The Fruits of Their Labors

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Tim Harford describes an amazing economics experiment and how it got field workers to pick a lot more fruit:

The owner had been paying a piece rate — a rate per kilogram of fruit — but also needed to ensure that whether pickers spent the day on a bountiful field or a sparse one, their wages didn’t fall below the legal hourly minimum. Farmer Smith tried to adjust the piece rate each day so that it was always adequate but never generous: The more the work force picked, the lower the piece rate. But his workers were outwitting him by keeping an eye on each other, making sure nobody picked too quickly, and thus collectively slowing down and cranking up the piece rate.

Bandiera and her colleagues proposed a different way of adjusting the piece rate: Managers would test-pick the field to see how difficult it was and set the rate accordingly, thus preventing the workers from engaging in a collective go-slow. (If the managers made a mistake in their estimate, and the pickers didn’t earn minimum wage, Farmer Smith would make up the shortfall with an extra payment. This rarely happened.) The economists measured the result. By the time the experiment was over, Farmer Smith’s initial skepticism had long evaporated: The new pay scheme increased productivity (kilograms of fruit per worker per hour) by about 50 percent.

The next summer, the researchers turned their attention to incentives for low-level managers, who would also be temporary immigrant workers but who would be responsible for on-the-spot decisions such as which workers were assigned to which row. The researchers found that managers tended to do their friends favors by assigning them the easiest rows. This made life comfortable for insiders but was unproductive since the most efficient assignment for fruit picking is for the best workers to get the best rows. The researchers responded by linking managers’ pay to the daily harvest. The result was that managers started favoring the best workers rather than their own friends, and productivity rose by another 20 percent.

Small wonder that the economists were invited back for another summer. They proposed a “tournament” scheme in which workers were allowed to sort themselves into teams. Initially, friends tended to group themselves together, but as the economists began to publish league tables and then hand out prizes to the most productive teams, that changed. Again, workers prioritized money over social ties, abandoning groups of friends to ally themselves with the most productive co-workers who would accept them. In practice, that meant that the fastest workers clustered together, and again, productivity soared — by yet another 20 percent.

Economics needs a divorce

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Economics needs a divorce from itself — one half from the other — Mencius Moldbug argues:

Most people believe that there is something called “economics.” But this is just not so.

When we use the word “economics,” we are conflating two completely distinct disciplines. Worse, at most one of these disciplines is right — each despises and condemns the other. It’s as if English had one word stellatry, which meant both astronomy and astrology.

Our first discipline is literary economics. Literary economics is what the word economics meant in English until the 1870s or so. It is Carlyle’s dismal science. It was also practiced in the 20th century, under the name Austrian economics, by figures such as Mises, Rothbard and Hazlitt. Our second is quantitative economics. Quantitative economics was invented in the late 19th century and early 20th century, by figures such as Walras, Marshall, Fisher, Keynes and Friedman. It is also practiced today, under the name economics.

Observe, for a moment, the suspicious evolution of this terminology. Astrology and astronomy have a similar temporal relationship — as do alchemy and chemistry. Ie: astronomy replaced astrology, and made it clear that its predecessor was nonsense. Chemistry replaced alchemy, and made it clear that its predecessor was nonsense.

But when Robert Boyle replaced alchemy with chemistry, he chose a new name to make it clear that he was separating the sheep from the goats and classifying himself among the former. Astronomy is separate from astrology for much the same reason, and in much the same way.

Whereas in economics it’s the other way around. The new name has replaced the old one in situ, forcing its predecessor to decamp to a label which, like all labels, was originally pejorative. It’s as if chemistry had decided that it was the only true alchemy, and forced the original alchemists to rebrand their field as, I don’t know, Swedish alchemy.

Of course, this doesn’t prove anything at all. But isn’t it slightly weird? You’d think that if you discover that Field A, which has been taught in all the best schools and universities since Jesus was a little boy, was so misguided in its methodology that it is useless to continue its work, and instead people should study the far superior Field B, you’d call your glorious new B a B, rather than insisting that you had discovered the one true A.

