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.
Posts tagged ‘game’
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.
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.
A cynic might argue that this is due to death and disease, but in fact birth rates are falling everywhere
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):
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Further, 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.
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."
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 spectacle. They 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.
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?
The extent to which the media is aiding and abetting, with absolutely no skepticism, the sky-is-falling sequester reaction of pro-big-government forces is just sickening. I have never seen so many absurd numbers published so credulously by so much of the media. Reporters who are often completely unwilling to accept any complaints from corporations as valid when it comes to over-taxation or over-regulation are willing to print their sequester complaints without a whiff of challenge. Case in point, from here in AZ. This is a "news" article in our main Phoenix paper:
Arizona stands to lose nearly 49,200 jobs and as much as $4.9 billion in gross state product this year if deep automatic spending cuts go into effect Friday, and the bulk of the jobs and lost production would be carved from the defense industry.
Virtually all programs, training and building projects at the state’s military bases would be downgraded, weakening the armed forces’ defense capabilities, according to military spokesmen.
“It’s devastating and it’s outrageous and it’s shameful,” U.S. Sen. John McCain told about 200 people during a recent town-hall meeting in Phoenix.
“It’s disgraceful, and it’s going to happen. And it’s going to harm Arizona’s economy dramatically,” McCain said.
Estimates vary on the precise number of jobs at stake in Arizona, but there’s wide agreement that more than a year of political posturing on sequestration in Washington will leave deep economic ruts in Arizona.
Not a single person who is skeptical of these estimates is quoted in the entirety of the article. The entire incremental cut of the sequester in discretionary spending this year is, from page 11 of the most recent CBO report, about $35 billion (larger numbers you may have seen around 70-80 billion include dollars that were going away anyway, sequester or not, which just shows the corruption of this process and the reporting on it.)
Dividing this up based on GDP, about 1/18th of this cut would apply to Arizona, giving AZ a cut in Federal spending of around $2 billion. It takes a heroic multiplier to get from that to $4.9 billion in GDP loss. Its amazing to me that Republicans assume multipliers less than 1 for all government spending, except for defense (and sports stadiums) which magically take on multipliers of 2+.
Update: I wrote the following letter to the Editor today:
I was amazed that in Paul Giblin’s February 26 article on looming sequester cuts [“Arizona Defense Industry, Bases Would Bear Brunt Of Spending Cuts”], he was able to write 38 paragraphs and yet could not find space to hear from a single person exercising even a shred of skepticism about these doom and gloom forecasts.
The sequester rhetoric that Giblin credulously parrots is part of a game that has been played for decades, with government agencies and large corporations that supply them swearing that even trivial cuts will devastate the economy. They reinforce this sky-is-falling message by threatening to cut all the most, rather than least, visible and important tasks and programs in order to scare the public into reversing the cuts. The ugliness of this process is made worse by the hypocrisy of Republicans, who suddenly become hard core Keynesians when it comes to spending on military.
It is a corrupt, yet predictable, game, and it is disappointing to see the ArizonaRepublic playing along so eagerly.
I had an argument about the (economic) stimulative effect of war the other night. As usual, I was not entirely happy with how I argued my point in real time (which is why I blog). Here is an attempt at an improved, brief answer:
One of the reasons that people often believe that war "improves" the economy is that they are looking at the wrong metrics. They look at unemployment and observe that it falls. They look at capacity utilization and observe that it rises. They look at GDP and see that it rises.
But these are the wrong metrics. What we care about is if people are better off: Can they buy the things they want? Are they wealthier?
These outcomes are hard to measure, so we use unemployment and GDP and capacity utilization as proxies for people's economic well-being. And in most times, these metrics are reasonably correlated with well-being. That is because in a free economy individuals and their choices guide the flow of resources, which are dedicated to improving what people consider to be their own well-being. More resources, more well-being.
But in war time, all this gets changed. Government intervenes with a very heavy hand to shift a vast amount of the resources from satisfying people's well-being to blowing other people up. Now, I need to take an aside on well-being in this context. Certainly it is possible that I am better off poor in a world with no Nazis than rich in one dominated by Nazis. But I am going to leave war aims out of the concept of well-being. This is appropriate, because when people argue that war stimulates the economy, they are talking purely about economic activity and benefits, and so will I.
