Thursday, September 22, 2011

Forests and Trees

One of the most disheartening things about following politics is the way in which our national discourse completely avoids relevant topics in favor of straw men. Two current issues highlight this absurd kabuki in an especially stark fashion: The Warren Buffet tax, and the balancing of the federal budget. First though, a pie chart courtesy of The Atlantic.

When I first saw a visual breakdown of federal expenditures, I was mildly shocked. Years of consuming left-oriented media had predisposed me to thinking that most federal money went towards the military and corporations (and of course medical clinics that won't give a gay man an abortion for religious reasons), while years of exposure to right-oriented opionators had lead to a belief that the federal govt. spends all our tax dollars on bridges to Terabithia and art exhibits featuring carefully crafted scale models of Jesus being eaten by Republicans. Now, this data can be fudged a bit, but the basic takeaway is that Military, Medical, and Redistribution (Social Security + Unemployment + Welfare) make up the lion's share of what our federal tax dollars go towards.

So what does this mean with regards to the Warren Buffet tax (the supposed tax on super-rich people who supposedly pay less tax money than the middle class)? Firstly, it means that the "do your part because you've benefited from the system" argument is pretty much bullshit. There's been a fun infographic posted on the facefriend the last few days with a quote from Elizabeth Warren talking about how the wealthy have used roads, public education (of the employees that work for them), as well as the protection of police and fire departments and the military to support the factories (wtf?) that have made the wealthy so, well, wealthy. A cursory look at how much federal cash goes to infrastructure and education makes that part of the argument fall apart, a basic understanding of the relationship between local and federal govt. melts the face off of the police and fire dept. argument, and leaves us with military spending and the rich doing their part. For the sake of argument, let's pretend that the last 50 years didn't happen and that the wealthiest Americans generate their wealth through the factories that they own, and that only the US military stands between profits and the Kaiser's invading army. If the purpose of our military is to protect our soil (and its myriad of factories) from foreign invasion, we can comfortably cut our entire federal military and rely entirely on our National Guard. When you cut through the bullshit and straw men, people (like Elizabeth Warren) are arguing that our wealthiest need to have their taxes raised (which is impossible, but that's a whole other blog post) to help us pay for the parts of our budget that we don't need help paying for.

As bad as the class-warfare grandstanding is, it pales in comparison to the balancing the budget non-discussion. Take another look at that pie chart. Now stroke your beard and consider where the federal budget has room for cuts. Anti-war folks will be happy to point out that there's a ton of room for austerity in the military budget, and they would be correct. Conservatives and libertarians however, are much more likely to say something to the affect of "let's cut waste in govt.," which is, frankly, preposterous. We're $14 Trillion (that's a T) in debt right now. A large part of that is thanks to the bipartisan medicare expansion back when Bush II was president, but most of it is because the baby boomers didn't have enough children and are starting to retire in a nation without enough workers to fuel the twin Ponzi schemes of Social Security and Medicare/Medicade. If calling it a Ponzi scheme is too harsh, we should call it what it really is: generational theft. I got some hot water a while back by proposing an argument that people who do not have children are immoral. It's not up to me to define morality, fortunately, but it is apparently up to me to point out that people who don't have kids, but then rely on everyone else's kids to support them in their old age make our system untenable. We decided to create Social Security and Medicare to take care of people in their old age, which meant that the traditional old age insurance policy of having a ton of kids (if you have enough of them, odds are one will be successful enough to take care of you) was unnecessary. Now a system that would have comfortably taken care of the minority of Americans who didn't have kids suddenly has to shoulder the burden of the largest, most narcissistic generation ever. But instead of addressing this issue, our great political minds are busy discussing military cuts and trimming of the federal fat. To borrow the President's car analogy, it's as if our car has veered into a ditch, ejecting the engine and the Democrats are furiously trying to tape the passenger's side mirror back on while the Republicans are energetically attempting to remove a scratch in the paint with some turtle wax. What's worse is that when someone identifies the actual problem, like Paul Ryan and Rick Perry have done, they get the full Salem 1692 treatment. If the US government were a private company, it would be going out of business right now. There are structural issues in the tax/revenue/spending system that have already done significant damage to our prosperity and need to be reformed immediately. The system cannot continue long-term with the flaws it have, but it's looking increasingly likely that things will have to get much worse before they start getting better.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Memes: A Quick Guide to Stereotyping Politicians

