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Magic Musings on Modern [Sep. 1st, 2011|04:41 pm]
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[Current Location |US, Virginia, Arlington, 13th St N, 2133]

The pre-Tour metagame is not healthy. Only three decks exist: Wild Nacatl, Rite of Flame and Cloudpost. There are variations - fast or semi-fast Nacatl, Splinter Twin or Pyromancer Ascension or Pyromancer's Swath or Hive Mind in Rite of Flame decks - but in general there is no satisfactory answer to the fast, resilient questions these decks are asking. More worryingly, while Cloudpost's ban would make the deck vulnerable and Misstep or Bitterblossom's unban would make Zoo vulnerable, there are any number of replacement Red/Blue combo pieces those decks could switch to. Short of banning Preordain and Ponder, which they won't do... Hopefully everyone will settle down and figure out some way out of this mess.

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The Jace Conundrum, addendum [Apr. 20th, 2011|09:35 am]
The latest Magic cards? A discard spell that hits both Jace and Primeval Titan (twin terrors of the game these days), a green spell with "Destroy target permanent" on it, and a Sword that punishes opponents for having a full hand (indirectly attacking the draw-multiple-cards effects of Jace, Squadron Hawk and Stoneforge Mystic). These are exactly the kind of effects I concluded were necessary to fight the stagnant metagame in my previous post. And for good measure, a free graveyard hate spell to suppress the deck they thought would be great but isn't (Vengevine). It's good to see I can think like Wizards R&D once in a while.
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(no subject) [Apr. 18th, 2011|06:00 pm]
I'm avoiding making posts about real life because it is really not something I am interested in facing now. So here are my thoughts on an impossibly dorky subject!

The Question: Can you put the genie back in the bottle? What if a lot of people are heavily invested in the bottle?

The Prosecution: Jace, the Mind Sculptor is an incredibly good Magic card. How good? The top players at the latest tournament played 60 out of a possible 64 Jaces between them, in a game where the mechanics are designed to discourage everyone using the same cards. Cards have been banned from competitive play entirely over much smaller popularity numbers. Because he's a major storyline character, he's also hard to acquire - you'll need $350 to pick up a full set. Unlike most card/board games, Magic's popularity is driven by a base of competitive players, so an un-fun top-level environment with a big "play Jace or lose" entry fee risks damaging the health of the game overall. Basically, a lot of fun cards and strategies are made obsolete by this one dude with 9 lines of text and a dorky hood-plus-cape vibe. The source of the kerfluffle is largely this blog post.

The Defense: Jace can't be banned precisely because of the above "downsides." He's incredibly good, but as an assist to your existing deck, not as the engine on which the whole thing is based, which is why everyone plays him. He's so expensive that banning him would throw the secondary market into turmoil and cost a lot of 13-year-olds (i.e. future loyal customers) their entire entertainment budget. He's not unstoppable in the right environment, it's just the other cards around him are suppressing the anti-Jace strategies. (If Rock is the problem, essentially, Scissors should be banned so that Paper can have a chance to shine.) And for that matter, the Magic developers are not idiots; they will print cards to fight him in the next few months, so any damage to the game will be self-healing. This is the tack taken by the official website and most of the top players.

My Impression: The real problem is not Jace - Magic has absorbed cards of even more ludicrous power successfully in the past. (Jitte and Tarmogoyf, for instance.) Nor is the problem the slightly-less-powerful Scissor oppressing anti-Jace cards (Valakut and Primeval Titan, although I think the Titan is more to blame). Again, fast and powerful combo decks have existed for years without serious breakage. The problem is the lack of broad answers to the major threats. Notably, the answers to the top 3 cards do not overlap at all, and they don't really overlap with many of the supporting cast, either. There are simply too many angles of attack for our current limited tools.

Basically, a reprinted Oblivion Ring would solve the problem halfway. The real solution is a Thoughtseize or Null Rod effect, some way to neutralize the best feature of these top cards, namely their ability to earn you extra cards as soon as they're played.
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Budget Cuts from the Wrong Side [Mar. 23rd, 2011|06:02 pm]
A few months back, there was a law professor who complained that he didn't feel rich, and the proposed tax hikes on those making $250,000 ignored the reality of the situation for himself and his doctor wife and his three children. After all, he could barely pay for all his expenses and still hire a babysitter to eat out occasionally!

The Internet chewed him out for that, most notably in an article on Slate which said essentially, He thinks he's not rich because he hangs out with the tiny fraction of Americans who are even richer than he is, not the other 98% who are poorer. The meme has recently come back in the form of a a blogger and his lawyer wife, who consider the $250,000 they are earning "much closer to the minimum starting point you need" and not by any means "living the dream." Horrors! But instead of merely dismissing these people as delusional and entitled, I think they are simply committing the same error as our Congressmen: thinking about budgets from the bottom up, not the top down.

