31 July 2015

Automobile Safety v. Airline Safety

It is common place to compare the way automobile manufacturers and airplane manufacturers treat accidents.  Automobile manufacturers often blame the drivers or argue that "shit happens" and don't systemically analyze every accident to prevent it from happening again.  Airplane manufacturers assume that every accident is due to a defect in the product, and rigorously investigate and analyze each accident so it can never happen again.

The analogy if sometimes applied to how hospitals handle bad outcomes, in an effort to cajole the medical establishment to start acting like airplane manufacturers, so that they can establish good systems to prevent mistakes, and in that context, the analogy is fair.

But, the analogy is not really fair to automobile manufacturers.  Why?

1.  Commercial airline accidents are overwhelmingly single vehicle accidents due to the air traffic control system.  Automobile accidents are overwhelmingly collisions with other vehicles or at least caused by avoidance maneuvers conducted to avoid collisions with other vehicles, and it really isn't viable to institute the equivalent of an air traffic control system for automobiles.

The airline industry's experience may argue strongly for the institution of the equivalent of an air traffic control system for ships in harbors.  But, it is inherently easier to engineer solutions to problems caused by single vehicle accidents than to problems caused by collisions or near collisions which are a problem with the entire traffic management system, and not so much with the vehicle itself.  Likewise, when a commercial airline crashes in the absence of a collision, the likelihood that a defective airplane was at issue is great.

Notably, while most airplane accidents are carefully investigated and result in soul searching by the manufacturers looking for a solution, this did not happen in the same way rebels in Ukraine shot down a Malaysian airliner with a ground to air missile.

2. Good systems are only half of the reason that commercial airline accidents are so rare.  The other is that commercial airlines are flown by professional pilots who are on the job, rather than by amateurs.  The fair analogy in terms of safety to a commercial airliner is not the accident rate of private automobiles, but the accident rate of buses, which is much, much lower than the accident rate of private automobiles.

If one wants to control for this factor one should compare the accident rates for general aviation aircraft not flown by professional charter pilots against the accident rate for motor vehicles not driven by professional drivers who are on the job.  Accident rates for general aviation aircraft not flown by professional charter pilots turn out to be much higher and are actually quite similar to the accident rates for private motor vehicles driven by amateurs.

Operator error accounts for a much larger share of general aviation accidents than it does of commercial airline accidents, and also accounts for a much larger share of accidents by ordinary amateur automobile operators than it does of accidents by professional bus drivers.

For example, a very substantial share of all motor vehicle accidents involve drunk drivers.  But, very few bus accidents involve drunk bus drivers.  Similarly, many motor vehicle accidents are caused by inexperienced and reckless teenage drivers acting carelessly or recklessly, while very few bus accidents are caused by bus drivers acting in this fashion.

3. It is also notable the general aviation aircraft and commercial airlines tend to fly out of different airports and in different airspace.  Commercial airlines tend to cruise at higher altitudes and operate out of major commercial airports, while general aviation aircraft tend to cruise at lower altitudes and operate out of smaller local airports.  Thus, commercial airliners are largely insulated from interactions with less safely piloted general aviation aircraft, while motor vehicles overwhelmingly share the same roads, without regard to who is operating them.

4. It is notable that a very share share of all on the job fatalities involve motor vehicle accidents, crimes and suicides.  Each of these, unlike most other job fatalities, has as a substantial cause, actions of people who are not within the control of the employer and frequently conduct at locations that are not within the control of the employer.  Solving these causes of on the job fatalities requires societal level solutions and not employer level solutions, unlike most other potential causes of on the job fatalities and injuries.

Now, this isn't to say that the analogy of hospitals to airlines is unfair.  Hospitals, like commercial airliners, are operated by on the job professionals.  Bad outcomes in hospitals, like single plane accidents by commercial airliners, operate in environments that are controlled by a single party with the power to change the systems that cause them.

But, automobile accidents, unlike accidents involving commercial airliners, do not predominantly involve single vehicle accidents in vehicles operated by expert on the job operators, so the analogy in that case of automobile manufacturers to airline manufacturers is really unfair.  Automobile manufacturers are reasonable good (although not as good as airlines) at investigating and resolving single vehicle accidents in vehicles where there is good cause to believe that a reckless operator was not the problem, which is really the only fair apples to apples comparison in this case.

