The Pork Board Saga

The following is a compilation of some of the emails sent back and forth during my war with the National Pork Board over my Cafepress T-Shirt “Vegetarians: The Other White Meat” and their objection to my conflation of cannibalism and pork. Sadly, Cafepress has no sense of humor or desire to get between potential litigants, so they pulled the design even though the Pork Board (kind of) backed down (partially).

Jennifer Collins,

Recently, your office requested from Cafepress.com the cessation of my use of the slogan “Vegetarians: The Other White Meat” on t-shirts and bumperstickers provided by my site Crankmonkeys. While I appreciate your employer’s need to protect their trademarks, unfortunately this claim does not meet the requirements of Title 15, Chapter 22, Subchapter I, § 1051 of the Federal statue governing the use of trademarks:

1. The term “The Other White Meat” is a humorous, satirical expression, and as such falls under the protection of parody and similar such works by the First Amendment. See: L.L. Bean, Inc. v. Drake Publishers, Inc., 811 F.2d 26, 28 (1st Cir. 1987) and Hormel Foods Corp. v. Jim Henson Prods., 73 F.3d 497 (2d Cir. 1996).

2. The term “The Other White Meat” as a humorous, satirical expression relating to human meat significantly pre-dates the Pork Board’s adoption of the slogan in question. Specifically, the Pork industry’s usage of the slogan in question dates to only as recently as 1987, whereas the use of the expression relating to human meat significantly predates 1987. The trademark, thus, is arguably not even valid in the first place, and certainly not when applied to anything other than pork.

3. The term “Vegetarians: The Other White Meat” might be protected if the Pork Board’s primary business was selling humorous t-shirts and bumperstickers. As its primary business is promoting the over consumption of massive amounts of greasy bacon dripping with cholesterol inducing heart attacks, there is no legal conflict.

4. The term “The Other White Meat” as used by the Pork Board is a trademark, and as such only applies to the use of said trademark as applied to the specific area of commerce engaged in by the Pork Board. Unless the Pork Board has expanded its promotion of food from pork into the area of the consumption of human flesh, there is no commercial conflict, and thus no possible claim of trademark privilege.

Given the clarity of the legal statutes that in this case completely undermine your assertion, a lack of any adequate response on your part should constitute an acknowledgement of the idiocy of your claim, permitting Cafepress.com to reenable the use of my own intellectual property – Vegetarians: The Other White Meat.

Thank you very much,
Geoff Tuffli
Operator of Crankmonkeys on http://www.cafepress.com/crankmonkeys

Dear Mr. Tuffli,

Thank you for your message. Without debating the merits of whether there is likelihood of confusion in this case (we believe there is), due to the National Pork Board’s extensive promotion and advertisement of a family of marks built around THE OTHER WHITE MEAT®, National Pork Board’s trademark THE OTHER WHITE MEAT® is a famous trademark. Thus, your use of the slogan “Vegetarians: The Other White Meat” blurs the distinctiveness of and tarnishes the mark THE OTHER WHITE MEAT®. Therefore, we maintain our position that your use of the slogan “Vegetarians: The Other White Meat” constitutes an unlawful dilution of our clients rights and supports our client’s demand that you cease use of the subject slogan.

Sincerely yours,
Jennifer Collins

Ms. Collins,

Likelihood of confusion, while entertaining to debate, is in any regard the secondary issue. The primary issue is that even if a court were to agree that there was a chance of confusion (which I still maintain does not meet legal standards), there is the issue of satire.

The courts have consistently and repeatedly upheld that satire trumps trademark claims. Is your position that “Vegetarians: The Other White Meat” does not constitute satire? If so, please state your legal reasoning, or drop this issue.

Thank you,
Geoff Tuffli

Dear —-

As you are aware, this law firm represents the National Pork Board in connection with its intellectual property rights.

Given our prior correspondance and that you have advised us that you have made minimal, if any, use of the slogan “Vegetarians: The Other White Meat”, we have decided not to take further action at this time. Please be advised that should circumstances change, the National Pork Board reserves all its rights, including the right to pursue various claims against you.

Any further correspondance in connection with this matter should be addressed to me.

Sincerely yours,

Measuring Polity Induction and Disintegration

Sociodynamics is a discipline that frustrates our desire to apply empirical systems of measurement to it. Despite science’s sometimes embarrassing love affair with quantitative data to the exclusion of all other descriptive modes, empirical measurement is in fact incredibly useful at explicitly measuring the change and rate of change (delta) of phenomenon.

