Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cool Stuff, brittleness and culture war

First, some lighter stuff -- Derek Benson, the lunchbagdude, draws fantastic lunch bags for his son, every day.  See this one inspired by Startide Rising.  How lucky is that kid!

Sci-fi author Greg Bear to feed Halo fans hungry for details.

See Peter Norvig’s terrific “What if Abraham Lincoln had used Power Point at Gettysburg?”

Best thing I ever saw come from Microsoft.  It's a peek at how they expect the world to work, 10-15 years from now.  How do YOU think they are on-target or off-base?

Self-righteousness redux...  Clay Shirky addresses one of my major themes in discussing his own recent outrage over a “crime” purportedly committed by (one having to do with bias against gays, the details of which do not matter here)... one that Amazon actually did not commit.  ”In 1987, a teenage girl in suburban New York was discovered dazed and wrapped in a garbage bag, smeared with feces, with racial epithets scrawled on her torso. She had been attacked by half a dozen white men, then left in that state on the grounds of an apartment building. As the court case against her accused assailants proceeded, it became clear that she’d actually faked the attack, in order not to be punished for running away from home. Though the event initially triggered enormous moral outrage, evidence that it didn’t actually happen didn’t quell that outrage. Moral judgment is harder to reverse than other, less emotional forms; when an event precipitates the cleansing anger of righteousness, admitting you were mistaken feels dirty. As a result, there can be an enormous premium put on finding rationales for continuing to feel aggrieved, should the initial rationale disappear. Call it ‘conservation of outrage.’”

Of course, this has resonance with my own notion, supported by growing evidence, that self-righteous indignation actually triggers many of the same neural-reinforcement processes that underlie addiction. This was already known about rage and gambling. But since indignation poisons inter-human discourse in almost every field — spoiling our natural, pragmatic, problem negotiating skills — this “addiction” may do vastly more damage than all others, put together.

A noteworthy non-anniversary? --  A fan with the wonderful name Francesca Flynn wrote in, pointing out that May 2009 was the date on the mimeographed circulars printed by Godon, the Postman, in his lie-that-became the-truth.  Funny thing; his potemkin “National Recovery Act” had a similar name to a bill now before Congress.  Let’s hope and pray things never get that serious in our real world. 

Toward robustness -- I have long complained about trends toward increased brittlness in our civilization.  Surely the “war on terror” should have focused attention upon potential point failure modes that could have devastating consequences?  Back during the Cold War, when “thinking about the unthinkable” became a topic of passionate debate, there was talk of “Fail-Safe” -- a design methodology aiming to ensure that crucial systems, if and when they do fail, would fall back into a safe mode that prevents the very worst outcomes. (e.g accidental nuclear war.)  This meant that, should any of our systems controlling nuclear weapons degrade, malfunction or fall into the wrong hands, those systems would at worst do no harm.  But this doctrine has long ago been set aside, sacrificed on the altar of efficiency and so-called “success-oriented planning.” 

This trend - as we’ve seen - can prove terribly dangerous when a Black Swan arrive... the unforeseen event that hits unexpected.  After 9/11 and Katrina, one would think the lesson would be learned.  But the trend continues to be toward ever-greater reliance upon the perfect performance of a caste of expert first responders, with very little allowance for the possibility of massive first-line casualties, or big surprises, or even a nod toward the wisdom of redundancy.  Examples of this growing worry can be seen in the excess-emphasis on professionalism in the military, the over-reliance on zero-inventory “just-in-time” industrial practices... and in the newest hot trend, Cloud Computing -- which offers a long list of advantages, plus some very plausible dangers, should we rush into a system that puts all our information eggs into very few baskets

Also......See a diverting essay by Rudy Rucker about Stephen Wolfram's 'mazing views of artificial intelligence.  "Wolfram|Alpha looks like a search engine, in that there’s a one-line box where you type in a question.  The output appears a second or two later, as a page of text and graphics below the box.  What's happening behind the scenes? Rather than looking up the answer to your question, Wolfram|Alpha figures out what your question means, looks up the necessary data to answer your question, computes an answer, designs a page to present the answer in a pleasing way, and sends the page back to your computer."

Publicity stunt?  San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric said it was seeking approval from state regulators for an agreement to purchase power over a 15-year period from Solaren Corp., an 8-year-old company based in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The agreement was first reported in a posting to Next100.  Solaren would generate the power using solar panels in Earth orbit and convert it to radio-frequency transmissions that would be beamed down to a receiving station in Fresno, PG&E said. From there, the energy would be converted into electricity and fed into PG&E's power grid.

=== lighting the political lamp ===

NY Times Columnist - and fellow Asimov fan* Paul Krugman - has my respect at many levels.   But he can sometimes miss the big picture.  Recently, Krugman inveighed against President Obama’s purported lack of courageous leadership on the “torture front.” While Obama has moved toward ending shameful practices, shedding light on the past transgressions, restoring the trust of our allies and setting up procedures to prevent repetition, critics maintain that all of this will remain hollow and hypocritical without vigorous prosecuton and punishment of those who either commanded or else executed the travesties.

“What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — that would arguably be a price we must pay.”

Here I beg to differ, appealing to folks like Krugman that they should look at every angle.  Look, I too twinge over letting people have immunity for "following orders." In order to avoid bad precedents, this process should at minimum be confessional, as in South Africa's Truth & Reconciliation process. Bushite immunity doctrines have to be savagely rejected.

But is it possible that Obama is not simply wussing out for political reasons?  Might he have priorities that rank higher than punishing the monsters who despoiled America’s honor, for the last decade?  And no, I am not talking about focusing his efforts on fixing the economy -- even that is less important than Barack Obama’s true, historic purpose...

...which is to end the foul betrayal known as Culture War.  The trumped-up pitting of region vs region, rural vs urban, red vs blue, know-nothings vs science, the future assailed by a mythologized past, and the reflex measuring of all matters  against an insanely simplistic “left-right axis” that no longer even maps onto any sane definitions of “liberal” or “conservative,” anymore.

 This twenty-year campaign to divide America has effectively lobotomized the world’s greatest nation, leaving it bereft of foresight or ability to mobilize its most famous trait -- pragmatism -- toward the solution of a myriad 21st Century problems.  A sensible willingness to innovate and negotiate, shrugging aside dogma in favor of progress, based upon incremental problem-solving that is both hard-headed and good-hearted.  That has been the American genius, for several centuries.  While pragmatic incrementalism has never been easy or smooth, it has ultimately paid off, almost every time.  Moreover, it has never, ever been about faux European silliness like “left vs right.”

 And it has never been more needed than now.

Who would even want to thwart such a magnificent trait?  Only those who find the Western Enlightenment -- and America, its foremost champion -- loathesome.  Heck, I won’t even blame the retro-troglodytes of the fundamentalist/creationist awakening, whose hatred of the Enlightenment is visceral  and deeply psychological. They are adversaries, but sincere ones.  No, let’s go straight to the source -- the oligarchs who have financed culture war via agitprop agencies like Fox News. Those are the real beneficiaries of the Bush/neocon era.  And they are the ones who stand most to be thwarted, if Culture War ends and the nation can get back to business.

Seriously, do you see any other winners, including fundamentalists? Certainly markets, democracy, freedom, even capitalism and the Pax Americana that the neocons claim to love, all of these things have suffered terribly under Bushite misrule.  Only a narrow clade -- a small subset of billionaires -- stand to benefit from a continuation of our national illness.  But they have made it clear, they want culture war to go on.

And that is why Barack Obama must pick his battles.  Think! Any drive to indict and prosecute the “torture memo” writers would be counter-productive in many ways.