When the media disagrees with a candidate/person/celebrity they have basically 3 different memes they can run with. They can say, "this guy's an idiot, listen to his accent." Which was the meme with W (I suspect that W's IQ was within a standard deviation of Obama's, but that's how a meme works). They can say, "This guy's evil/devious, look at how he tricks the hoi polloi into voting for the wrong person!" Which is what many conservative media types have tried to do with Obama (my dad seriously believes that Obama has a diabolical plan to destroy the US and usher in a new age of Socialism/Communism). Or they can say, "This guy's insane...dangerously insane!" This is a tough one to pull off on male figures, since usually when a guy goes insane he moves to a cabin in the woods and sends mailbombs. It's a lot easier to tar a woman as crazy, since the meme of "men stupid, women crazy" is pretty universal in this country.

There's double-standards in meme generation all over the place, but the easiest rule of thumb is that no progressive/Democrat will get memed as stupid (seriously, Joe Biden says more stupid shit in a month than W said in all 8 years of his presidency and gets a free ride), and it's unlikely that any conservative will get called devious (usually when a Republican is accused of evil genius, the accusation is accompanied by an accusation of a lack of principle. This is due to all progressives believing that only idiots have non-progressive opinions, and therefore smart people who work for conservatives are doing it for the evil evil money). Lastly, in the unlikely event that a male political figure is accused of being crazy, that guy's gonna be batshit nutty (see Alan Grayson, complete lunatic).

People talk about how politics in this country are more bitterly divided than they've been since the Civil War, and I think the casual application of these sorts of memes are a big reason for it. Conservatives are tarred with being heartless, racist, homophobic, anti-poor, and theocratic. Liberals are tarred with being sneaky, untrustworthy, diabolical, anti-religion, and of evil intent. Moderate are tarred with being fickle, non-committal, and selfish. The problem with these memes is that they are all largely untrue. Conservatives *genuinely* believe that the best thing for minorities, gays, the poor, and the G-dless are conservative policies. Furthermore, there are compelling arguments that this is true. Liberals *genuinely* believe that progressive policies will fix whatever wrongs we still have in American society, and that sometimes the only way to help society out is against its will. These beliefs are buttressed by the fact that they were all accurate and true at points in our history. Moderates usually have a set of core beliefs that they are not moderate about (I know some folks who are completely dead-center politically, right up to the point that Abortion becomes an issue, at which point they are *adamant*), but generally go by their gut where most issues are concerned.

There are important issues that are not being debated by Americans right now, thanks largely to these memes. The most obvious issue, is the budget. Progressives don't think balancing the budget is an issue at all, Moderates want us to make moves towards balancing the budget, but not to do anything rash in trying to accomplish that goal. Conservatives want the budget balanced *right now* without raising taxes. To Conservatives, Progressives seem completely out of touch with an obvious reality (we're spending more than we can afford to). To Progressives, Conservatives are trying to punish the poor and destitute by taking away their important safety net and giving its cost to fat rich white people (probably with monocles). There is no discussion because both sides are talking about the issue as if it were two completely different things. Conservatives brush off the idea of a safety net, and Progressives brush off economic reality. Moderates seem to be saying, "I want a balanced budget and all of our safety nets," which I attribute to the fact that most Moderates don't give two craps about these sorts of issues until the issues blow up.

