Manufactoria: a brain-expanding puzzle game

I finally completed Manufactoria.

Manufactoria is an online puzzle game, which is deceptively simple and surprisingly deep. Your task is to build a factory machine from simple components which takes an object, inspects it and moves it around the factory floor accordingly. In later stages, you get to modify the object as well.

At first you think you’re just moving objects around and printing patterns of coloured dots on them, but later, when you’re thinking of blue dots as 1s and red dots as 0s, and the patterns as binary numbers, you realise that the system is Turing complete and the game’s progressively harder puzzles are teaching you how to build a binary adding machine. It’s a beautiful, powerful way to demonstrate the principles behind mechanical/electronic computation.

While some games, like Angry Birds and Candy Crush, are meant to numb your brain with repetitive tasks, the best ones expand your brain with new skills and knowledge: Manufactoria is in the latter class.

Play the game online here: Manufactoria at PleasingFungus Games

There are two things called ‘regulation’, and they’re very different

Whenever people discuss regulation, whether for or against, it’s always treated as basically one type of thing. Opponents might say, “regulation is bad for business,” or, “we need to cut red tape,” while advocates might argue, “regulation makes us safer,” or, less positively, “regulation is a necessary evil.”

Occasionally, someone will distinguish between good and bad regulation, but it’s still talked about as one thing, with one purpose; the debate is whether it achieves that purpose to a better or worse extent.

Visiting India helped crystallise in my mind that there are two very different things, both called “regulation”. They have different aims, and different effects on business. We shouldn’t confuse one for the other. We should also be aware that it’s a deliberate policy of business lobby groups to try to make us do just that.

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Highlights of 2015

I know it’s a bit late, but here’s the best stuff I read/saw/etc in 2015.

BOOKS

Railsea by China Miéville

By the same author as the superb The City And The City, Railsea is a post-apocalyptic riff on Moby-Dick. A young cabin boy joins a train crew rattling about on a vast dried sea-bed covered in criss-crossing railway tracks and inhabited by ferocious burrowing monsters, while the captain obsessively hunts her great yellow mole. Ripping stuff.

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

Since the era of Thatcher and Reagan, mainstream economics has been dominated by the ideology of the free market, championed by the right wing as the driver of economic success. Meanwhile the left wing has either opposed it on moral grounds of fairness and compassion, or accepted it while trying to mitigate its worst effects. The basic economic argument has never been challenged in public debate: the free market creates a prosperous economy. However, in academic economics, this truism is widely known to be false, and the contradictions and failings of the free market are well understood. Ha-Joon Chang is one of the leading voices attempting to bust the free market myths of public consciousness, and this book is a perfect primer.

One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One of the hallmarks of a great book for me is how much is lingers in your consciousness after you’ve read it, and for weeks after finishing One Day In The LIfe Of Ivan Denisovich, I often found myself thinking, ridiculously, “this is just like in the Gulag.”

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In praise of Stroud Green

We’re moving to Manchester next week, but for the last two years we’ve lived in London. Trying to pin down the exact bit is tricky. It’s near Finsbury Park, which for non-Londoners means north and a medium distance out from the centre, and for practical purposes, “near Finsbury Park” is what I’ve always described it as. But Finsbury Park is quite large and there are lots of places near it which aren’t particularly near each other.

We’ve lived in the area immediately to the west of the park, not south enough to be Holloway, west enough to be Archway (which isn’t really an area anyway), nor north enough to be Crouch End. The main feature of the area is Stroud Green Road, which runs from Finsbury Park station north west until it becomes Crouch Hill and continues into Crouch End. This road also forms part of the boundary between the London Boroughs of Islington (of wealthy “new” Labour fame) and Haringey (of Baby P fame).

Stroud Green itself was a hamlet a little further north which got swallowed up by nineteenth century suburban expansion; apart from Holy Trinity Church, the site it occupied is mostly residential now and not a distinctive area. Stroud Green Road to the south, however, is the economic focal point, and something of a gem for the diversity and quality of independent shops and restaurants along and around it.

