Monday, September 01, 2008

Once more, with feeling

Ok, I've become a bit of a Palin news junky over the last few days. It's led me to strange places... But consider the decision making process that led up to the fateful decision.

First, we find out that Palin was a rushed pick; the dark horse among a short list of 5. Then, we find out that Lieberman was the preferred veep, but McCain was forced to change his mind at the last minute. Then, this is attributed to generic "conservative" forces. Finally to Karl Rove.

But now, in an almost sinister-like fashion, references to the "CNP" are starting to pop up, and long with them the implication that they may have been inclined to reject Lieberman on grounds of his stance on abortion rights. Sometimes it pays to listen to references like this, as they pop up (here, for example) -- they may seem unconnected to events, but in reality these references are placed there, right before our nose, just to make us aware of them. To make us consider the possibility of a straight line connecting them, a line that would make the rational out of the irrational. Something too circumstantial to print, too obvious to stake a reputation on.

So, let's connect the dots. Is it conceivable that they, as they promised to do with Giuliani (, blackmailed McCain with the threat of introducing a competing conservative candidate? Could they have been the force that changed McCain's mind at such a critical time?

Certainly, as this link reports, they're among Palin's strongest supporters.

The CNP is exactly what any good conspiracy theorist might hope it would be. It's a secret cabal of president makers (, the "Council for National Policy." It apparently has strong ties with powerful Christians and is modelled on the Council on Foreign Relations. Both of these are private organisations, that presume to act on behalf of the public good.

Ok, it's a conspiracy theory. And there's no one pointing the finger in this direction yet, and may never be. But, it's curious, yeah? And after all, this Palin thing is so other-worldly, how else are we supposed to process it, without imagining secret underground committees determining the world's fate with threats in smokey rooms.

If I come off sounding like a wacko, that's understandable. There are many possible reasons why we could have ended up with Palin in this position. And there's many ways in which Palin can succeed as VP candidate (that is, during the election campaign). Many possibilities, I've read about over the last few days and considered. However, it seems increasingly likely to me that something forced McCain to change his mind extremely late in the game; despite the fact that the's explicitly quoted many months ago said he didn't want to rush the VP decision process (sorry, no link). What could force McCain to change is mind? Perhaps his preferred choice refused (which, btw, is ironically and exactly the only reasonable action we could have expected from Palin, if in fact she had an appropriate mentality for the position)? Perhaps there was widespread panic after the success of the Democrat's conference. Maybe... Maybe... Or maybe someone forced his hand. Someone committed, and powerful, and with leverage.

Whoever that was, they've established a situation whereby, given a certain set of eventualities (not likelihoods, sure, but possibilities) we could be relying on a President Palin to play Reagan's part vs the powerful Medvedev and the self confident Putin to quell reoccurring tensions.

And if that happens, who are we going to blame?


BTW -- Who do you think Palin wanted to hide the identity of Trig's mother from? From Trig himself, of course. So, in all of this... Not only will immense pressure of the campaign very possibly end Palin's political career (that is, assuming Obama wins); but also will it lead lasting devastation on her family.

A hint, to all who read this... If John McCain rings you up in the middle of the night and offers you the US Vice Presidency... Turn him down, you fools!

God! Honestly, I really don't understand that... Why didn't she say no?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

It can only be attributable... to human error

Which shift to you like better?

The one from Armor Games...

or these other guys?

The second one made me think of the Sephirothic System. This is a document from ancient Judaism, one of the most ancient religious documents we have (or we have recreated). It shows the path from mere immoral soul to divine entity, in an uncertain number of steps.

Having recently heard that some early religions made board games depicting bible stories, and religious ideas with progression (I can't remember where I heard that), I began to wonder if the Sephirothic System was once a board game... See the similarities with the second shift? Subsequent challenges set before man within the promise of progression to divinity?

Bonus content:

In the Hitchhiker's Guide, one unfortunately short-sighted civilisation is wiped out by deceases caught from dirty phones. Douglas Adams was clearly, once again, before his time; no doubt this was a warning to all of us about what horrible dangers lay in store. Because in this day and age, these risks are out there. Take, for example, the case of the virus ridden photo frame. It's taking over the intanets!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Have you any clients from Saudi Arabia named bin Laden?

