Archive for April, 2010

Virtual Money

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

In City of Heroes, it’s called influence or prestige. In Aion, it’s called kinah. In the World of Warcraft, it’s called gold. In Second Life, it is called Linden Dollars or just Lindens. In the “real world” we call it money.

There’s a saying “money doesn’t grow on trees”. And it is true, of course. Money is not something you find in nature (unless someone dropped it). Money is a uniquely human invention; bird and bees and dolphins and cats and monkeys do not have this dream, this concept of money. I can think of one exception: our family dog discovered that if she grabbed plastic bottle caps and other things we did not want her to have for safety reasons, she could trade them to us for dog biscuits. She had, in effect developed dog money, a medium of exchange.

In the early history of our species, people or groups gathered and hunted their own food. Edible plants and animals were there for anyone who wanted to invest the time and energy into acquiring them. Primitive clothing and tools, likewise, were commonly made by all individuals. Then we discovered specialization. Some people made better stone knives. Some were better at hunting. Some were better at gathering (and later growing) crops.

Early on, the barter system developed, in which people good at making one commodity traded it to others for some of what they could make, so that everyone in theory could have everything they needed, without needing to make everything for themselves. And specialization flourished and led to the creation of better and better tools, clothing, weapons, homes, etc.

At some point, however, we developed the concept of money: arbitrary symbols for goods and services. These counters, of course, these symbols, had to be a finite resource. Seashells might seem like a good idea to use for money, but then anyone could make a short visit to the beach and have as much as they wanted. So the early money became weights of precious metals. At first, there were no coins at all, merely lumps or molded pieces of copper, silver, and gold — the pretty and pretty rare metals. Ooooh, shiny! instead of paying workers in food, you could give them some copper, and they could then trade the copper to a farmer for some food. The farmer then trades the copper for some tools or livestock or seeds. And so on.

At some point we finally realized that we didn’t have to carry actual gold around. We could, instead, carry around colored pieces of paper that, in theory, stood for a standard amount of gold or silver. Now, we don’t even have to carry paper. We carry plastic cards with magnetic strips on them that allow access to bank accounts in which one and zeroes on hard drives stand for amounts of money people “have”.

Back to virtual space. Art imitates life, and so many virtual worlds there is this concept of money. In World of Warcraft, for example, you can gather resources like metal ore, herbs, or cloth, and trade or sell it for in-world currency. I like to use WoW as an example, because it uses the familiar and historic currencies of copper, silver and gold, as I grew up using using pennies and dimes, which originally were made of copper and silver, but nowadays are made of cheaper alloys.

Virtual worlds have virtual economies. Many, like WoW, have auction houses or marketplaces where players can sell resources, food, weapons, armor clothing, and tools to each other to acquire the world’s money, whoch they can then use to buy better weapons or armor etc for themselves. It adds a degree of verisimilitude (realism) to the online gaming. You can acquire skills and make things to sell, and as you become more skilled you can make better things (which require better ingredients) to sell for more money. Rarer things cost more money; common things are cheap. People have have even suggested that these online games/worlds should be used to teach people basic principles of economics like the principle of supply and demand. One fellow whose Warcraft advice I watch related how he had bought up a large number of swords when he learned that WoW was going to change the rules to allow a certain type of player to dual-wield (hold a sword in each hand)….which would greatly increase the demand for swords. He subsequently sold off his inventory of swords for a tidy profit. Buy low, sell high. If the customer does not know where to get your product cheaper (or is too lazy or too impatient to look elsewhere) you can acquire money by selling things for more than you bought them for. Some items, like metal ore or medicinal herbs, are “free” if you spend the time gathering them instead of fighting. In that case, the price you sell them for factors in their scarcity and how much you value your time.

A contraversy arises when real and virtual worlds overlap. It’s called gold farming. Some people play the games merely to acquire the virtual currency, which they then sell to other players in exchange for real world money. The common stereotype is that gold farmers are all Chinese, which is of course not true….but many of them are. the fact of the matter is that gold farming will not get you millions of real world dollars…but if you live in a country where food is not expensive, gold farming might earn enough to feed your family, and then some. So many people in, shall we say, economically disadvantaged regions, have bought computers, paid for internet connections, and begun playing games as a job, to support themselves and their families.

