November 1, 2014

RMT

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Playing Eve has really made me think about the financials of online gaming with regards to digital goods. Like most online games, Eve bans real money trading (RMT). That is, buy or selling of in-game items for real-world money is forbidden. The exception being that it is ok to buy PLEX (game time vouchers that can be used in-game) from Eve or approved affiliates. A non-approved reseller, Somer, was recently shutdown.

This intrigues me. It seems to me that real-world trading would make players more engaged in a game. Second Life made a virtue of RMT and didn’t seem to suffer ill affects from the policy (their problems seem to originate in being over-hyped). So why do nearly all MMOs ban the practice? Is it because the companies want to control the market for selling these goods themselves? Maybe partially, but having a resale value only increases the possible primary sale price and increases demand. I’m not sure this is the main reason. Perhaps there are legal issues? I’m no lawyer, so this is possible. An online investigation discovered another possible reason – avoiding professionals.

If it is possible to earn money from playing the game (through RMT), then some people may find that that playing intensively results in enough money to live (or thrive). This is definitely possible, even although the activity is banned, gold farming in many games is profitable enough to make a living. The now closed Diablo 3 auction house suffered a similar problem. Some players acquired huge amount of loot and then sold it so cheaply that other players without the same interest in grinding would just buy it from them.

The problem seems to originate in the standard mechanics of such games. In-game rewards come from endlessly repeatable activities – usually as loot. Why get rewards for killing creatures? Why do those creatures respawn over and over again? Why do the creatures have all this great stuff on them (instead of leaving it at home) and why don’t they use it? In some games, why can players carry so much? It is because these loot-based rewards promote people playing – perform an action, get a reward. Companies that produce these games want to discourage professionalism so other players have a chance to partake in this gamification. Introducing scarcity by limiting the spawning of enemies would make the situation worse as this would make the resulting rewards even more valuable.

To have RMT and reduce professionalism, these games would need to stop repetition of gameplay as the basis for rewards – like Minecraft. Or, stop repetition of the core gameplay, by perhaps time-limiting players (but then a pro might have many characters or a whole team). Or, co-opt the professionals’ activities into creating content for other players. This last options seems the best, but is it possible or even desirable? Eve manages it a little with its null sec sovereignity and corporations, but at the expense of large-scale player-vs-player gameplay (which brings its own problems). I suspect the far easier option is to just ban RMT.


October 30, 2014

Slowing Down

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Recently I had a very short debate with an old friend. We used to debate economics and politics in high school, despite being at different schools. Most of these debates took place on the walk from my place to the nearest TimeZone (an 80’s gaming arcade). The chats were always friendly, but we rarely agreed. Over 20 years later we met up again, and our views have shifted somewhat, but we still don’t agree. He emailed me a long treatise from the web about his point of view. I sent back a critique. I thought, even hoped, that might be the end of it as I lacked time to continue a long debate. I needn’t have worried his reply was a statement of disagreement and some valid points. I replied agreeing we disagreed on the basic axiomatic points of the argument and largely left it at that.

Someone is wrong

If a longer reply arrived attempting initiate a full debate I had planned a slightly different response, basically apologising but refusing to engage. Not because the debate would be uninteresting. Quite the opposite – this friend’s viewpoint is quite dissimilar from mine and not something I come across normally. Not because the argument would become uncivil. Our conversations never got heated before, I don’t see why they would this time. It is because I don’t have the mental energy for a proper discussion.

I don’t think I’m as mentally fast as I used to be. Or perhaps I’m more realistic about my learning abilities. Previously I seemed able to pick up new skills, technology or understand systems in a matter of days without effort and while doing several other things at the same time. Or at least I believed I could, maybe I was just arrogant. Now, if attempted under similar conditions, mastering something new takes a little longer and requires more attention.

However, I do not think my productivity has slipped (yet). As my natural mental speed slowed it has been compensated by an increase in experience and focus. I have seen studies suggesting one’s mental faculties are at their peak in the early 20’s and it is all downhill from there. My peak productivity was in my early 30’s, and it hasn’t declined much since then. The difference is that I’m aware of having to concentrate on the task at hand more intensely and that my memory of previous similar work situations helps me avoid wrong paths. Or, perhaps I’m still arrogant.

Right now, Concealed Intent is taking up nearly all of my thoughts. I need all the focus and concentration (and experience) I can muster to complete it in a reasonable timeframe. Just the initial reply to my friend’s website took over a work day. Time I can’t afford at the moment – I’m not able to easily split my attention. So I won’t. Debates will have to wait.


October 18, 2014

Bank Transfer Errors

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At least in the UK, it is often best to pay money to people via bank transfer. This is the process where the payer enters the bank account number of the payee into some system and then the money is moved directly from bank account to bank account. It is easy and costs nothing (in the UK). I used to use it all the time for paying rent and similar bills.

It is surprising to hear that errors regularly occur in this process. People type in an incorrect bank account number and so the wrong person receives the money. Obviously in some distress, the payer contacts the bank to fix the problem, but the bank doesn’t see it as their problem. Pushing or getting the media involved often gets the required results (see here, here, here and many more online stories).