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David Cameron and the EU bill: very stupid

I know this is a bit late, but it’s worth following up on.

In a previous post, I pondered whether David Cameron’s tub-thumping over the EU’s bill for £1.7bn extra in UK payments was a very clever conspiracy to boost his image as a statesman, or a very stupid tantrum which played into his opponents’ hands.

The answer would be revealed when the UK either paid, or didn’t pay, the bill. And, as it turned out, we payed:

As I said at the time, this could have been played as a triumph: our extra payments were due to better economic performance. Like a recalculation by HMRC which tells you that you owe extra income tax because you earned more than expected, it was annoying, but a consequence of being better off.

Instead, Cameron and Osborne’s handling of the issue was typical of their clueless approach, and has helped to get us where we are now: with Vote Leave ahead in the polls and in control of the debate, looking likely to win the referendum on 23rd June.

Amazon’s tentacles are spreading

Two years ago, I made a resolution to boycott Amazon.

Yesterday, I received two parcels from Amazon. But as far as I knew, I hadn’t broken my resolution. I hadn’t ordered anything from Amazon.

What I had ordered was two items from Ebay, from two separate sellers. But both items arrived packaged in Amazon-style cardboard boxes, sealed with Amazon Prime tape and addressed with Amazon postage stickers.

So what’s happened? Are both the sellers actually Amazon in disguise? Is Amazon’s new strategy to set up front operations on Ebay to sell to boycotters like me?

Or is it something less conspiratorial? Large Ebay sellers running their operations through Amazon Web Services? Or is is a feasible business model just to pay for Amazon Prime and trade as a middleman, sending deliveries directly to your Ebay customers?

I contacted both sellers and asked. Apparently, Amazon’s nationwide warehouse operations are so extensive, they have huge unused capacity which they rent out to other businesses. Both of the Ebay sellers were running sizeable businesses on top of the Amazon platform, using it as a managed service providing storage, packaging and distribution for their products.

Through its warehouse network and AWS, Amazon is turning itself into a foundational component of our economic infrastructure.

Boycotting it is becoming harder.

I am undeterred.

The biggest threat to national sovereignty is not the EU, but TTIP

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a sinister trade deal currently being negotiated in secret between the EU and the US, is finally starting to get some wider press and recognition.

Last week, a rebel group of Conservative MPs threatened to derail the Queen’s Speech if the government didn’t include a promise to introduce legislation to protect the NHS from the consequences of TTIP; Labour joined in, the government acquiesced, and the amendment was included.

Aside from making you wonder just how rapaciously capitalist a trade deal has to be for a group of Tory backbenchers to oppose it, the NHS-TTIP protection bill should raise two big questions in anyone’s mind:

  1. If the NHS will only be protected by special legislation, what other institutions of value aren’t going to be protected, and what will happen to them?
  2. If TTIP is such a threat that we need to have laws protecting us from it, why are we considering the deal at all?

The aim of the deal is to reduce regulation to the lowest common denominator – between Europe and the USA – and give companies the unaccountable legal power to dictate national policies. Whether you’re a Brexiter or not, if you’re concerned about the loss of sovereignty, TTIP should be starting to worry you now.

Heineken takes a strong lead on Most Dishonest Advert of 2016 with ‘Moderate Drinkers Wanted’

I haven’t done Worst Adverts of the Year for a while now, but I’m considering resurrecting it for 2016, given Heineken’s early lead in the coveted ‘Most Dishonest Advert’ category.

The ad shows a sequence of women on a night out, singing a montage of Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero, as they contemptuously ignore the drunk men stumbling and snoozing around them. It ends with a female bartender being impressed by a man who leaves the bar after having only one drink, which leads to the tagline, “Moderate Drinkers Wanted”:

The advert is so breathtakingly disingenuous, it takes a few seconds after seeing it to start to process what might be going on here. Obviously, they can’t be telling their customers, “we want you to buy less of our product.” They must know that, as studies prove, the majority of their revenues come from dangerous and harmful levels of binge-drinking.

