Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Constitutional Convention

A previous post talked about how we should have a Amendment to the Constitution that would clarify the Second Amendment. I've been thinking about that since then, and I think we should have a Constitutional Convention. It's a process allowed by the Constitution, and it would (ideally) be the people of the United States hashing out our Constitutional problems in a structured way, with new Constitutional Amendments clarifying our current ambiguities.

Things I'd like to see in such a Convention:
  • Universal ban on torture, including rendition for the purposes of torture.
  • Clarification of the powers of the Congress to regulate the President's power as Commander-en-chief.*
  • Defining when a person gains their "personhood", thereby settling the legal issues associated with abortion.**
  • Eliminating most of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, returning the power of electing Senators to the State Legislators.
  • Clarifying the Second Amendment Rights of Americans
  • The Equal Rights Amendment
  • An amendment that mandates an economic study for every new bill that goes through Congress by a newly created Oversight Office (that is politically independent somehow). No bill could be passed until such a review was processed.
  • The previously mentioned Oversight Office would also conduct reviews about the effectiveness of federal programs.***
  • I'm not exactly sure how I'd phrase this one, but something like this: "A bill shall be considered law if it receives the signature or affirmation of a majority of the members of both houses of Congress."****
  • Universal Health-care Amendment, I don't see how Universal Health-care can be constitutional without an Amendment.
  • Eliminating Term Limits, but barring anyone being re-elected to a federal position as an incumbent.*****
  • An amendment to have state districts laid out by an impartial committee, ending Gerrymandering.
  • District of Colombia Voting Rights
  • Ending the absurd notion that Corporations are persons in Constitutional terms.

There's some interesting stuff here. I like the one barring presidential pardons until someone's actually been convicted of a crime. 
The Bricker Amendment is neat too.

*For example, people like Richard Cheney believe that the President has the power to invade, arrest, or assassinate anyone, for any reason, and the Congress's only recourse is to eliminate the budgeting for those projects. Other people would limit the President's military authority to conducting specific invasions in the event of a declaration of war. There's probably a point in between these two positions that isn't insane.

**The Bible doesn't prohibit abortion, FYI.

*** This would sink the reputation of the CAM (Center for Alternative Medicine) and Abstinence Only Education. It would probably undermine other ineffectual programs that I don't know about, since we don't have a board doing this at the moment, certainly not one that is independent in any meaningful sense.

****That is to say, if parliamentary procedure (like the filibuster) was holding a law back, the members of the Senate could just pass the bill around, collect 51 signatures, and register the votes into the Congressional Register, and it would be passed. The House would simply have to sign it in the same way. The affirmation bit is to allow congresspeople to approve laws without actually being physically present at the time. We're in the 21st Century people, have you heard of Telecommuting? This Amendment would also prevent the process where someone can tack an amendment onto an already existing bill to kill it. Any amended bill would have to start over with the signature collecting, but the original bill would still be floating around, ready to be signed.

***** Someone can run for President or Congressperson as many times as they want, they just can't run for the position if they're currently in that position. Obviously, we wouldn't allow people to quit the day before the election, either.

"Passing On" Cost

Republicans like to pretend that all taxes have a magic effect: the cost of the taxes will immediately fall onto the average citizen. An obvious example is gasoline; any sort of "carbon tax"* would just be a tax on the little people, since the gas companies would just up the prices exactly as much as the tax.

This is fiction. Companies don't base prices on the cost of production, companies base prices on the price people are willing to pay.

A good example is the PS3. Sony just announced that it finally costs them less to produce the PS3 than its retail price. That's right, for years, the PS3 has cost Sony more to produce than they've sold it for; every PS3 sold is a "loss" for the company. There are a variety of reasons Sony was willing to have temporary losses for a long term strategy, but one thing is certain: Sony certainly wasn't passing on the expense of production to the consumer.  If they were, the price of the PS3 would go down with the drop in production costs. Instead, the price of the PS3 is based on a long term marketing strategy that has nothing to do with cost of manufacture. People are willing to buy a PS3 at this price, so it will stay at this price until the market goes dry, then they reduce the price again.

