Saturday, December 28, 2002

Quick football note
Those commercials have elevated my dislike of Michael Strahan from "strong" to "burning".

Friday, December 27, 2002

Thoughts on regime change
One thing that struck me while I was pondering international politics yesterday is that, sometimes, it seems as if we feel that we can achieve democracy in other countries overnight. Fundamentally, I suppose the four-year (or eight-year) lifetime of an American president ensures that people won't consider the effects of a policy longer than 10 or so years down the road. But I think the fact that this misses is that it really does take an extraordinarily long time to achieve stable, productive regimes. Our own country was 150 years in the making, and even after getting our nice Constitution it wasn't like the country lived happily ever after afterwards. Now, it's certainly true that we can hope that maybe with the guidance of those who have already made it through, we can help the Third World countries reach our level more quickly, but I think that it is going to be a much slower process than anyone can hope, and in the middle of that process it's going to be pretty unpleasant.

Of course, while we forget that it took 400 years to bring our nation to the point where it is today, it's equally easy to forget that, just 60 years ago, the whole world was at war. It surprises me, reflecting on it sometimes, just how quickly people's mindsets have shifted from being a world at war to having known essentially nothing but peace. So this does give me hope that, if we can ever bring stable governments to the countries that need them, it will be possible to forget past hatreds and injustices. But maybe that's just the optimist in me speaking.
Personal luck: high
Recently, my luck seems to have been better than average. At our pre-Christmas poker gathering, I did much better than I usually do. It wasn't that I was playing fantastically well (though with a few egregious exceptions, I thought I was playing decently); rather, it was that in the hands where it's ultimately pretty much luck that determines the winner (and often, those hands tend to be the biggest pots, for obvious reasons), luck usually came down on my side.

When we were bowling yesterday, I also felt luckier than normal. In fact, my whole score was different than normal: normally I pick up surprisignly few strikes and instead rely on picking up a lot of spares off 8s and 9s. Yesterday, though, I was bowling a ridiculous number of strikes -- some earned, but many which on other days would have earned me nasty splits. But I was opening practically every frame I didn't get a strike on -- when I looked at the end-of-game statistics, I had 12 open frames, 5 spares, and 14 strikes. That's way out of character for me -- normally in 3 games it would be something like 8, 16, and 6, respectively.

Yes, I know there's no such thing as a lucky streak. But I'm going to enjoy this one anyway.

Thursday, December 26, 2002

And my hubris is punished
Looks like I spoke too soon on Neifi Perez, what with the Giants signing him to a 2-year, $4.25M contract. It's things like this that drive me nuts -- it's one thing to trade away your #1 pitcher because you claim that you don't have the $4.4M he's due in 2003. It's an entirely different thing to take that $4.4M you didn't have and spend it on two of the stiffest stiffs this side of the Tin Woodsman. I just hate, hate moves like these.

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Merry Christmas!
I'm currently at home in SF, so expect a little lull here. But I hope that you're all enjoying a wonderful day today.

Monday, December 23, 2002

Maybe I'm just a pessimist
So I was reading this David Brooks article in the Atlantic Monthly. It's fascinating, because it essentially describes a world completely alien to me. When I look at the person I am and the people I know, I don't see a generation of people basking in their artificially inflated senses of self-worth, their existence validated by meaningless benchmarks like the color of their credit cards; rather, I see the exact opposite: a group of people always striving to live up to ever-increasing standards, who, despite a large quantity of objective evidence of their intelligence and abilities, still believe that they're not as good as everyone else out there. While Brooks believes "we are convinced that we are running our own lives quite well, whereas the idiots around us are screwing up theirs," I often feel like I'm the only one who's unable to keep his own life together, while everyone else is able to do a great job running theirs, and I know that this viewpoint is hardly unique among my friends, either.

Ahem. That ended up being a little more bleedy than I wanted it to be.
Yes, it's time for another baseball post
...but don't worry, the amount of actual baseball in this one is not that great.

Despite the fact that the Giants have undergone huge offseason renovations to a team that just barely missed capturing the World Series, I've found it hard to get worked up over many of the moves made. I think that's because a lot of the people who have departed were people I alternately loved and hated: Dusty Baker, Jeff Kent, and even Russ Ortiz all fall into that category. Sure, I loved that Baker was able to hold together a fractious clubhouse and consistently coax maximal effort from his players, but I hated that he couldn't make a good tactical move to save his life and consistently played washed-up has-beens over players who at least had a chance to be good. I loved Kent when he was knocking in astronomical numbers of runs, but I hated him when he was swinging a weak bat and allowing pitchers to walk Barry a record number of times. And Ortiz, I loved him when he practically single-handedly won the Braves series and pitched like a true #1 starter, but I hated him on those days when he couldn't find the strike zone to save his life and when he was banished to the bullpen in 2000. So, while seeing them go (especially Ortiz, who is the only good pitcher the Giants have developed in my lifetime) was hard, it also brings hope that maybe their successors won't infuriate me in quite the same way (of course, also fear that their successors won't be able to fill their shoes).

The arrivals...well, Marquis Grissom certainly elicited quite the string of profanities from me (Neifi Perez I found it hard to get worked up about, since I didn't think the Giants were serious about him, and fortunately I was proven right when they non-tendered him), but the rest, while solid signings, are essentially replacements for the personnel they're losing. So it's hard to get too worked up about them; none of them is really a superstar, so while I can hope that they'll do a better job than those they replaced, it's not like their signings guarantees the team's improvement, either.

Of course, maybe all of this is just my defense mechanism at work again, not letting myself hope for too much.

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Today's insight into my psychology
So, today, while I was driving home, I had just gotten off the Bay Bridge, and my mind wasn't particularly on matters of driving (actually, I was thinking about plumbing), when suddenly I was startled out of my reverie by the sudden sound of a siren behind me. I instinctively braked, but the cop (a motorcycle cop, which is my excuse for not having picked up on him in my rear-view mirror) showed that he wasn't after me and immediately sped by me. I suppose he was heading to something requiring his attention further down the road. Of course, I wasn't doing anything particularly illegal, but I almost certainly was over the actual speed limit (I mean, in that area it's pretty much impossible not to be, except of course during heavy traffic periods), so I was certainly glad to have not received a ticket.

I felt surprisingly shaken afterwards, though. I don't know why; I can understand feeling nervous and twitchy after having just been in a near-accident (which is certainly the case for me), but it's not like a ticket is all that bad (well, I suppose it can be, financially speaking, but it doesn't have the same emotional impact). In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that the same is true for me about any "near miss" kind of situation: afterwards I always feel relatively drained and shaken, even if the thing I was missing wasn't all that terrible or traumatic. If I had to guess, I would say that since the bad event didn't actually happen, my mind can exaggerate it as being worse than it would actually be (certainly something I'm guilty of doing not at all infrequently), and thus feel more relieved about avoiding it than the event warrants.

Saturday, December 21, 2002

It's like clockwork, I tell you
As anyone who knows me can attest (and I believe everyone reading this falls into that category, though who knows?) during the semester it's, um, rather difficult for me to get me to wake up on time for class. Yet, as soon as the break begins, my body has no problem waking itself up at 9:30 despite the fact that I have nothing to do. Not that I mind having a healthy sleep schedule, mind you, but it's just a little frustrating.

On the bright side, I've had a chance to continue my productivity. Over the past couple months, all of those little things have been piling up, things which are individually easy to deal with but when accumulated into a huge mass become quite daunting. Now that I don't have anything else to worry about, I can tackle them one by one and slowly whittle the pile back down to reasonable size. Plus I get the wonderful feeling I get from having my life be at least somewhat more organized.

Friday, December 20, 2002

Me vs. Technology: The Road To Victory
So I finally triumphed over the irritating problem which was plaguing IE (apparently, the application installed DLLs which were too new for my old, antiquated version of Win98SE, so I had to install new ones), which prompts me to go on this tangential rant.

These days, computers often think that they're smarter than me. This is often true; for instance, when installing software, I trust that they've done their job right (although apparently, someone hadn't in this case), and let things proceed and hope that nothing goes wrong. A lot of the time, though, it's not. When it comes to, say, Word's spelling and grammar checker, I'm way smarter than Word, and so I'm perpetually annoyed by its claiming that it knows the English language better than I. Of course, I turned off such features on my own computer long ago, but they're still an irritation whenever I have to use a computer where I can't freely change the settings. And, increasingly, there are such helpful features which can't be turned off -- one of the things which drives me craziest about IE is the fact that whenever you select a word, it helpfully selects the space after the word, so that if you paste it somewhere it'll be fine. All very good -- except this feature causes me 100 times more aggravation when I don't want it than in the occasional case when I do.

What we really need, rather than trying to make computers smarter, is to make them realize when they're not smart enough. Or, in the words of Chuang Tzu: "He who knows he is a fool is not the biggest fool; he who knows he is confused is not in the worst confusion." If more people were working on Artificial Humility, I wouldn't have to deal with my computer constantly trying to correct me when it, not I, is the one that's wrong.
The pervasiveness of popular culture
So someone brought a radio to the 7b grading festivities yesterday, and so I spent the 6 or so hours I was in the 7b office listening to Alice. Now, I pretty much never listen to the radio these days -- at home, I don't even have a radio; although I could listen to what the Internet offers me, I usually just stick to the contents of my various playlists, and on the road, I prefer to listen to the various CDs I have than take my chances with the airwaves. So I was more than a little bit surprised to realize that I had heard pretty much every song on the radio that they played. (Oh, sure, I don't claim to have been paying 100% attention, so I'm certain I noticed the songs I had heard before precisely because I had heard them before.) I've heard Avril Lavigne, and Vanessa Carlton, and Alicia Keys; I've heard Jack Johnson and John Mayer; I've heard Nickelback and Coldplay and Five for Fighting, in most cases more times than I wanted to -- despite having made no effort to seek any of them out. I guess this illustrates that I can't escape from the music surrounding us even if I want to.
A Grader's Complaint
So, my last work, done yesterday, was grading for the 7b final, and given the fact that I was already running on empty, my grading there probably did not represent my best work. However, if you do it right, grading can be pretty mechanical; the trick is properly setting the mileposts for people to be awarded points (my own grading scheme being somewhat of a hybrid between the holistic grading scheme that we're supposed to use in 7b, where points are assigned on the level of understanding that the student exhibits, and the more traditional "assign a point value to every important step" method; while the former is a really nice idea, it's a lot harder to implement in practice than the latter, so I often use accomplishing a particular step as a proxy for reaching a certain level of understanding, thus nicely tying the two together).

