Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Howl's Moving Castle

This is your pointless review of the month...

I saw Howl's Moving Castle last night, and it was odd. The story was largely charming, the imagery was very interesting... but the animation was extremely erratic, and some of the plot just didn't make much sense. Not "not much sense" in a kind of fairy-tale vagueness, but "not much sense" as in "NOT MUCH SENSE". I can only presume the English dub skips a lot of the Japanese plot, because I've never seen a Ghibli movie make so little sense.

Who was that little kid living with Howl? WHY IS HE LIVING WITH HOWL? What's up with the prince? "Hi, I came out of nowhere! I'm in true love with you!" "Oh, I'm in love with someone else." "Oh, that's okay, I'll just come back in a few weeks." WTF?

Probably my least favorite Ghibli film (some of the animation was just flat-out BAD), but it's still better than most things out there.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Safety and Genetic Engineering

So, the Brits finally approved the human-animal genetic experiments.

These experiments are very interesting, but not terribly dangerous or crazy. I think the people who don't understand it are having visions of something between Manga-style catgirls and stitched-together "Island of Doctor Moreau" horrors. The truth is, even if you tried to bring these experiments to term, they wouldn't make it: this genetic mixing is too primitive, too damaging. Even if we had the capacity to combine them in a way which could be brought to term, we would focus on basic human improvements first, no animal traits involved.

I think that a lot of people are stuck on this idea of a fifties-style mad scientist in a lab coat, cackling to himself and building monsters. I have a sneaking suspicion these people might even imagine it in black and white.

The truth is that individuals cannot accomplish projects of any reasonable scale, at least not yet. These kinds of projects (new foods, theoretical genetics research, etc) require large teams with hugely expensive equipment. We're not talking about a man with a lab coat, cackling. We're talking about a room full of people with lab coats, cackling. It's time to stop thinking Doctor Moreau and time to start thinking Doctor No: in order to release some new genetic monster on the world, it would require almost unlimited funding and hundreds of scientists, every single one of whom must be willing and able to keep it secret.

IE, living on a volcanic island surrounded by sharks with laser beams on their heads.

The only entities able to fund that kind of development are major corporations, major militaries, and any of the people who founded Microsoft. Of those, major corporations are the only ones that can be reasonably stopped with laws, and I'm not sure it makes sense to make the laws about specific kinds of genetic research. There are always other kinds of research, and corporations have a surprising knack for doing horrible things within the letter of the law. It might be better to focus on laws about corporate BEHAVIOR, not RESEARCH.

The people who are more or less above the law - militaries, who can simply ignore it, and the very rich, who can simply do it in a more permissive nation. In those cases, there is no immediate worry: the potential for giant scorpions or horrible mutant humans is simply not there. Effectively, in order to do that kind of thing, it would require something on par with Los Alamos... and I guarantee you that it could not be kept truly secret. Even Los Alamos wasn't particularly secret among physicists, and in this era, everything's a hundred times better connected.

There is a danger from smaller projects, such as weaponized diseases. These are technically within the scope of today's science. In fact, there are plenty of researchers engaged, right now, in breeding ever nastier tiny biological things. They don't do this to provide us with weapons of mass destruction, they do this to provide us with better protection against the continued march of tiny biological things to get ever-nastier on their own.

See, in this day and age, no government would be willing to release a weaponized biological agent. Although the atom bomb is stuck in our minds as a horror, the truth is that everyone who knows better is far more scared of biological stuff. If you killed 400 Serbians with a customized disease, every first world country in the universe would come down on you as if you had just nuked a middling-sized city.

That leaves only private individuals as significant threats.

Maybe they are, maybe not. Excessively rich people often have strange wishes. But one thing is for sure: prohibiting something will just make them do it quieter, or farther away.

Personally, even if none of this were true, even if there was a impending risk, I would still support extensive genetic experimentation. That's because, out of all the scientific fields there are, out of all the scientific fields there have EVER BEEN, modern genetic research has the greatest potential to improve life.

And science improves life.

Even when it starts off on the wrong foot, going the wrong direction, it doesn't take long to turn around and improve life.

