Monday, July 30, 2012

When to give it up

Recently, I've been discussing fasteners. Screws, bolts, Allen keys and such. There are many types of fastener, and many methods of driving screws. The most common one, in the US at least, is the venerable Philips drive; the cross-shaped slot that generally ends up burred and worn to uselessness within three drivings. Its dominance is a historical accident; it was adopted by Ford because it was available with reasonable license fees, and because it's designed to "cam out". It's very difficult to overtighten a Philips-head screw, because the tool will slip out at high torque. This meant Ford could use cheaper tools. Of course, there's a downside to the cam-out; it's easy to strip a Philips-head screw, and because it's harder to unscrew than to tighten, a securely-tightened screw will be nigh-impossible to remove. These are major reasons why Philips-head is these days largely confined to small electronics work and wood screws.

Speaking of wood screws, the major type of head in Canada is the Robertson. Robertson was offered to Ford, but it had some disadvantages; first, they wanted more money to license it, and second, it doesn't cam out. The square bit stays in the screw, and the whole setup binds. This makes it ideal for hand tools, as does the ability to securely set the screw on the bit prior to driving (anyone who's tried that with non-magnetic Philips screws will know what a boon it is to be able to put the screw on the end of the driver), but powered tools need a torque-limiting device to avoid breaking things.

Car manufacturers have never liked normal people messing with their cars, and once torque limitation had become cheap, it was inevitable that the fragile, unreliable Philips head would give way to something else. The chosen successor was Torx, a sort of six-pointed star; other than the form of the recess, it's similar to Robertson in its advantages and disadvantages. So why go with Torx, rather than Robertson? The main reason was to keep us from working on cars. Torx bits, when it was new, were a pain to get hold of, whereas anyone who can get to a hardware store could get a Robertson bit; just because it was mostly popular in Canada doesn't mean it was unkown in the US. Nowadays, Torx bits are cheap and easy to get hold of; I have at least three sets knocking around, and at least a couple of the anti-tamper ones with the hole in the middle of the bit.

So now, wood screws have Robertson, and car parts have Torx, and all the niches for Philips have a better competitor in them. Why does Philips keep knocking on?

Because it has a massive user base. Everyone, and I mean everyone, owns a Philips-head screwdriver or five. The car nuts have their Torx bits, but they always come with Philips bits as well. The people who care about woodscrews have Robertson bits, but frankly such people are a fringe group in the US. The vast majority of people buying woodscrews will buy Philips-head, because they already own the bits to drive them.

Personally, I've decided that if at all possible I'll go for Robertson woodscrews. My screwdriver collection includes all three sizes of that bit (as compared to the range from 000 to 4 needed to cover the spectrum of Philips, or the T1-Tn of Torx; although above T10 it tends to go by fives) and so I get the benefits of easy location and secure torque transfer without need for axial pressure essentially free. I may be an American these days, but I can at least admit that Canada does some things right.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Admin note

I should give fair warning that I've blown through my buffer of posts, and things are busy here at the moment. I'm still aiming to get the weekly post in, but real life may have to take priority.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What is a role-playing game?

Inspired by recent discussions among my online friends and acquaintances, I thought I should examine this question. It's a surprisingly thorny one.

Looking at computer role-playing games, there are multiple definitions accepted by people. Some will argue that the defining feature is player agency; if the player's actions can affect the world, it's a role-playing game. Some say it's character progression; if the character becomes more effective intrinsically, then it's a role-playing game. Some say it's down to whether success is determined by player skill or character skill. All of these have some justification, but really, we have to look at the origin of role-playing games to think about this meaningfully.

