Posts tagged ‘game’

Yet Another Reason to Live in Arizona

Via the Valley Fever blog:

Good news, Diamondbacks fans: Chase Field is still home to the cheapest beer in baseball.

Fourteen ounces of beer at a Diamondbacks game is still $4, making this at least the fifth season in a row the D-backs have had the cheapest beer in baseball.

Surprise: Near Bankrupt City Finds that Throwing Good Money After Bad is Not a Good Investment

I have written here any number of times about the crazy ongoing subsidies by Glendale, Arizona (a 250,000 resident suburb of Phoenix) to an NHL franchise.  The city last year was teetering at the edge of bankruptcy from past hockey subsidies, but decided to double down committing to yet more annual payments to the new ownership of the team.

Surprisingly, throwing more money into an entreprise that has run through tens of millions of taxpayer money without any hint of a turnaround turns out to be a bad investment

Revenue from the Phoenix Coyotes is coming up short for Glendale, which approved a $225 million deal to keep the National Hockey League franchise in 2013.

City leaders expected to see at least $6.8 million in revenue annually from the team to help offset the $15 million the city pays each year for team owners to manage Jobing.com Arena. The revenue comes from ticket surcharges, parking fees and a split of naming rights for the arena.

Halfway through the fiscal year, the city has collected $1.9 million from those sources, and nearly $2.3 million when including sales-tax revenue from the arena.

Even including the rent payments on the publicly-funded stadium, Glendale is still losing money each year on the deal.

The source of the error in forecasting is actually pretty funny.  Glendale assumed that it could charge very high monopoly parking fees for the arena spaces ($10-$30 a game).  In some circumstances, such fees would have stuck.  But in this case, two other entities (a mall and another sports stadium) have adjoining lots, and once parking for hockey was no longer free, these other entities started competing parking operations which held down parking rates and volumes (I always find it hilarious when the government attempts to charge exorbitant monopoly prices and the free market undercuts them).

Had the parking rates stuck at the higher level, one can assume they still would have missed their forecast.  The Coyotes hockey team already has among the worst attendance numbers in the league, and hockey ticket buyers are particularly price sensitive, such that a $20 increase in the cost of attending a game likely would have driven attendance, and thus parking fees and city ticket surcharges and sales taxes, down.  Many private companies who are used to market dynamics still fail to forecast competitive and customer reaction to things like price increases well, and the government never does it well.

Best Bridge Book Ever (IMHO) Back In Print

One thing I think I have never mentioned before on this site is that in college, I was a fanatical bridge player.  I developed this odd social life of bridge in the afternoon and beer pong at night.  When I got tired of playing other students, my friend and I would go into town and play the local residents, who were sharks.

Anyway, people new to bridge are always intimidated by bidding, and certainly there is a learning curve there (which I made worse by using the Precision rather than the Goren standard system).  But with some time, bidding becomes rote.  Only perhaps in one in ten or twenty hands is the last increment of bidding expertise really useful, and then usually only when playing duplicate where even a few extra points really matter.

Once your bidding is mostly up to snuff, the game is all about card play.   A good player will play out the entire hand, with guesses as to which cards are held by which players, before the first card is led.

The single best book I have ever read on card play is Card Play Technique by Mollo and Gardener.  Thirty years ago there was about one source for this often out-of-print book and I bought a dozen copies, slowly giving most of them away over time.  Now, however, it is back in print.  If you play bridge, you have probably read this book, but if not, buy yourself a copy for Christmas.

Media Accountability -- When The Arizona Republic Tried to Get Scottsdale To Bankrupt Itself

Three cheers for Greg Patterson holding the media accountable for their past support of costly corporate welfare.

You may have seen the recent Wall Street Journal Story about the financial fiasco that is Glendale Arizona.

Here's the Republic's take on it. 

Glendale ranked second in the U.S., according to the story, thanks to a $26.6 million negative fund balance at the close of fiscal 2012, due largely to sports-related debt.

Glendale has made a lot of mistakes, but I think that there is near universal agreement that the critical error was their decision to build the hockey arena.

Yep.  I have written about the egregious hockey deals that have bankrupted Glendale on several occasions.  George Will even quoted me on the topic.

Greg Patterson went back and looked at what the Arizona Republic was writing before the Glendale deals went so noticeably bad.  I have written before about how the media goes into full cheerleader mode on those crony stadium deals.

