Rapid Progress Toward Peace

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Some people mistakenly think that the world is a more violent place than it used to be, so Joshua S. Goldstein overcorrects:

Expectations for the new century were bleak even before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and their bloody aftermath: Political scientist James G. Blight and former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara suggested earlier that year that we could look forward to an average of 3 million war deaths per year worldwide in the 21st century.

So far they haven’t even been close. In fact, the last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years, based on data compiled by researchers Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Worldwide, deaths caused directly by war-related violence in the new century have averaged about 55,000 per year, just over half of what they were in the 1990s (100,000 a year), a third of what they were during the Cold War (180,000 a year from 1950 to 1989), and a hundredth of what they were in World War II. If you factor in the growing global population, which has nearly quadrupled in the last century, the decrease is even sharper. Far from being an age of killer anarchy, the 20 years since the Cold War ended have been an era of rapid progress toward peace.

If you see the world through the lens of simple linear models, I suppose a few decades of decreasing war deaths imply rapid progress toward peace. If you hold a cyclical view of history, they imply the opposite. If you hold a more chaotic view of history, you might accept that very few people saw the Great War coming, so we shouldn’t get too cocky.

121 Years of Sanity-Blasting

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

This past Saturday would have been horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s 121st birthday — had he made a deal with blasphemous otherworldly powers. Lovecraft’s influence has been wide, James Maliszewski notes, but superficial:

Every time a character in a story, movie, or roleplaying game encounters a blasphemous book, a slimy, tentacled horror, or teeters on the brink of insanity due to the horrible truths he has learned, we ultimately have HPL to thank.

Of course, many of these ideas predated Lovecraft or were further popularized by his imitators. Indeed, I think it likely that the vast majority of the stories and story elements deemed “Lovecraftian” are nothing of the sort, based as they are on very superficial readings of the Old Gent’s writings.This includes the Call of Cthulhu RPG, which, while a very fine game and one of my favorites, nevertheless owes an equal debt to August Derleth as it does to H.P. Lovecraft (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I’m sure some of this superficiality stems from the intellectual laziness to which we all are prone, but I think most of it has its origin in the difficulty in really coming to grips with the philosophy and worldview that underlie Lovecraft’s stories. HPL is sometimes called a “nihilist” or a “pessimist,” but I don’t think either label is an accurate one. The alien entities Lovecraft describes are not malevolent. They may engage in activities detrimental to man, but it is not through any ill will toward him, or at least no more ill will than when man inadvertently destroys a nest of ants when building a skyscraper. Lovecraft takes no pleasure in this reality; he does not celebrate it. He is completely indifferent to it, presenting it simply as a brute fact, albeit one with far reaching implications for man’s self-image.

That most of us should recoil from this fact is not surprising, as it runs counter to long-held beliefs about the place of man in the cosmos. That’s why, I think, so few of the works called “Lovecraftian” nowadays really deserve the sobriquet. I can count on one hand the number of books, movies, or RPGs that really embrace a Lovecraftian worldview and, even then, that worldview is often tempered with an instinctive hope for human transcendence that, to HPL, is utterly unwarranted. It’s little wonder, then, that pop culture has chosen to defang Lovecraft, reducing his conceptions to catch phrases and nerd totems rather than grappling with the worrisome possibility that he just may be right.

Speaking of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, Sandy Petersen, the creator, recently “reviewed” his own game:

I was such a fan of Runequest that I wrote to Greg Stafford, the president of Chaosium. Instead of putting me on the FBI stalker list, he encouraged me, and I published some articles and one book of monsters with him. Ultimately I proposed an expansion to Runequest in which the players could adventure in H. P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. Greg wasn’t interested, because he already had a guy designing a Lovecraft game set in the real world. Ack! This was like the holy grail to me, because I had been a Lovecraft fan since the age of 8, literally. (You can draw your own conclusions about my childhood.) I begged to be allowed in on the project, and then Greg dropped another bombshell — the other guy was dragging his heels, so Greg wanted to drop the whole project in my lap. Excelsior! Greg never even sent me the other person’s notes and writings, so I had to do the whole thing from scratch.