Another perfect example of memes replacing an important discussion is Gay Marriage (tm). This issue is actually very complex, and very important to society. It boils down to this: Gays want to be able to marry farm animals, which would obviously cause G-d to smite all of the U.S. like he did to Sodom and Gomorrah, but Christians won't let two people in love marry one another because those Christians are secretly gay and therefore homophobic. I think that captures the relevant memes appropriately. There are certainly some genuine homophobes who think that homosexual acts should be illegal, and the idea of condoning them through marriage is a travesty of justice. There are also some genuine heterophobes who want gay marriage to be legal so that their lifestyle can be publicly acknowledged as equal to (or better) than the outdated heterosexual lifestyle that they despise. However, by treating all opponents of gay marriage as homophobes, and all proponents as heterophobes an important discussion has been completely ignored. Pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial societies all have delineated male-female marriage as an important foci of life. As our society moves from post-industrial to information-based, the old roles are becoming less rigidly important. This has lead to an enormous uptick in divorce, remarriage, and single-parenthood. We need to be talking about what a family is and why it is important so that we can pass down a coherent set of American values. There is some compelling evidence that a family consisting of a mother, father, and children leads to those children being more successful as adults (financially, socially, and emotionally) than in alternatives; just because women don't need to be housewives anymore does not mean that families should be discarded. On the other hand, our laws give distinct advantages to married couples. There are no situations that bring about legal ambiguity for married couples, but committed gay couples face considerable hardship in retaining custody of adopted children and exercising visitation rights in hospitals, amongst other things. Instead of discussing how we can extend common courtesy to homosexual couples while still retaining the relevance of a critical pillar of American society, we get insults and ad-hominem attacks.

Debate is a critical feature of a free society; without being vigorously debated, an idea cannot truly be tested before it is acted upon. There may be some degree of equivalence in tactics between the modern Left and Right, but their ideas, beliefs, and values are markedly different. Ideologues rarely debate their beliefs in an open fashion, but Moderates are exacerbating this crisis by looking at both sides, identifying them as sides of the same crappy coin, and not demanding a real debate. Memes are allowed to grow because nobody questions them. Civilization is at a crossroads (the arrival at which seems to be a generational occurrence), but instead of explaining why we should be moving in a given direction it is easier to shout about how terrible the people who want to take us in a different direction are, and nobody is calling this behavior out. Support for our *system* of governance is at an all-time low in this country; if people don't start standing up for this Republic, we cannot keep it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On the politics of the Millennial generation

One of the more interesting facets of having friends from all walks of life is being able to watch as disparate views converge in the same place. Since we live in a perpetual election season nowadays, I've been finding myself commenting on politicians, laws, and our political system more and more often. In the context of one such discussion (regarding the twitter-esque nature of a new Obama campaign website), I got to thinking about how my generation (the Millennials) got to where we are right now (which is increasingly anti-PC and libertarian).

I think our generation all pretty much *want* to be good govt. liberals, I suspect (I know I still feel like one), but through a combination of PC bullshit that's gone way too far, and the epic fails of the Democratic party (and W's "Compassionate Conservatism"), much of our generation has become jaded of the political process. I think we're becoming libertarians not for the traditional old reasons (we're high achievers who don't want to pay taxes), but for new ones (we're not incompetent, but don't want the govt. taking our tax money to pay for people who are). Much of our current "great recession" has been caused by well-intended legislation that has had horrifying unintended consequences; I would wager that unemployment would be down a solid 2-3% if it weren't for stuff like sarbox, Obamacare (sorry, can't call it "the affordable care" bill if it's never going to resemble something affordable), and Dodd-Frank. People aren't all idiots, and anyone with a job in the private sector (especially the financial sector, or healthcare) is likely to realize that these bills - passed as panaceas to our national ills - don't work the way they're supposed to.

Where a Millennial starts to go libertarian depends on the individual, but it matches a pretty simple pattern. When a Millennial cares deeply about an issue and the govt. passes legislation on that issue, that Millennial has a better than good shot at becoming disenchanted with the govt. For example, if one is inclined towards granola and organic produce, the thought of facing jailtime for a garden, might make one skeptical of the intentions of local governance. Now, there's no amount of money you could pay me to get me to drink unpasteurized milk, but wtf is the govt. (federal, state, and local!) doing raiding a dairy with a SWAT team? When people see this sort of malarkey, they get (rightfully) disenchanted with the competence of all levels of govt. The same sorts of things are happening in every corner of our lives; govt. gets involved and makes a giant mess of things.

