Books, culture, fishing, and other games

February 26, 2004

I Hate "Poets" Who Hate America

Random Jottings pointed me to this wonderful essay by Tatiana Menaker, "Hate America Poetry Class," published at Frontpage Magazine. It wasn't new to me in that I had no sense that immigrant Russians (or others) feel this way. I had a friend, the daughter of a Russian-Jewish emmigre, who was involved in those circles, and through her I became very aware of their view of America. The one striking tale she told me was of taking a new emmigre to a grocery store here. He stood stunned, in tears, looking around. When she asked what was wrong he said, "they lied, they lied." The sheer variety and amount of available produce and products was stunning to someone who'd been told capitalism was a failed system. And there were no long queues! He came from long lines for a couple of products, inferior ones at that, to a plethora. This scene was repeated many times. And it was simply the most immediate, most stunning, signifier of the difference. He came from a world of want where he was told he was better off than elsewhere to a world where there was more than he'd dreamed.

And then, as Tatiana tells it, some try to tell him he's worse off. Her anger is directed at the creative writing crew that often (not all, but most) eagerly bashes American as the Western equivalent of The Great Satan. They are all eager as a school of piranhas at the taste of fresh blood to savage America for its relatively minor faults, but they never pay attention to its great virtues or the great faults of the countries they carefully never criticize. It isn't the criticism of American that infuriates the emmigres (or those of us who have spent enough time abroad to be a little different), it's the sheer presumption of judging with no perspective, no standard of comparison. People like Tatiana have died trying to get here, and these sleek, self-satisfied and self-righteous spoiled brats try to tell her she made a mistake: she was better off where she was.


America is a long way from perfect. And it's also a long way ahead of the pack.

That's one issue she takes exception to.

The other is that they call themselves poets.

Posted by dan at 07:33 PM | Comments (0)

February 24, 2004

Barely Settled

A post on The Cranky Professor got me thinking again on how bare my apartment here is. I have, basically, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a large living area with the kitchen and entry hall embedded in that. To designate the kitchen as a separate room would require allowing that rooms can have only two walls. The third wall is the kitchen "bar" thingie. It doesn't block the view, but does serve as a demarcation of the end of kitcheness and the beginning of livingroomness. Much like the shift from tile to carpet does for the entry.

In all of this I have one folding table, one folding chair, and in inflatable bed/matress. All my "real" furniture is in the house in Atlanta.

The very odd thing is that I miss it so little. Sure, the apartment is a bit bare, but I come home, set up my notebook beside my desktop computer, and step through those screens into other worlds. When I'm not working I really do live in virtual worlds except for the bare maintenance required to sustain corporeal life. To some this might seen mighty odd, but in many ways it resembles a life of books, movies, or for that matter, television. We open doors in our minds and step through, and the physical things of the world disappear beyond a mental barrier that is only occasionally broken by the distracting and not-distant-enough nags of bodily needs.

Of course, living with a place this bare is partly possible because so many of the "necessities" are built into the apartment. The kitchen has the suite of stove, oven, microwave, refidgerator, diswasher, sink and cupboards. The bathroom has tub, toilet, sink, washer and dryer. So, to carry on a reasonably comfortable existence, one need only toss some toiletry, towels into the bathroom, some minor cooking gear and eating tools in the kitchen (and food!), set up at least one place to sit and a place to sleep, and hang clothes in the closets.

Oh, guests, you say? I do all my visiting in other worlds.

You can tell I'm single, right?

I do have lots of stuff, though. Even if it was trimmed back drastically in my return to school a few years back. There's nothing like a couple of moves in a short span of time to encourage you to reevaluate what you really want to keep. I do regret giving up a lot of books. I still have a lot (a good 30 boxes), but I am probably going to end up looking for some I sold to used books stores or gave away.

