May 2012 Archives

I've been playing Diablo 3 for a week or so now and I've figured out the two main reasons why the items in the game are much less addictive and fun than the items in Diablo 2.

1. You never find items that make you say "I want to develop my character to use this!".

Firstly, you never find items for your class that you can't use. Unlike Diablo 2, items only have class and level restrictions, no attribute minimums. This is because Diablo 3 autolevels your attributes when your character advances and doesn't give you an option on how to spend your points. So unlike Diablo 2, it's impossible to find an item that you can't use yet, but that you will be able to use if you spend your next two or three levels putting points into a specific attribute.

Secondly, there is no character development. When you level-up you don't get to spend points to improve anything, you simply get access to new and different skills. The new skills aren't "better" than the old skills, just different. There is no sense of progression whatsoever, and no sense that you're tailoring your character according to your desires. There are no trade-offs. This means that the items you find also have no trade-offs, which makes them very uninteresting. Except for your very first choice in the game when you decide what class to play, you never get to make any choices that affect how your character develops. Every item you find either improves your primary stat and vitality (better, use it), or it doesn't (worse, sell it). There are no decisions.

2. The auction house. It's much easier to buy good items than to find them. You can buy amazing items for very little gold, which takes all the excitement out of finding loot. Nothing you find will be better than what you can buy.

The Tax Foundation has a fantastic resources that let's you investigate how many tax paying households migrated into and out of every state over the past two decades. You can also see how much adjusted gross income moved with the household. The big winner? Florida, with households earning more than $105 billion per year moving in since 1993. The losers? New York lost $79 billion, and California lost $51 billion. Per year.

It seems to have something to do with your brain mistakenly overlaying the images from your peripheral vision. It may do this because the faces are all congruently placed and sized.

(HT: Gizmodo.)

Why has President Obama's campaign disabled the Address Verification System that is used to prevent fraudulent credit card transactions?

It has been reported that the Obama campaign this year, as in 2008, has disabled or chosen not to use AVS in screening contributions made by credit card.

That doesn't sound very important. But it's evidence of a modus operandi that strikes me as thuggish.

AVS stands for Address Verification System. It's the software that checks whether the name of the cardholder matches his or her address.

If a campaign doesn't use AVS, it can wind up accepting contributions from phony names or accepting contributions from foreigners, both of which are illegal.

The 2008 Obama campaign pocketed money from "John Galt, 1957 Ayn Rand Lane, Galts Gulch CO 99999" and $174,000 from a woman in Missouri who told reporters she had given nothing and had never been billed. Presumably she would have noticed an extra charge of $174,000.

The Obama campaign is evidently happy to pocket the money.

The bolding is mine. If a particular transaction is shown to be fraudulent then Obama will be forced to return the money, but there's no one systematically verifying the millions of transactions and there's no potential penalty. There's no reason not to take money from everyone and then return the handful of donations that are later investigated and found to be fraudulent or foreign. The returned money will be a drop in the bucket compared to the fraudulent and foreign donations that escape detection and are kept by the campaign.

(HT: Powerline Blog.)

SpaceX has launched the first non-governmental vehicle that will (hopefully!) dock at the International Space Station.

At a NASA press conference after the launch, Musk said he had been concerned about another valve problem surfacing. With the liftoff, "every bit of adrenaline in my body released," he said.

"It was tremendous elation," he said. "For us, it's like winning the Super Bowl."

The white two-stage rocket cleared its tower in a predawn liftoff. A video feed showed SpaceX employees clapping, cheering and hugging when the Dragon capsule separated from the rocket and went into orbit on schedule, 10 minutes into the flight.

"The significance of this day cannot be overstated," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a separate media briefing at Cape Canaveral after the launch.

"We're handing off to the private sector our transportation to the International Space Station so that NASA can focus on what we do best: Exploring even deeper into our solar system with missions to an asteroid and Mars on the horizon," he said.

How much more efficient is private enterprise than the government? Well, how much did it cost to fly the Space Shuttle?

