Tuesday, June 30, 2009

conceptual consumption: why interdisciplinary work in econ can be so insightful

An interesting paper in the newest edition of Annual Review of Psychology titled "Conceptual Consumption" by Dan Ariely and Michael Norton:

The paper examines what goods we "consume", and how we choose between different goods (conceptual vs. physical). One interesting identification is of social utility with conceptual utility, and how these ideas may be applied to virtual worlds.

Citing Schelling (1984) as one motivation for describing the mind as a "consuming organ" the paper explores such interesting questions as "mental simulation of events, past and future" when deciding to eat a cookie. A very interesting read!

Monday, June 29, 2009

imagine this (first in a series...?)

I found this (from BoingBoing) so unbelievably charming that I just have to share it here. And, if someone wants to question its relevance to anything, I'll defend it by saying 1., it's a perfect example of "imagining history" and 2., it reminds me of the surreal scene in Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore where Nakata pulls out an umbrella in the middle of a parking lot and fish start raining from the sky.

"Rains of Fishes" by E. W. Gudger, from the November-December 1921 edition of Natural History


Friday, June 26, 2009

review of henry hatsworth in the puzzling adventure (ds)

I do not feel I am at complete liberty to review Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure (hereafter "HH") for the Nintendo DS since I haven't beat it (yet), but since I'm at the final boss and I have invested a fair amount of time into it, I feel confident I can provide a fair, honest review. So, I consider this a distraction, for me, from what has been a very difficult game and what is an extremely difficult boss battle.

HH utilizes the DS's split screen in an innovative way. On the top screen, you control Henry, a well-dressed British man who looks like he's ready to go on a wild safari. He has a melee weapon (a sword) and a basic projectile weapon (either a plasma gun or bombs or a boomerang). Your task as Henry is to battle your way through hoardes of different enemies on 5 worlds, averaging 5 or 6 levels per world. The level design is basic in its idea: it's a standard platformer, so you have your fair share of perilous jumps, nerve-wracking spike pits, moving platforms, balloons to bounce on, and of course a few underwater levels. As the game progresses, these levels get longer and more difficult, both in terms of the platforming and the enemies you must defeat. Check out some beautiful pictures of the levels and enemies you face here: http://www.offworld.com/hatsworth-environments.html and here: http://www.offworld.com/hatsworth-enemies.html.

If that was all the game offered, the game would get dull rather quickly. Aside from (as you can tell) the beautiful artwork in the game, there would not be any real depth to the game, and since the game gets quite challenging later on, it would easily turn people off. In fact, that is exactly what was happening to me throughout the first 2 worlds. My view of the game began to change once I reached the boss of the 2nd world, a character named Banson whose theme song you can hear here: banson's aria: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuDyaC8l0B4. It was the soundtrack that really started to get me into the game, and Banson's theme song is simply charming: very original and funny. If you like what you hear, you can actually download the entire OST from the Henry Hatsworth website: henry ost, download here: http://www.henryhatsworth.com/en_us/home.action.

So, this was really what got me interested in the game, since up until that point the game was getting pretty dull. The soundtrack really charmed me and that motivated me to continue. As I progressed, the challenge picked up and this challenge was supplemented by thegameplay in the bottom screen.

So, the top screen of the DS is the platformer. The bottom screen is a simple block puzzle (line up three of the same color in a row to dissolve them, giving you some "puzzle power") that interacts with the top screen in some interesting ways. First, you can use the puzzle to boost your projectiles: shoot a projectile and before it hits the enemy, switch to the puzzle screen, line up a few blocks, then switch back to the platform screen. This is really handy as you progress through the game and you face some very tough showdowns. Second, you use the puzzle to activate platforms in the top screen, allowing you to progress further in the level. Finally, if you solve quickly enough and build up "puzzle energy", you can eventually unlock "Tea Time", where Henry jumps into a giant robot to give you a temporary boost in power, which is perfect for taking out large groups of enemies. For a nice example of the gameplay you will experience, see the 1st boss battle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSOmMDGhv9I

You'll notice the voices are done strangely, in a way that reminds me of Okami (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sh-HDrLS_do) but, just as it was with Okami, the unique voices add to the game in a positive way.

This game has not developed a large fan base, but there is definitely a "cult" feel to its style. People who like it end up loving it, while people who don't like it will probably end up hating it. In general, I found it to be refreshing. Mostly, my feelings are due to the unique artwork, comic aspects, and the challenge the game offered. Few games today will really challenge the gamer's aptitude at solving problems. Part of this is due to the widening window of gamer tastes which many developers aim for (videogames are increasingly seen as something everyone should be able to do and want to do), while part of it has to do with some systemic aspect of videogame design that I really can't put my finger on.

The closest I can get is by arguing that games have largely traded in 1. a solid, holistic experience where games can be completed 100% relatively easily in terms of time but less easily in terms of problems, puzzles, etc. for 2. a more open experience where the task of completing a game 100% mainly becomes a question of whether one can devote 100, 150 hours to a game without losing interest. It becomes less about intellectual aptitude and more about whether you have the time to devote to a strategy that is relatively straightforward.

(The following is a digression/rant, however it is mildly related to the review so I won't make a separate post about it. It's related to the review because HH is a modern game which retains the flavor of the "old style" of videogame in its difficulty. In case you care not to read on, I'll attach the other two links I wish to share regarding HH then move on to my digression.)