So huzzah for genetic research! And huzzah for any nation that approves it.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Augmented Reality

My brain's been stuck on augmented reality these days. I've been working out the ways it will change the world, but something in my brain keeps saying that it's more important than I've worked out.

I've tried to write a lot of essays on the subject, but they keep getting too long as I work out details. So I'm not posting them. This time, I'm going to try to keep things shorter.

Why is augmented reality (AR) going to be as world-changing as the internet? What benefits does it offer? First, what the hell is it, really?

It'll be a long time before we wear goggles that alter how reality looks, if we ever do (it may actually be easier to replace our eyes or get a neural feed), but AR is useful long before then.

For example, there are new displays that can be transparent (or, at the worst, display video from a camera on the other side of the display). Imagine including GPS and orientation systems into the display, so that it knows exactly where it is facing. This system can't do any kind of visual analysis, but what it can do is reference a database full of things that are recorded in the world at specific points. Some of these things will be real (addresses), some will be fake (restaurant reviews), but they can all be displayed just by knowing where we are and where we're facing.

This should be enough to accomplish the vast majority of AR's real power. What's it accomplish?

As far as I can tell, the biggest benefit is deep asynchronous communities (DAC).

An example of a DAC is YouTube: people will post thousands of videos to YouTube on any given subject, and friends and total strangers will see it and respond. It's significantly "deeper" than asynchronous communities offered by forums or MySpace because it's easier to communicate on a complex and/or personal level: just fire up your camera and talk. It's impossible to overstate the effectiveness of full audiovisual communication in comparison to text.

However, YouTube is a feeble DAC compared to a group of teenagers messaging each other with texts and pictures. The teenagers have an advantage: their DAC is supported by the strong backbone of their synchronous community: they're friends that hang out, which means that they share common interests and bonds. Although the messages and pics are not very deep communications, they are building off a mountain of deep communications: the synchronous community of the teens.

Some more modern not-so-deep asynchronous communities (such as XKCD) have worked in the opposite direction, working to establish synchronous communities from their asynchronous ones. This has worked only to a small extent...

The point is that humans build communities. It's part of our instinct. Even if the "people" we're building the community out of are represented only by simple Times New Roman forum posts, we manage. We build absurdly deep communities out of things that require only the lightest community - there's not much reason behind the deep sense of community that allows Eve Online to stay Online.

AR is, I think, one of the ultimate methods to do this.

AR is limited by the fact that it's local to where you are (or are pretending to be). However, this limitation is potentially a strong congealing force because it allows us to easily get a synchronous meeting going. Chatting in person is a hundred times more powerful than chatting through AIM.

"Why do we need AR? We could just go out with our friends!"

Ah, but the network is crippled as it stands now.

You can probably picture in your head dozens of people that looked like they might be Your Sort of Folk... but you never talked to them. Certainly never became their friend.

You also probably remember a bunch of people you were friends with that you aren't really friends with now - either they moved away, or they just didn't much like hanging out, or any number of other details.

Let's imagine ourselves up a naive political theory thought experiment. Wire up a college with the kind of AR we're talking about.

How long do you think it will take before the college is wholly transformed into a thousand different environments? I bet within a week the college has a fantasy facade, a scifi facade, a goth facade, a cartoon facade, a "student life" facade... and that's not even counting the facades for makeshift games such as assassins.

The system can't interpret visual information, remember. All of these facades are constructed virtually, but in "real space". Someone measures out the parameters of all the buildings, and then people specify virtual additions. The software shrugs and pleasantly burps up the fact that there is a huge dragon on top of Kinnecut hall, and that the Ecclesiastical Studies Building has been spraypainted with rude (and animated) murals. All visible by holding up your viewplate and looking through it.

It's possible that the arnets will be private - Jimmy and Don might have their own personal data for their own personal net - but many of these nets will be pseudo-public. Imagine cycling through networks. The scifi folk spend their time on a space station, where every window looks out over the nearby nebula. For some reason the student government has imprinted a map of the world onto school property and is running some kind of weird economic sim based on who travels where... All of them sprinkled liberally with various comments, videos, items, and so forth, some generated automatically, some generated by the participants.