Of all the things in Atlanta, it's the books I most often miss. I like being able to walk over (or dash downstairs) and poke through my shelves looking for a quote or an author's name. Yes, to some degree I can still do this online. It's not the same though. Touching those books activates memories of the experience of them. There is an analogous effect with just reading the words, but it isn't as powerful. The feeling of the keyboard just isn't the same as the feeling, the helf, of the book, the smell of the pages, even the sound of setting one back on the shelf or dropping it on its side.

I know I will end up missing all my fishing gear too. Probably about the time green starts returning to the outside world and it warms up enough that I can smell the Potomac.

And I miss my collection of spices and cooking gear. So I will populate my apartment at some point. I just don't know it will be soon, because I don't need any of that stuff.

I just want it.

Posted by dan at 10:52 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 12, 2004

Young Whippersnapper Old Europe

I mostly try to avoid politics here, at least overt politics. If we would believe modern academic thinking, all acts are inherently political, so by that definition this is a political blog too. But that definition is so broad as to be useless in categorizing anything, which, I'm sure, is the ultimate idea behind it. Categorization leads to comparison, and comparison to judgment, and judgment is bad, right?

That said, this is at least tangentally political by my stricter standards. I do believe in classifying and categorizing and comparing, and even judging.

Somewhere in all the swirl of blogs and news on opinions about the Iraq War I started musing over the assumed moral authority of what Donald Rumsfield (or was it Vice President Cheney?) labeled "Old Europe." This, I found, a very amusing topic on which to think in circles. Many on the anti-war side would have us grant some sort of extra value to the opinions of those countries. Why exactly this is they don't say. They want consensus, and what Chirac says seems to hold especial weight, but no one really comes out and says why. Doing so would certainly open their reasoning (or lack thereof, perhaps) to attack.

Let me play my mental game out here:

If their reasoning goes along the lines of, "Well, they are older civilizations and they have more experience of these things, so we should listen," there is some attraction to that from where I sit and type. I am, after all, a believer in the value of Western Civilization. If the views of Old Europe are those of Western Civilization, as it seems they must be since they were the cradle, or the adolescent playroom, of that civilization, I would indeed be interested in and value that opinion.

But are they? Western Civilization as we think of it is considered to have begun in Greece, at least generally speaking. The Greeks, of course, borrowed and stole ideas from all around the area. They then hammered the ore of those ideas into a finer work, which they passed on to the Romans. And so forth. But do we lend the modern Greeks any special weight in their opinions? Or, for that matter, the Italians, the successors of the Romans? Not ever the Greeks that I can think of, and rarely the Italians.

I'm setting aside, at least for the moment, the whole issue that many of those promoting the idea that we shouldn't act without the advice, and perhaps consent, of Old Europe (via the United Nations, partly, but not entirely) consider Western Civilization no better than any other. They are multi-culturalists of the school that doesn't make value judgments on those sorts of things. Instead, I'm considering whether for the wrong reasons they advocate a position that actually makes sense for someone more conservative.

The "older (and more mature) civilizations" thought is certainly implicit in a lot of the opinion coming across the Atlantic. We, here in the 228-year-old United States of America, after all, are mere children compared to them! Or so they claim.

Is it really the duration of a civilization that matters, though? And can those actually be considered to be ongoing civilizations separate from a greater concept of Western Civilization?" Or is it a matter of government systems?

If duration of civilization is indeed of key importance in judging the opinion of peoples vis-a-vis the actions of the United States, why don't we grant China a lot more importance? Or for that matter Korea? Or Africa, to hear a lot of modern scholars of Africa tell it?

I can only presume that the duration of a civillization isn't really relevant. It's just a handy claim for superiority (not usually required when it's clear something is actually superior) for those who seek moral authority of some sort to add weight to their opinions, probably because on their own they lack weight. (Why else would they need to add more weight?)

If it isn't the duration of civilizations that matters, is it perhaps the duration of their form of governing themselves? This one is equally problematic. The form of government that most parties involved in the debate seem to agree is best is democracy. Okay, their definitions of "democracy" vary, if they can actually articulate one, but I think you would agree this is a fairly safe assumption. Not many of them will profess to wanting something other than democracy, though the forms of government they might wish elected in that fashion may diverge widely.