Decartes wondered if we could put the world in equation; clearly this is not an uncommon goal. The British have an excellent weather prediction system--they have simulate the atmospheric conditions over all of Great Britain, in one big fluid dynamics petri dish. As a result, they can tell when the rain will hit your part of London, almost down to the minute: just feed in the state of the world as it is currently, run the simulation faster than real time, and there you go. It’s your window on the future. The world remade in equation.

This, of course, is of interest to any game coder. Because that’s all a game is, really: the world remade. We make everything, from the dirt to the sun--you can’t buy it, you can’t pick it up and put in it frame, you can shift the camera to see it. You have to make it, and you do that with it’s primitive component types. Coding is a process of giving things names; games coders seek the true name of the world.

So, we want to see the world remade in equation. So do cognitive science researchers, and AI researchers. Map the brain; and make it anew in logic. Find the weights, connect the neurons, map out the algorithms.

But if we can make the brain with numbers, where’s the magic? Lost in the quantum uncertainty, perhaps--but let’s say it’s not. Let’s say, human behaviour is equation. Let’s say, the product of human behaviour is equation. Let’s say, any society is like physics: we can model it accurately.

But if that’s the case; we can model the behaviour of society so long as we know the correct input to the algorithm. Sample the collective conscious, feed it in, and run it faster than real time: we’ll see when the spreading Obamaism hits Washington.

If we can do it for the weather, then why does it feel wrong to say we might be able to do it with people, also? Perhaps it’s because it feels like capitalism, and we hate capitalism.

If we assume that all agents are equal, and have equally free options, and work for selfish but mutual beneficial gain: then we can build an economic model of the world. We’re still working on that model, the study of economics is slower than physics, but it’s coming. We’ll feed in an easily sampled initial state, and find out the future.

But; if we assume that all agents aren’t equal, and do not always work for selfish gain, then it won’t work, right? We can’t model the individual will of people; we can’t model diversity and ingenuity, right?

Of course we can. Why not? Historians arrive are predictions and conclusions through rational models. Sociology does, also. The most primitive forms of statistics and social models are in daily use. We can model large scale social behaviour, even when our subjects are active, involved and intelligent. And what’s more; we can do it with economics. Because economics, above all, is the quantification of society, our way of counting the uncountable.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Putting the World Into Equation

It may be propaganda, but I have to post this because it's extraordinary. It's the soul of the web and the strength of the mind; the product of a modern will. They may be famous, but it's talent and skill that gives it credibility. Here they're all just voices, no more or less than Lessig (for example). He just wants to say something, and would otherwise have no particular means to do so.

Karl Rove tell us the web changes politics because it opens up new and quicker channels to source donations. But that idea just grows his incredible infamy, and leaves a taste of sickness in our mouths: because we know the real reason the web changes political. It gives us ways to talk about it; clearer and sharper and stronger than before. We start to break free from the horrible minimalism of television journalism, the constriction of complex concepts to misconstrued simplifications.

The web breeds rationality because, at the very least, we understand better why we make crazy decisions. We can take delight in contradiction. We can watch the video and say that general rhetoric and oration are the very cheapest of tools of the politician. But we can point to Lessig and say that the president is a symbol. The president says something about the people of America--and the people of America have something they want to say.

Lastly, we can listen and laugh, as they say on the TV, that "Obama inspires young people": and call that the dieing rasps from the self-strangled throat that for so long filtered meaning; that which we brought to life by our now forgotten need to convince ourselves of a limit to our reasoning.

And yet, this is all contradiction fundamentally, isn't it? Can Will.I.Am do any more than highlight the genericness of Obama's rhetoric? Are we not replacing a society that is complexity-deluded with one that is meaning-deluded? Is the web not full of the most words with the least information, a tide of amateurish thought? Who is Will.I.Am to put forward an opinion on politicians, anyway? Doesn't he say on his site that he isn't interested in politics, and doesn't he suggest he was dragged into supporting the Kerry campaign? Isn't he the perfect model of the web author who believes his opinion counts, and perhaps sees it's impact caused, but is least qualified to fill our hearts and minds? The danger of voice is the propensity to use it.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Intangible celebrity

This is very good:

Lessig is a lawyer who is well know and respected on the internet and has, for a long time, been at the forefront of technology law and the modern outlook on intellectual property. In the video, he talks about Obama and Clinton and why, as it seems to me, that he shares a certain scene of solidarity with Obama.