A couple years ago now, the price of gasoline doubled. It wasn't sudden, but over the course of a couple months, it went from less than two dollars a gallon to about four dollars a gallon. No where in the world was there an interruption to the production of oil. I believe the price went up because of market speculation based on rumblings from the Middle East that never resolved into anything more disastrous than business as usual. The prices eventually went back down, although they ended up a little higher than when they started, naturally.

For other examples, look at the price of food, which doesn't even track with inflation, since marketers know that people notice increased food prices. In any world where prices reflect the costs, every price would track with inflation, since it's just as hard to produce something regardless of the value of the dollar.**

Another example of inflation craziness is wages. The American median wage has been going down for the past decade or so because of inflation. This includes the artificial wealth generated by the Bush administration, almost all of which went directly to the super rich.

Complete change of subject: Republicans want to eliminate the deficit, reduce taxes, and only make superficial cuts to federal programs while increasing our commitment in the Middle East with a military already stretched beyond its ability. The problem with Washington politics isn't partisanship, it's a complete separation from reality. I wonder if the Romans just became so secure in their self-evident superiority that they became completely divorced from the facts in the same way.

The Tea Party is right that we need a new political force in the United States, but they're almost exactly wrong on what that political force should be. We need a generation of realists willing to do hard work and make real sacrifices, and the Tea Party is even further from reality than our current government.

*A carbon tax is the best way to reduce emissions. It would be simple, raise money for the government, and allow people to continue savings with every reduction of carbon production. "Cap and Trade" is basically a joke, with caps set so high that even if they were strictly enforced, humanity will still be extinct in a century or two.
**Naturally, this isn't precisely true when you're dealing with two kinds of currency that change exchange rates, but that isn't really relevant.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Gun Rights

The Second Amendment of the US Constitution is the only part of our founding document that says why it exists. Sure, the beginning of the Constitution says that the government should "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, and promote the general Welfare*", but it doesn't say which part of the Constitution provides for which part of this mission statement. Is the commerce clause there to "promote the general welfare"? That's how it's taken nowadays, but probably not originally.

This question of "The Founders' Intent"** is a persistent one. People see all sorts of intent throughout the Constitution, but it generally differs based on the person's preconceived notions of what's right and wrong. The Second Amendment is the only exception to this rule: "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed", because "A well regulated Militia, [is] necessary to the security of a free State". Now, the Constitution Does Not say that the right to bear arms is limited to running a militia, so the extremists are closer to correct than the anti-gun folks. I say closer to correct because even the pro-gun extremists generally don't think a person should be able to own a battery of Howitzers, or helicopter gunships, or a private battleship patrolling the Erie Canal. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the Constitution doesn't just allow, it's what the Constitution demands.

The Constitution boldly says that a militia is necessary for freedom. This is an extreme position, there's no mistaking it. They don't mean some sort of Ren Fest organization with muskets or swords, they mean a modern fighting force. There's no point in having a militia that can't fight. Having a fighting military today means heavy weaponry on a scale that the founders could not have imagined. Three guys in a jeep have about as much firepower today as the largest gunships in 1776, if not more. If you concede that the United States is at least relatively free, or that it has been in the past 50 years, then you must conclude that the Second Amendment is factually wrong, since we haven't had a militia in the 1776 sense for at least that time. An intellectually honest people would take the honest approach and have a Constitutional Convention. We'd hash it out in the public forum, and we'd probably make a mess of it, but it probably wouldn't be any worse than it is now. Instead, we're sealed in some bizarre time paradox, where 1700's military thought governs 2010's social thought.

When Thomas Jefferson said things like "The dead shouldn't govern the living", and "there should be a revolution every 20 years", this is exactly what he was afraid of: An increasingly obsolete set of laws inflexibly enforced in a completely different world. I'm not saying we should reinterpret the Second Amendment out of existence, I'm saying we should make laws to suit the world we live in through amending the Second Amendment.

It's what The Founders wanted, after all.