One of the great questions sociodynamics has always sought to answer is how political entities (polities) accrue and lose power; that is, what are the factors determining how and when a civilization or empire rises to power or disintegrates into pieces?

The why and how parts of this equation are larger questions, but here let’s examine how we might measure this. If we can empirically measure the breadth of a polity against time and its neighbors, we have an interesting tool towards understanding the larger patterns of civilization and empire induction and disintegration.

There are a number of ways one might choose to measure the expanse and potency of a polity:

  • Population
  • Q Score
  • Geographic area
  • GNP or GDP
  • Per capita GNP or GDP
  • Capacity to project military force
  • …others

For the view of the particular analysis (view in this sense means the context; for example, “polity induction and disintegration in Sub-Saharan Africa from 1950 to 2010”) different of these (or other) aspects may be more or less relevant. Similarly, scaling values should be normalized based on the view; if there is excessive static, measurements based on standard deviations may prove useful at filtering out noise born out of background variation.

Finally, while there is value in absolute estimations for all of these values, ultimately geopolitics is a subjective game, so additional normalization to the various means for each of these values for each time increment will give values that describe a polity’s relative strength in addition to a polity’s absolute strength.

The Makings of the MMO Microtransaction Model in the West

League of Legends

From the Wikipedia article on virtual goods and microtransactions:

[Microtransactions] are non-physical objects purchased for use in online communities or online games. Digital goods, on the other hand, may be a broader category including digital books, music, and movies. Virtual goods have no intrinsic value and are intangible by definition.

The last several years has witnessed a titanic realignment of revenue strategies in the Massively Multiplayer Online game domain.

For the better part of the last twenty years the dominant paradigm has been that of a subscription model. Asian MMOs, in large part driven by very different playstyles centering around Internet cafes, were the first to aggressively pursue an alternate model – microtransactions. Instead of charging a flat monthly subscription fee, this new model relied instead on innumerable smaller charges.

Some of these microtransactions were (and are) cosmetic or convenience charges, but many are, flatly, pay-for-power. In extreme cases, these microtransactions are de facto necessary to achieve success in the game. Through all of this, generally only about 10% of players in free-to-play (F2P) microtransaction-driven games ever pay a dime, it should be noted; the tactic is to make up for this in sheer volume, as F2P and modern provisioning games via online download mean a very low barrier to entry.

North America and Europe were much more reluctant to embrace this model, essentially fearing Western audiences would never accept the model. Back around 2009, Turbine’s Dungeons & Dragons Online was on a steady slide towards irrelevance as subscriptions were withering. Turbine made the radical – some might say desperate – gamble to convert DDO to a free-to-play (F2P) microtransaction model. The results frankly staggered the industry, with some reports suggesting that DDO increased its revenues ny as much as four times from pre-F2P revenues.

Money talks. Since Turbine’s gamble, the Western development market has undergone a sea change, with a majority of new MMOs being F2P, and even those that are not are increasingly relying on microtransactional revenue. What once was taboo and later became a sign of a failing game has essentially become convention with games relying on a subscription rapidly becoming outliers.

Since Turbine’s conversion of DDO to a F2P microtransaction model other games such as League of Legends (pictured above) have aggressively refined the model in the West, not to mention the burgeoning market in Facebook and mobile social games that overwhelmingly rely on similar models.

There remains resistance in the West to the F2P microtransaction model, in particular in the area of what is derisively referred to as “Pay to Win”, but more accurately should be described as “Pay for Power”. The more conservative elements of the industry have skirted this, frequently claiming to only charge for convenience and cosmetics (though many of these claims are frankly dubious).

The reality, however, is that while players are certainly willing to pay for convenience and cosmetics, these things alone struggle to bring in the revenue necessary to support a good-sized MMO development team without supplementary revenue from box sales (essentially the approach Guild Wars 2 is taking) or subscription sales in addition to microtransactions (the World of Warcraft approach).

Despite the backlash, however, there is already emerging data suggesting that the resistance is more nuanced than first appeared. Setting aside convenience and cosmetic microtransactions, there remain certain types of microtransactions that are both successful and acceptable to a majority of F2P gamers.

First, and probably most importantly, players rightfully resent double-dipping. If a player pays a subscription, they tend to be hostile to the prospect of nickel and diming with microtransactions that affect gameplay. Players are somewhat more tolerant of microtransactions on top of box sales, but the most acceptable model incorporating microtransactions is the model that relies solely on microtransactions; as a general rule, the microtransaction model does not play nicely with the other kids.