Before Glendale bankrupted itself to subsidize the hockey team, Scottsdale was offered the "opportunity" to do so and turned it down.  The local paper Arizona Republic excoriated Scottsdale for passing on the chance to subsidize rich sports team owners, saying that "Once-in-a-lifetime projects are just that".  Here is the best quote from the 2004 Republic editorial:

Our view is that Scottsdale's mishandling of the arena idea was a leadership blunder of biblical proportions. Enough with the blame game. We hope that Scottsdale at least has learned some tough lessons from the disaster.

And this is classic:

Some city officials seemed content to nitpick, complain, second-guess and haggle over details. They're right to be diligent. Certainly nobody endorses a Pollyanna-ish panel of rubber-stampers. But at the same time, people who are forever looking for stuff to complain about always seem to find it.

I bet Glendale wishes it had more second-guessers on its city council.  The whole thing is worth reading.

Postscript:  This is one recommendation from the Republic I can agree with:

Think twice about ever launching a redevelopment effort like this again. Sensing that the Los Arcos Mall area was hurting economically, the council formed the Los Arcos Redevelopment District in December 1995. The council adopted a redevelopment plan the following July, and the Ellman Cos. subsequently acquired the 42-acre site. Not too surprisingly, Ellman was the only one to answer the city's request for proposals.

Ellman owns the Los Arcos property. That gives him a lot of advantages, including a position of negotiating authority. It allows him to stoke political outrage by wearing down the patience of neighbors who would like to see something built on this key corner. Got a great idea about what should be done at Los Arcos? Too bad. Ellman still owns it. Condemnation is not a viable political or financial course for the city, and Ellman knows it.

Redevelopment almost always means "crony giveaway" nowadays.

The Public Rail Spending Game

Kevin Drum has a very good, succinct description of how the rail (light rail, high speed rail, commuter rail) spending game works, in the context of California High Speed Rail (HSR)

As near as I can tell, the HSR authority's plan all along has been to simply ignore the law and spend the bond money on a few initial miles of track. Once that was done, no one would ever have the guts to halt the project because it would already have $9 billion sunk into it. So one way or another, the legislature would keep it on a funding drip.

It's a time-tested strategy, and it might have worked if not for a meddling judge.

Here is a great example of this from Chicago, where all they could afford at first was a single station.

I applaud Drum for opposing this boondoggle, but if he really understands this so well, I wonder why he seldom demonstrates any skepticism about other rail and mass transit projects.

Rail projects, particularly light rail projects that are being constructed or proposed in nearly every major city, are a classic example of a nominally Progressive policy that ends up hurting all the people Progressives want to help.

Bus-based mass transit is an intelligent way to help lower income people have more urban mobility.  Buses are relatively cheap and they are supremely flexible (ie they can switch routes easily).  Such urban bus systems, which like any government run function often have their problems and scandals, never-the-less can be reasonably held up as a Progressive victory.

But middle and upper class people, for whatever reason, don't like buses.  But they do like trains.  And so cities, under middle class pressure, have shifted their mass transit investment to trains.  The problem is that trains are horrendously expensive.    The first 20-mile leg of Phoenix light rail cost over $1.4 billion, which amounts to about $70,000 per daily round-trip rider.  Trains are also inflexible.  You can't shift routes and you can't sell them-- they have to follow fixed routes, which tend to match middle class commuting routes.

Because the trains are so expensive to operate, cities that adopt them quickly start cutting back on bus service to feed money to the rail beast.  As a result, even transit poster-boy cities like Portland have seen the ridership share of mass transit fall, for the simple reason that rail greatly increases the cost per rider and there is not an infinite amount of money available to transit.

 

I'm Feeling Pretty Good About These Remarks on Inauguration Day 2009

I caught a lot of grief on inauguration day 2009 for questioning the general feeling that some new era was beginning.  Most of you may have repressed the memory at this point of what that day was like, but even normally intelligent, well-grounded people were going a bit goo goo that day.  

I am feeling pretty good about the remarks I made that day.  Here is part of what I wrote.

I am not enough of a historian to speak for much more than the last thirty years, but the popularity of non-incumbent political candidates has typically been proportional to 1) their personal charisma and 2) our lack of knowlege of their exact proposals....Folks are excited about Obama because, in essence, they don't know what he stands for, and thus can read into him anything they want.  Not since the breathless coverage of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault has there been so much attention to something where we had no idea of what was inside.  My bet is that the result with Obama will be the same as with the vault.

There is some sort of weird mass self-hypnosis going on, made even odder by the fact that a lot of people seem to know they are hypnotized, at least at some level.  I keep getting shushed as I make fun of friends' cult behavior watching the proceedings today, as if by jiggling someone's elbow too hard I might break the spell.  Never have I seen, in my lifetime, so much emotion invested in a politician we know nothing about.   I guess I am just missing some gene that makes the rest of humanity receptive to this kind of stuff, but just for a minute snap your fingers in front of your face and say "do I really expect a fundamentally different approach from a politician who won his spurs in .... Chicago?  Do I really think the ultimate political outsider is going to be the guy who bested everyone at their own game in the Chicago political machine?"

