Archive for September, 2011

Executing do-files from text editors

| Gabriel |

Stata now defaults to opening a do-file in the integrated do-file editor rather than just running it. The integrated do-file editor is now pretty good, but I’m a creature of habit and I prefer to use an external text editor (usually TextMate) then pipe to Stata. The current default behavior makes this somewhat inconvenient.

Fortunately, you can change this pretty easily in the preferences. Open Stata’s preferences, go to the “Do-File” tab and then the “advanced” sub-tab. Now uncheck the box that says “Edit do-files opened from the Finder in Do-file Editor.” Even though it says “from the Finder” this also applies to do-files launched pretty much any way you can think of: after-market file managers, text editors, etc.

Alternately, you could rewrite your text editor’s Stata support to use Stata console, but that’s probably overkill.

September 28, 2011 at 5:18 am 3 comments

The Passively Monitored Self and the Death of a “Backstage”

| Gabriel |

Practical advice will follow, but first a rant.

I have previously complained about “social” features that automate how you share information, especially when such features are opt-out rather than opt-in. For instance, I was not enthusiastic about Skype “mood messages” giving your friends and colleagues a play-by-play of what music you listen to, nor was I enamored of a product that would share your browser history.

It’s not as if I’m an introverted recluse either. I have a blog and I correspond pretty actively by e-mail, but the difference is that in these media I actively and deliberately control the flow of information rather than having the prestigious, shameful, and indifferent aspects of my personality and behavior all indiscriminately broadcast to my alters.

I have a fantasy in which Mark Zuckerberg is weeping in his garden when he overhears some neighbor children saying “take and read.” He looks up and notices an old copy of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life sitting on the table. Tolle lege Mr. Zuckerberg, tolle lege.

Barring such an epiphany, I wouldn’t be surprised if next year’s Facebook Developer’s Conference includes announcements that American Standard is going social to automatically let your friends know when you use the toilet. Or perhaps Vivid will automatically tell all your second cousins and old friends from high school what pornography you’ve purchased. Or Gap brands could let all your friends know what size pants you wear. Visa could post a status update giving the vendor, address, and dollar value every time you buy anything. Because, really, everything’s better when it’s social regardless of whether it’s humiliating or just pointless information overload. It’s a brave new world of web 2.0 social media integration!

Anyway, I was most recently aggravated by Spotify which (like most things nowadays) defaults to over-sharing. Spotify describes this to NPR as “Freeing people from the hassle of actively sharing songs they like [which] will help keep people engaged in their friends’ listening habits without effort.” Some of us prefer to have this “hassle” because the alternative is an uncensored view of our listening habits. As I wrote when Apple added its “Ping” social feature to iTunes:

As a cultural sociologist who has published research on music as cultural capital, I understand how my successful presentation of self depends on me making y’all believe that I only listen to George Gershwin, John Adams, Hank Williams, the Raveonettes, and Sleater-Kinney, as compared to what I actually listen to 90% of the time, which is none of your fucking business.

Anyway, the worst thing about Spotify freeing you from privacyhassle is it does so by default and it’s difficult to opt-out. You can edit your profile to suppress playlists, but by default they are all revealed and even if you suppress them, new ones created thereafter are revealed. Worse, editing your profile provides no way to suppress “Top Tracks” and “Top Artists” (at least in the Mac client version 0.6.1). After a fair amount of searching (and coming very close to deleting my account entirely), I discovered that it’s fairly easy to totally suppress all of this through the client’s preferences. Just go to the “Spotify” menu and choose “Preferences . . .” then scroll down and uncheck these boxes:

You may now return to the dignity of crafting a public personae that is only loosely coupled to your backstage behavior. Enjoy.