Even things that should be unambiguously positive, like increased access to higher education, get screwed up when the govt. gets involved. The cost of a degree has gone up faster than inflation, and faster even than the rate of increase in housing prices during the housing bubble. If you look closely at that graph, you'll note that the curve leaps upward during the George W Bush years, when his "compassionate" brand of stupid poured money into Pell grants. Basically, govt. spending on education (which is good, right?) only results in two things. Firstly, it raises the price of getting even the most valuable of degrees. Secondly, it subsidizes useless degrees. The cost of getting a degree in underwater basketweaving is comparable to an engineering degree. The govt. guarantees student loans, and student loans cannot be defaulted on, even through bankruptcy. Which means that there is no risk for a school to increase its costs. It makes sense to take out a loan to get a degree in accounting (or engineering, etc.), since that degree leads to well paying jobs. It doesn't make sense to take out a loan to get a Womyn's studies (or comparative religion, etc.) degree since it will take a lifetime to pay off that same loan. If it weren't for govt. guaranteeing these loans and giving out Pell grants, it would be financially irresponsible for most institutions of higher learning to even offer degrees in many of the humanities. Thanks to the govt. we all get to subsidize the most idiotic of studies.

The govt. gets involved, and things get screwed up. We all see it with some regularity, and so when a politician says that a new law will do X, Y, and Z, we either know better, or we get bedazzled by his florid prose. One might fool enough of the people for one election, but I suspect that we've wised up since then....

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The tanking shortage.

There are many reasons for the tanking shortage in World of Warcraft, but the biggest cause is that the difficulty level scales inversely for tanks (at the present). Tanking an heroic raid boss is easier than tanking a 5-man heroic dungeon, and has been for the duration of the Cataclysm expansion.

So how can SW:TOR keep tanking interesting as tanks progress to hunting bigger and bigger game? Firstly, raid encounter designers can keep tanks on their feet. This can be done through choreographed movement (running out of melee range for an ability, then back in vs. unchoreographed trying to keep bosses [with their AI-driven pathing] out of randomly spreading ground affects), by adding interesting adds, and by making boss fights multi-boss affairs. In World of Warcraft, many people consider Ulduar to be the pinnacle of raiding. It had 13 non-vehicle bosses, of which only 3 were single-mob encounters (and of those three, one included an add in its heroic mode). Furthermore, all of the fights in Ulduar required some degree of movement for tanks, which combined to make the tanking experience challenging and exhilarating. SW:TOR's encounter designers would do well to keep Ulduar in mind while doing their own designing.

Secondly, encounters need to get more difficult as a tank progresses. Small group content tends to include more "trash" mobs than single-boss encounters. Tanks are often required to wrangle multiple enemies, organize crowd control, utilize stuns, interrupts, and survival cooldowns, often on a single trash pull in small-group play. Looking back to World of Warcraft, there are many instances where tank error will lead to a wipe in heroic 5-man content, but the last time that a tank needed to be really on-point in a raid encounter was the final boss in the Trial of the Grand Crusader raid instance back in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion (there are some fights that are moderately challenging in Cataclysm, but the last fight that stressed me out as a tank was handling the adds in ToGC). SW:TOR needs to make sure that they balance small-group content to be easier than large group, and also to utilize the features that can make small-group content challenging on a grander scale in their large-group settings.

Lastly, tanking gear needs to be interesting. From Burning Crusade through Wrath of the Lich King, encounters were tuned in a way that allowed (or forced) tanks to gear for threat (after reaching the block cap, if one was a Tankadin). In Cataclysm, between how hard bosses hit and reforging, the accepted best practice for tank gearing is to stack avoidance and mitigation and ignore everything else (Death Knight tanks often gear for hit/exp caps, but all other tanks are not afforded that luxury). Juggling gear to stay at or around the hit and expertise caps is interesting and fun, ignoring those stats at the expense of survival is not, especially when it leads to spikey threat generation and a general loss of control over one's character (missing a big threat ability multiple times in a row is not fun, and making the DPS wait on a newly spawned add with a relatively tight dps requirement is annoying and potentially raid-wiping). As tanking gear gets better and better, it should not lead to the gear becoming worse and worse for some content; as gear improves, it should become outright easier to complete previous tiers of PVE content, whether they are small-group or large-group.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Why I hate addons.

