Monday, August 27, 2012

Wither Twitter?

Last week, Twitter decided to change its terms of service and generally do a brute-force kinda dirty overhaul of its third-party business operations. (That linked article is opinion, but it hits all the important facts.) For many, this seems to be the beginning of the end of Twitter. I'm not so sure it's that bad, but it does appear to be a signal that things, sadly, are going to change.

The business world is different now. Not even twenty years ago, if you wanted a large, nationwide, mass-scale company, you basically had to make stuff. Sure, there were consultancies such as insurance or accounting, but even then that required a massive staff and office space everywhere you wanted to do business.

The internet changed that, of course. You can run a multi-million dollar business from a basement and a room full of servers. Amazon famously changed the way retail does business--they still do "stuff" but it's all just warehouses, not huge retail stores full of trained staff--and nearly all successful online businesses since then have been variations on a theme. Industries don't have to be "stuff" anymore. Storefronts or B2B operations are no longer necessary.

Somewhere along the line, however, you have to make money, and a lot of new tech companies appear to forget that. Most social media sites, and traditional tech sites such as Yahoo, do not sell anything. There's no physical products. They make their money off of online advertising (chancy even during the best of times) data mining (surprisingly lucrative) and premium accounts (sketchy at best). When the only thing you're dealing with is information, you eventually have to convert that information into cash. And that's not always easy.

The problem with Twitter is that its selling point will also be its biggest hurdle. Twitter is simple and easy--you look at messages of 160 characters or less. That's it. It's packaged all nice and neat online and through their (admittedly shitty) online app, but beyond that there aren't any stupid farming games to gum up the works. Sure, they have some sponsored ads, but beyond that any additional changes would fundamentally alter what makes Twitter so appealing. By being the best, they've painted themselves into a corner for how to make a buck off of it. (The recent furor in the link above is how Twitter handles its third party applications, since any potential money-making decisions--namely, adding advertisements to your stream--could have been bypassed. Twitter is trying to make sure that doesn't happen.)

I find Twitter to be particularly useful. It seems shallow on the face of it--how can you cram any decent thought into 160 characters? Yet it's that exact size that makes it so useful. It provides a lot of important information very quickly without a lot of gratuitous verbosity. You aren't going to Twitter to read blog posts and analysis, you're reading it to get snippets of information. As long as that particular point is remembered, Twitter ends up being eminently more useful.

(As an aside, I've always wondered about the viability of a social network that you pay a yearly subscription for. On the base of it it seems absurd--the internet is free!--but I think there is a certain value of making sure the people who you have connected with have a stake in the quality of their online presence. When everyone is paying $20 bucks a year, they're not copying and pasting some BS their racist co-worker sent them. Or maybe they will, I don't know. But sometimes quality is better than quantity, and I think a case can be made.)

I'm not as pessimistic about Twitter as some are. I think we'll see some more data mining efforts (most likely transparent to us) and a lot more ads in our timeline. I doubt we'll get to a "premium" account status, but you never know. In the end, though, it's clear that their major success may also end up being their downfall.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Monday, August 13, 2012

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Blueprint To The White House: Is The Selection of Paul Ryan A Good Thing?

If you haven't yet heard the news today, the Mitt Romney campaign has selected Paul Ryan to be his running mate. He had been on the media's short list for a while--along with Bob Portman and Tim Pawlenty--so it isn't a total surprise. Still, in some ways it's a post-Palin safe choice, while in others it's quite risky. So, at first glance, was it a good choice?

First things first: vice presidential picks don't really win or lose elections. At least not anymore; at one time "regional balance" probably had much more of an effect than it does now. And it's not like it doesn't affect things now, but the impact is much less than it used to be. Joe Biden didn't win or lose President Obama any states; likewise, Dan Quayle didn't cause Bush to win (or lose, for that matter). Even polls suggest that Sarah Palin had very little impact on the final electoral tally, and in fact may have helped McCain--the people most turned off from Palin weren't going to vote for McCain anyway.  Bill Clinton can pick another Southerner in Al Gore--picking a running mate from the same region was once considered a mistake--and it didn't really matter. So when it's all said and done, the impact of Ryan's selection will most likely be minimal.

