How Complex Systems Fail

Interesting read. Includes an interesting take on root-cause analysis:

Post-accident attribution accident to a 'root cause' is fundamentally wrong. Because overt failure requires multiple faults, there is no isolated 'cause' of an accident. There are multiple contributors to accidents. Each of these is necessary insufficient in itself to create an accident. Only jointly are these causes sufficient to create an accident. Indeed, it is the linking of these causes together that creates the circumstances required for the accident. Thus, no isolation of the 'root cause' of an accident is possible. The evaluations based on such reasoning as 'root cause' do not reflect a technical understanding of the nature of failure but rather the social, cultural need to blame specific, localized forces or events for outcomes.

... and, the observation that reactionary changes can (or possibly will) make things worse:

Views of 'cause' limit the effectiveness of defenses against future events. Post-accident remedies for "human error" are usually predicated on obstructing activities that can "cause" accidents. These end-of-the-chain measures do little to reduce the likelihood of further accidents. In fact that likelihood of an identical accident is already extraordinarily low because the pattern of latent failures changes constantly. Instead of increasing safety, post-accident remedies usually increase the coupling and complexity of the system. This increases the potential number of latent failures and also makes the detection and blocking of accident trajectories more difficult

Financial Transaction Taxes

David Brin posted on his blog advocating Financial Transaction Taxes. Basically, Financial Transaction Taxes (FTTs) amount to charging a fee every time securities change hands with the combined goals of raising revenue, and cutting down on speculative and opportunistic trading1. After reading that, and stumbling around the web for a bit, I happened upon a report by the Bank of Canada on The Feasability and Effectiveness of Financial Transaction Taxes which had this particular gem in the conclusion:

Little evidence is found to suggest that an FTT would reduce speculative trading or volatility. In fact, several studies conclude that an FTT increases volatility and bid-ask spreads and decreases trading volume. Furthermore, a number of challenges associated with the design and effectiveness of an FTT could limit the revenues that FTTs are intended to raise.

In other words, FTTs are unlikely to prevent financial chaos or raise significant revenues, and in fact may lead to financial chaos and otherwise poorly behaved markets. So yeah, while FTTs may sound promising, and definitely have a stick-it-to-the-big-faceless-Wall-Street-monolith feel to them, any FTT proposal deserves a whole lot of scepticism... because by the looks of it, they could make things worse instead of better.

[1]The article posits FTTs as a way to kill Hight Frequency Trading (HFT), but that seems awful round-a-bout to me. If you want to kill HFT (and there may be cause to do so), ban HFT. When you're writing legislation, you're making up the rules, so you might as well make the rules you actually want.

Far Cry 3

Far Cry 3 is the most fun I've had playing a video game this year. It is a sandbox where you take the role of an American tourist stranded on an island in the south Pacific that's crawling with pirates, drug dealers, and human traffickers. Your friends are captured by the Big Bad, resulting in your going on a roaring rampage of revenge, rescuing your friends, and killing every pirate you see with a big freaking knife. Kind of like Just Cause 2 meets Assassin's Creed.

Stuff I liked:

The stealth and the recon. There are pirate outposts scattered around the island which you can retake to help liberate the island, and reduce your likelihood of being randomly accosted by pirates. While attacking these outposts, you can carefully sneak up on them from basically any angle, and scope out the position of the pirates with your camera. This gives you a good idea of the lay of the land, how many pirates you're going to need to fight, and where they are.

You can then sneak off, thin out the ranks with your sniper rifle, and sneak up behind guards and stab them in the back. Basically there is actual payoff for carefully studying your enemy and coming up with a plan to eliminate them quietly.

The weapons. While the weapons themselves are not necessarily particularly memorable, you get to pick the load-out that suits your style of play which is something I really appreciate. Lots of games railroad you into carrying the basic assault rifle, and then making you pick through the corpses of your enemies to find the gun that actually suits you. Furthermore most of the weapons are customizable with a number of attachments which gives you the ability to further specialize your load-out to be truly suited to your style of play.

The exposition. While the narrative may be more than a little bit over the top, for the most part the game explains things to you while you have control of your character. This is in stark contrast to Max Payne 3, which bombards you with freaking cut scenes all the time.

Stuff I didn't like:

The story missions. While the story missions aren't particularly bad, they are much more likely to railroad you into blasting your way through tons of dudes, rather than outflanking them, or stealthily taking them by surprise, and I find both of the latter two approaches much more satisfying.

The boss fights. They're a bunch of stupid-god-damned quick time event driven bullshit cut scenes. You know, it might actually be satisfying to sneak up on the big-bad's stronghold, and put a bullet through his head from the next hill over before disappearing into the jungle... but no, you've got to let him talk you to death while you play poker. Fuck that.


Sneaking around the jungle and stabbing heavily armoured dudes with a big knife is the most fun I've had with a video game so far this year. You should check it out.

Video Games in 2013

This is a ranking of the games that I have played in 2013. It's pretty subjective and is mostly about how much fun I had while playing it. Also, these are games that I played in 2013, many if not most of them will have come out before then, because there really are not that many games that get me to drop $60 so that I can play them on release day.

  1. Far Cry 3
  2. Hitman: Absolution
  3. Resistance 3
  4. Max Payne 3
  5. Spec Ops: The Line

Tomes of Knowledge

Aura moderate divination; CL 11 Slot none; Price 2,500gp; Weight 5 lb.

Each of these thickly bound books contains a wealth of knowledge related to a particular subject area: Appraise, a single Knowledge, Linguistics, Spellcraft, or Survival. By consulting the tome, a process that takes at least 5 minutes but may take longer for particularly difficult questions, the user gains a +5 competence bonus on related skill checks with respect to a specific question or task. Furthermore, consulting the relevant tome allows the user to retry a previously failed knowledge check, as it may contain knowledge that even the most educated do not know.

Known tomes:

  • Stop Getting Ripped Off: A Practical Guide to Assessing the Value of Things (Appraise)
  • The Rarer the Better: Collected Arcana (Arcana)
  • Aberrations and Oozes: A Field Guide to Dungeoneering (Dungeoneering)
  • Building Things: Theory and Practise (Engineering)
  • The Tribes of Golarion: People and Places (Geography)
  • A Brief History of Time: Thassilon, Earthfall, and More (History)
  • Philosophiæ Naturalis: A Short Guide to the Natural World (Nature)
  • The Pocket Guide to Heraldry (Nobility)
  • Angels and Demons: Outsiders and the Planes (Planes)
  • Comparative Religion: Understanding the Heretics Around You (Religion)
  • Metasyntactic Analysis: An Introduction (Linguistics)
  • What was that? A Beginner’s Guide to Identifying Magical Effects (Spellcraft)
  • Shelter, Water, Food: Surviving in the Wilderness (Survival)

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, Divination or Legend Lore, creator must have 5 ranks in the relevant skill; Cost 1,250gp