January 2009

Ben McGrath has an interesting article in last week’s New Yorker on “The Dystopians“– people who look forward, with barely concealed glee, to complete social collapse.

They have a point– the late-20C American lifestyle is not economically sustainable– but it gets lost in priggishness.  McGrath spends some time with James Kunstler, who gets points for predicting the housing crisis, and loses them for having predicted that Y2K would be a big disaster.  Among Kunstler’s signs of the apocalypse: obesity, tattoos, ugly buildings, large cities, kids and their bongs, Wall Street investors, flat screen TVs, Wal-Marts.  Basically, anything they don’t like becomes a sign of the upcoming barbarity.  It becomes a pleasant revenge fantasy to picture people “studying to be hedge-fund managers” and ending up “supervisors of rutabaga pickers.”  (I guess even after the apocalypse, American managers will think they can manage things they don’t understand.)

Some of the doomsayers are busy making plans– one guy has relocated to a boat, so he can become a maritime trader after the collapse.  Kunstler has a shotgun.  Planning is admirable, but these preparations strike me as another type of fantasy, a hope that the post-apocalypse will basically resemble the 1840s.  Somehow we’ll bypass all the nukes and wars and plagues and looting and just settle into a more rural, more virtuous lifestyle.

Doomsaying is an ancient business, and given human nature, it’s sometimes accurate.  But it doesn’t perceive– it doesn’t want to perceive– human adaptability.  Kunstler describes the 20th century as a “horror show”, and of course it was.  But it was also a dizzying display of progress.  If a European of 1900 would be dismayed at two upcoming world wars and a clash of totalitarianisms, he would also be astonished at the European Union, unparalleled health and prosperity, the Internet, and the progress of China and India from basket cases to powerhouses.

Also, a hint to aspiring dystopians: if you don’t want to look risible in twenty years and validate the scoffers, don’t foresee an early collapse.  2012 is wishful thinking.

1. Joseph Ellis’s American Creation, a series of narratives of key points of the American Revolution.  The Founders were admirable men who could at times be right bastards.  Most interesting is the presaging of modern libertarianism at times.

Those times, however, were not the best moments of those involved, notably Madison and Jefferson.  Madison in particular is shown as veering almost crazily from able defenses of federalism (during the writing and defense of the Constitution), to insane conspiracy-mongering (during Washington’s presidency), to a return to federalism (when he was president).  Ellis suggests many motivations for all this, but much of it comes down to Virginia planters not understanding or liking the New England / New York financial system, and instinctively resisting a federal government strong enough to outlaw slavery.

2. Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France, an investigation into the fractured, isolated world of pre-revolutionary France… a world where the vast majority of people had loyalty only to their pays, limited to a few miles from their birthplace, and where neither King nor Republic was a welcome presence.  Did you know France had its own caste of untouchables, the cagots, who were persecuted for no real reason anyone could remember?  Or that an early surveyor, invading the pays in the 1740s with his strange instruments, was murdered as a sorcerer?  Or that shepherds in the Landes moved about quickly on stilts?  It’s food for thought for conworlders, who are usually hard put to create cultural differences between their countries, to say nothing of individual villages.

I haven’t finished it yet, but my one complaint is that the author doesn’t always integrate his sometimes contradictory sources.  For instance, sometimes the individual pays are described as self-sufficient islands of democracy; other times they’re so poor and miserable that people hope for a early death and usually get it.

3. Another shout-out to Lore Sjöberg’s Monster Manual comics; today’s is the best one yet, I think.

I just read Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail.  I can save you about 250 pages and $15.95 by explaining the main point: the Web removes the constraints of physical stores and narrow distribution channels (like movie theaters and CDs).  Sales and production don’t need to be tied any longer to a small number of hits.  There’s money to be made in the ‘long tail’ of the demand curve.  45% of the music sales of Rhapsody come from tracks not available in the largest physical stores.

Where the product is virtual, like music, sellers in effect have no storage and distribution costs, and can therefore offer everything.  Industries based on creating hits will just have to adapt.  And as eBay shows, physical products can approach this ideal surprisingly closely. 

There’s some exciting aspects to this… I’m fascinated by the democratization of production, for instance.  Conlanging, for instance, is nearly irrelevant to the publishing industry.  (Klingon was a freak hit, but it’s 23 years old now and no one’s done as well since.)  But I think there’s a market there, albeit tiny.  Traditional publishing didn’t serve it, but print-on-demand sell-via-Amazon publishing can.

So Anderson’s idea is interesting; but what do you do with it?  If you’re a minor musician or writer, you produce things, maybe with a slightly larger possibility of minor success– but you knew that already.   But for business people, the problem would seem to be that the obvious applications are already taken.  You’re not going to start a new iTunes, Amazon, or eBay. 