HH on twitter (demonstrating the "cult" aspect of the game) http://twitter.com/henryhatsworth/

Consider the top games of 5-10 or so years ago

Final Fantasy 6, 7, 8, 9
Kingdom Hearts
Gran Turismo 1, 2
Spyro the Dragon
Mario series
Zelda series

One defining characteristic of games like these (I definitely left some out...) is that they were all extremely well-designed games overall (story, music, gameplay), but they were also short enough that you could complete them 100% in anywhere from 40-70 hours. You could literally enjoy all aspects of the game in this time span. And, the games weren't that "easy" -- sure, games like Final Fantasy 7 weren't challenging, but the game challenged you in a lot of other ways (finding secrets, story, varying class setups, for three examples).

Consider some newer games:

Final Fantasy 10, 12
Super Mario Galaxy
Super Smash Bros. Brawl
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Advance 2

These games certainly have elements of strategy to them, but combined with that is the sheer vastness of the worlds. Super Smash Bros. Brawl would take over 100 hours to unlock all the trophies in the game, and this has been proven. Super Mario Galaxy similarly takes a drastic amount of hours to complete, and while a few of the levels offer a real challenge, mostly it is a matter of ploughing through level after level of platforming madness. Finally, Final Fantasy 12 in particular has been singled out as truly monstrous (mostly in terms of the Hunts you must complete to get all of the best weapons and items). It was modeled on a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), so I guess it is to be expected, but this fact does not detract from the fundamental fact that it is a console game.

I could go on about these videogames, but I think the point is clear enough: games offering a unique, "completable" but challenging experience nowadays are rare, but HH fills in this gap and I appreciate it for that fact. It ranks up there with Zelda: Twilight Princess and Okami as a quality "new generation" title in my book.

transcending methodological allegiances, or alternatively titled, the progressive view of science

The field of economics is often derided for the precarious place it occupies in the social sciences. On the one hand, it prides itself in being a hard science in terms of the value it places in mathematical formalization and statistical technique. On the other hand, two highly able economists can still disagree about fundamental issues of policy, theory, or even empirics. Some disagreements arise due to the political persuasion of the economists, for example the debates between Krugman and some of his conservative colleagues in the blogosphere including Greg Mankiw and Judge Richard Posner. Some agreements arise from more ideological roots. For example, an overdeterminist such as Richard Wolff may disagree with Ben Bernanke on the effectiveness of monetary policy. The claim is made that in the other sciences, especially the hard sciences, these types of fundamental disagreements don't exist: to be a practicing physicist or chemist, you won't run into colleagues who disagree with issues central to their practice.

I'm unsympathetic to these claims because I think disagreements within a field are very important to working out the details of both sides of the debate. And, in the process we may find that there is more than one way to approach a problem: this is hardly a "stunning blow" to science since scientific fields thrive on creative energy. This is not to say there is no "right answer" ever; rather, the right answer is usually elusive enough that we will fail to resolve debates if we rely on ideological or political or other allegiances alone.

Given this, it is great to see articles like the one below, found via 3 Quarks Daily, which is a review of a book on psychiatry, and how practitioners in this field disagree on a very basic level about the nature of mental illness and how to solve it:

Enjoy the review and post comments if you'd like to share your views!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

whose weapon?

A short piece titled "Weaponized Keynesianism" by Paul Krugman, from his blog:

I'm unsure how relevant the term "weaponized Keynesianism" is to analysis of current politics in Washington. Both the right and the left equally take part in cutting up Keynes' General Theory and other writings into the part that fits its ideology. Keynes wrote the General Theory under the explicit premise (made throughout the book, two examples of which I believe can be found in Chapter 12 on long run expectations and also Chapter 22 on Trade Cycles) that private investment was inherently volatile to the point that full state control of capital is required to regulate the business cycle in a socially optimal manner. However, few Democrats in Congress argued for nationalization of banks. What we got instead was the stimulus package, TARP, TARP 2, and PPIP, the last one in particular being the "big policy move" that essentially creates a partnership, a "middle path" between private investors and the government in order to get credit markets back to the status quo (apparently under the assumption that the status quo is desirable).

If we want to talk about "weaponized Keynesianism", then let's talk about what has been weaponized ever since the General Theory appeared in print (see, e.g., Leontief's review of the book in the Nov. 1936 QJE): reframing a radical theory in the most conservative terms possible by, for example, placing the short run dynamics of Keynes' theory against a backdrop that is remarkably similar to the classical model which Keynes himself rejects in Chapter 2.

Of course, I am fully aware that I am speaking of the theory itself, along with its implications. I am not speaking of or defending the man: it was Keynes after all who said "the class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

arguing about videogames

I normally wouldn't post such seemingly-mundane things as top-10 lists on this blog. Each day, gamefaqs.com posts a top-10 list submitted by members of the gamefaqs community. Most of them are highly opinionated and therefore not worth much attention. For example, a list of "top 10" RPGs ends up coming from some niche: maybe a devoted Final Fantasy VII fan, or a console RPG purist, or a WoW addict, etc. This one, however, is genuinely unique: "Top 10 Blockbuster games that split opinions" looks at some of the most popular games and outlines the debates surrounding them. Since all of these games have a huge fanbase, it is very interesting to read how people have criticized them over the years.

Some highlights include games that have been mentioned before on this blog: the MGS series, Kingdom Hearts series, and The Legend of Zelda. A surprise (mostly because I had forgotten about it) is Chrono Cross.

I encourage you to check out the reviews of any of these games on the site and read some of the arguments in more depth.