It's like an immersive YouTube, except that you can choose to live in their worlds rather than just watch them talk. These shared realities are more powerful than virtual realities because they are so much more invasive: you can be in (and be helped by!) an augmented reality while you're listening to a lecture or eating lunch. You can be face-to-face with other people from your reality, talking and interacting at full speed, not crippled by text-only or time lag or anything else.

Add in the fact that if someone walks by your screen, you see their name (in your arnet) and various commentary about them, this can make your community spontaneous but very, very deep.

"Is it really so important, though? It sounds a lot like just joining a club, but with added graphics!"

I think it's not just important, I think it changes the world. Putting aside the cool power to reshape reality to whatever you want, putting aside the way it can be used to build "paths" through reality, rewind and fast forward time, provide instructions on complex things in the real world, and give us bulletproof personal ratings... it allows us to live together in a world we create, rather than living vaguely near each other in a world of life's choosing.

It's hard to say what the advantages to many of the AR abilities are. Will being able to virtually rewind time ever be as critical as, say, email? Will being guided on specific physical paths ever be as important as having a cell phone?

I can make some guesses (yes and yes), but it's almost impossible to describe WHY in less than ten pages, and there's a lot of chaos between here and there. They certainly won't become important all that quickly: AR will be around for years before they become important.

But communities will start important and stay important, and it won't be long before access to our central community database is considered a sense as important as sight or hearing. It's certainly not going too far to assume that AR will radically reshape what it means to be part of a community.

I think.

What do you think?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pointless Complexity

One of the things I'm interested in right now is the fifty-page-long list of weapons in tabletop games. Especially prevalent in futuristic RPGs such as Shadowrun, I find them fascinating. (Yes, I know not all those weapons are canon...)

The world builder in me says, "oh, cool, fifty different kinds of pistol!", but the game designer in me goes, "what the...? Why the...? Who the...?"

There's something inherently interesting about having this kind of variety. It lends a feeling of authenticity and gives you another little minigame: trying to figure out what weapon is best for your character/situation. This means that it adds both depth and immersion: good things.

But there's something inherently dumb as hell about facing a player making a character and saying, "okay, you have $10k, here's the giant list of all possible weapons. Go to it!"

A player experienced in the game will handle it okay: he's already figured out the puzzle. He knows he needs guns A, B, and C, and that he has precisely enough money to cover it. He handles it with aplomb. While that might seem okay, I actually think it's worse, in its way: there is no longer any challenge there, so there's no reason to have them anyway.

This is especially bad in games where the list of weapons is less a choice between tactical options and more a matter of buying the most expensive weapon you can find because its stats are simply better. This is a truism in video games.

Also, many weapons on these lists are dominated: you would never buy them, although it's possible you'll run across enemies armed with them. This is true even of games with much shorter lists: in most versions of D&D, there are half a dozen variants on "sword", and two of them are specifically better than the rest, although not significantly more pricey.

All of this got me thinking: is it possible to have a game (tabletop or otherwise) which features the benefits of this kind of situation without having the problems?

The basic idea is that the player needs to choose between various options, all of which are valid, although perhaps not tactically wise at the moment. Let's avoid dominated/obsolete weapons... and let's avoid price, which is basically just a system of planned obsolescence.

Instead, what we're looking to do is have a list which emphasizes the tactical difference between the options. For example, if we have two kinds of pistol, we'll know that pistol A is a high-accuracy target pistol while pistol B is more about cracking engine blocks from two yards away. There are a lot of factors we could discuss, including ammo use, speed, attack patterns, and affinities (fire vs ice attacks, or laser vs bullet). Weight could be of tactical importance, but only if it actually matters. Usually, any given object of the same class has more or less the same weight. Concealability is also potentially useful, but only if the game actually has a fair number of situations where that matters, which is, again, unusual.

The other issue here is availability. While an experienced player can look at a list of twenty different types of the same basic weapon and come away feeling happy, a beginner is going to get swamped. This is largely a matter of familiarity: an experienced player is much better at comparing stats, and he's familiar with many of the weapons on the list.

What I propose is to create a limited base set of choices - perhaps three or four of any given weapon type. And by this I do not mean three or four holdout pistols, three or four light pistols, three or four heavy pistols, three or four machine pistols... I mean three or four PISTOLS.

