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20 September 2010

Piracy Bill Misses the Point

Congress is pushing through a bill that would require domain hosting companies (people who register web addresses) to block US users from pirating sites. If the sites are located overseas then the bill would force ISPs to block access to the sites.

I don't necessarily advocate piracy outright, but when government reps are making statements like this:

“But it’s also become a tool for online thieves to sell counterfeit and pirated goods, making hundreds of millions of dollars off of stolen American intellectual property." - Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) (Taken from the Wired article above)

... you know progress is about to get stifled. Piracy just isn't a black and white issue, and the numbers they quote are often ridiculous. I thought Republicans supported the free market? No pun intended.

Is piracy stealing... kind of. If you steal a tangible object the seller literally has less, but this isn't true of a digital copy. The price for one is the same as the price for infinity. You only deprive the creator of income if you would have paid for the content otherwise. How many times have you downloaded a piece of software or music because it was free that you otherwise would not have? In these cases where you have stumbled upon something you never knew you liked you have opened up a discourse with the producer of the content under which they could potentially profit from you in the future. Think of how broad most younger peoples taste in music is compared to their parents.

My broad taste in music means that I go to a lot of concerts, but I don't buy records. What does this mean for the band? They make more money and have broader appeal. Their pirated online albums serve as event flyers. Another example is the plethora of super out of reach expensive software for architecture school that I need to study and learn but can't afford. I learn these programs and when it's time for me to go to a firm they have to buy it. A copy of just plain AutoCAD costs $4,000 and every firm in the world has that. Why? It's not really the best drafting software necessarily but Autodesk does allow free downloads to students... is it any wonder that Google's Sketchup - a clearly inferior program - is now gaining traction because it's free?

There is a cost to users for pirating - that is - buggy software, older versions, no updates, and the time and knowledge to crack and obtain such things. Basically, people at the lower end of the economic spectrum engage in it - people that wouldn't have access to it otherwise. It's simple opportunity cost for the pirater. The real problem is with the pricing and distribution of media and software. I could bore you with this but I won't. Distribution must become intangible and prices must be cut drastically. A dollar a song and $600 for Photoshop CS5 is ridiculous. Content providers need to seriously consider ways of extracting higher amounts of consumer surplus (the amount that a buyer is willing to pay in addition to the asked for price) after dropping prices. Take for example ipods. Apple charges a base price for the unit with say 4 gigs, then so much more for 8 gigs, and so on. More people buy the product this way while at the same time Apple is able to get people who are willing to pay more to spend more. Look at what Microsoft is doing with Windows 7: Home, Home Premium, etc.

Of course there are problems with pirating but I think that often the benefits outweigh the costs. Pirating has changed the way we consume media and information. Bittorrents, a byproduct of pirating, is almost unarguably the best way to download anything. In some odd way it's almost tragic that a different generation (see, old white affluent men) feels the need to deprive us of something they do not and possibly cannot understand. There always seems to be debate in Washington about topics that my generation considers a moot point, but I suppose it's always this way. One day my generation will mold the world in the defunct image of their youth to the detriment of that times generation.

18 September 2010

Not All Gifts Are Created Equal

I have a ton of blog posts I should write that I never do because I'd get in trouble if anyone other than my usual three readers ever read them. This isn't quite there but it's certainly on its way.

I recently got married and received a plethora of gifts. A lot of them were things I actually wanted and came from the registry my wife and I created, others were cash and checks, a few were gift cards, and a lot were random gifts that people thought I'd want – even though I had the opportunity to make a registry and ask for anything I could possibly think of. Giving someone a gift is, in many cases, an extremely poor form of wealth transfer. Why? Because the person may not want it and there are costs associated with gift giving – wrapping it, driving a car to go buy it, spending free time thinking about what to get, etc.

I do not mean to imply that I am ungrateful for the gifts we received. I'm merely pointing out that somewhere between other people opening their wallets and us receiving these gifts a lot of money was essentially lost - that is - a deadweight loss occurred. Basically, the gift giver paid n dollars for something and we received a marginal benefit that is almost always less than n. There are cases where something can be worth more than you paid for it. Think, cold beer on a warm day, but by and large your marginal benefit is less than what was paid. Sometimes your marginal benefit is actually negative (thanks for the knick knack that I now have to take time to throw out because I don't want to move it from house to house and dust it for the course of the next 50 years).

