August 2010

Yet another playthrough of Fallout 3.  I decided to get all 20 bobbleheads.

And the intact garden gnome too

Some of these were in areas that were new to me… this is such a huge game.  I’d never been to Paradise Falls, for instance.  (I just bribed my way in; by that time I had plenty of caps and didn’t feel like killing all the slaver dudes.)

One bobblehead is in the Yao Guai Tunnels.  These are pretty nasty customers, so I decided to get the Animal Friends perk, which is kind of amusing.  Yao Guai ignore me, and so do mole rats, who like to stand up like meerkats when they’re not trying to eat you:

Cute little mole ratty

I got Mysterious Stranger also for the fun factor.  It’s goofy fun to watch him show up and nail an enemy.

More goofy fun: make a Deathclaw Gauntlet and use it againt feral ghouls.  It takes them down in one or two swipes.  (Except for feral ghoul reavers; those bastards are tough.)

For Mr. Crowley’s quest, I didn’t really want the armor, so I decided to let him get it and follow him.  I figured he wouldn’t make it across the wasteland, but lordy, that boy is an iron man.  I was sure the Yao Guai would make short work of him, as he hadn’t taken the Animal Friend perk, but he survived several of them and made it all the way to Ft. Constantine.   At this point he turns hostile, and there was no way to follow him, even with Stealth Boys.  So, well, I have the power armor now, but he shot first.

Sometimes karma is your only reward.  I rescued this hot chick from super-mutants:

I know, baby, let's talk about it over drinks at the Rudder

I figured she’d walk over to Rivet City, a short distance away.  Instead she headed for the Jefferson Memorial.  Bad move; I found her a few minutes later:

Super mutants are so wasteful; they didn't even take a bite

Overall, Fallout 3 is the best and most replayable RPG I’ve tried.  It’s about as close to an open-ended explorable world as you can get: you can completely ignore the main quest and still have plenty to do, you can be good or evil, you can even betray your comrades at the end.  Not that I did, but the option is there… compare say KOTOR, where by an amazing coincidence light side and dark side give you the exact same agenda for 80% of the game.

I loved Oblivion when it came out, and I was replaying it not long ago… to my surprise, I think it hasn’t aged as well.  Despite the world-ending threats, it lacks the grittiness of Fallout 3; it’s a pretty little Standard Fantasy Kingdom without any interesting moral ambiguity.

Plus the faces in F3 are way better

I did get a new game recently… well, new to me, it’s been out for years.  Unpromising beginning, but it comes highly recommended, so we’ll see.

When I hear about an article in a major newspaper about linguistics, and one on how language influences thought in particular, I get ready to grit my teeth.  But this one, by Guy Deutscher, is actually pretty good:

It’s worth it for the explanation of the direction words in Guugu Yimithirr alone.  I wish I’d been able to put this in the LCK.

Apparently some folks played Bioshock and said “Sea-based Randian city!  I’m there!  Or at least I would be if it required no effort!”  Thus the “seasteading” movement, all those floating libertarian utopias that rich Randites have been moving to.  Ah wait, they haven’t actually got one yet.  One Tim Lee has a great takedown of the concept here.

Today’s theme is “good news and (mostly) bad news about our species.” 

First, a neat article from the WSJ on the paradox of power: the best way for a human or other primate to rise to power is not, contrary to received wisdom, to be a jerk.  People give power to friendly, likeable people, and don’t give it to the obviously nasty people.

But once they have power, people behave badly.  They’re impulsive, sexually aggressive, rude, and less interested in rational argument. 

So the old heuristic about not giving power to people who seek it isn’t good enough.  Your selection method may be impeccable and nonetheless put a jerk in power… because power makes people jerks. 

And then, Clients from Hell, a hilarious showcase of the most excruciatingly stupid or offensive things web designers hear from their clients.  It’s not the stupidity that’s depressing so much as the fact that so many of the clients are trying to weasel out of paying the designers.  It baffles me that people will hire someone to do a service, even sign a contract, and think it’s OK not to pay them.  (Also a little worrisome in that I’ve considered trying to do freelance work.)

Finally, there’s the sad news that apparently David Mamet has declared for some form of libertarianism, on the grounds that he’s decided that people are not inherently “good at heart”.   As a reason for not being a liberal, this is mind-bogglingly dumb.  Take two seconds to think of what liberals are primarily against: fascism, plutocrats, racists, polluters.  Liberalism is all about recognizing that people, as Mamet says, “can behave like swine”.   It’s libertarianism that cheerfully denies that there could possibly be any problem when the rich are given absolute free rein.

I just read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan— a remarkable book, though one feels it is not quite as remarkable as the author thinks it is.

With a characteristic breeziness, Taleb redefines Black Swans to mean highly improbable yet highly consequential events.  (The traditional idea was a reversal of expected ideas— before Australia was discovered people thought all swans were white— but without the factor of importance; the color of swans is pretty trivial.)  Taleb points out Black Swans are all around us: 9/11, the Great Depression, most inventions and bestsellers.