I’d say this anomaly is, if nothing else, a reason to investigate the obvious alternative that this question suggests. Which is that it’s actually the new field, Field B, which is a crock. And which has chosen to hitch a ride on the good name of Field A, devouring it in classic parasitic style. In other words, it is actually the Swedish alchemists who are the real chemists, and whose field has been invaded and annexed by a horde of canting, zodiac-wielding transmutationists. Oops.

You may or may not agree with this proposition. But it is surely prudent to consider it fairly. And the only way to do so is to hold the disputed marital property, economics, in escrow, leaving the respondents with their own separate and equal names. Ideally, the noun would be estopped from both parties, giving us not literary economics but something like econography, and not quantitative economics but something like economodeling. (Or perhaps, if you want to be nasty, econogy — practitioners, econogers.) However, some may be too conservative for these bold linguistic innovations.

Let’s briefly establish the distinction between these fields. It should be obvious that whatever their respective merits, they are different things and should not be conflated under one name. To indulge in a little Procrustean generalization:

The method of quantitative economics — including both econometrics and neoclassical macroeconomics — is to construct mathematical models of economic systems, ie, systems of independent, utility-maximizing agents. The purpose of quantitative economics is to predict the behavior of these systems, so that central planners can manage them intelligently.

The method of literary economics is to reason clearly and deductively in English about the behavior of economic agents. The purpose of literary economics is to construct and convey an intuitive understanding of causal relationships in economic systems.

Clearly, these fields have nothing in common, either in methodology or purpose. It is true that some quantitative models can be explained in literary terms. However, they cannot be justified in literary terms. And if they can, no quantitative methods are necessary. Indeed, successful quantitative methods often hold up quite poorly when judged by literary standards. Two good examples of this phenomenon are Henry Hazlitt’s Failure of the New Economics — a line-by-line response to Keynes’ General Theory — or Murray Rothbard’s abusive treatment of Irving Fisher’s equation of exchange.

And by the standards of quantitative economics, which considers itself a predictive, falsifiable, inductive science, literary economics is simply a nothing. At best, a popularization. It makes no testable predictions. Why anyone would study it in the 21st century is a mystery.

Ergo: there is no possibility of reconciliation. Papers should issue. Custody of that little brat, economics, should be delayed for further consideration.

Hardware For Dummies: The Osprey Vs. The Hornet

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Gary Brecher (The War Nerd) compares the V-22 Osprey versus the F/A-18 Hornet in Hardware For Dummies:

If you’re a typical half-baked Tom Clancy fan, you know what to think of both these planes: F/A-18 good, V-22 bad. Wrong on both counts. In fact, that’s why it’s hard to talk hardware, because you have to de-program so much crap from the standard view.
Back when he was Secretary of Defense, Cheney said the V-22 was “…one weapons system I don’t need.”

That’s as good a place as any to start your deprogramming: whatever Dick Cheney says, think the opposite. If Dick Cheney tells you it’s a sunny day, get your umbrella. It’s no surprise to me that Cheney hates this weapons system, because Cheney is, and I’m kind of half serious here, an Iranian agent who hates America and wants to destroy us. He’s all for spending trillions of our tax dollars on absolutely worthless weapons like aircraft carriers, but he fought hard against the Osprey because it’s the one contemporary weapons system that could have made a difference in Operation Desert One/Eagle Claw, the Iran hostage-rescue attempt back in the days of Reverend Jimmy Carter.

That’s a good handy test to ask yourself about any weapons system: would it have helped in Desert One? That’s the kind of mission we need to think about: special ops, fast and quiet.

So why does the Osprey get so much bad-mouthing?

