Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I'll be home for Christmas

I have been lax, and will continue to be.  I missed posting yesterday and will be away for the whole of the Christmas season from the 24th to the 31st in a place without internet.  As such you must learn to live without my daily dose of whatever it is that I produce until the new year.

I find Christmas to be a very interesting time of year from a psychology perspective.  It is unique among holidays because I have both very strong attachments to it and powerful ideas of how it should take place.  Other holidays are generally met with a 'bah, whatever' from me as I generally find them to be focused around commercial ritual but Christmas is different.  Even birthdays are something I would much rather just erase off the calendar (including my own) since I just don't see the point in celebrating them.  I could be easily persuaded to make an exception for children since they seem to genuinely look forward to their birthdays but most adults either aren't very interested or actually dread the ritual of recording how much older they are.

Our holidays are part of our culture and rely on the idea of tradition to continue.  Many people find a tremendous comfort in tradition and continuing practices from the past but I do not find that a compelling reason to do things.  The idea behind these continuing traditions is to perform rituals on the basis that people in my geographic region or people of similar gene pool did in years past.  Is that really a good organizing principle for our lives and celebrations?  People in my region and who are related to me did all kinds of crazy things that I would not emulate, and yet the standard is to continue the tradition of holidays and observances despite the original reasons for those holidays being completely irrelevant to my life, being actively contrary to my beliefs and principles or just being lost in the muddy waters of history.

It isn't black and white of course, and not just because very few things are.  For example, I very much approve of Remembrance Day.  War is a terrible and tragic thing and it is becoming further and further removed from the consciousness of society as more and more generations are born whose parents never knew their country to be at war.  Taking time to respect the sacrifices of those who went to war is something I deeply respect and feel to have tremendous value, particularly because the price of peace is eternal vigilance.  Remembering how bad things can be helps us to continue to work in other countries to preserve peace and freedom throughout the world.  We are not alone in the world, and it is critically important for us to remember that.

St. Patrick's Day is the opposite end of the spectrum for me.  It is a day we dedicate to a particular colour and to getting drunk.  Whatever the origins of the holiday the modern version is merely an excuse to party too hard and poison ourselves too thoroughly with recreational drugs and I cannot see the value in that.  Not that St. Patrick's Day is something evil... it is just something which I dislike.  I would be perfectly happy if it vanished, never to return.  Of course there are other holidays that are somewhat more complicated like Hallowe'en.  While I think the idea of one night a year where everyone dresses up and takes to the streets to look at decorations and other people's costumes is a fine thing indeed, the incredible mass consumption of manufactured sugary treats is terrible for our dental (and otherwise) health and leads to people focusing purely on the acquisition of said treats during the holiday.  I find it hard to really come to a satisfying conclusion regarding Hallowe'en because it has some things I enjoy and can find no fault in, and some things I wish were different.

Then of course there are the holidays that are religious in nature like Easter.  I find it frustrating that Canada has so many holidays focused around Christianity because we are so very much a multicultural nation.  We have an incredible variety of different beliefs sets, religions and customs and yet our enforced holidays are drawn from only one religion.  Certainly there isn't any good way to correct it at this point because we clearly can't observe all the holidays of all the people within the country... we would never be at work/school.  Removing any holiday with religious overtones would drive many Christians (and many people who aren't religious but like tradition) into a frothing frenzy and since we have no system to replace them with other holidays this is just not a feasible option.  Realistically we are stuck with the holidays we have until our culture changes substantially and the prevailing attitudes towards them shift and I have no reason to think that will occur any time soon.

Christmas though is not a holiday I am ambivalent about, nor one that is really religion based, nor one that has intrinsic value to itself such as Remembrance Day does for me.  Of course many people might argue with some justification that Christmas is a religious holiday, but since Santa Claus, Christmas trees, gift exchanges, snowmen, and many other Christmas traditions are all pagan holidays (or things we made up very recently) it is hard to argue that the nativity display in the corner of the room really makes this a religious holiday.  By and large very little attention is paid to the Christian religion portion of Christmas and a lot is paid to the secular portion of the holiday.  For me Christmas is about travelling home to see family.  I could be perfectly content getting rid of the present exchange, the decorations, the traditional turkey dinner and most other parts of the holiday, but going home to see my family each year is something I place tremendous value in.  The thing is of course that I could go home any time during the year, Christmas is just a very convenient time to do it because many other relatives also travel in during that time and I get to see more people.  I don't *mind* presents and decorations and turkey though.  In fact I do enjoy those things, it is just that they are completely secondary to the main event for me.  The idea of a holiday dedicated to travelling to visit one's family, renewing old relationships and building new ones is wonderful in my eyes, and whether or not that holiday comes with a specific meal or other customs isn't so important.

I did buy a tiny tree for our condo so that we would have a Christmas tree up and I am getting presents for people so clearly I am participating in the balance of the holiday.  Much like Faith though, I am constantly wondering about what we would do if these holidays were removed.  If we did not have tradition but were simply exposed to all of the various holidays celebrated around the world what would we choose for ourselves?  I believe I would choose a holiday that revolved around family gatherings, but the rest of the trappings of Christmas are really random.  Considering that line of thinking I intend to support the parts of holidays that have intrinsic value, things that I would want to have and do regardless of tradition.  I also will continue to participate in parts of holidays that have no particular downside since doing so will please other people I care about.  I will however not support holidays that either are pointless or actually negative in value simply because it is generally the thing that is done.  I suppose I was probably already doing that anyway.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Internet rock star

Here is a link to a wonderful thing on the internet:  Tim Minchin - White Wine in the Sun.

Tim Minchin is an artist/comedian who has all kinds of wonderful things posted on the web.  His style of thinking and his pointed criticisms are things I find tremendously familiar as they are usually things I have thought of myself or heartily agree with when I do hear them.  Wendy and I first saw his work last night and we sat together and just watched his performances on youtube for a good hour absolutely entranced.  You might think that someone putting on a variety of performances espousing views I generally completely agree with would make me happy, and yet I found it mostly made me sad.  I sat for awhile and thought about why this would be, and what exactly was going on in my head.

The thing is, Tim Minchin is successful.  He is an Internet rock star, the sort of person who is widely viewed on youtube, downloaded and linked all over the place and puts on huge live performances.  He has won many awards for his work.  Certainly he is not universally loved as his performances are absolutely not safe for work and have very distinct political and religious points that will certainly alienate a good chunk of the population.  That said, this is an example of someone I could be.  He is of a similar age to me and seems to have many compatible viewpoints and yet by most standards he is successful and I am not.  The things Tim Minchin wants to do are things you can get famous for doing, and he obviously has the drive to do those things in front of huge crowds and pump them for a lot of money.

So why exactly does this make me sad?  There are many, many people far more famous and rich than this man and they have no impact on me.  There are many reasons I expect, but for sure the similarity in age and viewpoints would be one as I can more easily identify with him.  The other main point would be that he is doing something he obviously cares about and is pushing the limits of his talents.  It is certainly true that people are happier when they are working on things that they are excellent at and less so when they are struggling with things they are poor at.  I think seeing someone who is in some ways superficially like myself who is able to find a way in his life to throw himself so thoroughly into his dreams is what really makes my jealous side rear its ugly head.

I *really* want that.  I have the hunger to be the best, to push my limits and to know that I can stand with anyone in the world and know I am their equal.  There are times in the past when I have been in that zone, where I knew that there was absolutely no one who could match me at the task I was performing and the feeling is tremendous and quite unmatched.  The thrill of unrivalled excellence is one many people search for, but I don't particularly envy star quarterbacks or company presidents.  It is the geeks who have a firm belief in science and rationality, those who see the world the way I do and turn that with their desire to grandstand for the masses into something wonderful that make me see what I could be.

If I wanted to I could be that person.  There are so many things I could do if I wanted to, and yet I do not.  I am quite certain I could be a force at poker if I set my mind to it.  The three things I do are understand people's minds, do mathematics and play games.  I am quite sure that I could be devastating at poker, and yet I am not.  I could write books, I could create articles and make literary works of beauty, and yet I do not.  I have the facility for music, and if I practiced for half a dozen years I am sure I could master an instrument.  The thing is, I do not do these things and I don't want to do these things.