I had previously worked on a game I called American Gothic, which was basically horror set in the modern world. It had not gotten too far along, and used its very own RPG system which was, admittedly, much inferior to Basic Role Playing, which is what Greg demanded. He also demanded that I set the game in the 1920s, which is when Lovecraft wrote the stories.

Why the 1920s?
To me, Lovecraft was never about the era. His characters used cutting-edge technology, such as submarines, airplanes, and recording devices, and interacted with cutting-edge events, such as the discovery of Pluto, and 20th-century population conflicts and pressures. So the way I saw it, if HPL had lived in 1980, he’d have written about Jimmy Carter (my dream is a 1980 HPL story where we find out it wasn’t a giant swimming *rabbit* after all).

However, the good folks at Chaosium did not respect Lovecraft. Greg’s exact words were “HPL is a terrible writer.” That was mild, compared to some other Chaosium opinions. They were okay with having a fan like me design the game, because that way my love for Lovecraft would be in the rules. But on the other hand, the Chaosium folks wanted to enjoy playing the game I was going to design, and they wanted a “hook” to hang their fun onto. They chose the 1920s. In their games, they loved driving old cars, talking about zeppelins, flappers, the Weimar Republic and all that stuff. My own games usually didn’t reference the era at all, except peripherally. Yeah they were in the 1920s too, but they could just as easily have been set anywhere in the 20th century. A haunted house is a haunted house as far as I was concerned.

So Call of Cthulhu to this day is officially set in the 1920s, and has the big 1920s guidebook, with which I had little to do, except providing some monster stats (like for mummies and wolves and so forth). But that was the Chaosium thing.

The central driving mechanic of Call of Cthulhu is Sanity. This stat starts pretty high, then deteriorates over time. Though there are methods of raising it, usually you can tell how long you’ve been playing a particular investigator by how low it’s dropped. Lots of folks have told me how ingenious and revolutionary this concept was, and I’ve seen it adapted to many other games under many different names.

As such I’d like to take full credit for inventing it. But I can’t, alas. The original concept was published in an article for the Sorcerer’s Apprentice magazine, where the authors (whose names are published in other interviews of mine) suggested that the player be given a Willpower stat or some such thing, and if he saw something too scary, he could take a Willpower check, and a bad enough failure could reduce it permanently. Reduce it permanently?! This was what I hung my hat on. I took the fundamental idea, called it Sanity, made it the focus of the game, and instead of, on rare occasions, lowering this stat, I had almost every encounter and event reduce one’s Sanity, till player-characters could become gibbering wrecks, or even turn into GM-controlled monsters.

It worked like a charm. In the very first game I ever ran of Call of Cthulhu (long before the rules were finished), my players found a book which enabled them to summon up a Foul Thing From Otherwhere (a dimensional shambler) and decided to do so. At the moment they completed the spell, the players suddenly chimed in with comments like “I’m covering my eyes.” “Turning my back.” “Shielding my view so I don’t see the monster.” I had never seen this kind of activity in an RPG before — trying NOT to see the monster? What a concept. You may not credit it, but I had actually not realized that the Sanity stat, as I had written it, would lead to such behavior. To me it was serendipitous; emergent play. But I loved it. The players were actually acting like Lovecraft heroes instead of the mighty-thewed barbarian lunks of D&D.

I knew I was on to something and kept refining the Sanity mechanic, in conjunction with the people at Chaosium, until it reached its current state. One big change was that I had concluded that Sanity should only diminish, and never increase, and the folks at Chaosium thought that was too negative even for a game about Cthulhu. They were right, I feel. And after all, Sanity still trends downwards, so I got my way in the end. If anything it’s more agonizing for the players this way, because they are fooled into thinking they can work their Sanity back up. Ha ha.

