February 27, 2013

RIP Allan B. Calhamer

Filed under: Gaming, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 14:33

The creator of the game Diplomacy died this week:

I was a big fan of the game for many years, even publishing a play-by-mail “zine”, as I mentioned a couple of months back:

Long ago, in the days before personal computers were ubiquitous, there were “zines” (short for magazines, correctly reflecting both non-professional status and less-than-totally-serious content). There was a wide variety of zines for all sorts of interests — rather like the back corners of the internet today, except they were physically distributed using the post office (and therefore had to stay within certain boundaries to be safe). Clive and I used to publish a zine for postal Diplomacy:

Infidel 11 cover
Download PDF
Infidel 12 cover
Download PDF

Update: Should have included a hat-tip to John Kovalic, who linked to a highly appropriate Dork Tower strip from last year.

Update, the second: The Chicago Sun-Times obituary:

To people in La Grange Park, Allan B. Calhamer was the guy who delivered the mail.

But to those who have played Diplomacy — the popular board game he invented while a law student at Harvard — Mr. Calhamer, who died Monday, was a geek god.

Back in the Fortran era, the game was a sort of board-game version of TV’s Survivor set in pre-World War I Europe, with its shifting alliances, deception and back-stabbing.

[. . .]

In an article he wrote for diplomacy-archive.com, Mr. Calhamer said the game can “make some people almost euphoric and causes others to shake like a leaf.”

“It’s pitiless because, in the game Diplomacy, there will be one winner,” said game designer Steve Jackson, founder of Steve Jackson Games. “You negotiate, you make deals, you lie.”

Game experts and industry analysts say “Dip” influenced generations of designers.

More than 50 years after Mr. Calhamer invented it, enthusiasts still engage in Diplomacy all-nighters, their long stretches of quiet strategizing punctuated by occasional shouts like: “You gave me your word you would attack Berlin!” And: “My own mother took part of Russia from me!” That’s according to chatter on boardgamegeek.com.

The game is jokingly referred to as a pastime that has been “Destroying Friendships since 1959,” said Mike Webb, vice president of marketing and data services for Alliance Game Distributors.

Parliamentary Budget Officer conducting “constitutional vandalism”

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Law, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:58

Senator Anne Cools is displeased by the PBO’s ongoing legal and media campaign against the Federal government:

An independent senator says the parliamentary budget watchdog, Kevin Page, overstepped his mandate by taking the government to court in a battle for spending figures, and the Senate should force Page to withdraw the legal proceedings.

In a speech to the Senate Tuesday, Sen. Anne Cools argued that Page’s regular comments to reporters and more recent comments to his international counterparts about his battles with the government over spending figures were “provocative and inflammatory public statements” that are “intolerable and unacceptable.”

Page’s actions, Cools argued, were tantamount to contempt of Parliament, were a breach of parliamentary privilege and were affecting the Senate’s credibility to carry out its functions.

“Contemptuous and un-parliamentary,” she said of Page’s actions and comments, “they are constitutional vandalism.”

“They are inappropriate conduct from a Library officer under the direction of the Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons. This Senate cannot accept this and should take some ‘shock-no-more’ actions.”

Is the President a munchkin?

Filed under: Gaming, Government, Humour, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:18

Moe Lane compares the type of role-playing gamer that most RPG’ers dislike the most to the current performance of President Obama in his role:

To begin with: a munchkin (or power gamer, or mini-maxer, or a bunch of terms that cannot be repeated here) is a type of gamer (roleplaying, computer, roleplaying-computer) who looks for loopholes in the rules — because games have rules, and there isn’t a ruleset in the world that cannot be manipulated by somebody with enough motivation/obsession. And it turns out that the American Democratic primary system was full of such loopholes, which is why Barack Obama won the nomination in 2008 despite losing almost all the big Democratic primary states […] And it also turns out that the intersection of our electoral system with our rapidly-expanding online culture can produce what computer gamers call “exploits:” which is to say, a glitch in the system that gives someone an unintended benefit (if it just crashes the system, it’s a bug). Strictly speaking, the system is not designed to elevate a state Senator to the Presidency in five years — for what turned out to be very good reasons — but it can be done.

