Wednesday, December 9, 2009

So You Say This Is (War On) Christmas (REPOST)

I just saw this today. Predictable. Fundie Christians. They run the fucking country and their self-image is so wrapped up in persecution they have to invent it where it doesn't exist.

So I'm reposting...but first, some context. This was written in December 2007, so there's references to all the various candidates (of which Obama emerged victorious, thank Bog) including the always good for an amusing Ayn Rand soundbite, Ron Paul.

Let's start with this. As an Ex-military guy, if you say "War On..." I feel that I need to see bodies. If you can't show me the bodies, you can't call it a war. The "War on Drugs" at least qualifies due in no small part to trigger happy cops. The "War On Christmas"...unless there has been a rash of drive-bys on Mall Santas that has gone mysteriously unreported...not so much.

So, as Rogers points on in the excellent post I Saw You Looking At Agnosticism's Ass, Christianity and Christians have been acting awfully needy lately. Co-dependant clingy needy. "Girlfriend you're really starting to think about dumping, if only because of all the neediness," needy.

Now, and work with me here, EVERY major candidate for President and the vast, vast majority of the MINOR ones...the ones who can say whatever the fuck pops into their pointy little heads because it just doesn't matter (I'm looking at you, Ron "Fiat Money" Paul)...spend a considerable amount of time dry humping an altar somewhere hoping that a photographer will come by and take a picture of them fellating the Jesus on a Cross so that they can establish their "Good Christian" bona fides. Somehow, I just don't think your average Atlanta-area Megachurch-goer is in all that much danger of having the place raided by preatorians and getting their asses thrown into the gladiatorial pits.

So why "War On Christmas"? Well, we can start with the rise of Faux News, who needed to fill 24 hours a day with conservative friendly drool. Telling people that they're wonderful because they hate taxes only lasts so long. A producer looking to hand red meat to the right wings can't help but notice that, first, despite the power they wield they LOVE to feel sorry for themselves, and second, a shitload of them self-identify as good Christian Churchgoers.

So once again, I have to sit here and listen to this self-righteous drivel from folks who reply to "Happy Holidays" with a pointed "Merry Christmas". Hey, asshole, if you wanted to SAY "Fuck You" at least have the balls to actually say it. I say Happy Holidays interchangeably with Merry Christmas (more on that later) for one reason ONLY. I am a LAZY asshole. "Happy Holidays" is just easier than "Merry Christmas, Happy Channukah, Happy New Year and a very festive crapload of minor holidays centered around the Winter Solstice for some suspicious reason."

Which leads me to why I, a notorious agnostic (what can I say, it's a really cute ass), have no problem with Merry Christmas. You want "war on christmas"? Here it comes. As far as I'm concerned "Christmas" is just the latest name for the Solstice Holiday, and any excuse to get together with family and eat myself round is a Good Thing (cf., Thanksgiving), but the lewt is bonus. Plus it's nice to be reminded that while there is two more months of snow and sleet and all other manner of white shit followed by a month of freaking mud and dirty slush, there will in fact be another summer. You've gotten your crappy religion all over my tasty solstice celebration.

Everyone is pretty certain that Christmas is simply the heir of the Saturnalia and various other pagan festivals. Let me suggest something FAR MORE subversive: Easter and Passover have their roots in pagan rebirth and renewal legends and celebrations. Christ is Dead, Christ Is Risen? The sparing of the Jews from Matt Damon...I mean the Angel of Death? Pretty standard really. Judaism isn't even unique in it's insistence that there is only one god.

You want war? The central tenets of your faith are eminently predictable sequalae of preceding cultural beliefs. Happy Holidays.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I Just Don't Know What To Say...Oh, Wait, I Do... First Read on Friday had a post on the Unemployment numbers entitled "Liberal Blog Buzz, More on jobs #s".

Who did they list as the "liberal blogs"?

Andrew Sullivan. And then...

Megan McArdle. The woman who started blogging under the pseudonym "Jane Galt".

Jesus fucking Christ. Next I expect to see, "From the left leaning Cato Institute," from these brain fucking dead uber-moron mouthbreathers. That anybody is paid to produce information so misleading is infuriating. Now, Sullivan is at least not a right-winger. But he fucking well describes himself as conservative. McArdle, on the other fucking hand, has spilled so many pixels justifying her preconceived glibertarian positions with made up data that she might as well have been Karl Rove's enlarged prostate. Fuck me!

You want to know why America is so fucked up? Because too goddamned many people rely on these (and similar) twits for information. You might as well consult as a Magic Fucking Eight Ball for might occasionally actually be right. Unlike these utter wastes of what would otherwise be useful proteins and amino acids.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I Will Only Say This Once

Catholic bishops would be well advised to pay considerably more attention to where the priesthood are putting their dicks than where they're putting communion wafers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Half A Loaf

With regard to the current health care bill, I am sympathetic to frustration with the current process. Although misattributed to Bismarck, the quote, "Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made," remains accurate. Would I prefer something else, with a robust single payer option, or even better something that freezes out insurance companies entirely? Yes. It is morally vile to make money off of human suffering and that is exactly what a stockholder in a health insurance company does.

This is unhelpful however. Though I'd love single payer, Steve Benen and Ezra Klein are right: Failure of this bill now does NOT increase the likelihood of a better bill (from my perspective), unless I am willing to grit my teeth and let the situation become utterly intolerable (or as a Marxian would have it, "Until the dialectic becomes obvious to the proletariat,").

Since the dialectic ain't gonna be obvious until you have LOTS of bodies piling up in a way directly attributable to bad health insurance coverage, and since I think that pile will be like an iceberg, most of it out of view, I cannot muster the cold bloodedness necessary to let thousands or millions die simply in order to stick it to insurance companies.

The current bill is far from perfect. The current bill is far from adequate, in point of fact. But it is more adequate than the status quo, and furthermore, it inserts into the public discourse the concept that health care, however inadequate to the actual need, however constrained by people's misinterpretation about what their personal Magic Sky Fairy wants from us, that Health Care is a right and not a privilege to be given or withheld at the whim of an employer or our economic status. We can build from that. We can't, no matter how much we think we ought to be able to, build from the wreckage of the current bill. Our pursuit of purity is why we have the current inadequate bill. It will only get inadequater if we scrap this one.

Better half a loaf and the principle that bread is a human right to a false sense that we'll get better bread if we drop the current version in a ditch and simply push harder later for a nice crusty sourdough.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Why Am I Not Surprised...

That the Deciderator's NASA allowed the one satellite monitoring global warming to slowly die?

Step 1: Deny there's a problem, based on lack of data.
Step 2: Claim the science is muddled.
Step 3: Deny funding to any hardware or studies that might unmuddle the science.
Step 4: Deny there's a problem, based on lack of data.

They do this with medical marijuana as well.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Because Some Things Should Be Offered With No Further Comment

Officials Warn Against Hoarding Manure.

I've Blogged Before, And I'll Blog Again...

About guns.

Full Disclosure, I own, but am not currently in possession of, a 9mm Handgun, a .30-30 Rifle and a 12 Ga Shotgun (the Wee Pedant being who she is, I'm inclined to require unlocking procedures akin to nuclear weapons release before I bring them into my home). Having said that, I am highly ambivalent about unlimited gun rights.