I don't want to be a musician on tour as I think I would be miserable.  I could be a professional poker player if I really really tried, but the life of a poker professional is not one I want.  I could write books but the task of sitting down and creating such a large document does not appeal to me;  I instead wish to leap back and forth from topic to topic, hitting just the points that appeal to me and seem powerful.

I know this.  I know that these other lives I could live are not what I want and that if I did want them I should reach out and take them.  This is true and yet I still have these pangs of regret, this sorrow that I cannot share these successes that others enjoy.  In some kind of ideal world I would be able to truly internalize my understanding of my preferences and look upon other people's successes with pride and joy, untainted by any jealousy.  In the version of my mind I strive to achieve I would be able to set aside all these things as goals I am not invested in and take complete satisfaction in the life I live.  That, I think, is by far what makes these things sad for me:  The knowledge that I have not managed to mould myself into the being I wish to be.  For even if there is a small tinge of regret then I have failed, for had I been stronger, better, perfect that regret would not be there.

The mind I want to have can take happiness in my own choices and understand without regret that there are prices I have paid and options I have weighed.  The fact that that mind is almost certainly unachieveable is no barrier, I am quite happy to set standards for myself that are beyond what any human can accomplish.  I really don't know where this burning desire to achieve beyond any rational human standard comes from.  In most of my life I am quite happy with doing it well, and making it good enough.  When it comes to my mind though nothing is ever 'good enough'.

You might suggest that being sad because I have not lived up to standards that are impossible (by my own admission, as well as everyone else) is a failure in rationality.  Setting standards that are unreachable and make me unhappy on occasion seems like a poor choice.  And yet I must quote Rounders here, from the scene where the main character asks his judge mentor "Do you ever regret your choice?" and the answer is

"What choice?"

Friday, December 18, 2009

Evil will always triumph, because Good Is dumb.

The title of this post is from a movie, can you guess which one?

Where does your average person get their moral viewpoints from?  This is a question I have been pondering, particularly as it relates to religion.  I think that generally speaking people have a fairly generic, common set of moral viewpoints with a few outliers here and there, but that people's views of *where* their moral guidelines and sensibilities come from varies tremendously.   It is my firmly held belief (for reasons I will outline here) that even though people have incredibly varied ideas of how someone should decide moral issues that they pull their actual day to day moral decisions and feelings from very common sources.

So where do people think they get their morals from?  Many or most people would claim that their morals come from their holy books.  Even those who are very casual religiously often suggest that their decisions morally come from the texts their religion holds dear even though in most cases they have never even read those books.  For example, the Old Testament has all kinds of rules in it that people hold up as examples of why you should use the Bible as a authority on morality.  I will phrase them in modern terms.

- Do not kill people.
- Do not steal from people.
- Do not lie.

These are moral guidelines that every culture follows, whether or not they ascribe to the theory that their laws are laid down by some greater power.  Regardless of whether you are looking at hunter/gatherers, atheists, religious groups or any other you will find these and other similar laws.

However, there are many other laws in the Old Testament that are if not really wrong, at least extremely bizarre or incomprehensible.

- Wear tassels on your clothing.
- Do not wear clothes of mixed fibres (generally held to refer to wool and linen)
- Do not boil a lamb in its mother's milk  (there are plenty of Jewish rules drawn from this, but I honestly can't see how you can really conclude that a complex set of meat/milk separation laws is really derivable from this one phrase)

These are laws that define a culture, but are not found universally.  One of the most important points thought is that people who would list the Bible as their moral guide very rarely follow these laws.  If you really want to believe that the Bible is a authority on what you should and should not do, I would think you should obey all of it.

Here are some things in the Old Testament that virtually nobody actually believes but yet are quite clear:

- The appropriate response to finding someone collecting firewood on the Sabbath is to throw rocks at them until they die.
- When you conquer a people militarily the appropriate action is to murder every male citizen of every age, then murder every nonvirgin female, then take the virgin females for yourself.  (Moses ordered this)
- Slavery is acceptable
- Women should not be accorded rights as human beings, but rather considered property of a man

I think you would have a hell of a hard time finding anyone who actually thinks these are solid grounds for moral decisions, and yet here they are.  It is certainly true that the New Testament contains much less of the blood and destruction of the Old Testament, but if anyone is to claim that the Bible is really a source of morality it seems a bit bizarre to claim that we should only read specific portions of it to obtain that guidance.  

The fundamental issues are these:  If you go to the Bible to find support for something you believe you are not using the Bible as a source of morality, but merely a instrument of persuasion.  If you believe that any source of moral guidance is true and reliable you should go to that source and act as it suggests, not edit it and ignore anything you don't like.  A good test would be to ask "which things that the Bible advocates as moral but you personally find repugnant do you uphold?"  If in fact you do what you think is right and only quote the Bible phrases that support you then the Bible is useless, throw it out.  If you truly go to the Bible to read when you are confused and literally follow its instructions then perhaps you can claim to use it as a moral guideline... but people don't do this.

A huge component of my dislike for Bible centric morality structures is that they are often used to advocate actions I would deem immoral but are used in such ways very selectively.  For example, there are many people who are against being homosexual.  There are a huge number of people in the United States (and some, but much lower proportions in Canada) who advocate against gay rights on the basis of Biblical quotes.  To be sure, the quotes in the Bible come very strongly down on the side of 'being homosexual is bad'.  Those advocating removing marital rights from people who are gay do not act equally on all Bible moral lessons.  They do not throw stones at people who work on Sundays, nor do they openly advocate that women should be relegated to the status of 'not a person', nor do they suggest that we return to slavery.  The only conclusion that can be reached is that these people do not decide what to do strictly based on what the Bible says, but rather they decide what is right and then ignore the Bible if it conflicts and quote it if it agrees.  This is further complicated by the fact that the Bible contradicts itself in many ways, so it is possible to quote the Bible as supporting two completely opposed viewpoints.

So if even those who claim to take their right and wrong from the Bible do not, where do we get our right and wrong?  There are many options:

- What our parents tell us.  This isn't a particularly great source from a societal perspective because many parents give bad advice and there isn't going to be agreement, yet most people get their basic moral sense this way.

- What our laws say.  While obeying laws is going to generally be a good idea to make sure we all are safer, our laws have to be derived from a set of morals and guidelines we trust.

- What our cultural norms are.  Very much like obeying our parents, this is something nearly everyone does without thinking about it.  These norms can be good or bad though, and some cultural norms are considered unthinkable in other places, so there is again no consistency.

- A rational set of rules based on maximizing happiness for all members of society.  This I think is the place we have to go to for fundamental decisions.  If we assume that our goal is to maximize happiness in all citizens then we have subgoals of promoting safety, longevity, freedom, equality and sustainability.

Basic concepts like Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not lie all come naturally when you are setting up a moral framework based on maximizing happiness for all people.  You start at that point and end up setting up particular tax laws and driving restrictions but the most basic principles can simply be ones that protect people from others.  This system of deriving morals is not something new and it would not revolutionize our society.  The vast, vast majority of laws and customs are completely compatible (or close enough) with maximizing overall happiness, and those that are starkly against (women not being able to vote, slavery, discrimination based on race are examples) have generally already been struck down in most nations.  

Any time you base your moral principles on something like a particular book or a particular person's decisions you end up relying on Faith that those sources are infallible.  This is always going to be dangerous because Faith is not something that can answer questions or change based on new information or circumstances, it is accepted without question and without change.  When the world changes or we learn more we need a moral system that can respond to those changes by looking at the reasoning currently in use and modifying it should there be a logical necessity to do so.  The failure to do so prevents us advancing in our moral understanding and leaves us trapped with any mistakes that people in the past have made.  Certainly there is wisdom in old customs, old documents and tradition but unless there is a way to accuracy determine which parts are wisdom and which parts are foolishness or oppression then we must ignore them and forge onward to create new standards.

It is extremely difficult to change the way we are raised.  If someone is told their whole young life that homosexuality (or skin colour, religious choice, economic station, etc.) is wrong and a sign of evil/weakness/immorality then they are likely to believe it their whole life.  We cannot change everyone's mind, but doing so is not necessary or even advisable.  We have a moral obligation to allow people to think they way they want to think, but we have another moral obligation to prevent them from acting in ways that are wrong.  When someone advocates discriminatory or evil behaviour or laws that cannot be justified by 'maximize happiness for all' and are supported only by quotes from texts or traditions we have a moral imperative to prevent them from prevailing.  Respecting a person's right to think they way they want to is important, and preventing people from imposing injustice on others based on a piece of an ancient book that they themselves do not follow is far more important. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Faceroller

Quick Announcement:

I am changing the way I refer to people in my blog.  Initially I was using initials to designate various people but Wendy showed me a blog with a much better style:  Made up names.  As such I will be making up names like Sandbox Lady and The Philosopher for my friends and using those consistently throughout.  If you know me and them you will almost certainly be able to figure out who is who.