Q. How much does it cost to launch a Space Shuttle?

A. The average cost to launch a Space Shuttle is about $450 million per mission.

And the private competition?

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. have been awarded almost $700 million in combined NASA contracts to develop the ability to deliver cargo to the space station, and another $3.5 billion for 20 resupply missions scheduled to begin this fall.

That's only $175 million per mission -- less than 40% of the cost. That doesn't even factor in the non-recurring costs. The Shuttle program's total cost was about $196 billion for 135 missions: $1.45 billion per mission. If you include the $700 million in development costs that SpaceX and OSC were awarded, their per mission cost to the taxpayers is $210 million.

This is amazing stuff. The next people on the moon will be either Chinese military officers or American private citizens.

This isn't surprising: St. Louis police don't like to have cameras in their patrol cars because the recordings are used against them.

City police officers believe in-car cameras are being used against them, and they are trying to find ways to avoid driving cars equipped with them, according to union grievances.

Emails dated April 13 from Capt. Mary Edwards-Fears to superiors and underlings reveal officers' concerns that cameras -- installed in about half of the city's 300 patrol division cars -- make police vulnerable to second-guessing.

"We are missing critical evidence for our cases when we allow them to avoid using vehicles with cameras in them, for fear of being caught in a compromising position," Edwards-Fears wrote. "Your job as managers in the business is to assist your officers in following the rules and regulations, not assisting them in circumventing them."

Some police officers don't like to think of the public as their boss, but rather as their inferiors. It doesn't seem like a winning argument for police to argue against patrol car cameras by complaining that the cameras catch too much bad behavior by police officers. It's good to see that the police management isn't giving in to the complaints.

Jeff Carter defends the risk inherent to capitalism with some hard truths:

But when you look at a capitalistic society in sum, it raises all boats faster and improves entire societal standards of living more quickly than centrally directed government programs. Critics of the US welfare state like to say that we have the richest poor people in the world. They are correct. It's no fun to be poor in the US, but it is a lot better being poor here than it is in India, China, Brasil, Russia, or anywhere else on the planet. That's because of capitalism.

Creative destruction and risk are two elements that scare the Luddites that decry capitalistic methods to improve society. Older businesses get ripped apart by new innovation. To start a new business involves assuming risk. Will it work? Will it get overwhelmed? Will older businesses innovate faster and crowd out the new business? There is a lot of uncertainty in capitalism. But uncertainty breeds opportunity.

A capitalistic economy is always adapting, which means that people and companies who don't adapt will be left behind. This is capitalism's inherent risk and incentive. It works.

While my wife was having surgery my daughter and I spent the morning scouring nearby Targets for the My Little Pony Royal Ball at Canterlot Castle Set. Each successive Target swore that the one they were sending us to would have the toy in stock, and the third one finally did! After surgery I went to pick up my wife's prescriptions at... yes... a fourth Target. I'm sure this is some sort of world record.

My daughter loves the toy, but unfortunately she will probably outgrow them before she is obedient for enough days in a row to be allowed to open it.

We always tend to think of people from the distant past as members of a strange, alien species... but the discovery of this Mayan astronomy workshop really brings home how similar all we humans are.

On an adjacent wall are numbers indicating four time spans from roughly 935 to 6,700 years. It's not clear what they represent, but maybe the scribes were doing calculations that combined observations from important astronomical events like the movements of Mars, Venus and the moon, the researchers said.

Why bother to do that? Maybe the scribes were "geeks ... who just got carried away with doing these kinds of computations and calculations, and probably did them far beyond the needs of ordinary society," Aveni suggested.

Experts unconnected with the discovery said it was a significant advance.

"It's really a wonderful surprise," said Simon Martin, co-curator of an exhibit about the Mayan calendar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

While the results of the scribes' work were known from carvings on monuments, "we've never really been able to identify a working space, or how they actually went about things," Martin said.

I bet these Mayan astronomy geeks would have fit right in with my modern engineer friends.