Monday, June 22, 2009

one of the best paragraphs i've read in a while

From Tomlins, Law, Labor, and Ideology in the Early American Republic:

"Although traces of the hierarchical communitarian society exalted in some previous opinions yet remained, Thacher's charge [for the criminalization of conspiracies formed by workers] demonstrates how far, by the early 1830's, American common law had come toward incorporating the economic liberalism of classical political economy. It is crucial to note, however, that economic liberalism had blended with, it had not displaced, the elite republicanism characteristic of common law discourse in its earlier, Federalist, incarnation. As I have already argued at some length, market society had a vital interest in safety. A free market was the means through which the nineteenth century's transactional ideal might best be realized in social and economic life, and for this reason its maintenance should be an important object of policy. But it was law, not the market, which was constitutive of civil society. This of course gave Thacher an additional reason for condemning combinations: Not merely did their attempts to impose their own private regulations on others offend against the economic laws of the marketplace by interfering with the free interaction of private interests, they also posed a major threat to the law and its monopoly of legitimate coercion by assuming to exercise powers that none but the juridical structures built to sustain republican society could legitimately possess. One may, in short, acknowledge the considerable and growing correspondence between those structures and the competitive, capitalist society springing up in their midst, but still one must also appreciate that when judges like Thacher, and like his New York contemporary Ogden Edwards, condemned labor combinations, they did so not as the willing agents of employers but as ideologues committed to a particular conception of the role of law in republican society. Theirs, we have seen, was a republic constituted by the legitimate coercive power of an Anglocentric common law. They pursued labor conspiracies with particular intensity because in their minds that common law vision was at stake, and thus the commonwealth itself."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

a lesson in defining the spheres of market and society and why they ought to be separate: a reconsideration of the tragedy of the commons

Found via the blog Arts and Letters Daily: Bernard Bailey, "The Invisible Hand of Population Control"

I'm pretty sure which implication is worse, the original point of Hardin's article (population control through eugenicide), although Bailey's prescription for a "free market economy" to create zero population control is not much better. Here we are with another example of someone trying to apply "market logic" to a problem that clearly should be outside of the commodification debate: children!

Then what's the right answer, if the "free market in shackles" will only lead us to overpopulation according to Bailey? One only needs to look at a notable but under-discussed response to the supposed "Tragedy of the Commons": that it does not exist in the first place.

In this article, Ian Angus outlines the various ways in which societies have solved the "tragedy of the commons" and kept the commons. He does so by outlining research that has shown how social norms such as team monitoring can enforce the communal ownership of land.

So how does this relate back to Bailey's post? Simply, that some problems are not solved by market solutions. We don't need the market to solve the Tragedy of the Commons that leads to overpopulation because the population problem exists outside of the market framework, in the framework of cultural and social traditions. Addressing his point that economically free societies have zero population growth brings in a host of new questions: Japan has a negative growth rate. Isn't this just as suboptimal for a society as a positive growth rate of population? For millenia, society was governed by a "Malthusian trap". And it was not the unleashing of a free market economy that led to the subsequent population boom: popular writers such as Ha Joon Chang have shown how industrialization was heavily state-aided.

There are so many issues with free market rhetoric applied to all social phenomena that I'm not sure where to begin with a theoretical critique. And in fact, the theoretical critique is very complicated. For my economic history comprehensive exam I am currently trying to get through Margaret J. Radin's Contested Commodities, which is a philosophical critique of economists such as Becker who believe in the radical commodification view of the economy. Find it here: http://www.amazon.com/Contested-Commodities-Margaret-Jane-Radin/dp/0674007166/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1245536922&sr=8-1

It's very difficult, however, so I must refrain from any comments on it until I've had more time to look through it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

experience the brilliance of the van cliburn competition

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which takes place every four years and gathers the premier talents from across the world, ended recently (it ran from May 22 to June 7 in Fort Worth, Texas). Here are the results:

1st: A tie between

Nobuyuki Tsuji. In the final recital portion of the competition he performed Beethoven's Sonata in F minor, Op. 57 "Appassionata"; Chopin's Berceuse, Op. 57; Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2; while in the final concerto portion he performed Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor (Op. 11) and Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor (Op. 18)


Haochen Zhang. Final recital: Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24; Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit and final concerti: Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466; Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16

Anyone with even a remote interest in classical music should definitely check out the performances here: http://www.cliburn.tv it only takes 2 minutes to download the silverlight program required to stream them. Congratulations to the winners and enjoy!

"not so fast: to teach economic history you must first define what you mean both by 'economy' and 'history'": part I, 'economy'

In the last week or so, I've given some more time to thinking about my syllabus for 362. I've received two textbooks from publishers: Atack and Passell and Hughes and Cain. While neither have been particularly helpful in their content, they have allowed me to compare and contrast what I see as widely differing views of economic history. On one side, we have these texts and on the other, the way I learned it here at UMass.

Initially, I found myself thinking that if I were to teach it the way I learned economic history here, I would be doing my students a great injustice by not exposing them to the mainstream methodology of current research in economic history. Thus, how could those students actively engage with that sphere if they wished to do so? The problem extends to heterodox approaches in general, but that does not mean the problem is unsolvable. Rather, it means that we, as part of the heterodox field of the profession, must craft our courses in such a way that we are able to accomplish two goals:

1. We must be rigorous in our own field, in our study of the heterodox texts. By "rigor" I do not necessarily mean "mathematical" (and in most cases for economic history, I will never equate rigor with the use of mathematics). I mean using logic, reason and evidence to evaluate the theories presented in class. By using rigor, we are putting our ideas up to the spotlight and testing them, as though we were debating our theories with some mainstream economic historian. Thus, we become more firmly wedded to our own theories.

