Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sensible gun control

Let's accept the following premises:

1. The AWB is a load of crap. It involves weapons not involved in most of the infamous shootings of this decade. While it was internally effective (it did reduce the number of the weapons it targetted circulating), it was ineffective at its intended ultimate goal (reducing gun violence or making it less lethal - there was no reduction in the amount of gun violence during its enforcement.)

2. It's certainly arguable that it's too easy for people who wish to misuse guns to obtain them. And there's quite a bit of concern about any guns that can fire a lot of bullets in a short space of time.

3. Under the current constitution, you can't ban the vast majority of guns.

4. In the current climate, legitimate gun owners would not cooperate with any program, voluntary or otherwise, that requires they give up existing weapons, and they'd lobby hard against restrictions on what they can own.

So what we're looking for is a gesture that would satisfy the concerns of those who strongly believe (2) above, while recognizing (3) and (4), and also doing something that's not already been tried, and not already been completely discredited.

So this is where my mind is at at the moment.

In most states, there's already a set of laws about under what circumstances you can bear arms. The system in most states is:

1. Anyone can bear arms inside their own homes.
2. Anyone with a Concealed Carry Weapons Permit can bear arms outside of their own homes, as long as they keep them out of sight until needed.

The CCW system is relatively popular amongst gun owners. It's not controversial for the vast majority. Most gun owners I've met encourage other gun owners to get the permit, but they see the requirements as actually a good thing.

Permits are issued under a number of circumstances, but even in "Shall Issue" states (Shall Issue means that it's up to government to prove you're irresponsible, rather than for you to prove you're responsible) there are specific actions from those applying for a permit that encourage responsible ownership. Here in Florida, for example, there's a mandatory gun safety class that needs to be passed before you can get your CCW.

States have massive lee-way in terms of how they implement the CCW program (well, it's their program.)

My thought is this. Rather than an all-out ban on "dangerous weapons" (or worse, "scary weapons"), perhaps a better solution would be to recognize the CCW programs in each State and divide weapons between those that can be owned by anyone (which would have restricted capacities, non-detachable magazines, etc) and those that can only be owned by someone with a valid CCW permit. As a starting point for what constitutes a permit-free weapon, a revolver would pass. A basic bolt-action hunting rifle with a built-in magazine should pass too. Given the popularity of .22LR semi-automatic rifles (.22LR is a relatively weak type of ammunition, so such rifles are extremely popular as user-friendly plinking and target practice guns), it might also make sense to relax the restrictions for guns carrying certain types of ammunition.

It would be up to each state to determine the rules for CCW permits and over time States can experiment with tests of responsible gun ownership, handling things like "Weapons being stolen" on a state by state basis. (I'm not in favor of laws that punish people for merely having their weapons stolen, or otherwise misused by a third party, although I can see a case for doing so where the theft was in part due to carelessness on the part of the owner.)

Recognizing permits in this way would also solve the argument over the "Gun Show Loophole". Whether the loophole really exists or not, it can be taken off the table if you simply require that any gun buyer, in any transaction private or commercial, either passes a background check or shows a valid permit. This eliminates any issues about the rights of private individuals to sell their own property, and prevents gun shows from becoming exclusively gun dealer based.

This shouldn't be controversial. You're using State laws that are aimed at identifying responsible gun owners, and restricting guns that may need more care to those people. Most existing gun owners would probably, in all honesty, be entirely unaffected by this law. You're also providing the States with a means to discourage irresponsible gun ownership without punishing responsible gun owners.

Of course, I expect it to be controversial anyway...

Monday, December 17, 2012

Rules of engagement

  1. It is not unreasonable or despicable to, in the wake of a horrific tragedy, demand changes to the law you think will prevent it from happening again.
  2. That said, it is unreasonable and despicable to demonize your opponents who have done little but disagree with you, and thus far won the arguments, as responsible for that tragedy.
  3. It also doesn't mean you're right.
  4. Also the world of politics is a little nuanced. You do not speak for all liberals, or all conservatives.

On the final note:

  1. The NRA has itself to blame if an overwhelmingly Democratic government, voted in in 2014, imposes draconian gun control laws. Gun control was a bipartisan issue until you waded in during the mid-nineties and demonized Democrats and liberals, alienating a group that usually sticks up for individual liberties. St Reagan was infamous as Governor of California for getting gun control legislation passed that was aimed at disarming groups he didn't like. The infamous AWB had overwhelming bi-partisan support, attracting the vote of almost every Senator.
  2. If you're a liberal (or for that matter a conservative) you need to see through the above. The fact that you can find your political opponents coming up with spectacularly bad arguments for a position you find initially uncomfortable does not make that position wrong. As an example, a liberal might want to actually study the effect of the AWB and its similarity to what's being proposed today. It heavily restricted semi-automatic weapons and crippled magazine sizes. And the studies done do not suggest it made a blind bit of difference when it came to gun crime.

My view?
  • There are so many guns of all descriptions in circulation any attempt to limit them will have no affect on availability.
  • The difference between an AWB-compliant AR-15 pattern rifle and a standard semi-automatic AR-15 is relatively minor: that is, some psycho who wants the rifle they see on  TV to kill people with (which seems to be the thinking behind banning them) is going to be able to find one, just by modifying a legal rifle.
  • I doubt, actually, that America's "gun culture" has much to do with the violence we see. Britain doesn't have a gun culture and there were two major massacres while I lived there. Proportionally to population, the number was much smaller than the US. Proportionally to British gun owners, I'd say the ratio of terrible events to gun owners was much, much, higher. And then there's Switzerland, where there's a semi-automatic version of their military's standard issue assault rifle in many homes, proportionally much larger than here, and there's very little gun crime.
  • There are actions that can be taken that would not affect civil liberties, and might help prevent problems, but are treated as beyond the pale by the gun community. Registration is probably the most obvious. Being able to say "We know this person is unsuitable at this moment due to {a relevant mental illness | an injunction after domestic violence | etc }" seems relatively reasonable. A better solution than limiting magazine sizes might be to increase taxes on ammunition not normally used in large quantities by ordinary shooters.
  • The other issue people raise is that it's generally felt we don't have an adequate system for identifying people with mental illnesses, with a view that somehow this would have prevented this tragedy. Honestly, I don't know. Lanza is speculated as to having had Asbergers.  Does that normally exhibit itself in a burning need to kill children? Would any treatments for Asbergers  have actually affected whatever it was that caused Lanza to break down?
To be quote honest though, I'm currently of a mind that there just may not be anything that can "be done" after this massacre that would have prevented it from happening, if only it had been done before.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Fiscal Cliff FAQ

There seems to be a little confusion as to what the effects of the Fiscal Cliff are, so here's some help.

1. What is the Fiscal Cliff?

It's a package of spending cuts and tax hikes that'll take effect on the 1st of January unless Congress acts to overturn it.

2. I've spent my entire career protesting about the deficit. Is the Fiscal Cliff bad?

Can you clarify your question?

2.1 OK, I'm against the deficit because I truly believe the government shouldn't have such a deficit.

Then the Fiscal Cliff is ideologically sound to you. Although many economic models, including those based upon Keynesianism, say that it'll end up increasing or doing nothing about the deficit because decreased revenues due to a stagnant economy and accompanying deflation will also be the result. But you don't believe in Keynesianism anyway, so that shouldn't be a problem. To you.

2.2 I'm against the deficit, but that's because as I understand it, it's a "bad thing", that's caused by "wasteful government spending", such as the government spending money on things I don't like, and not spending enough on things I do.