Maybe I've run too many ranges, but the vast majority of my fellow citizens have no more business possessing firearms than they do possessing crystal meth. Too much potential for misuse. Allow a liberal interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and eventually someone's kid blows his own head off. And now this.

Apparently open carry leads to, shall we say, serious consequences.

Soccer mom in Pennsylvania horrified fellow soccer moms by openly carrying a holstered pistol to a soccer game. She had her carry permit revoked then reinstated 8 days later. She's dead now, in an apparent murder/suicide at which her three children (now orphans) were present. Domestic dispute.

Which leads to my point. I will emphasize this for the "Guns don't kill people, people kill people," folks out there. The presence of a gun in any highly emotional situation immediately raises the stakes to life and death. Instantly. Am I saying that the gun in this caused the violence? No. Did the gun make it lethal? You are fucking-A right it did. Were her fellow soccer game attendees unreasonable in being worried (batshit upset, more like) at someone carrying a gun to events that time and again in this country devolve into shouting matches or violence between coaches, refs and parents? Abso-fucking-lutely not.

So let's be honest about the bargain we make when we interpret the 2nd Amendment the way we've decided to. We are arguing for MORE accidental or spur of the moment homicides. Look at that chart again (or for the first time). Other than the District of Columbia (a special case...if you carved out any poverty stricken zone that compact in this country, you'd get that result), the top ten per capita (corrected for population size, in other words) firearms death states you get in order are Alaska, Louisiana, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, Mississippi, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Alabama.

(Bitter Sarcasm) Clearly the strong gun control laws in those states has led to poor defenseless citizens gunned down by rampant crime. (/Bitter Sarcasm)

As it turns out there's a high correlation between a shitload of guns, and a shitload of gun deaths. As Eddie Izzard says, "And the National Rifle Association says that, 'Guns don't kill people, people do,' but I think the gun helps, you know? I think it helps. I just think just standing there going, 'Bang!' That's not going to kill too many people, is it? You'd have to be really dodgy on the heart to have that…”.

So I own guns. I enjoy firing guns. I am comfortable around guns (the Army saw to that). But I DON'T FUCKING KID MYSELF about the implications of the firearms culture in this country. More people die because of it. Period. Either own up to it, or give up your guns, damnit. Quit blowing sunshine up your own ass about what you're doing...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

This Caught My Eye

Matt Ygelsias on the limits of the bully pulpit:

The arrow is "The Speech"...

Apparently, this is pretty much what happens everytime a President talks up an issue. Matt's claim is that it is pernicious to maintain the fiction that Presidential will alone determines this...the Green Lantern Theory.


It’s not just that media commentary overemphasizing the president’s ability to shape opinion is inaccurate, it has a really detrimental impact on people’s ability to organize and effect political change. People are strongly encouraged to believe that the key to achieving policy change is to elect a president who’s friendly to their views. Then when that turns out to be insufficient they don’t move on and do additional organizing in House and Senate races. Instead, they tend to become frustrated with the president they worked to elect. But why blame the victim of congressional obstruction rather than the perpetrator? Well, people always seem to find a way to tell themselves, if only the president had fought harder he would have gotten it. He must have lost because he didn’t really care.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Three Levels In

Via Wil Wheaton, Via John Rogers, from Cory Doctorow:

Is that enough levels of geek?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Load Of Fatuous Crap

"An armed society is a polite society,"--Robert Heinlein

See the title. Firstly, we're talking the gateway drug to Ayn Rand. And Ayn Rand is beyond fatuous crap. Heinlein has some redeeming qualities, whereas Ayn Rand specializes in telling pubescent pimply faced boys that the highest goal in life is to be a self centered asshole. Like they need encouragement in that.

But beyond that, the statement is demonstrably false. I thought of this post while I was listening to an NPR report on the way to work this morning about Afghanistan. Afghanistan is, not to put too fine a point on it, the NRA's wet dream of a society.

Damned near every Afghani has a gun, most of them have automatic weapons, and the majority of them either own or, in a pinch, could easily put their hands on a rocket launcher. Wayne LaPierre would LOVE it there. There are a lot of adjectives that leap to mind when thinking about Afghani society. Polite isn't high on the list. Polite isn't even ON the list.

Insular, tribal, violent, sectarian, vicious, dangerous. They are on the list. Polite? Nope. I'm not saying that Afghan society would be Nirvana without weapons. It wouldn't. Thousands of years of Afghan history make it the way it is. But Heinlein claims that the presence of a large number of weapon carriers makes a society polite. A priori, and regardless of culture. And he's wrong. What makes it worse is that he knew, or SHOULD have known, that he was wrong.

History is loaded with societies where an armed society is a violent society. The example Heinlein plainly had in mind is actually in contravention to his claim. The American West may have been "armed", but it requires rose-colored hindsight to consider it "polite". It was a lot more "Deadwood" than "How The West Was Won".

Here is what an armed society is: in thrall to the people most likely to use weapons to get their way. Most of whom are Ayn Rand's favorite type of person: sociopaths.

The fun part is, by carrying carbines to town hall meetings, conservatives are attempting to strongly imply they are the latter, whilst pretending to the fictional condition. Polite isn't what they're doing. Ask Tiller. Ask the kids at that Unitarian Church in Tennessee. Polite isn't on the agenda.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Maureen Dowd Goes There

Normally, MoDo annoys me, but today she went there. When Maureen Dowd notices the problem that the GOP has with a Black man as president, the GOP has a BAD problem...

I’ve been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer — the frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi; a cad who would snuff old people; a snake who would indoctrinate kids — had much to do with race.

I tended to agree with some Obama advisers that Democratic presidents typically have provoked a frothing response from paranoids — from Father Coughlin against F.D.R. to Joe McCarthy against Truman to the John Birchers against J.F.K. and the vast right-wing conspiracy against Bill Clinton.

But Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted “liar” at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.

You follow the Southern leads right THERE. And it doesn't even take a detour.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Best Line Ever

Another gem from Ezra Klein, about the need for both compromise and idealism, as exemplified by Teddy Kennedy:

There's been a lot of talk in recent days about how Ted Kennedy proved the greatest of the three brothers. JFK was an inspiring, but ultimately ineffective, president. RFK never had the opportunity to prove himself. But Ted Kennedy eventually learned an important lesson. At the beginning of his career, he saw things as they were and asked, "Why?" By the end, he dreamed things that never were and said, "How can that pass the Senate?" And that's the relevant question right now: It's not why we don't have a better system. It's how this deal can pass the Senate. No more regrets.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why The Health Insurance Market Is NOT Competitive

Via Ezra Klein (the policy wonk du policy wonk of Health Care):

Employees, in other words, don't worry too much about the cost of their health insurance because they think their employer is picking up the tab. Employers don't worry too much about the cost of health insurance because they know employees are picking up the tab. And so there's no real constituency for cost control. If either group were actually experiencing the full cost of health insurance, the constituency for reform would be a whole lot larger than it already is.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Is It Just Me...