If we take democracy as the form of government most worthy of respect and consider the seniority of democracies in their durations, that would be us. I mean, the U.S. (if you aren't part of that 'US'). Some might dare argue that France is a close second, sort of a later fraternal twin (the French are big on fraternity, after all). But that ignores the fact that French democracy has not continued unbroken for the whole period since the establishment of the irst republic. What are they on now, the fourth? Or is it the Fourth Reich in Germany? It's hard to keep track, isn't it? Duration is not a strength of European continental governments. The current French government, and the current German government, are mere toddlers when compared to the American democracy. And both were re-established by the American democracy's generosity in the wake of World War II. I dismiss arguments that either of them deserve any continuity with pre-war governments. Neither has any moral authority for that claim. Neither would exist in present for today except for U.S. intevention. (Of course, Franch would disavow any need for any "moral" authority, then claim implicitly that they had the moral authority to judge the U.S., all in the same paragraph, but that's not part of the argument, just an easy aside. I'll grant Germany more sense than that, probably too generously.)

Let's look at the durations of these representative governments as human lifetimes and consider the American democracy as middle-aged. I choose that rather than more "mature" to avoid easy assumption of moral superiority that would inhere from the logic of the "old is more authoritative morally" line of thought. And because, in fact, I hope American democracy is a mere toddler itself, that it will continue growing for many more generations of its citizens.

If American democracy is 40 and has existed unbroken for 228 years, the conversion ratio is 1:5.7. Since the French and German governments date back to the end of World War II, which was 1945, they are 59 years old (give or take a few years, depending on when they actually got elections up and running again). That translates to 10.

If they want to claim American democracy is a babe still, what does that make them? Exactly how much importance do we want to give these people's opinions based on the age of their democracies?

Okay, neither of those produces anything terribly encouraging for arguments that the opinions of the Old Europe democracies matter. We could approach this from the perspective of seniority in the tradition of Western Civilization (again, because some of us believe that Western Civilization is A Good Thing, at least when compared to the alternatives). Doing so presupposes that they remain in the tradition, and it's arguable that they have wandered far out to the fringes already. I could argue that other countries, the United States, for one, are far more centrally positioned in the continuum of that tradition now. As such, that position gives the U.S. the "seniority" of opinion.

Instead, the let the tradition itself hold the moral superiority, let it speak through the voices of those who actually transmitted that tradition down through time to us. Some of those are French and German. Let's listen to Alexis de Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant and others, not to Chirac. Go back to the sources closer to the primary sources, not those derived from the derivatives of derivatives.

The tradition of Western Civilization is so watered down in Old Europe (and in the American academy) today that I expect Asian knock-offs will soon dominate the world market in any case.

Posted by dan at 11:38 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 06, 2004

Thoughts on Why I Game

I got an email from Faceankh, a friend and neighbor in A Tale in the Desert, when I was playing that. Then Hellinar, another key player in our core group of Traders Bank of Egypt, which created and launched the Trade Note, the "TN," there, turned up at Terra Nova discussing that episode in a comment on economic systems. I started replying to each, then decided I'd just blog on it and crosslink and all that. (For the record, I was Narafeti there) So...

I'm still very into SWG, though, I admit, it's mostly because I am very into a certain young lady there. That's the set of blogs I haven't written. I want to talk about how re-entering the very social side of MMPOGs has been from the perspective of someone who has been there and done that and is very jaded, and is very much a loner... or thought he was. Hey, playing a lesbian entertainer, and then falling for one of the players behind one of the entertainer's "girlfriends," and outting myself as a guy, and having the girlfriend not care one bit that the player is male, not female, and having her still want to be with me all the time IC and OOC online is pretty interesting. At least to me. The whole gender scrambling issue is very hard to wrap my arms around (though fun). It's not a new thing for me. My first experience of genderbending in role play goes back more than a decade. Then it was a whim. Now it is a deliberate choice. I am against same-sex marriage, yet I am effectively role playing it (effectively because I refuse to call it "marriage"), it's very educational, and I wonder about the ethics and morality of role-playing something I consider to be immoral and all the issues that arise around it. There's also the whole question of whom to tell when that the player behind this (if I do say so myself) gorgeous and chic and accomplished and... you get the idea... female entertainer is an almost old guy who isn't in it to break anyone's heart or play with their emotions, but who is very interested in all the issues surrounding role-playing annonymously a character that is very much different from himself.

