Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How Will Sandy Affect the Election?

I'm curious as to whether there is any past evidence of the effect of natural catastrophes on electoral outcomes. I could imagine that a hurricane with widespread damage might make people feel insecure and so more inclined for stasis rather then change, leading to more votes for the incumbents. Alternatively, people might operate with a rule of thumb blaming all current bad outcomes on whoever is currently in power on the  assumption that actual causal connections are too hard to work out, and so be more likely to vote against the incumbents. I have been told (but have been unable to confirm) that there is a phrase in Italian that translates as "It's raining again—pig of a government."

Someone must have studied the question, and perhaps one of my readers can point me at the result. Alternatively, some of you may have other ideas for possible linkages in either direction.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Is it Possible to do a MMORG Right?

My previous post raised the possibility that massively multiplayer online role playing games, or something similar, might play an important role in the future, due to the fact that they, unlike movies, can be technologically protected from copying. That raises an obvious question: How good a story can a MMORG be?

Current versions face at least two intractable problems. The first is that, if the viewer is a character in the story, what he does should matter, should affect what happens. But the authors cannot write a different version for every player, so in practice there is, at least in World of Warcraft (I'm not as familiar with other games), a single plot line which the character is being walked through—meaning that he himself is impotent.

Many years ago, I  had the experience of participating in a role playing game (Empire of the Petal Throne, for any familiar with it) being run by the man who created it. He was a Tolkien-class world builder but not a Tolkien-class story teller. The game felt, not like a story or adventure, but like a guided tour. And that was a game where there was a real human being in a position to modify what happened according to what the players did—not the case for a MMORG.

That suggests one possible solution to the problem, a fusion of the ordinary role playing game, with a human dungeon master, and the MMORG. The online game provides the world and backstory, while providing a talented DM the tools to take the plot line in any of a wide variety of directions, depending on what the players do. 

One disadvantage of that model is that it, like D&D and its imitators, provides a world with a lot fewer real people in it than World of Warcraft. I am not sure if it would be possible to design something along those lines in which each human DM had control over a different part of the world and plot, making it possible for the actions of each player and group of players to determine one strand of a much larger, but internally consistent, story. Carrying my speculation farther forward, it might be possible to do the same thing using artificial intelligence to replace the human DM. I can imagine a primitive version of that at present, where a game has an elaborate network of potential plot lines, with the particular strand followed by a player depending on his choices. That is already doable, and done, by some single player games. It would be much more difficult with a massively multiplayer game, but perhaps not impossible.

This brings me to the other and related problem with the current version. Your player is told that there is some dire peril threatening the world, or at least large parts of it, and he is the only one who can deal with it. He succeeds in his quest, kills the monster. Half an hour later he observes another player, having been told the same story, fighting the monster he just killed. It is hard to tell a consistent story that way, or successfully suspend one's disbelief in a story that inconsistent. Over and over again.

To solve that problem, I think you need two changes, one or both of which may have been implemented in games I haven't played. One is to abandon the "save the world" point of view and give your characters objectives at a more plausible level. There is no reason why your character cannot save a child who is being attacked by a pack of wolves today, and observe another character saving another child from another pack of wolves tomorrow. That is only a partial solution if the two incidents are obviously identical. So the other part is to design the challenges with a lot of random variation built in, enough to make each run believably different from the last.

As should be obvious, these speculations are coming out of a very limited experience with the world of designing games. I will be interested in comments by those who know more about it, and in particular in examples of existing games that solve one or more of the problems I describe.

MMORG as the Future of Fiction?

Nowadays, a lot of the intellectual property protected by copyright law is in digital form. This raises an obvious problem for enforcing copyright, since digital files are easy to copy and easy to distribute.

One possible solution is technological protection, distributing the content in some form that lets the user use it but not copy it. That solution has a problem, sometimes referred to as the analog hole.

I buy a song, embedded in software that requires me to pay ten cents online every time I play it. I pay ten cents, play it into a tape recorder, and now have it outside the protection, available to replayed for free or, if I redigitize it, emailed off to any of my friends who wants it. With a little more technological sophistication, I can cut out the middle man—play it once, route the output to disk instead of to speakers, and get my digitized version without the loss from playing and rerecording. Current law not only forbids me from doing that, it bans software designed to help me do it, but it is not clear how enforceable that ban will turn out to be in practice. It's possible that legal and technical efforts will make piracy sufficiently inconvenient so that most users will pay for what they use. Also that it won't.