*The fact that the word "Welfare" is in the constitution is why FDR and his policies used the word. Republican's ability to turn the purpose of our government into a dirty word shows that there is no such thing as a liberal media.

** I've always found "The Founders" to be an irritating phrase. It's fine to refer to "The Founders" as a group of people that fought over the creation of the country, but that's it. It is never appropriate to say that "The Founders believed X". Any room that has Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson would have trouble reaching consensus on a resolution on anything. Anyone who wears the cloak of "The Founders' Intent" to mask their actions is a cad.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mass Effect

I've been playing Mass Effect; I got it when it was 5$ on Steam. It's a crazy good game, that I've been enjoying a lot. The only complaint I have so far is the one that everyone has: the parts in the moon buggy are kinda lame. My only real problem with the driving segments are the parts where you have to climb a near vertical wall. It can be very frustrating.

Fighting with the vehicle is pretty funny. It's easy to kill anything at all, with negligible risk. Just poke your head around the corner, fire the cannon, then retreat back around the corner. Repeat until victory.

I had been expecting more stuff to do with the characters, I think the reason I haven't seen much of that is because I've been doing all the side missions, which doesn't advance the central plot at all. I'm working on the central plot now, and it's a very good experience. Having done all the sidequests, I'm crazy levelled up, and combat hasn't been difficult at all. Every once in a while I'll die, and it's always after I've forgotten to save for the past ten minutes. I actually think saving is what prevents me from dying.

To summarize: it's a good game, driving is kinda lame, and remember to quicksave every time you approach anything.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Decimal Time

Have I ever mentioned my support for Decimal Time here on the blog? It's basically the Metric system, but for time. There are only 10 hours in the day, 100 minutes in the hour, and 100 seconds in the minute. The second actually ends up being pretty close to the length of a second now, but the other units would take some getting used to.

There are several benefits: the math involving time would be infinitely easier, (most people don't bother doing any math that requires converting from one unit to another, it's too hard), there'd be no ambiguities about time, (No AM and PM, just 00.00-09.99). The objections are basically the same objections America gives for changing to the regular metric system, plus the problem that the rest of the world doesn't do this one.

Sometimes I wonder how much of our time is lost because of easily fixable problems. Both the metric system and Decimal Time would require an initial investment of manpower, but would make everyone's life easier for the rest of time. I think it would make a good return on investment within ten years. The government needs to spend money on things to prop up the economy right now anyway, so it may as well be something that increases future efficiency.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Does anyone watch House? I'm not a big fan, but I'll sometimes watch it when it's on. Hugh Laurie is a great actor, and does  a good job of selling the absolute nonsense that happens in an average episode. The most common nonsense to happen is the classic, "It could be [disease I've never heard of], start a drastic treatment, then check if that's what the patient has." This system has a 95% chance of making the patient go into seizures or suffer a heart attack, since the initial evaluation is always wrong.

If I got to magically edit the show, I'd cut out all the bits where they're treating the patient of the week. The interaction between the doctors and the patients seems particularly silly, even for house. It seems like every patient is more interesting in judging their doctors than their near-fatal illness.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Game Tactics: Focus: Stick Together

Yesterday I posted my general principle of Tactics: "Focus on destroying the weakest target at any given time." I realize now that that could be shortened to "Focus on destroying the weakest target", and it essentially means the same thing, so let's pretend I said that instead.

Let's look at the first part: Focus.

The marketing campaign for Dungeons and Dragon 4th edition is good advice: "Don't split the party". Someone on their own cannot respond to as many situations as a group, since each player generally only has 2-5 skills, and a character on his own essentially loses if incapacitated in some way. In addition to these obvious benefits of sticking together, there's also today's topic: it allows you to focus damage. If one PC fights one comparable NPC, the result is a crapshoot, barring specific advantages/vulnerabilities. If one PC fights four comparable NPC's, the PC will generally lose. The reverse is also true. So why does a group of PC's generally defeat a group of comparable NPC's? The NPC's are usually bound to attack whichever opponent is nearest, or something along those lines, while the PC's are free to target one specific enemy until it dies*.