In internet gamer lingo Faceroller or Faceroll class are words used to describe things surrounding online gaming.  Specifically:

Faceroller:  A person who is so terrible at the game that their play is no better than smashing your face into the keyboard over and over.

Faceroll class:  A class (basically a job, like Mage or Warrior) that is so easy and powerful that you can defeat opponents simply by smashing your face into the keyboard over and over.

I do find it amusing that the first version implies being terrible and the second implies being amazing, but such is the randomness of internet memes.

Back in the day when I was in a WOW guild running 25 man raids in The Burning Crusade we had a problem, which was that it is very hard to find good people.  When you are doing challenging raids you absolutely need talented players who work hard to maximize their potential and have gaming talent and practice.  However, figuring out who has this without actually playing with them can be difficult.  In particular we found it hilarious that some classes had a rotation in raids that was truly, starkly simple yet people could truly suck at it.  For example, a spellcasting rotation for a Warlock:

Shadow Bolt.  Shadow Bolt.  Shadow Bolt.  Shadow Bolt.  Shadow Bolt.  Shadow Bolt.  Shadow Bolt.

You probably get the idea.  Despite the fact that only thing a warlock had to do was hit a single button over and over and over we regularly had people who did less than half the damage of our best warlocks.  It might seem unfathomable, but when the entire game consists of hitting one button every 2.5 seconds some people manage to do half as well as others.  Are they only pushing their buttons every 5 seconds?  What in the world is happening?  Because of all these terrible people wanting to play with us (and us recruiting them and then booting them out) we developed this thought experiment to determine if someone could join our guild:  The toddler test.

The idea is that we log in a warlock and map every single key on the keyboard for that computer to cast Shadow Bolt on whichever target our tank is hitting and then put a toddler in the seat.  Naturally the toddler will smash the keyboard regularly and when they do their character will shoot the boss.  All we do is invite the new player and tell them that there is a toddler playing a Warlock by smashing the keyboard and they have to defeat the toddler on the damage meters.  If they cannot defeat the toddler they will be instantly booted from the guild.  We never actually put this plan into practice, but it seemed like a hilarious (and potentially useful) way to weed out the complete incompetents.

A lot of people accuse my class and spec (Retribution Paladin) of being a faceroll class.  This is partly because we were overpowered at various points in the fairly near past and partly because our rotation is fairly straightforward for modern play.  These days no one has a rotation like the one listed above because all of the classes have been changed to require at least some skill and have some variety in what they do.  My rotation at the moment can be described as a simple priority system.  Each ability can only be used every so often, and whenever I can hit a button I do, and if several are available I hit the highest one on the list first.

Crusader Strike
Hammer of Wrath
Divine Storm

Blizzard (the folks who make WOW) puts out new dungeons and equipment and such regularly and the newest, bestest thing for me is my new Tier 10 armor.  What this does is changes the cooldown on Divine Storm from 10 seconds to a variable number that is usually around 6 seconds.  The interesting thing this does is makes the choice of abilities almost completely pointless.  I know this because I spent a hundred + hours building a huge spreadsheet that simulates combat and lets me test dozens of different rotations very easily.  Effectively my rotation becomes:

Hit something.  ANYTHING.  Just hit a button.
Now hit another button.  Anything will do.
A new button!  Or the same one as before, whatever.

So basically I go from a rotation that allows at least some thought and rewards good play to being a true faceroll class.  I can hit anything I want any time I want and it makes almost no difference at all.  Of course we know that in the old days there were people who were half as good as others so clearly a complicated rotation isn't everything.  It does make me a little sad that I will be reduced to grabbing my keyboard in both hands, repeatedly bashing my head into it and calling that strategy and play skill.  Perhaps next I should acquire a dipping bird and play WOW Homer Simpson style.  Note this change isn't making me bad, it just makes it a lot easier for me to play perfectly well while drunk or with a blindfold on.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Unexpected Consequences

6 years ago I decided I wanted to marry Wendy.  At the time we had been dating a year and a half or so and while I had no doubts she wasn't at all certain she wanted to marry again due to her first marriage ending in divorce.  I wasn't in a particular rush though and figured that I would just wait a little while for her to come around.  I never had any doubt whatsoever that she would change her mind, which will come as no surprise to those who know me as I tend to posses absolute, unshakable confidence in my ability to do whatever I set my mind to.  I waited another year or so for Wendy's mind to slowly change and occasionally brought up the topic of wedding rings and ceremonies and such to see what her thoughts were.  I ended up getting some pretty interesting information.

1.  Wendy does NOT like big raised gems.  Bad bad no no.  She especially does not like diamonds.

Hooray!  Big raised gems are expensive, (particularly diamonds) so this means I can avoid 'two months salary' type of rings.

2.  Wendy is not necessarily stuck on a ring in particular.

Cool.  I can look at bracelets, earrings, or maybe even further afield for some kind of marriage proposal symbol.  I liked the idea of such a symbol and the idea of a nontraditional type had appeal.

I set out on my quest and began secretly visiting jewelry stores.  Over the course of about 3 months I visited about 16 different places looking at just about everything they had to offer.  Since I didn't even know what kind of item I was looking at there was a lot to consider, but finally I found a tiny little shop that had a really nice gold bracelet done with 3 different colours of gold that I quite liked and thought Wendy would enjoy.  I haggled them down as hard as I could, bought the bracelet and took it home and hid it to await just the right time to propose.  I would have been willing to pay much more than the asking price for the bracelet, but I certainly am not going to put my haggling lessons from selling beds to waste!

I waited a week or so looking for the perfect time and place to pop the question, and then one night Wendy says, "I think I would really like a ring if we were to get engaged.  I don't think bracelets or earrings or whatever would work."  Argh!  Could you not have told me that 3 months ago, or perhaps waited until after I presented this bracelet to you and it was too late?!?  Now I have a bracelet I can't return and an order for a different item, which is not the situation I was hoping for.  So I go back to shopping, spending another 6 weeks or so scouring shops for the perfect thing.  This time at least I know exactly what I want though:  A gold ring with amethysts (purple being her favourite colour) that does not have the amethysts raised up, but rather inlaid.  This is a pretty specific and not particularly common request so it took quite a bit of shopping to find.  Find it I did though, and bought it and brought it home.

This time however, I was paranoid.  I decided to give her the ring that night to avoid her randomly changing her mind again.  I am not a big fan of shopping at the best of times, so buying a third engagement decoration would have been ... unpleasant.  Of course this particular night is not a great, romantic setting so I ended up just walking up to Wendy while she was playing video games and snapping open a ring box.  Thankfully I got the answer I wanted and everything was great.  It turns out she had been getting a 'going to propose to you soon' vibe from me for months and was getting a little upset that I hadn't gone ahead and done anything about it... twice accursed timing.

My state of mind in going ahead and getting married was perhaps different than most men.  I think a lot of people (men in particular, but we have no monopoly on this) really are concerned by the whole monogamy portion of marriage.  They wonder about finding another person that might be better, they think about sleeping with only one person for the rest of their lives.  I never had that issue.  I am really a one woman man, and the idea of infidelity to me is less about "that seems like a bad idea, what if she finds out?" and more about "it would be a deep personal failing for me to go back on my commitment."   It wouldn't make a big difference to the equation if she found out or not, because no matter what *I* would know, and that would make it unthinkable.  I have had at least one "Wow, if I wasn't committed I know where I would be spending the night" moment in the last 4 years, but although it is certainly exciting the temptation to actually go there just didn't exist.

There is more to a marriage commitment than just sexual and emotional fidelity though, and I did not truly understand the the sum of that commitment at the time, and probably still don't.  Through aging and making life decisions together with my wife I have come to a greater understanding of both the sacrifice I made in getting married and the associated benefits I reap.  The most important part of the marriage bond that I really failed to completely understand when I got married was this:

I must place the needs and desires of my spouse above the needs and desires of all other people.

