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Randomness

Posted April 5th, 2009 by Talin

Random thoughts for the day:

  • The thing’s the play!
  • Never shout ‘theatre’ in a crowded fire.
  • Is this a dagger I see before me, or are you just glad to see me?
  • Like any well-mannered Darwinist, Miss Dawn always put the horse before the cart - usually several million years before, if carbon dating was to be relied upon.

My take on unions

Posted October 13th, 2008 by Talin

Although philisophically I agree with the goal of improving working conditions and wages, my personal experiences with unions have been mostly negative. As a result, my stance towards unionization is more nuanced than simple “pro” or “con”.

The one-sentance executive summary of my position is: “Unions are a net benefit when labor is a commodity, and a net cost when labor is a specialty.”

To make sense of this, I need to examine what is a union, and what is a commodity.

  • A commodity is a kind of good in which all units are more or less interchangeable. Copper is a commodity - there’s no fundamental difference between copper mined in Australia and copper mined in the US.
  • A union is most fundamentally a cartel of labor. That is, it is an agreement by workers not to undercut each other on the price of their labor.

I use the term “commodity labor” to mean jobs in which workers are more or less interchangeable. This may mean that the work is simple enough that anyone can do it - like for example, washing dishes. Or it may mean that the techniques involved are highly standardized and legislated, so that there is little difference between workers. An example of this would be electricians and plumbers.

Specialty labor, on the other hand, is where each worker has a unique skill set that is not easily replaced. This is true in almost any creative field; The one I am most familiar with is software engineering.

For commodity laborers, unions provide an important benefit of maintaining a decent wage. Normally, in an unrestricted free market, the suppliers of a commodity will underbid each other until the price of the commodity drops to just above its “replacement cost”, i.e. the cost to actually produce the commodity. For labor, the replacement cost is called “starvation wages” - the lowest possible that you can pay someone and still keep them alive and producing children. Before the development of unions, such working conditions were common.

Unions are at their most powerful when they have a means to prevent independent workers from undercutting the union price, when they in effect have a monopoly on labor. This is a classic prisoner’s dilemma - an unemployed individual might gain a temporary advantage by agreeing to reduced wages, but he is better off if no one else does the same.

In a specialty labor market, things are quite different. For one thing, workers aren’t competing with each other directly on price, since workers aren’t as interchangeable. If I need someone to work on Windows device drivers, I not only need to find someone who knows about that specific application domain, I need to decide how much I want to pay vs. the skill level I am likely to get - that is, I can get someone really good and pay a lot for it, or I can get someone not quite as good and pay less.

A programmer who is highly skilled at these tasks has a great deal of bargaining power and can command high wages. They have no need for a cartel to increase their bargaining power, and in fact such a cartel would merely act as a leveler. Even a mediocre engineer with a poor track record, who doesn’t have quite as much bargaining power, still has a great deal, and they can imagine that someday they might have more. As a result, they are unlikely to want to enter into a system where wages are negotiated collectively rather than individually.

Specialty labor markets are also where the negative effects of unions are most apparent, especially when the union is in a monopoly position. Unions can be a drag on innovation and creativity in a number of important ways, such as by requiring that promotions be based on seniority rather than pure merit. They also create barriers to entry (such as the exorbitant fees required for joining some unions) which might drive away impoverished but enterprising young workers.

A young, inexperienced worker with new ideas who is not weighed down by preconceived notions might fare better in a non-union environment, especially if they are in an industry in which individual creativity and enterprise are well rewarded.

There’s no constructive theory of fun

Posted October 13th, 2008 by Talin

This is sort of a follow-up to my earlier post about game designers.

I get a lot of questions from people about the game development process. One question that comes up a lot is why so many games suck, even ones that have huge budgets and development teams. By “suck” I mean that while many games are technically and visually impressive, they leave a lot to be desired in the “fun” department.

The answer I give is this:

There’s no way to tell how much fun a game is going to be until you’ve actually built it.

By “built” I don’t mean finished - I mean that the game engine and rules are in a sufficiently developed state that the game is actually playable.

Now, I am sure that some of the readers out there aren’t going to accept this assertion of mine without some justification, so here is a more detailed set of arguments:

We do have a number of scientific theories about fun, but those theories are non-constructive. In mathematics, a non-constructive proof tells you that something exists, but not how to find it. There are formal methods that can be used to evaluate a game design; There are rules of thumb that can tell you what characteristics a good design ought to have; But none of these techniques can actually generate a new game design, they can only critique a design that already exists. And even these formal techniques can produce false positives.

