Eccentric Flower:201005/The Wrong Battles

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«May 2010 «Eccentric Flower

The Wrong Battles in Virtual Places

First off, I should note that all three seeds of this discussion originated over at Flutterby. This will prevent me from having to say "Flutterby" and "Dan Lyke" in every other sentence below. OK? OK.

Here are the three seeds:

1. The odious Steve Jobs gets surprisingly candid with an asshole from Gawker (those latter four words contain a redundancy), and maybe reveals why he shouldn't get candid more often.

I don't have a problem with Jobs' insistence on a closed, proprietary, fully content-controlled nanny-state computing universe. If he wants to make one of those, that's his prerogative. If people want to buy into that universe, that's their prerogative. Frankly, I can see the appeal on both ends. If I were designing a computing platform, the temptation to be an utter control-freak about it would be very strong; and if I were a user, the temptation to buy into a system where everything had a better-than-usual chance of working together and not crashing would have a certain appeal. My problem is not with Jobs wanting to create a closed world. My problem, increasingly, is that I reject the particular closed world that he is making.

There is one sentence in that article which may have slipped completely past you (assuming you went to the link first). It was easy to miss. But to Dan and I it might as well have been in bold red text.

Yep, freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin’, and some traditional PC folks feel like their world is slipping away. It is.

At this point it is probably germane to quote an exchange of comments from the Flutterby thread on this:

Mark van de Wettering: I must admit that I'm been giving this a lot of thought lately. I gave Cory Doctorow a little bit of crap for his "don't buy an iPad" posting, but since then have begun to reconsider. Apple's increasing insistence on controlling all aspects of development and distribution of applications does mean that we barely own an iPhone or iPad at all. Yes, it's a great bit of hardware, with some very nice bits of software, but it doesn't permit me to develop and deploy software in the way I would like, nor does it allow a lot of my friends to do so.

Apple's stand on porn apps is somewhat telling. Apple doesn't really want to be in the pornography business. I can empathize with that. Apple doesn't really want to have to review and approve porn apps. I can empathize with that. But that's the path they've chosen, since they've decided to make money off being the sole distributor for all software on the iPhone/iPad.

Dan Lyke: Yeah, Mark, the issue I see is that Apple doesn't have to review porn, with the absence of Flash they'd just have to review a content delivery application. So the issue is clearly about "what we want our customers to be able to see," and I suspect that that's largely because Apple wants to control the content monetization system, and there's no way they can be seen as taking dollars for porn.

Which kind of finalizes my feeling that Apple has become the vendor of tools for consumers, not producers.

Personally I have taken that last sentence as a given for quite some time now, but I would take it even further, as Dan hints above: Apple is making clear that they want to be a vendor of services/tools only for certain kinds of consumers. Apple is not so stupid as to be unaware of the phenomenal sales potential of pornography. Anyone who bases as much of its business as it currently does on downloadable content cannot possibly have missed this. Therefore, the message must be "We do not consider certain kinds of content suitable for either us to handle or our audience to consume."

I'll come back to the stupidity of this, and to Dan's statement "there's no way they can be seen as taking dollars for porn," but let's consider seeds 2 and 3 first.

2. David Hornik at VentureBlog wonders why companies spend so much of their time and effort trying to police profanity.

Hornik is, I think, being disingenuous; he can't possibly actually be that naive of why companies would want to prevent foul language from creeping onto their websites. They consider it a character issue. They think it looks bad.

On the other hand, I would like to think that by now it is common knowledge that a site's owners do not, cannot, prevent user-generated content and comments from reflecting the quality of the users. Or, put another way, isn't everyone aware by now what a cesspool comment areas are? Even if we still have the capacity to be horrified by the way these sites inevitably display the ass-end of human nature (I for one have not yet gotten over my dismay that The Economist site comments are no better, no saner, no less vulgar than those for any lesser periodical), does anyone really still think that the user-generated areas reflect poorly on the editorially-controlled content? Does anyone actually think less of The Economist or The New York Times websites just because the people who comment there are assholes and morons?

In other words, I think it should be sufficient, at this point, to throw up a clear dividing line between "this is content we control" and "this is content we do not control," and to not try too hard to police the material in the latter category (barring incidences of outright harrassment or criminal activity).