I still think ATITD is a really important game, however. Hellinar's post on the TN and the concept we honed of using a commodities basket to back the notes we issued, and the response that got from another commentor in the same thread, all serve to remind me how much that whole system engaged me and made me really think about the issues of creating a viable currency. A lot of our deliberations should still be accessible on the associated message boards. What was doubly cool for me is the way it crosspolitated with my work in security and privacy. The core issues are the same: how to establish, deserve and maintain trust.

But I don't like ATITD as much as I could because I don't think it offers enough variety of activity. I love the economic model. But there needs to be more sense of conflict (not with players, that's there), more struggle against the environment. Basically, I miss having hunting with its attendant risks as an alternate activity when I'm tired of the crafting/economic end. I may spent 20% of my time "hunting" in SWG, but that 20% is very important to me. It's the catharsis. It's also an important part of the crafting and merchanting that I do there, which gives it more purpose than just killing things for the sheer release of the explosions. The fishing in ATITD is no analog. The fishing in SWG is very much like that in ATITD. Both are interesting for a while, then they are tedious (SWG's is far more tedious). Fishing in both is a more random resource gathering activity than mining or farming. It doesn't have the zing or bang that hunting does.

ATITD also enforces a level of socialness that I don't like. What I mean is, I don't llike being forced to socialize. I want to socialize on my own terms, not because the game requires that I do so to progress. I see socializing and progress as separate things in a game world. And I want them to be that way. It's okay if socializing, or not socializing, may bestow some marginal benefit on certain activities, like in the big hunts or group on group activities, but I don't like being compelled to socialize to attain a goal that is not intuitively connected to social activities. ATITD does enforce this at times. For the truly social player this is no issue because they are already in a posture where it means no change to their play routine. SWG has some activities that require social behavior, but they are all at least loosely logically tied to what is intuitively expected. As a crafter I need to acquire certain components from other crafts, or I am a supply to other crafts (as my tailor is to armorers and architects). To a degree the requirement can be gotten around by acquiring factory schematics instead of the actual components. Getting those requires minimal social contact, but does require some. All of that is fine. Being forced to gang up to accomplish the monthly act missions is fine too, especially since no one has to do those missions to progress from a character development standpoint. As long as I can accomplish what I want in the way of character development without having to get the help of a group, even if it's quite a lot harder solo, I am fine. ATITD precludes soloist from accomplishing some things, ever. For example, to pass certain tests you must be married. While I got around that by having two accounts, I don't like that sort of enforced social side to the game.

And puzzles are not my thing, nor is zero-sum gaming, both of which play a major part in ATITD. I love figuring things out, but I love figuring out systems, not puzzles. Puzzles a logical toys, usually, not logical systems. They don't do anything, they are just there to be "solved." I want to feel I gained something more than a checkmark in a little box when I figure out a system. I then want to use the knowledge I gained to be more efficient and productive.

But lots of people love puzzles, and most people simply do not have the loner tendencies that I do have, so to them these problems I have with ATITD may be features.

