May 20, 2015

Vietnam

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I’m just back from a very enjoyable week’s holiday in beautiful northern Vietnam – a few days spent in each of Hanoi, Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay.

The best photos from the trip are in a short slideshow available here.


May 6, 2015

Revolutions

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Available from iTunes and on its blog, Revolutions Podcast.

Some time ago I finished the excellent and long-running history podcast “The History of Rome” (detailed in blog posts here and here). Now Mike Duncan is back with another extended podcast series, this time on various revolutions. After 83 episodes, the series has covered the English Revolution, the American Revolution and is currently working through the French Revolution. Apparently the Haitian Revolution will also be detailed in future, but after that it is uncertain how much farther it will go. As before, this series is well produced and Mike is an excellent and interesting speaker. Each episode is around 25 minutes in length (audio only) telling the history in chronological order. Occasional supplemental episodes detail side stories or biographies not directly related to the current episode, but germane to the revolution as a whole.

So far I have listened to the 20 episodes on the English Revolution (not counting the introduction on what defines a revolution). Knowing the major events did not detract from the intriguing story. In 1642 Charles I called a parliament to raise taxes to suppress a Scottish rebellion over his attempts to enforce changes in religious dogma. At the time parliament consisted solely of members of the English aristocracy and held legal responsibility for creating and raising taxes. Safe to say the parliamentary session did not go well. One of the Kings supporter’s Stafford was executed after guilt by a Bill of Attainder (where parliament declares you guilty without a trial, it still exists in the UK, but hasn’t been used sine 1782!). It ended with the King attempting and failing to arrest 5 parliamentarians. Then both sides (King and parliament) started raising armies. Mike suggests the war’s length was extended by infighting on each side and the inexperience of their soldiers (at least until the rise of a professional parliamentary army). Eventually the King was captured, and after some more fighting, executed. Britain became a republic under Oliver Cromwell, but differences over what that meant continued until his death, with a much weaker monarchy restored soon afterwards under Charles II.

The very legalistic nature of the conflict greatly surprised me. The action took place as much in parliament as it did on the battlefield. Each side took pains to justify their actions under existing or newly created laws, albeit sometime only by greatly stretching their meaning. The conflict often involved forcibly removing the unsupportive or adding supportive members to parliament so that a particular law could be passed. Once the King was captured there also seems to have been great effort involved by nearly all sides in trying to keep him the King, but with great disagreement under what conditions. After a short second war when Charles I attempted to take advantage of the disunity by having the Scottish invade (unfortunately for him, unsuccessfully). The army purged parliament of all those opposing it (essentialy a coup), allowing a successful treason trial against the King.

The revolution is also notable in that certain radical views became relatively commonplace for a while. The Levellers believed in religious tolerance, universal male suffrage (rather than just for the wealthy) and legal equality for all. While their views were unthinkable at the start of the war, by the end they nearly managed to write the English Constitution (which was ultimately never written). I have a feeling they will come up again in the podcasts on the American Revolution. There were also the Diggers a group who took the Leveller manifesto and extended it to economic equality – becoming something like Christian communists.

Very entertaining. This series is highly recommended.


April 22, 2015

An RPG Experience Idea

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A recent Facebook post by a friend of mine got me thinking. He and I often end up in the same irregular RPG group playing Achtung Cthulhu! or Apocalypse World or whatever else people feel like at the time. In this posting he referenced someone else’s blog telling the story of how they developed the background story to a RPG character over time, rather than the traditional all at the start. My friend thought this was a good idea and something he preferred to do as well. This got me thinking about how games could handle a continuously developed player character backstory.

Most games I’ve played place very little importance on your character’s backstory. Traditionally some backstory is told at start and is then ignored or has little impact on the game. Some games force backstory on characters in the form of connections to other characters. Perhaps some tabletop GMs enforce backstory, and I’ve seen people play to their character’s history – but mostly it just seems to be a set of guidelines. Very rarely (as in the blog post that started this train of thought) a character’s story from before the game started is developed as the game continues (games where the player has lost their memory and is slowly regaining it are a notable, but cliched, exception). Many games build constructing a backstory into the mechanics of character creation – what better way to explain the character’s abilities. Although this involves some early investment in a character – I have seen make certain players uncomfortable (like my friend). Humorously, it was possible to die during character creation in Traveller – so much for that investment of time and emotion!

