TF2 animations

If you’re, like, off in Nunavut, you may not have seen this yet:

It’s really well done, though short.  (The plus and minus here is that you’ll have to watch it over and over to follow all the action.  I think it might have been more satisfying if it had focused on one bit at a time, or included a loop.)

I forget if I plugged the amazing Spy vs. Pyro cartoon.  I just watched it again and was re-amazed.  The creator has obviously absorbed all the lessons of Looney Tunes; each section tops the last.  The ‘sex scene’ is over-the-top hilarious.

Smith + Reax

The third and last part of Blogging Adam Smith is up.

And as a bonus, alert reader John Cowan sent me a bunch of comments on the first two parts that are worth sharing.  Alert reader Keith Gaughan also wrote about the health of Irish potato farmers.

Corn (30): It’s easy to underestimate just how important bread was to the diet of ordinary Britons in the 18th century.  It was like rice in China: essential to every meal, and everything else was optional. (Some bread came in the form of beer.)  Interpreting it as a proxy for the cost of living was indeed reasonable for the times.

Supply and demand curves (46):  I don’t think that knowledge of analytic geometry was very widely diffused in 1776, and the familiar supply-demand graph doesn’t appear until 1890.  (By the way, have you ever seen such a graph with actual labels on it? That tells you something.)

Trade secrets (50):  Smith’s right, these are more like capital than labor.  The essence of labor is that you have to keep doing it over and over: yesterday’s dish-washing won’t get tomorrow’s plates clean. But a trade secret keeps on working for you until it stops being a secret, as a factory does until its machines wear out.

Wages in BNA (59):  They were high because rents were low, and rents were low because, as you say later, people had a huge free gift of land to absorb.  When rents are low, capital and labor don’t really compete for the distribution pool, and you get both high wages and
high profits.

Other uses of land (135): If everyone is growing olives, that’s probably because it’s the “highest and best use” of the land, which in the case of olives typically means it’s almost worthless for anything else.  In general, non-essential crops get squeezed into land that isn’t good for staples.

Feeding the poor (140):  Potatoes and cow’s milk are pretty much a complete diet, which is how Ireland’s population octupled after potatoes were introduced from the New World, displacing millet and other low-yield grains that were all that would grow in the peaty
soil.  So Smith may well have been right: the Irish poor were healthier.

Proportion of rent (178):  Actually, the proportion of rent in modern economies is huge and mostly unacknowledged.  If you buy land, all you are doing is giving the previous owner the net present value of an infinite stream of rent payments on the land, all in one lump.  (If
there are buildings or other improvements, like standing crops, you pay for them as capital.)

You then end up mortgaging the property, which means that the bank is getting the rent stream that the landlord would get in a more traditional tenancy relationship.  If you pay off the mortgage, the land rent then becomes “imputed income” that you pay yourself, in the
same way that when you work as an independent contractor you are both capitalist and laborer and pay your own wages — except that nobody accounts for it as such, hence “unacknowledged”.  The blurring of the land/capital distinction by 20th-century economists only makes avoidance of this subject easier.

What Smith and almost all his successors missed is the ever-growing importance of rent in city land; they only think of it in agricultural terms, though London and a few other cities mostly had rented houses at this point.  To give a modern example, the building I live in and
its land were seized by New York City in the 1960s for non-payment of taxes, and never sold to anyone; the land is leased directly to a non-profit maintenance company at $1/year or something.  (The city finds this a better deal than collecting rent and doing maintenance itself.)

Since then, the building has been almost entirely rebuilt, so the $500/month “rent” I pay is really maintenance, which is upkeep on capital (the building) and the labor that upkeep requires, plus contributions to a “prudent reserve”.  As such, it’s about 1/6 of what
comparable privately owned apartments rent for in the immediate neighborhood.  Huge, eh?

Poking about a bit, I find that a plot of vacant land 260 feet by 50 feet, less than a third of an acre, was on offer recently in a somewhat similar neighborhood (historically poor but now up-and-coming again) for a cool $3.2 million (the actual price is confidential, of
course).  That is the importance of rent in the modern economy. Rich companies tend to stay that way because of their direct and indirect real-estate (i.e. rent) investments.

Treasure trove (194): The motivation for reporting it used to be punitive: coroners held inquests to determine who was, or might be, the finder of treasure, “and that may be well perceived where one liveth riotously and have done so of long time”.  Concealment of
treasure was punishable by fine or imprisonment.  (Coroners used to deal with all kinds of Crown rights, hence their name.)  In addition, the royal right was often franchised to locals.  Nowadays finders who report discoveries promptly to the Treasury (ha!) are paid, which encourages them to do so, but the right is still the Queen’s.

Bankers’ patience (216): Nowadays, of course, bankers have become impatient again, and recapitalize their loans as fast as they can. It’s hard to realize that when you buy dinner on a credit card, the bank is making an investment loan, but it is.  This kind of thinking is what led to the mortgage crisis.

Civ V

I tried out the Civilization V demo last night.  Looks sweet.  It looks prettier and livelier than ever, the special policy trees (replacing both government and religion) are intriguing, and I loved things like cities and triremes being able to destroy units by themselves.  It’s also fun that e.g. Caesar talks to you in Latin… a langourous, Italian-sounding Latin.