1) Obama is trying to rebuild the confidence of a US Civil Service, including our defense and intelligence agencies, who were deliberately savaged during the Bush years.  Having those people continue to think of themselves as Bush Era victims is extremely valuable. No single step is more needed, but it would be rocked back by such a campaign.

2) Attacking right now on the torture front would fall into a trap, allowing Fox & friends to portray it as a “liberal witch hunt” at the very moment when the base of the crazy right is crumbling, with millions of sincere, conservative Americans starting to drift away.

Look, even if we’re talking about some heinous stuff, there is precedent. When The US Government pardoned Jefferson Davis, after the Civil War, this action ran against a massive current of popular passion for vengeance. But the pardon has a practical aim.  Davis had planned to use his trial as a soapbox in which to establish that secession had been legal.  The victorious Union wanted the de facto rejection of that principle to  be accepted as a perpetual assumption, trampling the notion of state supremacy under the boots of half a million parading victors.

Parallels to this era?  Walking a tightrope, President Obama trying to find ways to permanently reject the  horrific moral lapses of the Bush Administration and to shine cleansing light upon them, without going to court trials that would further divide the nation and give rant-platforms to neocons, letting them bask in their favored drug of self-righteous indignation at public expense.  In any event, there are bigger and better fish to fry!

The key point is this:  Why should Obama spend political capital to go after one set of Bush -era crimes, when there ought to be others, just as easy to prosecute, that would bear and supply fresh political capital instead?  I am talking about crimes of direct malfeasance, corruptions and betrayal of trust, e.g. in the vetting of “emergency” government contracts to buddies.  Send up a few dozen on explicitly clear evidence of stuff like this and the shrill cries of “witch hunt” will only rile a fringe, while millions of decent American conservatives continue their veer of revulsion, away from a Republican Party that long ago abandoned any genetic connection to Lincoln, Eisenhower or Teddy Roosevelt.

Those are the crimes we and Obama should be going after, right now. Crimes that demonstrate venality, betrayal, outright criminality and complicity with a program of theft that helped hurt average Americans' livelihoods. That is where indictments will get consensus backing, helping anchor-in Obama's -- and our -- uprising against unreason.


Oh, go hunt down and read this one -- ”The GOP: divorced from reality: The Republican base is behaving like a guy who just got dumped by his wife.” By Bill Maher (LATimesOPINIONApril 24, 2009)  A bit extra-partisan, but worth it for the 2nd-to-last paragraph.

*(PS...Someone tell Krugman about FOUNDATION’S TRIUMPH.)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Digital Clock using Classic LED 7 Segment Displays

Simple digital clock PIC project

This is a simple digital clock project using PIC16F887 and classic LED 7-Segment from HP 5082-7414 created by punkky. The displays are bright red and sun light viewable. Each clock consumes about 0.25W (50mA, 5V) when the PIC16F887 operates at 250kHz (display refresh rate is about 61Hz).

Tag: digital clock, 7 segment display, PIC project src

Digital Clock using Classic LED 7 Segment Displays

Simple digital clock PIC project

This is a simple digital clock project using PIC16F887 and classic LED 7-Segment from HP 5082-7414 created by punkky. The displays are bright red and sun light viewable. Each clock consumes about 0.25W (50mA, 5V) when the PIC16F887 operates at 250kHz (display refresh rate is about 61Hz).

Tag: digital clock, 7 segment display, PIC project src

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

PIC Debugging Tool

PIC in circuit debugger tool

In-Circuit-Debugger is handy and easy PIC debugging tool for PIC programmers that interface to the target PIC placed- board. The device comes with MPLAB plug-ins that provides a full rich set of commands and functions in order to debug your code in real time. The project created by Electrical Engineer Atanasios Melimopoulos.

After hours of using some brands of ICDs, ICD2, etc. on different projects, I faced some hardware situations where the two pin interface ICD <-> PIC becomes annoying and sometimes difficult to work around. Apart from the fact that your target PIC must run at selected clock frequencies that allows the ICD-Uart baudrate multiplier to fit. Also, some pics do not allow the same on-hook commands upon which ICDs are based. There is no electrical isolation between the pic-target board and the USB–Serial PC-GND interface.


tag : PIC debugger, PIC programmer tools, PIC project src

PIC Debugging Tool

PIC in circuit debugger tool

In-Circuit-Debugger is handy and easy PIC debugging tool for PIC programmers that interface to the target PIC placed- board. The device comes with MPLAB plug-ins that provides a full rich set of commands and functions in order to debug your code in real time. The project created by Electrical Engineer Atanasios Melimopoulos.

After hours of using some brands of ICDs, ICD2, etc. on different projects, I faced some hardware situations where the two pin interface ICD <-> PIC becomes annoying and sometimes difficult to work around. Apart from the fact that your target PIC must run at selected clock frequencies that allows the ICD-Uart baudrate multiplier to fit. Also, some pics do not allow the same on-hook commands upon which ICDs are based. There is no electrical isolation between the pic-target board and the USB–Serial PC-GND interface.


tag : PIC debugger, PIC programmer tools, PIC project src

Monday, April 20, 2009

Inspiring robots set to nice music

Since, I'm on a bit of a mini-robot kick at the moment. I thought I would share some of the videos I've seen lately that at least inspired it. The elegance of some of these movements and the music remind me of the child-like imagination that we perhaps once had before becoming more jaded with age. At least, the dreams of a little engineer.

This last one is just fun.

Adventures with Bioloid

A couple of weeks ago, I was participating in the Siggraph Jury review process looking at some of the projects submitted this year. There were a couple of submissions using humanoid servo motor robots. Since I have always had an itch to play with robots that I've never had a chance to scratch, I decided to look into buying one. One of the best selections of these robots I found online was at Trossen Robotics. After a lot of reading and video watching, the current highest rated robots appear to be the Robonova, Kondo KHR-2HV, Futaba RBT-1, and the edutainment Robotis Bioloid. These are all very impressive robots that all (with the exception of the Bioloid) are used in the RoboCup Soccer competitions. Combined with the $900-$1500 price tags, these are definitely not your typical kids toy.

After much deliberation, I ended up going with the Bioloid. It's one of the more well documented robots with a healthy developer community, and it's highly reconfigurable. It comes with an "errector set"-like kit which allows you to build a variety of robots, not just humanoids. However, this modularity comes at the cost of extra weight. So, while the power-to-weight ratio of the servo motors maybe comparable to the higher-end robots, the overall performance of the robot is noticeably slower and clunkier. It also happens to be one of the cheaper robots at$900. I really liked the re-configurability (for future robot projects), the number of degrees of freedom (particularly in the hip), and the size of the community support/English documentation.

When I first got it, I was a little intimidated by the number of pieces in the box. Being an educational robot, I was hoping it was going to be a quick and simple setup. While the instructions are fairly easy to follow, it did take me about 5 hours from opening the box to a completed robot. Assembly requires handing many similar looking parts and lots of tiny screws. However, it is very satisfying to see the robot slowly take form as you assemble the components.

Once it is done, you do get an urge to say out loud "IT'S ALIVE!" with a grin on your face.

The included CD does have software to program and contol the robot, but as I expected, it is somewhat limited to keyframe pose playback or simplfied visual programming. My original intent was to run the robot using my own C/C++ or C# program. So, I didn't spend much time with the included software other than to verify the robot worked and to get an understanding of the control flow. The C development tools described by the documentation are for writing programs that run on the Atmega128 chip inside the robot. What I wanted was to run the control logic on my PC. However, getting my own software to control the robot ended up being quite a bit more challenging than I had expected.