Well, the spell will probably take a while to break in the press, if it ever does -- Time Magazine is currently considering whether it would be possible to put Obama on the cover of all 52 issues this year -- but thoughtful people already on day 1 should have evidence that things are the same as they ever were, just with better PR.

And I wrote this about the candidate I actually preferred over the Republican alternative McCain. Which explains why it has been ages since I have voted for anything but the Libertarian candidate for President.  The last election was actually a pleasant surprise, as I was able to cast a vote for Gary Johnson, who I was able to vote for not just as a protest vote but as someone I actually would love to see as President.

The Greatest Bit of Color Commentary in Baseball History

Today is the anniversary of what is probably the greatest moment in Arizona sports history.  But it is also the occasion of the most precient bit of sports commentary I have ever heard.  Watch this brief clip.  Listen to Tim McCarver's comment just before the second pitch and then see what happens.  He called it exactly.

I suppose we Arizonans are biased, but the whole game is one of the best baseball games I have ever watched.  Randy Johnson relieving Curt Schilling.  Mariano Rivera relieving Roger Clemens.  You can watch it all here.

M.U.L.E. Returns

One of my favorite early C64 games may be returning to mobile platforms.  M.U.L.E. would work great as a networked iPhone game.  Hopefully these folks do a good job with it.

Capitalism is an Un-System

Markets and commerce are not created top-down, they are emergent behavior:

...“no one” made markets. No one put out rules for when a market should or should not exist, much like the footprints in the snow following a fresh storm, these markets emerge from the self-interested actions of millions of buyers and sellers each responding to hundreds upon hundreds of incentives every day. Indeed, no one ever sat down and said, “you know, we have this major problem here – there are simply not enough things out there for all of the people who want them, so, let’s have this thing called capitalism and see how it works.” It simply didn’t go down that way, and discussing “markets” in the anthropomorphic way that is often done, particularly in these lines of inquiry, really takes us away from appreciating that market activity is an emergent process. Yes, it does operate in a richer institutional and intellectual framework and yes the “rules” of the game do alter when ends up being for sale or not, but simply condemning “markets” as allowing “everything” to be sold quite misses the point.

The Greatest Product Ever for Hyperactive Adults with the Attention Span of a Four Year Old

The Red Zone channel from DirecTV.  Basically the show's producers channel surf for you, flipping obsessively between as many as 8 simultaneous pro football games (sometimes with two split-screened at a time).  My wife says she gets a headache from watching it even for a few minutes.  But I think its awesome.  I actually flip back and forth between the RZC and whatever game I have chosen to watch that day for extra hyperactive bonus points.

All Is Right With the World Again

Arizona State has climbed back into the top 10 party school rankings.

This is the same institution that is opposing Grand Canyon University's entry into Division I athletics because, as a for-profit university, they are apparently not academically serious enough.  For some reasons GCU's accountability to shareholders isn't as pure and wonderful as ASU's accountability to former customers who will never use their product again except perhaps to attend a football game (e.g. alumni).

Scouting the Monopoly Board

This is kind of clever.  Surprised no one has tried to make a movie based on the board game.  Though perhaps since this gentleman is a Hollywood location scout, someone may be.

Let's Not Forget Martha Coakley's Crimes

Martha Coakley, former Massachusetts Attorney General, is apparently running for Governor of that state after her failed bid to be Senator.

Walter Olson has a round-up of Coakley's various abuses of power, which start with her shameful hounding of the Amirault family against all reason and facts, apparently for the sole purpose of self-aggrandizement.  Unfortunately, all too frequently AG's are rewarded for prosecutorial abuse in the form of media attention and often election to higher offices (Janet Reno rode witch hunts of day care operators very similar to Coakley's into the White House).

The day care worker witch hunt was one of the more bizarre events to occur in my lifetime.  I even sat on a jury of such a case, the only jury I have ever been on.  You have heard of copycat murders?  This turned out to be a copycat false accusation.  It eventually became clear that the teenage babysitter who made the main accusations really wanted to be on the Oprah show, and saw how other day care and child abuse whistle blowers had been interviewed by Oprah.   I kid you not.   By the time of this case, defense lawyers had become wise to the prosecutors' game of using brainwashing techniques to try to get small children to make bizarre sexual allegations against adults in the case.  So the defense was able to highlight the extremes that a couple of state psychologists had gone through to effectively break one poor 6 year old girl.  It was sickening, and it took us about 15 minutes to acquit.   But this is the type of behavior Ms. Coakley and her staff were engaging in.

