Books, culture, fishing, and other games

September 28, 2003

Yesterday I Couldn't Spell "Arbitragier," Today I Are One!

It's from the French (good things are not French, they are from the French, they've left their Frenchiness behind!).

ar·bi·trage (ärb-träzh)
The purchase of securities on one market for immediate resale on another market in order to profit from a price discrepancy.

intr.v. ar·bi·traged, ar·bi·trag·ing, ar·bi·trag·es
To be involved in arbitrage

[Middle English, arbitration, from Old French, from arbitrer, to judge, from Latin arbitrr, to give judgment. See arbitrate.]

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

n : a kind of hedged investment meant to capture slight differences in price; when there is a difference in the price of something on two different markets the arbitrageur simultaneously buys at the lower price and sells at the higher price v : practice arbitrage, as of stocks

WordNet ® 1.6, © 1997 Princeton University

My selldown of my isk stock in EVE Online has proceeded so well that temptation has overcome me. I've started bidding on isk lots offered at attractive prices. So far I haven't been the lucky bidder that runs off with a steal, though. I bid about 200 million is in varied lots so far, but all moved up out of my buy range. Since I would be buying purely for resale in smaller, more tightly marketed lots, stepping above a certain price increases both my risk and decreases my profits, a bad combination.

My plan is to establish a selling range, done for the moment, work up my reputation, which is coming along nicely, as a trustworthy dealer providing excellent service and good communication with customers. Then knowing what I can sell for I can determine a buy range where I will make a small, but significant when done in volume, profit.

Good communication is needed because there can sometimes be minor hitches in trades. The key is to communicate effectively by email so that all parties are comfortable things can be worked out. So far my efforts in this area have resulted in my most positive feedback entries. To my jaundiced eye, "A+++++++++++" is not as good as "good communication" or "this guy is great, I recomend" (sic). It takes no thought to just type in an "A" followed by a string of pluses. The other two actually express more definite and particular opinions on the service they received. That said, 80 characters worth of feedback will always be a bit terse.

In online trading, even more than in face-to-face, service is reality. When the goods are virtual, when there is no "face" or brick and mortar storefront, when even the handle could mask a criminal scammer, all the emptor can caveat upon or of is the service record of the seller. I can already see that repeat business can be a great tool for more sales. I've had several buyers come back for more. Others have said in feedack that they plan to buy again from me in the future.

I've started studying the competition a bit more too. I see one major dealer (in EVE isk and also in SWG credits) is into using instant messaging as a major tool. As a security professional IMs make me shudder. I'm not at all sure I want to go there, even with up-to-date patching on my systems and a firewall (of sorts) between me and those of nefarious intent. But I can see the advantages from a fast service standpoint. Still, I do pretty well with email. I keep it open on one system when I have open auctions and check for mail constantly.

He also claims 24/7 service, which suggests "he" is actually a team, probably global. It's easy for three people in evenly spaced time zones to set up a schedule so that someone is always online. It's easy to form the connections online to accomplish that too, especially in the virtual worlds. And, as corollary, it's easy to scam someone who is attempting to set up that sort of structure, as is also very apparent in the virtual worlds.

It's a brave new world in which the brave people prosper—if they survive. But maybe there's a place for the less brave and more careful too.

In any case my plan on the buy side is to eyeball the auctions closing within the next 24 hours daily (schedule permitting) and dump maximum bids (with my limit as the maximum) on any isk offered that is below that mark that appears to be from a reasonally competent seller. I will be more careful with big lots than small ones, simply because the risk is greater if it's a scam of some sort. Scammers rarely work in nickles and pennies. They go for the big kill because they know it will end the reputation of their current mask, forcing them to restart the process of creating a new one to set up the next Barnum-born buyer.

ebay mechanics are great for this buying tactic. The software bids automatically up to my max for me, but doesn't bid more than necessary to achieve the current high bid. So I can make my bids and forget them until they fail or succeed. I just need to ensure my total bids don't exceed my total capital available for "inventory." I do that as I bid, but my sales to date have given me a pretty decent stash to work with, and once I have isk on hand to resell, I will probably slow my bidding until a lot of it has moved. This will help keep me from chasing downturns, a good side effect.

As a result of my recent trading, I also had a player contact me offering to sell me isk in 100 million lots at a reasonable price. I'm interested. But there's risk in that this could easily be a scam, so I'm proceeding cautiously. I plan to ask that he share risk on the transaction, or assume it, since I have a track record he can check, he has none that I can find. If he will transfer me the isk up front, and let me pay as soon as it's received, I'll definitely do business. Once one trade is done I will be open to more normal, pay-in-advance activity.

I sold my second EVE account, but payment is delayed. The buyer said he miscalculated and won't have the cash until Wednesday. That's no big issue for me, so I told him Wednesday is fine. The account is now closed, in any case, so I'm incurring no additional costs. I'll just transfer it once I get the payment and he can reactivate it with his own credit card and billing information.

How much do I expect to earn for all this? Not that much. Reading Play Money's recent entries is a good measure of my expectations. Oh, I can probably feed myself on the income. I certainly can't pay my mortgage, nor even add the amortized full costs of the computers and network fees. I might be paying for my food and a significant share of those infrastructure costs though. In other words, hundreds of dollars per month, yes, thousands, no. Are thousands possible? I believe so. If one makes it a full-time business, and operates it as such as some appear to.

It's a small part-time job, as it stands. While it pays about what working weekends at retail wages might, while requiring a lot more time, it's also a lot more interesting, and fun. In a sense the business part is another game to me. I've started my own business in the past, and ran that for five years. It had its elements of fun, and it certainly was interesting, but it was a lot more stressful. And considering all the time and the net revenue I took from it, I'm not sure that was actually all that much more profitable than this might be. I did create some jobs for other people with that business, though, and I aim to avoid that with this one. Managing people takes the fun right out of business for me. And then there's the huge (proportionately) extra burden of government paperwork when one takes on employees... no thanks.

One interesting thing about this is that it could be largely automated. Shoot, it could be entirely automated. That's no fun though.

Is this truly arbitrage? Not exactly. Since I intend to stock, and I split larger (wholesale) lots into smaller retail-sized ones (aiming for impulse buyers), I am more like a retailer. If this proceeds, I'll move more in that direction, in fact. I add value in the way I package the isk, and in the service I provide (I can buy from slowpokes and sell with my fast delivery).

But arbitrage, or wholesale buying, in this case, does provide a service to sellers (if not to buyers) in this market. We level up the prices. When I put in my bids, very often, in fact usually, I bump the bid on that item one notch higher than my maximum bid. There is someone else out there willing to pay more than I am, maybe a trader working on a thinner margin, or maybe retail customers planning to use the isk in game. By bidding I kill the "steal" prices. This firms up the market so that price trends are more apparent. In a sense it serves the average buyer in the process. When an average price can be easily determine (i.e. all the items you check work out to roughly $2 per million isk), the buyer knows who is trying to take advantage with an absurdly high price, thus who to steer away from. Arbitragers play a big part in establishing what is the market price based on current demand and supply levels.

And to think, now I are one! You can thank me for providing a valuable public service to capitalism. Virtually, that is.

Posted by dan at 01:13 PM | Comments (0)

September 27, 2003

Jewel of the Amazon

I've been swapping emails with Dad who's in the Amazon. He says he has good reliability through AOL (Yes, he's heard all my AOL rants, but it really does make sense for him to use it in this situation. What AOL does well is provide universal coverage.), though it's a long distance call to Manaus to connect. His connection is in the 18-19k speed range, but he uses it for email only so it's not too bad. The long distance rates aren't bad at night. He's actually based up on the frontier of Colombia, Peru and Brazil, so that's a good 500 miles or more as the urubu (the Amazon vulture) flies. Maybe that's a poor choice of bird for that expression. The urubu never flies in a straight line, it circles and circles. Urubus and I have some things in common.

Most of my old friends are down in Manaus these days. That is the only Amazon city in Brazil (within the state of Amazonas, that is. Brazilia, the capital of Brazil, is in the greater Amazon rainforest area, as are other cities of some size). There are some pretty big towns, but for real modern world type activities, it's the place, so everyone tends to live there at some point, or move there permanently. Most of my friends went off to school there once they hit their teens. While he was ther eon busines, Dad stayed with Jorge, who's married, with teenagers, and currently studying law.

