Friday, January 31, 2014

Watching the Watchers: Does Capitalism Lead to Wealth Inequality

In a New York Times op-ed talking about the book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the following quote is used to describe the premise: "Capitalism, according to Piketty, confronts both modern and modernizing countries with a dilemma: entrepreneurs become increasingly dominant over those who own only their own labor." The op-ed goes on to quote and economist calling it a watershed in economic thinking, state that conservatives/libertarians will find it antithetical, and liberals find it just too depressing.

I must not be very good at economics, because I read the premise and reacted, "Well, duh!"

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Brightshadow Memos: Digger Spawn

Certainly sir, I am happy to provide more background. In recent years, the proliferation of the Digger (or Spawn of the Digger, sources vary) summoning ritual continues to frustrate efforts to suppress it. The widespread appearances of sinkholes only increased when a form of the ritual appeared on the internet several years ago. While most traces have been subsequently removed from the public network, occurrences continue. While as many or more summonings occur due to ignorance or pranks as can be attributed to malicious intent, our agents have an extremely difficult time determining which is which after the fact. I continue to believe that our best bet is to actively track down the true Digger cultists and unravel their networks, as well as focusing on removal of the summoning ritual from the public eye whenever possible.

In reference to your inquiry about a worst-case scenario, the obvious fear would be the focused use of Diggers to destroy infrastructure. The most famous example is the destruction of the walls of Jericho described in Joshua 6. We believe the odds of such a targeted attack are essentially non-existent at this time as the organized cult cells remain too small. The use of the Ark of the Covenant in the description also implies such a controlled effort required channeling enormous amounts of energy. In any case, it is our belief that the greater threat at the moment remains the random element.

Digger Spawn can be used in a variety of ways to provide surprise obstacles, introduce an underground venue, or just as another world-ending cult to hunt down. Here are a few ideas in adapting them for different game types:

  • Fantasy: Diggers are creatures the size of a bull (or bull elephant if you prefer) with a gaping maw filled with endlessly grinding teeth. Their appearance can be altered to suit the environment, but they should at minimum have tough (armor-like) skin and be able to burrow quickly through soil (and slowly through rock if you prefer). Their preferred attack method is to dig out a well-traveled area and wait for something to trigger the surface collapse, attacking after the collapse when the target is stunned and/or injured.
  • Lovecraftian: Digger spawn consist of the gaping maw as above, but dozens or hundreds of feet wide, attached to a tough tentacle that leads further into the ground.  Killing the thing always severs the tentacle, and the ground always collapses as the uncut remainder withdraws. What might be found attached to the other end of the tentacles is unknown, as is the vastness of the thing's appetite, and what must be done to sate it should someone be foolish enough to summon it.
  • Modern: Diggers in a modern setting are perhaps better played as surprise traps or a threat to subways, bridge supports, and other infrastructure. They/it may be almost impossible to catch, so the emphasis becomes preventing it from being summoned in the first place.
  • Pulp/B-movie: You didn't think I would write this without mentioning the movie Tremors did you?
  • Substitute whirlpools for sinkholes and you have Children of Charybdis and their corresponding cult for your seaborne or mythic game.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "The Illusion of Truth" by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "There's something far worse than the Shadows: reporters."
  • "Commander. Did you threaten to grab this man by the collar and throw him out an airlock?" "Yes, I did." "I'm shocked. Shocked and dismayed. I'd remind you we are short on supplies here. We can't afford to take perfectly good clothing and throw it out into space. Always take the jacked off first. I told you that before. Sorry, she meant to say stripped naked and thrown out an airlock. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused."
  • "We have an open door policy." "And an open airlock policy." "Commander." "Sorry."
  • "The objective journalist is one of those great myths you read about like a griffon, or a phoenix, or an honest politician."
  • "The heart does as the heart does."
This episode is a wonderful piece of work, and was a heck of a gut punch the first time I saw it.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "Epiphanies" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "Trouble will come in its own time, it always does. Give me today and I will be happy."
  • "I always say, when you reduce a family tree to a family bush, you just can't hide as much beneath it."
  • "I'm thinking... pastels."
  • "I have seen what power does, and I have seen what power costs. The one is never equal to the other."
  • "The only reason that guy is still alive is that half the time I don't know what the hell he's talking about. The other half, I wish I didn't."
  • "I assume my usual quarters in the brig are available. I've grown so attached to the place."
  • "Upset? I'm delirious with joy! It proves that if you confront the universe with good intentions in your heart, it will reflect that and reward your intent. Usually."
  • "Geeze, talk about delusions of adequacy."