I’m not surprised people type the account number incorrectly; that is always going to happen. I’m surprised that such an error results in a valid bank account. If the bank account number included a checksum, then an incorrectly transcribed number is unlikely to still be valid. Credit cards use a checksum algorithm and this is why when you type one incorrectly the response is “invalid card number” rather than the wrong account being charged. However, bank account numbers seem to rarely use this simple error-checking technology (codes by country are listed here). Why not? Perhaps when the bank account system was established many decades ago, checksums were not seem as important. Either because there was a person (the local bank manager) in the loop to double check the numbers, or because checksums were too computationally costly (especially if humans had to do the calculation themselves as computers weren’t available). Of course now people use the Internet to make transfers and the whole process is performed by computers without human interference, and the cost of using checksums is miniscule on even relatively old processors.

Banks could add checksums now, placing an optional extra character to the end of bank account numbers (several countries have done this). In the UK this would be a huge act of customer service. However, from experience I would doubt the banks interest in serving their customers. At the moment any errors cost the banks little and changing the system would be expensive. The core computer programs handling bank accounts and transfers between them are ancient COBOL programs (at least at the bank where I worked). Rules like the number of digits in a bank account are hardcoded and changing them would cascade through various systems. Testing the change would be a massive task in itself. I can’t imagine any bank voluntarily undertaking such a project – especially as most banks are determined to reduced IT costs. Too bad for bank customers.


October 4, 2014

PRS

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After leaving Beacon and finishing the MBA, I jumped on a flight to London in mid 2002. Perth was too constraining, I didn’t want to do consulting or mining software for the rest of my career. London seemed like the land of work opportunity. It would also be easier to travel around the world from a base in Europe. Both these reasons turned out to be correct, but I forgot the downsides of London – the expense, the crowds and strangely even the weather. For a good five years or so the positives outweighed the negatives, but then the balance shifted. However, upon arrival I was extremely optimistic.

Crashing in the spare rooms and sofas of old uni friends (the Perth to London road was well travelled by my age cohort), I started to learn about the local IT job market. 2002 was the middle of the dot crash slump. Stories of easy jobs with large pay rates and regular job hopping abounded, but they always ended with “of course that was before the crash.” Most of my acquaintances said that contract work was the way to go – better pay and less bureaucracy, at the expense of career progression (none of my friends planned to stay long, so that was not an issue). I aimed for the same, but in the downturn a person with no record in London couldn’t get through the door for contracting roles – I was too much of an unknown considering the large number of people looking for work. After a few months I switched to permanent roles and started getting interviews again. Lastminute was a notable interview because the interviewer was so offensive I pledged to never use their service – a promise I hold to this day, despite being right in their target market. After 4 months my funds were evaporating quickly and if I didn’t get one of the two jobs for which I was interviewing then a return to Perth would be required. RBS was my preferred option (and I even delayed the other possibility while waiting for them to decide). However, RBS decided I was “too cold” for a management position (at least they gave a reason), so I went to work at the MCPS-PRS Alliance.

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September 27, 2014

ANU-ASTRO2x Exoplanets

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The previous astronomy MOOC I completed, ANU-ASTRO1x Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe, was merely the first of a series. In total, the 4 courses in the series supposedly comprise the first year course in astronomy at the Australian National University. I just completed the second course of the series, ANU-ASTRO2x Exoplanets.

Exoplanets is a 9-week course on the science behind detecting planets beyond our solar system. The format is the same as the previous course, with about an hour per week of video lectures. There are also mini-tests and a homework assignment each week with a final exam. The exam is again based on a “mystery” universe, so prior knowledge of exoplanets (or wikipedia) won’t help – students just have to do the maths themselves. The lectures are almost a conversational back-and-forth between the presenters Paul Francis and Brian Schmidt (with pictures and notes appearing projected behind them).

As for difficulty, this course is easy. Easier than the previous ANU course. Basic algebra is all the maths ability required. No assignment took me more than 30 minutes, most took much less. I read an article suggesting that the “MOOC revolution” is failing for many reasons, one of which is that the courses are getting easier and certainly are no where near as testing as the original university courses. I can’t help but think that must be true for this course. The material is interesting, but I would find it hard to believe that first year science students at a respected university like ANU (one of the top tier universities in Australia) are gifted with such an easy course where a mark of 100% can be obtained with barely an hour of work each week.

Starting with the first exoplanet discovered, surprisingly around a pulsar, the course goes through the methods used to find exoplanets. The pulsar planet was found through reflex motion – a wiggle in a star’s movement caused by a planet’s mass. Most exoplanets have been found through transits, that is the periodic dimming of a star as a planet passes between it and us. It is also possible to find exoplanets with gravitational micro-lensing, which is when a planet passes in front of a star and focuses its light on us. This method is has the benefit of finding planets that are not orbiting stars but are instead free floating. The downside is that such planets can only be observed once (as they pass the star). Still, the number of discovered micro-lensing events suggests there are a large number of such free-floating planets in existence. Lastly it is becoming possible to directly observe exoplanets with modern adaptive optics technology applied to telescopes. The course also addresses what is known about the exoplanets discovered – calculating their mass, temperature and thus the composition of both their atmosphere and surface.

An easy and interesting discussion of the current state of detecting exoplanets. However, the field of exoplanet detection is very active and fast moving. I’m not sure how quickly this course will age.