I went to school myself one year down near Manaus, actually just an hour downstream or so by river launch, at the New Tribes school for missionary kids. Puraquequara, lake of electric eels, is the name of the "town." Manaus was famous, in those days, for its opera house, built during the rubber boom of the pre-World War II era, and for it's floating market. The opera house features in the movie Fitzcaraldo, as does the Iquitos one built at the same time. I really enjoy that movie because it comes closest to getting the experience of the Amazon right. Most, nearly all, movies set in the Amazon are too into the noble savage myth promulgated by Rosseau and sustained by urban liberals who haven't ever grubbed in the dirt to feed themselves. Fitzcaraldo did a brilliant job of contrasting the grime, the sweat and the disease with the opulence of the opera houses. Those rubber trees, and the routes to tend them in the remote jungle, killed a lot of people, blinded others, and left many invalids, but at the same time opened the area and made many people rich, as those opera houses prove.

The floating market was a market built on rafts of giant logs. This wasn't an organized construction project, it was an accumulation of rafts over time. You walked planks between the rafts. Some were acutally house rafts on which people lived. Their wastes went into the riverbut the river's flow kept the stink at a moderate level. Rafts are used extensively in the Amazon for anything set on the edge of river and land. This is because that river can fluctuation fifty feet between the wet and wetter seasons (there is no "dry" season, just one in which it rains a lot less than the rest of the time). So as the river rose, the rafts rose, and as it fell... you get the idea. There is some maintenance in keeping everything where you put it; the river has a powerful current in many places, and it's generally inexorable everywhere. All things flow east. So, things sometimes get pulled out of place and have to be pushed back, usually with the riverboats or launches.

And storms can be nasty too. These rafts can weight many tons when those logged get a bit waterlogged, but a storm with gale or better winds can move them even against the current. Dad built such a raft early on as a floating hangar for the floatplane. The logs used were somewhere in the ten foot in diameter range. I never saw them out of the water, so it;s hard to judge, like with icebergs. We used to scramble when a violent storm came through. There was no huddling indoors as thunder boomed and rain slashed horizontally against the shutters, we had to dash around in the riverband mud, soaked through, to resecure hawsers pulled loose by an abrupt reversal of tension, while Dad ran the plane's engine to counter, slowly, the wind. Pushing that huge thing against the current and wind was no minor thing.

I used to sleep on that hangar, in my early teens, as the night guard. Crime has always been an issue, mostly petty crime, and the mere presence of a guard did a lot to deter that. Of course, I had my shotgun, a 12 gauge goose gun, loaded with 00 buckshot, and my Airedale, Tuffy, with me, so I wsn't just a kid sleeping on the hangar. People in the area have great respect for dogs, and Tuffy was one of the most respected dogs in town. Airedales are very smart and very territorial. He owned that hangar and the yard. He rarely strayed, and outside his turf he was entirely docile. But no one set foot on that hangar without his permission. And I backed him up with a shotgun bigger than any other in town. (The locals all used 16 guage.) So Tuffy did the real work. He just woke me up if he needed backup. I never chambered a round. But everyone knew I slept with that gun beneath my cot.

Sleeping on the hangar, under a mosquito net, wasn't much of a chore. While things always cooled off at night, the river breezes at night kept that hangar cooler than most places in town. It was a luxury in that sense. I had my own room up in the house a couple of hundred feet away, but in this period I only used it for storage and for hiding out when I wanted to play lone wolf and read. It was a large closet in size. A lot of the houses down the block from me here have larger walk-in closets in their master bedrooms. But it was my room. My sisters, four of them then, had to share, two to a room.

Many years the river rose enough to flood the area under the house itself. Those pillars served their purpose. A series of drier years saw us wall it in and make a sort of basement down there. We had a shop and a ping pong table set up, and I had a larger room down there for a while. But when it flooded, everything had to move, me included. And the waves from passing boats pounded on those brick walls. When it was just the pillars the waves flowed through easily, but with the walls the whole house would shake. I remember dreams of the house falling down as a result of that artificial surf's actions.

Anyway, all of this was to note that Manaus, while in many ways still the same, has changed a lot. Way back when, in the late 60s or early 70s, Brazil declared Manaus a free port. The free trade zone created served its purpose, the city boomed, and it opened up the Amazon area more. Manaus is bigger than Altanta, where I live now, in population. I didn't really think it had progressed all that much, though, until I started meeting people from Manaus in classes here in the States on security products. It wasn't unusual to find someone from Brazil in a class, but my jaw dropped when one guy that I met told me he was "from" Manaus. It turns out that as a result of that free trade zone Manaus has become a major technology center in Brazil (according to him), and the university there is solid on tech.

This didn't really get me thinking then, I just found it neat and interesting that my old jungle-town stomping ground (well, that's exaggerating, I never spent that much time in Manaus proper) had come up so much. But since, with my move from systems engineering, where I was in front of customers all the time, to consulting, where I may see them occasionally, but mostly work solo and communicate electronically, I've started thinking I could live and work anywhere that I can find decent to good internet access. Manaus must now qualify.

I've avoided thoughts of moving back to that area because I don't want to live without this medium. It's my medium. For me, leaving it, unless for the next, superior one, would be like a fish climbing out of the water and flopping around on land. Okay, those walking catfish from Africa do that pretty well, and we have some fish in the Amazon that do it well too, but they do it to move from one body of water (usually that's evaporating out from under them) to another, not to take up residence on land. It's not so much by choice, as by temporary need. I leave computers and the internet behind (mostly) when I go trout fishing. Maybe that's analogous. After a week I start getting darned twitchy though. I feel too isolated, though part of the reason I go fishing is to get to that away-from-it-all place.

So these days I'm starting to explore the possibilities. Yes, I do feel an attachment to the Amazon culture. It would be great to head down to the market to pick up some real fresh fish (from the river hours ago, not flown in on ice from Alaska) and real tree-ripened fruit (not trucked in green, chosen to support the banging and bashing of the transit, not for flavor). I'd love to switch back to Guarana from Diet Coke (assuming my raving addiction will allow such a move...) The thought of all the humid heat, nope, we get that here in Georgia. And there is air conditioning there now, if I want a break from sweating a bit. Sure, there are snakes and bugs, and it's better to assume anything that can will bite and is probably to some degree poisonous, but that's what I know. It's not alien to me.

My dream, and it's mostly a dream, would be to truly reach the point where I can make my living online (maybe with the occasional face-to-face after a plane flight). This would detach me from any physical location. Internet banking is real, and here. I don't need a building. Email has long provided me with one point of contact, one that moves with me. And cell phones are almost to the point where it's practical to keep one cell phone number everywhere. Soon we'll have that, and we would already except for issues of government regulation as opposed to tech. A router with a built in sattelite uplink, or just a high speed wireless modem, isn't that far off from practical. I can almost do these things now. I can emulate them in most urban areas without much difficulty.

With dynamic DNS, my blogs and other online activities are entirely portable. I can move my server anywhere, anytime, without users knowing (aside from the 5 minute, now, outage, indistinguishable from BellSouth's hiccoughs). For some reason I feel like I'd blog more in Manaus. Why? The audience for online reading is mostly in the modern, urban world. Everything about Manaus, and the Amazon around it, is alien to them. Alien often translates to, and can easily be made, interesting. A walk down the street, described in detail, feels more interesting there than here in suburban America.

Of course, that's a purely subjective phenomenon. A good writer, and an interested one, could walk the three blocks from here to the local Publix, describe that walk, and rivet us all with the result. It's hard for me to work up that interest. Maybe if I did I'd become a real writer, sell some books, and be free to move.

Imagine that.

Posted by dan at 12:27 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

If you've had trouble reaching dislogue...

I've been having (and BellSouth has been having) real DSL problem here for the last two days. It started with a six hour outage on Thursday night from 3am to about 9:30am. There were a couple of short 15 minute ones on the tail end too. Since then I've bounced at least a dozen times. By bounce I mean I get dumped offline, but when I try a ping to an internet site I'm back on. This wouldn't be a problem except I host my own blog using dynamic dns and the server sits on my network running through that DSL connection. Every time DSL bounces, I get reassigned a new IP address by BellSouth's DHCP server, which means the dislogue server is unreachable until dynamic DNS catches up.

In the process of trying to find the comments problem last week I figured out that leaving the time-to-live setting at the defualts on my DNS entry was a bad idea. This defaulted to 30 minutes or an hour. This meant every time I did something that resulted in a new IP address assignment by BellSouth (like rebooting my router/firewall, which I originally thought was the problem, and probably is) my DNS resolution became obsolete and my server was cut off until that period expired and the old entries cached in people's browsers and DNS servers along the way timed out and were purged. Along with being a pain for me, since I bounce out to the internet and back when I access and maintain it myself (trying to get the user's experience, for purposes of avoiding problems like the comments one, though clearly I don't get exactly the same experience as it turns out), it resulted in some people letting me know they were having trouble reaching it.

