I was certain I had written about this before, but apparently I have not. I recently finished reading Patrick Allitt's The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities throughout American History. It was an educational book, adding context to many historical American figures who were of factions that might be called conservative. The book was slightly embarassing to read on the bus, but it was very well written, and it dealt well with a complex topic. Its coverage of "what is conservative" was more that of a light set of intuitions and way of reacting to potential changes than a set of principles, which is the only way to cover his topic over as many years as he did - I accept the conclusion that it's a stretch to call Libertarians or Neoconservatives proper conservatives, even if they were present, in earlier forms, in the William F Buckley consensus - the particular political philosophies represented by our two original political parties (Federalist and Democratic-Republicans) are now both practically extinct, although attitudes towards change and new ideas versus tradition continue to inspire society towards nonsingular ends (speaking of which, given a time machine and the ability to remove people from history, Buckley gets added to the list of people I'd remove if I could, alongside Yeshua ben Yosef, Stalin, and the rest of the gallery). It's particularly interesting (and topical) to see the coverage of Lincoln, who was a good deal less virtuous (and more conservative) than he has recently been portrayed. One topic underhandled in the book is the evolution of American Libertarianism - tracing it to a post-civil-war melding of moderate southern conservativism with classical liberalism is a fair hypothesis, but I wonder if there's more to it than the few authors he pointed out (Nozick, Rand) solidifying the intuitions and "creating a thing" for people to gather around. Anyhow, good book, worth reading (occasionally snarky towards particular factions), should be just as readable by conservatives and liberals.
Also, recently finished with 「Phantom Brave」, a turn-based map-RPG by Nippon Ichi (which also gave us Disgaea). Thoughts:Some years back a former employer (now friend-in-another-city, also one of the most brilliant people I've met in my life) pointed me at Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, suggesting I might like it. It turned out to be a very good game, interesting in that it defined a new genre of game I had not played before. Later learned about Disgaea, which was pretty distinct but clearly in the genre. Unfortunately, there are a lot of games in the genre that I can't play (lack a Playstation) - it seems that the games I can play are effectively hand-me-downs - Final Fantasy Tactics came out first for the playstation, and the port to the Nintendo DS was an enhanced remake. Likewise, Disgaea came out many years before on the playstation and is part of a family of games.. this is probably ok because I have lots of games and any of these could easily consume most of my life (no really active friendships, no significant other, etc means my time is a little too available for this). Interesting areas of difference between the games:
- FFTA has a grid, with floors of varying height, jump height can stop a unit from moving between some neighbouring tiles, movement is a reasonably big deal, and some variation in terrain types (if you're in water, you might have trouble with XXX).
- Disgaea also has a grid, floors of varying height, etc. Movement is a very big deal. Terrain type differences are less used in normal play, but when they are used they have more pronounced effects. Missing spaces in the grid, when present, often represent a place where units might drop out of battle if they fall (be careful!)
- Phantom Brave is free-roaming, with movement happening in 360°. If you don't get a move right, you can rewind the move attempt and try it again, and sometimes falling down small ledges or taking a different path can help you move further. Ice-skating is awesome - on sufficiently slippery ground you can cross the whole map with a series of small moves and coasting (movement allowance is really more "fuel" than "time" based), and if you mess it up, rewind and try skating again. Missing spaces on the grid, like in disgaea, can lead a unit to fall out of battle, but if you slide off yourself you usually will just lose some movement (being pushed off is usually fatal). Ground effects are mostly limited to different bounciness/slipperyness and occasional temporary no-entry.
- FFTA: You have some tiles on which you can place units initially, and they then wander about in battle to deal with foes or heal allies.
- Disgaea: There's an entry portal, from which your units can all stream forth over the battle (there is a maximum of how many can be used per battle, but you usually won't hit it). If you weaken foes enough, you can toss them intro the entry portal and possibly capture them (whereby they join your party for future fights). If they're a boss or not weakened enough, they'll destroy the entry portal instead.
- Phantom Brave: The main character Marona can temporarily transform objects on the battlefield into your party members. The stats of the item affect the stats of the person replacing it, and they turn back into an item after a (character dependent) number of turns have passed. If you summon a mage, don't bother saving its MP - mages don't have a long enough duration to make thriftiness pay. Sometimes characters capture the item they were transformed into as they leave battle (some characters are better at this than others). If Marona dies, you had better hurry up and beat the battle before everyone turns back into objects, because she's needed to summon more people.
- FFTA: A moderate set of objects, each with differing stats. Some teach skills to certain classes who equip them. Many bits of gear are only usable by some classes. While there's a fair set of different objects, every object with a given name is the same.
- Disgaea: A very large set of objects, each with differing stats. The type of an object (e.g. lance, knife) allows a character to learn and use type-specific skills, and generally any class can use any bit of gear (although the classes have preferred weapons and different stats they should maximise). Items also have levels, which impact how effective they are, and rarity, which can act as a small extra boost. You can level up an item by going into its "item dungeon", fighting increasingly tough foes that are "inside" the weapon to improve its stats. You can also manage the "population" of items to fine-tune their abilities even more, eventually moving people you capture in one bit of gear into other bits.
- Phantom Brave: An incredibly large set of objects, each with differing stats. Items have inherent skills (some need to be awakened by blacksmiths using a type of spendable XP called mana), their own XP, levels, and stats which impact their wielder. Fusionists (a character class) can merge items to mix or improve their stats. They can also merge items into people or people into items, transferring classes and stats as a group to/from items at the cost of one disappearing. It's very complex, but surprisingly balanced and pretty awesome. Characters only use one item at a time (it's a weapon!) - no variety of equipment slots.
- FFTA: There's a plot, and it's kinda neat. Very little humour, not very deep.