Or did superefficient, "outcompete that USPS dinosaur," FedEx just outsource delivery of my pants to...the Post Office???

On a side note, the "New Berlin Facility" in question is RIGHT NEXT DOOR to my office. So despite it being not 300 meters from me, FedEx needs the ever so outmoded postal service to get my pants to, you know, my door.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Required Reading

From Josh Marshall at TPM.

At this point I don't know why we bother. These guys will keep going until there are lots and lots of bodies piled up. No one in the Republican Party will take any responsibility. And every time the Repubs are out of power, it will happen again.

I'm tired of it, discouraged that I wasted any time on serving this country, and candidly, I can't figure out whether we should encourage them to actually secede or "Go Galt" or whatever the fuck they call it THIS week, or if we should just leave.

The problem is, if I were Canada I wouldn't let those crazy-ass Americans in to wreck the fuck out of my country like they did theirs, no matter HOW liberal they are...

Monday, August 17, 2009

I Could Do This Guys Job Better Than He Does...Make Me The CEO Of Whole Foods

I could use the seven figure income and I guarantee you I could avoid doing something this dumb...

Outlined by Matt Yglesias.

Shorter version:
When you're the CEO of a company that caters to liberals, it's really fucking stupid to go out of your way to piss them off.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The REAL Health Care Debate We're Having

I want to be extremely clear about the implications of my previous post. There are two, and only two, possible outcomes from what's going on this summer:

1) We choose once again to maintain the status quo...likely for at least 3 or 4 years, or

2) We do something that makes the system at least marginally better than it is now.

You'll note I didn't say, "Make it worse." That's because there is no way to make the system worse than it is. The only way to even claim that it's possible is to hold to a Faith Based Free Market Tautology breathtaking in its inability or unwillingness to confront reality. As I said earlier, businesspeople are not inspired to give consumers their best. They might or might not ACTUALLY give consumers the best offering, but that is incidental to what they're actually doing, and sadly all too infrequent. In my time in the cubicle jungle I have to say that confusing, lying to, or ignoring customers seems to be considerably cheaper and as effective, if not more so, than actually providing superior products and services (aka, Ayn Rand gets bitch slapped by reality).

So let us be clear. Either something is done, and it's at a minimum a marginal improvement on the current system or we PRETEND that we're delaying things to produce a better plan, when in fact we're delaying things to kill the reform effort. I'd love to say to guys like Grassley and Baucus, "If you think the current system should be kept in favor of any reform, just have the fucking balls to say it...I'm sick and tired of the goddamned concern trolling you guys are doing."

Will the result be perfect? It's in the sausage factory. Of COURSE it won't be perfect. I'd like to see a public option at a minimum. But no matter what comes out, it'll be better than the steaming pile of dog's vomit we currently call a health care system.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Why Government Health Care Can't Be Any WORSE Than Private Health Care

Via Kevin Drum, discussing a particularly Kafkaesque episode with his cellular service provider (in this case, Verizon), and the whole episode's tie-in to our current health care debate:

Frankly, my dealings with the government, on average, are better than most of my dealings with corporations. The government might sometimes provide poor customer service just because they lack the motivation to do better, but corporate America routinely provides crappy customer service as part of a deliberate and minutely planned strategy. I'll take my chances with the feds.

Yes, yes. I know. "DMV." "Lazy gummint workers." "Cell service is an exception." As is credit card service. And cable TV. And high speed broadband service (where it differs from CATV that is). As is petroleum. As is financial services. As are cars.

You know what? When there's that many exceptions to the, "Free markets are best for customers," rule then the rule is just WRONG. Get over yourself, business guys. You don't work that fucking hard to provide superior service. You work that fucking hard for an in-ground pool and vacations in Costa Rica. If you need to screw your customers to get the pool and the jungle tour, you just try to keep the mark on the gaff as long as possible.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Theory And Practice Of DMing RPGs..."Working On The Railroad"

So here I am with a CD disc full of every Traveller Sourcebook, game, adventure and supplement ever made. I have a pretty good crew of players...the chemistry is pretty good. So now I have to put it all together into an interesting campaign. The RMP may be interested in this as will Mellow Engineer, but other than that, unless you're morbidly curious you may wander off.

Problem, and opportunity, is that the Traveller adventures were written in a way unfamiliar to most modern DMs. Today, intro text is scripted and tactics are outlined for you ahead of time. These are not. A shocking amount of time it's hard even for a DM to figure out what the intended plot was. Luckily I am an experienced DM. Running a game is like being the leader of a jazz band. You may set the overall beat and melody, but you have to be ready to let someone solo. There are certain beats you HAVE to hit...those you set up so that nothing the players do short circuits it. (Sorry, any of my players that have been reading this...but sometimes you really ARE getting railroaded).

I knew in rough outlines, what I wanted to do. There were three modules I wanted to hit for certain: Research Station Gamma, Twilight's Peak, and Secret of the Ancients. But those would be maybe 7 to 10 sessions of gaming. Plus, there's the whole Fifth Frontier War thing in the background of the official campaign setting. I wanted to include that.

Finally, I wanted the characters to REALLY have an impact on events (something they've already done, it having been built into Twilight's Peak...they've wiped out a major clandestine enemy logistics base), and that means putting them into the mix militarily and politically. What was interesting was how this vague intention fed from the character generation.

Three of the five had backgrounds in Intelligence and/or commando operations. Maxine, run by our token female, started as a support type, but much to her players amazement, took serious left turn when she was commando trained, commissioned and retained an extra term. I remember thinking, hmmm, so she's going to be the team's trigger puller.

Next, Lesk, the Mellow Engineer's character, turned out to be a thief and a seriously strong psionic...which was the intent, but in a campaign where the military adversary is a race of psionics, useful. OK, so I can see some things I can do with that.

Then Chip, the scout, kept rolling "special" missions for his assignments. Looking over the list of skills for Special Missions (bribery, forgery, streetwise) I think we can all read between the lines about what "special" really means. This is a guy who keeps getting redirected into Intel operations (it helps that the Scout Service is where civilian intelligence resides in the campaign...basically he kept getting used for CIA missions).

Gerard is our high Social Status Navy guy. Not much there to meet the eye, but any group needs at least one person the local aristocrats will at least talk to. OK then. I'll find more for him to do...he just doesn't know it yet.

Malcolm was the last rolled up. Intelligence school so often he ended up an instructor. Specializing in interrogation. OK, so here we have an actual professional at the Intel game, someone who really was part of the Imperial Intel apparatus. That tore it.

I already have a preference for intrigue when I run a campaign, and here I had a crew of folks who were either black bag guys on either side of the law, or closely associated trigger puller types. Plus one knight/Naval Officer. I could work with this.

Now, part of my CD was a "campaign sourcebook"...The Spinward Marches Campaign. It's setting was post war, so I wasn't going to be using it, but it had a whole section on the course of the war, so I started looking that over. Depending on events the dates might change but the events wouldn't.

Therein I discovered the other main thrust of the campaign. The war starts off badly as a politically well connected Grand Admiral, promoted past his Peter Principle point, ignores valid intelligence by the normal Naval Intelligence and Scout Service agencies. Apparently, they'd embarrassed him in the past and he created a parallel intelligence office dedicated to telling him what he wanted to hear. That this plotline, written 20 odd years ago was an almost perfect mirror of the show we've had to live through.."Fun With Bushie" simply a bonus.