The first major hurdle I had was the physical connection. The kit comes with a serial cable for communication with the robot, but it uses a DB-9 connector that is only found on desktops these days and my main machine is a laptop. The Bioloid has an expansion slot on its control board, the CM-5, for a wireless Zigbee connection. There are a few resources online explaining how to use a Bluetooh Module instead of a Zigbee module. So, I had ordered a BlueSMIRF module (WRL-08332) from Sparkfun in anticipation of doing this.

The Bioloid controller requires 57600 baud serial communication, but the Bluetooth modules typically come set to 9600 baud. To my frustration, the information on Sparkfun's website on exactly how to re-configure the baud rate is a little obtuse. They have different chipset versions with different command sets. Something I burned about 2 hours learning was that newer modules, with the BGB203 chip, CANNOT be configured wirelessly over the Bluetooth connection. They have to be configured via the wired TTL TX/RX connections. Moreover, to change the baud rate and save it to memory requires a TTL connection that can dynamically change its baud rate to issue the "save to memory" command at the new baud rate. My short lived attempt at trying to using a second Bluetooth module was a failure because while it could issue the "change baud rate" command it could not issue the "save to memory" command. =oP Anyway, once I got my hands on a USB TTL-232 cable, things went smoothly. One other important thing to check is the Bluetooth passkey of the module (using the configuration commands). In Vista, to make the Bluetooth serial port binding behave nicely I had to configure the bluetooth connection to use the passkey. It happened to be set to "0000" on my module despite the documentation from Sparkfun indicating it would be "default".

The second problem I ran into was that once I connected the Bluetooth module to the Zigbee communication pins, I discovered that it is NOT A REPLACEMENT for to the PC LINK serial programming cable port at the top of the CM-5. The data from the Zigbee unit is only meant to provide command bytes triggering behaviors in a program running natively on the CM-5. What I wanted was raw access to the servos so I could run control logic on the PC. This can only done via the PC LINK. The data from the Zigbee module never makes it to the servo motor bus. So after some digging, I found a schematic for the CM-5 and found where to piggy back data onto the main PC link. The image below shows where I connected my wires. The TX from the Bluetooth module is attached to the logic level side of the RS232 level converter. The other wires are connected to the Zigbee pins as decribed by the reference above.

This defintiely at your own risk and may behave badly if you try to connect the wired PC link cable at the same time. But since I intend to only use the Bluetooth serial connection, this was not a concern for me.

Now, I can run the included software such as Motion Builder using the Bluetooth connection as if I had the wired PC Link cable attached. Great! The CM-5 provides some commands such that if you open up a ternimal window to the serial port, you can get/set the data for each servo manually. However, the human readable commands use A LOT of bandwidth overhead. Given that the 57600 baud connection is already runnning much slower than the 1000000 native baud rate of the Dynamixel AX-12 servo motors, trying to control the robot via these commands was unbearably slow even if executed programmatically and I kept running into buffer limits on more complex commands.

A not-very-well documented mode of the CM-5 is "Toss Mode" which appears to be a pass through mode to the servo motor bus. Put the CM-5 in Manage Mode, and hit the Start button. In your PC's terminal window, type "t" then hit enter. It should respond with "Toss Mode". At this point, any bytes sent via the serial connection is pushed directly onto the servo motor bus and vice versa. Finally! Exactly what I wanted. After slowly making my way through the Dynamixel AX-12 User's guide, I now have a small C# library that provides direct control/communication with the servos via the serial port. It's still pretty rough but once I clean it up a bit more, I'll probably make it available for download. But, it is a farily straight forward implementation of key commands from the Dynamixel users manual. The hard part was getting the hardware into the right configuration to allow direct communication.

The next step to do is write my own control and logic software to see if I can make it do more interesting things than simply recall preset poses. There's also a mild annoyance in that the 57600 baud serial link is about 17x slower than the 1000000 baud servo bus speed. If this becomes an issue, I might explore making an alternative controller board that would provide 1000000 baud pass through, or even put each limb on a separate bus to parallelize I/O making it even faster. This could result in a 70x speed bump in servo communication which would be helpful with real-time control logic.

(update 4-22-09) It looks like Scott Ferguson has C# libraries for controlling a dynamixel directly via a serial port. He was using a USB2Dynamixel adapter. The bad this is that it doesn't provide power to the servo, only control. So, using the CM-5 a wirelss control/power brick is still fairly attractive.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Irony #1: billionaire-subsidized "populists"

First off, a quick note: Last year, I was one of the main pundits on "Life After People," the top-rated show ever to run on the History Channel.  Now comes "Life After People: The Series"... starting 10pm this coming Tuesday... on History.  I’m in some of these episodes, too.

Also: one of you regulars (TwinBeam) offered the following, down in comments: “What should we call our economic crisis?
1929 - 1933 : The Great Depression
2008 - 20?? : The Lousy Depression
Just thought we should start thinking about a name for this dog, in case it sticks around...

T’would be funny, if it didn’t hurt.

And who could let this pass without comment? Texas' Republican Gov. Rick Perry's praise for his state's tea party protestors, accompanied by not-so-veiled references to a potential Lone Star State secession.

Um... weren’t these the super-patriot flag-wavers, just three months ago?  Isn’t this the very same thing we saw in 1861, when Jefferson Davis - who had only a few years before given a speech declaring undying, perpetual loyalty to the USA “right or wrong” - flounced away into treason, before Abraham Lincoln had a chance to perform even one official act? Without even giving Lincoln a chance to negotiate?  Small surprise, actually.  Scratch a redneck “patriot” and you’ll find a fellow who has fantasized, all his life, of riding with Nathan Bedford Forest.

But no, incredible, staggering hypocrisy is NOT the most astonishing thing.

After the rallies, Perry downplayed his secession comments, amending them ] in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, to say: "I'm trying to make the Obama Administration pay attention to the Tenth Amendment." The so-called Tenth Amendment Movement, asserting the rights of the states to claim all powers not granted specifically to the federal government, has been grist for conservatives for more than a decade.

No, what is more mind-blowing is the inability of Democrats to even glance toward hypocrisy as the killer issue.  For example, by pointing out that “states rights” were stomped flat under Bush and that Obama has cut loose the federal handcuffs from many state initiatives....

... or, with Fox News running all these “anti-tax tea parties” how trivial it would be to point out that Fox is largely owned and controlled by two foreign billionaires, one of whom almost hand created Culture War while the other is a Saudi prince and fourth-richest man in the world?  The notion that such people could get away with using populist, anti-elite rhetoric and sentiments to herd tens of thousands of fools into the streets, in order to demand more tax cuts for the very same oligarchs who drove our economy into the tank... that would be positively weird.  But the fact that Democrats seem unable to grasp this nettle and find the right polemical tools to turn the resentful populists on their masters... that part is simply beyond all understanding.

One polemical antidote may be suggested by the wry satire of Stephen Colbert.  What if some people began showing up at these trumped-up “populist” rallies, offering  big posters with the following messages, held-high, perfectly straight-faced.





Any other suggested “Colbert-Style” signs to wave at Fox-run rallies?  Only remember to be prepared and thorough. Stay in character! Because stations other than Fox will zoom in to interview you!  So have some good Colbert-ish patter ready.  Like about how America has been going down the wrong road ever since those pathetic leftists, Adam Smith and Thomas Paine preached against aristocracy.  Decry the flat social structure of the 50s-70s as socialism. Poker faced, demand that we keep going down the road pushed by Fox -- toward feudalism.

Also in the news... In 2010, incumbent Rick Perry will face a challenge from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, in what is likely to be a . Strains are showing between rural social conservatives, who back Perry, and big-city Republicans, whose concern about changing demographics have helped motivate their support for Hutchison.  In any event, one can hope this may lead to the Republicans staging their own “Miracle of 1947.