Let's look at the benefits:
*He is from Wisconsin, a perennial swing state that, like Pennsylvania and Michigan, always still seem to end up voting with the Democrats. While the final votes in the past few elections have always been razor thin (Gore beat Bush in 2000 by a mere .22%, which in political terms is a rain delay) it's still gone blue each time. The state is also the home of many wildly progressive candidates, from Robert LaFollette to William Proxmire to Russ Feingold. Still, the demographics in Wisconsin are very similar to western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and (less so) Michigan. With such small margins in each of these states, the selection of Ryan probably will help one or even all of them.
*He is a good, articulate speaker who does not appear to be prone to gaffes. After Palin, this is a clear necessity, and Ryan appears to be well in control of what he says and how he says it.
*He has a lot of creative ideas, something lacking for many politicians. 
*His conservative credentials are solid, so the Tea Party faction will be satisfied. Still, his public service began before the Tea Party rose to prominence, so he does not owe them anything, unlike many other current candidates. He also voted for TARP (hated by the Tea Party) and directly accused the military for budgetary indiscretions, showing that he's not afraid to challenge his own side.
*He is known primarily for his fiscal strengths. He started out working for supply-sider (and fellow Vice Presidential nominee) Jack Kemp, and his entire public persona is based on his budgetary proposals. His social policies and foreign affairs positions, while known (and is standard for Republicans), have never been a prominent part of his platform. While I'm certain that will change in the next few months, it looks like he mostly mirrors his own district for these issues.

Now, the major drawbacks:
*This is a boring pick. Ryan doesn't add any strengths that Romney doesn't already have--it's not like Romney has a desperate need to back up his fiscal credentials. Many of his other choices, such as Marco Rubio (Hispanic, Florida), Condoleezza Rice (black, female, foreign policy), Nikki Haley (Indian, female) or Bobby Jindal (Indian) could fill in needs or reach out to new demographics. Sadly, the short list all included young white men in Midwestern states (Bob Portman in Ohio, Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota, and Ryan), a demographic that, while crucial (see point #1, above) probably could have been secured anyway.
*The fact that Ryan is known primarily (really. almost exclusively) for his budget proposals is a drawback as well as a benefit. Because these are plans that have a lot of details, it's going to be easy to pick out details, display them out of context, and attack him relentlessly. In fifteen minutes I've written a half dozen attack ads in my head. This is going to end up being a huge deal, at least for the next week or so, but probably for the next few months.
*Ryan was one of the main participants in one of the greatest tactical blunders the GOP has made in the past few years: the debt ceiling showdown. Ryan was on the side of forcing that showdown, which I reluctantly opposed. While I understood the reasoning--take the opportunity to make cuts now, since the opportunity may not come around again--I felt that it not only caused too much economic turmoil for what ended up begin very little if any fiscal benefit, it opened the door for the Democrats to (justifiably) do the exact same thing the next time they are in power. It was a politically stupid move that generated no benefit to anyone, and Ryan was in the center of it. This makes me question his political judgement.

Will Ryan ultimately be a solid pick? My hunch is that it won't matter. Paul Ryan doesn't really bring anyone into the mix that hasn't already decided for Obama or Romney; undecideds and independents aren't going to flock to Romney because he chose Ryan, nor are they going to run away. While I think the fact that he chose a Midwesterner is probably a good thing electorally, my fear is that he chose him primarily because he wanted to satisfy the more conservative factions of the party, blind to the fact that they don't need to be placated (they're not going to vote for Obama anyway). To be fair, I don't think there was any vice presidential candidate that would sway that much either way (with the possible exception of Rubio), so it's not like this is some huge, game-changing decision. Picking Ryan was less about adding new voters to the GOP side and more about showing that he wasn't going to pick another Sarah Palin.