Now, if your player wants to be someone who knows his way around pistols, he can buy a perk or skill with character points. The perk will give him access to a wider variety of pistols and give him some customization options - attaching a laser sight or whatever.

This allows a beginning player to get his feet wet, but a more advanced player to have a full range of tactical options. The extra character points the beginner retains (not having to buy the perks) means he will be a more powerful character, partially offsetting the tactical limitations.

Over the course of the game, the player can either buy more access using character points, or he can take weapons from fallen enemies, or he can get an agent to buy him a special weapon he doesn't know how to obtain and customize himself... the GM can even add in supplements that the players can buy access to in the same basic manner.

This sort of system is similar in some ways to the restriction system in Shadowrun, but I'm talking about a whole different level. It's not just that you can't buy that restricted weapon: you have fewer customization options on the weapons you CAN buy.

Another option I like is the "growing market" option, where characters only have access to a few weapons because that's all that they can find. But, like a computer RPG, as they adventure they will find (or create) better shops with a larger variety. The two downsides to this method are that A) advanced players cannot choose to get hit with a whole list and B) the finding or creating of shops will be extremely prone to mismanagement on both sides of the table.

However, the growing market option is quite viable for either short games (4-6 sessions) or generational games (character resets every few sessions).

Anyhow, do you see what I'm getting at? Have you noticed this sort of thing?

Saturday, October 11, 2008


This is a repost. I originally took it down due to its flaws, but someone wanted it back up. This is a long, vaguely futurist rant.

I've seen this video a few times, now. It's informative, but... there's an irritating undercurrent. Here, watch it first: Money as Debt.

Once you've watched the video, you'll probably understand a lot more about the weirdness of modern money. And, if you think about it a bit, you can see why capitalism and consumerism are core aspects of modern economy. This isn't the only reason that alternative methods fail, but it is a major reason.

However, the video itself is painfully... mired in its own views? It is not so much a description of what's going on as an advocacy for a specific kind of sustainable economy. I have a few problems with this particular form of sustainable economics.

First, a more logical issue: he takes affront to the idea of interest. The fact that banks loan at interest means that banks will have control over an ever-increasing fraction of the money, even if they aren't allowed to manufacture debt. Unfortunately, banning interest is not going to stop this. Instead, what we'll see is banks turning to alternate methods of making money. Methods which will serve the exact same purpose.

Banks not allowed to charge interest will not be able to pay interest, and therefore we would have to return to a system where the bank charges a fee from your account to keep your money safe and easily accessible. This would give them control over an ever-increasing percentage of the money.

Loans would need to make money in some other way, so the bank would, instead of charging interest, have to charge in some other way. "Service fees" are likely, which would have the same exact result as interest. Also likely is disguising loans as investments, which would have particularly disastrous effects on student loans.

The problem isn't with interest: it's with the fact that banks are a creature of money. They don't deal in anything else. So they inherently break the system. Lemme describe:

When you charge money for an apple, you get an apple. Next year, if apples are more plentiful, the same amount of money might buy an apple and a peanut. In this way, the money serves only to grease the wheels of the economy. However much money actually exists is secondary to the goods and services being distributed: if there's more money, goods cost more. If there's less money, goods cost less. Whether an apple costs a penny or ten dollars is almost irrelevant, so long as everything scales at the same rate. 'S why Japan can get away with their "dollars" (yen) being worth so little individually: just print a bigger number on your coins and bills.

However, banks are charging money for money. They are completely immune to that growth: a dollar will never be worth more or less than a dollar, and although they can dabble in currency exchanges and investment, at worst a dollar is always worth a dollar. And they charge money for money. There is simply no way you can fail to gain more and more money if you can keep doing that. A bigger cut of the pie with every month.

The problem is that banks will ALWAYS accrue more and more money. It's the nature of the beast.

The video suggests that money should be a public service.

However, I'm not a fan of his ideas. Let me argue against them:

The core of his ideas are to create money as value rather than debt. The government creates real money and spends it on, say, infrastructure. Thus paying a few thousand blue-collar workers and letting their money trickle into the economy.

