I talk a little about why "peer-to-peer" companies like Ebay inevitably change.
by on Nov. 27, 2013, 11:35 p.m.
Ebay needs to be a business that grows.
When we look at “peer economy companies”, like Ebay, Uber, and Airbnb, they all follow a similar pattern. They start by allowing users to trade their surplus. With Ebay, it was surplus goods — you have a spare X lying around and you want to get rid of it, just auction it off and you’ll make some money off it; on the other side someone gets a cheap second hand X without the prices being pushed up from the middlemen. With Airbnb it’s room — I have a spare room or house and it’s not being used ever or right now and it’d be good to let someone sleep there and a bit of income is OK. With Uber it’s a car seat — I was driving to X anyway and I could make a bit of money taking someone else along. However, each of these services are turning (or turned, in the case of ebay) into a very different service.
Ebay is trying (and has already succeeded to some degree) to turn into a regular online retailer like Amazon, Uber is trying to turn into a regular taxi service, and Airbnb is trying to turn into a regular hotel service. But the real question is: why? The original ideas are actually quite valuable to society. If you think about it, people in western societies largely have a surplus of a huge number of things. These things are mostly wasted, whether it’s a spare room or a car just sitting there or travelling with only the driver, or a bunch of random stuff that isn’t being used any more. This “waste” is sometimes turned into carbon emissions, sometimes landfill, sometimes just inefficiency, and these services turn this waste product into something usable. Great news for society! So what gives? Why do these companies switch away from this focus?
The answer has to do with the idea that the west doesn’t know what Capitalism looks like. Ironically, there are many former soviet countries, and China, and India, who do Capitalism the way the books define it, but countries like the US? Nope!
It’s funny because people think in the “left” or “right” political sense, and think of Capitalism as some sort of automatic solution, but in fact a huge amount of “capitalism”, or “how you do business” is highly dependent on culture. Ask someone in Japan how people do business, not just on the “production” side, but also as a “consumer”. Japan as an economy is (apparently) mind boggling in many ways. I’m going to use India and the US as examples, though, because they are the most easily understood in terms of economic theory and literature.
India is basically Economics 101: the book of the movie of the game — Champion Edition. By this I mean there are several vendors selling the same things and competing purely on price, there’s a huge market and very little government intervention (other than “cost of doing business”, which is apparently a euphemism for “bribes”). I find it rather funny when Randian billionaires talk about “experimental societies” with no government oversight and completely unregulated businesses when really you have your perfect experiment right there in India! It is both as beautiful and terrifying as that. Economics 101 describes India to a tee.
Contrast with the US. The US is also a hugely free market and prices are low there, too. However, you will rarely see companies actually compete. The first key word is “niche”: Find something no one else is doing and do it really well. The second key word is “rent”: Find a way to “own” the playground and charge to let people in. When an American business decides to take a market, they don’t just walk in and start charging lower prices, they will actively strangle every business around until it’s nothing but them. They will outright lose money to do this. They will absolutely not give the customer what they asked for, rather set up a web of intrigue so they can give you something for “free” then charge you through the nose for it. The only reason they can get away with it is culture. They know that everyone is in it for the rent. In India, someone would just give away the playground and charge as little as possible for the games.
Part of this has to do with the fact that India tends to have a lot of private enterprise — if you’re making money, you’re doing well. The US by contrast has a lot of public enterprise — the key isn’t your present credentials, it’s all about growth. But let’s not get caught up the cultural comparisons, let’s talk about what that means for the companies themselves.
See, Ebay (and I’ll use them as an example, since it’s mostly played out, while Uber and Airbnb are in process) doesn’t just need to be a business that makes money; It needs to be a business that grows. After a certain time, Ebay knows that it will basically “own” the market where people buy and sell goods online. There’s only so much money to be made from that. You can make operations cheaper but it’s an internet business doing arbitration, it’s already cheap! So it has two options: find some way of getting more “waste” to end up on the site (which is completely dependent on its customers), or find a way to start charging that delicious rent.
One of the ways it did this is by buying Paypal. Now every transaction is one which gave them rent. They were trying at one point to make it so Ebay only worked with Paypal. Once everyone’s gotten “Network Effected” onto Ebay, stick them with Paypal and you’ve got the customers by the balls. However, the users smelled that a mile away, and Ebay had to move away from that idea. The second big idea is simply to sell new items. They have a bunch of traffic and buyers and sellers, so it’s already a place where people search for goods, and being able to sell a new one straight away means they could potentially make it impossible for someone to sell stuff on the internet unless it was via Ebay. If they make themselves a virtual mall and kill off all other internet transactions, they have sellers by the balls. This is what Ebay is moving towards.
