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Archive for June, 2010

Transformers: War for Cybertron is awesome.  Buy it.

Ok, so I have the APB early access going.  I’ve spent at best 30 minutes in an action district (though I played up my 5 hours during the Key to the City Event).  It’s ok; probably about what you expect.  Chaotic, fast-paced, skill-based, it’s everything you expect from GTA IV with story stripped right out.  Hopefully they add some more long-term objectives, or I can see it getting somewhat boring.

But I didn’t play any of that.  See, Forza 3 had already taught me a healthy enjoyment for symbol editors and decal creation.  I spent hours upon hours in APB building out decals and making clothes.  I’m going to have to make a “clothing company” character just to sell all the clothes with a consistent brand.  I’ve got a couple symbols I’m semi-proud of (a stylized Timber Wolf being my latest and greatest), and I’ll happily work on commission stuff.  I’ll get some stupid pictures up, and I won’t ever be as awesome as those guys delivering crazy anime chicks, so you’ll just have to look elsewhere for that.

The song editor isn’t as cool as I’d hoped, and the vehicle symbols get plastered on at super low resolutions and look muddy, but clothes and tattoos come out pretty well.  I bet pixel art would work on vehicles, being well-suited to low-res presentations.

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So I went through the Master Thesis of an SMU graduate, and I think I finally see a reasonable point to a college-level education in Game Design: learning to apply critical thinking to the various problems confronting a game designer.  Now, I admit the level of critical thinking displayed wasn’t top-notch, but at least someone was attempting to demand a little bit of rigor in the thought process.

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I’ve moved to a new job, and it’s been eating up my time.  Won’t say much about it, beyond it (very appropriately) involving a lot of math and spreadsheets.

I just finished re-reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God and have begun her most recent book, The Case for God.  They both say a lot of the same stuff so far; History of God provides a broader survey of the material, so far.

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The E3 drip has been on for a couple weeks now, but the valve broke under the pressure of information eager for release, and we are inundated.  Of utmost import is this video, the trailer for The Force Unleashed 2.  It is pure, visual glory.  The game is now an unmitigated success, simply for being the catalyst which led to the creation of THAT.

Microsoft had their Pre-E3 press conference, and someone has been watching Steve Jobs over there.  The Kinect (Natal’s new name) is “magical”, and when combined with Live and a 360, is “revolutionary”.  “Everyone can use it” is pointed out everywhere.  It brings video chat, voice commands, and motion controlled UI (along with UI enhancements).  Additionally, Live Messenger will be updated with video chat functionality, and will be able to talk to users on Xbox Live.  Also, Live Gold members are getting a bit of a justification for their fee in terms of a new ESPN channel.  Now, Tycho at Penny Arcade dissed this, but this is hugely important to Microsoft.  The Xbox 360 is a set top box in the home of millions, and it is finally becoming part of their convergence strategy.  MS has been hammering the Media PC and PC centered home (“Three screens and the Cloud”).  They want to be the software interconnect for this, which is their Live online services, easy Windows connections, and various application platforms.

ESPN is part of making their platform interesting to the broader audience; the non-gamer audience.

Nintendo, however, stole the show as far as I am concerned.  While the list of titles for the Wii is suitably impressive, including a new Zelda and the brilliant new Kirby, the 3DS seems to actually, really be…well, pure awesome.  I will have to see it, to hold in my hands this potential window into other worlds, but for now, my imagination is afire with the possibilities.

Oh.  Yes.  There is also this.  And by that, I mean this:

The changer of ways will unravel your puny minds, and the your Corpse-God will be dust, trodden by the leaden feet of the Daemons of Tzeentch.

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Arstechnica (hey, they’ve had some back-to-back articles I want to comment on!) has posted an article discussing a panel talking about the Limits of Understanding.  Particularly, the panel seemed to focus on apparent deficiencies in math – notably, the practical intractability of biology to mathematical modeling and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

Now, the proper modeling of biology may simple be a problem of time…sometime, a mathematical model may be devised of sufficient complexity and rigor that it is considered an adequate analysis of the underlying systems leading to observable reality.  What exercises the mathematicians more is whether an “adequate model” is a true model, that is.

The statement which interests me the most, though, is the final two sentences, uttered by the author of the article himself:

If math turns out to be just a tool (and a tool with some substantial limits), that may disappoint mathematicians, but it won’t necessarily slow down our ability to understand and model the natural world. This may be my background as a scientist talking, but that seems like the most important consideration, and I’m willing to live with a community of disappointed mathematicians in order to get there.