2. We must gain a thorough understanding of the mainstream. Luckily, my students are required to have taken Intro to Micro and Macro and in some cases will probably have taken other upper level courses (possibly intermediate micro and macro, which would be excellent... note to self: ask them what econ courses they have taken). While this is not as necessary as 1, it is nevertheless important in case students are interested in this approach and want to pursue it at an advanced level later on in their studies. It also helps when debating the mainstream, but as I mentioned above, a critical approach to heterodox study is more important.

At first, I was unsure that I would be able to accomplish either of these in my class because the majority of readings I want to assign could barely pass for economics per se: a lot of it is legal and social history and political science. Someone looking at the syllabus (say, an employer!) may question whether students actually will learn any economic history in this class.

There's a catch, however, that saves me. It's all buried in what you define "economic history" to be. What is the history of the economy? Well, what is the economy? (What is history is a much more difficult question for me and I'll leave it for another blog post.) If you see the economy as primarily composed of individuals interacting in markets according to the laws of utility maximization and rationality, then economic history is the study of the market mechanism through time. One would study how markets operated at approximate efficiency. Since GDP growth is, in a sense, a measure of the expansion of value of commodities in markets (things not traded in formal markets, such as care labor, are not part of GDP), then economic history is the study of that GDP growth over time and what things influenced the markets to promote GDP (product, labor, financial).

On the other hand, if you view the economy as defined by a set of social relations that are partly to do with the market (but also partly to do with non-market activities), then you study GDP growth but you also study social history. Study of the legal system expands to study it as an institution which doesn't necessarily approximates efficiency and which therefore may be influenced by social or political variables. Thus, not only does social history become important but so does political science. And as soon as we admit of these additional fields, we must become more open to their ideologies and methodologies, expanding the toolkit which we use to study economic history.

What this all boils down to is that how you teach economic history depends on how you think about the economy. This is where the "new economic history" dovetailed nicely with the economic theory of the time. But, this is also why Marx spent so much time in Capital on the history of the British economy. Both methodologies were approaching history through their different understandings of the economy.

And how does this relate to my teaching methodology for 362? If I present the heterodox methodology, I must be relentless in my criticisms of it and not take anything for granted. Doing so will allow both me and my students to develop a firm grasp of this view of the economy steeped in historical study. Of course, I'm getting a bit out of control of myself, because there are merits to both approaches: there do exist fruitful insights to be made by the mainstream economists. For example, it is sometimes useful to think about the rational, utility maximizing case as a point of central tendency and to ask why there are deviations from it -- what factors are driving fluctuations or other differences around the equilibrium? Thus, part of my job as teacher is to recognize those points and to explore them.

Well, these are just some basic thoughts on syllabus methodology, and I am beginning to develop the first weeks of the syllabus which will most likely contain some of these debates. I will keep the blog updated on how I deal with them. But, until then, do you, reader, have any thoughts on these points?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

James Joyce's Ulysses, the product of a "great, undisciplined talent", is celebrated today, Bloomsday

Happy Bloomsday!

June 16 is the day James Joyce's fictional protagonist Leopold Bloom makes his trip through Dublin in arguably the greatest novel of the 20th century, Ulysses. It is a monumental achievement: the book took Joyce 7 years to write and is extremely difficult to read. It is said Joyce made so many references to histories and cultures that to fully annotate the text and discover all the connections will take scholars decades more of scholarship. It is because of this that many associate Ulysses with T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, a poem which has attracted critics with its wide array of references to classical and Middle Age literature such as Dante's Divine Commedy.

In fact, Eliot himself wrote about Ulysses in an article published in The Dial in November 1923 titled, "Ulysses, Order and Myth." Here, he praises the "novel" (though he questions whether you could call it a novel, although the answer to this question is inconsequential in the context of the significance of Joyce's work of art to modern literature) principally for its parallel to The Odyssey, noting that it is the use of myth in modern writing that is of central importance to the task of "controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history" (177). Essentially, I believe Eliot is saying that we need to borrow stories and symbols from the past to elicit meaning from our current age. So, clearly Eliot sees something of himself in Joyce, which is probably why he praises the novel so highly: "[i]t is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art" (178).

Of course, it is important to note that the construction of parallels between the modern world and those of antiquity which the moderns aim to accomplish does not necessarily imply a continuity in history itself -- or does it? Eliot seems to leave the question unresolved here, because we could interpret history of our own time as symbols from the past with or without implying there is some 1-1 correspondence between our own time and the past. All we are saying is that our own time ought to be represented through symbols.

One passage from the article is a bit confusing to me, so I am presenting it in the hopes of soliciting some responses on what you, the reader, thinks is going through Eliot's head here:

"It is here [in the context of Joyce as an artist] that Mr. Joyce's parallel use of the Odyssey has a great importance. It has the importance of a scientific discovery. No one else has built a novel upon such a foundation before: it has never before been necessary." What does Eliot mean by this last phrase, that it has "never before been necessary"? My only guess is that Eliot recognizes in his time period, the interwar period (which truly was a turbulent time in the history of every major intellectual discipline from art to mathematics to economics), a search for identity or some kind of understanding of what is going on in a world gripped by existential crisis. But, perhaps I'm being overdramatic.

Nevertheless, Joyce's Ulysses certainly does perform the function well, since it draws on so many references in a veritable chronicle of Irish culture and history through the thought processes of a few normal, everyday sorts of people-- including a doctor Malachi Mulligan, a teacher Stephen Dedalus, and of course an advertiser Leopold Bloom, and his wife a singer Molly Bloom. It ends with a long sentence by Molly which can be heard/viewed here (highly recommended): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNTlDesrY3w

I've included some links in this post that will direct you to some of the most interesting resources you can find on the novel and popularizations of it. Enjoy!