Then you should worry about the Fiscal Cliff because while it cuts money to things you don't like, it also cuts money to the programs you support. Also it too is a "bad thing", like the deficit. That is to say, it is something lots of people are worried about, and you sound like the kind of person who worries about things that other people are worrying about.

3. I'm concerned about my job. Is the Fiscal Cliff going to help?

No, your job will objectively become less safe if we go over, although some economists argue that long term, because most models point to a complete collapse of the economy, or that such an action will somehow cause all badly run businesses to fail while leaving all well run businesses alone (it's not clear what model they're using), you'll find it easier to get a job, probably in 2032 when the economy recovers.

4. I don't have a job because I have a lot of money, several million dollars actually, hidden under my mattress. Will the Fiscal Cliff help me?

Kinda. Make sure you don't let anyone know about the mattress though.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Please make it stop

Some time ago, but after my daughter's birth, my mother related to me a tale of a neighbor who, one day, ran out into the street crying and screaming. She banged on the hoods of nearby cars, and continued to scream, and people ran out to see what was going on.


The story terrified me. I honestly had a three day anxiety attack. I read up on SIDS, and read everything I could possibly find on the subject. I finally, after a few days, started to calm down and was able to be rational, but the story...

And the anxiety never completely stopped of course, but then yesterday I read another story via CNN, this time of a case of child abuse [lest anyone is in the same situation as I am, I shall not relate the story itself, but it involves a two year old physically abused to the point of brain damage and a coma by a - frustrated? - mother.] which caused a similar anxiety attack, with me finding it impossible to concentrate for the rest of the day. And just to make matters worse, I visited my mother today, who knew I was having issues with said story, who proceeded to relate stories of her sister, and how when her sister was three she repeatedly hit a baby over the head with a brick (drawing blood and probably more serious damage) wanting to know "what was under the skin", and who grew up to at least mentally abuse her children.

I'm having a freak out over all of this.

I'm hoping that I'll be able to calm down in time, mostly by applying a filter to what I read and listen to. I know much of this has to do with B's vulnerability.

B cries a lot. Well, she's a baby. I'll pick her up when she's crying and try to calm her down. She'll look at me, and she'll usually try to stop for a moment, but her face will still be all upset, and she'll have an unmistakable expression on her face as she looks at me: "Please, make it stop."

Sometimes it's easy to "make it stop". She's hungry. She just needs to be fed.

Sometimes though... well, we'll burp her if we can, or give her gas drops if the her tummy's gas is too far along. Worse still, she might just be tired, and she's too young to know that sleep will solve that particular problem.

But that expression is the killer, because it's right at the heart of why these stories affect me - actually, I'm guessing 99% of parents - so much. "Please make it stop" is the cry of a baby who has no control over her life, who cannot make her own choices, who is desperate for support from the adults she's learning to trust.

And the idea of someone in the same position as B in the hands of someone who wouldn't make it stop, or worse, is a terrifying idea.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Romney - killed by the echo chamber

What's the origin of the 47% remark? Well, it's a combination of a fact mixed with a lot of prejudice and served with a thick helping of wilful blindness.

Let's go over it. The fact that all of this is based upon is the observation that between the effect of the recession on household incomes, and the raising of income tax thresholds since Reagan, around 47% of households pay no Federal income tax.

By itself, interesting, if not useful. Why not useful? Well, to begin with, the stat only describes one form of taxation, and one form of direct taxation at that.
  • Virtually all households pay property taxes, either directly, or as a portion of a rent negotiated with a landlord who knows property taxes will be an expense that needs covering.
  • Virtually all human beings in the US pay sales taxes, from seven year olds spending their pocket money to Warren Buffet.
  • Virtually all commerce involves taxes somewhere along the line.
Additionally, as many Democrats are keen to point out, a secondary set of income taxes, collectively called payroll taxes, are paid to cover the costs of some government services, such as social security and unemployment insurance - to ensure nobody feels like they're subsidizing those high-rollin' pensioners.

What people do not pay income taxes? Well, the list is broad, but it generally covers:
  • Most of the military. The starting pay for an infantryman, for example, is around $15k per year.
  • People who are between jobs, have paid income tax all their lives, and will pay them again, who may or may not be receiving services paid for out of payroll taxes.
  • People who are students, and expect to earn money and pay income taxes when they end their studies and get a job.
  • Pensioners, who have paid income taxes all their lives, and now are living from a combination of the services their payroll taxes covered, and private funds such as IRAs they saved while employed.
  • Hard working blue-collar workers, especially in the South, where wages are terrible. Many would welcome the chance to pay income taxes, if only their cheap employers would actually pay them enough to cover them.
  • Lazy people who live with their parents and can't be bothered to work
  • A small number of the very rich, who are able to afford the right tax accountants.
With me so far? At this point, the "47%" looks entirely uncontroversial. Only two groups, the last two, could be categorized as being able to pay taxes, but failing to do so out of a lack of civic responsibility

But... no, that's not how it was spun. The controversy over the "47%" started with a Washington Times column that highlighted the fact and... to give you some idea of the tone of the article, described these predominantly low income individuals as "Lucky Duckies". "Lucky". Because you have such a low income that even the politicians have recognized you probably can't afford to pay their salaries.

Where does Mitt Romney fit in to all this? Well, the fact half of households don't pay income taxes became a right wing talking point. It was repeated ad-nauseum. Because, apparently, paying taxes is the most awful thing a government can force you to do (what?), it became taken as read that this was a terribly unfair thing and that these people who weren't paying taxes were just mooching off the work of everyone else. And in comes Romney, and he makes a truly big mistake.

I don't mean Romney made a political error. You already know that. I mean what he told a group of rich doners at a private fundraising dinner was factually incorrect. He mixed the prejudiced version of the "half of all households" story, and blurted out a nonsense. You see, in right wing circles:
  • Democrats just want to take all the money from hardworking people and give it to lazy people.
  • Lazy people like getting free money.
  • Democrats do this because they think lazy people will vote for them.
So Romney stated the following:
  • That the 47% consists of people getting handouts, rather than people who earn so little they don't pay a particular tax, right at this second, although many - most even? - have done so in the past and/or the future.
  • That the demographics of the 47% consists pretty much entirely of Obama supporters. They'll never vote for Romney. Despite the military, pensioners, and southern blue collar workers, making up a large proportion of the 47%.
And then, to add insult to injury, knowing full well that "the 8%" (that is, those on unemployment benefits) are part of the 47% too, Romney made it clear he didn't care one hoot about them, despite the fact he's trying to run as someone who'll fix the economy.

The problem here is the echo chamber. Because people who live in the echo chamber don't get to hear the truth, if what they've heard is not the truth, until it's too late. Romney should have known on some level that what he was saying was utter rubbish, but was never handed that opportunity. If all you read is the Washington Times, all you watch is Fox News, and if you convince yourself that it's not worth getting your information outside of those circles because, well, people will lie, then more fool you. The facts about those not paying income tax were easy to see, but they were only drawn to Romney's attention long after he slipped up, and he slipped up after years upon years of being told, over and over again, that:
  • Half the population doesn't pay income tax
  • That half of the population are "lucky"
  • That half of the population is there by choice, are there because they're lazy
  • That Democrats prop up the lazy, because they want their votes.
When a lie is repeated often enough, even the smartest people out there start to believe it. Unfortunately for Romney, a smart, capable, individual who probably would make an excellent President, he chose to live in the echo chamber, where such lies are inevitable.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Thoughts on "Mass Effect", IT, Story Telling, and The Matrix

(Spoilers in yellow to make 'em easy to skip)

After more or less avoiding them for a long time, I've been diving back into computer games for the first time in many years. As I've said before, walking into Gamestop, for me, gave me the same kinds of feelings as I'd expect to feel walking into a Swedish Porn Shop. Not knowing the language. Feeling out of place. The paranoia of feeling that any decision I make will show I have terrible taste, etc.

