The content on this blog is my personal opinion and does not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Navy in any way.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Looking for Accurate Polls

One of the common complaints we see about politics and especially political coverage nowadays is the charge that people or ideas are being unfairly ignored - particularly that we don't have a good idea which opinions are actually widespread and which aren't.

Both sides have an irritating tendency to argue that the more extreme opinions associated with their side are actually rare (and being overemphasized by their opponents) and that the extreme opinions associated with the other side are actually common (and being downplayed by their opponents). Theoretically, one of the ways we're supposed to get a more precise idea about the level of support for certain ideas (and people) is by asking about those ideas in a systematic fashion - or polling. Realistically, the polls themselves become a point of contention, with both sides arguing about how accurate or relevant they are, and so having polls to talk about tends to change the shape of the argument rather than actually allowing one side or the other to win.

The data we get from polls is still a very useful thing to have, though. Since one of my favorite news organizations put out an article a week or so ago about proper use of polls, I figure now is as good a time as any to talk about it.

That article has a lot of good advice in it about what useful conclusions we can and can't make based on polling data, but it is strongly focused on presidential primary polls, and there's one mistake with polling in general that I'd like to talk about in more detail. Specifically, that would be jumping to conclusions based on data which in reality is a bit more nuanced. This is another (rare) moment where I legitimately can argue that both sides tend to fall short. 

A lot of the left-leaning people I know don't always look past the top-line numbers to ask about how the questions were asked or other factors that affect the survey. There's a lot of polling data out there which legitimately indicates that some liberal policies are popular, but if those policies are misunderstood or voters don't count those issues as their top priority, then that doesn't necessarily translate into popularity for liberal politicians themselves. 

The right-leaning people I know, on the other hand, tend to discard a lot of polls entirely because they don't see how the data could possibly be accurate given what they see from their other sources of information. They give too much weight to the various sources of error and fail to realize that it is possible to compensate for them or compare these polls to their past performance to check them. Alternately, they don't apply the same suspicion to their other sources of information, many of which are less reliable than a properly conducted poll.

In both cases, there's a legitimate argument being made, focusing either on what makes the results reliable or on the sources of potential error. However, there's also a failure to look at possible counterarguments or alternate explanations, and accurately figuring out what's going on in the world requires avoiding that as best as possible.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Moderation and Enthusiasm

It's become quite normal to watch the Democrats agonizing over what the right path to victory in the next presidential election is - and then agonizing about whether the level of agony on the topic is appropriate, because of course we have to keep going deeper. The latest example of this was a New York Times editorial written by Thomas Friedman about why what he saw in the first presidential debate makes him think President Trump will be re-elected. Both it and some of the responses to it were interesting reads, even if I find the whole debate kind of tiresome.

So, which side of the debate do I think is right? The answer to that question is that it's complicated - there were some things Friedman said which made a lot of sense to me, and several things he said which seemed obviously wrong.

The biggest entry in the latter category is the notion that nominating a moderate candidate who spends all of their time talking about moderate ideas will actually help give the Democrats less of a reputation for extreme ideas among their opponents. I don't think that's likely; I think even if the "squad" completely vanished from public life tomorrow along with half of the presidential candidates, the Republican media will simply find something else (whether or not it's actually relevant or significant) to use as an example of extremism.

The ideas Friedman talks about in the latter half of his editorial are quite instructive. Democrats that focus on building up small businesses and the economy may be moderate by his definition, but I'm willing to bet that the sort of regulations and investment he describes will still be dismissed as socialism by most Republicans. If nothing else, such Democrats will simply be accused of laying the groundwork to pursue their true intentions later. So I don't really hold the more progressive Democrats responsible for making the party appear more extreme. It may be slightly easier for the other side to make that argument with them around, but telling them to take a hike isn't going to protect us enough to be worth it. I'd rather have the energy and new ideas they bring, even if many of those ideas are things I disagree with.

What makes it complicated is the balancing act between kicking people out for being too extreme and letting those people dominate the entire conversation. The above explains why I don't want to do the former, but it also means we can't use that particular tool to prevent the latter from happening, and most other means for doing so are not particularly effective. I would like to suggest that the moderate wing should be more vocal and enthusiastic about their ideas, but it turns out they're not quite as good at that as the progressive wing is.

