Shall We Play A Game?

“Last night I stayed up late playing poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died.” — Steven Wright

Poker
One of the problems with usually being busy is that it means that I don’t have enough time for games. At various times in my life I’ve been more interested in games than others. For example, I’ve had friends who were into games of chance. I joined two friends for a night at a casino once, and while my luck wasn’t very good it was worth it as the price of admission into a different world. Nowadays that sort of thing is all over the Internet too, of course. The U.S. government and its various state subsidiaries would rather Americans didn’t gamble online, but of course millions do anyway. Fortunately there are are great sites for online gaming in Europe and other places that are willing to offer people the fun that they actually want.

I really liked stand up video games when I was a kid, way back when not only were there still arcades, but all the games inside were playable for a quarter. I didn’t really get into video gaming at home, I liked some of those games, especially the Civilization series, and a few others like it. In fact Civilization is one of the few things I sort of miss having been on Linux for so long. There are people who get the Windows versions of the game running just fine on Linux using WINE, and I’ve thought about it, but not only would it take a while to get all of that configured, once I’d succeeded I know myself well enough to realize I’d spend way too many hours getting all my roads converted to railroads, or trying to take key cities from the evil Babylonians next door. Better to avoid temptation!

When I was a kid, and intermittently ever since, I’ve found the time for role playing games. I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons ever since its first edition, and as an old hand at it I come down firmly in favor of Pathfinder as opposed to Hasbro’s disastrous fourth edition. My friends at the time and I played a number of lesser known ones as well, Paranoia, Shadowrun, and my all time favorite, Space: 1889, which offered a Victorian science fiction setting where the invention of ether flyers allowed the British Empire and its rivals to vie for influence throughout the swamps of Venus and beside the canals of Mars.

Getting back to playing cards, this one is actually pretty special to me, because the boys and I literally have our own game. Called BattleCards, it’s sort of like those collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh in terms of strategy and game mechanics, but it uses a normal deck of cards instead of custom cards that you have to keep buying and buying and buying to remain a competitive player. I more or less designed it over a long period of time, and the boys have helped me playtest it. Anyone who like those sorts of games really ought to check it out.

Also in the low tech area are board games, and the two that see the most action in my house are Risk and its grown up alternative, Axis & Allies. After all, if you’re going to play a board game, the fate of the world may as well be at stake! And then there’s Scrabble, which Adella got me into long ago, and while it may not seem to offer similar stakes to global domination, it’s still taken very seriously in my house. After all, if you’re playing me at Scrabble, it’s your word against mine, and really, what could be more intriguing?

Please Join Me In Helping Hawa Akther Jui

Adversity
This is not a conventional blog post for me, and those who are disturbed by accounts of severe domestic violence may find it unsettling.

Most people who pursue a degree through eLearning end up having to overcome some sort of adversity to get to graduation. But for most of us that means trying to balance work, family, and study. Sure, that’s a challenge, but it’s nothing compared to the story of Hawa Akther Jui. She’s a young woman in Bangladesh who, like many, decided that she wanted to take advantage of higher education. But her husband, who was working abroad, disapproved of her ambition. She defied him, continuing with her education anyway. On his return to Bangladesh he blindfolded her, gagged her, restrained her right arm, and cut off all of the fingers on her right hand.

He has been arrested for this horrible crime and is likely to be punished severely. Ms. Akther has said she has no desire to have anything more to do with him. But this is not his story, it’s hers.

It’s said that who you are isn’t determined by what happens to you, but instead by how you respond to what happens to you. And Ms. Akther’s response to this is that she is more determined than ever to complete her education. Her right hand cannot be repaired — her husband and one of his relatives ensured this by discarding her fingers so that by the time her family could recover them it was too late for them to be reattached. But she has been been relearning how to write, saying, “I have now started practising writing with my left hand. I want to see how far I can go. I never imagined that my fingers would be chopped off like this because of my studies.”

I’ve never met Hawa Akther Jui, nor even heard of her before I read the BBC article and other articles about what happened to her. But I feel drawn to try to help her, if possible. I expect that she has medical, educational, and living expenses, and I am willing to contribute $100 to help defray them. If you’re reading this, and you would like to help also, please contact me by email to steve@hiresteve.com. I have the contact information for the Bangladesh-based BBC reporter who interviewed her, and would send her the money through him. In the event that Ms. Akther does not need or want any money raised, I would instead donate it to the Asian University for Women, also located in Bangladesh.

No one should have to face this sort of thing, particularly not as a consequence for trying to improve one’s lot in life. If you would like to help, even just to send a little, please get in touch. I’ll be sure to post updates so that everyone who helps finds out what happens.