On the dashboard of my car is a speedometer. Also present are a fuel gauge, an engine temperature gauge, an odometer, and a tiny picture of my car that lights up in different places when the corresponding doors are open. Some of these things are legally required to be there, but even if they weren't, I would never buy a car that did not come with them. So why in the heck was I just playing an MMO that has a barely functional threat meter, no dps/hps meter, no system of effectively sifting through its (glitchy as hell) action log, no simple search bar for a character's inventory, no built-in coordinate system in its maps, and no built-in boss timers?

One of the real killers of immersion in World of Warcraft was the fact that the end-game, while technically playable without any addons, really required a suite of third-party downloads to experience effectively. Certain addons were mandatory for certain classes (tanking was impossible at points without a good threat meter), and others were absolutely required for raid leaders. While Blizzard has gotten better about this over the years, the fact that one of two addons can still make a significant difference in a player's numbers is truly damning. Constantly checking the four corners of one's screen because of the ridiculous spread of important information seriously ups the difficulty level of  moving out of the fire that you're standing in, and at a certain point (like when it becomes apparent that Power Auras are necessary) beating the addon UI mini-game becomes a mandatory, though not universally fun hurdle.

Even if Bioware does not support addons for SW:TOR from release, they will eventually. Developers aren't perfect, and they'll almost certainly miss some features that players really need. However - if they're smart - they already have a team in place to clean up and incorporate the best and most popular third-party addons into their UI with the utmost of haste. When I start blasting my way through SW:TOR's raids, I want to be able to do it just as well with their default UI as captain "I make my own addons" (that may or may not be a Zabery reference). One hallmark of a great game is letting actual player skill (and my slow, old-guy reflexes) determine just how bad of a player I am, not my inability to set up this newfangled addon.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

So...why SW:TOR?

So why not Rift, or Aion, or DCUO (that's the one with Batman, and he's my favorite!)? I think my wife best summed up why SW:TOR is the MMO to pay attention to when she said, "deep down, everyone wants to be a Jedi."

I should backtrack a bit. Two weeks ago my wife mentioned to me that now might be a good time for me to stop raiding for good. Her argument went something like, "I don't see you during the day, so I damn well better see you at night...also, shouldn't you be doing dishes right now?!" This was followed by a debate about video games, during which I may have pointed out to her that she'd once had her very own World of Warcraft account (ostensibly so that we had something to do together while I was stationed in Georgia and she was working in Ohio). She claimed to have outgrown video games, and declared herself disinterested in ever again playing another. Then, after much cajoling, I showed her this. Which was promptly followed by an extensive research session, where we investigated the playable races and the Jedi Shadow Advanced Class.

It would be easy to brush this off as a casual gamer being enticed by a new game and its "better than all three Star Wars prequels" CGI trailer, so I put the game to a real test. I sent a link to my father. The last game that my dear old dad played with any gusto was snood, and the last time he played a video game with me or my brothers was NHL '94. Seriously. At the height of my time in WoW, when I was co-owner of my own raid guild and both of my brothers were in it with me, we never came close to getting Dad to try the dang game. But he agreed to try out SW:TOR (on the condition that both of my brothers and I join him).

WoW has done a lot to revamp their leveling process, make the quests more intuitive and interesting, and generally make the game welcoming to new players, all of which is moot, because there's no hook to get those new players into the game. SW:TOR has that hook built in. My soon to be 60 year old father saw the original trilogy in the theaters back in the 70s, loved them, and then went about outgrowing video games as they became increasingly time consuming and demanding (in the sense of demanding a learned skill set and new muscle memory). Dad played pong. He suffered through NHL hockey on the Sega Genesis with its relatively intuitive controller commands, and then ducked out right around the time Zelda came out for the Nintendo 64. The only way that Bioware can keep a customer like my father is by making sure that the game doesn't force unintuitive mechanics on its players, keeps bait on the glorious Star Wars hook that they have, and isn't overly difficult for non-gamers to get a handle on.