September 27, 2011 at 4:29 am 4 comments

Misc Links

| Gabriel |

  • The first three seasons of Breaking Bad are now on Netflix streaming so you now have no excuse not to watch it.
  • Speaking of Netflix, Megan McArdle has the most interesting thoughts on the company’s recent series of debacles and in particular explains why it doesn’t scale
  • Q: How many French anti-racism activists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
    A: That’s not funny.
    (Also, I’m gonna guess Adam Sandler’s “Chanuka Song” wasn’t a big hit with this crowd.)
  • I recently discovered Naxos Music Library, which is basically Spotify for classical music. Here’s the UCLA link, those of you elsewhere should check if your school has a site license
  • Very interesting discussion of the contrast between Smith’s prediction of barter and actual fieldwork demonstrating that primitive societies work on gift exchange. This is fascinating primarily for the economic anthropology itself and secondarily for the science studies type point that some economists are so stubborn about replacing their traditional model (which is based on nothing but armchair theorizing) with a well-established finding from comparative ethnography. It’s especially funny to me because I think it’s about as easy to see how monetary exchange emerged from gift exchange as it would be to see how it emerged from barter. This should be rather obvious given that (as discussed in Social Structures among other places) the monetization of feudal obligations is a familiar example from our own culture that had only recently been completed in Europe when Smith was writing. In any case stuff like this makes me think that at its core econ is less as a positive science than applied utilitarian moral philosophy. (That sounds like I’m knocking econ, but my candid descriptions of soc and anthro are even worse).
  • Hipsters of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your regulatory barriers to Korean taco trucks! (h/t Tyler @ MR). Also on the libertarian lawsuit front, Cato is taking on business method and software patents. To paraphrase Plutarch on the actual Cato during Sulla’s reign of terror, “Why, then, did you not give me a sword test case, that I might stab him reverse bad precedents, and free my country from this slavery patent thicket?”
  • Anyone ever told you this is the faculty club of the Satan’s Helpers?

September 26, 2011 at 8:40 am 1 comment

We’ve Got it All on VHF

| Gabriel |

The Obama administration recently demonstrated that it knows the Coase theorem through a proposal for “incentivized” spectrum auctions to get buy-in from incumbent television licensees. I’m not completely sure why this proposal is part of the jobs bill but it strikes me as a great idea, albeit one that is aimed at a pragmatic solution to the long-standing terrible idea that is spectrum licensing.

The fundamental problem is that spectrum is a scarce resource that is currently allocated in a highly inefficient way. The best spectrum, VHF, is allocated to television, even though most people have cable or satellite and some of those who don’t may not watch broadcast tv. (My own digital tuner broke a few months ago and I haven’t bothered spending $30 to replace it since I mostly watch Amazon and Netflix on my Roku and Hulu on my Mac).

In contrast, there is a real scarcity of spectrum allocated to wireless telecom. This is the root cause of why people hated AT&T’s now defunct iPhone exclusivity and why a voice and data phone plan costs upwards of $60 a month. So basically, you’ve got a scarce resource being allocated to an activity which (because of good substitutes) is low valued and a real demand for the resource in another activity. In a free market the price signal would cause resources to flow from the low value activity to the high value activity and the problem would solve itself. Similarly, an efficient regulator would also strive to maximize welfare by this reallocation. The problem is that spectrum is subject to neither a free market nor an efficient regulator but a mixed regime of regulated allocation whose incumbent stakeholders have effective veto power and this provides the worst of both worlds.

Since the Radio Act of 1927, we’ve had a licensing regime for broadcasting. In principle this means that spectrum is public property that is licensed to private actors so long as they use it to serve the “public interest.” Although the licenses are theoretically short-term, they are habitually renewed except in extreme circumstances. In practice our regime is that the broadcaster has a restricted but perpetual property right to spectrum that grants the right to use the spectrum for a particular purpose but not to use it for other purposes nor to sell it to others who would use it for new purposes. This means that broadcasters can derive value from their spectrum but only so long as it is used for broadcasting as they have no right to sell it to telecoms.