(Actually I take it further than that; I believe that it's a real shame that sites could be held legally responsible for their user-generated content. If someone posts something illegal here, I have a responsibility to remove it, or I could get in trouble, even though it was in no way my bad behavior. This, to my mind, creates a fairly nasty legal burden on site owners that they don't deserve. But others disagree with me.)

But getting back to Hornik, what I consider to be his more important point is: Look at all the time wasted on something that is an impossible battle to win anyway.

This brings us to ...

3. An article in Habitat Chronicles about the impossibility of meeting the Disney Standard. The authors of this article might disagree with my characterization of what it's about, but too bad. They can write their own refutation.

One of their guys piped up: "Couldn't we do some kind of sentence constructor, with a limited vocabulary of safe words?"

Before we could give it any serious thought, their own project manager interrupted, "That won't work. We tried it for KA-Worlds."

"We spent several weeks building a UI that used pop-downs to construct sentences, and only had completely harmless words – the standard parts of grammar and safe nouns like cars, animals, and objects in the world."

"We thought it was the perfect solution, until we set our first 14-year old boy down in front of it. Within minutes he'd created the following sentence:

I want to stick my long-necked Giraffe up your fluffy white bunny.

I can't abide the Disney Standard in the first place - I think it reflects the fundamental way the Disney brand evolved from something which was actually once interesting into something too sterile and sanitized to be useful to anyone. But that's Disney's problem - again, if they want to make a closed world, that's their business, and if parents misguidedly want to buy into it, that's their business. I will just say that any reasonably intelligent child realizes this approach is bullshit at a very tender age, and parents would do better to have a little less denial about it.

I have railed several times against the 14-year-old-boy mindset and the fact that the internet makes 14-year-old boys out of everyone sooner or later ... but in this case, the 14-year-old boys are onto something. If I walked into a universe that wouldn't even let me form my own goddamned sentences without using a picklist, I'd immediately start trying to figure out the filthiest sentences I could make as well. And I'm normally very mild-mannered about such things.

Let's chain all this together. Or attempt to.

You know, if you are a regular reader, how much I dislike the amount of crudeness, rudeness, and general bad behavior on the internet. I have railed many times about how the internet is killing any ideas of complex, civilized discussion because the trolls and the "your mom" crowd destroy any such thing in its cradle. I do not like it, Sam-I-Am.

But if you think that means I argue for stricter content controls, you're nuts. Not only is attempting to keep out the profanity and vulgarity a losing battle - doomed from the start; not only is it an enormous waste of time, money, and effort; but it makes the problem worse. If I see a profanity filter, it makes me want to swear; if I see content controls, they make me want to find the loophole and exploit it. And I say again, I am not normally especially anarchist in this direction; but I am stubborn and perverse and I don't like being nannied. And I think I am reasonably typical in this respect.

In broader terms, this same principle goes for not restricting content. You don't like porn? OK. Don't like porn; that's your prerogative. I won't blame you. A lot of pornography is utterly vile. But if porn is allowed to flow where it will, you can ignore it fairly easily. If you try to seal off the pipes, it leaks out all over the place and creeps in in ways which are harder to ignore, harder to remove, and (because they are more underground) are likely to travel with dangerous companions, like malware. Remember who sold the liquor during Prohibition?

Apple creates its enemies. Remember the fuss over jailbreaking iPhones and whether one was taking a permanent risk that Apple could throw a switch and turn their phone into an expensive brick? None of that needed to happen. Apple's closed systems induce people to crack them out of sheer perversity.

There is no good reason why, Dan Lyke's assertion to the contrary, Apple can't be seen handling porn-delivery apps. Apple has maintained several times that they aren't responsible for the content - apps, tunes, clips, whatever - in their various stores, and yet they police them anyway. They are trying to have the best of both worlds - the legal obliviousness of a common carrier and the ability to control who gets to live in their world; and you can't do that. This has been proven many times, going back from the travails of Linden Labs all the way to Prodigy. The first person to run a BBS on 1200 baud dialup struggled with this (if you don't believe me, go dig out an old piece called "Requiem for a Sysop," I'm sure it's on the web somewhere). This is something Apple should already have learned by watching others.