Oh, finally. Re those “tea parties” on tax day... Just a month after the birth of my first child, I made yearly a practice that I began back in the 1970s and that I recommend to all Americans, who both love their country and want to see the next generation less-burdened by the wastefulness of ours.  Beyond honestly and carefully paying whatever taxes that I owe, I also send a small and entirely separate donation to the U.S. Treasury, to be applied against the National Debt.  It isn’t much - a gesture - but it seems a good way to express not only faith and commitment, but also rejection of the Cult of Selfishness that got us into this mess.  If you feel as I do, then send your check (made out to US Treasury) to the Treasury Dept: Bureau of Public Debt, PO Box 2188, Parkersburg WV, 26106-2188. Send enough so that their time logging it and sending a thank you note isn’t a net loss to our kids, okay?  And feel free to use this, next time some ranting flag waver fool tries to “out-patriot” you.   It leaves the “tea-baggers” staring, slack-jawed.  Some of them even shamed. (Of course, tutoring at a homework club accomplishes much more...)

President Obama said he would seek a reform of the U.S. tax code, calling the current tax system is a "10,000-page monstrosity." But that promise has been made by others before.  Whenever somebody proposes tax simplification, we run up against the fact that every “simplification” would gore somebody’s ox.  The more code-trimming you do, the more people will scream.

In fact, I know a simple way the tax code could be trimmed by perhaps 70% or more, without much political pain or obstructionism! Because I designed the method to be mostly politically neutral.  It does not aim at some utopian fantasy (like the Flat Taxers rave about.)  It gores very few sacred cows, and would be cheap and easy to implement. And almost guaranteed to work! (Only accountants should hate it.  Yet, to the best of my knowledge it has never been tried, or even proposed! Alas.

How? It is easy enough to create a program that would take the tax code and cybernetically experiment with zeroing-out dozens, hundreds of provisions while sliding others upward and then showing, on a spreadsheet, how these simplifications would affect, say, one-hundred representative types of taxpayers. The key innovation would be to program in boundary conditions to this experiment.  The top first condition would be “no losers.”  Let the program find the simplest version of a refined tax code that leaves all 100 taxpayer clades unhurt.  If one group loses a favorite tax dodge, the system would seek a rebalancing of others to compensate.  No human being could accomplish this, but I have been assured by experts that a computer could do this in a snap. If the iterative search finds a new, much simpler structure that leaves none of the 100 groups more than 5% worse off than they currently are, then who is going to scream?

Oh, cheaters will scream.  And of course, after simplification would come some genuine tax policy shifts that DO advantage some and disadvantage others.  Like all of you, I have my favorite injustices I’d love to see redressed, behaviors disincentivized, business ventures stimulate...

 But, by starting with “no-losers,” you can use politically neutral optimization routines to find a much simpler system, trimming and slimming the machinery to use the fewest moving parts, in order to achieve the same job it is doing right now.  The, and only then, will it make sense to argue about steering the vehicle in new directions.

Re a common theme of mine -- the fact that oligarchy has always been the worst enemy of freedom, whether it wears raiment of the left or right -- someone wrote in: “The deeper point here is that elites will tend to form in any society regardless of the economic model they follow or the political doctrine they ostensibly espouse. Those familiar with George Orwell's 1984 may recognize this if they recall that the "forbidden book" featured as criticizing the totalitarian regime of Big Brother was titled "The Theory of Oligarchical Collectivism." Note that Orwell, who to the end of his days considered himself a man of the left, placed oligarchy as a qualifier ahead of collectivism.

“The tragic experiences of the 30's and 40's taught Orwell that the economic determinism of the left was hopelessly flawed by its failure to come to grips with reality of the oligarchic impulse. Perhaps the last thirty years, culminating in the crisis of international Capital (ie, oligarchic corporatism), will teach us the same lesson regarding the economic determinism of the right.”

Vital stuff to remember.

Another matter: The US government is to increase security at the country's border with Mexico in an attempt to combat drug cartels, the White House has announced. Let me reiterate.  Democrats talk tolerance and promote it... but also put far more boots on the ground, at the border.  Clinton did it, Obama is doing it.  Bush savagely cut the Border Patrol.  Will any Democrat or liberal pundit, ever, stare this fact in the face and talk about it?

More reader comments: ”If a corporation is deemed “too large to fail,” then it may be necessary to incur the moral hazard and terrible public expense in order to save it.  On the other hand a clear price for saving it should be to break it up, into units small enough that later failures won’t threaten the public with grievous harm.  Breakup of near monopolies into smaller, more agile units should be a price of saving them.”

Another reader wrote in to comment on how I have been describing the abandonment of Adam Smith by the right. That icon and co-founder of modern capitalism is now an embarrassment to the oligarchs who control today’s conservatism, since Smith called oligarchy the very worst enemy of free enterprise.  

So who has replaced Smith in the hagiography of the right?  Glenn Beck has been ranting lately about Thomas Paine. True, Paine railed against abuse of authority. But the truly heinous betrayal of Paine, by Beck & co., can be seen by actually reading Paine’s pamphlets, instead of turning him into a strawman.  In fact, Paine despised aristocratic oligarchy even more than Adam Smith did and far more radically.

Seriously, read up about this.  Even those Founding Fathers who were aristocrats shared much of this radical attitude.  Today, every last one of them would be laughing at the teabaggers.

Nibris subsidiary Bloober Team emerges

Bloober Team, the subsidiary studio of Poland-based ´Sadness´ developer Nibris has finally launched their website, announcing three new games and dishing out information on their various in-house graphics engines.

For a start, Bloober Team claims to be an approved developer by both Nintendo and Sony, currently seeking Microsoft approval. The studio also claims to be developing four titles and has apparently developed two graphics engines.

´Last Flight´ (WiiWare); development status: demo ready
´Troopies series´ (Xbox360, WiiWare, PSP); development status: early stage of production
´Engineering an Empire: Egypt´ (DS, PSP, PC); development status: unknown
Undisclosed RPG project (Xbox360, WiiWare); development status: preproduction

´Cross Engine´ (Wii, PC, with Xbox360 and PSP support by the end of the year)
´Black Horse engine´ (DS)

No screenshots are available on the site. Instead, the studio shows three pieces of artwork for ´Last Flight´. Here is one of them:

Interestingly enough, the website seems to make no mention of parent studio Nibris, although some images are shared between the websites and Nibris links to Bloober as a "befriended studio".

While the site looks professional, it also contains some spelling mistakes and awkward use of English.

It seems also worthy of note that the studio appears to concentrate solely on digital distribution. It seems that they will not release any games on physical media.

I know some of have been waiting for my in-depth analysis of Nibris for some time. While I must apologize for the time it took me so far, it is coming along and will be published as soon my little son gives me some time off. I estimate that it should be done within the next four weeks.

Source: Bloober Team

Friday, April 17, 2009

Nintendo consoles no vehicle for mature games?

The high-profile DS title ´Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars´ has sold a mere 88.704 units in the US in March, prompting fears that Nintendo platforms simply are not the right vehicle for mature games. In the face of rave reviews for the game, analyst Eric Krangel found some very strong words regarding the poor sales figures.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is dying on the shelves. (...) So how did Take-Two flub a sure thing? Chinatown Wars was built for the wrong console. The title -- whose gameplay centers around drug dealing, cold-blooded murder, and sex -- is only available on the Nintendo DS, who's primary audience is children. Parents refused to let their kids play, and the adult DS audience just isn't that big.

Take-Two reps tell us in a phone call that they remain confident in the long-term success of Chinatown Wars, and they note March was difficult for all videogame publishers, with sales down 17% across the industry.