Unfortunately, I (in strict accordance with some law or another) got awarded the most unpleasant problem to grade. On the first midterm, the professor had posed a problem involving a submerged lead ball; as a result of the buoyant force, it had an apparent weight less than its real weight. Then, everything was heated up, so that the lead ball expanded (the water, too), changing the apparent weight. So far, so good. Now, the professor wrote the problem such that there was a certain percentage change in the temperature, figuring that this would cause all of the other variables to cancel out and leaving you with a percentage change of the apparent weight, obviating the need to, say, provide the other variables. A fine idea, except that it didn't work -- you still needed to know some of the initial variables in order to get the percentage. So, you would think he had learned his lesson. But no. On the final, he did the exact same thing -- posted a problem in which the initial percentage change was given, and no other variables, figuring that the variables would cancel -- but again, they didn't. This resulted in his having to issue a clarification midway through the exam, and subsequent student confusion, which was reflected in the exams I had to grade.

That wasn't really the worst of it, though. The most annoying thing was that, fundamentally speaking, there were two ways to do the problem: a right way and a wrong way. (For those interested in the technical details: The problem asked for the change in resonant frequency in an LC circuit when the position of a dielectric in the capacitor was changed by a little amount. The right way was to use the Chain Rule to obtain dw/dx. The wrong way was to compute the old capacitance and the new capacitance, subtract the two, and attempt to find the change in the resonant frequency.) Now, for people who went the right way, if they erred, it was pretty easy to identify where they had strayed from the path and award partial credit appropriately. Unfortunately, those people were significantly in the minority behind people who went the wrong way. Now, it is possible to get the right answer using the wrong way (it does work, just not very well, if you carry everything through very carefully), and so of course I had to give full credit to people who did manage to make it all the way through to the final answer this way. But if you went astray along that path, things got unpleasant really quickly, making it impossible to determine really how much credit they deserved; their understanding was completely obscured. So I had to just assign a uniform partial credit to the large number of people who suffered that fate.
Back from the dead
So I'm finally done with all of my work! Yay! Now I can finally kick back and enjoy some hard-earned relaxation, which will hopefully mean a regular stream of posts here.

It's amazing how productive I've already been this morning; my room, which has been slowly decaying over the past three weeks, looks better already (although there's still a long way to go). I guess you can get a lot of work done when you don't actually have anything to do. On the downside, IE is still behaving badly. It seems like a rogue application I installed overwrote a few of the DLLs it uses with inferior versions, resulting in predictable chaos. I might as well take this moment to rant for a bit: back in the days when I was an avid Mac user, people like Kenshin who were trying to convince me of the innate superiority of the PC would always complain that in a Mac, you couldn't take a close look at the inner workings (the implication being that you couldn't fix them if they went wrong), while with the PC you had ready access to everything. Well, this was a blatant lie then, and it's a blatant lie now. My tools for fixing a problem like this are pretty much the same on both sides of the divide: see if any settings are wrong; if not, reinstall and hope that fixes the problem. Seriously, what else am I supposed to do? Track down the offending DLL and replace it? Yeah, right.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Why I am such an excellent typist
Hey, I'm no Nietzsche, but I figured some self-investigation is in order.

While procrastinating today, I went to PopCap to fool around with their games, and on a whim (though I had really come to play Insaniquarium), decided to try their typing game. Not surprisingly, I effortlessly blew through the game until I reached the "off-the-map" area and it just reached inhuman levels. Whenever people ask me, "How did you become such a good typist?" I'm always slightly at a loss. I mean, part of it is that I've been on computers for a long time, and typing on them (since, heck, back in those days all you could do was type) equally long. And when I was a kid, I certainly went through my fair share of typing programs. (I actually liked a lot of the typing games, in the same way that I liked the really old-school Oregon Trail, before it had any graphics, when to shoot things for food you had to type words like "BLAM" or "POW" as fast as possible.) It wasn't that the typing programs gave me good technique, though; my habits had already been solidified long before my first encounter with Ms. Beacon (actually, I don't remember what my first real typing program was, but that's as good a guess as any), and they're certainly not really all that close to what's recommended. (Whenever I type on a split keyboard, for example, I get frustrated quite rapidly, because I often find my index fingers falling into the crevasse in the middle. If this doesn't prove that my habits are less than perfect, I don't know what does.) It's possible that it was merely the practice that these programs gave me, rather than any technique I learned from them, that gave me the skill that I have today. But, well, the same is true for a lot of kids (especially today), and it's not hard to see that the majority of them aren't particularly good typists despite having done it so much. So I can't really use that as a complete explanation.

Maybe it's a natural skill? In that case, why couldn't I have ended up with a natural skill that would impress the ladies a little more? Or at least one that would be more useful in my chosen line of work?

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Obligatory haiku rant (or, proving my point below)
Literarily speaking, very few things get me more riled up than some idiot slapping seventeen syllables together in a 5-7-5 pattern and calling it a "haiku". (I will confess to engaging in this pastime in my weaker moments, but I'm attributing it to "youthful indiscretion." And unlike certain members of Congress, I actually was young when this happened.) There are two reasons why this annoys me:

a) It's not a haiku. A haiku, properly speaking, is not just 5-7-5; it also needs to contain a seasonal element (loosely speaking; I know this definition isn't precise). I think the part that grates on me about this is the blatant cultural insensitivity; it's as if people are saying "oh, here's this cool Japanese thing; I'll use it without bothering to actually learn anything about it," in a way that embodies the worst ugly-American stereotypes. Obviously, I'm overprojecting in this, since I'm sure that that doesn't represent a whole bunch of people who do this, but the fact that it is (almost certainly) happening some of the time does annoy me. It's not the whole story, though; I still eat "burritos" (actually, burritos are a singularly bad example for this point, come to think of it, since they're allegedly not even authentic to begin with -- perhaps I should say "tacos" -- but anyway, you get the point) without feeling that they're an example of horrible American cultural imperialism (although it certainly could be argued that they are; I defend myself against such thoughts by comforting myself with the fact that at least I'm aware of the fact that these are hardly an authentic rendition of Mexican cuisine).

Now, it is true that you can argue that the seasonal motif is something which isn't necessary in modern haiku, or haiku in English. This is, to some extent, true. But given that every instance of the type of haiku I'm complaining about slavishly adheres to the 5-7-5 pattern -- which is indisputably something more worth changing if you're actually trying to "translate" the haiku form into English rather than just carrying it over directly -- it's pretty clear that their authors haven't actually thought about those issues, so I'm hardly going to give them a free pass on that score.

b) It's bad art. The haiku form, because of its constricted nature, requires a fair amount of effort to produce a good work of art. Unfortunately, to the average person focused on cramming whatever they want to say into this arbitrary seventeen-syllable form (and I say "arbitrary" quite deliberately, because while it is by no means actually arbitrary, from the perspective of the person I'm criticizing here, it might as well be), producing something pleasant artistically is the last thing on their minds. The result is something which is not any more worthwhile than if the author hadn't gone to all that bother to put it in 17 syllables, and which is often quite a bit worse, given the circumlocutions, peculiar word choices, awkward word breaks, and other devices people use to fit their thoughts into the 5-7-5 Procrustean bed. I suppose, as long as I'm wildly generalizing, I'll speculate that people like this are exactly the kind of people who go to a Jackson Pollock exhibit and say "What's the big deal? My 4-year-old could do that!" Haiku is their way to be the metaphorical 4-year-old in the art world; the rules are so simple (or so they think) that they can produce art just by following them. Of course, what they produce isn't really art, just as if they toddled into the garage with fingerpaint, they wouldn't get Blue Poles Number 11, either. That is to say, there is more to art than just following the rules, no matter how simple they may seem to be, and disregarding this fact is ultimately just going to produce something annoying.

Anyway, you might think that this rant might be inspired by TMQ's haiku feature. It's not, actually; while this particular feature has been annoying me since pretty much its inception, my irritation at improper haiku extends well before then. This does seem to be a particularly egregious example, but rest assured that this is always something I'll notice, regardless of its origins.
My Faustian bargain (not literally, fortunately)
So, my past three years in grad school seem to have followed a very consistent pattern: I delay doing my work during the semester as long as possible, and then at the end I frantically attempt to make it up (or at least as much of it as possible). This provides me with the benefit of being slightly happier during the semester, at the cost of a couple of weeks of pure misery at the end. As you might have guessed from the two facts that (a) it's the end of the semester and (b) I haven't posted here in a week (thus undoubtedly disappointing my legions of loyal readers), I'm currently enjoying the less-appealing end of the bargain.