In fact, Uber and Airbnb are moving towards the same thing. Instead of having several competing websites that offer hotels, Airbnb want to be “the” site, because they’ve grown from a strong community, one where one group of people make an unexpected small amount of money, and the other group get unexpectedly cheap hotel rooms. You could easily “layer” regular hotel rooms on top of that, and no one would bother looking at any other site to book a hotel. Once they have the network effects, they have hotel companies by the balls. Uber want every taxi to have to go through them. They want everyone to forget that you can even go to another taxi company’s site because all the taxis are on Uber anyway. They want taxi drivers by the balls.
And that’s why companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Ebay stray from their roots, because they’re not after money, they’re after “growth”, which is really just code for “rent”, and the only way to get rent is to really have someone by the balls. You can get community sites where you can share rides or a room or sell second hand goods, and those places can even be for-profit, but it requires that the company be run by a management which is necessarily focused on the cash flow and has a distinct lack of ambition. Alternately you need to be in an economy where someone with a distinct lack of ambition can readily undercut the rent seeking guys.
I take on the notion that you do not need audio at a quality higher than 16 bits, 44KHz
by on Nov. 23, 2013, 11:06 p.m.
We’ve had various articles from audio experts talking about why you don’t really need 24 bit, 96 KHz audio for playback (you need it for recording, and I think no one argues against that). They argue that CDs actually have enough quality for anyone. I’d like to make a simple counterargument to that.
Firstly, let’s get the immediate counterargument out of the way: Audio you need for “recording” vs “playback” is part of the old hegemony of “recording industry” and “consumers”. In the modern, digital era, we want to be in a world where everyone is a creator, and there’s no reason to say that a “listener” is an inherently different individual than a “creator”. You’re being unfair when you give someone the kind of audio that they cannot mess with.
OK, let’s get to the argument. To start with, let’s look at the sampling rate. While it’s true that as you get older, you can no longer hear the highest frequencies, we would like to record audio for all ears, especially ears that have been well looked after. For this reason, we would like to keep all the audio to 22 KHz, and maybe a little extra. The common sampling rate was actually 48KHz which would give you up to frequencies upto 24KHz. “CD Quality” audio is actually slightly cheapskatey. However, this isn’t the real reason that you want to go up to 96KHz. The real reason is that you want to push the extra “processing” onto the digital circuitry.
See, in order to get good playback at 44.1 KHz, you need really nice low pass filters. These are theoretically possible, but expensive. If you don’t, you will either chop off some of the high frequencies that are present in the digital audio, or you will introduce aberrations. One way of fixing this is to upsample the audio using digital filters (to, say, 96KHz), then do a cheapy lowpass filter. The idea is to push the cost onto the digital electronics which is constantly getting cheaper, as opposed to the analog electronics which is always going to be expensive (for the same quality).
But the thing is, why bother with the upsampling? Your 96KHz audio only goes upto 22KHz anyway, so it compresses really well. Just record and playback 96KHz audio! Your low pass filters are cheap and don’t introduce any funny noise and you have plenty of headroom. The question is less “why” and more “why not”?
The other side is the bit-depth. 16 bits gives you 96Db, which means a CD has the dynamic range to produce audio volumes from a whisper to a lawn mower. This is actually really great, but some very high end amplifiers are better. They can get to around 100Db. You want your recording to be of a higher quality than any sound system could possibly produce right? If you want some headroom, you want to add a couple of bits. Instead of 16 bits, maybe 18 bits. So why 24?
Because when has anyone ever played back audio completely flat? People tend to boost the bass or otherwise futz with their music before playback. When we look at the “war on loudness”, the other side of that coin is that not only can you not “uncompress” a “loud” CD without losing quality, you also cannot “compress” a “quiet” CD without losing quality. The fact is, you want to hear your music in a variety of contexts. Sometimes you’re at home and everything is quiet and you really want to enjoy your music at its fullest. Other times you’re on a train and you need to process the shit out of your songs just to hear them. In a world like that you really want some headroom. 24 bits is more than you’ll ever need, but it’s a convenient 8-bit boundary, and far more comfortable than 16 bits.
In conclusion, it’s theoretically correct that you only need 16 bits “worth” of dynamic range, and 44KHz “worth” of sampling rate, but for practical playback of audio, the amount of preprocessing most people do means 24/96 audio is far more appealing, and a far more flexible audio format. So the next time someone pooh-poohs 24/96 audio, send them here.