This demonstrates an infuriating philosophical stance.  A model does two things: it relates observations to one another, expressing a causal relationship chain between them, and elucidates the underlying real factors which produce these observations.  There exist two parts to the natural world: the observable, particular parts and the invisible relations underlying them.  Two rocks are observable, the force holding them to the ground, or the force value we say they exhibit as a property is not.  We infer force, based on changes over time.  Force isn’t so much real as a very successful description of an inferred relationship.  Mass is similar: it’s a relationship one objects exhibits vis a vis all other possible objects.  Importantly, mass was very successfully describes as a constant property of a given set of material.  However, mass can equally well be described as a property of curved space surrounding an object (if we’re talking about the source of the “attractive” force) or as a measure of the type of curvature produced by a massive object.

The statement by the author above exhibits a certain lack of philosophical follow through.  A model which successfully relates observed experience to one another implicitly makes statements about the invisible relationships observations have.  We cannot “understand and model” the natural world correctly unless we also correctly model those invisible relationships.  Unfortunately, those relationships are invisible; the best we can do is infer their nature.  If we have inferred incorrectly, then we are wrong, and our understanding is flawed.  We DON’T understand.  Since these relationships are invisible, this is somewhat untestable, so we won’t know.  The hope is that, by using rigorously consistent systems, systems which exhibit the same properties as the fundamental relational properties of existence, we can leave behind some of those inferential worries.

What is irritating the mathematicians is that Godel seems to have annihilated that possibility.  What really frustrates them is that if Godel truly killed the possibility of a formal system being provable, or that it is composed of two distinct subsets of theorems: those which are provable and those which are not, then do the relationships underpinning the universe dividable into a set of provable relations?  That is, do all the relationships of the universe derive from a rational order.  Importantly, Godel showed that certain theorems of a given system cannot follow from an entire set of other theorems.  It’s like saying a relationship could be true, or false, and it bears no relation to other theorems.  That’s fine, you might say, we can just look and see, right?

That’s part of the mathematicians problem, though: you can’t.  We’re speaking here of the fundamental relations of the universe, not the observable particulars.  Physics and biology aren’t much use if they can’t predict what’s going to happen, based on other things it knows.  Godel showed that, if you have a formal system of rules that is good enough to describes math, then there are going to be statements in that system YOU CAN’T PROVE.  Which means you can’t predict.  If someone asks, you have to say “I don’t know”.  Hofstadter shows (in Godel, Escher, and Bach) that there exists an infinite set of such statements.

If we take the positivist approach of simply using math as models where appropriate, we’ve thrown up our hands and admitted: we can’t actually describe the universe.  We can describe bits of it, but we can’t relate it together.  Further, because we cannot assert that the universe is describable by fundamental, consistent laws – because there cannot exist any such systems, including the universe – we can’t actually say the models we use are true, correct descriptions of how the universe works.  That’s not decidable.  All we can say is they work.  There demonstrably exists at least one other formal system which can accurately describe the observable phenomena a model describes, and it is impossible to decide between them.  In fact, it’s not even possible to say the universe is rational, because that, too, is undecidable.

If the purpose of the University is the search for truth, then it becomes problematic for the University if it can be rationally demonstrated that Truth is unreachable.  That means its purpose is finished: it has found the one Truth: there is no Truth.  Everything else is mental masturbation.

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Nick Rowe has an excellent post discussing what he calls a “Tinkerbell” (pulled from a Krugman criticism) – a poof of fairy dust that makes New Keynsian models work.  This is coming from a New Keynsian, and is something of an introspection on their models and how they work.

His example case is real interest rates, and I’ll just let him lay out the base of the model behind the problem:

Take the simplest possible New Keynesian model. Consumption is the only source of demand (ignore investment, government, and net exports). So income = output = desired consumption in equilibrium. The consumption-Euler equation determines the ratio of current desired consumption to planned future desired consumption as a negative function of the real rate of interest. The central bank sets the real rate of interest.

According to the Keynsian model (I’m going to use the more standard US terminology of “Keynsian” and “Post-Keynsian”), real interest rate reductions increase current demand.  This occurs because real interest rate reductions disincentivize savings and thus increases demand.  The Post-Keynsian model put forward by Rowe adds a nuance to this, stating that a reduction of the real interest rate increases demand relative to future demand.  In effect, Post-Keynsians (or this Post-Keynsian model) argue that the real interest rate impacts the ratio between current demand and future demand, rather than strictly impacting demand.  The Post-Keynsian model offers a nuanced view, of which the Keynsian model is a special case.  However, Rowe points out it’s impossible to determine what will occur upon reducing real rates: current demand could rise, and future demand could fall…or current demand could fall and future demand could fall…it just might fall more.  The model provides no way to make that determination.  The only thing, according to Rowe, a Post-Keynsian might offer up is the belief that the economy will reah full employment at some future time, so it all works out.  But they can’t demonstrate that…it’s a belief in magic.  A Tinkerbell.