This has provided with an opportunity to meta-procrastinate by looking at my procrastination habits, at least. When I first feel like I have work to do, I'll try to decrease the number of activities which explicitly feel like not-work, like, say, leaving the apartment, or playing games which will obviously take up a large amount of time, or writing blog posts. This doesn't stop me from engaging in activities which are kind of like work, although they're not the work that needs doing; when I'm in heavy work periods, suddenly I feel the need to do the dishes, or clean up my room, or organize the contents of my hard drive. Then, as time goes on and there's not any fake work left, I'll lower the threshold for what constitutes "doing something productive", so that writing blog posts or emails or reading news now counts as "work" for the purposes of avoiding real work. Thus, the post you see before me. Eventually, I'll reach the point where not even my procrastination abilities can save me from actually getting work done, but as you can see, I haven't actually reached that point yet.

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Fodder for both sides of the cell phone debate
A Harvard study shows that cell phone usage in cars does cause an increased number of accidents, but that the economic benefits of cell phone usage is comparable to this cost. (This article is frustratingly vague about whether the benefits refers to the benefits of all cell phone usage, or just the benefits of using your cell phone in the car, which is a rather important difference.)

While my attitude towards cell phones has mellowed considerably over the past few years, I still have no patience for people who act like idiots on the road, for whatever reason (save your snide remarks, you), and so I do reflexively feel annoyed when I see people talking on their cell phones, probably out of the fact that this may cause them to do something stupid.

The thing I fear the most are the cell-phone defenders pointing to this and saying that it's still worth it on a utilitarian basis. I have one word to answer that: externalities. If you plow into me because you're blathering on your phone, I certainly don't reap any of the benefits of your usage.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

Stupid NFL quote of the day
No, don't worry, this isn't going to be a regular feature...if it were, I wouldn't have room for anything else in the blog. But I have to comment on this:

Vikings linebacker Henri Crockett (formerly a Falcon), on Falcons quarterback Michael Vick: "He's changed the game. There are going to be no more pocket passers anymore.'' Leaving aside the fact that comments like this have been made every time a "scrambling" quarterback has made a splash in the league (most recently, Donovan McNabb, but going all the way back to Kordell Stewart), the simple truth is that Vick's success may cause other quarterbacks to try to imitate Vick's style, but you know what? They're not going to succeed, because they don't have the talent that Vick does. Unless they come out with human cloning a lot more quickly than I suspected...
Semper cras
If I ever have a Latin motto -- for a family crest or something (you know, just in case I get knighted) -- that'll be it. Here's my recipe for making sure not to get any work done on a 4-day weekend:
1) On Thursday, think "well, it's Thanksgiving, so there's no need to worry about work today. I still have plenty of time."
2) On Friday, think "well, I've earned a day off, and I still have plenty of time, so I'll worry about it on the weekend proper."
3) On Saturday, get a chance to see three old high school friends, one of who is just visiting for the weekend from Annapolis, one of whom you haven't seen since his recent return from Japan, and one who you have no good excuse for not seeing, but who you haven't seen in a while. Stay up until 6:30 am having fun and reminiscing about old times.
4) On Sunday, wake up feeling absolutely terrible (partly from lack of sleep, and partly from an incipient cold), and have to decline all offers to do something interesting because "I have to work". Sigh.

Friday, November 29, 2002

Paul's thoughts on game design
This kind of post, like a post on racism, is a post that everyone will write sooner or later, but I've just been thinking about this lately while playing Warcraft 3. Warcraft 3 is a fine game; it's stunningly beautiful, but there's nothing revolutionary about the gameplay itself. It's basicaly the same formula used as in the previous Warcrafts and Starcraft, with the occasional tweak or enhancement here and there. The enhancements are useful, but they don't make a major change in how the game works. I'm somewhat disappointed, but given the success of the franchise, and the fact that this is by no means a bad game, who cam blame them for not wanting to tinker with success?

Anyway, so here are my thoughts. Note that these are not necessarily my opinions on how to build a good game, but rather how to build a game that I like. I could be egotistical and claim the two are one and the same, but I'll save that for later.

1) No waiting! By far the quickest way to make me dislike a game is to force me to wait for a long time while nothing is happening. Most games avoid the obvious forms of this trap; the much-loathed (and rightfully so!) Star Control 3 is the only game I can think of offhand in which you do just have to spend a fair amount of time waiting. This is one of the downsides of the SimCity-type games, also, in that often you have to wait a while for your money to build up (though in some games, like SimGolf, you can do other things, like play golf, while waiting for the money to flow in). But there are more subtle forms of this, too; excessive use of video, for example, is sure to annoy me -- the occasional usage is fine, but if it becomes too prevalent, what's the point? Final Fantasy games are especially egregious in this regard; not just because of the FMV, which on its own wouldn't be really horrible, but because of the constant repetition of videos that you've already seen -- things like battle transitions, spell animations, and so forth. When you see them once, fine, but once you've seen them for the 250th time, you just want to smash your machine. I think this is the strongest reason for my disenchantment with the FF series over the years. But don't worry, I'll be picking on FF much more throughout this post.

An even more subtle problem is much more perniciously widespread -- games in which you don't have to explicitly wait, but in which the optimal strategy would involve a lot more waiting (or repetitive tasks) than the normal strategy. There are a lot of games, for example, in which you'd be better off if after every encounter, you went back to the source of health, or waited for your spell points to recharge, or whatever. No one (except for perhaps the really obsessive-compulsive type of person) actually does this, but the fact that you could be better off (and in some really close battles, it becomes necessary) if you did do this is more than a bit annoying.

The next two are closely related, so I'll put them together.
2a) Doing something you know you can do is not interesting. Doing something you didn't know if you could do is interesting.
2b) Repetition forced on you by the game is bad. Repetition forced on you by yourself is good.

That is to say, any task which you have to do not because it's challenging (and by "challenging", in this context, I mean "something you could potentially fail at"), but simply because you have to do it in order to proceed with the game, is ultimately boring. This is why (to pick on RPGs again) the task of mindless leveling up is so reviled: it's not at all difficult; pretty much anyone could do it with their eyes closed, but you have to do it in order to get through the game. Square cleverly addressed that problem by largely eliminating the need for leveling up, at the cost of making the entire game non-challenging. Whoops. This applies to tasks within the game, of course, but also to tasks outside of the game: I don't particularly enjoy games which force you to make a map or write down copious quantities of information, since, hey, I know I can make a map; the act of doing it is pure busywork. I'll make exceptions if the mapmaking is relatively interesting in and of itself, but if it's just something I need to do, why bother?

Moving into the second half of my bipartite statement, it's equally frustrating to try a task which was interesting the first time round, but which you were able to accomplish, and then have the game tell you, "That's nice. Now do it again." This probably sounds like a broader statement than I intend it to be; if, say, you have to fight three of the same monsters in succession, but the first one weakens you enough so that the second is more difficult, and thus you have to plan ahead to defeat all three, that's fine. For example, the penultimate stage of Mega Man 2 (or any other Mega Man, for that matter), where you have to fight all 8 bosses again, but in one stage, is perfectly acceptable, since now you have to not just beat them, but do a good enough job beating each one that you have enough energy left to beat the rest, too. But (hey, look, I'm picking on FF again) part of the thing that annoys me about Final Fantasy is that all the fights are pretty much the same, and (with a very few exceptions, like FF1, which is part of the reason I still enjoyed it more than any other game in the series) each fight largely doesn't affect the outcome of the next, so it's all just the same with no larger strategy required.

What do I mean by the second sentence there, "repetition forced on you by yourself is good"? Well, to me, the epitome of a good challenge is something at which you don't succeed the first time, and have to try it again a few times, slowly gaining proficiency until, finally, you're good enough to make it through. The number of repetitions...well, that depends on how long each repetition is. If it takes a couple of hours each time you fail, I'm not a big fan of this model (Panzer General, I'm looking in your direction; see also (3) below), but for a minute or two, I'm willing to put up with trying quite a few times. But the point is, if you are good enough to pass the thing the first time, you should only have to do it once, not more just because the game designers are too lazy to come up with a better way to occupy your time.

This description somewhat reminds me of my spelling and grammar courses in the 5th and 6th grades; each week began with a pretest on the stuff we were covering that week, and if you did well enough on the pretest, you could skip the rest of the work for that week. I was a big fan of this system, because I was able to pass nearly all of the pretests (I think the pronoun one was the only one I didn't make it through), and so I didn't have to do completely unnecessary work. I think the same principle applies here -- if you're good enough, you shouldn't have to do unnecessary things. Of course, if this is true for a significant proportion of players out there, it's probably a sign that something is wrong with your difficulty. Which brings me to my next point...

3) The difficulty should be right. Correctly articulating my philosophy here is going to be difficult, especially since it's often self-contradictory, but the statement in bold is pretty self-explanatory, don't you think?

Seriously, though, ideally a game should be challenging at the beginning, when you're just learning, and still challenging at the end, when you're much better. The latter is complicated by the fact that as the game goes on, not only do you get better, but in many cases, so does your character, or your car, or your empire, or whatever. This isn't always a problem (as in, say, Super Mario Bros.), but it does seem that a lot of the time, game makers don't take this factor into account, and so as the game goes onward, it gets easier, often to pathetic levels. Obviously, this problem is more severe in games which don't have adjustable difficulty, but I don't intend to say that just being able to change the difficulty solves all problems, either; one of my (few) complaints with Warcraft 3 is that the "Normal" level is too easy, and the "Hard" level too hard. This is probably just a reflection of my own skill -- I'm decent, but by no means good, at RTS games in general, so the Normal level isn't much of a challenge, but I'm not good enough to tackle Hard. But since a single mission on Hard can take quite a bit of time, I'm less inclined (as (2) above might indicate) to put in the effort to improve enough to do it, so I have to content myself with something that's too easy. A perfect example of a game that does difficulty right is F-Zero X, which, when we first got it, was quite difficult at the Beginner level. Then, we got better, got through Beginner, and it was quite difficult in the Normal level. But eventually, despite it seeming impossible, we made it through...and this process proceeded through four levels of difficulty. It was perfect, in that there was always a challenge available even though our skills improved a great deal over the course of playing the game. And, of course, it didn't take all that long to play any individual course, so we could try a lot of times, even if we only improved a bit each time, and eventually end up a lot better.