Chinatown Wars may yet find life down the road, but all in all a rare misstep from Take-Two. And the winner here might actually be Sony (SNE): The Chinatown Wars disaster will likely scare other publishers away from making new adult-themed games for the Nintendo DS. Some may redirect efforts towards Sony's PSP, which targets a somewhat older crowd.

In the story's comments, a GameFAQs moderator seems to accuse Krangel of bias and points out that "the highest profile game on the PSP this month sold only a mere 55,000 units. So it bombed even harder than Chinatown Wars."

To be sure, Eric Krangel is just as critical of other consoles. The same author recently called the PlayStation3 a "sinking ship" which is "flopping so badly".

So, purely objectively, are mature titles like ´Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars´ wasted on Nintendo platforms? Or will they deliver impressive sales figures in the long run?

I have argued that 2009 will become the crossroads for the Wii regarding mature games. By the end of this year, 20 survival horror games should be available for the platform, as well as the undisputably most violent videogame ever, ´MadWorld´. This game, alongside ´House of the Dead: Overkill´, is probably also the most stylish videogame to be released in a long time. There will be five titles in the ´Resident Evil´ series, two of which are exclusives. Sales figures for games like these will either pave the way for more such games or will turn developers of mature titles away from Nintendo for years to come.

While the quality of ´MadWorld´ and ´House of the Dead: Overkill´ is not questionable, the sales figures certainly are. These games sold 66.000 and 45.000 units in the USA in their first month, respectively, according to Gamasutra. Now, those are clearly very poor sales figures, albeit Sega claiming otherwise.

As a reminder, though, mature titles on Wii have sold well in the past. Apparently, ´Resident Evil 4 Wii edition´ and ´Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles´ have sold 1,5 and 1,25 million units, respectively. After all, Capcom recently announced a sequel to the latter.

´Red Steel´, ´Metroid Prime 3: Corruption´ and both parts of ´Call of Duty´ sold above a million and ´The House of the Dead 2 & 3 Return´ just under. These are pretty decent sales. The newer titles do have a long way to go until they get anywhere near these figures, if they ever do.

EDIT ´GTA Chinatown Wars´ sold almost as much in its second month, proving to some analysts that mature titles on Nintendo platforms are simply long-sellers.

Source: Business Insider
Thanks to: Joystiq, Mark

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Blame the corporate boards... and change them.

I am going to jump in again, this time by simply snipping-in segments from the newsletter of tech-industry pundit Mark Anderson, perhaps his best missive yet!

I had dinner last week in Washington, D.C., with a top lobbyist, who told me proudly that she had led the charge in repealing the Glass-Steagall Act. (This allowed banks to get involved with non-bank, high-risk activities.) I had heard that the bankers spent $1B to get rid of this iconic piece of learning from the Great Depression; she confirmed it. Ten years later she is 38, and she laughingly told me over hors d’oeuvres that she now recognizes it was a huge mistake, adding that she no longer represents the banks.

Oops. I guess that’s how you destroy empires. Which leaves the obvious unfortunate impression: the banks themselves must have known what a mistake this would be.
Yesterday, in a lunch discussion with serial entrepreneur Al Davis, we covered all this ground in about an hour, and then he said, “You know, this all comes down to the board of directors.” ...We can blame the regulators who really came from industry, we can blame the bankers and CEOs and their lobbyists, we can blame the politicians who pretended that no regulation was good regulation, we can blame co-presidents George Bush and Dick Cheney. But, with the exception of the last two, there is another layer of governance that should take most, if not all, of the responsibility: the board of directors.

Let me start by breaking the neck of the good-old-boy scheme: most board members are friends (or even relatives) of the CEO, or work for him or her. Those who are not – even the most independent “outside” directors – tend to be selected on a rank of the CEO’s ability to direct, manipulate, or intimidate them; OR because they are guaranteed not to look too closely at the company.

example: AIG wrote insurance in amounts far greater than its total book value, or the value of all its reserves, creating liabilities infinitely beyond its ability to pay. Today, the now-defrocked longtime CEO Hank Greenberg continues to “protest too much” on TV: that he is the good guy, the government got it all wrong, if only he were still in charge all would be fine, the government wrecked his company, and so on.

How did Hank and his short-term successor, Milton Sullivan, get away with it all? It would appear, among other things, that they used the usual tricks: find famous, busy people who make you look good and have no time to dig deeply into company affairs; and make sure your board is too large, so that nothing ever really happens at board level. In AIG’s case, that number was 17, or about eight more than are really useful.

What about the board of Lehman Brothers? Or Bear Stearns? Who exactly authorized 30/1 leverage on contracts that no one could understand, in numbers beyond count? Some board members, from the Old Model, would say: Well, that’s a level of detail beyond what we were asked to look at.
Great companies don’t fail because of one madman; they fail because of one too-timid board. And great civilizations don’t fail because of one company gone awry; they fail because core beliefs and values fall away, which we’ve seen in the U.S. recently.

Terrific insights. Wish I could pass on the whole thing. Some followup questions, though.

1) What about the antitrust laws against interlocking directorates? Have you seen evidence that members of one board cozy up to their CEO in part because he can do the same on their boards? If so - and even if it is done third-hand, to mask things - should not people go to jail?

2) To what extent has CEO compensation skyrocketed because of what boils down to a "cartel"?
If a small clade of a few thousand golf buddies control and corner a market -- in this case for "top managerial talent" -- can't they thereupon curtail supply and create the appearance of scarcity, boosting prices just likeOPEC & deBeers?

The very theory of capitalism that these guys praise should have corrected these compensation packages by attracting fresh supplies of new talent into management, bringing competition and hauling prices down again. When something quacks like a cartel, waddles like a cartel, and smells like a cartel... should not some ducks be carted off to jail for restraint of trade?

More important, should not their praise of capitalism and markets be exposed as hypocrisy?

3) I have long felt that "corporate democracy" can be reformed with one simple change. Instead of current proxy-based stockholder voting, in which a vast majority of stock owners simply don't get involved -- favoring whoever is currently in charge, let blocks of stockholders self-organize. Any group that comes up with 20% of shares can send a director to the board. Ideally, you'd get five very different activists. But this way, you'll at least get two.

Hence the danger. If our present crisis lasts too long, the U.S. and the world and its people will suffer badly. But if it ends too soon... then not enough tumbrels will roll, things will remain the same, and civilization will fail to right itself with enough reforms.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Arduino Autopilot Control

Arduino Autopilot Control Project

ArduPilot is a full-featured autopilot based on the Arduino open-source hardware platform. It is a custom PCB with an embedded processor (ATMega168) combined with circuitry to switch between RC control and autopilot control (that's the multiplexer/failsafe, otherwise known as a "MUX"). This controls navigation (following GPS waypoints) and altitude by controlling the rudder and throttle. These components are all open source. This autopilot is fully programmable and can have any number of GPS waypoints (including altitude) and It uses infrared (thermopile) sensors for stabilization and GPS for navigation.

microcontroller auto pilot project

tag : Arduino project, Auto Pilot Control, Embedded project src

Arduino Autopilot Control

Arduino Autopilot Control Project

ArduPilot is a full-featured autopilot based on the Arduino open-source hardware platform. It is a custom PCB with an embedded processor (ATMega168) combined with circuitry to switch between RC control and autopilot control (that's the multiplexer/failsafe, otherwise known as a "MUX"). This controls navigation (following GPS waypoints) and altitude by controlling the rudder and throttle. These components are all open source. This autopilot is fully programmable and can have any number of GPS waypoints (including altitude) and It uses infrared (thermopile) sensors for stabilization and GPS for navigation.

microcontroller auto pilot project

tag : Arduino project, Auto Pilot Control, Embedded project src

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

SPOT : AVR Wireless Flash Trigger

wireless flash triger for camera

The SPOT (strobist-project-opensource-trigger)is a remote flash trigger radio transceiver. It lets you adjust and trigger off-camera flashes remotely. It has two modes of operation: First, As a transmitter it sits on the hot shoe of a camera and forwards electrical flash trigger signals from the camera to slave flashes via radio. Secondly, As a receiver it is connected to a small hot shoe ("system") flash. The project use microcontroller AVR ATmega 8L as main controller.