- Disgaea: There's a plot, but it's mainly comic relief. It's incredibly funny, but not too deep. Everything is adorable and very snide (yes yes a "Horse Wiener" is a powerful weapon). Near the end of the game it gets a bit more serious.
- Phantom Brave: There's a very nice plot, fairly serious, at times sad, at times very dark, very well done.
- FFTA: The plot wasn't a huge deal in the game, but by the time you finish with it you've probably maxed out everything and things arn't that interesting anymore. There's always more repetitions of the quests if you like. Replay value is reasonably high if you come back to it, but interestingness is limited to about the amount of time it'd take you to beat the game.
- Disgaea: If you like you can spend a lot of time after the main part of the game levelling up, doing randomly generated dungeons, and exploring the extra content. It can still be entertaining for a looong time, with a slow drop-off rate
- Phantom Brave: As far as I can tell, mostly the same with Disgaea - random dungeons where each foe could whallop the final boss, extra content, etc. You'll probably miss the plot though.
- FFTA: The classes are pretty much what they are, each has its skills, and any given race can mix a primary class with some skills from another class it's learned. There are melee and ranged physical attacks, spells (most of which are elemental, many foes have weaknesses), and judges will occasionally ban some of these for some fights.
- Disgaea: Most attacks lack an element, but some don't, and many foes have weaknesses. Typically spells use the int stat and attacks use the str stat.
- Phantom Brave: There is a lot of variety in attacks, which have different types, different elements, and different stats they're boosted by (healers can actually be awesome attackers if they use weapons that have or fuse onto themselves "resistance"-based attacks, while characters with a crazy speed stat are well-matched with speed-based attacks - there are a lot of stats, and all this variety makes the game very complex. Oh! and characters have distinct spell point pools for each attack type, so your character might tire of healing but still have plenty of pep for plant-type spells).
Conversations about "popular economics" : difficult. It's too easy for people to claim that all the problems in the world are because people are not following their preferred model - economic woes are thus portrayed by socialists as being inherent in capitalism, by lassiez-faire boosters as being because of restrictions on the free market, by god-boosters by offending god, and similar. Slightly closer to the mainstream, it is not obvious whether Keynesian/neoclassical economics or Austrian economics is a stronger model. Austrian economics sadly has more geek cred, as it is reasonably simple for non-economists to understand, supports "being an individualist schmuck", and has the support of some terrible-but-popular social forces like Cato. This doesn't mean it's wrong (or right). To decide what economic model to use, the body public is generally left in the uncomfortable position of trusting academes - normally this is not hard because theories outside the academic consensus are provably wrong/absurd with only moderate digging (the effectiveness of vaccines, truth of evolution, invalidity of horoscopes - any reasonably educated person won't have to work hard to be comfortable with these conclusions - the competing theories exist and have some cultural traction, but that traction is almost nonexistent among educated folk). Economics is different - the Austrian "common sense" doesn't fall apart so easily to investigation (nor does Keynesian economics). Economics is unusual as a discipline in that it floats somewhere between being normative and empiricist, and the philosophies and assumptions from these schools presumably were made by people with some familiarity with human nature and game theory who were not very empirical, who still wanted to make frameworks that grossly fit observed behaviour but also had a kind of "self-evident" flavour. Would data deflate one (or both) of these schools? What kind of data, and how could we collect it? I note that I have not learned the full flavour of either of the schools, and use instead a (very underdeveloped and probably not worth sharing) resource-and-time-and-motivation focused economic framework that's probably worse than even the (generally highly inadequate) Marxian economics (which I've spent some time studying and then rejected). I note that even were we to accept Austrian economics as a scientific model, we may (and should!) choose to both "depart from efficiency" and to "coerce" in order to serve some values other than those they emphasise. (I note as well that we can easily dismiss the low-level underpinnings of some flavours of Austrian economics - Praxology in particular is ridiculously alien to human nature and a laughably "human nature is or should be alignable to my notion of logic/maths" - but this does not necessarily impact their larger theories)
2009 closing ceremonies have begun (Susan Boyle has got to be the ugliest, creepiest musician .. well, apart possibly from Michael Jackson, to have become so popular in recent memory). My first hope for 2010 is that CMU will finally STFU about Pausch (they haven't yet... arggghh). More of this kind of thought later.
About a week ago I bought almost $100 of mid-range wines for the end of the year (overkill, yes, given that I haven't been at anything social for new year's for many years, but it felt like I was making something happen). Given the terrible migraines dipping my toe into that water has given, I'm not sure if I actually want to drink it. Low alcohol tolerance sucks (although maybe it's worth it for the Champagne Champagne).
The other evening I happened to run into a neighbourhood guy who used to be an MD - had a conversation(!) about building a large expert system to help doctors organise the diagnostic process - rough sketch of the process, visualisations, how to fill in the data, etc. It seems odd that people haven't done this already - new "data driven doctors" .. although given cultural resistance maybe it's not *that* strange. Unmet needs should hopefully lead to innovation soon.
Political journal 「Far Eastern Affairs」 continues to be interesting - development of eastern Russia through Russian-Chinese cooperation, cultural and work interactions are fascinating as ever, slowly waking giant. Also it's interesting hearing about China's form of capitalism - not as hampered by lassiez-faire ideaology as our form is. Perhaps that would be enough to counter the high levels of corruption in China.
Downside of catsitting: giving back the cat. Wasn't necessarily so bad with Jayne (particularly as she made my cats sick), but Callisti is a wonderful cat that I'll miss (and possibly miss-spell).
Finally, some years ago I read in some documentation that control-backslash sends processes a SIGQUIT just as control-c sends a SIGINT. It's interesting that this signal is almost always caught and ignored in modern software - it's become one of those facilities that nobody uses. I wonder why.