You tell me, why would the Air Force, the Navy and the Army hate a weapons system like this one? Remember, we’re talking about jealous branches of the Armed Services, we’re talking about billions of dollars, we’re talking about a world where an Air Force general takes off his uniform and gets a lobbying job without even blinking. And keep in mind that each one of the Armed Services will do anything to keep from losing money to the others.

I bet you got it by now. The Osprey is a Marine Corps project. This should be the last clue you need: what makes the Corps different from all the other services? Answer: because it has its own air wing, and this USMC air wing is the only American force that’s allowed to operate fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, or mutants like the V-22; all the other services have to stick to one or the other kind of aircraft. The Army is limited by law to helicopters and the Air Force has a monopoly of fixed (or swept-) wing craft. So a plane like the Osprey, that can turn from one to the other in a few seconds, is about as welcome as a sneezing duck on a trans-Pacific flight from Hong Kong.

Defense appropriations are an annual turf war between the services, and the Osprey doesn’t even have any identifiable turf. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a procurement officer’s worst nightmare! It threatens the whole paranoid truce between the three big services about who owns what.

The fact that the V-22 might actually help us fight irregular wars like the ones we actually need to plan for doesn’t figure at all. They’d laugh at you if you brought that up. It’d just prove that “you don’t get it.” To them, this is like an advertising campaign. They want to sell programs to Congress so they can buy another condo in Costa Rica.

So how did the F/A-18 Hornet come to be?

The idea behind the Lightweight Fighter was that, in an all-out air war against the Warsaw Pact, we’d lose a lot of planes, so we needed a HiLo mix of expensive high-altitude air-superiority fighters like the F-15 and F-14 and cheaper, lighter planes that could match the dogfighting agility of the MiG-21. We were overrating the MiG-21, as it turned out, but at the time everybody took it real seriously. Why not? There was no money in admitting the MiG-21 was a flying Yugo. Totally inferior to the earlier MiG designs. It was supposed to be a lean, mean killer and we needed something to match.
There were five entries, but it soon came down to two contenders: the General Dynamics YF-16 and the Northrop YF-17. Both services, the USAF and the Navy, had agreed to buy the winning design. And it was pretty clear, even to a naive kid like me, that General Dynamics was the winning team this time. I knew how to read between the lines from being a big Oakland Raiders fan: I knew what the writers were saying in that careful language they used. And they were saying Northrop’s design was a dog, but GD’s was amazing.

Nobody much liked GD back then, because the F-111 fighter-bomber had a bad rep, but their F-16 prototype outflew the Northrop contender every time. It was more mobile at high speed, and it even cost less: $4.6 million per copy, vs. $5 million for the Northrop. In 1975 it was officially announced as the winner. And that’s when things got weird. At the time I just didn’t understand what happened. Too young and dumb, too trusting — like most war nerds are even today.

First big shock was that the Navy went back on the deal, announced it wouldn’t buy the F-16 and was going to adopt a modified version of the F-17. The official reason was that the F-16 had only one engine, and the Navy had always had double-engine fighters. The Northrop design, the YF-17, was a twin-engine.

But that two-engine story was actually a lie that the Navy figured was simple enough for Congress to understand. [...] The real reason the Navy didn’t want the F-16 was that the USAF was going to be using it. Even though they’d stuck the USAF with the F-4, they weren’t going to take their promised turn making the big adjustment. The Navy didn’t really think much of the Northrop YF-17, but they liked the fact that it would be all theirs.

And to show that they were calling the shots, the Navy went and did the ultimate betrayal: they bought the Northrop design, and then froze Northrop itself out of the development process, the whole long, profitable business of converting the YF-17 into a carrier-based airplane that eventually became the F/A-18. They handed over the whole program to a contractor they liked better, McDonnell Douglas.