Lessig talks about Obama being an inspirational leader, and being a leader in the traditional sense: as someone who shows us the moral and ethical path. I've always wandered what it would be like if there were a political leader like that in Australia. But, our Westminister-style of government doesn't really allow for that kind of leader to rise to the position of Prime Minister. Instead, to get to PM, a politician needs practical "survival" skills, you could say. Either political wit and guile, like John Howard or Paul Keating, or knowledge and education, like the "bookish" Kevin Rudd, or an exceptional practical talent, like the treasurer Peter Costello. You can't just engage with people and become prime minister, you can just have a brilliant vision or approach. Hmm... I've been meaning to write a rambling piece on, in part, the executive branch of government. Maybe soon.

California Done By the British

Will the economic situation in the US effect the Australian games development industry? Well, I guess we generally expect it to do so, but how much, exactly? I’ll use my modest understanding of economics to make some guesses and some analysis.

Of particular interest in the local development industry are the US:AUD and GBP:AUD exchange rates, for obvious reasons. Almost all Australian development is funded by investment from overseas, and the product is sold on international markets (predominantly to the classically highly consuming Americans), which means that both the initial investment and the returns on that investment are in foreign currencies. This is related to the developer/publisher model of the industry. Though the developer is responsible for the majority of the “intangible” elements of our newly intangible economy, though the abilities of the developer are what makes the difference between a successful and unsuccessful product (at least, in our idealised imaginings), the developer is still generally just a client of the publisher. As such, developers are subject to only being paid in the currency of the publisher, and so suffer on the whim of exchange rates.

The Australian dollar has been appreciating recently, of course. Just a few months ago the dollar was at it’s record of 92 US cents, up from less than 60 US cents just five years ago. To quickly put this in context, let’s imagine a project that might have been budgeted about one year ago for a US publisher wanting to pay a moderate 5 million US. Let’s imagine that 75% of the budget is in the form of milestones, of which there are 12, paid out every 2 months. So, each milestone payment is around USD$312,000. At the start of 2007, when the dollar was at the higher end of a trend that had lasted for a few years, that equates to about AUD$400,000. Today, at just over 90 cents to the US dollar, that’s AUD$346,000, about 15% lower. So, it’s not necessarily catastrophic, but over the course of just one year, it’s the equivalent of several years of strong growth. Over the past year, we’ve also seen a similarly dramatic appreciation against the pound, and so we see the same pressures from both of our two major sources of funding.

Note, however, that this isn’t a flat out 15% reduction in overall funding for the project. Milestone payments are paid out gradually over time, and subject to the exchange rate at that time. There are even financial tricks to makes sure the payments go through when the AUD is weakest. Given that our project cycles are 2 to 3 years, one project can see extreme appreciation or depreciation, and as a result the exchange rate is one of the key factors in success of lack of success of our local industry.

So will the dollar continue to appreciate? I’m no expert, and I’m somewhat out of touch, but there seem to be at least some continuing pressure for the Australia dollar to appreciate. In particular, the extraordinary interest rate cuts in the US, and the almost as extraordinary interest rate hikes in Australia have produced (and may continue to produce) a particularly significant variation in the economic situation between our two nations. The higher relative domestic interest rate is likely to naturally attract more foreign investment here, pushing the exchange rate up further. Note that this extra investment doesn’t have an affect on our industry, because our returns are always from global markets, anyway.

It will be interesting to see the impact that the new government has on exchange rates, also, after the poorly valued dollar of the middle Howard and Costello years. The primary economic goal of our new treasurer appears to be a reduction in inflation. This, presumedly, might bring a rise in unemployment, and it would seem logical that it might also cause appreciation pressures. After all, a less inflated dollar should naturally be a more valuable dollar, and a low inflation economy is likely to import less from a high inflation economy--however, economies don’t always work logically.

Apparently, the reason the Australian economy can support interest rate changes in the opposite direction from the US Federal Bank is due to growing shift to a more Asian-focused economy. This may even allow us to avoid following the US into a recession. But how would it affect our industry if the US, and perhaps Britain, were in recession, and Australia was not?

Well, if the US were in recession, you would naturally expect 3 things: US publishers would be less willing to make risky investments, particularly of the long term kind; US consumption of entertainment media would go down (though, from memory, this hasn’t occurred in past recessions); and, US developers would pitch at lower prices.