Bioware definitely has a handle the first two issues. Plot is their mantra, and every review I've read seems to confirm that they've really nailed the plot --> immersion experience. Likewise the controls for the game will almost certainly be intuitive, just based on KOTOR and the intense Beta that Bioware's been running (they've already scrapped their first go at a UI based on user feedback, which is a good sign for the combat system). But that third point is the one that worries me. My father will probably never be soloing anything in SW:TOR, he'll have at least one of his sons questing with him. However, he cannot be the only non-gamer contemplating a foray into the MMO morass for this Star Wars title, and a lot of those guys are going to be going it alone. The people inclined to participate in the Beta are almost certainly old MMO hands, and so they will likely want a higher level of difficulty and challenge in their solo endeavors than a non-gamer would. All that being said, if the hook is strong enough - if the plot is engrossing enough to drive even the most casual of non-gaming gamers to pursue it with gusto - then new gamers will learn the MMO skill set without even noticing it.

SW:TOR is a game to pay attention to. People may mock it as WoW with lightsabers, but WoW is the most popular game in the genre for a reason. If all that Bioware has done is take the WoW formula and immerse it in a deep and involved plot that happens to be based in an already exceptionally popular sci-fi setting, it could easily crush everything that's come before it. Either way, I'll be there playing it with my dad.

How I learned to quit WoW (and start caring about SW:TOR)

When Bioware first announced that the third installment of their Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) franchise would be an MMO, I was excited. Then I went back to farming one vanity item or another in World of Warcraft (WoW). At the time I was enthralled with WoW, and although the prospect of doing all those WoW things - but with a lightsaber! - was intriguing, I couldn't see myself abandoning my friends and family (or at least, those of whom played on my WoW server). Then Cataclysm happened.

In the last year, my wife, most of my friends, and both of my brothers have cancelled their WoW accounts. Their specific reasons for quitting are varied, and while outside influences have had some affect, the underlying cause of their cancelled accounts has been WoW's failure to keep them engaged. My best friend quit because he wanted to be challenged by hard content, but could not devote the 12+ hours a week to the raiding scene and its endless iterative wipes. My middle brother quit because he could no longer find himself immersed in the game (teleporting from point to point and fighting raid monsters with no quest engagement to buttress his motivation). My youngest brother got sick of the tedious minutiae of choreographed raid encounters (sometimes he just wanted to be able to smash something really hard and not have to worry about all the other things going on). My wife got tired of the seemingly binary difficulty scaling; fights were either too easy, and thus boring, or way too hard.

I don't entirely blame Blizzard for losing the devotion of my friends and family. Blizzard must have realized that they had saturated the market for MMO players, and so they developed the Cataclysm expansion as a way to open up the market and get new players; most of their resources seemed devoted to cleaning up the early game. However, they made two major errors in the development of Cataclysm. Firstly, they did a terrible job timing and marketing the expansion. They needed a wedge to break into the mainstream and needed to time this expansion with something, anything, to bring their product to a new audience. The long-awaited WoW movie would have been perfect, but a massive toy and merchandising campaign or a kid's cartoon show would have worked. Instead they published some second-rate novels, and a bunch of manga. This error should be self-evident, but if it isn't let me clarify by pointing out that everyone I know that reads franchise novels or manga is already playing WoW. This does nothing to open up the product to new markets, and doesn't even help keep the majority of consumers hooked, which leads to their second big mistake: They ignored and alienated a large chunk of their consumer base.

By the end of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, WoW was a mature game. Every player I knew in the game had multiple max-level characters that he or she was at least somewhat attached to. So when Cataclysm came out with five new max-level zones that were almost completely linear it was guaranteed to both damage a player's immersion and become boring. Cataclysm was sold as an expansion of choices. The talent trees were being redone to do away with cookie-cutter specs, pve roles were being expanded to allow a group to 'bring the player, not the class,' and raids were being offered (and theoretically balanced) for both groups of 10, and groups of 25. Choice is good! But when you're saving the great pillar of happy rocks from the evil nihilists for the 4th time, and being lauded as the one great savior of the whole wide world (of Warcraft!) for the 4th (or 40th, if you've ever done any other questing) time, it rings a bit hollow. So Blizzard managed to whiff at the whole expanding the market thing, while at the same time devoting nowhere near the resources necessary to keep their current customers happy, and as a result everyone I know quit the game, and nobody that I know started playing.

So where does this leave SW:TOR, and why am I suddenly passionate about a game that isn't out yet and hasn't released much information? Well, this post is TL;DR, so I'll have to write another one...