What we find is that in war time, unemployment is down, but in part because young people have been drafted (a form of servitude) to fight and die. Are they better off so employed? Those who are left find themselves with jobs in factories with admittedly high capacity utilization, but building things that make no one better off (and many people worse off). GDP skyrockets as government goes deeply in debt to pay for bombs and rockets and tanks. This debt builds nothing for the future -- future generations are left with debt and no wealth to show for it, like taking out a mortgage to buy a house and then having the house burn down uninsured. This is no more economically useful than borrowing money and then burning it. In fact, burning it would have been better, economically, as each dollar we borrowed in WWII had a "multiplier" effect in that it destroyed another dollar of European or Asian civilian infrastructure.
Sure, during WWII, everyone in the US had a job, but with war-time restrictions and rationing, these employed people couldn't buy anything. Forget the metrics - in their daily lives Americans lived poorer, giving up driving and even basic staples. This was the same condition Soviet citizens found themselves facing in the 1970s -- they all had jobs, but they could not find anything to buy. Do we consider them to have been well off?
There is one way to prosper from war, but it is a terrible zero-sum game -- making money from other people's wars. The US prospered in 1915 and later 1941 as Britain and France sunk into bankruptcy and despair, sending us the last of their wealth in exchange for material that might help them hang on to their existence. Ditto in 1946, when having bombed Japanese and German infrastructure into the stone age. we provided many of the goods to help rebuild them. But is this really the way we want to prosper? And is this sort of vulture-like prosperity even possible with our inter-woven global supply chains? For example, I can't see a China-Japan war being particularly stimulative for anybody nowadays.
Over Christmas break, my son (home from college) and I have played a half dozen or more games of Twilight Struggle, the #1 rated game on Boardgame Geek that refights to US-USSR cold war from the 1950's to the 1980's. There is a good reason for that ranking - it is a very enjoyable game to which he and I have become addicted.
I mentioned it before Christmas, and after playing it once made a couple of comments that I want to revise. I had said I remembered it to be "complex." Actually, for a wargame, the rules are quite simple (no zone of control rules, line of sight, tracing supply, movement costs over terrain, etc etc.). Basically, each turn you play a card from your hand. You may either take the effects of the event on the card, or you may take one of four actions using the operations points on the card (sometimes, if the event benefits your opponent, you have to take the event and the operations points). Your goal is to gain influence over countries and regions, which in turn translates into victory points.
The cards are divided into early, mid, and late-game cards that are staged into the game. This helps avoid anachronisms like Solidarity union forming in Poland in 1950. It also creates a setting where the Russian has early advantages, while the US has late advantages. This really befuddled me for a number of games as I played as Russian against my son, and lost more than I won despite the general sense in the playing community that the game (until recently revised) is a bit unbalanced in favor of the Russian. The problem is that my play style in wargames tends to be methodical and defensive, and to win at Russia you have to open with an RTS-like rush and gain the largest possible lead before the Americans come back in the end game. I finally routed the Americans in the last game when I finally got more aggressive.
The game's complexity comes not from a lot of rules but from three sources:
1) dealing with complexity of scoring possibilities, as while there are only a few types of actions one can take, there are a hundred locations on the map where one can take those actions. The scoring dynamics causes focus of both players to shift around the world, sometimes in Asia, sometimes in Latin America, sometimes in Africa, etc. The cards ensure that no region is ever "safe" (for example the combination of John Paul II's election and Solidarity can turn a strong Soviet position in Poland into a total mess.
2) getting rid of or minimizing the impact of events that benefit your opponent. The latter adds a lot of the flavor of the game. On average, half the event cards in your hand help you, and half help your opponent. If a card helps you, you can take either the op points or the event, but not both. This is sometimes a tough choice in and of itself, made more complicated by the fact that unused events get recycled and can come back later, when they might be more or less useful. But if the card has an opponent event on it, you generally (with a few exceptions) have to take the op points AND trigger an event favorable to your opponent. Managing the latter consumes a lot of the mental effort of the game, and really helps give the game its Cold War flavor of jumping from crisis to crisis.
3) the interaction of the cards. Like most card-driven games, there are a near infinite number of card interactions. This means that there are almost always certain card pairings where the resulting net effect is unclear. We had to keep our iPad nearby locked into a web site of the game maker that includes rulings on each card. Since the game is now 6+ years old, we never encountered a situation where a clear ruling was not available.