Trend That Is Not A Trend: Dan Brown is an Idiot Edition

I just finished reading Dan Brown's new novel Inferno.  Dan Brown novels tend to be love-it-or-hate-it things for me.  They are structured exactly like computer adventure games, with a series of quests and puzzles that lead to the next quest or puzzle which eventually reveal a larger story line and a final confrontation.  Just as this sort of adventure game can be engaging or tedious and repetitive, so too can be Dan Brown books.  The Da Vinci Code is excellent, the others are meh, just overly-convoluted snipe hunts.

So I had expected to either love or hate Inferno.  It turns out it was awful, but for an entirely unexpected reason:  for some insane reason, Dan Brown seems to have come under the spell of Paul Ehrlich doomsters, and has crafted a book with a deep fear of population growth that is right out of the 1970's.

Mild spoilers follow (mild meaning most of this is revealed in the first third of the book)

It is clear from almost the beginning of the book that Brown's hero, Robert Langdon, is on the trail of some sort of mad genius who is convinced that the Earth is headed for a horrible collapse due to human population growth.  This character is enamored of the medieval black death and believes that the best thing for modern man would be some sort of repetition of this kind of plague.

The exhausting part for any rational person trying to read this book is that it is clear that the author Brown mostly agrees with this character.  We know this because all of the arguments characters marshal against the villain are so lame and half-hearted.  In general, the tone of the response to this man is "yes, you are absolutely correct that human population growth will inevitably lead to a complete catastrophe but your idea of a plague is a bad solution."

By the end of the book, everyone formerly opposed to this scientist have come around to reluctantly agreeing with his point of view.  If you ever read Tom Clancy's Rainbow 6, where an environmental group tries to kill off most of the world's population, this is essentially the same plot written, incredibly, by an author that seems to agree with the basic idea.  If you are not convinced that Dan Brown himself agrees with the terrorist, I will also provide one more convincing piece of evidence -- though since it is a much bigger spoiler I will leave it for the end below the fold.  If you have read the book or don't intend to, skip below the fold and then come back.

This idea of catastrophic population growth is idiotic.  Accelerating population growth is a trend that is not a trend.

There is absolutely no trend towards out of control population growth.   In fact, the trends actually run in the opposite direction, with birth rates and population growth rates falling such that most demographers foresee an Earth stabilizing around 9-10 billion people and possibly falling in population after that.  Since Dan Brown uses senior UN officials in the book to agree that population growth will result in disaster, I will use UN figures.  These are from a 2005 UN population report.

First, population growth rates have been falling for decades and will continue to fall.  They are falling in every part of the world.

click to enlarge

A cynic might argue that this is due to death and disease, but in fact birth rates are falling everywhere

pop2

This data is about 10 years old but Wikipedia summarizes the most recent UN data and shows this trend has continued (TFR is total fertility rate):

World historical TFR (1950–2015)
UN, medium variant, 2010 rev.[2]
Years TFR
1950–1955 4.95
1955–1960 4.89
1960–1965 4.91
1965–1970 4.85
1970–1975 4.45
1975–1980 3.84
1980–1985 3.59
1985–1990 3.39
1990–1995 3.04
1995–2000 2.79
2000–2005 2.62
2005–2010 2.52
2010–2015 2.36

 

People focus on the amount the world population has increased over the last 60 years to produce shock numbers, but the real stunner is the drop in fertility rates -- nearly in half, which is really astounding.  I still have my treasured first edition of Ehrlich's Population Bomb.  It is hilarious reading, all the more so because he gets everything so wrong, yet the media still tends to take him seriously.

The recurring theme in Inferno is that man's greatest problem is that he has successfully tackled many diseases and thus increased life expectancy, and it is this longer life expectancy that will be the roots of mankind's Malthusian downfall.

However, exactly the opposite is true.  There is a ton of scientific work that says that longer life spans lead to lower fertility rates  (the other thing that most contributes to lower fertility rates is economic growth).  Here is a chart right out of the UN study linked above showing a clear inverse correlation between life expectancy and birth rates.   Correlation is not causation, but this is backed by a ton of other empirical evidence to support causation.

pop3

Wow.

There is no trend towards accelerating population growth -- the trend is in the opposite direction, to deceleration.  And folks who have underestimated man's ingenuity in feeding larger populations have always turned our to be wrong.  Ehrlich said there was no way --- absolutely no way -- India could feed an additional 200 million people by 1980.  Well, in 2013 it feeds an additional 800 million people to a better standard that the country was fed in Ehrlich's time.  Hell, we could probably feed an additional half billion more just by repealing laws that put a significant amount of America's food production into automotive fuels.