The Monsters
Early reviews of the game took issue with my portrayal of the monsters and gods of the Cthulhu Mythos. (Well, at least T.E.D. Klein’s review did.) They wanted mysterious undescribed horrors, but I just wasn’t raised that way. Not after 7 years of D&D, anyhoo. So I wanted concrete stats and I got them. The biggest problem was that, of course, Lovecraft didn’t specify hardly any of his monsters. They had descriptors instead of names. “Hunting Horrors”, “Formless Spawn”, that sort of things. My response, pedestrian as it may sound, was to take those descriptors and turn them INTO names, plus adding a few extra monsters for good cheer. (Yes, the Dark Young are totally my invention. Now it can be told.) Turning the gods, like Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, into monsters went a little against the grain, but on the other hand, the wholly-materialistic Lovecraft kind of treated them LIKE big monsters. Cthulhu, for instance, isn’t really a god — he’s just a huge alien horror; high priest and ruler of his loathsome race. (And what is he a high priest OF? That’s never said.)

Speaking of superficial treatments of Lovecraft’s ideas, James Maliszewski actually recommends the new Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, which his kids have been watching:

I bring this all up because, in addition to its other fine qualities, many episodes of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated are loving homages to horror films or books, which makes them great fun to watch if you catch the references, as I do. A thoroughly delightful example of this was the episode entitled “The Shrieking Madness,” which concerns an octopus-headed creature known as Char Gar Gothakon, seen below.

Char Gar Gothakon is the creation of a professor at Darrow University by the name of H.P. Hatecraft, voiced by Jeffrey Combs.

Hatecraft claims that Char Gar Gothakon and his ilk are real entities that contact him in dreams and that he then spins into horror stories.

Some people scoff at this notion, including visiting lecturer Harlan Ellison (voiced by the author himself), deriding Hatecraft as a fraud.

This stance doesn’t find favor with one of Hatecraft’s biggest fans, a young man named Howard E. Roberts, whom Ellison humiliates at his appearance at Darrow University. Here’s Roberts, who looks nothing like any real world person, living or dead.

Char Gar Gothakon attacks the university several times, leading Hatecraft to eventually admit that Ellison is right and that he invented the monster with his own imagination rather than having been contacted by him. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the beast from attacking Ellison in a parking lot and nearly carrying him off.

I won’t say any more about the plot of the episode, since I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, though I suspect anyone who’s watched even a single Scooby-Doo episode should have no trouble unraveling the mystery.

The episode has found its way online, if you’re interested.

OK Go and The Muppets

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

I thought I’d enjoy OK Go covering the Muppets theme song, but I didn’t — until they made a video:

Monsters University

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

The upcoming sequel to Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.Monsters University, looks back at Mike and Sulley’s days as college roommates:

Scanlon explained that the animators went on several research trips to colleges like Harvard and Princeton to get the right look for the Monsters University campus — a necessity, he explained, because they were a bunch of art school grads who had no idea what actual colleges looked like.

Another key to the movie’s look is the new, younger designs for Mike and Sulley — Mike has picked up a set of braces that are either meant to make teeth straighter or more crooked (Scanlon wasn’t sure how braces would work for monsters) and Sulley is shaggier and thinner than he was in Monsters, Inc.

We got to see some concept art for the various denizens of the university, which includes your standard assortment of cool monsters, nerds, goths, as well as professors of every type, from stuffy English lit professors to artsy theater types to sports-obsessed coaches. If watching the “Homer Goes to College” episode of The Simpsons has taught me anything — and I’d like to think it’s taught me everything — then there better be a crusty dean somewhere around here.

Waging War on Feral Hogs

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

Feral hogs cause an estimated $52 million in damage each year in Texas alone, rooting up crops and transmitting diseases to domestic pigs, so they’re fair game through most of the south — and now operations like Tactical Hog Control and Jager Pro are kicking it up a notch:

Most high-tech hunting guides started offering nocturnal hunts only in recent years as various thermal- and night-vision gear became available for public purchase. Mr. Pinkston’s Jager Pro began offering such hunts in 2006.

Messrs. Osborne and Dreher have shot hogs on their East Texas ranches for two decades. Not until 2009 did they start enticing would-be Rambos. Their Tactical Hog Control offers hunters a six-hour hunt, beginning at dusk, for $500.

On that moonless, muggy evening in June, the guides hopped into their open-top Land Rover with clients Messrs. Coiner and Hahnel to comb Mr. Osborne’s 2,000-acre ranch for hogs. Tactical Hog Control has agreements for access to hunt hogs on more than 100,000 acres owned by other ranchers.