The reason the Navy wouldn’t let Northrop handle the program goes all the way back to the 1940s, when these companies were still run by the guys they’re named after. Northrop was the property of John Knudsen Northrop, who had earned the total, eternal hate of the Navy by daring to tell Congress that we didn’t need aircraft carriers any more. That’s the one thing you don’t ever tell the Navy, even though everybody knows it’s true. Northrop was just trying to sell his weird “flying wing” designs when he made that crack about the carriers, but the damage was done. Thirty years later, the Navy brass got its revenge by taking Northrop’s F-17 away and making it the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18.

It wasn’t a very good design then, and it isn’t now. The F-16 has had a totally brilliant career, proved itself in air superiority and ground attack versions. The F/A-18 clunks along thanks to great pilots and a lot of cash, but it’s just not that great an airframe.

Evolutionary Fitness

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Bryan Applewood calls Evolutionary Fitness the diet that really works and describes Art DeVany as a half-naked 71-year-old with 8% body fat and the testosterone levels of a boy of 18:

So how do you live the Arthur life?

First, you free yourself of the homeostatic delusion. We are not made to eat regular meals or take regular exercise, nor are we meant to suffer chronic stress in an office. Our ancestors ate when they could and kept moving. Most of their life was stress-free, but occasionally they would be subject to acute stress in the form of an attack by a predator. So Arthur e-mailed me these recommendations. “Don’t eat three square meals a day. Skip meals now and then. Work towards an extended overnight period of no eating. This means eat sometime before you sleep and don’t be in a hurry to eat breakfast… Do not fear hunger. Nothing but good will come of it, but it must be episodic, not chronic.”

And on exercise: “First, everybody over-trains. Don’t do it. Don’t trudge away on a treadmill, count sets or repetitions, or work out according to a top-down Soviet model. You will hate it and it does not produce results. You must let it happen. You must have a playful, intermittent form of exercise. And you must exercise. The benefits are profound… Make it fun, intense according to your own fitness and goals, and brief. The goal of an exercise session is to promote growth-hormone release, to build muscle, and to elevate insulin sensitivity. Brevity and intensity are keys. Intensity means a little burn in the muscle, not heaving and straining. Brevity means you do not release stress hormones. So, you are favourably altering your hormone profile.” Superman’s grandad, it turns out, gets by on no more than 45 minutes in the gym and only when he feels like it.

Getting the food right is hard work. Arthur shops only on the outer edges of the supermarket, where they keep the fresh stuff. And cutting carbs completely, as I did, results in a few days of hell — raging hunger and gloom. On the fourth day I woke up so depressed I could barely move. Then I ate a peach and I was fine and I’ve stayed fine, more or less, ever since.

I’d suffered an enormous drop in blood sugar, which the peach instantly corrected.

Breakfast is hell at first — no cereals or bread — but you can have almost everything else. Arthur sent me an example of his breakfast: “Four thin pork chops, well trimmed and browned in a bit of oil with rosemary and pieces of fresh apple. Some canteloupe melon with it.” Trust me, after a month or so, the spectacle of toast or a bowl of cornflakes will revolt you.

In the end, I am not qualified to say that Arthur is right. But I am qualified to say that it works for him and for me — 20lb lighter at the time of writing — and that he is the most articulate definer of a paradigm shift in our thinking about the human metabolism that is still in progress. Carbs, not fats, are modernity’s most deadly assassins. And, even if they don’t kill you, they make you feel worse. I sleep better without them and I seem to have become a nicer person; what with that and the weight loss, my friends — or were they enemies? — barely recognise me.

Inflation Gets Right Down to the Real Nitty-Gritty

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Inflation gets right down to the real nitty-gritty — soil prices:

Dirt and its upmarket cousins offer a glimpse of how rising energy prices have caused inflation in the grittier corners of the consumer culture. Products that are cheap, heavy and bulky, such as bags of soil, are particularly vulnerable to rising freight costs.