And that means Dungeons and Dragons. D&D is generally considered the first RPG, and we can reasonably look at it to help us define what makes an RPG an RPG. So, what's distinctive about D&D? One of the big things is character progression. In D&D, that's handled with character levels, but characters becoming more effective doesn't necessarily mean levels; it can be handled with skill points, or any other method of making a character better at doing things. But why does D&D have levels? Well, D&D began as a rules hack for a tactical wargame. The original D&D booklets didn't have combat rules as such; they recommended you use the Chainmail rules D&D had grown out of.  The levels came about as a second-level D&D character was assumed to be as effective as two first-level characters. He was essentially worth two men, and so many of his effectiveness factors simply doubled. This isn't exactly fine-grained, though, and later systems used a more gradual advancement mechanic. So character advancement is a part of the RPG nature, but character advancement is present in Grand Theft Auto, and that's not an RPG franchise.

Another distinctive point for D&D is player agency. Because the game is moderated by a person, the world can be changed by a sufficiently determined player. Many campaigns have that as their goal, insofar as "killing the Great Foozle" counts as changing the world. The key point here, though, is that the world can have multiple possible results, and which one happens depends on the player's decisions. This is quite common on a small scale in many games considered RPGs; Fallout has multiple possible resolutions to each quest, which feed into an overall state for each area, and the narration at the end of the game changes depending on how you affected each area.

The third big point is character skill versus player skill. The problem with this is that creating a suitably skilled character becomes a game in itself, and character skill is thus ultimately determined by player skill. Some games also combine the two; Oblivion, Fallout 3, and later games in their series have lockpicking as a skill the character has, and also as a mini-game which the player is forced to endure. To the best of my knowledge, Oblivion's lockpicking skill has no use beyond "walling off" higher difficulty locks from players with insufficient skill; the minigame is just as frustratingly difficult no matter what, thanks to imprecise controls, input lag, ridiculously tight timing windows, and draconian punishment for failure. Fortunately, things were much improved for Fallout 3; character skill increasing still served as a skill gate of sorts, but a character with high lockpicking skill made the minigame easier for a human to complete, and the controls were massively improved by removing the timing puzzle element.

The overall answer to what makes an RPG is one that I refuse to give you; games are a continuum, and there is no real hard line dividing RPG from non-RPG. The factors I consider most important are character advancement, player agency, and significance of character skill. If they're present, in reasonable proportion, I'll consider the game a role-playing game. This means that I consider the Deus Ex series to be RPGs; character skills have significant effects on what the player can achieve, there is character advancement, and player choices affect the game world.

Ultimately, you'll have to make your own decision; or, you could just take my approach. Games are in one of four categories, based on two factors: whether I've played the game, and whether I enjoyed it. Obviously, in the case of games I haven't played, that becomes "whether or not I consider it likely I'll enjoy it".

Monday, July 16, 2012

Just how enforceable is that?

Contract law is a fun area to look at. Just about every part of a contract is there because of disputes, either to avoid them happening in the first place, or because someone got annoyed enough to dispute that point in the past.

So most contracts, these days, are actually pretty comprehensive. They're mostly enforceable, too. Obviously, illegal terms can't be enforced, but you'll have a hard time getting anything legal thrown out.

And now we come to the contracts most of us encounter most frequently: the End-User License Agreement. This is the box of shouty text that shows up when you install software, making you promise that you won't use the cheap version of Microsoft Word to make any money, and you won't use iTunes to run a nuclear power station (I'm not kidding; you can look that up!) and so on. We generally don't read these, and that can be to our detriment. For instance, some games come with software designed to prevent cheating in multiplayer which massively over-reaches, giving itself permission to provide every sordid little detail of your pornography collection to its parent company. And all because you've been conditioned by overuse of "Are you really sure?" to just click "yes" or the closest equivalent thereof.

But are these contracts legally enforceable? Are they, in fact, valid? Well, that's an interesting one. In earlier times, many software packages came with license contracts you agreed to by unsealing the box to read what you were agreeing to. To me, that seems distinctly off in terms of fairness. Not only is there no opportunity to negotiate, there's no way to back out of the deal once you've paid. Once the box is opened, the retailer won't take it back. The vendor knows this. These days, you're held to agree by installing the software, but again there's no way to read the contract until you're committed to the deal. You might, if you paid for the software, and had no opportunity to pre-read the EULA, be able to get said EULA thrown out as unconscionable.