Many online games consider this activity to be a violation of their Terms of Service. The idea is that people should have to earn their own game gold, not buy it with a credit card. Well, of course, your friends or guild mates are allowed to share the results of their labors with you…and guild banks are set up to allow members of the guild to deposit and withdraw game gold from these banks. But that’s not the same as gold farming, is it?

And here is where the angry shouting begins. The game owners, who developed these virtual worlds for us to play in (and for us to pay them for the privilege of playing in) feel that they have a right to prohibit gold farming because they feel it interferes with the in-game economy. If I go to a certain website and buy 5,000 WoW gold, for example, then I can afford to pay more for items in the Auction House, outbidding other players, and driving up the prices of things. To the gaming purist, this is unethical and unfair, because it means people who have more money in the real world get to acquire stuff in the virtual world that poorer players might have to work very hard to be able to afford. Want a flying carpet, a flaming sword, or a mighty gun? Just buy the gold with a credit card and scoop up your coveted item when it comes up for auction.

Okay, there is a point there. By mixing real-world and virtual-world economics, we destroy the egalitarian ideal that in the virtual world everyone has to work for what they get. Now it becomes just like the real world, where people born with more money get to have all the best toys and the rest of us have to get by with what we can afford.

But to be fair, let’s consider the opposite viewpoint. If I work hard to earn to earn a lot of game gold without cheating, shouldn’t this virtual money be considered my property, to do with as I choose? To take an example from the real world, if I go to medical school, become a doctor, and work hard to acquire money, are you going to tell me I cannot buy a nice car with it? Of course not. To do so would destroy the incentive to achieve and excel, what some cynically call the greed motive, that drives some people to do what others are not willing or able to do. Maybe it is simplistic, but high-paying professions exist partly because they are high-paying professions.  Money talks, and we all listen.

Back to the gold farming. Is it, in fact, unethical to work hard to earn game gold and then sell it to lazy people for real-world money? Is virtual work somehow less valuable than “real world” work such as knitting or welding or carpentry or farming? If I spent a year making a ornate oriental rug, would you tell me that I am not allowed to sell it because it allows people with money to acquire a rug without sewing one? No? Okay, then if I spent a year building up a character in a virtual world who is a high level character, who has great armor and fighting skills and weapons, are you going to tell me that I do not in fact own that character, and I cannot sell this labor of mine to someone who has money and wants to play a high level character without spending a year making one?

The fact is, these virtual worlds are creating an entirely new medium of crafting. As a species we have developed the arts of pottery, blacksmithing, woodworking, stonecutting, sculpture, painting, and so on, so that people who want to develop the skills can spend their time making rugs, paintings, vases, clothing, tools, etc., which will then exist for the rest of us. Money is our way of compensating artisans for their time spent creating things we want. And virtual worlds have extended this concept. We can now learn how to craft virtual objects such as in-game tools, weapons, armor, buildings and so on. In Second Life some of the biggest sellers are shapes (bodies) skins (that cover the bodies and make them look lifelike), hair (for men as well as ladies) clothing, and buildings such as houses and castles.

Please explain to me the fundamental difference between crafting a sword and crafting a character. Both take time, attention, and energy. Why is it “fair” to sell an imaginary sword, but not an imaginary swordsman? Why is it “fair” to sell real corn I have farmed, but not imaginary gold I have “farmed”? Isn’t it a basic idea in a free marketplace that you can sell whatever people want to buy, if it does not hurt anyone?

Now I am aware that some people cheat. There are programs called “bots” that automate gaming so that you can take a nap while your character gathers stuff to sell. I do not advocate cheating of any kind, anymore than I advocate stealing, fraud, or selling unsafe or dangerous objects or services. If you compete unfairly with your fellow humans, I hope someone catches you and puts a stop to it. But if you create things of value fairly, a large part of me wants to say that you should be allowed to sell them and be compensated for your time.

“Bind not the mouths of the kine that tread the grain.” “The workman is worthy of his hire.” And let’s not forget “an honest day’s wages for an honest day’s work.” Even if it is done in a virtual world, it is still work. And it should be worth something. I do not presume to look down on gold farmers. They are not selling crack, stealing cars, or invading countries. This, of course, is just my opinion. –MRK

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Now You See It: Old Energy

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

It was a hot day today. I told the rental office about my air conditioning, but it still isn’t working.