He was opposed by the Grand Duke, who retained his contacts with the Intelligence professionals, and who would seize control of the fleet during the war and effectively prosecute it thereafter. Now I could see how the group could be integrated...Malcolm would be of the professional faction, forced out for his affiliation; Maxine a junior officer protege. Gerard could be the political victim of the toady Commodore that took over intelligence duties for the Grand Admiral. Chip could work for the Scout service side, and Lesk could become a very valuable asset managed by the Scouts. (As it turns out, unwillingly...but I can work with that too, since he's hardly history's first unwilling intelligence asset).

Character generation and two paragraphs in a sourcebook and the campaign had its shape: "War, Mutiny and the Secret of the Ancients."

Without putting any spoilers in, the group has been seriously roped in on the Secret of the Ancients part, having in the process acquired a technology from the Twilight's Peak site: a set of teleport discs that frankly I made sure they have because I think it'll be fun to see what they think up to do with them. Every Ancient site is lousy with that kind of thing...should arouse their cupidity the same way +3 Flaming Swords capture a DnD player's.

Shortly, there will be a Star Trek-y section loosely based on the Leviathan adventure (which sucked as an adventure, but the ship, a Merchant Cruiser, was pretty cool). It'll go outside the Marches, so I get to generate a couple subsectors for them to explore while part of a larger mission. That'll also allow me to include a batch of the smaller (one nighter) premade adventures. I still haven't decided if they'll get the Leviathan or one of her sister ships (I'm leaning towards the Leviathan or the Decameron).

There's also some long term adversary stuff going on, but that's just getting started and I know that one of them at least reads this, so I'll save the spoilers.

Ultimately, they will determine whether the Duke succeeds at seizing the fleet and then discover exactly what happened 300,000 years earlier to the Ancients. And in the end save and/or destroy the Imperium. Since that's the end of this particular campaign, they really DO get to choose that one...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Carpe DM…Translation: “The DM is Whiny” (The Theory And Practice Of GMing RPGs, Part 2)

OK. So as I was saying before with RPGs, I started DMing Traveller, or rather “Classic Traveller” (there’ve been a couple version since the original 1981 edits of the little black books), recently.

Back when I got the source stuff for the campaign, up to and including the CD-ROM, from Far Future Enterprises, I started making a mental list of the stuff I’d have to change. In the RPG parlance, I knew there’d be a lot of homebrew rules. I already knew two things right off the bat. Several more major things popped up in the course of my campaign prep and the first couple sessions.

I mentioned the unique character generation, where you start with a mature set of skills; the corollary there is that you’ve spent anywhere from 4 to 30 years in military or quasi-military occupations. With all the hazards that pertain thereto. The character generation system had a survival roll every 4 year term (later, one for every year-long assignment). Fail it and die.

In addition, it had the old hardcore character generation rules; roll 2 dice in order for Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education and Social Standing. If you wanted to be Navy and rolled crappy INT and Social Standing? Better roll high on enlistment, buck-o, or you were out of luck. Actually there was a weird synergy there. You could “hunt medals” in your military career, taking penalties to your survival roll for bonuses to decoration rolls (decorations increasing your chance of promotion). Those of you with ruthless streaks no doubt see where this is going.

If you rolled a crappy character you’d get him into a risky profession, say Army or Marines, where you could take outrageous chances for medals. The dice modifier equivalent of stripping naked, gluing feathers to your butt and charging a machine gun nest with a toilet plunger while making “woo woo” noises. Then when probability caught up with you and you croaked, roll another character until you got a guy whose characteristics you liked.

Those two rules were going to have to go, replaced by roll seven times, discard the low roll and assign to your stats as desired method and a medical discharge roll rather than death roll. I added a chance of characteristic loss to go with a discharge, and the ability of the player to try and overcome medical discharge, to give someone who didn’t feel like they were “fully baked” yet have a chance to stay in.

Ok, so far so good. What else? Over the history of the game, Game Designers Workshop…the now defunct home of Traveller as well as other games including some very nice board wargames (read: hideously complicated games…I had weird tastes)…anyway, GDW released rules and character generation supplements over the course of the early 80s until they effectively abandoned “Traveller” for the “Twilight 2000” and “2300AD” RPGs.

The original 6 professions were Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, Merchants and “Other”. Over the course of the game, expansion books greatly enhanced character generation for Navy, Army, Marines, Scouts and Merchants…you got WAY more skills over the course of a career. “Other” was expanded by another sourcebook, but not in terms of depth…instead it got broader. Instead of what seemed to be a generic roguish character, Other became Barbarians and Doctors and Hunters and Bureaucrats and Scientists, Pirates and of course, Rogues. But they all had the same low skill allotment.

When the supplements came out back in the 80s, Army and Marines were first (“Mercenary”), followed 6 or 7 months (and what felt like an eternity to me) later with Navy (“High Guard’) and an even longer eternity later by the Scouts (the imaginatively named “Scouts”). What happened was everyone stampeded to the cool Army/Marines careers, and there was a sudden dearth of ship based skills in most groups. And so it occurred, on down the line until “Merchant Prince” came out and allowed mercantile players to have some real fun buying and selling. So I had to homebrew some skill roll eligibility rules to ensure that all characters at the end of a term of service had had a similar count of skill roll opportunities (if not skills). I had to test that out with a few character roll ups. Seemed to work, at least well enough that the “Other” characters weren’t obviously disadvantaged. Enough so that one player picked Rogue, and his skill count had more to do with luck than anything structural.

What else was a problem? Well, although the Third Imperium background was considered the gold standard of SF RPGs it had some structural defects. The Imperium was huge and impersonal, which removed one common source of pride for PCs: that they were big swinging dicks in the universe making big differences in their worlds. Also, since the characters were “born” with a mature skill set, there wasn’t that “level up/always something new to do” pull for the characters.

So I had to fix that. I’ll cover the former point in my next, and last, post (concerning putting together a fun yet not obviously railroaded narrative in an annoyingly wide open universe); but one thing was obvious…there would have to be experience rules. Traveling takes time, a week and a half to two weeks per “jump” (a discreet distance traveled in a starship) so training of various types would and could take various amounts of time (3 months, 6 months, 9 months or a year per level, depending). I also needed a way to reach a point of diminishing returns to keep people from being the world’s foremost authority on Ship’s Tactics or whatever. Which I finally managed to put the finishing touch on recently.

There was one area that required little alteration. I mentioned that GDW was a BOARD wargame company? Their intensive combat rules were based on a board wargame. D&D’s original combat rules were clearly based on miniatures rules…move x number of inches per round, etc. Even back in the 80s, there just weren’t that many folks who played miniatures. I’m sure it surprises no one that I was one of them…I played tabletop Napoleonic wargames but even I didn’t play D&D the way it was supposed to be played…everyone just sort of declared where they were and the DM kept the positions in his head (it was always a he...I played with women, but none of them have ever wanted to DM).