What about non-formal, intuition-based methods? As I pointed out in my earlier post, there is a big difference between having fun and imagining having fun. I feel that it is difficult to estimate how much fun a new experience will be merely through imagination. The process of dreaming up a new game experience is in itself fun, and that feeling of fun gets confused with the fun of actually playing the game.

The most successful game companies - the ones that are consistently able to come up designs that are both novel and fun - are those who are willing to iterate on a design after the game engine has been built. In other words, they first build the engine, then collect empirical evidence on how enjoyable the game is (though testing and user studies), update the design based on that research, and repeat the process until the gameplay is of sufficiently high quality.

Note that this tends to make life hard for game programmers. In most parts of the software engineering universe, a programmer can expect (or at least hope) to get a detailed requirements document specifying what actually needs to get built. Once the software has been verified to meet all of those requirements, the job is basically done.

With game programmers, however, the problem is you don’t really know what needs to get built until you’ve built it. It means that there is an irreducible element of trial and error in the process of building a game. I know from personal experience that it can be frustrating having to re-implement the same game feature 20 times because the designer keeps “changing her mind”. It may even seem like a Dilbert-esque nightmare parody of the software development process. But at the same time, my frustration was tempered by the knowledge that the designer is just as much of a seeker and explorer as I am, and we both have the same goal in mind, which is to produce the best game possible.

Of course, the safest way to create a game is to use a game design that’s already been proven to be fun. This is why you see so many games that are clones of each other.

Deleted accounts

Posted September 26th, 2008 by Talin

I upgraded to the latest version of WordPress, and in the process I deleted all user accounts that had 0 postings. This wasn’t an accident - approximately 95% of the accounts were bogus, created by spambots. I’m hoping to get some better security to cut down on the number of bogus accounts being created.

If your account got deleted, I apologize for the inconvenience.

Global Warming: Blessing in disguise?

Posted August 24th, 2008 by Talin

A contrarian rant, to be taken with a grain of salt:

History tells us that when a civilization runs out of some critical resource, the result is usually the collapse of that civilization. Only the most adept and flexible civilizations can avoid this fate.

Our civilization’s critical resource is petroleum, and it is going to run out some day. Not all at once - rather, what will happen is that oil will become increasingly scarce as the years go by, with the price per barrel rising higher and higher each year. Many experts have said that if we have not already reached “peak oil” - the historical moment of maximum oil production, followed by a downward slope - that we are very close to it. The nations of the world - many of which have an increasing demand for oil - will find themselves squabbling over slices of an ever-decreasing pie.

This will no doubt lead to increasing international tensions, and probably war. Whether or not you think that the current US involvement in the Middle East is motivated by oil, the fact is that as the price of oil increases, the possibility of war becomes ever more likely. Especially given the relationship between oil and food prices, you can well imagine that a world leader, faced with a crashing economy and a hungry populace, might choose a military solution.

Everyone alive today has been blessed with the fact that they are living in a golden age - an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Although we have a tendency to focus on the miseries of current events, the fact is that world has been getting steadily better (with occasional fits and starts) for the last 700 years or so.

But all of that could come crashing down if we run out of oil. 

But what about alternatives - Nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, and so on? The question is how quickly we can make the transition. National infrastructures aren’t built in a day, and if recent history is any guide, they aren’t built in a decade either.

Take for example the auto companies response to higher gasoline prices: They knew that it was coming, yet they continued to maintain production lines for gas-guzzling SUVs until the very last possible moment, when it became clear that they simply could not sell them any more. And now they are frantically trying to retool to build hybrids, but they can’t switch over quickly enough.

There’s no reason to believe that we as a society would be any less short-sighted. We would continue to ignore the problem until we absolutely had to do something about it - and by then it would be too late.

But suppose - what if there were another factor in the equation - something that would create a powerful incentive to reduce our use of oil before became scarce? Something that would motivate us to stay ahead of the increasing price curve, so that instead of reducing supply, it would reduce demand? It would need to be a strong motivation, on the order of a threat to our survival and prosperity, otherwise we would (again) dismiss and ignore it.

I think by now you can see what I am (ahem) driving at.

Google Reader Shared Items

Posted May 31st, 2008 by Talin

You may have noticed the lack of content being posted here. However, that doesn’t mean I have been idle - I’ve been doing most of my blogging via Google Reader using the “shared items” feature. Basically, this allows you (with a single click) to mark articles for sharing as you go through the process of reading them. You can think of this as “the web, as filtered by Talin”.

Here’s the link.

I have been invited to become a member of WHAT…???