One side effect that will probably be a big battleground: copyright and trademark protection.  The big media companies effectively want permanent copyrights– Disney never wants Mickey Mouse cartoons in the public domain.  For Long Tail producers the benefits run the other way: e.g. a prolific YouTuber would like to be able to adapt other people’s videos, and doesn’t make money anyway so isn’t losing sales through piracy.  I’d expect the legal balance to swing more toward the interests of the aggregators rather than the hit-makers.  (Useful comparison: Viacom, which includes Paramount and Dreamworks, has revenues of $13 billion.  Google, which includes YouTube, has revenues of $22 billion.)

After playing Left 4 Dead 4 a week, er, for a week, I’ve decided it’s really three games in one, with strategies appropriate for each.

Left 4 Dead - Versus mode

Left 4 Dead - Versus mode. Go Smoker!

First, it’s a scary and intense single-player game.  The art direction and the movie metaphor are geared to this.  They rapidly become less appropriate for the other game modes, especially versus, where half the time you’re rooting for the zombies, and relishing the attacks that are so frightening in single-player mode.

Second, co-op mode, with 4 people playing the Survivors.  This requires close teamwork and constant communication, but not the extensive knowledge needed to excel at TF2.  I had a couple of very neat games this week:

  • One on Easy mode, where we used nothing but pistols.  In addition, Chundo was going for the Unbreakable achievement: never healing.  That proved to be a great challenge on the last level when he was on nothing but pills and fading fast, and we had to face down two Tanks.
  • And the really insane one, on Expert.  Expert is nuts because friendly fire is deadly, and even the ordinary zombies can knock you down in five hits.  Experience, and Faux Real, gave us essential tips: Move slowly.  Check out side rooms for health and goodies.  Avoid damage– clear out a space before entering it.  And be religious about avoiding your buddies’ line of fire: always crouch in front, never move suddenly, tell people what you’re doing.  (We didn’t finish the campaign, but it was great fun.)

And then there’s versus mode, where you have 8 players on two teams, and alternate between playing the same level as Survivors or Infected.  This is almost always a great time.  It’s also even more of a team game… much more so than TF2, in fact.  Though TF2 rewards teamwork, it still compares individual players, and you get a gamut from superstars to clueless noobs.  In L4D it’s the team that wins or loses… some players are certainly better at it, but you need all four players to win.  (If even one survivor dies, the zombies can usually mop up the rest.  And even  a bot– an AI player– is a liability.) 

As Survivors, the effective strategy is to run run run.  The teams compete on distance; also, by moving fast you force the zombies to spend precious time keeping up.  (Half their strategy is where to spawn, and you make it harder by being a moving target.)  The other bit is keeping together.  A close knot of survivors is hard to attack, while stragglers are delicious zombie fare.

As Infected, you want to spawn carefully, and work together.  A disorienting boom followed by a double hunter pounce can be devastating.  Boomer is probably the most fun to play, because you blind the survivors and prepare the way for your team.  Hunter is harder– even if you successfully pounce it’s usually not hard for someone to kill you.  (After all, you’re right there, and a rescuer is almost always close at hand.)  Smoker is hardest, largely because finding a good spot is difficult; on the other hand it’s probably the most satisfying when it works.

And then there’s Tank… who doesn’t want a few moments of devastating power?  If only we had these things for taking out sentry farms.

Since the election fever has died down a bit (and since the right guy won), I have a question about what I consider problems in the American election process.

[1] Election is always on  a workday (Tuesday), instead of Sunday, when most people don’t work, and therefore, more voters would be able to vote. The reason I’ve heard is that this tradition was established because of Christian fundamentalists, who interpreted the Sunday laws in such a way that no travel was allowed on Sunday, and since in the 18th century, it would often have taken a long horse ride or walk to the next town, so Monday was also skipped to be on the safe side, and Tuesday agreed as election day. The reason why it’s still done today, when travel is much faster than in the past, and when the US is officially secular (and therefore, should not cater to some religious group’s wishes over other reasons) is either the inertia of tradition, or to keep normal workers from voting. (Although I think that’s a bit too cynically exaggerated.)

Do you think that a Democratic President (and a Democratic majority) will change that, to a Sunday, or is tradition too holy for Americans?  Or has the problem become moot because in this election those voters who didn’t have the time during Tuesday itself queued up beforehand at post offices and other places to vote by letter?

[2] Then there’s the problem of the Electoral votes. As far as I can guess, the most likeliest reason for this complication is because of not efficient communication and travel system at the founders time, so having each state elect Electors, who then had to travel to the college, was the best logistic option. But today, with instantenous communication and quick counting of results, I don’t see an advantage of the Electoral approach over a direct one: why not count all popular votes across states for a grand total, instead of throwing away one half in each state because winner takes all majority principle? Is it again the case that inertia of tradtion and reverence for the founders is stronger than a practical look at what system would work best? The pragmatic approach to problems is usually – in technologial areas for example – what the Americans pride themselves on, when compared to other nations with strong traditions, but in the field of politics, it seems that tradtion is the!
only reason?