So I reset those entries to 5 minutes. This isn't so short as to force a lookup every time someone hits another page, but it's short enough that when DSL bounces (or I do something equivalent) the outage is relatively short. Problem not solved, but it is minimized. If it were left at those default settings the site would have been offline more than half of yesterday, from those dozen or so DSL bounces, not counting the six hours of the major outage.

So if you get a server not found error, wait a few minutes and try again. If BellSouth isn't actually down, you should get through.

Posted by dan at 11:24 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 25, 2003

ebay Virtual Goods Marketing 101

I know, I know, I'm not posting often, and I'm posting about selling virtual goods more than anything, of late. I can only plead guilty to accusations of obsession. I tend to write about my current obsession. The good news is my obsessions aren't terribly static.

That said, I've been playing the ebay marketing game. After the EVE isk market crash of mid September, I've been moving to decrease my holdings steadily. At first I listed a few more 2 mil blocks, playing with the Buy It Now (BIN) feature I can now use. My first attempts were pretty sad. The BIN price was too optimistic, and last minute auctioning closed those deals, at widely varied prices. The first went for $3 per mil, the second for $0.75. The average was a bit better than my expectations at the time but that second sale spooked me.

I decided to accellerate my sell down, so I listed 10 mil with a BIN of $15. I still listed the minimum bid at $1, though, which I now know to be a very bad idea. I got lucky and it sold at the BIN rate promptly.

It's a bad idea to start auctions so low when using BIN due to the fine print in the ebay rules. Any bid on an item aborts the BIN option. So, a minimum $1 bid on that lot would have set off the bidding process that might have resulted in a sale at a much lower price. What this means is that commodity items, such as lots of isk, work pretty well with BIN, but you need to bump the start price higher to avoid bad luck (and good luck for the savvy bidder). With unique items, on the other hand, such as accounts with developed characters, it might be better strategically to get the bidding war going.

That said, the bidding war on the second account I have listed now isn't much of a war. Often the bidding picks up in the last hour or so, so I still have hopes, but it sits at $32 after 9 bids with 9 hours left. That's actually more than I paid for the software, so that's something, but it's no where near what it should sell for based on past sales. I'm still hoping to break $100, and $150 is probably a reasonable expectation. Except the market is slumped.

Following that first 10 mil lot, I listed a second. I still hadn't figured out the twist with BIN, so it too was hung out there for a steal. But it got snapped up at the $17.50 BIN price. I was feeling for a price range where I could reasonable sell off the rest, and I decided it was probably $2 per mil, so I listed a few more 2 mil lots with varied BIN prices (and still $1 mninimum bids). I listed them with higher BINs to see if the low total cost might tempt impulse buyers.

One lot managed to trigger a bid war, which proved an oddity. From the initial bid of $1.50, it skipped up rapidly to $5, then another bidder drove it up to a $14.50 close. This is the auction psychology at work, as that price is way out of line for isk. $7.25 per million isk is around 4 times the average sale price at present. I'm not complaining about that.

But the two other 2 mil lots languish bidless. One I set at $7 BIN, which was optimistic. The other at $5 is reasonable for a no-nonsense impulse buy, but it hasn't found a home yet. I expect the former will see a last minute bid or three trying to steal it in the $1 to $1.50 range. Since it has no bids as yet, it might go for that. The latter has over a day still, so hard to call that one. (While I was writing this, the $5 lot went for the BIN price.)

From these I moved to 5 mil lots with BIN prices of $10. That was the sweet spot. The go within 12 hours pretty steadily. I suspect there's resistance over $10 to impulse buying, I'm testing that now with a BIN of $11. I've also switched to a minimum bid of $9.50 on these. That's about as close to a fixed price sale as I can get at the moment while still maybe triggering a bid war to bump the price up. ebay's cutoff for the minimum listing fee of $0.30 is $10, so I save a bit on fees by keeping the start price under that.

As a side effect of the 5 mil lots selling fast at $10 BIN pricing, I got an email from a buyer offering to buy up to 50 mil at that price. I haven't heard back, but I decided to try to work a deal on 45 mil. That would draw my balance down near zero, just in case the trend line remains negative. For the time being I will stick to accumulating 5 mil lots and selling those as I have them. If the trend line turns up, I might try a bit of trading.

From chatter over on Terra Nova, the slump is widespread in the MMPORPGs. This may be seasonal, back-to-school related. A lot of the SWG accounts for sale say "gone back to college, don't have time to play anymore" or something similar on them. I'm hoping that will let me grab another account or two at steal prices, but so far they seem to bid up to retail or better. Even those with only starter characters tend to sell for $35 or so, which means only a small savings over the retail price of about $45 once shipping figures in, and there's always a small risk of a problem in the transaction or shipping, where there is little in stepping into the local game store. I've set myself a hard limit of $25, unless I'm getting significant benefit beyond the account itself (large cred balances, really good lewt, developed character I'm interested in, etc.). I'm watching three auctions now that close in a few days that might close in my range, but so far I haven't seen any go that low.

Prices on the retail box seem to be holding pretty well. I watch Amazon and GoGamer.com weekly, but after the initial post-release drop to $45 or so, the price has held steady. This suggests the retail box is still moving steadily. In comparison, I picked up my second EVE box for around $25 a mere month or so after release.

I'd really like to get to 30 feedback on ebay, but getting feedback is about like getting tips for performing in the cantina on SWG. Some people, those who have a clue about the game, tip often and well. Many, far too many, seem to never tip entertainers. Since entertainers are the only class that can heal battle fatigue, this is silly. And many serious entertainers have few other options for earning credits. Working up to Master Dancer and Master Musician will consume nearly all of the available skill points, leaving very few to work up basic combat or artisan skills.

The serious ebay player, analogously, are quick to leave feedback. They know it helps others gain more ebay options. I leave feedback immediately upon the close of a transaction (and receipt of delivery, if I'm buying) if all went smoothly. If there was a blip of some sort that makes me wonder, I tend to hold off a few days. As seller, I leave feedback as soon as I receive payment, if it is prompt.

I'm sitting at 14, and am begging one repeat buyer I'm emailing back and forth on the larger sale to leave feedback. He's bought two lots. He's happy and asking me to sell more. But no feedback as yet. The 30 magic number is for fixed price multiple listings. That would have let me list 10 lots of 5 million isk at $10 each (if I chose), and is just easier than tracking a lot of individual listings once I know where I want to price.

Considering it takes about 30 seconds, and is a very simple procedure, it's sad that more buyers don't bother. I could use IDVerify for a $5 fee, but that's until something changes in your account info (address, etc.) and I'd rather be free of that limit, so I'm pressing for that 30 feedback magic number.

But it's possible that ebay isn't the optimal market in the long run anyway. PayPal listings have possibilities, and Google is now launching a new marketplace too.

The one thing one can't do in this area is fix on a set course. Navigating online is like islandhopping in a very crowded sea. And the sandbars move with the tides too.

Posted by dan at 02:49 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 21, 2003

Comments Remain Broken For Now

I just proved that trying to use dial-up and DSL at the same time on my lines fails. It's one or the other. This means I can't easily test my change to my configuration to see if I cleared up the comments problem. Dialing up so I am outside the firewall to test disconnects my server from the internet when DSL goes offline.

If you're reading this, could you please try to post a comment in reply? If you have a problem, it doesn't work, or nothing happens, drop me an email using the link in the sidebar. I'll watch email and take another stab at it.

Update: Nate tried, same problem. So this isn't going to be simple. I would just disable comments, except that too isn't simple, it appears. I'd have to edit them out of all my templates. So, comments are broken until I'm caught up with work and can dig into it.

Posted by dan at 01:09 PM | Comments (0)

Market Leads; Theory Lags

My optimism about being able to get $5 per million isk in the EVE Online external market is looking very ill timed. While I was gone on business for a few days to the West Coast, and mostly cut off from a regular watch on market activity due to very poor telephone lines in the rural hotel in which I stayed, the average price of isk trading dropped more than 50%. When I checked on my return late Thusday night I saw average sale prices of $2 per million. Late last night a block of 88 million went for barely $1.5 per mil.

It may be a temporary softness, but I fear worse. There's clearly an oversupply of isk at present. I mentioned below how for a game its size EVE appeared to have a very active market compared to other games. I had hoped this was related to something different about the game and its players, but it may be symptomatic of something else. It's possible there is a net loss of players, or a gross imbalance in isk burn to isk earn. For some reason more players are willing to sell large amounts of isk than are available to buy that isk. It may be that too many players have more isk than they need to stay active in the roles they choose in the game for themselves.