The demo lasts for one to two hours… this being Civ, it’s not anywhere near long enough to get a real feel for the game.  I had two land units at the end of the game, and all I’d fought was barbarians.  So I just have no idea what the combat is like, much less overall strategy.  Kind of poor demo design, I’d say… it’s enough to test out the interface, but not to tell if it’s significantly different from Civ4.  The hexes are pretty unnoticeable; the new one-unit-per-hex limit is… who knows?  There are apparently still Great Merchants and stuff; also no idea on what that means.

After a couple years playing FPSs, it’s amazing how slow Civ feels.  The interface is very good and you can automate the drudgery, but there are long stretches where all you can actually do is slowly reveal bits of the map.

It’s still tempting, though I don’t need a timesink this deep right now.  Besides, Fallout New Vegas is due out soon, to say nothing of the latest Borderlands DLC.  So Sid is going to have to wait for awhile.

GOP splits: don’t get excited

There’s been lots of articles about cracks in the GOP facade:

http://www.cnn.com/2010/POLITICS/09/19/tea.party.fallout/index.html?hpt=T2

It’s fun to watch Republicans sniping each other, but that’s all it is– a little schadenfreude.  It doesn’t mean that they’re having any serious problems with party unity.

Remember two years ago when the Democratic party seemed to be in a virtual civil war between Hillary and Obama supporters?  What did that end up meaning?  Nothing at all.

PCK proofing

I got the proof copy of the Planet Construction Kit yesterday.  It’s exciting to see the thing as a physical object; it’s also easier to proof in this form.  I immediately found a typo on the back cover.  Ah well, better now than when it’s published.

It’s also when I see if the pictures look OK when printed.  Most do… but I have some photos and screen caps this time, and some of them don’t look so hot— the halftoning removes too much detail and tonal contrast.  I’ve got to see what I can do about that.

Why mergers are brutal

I had dinner tonight with my old pal Harry (hi Harry), who has a macabre career… basically, outsourcing jobs.

He explained what’s happening when two companies merge and some particular function gets taken apart and shipped elsewhere.  I’ve seen such things from the ground, and it’s not pretty.  I think the employees’ expectation is something like this: Company A has function X, and it works pretty well.  B has function X’ and it works OK too.  Why not either keep both X and X’, or at least pick one of the two, keeping as much of the personnel as possible?  After all, there’s a huge investment in these people; they have an enormous stock of knowledge we ought to retain, and just getting rid of people will cause enormous strain and distrust.

The view from 30,000 feet: the new company doesn’t want X or X’.  It wants a standardized, dumbed-down X” that can be done by high school graduates in a small town.  Such an organization easily scales up as the company grows, and can also be easily moved to seek lower wages.  The key point: the skill mix, chief/Indian ratio, and wages of the original X and X’ teams are all wrong.  It’s essentially the process of turning skilled craft work into unskilled assembly line labor, and the original workers would be miserable being transmuted into X”.

It occurred to me that the vaunted mobility of American workers is indirect.  Company A is going to lose department X and all its workers; some other location is going to get a bunch of new jobs in X”.   This won’t involve anyone moving from X to X”; the laid-off workers will find new jobs near their homes; the new ones are found from local resources.  The new location may become a slightly more desirable place to live and some other people will start to move there.

If this is how capitalism works, why don’t capitalist countries continually get poorer?  Historically, the answer is that this is only half of the process.  The other is that, as enterprises grow, entirely new kinds of jobs open up, at a higher skill level.  We no longer need cottage industry weavers and farmers; instead we need paper pushers, marketers, cinematographers, bridal consultants, statisticians, real estate lawyers, software engineers, yoga instructors, outsourcing experts, and a host of other more sophisticated jobs.

Is the whole process still balanced?  Damned if I know.  In the ’90s it was; as fast as jobs were outsourced, new ones were created domestically.  In the ’00s it looked unbalanced— American business just seemed to stop creating jobs.

If you’re looking at careers or something, the take-home lesson is this: find a job that’s not easily moved to Shanghai.  Some jobs are too local to move: lawn care, nursing, plumbing.  Others are still American specialties and safe— for now.

PCK update

I don’t know how it is for other authors, but for me there’s a period when the text of a book is liquid.  I keep thinking of things that need to go in, I keep re-reading and finding new typos or marginally better wording.  That’s where the book has been for awhile.  But, well, it has to go out sometime.

And it has— I sent the files to Amazon tonight.  Once those are processed I order a proof copy, then find approximately 80% of the remaining errors, leaving at least one embarrassing one on the very first page.  Then repeat, hopefully just once.  So it’s probably 6 to 8 weeks from the virtual bookshelves, most of this now being waiting on Amazon rather than on myself.

I’ve also been working on a paid conlanging job.  Yes, such things happen!

I have two novels I want to publish too; but I also need to bolster the sagging bank account.  So, er, if anyone has a programming or tech writer job in the Chicago area, or a telecommute, contact me.  It doesn’t have to be full time.