Statistician DC Woods describes why he plays the lottery despite knowing the odds:

So why do I still buy lottery tickets? Definitely not for the expected monetary return on investment. I think of it as a discretionary entertainment spend. I get literally hours of enjoyment from fantasizing what I'd do if I won. I happily spend $25 for two hours of entertainment at the movies, and I don't judge the value of that experience based on its expected return. For me, a lottery ticket for the occasional big draw has just as much entertainment value, or more, than the many other things that I spend money on to entertain myself.

The decision of whether to buy a lottery ticket shouldn't be based on the probability of winning, or the expected return of a ticket, but on the entertainment value that comes from imagining a different life. If that entertainment value compares favourably with other activities with a similar price, then go for it. Plus, it has the added bonus that you might actually win; one-in-a-million events happen every day. Someone eventually wins the big prize, and you have to be in to win.

So in addition to the money he could win, there's a psychic reward to playing: you get to imagine what you'd do if you won. Interesting, but I can imagine what I'd do with a ton of money even if I don't buy a lottery ticket. Still, people pour money into all sorts of hobbies that have zero expected return on investment without batting an eye... whether you buy a new sports car or play video games it's your hobby money, spend it on what you enjoy.

North Carolina is poised to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage which seems to surprise AP reporter Emery P. Dalesio:

Experts expect the measure to pass, despite the state's long history of moderate politics.

The "moderate" position is to be opposed to gay marriage, not to endorse it. That's why President Obama officially opposes gay marriage, despite everyone in the world knowing that he personally supports it.

Whatever Obama's public position, there was little doubt in the briefing room Monday that the president supports gay marriage and that he would go public with this position after Election Day, when he no longer need fear losing independent voters. Carney, who had the unenviable position of trying to convince the press corps otherwise, arrived 35 minutes late for the job and found a feisty audience.

"I have no update on the president's personal views," he told the first questioner, Anne Gearan of the Associated Press. "He, as you know, said that his views on this were evolving."

Tapper asked whether Obama was "still evolving" or whether he's "just waiting for the proper time to drop it, likely after November."

"It is as it was," Carney said.

CBS's Nora O'Donnell tried another approach. "Why does the president oppose same-sex marriage?"

"I really don't have any update for you," Carney answered.

"The vice president appears to have evolved on the issue, but the president is still evolving?" O'Donnell inquired.

"I will leave it to individuals to describe their own personal views."

Reporters fired dozens of barbed questions and taunts. "Contorted position! . . . Why did you guys send out statements to clarify? . . . What does the word 'evolving' mean? . . . Is he not evolved?. . . I want you to dissect the evolution." A fly buzzed around the lectern. Carney let out a sigh.

NPR's Mara Liasson asked whether Obama was "too clever by half," essentially telling voters: "I'm getting ready to change my mind."

"His views," Carney maintained, "are crystal clear."

Words matter, otherwise we wouldn't argue over them.

VDH describes how the economic goalposts have been moved for Obama.

We have had 38 months of 8% plus unemployment. We are setting records in the numbers of Americans not working and the percentage of the adult population not employed. GDP growth was a pathetic 1.7%. The borrowing hit $5 trillion under Obama, who between golf outings and campaign hit-ups of wealthy people, adds $1 trillion plus each year in more debt. To question how to pay it back is to pollute the air or abandon the children. In 2005, Paul Krugman was writing why Bush's spending was going to crash the economy; in 2012, Paul Krugman is writing why Obama's far greater deficit spending, on top of Bush's debts, is not going to crash the economy, given that we need to borrow far more than our paltry $3 or $4 billion a day.

In 2004, the media's "jobless recovery" was the description of George W. Bush's 5.4% unemployment rate. "It's the economy, stupid" referred to George H.W. Bush's 1992 annual 3.3-4% GDP growth rate. "Unpatriotic" was W's $4 trillion in borrowing in eight years, not $5 trillion in three. If Obama right now had 5.4% unemployment, 3.4% economic growth, and a budget deficit of about $400 billion, what would the media call it--a job-full recovery, "it's not the economy, smarty," or patriotic borrowing?

