25 June 2012

Pegged it

So there have been a variety of political psychology works coming out over the last few years. Generally speaking, people of different political persuasions have different brains. The more amusing one was Haidt's work had to put in an entire moral dimension in order to figure out what the hell libertarians were doing (they/we didn't appear to use any of the standards they'd chosen). Along those lines, there's this test here. 
And its accompanying write-up.

What's worth examining, and I suppose explaining, is why libertarians don't seem all that fond of "democracy" or "political freedom". What I would say is that if we have a system whereby most of our mores, customs, behaviors, and basic liberties are determined by a political structure, then a level of participatory democracy seems fine and (at least sometimes) preferable to arbitrary decision making where accountability to the public is non-existent. There at least is the opportunity to convince people to let things slide rather than legislate them away, to elect different people to make different decisions, etc. Where I differ is that I don't think most things ought to be or even need to be limited, controlled, confined, or restricted by popular mandates as in a "politically free" environment or to be subject to elected representatives and appointed bureaucrats' decision making. That is, that most things are more free and more ably determined without using the institutions of governance to rule on them. I don't particularly think people should frequent prostitutes, consume most illegal or mind-altering substances, educate their children with creationist nonsense, and so on. But I'm not at all convinced that this desire is best satisfied by compelling other people to share these preferences through force of law. Hence I don't find it convincing to have political freedoms to exercise this as a power if it is a power I don't want to have in the first place.

As a further problem, I find that most people get to exercise their preferences on all manner of items but only have self-interested concerns that intersect on a handful, if any. This means on most ballot lists, people won't be very well informed as to what will satisfy their interests, or those of the community as a whole. This problem is amplified where many issues are concerned with more complex items (economic policy, trade, foreign policy, etc). Where very few people are at all educated to any level of expertise, and those that are have often vastly divergent views from the general population. For example support for trade or immigration barriers or minimum wage laws or various corporate subsidies is very low among economists because none of these is a particularly effective way of advancing human prosperity, or in some cases is actively harmful, and over 50% in all cases for the general public thinks they're great ideas. Exercising this kind of political freedom is not particularly beneficial to a society.

I would look upon this part as the general concern with the idea that somehow people not voting is a problem worthy of attention itself. Usually through requiring or calling upon people to turn out to vote rather than exhorting them to learn about the issues or reducing the scope of legal actions available to simplify their options and increase the likelihood of an informed electorate and resulting self-interested voter responses. Given the prominence also of obscure methods of changing national policies influence over state and local matters (eg, that most people think in terms of Presidents rather than mayors or governors), the problem of voter ignorance is magnified rather than reduced and I'm not encouraged by continued public concern with voter turnout.

12 June 2012

Bits and pieces

1) Progressives/liberal types seem to be really up in arms still about Citizens United and want to tie it into every election consideration involving monetary disparities. Unfortunately this rests upon what appears to be a false legal argument. That is: that we should be concerned about this decision and its result on Koch-type individual donors spending large amounts of money in elections, as though this is synonymous with corporate spending and lobbying. There are two major problems. Problem one is that Koch-type individual donors could always spend large amounts of money in elections and that the only real difference appears to be that they are doing so now in larger more public ways and that they can align their funds in semi-anonymous ways along with corporate influence (of all stripes). Problem two is that corporate lobbying wasn't impacted by Citizens United. That is/was always a non-electioneering strategy that is not impacted by what sort and volume of advertising is presented during election seasons.

A related third problem is the idea that somehow corporate bodies are a unified force pushing for the exact same policy changes and that they cannot at all deviate from each other on their expressed political views through lobbying and election (or regular) advertising. Given things like SOPA, I'm a little dubious of this claim, as it was exactly the influence of competing corporate bodies (tech companies on one side and media companies on the other) that gave a considerable voice to defeating such legislation. There's also still left unsaid the increased electioneering influence of unions (the probable reason for the Walker recall vote in the first place), and of non-profit advocacy groups that usually take the form of a corporation. It is possible that these agents will not have as much money as substantial donors or politically active multinational corporations. But the idea that substantial donors are themselves a unified pro-business/pro-GOP front is also highly dubious (see Obama fundraising).