The problem, though, is that Barack Obama (and I should note that I am lumping his election team in with him here, as Obama largely does not really have much of an independent personality himself) has what the gaming community calls “mini-maxed” himself. Let me explain that one a bit more: lots of video games allow for the player to control a character that gets better at the game as he or she goes through the various game ‘boards.’ Special abilities, improved combat techniques, cool-looking items: if you’re playing a game that is something else besides a straight combat game, you can usually improve how you interact with computer-generated characters (“NPCs”) in the game, or learn how to make your own cool items, or whatever else the game designers thought that you’d like to do. Since gamers like to have unique characters (this is very much the young adult male equivalent to playing dress-up with dolls) there’s usually a way to customize your character, which is to say: people get to choose how and where the character improves.

Mini-maxing is when a player designs a character that is fantastically good at one thing, at the expense of everything else. So you could end up with a character who is, say, obscenely good at hitting things with a sword — but can’t convince a bunch of sailors to drink free beer. The mini-maxer doesn’t mind; he’ll just go around the game trying to resolve as many problems as he can by hitting them with a sword (tabletop gamers — err, “D&D players” — often call this The Gun is My Skill List, although obviously substitute a sword for a gun in the name). The problems that the mini-maxer can’t resolve that way he’ll either ignore until later, or else flail about on the screen while hitting the buttons quickly and/or at random (“button-mashing”), in the hopes that eventually the laws of probability will allow him to bull on through anyway.

And that’s where we are now. Barack Obama knows how to do one thing: elect Barack Obama to public office. And that’s not ‘elect Democrats.’ Or ‘elect liberals.’ Or even ‘elect people that Barack Obama likes.’ It’s just him: his team is trying pretty hard right now to figure out how to use their over-specialized skill more generally, but they don’t have much time to figure it out and the system is actually rigged against them in this case. Barack Obama certainly doesn’t know how to govern effectively; take away a Congress that will rubber-stamp the Democratic agenda and he flails about. He’s so bad at this, in fact, that when confronted with a situation where all he had to do was do nothing to fulfill a campaign promise (the tax cuts) we somehow ended up with a situation where Obama gave in on 98% of those tax cuts and voluntarily signed up to take the blame for the AMT fix. In short: Obama was woefully unprepared for the Presidency, and he hasn’t really spent the last four years trying to catch up. Instead, he goes from situation to situation either trying to recast the problem in ways that he does have some skill in (permanent campaigning for office), or else… flail about on the scene while hitting people’s buttons quickly and/or at random, in the hopes that eventually the laws of probability will allow him to bull on through anyway.

H/T to Jim Geraghty for the link.

Australia’s “human rights enforcement” industry

Australia, like Canada, has a large and over-mighty set of bureaucracies empowered to pursue “human rights” scofflaws (I put “human rights” in scare quotes because the most prominent cases in both countries appear to be enforcement of certain privileges rather than ensuring equal rights for all). Nick Cater says that the joyride for these — if you’ll pardon the expression — kangaroo courts may be coming to an end:

Quietly at first, but with a swelling, indignant chorus, respectable Australians of unimpeachable character began howling Roxon’s bill down. The contrivance of describing race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or 14 other grounds for victimhood as ‘protected attributes’ jarred; the inclusion of industrial history, breastfeeding or pregnancy or social origin suggested overkill; the reversal on the onus of proof, obliging alleged racists, misogynists and wheelchair kickers to demonstrate their innocence, seemed a step too far. The ABC’s chairman, Jim Spigelman, a lawyer of some standing, voiced his concerns about the outcome of the Bolt case. ‘I am not aware of any international human-rights instrument or national anti-discrimination statute in another liberal democracy that extends to conduct which is merely offensive’, Mr Spigelman said. ‘We would be pretty much on our own in declaring conduct which does no more than offend to be unlawful. The freedom to offend is an integral component of freedom of speech.’

