Thursday, March 06, 2008

iPhone SDK: Exceeding Expectations

Well, after all the various rumors about iPhone development (e.g. no interface builder, limited initial functionality) we have the actual announcements:

  • The iPhone development system is XCode

  • You get an iPhone simulator that runs on your Mac

  • Interface Builder works fine

  • Games with OpenGL and OpenAL work fine

  • And you can sell your apps through iTunes

And Apple will be blocking some potential iPhone applications that are bandwidth hogs, illegal, malicious, or porn related (like you need anything more than web-based development to do porn...).

Oh and the iPhone 2.0 software update will provide direct Exchange access.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

RIP Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax was, without doubt, one of the most influential game designers in history. He invented the role-playing game (with rules), as opposed to the role-playing game without rules, which has existed since before recorded history (heck, you can see kittens and puppies playing their version of "cowboys and indians").

As with many absolutely groundbreaking pioneers Gygax's work was so overwhelmingly influential that its many flaws have been treated, more-or-less, as fundamental pillars, so that the latest RPGs (paper or computer) usually contain many or even most of them, including "classes", "alignments", "levels", "to hit tables", "saving throws", and so on. When viewed in large, his ideas are brilliant, but when viewed close up, every detail is terrible, whether it's the historical research, the basic assumptions, the rules mechanics, or the quality of the writing.

Even so, not only has D&D spawned an entire class of imitative game designs, it has spawned comics, books, tv series, movies, computer games, scientific research, therapy, and training. More than an entire generation of geeks have grown up with D&D influencing their thinking and vocabulary. John Stewart makes D&D references on the Daily Show (as did Dave Foley in News Radio). The most successful computer game in the world right now is, unabashedly, a D&D derivative. Most of the key people at Microsoft, Apple, and Google have probably played D&D.

As a young gamer, I viewed TSR -- Gygax's game company -- in much the same light as many of us today view Microsoft -- a huge, unrelenting, capitalist monstrosity, destroying quality and diversity in its rapacious hunt for market share and profit. It was quite a revelation to me to discover, years later, that TSR was, more-or-less, a complete and utter boondoggle. So it's particularly depressing to consider that such a hopelessly mismanaged enterprise managed to wreak so much havoc in the gaming industry. Just how badly must SPI have been managed to have fared so poorly against such hopeless competition?

Anyway, I was sad to read Gygax's obituary on (in fact I read his Wikipedia entry first, and it had already been updated). I don't think he can be blamed for not being terribly good at the technical aspects of game design (historical research, logic, usability, writing) since his main contribution was really the idea of a formal role-playing game. It's just a shame that his admirers have been so uncritical in their acceptance of his mistakes. (Indeed, just recently there's been quite a bit of controversy over the efforts of the designers of D&D 4th Edition to fix just a few of the problems in D&D.)

Oh well, another 1000xp.

Oops, Net Concensus Wrong Again

The MacBook Air is topping the Apple Store's charts. (My wife is dead set on replacing her MacBook Pro with one.) How could we all have been so wrong? (Hey, I said it was going to appeal to the kind of people who buy Louis Vuitton handbags, but it seems to be doing better than that. Maybe I should have said Coach handbags...)

Well, the Air makes the right compromises. In the end, when you use a notebook you're guaranteed to use the display and keyboard and the Air makes no compromises on these, and does well on the third. Meanwhile, various (generally more expensive) PC competitors offer lots of ports, optical drives, removable batteries ... but compromise on the screen and keyboard. Yes, you MAY want a firewire port, or an ethernet port, or a DVD drive, but you WILL want a good keyboard and screen.

Personally, if I were to buy one, I'd get the ethernet dongle and the external drive, but I'd probably only use the dongle for bulk file transfers and hotels which don't have wireless, while the latter would live in a drawer (except for installing OS upgrades).

Sunday, March 02, 2008

A Little More Hedonic Regression

While it's very reasonable to be suspicious of changes to the way CPI is calculated based on the increasing utility of decreasingly expensive goods (i.e. "digital convergence") it's important to note that it really makes a lot of sense and is not without precedent.

Imagine if you will that you're an economist measuring CPI using a "fixed basket of goods" at the advent of printing. Now, while the ensuing information revolution will take place in slow motion compared to the digital revolution, consider just the following:

A member of the growing middle class will belong to some form of trade. In order to learn the necessary skills he/she becomes an apprentice and, in essence, provides several years of free labor in exchange for being taught the rudiments of his/her chosen profession. The printing press will eventually make this information available, essentially, for free.

An economist who includes "training" in the fixed basket will see food prices rise (as labor moves to the city during the industrial revolution) and the price of training and pins, say (Adam Smith's famous example) plummet, but anything not in the fixed basket won't be taken into account, and the trained workforce will consume vastly more training at very low prices from information which is now widely and cheaply disseminated.

