Was blowing up Alderaan worth it?

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.


Prince of Persia falls to death too many times, quits

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.)

What the global poor actually do

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.

Portal 2 Co-op

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.

Portal 2

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.

Continue reading “Portal 2”

Thinking with Portals 2

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. 

Raise taxes!

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.

More on Atkinson

Thanks to alert reader Kit La Touche, I’ve now seen the actual article from Quentin Atkinson.  It has lots of statistical detail, but doesn’t really answer my objections.  There’s nothing at all about the sampling problem, nothing about historical trends if any in phoneme size, nothing to indicate he realizes that the Bantu explosion basicially erases most of African language diversity.

Plus, though he mentions the idea that modern population size can’t be projected into the past, he doesn’t seem to realize that it may be entirely uncorrelated with ancient (> 15,000 years) population sizes.  E.g. Mandarin doesn’t have a billion speakers today because it was a particularly large tribe in 13,000 BC.  For most of our existence we were hunter-gatherers, and most languages probably didn’t exceed 500 speakers, except when a tribe could expand into virgin territory.

Here’s his languages, which he gets from the WALS survey.  I was worried that he was overrepresenting the Polynesian languages, but it seems not.  On the other hand, some areas are strangely thin.  There can’t be many Khoisan languages there, and quite a few areas are worryingly sparse: India, East Africa, southern Australia, North America.

At one point he contrasts an analysis based on families, which suggests Africa as the origin, with one based on individual languages, which narrows it down to sub-Saharan Africa, especially the west.  But dude, look at your map; you only have four data points in northern Africa, and only four on the east coast.

And here’s his actual scatterplot, with legend.  That’s an awfully, well, scattered distribution; note that his own analysis suggests that the distance from Africa accounts for just 19% of the variation.

Dead Space Done

I finished Dead Space last night, and learned today that my friend Tieboy a.k.a Chris (here is his shiny new blog) hasn’t played it.  Ha ha, Chris, I’ve played a game you haven’t!  Also, in the few moments you actually see Isaac Clarke’s face, he looks a lot like Chris.

Dont cross the beams

I really liked it; it’s about the best single-player shooter since Half-Life 2.  (That is, I’m excluding RPGs like the Bethesda and Bioware games.)  It’s really good at the horror element… the necromorphs are creepy, even more so because you can see that they are ex-humans.  And even more than HL2 they nail the scariness of living  a nightmare– you pause before entering any new area or more open area and make sure you’ve reloaded, because bad things are out there.  Things jump out at you; things scuttle around on the ceiling and hunt you; things re-appear in areas you’d cleared.  And it’s pretty cool that the game does not pause when you check inventory or the map.

It loses on the comparison to HL2 in terms of writing and plausibility.  Every chapter is of the form “Someone makes Isaac wander through monster-infected areas of the ship to fix or fetch things that are scattered as widely as possible.”  Take that asteroid up there.  That’s your rescue beacon.  OK, sure, but why?  Why not, you know, a little rocket?   Or, there’s one section where you have to blow up incoming asteroids.  Why park this ship in an orbit where random debris will destroy it in three minutes if you don’t have a cannon constantly operating?  Or, you have to go fetch some nav cards, because… jeez, I have no idea, what is a nav card?  These things are not terrible; I just think Valve is better at making the levels seem like a coherent story.

I ended up relying almost entirely on the plasma cutter and pulse rifle.   I didn’t need anything else on Easy, and I never could figure out a use for the contact beam, and I never found a line gun.  I still kind of don’t like the upgrade system… you basically can only fully upgrade one item, a system which discourages experimentation.    

Oh, and not being able to save when you like is dumb.  You don’t restart at your last savepoint when you die anyway, so what would be the problem with being able to save at any time you are not in combat?

For variety, there are zero-g and occasional no-air environments, plus a stasis module that slows devices or monsters down (this is fun, though there are times you are screwed if you’re low on charges for it), plus a kinesis module (which is pretty much a gravity gun).  I think the zero-g sections would have been more fun if Isaac didn’t have magnetic boots; as it is he’s still walking on a surface, which doesn’t exactly feel zero-g.