Anyway, we think the game absolutely deserves its #1 rating. Highly recommended.
The fiscal settlement passed last night did absolutely nothing to improve the deficit or the financial sanity of government. Its only purpose, as far as I can tell, was to let Democrats count coup on rich people as a reward for winning the last election. It's like telling your kids that on their birthday, you will take them to do absolutely anything they like, and Democrats chose to display their disdain for rich people as their one act of celebration. A few other observations:
- I had expected that they would gen up a bunch of fake savings and accounting tricks to pretend there were spending cuts in proportion to tax increases, but apparently they did not feel the need to bother. Essentially only trivial spending cuts were included.
- At what point can we officially declare that the reduction in doctor reimbursement rates that supposedly paid for much of Obamacare is a great lie and will never happen? Congress once again extended the "doc fix" another year, eliminating the single largest source of savings that was to fund Obamacare. Congress has been playing this same game -- using elimination of the doc fix to supposedly fund programs and then quietly renewing the doc fix later -- for over a decade
- The restoration of the FICA tax is probably a good thing. Though I think the reality is something else, people still think of these as premiums that pay for future benefits, so in the spirit of good pricing, the premiums should reflect the true costs. And FICA premiums have always been set about at the right level (it is only the fact that past Congresses spent all the money supposedly banked for future generations that Social Security has a financial problem). In fact, we should raise Medicare premiums as well.
- Apparently, though I have not seen the list, this last minute deal was chock full of corporate cronyism, with a raft of special interst tax preferences thrown into the mix.
And so ends, I suppose, the 12-year saga of the Bush tax cuts, with tax cuts for the rich revoked and the rest made permanent. The establishment media decided early on that it was going to run with the story line that these cuts were "for the rich." The irony, that will never get any play, is that now, at the end, it is all too clear that this was far from the case. Reversing the tax cuts to the rich only reversed a small percentage of the original tax cuts. In fact, if the Bush tax cuts had been mainly for the rich, then the Democrats would not have even bothered addressing the fiscal cliff.
In my high school days, I used to play a lot of wargames from Avalon Hill and SPI. I once spent an entire summer playing one game of War in Europe, which had a 42-square-foot map of Europe and 3500 or so pieces. Each turn was one week, so it was literally a full time job getting through it in a couple of months.
All that is to say I spent a lot of time hanging out at game stores, particularly Nan's in Houston (a great game and comic store that still exists and I still visit every time I am in Houston). I play fewer wargames now, but I still like strategy games that are a bit more complicated than Monopoly or Risk. But it is hard to find a game store with a good selection (if there is one here in Phoenix, I have not found it).
But I definitely want to try this place -- the Complete Strategist in New York City. Click through for some good game pr0n.
His list of games is good, though I have never played Gloom and I have never been a huge fan of Carcassonne. Ticket to Ride is an awesome game and is perhaps the most accessible for kids and noobs of either his or my list. If you recognize none of these games, it is a great place to start (there is also a great iPad app). To his list of games I would add:
- 7 wonders (our family's current favorite)
- Small world (our family's previous favorite, also look for the great iPad app)
- Dominion (my current personal favorite)
- Race for the Galaxy (you can also download an online version to try, one of my favorite quick computer games)
All of these games tend to present simple choices with extraordinarily complex scoring implications. In most cases, one must build infrastructure early to score later, but the trade-off of when to switch from infrastructure building to scoring is the trick. Five years ago Settlers of Catan would have been on any such list, but it is interesting it is on neither his nor mine.
Once you catch the bug, there are hundreds of other games out there. My son and I last summer got caught up in a very complex Game of Thrones expandable card game. Recommended only for those who love incredible complexity and are familiar with the books. There are also a couple of games I have liked but only played once so far. My son and I last summer played a fabulous though stupidly complex game of Twilight Struggle (about the Cold War, not hot vampire teens). This is considered by many to be one of the greatest war / strategy games ever. We also tried Eclipse (space game, again not the teen vampires) which we liked. I have played Le Havre and Puerto Rico as iPad apps. They were OK, but I think the fun in them is social and the of course does not come through in the iPad app. In the same vein, tried to play Agricola with my kids and they were bored stiff.