Essentially this is a non-starting issue for me unless they want to increase the transparency involved such that obvious slanderous or libel messages funded by a corporate body (or union or whoever) can be punished in the market through use of boycotts or annoyed consumers and if it turns out to be some cranky rich person every once in a while throwing money at it, perhaps a lawsuit? I'm a big fan of transparency in messaging and the detection of attempts at obvious frauds. Since it appears the concern is somehow that there's all this money involved and that's the real problem, or that corporations have legal rights and protections as "people" owing to Constitutional limitations on government power, I'm not on board with these complaints.

(Note: none of this was to say that I am or was on board with the entire Walker agenda or related agendas in other states, eg Indiana/Ohio. I think he did not go far enough by excluding certain unions from his plans and including others, and that some of his plans were excessively broad. I would have been fine with just eliminating the government from automatic paycheck deductions from public employees to union dues and then changes to the overall contracts such that other potentially useful reforms could be attempted. I also don't think that the Obama response of saying that somehow that lots of teachers and cops and firefighters being laid off as a result of these reforms or policy agendas is automatically a problem that we need to be publicly concerned with as voters. Lots of such people probably do need to be fired, either because of incompetence, because of a change in demand structure, ie, fewer people living in a city or state, or because of a change in the available tax base removing funding for said agencies.)

2) Syria appears to be getting hotter again and we are again treated to various ideological calls for intervention. Either on a purely strategic grounds that we could be able to unseat or otherwise weaken an Iranian/Russian regional ally or on the humanitarian grounds that people are being slaughtered and that this must cease. On both calls, I am extremely curious to know by what mechanics we are treated to a successful intervention. As with Libya, or for that matter Iran in 2009, we don't have very firm grasp of either the levels of popular support for revolution or the dynamics under which that revolution will exercise power post-revolt and how they might differ substantively from the current status quo (Iran in particular I saw very few such elements in the stated goals of opposition figures versus the student/educated demonstrators who apparently wanted more substantial change but were not well supported by the broader Iranian public in these goals). The general proscription that people fighting a tyrant for their own ends will share a demand to expand liberties for others is usually false. Libya has seen a lot of power squabbles, with some spillover effects in to Mali to consider as effects of our actions. Even Egypt, where no direct foreign interventions took place, has seen a good deal of confusion and squabbling over the format of the successful rebellions. It is unlikely that Syria would go anywhere near as smoothly as Egypt were any rebellion to succeed, particularly were it to have foreign military assistance.

Perhaps that is sufficient for a short-term strategic goal of destabilizing a regional player with some enmity for American goals and interests (or those of our allies, mostly Israel). But I doubt it would actually serve those goals in any meaningful way. Syria's primary utility as an "enemy" is to funnel guerrilla tactics into the West Bank or Lebanon. I don't see how those goals are ceased by destroying the Syrian state and replacing it with an uncertain form of governance (or as in the cases of Afghanistan, portions of Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia, no effective governance at all).

Further, I'm not aware of many scenarios where military interventions, particularly those with regime changes as a probable outcome, successfully culled violence against civilians. It is argued that somehow an intervention force would allow for peaceful transitions or negotiations. This however, as we see in the example of Libya, is false, nor is any meaningful negotiation a condition of either sides' demands. The application of advanced warfare to intercede is not a means to negotiate, it is an injection of foreign power into what amounts to a civil war or at best some sort of internal rebellion. What that amounts to in effects is an unstable state where violence can actually increase or escalate or at least continue. It just no longer takes the form of tanks and artillery and airplanes, the weapons of statecraft and continues with executions, arrests, and various guerrilla tactics by either side. Examples here include Kosovo, Bosnia, or Somalia.

