Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What the Hell Massachusetts?

A year ago, I was dreaming that the Republican party would fracture and die during the Obama administration. As is often the case with me, I was overly optimistic. The Democrats, though generally more well intentioned than the Republicans, continue to be a disorganized mess, while the Republicans have been fairly well disciplined. Sadly, the Democrats stumbling have opened up messes such as the one in Massachusetts, and the Tea Party crowd hasn't done a good job of tearing the Republicans apart. Bloody voting systems favoring two-party systems.

In general I remain a strong supporter of the Obama administration. Despite the complaints of people such as myself, and the running media story to the contrary, he has managed to accomplish a fair amount. Yet hopes were so high, it is hard to not be disappointed, simply look at how long the health care debate has dragged on and the danger it is now in.

As a depressed, hypothyroidic, diabetic without a group health plan, I have more than a passing interest in health care reform. I am not happy with the current Senate version, it is, like the Democrats, an ill disciplined mess, but it is far better than nothing. I hope that it survives enough to get passed in some form shortly.

Politics in America is not doing what I want it to. It's possible that my political views are so off from the majority of Americans that I'll never be happy with them. People over at Open Left and I imagine elsewhere on the net are wailing that the centrism of the Democrats, combined with Coakley losing, will lead to the collapse of America. I remain more optimistic than that, but that's perhaps my problem again. I do admit that what this means for the elections later this year is also frightening. No one likes the incumbent party when there's a recession, but losing in Massachusetts...

What would make me happy with American politics? I'd like a party that is some combination of progressive Democrats/the Green Party with a spine, and the editorial board of the Economist. And since I might be quite a while in waiting for that, well, I can continue to hope for even more unlikely radical change. Break up California and Texas, triple the size of the House of Representatives, instant runoff voting, the Singularity! Something...

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Where is Civilization 5?

It has been five years since Civ IV came out and it is a terrible shame that Civ V does not appear to be on the horizon. I've written about wanting the next SimCity and more in depth simulation games before, but maybe PC games are simply dying. Sigh. I can dream though.

If I were to be a creative director for a Civ game there are a number of changes I would like to make. In line with my general wanting to make simulations more accurate, there is a lot I would change with the basic map. The Civ games could have a much more detailed terrain. Hopefully, this could be done in a way that wouldn't require an increase in micromanagement. Perhaps something along the line of the worlds in Black & White, I quite liked that aesthetic. I feel this increased realism could add a great deal to the game. We've got the processing power that much of this could be done in the background, giving accurate climatic simulations and such.

This could lead to a number of improvements, one of which is a better model for spread of domestic crops, which, as per the thesis of Guns, Germs and Steel, were incredibly influential in the course of human civilization. That book does a good job of explaining why the old world ended up with higher population densities, technology and diseases, and I would love to see that modeled in a Civ game.

Furthermore, there are several other points I'd like to see modeled more realistically. I was always annoyed that the Civ games seem to be incapable of measuring population properly. One could rule half the world at 21st Century levels of technology and industry and still have a population of 1 million. I would also like to see economics modeled more closely to real life. Instead of units of shields, express things in real world terms of dollars or tons of steel, etc. I'd like to be able to use Civ to actually run simulation of alternate history instead of simply reading stories on alternatehistory.com.

Also, when working in a game universe, I just love knowing that there is an accurate simulation underpinning everything. If I could play a game of Civ and know that I could stop and look underneath at modeled ocean currants, trade patterns and disease vectors, it would be a thing of beauty. Those items always get ignored in favor of flashier wars.

Sadly, I'll be waiting for this for a long time. Although, I suppose I could go work on Freeciv and try to make this all work. I do have free time these days. Of course, there actually was an attempt to make a Guns, Germs and Steel influenced Civ game, but that seems to have died years ago. Shame.

What Are We Going to Need to Get a Whuffie System to Work?

After messing around with the idea of whuffie and various extensions of it for quite a while, long before this previous post, I have ended up with lots of vague ideas, many of them fairly far detached from immediate reality. In an attempt to bring things back to a more practical realm, I'd like to do a bit of organizing.

Looking at what is out there now, there are a number of recommendation systems that already function fairly well, Amazon, Last.fm, Digg, Reddit, Slashdot, etc. Unfortunately, all are quite limited to their specific domains with their own specific ways of functioning. With that as a starting point, I should also ask where it is that I want to be going. How would a person actually interact with this system I am trying to imagine?

At the simplest level, one could use it as we use existing recommendation/reputation systems: suggestions as to what product to buy, what song to listen to, what comment or news story to read. The recommendations would simply be better. More specifically, how do I want to be able to use such a system that I can't already?

I want to be able ask a system questions such as, "What books should I read?", "What's the best product x in price range y for people with my tastes?", "What is the best discussion on this issue?", "Can I see these candidates ranked using this mix of metrics?", "Based on my tastes what are the best TV shows for me?", "Who is the best person in my social circle in terms of x?", "Who is the most respected writer out there on issue y?"

A lot of that is already done to some extent via search engines, or would require more advanced natural language processing. But I can't help but feel that the various subjective ranking stuff out there should be used better. I suppose that's really the issue. We have ranking systems, but they're all completely disconnected. Rankings should be fungible and aren't.

Reputation is decided not simply by people's explicit declarations, but by things such as what people buy, what people link to, where people go, etc., and it would be very complicated to reduce all that into one universal system. Back to the original idea of keeping things simpler without going into all those complications... aside from the fact that I should learn more about machine learning algorithms, I suppose my initial impulse for wanting to find a foundation for all this comes from how completely useless most of the explicit rating systems I've seen are.

We see systems where people can rank things 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 on eBay, Yelp, Google Maps, Amazon.com, etc. But, I've never been able to get anything close to an accurate result from these systems. There is no correlation weighted between my opinions and the opinions of the reviews as I would like, obviously a review should be given higher weight for me if the reviewer has similar tastes to mine. Some people rate everything a five out of five or rank it zero, with nothing in between. Different systems have different metrics. Because of problems such as this, these systems seem to only be vaguely used, or have their use specific to one particular site. The Amazon.com recommendation systems recommends items to you based upon what other people have bought, not on what they've ranked, that ranking system seems largely superfluous and tacked on. On Digg and Reddit, systems which do use explicit declarations, there is no range of ranking, only up or down votes.

I would like to see a system that that can see people's reviews across multiple platforms, weight them based on how relevant they are to the user, and provide some regularity to their usage.

Then, once we get that system together, then I suppose we could move forward. I'd love to see things such as plugging together Amazon.com's and Last.fm's recommendation systems together with those ranking systems. Then you can start using things such as tags, location data, social contacts, etc, to get some really accurate recommendation systems. And then maybe we can begin to think about a Whuffie system.