Wednesday, June 30, 2010

thoughts on e3 2010 - nintendo

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) took place two weeks ago and I promised you that once I got back I would comment on the highlights. For those of you not familiar with E3, it is a conference for videogame developers to showcase their upcoming releases. It takes place every summer.

I'll briefly comment on the Nintendo showcase today. Many who attended thought they had the most impressive showing due to their strong lineup of great new titles and the exciting announcements surrounding their new portable system, the 3DS.

Certainly of most interest to me was the unveiling of the new Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. See the trailer here:

The game looks very well done -- tightly developed in terms of mechanics and an impressive environment to boot. Of course, with any Zelda game fans mostly have to go on trust until it comes out. What I mean by that is it's hard to tell just how innovative the title will be until one actually plays through the dungeons and tinkers with the new items. But one element I would like to point out showing promise is the game's toon-like atmosphere reminiscent of Spirit Tracks and very much unlike Twilight Princess. Though I'm not a very experienced Zelda player, I've played enough of them now to come to the opinion that the toon-like atmosphere tends to be stronger in terms of overall environment and gameplay (puzzle, item) variation. Compare, for example, items such as the sand wand of Spirit Tracks to the wrecking ball of Twilight Princess. But when it comes down to it, these are just my own personal tastes here and you'll have to see for yourself if it has promise.

The next game I'd like to point out is a new DS game, Okamiden. Building off of the (cult) success of the original Okami for the PS2 (and then ported to the Wii) the story follows Chibiterasu (literally, "baby" or "little" Amaterasu, the main character in the first game) and largely keeps the ideas, music and gameplay of the original, in true cult-service fashion. Here is a gameplay trailer:

I am definitely impressed by this game, for the simple fact that I loved the original and I welcome any variations on this theme of watercolor environments, interesting Japanese-themed story, and innovative gameplay. However, I am skeptical about how popular it will be. Nevermind, as long as I can get it for a good price once it comes out, I will be happy! I've analyzed the gameplay and other elements carefully and I don't see how this can turn out badly. Fans of the original Okami will definitely appreciate it from what I can tell.

And in fact, aside from these two games, I can't say that there was much more interesting material for me. However, there are a few "under the radar" games that Nintendo fans should keep their ears to the grindstone for.

The first is a new Professor Layton game which is scheduled for a September 20th U.S. release. I was a big fan of the first game and the second game was even better than the first. (I blogged about it here and featured the music from the game here.)I anticipate the third will not disappoint. For those of you not familiar with this series, I strongly recommend it as a less-intense but very fun set of puzzle games for the DS. But what's unique about this puzzle series is the emphasis on story (with its amazing cast of characters) and environment. You really can't leave out the environment in these games as it really adds to the unique charm immensely, creating a really fun experience that also holds up to hardcore adventure games on the DS in terms of length (20 hours at least) and replayability. At any rate, here is a recent trailer for Professor Layton and the Unwound Future shown at E3 but not really talked about that much:

Absolutely incredible! These games are really a must-have.

Finally, here is some news on the Nintendo 3DS: slated for an October 2010 release in Japan (with no release date set for the U.S.) the game system introduces 3D elements similar to what has been seen in recent movies, but without the weird glasses requirement. It integrates all the latest modifications of the DS (embodied in the DS lite and DSi), including wireless and camera capabilities, and downloadable content for games. While this does seem like it will be an exciting innovation in portable gaming, the initial price tag is somewhere around the $200 mark, which seems a bit excessive and may turn some (like me!) off to buying it within the first year or two of its release.

Here is a good video of how the 3DS incorporates 3D elements:

I guess that's all for Nintendo! I will have some more to say about various games soon (including some more thoughts on SMG2).