The Professor, when contemplating a tax hike of $1,000 per month, thinks first about the things he considers luxuries: the cable TV, the nanny, the lawn mowing service, his daughter's after-school art class. Of course, these are nowhere near $1000 a month in total, so he panics and starts imagining the worst: "We will sell our house – into an already spiraling market of declining asset values – and our cars, assuming someone will buy them." Why such a big jump? Because he's already crossed off everything else in his budget as a fixed, immutable cost. His stock portfolio is "patriotic," the private school tuition is "because I care about my children," and the McMansion in Hyde Park never even comes to mind as an expense. He mentions off-handedly that he and the spouse are carrying over $400,000 in student loans, but doesn't really have a plan to get out from under that crushing burden, aside from getting a raise.

It's easy to point to the Professor's problem: he has aggressively traded money for time and top-quality goods until he has no money left, and so he no longer feels "rich." To restore that inner glow he imagines will come from a bursting bank account is a simple matter of climbing down a rung or two on the status ladder, trading in the house and education he can't afford for the kind he can, plus an extra hour of his life each day spent commuting, plus enough money to put a sizable hole in his debt, or alternately to make him feel better when he goes to the ATM.

The Lawyer has even fewer expenses, being childless and paying $5000/month for rent, but still wakes up shivering with the fear that he will be cast down into the unwashed masses making $50k at any moment. "You can’t invest in anything with the piddling savings you’ve stowed away. You can’t buy anything, other then maybe a family home and a some consumer assets..." goes the rant. He rejects the notion that buying luxuries means you are rich - rather, you are rich "when you can actually afford all that junk." Essentially, he is defining rich as exhausting your opportunities to spend, and also being wealthy, i.e. having a portfolio. He doesn't even consider for a minute not spending as much as he possibly can, concluding triumphantly: "Of course [I could save more money]. We’re middle-class. That’s what middle-class people do: live as far above their means as possible until it becomes impossible." He doesn't even realize this is a stupid idea, and he should - get this! - either stop spending money so fast or move to a cheaper neighborhood and let the "truly rich" have his place in Soho.

Unfortunately, the prevailing view in Congress is that of the Lawyer: Leverage the budget to the hilt, buy everything you could possibly think of buying and don't worry about saving, right up until you are forced to stop. At that point, the Republicans switch over to Professor mode: they look at the smallest, most fungible parts of the budget first, realize it won't make any difference whether they cut funding for NPR, and proclaim the sky is falling. The Democrats are committed to the Lawyer plan: they see no reason to cut spending on anything, because everything they are spending on is worthwhile, and the debt can wait until tomorrow.

Unlike the Professor and the Student, the Country is not living at the edge of her means, she's well into the red. Thankfully, she also has some enormous recurring expenses - military spending, Medicare - that we can cut with only a minor compromise in quality. The problem is, those categories have already been mentally blocked off as inviolate because they are unpopular or difficult cuts - just like abandoning 4700 square feet in Hyde Park is unpopular and difficult.

The silver lining is that now is the perfect time to invest - in infrastructure spending and everything else - to swallow all the jobs we will be cutting to make the tanks we don't need and sell the insurance we don't need. Interest rates are low, unemployment is high, and generally we can employ bridge-builders for less than half what it would have cost in 2004 once you factor in the unemployment benefits and the taxes and the Keynesian multiplier. This won't solve our problems overnight, but it will at least give us a sustainable foundation. Which is pretty good, all things considered.
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Rob's Life Mix 5 [Jan. 24th, 2011|10:55 pm]
Rob's Life Mix 5 is here! You can download it from Rapidshare, or I can also get you a physical CD.

The concept for this mixtape is that I get all my friends to send me songs that describe them, or that mean something to them, or just ones they really like. I've taken everyone's songs and rearranged them into some semblance of order. You should be able to listen to this as a single coherent album; it gets weird towards the end, but that's what you get with 8 genres in 18 tracks. There's no room for a bonus track this year, and I could only fit in 2 songs for people who never replied. Here's the track list:
  1. Brad Mehldau - Blackbird (Colin)

  2. Jake Amerding - Ithaca (Marcus)

  3. 3. Nickel Creek - Doubting Thomas (Katie)

  4. Shawn McDonald - Closer (Hannah)

  5. Billy Ray Cyrus - Over the Rainbow (Denise)

  6. Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More (Chris)