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Do What You Love?

"[Do What You Love] is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, presumably it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace."
A thought-provoking perspective. And perhaps a warning about confusing aphorism and ideology (or perhaps ideal and ideology).

Bookworming: The Demolished Man

The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester, ***
Here I revisit a classic of science fiction that I didn't care for when I was younger. Now, I still have mixed feelings about it, but I can appreciate the art of the thing much more. The Demolished Man is a sci-fi take on the police procedural, starting off mostly from the perspective of the antagonist and switching more and more to the protagonist as the story unfolds. The hook is a great one: how do you get away with murder when people can read your thoughts. Unfortunately, the plot doesn't really hang on that thread. What we get instead is a somewhat disjointed story that relies a little too much on the psychology of the characters to ever form an intelligible whole. Bester doesn't cheat, all the parts of the mystery are there in front of you, but the ultimate resolution, as you might expect in a world of telepaths, doesn't depend on the procedural aspects. That and the shifting perspective leaves the story feeling somewhat less coherent than I prefer. And of course, there is the oft-decried casual sexism inherent in the early fifties.

That said, the good parts tend toward brilliant. I last read the story before the Internet age was upon us, and now I find it a little jarring to open a book from 1953 and see characters with names like @tkins (Atkins) and &erson (Anderson). The typography used in the layered interweaving conversations between telepaths is art on its own, though sadly it dries up early in the story. The theme of the super-capitalist using money and access to literally get away with murder has some ring in these times, but it's also hardly an original thing anymore.

And that really seems to reflect how I feel about this book, for everything great about it, something keeps it from going to that next level. As a piece of world-building from one of the science fiction masters, I can certainly appreciate it, but as entertainment, it isn't perhaps what it used to be.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "Into the Fire" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "Only those who's lives are brief can imagine that love is eternal. You should embrace that remarkable illusion. It may be the greatest gift your race has ever received."
  • "In my experience, if you can not say what you mean, you can never mean what you say. The details are everything."
  • "Patience is also a weapon when used properly."
  • "You can not win this war through force. You must understand your way out of this."
  • "Then what are we doing here?" "Hoping the truth will set us free, before it kills us."
  • "You're insane." "On any other day, Mr. Morden, you would be wrong. Today, today is a very different day."
  • "A Vorlon said understanding is a three edged sword. Your side, their side, and the truth."
  • "It's about ideology." "Of course, what isn't."
  • "I'm no expert, but I think you should feel happy!" "Yes, perhaps, but every time I have been happy the universe has conspired to do something nasty to me." "Maybe, but that's tomorrow."
  • "Now we make our own magic. Now we create our own legends. Now we build the future. Now we stop..." "...being afraid of shadows."

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "The Long Night" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "Giants in the playground."
  • "An empty eye sees through to an empty heart."
  • "You're drunk." "Absolu... positi... oh, you betcha."
  • "How much more before I can look in the mirror and not see myself? Because I keep looking, and I'm always there."
  • "Don't you know that all I ever wanted was a good job... small title, nothing fancy... a wife I could love and... maybe even one that could actually love someone like me."
  • "You still have your heart, and your heart is a good one. You would not be in such great pain otherwise. It means there is still hope for you."
  • "What was it all for I wonder? What was any of it for?"
  • "If they want Armageddon, then by God, let's give it to them!"
  • "It was a poem by Tennyson. I still remember the last part of it: '...and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved Earth and Heaven, that which we are, we are; one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'"

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Projects

From Babylon 5 "The Summoning" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "You're having delusions of grandeur again." "Well, if you're going to have delusions, you may as well go for the really satisfying ones."
  • "Damn it, I have earned some respect! And I have earned some answers." "Respect? From whom?"
  • "All this technology, and it still takes forever to get anywhere."
  • "Unfortunately, people never believe that they have nothing else to lose until they have already lost it."
  • "I do not agree with what they are doing. Their fear is making them act against their own interests, but they must be free to speak their minds, or we have nothing left worth fighting for."
  • "The truth will attend to itself."
  • "Captain... We're sorry, we thought you were dead." "I was. I'm better now."
  • "You know, don't you. It's started."