This may be due either to a too low expense rate or a too high earn rate for most. It may be that my style of mostly-AFK mining is just too easy and too many do it. Or it may be that the game isn't gaining net players. There's always a flow through of players in these games. I know I am terribly jaded, having played online games since their inception over a decade ago (No, Virginia, online gaming did not begin with Ultima Online), and as a result I often burn out in a mere couple of months. That was my experience of EVE, in fact, but I do not expect to reflect "the norm." EVE is set up to be very player-versus-player (PvP) oriented and I am not very interested in most PvP. So I thought nothing of my personal reaction in quickly losing interest, there are few games that hold my interest and those have persisted and prospered just fine. Ultima Online remains popular, as do Everquest and Dark Ages of Camelot, but I have few twinges in their direction (DAoC aside.)

On the topic of the virtual job idea, however, this points not to its prematurity, rather to the need to be very flexible and to move rapidly from opportunity to opportunity. The internet environment is known for exactly this sort of rapidity of movement from idea to idea so this I should have expected (and to some degree did, in the abstract).

As indication, the market has already outstripped my theorizing. Last night, in my depression and desperation over the isk collapse, I was poking around PayPal and I came across a PayPal store listing for a broad range of services in many online games. The listing is for the Everquest Superstore, but, in fact, it deals with a half dozen of the MMPORPGs. The site sells web-authored powerleveling game guides, in-game vgoods, and both sells and buys currencies and game accounts. The store/site is pushing its trusted reputation. It holds a SquareTrade rating from PayPal and features it centrally on the first page. It claims "30,975 items & 245 accounts on 49 servers" (on the Everquest end, which does perdominate). It also offers a brokring service for selling accounts in which it acts as trusted party to verify the truth of claims on accounts. It does this for a flat fee.

Most interesting, though, is their pool of talent willing to level the characters of others from level 1 to level 50 so that those players can participate in the high-level content of the game. From their claims they can do this in about a week, for which they charge $550.

That fee, though undoubtedly shared between the "labor" and the store, represents $28,600 annualized, which puts it into a livable range in the U.S. economy (outside some metropolitan areas, at least), and it's well into the wealthy range in some parts of the world where it is possible to find labor with internet access.

Further probing this morning showed that indeed this store does focus almost entirely on Everquest. Where it deals with other games is in the area of game guides, mostly. It does have a fairly broad offering of powerleveling guides that, from their descriptions, appear likely to be of some value (and are perhaps even better written than the norm for those offered for auction).

Here is yet another opportunity for those who have been giving away their knowledge and writing skills in the past. Rather than write free articles, as I and others have often done, we could go a little farther and write virtual game guides that we actually publish and sell online.

The "dead tree" games guides have reached rip off status, so there is a real market for up-to-date and accurate guides. Game sites are very useful, except to those with insufficient computing horsepower, or with only a single computer, who would prefer to have hardcopy.

A print-friendly guide, perhaps done as a .pdf file, with copyright protection to keep the honest honest, might be worth the additional time in editing and production when compared to what is spent on writing for the free sites.

This area, of course, falls into the ongoing battlefield of intellectual property rights (as does the whole topic of aftermarketing vworlds). The author and publisher of such guides must expect to be pirated. On the other hand, sales of 50 units at $10, or even $5, per unit would probably exceed the potential income from the same material as an article in a gaming magazine, and it would certainly exceed the income from giving it away free (unless part of a larger marketing or business scheme).

The competition is mostly from those with few writing skills. Often the content, the actual information they present, is also trite or of little value. As with any product made with language, the success would rest on the value of the information, the clarity of the presentation, and the entertainment offered by competent use of words. I still remember fondly the first "strategy guides" I ever bought. From the peak, the first Civilization and Rail Road Tycoon guides, that not only went into detail on how the game algorhythms worked, but were actually fun to read, we have fallen today to a level where the guides come out before the game. When players have not yet actually played the game live there is little chance the most interesting strategies have been discovered. In fact, the material presented in these guides often is factually wrong due to last minute changes in the game itself. Game guides are now more often than not the actual game manual, expanding to a hundred pages or so the paltry 25 we often see as the "manual" to a very large and complicated game. But, as with the manuals in these games in the past, last-minute balancing and bug-fixing often renders them factually wrong. "Strategies" presented by the developers or beta-testers are often very high level and not terribly useful because anything more precise will be made wrong before publication.

For games that persist, as do the MMPORPGs, there is room temporally, to produce an after publication guide. However, the dynamic nature of these games, the ongoing balancing, content additions, and bug-fixing still make keeping a guide current an ongoing task. This is where the quality of the writing itself might make the difference.

If a guide is useful and fun, if slightly dated, it may still be sellable, where one that is "just the facts" or "step by step" is made worthless if too many of those facts or steps change.

As far as my market crash goes, I'm not leaping out any vwindows. I am liquidating. Since I can keep my isk income going with mining, I am going to offload my capital on the assumption the market is permanently moving. I'm not doing it in one lump, I am still hoping it's an aberration, but I'm setting up more rapid and steady sales of my existing balance. I also put my second account up for sale late last night. It's all "found money," since I didn't buy the accounts with the intent to earn money from them. It was cheap entertainment on a per hour basis.

As one who worked on Wall Street, I know better than count earnings until the last trade is closed and settled, so I have lost nothing but opportunity. Opportunity is something we lose every moment, so that's hardly new.

I am planning to move operations more into SWG, though the market there is as yet undeveloped. Perhaps that's a good thing. I did buy my first auctioned account a week ago. For $36 I got a slightly developed character, but mostly I got an account for a bit less than the market price for a new box at that instant.

For the moment I'm having fun with two accounts. They let me co-ordinate the performances of my two entertainer characters on Bloodfin (entertainers are not the way to earn creds in SWG). Due to the way SWG is set up, however, two accounts lets me set up and run income-generating businesses on many servers simultaneously. As such, it has very interesting possibilities should the external markets shape up a bit. For the moment the more interesting market appears to be in the sale (though thin, still) of developed characters. I am learning to bootstrap characters very quickly, so I might attempt a scheme where I buy cheap auctioned accounts and build single developed characters on them speficically for resale.

And now back to real work. Need to finish a report for the client I visited this past week, and start on another on medical privacy.

Posted by dan at 12:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Mea Culpa!

I just found an email from Nate at Polytropos telling me my comments systems is broken. I found this after returning from the West Coast where I discovered I cannot add entries to the blog from outside my firewall. Yes, I suspect the two are related, since both work just fine inside the perimeter.

I also found out my dislogue email box isn't being automatically checked, as I thought it was. Nate's entry was dated 9/11. My apologies all around, but especially to Nate since he took the effort to tell me something was broken.

I'm on it.

By the way, Nate, nice work on the remodeling. No, I mean the blog, not the trees!

Posted by dan at 12:02 PM | Comments (0)

September 18, 2003

The Virtual Job

I made my first sale of virtual goods, in this case the vworld of EVE Online currency, on August 17. It was my first auction on ebay at the same time, so it was an experiment and a learning experience. I studied the market for a week or so in advance, so I knew how others were selling, and to write a good description and terms of sale to ensure all was clear to potential buyers.

I also tried to add a little value by explaining just what the 10 million isk I was auctioning represented in game. Though the audience for that much currency is probably established players wanting to avoid the grind of mining or trade, some newcomers might consider it. It's really more than you need to get started.

My main terms were PayPal payments only, and payment to be made within 48 hours of the end of auction. Trading in virtual world goods tends to be very instant gratification oriented. We have the ability to make delivery near instantly, once payment is confirmed, if we order our auctions so that they end at times we can be virtually present in game. The main delay is the ebay imposed length of auctions which are set to a minimum of 3 days. This can be gotten around once one is an established trader on ebay with at least 10 positive feedback entries with the "Buy Now" offering for a small additional fee, but I started with only one feedback from an old purchase. No "Buy Now" usage for me, yet.

Trading in isk was running around an average of $4 per million. That first auction ended at $46 for my 10 million, so I was pleased. Within an hour of the close I had received payment and logged in and delivered the isk by in game money transfer. EVE is a science fiction game so money transfers are easy, and are also free. Player to player direct transactions are not taxed at all in EVE. Sales to NPCs, on the other hand, incur a small, invisible tax. This is even shown in the main records of transactions, one has to delve into the journal of credit receipts and disbursals to see that a small amount is being deducted.

This one first transaction nearly covered the cost of the original boxed game. I think I paid full retail (roughly $50, with sales tax). I later bought a second box on sale for about $30, and the monthly fees are (I think) $13 per account per month after the first month, which is included in the cost of the software itself. The infrastructure to play was already in place, the computers, networking gear and the DSL line, so I haven't added those costs in. A real analysis should, of course.