Broadcasters thus have an incentive to squat on it no matter how much over-the-air viewership declines or how much cell phone rates go up, because, hey, why not?* Certainly the National Association of Broadcasters has taken an approach of kicking and screaming about any allocation of VHF to wireless telecom, while hinting that they do have a price at which they’d be willing to sell their spectrum if allowed to do so. Most notably, NAB raised hell about “interference” when the FCC proposed using “whitespace” between broadcasting signals. Given that such interference is likely to be minimal this is insane from the perspective of maximizing social welfare, but why would the broadcasters care about a massive opportunity cost given that the value created by utilizing whitespace goes to telecom providers and consumers and not to them?

Hence the administration’s recognition that the broadcasters need to be bought off in order to move forward. The administration’s understanding was effectively confirmed when the National Association of Broadcasters commented that “NAB does not oppose incentive auctions that are truly voluntary.” In other words, NAB supports a proposal that lets them alienate their property but would oppose a policy that merely revoked licenses to allow the state to reallocate them. Hence incentivized auctions, which effectively split the difference between the de jure “licensee” and de facto “property” understandings of what spectrum is. This grand bargain is exactly what law and economics folks have been proposing for decades and we’re now seeing it come into play.

Personally, I’m just hoping that we radically deregulate spectrum allocation one way or another and if compensating the incumbent stakeholders is what it takes, then I’m fine with that, especially since I never believed that they were just “licensees” rather than de facto property owners in the first place. More broadly, let this be a lesson as to why feudalism sucks. We’re only in this mess in the first place because since 1927 we’ve treated spectrum as public property to which broadcasters are granted contingent but effectively perpetual usage rights, much like a hereditary fief granted to a vassal. This is roughly equivalent to private ownership except that it makes medium (as compared to content) innovation illegal. If we’d auctioned off VHF as freehold property in the first place, a free market would have reallocated much of it to wireless voice and data usage ten or twenty years ago.

The reallocation of VHF to wireless would be a very good thing. In the short-term, it would mean cheaper cell phone bills and better cell phone reception, particularly indoors, which means that in a few years I will cease to be the last person in America who has good credit and is not a drug dealer but nonetheless uses a $20 pre-paid cell phone. But me personally finally getting a phone that can play Plants vs Zombies is less important to me than my country permanently shifting to a fully private property regime in spectrum. First, this means that the next time an innovative technical application for it comes along we won’t have to go through this nonsense again. Second it means the end to a few pernicious legal doctrines. One of the issues with a licensing regime is that  it provides a pretext for censorship. Do a Google search for the phrase “public airwaves” and almost every search result is somebody attacking freedom of speech, usually with some variation along the lines of “I believe in the first amendment, but we shouldn’t be effectively subsidizing lies/stereotypes/immorality through allowing them on the public airwaves.” This is such a familiar rhetorical trope that you sometimes see idiots people applying it to cable, which is private property and so isn’t relevant to the “public airwaves” argument on its own terms. I would love to see us make Red Lion a dead letter, and radical spectrum deregulation would accomplish this.

Moreover, VHF deregulation would solve the same problems as net neutrality but to do so with less potential for abuse by an overreaching and/or captured state. I have mixed feelings about net neutrality. On the one hand, I am extremely sympathetic to its goals of supporting content provider business model innovation and I’m a great cynic about Comcast’s long-term strategy to suppress this innovation. On the other hand, I worry a lot about this being the camel’s nose under the tent for an intrusive and/or cumbersome regulatory regime and in particular the structural problems with the FCC that Wu articulates in The Master Switch. (The first two-thirds of the book is a rather Stigler-esque history of how during the 20th century NBC and AT&T captured the FCC and used it to create barriers to entry, then in the last third of the book he argues that this same regulatory agency should expand its scope to regulate the internet. WTF Professor Wu, did you read your own book?) However I think we can have the upside of net neutrality without the downside simply through having more viable options for broadband such that if you don’t like your ISP screwing around with your access to Skype or Netflix then you can change ISPs. The reason this would work is that the broadband market is characterized by a last mile problem, which means natural monopoly (actually duopoly for largely historical reasons), which means telecom market power over consumers, which in turn provides the rationale for net neutrality. However abundant wireless spectrum solves the last mile problem which cascades through the argument to mean that net neutrality is superfluous in a world where ISPs on VHF compete with those on coax and fiber optic.