Sunday, June 13, 2010

press pause + boston bleg

Dear Readers,

I will be taking roughly a two- to three-week break from this blog as I head Boston and possibly a few other regions to concentrate on primary sources for my work. I will have much to report on when I get back: E3 is coming up soon, and I have quite a few Anti-Mankiw-related writings to share with you. I will also inevitably be writing about some of the ideas that come out of this exciting project: analyzing the legal dimension of the origins of capitalism.

BTW: Do you have any recommendations for places to eat in Boston?

ulysses in RL

Super cool Bloomsday article at the Irish Times, thanks to Crooked Timber. Here's a particularly hilarious excerpt (actually I'm not sure why I found this so funny):
I became aware of the range of historical characters in Ulysses when working on the Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB), recently published by Cambridge University Press. Like most staff contributors, I started coming across people who featured in Ulysses , either as themselves or as models for fictional characters. For instance Con Curran, lawyer and writer, appears as himself when Stephen Dedalus remembers that he owes him 10 guineas. Curran was a college friend of Joyce’s, who took the well-known photograph of the becapped Joyce with his hands in his pockets; asked what he was thinking at that moment, Joyce said he was wondering if Con would lend him five shillings.

Friday, June 11, 2010

review of super mario galaxy 2

This is a really good game. My only criticism is that some of the levels are the kind of difficult that just isn't fun at all. I'm talking about the kind of difficulty that is largely based on pinpoint motor skills where one extremely minor slip in the direction of a fireball or a jump can cost you the star. What I liked, indeed what I think most people liked about the first SMG is the conceptual challenge -- whether it's about reorienting myself to some mindbendingly-difficult camera and gravity changes or trying to work out a path of least resistance on a long timed level, I really felt like the game was pushing me to think. That's not a rare concept in games (especially the ones I play), but it's rare enough to be something which developers need to purposely work toward if they want to create a really good game.

While it doesn't detract from the sheer awesomeness and expansiveness of this game (in the form of new powerups, a better hidden and optional star system, as well as more fun and interesting challenges in each level) it does make it frustrating for those who want to clear the game 100%. Yes, that would be me. But I refuse to do it in this game -- or at least, I refuse to work hard at it and will instead slowly accumulate stars until I may or may not get to the full amount.

And that's about it. Graphics? Amazing. Story? Hahaha.


I might add that as proof of my above claim, I cite the number of times in this game I have said "Oh I was lucky that time" in getting a "difficult" star -- I got some of the really tough stars already and missed some of the easier ones simply, simply because I was off that day and couldn't pull the particular stunt. I don't think that happened to me a single time in the first SMG.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

interesting passage

I've been meaning to put this up for a while now. For those of you who don't know, the German Historical School rocks. They invaded American economics way back in the last quarter or so of the nineteenth century. Rather than framing their arguments in terms of mathematical equations built on minimal assumption sets, these institutionalist thinkers combined the latest trends in other social sciences of the time (notably psychology and evolutionary theories in social sciences) into a grand view of the economy as part of a social system. Veblen is probably the most popular of the scholars in this tradition, but they were all working together at various points, part of what is now termed the "Wisconsin School". Here's a passage from J. R. Commons, student of Richard Ely (who, in turn, was a founder of the American Economics Association). I select this passage in particular because it's a perfect example of the beautiful writing and ideas applied in a "big picture" framework which this school was known for (and which any sociologist studying the German classics up until around the 1920s will be very familiar with):

Towards a motivation for the study of political economy:
An accompanying mark of progress in economic theory is indicated by changing views as to the Time dimensions of value and economy [note 'economy' is used here in the sense of how to allocate resources among the four factors of production, labor, land, capital, entrepreneurship]. Early economists found the 'cause' and 'substance' of value in the stored-up energy of the past, either Quesnay's vital forces of nature, or Ricardo's and Marx's stored-up labor power. Then followed the hedonic economists who found value in the pains and pleasures of the present, while the later theories find value in the hopes, fears, probabilities and lapse of time of the future, depending on the will of persons existing in the present. The progress has been from 'efficient causes' flowing from the past into the present, to 'final causes' originating in the purposes and plans for the future and guiding the behavior of the present. While the earlier theories were quantity theories of value and economy, the later are expectancy theories.