Here are some summaries of the journey taken by Mr. Bloom through Dublin, broken down chapter-by-chapter (each chapter corresponds to roughly one hour of the day of June 16):

"Cheat's guide to Joyce's Ulysses" from the BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/3810193.stm

"Hypertextual, self-referential edition" online: http://www.doc.ic.ac.uk/~rac101/concord/texts/ulysses/

A really outstanding comic, done very well -- this is highly recommended: http://www.ulyssesseen.com/comic/us_comic_chapters-page.html

Funny cartoon summary: http://www.dannydries.com/Ullyses/ch1-ulys.html

A more academic resource

"Notes on James Joyce's Ulysses": http://home.wlv.ac.uk/~fa1871/joynote.html


Bloom: a film adaptation http://www.ulysses.ie/home/default.asp

Pitch n Putt with Joyce n Beckett (very funny): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p856CfM64w8

And again -- Happy Bloomsday!

Monday, June 15, 2009

is there any value in, or factual basis for, attaching a class perspective to Kafka's writings? a proposed entrypoint

I'm not sure if I should apologize or not for including blog posts not directly related to economic history lately. You'll have to forgive me for now, since most of my work has been centered around reading books on American labor law and then writing summaries of them for my professors. So, I have been craving some other forms of entertainment in my spare time.

Kafka's short story "The Problem of Our Laws" will immediately be familiar in style and content to anyone who has read him outside of "Metamorphosis", that one great short story about a man who wakes up to find himself turned into a giant beetle on his back in his bed. Many of Kafka's works center around the ubiquity of bureaucracy in modern society, and the implications of that bureaucracy for the human condition. For example, one of the few novels he wrote is titled The Trial and is about a man who wakes up one morning to find he has been arrested and spends the entire novel searching for the reason for his arrest and how he may get to a court to straighten things out. The story has many themes, one of the most important being the struggle of the individual against things much larger than him. "Larger" here is defined in Kafka's works on a variety of dimensions, including spacially, temporally, and also in terms of social/economic class. This last dimension, of society and class, is elucidated in a variety of ways, most of which become "read into" the texts by literary criticisms. So, I guess much of it may be factually on weak ground and has more to do with the particular reader's politics. However, I do believe some sense of class is evidenced in Kafka's work and can be discerned to have an importance influence on how he tells his stories. Furthermore, I believe the best entrypoint for such a discussion can be found in "The Problem of Our Laws."

It is important to begin by noting the central place of myth in Kafka's writings. As in other modern literature, myth or parable is used by Kafka as a symbol for the modern condition, modern society and economy and all of its perceived problems (of which there is clearly no shortage, and which many authors have devoted their entire lives to writing about). So, myth or parable is very important so we must see every story that Kafka tells, however small or seemingly insignificant, as an attempt at describing some aspect of society. And Kafka does it beautifully: his dark prose and unique voice strike the reader in a way that may remind one of a storyteller who teaches a fundamental lesson with each new piece. Consider this small work titled "Prometheus":

"There are four legends concerning Prometheus:

According to the first he was clamped to a rock in the Caucasus for betraying the secrets of the gods to men, and the gods sent eagles to feed on his liver, which was perpetually renewed.

According to the second Prometheus, goaded by the pain of the tearing beaks, pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock until he became one with it.

According to the third his treachery was forgotten in the course of thousands of years, forgotten by the gods, the eagles, forgotten by himself.

According to thefourth everyone grew weary of the meaningless affair. The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.

There remained the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable." (Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, from Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories. For another excellent short try his story on Ulysses and the Sirens)

The obsession with myth and the attempts to understand the meaning of myths is clearly at the forefront of Kafka's thought. Therefore, turning to "The Problem of Our Laws" we can appreciate his style and his aim more completely. What Kafka is attempting to do in this short story/myth is convey the meaning of modern society's complex bureaucracies by attaching to them a class structure. The story begins, "Our laws are generally not known; they are kept secret by the small group of nobles who rule us" (437). Further on, he questions whether the laws actually exist at all. In this alternative view, he postulates, "[t]here is a small party who are actually of this opinion and who try to show that, if any law exists, it can only be this: The Law is whatever the nobles do" (438). Here, the attachment of class to society is clear. Kafka questions not only whether the public can know the laws (they are "generally not known"), but also whether such laws benefit the majority of people. To really give the story a class, flavor, the only theme missing is some sort of antagonism -- should we accept this state of society as inevitable? Is it a simple consequence of market forces or human nature?

Kafka answers us! In this continued voice of one who is telling a myth or parable, he writes "[a]ctually one can express the problem only in a sort of paradox: any party that would repudiate not only all belief in the laws, but the nobility as well, would have the whole people behind it; yet no such party can come into existence, for nobody would dare to repudiate the nobility. We live on this razor's edge. A writer once summed the matter up in this way: The sole visible and indubitable law that is imposed upon us is the nobility, and must we ourselves deprive ourselves of that one law?" (438, emphasis added)

I have my own theories about this "writer" that I have never had the energy to check to see if anyone else has written about (or the story itself, for that matter). The writer, of course, could just be Kafka himself. The unique style he uses to tell the story, so that it sounds like a myth, is versatile in this way. I think Kafka could also be summarizing revolutionary thought in general through presenting all of it as one idea conveyed by a group of "writers". Since the idea itself is universal in the sense that it is applicable to any people that expresses the desire to overthrow the existing social order, to deprive themselves "of that one law" the writer could be a symbol (another myth) applied to a specific context to convey meaning.