As darkness fell, Mr. Osborne left the headlights off and used his night-vision goggles to navigate. Through the goggles, the landscape appeared to be bathed in green light. As the vehicle bounced through a bumpy field, Mr. Osborne pointed to the ground, where rooting hogs had created ruts several inches deep. “Dad always used to say they make the pasture so rough that a bird couldn’t fly over it,” he said.

I’m not sure why night-hunting out-of-control pests using fun technology — how can you not get a kick out of night-vision? — qualifies the customers as would-be Rambos.

Longbow vs. Armor

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

Matheus Bane decided to test a replica medieval longbow against period armor, because he had read so many conflicting — and poorly supported — opinions.

First, he decided to use the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) procedure for testing modern body armor:

The NIJ ballistics test specifies the use of a box of Roma Plastilian #1 clay. (Figure 1) The clay is calibrated by drop testing to a specified resistance. The testing standard threshold is 1.7” of clay deformation for the armor to pass (NIJ 0101.04). The penetration threshold is much smaller though. The NIJ stab test indicate a 0.28” max to pass (JIJ 0115.00). The standard assumed in this test is that the wearer sustaining a wound less than 1.7” of deformation who is brought to the hospital will survive and, as they state in the forward, “The penetration limit was determined through research indicating that internal injuries to organs would be extremely unlikely at 7mm (0.28 in)”. In the 1400s this standard would have been much less. Without modern medical treatment many wounds we consider treatable would become fatal.

Then he calculated that an arrow shot from a 75-lb-draw bow would have the same velocity at point-blank range as an authentic 110-lb-draw bow would have at 250 yards, so he shot his bow at just 10 yards.

He shot four kinds of arrow:

  • needle bodkin (type 7)
  • short bodkin (type 8)
  • wide broadhead (type 13)
  • curved broadhead (type 16)

He shot at a number of different kinds of armor:

  • jack coat – 15 layers of linen stitched to one layer of deer skin on top, the “most serviceable defense in the fifteenth century” according to one expert, might have up to 30 layers of linen
  • butted maille – a cheap form of “chain mail” that may not have even been used in medieval times, with the rings simply closed in a circle with the ends butted together, over 2 layers of quilted linen stuffed with 1” cotton batting
  • riveted maille (average quality) – made up of 18 gauge iron wire with a 5/16” inside diameter, over 2 layers of quilted linen stuffed with 1” cotton batting
  • riveted maille (high quality) – made
    up of 18 gauge steel wire with a 5/16” inside diameter, over 2 layers of quilted linen stuffed with 1” cotton batting
  • coat of plates – 3” square plates, covered with 1/16” thick leather and padded with 8 layers of linen
  • plate armor – 4.57 mm thick, over 3 layers of quilted linen.

His goal was not to demonstrate that a longbow could defeat all armors of the time, but that’s what he found:

Jack Coat
This was the first test that was performed and was, by far, the most surprising. Although defeated by three out of the four arrow types, the effectiveness of slowing down arrows was great. The deerskin rolled into the penetration in the needle bodkin tests and acted like a break. The linen padding was enough to distribute the force of the short bodkin and keep the deformation under the fatal threshold. The armour that I tested was the thinnest documented jack I could find. The thickest was almost twice as thick, and in my opinion, would have been enough to stop the needle bodkin as well as the short bodkin that the thinner armour stopped. The bladed arrows on the other hand were much more in line with the outcome that I expected. The cutting force against the deerskin and linen was very efficient and ended in a 3.8” penetration. The jack coat at its thickest would have been an effective armour on the battlefield, although I expect very hot and resistant to movement.

Butted Maille
Many people believe that butted maille existed in period as an armour type. I feel that this test shows the main reason why it was not used. The butted maille was no match for any of the arrows that were shot at it. Even the short bodkin and large broadhead had 1.7” of penetration. The biggest reason that I feel that this armour type was not used was the fact that either the penetration was excessively deep or only slightly deep but broken rings were pushed into the flesh. Not only would this armour not stop arrows, but it would introduce more dangers. In the case of the barbed arrows, the armour only impeded the arrow from being withdrawn. In my test shots all the barbed arrows needed to be pulled through, not pulled out. The best summary that I can give on butted maille is that it would be better to be wearing nothing rather than butted maille.