This is actually why Electronic Arts, now generally known as EA, has taken to providing the license agreements for all their software on their website. They'll play it off as being public-spirited and wanting informed buyers, but it's really a way to make their contracts more likely to be upheld should it go to court. You lose the "I wasn't allowed to read the contract until I'd agreed to it" point. I should note that this strategy by EA is part of a multi-layered attempt to keep their agreements scaring you; the major plank, though, is strenuous effort to keep the agreements out of court. No software company wants to defend this before a judge, for fear of setting a precedent that would gut their leverage.

The other plank, of having paid good money for something, is lost if you didn't pay for it. Amusingly, the various Free Software licenses might prove more enforceable than any paid-for EULA.

My advice, though, if you've read this far, is to do your research. Find the agreements you'd be subject to by installing your new software, and decide if you'd be OK with every single aspect of them being enforced against you. While the likelihood is that at least some of them will be thrown out, particularly any which tread on the first sale doctrine, the clickwrap agreement is probably more enforceable than you think.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Use it or lose it

The advice to "use it or lose it" is usually applied to brainpower; we're urged to keep our minds active, since that really does help avoid the pitfalls of aging. However, it could usefully be applied to legislation as well. The rest of this entry is behind a link because you may not wish to read it at work.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Chicken and the Egg

Drug policy is a horrendously divisive area. I'm in favour of proportionate punishment for acts destructive towards good societal order, which means I think the US is tremendously over-punishing; stealing an item should not result in a lifetime as a second-class citizen. I digress, however; today, I'm talking drug policy, and how we ought to be doing things.

The first thing to note about illegal drugs is how similar they are to legal drugs; I have a Vicodin prescription, which gives me access to a potent semi-synthetic opiate. I could, if I were so inclined, get out of my mind on it perfectly legally, since my doctor has trusted me to act as a responsible adult and regulate my own dosage. That trust has actually kept me from using it; there's a constant refrain, every time I consider taking one of the pills, of "Do I really need this?" and I'll often decide that no, I don't.

Indeed, in the US, control of many legal drugs and prohibition of illegal drugs are handled under the same law: the Controlled Substances Act. This contains a number of lists, called Schedules, which determine both the medical availability and the severity of the offence committed by illegal possession. Vicodin is fairly low; it's Schedule 3. It has abuse potential, but that's mitigated by the fact that the opiate is combined with acetaminophen (paracetamol, for those outside the US) and so is less easy to abuse. Other drugs are higher; cocaine, for example, is Schedule 2 because it's easily abused but does have an accepted medical use. Where things get a little silly is Schedule 1. Schedule 1 is supposed to be where all the Really Bad Drugs go. The ones that will mess you up a treat, and have no medical use at all.

Which makes it a bit of a puzzler as to why pholcodine is on Schedule 1. It's an antitussive, common in cough syrups in Europe, non-addictive, and generally considered very safe. And yet over here it's more illegal than heroin. Another puzzler is marijuana (note: I'll be using the terms marijuana and cannabis interchangeably in this post, while hemp will refer to the same plant grown for fibre) which the CSA would have you believe is highly addictive and highly dangerous, with no medical benefits.

There are campaigners in the US trying to make cannabis more illegal, or rather campaigning to make penalties for possession and use of it more severe. Leaving aside for a moment the lunacy of making penalties more severe than a lifetime's disenfranchisement, loss of any job prospects, and essentially forcing people to turn criminal to survive, there are rarely good arguments advanced for why it's so dangerous.

People will say with a straight face that of course it's dangerous, because it's listed in Schedule 1. Why's it listed in Schedule 1? Because it's dangerous. How do you know it's dangerous? It's listed in Schedule 1. And around and around the circle goes, with nothing resembling evidence being advanced. The other argument against it, usually advanced to oppose the use of medical cannabis, is that there's no generally accepted medical benefit. That one's circular too; there's no accepted medical benefit because no studies have been performed, and no studies have been performed because it's listed in Schedule 1, and that listing states that there's no medical benefit, so there's no need to do any studies.