The analog hole is a serious problem for any IP, such as a song, novel, or movie, that is fully revealed in one use. But it does not prevent protection of IP that is not so revealed. A database, for instance, can be kept securely on the owner's server, assuming a sufficiently competent owner, and only the responses to queries sent out to users. A word processor can be designed to run on a server rather than the user's machine—and the current shift towards cloud computing, driven by the increasing speed and extent of online access, is making that an increasingly attractive option.

Years ago, thinking about this issue, I tried to dream up a version of a movie that would not be fully revealed, perhaps one where the viewer could see it from different points of view each time he viewed it. It eventually occurred to me that something of that sort already existed, and I was spending a good deal of time watching it. World of Warcraft, as I pointed out in my previous post, is a story as well as a game. Because it is a story that is told by having the viewer participate in it as a character, walking through a mostly predetermined plot, it is not fully revealed in one use. What I want is the experience for myself, not a recording of someone else having it.

There are a lot of problems with WoW as a story; it is a new literary form still waiting for its first Homer. But it does provide something not that far from the experience of a movie and, unlike a movie, can be protected from copying without falling into the analog hole. That should make it possible to invest large amounts of money and talent in improving it and  in developing later and better works. It might turn out to be the crucial advantage for that form over its older competitors.

Or might not. It should be an interesting century.

Is World of Warcraft a Game or a Story?

It is both, of course. But my impression is that, over the years, it has become increasingly less a game and more a story.

For those who are not familiar with WoW, player characters have a level, increased by gaining experience—killing monsters, doing quests. The level has a maximum. Each time Blizzard does a major revision of the game—the latest is the fourth—the maximum level is raised and players who were at the old maximum set out to level up to the new. 

In the original game, as best I remember it, leveling was fairly hard—you were doing quests that at least sometimes stretched your abilities,  requiring ingenuity and/or patience to complete. In at least the last two versions, that was no longer the case. Almost all of the quests were easy, with the result that a competent player's character would almost never get killed—and death in WoW is not permanent, merely a minor inconvenience. 

The player was being walked through an elaborate (and, in the most recent expansion, gorgeously illustrated) plot. Only when he got to the top level did it become necessary to do more difficult dungeons and raids in order to win better gear to equip the character with. In effect, the game has been split into two halves, with everything up to top level primarily a story. The top level offers the opportunity for those who wish to do relatively hard things to do them, provided they do them in groups. So far as I can tell, the only opportunities for someone playing solo to face real challenges come either from trying to skill up very fast, which can involve fighting lots of enemies at once instead of one at a time, or going solo into dungeons intended for lower level groups.

Aside from the lack of high level solo content, I'm not sure the current structure of the game doesn't make sense. It lets the designers focus their attempts to create difficult and interesting content on the top level, which is where most serious players end up spending most of their time. On the other hand, it also means that getting to that top level doesn't stretch the player and so may not teach him what he will need when he gets there.

My most serious criticism, however, is not of the structure but the content. Blizzard's designers do a fine job as artists, even if their tastes in armor and weapons are a lot farther in the comic book direction and farther from realism than mine. They do a good job as programmers. 

But if any of them writes a novel, I don't think I want to read it.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Middlemen, Specialization and Birthday Parties

A child's birthday party as I remember them, both as child and parent, consisted of the child's friends and acquaintances coming over to his house, entertaining themselves with squirt gun battles in the back yard and/or party games or board games inside, singing  "Happy Birthday" and consuming (at least) cake and ice cream. The final stage was the opening of presents, followed by the retrieval of the guests by their parents,  the whole process more or less organized or chaotic according to the tastes and abilities of the hosts.

This afternoon I attended my grandson's birthday party. It was held at a facility obviously designed for holding children's parties. The entertainment, preceded by a safety video, consisted of playing on and in large inflatable structures—slides, a bouncy room, an obstacle course. That was followed by cake and pizza, after which everyone went home, the birthday boy accompanied by a bag of unopened presents. 

Looking at it as an economist, it is clear that the change from then to now represents an increased use of the division of labor, something that, as an economist, it is hard for me to object to. And yet I do, and I do not think the reason is entirely a conservative preference for the way things used to be. For somewhat similar reasons, I find having guests over for dinner a different, and better, practice than taking them out to a restaurant. Homes have an emotional dimension to them. To invite someone into your home, whether an adult colleague or a child's friend, is to some small degree to treat him as part of your family.

Increased specialization, the substitution of commercial for home production, appears in a variety of other contexts. Another that I have observed is the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that does historical recreation of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In the early years of the Society, thirty or forty years ago, if you wanted medieval clothing you researched it yourself and made it yourself or, if you were lucky, got a friend who was better at it to make it for you. The same applied to most of the rest of what you had—rattan swords, most or all of your armor, jewelery, tents, even shoes if you wanted something more period looking than you could buy in a shoe store.

