April 2011

The aptly named blog Overthinking It considers whether it made any sense for the Empire to blow up Alderaan.  Isn’t destroying your own territory kind of a loser move, and likely to induce rather than prevent rebellion?

Some good points are made in the Empire’s defense:

  • State terror is a traditional tactic.  Savage enough reprisals will definitely make people think.  There’s an ongoing test right now in Syria: will Bashar Assad’s invasion of his own city of Daraa tamp down dissent?
  • Game theory suggests that acting batshit insane offers an edge in further negotiations.  Again, there’s an ongoing test: the Republican Party.  It sure worked for them in 2010. 

I’m more convinced, however, by the analysis of a dude named Fenzel, who suggests that the Death Star was a cost-cutting measure… a misguided one.  To really control the galaxy you need a galaxywide bureaucracy, and it has to be reasonably effective: Soviet level, not Somalia level.  Sheer destruction does not solve any problems, does not create any allies, and ultimately saves no money, as your empire will fall apart.  (As it does in the film: the Death Star strategy leaves the Emperor dead and rebellion breaking out in his capital.)

On the second page, the analysis is mooted (based on references to a Trade Federation in the prequels, which Palpatine is assumed to have co-opted) that the Star Wars galaxy, despite its high tech, barely has a capitalist economy at all.  So far as we can see it has a mercantilist economy: commerce is controlled by semi-official agencies; we don’t really see corporations or really any middle-class economic activity, only state actors, crime lords, bounty hunters, and smugglers.  So there is not really a private sector that might care about Alderaan, only the central state, for whom anything that is not a puppet is an enemy.

Given that the larger Star Wars canon shows the Sith always showing up, every generation or so, the real question is how any sort of prosperity develops at all.  States that rely entirely on terror, like Tamerlane’s, don’t last long and simply destroy productive resources.  Arguably the Empire only looks good because it’s a projection of the mid-20C threat of the Nazis and Soviets, which at certain times and in certain lights made democratic capitalism look endangered.  But it was all an illusion.  The Nazis just stimulated their economy before the West dared to, and the Soviets just had an industrial revolution, something you only get once.  Neither had any secret more effective economic powers.

In general, fantasy evil empires make no economic sense over the long run, except in the shallow sense that they might simply control more territory than their enemies.  That’s one reason I put a lot of thought into how ktuvok empires might work.  The ktuvoks run the empire for their own benefit, but they can’t even accomplish their own purposes without guaranteeing a certain level of comfort and security for their human subjects.  Once foreign technology really gets going, they even have to come up with some form of power-sharing– they may retain the upper claw, but they can’t simply rely on state terror to accomplish anything.

OK, I tried Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and the hell with it.  It’s too twitchy for me. 

And no, the sand mechanism doesn’t make up for the twitchiness, because it runs out too fast.

(Making death require substantial replays is a cheesy remnant of the video arcade era, when killing the player made them cough up another quarter.  It’s just annoying now, game developers, stop it.)

Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo have a great article on global poverty, presenting their research on what the poorest people in the world actually spend their money on, and whether there is a nutritional poverty trap.

In short, they question whether there is.  Basically, few people in the world today are starving… food is pretty cheap these days, and people at the lowest end of the scale, if given extra money, don’t spend it all on food.  Or to be more precise, rather than improve their nutrition a bit, people are likely to buy simple luxuries (a TV, a cel phone), or spend money on festivals and celebrations, or just buy tastier food.

It’s not that there isn’t desperate poverty, or that these choices are always top notch— the authors suspect that people are often not well informed about what a little better nutrition might get them or their children.  But it’s interesting to know that, so to speak, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not a strict progression… people want some of everything before they’re fully fed.

Edit: The comments on the article are completely stupid.  The point is not that the global poor act irrationally.  They’re human beings and they make choices.  It’s not irrational to want a cel phone, or to decide that instead of more rice you’d like a bit of meat sometimes.

I’ve been through Portal 2 co-op twice, mostly with my friend Chris.  I’d say it’s definitely replayable… except on the last set of tests, we generally didn’t remember the solutions, only the puzzle.  (“OK, I remember this room.  You did a thing, and then we had to do something else.”)  I doubt it’s massively replayable though… like, even if I had the money for it, I wouldn’t buy stuff to outfit my robots.

Jump now! No, now!

The co-op games are an entirely different set of levels, and they’re very cleverly designed to require, well, actual co-operation.  I can’t imagine it working well with a random pubbie, or with someone who’s been through the puzzles and is impatient.  But it’s a blast if you’re figuring it out together.  As a point of pride, I never killed my partner on purpose.  It’s more hilarious when it’s by accident.
It’s interesting to see different play styles.  I think Chris likes to look around a bit.  I immediately put portals on flinger targets and paint dispensers, just to see where they go.
There are some tasks you do for GlaDOS, but the story is quite minimal, and as the bots are pretty silly, you don’t get very invested in them.  It’s more of a pure puzzle experience.  (Though you do get a big additional dose of GlaDOS’s particular acerbicity.)
I generally like co-op games (L4D2, GTA IV, and Borderlands all have good co-op modes), and this is about the co-oppiest, as both partners are needed.  I sure wouldn’t be bothered if Valve created another five sets of tests…
Edit: Chris’s notes here.  If you are ever locked up in a test facility by a mad AI, Chris is definitely someone you’d want trapped with you.

So, I just finished Portal 2.  Spoilers below, but to start with, here’s a picture of Chell.  She looks better than she did in Portal.  Maybe it’s just that she’s had a chance for a good rest.

Chell’s taken good care of herself

It’s surprisingly hard to get a good view of her in the sequel.  All it takes is a well-lit corner, but portalable surfaces are scanty.


As a sort of novelty, I’m playing a game that was just released! 

Must be hot in here

I’m only on Chapter 4… I’m trying to savor the experience.  I’ll try not to put in spoilers… this time… except for the one given away by the screenshot and also by the first five minutes of Portal 2: Chell has been in suspended animation for years and wakes up in a laboratory in ruins.  But there is still Science to be done.
What would you want for a sequel to Portal?  Kind of the same fascinating game mechanic, more puzzles, more clever writing, and just more of it, right?  Well, that’s pretty much what it is.  The game is longer, there is at least one new character, and there are a number of new “testing elements”.  I’ll talk about these later, but at least one of them is really neat… looks beautiful and is fun to use.  The sequel starts you out with nothing, but doesn’t take as long to get you started as Portal (where it feels like only five of the 19 levels are really playing).  So far the level of difficulty is good… I haven’t been stumped yet, and I stump easily. 
I haven’t tried co-op yet.  In part it’s because this is the one real failing of the game interface: you can see which of your friends are playing the game, but you can’t see who is in co-op, much less who would like to be.  So the list is useless; you have to fall back onto messaging.  How hard would it have been to add a LFG flag?
Edit: Chapter 5 is hilarious.  The turret QC in particular. 

For reference, here’s a great article from Bruce Bartlett on why the Republican position on the budget is based on lies– particularly the barmy notion that you can cut the deficit by lowering revenue. 

Bottom line: government revenues were 20.6% of GDP in 2000, a time when we had a budget surplus.  Bush’s tax cuts reduced this to 18.5% without cutting spending; then the recession reduced it to 14.9%.  So the current tide of red ink is a combination of Bush’s tax cuts plus a huge recession.  And the Republican approach is… cut revenues by another $3 trillion! 

The sad thing is that all too many voters will go for it, because, you know, who likes to pay taxes?  Perhaps someone should tell them that the plan also removes health insurance for everyone but those who don’t need it.

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