There are right ways and wrong ways to make a game more difficult, of course, and unfortunately more of the latter than the former. Time limits often fall into the latter category; there's nothing more frustrating than doing really well and knowing you would have had no problem winning, except that you run into an arbitrary time limit. I don't mean to say that all time limits are bad; indeed, often they provide just the right degree of challenge to a game. But sometimes it seems that time limits are just used as a crutch by designers to artificially add difficulty, and this can be more than a little aggravating. Computer cheating is another obvious example; to pick the most heinous example I can think of, in the old Nintendo version of Super Off-Road (my favorite game in the arcade, back in those days), there were just certain races that you could never win, because the computer would just go much faster than you could ever hope to go. A slightly less-obvious instance of bad ways to make a game difficult are "instant loss" scenarios, where you can be doing excellently overall, but if you carelessly let a certain unit get destroyed, or accidentally go into the wrong place, or whatever, you instantly are defeated. Saves can help to avoid most of the damage from these, but if you design the game so that when you instantly lose you can restore from a save, what the heck is the point of having the instant losses in the first place?!

All right, now for the self-contradictory part. I suppose this part of my philosophy can be summarized as "lose quickly, but win slowly". To me, there are few things more frustrating than spending a large amount of time going through a game, only to discover at the end that I lost, and not only that I had lost, but that there was really no point I could go back to to reverse my decline, but rather that I had pretty much been doomed from near the beginning, so that I had to go allll the way back to the beginning and start over again. Again, this ties in with the whole "don't want to repeat myself a lot if it's a lot of time" thing from above; if at the beginning, I quickly lose, that's no big deal, since then I can go back and correct what I did wrong. But if the feedback cycle is that much longer, then it's much less effective. On the other hand, a very serious problem in many Civ-type games (at least at the levels which I can handle!) is that the game is essentially decided in your favor very early on, and the large portion of the rest of the game is just spent mopping up the remnants or doing whatever tasks you have to do to ensure your victory. (Admittedly, this problem is exacerbated by my perfectionist nature, where I'm not content just conquering the world/galaxy/universe, but have to make sure I colonize each planet, or whatever. But even still, even if that weren't the case, there's often a lot of dead time after you can tell who the winner is.)

Unfortunately, these two goals are somewhat at odds; after all, if there's a certain point after which I don't want to lose, then it means that everything after that part is meaningless, since I'll win, right? Well, the trick to resolving this paradox (and you might see it, too, if I tell you that I initially phrased this part of my philosophy as "lose early, but win late", before realizing the problem in this statement) is that it's okay to lose in the late stages of the game, but it should be possible, even when you lose late, to go back not too far and still have a fighting chance at winning the thing, rather than having to start all the way over from the beginning. Not lose instantly, of course; as you might have seen above, I have a great deal of dislike for that concept, but just something that won't require that much to undo.

4) You should always know what you did wrong when you fail. This is one of the things that frustrates me about the Sim series of games -- sometimes it seems like you've built a perfect city, or planet, or golf course, or whatever, and yet people still aren't coming, and you don't know how to fix it. (Between this comment and my comment in (1), it might seem like I dislike the Sim games a lot more than I do. This is not entirely true -- I played the original SimCity into the ground -- but I'll admit that I couldn't get into SimCity 2000, pretty much exactly for this reason.) This is hardly limited to this particular instance; for example, in racing games, sometimes I'll feel like I've run the perfect race and yet I'll still lose, and it's not at all clear what I need to do in order to not lose. (This is why computer cheating, aside from the obvious reasons, is particularly wicked -- if the computer is just flat-out better than you, then sometimes it's hard to see what you can do to beat it, especially if that requires something devious or underhanded.)

To tie this back into the big picture (and mix metaphors while I'm at it), like I said, one of my favorite things is improving my skills to defeat a challenge I couldn't initially overcome. If I can't actually see how to improve my skills, then I'm at a loss, and more often than not will wander off to something else.

5) Good graphics or sound or plot will not make up for bad gameplay. But the converse is true: good gameplay can make up for a variety of sins. I know I've expounded on this at length to most people who care, so I won't bother belaboring the point, especially since it is pretty obvious, after all. But this is why I still enjoy some classic Nintendo games: sure, the graphics and sound might be terrible, but some of them are still fundamentally fun games to play. I certainly don't oppose good graphics and sound; other things being equal, I'll certainly be glad to have them, and they can elevate a game from really good to the pantheon of great games, but they alone cannot save a bad game.

I know that David will disagree with the "plot" part; he plays Final Fantasy games essentially for the story, with the game really the secondary part of the experience. I, however, can't do that (especially since who's able to follow the typical Square story anyway?).

6) Make the burden on the player light when you're beginning (but it's certainly okay -- in fact, really necessary, if you want your game to have any degree of complexity -- to increase it as time goes on). I suppose this is just another way of saying "easy to learn, hard to master", though I had something more specific in mind. Heroes 2 is one of my favorite games -- and in my opinions, one of the best games ever -- but it does have a significant disadvantage: while it's easy enough to pick up the basics of the game, it's very important, even very early on, to be able to assess the relative strengths of armies, and this requires a great amount of detailed knowledge about the individual units. The game does considerately provide a quick reference card containing this exact information, but it's still suboptimal to have to consult this card time and again until you've reached the point where you've learned enough about the units not to have to constantly look at it.

The same applies to a lot of interface decisions, too. For example, in a typical RTS, you don't have to learn the hotkeys for each unit and building at the beginning; at the outset, you can just click on them, until you can learn the hotkeys and use them instead. This process is also generally facilitated by the fact that once you've learned the names of the buildings, the hotkeys are usually pretty intuitively obvious. (Actually, this is a gripe I have about Warcraft 3 -- it seems like they've gone to maximal effort to make everything start with the same letter. I keep wanting to build a Burrow and nearly building a Barracks instead, until I notice that it's the wrong size, and I have several times built a Barracks when I meant to build a Bestiary. But I digress.)

Fortunately, games have gotten a lot better at this over the years, in that most complicated games will gradually break you in by starting out with limited units or buildings or whatever available and gradually expanding them over time; it's been a long time since there's been a game for which I've had to read a substantial amount of the manual before beginning, and I hope I won't have to deal with such a game in the future either.

And now, if you've made it this far...
7) Use saves wisely. This is a pretty wishy-washy statement, so let me expand on it further. I've often expressed my view that the modern ability to save your game pretty much anywhere, any time, as opposed to never (in most Nintendo games) or at least only at infrequent times and places, has done a lot to make games a lot less interesting than before. On the other hand, saves are to some extent a necessary evil; after all, they're pretty much a sine qua non for any kind of extended sports game, and (as I remarked above in my "lose quickly, win slowly" comments) for an extended strategy game they're essential to be able to provide a challenge without making said challenge excessively frustrating.

The point at which I find saves problematic is when you end up saving before every single thing that you do, so that if it turns out wrong, you can just restore from the save. This is fundamentally silly, since it takes the game and completely reduces it into a series of disjointed separate challenges. How can you combat this problem? Well, you have 3 choices, as I see it: (a) Make each challenge easy, so that the player has no incentive to save. Well, this works, in a sufficiently trivial sense, but it also makes the whole game not all that challenging. This is definitely not the greatest solution, though it's one I've unfortunately seen more than once. (b) Prevent the player from saving all the time. As my words above might have implied, I think that this is generally a good thing, and definitely necessary in some cases (how would that aforementioned penultimate stage of Mega Man 2 be if you could save after each boss, for example? Extraordinarily pointless. Its challenge derives not from the difficulty of the individual tasks, but from the collective difficulty of doing them all decently well in one try.) In a game which is relatively easily divided up into individual tasks, this seems like the optimal solution -- don't allow people to save in the middle of a single task, but rather force them to master the entire task before proceeding. However, not all games easily lend themselves to this kind of division (how can you do this in Starcraft, for example?) So this brings us to: (c) Decrease the price of losing. This is actually a broader point worth making -- but I'm exhausted by this juncture, and so, probably, are you -- so I'll just say that the best way to prevent people from running back to the nearest save when they suffer a minor setback is to make sure that that minor setback isn't all that terrible. For instance, in Starcraft, if my attack force gets annihilated, I don't feel the need to immediately go back, because it's not that big a deal -- I can always build another attack force. This is one of the major things that distinguishes Civilization 1 from its successors, for example -- in Civ 1, if I'm way ahead, if I'm careless and the enemy sacks one of my cities, suddenly they can start building tanks and use them against me, so in defense I'm forced to save all the time to ensure that this doesn't happen. In Alpha Centauri, by contrast, if I lose a city, no big deal -- they can't get anything too far above their current technology level, so I can just work on getting it back without having to worry too much about the consequences.

All right. There's probably more to be said here (especially linearity and nonlinearity), but I think I'm best off saving it for another time.

Thursday, November 28, 2002

Taking the scenic route
For a person like me, getting lost (assuming there's no one else there to be annoyed, and assuming you don't particularly have to be anywhere) can actually be a fun activity. It's essentially a puzzle, and solving it requires intuition (which is often wrong), knowledge (which is obviously imperfect), and sometimes the ability to follow signs (which are nowhere near commonplace enough to be useful).