The Great Depression, Obsolescence, And You

“Around ’75 when the recession hit, club owners started going to disco because it was cheaper for them to just buy a sound system than it was to hire a band.” — Tommy Shaw

Artist Captures Recession Times...
I’m a radical libertarian and my Mom is a sort of old school liberal, so as you can imagine political conversations around the dinner table can end up being pretty exciting. It also means we occasionally email each other opinion pieces from whatever newspapers we read, usually that support our point of view but sometimes just that we think are generally interesting. For example, today she sent me a link to an opinion piece by Robert S. McElvaine about the Great Depression. He’s a history professor at Millsaps College who’s written a book on the subject, and his central idea seems to be government didn’t spend enough in the 1930’s.

The title of McElvaine’s piece is “Want to avoid another Depression? Try understanding the first one.” Given his prescription, however, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps he should follow his own advice. One of the problems with understanding the Depression is that too many on the left think that the U.S. had an entirely free market economy in 1929. That’s not the case — there were a number of big changes made in the 1910’s (institution of an income tax, start of the Federal Reserve System, etc.) that led to the bubble of the ’20s and the resulting downfall. And most of what federal decision makers did in the ’30s was ineffective or counterproductive, e.g., confiscate gold, raise tariff rates, or attempt Keynesianism.

Of course, this isn’t 1930, and what bedeviled them is not the same as what plagues us. I don’t have the stats to back this up, but I suspect as technology keeps accelerating, the market for unskilled and semi-skilled labor will just get softer and softer, no matter how much GDP rises or how well those who already own stuff may do.

For example, one of Google’s projects is to automate driving — institute a system where vehicles can safely drive themselves long distances without a human involved. They’re actually getting pretty close to succeeding at this, they’re doing test runs in Nevada and that sort of thing. So what? Well, driverless vehicles it will be good for some businesses, but at the cost of putting every long haul trucker and bus driver out of a job.

I think if one takes a twenty year view that this sort of thing is a big concern. Right now we have millions of people who simply aren’t good enough at anything other people actually need to make enough money to support themselves. I’m not blaming them, or calling them lazy, I’m just calling it like I see it. What happens when that number reaches 30% of the population? Even if you’re morally copacetic with saying “screw you” to unemployable people, if you try that with one third of your population it won’t end well for you. (Ask wealthy Venezuelans, because they did this and the result was a decade and counting of Hugo Chavez.)

So assuming my gloomy scenario is at all likely, is there anything to do about it? I’m not sure. I do know that stopping the advance of technology isn’t very practical, and wouldn’t be desirable if it were. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to make sure that entrepreneurship is integrated in every school curriculum one into which one can possible fit it. If employment as we’ve known it will only get more and more difficult to find, but there’s still affluence in the overall society, that’s a recipe for people to get into the mindset that there are ways they can take control of their own futures.

How Not To Approach Campus Violence

“If you think the problem is bad now, just wait until we’ve solved it.” — Arthur Kasspe

20050610-atomic-ray-guns
Recently I read a commentary in UniversityWorldNews from John Woods, who opposes efforts by some U.S. state legislators to allow people to carry guns on college and university campuses. It seems he lost a loved one in the Virginia Tech massacre a few years ago, and the issue has been haunting him ever since.

What many people seem to overlook when it comes to these sorts of proposals is that there’s a difference between banning something and actually making it go away. No one who has it in them to walk around murdering other people will be dissuaded simply because one more aspect of their plan is illegal. Simply put, campus gun bans do not disarm potential shooters, they only disarm potential victims, leaving them helpless to defend themselves.

This is not a hypothetical argument. Virginia Tech was not the only university in Virginia where a shooting occurred in the last decade. There was also one at Appalachian School of Law. The difference was that in this other incident the shooter was quickly subdued by other students, who were armed. This is why the Virginia Tech incident is rightly termed a massacre, and the Appalachian School of Law incident is relatively unknown.

Mr. Woods is not the only one who wants a world free of violence. We all do. But unfortunately, we don’t live in that world, and that being the case we should make decisions based on reason, and not emotion. Gun bans fail that test.

“Too Much Information” Technology

“Too much information will make your brain choke.” — Bryan Davis


liar game

When it comes to privacy, I don’t think there’s any reasonable way to put the toothpaste back in the tube. I think what’s going to happen is that modern culture will adapt to an ever diminishing expectation of privacy. To older people that probably sounds really terrifying. Younger people don’t seem to be as bothered, especially considering what they’ll post on Facebook.

And it’s not just the Internet that will erode the walls that separate us from one another. One of the things that’s coming up is a technology called augmented reality, in which what you see in the real world has an added layer of computer generated information overlaid on top of it. So imagine you’re walking around on vacation and want to get a bite to eat. You don’t know any of these places. But with AR, you might have a small screen or even glasses to wear that overlay additional information about what you see. When you look at a restaurant it may also display how well it’s been reviewed, or whether it’s been cited by the health department, or if it has low sodium options.