Following that first sale, I went on a spree of 2 million isk lots. This amount represents a good jump start for new players, allowing them to buy several frigates and the skill packs to fly them and gear to equip them. They can thus bypass the grind of mining or running missions that pay little to raise the isk to get into the combat part of them game. It's possible to go combat nearly from they start, if, and it's a fairly big if, you already know what you're doing. I did it with my second account to see if it's possible. You need to pick your targets carefully, and know your gear and tactics, but it's very doable. The starter shipa (the infamous newb shipa) are actually better for this than more advanced ones (assuming a cold start) as repairs cost nothing on the newb ships. You can take a beating, dock for repairs, and go back out for more, with no high repair bills as you would otherwise see. Your only cost is ammo, and that can be eliminated if you train in lasers as soon as possible and use those.

I changed to the 2 million lots mostly for practical reasons. I wanted to do more sales so I could better gauge the market, and so I could build feedback faster. I had around 100 million isk in capital when I made that first sale, and I need to preserve around 50 million as working capital to be able to capitalize on occasional and very profitable trade opportunities. When a commodity appears at an unusually low price, and you know where there are steady markets, it pays to buy up all you can.

Through Sept 5 I made an additional 7 sales of 2 million lots, and one big one of 50 million. I had made a couple more purchases on ebay also, so at this point I achieved 10 positive feedback and could offer "Buy Now" lots. I have only made one of 2 million, thus far, and it went quickly for the "Buy Now" price of $10. If that pattern holds I can expect $5 per million, which would be a nice improvement. I didn't quite manage the $4 number on the big lot. The 50 million grossed me only $177.50. Sales were off generally when that auction closed. It was the holiday weekend, and my expectation of more traffic was off. My top sale was $12.50 for 2 million, my lowest was $4.50.

So far I've sold 74 million isk for $286.01. That works out to $3.86 per million. The "Buy Now" sale at $10 ($5 per million) encourages me that I can work the average up. At the moment I'm left with about 70 million isk. That means I made about 40 million isk in the period, which would represent about $150 in a bit under a month. That is one account only, the second has been sitting inactive (aside from training). I will probably auction the second account soon. Or maybe I will work on getting a dead Win box running again and expand operations.

The time spent playing has actually been minimal since I've been mostly mining with my big transport ship. It's slow, since it can only mount one mining laser, but my character's skill is high. Filling the hold takes a couple of hours, so I set it to mining in a safe sector and go work or do something else on my other system. When I hear the mining laser cut off I either switch to another asteroid, or if the ship is full, hit base to unload and head back out to repeat the process. Thus, I could easily double this with the second account running on a second computer. At the moment I don't have a third Win box running, or I probably would. With the computers and accounts, it would be easy to do this with 10-12 boxes. That represents a significant investment in capital for a gamer, but since the boxes could be lower end of the spectrum of acceptable performance, they could be gotten for $500 or so each. At this points accounts can be had for $20 or so. With some cables and a big network hub (and good air conditioning), a farm could be hand run (avoiding the macro issue) and something on the order of $20,000 per year earned above costs without too much difficulty. just some real virtual "work" managing it.

The real issue is would there be enough demand to support that sort of virtual business. EVE is a fairly small game, so one or two efforts of that scale might be sustainable, but more might increase supply too much. For a game about the size of an SWG or EQ single server, EVE trades very well. I see far more activity in EVE items and isk than I do on a single SWG server. A rough estimate is that EVE trades an order of magnitude more than SWG per capita. I'm not sure why this is. It may just be that EVE is a little more mature than SWG, or it may be something in the nature of the games themselves. It may also be related to differences in stated management policy on such trading. I haven't examined EQ at depth, but it appeared trading there and on DAoC was thinner per capita than EVE also. My impression of UO, on the other hand, is that it's pretty freewheeling.

None of these games are as amenable to unattending income producing activities (macroing aside) except maybe SWG with its resource gathering. Of the market in SWQ credits livens up, running massive farms of harvesters would be one way to do a lot of unattended production. Once sufficient capital is in hand, a suite of accounts could all be managed from a single computer, another advantage. I hope this develops since I am having more fun actually playing SWG than EVE. More on that in another post.

One development of the "Buy Now" ability is that I can no longer predict when I will need to make a delivery. Before I just timed auctions to end when I would be available. With the Buy Now feature the sale couple happen, and payment be received, from 1 second after I list right up to the 3 day end of the auction. I have a very solid record of delivering fast that I would like to preserve, so this will force me to change expectations. I need to reword my terms to relect the fact that a buyer exercizing the Buy Now option may need to wait up to 24 hours to receive delivery after payment due to my lack of control over the scheduling of the purchase. It's a good problem to have from my end, though.

I can envision an ebay shop with stock offerings of EVE isk, SWG credits (by server), and more, at some time in the not distant future. The only thing that might prevent it is changes in the game management, policies, and enforcement.

Posted by dan at 02:16 AM | Comments (0)

September 16, 2003

Terra Nova

There's a new blog for the games out there, especially those interested in the social and economic implications of virtual worlds. It's called Terra Nova, and it features Julian Dibbell and Edward Castronova (How did he get part of his name in the blog's name?), mentioned below, along with a couple of others. Dan Hunter is an Assistant Professor of Legal Studies at Wharton, and Greg Lastowka is an intellectual property lawyer. After I got an email from Edward, annoucing the blog, I dropped in and saw there are already some comments arguing with and extending the discussion of the first posts.

If you are involved in online multi-player games, and in their wider implications on ethics, law, economics and social issues, this may well develop into the place to go. It's certainly off to a good start.

Posted by dan at 02:27 AM | Comments (1)

September 12, 2003

Picture from Vietnam Veterans for Truth Rally Sept 12, 2004

Vietnam Vets for Truth Rally

Vietnam Vets for Truth Rally

Vietnam Vets for Truth Rally
Jim Warner

Vietnam Vets for Truth Rally

Vietnam Vets for Truth Rally

Vietnam Vets for Truth Rally

Vietnam Vets for Truth Rally

Vietnam Vets for Truth Rally
"Black Bart's" daughter

Vietnam Vets for Truth Rally
John O'Neill

Vietnam Vets for Truth Rally

Posted by dan at 08:25 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

On the "Moral Repugnancy" of External Markets for Virtual Goods

Julian Dibbell (Play Money), whom I mentioned below, brought up the issue of the ethics of selling virtual world goods for real world (out of the "proper" virtual world) money. He recently starred in an NPR segment on his project to file his 2004 income tax return with his primary source of revenue coming from his trading of virtual goods. There the majority of his callers found his actions reprehensible, and he himself admits to mixed feelings on the ethics of the activity. I shared this distaste for many years, decades even. But I have a distaste for cleaning my gutters too, and I do that. For that matter I'm not crazy about having to work for a living.

But more seriously, those who don't game may not understand the dilemma the less ethically challenged face. Playing role-playing games (most especially, but it applies to some degree to other games too) has traditionally been about the journey, not the destination. One starts with a weak, sort of come-of-age, character, and through dealing with hardships, challenges, and flat out battles, leads him or her ("her" hereafter, because I play mostly female characters these days, it's more challenging role-play) through a process of maturation and development of real skills in her chosen field. Eventually she ends up a super hero in powers, able to handle all but the most advanced and deadliest circumstances with little effort. To a true role-player, the goal is not that state, it's the process of "being" the character, of becoming so involved that you just twitch the way the character you've created would, not the way you normally would. If you're a guy playing a girl, you act like a real girl (within the cultural millieu of the game) would, not the way an adolescent boy enduring an excess of testosterone wishes she would. If you're a guy playing a coward, when faced with danger you do a Monty Python, you run away, you don't whip out a six-foot greatsword and go to town slicing and dicing.

This is not the way the majority of those who play these games play. Even so, the idea, the meme of the role-played character or game, endures subliminally within the community. A larger proportion of players than actually ascribes to hardcore ideas of roleplay acknowledges the concept and its ideal. This group clashes with another, the mostly later generation, or the less geekly, who came up playing shooters they call role-playing games, such as Diablo. (To a purist, calling Diablo a role-playing game is like suggesting Ripple is wine to a connoisseur.) To them the object is to be bigger and badder than all the other guys. It is this latter group that drives the out-of-game markets for in-game goods, I believe. That's not to say that some role-players don't participate. We do. But we do it with knee-jerk reservations that we have to overcome first, we don't gleefully dive into a wheeler-dealer free market in virtual goods that we see as a bit tawdry.

With that as context, I've examined my own thinking on the subject. Considering such trade tawdry is, in fact, a bit absurd. The logic is missing. If, and it's a big if, everyone agreed that the driving idea of these games is to start weak and grow strong, and the process is the object, the logic that buying your way ahead is improper would make sense. But is this idea what is roleplay?