The first two have fairly obvious negative consequences (particularly when you consider that Australia developers are seen as, if anything, risky investments), but it is the third that is perhaps the most devastating. The reason for this is also the cause behind the domestic industry’s critical focus on economics, in general. For any developer, or group of developers, to survive in the worldwide market, they need to have some competitive advantage. For a long time, the key competitive advantage of Australia developers has been cost. It has been cheaper to make medium sized games down under than anywhere else in the world, without a drop in quality quite so extreme as that associated with India or eastern Europe. In other words, publishers don’t come to Australia for a product they can’t get elsewhere; they come for the same product, just cheaper. So if our projects are sold on the merits of their price, the possibility of our costs increasing while US costs are decreasing squeezes out our advantage. It should be noted, also, that readjustment of costs doesn’t actually need to occur for us to loose ground--it only has to be expected to occur. As long as publishers expect that at some time over the next 2 or 3 years, Australian costs will go up and US costs will go down, they become more attracted to the less risky prospects in the heartland of game development in the US.

Many Australia industries must have to deal with the same kinds of pressures, I guess. However, many of our export industries have a clear course of action in response. That is, they can change their focus to the growing Chinese and Korean economies. However, this is not a reasonable solution for us. For Asian economies to work for us, we would need to sell product there--it doesn’t matter if the publisher is Chinese or American or British. However, it’s unreasonable to expect that would be able to produce games that have any great credibility in a Korean or Chinese market which, like the Japanese, traditionally reject western entertainment media in preference for their own (furthermore, there is a hesitation associated with the widely accepted perception of IP-lawlessness in some regions). Though Australia is geographically close, and in some ways feeling more Asian as every year goes on, we’re still fundamentally western; if perhaps to our great detriment.

On a side note, perhaps this phenomenon may help put some weight behind the growing industry in Singapore, however.

So, the exchange rate, and the economic situation in the US are of particular interest and focus to Australia game developers. US politics, also, can play a roll. For example, 2008 is an election year, and it looks like many Americans are going to be particularly anxious about this one. Consider if there’s one candidate, later on in the year, that comes to be considered an “unsafe bet” in regards to the economy. Think of McCain’s recent admission that he knew little about economics, or Obama’s relative inexperience. I don’t know how the US election is going to turn out, but it seems like economic will be a major issue, and an election like that can cause publishers to hold off on new investments around for a time, which can have run on effects down here. Generally, we’re bound to the temporal boldness of the American publishers, even if there is no direct local economic effect.

So what happens when the exchange rate is out of our favour? Well, one answer is to say we need to tighten our collective belts. Another is to realise that different solutions can start to look more economical. For example, it can become more economical to use more foreign outsourcing and middleware components. That is, more economical, but not necessarily cheaper. This is the case for middleware, because many major middleware companies are in the US or Britain, and they can be paid directly by the publisher, without any currency exchange. It also holds true for art outsourcing, audio outsourcing, QA, contracting off site programmers, and other similar arrangements.

The common effect of all of these things is they reduce the amount of any given game’s budget that is being spent in Australia. While this may get the game done quicker, it also shrinks the size of the Australia industry, just as effective as reducing the number of projects. Furthermore, we can see this is as a big barrier of entry for any Australia middleware companies, particularly since publishers are used to paying for middleware in their own currencies. There may be an angle here, however, as while there are no Australian publishers to buy Australian middleware, selling middleware to Asian companies has been met with some moderate success.

So, what can we do to avoid impending disaster if things get worse? Well, I hate to say it, but no-one should be particularly surprised to find publishers becoming even more risk adverse. This presents opportunities in itself, given that a project idea that is particularly risk-free is a competitive advantage. It will be interesting to see if this turns out to be an advantage for Nintendo; given that their business model seems apparently significantly lower risk. That is, Nintendo can claim many quarters of profit, with few exceptions, and the games market appears to be less hit-focused. That is, a higher percentage of games are successful, though a lower percentage of games are extremely successful (I haven’t got access to the research figures to back this up, though). Furthermore, Nintendo’s very short hardware life-cycle and the very minor evolution of components we might expect from Nintendo in the future (as demonstrated by the step from Gamecube to Wii) are inherently less risky. To contrast, each hardware generation from Sony and Microsoft throws the entire industry into an extended period of uncertainty and risk (for both hardware and software companies)--it’s something we’ve come to expect and live with, but it can still be scary if you’re money is riding on the back of the success of one of the two. Lastly, and critically, Nintendo don’t have a direct competitor. They’re blessed with a market all of their own, and don’t currently run the risk of becoming marginalised by an upstart.