These changes in concepts of quantity and time have accompanied changes in the concept of the energy itself which is the 'substance' of value and the 'cause' of economy. Early theories attempted to get away from the human will, since that was conceived to be internal, capricious, no subject to law, and therefore economics should be reduced to one of the nature sciences, analogous to chemistry, physics, or physiology [see my above definition of economy: first principle of physics, matter is never created or destroyed, it simply changes form]. It should be a theory of commodities or mechanisms, not a theory of the will [my own comment - mainstream economics is a theory of people as they relate to objects, not a theory of people in relation to other people]. But a larger knowledge of the human will, derived from the human-nature sciences of psychology, ethics, law and politics, begins to find the will, not in an unknowable caprice, but merely in human behavior, and this behavior begins to be formulated into natural laws of its own.

Friday, June 4, 2010

eminent domain in labor law - an explanation

I was intentionally not clear in a recent comment I made on an Acemoglu and Wolitzky paper about the economics of labor coercion. I wanted to elicit first reactions, comments, "flames" of all kind. I didn't receive any of that! So I'm going to elaborate on my point, because I do think it's an interesting one -- if somewhat "out there". Maybe you'll get angrier, or agree with me even more, once you hear me out.

I'm separating out two arguments: one concerning property law and the other concerning labor law. My argument is that the two are remarkably similar in their implications for a story of social definition of property and economic growth.

Property law

Historically, under various reasonable use criteria, canal development was given a green light to infringe on the rights small mill owners had over the use of water power from local streams to power their mills. Canals were a diversion of water from these sources and caused much property damage to these mill owners in the process.

In these cases, voluntary Coasean bargaining between the canal projects and the mill owners broke down, but not because transactions costs were too high. Voluntary bargaining broke down because the legal system had developed an ideology that was fundamentally in favor of larger-scale property development in the interests of the community.

Coasean models of eminent domain argue that this rule leads to property values that are lower than the market value of surrounding properties. The reason is that if property rights are unclear for the original owner of the property, there is less incentive to develop your own property, and more of an incentive to develop in outside regions. In other words, you have a misallocation of resources leading to socially suboptimal arrangements.

Labor law

Imagine for a moment a spectrum of potential wages given to a worker. On the lower end of the spectrum, you have the least amount of money a worker is willing to accept at a job. Call this a reservation wage. Between that reservation wage and the actual wage of the worker, the contract wage, you have a gap. That gap has been interpreted by some to be roughly the amount the worker "has to lose" in their job -- if you increase the gap, the worker may be more obedient. Nevertheless, it's clear in such an analysis that many variables are affecting the worker's property in his or herself -- his or her labor power. How to increase the gap?

Keep the spectrum in your mind again. On the left is reservation wage, the right is the contract wage. If you increase the gap by raising the contract wage, the incentives align and you may elicit more effort out of the worker. That expands the gap from the right. However, you can also increase the gap by lowering the reservation wage. Expand the gap from the left. You might do that by threatening various things if the worker leaves. Deny him or her compensation for the time he or she did work. Or if he or she gets hurt on the job, make it difficult to gain compensation for this as well.

Whatever the method, it's clear that the legal system can actually affect productivity in an extremely active way, and that this was accomplished by altering the value of labor power to match the interests of development. Basically, eminent domain for labor law.

What do you think?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

general notes on law and economics

Everything developed here has been said before. It was written because I am mapping out some ideas for something. It may or may not be updated in the future. (How's that for vague?)

