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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)


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.

Crisis Girl

Posted July 10th, 2007 by Talin

This is a piece of artwork I did for Kate Bridges and her friend as a joke…taking the phrase “drama queen” to a new level…

Crisis Girl

Postscript: One friend mentioned that they didn’t get the joke. I’m hesitant to explain things since jokes are normally ruined by explanation. However, in this case the humor may be too much of an in-joke for general consumption, so I’ll give a little bit of explanation.

The name “crisis girl” was a nickname we gave to someone we knew who was kind of a drama addict – it seemed that their life was a continuing series of leaps from one crisis to another. I think we’ve all known someone at one time or another who couldn’t seem to get their life together. At first we feel sympathy and try to help, but after the Nth repetition we just get tired of it.

But “Crisis Girl” also sounds like the name of a comic superheroine.

So we envisioned a comic heroine who didn’t have any super powers – what was “special” about her was that lots of bad stuff happens to her all the time and she emotes about it a lot. (Sort of like “Mr. Furious” from Mystery Men.) So Crisis Girl has to handle a whole stack of increasingly trivial disasters, except that she’s too distracted to handle any of them because her dog has run away and she has to chase after it.

The reason I drew this is because the person we were making fun of heard about our little nickname, and said that we had to draw up a actual comic for it. So I did.


Posted June 30th, 2007 by Talin

One of the guiding principles of my political philosophy is a concept which I will call metapluralism, meaning “beyond pluralism”.

Pluralism is the political or philisopical stance that there is no “one true way”, and that the best outcome can only be gained through the interaction of competing ideas or organizations, depending on whether you are speaking of political pluralism (competition between interest groups) or philisophical pluralism (competition between theories.) James Madison was one of the earliest proponents of a pluralistic society. He felt that having many different factions rather than just a few would prevent destructive infighting.

True pluralism requires that these competing entities are able to coexist without attempting to destroy or harm one another – it requires a tolerance for other ideas and ways, and an intolerance for intolerance.

My own view is that it is necessary to take the idea of pluralism one step farther, and have competition between different pluralistic systems which all coexist in the same space – moreover, it may be that some of these “systems” are more pluralistic than others.

As an example, the free market is a pluralistic economy, in which there is no clear “winner” possessing an absolute formula for success. Some would say, then, that even though within the market there is no “one true way”, the idea of the market as a whole is the “true way” that we should follow.

I feel instead that the “system” of the market should compete with other, non-market systems, and there should be a great many such systems which all coexist are are accessible to everyone. So we have a free-market system, a regulatory system maintained by government, a system of non-profit and non-governmental organizations, a judicial system, an academic system, a system of competing religions and other worldviews, and so on.

Thus, in a capitalistic free-market system, even though the participants of the market may be diverse and distinct entities with their own unique characteristics, the logic of the market often constrains them to be have in a similar way. Once they step outside the pressures of the market, however, those contraints are lifted, and others put in their place, which means that the characteristic behavior will be very different. A typical businessman will be like other businessmen in that he is concerned about cash flow and profits, whereas a typical scientist will be concerned about citations and journals.

So in short, there is no one true system, let alone one true entity within any system.

Code Monkey

Posted June 2nd, 2007 by Talin

A song about a software developer and his secret yearnings.

Kudos to Mark Iennaco for sending me this link. I love it!