Riveted Maille (average quality)
This test patch, albeit riveted, was not much better than the butted test. The rings were inconsistent in craft and the integrity of the metal around the rivet was questionable on average. Although the penetration depths were slightly shallower, every arrow was fatal. I only had two test patches so I decided to only test the arrows that were of lesser potential penetration and save the type 16 arrow for the high quality test. The needle bodkin, or as it is referred to at times, the maille bodkin, popped open one link and pushed in to a depth of 2.8”. With such a small area of amour contact, this arrow would be difficult to stop with any period maille. The short bodkin did not punch all the way through but instead pushed rings through the padding and into the flesh, breaking the skin to a depth of 1.3” and also leaving a dent very close to the fatal threshold. The broadhead cut many rings but not enough to get the barbs past the rings. Although not full penetration, the depth was 1.8” and it too sent broken rings into the flesh. Riveted maille of this quality was not much more effective than butted.

Riveted Maille (high quality)
The last maille tested was made of rings of high quality metal and craftsmanship. The metal around the rivets was consistent and solid. The needle bodkin performed exactly like the previous maille, breaking one link and penetrating 2.8”. The short bodkin however did not penetrate the metal and bounced off. This seems to be a good sign, but the deformation was 1.8”, which is over the fatal threshold. The broadhead arrow once again did not get the barbs past the maille but in this case did not introduce rings into the flesh. The penetration was 1.3”. Finally the type 16 arrow, which is indicated as the most common, cut through the rings and the padding to a depth of 3”. This head was very efficient and deadly against this armour and, in my opinion, should take over the title of maille arrowhead from the needle bodkin. Although the needle bodkin penetrated further, the type 16 arrow would not be able to be removed while the armour was in place and would cause a much larger cut in the body. This high quality maille shows that the craftsmanship of the rivet has a great impact on the penetration of arrows. If the wearer was using thicker padding under the maille, the short bodkin and the broadhead could possibly be rejected safely. No matter how thick the padding, except the very impractical thickness, the type 16 and the needle bodkin arrows would not be stopped by maille armour.

Coat of Plates
The small overlapping plates under the leather were a good defense against arrows. Only the needle bod­kin pen­etrated at all, and, although technically past the threshold, the wound would be very small and unless hitting a major organ likely survivable. The other tests did not penetrate but did leave large plate-sized deformations. These dents were well within the threshold but would have had an impact on the wearer. The leather outer layer would also help in oblique angle shots in giving the arrow head a purchase point. This would increase the number of arrows that made full contact. Although protective, the coat of plates would have been an uncomfortable armour to be struck in by a longbow.

The outcome of this last test came as no surprise. The plate stopped most arrows. The needle bodkin again punched past the threshold but would not create a great risk to the wearer. The padding that was tested seems to be the bare minimum of arming coats. If this layer was increased, I believe that none of the arrows would have touched the skin. There also was very little to no deformation. With a slight change in padding, this armour would be comfortable and very protective against the longbow with any arrowhead.

Most soldiers on the battlefield would have been at risk from the longbow. The average archer would have had the tools to wound or kill most armour types. Even with the advent of coat of plates, the archer would have had an impact on an advancing army. Only the most expensive and well made plate armour wearers would have had an advantage. Although even with plate, I only tested the impacts to major protected areas. The joints and gaps would all still be vulnerable being mostly of maille until the 16th century. Without significant metal to withstand the energies of an arrow or excessive padding to spread out the force, arrows of the 1400’s would have been deadly.

The Children’s Illustrated Clausewitz

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

Caitlin Fitz Gerald (@caidid) is (slowly) producing The Children’s Illustrated Clausewitz — or, in Spencer Ackerman’s terms, the Bible of Western War, now featuring cartoon animals.

I may have to brush up on my brush strokes before starting Sun-Tzu for Kids.

