Monday, August 10, 2009

Preliminary Eternal Poison

Because the only way to improve on an awkward title is to add more multi-syllabic words!

I bought Eternal Poison yesterday in a moment of weakness. I realized I hadn't bought a game in two months, which I decided was probably unhealthy, and the game had several solid points in its favor:

1) Nifty cover art. (see above)

2) It's put out by Atlus.

3) On the back, it advertises that you can bind enemy's souls. Pretty cool, but then it elaborates that afterwards you can "enslave" them or "sacrifice them for profit." Yeah, this is pretty much the exact same thing that made me buy Folklore (which I don't regret). It's almost like these crazy Japanese people have figured out the keywords that will make me buy anything they make. Almost.

So anyway, I've played about a half-hour of the game so far, but already have some commentary. Firstly, it definitely delivers on the promise on the back of the box - you play a witch who runs around binding demons into servitude, which is awesome. You also have an ally (familiar?) who is a magical wolf with antlers on cold fire. Somehow it doesn't seem quite as absurd when you see it, though.

The other side of the proverbial coin is that...the UI is kind of clunky. This is honestly kind of shocking from a moderate-budget strategy RPG. Maybe I've just been spoiled by the likes of Disgaea, but I feel like absolutely everything I want to do just has two-or-three-too-many button presses involved. What's worse, every time you attack an enemy, it cuts to this 3D environment and plays out the attack animation in close up. That sounds really cool, except that it takes a good 5 seconds to load the animation, another 5 seconds to load back the tactical map, and up to 10 seconds of attacking animation when all I'm just using a normal attack to finish off a mook. If it were, for instance, a special animation when I score a critical hit, or a special animation the first time I attack the enemy leader, then I'd be fine with that, but not every single time anything on the map does anything. That's just excessive. Fortunately, there seems to be an option to turn these animations off (I didn't know what they meant by "animations off" in the menu screen when I first ran across it, and certainly didn't expect that I'd want to actually come back and turn them off).

Finally, after each battle, it asks you if you want to save your game, and if you do, then it returns you to the main menu screen. This isn't a huge deal, since you can just load the game to continue, but the whole "save and continue" idea has been around long enough that failing to include it is kind of befuddling. It's almost like these design choices were made by someone in the early 90's who used an arcane technique to communicate with a modern team of developers.

All in all the clunkiness is outweighed by the personality of the game so far, and I'm definitely going to continue playing, but it boggles my mind that a game would ship in a condition where in a half-hour I can come up with a multiple-page-long list of obvious and easy improvements. Then again, I guess that's why I believe there's a market for people like me in the first place.

-Silent Ellipsis

Thursday, August 6, 2009

What is a Bubble? (Philosopher's Economics)

I've been thinking about economics a bit recently (I doubt I'm the only one), and a few things regularly creep back up into my mind. One of those is the question, "What is a bubble?" Now I'm not asking what people mean when they use the word - I know that much - I'm asking what it represents. In theory it's a disconnect between the perceived state of the market and its actual state, but I want to see what it is one level deeper than that. Where did the money lost go? Why is it that bad accounting results in our society being poorer?

Before we begin, full disclosure: I'm not an economist, and I'm not an expert on the intricacies of the market. In fact, I'm historically the kind of person that doesn't even like thinking about economics. In my defense, however, recent history has shown that many supposed experts on the market are nothing of the kind, and it's also forced many of us who would prefer to spend our time on other topics to think a bit harder about the economic system we live with. I'm also not going to try and explore the intricacies of the market here; we're going to be looking at fairly high-level concepts instead.

What I propose is a mental exercise: imagine, for the time being, that you do not know what "money" is, or quite what an "economy" is, and you are presented with our society ("our" meaning American society, here, but much of this will apply to other developed countries). You do know that the people in this society adhere to a complex codified system of behavior in order to allocate resources, which they refer to as "the economy".

So how does this system work? It seems to have a number of conditions and goals:

1) It seeks to produce value for the system as a whole. Unfortunately (very unfortunately, as we shall see), what qualifies as "value" is vague and isn't universally agreed upon.