Moreover, thanks to technology, globalization and changes in consumer preference, a bag of potting mix is now a highly manufactured, meticulously designed product, often containing ingredients from all over the continent and from across the planet.
What does it have? Depends on the recipe, but any kind of topsoil or potting mix is likely to be crammed with composted organic material. Topsoils can be made from composted shellfish shells, for example. Potting mixes often contain sphagnum peat moss from bogs in Canada or Ireland. Bark fines might come from a sawmill in the Deep South. Coconut “coir,” a peat moss substitute, gets shipped all the way from Asia.

A common ingredient in potting mixes is perlite, which makes the soils airier while also retaining moisture. In its final form, small white pellets, it appears to be something synthesized in a factory. In fact, it comes from a volcanic sand mined on the Greek island of Milos. Shipped to the United States, the ore is heated to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point it pops into kernels.

An Undetectable Athletic Performance Enhancer?

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Is NAC an undetectable athletic performance enhancer?

N-acetylcysteine (NAC) has been extensively studied, mainly for its ability to replenish levels of intracellular glutathione, the body’s “master antioxidant”, probably more important than any antioxidant that can be ingested in food. NAC does this by supplying cysteine, an amino acid which is the rate-limiting constituent in glutathione biosynthesis. Cysteine is normally present in protein-rich foods, especially animal proteins, but it is in both short supply when one wants glutathione levels to increase, and it can’t be taken separately, since it can be toxic and won’t properly enter the cells where it’s needed either. NAC overcomes both of these problems: it’s relatively non-toxic, and is taken up by cells and de-acetylated to form cysteine, which can then be used in glutathione synthesis.

Depletion of glutathione levels is a cause, an indicator, or both, of fatigue due to exercise. It’s been shown clinically that administration of NAC does indeed raise glutathione levels, and now, it’s been shown that, in trained athletes, NAC increases time to fatigue by an astonishing 23%.

In the cited study, fairly massive amounts of NAC were infused intravenously during exercise, which might lead one to doubt the practicality of using it to enhance athletic performance. However, another study — one of many that could be cited — Effect of N-acetyl-cysteine on the hypoxic ventilatory response and erythropoietin production: linkage between plasma thiol redox state and O2 chemosensitivity, found that very modest doses of NAC, 200 mg three times daily, massively increased erythropoeitin production and increased the hypoxic ventilatory response.

Very Long-Term Backup

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Kevin Kelly discusses the challenges of Very Long-Term Backup:

Paper, it turns out, is a very reliable backup medium for information. While it can burn or dissolve in water, good acid-free versions of paper are otherwise stable over the long term, cheap to warehouse, and oblivious to technological change because its pages are “eye-scanable.” No special devices needed. Well-made, well-cared for paper can last 1,000 years easily, and probably reach 2,000 without much extra trouble.

We can not say the same for digital storage. Pages stored on plastic DVDs are neither stable over the very long term, nor readable over the long term. Unless digital information is ceaselessly migrated from one fading medium to another new one, it will quickly cease to be accessible. Two decades ago the floppy disk was ubiquitous. Most personal digital information then was stored on this format. Today, any information stored only on a floppy disk is essentially gone. Imagine the incompatibility of today’s DVD in 1,000 years.

As durable as paper is, its inherent limitations in storing digital data are clear. Pity the person who would need to find something if the only backup of the web was a paper printout that filled several airline hangers. What we need are media that have the durability of paper and the accessibility of a floppy disk (or better!).

This problem of long-term digital storage seemed a crucial hurdle for any civilization trying to act generationaly. How could a society think in terms of centuries unless there was a reliable way to transmit and store its knowledge over centuries? This puzzle was the focus of a conference hosted by Long Now in 1998, dedicated to technical solutions for Managing Digital Continuity. At this meeting Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive suggested a new technology developed by Los Alamos labs, and commercialized by the Norsam company, as a solution for long term digital storage. Norsam promised to micro-etch 350,000 pages of information onto a 3-inch nickel disk with an estimated lifespan of 2,000–10,000 years.

Might it be possible to etch an entire library onto a set of disks? It might be worth trying. All we needed was a finite data set that a society might want to have backed up.