Today, after dropping Joon off at Stanford, I realized I needed to get gas, but figured I would be much better off doing so in Fremont instead of in Palo Alto. So after crossing the Dumbarton, I continued past 880 in search of a gas station, and wandered a bit before reaching one (which was in fact much cheaper than it would have been in Palo Alto). After leaving, I decided to head in the direction which I thought I had come from, figuring that although it wasn't the same road, I would get to the freeway soon enough. Well, as it turned out (as I later learned by playing with Yahoo! Maps), in my wanderings, one of the streets I was on had curved 90 degrees, so that the direction I thought was west and back to the freeway was actually south (actually, closer to southwest and southeast, really). So, after driving for a while, and thinking "Hey, this seems like longer than it took to get here, maybe I'm going the wrong way", I was elated to find a freeway, except for the slight detail that it was 680. So, this time the puzzle beat me, although not critically so (although I did lament my lost time limping back to 880, which I also did the long way, via 238), but it was still an interesting challenge.
Hey, an actual baseball post
I haven't posted about baseball in a while, partly still from post-World Series letdown, partly because I don't want to bore my audience, and partly because there hasn't been that much to say, but I have to say this: the more I learn about the Mike Hampton trade, the more outraged I am.

Here's a recap of the facts, for those of you not familiar with them (i.e. 67% of my known audience; Matt, you can skip these next 5 paragraphs): In 1999, Mike Hampton established himself as one of the best pitchers in the National League; after several above-average seasons, in 1999 he posted a 22-4 record with a 2.90 ERA, and was probably the second-best pitcher in the league to Randy Johnson (at least according to the Cy Young voting, and to BP's SNWL figures). 2000 was his contract year, and the Astros didn't think they could keep him, and so he was traded to the Mets in the offseason, where he struggled a bit, going only 15-10, but still had an ERA of 3.14 and was easily still in the top 10 pitchers in the league. Naturally, then, he was one of the most-prized free agents in the market, and in a surprise to a lot of observers (myself included), he ended up signing an 8-year, $121-million contract with the Rockies.

If it had been any other team, I would have thought the investment worthwhile, if risky (after all, any 8-year contract is going to be risky); but Coors Field, because of its elevation, is murder on pitchers; no pitcher has pitched there effectively for an extensive amount of time. Their last big free agent pitcher, Darryl Kile, had posted excellent numbers before his trip to Coors, and when the Rockies traded him away, he went back to being an excellent pitcher, but his mile-high stay produced some decidedly unpretty entries in his pitching ledger. Apparently the Rockies hoped that he could be an exception to the trend (and some people thought he would have a chance, since he is an extreme groundball pitcher), but he was not; in 2001 he was 14-13 with a 5.41 ERA -- not as bad as it looks in Coors, but still hardly great, and in 2002 he regressed further, going 7-15, 6.15. It was clear at this point that the $120-million contract was going to be a rather large albatross, and so the Rockies certainly wanted to trade him, but who's going to take on such a huge contract for a pitcher whose reputation has been damaged?

Well, this offseason, the Rockies were able to answer that question, swapping Hampton to the Marlins for Charles Johnson and Preston Wilson, a pair of similarly bad contracts (5 years/$35M and 5 years/$32M, respectively, both ending in 2005), and some other minor entities (on both sides of the trade). The Rockies benefited from the deal in that they got a couple of players whose performance will be aided, rather than hurt, by playing at elevation, and they got out of their financial commitments three years earlier than they would otherwise. Even though the Rockies apparently agreed to pay about $11 million of Hampton's salary (plus $19 million more from a deferred signing bonus), it's not unreasonable to call it a win on their side of the ledger.

The Marlins, on the other hand, while they got someone who's likely to be a fine pitcher again with his return to sea level, didn't have the payroll room to take on Hampton, either. So, they moved him along to the Braves for Tim Spooneybarger. Spooneybarger is a perfectly decent reliever, and the Marlins may try to move him into the closer spot if they get tired of the other attractive-looking trade acquisitions they've tried in the spot (e.g. Braden Looper, Vladimir Nunez), but assuming that Hampton reverts to anywhere near his old form (an assumption I'll be making throughout; if you disbelieve this assumption, then my outrage is a little less justified, but I see no good reason to), his value will be far, far greater than Spooneybarger's.

Still, the Marlins get out from the contracts they were looking to get out of, and they at least get something, so it couldn't have been a total loss for them, could it? Well, I was willing to accept that, until I saw that the Braves were able to get the Marlins to pay $38 million of Hampton's contract, so that the Braves were responsible for only $35.5 million themselves. (Numbers courtesy of this ESPN article; for full details on Hampton's contract, see here.) That's right, the Marlins are paying $38 million for a pitcher who will never play for them. In fact, the $12.7 million a year that that works out to is greater than the Marlins have ever paid to a person who actually did play for them. Or, to put it a different way, the Marlins were more willing to pay more than half of their commitment to Hampton and have him not pitch for him than they were willing to pay the whole share and have him pitch for them.

So, why the outrage? Dave Pease, over in BP, makes a pretty good argument that we shouldn't necessarily consider the Marlins Big Losers in this trade, because it's not like in the absence of the trade, the Marlins wouldn't have been stuck with any bad contracts. They were stuck with Johnson's and Wilson's contracts to begin with, and given that as a starting point, they're still better off than if they had just done nothing (though, obviously, not better off than if they hadn't signed the bad contracts at the outset). But I think this misses the reason so many people look at this trade really suspiciously. My complaint is that the Braves get a pitcher who is likely to be a very excellent pitcher for a very, very low price (in fact, you'll notice that they're paying less for Hampton's services than the Marlins are paying to avoid Hampton's services), simply because they're in a position to take advantage of the fact that the Marlins are that desperate to avoid paying Hampton's full value.

In football and basketball, we see a lot of odd trades forced by the salary cap, where a team will often give away good players for essentially nothing just to clear up salary cap room. That's not all that different from what we have here, when the Marlins are giving up good players just to clear financial space. But what irks me is who benefits from these trades. In football and basketball, it's the teams who have the most salary-cap space to begin with. That might be arbitrary, in some sense of the word, but it is ultimately fair, in that all teams start with the same amount of salary-cap space, and so if you have less than other teams, it's your own fault, so to speak. But here, the Braves are the beneficiary not because they're wisely managed or because they've cleverly accumulated salary-cap space for such a contingency, but simply because they have more money at hand. And that's bound to make a lot of people, myself included, unhappy.

(I'll withhold my annoyed comments about the Yankees pursing Colon for now.)

Monday, November 25, 2002

My least favorite kind of weather today's. Dark and cold, but not really the's the wind, so loud you can hear it even inside, sending the leaves skittering across the streets. It's the last which gives me such a profound feeling of emptiness; everything is so dead outside, just being tossed by the merciless wind.

Make your own metaphor.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

The sick man of American politics
I'm not entirely convinced that the Democratic party will exist, at least not in the form that we know it, 20 years from now.

People always talk about how American politics are inherently two-party, and I certainly can't argue with the historical record there, but it's also true that those two parties have not been constant over the years. Admittedly, the Dems and Reps have been with us since the end of the Civil War, but even then, they've shifted to occupy different positions on the political spectrum than they did in 1865. Thus, I don't think it's crazy to suggest that another such change would be possible.

Why do I have this opinion? Simple. The Republican Party has essentially dominated political discourse for the past 34 years or so. It's seemed like, as long as I can remember, the Democrats have been fighting a rear-guard action to try to hold back the tide of Republican policy, rather than being able to discuss the issues on their side of the table. Even in the brief interlude in 1992-94 when the Democrats were able to talk about things like national health care and gays in the military, they accomplished depressingly little, being torn apart by their own fractiousness. And those issues are no longer part of the national discourse: health care is a taboo subject these days, and "don't ask, don't tell" is firmly entrenched in policy. I certainly don't see this changing any time soon, except for that rear-guard action becoming more and more ineffectual as the money and media, the ultimate determiners of the victor, continue to tilt to the right. And I haven't even begun to discuss the deleterious effects of the Greens on the party.

Sometimes it seems like the party is only still alive because, like the Ottoman Empire (did you catch the reference at the top?), there's nothing immediately available to replace it. Ralph Nader's dreams aside, there's no way the Greens will ever be a viable party at the national level. Look, the very name of the party is immediately going to alienate the half of the electorate who thinks environmental issues should be subordinate to other concerns, and that's hardly a great foundation to build a national party on. The Green party certainly will continue to show strength in isolated pockets, but that strength is deceptive, since there are still great swaths of the country where the Greens know that there's no point in bothering to run. Barring an unprecedented sea change in American politics, it'll never happen.

Unfortunately, I don't know enough about the politics of the first half of the 20th century to discuss whether a role reversal between the parties can occur again. (If only I could get Mark Staloff to read this...) My intuitive answer is to say no, but then again, I'll bet if you traveled back to 1876 and asked a random political observer if he expected that the parties would end up like they are now, he'd probably think you were crazy. Again, I can't see it happening without a major external trigger; though I have no particular desire to live through a Great Depression of my own, I don't think it's completely implausible, either.

As Perot and Ventura have demonstrated, the wellspring of self-identified centrists dissatisfied with both major parties is quite a deep one, so I suppose the most plausible scenario is the appearance of a similar candidate who manages to secure a surprising victory. I don't find the victory part hard to believe at all; after all, Ventura did manage to do it (yeah, yeah, there's a difference between the gubernatorial and presidential level, I know). It's the question of what comes afterwards. To put it delicately, Ventura and Perot are difficult people to build a party around (after all, the efforts to construct a national Reform party have not really gotten all that far); to put it less delicately, they're both pretty much wackos. But of course, you have to be a little bit crazy to try running a third-party campaign in today's climate to begin with, so we have a true Catch-22.