Whether or not you choose to place your own desires slightly above or on the same plateau as your spouses' is a matter of preference and individual choice.   In real decision making I expect that virtually everyone places their own desires first, and just places great importance on their spouse's desires, above that of most other people.

This may seem obvious to everyone, but there is a difference between agreeing with a statement as printed (which I surely would have) and having a deep, visceral understanding of the cost involved (which I surely did not).  There are a couple recent events that brought me to a better understanding of what exactly I agreed to and how much it changes my life, in particular regarding three friends of mine.  I have said it before and will say it again, my friends are exceedingly important to me.  This is true because we speak a language that the vast majority of the populace simply does not.  It isn't just common experiences like SoJ farming, THAC0, moving during Flame Wreath or the Blake and Bung show, (Bung is the straight man!) it is also about mathematics, science and game theory.  It is a rare thing to find a person who can really understand all of the interests I have and as such I place high importance on the people who can.

The first two friends who gave me an understanding of this are The Philosopher and Hobo.  Hobo lived here in Toronto for quite some time and then moved away to the far east.  (Not actually the Far East, just far east of here)  It made me sad for many reasons.  When I play roleplaying games, Hobo is the Romeo to my Juliet, the Catelyn to my Eddard, the Lan to my Nynaeve.  He is also close enough to me in look that we can swap clothes for Hallowe'en and completely bamboozle our respective girlfriends, much to our shared enjoyment.  Hobo moved away for very good reasons, but it struck me that he had made a choice to follow family instead of stay with friends.  The Philosopher was a similar, though drastically less serious situation.  We lived near each other for quite some time and could visit back and forth easily.  Recently The Philosopher had the option to move into my very building but chose instead to go to a more distant part of Toronto.  Again, his priorities were not what I wished they were.

Of course, this is reasonable.  People don't place much importance on where I want them to live.  I really shocked me into thinking about marriage differently though.  For example, if I wanted to move to stay near Hobo, I could not.  I have made commitments that preclude doing that.  If The Philosopher did move near me, I could offer no guarantee that I would not just pack up and go somewhere else, and these restrictions are due to marriage.  If Wendy needs to go somewhere else for her work or education I need to follow her.  I cannot offer my friends guarantees because I have placed someone else above them, and setting all of those people who I value so much on a distinctly lower pedestal is the thing I didn't really understand when I married.  My friends cannot reasonably place their relationship with me in a place of extreme importance because I have already publicly declared that one relationship among all is ascendant.  I made a choice to live my life as part of a pair and in doing so excluded living any other way.  This may be the norm for our society but it isn't by any means the only way to organize and it certainly isn't the only way that I could be happy.

There is an upside, thankfully, which is of course that Wendy made the same commitment.  I really only understood this when I talked to Gnome a short while ago.  He was complaining about how his work sucked and I was jokingly telling him about how great being unemployed is and suggesting he try it.  Thing is though, this lifestyle I have of sitting at home writing on the internet is only possible through the bond of marriage.  There are exceptions, but by and large the average single person cannot choose the life I live.  Through marriage I have the choice to work on my projects, write my stories and do my mathematics while my wife earns our keep.  Wendy has chosen to honour my desire to be a creative slacker (someday my creations may make me money, but it isn't going to be soon) in a way that I would not have had access to otherwise.

These realizations are obvious.  You can't move across the country to live beside a friend when you are married.  It is possible to have one person work and support the other.  It is very different though to parse and accept them when written down and to have that real example in front of you.  Knowing that in future you will have to make sacrifices is not good preparation for actually having to make them.  I suppose when I got married I thought I understood it all and that it was clear what the rules were.  Like almost everything though, there is a learning curve and it turns out that this particular subject can take a long time to master.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Good Old Days

Back in the good old days...

I hate that phrase.  It is so often used to suggest that times were once good and are now bad and that people are just sinking into some pit of depravity as the clock ticks, and it just isn't true.  The environment isn't falling apart, people aren't getting more violent and the world isn't going to end.

I have lots of specific examples, but one of the biggest ones is marriage.  If you ask people over the age of 30 or so what is happening to the state of marriage you will get the majority believing that marriage is falling by the wayside and that the most recent generations of people getting married are causing all kinds of problems.  The idea that we are falling into some kind of terrible marriage spiral leading to the dissolution of the family is a popular one in culture, particularly as you look towards older people.  Note that not everyone believes this, but I speak here of majorities.

The thing is though, people have been saying that the latest generation is not treating marriage with the proper respect / not getting married the right way / marrying the wrong people / ruining the state of marriage in some other fashion for a thousand years and more.  If you take a look back at the 1960s, the young people were ruining marriage and the institution was in cataclysmic decline.  Then take a look at the 1920s.  Then take a look at any year ever in Western culture (and probably other cultures too) and look at what people were saying about marriage.  They all agree:  The generations after their own have begun to tear down the institution of marriage and things are just going to get worse.  Source:

If everyone for the entirety of recorded history is sure that marriage is going down the drain with the latest generation, (presumably their timescales were in the order of a few generations at most) then either marriage must be a few dozen times further into the negative than it ever was positive, or a bunch of these people don't know what they are talking about.  Divorce rates are up, that is certain.  People aren't staying married for life like they used to, but consider one absolutely key statistic:  Marriage durations aren't on a downward plunge at all.  If you look back at the middle ages, people were getting married with the expectation of a 7 year marriage.  After 7 years together on average the marriage would end because someone would be dead! It really isn't the same when you get married for 7 years and when you get married for 50 years.  For one thing, when you are (random example) 40 years old and have been married for 20 years and expect another 30, it is a lot more worth it to consider the pain and disruption that divorce brings.  Even if your partner is kinda okay it is reasonable to think that 2 years of unpleasantness followed by 28 years of marriage to a more suitable partner is a much better deal.  When you are 18 and expect that one of you will be dead within 5 years it seems a lot more unlikely you would consider divorce as a strong option.

Practical considerations are also huge in this equation.  When you are on a farm desperately scraping a living out of the dirt you simply cannot walk away from your partner and family and expect things to work out fine.  You can't support yourself like people can today, you need a family working together just to be able to get enough food together to survive the winter, let alone the challenge of arranging shelter or tools or anything else by yourself.  On the other hand when you are in a city and both partners have jobs the idea of separating is no longer so entwined with the idea of being dead.  People who separate these days have every reason to think that the negative consequences will be limited to temporary loss of money and happiness and not encompass things like starvation or death from exposure in the winter.  In addition you must account for family situations.  Back when it was normal to have 3-4 generations in a single household your marriage partner does not have to be your one, your all, your everything.  If you want space from them you can get it, and you are effectively managing a family with a large number of adults all at once which means that minor conflicts with your partner simply aren't as powerful or as problematic.  I suspect we could very strongly lower the divorce rate by going back to a society where we all lived in multigenerational households run by the family patriarch/matriarch, but most Canadians (certainly not all) have no desire to do this.  I am among those since I love my parents but I could not stand to be living in their house under their rules for the next 20 years; it would drive me completely bonkers.

So consider what marriage used to be:  A business arrangement between two families where two people would live together in a big household with lots of adults and produce children for about 7 years until one of them died.  Now marriage is an arrangement between two adults who are supposed to spend the next 50 years being each other's best friend, lover and confidant.  This union is theoretically going to be maintained through all the life changes that go along with aging from 20 to 70 as well as the incidental bumps along the way.  Given that our expectations of marriage have gone up by an astounding degree, I think the fact that only half of marriages end up in divorce is probably a sign that the institution is doing quite well for itself.

We have this tendency as a population to assume that our generation did things right and that the subsequent generations are failing, whether that be on moral grounds, marriage, or anything else.  There is this natural assumption that is commonly made that somehow the thinker and the people in his age group got it right.  It is easy to imagine where this comes from of course, since people don't want to feel like they have spent their entire lives doing things wrong.  Everyone hopes that their actions and beliefs throughout their lives were righteous and well informed, and people will desperately defend their long held notions in the face of overwhelming evidence against because the consequences of admitting wrongdoing are so devastating.  Especially as people age they have a tendency to romanticize the past and encase their ways and beliefs in a golden frame, forgetting the bad and exaggerating the good.  This does prevent the awful feeling that you have wasted your life doing things that were wrong or that you aren't good for anything because the new generation got it better, but unfortunately it discourages constructive thought and growth and traps us into looking to return to times and ways that simply do not warrant it.