It seems unlikely that Australia would be able to gain a cost advantage on a level playing field, due to the economies of scale that are enjoyed in the core development areas. However, perhaps breaking free of the low-cost mould might allow an Australia developer the opportunities to market itself based on something else--perhaps appeal to a niche market, a unique approach or style. And yet, that’s just fashion--right? That’s where everyone wants to be.

So; the exchange rate and economic and political health of the US and Britain are of vital importance to any member of the Australia games development community. As long as we don’t have a domestically owned and funded publisher, we’re bound to the whim of overseas interests. Over time, this plays a large part in determining the periods of growth and contraction we see domestically. Eventually, we’re drawn back to the question of: what is it that’s unique about being an Australian game developer? What can we do here, that can’t be done elsewhere? And, from there, inevitably we’re draw to the even less answerable question: what’s so unique about being Australian, anyway?

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Scacchic Sages; or the King is Greatly Discommoded

While working with the the Android API, I've found that it's impossible not to wonder where Google is going with this, even if only for a moment. Generally we expect that Google's major projects are focused on one of two goals: to organize the world's information, and to facilitate advertising on the web. Generally their major web apps, research projects and acquisitions fall into one of these two categories, if sometimes, a little loosely. However, Android appears to be not only Google's biggest new initiative; but also the one that falls least clearly into Google's general business goals.

In the past, we've seen large companies make what appeared to be giant leaps sideways, but in hindsight now appear to be nothing but brilliant innovative leaps. Apple's ipod is a clear example, and a particularly relevant example--here Apple revived their core business by heading off in what originally seemed to be a completely unrelated direction. Now, however, the ipod is so caught up in the identity of Apple, it's hard to imagine a mac computer without it's little consumerist side-kick. Now, Steve Jobs can confidently refer to the music industry and music retail as part of Apple's traditional business domain. Could it be, that in five years time, we'll see Google and Android is the same way?

About half a year ago, now, Google acquired a company called PeakStream. They were working on an API and virtual machine that is designed around a steam processing model for massively parallel processing. There's some diagrams here. Now this feels like very familiar territory for me, because, as it turns out, the games industry is somewhat in-front of the field in this regard. In the PS3 and XBOX 360, we've already been forced to turn to various forms of stream processing technique in order to get peak performance out of the hardware. In a way, we've seen in the industry a bit of a regression to an older style of hardware, characterized by the term "NUMA", something that's I've come to associate with the very oldest Cray supercomputers.

Just as Cray gained a competitive advantage by levering the possibilities of NUMA, so to does the PS3 (at least, potentially), and so to will other performance maximizing sectors. Generally we've seen processors move away from this architecture because it's considerably more difficult to program; or, perhaps more accurately, it required use of considerably more advanced techniques and methods. And yet, as computer science evolves, those advanced methods become easier and easier to grasp, and the advantages of NUMA massively parallel architectures become of more general benefit.

PeakStream, I imagine, is trying to capitalize on that concept. But the thing that catches my attention, right now, is two key words: virtual machine. Something there rings a bell, because we know that Google is working on their own virtual machine. It's a key competitive advantage to Android, in fact--it's what can potentially set Android phones apart from traditional Java supporting phones. That is, Google's "branched" Java VM, called Dalvik. Dalvik supports a lot of the Java bytecode, but has certain performance advantages. Those advantages are curious hardware-focused (as opposed to being algorithmic advances): in particular, Dalvik is register based, and it allows for sharing of some system memory components.

So; I can't help but wonder if there's a cross-over here, somewhere. Dalvik with PeakStream, Android for NUMA architectures? NUMA architectures (that's a bit like saying "ATM machine", btw...) tend to be great for getting very high levels of theoretical performance out of relatively few transistors, as well as being particularly scalable. There seems to be very little information about Android hardware about, though I've come across some rumours to the effect that we may be seeing some new processors that execute Dalvik bytecode directly. We might expect, though, that at least the first generation of devices will be ARM or XScale based. As far as I know, there are no massively parallel versions of these on the horizon... But, you never know. At the very least, ARM seem to have a multi-core version of their Cortex processor.

Perhaps, one day, we'll see a phone with a low end Cell chip in it. That's what I'm waiting for.