Diving back in is because of Steam, which is an awesome idea, and because of having a PC I ostensibly bought for work but would otherwise be an idle Windows PC for most of the time.

Boy have things moved on in the games world. Leaving aside the addictive mini-games that could just as easily have existed on the Amiga and been successes then (Plants vs Zombies?), the technology advances have been staggering, and I'm still utterly blown away by two games I've seen. The first, GTA IV, has NEW YORK CITY embedded in its code. NYC! What. The. Fuck? How? I mean, part of me thinks "Well, graphics with Unreal Tournament 2003/4 was up to that level, so why not eight years ago?" but of course it's more than that, and leaving aside the fact the UT2 engine gets very iffy about maps over a certain size, much of the genius of GTA IV consists of artists making the same leaps that others in the Middle Ages did when they jumped from tapestries to photographic images with perspective and shadow. Look at the jumps from GTA3 to GTA VC, and then SA, and you see each jump Rockstar and others made, but still, the leap from SA to IV is... well, unbelievable.

The other game, I picked up a few weeks ago, was Mass Effect. In ME, the thing that blew me away was the story and the story telling, together with an extremely rich universe of characters that, frankly, rivals the best science fiction writing.

For those unaware of the game, the general concept is this: In ME, you play a "Commander Shepherd", a man or woman (you pick) who is a war hero/survivor/etc (you pick) and very skilled in (one or two things you pick again) who is picked by Earth to become the first human "Spectre", a type of super-agent who works for a Galactic version of the UN. Your first missions, even before you're accepted to that role, are to investigate beacons from an extinct alien race that are broadcasting some kind of (spoiler, mind you you'll learn this early in the game) terrible warning about giant robots getting ready to annihilate all sentient life.

The game universe you play in is semi-open world, with lots of side missions you can take at any time that have nothing to do with the plot, although they can help in direct and indirect ways, coupled with more major missions where everything from your skillset to whether you've been nice to people can affect the ease with which you can complete them. By nice to people, I mean that making moral decisions can impact how people see you, to the point there's at least one side mission where you would normally win by having an old fashioned shootout, but if you've been moral enough ("Paragon", to use the lingo), you can walk in, give the right speech, and not see a single shot fired.

That mission kind of felt odd, needless to say. Also, not many like that, though many you can terminate early in that way.

As time goes on, you accrue team mates, and you pick two to come with you on every mission. Each squad member has different skills. Two are human, the others are various types of alien.

So, anyway, I rather liked the game. Reviews averaged about, uh, 90% for ME. Its sequel got even higher reviews. Mostly in the region of 99%. I know why. I respectfully disagree with the ratings even though I agree largely with the logic that got those ratings. While there's a long list of check boxes that say things like "Awesome sub-plot involving Shepherd having to work with organization Shepherd doesn't want to work with" and "Don't you just love Tali, but what's with her race and the other killer space robots?", I think the number one checkbox reviewers ticked when writing their reviews was "ME was awesome, and 90% wasn't enough! I'll make up for it this time..."

Why do I disagree? I disagree because I really feel, having played it, that ME2 just isn't put together as well as ME1. It has great ideas, but it... well, the closest I can think of is The Matrix.

Was Matrix Reloaded better than The Matrix? Hell no. But if I had to check off a long list of reviewer points, and I was a reviewer that totally felt embarrassed because I'd given the original a review that didn't match what my now higher view of it, and then realized it was a whole lot better than I thought, well...

I mean, the Matrix Reloaded had so much additional depth! You had some great new characters. More locations unlike anything in the original. You had a dozen awesome new concepts thrown at you. The universe was just so much richer with all these new characters and concepts, and Neo wasn't making some simplistic choices to "fight the man" (OK, "fight the machine") as he did in the original, but now he was making a more complex choice that would turn out to... well, anyway, you get the picture.

ME2 is richer in many ways than ME, and has some fantastic ideas, but it doesn't feel right. While ME was largely open world, ME2 isn't. ME2 has some utterly stupid game play decisions in it, you're forced to fly your own spaceship (not in a cool 3D way, but by clicking in a location and moving the mouse until the ship is where you want it to be), manually scan planets for required resources (uh, what? Yes, that's just what I see the savour of the universe wasting time on when on a ship full of people whose job it is to do this kind of crap), ME provided shortcuts so you wouldn't spend 30 minutes on something trivial just because your mouse isn't behaving that day, they're gone in ME2. Major locations have been replaced by... well, frankly, insulting structures. I mean, would you believe that one of the most important worlds in ME, The Citadel, which was a rich collection of beautiful locations with different personalities and concepts, is now a three story mall?

It's really not clear actually why 90% of the changes in game play have been made between ME and ME2 either. The weapon and armor systems are different without apparently being improved upon in any way. And, of course, the Elevators are gone.

Let's analyze that because it actually gets to the core of the problem: There were a lot of complaints about "Elevators" in ME, leading some wags, myself included, to call it "Mass Elevator". The deal was that, because the ME series uses the Unreal 3 engine, they can't make the maps particularly large (see above!) So the transition areas in ME are actual elevators. You walk in, press the button, then watch a long ass animation of the inside of an elevator with the you and both your squad mates chatting occasionally while, on occasion, a galactic news channel will pipe in news headlines, until the next screen has loaded. When the next part of the map has finished loading, the elevator finally reaches the top/bottom, and the doors open and your squad, if relevant, find themselves armed and ready to leave.

What was the complaint? Well, the complaint was you hang around in elevators a lot. Why do you hang around in elevators? Because it takes too long to load the next levels. People weren't complaining about the use of elevators to make the delay less boring, they were complaining about the delay.

What you get in ME2 is, instead, a more traditional animation that generally looks like what you'd find on a screen showing diagnostics or other information in 2001: A Space Odyssey. So the delay's still there, it's just more boring.

Why change it? It's changed because people were complaining or thought an aspect of the game was bad, and rather than analyze why, BioWare just changed something to something else. The end result is a game with a lot of good ideas, but a lot of things that are just wrong because they're trying to solve the wrong problems, or because they're hurried solutions that are just as bad as the things they're trying to fix.

Which brings me to IT and ME3. What's IT?

IT is "Indoctrination Theory". IT is an attempt by ME3 fans to make ME3 make sense.

ME3 is more or less a direct sequel to ME2, more or less the same concepts, and a continuation, just as "Matrix Revolutions" is more "Matrix Reloaded" than "The Matrix".

I haven't played  it. C'mon, I didn't like ME2, and the cheapest prices I can find are more than twice what I paid for ME and ME2 together. Why the hell would I buy it now? Maybe I'll take a look when Steam has it on a one day sale for $9.99 or less.

Anyway, everyone complains about the ending of ME3. The complain more or less centers around the fact it's a hurried thing that was obviously supposed to be more profound than it actually is, with Shepherd having to make a difficult choice and see the universe change in three different ways.

In that respect, Matrix Revolutions was a better sequel than ME3. Matrix Revolutions worked to give the hero a great send off, and tried to tie up any loose ends while creating a fairly enjoyable, if less intellectually satisfying, action romp that people could watch and enjoy. Say what you like about it, but that finale was fun to watch.

ME3, not satisfying. Why? Probably because of two reasons:
  1. ME3 was put together by the same people as ME2
  2. ME3 was ambitious, and had to hit a deadline
Also there's (3) - good endings are hard to write. I'd imagine they're even harder in a game universe where several paths can be traveled to get to that ending.