It is important to understand the past and learn from it, to see the value in the way things used to be.  It is just as important though to maintain an objective outlook on the past.  Glorifying things simply because they are the way we used to do them is a mistake when we do have the tools to accurately evaluate them from a neutral standpoint.  It is vitally important that we remember the old ways of doing things, but we must do so accurately and without prejudice towards or against if we are to truly retain the nuggets of wisdom contained therein.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


A paladin is a common concept in fantasy gaming, generally considered to be a melee fighter with holy powers who champions the cause of good and light.  The DnD 2nd edition Player's Manual describes a paladin in the following way:

The paladin is a noble and heroic warrior, the symbol of all that is right and true in the world.  As such, he has high ideals that he must maintain at all times.  Throughout legend and history there are many heroes who could be called paladins: Roland and the 12 Peers of Charlemagne, Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain, and Sir Galahad are all examples of the class.  However, many brave and heroic soldiers have tried and failed to live up to the ideals of the paladin.  It is not an easy task!

Of course, the book then goes on to describe minimum stat requirements, prime requisites and special powers, which are far less generic.  This is, however, a classic book that defines the nature of a paladin for many people, particularly those who grew up in my era.

In WOW (World of Warcraft) I play a paladin called Redcape.  I have many other characters of many other classes including Warrior, Warlock, Shaman, Priest, Death Knight and more, but Redcape is my main character.  The question I have been asking myself lately is:  How much of the fact that I have a paladin as my main character is chance and how much is me picking the class that in some way suits me?

Back when I first started playing WOW in 2004 I began with a Mage called Orangecape.  Some people will recognize this as I have used Orangecape as my online handle and email address for years, starting around the time when I got an orange cape as a present in university.  I played Orangecape the Mage for a little while, found the style not as much to my liking and began a Paladin, chosen from the list of options almost entirely at random.  Since Orangecape was taken, I named him Redcape.  Now a Mage is a character who blasts people from afar with magic and is very easy to smush if you get close to him, whereas a Paladin is tough and hardy, but has to walk up to people to bash them and is not known for killing his enemies quickly.  I took immediately to the Paladin and have played Redcape for incredible amounts of time in the 5 years since he was first created, 5510 hours in fact.  (The game records this just so you can know how much of a geek you are)

I LOVE the idea of a paladin.  The concept of a warrior who embodies self sacrifice and the pursuit of justice, smiting evil and relieving suffering wherever he goes has tremendous appeal. This is particularly true since it is tailor made for a tragic romantic story.  The idea of being caught between noble ideals and love for a particular person is just delicious.  (See *this previous post* )  The roleplaying element of a paladin is wonderful, and yet in WOW roleplaying is really at a minimum.  Mostly it is about numbers and hitting buttons and hunting for better and better loot, which really isn't all that compatible with the Paladin descriptions above or my romantic notions.  Despite this I am fully, completely addicted to this one character.  Other people swap from character to character on a whim, looking for the latest craze or a just something new but I would never consider doing that.  Redcape is *me* in so many ways.  It is the avatar I have played in a game that has been a huge part of my social life for years and the idea of just abandoning it for another is almost ludicrous.  For many people that I consider my friends I am known solely as Redcape or Red and it is easy to imagine that as another facet of myself rather than simply a picture online of a a video game character I control.

Paladins are often associated in fantasy gaming with religion, which is interesting given my atheist beliefs.  In some cases this religious leaning is specific and given to worship of particular gods, and in some cases it is merely a dedication to justice, truth, generosity and other good ideals.  I certainly don't empathize well with the complete dedication to a named deity, but the idea of dedicating oneself to bettering the world for other people is one I do have a lot of respect for.  I am often the voice of reason and rationality in ways people don't like:  Do it the right way, stop listening to your gut and pay attention to the mathematics, use the scientific method, Think rather than just acting are things you would hear me advocate.  I try to do the right thing rather than the thing that feels right, which are concepts people often find difficult to separate.

The thing is though, I do wish for a fantasy world.  I long for a world in which the best thing to do is the thing that feels right to do.  I would love for it to be so simple that we could just follow our feelings and stand up for what we believe in and in so doing make the world the best it can be.  The cause of a paladin, charging across the land smiting evil is one that in the real world is full of good intentions and questionable results.  Improved bureaucracy is often simply more effective, yet few of us have daydreams about improved data analysis or procedural changes that increase efficiency.  Perhaps this is why I am attached to the paladin, for in his world the people that are righteous and follow their hearts are rewarded, the innocent are saved and the evil defeated.  The paladin does not have to compromise because his world rewards rushing in to save the day while the real world does not consistently do so.  So perhaps what I love is in fact a world without compromise, and the opportunity to be a hero in such a world.

I do not suppose that I will ever be able to know whether a paladin is where I would have settled down eventually or not.  I clearly love the idea of a paladin, but if I had played any character for years in a game I might well have simply become too attached to them to change.  Separating my desire for an uncompromising hero for my entrenched history with an avatar over the course of years is probably not feasible, so I will simply have to accept that the choice is made now, and will not be changed.  The convergence of habit and love creates a bond that will not break.

I do really like the name Red, maybe I should try getting people in real life to call me that and see how it fits.  (Not kidding, I have considered it.  Sky is a fine name, but Red is great too.)

Friday, December 11, 2009

City Bumpkin

When I was growing up I was very much a country boy.  We hauled wood in the fall to fill up the shed so we would be able to heat the house in winter and kept a pretty large garden to make sure we had lots of vegetables to eat.  I lived at the end of a deadend dirt road a long way from anywhere and aside from walking along the road I could go for a mile in any direction through the bush without seeing anything resembling civilization at all.  Certainly the outskirts of Thunder Bay isn't the most remote place in the world; there is an awful lot of further north available.  That said, compared to 90%+ of Canadians I grew up in a country setting.

Now I live in pretty much the most civilized part of Canada there is:  A highrise condo at the intersection of Yonge and Eglinton, pretty much the middle of Toronto, the largest city in Canada.  I have no need for a car because I can get pretty near anything I want right nearby and almost every place I would want to go that is further than walking distance is best reached with public transit.  If I went out and got a car I would have to pay 15 grand for a parking space and 25 bucks a day to park it somewhere other than my own space, so the cost is quite prohibitive even if you ignore the price of the vehicle itself.

So I have gone from country bumpkin to city slicker, which is typical of country teenagers who finish highschool and go off to University far away.  They very often stay in the big cities and do not return, which is incredibly obvious when you take a flight from Toronto to Thunder Bay right before Christmas as you see all the 19-29 year olds flying home to see their parents.  I found it interesting when a short while ago some of my relatives told me that they thought I had really gone cityboy on them and would never head back out to a rural area where my roots are.  I really got to thinking about where I want to live and how I want to live and found out some things.

Firstly, I really would rather live in the country.  This isn't the same kind of desire that all kinds of Toronto residents have to possess a cottage a few hours drive away from the city itself.  I have no desire at all to be parked on a narrow lot on a lake 3 hours away from the city with neighbours on all sides.  What I really want more than anything is silence.  I want to live in a place where I can go walking in the winter and when I stop moving and the crunch of snow under boots fades away that there is an absolute lack of sound.  That ability to walk a short distance and be utterly, completely alone is something I miss more than I can say.  I take a walk each day to drop off and pick up Elli from daycare and on these walks I can hardly even talk to her with all the traffic noise.  We end up shouting back and forth to make ourselves understood and that is really unfortunate.  I would love those walks to be something really special but until we get home the noise and bustle of the city make it extremely difficult to communicate.

There are a few major problems with country living though.  One is philosophical in nature, and the others are practical.  The philosophical issue is owning a car.  I really love the ability to simply walk wherever I want to go. I very much dislike having to deal with a car's upkeep, breakdowns or replacement but I also don't particularly fancy trying to bring home several bags of groceries in a harsh winter storm on a bicycle.  The idea of not owning a giant hunk of gas guzzling steel has so much aesthetic appeal but so little practicality when considering modern country living.