The light is beginning to fade now, as I write. The cool of the night will come. But even as I grumble about this heat, sitting here in a shirt I dunked in the sink, with a fan blowing on me, I have to say it could be worse. Some photons smacked into asphault and dirt, warming the air around me in this unseasonable weather. But others were captured by chlorophyll in the green alchemies outside my window, making sugar for the plants and releasing oxygen from their water so that we can all breathe. Life will continue, because of sunlight.

We take light for granted. Light is light; it’s just another bland fact of our existence. But not all light is created equal, you know. Take the light from my monitor. Without it, I couldn’t tell if I was spelling these words recognizably. The photons that make it up, little pieces of energy, are emitted from the surface of the screen and fly into my eyes in about a billionth of a second.  It is young light, and lives for only a short time, barely a tick of my 2.8 gigahertz processor’s electric heartbeat.

The light coming in the window, on the other hand, is very old.

Some of you out there in cyberspace may know that the Sun is 93 million miles away, and that light travels about 186,000 miles per second. When you do the division, that means the photons that are coming in my window left the surface of the Sun a little over 8 minutes ago.

But the energy that they carry is not a mere 8 minutes old.

They were born in the heart of the Sun, not on its surface. Atoms of hydrogen were mashed together in unthinkable heat and pressure and combined to make helium, plus the spare energy change of some photons. The Sun isn’t burning hydrogen, although physicists often say that, in a kind of shorthand. If you burn hydrogen, that is, combine it with oxygen, what you get is water. A very different process is going on inside the Sun. Instead of combining atoms to make molecules like water, the Sun is squeezing the smallest atoms (hydrogen) together to make slightly bigger atoms (helium). The light we see by is “merely” a by-product, a side effect of this solar alchemy.

Once a photon is formed in the heart of the Sun, it has to get out of the Sun. You might think this is simple, since photons are fast little buggers. The new-born photon is on its way out, of course; just as every direction you walk away from the north pole takes you south, when you are in the center of the Sun any direction you start off in is heading out. But the Sun is a crowded place. It is filled with hydrogen atoms waiting their turn to be fused into helium. So the photon cannot just fly out of the Sun. Oh, it tries, but in an extremely short time it smacks into one of these atoms and bounces off in a new direction.

After another short interval, it hits another atom and bounces off in another direction. There is no straight path out, you see, because of all of the atoms crowded inside the mass of the Sun. But it keeps trying. Eventually it reaches the surface of the sun, hits the near-vacuum of space, escapes the jostling crowds of atoms, and flies outward, perhaps to reach the Earth 8 minutes later and come in my window.

What most of you may not know is this: the average time it takes a photon to get out of the Sun is 20,000 years.

Yes, that is not a typo. Twenty thousand years. The Sun is a very crowded place. Pardon me, excuse me, please let me by, let me out of here! Imagine tying to get out of a movie theater with a million people in it milling around. Takes a lot longer than walking out of an empty building.

Twenty thousand years. Google, it if you don’t believe me. Of course, that’s an average figure. Some photons make it out in a mere ten thousand years. Some unlucky rascals are stuck in there for a million years. When we do the calculations, taking into account the densities and mean free paths, the average comes out to 20,000 years.

I should have known this a long time ago but I ran into this factoid quite recently. It blew my little mind.

When you look at the pyramids in Egypt, that some say are up to 5,000 years old…..the light you are seeing them with is far, far older. Older than any known civilization. While we have been inventing the wheel, learning how to grow crops, how to smelt copper and tin into bronze, how to write…these photons I am seeing right now were struggling to get out of the Sun. While empires rose and fell, artists painted, armies fought, a thousand generations of humans living and dying on this blue marble we call home….these poor photons were just trying to get out of the Sun.

If they could laugh, they’d laugh at the young photons streaming from my monitor to my retina. “One nanosecond? You call that a lifetime? One measly foot of travel? We’ve been on the fly for twenty thousand years. Good thing we don’t go senile.”

All the sunlight you will ever see was born thousands of years before you took your first breath. It’s been fighting its way out of the Sun for millennia just so you can look at a flower, read a book, ogle an attractive human, or walk your dog.

Think about that sometime. Sunlight is old. And we just take for granted that it will turn up every day like air.

We make our own light, of course. Candles, bonfires, street lamps, monitors, all flinging out their energy into the void, lighting the nights when our bit of the Earth is turned away from the Sun.