This relates to privacy in that as facial recognition software becomes more mature, it will become possible to use AR to learn things about people just by looking at them. Imagine something like this connected to a database of registered sex offenders, for example.

What will be even more game changing will be on the fly lie detection. As scanning technology used in MRIs becomes cheaper and miniaturized, someday it will fit into these sorts of AR systems. Another way to do this that might be technologically easier to engineer would be if the sorts of microexpressions that show deception can be analyzed by the facial recognition software. Either way, imagine having a conversation with someone and having your AR system display a big stop sign every time the person shows signs of deception.

So at what point will information technology become “too much information” technology? Love it or hate it, you’re likely going to find out!

Climate Change Education?

“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” — Mark Twain


a factory

When it comes to climate change, I have to admit that I don’t really know what’s going on. I know that both sides are cocksure and have incentive to promote their positions, meaning that neither should be trusted out of hand. It seems that more experts believe that the climate is changing than not, but that’s only so helpful to me, as I’ve worked with university faculty, and have seen firsthand how impressed with their own infallibility they can be, and how rarely they change their mind once it’s made up. There’s good reason for the saying that science advances one funeral at a time.

The way I see it, the climate change issue is really a series of three questions, all of which must be answered affirmatively for dramatic action to be warranted:

  1. Is the climate really changing?
  2. If so, are we causing it?
  3. If we are, is it worse for us than de-industrialization would be?

While I’m no climatologist and don’t claim to know for sure, I expect the answer to the first one is probably yes. I realize there are some issues with the data that are used to support this theory, but given that the climate has always been dynamic, it’s not so difficult to believe that the average global temperature is on an upswing.

I can also believe that the second one is at least partially yes. The long list of species that we’ve hunted to extinction show that humans can affect the environment to its detriment. If there are enough of us, we don’t even need advanced technology to do it — ask a woolly mammoth.

I think the third one is a lot more iffy, though. Many of the apocalyptic predictions are based on worst case scenarios, and computer models rather than direct observation. I work with computers, and one thing I know is that the problem with them is that they always do exactly what you tell them. Unless the model is strikingly accurate, there’s always that cause for uncertainty. Moreover, whatever negative consequences there may be should be weighed against the benefits that have come from industrialization, like average lifespans that are decades longer now than they were when we first started burning coal. I’m fine with moving to an economy that uses less carbon, but in the meantime do we really want to do without modern technology? If we tried, how many people would die earlier than they would otherwise?

I’m thinking about all this today because of a piece I read in The Hill saying that Todd Stern, the top climate negotiator for the U.S., is calling on scientists and policymakers to orchestrate an educational effort to change the public’s perception about climate change. Regardless of what the answers to those three questions are likely to be, is it really the government’s place to tell people what to think? Clearly not. But even if it is, would it do any good? Natural selection has been taught in American schools for a century, yet a recent Gallup poll shows that four in ten Americans believe that Creationism is literally true, and that only one in six Americans believe that humans evolved without divine intervention. With ignorance like that, what chance is there to educate the American people on a scientific topic that’s so complex there is still reasonable uncertainty about important details?

George Carlin, R.I.F.P.

Fresh off of a week’s worth of hagiographic logorrhea from the chattering class after the untimely death of Tim Russert comes the truly lamentable passing of George Carlin.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Russert will be be missed. I found him an interesting interviewer who did occasionally ask tough questions of his interviewees despite their being his colleagues in the political/media elite.

The loss of Carlin, however, is truly a shame. I know him more from his recent work, as the goofy Archbishop in Dogma and in the work he did for kid’s entertainment, like narrating Thomas the Tank Engine stories and playing the voice of Fillmore the spacey VW bus in Cars — yes, I have a three year old son.

I’m aware, however, that long before this Carlin was a free speech pioneer, that his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV” routine dragged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, leading, unfortunately, to one of their many failures to defend individual liberties. But he didn’t always lose, and comedians have cited him as an influence and inspiration ever since. Carlin’s sort of iconoclasm is vital for avoiding a descent into authoritarian stagnation. He’ll be missed.

Happy Newton Day!

I suppose I’m steeped in my own culture too much not to feel nothing strange at wishing others a Merry Christmas even though I am not a Christian. However, thanks to my friend Bob Klassen I also think of December 25 as a great holiday in celebration of reason and science. It is, after all, the birthday of Sir Isaac Newton, and while it’s said that he loved the Bible even more than science, it’s his work with the latter that caused Alexander Pope to write:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.

Happy Newton Day everyone!

Dead Man’s Chest

I’m not sure why the critics didn’t like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. It had a complex plot, but not a convoluted one. It was long, but engaging throughout. Now I may be a little biased, since they filmed all the scenes with lush beautiful rainforest in Dominica, and it was cool to see one or two familiar faces on screen (like our boat guide on Indian River). But still, I thought it was great.

And this movie also goes to show that you can do whatever you want to Naomie Harris and she’s still hot.