From Babylon 5 "Falling Toward Apotheosis" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "Right now, our greatest enemy is fear."
  • "They need to believe." "Not in me." "You can't save them all." "I can try." "You'll fail." "We'll see."
  • "You did what you thought was right." "That's no excuse."
  • "How could I love that much and not forgive?"

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Lunacy of Political Parties on Display

Once upon a time there was this article for Rolling Stone advocating a set of reforms that the author thought would help the economy. It was couched in populist language and specifically targeted at a young demographic. Political commentators from one party applauded, those from the other were outraged.

Then there was an article responding to the first one, also advocating a set of reforms for the economy. This one was written from the conservative point of view.  Again the party commentators broke down across their associated lines, but of course the applause/outrage was swapped.

All of this sounds pretty normal for our so-called political discourse, but the twist this time was the two articles are advocating the same set of reforms, just using different framing. And so we have a direct example of how the political system in this country has broken down into a pair of warring cliques.

It's the old Futurama clone candidates debate come to life, and I would find it incredibly depressing if we hadn't already been operating like this nigh on forever.

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "The Hour of the Wolf" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "It was the year of fire." "The year of destruction." "The year we took back what was ours." "It was the year of rebirth." "The year of great sadness." "The year of pain." "And a year of joy." "It was a new age." "It was the end of history." "It was the year everything changed." "The year is 2261." "The place: Babylon 5."
  • "You can not win this war, Commander, you can only survive it."
  • "He did not come, again." "Yes, and I intend to find out why."
  • [The careful wording of the first scene on Centauri is great, but too much subtext would be lost in text form to quote properly. Just know that all the scenes with Emperor Cartagia tend to be wonderful. For this one, I'll just mention:] "You were requested."
  • "Flesh is transitory, flesh is a prison, flesh is... an instrument. Flesh can be replaced, and flesh does as its told, or they will become most annoyed."
  • "The resolution was passed quietly, fourteen opposed it. No one's seen them since."
  • "I don't care! I won't do it!" "Of course you will Molari, because you're drawn to power, because you're my friend, because you're afraid what someone else might do in your place."
  • "Respect is irrelevant."
  • "Our thoughts form the universe, they always matter."
  • "It takes a rare kind of wisdom to accept change and redemption in another.  Many would refuse, seeing only what was, not what is."
  • "They are using us as shields! When the war comes here, our people will die first." "Some are always sacrificed for the greater good." "What greater good?" "Ah! Mine of course!"
  • "Is there something wrong?" "Something, no, everything, yes. Conspiracies require more than one person and there is no one here I trust."
  • "Initiating getting the hell out of here maneuver."
  • "Vir, it is a terrible truth, but as one accumulates power, one loses friends. One only has those who wish to use you and those you wish to use. And yet, in all of this, you have somehow managed to walk through the corridors of power and not be touched. I can only assume you have not been paying attention."
  • "How did I get here?" "You were born." "Why am I alive?" "Well, that is the question isn't it. Do you mind if I share your fire?"