But they only put out young light. Our main source of light is the Sun’s ancient light. Sure, starlight takes years to get to us, far longer than the eight minutes sunlight takes. But that light, too, spent thousands of years struggling to get out of some star, so that it could streak through cold vacuum and make our night sky pretty.

We are surrounded by wonders. And they are not all in virtual space. — MRK

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One Way Change

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Hello again. I’m going to make an effort to post more often, because changes keep accelerating and occasional observations just won’t cut it any more.

I have a confession to make. I have a disease. I don’t expect to have it named after me, so I will propose a name: expectationitis. It’s not viral, not bacterial, not even (I think) neurological.

It’s technological. I have it because of technology, and I am willing to bet a lot of you out there are developing it too. Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. I cannot imagine an existence in which we all, like the Na’vi of Avatar’s Pandora, will live in harmony with Nature and go hunting with arrows etc. No. We are homo technologicus – technological mankind.  Forget about h. sapiens — thinking man. Thinking was only the first step in a process that has begun to spin our evolution as a species in unexpected directions.

Oh, yes, I did love the move Avatar. I won’t say a word against it. Like many of you, the idea of living in nature, eschewing the products of technology that cannot be grown but must be manufactured by complex processes, is appealing on many emotional levels. If you don’t have electricity, you never have blackouts. No cars equals no traffic jams. Yes, the lure of simpler times will always be somewhere in our subconscious.

But we cannot do it. Our history as a species contains a number of one-way changes — changes that once chosen, cannot be un-chosen.

For example, the change from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Animals hunt prey. Bees gather pollen. People farm. We used to hunt animals and gather fruits and vegetables for food. Then some genius discovered that if you plant seeds and care for the growing plants, it is pretty easy to gather them when they are ripe. Likewise, we realized that by collecting animals that were still alive and keeping them that way, we could get them to make more of themselves and collect a renewable percentage of them instead of taking our chances hunting. Gathering was replaced by farming and hunting was replaced by herding.

And we cannot go back to being hunter-gatherers. Millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of humans would starve to death. We are now irrevocably dependent upon farms and herds to supply enough food (for that percentage of the Earth’s population we can effectively deliver it to). Think about it. Some of you might be farmers, growing your own food (and mine too, and thank you for that). But most of you are not. For most humans these days, the activity of gathering means going to a store where food is sold and handing over a portion of your wages for it. And of course we love to complain about the cost of food and how it always seems to rise. But if each of us had to hunt our own food, gather our own fruit, as we used to in the “good old days”, we would not have much time to do anything else. Although we rarely remember it, the fact that the many are fed by the work of a few frees that many to do other things, like build buildings, care for the sick, teach the young, and, of course, to have the time to do research, to discover new ways of doing things. Thank you, farmers, for without you and what you do, I would have little time to spend doing non-survival-related things like writing this blog. Instead, I would be busy trying to manage to survive from day to day.

The shift from hunter-gatherer to farmer-herder was a one-way change. We cannot go back, ever. The cost would be too high, in lives and in the quality of life.

And once many of us were freed from hunting and gathering, the rate of change increased. With more free time, we developed mathematics, geometry, metallurgy, chemistry. Animals do not develop these things, because they have to keep doing what they have always done in order to survive. But we did. Which came first, the tool or the brain able to use it? Neither. First came the free time to experiment and discover the possibility of tools.

As many have remarked, humans are amazingly weak in many ways compared to animals. No armor. No claws. No fangs. No wings. No fins. Eyes less sharp than the eagle’s, and hearing less acute than dogs and cats. But we are the dominant species on this planet, because we made up for what we have lost with our technology. Knives replaced claws. Clothes replaced fur. Don’t underestimate the importance of clothes. When I was younger I thought the nudity taboo was archaic and we could do without clothes. I have reconsidered this position, since living in lattitudes that experience winter. I still believe that we should be as unembarassed without clothes as we are without a hammer. Clothes are tools.