2) The system needs to allocate resources so that they are spent on the projects best capable of adding value to the system (in order to fulfill the goal above). Note that just because a project contributes value today doesn't mean it will contribute value tomorrow, so this must be constantly re-evaluated.

3) The system motivates citizens to be productive by allowing those who create the most value to consume more of the value produced.

4) The system requires citizens to consume its products. This is for two reasons: first, the act of consumption is an expression of faith in and acceptance of the system. Second, and more importantly, it is a means of measuring the perceived value the system is producing.

So (4) ties back into (1) - it's how the system deals with the ambiguity of "value." If a citizen consumes or makes use of the products of the society, they are assumed to be getting value out of it (or else they would choose not to consume those products). Now you also have a way of measuring the productivity of projects - if their products are consumed, they are productive projects.

We have a basic idea of how this system likely works, now. When citizens produce value, they are rewarded by being able to claim or use up some of the value produced, and their consumption is an indicator that the producers of whatevever they consumed are contributing value, so these producers are also allowed to consume, etc. This is how it works once you "get the ball rolling", but how does the consumption chain start? Who is the prime mover, if you will?

In this case, it's financial institutions like banks that have the authority to declare that a citizen deserves to consume before they've proven that they're creating value. In theory this is because the bank has determined that the likelihood of this citizen producing future value is very high, and because the consumption chain needs to get started to keep the society as a whole productive. Since the objective is to have the rate at which value is created constantly increase, the rate at which value is consumed must also increase, so the purpose of these institutions is to bring the rate of consumption closer to the rate of production, so that the system gets more feedback.

At this point, things are starting to look pretty familiar, and we can see where the current crisis fits into this chain: bad predictions about how much value citizens are likely to contribute. However, let's step back and consider what that means.

In the case of a real estate bubble, we're talking about building houses. The financial institution is deciding that a citizen should have a house, but it turns out, eventually, that the citizen didn't create enough value to justify the consumption. In other words, the society has decided that the current house owner does not deserve the house. That's what the bubble means. The bubble popping is the large-scale recognition that house owners have not earned their houses, and the subsequent punishment enacted by the system.

Now you may not remember getting together with your fellow countrymen and having a vote where you decided to punish house owners. That's because there was no such vote - instead we have a tool in this system that automates the decision for us, called "money" (along with contracts and credit scores and such). If you remember, however, we agreed not to talk about money when describing the system, and there was a point: by giving ourselves a little distance we get a new view of the system. It is the same core system whether we vote to punish or not - money is just a means of implementation.

So back to the situation at hand: the system is punishing people, both house owners and financial institutions, but on a large enough scale that it has destructive consequences. When the financial institution loses sufficient authority in the system, it is no longer able to delegate resources, and the rate of consumption falls. This has a chain effect, or viewed another way, it interrupts the chain effect the system so carefully created. If you do not have consumption, you don't know where to allocate your resources (because you don't know who's contributing value), so resources will simply sit unallocated, and projects grind to a halt. In our society, this manifests in a rise in the rate of unemployment.

Now here's the weird part: at no point in this story was a problem caused by a decrease in the rate of value production. That's the result of the problem. The problem was actually too much value production, or rather, "unjustified" value production. Now we have nice houses, which carry a lot of value, just sitting around unused because we can't decide who should get to live in them.

From this perspective, our current situation is rather obviously absurd. As a society, we have the resources and infrastructure we need to be prosperous, but we're stuck in an extended period of indecision about how to allocate these resources. In order to fix the situation, you simply need to start allocating resources again (in fact, to a large extent it doesn't matter where you allocate them, as long as you enable consumption and get the chain effect restarted).

This makes recent proposals seem much more reasonable than they appear at face value to many Americans. Bailing out banks is, in this little model of ours, synonymous with "not punishing" those banks, so that they can continue to allocate resources. If (and this is a big if) you add well balanced regulations to the mix, you can force the bank to do a better job of allocating resources without interrupting its operation, and getting it to do a better job allocating resources was the whole point of the punishment feedback loop in the first place.