The market has long decided it is not. I don't mean the market of virtual goods; that has simply confirmed it; I mean the market for these games themselves. Dungeons & Dragons, the granddaddy of the genre, eventually worked in schemes that allowed players to begin with more developed characters. Later, at conventions and such, pickup sessions were arranged with pre-created characters of levels of power far beyond anything that could be considered starter. This progressed to where in other games, such as Warhammer Roleplay, characters can be created that have "pre-endured" through multiple prior careers, all through a roll of dice (as in Traveller) or through specific player choices. They thus have a broad range of useful skills, though they normally start the game as characters just starting off in a new career. Other games, such as Ars Magica and Vampire start the player with a powerful character. The former, especially, focuses very strongly on "storytelling," character development in the literary sense as opposed to character development in the power sense. Thus we can see the paradigm has shifted away from the original meme. Role-play is more about acting, character development in a literary sense where a character is made more real, with flaws and strengths, rather than in the cardboard power sense where the character has all super-hero strengths. This undercuts the moral argument against an external market even among the roleplayers because many games give them no mechanism to start off with the character they envision.

For example, say Bob, who loves playing bards, wants to play a great bard from a far country, well-known there, but a nobody in the present land. In most games before he can reasonably present himself as a great bard he must find a way to "grind" out levels and levels of experience so that he has a skill set that can impress people (in game and out). If he pretends to be a great bard with a typical starting bard character, he will lack the funds to even set himself up with proper equipment and clothing. He will be more of a clown, pretending to be a great bard, than what he wishes to roleplay. An external market, and a bit of real world dollars, allows him to buy what he needs, perhaps even a developed bard character.

What he is buying is someone else's time. He wants to play a specific sort of character that he can't get within the normal game mechanics without a large investment of time. He also has to wait while it develops before he can go into his role. As a serious roleplayer, this means he either becomes known as a developing bard, which ruins his backstory, or he goes off somewhere alone, plays mostly solo and in secret, to develop the character, then "comes out" when he's ready. I've done this. It's tedious.

One could argue that the games themselves should allow this. I agree, but there are major issues revolving around them being games and balancing effort and reward on a character (as opposed to player) basis. Would there be any weaklings otherwise? In a game played purely by roleplayers there would, but in a game dominated by the ex-Diablo group the weaklings will be rarities. They might not be proportionately represented even on a roleplaying server. Few of us aspire to be weaklings, even in a fantasy context.

Ideally a game population should be a cross-section of society. Practically, as games mature, that is difficult to maintain. The low-level content is bypassed. This may make the developers unhappy from an artistic point of view, but they shouldn't let their ideal overwhelme the reality of what their customr base seeks. They could give them all superheros to start, but if veryone is a superhero, is anyone a superhero? It's better to let the market sort out issues of status. And status is always a slippery thing. Some come to it the "proper" way, through their own effort, others clamber up the shoulders of others, sometimes by chaining those others into place first. Allowing, even encouraging, a real market in virtual goods and avatars, gives players more choices in how they choose to play without directly affecting the game world's internal balance. Buying something "outside" that is actually inside that "vworld" (I'm going to coin a word here, it's easier) doesn't create any wealth or property inside the vworld; it simply moves it from one player's control to another. In a strict, roleplay sense, one character gives another something for inexplicable (or unknown to others) reasons. This happens often in real life; we don't explain every apparently unreasonable transaction to others.

This jump-starting is no different from the way our society deals with other leisure activities. If we look at other sports and hobbies, our free market has long decided that it's worth money to buy instant (or more instant) effects when it comes to fun time. An example of a sport in which this controversy also exists, to some degree, is fly fishing. That too is an art driven by purism. Fly fishing, compared to most other forms of fishing, stacks the odds against the fisherman and in favor of the fish. The traditional meme of fly fishing involves communing with nature more than catching fish. The great literature of fly fishing is as much literary as goal-driven. What it teaches and exemplifies is a state of mind, more than a how-to guide on catching more fish using flies. But as the sport became "modern," especially in the last two decades, the how-to aspect moved in. Scientific studies on the reactions and habits of fish, on the insects and other fauna they eat, and on the presentation of flies began to dominate the books published. Many of these maintained high standards of writing, and certainly of information, but there has been a shift away from the success of the experience per se to the success of the experience as in "I caught a boatload of fish and most were hogs."

This is the effect of technology on sports. As the technology gets better, more people with fewer skills can "succeed" without paying the usual, and historical, price in pain and practice. One could argue that fishing guides are morally repugnant because they make the fishing too easy. It should be hard. But that's simple hardcore purism, not practical market theory.

People want to do what they want to do; they don't want to spend years, or a lifetime, to reach the point where they can do what they want to do. If there's a shortcut, and it's not flat out illegal, most of us will pounce on it. Some will even if it's illegal. The smart businessman finds a way to help people get what they want easier than they otherwise could. For most, it's easier to earn a few hundred, or a few thousand, dollars working their day-to-day job, than spend ten times that amount of time developing in game what they can buy for those real world dollars. Or they can spend it to pay a fishing guide who puts them onto fish and may even helps them hook the fish, rather than spending months, years, or a lifetime learning the fish, the water, the area, the weather, and the innumerable variables that a studied fisherman knows almost subconsciously (but not quite) from years of steady fishing.

Yes, to a degree seeing these "sports" (as the clients of fishing guides are called) annoys the purist who did earn the skill the traditional way. It always will. It's the conflict between the dilettante and the amateur (in the traditional sense of "for love") and the professional. The first wants the experience without the normal price. He may pay a different price willingly, even gladly. The second wants the experience, and the pride of earning the skill with sweat, tears and maybe even blood. The third wants to profit from the experience, so is willing to invest sweat, tears, and maybe blood for the eventual payoff in something other than the experience. All three classes of sports, or players, make up a community. Attempts to limit a player base, or a sport base, to just one class will, in the long run, destroy the game, or the sport, as a working market. As such, it will doom it to failure.

I've come around to thinking that online massively multi-player games should encourage out-of-game trading. They should, in fact, find a way to profit further from it. This will lead to better profits for them, which in turn means more money to invest in making games better. Ignoring the potential income of such activity, and not seeing the players who make a bit of money from it themselves, as a benefit to other players is flat silly. If it weren't a real benefit, why would people actually pay "real" money for the service?

Greed and selfishness are human traits that cannot be eliminated, but they can be channeled. The free market is one of the best ways we've found to channel those less-than savory drives. Use it, or lose it. Someone else will come along who will find a way to use it better, and you will fade into history.

Julian cites an article by Raph Koster on this topic with regards to Ultima Online. He makes similar points. He's a developer of that game, so his thinking is especially interesting from that perspective.

A note on the sex of players of these games: Though these are mostly guy games, girls are more apt to play real role-play games online in my experience. They tend to dislike the combat aspect, and prefer the social aspect and crafting, on the whole. But the opportunity for real roleplay is there and many of the larger games have offered, or players have created ad hoc, servers more focused on roleplay. It's hard to get a real picture of what sex the players are without attending conventions and actually meeting the players, though. Role-play often extends beyond the game in these groups, so someone may present himself as female outside the game world too, when he is not. For the record, I avoid that, though I don't always tell people the person behind the character is a guy. Sometimes I just say nothing. Since we are characters within a defined world, players are "OOC" and really don't pertain, in any case. But I'm not the hard-core purist. If they ask, and they are someone I interact with regularly, I tell them.

Posted by dan at 12:29 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 11, 2003

Another Plane

Another plane of innocent people went down and is largely forgotten. I got an email from my Dad, who’s back in the Amazon filling in for the missionary pilots who are on furlough, saying the “Air Bridge” is back in operation in Peru. This is the joint US-Peru operation where suspect (meaning, not presently identified, whether due to nefarious intent, or mistakes on the part of the operation or civil Peruvian authorities) are ordered to land (possibly on the wrong radio channels), fired on in warning, and then shot down.

Okay, that comes off a bit cynically. Yes, that’s exactly my emotion. To try to keep drugs from flowing into the country, which clearly has a huge consumer demand for drugs, we shoot down planes in other countries. Some of these planes are innocent civilian traffic. Some contain American missionaries and their small children who represent the best of what the United States offers the world.

Where is the outrage among advocates against the death penalty when a plane with innocent children is shot down summarily in an effort to curb American appetites, or curb sating them, for drugs? At least those executed for crimes are first allowed a trial.