Do they think that by pretending their beer is only for more discerning (and therefore attractive) moderate-drinking men, they’ll raise its status and men will stupidly drink more of it? No, I don’t think that’s Heineken’s tactic here.

To understand the advert, you have to realise that it’s not aimed at potential Heineken customers at all. It’s primarily aimed at regulators. It’s part of a big lobbying campaign, attempting to prove to governments that the alcohol industry is a responsible self-regulator, that it doesn’t want its customers to over-use its products and is taking steps to stop them.

The campaign, of course, is paid for with the profits Heineken makes as it fuels a public health catastrophe, the costs of which are socialised to the rest of us. And the reason the industry wants self-regulation is so they can avoid minimum unit pricing, and continue to sell 15p/unit cider to its biggest customers: alcoholics drinking themselves to death.

New Year’s resolutions 2016

Here are my resolutions for 2016:

1. Complete The Lords of Midnight.

Carried over from 2015. The ZX Spectrum is in fully working order, so it’s time for Doomdark to meet his fate.

2.  Play the board games I already own until their purchases become cost-effective.

I’m a board game geek. After a few years of collecting games, I’ve ended up with more than I’ve had time to play properly. My aim in 2016 is to rectify that by focusing more on playing the ones I already own.

I’m going to be systematic about it. I’ve created a spreadsheet of the games I own, and a log to track the times I play them. Using this to calculate a cost-per-play (purchase price / number of plays) for each game, my aim is to get all my currently-owned games down to £5/play or less by the end of the year.

3. Never pay the included service charge on a restaurant bill; always leave the tip, if appropriate, in cash.

It’s become apparent over the last year that restaurants, especially the big chains, are grossly exploitative of their staff, and the service charges they add to bills are one example. In many cases, it’s been restaurant policy to keep all or some of the charge, and distribute little or none of it to the actual serving staff. Even when they do give most back to the staff, there’ll usually be an admin fee deducted if it’s been paid by card. So rather than take the lazy option of just paying the charge on the bill and thinking, “well, that’s the tip covered”, I’m always going to ask for it to be taken off, and then leave a suitable tip in cash instead.

4. Make more eye contact.

I’ve realised that I’m pretty bad at making eye contact while talking to people. I’m fine when they’re talking, but as soon as I start talking, I almost always look away. It’s difficult to concentrate on both things at once – thinking about what I’m saying, and watching the other person’s face – so I unconsciously reduce the complication by looking away. But I guess it could be interpreted as rude or cold. So I’m going to make a definite effort to do better.

New Year’s resolutions 2015: end of year review

Let’s review how I did on my 2015 New Year’s resolutions.

1. Read and see six Shakespeare plays.

Status: nearly passed.

I did five:

Although I failed to reach the official target of six, I’m still pleased with the result. All the plays were immensely enjoyable to read, and the performances I saw were terrific. Combined with the six plays from 2014, my higher-level goal of rapidly improving my Shakespeare knowledge has been achieved.

I’m not going to repeat this as a formal resolution for 2016, but I will keep an eye out for productions of other plays I haven’t read yet, and try to bag a couple more at least.

2. Repair my ZX Spectrum and complete The Lords of Midnight.

Status: partly passed.

I successfully repaired the ZX Spectrum, with the help of a new keyboard membrane and instructions from Dataserve Retro, and a SPECTRA interface (a custom-built electronic circuit which converts the Speccy’s output to SCART) from the ZX Spectrum Resource Centre.

I haven’t yet fired up Lords of Midnight, but the second half of this resolution will carry over to 2016.

3. Crawl through the ventilation shafts of a large building.

Status: failed.

A total disappointment, this one. I wasn’t even close: I didn’t identify any suitable ventilation shafts or get intelligence on any promising buildings. To be honest, I didn’t put much effort in at all.