Thus, I find it implausible that a third-party candidate would win and then be able to construct a new party apparatus from the ground up after winning. Nor do I think the grassroots, bottom-up approach is likely to meet with much success either, since I can't see how such a party could ever find the resources to mount a national campaign. But the scenario I can see happening is a third-party candidate (possibly a Democrat who bolted the party after a bitter primary struggle...) gaining a large number of Democratic defections after election and thus inheriting a large chunk of the party already constructed, and building a viable platform from that. And remember, you heard it here first.

(Okay, you probably didn't. But could you claim that you did, anyway? Please?)
So much bleeding to do...
But nowhere to do it, really. Certainly not here.

Sunday, November 17, 2002

Nitpick of the moment
In movies (excepting foreign films, of course), there's always a convention that the characters will speak in English, no matter what language they "actually" speak; it's just implicit that somewhere along the line this has been magically translated into English for our benefit, even though (say) Russian submarine officers obviously would speak to each other in Russian. The one exception to this is, of course, when they want to say something that the hero won't understand, and then they suddenly do speak in Russian, perhaps with subtitles.

Now, Kenneth has bequeathed to me some science fiction anthologies, which I've been sporadically reading. Since they're nominally "best of"-type anthologies, they do somewhat better than Sturgeon's Law, but the quality still has a pretty wide variation.

Wait, I'm getting somewhere with this. So one of the stories makes a big deal about using a base-8 number system, explaining it and all of the associated units in one of the more clunky expositions you'll see. And yet, on the same page as this clunky exposition, the numbers "999" and "ninety" are both used. But in base 8, there is no such number as "9". In fact, I could even argue that there's no such number as "8", either, which (as you might expect) is strewn all over the story. It's like the autotranslator kicks in, but only when the author remembers to stick it in. And because of this carelessness, whenever I see "10", I have to wonder: does he mean 10 base 10, or 10 base 8 (that is, 8)? In fact, you could argue that if it were really in a base-8 system, they would refer to it as base 10, since any numerical system in its own base will be "base 10". (That is, if we had grown up hexadecimal, would base 10 be base 10? No. It'd be base A.)

Oh, and the actual story benefit of having this wonderful, exciting different number system? Nothing at all, of course. All it is is a chance for the author to show off his knowledge of sixth-grade math, at the expense of making the reader think a little harder to figure out just what the heck is going on. Grumble, grumble.
Sign #1
...that you've been playing DDR too much:

In Mike's car, I was listening to the tape deck, and closed my eyes for a moment. Immediately, step patterns came into my mind.

On the bright side, I am significantly improving, but I still have a long way to go.
So I watched Punch-Drunk Love today with Juliana. I have to say, it's been a long time since a movie has made me feel so profoundly uncomfortable. It's not that it was bad, at least by objective standards; it just engendered a strong sense of discomfort. Let me try to explain why.

Everyone is screwed up in their own ways, me included; it's part of the human condition, after all. But seeing someone who has serious issues, like Sandler's character does, triggers in me a primordial fear, a worry that I'm really more screwed-up than average and just don't realize it. And, in a sense, it reverses the normal defense mechanism -- instead of me saying "well, it's okay, because everyone is like this to some extent", the movie essentially presents "well, here's a guy who has some of these same traits, and he's obviously not okay".

But, of course, the kicker is that his screwed-up-ness just happens to be exactly the right tool for the job, so to speak. While mine isn't. Or if it is, it's sure not doing a good job revealing that fact.

Friday, November 15, 2002

Belated catching-up
So I'm finally getting around to reading the backlog in some of my political sources that I've let accumulate for the past couple of weeks. Fortunately, my strategy seems to have completely worked -- the time interval has made it less bad, and absorbing it all in one large dose allows me to just feel disappointed at the beginning and get it over with rather thhan my disappointment just continually increasing over time.

I suspect that this interval of coping will only last until the next ridiculous happening, though, but I'll enjoy it while it is here.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Ow. Ow ow ow.
So, perhaps not surprisingly, all of this DDR-playing has caused my calves to ache something fierce, which means that my guilt about always driving to campus is now balanced by the fact that walking would be considerably more unhappy.

I will eventually stop feeling this way, right? Right?

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Low-level worry of the day
Computerized voting.

One of the things I read regularly (namely, the comp.risks digest) has had quite a bit of coverage about voting machines in the days before and after the election, and it's made me much more aware of the problems that are going on. While I don't quite subscribe to the "voting machines are a plot by to rig elections!" theory of thinking, the truth is that I'm inherently highly suspicious of these systems, especially when they're pathetically lacking any kind of redundancy, as seems to be the case.

It also annoys the heck out of me that the CEOs of these voting-machine companies are going around making statements like, "No one's discovered a problem in our systems," when the reason for that is that it's a felony to look at a voting machine (presumably to ensure that they can't be tampered with, but sadly this is a two-edged sword). Every system has a problem, and I seriously doubt that they've discovered the magical cure.
Hmm, do I really need another addiction?
So Mike and I went out and got ourselves a copy of DDR. This promises to occupy a large chunk of my time, although on the bright side at least I can pretend it's for a good cause (namely, getting myself in better shape -- and that even has a kernel of truth to it).

While buying the pads, I was thinking -- I owned one of the old Nintendo PowerPads, and I enjoyed it immensely, but of course there weren't any games available for it. There was World Class Track Meet, which I played quite a bit of, until I became really good at it, but there was nothing else. I think there might have been one dance game, but I don't remember anything about it -- plus, the design of the PowerPad (just 12 buttons in a grid; nothing in the way of directions, really) didn't really lend itself to dancing in the first place. Now, of course, the concept of DDR is quite popular, and the pads are much more plentiful (not to mention cheaper -- the PowerPad was $99, while the pads for DDR were $25 -- though that's not as large as it might seem, since the PowerPad did accomodate two players), so perhaps the technology was just ahead of its time (it's true that the PowerPad wasn't all that great, or perhaps just not all that well-synchronized with the game, since there would be countless times that you would try to jump and your character just wouldn't jump; it really encouraged cheating by using your hands instead of really jumping).

Actually, between the DDR pads and the fact that I've recently noticed a Power Glove-esque item being sold (its original incarnation was absolutely terrible, at least in my experience playing it at my friend's house, but I'll bet the technology has improved), I wonder if there's a revival of old-school Nintendo hardware going on (the robot notwithstanding). Ironically, the light gun, which was by far the most popular of the alternative input devices that Nintendo pioneered (didn't everyone have Duck Hunt, after all?) seems to be the most left behind in this -- I know the Playstation has a light gun, but I don't think I've ever seen a game which uses it, or anyone who owned it. I wonder why?
Always with the excuses
This time I have a good reason for not posting. Yesterday, I accidentally spilled a bit of my favorite beverage, water, into my keyboard. Since it seemed that I had only spilled a bit, I wiped the water I had spilled off the top of the keys, and left. I did not (a) turn the keyboard over to drain or (b) unplug the keyboard. The error of my ways would be revealed when I returned home to see that water was leaking out of the bottom of the keyboard, showing that the amount of water I had spilled was more than I initially surmised. I went back to the drying, but the keyboard still failed to work, and taking a look inside revealed that some of the traces had burned out. So I had to head out today and get myself a new keyboard.

On the bright side, where my old keyboard had "" and "Dell Support" buttons, surely two of the most useless buttons ever put on a keyboard by man, this keyboard is almost identical, but has "My Computer" and "Calculator" buttons in their stead, decidedly more useful.

Sunday, November 10, 2002

Today's lesson: abuse of statistics
(1) From a Wired article on European sites outlawing Internet racism sites:
"Many European countries have existing laws outlawing Internet racism, which is generally protected as free speech in the United States. The council cited a report finding that 2,500 out of 4,000 racist sites were created in the United States."
Actually, I'm surprised that the percentage is so low. Consider: 2500 out of 4000 is 62.5%. I'd be surprised if the total fraction of Web sites which originated in the US was significantly less than 62.5%. Of course, I could be wrong -- but the point is that this statistic is completely meaningless without a baseline for the total to compare it to.
(2) Len Pasquarelli claims that the fact that only three teams in the NFL rank in the top ten in offense and defense is evidence that the salary cap creates unbalanced teams. Well, no. Suppose the two are uncorrelated. Well, there are 32 teams in the NFL, so the top 10 represents a fraction (10/32) = 0.31 of the total number of teams. Consequently, if we assume that offense and defensive ranking are uncorrelated, we would expect the number of teams in the top 10 of both to be (32)*(0.31)^2 = 3.13, which is exactly the number that we see! Maybe he's just really worried about that missing 0.13.

I could go on and on, but I have a feeling it's a losing battle.

Saturday, November 09, 2002

Yay, minor celebrity!
So, apparently my ants saga reached devnull (no, not /dev/null), allowing to bask in my 15 seconds of micro-fame. I've also gotten a surprising email as a result, most of which takes me to task for unfairly maligning ants. I'd like to say this (and yes, I know they're not reading this, which is why I'm going to actually answer the email):

I do like ants in the abstract. I mean, I find the concept of an ant colony interesting; I've read "Ant Fugue" more than once; I played SimAnt (although I was never all that good at it); in fact, some of my best friends are ants! (Okay, I made up that last part.) I just wish they would stop trying to eat my food! Or, as the ants story illustrates, everything in my house! (Well, actually, despite the hyperbolic title, as far as I can tell, the ants didn't actually eat the hub -- I guess they were just there for the warmth -- but still.)