Law and economics...

sees secure property rights as the fundamental engine of growth and prosperity
critiques: Morton Horwitz, Naomi Lamoreaux paper on whether secure property rights are necessary for growth
sees contract law as primarily about the optimal outcomes of exchange of secure property rights
critiques: Robert Steinfeld, Christopher Tomlins, Duncan Kennedy
has an underlying extreme libertarian view of society where third party (government) action distorts incentives and thus optimal performance
critiques: ANY history of government involvement in the economy such as Polanyi

Points of intersection of the above critiques:

Marxist or far-left social democrat: government plays big important roles in shaping economic growth -- and I don't mean welfare, I mean actual subsidization and coercion in the name of economic growth

The assumption that property and contract are not absolute and never will be -- they are socially defined institutions. That is, what defines what your property is, and the terms under which you exchange it (through contract) is crucially dependent on the political economic landscape: who controls the power. Through what channels.

What economics (heterodox, Marxist or otherwise) can share in terms of these intersections

David Kotz-style work on Marxism and institutions, Bowles' labor discipline model, others? I may be missing some things from development and heterodox macro (though I would argue most of it is still in the equity vs. efficiency framework, which I don't like).

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

what i'm reading

Instead of writing thought pieces on what I've been reading and working on I thought I'd just blaze away with a list along with a little summary. Most of this is background stuff to get a better idea of the primary sources before checking them out in the next few weeks.

Edwin E. Witte, "Early American Labor Cases," Yale Law Journal 35: 7 (1926), pp. 825-837

-Over the course of the nineteenth century, conspiracy law (dealing with the right of workers to combine for whatever reason) didn't improve for workers in the sense that they didn't become more free to combine. The issuance of court injunctions against combinations, rather than holding full criminal trials, became more common by the 1880s and into the 1890s.

Keith Hoskin and Richard Macve, "Reappraising the Genesis of Managerialism: A Re-examination of the role of accounting at the Springfield Armory, 1815-1845," Accounting, Auditing and Accountability 7:2 (1994), pp. 4-30

-Alfred D. Chandler's explanatory framework for the rise of big business, that the phenomenon was primarily due to increased transportation and communication networks between 1840-1860, neglects a crucial variable: how management treated labor during this time. Looking at one of the main models of industrial expansion, the Springfield Armory, the authors show that managerialism was the result of a strict labor discipline model carried over to the firm by West Point graduates beginning in the 1830s. This is the first time I'm coming across this article and it appears to be an important critique of the largely-influential work of Chandler. Why hasn't this received more attention from economic historians?

Charles Warren, History of the American Bar

-A sociological study of the bar with lots of important stories of early American property development cases. Property developers were on their toes about some of the crucial early decisions. Who would have thought the legal system could play such an active role in defining property rights to promote the interest of the public welfare?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

tetris and philosophy

Last Monday over at 3QuarksDaily, in their weekly "Monday" column which is reserved for special longer essays by various guest writers on a topic of their choice, there was an interesting post by Angus McCullough on the relationships between Tetris and Confucian thought. Since it highlights some of the points I made on a recent post concerning the relationship between videogame architecture and social thought which you can access here, I thought I'd share this much more thoughtful piece on the close relationships between games and social thought.

I'm quoting two excerpts in order to highlight some of the key ideas and give you a taste of this excellent argument. Consider his thesis:
The major difference between Tetris and other games is the simplicity of its construction and complexity of play. Most importantly, it is a game that does not have a goal or end. There is no castle to storm or high score to achieve – the only way to end your game is to lose. The result of this simple and mildly daunting setup is that Tetris affords the user a repetitive task every time he or she picks it up: to play better than the last time. It has also been shown to have beneficial effects outside the game itself, making it a powerful tool for personal development, mirroring certain aspects of Confucian ritual.
Another interesting quote:
This fixity is a bolstering against any pull of temptation or obsessions, which distract from true virtue and reinforce human limitations. This, I would say, is expressed in certain methods of playing Tetris: if one is responsive to the natural structure of the game and plays it with a will to learn rather than overcome, Tetris can be a method of personal cultivation. It is a matter of finding one’s balance and then responding instantaneously to a number of stimuli, letting all affect the outcome for the better.
At any rate, definitely check it out!