The practical considerations against moving to the country are powerful ones.  Firstly of course Wendy is doing a PhD in Toronto.  Until that is done I can't move anywhere country like at all.  Once she is done she will still want to work in a facility containing a 10 million dollar magnet too, which is a pretty hefty restriction on where I can go.  The other practical concern is my friends, who happen to live mostly in and near Toronto at the moment.  I love having these people nearby because so few people in the world really speak my language.  For example, last year I wandered over to The Philosopher's house one day and we had the following chat:

The Philosopher:  I found something great on the internet.
Me:  Okay, hit me.
The Philosopher:  It turns out there is a neat way to divide up infinite subsets of the naturals.  You sum the infinite series of the reciprocals of any given infinite subset of the naturals and if that sum converges it is said to be a small infinite subset.  If the sum diverges it is said to be a large infinite subset.
Me:  Wow, that is a really good definition.  It is good for anything?
The Philosopher:  Doesn't seem to be, it is just interesting to think about.

There are plenty of other topics we discuss (and disagree) on, but there just aren't a lot of folks around who can speak this language to me.  Being in a place where I have friends that can understand what I say is a wonderful thing, and very hard to replace.

So in essence the city itself has no appeal.  I just don't care for the things a city offers, like big sports teams, shopping, endless variety of nightlife/bars/restaurants and constant bustling activity.  I can get all the incessant stimulation I can handle with a high speed internet connection; I don't need it in the physical world around me. So how do I resolve these conflicting desires in the long term?  Surely that is a question I cannot answer right now, though it does seem possible that communication with people at great distances will increase in power and customizability so much in the next few years that physical proximity will fade in importance.  I can already stay in close contact with people far away by email, forum, facebook, phone and blog, what next will come along to facilitate close personal relationships at a thousand kilometer range?  Perhaps I will truly be given the option to live in a remote place that has the silence and emptiness I remember from my youth but allows me to maintain the relationships that have become to important in my adulthood.

World, I command you:  Innovate!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Rich Dad, Poor Dad

I missed posting yesterday.  This is of course entirely due to my own weakness combined with the fact that Tuesday was Patch Day (see the previous post for explanation) and I was busy acquiring shiny things.  I am an addict, no question.

Recently I have been doing a lot of thinking about money, particularly with regards to how much of it I have.  At the moment I am a homemaker and my wife Wendy is a grad student.  Clearly we are not in a high income bracket and yet I really never feel like we are suffering from not having enough money around.

Just for interests sake I went and looked up the official poverty income amount for Canada and was able to find a figure of 31 grand a year as the value for 2004 for a family of 3 in a large city.  Given slight adjustment for inflation we probably would sit at more like 32-33 grand for 2009, so lets call it 32 for these purposes.  I find this truly hilarious because not only are we living below the poverty line, we are living *substantially* below it, and yet our lifestyle is almost decadent by a lot of reasonable standards.

Our income for a year is something like 22k.  This means we are able to pay all our expenses including taxes, condo fees, full time daycare for Elli, food, transit, clothes, etc. plus all our fun stuff and run a deficit of something like 5k per year.  Given that I worked for 6 months this year and made 32k we can effectively budget ourselves as running even for the next 6 years even if Wendy stays in school and I stay at home.  It also means that we can support ourselves at 5k *below* the poverty line quite comfortably, including full time daycare while one parent stays home!  Granted we do own our place which reduces costs noticeably, but we could easily support our current lifestyle including daycare and rent on 32k a year.

I find it incredible that according to the government standards Elli is being raised as a child in poverty and yet we really lack for nothing.  She could qualify for special free lunches in schools and be a poster child for 'this family can't afford things for their children' type of fundraising, and yet we have so much!  I live in a nice condo in a middle class neighborhood right next to public transit.  Everything is extremely convenient though not cheap in this neighborhood.  When I go food shopping I don't really pay a lot of attention to prices; it isn't like we live on bulk onions and lentils.  We buy fruit from Florida, produce from New Zealand, and special grassfed no additives meat because we think it is worth the extra money.  I personally don't buy much stuff because honestly I don't have a lot of places to put new things and the things I have work fine, but whenever we need new things for Elli we get them without concern.  Elli has some clothes that are handmedowns (which would likely be the case even if I was a zillionaire) but she has boatloads of toys, more clothes than me and more books than is at all reasonable for a toddler to own.

I compared my life today to the life of people who are ludicrously wealthy and came to some interesting conclusions.  Based on the things I deem most important my life is wealthy to the point of lunacy.  Consider even a monarch of a nation 100 years ago:  I eat better than they did, I have much greater life expectancy, my access to information is staggeringly superior and I have tremendous freedom to do whatever I want with my life which a monarch doesn't even really have.  If you compared my lifestyle along these lines to that of any human in history up to 15 years ago there really is no way they could compare.  Take any rich and/or successful person prior to 1995 and it isn't even close; in most of the ways I measure quality of life I would have to be considered far ahead just because of what was available at the time in terms of information and healthcare.

Healthcare and life expectancy (not to mention basic creature comforts) are higher than they have ever been.

I can order any book I want from any library in Toronto and have it delivered within 2 blocks of my house.  The internet contains more information than a thousand encyclopedia sets and is available any time I want.  Even if I want specific scientific data Wendy can get me any scientific research paper ever published.

The availability of cheap goods is outrageous.  Food has already been mentioned, but nearly any tool or item I can imagine wanting that isn't valued simply because it is worth a lot (gold, diamonds, art) is available to me.

The level of freedom I (as a random citizen) have is unprecedented in human history.  I can live where I want, work at any job I want, express myself how I want, associate with whoever I please.  I have the ability to shape my life to my own vision moreso than was ever possible before.

The only way I could possibly consider this privileged lifestyle to be anything but luxurious is if I restrict myself to comparing it against those who live in the exact same place and time as I do and value money more.  If I decide that the benchmarks of happiness are big screen TVs, cars, cell phones and fancy clothes I could consider myself poor as I have none of these, and cannot afford to go and get them.  If someone offered me a car, cellphone, giant TV, and all the fancy clothes in all the world for me to work 40 hours a week I would laugh at them.  Unless that car contained a pair of limber, red headed, voluptuous, horny identical twins I wouldn't even look twice.  I have everything a person could be said to need and practically everything I personally want, and yet the government of my time considers me to be poor to the point of endangering my health and happiness.

Sometimes people's reactions to my situation shock me.  Regularly people refuse to believe that I am a homemaker (So you build homes, right?  No... I cook and clean.)  and clearly people wonder if I inherited a ton of money or won the lottery.  I live under conditions people consider wretched and unsustainable and yet it feels every day like I am absurdly lucky that I can live the way I do and have the things I have.  I don't have any reason to think I will die before I am 70, I don't worry that my daughter will get diarrhea and die from it, I can learn and absorb pretty much any part of the sum total of human knowledge any time I desire, I have ample time to pursue any hobby or interest and I live in a comfortable, safe environment.  If this is poor, then it makes me wonder why everyone spends so much time trying to be rich.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Patch day!

Today is patch day in WOW.  This is a bittersweet sort of thing, because it brings both curses and blessings.  On patch day we get new content to see, new things to do.  We have dungeons to explore, new evil bosses to defeat and most importantly of all, new stuff to acquire.  The downside is that we have all kinds of lag and disconnect issues, our personal interface modifications need updating and fixing and the world is just so damn crowded with everyone jumping online at once.

Did I mention the new, shiny stuff to acquire?  Ooh, shiny.

I find it tremendously interesting because people are so dedicated to doing whatever it is that is new.  Any area of the world with changes is immediately flooded with people and the economy goes completely nuts.  Prices skyrocket for nearly everything because the people who are normally out there producing goods for consumption stop their work and rush off to see the new horizons.  The big players in the economy often step out of the Auction House loop for awhile as they zoom off to gawk like a tourist at the beautiful new things.  After even a day or two things go back to normal, but in the few hours after a big patch it feels like some kind of carnival/revolution/madhouse as everyone changes their patterns of living.

Of course the chat channels light up like no other time with everyone asking about the new changes, begging for strategies and information and looking for advice on how to grab the newest, best loot.  There you will see a very interesting back and forth between the truly hardcore inhabitants of this virtual world (I count myself in that number) and all the casual players.  The hardcore people have been reading online for weeks about the new patch, looking at the published patch notes (seriously, click that link and look at how huge these notes are) and spending their days theorycrafting what everything will mean.  They have updated their spreadsheets, (Yes, I have a spreadsheet I maintain, and it is updated for the patch changes already) figured out how they will use the changes to make additional profit from their Auction House manipulations and professions (guilty again) and looked up all the different quests and spells that were datamined from the test version.  The casuals beg for information and the hardcore players dole it out (usually accompanied by a tone of condescension) in bits and bytes.