This is exactly what's happening with computers today, and economists are struggling to accurately represent this in their calculations. As more things go digital we're finding computers more and more useful, and the fact that they're better and cheaper is a huge benefit to us all.

And lest you think my earlier comparison of the Nintendo DS to a desktop workstation is artificial (because the DS isn't a direct replacement for the workstation), you can buy a $10-20 gadget in Walmart today which has 20 or more 1980's arcade games in it, the equivalent of $500 or more worth of consoles and cartridges. And the fact that people prefer $500 PS3s to these things is a pretty compelling argument that the PS3 really is perceived as being worth more than 25x as much as $500 worth of 1980s arcade games. Similarly, the OLPC (which currently costs about $200) is a direct workstation replacement, and again it is far superior to any $5000 computer available in 1990. (Indeed, the company I worked at the time for bought a laptop in 1992 for $3500 which was a sad joke compared to the OLPC.)

Finally, consider how digital technology is constantly expanding its reach. In 1974 (when I first got interested in Photography) a typical SLR cost $200 or more in 1974 dollars, an enlarger cost another $200, and the other stuff you'd need to make your own pictures cost another $200. That's for black and white photography, and a single SLR with a fixed focal length lens. All these prices basically remained constant until cameras went digital. And when I get a faster computer for less money today, it's improving my photos and videos as well as my word-processing and gaming.

One of the fascinating aspects of all this is that there's an absolutely enormous opportunity for computers to deliver free "deflation" in the future. Optimization of software has almost become passe thanks to Moore's "Law". A typical web browser today uses 10-100MB to handle one web page. At some point, we assume, Moore's Law will run into a brick wall , and optimization will suddenly become more important. The staggering inefficiency* of modern software affords huge potential for future optimization and it's likely that enormous benefits will accrue, and much of it will likely be free (as improvements are made to the open source software than underpins most commercial software today). CPI calculations will get even more interesting.

* Actually it's efficient with respect to development effort, and inefficient with respect to performance. The calculations will change dramatically when Moore's Law gives out.

Hedonic Regression

According BEA deflators, $1,000 computers bought in 1990, 1995 and 2000 would cost $48.63, $95.84 and $526.58, respectively, today. I bought computers in each of those time frames and could not replicate any one of them for the suggested proportionate price in deflated dollars, regardless of free memory enhancement.

This very interesting website belongs to W. John Williams, a fellow who said on CNN that we're heading for another Great Depression. Now, I'm not exactly in the George W. "Pollyanna" Bush school of economic forecasting, but I do think he may a bit alarmist. Of course, since the purpose of his website is to provide "accurate" economic statistics (which disagree with the official versions) he may well determine us to be in a Great Depression whether anyone else agrees or not.

But, I would like to criticize the quoted passage which I found a bit over the top, because I have a pretty perfect counter-example.

This $129 toy exceeds any $5000 PC made in 1990

The Nintendo DS is tiny, rugged, runs for 10h or so on battery, has wireless networking, two RISC CPUs, and two pretty good color, backlit displays -- one of which is a touchscreen. This costs $129 today. You could not buy a desktop PC with similar capabilities in 1990 for under $5000. I'd hazard a DS would give an entry-level SGI of the time a run for its money.

(Note: the article was written in 2004, and the Nintendo DS originally came out in 2004 or 2005, but at a slightly higher price. There are plenty of other, similar examples to pick from, however.)

This example is pretty key, because it is one of the key points in his attack on modern CPI calculations which differ from earlier versions in arguing that the "fixed basket of goods" shouldn't be fixed if the goods get better. Some of his arguments (hamburger is not a fair substitute for steak) seem sound to me, assuming he hasn't misrepresented what the economists are doing, but his arguments against hedonic regression are, where he provides examples, simply wrong.

A safer car is truly more valuable than a less safe car -- just by factoring the lowered chance of death or injury.

Anyway, Williams argues that every change made to CPI calculations has reduced the CPI, and since a lot of things the Federal government pays for are CPI-indexed this is just free money for the Federal government (which is, as a cumulative result of all this fiddling, paying half as much Social Security as it would be with the old "fixed basket" calculation). In turn, GDP is quoted in "inflation adjusted" terms, so anything you do to reduce CPI increases GDP as well, making recessions disappear. And finally, he points out quite a bit of apparently willful ignorance: the government estimates things like increases in wages and investment income using voodoo when the IRS is actually measuring it and the values don't mesh. Guess what the consistent bias is?

Anyway, it's an interesting site (click "primers" for the free essays) and certainly worth reading (if you're at all interested in Economics) even if he's a little over the top.