The result had many fans saying "No, not like this" over and over again, until one came up with a theory that explained everything. It goes like this:

What if, during the critical part of the last phase of the game, Commander Shepherd, our hero/heroine, was... dreaming the whole thing?

OK, dreaming is probably the wrong word, but, well, it's been established that the antagonists in the 
story, the Reapers, can control people's minds. So Shepherd's mind could be being controlled by the antagonists, and thus... something.

The evidence is as follows:

  • Not everything that happens after a particular point in the story makes sense.
  • The Reapers can control people's minds
  • The ending sucked.
Seriously, that's what the entire theory is built upon. Problems:
  • The entire game is full of things that don't make sense. It's a computer game. It's hard to keep continuity going in a game where the player can make lots of different decisions.
  • The player meets characters whose minds are being controlled throughout the game. They describe certain aspects of this that don't really fit with this theory, such as being conditioned to do the Reaper's bidding through pain.
  • "And then I woke up and it was all a dream" is, well, an ending you learn, as a story teller, is spectacularly bad from the beginning.
Moreover, to me, the problem is that the ending is too generic. There's a rule in story telling that if something is going on that's out of that's not explained by taking events at face value, you make damned sure the reader finds it out. If "Did this really happen?" is meant to be a question, you specifically ask the question. If "It was all a dream" is actually the explanation, you show the protagonist dreaming.

You have to do that because every story, EVERY STORY, can have the words "And then I woke up and it was all a dream!" added to it, changing the entire story without contributing anything useful. As a story teller, you have a duty to ensure the plot has the tightest explanation possible, and that that tight explanation is visible to the reader. "It was all a dream" is the very worst contradiction of that principle. There are things you just don't do that would be more forgivable.

To put it another way, if IT is real, then any of the following would have been better if they'd happened in ME3:
  • In the last minute, Commander Shepherd sees Mordin running up to him/her. "Stop" he yells, "Commander! I've done it! This mass effect powered device I just invented will end the Reaper menace, just press this button, and they'll disappear forever!". Shepherd presses the button. A cut scene is shown 200 years in the future, of people looking at a statue of Shepherd and Mordin together, and a father says to his boy "Those were Shepherd and Mordin, the two people who saved the galaxy." Game over.
  • Shepherd boarded the Reaper. As wave after wave of Husk attacks, bullets fly everywhere, until one hits a hithertoo unnoticed spot in the wall. The wall breaks, and a nerdy looking human looks out. "Don't shoot! I'll surrender!" says the man. "I confess! There were no Reapers, I just... I just made these giant Reaper ships because I wanted attention. I'll stop now." Game over.
  • Paragon Shepherd reached the Reaper Parliament. "Stop, I have something to say", says the Commander. There is commotion, but the Reaper speaker puts a hand/tentacle up and motions to the others to be quiet. "Commander Shepherd, you can have your say". Shepherd then says "Why don't you let us live? Go on! C'mon! Let us live! C'mon!" The Reapers confer with one another and then say "OK then." Game over.
  • Commander Shepherd boards the Reaper, but notices ooze, oil, and brake fluid, leaking from various pipes. The Reaper stops trying to defend itself, and Shepherd receives a message over the intercom.  "Shepherd, it's Joker! We're getting reports all across the Galaxy. It's bacteria! The Reapers are allergic to Earth's bacteria! They're dropping like flies! It's over Shepherd! It's over!"
 IT would have been a great ending, but it needed to be done differently. Specifically:
  • Indoctrination would have had to be described differently from the start, or else Shepherd would have had to feel unusual levels of pain when making certain decisions, with that being explicitly shown.
  • Explicit hints, as in dialog, would have had to be given that Shepherd was indoctrinated. Comments from squad members explicitly questioning Shepherd's decisions and mental health, would, for example, help here, culminating possibly in a comment from Doctor Chakwas asking the Commander outright whether indoctrination was a possible explanation, or asking the Commander whether the Commander would know if he or she were indoctrinated.
  • Most importantly, the game would have needed to end with a reveal. A cut sequence showing Reapers controlling the Commander's decisions.
Pretty much the only time I'd allow a story teller to avoid the last part is if you as a story teller are asking "Would you know" (such as in Total Recall), but notice that TR doesn't avoid the question, or consider it worth raising only with some minor hints, the question is central to the plot and is raised explicitly multiple times. The question is, reportedly, never asked, ever, in ME3 - the best anyone can get to it are multiple things "not making sense", which is true of the entire game, not merely the period that IT's proponents claim represents an indoctrinated Shepherd.

Anyway, the fact that a large proportion of the ME3 fan base consider it only understandable if you pretend it ends with "And then I woke up and it was all a dream" makes me very reluctant to play it, even when it does end up being 9.99 on Steam.

Which is a shame. As I said, I thought the original is awesome.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Confessions and concerns

As I get older, I become more misogynist. I think in part it's being married and listening to the horror stories of my (wonderful - don't misunderstand me - she's the exception) wife about how women treat one another, and the degree to which apparent friendliness and warmth men think they sense from women is faked.

So with a daughter on the way, I worry about being unable to connect, and being unable to be the father she'll need to be the best she can be.

I will need to rise above myself. Hopefully I can do that.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Using systematic corruption for good

Some years ago, I had an epiphany about John Major, Britain's first post-Thatcher Prime Minister. One of Major's signature achievements was the privatization of British Rail, Britain's battered state-owned railway company.

British Rail was a textbook example of how taking an industry into state ownership and then subsidizing it can cause it much harm. Originally intended to be profitable, the Government panicked after it made large losses for a few years in a row in the 1950s. A corrupt Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples, appointed a commission to look into BR's problems, and then appointed a contrarian member, who'd argued for BR receiving a lobotomy to return it to profitability, to take charge of the business itself. That man was Richard Beeching, and his cuts proved to be disastrous, causing a once universal rail system to drastically reduce in usefulness. The cuts did nothing to reduce British Rail's losses, indeed, I'd argue that they caused them to continue, when BR was in the midst of modernizing a network whose problem was more the high cost of maintenance than a lack of demand for services.

A second attempt, in the 1980s, to cut British Rail, was in some ways foiled precisely because Beeching's cuts were discredited. But there was no guarantee that this would continue, with the Thatcher government generally being rail hostile, and the risk of another corrupt minister deliberately undermining the rail system.

The British railway system is a critical part of British infrastructure, and it's virtually impossible to imagine the UK continuing without it. Roads of any size are overloaded, cities are too crowded to allow for every resident to own a car (just finding a parking spot outside of your own home is a rare luxury few enjoy.) And, quite honestly, public transport is pleasant. It's not perfect, but the view in America of buses being something you get mugged on, for example, which itself is ridiculous, is considered laughable.

And with environmental concerns about road based transport, as well as the oil dependency issues it raises (taken more seriously in the UK than US, where high gas taxes exist to attempt to prevent repeats of the 1970s), it's as much a national security issue that the rail system exist and be useful to passenger and freight alike as it is a practical issue.

So "something had to be done", and John Major, to give him credit, did something - intentionally or otherwise - that I think is pretty good: he used the corruption of government against itself.


Now, at this point, you can probably guess this is a kinda follow on to my last JE. In the UK, just like the US, there's a corruption in government. In the US, it's more obvious and arguably more tolerated. It's just assumed that you can buy influence, and to a certain extent people informing themselves about politicians vote in part based upon who's sponsoring them, rather than against them because they're being sponsored at all.