Porn, for all its recent financial travails, is still the killer app. By saying, "There is no pornography on Planet DisneyApple," Apple has greatly increased the odds that someone will crack them just to satisfy the market demand of getting porn onto iPads and iPhones - if not just from sheer perversity. (Again, I'm not mean, but the urge to send Jobs an iPad loaded with very vulgar pictures in the hopes that it will utterly ruin his day is quite tempting.)

Any minute now (assuming it isn't already happening), someone is going to bypass Apple's apps-delivery mechanism completely and there will be underground app-download points galore - and inevitably, someone who used one of those fly-by-night places is going to catch something nasty they didn't want. And Apple will have been implicit in making that happen.

It's a ridiculous fight; the wrong fight. I understand the appeal, I really do. I can see why people want their virtual worlds to not have sleazy "adult novelty" on the corners and not have drunks lying on the sidewalks and people sleeping in alleys. I can see why Apple wants to keep a "safe for grandma" reputation. But it isn't going to happen, and Grandma's not as naive as she used to be, and there's so many other things which are a better use of time and resources than trying to keep the 14-year-olds from drawing penises on the virtual walls.

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Unrelated to the above, mostly: This is a brilliant document that shows most MMORPG and virtual-world problems were well-understood, if not solved, by or before 1990. (Some game designers would do well to realize this, alas.)

An example, which will be familiar to anyone who's ever played in a game or world that had its own economy:

In order to make this automated economy a little more interesting, each Vendroid had its own prices for the items in it. This was so that we could have local price variation (i.e., a widget would cost a little less if you bought it at Jack's Place instead of The Emporium). It turned out that in two Vendroids across town from each other were two items for sale whose prices we had inadvertently set lower than what a Pawn Machine would buy them back for: Dolls (for sale at 75T, hock for 100T) and Crystal Balls (for sale at 18,000T, hock at 30,000T!). Naturally, a couple of people discovered this. One night they took all their money, walked to the Doll Vendroid, bought as many Dolls as they could, then took them across town and pawned them. By shuttling back and forth between the Doll Vendroid and the Pawn Shop for hours, they amassed sufficient funds to buy a Crystal Ball , whereupon they continued the process with Crystal Balls and a couple orders of magnitude higher cash flow. The final result was at least three Avatars with hundreds of thousands of Tokens each. We only discovered this the next morning when our daily database status report said that the money supply had quintupled overnight.

-- 16:07, 18 May 2010 (BST)


This one IS germane: The Tragic Story of the Cussing NPCs

Interesting comment at the beginning that implies maybe the reason game companies get MMOs so wrong is that statistically it is likely to be their first try, and running an MMO is not like running anything else on earth:

This bothered the CSR leads a lot. Perhaps they were new to the MMO business… let’s suppose the CSR leads came from running a phone bank for a major publisher. If 100+ people care enough to call in about an issue with an EA game, that gets their attention really, really fast. Or worse yet, perhaps the CSR leads came from running a call center for a non-game product. 100+ calls about the same topic would cause an overnight hotfix in most software houses.

(In a MMO, 100+ calls about a topic is nothing.)

Of course that doesn't explain why some game companies have made many, many MMOs and they've all stunk (I'm looking at you, SOE).

-- 16:18, 18 May 2010 (BST)


Let's start at the beginning, with a quote from one of the Flutterby comments: Yes, it's a great bit of hardware, with some very nice bits of software, but it doesn't permit me to develop and deploy software in the way I would like, nor does it allow a lot of my friends to do so.

I have said this a hundred times, but I'll say it again: the iPad was not designed for hackers. It was designed for people who want to do a few basic things – read e-books, surf the web, watch movies – and who want the best and simplest possible user experience while doing it. THAT'S IT. That is the core of Apple's iPhone OS development principle: do a few things beautifully, and leave the rest out. If you want the perfect hacking tool, this isn't it, nor was it ever meant to be.

Second, while you know I disagree with Chairman Jobs' position on porn, it does not, in fact, prevent anyone from viewing or consuming porn on an iPad or iPhone. All it does is state that adult apps cannot be sold on the Apple Store. Authors of adult apps can make web apps, accessed via a browser, that are almost every bit as functional as a standalone app; these don't have to go through Apple at all. Similarly, anyone is free to write, read, or view pornography on their iPad or iPhone as long as they load it up themselves, which is (unsurprisingly, as these are Apple devices) extremely easy to do using built-in or free applications. Stanza will read porn just as well as it reads the latest mainstream best-seller, iTunes will play that porn film you ripped just as easily as it plays an episode of Lost and so on.