This is a flawed idea for a few reasons, one of which being that it would simply create the same situation (a rapid growth of money supply) because there's no government on the planet that could resist printing massive amounts of new money. The new Democratic line would be "why tax when we can just print cash?" and the new Republican line would be "of course we can afford two or three more wars, we'll just print the cash!"

Again, the flaw is not in the fact that the system is based on debt/interest. The flaw is the fact that the system is governed by human beings, who will happily destroy it to make a bit of cash. If humans could be trusted, then a debt-based economy would be perfectly fine anyway.

... but, believe it or not, that's not my big problem with the video.

My big problem is the idea of a sustainable economy.

I hate to burst your bubble, ladies and gentlemen, but a sustainable economy (in this sense) is impossible. Physically, technically, and socially impossible.

Lets look socially: a sustainable economy means a specific set of resources are constantly being cycled/provided. Unfortunately, however nice that might sound, specific humans would take control over those resources (solar energy arrays, plastic recycling plants, etc) and use them as leverage to gain further control over the economy. We would be like dogs fighting for scraps.

Let's look physically: it's physically impossible to recycle everything.

More than that, it seems obvious to me that opportunities arise every day - bounties and dearths and accidents and ten thousand other chaotic day-to-day details. Claiming to keep the economy at a specific level is a polite fiction at best: what happens if a major city is destroyed by earthquake or flood? You'll need to rebuild, which will require you to build up your economy. To the precise same level? How? That's not going to happen without artificially crippling your economy. "No, you can't make it any better than it was before!"

Let's look technically: science is always advancing. We can't have a sustainable economy because I'll invent a better strain of wheat, even if nobody else wants to. Now what? Do you insist that those who grow the new wheat grow LESS, even though it means leaving unnecessarily fallow fields?

What a waste: technology creates new wealth every day, and I would never see that stop. That would be stagnation of the worst kind.

Investing in research and development creates wealth. It makes the world a better place to be. A lot of people argue that new technologies are the problem with the world, that they are hard on the ecosystem and blah de blah blah. These people haven't actually looked into the matter.

The vast majority of new technologies use LESS resources than old technologies, with the exception being when a new technology becomes so widely adopted that it uses more resources because people demand more of it.

Computers require way fewer resources than rooms full of secretaries and pneumatic message tubes! That's why we all have computers, but in the 1800s most people did not have dedicated rooms of secretaries and runners.

The argument is that we should be content with a lower quality of living so as not to disturb our precious sustainability. Even if that were acceptable, it's impossible: try arguing that only giant corporations should be allowed to have a laptop, and not more than one or two laptops per headquarters. You think we'd be in a better situation?

No! Technology creates and creates. Ever more wealth, ever cheaper.

And this will continue. Every new advance creates more wealth at less cost. Better living. Even automation, which "costs jobs", actually creates more wealth in the long run as it allows for a dramatic reduction in price.

People seem to forget this. They seem to forget than our standard of living has increased a thousandfold in the past three hundred years, most of it in the past fifty years. That's because of technology.

I think it's really silly to try to plan out an economy without taking the rapidly increasing increase in technology into account.

For example, let's assume we do everything that video suggests and we magically get a perfect sustainable economy with everyone joining hands and dancing from coast to coast, singing the Smurfs theme.

I will break that.

I will release a web-distributed video game for $10 a pop. People will buy it.

This costs me nothing. I just get money. And, if my game is any good, people will buy it in sufficient numbers that I will make a profit above the cost of the time investment. IE, I will get free money.

Whoa! I just destroyed that carefully balanced economy!

The only way to prevent that would be to come down on me like a hammer. "You're not allowed to make a profit! You have to eke out a living just like everyone else!"

No, that's crap. It's impossible to sustain even if you wanted to. It's easy to create a second money and use it for goods and services that the government does not moderate. I can name fifty of them, but here's the simplest: World of Warcraft gold coins.

When you're designing your future, you need to take this into account. This new and bizarre development where I can distribute information for free to any number of people, and charge them money, and everyone feels like they got a great deal.

It's only going to get more common. It's already putting a strain on our old-fashioned economy...