Meanwhile, the stuff's known to contain potent anti-inflammatories and to have massive beneficial effects on glaucoma. It's just that there haven't been any studies done to show the medical benefit because it's so illegal.

It's instructive at this point to compare cannabis to tobacco. Both are plant products; both contain psychoactive compounds; both are generally used by setting fire to them and inhaling the resulting smoke. Tobacco, moreover, has no health benefits that I'm aware of. And yet, cannabis is illegal, tobacco is legal. Why is this?

A big part of it is the tobacco lobby. Tobacco has been a huge moneymaker, has resulted in extremely rich, and therefore powerful, corporations, and has supporters aplenty. Meanwhile, cannabis is less demanding to grow, and there isn't really a well-organised lobby trying to make and keep it legal. The sheer finickyness of tobacco growing demands economies of scale that are far less attractive when growing cannabis, which is one of the most easy-going plants around. Then, too, we have the home-field advantage for tobacco; it's legal, and it's generally easier to maintain the status quo than to change it.

So why is cannabis illegal? Well, to answer that, we have to look back at what was going on when it was made illegal. It was the 1930s, the economy was just about recovering, and Du Pont had just invented a new fibre by the name of Nylon. They wanted to get into ropes with this, but the industry was dominated by the cheap and eminently suitable hemp. Meanwhile, middle-class white America was getting anxious about Mexicans coming and taking jobs. That fear is not new. There was a push on to regulate drugs, too; the synthetic drug boom of the turn of the century was still shaking out, and it was finally starting to be realised that a lot of these drugs were entirely too powerful to be available on demand.

Add in sensationalist journalism, and it turns out cannabis is illegal because a powerful business lobby wanted to squash competition, and used underhanded racial scare tactics to do it. By the time the Controlled Substances Act arrived to clean up and rationalise drug laws, around forty years later, cannabis had been illegal for four decades and people had forgotten how it became illegal; the circular logic had eaten its own tail, and the lunacy was enshrined.

How should we fix drug policy, though? Well, a start would be fixing societal attitudes towards people convicted of crimes. As it stands, anyone with a prison sentence on their record is essentially unemployable; this is deplorable. That, however, will take a long, long time to fix. For the start, what we need to do is stop treating drug policy violations as though they're crimes of violence. A person using drugs doesn't need punishment; he needs help. Addiction is not cured by locking a man up. Custodial sentences are the wrong solution for drug offences, and we should replace them with treatment. Stop treating addicts as criminals. Anyone using methamphetamine, heroin, or any other illegal drug, who seeks treatment and assistance to stop using it, should be commended and treated with dignity. As things stand, they're handed over to a justice system which takes no account of their efforts to stop, and locks them up until they're useless to society. Meanwhile, we also need to make things less harmful for addicts. Needle exchange programs, drug assay programs so that they know how pure their fix is; these reduce the harm to the addict, and make it easier for him to want to stop.

Harm reduction is a good guideline for lots of things. Let's look briefly at abortion; my ideal for abortion is that there not be any, but the world doesn't work like that. There will always be situations in which the least damaging choice is abortion, and so it behooves us as a society to ensure that abortion is available safely and in an atmosphere of respect. I cannot imagine anyone taking the decision lightly; the nurturing instinct goes too deep for that. Once someone's made that horrendous decision, we need to make sure she's treated with dignity. Another place where harm reduction is key: sex education. Do I support underage sex? Do I want it to happen? No. But I accept that people are people, teenagers get caught up in the moment, and it will happen. There is no way to prevent that. Therefore, we should educate our children, so that they have the knowledge and tools available to make the behaviour less risky. I was given that knowledge, and somehow I wasn't a sexual deviant; I was into my 20s before having sex. It's utterly unreasonable to expect everyone to hold to that standard; give them the facts, before they suffer harm from not having those facts.

My politics have been showing quite a lot. I'm sorry if I'm offending anyone with them, but I'm not going to stop. If I feel a need to write about politics, it's what I'll write about.