Friday, November 08, 2002

A link I can't refuse
I might complain about the power being down here due to the rain and winds, but it can't compare to this incident in Wales.
"If anyone's found my tank, please give us a bell."
Ramblings of a powerless man
So the rain, which I whined about earlier, was pretty desultory from when it started yesterday up until I left for office hours at 3ish today ("today" being Thursday, despite what the header might tell you). This kind of rain is arguably my least favorite; it's heavy enough that I can't just ignore it, so I still have to carry around an umbrella, but it doesn't have the nice, cleansing effect that a good, heavy rain will. Consequently, the world looks (and smells!) like it's just come out of a dryer which doesn't work so well. Anyway, sometime between when I left for office hours and when I left campus to swing by home before quizbowl, the rain became a lot less perfunctory and a lot more torrential, to the point where I (or at least my jacket, since I hadn't brought an umbrella) got completely soaked walking from LeConte back to my car on Hearst.

So, when driving back after quizbowl, I went to drop Seth off, and we noticed that the power on his block was out. This wasn't terribly surprising, since it was the first heavy rain of the season, and there were tons of downed branches and such all over the place. I thought to myself, "Well, better him than me," and went on my way. But I soon would be punished for my hubris, since after dropping everyone else off and arriving home, I noticed that the power on *my* block was also out. It was a very narrow blackout, too; it extended no further than a block north, south, and east (though it did go as far as my eye could see to the west). As I got home, they were just setting up flares at the intersection, but I heard the screech of people quickly braking more than once when I was home.

I was eminently miserable on getting home. All of the things I would normally do were impossible, of course, and despite having a flashlight and a couple of candles (the latter courtesy of Mike), I could pretty much only unhappily read. I felt so oppressed by the darkness, and that my weapons were quite inadequate against it. (Yes, that's intended to sound as if it were metaphorical. But it's quite literal in this case.) I had even lighted a candle, but I was still cursing the darkness. In fact, though I had been planning to return to campus anyway, I felt so enervated that I just fell asleep. Upon my waking at 3am, the power was still out. I was more than a little annoyed at PG&E, of course; on the one hand, it was the first heavy rain, so they probably had a lot to deal with, but still, it was frustrating.

Returning to campus, though, cheered me up considerably (if you haven't figured it out yet, that's where I'm writing this from). Unlike inside, where it just felt dark, oppressive, and lifeless, outside the world was in the perfect post-rain state: nice, fresh, and well-lit, and I had it all to myself! I actually really like being out in hours like this, since the world doesn't feel like a scary place at all -- it's just completely quiet. In fact, I enjoyed the environment so much that I found myself strongly wishing that I had walked to campus instead of driving (though I changed my mind about that when it started raining again as I was walking back from my car). I'm almost tempted to try to make this part of my regular schedule, but somehow I doubt that would actually end up being a good idea.

Now, to see if I can drag myself away from this in order to actually get some work done.

(Meta-commentary: I suppose this is the closest thing to the canonical "what happened to me today" blog post I've posted so far, unless you count the ants, which are kind of a special case. I'm not sure whether I'll continue to do this kind of thing or not.)

Thursday, November 07, 2002

Thoughts inspired by bowling, II
I'm a better bowler than most of my friends (excepting Kenshin, and I haven't bowled with him a long time). However, it's an open question whether this is because I have some superior degree of intrinsic skill, or whether it's just because I spent every Sunday senior year of high school bowling. While the egotistic part of me would like to believe the former, the truth is that it's probably the latter, because bowling is hardly unique in this respect. There's a very long list of activities in which I've become pretty good simply by doing more of it than your average person, and hence in which I would consider myself better than average. (Bowling is one example; quizbowl is another, and I could make this list much longer if I wanted to bore you further.) However, these activities also share something in common: while I was initially interested in them, and enjoyed them long enough to become pretty good, I never was willing to take the additional steps needed to reach "master" level. (To stick with these two examples, I've never sat down and memorized the things I really would need to memorize in order to become really good at quizbowl, nor have I learned how to properly curve the ball in bowling.) Having fun, and improving naturally, was something I could do easily; but when improvement required explicit work rather than simply more practice, I just wasn't sufficiently interested to put in all this effort for some not-really-tangible result. Consequently, there's a lot of stuff I'm pretty good at, but nothing in which I can say that I'm better than anyone I know.

I'm not yet sure whether the above pattern applies to physics or not.
Thoughts inspired by bowling, I
I tend to not think of myself as a particularly competitive person. (I'm sure there are those out there who would disagree with me, but like I said, this is how I think of myself.) I wasn't really tossed into a competitive environment until high school, and while it was true that Lowell was a very competitive environment, I didn't really feel the need to be competitive myself; I suppose, essentially, I had enough confidence in myself that I didn't worry that one poor performance would destroy my ability to get into a good college, or whatever. I didn't end up at the very top of the class, and I didn't really care; because of the way the system at Lowell worked, you had to take as many honors classes as you possibly could to get a maximal GPA, and so if you took classes which weren't honors, even if you did perfectly in them, you could end up with a lower GPA. Consequently, I took things like band and Latin (the latter being too small to have a separate honors course, so it was all non-honors, except for AP Latin), which prevented me from being at the top, but I cared more about taking classes that I wanted to. And when I got to college and everyone was as intelligent as I was (if not more so), there was much more of an atmosphere of cooperation among equals rather than competitiveness to determine who was the best. It didn't hurt that the classes were sufficiently hard that surviving without cooperation was pretty much impossible, although there was occasionally a competitive element in some of the Core classes. Oh, sure, although we were all equals, I did want, sometimes, to be the primus inter pares, but I couldn't win every time, and so if sometimes I had to go to my friends for help, that worked fine for me.

However, to make up for it, my competitiveness seems to have moved to nonacademic areas. In things like bowling or miniature golf, where I feel that I'm probably better than an average one of my friends, I want to win, though I might not admit it (though, then again, I might). If I put up a good effort and then lose, I'll be less disappointed than if I end up not being competitive at all. When bowling on Monday, I had my usual good games interspersed with bad games, but my bads were definitely on the worse end; I very nearly failed to break 100 for the first time in many years and many games, as after eight frames, I hadn't marked once and had a 68. Fortunately, I picked up spares in both of the last two to just barely squeak over with a 105. Still, though, the bad games were infinitely more frustrating than the good games, since I knew I was capable of playing better but just wasn't able to manage it. Conversely, when playing something where I know I'm very likely to lose (say, Starcraft), I'm not likely to hang around for too long, since I really do want to win, and I know if I can't, it takes a lot of fun out of it. I'm not a bad loser, at least in the usual sense of the word, but I do tend to become impolitely uninterested in situations where I just can't win. Well, as far as faults go, I suppose I could pick worse ones to have.
Drip, drip
Looks like the first rain of the season, which means it's moving into my least-favorite part of the year. And our ceiling still has a pair of pinpoint leaks, requiring me to put cans underneath the doorway to our closet. Whine.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Obligatory comments link
All right, I've added in a comments feature. Enjoy!
The blind watchmaker
I have to admit, there are times when I can see the appeal of creationism. I think this was first in AP Biology, when I was learning about the electron transport chain, and I found myself thinking how neat it was that everything fit together so perfectly, and how likely was it that this could have arisen by random chance, anyway? I could certainly agree that if you gave a random anaerobic bacterium the whole apparatus for the Krebs cycle, it would rapidly rise to dominate over its brethren, but it doesn't seem like the kind of thing to suddenly pop out by itself. (Especially since I don't see how any intermediate stages would be particularly useful, and we don't see anything around today with, like, only half of the Krebs cycle. But I'm just wildly speculating here.) Of course, the flip side of this argument is, while the electron transport chain is really neat (well, not that I remember anything about it these days, except "cytochrome C"), it certainly seemed like it was unnecessarily complicated, and that if you were designing cellular respiration from scratch, you could probably make it a much simpler process.

I wonder what creationists have to say about language. In many ways, the same kind of thinking applies: languages are also immensely complicated, to the point where, if you think about it, it seems surprising that they could have evolved just from chance, and a lot of that complexity is completely unnecessary (think about all of the weirdnesses of English, or the 125+ verb forms in Latin). And indeed, those languages which have been explicitly designed (not that I know anything about Esperanto, aside from "-oj") have stated that part of their goal is to eliminate a lot of the unnecessary complexity inherent in any modern language. Of course, we know that languages *did* evolve (not quite in the same sense as standard evolution, since "natural selection" doesn't translate perfectly into the linguistic world), and they did so over a much smaller time frame than the evolution that produced us had. So, looked at from that angle, it suddenly doesn't seem incomprehensible at all that all the complexity inherent in us could have come from chance.

(Hmm, I wonder if there are any creationists who say that God planted the Canterbury Tales to fool us, too?)
So, what, in December, Santa Claus is going to lose?
While I'm not as emotionally attached to the Democratic party as I am to the Giants, especially since the Dems have an even larger share of dislikable characters (is Gray Davis the Shawon Dunston of the party?), there's also the little fact that there's slightly more at stake here, so the net effect of yesterday was about the same as Game 7 -- I checked the early results, and when it became apparent that things looked bad, decided to avoid the subject for the rest of the day, only checking at the end to make sure no miracle had occurred. In my political junkie days, I would have eagerly devoured every article on talking about the election, and had the results turned out more palatable, I would probably be doing the same now, but now, blah...I just don't want to think about it.