Wizards of the Coast’s D&D 3rd edition, while I was away, dropped the fiction that we were all out there adjudicating disputes with rulers…and came up with combat rules that basically derived from board wargames. They did keep the mini-figs instead of using cardboard counters, although now you buy them pre-painted and they’re sold like collectable cards…you get them randomized in a box, unless you pay market rate on the secondary minis market. You can take the company away from the business model, but you can never take the business model entirely out of the company. But I digress (even more than usual, I mean).

Anyway, the GDW Traveller combat rules, “Snapshot”, played eerily similar to what the group had been doing with D&D 3.5 all along…rules that came twenty years after GDW released “Snapshot”. Those rules would cover from close range to (in some cases) long range combat, for both guns and hand weapons. Since “very long” was 250m and up, I figured I could simply cover that range increment abstractly. And in fact, so it has turned out (a recent encounter started at a klick…and all of that was conducted in the “once a minute a target appears during a rush, and you can shoot at it” way (a unit deployed in combat formation, using bounding overwatch will cover 1000m in somewhere between a half and hour to two-plus hours). The one thing the group took to like a duck to water was how to do combat. (What they constantly have to remind themselves about is radio contact…you can talk remotely, unlike D&D, and they’re constantly poking each other to remind each other to “tell the rest”…something I’m allowing because contrary to popular opinion, I’m not a total dick and it really is a novel concept when you’re used to D&D.)

The final, major piece of homebrew was “Difficulty Class” or DC, the target roll of dice for success or failure at any given task. For the first few sessions I was winging the DCs for tasks. It felt unfair to me, god only knows how the group perceived it. Pretty much the same if the eagerness with which they seized on the table I made up is any indication.

As a rule generation example this one is fairly typical. It’s based on two insights and one statistical reality. First the statistical reality: the center of a two six sided dice, normal probability curve is 7 and it’s a fairly steep curve, so average “difficulty” will play off 7 as a target and change by increments of two.

The two insights were that 5 categories are more than enough to describe almost any situation (thank you survey design in grad school!), therefore difficulties are all described as either “very easy”, “easy”, “average”, “difficult”, and “very difficult”. Second insight: that skill level 3 is “professional grade”…the rules themselves state that if a person has Medic-3 they qualify for the title “Doctor”. Arbitrarily, I set “master” skill at 6, and not so arbitrarily “beginner” is 1.

Put the two together…a task that would be of average difficulty for a beginner has a target of 8 or more (the statistical 7 plus 1 for skill level), whereas a task that could be described as average for a master is 13 (statistical 7 plus 6 for skill level). All difficulties can now be decided in my mind by answering the question, “How difficult would this be for ‘x’ skill level?” An appendectomy is easy for a doctor, but average to difficult for a beginner. Heart surgery is average for a master, difficult for a professional, and very difficult (at least!) for a beginner. If you can put it in words, the chance that everyone agrees with your assessment (and hence thinks you’re playing fair with them) goes WAY up. So was born the three column, five row table at the center of skill use.

The point I’m making? If you as a GM have a problem, your group has or will have that problem in spades. If you look back up over the decisions I’ve described (especially if you’ve ever played Traveller) you can see that everything I’ve done is to increase enjoyment by providing a sense of accomplishment, or a sense of fairness.

There’s only one game out there whose purpose is to make the player feel like they’re a tiny ant and that the GM is out to get them (mainly because he is): Paranoia. From which players derive enjoyment. It’s not an everyday game though…

Making the game enjoyable, rewarding and fair from your players’ point of view isn’t the most important thing you do as a DM, it’s the ONLY thing you do, or rather should do. Everything else is record keeping.

Next: Putting together a campaign where you manage to move characters smartly from one situation to another despite the fact that they can literally get into a spaceship and zip off in another direction entirely. On a whim.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Bond Market Described

Via Dan Gross:

Finally, the notion that the market is telling us something—anything—ultimately rests on the erroneous assumption that financial markets represent the collective wisdom of rational actors processing information efficiently. There are plenty of cool-minded forward-thinking investors in the markets. But there are also a lot of lunatics, fools, sharks, widows and orphans, government actors with ulterior motives, algorithmic traders, greedy speculators, and whack jobs. The markets resemble the Star Wars bar scene more than they do the economics faculty lounge at Princeton.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues (The Theory And Practice Of GMing RPGs) Part I

The title comes from a classic pen and and paper RPG from the 80s called "Paranoia".  The political lamp is decidedly NOT lit.  After recounting my lawn-a-cide last time, I find that I am interested in discussing other things that are going on around here rather than just what's going on in Washington.  I do have other interests.

One of those things is "Geek Night".  As it happens those of us out there (like Stephen Colbert) who played D&D when we were little nerdlets occasionally visit the mothership.  So for the better part of two years I have been playing D&D 3.5 with a bunch of very cool folks, discovering that you can have even more fun with elves when you're an adult (for one thing, by calling them "tree humpers"...they HATE that) than when you're a teenager.  We've been meeting every other week (mostly) with the same crew of folks (mostly) and having a high old time (mostly).

We first started playing in "Forgotten Realms", the by now default D&D setting.  One problem.  Thanks to having been designed back in the dark ages (the AD&D era) it had a LOT of baggage.  Not least of which is a series of merchandising novels that pretty much put you in a straitjacket.  There's one way to present (and play) Forgotten Realms, and don't you DARE violate the way it's supposed to be.

Booooorrr--ING!  Thieves are thieves, Fighters are fighters, etc., etc. ad nauseum absurdum.

So when we lost our wizard to ennui and our flagrant lack of compliance with the way he thought way we should be playing (see above) one of our number trotted out the new "default" D&D setting from Wizards Of The Coast..."Eberron".  Now I will freely admit that the conceit of Eberron--that magic in many ways replaces technology but with similar effective end points--is simply a gimmick to allow elves to duel with orcs on top of moving railroad trains, while the dwarf hijacks an airship to swoop down and rescue the orc from the vicious elven mercenary (think Mission Impossible meets The Good, The Bad And the Pointy Eared).  But it is well executed.  Pretty fun allowed me to play a shapeshifter with a nasty case of PTSD as result of his experiences at the end of an all encompassing world war.

But D&D has a problem, a systemic one.  There's a "sweet spot" to the game...starting about Level 5 and ending about Level 13.  Most of the interesting stuff happens in between those two points...before Level 5 a stiff breeze can cripple you and after Level 13 or so the scaling gets out of hand and you increasingly find it difficult to throw out a challenge that isn't either too much or too oscillating system forever on the verge of getting out of control.  Our group collectively started getting close to 13 and we were running out of prepublished stuff to play (for the reason I just outlined you don't see many commercial modules for Levels 15 to's all but impossible to get the level of difficulty "just right" at that HAS to be personalized).  The GM for Eberron is getting his Master's and wanted some relief from prepping.  It was getting time consuming.

That's when I stepped in.  As it happened, I had something I was really, REALLY interested in revisiting.  When we were casting about for a way to not have to end "geek night" when we lost the aforementioned Fandamentalist, and before we settled on Eberron, I had been lamenting the loss over many a relocation (some more frantically rushed than others...leases will run out from time to time) of all but the dreg ends of what had been a truly impressive collection of pen and paper RPG games.