Best to worst gifts in relation to value retained after transfer:

Cash – 100% minus the cost of deflation while held... so right now, nothing.

Checks – We all have to pay taxes and it's not like you're deducting it.

Asked for/Registry gifts – One has to question the efficiency of this (see below)

Gift cards – Like cash but worse.

Random Gifts – Throwing dice.

Let's start with cash. It must pain people to give cash because almost no one does it – yet, when you receive cash as a gift don't you love it? Seriously. It's the perfect gift. The recipient can spend it on whatever they want and they'll use their full discretion in doing so (more on this later). Plus it's not taxed. Most of the people who gave me cash were younger people. I hope it's a trend but I doubt it.

Checks aren't far behind. There is the small headache of depositing it and figuring out the tax part, which to be honest I'm not even currently sure how that's treated, but I'm sure it'll be okay.

Gifts you've asked for – here's where it gets interesting. It's true, I asked for the gifts on my registry and for my birthday up until the age of 15 or whatever – but if I were given its equivalent value in money and told to spend it however I wish would I have purchased the same items? Sometimes but certainly not always – which begs the question – is this really an efficient form of wealth transfer? Add that to the fact that people have to go and buy the stuff and there's the possibility for a sizable loss of opportunity cost and the like. Think of it this way – if instead of receiving all the stuff on your registry you could receive a check for its equivalent value, would you accept?

Gift cards are like cash that you can only spend in one place and you have to carry around just for that special store. Add to the fact that they sometimes expire or charge fees and now you've got a deadweight loss. There's also the fact that people tend to spend more when given non-cash money equivalents (I'm not providing proof – go look it up, there are a ton of studies on it, or you can just think about credit card debt). Also, as is often the case, you end up spending the remaining balance and paying out of your own pocket just to forgo throwing out a gift card with value still on it. This is probably an example of sunken cost fallacy.

And last and usually least – random gifts. Sometimes people hit it right on the mark and give you something really nice that you didn't know you wanted, but more often than not you receive something that you feel bad throwing away but don't really want. A lot of these that we received were clearly re-gifted items, but the most common random gift was something that someone clearly thought they themselves would like and thus bought for us. This follows a phenomenon which psychologists observe by which people buy others gifts that they themselves would want. Well, I know this is a shocker, but people are different and I'm not sure there's room in my house for glass plates that can't go in any appliance that would make them remotely useful. Even eBay doesn't want some of these items so guess where they go? Trash or “good”will (regifting for people who hopefully don't own microwaves or ovens lest they like the taste of shattered glass).

And one more observation – stores like Crate&Barrel are ridiculous. Sure, they have a few nice overpriced items that I like, but by and large they sell stuff that people imagine themselves using in some idealistic world were we all have free time, limitless cabinet space, and are showered with fresh organic produce on a continual basis. Take for example their wooden salad plates with matching bowl and salad utensils. Who actually makes salad often enough to justify a dedicated set of plates that provide no benefit over regular plates? You know what I actually need? Double A batteries, some milk, and toilet paper. This is very similar to the practice of “staging” used by real estate agents and advertisers. Real estate agents will actually hire people who come into a home and clear it out of personal items and place certain goods throughout the house in a very specific manner. Houses that are staged usually sell for several percent higher than they otherwise would have. One of the most common is the bottle of wine and cheese in the refrigerator next to some produce. Who lives like this? No one of course but respondents often say that they can imagine themselves leading such a life when they move in. Nobody wants to see a pantry stuffed with TP and off brand cereal – it's just not sexy.

You know what is sexy? Opening an envelope filled with cash. Everyone likes that.

13 September 2010

I Need Help Choosing a Camera...

I'm writing this with the intention of helping people choose a camera, but for a moment I digress...

Recently Vija's been helping clean out her grandparent's place. I already have five cameras and I don't really own any of the new ones but none the less I get to use them for the moment. I've been rocking the 35mm Zeiss Iknota from 1949 recently. Here's a photo I recently took and developed with some really expired Kodak B&W 400TX.

From left to right: Mamiya 645 medium format film camera, Linhof Technika V 4x5 film view camera, HD Hero helmet camera, Zeiss Ikon Ikonta 522/24 35mm film camera, Hasselblad EL medium format film camera, Zeiss Ikon Contarex Electronic 35mm film camera, Holga medium format film camera, Diana+ medium format film camera - photo taken with my Canon T1i DSLR.