As I said at the beginning, "The Problem of Our Laws" is an entrypoint for viewing other works of Kafka through the class lens. So, the myths don't stop here: in fact, I find them to be a central part of two of his novels, The Trial mentioned earlier and The Castle. And, of course, I find the story interesting in its own right for its connection to my interests in law and economics. I firmly believe that on some level, since the legal system is one aspect of the social system we live in that is constructed by capitalism, that the law generally represents the interests of a select class at times. And even when there is no outright class bias, the legal system serves to perpetuate the inequalities of society. Of course, these claims are meant for entire posts in order to do them justice.

And so, again, this is all to be continued...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

when playing by the rules doesn't necessarily mean treating everyone "fairly": a quick look at the legal foundations of capitalism

"Why Adam Smith Still Matters"

Note: I found this link via 3 Quarks Daily, but most of this post is tangential to it: these are my own reflections on the libertarian defense of Adam Smith and the beginnings of a legal critique of capitalism

The libertarian defenders of Adam Smith call the government out for intervening in what would otherwise be a free and unfettered system of markets. These critics argue that in a laissez-faire system of political economy, markets (including labor markets) operate at approximate efficiency. As the article states, we are appealing to our own self-interest and, through the process of trading by this rule, we are led through competition and by an invisible hand to create maximal benefits for society. If the government oversteps its boundaries (its sole responsibilities are seen as protection of property and a few public goods provisions), then its own visible hand gets in the way of the invisible hand, disrupting what was a natural order.

However, if we drop government from the picture our problems are not solved, even assuming the strict assumptions of perfect information and rational foresight. The legal system remains an important aspect of political economy. Laws are the rules of the economic game. When I play card games with my little brother, we play according to a very strict set of rules, if you know what I mean. Other configurations of the rules may lead to different results (such as me actually having the opportunity to win every now and then). The evolution of contract law in American history is one example of how the legal system itself (absent of any strict government intervention) can lead to different labor market outcomes: the rise of freedom of contract over indentured servitude led to less breaches over clauses such as those concerning the term of a contract. Another example comes from England: early statutes from the 14th century onward regulated regional wages, and these were eventually overturned as the economy evolved.

Furthermore, we do not need to talk about a "ruling class" to say that legal institutions serve certain interests over others, so they are clearly not distributionally neutral. Certainly my little brother will alter the rules in his favor but we can think of other games or other situations where the advantage is either arbitrary or based on some traditional principle (history), or maybe it even is particular to a certain culture or social system. Anyone familiar with the traditional Chinese game Go may recall the handicap system as one example of altering the rules of the game to reflect a certain position of the relevant players. All of these rules are examples of how one party may be favored from the beginning, due to some social climate or understanding of relative positions. What I aim for is anunderstanding of how the social context of capitalism creates conditions in the legal system conducive to economic development and class conflict.

The "rules of the game", theories of property and contract (for just two examples), are especially important in any discussion of capitalism because they define the extent to which my right to private property may conflict with another's basic rights (also to property, or liberty, life, etc.). Marx identified private property as the key to the success of capitalism precisely because of the monopoly rights a system of private property confers onto owners. Not only does private property foster a set of incentives conducive to efficiency (the degree to which this holds can be argued), but private property in contract law creates the social relations of production that produce surplus value which allows the circuit of capital to run.

However, I would not say that the legal system is an instrument of capitalism. It is for the same reason that I do not think we necessarily need the existence of a "ruling class" to show how inequality can be promoted in a legal system. The rule of law exists in theory as a means of weighing the interests of the different parties in question approximately equally. I argue that the culture of capitalism creates a commodification of labor power that promotes "efficiency" (high amounts of capital accumulation).

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that it had little to do with the link. This post was the beginning of my thoughts concerning the "imagining of history," specifically, the history of American capitalism. (I firmly believe that the best way of understanding historical phenomena is by imagining how it happened, in other words being able to visualize all that was going on.) However, I found the last paragraph of the article very intriguing and it may be relevant to the post:

Regrettably, Smith was unable to conclude the third large project that he had been working on throughout his life: a theory of government. In his "obvious and simple system of natural liberty", this is the only gap. It is not a small one. The answer to this question is fundamental for the current debate - in a situation where our Western civilisation seems to have come to a crossroads as more interventionist power is reclaimed for government, in which nationalisation and re-regulation are going unquestioned, and in which politics is generally gaining a new self-confidence. The question has to do with the natural harmonisation of interests. Is there any way in which the interests of government are spontaneously aligned with the interests of the governed? Is political action possible without destroying the checks and balances of the spontaneous order? Smith doesn't give us an answer. Maybe he had found that there was no such way.

So, I end this "beginning" with the following thought: knowing what we do now concerning the nature of the legal system and its relation to economy, what political institutions are most effective at achieving whatever goals a group of people has, in the face of capitalism? For example, can democratic ideals of majority rule exist side by side with capitalism, a system which (as we've seen above) can be reflected -- through various channels, including the legal system -- in power and authority? Much more will be said about this in the future!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"What does heaven look like?": A look at E3 2009

Another videogame post this week? Why?!

E3, which stands for "Electronic Entertainment Expo" is the videogame industry's biggest annual conference. Taking place sometime in the summer, it serves as the perfect sounding board for Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo's prime holiday releases. Of course, every industry has been feeling the impact of the recession but that has clearly not affected the quality or quantity of videogames that will be released this year. Producers are placing their faith in the consumer to eat up these titles.

While all three of the big names have some excellent releases coming up, I'm going to focus on those I'm interested in, which revolve around Nintendo: specifically the Wii and the DS. On reflection, no new titles really catch my eye. There are no Okami's or Katamaris to spice up things. Sequels from tested titles.