Second, players are generally willing to accept accelerants in the form of experience point boosts, gold/Magic Find boosts, even direct pay for resources such as is done with Star Trek Online‘s duty officer system. Technically, all of these things are in fact Pay for Power, but because the items purchased tend to be somewhat abstracted, they are more comfortably accepted by most players. (Also included in this category are skill or talent respecs).

Third, so long as there is some way – no matter how obscure, difficult or time consuming – to obtain a benefit in game, players are generally willing to accept its inclusion as a microtransaction, essentially considering it a sort of convenience cost since it is technically possible to acquire the benefit in game.

Fourth, players are generally comfortable to accept microtransactions that proffer tactical options that are different, but not necessarily superior to other options obtainable for free in the game. For example, ships, character classes, powers that have different – even with unique gameplay – but still numerically comparable effects are readily accepted, provided the playerbase accepts the differences as being truly comparable, something that can be a definite design challenge.

Fifth and finally, it is possible to offer Pay for Power items that are very marginally better – say, up to 10-15% superior to other items and benefits otherwise acquirable in game – that will be accepted, albeit more reluctantly. This last method does not tend to upset balance in a terribly significant way as measured statistically, but it does result in more pushback from players than the first four methods. Counterbalancing this, this final approach is by far the most profitable type of transaction with the lone exception of lockboxes/grab bags, something I will go into in a later article.

In terms of revenue, the F2P microtransaction strategy has injected new life into an industry that has been struggling as the world economy has tanked. In this case, necessity was indeed the mother of invention, and the result has been a complete realignment of the industry in the West. Despite remaining distrust, the fact remains that a large number of games that otherwise would have folded still live due to various microtransaction strategies.

There have been a lot of missteps along this path, and there remains quite a ways still to go, but it is possible now to see the beginnings of a set of approaches that will both allow for sustainable revenue in the Western market using microtransaction models, while also avoiding alienating a majority of players.

Counting Heartbeats

It would make a wave
But that time should swallow
Gone like this breath
Into winter’s sour hollow

Those hands wrapped in red
Their heads held aloof
Faces like mirrors
Eyes unburnt in their umber

Tell me, you poets,
Why the river beckons
Why the grey here lies warm
And the grave so gentle?

With tendons cut free and
Strumming a raucous tune
The cacophony of the drowned
Answers with a Greek chorus

So my sisters watch
With listless eyes
Counting heartbeats
To my death

The Western Experiment in the Supremacy of Individual Rights

Historical perspective can be inconvenient. Anthropological perspective, even more so.

Societies rely upon a bedrock and hierarchy of foundational values. Some of these values are fairly universal – things like, “Don’t kill members of your own group,” and “Help members of your own group” and similar values are basic values in any society’s toolbox.

Other values, however, are more complex, and of these some of the most interesting of these are the values of individual rights and community rights. While these are not necessarily in conflict, the reality is they frequently are. Whenever a decision between the good and rights of the individual and the good and rights of the larger community are in conflict, that society’s unwritten rulebook of its ethos defines what that society determines to be the moral viewpoint.

But let’s back up for a minute.

Most of us will remember from high school the basics of natural selection; replication error in DNA results in periodic mutation. Most of these mutations are unhelpful or malign, but some are by chance beneficial for the environment the organism exists in. (This last part is far too frequently forgotten; as the physical or social environment itself changes or the organism moves to a new physical or social environment, what is “ideally adaptive” will similarly alter. In other words, the rules are always changing. Kinda sucks for all of us organisms, but nobody promised us this would be easy.)

Organisms that mutation have made better adaptive for the physical or social environment they exist in will – on average and over the long haul – live longer and breed more offspring, thus tilting both the genepool and memepool in those respective directions. Note the use of “physical or social” environment and “genepool and memepool” in the preceding; mutation and natural selection operate at the level of culture and society as well as the physical. In the case of culture and society the underlying mechanic is not DNA replication, but it involves the same kind of replication error as we use the imperfection of abstraction and language to communicate to other people ideas, those ideas mutating and changing, dying or thriving, depending upon the social environments their hosts (us) find themselves in.

So going back to values, and in particular the values of individual rights and community rights, where these conflict, which of these two are ascendent?

