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Review of Driverless from MIT Press

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Title: Driverless

Authors: Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-262-03522-4

Length: 328

Price: $29.95

Rating: 94%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Research and development of driverless cars has reached the popular press over the past few years, but until now attempts to frame the debate have remained in the specialty press and academic journals. In Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman offer a valuable perspective on the technological and policy implications of autonomous vehicles.

Seven Myths

The concept of the driverless car has been around almost as long as the automobile itself, but only in the past few years has the technology underpinning the concept advanced and evolved enough to bring it close to realization. Even so, there is enough disagreement and skepticism to slow the adoption of driverless cars.

Lipson and Kurman organize their narrative around what they call the Seven Delaying Myths that slow advances in driverless car networks:

  1. Autonomous driving technology will evolve out of today’s driver-assist technology
  2. Technological progress is linear
  3. The public is resistant
  4. Driverless cars require extensive investment in infrastructure
  5. Driverless cars represent an ethical dilemma
  6. Driverless cars need to have a nearly perfect driving record to be safe enough
  7. The adoption of driverless cars will be abrupt

I can’t address each point in depth here, but I’ll make a few notes. The second myth, that technological progress is linear, is clearly false. Elementary analyses of networks show that non-linear growth occurs as the number of interconnected members increases. Those connections drive innovation through aggressive idea sharing, competition, and cooperation. The staggering growth of internet technologies and platforms puts this myth to rest easily.

The fourth point, that driverless cars require extensive investment in infrastructure, was true under the completely impractical Electronic Highway paradigm promulgated in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Lane sensors and wires embedded in the road and sensors installed in the cars were prohibitively expensive and required far more computing power than was reasonably available at the time. By 2014, the U.S. government backed research into a paradigm called V2X, where cars exchanged data with other cars, the road, and roadside sensors. Even though the available technologies and processing power were exponentially better than what was available in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the V2X system used a top-down approach where the system, writ broadly, managed each car’s behavior.

One of the authors attended a 2014 U.S. Department of Transportation conference on autonomous vehicles and was astounded to see just a single session of the multi-day event devoted to Google’s self-driving cars and deep learning algorithms. Disagreeing with the DOT’s top-down approach (noted by including the phrase intelligent cars in the book’s subtitle), the authors believe that putting the smarts and sensors in the cars and using the highway’s infrastructure as a series of checkpoints and information relays is the superior solution. I find their argument persuasive. Advances in deep learning and agent-based models let individual vehicles build their skills, which they can combine with other vehicles’ experiences to develop an ever-improving ensemble model through a process the authors call fleet learning.

The Road Ahead

Driverless vehicles have started to appear on American roads, but significant objections remain. What Lipson and Kurman label as Myth #6, that driverless cars need to have a perfect driving record to be safe enough, poses two problems. The first is that it’s easy for critics to move the goal posts. Whatever safety level driverless cars have attained, it’s easy to use the specter of a runaway or hacked vehicle a passenger has no way to control to argue that the cars must be even safer. Second, humans are horrible drivers. According to World Health Organization figures updated in May 2014, 1.2 million people are killed in car accidents worldwide every year.

And yet, even though driverless cars offer the prospect of safer roads, the loss of privacy and autonomy weighs heavily in the balance. While Myth #3, that the public is resistant, is less true than it was, a significant proporation of Americans identify strongly with their car and see it as a way to maintain their freedom. Leaving the driving to a robot would deprive those individuals of an activity they cherish, which is an attitudinal barrier policy makers can’t ignore.

Conclusion

Driverless is an excellent book that offers a systematic and informative narrative on the history, state of the art, and future of driverless cars. Framing the issues through their Seven Myths offers a lens into the rhetoric supporting innovation and adoption of autonomous vehicles. There is much work to do on both the technological and policy sides—Lipson and Kurman’s work contributes meaningfully to that discussion.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 50 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

February 22, 2017 at 10:00 am

Review of Hungry Ghosts, by Stephen Blackmoore

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Title: Hungry Ghosts

Author: Stephen Blackmoore

Publisher: DAW Books

ISBN13: 978-0-756-40941-8

Release: February 7, 2017

Available for purchase from Powell’s, Amazon, or B&N.


I received a free electronic copy of this book for review.

I enjoy urban fantasy, specifically stories that borrow heavily from the film noir and hard-boiled detective genres. Stephen Blackmoore’s Eric Carter novels fit the bill nicely.

Hungry Ghosts is the third installment in the series, following Dead Things and Broken Souls. In Blackmoore’s world, magic relies on a local grid wizards can tap into. The specific expression of that power varies among wizards, with Eric Carter drawn to one of the rarest specialties: necromancer. He is a strong natural talent, but a series of adventures has given him exceptional abilities.

Great strength often comes at great cost, and Carter’s power boost is no exception. The events of the first two books led to his becoming entangled with Santa Muerte, originally known as Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death. “Entangled with” as in “married to.” Mortals pledging themselves to gods can result in significant complications and side effects up to and including fates worse than death, so Carter is properly motivated to take extreme measures to save himself.

The first two novels in the series set up the action in Hungry Ghosts, so I won’t detail the events that put the author’s protagonist in this bind. The action is entertaining and, true to the book’s hard-boiled antecedents, occasionally violent. Okay, fine…you got me: more than occasionally. And yet I never have the feeling that Blackmoore adds violence for its own sake. Instead, frequenting the world of the dead (literally) and carrying around the messed-up baggage that comes with it makes Eric Carter familiar with and capable of delivering death in its various forms.

As an author, Blackmoore writes in a straightforward style that I find engaging. The gritty industrial locations of his mortal criminals’ lairs stand in sharp contrast to the land of the dead and the magical elements present when Aztec gods manifest. The events of Hungry Ghosts takes Eric Carter through regions of existence he had (mostly) heard of but hoped never to traverse. The ongoing exploration of the landscape and Carter’s reaction to it kept me interested throughout. Again, Blackmoore’s direct style serves him well here. He splits his narrative between milieu and character wisely, providing every detail I need to appreciate the challenges of the setting and the consequences of failure while following his protagonist’s thought process as he works through increasingly daunting situations.

I highly recommend Hungry Ghosts and its predecessors, though I do have a couple of caveats given the books’ subject matter and presentation. First, the novels include a fair amount of profanity. I believe the characters’ language, like the violence, is organic to the story, so it doesn’t bother me. Second, readers who shy away from descriptions of bloody crime scenes or casually mentioning a shotgun blast to the back of the knee should pick other books.

I loved all three Eric Carter novels, especially Hungry Ghosts. If you enjoy (or think you might enjoy) urban fantasy, I’m sure you will, too.

Written by curtisfrye

January 7, 2017 at 4:24 pm

Review of Infomocracy, by Malka Older

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Title: Infomocracy

Author: Malka Older

Publisher: Tor.com

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-765-38515-4

Length: 384

Price: $24.99

Rating: 98%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Timing, as they say, is everything. Tor.com releases Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy on June 7, into the teeth of a U.S. presidential election cycle, which is the best possible time for the book to come out. I’m happy to report that both publisher and author make the most of the opportunity.

World of Infomocracy

Infomocracy envisions a speculative future in the mid-to-late 21st century where most states have joined a world government system based on local rule. Under this system, the countries have been divided into centenals, which are governing units of 100,000 residents. Each centenal may chose the regime by which they wish to be governed, with choices including ideological governments such as Heritage (conservative), Liberty (libertarian), or Policy1st (everyone’s dream party that advocates the “demonstrably best” policies on each issue, for some definitions of “demonstrably best”); corporate governments including Phillip Morris, 888, and Coca-Cola; and a smattering of nationalist and local parties. The government that wins the most centenals gains the Supermajority, which gives it significant influence at the supranational level. Some countries, including likely candidates Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, decided not to join the world government scheme and govern independently.

At the center of Older’s world lies Information, a global service that combines our current internet, the Internet of Things (e.g., this pachinko machine paid out a 28,000 yen jackpot on such and such a date), as well as manipulable visualizations and heads-up displays. I think the combination of a governing scheme akin to that found in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash with an information service more like the one described in Minority Report serves the story’s needs admirably.

Ground Game

The popular aphorism that “all politics is local” describes a world divided into 100,000-person mini-states quite well. Infomocracy follows Ken, an undercover agent of influence for Policy1st, and Mishima, a researcher and sometime security worker for Information. As in William Gibson’s novels such as Pattern Recognition, we receive the barest hints of what the main characters look like, focusing instead on what they know, what they do, and how they react within their milieu.

As the story progresses, we follow Ken and Mishima around the world as they embark on assignments, react to emergencies, and explore their burgeoning relationship. Sometimes their efforts create the desired change, sometimes they get a mixed result, and sometimes everything goes wrong. Those varied outcomes, which highlight the joy and pain that are never far from the tactical-level worker’s mind, are no doubt the product of Older’s work as a humanitarian aid worker in Japan, Darfur, Mali, and other places (including three years as a team leader), as well as her appointment as a Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015. When you consider that experience in tandem with her master’s degree from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University and Ph.D. work at l’Institut d’Études Politques de Paris, you get a sense of the intellectual firepower she brings to the task.

Events in Infomocracy proceed in a manner that is both familiar and surprising. To paraphrase Chekhov, “If you see a global information network over the fireplace in Act One, it will go off in Act Five.” We don’t quite get to Act Five before the information and communication grid goes down, but fail it does and the hell that was breaking loose accelerates into a maelstrom Ken and Mishima must navigate.

Older brings the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. I didn’t give the book a 100% rating because I thought a few minor elements weren’t handled as well as they might have been, but I don’t feel compelled to write an artificially “balanced” review that makes too much of those quibbles. The book’s too good to spend much time on a few bits that were merely good instead of outstanding.

Conclusion

Infomocracy doesn’t read like a first novel—rather, it reads like the work of an experienced author who can leverage her significant life experience into a compelling narrative. I recommend Malka Older’s Infomocracy enthusiastically and without reservation. I look forward to her next book.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 40 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

May 31, 2016 at 3:56 pm

Review of Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life

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Title: Quantified

Editor: Dawn Nafus

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-262-52875-7

Length: 280

Price: $27.00

Rating: 92%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Fitness trackers, such as the Nike+ FuelBand, FitBit, and (in some modes) the Apple Watch have grown in popularity over the past several years. Knowledge of one’s activity levels and physical state, even if measured somewhat inaccurately by contemporary sensors, empowers users by providing insights into one’s relative health and activity levels. Other sensors, including implanted devices such as pacemakers, record data more accurately at the cost of greater intrusion upon the self. In Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life, Dawn Nafus, a Senior Research Scientist at Intel Labs, leads an investigation into the anthropoligical implications of new technologies and applications.

Organization and Coverage

Quantified is a collection of papers from the Biosensors in Everyday Life project, a multi-year effort with representatives from several institutions that examined how biosensing technologies, using either”wet” sensors (e.g., saliva, blood, or another bodily fluid) or “dry” sensors (e.g., heart rate, temperature, or blood pressure), impacts individuals and society as a whole.Nafus divided Quantifiedinto three sections: Biosensing and Representation, Institutional Arrangements, and Seeing Like a Builder. The first section, Biosensing and Representation, contains four chapters that examine the Quantified Self (QS) movement from an academic perspective. The first three pieces are, as Nafus admits, written by academics using academic language. I was happy to discover those pieces are accessible to the general reader, which isn’t always the case with articles or dissertations written by specialists for specialists. For non-academics like myself, the first three chapters provide a useful glimpse at how professional scholars approach biosensing as both practice and artifact. The fourth piece, by Wired contributing editor and QS movement leader Gary Wolf, provides a bit of push-back against the strictly academic approach to biosensing.

The Institutional Arrangements section examines QS in terms of regulation, privacy, and autonomy. Images of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon and assumed observation as presented in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish or Orwell’s 1984 immediately come to mind, but as with every new technology access to information is regulated by differing privacy regimes at the regional, national, and supranational level.

The final section, Seeing Like a Builder, approaches biosensing from the perspective of mechanical engineering, device design, and data management. The first chapter is an edited conversation between Nafus, Deborah Estrin of Cornell Tech in New York City, and Anna de Paula Hanika of Open mHealth about the role of open data in the biosensing movement. Subsequent chapters investigate environmental monitoring, data available through the City of London’s bike rental program, and personal genomics.

Topics of Interest

I’ve written a fair amount about privacy issues and public policy, so I naturally gravitated toward the essays in the Institutional Arrangements section. In the Biosensing in Context chapter, Nissenbaum and Patterson apply the framework of Contextual Integrity to data captured by biosensors. As the name implies, Contextual Integrity addresses the appropriate sharing of information given its context, rather than a coarser set of norms established by law or policy. For individuals taking advantage of QS technologies, they might want to share information with other members of the movement to gain insights from their combined knowledge (called the “n of a billion 1’s” approach elsewhere in the collection). Marking appropriate sharing and usage depends on accurate metadata, which is discussed in Estrin and de Paula Hanika’s exploration of the Open mHealth data framework from the Seeing Like a Builder section.

In Disruption and the Political Economy of Biosensor Data, Fiore-Garland and Neff address the narrative that new technologies favor democracy and democratization. Specifically, they challenge the notion that disruptive change is, by definition, good. As they note:

In their most extreme form, disruption discourses use the concepts of democracy and democratization as ways to describe technological change, and in doing so ascribe social power to technological change in a teleological, deterministic way: if we say a technology disrupts power by bringing democratic access to data or power, then the technology will be democratic.

As rhetorical constructs, “disruption” and “democratization” invoke ideas of personal freedom and autonomy, implicitly denying traditional authorities control over one’s data. As with most business models based on platforms that provide the medium through which data is shared (e.g., Facebook), this argument is inherently self-serving. In the United States, private companies face few barriers to collecting and analyzing individual data, and practically none at all if the data has been shared openly and intentionally. While the interaction of health privacy laws and QS data sharing has yet to be tested, existing precedent argues strongly in favor of an interpretation favorable to companies that want to analyze the data for private gain.

I also enjoyed Marc Böhlen’s chapter Field Notes in Contamination Studies, which chronicled his team’s effort to track water quality in Indonesia. Böhlen’s team had to wrestle with the cultural implications of their work and account for both the expectations of the Indonesian citizens affected by their monitoring as well as the initial suspicions of the Indonesian government. I hadn’t encountered a narrative of this type before, so I appreciated learning more about his team’s work.

Conclusion

Quantified is an excellent first multidisciplinary study of the Quantified Self movement. The field is certain to evolve quickly, but the pieces in this book provide a strong base on which to perform future analysis.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 40 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

May 26, 2016 at 7:27 pm

Review of The Art of Language Invention

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Title: The Art of Language Invention

Author: David J. Peterson

Publisher: Penguin

Copyright: 2015

ISBN13: 978-0-143-12646-1

Length: 284

Price: $17.00

Rating: 94%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

During my high school years, I thought it would be fun to invent my own language. Something like English, but heavily influenced by the many related Romance languages popular in Europe. I described this vision to my French teacher and she said, “You mean, like Esperanto?” One encyclopedia article later and I was on to other projects.

Others were not so easily deterred. David J. Peterson parlayed his childhood love of languages into a master’s degree in linguistics and a career inventing languages for the HBO series Game of Thrones, SyFy’s Defiance, and other projects. In The Art of Language Invention, Peterson shares his experiences as a language developer along with enough background in linguistics to appreciate the decisions and effort that go into creating a new language.

Linguistics as a Discipline

While at Syracuse University in the late 1980s, I had the good fortune to take LING 201 from Professor William Ritchie. That course surveyed the mechanics of linguistic analysis by introducing topics such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax, while also describing writing systems, language families, linguistic evolution, and interactions that produce new forms of language such as dialects, creoles, and pidgins. I thought it was fascinating stuff and went on to take several more linguistics classes. I would have taken even more if they’d counted toward my degree program.

In a little over 250 pages, Peterson does an excellent job of covering the topics from LING 201 such that a reader with little or no training in linguistics can appreciate the tools and, perhaps more importantly, the effort that goes into developing a language complete with its own grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. Even readers with only a passing interest in language creation but who would like an approachable introduction to linguistics could benefit from Peterson’s work.

Constructed Languages in Popular Media

The hook behind The Art of Language Invention, of course, is Peterson’s development of Dothraki and Valyrian for the HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Peterson weaves the tale of how he developed Dothraki and Valyrian throughout his coverage of various linguistic topics, supplementing his own insights and results with those of other language creators. As a co-founder of the Language Creation Society, which you can find online at conlang.org, Peterson created a meeting point for language enthusiasts to share their work and their love of language.

What I appreciated most about language development at the professional level is the attention to backstory and evolution. Just as it’s impossible to fully appreciate English without knowing how it has changed over the years, developers can’t construct a new language without giving significant thought to its proto-language and the cultural, geographic, and political forces that shaped it over time. Peterson’s commentary on how those decisions get made, and how they affect the end state of the language, provide terrific insights into his process.