I was particularly incensed by a talk about software architecture, and how to do it right, and I've been mulling over in my head the best way to explain why thinking about software architecture in that way is wrong. Here's my take on it.
by on Nov. 19, 2013, 10:18 p.m.
If you think about software architecture as a bunch of interconnecting boxes, you’re doing it wrong. At best, it’s just design. At worst, it’s wishful thinking. You’re not really saying anything meaningful about the boxes or their relationships or connections. You’re trying to describe a city in terms of its big buildings. But big buildings do not make a city.
Rules make a city!
One thing I really like about Fielding’s REST architecture is how he describes “architecture”. He says:
There are two common perspectives on the process of architectural design, whether it be for buildings or for software. The first is that a designer starts with nothing—a blank slate, whiteboard, or drawing board—and builds-up an architecture from familiar components until it satisfies the needs of the intended system. The second is that a designer starts with the system needs as a whole, without constraints, and then incrementally identifies and applies constraints to elements of the system in order to differentiate the design space and allow the forces that influence system behavior to flow naturally, in harmony with the system. Where the first emphasizes creativity and unbounded vision, the second emphasizes restraint and understanding of the system context.
Beautiful! In short, architecture is a bunch of rules which define the boundaries of what you can do. They do this with a list of things where you can only do those things, or a list of things where you can do everything except those things. These work as a list of axioms, things that hold true no matter what, by definition.
Good architecture should be a checklist, not boxes!
The reason you do this, in general, is that constraints are effectively the same things as abstractions, and you wish to express your desire in the most concise (hence abstract) way possible. To re-state that somewhat, only being able to do a particular thing limits what you can express, hence allowing you to “compress” that expression and make it more abstract. The important thing is to align these things so that the things that constrain you aren’t important, and the things that you care about are important.
This can be stated more exhuberantly
The point is, all of architecture, and “how do you architect things” cannot be generalised better than that. “Computers compute”, and that’s all there is to it. Saying “all architecture should be X” is never true.
There’s precisely one exception to this: hardware! I’m not talking about specifics, although they matter as well, but I mean more at the level of “Von Neumann machines” or “networked machines”. Software people actively try not to think about these as part of the architectural “stack”, but in fact these are precisely part of the architectural stack! There are electrical abstractions that create logical abstractions that allow us to construct mathematical abstractions. We are not more literally constrained than the hardware.
After all, it’s no use if your virtual machine can do something in O(1) time when your hardware is doing it in O(n) time. These things need to line up! I’m surprised then how few architectures line up according to that paradigm. Almost every architecture that works splits design up into memory, computation, and IO. Occasionally, “memory” and “computation” will be linked, but the implementation is better when it is not. Managing state is another major theme, especially on the web. REST addresses this particularly well, yet everyone is out to “implement REST” but then violate every REST axiom. That’s basically saying “there is no architecture.”
That’s really it! “Architecture is axioms which define constraints”. If you say any more about architecture, like thinking about data flows or componentisation or re-use or versioning, then you are wrong in some cases. You are most correct when you try not to violate the constraints of the hardware architecture, which your software architecture sits on top of, however much you might dislike that. Violating an axiom of the architecture is the same as saying there is no architecture. Amazingly people find these things hard to do and then go about trying to figure out how to draw boxes in a way that they will no longer have problems. They are looking at the wrong thing.
Just a quick idea on how to build fireproof homes
by on Oct. 28, 2013, 6:13 p.m.
Tonight’s Four Corners is going to talk about a phantom cause of many bushfires. Phantom not because it’s elusive, but so often ignored. I’m talking about overhead power lines. Apparently, this part of the distribution grid causes more than half of all fires. Climate change aside, we can see that the trend for bushfires in Australia is up, and we need to think about ways to mitigate the risk. Here’s a simple idea I had:
Electricity distributed the “classical” way is actually pretty silly to begin with. You lose a huge amount of power purely in transmission, and with a remote community, you’re potentially losing even more than a city. For this reason, and the fact that the power lines are a major fire risk, it makes a lot more sense to use localised electricity generation, something like Solar. However, Solar might not provide the same kind of power that a regular electrical connection provides.
To that end, we need to think about how a household consumes electricity. In the past, we used to consume a lot just to light the house, but with efficient lighting, a household’s electricity for lighting is reduced by a factor of 5. Add other efficient household appliances and you can get similar savings. A small TV (think laptop screen) could be 1/5th the power usage of an old CRT or a giant plasma. This leaves two big items: cooking and heating.
