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The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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11:52am on Friday, 14th June, 2024:

White Eggs

Weird

This sight probably won't faze people from other countries, but in the UK hens' eggs are brown, not white. This is therefore cause for alarm.



What are you thinking, Sainsbury's?!



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4:16pm on Thursday, 13th June, 2024:

Reform

Comment

We received our first political flier of the general election today.



At least they didn't add the word "again" at the end. That would be copying Trump's playbook too obviously.

Inside, the candidate lists his policy priorities: stop the boats; stop the pylons; reform the NHS; growth and regeneration; stop politicising out children; law and disorder.

Hmm, so three of those begin with the word "stop" and only one begins with "reform".

They should rename the party "Stop UK", that would be more accurate.



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8:49am on Wednesday, 12th June, 2024:

Level 18

Comment





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10:28am on Tuesday, 11th June, 2024:

Taxed Away

Anecdote

When I started weekend work in an amusement arcade 50 years ago this summer, one of my duties was cleaning the slot machines in the morning, before the arcade opened. There were quite a few of them, but there was room for more, so I asked the manager why he didn't put more in. He told me that he had to pay £70 a year in a flat tax for each machine.

Inflation being what it is, £70 in 1974 is about £900 today, but let's stick with 1974 prices.

These were penny machines, so to make back £70 some 7,000 pennies would have to be put in. It's worse than that, though, because these machines pay out money as well as taking it in. Most of the ones in the arcade where I worked were 70s (meaning that if a player put 100 coins in they'd have 70 coins in winnings at the end) but some were 80s. OK, so how many coins would a player have to put in to give the arcade owner 100 coins in profit?

For 80s, it would be 100/((100-80)/100) = 500. For 70s, it would be 100/((100-70)/100) = 333⅓. Because there were more 70s than 80s (80s being used to lure players into thinking that all the machines in that bank were good payers), let's say that on average 3.5 coins have to be put into a machine for the owner to make 1 coin profit.

3.5*7,000 = 24,500. This means each slot machine had to have 24,500 uses before they made back the flat tax that had to be paid on them. 24,500 uses is about about 67 uses per day. Most days didn't see anywhere near that much use, but over spring and summer weekends, plus bank holidays and the six weeks of school holidays, they would greatly exceed that. You could use each one maybe three times a minute, and with peak periods from day-trippers being 11am-3pm that meant 4*60*3=720 uses per machine, assuming constant use.

OK, so use wasn't constant, but it also wasn't restricted to 4 hours, so I'd guess each one saw around 900 uses a day over the summer. That would be for around 50 days, including pleasant weekends outside of the school holidays, so 45,000 uses in all. Add an optimistic but calculation-friendly 4,500 uses in total for out-of-season plays and we get 49,500 uses per machine. All uses above 24,500 are profit, so that's 25,000 profitable uses, or £250 per machine.

Oh, but there's value-added tax on that. In 1974, it was 10%, so the actual profit was only £225 per machine.

This still doesn't sound bad at all, although it had to be used to pay all the other overheads such as salaries, business rates and spare parts.

As for why they didn't add more machines, well with only a finite number of visitors each year, there were only a certain number of machine uses in the pot. It was a balancing act: too few and you were missing out out income; too many and you suffered from diminishing returns.

The situation deteriorated when VAT rose. It also deteriorated when the 2005 Gambling Act added expensive administrative overload. It got worse in 2007 when the smoking ban on indoor workplaces came into force.

The final nail inthe coffin was a rationalisation of taxation laws in 2011. Amusement arcades don't only have gambling machines, they have other entertainment machines as well — rides, pinballs, games (not just Space Invaders) — and the government of the day decided to tax them all the same way. They simplified it so that the flat tax was only due on machines with very high payouts, and made all transactions subject to VAT.

Oh. That's transactions, not profits. If a player put 100 coins into a machine and got 70 back in winnings, VAT was due on the 100 the machine took in, not the 30 that was profit.

In 2011, VAT was 20%. If someone put 100p into a 70, you had to pay 20p VAT leaving you 10p profit. If they put it into an 80, you had no profit at all.

Amusement arcade owners howled loudly and in unison at this, predicting the end of swathes of arcades. They did meet with some sympathy, but the laws had been aimed at betting shops and pubs, where slot machines were used more intensely, cost more money to play and had more miserly payouts. Arcade owners were faced with the choice of replacing all their machines with fancy new ones aimed at hooking compulsive gamblers, or raising their prices from (by then) 2p a go, or closing.

In the end, many, many did close. It meant the end of entire seaside resorts. There were six amusement arcades in my home town when I started; now, there are two. The arcade I worked in was demolished and replaced by expensive flats. One of the others is on its last legs (although to be fair, it always has been). The remaining one keeps the amusement arcade to give parents something to do while their kids are jumping around in the indoor bouncy castle place next door.