It strikes me very much like the consumer cycle.  You buy something new and it feels great.  You wear it a lot and feel proud and beautiful while you have it on.  After awhile these feelings fade and it becomes just the same as all the rest of your wardrobe so you go out and buy something else.  Of course I am not someone who actually buys things in this fashion... I think I have bought 3 pairs of pants in total in the past 6 years, as a random example.  I do however get these same types of feelings from a content patch in WOW.  I rush out to get it, (download it early) show it off and wear it whenever possible, (play the new content like mad to get all the stuff) and eventually grow bored and look for a new outfit (work on old achievements and wait for a new raid dungeon).

That new black leather bag from Gucci is just *gorgeous* dear, don't you know they are all the rage right now?  Why would you be wearing that old brown Prada one... behind the times a little are we?

What are you talking about noob?  The Paladin 2pt10 bonus is ridiculous, it ups your DS casts enough to push the ArPen DPS/point value above haste!  L2Spreadsheet.

While the two people above might think of themselves as fashionable and elite and view the people they are dismissing as peasants or noobs respectively I think they really have more in common than either might like to admit.  Everyone likes the feeling of being on the inside and having the best, newest information (not to mention the shiniest new stuff) and you find that at the heart of nerddom and at the most fashionable stores and shows in the world.  We aren't so different.

The servers are UP!  I am outta here.  See you all in a week when I emerge from my room.

Monday, December 7, 2009

So, who gets to be the girl this time?

If you don't really know what a roleplaying game is like, first follow this link:  It will give you a bit of an (sadly somewhat realistic) idea of what a teenage roleplaying game is like.  Feel free to ignore the visuals, but the soundtrack is a classic.

There are many kinds of roleplayers. The most important differentiating point I think is the type of encounter that each player likes the most.  The classic roleplayer is the geeky, skinny teenage boy who wants nothing more than to smash monsters with his strong, powerful, invincible fighter.  It isn't hard to see this as someone who desperately wants to act out their dreams of physical domination but who is not capable of doing so in real life for a variety of reasons.  These sorts of players often simply want fight after fight, victory after victory.  The fun part of roleplaying for them is being in the body of someone who wins through brute force, someone who always wins and never has to back down.

This isn't me.  Now, to be clear, I don't disparage this sort of person or this type of behaviour.  People act out all kinds of fantasies in all kinds of ways and sitting around a table with stacks of tiny polyhedral dice, pencils, erasers and paper while pretending to smash monsters in the head is fine by me!  There are lots of other roleplaying types that aren't me, for example, The sexy man.  This sort of person is most interested in finding someone of the opposite gender to have sex with.  They often end up in conversations like this:

GM - "Okay, so there is a girl there"
Player - "Is she hot?  If she's hot, I hit on her"
GM - "Ummm, okay, I guess she is kind of hot"
Player - "Awesome, do I score?"
GM - "Yeah, sure, you score"
Player - "YEAH!"

Note of course these conversations tend to take place in teenage roleplaying games.  More mature roleplayers still exhibit the exact same type of urges, but it will often end up being slightly more subtle.  Slightly being the operative word here.  This second sort of roleplayer tries to have a character that is beautiful and attracts everyone.  Their roleplaying goal generally revolves around being the sex magnet, the type of person everyone either wants to sleep with or hates because they are competition!  You can certainly make the same sort of guesses about what this sort of player is missing in their life, most of which are quite unflattering.

My type of roleplayer is a bit more specific and involved:  I am a romance roleplayer.  Note I don't place myself on any kind of pedestal compared to other roleplayers because of this.  We all have our particular fantasies to indulge and stories to tell and mine is simply different.  Any particular roleplayer can be mature or juvenile, wise or foolish.  What my particular kind of roleplayer likes to do is tell a long, involved love story.  Preferably I would tell one with classic examples of misunderstandings, betrayals, stumbled steps forward and backward down the path of committment and intimacy, desperate gambles, failures and triumphs.  Of course the best way to tell such a story is as part of a long, involved fantasy campaign where the characters involved in the story are a part of a magical battle between good and evil.  There certainly must be a magical sword and a last stand against all odds too, or it just wouldn't be the same.

Since in the other two examples I listed there were things missing from the lives of the people involved, can we guess at what is missing from my life?  Is it really possible that tragic, difficult, conflict-filled romance is something that I am missing and greatly desire?  My relationship with my wife is shockingly empty of fighting, shouting, misunderstanding and conflict, though that is something I very much approve of rather than something I really want and can't get.  Certainly roleplaying a situation where the two people involved are happily in love and things are great isn't particularly appealing to me; I am interested in conflict and uncertainty in my games.  Perhaps it is that I know that in real life complex romantic entanglements aren't really much fun and people are generally happier in stable relationships, but nonetheless the rush of new love and the thrill of uncertainty in a diffcult, new relationship is exciting.

The trickiest thing for me at the moment is that the romantic style of roleplaying requires two.  You can fairly easily go on a quest to go bash up some ogres if the other people involved are nominally willing, but a involved romance really requires a partner with both an understanding of the ways in which these things are done (rarer than you think) and also the desire, perhaps the desperate need, to be a part of it.  To really make it work you absolutely have to have a great sense of acting, storytelling, and dramatic timing.  I have only ever found one other person who really filled that niche for me, and unfortunately Hobo has moved far, far away.  I have met quite a number of roleplayers in my time but only Hobo was ever really at the same point as me; ever able to dance to the same tune.  I don't know where, when or if I will find another, sadly.

Both Hobo and I being really principally interested in roleplaying a hetero relationship we ended up having to swap off who would play the girl in each campaign. Interestingly enough we both ended up with really good character ideas for females or males at random points so we both played both roles at various times, neither of us really seemed to have a particular affinity for one role or the other.

My memory goes back to a time in University when Hobo and I were playing characters in a game run by one Barrel Plug.  We decided ahead of time that I was going to be the girl, so I built a girl with an attitude, magical six guns displayed loud and proud and desperate to convince the world she was more experienced and wordly than she was.  Hobo's character was a quiet student, inexperienced and obviously so, but with a strong will and a belief in himself and what he was destined to do.  When we first interacted there were sparks undeniable;  both of us could feel the story coming together, knowing what we would do.  We forgot of course that the game was being run by one Barrel Plug, and our dreams of a beautiful story would go unfulfilled.  Damn you Barrel Plug. Damn you.

Someday soon I hope to being roleplaying again, though likely only once the maniacal WOW fever has left me for a time.  Perhaps in the new year I will begin again, and tell once more a tale of tragedy, love and magic.  All I need is a dance partner.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The decline of the Matrix

When The Matrix first came out it was a sensation.  It had tremendous cinematography, groundbreaking fight scenes and a tremendous twist story that blew people away.  As the sequels to The Matrix came out though the original movie lost a lot of its lustre, and in ways that are unexpected.  The two later movies in The Matrix series had some powerful scenes, exciting fight sequences and more twists, yet the reason that they devalued the original movie was not because they eclipsed it but rather because they weren't particularly different.

I was sitting in the Lounge one day in 1999 when a group of my friends wandered in.  They had just been to see The Matrix, which at the time was a movie I had never ever heard of.  They were acting a little strange, talking about the movie in very vague terms and being mysterious.  They suggested I should go see it, but wouldn't tell me exactly why.  Then after a short discussion they decided that the thing to do was for all of us to go and see the movie together immediately.  This was particularly strange because these people are absolutely not in the habit of going to the theater twice in one day to see the same film, and in fact were all mostly poor students who didn't go out to see films regularly at all!  Unsurprisingly given that I am a geek and quite a fan of kung fu action flicks I was completely amazed by the Matrix upon seeing it.  We ended up convincing everyone that they had to go see it right away and placing this movie upon quite a pedestal that few other movies could hope to occupy.  In fact Corporate Plunderer kept The Matrix running in a separate window on infinite loop on his computer while he was working for 6 months straight!