Personally, I like Paul Ryan's fiscal policy stances, but I don't think that he will matter one way or the other electorally. Ryan is a policy wonk, and while he is a good speaker, I'm not sure if he's a national enough figure to be a particularly effective campaigner. For that, we will have to wait and see, and that may be what converts him to a solid benefit instead of the neutral factor he seems to be at the moment.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Casual Video Game Review: The Political Machine 2012

Have you been waiting for an opportunity to take charge of a political campaign, basking in the glory of a victory after spending unrealistic amounts of time giving empty speeches to the same dinner halls every day of the week, paying good American money for sketchily produced negative ads, and cashing in all the political capital you have so that you no longer have any sliver of soul left in the tired husk of your body as you sit down in the office chair in the White House?

OK, so maybe no one is really looking for that. But if you want a simulation of a strategic computer game that will have a full campaign over in about twenty minutes, then Political Machine 2012 is the game for you.

Political Machine 2012, produced by Stardock, pits two real-life politicians against each other in a race for the Presidency. It is a casual game, which means the strategy is fairly light and the game playing time is 20-30 minutes. The game plays much like a board game--you move pieces around the board, so to speak--but there's all kinds of minute calculations going on behind the scenes, so it could not realistically be played as a board game. (Board game enthusiasts, of course, would feel pretty much at home.) The goal--as in real life--is to win 270 electoral votes.

The game presentation is not particularly serious; all of the candidates are represented as cartoonish bobbleheads. While some of the caricatures aren't very good, it otherwise ends up working fairly well given the interface in the game--it looks nicer sliding a bobblehead around a map rather than watching Newt Gingrich walk around. Still, it may put off some people thinking that this game won't be very deep.

Players begin by selecting a difficulty and game length, and then (most importantly) a candidate. The roster of candidates represent all of the major players, from Mitt Romney and Barack Obama down to Dennis Kuchinich, Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, and Herman Cain. Each politician has eight attributes rated on a scale from 1 to 10, such as Experience (which lets you get endorsements quicker) and Charisma (which makes Ads and Speeches more effective). Each politician also can have stances on various issues, which gives them more popularity in states that are concerned about it. A politician who is a strong supporter of Social Security, for example, will get a bonus in Florida.

Once the candidates are selected, play begins. Players have seven main options: flying to a new state, building a headquarters in a state, fundraise, create advertisement, give a speech, secure an endorsement, and hire staff. Players gain support by increasing their awareness, and then getting support by talking about the issues that concern that state the most.

For the most part, a player must be in a state in order to take any actions there, but even just merely visiting a state will increase your awareness. You can build one of three types of Headquarters, each of which is expensive, but has varied benefits: some allow you to gain access to more issues in a state, one allows you to hire staff, and one allows you to get endorsements. Each also provides some small benefit, such as increased awareness or income. These can also be upgraded at an increased cost, but with greater effect.

Creating an ad and giving speeches will increase voter's support for you. Each must be tailored to a specific issue, so you could give a speech on Reducing the Deficit and those voters who are concerned about it will come to your side. (Each state, of course, is concerned about different issues.) Speeches are free but are limited to that state, while ads are recurring and remain in that state after you leave, but cost money. Ads can be newspaper, radio, and TV, each with increasing visibility (and increasing cost).

There are several types of staff members (called Operatives in the game). Staff can be moved from state to state as needed, although three staff members are one-time purchases. Some reduce your own ad costs, for example, or reduces your opponent's awareness in that state. Endorsements are one-time purchases that shift the entire nation towards you based on their issues; the Environmentalist's Club, for example, will grant you a bonus for Alternative Energy and the Environment. (All endorsements are easier for one party to get over the other. The gun lobby is easier for the Republicans to get, for instance.) Finally, Fundraising grants you money, the amount of money collected based on the relative wealth of the state you're in.