Were Syria a client state of Western powers, in the like of Rwanda, we might be able to see some successful diplomatic pressures (rather than full interventions), but since it is a client state of Iran or Russia, this is not likely either. This leaves an unsatisfying situation existing. I agree fully it is deeply troubling that a government halfway around the world sees fit to slaughter its own citizens for most any reason. I'm just not convinced there are techniques and strategies available to reliably stop them from doing so or at least that these techniques do not carry the risk of replacing one form of slaughter for others, and one form of enemy state for another, and so on.

11 June 2012

Quick thoughts on D3

I've played enough now to know what I like and what I don't here. So a good, bad, ugly routine suffices
1) Good.

It runs very smoothly even with a below spec cpu and looks quite good. The environment is much more interactive and 3D tactics are useful. Items also offer more visual changes. On weapons especially this can be quite informative (blood dripping means life steal, fire means added fire damage, and so on).

I like the emphasis on co-op games and the ability to jump in and help out at will. With friends who are actually playing the game, this is very good. With random people who are doing different things, it is less so (as it just makes everything harder to kill). The banner teleport system from town is especially useful. No shared loot is also useful, as it then presumes a reaction of "what did you get?" from a powerful enemy or a series of quests. Smaller games is nice, though I rarely joined D2 on battlenet and mostly played in network/VPN type games instead, especially once they introduced a single player method of increasing the player count (which didn't make nightmare or normal any harder with well-equipped players, but did buff the experience you received for what were usually cakewalks).

The skill/rune system is decent. In general with any build in D2, it was more or less two or three skills being used constantly anyway. Here you can use up to 6 at any one time and if you really need some specialised killing, you can swap out reasonably fast (depending on the difficulty) to use something powerful rather than randomly available points that were often dumped into a spell in D2 that just offer some (slow) killing ability of some special enemy rarely encountered. Its also fairly customisable to use a lot of offensive/defensive skills (once you dump the game's default line). I suspect this and random item use is necessary for replay ability.

The quest/checkpoint structure is nice. The maps also are a little more predictable (it seems like) for finding your way to the next linear point. This was among the more annoying D2 aspects of having to find waypoints or finish a quest before ending a game. That you can backtrack in a quest through the menu is also nice. Overall this retains D2's routine of jumping in for 15 minutes or so and jumping back out into doing other things in life, or burning an hour or so here or there with observable progress being made. 

Fewer Pindle type runs are out there. No Iron Maiden instant deaths also a plus. (Inferno is however pretty instant if you're ill-equipped).

No keys are required for any of the chests and some (good) chests will trigger ambushes.

It's far easier to craft useful weapons or armor than the random rolls from the cube or various item quest rewards in D2, while still retaining the random roll factor. Higher level gems I assume is a compromise for no longer having socketable runes.

The stash is shared across all characters, making it easier to transfer items to other characters. And it is also larger.

The combat mechanics overall seems a lot better and makes things like high armor or dodge chances or blocking more useful to pay attention to than in D2 (where dodge was a Zon skill and only Paladins used enough melee combat with shields to actually be blocking anything consistently and only Pikers, Barbs and Paladins bothered with very high armor. For everyone else, there was running away or teleporting). 

Things that aren't so good
It seems like only the first (normal) kill of anything drops rares/uniques/etc. This should be changed so that on nightmare/hell/inferno you still get the credit the first time for a first kill and can get a decent drop. You do get a lot of experience and some gold, but this is not very rewarding and satisfying when you expend a couple minutes trying to kill the Skeleton King or Azmodan and get a couple of random magical items that probably aren't very good.

Legendary (unique) items aren't much better or unique than the random items available. They should offer more unique advantages or be buffed some relative to their rarity and status. Given the auction house item setup being used, I'm guessing this is why these aren't uber-powerful like in D2 (where entire character builds sometimes were based around X item), but they do need some help because they're usually just status symbols that sometimes look cool rather than things you actually use in game. To the extent that this makes rare or magical items more useful, I'm fine with that, but these uniques should at least retain useful status of their own accord.

Boss/champion/elite packs are routinely more difficult than any of the main quest bosses; which mostly are difficult because they take a while to kill and have some unique attacks. The packs however can be extremely painful on higher difficulties and offer a lot of killing combination options for any chance at hardcore.