Then again, the fact that articles like Friedman's are so common is its own argument that the moderate wing is having their say, even if we are spending plenty of time discussing the progressive wing's ideas (and defending them from unjustifiable attacks). Which is why I opened this by saying I find this debate tiresome... I actually don't think there's much to be worried about in either direction, even if I know that we're going to continue to go back and forth about some of the exact details.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Game review: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Amusingly, some of the reviews I read for this game on Steam were complaining that it wasn't worth the hype - that it was a fairly standard metroidvania game with all the same features we remember from Castlevania games of old. Of course, the Castlevania games are awesome, so I really don't know why those people were treating this as a problem. (Admittedly, those were a small percentage of the total.)

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is the newest game made by one of the developers of previous Castlevania games (Koji Igarashi) and it is just as good as all of us were hoping for as far as I'm concerned.

One of the first things that struck me about the game was its complexity. There are a lot of different types of weapons, each with its own attack range and special techniques, and the player will run across four or five different types in the first thirty minutes or so. There are crafting systems not just for gear, but for food and other types of crafting ingredients. Just about every enemy in the game has a rare drop that gives the main character different magical abilities, so you have to manage collecting and upgrading those as well... Certainly a lot of it can be safely ignored, but then you'll be slightly less powerful if you don't take the time to do at least some of it.

The graphics are quite good, in general, although some of the models seem a bit off (the main character's scarf or hair jumping around in weird ways in particular). The game does use the same models for conversation and cutscenes as it does for normal gameplay, as far as I can tell. So if you modify the main character's appearance or wear a particular accessory, you'll still see it in the cutscenes, which is a nice touch.

Exploring the castle also works fairly well, with only one or two minor issues where it wasn't clear where I was supposed to look next. Admittedly, those one or two moments were quite frustrating (it's not common for random common enemies to drop critical movement techniques), but overall it wasn't that hard for me to remember what I had and hadn't seen and where I could try using some of the new techniques I'd found. Trying to stay alive in the process was a bit unexpectedly difficult on several occasions, and the solution I settled on feels a bit cheap (i.e. relying a bit too much on ranged magic attacks), but still doable with a little practice.

Overall, I think the complex extras and challenging combat will turn some people off, but I still highly recommend this one even if you are worried about those issues. It's awesome enough in story, exploration, and creative options to make up for those two traits, and even that is assuming one has a problem with those traits. Since I don't, I think it's just all-around spectacular.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Infrastructure Predicament

Explaining how I found the article which inspired this blog post may take a little more time than usual, but since I now have two posts that came about this way, I'll take a moment for it.

Over the past few months, one of the blogs I follow has been doing a series on Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead. (I found this blog during its previous series on Atlas Shrugged, and honestly the book review posts are the only ones I regularly read on it.) The whole thing is an excellent catalog of the major flaws in Rand's philosophy, but there's also been a few side points on architecture and urban development, since a lot of the book is supposed to be about the genius of the architect main character. That has spun off into points about construction, building design, and urban design on more than one occasion.

In this particular case, one of the posts starts off by talking about the impending collapse which the heroes are worried about, then asks where that collapse actually might come from in real life. It links to an interesting article whose main point is quite simple: Our suburbs simply don't make enough money to pay for themselves, and the cost of trying to maintain them is causing financial problems that we don't have any good way to fix.

Interestingly, it doesn't try to argue that the government should just abandon those costs and privatize (the typical conservative or libertarian response) nor does it argue that the solution lies in taxing people more (the typical liberal response). It's a bit closer to the former than the latter, since what they do argue is that the whole system benefits more from a large number of smaller local projects than from huge federal projects. Even then, though, they still clearly believe that government has a role in encouraging the right projects and setting rules and regulations that will help.

Unfortunately, they also seem to believe there may be nothing that can save all of our suburbs, and that a lot of them are doomed to slowly waste away. They're well aware of the pain that will cause for a lot of the people currently living in those places, but don't believe there's much that can be done without making the long term problem worse than it already is.

The whole site is interesting, although I haven't had time to go over it in that much detail. There are some points I think I disagree with, but overall I think there are some very good points in there about how we should be designing our cities and what we should be spending our infrastructure budget on.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Game review: Baba is You

It's been a while since I played a puzzle game this ridiculously absurd and difficult. I'm a bit surprised I liked it, since I don't normally like stuff that requires tons of lateral thinking, but I did enjoy it quite a bit.