You forget that Apple is making a statement here not so much about what it wants to make money from, but about its brand identity. Just as Disney wants to be seen as squeaky-clean, so does Apple. Porn pretty much *is* antithetical to the Apple brand, if you think about it; so while I don't care for the stance Jobs is taking here, it also doesn't surprise me at all, or even disappoint me. It's the logical step taken by someone whose primary concern is brand identity.

-- 16:20, 18 May 2010 (BST)


Don't everybody else be afraid to discuss issues of content control, and whether it is a good idea to try to police content at all - which is what this is really about - just because Nonelvis has come in with the Apple bomb (as she does every time I say something mildly critical of the company).

It's amazing we don't kill each other.

-- 16:49, 18 May 2010 (BST)


Oh for fuck's sake, did you miss the part where I said I disagreed with Jobs' position? TWICE?


-- 16:56, 18 May 2010 (BST)


I do think that comments at NYT, etc. should be moderated ... but not for profanity. Certain sites where I contribute articles have become a comments cesspool, with appalling sexist and racist comments and personal attacks. But because they are not using actual profanity, they are not removed ... okay, possibly also because they are a traffic draw. Even though the cesspool is user-contributed content, it's still not something I enjoy having associated with my writing, and if I were in charge of such a site I'd be in there demanding a standard for discussion. Profanity would be allowed, attacks would not.

On the other hand, just moderating a neighborhood association Yahoo Group sometimes drives me to want to throw things and despair for the human race, so I suspect moderating a large media site's comments would be dangerous for my cardiac health.

-- 16:59, 18 May 2010 (BST)


I thoroughly approve of that 14-year-old boy.

-- 17:28, 18 May 2010 (BST)


In re. Being a 14-Year-Old Boy:

Nathan has an alphabet centipede with a button for every letter that, when pushed, makes the sound of the letter. If you push the G and O buttons in quick succession, you get a sound like "Guh-Oh" that's close enough to "go" to be understandable as such.

My first attempt after discovering "Guh-Oh" was to push, in quick succession, F, U and K. The centipede thereupon emitted a giggling sound. The manufacturers had evidently foreseen this improper use of the alphabet centipede and programmed it to giggle when a three-letter obscenity was entered. (A, S, S produced the same result.)

Not to be deterred, I decided to up the ante and dextrously entered C, U, N and T in quick succession. Apparently, the manufacturers had not anticipated four-letter obscenities -- a shocking omission, if you think about it -- the centipede happily chirped, "Kuh-Uh-Nn-T."

I subsequently demonstrated this experiment to my wife, who was suitably interested and amused, providing further proof that I married the right woman.

-- 19:13, 18 May 2010 (BST)


This proves something, Robert, but I hesitate to speculate on what.

(Sometimes I wonder if something is wrong with me that my first reaction to toys or situations like that is not to spell out rude words.)

-- 19:38, 18 May 2010 (BST)


I have nothing to add to the discussion other than that Jobs should have known better than to get into the discussion in the first place. He knows full well that the iPhone/Pod/Pad experience is never going to be porn-free ( free as the wind blows...) as long as there is a data connection.

I agree, in theory, that I do not want porn or cussing right where my kid can see it (which is why I am deeply annoyed at YouTube for making it impossible to hide user comments anymore, but I never fooled myself for a second that if she wanted to read the profane user comments she's perfectly capable of going and looking at them for herself).

However, his idea that one might want the world to be porn-free once one becomes a parent... um, I'm a parent and I like erotica a lot. When my kid is around, I gladly sanitize my language and my viewing habits. but after she goes to bed/school/elsewhere I want to be free to read/watch/discuss/do adult stuff, and some of that is going to involve porn/erotica, because my husband and I are still consenting adults.

Having said that, we will have to add that sentence to our pillow talk, and soon. That's right up there with "lifting your luggage."

-- 19:49, 18 May 2010 (BST)


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