Let's have a fight with no luck and few variables. 5 fighters on both sides have 10HP each, and automatically hit for one damage each time they attack. Team Focus has decided to target one opponent until dead, and Team Random is going to attack anyone nearby.

The first round, Team Random and Team Focus do the same amount of damage, and all seems equal. Each fighter in Team Focus has 9 HP, and only one person in Team Random has been damaged, but he's down to 5HP. Round two, the same amount of damage is dealt, but Team Random loses a fighter.  At this point, it's obvious Team Focus will win; they're now doing 5 damage for Team Random's 4.

This example is very simple, and the decision making logic is clear, but this same logic is often ignored in the context of situations with more variables. Right now I'm thinking of TF2 and L4D2.  In both games, the idea of staying together and focusing damage are very important, and in both games, people will just run off on their own.

In L4D2, running off is generally suicide for Infected or Survivors, although sometimes the Survivors will get past all the Infected and do an end-run through the entire map for the win. I think the fact that it's technically possible to win while alone like that is what encourages people to run off on their own. Survivors remember that time they holed up in a corner and killed all those zombies, so they run off into a corner, ignoring the fact that their fellows are so far away that they can't come to help in time.

There's a similar effect in TF2. A player will remember the time they fragged 4 guys as a Demo, so they'll try to solo a Medic, two Soldiers, and a Scout. This does not work. In fact, if a Demo all on his own even sees those people, he's doomed if he does anything other than run for his life. This is something I need to work on: I know the "Correct" way a team should go, and if they're not going that way, I'll go there anyway. This leads to me trying to solo entire teams quite a bit, which generally doesn't work. I've been thinking about imposing a personal rule: Don't go anywhere alone. If you have to go a bad way, it's better than dying alone. This rule would probably result in me "suggesting" that players go the correct way, which would be to the general benefit, if I could be polite about it.

I'm at the end of this post, and I didn't even get to the "Focus" part of the word "Focus". The part about "sticking together" is only the first prerequisite to "Focus", and there's still a lot to talk about. The Team Focus and Team Random is a simple example of how it works, but I'll cover some more examples in the next post.

*There are obviously other reasons why PC's tend to win. Let's ignore them.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Game Tactics

I'm thinking of writing a few essays about Tactics in games. Specifically, the tactics of TF2, L4D2, and D&D. Of course, the tactics in these settings have some application to each other, and for any tactical situation in general.

If I were to summarize tactics for any given situation, I'd simply say, "focus on destroying the weakest target at any given time." It's like Jesus, in reverse. Of course, there's a lot of nuance to unpack in that seemingly simple sentence that I'll get to later.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Problem With Lost

The problem with Lost isn't the bad writing, silly drama, forced love triangle, or all the things designed just to waste time. The problem with Lost is that it's dishonest. Almost every moment of the show implies that there's some revelation that will explain all of this, some answer to all the questions.

Unfortunately, the majority of questions were red herrings, and the answers we do get are "a wizard did it, hundreds of years ago". This is not satisfactory.

One of my largest irritations with the show is the way the release of information is artificially regulated. All new characters are implied to have knowledge beyond our comprehension, only to reveal a few trivial facts before admitting that they, too, know nothing of any interest. Why does everyone act so unbelievably mysterious and secretive when they don't know anything worth hiding? Everyone new is implied to know about the island. They end up knowing that "it's magic". It turns out that that's all there is to know, but that isn't enough information to hide. In fact, it's not really information at all, since magic in Lost is the worst kind of magic, the kind that has no rules whatsoever, that inhibits some things and allows others, for no apparent reason. The sort of magic that gives endless red herrings, but never leads to any answers.*

Even worse than the regulation of information is the fact that no one actually had a reason to be secretive.** There's no conspiracy, no oath of silence, no reason for any of the major players, (Ben, Richard, Jacob, or Flock) to not walk out of the jungle the day of the crash and ask for assistance from our protagonists. The only reason they hid in the jungle all this time is because the show wouldn't be very dramatic if they didn't. I'm not saying drama is bad, I'm saying drama should be justified by the story. It's a standard event in Lost for characters to announce "we don't have time to explain [question X]", then walk through the jungle for hours, presumably unable to talk because they're walking so hard. Giving the show the benefit of the doubt, I always assumed characters didn't want to say anything because they were holding some secret. It turns out the show literally wants us to believe that characters didn't tell each other things for years because they didn't find the time***. They must do a lot of walking on that island.