Super Mario Bros. Wii

This game looks really exciting. I'm always up for innovative ways of dealing with an old theme, and Nintendo has come up with some great ones recently. The introduction of a 4-player competition mode, similar to what was done a few years back on the Gamecube with the Zelda Series (4 Swords), is really enticing! Plus, I have a softspot for platform games: I think they're great fun, even though they can be very nerve-racking at times. (One of the first platform games to really catch my heart was actually a 3D platformer for the PS, "Spyro the Dragon".) I will definitely get this game, if only to play with my family since there are three gamers in my house (two twin brothers and a sister).

Metroid: Other M

I came to the Metroid series late, and to be honest, and I can't even call myself a Metroid fan. Shooters were never really my thing, and I don't enjoy the futuristic atmosphere that much. However, being game-starved on the Wii (it's really a pitiful state), I bought Metroid 3: Corruption and slowly began to enjoy it. The screens linked to above showcase some absolutely beautiful graphics and the story I posted got me really excited about the game. You don't normally see graphics like that on the Wii, so it at least deserves some attention given that. But, since the Metroid series has always been strong I bet it will end up being a very good game. From what I've read from it so far, it seems like it may be the type of game in a series that really turns first-timers on. Something similar could be said of FF7 and RPGers (such as myself!), and GoldenEye and first person shooters (FPSers, not like myself).

Super Mario Galaxy 2

I loved the first Super Mario Galaxy! Seriously, I recommend this game to anyone who is interested in something completely new and innovative in platform games. This game is 3D in the most extreme sense of the word: in space! Mario jumps from planet to planet, each of which is fully explorable on an x, y, AND z axis. In addition, Super Mario Galaxy combines a unique set of new abilities/powers for Mario and nonlinear gaming (at times... though arguably this could have been work on) in a way that is quite challenging at times. I seriously lost dozens of hours on this game, it's that good and addicting. The fact that Nintendo is developing a sequal signals the praise that this game has received. I also have a feeling that the developers just had so many ideas when compiling the first game that they had a lot of "leftover" ideas for levels and gameplay concepts. Really, this game is so innovative in its conceptual framework that you could spawn an entire series just off of its basic premises of fully 3D worlds and unique use of physics and gravity.


Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

The only thing that genuinely worries me about this game is that it's using the cell-shading of the Gamecube games. See the trailer for what I mean. While in principle I find nothing wrong with this style, I think it makes the game more childish, at least that's how WindWaker is designed (a Gamecube title). I found Twilight Princess, with its more adult "feel" (although still childish in essence) to be conveyed artistically very well. Still, what Zelda does well is designing challenging dungeons and new items, and I'm sure this new installment will not disappoint. Plus, I just love the DS on principle (great games with great graphics and gameplay on a portable) I've never had a complaint with a DS game I bought.

Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days

I've been a long-time fan of the Kingdom Hearts series. When the first Kingdom Hearts came out in 2002 I was in high school, and my friends were making fun of me for being interested in a game that combined RPG elements from classic Square games such as FF7 and FF8 with Disney elements such as Winnie the Pooh, Beauty and the Beast and Nightmare Before Christmas (admittedly, the last one may have interested some anti-Disney people). Little did they know (nor did I for that matter), the game was huge. Not only was the gameplay impressive, but the Disney elements were incorporated in such a way that anyone who did not like Disney could have easily looked past these elements. How did they pull it off? Well, that would take an entire blog post but the gist of it is that the main story was not Disney-centered, nor was it Square-centered. The developers created a unique story that has really caught on with the fans. How do we know that? It's 2009. I said I first enjoyed this game in high school, in 2002. That should be proof enough. Kingdom Hearts was followed by Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the Gameboy Advance, Kingdom Hearts 2 for the PS2 (an absolutely magnificent game, highly recommended). Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 days is another addition to the storyline, but promises (from the trailer) to deliver on gameplay as well. I can't wait for this game, scheduled to be released in the U.S. sometime at the end of September.

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box
Some information about the first Professor Layton (and the Curious Village): http://www.gamefaqs.com/portable/ds/review/R130739.html

The first Professor Layton game was released in February of last year, and instantly people loved it and were asking about a sequel. It turns out that the game's charming style has attracted a big audience in Japan, which is already (I believe) on its fourth installment. But due to localization issues, changing some of the puzzles so they cater to a Western audience, there has been considerable lag in getting the games on U.S. shores. So when I heard that the director had finally set an approximate release date of the early fourth quarter, I was very happy. It's difficult to convey just why this game is so great, so you'll just have to check out the story and review I posted for the full details. And, again, it's a DS game with great support... how can I complain?

Well, there it is -- my summary of E3 according to my own interests and the systems I own. Honestly, there is so much data from the conference to analyze that if I were to try to objectively summarize everything it would take a week of blogging.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Investing in Lawsuits, for a Share of the Rewards"

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this article as it relates to law and econ, but I thought it was interesting so I will post it to throw the thought out there. Any reactions? Post them in the comments!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

interactive aesthetics

I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that the content would not be all work-related. I wanted to make this blog into a collection of my own interests which include music, videogames, and literature. This is my first post on these topics. I promise that any posts like these will be as colorful as possible in terms of providing links to articles, youtube videos, etc. to allow you to fully appreciate my interest in the topic.