During a Long Now field trip to a southwest archeological site, the idea of a modern Rosetta Stone came up — a backup of human languages that future generations might cherish. At a winter retreat in 1999, Long Now board member Doug Carlston suggested that for the parallel common text of this modern Rosetta Stone we should use the book of Genesis, since it was most likely already translated into all languages already. We hatched a plan to produce a 3-inch non-corroding disk which contained at least 1,000 translations of Genesis and other linguistic information about each language.

Following the archiving principle of LOCKS (Lots of Copies Keep ‘em Safe) we would replicate the disk promiscuously and distribute them around the world with built in magnifiers. This project in long term thinking would do two things: it would showcase this new long-term storage technology, and it would give the world a minimal backup of human languages. We thought it might take a year to do.

Long story short, it took eight years. Last night at a ceremony at the Long Now museum in Fort Mason, one of five prototype disks Rosetta disk was presented to the Oliver Wilke Foundation, a Frankfurt-based linguistic center, who help support the project. The disk is 3 inches in diameter, and mounted beneath a glass hemisphere.

One side of the disk contains a graphic teaser. The design shows headlines in the eight major languages of the world today spiraling inward in ever-decreasing size till it becomes so small you have trouble reading it, yet the text goes on getting smaller. The sentences announce: “Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation.”

This graphic side of the disk is pure titanium. A black oxide coating has been added to the surface. The text is etched into that, revealing the whiter titanium. This bold sign board is needed because the pages of genesis which are etched on the mirror-like opposite side of the disk are nearly invisible.

This business side of the disk is pure nickel. Picking it up you would not be aware there were 13,500 pages of linguistic gold hiding on it. The nickel is deposited on an etched silicon disk. In effect the Rosetta disk is a nickel cast of a micro-etch silicon mold. When the disk is held at the right angle the grid array of the pages form a slight diffraction rainbow. You need a 750-power optical microscope to read the pages.

The Rosetta disk is not digital. The pages are analog “human-readable” scans of scripts, text, and diagrams. Among the 13,500 scanned pages are 1,500 different language versions of Genesis 1-3, a universal list of the words common for each language, pronunciation guides and so on. Some of the key indexing meta-data for each language section (such as the standard linguistic code number for that language) are displayed in a machine-readable font (OCRb) so that a smart microscope could guide you through this analog trove.

Our hope is that at least one of the eight headline languages can be recovered in 1,000 years. But even without reading, a person might guess there are small things to see in this disk.

All this took eight years because back in 2000 the Norsam technology could not handle the size of our library, and there was in fact, contrary to our assumptions, no library of already completed Genesis translations. There was no central depository of language information, either. So in order to gather 1,000 translations of Genesis and related linguistic information for those 1,000 language, Long Now created the Rosetta Project.

Cuban taekwondo athlete kicks ref in face, could face lifetime ban

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Cuban taekwondo athlete kicks ref in face, could face lifetime ban:

Cuba’s Angel Matos deliberately kicked a referee square in the face after he was disqualified in a bronze-medal match, prompting the World Taekwondo Federation to recommend Matos be banned for life.

“We didn’t expect anything like what you have witnessed to occur,” said WTF secretary general Yang Jin-suk. “I am at a loss for words.”

Yang also recommended Matos’ coach be banned.

Matos was winning 3-2, with 1:02 left in the second round, when he fell to the mat after being hit by his opponent, Kazakhstan’s Arman Chilmanov. Matos was sitting there, awaiting medical attention, when he was disqualified for taking too much injury time. Fighters get one minute, and Matos was disqualified when his time ran out.

Matos angrily questioned the call, pushed a judge, then pushed and kicked referee Chakir Chelbat of Sweden, who required stitches in his lip. Matos spat on the floor and was escorted out.

“This is an insult to the Olympic vision, an insult to the spirit of taekwondo and, in my opinion, an insult to mankind,” Yang said.