My major complaint is with the overall plot.  I finished the game thinking what the hell?  (SPOILERS AHEAD.)  For one thing, I’m not sure it’s a great idea to undermine your avatar… Isaac sees his girlfriend Nicole several times, only she’s dead (as we learn in a really disturbing movie).  But she was, well, helping him with electronics, in one case across a hallway Isaac can’t jump across… what is supposed to have been happening there? 

I see her too, shes right there!

And then there’s the Marker.  You’re told you have to bring it back to the planet in order to stop the plague, and because Isaac does everything he’s told, he does.  Then his shipmate Kendra starts taking it back, because she’s a scumbag and wants it for… um… something.  And then you defeat the Hive Mind another way, never replacing the Marker.  So was it important or not?  Was moving the marker back a good idea, or a horrible idea, or a complete red herring?  I have no idea.

Ask Zompist: the Founder Effect and language origins

Well, here’s the article in the Economist, and the scientific paper.

The short version is, a professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand has taken about 500 modern languages and applied the theory of the founder effect to them, positing that the most recently diverged languages will have fewer phonemes than older languages. The finding is that language originated somewhere in Africa, big surprise. This sounds an awful lot like another attempt at “mass comparison” to me, so I thought I’d ask what a real internet linguist thinks of the issue. Do phonemes even exhibit the founder effect? I thought that was mainly something that happened with entire words, not fundamentals of words.


Unfortunately the Science article is subscriber-only, so I’m relying on the Economist summary.  And from that, it looks barmy to me.  But for all I know, the real article addresses my concerns.

Take this bit:

It has been known for a while that the less widely spoken a language is, the fewer the phonemes it has.

How firmly do we ‘know’ this?  The highest number of phonemes are found in some Khoisan languages, with very small numbers of speakers; the Caucasian languages are also notoriously consonant-happy.  Languages vary so much that sampling is a real issue.  Atkinson is taking 504 languages; that’s about 1/10 of the total.  Is that a random sample?  Almost certainly not; as I’ve found in researching my numbers list, getting information about all languages is a very difficult project.  So very likely he’s using the most readily available sources— which are going to be biased toward the most spoken languages.  That’s pretty much guaranteed to screw up looking at the # phonemes /#  speakers correlation, as several thousand less-studied, low-#-speaker languages are left out.

Here’s a paper that discusses the supposed correlation more closely; note that the researcher uses the UPSID database, which will be subject to the most-studied problem; also that the actual scatterplots are very loose; the correlation may be significant but it’s obviously not the most significant factor.

The Economist article continues:

So, as groups of people ventured ever farther from their African homeland, their phonemic repertoires should have dwindled, just as their genetic ones did.

But that doesn’t follow at all.  It’s certainly not the case that populations out of Africa are smaller than those within it, nor is it guaranteed that African population groups were stable.  (In fact it’s known that they’re not: at least half of Niger-Congo languages are Bantu, and the Bantu languages spread into most of southern Africa in historical times— nearly erasing whatever linguistic diversity existed there from prehistoric times.)

OK, forget population size then.  It looks like all he did was plot # phonemes vs. distance from Africa anyway. But his thesis depends on the idea that number of phonemes decreases over time.  First, how could this be tested by looking at contemporary languages anyway?  He has to be asserting that somehow African languages preserve their phonemes more… why would they?  Do the phonemes get lost in transit?

Do languages really lose phonemes over time?  To evaluate that we have to look at language over time, not over geographic areas.  As just one data point, Latin had about 24 phonemes; French has about 38.  Old English had about 32, modern English around 39.  I’d be really surprised if there were actually a strong tendency to lose phonemes over time.  We’ve been speaking for 50,000 years; if there were such a tendency we should all have languages with minimal inventories, like Rotokas.  I would expect there to be countervailing tendencies that restore the number of phonemes.