Clearly at the outset we thought of The Matrix as a phenomenal, groundbreaking success and gave tremendous props to the creators.  Of course when the news of sequels came out we were sure that they would never measure up to the original but still went to go and see them regardless, figuring that even if they were drastically worse they would still be worth seeing.  The second movie was poor, and we left the theatres feeling like they had gone very wrong with the series.  We held out hope though that the third movie might somehow tie things together and manage to rescue the trainwreck that seemed imminent.  As everyone who has seen it knows, the third movie in The Matrix series did not tie up loose ends and rescue the plot but rather took a dizzying journey through random lunacy and bizarre, inexplicable, unnecessary twists to arrive at a most unsatisfactory ending.  At the time we simply decided that the original movie was a gem, a perfect creation that happened to be churned out by incompetent directors.  We assumed that it was just luck that made the original great and it was unlikely to be repeated.  The thing is though, when viewed with the knowledge of the weakness of the sequels one can easily see that in fact the original The Matrix was really quit terrible in many aspects.

To give some examples of things in the original The Matrix that make no sense:

Humans as batteries:  What?  Humans are a giant energy sink.
The random kids that can bend spoons:  What is the point of them being there?  What is going on?
Trinity and Neo go to the roof of the military facility... why?
Why exactly do people need to get to a phone in game to log out?  Why can't they be disconnected without instant death?
If the machines have these unbelievable numbers of robot warriors, why exactly haven't they crushed Zion eons ago?
What is going on when Neo takes the pill and touches the mirror?  Does he have to touch the mirror to get out of the Matrix?

There are plenty of others, of course.  The thing is, when viewed from the perspective of just one movie these things can largely be ignored.  The gaps in our knowledge of the world's dynamics are far greater than the tiny little bits of information we do have, so we assumed that if the creators of the movie had had more time then all these things would make sense.  We lived with the idea that when the sequels came out that more would be revealed, the world would begin to make sense and many of our questions would be answered.

When you watch the 2nd and 3rd Matrix titles you see incredibly cliched plot (the whole military defence of Zion) combined with nonsensical and unnecessary plot twists.  Why does Neo suddenly gain the ability to see without eyes?  Why does he gain the ability to destroy/control machines in the real world?  What on earth made the directors think that the interminable subway station portion of the third movie was a good idea?  By the end of a series we generally expect that the major plot points will be resolved and the audience will have some sort of understanding of what occurred.  We expect that many of the major mysteries will be happily resolved, and yet instead we had exactly the opposite.  The movies simply kept on introducing bizarre new twists without resolving old ones until the curtains closed on the third film.

After viewing all The Matrix movies together we must conclude that the directors are not subtle geniuses who leave just enough to the imagination to tantalize us, but rather buffoons who smash together scenes with no thought to consistency, story flow or resolution.  They spin things out of control further and further as they lack the ability to write a satisfying conclusion or to wrap up the many, many loose threads in a way that gives the audience some kind of closure.  We have a case of Deus Ex Machina, rather than a carefully crafted story by the Bard.  After The Matrix we could easily have concluded that the plot and organization of the film were poor, but there would always have been that nagging doubt that perhaps the followups would show some hidden genius that made it all make sense.  The sequels merely served to remove the 'beyond a reasonable doubt' defence and left The Matrix to stand on its own, bereft of that veil of uncertainty.  The action and cinematography are still tremendous, but the rest of it makes me a little bit sad.

Of course, I still have a complete nerdgasm at so many of the scenes... "Guns.  Lots of guns."  SO GREAT.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The competitor

I have been thinking lately about Flow and how I personally seem to achieve it.  In this sense I mean flow as the author of the book Flow meant it, which is largely the idea of complete absorption in a task.  It is the mental state of being totally involved in something that you are excellent at and pursuing a challenging goal.  Nearly everyone can understand this state, though how and where people get there varies dramatically.  To understand what it is you need to imagine yourself doing something very difficult in a field where you are very experienced.  Imagine you are working on a project and time and world around you slip away as you become 100% immersed in what you are doing.  Afterwards you would look up at the clock and wonder where the time went, and if someone wandered by while you were working you might not even notice they were there.

I tend to most easily slip into this state when in a competitive situation.  When I am by myself it is certainly possible for me to get into flow, but it is never as fully absorbing or as complete as when I am competing against a person or other challenging benchmark.  Interestingly enough the times most recently when I have gotten into flow are when I was writing my first two blog entries, which is a good sign for the future I think.  That said, I certainly find that when I am trying to best another person in a contest my ability to jump right into flow is much greater.

For example, while playing World Of Warcraft (hereafter WOW) with a group of my friends I normally run a damage meter.  This is basically a special game modification that tells me all kinds of statistics about how my group is performing and what we are doing.  Some of the people in our 10 man group focus on keeping us all alive, but the majority focus on killing the monsters we are fighting, so the primary thing that I have this damage meter tell me is how much damage everyone has done.  This is certainly a competitive thing because everyone wants to be the person doing the most damage over the course of a given battle or evening, and if not the best then each player wants to be as high up on the charts as possible.  Back in the spring when my group was first starting out I was virtually always the top of the meters.  Part of it was my particular character being fairly powerful, but the majority of it was my sheer over the top aggressiveness.

One day we recruited a new player to our group and went to clear out the dungeon of monsters as normal.  About 1/4 of the way through the run I look at my damage meter expecting to see myself on top as usual, and I see that our new guy is beating me by a solid 15%.  Alarm bells, lions roaring and red blinking lights go off everywhere and something very deep, very primal in my brain says


For the next 2 hours I was absolutely, totally immersed.  I desperately tried to shave 1/10th of a second off of my ability timers, I used every single trick and strategy I had ever come up with and had the kind of focus and determination you can only achieve when you are deep in flow.  I lost track of time and the world, focusing being absolutely perfect.  I won't suggest that it is strictly impossible to perform better than I did that night, but I think nearly anyone would find it a tall order indeed.  By the end of the raid I was in the lead on the meter again by a good 10% over everyone else.

The interesting thing about all of this is I am not a bad loser generally speaking.  I have been defeated and will be defeated again and it doesn't bother me.  Of course, if I lose over and over again I do become frustrated, as anyone does.  When faced with a challenging opponent though I go into this incredible competitive state of flow and absolutely pour myself into the task of crushing them. Lately I have been considering a few specific things about this, namely:

One, how could I have this incredible, immersive feeling more in my life?  Where else and how else can I introduce a state of flow in the things that I do that are not competitive games?  I considered things like my yoga routine, and came to the conclusion that going to classes for all of my yoga would be overly expensive but that only in the classes where the instructor sets benchmarks that are not quite achieveable for me do I become really involved.  My daily home yoga routine is beneficial but does not engage me the way the classes do.  Perhaps I need to find some kind of sport or exercise that allows me this competitive outlet to increase my enjoyment of physical activity.  (Note:  My evenings are full and daytime sports leagues are ... rare.)  I even thought about attempting to achieve flow from cooking and am actively working on becoming better at it to allow this to happen.  It isn't something I really expect to work, but it seems worth a try.

Secondly, can I achieve flow in a competitive situation and yet be completely unmoved if I do lose at the end?  How much total absorption in the task of winning can there be without any feeling of loss or unhappiness upon failing at the task?  I do know that in the past when I have competed but not been at all interested in the game I was able to be the perfect gentleman and not resent losing in the slightest. (I am remembering a game of Euchre and coin flipping in particular...) Achieving that is much more difficult when I am invested in the outcome of course, so the question becomes how far can I take it?  Is it possible for me to ever arrive at the state where I can enter a state of flow in a competitive situation, lose, and still take just as much joy from the experience as if I had won?

Certainly the old saying "Its not whether you win or lose, it' how you play the game" is applicable here.  Nearly all people can be good losers when the result isn't a big deal to them and most people can act like a good loser when the result is important and not offend anyone.  But how many can be truly, completely unmoved by losing a competition they gave their all in?  Is the mental state of taking incredible joy in competition and giving your all compatible with winning and losing equally?  Or is it possible that when you refuse to feel bad about losing that some reward centre in your brain simply isn't going to stimulate you enough to compete at the top of your game?  I don't really know the answers to these questions yet, but I think I have found a good New Year's Resolution.

I will achieve flow in competition and yet refuse to be demoralized in the slightest by failure!

I have a history of ridiculous and over the top resolutions like "Achieve mental invulnerability" and "Achieve total self mastery" so this new one isn't really anything outrageous.  I never succeed at my New Year's Resolutions, but I do do my damndest to make them work.  Maybe I am working on my newest one already...