The way forward is not to turn around and go back to printed cash only. There's no question things are going to change, but they're not going to go back to a government-prints-the-money system. It wouldn't work very well in this era: too much interconnectivity.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Multiple GMs

I haven't been in much of a theorizing mood, but here's something that may be of interest. If you remember my comments on the new "Shadowrun" game, this may be a bit familiar.

One of the biggest problems for me when designing/running a tabletop game or LARP is that there is a severe bottleneck: the GM. While the GM can be extremely useful, creative, and adaptive, there are very few of them (usually 1 for every 5-8 players). Since the players get almost all their information from the GM, this means that the GM is a severe bottleneck despite his usefulness.

In the past, I've tried various ways of working around this. I've tried to make resolution mechanics that can be run without a GM. I've tried seeding information among the players so that they can be distributed in a fashion similar to how a GM would distribute information, but without direct GM interference. I've tried making the players into GMs of a sort. I've tried prepackaging most of the information so it can be passed out in seconds, allowing the GM to communicate much faster than otherwise.

All of these efforts to either front-load or sidestep the bottleneck are somewhat effective, but none of them really compare to a computer game, where there is a GM for every player: the computer program is a dedicated GM and, what's more, it can relay info a lot faster than any GM ever could. It's kind of like the ultimate front-loading: someone has to design the program, put all the information in, but once it's in, it runs at top speed forever, no bottlenecks.

The downside is that there is no direct GM control over the situation, so you don't get the creativity and adaptiveness of a live GM making real decisions. You can actually feel the same thing happening the more of those tabletop/LARP options you implement: the direct control slips away little by little as preplanned or uncontrolled elements take center stage. The computer program is simply the most extreme example.

While this is a downside, there is a lot to be said for the eliminated bottleneck. Let me explain:

It's true that one GM has a hard time distributing information to even five players. Most tabletops are built specifically to maximize the applicability of any given piece of information. As an example, the idea that all the players are in the same party is a way to make it so that the GM can say, "GOBLINS!" and everyone in the group goes, "OH!"

On the other hand, as most players and all GMs know, if the party splits up, it gets a lot kludgier. While you tell one group that there's goblins, the other group is sitting on their butt with no input.

This is the core problem with Shadowrun: riggers and hackers and magicians can all see and affect different things, and will frequently not be with the party proper. Trying to give each player their own, specific information is a slow and painstaking process that leaves the other players sitting on their butts.

But this isn't a problem in computer games: all the information is being relayed by the program, and each player has an independent copy just for herself.

Most small-team games take some advantage of this. While you're deathmatching in Halo 3, each player has their own perspective and isn't quite sure exactly what the other players are all doing, even on his own team. However, this is a minimal separation and, for some mysterious reason, is pretty much contained to only shooters.

Larger games, like MMORPGs, shove all the players into the same group. While technically they are all seeing slightly different things because they are all in slightly different positions, it's relatively rare for a good player to not know exactly what everyone else is doing. Putting aside the slowness of the combat, the benefits of concentrating firepower mean that the parties will stay as tightly aligned as they can, all interacting with the same enemies in the same battle space.

It's true that you don't have to be in a party in a MMORPG, but that's not their primary method of play. Generally, if you're not in a party, you're completely alone. That's not terribly awesome.

Something like Shadowrun shows a particular example of how awesome it could be to allow the player's programs to keep them in the same mission space but in different battle space.

For example, a gunman and a street samurai make up the muscle of the team. They go in like any old MMORPG game, shooting and running through the halls and stuff.

Outside, in their van, their hacker is accessing the building network, gathering information, running interference on security systems, opening doors. The two teams are tightly interconnected: the hacker is important to keeping the main team alerted and somewhat safe, while the main team extends his influence by attaching additional interfaces, finding keycodes, etc.

There are a lot of similar kinds of separations you can think of, both short and long distance. For example, how about players that are all in one party, but they "see" different facets of the game world? The magician sees magic, the warrior sees combat auras, the thief sees opportunities and traps... How about a more distant separation, where one player essentially plays Q to someone's James Bond?

The idea here is that the players are still part of a fairly tight-knit team. But they're not in the same party. They're having very different experiences.

I would like to see that. How about you?