Workers at LG Chem, a $300 million lithium-ion battery plant heavily funded by taxpayers, tell Target 8 that they have so little work to do that they spend hours playing cards and board games, reading magazines or watching movies.
They say it's been going on for months.
"There would be up to 40 of us that would just sit in there during the day," said former LG Chem employee Nicole Merryman, who said she quit in May.
"We were given assignments to go outside and clean; if we weren't cleaning outside, we were cleaning inside. If there was nothing for us to do, we would study in the cafeteria, or we would sit and play cards, sit and read magazines," said Merryman. "It's really sad that all these people are sitting there and doing nothing, and it's basically on taxpayer money."
Two current employees told Target 8 that the game-playing continues because, as much as they want to work, they still have nothing to do.
"There's a whole bunch of people, a whole bunch," filling their time with card games and board games," one of those current employees said.
Here are the true numbers for private jobs created by these Presidents in office:
- Reagan: zero
- Obama: zero
Just once I would like to see a Presidential candidate answer:
"Why, I didn't create a single private job in office. Anyone I hire is by definition a public employee. The best I can do is to keep government out of the way, as much as possible, of the private individuals who do create new businesses and new products and new technologies that tend to lead to more private employment. The worst thing I can do is to try to be investment-banker-in-chief. Every dollar I hand to some company I like is money taken out of the hands of 300 million private individuals, who collectively know a hell of a lot more than I as to what makes for a better business investment (and by the way they have far better incentives that I as well, since they are investing their own hard-earned money, and should I develop the hubris to play the stimulus game, I would be investing your hard-earned money."
- The Administration champions a plan to save $11.5 billion through lower Medicare reimbursement rates (we can argue about whether this is simply sensible procurement strategy or a mindless price control, but won't today).
- The Administration gives back $8 billion, or 70%, of these savings to the providers through another program. It is unclear what criteria are used to select who gets the money and who does not, so I think we can assume political ass-kissing probably comes into play
Through this right-hand-left-hand game, the Administration can claim $11.5 billion in savings that don't actually occur; claim that the "cuts" are not hurting service, since they are giving the cuts back; while creating yet another multi-billion dollar fund that can be distributed to friends and supporters.
I have been a stock market bear for some months now. I don't really think the US economy is going to double dip on its own, but I felt like Europe and Asia would bring us down. Well, I simply underestimated both the Fed's and the ECB's willingness to goose financial assets. If the Fed and ECB are going to inflate our way out of, uh, whatever it is we are in, then I certainly don't want to be holding bonds, particularly at these absurdly low interest rates. Stocks are not as good of an inflation hedge as some hard assets, but they are a hell of a lot better than most bonds. I'm certainly not going to buy back in the current euphoric highs, but I am giving up on trying to predict that market based on fundamentals. It seems that fundamentals are a suckers game, and you better not be timing the market unless you have an inside line to government policy, because that seems to be what drives the train.
PS- I wish Milton Friedman were still around. QE was as much his idea as anyone else's. I wonder what he would have thought of the results, or of this particular implementation.
Steve Chapman at the Chicago Tribune looks at the cultural and legal responses to the mounting evidence that professional football inflicts brain damage on many of its players. He quotes my view that if the litigation system carries over to football the legal principles it applies to other industries, the game isn’t likely to survive in its current form. [sorry for quoting the whole thing Walter, I just couldn't figure out how to excerpt it]
There is a very good chance that the NFL could go the way of Johns Manville or Dow Corning. Those companies still exist after being sued into bankruptcy, but that is only because they had other businesses to shift into. The NFL just has football. And after reading the concussion stories recently, plaintiff's lawyers are going to have a hell of a lot better scientific case than they had with breast implants. I honestly think it will take an act of Congress to keep the NFL alive, giving them some sort of liability exemption similar to what ski resorts got years ago.
And don't think the NFL does not know this. If you are wondering why they handed out insanely over-the-top penalties for bounty-gate in New Orleans, this is why. They are working to establish a paper trail of extreme diligence on player safety issues for future litigation.
As an aside, I find it frustrating that there is not a better helmet solution.
As a second aside, there is a guy here in Phoenix who was showing off an accelerometer for football helmets, with some kind of maximum single g-force or cumulative g-force trigger that would cause a player to be pulled from a game, sort of like how a radiation badge works. Good idea. Look for these to be mandatory equipment in high schools in colleges. Takes the absurd guess work out of concussion diagnosis today, particularly since this diagnosis is done by people (the player and their team) who have strong incentives to decide that there was no concussion.