The UK has two major parties, the Conservatives, who are owned by the business community, and Labour, who are owned by the unions. The union ownership is largely uncontroversial - unions exist to represent their members, who are ordinary people, so giving them representation within government doesn't seem evil. But it should be kept in mind that this doesn't mean Labour does the right or most democratic things because of that: consider, for example, whether given the choice between an environmentally correct choice, and one that protects the jobs of coal miners, the system is set up to ensure Labour makes the right decision.

Now, Ernest Marples, above, owned a road haulage company, taking steps to disguise his continuing ownership of the company when he was in power. The biggest threat to road haulage was British Rail, which operated a relatively open freight and light freight network. Since the Beeching re-organization, routes have been cut, and the bars for being able to use the freight network have been drastically raised. So Marples directly benefited from his choice of Beeching to manage BR. But that's not all that was going on.

Let's look at the situation in the 1960s.

  • British Railways was a branch of government. It couldn't lobby for itself, in the sense of making campaign contributions and aiding the election of friendly candidates
  • The road haulage industry could lobby for itself, and did, causing the Conservatives to become anti-rail.
  • The car industry could lobby for itself, and did, also causing the Conservatives to become anti-rail.
  • The car industry and road haulage industries could also lobby non-political, but influential, entities like the media, a route not available to the state-owned rail company.
  • The unions were split between the road haulage industry and the rail industry. Labour therefore followed the path of least resistance, which was to continue what was already in place. That meant implementing Beeching's cuts.
How do you protect British Rail (or rather, the railway system) going forward? Well, the only way is to build a counterweight to the road industry. 
  • You create businesses that rely upon the existence of the railway system to survive.
  • You bring in companies that would otherwise be rail hostile, such as other transportation companies, and make them reliant upon railway income.
  • You ensure the subsidy system is not open to question, by creating mechanisms that at least suggest that if it were possible to run a system for less, the subsidies would be less.

John Major's privatization of British Rail looks exactly like what you'd expect it to look like based on a "Protecting the railway" agenda above.

1. You create businesses that rely upon the existence of the railway system to survive.

British Rail itself ceased to exist in the privatization, but several corporations were set up to manage the actual infrastructure and own British Rail's former rolling stock. One of these, Railtrack, the company that managed the infrastructure, was controversial from the start and was eventually brought back into national ownership, and arguably this is the one part of British Rail that should have remained nationalized.

2. You bring in companies that would otherwise be rail hostile

British Rail's operations were devolved into a set of franchises. Companies were invited to bid on each franchise, with the winner given a semi-monopoly on services covered by that franchise. BR's competitors were specifically encouraged to take part, and they did. Bus companies National Express and Stagecoach were involved from the start, as was Virgin, owners of Virgin Atlantic.

Suddenly companies that were competing with the rail network, were now directly benefiting from it. They had no reason to lobby against the network, and indeed had good reasons to argue for more government support.

3. You ensure the subsidy system is not open to question

While, to the surprise of some I guess, large parts of the rail system are profitable, many parts aren't, and so part of the process of picking companies to run franchises involves requiring each business bid on a subsidy (or lack of one.) The company that has the most positive effect on the Treasury, while being competent and able to run the services required, gets the franchise.

This makes it much more difficult to suggest that parts of the network are over-subsidized. If it were possible to run a serviceable train system for that franchise for much less of a subsidy, the company that bid on it would have been out bid.


So there you have it. Corruption used against itself. To be fair, the current British railway system is far from perfect, and there are a lot of complaints about the privatized system. Still, travel on it is astonishing cheap compared to 15 years ago, there are more services, and more frequent services, and most agree it's still the best way to get around Britain.

Moreover, Beeching is finally being undone. Train operating companies are demanding new lines be built, often to replace lines that Beeching killed. Until the privatization, there was virtually no entity with power capable of lobbying for those new lines, and still less any chance of them ever happening.

Other countries might learn a thing or two from what Major did. I'd like to see something similar in the US, with state owned rails, and privately owned trains. This would, at the very least, remove some of the inequities that make running passenger trains in the US so unprofitable, such as the absurd property taxes. And it would create "Big Train", a lobby that'd argue for expansion of the network. Unfortunately, legally and morally, it would be immensely difficult to do such a thing. The right time would have been with the break-up of Conrail, or even at the formation of Amtrak, but the concept of "Private lines, public trains" is so embedded in the US rail system it would be difficult to undo.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

I, for one, welcome our Federal Overlords

I've come to the conclusion that Illinois has the least corrupt government in the US. "But Squiggie!", I hear you pretend to say, "That's so corrupt the governor was put in Jail last month!", to which my answer is "Exactly".

Blagojevich sits in jail because he demanded a reward for picking Obama's choice of Senator, it's not clear what kind of reward, it might have been spending money, or it might have been a campaign contribution. But it was wrong, and Rod's now being punished for the crime.

By comparison, my state's governor passed rules that force government employees to get drug tests upon being hired, something that is entirely unnecessary (and a cause of needless anxiety to the victims) but happens to benefit companies that do drug tests - like, well, the governor's. Clearly corrupt, and nobody's even considering jailing the bastard.

Corruption and abuse of power seems to appear in different forms at different levels of government. My experience is:

  • HOAs are little more than person fiefdoms for cliques who use rules to inflict misery on those who cross them. People who attempt to vote out those cliques rarely end up any the better, and most residents are too intimidated to involve themselves in the "democracy" to change things.
  • City and county governments have a mix of good and bad people, depending upon the luck of the draw. The politicians themselves aren't usually too bad in terms of how corrupt they are, but they usually have a myopic vision of the consequences of their actions, leading to frequent overreaches in terms of rule making and power. Police and other emergency services are usually fine at a high level, but as you get to the lower ranks, there's a certain amount of looking out for each other than comes at the expense of those served. [FWIW, one of the reasons I like the NCIS television show is that it somewhat subversively shows the corruption in action through the extremely ironic character of Gibbs]
  • State governments tend to be somewhat larger versions of  city and county governments with many of the same problems. A bigger issue is that the politicians seem to be more ideological and more inclined to try to impose their ideology on others.
And then we get to the Federal level. Right now we have:
  • A rather power obsessed executive that frequently abuses its power
  • An ideological Supreme Court, though one reluctant to abuse its power in most instances
  • A bizarre Congress that's mostly corrupt, but has great difficulty exercising power

So, who should have power?

I have to admit, I'd rather see power go upward. It's not that the Federal Government is less corrupt than, say, my HOA. It's more that Federal Laws are more difficult to enforce than local laws. The more unrealistic a Federal politician is, the less likely it is their attempts to exert power will be effective.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Defenders of self defense laws shouldn't smear Trayvon Martin

A young man is walking through a neighborhood on his way home from buying a drink and snack from a nearby store. It's dark and raining. He's suddenly aware that he's being followed. He stops his conversation on his cellphone, his heart racing he asks his stalker what's going on. It's dark, but the man following him is armed, and starts to ask threatening questions. The young man realizes he's going to be attacked, and attempts to smack down his accoster, who falls to the ground hitting his head on the concrete. After a brief struggle, there's a gunshot. The stalker has pulled out his firearm and killed the young man.

Is this story an attempt to defend Trayvon Martin, the teenager shot to death by a vigilante a few weeks ago? No, staggeringly, it's actually the story being told by the vigilante's defenders. They argue that Martin attacked Zimmerman, after Zimmerman followed and confronted Martin. They say Zimmerman was in the right because Martin was able to fight back, and may have thrown the first punch.

We don't know if the story is true, but one thing is for sure: if your idea of a right to self defense is that a scared young man shouldn't be able to fight off a stalker, but a lucid stalker should be able to shoot a scared and excited young man who has managed to get the better of him, then you have a very strange idea of what self defense constitutes.