PostScript / Large spoiler and more discussion below the fold 

Continue reading ‘Trend That Is Not A Trend: Dan Brown is an Idiot Edition’ »

Harvard Business School and Women

The New York Times has a long article on  Harvard Business School's effort to change its culture around women.  Given that both my wife and I attended, albeit 25 years ago, I have a few thoughts.

  • I thought the article was remarkably fair given that it came from the NYT.  Men who are skeptical of the program actually are allowed to voice intelligent objections, rather than just be painted as Neanderthals
  • I would have abhorred the forced gender indoctrination program, as much for being boring as for being tangential.  I am fortunate I grew up when I did, before such college group-think sessions were made a part of the process everywhere.  I would presume most of these young folks are now used to such sessions from their undergrad days.   I would not have a problem having an honest and nuanced discussion about these issues with smart people of different backgrounds, but I thought the young man they quoted in the article said it really well -- there is just no payoff to voicing a dissenting opinion in such sessions where it is clear there is a single right answer and huge social and even administrative penalties for saying the wrong thing.
  • I went to HBS specifically because I loved the confrontational free-for-all of the classes.   It was tailor-made to my personality and frankly I have never been as successful at anything before or since as I was at HBS.   I say this only to make it clear that I have a bias in favor of the HBS teaching process.   I do think there is an issue that this process does not fit well with certain groups.  These folks who do not thrive in the process are not all women (foreign students can really struggle as well) but they are probably disproportionately women.  So I was happy to see that rather than dumb down the process, they are working to help women be more successful and confident in it.
  • It is interesting to see that the school still struggles to get good women professors.  When I was there, the gap between the quality of men and women professors was staggering.  The men were often older guys who had been successful in the business and finance world and now were teaching.  The women were often young and just out of grad school.  The couple of women professors I had my first year were weak, probably the two weakest professors I had.  In one extreme case our female professor got so jumbled up in the numbers that the class demanded I go down and sort it out, which I finally did.  I thought it was fun at the time, but now I realize how humiliating it was.
  • To some extent, the school described in the article seems a different place than when I was there.  They describe a school awash in alcohol and dominated by social concerns.  This may be a false impression -- newspapers have a history of exaggerating college bacchanalia.   At the time I was there, Harvard did not admit many students who did not have at least 2 years of work experience, such that the youngest students were 24 and many were in their 30's and 40's.  A number were married and some even had children.   To be there, they not only were paying a lot of money but they were quitting paying jobs.  The school was full of professionals who were there for a purpose.  I had heard that HBS had started to admit more students right out of college -- perhaps that is a mistake.
  • The fear by the women running the school that women would show up on Halloween wearing "sexy pirate" costumes represents, in my mind, one of the more insidious aspects of this new feminist paternalism (maternalism?) aimed at fellow women.  Feminism used to be about empowering women to make whatever choices they want for their lives.   Now it is increasingly about requiring women to make only the feminist-approved choices.
  • I actually wrote a novel where the protagonist was a confident successful female at HBS.   So I guess I was years ahead of the curve.

Postscript:  Below the fold is an excerpt from my novel.  In it, the protagonist Susan describes how an HBS class works and shares my advice for being successful at HBS.

Continue reading ‘Harvard Business School and Women’ »

Photoshop Practice

I am working on a couple of euro-style strategy card games at the moment.  The first is a business start-up game, and the second is a space-themed game loosely based on my experiences playing the Traveler role-playing game years ago.   A good stock image account (I use Shutterstock) gets me everything in terms of card images I need for the first game, but royalty-free space images are harder.  However, it is actually possible to start with prosaic industrial and other images and hack them to look futuristic, but it takes some work.

So I have been working on Photoshop skills.  If I could digitally paint, I would paint beautiful concept art, but I cannot.  So my Photoshop training has focused not on painting per se but on hacking images together and overlaying effects.   A LOT of the work is learning to do selections well to mash up images and then overlaying a few effects.   I can make a really good laser beam now, for example.  Take a modern weapon, have a laser beam come out, wala a pretty functional sci fi gun  (Don't believe me?  Look at the Death Star Turrets in the original Star Wars movie and tell me those aren't essentially current-era battleship turrets with green and red light coming out).  I wrote earlier about the lessons I followed in making custom planets.