The bigger centres, such as Blackpool and Scarborough, had enough critical mass to keep going (largely by raising prices and reducing wages). They were large enough to be considered as tourist destinations. Smaller centres lost visitors when they raised their prices, because they weren't destinations, they were just a simple, fun day out.

Coastal towns have been in decline for decades, and now rank among the most deprived regions in the country. Gutting them of one of the few industries available only to them has accelerated this. 14 of the 20 most deprived regions in the UK are coastal towns (15 if you include Hull).

It would be nice if a major party in the up-coming general election were to pledge to send investment in their direction, but I can't see it. For that to happen they'd need to know that coastal towns existed.



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8:47am on Monday, 10th June, 2024:

Jesus Christ!

Weird

Some weird things are showing up in my Steam discovery queue these days.



I must say, though, I do like the fact that he has the scars of holes in his hands. That's a nice attention to detail, there.



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9:27am on Sunday, 9th June, 2024:

It's not just Students

Weird





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12:06pm on Saturday, 8th June, 2024:

Categories of Games by Player Numbers

Comment

Step-change differences exist between games, based on how many players they have. There are essentially five different categories.

In the following, "players" means either individuals or teams of individuals working together. Whether you want to count AI-controlled opponents as players or merely as part of the game system is up to you.

Zero-Player Games
These are games that have a set-up but no further interaction to them. Conway's Game of Life is the classic example, but games with interactive set-ups (such as Exquisite Corpse) also count. Games that do have interaction but it's either immaterial or preordained are also effectively zero-player: assuming that the players don't believe they can influence luck, Snakes and Ladders (also known as Chutes and Ladders) is a good example of the former; if all players know the solution, Noughts and Crosses (Tic-Tac-Toe) is a good example of the latter. Zero-player games can have multiple players at the set-up stage. For example, in Core War two players write programs independently during set-up; these are then executed simultaneously during play and whichever program is made to crash first by the other loses.

Single-Player Games
These are essentially self-tests. You assert a goal that has a success/failure measure and endeavour to achieve the former. If you have no influence on the result of the test, as with a single coin toss, you're not testing yourself and it's a zero-player game. Otherwise, you're charting a path through a series of contingent states to reach a desired condition. Self-tests can't be won or lost, they can merely be succeeded at, failed at or abandoned. For example, if you were to set yourself the goal of running a marathon, you can't claim to have "won" it if you succeed. Self-tests of an intellectual nature are given a special designation: puzzles. Uncertainty may add jeopardy, but the player is basically just navigating a possibility space with an accompanying end goal. Single-player, large-scale strategy games in the Civilization series really are just very sophisticated games of Patience, and Patience is a puzzle. Players describe puzzles as being finished or not finished, rather than won or lost, succeeded at or failed at. You don't win or succeed at a crossword puzzle or a jigsaw puzzle. However, if the puzzle's possibility space allows for critical decisions that will determine the outcome, the player could count successful completion as victory: it may be argued that you can win at Patience.

Two-Player Games
Two-player games assume an opponent capable of rational thought who in turn assumes you are similarly capable. You can lose a two-player game, which is what happens when the other player wins. All zero-sum, finite two-player games have a solution, though, so there's a strategy that will always lead to a win. If the strategy is known by both players (such as might be the case for Noughts and Crosses), it becomes effectively zero-player; if neither knows the strategy (as is the case for Chess) then it becomes a matter of search, pattern-recognition and bluff; if uncertainty is involved, as in interactive skill-based games such as Snooker and Pool, add luck-testing. If the game is co-operative and not zero-sum then it's a single-player game, according to the definition of "player" I'm using. Otherwise, the game will reduce to each player's making a choice as to whether to co-operate or to defect: basically, you get to decide whether to turn it into a single-player game (co-operate) or a zero-sum two-player game (defect). You can also choose to ignore the other player's autonomy and consider them as part of the environment, in which case you (but not necessarily the other player) are playing a single-player game. If you take no action after setting up, as you could do in, say, a tower defence game, then for you it would amount a zero-player game.

Multi-Player Games
With three or more players, games can add new elements that break the single-strategy approach of two-player games. They don't have to — Monopoly is multi-player but has a dominant strategy: you may as well roll a single die at the start to see who wins. If there is little interaction between players, as in a 100m sprint, the game is effectively single-player. If there is interaction, though, as in a 1,500m middle-distance race, tactics play a part. Multi-player games introduce two mechanics that are not available in two-player games: kingmaking and chip-taking. In a two-player game, kingmaking is simply conceding defeat, but with three or more players it allows the player to decide in their defeat which of their opponents will win. Chip-taking, also known as ganging-up, allows players to form transient alliances to slow down another player's march to victory. While the alliance holds, the co-operating players act as one player at the tactical level while still pursuing separate goals at the strategic level; alliances are therefore shifting, and can change or disintigrate rapidly. Because of this, they may be perceived to exist even when they don't (or vice versa). This ability of a player to choose to help a second player so as to hinder a third is what makes games with three or more players a different beast to games with two players, and is why analyses of two-player games rarely transfer to multi-player games. As with two-player games, it's possible to treat other players as if they were automatons; you (but not necessarily the other players) can therefore play a multi-player game as if it were two-player or single-player; zero-player is also possible, by simply not acting.