Can I save you $17?  Maybe.  The main points are these:

  • Black Swans make a hash of predictability in history and especially economics.  All those financial experts with their carefully tuned risk management programs are charlatans.  Any prediction of the medium future will be made ludicrous by Black Swans.
  • They can hardly be dismissed as “aberrations”.  E.g., in the last fifty years, half the gain in value in U.S. stocks is due to just ten days of trading.
  • Many varying factors, especially biological— e.g. height or age— can be understood with a simple bell curve, a normal distribution.  Taleb calls this world Mediocristan.  But other variables, such as income or sales or the death counts of wars, are highly non-normal, and expectations based on the bell curve will produce serious errors; this is Extremistan.  And increasingly we all live in Extremistan.
  • More technically: in a normal distribution, the tails rapidly fall off.  You will occasionally see a 7-foot man; you will never see a 50-foot man.  The distribution of something like income or book sales or market changes, is non-normal, with a fat tail: you simply can’t put an upper limit on them based on statistics alone.  You’ll occasionally see a $70K income; you will fairly often see a $500K one; you can’t rule out $500,000K.  To put it another way, in a normal distribution instances more than three standard deviations (sigmas) from the mean are vanishingly rare; in a non-normal one you can easily find instances six or ten sigmas out.
  • People are just not made to wrap their minds around Black Swans.  We try to rationalize them after the fact, but we are also prone to building systems that exclude them.

He enumerates a few common errors; my favorite is the ludic fallacy: generalizing from toy models (especially games) to complex human systems.  Sometimes naming something is a powerful move; I think this one is a useful addition to the lexicon of skepticism.  Games of chance, in particular, are lousy metaphors (because they largely follow normal distributions).

Taleb is a financial trader and amateur philosopher, highly opinionated and often witty.  He reserves a particular scorn for quants (financial analysts with mathematical models that are apparently all based on normal distributions), economists, CEOs, central bankers, and the French.  In the first edition statisticians are on the list too, but by now he’s learned not to alienate them.

Did Mr. Whiz Kid make money during the present crisis?  Oh sure; he doesn’t even consider the 2008 crash a Black Swan; he’d expected a meltdown for years.  (As he points out, Black Swans are relative to the observer.)

I’d say I go along with most of what he says; like most skeptics he gets a little overexcited about what we don’t know.  Occasionally there’s no one more naïve than a habitual rebel: they’re so used to dismissing authority that they’ll accept some nonconventional idea just because a friend brought it up.  (An example is a throwaway line claiming that there’s nothing wrong with high-fat diets; he offers no backing except a friend’s say-so.  Similarly, he mentions that his newest strategy is a hedge against hyperinflation.  Hyperinflation??)

I don’t think history or even economics are as hopeless as he says.  Indeed, his favorite investing strategy (put 90% of your money in ultra-safe investments like government bonds; put the rest, what you can afford to lose, in diverse ventures that have a chance of great success) assumes that there are safe investments, that not everyone is an idiot.  Or to put it another way, our skepticism should be specific.  Alan Greenspan’s claims that the markets had risk under control, or febrile 1990s claims that the new economy validated dot-com business models with no income, were not only foolish, but dead wrong.  That doesn’t mean that everything in economics is wrong.

My other reservation is that I kept expecting Taleb to get to the real meat, and it felt like he never did.  There’s plenty more in the book, but he spends most of it making the basic points over and over in different ways rather than getting into details.  E.g. at one point he deigns to explain that non-normal distributions can be identified by their kurtosis.  That I understand; I used to work for SPSS.  But he doesn’t bother even to tell us what are the telling values for the kurtosis.

Similarly, he has an interesting section on scalable and non-scalable jobs; the first, like book-writing, software sales, and  financial trading, more clients can be added without additional work: the same book can be sold to 100 or 1 million readers; it takes no more effort to trade 100 than 100,000 shares.  In non-scalable jobs, like dentistry, farming, or prostitution, more clients mean more work.  Scalable jobs are in Extremistan; they have an all-or-nothing reward structure.  And more and more jobs are scalable— e.g. ‘musician’ used to be a non-scalable job, as there was a limit to how many people could hear a given musician; now it’s scalable— a small group of artists can get 90% of the market and the rewards, and they don’t even have to be alive.  That’s a useful distinction to make.  But wouldn’t it be interesting to quantify how many jobs are scalable, and how this has changed over time?  Not to Taleb, apparently.

On the other hand, if your reaction to all this is “Yeah, but…” or “Fine, there are aberrations, who cares”, you probably need to read the whole book to get the ideas farther into your brain.  We’re rationalizing creatures, but there is no valid rationalization that turns non-normal into normal distributions.