Jim Henson’s Fantastic World

Friday, August 19th, 2011

The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens is showing the new “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World” exhibition, which looks back to his Mad Men days:

Cookie Monster evolved from the Wheel Stealer, one of several puppet creatures Henson invented who consume a family’s snacks in a 1960s television commercial. He later appeared on TV chomping an I.B.M. computer. According to the exhibition, Henson had hit on something that the era’s advertising mavens had hardly considered: Humor sells products.

“He was also making fun of Madison Avenue and the way things were sold, and yet he was very successful at it,” Karen Falk, the show’s curator, said in an interview. “He was much loved by the Madison Avenue executives. Maybe having it come from a puppet character made it O.K.”

Henson the subversive advertising genius is just one of the lesser-known identities the exhibition reveals. It also portrays Henson the graphic designer, Henson the product of the ’60s counterculture, Henson the experimental filmmaker and Henson the creative collaborator. The 3,500-square-foot show, consisting of more than 120 artifacts, has come to New York as its last stop on a four-year tour organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Tracing Henson’s development from his Mississippi childhood and Maryland high school and college years until his death from a bacterial infection in New York in 1990 (he was only 53), it comprises — along with a wealth of film and video — sketches, notes, photographs, television pitches, storyboards, and even doodles and office memos.

My Little Pony: The RPG

Friday, August 19th, 2011

A few years back, as an April Fools joke, Wizards of the Coast, the folks behind Dungeons & Dragons, announced a My Little Pony roleplaying game.

This annoyed gamer-geek mxyzplk — because My Little Pony: The RPG was a great idea:

I put some thought into this when my daughter was younger. You could quite easily make a commodity RPG based on, for example, Dora the Explorer. Those episodes are very rote, the girl is on a quest and has to pass three different obstacles. You print up some “adventure sheets” with three to-do things, and a harried parent can “run the game” while doing housework. “Here, to get by the rhyming troll you have to write down a poem! Work one out together, Dora, Nora, and Whoever-you-are! Back in 5! Remember to play pretend!” It can be made appropriate down to a very young age. That article came out when my girl was 4 and I easily specced out some kid-compatible mechanics (who rolled higher on a d6 + arts & crafts!).

Of course, this is hard for most RPG companies to do. It’s not like they’re part of a huge corporation that owns the rights to a bunch of children’s properties! Oh, wait…

It’s pretty sad that we want to get a new generation into the hobby, but the most obvious and high value things that could do that are despised, and instead we think all we need is yet another 300 page rulebook slaughterfest game. Get a child psychologist, combine simple to-dos with pony figures, run a TV spot during the show (retask some of the money being flushed down the toiled advertising Green Lantern toys), and voila, the My Little Pony Adventure Game has more people playing it than every other extant RPG within weeks.

I knew that My Little Pony was back on toy-store shelves. I didn’t realize it had a new hit show:

The series had a reboot last year and is properly titled My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. While it is obviously a child’s cartoon, it is insanely well done: well-written, well-drawn, well-acted, with plenty of puns, sight gags, at least one Chuck Jones reference, and several very catchy songs.

To paraphrase the producer: “We knew parents would end up watching this show with their kids so we wanted to make it fun for them too. This includes male parents as well.” It worked! The series is now very popular with high school and college age students of both sexes.

It gets weirder:

Despite the target demographic of young girls, the show has gained a large following of predominately male teenagers and adults, calling themselves “bronies”. The appreciation of this unlikely audience is due to a combination of Faust’s direction and characterization, the expressive Flash based animation style, themes older audiences can appreciate, and a reciprocal relationship between the creators and fans. Elements of the show have become part of the remix culture and have formed the basis for a variety of Internet memes.

There is no train from the airport

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Angelenos sincerely believe there is no train from the airport, Joe Bob Briggs notes:

I’ve told people that I’ll be taking the train into town from LAX — thereby sparing that person from the two-hour reality-show episode called “Picking You Up From the Airport” — only to have the native Angeleno say, “There is no train from the airport.”