The loss I felt most keenly was a game called Traveller.  It was, to SF RPGs what D&D was to Fantasy RPGs...the very first, the wellspring, the alpha and omega from which all subsequent games derived.  Its system was gloriously different from the d20 system we were playing.  It had all KINDS of spiffy aspects, including a character generation system that started you out with your mature skill set (instead of the usual generic, "You have left home to seek your fortune..." start) and a backstory as famous in its time as Forgotten Realms is to D&D now.

So there I was, hanging out in a game shop trying to find some Eberron sourcebooks when I ran across the reprint.  Apparently Marc Miller, the original designer of Traveller, had decided to reprint the old "little black books" of Traveller having reacquired the rights to the game at some point in the past.  After a quick consultation with the group regarding their willingness to contemplate playing something other than D&D at some point (the consensus was "why not") I started acquiring books and refamiliarizing myself with the game system and campaign setting.

This has gone on for a bit so I will leave you with this insight, stolen blatantly from Spiegelman's "Maus"...

And here my troubles began.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What Does Not Kill (My Lawn) Makes It Stronger

And it did in point of fact kill it.  In a brief break from ranting about politics, I can also rant about a vicious cold blooded killer in our midst.

More cold blooded than Dick Cheney.  More vicious than Dick Cheney.  More looming than Dick Cheney.  A bigger pain in my ass than Dick Cheney.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...

Assuming you count each blade of grass as a victim, that tree has a body count Mengele would envy.  Now I will freely admit that I was complicit.  After numerous summers eyeing water bills the way I now eye my 401(k), I basically said, "Fuck it.  Whatever happens, happens."  And thus began the August of telling the lawn to nut up and survive on its own.

The result was more tan than you can find on George Hamilton.  So this year I am replanting.   Did you know what happens when you google "grass for dry shade"?  I do now.  You get a loooong list of the plants you might want to try instead of planting grass.

So over the Memorial Day Weekend, I spent some quality time with the new Decemberists' album on my iPod and The Lovely and Talented Mrs. Pedant's Weasel.  No, not THAT weasel.  I spend all my time with THAT weasel.  I mean her Garden Weasel.  Breaking up and aerating the aforementioned (alleged) lawn.  So that I could put down the started fertilizer and seed.  Which took about one tenth of the time the weasel took.

Anyway, we'll see what happens.  If overplanting doesn't work, then I'm really stuck.  I'll have to till and completely reseed.  Which will suck.  Or I could plow the crops under and plant Hostas.  We'll see.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Follow Up To Torture

EnviroMom responded to yesterday's post in a way that has caused me to think and extend my remarks:

The thing that disturbs me the most about all of this is that
we tend to feel, as a society and a species, as if we've evolved. But
intimidating prisoners to get them to confess to things for political gain, well
that beautiful concept dates back quite a bit longer than the Bush
administration. Think the Red Scare, the Salem Witch Trials, the Spanish
Inquisition...torturing confessions out of prisoners is not exactly a new idea,
and it doesn't make me feel any more hopeful about mankind's ability to learn
from its past mistakes.

That left me thinking about her point, which I'm going to both refute and reinforce (quite the trick). I think of all this as a case of the reptile brain gaining ascendancy.

When I'm confronted by something, someone or some situation I dislike, there's a part of me that wants to say, "Hulk Smash!" and get with the smacking down. I don't do it because it would be wrong (the fact that cops show up helps).

What we had in 2002 in particular was a freak out, where the government's reptile brain (Dick Cheney) ran wild. As I said, understandable. What is unusual is in this era when the consensus is that torture is wrong, someone(s) in the White House and the Pentagon, and for all I know, Langley, decided that, "What the hell. As long as we have the thumbscrews out, let's help W get his war on and smack those latte sipping liberal elites around a bit that they're not really serious about defending the country."

The Inquisition, the Witch Trials (the ones in central Europe around that time, by the way, were FAR bloodier than their little American cousins) and so forth were conducted using what were AT THAT TIME, standard "criminal" techniques. Henry the VIII had the punishment for poisoners set at "boiled alive by being slowly lowered feet first". Torture was, in those days, the modern equivalent of putting a prisoner in solitary confinement.

Today, torture is no longer the cultural punitive norm (and that's a good thing, BTW). THAT'S what makes what Bush/Cheney did in service of their political agenda particularly vile. It's what makes Republicans today arguing that not using it reflects unseriousness about protecting ourselves reprehensible. They're trying to refight a long ago resolved discussion about what constitutes inhumane treatment.

That's why this is so dangerous. THAT'S why the current batch of Republican politicians and pundits who won't come out publicly and continually to state, "Torture is still always wrong," in the style of the 70s era Saturday Night Live Weekend Update that would always start, "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead," are contemptible. Until John McCain and Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and Rush Limbaugh and Micheal Barone and Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes come out continually and say THAT, something they don't do...something in fact that all of them have directly or indirectly contradicted at some point in the last eight years, I really don't think the country is safe from them.

We are AT RISK, because some people saw an opportunity to refight the real "Culture War." The one between the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment. The forces of superstition and fear still want their drawing and quartering, and if the forces of rationality and enlightenment do not fight them, continually and with neither cessation nor mercy, superstition will win.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Words Fail Me

Well obviously not, but I see this and I have trouble not breaking into a stream of profanity.

If you don't click links, it seems that one of the uses Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld found for "enhanced interrogation techniques" in 2002 and 2003 was in...wait for it...torturing prisoners to find an Al Qaeda-Iraq connection.

You know what? It's one thing to lose your moral compass from a fear...a not unjustified fear...that Al Qaeda might have had more cells out planning something. It would be WRONG, but at least understandable. NOT forgettable, not even forgivable, but at least I could understand it...the way I can understand, but not forgive, Hamas rocket attacks.

That isn't what happened here. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld (plus the usual supporting crew) tortured people to cover their political asses and to have a talking point to beat up Democrats with.

These people and their enablers (aka the Republican Party) are beneath pond scum. You and I and everyone we know lived in a dictatorship for 8 years. I think the reason Dear Leader Rush Limbaugh is freaking out is he's afraid that someone might be after payback.

He should be glad it's Obama in charge and not me.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Emporer's New Budget

The Republicans have unveiled their alternative budget. And there's no there, there. Apparently, the Repubs have elected to for a circular firing squad and whale away.

I am of mixed thoughts on this. In theory, I should want a robust opposition. If nothing else it raises the game. But really. Given their behavior over the last 16 years (especially), I just can't muster anything other than unbridled glee at the conjunction of their utter, complete psychotic exactly the moment the media has finally decided to notice that they're kinda crazy.

Seriously. Go look at the "budget" really is more of what Bush gave ya. Only with even less detail.

I'm the one in the corner crunching popcorn and laughing myself sick.

Monday, March 23, 2009

What On Earth Is Happening In The Economy?

Several folks have taken a stab at explaining Geithner's plan.