For some cooking, electricity is required, like toasting or microwaving. However, these are short tasks, in 5 minute bursts. Most proper cooking would hopefully happen with LPG cylinders or coal in remote communities, which results in better food as well as less electricity usage. For heating and cooling, a similar factor of 5 saving could be realised, but this requires an efficient house, and this means very good insulation.
However, very good insulation often has a side benefit: It’s fireproof!
What this means in practice is designing a house that’s both fireproof and very well insulated. These two goals work with each other. Add to that lower systemic risk by removing power lines, and you have a community that’s well equipped to deal with fire.
In a bushfire prone region, having a bushfire proof house could be well worth the effort and cost. It could become a staple Australian design like the Queensland home.
I talk about how I found music I loved, and how that wouldn't be possible without piracy.
by on Oct. 9, 2013, 8:51 p.m.
The fact is, it doesn't matter how much I was willing to spend.
I’m used to the platitudes. Over the years, the myopic cries of the record companies and popular culture have only gotten louder and more shrill, seemingly to drown out the evidence growing around them. Andrew Orlowski is one, and I’m not too certain why Tom Slee would endorse him. Maybe he was being sarcastic:
Another example is ABC Morning show host Virginia Trioli who at least wondered aloud why you would “pirate” music when you clearly love the artists so much. Other than that, though, there wasn’t much in the way of actually trying to find an answer. The judgement was all too forthcoming, however: “Just buy it”. As if it were that easy.
For me, the fact is, if there were no piracy, I would not listen to music. Before you get all uppity with your “so you’re a massive cheapskate” crap, hear me out. There’s two stories here, but both of them start at the same place: music you can buy, and end at the same place: where Virginia Trioli’s “love” factors into the “Piracy” equation.
When I was very young, about 12, I didn’t buy any music. All I heard was what was on the radio or on TV. This was in the ’90s, and in Australia, there were only a few radio stations and two TV programmes which had music. Ten’s “Video Hits” (now cancelled), and ABC’s “Rage” (still going). It all sucked. Radio sucked. Video sucked. I thought that was all that music was. I thought it sucked. I would’ve spent my life happily just listening to the radio and not really treating music as something I actually gave a shit about, and I certainly wouldn’t have been buying albums.
At the time, the best song I’d ever heard was Are you gonna go my way by Lenny Kravitz (funny that Virgin Records now has a Youtube account with the song on it). I had never heard of Jimmy Hendrix.
I don’t know when, I don’t know how, maybe by trawling any BBSes I could using my modem, trying my best to save up those 25 cent calls and sucking up everything I could, I found the demoscene. It had programming, it had art, it had music, it was all free on the proto-internet, and it had a profound impact on me.
I remember sending an email to Jeffrey Lim about how I thought he was great and how could I become a programmer like him (did I have to learn assembly language)? He replied, and he was really nice and told me I needed to think about “algorithms” instead of the language I programmed in. He was an Australian. He kind of disappeared off the internet, but I think he’s working for Pixar now.
This was a subculture that pretty much no one knew about. The people were incredibly passionate. You could download “zines” for the demoscene. These were DOS executable files which had music, graphics, and a bunch of articles on the demoscene — this wasn’t even the demoscene itself, this was the effort that went into reporting on the demoscene. Many 'sceners are now making a living doing CG for movies, or in video games. Even though the demoscene is a shadow of its former self today, it still enjoys a huge amount of corporate sponsorship, because the people in the demoscene are the smartest people in the world at what they do, and corporations know it.
This was also a world where “buying” music didn’t exactly make sense. People did stuff and put it on the internet. They did it for notoriety, for one-up-manship. This was a balls-to-the-wall contest of who was the best. You could call it the audio-visual-gaming version of graffiti. When you downloaded music you didn’t download MP3s, but S3M, XM, or IT files. These files were essentially the source code of how a song was made, completely multichannel, with all the samples. You would “play” them by listening to them in a tracker, the same app that was used to make the music.
When I hear crap about how you can’t encourage good music or art without paying for it, I always think about the demoscene. In my opinion, they pissed all over “real” music, and all the minimalist glitch/chip pop you hear today was stuff I was listening to 20 years ago. And no one asked for a cent. The best music is made in the dark corners where no one is paying for it anyway.
I was a westie, so I was bound to hear something heavy eventually. That came in the form of Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power. I don’t know if we got this on CD or what, but I remember we never bought it. Maybe a friend loaned it to us, I’m not sure, but I’d never heard anything like it at the time. Unfortunately, there was also no way I would hear anything like that on the radio. I bought Metallica’s self titled album, though I’d only heard the title track “Enter Sandman” on Triple M somehow. At $30, It was the most expensive purchase I’d made in my life until that point. I loved that album, but I wanted more.