Fewer chokepoints are available. For instance shutting and opening doors or tanking in a doorway used to be a viable strategy against powerful hordes. There are some skills that make up for this (disintegrate is really fun against a narrow path), but there's less of a tactical feel at times and more of just button mashing.

Mercs are more durable and free to use, but deal much less damage and are locked out of cooperative games.

Stat points are automatically distributed. All of them now offer greater potential benefits for any character (for example, dexterity was almost useless for casters in D2, as was strength beyond what was necessary for a piece of armor or shield), and this is fine. Such that it offers a lot less potential customisation for things like armor or weapon selection versus defensive use of attributes (like a ton of hit points or dodge), it is less so. It is probable that the auto distribute is about where you might end up, but you can't create an imbalance for strategic design purposes with your actual character and have to use items to achieve this effect. 

There's often no particular reason to use a wand over a sword as a caster type, or fist/claw weapons as a monk versus axes or maces. Most skills are based off of the weapon damage (with a few exceptions like arrow skills for the demon hunter which require a bow or crossbow), which means you may as well take the better damage sword than a wand or dagger, etc. This is like playing a spreadsheet character rather than the role playing aspect. To be fair, class-specific type weapons do offer particular advantages at times, like extra resources or resource regeneration. But these are only trivial concerns at most points versus being able to deal out an extra set of damage. There are also limitations on what you can or cannot use (eg, monks can't use bows). I suppose I can live with those but they are a little against the cause of being able to customise freely.

I'm not entirely sure what the 10 characters limit is for other than that all characters are stored on their servers rather than being singleplayer modes at home use and they don't have unlimited server space. Given that there's less customisation, 10 seems almost excessive.

I'm not sure what purpose gold serves in the game other than to buy items on the auction house. Repairing items is relatively cheap compared to D2, mercs are free (and don't die as quite as easily when soloing, plus are more customised), most items available for sale are mediocre or below your level when you probably want items which are at or above level, and crafting items or gems is mostly expensive in terms of generating resources for it rather than prices. On the plus side, gold is shared across characters so now new low level characters can quickly equip and the game does not provide ready supplies of more money in the form of selling regular or magical items for 30k a pop such that you are drowning in cash.


Gets a meh.

It was watchable, and I enjoyed the android and his Lawrence of Arabia fetish. It was however far more predictable and illogical than Alien/s, where many actions are logical and still work out with horrifying consequence. Here actions are without logic and unsurprisingly work out rather badly. Which is the standard horror film plot for the last 50-60 years (and one of the reasons the Aliens franchise started out so well).

It was not, strictly speaking, very good at aligning itself with the Aliens lineage that it purported to relate to. Other than some plot points that are rather sloppily executed within the confines of the movie itself or dropped in as asides for those who are more than vaguely familiar with Alien/s movies. As spoilers, the Aliens themselves were apparently created as a weapon of mass destruction by the same aliens that apparently made us (and promptly were dangerous to them as well). And we can all go on with our lives with the accident wreckage safely behind us.

I did enjoy having Stringer Bell around on this little voyage. And I presume the moral of the story was either a) don't bring an idiot biologist along who will try to play with hideous snakes and immediately get killed or b) don't go on any expedition anywhere with rich people and their families, who will busy themselves trying to kill everyone for their sporting pleasures or c) don't go on any expedition about the supposed origins of mankind led by someone who "believes" it involves aliens but offers no proof of said hypothesis. I get a little tired of the repeated science fiction notions that somehow a bunch of upright apes couldn't have learned how to talk and farm and construct symbolic languages on their own in a nauseating way of replacing god as the simple but wrong answer to such questions.

But than Stringer and his musical tastes, I would not advise people to go see it out of some special loyalty to Ridley Scott and his vision. He's been on a down swing for a while now. American Gangster might be his only good-decent film since Black Hawk Down/Gladiator, both of which were over a decade ago. And then you're only looking at Blade Runner and Alien prior to that as resume feed, both classics I admit, but still.