Cheaper cell phones, undermining dangerous extant and developing legal doctrines, and long-run openness to efficient resource allocation — what’s not to like?


* You can get even more cynical and say that broadcasters are opposed to ubiquitous broadband because they worry that streaming video is a disruptive innovation, but I’m not sure if they’re thinking that far ahead and in any case such a supposition isn’t necessary to see why they’d want to hold out for a better deal.

September 20, 2011 at 5:16 am 3 comments

Peak screens

| Gabriel |

Apparently Creature , a god-awful exploitation monster film, opened on 1,500 screens with no marketing and made no money whatsoever (h/t Jonathan Last). My initial reaction was (and I apologize if you can’t follow the abstruse technical jargon) what the fuck?

1,500 screens is no Spiderman 2, but it’s still a reasonably wide opening. When Jaws (which as coincidence would have it was also produced by Sid Sheinberg) opened on 409 screens in 1975 that was considered “opening wide” on an unprecedented scale for a highly anticipated major studio film which was based on a novel that had been on the NYT bestseller list for almost a year. And yet here we are with an obscure turd of a film opening on over three times the scale of one of the biggest films in Hollywood history.

This seems like the kind of thing that simply can not happen, but I checked Variety, and yup:

Monster movie “Creature” also bellyflopped. The film, self-distributed by Sid and Jon Sheinberg’s Bubble Releasing, had an unusually aggressive rollout for an indie title but a paltry per-screen average of just $220 from 1,507 locations. Total was an estimated $331,000.

At least I can take some comfort in the collective sanity of Hollywood in knowing that neither the majors nor LionsGate were involved in this fiasco but there’s still the puzzle of what the exhibitors were thinking.

Most likely they were thinking in terms of vacancy chain / opportunity cost issue. September is something of a dumping release date. For instance, Fox notoriously buried the brilliant satire Idiocracy in September of 2006. We can see this more formally in Figure 1 from Sorenson and Waguespack ASQ 2006 (emphasis added).

Big movies tend to open on big weekends. This wasn’t a big weekend and so it’s not surprising that weren’t a lot of big movies opening this weekend. To a first approximation, we can say that exhibitors probably played Creature because it was that or keep dark. (Though at $220 per screen they probably would have been better off staying dark).

Another interesting thing is that opening wide isn’t cheap (which is why until the blockbuster era studios preferred to make just a few prints). It costs about $2,000 to make a print of a film, which (if we assume prints rather than digital) implies about $3 million for prints for Creature , which is about the same amount as the production budget. The rule of thumb is that prints and promotion cost about half again the production budget, but Creature seems to have economized on this through the simple expedient of not having any marketing. This doesn’t really make sense though since marketing and prints are complements, which is why they are usually budgeted together. If I had a crappy movie and only $3 million to self-distribute it, I’d probably spend less than a million on prints and the rest on promotion. So we’ve got to figure out what was going on with the (self) distributor. Here are a few non-mutually exclusive speculations as to what was going on with the distributors:

  1. They’re idiots (more specifically, they drank the “social media” Kool-Aid)
  2. They planned on marketing the film but ran out of money
  3. They relied on digital projection
  4. They offered exhibitors better points on box office than the industry standard