Posted October 17th, 2007 by Talin

This is, I think, the weirdest piece of unsolicited mail that I have ever received:

Valinho de Fatima # 463 Recta da Levandeira
2495-691 Fátima Cadaval -
5090-053 Murça

(my email address omitted)

Honorable

It is with great honor and pleasure that I the President and Founder of the
only Portuguese Association of Exorcists located in Fatima, Portugal, wish
to introduce to you our goals and objectives in anticipation of your future
collaboration with our organization.

In order to familiarize you with the founder I wish to offer you the
following curriculum vitae information which will clearly shows my lifelong
dedication to this study and cause.

Your past and present interest in this area is of mutual interest and more
so to our organization as it is composed of only international professionals
in the area and study of Exorcisms.

As a roman Catholic Priest, ordained in the Jesuit Seminary I have now
seeked to establish a society where all members would assist and
collaborate towards a common goal of continuing study and practicing of
this ritual.
Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Miracle of Science

Posted September 3rd, 2007 by Talin

I accidentally stumbled on A Miracle of Science, a very well written web comic about mad science, robots, and true love. Lots of cool ideas to ponder.

In this future, “mad scientist” is a recognized and treatable psychological disorder, which runs through a progression of increasingly severe symptoms. Our hero is an interplanetary cop whose specialty is tracking down and arresting mad scientists so that they can be properly rehabilitated. He’s partnered with a beautiful Martian psychologist, who also happens to be a member of the Martian planetary hive-mind. Needless to say, there’s a fair bit of tension as the two learn to work together on this case…

Definately one of those “can’t put it down” stories.

Speech Accent Archive

Posted August 25th, 2007 by Talin

The Speech Accent Archive contains audio recordings from hundreds of native speakers around the world, reading the same passage of English text. I’ve always been fascinated by accents, and this site satisfies one of my long-standing curiousities.

The speech accent archive uniformly presents a large set of speech samples from a variety of language backgrounds. Native and non-native speakers of English read the same paragraph and are carefully transcribed. The archive is used by people who wish to compare and analyze the accents of different English speakers.

Unconscious Conspiracies

Posted August 16th, 2007 by Talin

I’ve been meaning to write about this idea for a while, but a recent posting on Boing Boing reminded me of it again.

I believe that most so-called “conspiracies” are in fact subconscious conspiracies - meaning that one can be a member of a conspiracy without actually knowing it.

A subconscious conspiracy behaves much like a conscious one - that is, you have some group of individuals who share a covert agenda, one that would be considered detrimental or even diabolical by the general public. There are secret meetings, cover-ups, and a web of insidious influence. And yet, no one in the group realizes that this is going on.

One might ask how such things can go on without the participants being aware of what they are doing? As I often say, “never dismiss human dismissiveness”. It’s easy to convince yourself that what you are doing is “just natural”, that there’s nothing special or untoward about your actions.

Here’s how subconscious conspiracies work: Say you have a group of people in power - goverment officials or perhaps a corporate board of directors. Say also that these individuals are tightly-knit, with a common history and shared goals. Now, also suppose that this group is somewhat insular, isolated from the outside by a layer of protection (by this I mean things like office assistants, press secretaries, and others who mediate the discourse between members of this group and those outside the group - what Heinlein called flappers.) What happens is that these individual eventually, and inevitably, take on a cult-like aspect.

I’ve personally seen this kind of groupthink at work: What ends up happening is that, for any given member of the group, the vast majority of their discourse is with other members of the group. A given factoid (by which I mean literally “having the form of a fact”, which is implied by the suffix -oid) will bounce from one member to another, until everyone ends up believing it, irregardless of its actual truth. “We have the best product in the industry!” says the CEO. And when you ask the CEO why he believes this is true, he replies that it’s because the engineering VP assures him that this is true; And when you ask the same question to the engineering VP, he’ll say that it’s because the CEO says it’s true. And so on.

In a subconscious conspiracy, everyone believes that they are in fact working for the public interest - it’s just that their view of the public interest is completely skewed beyond all recognition.

And of course, when they try to communicate with people who aren’t in the group, there’s a disconnect - they sense that these outsiders aren’t aligned with their goals, and they begin to percieve them as a threat. And of course, once the human threat response enters the picture, collective insanity is not far behind. They begin to exclude outsiders and other people who “wouldn’t understand” from their circle; their thoughts turn to how they can discredit and undermine their enemies - all in the cause of what’s good and righteous, of course.

The most important thing to understand about subconscious conspiracies, however, is that they are merely symptoms of a deeper cause. And as usual with symptomatic maladies, merely treating the symptoms does no good. With a regular, conscious conspiracy, all that you need to is round up the ring leaders and toss them in jail. But with a symptomatic conspiracy, the same conditions that created the conspiracy will simply continue to create new conspiracies to replace the old one.