Hopefully the electorate notices. Couldn't Romney use these stats and history in a speech?

Facebook-connected hangers show shoppers how many Likes an outfit has received.


Bridging the gap between the online and offline worlds is a challenge for any brand, but Brazilian fashion retailer C&A has come up with an innovative solution. Much the way both Renault and Bacardi have found ways to translate between real-world approval and Facebook "likes", so C&A has found a way to bring customers' Facebook approval into full view in its real-world stores.

Through its new "Fashion Like" initiative, C&A has posted photos of a number of the clothing items it sells on a dedicated Facebook page, where it invites customers to "like" the ones that appeal to them. Special hooks on the racks in its bricks-and-mortar store, meanwhile, can then display those votes in real time, giving in-store shoppers a clear indication of each item's online popularity.

This is brilliant! Sure, the application of the technology is frivolous, but still, I'm impressed. Very clever. We need to see this instant-social technology extended. What really needs to happen, though, is for Like information to be combined with an augmented reality display that isn't under the control of the owner of the item being Liked.

For example, imagine going to a new restaurant, passing your iPhone camera over the menu, and seeing each menu item annotated with the number of people who had liked it.

(HT: Gizmodo, which thinks the tech is dumb.)

(HT: Kotaku.)

It does seem that the "even Jimmy Carter" would have killed Osama meme is pretty unfair to the ex-President. When Iran was holding 53 American hostages in 1980 Carter made the (ultimately disastrous) decision to send Delta Force in to rescue them. It ended horribly, but not for lack of guts on Carter's part.

President Obama labels himself as a Christian but his perspective on sin doesn't line up with what many other Christians believe. From a wide-ranging 2004 interview with the future President:

FALSANI: Do you believe in sin?


What is sin?

Being out of alignment with my values.

What happens if you have sin in your life?

I think it's the same thing as the question about heaven. In the same way that if I'm true to myself and my faith that that is its own reward, when I'm not true to it, it's its own punishment.

Presumably Obama doesn't mean that it's a sin for any of us to be out of alignment with his values, but even still, it's telling that he thinks that the only standard of morality that applies to him is one that he creates.

(HT: James Taranto/)

Apparently there's some ancient etiquette for traveling men and prostitutes that the Secret Service neglected, to their doom.

When I worked on ships, seamen were a superstitious lot. When there was a bad storm, while the ship pitched and rolled, the crew, unable to eat or sleep, would gather in the messroom and grumble. Anyone who remembers Coleridge's ancient mariner knows that seamen don't blame the wind and tides for bad weather and rough seas. Rather, they blame a fellow member of the crew -- someone who has, say, killed an albatross. During storms, they'd mumble darkly that a crew member had "Jonah'd" the ship -- done something wicked, while ashore, that caused the seas to rise up and take revenge.

Inevitably, someone would point out that the likely cause of the foul weather was that one of our crew had committed the worst sin of all: not paying a whore. All would nod gravely. In my day, seamen were convinced that this was such a serious infraction it could threaten a ship's survival. More than once I saw fellow crew members, who'd come back to the ship so drunk they couldn't remember where they'd been, make superhuman efforts to send money to a woman ashore in a desperate attempt to avoid the curse of the unpaid prostitute.

I thought about this while reading about the scandal in Cartagena. It appears that getting drunk and going back to the hotel with the women wasn't, in itself, what got the Secret Service personnel into trouble. What got them busted was that someone in their group refused to pay an escort the pre-arranged price. One of the escorts wanted $800. She said that a Secret Service agent offered her $30. (To put that figure in perspective, it's more or less what seamen used to pay in Cartagena 45 years ago for all-night companionship.)

Seems pretty obvious: if you don't pay for services rendered it's going to eventually catch up to you.

The driver plowed into a pole and chopped his Audi neatly in half. And the driver lived.


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