Other opportunities abound: you are occasionally invited to interviews, which usually work in your favor but could also be catastrophic. Random events will grant you some bonus (including unique Operatives you can't normally hire) or waster your time and money. You also get to pick a vice president at the halfway mark, who you can move around and get awareness bonuses.

Each candidate has a certain amount of Stamina. All actions (except Endorsements and Operatives) cost at least one point of Stamina, usually much more. You can keep taking as many actions as you wish until you run out. Even if you don't--say you have one point of Stamina left but can't spend it--no worries; once you accumulate enough "rest" your maximum Stamina increases, so it's not necessarily wasted. Most actions also cost money, which requires a Fundraise action to replenish if you run out.

Finally, of course, is election day. States will go your way if you've accumulated more support than your opponent in that state. In a purposefully dramatic electoral map display, it will move from state to state showing the winner, and once one passes 270 they win!

In the battle of Condi vs. Hillary, it appears that Tennessee is a swing state. That can't be good.

What I like about this game:
*It's quick, fairly easy, and--bottom line--quite fun. If you follow politics at all (and even if you don't), pretty much everything is intuitive. We all know how advertising works. We all know how giving speeches work. There is a lot of information people can work with, but you really only need to know the basics.
*While it's simple, it's got a surprising amount of depth. As you work specific issues, they become less effective, and you'll soon find out that you've run out of easy issues. For example, there's never a reason not to be against Rising Gas Prices, since all voters love to hear it. But after the third or fourth time you pound away at it, voters start to lose you move to, say, Bank Bailouts, which everyone hates. Then they get tired of that. And so on, until you realize that the only issues left are Gay Marriage or Bombing Iran, which is going to cause some voters to be happy and some to be angry. And now you have to balance losing some support in certain states to gain support in others. Welcome to politics!
*The details are pretty accurate. Once you get down into the minutia of what you are doing--all of the issues and demographics and data--you realize that the game is pretty close to real life. Regardless of how the election plays out, you'll find that, unless you're on the easier settings, Texas is going to go for the Republicans and California is going to the Democrats. There's obviously a lot more leeway in swing states--if you really wanted the GOP to win Vermont, you can, by spending an unrealistic amount of time there--but as a general rule the final maps look pretty realistic.

Oh, plus you can make custom maps. And candidates:

I'm running on a platform of legalizing lawn darts. Sadly, you can't customize it that much.

What I don't like about this game:
*Endorsement are still kind of wacky. They are first come, first serve, so players have to grab them as soon as possible so their rival doesn't. (And the computer AI will very much so grab them up quick.) Basically, you have to build a specific type of HQ to generate Clout, and Clout lets you purchase Endorsements...but once all the Endorsements are taken, those HQs are practically worthless. (They do provide a small awareness bonus, but it's certainly not worth the expense.) It just seems kind of useless to spend all your money at the beginning of the game, grab as many endorsements as you can as quick as you can, and then dump the HQs you just built. I realize that's how it plays out in real life, but it seems like another use for Clout could have been creates so that part of the game wasn't worthless after turn 10. It seems like there could be a better system.
*Fundraising is kind of lame. It's easy--you just press "Fundraise" and money comes in--and the game makes the pretense that having high polls and awareness will bring in more cash. In reality, you go to California to fundraise. The "wealth" of a state determines, in part, how much you get, and California is so rich (in game terms) there's very little reason not to just tap it every time--all other factors combined will never make any other state bring in more than California. The more often you fundraise in a state the less it provides, but even at half rate California pulls in more cash than pretty much any other state. It's possible to tap into New York or Texas late in the game and grab more cash, but that's very rare. It doesn't break the game, it just seems like a missed opportunity.
*The interviews are no-brainers. You are supposed to get a selection of responses based on your Intelligence, but it's always blatantly easy to pick the "correct" statement. A little more work could be put into this, I believe.