Brad DeLong finds much to admire. My favorite question from his FAQ? "Q: What if markets never recover, the assets are not fundamentally undervalued, and even when held to maturity the government doesn't make back its money? A: Then we have worse things to worry about than government losses on TARP-program money--for we are then in a world in which the only things that have value are bottled water, sewing needles, and ammunition. "

Mark Thoma compares and contrasts the Paulson version, Geithner version and Nationalization with a simplified exercise involving cars that blow up (well the engines at least...but only some of them!).

Paul Krugman has now actually made his way out onto the ledge and really looks like he's going to jump.

These are three "liberal economists" and just look at the range of opinion, this doesn't include any conservative/Chicago School economists. And who cares what the conservatives think? They and their desperate need to adhere to their orthodoxy caused the mess.

For reactions, considered and otherwise, I give you Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings: "As someone who thinks that levels of compensation in the US are absurdly unequal, and that this is bad for the country, it's tempting to say: oh, go ahead, you idiots. Keep your sense of entitlement to other people's money. Make people come after you with pikes and tumbrils. See if I care."

Also this rather elegant summing up on the difference between what your head and you heart tell you, by Ezra Klein: "Intellectually, I'm of the crowd that thinks the A.I.G. bonuses don't deserve the continued focus of the political system. One tenth of one percent of the money we've given to one company should not obsess us. But whenever it comes up in conversation, I'm shocked at the depth of my own fury. And here's why: Not to sound naive about this, but the absence of patriotism that galls. The lack of responsibility is sickening. These bankers delivered an almost mortal wound to the American economy. Their actions threw millions out of work and wrecked the retirement savings of tens of millions more. [...] They should be begging for a shot at redemption. They should work without pay, without sleep, without credit. They should wear sackcloth and ashes. But more than that, they should be trying to help. The damage they wrought might have been unintentional, but that doesn't absolve them of responsibility for the aftermath. What we've got, however, is an economic hit-and-run, with one wrinkle: The collar-popper peeking out of the bloodied Porsche is willing to stick around if we pay him for his time. Give him a bonus and he'll dirty his hands with CPR."

Me? How the fuck should I know? You just saw three major economists disagreeing and two very rational people who basically said that despite what their rationality tells them they'd be happy to attend a Festival of Blood for Wall Street types. Weird huh? I get all pissed off, right up until it becomes an actual crisis, then I get all calm.

Except for when Repubs talk about the debt, and how we're stealing from future generations. From THEM I want to know where their oh so tender concern for my daughter was when THEY were in charge of shoveling money to their cronies in no bid contracts and tax breaks for their buds. THEY can go fuck themselves.

Friday, March 6, 2009

This Says It All

Normally, I don't quote in the entirety or I just provide a link.

You should read all of this, so I'm pulling it all in.

My name is Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I'm a social liberal. I'm pro-choice. I believe in the right to die. I believe in gay marriage. I'm against the death penalty. And, and as we've recently seen, I don't believe that all kids should be raised by married parents. I also like being black. But I'm clear that most of my views are to the left of most black people. By and by, I hope that isn't the case. But it is today, and understanding that difference is

I think one of the biggest problems with the GOP is that they they mistake their deepest held beliefs for mainstream American beliefs. The root of the current conservative crack-up probably lies in Iraq, but the one event that exposed it all, for me, was Terri Schiavo. Here you had a sitting President, a gaggle of Senators and congressmen bending over backward to argue that government was a better arbiter of a woman's fate, than her husband and her doctors. The moment Bill Frist decided to give a diagnosis via video tape, I felt the wind shift. When it comes to the end of their days, most Americans would want their spouse--not the Senate Majority Leader--to be the final authority.

The point is that you have to be able to distinguish your deeply held beliefs, from the electorates. I think much of the GOP's trouble stems from the inability to discern the difference. That whole "Real America," "Real Virginia," small-town snobbery bit, isn't an act--they actually believe it. I've never understood the whole "Center-right country" meme, because it's ultimately self-serving--and then self-defeating. It blinds you to the hard work of arguing, cajoling and fighting with the electorate, until they see your point. It's interesting that so many of their most dominant voices of the GOP (Steele, Gingrich, Limbaugh) have either never won an election, or haven't won one in a decade.

I keep thinking about the big things that have always kept me from being a conservative--the knee-jerk worship of a past that branded me half a man, the elevation of the loud imbeciles who think science teachers should be using the Bible, the toleration and baiting of bigots who cloaked themselves in the garb of "States Rights," and now run under the garb of "protecting marriage." The common denominator here is an unreflective veneration of what was, a belief that tradition, no matter how backwards, can heal all. Thus it's only right, that Steele, Gingrich and Limbaugh make up the leadership.

It's not that I think liberals are without flaw, but to argue that our most strident members should be our public face, would seem silly. As Ross intimates, if most liberals thought
it was good idea for Howard Zinn Randall Robinson, or Noam Chomsky to be a spokesperson for the Democratic Party, I'd think we'd all gone insane. If Democratic politicians were scared to disagree with Keith Olberman or Michael Moore, I'd be a man without a home.

But these guys think that they are America. They delude themselves with that "center-right nation" analysis, and then mask their losses by claiming they didn't really lose. They think the problem is their wardrobe, their slang, their hairstyle. This is what black folks call Project-Bougie or--more aptly put--just plain trifling. The GOP is out shopping for a new dining set, a new couch, a flat-screen--anything to make the crib look a little more inviting. Meanwhile the water bill is two months past due. The lights are off. And the eviction notice is in the mail.

Holy Crap, that puts it all in to words for me. Finally someone said it, and far more eloquently than I've been able to manage.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Fringe Beliefs

Via Matt Yglesias I find this.

Legalizing Marijuana is a ridiculous notion. The "love that dare not speak it's name" could speak it's name in rural Montana sooner than major political figures suggest ending our wonderful Weed Dealer Subsidy (aka, the Great Big War On Drugs).

There's a few things more fringe than legal weed though. Check out the approval rating graph:


Friday, February 13, 2009

Picture Of The Week

For the Lovely And Talented Mrs. Pedant:

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Best Line Ever

From John Cole at Balloon Juice (aka the blog that shows you what happens to conservative views when the guy can actually think...) a comment about dealing with "bipartisanship" when one of the partisans is clearly crazy.

Imagine trying to negotiate an agreement on dinner plans with your date, and you suggest Italian and she states her preference would be a meal of tire rims and anthrax. If you can figure out a way to split the difference there and find a meal you will both enjoy, you can probably figure out how bipartisanship is going to work the next few years.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Picture Of The Week

Because it's, a) funny, b) highly appropriate and c) I need practice embedding pictures in this thing...the last couple got chopped in weird ways...

Monday, February 2, 2009

Stimulus Package Shenanigans (Adult Supervision Required)

This should be interesting. On the one hand you have a group of people, the House Republicans, who after 8 years of Bush think "bipartisan" means you do what they want and they smile instead of mooning you. On the other hand you have a group of people, liberals, mainly blogger type, but let's just admit, liberals; justifiably annoyed at our treatment by Republicans over the last eight years.

Now that the former have shown that in many ways they are deeply unserious, the latter have made calls for Obama to put everything and the kitchen sink back in the stimulus package now that the Repubs did what Repubs do. The Repubs haven't met us half way? Fuck 'em and the horse they rode in on for the next eight years. Let's see how the fat white fucks like bending over and taking it rather than dishing it out. And there's a HUGE part of me that wants to join in.