He ends by suggesting that perhaps monetary policy is about the supply and demand for money.  I would say it is rather about the supply and demand of cash flows, where money itself is (generally) simply a discontinuous measure of cash flows.  Since a cash flow can be described as an interest rate, then we can say that interest rates ARE the focus of monetary policy.  However, I am using the term much more broadly in that sentence than is generally meant.  Rowe is right: the perspective of monetary policy perhaps should be broadened.

I would also like to offer a few steps along the resolution of the Tinkerbell issue described above.  This isn’t intended to suggest all the Tinkerbells of Post-Keynsian thought can be cleared away, but this one, I think, can.  What’s important is to think about the transmission effects which lead to the observation that reducing real interest rates increases the ratio of current to future demand.  When interest rates are reduced, this impacts savers and borrowers (or purchasers and sellers of cash flows).  Savers are less inclined to save because they’ll get less; they’re going to tend to want to try and find more bang for their buck.  Borrowers will be more inclined to borrow, because the lower interest rate represents a reduced negative cash flow.  Now, tacitly, this implies that they will increase demand now.  Further, lower interest rates imply reduced future cash flows, for similar reasons, which leads to lower future demand relative to current demand.

However, we run into a couple points where interest rate changes do not alter present demand.  For borrowers, there exist points where current cash flows are negative – that is, they can’t cover their existing costs.  While additional borrowing can stave this off, that will produce an inflection point where the cost of interest payments (the negative cash flow incurred from borrowing) grow to the point where they dominate the other cash flows.  Income flows + borrowing cease to be enough to cover both interest payments and living expenses.  In these cases, or in cases near to them, reduced real interest rates will not induce increased borrowing.

Additionally, savers may hit a point where, regardless of interest rates, no other possible use of money seems to offer the same benefit to their cash flows.  The easiest example of this case is someone who feels high uncertainty regarding the future.  While they may be put off by the reduced return on cash flows they can purchase, if they are concerned that their other cash flows may be put in jeopardy in the future (by, say, losing their job), they will be inclined to save regardless.  A certain cash flow is an offset for uncertain cash flows.

Now, I am less sure about future effects.  In fact, I am not convinced that the ratio between current and future demand is always increased by a reduction in real interest rates.  The assumption, obviously, is that aggregate cash flows must have been reduced by the interest rate reduction.  This feels…incorrect to me.  I guess you have to assume that cash flows always tend to increase?  What happens when cash flows decline?  Because cash flows can decline.  A credit is offered on future ability to pay.  If I take out a loan, and then lose my job and can’t pay the loan, the bank is screwed.  It doesn’t matter what the bank does, they’re unlikely to be able to recover the full cash flow.  Suddenly, cash flows have vanished.  Obviously this can happen in aggregate: we just went through such an event.

However, we also conceive of cash flow increases REGARDLESS of real interest rates.  If those can be catalyzed by real interest rate tweaks, then one can induce a situation where a reduction in real interest rates actually increases future demand.

Then again “future demand” is somewhat poorly defined now.

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Zero Hedge posted a quick rundown of the latest Consumer Credit informational release for the US.  It highlights my singular major concern regarding the consistency of a recovery: consumer credit is not growing.  Credit forms the basis of final economic demand, and this includes the issuance of currency by the government in return for services.  Cash flows for a given economic unit are the most important thing we can examine.  For most economic actors, revenue is split between variable costs (cost of living, taxes), fixed costs (non-essential purchases), savings and investment (which are effectively additional cash flow generators), and interest payments.  Interest payments are a fixed cost, but essentially required, and are the cost of early cash flows.

In order for demand to increase, either monetary velocity has to increase (the internet actually facilitates this, but the pace of change slows as the technology saturates the market) or the supply of money and money-equivalents has to increase.  If the pace of increasing velocity is light or nil, which is likely at present, then there would need to be an increase in the cash flow rates for market participants.  That implies: increasing income and increasing credit (which are intertwined).  Increasing credit implies, however, an increased debt burden and higher interest payments.  If aggregate interest payments eat up too much of positive cash flows, additional credit becomes too much of a burden: it only makes the balance worse (rolling debt accrues growing costs, unless interest rates drop…which is unlikely given the current state of interest rates).

This data release bears that out.  Consumer credit growth, particularly in the all-important revolving credit section (read, credit cards), is problematically low.  Positive cash flows from anything other than stock is low…interest rates simply aren’t high enough to matter at present.  The increase in non-revolving credit (read auto and home loans) could be attributable to the Home Buyer Credit, whose demand impact is now gone, meaning non-revolving credit growth is also under pressure.  The evidence bears this possibility out.

It’s for this reason, the lack of any fixes aimed at reducing private sector debt balances (or any attempt to give the private, non-banking sector sufficient income to let them earn their way out), that I am pretty sure growth will be anemic in the best of scenarios, after the government largess ends.  Anemic growth and balance sheets in such a precarious position means that any shocks, even of limited magnitude, can wreak substantial havoc.

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