Another issue is the way character takes a backseat to pointless conflict and forced plot progression. The most common way for a character to decide something is that it's "fate". Maybe it's just me, but "fate" is the most disingenuous way imaginable to justify something. There's no way a character can tell if something should or shouldn't be done using "fate". "Fate" may as well be replaced by "The writers needed to get to the next scene, but couldn't imagine a motive to do something so unreasonable or dangerous to get the characters there." It's funny the writers can't find time to justify anyone's actions, but there's plenty of time for characters to dodge questions about motive, and the increasingly obnoxious flash backs/forwards/sides.

The central lie of Lost is that it's a puzzle, one that can be pieced together by the astute viewer, and one that solves the problems. The Penny Arcade guys talked about this on their podcast, justifying their abandonment of the show. Basically, when the show gives you some data, there's no chance that it actually applies to any of the questions of the show until the last half of the last season. Everything that happens until then is just wandering around with characters who know only slightly more than us. If Lost is a puzzle, it's one where you get only a couple pieces, then it turns out the picture is just "IT WAS ALL MAGIC" in magenta letters. It's a stupid answer, and it's not one that justifies the time that the fans have put into it.

*There's also magic that works outside of the island, (The Numbers****, Walt****, Jacob, etc.) so it's not even clear how the island special in the sense of being magic, since magic is works away from the island too.

**Think about it, there's information people have that they are unwilling to give out at one point, then later they'll just offhandedly mention it because the audience already knows about it. (Recent example, Flocke blandly mentions that he used to be human, when he wasn't even asked in the second to last episode, when in earlier episodes he refused to even answer Jack directly asking "what are you?" There's no reason for him to not answer Jack then volunteer the information later...except the audience knows already.)

***Actually, it could be because in Lost, you're only allowed to ask a question once. I know it wouldn't be very dramatic if people just asked the same question all the time, but there should be a reason why people don't come back to asking the important questions other than dramatic necessity and keeping information from the audience.

**** Although it seems the writers forgot about these, so maybe they don't count.

Assassin's Creed II

Most sequels are a reaction to the original. They can come to that in a lot of different ways: many movie sequels see that the old movie made some money, therefore the new movie should be the same thing, but more. This tendency is often taken to pathetic extremes. (See, Night at the Museum II, where TWO monkeys slap Ben Stiller in the face, instead of one)

Assassin's Creed II isn't so much a reaction to Assassin's Creed, as a reaction to the criticism of Assassin's Creed. There are the "standard" complaints about AC, and ACII has fixed each and every one of them. You no longer have to wait for ten minutes of dialogue after an assassination, and there are much more assassinations to perform, both large and small.

Let's look at a standard complaint about AC: Lepers could grapple you in an attempt to beg money from you. The game left you little options to deal with them, and the grappling is rather incapacitating. My standard reaction was the ol' hidden knife, and the only other reasonable reaction is just running away. From a leper. Not very heroic.

So what did ACII do? There are still NPC's that do nothing but run up to you and bother you. This time they're minstrels carrying lutes. This time, although they obstruct your travel, they have a sense of personal space, and they give you a little room to operate in. More importantly, there are many more ways to interact with NPC's in a non-combat milieu. These minstrels just want some cash, and now you can just throw gold coins into the air, after which they'll leave you alone. If you're feeling mean, (Which I always am, to minstrels), then you can pickpocket them the instant they get near you. Naturally, after being robbed, they walk away. Problem solved.

Review wise, if you liked Assassin's Creed in general, but had a few complaints, ACII has probably solved them. If you don't like climbing, sneaking, and countering attacks, then it's still not going to be any fun. Simply, Assassin's Creed II is the cleaner version of Assassin's Creed.