As a third aside, there are those who argue helmets are the problem. Just as people drive less safely with seat belts and air bags in cars, helmets lead to less care on the field. I will say I played rugby for years (without a helmet of course) and never had one concussion, or any head hit anywhere close to a concussion. In amateur rugby in the leagues I played in, reckless behavior that might lead to injuries was strongly frowned upon and punished by the group. Teams that played this way quickly found themselves without a game. There were plenty of ways to demonstrate toughness without trying to injure people.
Most folks, and I would include myself in this, have terrible intuitions about probabilities and in particular the frequency and patterns of occurance in the tail ends of the normal distribution, what we might call "abnormal" events. This strikes me as a particularly relevant topic as the severity of the current drought and high temperatures in the US is being used as absolute evidence of catastrophic global warming.
I am not going to get into the global warming bits in this post (though a longer post is coming). Suffice it to say that if it is hard to accurately directly measure shifts in the mean of climate patterns given all the natural variability and noise in the weather system, it is virtually impossible to infer shifts in the mean from individual occurances of unusual events. Events in the tails of the normal distribution are infrequent, but not impossible or even unexpected over enough samples.
What got me to thinking about this was the third perfect game pitched this year in the MLB. Until this year, only 20 perfect games had been pitched in over 130 years of history, meaning that one is expected every 7 years or so (we would actually expect them more frequently today given that there are more teams and more games, but even correcting for this we might have an expected value of one every 3-4 years). Yet three perfect games happened, without any evidence or even any theoretical basis for arguing that the mean is somehow shifting. In rigorous statistical parlance, sometimes shit happens. Were baseball more of a political issue, I have no doubt that writers from Paul Krugman on down would be writing about how three perfect games this year is such an unlikely statistical fluke that it can't be natural, and must have been caused by [fill in behavior of which author disapproves]. If only the Republican Congress had passed the second stimulus, we wouldn't be faced with all these perfect games....
Postscript: We like to think that perfect games are the ultimate measure of a great pitcher. This is half right. In fact, we should expect entirely average pitchers to get perfect games every so often. A perfect game is when the pitcher faces 27 hitters and none of them get on base. So let's take the average hitter facing the average pitcher. The league average on base percentage this year is about .320 or 32%. This means that for each average batter, there is a 68% chance for the average pitcher in any given at bat to keep the batter off the base. All the average pitcher has to do is roll these dice correctly 27 times in a row.
The odds against that are .68^27 or about one in 33,000. But this means that once in every 33,000 pitcher starts (there are two pitcher starts per game played in the MLB), the average pitcher should get a perfect game. Since there are about 4,860 regular season starts per year (30 teams x 162 games) then average pitcher should get a perfect game every 7 years or so. Through history, there have been about 364,000 starts in the MLB, so this would point to about 11 perfect games by average pitchers. About half the actual total.
Now, there is a powerful statistical argument for demonstrating that great pitchers should be over-weighted in perfect games stats: the probabilities are VERY sensitive to small changes in on-base percentage. Let's assume a really good pitcher has an on-base percentage against him that is 30 points less than the league average, and a bad pitcher has one 30 points worse. The better pitcher would then expect a perfect game every 10,000 starts, while the worse pitcher would expect a perfect game every 113,000 starts. I can't find the stats on individual pitchers, but my guess is the spread between best and worst pitchers on on-base percentage against has more than a 60 point spread, since the team batting average against stats (not individual but team averages, which should be less variable) have a 60 point spread from best to worst. [update: a reader points to this, which says there is actually a 125-point spread from best to worst. That is a different in expected perfect games from one in 2,000 for Jared Weaver to one in 300,000 for Derek Lowe. Thanks Jonathan]
Update: There have been 278 no-hitters in MLB history, or 12 times the number of perfect games. The odds of getting through 27 batters based on a .320 on-base percentage is one in 33,000. The odds of getting through the same batters based on a .255 batting average (which is hits but not other ways on base, exactly parallel with the definition of no-hitter) the odds are just one in 2,830. The difference between these odds is a ratio of 11.7 to one, nearly perfectly explaining the ratio of no-hitters to perfect games on pure stochastics.