  7. America - Sister Golden Hair (Rob)

  8. Lady Gaga - Eh, Eh (Loretta)

  9. Katy Perry - Teenage Dream (Stu)

  10. Arcade Fire - Rebellion (Brendan)

  11. Relient K - Therapy (Matt)

  12. OAR - Love and Memories (Emily)

  13. Florence & the Machine - Heavy In Your Arms (Elisabeth)

  14. Sleeperstar - We Go Tonight (Dave)

  15. Dream Theater - Never Enough (Austin)

  16. Lebo M - He Lives In You (Cerrelle)

  17. Jeremy Soule - Forest Green (Casey)

  18. G.F. Handel - Hallelujah (Jen)


Enjoy!
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Steam Holiday Sale [Jan. 1st, 2011|10:32 am]
I don't usually shill for products on here, but I thought this was so absurd it deserved to be mentioned.

Recently a bunch of my friends have started playing Supreme Commander 2, which is basically Starcraft for people who don't like clicking really fast, and like increasingly silly troops. (Giant magnet? Naval jump jets? Nuclear missile reflector? Cloaking device? This is just one out of three factions.) It is now on sale on Steam for $3.74. I got more than $4 worth out of this game on Thursday alone.
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Fascinating Links Roundup, December '10 [Dec. 15th, 2010|08:34 pm]
Graphs and Charts

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Video Games

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Humor and Interesting Junk

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I totally called it [Dec. 14th, 2010|01:26 pm]
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[Current Location |US, Virginia, Fairfax, Avion Pkwy, 14706]

The blogosphere (terrible word btw) is alive with this incest case of a Columbia professor and his adult, non-coerced daughter. Saletan is pretty sure it's wrong because incest is not immutable the way homosexuality is, but this is seriously flawed - it's just as invasive on the liberal ideal of "Any two people who love each other should be equal." Since we still have an incest taboo, we should check to see whether we have a legal code that makes it possible to maintain; right now I don't think we do.

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Big Link Roundup, November 2010 [Nov. 13th, 2010|11:02 am]
This is going to be pretty big, so I apologize in advance. Just check out whatever catches your eye. I'll organize it by category:

GRAPHICAL REPRESENTATION (aka intimidating/depressing flowcharts)

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WEIRD NEWS

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GAMING / GEEKERY

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PHILOSOPHY

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RELATIONSHIPS

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LONG ARTICLES I HAVE YET TO READ

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The Deficit Commission [Nov. 12th, 2010|11:30 pm]
I want so badly for there to be a bipartisan solution to our skyrocketing deficits, a real austerity plan that combines the best ideas from both sides and doesn't put us on the fast track to financial ruin. So I'm hesitant to criticize or naysay the preliminary suggestions from Erskine and Bowles on this issue.

Republicans are whining that the plan involves new taxes. They should shut up and stop whining, because the tax reform plans are almost perfect. Eliminating deductions will have enormous beneficial effects on the structure of health care, of the real estate industry, of banking - you know, all our pressing problems. Taxes will go up, but not by much, and I am totally fine with that. You could hike rates on the rich some more if it feels unequal, but a simplified tax code is exactly what business wanted.

Democrats are whining about cuts to Social Security and Medicare. They have a point - Social Security is not in all that much trouble right now, so the broad cuts proposed are unnecessarily muddying the waters - but on the larger issue that entitlements should be sacrosanct no matter what and they're what the middle class deserve in these troubled times and all that, they should shut up and stop whining. Medicare and Medicaid are the single greatest long-term threat to the budget, and we desperately need cuts to health spending, and they need to be really deep cuts to make a difference. You had your chance at this in 2009 and you blew it.

Technocrats are whining about cuts to domestic spending. Yes, this plan is a strain on the federal workforce - down by 10% but still tasked with doing approximately the same amount of work. It's a good thing federal workers get more compensation than their private sector counterparts, then! Domestic spending cuts are always painful, and frankly the farm bill could use a much heftier bite taken out of it. But this is the only part of the budget cuts that both sides can agree to at least a freeze on, so it's happening.

Nobody seems to be whining about the defense cuts, which is an excellent sign, because that's the best part of this entire bill. Closing 1/3 of our bases? Cancelling enormous force upgrades in our hardware? Taking Gates' recommendations for wasteful programs and not replacing them with more shiny new contracts? Perfect. Even if we can't get the rest of this off the ground, we should be slashing defense spending. It's a luxury we can no longer afford.

Overall, people are being very pessimistic. My gut response is: Sure, it's realistic that nothing will get done, but only by voicing our support for a responsible budget will we ever get anything done at all. Sure, the commission's work needs some fixes. Overall, though, it's the most serious plan I've seen yet.

From now on, I've decided to ignore budgetary criticism from someone who has no plan to tackle the national debt. This means you, Boehner. And you, Pelosi.
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