[3] The recent problems (though I haven’t heard as much an uproar about it as 4 years before – are people getting used to massive cheating? That would be a bad sign for democracy, I think) are that electronic voting machines are too insecure and open to fraud ; and that people are crossed off the voters list too easily, for example if their name is similar to that of a felon (that prison inmates are being denied their civil right to vote is another problem). Both have been proven to happen by journalists who were worried that the Democrats were not taking enough steps to stop this, both on local level by challenging the removal of voters, and on federal level by removing electronic voting machines as long as they are that insecure. Will this, too, change now with a Democrat in power, or will they stop worrying because they won despite hindrances?

[4] Shouldn’t more people – both correct politicans and citizens – worry about the democratic process and attitude in society if not only the percentage of people who actually vote is only about 50% and that many of those who try to vote are disenfranchised? I don’t think that the attitude of “It’s only several thousand votes who got lost/were falsly attributed/couldn’t vote, that wouldn’t decide the election because the margin was bigger” is a good attitude.


Better get a coffee, this might take a bit.

I’ve mentioned voting systems before, here and here, and talked here about how Americans are curiously reluctant to modify their governmental structures.  It’s harder to explain why that is; “tradition” rarely stops us in other areas.  At root it may be that the US, unlike European nation-states, defines itself by its ideology, not by ethnicity.  You’re an American if you accept the American way of doing things, which includes our approach to government.  So it’s not lightly changed.

On [1], voting day, your historical account is true I believe.  It’s just not an issue in American politics, though, so it’s not likely to change.  In the states I checked, employers are required to give time off for voting. I’m not sure that weekend voting would be popular anyway— people use the weekend for errands or entertainment. And you’re right that early voting is more and more popular— as much as 1/4 of votes last election.

On [2], I think most people realize that the Electoral College is foolish, especially after the 2000 election which showed that the popular vote winner losing wasn’t just theoretical.

But even a bad system has its beneficiaries.  The Electoral College magnifies the power of small states… every state that has 1 vote in the House of Representatives has 3 in the Electoral College.  And pretty much all such states currently vote Republican, while most of the largest states vote Democratic.  For that reason it’d be hard to get a change passed.  (Constitutional amendments require 2/3 approval in Congress, then ratification by 3/4 of the states.)

As for [3]— I really can’t explain why voting hasn’t been improved.  Often there are mean little political calculations involved— e.g. the Republicans have created a mythical “voter fraud” bugaboo and use it to try to restrain minority or elderly voting.  But it sure seems like voting is a technical problem that just shouldn’t be that hard to figure out.

Voter turnout [4] was 62%, which is pretty good for recent decades.  I’m reluctant to say more, because I think we need research, not speculation, on why people don’t vote.  If we don’t know, we’re likely to propose the wrong solutions.  E.g. if people just don’t care who wins, or are satisfied with either party, easier registration doesn’t help; if it’s the inconvenience, then it does.

A couple oddities:

  • My mother has a sheet music book named 100 Giant Christmas Songs.  As a linguist, I boggle: what is giant modifying here?  Neither Christmas nor the songs are being called giant; the book is.  (Challenge for conlangers: figure out a rule that allows such NPs.)
  • Sometimes it takes a kid to point out the oddity of some everyday thing.  Our Brazilian niece, seeing a common logo, asked “Why does the sign have a big 7 but it’s labelled ‘eleven’?”

As a personal note, several people have asked if I found a job, since I removed the sticky.  No, I was just tired of seeing the sticky and figured that anyone in a position to help had already seen it.  I’m still looking.  But I’m also using the time to write a book.

I couldn’t resist Valve’s 25% off sale– I picked up Left 4 Dead.

A denizen of the post-apocalypse

A denizen of the post-apocalypse

It’s very well done, and they addressed my biggest complaint about TF2– the lack of a tutorial.  There’s a single-player mode, so you can learn how the game works before attempting multiplayer.

I can’t add much to what Chris has already written about the game.  It’s very intense, sometimes very scary, and is very cleverly designed (even more than TF2) as a team game.  E.g., the boss zombies can immobilize you, so you need your teammates.

I’ve tried Versus mode a few times, and it’s more fun than the single-player.  Two teams of four players alternate as the Survivors and the Infected– as Yahtzee puts it, this turns the game from horror movie into hilarious griefing engine.  I’m not a very good Infected yet, though I think I show promise as a Hunter. 

Single-player mode works very differently from the multi-player.  In Versus, the survivors basically move as fast as they can, doing their best to ignore the ordinary Infected– just melee them out of the way.  The real action is the boss zombies, who since they are played by humans are much nastier, since they can coordinate their attacks.

The world-building is interesting.  Valve implies that the zombies are diseased rather than dead (which makes more sense, at least marginally).  From the signage, it looks like the epidemic has been studied to some extent, and there were attempts to contain it.  Of course, the realism wears thin in spots… e.g. the Hunter and Witch’s attacks are truly brutal– it looks you’re being eviscerated– yet you can be healed by wrapping bandages round your arms and legs.