Note that any of these stories are bad news for exhibitors. #1 implies that exhibitors didn’t think to check if the distributor understood the film industry. #2 implies that the distributor booked the exhibitors with an explicit or implicit expectation of a certain level of marketing then didn’t follow through and the exhibitors didn’t notice this. #3 is one of many issues in the film industry where distributors have a conflict of interests against exhibitors. Digital projection implies large fixed costs for theaters but allows distributors to radically lower their marginal costs, which (Coase theorem notwithstanding) is not a good recipe for a happy outcome. The conflict is especially acute when you realize that digital projection makes it easier to open wide which means most of the box is in opening weekend when the theaters get very little of the ticket sales and basically only make money on popcorn. (On the other hand, digital does open up some pretty cool possibilities for using theaters for things other than movies.) That leads us to possibility #4, which is that the distributors might have gotten creative and offered the exhibitors an unusually good deal, like an 80/20 split on opening weekend box or something like that, so as to treat the theatrical release as a publicity-generating loss leader for ancillary revenue streams (DVD, tv, streaming, etc.). If we also assume digital distribution this largesse wouldn’t have even cost the distributor much up-front. This would have been a good precedent for the exhibitors if it worked, but it didn’t and so they’re stuck with back-loaded revenue sharing models that were worked out back when there were fewer screens and movies stayed in theaters for more than two weekends.

Long story short, I’m putting this in my “theatrical exhibitors are fucked” file, along with 3D fatigue and the Comcast/Universal merger.

September 13, 2011 at 6:52 am 5 comments

Project Gutenberg and the early internet

| Gabriel |

Over at the mothership, Teppo informs us that the founder of Project Gutenberg died recently. Just yesterday I used the Gute to find a passage in Xenophon’s Memorabilia. But I’ve been using it for a really long time, probably the longest of any internet service. A few years before Mosaic came out, I remember buying a few printed directories of internet content at a bookstore (yes, really, this is about 6 years before Google) and reading through them. At the time the entire internet basically consisted of usenet groups and some gopher sites, the only two of which that sounded interesting were Thomas (i.e., the Congressional Record) and Project Gutenberg. This was way back in the extremely early phase of a technology when the hopes tend to be utopian and transformative as a restoration of Enlightenment-era coffee shops as they exist in the nostalgic imaginations of European intellectuals. Such idealistic projects don’t necessarily disappear as seen by Project Gutenberg itself, but they usually are eclipsed by more base or mundane uses that more closely reflect extant technologies. Speaking of which, the first work to really nail how the internet would be both contiguous with and transformative of extant media landscape was Russ Neuman’s Future of the Mass Audience. This book made extremely accurate projections of the broad contours of the internet even though it was written back in the 2400 baud era, back when other projections of the internet were a bunch of nonsense about virtual reality.

Anyone interested in further indulging in nostalgia for the early internet should visit UCLA’s undergraduate library and look for the call numbers beginning “QA76.” There you will find a shelf  full of computer manuals published when our undergraduates were toddlers. I like to think that the librarians maintain this shelf for the benefit of our really excellent history department.

September 10, 2011 at 4:28 pm 1 comment

Zotero 3 beta

| Gabriel |

For about three years I’ve only been using Firefox for Zotero and lately I usually don’t even bother to do this but just hand copy Bibtex citations from Google Scholar into my “.bib” file. As such, I was very happy to see that Zotero 3 is now in beta. This version lets you run a stand-alone Zotero app (in Mac, Windows, or Linux) which can accept content from Safari and/or Chrome. Since I actually use both Safari and Chrome this is a great improvement since I can just click the Zotero button rather than having to copy the URL, launch Firefox, paste the URL, and then click the Zotero button.

The Zotero app doesn’t need to be running for you to scrape citations. Your browser writes the citation to the cloud and the next time you launch the dedicated Zotero client it syncs with the cloud copy. This requires making sure that both the client and the browser plug-in have the account and password but once you’ve done that it’s pretty painless.

I’ve noticed a few issues with the beta. One is that the standalone app is kind of a RAM hog, taking up about 110 megs of RAM on my mac. (In contrast, Bibdesk takes 50 megs to load the same database). The second is that it has some trouble scraping Worldcat but apparently this is already fixed in the pending update. The third is that it seems to work better with Chrome than Safari, but again this should be resolved in new versions.

Now I just have to find 2007’s phone number so I can call it and let it know that it can have Firefox back.

September 8, 2011 at 4:24 am 4 comments

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