Monday, November 04, 2002

Ants ate my hub!
If you're wondering what took me so long to post after getting home yesterday, this is the reason. Warning: this is really long, but it occupied a good portion of my day, so there's a lot to write about.

So, last night, I come home after a 4-1/2 hour drive back from LA (note to law enforcement officials: that's a "6" there, really), and sit down in front of the computer to check my mail. My connection is, for lack of a better word, ass-slow. I go to look at the hub to see if everyone else is having this problem. Nope, Mike and David's activity lights are busily flickering; it's only me who has been screwed. I reach down to fiddle with the connection, and notice that the hub is covered with ants (as well as my hand, after the fiddling). "That's odd," I think to myself, "what would ants want with our hub?" But I'm way too tired to deal with it at the time, so instead I go to sleep, cursing my ill fortune.

I wake up this morning, and decide to investigate further. Yep, the hub is definitely swarming with ants. And it doesn't look like the ants are just going over it to somewhere else (especially since there aren't any tasty ant treats anywhere nearby); they're clearly going into and out of the hub. Some of the ants going in are even carrying little white pellets. "Is that food?" I wonder. "Where is it coming from?"

I unplug the hub and pick it up, and then kill all of the ants that come out of it. And kill some more ants. And kill some more ants. This goes on for a while. I begin to think that the little white pellets look an awful lot like eggs. I shake the hub, and it sounds like someone has poured a handful of coarse sand into it. "That's odd," I think to myself, "I could have sworn this hub *didn't* come with the sand option." I initially thought that there were just some ants here, but it's pretty clear I've got more on my hands now.

So, I decide to take a closer look at the hub. Unfortunately, the hub boasts a screwless construction, but I know that my screwdrivers can be used for more than merely removing screws, so I start prying. As I do so, a bunch of ants and eggs, as well as what look like larvae (basically, they look like slightly-smaller-than-normal ants, but a very pale brown instead of black) continue to fall out (fortunately, I've become clever enough to move to doing this over the sink). I finally get the thing open, and see a bunch of eggs lying on the circuit board, but less than I would have expected if there's really a colony set up here. So, I figure that they're probably under the circuit board, and set to work unscrewing the circuit board to take it out of the box.

Jackpot! (That is, if my goal were to win an ant colony, which it really *wasn't*.) The entire bottom of the box is covered with eggs and larvae, and I see a large ant which I can only assume is the queen. I terminate the queen with extreme prejudice, and then wash out the box (it's made of metal, so I figure it'll be okay.) The circuit board, on the other hand, I can't just wash off (since I hold hopes of saving the hub, not really wanting to have to drop $30 on a new one), and there are lots of eggs wedged in small places, like between the link lights or between the chips connected to the ports, where they'll be really hard to get out of. So, I set the circuit board aside for the moment to take a shower.

When I come back, I notice that the ants have actually done me a favor! (Suckers!) In their futile attempts to save the colony, they've picked up the eggs themselves to scurry around like maniacs, solving my problem. I pick off the ants, and then vigorously shake the board to try to dislodge anything still stuck in the ports, and much to my surprise *another* queen falls out. (I've read that Argentine ants can have more than one queen per colony, but this is still a surprise, especially since I thought I had already gotten almost everything.) I dispose of her, too, clean up the remaining ants, and figure I might as well try putting the hub back together. Not that I can completely undo my prying, but hey, that's cosmetic anyway.

Much to my surprise, it actually works! And my performance is back from miserable to normal. Ants 0, Me 1.

Man, I hate ants. If I could choose one genus to completely wipe off the Earth, assuming that it wouldn't, like, destroy the ecosystem (but really, what depends on ants? Anteaters? Well, they're not doing a very good job, are they?!), it would be them. Well, okay, I suppose I should probably choose something like mosquitoes, since even though they're less personally annoying to me, they still have the whole large-scale disease-spreading thing. But I'd expect some serious compensation from the WHO for not choosing ants!

Friday, November 01, 2002

A note on style
...all right, one Parthian shot.

As you might have noticed, I still haven't quite decided what I want this blog to be, possibly because I'm not particularly thrilled by any of the standard stereotypical blog types. I suppose it seems to have evolved into more of a forum for what I think rather than a forum for what I've done, which isn't too surprising, when it comes down to it, since I tend to think more than I actually do things. On the other hand, I have no particular desire to just turn it into Generic Political Blog, since, well, then it'll utterly fail to interest anyone who doesn't already agree with me (at least, this is my experience with other blogs). So, the moral of the story: feedback is critical at this embryonic time! So if there's something you want to say (like, "shut up about economic issues already! We all took Econ at some point in our lives, you know!") feel free to do so.

And now, I'm outta here.
So far, so good
I've kind of refrained from publicizing this blog too extensively because of my fear that I'll lose interest and it'll just die. So far, I've managed to prevent this from happening, which makes me optimistic about the future of the blog, so I suppose I can start announcing its existence to other people. And if you want to go out and spread the word (hey, I can dream, can't I?) feel free.

Of course, having said that, I'm now going to leave this fallow for a little while, since I'm heading down to LA for a quizbowl tournament. But I'll be back Saturday night.
(from Kenneth, again)

Remember Ellen Feiss? Of course you do! Well, now she's back -- in pumpkin form! This is actually really cool.

On a more serious note, Microsoft engages in sleazy business practices in Namibia (in other news, dog bites man). I'll resist the temptation to turn this into Generic Anti-Microsoft Rant (especially since the article does an admirable job of that to begin with), and instead, since I'm in an economic mood, muse about the economic issues involved.

(Why did I suddenly start talking about economics so much? Good question.)

Anyway, to state the obvious, whether we like it or not, we're in the age of multinational corporations. However, most corporations are limited in their ability to expand across the globe by the limitations on their ability to produce their product (diminishing marginal returns, and all that). To pick an often-picked-on company, I would be extraordinarily surprised if Nike's business plan was "sell shoes to all 6 billion people in the world"; there simply aren't enough Indonesian workers to support such a strategy. So Nike contents itself with selling its shoes to rich Americans, and the Chinese market is filled by Chinese companies producing lower-quality products at a lower cost. Everyone is happy, or at least has an available product within their means (hopefully).

But software is an entirely different beast. It's essentially a zero-marginal-cost industry (to a first approximation -- and remember, kids, it's okay when I make approximations!), so Microsoft has every incentive to market its products to as many people as possible. Thus, I wouldn't be in the least surprised if Microsoft's business plan did contain something to the effect of "Our goal is to put Windows on every computer in the world"; in fact, all things considered, I'd be more surprised if it didn't. The result is that Microsoft will naturally act aggressively to expand its market in developing countries (see, in addition to this, the recent clashes in Peru, and the oft-repeated line that the motivation behind Palladium is to get the Chinese to pay for their software). Of course, given that only a small fraction of the population in Third World countries can afford a computer in the first place, the actual market for Microsoft products is going to be quite small. If that were all there were to the story, then the situation would more or less resolve itself like I described above -- people who could afford Microsoft software would have it, those who couldn't would have something else, and that would be that.

The problem is, of course, is that when Microsoft is around, "something else" tends not to exist. If Microsoft establishes itself as the de facto standard, and/or if it eliminates local competition, then an even larger portion of the population will find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. Is this really the kind of society we want to be perpetuating?

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Useful fact #1
Eating often makes you feel better, even if the symptoms you're suffering aren't obviously due to hunger. Good thing to remember, that.
"Everybody's an idiot except for me"
In my experience, nothing fosters that mindset quicker than driving (where, of course, it's always true...heh). Of course, it seems that sometimes people don't leave that mindset behind when they leave their car, which is a pity, because for everyday life it's really a terrible way to think. But I've exceeded my political quota for the day, so I'll leave it at that.
Hey, neat
Toyota to move to all-hybrid vehicles by 2012 (link courtesy of Kenneth)

Never one to pass up an opportunity to extend my previous meanderings, I'll point out that even most conservative economic observers, assuming they're intelligent, have to admit that externalities are a topic not solved by the Econ 101 version of the free-market viewpoint. (The rest are idiots who'll say "But Coase's Theorem solves everything!" Um, no. Coase's Theorem contains an extremely large assumption which, while useful for presenting examples in Econ 201, is essentially never true in the real world. I'm not saying that a property-rights-based framework of looking at externalities is worthless; it's just that Coase's work needs to be the starting point, not the ending point, of these discussions. I have nothing but contempt for those people, but then again, I have nothing but contempt for overly-simplistic views on both ends of the political spectrum. But I'll save my rant about the Greens for another day...)

Anyway, the case of electric (or hybrid, or fuel-cell, or what have you) vehicles illustrates another pitfall with the standard approach to dealing with externalities (namely, government intervention to reward businesses which reduce externalities or punish those who don't): the feedback loop works in both directions. While the government can (and should) exert its influence on automakers, automakers can (and have) exerted their influence on government. One needs only to look at the lamentable history of California's ZEV policy to see this in action. (You can certainly argue that this was done the "wrong way" in the first place, with mandates instead of incentives, and this is probably true -- but this is yet another tangent.) With the automobile industry so large, powerful, and facing such a large cost of changing to any other system, it's understandable that they would fight such proposals tooth and nail.

In the end, it appears like the market has finally ended up doing the right thing -- consumers have demanded more fuel-efficient cars and so the market has responded by producing more fuel-efficient cars. A macroeconomic love story, to quote those annoying ads. But if anyone claims that this is proof that the government doesn't need to meddle in situations like these, I'll cheerfully smack them upside the head, since, well, why do you think the automakers got started researching these technologies in the first place? Hint: it wasn't because they wanted to.

Moral of the story: markets usually good, but far from perfect; sky is blue. Film at 11.