I never met Roni Bowers or her young children. I did, however, know her husband when his father served with mine in Benjamin Constant, in the Amazon. Jim Bowers followed in his Dad’s footsteps as a missionary pilot. Both saved many lives with emergency flights. They also served as communications to the outside world for missionaries in other roles, including those serving at a Baptist Hospital in Santo Antonio, far downstream. Because we, as a country, cannot handle our lusts for sensation, our cravings for immediate gratification such as that offered in drug-induced hazes, we as a country try to enforce better conduct by stopping the drug flow (however ineptly) to meet that demand. In the process we sacrifice the innocent to protect the guilty. Then we mourn for a day, or a week, and go on doing the same.

Whether or not you believe in a Christian God who offers salvation, you will be hard pressed to argue that what these missionaries do is not at least as, if not more, worthy as the service of the Peace Corps. Bragging on my Dad now, if you wish to try, explain how it is the Brazilian government saw fit to award him the highest medal a civilian can hold. Dad was awarded A Medalha do Pacificador, “The Peacemaker Medal,” a couple decades ago. These missionaries save lives, teach, show people how to make something more of themselves, and do it on what is low middle class or high poverty levels of income. Of course, where they serve they appear to be rich to most of the locals.

So, now, they are once again in danger of being killed by our own government. And, the promise by the Peruvian government to make good the replacement of the Cessna floatplane that was lost remains unfulfilled. I am an advocate of small government, of fewer government doles, but this is a case in which I think it would be in the country’s interest for the United States to accept a bit more responsibility. We should replace the plane as a country, since we had shared responsibility in its destruction. We can then pressure the Peruvians to repay that amount, rather than forcing the mission to patiently wait for Peru to get around to it (if ever they do).

I am an advocate of the legalization of drugs. I am so because the current state of things offloads the pain, death and destruction resulting from the monopolizing of the traffic in drugs by those who live outside society, the criminals. I am no advocate of drug use. They are a waste. But we are individuals responsible for ourselves. Because we choose to form a state, we have some shared responsibility, but that is for our collective acts (even if we disagree with them). Individually we each must choose whether to do what is right and proper, or whatever gratifies the moment’s lust.

Let’s stop blaming others for our own faults. As a nation we are responsible for our use of drugs. Those who try to make a living (where real poverty makes our “poor” appear rich) selling us what we unwisely crave are not. Make drugs legal, most of the problems, aside from those stemming from the use of the drugs themselves, will vanish. We’ll have to deal with our users, but countries like Peru and Colombia will be forced by free markets to find more profitable, and less destructive, ways to make a living.

God gives us a choice on which rests the salvation of our souls. That choice if of far more consequence than whether or not to use drugs. Our country, following the wisdom of the founders, sees fit to avoid "helping" us to make decisions concerning our souls. It should also stay out of other areas of personal responsibility, as long as they do not overtly affect others.

If you’re interested, Kristen Stagg has written a biography of Roni Bowers. From a literary perspective it lacks, the structure is unwisely designed, but it does a good job of giving a glimpse into the life and thinking of a modern missionary. It’s If God Should Choose, and Amazon has it.

Books mentioned:

Kristen Stagg
If God Should Choose

Posted by dan at 03:42 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

On That Morning

On that morning I was driving my Explorer down I-85, after the convergence of Ga-400 and before the meeting with I-75, towards downtown Atlanta, heading for the World Congress Center. I forget which trade show it was, but I was then working for a company which no longer exists. I was listening to the local PBS radio station, probably Morning Edition, when I heard that a plane had crashing into the World Trade Center.

My first thought, having grown up in and around planes, was that there must be bad weather in New York and the plane must have had serious instrument troubles. The T word had not yet been mentioned, but it did seep in, and was immediately rejected, as a possibility. It just seemed too weird.

I went on, listening for updates, but everything was pretty confused. Traffic wasn’t too bad since the worst of rush hour was past. I raced a few lights, grabbed my parking ticket, and wove my way up the multi-story ramp to park. When I reached the main exhibit hall I noted small clusters of exhibitors around booths that had televisions. In our booth one computer was set up to monitor CNN’s site. We had a hard time staying connected as the load simply overwhelmed the site.

There were rumors of another plane crashing into the other tower. Most of us shook it off as confused reporting. But everyone stood clustered around the few televisions on the show floor, or huddled at terminals trying to get through the internet crush as millions tried to get the latest news from the news sites. We timed out constantly, trying to reach CNN that was about a block away across the street in the CNN Center. I had the idea to try The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s site, and that wasn’t as pounded.

It became clear it was terrorists. I know I had a sick feeling in my stomach and the knowledge that the world as we thought we knew it was gone. Islamic fanaticism was going to be a major issue in the time to come. It was impossible not to think of Revelations, and the coming of war to the Middle East.

It also made me recall a similar earth-shaking event, and others still. I was at work, at Televideo, when Challenger exploded shortly after launch. My emotions were similar: deep, stomach-churning sadness for those who lost loved ones, and sadness for the country itself. I felt a fear for what the emotion of the moment might drive us as a country to do. Would the explosion gut NASA and destroy the space program? It drove me to become involved in space advocacy for years.

I remember coming down the stairs in a rented house in Grand Rapids, Michigan to see Mom with the iron suspended in one hand watching television, the ironing forgotten. I heard the President, John F. Kennedy, had been shot. That memory is fainter, I was seven years old, but I remember the uncertainty it brought, the knowledge of coming change.

The most recent event of this order was the second shuttle loss. I was working at home, the television tuned to Fox News, when bulletins scrolled across the bottom saying contact had been lost with the re-entering shuttle. From the stated delay, I knew it was in trouble, at a minimum. My stomach already told me it was gone.

As much as we want things to become better, we fear change with an irrational and gut-level fear. With enough life experience we know that every action has unintended consequences, and when something happens that we know will drive change, we worry.

But we should, in fact, be constantly worried. There are no pivotal moments; today is an ongoing process. Now is past before we can even think it. Change is constant.

All we can do is try our best to think through our actions. And we must act; we cannot help it. Even “doing nothing” is acting. Our very individual existence mutates what will become tomorrow according to how we choose to act. We can’t let others act for us; only we can act for ourselves. We can’t act for another; only he can act for himself.

Too much philosophizing, but days like this lead one in that direction. While philosophizing is too, of course, an action, it’s not the one I need now, so back to that.

Let’s not forget what happened two years ago. Let’s act in the way we believe proper and do what we must. And let’s not feel guilty when it conflicts with others doing likewise. We each chose. We each choose.

Posted by dan at 03:01 PM | Comments (0)

September 09, 2003

Memory's Teeth

“Nature red in tooth and claw”
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It was the flight out that held prominence in memory at first, the great hand of gravity dragging me towards the clawing trees as the red and white floatplane, more effortlessly than expected, lifted lightly above them. “We could have made it out with the other two,” Dad remarked as he steadied us in a course downstream where we were to meet the other two men, a place wider and longer. These places were far up in the hump of Brazil that curls against the crags of Peru. Here the rivers run quick and narrow, unlike the main flows farther north where the waters, tan and lazy, roll sluggishly east.

Some days earlier we had arrived, landing far downstream to let off the two men with us. Then Dad and I, who was skinny enough to be insignificant in weight and balance envelopes, made the landing in the straight stretch closest to the village. The wing tips seemed to overlap the banks, and, in fact, the trees near the banks had been cut back for greater clearance.

When it came time to leave, we taxied in the Cessna-185 floatplane, just Dad and I again, far up to the bend at the top of the stretch where a downed tree blocked further passage. After studying the stretch, one already carefully clocked in flyby passes before the landing, Dad tied a long yellow nylon rope to the strut which had supported the tail wheel before the conversion to floats, tossed that over the thick bole of the tree, then climbed back into the pilot seat with the other end wrapped around his left arm. The plane was already facing downstream; now it was held against the pull of the swift current also. Then, as was not quite exceptional but not entirely normal either, he bowed his head and prayed.

He did not release the rope, but rather revved the engine until the hand holding the rope trembled, then with the engine near full power let the rope slip and we blasted off downstream, the rope trailing behind like a victory banner or the strand of a web that had failed to catch us. One fast-growing palm had thrust back up near shore high enough to bang against the wing’s leading edge as we rose atop the water on the step. It left a small crinkled place as permanent reminder of that first flight from where no plane had lifted off before.

I remember watching the banks and the crowding jungle flash by. I was looking out the side window either because I could not see over the raised nose of the plane, or because I could not bear watching the too swift approach of the solid wall of trees bearing down upon us from ahead. But they could not catch our wings, nor tangle the trailing rope. We made our appointment downstream, then continued the flight back to the broader, longer places of the rivers.

