An interesting thing is happening in the PC game market: consumers are losing the ability to resell their games.

For the past few years a new PC game has cost $50–$60. You play it for a few weeks, then store it or sell it. Game stores will buy a recent used game for $20 and resell it for $40–$50. Naturally, game publishers hate the used game market; they get no revenue from the second sale.

Massively multiplayer MMOs like World of Warcraft made a big market shift a few years back; consumers buy a non-transferrable account for $15/month, no possibility of a used copy. And recent single players games like Dragon Age have been limiting the used games market by including a one-time use code for extra content. Used copies are still playable without the extra stuff, or you can buy the rest for $10 or $15.

Then Starcraft 2 came out and blew the market entirely apart. There's no such thing as a used copy of Starcraft 2. You must have an online account to play, even the single player game. But unlike an MMO there's no technical necessity for the account, Blizzard just did it that way because they could. Suprisingly few people have complained and the new business model hasn't harmed Starcraft's sales noticeably. Consumers seem entirely willing to give up their first-sale rights for PC games.

A similar transition is happening in the electronic book world. You can't resell or gift a Kindle book, it's forever bound to the account of whoever bought it. No first-sale rights. The Kindle edition is often more expensive, too. It's pretty alarming, particularly if you love used bookstores. It's not clear which way movie streaming will go. Netflix' $10 for all the movies you can watch is so cheap right now, but expect that to change as the market matures.

  2010-08-30 21:21 Z
Saturday I had an interesting flying experience taking off on runway 29 at Columbia. I might well have crashed if it weren't for the instructor with me. Great lesson.

29 is a grass runway, a rarity in California. I'd trained on soft field technique for my license but I'd never done it for real. The trick is to get the wheels off the ground as fast as you can so you can accelerate better. Because of ground effect you actually lift off before you're going the 55kts or so you need to properly fly, so it's important to push the nose back down towards the ground so that you stay level in ground effect until you accelerate to flying speed.

But 29 isn't just a soft runway, it's short. 2600' but with a 1% upslope and a 40' hill just 1200' past the runway end and another hill with trees on it just past that. I've trained on short field technique and thought I was pretty good at it. It's easy enough; you rotate precisely at 52kts, climb at 61kts, and know the math ahead of time for how much distance you need to clear your obstacle.

That's all the theory. In practice what happened was we rolled slowly down the runway and the wheels come off the ground just at our abort point. Great, we're airborne! Then I looked up and saw the hill coming at me and freaked out and did precisely the wrong thing, pulling back to try to climb fast. Only we were going so slow that the moment we got out of ground effect the plane would have come right back down again, crashing us in to the hill.

Fortunately my instructor has enough experience to anticipate the mistake I was going to make. He immediately took over and did the right thing, the scary thing, pointing the plane's nose down into the hill for a few seconds until we were fast enough to pitch up and climb. He tells me we cleared the hill with plenty of room to spare, I didn't see a thing because my eyes were shut tight. (OK, not really, we were just pitched high enough I couldn't see the hill in front of us. Next time I'll look out the side.)

I'm exaggerating the danger for effect, I'm sure my instructor knew all along we would be fine. But I didn't know that and I wouldn't have been fine by myself. I'm well enough trained now that the ordinary flights I do are pretty boring; it's easy to get complacent and sloppy. Great lesson to see the importance of proper technique. It's also useful to learn the limits of your skills. I don't plan to do a soft + short field takeoff on my own anytime soon.

  2010-08-23 20:11 Z
Google just threw wireless network neutrality under the bus. What I can't figure out is why. No one seems to know, and I've asked people who really should know. Even if Google has suddenly become Evil, how do they benefit from agreeing that carriers like Verizon should filter their traffic?

Google is an advertisement company first, a content company second. They need open networks to spread their ads and products. They have very little leverage over network carriers, particularly the last mile to people's homes and cell phones. Google believes it dominates the market through sheer product excellence. They are confident they can win any fair competition, which is why they are the poster child for network neutrality. From a personal appeal from the CEO to some brilliant jujitsu in the 700MHz auction, Google has strongly pushed for open networks. Until now.