As an example, here is the lesson I did last night.  It is not production value because it started with a low-res iPhone photo my daughter sent me and as you can tell from the edges and especially the hair, I did not spend much effort getting the edge selection just right.  But my daughter liked being a cyborg:

Click to enlarge

 

She has dark brown hair and dark brown eyes, so she is not the ideal model for this because those are hard to colorize well.  Blondes may or may not have more fun, but they are much easier to colorize.  The downsize of the exercise is that she loved the hair and now wants to color it that way for real.

Film Production -- The Strangely Favored Industry

My son and I were watching a TV show and at the end there was a blurb about it being made in Georgia.  I said to him "I guarantee that "filmed in Georgia" translates to "subsidized by Georgia."  He did not believe me, and could not understand why anyone would subsidize film production.  After all, we can argue about whether any government subsidized jobs make sense or just cannibalize investment in other areas, but film jobs are the most temporary and fleeting of all jobs.

Turns out I was right (I followed a web link from the credits):

Georgia production incentives provide up to 30% of your Georgia production expenditures in transferable tax credits.

The program is available for qualifying projects, including feature films, television series, commercials, music videos, animation and game development. With one of the industry’s most competitive production incentive programs, the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office can help you dramatically cut production costs without sacrificing quality.

Highlights from the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act include the following:

  • 20% across the board, transferable flat tax credit with a minimum of $500,000 spent on qualified production and post production expenditures within Georgia
  • Additional 10% tax credit if a production company includes an imbedded Georgia promotional logo in the qualified feature film, TV series, music video or video game project
  • Provides same tax credits to all instate and out-of-state labor working in Georgia, plus standard fringes qualify
  • No limits or caps on Georgia spend; no sunset clause
  • For commercials and music videos, a production company may group multiple projects together to meet the $500,000 minimum spend on qualified expenditures

This is just insane.  WTF is the state doing subsidizing 30% of the cost of making commercials?  What could possibly justify this, except that this is a sexy business and it gives politicians a chance to rub shoulders with film people?   Why are Georgia business people taxed in order to hand money film producers?   What makes film production a "good" industry and, say, campgrounds a bad one?

Well, I suppose it could be argued that filming in Georgia would help advertise Georgia by showing scenes filmed on location in the state.  Except that the show we were watching was Archer, an animated series about spies based in New York City.  Not one second of the TV show has ever shown or ever will show a live image of Georgia, and I am almost all the way through the second season and not one location in the state of Georgia has been mentioned  (though they might have mentioned the one in Asia).

 

Government Agencies Run For the Benefit of Their Employees

I have written before that the single best framework for explaining the actions of most government agencies is to assume they are run for the benefit of their employees.  This certainly seems to be the case at the FAA, which can't over 10+ years complete a modernization of its computer system or match free, private Internet tools for flight tracking, but it was able to very quickly publish a web application to promote the danger of the sequester.  Public service is not even on these guys radar screens, as they have shown themselves completely willing to screw the public in a game of chicken to get more funding back for their agency

But after Mr. Coburn published his letter on his website, FAA regional employees wrote to blow the whistle on their bosses. As one email put it, "the FAA management has stated in meetings that they need to make the furloughs as hard as possible for the public so that they understand how serious it is."

Strategies include encouraging union workers to take the same furlough day to increase congestion. "I am disgusted with everything that I see since the sequester took place," another FAA employee wrote. "Whether in HQ or at the field level it is clear that our management has no intention of managing anything. The only effort that I see is geared towards generating fear and demonstrating failure." Just so.

The End of Full-Time Work in the American Retail Service Sector

My new Forbes article is up, and it is on my favorite under-reported story, the end of full-time work in the American retail sector

I don’t generally publish end-of-year predictions, mainly because I usually am wrong (a failing that does not seem to prevent any number of others from doing so, however).  But last year I made an exception when I predicted that the biggest economic story of 2013 would be the death of the full-time job in the American retail service sector.

But this was not really an exception to my rule about predictions, because this was not really a prediction at all, at least in the sense that a “prediction” is an educated guess of some future uncertain event occurring.  Late last year, within the service world, this change was already occurring – at restaurants, at hotels, and in retail stores, managers were already formulating plans.  In a large sense, by making this prediction, I was betting on the score of a game that had already been played — all we are doing now is waiting for the media to catch up and report the results to the public at large....

The tree fell in the forest months ago, but it is only just now being heard.

Sorry, link was broken, now fixed

+1 For Twilight Struggle

I have written before about how much I enjoy the physical board game Twilight Struggle.  This is not really going out on a limb, since it has occupied the #1 spot at BoardGameGeek for a while.  But over the last 3 months my son and I became totally addicted.  He is at college, but we played online via the terrific Twilight Struggle add-on in the VASSAL gaming engine  (all free).  Very highly recommended.