For all the thrill and terror of that flight, what is more vivid now is another thing. From that streamside we hiked a long trail up into the hills to the main village of the tribe. Perhaps the trail was not so long as it is in my memory, for that trail was well traveled. I do not recall if there was a source of water closer to the village, or if that trail was employed for carrying water, I tend to think the latter for it was lined with a variety of cultivated plants. One particular variety caught my interest, its bright green leaves contrasting sharply with the flaming red tooth-shaped seed pods basking in puddles of bright sun seeping from above the trail. It is said the chili pepper originated somewhere in the Andes or in the Amazon basin just east. Their presence here in that Amazon basin, with a tribe barely in contact with the outside world, suggests one or the other is true. At the time I neither knew that Columbus brought this promethean culinary gift to the world from his contacts with the Caribbean tribes, nor wondered at the presence of this fruit in such a remote place, but I now wonder that something from there has so conquered the rest of the world, even before that place itself has barely been touched.

The bird pepper is a tiny incendiary. As we hiked that trail I would occasionally pluck one and toy with it in the way children do. I was perhaps ten. No one commented. There were many, many bushes and peppers, a surfeit for the community. I tend to believe now they were grown for ornamental reasons as much as for their value as a spice. I accumulated a handful along the way back, then threw them away.

Or so I thought. When a bit later I rubbed my mouth I discovered they were still, in essence, in my hands. The capsaicin’s fire bit at the delicate tissues of my lips quickly and persistently. Water did nothing but contribute a small topical cooling. Once its effect was felt, it vanished before the persistent gnawing of the capsaicin. Several remedies were suggested, tried, and discarded in rapid succession. I recall, in the end, rubbing toothpaste on my lips. Whether that contained a neutralizing agent or whether the heat had run its course I cannot say, but after that the biting heat became bearable, and sometime thereafter vanished.

Some things persist beyond their visible presence. The memory of those peppers comes back to me at the oddest moments. It is said we forget pain very quickly, which is a great blessing, so the heat and fire burning my lips, at best a diffuse glow now in recollection, must not be the agent of memory.
Other memories of that place and time persist: a long trip upstream in a canoe in search of a giant black caiman; eating from black-scorched communal pots, one full of plantain mush, another holding boiled manioc, a third stewed meat from which one was as apt to retrieve the hand of a monkey as a rib of peccary, or breast of wildfowl. But it is a story that I remember most, perhaps because there imagination more than memory works.

There was an Indian hunter who hunted jaguars. He was of the Marubus, a highland tribe, tall and solid, gleaming, bronzed muscle, fine, white teeth, and thick, jet hair cut bluntly with a gourd bowl as a guide. The Marubu contact with the “civilized” world had been sparse and sporadic. From these contacts they had acquired the most basic staples: sugar, salt, machetes, axes, and shotguns. The shotguns were the Amazonian standard 16 gauge, single-shot, break-at-the-breech variety. The shells they loaded were green paper with a brass base. Everyone loaded his own shells with primers, and black powder, a notoriously unpredictable propellant, especially in the omnipresent humidity of that rainforest.

This hunter was typical, very frugal with his powder and shot as must be those who barter them from outsiders. He would re-melt his lead slug and recast it as a solid ball. He would measure his powder to the short side, to stretch one more shot from his pouch. There was no scrimping on primers; it was simply one per shot. These circumstances did not deter nor slow those who learned to hunt with bow and arrow or blowgun. They were already accustomed to the long, slow stalk, or the hours of waiting at a salt lick or water hole for the perfect shot that assured them a good hit and a kill. The impatient hunters had long ago starved; need is a stern teacher.

Before contact with outsiders, the hunting of a jaguar, were it done at all, would perhaps be some sort of rite of passage. The jaguar pelt was prized for its color and pattern, but the technology of tanning and preserving hides was not very developed in a climate where things rot so quickly. Plant fibers, vegetable dyes, and colorful feathers were more often employed for dress and ornamentation. But after the hunger for salt was kindled, the tooth for sweets was honed, and the itch for the power of gunpowder and steel was stimulated, patterns shifted. Now beasts not hunted often in the past became staple prey simply because they were the most valuable trade items with outsiders. High on this list with the caiman hide was the pelt of the jaguar.

So this Indian hunted jaguars. Essential to this hunt are dogs, as the jaguar is a wily and invisible prey best hunted by scent. Once the cat was treed by a pack of good dogs, the hunter could carefully place his shot so as to not harm the hide any more than necessary; this meant a careful head shot.

He found the spoor of a cat and set his dogs on the trail. Some hours later the chase finally ended below a tree into which the jaguar had climbed, tired of trying to lose the dogs. After the run through the jungle, a place in which every other tree or plant has thorns (or so it seems to those trying to run through it), in humidity hovering near the dew point, not to mention the continual heat, this must be the easy part, one would think. So the hunter must have thought. He raised his 16 gauge to his shoulder and sighted along the barrel, placing the brass bead at the end so that it centered on the forehead of the snarling cat, then pulled the trigger.

The resultant cloud of blue smoke, the signature of black powder cartridges, probably obscured his view for several crucial seconds. Whether the force of the shot knocked the cat from the tree or it simply leapt from the tree itself, he probably did not know, but he did soon know that rather than simply dropping to the ground, the jaguar was upon him where he stood with his single shot fired, his shotgun now effectively a steel and wood club.

The jaguar’s method of killing involves crushing vertebrae in the neck, severing the spinal cord. This is normally accomplished by dropping upon their prey from above and behind, or at least leaping upon them from behind if no convenient perch is available. In this case the jaguar was in front of the hunter, the normal approach was impossible, so it simply leapt and clamped its powerful teeth directly onto and into the skull of the hunter.

Thus began the dance macabre. The hunter was not killed by the jaguar either. Each had taken one shot, as it were, and each had only succeeded in wounding the other. In each case the skull had saved them, withstanding massive attacks, one by a lead slug, the other by large, powerful, piercing teeth. About them swirled a swarm of dogs, probably not more than four or five, perhaps as few as two, growling and biting at the jaguar. The Indian himself somehow managed to throw off the cat, but had no time to break his gun, eject the shell (not always a simple procedure with reused paper cases which expanded with the shot), fetch another from his pouch, and reload. So, facing a huge, snarling cat, he resorted to that first and most primitive of killing implements. A shotgun makes a rather good club, actually, if held by the barrel and swung firmly so that the heavier stock connects with the target. How he could see to aim with the blood that must have been streaming from his head, how he could hold the barrel of the gun with hand that must have been slickened with blood, how he himself remained standing covered in that same blood, I can only imagine. Perhaps he aimed at the snarling screams of the jaguar. In any case, the jaguar was finally overcome, though the gun was ruined, and the Indian was severely hurt. Though it can only be conjecture now, I imagine one or more of the dogs must have been gravely hurt or killed in this fracas also. Most good hunting dogs will put themselves between the hunted animal and the hunter, even at the cost of their own lives.

He skinned the cat, and for good measure, took its skull also. Then he walked back to the village where he collapsed.

This is where my father saw him, some days later, when he was at the village visiting. By the time he arrived the hunter was delirious and in very grave condition. The jaguar’s teeth had penetrated his skull and the resultant infection reached into his brain driving him mad. He died very shortly thereafter.
Perhaps it is the circularity of the situation and the resulting irony that makes this tale so memorable to me. If the hunter had not been hunting jaguars, this would not have happened. But he was hunting jaguars so he could trade their pelts for powder and shot. The powder and shot was mostly necessary for hunting the larger game, especially jaguars, as blowguns and bows and arrows worked well for birds and monkeys, and those are generally more common in any case. To save on powder he was loading his shell “light,” trimming back the grains of powder, and perhaps as a result the slug did not in this case penetrate the jaguar’s skull. All the “ifs” seem to swirl around in a cloud of sulfurous blue smoke.

But maybe the irony isn’t it. Maybe what makes this story stay with me is the picture of a noble, but savage, beast, the jaguar, shot in the head, its thick skull taking the shot and holding, not fleeing from the superior and unintelligible technology of man, but leaping straight at him, his tormentor, and attempting to turn the table. And then, that man, wounded, after using a technology that had failed him, rather than turning and fleeing at the failure, seeing in the form of the new tool an older one, reaching back and into himself and overcoming this manifestation of pure natural power by meeting it on its own terms, tooth and claw and club.

That is an imagined picture. Not only was I not there to see the scene, I never met the protagonist, nor was the protagonist able to ever recount exactly what happened to my father, from whom came the skeleton of the memory my own imagination has long since fleshed out.

Not knowing is more memorable than knowing, thus the flight out, at the time the most vivid memory, paled to the mysterious but burning heat of the bird peppers. And that fire faded before something veiled in the shadows of time, distance, and death.

Posted by dan at 12:07 PM | Comments (0)