A lot of people are still touting the "the game ends when X happens" nature of ATITD as new and unique. It isn't. That is cool within the specific context, that of creating a utopia, but it isn't new by a decade or more, even in multiplayer online gaming. What I continue to find most interesting, and most important, about ATITD is the internal government and economic systems. The latter especially. It isn't that there is no currency, that the game is purely barter based (until players create a means to change that), it's that it allows for a path to real currency, but it does not do any of the work (beyond some accounting and object creation abilities) of actually creating that currency. The logical, trust and market basis of the currency is entirely dependent on the actions of the players. In other words the system deliberately creates a vacuum and gives the players the chance to fill that vacuum as they see fit. There is no real steering. There were many competing ideas of how a workable currency, one not subject to rampant deflation or inflation, could be created. There were many discussions of how to create value in currency. More accurately, there were discussions on how to shift the perception of value from the actual good to the abstract symbol of value. Any player participating, or even follwing, the discussion had to expand their awareness of money as more than bits of metal and scraps of paper into a real system that is dynamic and robust and yet potentially very fragile.

And it spotlighted the whole issue of how you can trust in an environment where no one knows anyone. Oh, my character may know your character, in a sense, but the players behind those characters are generally anonymous and unknowable. Only a fool trusts blindly, so how does one establish trust in that environment? We did, and we do, every day we play these games, yet we don't think about it much. Sometimes it is based on getting to know the player behind the character, but as often it is not. There are many characters in SWG that I trust. This is based on a gradually increasing set of shared experiences and exchanges. In the end trust is based on trusting successfully. And those who do trust successfully are almost always also worthy of trust.

Then there is the issue of meta trust versus direct trust. By meta trust I mean the trust that the player behind the character will have the character act in a way consistent with that character's motivations and character, not necessarily those of the player behind that character. Thus my character can trust that BobTheSlick will try to scam her, while knowing the player (in this hypothetical case) is entirely trustworthly in person from some other out-of-band contact. (And then finding a way to separate my character's anger at being scammed from my own feelings towards the player of BobTheSlick.)

Without intending to I've just listed a lot of reasons why I play these games. I can still call them games, but I don't really feel that that are games while I play them. They are windows into different aspects of reality. Peering into reality (even from reality) from different angles lets us discover things that were either lost in or hidden by the clutter of our normal view. Looking at systems, whether economic, legal, ethical or moral, from a new viewpoint and in a new sandbox can lead to revelations. Will this lead to new systems that operate better than current real-world systems? We can dream. It's unlikely though. What happens all the time, however, is some of us, those that care to observe, question and learn, gain more understanding of how real-world system work and don't work as we see other people play with those systems in new situations where the penalties of failure are not so devastating.

To really learn one's own first language, the "birth language," there is nothing better than to learn a second language, and a third, and so on. Each additional language helps us see new things about our first language we would never otherwise discover because it's just the way things are. It helps us recapture that unquestioningly questioning attitude of childhood on which so much of our learning is based. Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? Adults very rarely ask those questions. Some things are the givens of our "knowledge," and as a result we learn nothing from them. Placing outselves somehow into that state where no question is silly is a large part of re-examinine what's wrong with what we think we know. These games can serve that function. If we allow them to.

Posted by dan at 02:13 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 04, 2004

Dinosaurs and other ineconomies of scale

Work sure can interfere with other things. Writing for work interferes with blogging more than most activities, at least for me. I use up all my "must write" energy on reports that no one reads. Working on a crash plan for a certification and accreditation of a system that is overdue for such by more than three months. And that's secondary to the actual job I was brought in for, though it sits squarely on the critical path for that job too. And the template documents for the process are still in progress, three years after the initial C&A, so I get to make up things somewhat on the fly. Somewhat, I say, because there are laws governing (a dozen or so, mostly vague), OMB and OIG directives and guidance, and various somewhat completed drafts of proposed processes.

"That's what life is like on the bleeding edge, Dan," someone might say. I'd have to fire back, "Um, this is government, it's not the bleeding edge. More like a bleeding rut."

But what I meant to write about is not that. My sister has found this blog, and left a comment, which set me off on an email... not quite a rant, nor a flame, but a mildly warm commentary, which had me in the frame of mind to slap around the situation here a bit before I could settle down. There, I'm okay now. I think.