Some Gaming Reviews: SimCity, Bioshock Infinite

First, an update on SimCity.  I am a huge SimCity series fan from way back.  I was excited by the new release, which turned out to be a total disaster.  I wrote several weeks ago about the horrendous decision to make SimCity an always-online game, which led on day 1 to the game being unplayable for most because of server problems and overloads at EA.

Since that time, they have (mostly) fixed the server overload issues and I have been able to play.  Sort of.  The game is beautiful and the interface is pretty nice.  And the game tantalizing retains many of the elements that made the previous games so compelling to some of us.  But in the end, the game is a fail.

First, it is full of bugs.  One horrible bug ensures that over time, almost every city you build will crash on the online server.  The only solution is to accept a rollback to an earlier state, though every once in a while this leads to a total city loss.

Beyond that, almost every element of the game is broken.  Sims will suddenly stop going to school, and complain about there being no education when an empty school is right across the street.  City water tables can be drained in a matter of months, making a city unplayable -- one can avoid this only by putting their sewer plant right by their water supply.  Certain city specializations added to the game, like gambling, don't work right.   Meteor showers cities every few months and can't be turned off.  etc. etc.

It may be that this game will be playable in 6 months or so, but even then I fear that the EA team has simplified the game so much and removed so many options to appeal to the mass market XBOX set that the wonky complexity many of us enjoyed in early games will never be there.  In particular, city size is limited such that in about 20 minutes of play I can completely fill the city space.  All that one can even do with the game after that is just sit and watch density increase and expand a fire station or two as the population grows.  In fact, a lot of the game for me runs unattended, since EA had to turn off the fast speed mode.  The city now needs to just run for hours for anything to happen, so I resorted to leaving it on in the other room and checking back on it every hour or two.

Oh, and by the way.  The highly touted multiplayer features are a bad joke.  Someone in the business department told developers that the game had to be online for piracy protection, and told them to go develop some game features that justified this decision so they could tell users that the online requirement was really for their benefit and not for copy protection.  Well, they failed.

Bioshock Infinite.   I don't play a lot of first person-shooter style role-playing games, but my son talked me into playing the new Bioshock.  He has played a lot of this genre (e.g. the Mass Effect series) and said that this was the best he had ever played.  This evaluation may be in part due to his fascination with strange dystopic visions of society, because we certainly get one in this game (as in each of the Bioshock series).

I am not every far into it but I will say that is a fun experience.  So far I would say it was less of a game and more of an immersive novel -- WTF is this place I am in and what is going on.   The environment is really fascinating to explore.  I am still trying to figure out the back story, but piecing it together is a fun process.  Already I have been to several memorable locations.

SimCity 5 Now Has 1402 1-Star Reviews on Amazon

As of tonight, the new SimCitygame is still unplayable due to overloaded servers and numerous bugs even when one is on the server.  Today, the manufacturer purposely defeatured the product in a patch to try to get it to work.  As I predicted the other day, this product was not ready for market.

Update:  Via Game Skinny, this may be an example of some of the worst customer service I have ever seen.  The makers of SimCity in a press release tells users they may request a refund.  When a customer requests the refund, he is told that he can request it, so the press release is not lying, but they are not going to process it.  Unbelievable.  Extra credit for the fact that those who bought from Amazon can get a prompt and immediate refund, but those who bought directly from the manufacturer, like me, are stuck.

click to enlargeFurther, it is becoming increasingly clear that the multiplayer capabilities that supposedly require the server login are a sham - a very very thin shell of functionality that adds almost nothing to the game but provides the excuse for always-online DRM.

 

Massive SimCity 5 Fail

First, I have always enjoyed the SimCity games.  Sure, I know that these games take a planning and technocratic control approach that I find distasteful in real life, but I enjoy playing first-person shooters as well despite being a pacifist.

So I have been extremely disappointed in their implementation of their new version.  In this sort of mad rush to be like all the other games out there, SimCity built in a multi-player mode where you play online interacting with neighboring cities run by other players.   This is all fine as far as it goes, thought the appeal escapes me so far.

But the true fail is that they require players to log in and play online on their servers, even when playing solo.  What was an irritant yesterday became an enormous mess today, as every North American server for the game is full.  Run the game, and you immediately get hit with a pop-up window with a counter forcing you to wait in what is at least a 20-minute queue before you can play.  There is no offline mode - even if your intent is to play solo, you have to wait for a spot to open up on their multi-player servers.

At this point I would seriously recommend that you wait before buying this game.  Combined with other irritants (the game is not available on Steam, you have to use Origins far inferior proprietary clone), and the game's high price, I am sorry I pre-ordered and did not wait for reviews to come in.  It may eventually be a good game, but I am not going to pay $70 to stare at a 20-minute count down clock every time I want to play.

Update:  Most online games allow players to pre-load the game several days prior to when the servers are turned on.  This smooths out the load on the download servers.  Apparently Origin did not do this, and the servers for downloads crashed yesterday (these are different from the play servers which are full today).  Apparently Origin was still "polishing" the code right up to the hour of launch, which is code for, "this is likely still a bug-filled mess."

One Reason the Press is Always So Statist

Why is the media always so deferential to the state?  The reasons may be in part ideological, but there is a public choice explanation as well -- the state (particularly local police and crime stories) generate most of its headlines, and so they have a financial incentive to retain access to the source of so much of their content.

Perhaps even more revealing, though, was this:

To start, [San Diego County Sheriff's Office] spokeswoman Jan Caldwell explained to the room full of journalists why it is so important to be nice to her: "If you are rude, if you are obnoxious, if you are demanding, if you call me a liar, I will probably not talk to you anymore. And there's only one sheriff's department in town, and you can go talk to the deputies all you want but there's one PIO."

Here we have the heart of the matter. "Professional" journalists may, indeed, be brilliant, talented, well-trained, professional, with an abiding appetite for hard-hitting but neutral reporting. Yet professional journalists also depend on relationships. Ms. Caldwell calls that fact out, sending law enforcement's core message to the press: if you want access, play the game.

The game colors mainstream media coverage of criminal justice. Here's my overt bias: I'm a criminal defense attorney, a former prosecutor, and a critic of the criminal justice system. In my view, the press is too often deferential to police and prosecutors. They report the state's claims as fact and the defense's as nitpicking or flimflam. They accept the state's spin on police conduct uncritically. They present criminal justice issues from their favored "if it bleeds it leads" perspective rather than from a critical and questioning perspective, happily covering deliberate spectacle rather than calling it out as spectacleThey accept leaks and tips and favors from law enforcement, even when those tips and leaks and favors violate defendants' rights, and even when the act of giving the tip or leak or favor is itself a story that somebody ought to be investigating. In fact, they cheerfully facilitate obstruction of justice through leaks. They dumb down criminal justice issues to serve their narrative, or because they don't understand them.

This "professional" press approach to the criminal justice system serves police and prosecutors very well. They favor reporters who hew to it. Of course they don't want to answer questions from the 800-pound bedridden guy in fuzzy slippers in his mother's basement. But it's not because an 800-pound bedridden guy can't ask pertinent questions. It's because he's frankly more likely to ask tough questions, more likely to depart from the mutually accepted narrative about the system, less likely to be "respectful" in order to protect his access. (Of course, he might also be completely nuts, in a way that "mainstream" journalism screens out to some extent.)

Which is why, despite Joe Arpaio's frequent antics that make national news, it falls to our local alt-weekly here in Phoenix rather than our monopoly daily paper to do actual investigative reporting on the Sheriff's office.

US Doctor Salaries

Kevin Drum thinks he has found the smoking health care gun - US doctors are paid more than everyone else.  That is why we have too-expensive medical care!  A few quick thoughts

  • I am the last one to argue that doctors salaries are set anywhere like at a market clearing price.  Our certification system, crazy third-party payer systems, lack of price transparency, and absurd arguments over the "doc fix" and Medicare reimbursement rates all convince me that doctor salaries must be "wrong"
  • The charts he shows have absolutely no correction for productivity, at least as I read the methodology.  Per the text, they don't even have correction for hours worked.  A McKinsey report several years ago found that US doctors made more, but also saw a lot more patients in a day.  GP care cost more than expected vs. other country's experience, but is due mostly to number of visits, not cost per visit.
  • There is no correction for doctor expenses.  Malpractice insurance, anyone?  We have the most costly malpractice insurance in the world because we have the most broken system.  Doctors pay that out of their salary
  • US GP salaries in Drum's linked report are actually falling, unlike all the other countries studied.  Seem to have fallen 6% in 10 years (page 18), whereas France, for example, has increased more than 10%.

To the last point, I have a hypothesis.  When you first overlay a government health care / price control regime, you get an initial savings.  Doctors are forced to work for less and they still, out of habit and momentum, abide by past productivity standards.  But over time, productivity, like any government-captured function falls.  And over time, doctors, like other civil service groups, become better at organizing and lobbying and begin to get increasing pay packages.  After all, if teachers and fire-fighters can scare Californians into absurd pay and benefit packages, what do you think doctors will be able to do once they learn the game?