Are videogames an artform? I would certainly argue that there is some truth to that idea. Art is defined by Merriam-Webster as " the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects ". Aesthetics, furthermore, is defined as " a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty". Given these definitions, videogames definitely fit into the scheme of artwork. Games are an experience on multiple levels of sense: sight, sound, and sometimes touch are combined into an interactive experience that "tickles" the senses of the user, so to speak. With the development of technology over the last 30 years or so, the ability for videogames to appeal to one's senses in new and unique ways has increased dramatically: music, landscape and character design, and graphics have all become much more sophisticated, for good and for bad.

Here are some of my favorites that have challenged my perspective on the artistic value of games:

Okami (PS2 and then the Wii)
Check out some of the beautiful artwork from the game here: http://www.creativeuncut.com/art_okami_b.html

Katamari Damacy games (PS2, XBox360)
Definitely one of my favorite songs from the soundtracks can be found here:

Metal Gear Solid (hereafter "MGS", PS)

Each of these games influenced me in a unique way, but MGS did so in a way that was not only beautiful aesthetically speaking, but also challenged the boundaries of the relationship between videogames and reality.

I recently returned to Metal Gear Solid out of curiosity and I was struck with aspects of the game which I realized for the first time. This is a reflection on some of the themes and gameplay, and where MGS sits in the history of videogames.

The first time I played Metal Gear Solid (MGS) for the Playstation was close to 10 years ago. It came out in 1998 and whether I actually played it that year or the year afterwards is unclear to me. Nevertheless, it's been a while. It also means I was between 12 and 13 at the time it was released, and so I had forgotten much of the story. Returning to the game after so many years was quite an experience. I was able to reconnect with familiar characters while at the same time revisit an intriguing storyline that I'd largely forgotten. There were also some deeper themes that I was able to contemplate for the first time: I was not as seasoned a gamer as I am now. This has allowed me to look back on MGS from a sort of "meta-gaming" level, thinking about the game not just as-is but its larger place in videogame history. This was a very rewarding experience. I can only imagine what it would be like to now, say, revisit a game like FF7 and go through the same experience (you can revisit the classic Aeris death scene here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wx3duFYCcho). But, somehow, something about MGS is unique. It was revolutionary in a fundamentally different way from other "pathbreakers" such as FF7.

What do I mean by this? I'll try to explain it as clearly as possible. MGS takes itself very seriously at times, and at other times, blatantly reminds the gamer that they are playing a videogame. The storyline is very complex, involving the threat of nuclear war by a group of terrorists, genetic experimentation, and love/betrayal/intrigue. This is all set to the backdrop of a gameplay system that does not emphasize killing the enemy. Instead, the theme in MGS is espionage: sneaking past guards, covering up your footsteps in the snow by crawling over them, using chaff grenades and stun grenades instead of automatic weapons, and other elements that were, frankly, a very cool idea for a videogame. It also makes the action much more suspenseful, and when you put it all together with the storyline one can see why this game gets quite intense at times. (More than once I found myself jumping in my seat when spotted by the enemy, or agonizing over a missed sniping shot that left me completely vulnerable.)

So far so good, right? Yes, but at times the game purposely reminds you that you're playing a videogame. This comes from multiple areas: characters in the game telling you to "press the circle button" at a particular point to proceed, or having to locate a code to progress in the game that comes from the back of the CD case of the game itself (who would have thought when a character in the game tells you to "look at the back of the CD case" for a passcode you need that you would literally have to find your copy of the game and check the back of it?). There are many more examples, one of the more outrageous of which is where one boss battle actually requires you to switch game controller ports so the boss can no longer "read your mind", and they use their psychic powers to move your controller for you (utilizing the dual shock feature of the Playstation controller). Check out the very disturbing battle with Psycho Mantis here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azYdJ9dPx5o . Instead of distancing you from the action, all of these features actually engross you more into the story, action and gameplay.

People who take the game itself too seriously will find these ploys cheesy. That explains why a very small number of people actually do not like MGS for these reasons. When you read negative reviews of the game, this is exactly where they identify their concerns. Most people liked the game quite a bit, and that's because they took the game and these "meta-game" aspects together, and saw them as a package. It is after looking back many years that I understand Hideo Kojima's (the director's) intent more clearly and therefore can enjoy the game even more.

I think what I really appreciate about it is this combination of game and reminding you that you're playing a game. Not only do these features make the game purely more fun, but they also give the gamer a better appreciation of what the creator of the game is trying to do in terms of making statements about the videogame industry, society, politics, etc. Sure, the game is fun. Sure, the meta-game stuff is thought provoking. But I can easily imagine someone taking the meta-game part too far. Think about a game where you're constantly reminded that it's just a game: you'll never be able to get into the story because some designer is hammering his agenda into you. And, great games have obviously been designed without any meta-game features: classic shoot 'ems like Metroid or RPGs like Zelda totally immerse you in their world and that's what makes these games so charming. Metal Gear Solid stresses both in a way that allows you to truly appreciate what Kojima is trying to do, and it's that kind of smart game design that allows me to group it in my mind with classics such as Chrono Trigger and Kingdom Hearts which are more world-immersion games.

Finally, check out this interview with Kojima, where he is asked whether videogames are art:

Kojima argues that where art and videogames diverge is at the point of interactivity. I would agree: art is meant to be experienced as something that someone else has made, it is the artist's creation you are experiencing. As soon as you alter the world, it is no longer the developer's artwork. The question becomes -- are there games that allow the user to create art as he moves through a game? I think level design features of, say, Little Big Planet, or "freeform" games like Katamari Damacy or Noby Noby Boy may actually fit into this category, but it's definitely the topic of an entirely new post. For now, I will go back to the MGS series and see if I can uncover the comprehensive philosophy that Kojima has given us with his games.