By developing the backstory as you play the game it is easier to fit your backstory to the way story turns out. The GM/computer can adjust game to fit the emerging backstory. Perhaps new adventures can be created riffing of new aspects to the characters’ story. Also the history is built up as as the player becomes more comfortable with the character. It might even increase player involvement as they see the history increase and want to keep it going. There are a few problems too of course. The longer the game continues, the harder it will be to find suitable things to add to the backstory, especially for characters that start in an inexperienced state. Also, it may lead to contradictions if the player/GM if not careful and a new bit of backstory doesn’t match a previously played part of the game. The ongoing backstory idea could also be extended to become part of the game itself. Perhaps flashbacks could be used to highlight a part of the player’s past. Or, the game could progress inside-out like The Use of Weapons where the story starts in the middle of the narrative and progresses forwards and backwards in alternating chapters.

Another way to use the continuing backstory idea would be to include it in experience/advancement systems of a RPG (tabletop or computer). This would fix it into the structure of the game.

A hallmark of almost all RPGs of some form is character advancement. There are a few I can think of that don’t use this mechanic – Fiasco for example. However, for the vast majority of players (especially in computer RPGs) improving the abilities of your character over the course of many adventures is very important. There are various drivers for this advancement mechanic in different games. It can be finishing a quest/scenario, performing a particularly notable action (or failing an action!), or just the old default of killing things (hopefully monsters:).

One idea to combine these two concepts is to have the reward for advancement being writing a sentence or two of backstory that impacts the character’s abilities. It could be that the whole ability or skill system is replaced by sentences of story. If particular skills are still required or noteworthy then they could be used or underlined in these sentences. For example, “Katniss often provided for her family by hunting for food in the woods near her home, becoming proficient in use of the bow”. Here, bow and hunting are skills. How the skills translate into gameplay depends on how the game should work. For more story oriented games then the player could justify their actions with reference to their backstory. More numerical rules oriented games could perhaps assign a value to each mention of a keyword with adjectives acting as modifiers. Really “crunchy” rules based games probably wouldn’t work well with this system. When ready to advance the player could, for instance, come up with a sentence related to their current situation and a sentence related to their past. These would have to be agreed with the GM (particularly with respect to the number of keywords and adjectives if they are important).

Any thoughts?


April 11, 2015

Funding Circle Results

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A year on from my last report and Funding Circle (a peer-to-peer lending website in the UK) is still going strong. It is approaching nearly £600 million in funded loans. Whenever I check there is usually 50 or more loans available. It has been sometime since I saw a loan fail to reach its funding minimum. The company has also expanded to property development loans, albeit at a fixed rate rather than the normal auction system (with first charge on the property).

So has the continued success of the company translated into improved returns for the customers/investors? You may remember two year ago my annual return (~2%) was barely better than a bank deposit – largely due to a rash of bankruptcies. Last year was better, the return was a respectable 4.1% as recoveries picked up significantly. This year the result is:

Gross: 8.3%
After Fees: 7.3%
After Bad Debt & Recoveries: 6.3%

I consider that a very good return. It is roughly equivalent to the return on the UK stock market (FTSE-100) over the same time period. The gross and after fees returns are roughly consistent with last year, and recoveries were down a little. The difference in return is down to bad debt more than halving.

Over all this time my investment system has not changed, no extra money has been invested (but all profits reinvested). I only bid on loans under 24 months, from profitable firms that are paying tax at the expected rate and have positive working capital. People have asked about the “paying tax filter” – these loans are to small companies unlikely to have access to the tax minimisation systems heard about in the press. Thus a company showing an accounting profit that is not paying roughly the expected tax on that profit (given various UK tax breaks – historical losses or research costs for example) should be a warning sign there may be something strange going on in the accounts. I don’t have the time to dig deeper into such firms – they are just cut at this stage.

So if I haven’t changed anything, why has bad debt dropped? I’m not sure. My bad debt rate is now about average compared to all investors. It could be better risk management by Funding Circle, or just a more favourable UK business environment. According to their statistics page, bad debt on Funding Circle loans made in the last couple of years has trended below expectations. However, bad debt in loans made during the first two years (2010-11), when I was an early adopter, have been much greater than expected. This explains why my annualised return since joining the site is 5.1% compared to the average of 5.7% for equivalent investors.

Decisions should be made on future benefits not historical costs. On that basis I’m considering adding a little extra money to the capital. There are a few concerning issues with the UK economy and I believe the possibility of returning to the “bad years” is non-trivial. However, if the return from Funding Circle is around 2% in the bad years, then it seems a reasonable risk to take. I hope.


April 7, 2015

Birthdays

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A couple of numerically notable birthdays fell at the end of last year and at the beginning of this year. To celebrate we made short weekend trips to Langkawi (November 2014) and Bangkok (April 2015). Neither holiday was particularly energetic, our main goal was relaxation and eating. So I can’t say much about the tourist sites of either destination, but I can say they are nice places to hang out.

The best photos from the trip are in a short slideshow available here.