so Microsoft.

They had all the pieces in front of them. They had a phone. Moreover–they had a phone with a UI that was actually distinct from Android and iOS. I want to marvel at the fact that they had something which a) didn’t copy their competitors, and b) still worked really well. That’s hard to pull off. With the Surface they had a good tablet, with a good UI that also worked on the phone.

Their desktop… this is where they ran into problems. Oddly enough, everything I’ve heard about Windows 8 tells me that its primary problem was not the UI, but rather a violation of the second point. It was their garden, they owned it, and they never ever wanted you to leave it. Knowing they’d done something their users would react very negatively to caused them to then violate point three, by bolting the “classic” interface onto the operating system. Which then left people wondering why they would want to buy Windows 8 when they would be spending all their time in the Windows 7 interface.

No matter how defensible the decision might be on its own terms, the desire to own an entire locked-down garden caused enough negative side effects that it seems to have damaged the entire project. The problem is that it took away a lot, without giving anything in return.

Finally, Microsoft owned the TV. At least: they were creating a device specifically designed to be the perfect counterpart to the TV. Their Kinnect device even allowed them to use the same touch-UI on the TV as users had gotten used to using on tablets and phones. That’s brilliant. The name of the overall TV package? X-Box One. Sorry. That’s a bit of a clunker. That was the first thing that needed to go. I’ll get back to that.

Much like with their desktop offerings, Microsoft did not talk about all the cool stuff users would gain by transitioning from a “goods” model to a “service” model. Instead, all we heard about was the stuff that would be taken away. Partly this was poor messaging. But mostly it stemmed from thinking about X-Box as being a business unit, rather than thinking of X-Box as being the living room component of the Microsoft garden.

Microsoft crafted the perfect under-TV device for my father. But the problem was the name. My father- 65 year old retiree who watches TV and listens to music but does not play video games- would simply not buy any device called “X-Box”. An X-Box is a video game console. It is not the perfect compliment to the home media experience. So the first thing to go should have been the name.

The Live Box One (or something like that) marketed and sold as a complement to Windows 8, could very well have been a monster hit. They want me inside their garden. So tell me that “everything you purchase from the Microsoft Live Marketplace will be usable by you from wherever you log on- phone, living room, office. On your Surface Tablet or Desktop computer. Wherever you live, there’s Live.” Or something. I’m not a marketing expert. I’m just a consumer who wants things.

The good news is that Microsoft has all the pieces they need. I’m probably underestimating the amount of work it would take for them to start working as a coherent entity. Mostly, I think it will require a change of philosophy rather than a change in the direction or sophistication of their software. Their hardware is pretty good also.

Microsoft may never get there. Someone will, though. Someone will build me the better home garden I want to live in. I can’t wait.


The more things change…

This 1960s era Lego commercial is amazing. The core values of the company don’t seem to have changed. (Video found at this site.)

A couple notes: while the sing-song about the girl does show her building a house, the later shot of the 3 kids playing has her working on a skyscraper. It’s less of “homemaker” fantasy than an “architect” fantasy.

Something on display here that Lego does well and a lot of companies could learn from: Lego has all sorts of price points. Any given series of Lego product will have sets that range in price from “Affordable-on-8-year-old’s-allowance” to “Affordable-on-*ahem*-36-year-old’s-allowance”. Relatedly , When I was 12, the competitionist in me made me save up for some of the $100 kits, but I had never felt like any of the less expensive kits was “lesser”. Lego knows that giving good value at all pricepoints makes customers feel comfortable spending more in the future

Another thought: Lego pieces aren’t markedly more complex today than they were in the 1960s (at least, not judging by this commercial). But the things people do with Lego kits are significantly more complex than they used to be. Look at this Lego Sopwith Camel:

That propeller actually spins.

Yes: there are some pieces there that are simply not seen in that video above. And no: I’m not prepared to say that the people who designed the Sopwith Camel on my mantel are smarter than the people who invented Lego in the first place. Nor would it be fair to say that the people who designed my Sopwith Camel are smarter than the people who designed the most recent Lego Sopwith Camel. But in 2012, the designers had a working example of what a Lego Sopwith Camel ought to look like. They had over a dozen years of extra experience to work with. And so on.

The thing that makes our species thrive, what gives us our power- what makes us worth preserving- is that we are capable of adapting our memes in response to new information. Maybe one day we’ll hit a dead end and run into a problem our collective experience and communication cannot overcome. In the mean time, there’s Lego making everything awesome.