Let me repeat that. They’re not telling me that they never take the train from the airport. They’re not telling me it’s a bad train or a slow train or an infrequently scheduled train. They’re denying the existence of any train at all. It’s happened more than once.

The Life-Spans of Empires

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

The Life-Spans of Empires follow an exponential distribution; some empires last a long time, but most do not:

One of the interesting points about the exponential distribution is that it implies that the the duration of an empire at any given moment can’t tell you the probability that it’s going to collapse in the near future. The distribution is “memoryless.” In other words, the likelihood of doom striking isn’t greater as time passes. This seems somewhat counterintuitive. After all doesn’t the cohesion and elan of the a ruling caste of a given empire wane as the society slowly lose its vital force? Hasn’t the author read Spengler! Arbesman admits that there are more complex equations which can describe the distribution more precisely, but the exponential formula has only one parameter, so it’s quite parsimonious. But even if we have a first approximation we don’t have a total description.

In gamer terms, empires don’t have hit points; rather, they eventually fail a saving throw.  (See also: Gompertz Law of Human Mortality.)

The Eugenics Review

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

I’m surprised to find that NIH maintains an archive of The Eugenics Review, which ran from 1909 to 1968.

I’m not surprised that Francis Galton wrote the foreward to the first issue:

There are two sorts of workers in every department of knowledge — those who establish a firm foundation, and those who build upon the foundation so established.

The foundation of Eugenics is, in some measure, laid by applying a mathematico-statistical treatment to large collections of facts, and this, like engineering deep down in boggy soil, affords little outward evidence of its bulk and importance.

The superstructure requires for its success the co-operation of many minds of a somewhat different order, filled with imagination and enthusiasm; it does not require technical knowledge as to the nature of the foundation work.

So a navigator, in order to find his position at sea, is dependent on the Tables calculated for him, and printed in the Nautical Almanack or elsewhere. But he may safely use these Tables without having the slightest acquaintance with the methods by which they were constructed.

It will be the aim of the Managers of the Review to invite the co-operation of independent observers, and to demonstrate the bearing of Eugenics on legislation and practical conduct. The field is very wide and varied. To those who carefully explore it the direct conflict of Eugenics with some of the social customs of the day will be unexpectedly revealed, whilst its complete harmony with other social customs will be as unexpectedly made clear.

How to Legalize Drugs Without Creating More Social Pathology

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

The insanity of the War on Drugs is a common topic in progressive and libertarian circles, says Devin Finbarr — who is no longer progressive, and who isn’t quite libertarian, either:

The war on drugs is carried out with just enough capriciousness and leniency that it falls short of actually wiping out the drug markets. But enforcement is strict enough that the markets operate without the protection of the law. The result is organized gang violence, turf wars, and an economic incentive for youths to enter a life of crime.

Decriminalizing possession has always struck me as a questionable half-measure:

Simply decriminalizing possession does not help very much. In fact, it would make the black market problem worse. Demand would rise because consumers would face fewer consequences, but the sellers would still be black market gangs.

I’m not sure what a completely unregulated drug market would bring:

Complete legalization would also likely be a disaster. The consequences of drug addiction have been utterly devastating to inner city communities. I encourage everyone to read the book “The Corner” by David Simon (the creator of the Wire). “The Corner” describes a year Simon spent shadowing a family in inner city Baltimore. The impact of drugs is stark and devastating.

I don’t think the common rebuttal is the only meaningful rebuttal:

The common rebuttal is that since all this pathology is happening despite drugs being illegal, drug [prohibition] clearly doesn’t work. But this ignores that drug prohibition actually does more or less work for most communities. I can walk around my city without ever being tempted to buy heroin. My corner CVS does not sell speed balls next to candy at the front counter. As a result, most people do not face frequent temptation to use drugs, most people do not find it easy to locate drugs, and most people do not use drugs.

It’s simultaneously true that (a) drug prohibition clearly does not eliminate drug use, and (b) drug prohibition likely does reduce drug use.

More interestingly, I suspect drug prohibition radically reduces casual drug use by the middle class, while barely if at all reducing hardcore drug use by the criminal underclass and high society (pardon the pun).

