Someone once told me that when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. I personally always wondered whether you should then expect life to give you vodka to put into said lemonade, but that's besides the point. We all know that the SimCity roll out was an unmitigated disaster the likes of which had never been seen (if gaming blogs were your reference point, anyway). Fortunately, we have some very talented lemonade-makers in this country that are turning the game into a useful teaching tool for children.
Glasslab Games has worked with EA to make a modded version of the commercial game, called SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge. While the primary use of the mod is to teach children about the dangers and solutions to citizens making everything smell like battery acid, a wonderful secondary use is to track how children apply what they've learned to problem-solving. The game also teaches logic-application beyond the pollution problem.
One neat change that's been made is the addition of a number of 10-minute challenges to the game. An example given in this Fast Company report is "Can you use fewer bus stops to get all the kids to school?", and at the conclusion of each everyone gets feedback on what they did right and what they did wrong.
Now, I realize that we've all been told that video games have no part on a child's life beyond simply making them want to go on murder rampages or eschew the providence of playing sports, but it's very nice to see some forward-thinking teachers applying some fun technology as a teaching method. It's a far cry from the days when I went to school, when I was introduced to educational programs like The Oregon Trail, through which I learned how to shoot every animal I ever met, or the original SimCity, where I learned how fun it is to unleash tornadoes on an unsuspecting population.
Can we start having a nuanced view on video games and children yet?
The term "drone" usually refers to a robotic plane, but some robot researchers are developing underwater drones for exploring the oceans and going to some hard-to-reach underwater destinations. A few of these robotic fish projects also mimic real fish locomotion and appearance, so that the robots blend into their environment. Maybe someday these fake fish will replace the real ones in aquariums, and no one will notice....
This is pretty amusing. Apparently, the US embassy in Beijing has run a Twitter account @beijingair for some time, which automatically generates tweets describing the pollution conditions in Beijing, reporting the specifics, and a description, such as "Very Unhealthy" or "Hazardous." However, at some point last week, the system blew a bit of a gasket and reported that the pollution level in Beijing was "crazy bad." US officials apparently took down the tweet and apologized, with people assuming that the language was a "joke embedded in the embassy's monitoring program and triggered by a reading that was off the normal scale."
While the US removed it to avoid diplomatic issues, apparently, people in Beijing who saw it, appreciated it:
Several residents said "crazy bad" was refreshingly frank, particularly given the reluctance of Chinese officials to disclose real-time pollution data or any measurements of ozone or PM2.5 particulate matter.
US embassy spokesman, Richard Buangan, said the "crazy bad" term was a mistake that has been corrected. "It was an inadvertent humorous moment," he said. "We thought it might blow up in our faces. But looking at the Twitter feed, we are seen as heroes."
Never underestimate how refreshing a bit of honesty can be coming out of political circles.
I like Will Page, the chief economist for PRS for Music (a UK collection society), quite a bit. We've had a number of fun conversations about the music industry and music industry economics -- some of which we've published here. While there are plenty of things I agree with him about, there are still many points on which we disagree. His most recent paper, advocating a mandatory ISP fee for file sharing (pdf) is a point where we completely disagree. Page's paper is getting some attention, and he presented it at the same event where Peter Jenner just called for a blanket license as well. But I fear that Page's paper, while it digs into some economic concepts, includes a few mistaken assumptions that drives the entire paper offline (though, in fairness to Page, he clearly states that for you to accept his thesis, you need to accept his assumptions).
The key assumption in the paper is the idea that file sharing creates a "negative spillover." He's basically saying that file sharing is pollution -- creating a negative impact where the cost is borne by different parties than those responsible for the problem. Such situations are cases where there is a "market failure." In theory (and there are some important recent challenges to some aspects of this theory), if the costs are not borne by those creating them, then it could create an inefficient outcome, potentially requiring some sort of intervention, either in the form of regulation or voluntary restraint. But, you have to be very careful in what you consider "pollution." After all, one could argue that the creation of, say, email represented "negative spillovers" for the makers of fax machines. After all, it created a "negative impact" on fax machine makers, borne by a different party than those who created it (internet folks). But, of course, that's ridiculous. That's just innovation and competition at work.
And, the claim of "negative spillovers" really doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Normal pollution generally involves companies doing the polluting and the public bearing the costs, in some manner. But that's not the situation with file sharing at all. The public isn't being harmed at all. In fact, they're better off. And, according to Page's own research, there's no evidence that musicians are worse off either. Also, it's not like the amount of music being created is going down. It's actually going way up. The only "harm" being done is to a few companies that make up the recording industry. That really doesn't sound like pollution. It sounds like competition and innovation. We should never mistake a more efficient market for pollution, but I fear that's what Page is doing here.
Page's report does suggest one other area where there might be some pollution: in the broadband networks. This is the somewhat ingenious part of the argument. He's effectively making the argument that the pollution is that more file sharing will clog broadband networks, so it's actually in the best interests of the ISPs to "tax" the behavior to decrease the clogging. ISPs have long resisted calls for any sort of blanket licensing, but they've also talked up supposed claims of "clogged" broadband pipes from too much traffic -- usually in attempts to fight calls for net neutrality. So by saying that such a tax would decrease congestion in the networks, Page has sort of caught the ISPs at their own game, and given them a "solution" to the problem. The only issue? The "problem" of network congestion is more or less a myth, used mainly by lobbyists to ward off net neutrality legislation. The broadband providers don't really have a congestion problem, and a music tax isn't going to help solve this non-existent problem anyway.
Again, to be fair, Page more or less admits this in a paragraph towards the end:
We want to make it clear that neither of the
above-mentioned options could be considered without accepting that
some sort of market failure has occurred and that in consequence some
form of regulation is required, and that regulation should seek to put
incentives and structures in place so that a market-based solution to the
value of media on networks can evolve.
But, of course, most people will miss that paragraph and won't necessarily consider the assumptions being made.
I also think that the paper doesn't recognize the inefficiencies and economic costs created by blanket licensing/collective licensing regimes (though, to be fair, that wasn't the focus of the paper at all).
Either way, I chatted briefly with Page while writing this up, and he pointed out that the paper is focused specifically on the realities of the UK market under the Digital Economy Act, and that it shouldn't be generalized for other markets -- which, again, is a fair statement, though I'm not sure it changes any of the economic assumption questions (and, also could make the paper itself obsolete if the DEA is repealed, as some still believe will happen). Either way, we're going to try to find some time in the near future to have a more thorough discussion/Q&A on the topic and see if we can dig into some of those assumptions.