From Babylon 5 "Whatever Happened To Mr. Garibaldi" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "The first obligation of a prisoner is to escape!" "Ah. So, if one is a prisoner of love, one must escape to solitude? If one is a prisoner to joy, must one escape to sadness?"
  • "We all hit bottom sooner or later."
  • "When we are born, we are allocated a finite number of seconds. Each tick of the clock slices off a piece of us. Tick: a possibility for joy is gone. Tock: a careless word ends one path and opens another. Tick tock tick tock, always running out of time."
  • "Finders keepers, losers... buys 'em from finders!"
  • "I should have loved him less and trusted him more."
  • "If you are going to be worried every time the universe doesn't make sense, you're going to be worried every moment of every day for the rest of your natural life."
  • "There's a reward for his capture, dead or alive." "Yeah? Which pays the most?"
  • "My dad always told me that's the only way you deal with pain, you don't surrender, you don't fight it, you turn it into something positive. He used to say, 'if you're falling off a cliff, you may as well try to fly, you've got nothing to lose.'"
  • "Your friends need what you could be when you are no longer afraid, when you know who you are and why you are and what you want, when you are no longer looking for reasons to live but can simply be."
  • "It's easy to find something worth dying for; do you have anything worth living for?"
  • "Hope is all we have."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Problem They Think They Are Giving You

The problem they think they are giving you: We would like to add a new format for retrieving this data to the existing one.

The problem they are actually giving you: You need to go figure out how a half-dozen-year-old code flow handles the existing extraction of said data, using documentation that is outdated due to code accretion in the intervening years.  Once you have a handle on that, you have to modify it so it does not rely on the old assumptions, determines which potential version of the data it is looking at every time it attempts to retrieve a value, and then... what was it again?  Oh yeah, add a new format for retrieving the data.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Quote of the Moment

Life is a series of choices. None of these choices are made by you. Hold still, and let the microscopic robot insects do their work.
—From the Night Vale Podcast twitter feed

Watching the Watchers: 2013

If I were to choose a biggest-story-of-the-year, it would probably be the Edward Snowdon/NSA saga. Turns out all the paranoid stuff people joke about the government watching us at Orwellian levels and beyond was actually true, and nobody was really surprised. There are many lessons to be learned here about the current state of our government (especially the espionage wings), politics, and people in general, just from reactions to the story alone. I don't know if it will result in any real reform, but I can hope.

Running a somewhat related close second was Congress managing to reach new lows in both effectiveness and popularity. And even so, the incumbency rate remains high. Is it public apathy? a mistaken belief that my guy isn't part of the problem? years of deliberate gerrymandering? manipulation by our corporate noble-class? The decision is yours, as is the vote...

Even the new Pope thinks the abortion debate has been overplayed. And his saying that "money must serve not rule" did not sit well with some commentators.

All told, 2013 was a very interesting year for politics and religion, less so to my tastes for business and technology. (Google glass? Meh, it's a solution in search of a problem. And Google explicitly forbids the one thing it would be most useful it for. I'd still rather have a good heads-up-display in my car. Preferably with Google maps and sat-nav.)

And now, onward into 2014!

The State of the Blog 2013

Wow was 2013 a fast year. Also a big one in my life, because after over a year and a half of commuting nearly 150 miles a day, I finally moved closer to work. I could probably come up with several lessons I learned during the commuting time that I could pass along, but the main one is this: don't do it if you can possibly avoid it. The cost in time and the effect on the body were both rough. I'm still climbing out of both of those holes.
As for the state of the 'blog, it remained anemic through 2013. The Babylon Quotes project started as a way of giving me an excuse to watch something comfortingly familiar as I adjusted to life in a new place, and it will continue through the remaining two seasons. However, I do have some hope that I will return to some level of writing actual things in 2014. If nothing else, I'd like to get back into the ever depressing habit of pointing out news stories that catch my attention. And since I have a few minutes, I should probably just get on that right now...

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Bookworming: Divergent

Divergent, Veronica Roth, ***
Divergent is one of apparently many nebulously-near-future, post-unspecified-apocalypse, distopian-society, young adult novels currently making the rounds (and being made into movies). I found it a good, fast read. The setting, a society rigidly divided along personality traits, stretches credibility for me a bit. (How many people do you know that could exhibit only one personality trait even if they wanted to? We are all more than a little divergent, but that may be the point.) But if you set that aside as the conceit of the setting, then the world building works, as far as it goes. As both a first novel and an introduction to the setting, Roth does a nice job of balancing a complete story with the need to set up future installments. Though I find myself suspecting the next novel in the series may be more interesting than this one, I found it a perfectly satisfactory read. I do have a soft spot for the post-apocalypse genre, but I suspect fans of coming-of-age tales or light science fiction would enjoy this one.