Conclusion

I believe The Art of Language Invention is a terrific book that intertwines the geeky worlds of linguistics and speculative fiction into a satisfying manuscript. Yes, I am in many ways an embodiment of this book’s target audience, but if you share even a part of my enthusiasm for the subject, you should read Peterson’s work.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 30 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Review of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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Title: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Author: Whitney Phillips

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2015

ISBN13: 978-0-262-02894-3

Length: 248

Price: $24.95

Rating: 90%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Ah, trolls…so much fun to watch when they’re harassing someone you think deserves it and so infuriating when they get under your skin. Whitney Phillips, a lecturer in the department of communications at Humboldt State University, wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Oregon on trolling behavior. That dissertation provides the foundation for This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things from MIT Press.

What is Trolling?

Phillips notes that the central theme of all trolling is lulz, which she defines as amusement at other peoples’ distress. Proactive schadenfreude, I guess. Trolls are perfectly happy to derive their enjoyment from regular users, public figures, and other trolls. All that matters are the lulz.

One of the first widespread instances of trolling took place when a group of trolls invaded the Usenet newsgroup rec.pets.cats, asking increasingly odd questions and suggesting inappropriate solutions to feline health issues. Regardless of your cat’s respiratory issues, you probably won’t need to aerate it with a .357 hollow-point bullet. I never visited the rec.pets.cats group, but discussion of the trolls’ behavior leaked over to the groups I did participate in. Even the collateral damage was significant. Another early example on Usenet, though one that bordered on spam as well, was “Serdar Argic”, an alias for what appeared to have been multiple posters sending out hundreds of lengthy posts per day denying the Armenian genocide from the early 20th century to groups such as soc.culture.history.

Trolling as Rhetoric

As a communications scholar, Phillips takes on trolling as a rhetorical activity, placing it in a broader cultural context as both product and amplifier of certain aspects of society. Specifically, the masculine drive for domination and as a complement to the 24-hour news cycle.

One reason middle school is such a vile experience for many children is the constant barrage of status games, where kids try to find their place in society at the expense of their classmates. Male trolls, who appear to dominate the landscape, continue this type of aggressive behavior online. They base their rhetorical strategies on the work of Arthur Schopenhauer’s book The Art of Controversy, which melds Aristotelian logic and Socratian dialectic with the Dark Side of the Force. The trolls’ goal is to invoke negative emotions from their targets and, upon eliciting insults or harsh language in response to their own provocations, remind their victims that there’s no room for rudeness in civilized argument and go right back to taking arguments out of context, insulting their opponent, and racking up the lulz.

Phillips also takes issue with conservative media, particularly Fox News and its handling of the Birther controversy, which raised the question as to whether President Barack Obama (usually spoken as Barack HUSSEIN Obama) should release his long-form birth certificate and, after it was released, whether it was a legitimate document. Fox News rode that story hard for much of 2008 and 2009 — you can still hear the echoes if you listen closely. Trolls took advantage of the coverage and some images of Obama to create intentionally offensive and racist memes.

That’s not to say trollish behavior is strictly the purview of Fox News and its ilk. When the Tea Party affiliate in Troy, Michigan had early success turning sentiment against a levy intended to fund the town’s library, an advertising agency devised a campaign purported to be from a group named Safeguarding American Families. The ads expressed opposition to the measure and announced the group would hold a book-burning party. The outrage at this fictitious statement turned sentiment in favor of the ballot measure, which ultimately passed.

Phillips also offers an interesting commentary on trolls as trickster characters. The trickster is known for undercutting the foundations of a society’s cultures or mores but not replacing it with anything. Rather than offer a helpful solution for how things could be done better, tricksters start a fire and walk away. When there are no more lulz to be had, the troll’s work is done.

Transitioning to a Publishable Book

Academic writing is often completely impenetrable to anyone who isn’t a specialist in the author’s field of inquiry. My brother wrote his dissertation on a public policy subject I found interesting, but I couldn’t get through more than three pages of the final document. (Sorry, Doug. I know I said I read the whole thing, but my soup spoon kept creeping toward my eyeballs.) Passive voice is used to maintain a semblance of objectivity and distance, specialized language pervades the text, and rewrites continue until the ultimate academic hazing ritual is complete.

Kind of makes me wonder if dissertation committees haven’t been trolling candidates since the 1500s.

Phillips and her editors did a terrific job of excising unneeded jargon from the text, though some usage and conventions they kept leap off the page. The seemingly ubiquitous forward slash appeared in the section on method/ology, but at least there were no indiscretions on the order of the visual pun When the (M)other is a Fat/Her that William Germano mentions in Getting it Published. That said, while phrasings indicating someone is “gendered” as male have entered the general literature, saying someone was “raced” as Caucasian still seems odd to this generally interested reader.