Google's proposal with Verizon is not a complete about-face. Verizon has agreed to the principle of net neutrality for today's wired Internet. And they have agreed to disclose preferential treatment of traffic. These are steps forward. But in exchange, Google is saying they're OK with Verizon completely abandoning net neutrality on wireless networks. Why?

The best explanation I've come up with is Google believes that they have no choice. Wireless bandwidth is scarce; AT&T's horrible iPhone performance shows what can happen without any quality of service management. I can imagine Google sitting down with wireless carriers and saying "ok, for now you can't really stream video to cell phones reliably. How about we share ad revenue from Youtube in exchange for you prioritizing our packets?" Maybe that helps freeze out Apple and Microsoft. But that would be Google negotiating from a position of weakness, which is out of character for the company.

Furthermore, wireless scarcity is a temporary problem. Bandwidth improves. New cellular protocols, increasingly ubiquitous WiFi, WiMax ... in ten years I believe we'll have a glut of wireless bandwidth. It'd be crazy for Google to give up the principle of network neutrality just to get a temporary advantage for the next couple of years. Google is trying to frame the core regulatory framework for the next 50 years. Is this proposal the most freedom from the carriers Google can negotiate?

One thing that's clear: the FCC has been completely useless in shaping this debate. People rightly complain that Google is acting like an oligarchy, but I think they don't really have any choice. Someone's got to lead and I'd rather it were Google than Verizon, or AT&T, or a slow moving bureaucracy.

Update: Google has posted an explanation of their motivations. Read it yourself, but my takeaway is "this agreement is the best we could do".
  2010-08-12 21:31 Z
Ken and I are back from EAA Airventure, 3500 miles and 30 hours of flying. A great impromptu roadtrip via airplane: not too much planning, just go where we felt like each day. Our final itinerary wasn't too far off the rough plan, here's some impressions from the road.
Day 1: The Western US is really empty. Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, they don't offer much to the air traveller. Cheyenne had the rodeo in town so we stayed in Casper, a decidedly meh town, decent dinner at FireRock.

Day 2: Downtown Fargo was surprisingly sophisticated. We had a great dinner at the ambitious Silver Moon Supper Club, run by a prodigal son bringing Manhattan-style dining to Fargo. Nice bar, beautifully restored dining room, excellent service, and a well thought out menu. We also liked the lounge at the Hotel Donaldson, a smart boutique hotel.

Days 3–8: Wisconsin is surprisingly bland. I like middle America and enjoy smaller towns, but during our stay in the Fox River valley we failed to find anything superliminal. (Airventure itself was awesome, but that's another blog post.) There is excellent Mexican food at Zacatecas in Neenah and the nearby Saint James bar was comfortable. But when the signature local food is deep fried cheese curds you gotta dig deeper.

Day 9: Wichita, a last minute decision because we were getting such nice tailwinds. Old Town is an interesting urban renewal project, a warehouse district converted to bars and restaurants and an ersatz town square. It seems to be working pretty well but it was too damn hot and on a Sunday most everything was closed. Wichita is the airplane manufacturing capital of the US: we need to go back with a plan to do some factory touring.

Day 10: Santa Fe, my old home. I'd forgotten how mediocre Tomasita's is and regret asking to meet friends there, but we had a good time. Tia Sophia's is still fantastic for breakfast. The cathedral is remarkably beautiful, particularly the light and colourful interior.

Day 11: Lake Havasu City is an astonishingly ugly town where despite it regularly being 120° (90° at 5AM) it's full of boaters in summer and drunk bimbos and jocks for Spring Break. We intended just to stop for lunch but got stuck there overnight when the alternator on the plane failed. Actually it turned out fine because all the locals we met were so welcoming and helpful, really nice folks. Desert Skies FBO set us up with a loaner car and a place to stay and Arizona Aircraft Maintenance did a fantastic job getting our plane fixed and us quickly on our way. I'll definitely be stopping here again for fuel and great barbeque, just not in the middle of the summer.

We had a really nice time on the trip and I look forward to travelling like this again. Seeing the country in a little plane is a whole different experience; you go faster, you're more disconnected up at 10,000', but then when you land you're suddenly very local.

  2010-08-06 14:08 Z