A stimulus package is an alternative of the same idea - but in this case you skip the institutions that performed poorly and have the government allocate resources directly. Again, as long as the policy enables consumption, we start getting feedback about value production, which allows the system to adjust resource allocation and slide back into an efficient state of operation.

Note that this doesn't say anything about how these policies are actually being implemented. Bailing out banks without adding regulation might reinforce their poor performance, and result in the chain effect starting back up, but at low efficiency. A stimulus might not allocate resources fast enough to effectively jumpstart the chain effect. Either way, the principles behind the policies clearly have some grounding.

We could go further, but I have to stop at some point, and going further into policy risks getting us too far away from the core concepts. So what's the takeaway? Well if you've gotten to this point and think that what I've said makes some kind of sense, I consider the post a success, but if there is one idea I want people to come away with, it's this: money is a means, not an end.

We were able to tell a perfectly coherent story about our economy without the concept of money being involved, and we can see where it fits in - it's the common unit of measure for the value of any product. Its purpose is to distribute the evaluation mechanism among all citizens in the system, which is important because, as mentioned before, our products need to be constantly evaluated to have efficiency in the system. In other words, dollar bills are evaluation tokens, or a mini-vote for a the value of things we consume. This is clearly not how citizens tend to think of them, however; since these tokens can be exchanged for items of value, we think of them as having inherent value, and treat them as property.

The first step to a more sane system might be recognizing what money actually is.

-Silent Ellipsis

Monday, August 3, 2009

Basho Translation

Nothing to do with videogames today. I spontaneously decided to post my own translation of Basho's most famous haiku to Twitter earlier, and I wanted to take a second to explain it a little (is that supposedly against the spirit of haiku? well it's not my poem to begin with, so I think I'm free to analyze it). The original, in case you know Japanese but don't know it, is:

古池や 蛙飛びこむ 水の音

furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

My translation is:

Back at the old pond
A frog leaps and dives within
The sound of water

So a couple things to note here. Firstly, I maintain the haiku syllable structure. Not all translations do, but haiku has the rule for a reason - it forces you to pick your syllables carefully. Contrast with this translation by Curtis Hidden Page (reference):

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.

You can add a lot of detail by elongating the translation, sure. Conversely you can super-shorten it to just get the idea across very quickly, but the original poem is neither of these. It's just long enough to introduce a little personality into a thought, without being long enough to pin down and define the personality.

Ok, so secondly, the word "back" is nowhere to be found in the original, but the poem as a whole definitely gives the impression that the poet considers the pond a very familiar place, which the word expresses. Also, the wording maintains a certain ambiguity - it's not clear whether the poet is present at the pond or not. He might be back at the old pond, taking it in, when a frog leaps and creates a moment of awareness, or the frog-leaping might be occuring "back at the old pond" while he's elsewhere. I like the ambiguity, myself.

Thirdly, I use the singular "frog." In Japanese, there is no distinction between singular and plural, so kawazu is ambiguous. In English, we have to pick one, and my understanding is that Basho thought of it as a single frog (his painting to accompany the poem depicts one frog), so I went with it.

Fourthly, tobikomu is made up of two components. By itself, tobu means to fly, and the komu suggests being enveloped, thus I use two verbs to express the meaning of the multi-faceted word. This is apparently an unusual move - many people focus on the brevity of the haiku, but this word actually feels pretty long and considered to me, so I give it that time in translation.

Finally, "the sound of water" is a pretty literal and orthodox translation of the last line, but it's unusual that I lead into it with the word "within", suggesting the metaphor that the frog is becoming a sound. It does fit with the structure of the original poem, and it's a bit ambiguous, but it's fair to say that this is the second place (the first being the occurence of "back") where I'm taking some poetic license. I think it fits the impression of the poem as a whole, however. We don't know if Basho actually sees the frog, but in theory he does hear the frog. It's possible that he is surmising the existence of a frog based solely on the sound he hears. Either way, it is clear that Basho is leaving us with "the sound of water" as an indication that after the leap and the dive, the sound, and the impression of the action, is all that remains. It is in this sense that we might think of the frog as literally becoming a sound.

That's it for now. I seem to be on a roll this week with the posts. We'll see if I burn out soon from over-posting.

-Silent Ellipsis