Windows 10

For better or for worse, have a ditched the odious, loathsome, evil Microsoft Windows 8 for Microsoft Windows 10, and rejected all of the big brother settings.  I am now waiting for the other shoe to drop when I go into the office this morning and find out, if my impulsive act was ill advised, that my machine is no longer compatible with the firm network or some critical piece of software.

But, so far, so good.

Anyway, after Windows 8, how much worse can it get?

30 July 2015

The Technologies, Economics And Regulations That Make Netflix A Cultural Innovator

A thoughtful piece by Todd VanDerWerff at Vox argues that:
Netflix is accidentally inventing a new art form - not quite TV and not quite film.
I agree.

First, to be clear, the piece and I are talking about the Netflix streaming service, which has morphed far beyond the mail order DVD rental system with an socially interesting prioritized waiting system that it was at first.

It turns out that movie streaming also wasn't that revolutionary.  This was just like renting a movie at a local video store with less waiting and a monthly membership fee which some video rental operations had already started to offer.

What really made Netflix streaming culturally innovative at first was binge watching whole seasons of television shows at once.

You've done it, I've done it, our kids have done it.  It was possible in theory before by renting DVDs of a whole season of television shows, but that was expensive and wasn't something that video rental store customers were used to doing or imagined themselves doing.  On Netflix, binge watching a season cost no more than watching an episode every week at an appointed time the way we used to do it with broadcast television.

Binge watching TV shows on Netflix (or once you gained the habit on Netflix, elsewhere, where the show wasn't available on Netflix) significantly changed the experience of watching television shows.

It upset the status hierarchy of video based media, of which the movies had previously been the uncontested top dog, offering two hours of uninterrupted polished pieces instead of half hour or one hour TV episodes made with lower budgets, with a week in between episodes, interrupted at least every fifteen minutes by about 12 minutes or more per hour of commercials.  A movie had dozens of show times a week at various area theaters and could also be obtained at the video rental store on demand.  TV episodes were only available at an appointed half hour or hour each week (except for daily soap operas with really poor production values), unless you recorded them with a difficult to program and low quality video recorder.  And, for roughly half to two-thirds of the year, any given TV show was airing reruns.  Diligent TV watchers spent most of the year in a new episode desert.

Suddenly, with Netflix, television was commercial free, available on your schedule, with no reruns unless you want them, and you could watch an entire season over a few days or a couple of weeks, capturing fine details and story arcs put their by the screen writers who see the show as a package, which got lost with all of the interruptions, delays, and occasional out of order or missed episodes of ordinary TV watching.  Higher quality content from made for cable television programming that had funding other than commercials and didn't have to meet suitable for children censorship standards on networks like Showtime and HBO appeared just shortly before Netflix hit.

As a result, movies now became one off short stories or mini-series when there were sequels, while TV shows with eight hours or more of content per season, became the novels of the video world, something that developing world soap operas (telenovelas in Spanish, but present in similar forms in Japan, Korea, Nigeria and elsewhere) had aspired to, but never quite attained.  And, when you binge watch, the ability to spread eight or more hours of fictional world indulgence over the times you have to enjoy it, with pauses when you feel like it, put the feel of reading a novel into TV episodes as well.

This makes sense.  A movie script typically runs 80 to 120 pages or so, some of which is scene description and blocking rather than dialog.  Most adapted movies take a novel that runs 250 to 750 or so pages and condense it into the much shorter movie format, inevitably leaving the view with an abridged version of the original.  Notably, some of the best movies, e.g. Blade Runner and many of the Disney movies like The Little Mermaid, adapt short stories or fables or myths or short children's books, so that they don't have to abridge the story.

Binge watching, however, merely opened the door to innovation.  The experiments that Netflix has been able to open the door to with its original programming have really changed the medium.  Netflix has been able to innovate radically in generating content, because its business model and its technology don't have the same constraints and incentives as traditional broadcast television.

Seasons can now have wildly varying length.  A new concept can be presented in a four episode trial.  A few Netflix original shows (for example, Orange in the New Black, Sense8, and Ascension) have episodes that are longer than an hour.

Like independent films, Netflix original programming can appeal to niche or culturally elite audiences, rather than trying to maximize the number of eyes on the screen watching the same show at any given time which pushes programmers to make lowest common denominator compromises. Since Netflix can stream hundreds of different shows to its overall audience at once, Netflix doesn't have to deny viewers their most popular content to cater to niche views the way that any broadcast medium does.  This allows Netflix to have a total prime time audience far greater than any broadcast network limiting to airing one show at a time, even if the number of viewers of any particular program on any given day is much lower than the number of views of any particular program on a given day in a broadcast television format.