Florida has a "Stand your ground" law, a law I reluctantly support. I think, on balance, it's better that someone who has a legitimate fear of being attacked be able to use force to defend themselves, than for them to have to worry about going to prison for doing so. While it may not feel like something necessary in a civilized society, the reality is that not everyone is civilized, and the fact someone might defend themselves is itself a deterrent against those who aren't. Moreover, it's simply inhuman to say that someone scared, whose judgement is going to defined by their fear, should not be able to use the tools available to them to defend themselves.

Stand Your Ground was attacked by some because they saw it as the catalyst for Trayvon's killing. They may be right, but not in the sense they argued. Their argument is that Zimmerman thought he had a legal right to dispense justice because of that law, an argument that's almost certainly untrue. Zimmerman clearly wasn't threatened until (if he was) he took a lucid decision to involve himself in a confrontation. Trayvon clearly never got an opportunity to make a lucid decision. He felt threatened, and he (if the story above is true) stood his ground.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Thoughts (political, etc)

Many progressives are demanding the head of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales after the recent massacre in Afghanistan. I'm not going to go there at this point: my problem is that - with, obviously, all due respect to the vast majority of soldiers who are able to cope with conditions in that country - it's not immediately clear whether Bales is psychotic, or someone who's exploded after extreme pressure.

My view is that training people to kill and then sending them into a country full of people who just don't like you, where a minority is even trying to kill you, while soaking you in propaganda depicting your role as heroic and worthy of unquestioning support from those very people, just... well, it seems almost inevitable that given enough people subjected to that situation, one of them would snap. And if someone engineer - by design or through negligence - a situation where such a brutal tragedy is inevitable, I would consider that person more culpable than the person who pulls the trigger.

Chances of such a person being officially identified, let alone held accountable? Zero.


I'm considering holding my nose and voting for Obama at the moment. It depends, right now, on who wins the nomination. All signs point to Romney, who may be a 1%er jerk, but is apparently no worse than Obama and so would leave me free to lodge a "You didn't get my vote Obama, you torturing, executing, jackass" vote for a third party. But there's a moderate risk that Santorum will get the nomination, and actually I believe he's one of very, very, few people on the Republican side who would actively make things worse. And interestingly in part it's because of his proposal for a war on porn that scares me.

It's not so much the subject, although actually I do strongly support the rights of consenting adults to take pictures of each other and sell the pictures and movies on the Internet. My major concern here is the indication that he would consider such a war a priority and the implicit understanding that this means Santorum would, actually, use his executive powers under existing law to impose his screwed up moral values upon the rest of us. Given that there's no suggestion he's opposed to Obama's wars on civil liberties, such a President would give us the worst of all worlds.


And on that note, would one of my conservative readers like to comment upon whether the "Right wing urges Gingrich to drop out, so that Santorum will get a clear run against Romney" thing actually makes sense? It doesn't to me. I've always seen Gingrich as coming from the semi-libertarian branch of the Republican coalition, he's definitely not theocratic, and I don't see someone who supports Gingrich the technocrat with unfortunate personal morals as being a natural Santorum supporter. In fact, I'd assume most of those people would actually consider Romney a better fit with their beliefs.

I understand that Santorum and Gingrich are both considered more "pure" than Romney, but on the left I'd argue that Glenn Greenwald and Vladimir Lenin are considered more pure than Obama - that doesn't mean if all three were running for President, and Greenwald dropped out, Lenin would pick up any of Greenwald's supporters.

So what's the deal? Are the conservative commentators who are calling for Gingrich to step down onto something I don't understand, or are they just... well, as crazy as Santorum?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Actions have consequences [note: not nice]

I prefer not to speak ill of the dead, but it would stand to reason that if, say, Bernie Madoff were to die tonight, very few people would be eulogising him. They wouldn't claim that his frauds were legitimate because they were in support of some greater goal.

And so I have to admit to feeling somewhat nauseous hearing even my fellow liberals pretend that there was anything good to say about Andrew Breitbart.

The man was a monster.

The man took down a poverty group because it had the audacity to encourage, and help, those it sought to help, to vote. ACORN ran a voter registration scheme, and after a years long smear campaign using the most liberal, but still legally correct, definition of "voter registration fraud", the right wing had failed to shut it down. Brietbart created a video designed to make it look like ACORN helped prostitution, a video that turned out to be, using deceptive editing and the removal of critical audio, 100% bogus.

The damage was done and those who needed help lost the support of a group of good, honest, people.

It might be popular with many on the right to side with the powerful against the powerless at the moment, but that doesn't make it any less evil. Breitbart was one of those who insisted on propping up the abusive against the less fortunate. Fuck him. I'm glad he's dead.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Class wars

Getting rather annoyed about the use of the phrase "class war" to describe those arguing that the wealthy should pay more in taxes. Leaving aside the motives of those spreading it as a meme - a rather transparent yet successful attempt to discredit the argument by pretending it's something else - it's also wrong.

As an ex-Brit, I know what classes are, and being rich or poor doesn't determine the class you're in. Being a member of a privileged class though tends to mean you have power, which usually implies you're given wealth as part of the deal.

The US has classes, but it also has a number of other social structures that undermine the class system and make it less of an issue than it is (or to some extent was) in the UK. The rich and powerful do what they can to remain rich and powerful, and ensure their children are rich and powerful, and that makes it harder for those who aren't rich and powerful to move forward, but you can't really point at the rich and say they make up a unified establishment linked socially and economically. The wealthy's use of power tends to be through bribes - sorry, lobbying - and control of the media, not through sitting in a House of Lords or having friends who do.

You can argue that there's similarities, but in reality, the similarities are only in the sense that the powerful have the power to remain powerful.

Arguing that the wealthy should pay more in taxes is not "class war", even if, as those who promote the "class war" meme, the argument is because we're at war with rich people. Rich people are not a class.

And, just to make it clear to my right wing friends who slavishly repeat this stuff, nobody's arguing you shouldn't be rich. We just don't see it as good policy to tax those who benefit the most from a society - by definition - at the same or a lower rate than everyone else. And right now we know that we're in a state where there's a chronic lack of demand, which isn't going to be solved until money starts to flow into the pockets of the majority.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Rethinking abortion

I'm going to preface this with a summary because this is such a hot button issue, that it's likely to get misunderstood. The position described by this blog entry is this:

I am pro-choice, despite misgivings about the morality of abortion. I consider the legalization of choice important, but there are issues I care much more deeply about, that are more black and white, and my support for those latter issues overrides my support for the first.


There aren't many reasons for a liberal to support the Democrats these days. The Democrats have anti-liberal policies in most spheres. They're pro-war. They're pro-torture. The TSA has continued to grow and become more draconian under Obama's watch. They support the war on the drugs, even going so far as to undermine state initiatives to curb the excesses of that war. They care little, or not at all, about the unemployed until it's a year or so before the next election and realize that lots of unemployed people equals lots of votes for the other guy. And I get into arguments with like minded liberals online, and usually, after a large number of statements like:

  • Yeah, but they ended the war in Iraq
  • You mean they kept to the timetable Bush agreed to? And they attacked Libya, illegally!
  • But... they passed healthcare reform!
  • Yes, but the reform they went for was anti-liberal. Now we're forced to buy insurance from the same abusive assholes who caused the problem in the first place, and with one or two exceptions, the same crap still exists. How is this better?
  • But, uh, Bush!
  • Can you point at a Bush policy of importance that Obama hasn't ultimately continued, or even extended?
the issue of the Supreme Court comes up. If we allow a Republican to win, says the reluctant Democrat, they'll appoint a conservative to the Supreme Court, tipping the balance and causing abortion to be banned!