Our history, when examined, seems to have numerous examples of one-way change. Once upon a time all we had was walking if we wanted to travel. This limited travel. They say that not so long ago, most people lived their entire lives within a few miles of where they were born. But some of us used out free time to work on better means of motion. Oxcarts. Horses. Then finally, automobiles. How many of you can walk to work, walk to school, or walk to the doctor? For a lot of us, cars are not a luxury. They are a necessity. Cars, in turn, helped give rise to modern cities, in which the majority of those who work in the city do not live there. Cars made possible the commute to work from far outside the city. Could New York as we know it exist without cars? Not without something to replace them. Roads are the arteries that feed the tissue of cities, but there is no heart to pump us in and out. For the time being, we need cars. Try to imagine cities as they are without cars to shlep us in and out of them. We cannot go back to horses, or oxcarts, or walking. It is too far to go.

Communication has experienced a one-way change as well. I grew up watching the transition from rotary dial phones to touch-tone phones. And I thought it was great. It rarely occured to me that a hundred years before I was born there were no phones at all. What a transition that was! Human couriers, printed newspapers, and word-of-mouth gave way to electrical messaging with telegrams and then telephones. Seemingly overnight, telephones changed from curiosities to business essentials. We could never coordinate modern business without them. And we can never go back to a time without them (until, of course, something even better replaces them). Our huge population is dependent upon farming to produce enough food, trucks to get it from farms to stores, cars to get it from stores to homes. And phones to coordinate deliveries.

When my father was a boy, a man riding a horse-drawn cart delivered blocks of ice that people used to keep their food from spoiling. There were no refridgerators. For the rest of his life he referred to our fridge as the “icebox”….because when he was young, that’s what it was: a box with a block of ice in it that kept the food cold as it melted. And that ice had to be delivered over and over, or food would spoil. Try to imagine your life without refridgerators. Yes, I have been to “ice-cream socials” where ice cream was produced in hand-cranked devices using salted ice to lower the temperature of the cream enough to make it into ice cream. Without the invention of the refridgerator, that woud be the only way you would ever taste ice cream. And without the refridgerator, imagine how different the supermarkets we depend on would be! Sure, some kinds of food don’t spoil at room temperature. But do you want to live on oatmeal?

Back to my disease: expectationitis. I took a class in medical terminology once. When they put “itis” on the end of a word is means “inflammation”, i.e., a condition in which some part of the body is reddened by extra blood sent there to deal with an infection or something. Bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchi in the lungs. Appendicitis is an enflamed appendix. Sinusitis is inflammation of the sinuses. And so on.

I call my disease expectationitis because my expectations have become enflamed. It is caused by technology. And it is probably irreversible. My microwave oven has changed my food preparation expectations. I expect food to be cooked in a minute or two (or 3, for popcorn). My air conditioning has led me to expect that I will not sweat in the summertime unless I am trying to. I do not expect to freeze to death, thanks to my central heating. And this trend is continuing and accelerating. I finally noticed it when I began to scream at my computer when a web page would not load in less than 15 seconds. Has my patience withered away, under the onslaught of technology that delivers everything faster, cheaper, easier? I now experience real stress with a page loads slowly. It is as hard for me to watch a slow web page load as it would be to watch a flower open in its natural snail’s pace. I often end up closing my eyes for slow web pages, because it just drives me crazy to watch something that is not changing fast enough to entertain me. As dull as watching paint dry.

Now that I am aware of my affliction, I will try to find ways to cope. But there is no cure in sight. Who wants to go back to only printed news? Who wants to spend hours cooking a single meal? Who wants to spend hours making their own clothes, hunting down tonight’s dinner, walking to work? We cannot go back. We are embarked on a one-way journey into the future. This road only goes forward.

Will fiber-optic internet, faster computers, cure this problem?  No. It is like a drug that makes you always want more.  The faster it gets, the less patient we become, and the faster we need it to be in order to not go crazy. Instant gratification is not just a buzzword in the Information Age — it is an ever-growing demand. Expectation-itis. Gimme my microwaved pizza and my refridgerated pop-top soda so I can eat while I surf the Net for news, while I play an online MMORPG in another window on my computer, whose heart beats a billion times as fast as my own, pumping ones and zeroes to my monitor so I can see the explosions, and to my headset so I can hear calls for help from my team mates and the roars of attacking monsters. Show me my email NOW, before my bladder explodes. Hurry, get my bid in to eBay, my order in to Amazon.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. I would not dream of living without it. But as we drive faster and faster down the information highway into the technological cornocopia of human imagination, maybe we need rest stops to pull over and take a minute to smell the flowers. As life gets faster, maybe for our own sanity we need to preserve our ability to experience slow things. There is more to life than quickies.  –MRK

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