Massively-Multiplayer Games
Massively-multiplayer games have so many players that cohesive gameplay breaks down. Individuals can be playing the same game as if it were multi-player, two-player or single-player, all at once; they can even play it as zero-player, which is essentially spectator mode. The reason for this is that the magic circle no longer holds: players are unable to use social norms to regulate the behaviour of others such that they conform to an accepted set of rules. In a multi-player game, if someone is a spoilsport then the other players (often one is enough) can stop playing in protest; the game as a whole is then effectively over. This is not possible in massively-multiplayer games: the game can shed large numbers of players and still continue. The only rules that universally apply in massively-multiplayer games are those enforced by the program code, by customer service representatives and by law enforcement officers from wider society.

The boundaries between zero-, single-, two- and multi-player games are hard. The boundary between multi-player and massively-multiplayer is soft, and depends on the nature of the game itself and the discipline of the players. Nevertheless, there is an experiential difference between all five categories of games.

Whatever the number of players a game has objectively, players are at liberty to play it otherwise. It's entirely possible that one player thinks a game is ongoing when it has long since been abandoned by the other players — or never had any in the first place. Nevertheless, if you design or study a game that fits one of the five categories, be aware that you can't assume that what you learn will apply to games in any of the other categories.



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9:00am on Friday, 7th June, 2024:

80 What?

Weird

Yesterday, the TV news was full of how we'd invaded France, but today there's nothing at all about it.

I must have missed something.



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7:36am on Thursday, 6th June, 2024:

My Research, my Peers, my Students

Comment





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7:33am on Wednesday, 5th June, 2024:

Partly Politicial

Comment

I didn't watch the election debate between Starmer and Sunak yesterday, on the grounds that I'd end up wanting to vote for neither of them even more.

It's been the same with party political broadcasts. Yesterday Labour was trying to tell us there are dozens of reasons to vote for them, none of which are the primary one ("you're not the Conservatives"). The day before it was the Conservatives, hammering on about how Labour doesn't have a plan but they do, oblivious to the main problem with this ("it's a BAD plan").

I can't wait to find out how the other parties are planning to put me off voting for them even more.



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8:29am on Tuesday, 4th June, 2024:

Insect Fan

Weird

I know that the image on the packaging of this new duvet shows a fan and streamers, but from a distance it's like some enormous mosquito.





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8:37am on Monday, 3rd June, 2024:

Fennel

Weird

Things I do to amuse my wife.





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8:20am on Sunday, 2nd June, 2024:

Garden Predators

Weird





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11:54am on Saturday, 1st June, 2024:

Useful Advertising

Weird





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10:19am on Friday, 31st May, 2024:

Sauce of the Nile

Anecdote

When I was in my teens I ran a postal games zine called Sauce of the Nile. I saved up my wages from my bingo-calling job and bought a duplicator, which I used to print issues at home (badly, because I never seemed to be able to get the right ink for it).

All the issues featured a cover of a Peanuts character. Here's the cover for issue 10, which came out something like late September or early October 1977.



The way duplicators worked back then was with stencils. These were waxed paper that ink would pass through when they were hit with a typewriter key if you didn't use a ribbon. They didn't cut all the way through the paper, because then the middles of letters like o would have fallen out, but they did. You could see what you were typing because of some black carbon paper behind them (which also gave a hard copy of what you'd typed on some regular paper underneath).

I wanted a cover that was pictorial so it would stand out, but I lacked artistic ability (and indeed still do). I therefore created what I was later to learn would be called ASCII art. The reason I chose Peanuts characters, apart from liking the cartoon strip, was that they were easy to enlarge by drawing a grid over them then enlarging the grid on a separate piece of paper and copying what was in the squares. This meant I could get it up to A4 size (A4 was just coming in as the official paper size in the UK, taking over from foolscap) and put it behind the waxed sheet of the stencil. It was then merely a tedious 30-minute job to plonk a letter over every line I could see. The end results were surprisingly good.

Needless to say, I didn't credit Charles M. Schulz for the original images. I'm not entirely sure that it even entered my head to do so.

The reason I chose issue 10, by the way, was because I only have my brother's copies of Sauce and he gleefully defaced most of the covers. This one only has a squiggle over to the right.



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Copyright © 2024 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).