Nowadays, you can go to the Pennsic War, the Society's largest annual event, or  online, and buy clothing, swords, armor, jewelery, tents, shoes. In some ways, it is a great improvement—the quality and authenticity of what you can buy, sometimes at quite reasonable prices, is considerably better than what most of us managed to make for ourselves. The best work now, done by specialists, is better than the best was forty years ago, and available to many more people.

Something is gained, but something else is lost. Part of the fun, in the early days, was having an excuse to learn and practice a wide variety of crafts, research things for yourself instead of depending on what other people told you.

At the most recent Pennsic, I made the acquaintance of a group that camped near us but that, for some reason, I had not previously encountered. Many of their tents, much of their furniture, they had made for themselves. They called themselves the clockmaker's guild, and one of their members had indeed built a clock, which he showed me. It was made of wood and worked without a pendulum, the pendulum clock being, he told me, an invention that appeared just after the SCA's cutoff of 1600 A.D.

All of which is how I knew that they were my kind of people.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Capcha Question

A commenter recently complained that the capchas, the images that you have to type in when posting a comment in order to show that you are a person and not a program, are too difficult—a problem I have seen elsewhere online. The obvious problem with not having them is that it makes spam comments easier, since they can be done wholesale by software instead of one at a time by a human being.

As an experiment, I turned off the capcha requirement, with mixed results. Judged by the comments sent in—I have blogger set up to email me copies of all comments—spam increased considerably. Judged by the comments that actually appeared, it didn't. Blogger did a sufficiently good job of filtering out spam so that most of the additional ones got eliminated.

There is still a cost, however—if I want to keep track of comments, including comments on old posts, by reading the emailed copies, I have to wade through a lot of spam. And one reason to keep track of them is that blogger sometimes makes mistakes, in both directions. If I never read the posts that it thinks are spam, some real posts get eliminated.

Suggestions welcome—for the moment I'm leaving capchas off.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Towards Better Test Taking Software

Almost thirty years ago, when I was teaching at Tulane Business School, I had a project to develop software to let students take exams, and professors grade them, on computer—the name of the product was going to be "Electric Blue Book." Unfortunately, it never got to completion--something that has happened with a number of my projects. But many years later, other people did create such software. The version I'm familiar with, because my law school uses it, is Computest.

What is depressing about the software is that all of the ingenuity has gone, not into making it easier to take and grade exams, but into making it harder to cheat. From the standpoint of the user, the software is clearly inferior to what I designed but never got programmed. For example ...

In my version, the student would see a page listing questions and showing, for each question, whether he had done it and whether, if so, he wanted to go back to it if there was time. In my version, the professor would be able to have the software feed him all the answers to question one in random order, then all the answers to question two, and so on. Doing it that way makes it easier to remember what you are giving how much credit for than if you graded all of exam one, then all of exam two, then ... . 

It also eliminates an important bias in grading—the tendency to form an opinion of a student based on his answer to one question and then let that opinion distort the grade you give him on another. As my wife pointed out when I was discussing this recently with her, that is a problem discussed by Daniel Kahneman in his (very good) Thinking Fast and Slow. He actually did an experiment, and found that grading question by question instead of exam by exam resulted in the performance of students coming out less consistent—made it less likely that the student who got a good grade on question one also got a good grade on question two. He concluded that he had a strong bias towards imposing consistency on his grading, even when it wasn't there.

Unfortunately, none of this is present in Computest. It would be nice if someone involved in producing the program happened to read this post and did something about it, but not very likely.

But not all of it has to be done by them. It should be possible to write a program that would take the output of Computest, the files representing what each student wrote on the exam, and reorganize it so that the professor doing the grading could grade by question instead of by exam. I cannot think of any comparable way of fixing things at the other end, of making it easier to take the exam, but perhaps one of my readers can.

What started me thinking about this was the recent experience of getting exams that had been taken using Computest on a flash drive from my school, grading them on my computer and returning them by giving the flash drive with graded (and commented) exams on it to the students to pass among themselves, with each copying his exam. It would have been  easier if I could have emailed the exams to them—for one thing, that would have given them a chance to look at them before class and see if they had questions. But Computest requires the student's ID number, not his grade, and under my school's blind grading system that means that I don't know the name and so cannot email the exam back. I can imagine a number of ways of fixing that problem, but do not know if any will prove workable.