Download :
Documentation and source

tag : microcontroller project, avr ATmega 8L, wireless flash triger

SPOT : AVR Wireless Flash Trigger

wireless flash triger for camera

The SPOT (strobist-project-opensource-trigger)is a remote flash trigger radio transceiver. It lets you adjust and trigger off-camera flashes remotely. It has two modes of operation: First, As a transmitter it sits on the hot shoe of a camera and forwards electrical flash trigger signals from the camera to slave flashes via radio. Secondly, As a receiver it is connected to a small hot shoe ("system") flash. The project use microcontroller AVR ATmega 8L as main controller.

Download :
Documentation and source

tag : microcontroller project, avr ATmega 8L, wireless flash triger

Is "Overseas Contingency Operations" a case of doublespeak?

One possible (though not certain) sign that President Obama may be on the right track is the way that he’s attracting fire from dingbats on all sides, and not just the far-right.  One case in point that I feel compelled to comment on, off-schedule, was a load of tomfoolery offered on the Huffington Post by Ira Chernus, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  

In “Requiem for the War on Terror,” Chernus first  rightfully critiques some of the duplicity and malignity that were rife during the Bush Administration, whose bellicose terminology trumped-up an exaggerated state of emergency as an excuse for irrationality, theft and horrific national management.  

Only then, Chernus takes Obama to task for replacing  the "war on terror" (WoT) with an admittedly clumsy phrase -- “Overseas Contingency Operations.”    Granted, it is an  infelicitous choice, but Chernus sees this as just verbal legerdemain, replacing one excuse for imperialism with another.   Alas, here  he gets it all completely wrong.

But lets briefly revisit where Chernus was on-target.  Bush’s “War on Terror”  (WOT) was, indeed, a farcical Orwellian distraction, aimed at helping to rationalize imperialism, oligarchy and outright fraud.  But the worst crime inherent in the WOT is something so ironic -- and so offset from the standard political axis -- that it goes almost unremarked.  For you see, the "war on terror" was perpetrated by men who styled themselves as realpolitik pragmatists, but who were in fact totally idealistic and ideologically-driven fools.    If these fellows were imperialists, they were profoundly incompetent ones, who completely mangled all the goals that they cynically proclaimed.

The proof is right in front of us, in real world outcomes from the last two decades.  Pax Americana was at its very peak when they entered office.  Under Bill Clinton, we achieved the triple play sought by all previous top-nations, to be respected, liked and feared, in all of the best ways.   After the stunningly efficient Balkans Operation delivered Europe its first peace in 4,000 years, our alliances were firm, popularity high (even among most muslims), military readiness scored at maximum, science, economy and finances were all at peak health.  Above all, our twin reputations for both moral international behavior and rare-but-ferociously effective use of force meant that only suicidally determined maniacs would choose to challenge  the unipolar American Peace.

Sadly, such maniacs existed and made their enmity known.  Their extreme good luck coincided with a perfect storm of ill-fortune and bad moves on our part.  But the subsequent, rapid toppling of the Taliban only maintained and fostered the impression of invincibility that the skilled men and women of our security services spent decades building...

...only to see it all frittered away by the top political leadership casts.  By the very same neocons who uttered the language of force with their every breath.  There is the stunning irony!  American pre-eminence, the purported neocon goal, was virtually destroyed by the neocons.  Our alliances, military readiness, science, economic and social health were all savaged, as fully and effectively as if it had been done on deliberate purpose.

Can no one stare, agape, as I do, at the bizarre juxtaposition.  The liberals who claim to despise imperialism, are good at managing a (light-handed and generally beneficent) empire, while the imperialists prove calamitously bad at it?  If this causes cognitive dissonance, get over it.  There are literally dozens of other strange chords... like the fact that Democrats always guard our borders better, or that small businesses and stocks and budgets all do better under those supposed “free spenders.”  Live with it.

The crux.  There is absolutely nothing inconsistent about Barack Obama wanting to reverse the worst damage done to our world stature by the Bushite neocon gang.  That reversal can and must include restoring alliances, our science, our economic health... and yes, the military readiness and respect for American power that gave the world its longest and best peace since Roman times.  

Reflex liberals like Ira Chernus need to grow up. Just because the neocons stood for addle-pated, moronic, schoolyard imperialism, that does NOT mean abandoning Pax Americana is the logical response. (Recall that the American Peace was the brainchild of Democrats Truman, Marshall and Acheson.  After WWII, the GOP leaders wanted either isolationism or a spasm confrontation with Communism. This gentle imperium was a Democratic construct.)

Furthermore, just because the "war on terror" was trumped-up does not mean we aren't in a memic struggle of cultures!  One that confronts us with determined foes who wish to see us toppled, threatening our fragile Enlightenment with destruction and pain, unless we are willing to defend it.  Hopefully with skill and competence and courage and goodwill, as we did so effectively in the Balkans.  Indeed, that is the ONLY way it can be done, nowadays.

Just listen to the men and women of the US Officer Corps.  Obama is (tentatively) their dream come true.  It is time for democrats to get over the Vietnam war, at long last, and embrace the skilled people who were the worst victims of the Bush era.  Doing so (for one thing) would further isolate the neocons, politically.  It is also the right thing to do.

Alas, Chernus ignores all this, showing that he is a left-wing version of the same kind of doofus we had to suffer under on the right. For example, by failing utterly to distinguish between wars of emergency and wars of national policy.    And here is where we see the point behind Obama’s use of  the contorted term “Overseas Contingency Operations.”

George Bush couched all his overseas adventures in terms of an "emergency" for many reasons, above all so he could bypass contracting rules and award lavish deals to friends, thus helping them to steal billions.  But that hysterical word  "emergency" also covered many other sins, e.g. budget deceits and torture. It was also an excuse for calling up and abusing the reserves and national guard.  

Obama is firmly ending that betrayal.  His "Overseas Contingency Operations" terminology clearly and rightfully reclassifies our engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq as the other kind of war... wars of national policy, in which our armed forces will be used judiciously, carefully, efficiently to pursue rational goals, without using the crutch of a false "emergency" to excuse waste and fraud and concealment of pain. Above all, lacking the frantic justification of the “E-word,” operations that deal with international contingencies must be performed with careful attention to whether each step actually serves the long-term interests of both nation and civilization.  In other words, they have to be much more than worth the cost.

Should we EVER have wars of national policy?  The reflex of the left would be to shout "never!" Same with libertarians.  Americans are uncomfortable with outright imperial enforcement of policy goals by use of force. We don't like to view ourselves as being like Romans, nor should we!

 But until Pax Americana has a reasonable alternative, we should keep to George Marshall's plan, which worked pretty well, so far. Till some kind of wise law envelopes the planet, we have to be willing, at times, to police a dangerous and unruly world.  As the Balkans mission showed, it can be done sagaciously and well, triggering vast international acceptance and goodwill.  The crux is whether the Pax is being led by wise and good pragmatists, not vile and corrupt idealogues.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Let's Discuss (Senior Projects/Everythings) in our Forums

Working on Microcontrollers is needed some practical experiences. Due to this reason, I started the Microcontroller Programming Forums for community discussion. The aim is to create an online discussion board there the members can helps each other. Sharing an experience is expectation for our Forums. Whoever you are i.e. Engineer, Scientist, Student, Hobbyist, alls are welcome to our forum:

For a student who is working on senior project related to MCUs, it is a great chance to find an expert you can consult online.