Anyways, here's the thing, point and shoot cameras are alright for 90% of people and that's fine. Their quality has reached the point where their resolution actually surpasses 35mm film. The point, however, is that no matter what you choose there is always a trade off.

The most important considerations in choosing a camera are:

#1 - the best camera is the camera you have with you.

#2 - the bigger the camera the less likely you are to carry it.

#3 - digital is the way to go. I love and will continue to use film but it's dead except for very niche uses.

The combination of these things is the reason why camera phones are so popular. So that leaves most people with a point and shoot, a few people with a DSLR (digital - single lens reflex - it means that what you see through the lens when you have your eye to the viewfinder) or bigger, and a few confused people who don't like either choice of the $200-300 point and shoot or the $500-800 DSLR.

I'm not going to go into point and shoots - plus, camera phones are making those obsolete fairly quickly.

The middle ground is something like a Canon G series camera - the G11 being the latest. The advantage of these cameras is that they aren't much bigger than a regular point and shoot, they are closer to the price of a point and shoot at just over $400, they have much better image quality, you can control the camera manually, and their ability to shoot in low light is actually better than most DSLRs. I know a few pro photographers that use these and I highly recommend them. They're gaining something of a cult following.

DSLRs are large because they have bigger sensors, bigger batteries, and they have a mirror. By definition one sees through the lens in a SLR unlike a rangefinder where the viewfinder and the lens are separate. Thus, it requires a moving mirror which adds bulk. If you're going to get a DSLR I recommend a Nikon or Canon. I prefer the Canon but to be honest they're nearly the same. I think the Canon rebel series gives more bang for the buck but it's up to you. Get the lens kit and if you want to purchase another lens I recommend the 50mm f1.4 lens. When purchasing a DSLR remember that there's a 1.6 crop factor. This means that any lens you put on the camera will become 1.6x greater in focal length, so all your lenses zoom in more. The 50mm becomes an 80mm - good if you're into zoom/telephoto and bad if you're like me and love wide angle lenses (Tokina and Sigma make 11-16 and 10-20mm lenses specially for these cameras).

The reason I don't advise a DSLR to most people is that the camera ends up laying around because they are too bulky to lug around. Most people also don't use the ability to change lenses which is probably the best reason to get a SLR. Lenses are what make great photos (among other factors). Also, people rarely learn how to use them in manual mode. If you don't change lenses and leave it in manual mode then why not just get a point and shoot? "The image quality is better..." If you want the best image quality a SLR is unsurpassed - true, but who buys an automatic sports car?

The best place to buy camera equipment is a store called B&H in NYC. They more or less have a monopoly on selling camera stuff because they run a great business. If Google owned a camera store this would be it. Also, eBay is a great source for cameras. There are tons on there that are barely used and sold for far below what people paid for them. You can usually save 30-40% by buying the next to latest model of a camera that's barely a year old.

10 September 2010


"When the single masterpiece is struck down, the act is attributed to a madman, but when the coherence of an entire society is vandalized, the destruction is viewed with proud arrogance as evidence of progress." - Frederick Sommer speaking at Richard Nickel's funeral. The quote refers to of the smashing of the Pieta, which had just occurred, and the destruction of Louis Sullivan's buildings to make way for a new urban landscape.

The entrance to Dachau near Munich, Germany.

08 September 2010

Backlog of Readings

Stuff White People Like - #34 - Architecture.

The secret world of Trader Joe's.

Short mockumentary on plastic bag migration.

Letter grades for vehicle efficiency.

HP hold The Navy hostage to the tune of 3.3 billion (3,300 millions).

Apparently Microsoft thinks it's a good idea to let people pirate their stuff because, you know, it increases your market share. In fact, they didn't let people pirate Vista and it hurt Microsoft somewhat badly, or perhaps no one wanted to steal such a terribly designed OS.

The Chinese envision a double decker bus with cars passing underneath.

Young, single, childless women earn more than men their same age. So further proof that the vast majority of the wage discrepancy is due to the fact that womens' priorities shift after having a child.

Scientists have built a computer program that suggests potential research hypothesis after doing a complete reading of the relevant literature. Pretty awesome.

Short - it's actually quite hard to tell if someone is drunk.

Sustainable building at 301Monroe.com.