And because I'm a liberal, and I support choice, that's usually the point at which I sigh and get frustrated. If the Democrats can always rely upon liberals to support them, even when they're anti-liberal, then how do we get the Democrats to actually stop being anti-liberal?

But as I've thought about it, I've become more and more convinced it's a bad argument anyway. Abortion is an important issue, but there are a hell of a lot of important issues. And for some reason, it's OK to throw our children under the bus in pointless wars, our dissenting voices and whistle-blowers under the torture bus, our cancer patients and other people in severe pain under the drugs war bus, our unemployed under the foreclosure bus, and our general freedoms under the bus, but it's not OK to "throw women under the bus" - or rather, a small number of women who, rightly or wrongly, end up in the doctor's chair wanting to end an unwanted pregnancy.

What's wrong with that picture?

Does it do liberalism any good if only one issue is fought for? And wouldn't it take care of the choice issue long term if there was a major political party willing to fight for liberal principles - that was scared of losing the liberal vote?

And, hold on a moment, but is this really the most important issue liberals should be fighting for, to the exclusion of everything else? Those Democrats who are considered liberals rarely spend as much effort fighting, say, the war on drugs, as they do the war on abortion, and yet there are significant similarities between the two, obscured in some ways because the war on drugs is current and criminalized by definition, and the war on abortion is not.

The war on drugs causes both "good" and "bad" uses of proscribed drugs to be banned. So both dope using cancer patients and stoners both end up criminalized. It's not entirely clear that many states would ban abortions in all circumstances, but despite that I'd agree with most assessments that both rape victims and "abortion as contraception" users would end up suffering under the ban.

The war on drugs makes matters worse for those who plan to take drugs anyway. Supplies become unreliable and unregulated, making them dangerous. Those who sell the drugs are criminals by definition, which means an above average interest by the criminal element in managing the distribution chain. Sellers have reasons to push overly addictive drugs, knowing there are no sanctions for doing so that don't apply to other drugs. Likewise, a cynic would probably wonder how many anti-choice advocates have shares in companies that sell wire coat-hangers.

Both the war on drugs and war on abortion are ultimately wars on the body, a belief that government has the right to intrude upon an individual's ultimate right to decide what their body can and cannot do. Governments have every right to help individuals make the right decisions - and obviously has every right to minimize the danger of one person's choices to others - but there are lines that should not be crossed. But, actually, in many ways the government has a stronger right to regulate abortion than it does drugs. At some point - the religious might argue around two weeks after the LMP, others would look at the development of the zygote, embryo or fetus and point at something significant such as brain development or a heartbeat - one has to come to the conclusion there's another body involved.

In our zeal to protect a woman's right to choose, it's become obvious that equal or greater principles have been thrown under the bus. More-over, it's not clear to me that simply the addition of a conservative to the Supreme Court would cause permanent, irreversible, damage to the cause. A conservative might overturn Roe vs Wade, but it would still be necessary for states to take the next step, and it's not immediately clear many would be successful. Free movement would also make it difficult for such laws to be effective. This is not to argue that a state could not cause hardship in its zeal to ban abortion, but a Republican winning an election does not mean an immediate, draconian, nationwide abortion ban.

Liberals should not focus on one issue to the exclusion of every other issue at each election, and especially not on this one. The Democratic party should not be allowed to think that its support for one issue - and the Republican's polar opposite opinion - should guarantee support for it from the liberal bloc. If the Democrats are ultimately an anti-liberal party, they shouldn't have our support.

Monday, January 16, 2012

New laptop, and Ubuntu Ocelot comments

Some news about my finances made me buy a laptop just after Christmas, not because they're good, but because this'll probably be the last time I get the chance to buy one for the next five years or so. Don't worry, the news is good news. I'll share more in a few weeks.

What I got was a Dell. Yes, I voluntarily went out and bought a Dell. Nobody buys Dells except (1) corporate IT departments and (2) "PC owners" in the fevered imagination of Mac zealots, until now. And in classic Dell style, the machine looks and feels boring. Corporate. Depressing. Urgh.

So why Dell? Well, because the alternative was Lenovo, and quite honestly, my last few experiences with Lenovo have not been good. I was thinking HP, but for some reason they refuse to include nipples on their laptops unless they cost four digits, which is a shame because I'd have gone in that direction given the budget PC I bought from them is excellent. And it gets harder to get nipples on your laptop with other brands. As it is, the Dell nipple could be a lot better, I'm on the look out for a better nub because it's actually quite painful to use.

What did I get? Well: It's a Latitude E6420, which is a Toyota Camry of the laptop world I guess. It has a Core i7, albeit a low end version (ie just the two cores, made to look like four using hyperthreading). The screen is a 1600x900 14" thing, which is very nice indeed, and there's a low end nVidia in there that, even under Wine, does a pretty good job on everything I've thrown at it, although GTA 4 is wanting. There's a (fairly crappy) webcam, an SD card reader, and a few things Ubuntu doesn't have drivers for like an RFID reader, finger print reader, etc. I've upgraded it to have a 750G disk, and 8G of RAM (which maxes it out unfortunately. With 4G being the standard today I'm bothered 8G will look pretty crappy in five years.)

I put Ubuntu 11.10 on it. Now, I'll be honest with you, while I like the direction Unity is going in, I do think - fairly strongly - that it was released too early. It's still not ready for prime time, in my opinion. There are major and minor complaints I have with it:

  • Running an app that isn't on the dock is a PITA.
  • The dock doesn't really understand/respect the "multiple workspaces" thing.
  • The single menu thing is a great idea, but the whole "Move the mouse to it to see it" thing is bad. I'm a fan of Apple's solution here, change the "File" menu to have the same of the app and otherwise show the menu all the time. Or go the Commodore Amiga route and use the right mouse button. And, just showing the menu and not trying to id the app is OK in practice too (see below.) But however you do it, understand Fitts Law doesn't work well if you don't know where to send the mouse.
Some of these may seem minor, and it may not be a long list, but honestly, it's enough for me to not be able to stand the system for any great length of time. What I did instead was:
  • Use the GNOME 3 "fallback" system
  • Install the third party GNOME 3 panel applets that implement the Ubuntu menus (including the single menu) and that thing on the right with all the icons and your name and so on.
  • Installed "Docky" and had that be the bottom panel. Docky isn't perfect, but it's slightly better at the multiple workspaces thing, and I prefer that style of window management - slightly - to the Windows 95 taskbar thing.
The third party PPA that includes Ubuntu panel applets for GNOME 3 is described by this article. The menu thing actually shows the menu at all times (no hiding it when the mouse isn't near it), and that works for me.

People are switching in droves to alternatives to Ubuntu because of Unity. I'm not convinced that it's quite as high as some of the claims - many people are citing figures from ISO distribution sites for instance, but most people upgrading from Ubuntu X to Ubuntu Y will never be in those figures. But still, Canonical does need to be a little more careful when releasing their new technologies. It's hard seeing giants of the Open Source/Free Software world fall not because their technologies are bad, but because they're willing to release unfinished crap as production code when they should sit on it and make it work properly before releasing it. Unity is getting there though. And from my brief testing of GNOME 3's Shell, I'm of the opinion Canonical are slightly ahead, although the GNOME 3 people have some great ideas too.

On that note, would it be too much to ask for Ubuntu to put Firefox 3.6 back in the repositories?

Also: Thunderbird is OK, but it's not Evolution, and quite honestly, I think Evolution is a much better product. It's much faster, and does more without the need for extensions. It's a little annoying that Ubuntu is supporting the former over the latter because even if you install the latter, it doesn't automatically integrate with Ubuntu's notification bar, while Thunderbird just sits there thumbing its nose at you.