[. . .]

Unlike political opinion, attributes like age or gender or sexuality are objective facts. They did not have to be demonstrated. As Senator Brandis pointed out: ‘There is no imperative for a 45-year-old man to go around saying, “I’m 45”. That does not happen.’ Political opinion, however, means nothing unless it is expressed.

Brandis: ‘I do not know if you are familiar with Czeslaw Milosz’s work The Captive Mind, or Arthur Koestler’s book Darkness At Noon… The whole point of political freedom is that there is an imperishable conjunction between the right to hold the opinion and the right to express the opinion. That is why political censorship is so evil — not because it prohibits us holding an opinion but because it prohibits us articulating the opinion that we hold.

‘We all agree that there is no law in Australia that says you cannot have a particular opinion. We all agree that there are certain laws in Australia, including defamation laws, that limit the freedom of speech. My contention is that there should not, in a free society, be laws that prohibit the expression of an opinion… This attempt to say, “Holding an opinion is one thing but expressing an opinion is quite different”, is terribly dangerous in a liberal democratic politic.’

Sequestration and the defence budget

Filed under: Military, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:10

At the Cato At Liberty blog, Christopher Preble graphically refutes the notion that sequestration will automatically weaken the US military:

Click to see full-size infographic at the Cato Institute blog.

Click to see full-size infographic at Cato At Liberty.

Military spending will remain at roughly 2006 levels — $603 billion, higher than peak U.S. spending during the Cold War. Meanwhile, we live in a safer world. The Soviet Union has been dead for more than two decades; no other nation, or combination of nations, has emerged since that can pose a comparable threat. We should have a defense budget that reflects this reality.

To be clear, sequestration was no one’s first choice. But the alternative — ever-increasing military spending detached from a legitimate debate over strategy — is worse. We should have had such a debate, one over the roles and missions of the U.S. military, long before this day of reckoning. And politicians could have pursued serious proposals to prudently reduce military spending. Instead, they chose the easy way out, avoiding difficult decisions that would have allowed for smarter cuts.

Update: Nick Gillespie explains why you shouldn’t worry too much about the sequester:

Update, the second: Putting the actual numbers in perspective:

QotD: “There ought to be a law”

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Before 25-30 years ago, most people had a sense of what the law was, without having to go to law school, because they understood, intuitively, that some things were bad. Mala in se, the law calls it — “bad in itself.”

But the criminal codes have proliferated mala prohibata offenses — “bad just because the law has prohibited it” — like evil freedom-eating Tribbles for 30 years.

Do you know what you are currently permitted to do? Do you know what you will face a criminal penalty for doing?

You don’t. None of us are aware of the myriad laws we’re breaking every day, simply by doing things that seem obviously legal but some vicious Marxist bureaucrat somewhere decided to put you in jail for.

And this state of affairs works out perfectly for the Marxists.

30 years ago, you’d just assume that anything that wasn’t obviously contrary to morality was legal. That is, you’d have a built-in default setting of assuming liberty. And that assumption of liberty would then propel you to take actions.

But now, you have to assume that many things that aren’t contrary to morality are illegal anyway. And so you now have — quel coincidence! — a built-in default setting of assuming prohibition. And that assumption that many of the things you’d like to do are illegal and criminal thereby reduces your desire to take any action at all.

You become docile, unmotivated, compliant, and risk-averse.

And this state of affairs works out perfectly for those who would control you. Only half the things you’d like to do are actually criminal, but you assume the rest might be too, thus putting it in your head you need State Permission to take virtually any action besides going to work and, of course, paying the state its dues.

Ace, “Enemy of the State”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2013-02-26

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