At its core, Baba is You is just about getting your character to the goal in each level, with various objects in the environment that you have to use or bypass in order to reach the goal. The catch that makes this game unique, though, is that the rules which define what all of the object in the level do are also present as blocks of text you can manipulate. Walls that block your path can be completely ignored if you change the rule that makes them solid, an easy-to-reach object can be made into the goal if the original one is out of reach, or you can even change which object on the map is under the player's control.

The first few levels are simple enough, requiring only minor manipulations. It gets harder fast, though; by the second world or so you'll be making all sorts of absurd changes to the world around you in order to even have a chance at victory. It's hilarious and maddening all at once.

One of the things I liked a lot is that the difficulty does ramp upwards rather smoothly. A lot of the tricks you need for later levels are logical extensions of the things you're doing earlier, and while the game doesn't go out of its way to highlight them, it also tends to give you one new extension at a time. Each world has its own unique concept it tends to focus on, so success in the first few levels of a world tends to make the rest easier. It still gets very difficult quickly, but it could have been much worse if the levels had been in even a slightly different order.

I highly recommend this game if you like puzzle games, although that does come with a warning that it's not for someone who is easily frustrated.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Density and Housing

I ran across an interesting New York Times article last week about housing and affordability in California. I doubt many people would disagree that California has a couple of interesting problems with their cost of living, but that's not going to stop us from disagreeing about what's causing the problem, and this particular article highlights what I believe is the primary cause.

Specifically, it talks about the various ways in which zoning and usage restrictions are driving costs up and pushing people out. The proponents of such rules probably aren't trying to make a point of the latter, nor do I think the environmental concerns that are routinely mocked by the right wing are necessarily the point (or the major cause of these problems) either. Frankly, I think it's just NIMBYism - many people just don't want to live in high-density areas, and so will take steps to prevent their areas from becoming high-density. I don't understand it myself, since I've always liked living in higher density areas (better mass transit, more services close by

If it were just a matter of people choosing to live in areas they preferred (and moving if the area no longer suited them), I would have much less of a problem with that. Unfortunately, as the NYT article points out, what's actually happening looks a lot more like people blocking everyone else from living in a particular area unless their preferences exactly match the existing groups'. There's a line there between properly advocating for oneself and unjustly interfering with others, and a lot of the strongest opposition is on the wrong side of it.

This article also led me to some interesting questions about how zoning is different in various areas, and why some of the places I've lived in other countries don't seem to have this problem. Luckily, I was able to find some interesting (albeit perhaps overly detailed) articles about zoning in North America versus Japan. It's a fascinating look into how government decisions that most of us neither know nor care about have massive effects on multiple parts of our society and economy. I still need to find someone who actually likes North America's zoning and have a chance to see a defense of the idea before I can say I'm completely convinced, but articles like these still reinforce my belief that there's some things about our society that we need to fix.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Banning Abortion

I'm not sure how much I can say about abortion that I haven't said before, but with the new bans coming out in Alabama and Georgia, I guess it's time to talk about it again.

The one detail that I'm going to focus on this time is the various unintended (or possibly intentional) consequences of fetal personhood. There are a few entertaining comments that have gone around social media (such as asking when child support starts or asking when one can claim an extra dependent on their taxes), but there are also some very serious concerns about what this means for murder or manslaughter laws.

Interestingly, I've seen some conservatives explicitly dismiss those concerns, arguing that people won't be punished for unintentionally harming their fetus because the bills define abortion strictly enough to prevent that. Honestly, I think that's complete nonsense; we already have women being charged with crimes and thrown in jail for miscarriages as it is. This sort of change just adds more circumstances under which that outcome is possible, not less.

And while the question about unlawfully imprisoning a fetus (for example, because the pregnant mother is in jail) seems like a joke, there are more serious questions to ask about what sort of support the state needs to provide to a fetus that ends up under its care. Some of those consequences could even be good, if they force prisons and shelters to provide better care for pregnant women... but some could be dangerously restrictive, if they give the state the right to make all decisions about how to manage the pregnancy.

In the end, it all seems like yet another example of these laws not clearly thinking through the consequences, or how to actually reduce the number of abortions.