Matos’ coach was unapologetic.

“He was too strict,” Leudis Gonzalez said, referring to the decision to disqualify Matos. Afterward, he charged the match was fixed, accusing the Kazakhs of offering him money.

Although the arena announcer said Matos and his coach were banned effective immediately, Yang said due process must be followed before officially banning the two.

Where Europe Vanishes

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Robert Kaplan describes Georgia and the Caucasus as Where Europe Vanishes — in a piece from 2000:

On a narrow street in Tbilisi, I entered a dilapidated house with exposed mortar and peeling walls and an awful, eaten-away Soviet-era hallway. A door opened, and Zaal Kikodze, an archaeologist, invited me inside. Old books crammed every inch of wall space. Kikodze had a wiry ashen beard and wore a dark woolen work shirt. I asked him what Georgian history says about Georgia’s future.

He said, “At the stage of technology we have reached, nations work only if they float in the larger world. And what you have in this part of the world is fossilized nations—dead societies that have yet to revive. There are a group of young reformers in our parliament, educated in the West. But today Georgians only want heroes. And we will never be able to rely on the United States or NATO. We are too far from Europe, too close to Russia. NATO will not drop bombs for ten weeks to save Georgians from ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia, the way it bombed to save Albanians in Kosovo. Yet we still look toward Europe.”

Indie game designer earns raves for ‘Braid’

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Indie game designer Jonathan Blow spent three years and $180,000 making a masterpiece called Braid:

[O]ne of the highest-rated Xbox games of all time — the one sitting there at No. 8, just below “Call of Duty 4” and just above “Guitar Hero II” on the Metacritic charts — is a little downloadable thing decorated in watercolor artwork and steeped in old-school gameplay and basically created by one guy with a punk rock attitude and, if I had to guess, a brain approaching the size of the sun.

Game designer Jonathan Blow — a man with a reputation for speaking his mind whether other people like it or not — spent three years and more than $180,000 of his own money crafting “Braid.” Available for download through Xbox Live Arcade, “Braid” artfully blends old-school 2-D platforming with brain-tweaking puzzle gaming to create a sublime package that plays with the rules of time, plays with expectations, and just generally plays with your mind in a way that has left critics drooling all over themselves with praise.

They’re calling “Braid” “one of the most ingenious puzzle-based games ever devised,” and “a shining example of the intersection between art and technology,” and “the kind of game that will likely change the face of downloadable entertainment.”
“Braid” is not only earning mountains of praise, it’s also selling well, this despite being priced at $15 (unusually spendy for an XBLA game). According to, “Braid” has been purchased more than 100,600 times — gangbusters for an indie Arcade game. And while Blow’s contract with Microsoft prohibits him from discussing specifics, he says that between the XBLA sales and the forthcoming PC sales (launching within the next few months), he will have made his money back and more. Most importantly, he will have made enough money to support his next project.

Childhood’s End

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

In Childhood’s End, Theodore Dalrymple, formerly of Britain, now living in northern France, notes that Britain is the worst country in the Western world in which to be a child, according to a recent UNICEF report. As he explains, the two poles of contemporary British child rearing are neglect and overindulgence:

Consider one British parent, Fiona MacKeown, who in November 2007 went on a six-month vacation to Goa, India, with her boyfriend and eight of her nine children by five different fathers, none of whom ever contributed financially for long to the children’s upkeep. (The child left behind — her eldest, at 19 — was a drug addict.) She received $50,000 in welfare benefits a year, and doubtless decided — quite rationally, under the circumstances — that the money would go further, and that life would thus be more agreeable, in Goa than in her native Devon.