Anyway, Devin’s solution is “quite simple”:

Legalize all drugs, but make them hard to obtain. The government auctions off a limited number of drug selling licenses at a steep price. The sellers are only permitted to sell drugs privately to licensed consumers. All public advertising and public selling of drugs is banned. Drug dealers are not even allowed to operate public web sites or list themselves in the phone book. Since the ban only restricts public transactions and promotion, the ban is easy to enforce. When drug consumers buy their drug license, they receive access to a private web site where they can find listings of the drug sellers. The consumer orders online or over the phone, and then picks up the drug from the sellers private, unmarked office.

The difficulty of obtaining a drug consumption license varies depending on the drug involved. A marijuana license might be available from city hall, and cost either $300 or 10 hours of community labor. To obtain a heroin license, the consumer might have to travel to a nondescript office in an out of the way location, and watch the final fifteen minutes of “Requiem for a dream” over and over again in a loop for four hours. The heroin license would cost either $2000 or 50 hours of community labor.

The government taxes and regulates the drug market to limit addictiveness, cheapness, and danger to the consumer. All government drug revenue is dedicated to a blind charitable trust, so that the government is not tempted to promote drug use to increase revenue.

The license to consume drugs seems a bit over the top — and introduces another opening for a (small) black market — but the rest of the plan is just the standard liquor-store model, dialed up a notch — which seems to have eliminated the market for speakeasies and bathtub gin just fine.

I pity the poor druggies in Pennsylvania though, who won’t be able to get heroin on Sundays, and who’ll have to buy their weed by the bushel from the distributor.

More seriously, another, quieter model is to tax legal narcotics more and loosen the restrictions on doctors’ prescriptions.

Zimbabwe Needs Food

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

The United Nations says Zimbabwe needs $480 million in food, health and humanitarian aid this year:

Alain Noudehou, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in the capital, Harare, said Tuesday an estimated 1.4 million people still need food handouts because of crop failures, erratic rain and other economic pressures affecting daily incomes.

Dennis Mangan notes that the climate always cooperated with Ian Smith:

During all the years of white rule, and even later before white farmers had been driven from their farms through murder and intimidation, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) never had “crop failures, erratic rain, and other economic pressures” that caused a drop in agricultural production. The climate always cooperated with Ian Smith. Mugabe has had a run of bad luck, and now Western governments — not China or Saudi Arabia, of course, they can’t be expected to help — need to pony up once again.

Meanwhile in Somalia, another famine is brewing. Somalia, land of pirates and warlords, is “suffering its worst drought in 60 years”. Some heartless people — probably racist — appear to believe that sending money and food to Africa does more harm than good. Because Africa’s population has increased five-fold since 1950, it’s hard to see how it could get by without substantial foreign help.

Commenter Rick Darby calls this a perfect example of feel-good “help” that perpetuates the problem it is supposed to solve:

When you enable a poorly functioning population to grow its numbers far in excess of what it could in the absence of food and medical aid, you are guaranteeing that there will be continual, and greater, crises in the future.

Another commenter notes that in 1984 Ethiopia had around 30 million people and was starving:

To raise awareness and money, the British artists cut the record “Do They Know it’s Christmas”, and the US artists released “We are the World” a few months later.

Now in 2011 Ethiopia, sans Eritrea, has around 90 million people and there are lingering hunger problems. Was the massive aid effort in 1984-85 worth it? Was it the correct thing to do? Or would a different approach have been better?

They were unable to feed themselves with 30 million people, and now they have 90 million.

Green Arrow and Drugs

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Green Arrow was originally developed as an archery-themed version of Batman, but in the late 1960s writer Denny O’Neil decided to emphasize another facet of the character’s Robin Hood inspiration and made him a left-wing crusader for social justice — in contrast to Green Lantern, who stood for law and order.

The comics moved into other adult themes, and Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy, became addicted to heroin. (You’d expect amphetamines, wouldn’t you?)

Anyway, the linked Let’s Be Friends Again comic strip has Oliver Queen facing sanctions for another kind of drug use.

It makes perfect sense, by the way, to assume that Batman, if he were real, would use performance-enhancing drugs — like many high-level athletes and special operators.