Here's what I think Canonical needs to do for Ubuntu 12.04 (or 12.10, it's probably too late for 12.04.)
  • Bring back hierarchical menus as a way to launch applications. Big translucent panels with huge icons that leave most apps hidden and with it being confusing as to whether an app is even on your computer or not doesn't work. It really doesn't. If you must do something like that, make the icons smaller.
  • The dock really needs a lot of fixing. There's not enough space to show everything on most PCs which leads to awkward hacks involving scrolling. And it doesn't respect multiple workspaces. So, to that end:
    • Make the dock thinner
    • Let the user place the dock on the bottom of the screen if they so wish
    • Only show icons for apps on the current workspace (plus launchers, widgets, etc), and if the same app has windows open on multiple workspaces, pretend those windows don't exist.
    • Disable multiple workspaces by default (but make it easy for us to enable.)
    • Reduce the number of circumstances in which the dock is hidden.
  • The single menu needs to be implemented in all Ubuntu supported apps, including LibreOffice. It should not be hidden with the current window's name.
  • Replace Thunderbird with Evolution.
  • Replace Banshee (OMG. You know that thing causes the fan to start running, and both memory and CPU to be maxed out, immediately upon starting on my Netbook?) with RhythmBox. As a general rule, avoid replacing working software in the future just because it's imperfect and something else looks like it's going in the right direction - wait until that other app is proven first.
So, those are my opinions.

Finally, when did Wine get so good? With some minor exceptions, pretty much everything I've got on Steam that I tried has worked perfectly right out of the box. GTA IV needed some tweaking, and a third party DLL to disable Windows Live (which unfortunately disables all multiplayer, including LAN, alas) but once it works it's hard to believe it's not running natively. Awesome job.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Romney, Bain, and layoffs

Losing your job is a terrible thing. I should know. I've been laid off twice in the last two years. I wasn't fired, I remained on good terms with both companies, and the first, an automotive business consultancy, even contracted me to do work for them while I was looking for work.

But it still sucked. And so you might expect me to join the chorus of those attacking Mitt Romney for his stint at Bain Capital, during which time companies he was in some way responsible for laid off workers left and right. But I'm not going to. I don't think it's that simple.

The last few years have given layoffs a very bad name. This is in part because corporations have laid off workers when they've still been cash rich, and when there was no evidence that they couldn't afford to keep the workers on. By laying off people, they've reduced demand, which in turn, collectively, has damaged their own interests. This is a classic tragedy of the commons, or race to the bottom. It's in each corporation's best interests to lay off people if it can do the same work with fewer people, but collectively, the corporations end up with less work to do (and less income) because they've laid off all these people.

Of the two companies that laid me off, one fits the above description, the other doesn't.

The other laid me off because it was on the verge of bankruptcy. It's arguable it shouldn't have hired me in the first place, and even more arguably (because I'm me!) that it should have hired me a year earlier, because one of the problems the company was facing was it needed its IT infrastructure drastically upgraded, and that's the job I was brought in to do. But that said, actually primarily its problem was that it operated in the health field, and insurance companies were being bloody minded at the time because they didn't like HCR, and so a company that already had problems was suddenly fast-forwarded to bankruptcy many years too early.

Unhealthy businesses do need restructuring from time to time. When Bain bought companies, many companies it bought were in bad shape. Those companies needed to be restructured. It would be nice to claim that each company could have found some way to increase business 500% so that they could live with the same number of employees, but realistically, by the time its noticed that a business is doing badly, it's usually too late to do anything other than cut costs.

I have a second reason for knowing this. It relates to the first company that laid me off. As I said, we were an automotive business consultancy. To be specific, we collected information about the performance of our client's dealer networks (our clients were the manufacturers.) Car dealers are independent businesses, but they must operate efficiently and profitably in order for car manufacturers to stay in shape. We had one, and only one, client in Detroit. Guess which one?

If you said "Ford", and answered that because it was the only car manufacturer that survived 2008, then congratulations. You get the cookie.

Now, to be clear, I'm not arguing I saved Ford! Indeed, I have no idea what impact I had, although I'm 99% sure we helped them. What I do know is what Ford was doing at the time.

What differed Ford from GM and Chrysler was that Ford was on the ball well before the recession. It recognized it was unhealthy, that it needed to become healthy, and it enlisted a lot of help to make sure it did. Ford went through a restructuring without going bankrupt first. That restructuring left more of Ford and more of Ford's dealer network alive, and proportionally more people working directly and indirectly for Ford, than the bankruptcies did for GM and Chrysler.

It was hell for everyone involved at the time, of course, but we knew Ford didn't have much choice. There were hushed silences when we discussed the situation. We personally knew many of the people affected. We felt bad for them. We knew that some of the data we were supplying would affect the jobs of people we knew.

And because Ford did those painful things at the time, Ford is healthy today. People have jobs at Ford that wouldn't do today if it wasn't for the pain everyone went through a few years before the recession.

I never worked for Bain Capital. I can't say for sure whether Bain always made the right decisions. But I can say that there's nothing wrong with taking a company that has problems, and making sensible job cuts a part of fixing it if that's what's necessary to get the company working again.

And as such, I don't believe it's right to attack Romney for his Bain associations on this issue.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Ron Paul

One of the people I read who generally tends to be fairly on the ball about things (Glenn Greenwald) is insisting we should take Ron Paul seriously purely because he says some good things on the subject of foreign policy. The argument goes "Sure, he says some stupid stuff too, but why aren't you saying the same thing about Obama?"

Well, with respect, I am, which is why Obama isn't going to get my vote at this election, come what may.

I understand there's no perfect candidate at any Presidential election, but the reality is Ron Paul's worldview is not good. I can't support someone simply because he agrees with me on, say, the drug war and that current US government foreign policies are bad if the overall package is bad too. Obama and I probably agree on a few things too, but overall, the man is a monster. Here are my problems with Ron Paul.
  • Economically he's a kook. He believes in the gold standard and a view of currency that's caused financial disasters everywhere it's been deployed since in the world became capitalist enough for currency to matter.
  • I'm not convinced that he is much of a libertarian at heart. Paul's always advocated State's Rights when given the opportunity to, something I have severe problems with. When you're thinking about giving rights to a government, even at the expense of another, you're doing libertarianism wrong.
  • If there's a major problem with the US at the moment that's causing havoc and likely to cause even more, it's that a small wealthy elite are wielding a disproportionate amount of power. It's hard for me to see how the "libertarian" policies Ron Paul does espouse are going to help that. I do want to see businesses regulated, I want to see playing fields leveled, and I want to have social programs that ensure the "99%" don't live in fear.
  • I really am bothered by the Newsletter fiascos. Paul's defenders have come up with a lot of "explanations" for this in efforts to distance him from the newsletters in question, but the racism went on for years and somehow Paul didn't seek to stop his name being slapped on this garbage at any time during this time. Did he really not read his own newsletter?
  • Paul advocates a different foreign policy, one that might be "better" but I believe is bad too. I don't see how complete isolation can be positive for the US, even if it would be preferable to us invading any country that some on the extreme right have a hard on over.
All of these are major problems for me. At this point, the only argument for Paul is "Well, isolation better than war war war, and economy can't possibly get worse", but I don't necessarily agree. Isolation might be as bad as war war war, and efforts to destroy our independent central bank, which is the one agency that's had the freedom and power to try to mitigate the effects of our disastrous contractionary fiscal policies over the Obama years, would unquestionably be worse, especially coupled with the dismantling of the remaining Federal agencies that work to keep money flowing into the economy.

We need a better Presidential candidate, but Ron Paul isn't it.