Why don't you joint us. Please become our member.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

This week in ´neues´: Violence in videogames

I interviewed Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Cheryl Kay Olson, co-director at the ´Center for Mental Health and Media' and author of the book `Grand Theft Childhood` as part of today's program, focussing on violent videogames and their possible effect on children and adolescents. Here is an exclusive interview in English, which I translated for our webpage into German.

Why did you approach this debate about violent videogames? A lot of German politicians would have you believe there is plenty of research around already and it clearly reveals a causal relationship between violent video games and aggressive behavior.

There are actually fewer studies than people realize. Also, some studies don’t measure the content of games played (only how much time was spent playing games); other studies confuse children’s aggressive play with violence that’s intended to hurt someone. Many studies include only a few dozen children, and then claim to represent all children. And studies are often done with college studies in artificial settings, where the students play a game for 20 minutes (very unlike real life).

Our research (involving surveys and focus groups) was designed with the needs of parents in mind. We wanted to help parents (including ourselves!), teachers, doctors and politicians understand what kinds and amounts of video game play are normal, when to worry about violent video games, and when video games might even benefit children.

Violent video games are commonly linked to school shootings and videogame critics assert that they often push the perpetrators over the brink. Does that not make those games dangerous? The Bavarian interior minister called them “killing simulators” and compared the impact of them to the impact of child pornography.

There is so much publicity about school shootings in the US, Germany and other countries. But a review of the data shows that this type of violence is not increasing – it’s the media coverage of the violence that has gone way up. So, people believe that school violence is much more common than it is. (Your child is actually more likely to be struck and killed by lightning than to be shot at school.)

The Secret Service and the FBI in the US have studied school shootings in an effort to identify a “profile” of potential shooters and prevent these tragedies. They were not able to find a profile. The only thing these shooters had in common was male gender and (often) a history of treated or untreated depression. Some were bullies and some were victims of bullies; some were good students and some did poorly in school. Many did watch violent films or play violent games, but the average teenage boy today does this, too. School shooters often wrote stories about imagined violent acts, however.

Also, we researched the issue of whether it’s possible to learn to shoot from a video game. Experts told us that it’s actually not difficult to shoot a gun at someone who is not moving, is not shooting back at you, and is not far away from you – even if you have little experience with guns. Media reports on a few school shootings in the U.S. said that these boys had never fired a real gun, but learned only from video games; this turned out not to be true. They had practiced with real guns.

Your book seems to assert that a gut reaction to such a topic can often be misleading, even entirely wrong.

People have been worried about bad influences from new media ever since the debut of cheap paperback novels in the late 1800s. These fears were also expressed about violent movies, television, and comic books. One difference with video games is their interactive nature; if I’m concerned about a movie, I can rent it on DVD and fast-forward through it to see if the content is appropriate for my child. I can’t do that with a video game. Also, many parents don’t know how to operate the controls on their child’s video game console. And when parents see photos or short video clips from very violent games, they may wrongly assume all games are like that. Finally, the fact that these are called “games” makes people think they are for children; just like films, many video games are definitely not created for children.

Critics of video games often assert that violence in games is far more detrimental than violence in movies because you act out the violence yourself. Is that so? Or is there another way of looking at this? Could games even be the better vehicle for violence because the player can control the degree and pace of the violence? In a horror movie, I am at the director’s mercy and helplessly subjected to his idea of how much violence can be shown.

There are many opinions about this issue, but very little research. I can understand the argument that acting out violence seems worse than watching it. However, game controls are not at all like real weapons, and the physical movements used in games cannot train you to carry out real-life violence.

Also, the video game player is always aware that he is playing a game, and must take an active role to keep the game going. He can pause or quit at any time. One might argue that this reinforces the difference between the game world and the real world. When we watch a film, we have no control over the story and the only way we can stop it is to turn it off or leave the room; this is potentially more traumatizing for a child than a game that he controls.

You seem to be much more concerned with the effects of games used as marketing tools and browser games. Why is that?

When everyone is focused on violent content in commercially available, rated games, it can be easy to overlook Web-based games that may promote offensive attitudes or beliefs. It is impossible for governments to regulate or rate games that are played over the Internet. Parents need to be careful to monitor Internet use for that reason; some free web-based games are racist or sexist, while others push commercial products.

You are a mother yourself. What should parents do? Is it enough to check the age ratings?

One problem with the age ratings is that they don’t tell us about the context or the goals of the violence. Studies on TV violence tell us that the manner in which violence is portrayed could make a child more or less likely to imitate violence. For example, if the perpetrator of violence is appealing and attractive, if no pain or suffering is shown resulting from the violence, or if the violence is shown as humorous, these might increase the risk of imitation.
Age ratings also don’t address other things parents told us were important to them – such as whether violence is done to aliens, zombies or other unrealistic characters vs. realistic humans. And as one parent said, “"It's one thing, killing; it's another thing, you know, chopping, decapitating, lighting on fire…."

My son is now 19; he was 14 when we started our research on video games. Our computers were in a shared room, so I was able to observe the kinds of games he played and how he reacted to them, while I was doing work on my own computer. Some of his games had violent content, but what he really seemed to enjoy were interesting stories and complex characters. And at times, if he had a difficult day, he would work out his stress and anger through a violent game.

If possible, ask your child to teach you how to play part of a game he enjoys, and ask him to explain what he likes about it. Even if you are not comfortable playing video games yourself, it’s important to watch your child play now and then to see what is in his favorite games, and how he reacts to them. For example, most children feel more relaxed after playing a video game. If your child is more angry and stressed after playing a particular game, it may not be appropriate for him.

Finally, video games are part of today’s youth culture. Is it not perfectly healthy, even necessary for kids to play them? Should we not be worried when our kids do not play them at all?

It’s important to remember that electronic games are a medium – like books or films. We need to move beyond condemning the entire medium, and focus on the content of individual games. I can trace much of my son’s interest in world history and politics to computer games such as the Civilization and Age of Empires series. Many entertainment games also teach planning and strategy skills.

But just as some books are trashy or are inappropriate for children, so are some games. And, sometimes it’s good to read a book or play a game that doesn’t teach anything at all, but is simply fun or relaxing!

Our research found that for young teenage boys in particular, it is very unusual not to play electronic games. Your child may in fact be left out socially if he doesn’t play, because children often organize activities around group play as well as discussion of game characters and strategies.
However, parents have the right to set limits on when and how often their children play video games. I encourage parents to keep video game consoles, TVs and computers out of children’s bedrooms; we found that having a console or computer in the bedroom was linked to more time spent on games, and greater odds of playing violent games. Other researchers have found that technology in the bedroom also interferes with sleep, which is very important for children’s health and academic achievement.

It’s important not to panic if you find your child playing a game that upsets you. Just because a child pretends to be a criminal in a game, that does not mean he wants to be a criminal in real life. Children enjoy testing what it feels like to be different types of people in the safety of the fantasy video game world. However, it’s important to talk with your child about why you object to certain games, so he understands the reasons for your concerns. Try to find positive things to say about some of his games; this shows him that you value his interests and opinions, and helps build a good relationship.