I even know EXACTLY what I'd put into the stimulus package. Worried about how we're going to pay for the spending? OK. Bend over cause I'm about to lay some pipe, you noobs. Let's take the top marginal tax rate back up to 39% right NOW rather than waiting until after next year when it happens automatically. Hell, bump it to 45%.

"Wrong time to raise taxes"? Well I'm not talking about everyone, just the 500K and up crowd. And they, my friends, aren't hurting. A few who did something monumentally stupid, like let one guy run all their investments, are but not most of 'em.

"You'll disincentivize them, they won't be as inventive as they would be otherwise"? Given what this crew invented over the last few years in the financial sector, I find that I can face the thought of a buncha Wall Street types getting in touch with their inner Goth, all emo and depressed, better than thinking about what else they'd do if they were all perky. That's not a bug, that's a feature.

But we shouldn't do it. Why? Well one, Obama really DOES want to govern pragmatically and get past the partisan tit for tat, which means someone, somewhere, has to be the adult here. Lord knows it won't be the Repubs. And like not torturing people, what's right should also turn out to be more effective. I harbor a sneaking suspicion that if the stimulus as currently packaged is as attractive to America as it seems to be, and the Repubs find themselves unable to do anything other than claim that their ideas (you know, the ones that got us INTO the mess...a neverending cycle of deregulation and tax cuts) are the only ones they can support, eventually it'll get noticed.

Then there will increasingly be three types of Repubs; dead enders, ones about to be voted out, and pragmatic moderates.

There's always going to be an Orange County, CA, so there will always be dead enders. Like herpes, they just never go away completely and the question is always, "Can you control it most of the time?" Increasingly though, either the Repubs will get it, or they'll go completely Palin and they'll be replaced with something that kind of looks like the kind of Republicans MomPedant remembers, whether they call themselves Tories or Whigs or Bull Moose.

People who are pissed about Obama being willing to genuinely compromise need to realize that there are two idiotic beliefs that people engage in every four years. Every four years we're told by Repubs that the Democratic candidate is the most liberal politician short of exhuming Che Guevara. The two idiot beliefs? One, Repubs believe it. Two, Democrats believe it too.

Barack Hussein Obama is not now, nor has he ever been, a doctrinaire liberal. He has shown every sign of preferring to go with what works. I find that comforting. I may (or may not) be more liberal than Obama, but I have a high degree of confidence that if my belief in one of my deeply held theories is right then he'd do what I want, and if I'm wrong, he won't. And where I'm wrong, he shouldn't, whether the idea is liberal or not.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Economics Post (CAUTION: Extra-Dry)

OK. This has been building up, and a return to blogging by discussing the finer points of economic stimulus may be the equivalent of asking you guys to do a triple gainer into a wading pool, but I can't help myself.

Coming back from politics cold turkey was too difficult, so I'm kinda combining my (perverse) interest in economics and politics into a rant/educational opportunity. See, there are two main schools of economic thought running through academia these days and while they don't map ENTIRELY to the political parties, you don't find a lot of laissez faire Milton Friedman-wannabe clones floating around Democratic circles and you don't tend to find the John Kenneth Galbraith types lurking in the foliage at a Republican party ("Where white goes to make real dancers cry.")

So what an old (and from my point of view idiotic) macro professor told me is true...there is "Chicago School" and "Berkley School" econ...the Freshwater/Classical/Real Business Cycle and Saltwater/Keynesian versions of macroeconomics (Though there's been enough idea bleed...neither side has a monopoly on good insights...that to call them formal Classicals and Keynsians would be inaccurate, I'm going to use the two terms to ID the sides).

The key characteristic of Classicals is math. Lots of math. The two groups in academia that a Classical would admit to looking up to are mathematicans and physicists. Classicists might (MIGHT) admit that the hypothetical "rational actor" doesn't really exist, but immediately move on to claim that either a) it doesn't matter or b) in the aggregate the sum of actors are rational. Keynesians are a touch more pragmantic and more inclined to look at disciplines such as behavioral economics for insights (rather than as punching bags).

And those two schools are having a bitchslap contest. The Classicals have had their way with the economy for nigh on 20 years now, and the Keynesians are pointing out that the track record has some problems. In fact, in my admittedly somewhat partial opinion, Classicals (and their blog offspring like Megan McArdle) are beginning to twist themselves into interesting little knots in an attempt to reconcile their a priori not to be questioned assumptions and that annoying little interlocutor, the real world. In this way (he said puckishly, knowing what it would do to them if they read it) they more than slightly resemble the Marxian economists that I studied in undergraduate, desperately using more and more elaborate maths and assumption to prove that their desired conclusions are correct.

First, while you might have more trouble getting a Classical to admit it than a Keynesian, BOTH sides would actually find the proposition that "The government should act like a business/family and live within its means," to be a foolish statement. There's a reason that Micro- and Macroeconomics are divided. For governments, for the banking systems that support a modern economy, the rules are NOT the same as you or I can or should follow. It is NOT straightforward and simple...there are aspects beyond simple accounting rules...paying A $500 and A paying that $500 to B and B paying $500 to C is NOT the same as paying A $500 and A spending it. There are advantages to an economy for the velocity of money use to be high that are not found in simple microeconomic scenarios. In fact in this case, that scenario is FOUR TIMES as good for the economy.

All this by way of saying that there are two theories about stimulating the economy...monetary stimulus and fiscal stimulus. Classicists prefer monetary and Keynesians (traditionally) prefer fiscal. In practice both Classicals and Keynesians state that in normal times monetary stimulus works better. (Friedman received his Nobel for his work on monetary stimulus and even Keynesians today acknowledge that his insights were valuable). That is why, these days, there are a TON of quotes from guys like Krugman stating that under normal circumstances, monetary stimulus is preferable.

Where they differ is in times like these. I'm about to use the D-word, so brace yourselves. Krugman's book The Return Of Depression Economics argues that there comes a tipping point in a recession where traditional monetary stimulus has shot its wad. Lately he's been strongly arguing that when the Fed Rate has reached the zero lower bound, you're probably there. He's also been saying that monetary stimulus is useless in the Liquidity Trap. What the Freshwater types have been reduced to is arguing that their unknown efficacy "non-traditional" monetary stimulus is better than non-traditional fiscal stimulus or that maybe doing nothing is a better option and arguing that if we are in a liquidity trap (and given the behavior of banks these days it takes some major chutzpah to claim otherwise) it will be shortlived rather than lasting, say, a decade.

In short, a lot of what you hear these days regarding stimulus is inspired as much by a desire to have things a certain way politically, or to beat back a nagging feeling that all that time spent studying integral, tensors and matrix algebra may NOT have been necessary as it is inspired by actual analysis. All social sciences suffer from a lack of controlled experimentation. Only economics exerts THIS much influence on policy.

That may not be a good thing, but you go into a social crisis with the academic disciplines you have, not the academic disciplines you wish to have, or might have in the future... Just keep that in mind when you read the news these days.