Eventually, I found that Triple J had a show called “Three hours of power”, which was on Wednesday nights between 10pm and 1am, and it played heavy music. I literally used to lay in bed with headphones listening to it, with a pen and paper in my hand to write down any songs or bands I thought were really good. After having a few too many sleep deprived Thursdays I decided to tape the show.
Remember when the Recording industry was saying that tapes would destroy the recording industry? I wonder what Virginia Trioli would’ve thought back then. I wonder what Andrew Orlowski thought about that.
Needless to say, taping a 3 hour long show onto 90 minutes worth of tape wasn’t a very sustainable solution. By this time I had the internet (it was the late 90s by now), and I spent a lot of time on IRC talking about metal with other enthusiasts. They had set up their computers so that when they played a song, it would be listed in the channel, and there was also a way of downloading said song directly from them. I’d never used Napster, I’d never found the need. People just shared their music library like this over IRC and that’s how I found out about most of my music.
I also started buying CDs. A lot of CDs. Because I knew I lot more about the bands, the scene, the albums, and the general vibe, I would “know” what I wanted. I knew why an album was important, and I knew when a new album came out that I would need to dissect it and see how the band was shaping up. However, buying the actual CDs was hard because no shops actually had the CDs, and JB Hifi (which have a lot of heavy music) weren’t around back then. I had to go to an obscure shop in the city named Utopia. The CDs were overpriced (some $40, which is a huge amount for a kid with poor parents during a recession), but it really was Utopia, because it was the only way to get to listen to the music I loved
At around the same time, record companies were working on making it so CDs couldn’t play properly on CD-Rom drives on computers. Sony also famously put a rootkit on your computer if you wanted to listen to one of their CDs on a PC. I listened to all of my music on my computer. I stopped buying CDs.
The fact is, it doesn’t matter how much I was willing to spend. Most of the bands I love would never get airplay on a major radio station. Even today when there are specific sections of Youtube with free music, when there are internet radio stations and adjuncts of real radio stations streaming all manner of music with varying degrees of nitpicking over which device you own and how much DRM you have applied and how legal it is to actually listen to it under certain conditions2, you still only find pop drivel through the usual channels.
But I’m through being angry at the copyright industry. Even while Dark Tranquility — who noticed it was hard for fans to get access to their older albums — put them on Bandcamp, other artists are willingly regurgitating what the recording executives tell them to. Record execs are the established villains in all this. They’re the bad guys in every stoner movie about a band, who eat away at the band’s uniqueness, stymie their development, and profiteer off the artists even as the artists crumble from financial pressures.
Artists have been fighting the record companies forever. From the far flung past where the record company wouldn’t let a band or artist make the album they wanted, to arguments over money or rights, record companies have a well earned reputation for fucking artists over. Even more recently, when record companies were stipulating that they didn’t need to pay artists anything for any profits made over the internet. After all of that, artists have consistently sided with the industry over their fans. There wouldn’t be a need for this whole “piracy” discussion if great musicians would simply walk away from a toxic industry.
Right now, I basically buy no music. I listen to whatever there is for free on Youtube, Soundcloud, or Bandcamp. I’ll only really consider buying stuff if it’s on Bandcamp. If a band doesn’t upload their stuff onto a service like bandcamp, I sour on the band fairly quickly. I’m bitter at these bands siding with the record labels against their fans. These are record labels the bands absolutely hate. Whether it’s Prince having to change his name to “the love symbol” as an act of copyright defiance, or Metallica’s infamous “Beer Good, Napster Bad”, or any number of bands who would basically trust a corporate shill over people who love their music.
And I guess that’s where I stand now, a lover misunderstood and scorned. A Desdemona to my Othello1. And you know what? It’s a shitty existence! There is great music and there are great artists and they trust you and you can support them, so I do that whenever I can, but I’ve had to give up most of my past because I’m apparently “not supporting artists”. Maybe the old hegemony isn’t just for the old recording industry, but the old artists and the old listeners too. I just hope we can leave all of this behind and make and listen to good music again. A Pirate’s life for me.
1That’s potentially the gayest thing I’ve ever written, but the metaphor is apt.
2This is the legal wrangling over internet radio stations, the specific legal battles over Pandora, the cries of Spotify ripping off artists, or if you really decide to bend over for the record executives, listening to your music on a very specific set of devices in specific countries under very specific conditions and then not being able to listen to it when the monopolistic companies decide they just don’t want to pursue your market, or they decide to sell you a song and then later decide to “unsell” it to you, literally removing it from your device.