As a side note, this is the third Political Machine game that Stardock has released--they've done 2004, 2008, and now 2012. There was a pretty big change between 2004 and 2008, but the move from 2008 to 2012 is very small. In fact, if you already own 2008, I'd be hard pressed to recommend 2012 to you--the issues have been updated, but the gameplay and 80% of the candidates are identical. Unless you have a burning desire to play Herman Cain or praise "Obamacare" instead of "Health Care," you are safe in not purchasing the game if you already have 2008.

Overall, however, this is a good game that you're not going to pay a lot for. If you are in the least bit interested in the campaign this season--or really just want to not listen to the election coverage at all and run your fantasy scenarios in your head--it's really worth it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How NBC, Twitter, and the Olympics Do An Awesome Job Of Proving How I'm Always Right

Well, it's Olympics time, and so the media coverage will saturate our national--nay, world--discourse for about two weeks or so. In addition to the normal news about the Olympics, there's always some sort of news about the Olympics, and this year's games are no different. However, most of the news generally point to how times have changed, and how people who haven't been paying attention need to.

The Olympics:  I'm not a fan of the Olympics. Nothing wrong with it, I guess; under normal circumstances I'm always in the mood for some heartening jingoism and cutthroat competition, so combining the two in a literal worldwide spectacle you would think would be my cup of tea. And yet it isn't. Mostly because I don't really care about any of the sports--or competitions, really, since most aren't team-based competitive sports. I watched the hockey team last time. But basketball is pretty useless--we all know who's going to win--and while I don't care for it I can see why people watch things like gymnastics or ice staking. Even ones I think I'm going to like, such as water polo, end up being boring. I think it's mostly because we don't really recognize any of the people (the bane of being amateurs--sorry, "amateurs") except for the ones that NBC force-feeds us into liking by showing tear-jerking profiles of right before the competition (and then shove a camera in their face when they lose). Aside from previous winners I don't know the names, and we won't know all but a handful afterwards, so I don't have any connection to who wins or loses outside of rank nationalism. There has to be a better setup.

Twitter and Social Media: While it certainly was a presence in Vancouver and even Beijing, social media has really caught the Olympics in the crossfire this year. It's probably more pronounced due to the time zone; in Canada, it was roughly the same as the United States, and Beijing was so far off of Eastern time no one really expected live feeds. This year, however, people are tweeting about the games as they happen, but the games (or, rather, the highlights) themselves aren't being broadcast here in the US until five hours later. So anyone who has access to social media has the outcome spoiled--and without access to watching it any other way (see below) there's no way to avoid it without avoiding social media altogether. This meshing of old media and new is not producing a particularly popular outcome, even though combining the two would be the perfect content model for such a large event. There will have to be some way to integrate the two in order for future Olympics to be more successful--although, again, see below.

NBC: NBC owns the coverage of the Olympics for the United States, and they've received a significant amount of  negative press concerning how they've handled the coverage. Some of it is, indeed, valid--they handled skipping the 7/7 tribute sloppily even if they were in the right (supposedly they weren't told it was a memorial tribute, and given the esoteric nature of the opening ceremonies it wasn't exactly blatantly evident) and they've been heavy-handed about dealing with detractors (see Adams, Guy). It's even spawned a hashtag trend--#nbcfail.  However, it's become evident that the old media model (one broadcaster making all the decisions about how to air everything) won't work, even though the old media model is the only one who has the resources to produce the Olympics in the first place. People who think that somehow the networks are dinosaurs in the business world don't know what they are talking about--there's no way Facebook or Yahoo could have produced anywhere near the amount of content that NBC has. Still, NBC's inexplicable tight leash--they have like 20 stations and they can't air the games live on any of them?--is frustrating people. So while there is room for improvement--finding a decent compromise between tape-delay and live feeds, and making a more spoiler-free presence on the Internet--there's one overriding fact that detractors are willfully forgetting: the ratings so far have far exceeded any previous Olympics. And that's really all the matters.