Reaching Goa, MacKeown soon decided to travel with seven of her children to Kerala, leaving behind one of them, 15-year-old Scarlett Keeling, to live with a tour guide ten years her elder, whom the mother had known for only a short time. Scarlett reportedly claimed to have had sex with this man only because she needed a roof over her head. According to a witness, she was constantly on drugs; and one night, she went to a bar where she drank a lot and took several different illicit drugs, including LSD, cocaine, and pot. She was seen leaving the bar late, almost certainly intoxicated.

The next morning, her body turned up on a beach. At first, the local police maintained that she had drowned while high, but further examination proved that someone had raped and then forcibly drowned her. So far, three people have been arrested in the investigation, which is continuing.

About a month later, Scarlett’s mother, interviewed by the liberal Sunday newspaper the Observer, expressed surprise at the level of public vituperation aimed at her and her lifestyle in the aftermath of the murder. She agreed that she and her children lived on welfare, but “not by conscious choice,” and she couldn’t see anything wrong with her actions in India apart from a certain naivety in trusting the man in whose care she had left her daughter. Scarlett was always an independent girl, and if she, the mother, could turn the clock back, she would behave exactly the same way again.

It is not surprising that someone in Fiona MacKeown’s position would deny negligence; to acknowledge it would be too painful. But — and this is what is truly disturbing — when the newspaper asked four supposed child-rearing experts for their opinions, only one saw anything wrong with the mother’s behavior, and even she offered only muted criticism. It was always difficult to know how much independence to grant an adolescent, the expert said; but in her view, the mother had granted too much too quickly to Scarlett.

Even that seemed excessively harsh to the Observer’s Barbara Ellen. We should not criticize the mother’s way of life, she wrote, since it had nothing to do with her daughter’s death: “Scarlett died for the simple fact that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people, as well as being blitzed with drugs, late at night, in a foreign country.” On this view, being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people is a raw fact of nature, not the result of human agency, decision, education, or taste. It could happen to anybody, and it just happened to happen to Scarlett. As for drugs, they emerge from the ether and blitz people completely at random. It all seems very unfair.

Read the whole thing.

Poor earning virtual gaming gold

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Research by Manchester University shows that gold-farming — gathering in-game cash or items to sell for real-world money — is growing rapidly:

Prof Heeks said very accurate figures for the size of the gold farming sector were hard to come by but his work suggested that in 2008 it employs 400,000 people who earn an average of $145 (£77) per month creating a global market worth about $500m.
Already, he said, gold farming was comparable in size to India’s outsourcing industry.

“The Indian software employment figure probably crossed the 400,000 mark in 2004 and is now closer to 900,000,” said Prof Heeks. “Nonetheless, the two are still comparable in employment size, yet not at all in terms of profile.”

Make Data Not Look Like Data

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

When designing a web app, Adam DuVander notes, your goal should be to make data not look like data. The accompanying graphic explains:

With our powers combined

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

We are Platypus.

You can’t trust the sun

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

You can’t trust the sun, Randall Parker notes, because the sun is not a reliable supplier of light radiation:

A stalagmite in a West Virginia cave has yielded the most detailed geological record to date on climate cycles in eastern North America over the past 7,000 years. The new study confirms that during periods when Earth received less solar radiation, the Atlantic Ocean cooled, icebergs increased and precipitation fell, creating a series of century-long droughts.

A research team led by Ohio University geologist Gregory Springer examined the trace metal strontium and carbon and oxygen isotopes in the stalagmite, which preserved climate conditions averaged over periods as brief as a few years. The scientists found evidence of at least seven major drought periods during the Holocene era, according to an article published online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“This really nails down the idea of solar influence on continental drought,” said Springer, an assistant professor of geological sciences.

Geologist Gerald Bond suggested that every 1,500 years, weak solar activity caused by fluctuations in the sun’s magnetic fields cools the North Atlantic Ocean and creates more icebergs and ice rafting, or the movement of sediment to ocean floors. Other scientists have sought more evidence of these so-called “Bond events” and have studied their possible impact on droughts and precipitation. But studies to date have been hampered by incomplete, less detailed records, Springer said.