Throughout history and the anthropological record the overwhelming answer has been: Community Rights. This doesn’t mean these societies don’t care about the individual’s rights, but it does mean that in the event of conflict, the general rule is that what is best for the community as a whole is what that society will judge to be the moral decision, even if that means harm to an individual. From a sociodynamic point of view this makes sense; memes flourish when their hosts flourish, and hosts of organized societies capable of large-scale collective action towards focused purposes will almost always cream hosts in less-organized societies.

Western civilization – and at the extreme end of this, North American society – has over time migrated to the opposite extreme. The United States Bill of Rights sets the stage for this, delineating the rights of the individual that the state (that is, the formal representation of society) in theory must respect.

This is not a bad thing, in truth, since in the conventional approach of community rights over individual rights has a tendency to purge itself of square pegs that will not fit into round holes. When I say “this is not a bad thing” I am not making a moral judgment but a functional judgment; square pegs are a society’s equivalent of DNA replication error – mutation. Square pegs are the primary engine for creating new ideas, new processes and new mechanics without which a society will lack adaptive options in the event of social crisis. (Though it should be noted, just as with DNA replication error, most square pegs are useless or even malign; this is the price for the tiny percentage of effective adaptations.)

In the case of extreme valuation of community rights over individual rights, the result is over-homogenization, meaning such societies will be resource poor in the area of adaptive options. In the case of extreme valuation of individual rights over community rights, the result is over-heterozation, meaning such societies will be so rich in adaptive options and so poor in unifying societal elements that such societies will tend to be paralyzed by gridlock and infighting.

Individuals pay a price in both of these extreme scenarios as well. In the case of societies that value community rights to an extreme degree, eccentricity is punished and immigrant groups that can bring vast reservoirs of new adaptive social mutations are viewed with suspicion and marginalized. Society loses, to be sure, but the individuals lose even more.

In the case of societies that value individual rights to an extreme degree, individuals are trained to view their purpose and life solely at an internal level. The question, “Who am I?” becomes inevitably an internal exercise divorced of the subjective relationships that define that ultra-social species we call humanity. The cliche of the midlife crisis and the “finding yourself” are born out of this.

I am not saying that the internal level should not be a consideration – I am a serious introvert who finds talking to strangers on the phone a distasteful exercise, after all – but what I do think is too often forgotten in the currently dominant North American society is that we humans are closer to ants in our socialization than we are to wolves or sheep; we are not social – we are ultra-social. We rely on abstraction and reciprocity to generate social structures that allow us as a species to harness vast and powerful engines. In other words, while an individual certainly has an internal component, even the most introverted and isolated of us is a social being defined as much by our relationships to other individuals and abstract ideologies and groups as we are defined by our genetic code and personal experiences.

The culmination of this experiment in the supremacy of individual rights has resulted in some truly great things. We cherish the individual’s right to self-expression fanatically resulting in an unprecedented reservoir of potentially adaptive social mechanisms. We protect individuals that in most societies throughout history would have been stamped out, exiled or systemically crushed. Whatever we as a society do, it is not in our interest either as individuals or as a society to see these triumphs curtailed.

The downside of this experiment, however, is something we are all too familiar with: we live in a society today that is rent with divisions, our support networks are fragmented and ephemeral, our ability to create effective collective action is laughable. These issues are present at national levels, but they are also evident all the way down to our family structures and kith networks. Certainly, we humans are an adaptable bunch, and we have come up with all sorts of clever mechanisms to compensate for this – witness the radical rise of social media, distributed subcultures and fictive kinship networks – but the reality is that these mechanisms have not been sufficient. We, as individuals and as a larger society and a collection of distributed subcultures, are paying the price for this.

Somehow, we need to modify this noble experiment, reincorporating the better parts of a cultural valuation for community goods without losing the victories we have fought so hard to attain. The only other option is the partial or total disintegration of this experiment in the supremacy of individual rights, inevitably with many of its benefits.

Comic-Con: Designing a Better Mousetrap (Line)

I love San Diego Comic-Con.

Every year, the geek subculture begins a pilgrimage to the bloated San Diego Convention Center. Every year, there comes that inevitable hard decision…drive or fly? And, every year, there comes the lines.

Endless lines. Lines you wait in for hours and still probably can’t see that impossible-to-get-into Game of Thrones or Firefly Reunion panel. The worst part about it is the waste. People wait for hours to get into a hall to see one, two or even three panels they have no interest in seeing, just to save a seat for a panel halfway through the program schedule. Hours are wasted doing nothing but sitting in line, sometimes fruitlessly.