A follow up to my last post: today's SANS had another note on the ongoing battles between the film & recording industry and the various publishers of peer-to-peer software. The c/net News article reports on the upcoming hearing in a Federal appeals court that may determine the fate of peer-to-peer file-sharing software.

But the implications are much wider. The principle to be ruled on is whether a manufacturer of a new technology (or an existing one) is responsible for the illegal actions of users. If the product has nothing but illegal uses, I can understand (possibly) holding the manufacturer liable. But this case, and others, deal with things that have legal and proper uses.

This case seems to me to have a lot in common with the gun suits of the not distant past (guns were used in crimes, so let's hold the gun manufacturers responsible!) and the newer junk-food suits. Aside from the attitude that those who commit the misdeeds are victims of some commercial conspiracy that compells them to act irresponsibly, improperly and possibly illegally, there's also a very Edwardian (as in the current, as of this moment, Presidential candidate) pragmatism present that says "sue the people that have the money, that's what pays." You can't get much in damages from the 12-year-old who uses file-sharing software to burn her own CD of the latest Brittney squeal. You can get more from a software company that has a real business model, as one commentor notes, and is probably pulling in some real revenues, or at least that has significant capital invested by trusting shareholders.

Another thing the gun suits and the record & film suits have in common: both are attempts to pull a win out of a loss. The gun-control crowd is losing the war (they have no guns, of course they're losing the war!). The evidence is rolling in that societies that have guns have less crime. Some of the past "evidence" of the gun-control lobby that proved the contrary has been shown not only to be false, but to be, as the saying puts it, "damned lies." So the gun-control faction got creative and decided to sue and see if they could convince a limited, and captive, jury pool to enforce their wishes against what is clearly majority wishes.

You do the exercise. Wait, that's my job. The film and record industry have a badly broken business model. They refuse to face up to that. They have been living as middlemen between the artists and consumers, very well too, for decades, nearly a century. Now technology has appeared (in fact, they fought tape recorders and Beta/VHS and other technologies too) that makes their relevance much less. There just isn't as much need for their service as there was in the past, or as they managed to convince us there was. Now, the current generation of consumers is savvy enough to know it IS easier to just grab the product they want, a pure information product that translates nicely into the digital space surrounding the internet, and transfer that onto any other medium they like using off-the-shelf technology they have anyway.

The problem with that, of course, is that it's illegal. But it's too easy and too cost-effective, from the consumer standpoint, and too hard to enforce as a practical matter, so goverment is not anxious to tackle the challenge. It's the drug problem multiplied one hundred times over, except the "harms" to society are very localized. Artists don't get their royalties. Oh, and the fat middlemen, who have always skimped as much as they could manage on those royalties are cut out of the process and their livelihood and existence is put in jeopardy.

So, rather than face reality and changing technology (on which they initially built their businesses and their business models) the film & recording industries are fighting to stop progress by preventing access to certain technologies which can be (and, admittedly, are being) used to accomplish these illegal ends.

Not that our 12-year-old pirate can't buy a DVD, crack the copy protection, burn a dozen copies and give them all to her friends.

The root cause to this issue is that the market has determined there is a need that is not being met. Evolving technology enables individuals to meet their own needs better, so they bypass the existing system. It is obsolete. It must either adapt, or be replaced by a new system.

Netflix took up the challenge. Others are too. They are looking for ways to profit from using the new technologies in such a way that meets a demand.

But the behemoths, the dinosaurs, the "big" companies are fighting to prevent their own evolution. They want things to remain the way they were. They want to monopolize artists, profit on all parts of the artistic and marketing process, charge a price that allows extravagances and permits them control, and deliver in a way and at a time that pleases them and serves their bottom line, not the best interests of their consumers (as the current market situation shows).

We will soon see their bones in museums beside old Rex. They have big teeth, true, but with that brain that wags their tail being in control, they are doomed.

It's not a matter of if, it's simply when.

Posted by dan at 02:24 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack