Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Shinya Yamanaka won a Nobel Prize in Physiology for his work with stem cells.  Apparently, he's found a way to create stem cells without using embryonic stem cells.  This is a good thing because it avoids some of the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells.  Whether or not you feel there are moral implications in the use of stem cells isn't that important.  Allowing the scientists to do their job without the political battles, religious leaders butting in, and people weighing in on all the issues except the actual research is much better for everyone but the philosophers from an efficiency stand point.

But this article in Slate which talks about the moral relief that Dr. Yamanaka's brings to that area of science raises some good points and ignores some others.  One, is obviously the troublesome issues surrounding using embryonic stem cells can be avoided.  There's no longer any good reason to not fund this research.

One of the things I think it ignores is that stem cell research was the only reason anyone talked about the destruction, or preservation, of the embryos from artificial insemination.  Personally, I don't really have an opinion about any of these embryos one way the other, but the moral certitude that the Christian right approaches stem cell research was always blatantly hypocritical when they weren't equally as aggressive about artificial insemination.  No one really wants to talk about those embryos b/c who wants to rain on the parade of someone who's trying so hard to have a child.  So, the issues surrounding those embryos, how many should they keep, what should they do with the unused ones, etc, is now probably going to be ignored.

The other issue that I think is important is about moral equivalencies.  If various embryos, blastocysts, or collections of cells have the same moral standing of a child, then wouldn't a stem cell also have some moral worth, regardless of its origin.  If we are using the potential of a collection of cells as a determinant of personhood, why would the origin matter.  If we are using the genetic code, then even a dead skin cell could have moral worth.  So what are the criteria we're using for personhood?  Stem cell research was really the only serious place this discussion was taking place b/c the lines are so firmly drawn on abortion.

So, what he's done is a huge accomplishment, but the chances that a serious conversation about these moral questions remain in the spotlight are nil.  But the fact that there won't be the conversation means the scientists can actually get some work done.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Tom Brokaw's idea about file sharing

I was listening to Tom Brokaw on a podcast.  He got to talking about how to save newspapers and wandered over into pirating music and movies.  He said that younger generations think that these things are free and that attitudes need to change in order to save newspapers.

I’ll ignore his point that people pirate these things b/c they believe they should be free, but there’s a lot of information that indicates that it’s more likely that people pirate things b/c it is more convenient.   Itunes punched a big hole in music downloads and a lot of the movies that are illegally downloaded aren’t readily available, Game of Thrones jumps to mind.

One of the reasons that younger generations may doubt the alleged value of the materials they pirate is because the industry who produces the CDs or movies aren’t honest about the costs.  I’m going to talk about music more than movies, but check the price of DVD, versus a download on cable on demand, versus Amazon Prime, versus rental at a redbox.  You’re going to get several different prices and some will be significantly higher than others.  

With music, when record companies switched formats to CDs they raised prices, but a series of price fixing suits quickly made it apparent that that wasn’t a reasonable price for the CD.  But the labels kept trying to raise the prices.  Then, when the CD product became obsolete, they still tried to maintain a high price.  When they were able to promote music regularly by selling it online for 2.99 or 4.99 it became clear that at best, most records are at least priced twice what their cost is.  

The next issue became, what are the actual costs to the music industry.  A series of lawsuits showed the money wasn’t going to the musicians.  It wasn’t going into CDs, liner notes, and cases anymore.  It also wasn’t going into the transportation or storage for those obsolete CDS.  So, who’s getting the money?  Promotion maybe? But overall, it was people who have very little to do with the music.  

This point was made clearer when independent artists began giving away their music b/c they knew it would spur concert ticket sales. Busta Rhymes recently gave away his new record on Google Music.  Other artists began raising money to record their music on kickstarter.  Suddenly it was quite clear that a reasonable band could probably record a record for $20,000 or less. If they're going to sell 10,000 records online, for $5 they could probably cover costs and put a little in their pocket.

So, if the price is so elastic, and the costs are no longer there, and the record companies are dishonest and greedy, then how do you assess what a reasonable price for a record is?  You can’t tell.  So you pay the price that is most advantageous to you.  That is the measure the industry has chosen to determine price.  But suddenly, when baud rates are high enough and the product can be transferred digitally, the industry lost control of setting price and it's the consumer setting the price at what is most advantageous to them. And that price is free.

So, if Mr. Brokaw is right, then what has to happen first is that the industry has to become an honest broker when setting prices.  They need to establish some credibility in their pricing schemes.  In order to do that they have to start treating the musicians who create music fairly.  As long as musicians are complaining that they’re getting ripped off and there are enough high profile cases of record labels ripping off their artists, they won’t be able to establish any credibility.  They also probably have to get more uniform pricing.  It’s understood that Kanye will sell more records and he’ll be able to discount his record b/c sales volume will make up the price differential,  but bands that don’t sale big on a major label shouldn’t be twice the price that an indie label charges or that is the same price as the physical CD.

Until there is some kind of credible pricing scheme consumers will set the price based on their own self interest. And that's bad for the record labels. Because as far as consumers can tell, if the record labels go bust, the consumer loses nothing. We buy directly from the artist, and most of us would prefer to do that. So, the labels need to show what value they contribute to the music and why they deserve any portion of the money for the product.