Now, this year, I was working the Gazillion kiosk showing off the in-development video game Marvel Heroes in a tiny corner of the sprawling Marvel booth, and that meant no panels for me. I did, in fact, have a couple of time slots open, but not two back-to-back, meaning my chances of getting into one of those highly-coveted panels was unfortunately somewhere close to 0 degrees Kelvin.

This got me to thinking, though. What would it take build a better mousetrap, or rather, come up with a better system for handling lines?

I am a lot of things, but naive isn’t one of them; I know full well Comic-Con itself has wrestled with the problem repeatedly, as have people much smarter than I. Still, as a designer, I can’t resist the challenge of coming up with something that is both realistic and effective at alleviating at least some of the issues the current system struggles with.

The Ballroom 20 Plan
The first thing to consider as a designer is the importance of iteration. Grand, sweeping plans are fun, but they require lots of iteration, and the granularity for opportunities of iteration (once a year), as well as the cost of mistakes (hundreds of thousands of dollars), means that starting small is the way to go. Start a pilot program, see what happens, adjust, re-try next year, then expand if it winds up working out, or scrap if it doesn’t.

San Diego Comic-Con has a lot of rooms dedicated to programming (in con-speak, this means panels). Some are mid-sized, some are monstrous. The very largest is the Hall H auditorium, and its lines are the things of legends. Still, it actually isn’t the hardest line to get through, simply because its capacity is as epic as its lines. The hardest line to get through is actually the next largest hall, Ballroom 20.

Ballroom 20 is very large, but since the number of highly-sought after panels is more than Hall H can handle, it means the overflow hits Ballroom 20, and Ballroom 20 is generally hopeless to get into short of a four hour – or worse – wait.

Okay, no really, now the Ballroom 20 Plan…

  • Of the total capacity, set aside a section of seats. Let’s keep it small, say 15%, and put it towards the front (though these should only ever cover about 50% of the frontage). These are good seats, in other words.
  • When you pay for your pass online and the programming for Ballroom 20 is revealed, you go to a webpage that lists the programming for Ballroom 20 for each day. Here, beside each panel, you have the option of putting in a maximum bid for one of these premium seats. In other words, you say to yourself, “Yeah, I’d pay an extra $50 to make sure I get into that My Little Pon…er, I mean, Transformers panel.”
  • Every so often the system calculates, looks at the number of premium seats for each panel and the number and price of bids, and posts both the current minimum bid to get a premium seat and sends an email out to everyone who bid with whether they qualify for the seat.
  • At this point, people can rebid until a cut-off point as determined by logistical needs.
  • The day of, the premium seats are roped off and cleared between panels.
  • You walk to the front of the line before the panel starts, your badge is scanned, and if your badge matches, they let you in. No waiting. No fuss. Comic-Con gets more income. A section of the hardest core is sated, meaning the overall line is smaller.

Lottery Seats
The second step of this plan would be to have a second set of seats set aside. These are “Lottery Seats”. When you get your pass and the programming is locked, you can sign up for a set number of panels – probably one or two – that you want to be entered into the lottery for.

Once the bidding is closed, the lottery seat winners are notified by email, and the winners can walk up and get in the same way the premium seat holders can.

How does this scale?
As you want to scale the system, you simply increase the number of premium and lottery seats. You probably also don’t want these numbers to hit 100%, leaving some room for those few who didn’t win the lottery and don’t want to pay extra but are willing to wait in line anyways.

People “pay” in different ways under this system. You pay in money for a premium seat, or you pay for a chance by registering for the panel early, or you pay in time waiting on standby.

Due to the need for a standby line, this won’t entirely get rid of the line, but it should drastically reduce it, since as the percentage of premium plus lottery seats go up, people will know what their chances actually are and won’t want to waste their time.

Problems

  1. Programming must be set early. This has always been a problem for Comic-Con, as the schedule is usually in flux until very late.
  2. Under this system clearing sections, and possibly eventually the whole hall, is necessary. Clearing halls means more security (which could probably be paid for with the premium seat system), but more importantly it means more time is necessary between panels. Clearing a hall like Ballroom 20 is non-trivial, and clearing a hall like Hall H is enough to induce epileptic seizures in organizers. This is doable, but it would reduce the number of panels.

The biggest thing that probably can’t be avoided under this system is a reduction in the number of panels. Personally, I think this is worth it, as I believe the current system for panels is broken, but others might legitimately disagree.

Anyone have any clever ideas to alleviate the hall clearing problem?