The show is in German. You can watch it on television at these times:

Sunday, 5th of April, 4:30pm CET (3sat)
Tuesday, 7th of April, 1:50 am CET (ZDF)
Thursday, 9th of April, 1:30 pm CET (ZDF-Infokanal)

You can also watch it online through our station's Mediatheque. This direct link should be live already. Soon, you can download the entire programme through our podcast page, where you also find the above bonus content. Please also visit the show's blog for additional content.

Source: 3sat neues, `Grand Theft Childhood`

Laughing at Laffer

Arthur Laffer is at it again. One of the core rationalizers in the push for a New Feudalism, he weighs in against the Estate Tax (ET), which is scheduled to go back to historically normal levels in 2011, after briefly zeroing out in 2010.

(In the Bush Era's final gift to greedy scions, 2010 is known as the year that Mom and Pop hide from their kids, lest they be tempted to hurry the parents along, for tax reasons.)

Laffer starts with the sly trick of offering up a strawman - claiming that top and only purpose of the Estate Tax is to redress a blatant unfairness of some kids inheriting vast fortunes that they never earned, while others languish in poverty. Yes, that is terribly unfair, and Laffer even concedes it. But then, he says, so is the unfair and unequal distribution of inherited talent, intelligence health, attractiveness. He implies that those who admire the ET are pure-pinko lefties, who want to level out everything, with inevitable homogenizing effects that lead to ruin, as in Ayn Rand's book "Anthem" or Kurt Vonnegut's story "Harrison Bergeron."

This is a standard neocon stunt, of course. Couch the debate in terms that none of your opponents ever dreamed of suggesting, then portray yourself as arguing sweet reason against a vile phantom. So, before getting to my main point about the ET, let's first deal with Laffer in his own, rigged playground, by considering the distinction between two types of "leveling."

The kind that right-wingers like Laffer accuse modern liberals of seeking -- confiscating and repressing the fruits of endeavor and successful competition, with the smothering, paternalistic goal of equalizing of all outcomes. Indeed if society ever plunged down that road -- eliminating all inequities and quashing of any natural competitive advantage -- that would, indeed, lead to a "Harrison Bergeon" world...

...and it is not at all what most American Liberals seek. Only a few ditzo, socialist-lefty flakes want that kind of foolishness, and those nuts have been marginalized, ignored by the vast majority of pragmatic liberals and democrats. (A far different situation than the one enjoyed by the nuts and flakes of the far right, who run, rule and dominate the GOP and have for decades. Indeed, the chief difference between Democrats and Republicans has much less to do with fundamentals of philosophy -- Europeans claim to be able to tell the two apart -- than it is simply this; in one party, the inmates have been allowed to run the asylum.)

The other kind of leveling is one that Americans find far less viscerally displeasing. Indeed, it has been the American consensus to pursue it, for generations. The very goal of Classic Market Liberalism (as envisioned by Adam Smith himself) was to maximize the feed stock of healthy, knowing and capable competitors that can enter into the mill of market capitalism. A little state intervention, in other words, with the clear goal of increasing the number and capability of competitive players. This is precisely the chief outcome of many liberal and progressive endeavors, from free public education to civil rights, to womens' rights, to the unleashing of the Internet. And many of them have been fantastically successful at pouring millions of new, avid players into the great, creative game of markets and enterprise.

In other words, "leveling" can be good and loyal to market capitalism, if it helps to increase the overall levels of vivid, vigorous and creative competition. This is the inherent complexity and irony that men like Laffer have deliberately obfuscated for two decades. One would wonder why... if one did not already know.

Think about it. In his article, Laffer deliberately uses his strawman to dodge the obvious question -- won't some of the funds gathered by the Estate Tax go toward helping other children better leverage their health, intelligence, etc? So long as the discussion is about children, helping them get to the starting blocks all together, to run a fair race, Laffer loses, bigtime, and he knows it.

So he strains to turn the question in other directions -- "we should focus on its impact on those who bequeath wealth, not on those who receive wealth."

You see, it is all about polemic. When the issue is kids, then disparities in wealth look unfair. But when you talk about adults, well, now those disparities were (to some degree) earned. And so, any attempt to take any of those earnings away is unfair confiscation of rightful earnings by a brutal state.

In fairness, Laffer does make a distinction worthy of some note, between an estate tax and an inheritance tax. The estate tax in effect puts the burden of proof on the IRS to prove that the money isn't in fact going to little Stanton III at Harvard, and if you're very rich you can hire better tax lawyers than the government can, thus giving you an advantage over the middle class woman who owns a small business and wants to leave it to her daughter.  The estate tax can thus be twisted to, in effect, work as a force to help create exactly the kind of dynasties we abhor.

An inheritance tax does the opposite.  Stanton has to prove that he's not getting the money--much harder to evade. All right. I am happy to argue details like that, in good faith.

But in fact, I am still falling for Laffer's strawmen. Because this clever master of distraction has done it again!

For the real issue, when it comes to the Estate/Inheritance Tax, is not about any kind of fairness and "leveling" the playing field, at all. No, those are diversions. Instead, our focus should turn to something else entirely, a matter of utter pragmatism -- the very survival of the Western Enlightenment, and the vibrant market-and-competition system upon which it is based.

For there is a ghost at the banquet. It is a stark and ironic truth... that only liberals want those markets to survive. And conservatives like Laffer are doing everything in their power to ensure that markets fail.

How can I say this? Well, one could start with the recent record. Across all the years since the second World War, almost every economic indicator has done better, on average, under Democrats than under Republicans. If you subtract three years of Reagan and three years of Eisenhower, then the correlation is near perfect.

But no, I want more history than that. A lot more. Will 4,000 years suffice? A historical record that spans every continent and every single civilization that ever had both metals and agriculture?

That long and brutal story shows, as Adam Smith very clearly described, that markets, democracy, science and everything we value has had one terrible enemy. A foe that is relentless, because it rises out of human nature itself, every time an elite forms at the top of any social order. It is an enemy that has ruined far more markets and systems of competitive enterprise than socialism or enlightenment governments ever did. It has been THE major enemy of human progress and freedom.

It is conspiratorial oligarchy. Feudalism. Under which the main and central goal of every aristocracy has always been the darwin-driven compulsion of elites to favor their own kin. To warp public policy in favor of cronies and offspring. To become top lords who are exempt from law and market rules, and then ensure that your children inherit your position, so that they can keep using those advantages, all the cheats that come with privilege, in order to keep augmenting that position, and become kings.

At one level, this is simple evolution-in-action... we are all descended from the harems of insatiable men, who succeeded at achieving this profoundly biological goal

Every effort of the right has been aimed, for 30 years, at bringing back a feudal-friendly regime.  Rationalizers and court apologists like Laffer cry out "class warfare" whenever anyone raises this overall issue.  Furiously, they distract attention from the blatant horror-story of human history, spanning every continent and every era, where oligarchs routinely shut down all competition, picking and choosing winners with far greater zeal than the most oppressive bureaucrat, ever.

So far, the campaign of distraction has been most impressive.  Especially enlisting armies of libertarians to march against the very same enlightenment institutions that made free markets possible.  By calling government the sole and only enemy of freedom, they manage to serve their masters well.

In the short term. But not over the long run. Because they are fools if they think a limit won't be reached. We are starting to hear populist rumblings, and this time they are refusing to be diverted into silly-ass "culture war" distractions. The trick of turning rural folk against urban citizens won't work much longer, when both sets of red and blue middle class Americans start realizing and recognizing the Old Enemy.

Now is the time for Laffer's masters to ease off. To recognize what Franklin Roosevelt -- a man born to the top elite -- knew so well. That FDR's liberal restraints upon neofeudalism weren't "treason to his class."

Rather, they were a social compact that SAVED his caste and made America the safest place in all of history... to be rich.