Indeed, Netflix original content has the most comparative advantage, relative to broadcast or cable TV and the movies, by not just stealing market share from those traditional mediums, but by actually serving niche demands that were entirely unmet by the old media due to their technological, economic and regulatory constraints.  Netflix can serve everyone who like the old TV and movie content, but can also offer content to additional viewers who don't like anything that was on offer in the old formats very much.

Netflix also could have chosen to enter the market at the high end, catering to high end customers with a high monthly price, but instead, has made itself more transformative culturally by following a business model that is about maximizing its membership base at a price many times cheaper than a cable TV subscription, despite the fact that it offers a product that is qualitatively different and bettter than broadcast TV which cable TV merely replicates with better reception, more channels (most of which are awful), and fewer censorship restrictions on cable TV only content.

Netflix didn't invent streaming video, which had been available via streaming video on premium TV channels for ages.  But, cable TV operators priced this service based upon the going to the movies alternative, without seeing, as Netflix did, how transformative it could be to offer steaming at an easily affordable flat price instead.  The inherent nature of intellectual property content, which doesn't cost meaningfully more to make more copies of in the digital age than it does to make one copy, was a natural fit to this model.

But, the rest of the industry clung to the old physical property economic models even though they had never really made sense and were ultimately superseded in the case of broadcast television and radio when innovators of those media came to the same realization that maximizing spending by making content wildly available at a minimal cost, rather than maximizing spending per unit provided, was the name of the game.  The ability of Netflix to limit access to its otherwise unlimited content with passwords, however, gave it the capacity to shift from the commercial and donation based model of broadcast television, radio, Google, Hulu and more, to a subscription based model.  And, by making legitimate unlimited access so cheap, Netflix has dramatically undercut piracy which is no longer worth the hassle when the public can access intellectual property content at a reasonable price, legitimately, so these economics have made it unnecessary to make heavy use of punitive enforcement tools like anti-piracy lawsuits aimed at ordinary content views in order to support their own business model.

There is also no incentive for Netflix which isn't paid by the episode, to engage in the recent odious trend in movie sequel making to break the last book in a movie adaptation into two parts, purely to force movie goers who are already hooked on the series, to buy one more movie ticket over the course of the series.  Or, worse in the case of an adapted literary series like Lord of the Rings that turns the shortest book of the entire four book saga, the prequel The Hobbit, which is the only one of the four books which could have been done justice in one ordinary length movie, into three very long movies that are long in setting and cinematography, and thin and far off canon in their story.

And, since Netflix originals aren't financed by commercials, producers don't have to worry about alienating customers of an unrelated product.  Advertisers don't like controversial programming, and tying a brand, say Chick-fil-a, to a controversy unrelated to the product itself, say gay rights (in the case of Chick-fil-a, spawning a nationwide boycott which still damps its sales to liberals even though the company has largely backed down from its political stances), is bad for business.  Netflix originals don't even have an incentive to avoid criticizing the commercialism that makes broadcast television possible, in general.

Knowing from the start that the audience will be binge watching the episodes in order, without much interruption, writers don't have to spend as much of each episode rehashing the premise of the show and recapping what happened in relevant previous episodes.  They know that even if they really stump a modest percentage of their audience, that those viewer can go back and watch the referenced episode over again.

And, both cable TV, for example, in series like Game of Thrones and True Blood, and Netflix originals in shows like Hemlock Grove and Sense8, have not only pushed boundaries beyond what would be allowed by censors on broadcast television.  They have pushed on beyond the boundaries of what would be permitted by movie censors to achieve an "R" (children allowed only with an adult) rating, to the "NC-17" rating originally envisioned as a category reserved for pornography.  Thus, for what is really the first time in the history of the dramatic medium, it is now possible to easily access highly explicit and violent content that still tells a legitimate dramatic story, rather than serving as mere window dressing for pure pornography.  A handful of serious works like Lady Chatterley's Lover, Lolita, and the Bible have crossed that line before, but performances of them in dramatic works have generally held back the violence and carnality that are described and/or implied in them.

Not everyone thinks that opening the door to more explicit and violent programming (which realistically, any tween or teenager can access more easily than the vast majority of adults can control it) is a good thing.  And, binge watching keeps us glued to our screens when we could be out living actual lives.  But, on the whole, Netflix have been a revolutionary technological and economic innovation that is one of the important factors that makes the quality of life in 2015 better than it was in 1997, when Netflix was founded.