Conclusions

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is a terrific introduction to the world of trolling, exploring how trolls put on figurative masks (or literal masks in the case of online anonymity) and generate lulz from those they encounter. As a former competitive debater in high school and college, I’m dismayed by the violence done to my beloved art of rhetorical controversy. Score some lulz for the trolls, I guess. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

April 18, 2015 at 2:42 pm

Book Review: Virtual Economies from MIT Press

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Title: Virtual Economies

Authors: Vili Lehdonvirta and Edward Castronova

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-262-02725-0

Length: 294

Price: $45.00

Rating: 94%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Designing playable, let alone interesting, video games is difficult. Massive multiplayer games, especially those that allow trade among players, increase design complexity considerably. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds, tweaking prices of individual items or resources to make them more or less accessible to the players and finding the best ways to move money into or out of the game’s economy.

In the face of that complexity, designers must remember their primary goal: earning money for the publisher. Early in Virtual Economies, Lehdonvirta and Castronova lay out the three main objectives of virtual economy design: creating content (both by the producers and the players), attracting and retaining users (attention), and monetizing the game’s virtual resources to create an income stream for the producers. These objectives frame their analysis throughout the book, providing a coherent narrative that emphasizes the importance of designing a system so it generates revenues needed to sustain a game or community.

Unintended Consequences

One source of joy and fear for designers is discovering how their users will creatively exploit the rules of a game to create the experience they want. In fact, the authors point out that designing an inefficient currency might make a game more playable, perhaps because players would develop strategies and tactics to work around the inefficiencies or negotiation and trust issues would lead to interesting player interactions.

You can also try to make virtual money through traditional economic activity. In games, as in any economy, some players search for arbitrage opportunities. When discrepancies arise between the objective value of an item and its perceived value, investors can attempt to make a profit by buying or selling the item. In the stock market, these inefficiencies might arise when a company’s stock is undervalued because investors give too much weight to recent sales data. Investors can buy the stock, hold it until it reaches its proper value, and sell to collect the profits.

Some games offer more straightforward examples, such as allowing users to buy a leather jerkin at a shop in one part of the virtual world and sell it in another region for a significant profit. In either case, players who enjoy this type of activity can take advantage of in-game commercial opportunities.

Faucets and Sinks

Just as players try to acquire game resources, designers must find ways to remove those resources from the game. Maintaining the proper flow of money using macroeconomic policies requires a tricky balancing act between having too much or not enough money in the system. Without income, players can’t buy items they need or desire, but too much money produces in-game inflation that puts even routine purchases out of reach of newer players.

Lehdonvirta and Castronova describe how designers can use money faucets and money sinks to add or remove virtual currency from the game. Money faucets might be as simple as gaining treasure from killing orcs or as complex as arbitrage, while money sinks could include maintenance costs for dwellings, replacing damaged equipment, or securing transport to remote areas.

Virtual Becomes Real

Finally, it’s entirely possible for in-game items and virtual currency to cross over into the real world. Some rare World of Warcraft items command hundreds of dollars on eBay or elsewhere and entire companies in Romania and China make money through “gold mining” (defeating monsters to gain their treasure and selling the gold to other players) or leveling up characters for players who lack either the time or inclination to do it themselves.

Virtual currency can also be used in place of real money for physical transactions, as happened with the Q coin used in Chinese producer Tencent’s game Tencent QQ. A lack of credit cards or easy online payment hampered online commerce in China at the time, so players used Q coins as a medium of exchange. Players transferred Q coins to settle debts or, after the company (at the insistence of the People’s Bank of China) limited the amount that could be transferred at one time, created accounts with standard amounts of Q coins and gave their transaction partners the account’s password.

Conclusions

Virtual Economies combines standard material found in earlier works such as The Economics of Electronic Commerce with new applications told through the eyes of individuals who are both academic analysts and practitioners. Specifically, Lehdonvirta and Castronova provide a substantial overview of traditional economics, such as supply and demand curves and marginal analysis, as well as more recent topics from behavioral economics that help explain why and how individuals deviate from the traditional rational actor model. Add in discussions of what makes for a good currency, how markets function, and macroeconomic issues removes the need for students to buy multiple texts to get the full picture.

Many professors and independent readers will choose to supplement this book’s information with reading packets and online resources, but Virtual Economies could easily stand alone in any context. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

January 5, 2015 at 10:00 am